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The Heart Goes Last: A Novel (Positron)
The Heart Goes Last: A Novel (Positron)
by Margaret Atwood
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.86

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The previously published Positron novellas collected into one novel, July 3, 2015
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Margaret Atwood's latest book is a reworking of her Positron eBook series that she began in 2012 with I'M STARVED FOR YOU. The five novellas have been reportedly edited and retitled into this novel. Since I haven't read them, I am unable to comment on any of the changes that she made. If you are an Atwood fan, however, this is a must-read addition to her oeuvre.

It's characteristic Atwood--bleak, with darkly comedic touches. In a grim near-future, unemployment rates are at an all-time high, and morale is at a fearsome low in this "rust-bucket" landscape. Charmaine and Stan are living in their car, trying to ward of the roving bands of criminals and solitary vandals, not to mention the mosquitos! Charmaine once had a solid job as a hospitality coordinator at the Ruby Slippers Retirement chain, and Stan worked in quality control at Dimple Robotics. But, the bottom has fallen out on the economy, and Stan has lost his job; Charmaine makes a bare income at a bar called PixelDust. Moreover, the once-happy couple are growing distant from one another.

There's a way out of this poverty. The think-tankers have begun a program to banish hardship and crime--if you can be accepted into their Positron Project. They offer housing in a place not dissimilar to a "Pleasantville" type of dwelling/neighborhood. You live in their adult doll houses every other month, and on alternate months you stay in the "Positron" prison, which is supposed to be an upbeat, self-sustaining place free of violent criminals. Everyone has a job on the inside and the outside in the twin town of Consilience/Positron, and the promise of safety is more or less guaranteed. Stan and Charmaine decide to go ahead with it, even though Stan's brother, Conor, a rogue outsider, warns them against getting involved.

Stan scores a job inside the prison supervising the Positron chicken farm, and Charmaine's duties are top-secret as the Medical Administrator. (Sometimes she is referred to as Medication Administrator, which would be better if corrected before the published edition.) On rotating months, while living in the house that they alternate with another couple, Stan is a scooter mechanic (nobody has cars anymore--they ride around on scooters) and Charmaine works at a bakery. The only cars you see are the black, looming, ominous Surveillance cars that patrol the area.

So, this is the set-up. But, as Atwood fans know all too well, there's a sinister gravity beneath the shiny new lifestyle. As a reader, I was reminded of the illusion of unanimity inherent in groupthink, such as explored in Orwell's 1984 Underneath the townspeople's smiles, gratitude, and sense of security lurks a barely suppressed disquiet, which ineluctably leads to some acting out. I could almost taste the barely contained insurrection, and the dangers to come.

In typical Atwood fashion--maybe a little too predictable--the illusions are gradually peeled away, and our two protagonists are surrounded by peril. If you are new to Atwood, perhaps the book will be full of surprises, but if you are a veteran of her work, you can anticipate some of her recycled tropes. Also, the last 100 or so pages plunged into Vegas kitsch, which created a different timbre. The dark menace morphed into a gaudy one, and, for me, dampened the elemental dread. Fortunately, through her precision writing, pulsing pace, and progressive plot, the suspense prevails, but I was less invested in the foreseeable outcome.

Dear Thief: A Novel
Dear Thief: A Novel
by Samantha Harvey
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.44
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inspired by Leonard Cohen's song, A Blue Raincoat., June 29, 2015
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This review is from: Dear Thief: A Novel (Paperback)
Dear Thief is a contemplation, condemnation and reverence all at once to the consequences of time. Time in the story is captured in fractals, and the temporal shifts are so frequent that it gave the narrative a dreamy, almost surreal effect (and sometimes, sharp and biting). The thief here IS time, but it is also the woman who stole affection from the narrator’s husband. Samantha Harvey was inspired by Leonard Cohen’s song, Famous Blue Raincoat, which I recommend listening to, especially for its moody potency. Harvey captures his melancholic longing; the impassioned fallout of a triangulating affair; as well as many of his images. But she creates her own piercing story.

I am trying to put words together to write a review, and I feel stymied by the task—I just want to quote passages in the book, and re-read it! The abstract and the real are bound up in each other, and the strength of the story lies in the prose, and the keen memories both imprisoned and freed by time. You can take any page and meditate on its prowess, its trenchant intelligence, its numinous passages, and Harvey’s ability to cut deeply into enduring questions about life, love, friendship, betrayal, decay, and death. She does this through her narrator (unnamed), who is writing an extended letter to a woman friend that she hasn’t seen in seventeen years.

