Monday, January 29, 2018

Neon in Daylight

by Hermione Hoby
Catapult     2018
284 pages    Literary Fiction
Neon in daylight is a
Great pleasure 
(Frank O’Hara)

Kate arrived in New York from England to the apartment of her mother’s friend during the extremely hot summer of 2012.  Ostensibly Kate is there to take care of the friend’s cat, but more purposefully (or not) to find herself. She is in the midst of finishing her PhD and may be trying to get away from a disappointing relationship. Her mother’s friend had said to her, “Oh, my god, your mom and I had such adventures when we were your age. Because you gotta travel! You gotta live, you know?”

“And Kate didn’t know. Didn’t know what live meant, in this context.” 

Inez, a teenager who has just graduated from high school meets Kate in the unlikeliest of places, a bodega in the neighborhood. Inez is also at loose ends. Her divorced parents want her to go to college, but she can’t see herself there. She has picked a couple of highly unlikely ways to earn money—selling Aderall on the street and satisfying men’s sexual fantasies. Inez becomes Kate’s summer friend by inviting her to the frantic and frenetic activities of New York’s teenage scene.

Bill plays the pivotal role in the unfolding drama. As a young man, Bill wrote a coming-of-age novel—a kind of Catcher in the Rye—and he has lived off the proceeds of the novel and the ensuing movie into middle age. He teaches creative writing, is a purposeless drunk, and is also Inez’s father.

The plot, such as it is, focuses on these three and the intersection of their lives. Because of the skillfully drawn narrative, the reader doesn’t question the logic about how these three find each other in the midst of America’s largest city. Kate doesn’t realize that Inez is Bill’s daughter until late in the book, but she never mentions to Inez that she is having an affair with an older man. Inez never mentions her father’s name to Kate, and Bill never mentions to his daughter that he has met a young woman named Kate. There is a constant state of ennui that engulfs all the characters. 

Meanwhile, the city of New York chugs on and on. It is alive and vibrant in ways that the characters are not. My favorite scene happens when Kate follows a man lugging a grand piano into Washington Square Park, where he sits down and begins to play Rachmaninoff. The city is so skillfully drawn that it becomes a major player in the story, as is the heat of the summer of 2012. As the narrative ends, Hurricane Sandy is drawing nigh at the same time there is some resolution in the relationships between the three main characters. As the city gears up for the rapidly-approaching hurricane, the book ends—the only triumph being the triumphant city. The New York Times reviewer says, “We can see what these characters cannot. Their lives seem so particular, so painful and noisy to them. But under the city’s “merciless” skyline, in the wake of a hurricane, how similar they suddenly are, how small, how human.” 

One reviewer says “that sentiment—the way unlikelihood fosters a sense of inevitability—is the book’s engine.” None of the characters are particularly likeable, but that is not the author’s purpose. Both the reviews in the New York Times and the LA Review of Books praise Hoby’s talent, her observational ability, and her gift of language. It is a brilliant first novel.

Here is a charming interview with Hermione Hoby on the Shelf Awareness website. Scroll down to find it.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark

By Debbie Levy
Illus. by Elizabeth Baddeley
Simon and Schuster     2016
40 pages              Picture Book

Everything you wanted to know about Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a children’s book. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is only the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. She has been an unwavering advocate for women’s rights through her activism but also through her Supreme Court decisions. 

The first lines of the book, “You could say that Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life has been one disagreement after another. Disagreeable? No. Determined? Yes.” In beautifully illustrated pages, Ginsburg’s life story is told with the focus on the trails that she blazed—one of only a few female law students at Yale and a law professor with two small children at home. She has served on the US Supreme Court since she was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

 Levy                               Baddeley

One interesting fact that I didn’t know. When she votes with the
majority in a Supreme Court decision, she wears a special lace collar over her robe. When she dissents, she wears a different collar.

I received this book for Christmas from my dear friend, Patricia, along with a pair of Ruth Bader Ginsburg socks. I am anxious to read I Dissent to my 6-year-old granddaughter. The book’s publicity says that it is for children aged 4-7, but I will dissent from that analysis. I think that it is extremely appropriate for elementary aged children. 

