Tuesday, March 27, 2018


Reading some of the reviews afterwards, I found myself surprised. Boring? Conventional? Crap? Hm. ... Several readers suggest that this book suffers by comparison with Egan's Pulitzer-Prize-winning A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD, which was admittedly an extraordinary, inventive, ambitious post-mod novel. But as Elphaba sings--"I'm not that girl." This book isn't that kind of book and doesn't attempt to be (to me, it hearkens back to The Keep rather than Goon); and judged on its own merits, as an historical noir-ish novel, it has much to recommend it, including original characters and details that to me felt organic, germane, and presented with Egan's usual skill. I read this book in two days; and if at times I felt psychological motivation was a bit thin (just why does Anna want to become a diver? why is she attracted to Dexter Styles? why exactly does Eddie seem so emotionally detached from his family?) I was willing to forgive it because I felt transported to the time and place--and because in noir-ish books, characters tend to be somewhat inscrutable. To me, that's part of the general darkness. Maybe I'm just a sucker for any kind of historical novel (particularly with a bit of mystery), but there were passages that gave me the satisfying feeling of Egan having gotten it just right, needlepoint as opposed to the nautical knots Anna undoes. For example--and it doesn't really work to take sentences out of context--in describing Merchant Marine men: "No one talked more than men on ships, but the point of the stories they told was to hide the ones they could never divulge to anyone." "Mackey gave him a strained, haunted glance--the look of a man whose desperation had trumped his ability to play along."

Thursday, March 22, 2018


Wildly imaginative and unusual. It took me a while to gather what was happening--it's a conversation among the ghosts in a graveyard where little Willie Lincoln has been interred in 1862, one year into the Civil War. But the ghost characters range from slaves to a reverend to a man whose every other word is the f-bomb. Lincoln himself appears; and the graveyard keeper. All the personal accounts are interspersed with quotes from historical texts and figures, most of which contradict each other and made me smile. The themes are poignant and rich and ambitious, and there's not a sentimental or cliche'd sentence in the book. The deepest concern in this book seemed to be empathy--with the governing metaphor for it the way that ghosts are able to slip inside Lincoln to convey the truth of their experience. (I found myself thinking of that old Robert Downey Jr. movie, "Heart and Souls.") Liked it very much.

Saturday, March 17, 2018


Very well written story about a Chinese immigrant woman and her son, making their way in NYC, only to be torn apart; through a series of leavings and many years, they reinvent themselves and find a way to be mother and son. One of my favorite passages is about the boy, Daniel (born Deming), who is a musician: "For so long, he had thought that music was the one thing he could believe in: harmony and angular submelody and rolling drums, a world neither present nor past, a space inhabited by the length of a song. For a song had a heart of its own, a song could jumpstart or provide solace; only music could numb him more thoroughly than weed or alcohol" (p. 258).


An interesting read from the perspective of the Chief Usher of the White House from Eleanor Roosevelt through the beginning of Pat Nixon's tenure. It's an alternate history, in that the focus is on the first ladies, not the presidents. For example, the shooting of JFK is given one line; in any other history, it would be Jacqueline Kennedy's story that took a back seat. Here, she's front seat. It also reveals the quirks of the presidents and the immense expenses they ran up--for example, Johnson's obsession with his shower, which West compares to a Rube Goldberg contraption and which cost thousands to install and was subsequently ripped out by Nixon. That said, West tends to sugar-coat things a bit, and the ladies are not always represented as having inconsistent characters; but it's still an engaging read without being a "tell-all."


Completely loved this memoir/essay about a young woman who was an avid reader and geek from early on, keeping a Book of Books (BOB), a list of every book she ever read. I have done that on-and-off my whole life, and many of the books (and movies) that she mentioned were ones I loved. Here is the sentence that I starred, halfway through; she is writing about Spalding Gray: "I didn't share Gray's struggling with drinking or his depression or the legacy of a suicidal mother. But I'd never, in reading a personal narrative felt such a close affinity with a writer; it was as if we viewed the world through a shared lens." It's like an infinite mirror ... because that was precisely how I feel about Pamela Paul and this book. (I may just have to stalk her.)


This deeply felt book takes place in the Pleasantville-ish town of Shaker Heights, Ohio (where Ng spent part of her childhood). It begins with the peripatetic artist Mia and her daughter Pearl arriving at the town and disrupting the natural order some; their lives become intertwined with the large Richardson family. But then Mia, in her role as housekeeper, hears Mrs. Richardson talking about a baby girl who was left at a fire station and whom her friend Linda adopted; Mia, in her role as worker at a Chinese restaurant, knows that Bebe, another worker, left the baby there in despair but has been searching for her daughter ever since. The controversy over who has the right to the child tears the town and the Richardson family apart. To say more would just be spoiling. I liked this book better than Ng's first. A fave line: "She had never seen an adult cry like that, with such an animal sound. Recklessly. As if there were nothing more to be lost."

Thursday, March 15, 2018

William Golding, LORD OF THE FLIES

Oh my. I'd forgotten how dark this was. I reread this because my son was reading it for English (8th grade), and I felt like I understood what it was like to be alive in 1954, with 15 years of war (the brutality of WWII and the Cold of the 1950s) as the only world one knew. There was nowhere outside of a place like the island, where the plane left an indelible "scar" as it landed; and physical prowess was the only thing that mattered. Piggy's smarts, Simon's thoughtfulness, and the littleuns' weakness have no place, and so they all die. Even Ralph, the first chief, nearly dies because he is more interested in getting rescued than staying on the island and preserving his site of power. And we can have no faith in the adult at the end who rescues, with the "crown, an anchor, gold foliage," his symbols of military and governmental and economic domination, worn on his "huge peaked cap." He is hardly a rescuer, given that he wholly misreads the scene in front of him. The whole book made me uneasy (in a good way, I know). But I was glad to put it down.


Enjoyed this historical novel that shifts between WWI and WWII. The WWI plotline is, as other readers note, the more compelling, with a woman spy in fear for her life, whereas the WWII heroine Charlie doesn't face the same sort of threat; but I felt the two-voice structure worked for me ... although I felt it was a bit curious that Charlie was done in first-person and Eve in third. But overall, this was a very readable page turner with lots of good historical detail worked in, and without info-dumps. I know that's hard to do! Would recommend for historical fiction lovers, especially those who liked CODE NAME VERITY and THE FORTUNATE ONES.