Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

flight behaviorExcellent. Kingsolver has taken the abstract, hard-to-grasp phenomenon of global warming, and made it personal to Dellarobbia and her family, who eke out their living in a rural logging community somewhere in the South. While climate change is of course widely discussed, I think one value in her book is in showing sympathetically why the ordinary citizen may be indifferent or perplexed. One of my favorite and funniest parts in the book comes when a well-intentioned environmentalist tries to persuade Dellarobbia to sign a pledge to reduce her carbon footprint. Going down the list of proposed actions – ride a bike for transportation, upgrade to energy-efficient appliances – it dawns on him, and us, how irrelevant these suggestions are to someone needing to get to work and get the kids shuffled around, someone always on the edge financially.

Reviewed by Sara V.



Visitors by Anita Brookner

VisitorsElderly widow Thea May is settled into a narrow, comfortable life, until a family wedding forces her to become involved. She becomes more aware of the delicate balances, the bargains, the unspoken understandings that bind her generation of relatives together. Brookner excels in the nuances of these relationships, slowly exploring the way the young bride, groom, and his friend respond to the family, and the surprising satisfactions and disappointments that ensue. Unpleasant as many of the characters seem, they are basically decent people struggling with fears and past shames.

Not much happens outwardly in Brookner’s novels; the action consists of reflections and internal changes. While Brookner probably appeals more to older readers, she offers generosity and insight into her character’s motives that can apply to any age.

Reviewed by Sara V.

Do You Remember Me: a father, a daughter, and a search for self by Judith Levine

Levine recounts the slow deterioration of her father and the struggles of Levine’s  mother and the author herself as Dad moves through stages of Alzheimer’s. This is a remarkably honest discussion of the way the disease affects family relationships as long-suppressed feelings emerge under the pressure. Levine’s characters are hardly”inspiring”:  Dad has always been accomplished but flawed, difficult, giving little love. Mom feels deprived and looks to escape, and daughter Judith is filled with love and resentment for both. I found this refreshing and helpful in acknowledging that often no positive solution is possible, that at best we muddle through. For the reader who is dealing with a family member who has dementia, I’d say this is a must-read.

Reviewed by Sara V.

Reviewed by Sara V.

The Meadowlands: wilderness adventures at the edge of a city by Robert Sullivan

Not your typical travel and nature account. Avoiding the glamour and reverence that such writings often offer, Sullivan’s trips involve a series of explorations of the polluted and industrialized ”Meadowlands” of Secaucus, New Jersey. Sullivan takes a wry, wondering, deadpan look at what and whom he encounters: Walden Swamp, with its toxic waste; a mosquito abatement team; an 83-year old man still paddling through the marshes and dreaming of pirate treasure; and a retired detective who identifies the bodies – possibly murder victims – that are found in the swamp.

And yet there are fish, ducks and egrets who thrive in this. And people who dreamed in the past, and others who dream today, that the Meadowlands might be the site of productive development. A very funny and honest and original (given the subject matter I can’t say fresh) view of an area most of us would view with dismay. This gives new meaning to the term “wildlands.”

Reviewed by Sara V.

The Oregon Experiment: a novel by Keith Scribner

Scanlon, a young professor with job problems, moves to “Douglas” (Eugene?) Oregon, with wife Naomi and baby, hoping to  jump-start his career by studying a secession movement and anarchists in the NW. Scanlon and Naomi soon find themselves over their heads, dealing with destructive Clay, earth-mother Sequoia, plus academic and sexual jealousies.

Super depiction of Eugene: local places shifted around but the ambience kept intact. Scribner explores the reasoning of anti-establishment characters most of us (I assume) don’t usually meet and gives us a bit of understanding of the folks who throw bricks through windows and plan attacks on the “corporate system” – always making sure that no people are harmed. Everyone in the book is trailing a lot of baggage. Comic, touching. A four-star for most readers, but a must-read for Oregon residents curious about the counter-culture.

Reviewed by Sara V.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

I would not presume to revew such a classic, so will simply comment on my response. Compared to novels today, this seems innocent, without irony, lacking conflict. The book is held together by the friendship between the two priests, Bishop Latour and his friend Father Vaillant, who support each other through all the hardships of life in a harsh territory. What makes the book outstanding is the setting and the period. Cather describes lovingly adobe homes with hand-carved furniture; a kitchen garden with peach trees, prized in a desert climate; and the fierce expanses of sand and rock, the storms, they endure. It’s idyllic, and I loved visiting this idealized world.

Reviewed by Sara V.


The Thoreau You Don’t Know: what the prophet of environmentalism really meant by Robert Sullivan

The reader looking for a detailed  biography of Thoreau might look elsewhere, but Sullivan offers something different, more akin to a series of essays. His subtitle lets us know right away what he’s up to: “What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant.”  The author has crafted a sketchy biography of HDT (meaning that every part of HDT’s life isn’t accorded equal attention), and then examines details of his writings and experiences and  connects those to current topics: Abu Ghraib, taxes, mortgages, the environment, work. And at the end of the book, Sullivan walks to Walden Pond (I don’t want to say more in case you havn’t read the book yet). He finds, and we see, new and unexpected relationships between the past and the present, between nature and the city.  Our worship of pristine, wild spaces, Sullivan suggests, may in fact fool us into missing a clearer vision of what surrounds us. Highly recommended – and being a Thoreau fan is not required.

Reviewed by Sara V.

Affliction by Russell Banks

Banks is asking, and trying to answer, the question: How did unafraid and loving boys turn  “so quickly into the embittered brutes they had become?” It is set in small-town NH during deer-hunting season  and gave me an understanding of a old-style masculine  sub-culture I don’t often see in literature. The characters are believable and Banks manages to arouse sympathy in the reader for even the most damaged and damaging, as they struggle to overcome their impulses.

Note: If you are also an Anita Brooker fan, this book provides a wonderful contrast with a world and a psychology diametrically different from hers.

Reviewed by Sara V.

The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s eccentric life in nature and the birth of an American classic by Michael Sims

This is a low-key book about a low-key life in a pocket of the twentieth century that may evoke nostalgia. I think it will appeal to those who love Charlotte’s Web, or E. B. White’s writings, or the early New Yorker magazine, or hearing how White wove his connection with spiders – real and imaginary, on an idyllic farm – into a classic story.

But this biography has a puzzling hole in it. White was born in 1899 and lived until 1985. He lived through the Great War, the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam, huge social changes. Yet from this biography I would gather that White was relatively untouched by all these events. How could that be? Perhaps he was focused on his writing and the great cycle of nature. Or perhaps this is an example of a phenomenon we see today: the well-off (White doesn’t seem that he would have been in the 1% but he and his wife had good incomes) can remain detached from the social and political problems the average person has to deal with.

Sara V.

The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes

This book was complex, difficult for me to follow, and I can comment best by metaphor. It made me feel that I was dropped into a jungle  with dense, tangled words, images, passions, fascinating and beautiful, but I kept losing my way. Or it’s like a painting – fauve? –  with hyper-saturated colors laid on with a trowel.

Still, the underlying story emerges gradually. And I got the sensations if not the understanding of part of Mexico’s history, the poverty, the wealth and power,  the revolutions.  So I can recommend the book for those who have a taste for this elaborate and stream-of-consciousness style.

Reviewed by Sara V.