Saturday, January 18, 2014

Notes on Novels (Part 1)

The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by Katherine Pancol
This translated French best-seller has many differences from popular English-language novels. For one thing, casual racism and antisemitism are present to a degree that's no longer acceptable in America, I'm sorry to say. Examples: a greedy, boorish, lustful Jewish character and a caricatured Chinese houseboy named Pong. Enough on that topic.

The main characters are numerous, but not hard to keep track of -- several mothers and teenage children, various husbands, estranged husbands, lovers, ex-lovers, and other complicated relations. The plot concerns a variety of ways that the main characters deceive one another, deceive themselves, and try to deceive their children, who seem to see through them. It's not bad, though it goes on a bit too long. One or two of the lies and secrets are very far-fetched, but I won't spoil the surprise of finding out what the secrets are except that the eponymous eyes of the crocodiles are part of one of them.

Reviewers like this book better than I did. Reviewer Caroline See in the Washington Post: "There’s a three-part ending here that’s utterly preposterous, but hey, nothing’s perfect! — and this is a satisfying read."
Date: January 13

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
This book has at least six different plots, and it slues among them, back and forth in time and space, from Hollywood to Italy to Seattle to Idaho to London, jumping 50 years or more at a single bound. Two or three of these plots are embedded literary works-in-progress by the characters -- a novel, an outline of a screen play, a stage play; these each get their own chapter.

Some of the characters are real, for example, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (no kidding). Several of the fictional characters work in the film industry, or want to. The characters are connected to each other one way or another, but their stories are fairly distinct until the very end, when there's a sort of philosophical chapter linking them together. Can you tell I didn't enjoy this book very much? I really liked the dust jacket, though -- it's retro.
Date: January 17

Where'd you go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
I read this a year or two ago, and really enjoyed it. Unlike some of the books I disliked, the plot was tightly constructed, and the characters were both amusing and well-thought-out. Bernadette, seemingly a crazy mother, turns out to have been a truly imaginative architect whose work was destroyed, leaving her in a discouraged and fragile state. She's victimized by an identity thief masquerading as a remote concierge who will take care of all her paper work -- so well portrayed that I've seen references to this part of the plot in serious articles about identity theft and how to take care of yourself online.

In the course of the novel Bernadette's husband, a Microsoft-exec, realizes what he values while the reader chuckles at a really good send-up of corporate behavior. Slowly their early-teenage daughter learns about her family and herself as she searches for Bernadette who goes missing in a wonderful adventure. It works! If you need to know more, there are over 2000 reviews on Or  you could just read the  book.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
I read this a few years ago, and liked both the historical-fiction parts and the modern-detective-story parts. It's a suspense tale about the Sarajevo Haggadah, a book with a somewhat mysterious past, and a troubled present.

All of these books have been proposed as selections for my book club for next year, and they looked so good that I couldn't resist reading some and rethinking what I liked about the two I read in the past. I would be happy if we chose any of them except Beautiful Ruins, which is just too bad! I have at least two more proposed books to read and will report on them as well.

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

I haven't read Geraldine Brooks and feel somewhat ignorant for having passed her by. Pity about the film book -- I usually love books set in the industry but not if they skip about so much!