| Book List
I read Matthew Lysiak’s NEWTOWN: AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (2013) in a half day, sobbing my way through the details of the school shooting that took the lives of twenty children and six educators. The book gives us a rounded and heartbreaking picture of the children and teachers killed and of their families in the aftermath. It also gives us a biographical look at the shooter, Adam Lanza, and his mother’s repeated attempts to get him help – when no help was available. This is an important book in that Lysiak does not overly trot out the familiar tropes of school shootings – though he does chronicle them at the very end of the book (listing the ways people understand what “causes” such tragedies: mental health, guns, moms, etc.). Rather, he shows us that school shootings are complex, and that no one cause or solution is available. I believe there is far more to be said about the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, but Lysiak is a good start.
A HERO (2015) by Charlotte R. Mendel is awesome. It tells the story of an extended family living their lives amidst the Arab Spring. Mohammed, head of the family is dominant and a bully to his wife and children. His wife Fatima is gentle, kind, patient, unlike Mohammed’s sister Rana who is assertive, intelligent, and feisty. All living under Mohammed’s roof, they engage directly and indirectly with the violent conflict that is raging so very near. Some of my favorite characters inhabit this book, and among them is the twelve-year-old Mazin who gets bullied at school for being both smart and non-masculine. He is one of the centers of consciousness for the novel, and he is delightful and brave – even if he doesn’t yet know it. I heard Charlotte Mendel read from this book; she is a force of nature – someone who should be read.
Daniel Woodrell’s THE MAID’S VERSION (2013) is another one of those books that I started out reading, got hooked, wanted to like, and – admittedly – did not. I liked the main story line about the explosion at the local dance hall that killed 42 people. I like Alma and her outrageous sister. I like the dogged pursuit of justice theme. But there were too many inserted characters whose histories got in the way – or rather, it was hard to keep clear track of them given that I was reading in fits and starts. To be fair to Woodrell – who is, by the by, author of NY Times Notable Book of the Year winner, PEN West Award winner, and 2011 Clifton Fadiman Medal from the Center for Fiction winner – this is certainly an exemplary piece of fiction. Though – it and I did not come to a meeting of the mind and spirit this summer. All fault is assuredly mine.
THE FOLDED CLOCK (2015) by Heidi Julavits is so much fun. It purports to be a diary, and it is segmented like a diary with dates (months and days, no years) but has no clear chronology. Nevertheless, it is delightful, funny, and irreverent – with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. I want to meet Julavits now. She seems like the cool high school girl who was not in your group but was one you’d want to notice you and invite you to a sleepover. Not that Julavits is cocky. Rather, she is self-deprecating, confessional, a hoot – really. I am not sure what this book is generically, but I know I liked it, and for this summer-reading fool, that is quite enough.
MISSOULA: RAPE AND THE JUSTICE SYSTEM IN A COLLEGE TOWN (2015) by Jon Krakauer is a gift to those of us who have worked arduously for social justice for victims of sexual assault. AND it is a great read. I have long loved Krakauer’s work, particularly UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN and INTO THE WILD. He knows how to write narrative, to draw a reader in, to persuade without bludgeoning. I want to give this book to everyone. It investigates the crime of acquaintance rape in Missoula, Montana, and in particular, rapes that involved University of Montana students and football players. “Unlike burglary or embezzlement or any other felony, the victim often comes under more suspicion than the alleged perpetrator,” says the book cover about victims of sexual assault. Krakauer’s research is impeccable, his empathy spot on, and his willingness to speak truth to power (huge football schools, outspoken and arrogant attorneys) is honorable. This book is about Missoula, but it is a book about so much more than Missoula – it is testimony to the fact that “PTSD rates for rape victims are estimated to be 50 percent higher than for soldiers returning from war.” This book opens eyes. The fact that Krakauer has lent his esteem as an author – and a male author – to this epidemic of injustice notches up my fandom In a big way. READ THIS ONE!
Despite my deep reservations about ZOMBIE, I picked up the 85-page FIRST LOVE: A GOTHIC TALE (1996) by Joyce Carol Oates. It is riddled with overt sexual and Christian imagery, and it is about child sexual abuse, but it is not as raw and horrifying as ZOMBIE (nothing is). This one has all the gothic touches, including swamps, dark recesses, moldering Victorian houses. There is creepy cousin Jared, Jr., on leave from seminary school who is the nemesis/first love of eleven-year-old Josie. Theirs is a dark, twisted, odd relationship, one of control and abuse, yet one strangely interesting – in a not-quite-so voyeuristic way. Perhaps having just read ZOMBIE, my faculties are not quite clear, but I enjoyed this tiny book.
I have a pretty strong stomach when it comes to books. TV and film are another story, but books – I can handle violence and horror. Yet, Joyce Carol Oates stopped me cold. I almost quit reading ZOMBIE (1995) in the middle. This is the story of Quentin P. who is a sexual psychopath and killer. Quentin tells his own story in first person, so you are inside his head the entire time. The book jacket says the book is “a dazzling work of art that extends the borders of the novel into the darkest heart of truth.” Hmmmm…for all of my reverence for the darkest heart of truth, I cannot recommend this book. Quentin hunts, tortures, kills young men, and the details are chilling, savage. I picked this little gem up to see if it might work for a course titled Villains, Vengeance, Violence. It won’t. Far be it from me to question the artistic prowess of someone of Joyce Carol Oates’ caliber. However, ZOMBIE is going back to the library, safely shelved.
THE JESUS COW (2015) by Michael Perry, author of the beloved POPULATION 485, is a hoot. Here is the brief prologue: On Christmas Eve itself, the bachelor Harley Jackson stopped into his barn and beheld there illuminated in the straw a smallish newborn bull calf upon whose flank was borne the image of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. “Well,” said Harley, “that’s trouble.” This is a fun read that tackles some of the bigger questions around religion and apparitions and devotion and commercialization without disrupting the narrative. Perry is a generous writer who offers characters who are simply complex – living small town lives in big ways. This is a treat. Read this book. Michael Perry is an author who Skyped with my Creative Nonfiction class this past semester, and he was a universal hit: a bit shy, self-effacing, yet utterly talented. Get to the JESUS COW this summer.
Sue Miller’s THE ARSONIST (2014) held my interest throughout. Someone is setting fires to the homes of summer people in a New England town. In all actuality, this plays a role more as backdrop to the primary story of Frankie who has been working in Africa for fifteen years and comes home to the New England town where the fires are being set by an arsonist. She grapples with her elderly father’s illness and meets a man who is both unexpected and passionate and smart. Can she overcome her constant need for do-gooding across the globe to settle long enough with this man to see if it might hold promise? It is a bit touch and go on that score. Sue Miller’s other books, particularly THE SENATOR’S WIFE, are stronger, but this one is fine, enjoyable, worth a go.
