Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck (audio)

tortillaTortilla Flat is set in the neighborhood by that name in post-WWI Monterey, California, and involves a group of paisano friends. Perhaps I am just being lazy, but I do think that Steinbeck himself can tell you best what the book undertakes. I give you the first paragraph of his Preface:

This is the story of Danny and of Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house. It is a story of how these three became one thing, so that in Tortilla Flat if you speak of Danny’s house you do not mean a structure of wood flaked with old whitewash, overgrown with an ancient untrimmed rose of Castile. No, when you speak of Danny’s house you are understood to mean a unit of which the parts are men, from which came sweetness and joy, philanthropy and, in the end, a mystic sorrow. For Danny’s house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it. And this is the story of how that group came into being, of how it flourished and grew to be an organization beautiful and wise. This story deals with the adventuring of Danny’s friends, with the good they did, with their thoughts and endeavors. In the end, this story tells how the talisman was lost and how the group disintegrated.

And that is, very much, what the book is about.

Danny inherits two houses from his grumpy grandfather upon returning from the war. He is astonished by his good fortune and newfound riches, but also dismayed at the great responsibility of owning property. He takes in friends, one by one by one, and they become a strange, disordered household. It is true that critical readings of this book treat it as an interpretation of the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table; but I think it’s worth pointing out that these men are a rather dirty, devious, and intermittently disloyal version thereof. They steal from each other on occasion; and their main purpose in life is to obtain wine, and drink it. Not necessarily a bad thing. Steinbeck writes as impressively as ever about the wine:

Two gallons is a great deal of wine, even for two paisanos. Spiritually the jugs maybe graduated thus: Just below the shoulder of the first bottle, serious and concentrated conversation. Two inches farther down, sweetly sad memory. Three inches more, thoughts of old and satisfactory loves. An inch, thoughts of bitter loves. Bottom of the first jug, general and undirected sadness. Shoulder of the second jug, black, unholy despondency. Two fingers down, a song of death or longing. A thumb, every other song each one knows. The graduations stop here, for the trail splits and there is no certainty. From this point anything can happen.

You might also call it a picaresque, being full of minor adventures that often run to humor and pathos by turns.

My audio version is narrated by John McDonough, and I like his interpretation very much. The Spanish-in-translation word order and sentence structure gives an accurate paisano feel, and McDonough reflects that in the lilt and rhythm of his speech. (Note that I did not say he puts on an accent.) I enjoyed hearing this story told. I did not always like the players, but that’s not a requirement for liking a book.

I won’t rate this one above the best of the Steinbeck I have read, Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men. But it is recognizably Steinbeck, and worth the time.


Rating: 7 jugs of wine, naturally.

The Rathbones by Janice Clark (audio), finished

rathbonesSee also my review of the first half.

The Rathbones finished, as it started, an odd and unusual book; which is not necessarily a good or a bad thing, and in this case worked out nicely. It was certainly memorable. I don’t want to give away any more plot than I already have (not much), because I think this unique reading experience does best when the reader goes in blind, as I did. So this review will be brief.

In regards to an earlier stated concern, I will say that the threads were pulled together in the end, but only in a loose weave. All the stories connect, but aren’t tied up with great neatness. I’m fine with this. It’s a dreamy tale, with vaguely supernatural elements. It nods to the Odyssey and Moby-Dick – or maybe more than nods. I liked the characters very much, by which I mean both that they are well crafted (with some complexities), and also likeable; they are not drawn in firm black lines, but a little blurrily, which is true of the book as a whole, and part of its charm.

The story of the Rathbone family is centered around the sea, with notes on the whaling industry that shaped the New England coast for a time. There are elements of a bildungsroman, a literal journey as well as a journey toward adulthood, the uncovering of family legacy and forming of new bonds. Travel and adventure on the sea are only part of what brings the Odyssey into play; more explicit references are made with The Rathbones‘ own Circe character, for example. But I’m going to stop there.

My experience in listening to this audiobook was excellent, even if I was perplexed halfway through. The reading is grand. The story is fanciful, and the narration fits it well. For those who enjoy relinquishing control and floating along with a fine author’s imagination, I think The Rathbones is an engaging and entertaining adventure.


Rating: 7 sons.

The Rathbones by Janice Clark (audio), first half

rathbonesI am not quite halfway through The Rathbones, and I am at no proper stopping point – nor am I stopping – but I do feel the need to pause and report back to you. I am intrigued and bemused by this book. I don’t love it, although I might in the end; but I don’t dislike it either. I’m just a little perplexed.