Nina, aka Butterfly, was the narrator’s friend since childhood. They met while both living close to the Welsh border, in England (the narrator’s origin). Both came from scholarly families. A Lithuanian Jew who later became an avid reader of the Vedic Upanishads, Nina was uprooted early in life (and escaped from the dangers of communism in Lithuania), which shaped her into an unsettled person who flees at the idea of permanence. (In fact, the narrator has endured several disappearances and reappearances of Nina throughout her life).

“…devotion was not a quality you asked of people, commitment neither; you did not give these things and did not ask for them. If you could give and receive moments of happiness and self-escape, that was enough, that was, in fact, everything.”

Butterfly encroached on the narrator’s husband, Nicolas, as we learn early on. This isn’t a plot-centered story, although you are rewarded with a thoughtful, provocative tale that covers the deepest of human emotions. The narrator knew that Nina was a threat, when Nina declaimed:

“…a triangle is the holiest and most elegant of things; with two lines you can only create two lines, but with three you can create a shape. That is why three is a transformative number.”

And that is when the writer knew that she would be betrayed:

“…You were going to work your way into my marriage and you were going to call its new three-way shape holy, and I, pinned like a snared bird to one corner of a triangle, would have to watch it happen.”

But, much of it incites the reader to ponder how the past informs the present--and does so with a dose of nihilism.

“…there is freedom in the past. The self you left behind lives in endless possibility. The older you get, the bigger and wilder the past becomes, a place that can never again be tended and which is therefore prone to that loveliness that happens on wastelands and wildernesses, where grass has grown over scrap metal and wheat has sprung up in cracks between concrete and there is no regular shape for the light to fall flat on, so it vaults and multiplies and you want to go there. You want to go there like you want to go to a lover.”

The unreliable narrator recalls memory after memory, and turns them over and slides her pen through them, her hands, her words, and her relationship with her husband and with her friend, turning them over and around so that time and memory are both fractured and oiled, a freedom and constraint bound up in each other. The narrator begins with a question that Nina once asked her—whether she has ever seen through “the gauze of this life.” The entire book unfolds as if through gauze, also, a kind of meta-fictional play on theme that is captured in structure, an impressionistic portrait that is framed with loss, but not just loss; there is also a sense of wonder that is subtly exciting, spiritual. Throughout the text, the narrator returns to this question, which carries both acute significance and rebellious irony.

“ ‘Have you ever seen through the gauze of this life?’ …perhaps I said something first about how early morning is thinner, less real, how I felt I could pass through the mist, steam, and smoke, through the wet wool, into a reality beyond….And I said, ‘Is there a gauze?’’

The narrator also projects thoughts and feelings onto the mercurial Nina, so that at times they are two people merged. The telling of Nina becomes a journey through past events juxtaposed with speculative ideas of her, peppered with metaphysical descriptions of the world around. Now that the writer works with the elderly at a nursing home, she contemplates death as a kind of landscape, and time as an inviolable threshold.

“You would think that living is a kind of scholarship in time, and that the longer we live the more expert we become at coping with it, in the way that, if you play tennis enough, you get used to coping with faster and faster serves. Instead I find that the longer I live the more bemused I become, and the more impenetrable the subject shows itself to be. I sit on a heap of days.”

It’s this heap of days that both consoles and ravages the narrator. Through this letter, she ruminates on the illusory and enigmatic nature of our relationships with each other, the world, and ourselves.

“I wonder if not being able to see ourselves is one of the great paradoxes…--knowing ourselves intimately and also not at all. You turn to look at your own profile in the mirror and it is gone. It means we can harbor all kinds of illusions about ourselves that others can see through as clear as day.”

I can only touch on a fraction of this seductive story, a book about the ungraspable, the inexplicable.

“All I mean is: aren’t written words strange in this way, so inscrutable, all hurrying together on the paper to cover up reality like a curtain drawn across a stage.”
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 30, 2015 12:26 PM PDT

A God in Ruins: A Novel (Todd Family)
A God in Ruins: A Novel (Todd Family)
by Kate Atkinson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.01
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I'd give ten stars if I could!, June 24, 2015
"The dead were legion, and remembrance was a kind of duty...not always related to love."

This is Atkinson's companion piece (her words) to Life After Life, the story of the privileged Todd family in Fox Corner, in England, with WW II as the highlight of events. A GOD IN RUINS could be read without having read the previous novel, but it has so much more meaning if you read them both. This is a tour de force, and after having closed the last page in tears, and meditated on this astounding book, perhaps I am ready to attempt some sort of review, or at least some reflections. However, I feel so inadequate to convey the brilliance of this luminous novel.

