Modern Lit: Rooms, by Lauren Oliver

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Already well known as a successful writer of young adult novels, Lauren Oliver ventures into the adult market with  Rooms.  Long estranged from their wealthy husband/ father, the Walkers return to their former home in upstate New York for his funeral. Each of them has brought a parcel of personal struggles along with their baggage, and in the days before the service, long buried memories bubble up to the surface, compounding their distress. Only one of the family, teenaged son Trenton, realizes that they are not alone in the house; two of the former residents, now long dead, have failed to move on.

The stories and circumstances of each of the six main characters are told from their own points of view in a series of alternating vignettes. These play out within a specific room in the house, which accounts for the book’s title. These people are all interesting in his/her own right, and each is emotionally distanced from the others, locked in their own misery. Each is preoccupied with thoughts of their own deaths, and not merely because of the funeral. Their depression is palpable, and it’s easy to see why the ghosts have yet to move on. For me, the most compelling characters are Trenton,  and the shades of Alice and Sandra, who were each in early middle age when they died.  Yes, their capacity for denial and repression is strong, but these three have cracks in their armor into which slices of honesty keep filtering. Perhaps that is why Trenton senses, hears, and sees faint manifestations of the spirits, especially when they comment  between themselves (sometimes humorously) about the Walkers.

One of the most popular songs of 2014 is Let It Go, from Disney’s Frozen.  One of the recurring tropes in Rooms is the phrase, “You’ve got to learn to let go.” This is a lesson that everyone absorbs during the last quarter of the book, in greater or lesser degrees, as they are forced by a series of unexpected shocks that turn what they thought they knew upside down,   to confront the truths that are holding them in misery. Yes, there is reason to hope, even though none of us can entirely know another.

It’s a Mystery: Please Don’t Tell, by Elizabeth Adler

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s a dark and stormy night on the California coast. There’s a serial killer terrorizing San Francisco, who drugs and rapes his  victims, slits their throats, and leaves them to die; one of these young women is discovered clinging to life and rushed to the ER, where the beautiful Dr. Vivian Dexter stabilizes her before surgery. “Dr. Vivi”, struggling to get over a failed romance, catches the eye of two men, the detective,  hunky Brad Merlin, and the hospital’s famous psychiatrist, “Dr. Ralph”. Miles away on Big Sur, Aunt Fen is disappointed that Vivi must postpone her visit due to the weather. But Fen won’t have to eat alone, for a rugged stranger, drenched and bleeding from a car wreck, appears at her door seeking help.

Thus opens Please Don’t Tell, setting up a plot full of danger and romance.  The love at first sight theme is seriously overextended, especially because several of the men serve as persons of interest. That doesn’t stop Fen, Vivi, and her sister JC from hanging all over them anyway, better judgment be damned. It’s not much of a stretch to foresee who the killer really is, and one of the three will become his next target. Not much of a mystery, not many thrills, but readers who enjoy a heavy dollop of romance will probably enjoy this tale.

Nonfiction Worth Reading: Six Women of Salem, by Marilynne K. Roach

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 Books about the Salem Witch Trials are legion, and continue to fascinate. Now historian and author Marilynne Roach has taken a new approach by studying and presenting the cases of  three of the accused and three of their accusers.  It opens with

introductions, based upon the limited documentation available, of  Rebecca Nurse, Bridget Bishop,  Mary English, all accused of witchcraft, and Ann Putnam Sr., Tituba, and Mary Warren, who were heavily involved in making accusations.  The detail that the author has compiled helps to make these women seem real.

The second section is an account, month by month, of the hearings and trials, with comprehensive and often verbatim descriptions of the testimony of all involved. Initially, this is fascinating, but as the trials grind on, much of the information involves the dramatic “fits” of the girls supposed to have been bewitched, and their reactions to the suspects. Necessarily, many other individuals, in addition to the eponymous six, enter into the action.  Soon these accounts become monotonous in their astonishing similarity, prompting the reader to wonder how the distinguished and “learned” judges allowed themselves to be taken in for eight months. More interesting are the vignettes in which the author imagines what the six might have been thinking at the various steps along the way to the convictions and deaths. Tales of how relatives worked to exonerate their women, coupled with  depictions of the hangings, are heartbreaking.

The  book’s final section deals with the aftermath, when colonial authorities put a stop to the proceedings, shocked at how many were being accused (over 200 men and women) and executed. Once they stopped the admission of spectral evidence, the wind was taken out of the sails of the entire hysterical happening. A complete listing of  documentary evidence, with volumes and page numbers, is provided for each chapter. A series of schematic maps is also included.

Although it does lag in sections, Six Women of Salem is well worth reading for students, historians, and anyone interested in the terrible year of 1692 and the witchcraft phenomenon in its American particulars.

Modern Lit: The Fountain of St. James Court, by Sena Jeter Naslund

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

imageFor the past decade, Sena Jeta Naslund has been writing novels with distinctly literary themes, drawing on material first treated by such giants as Herman Melville (Ahab’s Wife) and A. Conan Doyle (Sherlock in Love). Now she gives a nod to James Joyce and Virginia Woolf in The Fountain at St. James, or The Portrait of An Artist as an Old Woman.

There are two female protagonists in Fountain, one imaginary and the other real. Kathryn Callaghan is a 21st century novelist who has just completed the first draft of a biographical novel. The subject of that novel is famed 18th century portraitist Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun, who painted highly acclaimed works of Marie Antoinette and her courtiers. Kathryn’s story takes place within a single day, as she takes stock of her life, now that she’s in her sixties and contemplating how best to spend her final years. In doing so, she learns something about how far she will go to protect those she loves.  Interspersed with Kathryn’s experience is a reading of  her new novel, told in the first person by the artist herself.

