Millard Salter’s Last Day

Writing: 5 Characters: 5 Plot: 3

New word for me: Lordotic (an abnormal forward curvature of the spine in the lumbar region, resulting in a swaybacked posture)

MillardSalterMillard Salter – a Consulting Psychiatrist who “provides mental health services for the physically ill in hospitals” has decided to commit suicide on his 75th birthday. In his own terms, his is a “rational suicide”, a “curated death”.  He simply doesn’t want to end his days in the same painful, feeble, isolated way of so many others. This book is the story of this last day.

The story is told completely from his perspective – we see events, characters, and the past, solely through his eyes.  Poignant memories, surprising interactions, and a panoply of characters fill the pages.  Reading the memories of the old Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx felt like a love letter to me. We are deftly moved from childhood memories to current events to recent memories, from minor irritations at work (a baby lynx has gone missing at the hospital) to major irritations at the graveyard (his burial plot has been usurped!). This is no painful Proustian obsession – quite a bit actually happens on this day – I was surprised to reach the end and realize that only a day had passed.

The writing is excellent – clear and incisive and full of brilliant lines.  Millard says of his recently deceased wife Isabelle: “she possessed a knack for distilling people”.  I would say the same is true of the author.  Character after character, line after line, just nailed it.  Thinking about his son, Lysander, Millard finds himself “pondering whether a man who hadn’t yet amounted to a bucket of warm glue might not generate  an artistic or literary masterwork at the age of 43…”.  I really had to read that line a few times. Great use of fun words too (I’m always pleased when someone can use tatterdemalion persuasively in a sentence.

One note – the descriptive blurbs on Amazon are completely misleading.  This book has nothing in common with “A Man Called Ove” aside from the two main characters sharing initial thoughts of suicide.  Ove is a curmudgeon (a bad-tempered or surly person according to dictionary.com), but Millard is not. He is neither bad-tempered nor surly – he does have many opinions that don’t always adhere to the accepted norms of the society but I find it interesting that non conformity automatically stamps with him with curmudgeonhood!  Millard has many opinions that are clearly his own – well thought out and adhering to no particular ideology.  I found it insightful and refreshing.

I really loved this book – Millard’s voice is one I will remember for a long time.

Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley

Writing: 5; Plot: 4; Characters: 5

Tags:  YA; Uplifting

Beautiful, heartbreaking in places, but mostly uplifting – this is one of the best YA books I’ve read this year. Henry loves poetry, Rachel loves science, and they have been best friends for years (as per a contract made in year 3 (<- Australian school system)). They have been incommunicado for three years due to some life changes and miscommunications but now are back in the same city.  Things are different though: Henry stands to lose Howling Books, the bookstore his family has owned for years, and Rachel is in shock over her brother’s recent drowning.

In addition to Rachel and Henry, the book abounds in interesting characters – Henry’s sister George, with long blue-streaked hair and a suspicious nature; Martin, the database nerd who likes George; Lola, the devoted bandleader of the Hollow; and a cat named Ray Bradbury.  Howling Books is the used bookstore of dreams. It contains a “Letters Library” where people are encouraged to annotate, speculate on, or invite comments from others in their favorite books.  Often people leaves notes for each other in these books and we are treated to wonderful conversational vignettes encapsulated in these epistolary streams.   There are lots of fun book references, lists, summaries and discussions.  My favorite is Henry’s two-line summary of Borges “Library of Babel”  – “I decided it was about people needing the answers to the world, to the universe, and going mad trying to find them”.

Great writing, full of interesting and well-developed discussions about life, love, death, and what is really important. Funny and insightful.

 

What To Say Next by Julie Buxbaum

Writing: 4 Characters: 5 Plot: 4

I fell in love with these characters.

This is a young adult boy meets girl story, but the boy is David Drucker, who may or may not have Aspergers Syndrome (he probably does, he spends a fair amount of time analyzing  the DSM with respect to his personality) and the girl is Kit Lowell, still in shock from her father’s accidental death just a month before.  Kit finds David weird, but “good weird”; David has Kit on his “trust list” as detailed in the Harriet-the-spy style notebook his sister Miney helped him start to record and reference the rules of social interaction.

I won’t give away any of the plot – suffice it to say that the things that happen are interesting, plausible, surprising, and give rise to reflection and growth on the part of the characters.  The story is told in their alternating voices.

I spent some more time wondering about why stories about people on the autistic spectrum interest me so much and I think its the aspect of the syndrome whereby they don’t get nuance, don’t get the social signals, and always tell it straight.  I think the ability to lie and manipulate (even for good) is really overrated.  It’s so refreshing (and relaxing) to talk to someone (or read about someone talking to someone else) and know that what they say is actually what they mean.  I think the world would be a better place if people could actually say what they thought and other people could receive that information without excess offense and emotion. I would like to be sensitive to what other people think and feel, and to be aware that they don’t necessarily share my background, experiences, or opinions; but if I have to modify what I say in order to please or calm them, then we aren’t really having an honest conversation.  Minority opinion, I know!

