Tag Archives: U.C.

I Feel the Earth Move

Fault Lines: A Novel by Anne Rivers Siddons (William Morrow, $12.99, 352 pages)

In all the world I had never seen anything so strangely inhumanly beautiful.   In this place, man would soon seem simply extraneous.   I shivered.   I did not think I would feel welcome for long in this world where the very earth spasmed and the great trees would not acknowledge my presence.

Between finishing college and starting graduate school, I was lucky enough to have a summer job that involved taking young people camping in the Santa Cruz Mountains in northern California.   This is a unique area – a special place – filled with ancient redwoods and wild animals, including bears, and being there is an other-worldly experience.   If you can’t take a trip there, you may wish to read Fault Lines, which permits the reader to experience the place via the eyes of a Southerner making her first trip to California; and, for good measure, Siddons throws in visits to Los Angeles and San Francisco in this novel about a woman whose life is shaken up – a woman who experiences “an earthquake in the soul.”

Merritt Fowler is a proper Atlanta housewife, married to a succesful physician named Pom, and mother to Glynn, her sensitive sixteen-year-old daughter.   For years she also served as a pseudo-mother to her younger sister Laura, an actress who fled to southern California after finding it impossible to live in the household of the stern doctor Fowler.   Pom turns out to be one of those good men (he provides free health care to the poor of Atlanta) who practices good deeds everywhere except in his own home.   He’s also unable to face reality when his mother – whom he insists be referred to as Mommee – is afflicted by Alzheimer’s and her actions become literally life-threatening.   When Glynn insists that Mommee be placed in a residential care facility, Pom becomes so hostile toward his daughter that Glynn runs away to join her aunt Laura in Palm Springs.

Merritt has been the responsible and forgiving one her entire life, but this single incident permits her to see that her husband has become (in the words of Jackson Browne) a “perfect fool”   She stands up to Pom for the first time, and elects to go and find her daughter and bring her back home.   Once she gets to California, she sees that both Glynn and Laura are different people there than they were in Georgia…  and the environment begins to also take hold of her actions, and of her very being.

In California, Merritt – who is said to resemble the late actress Kay Kendall – realizes that she and her sister and daughter are all viewed as great beauties, even in a city (Los Angeles) filled with actresses.   And she begins to become fascinated with the notion of earthquakes, especially after experiencing her first one.   She’s unaware that the big earthquake, in her personal life, is soon to hit.

Oh, it was such a day, it really was.   A pinnacle day, a ball bearing on which a life turns.

While this novel starts slowly, filled with dialogue that initially seems to be both clumsy and awkward (I had an image of actors practicing their lines off-screen – never able to get them right), the reader’s patience is rewarded with an engaging story that warms up to the point where you don’t want to put the book down.   If Merritt begins as a cardboard figure, she soon turns into a person alive as you or me…  Merritt’s a person – a mature person – who is still trying to find her place in the world.   She’s lost herself in the air somewhere between Atlanta and LAX, and now she has to decide if she’s the Merritt of Old Atlanta or the Merritt of the New West.   The way in which she finds herself will surprise you.

Highly recommended.   Siddons is a writer who wisely pulls her punches before delivering a knockout blow.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “A literary meteor shower…  One great read.”   Detroit News/Free Press

Note: There is one glaring error in the novel.   The college in Santa Cruz is called USC Santa Cruz on page 274, when it is actually the University of California, Santa Cruz (UC, Santa Cruz or UCSC).

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Strange Days

Northwest Corner: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz (Random House, $26.00, 285 pages)

“The promises they made to each other were hastily scribbled IOUs…”

“Too bad, isn’t it, how the things that one has so long prayed for never do happen the way one wants them to, and never without a price.”

If you loved the novel, or the film version of, Reservation Road the good news is that Northwest Corner revisits the original characters approximately twelve years later.   The bad news is that, well, there’s a lot of it…

Reservation Road was a tale of psychological suspense, and Schwartz’s strength was in building and maintaining that suspense.   In Reservation Road and The Commoner, Schwartz insisted that the reader be patient, promising that the effort would be paid in full at the end of these novels.   There was a sense of quiet determination in the earlier novels, tales that were populated with good people experiencing bad things.

