Review: Summer Reading

Written by Hilma Wolitzer
Published by Ballantine Books, 2007; 251 pages

I was a little suspicious of Hilma Wolitzer’s novel Summer Reading when I first read the plot summary. A book about a group of women getting together to read books, and how that activity affected their lives outside the group, sounded an awful lot like The Jane Austen Book Club. And while I enjoyed that earlier work, I wasn’t eager to read a carbon copy. So when I put Wolitzer’s book on my reading list for this past summer, I had some misgivings. After all, a book called Summer Reading just couldn’t really turn out to be a great summer read, could it?

Well, as it happens, it most certainly could! And I needn’t have worried about it being a carbon copy. It definitely is not that. Wolitzer’s novel is original and very readable, with well-developed characters, a lot of humor, and a few surprises thrown in along the way.

Basically, it’s the story of three very different women – how they interact, and how reading (or not reading, at times) affects their lives. Lissy Snyder, the wealthy “trophy wife” of a Wall Street type, is the originator of a reading group (called the Page Turners) that meets twice a month at her summer place in the Hamptons. Michelle Cutty, Lissy’s hired help, is younger than Lissy and a permanent resident of the beach community – as opposed to the “summer people” who invade the place during the tourist season. And Angela Graves, a retired English professor who lives in a tiny book-filled cottage by the sea, has been engaged by Lissy to lead the discussion at the group’s meetings.

Angela guides the Page Turners through five books in the course of the novel: Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope, Villette, by Charlotte Brontë, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell, and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. And these works, each in its own way an exploration of male-female relationships, cause each woman to reexamine how her own past actions and decisions have shaped her life.

All of the characters were intriguing – even the minor ones like Michelle’s mother Jo Ann and April, the first wife of Michelle’s boyfriend Hank. But I think my favorite was Angela. I’m always looking for books with interesting older women in leading roles – they’re not easy to find. I liked her because she was a book lover, and something of a loner. And the back story of her affair with a married colleague – an interlude from many years ago that has shaped the whole of her life since then – was touching and sad and also a little exasperating. She just seemed very human.

The only quibble I have with the book (and it’s really a minor one) is the slightly surprising ending to Lissy’s story. It involves a coincidence of fairly epic proportions (well, epic to Lissy, anyway), and isn’t quite as believable as the rest of the book. But it does provide a very satisfying, if not terribly realistic wrap-up to an otherwise entirely appealing read.

Review: The House with a Clock in Its Walls

Written by John Bellairs
Illustrated by Edward Gorey
A Dell Yearling Book, Published 1973

The House with a Clock in Its Walls, by John Bellairs, is the first book in his Lewis Barnavelt series of gothic horror novels for young readers.

Orphaned when his parents are killed in an auto accident, ten-year-old Lewis comes to live with his Uncle Jonathan, in New Zebedee, Michigan in 1948. Lewis is lonely, frightened, nervous about meeting his unknown relative, and worried about what his future holds:

It seemed to Lewis that all he could think of these days were questions: Where am I going? Who will I meet? Will I like them? What will happen to me? [p. 4]

This could be the beginning of any number of orphaned-children novels. But Lewis’ Uncle Jonathan turns out to be a wizard – the scandalous black sheep of the family. And the story soon takes a unique and uncanny turn: Together with neighbor Florence Zimmermann (who just happens to be a witch), Lewis and his uncle must locate a magic clock hidden somewhere in Jonathan’s spooky mansion, before it destroys the world.

The clock was the handiwork of Isaac Izard, an evil warlock who was the original owner of Uncle Jonathan’s house. Izard practiced black magic and lived a hermetic existence there in the mansion along with his wife Selenna until her mysterious death. Isaac himself died shortly after that, one night during a wild thunderstorm. And though no one understands why he did it, Izard devised a clock that would bring about the end of the world and hid it somewhere in the walls of the house. Now every night Lewis and his uncle search for the clock while they hear it ticking off the minutes leading up to doomsday.

Bellairs’ story is decidedly creepy, but also whimsical and endearing. Uncle Jonathan’s house has some very surprising characteristics – such as stained glass windows with pictures that change without notice. And a secret passageway that leads to Mrs. Zimmermann’s house next door. And Jonathan and Florence are constantly engaged in good-natured bickering, and delight in addressing each other with pet names like “Hag Face,” “Frizzy Wig,” and “Weird Beard.”

