Wednesday, March 31, 2010


This is not about giving up chocolate. It's about sacrifice, mourning, and forgiveness. And a cello.

Jeffrey Lent's After You've Gone tells the story of Henry and Olivia. And Henry and Lydia. And Henry and his cello. Henry takes us from his childhood in Nova Scotia, to his marriage and professional career in New York, and finally to a sabbatical in Amsterdam. But not in that particular order.

Having read Lent's works A Peculiar Grace and Lost Nation (in that order), I braced myself for tragic clashes, piercing descriptions of setting, and even bloodshed or rape. However, this story seems mellower, though it does contain its fair share of heartache. Before reading this novel, I've never had a particular desire to travel to Amsterdam. If anything remains of Lent's account of its 1920s beauty, I probably should add it to my list.

I'm still mulling over the ending. Not to give anything away, I'll just say it was all wine and roses - and even chocolate- in none of the right places. But since it's Lent, all is forgiven.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Homemade Life

The library finally had a copy of Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life. I've only begun the introduction, but I'm already as charmed as I was by her blog.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Cultural Revelation

In 1979 China, it's a fresh torment at every turn in Muddy River.

First we follow Teacher Gu. His daughter Shan has been sentenced to die. Gu seeks help from the Huas to give her a proper burial.

The Huas, having lost their own adopted daughters, cannot help Shan, but they try to help the crippled girl Nini when they can.

Nini, twelve, eats wall paste to ward off hunger. She is being courted by nineteen -year-old Bashi.

Bashi woos Nini with a roasted hedgehog and poisons a dog called Ear just to see if he can.

Ear's master, Tong, attends a memorial rally for Shan coordinated by Kai. Tong signs his father's name to a petition.

Kai is the voice of Muddy River's radio station. She is married to Han, the son of a well-connected political family.

Han moves out with their son Ming-Ming.

Ming-Ming doesn't attend the denunciation ceremony of his mother Kai.

Yiyun Li's The Vagrants will not lift your spirits. It will not serve to pass the time waiting in the dentist's office. Instead, the novel demands constant vigilance. Your first seemingly watertight impression of either place or character will soon be found flawed. And therein lies the humanity of Li's characters.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Berne by Berne

I first heard of Suzanne Berne last November. Although The Ghost at the Table is about coming home for Thanksgiving, it proves timely no matter what the season.

Cynnie lives on the West Coast writing historical fiction for girls. Her latest book is about Mark Twain's daughters. Her sister Frances (decorator/homemaker) lives back East. Their father has recently suffered a stroke and their step-mother no longer wishes to care for him. Cynnie agrees to visit for Thanksgiving to help her sister transport their father to a rest home.

Through Cynnie's eyes, the author takes us from her arrival on Frances' doorstep back to her teenage years and her mother's illness and then returns us to a train wreck of a holiday. As the novel progresses, I found myself trusting Cynnie's version of events less and less. And as the drunk Cynnie tells a devastatingly sad tale of Twain's treatment of his family, we find ourselves revising our own opinion of Cynnie from the sad, charming cynic to just sad cynic.

Taught my lesson not to trust appearances, I turned to an earlier work of Berne's called A Perfect Arrangement. Mirella is a lawyer. Howard is an architect. Their house is a mess, their son Jacob's not talking yet, and their daughter Pearl frequently throws hair brushes. In short, they need a nanny.

Randi arrives on their doorstep, entices Howard with visions of home-cooked meals, and has Jacob talking in no time. She even cleans out the cellar. But as we follow Mirella, Howard, and Randi through their days, we realize that (in no particular order) false references, unwanted pregnancies, and intern affairs will soon knock the perfect balance out of whack again.

Berne achieves an admirable level of suspense that will keep you reading -leaving your own kitchen a shambles. But you'll be thankful for the mess.