Louise Erdrich’s THEPAINTED DRUM (2005) has a compelling plot that features a mother and daughter in New Hampshire, descended from Native Americans, who discover a magical/mystical painted drum through their business of arranging estates after death. What is both delightful and challenging about reading an Erdrich novel is the way she weaves in and out of stories. That is, she is constantly inserting a character who must tell a story. The reader gets involved in that story and forgets she is really inside a story within a story. Erdrich does not miss a beat; the stories are intriguing and always involve Native American characters and themes, but this time, I was, perhaps, too tired to want to meander with her. I wanted to stay with the mother and daughter, the love interest, the marijuana-growing dude down the road. But we got the entire and long history of the painted drum, and that – for sure – was distressing and wonderful, yet, one needs to hold on tight, as if she is on a roller coaster that is swerving at near 90 degree angles. Louise Erdrich is a masterful writer, but be sure to seat belt in for this one.
John Irving's CIDER HOUSE RULES (1985) is an investment of time: 550 pages. I read a hardcover copy, and it boinked me in the head more times than I can count when I read it in bed and dozed off. That is not to say it is boring. John Irving is anything but boring. He is quirky. He is intense. His characters do memorable things. I enjoyed this book -- NOT more than THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, but it was compelling in its Irving-esque ways. What does that mean? Well, his characters have a touch of the caricature about them; they have never seemed quite real to me, not quite mimetic of real people's lives. That is not a criticism so much as an observation. This does, however, keep me from connecting to those characters fully -- say in the way I did with the characters in Roz Chast's book (see below). So I am always aware of myself as a reader\observer. That is, I never forget I am reading a novel when reading this one -- I do not get that lost in this world feeling. Nevertheless, Irving is someone who takes risks with big topics: abortion in this case. He is brave and smart and gets at the issue in a respectful yet humorous way. I am happy I read this one.
Dorothy Allison’s BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA (1992) is a classic, one of my favorites as far as heart-wrenching, rough-going, all-too-real-life novels go. This is the story of twelve-year-old Bone who grows up in the south with her mom and sister. Along comes Daddy Glen, who marries mom and makes life a living hell for Bone. If there is comfort for Bone, it is in her extended family, the Boatwright aunts and uncles, caustic and troubled souls who exude love and delinquency In equal measure. Bone’s is a tragic life, yet she is one of the most compelling little-girl characters in literature. This is no traditional Bildungsroman. Rather, it takes that form and stands it on its head. Sure, one grows up, one experiences trials, but one’s “success” is always relative to one’s opportunities. And Bone’s opportunities to grow up free and happy and fulfilled are hampered in the most heinous ways. Still and all, she is worth knowing, and, perhaps, one might see that Bone cannot be broken in the end. One cannot, to my mind, go through life without having read this exquisite book.
BAD FEMINIST (2014) by Roxane Gay is a new favorite. I am using it in my Women in Leadership Seminar, and all the students are fans of Gay now. We even wrote her letters. She is a badass feminist who tackles the tough subjects with a bravado that is both fierce and fun. She calls it as she sees it, and, almost always, I see it exactly as she sees it. She takes on actors, filmmakers, writers, singers. She is a pop culture expert, and her analysis is right on. I really cannot say enough about this little gem. It is a collection of short essays, and you can read one or two, get up for a mug of tea or a quick trip to CVS, then return to laugh and learn more. Roxane Gay, might I be you in the next life, please?!
THE INCONVENIENT PROCESS OF FALLING (2015) by Katie Neipris is such a fabulous young person (not YA) – college-aged readers – novel. It takes up the lives of a group of long-time friends as they weekend together in the woods after their first year of college. While they had been close for years, the year away at college grew them apart in ways they had not anticipated. Was their friendship strong enough to sustain them through new and heartbreaking challenges, through “crimes of the heart” for which they could not forgive themselves? They are soon to find out, as the weekend rises to a crescendo. Katie and I were on a panel about publishing in Albuquerque, New Mexico weeks ago, and what a treat is was to meet a 23-year-old UCLA grad who has a first novel published and who has a shining spirit. Katie is someone I LIKED a lot instantly. I expect many more fabulous books from her, and I recommend you read this one. I did in a day, could not keep away from what was happening in that cabin. Read this one.
CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC (2014) by Claudia Rankine is stunning and challenging. This prose poem tackles the big questions surrounding what it means to be black in the U.S. in the 21st century. She foregrounds Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, and Serena Williams while tackling the very clear reality of abiding racism in our country. Reviewer Hilton Als says the book “comes at you like doom.” That is nothing but the truth. This slim volume weighs on the reader, particularly the white reader like me, because it speaks the painful truth about how skin color determines experience. Rankine is not for the average poltroon. This is for the reader who dares see the way racism is alive in our country. “Rankine suffers no fools and takes no prisoners but lovingly embraces and articulates the trauma and contradictions of what happens when one person is spat upon and another person spits,” says William Pope.L. This one takes time and breath. It is worth all the time and breath required.
Rainbow Rowell’s LANDLINE (2014) is good. Just good. Where her ELEANOR & PARK is simply beautiful, and while her language, particularly her dialogue, is quite something to envy, this novel faded a bit for me just after the half way mark. I wanted the protagonist, sitcom writer Georgie, to figure her life out sooner, with less angst, with less mystery about the landline. There was an odd moment in which puppies were delivered of a mama dog who hung out in the family clothes dryer -- that was quite well done, and that was in the latter half, but otherwise, I kept nudging Georgie to choose her fate. Her husband Neal, whom she kept insisting was the bomb, was unappealing to the reader. Her daughters were adorable, but the littlest one who kept insisting she was a kitty and only spoke in meows – highly annoying. On the whole, Rainbow Rowell is someone I’ll continue to read. She is clever, and many, many times I pause over her craft and want to be her. ..the husband, the angst, and the kitty-kid aside.
THE STORY HOUR (2014) by Thrity Umrigar is engaging, the kind of book you are happy to return to at night. Maggie is a psychologist who treats Lakshmi after she attempts suicide. The boundaries between their professional doctor-patient relationship blur, and soon they are friends. Lakshmi begins to grow out of the damage done by her past, as does Maggie, until those histories insert themselves into the present, and each woman must live with the agony of choices she has made. The relationship between these two very different women is fascinating to watch. The one is hyper-educated and privileged, the other an Indian immigrant in an enigmatic marriage, yet they work together as characters we root for. Umrigar’s use of Lakshmi’s accented English takes a chapter or two to decipher, but one gets in to the groove quite soon. I am happy to have read this book and to have discovered Umirgar – it is more than a beach read, not quite a must-read, but one you will not regret.
I opened EVERYHING I NEVER TOLD YOU (2014) by Celeste NG with one thought in mind: it is the end of a busy semester – I have little time to read a novel that is not exquisite – so I will give this one two pages – if I am not sold, it is game over. The first two sentences read: Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. I was in, and I quickly flew through the 300-page novel. Ng tells a good story, leaves us wondering often, and resolves the novel’s tensions with the kinds of ambiguities I really relish. The language in this book is accessible, the plotline not so overly-familiar, and the characterization complex enough to hold the reader. If time is short, I recommend several others below, but – make time for this one if possible. I will read Ng again, and as for Lydia and her Chinese American family, theirs is a tragic life worth exploring.
