Monday, January 31, 2011

Two hundred and fifty bittersweet years

The Red Garden
by Alice Hoffman

The older I get, the more I appreciate magic. Not of the tacky abracadabra variety, but the kind of magic that comes from miraculous beauty, true love, the glory of nature, profound sorrow, serendipity, heartbreak, mystery, magnetism, whimsy, isolation, enchantment, and masterful storytelling. Alice Hoffman’s latest novel, The Red Garden, contains all of the above and more.

This was my introduction to Ms. Hoffman’s work, and all I can say about that is: So many books, so little time. The novel is composed of a series of 14 linked stories. The first tale, The Bear’s House, details the 1750 founding of the small Western Massachusetts town that came to be known as Blackwell. Hoffman writes:

“Blackwell was deep in Berkshire County, where the weather was mysterious and the people equally unpredictable. Several of the inhabitants were descendants of the foundling settlers, families who had intermarried often enough so that many of the women had red hair, with mercurial tempers that suited their coloring. The men were tall and quiet and good at most everything.”
That story introduces us to Hallie Brady, the first of those of strong-willed, red-haired women. In addition to keeping her fellow settlers alive that initial winter, it is Hallie that plants the eponymous garden. The red-soiled garden flourishes and flounders over the centuries, but is just one of many recurring elements featured in these tales. The book might just as easily have been named for the gentle bears or the haunted river, for the stories revolve far more around the town and its people than the red garden itself.

Each successive story moves forward in time, sometimes by just a few years, other times by decades. A child in one story is an adult in the next. A woman in her prime is soon on her death bed. The passing of time is measured not only in human terms. A field named Dead Husband’s Meadow by an unhappy wife soon becomes Husband’s Meadow and eventually Band’s Meadow over time, all without need for emphasis or punctuation. And stories that the reader “witnesses” first-hand early on in the book grow over time into the legends told later.

As these stories progress, we meet successive generations of Partridges and Kellys, Starrs and Motts. Some of the characters can trace their roots all the way back to the founding of Blackwell, others are just passing through. You may even recognize one or two of them. Each story within the novel is complete and does not necessarily lead in any direct way from one to the next, but usually there is a connection. The Red Garden could certainly be read as a short story collection, but there is far more to be savored when appreciating the whole.

Novels of this structure seem to be in vogue of late, but rather than compare it to any recent example, the novel I found myself thinking of as I read was Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I read that book decades ago, and just about the only thing I remember is that it was so staggeringly beautiful that I didn’t realize just how truly sad it was until after significant reflection. It may be that the magical realism and similar themes of a town and its successive generations was what brought García Márquez’s masterpiece to mind, but I think it was the allure of Ms. Hoffman’s fables and the captivating beauty of her words. Her stories are not universally sad, but had me experiencing a wide spectrum of emotions. I suspect that I will be picking this book up again and again in years to come, as magic is rare and hard to come by.

Friday, January 28, 2011

I'm a Tale chaser...

So, my BFF Jon and I went to the theater last night to see what turned out to be a FANTASTIC production of Bruce Norris's play Clybourne Park at the American Conservatory Theater (ACT).  Little known fact:  I'm actually as passionate about theater as I am about books.  This post is an opportunity to indulge two of my loves at once.  What inspired today's post was a first sighting of the artwork above, the logo for the new Tales of the City musical on a poster outside the theater.  So exciting! 

It occurs to me that I never blogged about my encounters with Armisted Maupin and his husband Christopher Turner this past fall.  The first time I ran into them was at a concert of crooner Spencer Day, of whom I'm a huge fan.  Jon wasn't available that night, so, somewhat lethargically, I schlepped out to the Palace of Fine Arts Theater on my own.  After the concert, people were sort of milling around in the lobby, many of them waiting to see if Spencer would be coming out to sign discs, greet fans, etc.  I was about to leave when I spotted a man who looked just like Armisted Maupin.  I wanted to approach him, but I was embarrassed.  I mean, what if I was wrong?  However, observing the man, I noticed that he and I were the only two people carrying books at a concert.  That made up my mind.