Life After Life focused on the upbringing of the five Todd children, especially Ursula (the third), who, via Atkinson's effective device, died and was reborn (as Ursula again) many times. These numerous iterations of Ursula didn't come across as contrived, as it didn't depend on the device itself to execute the theme and heft of the story. Rather, Ursula's many lives deepened her character, and also elucidated how civilization views, revises, and categorizes history, and how the construct of memories are as impermanent as a day.

It is the ephemeral nature of life, and our construct of memories in making the chronicle of past events permanent, that are explored so well in both these novels. There are many themes that abound in the Todd family struggles--love, family, authenticity, loss, renewal, and perception, among others. But, what struck me most was the outcome of a battered era, when war is over--missed connections, misunderstandings, and isolation. How to live a future when you are carrying a burden of a damaged past?

Atkinson pulls off an epic tale of history, seen through the eyes of one family, with compelling genre-bending talent. This book focuses on Ursula's brother, Teddy, an RAF bomber during WW II--the squadron leader--fierce, courageous, heroic---who saw war in all its savagery, as he bombed whole cities and watched them burn from an aerial distance. There were times when the raw spectacle of the flames down below were poetic--what a paradox--how killing the innocent had a feral beauty to it.

"The coloured lights were joined by the bright quick flashes of the high explosives...and everywhere there was the enchanting twinkling of white lights as thousands upon thousands of incendiaries rained down on the city." (Hamburg burning)

Both Teddy and Ursula understood the complex dualities of war--enough to understand that, in order to stay alive, and fulfill your duty as a military servant, there can be no equivocating in the field--or in the air. Only later, when it is history, can the lens shift to judgment. Judging in hindsight wreaks the havoc of guilt and the righteousness of war. Teddy, postwar, was a diminished self--quiet, passive, accepting, but full of kindness and generosity. Unfortunately, he couldn't convey his feelings with any passion, and the war figure of Teddy was subsumed and mostly forgotten. Moreover, Teddy's love for his wife and childhood sweetheart, Nancy, lacked passion. But he was devoted to her, with a robust dependability.

The metaphor of war--its brutal, tyrannizing power--can also be assigned to the seismic misunderstanding in families--in this case, Teddy's daughter, Viola, who was in a solitary battle with her father. Once her mother died, she felt abandoned and betrayed, and, although she herself abandoned her children, (several times) for her selfish quests, she wouldn't forgive her father for being the parent who stayed alive to raise her.

Atkinson's postmodern-ish narrative is told through the lens of time periods and generations regularly juxtaposed, the structure of which would fall apart in the hands of a lesser author. She splices time into slivers, really, yet seamlessly segues and alternates time so that when one passage jumps a generation back and forth, it gives weight not just to what is happening now, but what happened before, and what will occur in the future. The author allows us to see particular scenes from multi-perspectives--not just from different characters, but sometimes one character remembering multiple times, at a later or earlier occasion.

Atkinson also winks at us with references to Life After Life. Certain events that happened offstage in LAL are illuminated here, and she executes the inverse flawlessly, also; she periodically pulls us offstage in her new book with nods to major matters from LAL. The past and present are wrapped around each other, days of future passed. Time is not a banner laid out linearly, but rather a gossamer and vertical mass of bridged and dissonant memories.

Teddy lives to be almost a century old (as we learn early on), and throughout the novel, the narrative see-saws from Teddy the child, in the mid 1920s, to Teddy the Bomber pilot during the war, later as a husband and father, then a loving grandfather, and then as a dying old man. Even though we know the outline of the future--Atkinson purposely telegraphs events--I was emotionally blitzed by her phenomenal storytelling, as she fills in the spaces of scenarios and allows us to see deeper into her characters.

