In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume
Knopf, June 2015
I borrowed the book from the library.
Some authors have earned such a tremendous amount of goodwill from me, I’m willing to try their new books even after a long gap. (But I’m not sure that I’m ready to read Go Set A Watchman.) I’m fairly certain I’ve read almost every Judy Blume novel since I was 9 or 10, and while I don’t remember her adult novels so clearly, her books for kids are super-memorable.
In the Unlikely Event is a story sort of based on Judy Blume’s life: she grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the flight-path of Newark International Airport, in the 1950’s during the time of a major plane crash. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say as much because the cover is pretty on-the-nose.
Blume’s stand-in is Miri, a teenager living with her single mother and her grandmother in the apartment downstairs. There’s a large cast of characters surrounding Miri: her friends, her family, and several other people in Elizabeth, so there are stories about the plane crash from many perspectives. It’s a coming-of-age story with the background of dealing with a horrible plane crash in her neighborhood, and Blume’s strength is in creating realistic characters. Some aren’t totally fleshed out because her focus is on a teenage girl who doesn’t know everything about older people’s lives, but that’s not a problem with the story.
I really liked this book: I could tell that it was a story that wasn’t just dashed off, and it didn’t tell stories about a tragedy just for the sake of drama.
I’m counting this as my entry for New Jersey for the USA Fiction Challenge. It’s a reading challenge I’ve been neglecting this year, but I hope to make more progress before the end of the year.
Early Warning by Jane Smiley
Knopf, April 2015
Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.
Jane Smiley’s Last One Hundred Years Trilogy covers a century in roughly 1300 pages. While I was a fan of the first book, which happened to end in 1953, I have several reservations about Early Warning. I need less panorama and more characters whose actions make some sort of sense.
Early Warning covers the years of 1953 to 1986, and each chapter corresponds to one year. The four of the five Langdon children have moved all over the country while one stayed in Iowa to run the family farm. Both books end with a major character of one generation’s death (book 1 was the patriarch Walt Langdon, book 2 was a member of his child’s generation). Smiley also covers Vietnam, the Peoples Temple, psychotherapy, Reagan, and more. It’s an ambitious project, and at times I felt Smiley was veering into Forrest-Gump territory: because her cast is so big, she could have someone from the extended family touch on these events, and she went for it. Let me explain a little bit more about why the breadth of the novel didn’t sit right with me.
My biggest complaint about Early Warning is that the first half of the book (over 200 pages) barely gets into the wide cast of characters’ inner lives. I was mostly mystified by Frank Langdon, who’s clearly one of Smiley’s favorite characters, as he proceeded to be horrible to lots of people in his family and work life. He’s made millions in whatever industry he enters, including weapons and oil and gas. I had to take it on faith that he was charismatic or appealing to the other characters because we didn’t get into his wife’s head much at all, despite all the focus on her dedication to various psychotherapies in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s asking a lot of a reader to throw 250 pages of plot with lots of character without having a slightly ominiscient narrator or some sort of hints about the characters inner lives to go on. It’s especially glaring because the last half of the book is so thoroughly dedicated to the characters’ regrets, etc. Smiley has great faith that her readers find her characters as fascinating as she does, but I just don’t.
I sound grumpier than I actually was while I read this book: it’s easy to skim less appealing sections to get to the better half of the book or to avoid the parts that feel like places for her to show what research she did. There are several very affecting sections of the book. The wide canvas and large cast of characters without a central through-line makes me wish for something more. I’d even be happy if she cut out Frank Langdon and his obnoxious twin sons. Focussing on a smaller group of characters would have improved the story for me as we march through such a long period of time, or in the alternative, she could have written an even longer series of books so no character and no period of time gets too little attention.
I’m approaching the USA Fiction Challenge as a a perpetual one, and I’m pleasantly surprised that I’ve read books set in 7 states during the year.
- Colorado- The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings. This story is more of a family drama/character study than what I usually read.
- Maryland- After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman. Lippman imagines the effect of a mobster’s disappearance on his family over the decades in Baltimore.
- Pennsylvania- Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet. A story about a guilty pair of brothers in small-town Pennsylvania.
- Michigan- Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver. A story of a murder and murder trial in small-town Michigan.
- Minnesota- Only the Dead by Vidar Vidar Sundstøl. An exciting hunt for a suspected criminal in the woods in northern Minnesota.
- Massachusetts- Long May She Reign by Ellen Emerson White. The very satisfying conclusion of the President’s Daughter series where Meg leaves for college after recovering from her kidnapping.
- Iowa- Some Luck by Jane Smiley. The first book of a proposed trilogy covering the last 100 years covers a generation or so who lived on a farm in rural Iowa.
I didn’t realize the majority of my books took place in small towns, but I’m sure I’ll balance it out with more urban books as I read books from the East and West coasts.
Next year my goal is 10!
Irène by Pierre Lemaitre, translated by Frank Wynne
MacLehose Press, December 2014
Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher
Book 1: Commandant Verhoeven
I read Irène without knowing much about it. I’ve had the second book in the trilogy but first to be translated book, Alex, in my TBR folder on my Kindle for ages, I know Lemaitre’s books tend to be quite violent, but other than that I went into the book blind. But while I went into the book blind, I unavoidably have to talk about what to expect.
