Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"The Burgess Boys" by Elizabeth Strout

I really enjoyed Strout's Olive Kitteridge, but, reading the summary of The Burgess Boys, I wasn't too excited. I think that's because anything that rings "family saga" tends to bore me--I can only read so much of tense relationships, fraught feelings, and long inner monologues. And a summary that begins "haunted by..." is even worse.

So I was predisposed against the novel, and maybe, for that reason, it met my expectations. It certainly wasn't bad, and Strout is adept at capturing the nuances and contradictions present in any relationships--romantic and family--but I just couldn't care all that much.

The novel is about the Burgess siblings--Jim, Bob, and Susan--though the brothers are the focus. The family grew up in Maine, but only Susan remains there with her son, Zach. After Zach is arrested for throwing a pig's head into a Somali mosque during Ramadan, the siblings are brought back together.

Jim is idolized by his siblings, and though we're told about his magnetism, it's hard to see his charm in the novel. He overreacts to Zach's situation (we're told he's the person who "takes care" of things, but he seems to mostly freak out and be grumpy) and is terrible to Bob. His abusive behavior to Bob is all the more confusing given that Bob seems like a decent guy. We're told by his siblings what a loser he is, but there's little evidence of that (other than some heavy drinking early on). I suppose the point is that sibling relationships don't always make sense to outsiders. Instead, within a family, people are assigned certain roles and characteristics, and those assigned personas are difficult to lose.

From the initial rush of activity after Zach's arrest, little happens. The characters go back and forth from New York City to Maine. They think a lot about life or whatever. They're mean to one another. 

As a character, Zach is the most underdeveloped. He's a scared, quiet kid, who had little reason to throw the pig's head in the mosque. It's clear he didn't mean it maliciously, and some of the officials' attempts to prosecute it as a hate crime is overreaching, but he also gets off the hook quite easy. I mean, the kid's scared, so he isn't responsible for anything?

The characterization of the individuals' relationship is expertly done, but there wasn't enough in their lives or problems for me to be invested.

Friday, July 19, 2013

"Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" by Maria Semple

Where'd You Go, Bernadette is not "one of the year's best books" (according to the cover), but it's a fun and occasionally funny summer read. The novel's written in epistolary form, a structure which often annoys me (it seems sophomoric), but the format works here to highlight the comedic elements of the story. Fortunately the compiler of the letters (the titular Bernadette's daughter, Bee) also includes straight first person narration where necessary, saving the book from unrealistic dialogue and action-heavy letters.

The story concerns Bernadette, a once rising star in the architecture field who fled L.A. with her husband and daughter after one of her projects was destroyed.  Bernadette's lived as a recluse since then, and her stress builds when Bee insists on a trip to Antarctica for her 8th grade graduation and Bernadette gets into a series of tiffs with Audrey, the mother next door whose son attends the same private school as Bee. And, as is suggested by the title, Bernadette eventually goes missing, leaving Bee and her father, Elgin, to find her.

Bernadette is an amusing character, making fun of the private school helicopter parents and riffing on various things that annoy her. It's a little hard to see the agoraphobic mother as a star architect and winner of the MacArthur Genius Grant, but that's okay. However, pretty quickly all the characters run together--there's little to distinguish the style and tone of one from the other. Even 15-year-old Bee sounds similar to her father, or her father's amorous admin.

Nonetheless, I plowed through the book, particularly since the letter format makes it easy to read. The action keeps moving quickly (disaster piling atop disaster), and it was worth it to see the descent of Audrey, even if she does come too close to a caricature of "snooty private school mom."