One another note: Ginsburg has named her court clerks through the 2020 Supreme Court session. That must mean she is going to work for the next three court sessions. Thank goodness.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Academic Affairs: A Poisoned Apple

By Peter Likins
Darby Books    2017
150 pages     Cozy Mystery

Peter Likins, the author of Academic Affairs: A Poisoned Apple is a distinguished educator—former president of the University of Arizona. In retirement, he has written several books, the newest of which is this cozy mystery.

Academic Affairs is set at a small Christian college in Alabama and features the death of the school’s president and the murder of the Dean and his administrative assistant. The county sheriff runs the shop with his son and daughter, but they seem unable to solve the murder. A young professor with journalistic aspirations also works on the case, but it is the Black hairdressers and maids who solve the murders. They are privy to more details than are the others as they are in the background of every situation at the college and in the community. This is the South in the 1930s.

The most interesting part of the mystery in the discussion of sexual harassment on the college campus. Surely harassment was seldom discussed openly at a Christian college in the South in the 1930s. Prior to his murder, the Dean was a womanizer, and all the new female staff members were warned about him when they came to campus. Sound familiar? Timely?

This is just a dear little cozy mystery, short and sweet. It is made even more dear because it is the result of the retirement hobby of its author. It came to me from his publicist.

Peter Likins website.

Be the Parent, Please

By Naomi Schaefer Riley

Templeton Press     2018
264 pages     Nonfiction
The Shortlist

Out today is a book that has been on my to-be-read list. This is a timely book, and very much a necessary read for every parent who has kids on devices.  How do we handle this smart phone generation—or generations, I presume. How do parents gain control. In some ways, I am as guilty as my 5-year-old grandson. I gave him the Leap Pad he spends so much time on!

Here is the PR piece on the book.

Toddlers on tablets. Pre-teens on Tumblr. Thanks to a variety of factors—from tech companies hungry for new audiences, to school administrations bent on making education digital, to a culture that promotes everyone as the star of their own reality shows—technology is irrevocably a part of childhood, and parents are struggling to keep up. 

A noted columnist and mother of three, Riley fully understands the seductive nature of screens. She draws us into her story and then walks us through the research on technology’s encroachment into each stage of childhood. Throughout, Riley offers “tough mommy tips”: realistic, practical, applicable advice for parents who recognize that unlimited technology access is a problem, but who don’t know where to start in taking back control. 

Any parent knows the effects of screens on their distracted, cranky, sedentary, and incessantly anxious-about-what-might-be-going-on-without-them kids. Riley brings her experience, research, and no-nonsense candor to help parents retake control over technology’s influence over their kids. 

In an editorial in the LA Times, Riley equates screen time to snack time. Parents seldom go anywhere with their small children without snacks, and lately they seldom go anywhere without screens. A couple of personal examples. Last week, a 10-year-old grandson spent the night. He has not been in our family long, so he was understandably anxious. I let him watch a video on his tablet until he fell asleep. The next morning, two other grandchildren came to spend the day. We did a craft project and then went sledding on a nearby hill. Everyone was delighted with the morning. I was tired out. So after lunch, I put on a video for the kids to watch, but the 5-year-old wanted to watch You Tube videos of children playing with dinosaur toys. (These, by the way, are just insidious commercials.) So, I let him do that. Bad grandma, or just tired-out grandma. Proves the author’s point.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a prolific author and journalist. She believes that it is important to expose children to a wide environment of exploration and challenges. “It‘s a matter of exposing them to all the other things in the world besides technology that they might enjoy and that might make them more thoughtful and even happier people.”

It is interesting to note that as I was reading Be the Parent, Please last evening, a public service announcement came on the television. Will Farrell as the father in a family that has a cell phone basket for the dinner table (a bright idea). Produced by Common, Will can’t let go of his phone. Very pointed but delightfully funny at the same time.

