Review: Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow

homer-and-langleyjpg-cda43efd81e324e5_smallHomer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow is a work of fiction and a first person narrative about two real life men, the eccentric Collyer brothers of New York, who were killed by their own filth and clutter in their home in 1947.

I’m a fan of the show Hoarders on A & E.  The compulsion to accumulate and never get rid of anything is weirdly fascinating to me.  Kind of like a train wreck; it’s horrific but you can’t turn away.  My husband is a packrat.  Nothing to this extent, but it’s still annoying.  He has business cards from every person he’s ever met, going back  20+ years.  Old sweatshirts from high school clog his closet.  He won’t let me throw them out.  But I (sort of) understand that he keeps these things for sentimental reasons. At least we don’t have stacks of newspapers to the ceiling, rotting food, musical instruments, baby carriages, 6 pianos and a Model T littering our home.

180px-Collyer1aThese guys were the original hoarders.  They had normal childhoods, but then Langley went off to war, Homer lost his eyesight, and their parents died of influenza.  Langley came back a changed man, having been exposed to mustard gas.  It twisted his brain, damaging his mind and spirit.

Of the two men, Langley Collyer was the accumulator of stuff.  He would find ‘useful’ things on the curb meant for the garbage collector and bring them home.  He also needed to protect his stuff from possible intruders by setting up booby traps.  He shuttered the windows in their Manhattan brownstone overlooking Central Park so that no one would be able to see in and covet their valuables.

Homer, being blind, had no choice but to depend on Langley.  At first he could easily manuever the rooms and halls of their home, but as the home filled up with treasures, and the rooms turned into mazes, he couldn’t manage as well.  In the end they had to tunnel through all the crap to get from one room to another.

180px-Collyer_03

Langley Collyer - NOT a neat freak!

Langley stopped paying the bills, because he couldn’t be bothered with them even though they had plenty of money, and before long they were in danger of losing their house.  The utilities were turned off and the wolves were at the door.  Langley read legal books in order to delay the inevitable, to fight back and defend himself.  Finally, at the very last possible moment, he wrote a check and famously paid off the entire mortgage in one fell swoop.

The author took significant liberties with the stories of Homer and Langley Collyer, even changing the years they were alive.  In reality they died under more than 300 tons of trash in their homes in 1947, but in the book, they lived thru the Woodstock era.  It seems Doctorow did this so that he could use their lives as a framework to highlight major events in history.  He also created a scenario that never happened to explain the brothers hoarding behaviors.  He made Homer a pianist, when in truth it was Langley.  And he made the onset of Homer’s blindness happen in his teens, decades earlier than it actually happened- probably a plot device to make Homer more dependent on Langley.

The fact that the book was narrated by the blind brother made for a very introspective story.  Their fictional lives were long and took them through Prohibition, the Depression, the Cold War, and the hippie era, meeting eccentric characters but not forming many attachments.  They thought of the household help as family but when they leave (or die) it is just Homer and Langley and all their junk.  Day after day, year after year, nothing much happens.

When Homer’s hearing starts to go towards the end of his life, he has only his memories and his consciousness left, and he becomes trapped in his body as well as his home.  There is a claustrophobic feeling so stifling at this point that I could not wait for the book to end. I imagine Homer felt that way in life too, a feeling of ‘let’s just get this over with.’

Homer and Langley is an interesting study of the inner lives of these oddball brothers and their tragic demise, but I found it somewhat dull and plodding.  Yet, even several weeks after finishing the book, I’m still thinking about it.

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Review: In A Perfect World by Laura Kasischke

In-a-Perfect-World-199x300It’s the end of the world as we know it… and I feel fine.. that song kept running through my head as I was reading this book..

In a Perfect World by Laura Kasischke is a story set in the near future.  It’s a dystopian family drama, with a growing sense of doom extending right through to the very end.