Lewis is portrayed as a very real boy, with a real child’s insecurities and fears, forced to deal with very exotic and peculiar and even perilous situations. His desperate struggle to maintain an unlikely friendship with a popular boy in his class at school serves as the main mechanism for some of the most dangerous action in the book. And although he’s certainly instrumental in the effort to destroy the forces of evil, he’s not portrayed as a superhero. In the end, he’s content to sit around a bonfire with his uncle and Mrs. Zimmermann, drinking cocoa and eating chocolate chip cookies. Of course, the bonfire eventually turns into a jack-o-lantern, with a scowling orange face – but then, Uncle Jonathan is a wizard, after all.

This was my introduction to John Bellairs and Lewis Barnavelt, and I’d definitely like to read more titles in the series. I loved the eccentric characters and bizarre storyline. And Edward Gorey’s illustrations were a special treat, and a perfect match for Bellairs’ mix of ordinary everyday action with a supernatural element. It all combines to make The House with a Clock in Its Walls a delightful experience for readers of all ages.

Review: Mr. White’s Confession

Written by Robert Clark
Published by Picador, 1998, 341 pages

That is the sad thing about memory, I suppose. It goes without saying that search as we will, we cannot know the future; but it seems we cannot even know the past, however much we search it; and so we are always longing for it and seeing it beyond our reach, anticipating what is past as though it were to come. In that way, having a memory is terribly sad, like visiting a graveyard, where even at the loveliest of times one must finally confess that underneath the verdure there are only the dead and gone, that which is lost to us, the things we once loved, that we still love. . . . I suppose that is all memory really is, for the most part: the hunger for what we have loved. [p. 301]

Robert Clark’s Mr. White’s Confession is an atmospheric, genre-bending murder mystery, set in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1939. Someone is killing dime-a-dance girls in the city, and Police Lieutenant Wesley Horner is assigned to the case. His investigation soon leads him to a chief suspect – one Herbert White, a local eccentric with memory problems and a taste for “glamour” photography. White was a frequent customer at the dance hall where the two murdered women worked, and had taken their photographs just before they turned up dead. And when the police question him, his answers are unconventional and unsatisfying. Is it possible he’s using his claims of faulty memory to mask his guilt?

The book shifts back and forth between Horner’s investigation of the case and White’s diaries from the period. Herbert keeps detailed diaries and scrapbooks to help him remember things. Because of an injury at birth, he has a very quirky memory – he can recall his childhood and events from long ago, and things that happened within the last day or two, but has trouble with the time between – his “middle-distance” memories. And by the time Horner settles on him as the likely killer, we’ve already gotten to know and care about White through those diaries and scrapbooks – a circumstance which really adds to the suspense and tension of the story. But then there’s always the nagging question: Can we rely on him as a narrator?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The characters – even the minor characters – are all interesting and believable. No one is perfect – even Lieutenant Horner is troubled and flawed. As a mystery novel, it’s probably only half successful, but that’s really not its point. Much more important is its exploration of themes of guilt and innocence, truth and fiction, past and present, love, faith, and memory. Especially memory. As Herbert White writes in his diary:

. . . it seems to me that perhaps at bottom all our knowing, all our seeing, is limited to what we have remembered: What is to come is, after all, beyond our ken; and what is happening at this moment, precisely now, we apprehend only after the moment is past, after it has become a memory. So memory is more than a souvenir of what was and is no more: It is in this sense everything we know and everything we have. [pp. 333-334]

I received this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program, although it originally came out in 1998. Before I read it, I wasn’t familiar with Robert Clark’s works. But now I’m a fan. And I’m eager to read his earlier work, In the Deep Midwinter – if only for that wonderful title.

Review: Superfudge

Written by Judy Blume
Published by Dell Yearling, 1994 and later
Originally published 1980

This review refers to the 1994 edition of the book.
Young Readers Challenge

Is Judy Blume still popular? I know she was wildly successful back in the 1970s and ‘80s. But do kids still read her books? She was one of those annoyingly over-achieving children’s book writers who seemed to turn out nothing but best-sellers. And then she started writing books for adults and did OK there, too. See what I mean about annoying?

Since I was already in college when she published her first children’s books and I don’t have kids of my own, I never had occasion to read any of her books until the Young Readers Challenge came along and made me start looking at all the kids’ lit I’ve missed in the last century decade or so.

