Review 2033: Astonish Me

I enjoyed Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle, although maybe I thought it was a little overhyped. However, I liked it well enough to look for something else by her and found Astonish Me.

When ballet dancer Joan sees Arslan Rusakov dance, she falls madly in love with him. A brief encounter leads to a correspondence, and a few years later, in 1975, Joan helps him defect from the USSR. Arslan is not faithful to her, however, and once he finds that she is not a good enough dancer to dance with him, he seems to lose interest.

Joan finds she is pregnant and decides to leave the dance life. She seduces her lifelong friend, Jacob, and marries him. They settle in to a suburban life in California.

Their son Harry develops the same kind of friendship with his neighbor Chloe that Jacob had with Joan—he worships her while she seems often embarrassed by him, yet appreciates his friendship. But as they reach their teens with both turning to ballet, it becomes obvious that Harry will be a great dancer while the jury is still out on Chloe.

At first, I was turned off by Joan’s decision to deceive Jacob. I felt it was particularly unlikely for that time. However, as the novel digs deeper into the fascinating world of dance, I found it more and more compelling. I liked, too, that Shipstead’s characters have their faults. They’re human, not perfect. If anything, I liked this novel better than Great Circle.

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Review 1895: The Magician

Although I’ve only read one work by Thomas Mann, I still found The Magician, based on Mann’s life and writings, interesting. Although Mann himself often seems inert in this novel, he lived in interesting times, during both world wars.

The novel covers Mann’s life from a young man who is dispossessed by his father to his relocation from California to Switzerland in his 70’s. It examines the thinking behind his greatest works and although fairly meditative in tone, has some excitement during the Mann’s flight from Nazi Germany.

In some ways The Magician is reminiscent of The Master, Tóibín’s novel about Henry James, with Mann fantasizing about young men but never acting on those fantasies after a couple of abortive encounters. The difference is that James seemed almost unaware of his own proclivities. Mann still managed to have a long, successful marriage with his wife Katia.

Tóibín’s biographical fiction always seems intuitive and thoughtful to me. I enjoyed this one despite my lack of knowledge about its subject. I read this novel for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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Review 1829: Insomniacs, Inc.

Full disclosure: Peggy Schimmelman is my cousin’s wife, and I received an ARC in exchange for a free and fair review.

Jack and Marilyn are a retired couple living in a Northern Californian suburb. They are political conservatives who have lived there many years and are disappointed at the direction the neighborhood is taking as more racially and politically diverse people move out from the city. Alejandra, across the street, has junk collecting on her property and is Hispanic. Jack wonders if she is “an illegal.” Michael is a musician who plays loud music and has people coming and going at all hours. They do not approve of Rachel, a gay woman whose lover recently died, and Lisa, who is closer to their age, seems unfriendly. They can never remember the name of the little old Asian woman who lives next door. Ching? Chang? Chung? (It turns out to be Zhang.)

They are soon appalled to learn that their neighbor Michael is dead. Rumors abound, and they hear that he was murdered—fed a Thai peanut dish when he is allergic to nuts.

Marilyn is not impressed when Detective Andy Thacker appears, especially as his focus seems to be more on dessert than on the crime. But he lets fall several clues about the case, asking about a strip club, an elementary school, and some porn sites. Soon, Marilyn, who begins suffering from insomnia after a prowler is spotted in the neighborhood and Alejandra receives a letter containing racial slurs, finds herself reluctantly teaming up with Alejandra and Rachel, the three meeting in the middle of the night to try to solve the crime.

Insomniacs, Inc. is a light-handed cozy mystery with an engaging heroine that explores the themes of political and racial divisiveness. The novel suffers a bit from its characters’ inability to do much detective work themselves, a problem that pops up occasionally in mystery novels that feature amateur detectives. It also has a little too long of a wrap-up at the end. Overall, however, I found it well-written and entertaining, exploring some important themes of our current times with a light hand. I’m afraid I guessed the culprit fairly early, but there were lots of complications that I didn’t figure out, including motive.

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Review 1705: The Mars Room

Romy Hall is on her way to prison at the beginning of The Mars Room, having received two life sentences for murder. Because she worked as a stripper and led a not so savory life, she has been denied the opportunity in court to testify that her victim had been stalking her, even following her from San Francisco to L. A., where she moved to get away from him.

On the way to the prison in far eastern California, one woman dies. None of the prison personnel pay any attention. This is just one example of the treatment the women—and sometimes girls—receive.

This novel isn’t just about Romy, though. We hear the voices of quite a few characters, all of whom are incarcerated or are connected to the incarcerated. None of these characters are all bad or all good, but what they have in common is that they have been silenced.

There is Doc, a corrupt cop who has killed just for the pleasure of it but befriends Serenity, who has performed her own sex change operation in jail and is trying to be transferred to the women’s prison. There’s Gordon Hauser, who comes to teach at the women’s prison but gets a little too involved with the prisoners and quits to become a social worker. There’s even Kurt Kennedy, Romy’s stalker and victim. In between, we read paragraphs from Ted Kaczynski’s writing, most of them chilling.

