A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor is a story about a relatively well-off Southern family whose fortunes take a turn for the worse because of the f...moreA Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor is a story about a relatively well-off Southern family whose fortunes take a turn for the worse because of the father's corrupt business partner. They move from Nashville to Memphis to start over and distance themselves from the culprit and their painful experience. That move haunts the family, and the father's need to control the lives of his children even into adulthood is repaid in kind. I listened to the book on tape, which was a little disappointing since the narrator, who is supposed to be one of the grown children, didn't have a Tennessee accent or even a Southern accent.
It's a good book, not a great book. I can't understand how on earth it won the Pulitzer Prize. Still, if I could, I'd give it three and a half stars. (less)
In Téa Obreht's first novel The Tiger's Wife (Random House, 2011), the author weaves together multiple storylines set in the country of her birth, the...moreIn Téa Obreht's first novel The Tiger's Wife (Random House, 2011), the author weaves together multiple storylines set in the country of her birth, the former Yugoslavia, and stretching back from the present to the end of the Ottoman Empire. The principal narrator Natalia Steganovic is a doctor, who lives in an unnamed Balkan city with her mother, her grandmother, and her grandfather, who is also a doctor. She recalls childhood trips to the zoo with her grandfather, who always carried a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book in his breast pocket. He told her stories of an escaped tiger that menanced his village during World War II and was befriended by a nameless deaf-mute woman whom the town called the tiger’s wife. Natalia herself comes of age during the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, a war the author herself avoided because her family left Belgrade when she was seven and she grew up in the United States from age twelve. The theme of death and the ways people respond to it ties the book’s multiple stories together, including one about a deathless man named Gavron Gailé, based loosely on a character from Slavic folklore. Natalia’s grandfather wagers his precious Jungle Book on the man’s mortality but he does not drown after spending all night at the bottom of a lake with his feet chained to cement blocks. Such elements of magic realism remind me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Obreht’s limited personal experience with war, religion, and Balkan geography are obvious at times, but her masterful storytelling absolves her. (less)
Paul Harding’s first novel and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Tinkers tells of a New England family, whose superannuated patriarch George Washington C...morePaul Harding’s first novel and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Tinkers tells of a New England family, whose superannuated patriarch George Washington Crosby lies dying of cancer and kidney failure. The story is largely biopic, following both Crosby's epileptic father’s life as well as his own. The father was a traveling salesman in the northern woods, plagued by a debilitating illness and bitter wife. The son spent his life repairing clocks and restoring time. But now time seems to come in spurts and wind down with his ebbing existence. Harding weaves their twisted tales into a tapestry of beauty. When it comes to fiction writing Harding is more than a good tinkerer, he is a master craftsman. Five stars. (less)
Pere Goriot (Father Goriot) is a tragic story of a retired vermicelli manufacturer during the early nineteenth-century, who sacrifices his wealth to a...morePere Goriot (Father Goriot) is a tragic story of a retired vermicelli manufacturer during the early nineteenth-century, who sacrifices his wealth to allow his two ungrateful daughters upward social mobility. In the end they don’t even attend their penurious father’s funeral. The novel, which reminded me of Shel Silverstein’s children’s story The Giving Tree, is a biting social commentary on the status-obsessed Parisians of the Bourbon Restoration. Balzac’s descriptions are vivid and his character and plot development, engaging. Pere Goriot is less philosophical and easier to read than Proust, but like Swann’s Way I gave it four stars.(less)
“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” So begins Thorton Wilder’s classic novel, which explores the interrelated themes of divine justice and human love. “Theodicy” is the attempt to justify God’s actions to man, but no clear justice can be discerned in this “act of God.” A friar named Brother Juniper exhaustively investigates the lives of the five victims, confident he’ll find a cosmic reason for each untimely death. In the end he fails in his task and is burned as a heretic for his efforts. Questions about why bad things happen can be asked but not satisfactorily answered in this life; that’s a lesson as old as the Book of Job but still relevant today.