All of this has changed with Northwest Corner, which starts off as too loud and too busy.   I got the impression that Schwartz had written this having in mind someone at an airport shop, thirteen or fourteen months from now, who picks up the trade paperback version and wants to be sure there’s enough action in it to fill a flight from the west coast to Atlanta.   As it begins, this latest work has too much anger, too much violence, too many sexual scenes (that seem to fall from the sky without context), and is filled with too many unlikable individuals.

The latter is a key point.   In Reservation Road, we focused on the innocent Learner family whose young son is killed in a tragic accident.   We observe the Learner’s lives fall apart, as college professor Ethan seeks to get revenge from the man called Dwight – the man who ran over his son.   Unfortunately, Ethan early on disappears from the story in Northwest Corner, so the story instead focuses on Dwight, the former attorney who has divorced his wife and moved to Santa Barbara.   (Dwight now works in a sporting goods store as a clerk.   How he can afford to live in Santa Barbara, as an ex-convict, is never explained.)

This tale is about Dwight, his college baseball playing son who almost kills a man – and who, like his father before  him, seeks to run from the consequences of his actions – Dwight’s weak and ill former spouse, and his new girlfriend who plays too much tennis and teaches at UCSB.   Again, not one of these characters is one we can identify with, which makes the 285 pages of the read seem much more than that.   The truth is, the typical reader will  not care what happens to these characters, as they all seem to view life as some type of evil trap that’s enveloped them without cause or reason.

“The place called home is the one place you can drive into at night after a lifetime away, with no light to see by, and still know exactly where you are.”

John Burnham Schwartz’s first two novels felt, to this reader, like home.   This one, sadly, felt like a trip to a strange place filled with ugly and dangerous people.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Northwest Corner will be released on July 26, 2011.

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No Icing on This Cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: A Novel by Aimee Bender (Doubleday, $25.95)

“I wondered what he knew about the family; what he didn’t know.   What family he lived in.   My mind wandered around.”

This novel begins with a charming and unique premise.   A young girl, Rose Edelstein, finds that by eating food prepared by others she can taste (experience) the moods and feelings of the preparers.   This has particular relevance when it comes to her mother’s sadness, but later her guilt.   Her mother is having an affair, the knowledge of which Rose wishes she did not possess.

“The guilt in the beef had been like a vector pointing in one direction…  I hated it; the whole thing was like reading her diary against my will.   Many kids, it seemed, would find out that their parents were flawed, messed-up people later in life…  I didn’t appreciate getting to know it all so strong and early.”

This discomfort on the part of our protagonist also affects the reader; at least, it affected this reader.   Rose has been given a power she does not want and it makes  her life messy and unpleasant.   At one point, early in the story, she is hospitalized after raving about wanting to get rid of her mouth.   If she didn’t have her mouth in her face, she wouldn’t have to eat and wouldn’t have to feel what others are feeling.

“Over the course of several packed days, I’d tasted my mother’s affairs and had (a) conversation with my father…  I was not feeling good about any of it…”

Rose has a boring attorney father, a brother who isolates and who is soon departing for college, and an unhappy mother who regularly disappears for a couple of hours of errands – which is when she meets her lover.   She lives in a household of people who hardly communicate; people who regularly ask questions of each other that go unanswered.   This also applies to others in Rose’s life.   For example, she asks her Spanish teacher, “How was your weekend?” before her instructor turns away and walks off to roam the aisles of the junior high school classroom.

Aimee Bender’s writing style is clipped; words often appear to be missing from sentences, from paragraphs, from pages.   Maybe the words are missing because, in this imaginary world, humans simply don’t understand each other – relatives or strangers – and therefore, are not competent about talking, listening, responding.   Perhaps the oddest of all things is that this story is not set in an isolated small town (Mayberry, if you will).   No, it is set in an earlier day Los Angeles, where mega communication was already the order of the day.

There must be an intended message buried somewhere in this 292-page novel that I missed.   After its charming opening pages, Lemon Cake seemed to immediately bog down.   It read more like a novella or an overly extended short story than a true novel.

