Monday, February 25, 2013


The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings was nothing that I expected.  I had seen the movie previews, so I knew that the wife died.  I thought that the story would start with her death, and move on from there, with the husband and children learning to live without her.

Instead, the wife, Joanie, had been in a boating accident before the story started, and lingered on life support through most of the book.  The story focuses on the husband, Matt, realizing who his wife really was.  Matt knew that Joanie was a party girl and a daredevil, and he seemed to like that about her.  Matt was happy to spend most of his time working, and leave Joanie in charge of the child rearing.  As the story continues, he begins to realize that there was not a whole lot of child rearing going on.  Of course, he would have known that earlier if he had been paying attention.

Matt is a native Hawaiian, and his great-grandparents were very large landowners.  The land has been held in trust, but due to the death of a lifetime beneficiary, the trust is terminating, and the remaining beneficiaries plan to sell the land.  Matt stands to receive about 1/8 of the proceeds from the sale, and one bidder has offered half a billion dollars.  The other twenty beneficiaries stand to receive about 1/24 of the proceeds each.  Matt grapples with what to do, as the authority to decide whether to accept the offer or not lies with him. 

As an estate planning attorney, I was really interested in the whole disposition of the trust asset aspect of the story, and was disappointed that Hemmings only skimmed the surface there.  If Matt really had the ability to say what happened to the land due to his 1/8th interest, then I would have liked to have heard more about the tension.  I don't see how a 1/8th trust beneficiary would ever have the ability to hold up a half billion dollar sale, to the detriment of twenty other beneficiaries.  The trustee would have been the one in charge of making the decisions, not the beneficiary.  The only way that I can make sense of this part of the story is to conclude that the beneficiaries created a corporation to receive their trust interests, and put a buy sell agreement in place that required the approval of a 90% super majority for a sale.  In the end, it seemed to me like Matt made a selfish decision in doing what he thought was right for his life, with no regard for what might have been right for the other beneficiaries.  If my thought process about how he got his authority is correct, then those other beneficiaries must have regretted signing the buy sell that they must have approved less than a year earlier.

I was complaining about this part of the story with my dad, who is an estate planning attorney also, and with my mom, who is not, and my mom concluded that I had read a different book than she read.  She liked hearing about the Hawaiian history, and didn't even notice the minutia that I found so distracting.  Although this book was on my TBR list for the Off the Shelf Challenge, it is also the book that The Typical Book Group is discussing next month.  My guess is that they'll be on my mom's side. 

In spite of these criticisms, there was a lot that Hemmings did right in The Descendants.  I thought that she did a great job of portraying Matt's complicated issues with money.  She also showed the changing relationships between Matt and his daughters in a way that was odd but interesting.  The story would not have been the same without the Sid character, which was a surprise because "the teenager's boyfriend" could have been just an accessory.

Next Up On Paper:  The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones

Next Up on CD:  Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Accidental and Untrue

If a mockumentary is a fake documentary, then is a mockuoir a deliberately fake memoir?  Let's agree that it is.  In that case, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is a mockuoir by Ron Currie, Jr.  What makes this a mockuoir instead of just a plain novel is that Currie names the main character after himself, Ron Currie, Jr., and portions of the story also happened in his life.  What makes it different from a memoir, especially in this era where we know that memoirs are frequently fully of falsehoods, is that the main character insists that every word is true, even though we know very well that it is not.  Currie isn't the first author to name characters after himself.  Jonathan Safran Foer named the main character after himself in Everything is Illuminated, and Orhan Pamuk has included characters with his own name in a few of his books, as examples.  But neither of those authors have insisted that their stories are true, when they are obviously fictional.  Thus, the mockuoir.

FLPM shifts between three main story lines.  The first of these is the story of the main character's father's death, which I believe is also the story of the author's father's death.  The second story line is about the main character's obsession with an unobtainable woman named Emma.  Portions of this story are also likely the true story of the author's lost love.  The third is not a story so much as the main character's (and probably, the author's) thoughts and concerns about the future of artificial intelligence, and whether it will mean the end to all mankind.

