lisamaria_c

Reviews
More
Last Night at the Lobster

by

It would be easy to slight this novel--novella really; I read its 146 pages in less than two hours. The style was described as spare in reviews and its emotions are understated and it deals with ordinary people on an ordinary day where nothing extraordinary happens. It's four shopping days before Christmas and a Red Lobster restaurant at a New England mall is closing. At the start of the novel its manager, Manny DeLeon, is opening up for the last shift. Through the day he deals with difficult customers, even more difficult employees, and an impending blizzard. That's it. But O'Nan really is brilliant in his little character sketches of the people who come through the doors of the restaurant. And even if his prose could be called spare, it's not lacking in the punctilious detail, from the yellow bands on the lobsters in the tank to the cheap toilet paper, bringing the place sharply to the eye. It's elegiac in tone but never sentimental, melancholy and bittersweet with more than a touch of humor, while the present tense lends both immediacy and lyricism. If O'Nan never worked in a restaurant, he nevertheless evidently did his homework, and serves up a slice of working class life and depicts well what it feels like to work with a group of people--the loyalties, betrayals, resentments, rivalries. I only read one O'Nan novel before this, A Prayer for the Dying, and it's hard to think of a novel more different. It was set in the American West right after the Civil War during an epidemic. It doesn't have any element of the supernatural yet won the International Horror Guild Awards for Best Novel in 2000. That novel was gruesome and grim--and a stunner. This is a much more quiet, gentle story. I'd say the only thing they have in common is the restraint in language and emotions, and in both novels that's extremely effective. I'm impressed by this author's range. I'll definitely be reading him again.
Miracle in the Andes

by and

Even in the minds of the co-authors, this book is overshadowed by another, Piers Paul Read's Alive, which told this story of a plane crash and the months that followed in the Andes using interviews of the survivors. Nando Parrado, one of those survivors called Alive a "magnificent book" and said he had not tried to tell his own story for 30 years because he felt that book already covered "all the public needed to know." Vince Rause in his acknowledgments admitted wondering if another book was necessary since Alive "told that story in such exhaustive detail, and with such definitive scope and power." I read Alive decades ago--it was assigned reading in high school, and it made an indelible impression. There was little in this account that was a surprise to me, because I remembered so many of the details of that other book, and I'd certainly say if you're going to read only one account of this story, it should be that one--it's wonderfully and sensitively written. But Rouse said he thought another account would be worthwhile if Parrado was really willing to open up and take you back on that mountain and help you think what he thought and felt what he felt and take you along on the spiritual and physical journey he took, and in that I think it succeeds wonderfully. In fact, at certain points I was even moved close to tears, and that isn't easy. Alive emphasized the importance of their shared faith in the ordeal they underwent. There were 45 passengers and crew on that plane, and within a week there were only 27 survivors with all the food running out. To stay alive, those remaining had to resort to eating the bodies of the dead. To allow themselves to do that, some clung to their faith, even trying to see their taking nourishment from their dead as a form of communion. It was different for Parrado, who would take his survival into his own hands and with one companion make a near impossible climb over the mountain to go get help. Certainly, if there was one survivor of that ordeal whose story I'd want to know, it's his--because he didn't just wait to die. For him in the end the miracle of the Andes wasn't from God. He wrote that he found the "opposite of death is not mere living... courage or faith or human will." It's love. In the end, it was his love for the family that would be grieving for him that pushed him to endure. Parrado's account of the psychology of survival reminded me of nothing so much of accounts I've read of survival in concentration camps--which went well beyond the mere physical. This doesn't to my mind replace Alive, but it's a book well worth having together with it on your shelf.
The Cat's Table