This novel explores some deep territory, the lack of justice for the poor, the futility and vindictiveness of the prison system, the lack of any chances most of the characters had in their lives to begin with. It is gritty, difficult to read, and sometimes heart-wrenching. In general, I’m not that much of a fan of Kushner, but this novel has some powerful moments. I read it for my Booker Prize project.

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Review 1630: Scot & Soda

I love Catriona McPherson’s creepy psychological thrillers mostly set in small Scottish villages, and I like her Dandy McGilver mysteries set in the early 20th century, but I wasn’t that enamored with the first of her Last Ditch mysteries, set in present-day Northern California. However, I thought I’d give the second one a try before giving up.

One of the jokes of this series is a Scottish woman as fish out of water. That woman is Lexie Campbell, a therapist. She and her friends from the Last Ditch Motel are on the houseboat she inherited in the last book having a Halloween party. When Lexie tries to haul up the beer she has been cooling in the water, up comes a corpse with a wig and tam on its head. Lexie also spots a ring on his finger.

Detective Mike Rankinson is not exactly Lexie’s friend, so after Lexie has a brain wave when she reads a newspaper story about a horse having its tail cut off, Mike isn’t very receptive. Lexie thinks the events remind her of the poem “Tam O’Shanter.” In pursuit of this idea, she and some friends visit a derelict farm that has a burial mound in it, and they find some women’s clothing with blood on it.

The hallmarks of this series are Lexie’s tiffs with the police, the plethora of eccentric friends, and the confusing myriad of clues. One of the things I like about McPherson’s other books is the atmosphere of small Scottish villages, with some eccentric characters but ones that are mostly believable. In this series, McPherson has tried to create the same atmosphere with the eccentric inhabitants of the Last Ditch Motel. First, there are so many of them that I can’t keep them straight. Second, this doesn’t really work in a big city setting, even in California. Finally, I find her making mistakes about the American side of things, having her characters say things Americans wouldn’t say, for example. I think I won’t be reading more of this series.

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Review 1596: Her Father’s Daughter

When I was a girl, I discovered some old Gene Stratton-Porter books of my mother’s, and I just loved them. Later, in high school, I had a job at the public library, so I resolved to read all of her books. However, one of those books put such a bad taste in my mouth that I stopped reading her.

Skip forward 50 years and I found an old copy of one of her books in good shape in a used bookstore, so I bought it. I finally got around to reading it, only to discover on the very first page that this was the same book that turned me off in the first place. How did it strike me now? You shall see.

Linda Strong is in the halls of high school in Los Angeles when she is accosted by an upperclassman, Donald Whiting, who asks her why she wears such odd shoes. She in turn raises an issue with him that I will address in a bit.

Linda is an independent girl who was brought up by her father exploring the desert environs of Southern California, learning how to identify and use plants and how to live in the wilderness. Her parents died four years ago, and she has been living with her older sister, Eileen, who has been systematically robbing Linda of her inheritance to pay for her own clothes and entertainment. Hence, Linda in high school makes a shabby, eccentric appearance, but her shoes are for comfort.

Eileen has also deprived her best friend, Marian, of her boyfriend, which she did as soon as John became successful. Marian is leaving for San Francisco, where she has a job in an architect’s office and has entered an architectural contest. But the plot takes a turn when John brings over an old friend, writer Peter Morrison, who is looking for a place to settle, and Henry Anderson, an architect.

This book is really almost all subplots. I was going to say that the main plot was the relationship between Linda and Eileen, but that plot goes into abeyance for quite some time. There is a romance of some uncertainty, of course, and a plot about a stolen drawing of Marian’s. But my objection to the novel mostly concerns Linda’s issue with Donald. For this novel contains a ridiculous, racist subplot about Japanese adults being sent to attend California high schools so that they can best the American students academically and make them feel inferior. It is one of the stupidest plots I have ever read, and the book is one of the most racist I have ever read, a blueprint to the thinking of white supremacists. Not only does Linda believe all kinds of paranoid things about the Japanese, but she lets others have it as well—African Americans, Mexicans, and Communists. I usually try not to judge books out of their time, but I’ve read plenty of books from this time period (1921), and this one is just despicable. All these horrible attitudes are expressed by an otherwise appealing heroine, which I think makes it worse. I am again disappointed in this author, who has written several really good books for young adults.

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Review 1553: Whippoorwills

Full disclosure: Peggy Schimmelman is my cousin’s wife, although I have never met her.

Whippoorwills is primarily an epistolary novel set in the Missouri Ozarks and Northern California. The premise of the novel is that Leigh, in California, wants to write a novel about Rosie’s friend, Chrystal, who disappeared when the girls were in high school. The two women are also linked by Melody, Rosie’s friend and Leigh’s sister, who is now dead.