The moral of the story can be found in Wilder’s closing words: “But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” Whether its conclusion rings true for you (to me it sounds a bit trite, like “love conquers all”), the book takes the reader on a beautiful and thought-provoking journey without wasting time. (less)
Harper Lee’s Southern Gothic novel To Kill a Mockingbird paints a picture of life in a small Alabama hamlet during the Great Depression as seen throu...moreHarper Lee’s Southern Gothic novel To Kill a Mockingbird paints a picture of life in a small Alabama hamlet during the Great Depression as seen through the eyes of a little girl nicknamed Scout whose lawyer father defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. The topic was shocking enough to get it banned from libraries and schools after its publication in 1960. The author’s narrative prowess is only slightly compromised by the two-dimensionality of the main character Atticus—a cross between Clarence Darrow and Jesus Christ—and the implication that civil rights was a product of enlightened white Southern aristocracy. Besides raising awareness for civil rights there’s another reason the book won the Pulitzer Prize: it’s a darn good read. I only wish Harper Lee had published other books. (less)
This book is kind of a Southern Lake Wobegon Days. The story revolves around two pairs of female friends. Evelyn Couch, who is suffering from a severe...moreThis book is kind of a Southern Lake Wobegon Days. The story revolves around two pairs of female friends. Evelyn Couch, who is suffering from a severe case of menopause, finds a friend and mentor in the elderly Ninny (Virginia) Threadgoode. During their weekly visits at the nursing home, Ninny tells tales of her life in the tiny Alabama hamlet of Whistle Stop, mostly in the 1930s through 1950s. The heart of the book is the relationship between Ninny’s tough-as-nails tomboy sister-in-law Idgie (Imogene) Threadgoode and her beautiful and demure companion and business partner Ruth Jamison, who together run the Whistle Stop Cafe. Idgie and Ruth are a lesbian couple, though the word never appears in the book. It’s surprising that everyone in this conservative Southern town seems to understand and accept their relationship without a problem or hint of scandal.
Fannie Flagg is an excellent storyteller and her book will make you laugh out loud one minute and then have you crying the next. It’s definitely worth reading, though the constant flashbacks and time travel gave me motion sickness and the whimsical news clippings throughout the book were gimmicky and distracting.
Though a reasonably entertaining read, Herman Wouk's A Hole in Texas was a disappointment. The premise was a good one: the Chinese discovery of the Higgs boson (aka “God particle”) sets off a political brouhaha in Washington, DC, involving an American scientist suspected of passing secrets to his former lover in China. The Higgs boson had been the goal of the never completed Superconducting Super Collider, which Congress cancelled in 1993. Now Communists are again besting the USA, as the Russians had done fifty years earlier with Sputnik. Even worse, the Chinese might be developing a "Boson Bomb." Despite the book’s explosive potential, it fizzled for me due to its painfully unnatural dialogue, improbable plot, and tidy ending. Not what I expect from a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Two and a half stars. (less)
Some books are to be gulped down like cold water on a warm summer’s day. Others are to be sipped like a cup of hot tea. Frederick Buechner’s novel God...moreSome books are to be gulped down like cold water on a warm summer’s day. Others are to be sipped like a cup of hot tea. Frederick Buechner’s novel Godric is the latter, to be savored to the last drop. At times profound, at times bawdy, always beautiful on its metrical feet, this work of historical fiction about a medieval English hermit both charms and troubles the reader, alternately plunging to the depth of human depravity and then surging to lofty spiritual heights. It’s no wonder this book was runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. (less)
Gilles’ Frau (La Femme de Gilles, 1937) by Madeleine Bourdouxhe is a heartbreaking story about a young, working-class couple in a small Belgian city w...moreGilles’ Frau (La Femme de Gilles, 1937) by Madeleine Bourdouxhe is a heartbreaking story about a young, working-class couple in a small Belgian city whose happy little world is torn apart when Gilles is seduced by his wife’s younger sister, the coquettish Victorine. The affair becomes his obsession. Heartbroken, Gilles’s wife Elisa, who is pregnant with their third child, works to win back her husband’s affection and becomes a martyr to love. Full of pathos and dramatic tension, Gilles’ Frau is about as good as European chick lit gets. (less)
