Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Missing, Presumed

by Susie Steiner
Random House     2016
368 pages     Mystery

I have to say, right off the bat, that reading a novel with a character named Miriam is remarkable. I frankly can't remember ever reading my name in any book other than the Bible. Thank you Susie Steiner. Additionally, the Miriam character is a loving mother and a strong female caught up in a most difficult situation. Makes me proud.

Edith Hind, the daughter of Miriam and her husband Ian Hind, is missing and Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw is assigned to the case. Edith is a Cambridge graduate student when her boyfriend finds her door open, blood on the kitchen cabinet, and the apartment empty. Days pass, clues come and go, but neither Edith nor her body shows up. A variety of narrators tell the story, including Manon, Miriam, and Davy, a policeman also assigned to the team. During each day of the investigation, each major characters tell the story from his or her point of view, but we also get glimpses into their lives as the day passes.

 Unfortunately for the investigation, the press gets involved because the Hinds are prominent people in suburban London. Dr. Hind is the physician for the royal family. However, nothing is quite as it seems, and tragedy befalls some of the characters as the days and weeks go on with no sightings of Edith. The press searches for every little bit of information, and when it is leaked that Edith's best friend, Helena, may also be her lover, the press goes wild. 

The beauty of Missing, Presumed is in the character development. Manon, the lead inspector, is 39 years old, and absolutely desperate to be in a relationship. She belongs to dating websites and ends up having one lousy date after another, which provides fodder for gossip at the office. Although we don't meet Edith, we are drawn to her as well. She is a very complicated young woman, and we learn a great deal about her from her mother, her boyfriend, and her best friend. Even minor characters have enough of a presence that you remember who they are and what they do. They are each skillfully drawn with a touch of humor, so you enjoy reading their perspectives and the narration of their experience as the days pass. 

Often times in a police procedural mystery, the characters are robotic in nature, and the reader focuses more on the plot than on the characters. It is a joy to relate to police officers who are quirky, conflicted, and lovable. After one of her disastrous relationship ends, Davy says to Manon:
"I think you need a dog."
"I heard a dog makes unhappy people happy. They're good, y'know, for people who can't form proper relationships."
"You're a real tonic, Davy." 

Steiner is a former journalist, and her depiction of the intrusion of the press in the lives of the family and others involved in the case is quite scathing. The review of Missing, Presumed in the Guardian says "Steiner paints well the claustrophobically dangerous effect a circling press can have." In the end it is Miriam who solves the mystery of the disappearance, and the way in which she handles the life-changing conclusion is what can well be expected from a woman named Miriam.

A wonderful read. I hope Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw finds several more cases to solve.

Susie Steiner's website.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Boston Girl

by Anita Diamant
Scribner    2014
336 p.     Historical Fiction

If my grandma were to sit down and tell her life story, The Boston Girl  by Anita Diamant would be her story. It would actually be the story of many of the women who lived their lives in the early years of the 20th century.

Addie Baum is the Boston born and bred daughter of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. She is the only child to be born in the United States. Addie tells her story to answer her granddaughter's question about how she got to be the woman she is today. Told in oral history form by Addie as she celebrates her 85th birthday, it covers the years of her life from age 15 until she starts a career and gets married—1915-1927. 

Addie is feisty, and her story tells much of the story of American women as they began to gain jobs, independence, voting rights and education. There is joy and sadness; interesting characters and challenging experiences—the stuff of life. Mentored by independent career women at a community center,  Addie is offered the opportunity to join the Saturday Club, where young women are challenged to be more than shop girls and housewives. Here she meets the women who become her lifetime friends. The pivotal experience in Addie's life is the opportunity she is given to go to Rockport Lodge, a vacation spot for young working women. Young women from many immigrant families (Italian, Irish, and Jewish) mingled and learned together. When you look up Rockport Lodge, you find that it functioned in this same capacity until the 1990s.

