Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Losing Faith



by Adam Mitzner
Gallery Books     2015
357 pages     Fiction

Losing Faith is the story of deceit and its consequences. Aaron Littman is the CEO of a huge New York law firm, eminently respected as a litigator. A Russian mobster and terrorist offers him a $100,000 retainer to represent him in a case coming before Judge Faith Nichols. When Littman rejects the offer, Garkof, the terrorist, threatens to blackmail both him and the judge, because of the brief affair that Littman and Nichols had during the course of a previous trial. Shortly after Judge Nichols refuses bail for Garkof on the first day of the trial, she is murdered in Central Park and Littman is arrested for the murder. That, in a nutshell, is the setup.

Several times during the ensuing court case, Littman protests his innocence to his family and to his coworkers, including Sam Rosenthal, the founder of the law firm and his mentor. Every time he expresses his innocence, he is reminded of the clients who look at him beseechingly, "I didn't do it. You have to believe me."  

Losing Faith is the third legal thriller that I have read by Adam Mitzner. Not only are Mitzner's thrillers fun to read, but the reader also learns a lot about the way courtrooms operate and the way that lawyers think. This time, we are looking at the law from the viewpoint of the accused, a criminal lawyer, and we share his anxieties about the way the case is being presented by his law partner, Rosenthal. Although he knows how to behave in the courtroom and how to answer the questions, Littman suffers from the same apprehension and confusion that any defendant in his situation would feel. "I didn't do it. You have to believe me."

One of the questions that I asked myself as I read the book was "Do I like Littman?" I ask this often in my reading. Recently I stopped reading Hausfrau because I couldn't stand the protagonist. Mitzner says that when creating his protagonists, he wants them to cause the reader to think about their own lives in a new way. 

Of Littman, Mitzner says "I began with a protagonist who had already reached the top — the greatest lawyer of his generation — and I wanted to explore the fleeting nature of such external achievements. Again the opening quote (this one from Coldplay) was what inspired me, as I was fascinated by the idea of a man who 'used to rule the world' and now 'sweeps the streets he used to own.'" What is important about Littman is that he is fully aware of all that he has to lose, and that makes him a readable, albeit not likeable, protagonist.

The reader of Losing Faith spends time thinking about deceit and the reverberations that can be caused by deceit, in business, in the law, and in the family. Littman stumbles when his deceit catches up with him, and he is left unguarded. He hurts the people he most wants to protect, and the decision to deceive colors the rest of his life, and the lives of everyone around him. 

An essay about "likeable" protagonists by Adam Mitzner.
A review of Losing Faith in Mystery Suspense Reviews.
My blog postings about A Conflict of Interest and A Case of Redemption, the other books by Adam Mitzner.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

An Unnecessary Woman



by Rabih Alameddine
Grove     2013
291 pages     Literary Fiction

An Unnecessary Woman was given to me for my 72nd birthday by a 72-year-old friend. It is a novel about a 72-year-old woman who loves books inordinately. Aaliya is a stubborn woman, and a woman who has little need for others in her life; she has her books. She lets us know immediately that her age is no problem. "Let's put it this way: I don't hesitate when buying green bananas." Thus, I liked her immediately.

Aaliya lives in Beirut in an apartment that she has lived in since she was married (and divorced) as a teenager. It is a nice big apartment that her family hates her for having, since she lives there alone and they live in cramped spaces with many children. She managed a bookstore for many years, and her apartment is filled with books. She spends her days translating her favorite books into Arabic, beginning a new book every new year. No one ever sees these translations; they remain boxed in the extra bedroom and bathroom and have never been read by anyone. She has slept at night with a rifle beside her ever since the Civil War.

We are permitted entry into Aaliya's mind and musings, although we would never be permitted entry into her apartment. The three women who live on the other floors of the apartment building are never allowed admittance, even though they would love to see inside. She considers them to be the three witches from Macbeth. Ultimately, it is these three women who save Aaliya from her family and from herself.

Through her musings and her digressions we learn the story of her life and the lives of the people around her. Her only true friend, Hannah, continues to haunt her dreams many years after her death. She says, "My body is full of sentences and moments, my heart resplendent with lovely turns of phrases, but neither is able to be touched by another." By knowing her inner thoughts and feelings, we can know her, understand her, and appreciate her in ways that none of the other people in her life can.  

