Monthly Archives: May 2013

*** Elders by Ryan McIlwain

Elders portrays two Mormon missionaries in Brazil, one the son of an American bishop but struggling with his own faith and the other a new Brazilian convert with ambitions to get a US education. The two struggle to reconcile their personal desires with the strict rules of their mission, not to mention the exhausting nature of their proselytizing activities. This relatively short book manages to have a few slow-moving chapters but overall the story manages to describe missionary work alongside the feelings and travails  under the apparently untroubled facade.

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** Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Mortality is a stark, slim, unfinished meditation on dying that his author positions as the opposite of The Last Lecture, which I reluctantly read and panned. So perhaps I should love this book? Not so much. While the matter-of fact, often cynical outlook is refreshing (as when he bemoans the fact that he will die before his enemies, or before his credit card expires, o the weird word), the criticism can be unnecessarily vicious and the organization could use some tightening up. Probably there was not enough time for that.

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** The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler

The Imposter Bride starts in the aftermath of World War II when a young woman arrives in Montreal to marry a man she has never met, ends up marrying his brother instead, and has the bad luck to encounter a relative of the woman whose identity she assumed. Told from the perspective of her daughter, whom she abandons shortly after her birth, the story retraces the mother’s shadowy escape from the Nazis alongside the daughter’s own life. I did not care much for the focus on the diamond the mother brought with her, nor for the family history of the relative who unmasks the mystery, but the complicated relationships between the mother, her husband, and her mother in law are finely captured.

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* Middle C by William Gass

The hero of Middle C concocts for himself a more exciting personal narrative that gets him a professorship in a third-rate college, then condemns him to worry. Along the way are many adventures, some hilarious, other dramatic, and, alas, quite a few  excruciatingly boring, as when the author plunges into pages of the hero’s note cards, his resolutely banal lectures, or erudite references to obscure books he has read. Too bad! There are some very funny adventures with women who fall for him, along with a surprisingly tender portrait of his mother, who comes into her own as an older woman who discovers gardening and fits into her adoptive country much better, and more honestly than her son.

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** The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout


The Burgess Boys is the story of three siblings, two of them men, and their hapless nephew (the sister’s son), who dumbly but without malice throws a pig’s head into a mosque and unleashes turmoil in the Maine town where he lives and where the siblings grew up, and the threat of grave punishment. The two brothers, both lawyers, one successful and the other much less so, come to his aid and it goes downhill from there. Finely observed characters (most spectacularly so the successful brother’s wife) but the unraveling seems rather far-fetched.

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*** The Force of Things by Alexander Stille

The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace is, at its core, the portrait of a bad marriage. It is also the story of the author’s own family, the bad marriage being that of his parents, with his hoarder father (who has a hoarder sister, which creates an occasion for an epic apartment cleaning session in which, amongst other objects, a bicycle is unearthed beneath a mound of yarn — why do archeologists persist in digging in dirt when they could stay in New York and make discoveries?) and his outgoing mother who seemed happiest when spending time away from his dad, entertaining friends. The dad is also a European Jew who narrowly escaped the Fascists from Italy where he had fled from his native Poland but with an invented Latvian identity (to fool the US immigration quotas) while his mother’s family is more than a little anti-semitic, even if the mother herself was more of a free spirit. It’s sometimes a little hard to believe that all these adventures happened in the same family — but it sure makes for a wonderful story.

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** The Walking by Laleh

The Walking is a skillfully written novel about two Kurdish brothers who are forced to flee their Iranian hometown after a political massacre. The story focuses on one of them, who ends up where he dreamed to be, in Los Angeles, but only after a difficult and unlikely voyage through, of all places, the Azores. What I liked best about the book were the numerous portraits of strangers who help the brothers, whether with a bit of food, shelter, or protection, throughout the odyssey. But I did not feel that the book rose much above the standard immigrant story.

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Filed under New fiction