This will undoubtedly go down as one of my top 25 novels of a lifetime. I don't think that Kate Atkinson is finished with the Todd family yet. There's Bertie (Roberta) and Sunny, Teddy's beloved grandchildren, and then there are the lives of those that were only casually referenced. The author may choose to place them on center stage. I can't imagine Teddy as an offhand character; however, the author is a wizard at pulling her characters into the light, or dissolving them into the darkness.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 24, 2015 8:25 PM PDT

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark
by Anna North
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $14.11
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "I thought making movies would make me more like other people...But sometimes I think it just makes me even more like me.", June 18, 2015
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Sophie Stark, low-budget cult filmmaker, is the enigma at the center of this novel. Her brother; former associate; former lover; estranged husband; an imperious film critic; and college film subject are the voices that speak out to us, telling not just their stories about their relationship with Sophie, but also their personal and painful histories. Often, the stories dig back further, to parents or other family members, friends or adversaries. Stories within stories. She used these narratives to expose vulnerabilities in her actors, to catch a particular moment on film, or she employed images that revealed a potential incongruity in the storytellers' perception of events. This is what appalled the people closest to her; they felt exploited and undermined.

I think Sophie was on the autistic spectrum, isolated from emotional connection. Her films were a way for Sophie to communicate how she observed and experienced the world around her. It was one of the best character portrayals I've seen of Asperger's (although the author never defined Sophie or gave her a diagnosis). Sophie represents individuals who feels disenfranchised from the world, and who have difficulty conveying emotional pain.

North has a knack for storytelling, and the chorus of voices, by trying to analyze or understand Sophie, usually told us more about themselves. Their attraction to her was often the desire that Sophie fill a void in their own lives, and the author spotlighted these projections onto Sophie to create, in a sense, a mirror of Sophie that reflected an opaque, cinematic presence.

My only issue with the characters here is that North hasn't perfected individualized voices for each character. One could argue that this was a Greek chorus of voices, not meant to be discrete, but I disagree. Their stories created such singular characters that it is clear that they were not one plural voice. Rather, I think that the author isn't skilled in voice distinction at this time. However, she pens a colorful portrait of people connected to Sophie--and, yet, disconnected, too.

Although Stark is the titular auteur here, with her elliptical films, she is essentially a lonely and, the way I see it, questionably talented filmmaker who attracted other damaged individuals. She made minimalist films that connected through cryptic images. Sometimes, I wanted to believe in their profundity; she had her cult following. And her third film, INTO THE WOODS, fit the description, cutting through archetypal sentimentality in showing a dying woman's last moments, which defied our comfortable ideas. At other times, I had to wonder if the author was occasionally mocking the film industry's cause célèbre of certain underground, inaccessible films that invite complex interpretations. It wasn't clear to me.

Moreover, Sophie's second film, MARIANNE, made me wonder if North truly grasped this genre of filmmaking. It was a derivative, over-popularized killer/stalker film, neither avant garde or groundbreaking. The killer of one girl stalks the victim's knowing friend and, in closing, delivers a canned, cliched last line. It almost removed me from the story, as I couldn't suspend belief that this movie turned into a cult classic with a loyal following. Apparently, it shows the oppression of trying to escape life in a small town (like we haven't seen The Last Picture Show?). This is distinguished and controversial? And her style of directing the stalked young woman, which was intended to be edgy, fell flat to me.

North impressed me most by demonstrating the universal desire to connect to others and the attempt to reach into the grave and understand what eludes us. Sophie remains inscrutable; North demonstrates that there is no objectivity in attempting to dissect her. Like a film, there are numerous but insufficient interpretations. We can only hope to examine ourselves.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 19, 2015 8:42 AM PDT

AmazonBasics 7-Piece Bed-In-A-Bag - Full/Queen, Dusty Blue Trellis
AmazonBasics 7-Piece Bed-In-A-Bag - Full/Queen, Dusty Blue Trellis
Price: $44.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Super soft, June 16, 2015
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I took a chance on these sheets, without any detailed explanation available. There was no product page, so I had to trust the brief product description in the Vine product box , which said it fit a full or queen (our guest bed is a full). That, and the picture showing the color, was all I had to go on.

I received the 7-piece set in a transparent zipper bag. It consists of a comforter, 86" X 90, " a fitted sheet approx 60" X 80" (these are approximates), flat sheet 90" X 102," two pillow shams, and two pillow cases (that would fit up to a King pillow). The comforter is polyester, but very soft, as are the sheets, pillow cases, and shams.

I'm not a fan of snow white sheets, and I was a little disappointed that the sheets and pillow cases are white, while the sea-blue design is on the comforter and shams only. I thought, from the picture, that the white products were the pillow cases only, because the size ratio (in the picture) of the sheets to the sham is not realistic! However, it does seem to be a nice set--super soft right out of the bag, and the sheets maintain that texture after washing.

