Sunday, September 29, 2019

Review: The Lost Man

I enjoy Australian literature, which features a language and culture familiar enough to make it comfortable, but with enough difference to make it "other" and slightly exotic. 

To be fair, my exposure to Australian culture is rather limited to pop fiction (think Liane Moriarty, Geraldine Brooks, and Colleen McCollough) and, I am realizing, very white. If anyone has suggestions  for a more diverse Australian reading list, I'd be much obliged.

Now, on to The Lost Man and all of the bleached Australian whiteness as the Outback can provide.

First of all, Jane Harper offers for our consideration a Caucasian Australian culture that sports a very casual relationship with skin cancer. Everyone has it, or has some cut out, or is intimately inspected by a health care professional on a regular basis. I don't have an outdoor-enough lifestyle to have that kind of relationship with a dermatologist or oncologist, but I suspect I would be if I was an Aussie. The intensity of the Aussie sun is as intense as the close-knit community in this book.

Australians also seem to have a strained relationship with women and women’s personal safety. Cam was the "nice" brother, Bub was immature and self-absorbed, Nathan the most troubled — and yet their relationships with women were very different than their community assigned them. Cam's sexual abuse of ranch-hands was overlooked (probably as much out of fear as acceptance of the behavior), but Nathan's momentary disregard of his former father-in-law's safety was so severely punished, it seemed to make up for Cam’s physical and sexual abuse of the women around him.

The “mystery” of the story was teased out a little too long. Nathan kept “almost remembering” clues and actions beyond my patience. The question of Cam’s boyhood attack on the ranch hand was teased out a little too long. The final reveal of whodunit — and the clue that led to the revelation — was a bit of a surprise, but only because that relationship hadn’t been examined much in the book.

I liked the characters, but I wasn’t really invested in them. I didn’t necessarily see them as full-fledged people, so the abuse was painful, but I didn’t feel indignation on behalf of the characters who suffered at the hands of Cam and his father.

The world of the stark, blistering Australian Outback felt very alien to me, and I kept thinking about Mars the entire time I read the book.

This was my first Harper novel. I like her storytelling style: enough detail to get the point across, but otherwise spare and lean — bordering on emaciated. To be fair, I was reading a non-fiction book on domestic abuse at the same time I read The Lost Man. Unfortunately, as much as I enjoy a good thriller, I'm not sure I want to keep reading about dead women and children. The plethora of dead and abused women was the very reason I stopped watching police procedurals on television.

To Harper's credit, her details were not lurid and voyeuristic — at least, in this book. Are her other books as spare and respectful? I'd love to hear your comments: post them below, or feel free to email me

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Review: Behind the Scenes at the Museum

   Get a glimpse behind the façade when Ruby Lennox shows us what it takes to make and live in a family in Behind the Scenes at the Museum. The titular museum is York Castle Museum, which exhibits façades of local houses, much like the one occupied by the Lennox family. As Kate Atkinson weaves her tale, Ruby’s first day is spent in part at the Museum Gardens, with her mother and sister, Gillian.

I loved the structure of the book: beginning with her conception, Ruby is very much in the “now,” and everything feels immediate and new, with glimpses of foretelling the future. Coupled with these current events are  “appendices” interspersed non-sequentially, revealing family secrets that challenge the fictions perpetrated in the family history Ruby tells. She knows what she knows, so her tale is limited to her scope of knowledge, what she sees and believes.

Ruby is our narrator, but is she reliable? Clues pop up indicating that something is flickering just beyond her reach, a memory she can’t quite grasp, that perhaps she is more than she seems. In fact, Ruby’s reveal near the end of the book was seeded through the entire novel, with clues that Atkinson at times thought were heavy-handed. (I didn’t.) Other characters weave through the story in surprising ways, such as Auntie Doreen, Sister Blake, Jack, Edmund — even inanimate characters, like Alice’s buttons, mantel clock, and silver locket.

I enjoyed reading the wartime tales. Atkinson captures the abject terror and drudgery of both world wars, the second of which she explored in two other amazing books: Life After Life and A God in Ruins. I saw Teddy in Edmund, and now I feel as though I must  re-read the bomber scenes in the Todd Family series.

People die all the time, or disappear, or are wounded, or show up at unexpected times and places. Ruby’s loss of sisters in this tale is sad, but her attitude toward Gillian makes a lot more sense as the family story unfolds. Auntie Babs’ breast cancer, Ada’s diphtheria, Tom’s hand, Lawrence’s bad timing on the English coast, all amazing tragedies befallen by the Lennox forebears.