It all began with a woman knocking on the window next to where Dr. Manuel Ritter sat on the train. What did she want? He didn’t know until she later s...moreIt all began with a woman knocking on the window next to where Dr. Manuel Ritter sat on the train. What did she want? He didn’t know until she later showed up at his ear, nose, and throat practice with an unusual request. She wanted a child, his child. No strings attached and confidentiality guaranteed. Even though Manuel was happily married with a couple of kids, he gave in. Several months later a photo arrived. It was a picture of the woman and a baby on her lap. He never heard from her again. Years passed. His two children grew to adulthood. All seemed well until his son Thomas brought home a new girlfriend, Anna, who caused Manuel anxiety. So much anxiety that he began to hear knocking in his ears—psychosomatic tinnitus—poetic justice for an ENT doctor with a guilty conscience. There was something familiar about her. Could she be his bio-daughter? Far from predictable, Franz Hohler’s novel Es klopft (Knocking) kept up the suspense. It was an enjoyable read. (less)
First in a seven volume semi-autobiographical novel, Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust is a complex and sophisticated tale built on a classic theme of unre...moreFirst in a seven volume semi-autobiographical novel, Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust is a complex and sophisticated tale built on a classic theme of unrequited love. The protagonist M. Swann falls in love with a coquettish seductress named Odette for all the wrong reasons and idealizes her beyond all rationality. Odette does not really love him and is not faithful to him but she does admire him. (I get the feeling she lived by a Victorian version of Why Men Love Bitches.) At the end of Part II (the tortured love story) Swann exclaims to himself: “To think that I wasted years of my life, that I wanted to die, that I felt my deepest love, for a women who did not appeal to me, who was not my type!” Of course we already know from Part I that M. Swann marries Odette (Apparently Odette also read the sequel Why Men Marry Bitches.) They have a daughter Gilberte, who is the object of the narrator Marcel’s own idealistic romantic desire.
Throughout the novel Proust plays with the themes of the nature of time and power of memory. It wasn’t the easiest book (like reading Dickens in French translation I would imagine) and I probably need to read it again to get a better grasp of what’s going on. For me the payoff was gaining a vision of upper class life during the late nineteenth-century belle époque. Never mind Proust’s disclaimer that “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” As Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” (less)
The World To Come (whose title can mean either the future or the afterlife) is a well-written story about an ordinary man named Benjamin Ziskind who s...moreThe World To Come (whose title can mean either the future or the afterlife) is a well-written story about an ordinary man named Benjamin Ziskind who steals a million-dollar Marc Chagall painting from an art museum. The author, Dara Horn, who studied Yiddish and Hebrew Literature at Harvard, weaves flashbacks into the narrative to give the backstory about Ziskind’s family and their connection to the purloined painting. She sprinkles Yiddish tales and discussions of faith and the meaning of life throughout her at times charming and at times disturbing but always engaging novel. (less)
William P. Young’s engaging, thought-provoking book plunges the reader head first into the problem of evil (Why do bad things happen to good people?)....moreWilliam P. Young’s engaging, thought-provoking book plunges the reader head first into the problem of evil (Why do bad things happen to good people?). It’s a real page-turner, but I have some reservations about the theology behind the book. I also don’t like the way the author keeps the reader guessing, Is it true? Did it really happen? It’s gimmicky, at best.(less)
I just finished reading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Mermaid Chair. The story takes place on Egret Island off the South Carolina coast where Jessie, a forty-so...moreI just finished reading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Mermaid Chair. The story takes place on Egret Island off the South Carolina coast where Jessie, a forty-something empty-nester housewife, returns home, having been summoned from her routine life in suburban Atlanta to care for her mentally unstable mother. While on the island she falls in love with a lawyer-turned-monk and learns the secret of her father’s death, which is also a key to her mother’s dementia. As in her Secret Life of Bees, Kidd paints beautiful word pictures and weaves religious themes of sin and forgiveness into a story full of believable and interesting characters, though I didn’t like the way she neatly tied up all the loose ends and put a happy ending on a story of adultery and betrayal.(less)