One of the significant aspects of the novel is its intimacy. The reader relates to Addie just like you would relate to your own Grandma, if you asked her a question about her upbringing. The life changing event in one of my grandma's lives was the loss of two of her children within a short time of each other about 1920. The life changing event for my other grandmother was the chance to go to college in 1908—a very unusual event in those days. Those two women were strong and fearless and their influence on me was profound. Addie seems to have the same profound influence on her granddaughters.

Reviewers are divided about The Boston Girl. One felt that it would be appropriate as a young adult novel for girls to help them know where they came from. The reviewer in the LA Times says, "I'm of two minds about The Boston Girl. On the one hand, it's a vivid, affectionate portrait of American womanhood. On the other, it feels at times a bit like chicken soup." The reviewer in the Washington Post was very critical. Her comment was: "At this late date, the demands of originality in the immigrant story, both in plot and style, are high — higher, alas, than this pleasant, undemanding novel is willing to reach."

Almost everyone agreed that The Boston Girl did not come close to the compelling nature of Diamant's first novel, The Red Tent. I found it to be delightful and totally vapid, albeit filled with touching scenes and wry moments of humor. For example, Addie's fiancĂ© goes to work for a while in Minnesota and in his letters to her he complains about the mosquitoes that "were the size of bumblebees." I know those mosquitoes well. 

All in all, The Boston Girl was a nice read, gentle and non-threatening. Easily read, easily forgotten. It just needs to be remembered until book club on Thursday night.


Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Every Exquisite Thing

by Matthew Quick
Little Brown     2016
265 pages     YA

Do you remember the book that was most influential to you when you were growing up? Did it change your life? I'm thinking of Catcher in the Rye, Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies. While all of these were important to me, the book that sticks in my mind forever is Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger. I read it the summer I graduated from high school, and it certainly influenced my decision to major in philosophy and theology. Franny's search for meaning echoed my search for meaning.

This is the setup for Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick—a book that changes everything. A favorite teacher gives Nanette O'Hare a worn and tattered copy of The Bubblegum Reaper by Nigel Booker. It is an out-of-print, cult classic, coming-of-age story, and Mr. Graves tells Nanette that it is the book that changed his life when he was a kid. Nanette soon finds that it is changing her life as well. She reads and rereads it, and when she discovers that the author lives nearby, she wangles an introduction.  Booker is a recluse, but he takes a liking to Nanette and soon introduces her to Alex, another teenager who loves The Bubblegum Reaper. Booker remains a solid presence in their lives and does what he can to guide Nanette and Alex through their obsession with The Bubblegum Reaper and the confusion of high school.

Like many teenagers, Nanette and Alex feel alienated from the world and other kids their age, and The Bubblegum Reaper parallels their angst and encourages their rebellion. Nanette has been a high school soccer star but she quits the team in dramatic fashion because she finds that it has no more meaning for her. Her middle class, suburban high school feels confining and conventional. Alex feels the same about his life and his school, but he is far more action oriented than Nanette, and his actions lead him down a path from which he cannot emerge. Alex is a poet and interspersed throughout the novel are his poems, many of which he gives to Nanette. At one point he says to her that they will be together in the future but "we just have to make it through this last bit of our childhood." 

Quick tackles teenage mental health in Every Exquisite Thing, something that is far more common for today's teenagers than generally recognized in YA literature. At one point, Nanette tells her parents everything that is going on in her life, and they encourage her to get therapy, which she does gladly, because she knows that her life is spinning out of control. The therapist really understands Nanette and helps her forge a new, authentic path for herself.  She introduces Nanette to Pat Benatar and her song Invincible. The song "encourages Nanette to take control of her life." Slowly a new, more mature Nanette emerges, ready to face the next chapter of her life.

I chuckled at that because my 19-year-old grandson has been in and out of our house this summer. He told me last week that he had decided to "take control of my life." I, of course, thought that was a good idea and expressed as much. We'll see how that goes as the summer progresses.

Although I can't quite remember my feelings of alienation as a teenager, I certainly can remember my children's anxieties, and now I hear the same from my grandchildren. There is much that is real in Every Exquisite Thing. Does it take itself too seriously? Perhaps from the perspective of a grandmother, but I believe that my 15-year-old granddaughters will love every word of it.

