Judith's Book Review Archive

Judith's Book Reviews

Our book club facilitator, Judith Rodby, is always on the lookout for good reads. Check out her latest reviews, and browse the archive below:

Nutshell Cover Image Nutshell – Ian McEwan

"I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams." - Hamlet, II.ii

Nutshell – yet another Hamlet rewrite?  Yep—and not only that—but Ian McEwan, the author of Atonement (and many other acclaimed novels), has created a narrator who is in utero—yes, that’s right—a Prince Hamlet fetus who is fully sentient, with an educated adult’s vocabulary and sensibility.  Far-fetched of course, but somehow it works.

In contemporary London, Trudy (yes, short for Gertrude) her husband John Cairncross, named for a real-life WW II double agent, a burned-out poet; his brother Claude a real estate mogul;  and Trudy’s in utero Prince Hamlet comprise the cast of characters. As to be expected, Trudy is having an affair with Claude and the two are plotting to poison John.

So what momentum and insight does this version of an old story hope to provide?

Actually the question should be about the story and its games, which are full of literary and pop culture illusions, social commentary and murderous intrigue. It’s clever, funny; the references range from hip-hop lyrics, mixed up Shakespeare plays, and references to young coeds’ speech habits of up-speak and vocal fry.

The tiny cramped narrator, often tipsy from his mother’s Sancerre, or on a bad day Pouilly Fume, is sardonic, sarcastic, and worldly.   We follow his impressions and insights to learn of twists and turns, and ultimate undoing of Claude and Trudy in their attempts to undo, in turn, the sad sack John.

So, what does Nutshell provide in addition to the amusement and fun of the puzzle?  To this reader the rewards also lie in McEwan’s prose:  impeccable and consistent, never showy, but always calling subtle attention to its smooth glassy surfaces, thus revitalizing the father, son, brother struggles for power and truth.  

Larose Cover Image LaRose – Louise Erdrich

This is a story that begins with a grueling ending--a horrific shock--an event of such staggering gravitas that it is hard to imagine how the story and its people can move forward.   Landreaux is out hunting and accidently shoots and kills his next door neighbor’s five year old son, Dusty.  This is worst thing that could have happened.   Grief grinds away at both families.

Author of 15 novels (including The Round House, which won the National Book Award), many volumes of poems and children’s stories, Erdrich draws on Ojibwa native knowledge and customs to bring her characters to life. After the shooting, Landreaux and his wife Emmaline retreat to the sweat lodge for answers: How to live with this tragedy? Native traditions provide a brutal answer –Emmaline and Landreaux will give Peter and Nola (Dusty’s parents) their own five year old son, LaRose, a boy who carries the family heritage in his name, each generation having named a child LaRose for over a hundred years.

The story of LaRose is anchored in the relations among these two large, interrelated families; (Nola and Emmaline are, after all, half-sisters).  Some of the most poignant moments are in the relations between the half-sisters – as Nola rejects all of Emmaline’s attempts to stay connected to La Rose.  She leaves soup on Nola’s porch and Nola pours it out. But slowly LaRose’s new family find love enough to allow LaRose to visit Emmaline and Landreaux and eventually to split his time between them. 

In this as in her many other novels, Erdrich, never didactic, is able to weave in the native ways and knowledge that provide her characters with ways of moving forward in lives that often hover on the edges of poverty and conflict --cultural, political and familial.

 

The Wonder Cover Image The Wonder – Emma Donoghue

A fascinating, haunting historical novel inspired by 16th-20th century cases of  “fasting girls” in the British Isles, Western Europe and North America, girls and young women who purportedly went without food for long periods of time, often in quest of religious ecstasy.  Written by the author of the bestselling novel and award-winning film Room, The Wonder is narrated by Lib, a British “Nightingale” nurse who has been employed to watch Anna, an eleven year old whose family claims she has not eaten for four months, her last bite being the host of her first confirmation. Lib believes her job is to figure out how Anna is actually being fed but the family and the town thinks her task is to substantiate the wonder of Anna. Lib is quick to judge Anna’s family and community, in fact the Irish in general, as ignorant, superstitious:  “What a rabble, the Irish. Shiftless, thriftless, hopeless, hapless… “ (147).   Anna is a “trickster, a great liar in a country famous for them.” (73).