The Truth and Other Lies: A Novel
The Truth and Other Lies: A Novel
by Sascha Arango
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.14
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars " gives you everything, but not everything at once.", June 16, 2015
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Henry Hayden, blockbuster German novelist, lives a luxury life of lies. His past is sealed as tight as a drum, and he doesn’t share it with anyone. His wife, Martha, seems like a woman out of the 50’s—she takes care of all of Henry’s needs and doesn’t ever complain. On the other hand, his mistress, who is pregnant, is vocal and demanding. Soon, he makes some bad decisions, and his past is about to ram head-first into his present, and destroy his future. Henry has to work swiftly in order to keep his head above the law and to outpace everyone on his tail.

If you like a noir-ish, fast-paced, cat-and-mouse thriller with mordant, absurdist wit and a few dead bodies, as well as a provocative, enigmatic, wicked protagonist, this may be your cuppa. I read it in one sitting, in an afternoon. I just couldn’t stop turning the pages.

The latter part of the book, however, stretched the limits of my belief. I felt the author’s presence handing us a little tea and sympathy, softening a psychotic with a few pardons, perhaps overreaching, and adding superfluous volume to a secondary character. However, there’s so much to enjoy here that I can’t knock off a full star.

Kudos to Imogen Taylor for giving Arango's narrative a silky smooth, satiny English translation.


Gold Fame Citrus: A Novel
Gold Fame Citrus: A Novel
by Claire Vaye Watkins
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.92

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary post-apocalyptic novel, June 16, 2015
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At the start of this superb novel, it is clear that water depletion in the Southwest United States has been ongoing for at least a generation, although now it is dire, and the danger is not just the waterless environment anymore. Borders are controlled, and the government restricts the Central Valley citizens (called Mojavs) by corralling them in internment camps. Factions, cults, and fugitives splinter off from the mainstream huddles and try to find meaning in a menacing, starving world. The thirst for love, spiritual meaning, and redemption, and the evolution of family, is at the core of this stunning post-apocalyptic story. How to be human when humanity is threatened with obsolescence?

Luz Dunn, an ex-model from this region (California), was once exploited as the poster child for conservation--"Baby Dunn"--used as a propaganda tool by the government to manage the masses (with sentimentality) and attempt to prevent the inevitable insurgency caused by the escalating drought crisis. Luz, whose heroes are naturalists such as John Muir and Sacajawea, repudiates the camps and sets off on her own, meeting and forging a relationship with Ray, originally from Indiana, and a veteran of the "Forever War." They squat at a mansion once owned by a vacated starlet; rations are scarce, but they have a wardrobe of wonders and a hatbox full of money. And each other.

Their journey really begins when, one night at a raindance, they liberate an odd, lupine toddler from her neglectful, libertine guardians and abscond with her back to the mansion. They name her Ig, and vow to be a committed family together. Because of what they've done, they are motivated and paranoid enough to leave for greener pastures. They warily seek advice from an old comrade, who suggests that they head for the great swath of sand called the Amargosa, between the Central Valley and Vegas. There's alleged to be a town of outcasts run by a prophet. And, more importantly, there's supposed to be water.

Watkins creates a spectacular landscape through intertextual and mystical language--spiritual and metaphysical, stark and surreal. She constructs an original, strange but strangely familiar universe using recognizable images that are altered or fused, such as a "sandalanche." All is parched, colorless, rust, smoke, dirt, decay, bones, and sand. And the relentless sun. In this barren, dying terrain, Watkins describes a "Dune Sea"--a mammoth wall of sand that inspires comparisons to the ocean, and which also behaves like a vastly accelerating glacier. This superdune, which has buried cities, both obstructs movement and passage and lures transients with an occult-like force.

"It has been called the devil incarnate, but also the wide, open eye of God."

As the three set out on their odyssey, they are tested morally, physically, spiritually, and romantically. I believe that all great literature is connected in various ways, and some have even a higher frequency of magnetism, like this one. Watkins pays homage to Brave New World, Stranger in a Strange Land, Gods Without Men, The Road, and the 2014 Station Eleven and The Bone Clocks: A Novel, among other powerful books. There are even parallels to The Stand. She tips her hat to the best of dystopian literature, but she's an innovative, gifted and fertile writer, not a mimic.

The characters in this book are seekers, fatigued and traumatized, but hoping for the sublime nuance to counteract their cynicism. They are looking for something to believe in, a new supernatural awe that promises hope, beauty, transcendence. Watkins also provides subversive wit, and her characters are ample and generous. She doesn't dumb down or wax superior. It's tough to find dystopian literature that isn't derivative or condescending, but Watkins achieves this by trusting readers, not manipulating them. The narrative is inventive and darkly enchanting.