There’s really no reason why I should have read this particular book. But I’ve been making a conscious effort this year, to read more children’s and young adult books that have boys as the central characters. In the past, I’ve mostly read “girly” books. So when I found this in one of the boxes of kids’ books I’ve got stored away, I thought I’d give it a look.

Get to the point, already!

Superfudge is a sequel to Blume’s earlier book about the Hatcher family, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (which I haven’t read). This second installment is set a couple of years after that first book, and is narrated by Peter Hatcher, older brother of the unfortunately named Farley Drexel Hatcher (hence the nickname “Fudge”) who is four years old when the book begins. Peter is beginning sixth grade, and trying to live as normal a life as it’s possible to live, with a brother like Fudge.

Fudge is the baby of the family, and gets away with murder (almost literally – in the first book he apparently swallowed Peter’s pet turtle alive!). He is wild and uncontrollable, and naturally the apple of his parent’s eyes. No wonder then that Peter is upset when he learns that a new baby sister is on the way (eventually called “Tootsie”) – he’s positive the new sibling will turn out to be just another version of Fudge!

In this story, the family moves to Princeton, New Jersey for a year so that Mrs. Hatcher can go back to school (and have a new baby, too? talk about Supermom!) and Mr. Hatcher can spend some time writing a book. Peter isn’t happy about the move at first, but once he gets there and starts to make new friends, he begins to enjoy the place. The baby comes. Peter has his first mild crush on a girl. The boys have some funny adventures, and Fudge acquires a talking myna bird whose favorite phrase turns out to be “Bonjour, stupid!” It would be a cute story if it weren’t for the constantly infuriating presence of the abominable Fudge.

A couple of things struck me as I was reading this book, and doing a bit of research on it. One thing I found a little surprising is the fact that Blume “outs” Santa in the book. At one point, Peter talks about the fact that he never believed in Santa Claus because he’d seen his parents putting presents under the tree when he was three years old. And he doesn’t agree with his parents’ plan to let Fudge go on believing a little longer, since Fudge “thinks you can get whatever you want by just asking.” I suppose since the book is aimed at the just-pre-middle school crowd, this isn’t a big deal. But if a parent were reading it to a younger child, this might be a nasty shock.

I was also amused to learn that in later editions of the book, some things have been altered to bring the story a little more “up to date.” Christmas “want” lists are changed to reflect the times – records and record players replaced with CDs, etc. And the boys’ favorite TV shows are replaced with 21st Century shows. I suppose that makes sense from a marketing point of view, although I always hate it when history is tampered with that way, even in children’s books. It means missing a great opportunity for kids to learn a little something about the times their parents and grandparents lived through.

In the end, I guess this is just one of those books you’ve gotta be a kid to appreciate. Fudge did not charm me. I did not think he was super. At one point, big brother Peter says to him, “You are the biggest pain ever invented.” Yeah, I’d agree with that.

Review: So Long at the Fair

Written by Christina Schwarz
Published by Doubleday, 2008, 244 pages
This review refers to an Advanced Reader’s Edition of the book

The main narrative of Christina Schwarz’s novel So Long at the Fair takes place in the course of one summer day, and is basically the story of a marriage going through a rocky patch. Jon and Ginny are a childless couple, in their thirties, not really unhappily matched, but no longer head-over-heels about each other. Enter Freddi, Jon’s business associate – unattached and attractive – and things start to unravel for Jon.

It’s not a bad story, if a bit trite. The characters are well-drawn and interesting, although none of them are completely admirable or sympathetic. But Schwarz’s examination of adultery, love and betrayal is realistic and doesn’t pull punches. If she had limited the book to that story, I’d have given her full marks. But instead, she’s chosen to add on a couple of other stories which really just end up littering the landscape – a maddeningly shadowy and prolonged tale set in 1963, centering around Jon’s and Ginny’s parents’ generation. And another, contemporary to the saga of Jon/Ginny/Freddi, involving a creepy admirer of Freddi’s whose attentions become more and more sinister as the story goes on.

All these threads do finally come together in the end, but not soon enough or compellingly enough to stir much interest in the outcome. Occasionally the constantly shifting point of view and timeline had me completely disoriented. Sort of like that Seinfeld routine about moviegoers who can’t follow the plots. I kept saying, “Now which one is he?” Or “Whose mother is she?” Or “Which one was he married to?” Or “But when did that happen?” I did a lot of flipping back and forth between chapters. I even made lists of characters and did a little family tree chart to try to keep everybody straight.

