Wednesday, April 18, 2018

SHADOW COUNTRY by Peter Matthiessen

Too many characters and too many pages.  That’s my assessment of this ponderous 2008 National Book Award winner.  Each chapter of Book I has a first-person narrator, and I could not keep them or their families or their location in southwest Florida straight, even with the map provided.  The story takes place primarily in an area called the Ten Thousand Islands between the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The main character is Edgar Watson, an imposing but affable man who may also have committed and gotten away with several murders.  He’s a crack shot, and everyone wants to stay on his good side.  I had a hard time just trying to keep up with his wives, mistresses, and offspring.  Book II is a little easier to follow, with third person narration.  Lucius, Watson’s son, is on a mission to set the record straight by penning a biography of his father.  The third and final section is Edgar Watson’s first person narrative in which he defends some of his more heinous actions and shrugs off the rest.  A strange but lethal combination of heartbreak and ambition is his undoing, along with a penchant for hiring known murderers as foremen.  He is unjustly accused of several murders early in life but then seems bent on living up to his undeserved reputation.  He’s smart, resilient, and full of life, but this book is not lively at all.  It paints a bleak picture of life in that area at that time, complete with rampant racism, senseless eradication of wildlife, unbridled violence in the name of progress, and widespread alcoholism.  I appreciate the realism and the writing style, but the novel just crawls along at a snail’s (or alligator’s) pace.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

Do all teenagers cheat and lie?  In this novel, most of them do, and the parents are not that truthful, either, for that matter.  This book is the story of the collision of two families.  The first is the Richardsons, a very affluent family in the planned community of Shaker Heights, near Cleveland.  Their fragile utopia is disrupted, mostly in a positive way, by the arrival of Mia and her daughter Pearl who move into Richardsons’ rental property nearby.  Mia is a talented artist who works odd jobs to get by, and Pearl’s father is not in the picture.  The Richardsons have 4 teenage children:  Lexie, who is a popular senior hoping for acceptance to Yale; Trip, a handsome but shallow athlete; Moody, one of the few characters who is not dishonest; and Izzy, the misfit.  Hormones are raging, and the kids are pairing off, with the resulting jealousies and teen pregnancies coming as no surprise.  Mia’s backstory, however, is the most interesting section of the book and at the same time reminded me that this book is fiction, because her history is a little far-fetched, in my opinion.  I also didn’t understand why she is estranged from her family.  There’s also a side story about the adoption of a Chinese baby by a third family, and this aspect felt very familiar, as I recently read Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran, which dealt with the adoption of a Mexican baby.  In both cases, the birth mother is still alive and wants her child back.  In this novel, the adoption conflict seems unnecessary and is sort of a distraction.  The adopting family has such a small role in the novel that the parents are not fully developed characters.  However, during the custody hearing, the mother’s testimony, which was not entirely helpful to her cause, endeared me to her, as she struggled to describe how she would expose her daughter to Chinese culture.  I just wish that the teenagers in this novel could have been half as honest and worthy of my sympathy.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

THE PATRIOTS by Sana Krasikov

Why would a young American woman move to Russia of her own accord in the 1930s?  For a man, maybe.  Ideals, maybe.  Family heritage, maybe.  Ultimately, it is an adventure of sorts but not a wise move.  Florence refuses to give up, though, and ultimately meets another like-minded man, Leon.  Life in Russia under Stalin, particularly after the war, is no picnic and certainly not a socialism success story.  We know from the beginning that she will land in a labor camp and survive to be reunited with her young son, Julian, who has basically grown up in an institution for children whose parents are political prisoners.  Julian grows up in Russia, but he and Florence will eventually move to the U.S.  Julian returns years later for a business meeting and, more importantly, to try to persuade his son to come home.  The novel has two very intense sections.  The first is before Florence’s arrest when she is doing all she can to get out of Russia and save her family.  The second is during her incarceration when she is acting as a translator for an American POW and attempting to coerce him into sharing technical information about his downed warplane.   Most of us can’t know if we would betray friends or country in the hope of saving ourselves, but this question lies at the heart of this novel.  Julian raises a bigger question as it relates to Florence personally:
“What I could not abide was her unwillingness to condemn the very system that had destroyed our family.”
The answer to that question is still a mystery to me, but I can only surmise that possibly she felt that Russia had the right idea but went about implementing it in the wrong way.  Julian also suggests that her guilt made her feel that she was a party to her own suffering.  Certainly, this novel raises a number of intriguing questions, but the fact of the matter is that it is entirely too long.  The author is not Tolstoy, after all.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