As she walks the streets of her neighborhood—the only place she ever goes—we learn about Beirut, the "Paris of the Middle East." Aaliya has lived in Beirut her whole life. We see the civil wars and other unrest through Aaliya's eyes, and they are sardonic eyes, at best. She finds a way to live through every inconvenience, every disturbance, with a resigned, ironic sigh. We also learn about the place of women in Lebanese society, the need to marry, and the utter tragedy of a woman without a family.

But aah! There are the books, the authors, the references, the quotes. This is the most overwhelming aspect of the narrative. This bibliophile has read everything, and has an opinion and a quote from everything that she has ever read. (I kept wondering how the author, Rabih Almeddine, had read and kept track of so many books, himself.) The gift for, and love of, literature keeps the reader from feeling sorry for this Unnecessary Woman, because her mind is an incredible mass of knowledge, impression, and opinion. She abides by the philosophy of the Portuguese poet, Pessoa: "The only attitude worthy of a superior man is to persist in an activity he recognizes is useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to apply certain norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential." Because of her remarkable mind, we take Aaliya seriously. She is a woman of consequence. She rises above tragic caricature to heroine.

And there is humor. A reviewer mentions that Almeddine is in essence a comic writer, and while this is not a book written for humor, there are many funny moments, primarily Aaliya's asides and throw-away observations. The reader chortles through the stream-of-consciousness meanderings and the digressions. These humorous, yet poignant, asides keep the story moving with expectancy. One reviewer says: "An Unnecessary Woman is an utterly unique love poem to the book and to the tenacity of the feminine spirit. And it's a triumph for Alameddine, who has created a book worthy of sitting on a shelf next to the great works whose beauty and power his novel celebrates." 

The "unnecessary woman" Aaliya warmed my heart and stirred my soul. 

An Unnecessary Woman was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2014. Another favorite book about Beirut is Day of Honey, a memoir with food, by Anna Ciezadlo.

The LA Times review.
An interview with Alameddine on NPR.
Rabih Alameddine website.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Clawed



by L.A Kornetsky
Pocket Books    2015
295 pages     Mystery

It's Mystery Month in the book world. and I have about 50 mysteries on my Kindle. 30 days and 50 mysteries. Don't think I will get them all read.

Today's entry is an OK start with a cozy mystery called Clawed by L.A. Kornetsky, due out at the end of the month. It is the fourth in the series called "A Gin and Tonic Mystery" a name that is just too cute for words. Ginny is the "Gin" and Ted Tonica is the "Tonic." See what I mean! Ginny has a dog and Tonica has a cat, who are buddies and the four complete the crime fighting, but unlicensed, PI entourage. In another "cute" touch, the thoughts of the cat and dog are written in italics as they help their masters solve the crime.

In Clawed, Ginny is invited to Portland from her home base in Seattle to plan an event for an older woman. She is paid a $2000 retainer, but when she arrives at the woman's house, she finds a dead man under the kitchen table. Apparently there is no woman because the house is owned by the dead man. Rather than returning home and forgetting the whole thing, Ginny decides to pursue the situation against the advice of Tonica who has remained in Seattle. 

The plot meanders from there. Other than the delightful relationship between Ginny and Tonica and the animals, the character development is marginal at best, and the plot really doesn't make much sense. However, if you are sitting in the dentist's office or waiting for an airplane, it might be a decent diversion.

Here is the review for the other Gin and Tonic mystery I read, Doghouse. As I recall, the plot was better developed and moved along at a faster clip. 

L.A. Kornetsky is the pen name of the author Laura Anne Gilman who has written several other books.  

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Pretty Ugly



by Kirker Butler
Thomas Dunne Books   2015
294 pages     Satire

"Pretty Ugly is a satirical look at a dysfunctional southern family complete with an overbearing stage mom, a 9 year old pageant queen, a cheating husband, his teenage girlfriend, a crazy grandmother, and Jesus."

Sometimes satire is the only solution! That was the case for me during the last week of the semester when students were calling every other minute with papers to edit! Thank goodness for satire.

Kirker Butler is a screen writer and producer for comedy shows like The Family Guy, Cleveland, and Galavant. Pretty Ugly is his send-up of TV reality shows and southern children's beauty pageants in particular.  He grew up in Western Kentucky where Pretty Ugly takes place, and his mother was the director of the Ohio County Fair Beauty Pageant. So he knows what he is talking about and what he is talking about is painfully funny. 