Watch the video; read the book. Let’s use some common sense to help our children and grandchildren find value in a life away from the screen. But if you are a really tired-out babysitting grandma, we’ll give you some latitude.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Woman in the Window

By A.J. Finn (pseud. for Daniel Mallory)
Wm. Morrow     2018
448 pages           Psychological Thriller

Anna is agoraphobic. She has been a self-made captive in her own home for 10 months when we meet her. It appears that she suffered greatly when her husband Ed and daughter Olivia left her, and the agoraphobia is a result of that loss. The only people she sees are her therapist and her physical therapist. But it wasn’t always that way. She was Dr. Anna Fox, a well respected child psychologist, a partner in a therapy practice. She knows what is wrong with her, but she is helpless to treat herself. She self-medicates with drugs and alcohol. She spends all day in her bathrobe playing computer chess, offering online advice to other agoraphobic people, and watching Hitchcock and other noir movies from the 1940s.

Anna has a secret vice. She spies on her neighbors through her high-powered camera lens and photographs their activities in the wealthy enclave in Harlem where they live. Most of the neighbors have been around for a while, but Anna is particularly interested in the new neighbors, the Russell’s, who have moved into the big house across the small park from her. Does this sound like Rear Window? Of course it does.

In keeping with Rear Window, while watching the neighbors, she sees what she thinks is a murder in the Russell’s living room. When no body can be found by the police, Anna comes under scrutiny by the NYPD, outed as a crazy kook, and accused of mixing up reality with the movies she is watching. She attempts to solve the mystery through her alcohol-fuzzy brain, but she soon realizes that she may have to leave the security of her home to prove what she saw is true. Even her front steps prove to be daunting. Adding to her anxiety, someone seems to be entering her house at night. Is it her basement apartment renter?

The Woman in the Window is one of those books you just can’t put down. We are getting the story only from Anna’s perspective, and our sympathy is totally with her. We know her foibles and her failings, but we think that we know the reason why. All of a sudden, in the middle of the book, there is an enormous revelation that totally changes the story and our understanding of Anna’s agoraphobia. 

WHAT! I nearly jumped out of my chair; my breathing became shallow; I had to look away from my Kindle. I glanced out the window. There on a low branch amidst the falling snow sat a bright red cardinal looking right at me. Did he see my anxiety? I focused on that beautiful cardinal until I gained control of my soul and I could proceed with the novel. Thank goodness for that cardinal.

There are many things I loved about The Woman in the Window. First, while it is an unreliable narrator novel, which seems to be extremely popular these days—as I have noted in other reviews—The Woman in the Window is consistent throughout. The questions just keep coming until the terrifying ending, and we feel enormous sympathy for Anna throughout. Then, I loved that I couldn’t put it down (except for the brief bright red cardinal moment). There are many quirky characters, and Anna has her own moments when she has insight into her own ludicrous, and sometimes quite humorous situation. There are scenes of great empathy: witness the kind NYPD detective who seems to understand her, the therapists that treat her with such kindness, and the teenage musician from across the street who helps her find her way home. Finally, I loved the connections to the Alfred Hitchcock movies, which cause confusion in Anna’s mind as well as in the mind of the reader.

One interesting sidelight. The Woman in the Window is written by Daniel Mallory under the pseudonym A.J. Finn. Mallory is a book editor for Morrow, the book’s publisher. He has put everything he has learned as an editor into his novel and it shows. The intensity never wavers. The book has been optioned for a movie.

I loved the review in the Chicago Tribune. The reviewer makes a joke about how many books about unreliable narrators  he has read, but says of this thriller: “Like all high-concept thrillers, ‘The Woman in the Window’ can afford nary a misstep, or risk falling apart like a tower of playing cards. To the author's credit, the plot is very nearly airtight. And for all the narrative effects, Finn never loses touch with the fear and insecurity of a woman who has suffered a great loss and feels abandoned and alone in the world.

The Woman in the Window came out last week. Put it on you TBR list for a snowy day. Maybe a beautiful cardinal will come your way to soothe your “can’t put it down” anxiety. Oh, be sure to have a nice warm blanket and a fire in the fireplace.