Jiselle is a busy flight attendant who, at 32 years of age, has been a bridesmaid six times. After one particularly difficult evening at work (seven hours in a plane full of passengers that never left the runway) she is sitting in an airport bar, sipping a glass of wine, when a gorgeous pilot, Captain Mark Dorn, takes notice of her.  Three months later, after a whirlwind courtship, they become engaged.

It’s on the afternoon of Mark and Jiselle’s engagement that they see the white balloons for the first time.  One balloon for every victim of the Phoenix flu.  Groups in every major American city are releasing white balloons.  Are they a compassionate expression of concern, or a political statement and condemnation of the current administration in the White House?  The media can’t decide.

And when Mark and Jiselle go out of the country for their honeymoon, they are warned that people aren’t renting rooms to Americans.  Taxi drivers won’t drive Americans. Jiselle and Mark view it all as a minor inconvenience rather than any kind of true threat. The Phoenix flu, reminiscent of swine flu or bird flu, is spreading across America and beyond. Fear and panic are taking hold throughout the world and Americans are being shunned wherever they go.  But Mark and Jiselle are in love *cue the angels* so they don’t focus on that.

Before Jiselle knows what hit her she is living in Mark’s log cabin and stepmom to his three children.  Everything is picture-perfect.  Unfortunately, Mark’s daughters hate her and make no effort to hide it, but Mark’s little boy Sam is a sweetie and they form a bond.

The new family has some adjustment issues.  Jiselle quits her job to take care of the kids, and Mark, due to his flight schedule, is frequently absent.  The older girls are horrible to Jiselle but she remains kind to them.  The family situation reaches a crisis level and their marriage is put to the test when Mark, after a flight to Germany, is quarantined for months in that country. Even though the kids and Jiselle are still getting to know one another, they must rely on each other as the flu becomes a pandemic and the outlook is dire.  Will the family survive?

This isn’t an easy review to write because the book has a bit of an identity crisis.  Is it a ripped-from-the-headlines tale about a flu epidemic?  Yes.  Is it a romance?  Sort of.  A family drama? Sure.  Just when I thought the story would go down one path, it went down another.  I was most drawn into the story line about the pandemic.  I’ve got the swine flu symptoms memorized and my kids never leave the house without hand sanitizer, so I read that part with fascination and dread.  The fact that something like this could happen (is happening) makes it scary.  The author included plenty of information surrounding the flu and the spread of disease to make it timely and realistic.

But the reading experience wasn’t intense.  I wasn’t on the edge of my seat.  I thought Jiselle was a little silly, worrying more about her relationship (‘he hasn’t called.. what does it mean?’) when there were much bigger things to worry about, like how they would survive.  I was less interested in the romance and subsequent family drama than about the pandemic, and when Jiselle would blather on about how handsome Mark was, it was all I could do not to skim and skip ahead to get back to the sections about the flu.  It felt like two separate stories, with the one being much more compelling than the other.

I liked this book for the beautiful writing.  It was a quick read that I didn’t put down until I had finished it.  But I didn’t care for the ending.  I don’t need a perfect ending but I do like to have something of a clue as to what happens.  It’s all left up to speculation, which would probably make it an excellent choice for a book club.  They could debate what happens to this family. They could give opinions on what, if anything, Jiselle heard at the end.

In a Perfect World isn’t perfect, however I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the subject matter.  It’s a thought provoking read and one I won’t soon forget.

For other opinions of the book, check out the rest of Laura Kasischke’s virtual book tour:

Monday, October 12th – Starting Fresh

Wednesday, October 14th – BookNAround

Thursday, October 15th – Book Club Classics!

Monday, October 19th – A Reader’s Respite

Friday, October 23rd – The Book Nest

Monday, October 26th – Galleysmith

tlc-logo-resizedThursday, October 29th – A High and Hidden Place

Monday, November 2nd – Word Lily

Tuesday, November 3rd – Books on the Brain

Thursday, November 5th – Write Meg

Many thanks to Trish for including me on this TLC Book Tour.

