Monday, January 16, 2017

CRITICAL MASS





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Critical Mass, Sara Paretsky, G P Putnam's Sons, 2013, 462 pp


Summary from Goodreads: V.I. Warshawski’s closest friend in Chicago is the Viennese-born doctor Lotty Herschel, who lost most of her family in the Holocaust.  Lotty escaped to London in 1939 on the Kindertransport with a childhood playmate, Kitty Saginor Binder.  When Kitty’s daughter finds her life is in danger, she calls Lotty, who, in turn, summons V.I. to help.  The daughter’s troubles turn out to be just the tip of an iceberg of lies, secrets, and silence, whose origins go back to the mad competition among America, Germany, Japan and England to develop the first atomic bomb.  The secrets are old, but the people who continue to guard them today will not let go of them without a fight.  


My Review:
This crime thriller was on my stack of reading for the last week in 2016, consisting of books I had meant to read during the year but hadn't gotten to. It is Ms Paretsky's 18th novel and I have now read them all. One more to go and I will be caught up before her next one comes out later in 2017. She is one of my top favorite mystery/crime novelists. Every book so far has been amazing for its genre.

V I Warshawski, fearless and crusading private investigator, once again finds "the crimes behind the crimes" as Marilyn Stasio of the New York Times puts it. In her hometown of Chicago she ferrets out corruption and destructive inequalities, taking down criminality and standing up for the forgotten people. If we had a few like her in every major American city, our country would be more like what our Founding Fathers hoped they were founding.

Critical Mass uncovers secrets and lies going back to the WWII arms race with its competition between Germany and the United States to develop the first atomic bomb.

Reading coincidence: Michael Chabon's Moonglow, read earlier in December, covers similar territory. In both books the traumas of Nazi concentration camps and the use of Jewish scientists to further that research are key plot elements.

The fast pace, multiple characters, extreme danger to V I's life, and her biting yet comedic take on all events are as present here as in all her books. I always make a list of characters as they appear, tedious near the beginning but eliminating the need to turn back the pages and remember who's who so I can enjoy the ever accelerating pace that invariably makes up the last 100 pages.

In Critical Mass (a physics term meaning the minimum amount of material, such as plutonium, necessary to maintain a nuclear chain reaction), Paretsky honors Jewish Austrian physicist Marietta Blau. She was a researcher whose scientific work deserved a Nobel Prize she never got because she was Jewish. Paretsky's fictional character Martina Saginor is based on Ms Blau.

Even more impressive, the story makes clear the destruction of so many lives due to secrets that were kept both by members of the researcher's family and by some sorry practices of government and corporations, hidden behind actions justified by national security.

No matter what your politics or your patriotic views, Critical Mass will challenge you to pay more attention and look more deeply into our current times. Also it is more fun than watching Twitter fights!


(Critical Mass is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

THE CRY OF THE OWL





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The Cry of the Owl, Patricia Highsmith, Harper & Row, 1962, 271 pp


I have now read five of Highsmith's novels. A few days ago I wrote in another review about the importance (for me, at least) of reading books written by women. Now I have to add that there are all kinds of women writing stories and this author is on the far side of some spectrum.

For one thing, she seems to lack sympathy for human beings or at least she rarely creates characters who are admirable and many, including women, who are despicable. I know this is true in life. None of us, men or women, are always admirable and some are despicable. Thus I must contradict myself and say that she does have a certain sympathy for the despicable and looks deeply into why and how that is. We have writers like that now, but Patricia Highsmith was doing this in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Cry of the Owl includes two spurned men. Robert, who is depressed and adrift after his divorce from a despicable woman and another man who turns hateful after his fiancee takes up with Robert. Just to unstabilize things a bit more, Robert has been lurking outside the window of this other woman's house, being a peeping Tom.

It gets messy right away as the murky motivations of both the men and the women never become quite clear. If I had to live as any one of these people, I would be fearful for my sanity. Robert at least has a couple good friends which I suppose is a sign that he is not despicable but he is unbalanced and weird in an Aspergers kind of way.

I have always been afraid of people who appear insane to me. I try to steer clear of neurotic individuals. I feel these are healthy attitudes but a better understanding of what makes such people the way they are does help alleviate the fear. Besides self preservation, it is also a fear of the unknown.

That is why I read Patricia Highsmith.


(The Cry of the Owl is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

MISTER MONKEY





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Mister Monkey, Francine Prose, Harper, 2016, 285 pp


I read Mister Monkey for an on-line discussion group. I have always meant to read Francine Prose but somehow never have. Now she has entranced me and I will read more.

