2016-12-20

Quiet Dell: a Novel, by Jayne Anne Phillips. Scribner, 2013

In the 1930s, the Dutch-born son of an immigrant family chose an unconventional way to raise himself out of poverty. He answered ads in "lonely hearts" columns of the newspapers in various cities, and placed his own ads, as well. He used several aliases to woo and win wealthy widows, persuaded them to empty their bank accounts, and then murdered them.

Quiet Dell is the story of one of the families he victimized, told from the viewpoint of a Chicago journalist and her photographer companion as they pieced together the story of missing widow Asta Eicher and her three children. This particular incident spawned several books and movies about Hermann Drenth, (aka Harry Powers, Cornelius O. Pierson, and A. R. Weaver,) including David Grubb's Night of the Hunter.

For those who enjoy true crime, the author deftly tells the story, revealing details one by one, until the unexpected final Reveal at the end.

2016-06-17

Diamond Head : a novel, by Cecily Wong.  Harper, 2015.

It seems that, ever since Niffenberger's Time Traveler's Wife, authors have been using the device of alternating their points of view between two narrators and/or time points in their novels. In this novel, alternating between the early 20th century and 1964, and in chapters alternately narrated by Amy (mom) and Theresa (daughter), we learn the history of the Leong family in China and Hawaii.

Since I was living in Hawaii in 1964 and am familiar with the places, schools, and social life of that time, I was curious to see how "authentic" the author's descriptions would be. They are, in fact, quite authentic. I have been to many of the places mentioned in the book, and I felt I knew the Leong family, or at least, their friends and relatives. The place names and descriptions, and even the use of local language was spot on. Even so, the concept of the red string connecting actions of the past to events in the future was novel, and the device was effective in "tying" the family history together.

In contrast to Hotel Honolulu, where the characters were hyperbolic and stereotypical, the characters in Diamond Head could have been my real classmates, uncles, and friends. I found it difficult, at first, to keep the characters straight, particularly since one of them was known by at least two names. But once I caught on, the narrative propelled itself to the end, following each thread in the knotty family drama to its unexpected conclusion.



2015-03-19

The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman. (Scribner, 2012)

Tom is looking for work after his stint in the army in World War I. He believes the lonely job of lighthouse keeper at Janus Rock, a tiny island off the southwestern tip of Australia, will be the perfect place for him, and allow him time and space to recover from the trauma of all the killing - three years between vacations to the mainland. He marries Isabel and takes her to Janus Rock. After several years and three miscarriages, a living baby washes up on shore in a boat with a dead man. Isabel, having lost her third child just two weeks earlier, immediately bonds with the baby and persuades her husband to omit the incident from the lighthouse log - a federal crime - setting in motion the ensuing events in the story.

I'm going to say this is a must-read. It is part romance, part travelogue, part history, part tragedy, and all love story. One of the back jacket blurbs observes, "you stop hoping the characters will make different choices and find you can only watch, transfixed, as every conceivable choice becomes an impossible one." And that about sums it up.

Steadman never puts a foot wrong in building the characters and plot, and creating climaxes at several points within her novel. I got so engrossed in the characters and their stories, I couldn't put the book down. I thoroughly enjoyed the author's detailed descriptions of the island, the light, the protocols, the thoughts and interactions of her characters. I particularly admire the way she leads readers to a conclusion, and then adds a single detail that throws into question everything you thought you knew about the moral dilemma so far. This is an admirable and memorable first novel that will make a great book-group title, because there is so much in it - both from the plot and the craft of the author's writing - to discuss.

2014-12-03

http://find.saclibrarycatalog.org/iii/encore/record/C__Rb1638068?lang=engThe Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd. Penguin, 2003.

Lily, a young, white teen runs away from her abusive father accompanied her black nanny, Rosaleen. She only knows she has to get to Tiburon, South Carolina, because one of the few remaining things she has from her mother is a picture of a black Madonna advertising honey. She believes that if she can get to where that honey was made, she would find someone who knew her mother. She winds up staying with three black sisters who are beekeepers, and who know how to keep secrets, too.

Aside from the bee-keeping lore sprinkled throughout the novel in the form of quotes beginning each chapter, we - and Lily and Rosaleen, and the three sisters, May, June, and August - learn much about history, mothering, and love.

