This installment: dogs provide sanity (f); WWII in the jungle (f-mp3); a gambler literally loses face (f); a love affair with food plus (nf); a send up of an ill-conceived ego-driven nonprofit; (f); and a Chinese-American goes precipitously from riches to rags (f).
Jonathan Unleashed by Meg Rosoff
Jonathan’s life isn’t going well. Except for his incredible find of a cheap sublet in NYC and those dogs which his brother dumps on him while he’s working overseas. Jonathn hates his job writing stultifying ad copy and is starting to feel trapped by his “perfect” girlfriend who wishes he were different. But she works for a wedding magazine which corrals their nuptial plans into a feature article. The dogs however, serve as therapy and truth-tellers. They lead him hither and yon, and eventually connect him up with a veterinarian who offers him a way out. Entertaining, especially if you love dogs.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
Here’s another book I stumbled into, searching for MP3s to listen to in the car. It’s a very “masculine” subject: wartime in a POW camp in which Japanese captors drive the inmates to the point of death to build a railroad in the jungle. Dorrigo is a physician, a decent man who is faced with impossible decisions and manages to save those he can under brutal circumstances. He’s haunted by a love affair with his uncle’s young wife, hopes to return to her, but receives a letter in the camp that implies she died in a fire. His reentry into civilian life seems like a success story but is a hollow at its core. We also get to know how a few of the Japanese and Korean captors fared post-war. It’s hard to imagine people can survive such dreadful circumstances, and they’re sometimes hard to take (even for me who has a strong stomach) but the irony is that post-war, many vets felt they were most alive during their time in the camps. Haunting.
A Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem
Ooh, this is a strange book, but it grabbed me despite. The gambler in question, addressed by his last name (Bruno), has been turning coin by triumphing in high stake games all over the world. But a mysterious blot in his vision turns out to be an (almost) inoperable brain tumor. He comes through the radical procedure to remove it but it really messes with his face as well as the ESP that served him so well in his career. He ends up in Berkeley where his mysterious, sleazy benefactor makes him jump through demeaning hoops. The book is often profane but also a bit mystical at times. Full of local color, from Singapore to Telegraph Avenue. Intriguing.
Poor Man’s Feast by Elissa Altman
Subtitled A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking. Altman’ parents delivered very mixed messages about food. Her mother, an ex-model, stressed dieting while her father took her for secret forays to indulgent restaurants. His was the mode that stuck, and she constructed a life of work and play dedicated to all things delicious and elaborate. But then she fell in love with Susan who lived a distance from her New York City stamping ground, grew her own food, and liked things simple. Back and forth from the city to the country she went, wondering how such different lives could meld. Luckily for them, and for us (her delighted readers) it ultimately worked. She’s very honest, very funny, very descriptive—sometimes I drooled, and even provides recipes. A winner!
Break In Case of Emergency by Jessica Winter
Jen works for a bizarre organization, the brainchild of a quixotic, ego-driven funder, but that’s not where her heart lies. She’s an artist who’s been struggling to have a child. She spends her days trying to figure out what she’s supposed to be doing on the job and her nights worrying about the state of her marriage. Things go from bad to worse but she’s finally saved by a nifty deus ex machina when her paintings, done for a friend’s installation, get the acclaim she deserves. I especially enjoyed the cutting descriptions of employees trying to make sense of the funder’s ramblings, all couched in vague, feminist jargon and driven by acronyms.
The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang
Charles can’t believe how quickly his fortunes have turned, from cosmetics magnate to facing bankruptcy through a few bad decisions and a bad market. But he pins his hopes on regaining his ancestral lands back in China. First he embarks on a cross country trip with the family to connect with his artist daughter, Saina, who still has a house. It’s a nutty ride what with son Andrew who wants to be a standup comic and teenage daughter Grace whose wardrobe is her reason for being Charles is gruff and furious, Andrew is pretty ridiculous, and Saina is struggling with fickle fortunes in art and in love. Then they actually do get to China after many detours and breakdowns. Predictably, the lands prove to be a pipedream, but the journey provides healing for the fractured family.
Back next week.