In the end, I found the book dissatisfying, but not a total loss by any means. I think there’s the germ of a really good novel here. And I admire Schwarz’s writing style – she has an appealing ability to paint wonderfully realistic portraits of character or place in just a few well-chosen lines. Her small-town setting seems vibrant and real, her dialogue authentic. And while I might not recommend this work whole-heartedly, I wouldn’t hesitate to try her future work. I just hope the next book doesn’t leave me feeling quite as puzzled and confused as this one did.

Review: American Wife

Written by Curtis Sittenfeld
Published by Random House, 2008, 550+ pages

This review refers to an Advance Reader’s Edition of the book

It’s taken me a long time to get this book read. By now, I suppose everybody knows the story. So here’s the shortest synopsis I can come up with: Mild-mannered school librarian (who is not Laura Welch Bush) marries scion of a prominent political family, who turns out to be a future President of the United States (and who is not George Walker Bush), in spite of major social, philosophical and political differences, while at the same time wrestling with the emotional toll of past trauma and indiscretions. A little like a train wreck – it’s disturbing, but you can’t look away. Much too long and rambling, but overall I think it’s an interesting book.

I suppose I should start off by ‘fessing up – I came to this book with a real chip on my shoulder. Well, two chips, actually. First of all there’s the whole George/Laura Bush thing. And then there’s the generation gap thing. OK, three chips – there was also the name thing.

I’ll start with the name thing because that was the most ridiculous and the most quickly remedied. Curtis Sittenfeld. What kind of a name is that for a nice young female author? I was amazed to find that CS was a woman – I’d never heard of her earlier works (I mostly dozed through the early years of this century), so I was all set to read a book written by a male author. Not that I’ve got anything against female authors. Hey, two of my favorite writers are Barbara Pym and Muriel Spark and you can’t get much more female than those two. So, after I got over the initial surprise and feeling slightly deceived, I was able to move on.

For me, the George Bush connection was an enormous problem right at first (not that this is a book about George and Laura Bush, you understand – of course not). I’m probably Dubya’s biggest non-fan. Even before he became our fearless leader and the Decider and all that, the very mention of his name could set me off in an eruption of mindless rants and ravings (my husband said it made me foam at the mouth, but I don’t think that’s literally true). George Bush, after all, represents everything I was glad to leave behind when I migrated away from my home state. And the man isn’t even a real Texan – he was born in Connecticut, for heaven’s sake! See – there I go.

The generation problem was more serious (if not any less idiotic) than the first two hang-ups. Once I found out a little about Sittenfeld and realized she was in her early thirties, I again felt a bit deceived and discomfited. How could someone barely past adolescence presume to write about someone of my generation? To understand and portray what it’s like to have come of age during the turbulence of the sixties and seventies? To say anything meaningful about the doubts and problems of age now facing us Baby Boomers? Or the compromises and adjustments necessary to maintain a marriage over several decades? Authors many years older than Sittenfeld have failed miserably at the task. Who was she to expect to succeed? The hubris of the chick!

Well, after reading American Wife, I have to say I think she did a pretty good job. I felt the book was about a third longer than it really needed to be, but it held my interest all the way through (OK, I skimmed a few sections, but not many). She took a big risk, writing about such a recent period of history, not having lived through it herself. And she mostly got it right. Mostly. A few of the details are a little off – for instance, if I’d showed up at my high school in 1963 (or anywhere, for that matter), wearing a felt skirt or saddle oxfords, I’d have been stripped of my membership in the Youthquake Generation. But these slip-ups are few and far between and wouldn’t really rate a mention, if the book didn’t depend so heavily on a build-up of such period detail.

What she doesn’t do quite so well is persuade me that the Alice/Laura character could be (and remain) so attracted to and sympathetic with the Charlie/George character. From the beginning, they seem to have nothing in common. She’s well-mannered, self-effacing, bookish, and genteel. He’s arrogant, nearly illiterate, boorish, and crude. She’s working class and socially liberal; he’s old-money conservative. I know opposites are supposed to attract (especially in literature), but their relationship really does require a massive suspension of disbelief. I mean, the man has the brain power of a sand dollar, and yet she gives up her career for him! And abandons her best friend to marry him! And stays married to him for thirty years – and bears him a child! Oops, there I go – foaming at the mouth again.