The Rathbones is told mostly from the perspective of 15-year-old Mercy Rathbone, the last of that clan. She lives in the large, old Rathbone mansion on the Connecticut coast with her rather crazy mother and her reclusive tutor & cousin Mordecai. She wonders about the fate of her father, gone to sea many years ago now, and her little brother, whose existence is denied by mother and cousin. An unpleasant visitor sends Mercy and Mordecai fleeing in a little boat… into strange seas. They light upon one island and then another, meeting strange people who reflect in different ways on the paired mysteries of Mercy’s missing father, and the Rathbone family legacy. As I pause to write this, we are mid-journey, and I don’t know appreciably more about these mysteries than I did at page 1; and in a way I am worse off, in terms of knowing where the heck we are going, because I still haven’t figured out which thread of this story is the lead.

The writing and language are lovely, and well read by four narrators in turn: Erin Spencer, Cassandra Campbell, Malcolm Campbell, and Gabrielle De Cuir (itself an unusual convention, though I approve). The imagery is impressive as well. Moment to moment, this book is engrossing – sentence to sentence, scene to scene. But as for the overall story, I’m still baffled. Are we concerned about finding Mercy’s father (who is not, by the way, a Rathbone)? Or about unraveling the sinister, and apparently supernatural, history of the Rathbone family? Are we going to deal with the worn-out wives again, or is their episode past? Where are we going??

I’ve chosen a somewhat random example of Clark’s descriptive stylings for you here. Perhaps you can hear the dreamy, fantastical, and outlandish tone that draws me in…

Though the man was not Oriental, he wore wide scarlet silken trousers beneath the jade robe and pointed slippers of embroidered silk whose long tips quivered at each step. Mordecai stood beside me as the man approached. They were of a similar size and bearing, and each boasted a pigtail, one pale, one dark. The man bowed first to Mordecai, pausing for a moment with a troubled look. They might have been two sides to a single coin. He then bowed to me, sweeping off his pointed hat. The pigtail came away with it. Beneath the hat curled a powdered wig. Beneath the wig, a face that made Mordecai seem the fairest of men. It was all sharp angles and harsh planes, the skin rough and pale and faintly gray, though he was a young man. I judged him to be near Mordecai’s true age. It was a face that might have been hewn from the granite on the islands that the Starks had worked so hard to smooth. I thought that if I touched his cheek I might slice my finger open.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not here to criticize. I think I am charmed by this work. But so far it is working on me more like a series of vaguely connected short stories than as a coherent novel. We’ll see; maybe she will pull it all together soon. Mystery and obscured connections seem to be a theme, so I am hopeful that this is the case.

I also want to note that there are clear influences here of the whale-obsessed culture of Moby-Dick, as well as the fantastic interconnected adventures-at-sea of the Odyssey. The latter is one of my all-time favorites (although Moby-Dick, not so much. maybe I just need another seminar course on it), so that’s a good thing.

I am having no doubts about sticking around for the second half of this odd novel, so stick around for the next review to come. I am (at least) as curious as you are.

Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende (audio)

mayaI find it a little hard to believe I’ve read as little Isabel Allende as I have. You will recall that I loved Ines of my Soul as an audiobook; and I recall reading Daughter of Fortune at some point in the more distant (pre-blog) past, although I think I loved it less. Is that really all??

The music of her language reminds me of Sandra Cisneros. As soon as I began this audiobook, immediately following the disappointment of The Aviator’s Wife, I was soothed and grateful to be lulled by such lovely descriptive language (and read beautifully by narrator Maria Cabezas). The rhythm of that language is a central part of the attraction of this novel, although of course there’s more to it than that.

Maya’s Notebook is ostensibly the journal of young Maya Vidal, who turns 20 during the span of this story. That framing element of the journal is rarely referred to, but it does allow the narrative to jump back and forth in time. When the book opens, Maya is traveling from Berkeley, California to the small Chilean island of Chiloé, apparently on the run from an unlikely motley crew of threats including the mob, the Las Vegas police, and the FBI. We follow Maya as she adjusts to her new island home while also flashing back (via her journal) to the events that led her there.