by

This was beautifully written and characterized. If I was reluctant to give it five stars, well, I've had a run of special books lately; I read this on the heels of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, and in comparison this didn't move or amaze me as much or make me think, "yes, I will reread this." On the other hand, it did make me think, "I'd definitely try more of this author." (Although I've read this novel is atypical for the author in several respects--more accessible, less experimental in style.)It's a fairly short, fast read. It's written as if it was a memoir of Michael, looking back to when he was eleven-years-old traveling alone from his birthplace of Ceylon to his new home in England. The time embraced is longer than that, as we get glimpses of the island home he's leaving, and times since, for the voyage reverberates strongly in his life afterwards. But the focus is on the small "city" or "castle" of the ship S.S. Oronsay during a three-week voyage in 1954 through the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. Its spaces and decks are described with enough detail to bring it vividly to mind. In its way it's as impressive a work of world-building as a work of fantasy or science fiction. The cast of characters is vividly presented too--particularly the members of the "Cat's Table." The Cat's Table is the opposite of the Captain's Table. It's as far away as possible from that place of honor, in the most undesirable spot, and peopled with the least socially distinguished of the liner's passengers. But quite a few of those people become important both to the young Michael (not lost on me he shares a name with the author) and to the reader. They're more than they appear at first, several having secrets of their own. There's the other two young boys his own age, Ramadhin and Cassius, the "spinster" Miss Lasquetti, the botanist Larry Daniels with his garden of poisonous plants in the ship's hold, Mr Nevil, who dismantles ships for a living, and the mysterious pianist Mazappa. There are some elements of the plot that stretch credulity more than a bit, but mostly this is a sweet, though not too sweet, tale of childhood, when you believed anything could happen, and thought it had. It was a pleasure to read.
New York: The Novel

by

My first Rutherfurd work was Sarum, his novel telling the story of the history of England by focusing on five lineages down the centuries in the area around Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral. The style wasn’t anything special, even clunky at times, and with almost 9,000 years of history to cover, few characters ever felt fleshed out. It was a novel more broad than deep; it was historical fiction, almost more dramatized history text than stories with history as a backdrop. All of that can also be said of New York: the Novel which tries to encapsulate about 350 years of the history of New York City, mostly by following one family of English descent, the Masters, who early on married into one of the founding Dutch families, but as with Sarum, the effect is cumulative, and I found myself completely engaged through its 860 pages.I’m a native New Yorker, and as such so much of this book in the very beginning was irresistible. The book starts in 1664 when the population of New York City (New Amsterdam then) was only 1,500 people. I had a blast seeing all the Dutch Colonial origins of the name places around my city, some of which I knew (Wall Street, Canal Street, Harlem, Broadway, Manna hata, Bronck's land) and some not (Jonkers, Bouwerie, Pearl Street). The book, although focused on the Masters, also includes cameos by such historical figures as Peter Stuyvesant, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, J. P. Morgan, Enrico Caruso. The chapters are almost more connected short stories than one united narrative with decades sometimes passing between them. I found among the most striking the early chapters, “New York” and “New Amsterdam” (Margarethe de Groot featured there was among the strongest female characters in the book), “The Patriot” and “Vanessa” which skillfully depicted the growing divide between the colonies and Mother country, “Draft” about the 1863 Draft Riots, “Old England” where an Irish family reinvents its past.Some reviewers complain the portrait of New York City isn’t diverse enough. I think that’s a casualty of Rutherford’s formula of trying to follow the history of the city through just a few families from the beginning, and particularly putting such emphasis on the Masters. I do feel Sarum did better in interweaving the various lineages over the centuries. Early in New York there was a thread about a family of African Americans. One early chapter was even written first person from the point of view of a slave in that family, but the African American story in the novel petered out and disappears after the Civil War. Irish and German immigrants don't come into the novel until after a good third of it has passed and Italians and Jews not until well after the half-way mark. Even though Rutherfurd mentions that there had been Jewish families in the city from the days of the Dutch, the novel doesn’t really deal with Jewish life in the city before the 1950s. I felt Rutherfurd missed an opportunity not making one such family a thread in his tapestry from the beginning, though I imagine he worried that might make things too unwieldy. He could have kept the Native American thread going too. Not many of the original Lenape are still here, that's true, but until recently there was a community of Mohawks in Brooklyn for over a century; a lot of Mohawks were involved in building our skyscrapers. No Asians are even mentioned until very late in the novel--there's nothing here about Chinatown at all. Centering the narrative on one family isn’t the best way to view such a dynamic, changing city. So many New Yorkers came from somewhere else, and few of us have roots that go deep: my father was born in Baltimore, Maryland, where his family had been for ages, my mother in rural Puerto Rico. My family’s own intersection with the city would only cover the last 150 pages of this multigenerational saga. It’s in the last chapters from the 1970s on where I can speak from personal experience I found weakest, that I thought rushed and where parts didn’t ring true. It’s a small thing, but he got wrong the details about the top three public high schools students could enter through competitive examination. Hunter high school would have still been an all girls school at the time his character Juan Campos could have attended. The three magnet public high schools in the sixties and beyond a boy could attend were Stuyvesant, Bronx Science--and Brooklyn Tech, not Hunter. I went to one of those schools--much later than Rutherford’s character would have, but no I can’t imagine Puerto Ricans being discouraged from trying or attending the way Rutherfurd presented it--not by that time anyway. There was nothing about the homeless problem that hit New York City in the 80s that was such a shock to me when I first saw it in my youth. (I recently read New York City is home to 14 percent of the national homeless population.) Nothing about how AIDs hit the vibrant gay community in New York (Gays and lesbians are almost invisible in this massive novel. There's just a brief mention in one of the last chapters of someone in one of the families being gay and of the Stonewall riot.) And Rutherford had only this to say about the Dinkins years: “Mayor Koch had been succeeded by Mayor Dinkins who, as an African American, had been perceived as more sympathetic to the troubles of Harlem and the other deprived areas.” Nothing about the Crown Heights riot that took place during those years that were a watershed for the city. Rutherford devotes a chapter to the 1977 blackouts, but not one line about what was, I think, as much a shock to New Yorkers. Mind you, it’s still a bitter, still a controversial event; I realize that. Dealing with it and its repercussions in New York City would have taken guts. But what else is fiction for? There are so many sides, so many strands to New York I pity anyone trying to tell our story. There was a lot in the book (including African American aspects) of the history of the city I never knew, so even a native like me felt I learned a lot. And a lot Rutherfurd got so very right. I couldn’t help smiling when John Master tells off a Thomas Jefferson determined to move the capital that, “New York is the true capital of America. Every New Yorker knows it, and by God we always will.” What proud New Yorker would disagree? In his introduction Rutherfurd called New York “a much-loved city.” His affection and respect for my city definitely came through.
In the Country of Men