In The Wonder the ideological worlds of science (& the Enlightenment) and religion clash; science is demonstrated in medical measurements, charts,  literacy/writing, while religion is enacted through ritual, custom, and  the orality of chanted rosaries, prayers, songs, the heat of peat fires and muck of bogs.

But wherein lies the truth?  When Lib’s vigil, her watching, reveals nothing, she comes to question her own observations, her truths.  How is that Anna is still alive?

As the investigation proceeds, with the pace of a psychological thriller, Lib finally gain insights, and dark secrets of the community are revealed, not through Lib’s  charts and measurements but through intuitions she garners from her observations in nature.

One strength of the novel lies in its imagery – eyes that cannot see what is in front of them are like pebbles, mouths stuffed or gaping cannot speak truths they do not know, and then there is water, and water is everywhere, soaking into everyone’s souls drowning light and enlightenment.  In the end, smoky, molten secrets are revealed, a man saves the day on a horse (perhaps neither the best image nor plot twist Donoghue has to offer) and Lib has gained,  if not compassion then at least,  a modicum of understanding of those she had spurned and about whom she had understood nothing.

 

My Name Is Lucy Barton Cover Image So much praise, has been heaped on My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. The author of Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge, which was made into a TV movie. The praise, I find,  to be  well deserved indeed. This slim novel, structured less around plot than short bursts of penetrating insights, has been described as  “quiet, mystical,” “spare,” “distilled,” haunting,” “shimmering” and “an elegant testament to human resilience”  to cull from the panoply of reviews.

Lucy , the narrator, is a writer who has been hospitalized for nine weeks, separated from her children and husband. She wakes one day to find her mother, from whom she has been estranged, sitting at the bottom of her bed.  A relationship to her mother is delicately knit through the stories that Lucy’s mother tells about people they knew and things that happened in Lucy’s childhood of penetrating poverty.  Her mother is tender, whimsical, calling her “Wizzle,” a pet name from childhood and yet the gaps between them remain, deeply cut.

Lucy’s voice is mesmerizing; singsong, repetitious, as though she is trying to convince herself of her truth. Lucy tells us that she is only telling one story—that of her relationship with her mother or perhaps of motherhood.  But Lucy also articulates her experience of family, and “the tangled root"  of their relations.

This is a novel, about human connections, the ways in which they are tentative and the ways in which they doggedly persist. As Lusy writes, “I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine (190).”

 

Hillbilly Elegy Hillbilly Elegy (a title made for best-seller branding) by J.D. Vance is a fascinating narrative, a memoir, (both moving and infuriating for this liberal Democrat) sprinkled with bits of sociological and psychological analysis.

Vance who was born in Kentucky but grew up in Middleton, Ohio, identifies himself, his family, and their culture as “hillbilly.”   

His portrait of hillbilly culture is rife with contradictions (as any cultural portrait must be) and stereotypes. The Kentucky hills are at once rolling and green and full of trash and food stamps; the terrain so loaded with violence, one could easily wind up looking down the barrel of a gun.  Vance’s grandmother “Mamaw,” proudly asserts that she would rather shoot than argue.

The family moved to Ohio for the promise of a steel mill job, but soon they and their hopes of upward mobility were chewed up by drug addiction, alcoholism, divorce, sporadic employment and persistent poverty. Vance, a conservative, blames not globalization nor the growth of technology for the social, psychological and economic problems he experienced in the “rust belt” but rather “Our government [which] encourages decay through the welfare state” (144).

Much of Hillbilly Elegy is Vance’s bootstrap story—his road from the Marines to Yale Law School. His story inspires (or terrifies) in the expectations he projects for his fellow hillbillies. He recounts, for example, that because of the Marines he easily learns to scale a rope with one hand,  graduate from Ohio State and achieve admission to Yale law school.  All of this individual will was modeled for him by his grandparents, “self-reliant, hardworking.”  His Mamaw “showed [him] what was possible”  (149).

Most apologists for Hillbilly Elegy advance the claim that  it is just these hillbillies from the “rust belt” who are the voters giving Trump his victory,  voters who felt left behind by Obama’s administration. Vance, it seems, hopes to be a spokesman for just these people.