HIS book is – quite simply – exquisite: CAN’T WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING MORE PLEASANT? (2014) by Roz Chast is a graphic memoir that is worth every penny of its $28 cost in hardcover. I want to give this book to everyone I know who, like me, is in that challenging life phase where the care of elderly parents is urgent and central. This book is honest and open and funny in exactly the places it could be depressing. Chast tackles it all – loving & resenting the parents, the incredible and out-of-bounds costs to caring for the elderly, the way age-old resentments insert themselves into life when you least want them there, annoying habits of parents whom we love even as we cringe. I, like Roz Chast, LOVE my parents. But we learn things about the details of our aging parents’ lives that force the re-arranging of roles. We are no longer child; we are a form of parent to our parents, and this role reversal comes with intimate knowledge that makes everyone vulnerable. This is a life phase that calls for love, best behavior, and endless patience. Roz Chast has captured that, and she has made me laugh when the days of crying had threatened to overwhelm. Thank you, Chast, for this book: it bears pivotal truths about our humanity that we are better knowing.
National Book Award Winner BROWN GIRL DREAMING(2014) BY Jacqueline Woodson is a memoir in verse. Woodson grew up in the 1960s and 70s in South Carolina and then in Brooklyn, NY, and she describes each place with vibrant and moving detail. She was teased and misunderstood outside of her home, but inside, she was deeply loved. Woodson’s family life is gripping. From her single mother’s courage to make a home for her children to her beloved grandparents’ abiding and life-giving nurturing, Woodson’s childhood is rich – in ways an outside onlooker could not begin to imagine. I really really liked this book. While it is written in verse, which I know – because people are very frank about these things – that poetry frightens many folks, this book is accessible and worth overcoming a fear that for many – let’s be honest – is untested. This one is worth it, a beauty.
Larry Watson is one of my favorites. His newest novel, LET HIM GO (2013), is true Larry Watson, in MONTANA 1948 fashion. The writing is spare, as are the characters. I am now fully in love with Margaret and George Blackledge of North Dakota who go in search of their little grandson Jimmy. Their son, Jimmy’s father, dies. His wife moves on, marrying another man (a bad man from a bad family) and taking the beloved Jimmy from the Blackledge’s home where he spent his earliest years in safety and joy. Much of this novel is about the marriage of the Blackledges. This is not the kind of novel where every incremental emotion or thought is spelled out. Rather, Margaret and George have been together for decades. Theirs is a well-oiled machine of a marriage, with quirks and challenges and pithy exchanges. The ending is – perhaps – beautiful. In a TALE OF TWO CITIES sort of way. This is a little piece of wonderment. Again, big Larry Watson fan here. I recommend it – indeed.
Emily St. John Mandel’s STATION ELEVEN is all the rave now. It is winning awards, garnering acclaim for the young author. I LOVED it. I read it when I should have been grading and buying groceries and paying the electric bill. I could not stop. In the opening scene, the famous actor playing King Lear has a fatal heart attack on stage. Switch to another scene, and the world is wiped out by a pandemic: the Georgian flu. What follows is so amazing: travelling Shakespeare troupe, violent conclaves with a dastardly prophet at the fore, and the human spirit surviving. This is decidedly not THE ROAD. There is no Cormac McCarthy depths of despair here. Sure, the world as we all know it is, well, over, kaput, gong. BUT, the human spirit remains, sets up shop again in the form of a village in an airport. This is an awesome read. Pay your bills, stock up on food, and settle into 333 pages of escape – really well-written escape. I cannot stop thinking about it. What would life be like without a car, a phone, electricity. So much would not matter. And, really, it does not take Emily St. John Mandel to teach us this, but she offers us an intriguing reminder: everything changes. Everything. So before it does – read this book.
Dennis Lehane’s THE DROP (2014) is fast, centers on a Boston bar, and involves the Chechen mob, psychopathic customers, and Bob, the lonely bartender who finds an abused puppy abandoned in the trash. He and Nadia, a woman with a heart-wrenching past, meet that night and save the dog together. Typical Lehane ensues: Money is stolen. Bad men posture with guns and shots of vodka and threats. There is no telling who is the good guy and who is the bad buy. You cannot go wrong with a Lehane book. He is a master. This one runs just past 200 pages – a snowy afternoon treat. Whip up some popcorn and a mug of hot cocoa and sit yourself down on a corner barstool in the bar in the Flats – where MYSTIC RIVER takes place.
I went through a self-help book phase; it lasted about three decades. Now, Buddhist meditation and mindfulness reading dominates my list. But I picked up SMALL MOVE, BIG CHANGE: USING MICRORESOLUTIONS TO TRANSFORM YOUR LIFE PERMANENTLY (2014) by Caroline L. Arnold, skimmed it, and learned exactly one thing: just to it. If you want to change an age-old habit, you have to change that age-old habit. Yeah. Who does not get that? Arnold’s angle on this is, as the title says, to do it –the changing of habits -- in tiny chunks. Ok. Makes sense. One thing she did say that stuck: make the scariest call (phone call) first, before all else, and a great surge of energy will follow. Yes, Ms. Arnold, you are right. When I have done this, sat my behind in the chair, closed all doors, picked up that phone and called that person and spoke my mind – surge I got! But it is the fear one has to bust through that is the challenge. And the only way out is through. And I am not sure how to microresolve that if not to just do it. The upshot: this book tells you that to make changes you have to make changes. Just make them one step at a time, twelve-step like. Everyone knows that, but we need reminding. Arnold seems like a good sort, earnest, chocking her book full of fun examples of people who succeeded to microresolve their lives. So, if you need to make big changes one tidbit at a time as the new year unrolls, Arnold is your woman. If you are like me, knowing full well what to do and still resisting doing it for a bazillion reasons, take a breath and just do it.
I read Kurt Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE –FIVE (1969) for the first time today. Not sure why this one went un-read? The Sisters of St. Joseph did not teach in when I was in high school. It is pretty gruesome. War is not a hero in this one. Billy Pilgrim has what we would call PTSD today, and his unraveling is fascinating. In the same way Toni Morrison allows contemporary readers into the lived experience of slavery in BELOVED, Vonnegut offers us the experience of WW II through the lens of a young man who ends up being ruined by it, as was Morrison’s Sethe. It is an unsettling novel, and it is hard to follow at times – as is war, as is slavery, as is, frankly, life. So I held on tight, followed Billy Pilgrim, as he was captured by aliens, as he time travelled, as he found multiple alternative ways to live when the reality of the war was simply too much. This is a novel that makes sense to me today. Perhaps too much sense. Had Sister Mary T. Quinn assigned it in high school, I would have complained and moaned, as my students do, that Vonnegut went on and on and was boring. That young I, of course, would have been far too unequipped to GET the book. This much older I – she is at least giving it her best. This is a life changer. Happy it has been read, happy my soul can take its realities today. For now, I need a little quiet time to ponder man’s inhumanity to man. So it goes.
DEPT. OF SPECULATION (2014) by Jenny Offill is minimalist and fragmented – on purpose. As is life, if you think about it. At first, the read balks. What is she talking about? Who is the narrator? What is going on? But in short order, most readers will recognize parts of their lives in the spare paragraphs Offill offers. This is a book about love, marriage, (in)fidelity, parenthood, the possibility of reconciliation. Now that I have finished it, I want to read it again. This Jenny Offill is onto something, and I read the little book so quickly, racing to find out what would happen, that I think I may have missed some gems. And I discovered enough of those little gems to know there are more stuffed in there. This is NOT a book for everyone. It is a life-of-the-mind book rather than a plot-driven novel. It reflects an intensity of an inner life that some readers find compelling (me!), and some will find dreadfully revelatory, true, or boring. Risk reading it, I say. The Boston Globe called it “slender, quietly smashing…a book so radiant, so sparkling with sunlight and sorrow, that it almost makes a person gasp.” I agree.