Watkins' use of paradox and extended metaphor is so brilliant and visionary that I could feast on this novel for the polychromatic prose alone. However, the story is also strong and solid, driven largely by theme and character, but on a wily, linguistic trampoline. The plot winds its way gradually to its powerful apex.

Luz still resonates, even after the last page. She's part earthy, part flighty, damaged, determined. Aspects of her are transparent, but you can't reduce her to knowable. There's as much to learn about her in how she responds to the people around her as in listening to her thoughts. She's a conundrum, one of those brilliantly conceived characters that will create debate. She's unforgettable.

"California people are quitters. No offense. It's just you've got restlessness in your blood."...
"Your people came here looking for something better. Gold, fame, citrus. Mirage. They were feckless, yeah? Schemers. That's why no one wants them now. Mojavs."
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 1, 2015 4:30 PM PDT

On Hurricane Island
On Hurricane Island
by Ellen Meeropol
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.52
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars In the name of national security..., June 15, 2015
This review is from: On Hurricane Island (Paperback)
What has the war on terror wrought? For one thing, the torture of detainees-- the cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment applied during “extra-legal” interrogations. In Ellen Meeropol’s second novel, a hurricane is raging on the northeast coast of Maine, while a storm of ethical breaches is in process against prisoners held there in a civilian camp. Here, federal agents are attempting to determine whether 60-year-old math professor Gandalf Cohen is an enemy of the State. Her newly hired civilian guard, a young and naïve Austin Coombs, is a primary witness to the rogue actions of U.S. lawmen. Braided within this well-paced thriller is a tender and taut back-story involving Coombs’s grandparents. The history of the quarry on this tiny island in Maine is full of romance, intrigue, and secrets.

Meeropol scrutinizes the very nature of freedom vs. safety, by examining the governmental power of extreme intervention in the name of national security. Using alternating points of view of five characters, including the two federal agents, the reader is taken on a pulse-pounding cat-and-mouse ride. What do the words “national security” really mean? Is it helpful or harmful to the interests of the individual, or does it trade the individual for the so-called protection of society? Furthermore, do the keepers of security pervert their interests into rogue factions? The word “terrorism” is emotionally and politically charged, and what Meeropol accomplishes in her novel is to bring the war on terror down to an individual level.

My only complaint is that the character of federal agent Tobias, and what he represents, is too reductive. The author makes it easy to despise him, because he is a sadist. However, shows like 24, and movies like ZERO DARK THIRTY, have shown a more nuanced side of the path to torture--it was more like a continuum that escalates when results aren't obtained. What happens when a “good guy”—someone the audience usually roots for, is compelled to use torture to get results from a prisoner who has knowingly performed heinous crimes. Our armchair evaluations are challenged, because we, too, are compelled—to sympathize, even against our better judgment. Meeropol veers away from moral ambiguity, preferring to keep to a safer, if less provocative, principle regarding the war on terror. Maybe it is served up a little too sanitized; however, I can appreciate her moral stand and desire to make a salient point. Moreover, I was thoroughly entertained, biting my nails and turning the pages.

The Secret Chord: A Novel
The Secret Chord: A Novel
by Geraldine Brooks
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.52

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars You don't have to be religious, or familiar with biblical stories, to enjoy this page-turner, June 12, 2015
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You don't have to believe that God exists, or that the bible is the true "Word," to thoroughly enjoy Brooks' latest novel, this story reaching back in history to Old Testament times. I am a secular Jew, and think of the bible as the original written allegory and metaphor of humanity's struggles. I gambled that Brooks' storytelling skills and her finesse in stitching the drama of history to contemporary times would be sufficient to carry me along. It met my expectations in most ways: in its simplicity and lean, tactile prose; her ability to compel with character and plot, and her ideal pacing.

Some of the truisms almost bordered on hokey at times, and Brooks used comfortable, familiar tropes. However, the ancient legend of King David, as with most biblical stories, provided some solid framework for future fiction-writing. So, if you can imagine this story as the provenance of storytelling, then you can imagine it as the genesis for a hundred thousand others that borrowed from ancient scriptures. Did I say fiction? Well, if you believe that King David existed, or if you didn't, you're still just as likely to enjoy it. It's a roaring, lascivious, and even tender tale. Of course, a man like David would be in prison today for his outrageous behaviors. This story has it all: adventure, drama, suspense, war, murder, sex (of many kinds!), romance, homicide, fratricide, bro-love, betrayal, incest...and music and beauty. It was occasionally sentimental, but Brooks pulled it back with the modest restraint of an author confident in her ability to satisfy literary readers, while willing to blandish the book with a mainstream potboiler.