In FLPM, Ron moves to a Caribean island at the request of the girl who he hopes will be his girlfriend.  She stays behind in the mainland US, to remake her life after her divorce.  While Ron is living on the island, he finds fist fights and a substitute girlfriend.  One thing leads to another, and Ron accidentally fakes his own suicide.  Throughout all this, we are flashing back to Ron's father's last days, and various stages of his relationship with Emma.

Some of the reviews that I read about this book complained that it was not linear, and was hard to follow.  I would say that it is no less linear than Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  One thing that differentiated this book from any other that I have read is that there are page breaks at the end of each train of thought.  So, while this is a 340 page book, if it had "normal" page breaks, it would have probably only been about 250 pages.  These random page breaks gave the reader an easy out, where a person could quit reading at any point, rather than feeling like they should get to the end of the chapter.  Obviously, this was deliberate, and consistent with Ron's (the character's and the author's) feigned indifference as to whether anyone finishes the book.

The artificial intelligence storyline hinted at the Sonmi story in Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, with ruminations on whether souls can be grown in mechanical creations.  In a more timely observation, Currie mentions Oscar Pistorius, the Olympic runner with two prosthetic legs, as an example of how "non organic enhancements" will change the future of sports.  I would think that now, with Pistorius in the news for killing his girlfriend, Currie would like to re-write this section, somehow making Pistorius into an example of artificial intelligence working against humans, even when the soul was (or should have been) naturally developed.

I read FLPM at the request of Shannon Twomey of Viking, Penguin Books.  She sent me a free copy of the book and asked me to review it.  No promises were made, no payments were received.  Next month I will be reviewing The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes as my "industry requested review".

Next Up:  The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013


In 2005, as a hurricane named "Katrina" was making its way to New Orleans, the Zeitouns were a little concerned.  They had weathered many hurricanes, and had found that most of the time the storms were not as bad as they were predicted to be.  Kathy and Abdulrahman owned a business and several properties in New Orleans.  Abdulrahman, who everyone called by his last name, Zeitoun, wanted to stay behind so that he could keep an eye on his properties and make sure that everything was OK.  His intention in remaining in the city to watch the properties was not to guard them  and shoot intruders, but just to repair roof holes and minimize damage.  Kathy took the kids, and headed inland.

Katrina hit, and while it was bad, the damage to the Zeitouns' home was minimal.  But then, after the water had receded, it returned.  Zeitoun quickly realized that there was a breach in the levy system, and that the water wouldn't be going anywhere any time soon.  Luckily, he had a canoe, which allowed him to paddle through his neighborhood, and help those who needed it.

The people of New Orleans were told to evacuate, but many did not.  Soon after the storm, the military, police officers from other cities, national guard soldiers, and people working for private security firms, like Blackwater, flocked to the city, to help.  Zeitoun was happy to see the help arrive, but learned that their perception of what they were there to do was far from what the city needed.  The soldiers and others had been fed stories of looting and chaos in New Orleans, and came in treating it like a war zone, rather than a city where elderly residents still needed rescue.

The conflict between Zeitoun and the security forces is central to this true story, Zeitoun by Dave Eggers.  What happened in the days following the hurricane, and how the residents of the city were treated is unbelievable.  The fear mongering and the reports of widespread crime, mixed with heavily armed outsiders, created the "wild west" atmosphere that the media blamed on the storm and the residents.  Everyone in New Orleans in the days following the storm was presumed guilty.  People were arrested while standing in their own homes, for looting those same homes.  All logic was suspended.

Eggers spent a lot of time discussing the Zeitouns' Muslim religion.  I wondered why he was concentrating on this aspect of their lives so much.  After the storm, that became clear.  In the atmosphere of fear, the security forces believed that Al Qaeda could be staging an attack through splinter cells.  It seems crazy now, that anyone would think that any terrorist cell would deliberately act in a swamped city with no electricity or running water, but at the time it was apparently a concern.  A Muslim in New Orleans after the storm raised a lot of suspicion.