I asked, "Are you Armisted?"  Of course, it was him, and he was as friendly as could be.  A few minutes into our conversation his husband Christopher walked up and Armisted introduced us.  Christopher was equally warm and friendly, and the three of us had an unhurried conversation.  The timing was perfect! I got to open with, "I just read Mary Ann in Autumn (his then forthcoming Tales of the City novel) and I loved it! In fact, I currently have the number one review on Amazon."  He had totally read the review, and was delighted with it. (Yay!) So we talked about his books, other books, and the weekend he'd just spent in New Mexico with about 40 other "storytellers" at the invitation of Jeff Bezos. A few other guests he mentioned were Neil Gaiman, Temple Grandin, and Gloria Steinem. He said it wasn't a business thing, Bezos just wanted to get all these people together and have them interact. I said, "It's like that game people play when they make guest lists for imaginary dinner parties. Bezos actually threw the party!"

The other reason the timing of this conversation was perfect was that there was currently a private workshop production of the Tales musical going on that month at ACT, and the casting of the fabulous Betty Buckley as Mrs. Madrigal had just been announced.  It's a toss-up whether Armisted or I was more excited by the news.  It's just one of those rare instances in life of absolutely perfect casting.  I think it was crystal clear to both Armisted and Christopher that I was as much a theater geek as a book geek, but well-informed on both counts.  So, I peppered them with behind the scenes questions about the musical.  Armisted was so pleased and excited with the work in progress.  He specifically commented on how much he loved the score, noting that it was very much character-driven more than plot driven.  He and Christopher were planning on attending the first run-through with Ms. Buckley the following night.

I didn't want to overstay my welcome, so I left them after about 15 minutes of friendly chat.  However, I saw both of them a week later at Amisted's book signing for Mary Ann in Autumn.  After only a week, they both remembered me well, and again I had the opportunity to chat with each of them.  In reference to the review I had written, Armisted signed my novel, "Keep pulling a Mary Ann."  I also had a chance to ask a Tales-related question that I hadn't gotten around to last time.  I told him that I hoped he'd continue writing the resumed Tales series for years to come and asked, "Now that you've written a Michael-centric novel and a Mary Ann-centric novel, do you think there's a Brian-centric story to look forward to?  I think he needs one."  Amisted responded, "It's interesting you said that. I've been thinking about it. We're the same age now." So, fingers crossed.

For now, Jon and I have been looking forward to seeing the musical for over a year, and it's finally beginning to feel imminent.  At $250 a pop for the cheapest seats and $1,250 for orchestra tickets, I can't afford a ticket to the black-tie Gala Opening Night events on June 1st.  We've settled for the next best thing:  We've got 5th row orchestra seats for the very first preview on May 19, 2011--the true world premiere performance.  I'll be looking for Armisted at the theater, and , yes, I'll be blogging about it the next day!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

"My marriage ended the way these things do: with paramedics and cheesecake."

This Is Where I Leave You: A Novel
by Jonathan Tropper

It’s always the same story with me… Hear about an intriguing author. Start purchasing (or acquiring) their novels. Keep purchasing (or acquiring) their novels. Never get around to reading them. Well, eventually I do, and then I’m glad to have the backlist standing by.

I’ve finally read Jonathan Tropper! Talk about being worth the wait. This is Where I Leave You was a delight from start to finish. As you may have gathered from the quote that titles this review, the first-person narrator, Judd Foxman, is in some distress. Not only has his marriage fallen apart, it’s taken his career with it. And in the first sentence of the book he learns that his father has died. It’s this latest loss that’s the catalyst for all the events that follow.

Despite a life-long lack of faith, apparently his father’s dying wish was for his surviving family to sit Shiva in the Jewish tradition. For seven days. Constant togetherness. To honor this request, Judd joins his mother, three siblings, and assorted other family, friends, and loved ones for the longest, most drama-filled, and downright funniest week ever. Here’s an example of the cleverness of Tropper’s writing, “He is the Paul McCartney of our family: better-looking than the rest of us, always facing a different direction in pictures, and occasionally rumored to be dead.” I laughed all the way through the novel.

I don’t need to fill you in on any more plot points or specifics. This is a dysfunctional family. Odds are that you’ll recognize some or all of these characters. You just may laugh until you cry.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Oops, I blurbed!

