There’s a lot of hype surrounding Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train and I’m not quite sure why. Words like thrilling and unpredictable are used to describe it. I thought it was just OK; I finished it, but its grip was weak. Perhaps if I had cared more about the characters I’d have been more invested in the outcome.
The story is told from the viewpoints of Rachel, Megan and Anna. Rachel’s is the primary version conveyed. This title character’s life is dismal. She’s recently divorced and is an alcoholic. It’s no surprise these elements lead to a series of bad choices. It’s from Rachel’s vantage point on the daily commuter train that she imagines an idyllic life for the couple she names Jess and Jason. Then she sees something, or thinks she does.
Interspersed with Rachel’s account, thrown into question because of her drinking and poor emotional state, is Megan’s. She’s a tougher personality and cheats on her husband, Scott. When she goes missing, he’s the prime suspect.
Anna is married to Tom, who just happens to be Rachel’s ex. Although Anna is now living the life Rachel once had, she’s disdainful of Rachel. Anna and Tom live a few doors down from Megan and Scott.
The voices of the three women are distinct only by the experiences they share. Megan is definitely the most mysterious. Rachel’s self-pity and lack of self-control, while vividly described, make her unreliable and pathetic. In this regard, Hawkins’s writing is successful.
The Girl on the Train
Riverhead Books, 2015
Although the reason for gathering was sad, the lunch hosted by my cousins at El Cholo was, in fact, a celebration of my aunt’s life. I can’t help but think she was smiling, humming under her breath and enjoying her signature drink: a cold bottle of Coors while many of us enjoyed margaritas.
The menu features traditional Mexican fare ranging from tacos to carnitas and several creative variations. I was intrigued by the Green Corn Tamales. This is considered the restaurant’s signature dish. Until recently, it was only available from May to October. The tamales are now available year round. Fresh green corn is cut off the cob, which is mixed with the corn masa. The result is a slightly sweet corn meal that coats the corn husks and contrasts with the sharp cheddar cheese and green chile that’s wrapped inside, tied together and steamed. The standard rice and beans round out the plate.
An interesting thing about the El Cholo menu is that many dishes are identified by the year they were added to the restaurant’s repertoire. Those tamales appeared when the first El Cholo opened in 1923. The Sonora Style Enchilada is also a 1923 vintage recipe. This features layered chicken enchiladas topped with a puffy fried egg drizzled with sour cream. It’s not the most attractive plating, but given its longevity on the menu, it must have more personality than looks.
And though it was late in the meal, we all raised our glasses to my aunt.
8200 E. Santa Ana Canyon Rd.
Anaheim Hills, Calif.
A few weeks ago I reviewed Peter Heller’s The Painter. That was shortly after Station Eleven. While I enjoyed both books, I thought I’d wait before starting another work by Heller, and I certainly had no intention of being drawn into another novel about a post-apocalyptic world. Then I heard Heller talk. He shared his experiences as a freelance writer and told how he came to write fiction. He read some from The Painter and The Dog Stars. I really had no good excuse not to read the latter.
It takes a little time adjusting to Heller’s stream of consciousness style with no quotation marks and single word sentences. It’s a terse yet fitting approach for Hig, a pilot who’s survived a flu pandemic, to tell his story. He lives with his dog, Jasper, and Bangley, a weapons-hoarder-ask-questions-later neighbor on an abandoned airfield northeast of Denver.
They must constantly be on alert from human predators. Hig is the least vigilant of the trio. What’s left of the world is not a friendly place. Yet, despite his best efforts, given the losses he’s faced, Hig is an optimist. A chance static-riddled radio transmission three years earlier from western Colorado has made him restless. Against Bangley’s better judgment, Hig needs to know what and, more importantly, who may still be out there.
His discovery is beautiful and gut-wrenching. Like Hig, the reader comes to appreciate Bangley. Although it hardly seems possible, as the story progresses Hig’s sensitivity and humanity gain greater significance.
The Dog Stars
Alfred A. Knopf, 2012
Florence Gordon is a crotchety old woman. Actually, she’s not that old (75), and bitchy is a better description. Yet, this title character of Brian Morton’s novel is certainly likeable – not lovable, but fascinating. Hers is a forceful, no-nonsense personality. Although she’s a writer and considered an icon among feminists, she’s a poor communicator.
Sure, she’s written numerous essays, has plans to write her memoir and speaks her mind. The trouble is she doesn’t share what’s in her heart. Neither does anyone else in her family: her son, Daniel; his wife, Janine who adores Florence; nor their daughter, college-age daughter, Emily. This is a family of secrets. They hold tight to the things that should be shared with kin. Sadly, they spend a lot of time interpreting, often erroneously, one another’s actions.
