Archive for April, 2012

Naughty Or Nice / Eric Jerome Dickey

Dickey is a popular African-American author whose books continue to top the bestseller lists.  This novel is clearly aimed at a black readership made up primarily of women.  It strikes me as a harlequin romance spiced with eroticism.  The story centers on the McBroom sisters: Franki, Livvy, and Tommie.  While they grew up in poverty, all three are well educated and have achieved middle class status.  The backdrop is Christmas/Kwanzaa in Los Angeles, and these women are not in search of social justice, what they are interested in is designer clothes and finding true love.  Franki is looking for the perfect man in all the wrong places.  Livvy has learned her husband has cheated on her and she begins an affair of her own.  Tommie is recovering from an abusive relationship and wonders if she dare begin a romance with an older divorced man in her apartment complex.  There is plenty of drama to be found in their stories, but the reader knows that what counts in the end is family, sisterhood, and love conquering all.  Dickey clearly knows what his readership expects and he delivers a romance that will appeal to them.  It is predictable in every way. What makes it a bit different from the typical romance is its graphic language and explicate sex.   While these three sisters are self-centered and too often equate material goods with happiness, they also show a strong family bond.  They are always there for each other when things go wrong.  Dickey is a capable author and the story is engrossing and often humorous.  But like so many other novels in this genre, while it goes down easy, it lacks depth and is easily forgotten after the last page is turned.

A Thousand Splendid Suns / Khaled Hosseini

A Thousand Splendid Suns is Hosseini’s follow-up to his hugely successful first novel The Kite Runner.  There are certainly many similarities between the two books; once again the setting is Afghanistan, and both are set in the same time period.  While the focus of the first was on a male character, the second centers around two women.  This shift in gender brings the reader behind the closed door of family life, and as a result, Afghanistan’s history is shown in an entirely different light.  Although the two women are from different generations, they are married to the same man.  Mariam is the first wife, trapped in a loveless marriage, and childless.  Born a bastard child, her life has been rough from the start.  Laila is the second wife, a full generation younger than Mariam.  She is forced into the marriage at age fifteen when her parents are killed in the civil war that followed the Soviet occupation.  Their husband, Rasheed, is a shoemaker prone to violence when his demands in the home are not met.  Hosseini uses this tiny family living in Kabul to tell the tragic sweep of Afghanistan’s recent history, presenting it in intimate, human terms.  The story is heartbreaking to be sure, but in the chaos of war he shows that friendship, love, and even humor survive.  I find Hosseini’s writing style to be a bit stiff and formal—there are no frills, just spare, hard prose driving the plot forward.  Yet when you have a story that packs such an emotional wallop, this approach works well.  Thanks to his first two novels, readers can no longer just think of Afghanistan as another newspaper headline.  He has given the country a human face.

Bittersweet Lament

You came back into
my life bearing beautiful gifts
Like an heirloom
discovered in a dusty drawer
A garden revealed
after parting a curtain of weeds
A spectacular view
when expecting another dead end
A precious photograph
brought to light decades later
A January day greeted
by an April fresh southern breeze
An unexpected touch
that reassembles a broken heart
A lasting memory to
cherish even after your death

Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Three Stories / Truman Capote

This collection packages Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s with three of his better-known short stories.  For those who have seen the movie version of Breakfast, be warned the novella is quite different from what Hollywood brought to the screen.  As portrayed by Truman, Holly Golightly is a sexually active woman who admits to having slept with men, and women too.  Alcohol is her drug of choice, but she has tried marijuana.  Rather than being the sweetly naïve character the movie made her out to be, she is hard-edged and calculating.   Her good looks and wit are used to snare a rich man to marry.  The novella has dark depths the film never dared to explore.  The three stories included show a young Capote stretching his wings and tackling themes outside his comfort zone. One story is set in Haiti, another on a prison farm in the Deep South.  Good as these two stories are, it is the third that really packs an emotional punch.  A Christmas Memory even touched even an old Scrooge like me.  For those readers who only remember the bloated, older Capote, these stories from his pre-fame days make for a delightful reminder of what a gifted writer he was before the booze and pills deadened his creativity.

Cherub Standing Guard

Not so much a city park as
an untended garden
with broken swings and moss-
encrusted fountain
that drips corroded tears.

Today so few recall
a crystalline pool sparkling
in rippled sunlight
adrift with plump koi and
luxurious lilies.

Just this chubby lone cherub
who stands guard
in the sticky summer heat
and daydreams
its marble stubs are wings.

Recipe (Petrified Wood)

requires a spare 100 years,
a forest, a ton of mud,
and the patience for decay.
Once degraded,
add silicate; quartz works well.
For additional color,
sprinkle with contaminants.
We recommend
magnesium, iron, and copper.
But don’t over season.

What you have when pulled
from the muck is
a three-dimensional fossil:
A stone even
the most discerning of tastes
will appreciate.

The White Tiger / Aravind Adiga

Born in “the darkness,” Balram Halwai narrates how he escaped from the grinding poverty of rural poverty of India to become a success in life.  In his lifetime he has worn many different hats, that of a servant, a philosopher, an entrepreneur, and more importantly, a murderer.  Despite the blood on his hands, Balram’s biting wit and keen insight makes him a likeable anti-hero.  The story he shares had me captivated from the start.  It is not a pretty one—the India he brings to life on the page is a democracy in name only.  The wealthy caste is determined to keep the bulk of the population in the “Rooster Coop.”  In the rural areas life is brutal and often short.  But Balram is luckier than most; he has landed a job as a driver for his village’s wealthiest man.  Moving with him to Delhi, he gets a firsthand look at corrupt government officials and sees how the elite feasts off the labor of the working poor.  In a comical and cynical tone, Balram contrasts the divide between the rich and poor in Delhi. While the wealthy live in air-conditioned comfort and grow large bellies, the average citizens defecate outdoors, half-starved and riddled with disease. Balram soon realizes if he is to escape the “Rooster Coop,” he must take matters into his own hands.  The novel is based on a series of letters that Balram writes to His Excellency Wen Jiabao, China’s Prime Minister.  His caustic pen spares no one as he describes the hypocracy of the globalization of the Third World.  It is an unadorned portrait of India that he paints, one that will continue to haunt the reader long after the last page is turned.