What is not yours is not yours

What a multifarious, deep and dark, occasionally joyful, passel of stories!  What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, by Helen Oyeyemi, begins with “Once upon a time” and draws the reader into fictions that are more to be wrangled with than read. The characters slip and slide:  shape-shifters, gender transmogrifiers. The settings are full of locks and keys, doors that won’t stay locked, a magical rose garden: an appearance from a Siamese fighting fish named after a 60 A.D. warrior queen, Boudicca.

The stories often have the air, imagery and feel of the Grimm’s brothers’ world (Little Red Riding Hood, for example) with a little bit of Borges. The characters draw on Greek, Roman and Gaelic mythology: one Tychee Shaw, wandering  between stories, smelling ambrosial, is named for the goddess of fortune and luck. In one story she finds a wedding ring in the bottom of a beer bottle. In another “Is your blood as red as this ..” she auditions for a place in a puppet school with a chess piece as a puppet.

The language of these stories is radiant, slippery, funny: rain falling through sunlight is “fox rain,” a character remembers another by his smells of loan shark cologne.

So as the weather changes, Oyeyemi might say,the air is “makeless” in its readiness for snow, this is a great book to slip into. Enjoy Oyeyemi’s strange world—but remember what is not yours… is not yours.

 

 

Image result for work like any other reeves Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, (but for the winner, check out Paul Beatty) "Work Like Any Other" by Virginia Reeves strives for elegance, and arrives at melancholic charm. Roscoe Martin, the main character and the narrator of every other chapter (the remaining chapters have an omniscient narrator) is the only character with a substantive voice. Set in 1920’s Alabama, Roscoe and his wife Marie settle on his father-in-law’s land. But Roscoe, never interested in working the land or animals on the land, is an electrician. He wants to light up houses and the land, to electrify farming. This is his calling. In its intransigence, this identity will be his downfall. His reckoning. 

But the story of Roscoe’s hubris, his determination to illuminate, is not as compelling (not as subtle, perhaps) as the other story—of his relationship with his son and his wife and his son’s relationship with his wife.  I was very much drawn to the story of Roscoe’s family, its disintegration and each member’s attempt to hook the notion of family to the deep waters of guilt, redemption, identity and love.

Reeves prose lights up in the moments of canning peaches, identifying spices and birdcalls, in Roscoe’s relationship to Maggie, his dog, and in the quiet final pages in which Roscoe finds “grasses sprouted through the blackened patch, tiny threads of green.”

 

 

Image result for barkskins annie proulxBarkskins” is Annie Proulx’s latest novel, touted as her magnum opus. It is a big book, an epic stuffed with big themes and long stories. It has been compared to Michener’s “Centennial.” Perhaps the scope of the stories justifies this comparison, but Proulx is, to my ear, a much more conscious stylist.

The novel begins in 1693, in Canada, with Renee Sel and Charles Duquet, two French indentured servants. Duquet is stunned by the landscape—the forest, in particular, which he feels “is infinite,” a sentiment that predicts the devastation Duquet feels he and others can wreak on the ancient woods. Sel is forced to marry a much older woman, Mari of the Mi’kmaq people, while Duquet flees and founds a logging empire.

While the histories of Barkskins, men who cut down trees, begin in individual violence and oppression (for many are indentured, unwilling participants in a system founded in greed) the stories are writ large though colonization and deforestation. Although the novel follows the two families through 300 years, its true focus is the destruction of woodlands through logging and fire, and the oppression of the Mi’kmaw people. A familiar and tragic tale of Indians and white people.

So the novel is, of course, didactic; how could it not be given the heart of its story? The main characters, while interesting, are nearly caricatures (at times I hear traces of Dickens’ minor characters). The important scenes are neither small nor domestic. Covering 300 years, the novel cannot pause to develop any of their human insights and actions fully. This flaw, if it is one, is most apparent in Proulx’s unfortunate treatment of the Native Americans and particularly their speech, which she models not on a real language but on—? I am not sure what her idea of indigenous language is as the English pidgin is not consistent from one page, one moment, to another. 

An epic, a vast historical novel, a good read that kept my interest even when I was irritated or devastated—Proulx’s masterwork? Maybe not.