I was one of the few participants in the discussion who liked the book. I think because for me it was about people with unfulfilled dreams, one of my obsessions as I get older and look back at the dreams I had.

Mister Monkey is a children's musical adapted from a novel written by a Vietnam vet with PTSD. Said novel was converted by an editor into what became a bestselling picture book for kids, along the lines of Curious George. Now the author is rich but he hates the musical because it makes a travesty of his original story.

Mister Monkey, the novel by Francine Prose (quite erroneously described as "madcap" by whoever wrote the dust jacket copy) uses the musical as a framework to take readers into the lives and souls of various people connected to an off-off-off-off-Broadway production of a tired old show. Included are several of the actors, the director, the costume designer, a grandfather, and Ray, the original author of the children's book. Each chapter features one of them but in circling around begins to connect them all in interesting and surprising ways.

I am not much of a theater goer but one of my sons spent a year of college being a set builder and one of his daughters acts in every play she can at high school. In fact, I have always liked novels set in the theater, so here I was again enmeshed in all the tacky backstage interpersonal trauma of actors, directors, playwrights, and support crew. Ms Prose must have some theater experience because she crafts those scenes so perfectly.

Ultimately though, this is a story about people of all ages and different walks of life who are mildly unhappy but looking for joy wherever they can find it. I could not put it down. 

Today the shortlist for the 2017 Tournament of Books came out and Mister Monkey made the list! I have read 6 of the 16 books that will compete in the tournament. Watch for more reviews of the rest of the books since I always attempt to read as many of them as I can. 

(Mister Monkey is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD





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The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante, Europa Editions, 2015 (translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein) 473pp


This is the fourth and final novel in the Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante. All through the days of reading it, I was dying to know what became of Lila, who had disappeared at the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, the first novel. When I did find out, right at the very end, it was simultaneously underwhelming and wondrous. Why?

Because Ferrante planted that mystery in my mind two years ago when I read My Brilliant Friend, then in over 1000 pages in four novels told an engrossing story about the relationship between Elena and Lila, all the while keeping me in suspense. By the time I got to the end, it made total sense yet I could almost have predicted what happened. Truly a feat, the way she kept me hooked, let me participate in the story, and satisfied me with what was less than a full surprise.

No spoiler, but there is a lost child in this volume who adds another deep layer of sadness to the story.

The only other thing I can add is pretty personal. Since the timescape of these books covers approximately the same years I have lived, they have helped me make sense of much that has happened in my life, even though they are set in Italy and I am American.  I am always newly amazed how much good fiction does this for me.

It is an important activity for women all over the world to tell their stories and to read the stories of other women. I know that sounds obvious and pedantic. Sometimes the truth is obvious once one sees it. In 2016, 58% of the books I read were written by women. Since I need all the help I can get being female in this world, I think I will go for 75% in 2017!!


(The Story of the Lost Child is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, January 08, 2017

THE MAGICIAN'S ASSISTANT





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The Magician's Assistant, Ann Patchett, Harcourt, 1997, 357 pp


I had twice tried to start this novel in the past and had never gotten beyond the first few pages. The first paragraph is just two short sentences:

"PARSIFAL IS DEAD. That is the end of the story."

The second paragraph is a good half a page:

"The technician and the nurse rushed in from their glass booth. Where there had been a perfect silence a minute before there was now tremendous activity, the straining sounds of two men unexpectedly thrown into hard work. The technician stepped between Parsifal and Sabine, and she had no choice but to let go of Parsifal's hand. When they counted to three and then lifted Parsifal's body from the metal tongue of the MRI machine and onto the gurney, his head fell back, his mouth snapping open with no reflexes to protect it. Sabine saw all of his beautiful teeth, the two gold crowns on the back molars shining brightly in the overhead fluorescent light. The heavy green sheet they had given him for warmth got stuck in the guardrail lock. The nurse struggled with it for a second and then threw up his hands, as if to say they didn't have time for this, when in fact they had all the time in the world. Parsifal was dead and would be dead whether help was found in half a minute or in an hour or a day. They rushed him around the corner and down the hall without a word to Sabine. The only sound was the quick squeak of rubber wheels and rubber soles against the linoleum."

I had just read 217 words, full of description, with two oddly named characters and all I knew for sure was that one of them is dead. Both times I was not sure if I wanted to know more.

This time I was reading it for a reading group meeting, our holiday party, for which I was hosting. I had two and a half days to clean and decorate the house, make a main dish, and read the book. No choice but to power on.

Rereading that second paragraph for the fourth time as I started to write this review, having finished and loved the book, it makes all the sense in the world. Now I know those two characters almost as well as I know some of my friends. I know why they have such odd names, why Parsifal died, and why Sabine comes across in that paragraph as almost a mere onlooker. I still feel that was a risky way to begin a novel.