There was so much that I learned about the aftermath of Katrina from Zeitoun.  I will mention a couple of the more troubling aspects on my spoilers page.  But really, don't read the spoilers if you are going to read the book.  Not knowing what was going to happen next was what made Zeitoun so intense.  Zeitoun was a NYT Notable Book for 2009.

If I were Dave Eggers, I would have told the story differently.  Eggers makes no apologies for making Zeitoun one family's story.  But at times, when we were hearing about Zeitoun's family in Syria, or Kathy's sibling squabbles, it felt like filler.  I would have told Zeitoun's story, but also mixed in the story of an older couple that stayed in the city and needed to be rescued, and of a police officer or national guard soldier from another state who came in to help.  This would have rounded out the story with different perspectives, but still could have reached the same conclusions.

That's one more down for the Off the Shelf Challenge.  10 more to go.  And, by the way, this is my 200th post on this blog.  Thanks for reading!

Next Up On CD:  I'm not sure.  I'm not going to have much chance to listen in the next week, so I'll put off that decision for now.

Still Reading:  Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie, Jr.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

And a Bag of Chips

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter has it all.  It starts off with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor on the set of "Cleopatra" in the 1960s.  Soon one of the extras has to leave the set, to seek quiet in the seaside village of Porto Vergogna in Italy.  There, a young man, Pasquale, is realizing that he is the only person under 40 left living in the dying town.  Fast forward 50 years, and there is Shane, a young screenwriter-want-to-be who is trying to sell a story about the Donner Party, and Pat, a former one hit wonder who is trying to find one more hit.  Then slip back to Italy during World War II, and the scars that it left on all involved.  And there you have Beautiful Ruins.

The story is told through letters, discarded memoirs, chapters of books that never got published, scenes from plays, translations, flash backs, and flash forwards.  The same characters reappear from time to time, but frequently enough that you remember who everyone is.  In this way, Beautiful Ruins is similar to A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, except that Walters actually tells the reader what year we are in. 

The Pat storyline also is similar to a story in AVFTGS.  Pat is a musician in his 40s, who found some recognition as a singer in a band 20 years earlier.  He hasn't given up, but the crowds have stopped appearing, and may even wonder if he is still alive, if they think of him at all.  His self proclaimed life theme is "There must be some mistake; I was supposed to be bigger than this."  Pat also brings to mind Nik Worth from Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta.  In all of these books, there is a person who found some degree of fame as a musician in his 20s.  Even though he found a little fame, he didn't get as much as he thought he should have.  He feels that the public never really "got" him, even though he has been brilliant all along.  He is certain that his latest works are his best, if only someone would be willing to listen.  And then it happens, or maybe it doesn't.  But the hope is there.  Can a great musician find true critical acclaim and commercial success after turning 40?  Or 50?   It's a rock and roll fairy tale.  And we love it.  AVFTGS won the Pulitzer, and all three books, AVFTGS, Stone Arabia, and Beautiful Ruins were NYT Notables.

I also liked the relationship between Pasquale and the extra who left the Cleopatra set.  They speak different languages, but they are more honest with each other than they could have been with someone who they thought understood them.  Pasquale, as the manager and owner of the Hotel Adequate View, is in awe of any American who will come to his small village, and is especially taken with this beautiful woman.  Together they explore a bunker that was used by soldiers in World War II.  The bunker could have been left behind by a character from Mark Helprin's A Soldier of the Great War.  Helprin's Italy of World War I is not so different from Walter's Italy of World War II.

One thing that worked well in Beautiful Ruins was the final chapter, where the reader learns what happened to most, if not all, of the characters mentioned throughout the many eras of the book.  It could have been too contrived, but Walters lays out all the finales like he is reporting data, so it feels true.