So, the weirdest thing happened a couple of weeks ago. I was killing time in a bookstore with a friend. (That's not the weird thing.) I noticed that my buddy Doug Preston's latest novel had been released in paperback, and for whatever reason I picked it up. Flipping past the pages at the front of the book, I stopped and did a double-take. There was a blurb (a quote from a review) credited to In One Eye, Out the Other. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, a review I wrote here was quoted in the front of the book!

And, I'm sorry, but that is just so cool. I don't know how it happened or why it happened, but I'm quite honored. It was a terrific thriller, and I'm happy if my enthusiasm for the title was infectious.

This raises an interesting thought. I rarely look at paperback books. There was no reason for me to look at this one. I never would have known that I was quoted. Certainly no one asked permission or informed me of this fact. Perhaps I'm blurbing all over the place and never knew it?

If you happen to see a quote from Susan Tunis or In One Eye, Out the Other in a book, do give me a heads up, okay? You'll make my day.

If I were less of a curmudgeon...

by Emma Donoghue

I didn't get around to reading Room until several months after it was published, and arguably I heard too much before I started it. But more than plot points or spoilers, I heard too much hype. Friend after friend spoke so glowingly of the novel: "I read it in one sitting." "I can't sleep for thinking about it." "This book was transformative." I have to tell you, that was not my reaction at all.

It was a good book--unusual--but I didn't love it. One thing I knew going in is that the story is told from the point of view of five-year-old Jack. In very broad strokes, I'll describe the plot. Jack's mother was abducted as college student by a man she calls "Old Nick." She has been held in an 11 X 11-foot finished shed in his back yard for the past seven years. At five, Jack has never set foot outside. He has never looked out a window. The eponymous room and its contents is his entire world. As noted above, Jack is narrating the story in his own semi-precocious voice. Certainly this is a creative approach to story-telling and is why so many people have loved the novel, but it was my least favorite aspect of the story.

We all know that as horrific a tale as Donoghue is telling, aspects of it might as well be ripped from the headlines. But I'd much rather experience the complex fear and despair of the captive mother's thoughts than hear from the five-year-old, "Ma's having one of her bad days." While there are some amazing aspects of seeing the tale unfold through Jack's innocent eyes, there's a price to be paid in sophistication. I'd have been a lot more satisfied had the narration alternated between the two.

And then there's this: I am not a child-oriented person. I'm not a parent, and if I'm going to be blunt, I'm not a fan of small children. As they tend to do in life, this child narrator annoyed me. (Sorry! I know I'm an awful person--but honest.) I don't recall feeling the same way about Jonathan Safran Foer's child protagonist of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. What a difference a few years makes.

So, clearly I'm unable to embrace this novel with the affection that others have. That said, it handily earns four stars for the caliber of the writing, the awesome creativity of the approach, the depth of the characters, and the riveting plot. Undoubtedly, were I not a curmudgeon, I'd quickly cough up that fifth star and give this book the full accolades it deserves.

Add me to the cult

by China Mieville

I've been intimidated by China Mieville for years. I keep buying his books, but I don't read them. In part, it's because I'm not a big fan of one of his primary genres, science fiction. Of course, trying to pigeonhole a writer like Mieville is futile, as his novels are a jumble of sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, humor, and God knows what else. No, mostly I'm intimidated by his intelligence and literacy. I've met the man several times. He's lovely. But you can tell right away: Dude is wicked smart. I'm no light-weight, but when it comes to Mieville I've just wimped out.

Well, I'm a wimp no more! I've read Kraken, and guess what? I LOVED it! In fact, it made my top ten list for 2010. This is one of those times when you just want to kick yourself for not getting around to something earlier. Happily, Mr. Mieville's backlisted titles are sitting on my shelf waiting for me.

It helped that this latest novel was essentially written for me. Who else but the world's foremost collector of "trashy underwater fiction" would gravitate to a novel about squid worshippers? But I'm getting ahead of myself... The protagonist of this novel is biologist Billy Harrow who, as the novel is opening, is leading a tour though the museum where he works. The highlight and finale of the tour is the preserved architeuthis dux, the giant squid. When Billy and his tour enter the room where it's kept, the immense creature and its 25-foot tank are, impossibly, nowhere in evidence.

So begins a bizarre tale. Billy is as flummoxed as the average reader. Early on in the novel he is told, "How could you possibly understand what is going on? Even if you wanted to. Which, as I say, dot dot dot." Not all of the dialog is quite so enigmatic, but a good deal of it is as funny. At least if you have an appreciation for British humor.