The Magician's Assistant is Ann Patchett's third novel. I read Bel Canto first, many years ago, and became an instant fan. I next read The Patron Saint of Liars, her first novel and loved it so much I could barely breathe through the whole book. I have always loved her unlikely combinations of people and situations, her theme of how unlikely most of life is but how it often works out anyway. I now think, having read six of her seven novels, that The Magician's Assistant is, if not weaker than the others, at least less successful.

The novel has no chapters. It is a 357 page long story. Magic, AIDS, murder, death, people who disappear, who pretend to be someone else, abusive men, Los Angeles vs the mid-west prairie, homosexuality, siblings, Jews, and more all crammed in. There are equally powerful scenes of love and of horrific events. It ends with a scene as confusing as the opening one.

Yet, I loved it! I think loving Ann Patchett is similar to loving one's family. You take the best, the not so good, and even the bad, as they come but you don't give up on the family. Even if you do give up on certain members for a while, you eventually go back. In fact, The Magician's Assistant is exactly about that.

Funny thing: I have since come across several other readers who had to start the book more than once to get through it. If you are already a fan, I promise you, it is worth reading. 


(The Magician's Assistant is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, January 06, 2017

JANUARY READING GROUP UPDATE








Only four meetings this month and two are discussing the same book! This happens more and more often lately but it is good for my personal reading plans plus I get a wider range of ideas from attending two discussions of the same book. I know many of you don't care for reading groups but I will tell you, they are way better than just reading reviews and Goodreads/blog posts as far as exchanging ideas in real time. I feel like that is an important part of citizenship, especially in these times. End of sermon!

At the Holiday parties of my groups, we voted on our favorite book read during 2016. Each time it sparked more discussion. A common refrain was the benefit many members found from having read books they might otherwise have never read, broadening their views and knowledge and getting them out of their comfort zones. (That wasn't a sermon, just a share!)


Laura's Group:

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Tina's Group:

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One Book At A Time:

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Bookie Babes:

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Wherever you are reading, I wish you a wonderful reading month. Have you read any of the above books?

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

SWING TIME





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Swing Time, Zadie Smith, Penguin Press, 2016, 453 pp


I loved reading this! It is about long-time friendship between two mixed race girls in London from the 70s to now. It is about girls and their fathers. Overall, it is about women's lives as mothers and daughters, how to be a creative woman in modern times, finding a sense of self, and how privilege or the lack of affects women.

I don't believe we ever know the narrator's name, but we get to know her well because we see the world through her eyes. She has what we call in our house, the curse of self-awareness. Actually much of the time she is quite clueless, being batted around by circumstance and finding it difficult to stand up for herself. In that respect, she can be an annoying character and hers is a sad story. I have no problem with annoying characters. I suspect each of us is annoying to others in some ways.

What I love about Zadie Smith is her ability to pit such a character against characters who appear to know what they want but in truth are just as clueless when it comes to the actions they take. Thus she gives the reader a full picture of how random and heartless life can be.

The narrator's friend Tracey shares with her a dream of being a dancer and a fascination with music, performing, movies, and pop culture. Tracey is gifted and determined but also reckless. The narrator's mother wants something else for her daughter; Tracey's mother is fully behind her. Their friendship is unbalanced, it ebbs and flows, both are victims but the narrator is the rescuer.

Tracey has some success. The narrator takes a job as assistant to Aimee, a famous singer and video star. (Some reviewers say Aimee is loosely based on Madonna. I took her as an example of the world of entertainment and the unreal level of privilege that goes with that life.) Working for Aimee keeps the narrator so busy and so off-balance that she has almost no time to think about herself, the world around her, or the confusions she is running from. Yet that nagging self-awareness dogs her.

Aimee, of course, is white. She is a powerhouse of determination, but unlike Tracey she uses her fame and riches to create change in the world, including starting a school for girls in an African village. She is so protected that her recklessness harms others but never herself. The whole African scene gives the author another way to examine race, poverty and social conflict.

The novel put me in the role of spectator to all these issues, giving me a look into experiences beyond my own. It was a bit like watching the Amy Winehouse documentary that won an Oscar in 2016 or like reading all those novels by writers of color I delved into this year. I felt a grim fascination and I could not look away.

Is that a good thing? I am not sure. I am certain however that good fiction does take us readers outside of our own bubbles and Zadie Smith is stunningly good at that. The anti-heroine of Swing Time with her curse, ends up with a bit of insight and a sense that she still has a chance to be her own person.


(Swing Time is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)