Death was definitely a character. Ruby didn’t shy away from it, but she experienced it as was appropriate for her age. The sisters were not present for Gillian’s funeral and the finality that part of the mourning process provides, so to Ruby and Patricia, Gillian was “if not exactly alive then not exactly dead either.” The timing and circumstances of George’s death were unfortunate, but Ruby knew he was dead — she witnessed and was a part of it differently, and at a different age and life stage, than she was for Gillian.

The people I loved most were Lillian, the strong-minded single mother who bravely hopped on ocean liners and cross-continental trains; Lucy-Vita, an affectionate cousin and patient friend; and Adrian, the hairdresser who just lived his life and loved his family (and proved to be a loving caretaker for Bunty). I despised Rachel’s black heart and Bernard’s cruelty, and had little sympathy for Bunty (despite Ruby’s story arc). Bunty and George were a pathetic pair, and I am at a loss as to how they managed to keep as many of their children alive as they did for as long as they did. The Ropers were hysterical, as much because their own absurdity as by George and Bunty’s responses to them.

Atkinson had some brilliant moments, coupling Ruby’s story reveal with the Lost Property Cupboard, poignantly and gracefully bringing sisters together and parting them, capturing the energy and dynamics of an extended family. There were a few beautiful observations, that the past is what you take with you, that nothing is lost forever, that everything resolves itself (Adrian’s identity, marriage entanglements, leavings and returnings, motherhood). As Ruby shows us, the deft distribution of family throughout the world — intentional or accidental, known or unknown, secret or revealed — create a unique, powerful, perfectly imperfect mosaic.

The British, when talking about their family members, use the term “our,” such as “our Gillian” or “our Pearl.” I first read this in Good Omens, and wondered if it was made up for the scene in which it was used. It wasn’t, and I find it utterly charming.

Did anyone else get lost from time to time when trying to keep track of who was in which generation? What a huge cast of characters!

For the record, the paperback copy I own features the cover at right, which is very different than the cover I posted at the top of the review. I prefer the parrot cover.

I think — I am a bit of a purist when it comes to covers, and this debut novel doesn't need to mention future works by the same author. Do you have a preference? What's your take on covers: do you prefer the original covers, or do you like redesigns as the author's canon evolves?

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Review: The Baltimore Book of the Dead

Precious: that is how Marion Winik sees the people whose lives she remembers in The Baltimore Book of the Dead, a modest collection of vignettes about unforgettable people in her life who have passed away.

Some of her subjects are identified: mother, aunts, cousins — never by name, but always by characteristics and personality. She goes farther afield and remembers colleagues, childhood friends, casual acquaintances, and friends of friends who made impressions on her.

Other times she tells the truth but tells it slant: a well-known Southern author, for example, or a public figure from her crowd. I had to scour the clues in her tales to know who she knew, and on more than one occasion spend more time than I ought collecting words to include in my Internet search. (Yes, I was successful. Neither Winik nor the Internet failed me.)

But it's not the who that is most intriguing. We all have people in our lives precious enough to us to remember. It's the details, the truth, that make these sketches so intimate, sometimes charming, and always as memorable to us as the person is to Winik.

Her descriptions of the people and their charm, foibles, character, and connections are precise, spare, and exquisite. You can open any page and find what you swore was your favorite vignette, only to discover you have a new one.

Take "Portrait of a Lady:"
She picked up the .22 and aimed it at him. My brother grabbed me as we went for cover.  Later he explained: you always want to be behind the one with the gun. A shot cracked, and a bullet zinged into the wall over the refrigerator. 
Yep, said my dad. I'll be in the shower.

Or "The Mensch:"
When you're eighty, a lot of things are long ago: tough decisions, hard times, regrets, all far away now. Watching him in his garden, or with our little girls in the shallow water, you could get the idea he'd been waiting all his life just for this. To be a deeply tanned, slightly stooped old Jewish man, standing at the water's edge in turquoise trunks and a white terrycloth bucket hat. Surely if he'd been given the chance, he'd be standing their still.

Not all of the characters are likable. Not all of them are intended to be. Death doesn't make you better; it just ends your chance at redemption.

The title was a bit of a misnomer: these are not all Baltimore residents or figures. Winik lived in Baltimore at the time she wrote the book. The same for The Glen Rock Book of the Dead.

In September, look for The Big Book of the Dead, in which vignettes from both books will be arranged in the order that tells Winik's life story. When I learned that, I nearly stopped after reading the first couple of vignettes — but I couldn't wait to read this book, and neither should you.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Review: Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

This book was not at all what I expected, and that makes it all the better.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette  by Maria Semple has been sitting on my shelf for years. When it first came out in paperback, it had great buzz — but I wasn't sure I wanted to read about a teenager who runs away to Antarctica. The story seemed too light-hearted for the subject matter, so I let the novel linger on my shelf.

That is, until it became my book club's book, in no small part because of the the movie debut. Suddenly, I had two good reasons to find out about the girl who ran away to Antarctica: book club and a movie. 