Irène involves the short Commandant Verhoeven with a very pregnant wife, Irène, leading the investigation into a series of killings inspired by crime novels. The murders are quite brutal, and I admit that I skimmed some gruesome sections in order to get on with the story. I admit that I missed some of the resonances because I’ve only read one of the books that inspired one of the murders, but that particular section was a very good homage to the original.
The rest of the story focuses on the dynamics within Camille’s team, and they are an interesting bunch. I’m also particularly interested in their police interrogation techniques because I recently read an old New Yorker article about the Reid interrogation technique in the United States and how it may contribute to false confessions. Seeing a different approach in fiction in France was a good antidote to that approach.
The book feels very indebted to other crime novels, and not in a disturbing way like the serial killer’s homage to those fictional murder scenes. But there is a major twist in the story that explains why the violence is so incredibly brutal in the majority of the book, and for that I’m inclined to give Lemaitre a pass for the horrible murders. I’m a bit reluctant to do so despite the twist and despite the explanation. See also Herman Koch’s Summer House with Swimming Pool. It’s hard to get involved with a story that seems to be so much about proving a point about violence (or misogyny in Koch’s case) because I’m still reading a very violent or misogynistic book. I’m still unsettled by the book.
All She Was Worth by Miyuki Miyabe
Translated by Alfred Birnbaum
Kodansha International, 1996
Originally published as Kasha, 1992
I borrowed the book from the library.
It took quite awhile for me to find a translated crime novel from Asia I’d like to finish for the Global Reading Challenge– a problem I ran into last year as well. First of all, there aren’t so many crime novels written by Asians that are translated into English. Secondly, I tried a few novels I just wasn’t in the mood to read because their tone was too noir (Yoshida) or or something I can’t quite label (Higashino).
Despite the very disturbing cover, I liked this book. The story centers on a missing persons case: injured and recuperating police detective Honma investigates his cousin’s son’s fiancee’s disappearance, and the story revolves around overextended consumer borrowers who are harrassed by legal and yakuza bill collectors. From the description, the cover image seems a little on-the-nose.
The story is a bit slow and the plot relies a bit heavily on coincidences, complaints I feel like I make with other missing-persons novels, but Honma is an engaging character. Since he’s on leave from the police department, the book doesn’t get into office dynamics and instead focuses on his homelife with his young son and nanny (he was widowed a few years before the novel takes place).
Two aspects of the story make it feel particularly Japanese, one major and one minor: first is the background of the Consumer Finance Scare of the 1980’s, and second is Honma’s reliance on bullet trains. The easy credit part of the story is crucial to the missing persons case, and it sounds an awful lot like the housing bubble of the 2000’s. And the existence of bullet trains and the communities that grow around them stands out for me since I live in a part of the world without widespread train service.
Finally, I want to include the funniest bit from Miyabe’s author bio, “In her spare time, she enjoys playing video games and singing karaoke.” It reads a little like,”Authors: they’re just like us!”
Other reviews appear in Complete Review, Petrona, and Black Plume.
Long May She Reign by Ellen Emerson White
Feiwel and Friends, 2007
The President’s Daughter book 4
I bought my copy of the book.
Sometime well into adulthood I discovered The President’s Daughter series by Ellen Emerson White. Written in the 1980’s, they feature Meg Powers, the teenage daughter of a female senator and then first female President of the United States. They are full of teen angst, complicated family relationships, and, in White House Autumn, a horrible crime. Meg is kidnapped and held hostage, and then the series was on hiatus for over ten years. In 2007, Emerson White published the next installment in the series, and it feels like an adult book. Meg is coping with the physical and emotional effects of her capture and imprisonment, and after a long section at the White House, she leaves for college in Western Massachusetts.
It is very much a political novel (Meg is quite interested in a political future), it’s very much a novel about coping with something horrible that happened to you and processing it– that alone allies it with the vast majority of crime novels I’m drawn to. I’m always curious how characters cope with such senselessly horrible things that happen to them and their loved ones. Finally, it’s a novel about growing up and going away to college. The very interesting character of Meg is what kept me going in this long book that has quite serious moments as she deals with her family and friends as she’s coping with trauma and rehabilitation. She’s funny, she’s smart, she’s stubborn: she is a messy character, and I find those so refreshing.
I simply adored this book: it felt like a long, thoughtful book revisiting characters I was very fond of some time ago instead of a rushed novel. I like series in general, and this one is one of my favorites because the conclusion was so damn good. My only regret about the book was that Meg abandoned her beloved drink of choice, Tab, for the more 21-century-appropriate Coke in this novel, but that doesn’t even rise to the level of real regret.
The Children Act by Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese, September 2014
Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.
The Children Act is a short, thoughtful character study of Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in London who grapples with her own marital difficulties while dealing with a few major cases that involve children and religion, notably a hospital’s application to transfuse a 17 year old leukemia patient who refused because he is a Jehovah’s Witness.The focus on character is quite good, and it’s quite evident how years of being a lawyer and judge shape Fiona’s worldview and thought processes. It makes it difficult for her to handle her own marital crisis:
Her emotional tone, as she sometimes referred to it, and which she liked to monitor, was entirely novel.
