Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

This book is everywhere these days, including the top of many must-read lists. I've been surfing the net for hours, trying to figure out who likes this book so much, and why. I have come to the conclusion that it is beloved by people who adore bodice-ripping romances, but like them to feel like good literature.

As for it being a prime choice for book clubs, my bias against that designation has just increased. Surely people who get together to explore character and motivation would require something with a little more subtlety and substance.

I admit to having finished the book; I wanted to see how it ended (though I hated the ending). It struck me, originally, as a typical first novel; a little obvious, with the author tending to explain what was happening, rather than just letting events unfold. Eventually, however, the prose descended to platitudes, with characters summing up their entire lives in single sentences. From chapter to chapter, everybody's behavior changed one hundred and eighty degrees, yet they all calmly stated that they would never return to their former ways. Except that they did, over and over. Then they'd state again that they had changed, utterly.

The plot snapshot is this: 1907, Wisconsin. A wealthy, and I mean Midas-like, widower waits for his mail-order bride. Surprise, she is not the woman she claimed to be. No problem, he is patience itself. She goes off, at his request, \ in search of his long-lost son. Surprise, she returns to the former life we, the readers, had guessed she'd led. She returns to her husband, and yes, she does chooses this version of her life after all. Then the son throws a wrench into the works. Love, guilt, shame, and emotional blackmail ensue. And sex, lots of sex.

The thing that bothered me the most about this book was the timeline. It all takes place over the course of a single winter. Now I know that Wisconsin winters are long and hard, but honestly, this one must have lasted for 17 months! Statements such as "night after night" and "day after day" are used with great frequency in this book, which leads the reader to assume that each section of the book lasts for, well, weeks and weeks.

As I mentioned, other people do like this book. Here's a much more complimentary review, from the Washington Post. I might still read Goolrick's memoir, The End of the World as We Know It. It sounds like the kind of dysfunctional family history I enjoy, and it's set in the South, where they really know how to do family drama. He should probably have left the cold, austere winters of Wisconsin alone.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Alternatives to Sex, by Stephen McCauley

Steven McCauley's books always seem to end too soon. There is something about the easy pacing that has me settling in for a long read, only to discover that it's over.  His characters are so familiar to me; perhaps I like his books so much because they could be written about me, if I were a fastidious gay man with no kids.

This is not my favorite of his books, but here are some things I liked about it:
  • It has a good ending. No neatly wrapped packages, but some resolutions - perfect.
  • The protagonist is likable, but also slightly annoying. This makes him not only seem real, but makes him seem like a friend - one you've known for a long time, and whose bad habits you accept.
  • There are a lot of post-9/11 ruminations and discussions, but you're not beaten over the head with the tragedy. In fact, there is a slightly sardonic, nothing-will-be-the-same-blah-blah-blah tone.
Somehow the writing didn't seem quite as polished as his other work. I think it was getting better as it went along. If you've never read Stephen McCauley before, start with another, such as Insignificant Others, or his beautiful debut, The Object of My Affection. If you already love him, go ahead and read this one next.

    Saturday, March 12, 2011

    The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

    I would probably not have read this book had it not been passed along to me by my sister, who does not share bad books. The title smacks of the kind of ladies lit that does not generally appeal to me, and frankly, it had gotten a little too much perfect-for-your-book-club press. Fortunately, I found myself with nothing to read several days ago, and decided to try it. It is popular with good reason, a sweet, funny book with a nice amount of historical tragedy. I was so charmed that for once I was gunning for a happy ending, which is very rare for me.

    In short, a writer in London starts a correspondence with the members of literary group on one of the Channel Islands. It is 1946, everyone is still traumatized from the war, and the author, Juliet, is just learning of the German Occupation of Guernsey. It's an interesting little chunk of history; most of us didn't know that any of England was occupied.

    I was always a big fan of the show Northern Exposure, and this is kind of the post-war British version. The cast of characters are unlikely allies, and altogether more fun than people in real life. Who wouldn't want to live in beautiful Guernsey with plucky, supportive friends who chat about books and have endless casual dinner parties?

    I like epistolary novels, and for the most part the format works for this story. It seems a little forced by the end, with the main character doing an awful lot of writing without garnering very many responses. Juliet is funny, and witty, and self-deprecating; in short, a sympathetic narrator who adores her subjects. Much has been made of the author, who did not live to see the enormous sucees of her only novel. I was surprised to learn that she was American; this book seems so perfectly British. All in all a really fun read.

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011

    The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, by Hiedi W. Durrow

    Another great local author! Well, localish - among the many places she's lived, she counts Portland as the one she hails from. The book is great, and the author is nothing short of amazing. She's already been extremely successful in both academics and several varied careers. She hosts the annual Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival, and my favorite thing, co-hosts the weekly podcast, Mixed Chicks Chat, with her friend and colleague Fanshon Cox. Listen to it here, you'll be glad you did. As long as you're on her site, read her quick interesting bio and look at her family photo albums.

    Okay, enough hero-worship, on to the book. This is one of those that should be extremely depressing, but somehow isn't. It is certainly heartbreaking; the eleven-year-old protagonist loses most of her family in a tragedy, which remains shrouded in mystery until the end of the book, and even then is fairly incomprehensible.  It is just about the complete opposite of Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto, which I finished a couple of days earlier. That book was all finely wrought physical details, and little sense of the world outside. This novel is made up of a series of events, clearly stated, reacted to, and reflected upon.

    Although it's not very long, an awful lot happens in this novel. The protagonist, Rachel, is a child of mixed race and nationality. She has lived most of her eleven years on Army bases, unaware of the oddity of having a black American father and white Danish mother. When most of her family dies in a bizarre accident, she is sent to live with her grandmother in Portland. Here she is quickly made aware of racial differences; in Portland, she is black.

    This is one unlucky family, and Rachel seems to be the only one who is holding up. The story unfolds in waves, following Rachel, a boy who witnessed the accident which killed her family, and a former friend of her deceased mother. Most of the members of her family buckle under the sorrow of loss, but this girl is tough. Come to think of it, I'd be tempted to classify this as YA, though it doesn't seem to be advertised as such. It has all the hallmark of good YA lit; a young heroine who makes her mistakes but stays true to herself, an out-of-the-ordinary friend who makes the real difference in her life, messed-up adults to rebel against... I recommend it.