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

Writing: 5 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

The spellbinding adventure story of a British expedition to Peru in 1860 to steal Cinchona trees for their desperately needed Quinine production capabilities. Merrick Tremayne is a badly injured ex-East India Company employee.  Master gardener, one-time opium smuggler and tea plantation manager, he is now living off the “benevolence” of an angry brother in a crumbling estate in Cornwall. Enter Sir Clement Markham – a bit of a swashbuckler with a title – and the backing of the East India Company, and off they go.

The story gets odder and odder as it progresses.  Not a typical adventure story, we meet quinine barons anxious to keep a monopoly, travel to a village in the mountains with very strange and ancient Incan technology, and encounter stone statues that behave oddly.  Most importantly, Merrick is befriended by a large Indian fluent in Quechuan, Spanish, and a kind of archaic English and it is this friendship that slowly takes priority in the story.

I was completely pulled in bit by bit and I don’t think I once figured out where the story was going next.  Pulley’s prose is mesmerizing – I had to slow myself down so I could read every word.  I’ve ordered her previous novel (The Watchmaker on Filigree Street) and hope it is every bit as good!

Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

Writing: 4; Characters: 4; Plot: 4

Tags: Fiction, first-person narration, good for book clubs

Ginny Moon is an autistic teen living with her “Forever” pareGinnymoonnts.  She calls them “Forever Mom” and Forever Dad”.  Soon, she will have a “Forever Sister”. But Ginny has an obsession with the Baby Doll she had 5 years ago in her original home before she was taken away for abuse and neglect. With single minded determination she works hard to fulfill the responsibility she feels towards her Baby Doll with some pretty surprising results.

I’m fascinated by Autism for some reason – I find brains that work differently to be intriguing and there is something very appealing about the direct, lie avoidant, non conformist, approach that autistic brains seem to take.  I’ve always liked this line from a poster written by someone with autism about neurotypicals (the rest of us): “Neurotypical syndrome is a neurobiological disorder characterized by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity.”

In any case, Ginny Moon is a delightful book.  Ludwig appears to do a good job of presenting the story from Ginny’s perspective, but of course we are all listening to the story with our neurotypical responses so reading the story often gave me brain confusion as I struggled to rectify the two – it was fun to experience! Benjamin Ludwig and his wife adopted a teenager with autism so I’m guessing this book is written with some real experience.

Glass Houses by Louise Penny

Writing: 2  Characters: 2  Plot: 2 (on scale from 1-5)

Tags: Mystery

GlassHousesIn this installment of the Inspector Gamache series, he tackles the drug cartels and the fentanyl crisis (which we are reminded frequently kills 50 people for every kilo sold) all out of the seemingly peaceful sanctity of Three Pines. Meanwhile, a disturbing, hooded figure takes up residence on the Village Green and silently stares, bringing a sense of forboding to the sleepy town. Modeled after a Cobrador, or Conscience with a capital C, everyone in the Village feels certain it has come for them.

This is a hard review to write.  I’m a huge Louise Penny fan – I loved the first 11 books in the Inspector Gamache series and eagerly preordered the 12th, pouncing on it as soon as it arrived.  Perhaps those high expectations are part of why I found this book so absolutely dreadful.  Had it been any other author I would have stopped reading after the first couple of chapters.  The writing is simply bad.  It reads like a first draft. Characters that I loved, that had wonderful depth in previous books, have become caricatures of themselves. I literally do not like these people any more.

The structure is a big part of the problem.  The book opens at the murder trial with Gamache on the witness stand.  We don’t find out who was actually murdered until 50% of the way through the book.  It is 75% of the way through the book before we find out who the accused murderer is.  There is very little action (until the very end) and the dramatic tension is maintained not by what is happening but by what we as readers aren’t told.  Multiple chapters end with Gamache and Beauvoir looking at a new piece of startling information and exchanging serious looks – but the reader isn’t let in on the secret.  About 60% of the book alternates between repetitious hand-wringing (about the drug crisis, the scary guy on the green, or Gamache’s approach (or apparent lack of approach) to solving the problem) and bland filler about food and drink (and by the way, for a novel focussed on how terrible the drug crisis is, our heroes drink A LOT!).  That is just sloppy writing!

The last chapters in the book, where the action finally comes to a head, reminds me of the old Louise Penny.  I enjoyed reading that, but it in no way made up for the hours I spent slogging through the rest.  I know that Ms Penny’s husband died, and I know that writing was her escape during a very, very, difficult time and I feel bad giving it a bad review, but I can’t pretend something is good when it is really very, very bad!  I wish she had gone back and and done some editing before releasing.  I will certainly give her the benefit of the doubt and give the next book (if there is a next book) a try, but this book was truly awful.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

A beautifully written book about art, life, loss, and the morality of revenge that spans three Golden Ages – 17th century Holland, New York City in the 1950s, and Sydney in the year 2000.  According to the author, each a time of “bullish optimism with its own dark underbelly”.