Perhaps I just don’t have the taste for this recipe.   Lemon Cake left me feeling empty and sad and confused and hungry for something with some heft.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Upside Down

The Stuff That Never Happened by Maddie Dawson (Shaye Areheart Books, August 2010)

Annabelle McKay is a student at U.C, Santa Barbara when she meets her future husband Grant at a students’ apartment eviction party in Isla Vista.   Annabelle and Grant have a whirlwind romance, and she drops out of school to marry Grant; he’s been offered a teaching position at a college in Manhattan.   The new couple has no place to live, so in the interim they move in with Grant’s mentor, Jeremiah, Jeremiah’s wife Carly, and their toddler twins.

The newly married Annabelle is shocked to find that Grant has no time to spend with her.   The same holds true for Jeremiah when it comes to Carly, a former dancer and now instructor.  Thus, Annabelle and the older Jeremiah (who is home on a one-year sabbatical) become responsible for maintaining the apartment and taking care of the children.   It is not too difficult for the average reader to see where this is headed, as the abandoned parties come to seek comfort in each other’s bodies and beds.

Yes, this is chick lit (popular fiction) disguised in the trappings of a serious adult novel; although it is an interesting twist on the usual telling, which places the new husband in the role of unhappily just married.   It is usually, on page and in film, the young man who finds another to soothe his discomforts.

Annabelle’s infidelity is discovered by Grant, and this stolid man advises her to never return to him if she elects to live with Jeremiah.   But somehow a deal is struck – after a series of implausible events – and Annabelle and Grant make a pact to live together again as husband and wife.   A key condition attached to the pact, as insisted on by the proud Grant, is that they never speak of (or to) Jeremiah again or of “the stuff that never happened.”

No, this is not where the story ends, it is where it begins.   As the novel opens, it is almost twenty-seven years later and a still unhappy and restless Annabelle is Googling for information on Jeremiah.   She comes to find that he’s a widower now, as Carly has died of cancer.   Annabelle and Grant live in a community outside of New York City, but she cannot stop herself from thinking of what would happen if she were to somehow run into Jeremiah while visiting her  pregnant, married daughter in the city.

Even Annabelle knows that such a chance meeting is unlikely, except in novels such as this one.   After another set of implausible events, Annabelle has moved to the city to take care of her daughter and guess – just guess – who she runs into!   Not much more needs to be said about the plot, as this will seem like an interesting story or a rehashing of what has come before in other novels and films.

Blurbs on the book jacket compare author Maddie Dawson to both Elizabeth Berg and Anne Tyler, which seems to this reader like a status she has not earned.   While Dawson writes in the “straight ahead” fashion of Berg, her style is occasionally plodding by comparison and the time shifts are distracting.   There also may be a hint of Tyler’s factual reporting but without Tyler’s sense of suspense.   When Anne Tyler writes about small events in the lives of her characters, there’s a feeling that something unexpected is about to occur.   (Something is going to happen and we don’t know what it is.)   Such is not the case with the predictability of The Stuff. 

Then there’s the matter of the characters.   I encountered not a single likeable character in this novel, which provided little incentive to continue the reading.   In fact, while only pages away from the story’s end I realized that it didn’t seem to matter to me anymore how it ended; there being no one to relate to in the cast.

To be fair and clear, this is not a story without merits – it does offer some interesting thoughts on parenting and life’s regrets.   But there are many other novels out there about re-living one’s life over again, or returning to the scene of one’s youth, and most of them (such as Allison Winn Scotch’s Time of My Life or Berg’s The Last Time I Saw You) offer more interesting tales than this one.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Stuff That Never Happened was released on August 3, 2010.

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We have a winner!

Munchy the cat just finished administering another book giveway and the lucky winner of two books is…  My name is Will (drumroll, crowd tension) Tracey Dent!   Tracey has won a brand spanking new trade paperback copy of My Name is Will, a fun and unique comedy novel from Jess Winfield, and also an advance review copy of Hardball, the newest V.I. Warshawski novel – the 13th in fact – from Sarah Paretsky.   Tracey, we know you’re a book lover so we’ll be contacting you by e-mail to get your mailing address. 

Now Munchy says, “I want to do another contest!”   OK, so we’ll post some information on another book giveaway before this weekend is up.   Who knows, we may even have two book giveaways since we’ve stored up 6 books in ye olde contest bin.

Stay tuned!

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