But Fiona’s marital troubles do not occupy the bulk of the book: McEwan spends most of this short novel describing Fiona’s work on two major cases involving families and religion. It’s difficult to say more about such a short work, but I enjoyed the novel for its characters and its precise writing.
My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher via Blogging for Books.
Before I started reading lots of crime fiction I was an English major who read a bit of everything. I read Middlemarch just a few months before I graduated and was very impressed: it was a soapy, serialized drama, it was serious, and Eliot was so generous to her characters. I picked out My Life in Middlemarch not only because of my fondness of the book but because of my fondness of Mead’s writing in the New Yorker (lots of profiles as well as other pieces, and her book about the wedding industrial complex is entertaining and fascinating too). If you don’t love Middlemarch, I’d avoid this book.
This is a biblio-memoir, which means it’s part a close reading of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, part memoir of Rebecca Mead as she’s reread the book since she was a teenager, part biographical sketch of Eliot and those close to her, and part a travelogue as Mead tries to understand the world Eliot wrote in and lived in. It’s a book that I dipped in and out of because the structure, which follows the structure of each installment of the novel, didn’t have the forward momentum I usually look for in my reading. That’s not to say the book was uninteresting: I just felt the need to take breaks occasionally.
Shame by Karin Alvtegen, translated by Steven T. Murray
Originally published as Skam, 2005
I discovered Karin Alvtegen in Barry Forshaw’s Death in a Cold Climate, and I started with Shame (the books are not part of a series) just because that’s the book I located first. I was quite impressed with Shame, and I’ve seen several blogs mention that it’s not her strongest work: I’m looking forward to reading more.
While the blurb on the cover calls it a “compulsive thriller,” I think the book is more suspenseful than full of thrills. Shame is the story of two unconnected women who are dealing with unresolved shame issues about their pasts. Monika is a doctor whose teenage brother died about twenty years before, and Maj-Britt is a woman who became a homebound morbidly obese woman because of her inability to deal with her past. Alvtegen doesn’t exploit her characters: she goes deep into the minds of these damaged women and conveys the depths and changes in their feelings very closely. The book is a compulsive read too because Alvtegen alternates perspectives in each chapter: the cliffhanger at the end of one character’s chapter isn’t resolved until two chapters later. Also, this is a book that deals with psychology, sex, religion, and death, but it’s not really centered on a crime.
I’ve read a few repressed-memory or woman-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown books in the past few months (Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment and Peter May’s The Blackhouse), and I’m spent. I recommend Shame with the caveat that it can put you through the wringer emotionally.
Other reviews appear in Euro Crime and How Mysterious!
I bought my copy of the book.
I’m happy to have completed the expert level of the 2013 Global Reading Challenge: it was a challenging challenge, and I discovered some great books along the way. I read three books from each continent, and my wild card continent (to substitute for Antarctica) was for books that take place in more than one country. Without further ado, here is the list of books I reviewed for the challenge:
- The Power of Three by Laura Lippman (Maryland)
- A Cold and Lonely Place by Sara J. Henry (New York)
- Guilt by Jonathan Kellerman (California)
Central & South America
- Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo (Argentina)
- The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero (Chile)
- The Silence of the Rain by Luis Alfredo Garcia-Roza (Brazil)
- The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths (England)
- Misterioso by Arne Dahl (Sweden)
- Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo (France)
- Pale Horses by Jassy Mackenzie (South Africa)
- Deadly Harvest by Michael Stanley (Botswana)
- Black Star Nairobi by Mukoma Wa Ngugi (Kenya)
- Inspector Imanishi Investigates by Seichō Matsumoto (Japan)
- The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang (China)
- Behind the Night Bazaar by Angela Savage (Thailand)
- Food of Ghosts by Marianne Wheelaghan (Kiribati)
- Frantic by Katherine Howell (Australia)
- The Mistake by Wendy James
Wild Card (Multiple countries in one book)
- The Name of a Bullfighter by Luis Sepúlveda (Chile, Germany)
- The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (Sweden, Czechoslovakia)
- The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (US, India)
Now for a few observations about my reading:
- This challenge is great for getting me to try new authors from countries I don’t typically read about, but I think I need to take a step back for the coming year and read one book from each continent instead of trying to find translated books from three countries in each continent. I hope to spend more time reading more of the authors I’ve discovered this year instead of pushing for a large number of new-to-me authors in 2014.
- It’s difficult finding crime novels set in Asia that are translated into English from a multitude of countries. There are a few from Japan, but little elsewhere, or maybe I need to focus on lots of small presses or ebook only releases to find them. Africa was also difficult. I’m not sure how much of this is because of the lack of crime novels written in those countries and how much is related to what publishers decided to translate for the English-speaking market. I am thankful to my fellow challenge participants for suggesting so many interesting authors.
- My favorite books of the challenge were by Laura Lippman, Ernesto Mallo, Elly Griffiths, Angela Savage, and Jhumpa Lahiri.
Thanks to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for hosting the challenge this year.