I honestly don't know what else to say about this novel. The plot is impossible to summarize. It's been incredibly polarizing among readers. Elements of Kraken were reminiscent of authors like Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Barnes--high praise in my book. There's a limit to how much weird I can take, and Kraken is weird, but it was fantastic, too! I suspect that this is one of those "love it" or "hate it" novels. Based on that assessment alone, it's worth giving a try. Like me, you just might surprise yourself by falling into the "love it" camp.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Let the readers find their way

The Fates Will Find Their Way
by Hannah Pittard

How often, in this day and age, does an author find a completely original way to tell a story? Avid reader that I am, I’ll tell you: Not very often. And how often, after reading a novel in a single sitting, do write an immediate review? Not very often. And how often does a debut novel—any novel—affect me this powerfully? Not very often.

This is my immediate reaction to The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard. It is, and is not, the story of the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Nora Lindell. More accurately, it is the story of the vacuum left in Nora’s wake, and of how that vacuum is filled. The tale is told in reflection by the men who were the neighborhood boys that Nora left behind, and it is told entirely in the first person plural. If you’re wondering how that sounds, it sounds like this:

“It seemed we had all finally stopped looking for her, asking about her. It was a sickness, a leftover from a youth too long protracted. Of course we still thought about her. Late at night, lying awake, especially in early autumn, when we could fall asleep for a few weeks with the bedroom windows open, the curtains pulled halfway, a breeze coming in and the occasional stray dry leaf, we still allowed ourselves the vague and unfair comparisons between what our wives were and what she might have been. At least we were able to acknowledge the futility of the fantasies, even if we still couldn’t control them.”
This novel is a collection of those boys’ fantasies, the fleshed out conjectures based upon shreds of evidence presented by impeachable sources. And, in the sharing of these speculative outcomes for Nora Lindell, we learn the true outcomes of the close-knit group that she left behind—from the immediate aftermath of her disappearance, through the decades that follow. And we see how Nora’s absence shaped each of their lives.

Nora’s friends are a true community, kids who grew up together and stayed local. They have a shared history. And time has transmuted Nora Lindell’s fate from mystery to mythology. Their tale is told in a collective voice, and yet, individuals stand out. Paul Epstein, Jack Boyd, Winston Rutherford, Chuck Goodhue, Stu Zblowski, Drew Price, Marty Metcalfe, Trey Stephens, and Danny Hatchet all have their own stories that unfold along with their theories of what happened to Nora.

Even with the unusual voice, I found this book fully emotionally engaging. Reading it, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own past, my relationships, stories I’ve heard, and so forth. This novel is plot-driven, literary, experimental, spare, and absolutely beautiful. One week into the new year, I’m confident that I’ve just read one of the top books of 2011.

Susan's Top 10 Books of 2010!

What a great year of reading 2010 was! I read 79 books, which is the most I've managed in recent years. Of those, 5 were young adult (YA) titles, 6 were non-fiction, and eight of them could be classified in the genre I coined... trashy underwater fiction. Of course, the more books you read, the harder it gets to narrow down the list to just ten. Plus, I was reading some of the best books of the year, right up to the final days of 2010. It seemed prudent to hold off until January before finalizing the list. Here it is:

1. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet - David Mitchell

Union Atlantic - Adam Haslett

The Three Weissmans of Westport – Cathleen Schine

A Visit From the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan

Skippy Dies - Paul Murray

Super Sad True Love Story - Gary Shteyngart

Freedom - Jonathan Franzen

Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes - Stephen Sondheim

Kraken - China Mieville

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloop

As is my tradition, only the first book is ranked. All others are listed in the order read. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman was a strong contender, but got edged out by Egan's Goon Squad, another novel of linked stories. Likewise, Allegra Goodman's delightful The Cookbook Collector was edged out by Cathleen Schine's equally Austenesque Weissmans. Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil was a strong contender in my heart, but I just didn't want to deal with the fallout if I named it.

Other high-profile books that didn't make the cut included Room by Emma Donaghue, Solar by Ian McEwan, The Passage by Justin Cronin, Great House by Nicole Krauss, By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham, The Widower's Tale by Julia Glass, Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, C by Thomas McCarthy, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Steig Larsson. This was a year of great and diverse literature!

