Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle

I'm writing this review in July of 2015, so there is still more than a year before the next US Presidential election. The issue of people crossing into the USA from Mexico has already been raised and I assume will become a subject all the candidates will talk about, especially as we move out of the primary season and into the general election. This is the reason I chose to read The Tortilla Curtain. It is the story of two couples: Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, a writer and a real estate agent who live in Southern California, and Candido and America Rincon, two Mexican nationals who have crossed the border illegally in hopes of working where the economy is better and, in the process, improving their lives. It was published in 1995, so some parts are a bit dated, but the main issue hasn't changed.

I skimmed through other reviews before writing my own and felt most of the people who didn't like this book were on one side or the other of the political argument. That's the trouble with writing about an issue such as this. But a writer's job is to make us think and I felt T.C. Boyle did a good job of showing the problems of both the couples and in the process showing both sides of the political issue. When the problems of a couple who are trying to protect their home and lifestyle are compared with the problems of a couple who are trying to find food and shelter, the latter couple's issues seem more serious. But the Mossbachers' problems are very serious as well and include more than one situation which could result in death. All four of the people at the center of this novel have their own dreams. The people also change as the story is told, making them all seem real and flawed.

The interactions between the residents of the development where the Mossbachers live and the Mexican immigrants is the core of the story. But it isn't the only issue. Some of the immigrants react in negative ways that cause additional problems for the other immigrants. And there are disagreements among the suburban home owners as to how to deal with the issues affecting their community.

I would recommend this novel to anyone who wants a better understanding of the border issue, but also to anyone who just wants to enjoy a good read.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

Monday, July 27, 2015

In Times to Try the Soul of Man Kenneth Weene takes the facts from two major tragedies/crimes that occurred in the New York area and links them through fiction, producing a well written page turner. The first crime involves political corruption and a scheme to build high rise condominiums on land that can't support the weight. The second I won't mention because it would be a spoiler. This novel includes murder, political intrigue, and lots of sex.

Nick, the narrator of the novel, has a few redeeming qualities. He's loyal and respects people with ethics, such as Jose Figur├ęs, the president of the Lower East Side Latino Community Center. But Nick has some real issues. He has a lack of respect for women that verges on misogyny. He's drawn to them when masturbation “is just not enough” and his private nickname for the woman he seems to like the most is “Lard-Ass.” He's a reporter for a local newspaper, but hates his job and doesn't respect his boss (a woman of course). He longs for top level recognition (a Pulitzer) but doesn't like the process of writing. The book contains flashbacks to a horrible upbringing that explains some of his problems, but most seem to come from a lack of maturity.

Despite all of Nick's internal problems, the most serious issues he faces have to do with the corrupt and powerful people whose toes he has stepped on. Fortunately, he receives some help with these from Mo, a friend in the Mossad (Israel's version of the CIA). Espionage is what keeps the pages turning, but the best books are about characters who change and in this one we get to watch Nick grow. He has major problems and we're never sure how many of them he'll solve. That's what makes the book a great read.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

Monday, July 20, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See is a World War II novel primarily about two people. The first is Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl who grew up in Paris and moved, with her father to Saint-Malo, a port city in northwest France that was bombed by American and British forces as part of the invasion of France. The second is Werner Pfennig, a German orphan who has an amazing ability to understand the workings of radios as well as an ability to track down transmitters, a skill that is important to the German army. The idea of a book about an orphan and a blind child on opposite sides of WWII sounds as if it might turn sappy, but it never does. Anthony Doerr never lets his characters feel sorry for themselves, disappointed at times, but never sorry.

I didn't understand Doerr's choice to tell the story in a non-chronological way, or I should say partially chronological. For a good portion of the novel the book was moving between three stories. The first two took place at the same time, the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner as children and teenagers. The third was Werner's story, set when he was a little older and part of the war effort. It was easy enough to follow these story lines and the chapters were often dated, so this didn't bother me. But I didn't understand the advantage, either. The one time the odd trajectory of the story did bother me was late in the book when a sergeant-major is looking for a house. From the perspective of the reader he shows up at the house before he discovers where it is.

What I loved about this book were the two main characters, especially Werner. He observed the people around him and admired the ones who deserved his admiration. His actions grew out of the type of person he was and the situations in which he was placed. I also loved the way Doerr added interest to his plot through the wartime setting, the curse on a jewel, and the use of radios as both weapons and lifelines.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

Thursday, July 16, 2015

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American Gods is a long and complex book, a book where the reader's interpretation is as important as the story itself. There's a war coming, between the old gods and the new gods of technology. Religion is at the core of this novel, through both history and philosophy. I can't imagine a reader who doesn't have an opinion on that.