Maya’s Danish mother abandoned her just weeks after birth; her Chilean father works as a pilot and is therefore scarce; but her Chilean grandmother (Nini) and African-American step-grandfather (Popo) are deeply involved, devoted parental figures, so she doesn’t suffer as an abandoned child might. In fact, she has a very happy childhood, until a sudden tragedy occurs when she is in her teens, and Maya rebels violently. I’ll refer vaguely to drugs, sex, crime, organized crime, and… Nini sends her off to Chiloé, where Nini has an old acquaintance who will take Maya in. Despite her storied past, then-19-year-old Maya adjusts well to the very foreign setting of a tiny island stuck in time. Her relationship with her new guardian, Manuel Arias, also develops nicely. These easy conquests are the first of the unrealistic touches that gave me pause.

The parts of Maya’s story that take place on Chiloé are deeply enjoyable, beautiful, and exotic enough to be pleasing and to suspend my disbelief – to quote a review in The New Republic, right to the point: “readers, confronted by fiction set in remote places and eras, are likely to suspend more disbelief than usual.” (I don’t know if it would really be this easy for Maya to win over her new neighbors. Despite being half-Chilean, she has her Danish mother’s coloring and goes locally by “Gringita.” And coloring aside, she is very different culturally from the locals; her easy transition felt very… convenient.) But the street life in Berkeley and (especially) Las Vegas increasingly reminded me of Go Ask Alice, in being simultaneously superlative in its ugliness, and cursory. It didn’t feel real, and Maya’s descent from golden child (literally), well-loved and privileged, to gutter junkie, felt even more cartoonish. This was the chief flaw of Maya’s Notebook. I also feel compelled to point out that even a woman who has played soccer since she was a little girl is unlikely to break a big, strong man’s femur with a well-placed kick.

These flaws were easy to put aside, though. This story made me laugh and cry, I loved Chiloé and its colorful people very much, and Allende’s lyricism is exemplary. There are hints of magical realism. All in all, I thought the New Republic review linked to above was a bit harsh; or maybe it’s just that it picks Maya’s Notebook apart from a standpoint of craft, even literary criticism, where I’m more interested in discussing how enjoyable I found it. I found it flawed, but enjoyable, and I will definitely be back for more.

Maria Cabezas’s reading was beautiful and just what this story deserved. I would like to say something about the translation from Spanish to English being lovely as well, but I am confused: packaging on every audio edition I can find gives translation credit to Anne McLean, but the audio that played in my ear credits Allende herself. Whoever it was, it was clearly outstanding.

Despite some faults, I am pleased.


Rating: 7 photographs.

did not finish: The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin (audio)

aviatorI was determined to give Melanie Benjamin another try (following Alice I Have Been), and had hopes for this novel of the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. I was hoping for something like Loving Frank or The Paris Wife, I suppose – both wonderful books about historical wives. But I was disappointed.

I gave this novel a more than fair chance: I did not give up until partway through track 144 of 209, which is unusual. Generally I will recognize a book that I’m not going to like much earlier than this, and give up on it; if I have made it well over halfway through, then, it’s generally worth finishing. This one was different.

Early on, I was intrigued by Anne’s story, told here in first person, and wanted to know what would happen to her. (I mean, other than the obvious historical points: marry the guy, have the baby, who is then kidnapped.) I did observe to myself that she was awfully boring, but assumed that part would get better. But it didn’t: the Anne Spencer Morrow, later Anne Morrow Lindbergh, that Benjamin presents is hopelessly boring. She has no personality of her own, being first consumed by admiration for her older sister Elisabeth and international hero Lucky Lindbergh himself, and later resigned to serving her famous husband selflessly, if unhappily. She whines about the harassment of the press; she whines about Charles’s heavy-handed, cool approach to marriage; she laments that she is bound to follow him everywhere like a puppy. But she never begins to have a personality of her own.

This unlikeable and uninteresting protagonist is unfortunately accompanied by no one more interesting or likeable than herself. Charles is stiff, and sympathetic toward Hitler and the eugenics movement. The beautiful Elisabeth is unable to accept herself. There was no character in this story that I was able to feel remotely warm towards. And then Charles’s sinister remarks about genetic purity in the Morrow family (Anne feels the need to hide from him her brother’s mental illness and her sister’s sexual identity) escalate to praise of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, and I became downright disgusted. As the Lindberghs consider moving to Germany in the late 1930’s, Anne acknowledges that something (she can’t quite put her finger on it – !) is wrong, but feels that the protection from the media is worth whatever less-than-wholesome business Hitler might be up to, alongside his repression of the press that so disturbed her family in the States.