THE LIFE WE BURY (2014) by Allen Eskens is quite a nice read, a bit mystery, tidbit love story, equal parts compassionate humanity and masculine violence. Joe Talbert, our protagonist, is a college student working on an English class assignment that brings him in contact with an old man who is paroled early because he is dying of cancer. He was indicted decades earlier for raping and murdering his 14-year-old neighbor. Joe, his new friend Lila, and his autistic brother Jeremy discover evidence that changes the outcome of the old case, risking their lives in the effort. This is a page turner with some subplots that work. Some novels offer superfluous subplots, just to – I don’t really know – I suppose to make a novel appear more multidimensional. Eskens’s subplots work, and I am grateful to not have been annoyed with my first holiday choice of reading material. I do recommend this one – somewhat predictable, but – frankly – Eskens makes it work. So go to it.
Gabrielle Zevin’s THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY (2014) was just the short novel I needed right after the semester ended. It is quirky and fun. The protagonist is a Woody-Allen-ish (in the 1970s, neurotic, hyper-anxious kind of way, not the weird, concerning kind of way) bookstore owner who has the only bookstore on a Martha’s Vineyard-like fictional island. He is a widow who has cemented views about literature until that is changed by an abandoned baby, a bohemian publisher’s rep, and by circumstances that appear tragic until deeper investigation discovers them to be, well, remarkably wonderful. This one will not tax your brain, and sometimes, often, that is delightful. I recommend it. The woman who checked it out to me at the local library said she found the book “innnnterrrresting,” drawing the word out to emphasize, I supposed, its oddity. “It is not that it is bad…” she said, a sure-fire sign that it stinks. But, I am here to tell you it not only does not stink, but it is downright lovely. It will not change the world, but after a semester of trying to change the world views of college students, I was ready to relax into the Island Bookstore and its offering of foibles and wonders.
I am now a Roxane Gay fan, having read AN UNTAMED STATE (2014). This is another of those books I love that is not for everyone. Tom Perrotta (another writer I love) says on the back cover: “An Untamed State is a harrowing, suspenseful novel about the connections between sexual violence and political rage, narrated in a voice at once traumatized and eerily controlled.” Perrotta gets it right. The book is about “the compromises people make in order to survive under the most extreme conditions,” he says. That is my kind of book. Gay has been dubbed by Flavorwire “one of the 25 Women Poised to Lead the Culture.” She is that indeed, and this is her debut novel. When Mireille Duval Jameson is kidnapped in her home country of Haiti by a gang of men, this daughter of a rich Haitian man sees life as she’s known it crumble. She is married to an American, has one child, has a thriving career as an attorney in the states, and this visit home threatens all of that. Her father’s standoff with the Commander in charge of her kidnapping and ransom changes her life. Can she heal? What is the stuff of life that keeps us from going under? What is it that allows us to carry on when horrors become the new normal? This novel is important and, I would argue, inspiring, but it is not easy, it is not pretty, it is not a feel-good endeavor. So take it up with your bravest readiness to engage the real world, and grow from one of the 25 Women Poised to Lead the Culture.
MEN EXPLAIN THINGS TO ME (2014) by Rebecca Solnit is tiny treasure. Just 130 pages, Solnit is the kind of writer you want as a friend: she tells it like it is. She is polite but clear. Here it is, she says, let me show you, and let me give you an example or two, now – can you see it? And you can. I think I am madly in love with Rebecca Solnit, and that is why I have assigned her as reading for my Women in Leadership seminar this semester. I want to share her. I want to re-read her. And the title is a fabulous talking point – she defines men who explain things to you as those who explain things to you (women) that the women know and the men doing the explaining do not know. Mansplaining is one word coined several years for this phenomenon – a term Solnit inspired but did not coin. This little book is well worth the little cost for the BiG, BIG laughs and learning.
I have only just read THE CHILDREN OF MEN (1993) by P. D. James. In 2021, the human race is dying out. There have been no babies born since 1995 because all males became infertile. Great Britain is ruled by a dictator who fosters mass euthanasia of the elderly, cruel prison camps, and bands of violent and roving thugs. This is the story of power, its corruption, and the ability of some, even one hero, to fight back. Oxford historian Theo Faron is that hero. Or is he? Cousin to Great Britain’s dictator, will he serve for good or for ill when he encounters a small group of revolutionaries and cannot help but take up with them? This book is a find. Not fast paced like Lehane’s, the novel offers something different: complexity of characterization, beautiful sentences that require digesting, and an ending that requires contemplation. It forces one to think about what the world might be like with no more babies being born, what new life means to the living. I am still thinking about this book and will, I believe, for some time…
A collection of nine short stories, STONE MATTRESS by Margaret Atwood (2014) is fabulous. Clear and away, the story “Stone Mattress” is the winner. It begins, “At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone.” What reader can read that and say, “nah, looks boring”? This is my new favorite short story, and students in my Women Writers class next semester can bet their boots they’ll see it on the reading list. Others of the stories are awesome too, including “The Freeze-Dried Groom,” “Torching the Dusties,” and “Alpinland.” Margaret Atwood is still on fire, and she is my hero – though those who know me know that I have so many writer heroes. That does not take away from Margaret Atwood’s rock-solid position in my heart. Read this collection – at least read those stories I’ve highlighted above. Then read THE HANDMAID’S TALE – because a life without that novel is hardly worth living!
I have just read GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson (2004) for the first time because my friends in my book group gave a collective gasp when I said I’d not read it. “YOU?” they yawped…”YOU have not read GILEAD?” Shamed, I read it that very night. It is a particular kind of beautiful, the musings of a dying man, a reverend, whose sharing is quite reflective and open-hearted. He is a good man, and the reader comes to be quite fond of him. His ability to be both a leader and a kind man and a vulnerable man make him a compelling character. I am happy to have read it. I walk now with pride when I enter my book group. That Robinson has two more in her trilogy, GILEAD being the first, means I have more on my plate, but for the time being, I am basking in having caught up on at least one.
FRANKENSTEIN, GEEK LOVE, THE TASTE OF A MAN, BELOVED, HECUBA, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, POSSESSING THE SECRET OF JOY, MYSTIC RIVER – all of these I taught this semester in my Monster Seminar. We pondered and analyzed and worked out way through our understanding of monsters and the monstrous for fifteen weeks, and we have arrived at many crucial questions. What do all of these have in common? In each one, there is a murder. In each one, there is anguish that leads to the murder. In each one a monstrous, jaw-dropping act is perpetrated. What else? Read them and find out. They are the kinds of book you can discuss for a long time. I recommend them all and am available to discuss once you’ve read!
BOOK OF AGES: THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF JANE FRANKLIN (2013) by Jill Lepore is such a fabulous tribute to a life both obscure and exceedingly significant. In the tradition of Virginia Woolf, whom she credits readily toward the end of her book, Lepore researches the life of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister, though documentation is slim, as a “meditation on silence in the archives.” The outdated notion (and practice) of historians that only the lives of public and imposing men are worth remembering is taken to task by Lepore. Jane Franklin is delightful. She has no formal education, bore more than a dozen children, and adored her brother. What letters to Franklin survive indicate a young life enervated by domestic toil but a later life infused with reading and contemplation, that later life lived during the tempestuous Revolutionary War. One of the New York Times Notable Books and winner of the Mark Lynton History Prize, this book of history is hailed as one of the best books of the year by NPR, Time Magazine, The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, and the Boston Globe. Why is that? Why a work of history so garnished with applause by “the people”? Because Lepore knows her stuff. Documented to within an inch of its life, THE BOOK OF AGES reads like a novel, places its readers inside an early America where a revolutionary resistance and spirit resounded, and honors the lives of those whom fame forgot. To historicize only the great is to miss the bigger, rounder, richer picture. Lepore misses nothing. She honors Virginia Woolf’s “rage about the unwritten literary work of women,” and she honors us, readers who care about the lives of women, in all their obscurity and significance.
Gish Jen’s novel WORLD AND TOWN (2010) is one of those books you live inside – deeply -- for a while. I came to love Hattie Kong who finds herself in midlife living alone in a small town in New England. Her recent losses of both her husband and her best friend are still fresh. When a Cambodian family moves in, Hattie begins a neighborly, if fraught, relationship with them. One of the teenage daughters spends time at Hattie’s house, playing with her three dogs, wanting, at once, for Hattie to be her mentor and for Hattie to leave her alone. When Hattie’s former lover, neuroscientist Carter Hatch moves to town, complications escalate. I completely surrendered to the small-town quotidian, eating up the day-to-day lives of Hattie, her gang of women friends, and her troubled Cambodian neighbors, but what really nudged this book into the protean literary realm were the big questions that Gish Jen embroiders into the novel; she does not let us look away. Among the penetrating questions are those about religion, family, love, trust, identity, parenting, loneliness, and love. This is a book to savor, not one to rush through. Brew a cup of tea, nestle into an afghan, and enter a small town that offers up the world.
THE GATES AJAR (1868) by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps is an acquired taste. I happen to be a Phelps freak, having done my dissertation on her work. This is her most popular book; it made her a literary celebrity at age 24.After the Civil War, the death toll was enormous and particularly painful for women who lost their loved ones, sons, husbands, fiancés. Men of religion preached about heaven and the blissful life these lost loves were leading, but their words rang hollow. The grieving women could not imagine their dead ones singing hymns with angels, robed in white glory. It meant nothing to them because there was nothing tangible to relate to. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps stepped into the void with this novel and two more that follow it (BEYOND THE GATES 1883 and THE GATES BETWEEN 1887). What she offered is a story of hope, an afterlife that resembles earth with neighborhoods, houses, gardens, and life as it has been known and cherished on earth. The women will be reunited with their loved ones and live with them in the same way they did on earth. Women in droves took to the book. They needed to hope Phelps offered. Her widowed character who offers the most explicit rendition of this philosophy grounds her preaching in biblical text, and while the ministers in the novel challenge her at every turn, the women who hear her lean in mightily. The brand of hope she offers is what they need, and if there is no proof for either imagining of heaven, they are prepared to err on the side of the one where they get to live again with their loved ones. Phelps spoke to the heartache and yearning; the men of religion spoke to something else – and they were rejected. And Phelps took it to the bank, outselling most other writers of her time!
HOUSEWRIGHTS (2002) is a disturbing novel by Art Corriveau about Lily Willard’s relationship with twins, Oren and Ian Pritchard. She is the town librarian in a small town in Vermont; they are carpenters. Childhood friends, the three who have been deeply connected since youth, meet again in adulthood. Lily marries Oren, and they welcome Ian into their home when he returns shell-shocked from the Great War. The three are happy, quirky, and far too odd in their unorthodox connectedness to garner their neighbors’ respect or tolerance. Misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and wretched loss are on the horizon for these three, and despite their unusual circumstances and desires, we readers recognize what makes them delight so in each other. If you have a stack of books to read by your bedside, no need to add this one to the pile. It is the kind of book you pick up in a used bookstore, read over a weekend, and discover your life is neither better nor worse for the engagement. Feel free to give this one a pass. Nora Eldridge, the elementary school teacher who is the protagonist of THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS (2013), a novel by Claire Messud, is a quizzical character. She is the white-female epitome of the poem “A Dream Deferred.” She is a consummate repressor of feelings and dreams. When a charming student enters her class, and when she befriends his parents, her life becomes infused with something it has been missing. She takes heart .She feels her time has come. She gets herself into a tangle, however, and the outcome is, well, troubling. I cannot really explain why I liked this book so much. All along I wanted to shout: “Nora. Stop being an idiot.” Yet, I could not look away as Nora kept being an idiot. I felt empathy. She needed those people; they were worldly, they filled a void, they liked her. Alas, Nora Eldridge is a bit of a tragic figure but one worth knowing.
THE DEATH CLASS by Erika Hayasaki (2014) is a work of creative nonfiction I found quite interesting. It tells the story of Dr. Norma Bowe, Ph.D. and nurse who teaches a class called Death in Perspective at Kean University in Union, New Jersey (about a 30 minute drive from New York City). The ad on the back of the book claims there is a three year waiting list for Professor Bowe’s class, and after reading the book, I want onto that list myself! Dr. Bowe is not your average professor. She is, by Hayasaki’s account – and the author shadowed Dr. Bowe and several of her students while researching the book – the most loving, self-giving woman ever. She nurses the sick, attends the grieving, and comforts the suicidal. This woman never rests – until she is hospitalized toward the end of the book. The anecdotes relayed in this book are gripping. Among the students who make their way into Bowe’s class and/or life are gang members, a young man who witnessed his father murder his mother in their kitchen, and a young woman whose life is consumed by keeping her drug addicted mother alive. Bowe helps them all, and all of them face death in all of its unglamorous reality. In addition, Bowe takes her students to cemeteries, to autopsies, to funeral homes to look at caskets. This may not be a book for everyone, particularly those who refuse to see death as part of life. All others – pick up a copy.
DEAR COMMITTEE MEMBERS, a novel by Julie Schumacher (2014) is a tiny delight. Under 200 pages, this epistolary novel is straight up funny. All of the letters that comprise the novel are written by a beleaguered English professor who tells it like it is. He is on the outs with his former wife, former girlfriend, and colleagues because of his misbehavior and abrasiveness. He is in with the reader because the transparency of his ego is laid bare, and in the end, he comes around to something like humility – sort of. This book made me laugh aloud, many times, and given the swift vicissitudes and harsh realities of life in an American university today, laughing is a hot-air balloon ride among fluffy white clouds. This is a must read for all English professors or any reader who finds him/herself grappling with a world of rapidly-shifting academic values.
WHEREVER YOU GO, THERE YOU ARE: MINDFULNESS MEDITATION IN EVERYDAY LIFE by Jon Katat-Zinn (1994) is exactly what it sounds like – a book about how to live in a liberating and uncomplicated way through meditation. I think I have read this book before, but it seemed new somehow this summer. Zinn is clear, not so concise but not so prolific as to annoy, and easy to understand. Other Buddhist books can be laden with jargon and so koan-ish that one feels quite dumb. This book is uplifting. It makes sense. It is one of those books one reads when life calls for the reading of such a book. When life calls, read this one. My go-to girl for such mindfulness teaching is still Pema Chodron, but JKZ is up there. Give him a try – when the time is right.
The thing that drew me to DIVERGENT (2011) by Veronica Roth is that she began the book while she was a student in college. Now she has a runaway hit trilogy and a major movie coming out. I want that for all of my creative writing students, but the odds are against it for them and for all creative writers. It is much like becoming an actor: lots of people are talented and want to be famous as an actor, but – like the eye of the needle – few succeed. Nevertheless, the definition of success must be interrogated. Is Roth’s success the only kind of success? Nay, nay. Creative writing is a skill that can be developed and a practice that hones a number of skills, among them critical thinking, problem solving, research, empathy, collaboration….I could go on and on about this. My point: just because one will not necessarily get a three-book contract before college graduation does not make the endeavor worthless. Repeatedly, employers maintain they want new hires who can think critically, write clearly, understand audience, solve problems…you get my point. Ok, onto the book. DIVERGENT incorporates a wicked fast pace. It is sheer plot. Think: HUNGER GAMES with more explicit social class divisions. The hero is Tris, and her love interest is Tobias. They are cute, and their burgeoning romance is, of course, fraught. These two belong to a faction that risks life and limb for the thrill of it all and to become stronger. They jump onto racing trains and leap from tall buildings. They shoot people – bad people. They refuse to cry when a parent dies in front of them. They are tough cookies with heart. So, since this all sounds SO familiar, what makes it worth reading? I am not sure, but I do know that I liked it in the way I like the occasional pepperoni pizza. It was yummy going down. The chapters are short and the print (paperback version) is large. I felt some simplistic accomplishment reading several chapters at a sitting. I began book #2 immediately after, despite having four English courses to prepare for the upcoming semester. Roth’s is lightweight stuff that tangles with bigger philosophical issues. This is the kind of book I would have felt a need to “bash” in my more smug years – simply because of its popularity. I am no longer smug, and popularity does not equal bad – though, truth be told, sometimes that is exactly what it means (like THE HANGOVER). Ok, so maybe still a bit smug-ish…DIVERGENT was entertaining, and I was entertained, and it made me think a bit about what I would be willing to die for (even if I have thought about that one zillion times already), so …there you have it, a non-review?
Beward Sonali Deraniyagala’s WAVE (2013). This memoir is powerful and painful. It is also gripping – I could not stop, and I found myself setting aside very important things in order to finish it in on day, in hours really. It is brief but brutal in its honesty. This is the story of a family vacationing at a Sri Lankan beach resort in 2004 who is swept away in a tsunami. Without warning, they are alive, then dead. Deraniyagala is the sole survivor of her family. She lost her husband, two young sons, her parents. Author Michael Ondaatje (THE ENGLISH PATIENT) calls this memoir powerful and haunting. I agree. I am haunted. The sheer ability to live after such a loss renders me speechless. I can see why this book would be unappealing to many readers. Nevertheless, it was a national bestseller and One of the Best Books of the Year per the New York Times Book Review. So, there is something about it that does grab readers. For me, it was the incomprehensible horror of having an entire life wiped out and surviving it. I wanted to walk with this woman to see where she ended up, to see if she could ever find a measure of peace, a reason to live. This is a ravaging book, to be read with eyes wide open. I can promise tears. I can promise meditative silence. I can certainly promise awe. I honor this woman just for breathing.
I am not sure what to make of Michael Cunningham’s new novel, THE SNOW QUEEN (2014). I raced through it, and there were moments of great enjoyment, beautiful sentences, deep sadness rendered authentically. Honestly, though, I think this novel falls into a category I’ve yet to name. Let’s call it Ponderables. It reminds me of Anne Michaels’ THE WINTER VAULT and any of Toni Morrison’s new novels. I rush to acquisition like some Harry Potter fan at midnight outside a remote Barnes & Noble. I consume them in a gulp. I am delirious with pleasure that my favorite authors have deigned to offer yet another work of art. Then I sit with my response. And in all of these cases the response is not clear or immediate. There is a delay, as if I need processing time to analyze what has happened in the last 250 pages and X number of hours of my life. I consider Cunningham a master because of THE HOURS. I revere Anne Michaels’ FUGITIVE PIECES. Toni Morrison – by now people in Bahrain must know how I feel about this goddess, so often do I go on about her. YET, if I am honest, I always wonder with these Ponderables if it is my fault that I do not LOVE the book like my firstborn, if it is my own lack that disallows me from bonding at first read. Perhaps I don’t get it. Perhaps I did not give it enough of the slow, analytical, grace-filled read it deserves. Always with the Ponderables, I conclude that the only solution is to read it again. Alas…none of this is helpful to the reader who checks out ANY GOOD BOOKS? for advice. Who wants a reviewer who examines her own neurosis instead of just plain getting to it? So, THE SNOW QUEEN is about two brothers, one of whom (Barrett) has a godlike vision in Central Park. This is significant (not sure why yet – re: Ponderables). He keeps it a bit of a secret, even from his brother Tyler who spends much of the novel writing a wedding song for his dying fiancé Beth, and he is coping with symptoms that appear to suggest schizophrenia, but this is never determined with any certainty (would it matter if it were so anyway?). Enter other characters who all exhibit conflicted souls. Some drugs. Some illicit sex. Touching moments, for sure. On the whole: these characters are looking to find that life has MEANING (duh…who isn’t?), and finding that it – does? Does not? When you figure it out, please let me know.
Toni Morrison’s PARADISE (1997) is – hands down – my favorite of her many novels. The first two paragraphs gets to me every time (this is a novel I have read over and over):
“They shot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here. They are seventeen miles from a town which has ninety miles between it and any other. Hiding places may be plentiful in the Convent, but there is time and the day has just begun.
They are nine, over twice the number of the women they are obliged to stampede or kill and they have the paraphernalia for either requirement: rope, a palm leaf cross, handcuffs, Mace and sunglasses, along with clean, handsome guns.”
Oh, Toni Morrison, goddess of literary narrative, bring the world more books like this, books that burrow intrepidly into the root causes of hatred. Haters are just like everyone else, Morrison tells us, people in pain whose inability/unwillingness to see themselves wrenches from them their humanity. In this novel, nine male citizens of the all-black town of Ruby lay their pain, their terror, and their murderous rage upon women who have escaped their own pain to find a safe haven in an old convent. For the first time in their lives, the women feel safe – until the men who cannot abide their Otherness hunt them down. The characters in this book are unforgettable, flawed humans who love and hate and agonize within the luminous language of a master writer. This is no summer beach read. It is not difficult to read, in the way James Joyce is difficult, but it is heart wrenching and alive to the horrors humans perpetrate against other humans. If you are looking for a romantic, sunshiny July read, look elsewhere. If you want to be transformed by a searing work genius, gird yourself and go for PARADISE.
