Emily, Alone, by Stewart O’Nan. The protagonist of this charming book is an 80-year-old woman who leads a narrow, predictable daily existence. Nothing happens. There are no great conflicts. Not much tension. Much of what happens is trivial and unremarkable in the grand scheme of world events.
It’s just Emily, alone. You can’t say the title is misleading.
But Emily is so human and so startlingly like me I kept reading. Emily makes lists, she worries, she plans ahead for worst-possible-cases, sets deadlines for herself, reads, listens to classical music, dislikes TV.
I read another of O’Nan’s books, Wish You Were Here, about five years ago, and I remember having the same reaction: nothing happened. Aren’t novels supposed to have conflicts and aren’t protagonists supposed to have goals they have to strive for?
I searched for Wish You Were Here on Amazon.com and discovered it’s the prequel to Emily, Alone. It’s about the Maxwell family’s last week at their cottage with all the disfunctions and disagreements and different points of view generated by a diverse, extended family. Just like real life.
I guess if you’re a good writer, you can discard the rules. I liked both of these books anyway and I’d give Emily,
Alone ★★★★ out of four stars.
Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan.Talk about draggy! I was so hyped up about O’Nan, I bought this book, which was an extremely disappointing read.
Kim, a teenager in Kingsville, Ohio, who is about to go off to college, goes missing instead. Her family does everything possible to find her – search parties, fundraisers, walk-a-thons, distribution of pictures and posters, etc.
The reader trudges through every single detail of every bit of the searching. O’Nan drops hints, drags red herrings and gives clues about who might be the culprit. The person responsible for Kim’s disappearance might be her boyfriend, her father, her sister, a drug dealer, a
kidnapper or a serial killer. He examines the family dynamics in excruciating detail as the search goes on for more than a year.
The details drove me nuts. None had anything to do with the solution of the mystery.
Ultimately, unfortunately, the book was bore-ing. So much for a blanket endorsement of Stewart O’Nan. ★★ out of four stars.
Trust Me by John Updike is a collection of short stories that actually made sense. They were logical, well-plotted,
well-told, and understandable. Most were about couples and all the angst that goes with being part of a couple – the family squabbles, misunderstandings, break-ups, get-back-togethers.
And finally, in each case, it all boiled down to -- trust.
Each begins with an incident. The rest of the story gives the incident meaning or clarifies it. That Updike guy could really write. ★★★★ out of four stars.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Nonfiction. What a story!
And it’s true.
Louis Zamperini, a WWII Army lieutenant and a bombardier, survived a plane crash in the Pacific and drifted thousands of miles in a leaky rubber lifeboat. He endured thirst, starvation, shark attacks, enemy aircraft
and more, only to be captured by the Japanese and sent to a prison where, again, he endured beatings, starvation, humiliation and demoralizing treatment.
Unbroken tells the sordid details of the unbelievable
cruelty by a prison guard nicknamed The Bird. Apparently, Louis is still alive – now in his 90s – and he gives talks about his experiences. ★★★★
out of four stars.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. This was a wonderful, perplexing book. Beautifully written. Concise,
spare, quite Hemingwayesque. It’s about Tony Webster, a man in his 60s who recalls experiences earlier in his life. His memories center on a group of friends from college, particularly Adrian, the smartest one in the group, and Veronica, the girl “with issues.”
The last few pages reveal a twist that makes you want to start reading it all over again. It’s short – more of a novella than a novel. ★★ ★ out of four
The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean. This novel is based on actual events. It takes place during the Siege of Leningrad (1941) and in the present day. Marina, a Russian woman in her 80s who now lives in America, recalls how she survived the siege.
She was a docent at the world famous Hermitage museum in Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg).
During the siege, in order to protect the art objects and paintings from the bombings and keep the Nazis from stealing them, docents and employees worked day
and night to remove and safely store the art. They lived in the basement of the museum. Many starved or died from disease or the harsh Russian winter.
Even though the paintings had been removed from the walls and rolled up for storage, the frames were left in place to serve as a pledge to eventually restore the galleries to their former state. Marina keeps the memory of the paintings fresh in her mind by taking tours of the museum and describing, in detail, each painting.
In the present day portion of the narrative, Marina has Alzheimer’s Disease. She can’t remember what season
it is and if she ate breakfast or not. But she can recall every detail of the Hermitage’s collection. Not only was this a good story, it was well-written and historically accurate. ★★★ out of four stars.
Mr. Paradise by Elmore Leonard. I’ve heard good things about Elmore Leonard. He’s a hometown writer – lives and works in Detroit. For years, I’ve heard people talk about how good a writer he is, how well-thought-out his plots are, how realistic his dialogue is, yadda yadda
yadda. I wanted to say I’ve read an Elmore Leonard novel.
Well, now I have and it was not for me.
I disliked the characters and I found it difficult to follow the plot. I probably missed a lot because I got bored. He is certainly concise – has a knack for picking the exact detail to reveal a person’s intent or thoughts or look or
whatever. He has excised every unnecessary word. I liked the Detroit references because it made it easy to follow the story line.
He does write good dialogue.
But I wanted to know more about his characters’ motives and backgrounds. Who was Mr. Paradise – was he a mafia lawyer or just a creepo criminal lowlife lawyer? Why did Chloe (the call girl)’s roommate Kelly know so much about literature? What’s the story behind the detective, Delsa, anyway? How can he be so stupid to fall for Kelly,
sho is at first a suspect, then a witness to a horrific crime. What about the killers? How did they get to be
No more Elmore Leonard for me. ★, barely, out of four stars.