I listened to the audio of the 10th anniversary special edition. It's extremely well done, with a cast of readers. I would recommend this version, but with a couple of caveats. First, there are a large number of obscenities, especially in the beginning. It would not be appropriate to listen when small children are near. Secondly, the readers bring their own interpretations to the novel, so the audio can push a reader in a direction he or she might not have gone.

The story is about Shadow, a man who is just coming out of a three year stint in prison which he earned in a barroom fight over his wife, Laura. Circumstances limit Shadow's options and connect him with a strange character who calls himself Wednesday. Through this connection Shadow meets a series of people and gods who are choosing sides. Many odd things happen during the course of Shadow's journey. They can all be explained after some thought. I think this novel is best for people who enjoy that process.

Shadow's story is the main plot of the novel, but Neil Gaiman included a number of back stories of gods and the people who worship them. These seemed out of place at times, because I wasn't ready for a break from Shadow. But they made sense in the long run.

There are references to Christianity in the text, but no more than any other religion. When the god Easter plays a role in the story, this is the pagan Easter from which the Christian holiday took its name. The religions emphasized the most seem to be from Native American traditions.

American Gods is a perfect book to discuss after reading, so it would be a good choice for a book club.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Montpelier Tomorrow by Mary Lee MacDonald

Montpelier Tomorrow by Mary Lee MacDonald is a novel that should be read by anyone who has ever been, or will soon be, a caretaker. This is an honest portrayal told from the point of view of a mother whose son-in-law is diagnosed with a rapid form of ALS, a disease sometimes referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease where neurons fail causing different muscle groups to stop functioning. Eventually ALS patients can't do anything for themselves, including feeding and using the bathroom.

Colleen (the mother/narrator) leaves her home and her job to help her daughter. What makes this book special is the way her emotions and the emotions of the other caretakers are portrayed. It's one thing to hear that being a caretaker can make you angry. It is quite another to get into the mind of someone who has reached that state.

At one point in the book a substitute nurse speaks about PLC (Pathological Laughing Crying) which many ALS patients have. She says, “With PLC, there's frontal lobe involvement. They lose the capacity for empathy. Like sociopaths.” This was certainly clear in the way Tony (the patient) was portrayed, but at times it seems as if all the caretakers lack empathy as well. The relationship between Colleen and Sandy (the daughter/wife) is as important as Colleen's relationship with Tony. In some ways more important. Yet they both have difficulty understanding what the other one is going through.

This is a family where everyone seems to say exactly what is on their mind, but those thoughts never seem to be “thank you for what you do” or “I understand how hard this is on you,” which is why I think the single word “honest” is the best description of this story. Caretaking is generally one sided giving. Maybe, if the caretaker is lucky, the patient will be grateful or at least happy. Or maybe Karma is a reality and the caretaker will be rewarded at some later time. But quite often caretakers have a thankless job that is way too difficult to complete without mistakes along the way. They take on this task for one reason alone – love. This book shows real love, love that is often distracted by resentment and anger, but is always there.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests is the only Sarah Waters' novel I've read so far. I intend to read more. I skimmed other reviews before writing my own and was surprised by the fact that the main criticism was that this book didn't come up to her others. I'm looking forward to those.

I felt the book took a little while to get going. But once the relationship between Frances and Lilian began, the plot took off. I suppose it's necessary to understand Frances' relationship with her mother, with Christina, with the memory of her brother, and, of course, with Leonard as she gets to know the new tenants, but I think the early parts could have been a bit shorter.

The descriptions are wonderful. They give us readers a clear picture of what is being described while also letting us know what the characters think about the items. Here's an example when Frances sees the dress Lilian will be wearing to a party:

She found Lilian's bedroom door ajar, and could just glimpse Lilian beyond it: she was at the mirror, dressed in a frock that Frances had never seen before, the frock that she must have made for the party, a striking thing of white silk with a gauze overskirt, and with slender shoulder straps that left her arms and upper back bare. She was pushing a gold snake bangle over her wrists when she caught sight of Frances; she paused with it part-way up her arm as their gazes met through the glass. But at once she looked away, lowering her kohl-darkened eyelids, sliding the bangle higher, And what she said was, 'Here's Frances. Doesn't she look nice?”

The language is captivating, the attention to detail is wonderful, and enough of what the characters are thinking comes through to be intriguing.

The world we live in today is very different from the world of 1922. I loved the way this novel has characters with a 21st century perspective living in an early 20th century world. I also loved the way some of the characters couldn't live up to their best intentions. It's what makes them human.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions