On the Bookshelf

Staffer: Tara D. McKinney, correspondent

What I read: “The Neighbors are Watching” by Debra Ginsberg

Synopsis: There’s something rotten below the surface of the middle class San Diego neighborhood when pregnant teenager, Diana Jones, shows up at her biological father’s door unannounced.

Her father, Joe Montana, is a restaurant manager married to school teacher Allison Montana. Diana’s very existence comes as unpleasant shock to Allison as Joe never mentioned that he fathered a child with his ex-girlfriend 17 years ago.

Joe’s omission brings Allison’s existing resentments to a boil. Things in the quiet Carmel Valley cul-de-sac really heat up, sparking a disturbing chain of events is set off as the Witch Creek and Harris wildfires of 2007 rage in San Diego. Half a million residents are forced to evacuate and in the confusion of the smoke and ashes, Diana goes missing, leaving her newborn baby behind.

On the same street as the Montanas, lives an uptight housewife with an unsavory past, her druggie son and domineering husband.

Next door to them resides a lesbian couple recently forced to give up custody of their sons from previous marriages, seemingly out of place in the white bread suburban neighborhood.

Down the street is a family no one ever sees except for the son who occasionally shoots hoops on the drive way.

Across the street, a trashy former reality TV star has forced her father into a nursing home so she can receive a steady stream of gentleman callers at all hours of the night.

As the Santa Ana winds whip up the fire, the entire neighborhood tries to hold onto their carefully kept secrets, but Diana’s disappearance forces them to come together to find her and the truth starts to burn through the glossy surface of the carefully kept neighborhood.

Stats: Published by Broadway Books in August 2011, 336 pages.

What I thought: The book began like the opening sequence of the television show “Desperate Housewives” with the neighbors sneaking furtive peaks at Diana Jones’ pregnant belly through the blinds.

When the characters were first introduced, they each seemed to be very unlikeable and self-centered. No one in the neighborhood is actually friends with each other and they only interact at the annual block party or to wave as they pass in the street.

In the beginning of the novel, their lives are lived very separately and for good reason, the only thing they have in common is the street they live on.

When Diana Jones enters the scene, she starts hanging out with the neighborhood pothead, much to the disapproval of her father and Kevin’s parents.

The only character I could relate to was Sam, the saner half of the lesbian couple. She did her best to help Diana and her baby when they were in need. Otherwise, everyone else was just pretty much despicable.

The book was not uplifting, but rather dark and suspenseful. It was a nice change from my usual steady diet of young adult fiction and chic lit. It made me question how well we really know our neighbors. Could the people across the street be hiding a drug addiction or holding someone captive behind those Pottery Barn curtains?

With all the horrific events happening daily in the news, the secrets and scandals of the San Diego neighborhood seemed frighteningly realistic. What makes ordinary people commit crimes and how hard must it be to conceal guilty secrets?

As each character developed, their foibles and insecurities were brought to light, but instead of inspiring understanding and warmth towards them, all I could feel was despair and disgust.

I really liked the author’s writing style and thought her plot was clever with all of its little twists. It was a bit hard to follow and remember each character’s back story, but that was my only real complaint about the book. I wanted to find out what happened to Diana so badly, that I read well into the night and picked it back up as soon as my kids were in school for the day. Despite a few slow patches, this book was definitely a page-turner and made me want to keep a closer eye on my neighbors.

What I’m reading next: “Dearest Cousin Jane” by Jill Pitkeathley

On the Bookshelf

Staffer: Mike Reuther.

What I read: “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac.

Synopsis: A young writer takes to the road in search of meaning, truth and happiness.

Stats: Nonfiction, Viking Press, 1957.

What I thought: What can you say about “On the Road” that hasn’t already been written?

Sure, it’s a story about people living on a whim, seemingly unconcerned about status, full-time jobs and security.

The main character is Sal Paradise, a young writer who becomes fascinated by Dean Moriarty, a charmer, womanizer and ne’re-do-well, who probably reminds all of us of some crazy scoundrel in our lives.

There’s no plot to “On the Road.”

It’s just about a bunch of guys such as Paradise and Moriarty getting their kicks back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when much of the rest of the country was falling into the rhythm of the Eisenhower years.

For the thousands upon thousands of World War II veterans, those days meant settling down, buying homes and starting families.

The young men of “On the Road” will have none of that.

Much has been written over the years about how Kerouac wrote the book to the beat of jazz music and knocked off the first draft in just a few weeks. Critics have either praised the book or damned it. Truman Capote once declared Kerouac’s writing as nothing more than typing.

I think there is much more going on here in this story.

Paradise is like a lot of young men – at loose ends, unsure of his place in the world, still looking to have fun.

I like Kerouac’s descriptions of the people and places he has Paradise passing through on his cross-country road trips.

His initial journey hitch-hiking from New York to San Francisco is a marvel. Here, we meet migrant farm workers on the move in the Midwest and some of the denizens of Denver, where Paradise’s pal, Moriarty lives at least part of the time when he’s not checking out other places.

Many writers before and after Kerouac have used the vast country to write love songs to America.

Kerouac’s writing, however, is more of an awakening, even a religious experience. He grooves on the land, the people, the places he sees.

“On the Road” is about restless youth. It’s like a long poem set to a beat.

It’s a work of fiction, much of it based on Kerouac’s own cross-country odysseys.

And yes, it’s also an anthem call to everyone that there’s more to life than keeping up with the Joneses.

Of course, it’s unclear what any of them want out of life. You can feel the characters searching, reaching for something. But what?

“On the Road” is certainly not a political book.

There’s no talk of the nation heading down the wrong path, of the ongoing Cold War, of really anything happening in the country at the time. There’s no mention of desegregation, of the arms buildup or atomic bombs.

Paradise and his cohorts seem almost immune to everything, except getting to the next place on the map.

Sal Paradise starts out the book telling of his first meeting with Moriarty and how it followed the breakup of his marriage that left him feeling dead.

That’s the last we hear of Paradise’s marriage, but it seems to explain why he was happy to be swept along on these crazy cross-country journeys over the next few years.