by

I liked this overall--with a mild kept-reading-to-the-end liking, but I couldn't love it as I wanted to. The reason being I think just about the most unlikable child protagonist I've encountered in literature. The story is set in Qaddafi's Libya in 1979, and I did love how Matar rendered the setting--everything from the political to the personal to the foods and literature consumed. I came out of the book feeling I had a good sense what it was like growing up in that place and time. The writing was vivid, brought the place and people and events to life in a very realistic, gritty, often brutal way. The problem was Suleiman, the nine-year-old boy through which we see the events of this story. One review called him "a little shit" and it's apt. OK, he's a little boy--one might say just an ordinary one and that one should cut him some slack. I had no problem with identifying with the fear of the boy in Hosseini's The Kite Runner and how it caused him to feel guilt for not saving his friend, and that book I found tremendously moving. But even for nine-years-old, Suleiman acted in ways not just cowardly but monumentally stupid--worse, he acted in ways malicious and treacherous. I felt a lot more sympathy for his mother, forced into marriage with his father when she was fourteen years old. The whole Scheherazade motif in the novel did work for me, and I felt for her broken dreams. It wasn't hard to feel for the boy's father either, taking risks to try to bring democracy to his country. But the boy? No. Maybe it made it worse that this wasn't just written in first person, but actually from the point of view of the adult Suleiman, and I just didn't get any sense of guilt or regret--he seemed to have learned nothing.
On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel

by

This is one of those expatriot memoirs where an American or Brit pulls up stakes to live la bella vita--or the simpler life--in some warm clime. Think Frances Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun or Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, usually told oh so lyrically, eruditely, with lots of literary allusions and mentions of mouth-watering cuisine. I’ve been reading through a recommendation list of such travel writing--this was the last--and I suppose my reaction to this one might be put down to having become rather jaded and cranky reading one after another. The blurbs of reviews inside claim Cohan is a better, more gifted writer than you usually see in these travelogues, and call his prose “vivid,” “elegant,” “poetic” and the inevitable, “lyrical.” It boasts the present tense that is the insignia of the literati, rather choppy prose given lots of sentence fragments and short, declarative sentences, and sports such lines as: “Dew drops quiver on the spiky tips of barrel cacti in the glimmering dawn.” I’m afraid reading I often felt suffocated by perfume. The style was possibly my biggest problem with this book--far, far too flowery for my tastes. There also was something about Cohan’s sensibility that grated on me. There often is an implied insult to expatriot tales if you’re from the country fled from, but in that respect this was the worst among the dozen or so I have read. I took umbrage at the description of New York City, and particularly the Columbia University area, which I know well. He claimed his daughter lived in an apartment on 110th Street infested with “rats and roaches.” (Rats? Mice and roaches I’d believe--was she living in a crack house?) And the neighborhood was filled with “Bums and muggers, rappers and dopeheads.” A lot more dire than I’d describe it, and given the exaggeration about a place I know well, I suspected Cohan felt he had to trash America in order to paint Mexico in this much more idyllic light. It’s a subtle distinction perhaps, but I remember Mayes, for instance, as showing Italy’s appeal without sounding like she felt a need to feel superior to America and its “consumerism” and yet at the same time with Cohan there’s a patronizing streak towards Mexico evident to me at times.Yet I continued reading beyond the 100-page mark, because I found interesting reading a description of Mexico. It’s a country Americans should know and understand better than we do, and Cohan did weave in bits of in the history and culture of the land he’s residing in, even if I never felt he quite left the lifestyle and mindset of a tourist. And if I sometimes felt he romanticized life in a third world country, at least he wasn’t completely unaware of his privileged status. But if I had to describe in one word the way Cohan came across to me, it would be: smug.
Destiny of the Republic

by

James Garfield is one of those on the list of American presidents no one remembers, if not for the fact he is one of four of our presidents to be assassinated, the second after Lincoln. I had also heard before that Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, attempted to use a new invention of his to find the bullet lodged in Garfield's body. After this book, which definitely had some moving passages, I doubt I'll ever forget again our 20th president, who had served for only three months before being gunned down. Even the nondescript bookends who preceded and succeeded him, Rutherford Hayes and Chester Arthur, are more solid personages to me now. That's one of the things good biography can do--it's a wonderful window into history, to see it through the focus of one life. For much of this fast-reading book, Millard built up Garfield as a paragon, so you wonder if it might have changed the "destiny of the republic" as the title suggests had he lived. Garfield was an "ardent abolitionist" and supporter of black suffrage who won a crucial battle in the American Civil War; Frederick Douglass was a supporter and admirer of Garfield. Millard hints he might have done much to fight for civil rights for Blacks in the South, that he was soon to travel South and give a important speech on race relations. One of the faults of the book, however, is that she doesn't really pin down what his agenda was, and doesn't really speculate on what difference it might have made had he lived. Milliard does give reason to believe that Garfield had a first rate mind and he certainly wasn't power-seeking--at least according to this account. He went to the Republican convention to nominate another man for President and left it the Republican candidate for President--according to Milliard to his chagrin and deep embarrassment--but notably, he didn't turn it down.The picture of Garfield struck me as too good to be true. Nevertheless, there's the small moment that did say a lot about the man's decency. Shot down, his head on the lap of a bystander who rushed to him, he turned his head to avoid vomiting on her skirt. That did speak to me of his consideration of others even in the worse of circumstances, and when I was recounting that story to my aunt I found myself choking back tears. It was hard to read the last third of the book about Garfield's suffering under the ministrations of his doctors, as responsible as the madman who shot him for his death. Ah, 19th century medicine. It seems reading this story, that at least until the 20 century, you probably would have a better chance surviving staying away from doctors than calling them.I wouldn't call this a scholarly history, despite the endnotes and bibliography at the back of the book. It's one of those popular histories written "like a novel" with all sorts of immediate details, ones leaving you dubious they could be gained from a historical record--although according to the introduction, Milliard certainly did plenty of research, even talking to descendents of Garfield. Overall I'd call this, even if not particularly insightful or deep, an entertaining book--and hey, I was tempted to give it a fourth star for making me choke up--I'm not easy. But when I compare this in my mind to the best presidential biographies I've read, or even Milliard's excellent River of Doubt about Theodore Roosevelt, this feels a bit too lightweight to rate higher.
scribd