The lessons in Beautiful Ruins are plentiful.  Do the right thing.  Live in the present.  Love the one you're with.  Accept faults in others.  Forgive.  Don't exploit.  For some reason, I think because I was so busy, it took me longer than it should have to get caught up in the stories.  I think that this is one that I'd like to read again.  It's a great novel that has something for everyone. 

Next up:  Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie, Jr.

Still Listening to:  Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Friday, February 8, 2013

Typical Book Group Report - 10

The Typical Book Groupers got together last night to discuss My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss.  I was expecting a low turn out, since the book was hard to get, but there were 11 of us there.  We wound up buying 2 copies, getting one copy from our library, and another copy from another library, and sharing all of them, so it worked out.

In truth, I don't think that we have ever talked about a book so little.  We talked a ton, but about everything other than the book.  Everyone said that they liked MBK, but no one had tried any of the recipes yet.

We were surprised how much we had forgotten about the Berlin Wall and life surrounded by it during the 23 years since it was taken down.  How can it possibly have been 23 years since it came down??  We remember the dancing on the wall remnants, but it's hard to remember, let alone imagine, that West Berlin was this little island of freedom within a communist country.  None of us had read anything set in Germany other than World War II stories, so it was nice to read about someplace new.

Next month we'll be reading The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings.

Still Reading:  Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters

Still Listening to:  Zeitoun by Dave Eggers.  Zeitoun is the story of a family living in New Orleans during the Katrina Hurricane.  Right now, I'm up to the point where they know that a big storm is coming, but aren't sure how much of the news hype to believe.  As I was listening, the news people in real life were going nuts trying to get us scared about  winter storm Nemo.  When did they start naming winter storms anyway?  It's just funny because I feel like Zeitoun does, thinking that the storm won't be nearly as bad as the news people are telling us it will be, even though I know that his storm in fact turned out to be worse than anyone even imagined.  So far my kids have gotten a snow day out of Nemo, even though we've only gotten a few inches of snow.  I'm not expecting anything of Katrina-like proportions, but then again, neither was Zeitoun!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

True and False

When reading books by Geraldine Brooks, I have learned that there is always more to the story.  When I read People of the Book, I didn't know that the Sarajevo Hagaddah was a real thing.  I read all the way through March wondering why the cheesy family named their children after the girls in Little Women, only to read the afterward and find out that March was intended to be about the Little Women  family, but focused on the father.  So when I started listening to Caleb's Crossing on audio book, I wondered what the trick was. 

Caleb's Crossing is the story of a white girl, Bethia, and a Native American Boy, Caleb, in the late 1600s.  Caleb and Bethia both grow up on Martha's Vineyard, which was called something different at the time.   Bethia's father is a minister who is interested in converting the Native Americans to Christianity.  He attempts to do this by teaching some of the younger boys, as he would teach his own son.  Soon two Native American boys and Bethia's brother are bound for the Harvard College, as it was then known.  It was interesting that Harvard accepted Native Americans that long ago. Apparently after the Indian War of 1675-1677, known as "King Philip's War", they were no longer permitted.

About two-thirds of the way through the story, I looked at the afterward, keeping in mind that when I finished reading March I wished that I had read the afterward first.  This time though, I shouldn't have.  There was a big spoiler there, that I wish I hadn't read.  When I came to the end of the audio book, there was no mention of an afterward, which was disappointing.  In true Brooks style, the afterward reveals which characters were real, and which she created.  She also tells which plot twists really happened, which was a big surprise, because it turned out that the most outrageous parts of the story were based in fact. 

I didn't like Caleb's Crossing as much as I liked the other Brooks books.  It's probably just the stilted language of the time, but I was glad that I was listening to the book, rather than trying to read it.  I would think that a person who is really interested in the history of Martha's Vineyard or the history of Harvard might like this more than I did.  Brooks says in the blurb about the author on the dust cover that she lives on Martha's Vineyard, which might explain why she chose to tell this story.

That's one more down for the Off the Shelf Challenge!

Next up on CD:  Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Still Reading:  Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters
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