| Book List
YA novel ELEANOR AND PARK (2013) by rainbow rowell is magical – not in the sense that there is a lick of actual magic, but in the sense that this book lingers. You’ll be in the deli line at Hannaford ordering turkey breast sliced thin, and a scene from the novel will pop out at you: Eleanor and Park, “two misfits, one extraordinary love, “ as the caption reads, on the school bus, Eleanor and Park listening to music, Eleanor and Park’s first kiss. Sounds sappy? Guess again. Those who know me would never say I am one to recommend love stories on a whim. But this one has just enough angst, dread, innocence, kindness to have me actually over the moon. READ THIS BOOK. I cannot imagine life without it now that I have it in my life. Grand talk for a simple YA novel? Perhaps, but I challenge readers here to pick that little book up and remain unchanged. It is like potato chips with ridges; you’ll want more rainbow rowell, and more Eleanor and Park. If there is a sequel – I am in line on publication date!
DRINK: THE INTIMATE RELATIONSHP BETWEEN WOMEN AND ALCOHOL (2013) by Ann Dowsett Johnston is an important book. The author is an award-winning writer, former college administrator in Canada, and mother. Hers is a compelling story of addiction and recovery, but it is not that simple. She peppers, heavily peppers, the book with narratives of other supremely successful women who have been taken (or nearly taken) down by alcoholism. She includes studies and stats that indicate that younger women are keeping pace with men in terms of heavy drinking: drinking to blackout. The book is not so much didactic in its warning about the dangers of alcohol (ho hum) as it is a clear look at the realities of women’s lives today. Admittedly, I skimmed some of the studies because the personal narratives were the best parts of the book. The author is brave in sharing her story, and I admire her greatly. I will email and tell her so after posting this review. Perhaps we shall have tea when I am next in Canada!
S. A NOVEL ABOUT THE BALKANS (1999) by Slavenka Drakulic is one of my favorite, heartbreaking, utterly-important books. It is about one woman’s experience in the Serbian rape camps during the 1990s Balkan war. I am Drakulic’s biggest fan, and I have been emailing with her during this holiday (2013) season since I am teaching this book in Women Writers class in spring 2014. She is awesome and brave and feisty. This book is painful to read, no question. But, then again, life is painful to live, as it is, at other times, joyous to live. That is the deal we get as humans. But when human beings’ inhumanity to humans takes the form of evil and cruelty, it is important that we witness it, honor it, and understand the healing that remains for all of us to share. This is a little book for the brave, and while it is a novel, it is true, true, true. Drakulic interviewed women from the camps, documented their torture and wretched experience, and rendered it in this fine novel, so we might catch a glimpse of how women fare in wartime.
I just finished Donna Tartt’s 771-page novel THE GOLDFINCH (2013), and I am both relieved to return the fat tome to the library and bewildered that my life will carry on without it by my bedside night after night. I loved her first novel, THE SECRET HISTORY, so much that I read it again not so long ago, though her next, THE LITTLE FRIEND, was not such a winner. A product of Bennington’s writing program, Tartt has a certain kind of appeal. I happen to be one of those to whom she appeals tremendously. Right out of the gate, Tartt introduces us to 13-year-old Theo Decker who survives an accident that kills his mother. Tragedy begets more tragedy (my kind of book), and Theo’s life toggles between the Park Avenue home of his best friend and his rogue father in Las Vegas. His is both an ordinary and extraordinary and bizarre life, particularly toward the end of the novel when Tartt chooses to pull in a Russian-mob-esque set of characters who sling guns and drugs and stolen art work (I do take issue with this Hollywood trajectory). There is debauchery and murder and a bit of sex, but on the whole, what drew me in was the voice of Theo Decker. I wanted to see what he would do, what he thought, how he would, or would not, land on his feet after his mother’s death. On her final page, Tartt has Theo say: “whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair…life –whatever else it is – is short.” I suppose it would not take some folks 771 pages to come to this conclusion, yet for our Theo, it is a satisfactory conclusion – to my mind. I loved this novel, and I look forward to a gritty dialogue about it with other readers.
TELL ANNA SHE’S SAFE (2011) by Brenda Missen is a book I will use in my future Women’s Studies classes. Based on a true story, the novel tells the tale of Lucy, a woman gone missing, and her friend Ellen who is determined to find her. Ellen receives three clear messages in a dream: she is to search and to write everything down, and Lucy is safe. But is she, Ellen wonders. Ellen’s quest leads her to interact with Lucy’s current partner Tim, a man imprisoned on a manslaughter charge and recently released. She spends long hours with Lucy’s former boyfriend, with a police officer whose help suggests he is interested in more, and with Lucy’s family. The book is sensitive and smart about intimate-partner violence. Missen is thorough and clear, as she renders both Tim and Lucy, and her other characters, as complex human beings who transcend and defy commonplace stereotypes. This is a book I could not put down; I had to know about Lucy, and I still think about Lucy and Ellen and the complexities of being female and human. I recommend this one.
THE LIFTED VEIL (1879) by George Eliot is an odd little book, a long-ish short story really. In it, Eliot explores the pseudosciences of its time, imposing this experimental kind of “medical” intervention onto the story of a sad marriage. The book is chilling by 19th century standards, and, frankly, a bit of a stunner for this 21st century reader. This is one that had been on the list, and now it has been crossed off the list. If you must read some George Eliot, and truly – you must, this is not the one. Rather, I recommend the incomparable MIDDLEMARCH or the heart-wrenching THE MILL ON THE FLOSS.
THE ROMANCE OF A SHOP (1888) by Amy Levy is about four sisters whose father has just died and whose financial future falls to them to manage. None is married; none has a prospect, but all of them have a talent: photography. They set up a photography business in their home in London, a rare thing for females of this time who would typically pursue paths of domestic service or governess-ing. This book is reminiscent of LITTLE WOMEN, with its focus on enterprising young women who refused the gendered roles they were expected to inhabit. Levy explores the trials of independent urban life for these “new woman” characters. Her ending is more traditional than I would have preferred, but I do understand the realities of the fin-de-siecle publishing enterprise. She gives audiences and publishing houses what they require, but she leaves this reader wishing for a bolder stroke.
FEAR: ESSENTIAL WISDOM FOR GETTING THROUGH THE STORM (2012) by Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen master and Buddhist monk, is exactly what one would expect from such a book. Hanh reminds us that most of us live in a constant state of fear – fear of the past of illness and aging and death. Mindfulness is the answer. It is not that we avoid these fears. Rather, we embrace them in mindful meditation. In a nutshell: we SIT with them, breathe deeply, invite our fears to tea, as one Buddhist nun says. And when we dwell with our fear, really embrace it, it fades away. I am a big, and rather new, fan of this sort of thinking. We all find ways of coping with the world; this may well be mine.
OLD MAIDS, AND BURGLARS IN PARADISE (1887)by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward is pure delight. Fabulously popular in her time, Phelps brings us by way of this novel the character of Corona, an “old maid” at 36. She decides to buy her own home, to move out of her brother and sister in law’s home. She builds a lovely cottage on the shore for $500, and she lives there “alone” with her maid Puelvir. She encounters burglars, vagabonds, sleepy dogs and boys. She LOVES living alone, loves her house, loves her life. Every day is peaceful. She has visitors. They boat, ride horses, lounge on her piazza in hammocks. She wishes not to marry. This is such a renegade book for its time, though Phelps herself has other transgressive female characters, in particular, my favorite, Avis of THE STORY OF AVIS. When Corona’s old love, gone these 15 years, returns at the very, very end of the novel, she thinks she will not have him but for a friend. While Phelps constructs her very last sentence as a question -- will they remain friends or will something other develop – one is rooting for Corona to live on in her Old Maid’s Paradise, as she calls it, and to forego nothing of the treasure she has found. LOVE THIS BOOK! Had to interlibrary loan it from San Jose State University – grateful it made the trip to me.
Jeanette Winterson’s THE DAYLIGHT GATE (2012) is spare but gripping. An instant bestseller in the UK, Winterson imagines England’s 1600s where “witches” were imprisoned, tormented, and killed. Based on the trial of the Lancashire witches in 1612, the most famous of English witch trials, Winterson incorporates real-life characters like Shakespeare, but invents some of the other lives, making “necessary speculations and inventions.” Winterson is the mistress of narrative, and while this brief novel requires a bit of work on the part of the reader – no hand holding here – it is worth it.
I read THE LAKE HOUSE (2013) by Marci Nault because she is visiting my book group meeting next week. This novel raised multiple questions in my mind, questions that have been much in the press lately, about the difference (the blurred lines) between literary and popular/commercial fiction. I’m not interested in categorizing Nault’s novel so much as I am interested in thinking about what makes such a book sell. What does it offer that other books do not? For one, it is comforting. I think there are surefire ways to sell a book, and one of them is to choose a title with one of the following words: house, wife, daughter, wedding, death. Am I wrong? This one is about a group of friends who grew up together and lived on a lake; most of them stay there, inherit their parents’ properties, and live out their elderly lives as they started them – safe, privileged, among friends. When a stranger comes to town, all hell threatens, but she is swiftly enfolded into the community. In the end (SORRY: SPOILER), everyone marries – the community remains intact, love triumphs over childhood hurts. Ok, so that is all quite nice. Comforting. But, Marci, it did not rock my world the way, say, a book that dares me to THINK about life’s challenges, to face fear head on, to wonder at the resilience of human nature. Perhaps I am only one of a few who needs that jazzing? Nope. I know this is not so because books that do all of those things are on the New Books shelf of my libraries every week. But this one meets readers’ needs – for comfort, for belief in romance that endures over years of anguish and bad choices, for a belief that all will be well. I had those needs too, but – like others – I came to a point in life where those kinds of stories that met those kinds of existential needs did not suffice. I want more. I want to swallow life whole, the good and the bad, to look at it close up, to feel others’ experiences in my bones, and to grow because of it. Is that asking too much? Elizabeth Strout meets my needs. Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Charlotte Bronte…There is no better or worse here. One might argue it all boils down to a matter of taste. I would not argue this – I would delve deeper, ask chunkier questions, but then again, I am one reader among many. As for THE LAKE HOUSE – I read it on a long, rainy afternoon. It soothed something atavistic, domestic. That’s all she wrote.
Elizabeth Strout is incomparable, really. Her OLIVE KITTEREDGE and THE BURGESS BOYS are among my favorites. This literary fiction writer is one whose books I have to read. Plain and simple: if she writes it, I will read. So AMY AND ISABELLE (1998) has been on my shelf for years, and I finally go to it. This is a nuanced novel about a mother and daughter who live somewhat peaceably in a mill town until such time when the daughter’s sexuality begins to unfold. Young women’s budding sexuality always seems to bring tension in ways young men’s does not, and so it is with Amy’s. The novel explores this tension and the way the girl’s innocence is used by her teacher. Her hope and belief in a form of romantic love our culture dishes out to girls in order to keep them in check is tragic, and her mother’s initial inability to help her find some “truth” about her body and her world is, perhaps, even more tragic. This is not my favorite Strout, but it had to be read, as do all Strouts. Readers enraptured by mother-daughter novels: this one’s for you.
I am a staunch First Amendment supporter. I do not believe in banning or burning books. I don’t believe in restricting access to books. Nevertheless, Alissa Nutting’s TAMPA (2013) shook my free-speech faith. She writes about eighth-grade English teacher Celeste who has a sexual obsession with fourteen-year-old boys, her students. Her book has been compared to Nabokov’s Lolita, another novel about a pedophile, in the latter instance a male. I am not a fan of Lolita for a myriad of reasons, but I did not feel the same degree of squeamishness, perhaps downright nausea is a more accurate word, reading that book. Nutting has left no detail unarticulated, and even for the reader who might enjoy what the book flap calls a “scorching” story replete with raw, unadulterated sexual acrobatics, this book is hard to read because all of that detail is about an adult – a teacher, for goodness sake -- having sex with an underage student, a child. In fact, this is not sex. It is statutory rape, and Celeste knows it; her cop husband ultimately knows it, and the lives that are ruined because of her criminal behavior are like so much detritus on the page. Celeste is pathetic, unsympathetic, and unrepentant. She is a sociopath; getting inside the mind of a person who is not like us is the goal of literature. So I am conflicted because I claim I want readers to learn to be empathic: to walk in the shoes of another and to experience what his/her life is like. Dang! Perhaps I am a hypocrite, but I walked in Celeste’s shoes, and I had to put that book down so many times because her shoes hurt my soul, and the pain I experienced for those young boys was continuous. I saw her world, far too much of it. I felt I had to read this book; I feel it is my professional obligation to understand what is taking up space on bookshelves and in reviews and blogs. I read it. I cannot recommend. In fact, I recommend against it. Were I able to erase this novel from my brain, like the characters in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I would.
Elizabeth Berg’s THE LAST TIME I SAW YOU (2010) is about classmates who are attending their 40th high school class reunion, a topic with hefty potential, but this is not Berg’s best novel – which, I maintain, is TALK BEFORE SLEEP. By and large, the characters are not interesting; while not exactly stock figures, they are people whose main motivation is to hook up with their old flames at this reunion. I have spent a lot of time with folks who have returned to their home towns in order to attend reunions, and for nary one of them was hooking up with the high school quarterback or cheerleading captain on the agenda. So I am not sure what Berg is thinking here. I cannot claim that there is not entertainment here. There is, but it is sort of like being really hungry after a hard day’s work and finding some Twizzlers and a can of tuna on your dinner plate. There is sweetness there; there is a touch of protein, but for the most part the dinner is unmemorable. Sorry, Elizabeth Berg, I can’t recommend this one unless it is to a reader with lots of free time, or, I suppose, the reader who has harbored a four-decades crush on the quarterback/cheerleader.
After hearing Susan Choi interviewed on NPR, I really wanted to like MY EDUCATION (2013). It is set in a university. The protagonist, Regina, is a graduate student in English who becomes involved with a faculty couple, for better or for worse. This novel has all of the ingredients, but it does not mix them well and does not successfully bake them into the delicacy I expected. I should have known. I read Choi’s A PERSON OF INTEREST with the same anticipation and was disillusioned as well. Why? A number of things in the nerd category that I wanted I did not get: more about the university life, what each character was reading and thinking about literature and literary theory, more classroom scenes. I wanted to see why the protagonist and the lover (cannot say more lest I spoil) were -- well – in love. There was a quickie kiss, and then there was steamy sex throughout most of the novel – and Choi does not skimp on the details (echoes of Updike and Roth here – why imitate the guys?). What drew them to each other for so long remains unclear to me. I get that the physical relationship was satisfying to them, of course, but that it was so wonderful that they did not have to talk, go to a museum, muse over peppermint tea about Emily Dickinson – that I did not get. Their relationship was all sex and then fighting. While we see that in the “real” world and on reality TV often, it is not what I want to read about when my reading time is so precious. Streamline the sex; add in some conversations, some sweet moments, so the reader is convinced that what drives them to bed is a deeper connection. Ahhh….Susan, I wanted more.
THE BURGESS BOYS (2013) by Elizabeth Strout, author of my beloved OLIVE KITTERIDGE, does it again – not in the keenly brilliant way she does with OLIVE, but close, very close. I loved this book, looked forward to a free moment when I could get back to Jim and Bob and Susan Burgess and their families. I toted that hardcover library book all over kingdom come so I could BE with it. Fiction both soothes and stimulates my mind, and I find I NEED it like some folks need a dry martini. Strout’s novel was my cocktail of choice for a few days. The Burgess brothers are haunted by the accident that killed their father, and they leave Maine to pursue lives in New York City, far from Shirley Falls, where their sister remains with her teenage son Zach. Zach brings all of the siblings back to Shirley Falls when he perpetrates a colossal act of stupidity. One of the brothers is dear, sweet, and kind, the other charming, handsome, obnoxious. The reader finds herself wanting to insert herself into the sibling nastiness to set things straight, but Strout takes care of all of that. She does what needs to be done in the fine novel. Read it.
Nick Hornby’s THE POLYSYLLABIC SPREE (2004) is not for everyone, but for those readers who might LOVE a book about one guy’s struggle with “the monthly tide of the books he’s bought and the books he’s been meaning to read,” as the cover reports, this is a solid choice. Hornby is hilarious and profound. His are sentences that require the reader to laugh out loud on crowded subways. There is no choice in this matter: Hornby is funny, and you will laugh whether you mean to or not, so choose your reading venue carefully.
Only because I organized all of my bookshelves this summer did INTO THE FOREST (1996) by Jean Hegland get read. I have owned it for years and refused to give it up because on the cover there is a primeval forest with a girl’s feet swirled about by a diaphanous skirt. I cannot lay claim to the reason this enticed me. Nevertheless, it did, and so I re-discovered it, dusted it off, and read it. This dark novel is about Eva and Nell, sisters 18 and 17, who are surviving with their father in a world where power – in all of its forms – is lost. No electricity, no government, no doctors. Theirs is a brutal life, yet they work to maintain a form of civility and artistic creation that defies their dire circumstances. I liked this book, found it a puzzle to work out. I wanted to know what would happen to the sisters, but I did not want to know all the way through the 241 pages. I could have been content with learning their outcome in, say, 200 pages – it needs a touch of editing, I posit. If you are into dark novels, this female version of THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy may be for you.
THE IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF GRETA WELLS (2013) by Andrew Sean Greer is a time travel novel of sorts. The first Greta we meet struggles with the death of her beloved brother and the breakup with her lover. When a psychiatrist treats her deep depression with convulsive shock therapy, Greta travels to 1919 and to 1941, then back to 1985 – where she is herself and not herself. In each time period, Greta comes to realizations that change her way of being in the world. Ultimately, Greta’s treatments end, and she must decide which is the world for her. Time travel gives me the heebejeebies, frankly. I have done my duty by THE TIME TRAVELLER’S WIFE and several films foisted upon me by loved ones. While I am not a fan, I am a HUGE FAN of Andrew Sean Greer (author of the very best THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE), so I took the leap of faith required to launch into another time travel narrative. What Greer does to help along the time-travel challenged like me is to explain carefully where the protagonist is at every moment, how she got there and how she will get out. I suppose my seminal issue with these sorts of book is that authors typically assume their readers just buy into time travel, as if that is a thing people do like going to Market Basket for a chicken-wing sale. They expect one to suspend disbelief. I am not that reader. I need to be coaxed and convinced that the time travel has a sound reason for happening – so Greer provides one – electroshock therapy works for me. It may not be scientific, but it is scientific enough for me to buy without too much fuss. This is a good book. I will read it again, for sure.
THE TRUE SECRET OF WRITING: CONNECTING LIFE WITH LANGUAGE (2013) by Natalie Goldberg, author of WRITING DOWN THE BONES, is delightful, despite its unfortunate title – dumb title really, Natalie. There is no true secret unless it is sit your *** in the chair and type, but what this author does is to connect Buddhist meditation practice with writing practice, and I like that because I do that. I have been meditating for two years now, and if it is hard to explain exactly why it works, well – one must then trust the experience of the one meditating. It works, and it does enable clearer thinking which enables clearer writing. This is one of those books that has short chapters, spiced with Buddhist text and poetry and literature. Primarily, Goldberg tells how she conducts her Zen/Writing retreats in New Mexico, so the reader can do them at home. Goldberg is a favorite of mine. I have used her books with success in College Writing classrooms. Shut up and write is her mantra. It does not get any clearer than that. And that is the secret.
This will surprise those who know me, but I have finished Book One of the GAME OF THRONES (1996) series by George R. R. Martin. Yesindeedy, all 674 pages, and I am onto Book Two now: A CLASH OF KINGS. The book is easy to summarize: everyone you love dies, and most of those are beheaded. With a huge bowl of popcorn and my GOT devotee son beside me, I watched the first HBO episode last year. He and his college friends are such fans, as are my students, I had to see what it was all about. Ten minutes in, someone is beheaded, blood spews across the freshly-fallen snow, and I’m out. There is something about SEEING violence, hearing the ominous predictive music leading up to horror, that is the opposite of entertainment for me. But reading it on a page, even the part where one of my favorite characters (surely to be killed next book) eats an entire raw (warm) heart of a hart – in order to insure that her soon-to-be-born baby is healthy, well, I can do that. The difference: my brain. Actually seeing the violence, or that bloody, muscle-ish heart would make me spontaneously ill. Reading about it, I can pace, read a sentence or two, take a sip of tea, look outside at the trees, imagine I am in Macy’s buying a new pair of shoes. There is no imagining with HBO – decapitation is decapitation – no Macy’s, no swaying trees, not matter how much you will it to be so. Anyway, I have finished the first book, and I really, really liked it. Exactly why is still a mystery to me. In fact, I think I went into the corpulent book wanting to not like it, wanting to eschew it for schlock. But there I was, reading and reading, even when the book fell onto my face because I was tired and it is fat. There are few great lines like those you find in Andrew Sean Greer’s work or that of Lionel Shriver or Margaret Atwood or Toni Morrison. It is not about great lines (though Tyrion, the dwarf, has the best lines of all). It is about intricate plotting and memorable, if barbaric, characters. It is exciting and upsetting and shocking. There are far too many characters to remember all the names, yet you remember and look forward to the narration of your favorites. You hate, hate, hate the bad guys, and – knowing how bestial George R. R. Martin treats his favorites – you hope (against every moral fiber of your being) that the bad guys get an extra-special, creative death. The book appeals to something primal; perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit that that something primal in me has been piqued. But I’m not. It’s summer. I want to read it. That is enough.
Turkey’s Elif Shafak is one of my favorite authors. She won me over with THE BASTARD OF ISTANBUL years ago. When HONOR (2013) came out and summer opened up, I grabbed it. I simply love her, though I can see where she would not be everyone’s cup of tea. She has a bazillion characters – a bit like GAME OF THRONES (but not at all like GOT in any other way) – and all of them have detailed and fascinating lives (even the banal is intriguing in her books). This novel is about twin daughters born in the 1940s in a Kurdish village on border of Turkey and Syria. Jamila becomes a midwife and remains in the village, but the villagers are wary, believing she has secret powers. Pembe marries Adem and follows him to London in the 1970s where they raise three children. One of Pembe’s children will murder her in an “honor” killing, in order that shame not come to the family name. The book weaves the plot’s past and the present in order to explore the ways in which humans can love others and yet bring devastation to them. This book has an awesome ending. Some critics have said the novel has a touch of Isabel Allende and Alice Walker. These critics would be right. Shafak is Turkey’s foremost female writer. Her novels are consuming, so read this one and prepare to be swept away for hours.
MENAGE (2012) by Alix Kate Shulman, best known for MEMOIRS OF AN EX-PROM QUEEN, was just okay, which was disappointing. I picked it up in a used bookstore because the jacket said that Mack invites exiled writer Zohan Barbu to live with him and his wife in their tony home, offering him a writer’s retreat of sorts. And that is what happened, but the characters were not people I cared about . The inevitable sexual tension arose – and they were boring. Yep – boring! The whole reading experience felt like a walk in the excessive park. These people had it all – money, real estate, cars, wine, connections, and they were miserable, miserable in a way the Richard Yates’s REVOLUTIONARY ROAD couple was miserable, but not so satisfyingly miserable as Yates’s tragic couple was. I get that Shulman is poking fun at “our modern malaise (why is having it all never enough?),” as the cover also says, but she took the fun out of the poking. I agree with her premise: having lots of stuff does not a happy family make, but I knew that going in, and I had higher expectations from this renowned feminist writer. Sorry, Alix Kates Shulman. I wanted to like it.
FLORA (2013) by Gail Godwin was a chore to get through. It had promise, specifically the winning words of John Irving on the cover: “luminously written, heartbreaking book.” Who am I to take exception to either John Irving or Gail Godwin (three-time National Book Award finalist, Guggenheim Fellow, etc.)? I find, however, that I must. I get what Godwin is doing here, building a slow moving narrative about one summer where Flora Waring, 22, cares for ten-year-old Helen while her father is doing secret military work in Oak Ridge during the final months of World War II (guess what that turns out to be?!). Helen lost her mother when she was three and her beloved grandmother just recently. Flora is perennially pleasant, ludicrously innocent, and unfailingly kind. Helen, even at this young age, is cynical and downright mean, behaviors, we presume, born of grief and abandonment. The summer is LONG and DULL, and the reader longs for it to end, as does Helen. The last few chapters illuminate the mysteries that have been hiding in shadow all along, ties it all up. Finally, we understand why Helen is such a little brat, why she is writing this narrative as an aging adult woman. It works technically, but the reading experience for me was one of ennui. When will it be done, I wailed, like some kid on a too-long trip with mommy and daddy. I did not want to give up on Gail Godwin, but every time I picked up the novel, I thought to finish it, not so much to savor it. That is not the summer reading experience I cherish. I interspersed it all with chunks of GAME OF THRONES, book number one. I have become a devotee, of sorts, unable to bear watching the television series given that every character, sooner or later, seems to have his head sliced off with a sword. But the books – that is somehow ok. Anyway, GAME OF THRONES got me through FLORA, and while I have guilt about that – for a bazillion reasons – it is the simple truth, and what is summer for, after all, if not for telling simple literary truths?
BIG BROTHER (2013) by Lionel Shriver, author of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, is really intriguing. Pandora picks up her brother at the airport. She has not seen him for years. She does not recognize him because he has gained hundreds and hundreds of pounds. He is transformed, and he transforms Pandora’s life while he stays with her family. Her husband and brother detest each other. Her children are at once remote and loving, embracing their uncle but puzzled by his enormity. Edison, the brother, is a problem, but he seems to be Pandora’s problem since he has no job, has no home, and has a body out of control. What should she do? Can she fix this? Is it hers to fix? Shriver is a fabulous writer, one of the best, and this book is no simple fat story. She gets into the nooks and crannies of the American mind as it contemplates obesity: the judgments we make, the diets we obsess over, the attitudes we cop. Can we help those we love who are intent on harming themselves? Should we? What do we owe our loved ones, and in what ways does their free will trump our desire to save? Shriver packs a lot into this 373-page book. Her language is beautiful. It is serious and sad, and it tests our facile assumptions about fat. I loved this novel, not more than KEVIN, but second best, for sure.
Herman Koch’s novel THE DINNER (2009) is translated from the Dutch. I listened to it on tape in my car – 8 hours, 59 minutes of story. I had to do it because the book is getting so much press. The first two tapes nearly drove me mad, so repetitive and grating was the voice of the narrator. It was like being in a room with the most negative, complaining person in the world with no possible exit. I stuck it out only because I was afraid I would miss what so many reviewers were raving about. I tarried, and I discovered what excited the reviewers. The book is far darker than its title suggests. The lengths to which parents will go to protect their children – even their very bad children – are stupefying. THAT is what this novel is about; it is really is a study in the intricate and multiple ways in which people can be “crazy.” I admit I am glad to have finished the book. The narrator is tiresome, but when the narrative onion is peeled back and the core of his being is revealed, h he is not only tiresome but frightening, as is his son, as is his wife…. The book is complex and violent and hard to reckon with at points, but worth it, I think.
A dear friend gave me the new novel, MARY COIN (2013) by Marisa Silver, for my birthday in April. I opened it two days ago, and I realized why she chose it for me. What beautiful writing. The novel imagines (and relies on historical research) the life of the woman in Dorothea Lange’s MIGRANT MOTHER photograph, taken in 1936 California during the Great Depression. Surely the novel will evoke muscle memory in those readers who swallowed GRAPES OF WRATH whole in high school. The agony of migrant work, camp life, bone-chilling poverty – it’s all there in this novel, but the overlay is about Walker Dodge, a present-day professor of cultural history who uncovers a family mystery and Vera Dare, the fictional stand in for Dorothea Lange. Silver delivers the narrative in one of my favorite formats: a trinity of perspectives, all in third person, but focalized closely through the lens and language of each character. This is my first Marisa Silver novel; it will not be my last. “In luminous, exquisitely rendered prose,” the book jacket claims, “Silver creates an extraordinary tale from a brief moment in history, and reminds us that although a great photograph can capture the essence of a moment, it only scratches the surface of a life.”
BINGO! THE ROUND HOUSE (2012) by Louise Erdrich is a National Book Award winning novel: rightfully so. I loved this novel from start to finish. I will assign it the next time I teach my Law & Literature course because it raises questions that cannot be -- but must be -- answered -- if we are to live in a civil society. Geraldine Coutts is attacked one Sunday in 1988. She and her husband Bazil and son Joe, thirteen years old, live on a reservation in North Dakota. Geraldine is traumatized and will not speak about what happened, though she is lucky to be alive. Joe and his buddies set out to find the perpetrator and to render “justice,” growing up too soon in a world where violence is not easily convicted. Erdrich is at her best here. She has made me a believer again. I’d thought she was a waning star with SHADOW TAG, but this is a new favorite of mine. I followed Joe, this teenaged narrator through every adventure and clue and tear to find out what happened to his mother, and I would do it again – probably will. Fair warning: there is heartbreak, and there is moral dilemma, but there is something that salves the soul here. Beyond that, Erdrich knows how to write a good novel. I believe she’s back. This one is a keeper.
I picked up YOU ARE THE LOVE OF MY LIFE (2012) by Susan Richards Shreve because I loved her novel A STUDENT OF LIVING THINGS when I read it a few years ago. This newest novel moves from interesting to very tense and intriguing as it goes along. Shreve is the mistress of what I call narrative promises: she tosses out story nuggets, just a few here and there, like crumbs. And you wait and read on, and more crumbs accumulate. The more they accumulate, the faster you read, so you can collect all the crumbs and get a full-fledged piece of cake. I really liked this book, so much so, I read without stopping until I knew what would happen to Lucy Painter, the children’s story book author, and to her eleven-year-old daughter Maggie and three-year-old son Felix. What about her married lover Reuben Frank? What about the stylish, frenetic neighbor Zee and her secrets? What about the widower next door who knows the truth about Lucy’s dead father? So many characters with so many secrets – qualifies as a fine summer read, but a summer read with some meat on its bones."
LAST DAY ON EARTH: A PORTRAIT OF THE NIU SCHOOL SHOOTER (2011) by David Vann is insightful on many levels. It is difficult to gain entry into the mind of a school shooter. Most of them kill themselves during their rampage. Steve Kazmierczak, the subject of Vann's nonfiction book, does as well. The difference is that Vann is able to garner full access to 1500 pages of police files and to interview Kazmierczak's friends and fellow students and professors. What made this Dean's Award winning graduate student in sociology kill five students and wound eighteen at Northern Illinois University on Valentine's Day 2008? A toxic cocktail of life circumstance, mental instability, and festering self loathing. But that makes it all sound so simple. It is anything but simple, and it is anything but pretty. Vann does us the "service" of offering up the tawdry and wretched details of the life of a mass murderer in order to differentiate between himself, who contemplated a school shooting as a teen, and Steve Kazmierczak, who follows through on his deadly plan. I read this book because I teach a course on school shootings, and -- frankly -- I read anything written about school shootings. Yep -- we all have our quirks. I may assign this book when I next teach the school shootings seminar; while it is difficult to get through the detailed inhumanity at times, it is worthwhile to read for the insight it gives us into the world of the traumatized and heartsick.
I am a late bloomer, having finally read THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (1999) by Stephen Chbosky, after my teenaged niece insisted. The narrative voice of Charlie is one of the most compelling I have read. His honesty and vulnerability is remarkable on many levels. Think CATCHER IN THE RYE without attitude. The book is a fast read, a nonstop read, and the ending is a whopper. But...the thing is, the ending is a whopper that comes at you like a thing in the night -- not in one leap, not as a menacing pounce, but rather in a cloudy-sky-clears-up-ever-so-slowly sort of way. It all makes sense at the end, not tied-up-neatly sense, but SENSE. I just closed the book, and I am still in its grip. The back cover says it is a "haunting novel about the dilemma of passivity vs. passion." It is all of that. Why in heaven's name did I never get around to reading this earlier? Don't make the same mistake. This one is a keeper. Hats off to my niece and to all those young readers who can teach us a thing or two. READ THIS ONE NOW.
HOMER & LANGLEY (2009) by E. L. Doctorow is especially interesting to me because Doctorow writes what the book jacket calls "a free imaginative rendering of the lives of New York's fabled Collyer brothers." The book I am writing is a novel about a real event as well, and I am intrigued by the choice to render "real life" via fiction -- the possibliities this offers are protean. The brothers in this novel are recluses living in a grand mansion on Fifth Avenue. They are hoarders -- really outrageous hoarders. One is blind, the other is either mad or brilliant or both, having been damaged by mustard gas in World War I. This is one odd set of brothers, unlike the SISTERS BROTHERS (another book reviewed on this site), but equally curious. These two are not murderers, not particulary violent, but they are worth an investigation. Their adventures are zany, though they seldom leave home. There is a claustrophobia that accompanies the reading of this book, but it is short lived -- only 208 pages. Doctorow is a master: National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle awards, two PEN/Faulkners....one cannot go wrong with this sliver of brotherly peril.
THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS by M. L. Stedman (2012) is about 100 pages too long but worth the read if you like moral dilemmas whose outcomes you can predict a mile away. To be fair, there is enough nuance that a reader might not anticipate the outcome in its totality. And it is sweet and sad and a touch romantic. The novel explores motherlove and sacrifice and the darkest deceptions and betrayals. Nearing the last fifty pages, I could not stop reading knowing what was coming, not caring a whit because I was in Australia with those characters, working through their heart-wrenching destinies with them. My book group chose this one, lots of loved it swayed the majority. I cannot commit to having LOVED this book, but I can safely recommend it to a summer reader who has 100 pages of time to spare.
John Green's latest novel, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (2012) is a one-day bender. You cannot stop. You don't want to stop. If I tell you that this is a YA novel about kids who have cancer and make friends at a Cancer Support Group -- do not be deterred. Green is the master when it comes to narrative voice. I'm not sure how old this author is -- looks young-ish on the book jacket -- but he's found the millennial niche and it's all because of one thing: characters with irreverent and bold narrative voices. These kids are compelling. Were I sixteen again, Augustus Waters would be my new beau. He is all charm and humility and intellect. Hazel, the narrator, is bewilderingly adorable and feisty. Both have cancer and don't for one minute pretend it is not so; self pitying they are not. The reader, however, is wrenched by this little book. It is worth every minute of the agony that is, inevitably, to come with any book about kids with cancer. I loved Green's LOOKING FOR ALASKA, but this one is a contender, for sure.
ETHAN FROME by Edith Wharton is a time-honored classic. I taught it this winter, but frigid weather kept our class from taking the traditional (my tradition) sledding venture down the front lawn of the manor on our university campus. For those who have not read the novella, this sledding tradition is a touch of gallows humor, but it has always held an appeal to students. Sledding aside, the book is gloomy and, frankly, miserable, set in the deep winter of New England among folks whose lives have been damaged beyond repair or resurrection. So what's the appeal? Wharton's language and characterization, her ability to capture hopelessness, her infiltrating 60+ pages with protean and existential questions like: do humans really have free will? Can we really love whomever we choose? Do moral obligations tether us to lifelong imprisonment? If you're looking for a cheery read, skip this one, but if you are up for a brief jaunt into the depths of human despair, Wharton is your gal.
A bit more uplifting is THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS (2012) by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. My book group picked this one. It has a pretty cover, and I did not expect much given the abundance of pastel-colored flowers on the cover. Yet...I became fond of it, and I can recommend it with a clean conscience. It is not schmaltzy, as the cover might lead one to surmise. It has some depth, some curiously-wounded and complex characters, and an interesting ending. There is a touch of charm in the way the Victorian meaning of flowers is woven throughout. This is a nice springtime or early summer read.
WILD: FROM LOST TO FOUND ON THE PACIFIC CREST TRAIL (2012) by Cheryl Strayed is perfectly wonderful! Read it immediately. It is all the rage and deservedly so. This is a memoir about a young woman who lost her mother, allowed her life to unravel into a danger zone, and quested after healing by hiking from the Mojave Desert north to Oregon -- alone -- with a backpack -- and NO hiking experience. All of the things you fear she might come face to face with on the trail, a woman alone, she comes face to face with: snakes, weather, men with bad intentions, etc. But she does it, and you cheer for her every blistered toe of the way. A MUST read.
A LONG WAY GONE: MEMOIRS OF A BOY SOLDIER (2008) by Ishmael Beah is another text I taught in Creative Nonfiction this semester. Beah's family was wiped out in the civil war in Sierre Leone, and he was recruited (forced) to become a boy soldier. Drugged, brainwashed, and be-weaponed, Beah lived a hellish existence before being "save" by Good Samaritan NGOs who worked to heal boy soldiers in war-torn areas. Beah's survival is a miracle, and reading about it is an object lesson in gratitude. Not for the squeamish, this memoir is important and beautiful, testimony to the resilience of the human spirit.
FLIGHT BEHAVIOR (2012) by Barbara Kingsolver is an environmentalists dream. Chock full of science, not so much unlike Ann Patchett's STATE OF WONDER, the novel is so richly detailed that one finds herself imprisoned at moments in sensuous paragraphs, fully plucked out of the real world. Protagonist Dellarobia Turnbow is ready to toss her dull marriage to the wind when she encounters a miracle/mystery: monarch butterflies in such tremendous numbers that they appear as raging fire. But why here? why so many in Appalachia? She discovers why, and the answer is not pretty. Rather, the monarchs' beautiful brotherhood signals environmental catastrophe. The novel is contentious; it tackles climate change head on with an empathy this reader has yet to find in the non-fictional world. Kingsolver "dissects the motives that drive denial and belief in a precarious world," the book jacket says. That she does. The characterization of Dellarobia's young precocious son Preson, five years old, is precious, and a scene in which Dellarobia "helps" a ewe give birth is deeply touching. Stick with this one, all 436 pages. If you teach science -- consider using it in the classroom. Delivery of important and timely messages via fiction is more often than not an effective pedagogical tool -- not so much preaching as intellectual wondering. Bottom line: loved it.
THE JOURNAL OF BEST PRACTICES: A MEMOIR OF MARRIAGE, ASPERGER SYNDROME, AND ONE MAN'S QUEST TO BE A BETTER HUSBAND (2012) by David Finch is a New York Times bestseller for good reason: the book is laugh-out-loud funny. It is also touching and endearing and smart. Five years into a troubled marriage, David learns he has Asperger Syndrome after taking a 150-question "test" his wife finds online. No need to get confirmation from a doctor, he and his wife conclude: David "passes" the test with flying colors. This brings relief to both husband and wife because what was heretofore thought to be David's irritating idiosyncracies and even challenging compulsions turned out to be attributable to the inner workings of his brain. This very realization made easier their decision to work together to make their marriage work, less fraught with blame and guilt. Nevertheless, David's commitment to becoming a better husband is not without its quirks. I loved it, read it in one day. This is one for lots of couples, spectrum or not.
THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY (2012) by Rachel Joyce is surprisingly delightful. My bookgroup chose it, and I was skeptical but sold on the premise: Harold gets a letter from a woman he has not heard from in twenty years. She is dying. Harold determines to deliver his final message to this woman in person, so he sets off to walk 600 miles across England. Along the way, he encounters intriguing characters, reflects on the depths (and shallows) of his life, and winds up inspiring multitudes. Readers will find themselves rooting for Harold and for his wife Maureen, who resurrects herself from an emotional stranglehold. This is a nice book, charming and happy making at many moments.
PLAIN TRUTH (2000) is classic Jodi Picoult: there is a crime of moral dilemma, usually a crime, as is the case here. A young Amish woman delivers a baby by herself, and the child turns up dead. Who killed it? A crackerjack lawyer moves into the Amish community -- a condition of bail -- and prepares to defend the girl. Who among the cast of characters introduced might have killed the baby? There is a ghost. There is romance. There is heartache. There is, inevitably, the trial scene, in which the lawyer does her formidable thing. The end is shocking -- shocker! Nothing wrong with a good, page-turning Jodi Picoult to warm the cockles of your wintery heart. Some days, what you need is predictable, easy, comforting. That's what you'll get here.
ELECTION (1998) by Tom Perrotta is 200 pages of narrative whirlwind. Every chapter is told from the perspective of yet another character -- too many of them. The plot revolves around a high school election -- yet it is gripping in its way, even for those of us for whom high school elections are a scant memory. Perrotta can be counted on for offering scathing social commentary, and here he does so less harshly than, say, in LITTLE CHILDREN. This is a quick, fun read that will not tax any brain matter. Perrotta is awesome; this is not my favorite, but any Perrotta is worth a gander.
One of the best novels I read this summer was STATE OF WONDER (2011) by Ann Patchett. It takes place in the Amazon, and I’ve read nothing like it since Barbara Kingsolver’s THE POISONWOOD BIBLE. The main character, Dr. Marina Singh, travels to the rainforest to find out what happened to her friend Enders Eckman, a fellow medical doctor and researcher. He is reported dead, and Marina is compelled by Enders’ wife to uncover the details. Once in the hellish and hot world of vipers and insects and diseases, Singh discovers that doctors there are making medical history, but their discoveries come with some frightening price tags in terms of ethics and the wellbeing of humankind at large. Singh is tougher than she believes, and we follow her from tree to tree, anaconda to anaconda, in order to find out what she’ll do, whom she might betray, to what agenda (medical, ethical, corporate, personal) she’ll stay faithful. Absolutely read this one.
GOING SOLO: THE EXTRAORDINARY RISE AND SURPRISING APPEAL OF LIVING ALONE (2012) by Eric Klinenberg, Professor of Sociology at NYU is chock full of compelling statistics like these: in 1950, 22 % of American adults were single; today, more than 50 % of American adults are single. People who live alone make up 28% of all U.S. households, and these people and childless couples are the most prominent residential type, more common than the nuclear family, multigenerational family, and the roommate or group home. Solo dwellers are primarily women, the majority between the ages of 35 and 64. Historically, this is something new: No previous human societies have supported large numbers of people who lived alone, so we have no historical examples to learn from. Klinenberg is learning. Living alone has its challenges, he says, but it may not be the social problem it’s generally made out to be. His questions are interesting. For example, does living alone mean something different now that we’re hyper-connected through cell phones, social media, etc? What does living alone mean for communities? Is this trend paving the way for what he calls “urban tribes” to replace traditional families that often break apart? Sometimes I need narrative – a good story. Frankly, I ALWAYS need a good story, but this sociological study came as close as this kind of reading can to telling the story of who lives alone and why and what it might mean. I know lots of singletons (what the author calls people who live alone) who are happy, contented, balanced folks – I did not know they were the subject of a study. Is there no end to what fascinates us about human behavior?
MONKEY MIND: A MEMOIR OF ANXIETY (2012) By Daniel Smith is immediately funny. His style is self-deprecating in just the right measure. This is a laugh-out-loud book in the beginning. But it is inconsistent. Smith ventures, with intrepid honesty, into the darker parts of his life from whence his anxiety is born (he theorizes), and in those places the hilarity wanes. Something about the balance is off. It can be done, marrying the dark and painful with the self-reflective and hopeful – I don’t think Smith has done this. What he does do is explore his anxiety, and anxiety at large, with humor and humility, and that may be helpful to those who find the human animal a compelling study. Looking for answers about how to stop living the anxious life – look elsewhere. Smith overcomes – sure – his memoir would not sell otherwise, but how he does this – as in how he does this and how YOU, reader, can do this – that is not the book he has written.
YOU CAN BUY HAPPINESS (AND IT’S CHEAP): HOW ONE WOMAN RADICALLY SIMPLIFIED HER LIFE AND HOW YOU CAN TOO (2012) by Tammy Strobel is – appropriately simple. Strobel and her husband made a conscious decision to downsize their life – to get rid of cars, credit card debt, a big house – they ride bikes and live in a tiny house (128 square feet). They gave away most of their possessions. They do work they love now because they don’t need big salaries to support an expensive lifestyle (Tammy is a writer!). I ate this book up, not so much because it was telling me something I did not know, but because I got to see someone actually doing it, enduring the interior struggles required to make such an enormous change. Buying happiness according to Strobel, is something we all can do, but we’ve got to examine ourselves and our STUFF. We’ve got to come to grips with our desires for things, and bigger things, and the biggest things. For those up to the challenge of examining, you will want to check this book out.
CRITICAL CARE: A NEW NURSE FACES DEATH, LIFE, AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN by Theresa Brown(2010) was interesting to me because the author was an English professor who switched careers to be come a nurse. Brown chronicles her first year in a hosptial oncology ward with warmth and detail such that the reader gets a close-up, behind the scenes, look at this harried profession that demands compassion and empathy every minute of every day -- not unlike teaching English, some might say. Brown's stories are moving and sad, and one wonders how anyone has the fortitude pack up a lunch and go into work day after day when the human horrors and sorrows that await one are so unabaiting. Brown is to be admired, as are all nurses. The book is worth reading, but it is not worth setting at the top of the yet-to-be-read pile. It can wait. Maybe future nurses or practicing nurses or mothers of nurses or husbands and wives of nurses should read it sooner than later, but as for me and mine, we would indulge novels that penetrate enormous life questions before this one.
THE SISTERS BROTHERS (2011) by Patrick DeWitt is a very funny novel about a pair of brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who are hired assassins in Oregon in the 1850s. They are cowboys whose dialogue is gentlemanly and entertaining. I loved this book – though it bogged down a bit toward the end. Winner of the Canadian Governor General’s award, the novel really is a treat. Don’t miss this one.
BEFORE AND AFTER (1992) by Rosellen Brown is a classic. High school student Jacob is accused of murdering his girlfriend. He disappears. His parents are distraught. What follows is his trial for murder, but the bulk of the novel centers on the inner workings of Jacob’s parents and little sister. In fact, Jacob has no narrative voice of his own in this book. We see him through others’ stories. The newer DEFENDING JACOB is a takeoff on this novel. While this one lays claim to better writing, the other raises issues that are, in some ways, more troubling and insidious. It has been a summer of reading about boys who do bad things – I’m not sure why this is – but this one is worth the read. It is long and detailed and psychologically dense. Take it to the beach while the sun still shines with summer light.
I borrowed THE SMALL ROOM (1961) by May Sarton from my local library, a copy with the crispy clear wrap that crinkles whenever you open the book. Where tape had once been, were traces of yellowing glue. The physicality of the book lent to the reading experience a sense of time past. I have long loved May Sarton, yet, as one friend puts it, Sarton’s novels lull, and this is true for THE SMALL ROOM as well. There were times I wanted to say, “pick up the pace, May. No need for such narrative meandering here.” How dare I? Yet, I dared, quietly. The story, nevertheless, is a good one. The characters are professors at a small New England college who encounter an academic scandal that causes everyone on campus to reflect on their mission as professors – what is their role in relationship to students? “All good teachers must lead private lives of intensity and dimension,” the book jacket says. These teachers live such private lives and ponder their mission – while grappling with one student’s potential downfall. Sarton explores some of the very same ethical issues we engage on today’s campuses. This novel is charming in a cottage-hamlet-Barbara-Pym sort of way, minus the British clergy. It is a lazy afternoon with a tall glass of lemonade.
DIRT (2012), a novel by David Vann, is barbaric, chilling, and poignant. I admit being drawn to books that explore the psyche of characters under emotional duress. This novel takes that to the extreme in ways similar to JULIUS WINSOME (best book ever) by Gerard Donovan and THE SOLITUDE OF PRIME NUMBERS by Paolo Giordano. I could not stop reading this book, even when I wanted to look away. There are sex scenes that make the reader squeamish – why this is so will become crystal clear in short order. There is psychological and physical violence. But what remains, when all of that is done, is a haunting despair that human beings can hurt each other so deeply and abidingly. I loved this book, twisted as are the plot and characters. I’ve never read anything by David Vann, but now I will. This book is definitely (be sure to pay attention to this) NOT every reader’s cup of tea. It takes a strong constitution to endure characters “hurtling irretrievably toward a dark outcome,” as one reviewer says. No book for those needing happy endings or spiritual uplift, DIRT is gritty and insane. I NEED to talk about this with someone, so please email me when you, whoever dares, read this book!
JUST KIDS (2010) is Patti Smith’s memoir about her lifelong friendship with renowned photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. For lovers of the late 1960s and 1970s arts/poetry/rock and roll/sexual politics scene in New York City, this is a treasure trove. These two knew everyone. They lived at the famed Chelsea Hotel, made art and poetry and music, and defined bohemian. I enjoyed this more for its socio/historical commentary than for its great writing or compelling story line. Mapplethorpe was a boundary crosser, and this kind of character is always intriguing and quizzical. Smith’s book was a NY Times bestseller -- I suppose because both Smith and Mapplethorpe are big personalities. The book had some keenly interesting moments. However, I would not move it to the top of the book pile. I would, rather, keep it there if this sort of edgyBildungsroman appeals.
TAKING THE LEAP: FREEING OURSELVES FROM OLD HABITS AND FEARS (2009) by Pema Chodron and YOU ARE HERE: DISCOVERING THE MAGIC OF THE PRESENT MOMENT (2001) BY Thich Nhat Hahn are slim books that teach how to be free of suffering. Both Buddhists, these writers offer a simple and clear guide to understanding how certain habits of mind “hook” us and get us stuck in states of anger and blame. The thing I like about these two authors is that the make sense to a non-western reader. While the books are sprinkled with Buddhist concepts and language, they always explain the concepts in ways that make them useful or the person who is a lay practitioner of meditation.
LOW-FAT LOVE ( 2011) by Patricia Leavy is about Prilly Greene and Janice Goldwyn who are adversarial editors at a New York City publishing house. Prilly’s love life is fraught since she’s fallen in love with Pete, a handsome guy with a sexy voice who offers fun with an enormous dose of lies and unfaithfulness. Janice is a miserable woman who has it all but cannot enjoy it. These two are interesting to follow around for 180 pages to see how they change. This is a cautionary tale about how women view themselves in mirrors held up by media and men and other women. It warns –without ever being pedantic – about the social construction of femininity and the ways women can be hurt by it. The book offers a critical commentary about popular culture, the hook-up generation, and the inner anguishes that exist alongside an exterior that dresses in designer clothes and has its hair perfectly coiffed. It is a quick read, written by a Stonehill College professor of Sociology. Give it a shot!
THE MARRIAGE PLOT (2011) by Jeffrey Eugenides is exactly the kind of fat tome I love to rendezvous with for a lingering while. This does not mean that I think some judicious editing might have benefited the novel. On the whole, however, I loved climbing into bed each night with this book where the female protagonist is an English major heading to graduate school in literature. Eugenides explicates the abiding conundrums of English departments everywhere: tiffs over theory, rancor over canonical placements. That part was gripping, but it was too shortlived -- for the likes of me. I carried on, and I am happy I did (until the Mother Teresa scenes became laborious) because Eugenides deconstructs the marriage plot (girl meets boy; boy is an obstacle or girl is an obstacle; they nearly lose each other; they marry) with complexity, and that is as it should be. As he said in an interview with Terry Gross, the marriage plot as we know it (think Jane Austen) can no longer exist. He is right, and what he offers in its place is fine by me. This is a good read. I recommend it and his others.
What is there to say about FIFTY SHADES OF GREY (2011) by E. L. James? The book is a #1 New York Times bestseller. It is the first in a trilogy that gets piled so high in bookstore displays it threatens to topple over and take out hoards of shoppers. Why is it so plentiful? Why the rabid sales? I am still wondering, even after I’ve finished it. The premise is this: rich, handsome twenty-something Christian Grey meets and immediately lusts after Ana Steele, a college senior (English major). She is a virgin. His sexual preferences dominate his life. He wants sex all the time, in a variety of ways that include pain for his partner (not him), and he wants Ana to sign a contract wherein she claims she will be the Submissive to his Dominant. The contract says that she is his “to own, control, dominate, and discipline” and that he may use her body “at any time …in any manner he deems fit, sexually or otherwise.” He is jealous. He hits her with whips and belts. He punishes her by spanking her. He ties her up to the bed with neckties or chains. THEN, he says things like “What I think you fail to realize is that in Dom/sub relationships it is the sub who has all the power. That’s you. I’ll repeat this – you are the one with all the power. Not I.” This is dangerous. Many of the things he says are the things abusers say. Many of the things he does are the things abusers do. The difference – is there really one? The difference is that Ana agrees to be with Christian Grey, to go along with his painful preferences because he flatters her with talk about how good looking she is, how much he wants her, and he lets slip that he was abused as a child, for a lengthy time, by an older woman who was and still is a friend of the family. So, is there really a difference? Christian Grey is an abuser. Ana, like Bella in TWILIGHT, eschews the danger and determines to heal her man – teach him how to love. The book is damned wearisome, and I would toss it off as an anomaly were it not so intensely dangerous to women. Can it really be that this is the only hot guy available to Ana? Did no one ever tell her that someone who loves you DOES NOT hit you, does not claim repeatedly that he owns you, does not stalk you (Grey shows up everywhere Ana is – even if it requires plane travel), does not scare you? Christian Grey may be a rich man and a handsome man, but he is not well. Her love may well save him from himself by the end of the trilogy, but at what cost? And why? Why not date a nice guy, have hot sex with him, and be safe? There are fish in the sea who do not demand your complicity in their psychic anguish. I think women are reading this book because of this age-old story line: girl meets guy who is messed up. She endures his pathology for a time believing she can change him with her love. She changes him. I haven’t read the second and third books yet, but it does not take a brain surgeon to figure out the narrative trajectory. The problem is that in real life – far too often – she does not change him. Rather, he kills her. This book frightens me. Women deserve nice men. Nice men deserve to get women. Guys like Christian Grey deserve to get help.
SEEKING PEACE: CHRONICLES OF THE WORST BUDDHIST IN THE WORLD (2009) by Mary Pipher (author of REVIVING OPHELIA) tells her story of achieving enormous success with REVIVING OPHELIA in 1994 and then finding the touring and lecturing and demands of popularity overwhelming. Pipher takes time off to meditate and read and relax – something her Type A personality would never have allowed had she not reached rock bottom. I enjoyed much of this book. The parts I did not enjoy so much were the too-detailed chapters about her childhood. I understand, as a writer, why she put those chapters there. They make technical sense. I simply was not interested. Rather, I wanted to get to the part where she healed herself when the world became too overbearing. Pipher has a delightful personality and narrative voice. This book read as if she were chatting with a few women friends in a living room. She offers hope that joy can follow pain by walking us through the nitty gritty of her experience.
I seem to be in a holding pattern of reading novels about boys who kill. DEFENDING JACOB (2012) by William Landay is one of those novels you cannot put down. I just finished it, and the ending is perfect. This is the story of the teenage son of an assistant District Attorney in Massachusetts who is on trial for killing a classmate. It is a classic trial story with some unique subplots woven in. What makes this book different is that the story is narrated by the father, who is inherently unreliable as a narrator since his own son is on trial for murder, and that the book includes some science/pseudo-science about something called the murder gene. Can one be genetically predisposed to kill? If so, can one be cured? Read this one, for sure, but maybe give yourself a break and read something light in between Kevin and Jacob. I made the mistake of also watching the film version of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN between reading that novel and this one, and I am a bit creeped out by bad boys for now. I’m going to round up some ANNE OF GREEN GABLES just to catch my breath.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2003) by Lionel Shriver is AMAZING!!! I loved this book, hated how long it was (400 pages) because I have so many more in my reading pile to get to, but I would not want it any other way. Shriver is a masterful writer. This is a book with fistfuls of scenes readers will never forget –they will want to forget them – they will need to forget them – but they will be unable to unshackle the images from their minds. This is a powerful novel about a school shooting – it is fictional, but it is real, so real. Among my fetishes is reading all things school shootings (In my defense, I teach a course on school shootings). Most of the novels I have read are just okay , the primary flaw in them is that they embrace too many of the media-fomented stereotypes. This one does not do that. It is original and frightening. Like opening a brand new bag of Lay’s original potato chips, all of one’s senses are engaged, and biting into one chip clinches the addiction: nothing will do but munching the entire bag. KEVIN is this way – a long journey with a narrator who is condescending and unfriendly but sublime in her clarity and discursive heft. READ THIS ONE READ THIS ONE READ THIS ONE. Unless you are a reader who needs happy endings – in that case, skip it skip it skip it. If you get part way through and weary – trust me: finish it. There is a new film version out with Tilda Swinton playing the mother/narrator. I have been waiting until I finished the book to watch it. But now I am afraid to see what I have been “seeing” in print for the past week. This is a keeper, a disturbing, dark, monstrous, brilliant, nuanced, intelligent keeper.
SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY (1956) by Sylvia Beach is a classic. An American who relocated to Paris as a young woman, Beach opened her famous bookstore that was befriended by the most esteemed writers of the 1920s and 1930s, including Hemingway , Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, and most prominently, James Joyce. This memoir is a delightful romp through their world. The book is worth the read simply for the sheer numbers of writers befriended by Sylvia Beach. When the Nazis came to Paris, her store was closed down, and Beach spent six months in an internment camp before returning to Paris. When Paris was liberated, her liberator was her old chum Ernest Hemingway!
Canada’s Farzana Doctor’s SIX METRES OF PAVEMENT (2011) is a bit longer than it needs to be, but the premise and much of the plotting and characters are interesting. Ismail Boxwala left his 18-month-old daughter in the car one August morning, forgetting to drop her off at daycare. She died in the car on a city street in Toronto. Ismail has never forgiven himself, and the novel takes place twenty years after that accident when he is divorced, drinking heavily, and miserable. His life changes when he meets the new widow who lives across the street and a young woman in his writing class. Healing comes in unexpected ways. Don’t rush out to read this one, but keep it on your to-do list. The emotions and thoughts alone of a man who accidentally kills his beloved infant are worth the read – getting into a psyche so battered with remorse and shame is compelling.
A STILL FOREST POOL: THE INSIGHT MEDITATOIN OF ACHAAN CHAH (1985), compiled and edited by Jack Kornfield and Paul Breiter, is – well – insightful. Achaan Chah is a forest monk of Thailand. He says the things one who reads around in Buddhism will recognize: attachment causes all suffering. We need to understand that all is impermanent, insecure, and that we are selfless – to realize this is to be free from suffering. So what makes this book different? Maybe it is not so different from others in the meditation canon, but what I appreciate is that this little monk pulls no punches. His message is consistent and promising, but it is very hard, especially for westerners used to finding/forcing happiness through people and things they want to “own.” Chah says the simplest things, like -- know what you are doing and know how you feel about it. What you do should not be out of habit. Ask yourself: why do I do what I do? A year ago, I would have laughed after reading what I just wrote. Today, I’m not laughing. I am learning what I can from a man who lives in the woods in a country far away because – it’s time.
BROKEN FOR YOU (2004) by Stephanie Kallos comes together beautifully in the end, though it takes some meandering time to get there. Readers have to trust that Kallos will draw the multiple characters and narrative threads into one mosaic by the time the novel is finished. She does. The characters are memorable for the unique ways they fashion their lives in order to overcome pain/trauma. It is worth spending nearly 400 pages in their company. This is a good read. However, I would not move it to the top of the pile if I had some of the recent books listed below at hand. This one can wait, but it should not be let go entirely. I copied out one entire paragraph from her last chapter, so exquisite was Kallos’s insight into the way humans can grasp after a former beloved until that moment of reconnection, when the benighted vision is replaced with the banal reality. Kallos works with the symbol of the mosaic throughout the book (and in the title), underscoring the ways the broken parts of us can come together in unimagined ways, glued –once again – to sanity and health.
Here is how I feel about Toni Morrison, author of the new novel HOME (2012): I am not worthy. She is the supreme being of fiction writing, so my review of her latest slim novel is fraught with slavish adoration. I apologize up front. HOME is anguishing and tightly-wrought and full of tenderness and pain. The protagonist is Frank Money, a Korean War vet who experiences traumas in war no human should experience. A black man returned to racist America, Frank is consumed by memories that confine him to apathy, rendering him incapable of everyday tasks. Yet, he overcomes through love – the way we all overcome. When his baby sister’s need becomes urgent, greater than his trauma, Frank acts with courage, surprising even himself. Some of Morrison’s scenes are a punch to the gut. Readers will need a breather after these. She is surgical in her cutting away of euphemism, no reality too raw to be illustrated in perfectly-succinct-yet-poetic language. As always, Morrison’s novels have to be read more than once. Some of hers I have read half a dozen times, and still, there is more, layer upon layer of reality. Beautiful, heartbreaking reality that – I swear – heals.
THE BEGINNER’S GOODBYE (2012) by Anne Tyler is sad and sweet. The narrator, Aaron, whose right arm and leg became crippled in childhood, meets Dorothy, a plain, independent doctor. They marry. Their marriage is not unhappy. She dies when a tree falls onto their house. Aaron’s loss becomes a personalized walk through grief and recovery that remains uplifting and funny while it explores the day to day life of a widower. It is not a miserable book at all, despite its plot. Aaron is a man readers want to be with. The novel’s first line reads: “The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.” This is a fast read, a book that will not, probably, change your life, but one that provides a few hours of reading pleasure with a touch of insight into the life of a man whose world changes, forever, in one minute.
Like some drug hustler, my friend Melanie shoved the completely white hardcover in front of me and said, “buy it. Read it. Then talk to me about it. I need someone to talk to about this book.” I bought it then and there, read it, loved it, just emailed her. WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS: FIFTY-FOUR VARIATIONS ON VOICE (2012) by Terry Tempest Williams is called a “lyrical meditation” in 54 short chapters. The premise is this: Williams’s mother dies and leaves three bookshelves of her journals to her daughter, making her promise not to look at them until she dies. She dies. Williams opens them, one after another, and discovers that all of them are blank. This book, WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS, is a daughter’s response to her mother’s blank pages. She writes, in essence, what she understands of her mother’s leaving blank pages behind, what it means that her mother purchased a new journal each year and wrote not one word in any of them. It is difficult to sum up what Williams is saying in this book, but it is easy to say that her sentences are scrumptious. She discusses the concept of voice – female voice – every which way to Sunday – and never once does it get stale. Vistas open up while reading this book. I have yet to read her famous memoir REFUGE, but this most recent book will drive me there soon. The book is more memoir than novel, more musing and suggestion than essay. It delights while it makes the reader think, remember, and wonder. The all white cover has embossed birds in flight all over it – somehow advancing the idea that freedom can be found within. I found it there – my yellow highlighter found sentences plump with freedom. This may not be a book for everyone, but for those interested in the freedom and risk and responsibility that accrue to having a voice – this one is worth the $23.
So much do I love this book, that I read it again this week: THE FOURTH PROCEDURE (1995)by Harvard-trained lawyer Stanley Pottinger. This book is worth all 500 pages. I loved this book when I first read it, and I love it more – undoubtedly – since Gloria Steinem signed my copy recently. She and Stan Pottinger were a couple years back, and they remain friends. All of that aside, this is a book unlike any other. Dubbed “a novel of medical suspense,” it is that and more. It is an exploration of the extremes to which people will go in order to get social justice. The book is gripping from the first scene, which illustrates in gruesome and heartbreaking detail a botched abortion. Abortion is the central issue the book takes up. Readers should know this going in. Pottinger treats the topic with a wide lens, considering the multiple and rancorous viewpoint and privileging some over others, never straying from the foremost task of telling a good story. Re-reading the novel, after having worked on my own novel for months on end now, I believe Pottinger could have compressed a few hundred pages – though compelling, the plot does get complex, even unwieldy at times. I stand by this novel. It is a bold stroke.
The memoir TOWNIE (2011) by Andre Dubus III is a mixed bag. The highlight is when Dubus transitions from the rough, hyper-masculine persona he develops to survive in his working-class neighborhood to his beginnings as a writer. This is where the book gets engaging – particularly for writers interested in the motivations of other writers. The problem is that he doesn’t get there for the first 75 % of the book. There is simply too much punching and fighting, swearing, weight lifting, blood, broken noses, and drinking. I grew up in a neighborhood like Dubus’s, and the points of intersection were interesting the first few times I read an anecdote, but by the time Dubus got to the part where he channeled his intensity into writing instead of fighting, I was war-torn. I was on his side, urging him to become a writer, to find peace in words, but I was tired of his past – exquisitely tired. There is no doubt: his self reflection and his willingness to set aside machismo is impressive. My suggestion to readers: skip through the first 75 % -- let me summarize it: dad left mom to raise four kids on her own. They got into trouble. Andre learned to fight, then he fought everyone. After the first 75 %, he realized this was not a soulful way to live, so he began writing, like his famous father. Andre is a likeable character. His insights into his own life and flaws and the turnarounds he makes are significant, worth reading about – toward the very end.
THE SONG OF ACHILLES (2012) by Madeline Miller is getting slammed by reviewers, though some like her attention to detail (she is a classicist, B.A. and M.A. from Brown University). This is a fun read, particularly if you are familiar with Trojan War literature. Miller knows her stuff, and what she does is retells Homer’s ILIAD from the perspective of Patroclus, the BFF/lover of Achilles. Scholars far earlier than Miller suggested that the most famous Greek warrior and his doting friend were lovers, but this, of course, has met with reactions from hostility to nodding acquiescence to downright applause. Miller embraces it, expands on it, brings Patroclus to life in ways Homer did not. If there is one pesky problem (and there are several) it is this: Patroclus narrates even after his death. I, and others, find this not only grating but illogical. I know…I know…THE LOVELY BONES is built on this device, but I can excuse Alice Sebold because her dead narrator has always been dead. Patroclus is alive, romping in the Greek fields with Achilles, the he is dead – which should have been the end of him, but no, no. Miller keeps him on, like some rambling drunk at a bar after last call, so he can tell how Achilles mourns him and reconciles with Hector’s father Priam. That does not work for me. It did not work for some of the critics. It is a delightful book in many ways. It is a fast read, more like a YA novel than an adult novel, but if you are into men and war with a twist – an ancient Greek BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN of sorts – this one is for you.
THE EDUCATION OF A WOMAN: THE LIFE OF GLORIA STEINEM (1995) by Carolyn G. Heilbrun tells the life story of my feminist icon and is worth every one of its 400+ pages. Though this tome has been on my shelf for some years, I only picked it up since I was on sabbatical and since I acquired a ticket to see Gloria Steinem in person. I crammed, so I would know everything about her when I met her. She is my hero because she is brave when she speaks truth to power. She has endured much heartache for the sake of bettering life for all women. She is a change-maker who genuinely loves her work. She has vexed presidents and popes, angered right-wing politicians, and enraged even factions of feminism. Yet, she has remained on task since before the civil rights movement. If I admired her before reading Heilbrun’s book, I am ready to canonize her after – particularly after meeting her.
I admit it! I read ONCE UPON A SECRET: MY AFFAIR WITH PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY AND ITS AFTERMATH (2012) by Mimi Alford after watching, to my horror, as Barbara Walters skewered this author on THE VIEW (I suppose I have admitted here watching THE VIEW too). Walters was unprofessional, hateful, and without her critical faculties when she encountered Alford. So, of course, I was intrigued. I read the book to spite Walters, in part. So, Mimi has an 18-month affair with Pres. Kennedy almost up until his death. She is a 19-year-old intern in the White House. He sees her, has his right-hand-man lure her to him, and seduces her. Nothing could be clearer. She is captivated, enthralled, tremendously complimented that a man of such power and charm “likes” her. She does not resist. The affair ends shortly before he dies, but they are still in touch, he calling her Wheaton College dormitory often, weekly even. The upshot: this is a story of how power abuses the powerless and gets away with it. Kennedy’s womanizing is both common knowledge and commonly made invisible. Alford bears the brunt of the accusations from the media (Walters, etc), even from people who have not read the book but are outraged that Alford would write a book now, revealing such sexual “secrets”, 40 + years later. I have yet to hear outrage that a man of such stature and power and fame as JFK needs to glom onto teenagers for libidinous kicks. I am outraged; that’s what I got from reading Mimi’s story.
Matthieu Ricard’s A GUIDE TO DEVELOPING LIFE’S MOST IMPORTAN SKILL: HAPPINESS (2003) is exactly the sort of book I would never choose to read, but a dear friend gave it to me for Christmas. She knew I was missing my children, all off to college and jobs and life. It was a gift of love, so I reckoned – what the heck; I’ll give it a go. The good thing about this book is that it engages scientific studies, Buddhist teachings, poetry, and Western philosophy to talk about how to attain equilibrium, an inner peace. This is not about having things or one upping others or being famous. It is about purging mental toxins and finding well-being. It made sense to me, and I would not have been ready to listen to Ricard’s words until recently. My friend knew I just might be ready. This is one to take slowly, to savor, to highlight. When you’re ready.
THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (2004) by Deborah Moggach is a lot of fun. An Indian born London doctor opens a retirement home in India, and the cast of characters who leave their painful lives in England to settle there and find friendship, love, healing, and unabashed truths. Moggach peoples this novel with dozens of characters, but somehow, she manages to keep them all individualized for the reader. This is a light read that has a happy ending and asks a handful of life’s big questions without overwhelming the reader with ponderous and worrisome thoughts. Feels like a mini vacation.
I read WHY I LEFT THE AMISH (2011), a memoir by Saloma Miller Furlong, because I am intrigued by the Amish and because Furlong is visiting Franklin Pierce University this week (March 29, 2012). Her story is sad. What she withstood as a child is unfair and brutal. I am not certain her parents are typical of Amish families, but certainly the covering up of patriarchal sins is part and parcel of the religion and of Amish communities. Furlong is impressive in that she escapes home, moves to Vermont, marries and raises a family and finally returns to finish her education at Smith College. As for her writing style, Furlong gets the job done. Where one might suggest a more severe editorial hand, another might let bygones be bygones. The book tells a good story of child abuse and recovery, of healing. It warns us all of the dangers of religions in which some are beyond accountability.
Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s (1953) novel THE ORCHID HOUSE is advertised in the back copy as being about a house empty of men, a house of women. This is not completely true, yet it is true in some significant ways. What caught me beyond this description was the setting. The novel takes place on the Island of Dominica, and the characters are wealthy whites and their native housekeepers and nurses and errand boys are black. The story is told through the lens of Lally, the black nurse to the protagonist family. As the three daughters return home from England and America, they cause a stir that upsets the status quo of their sensuous homeland. Ironically, their imperial muckraking causes a firestorm that at once makes things minimally better and horribly worse. The novel nearly lost me about half way through, but I hung in there because the narrator’s crystal clear vision of what was going on was compelling. This is an important book about gender and power and the effects of colonialism. It is, as the cover says, reminiscent of THE WIDE SARGASSO SEA (a book about Bertha Mason, the mad woman in the attic in JANE EYRE). For all of that, I feel enlarged by reading it if less than satisfied.
I just finished HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE (1997) BY J.K. ROWLING. My twenty-year old son grew up with these books, and I listened to him tell me the stories year after year. His biggest disappointment in life, I believe, is that I have only ever read this first Harry Potter book, the one I just re-read. He challenged me to read them ALL while I am on sabbatical this semester , and I accepted the challenge. But heavens-to-Betsy do the novels get fatter and fatter as they go. Harry is delightful, as are Ron and Hermione and the others. I have my work cut out for me, but Rowling makes it easy, leaving me hanging at the end of this first volume wondering how Harry will manage a whole summer with those blasted Dursleys. If I am to complete the challenge, I have about one volume a month to go. Wish me luck!
THE HISTORY OF LOVE (2005) by Nicole Krauss (who, by the way, is married to Jonathan Safran Foer, author of EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE) is an important book about love. Simplistic as that sounds, the novel boils down to that. Of course, boiling down a novel to any one sentence is criminal, so, let me explain. This novel is complex. There are generations of people, and the love of one boy for one girl touches them all. The novel is about how love and its loss have the power to alter lives and to alter other lives touched by those lives. There are writers who plagiarize, children who play sleuth and messiah. There are old men whose pain is palpable and sweet and endearing. This is a hard one to describe, clearly. Read it. Simply read it. It is a beautiful book that should not go unread. It is the rare book that touches the heart in, ironically, wordless but deep ways. It may not be happy but it is profound.
THE SUBMISSION (2011) is a first novel by Amy Waldman, and it is a winner. The premise is this: there is a blind juried contest to determine which design will be used to create the 911 memorial at Ground Zero. Upon choosing the winner, the jurors learn the designer is a Muslim. All hell breaks loose, and all of the ethical questions imaginable are taken up by the characters. I found this book gripping. At times, the responses of the victims’ families seemed harsh, even crude, but one has to wonder what it must be like to lose a loved one in such a horrifying way. Does it bring out the worst in us? The best? I recommend this book for those who want to be gripped, who need to get away from reality for a while and enter a really fascinating novel world.
THE PLACES THAT SCARE YOU: A GUIDE TO FEARLESSNESS IN DIFFICULT TIMES (2001) by Pema Chodron is a primer in the benefits of meditation and Buddhist thought, Buddhism-lite really. I love this Buddhist nun; Pema Chodron is becoming one of my favorite people. I have read everything she has written now. She just GETS IT. We make life harder than it has to be because we have created habits to insulate ourselves from pain. Who knew that those habits were insuring pain? Pema knew. I recommend this book to anyone with the courage to give her way of life a shot. Nothing she recommends is easy, but it makes sense – when one is ready for it to make sense. For some of us, that is a few years on. Give it a go. You will know if the time is right.
WRITE-A-THON: WRITE YOUR BOOK IN 26 DAYS (AND LIVE TO TELL ABOUT IT) (2011) is by Rochelle Melander. She is the coach I would want if I had just 26 days to write a book. She is encouraging but realistic. She has even inspired me to think about – I repeat, think about – entering the National Novel Writing Month contest in November where contestants write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. That equals a novel a bit longer than FAHRENHEIT 451 and a bit shorter than A SEPARATE PEACE. Think 6 ½ pages a day. That seems impossible for the person who works, has a family, loves a good sitcom at night, but Melander makes you a believer. She shares secrets like this: Victor Hugo had his valet keep his clothes until he finished his writing. I raced through this book though I’ve read every other book like it in the world. Something about this one is different somehow. It makes you certain that you can write. It challenges you to write. It author doesn’t cite her own books as examples of how to do things correctly (a peeve of mine). She just rah-rahs the reader through. If you don’t write after reading this book, shame on you. Melander is a no-excuses kind of gal, and she won’t want to hear it. Gotta go…words to write…
THE FIRST FIVE PAGES: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO STAYING OUT OF THE REJECTION PILE (2000) by Noah Lukeman contains a few gems, but there is nothing in here that has not been said elsewhere. Don’t overuse adjectives and adverbs. Be sure your pacing is even and moves along. Be sure you incorporate setting effectively. I started to skim swiftly through when he said things like be sure your manuscript is clean of stains. Spell correctly. For readers who are new to writing, this could be a good resource. Otherwise, skip it.
THE SWEET HEREAFTER (1991) by Russell Banks is brilliant. Apparently it is a major motion picture with 3 Cannes Film Festival awards as well. I read this novel straight through, and I did not even stop for Glee this week! The story is about the aftermath of a school bus crash in which fourteen children are killed in upstate New York. The book is told from the first-person perspectives of the bus driver, the father of dead twins, a lawyer who wants in on the case of suing someone, anyone, and a victim of the crash who will spend her life in a wheelchair. Nothing about this book is boring. I cared about these characters and their despairs because Banks illustrated them in such minute detail. I imagine a film version of this could be rough going, but the book is magical – if heartbreaking. It is a fast read, but it drop kicks the reader into an empathy that is almost visceral. This is, simply, a great read.
ONDINE’S CURSE (2000) by Steven Manners is weird – not in a good way like GEEK LOVE. I read it because it is set in Montreal, and one of the characters has a repressed memory of violence as witness to the Montreal Massacre in 1989 –when fourteen women were murdered in Canada’s most shocking mass murder. The jacket says the book is “moody and macabre” and a “literary tour de force.” I think not. I unearthed one good line from the book: “She saw it [the university where the massacre happened] now for what it was: God’s bombsight.” That’s it, folks -- one line only. Save yourself 208 pages of moody and macabre. This book is not worth it.
MEMOIRS OF A WOMAN ENGINEER (1990) by Jane Gardiner is deadly dull. I wish to God I did not have to say so. The real-life stories of female engineers are like gold to me given the writing project in which I am so deeply invested. I have interviewed several of them, and real-life women tell interesting stories. Poor Jane Gardiner, a graduate of Cambridge, specialized in heat transfer and stressing. She worked at Rolls Royce for a time. She was the only woman at a dinner for 150 engineers once. They sang to her: “If You Were the Only Girl in the World.” There: I have told you ALL of the exciting parts of the memoir. Wait, wait, I forgot that she was interviewed by a man once who only agreed to see her because he had never seen a woman engineer and another who said he would never hire her at the advertised post because it would involve managing the work of men. Surely she experienced sexism – she was born in 1922, for golly sakes -- but she mentions these two interviews as the rare demonstrable incidents. She even ventriloquizes Harvard’s Larry Summers with this line: “To be fair, a majority of girls do not have a positive inclination to choose the physical sciences, arts subjects being a less hard furrow to plough.” Whose team are you playing for, Janey? I confess disappointment. I expected the world from Jane Gardiner and I got squat. The jacket flap advertised a book “rich in anecdote.” It lied.
NEVER TELL A LIE (2009) by Hallie Ephron is advertised on the front cover as “a novel of suspense.” And this is the truth. It is cotton candy, consumable in one yomp. You get bites of sugary, suspenseful goodness. You cannot stop eating it. But it doesn’t fill you up in, say, the way an Andrew Sean Greer or a Charlotte Bronte do. Nevertheless, I read the thing straight through, had to know who made the pregnant woman disappear, had to get to the bottom of it. When I did, I thought, yes, that is okay. I am okay with this, but there is this one nagging question. Did the husband do the bad thing in high school? Hallie Ephron does not answer this question, and I NEED her to answer it. I, of all people, understand how provocative a good existential or spiritual or metaphysical question can be at the end of a text, but this is not that. THIS is a question I need answered in order for the ambiguous ending to settle down. It has been roaming around like the ghost of the unburied dead in the ancient world, haunting me since late last night. Did he do it? If he did it, good grief, if he did it, how can his wife go on, how can I go on? I trusted him. Ephron writes a novel of suspense, one that keeps the reader engaged and thinking...and a bit mad at her. I am taking a one-day Suspense Writing class with Hallie Ephron in March. We shall, I believe, have words. I WILL get to the bottom of this.
I am smitten with POPULATION: 485 (2002) and its author, Michael Perry. Perry returns to his home in New Auburn, Wisconsin to live and to write, joins the EMT/firefighting team, and tells stories about the encounters he has with accidents, local eccentrics, fires, and life in a small, small town. This memoir has all the potential to be a whopping snore, but Perry is magical with language. He is the kind of writer you want to read because of the way he tells a story – any story. I will now read all of his other books and follow him on his website www.sneezingcow.com. I am declaring myself a fan based on this one book. If you like slam-dunk sentences or stories about rescue-squad work or farming life, you won’t want to miss this book. I highlighted about 100 sentences just because they were so beautifully constructed. I spoke them aloud to hear how they sounded. READ THIS.
TOLSTOY AND THE PURPLE CHAIR: MY YEAR OF MAGICAL READING (2011) by Nina Sankovitch is my kind of memoir. Sankovitch lost her sister to bile cancer, and she coped with her grief by living in overdrive for three years until she could not keep up the pace. A lawyer, she took a year off, took care of domestic duties (four sons, husband, house) and committed to reading a book a day for a year. In this way, she grounded herself, healed some of her grief, and learned insightful lessons. The book is about her sister, her family, her life as a child and as an adult, and it is about the books she is reading and the gems she gleans from them. Simple, really. I found it chummy, peaceful, really soothing reading. This is not a book to wrestle you into a grip and shake you up, like Lehane or Collins below, but it is a welcome indulgence. It has its issues, some repetition, an odd focus on the fact that the cat urinated on the purple chair often in its past (I would get a new chair; she did not), though she cleaned it and sits on it daily. These are minor nuisances. I am signing myself up as an official fan.
TWELVE STEPS TO A COMPASSIONATE LIFE (2010) by Karen Armstrong is not a light read or a light listen. I obtained the book on tape from my local library, listened to it traveling to and fro, and nearly quit after disc two (of five). It is heavy going, loaded with lots and lots of detailed references to the great religions and their traditions and holy people. Usually, I love this material, but Armstrong is a world-renowned theologian, and her wealth of detail about dates and historic moments threatened to overwhelm a short trip to the supermarket. I am pleased that I hung in there for all five discs because I learned a lot about what religions have in common and how they can and have laid the foundation for compassion in the world. For those who believe organized religion is at the root of today’s hateful global encounters, Armstrong just might convince you these selfsame religions, at their core, contain the lessons of healing compassion that are required to save our planet.
Reading CATCHING FIRE (2009) by Suzanne Collins is yummy. This is the second in the HUNGER GAMES trilogy, a YA series, and it is addicting, even for those long past adolescence. Heroine Katniss is torn between two loves, Gale and Peeta, much like Bella in TWILIGHT. The big, huge, enormous difference is that Katniss is active where Bella is passive (and Gale and Peeta are regular human guys). Katniss is talented and strong and capable of taking care of her family. She wins the Hunger Games, a barbaric, Roman-Empirish concoction of an evil Empire, and she launches a revolution – this series is very hip given the recent contemporary revolutions around the world. What makes the book so addictive is its plot. Since the Empire will stop at nothing to retain its hold on the districts, their evils know no bounds. Little kids are sacrificed. Bigger little kids are compelled to save them. There is violence on every page and blood and secrets. But it is all for the greater good. Katniss is not selfish; she is doing all of her killing in order to remain alive to take care of her fatherless family. She loves Gale; she loves Peeta but not because she wants either to bring her eternal and drowsy bliss. She wants freedom. She is a teenage hero, and who can resist them, really? Something tells me I should not love these books so much. The language is pedestrian, the plot unoriginal (Roman Empire, Ender’s Game, etc.). Yet…the third book awaits…
Ahhhhh….I finished MOCKINGJAY (2010) by Suzanne Collins, the last of the HUNGER GAMES trilogy. There is a bit of a bow tying up the ending of this trilogy into a neat package, but it is a relief after the gore and violence of this segment. I believe I stopped breathing on occasion while reading this novel. Collins is a page turner. I see why YA readers devour her books. She does raise the important existential questions that have puzzled us through the ages: why do we resort to war over and over again? Why do we sacrifice innocent people to violence and greed over and over again? Why do we repeatedly return to playing repulsive “games” that thrive on bloodshed? These are heavy questions, but Collins is brave enough to tuck them into the cubbyholes of a gripping plot like broccoli cooked into brownies – readers getting so caught up in what will happen to Katniss Everdeen, girl hero, that they don’t necessarily realize they are grappling with history and philosophy and psychology and social justice and real life. My favorite line from this final book: “The unthinkable has happened and to survive will require previously unthinkable acts.” Collins Is not a poetic writer, but this line is a keeper. Perhaps now is the time for previously unthinkable acts – in our world.
VERONICA (2005) by Mary Gaitskill is troubling novel about Alison, a fashion model in the 1980s, and her friend, Veronica, a middle-aged office temp worker whose eccentricities both attract and repel Alison. The book touches down on raw emotions but swiftly flits away from these to scenes of 1980s decadence in New York and California. The characters in this book have more sex and do more drugs than any characters written by Jay McInerny and Brett Eason Ellis combined. While they do all of this to avoid coming face to face with their genuine pain, it gets old for the reader. What kept me going, frankly, was the National Book Award Finalist imprint on the front cover and the fact that Gaitskill is judging a fiction contest I am entering next month. I had to be a believer. In the end, Alison does an about face (sort of) and sends her dying friend off with compassion and love. Veronica dies of AIDS, and her vulnerabilities manifest as universal human vulnerabilities to the wretched Alison – finally, in a touching Priam-meets-Achilles moment. I wanted to love it. I did not love it, but I respect it, and I do keep thinking about it. That has to count for something. Bottom line: don’t rush out to get a copy. You can have mine.
I finally got to read THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS (2010) by Rebecca Skloot. It is good on so many levels. While it is the story of Lacks and her cells and her family, it is also the story of Skloot’s researching the book and the oftentimes bizarre experiences she has encountering Henrietta Lacks’s eccentric family. It is a story that needed to be told. Skloot raises important medical concerns for all readers, concerns about privacy and ownership over our bodies, before and after we die. This is a must read.
Dennis Lehane’s novels are peanut butter cups: gritty on the inside and smooth all around. I read A DRINK BEFORE THE WAR (1994) in one big swallow. It was a read aloud book – I was shouting, exclaiming, laughing out loud all the way through; Lehane and I had an ongoing dialogue throughout. He is awesome, one of the best. His gem of a short story, “Until Gwen,” is sheer perfection, and MYSTIC RIVER – awww, shucks. I could go on about this Boston writer all day long. Just read whatever he writes, but expect to turn your life over to his books for as long as it takes. You might sneak a load of laundry in here and there, but you will not be able to go back to real life until his PIs clean up the streets of Beantown.
Lily Tuck’s slim novel, I MARRIED YOU FOR HAPPINESS (2011), is a lot like EVENING by Susan Minot, but that is a good thing. In Tuck’s book, Philip has just died suddenly and is lying in his bed. His wife of many years, Nina, muses on her husband, their life together, her life as it will be with him gone. The reader learns about their secrets, affairs, jealousies, and love, sitting with Nina all the night through. It is both heartbreaking and sweet and honest. As marriage books go, it gets at some profound and mundane truths. Give this one a whirl.
THE NIGHT CIRCUS (2011) by Erin Morgenstern was rejected by thirteen pubishers before trapezing its way onto the bestseller lists. The novel is delightful, engaging, mysterious, ponderous -- all of the qualities I never expect to find in circus books. I don't like circuses. I think they are, by and large, weird and incomprehensible. Yet, I am recommending this novel to anyone who loves a good read that does not have to be based in a reality like the reader's own. This novel by the thirty-something Morgenstern gives me pause since I can think of several circus books I admire, among them GEEK LOVE and WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. I must recognize and accept, apparently, that I am drawn to the weird, that the weird and unfamiliar offers a reader a chance to step outside of his/her own comfy overstuffed chair and to imagine more fully another's experience. My students will laugh at this, for I have a reputation for offering/assigning books that dive deeply into the darker side of humanity, yet here I am confessing surprise at my affinity for circus lore which is some of the darkest anyone can encounter. In my defense, we are on the precipice of a new year, and self discovery is the hallmark of the Resolution. I, thereby, resolve to disparage no more the circus novel and to know my reading self better.
THE TIGER'S WIFE (2011) is written by Tea Obreht, a woman born in 1985 in Belgrade. She is getting rave reviews for her work and especially for this novel. The New York Times calls it one of the best books of 2011. So why don't I love it? I wanted to love it and began reading it with the commitment of a high school girl to her first boyfriend. I was ready to be wow-ed, until I became disenchanted. It IS about a tiger's wife, but the wife is human. There are memorable scenes that are both brutal and vibrantly human (tiger gnaws off a man's arm; tiger guts a man/bear). The author, for goodness sake, is 26 years old. There is every reason to really love this book, to relish the promise of a new young author. I do not even really like the book. I do not know why exactly, but it has something to do with too many intersecting (barely) plot lines, too much magical realism (in the right hands, this is a good thing), and too much reading just before bed when nodding off interferes with the entire enterprise. It may be my fault, but Tea Obreht did not inspire me this go round. I feel like an old fuddy duddy even admitting all of this when Tea is out there raking in the accolades and the residencies and the economic bennies. But I simply must say that this novel can be moved to the bottom of your pile. Happy Holiday Reading.
WE THE ANIMALS (2011) by Justin Torres is 128 pages of beautiful pain, "brilliant and ferocious," Michael Cunningham (THE HOURS) calls it. I LOVED it. I will read anything Justin Torres writes from now on. This is a book about three brothers growing up in Brooklyn with their Puerto Rican father and white mother. The story is touching, emotional, beastial. Torres's sentences are drop-dead gorgeous. Once again, right in the middle of the gym, on the eliptical machine, I was driven to loud exclamations over some of those sentences. This is not a happy book, quite the contrary, but it is an important novel that takes its place among those many others that attempt to understand how our families shape us, how they train us up to be the people we are -- for better or worse.
SEMPRE SUSAN: A MEMOIR OF SUSAN SONTAG (2011) by Sigrid Nunez is an insider's view of the brilliant cultural critic Susan Sontag. Nunez dated Sontag's son David Rieff and lived with Susan and David for a time. Hers is a memoir short on pages (140) but long on detail. Nunez gives the reader a sense not only of how difficult Sontag was to be with but how vexed it was to be her. From her intense fear of being alone to her obsession with her own fiction not selling well (until her later years) to her rudeness to people in the service industry, Sontag lived an outsized life that was fraught with vexing demons and irritations. Nunez pays homage to Sontag's genius but balances it with a look at her mentor that is honest and compassionate. Rich scenes of the literary life in 1970s New York City, chock full of protean personalities, fill this book and make it the kind of jewel a reader/writer treasures. This is a find.
THE LEFTOVERS (2011) by Tom Perrotta is disappointing, and, frankly, it is too long (355 pages) to be disappointing. My history with Perrotta moved me through the book. I found LITTLE CHILDREN nothing short of a brilliant social commentary, and THE ABSTINENCE TEACHER was a perfectly respectable novel, but this one -- Tom, Tom, Tom. Maybe at this harried time of the semester I should not be reading novels that promise a biting social commentary -- my bad. But this premise had promise: the biblical Rapture has taken place, and we enter the lives of those who have been left behind. Some take to extreme, cultish measures, that include murderous rituals. Some sink into depression and drunkenness. Some, like our primary protagonist, become mayor (?!). There is a message in here, surely. Something about how we, as a culture, respond to life-changing devastation (9/11? War on Terror? Katrina?). I get it. I got it 20 pages in. I wanted more depth, more insight. There are too many characters. I found myself skimming. I became uninterested. Good grief, I have become my first year students before they have been transformed by the love of fine literature. This is not fine literature; we know that when we see it. Too bad because I like Perrotta on the whole. He is a wiseacre with an intellect. But what we get here is leftovers.
AMERICAN BOY (2011) by Larry Watson, author of MONTANA 1948 is classic Watson: understated and slow-paced but with one pivotal narrative moment that stays with you for years. That was the case with MONTANA 1948; it is the case with this newest novel. Watson examines the quotidian in 1960s Willow Falls, Minnesota, where life is ordinary until a young woman is shot by her lover. Though Watson's themes are derivative, his handling of loss of innocence and betrayal by a trusted other is unique in that the readers is as caught off guard as are the characters. It is maddening in its predictability -- after the fact. In narrative thrall to Watson's yarn, the reader is lulled into the loss and betrayal that she should have seen coming. Hats off to Larry Watson, yet again.
LOOKING FOR ALASKA (2005) by John Green is worth a few hours out of your hectic life. Sixteen-year-old Miles is new at Culver Creek Prep School in Alabama. Friendless in his public school back home, Miles bonds at Culver Creek with a group of wisecracking, prank-playing, drinking & smoking teenagers who become central to his life and development. When one dies suddenly, he is faced with existential questions that rock him to the core. This is a young-adult novel that my students recommended, and they are forevermore trusted because this is a keeper, right up there with SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson. Read this one.
SING YOU HOME (2011) is everything you want and expect in a novel by Jodi Picoult: you open with an idyllic family scene. Then come complications that involve some big contemporary issue – in this case a mélange of infertility, gay marriage, and the Christian Right. You feel empathy toward one character; then you wonder, should you really feel empathy for another? After all, no one is perfect, and they all have secrets that eke out. Ultimately, all of it converges in a courtroom where the issues get a bit of an intellectual airing, and then, whammo, the surprise ending. Despite it being formulaic, the novel is also engaging, realistic, and fun to read. There is a music CD attached to the book – a compilation of songs the protagonist sings or would have sung – all written by Picoult and her singer/writer friend – seems gimmicky. I did not listen. I am happy I read this book because it took me away for a day or two, and the surprise ending worked for me. And that is that.
THE BORROWER (2011) BY Rebecca Makkai is a book motivated by social justice. Makkai’s premise is a big draw: a children’s librarian borrows a child! She has a favorite ten-year-old patron named Ian whose family is sending him to anti-gay camp and censoring his reading material severely. An avid reader, Ian runs away from home, camps out in the library, and convinces the librarian to embark on a road trip without anyone else knowing. They encounter bizarre characters, including ferrets and the Russian mafia. Were Makkai to have consulted me, I would have suggested cutting about 50 pages of these adventures. She wraps the novel up nicely, and I admit, I wondered as I got toward the end if she would fall into the trap of offering up a schmaltzy conclusion. She did not. She tied up the loose narrative strands without any visible or awkward bows. This is a fast read, and it has a moral I can stand behind. Makkai is just revving up. Watch for more good work from her.
THINK NO EVIL: INSIDE THE STORY OF THE AMISH SCHOOLHOUSE SHOOTING…AND BEYOND (2009) by Jonas Beiler with Shawn Smucker has an endorsement by Glenn Beck on the front cover. Still, I wanted to read it, so I took the dust jacket off and stowed it away. This is a simple book that tells the story from the point of view of a family counselor who grew up Amish, left the tradition when he was a teen, but still lives in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and has a great respect for the Amish. The focus of Beiler’s narrative is this: the parents of the ten little girls shot (five of them were killed) by Charles Roberts forgave Roberts immediately (though he was dead of suicide). Furthermore, they sent emissaries from their community to tell the widow and children of the killer that they held no ill will and wanted to help them through their grieving. They wanted reconciliation. Amazing. I admit, when I picked this book up and learned this was the theme, I rolled my eyes a lot. I definitely brought some snarky attitude to my reading experience. But doggone it if I did not get to the end and re-think. These folks forgive because holding hatred in your heart hurts YOU and because hatred breeds hatred and revenge and depression, etc. They maintain that their grieving and growth is mitigated, if only a bit, by forgiving the perpetrator of their pain. It is not easy, the author points out, but it is possible. I am intrigued by this, can’t stop thinking about it really. Yet, the Amish ground their belief in a religious ideology that says two important things: I will see my dead child again in heaven, and God decides when one dies, so this must have been her time. My question: can one forgive in this way – for all the good and healthy reasons it makes sense to do so, if one does not hold to these grounding beliefs? Is it possible?
DEMONS OF THE BLANK PAGE: FIFTEEN OBSTACLES THAT KEEP YOU FROM WRITING & HOW TO CONQUER THEM (2011) by Roland Merullo, author of BREAKFAST WITH BUDDHA ( a really fun book in itself!) is a quick read. He says nothing you have not heard many times if you read these sorts of books. However, he has a gem or two inside this slim volume. My favorite is this: a writer must fence off, cultivate, and give plenty of water and sunlight to that part of the mind where writing sprouts and flourishes…writing is intimately connected to the process of thinking – so, how can we expect ideas to come to us if the mind is cluttered with errands, duties, worries, plans, and a myriad of pleasurable distractions? I knew this before picking up Merullo’s book, but some ideas bear repeating.
CALEB’S CROSSING (2011) is the newest novel from Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks. It is not my favorite, but I confess a checkered relationship with Brooks. I loved PEOPLE OF THE BOOK and despised MARCH (for which she won the Pulitzer). This one is worth reading, indeed, but it has some slow patches. She bases the novel on the true story of the first Native American student to graduate from Harvard. In many ways this is not Caleb’s story, though he is the Harvard grad; it is Bethia’s story, a fictional character who is just wonderful – spirited, daring, genuine. I imagine the lack of archival material that could have fleshed out Caleb kept Brooks from developing him to the extent she did with her own creation, Bethia. Understandable, for sure. My book group read the book, and we were split in our impressions: some loved it, some thought, as I did, that it was fine, just fine; if it were a hotel, it would be a 2.25 star hotel.
I finally took the bait. I read FREEDOM (2010) by Jonathan Franzen. Every time I opened the corpulent novel, I prayed for an open mind. As some of you may recall, I lambasted critics (in a www.msmagazine.com blog) for adoring Franzen’s treatment of domesticity as if he gave birth to it. Still, I consider it my professional duty to keep up with contemporary fiction, so I toted Franzen’s tome home from my local library, and I have finally finished it. It took too long. It needs an editor. There is some very good storytelling in it. But, geez, Jonathan, what’s with the women characters? All three major female characters -- no matter how much college education, or athletic prowess, or drop-dead beauty and professionalism and wealth -- home in on one thing: a man. Patty is a college basketball star who marries Walter, has two children, is miserable, drunk and adulterous before she finally lays down her life for her estranged husband (sits outside his house in the freezing cold of winter until she loses consciousness and he rescues and forgives her). Lalitha is the Bengali-American lover of the husband above – a career woman who is high powered, beautiful, and entirely and completely focused on another woman’s husband. And Connie…well Connie so loves the ridiculously narcissistic Joey, son of Patty and Walter, that she gives him all of her trust fund and cuts herself, one little cut to the wrist, for every night he does not call – about two weeks. Seriously, Jonathan Franzen, who are these women? It is hard to get past such a consistent pattern of wasted female life. This is not a domesticity I recognize. Clearly, others recognize it and applaud it, so I submit my minority report knowing full well it will spawn disagreement. Ahhh…the freedom to speak our truths is a blessed thing.
ART AND FEAR: OBSERVATIONS ON THE PERILS (AND REWARDS) OF ARTMAKING (1993) by David Bayles and Ted Orland is my new favorite book about writing/making art. This slim book grabs you by the shoulders, gives you a stern talking to, and tells you this: making art is hard, so just know that, and get on with it. The book is like a coach who cares deeply but does not want to listen to whining. It explores the way art gets made and the reasons it all too often does not get made. Its back cover says it is about “placing Free Will above predestination, choice above chance.” This tiny book buoyed while giving a dollop of hard reality. “What separates artists from ex-artists is that those who challenge their fears, continue; those who don’t, quit. Each step in the art-making process puts that issue to the test.” There is nothing easy inside these covers. Reading it is like exercise: it hurts; you want to quit and lounge in the hammock; but if you make it through to the end, you are a better person for it.
THE SOLITUDE OF PRIME NUMBERS (2009) by Paolo Giordano is a masterpiece of the abject. This novel is translated from Italian, and the writer is a first time novelist, only 27 years old, who is a professional physicist working on a doctorate in particle physics. The novel is not about physics (not really – though metaphorically…). It is about two young people whose lives go terribly awry early on. It is about consequences and human connections and disconnections. Some scenes require a fierce determination to keep down your lunch. But they are not gratuitous; they work toward creating a psychological depth to the characters. This is not a happy book, so if you need that – skip this one. It is, however, as one of my favorite writers, Andrew Sean Greer (author of THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE), says “deeply soulful…one of those rare books you love in an instant.” I confess to having loved it in an instant. I will use it in my Advanced Fiction class in the fall because of the lessons in good writing it teaches, lessons about intricate characterization, narrative timing, backstory, and vividly wretched imagery.
WHITE FANG (1906) by Jack London is a very short novel first published serially in OUTING magazine. It is about a wolf/dog who lives in the Yukon during the late 19th century gold rush. Much of the story is told from the point of view of White Fang, the wolf/dog. This is an unlikely catch-up read for me; I never got to it in high school or college, but I found it on CD at a library book sale and bought it, along with a CD of two nonfiction works, THE BITCH IN THE HOUSE AND THE BASTARD ON THE COUCH. I decidedly do not recommend the latter two, though I admit to having engaged in a covert chuckle now and again. But as for WHITE FANG, it got me through more than an hour on the New York Thruway, a notoriously boring road, and it made me – seriously – laugh and cry. The beginning is rough going – violence and mayhem and unfairness, drunken men who guffaw at dogs fighting to the death. I nearly pushed the eject button until I breathed deeply, remembered how much I love American naturalism, and soldiered on. THIS one does have a happy ending, and I was happy to be there in my car, on that eternal NY Thruway, for that ending. It is sappy and simple, but worth the hour and the dollar I spent on it. Apparently there was some literary controversy surrounding it, and President Theodore Roosevelt got involved – check Wikipedia!
THE CITY OF THIEVES (2009) by David Benioff is simply awesome. It is the story of two young men who are surviving the siege of Leningrad any way they can. They save their lives by agreeing to secure a dozen eggs for a Soviet colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake. While all around them are starving and suffering, they venture forth in search of the eggs. Oddly enough, this is a very funny book. Nevertheless, there are scenes of such horror that they remain indelible – beware! This is a page turner, as they say. I give it a sound recommendation, no reservations.
A THOUSAND CUTS (2010), a first novel by Simon Lelic, caught my eye because it is about a school shooting. It is a twist on the “typical” school shooting, in that a teacher is the killer. It also has multiple narrators, too many narrators, something I always warn my writing students against – yet, I think Lelic pulls this off effectively, credibly. The thing is – I am on the fence with this book. It is a fast read. It is violent and sad and horrifying in all the right places. It is complex. But…in some places it is just plain gross, vulgar really, and I am not sure it needs to be so. Lelic seems to want to make a point about the gendered struggles that face Detective Inspector Lucia May. She is the only woman in her office, and her plight parallels, in some ways, the plights of the other characters involved in the school shooting. But, good grief, some of the “antics” that go on in that British PD are over the top – and when all is said and done, I am concerned about Lelic’s reasons for putting them into the novel. Am I alone in reading a touch of homophobia here?
IPHIGENIA IN FOREST HILLS: ANATOMY OF A MURDER TRIAL (2011) by New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm is brief (155 pages) but mighty. Malcolm does just what her title says: she anatomizes the murder trial of 35-year-old physician Mazoltuv Borukhova, a young mother accused of hiring a hit man to kill her orthodontist husband after he wins a nasty custody battle over their four-year-old daughter. Malcolm gives us not only the story as it plays out in the courtroom – she is there reporting for the New Yorker – but she analyzes the ways in which appearance, clothing, language, accents, and a judge’s narcissism influence the outcome of the trial. This one is a gem for those who are both zealous and skeptical about justice being served in the American judicial system.
Whenever I carried THE SUMMER WITHOUT MEN (2011) by Siri Hustvedt into a coffee shop or a train station, inevitably, women would come up to me and say, “I want to read that.” The lemon-yellow cover attracts attention, but the title seals the deal. After thirty years of marriage, Mia’s husband, a famous neuroscientist, leaves her for another woman. She is devastated, hospitalized for a time, and finally rents a house nearby her mother who lives in an old-folks home with group of close friends who call themselves “the Five Swans.” Sandwiched between these elderly and fabulous Swans and the group of pre-teen girls to whom she teaches poetry, Mia views the world of women who have lost men, found men, hurt each other over men, and who live full and rich lives, sometimes, despite men. This one lives up to its title. Heir to Cranford and The Country of the Pointed Firs.
ANGER (1982) by May Sarton is about the turbulent marriage of Boston banker Ned Fraser and up-and-coming singer Anna Lindstrom. Sarton drills down here, examining the different ways men and women express love and anger. Many times, the reader wishes Ned away, but Anna is in for the long haul, and once the entirety of their stories is revealed, the reader finds herself re-examining, just as Ned and Anna must do. Nothing fast-paced about this book, but its analysis of marriage is revealing. This novel has one of the most lovable dogs in literature, Fonzi.
ANNABEL (2010) by Canadian Kathleen Winter is essential reading for anyone interested in gender issues. Wayne/Annabel is born with ambiguous genitalia, and his/her parents must decide whether they will raise their child as a boy or a girl…or as both. The year is 1968, and the setting is a remote, blue-collar seaside town in eastern Canada. Reminiscent of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, this novel is important for anyone who works with children and adolescents. There is a beauty and an agony to the story, and the reader learns that what we think we know, we may not know, and that can be a good thing. If you are up for it, this is a book that will open you up.
IN THE ROOMS (2011) by Tom Shone is a quick read about a down-and-out British literary agent who spots his favorite writer on the streets of New York city and follows him. The writer, Douglas Kelsey, a one-time Pulitzer nominee, vanished after writing two books, and failing to write the third, for which he had received a sizable advance, he was sued. Kelsey is both sought-after and disdained. To literary agent Patrick Miller he is a god. Miller trails Kelsey to an AA meeting and stalks him thereafter until they have a proper meeting. What ensues is anyone’s game. For those interested in writing, alcohol, AA, and the lengths to which humans will go to avoid their own truths, read this book.
I listened to DRY: A MEMOIR (2004) written and read by Augusten Burroughs on CDs in my car. Burroughs, famous for RUNNING WITH SCISSORS: A MEMOIR (2002), is honest with a capital “H.” He tells all, and often you wish he would not. Still, this is a good story about a man out of control who gets sober, falls off the wagon, gets sober again. In between, his life parses out in zany anecdotes. This book is just OK. For those interested in issues of sobriety, DRINKING: A LOVE STORY (1997) by Caroline Knapp is still the frontrunner, hands down. Knapp is Burroughs’s equal in honesty minus the showboating.
CUTTING FOR STONE (2009) by Abraham Verghese is a portly marvel – all 667 pages of it. I am so very happy I read this book, and I am so very sad I finished this book. From the first page, I was a fan. A Catholic nun gives birth to identical twin boys in Ethiopia. Is the baby daddy the British genius of a surgeon? Ahhh… too, too much to tell. Let it suffice to say that I discovered the novel when a colleague walked into my office mid-semester with this tome in hand. “You must read this,” he said. It sat on a shelf through classes, exams, snowstorms, graduation. And then – I read it. And you must too.
TO EACH HIS OWN (2000) by Leonardo Sciascia has an enticing cover, and I admit that it helped when I chose it from the millions of other books at the town library’s annual book sale. It is a murder mystery with a high school teacher as protagonist. Typically, those three components add up to something great: good cover art, teacher sleuth, unsolved murder, but in this case, not so much. It is short, 158 pages, so the investment of time doesn’t give rise to resentment. I had to finish it to see who killed the hunters, and I am quite certain I missed some of the signature devices that make this a Sicilian classic, and Gore Vidal says Sciascia is the “perfect Virgil” leading us through mafia hell – still, I cannot recommend this – even if one finds it for 50 cents at the library sale. And in the end, the teacher turned sleuth… of all things…
THE GIFT OF AN ORDINARY DAY: A MOTHER’S MEMOIR (2009) by Katrina Kenison – who lives in very-nearby New Hampshire is comforting. It could be distilled down to a chapter, really…but it is a lovely, quotidian walk through a mother’s life that will speak most clearly to women whose children are leaving home or have just left home. The prospect of starting over after active mothering, of uncovering the other aspects of one’s life, is what Kenison faces, and her story is genuine, simple, approachable. This is not a change-your-life book, but it asks good questions and provides some sound, if predictable, answers. At the exact right time of life, for the exact right mother, this book is exactly right. Note: Kenison writes this book after losing her long-time job as editor of the annual Best American Short Story collections; for having done a commendable job with hundreds of short stories, she deserves a readership of the loyal.
GEEK LOVE (1983) by Katherine Dunn was a National Book Award Finalist, a novel that a reader cannot forget, not matter how hard she tries. It is about the Binewskis, a carnival family, who give birth to their own “freaks” in order to enhance the family business. They “breed their own exhibit of human oddities,” says the book cover. On my second read, preparing to teach the novel in an advanced fiction workshop, I found the book so disturbing, crude, and touching that I could not put it down – again! It screamed outrageous allegory. It snarked – “so you want to talk about family values, eh?” Dunn’s is a book that hurts to read but hurts more to contemplate. The incisive social commentary is too bright, making it hard to look away. This is not a book for the faint of heart. It is for the curious soul who is willing to be taunted and disgusted into looking human behavior dead in the eye.
When I finally got around to reading LADY AUDLEY’S SECRET (1861-1862) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon I was not disappointed. It is a Victorian thriller about a woman with a secret. She is both angelic and monstrous, anything but hum drum. The book both infuriated and intrigued me. I recommend it to anyone loving 19th century fiction. It is a fast read, mysterious, satisfying, and a “cult” favorite among British Women Writer scholars. On a long, lazy, hot afternoon in mid-summer: just the thing. Add ice-cold lemonade.
A NOVEL BOOKSTORE (2010) by Laurence Cosse has had me in its grip for three days. I have eschewed all else to be with it, like a dazed lover. All 416 pages kept me enthralled. The premise: two voracious readers, one with independent wealth, open a bookstore that sells ONLY great novels. They have a secret committee that chooses the books. They are a smash hit, opening in Paris (this is a Eruopa edition in translation from the French). All is successful until members of the committee are targeted for near assassination. Literary taste sparks literal violence. I cannot claim this is a great novel of the sort the titular bookstore would sell, but for me it was a dream. Lots of titles I got to jot down in my notebook for future reading. Lots to ponder about how passionately readers and writers feel about their books. Read, read this one! I will be checking out her other books (yes, the writer is female with a male name!) pronto.
I finally got around to reading INTO THE WILD (1996) by Jon Krakauer. The book tells the story of Christopher McCandless who hikes into the wilds of Alaska, after giving to charity the $25,000 in his savings account, and is discovered dead of starvation four months later. Krakauer is himself a lover of the wild and of risk taking, and his affinity for, if not downright defense of, McCandless is crystal clear. I felt myself in alien company, reading it in the cold of January New England with a fleecy comforter over me and a mug of hot tea at hand. Still, it is a necessary read...though, my vote goes to his other nonfiction book about the history of Mormonism, UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN.
SCHOPENHAUER'S TELESCOPE (2003) by Gerard Donovan is stepped with philosophy, which makes it intellectually interesting but without anything like a typical realistic plot line. Worth the read, however, as it grapples with the nature of evil, from Ghengis Khan to Hitler to the everyday person. I read this because I loved his next novel, JULIUS WINSOME. The latter is certainly the better, but if you enjoy philosophy and characters who struggle with the big questions of life, this is a book for you.
THE SECRET HISTORY (1992) by Donna Tartt is epic. I read it over winter break for the second time since it came out. It is an academic drama, set in a fictional New England College, with a cast of characters who study Greek and indulge a narcissism that is beyond the pale. I have long loved this book, but I admit, on this second go around, I yearned for an editor for Tartt. It is simply too long. Not the kind of long where you wish it would never end, but the kind of long where you wonder why you need to know so much about so much. While it is still worth the read, it is -- fair warning -- depressing, dark, unredeeming, and ... 524 pages long. I will continue to recommend this novel, just not to everyone.
MOONLIGHT MILE (2010) by Dennis Lehane is the sequel to GONE, BABY, GONE. The novel is worth the read just for the dialogue. Lehane is the master of Boston PD lingo. His Patrick Kenzie is a badass love. He gets the job done, loves his wife and daughter, holds to a dubious but consistent code (of ethics?), and entertains for all 325 pages. Lehane deserves far more credit than he gets from the literary world. My hat is off to him with this newest one.
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MY MOTHER (1996) is a novel by Jamaica Kincaid that deserves and requires more than one reading. I just finished it for the first time, and I admit, my appreciation of it did not kick in until the last one third. What Kincaid is doing here is both allegorical and enigmatic, and it will require a more attentive read on my part the second time around. Xuela, the protagonist, grows up motherless and is haunted by her very motherlessness. It is a book about imperialism and power and narcissism and sex and love. If Xuela is not a warm character, she is one who commands attention because the truths she unearths are truths the thinking person cannot evade.
THE WEEKEND (2010 in translation) by Bernhard Schlink, author of THE READER, is about Jorg, a terrorist who has spent the last 24 years in prison. Upon his release, his friends and family host a weekend-long reunion for Jorg. Some applaud Jorg as a hero of a cause, some denounce him as a murderer. Will he resume his "heroic" work or take up a reclusive life? While this novel pales in comparison to THE READER, it is worth a few hours, even if to consider what 24 years of solitary consciousness can do to even the most extremist activist.
NICE WORK (1988) by David Lodge is delightful, and not simply because one of its two protagonists is a feminist academic who teaches English and Women's Studies. The novel gives more than a passing nod to the 19th