Friday, October 13, 2017

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Sorry, for whatever reason, I did not enjoy the tale of Nathaniel "Nate". Maybe it is that I am sick of reading about Harvard grads that move to NY and somehow feel they are struggling while actually getting published enough to pay rent. And his novel just was accepted for publication. Maybe it is because Nate was a selfish pig who toyed with girls emotions and constantly rationalized it to himself. Maybe it is all the "wit" about the upper class which only upper-class wits find funny. Some books are too good to put down; I raced through this one hoping to find some redeeming value (there wasn't) or barring that at least I could move on to a better book.

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Consequence: A MemoirConsequence: A Memoir by Eric Fair
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4.5 stars. This is a memoir of an interrogator in Iraq.

Fair uses an unusual first person present tense to report on his life. Unlike in Hunger Games, where the same tense made the action feel more intense and dangerous, the narration Fair uses seems removed from the subject. Each action is reported without explanation, and without a lot of emotion. It can make the narrative a bit sterile and I thought it made it seem like Fair was like a pinball: the actions and circumstances of life pushing him around without any choice on his part; he was simply reacting to these circumstances. Without revealing his thought processes, his explanations and rationalizations, i wondered if he was trying to distance or excuse his actions. But as the narrative unfolds, and as he reports about his time as an interrogator, I realized that the choice of reporting in present tense without explanations was the best way to allow the reader to come with Fair into that world. If there had been explanations, this memoir would have turned into a confessional, a justification, or an absolution. By telling us what happened in as cold of terms as possible, it takes away some of the human reflex of the reader to judge. Instead, maybe we are left to judge ourselves. What would we have done in that situation?

Fair is painfully honest, and there are more than a few impossible situations. Do you have compassion on prisoners and allow them to be released only to take American lives days later? Do you torture them and find out valuable information but lose a part of your soul? Do you torture everyone for any information? What is torture? Where is the line? Sometimes he has compassion. Sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes he follows rules and regulations. Sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes he is kind and sometimes he is apathetic. Sometimes he stands by and doesn't say anything when he sees something that is wrong. Sometimes he does say something. The thing is the consequences don't often follow logic. For example, sometimes he gets screwed when he follows the rules. Awful consequences happen when he is kind.

And then there is the reconciliation he must make with himself and God after being put in impossible situations. What does forgiveness mean? How do we forgive ourselves? We may not all be put in such impossible situations but the questions still remain for us: We are not always kind, we don't always follow rules or speak up when we should; how do we reconcile our actions with ourselves and our God? Very powerful book for not only these philosophical questions but to inform us about the realities of the Iraq war. (Full disclosure: minimal swearing, some graphic violence)

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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Imagine Me Gone

Imagine Me GoneImagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found this to be a powerful voice of depression and anxiety and the effect it has on other family members. Beautifully written and characters deeply drawn, I found it incredibly moving and revealing. This is fiction at its finest. I often feel defensive reading fiction because others view it as an entertainment, but this is one of the works that you can point to as the reason fiction is important: there could be no other way to wear the skins of all these characters and understand their multiple motivations and effects on each other. I felt like I understood mental illness better and the struggle to live with it both as a patient and as someone close to the person who suffers. It is a tear-jerker, but I found the love of this family hopeful and uplifting as well. (Full disclosure: some swearing and sex)

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The grass is intensely green, the scrub-apple trees by the road past blooming, on into their pure summer verdancy, along with the rhododendron and the lilac, their flowers gone, their leaves fat with sun.  The air smells of the fecund soil--the flesh covering the skull of the planet, the muck from which the plants rise, busy in the mindless life of heat.

I've since read about Norwegian reindeer that simply stop moving in winter; they call it arctic resignation. 

Most all of who they are now was there then.  They trace themselves no further back than adolescence because that's when they begun getting their ideas.  But so much of them has nothing to do with all that.  They are their natures.

There it is, as pictured.  But without the perspective of distance it was suddenly unfamiliar.

I left them here to suffer and now he is gone.  The one sequence.  Like a groove on a record cut too deep for the needle to climb out of.  No matter what else is playing, this is always playing.  That is the point of volume--to play something louder than this groove.  The volume of speakers, or of obsession.  The power of the sufficient dose.

I had never understood before the invisibility of a human.  How what we take to be a person is in fact a spirit we can never see.  Not until I sat in that room with the dead vehicle that had carried my brother through his life, and for which I had always mistaken him.