 

  As a student of languages, I was intrigued by Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words.” (Let’s first say that “The Lowland” is one of my recent favorites so I am a fan of Lahiri). The memoir is written in Italian, published in a dual language format, and translated to English by Ann Goldstein, editor at the New Yorker. After curiosity came unease as I read of Lahiri’s obsession with learning and using Italian. Fascinating, yes, and, of course, full of subtlety. For example, she invokes a far away, not quite present or centered feeling when reading in Italian, “the pages,” she writes, “seem[s] to have a light covering of mist.”

My friend finds “In Other Words” sentimental, and yes, the guiding metaphors—desire, falling in love, motherhood are quite romantic if one reads from a post-modern perspective.  But, for me, the larger problem is that there are no real people (other than the author) in this memoir of language learning.  Lahiri acknowledges that she has a husband and children, but they occupy no space. Indeed Italians, and even Italy itself, make few appearances and when they do they seem to be props as Lahiri constructs an elaborate puzzle. I’m struck by how different this story of language learning is from that of Alice Kaplan’s “French Lessons,” which is populated with history, friends, family, tragedy. Kaplan, for example, writes, “French isn’t just a metaphor either—it’s a skill. It buys my groceries and pays the mortgage.”  Nonetheless and despite their differences, Kaplan and Lahiri seem to end up in a similar place. Kaplan writes, “I’m grateful to French … for being the home I’ve made from my own will and my own imagination” (215). Lahiri, I suspect, feels the same about Italian; she would simply express it in other words.  

 

  Colson Whitehead’s novelThe Underground Railroad” is a clanging, bloody indictment of slavery and the institutions and ideologies, such as cotton and indigo farming that supported it. It is an important novel for many reasons—but most of all because we must never forget this hideous history.  The novel owes great debts to Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” to slaves narratives that Whitehead studied carefully, and even to the film Twelve Years a Slave (McQueen).  The novel is rich in historical information. And yet it is also an imaginative universe in which we find the story of Cora running to the North, running from Ridgeway, the slave catcher who has his sights on Cora because her mother escaped him.

In this novel the railroad is an actual railroad. Mysterious, dark and dank and yet it somehow effectively transports slaves from one state to another.  One of Colson’s more effective points is to illustrate how slavery was not a uniform institution, even ideologically. North Carolina was much crueler than many other southern states, for example.

Stylistically, Colson blends the railroad, the lynching scenes and Friday evening macabre dance parties so that they seem hallucinogenic,  full of dark magic.  In the end, I wondered why Colson chose to make the underground railroad a real railroad and with his title, he suggests that this real, but impossible, possibly magic, place is the center of the novel. I, however, saw Cora’s real courage, resilience and intelligence to be the heart of the story, and thus I would have preferred the book be titled “Cora Running.”  

 

Here I Am Cover Image Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer

While reviewers are generally disappointed with Here I Am, this reader is not. They long for the  pyrotechnics of Foer’s earlier novels (Everything Is Illuminated & Amazingly Loud and Incredibly Close), but perhaps the disintegration of a marriage and the clinging to and reconstruction of family is a tale that needs no fancy staging. No pyrotechnics in Here I Am,  but beautiful sentences and deep sentiments.  

Perhaps too ambitiously, Here I Am reaches to include not only family but kin, Jewish identity in the US, and the state of the State of Israel  in the scope of its narrative. But where Here I Am succeeds is as an old-fashioned novel, full of rich metaphor—silence, fists and space, even Israel itself—to name a few.  This lyrical language (perhaps ironically) is this novel’s strength.

 

Shelter in Place Cover Image Shelter in Place by Alexander Maksik

Alexander Maksik has many ideas at play in this interesting novel, maybe too many, but they kept me reading. Maksik’s lovely prose, reminded me of James Salter in The Light Years, full of sensuous domestic detail.  

Sometimes, the ideas and strains of the narrative don’t cohere. I, for example, did not find credible the leitmotif of Joe and his mother’s (probable) bi-polar mental illness, nor did I appreciate the sudden shifts in point of view as the narrator self-consciously addresses his readers.

But  in spite of the novel’s several flaws, the portrait of the father, his aging,  and his evolving relationship to Joe and Joe’s finance is moving and even, very quietly, mesmerizing.