So these were my favorites in the past year, and I'm about to post the review of a contender for next year's list. The hits just keep on coming!

The life and times of the last American housewife

Freedom: A Novel
by Jonathan Franzen

Like Patty Berglund, the character at the center of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, I'm not always as good a person as I wish I could be. For instance, I find it hard to root for Mr. Franzen's success. He's hardly an under-appreciated artist. Therefore, it is with all sincerity and conviction (and perhaps just a bit of disappointment) that I must tell you: This book is as good as everyone says it is. Possibly better. It's freakin' brilliant.

Freedom is nothing more than a satirical look at suburban America. Franzen accomplishes this with an intimate portrait of one American family, that of Walter and Patty Berglund. We get exhaustive information on the characters' formative years and on their lives together from a variety of overlapping perspectives. We are privy to the most intimate details of their marriage. We follow the lives of their children (primarily son Joey) and their closest friends. Franzen has created a series of deeply flawed characters in this clan, with incredibly rich, complex relationships. It is truly astonishing how thoroughly he inhabits each and every character, including many of the minor ones. Their voices are so comprehensive that every action and interaction, no matter how bizarre or inexplicable, rings absolutely true.

I mentioned above that the novel is a satire, and Franzen proves that he does, indeed, have a rich sense of humor. Getting the full nuance out of this novel was aided immeasurably by the tour de force performance by reader David LeDoux on the audiobook. LeDoux created distinctive voices for all significant characters and milked every last drop of humor and pathos from the text. His bravura performance allowed a great novel to shine all the more brightly.

Absolutely deserving of all the praise it has received!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot

What is there to say about a book so widely acclaimed? What can I possibly add to the discourse? Truthfully, there isn't much I can say that hasn't been said before, so I will keep this brief.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is journalist Rebecca Skloot's first book, and it was ten years in the writing. In that time, she didn't merely research her subject matter thoroughly, she became a participant in the story she was writing. As a biology student, Rebecca's interest was piqued when she learned of the contribution to medicine and science of a cell line called HeLa--the first ever "immortal" human cell line. Immortal because the cells would continue to reproduce in culture indefinitely, as long as they were fed and cared for. It had been going on for decades. What Rebecca wondered was: Where did these cells come from? Therein lies the tale...

Nowadays, it is relatively common knowledge that these cells were cultured from a woman named Henrietta Lacks who died of cervical cancer back in 1951. That wasn't always the case. Ms. Lacks' identity, and the contribution she unwittingly made to the world, was obscured for years. Unwittingly, because the culture of her tumor was taken without her knowledge or consent. This was common practice at the time.

The book covers a lot of territory. There is detailed biographical information about the life and death of Henrietta Lacks. There is a lot of information about the contribution of the HeLa cells to science, from helping develop the polio vaccine, to going up into space. There is a thorough discussion of the bio-medical ethics in general, of the sad history of this issue and race, and in light of current issues and technology. And, finally, it is very much the story of the family that Henrietta Lacks left behind, her husband, five children, and innumerable cousins, and their interactions and relationship with the author.

Material that could have been overly complex or dry is absolutely engrossing. And all subject matter is handled with sensitivity and intelligence. It was all so interesting, but I think my favorite parts were the ethical discussions, past, present, and future. Reading the shameful history is painful. Unfortunately, in many ways the present isn't much of an improvement. Ms. Skloot ends her book in a primer of the issues we face moving forward. Hopefully, the more educated we are, the better we can protect ourselves and others. For now, it's a small step forward to see this subject matter gain such wide readership. And happily, there seems to be little danger of Henrietta's name or contribution being lost to history again.

The Widower's Community

The Widower's Tale: A Novel
by Julia Glass

While former National Book Award winner Julia Glass's latest most certainly is The Widower's Tale, it might more accurately be described as the widower's community. Septuagenarian Percy Darling is at the center of this tale, but it delves significantly into the lives of his daughters, their families, and a diverse cast of others whose lives intersect his own.