Miranda Kelly was a beauty pageant contestant as a teenager, and she has carried on that tradition with her young daughter, Bailey, relentlessly pushing her unwilling daughter into pageant after pageant, weekend after weekend, driving her family into debt and her 9 year old daughter into despair. Miranda leaves her two young sons with a grandma who talks to Jesus all day long, and leaves her husband working 80 hour weeks as a nurse to pay for the horrendous expense of dresses and shoes and makeup and hairdressers. Ray has his own story which runs counter to the beauty pageant story and is as full of craziness as the pageant story.

My favorite little tidbits in the book are the names of all the pageants that Bailey has entered and all the prizes she has won. If it weren't for the pageant winnings, the family would have nothing. The assumption of the novel is that the real life of beauty pageants is not that different from the world of Miranda, the ultimate stage mother.

Everything and everyone is totally dysfunctional  but it is all played for laughs. One can imagine the entire story line as a comedy movie, which I am sure was the intent. It is great fun and poignant at the same time. One reviewer says, "If this book wasn't so brilliantly written it would be a very sad story. But Butler's dialogue and first-person perspective almost drip with satire. I feel like I'm watching a TLC show just because it's on and I want to see the train wreck unfold."

Read it on your Kindle on your next plane ride. Make everyone on the plane wonder why you're laughing so hard. Now if you'll excuse me, I am going to watch a little TLC.

Kirker Butler's website.
The review in the Louisville newspaper—which is really good, by the way.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Invention of Wings



by Sue Monk Kidd
Penguin Books  2014
384 pages     Historical Fiction

"We are all yearning for a wedge of sky, aren't we?"

Sarah Grimke is a girl of eleven in 1803 Charleston SC when her parents give her a slave girl, Hetty (or Handful as she is known), the daughter of the family dressmaker. Sarah is indignant. She does not want her own slave; she hates the idea of slavery, but her voice is a minority in one of the leading families of Charleston. Having slaves is just "as natural as breathing." Sarah is drawn to Handful and Handful decides that she can gain some advantage by being kind and helpful to Sarah. Sarah vows that someday she will set Handful free, but it takes many years for that to happen. 

Sarah and her sister Nina, spend their lives defying the custom of the South, and end up in as leading abolitionists in the country by the mid-1800s. Sue Monk Kidd has fashioned her novel, The Invention of Wings on the lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, who were very famous in their day, but whose fame as abolitionists and suffragists was supplanted by others whose names are better remembered. The character of Hetty is based on a real slave girl in the Grimke family, but one who did not survive until adulthood. The fact and fiction of the lives of these two women, Sarah and Hetty, are woven together in alternating chapters. Both stories are powerfully told, although quite often Hetty's words resonate with the horror of the downtrodden. Sarah comes across as noble as she leaves the South, becomes a Quaker, and speaks the truth of slavery throughout the North.

Kidd has very carefully researched the times and the circumstances—the treatment of the slaves is so graphically told that the reader recoils in horror at what was expected punishment for minor infractions, such as stealing food or fabric. As is typical of Kidd's work, the characters are extremely finely drawn, although she may have had some constraints with the character of Sarah, because she had an actual life history.

One of the best characters in the book is Handful's mother, Charlotte, who is very rebellious and clever. She is the family seamstress and teaches Handful everything she knows, both spiritually and creatively. She crafts a story quilt that tells the story of her life. Charlotte tells Handful that "spirits live in the trees with the birds, learning to fly." She tells her that her shoulder blades are the nubs of wings. Charlotte puts small black triangles into her quilt, the wings that she tries again and again to use as she attempts to escape from her captivity. 


Two summers ago, we visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati and experienced an exhibit of African American story quilts,  similar to the one that Charlotte creates and plays such a significant role in the novel. I could truly imagine what Charlotte's quilt looked like as I was reading because of the example of the incredible quilts in the Museum.

Although my experience with black vernacular and the black experience are really limited, I believe that Kidd's own experience as a white Southern woman with domestics in her parents' and grandparents' homes resonates in her characterizations. For example, my friend Jean frequently says of her mother, "She is getting on my last nerve." The character, Hetty, says that in one of the early chapters of the book. I told Jean that her saying, "She's getting on my last nerve" goes back to the early 1800s in the African American slave community. She was pleased and amazed to know that.

I very much appreciated The Invention of Wings. I appreciated knowing about the life experience of Sarah and Nina Grimke, about Handful (Hetty) and I appreciated learning about an era of American history that I knew very little about. 

Kidd has created a powerful novel full of truths to ponder for a long time after the book is closed the last time. Our book club had a terrific discussion. I would highly recommend it for your book club.

A review in the New York Times.
An interview about the book with Sue Monk Kidd.