I found this book enjoyable, surprising, remarkable, enlightening, embracing, and therapeutic. It was funny, often uproariously so, but never at the cost of the character or the story. More often than not, "funny" was revelatory, sometimes startling, occasionally embarrassing (okay, more than occasionally embarrassing, but in an honest way).

Not to over-sell it, but the story was a roller coaster of surprises, intrigue, investigation, and revelation. What we learn about these characters is intimate, honest, and touching. And love: there was so much love, I felt it on every page. Semple loves her characters, even when they fail in epic proportions, and readers in turn love them as well — sometimes because of their failures, because isn't that what actually gives someone character?

(Full disclosure: I am not keen on Hollywood's retelling of a perfectly good tale, but I like Cate Blanchett. I am not convinced that Cate is Bernadette, but Cate is such a chameleon, I would love to see her play the part — and let the chips fall where they may. The actual storyline, however, is in question: I have seen the trailer, and what I thought was a surprise at the end of the book is revealed during the trailer like it was part of the plan from the start. What in the world...)

If you haven't read the book, I may tell too much in this review. Be warned, in case you are like me and prefer surprises.

First of all, I got the premise wrong: the teen isn't the one who goes missing. It's much messier and more unusual than that: Bernadette is a quirky mother of a teenage daughter, Bee, on whom she bestows much love and trust. Elgin is the massively successful engineer who is never present in his family's life. He doesn't pay attention to his family, trusting it will be there and functional when he looks up from his pressing work deadlines.

If only life worked that way. Bernadette doesn't suffer fools lightly, and she worships her precocious daughter — whom she is convinced needs to attend a prestigious elite school on the opposite coast. Bee, on the other hand, wants only to please her parents, and keep her mother happy. Bee's latest stellar report card allows the star student to ask her parents to take her to Antarctica.

Only, the trip doesn't go off as planned. In fact, nothing does — and at a certain point, chaos reaches critical mass, and Bernadette goes missing.

I loved the quirky characters: Bernadette, who was "eccentric" beyond all expectations and hid her mental illness from her family (badly), but the person who needed to be present wasn't; Elgin, a brilliant inventor who was able to escape into his fictional Microsoft World and not deal with reality; Bee, a precious, precocious tween who was too smart, compassionate, and passionate for her own good; Audrey, the mean schemer who, in the end, became one of my favorite characters; the school, which truly was a character unto itself, and so much funnier than any individual or group in the book; Soo-Lin, who got just as lost as everyone else but lost herself more than the others. 

I liked how the character of Bernadette was so different than she appeared at first glance. She made perfect sense when you got to see her beyond her appearance.

Bee's unwavering faith in her mother was so perfect, and Bernadette in the end deserved every drop of it. We are everything we have been and everything we will be, all at once. So much of our lives, our truths, remains masked or hidden, or just not shown to everyone. This book is an important reminder that no one is only what they seem to us at the time. 

I recommend this book: meet some amazing characters that will stay with you long after you you finish the last page, and be ready to hand your copy over to a friend or compatriot who really needs to read it.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Summer Reading: The End is in Sight

Ragweed aside, September is one of my favorite months of the year. It's back-to-school and it harbors the possibility of cooler weather. You can still wear sandals, but sneakers are equally comfortable in the fluctuating weather.

However, with chillier mornings come the interruption of allegedly important things, like required reading and weatherizing.

It also means that the summer reading club members are stretching their legs and starting to brush the sand off the towels. Oh, we haven't closed the giant umbrella, and the ice is still chilling our drinks in the cooler... but we can't help but notice that every sunset comes a little earlier.

I don't review my start-of-summer list on Labor Day — no good will come of that — but I can't help but notice the nightstand is just a little more crowded than it was on Memorial Day.

Okay, let's be honest, it's differently crowded, and tipping toward insanity.

A few books not on the original list are peeking out from the stacks.

There's the book I started earlier and put down because it was too tense, but it made Melanie think, so I have to restart it.

There's the "professional development" book I read because it secretly made me feel like a badass.

There's the lucky library find that should have been checked out simultaneously by a hundred different people.

There's the book fair delight Carole and I will begin next week.

And there's the intimidating book I keep promising to start yet again.

Oh, and did I mention Fall for the Book announced this year's authors, and I already have most of their books? (Now, reading them all by October 10-12: that's a challenge I'm ready to face!)

My summer was supposed to be filled with sequel upon sequel (admittedly risky) and the stuff I wanted to power through (like Hamilton). Oh, I haven't totally abandoned the sequels. However, it also is full of things I didn't know I needed, and a few surprises. I can live with that.

How has your summer reading surprised you so far? Tell us in the comments below, or send me an email!