DINNER AT THE CENTER OF THE EARTH by Nathan Englander

For me, this book was a challenging read, particularly at the beginning.  The narration jumps around between the General (obviously former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon), who is in a vegetative state but whose memories we are witnessing, and Prisoner Z, whom we eventually discover to be a double agent.  How Prisoner Z comes to be caught and incarcerated is the biggest happening in the novel, but he’s hoodwinked just as obviously as he hoodwinks a Palestinian businessman.  For me, he represents sort of an Israeli with a conscience, as the Israeli retaliations are way out of proportion to the Palestinian attacks that motivate those retaliations.  The General is the flipside of that coin, as he seems to have no remorse for the several massacres of civilians that he instigated.  A love story consumes the latter part of the novel, but neither the male character in the relationship nor the relationship itself is very well-developed.  Overall, I thought there were too many things going on in the novel, none of which received sufficient treatment.  Actually, a map of Israel and the surrounding area would have been helpful.  I felt that the author took too much for granted with regard to his readers’ knowledge of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  Since reading the novel, I’ve familiarized myself with the geography a bit and read a little about the tunnel system, but I wish I had boned up on such stuff beforehand.  As for the conflict itself, I just read Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, which I thought was a much better commentary on Israel, and it was published over 30 years ago.  My sense is that not much has really changed.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

FOR THE RELIEF OF UNBEARABLE URGES by Nathan Englander

I don’t usually read short story collections, but this one has been on my bookshelf for a long time.  Suffice it to say that these stories are all very Jewish, although the themes, of course, transcend religion.  As a non-Jewish reader, however, I found many words unfamiliar, such as “gilgul,” which apparently means a sort of reincarnation.  In this particular story, a non-Jewish man suddenly realizes during a taxi ride that his soul is Jewish.  I think this is perhaps the most unusual story from a spiritual perspective, but none of the stories are exactly mundane.  The first one sets a very morbid tone, and the last one is about an American who narrowly escapes a bombing in Jerusalem.  All the intervening stories have a little more humor and usually a dash of irreverence.  My favorite is the second story in which a group of Jews, clad only in their long underwear, accidentally board a circus train during the Holocaust.  They are mistaken for acrobats and proceed to develop their act in the corridor of the train.  Ludicrous perhaps, but the mental image will stay with me, I think.  Another absurd story is that of a Jewish department store Santa who loses it when a child requests a menorah for Christmas.  For me, short stories are just not as satisfying as a full-length novel, but there is something to be said for being able to finish a story in one sitting.  In this case, each story is fresh and unique, and I enjoyed all of them, except the first one.  They all, except for the first one again, seemed a little unfinished, but I think that is perhaps the nature of the short story.  Not everything can be resolved in twenty pages.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

THE FIG EATER by Jody Shields

I really enjoyed most of this murder mystery that takes place in 1910 Vienna.  It’s full of gypsy lore and superstitions, giving it a sinister flavor that just enhances the rather detached tone of the novel.  However, the ending is extremely abrupt and unsatisfying with loose ends galore.  The book opens with a young woman named Dora having been murdered, with pieces of an undigested fig having been found in her stomach.  A man known simply as the Inspector is in charge of investigating the crime, but his wife Ersz├ębet decides to undertake her own parallel investigation on the side.  She even locates a key witness before her husband does but never tells him where to find this witness.  Ersz├ębet is fascinated by the fig and determines exactly what type of fig it is, simply from its appearance.  All I can say to this is Dora apparently didn’t chew up her food very well before being murdered.  There are lots of other clues and leads for both the Inspector and his wife to follow up on, but none of these enigmas are resolved at the end of the novel.  I don’t need for everything to be tidied up at the end, but in this case I’m not sure if these various pieces of evidence are red herrings or teasers or if the author just didn’t know what to do with them.  Another possibility is that the reader is supposed to draw some conclusions that certainly were not obvious to me.  That said, sometimes the journey is more worthwhile than the destination, and this novel has a unique aura that makes it a journey worth taking.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

THE COUNTERLIFE by Philip Roth

This much we know is true:  Henry is a 39-year-old dentist, married to Carol, and his older brother Nathan is a writer.  Everything else is fluid.  In the first section Henry has a heart condition, and his medication has rendered him impotent.  Surgery will resolve the heart condition, but the surgery is not without risk.  However, Henry is not sure life is worth living without sex—not sex with his wife but with his assistant.  Then the second section completely contradicts the outcome of the first section.  What is going on here?  Alternate realities?  Parallel universes?  In any case, Henry is now in Israel, having abandoned his family to become an “authentic Jew.”  The third section is the shortest and wildest—about hijacking a plane.  The fourth section is yet another contradiction but explains the first three sections—maybe.  I would give this novel 5 stars if it didn’t get bogged down occasionally.  Roth is a fantastic writer, even if he is obsessed with sex and being Jewish.  The subject matter is his usual stuff, but the format and twistiness are not, and they are what make this novel special.  If you’ve been put off or disappointed with his novels in the past, consider this one or The Plot Against America.