She humanized David, enough so that I understood the combination of respect and fear, and love and hatred that he reaped. It was difficult to stomach how he failed to raise his sons with any core values, and yet his last son, Shlomo (Solomon), he allowed his prophet, Natan, to mentor, which resulted in a pure and angelic boy. Brooks definitely spelled it out, i.e. her characters came with a blast of the shofar rather than the whisper of a breath. The author, in a sense, amplified every characters' honorable vs. flawed nature, and she was almost an apologist for David. But, again, she pulled back before it became too saccharine. However, don't expect high culture here; this is unapologetic entertainment, a bit pandering at times, but still fastening me at the edge of my seat.

In case you don't know the story of King David--the shepherd boy-cum-anointed one, here is a rough description. Prophet Samuel realizes that Saul is not fit for king duties, which makes Saul go mad. Samuel goes to Beit Lechem (Bethlehem) and finds the seemingly unimpressive young David, the youngest brother of a large family well educated in Jewish law. Samuel feels God speaking through him, naming David as future King of Israel.

Brooks story is narrated by Natan, David's personal prophet and scrivener (whose father David slaughtered in front of him)--a man, like Samuel, who hears the "Name" speaking through his body (via tongue rolling, convulsions, and other shaman-like contortions). It is the story of David's vicissitudes as a king--his loves, losses, conquers, falls, courage, cowardice, transgressions, and tragedies. I fail to understand why a benevolent God would commence to create such a violent history, but then, I'm not organically attuned to what I was taught in Hebrew School. But, despite my personal beliefs, Brooks had me at "thou." As in People of the Book, the author is skilled at writing ancient times in a contemporary style. Instead of using a stodgy, fusty Ole English translation of Aramaic, she writes with a lyrical and modern pen, all the while capturing the mood and atmosphere of the era into times past, until you are truly transformed into the days of BCE. And yet, the moral core is relatable to the times we live in today. I don't know how she does it, but I am certainly pleased with her execution of words:

"...the stories that grow up around a king are strong vines with a fierce grip. They pull life from whatever surfaces they cling to, while the roots, maybe, wither and rot until you cannot find the place from which the seed of the vine has truly sprung. That was my task: to uncover those earliest roots. And he had directed me to the seedbed."
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A Little Life: A Novel
A Little Life: A Novel
by Hanya Yanagihara
Edition: Hardcover
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4.0 out of 5 stars A little long, June 9, 2015
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This review is from: A Little Life: A Novel (Hardcover)
This is a novel that requires patience, commitment, and perseverance. Not just because of its length (720 pages), but, because it doesn't exactly grab you swiftly. It took me almost 300 pages to feel installed in the story, rather than just a visitor hovering outside the narrative. Yanagihara is long-winded, although not generally dull, yet she also, in my opinion, only fully realized one character, Jude St. Francis, the successful but troubled Ivy League-educated lawyer with a tragic, troubled past. The mostly interior story is ostensibly about these four friends who meet in their teens, and their ongoing friendship for over thirty years. But, really, it is a profile of Jude (with some shared traits of the Obscure one).

Jude was ritually abused as an orphan, although the author is quite circumspect about the details, which take 2/3 of the novel to completely fill in (and even then, there's always more). However, even before I was enervated by the laboriously slow reveal, the reader "gets it,"--this isn't exactly new stuff for our topical times, but it always dismays us to hear about disturbed, violent people who abuse children. By the time she filled in the shocking details, I was astonished, yes, but also a bit weary.

There's also a lot of repetition of Jude's adult coping behaviors (in ways, almost as horrifying as the abuse)-- but necessary, I suppose, to really be intimate with his ongoing struggles, to demonstrate the limitless loneliness and pain one suffers when life is clouded by shame. But, I admit to some impatience, too. I was straining to believe that everyone was ALWAYS therapeutic with Jude. He was glum and intractable, refusing to talk about his past (with a few people, he revealed bits and pieces)--but, as I said, their ability to be so 110% willing and available for Jude was really too good to be true. Rarely, they lost patience-- carefully manipulated by the author to usually further the story along (and Jude).