Here's what I learned from Every Exquisite Thing. I learned that I needed to discover the poet, Charles Bukowski. I discovered that I had a new novel called Shadowboxing with Bukowski by Darrell Kastin on my to-be-read list. I also found a collection of Bukowski's musings about cats on my Kindle which I never got to. Part of my summer's reading, I guess. I have also been listening to Pat Benatar, whose music escaped me in the past. Every Exquisite Thing helped me remember once again that as adulthood beckons, young adults come out of the morass of anxiety and "make it through this last bit" of childhood. 

 An interesting interview with Quick on the NPR show, Here and Now, discusses his experiences as a high school English teacher that informed his writing of Every Exquisite Thing.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Before the Fall

by Noah Hawley
Grand Central     2016
391 pages     Mystery

Out today, June 1, 2016. The best mystery I have read this year. 

It took me until about 30 pages from the end of Before the Fall by Noah Hawley before I finally figured out what happened to the chartered airplane that crashed 18 minutes after taking off from Martha's Vineyard with 11 people on board. David Bateman is the CEO of a media company (think Fox News). He leased the plane for himself, his wife, Maggie, and his two children Rachel and JJ. Maggie invited another Vineyard couple, Ben and Sarah Kipling to ride back to the city with them, and then at the last minute, she invited a casual friend, Scott Burroughs, to join them; he arrives just before the plane takes off. There are three crew members and the Bateman's bodyguard on board. All seemly goes well until the plane crashes into the Sound and breaks apart.

Somehow, miraculously, Scott Burroughs survives the crash as does 4-year-old JJ.  Scott was a swimmer in high school; he hears the boy crying in the dark water as the plane sinks. Scott flounders around in the water with a dislocated shoulder until he finds the boy, and then with JJ on his back, he swims for miles and miles until he reaches shore at Montauk. He becomes a hero—or is he the villain? Why is it that he and JJ survived when everyone else perished? 

The plot is extremely intense, and the reader really wants to be able to figure out why the plane crashed, but we are left in the dark until very near the end. It is indeed a page turner.  More importantly, Before the Fall is a carefully crafted character study, with each character described in such a way that we have a clear picture of their motives and their contribution to the plot. And herein lies the brilliance of the novel. Hawley's characters are so finely drawn that we know them intimately. As he tells us their back stories, we see how each one contributes to the unfolding tragedy.

Two parallel things happen in this novel. There is the investigation into the crash conducted by the NTSB and the FBI. Interspersed with the investigation are  the back stories of the passengers and crew. All these pieces fit together flawlessly. In addition to an intriguing plot and interesting characters, I found myself fascinated by Hawley's insights and asides—in my mind they are as integral to the novel as the plot line. Virtually every chapter begins with some philosophical musings, and the character studies are full of insights that make the characters come alive. 

Gill Baruch is the family bodyguard, and the chapter that tells his story is extremely well constructed and revealing. I loved this description of his job: "To be a body man did not mean being in a state of constant alarm. In fact it was the opposite. . .The best body men understood this. They knew that the job required a kind of tense passivity, mind and body in tune with all five senses. If you thought about it, private security was just another form of Buddhism, tai chi. To live in the moment, fluidly, thinking of nothing more than where you are and what exists around you. Bodies in space and time moving along a prescribed arc. Shadow and light. Positive and negative space." 

In other words, Before The Fall delivers far more than a plot driven thriller. We get an insight into the workings of the minds of all the characters, and indeed, the workings of Noah Hawley's mind as well. Hawley is the author of several previous novel, and serves as the producer, writer, and showrunner of the award-winning series Fargo on FX. Perhaps therein lies the magic of the novel; it has some characteristics of a script with its back and forth, but at the same time, it has much more depth than a script.

 I highly recommend Before the Fall. Reviewers are falling all over themselves with praise. Allow time to read Before the Fall this summer.

Noah Hawley's website.