Review: Two Years, No Rain by Shawn Klomparens

coverTwo Years, No Rain by Shawn Klomparens is a fitting book for me to review right now, as the first rainstorm of the year blew through today.  After digging out the umbrellas and dusting off the boots it occurred to me that the kids probably wouldn’t fit into any of their rain gear.  Yes, it has been that long since we’ve had rain.  I can’t remember the last time we had measurable rainfall in Southern California, but it was probably back in March or April.

The weather is used as a metaphor in Two Years, No Rain.  Andy Dunne is a weatherman on the radio but his job is a bit dull and predictable, what with the ever-present sunshine and mild temps in San Diego County.  Not only has the climate been dry; Andy’s career and personal life have gone through a long drought as well.  But the storm clouds of change are looming on the horizon…

Andy’s marriage has failed after his wife cheated on him repeatedly.   Even so, he feels responsible because he hasn’t been an attentive husband.  For the last two years he’s been pining away for a married colleague, Hillary.  Late night phone calls with wine glasses in hand (drunk dialing?) and frequent texting (“What are you wearing?”) are as far as the relationship has gone, but there’s an emotional investment here that he can’t deny.

Hillary sets him up on an interview for a new children’s TV show similar to Blues Clues and he lands the job.  He starts a workout regime in order to prepare for his on-air gig and within weeks he looks and feels better than ever and is being recognized whenever he goes out, and not just by kids.  Hot young moms all over town want to buy him a drink or get his autograph.  He likes the attention to a point but is mostly uninterested and wants to be with Hillary.  He’s waited for her (and the rain) for a very long time.

Hillary’s husband has taken notice of all the messages between them and tells Andy to back off.  The indignant Hillary tells her husband she can be friends with whoever she wants, and soon Andy and Hillary have regular lunch dates and are getting cozier and cozier.  However Hillary is inconsistent (come here.. go away.. come here.. go away) and Andy is confused.  Hillary’s husband is neglectful and often absent, making her open to Andy’s attentions at times but also leaving her with guilt over their relationship.

Andy drinks too much, makes some poor choices, gets really angry,  holds a grudge,   passes out, falls down, ignores health warnings, finds success, carries on with a married woman, and buries his true feelings.  He’s also sweet, wounded, vulnerable, a good uncle, and a nice guy.  In other words, he’s a very realistic and relatable character.

I liked Andy and hoped he would figure everything out, but he also frustrated me.  He wasn’t exactly a man of action.  He was rather passive and just let things happen to him,.  I wanted him to be more of a take charge guy; more John Wayne, less.. I don’t know.  I’m trying to think of an actor that’s kind of bland.   He had a certain charm, especially in the scenes with his niece, and I did like him, but I was really waiting for him to be a more manly man.  But that was not to be.

I enjoyed Two Years, No Rain.  It was unusual reading a chick-lit style book with a guy as the main character.  That was a first for me and it was a refreshing change of pace. There were funny moments, good dialogue, and unusual situations.  If you like chick lit, but are looking for something a little different,  give this one a try!

A bunch of us discussed this book over the summer.  Check out this post to see the comments.  You can visit the author’s website and learn more about his work HERE.

Review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

51bdApUjo-L._SL500_AA240_Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger is a modern gothic tale set in London near Highgate Cemetery.

The story begins in a hospital, where 45 year old Elspeth dies of cancer while her younger lover, Robert, is at the vending machines getting coffee. Robert crawls in bed with her and wraps himself around her in a touching scene I won’t soon forget.

Elspeth has an estranged twin, Edie, who lives in Chicago. Edie and her husband Jack also have twins, Julia and Valentina, mirror images of each other. Elspeth has left her London flat and everything in it to her nieces, two young ladies she has never met, with the stipulation that they live alone in the flat for one year, and that their parents never set foot in the flat. Julia and Valentina, unmotivated girls who’ve already dropped out of two colleges, find this all a bit mysterious but decide to give it a go.

Once the twins arrive in London and settle in, it’s not long before they sense an otherwordly presence in the flat. Valentina is more attuned to it than Julia and becomes fixated on discovering what it all means.