Before I discuss the plot further, let me disclose a preconception. After reading the novel's description, I expected Percy to be some sort of stereotypical curmudgeon. I mean, he'd been alone since losing his wife decades earlier. Right there, I guess I expected him to be isolated and aloof. On the contrary, Percy is a loving family man. He has an especially strong relationship with his eldest grandchild, Robert, a student at Harvard. And Percy is pretty "with it" for a 71-year-old retired librarian. He emails, stays physically active, and has a pithy sense of humor. And, within these pages, he begins dating for the first time in years.

Percy's girlfriend Sarah is one of the characters whose life directly intersects his. I was rather more surprised when I suddenly found myself reading about a gentle Guatemalan gardener, and later a gay pre-school teacher. These individuals all become significant members of the community of Percy's later life, almost an extended family. Each has his or her own voice and a vivid internal world.

So, I was wrong. Percy Darling is no cardboard curmudgeon. But neither is this Widower's Tale one of those twee stories of a recluse being returned to the fold. There are elements of that familiar tale, but to dismiss Ms. Glass's work so reductively is simply unfair. It's not a May/ December romance, or a dysfunctional family drama, or a social and political commentary. It is all of those things and none. Glass's characters do not live lives free of tragedy, and I would never count on neat, predictable, happy endings. But by the time I reached the conclusion of The Widower's Tale, I was deeply satisfied with the tale told.

Resistible, but wholly worthwhile

The Irresistible Henry House: A Novel
by Lisa Grunwald

I must confess that my interest in Lisa Grunwald's latest novel, The Irresistible Henry House was captured by comparisons to the work of John Irving. That's a reliable way to catch my attention, but it almost always leads to disappointment. Not so here. The book does have a distinctly Irvingesque quality, though it's difficult to put my finger on what exactly makes it so.

Spanning from 1946 to the late sixties, the novel presents a portrait in intimate detail of Henry Gaines from infancy though early adulthood. The one-time Henry "House" was a practice baby. For several decades in the mid-twentieth century, it was common for university home economics departments to run practice households in which to teach their students how to run a home. Many of these came complete with practice babies, borrowed from orphanages when they were just a few months old, and handed off from "mother" to "mother" as the students learned childcare.

Of course, this is unimaginable today--to the point that I thought the premise was the author's invention, until I researched further. The inability to form close attachments is just the tip of the iceberg of the issues this kid's got, which makes him an intriguing literary character. Unlike most practice babies, Henry never returned to the orphanage after a couple of years of being handed off like a baton in a relay race. He'd captured the heart of Martha Gaines, the needy Program Director. Henry was raised in the practice house with the cloying Martha and a never-ending procession of "mothers" and babies. We observe Henry through many stages of development and phases in his life, and not only are we treated to a really fascinating character study, but we also get a perceptive study of a changing post-war America. Along the way there are cameo appearances by a surprising number of famous figures of the times.

As enjoyable a read as this was, it had two significant flaws in my view. Starting with the novel's title, and again and again throughout the text, we're told how charming, charismatic, and yes, downright irresistible Henry is, but for me it never translated to the page. I've read plenty of characters who charmed my socks right off. Not only didn't Henry Gaines even come close, he really wasn't all that likeable. He was a character that I felt sympathy for, but he was a frankly manipulative cold fish. Grunwald really failed to bring the character's purported attractiveness to life.

The other problem is that most of the other significant characters were, if anything, less likeable than Henry. Martha vacillates between an intense neediness and something close to evil. The less said about Henry's birth family the better. The women who parade through Henry's life are largely an unappealing lot. The most sympathetic is Mary Jane, the proverbial girl-next-door, a constant through Henry's tumultuous life. I suspect that there are readers who will have difficulty connecting emotionally with these characters.

Despite the criticisms above, I really enjoyed this novel, and would recommend it to readers intrigued by the premise and the era, and who are willing to spend time with flawed characters seeking redemption.

Ruminations on the nature of love and art

By Nightfall
by Michael Cunningham

Neither the film of The Hours nor the reviews of Specimen Days inspired me to want to give Michael Cunningham a try, despite the urgings of a respected friend. However, By Nightfall, coming in at 256 pages was a temptation I couldn't resist.

Basically, this novel is a character study of New York art dealer Peter Harris. Saying that it's a character study doesn't mean that nothing happens. The catalyst of events in the book is the visit of his wife's aimless younger brother Ethan, known as Mizzy (for "the mistake") in the family. Happily married, heterosexual Peter suddenly finds himself attracted to this younger, male version of his wife.

