ON BEAUTY by Zadie Smith

“Howard Belsey, a Rembrandt scholar who doesn’t like Rembrandt, is an Englishman abroad and a long-suffering professor at Wellington, a liberal New England arts college. He has been married for thirty years to Kiki, an Afro-American woman who no longer resembles the sexy activist she once was. Their three children passionately pursue their own paths: Levi quests after authentic blackness, Zora believes that intellectuals can redeem everybody, and Jerome struggles to be a believer in a family of strict atheists. Faced with the oppressive enthusiasms of his children, Howard feels that the first two acts of his life are over and he has no clear plans for the finale. Or the encore.

Then Jerome, Howard’s older son, falls for Victoria, the stunning daughter of the Black right-wing icon Monty Kipps, and the two families find themselves thrown together in a beautiful corner of America, enacting a cultural and personal war against the background of real wars that they barely register. An infidelity, a death, and a legacy set in motion a chain of events that sees all parties forced to examine the unarticulated assumptions which underpin their lives. How do you choose the work on which to spend your life? Why do you love the people you love? Do you really believe what you claim to? And what is the beautiful thing, and how far will you go to get it?
This is an  analysis of family life, the institution of marriage, intersections of the personal and political, and an honest look at people’s deceptions.”

And there is a lot in the book about race.  Which the official plot description fails to mention, failing even to mention the races of the principle characters, which has a lot to do with the story line in general.  I edited in those descriptions into the official plot.  Strange, that.

Good read.  Zadie Smith is a great writer, and her books are filled with fascinating characters, and realisitic situations.  Definitely a kind of page turner.

THE DESCENDANTS by Kaui Hart Hemmings

A descendant of old Hawaiian families, that of a missionary and a Hawaiian princess, the family now owns a huge amount of land, all held in trust, and what’s left of the family has several proposals to purchase it and of course, develop it.  Most of the family are in favor of this because it means a big chunk of change in their pockets, and the first person narrator, a lawyer, who holds the majority shares in the venture, has the controlling vote.

So while all this is going on, his wife, something of a playgirl type is in a sailing accident and now lies in a deep coma, and never expected to regain consciousness.  The lawyer and his two daughters, a ten-year-old girl beginning a rebel phase, and his sixteen year old daughter, who has never fully gotten along with her mother and is away at boarding school because of her delinquent behavior at home, have to learn how to deal with this coming death, and with each other in a new way.

The girls are brought home from school to be with their mother during her last days, as she will be taken off life support soon, in accordance with her living will.

Throughout this process, we learn more about the marriage, that the wife had been having an affair with a property broker, and that the quiet, home-loving lawyer was probably the wrong choice for the vivacious social wife.

Story of a unbalanced marriage, wherein the husband thought everything was just hunky dory only to learn that he was the only one happy in the marriage.

Basically chic lit, a predictable ending, but readable nevertheless.  Not everything has to be Infinite Jest.

MOHAWK by Richard Russo

Richard Russo is the author of Empire Falls and Nobody’s Fool,  both of which I read but are not on the blog, so I guess I read them before I started the blog.   He is also the author of 5 other novels, a couple of story collections, and a memoir.

The official skinny on Mohawk is: “The story is set in upstate New York and chronicles over a dozen lives in a leather town, long after the tanneries have started closing down. Ranging over three generations—and clustered mainly in two clans, the Grouses and the Gaffneys—these remarkably various lives share only the common human dilemmas and the awesome physical and emotional presence of Mohawk itself.

For this is a town like Winesburg, Ohio or Our Town, in our time, that encompasses a plethora of characters, events and mysteries. At once honestly tragic and sharply, genuinely funny, Mohawk captures life, then affirms it.”

Mohawk is, as are all his books,  about small town daily life in cities that have lost their prosperity long ago, but still keep trudging along.  His characters are engaging and real,  making the same stupid decisions we all make, trying to make the best of their given situations, being human.

 

WORLD AND TOWN by Gish Jen

Hattie Kong, a 68 year old retired Biology teacher who was born in China but came to America after the Communist takeover. Her father was a descendant of Confucius, and her mother was an American missionary.  Hattie was sent to live with relatives in America when things began to get iffy in China, , but the parents were not able to leave and died there. After Hattie loses both her husband, and her best friend to cancer in a period of two years, she moves to the fictional Vermont town of Riverlake, where she lives in the mountains along with her three dogs. She has a small circle of walking friends, she paints, yet her days are still lonely. Her son Josh calls now and then to make sure all is well, but they rarely have very much to say to one another.

Before long an immigrant family from Cambodia, also trying to start a new and more peaceful life, move into town near Hattie. The Chung family is living in a trailer on church property. The family consists of a mother, father, teenage daughter and son and also an infant son here in Vermont. They also have two additional girls who were placed in foster homes prior to the family moving this area. While other members of the community struggle to sort out what their duty to the newcomers should be, Hattie has both the time and the willingness to assist this family in their transition to life in Vermont. Although the family is reluctant to let an outsider into their circle, Hattie takes to Sophy, the fifteen year old girl, who begins to open up and share with her the Chhung family’s painful past. When another neighbor, Ginny introduces Sophy to a fundamentalist Christian church, Sophy becomes obsessed with the its teachings and she begins to cool her relationship with Hattie, who is opposed to their beliefs.