There are a number of superb peripheral characters in Her Fearful Symmetry that were well developed and interesting. Martin, a neighbor in an upper flat, struggles with raging OCD. His wife Marijke lives apart from him, but their love story is touching and beautiful. Robert, also a neighbor, a guide at Highgate, and the one tragically left behind after Elspeth’s death, is a study in grief and longing.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot because it’s truly an amazing reading experience. However as much as I enjoyed it, there were parts that left me confused. There’s an intricate twist about Edie and Elspeth and Jack. I re-read that section twice and finally had to get out a piece of paper and diagram the whole thing just to make sense of it. There were scenes that I really enjoyed (the BEST was when Elspeth snagged the kitten!!), but the end felt rushed and wrong to me. I’m sure there are many people who will disagree with me about the ending, but I felt almost cheated by it.  Rather than saying, “Wow!” at the end, I was saying, “What??!!”  I was waiting for a showdown between two characters (one alive and one dead) that never came, and that disappointed me.   I had hoped for answers about one character’s motivations and there weren’t any, which forced me to speculate.

rip4150However, don’t let me scare you off.  Niffenegger is a pro at writing about love and emotions and does so in a most creative way in Her Fearful Symmetry. This author, who made time travel so believable in The Time Traveler’s Wife, now gives us a beyond-the-grave love story, full of suspense and impending doom. If you’re looking for a creepy ghostly read for October, look no further! Her Fearful Symmetry will be in stores tomorrow, Tuesday, September 29th.

I read HFS as part of the RIP IV Challenge.

FYI, the publisher is giving away ten ARCs and three first edition hardcovers on October 1st in a lottery to anyone who joins the Facebook page as a fan and sends an email to hfs@regal-literary.com. Good Luck!


Review: The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama

marriageThe Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama is a sweet and funny new book.  Set in modern day India, it is the story of Mr. Ali, a newly retired man with too much time on his hands.  I got a good laugh from this exchange between Mr. and Mrs. Ali early in the book (it reminds me of my parents!).  Someone has just leaned over the Ali’s gate and pulled a flower off Mr. Ali’s hibiscus plant:

He struck his forehead with his hand in frustration and Mrs. Ali laughed.

“What?” he asked.  “Do you think it’s amusing to lose all the flowers from the garden before the sun has even risen fully?”

“No,” she said.  “But you are getting worked up too much over trivial things.  After retiring, you’ve been like an unemployed barber who shaves his cat for want of anything better to do.  Let’s hope that from today you will be a bit busier and I get some peace,” she said.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

Mrs. Ali rolled her eyes.  “I have been running the house for more than forty years, and the last few years since you retired have been the worst.  You keep interfering and disturbing my routine,” she said.  “You are not the first man in the world to retire, you know.”

So Mr. Ali, a Muslim, puts a sign out front and opens up a marriage bureau; a matchmaking service for those who can afford it.  He is willing to work with all the castes and major religious groups.  Soon he has more work than he can handle alone, so his wife suggests an assistant.  She finds Aruna, a lovely Hindi girl with amazing organizational abilities, who becomes invaluable to the bureau.

As customers come in and express their wishes for a match for their son, brother or daughter, or even for themselves, the reader gets a real sense of Indian society.  From arranged marriages to the caste system to religion and food, it’s a cultural lesson wrapped in a charming story.  Some customers think they know what they want, but Mr. Ali (with Aruna’s help) is sometimes able to convince them to widen their search and consider other possibilities.  Mr. Ali has great success, facilitates many matches, and even gets invited to a wedding.

It’s so easy to fall in love with these endearing characters.  Aruna, young and smart but without marriage prospects due to a failed engagement and her father’s health problems and resulting financial woes, falls in love with Ramanujam, a handsome, wealthy customer.  Marriages must be arranged; Aruna cannot find her own future husband!  Brides must have substantial dowries..  and her family simply cannot afford a marriage to a man of means.  And Ramanujam’s family is looking for a very different kind of bride.  When their wishes and choices go against family expectations, Aruna and her intended face a serious dilemma.  Do they respect their elders, or find a way to be together?  Can they do both?