Sara de Vos is a fictional character based on Dutch women painters of the 1600s – she is the first female to be admitted to the Guild of St Luke (for painters and artists). Ellie Shipley is an Art History grad student at Columbia in the late 50s, with a lucrative side line in art consultancy and conservancy; Marty De Groot is a wealthy lawyer whose painting – the only de Vos painting known to exist – has been stolen from his house and replaced with a forgery.  Although he feels it has brought nothing but unhappiness and early death to his family over their three hundred years of ownership, he feels compelled to track down the forger.

A well-paced story sprinkled with lucid technical details about painting, restoration (and forgery), and the care and transportation of art works as they cross the globe on inter-museum loans.  Filled with Tom Wolfe-style social commentary (but less biting) and richly drawn characters with plausible insight into their own desires, motivations, and perils.  It’s a shame the paintings described don’t exist as you’ll finish the novel longing to see them.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Wow! Another great book!  This one defies easy description – the book jacket blurb doesn’t do it justice at all.  Eleanor Oliphant, as the title suggests, is completely fine but really isn’t.  Having survived a truly traumatic event in her childhood (which we learn about via small hints because even she has completely repressed the memory) she is simply ill prepared for living, even though she goes through the motions.

Eleanor is very smart with a huge vocabulary, an interest in the classics, perfect pitch and a complete disinterest in the opinions and practices of those around her.  The story is told in her voice – reminiscent of the narrator of The Rosie Project – as she works her way through the landscape of human interaction and practices like the proverbial man from Mars. The mood is humorous with moment of tear-inducing poignancy – not heavy handed or depressing but the warm impact of even the simplest kind word or touch.

A chance encounter with a handsome, would-be rock star stimulates Eleanor to embark on a project to bring about true love with the man she has identified as The One.  Don’t be fooled, this is not a rom-com, and Eleanor has serious work to do to learn how to actually wake up and live her life (hint:  the rock star, while triggering this desire to live, does not figure highly in the result – I meant it when I said no rom-com!)

A House Among the Trees by Julia Glass

I love Julia Glass’ books – she is one of those authors who can spin a tale around characters that can both surprise me and make me happy to have their acquaintance. Every novel draws the reader in with the rich inner lives of multiple thought-provoking characters paraded through unexpected situations and events.

A House Among the Trees revolves around a character who is dead before the book begins. Mort Lear is a very successful children’s author and illustrator (think Maurice Sendak in terms of fame) who dies suddenly when he falls off a roof while trying to fix something. The impact of his life (and his untimely death) on a number of characters is explored throughout the novel. Tommie – Tomasina Daulair – has been Lear’s assistant and platonic living partner for over 20 years and has been made executor of his estate, a position she finds overwhelming; Nicholas Greene is a famous British movie star who has been hired to play Mort in an upcoming film called “The Inner Lear” based on an interview Mort gave years ago alluding to abuse in a garden shed in Tucson where he and his mother were living; Merry is the curator of a new museum devoted to children’s literature who expects to receive all of Mort’s artwork and papers (and doesn’t).

Each chapter progresses a day or two as the characters try to move forward on projects that have been rudely shocked by Lear’s death. Important backstories are inserted as needed explaining how Tommie was first drawn into Lear’s orbit, how previous loss has prepared each of them, and how the AIDS epidemic influenced Lear’s life and writing.

High marks for plot, character development, and writing style – it’s not often that you get all three!

South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby

Cooper Gosling receives an Artist & Writers great from the NSF to join an eclectic group of intense scientists (“Beakers”) and maintenance staff (“Nailheads”) at the South Pole for a year in order to find inspiration and come to terms with the recent suicide of her twin brother. But that is only the tip of the iceberg (ha ha) of the plot for this deeply engaging and satisfying novel.

There are several different plot lines –  in addition to Cooper and her artistic struggles, there is a detailed story line devoted to the competing theories about the origins of the Universe, along with the scientists espousing them and the experiments designed to prove them.  This is well described and aligns with reality (according to Stanford News from March 17, 2014).  Also a lot of great description of the station(s), the people who fund them, maintain them, and work in them. Throw in some interesting political and ethical issues in the form of a climate skeptic who has been given research funds to disprove climate change due to human activity and the way he is treated by other researchers at the Pole and you have an engrossing set of stories.  Compelling from start to finish.

SPOILER ALERT – I have one small issue with the book. Frank Pavano, the climate skeptic, is at first presented as a reasonable man with some reasonable arguments for the research he is pursuing looking for alternate causes (heliocentric) for global warming.  There is some great discussion about how he is treated by the other researchers and how objectivity in science should be maintained.  However, towards the end the author made it clear that he was on the take from a group of politicians and oil companies and threw a whole conspiracy theory slant into what had been interesting scientific debate.  She also painted an unrealistic (to me) portrait of how Dr. Pavano became this dishonest scientist. It made me realize how much I rely on the author’s imagination and experience to paint portraits of people in different environments. In this particular case I think she did a really poor job – not up to the level of her other characters and story arcs.

That aside, South Pole Station was a fascinating read and I highly recommend it.