Florence is put off by Janine’s adoration and seemingly disappointed by Daniel’s career choice: a cop. Still, Florence and Emily slowly start to build a relationship beyond something perfunctory. Emily helps her grandmother with some research. The latter is surprised to discover that her granddaughter is intelligent and perceptive.
The writing is terse, yet the characters and New York City setting are well-portrayed. Morton does a fine job, especially with the females, of inviting the reader to see what’s inside the characters’ heads. An absent character, Janine and Daniel’s son, is alluded to as a talker. Perhaps he could have gotten Florence to open up. That would have made for a completely different, but not necessarily better, story.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
The Painter by Peter Heller is a story of redemption. It’s also part thriller. The who-dunnit isn’t in question, but the underlying reasons and the chase(s) help make it a page turner.
Jim Stegner is a painter with a temper, a broken heart and a soft spot for children and animals. His passions are his art and fishing, both of which usually bring him a sense of peace. Set in southwestern Colorado and northern New Mexico, Heller’s writing renders vivid landscapes with careful, albeit, broad strokes. The images accurately evoke the beauty of the Rocky Mountains.
An encounter with a poacher leads Jim from one bad decision to another. At times it’s easy to think the best solution is for Jim’s mistakes to catch up with him. They come close, very close. The problem is there several other characters with whom the reader becomes invested, including – perhaps especially – Sophia, the young model with whom Jim befriends. Irmina, his long-time friend/occasional lover, is also likeable.
There’s more to Jim than his canvases and waders. His past is slowly revealed providing possible explanations for his rash behaviors. The pain he carries regarding his daughter is palpable. So is the disdain he has for law enforcement, art collectors and others. And, he’s a man capable of murder. Ironically, though his actions are crimes and can’t be condoned, they’re almost justified.
Despite Jim’s frustrating behavior, the moments of joy and a fair amount of intrigue make Heller’s novel an enjoyable read.
Vintage Contemporaries, 2014
The views from Las Brisas restaurant in Laguna Beach are enough to make you drool. So is the food, which is more appropriate.
Our day at Laguna was postcard perfect with the ocean and sky fading into the same rich blue color on the horizon. It was almost a shame to be indoors, except we had a window table.
Las Brisas serves upscale Mexican food; these are not your typical street foods but creative interpretations with an emphasis on fresh fruits, vegetables and fish.
My Grilled Chicken Taco Grande was more a taco salad. Unlike any I’ve had, it included golden beets, pineapple salsa, cotija cheese, grilled free-range chicken breast on a bed of mixed greens topped with tortilla strips. A honey-Dijon vinaigrette is suggested on the menu. Instead, I opted for the mango vinaigrette, which just made more sense to me. Every bite was refreshing and the meal could easily have served two, although I enjoyed it by myself.
Equally impressive is the Tostada Grande, which, again, is unlike any tostada I’ve seen. A fried flour tortilla stands upright on the plate like a fan. Beets, organic greens, beans, red onions and guacamole are arranged around it.
I was certain the tortilla, which was orange, was made with sweet potato. Our server said it had simply been dyed to achieve the color, but I am sticking to the flavor I detected as the explanation for its hue. If it had been sunset, I might have had considered another possible reason.
361 Cliff Dr.
Laguna Beach, Calif.
I’m usually not drawn to apocalyptic novels, but Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is so much more than a foreboding tale about a small group of people who survive a pandemic. It’s also about getting through the trials of what we might consider the normal elements of life: existence before the disaster. She blends the backstory of the half dozen characters she masterfully introduces with their lives following the devastation; and it works!
The story follows the characters whose lives shared parallel paths with Arthur Leander, a famous actor, and which orbit around the fall of society. Unrelated to the flu that kills most of the world’s population, Arthur dies of a heart attack. Nonetheless, he remains a substantial character as viewed by those who knew him: one of his ex-wives, his best friend, a young girl who watches him die and the man who tries to save him. Another ex-wife and Arthur’s son have important, albeit tangential, roles. Each character is connected to Arthur, although they don’t all intersect with one another.
St. John Mandel creates a bleak, but not black and white picture, which is often the case in similarly-themed novels. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road comes to mind as a portrayal of a dismal post-catastrophe world. Sure, there is plenty of anarchy and death in Station Eleven, but somehow they don’t overshadow the power of friendship, love and art.
The author deftly illustrates that fear and loss exist before and after the collapse of civilization – as does hope.
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014