Of the two lives presented here, Vigee-Le Brun’s is by far the most momentous. As she dares to become the most pre-eminent female painter of her time, Elisabeth tells about her childhood with a much-loved father, her relationship with the Queen of France, and her flight from the horrors of the French Revolution. Along the way, she will lose the person she most loves, her daughter Julie. But to my mind, Kathryn’s story is the more compelling one, as she comes to terms with love, loss, and age,  and finds the courage to  ward off  a very real threat to the life of her own beloved son. While Elisabeth thinks of her life in visual, artistic terms, Kathryn relates hers to literature and its themes. But both spend considerable energy reflecting on the relationships that defined their work, their lives, and the choices that each made.

As a novel, Fountain is deeply contemplative rather than action-based, and as a result, lags in many places. Still, the novel-within-a novel structure is interesting, and as always, Ms. Naslund’s writing is eloquent and evocative.

It’s a Mystery: The Gods of Guilt, by Michael Connelly

Michael Haller is a defense attorney, one who never hit the big time. He is the object of much disrespect because of the sorts of clients he defends, but Mickey believes that the legal system is stacked against society’s lower strata, and is willing to go to bat for them. If some of his tactics are not exactly on the up and up, well, neither are those of the state.

Michael Connelly introduced Haller in the Lincoln Lawyer, and through the next several books in the series, has developed his character into a street smart sort of guy who, at heart, is something of a crusader. Mickey’s the sort of protagonist that readers really pull for. The Gods of Guilt (a term uses by Haller’s mentor for the jury) features an complex plot, in which his client has been framed for the murder of a prostitute, whom he defended once before and came to care about. As he works to discover who killed her and why, Mickey exposes a web of political corruption, and  is targeted by its masterminds. As a result, he loses someone he cares deeply about. But he also recovers a damaged relationship and forges a new one.  The story is superbly crafted, as I’ve come to expect from Mr. Connelly. This is crime fiction at its best. Wait, scratch that. This is fiction at its best.

Modern Lit: The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oats

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Accursed is a tricky novel to categorize. Among its various features are elements of the gothic, the paranormal, fantasy, historical fiction, and parody.  The story is set at Princeton University in the year from 1905 to 1906, and reflects a Gilded Age mindset among upper crust characters,of the type that used to be referred to as WASPs. In style it is reminiscent of Edith Wharton in its formality and use of language. The plot, related by a fictional historian who draws from and interprets primary sources such as personal journals, concerns a series of tragic events that plague Princeton’s elite families.  But don’t expect such mundane troubles as health epidemics or train wrecks, for Princeton is about to be invaded by demons, vampires, and snakes.

What the novel is really about, however, is social injustice, and the propensity of the rich and famous to sweep it under the rug. At the turn of the twentieth century, the socialist movement was gaining momentum, and public outrage was about to be aroused, but such major changes as women’s suffrage, gender roles, labor rights, poverty, and racial violence take decades to achieve results.  In The Accursed, readers meet  personages from both sides of the arguments. Woodrow Wilson, then president of the college, represents the old school, interested in maintaining the status quo for the wealthy industrialists and unwilling to take a moral stand even when lynchings occur in the neighboring town. On the opposite side, Upton Sinclair has just published The Jungle, and he is held so in thrall by his socialist ideals that he can’t be bothered to attend to the needs of his wife and infant son. Mark Twain makes sporadic appearances as acerbic commentator.

The Accursed, I believe, is overly long. Some of its passages, however, are truly comical, as when the narrator describes an emergency conference called by President Wilson to talk about “the unspeakable”, and none of them knows what they’re talking about. (Nor does the reader, though it’s not hard to guess.) One of the faculty wives, who refers to herself as Poor Puss, is a professional invalid who relates her view of the Princeton Curse in her diary. But there are long passages dealing with physical and emotional misery that could stand some cuts here and there and still remain effective. This intricate book, the third in Ms. Oates’ gothic series, has been critically acclaimed by professional reviewers. If you want to know if the demons are real, or simply symptomatic of the characters’ collective feelings of guilt, you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Modern Lit: The Sugar Queen, by Sarah Addison Allen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bald Slope, North Carolina, was just another backwater until Marco Cirrini founded a ski resort and a family that would become local royalty. Josey, his only child, is 27 now, but her widowed mother’s a master at using guilt and disparagement to keep her under her thumb. Josey is attracted to the local mail carrier, Adam, but her  private life consists solely of gorging on sweets and romance novels, which she keeps well hidden in her closet. Until the day she opens the door to discover that Della Lee Baker, on the run from an abusive boyfriend, is hiding out in there. And Josey’s life will never be the same, for, little by little, Della pushes her out of her shell. And her mamma isn’t happy.

The Sugar Queen is a captivating confection of a novel. Bald Slope is populated by engaging characters whose quirks are attributable less to eccentricity than to a sort of everyday magic. It’s a place where books choose their readers, promises  cannot be broken, and the color red carries its own special power. That doesn’t mean that Josey can come of age without experiencing the pain of relinquishing her illusions. But this novel at heart is joyful, brimming with humor, warmth, and southern charm even when something bitter must be faced.  I enjoyed reading Sarah Addison Allen’s first two novels, Garden Spells and The Peach Keeper, and The Sugar Queen is the best yet.  5 stars.