These people were so unlikeable, and their politics (Lindbergh’s politics, and Anne’s contented acceptance of those politics when she found herself well served) so repellent, that I suddenly found I couldn’t go any further, and hit the “stop” button midway through a Lindbergh rant about Hitler’s righteousness and the wrongs committed by the Jews. Now, I would like to point out that I am capable of reading about horrible ideas, thoughts, arguments, and actions, when there is something to be gained: a point to be made, or history to be learned. But I didn’t see any of these benefits looming. I felt no redemptive value imminent. If Benjamin accomplished something salutary in the final quarter (or so) of this novel, then it came too late for me.

This also means that I missed the final, juicy bits about Lindbergh’s other women and children born out of wedlock. Ho hum. If you’re interested in the gossip, I’d wager you could read about that stuff without suffering through the rest of this novel.

Sadly, another DNF for me from Melanie Benjamin; I can now feel safe in not trying any more of her work. Generally, I don’t rate books I’ve not finished, but having made it over halfway, I’ll go ahead and make a call on this one.


Rating: 3 nurses.

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink (audio)

five daysWell. This one is a lot to tell you about.

Sheri Fink is an award-winning journalist and holds both a PhD and an MD. In Five Days at Memorial, she examines fateful, famous and controversial events at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans in the five days following 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Forty-five bodies were recovered from the hospital, with about 9 of them (depending on your source) suspected of having been euthanized by hospital staff during evacuations. I had been looking forward to reading this book but was leery going in, because this subject was clearly going to be emotionally fraught, depressing, poignant. I was quickly mesmerized, though: these events, while troubling and difficult to take in, fascinated me deeply. I have been increasingly interested (outside my reading of this book, for some time now) in the subjects of end-of-life, advanced directives, and our culture’s approach to death. And I am always intrigued by ambiguity, situations in which it is clear to see black-and-white or right-and-wrong. If ever there were such a situation, this is it.

Roughly the first half of the book is dedicated to relating the events of these five days, as revealed by Fink’s investigations. (Recall, as I mentioned in my book beginning, that she describes her copious research. I am fairly well convinced of its virtue.) We get to know a number of characters in the story: doctors, nurses, managers and administrators, patients and their family members. We know the ending, in a sense: the hurricane will be far worse than anyone imagined; the hospital will not be evacuated in one, two, three or four days; there will be crimes investigated. But the way the events unfold were unfamiliar to me in their details. Although this is a journalistic account, Fink also imbues it with suspense, which feels very natural: imagine the terror felt by those inside the hospital throughout. Not knowing the whereabouts or well-being of friends and family, isolated by rising floodwaters, without electricity, and plagued by rumor (on which more in a minute), a number of those inside Memorial feared for their lives. And some lost their lives.

The second half of the book describes the investigation of one doctor and (centrally) two nurses. Dr. Anna Pou was eventually called before a grand jury, which (some two years after Katrina) declined to indict her for multiple counts of second degree murder. In this section, we meet new characters, most notably two investigators who work as a comfortable team together. Fink also explores the history of euthanasia as a concept in different cultures and different legal understandings today, and the approach of bioethics, as well as post-Katrina attempts to establish emergency standards for triage, including the allocation of limited resources that will save some lives while ending others.

I was impressed by Fink’s style. I felt, in the end, that she let the facts (as she discovered them) stand alone. Many times throughout it felt like Fink’s voice spoke on one side of this painfully difficult controversy, but pages later she lent that voice to the other side, so that the effect was… shall I say, appropriately discomfiting. The fact is, I strongly feel, that none of us can perfectly know what happened in those five days, what anyone’s real motivation or intention was, and probably that none of us has the right entirely to judge actions taken in such profoundly weird circumstances.

Many questions remain, and I can easily understand and sympathize with divergent views: family members whose loved ones were (allegedly, possibly) euthanized are angry that they weren’t evacuated; hospital workers with no options left to them felt it was better to euthanize than to abandon patients to die slowly, painfully, and alone. I see it both ways. But the details, I think, are lost to me – someone who lived none of it, who’s just read the book. Dr. Pou, it appears, does not find this book’s treatment fair at all. While it’s true that Fink doesn’t exonerate her, I felt that she wasn’t condemned, either. It’s just… so complicated.

One of the more disturbing elements, to me, was the power of rumor and euphemism in the hospital and the accusations bandied about afterward. Doctors and nurses allegedly spoke of “making patients more comfortable,” or said “we won’t leave any living patients behind.” I don’t see how these vague phrases can be used to accuse someone of murder (or euthanasia, or what you like) – what if they literally just meant make someone comfortable? What if they meant that we will evacuate all living patients, thereby leaving none behind? I don’t think these statements necessarily point to killing people – certainly not beyond a reasonable doubt. And then the rumors: New Orleans after the storm saw violent crime and looting, but not (writes Fink) to the extent that it was rumored, within the hospital and more generally. Some of this fear and rumor was racially charged. Such a circumstance serves no one well.