Just as the Chungs arrival to the area changed Hattie’s life, so has the arrival of a former lover from her youth, Carter Hatch. He, like Hattie and the Chungs, moved to the area to start a new life. Carter and Hattie had worked together in neuroscience research,  had a relationship, but he rejected her due to his parents’ desires and wishes for him. They both married other people. Now Carter is divorced and retired, and back in the picture again.

There is a fairly strong strain of anti-fundamentalist Christianity in this story, with first Ginny being influenced by the church people to reject her husband of 37 years, and then influencing the young and impressionable Sophy to reject her family.

Different characters narrate their portions of the story in their own vernacular and rhythm, which some readers found hard to follow but which I really loved.   We learn of the difficult and tragic background of the Chungs,  the background to the marriage of Ginny and her husband, and throughout the events in the current time, we learn more and more about Hattie’s late husband and deceased friend.

Very enjoyable book, giving us much to think about concerning who is family, who is neighbor,

 

1Q84 by Haruki Marakami

925 pages of tedious story telling, overfull of breast descriptions, boring sexual acts, murder, cult sex, other sex, boring sex, and oh, yeah, some horsesh*t lame sci fi attempt about a different dimension world.

The female protagonist exits a blocked freeway to emerge in a different world.  Well, it looks the same, all except that police have different weapons, and there are two moons in this world.  She names it 1Q84, for First Question Mark 1984.  She is an assassin, working with a small secret organization to kill men who commit terrible sexual deeds.

The other main character is a writer and is sucked into ghostwriting or actually ghost rewriting a story written by a teenage girl, which is filled with tales about the Little People and other weird stuff, which she claims is true.

Back in grade school, the writer and the girl who attend the same school, never speak, but one time she takes his hand and squeezes it, and that becomes the basis for a lifelong love affair for both, although that year they part for different schools and never see each other again.

Very little is actually explained, it is not a fun story, it doesn’t make sense and it is hours and hours of my life I will never get back, nor will I ever read any more of Marakami.

Translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel.

 

 

THE NINTH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX By Liz Jensen

Louis Drax is a boy like no other. He is brilliant and strange, and every year something violent seems to happen to him. On his ninth birthday, Louis goes on a picnic with his parents and falls off a cliff. The details are shrouded in mystery. Louis’s mother is shell-shocked; his father has vanished. And after some confusion Louis himself, miraculously alive but deep in a coma, arrives at Dr. Pascal Dannachet’s celebrated coma clinic…Full of astonishing twists and turns, this is a masterful tale of the secrets the human mind can hide.

Can you say “Munchausen syndrome by proxy”, boys and girls?

Interesting read, told both in the voice of the young boy in the coma, and in the voice of the doctor treating him.

Sure are a lot of f**ked up people in the world, and this story is full of them.  But nevertheless, in spite of the weirdos, I did really really like it.

THE CAT’S TABLE by Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient, yeah THAT Michael Ondaatje.

A spellbinding story – by turns poignant and electrifying – about the magical, often forbidden, discoveries of childhood and a lifelong journey that begins unexpectedly with a spectacular sea voyage.

In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy in Colombo, the largest city of Sri Lanka,  boards a ship bound for England. At mealtimes he is seated at the “cat’s table” – as far from the Captain’s Table as can be – with a ragtag group of “insignificant” adults and two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin. As the ship makes its way across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean, the boys tumble from one adventure to another, bursting all over the place like freed mercury. But there are other diversions as well: one man talks with them about jazz and women, another opens the door to the world of literature. The narrator’s elusive, beautiful cousin Emily becomes his confidante, allowing him to see himself “with a distant eye” for the first time, and to feel the first stirring of desire. Another Cat’s Table denizen, the shadowy Miss Lasqueti, is perhaps more than what she seems. And very late every night, the boys spy on a shackled prisoner, his crime and his fate a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them forever.

As the narrative moves between the decks and holds of the ship and the boy’s adult years, it tells a spellbinding story – by turns poignant and electrifying – about the magical, often forbidden, discoveries of childhood and a lifelong journey that begins unexpectedly with a spectacular sea voyage. ”

Well, I found it neither spellbinding nor electrifying. Although the official plot description makes it sound like it is just chock full of adventure, it is a story in search of a plot, and the few events that do happen feel like Ondaatje realized that among all the musing and descriptions nothing was happening, so he stuck in some action stuff and called it good.

I found it somewhat boring and struggled to finish it, hoping for some big reveal at the end, but alas, that was not to be.

Remember Three Men in a Boat (to Say Nothing of the Dog)? Read about that book HERE.  This is Three Preteens in a Boat to say nothing about a dog which they smuggle on board who then bites a sick man in the throat, and then totally disappears.