All Our Yesterdays, by Cristin Terrill. Hyperion, 2013

In a converging story revealed alternately by "Marina" and "Em," we learn that a time machine has been invented and is being used by "The Doctor" to travel through history and wipe out all the dictators and despots in order to prevent the atrocities they were responsible for. "The Doctor" has imprisoned Em, because she is trying to use the time machine to travel far enough back to ensure it never gets invented ... but she isn't having much luck. Who is Marina? Who is Em? Who is the Doctor? Bend your mind around these ideas.

2014-11-22

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. W. W. Norton, 2010.

Brains are plastic, and make and erase connections based on need and use.

Reading has changed from puzzlingoutwordsandmeaningwithoutbenefitofspacingandpunctuation at the dawn of writing to consuming headlines on the Internet. This has changed the way our brains work to the point where we can no longer concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time.  Reading a longer work from beginning to end is now a difficult task, because our brains expect to be interrupted often. In other words, we are now consuming a long tail of disparate information pieces, but unable to explore it in enough depth to engage our brains in real thought about any of it.

Do you believe this? I better go online and check it out. BRB.

So as software gets smarter and returns results related to what we're looking for, two things happen: 1. We stop thinking, because the software does that for us (think: point-of-need help, tailored internet search engine results,) and
2. we never see the other results, so therefore they don't exist - or, at any rate, are lost to us. The software filters what we see, based on prior searches, and our field of view gets narrower and narrower.

Carr's work is rife with references to research, and there are more than 30 pages of citations at the end of the book. Whether you agree with him or not, the evidence is compelling for his description of a major change in the way people interact with technology and the Internet: "As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence." Scary.

2014-07-26

Pearl of China: a novel, by Anchee Min. Bloomsbury, 2010.

Willow is almost a street-child; she steals and begs under the direction of her father in order to eat. By chance - and quite reluctantly - she becomes friends with the missioner's daughter, Pearl, and the rest of this fictional biography of Pearl Buck follows.

Willow never existed; but by creating this fictional lifelong friend, author Min provided a vehicle for an outsider's view of the circumstances of Pearl's life in China. The narrative follows them from childhood to old age.

Although the facts may be adjusted and the reviews are mixed, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the missionary experience of Pearl's father and the rest of her family, and about the characters that brought the religious assimilation to life. It reminds me of Kinsolver's Poisonwood Bible, and also of Brooks's Caleb's Crossing, which both also explore missionary zeal.

Min lived through the times described in the setting - Mao's rise and fall - and eventually emigrated to the United States, where she lives today. Like Pearl, her works are banned in China, and for the same reasons. They depict a reality that is uncomfortable.

2014-06-07

The Art Forger: a Novel, by B. A. Shapiro. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2012

A bold plot to copy art works stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner art museum and sell them as originals ... it could have been a standard-issue novel, but in fact, it is much more. In addition to the forgery plot, there are a couple of romantic sub-plots, and a great deal of information about how paintings were made long ago, and - more surprisingly - about techniques used to artificially age forgeries and make them pass all the tests normally used to detect them.

This novel is based on a real incident - the still-unsolved theft of works from the Gardner museum - and adds an interesting side-story of Mrs. Gardner's "relationship" with the painter Degas. I was less interested in the stories of the characters than in the processes of painting, forging, and antiquing art.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Crown Publishers, 2010.

In 1950s Baltimore, Henrietta Lacks knows there's something wrong inside her. Poor, and facing racist laws regulating medical care, the cancer grows and finally kills her. Unbeknownst to her or her family, cancerous cells from her cervix were harvested, cultured, and sold to researchers. They were unusual in that they didn't die after 3 generations, as all other harvested cells had done. Due to their genetic uniformity, longevity, and aggressive growth, researchers were able to use Henrietta's cells, known as "HeLa," to study polio vaccine, as well as in AIDS and cancer research, effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, parvovirus, distemper, and papillomavirus research, and much more.

The author uses interviews with family members to highlight the story of the exploitation of Henrietta's family and the HeLa cells. I listened to the audio edition, and was simply astounded by the two-pronged investigation into the privacy and rights of the family, vs. the benefits that came from using HeLa cells in medical research. The research is ongoing.