That brief description sounds lurid, but this book is far from it. It's as much about Peter's thoughts on art as it is about sexuality. And the reason the book worked so fantastically well for me is that, in Peter, Michael Cunningham has created a character that absolutely fascinated me. I was captivated by the world he lived in and the way he thought.

There is a certain amount of suspense as the novel draws to a close. I read it in a day, and though starving, refused to break for dinner until I had finished the book. In fact, I literally found myself holding my breath as I read the final sentences. As far as introductions go, this one was an overwhelming success. Highly recommended.

Boyd Morrison resurrects a lost art form

Rogue Wave
by Boyd Morrison

As a child of the seventies, I have a lingering affection for an all but lost art form--the disaster thriller. Remember the fun of first reading (and then watching) classics like The Poseidon Adventure, Airport, and The Towering Inferno? Good times.

Novelist Boyd Morrison has transported me back to that era with his latest, Rogue Wave. (Well, at least it's his latest for mainstream publication. It was originally published via Kindle under the title The Palmyra Impact.) The formerly eponymous impact is that of an asteroid in the Pacific, which is the cause of the currently eponymous rogue wave. Today it's a tsunami; if we were back in the seventies, we'd simply call it a tidal wave--a big one--and it's heading straight for Hawaii.

One person who is immediately aware of the jeopardy is Kai Tanaka, the acting director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu. You'd think he'd be exactly the person to get out a warning in this situation, but things are never that cut and dried. "Sending out a tsunami warning would be a bold step. The situation didn't fit any established scenarios. He would simply be going on gut. Issuing a tsunami warning was not a responsibility that he took lightly, particularly because he'd been on the job for less than a year. Doing so would cause a massive disruption to businesses and tourists in Hawaii, not to mention the enormous cost associated with an evacuation." Soon enough, however, the magnitude of the event becomes clear... "A catastrophe of epic proportions," and Tai and a small band of others do all that they can to save as many lives as possible.

The timeline of this novel is ridiculously compressed, with the bulk of the action taking place over about three hours. The pace of this story is petal to the metal all the way--often literally. The novel isn't about a heroic effort to save Honolulu, it's about one man's struggle to get a message out and save the people he loves. Kai battles against all manner of impediment as he races against Mother Nature. You will be holding your breath as you wait to see who will live and who will die. Revel in the destruction! Dare we hope for a film?

A more mature Hornby leaves the lad lit behind

Juliet, Naked
by Nick Hornby

If you've had the pleasure of reading Nick Hornby once, it's hard to imagine not wanting to read all of his subsequent works. Certainly that is true of me, and I've finally had the chance to read his latest, Juliet, Naked. I don't know that this surpasses his very strongest work, but in no way does that imply that it is anything less than delightful.

Juliet, Naked is the story of three people. At the very center is Annie. Annie has been in a 15-year-relationship with Duncan. Duncan's not a bad guy, but perhaps the most notable thing about him is his obsessive fandom for a long-retired, minor musician named Tucker Crowe. Tucker is the third character in this triangle. We get one picture of Tucker's life and art through Duncan's smitten (and ignorant) eyes, but we are also privy to the reality, which is quite a bit different.

That is the set-up. Once we've met all the players, there is a catalyst that results in two major plot developments. The catalyst is the release of Tucker Crowe's album Juliet, Naked, a new, stripped-down version of his classic album, Juliet. It's the first anyone's heard from Crowe in 20 years, and the reception is polarizing. So much so, that it's the straw that breaks the back of Annie and Duncan's relationship. The other major, if improbably, development is that Annie and Tucker strike up a friendship. The novel is a warm, funny, affectionate look at three flawed individuals. Despite their flaws, it's hard not to fall in love with them. I can think of any number of less pleasant things to do than while away a few hours in their company.

Keep your secret and give me back my reading time

A Secret Kept
by Tatiana de Rosnay

When a novel is entitled A Secret Kept, you can safely assume it revolves around a secret. And that secret better be a good one. Unfortunately, I found Tatiana de Rosnay's sophomore effort to be a disappointment.

I was one of many readers who'd enjoyed Sarah's Key, and that was the principle reason I chose to read this novel. With her previous novel, it was the subject matter and the story being told that captured my attention, far more than the quality of her writing. Even then, I had to acknowledge that there was a cheesiness factor.