Michael, who never stopped trying to want what we wanted for him.  How could he? We're not individuals.  We're haunted by the living as well as the dead.  I believed that before.  But now I know it's true.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Daughters

The DaughtersThe Daughters by Adrienne Celt
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a story of four women. It starts with Greta, the legendary matriarch, who may have made a deal with the devil to deliver a daughter. Next came Ada, who immigrated to America from Poland, pregnant with her daughter Sara, and who raises Sara's daughter Lulu to be a great opera singer. Ada has molded Lulu since she was in the womb to be an opera diva, and that is exactly what she is. She is selfish and self-absorbed and not really likeable at all. She believes her daughter will fulfill the curse and take away her voice and is somehow responsible for Ada's death on the day she was born. All of the daughters perhaps are cursed, though not in the way Lulu thinks. They are all rather self-involved and rather poor mothers. Even hard-working Ada turns a blind eye to her own daughter's need for reassurance and guidance and , instead focuses all her energy on Lulu's singing career. What I did like and wished there was more of was the beautiful tales of Greta, told in lyrical mythology with magic and mystery. If there were more Greta stories and less Lulu, this would have been a five-star book.

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But I lay still, listening. And hoping: don’t let her really be awake. As though being unaware of a storm could save you from it.

 I just happen to know that sometimes the world gives a little twist and everything changes. A shout percussing across the mountain stones until one falls down and the rest tumble after. There is danger in small things.

 Wishes are dangerous things, you see. Start asking the sky to grant you requests and you better prepare for some fallout, red rain.

 Sitting in the Civic theater is like sitting in a mouth full of gold teeth, red velvet tongues periodically unfurling into aisles. Though the theater was not bright, an occasional patch of warm light glimmered off the embellishments on the walls and hung around me like hot breath. I felt the theater’s mouth yawning out from the stage and leaned into it. I wanted to throw myself down the room’s golden throat.


Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of HollywoodTinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When they say truth is stranger than fiction, they might want to add more entertaining. This is the true story of the murder of William Desmond Taylor, a director in Hollywood, during the silent film era. If that doesn't sound terribly thrilling, let me assure you that it is. There was more intrigue, double crossing, hidden secrets, assumed names, drugs, scandal, money and power grabs, big personalities, beauties, and bow-legged villains than you would think. Taylor's murder was never solved, but with a new clue several decades later, Mann was able to widen the perspective and theorize a probable scenario. If you like murder mysteries, or the roaring twenties, or want to learn more about how Hollywood came to be, this is an interesting, fun read.

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No matter who was in the White House, the church ladies still had the ability to organize boycotts, pressure lawmakers, and drive public opinion,

brass knocker shaped like the Mask of Thalia, the smiling muse of comedy.

Their Cupid was cupidity.

"There are times," Hays mused, "when if everyone is shouting loudly enough, a man may begin to doubt the rightness of his own decisions."

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The UnAmericans

The UnAmericans: StoriesThe UnAmericans: Stories by Molly Antopol
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't think the publicity blurb for this collection of short stories does them justice. These are incredibly engrossing stories of family, faith, love and death. Antopol admits that the inspiration to these stories are her own families tales and maybe that is what makes them feel alive and relevant even in settings as far back as WWII as a young woman escapes the Jewish extermination by navigating the sewers. Several are also set in the era of McCarthism and the Red Scare. Her characters are deeply drawn, often trying to balance their ambitions with their family obligations. Fame is often the temptress, with the character having to decide what and whether to sacrifice (honesty, family, political beliefs) for it. There is also a recurring theme of ;moving on after the loss of a spouse, whether by divorce or death. My favorite is "Minor Heroics" of a brother trying to find his place after his heroic older brother is injured. "The Quietest Man" is moving and surprisingly poignant. "My Grandmother Tells Me This Story" would keep any grandkid's attention.

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Eligible (The Austen Project, #4)Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rewrites are tricky. Especially for a novel as beloved as Pride and Prejudice. Sittenfeld does a passable job updating the plot. Perhaps the things I found most dismaying about the updated version was how some things don't change (wealth=desirable) and what did change ("running away together" is no longer sensational of course, so the scandals had to be ramped up). This is not really a reflection of the choice of the author, but rather of the world we live in now. Though that is partly why I love Austen so much--the charm of a more genteel time. So I can't fault the author for society's morality these days, and I thought she did a fair job of translating the plot into a modern setting. But it is hard to be objective when one is reading the rewriting a beloved classic. I missed Austen's wit and elegant style. I missed the chemistry of Elizabeth and Darcy. It was fun escapism but can't really hold a candle to the original. I will say that I did appreciate the dignity Sittenfeld gives to Mary in the epilogue...

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