Monthly Archives: October 2010

Mockingbird Years by Emily Fox Gordon

Mockingbird Years is the story of the author as a therapy patient, from rebellious childhood to disastrous young adulthood to  remarkably stable and successful adulthood — and the reader wants to just shake those inept therapists as they knit through her sessions (I like to knit but would not do it with a client!), allow her to say nothing at all for hours on end (silence is golden, huh?), and worse of all consign her to a psychiatric hospital when what she would really need would be a good push into reality. Actually her salvation comes from that hospital in the shape of the psychiatrist’s wife who seems to be the most effective healer of the bunch by simply showing her how a normal family might function. It’s a sobering story with a happy, if complicated ending.

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Holy Water by James Othmer

It’s fine to write a goofy book. It’s fine to include a near-perfect replica of Kim Jong-Il complete with his movie obsession. It’s fine to locate the fictional outsourced call center in a made-up country headed by the lovely prince-dictator. It’s fine to imagine an evil corporation that churns out bottled water and deodorant through near-identical divisions. Fine again to marry the hero to a harpy obsessed with money. Fine to add a very generously endowed assistant with a double life online. Fine to top it off with a stereotypical Australian adventurer and stereotypically good locals who are fighting for independence and justice. But it’s got to be funny. And this book is not.

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American Music by Jane Mendelsohn

American Music is another indirect, dreamy novel with lots of back stories (see Eucalyptus) and I liked this one even less. In Eucalyptus it seemed that the author needed to display his encyclopedic knowledge of trees (or perhaps simply the outcome of his assistant’s research on trees) and that was annoying at times, but the story at hand was reasonably engrossing if not exactly new and original.  Here, none of the stories seem to have much punch. the main protagonist is an Iraq veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and little to say. One of the back stories describes several generations of a family story with unexciting repeats of unrequited love and teenage pregnancies  while the other is an even less likely tale of a young woman in a harem.

I could not wait for the end, and not in a good way.

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Baby, We were Meant for Each Other by Scott Simon

Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other combines the very sweet story of the author and his wife  adopting and raising two daughters from China with vignettes of other families, all in support of adoption. The personal story is lovely, never mushy but with very moving fatherly devotion showing throughout. He richly deserves his title of spoiler-in-chief.

The non-personal stories are nowhere as satisfying. The author sets out to extinguish a number of inane concerns (sample:  “Can I love someone’s else’s child as much as my own?”) that would be better tackled by ignoring them or simply letting his story simply be. And although some of the stories are not all perfectly happy he seems to work very hard at proving that each and every adoption will be a success. Maybe not. But the same could be said of non-adopted kids.

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The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegree

Clearly I love books but I never cared much for history, at least the way it was taught in my days, with lots of  dates, many details to memorize, and way too many battles. Enters  The Book in the Renaissance and suddenly I love history! Perhaps because one of the early centers of book printing was my home town of Lyon (which has a whole museum, and a good one, devoted to printing). Perhaps because so many of the early books pictured in this one are in French (although funnily enough many are preserved in Scottish institutions, normal since the author works at the University of Saint Andrews but it took me a while to figure it out). But the main reason is that the author organizes the book in large themes that show how the printed book transformed everyday life (by making it easier to exchange information and ideas, in particular) and how other massive societal changes influenced the book industry (notably how the Reform spurred the printing of bibles). He shows how government sought to control books to control ideas — and failed, at least in the long term. The debates and disputes around books are very modern, bringing to mind contemporary polemics about blogs and the coming victory of digital media over print. A wonderful book.

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Eucalyptus by Murray Bail

Another Australian book! It’s to put me in the mood of an upcoming Australian vacation, perhaps?

In any case,  Eucalyptusis certainly not the right book for me, but it could be right for others. It’s a dreamlike fairy tale almost, of a man who decides that his daughter can only marry someone can who name the hundreds of varieties of  eucalyptus trees he planted on his property and of the daughter who falls in love with a man who tells stories rather than names the trees. It moves very slowly (not so good for me). It’s fairly disjointed (strike #2). And some of the stories are, well, not that great. She falls in love with them, though!

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The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

I feel another rant coming.

What does it take to win the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. I suspect not much more than a touch of exoticism in the shape of a carefully arranged multicultural Australian cast (complete with Aborigines), abundant raw language, and the beach right down the street. Besides that, there’s little to recommend The Slap, despite its potentially interesting premise: a truly awful kid getting slapped by a man who is not his dad to the shock of all present and the relief of some. I could not bring myself to care about the philandering husband, the aimless, drugged-up teen, the loser-mom, the vengeful wife, or any of the others.

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Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I can’t quite figure out why some authors capture the attention of critics. Jonathan Franzen is applauded everywhere but I found Freedom, his latest novel, to be boring and unimaginative. A girl who feels overlooked as a normal kid and a jock in a family of quirky intellectuals. Yawn. A wife who got married because she could not snatch her husband’s best friend (stupid move, if you ask me) finds that she needs to rekindle the affair that never was and, to her surprise, causes her long-suffering husband to finally leave the marriage. Duh. And when finally something interesting happens, namely that the husband takes up with a much younger employee of his (never mind that it’s hard to fathom why she could not find someone more appropriate), well, she comes to a swift, tragic, and artificial end. Every once in a while there’s a whiff of hope in the form of a pithy comment about families, about clueless parenting, about getting older — but far too few pithy remarks to support 562 pages of tedium.

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Nobody’s Angel by Jack Clark

Nobody’s Angel is gritty mystery in which the hero, a Chicago cab driver, solves one crime but fails utterly at solving another, while showing us around his city and sharing the daily life of cab drivers (or, more exactly, the nights since Eddie works night). Perfect, including the retro, stereotypical jacket — and would probably be even better if I knew something of the topography of Chicago.

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Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Nothing to Envy tells the story of six defectors from North Korea to South Korea and, through them, the appalling history of  North Korea where the dictator du jour is deified while millions starve and die in the street, electricity is usually lacking, and letters don’t circulate anymore because they are more useful if burned as fuel. It’s not a happy book but the personal details and the focus on ordinary people’s lives makes it as gripping as a (good!) novel.

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