[Spoiler Alert] Yet the ending was really too far-fetched, not just because of the Antarctic heist but because it wraps up some significant issues without actually addressing them. I mean, Elgin is going to be a father to Soo-Lin's baby, so Bernadette can't just declare she will "swat her away [her]self" (326). He's also (though perhaps temporarily) unemployed and all their financial accounts have been taken over by the Russian mafia (or whatever), which means the family is more or less without money, which I would think would make Bernadette's return to real life rather difficult. And though perhaps Bernadette's hopeful letter (in which she is unaware of the baby and job loss), which ends the book, could be meant to be satirical, that tone wouldn't fit in with the rest of the novel, so I'm taking it to be intended as a sincere happy ending.

But, as always, I'm focusing on the flaws when it was an enjoyable two-day read, one I probably should have saved for my upcoming long plane ride to the UK!

Stray Thoughts:
- I have issue with novels where people have sex together one time and the woman gets pregnant (this; Water for Elephants). I mean, I know an unexpected pregnancy builds drama, but the rate is so misleadingly higher in books than in real life. I especially hate books where the virgin gets pregnant her first go (I'm looking at you, The Natural and A Thousand Splendid Sons, among others). How about all those people who have sex and don't get pregnant?
- I also hate the hyperbolic blurbs on books that are somewhat comedic. I mean, how often do you really laugh out loud during a book (Bossypants--hands down. But that's it.)? So the dude from People blurbing that Bernadette is "an uproarious comedy" or Redbook saying "[I'll] laugh [my] pants off" is just annoying.
- [Spoiler again] Was it not weird that the "Manjula" issue was wrapped up so perfunctorily? I mean, there's something about this first world woman whining about her privileged life in long letters to this Indian woman being paid 75 cents an hour, but, then, no, "It's the Russian mafia" and the whole issue is done. Also, "Manjula" did do everything Bernadette asked... 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

"Argo" by Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio

Like many people, I saw the movie version of Argo and enjoyed it (though I thought Lincoln was better). It's a great, tension-filled spy caper and feel-good-about-America film. Though the true account isn't quite as dramatic as the movie (but truth be told, there's still plenty of drama), it also does a better job of providing a comprehensive look at the CIA's work, which is interesting in and of itself.

The book is told by Mendez (played by Ben Affleck in the film), the decorated career CIA agent who orchestrated the rescue of six American embassy employees from Iran during the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979 and 1980. Surprisingly to me, though it makes complete sense, Mendez was originally hired into the CIA because of his skills as an artist. He and others worked essentially as forgers, creating paperwork, stamps, whatever was needed for CIA agents and the people they worked with. I have to imagine this department is significantly different today, mostly relying on computer graphic technicians.

However, Mendez didn't stay just in that area, as he eventually rose to be Chief of Disguise! (okay, and then Chief of Authentication, but that's not exciting) How badass is that? I mean, did he have business cards that said "chief of disguise"? And he actually created disguises, a la Mission:Impossible! So I spent a lot of the early book geeking out that at least some of the cliche old spy movie stuff was actually true.

A majority of the book is spent on back story, establishing Mendez's career in the CIA and his department's workings. He also recounts several other successful exfiltrations he led. The actual exfiltration of the embassy employees only comes in the last few chapters.

One of the strengths of the film was the tense atmosphere that pervaded the action. Mendez also works to ramp up the tension, though he does so by repeatedly telling us that Iran was dangerous rather than showing. The movie also creates tension by making up lots of things that didn't actually occur, like taking a tour through Tehran's bazaar, being stopped at the airport and only making it out by showing the guards the movie storyboards, or the last minute call to the fake studio in Hollywood. In truth, the exfiltration went smoothly, to plan, without any hiccups or any moments of danger. But, that's just testament to the work that went into carrying it out successfully.

Though Mendez portrays the CIA positively, he also recognizes the enormous and problematic bureaucracy involved, especially compared to a country like Canada, which quickly and smoothly aided U.S. efforts in a way that put our government to shame. In the need to keep the CIA's secret, Canada received credit for the employees' escape (they did house the employees in their Iran embassy for three months), but such credit seems rightly due. Mendez and his colleagues may have orchestrated what happened, but Canada took much of the risk.