Unfortunately, that cheesiness is front and center in A Secret Kept. I started to write that it is the story of siblings Antoine and Mélanie Rey, but Antoine is our first-person narrator and this is really his story. As the novel opens, he has surprised his sister on the occasion of her 40th birthday. They are visiting the island resort they frequented for years as children. Neither has been back in 30-some years, since the sudden death of their mother. The return has been a mixed success, and it has reawakened old memories disturbing enough to cause Mélanie to literally lose control of the car they are in.

Antoine is unharmed, but Mélanie has a long recovery ahead of her. At first they begin to explore the implications of Mélanie's recovered memory together, but she pulls out, leaving him to dig alone. Along the path to discovery, de Rosnay throws every roadblock imaginable--including literal roadblocks!--in his way.

In addition to researching the past, there are events afoot in the present: family dramas, relationships beginning and ending, career highs and lows. I could summarize it all, but who really cares? None of it is especially compelling. And when the secrets are finally revealed and all the cards are on the table, none of it is very shocking or even that interesting. Plus, we had to read several love letters along the way that can only be described as cringe-worthy.

I partially read this book on paper, and partially listened to the audiobook. Narrator Simon Vance does a reasonable job with the material he has, but why have a novel peopled with French characters read by an actor with a British accent? Every French name and phrase is pronounced impeccably, so why not have the characters speak in their own accent? It seemed an odd choice.

This is certainly not the worst book I've ever read. It's solidly mediocre. And that's just not enough for me to go out of my way to recommend it to anyone. In the future, I'll think twice before reading a story because of de Rosnay's name alone.

Delicious dish!

Broadway Nights: A Romp of Life, Love, and Musical Theatre
by Seth Rudetsky

I just returned from my third New York theatre trip in seven months. Seth Rudetsky's Broadway Nights: A Romp of Life, Love, and Musical Theatre was the perfect guilty pleasure to enjoy leading up to and during my trip. And enjoy it I did. It's the story of Rudetsky alter-ego Stephen Sheerin, a musician who makes a career of subbing in Broadway pit orchestras. His dream is to conduct on Broadway, and the novel is the story of his big chance to do just that. It's told in Stephen's own voice thought the journal he's been keeping at the suggestion of his therapist.

I had the pleasure of listening to the amusing Mr. Rudetsky read his own work in the audiobook version of Broadway Nights. Am I the only one who thinks it's hysterical that he complains about Dr. Phil's accent and constant name-dropping? While some of his humor may be unintentional, most of it lands right where it's supposed to. This is a man who describes eggs being "drier than a Noel Coward one-liner." It's a New York, Jewish, gay sensibility that Rudetsky brings to his fiction--perhaps not everyone's cup of tea--but it is funny.

Rudetsky is a real Broadway insider, and half the fun of this book is all the backstage stories he tells. (As well as trying to figure out who the loosely-veiled characters might be based upon.) The other half of the fun is that he was joined on the audiobook by an A-list cast of Broadway veterans. Kristin Chenoweth, Jonathan Groff, Richard Kind, Emily Skinner, Billy Porter, Andrea Martin, and three of the four [Tossers] are just a few of the talents lending their voices to the endeavor. I'm sure this is a fun read for any theatre geek like me, but if at all possible get hold of the audiobook. You'll be so glad you did.

And should Mr. Rudetsky return to the world of fiction, I'll be the first in line for his continuing adventures.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

She's alive!

This is so sad.

I got an "Are you still alive?" email yesterday, and I haven't had a chance to respond. Yes, Kerry, I'm still alive. Thanks for asking.

You know how it is. I was doing well with the blogging for a while. Then I was traveling to the east coast for a couple of weeks. And I told myself, I'll stick with it. But have you ever tried to give attention to anything other than family in my mother's presence? I didn't think so. When I got back it was December. There were a million social commitments, and my asthmatic lungs were trying to fight off every respiratory infection in the book. It was a challenging month. I ended it in full hibernation.

But, it is a new year. Happy New Year, readers! I've got all sorts of content to update the blog with, and I promise to start in the immediate future. I've got book reviews, more giveaways, and my Top Ten Books of 2010. It's all coming soon.

For now, please know that I'm alive.