In fact, the most damning evidence in Fink’s book for me was not the evidence that euthanasia had taken place – frankly, my value system allows for euthanasia as a fine option in certain circumstances – but the evidence that other hospitals faced similar challenges (loss of power, rising waters) and functioned better. I can’t recall the name at this moment (and the audiobook format is bad for looking up such things), but there was a hospital under analogous conditions that ran regular shifts – encouraging staff to sleep when not caring for patients – and sternly disallowed the spreading of rumors. (I think the phrase was something like “if you didn’t see it, don’t say it.”) Memorial saw a decidedly higher level of panic, and that was one of its critical failures. This can’t possibly be Dr. Pou’s fault: she’s just one person, incapable alone of preventing or inciting panic. In fact, as Fink presents it, if she did commit certain acts, she wasn’t alone; she was just singled out in investigations.

I can draw no conclusions after reading (listening to) this book, other than to say I think it was well told – visceral – and I am emphatic about the persistent ambiguity of this situation. In other words, I can’t judge, and I think it’s a little outrageous that anyone would try to. But I guess the justice system feels it has to try…

Narrator Kirsten Potter was well up to this task; full credit for the narration. I enjoyed this format for this book, but the major drawback for journalistic work is that I can’t flip back and check names, dates, etc.

Recommended, if you’re up for some tough topics and hearing about suffering.


Rating: 8 sleepless nights.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeline L’Engle (audio)

swiftly tiltingThis is book 3 in a series, following A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door.

In this episode of the Murrys’ lives, Meg is an adult, recently married to Calvin and pregnant. This makes for a change: no one is really a child any more (well, Charles Wallace is 15. But he’s an odd one, isn’t he). However, the voice of the characters is not noticeably more mature. (She uses rather big words! But simple sentences.) On the one hand, this means that L’Engle’s novels remain accessible to the youthful population she intended. On the other, it does feel like children’s or young adult lit. Just a note. I’m still enjoying.

Where A Wrinkle in Time dealt with hard science and Meg’s social awkwardness, and A Wind in the Door emphasized the importance of all the parts of the world, large and small, A Swiftly Tilting Planet expands on that concept of interconnectedness and applies it to international politics and the possibility of nuclear war. An added element of fun and fascination is provided by time travel: Charles Wallace has a unicorn friend named Gaudior this time as his guide, and they travel through time to visit Calvin O’Keefe’s forebears throughout history. The unicorn, and the different historical settings, were excellently done, in my opinion; I was almost sorry when we returned to the present. But not to worry: the Murrys’ present makes up a smallish minority of this book’s focus; we spend most of our time immersed in history, from ancient times through the early New England settlers and the US Civil War.

On Thanksgiving, Calvin’s mother and therefore Meg’s new mother-in-law, Mrs. O’Keefe, is present when the family receives word from the President (Mr. Murry is an important man) that nuclear war is imminent. The normally antisocial Mrs. O’Keefe pipes up to charge Charles Wallace with preventing it, and this is when he meets Gaudior and they travel through the centuries. L’Engle employs the classic time traveler’s hope, to change the present and future by going back and changing some detail of the past. (The butterfly effect is entirely ignored.) During these travels, Charles Wallace has to learn to deemphasize his intellect, not rely on his IQ, but go with the flow. This is an interesting lesson for our boy genius.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet is a departure from the first two books, which concentrated on science (and science starring a young girl!); this one is more social science, you might say, or the nature and effects of relationships (familial and otherwise) and the bonds of society. Readers looking for the science might be disappointed. But I found the fantasy of time travel via flying unicorn, and the chance to meet individual characters in history (a fictional, but realistic, history), very engaging and entertaining.

I missed L’Engle’s narration of this audiobook, as I’d enjoyed the author’s own voice in the first two in this series; but I must say that Jennifer Ehle’s reading was quite similar. (She is a little less gruff.) If we have to change narrators mid-series, at least let them be like enough that I don’t feel jolted; so well done on that count. And Ehle’s narration was fine in itself. I will be listening to the final two books in turn – already have them loaded. I still recommend L’Engle’s work.


Rating: 7 letters.
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