On the other hand, July is a good time for ME BEFORE YOU (2012) BY Jojo Moyes. While Moyes tackles big life issues, she is somewhat predictable. People magazine says she is “funny, surprising, and heartbreaking.” I say not so much. I admit to laughing a few times, but I was never surprised (and I want to be surprised. I am willing to be surprised, even generous in my willingness to be surprised) and, cruel as some will find this confession, not heartbroken. Don’t take my word for it. People love this book. It has been recommended to me so many times that I had to read it (so has GONE GIRL, but I have not yet gotten there). This is the story of Louisa Clark, a 20-something who lives in a small town with her family and gets a job working for a formerly-hunky, athletic businessman who is a few years older. The work is challenging and puts her in touch with real life as she has never known it. The controversial ending makes sense to me, but one could see it coming a mile away, and I, for one, do not like that. That is why I watch THE BLACKLIST, why I teach college students, why I had three children – because no matter what outcome I predict with any of these, I am always surprised. Surprise me, writers. Is that too much to ask? Feeling guilty about being harsh about a book so heartily recommended to me, let me add this: Jojo Moyes tackles a subject most people avoid, and she is to be applauded for her bravery. She has been applauded for such.
AVERY (9102) by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps is more of a long short story than a novel. My copy is the kind of old that smells of library sales. Its cover is maroon embossed with gold stylized flowers. Its pages are thick, non-biblically-tissued. This is a writer I aim to resurrect from obscurity. I wrote my dissertation on her (and four other women writers equally deserving of a Lazarus rejuvenation), and I remain loyal to this day. This novel is about the Averys, Mr. and Mrs. A perfect “angel in the house,” Mrs. Avery suffers from a pernicious malady but her foremost concern, even on her deathbed, is for her husband’s comforts. She loves this man. We hate him. He is narcissistic and obnoxious. While she is struggling for air, because of her chronic and dangerous lung disorder, Mr. Avery decides to go off on a boating cruise with his guy pal. On that trip he worries, anguishes over having left his sick wife alone with the children. He is gripped with guilt. (The reader is shouting: you fool. You big dope – you knew she was sick and you left anyway. Serves you right if she is dead and buried when you return.) He returns home and showers his unconscious wife, so nearly a corpse by this time as to defy healing, with apologies and loving words. In this, he works a miracle. She lives another day to love this man. What the heck, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps? At least Bronte had the wherewithal to chop Rochester’s hand off and to blind him (if for a time). This guy gets a pass, a second chance because he sees the error of his ways? Clearly, I am jaded. I am all in for literary punishments being on the savage side – physical maiming works for me. But Phelps offers us wretched and prolonged soul searching. Mr. Avery does almost die in a sudden storm that sinks the sailboat on which he is boy-bonding. That, at least, is something. Still, I cannot come down too hard on her. It was 1902. The guy did learn a lesson. Mrs. Avery, by all accounts, did blossom because of her husband’s love, which was the only thing she lived for anyway. So….let’s cut the woman some slack on this one. She does maim a philandering husband in THE STORY OF AVIS. That counts.
Re-read BEOWULF this past weekend, in preparation for a course I am teaching in fall about Monsters. Composed in the first millennium, Beowulf is about a classic monster, Grendel, who attacks the Danes. When those Danes cannot manage to save themselves from Grendel’s merciless bloodshed, along comes Beowulf, the Scandinavian hero who defeats the monster, then defeats his anguished-yet-monstrous mother, then culminates his tale by offing a nasty dragon. I read the Seamus Heaney translation which became a New York Times Bestseller in 2000 – kind of an amazing thing, really. Everyone should read Beowulf once, I believe, and this summer is as good a time as any, so – have at it!
Somehow, I managed to never read Jean-Paul Sartre’s play NO EXIT (1944) until last week. It is about three people who find themselves in hell, a hell that is absolutely nothing like what they’d imagined. They all “deserve” to be there, I suppose, their behaviors harmful enough to others to warrant that eternal punishment. From this play comes the famous and fabulous line: “Hell is other people.” The play grates on the reader, as the characters grate on each other. This is a nice alternative to Dante’s monstrous INFERNO. The monsters here are people – were people. They are in a room together. Forever. And on day one they start to annoy each other. It will be a long eternity, Sartre suggests, and he convinces the reader of the truth of this in just 43 pages.
I really really really liked Meg Wolitzer’s novel THE INTERESTINGS (2013). I heard her read the opening of it at the AWP conference in Boston two years ago, and I knew she had a winner. It is fat – lots of popular novels today are fat, and I find this curious and sometimes vexing, but this one could have gone on longer, and I would have stayed true to it. The characters have their charm and quirks, and their lives are lives I was determined to follow into old age – thought Wolitzer doesn’t take us quite that far. The six teens who call themselves “The Interestings” find themselves at an artsy camp for two summers, and their bond is solid and lifelong. This is a fun book, a big loaf of summer reading that you can tote to the beach or to the hammock. I recommend it with gusto.
I ABSOLUTELY LOVED Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s AMERICANAH (2014). It is the kind of fat (477 pages) book you can sink into and forget all the vexations of life. The characters are real, their lives compelling, and the ending is just right – which will surprise those who know my reading habits best! The novel follows Ifemelu and Obinze, teenagers much in love in Nigeria, as they grow up, move away, and face their choices head on. The setting ranges from Nigeria, to London, to America. I took my time with this one, relaxing into its bulk for hours when I could find them, wanting to return to this novel every day. Now it is done, and that literary sadness that arises at such rare times as these is here. Adichie is so clear about the world, about race, about women and women & men. This is one I recommend without hesitation or caveat. Buy it, settle in for the long ride, and inhabit the world of this sublime read.
Geneen Roth’s LOST AND FOUND: ONE WOMAN’S STORY OF LOSING HER MONEY AND FINDING HER LIFE (2011) is a fast read. Roth and her husband lost their life savings in Bernie Madoff’s scheme. In this book, Roth examines the changes in consciousness she experiences regarding money, its value, the meaning with which she has imbued money all of her life. This is a book you can skim. I did. Somehow, I really enjoyed the way Roth told stories about her life and her Madoff-burned friends’ lives. It was not a poor-me-I-am-no-longer-rich monologue. Rather, it was an interesting exploration of why we value money, why we don’t think about money, and – interestingly – how this connects to overeating (Roth’s primary business is writing about and doing retreats on the subject of women and food). Like FROG MUSIC, this is not a necessary read. It is a nice, peaceful read for one who finds herself with a couple of free hours. If you miss it entirely, your life will remain exactly as is.
FROG MUSIC (2014) by Emma Donoghue, author of the National Bestseller ROOM takes on a historical murder in her current novel. In 1876 San Francisco, amidst a record-breaking heat wave and a smallpox epidemic, a young woman who is notorious for wearing (men’s) pants is shot and killed through the window of a railroad saloon. She is survived by her friend Blanche, a French burlesque dancer, who is in the room with her at the time of the shooting. Blanche determines to find the killer, and though the true-life crime was never solved, Blanche uncovers a pathetic, vicious truth (of sorts). This book does not compare to ROOM, yet Donoghue creates rich, bohemian characters who grow on the reader rapidly. This one is fun, not an absolute must, but a fine choice for a day or two at the beach.
I won THE WITCHDOCTOR’S BONES (2014) by Lisa De Nikolits in a contest run by Inanna Press in Toronto (the press that is publishing my novel in March 2015). I had to respond to an email from the publisher naming one of its recently published books, and I was the first emailer. I chose this novel because it looked mysterious and promising. I made a good choice. Sixteen people from all over the world gather to travel through South Africa and Namibia on a tour bus, camping along the way and learning about African culture and lore. Some in the group are heartbroken, looking to escape the pain of lost love. Some have murderous intent. Some are just quizzically odd. There is sex, love, murder, mental breakdown, but the characters become like your well-worn reading chair: comfortable even when a tiny spring pokes into your back annoying you. I eased into this novel, and partway through, found myself wanting to return to it when a reading moment presented itself. “Beautiful, sexy, exciting, mysterious, dangerous and twisted,” says mystery writer Alexander Galant. I agree.
MARGARET FULLER: A NEW AMERICAN LIFE (2013) by Megan Marshall, who teaches in the MFA program at Emerson College in Boston, won the Pulitzer Prize, and it is well deserved, for this plump biography tells the complex story of the awesome and under-appreciated Margaret Fuller. Fuller was prominent among the Concord/Boston set in the mid 19th century, engaging in long-term and robust friendships with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Peabody sisters. She met Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Sand. She was a genius, a powerhouse of feminist energy, and a woman convicted to the premise that men and women should enjoy equally fulfilling lives. Author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century, among other works, she was editor of the Transcendentalist journal The Dial. To study 19th century American literature without highlighting Margaret Fuller is to foster ignorance. She is a key player, an important role model for women in her time and ours, and her tragic and early death marks a loss for our country’s literature and wisdom.
My dearest friend Bernadette from high school gave me SIX YEARS (2013) by Harlan Coben because the protagonist is a college professor. He is like no other college professor I know, but he has a certain charm. Jake Fisher teaches political science, which in no way matters to the novel. The only piece of his teaching life that is remotely interesting is that he agrees to be kidnapped by very bad guys when they threaten to kill students – we would all like to think we’d do that. Jake happens to be 6’5” and jacked, but he has no girlfriend. The gist of the story is that he fell madly in love six years ago (see title!), and suddenly, his love Natalie married another man and disappeared off the face of the earth. Pining for six years, Jake teaches his classes and longs for Natalie. No other woman will do. He is actually quite overwrought about Natalie –theirs was the real deal. And, frankly, sorry to say, Bernadette, Professor Jake Fisher is Hallmarkish about it. Downright pathetic. So you know Coben has to bring this Natalie back because Jake Fisher is NOTHING without her. Anyway, there are bad guys with guns and instruments of torture, best friends who life about their lives, liars in nursing homes, FBI agents who lie – it’s a wonder Jake Fisher knows his own name with all the lying – and yet, Coben works that in too. Here’s the thing about this book that I am ranking on – I loved it in the exact same way I love Circus Peanuts – those creamsicle-colored peanut-shaped marshmallow candies: I know they are pure sugar; I now pure sugar does not add to my quality of life; I know there will be an empty feeling afterward, yet, I pound those beloved Circus Peanuts when I am tired. And it is May. The semester just ended. I am tired. All the Professor Jake Fishers of the world are tired. And so we read whatever we want, whatever we don’t have to prepare a test for, whatever feels EASY. Thank you, Harlen Coben, for being the Circus Peanut that launched my summer!
Rebecca Walker’s new and brief ADE: A LOVE STORY (2013) has the feel of memoir. While I did not get into it immediately, when I was rounding about half way or three quarters of the way, I began to see something I had not – there was a coming together, a synergy perhaps, that made me actually put that tiny volume down and say, “Yeah, Rebecca, I can see where you are coming from here.” When the book ended, exactly as it had to, I was applauding Rebecca Walker, estranged daughter of the beloved Alice Walker (THE COLOR PURPLE). This is, indeed, a love story. It is the story of what it can mean to find your “soul mate” who is a Swahili man living off the coast of Kenya when you are a sophisticated college student from the states. Does love trump all? Can it overcome extraordinary cultural differences and religious ideologies? Walker weighs in with this petite tribute to the kind of love story that has yet to be told, in this way, at this time, with this grace and awe.
Kate Atkinson’s LIFE AFTER LIFE (2013) is 529 pages of bestselling novel, yet I could not wait to finish it. Half way through my spring break I was at page 350, and I had to make an important decision, the decision every reading addict comes to: send the bloody never-ending thing back to the library (happy I had not purchased a copy of my own) or read on. I am a trooper most days, so I carried on. Unhappily. I did not love this book. I did not. But my dearest friends whose opinions on books I value inordinately loved the thing, thought it a masterpiece. Loved the “spaces” in it – the very thing I abhorred. I think it is me this time. I have to own that I read this novel in bits and pieces, giving it a 20-page jaunt then putting it down before picking it up for another go. I did not give the book and its “spaces” enough of myself. This was not a writer-reader bond that I entered fairly. I wanted Kate Atkinson to woo me, to seduce me into reading huge swaths at one time and nudge me to commit to her. I could not, and I consciously own my part in this. The New York Times loves her. My friends love her. That I do not is, perhaps, at my peril. But I have to call it like I see it. This one is for readers who can commit big chunks of time – and a willingness to share in the reader-writer compact more gracefully than I.
THE INVENTION OF WINGS (2014) by Sue Monk Kidd, author of THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES (a must read) is quite fine. It is about the Grimke sisters, daughters of a slave owner who fight for abolition. The story is inspired by these historical Grimke sisters, but is told in alternating chapters, the alternate chapters being about one of the slaves, a spirited young slave named Handful. The treatment of the slaves is horrific, no surprise there. The feisty and tenacious response, on the part of the slaves and the Grimkes, is small comfort but comfort at least. This is an important book, if not as compelling as BEES. The Grimkes get slight attention in actual history, and to bring this extraordinarily important feminist duo to the mainstream reading public is to do women a service. Thank you, Sue Monk Kidd. One Feminist Gold Star to you!
If you want a book you will read straight through dinner and bill paying, pick up LABOR DAY (2009) by Joyce Maynard. It is fast-paced, gripping, and only somewhat predictable toward the very end. Then again, she comes out swinging at the very, very end. It was just the medicine I needed when I felt I had absolutely no time to myself. That happens to all of us, and sometimes we tackle that overwhelmed feeling with the Kardashians, sometimes with vodka, sometimes with M&Ms. I opted for Joyce Maynard, and I am a better woman for it. Maynard is a good story teller, a fine creator of memorable, albeit damaged (who isn’t?), characters, and she is absolutely readable. Treat yourself. I was warmed by this novel and not overly harassed by complex empathies. It was just right.
My daughters forbid me to read one more book before I read THE BOOK THIEF (2005) BY Markus Zusak. That was several years ago. Then the film came out, and two of my dearest friends went to see it at a matinee and then had lunch. I was jealous. I love a matinee and lunch, but I could not, of course, see the film without having read the novel. So I read it. It is intense and moving and chock full of pathos, as one would expect of a WWII novel. It is clever, for sure. There are scenes one will never forget. It is, really, quite a fine book. Yet, there are so many. Ultimately, I am happy I read this book. While I swore off all books even remotely connected to Nazis years ago, I have resumed a measured encounter with them. THE BOOK THIEF offers sweet moments within the maelstrom of human infamy. Anyone who can pull that off deserves to be read and to get a feature film out of his endeavors.
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