Jude's three friends, ones he has known since college--Willem, the successful actor, Malcolm, the successful architect, and JB, the successful artist (actually, all the characters in this book are so highly successful as to be almost untouchable, no pun intended), start out as developing characters, and then slip into either straw men and/or saints. Then there is Andy, the virtuous and always available surgeon, and Harold, the law professor with the patience of Job. All these men (with one seeming exception--JB, who makes a few mistakes) are so thoroughly, unerringly, and impossibly pledged to Jude that it eventually strikes a false note. All of these very busy people--world travelers--seem to have drop-everything time and an almost pious forbearance for Jude, the enigmatic one who refuses to reveal his past and his harrowing abuses. There were virtually no female characters--well, Harold's wife, Julia, and Malcolm's, wife, but they were nothing but generic passers-by, even if (like Julia) they played an important role. They were all tools for the character of Jude.

If I were to name a second, well-developed character, it would be the setting. No matter how many books are set in New York City, there are as many ways and more to bring it alive. Yanagihara has a sharp eye for living spaces, architecture, color, and art, and in this way, she gave New York its singular charisma. I would also assert that having an architect and an artist as two of Jude's friends allowed her to buttress the book with her eye for these details, which I enjoyed greatly. JB's installations (of course, mostly about Jude or himself, and conveniently about the other friends for later absorption) added shade to the story, but, again, it seemed that everything was for Jude's character.

This is a mostly interior novel, which is why I demand either faceted characters or compelling ideas. The author flirts with ideas through the art world but there's nothing inherently philosophical about the novel. Moreover, the author gave all the other characters, except for Jude, short shrift. Willem actually starts out engaging. His childhood was also tragic, but for different reasons. Yet, too soon, Willem turns into a big movie star and his character a cursory device for Jude. Willem is the most saintly of all the characters, an actor who is never self-absorbed, who isn't even aware of his fame when he walks into a room. He's portrayed as way too humble to be organic.

Most of the men in this novel made me think of those Seurat paintings, where the people whose faces we never see too well are diminished or faded into the background. Is that what the author intended? I don't think so, because in her debut book, The People in the Trees, she had several well-realized characters. Moreover, in 700+ pages, she includes Jude's friends frequently, but the more they are present, the more absence I felt of their true natures. She also covered the topic of child abuse in both novels, but, in TREES, it's for the reader to ascertain, over the course of the suspenseful story, whether the narrator is reliable or not, and if the child abuse really did take place. In A LITTLE LIFE, we know it took place, and we follow the abused child mostly as an adult.

Just a side note: Yanagihara tends to pair abuse with a life of privilege. In The People in the Trees, the alleged abuser is a scholar/scientist. In this second book, the victim of abuse grows to be in the elite 1%. I would like to see her take it down a notch--show how many abused children are stuck in the system or live in the real world as a worker bee, not touched by highbrow living, and too impaired to put together a successful life. Jude, however, is an accomplished pianist with a beautiful voice, is well-read, a superior cook, and is what I would identify as that rare contemporary Renaissance man--but he works as a corporate lawyer 80-100 hours/week, where his troubles seem to melt away on the job.

Regardless of the flaws, I stuck with the novel; Jude was so captivating, even in his reticence, that I wanted to see it through. I think Yanagihara could have shaved off a few hundred pages without hurting the narrative, especially as she didn't seem intent on filling out the characters beyond a certain point.

At the beginning, there was evidence that there would be nuance regarding race and sexual orientation. A few comments were made at the start, coyly referring to the fact that only Willem is white. Jude was "undetermined," a mix of backgrounds, and Malcolm and JB were black. So why a white man on the cover of the book? Is that supposed to be Willem? That seems disingenuous to me, as the main character, Jude, is not Caucasion. That was just one of the several manipulations that seemed inorganic.

Also, there seemed to be little or no controversy about gay issues. Some of the characters were gay or bi-, but they didn't seem to go through any hardships, past or present, with their sexual orientation. It was so smooth that it was glossed over. Parents--proud and accepting, peers--proud and accepting, colleagues--proud and accepting. Nothing in these men's lives stirred any controversy or hardship (unless it has to do with their relationship with Jude)--just success. Even JB's problems were disposed of quickly. But, I suppose if you are in the 1%, being black and gay buys you a ticket from discrimination? These men had a paved avenue, so much more than my black and/or gay friends ever did. However, her prose was always strong, solid, subtle:

"...he imagined Jude as a magician whose sole trick was concealment, but every year, he got better and better at it, so that now he only had to bring one wing of the silken cape he wore before his eyes and he would become instantly invisible, even to those who knew him best."

3.5 stars
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