This is a light and breezy book written with much affection for India and it’s people.  I learned a lot about the customs and culture without actually trying.  My only quibble would be that the dialogue felt stiff and stilted at times.. it was like reading English being spoken by someone for whom English is not their first language.  But maybe that was intended.

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People offers a wonderful sense of place; the heat, the rains, cows wandering into the garden, the dust, the sites and smells, and the beautiful people.  While there are significant cultural differences between us, people are people wherever they live.  Book clubs would have many universal themes to touch on in discussions.

Many thanks to Jaclyn at Penguin for sending me this lovely book to review.  Highly recommended.

Review: All We Ever Wanted Was Everything by Janelle Brown

26317027Janelle Brown’s debut novel, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, is a satire and social commentary on the super rich Silicon Valley lifestyle.  

After a stratospheric IPO makes him one of the wealthiest men in the area, Janice’s husband leaves her for her best friend and tennis partner, attempting to cut her out of his fortune.  Janice retreats to her 5200 square foot home to lick her wounds, staying away from the club and her “friends” for weeks.  Soon she’s hanging out with the sleazy pool boy and jonesing for “IT,” crystal meth that helps her get through the day.  

Alarmed and neglected, 14 year old daughter Lizzie, who has recently shaped up a bit on the swim team, enjoys the attentions of the boys on the team a little too much and pretty soon her name is all over the bathroom walls.  She calls older sister Margaret in LA to come home and help deal with their mom, which is perfect timing since Margaret is putting up a front for her rich friends while secretly being hounded by creditors.  She is looking for a way out. 

This family is a ridiculous mess.  No one talks to anyone else.  All three of these women are absurdly self-absorbed.  Janice is like Martha Stewart on overdrive, cleaning her house for hours each day when she’s not in bed sleeping, and completely oblivious to her daughters’ pain.  Lizzie, dealing with weight issues, mean girls, and boys who only like her for one thing, is completely alone and searching for anything to make her feel better.  She ends up finding Jesus in an evangelical youth group at a warehouse-style church.  Margaret is so deeply in denial about her financial problems that she takes a job dog-walking with disastrous results and thinks about moving to Mexico with the pool boy. 

Exposing the ugly underbelly of the American dream, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything is a sometimes funny, sometimes painful look at one very dysfunctional  family, and their struggle to find ways to communicate with each other and to live in a world that is less than perfect.  However, the situations felt kind of dated to me in this time of economic uncertainty, and the “ick” factor (drugs, teen sex, excess everything) was high. 

You can find discussion, opinions and comments about AWEWWE at Mari’s blog, Bookworm with a View, and a reader’s guide can be found on the Random House site.  While I didn’t love this book, or anybody in it, it was fun to read it as part of a discussion, and I would recommend it to book clubs because they’d find a lot to talk about.  Thanks, Mari, for sending it my way.

For other takes on the book, check out these reviews:

3 R’s:  Reading, ‘Riting, and Randomness

Booking Mama

The Family With Three Last Names

Breaking the Spine

This book was our Summer Reading Series selection for July.  Our August selection is Two Years, No Rain by Shawn Klomparens and the discussion will take place here on August 18th.

Teaser Tuesdays: June 30, 2009

tuesday-t11Miz B and Teaser Tuesdays asks you to: Grab your current read. Let the book fall open to a random page. Share with us two (2) sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12. You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

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cover-opposite-love-pbMy teaser comes from The Opposite of Love by Julie Buxbaum, page 47.

“I miss this, I think.  You never know when you’re going to meet someone who’s going to change your life.  New York, it’s consistent throb of potential, can be a dangerous place for the overly imaginative; everyone you see is a possible route toward a different future.”

I’m packing this book in my beach bag for tomorrow!