The story is told in a rambling, folksy way by Rosie in Missouri, as she tries to convey information for the novel to Leigh. Intermittently, we also get a slice of Leigh’s life in California as she struggles with a job she hates and tries to find time to write.

This novel is well written and full of local color, both in its eccentric but likable characters and its vivid colloquial style. For all its expressed premise, it is really about the life of Rosie, whose fundamentalist background and natural naiveté combined with several horrific experiences send her into periodic mental illness.

For patient readers, there is a certain amount of payoff, but you have to embrace its many circumlocutions in Rosie’s eccentric way of expressing herself and just go along for the ride. At first, I wondered if the story of what happened to Chrystal was ever going to get anywhere, but then I realized the story was really about Rosie.

I did feel, though, that the novel was a bit too long and wandering and that the sections about Leigh didn’t add much to it. I enjoyed much of it, though, and found some of it touching.

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Review 1548: Daddy: Stories

The description of Daddy says that its stories explore the balance of power between the sexes. I did not find that to be the theme of every story, although it is for some. The book does explore the psyche of some unlikable people, many of whom are privileged and belong to show business or to the edges of the business. This is a world I’m not much interested in, so I felt little connection to these stories.

In “What Can You Do with a General,” John, who used to have anger issues, struggles to connect with his grown children over the holidays. In “Los Angeles,” Alice, a sales girl for a small store that plays up sexy women in the dress of its employees and its decor, begins selling her own underwear to men. In “Menlo Park,” Ben, who was fired from his job in disgrace, runs into trouble again while editing the autobiography of a controlling millionaire. In “Son of Friedman,” a once-famous director attends the opening of his son’s abysmal film with his old best friend, a still-famous actor. In “Nanny,” Kayla deals with the fall-out of having been caught having an affair with her married employer, a movie star.

link to NetgalleyAnd so on. I can see that the stated theme works for most of these stories except “Son of Friedman,” which, as with some other stories, is about the relationship between fathers and children. I found this collection disappointing after Cline’s excellent novel, The Girls.

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Review 1476: Immortal Wife

Irving Stone was extremely popular in the mid-20th century for mostly biographical fiction. His most famous novels are The Agony and the Ecstacy about Michelangelo and Lust for Life about Vincent Van Gogh. Immortal Wife is his second book, about the life of Jessie Benton Fremont, the wife of explorer John C. Fremont.

Jessie Fremont certainly had an exciting life, even though a lot of her time was spent waiting. She was actively involved in her husband’s professional life. The work she did of helping her father write his reports when she was unmarried, she continued with the reports Fremont submitted after his explorations. She lived on an Indian reservation during his second expedition. She was one of the first white women to travel to San Francisco via a trek across Panama. She lived in untamed San Francisco and later Mariposa during the lawless days of the Gold Rush. When Fremont lost a fortune through unwise partnerships, she supported the family by writing stories.

Fremont was a controversial figure, and Jessie was partly to blame for a lot of the controversy. Upon his first command, she prevented him from receiving orders that would have made him turn back, and he was courtmartialed later partially because of this incident. Her advice resulted in more than one incident like this. Partially because of an attitude that the couple knew best, their fortunes underwent many ups and downs. Jessie was quite interfering in her attempts to help her husband, and they made many enemies.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. Part of my problem with it wasn’t fair, because I don’t believe in judging a book out of its time. But it was so accepting of Manifest Destiny, the right of the United States to the lands of the west. Fremont essentially starts a war as an excuse to steal California from Mexico, stating that Mexico wasn’t doing anything with it. Comments after an expedition that he had stood on top of a mountain in the Wind River region where no one stood before obviously meant no white men. This kind of thing grated on me for the first quarter of the novel.

On the positive side, the novel is interesting and well researched. On the negative side, at 400 dense pages, it is a bit longer than it needs to be through many episodes of Jessie’s heart-rendings about her marriage. Finally, although Stone clearly meant Jessie to be a sympathetic character, I didn’t like her much.

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Review 1463: This Must Be the Place

Daniel Sullivan is about to leave Ireland for a business trip when he catches a segment of a radio broadcast more than 20 years old. He hears the voice of Nicola Janks, his old girlfriend. When he learns she died in 1986, the year he last saw her, he becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her, fearing he was responsible for her death.

Unfortunately, he is unable to explain this concern to his wife, Claudette. Instead, she hears from his family about his erratic behavior. He is supposed to visit his 90-year-old father in Brooklyn but stays only a few minutes before abruptly leaving to visit his children from his first marriage.

These are the first events in a series that will change his life. But O’Farrell is interested in more than these events. In chapters ranging back and forth over 30 years and switching point of view among the characters, she tells about the lives of many of them, of Claudette, the reclusive ex-movie star; of Daniel; of Daniel’s children and Claudette’s children; of Daniel’s mother; even of some of the novel’s secondary characters.

I came late to O’Farrell and so far have only read two books by her, but I’ve enjoyed them immensely. She catches you with her complex plots but keeps you with her characterizations.

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