Wednesday, March 31, 2010

We’re Back: The Grammar Police

I’ve been on this rant before but I just can’t help myself. It makes me crazy to read a sentence like this:
“A few weeks ago, speaking to Helen about his sister, she’d suggested he consider bringing Charlotte to live with him in Rye.”
Who is doing the “speaking?” The “he”.
The “she” who did the suggesting is Helen.
Is it really so hard? Not if you learned to diagram sentences. I don’t claim to be the perfect grammarian. I still can’t tell the difference between a simile and a metaphor. But I do know about split infinitives, ending a sentence with a preposition (or not), and dangling constructions. This would be a good exercise in Handbook for Writers. But sadly it’s not. It’s from a writer whose previous work was considered for some of our most prestigious literary prizes; and from an editor Nan Talese and publisher Doubleday who should know better…much better. So if we really are going to have a program of National Standards for education, could it PLEASE include diagramming?!

But let’s move on. What did I think about Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett? It is nominally about a financial crisis at a big (too big to fail) bank in 2002 with a very odd assortment of actors: an aging spinster Charlotte who has never recovered from the death of her true love (a drug addict) when she was a graduate student and who now not only talks to her 2 dogs but also hears them talking back to her; an ex-Navy enlisted man Doug who was on the Vincennes when it shot down a passenger airliner killing more than 200 people and who is now in a strategic position at Union Atlantic Bank; and Nate an 18-year-old discovering gay sex in the aftermath of his father’s suicide. Would you believe it? These three are neighbors in a small town in Massachusetts. If this book is “a masterful portrait of our age” as asserted Malcolm Gladwell on the book jacket, then we are in more serious trouble than we know. If it has a kernel of truth, then you will never believe another word from the Federal Reserve Chairman or the Secretary of the Treasury in time of crisis.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


Alice Sebold is the well recognized author of the critically acclaimed and popular novel, “Lovely Bones”, which was made into a motion picture this past year.

In 1999, Alice Sebold wrote a memoir about being raped. That book, “Lucky”, tells the incredible story of Sebold’s rape at the age of eighteen on the last day of her freshman year, in a park tunnel, at Syracuse University in New York.

This is not an easy book to read. In the first chapter Alice Sebold describes the gruesome, violent beating and rape in graphic, meticulous detail. Sebold has a mission in this courageous memoir. She wants people to understand exactly what rape means.

In clear and precise, almost journalistic, prose Alice Sebold tells her story. We meet her somewhat distant and dysfunctional family; a mother who suffers from chronic panic attacks, a father who teaches Spanish literature and goes to Spain for long periods of time. It is in this family that Alice Sebold has honed the creative, independent, strong personality that would give her amazing strength and courage as she dealt with the aftermath of her brutal attack.

Once you begin this book it is very difficult to stop reading. In this story, which is both sad and eloquent Alice Sebold displays a great wit and a sarcastic bite which seems amazing for an eighteen year old in this situation. It is as if the reader cannot abandon this courageous girl. When she sees her attacker in the street six months after the attack, she and the reader embark on the harrowing, lonely journey of a legal proceeding. Being presented with a lineup and being cross examined by a ruthless defense attorney are gripping and totally frustrating ordeals. But these encounters and Sebold’s reactions are so important. She clearly describes the ramifications of rape on family members, friends and everyone in her world. What happens to Alice Sebold after the rape is as important as the rape itself. If you didn’t know that this was a true story you may think there are too many coincidences or events, after the rape, that seem contrived. But the coincidences and events did happen in Alice's life, and she took a long and painful journey to be able to finally live a normal, productive life. She tells us, “You save yourself or you remain unsaved”. Alice Sebold found peace in writing this story and she has written an impressive book that tells the truth about prevalent and devastating violence committed against women and how our society treats victims.

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Piece of French History

Tatiana de Rosnay's historical fiction Sarah's Key has been on the New York Times bestseller for over a year, so I'm sure most of you have either read it or read of it. The book's main character Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris with her French husband, is researching an historical event called the Vel d'Hiv. On the morning of July 16, 1942, French police swept through Paris and arrested over 13,000 Jews, including children. Initially the prisoners were held in an indoor bicycle stadium called the Velodrome d'Hiver in appalling conditions, and subsequently were transported to Auschwitz. It was especially shocking that it was the collaborating French police themselves, not the Nazis, who organized the raid, and that the non-Jewish Parisians quickly occupied the emptied apartments without asking too many questions.

In the course of her research Julia discovers a connection between her husband's family and Sarah Starzinsky, a ten year-old Jewish girl who was taken to the velodrome with her parents. The novel then alternates between Sarah's story and Julia's. Sarah's story is suspenseful, poignant and emotionally powerful, and de Rosnay does an excellent job of weaving historical events into the tight plot.

But unfortunately the other half of the story is about Julia, and here's where the chick lit clich├ęs spoiled my enjoyment of this book Her husband is an arrogant boor (how very French), her sisters-in-law don't like her, her marriage is on shaky ground. The plot takes a few interesting twists as Julia tries to trace Sarah's path, but will it surprise you to learn that in the process she also finds true love? Or that “Sarah's Key” is soon to be a major motion picture? (It could be worse; at least Julia will be played by Kristin Scott-Thomas and not Julia Roberts).

I was fascinated to learn about Vel d'Hiv, I was riveted by Sarah's suspenseful story, but I'm disappointed that de Rosnay felt it necessary to tell us about yet another plucky gal battling the odds to find true love.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


When Carolyn in our book group suggested years ago that we read Blindness, it seemed an unlikely premise: an entire country is stricken with blindness. But in the hands of a master like Jose Saramago, it worked. So it is, too, in The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris: an unlikely premise. At unpredictable times, the main character Tim Farnsworth is overcome by an irresistible urge to walk... and to walk til exhaustion. Whether he is in the midst of preparing a client to testify in his (the client's) own defense at a murder trial or in bed with his wife, when the urge strikes there is no stopping or delaying.

As you can imagine this can play havoc with a career, a marriage, a family (Farnsworth has a teen-age daughter at the time of the story.) As bad as it is, it actually draws father and daughter closer together. When you marry "for better or worse", you never think of the "worse" part. Certainly Jane never thought it would mean this: driving in the middle of the night to unknown towns searching for Tim when he left without his backpack with the GPS; chaining him to his bed to try to overcome the compulsion because medical science comes up empty-handed in the hunt for a diagnosis.

The reaction of the critics to this novel seems to divide along a line of whether the critic had read Ferris' previous novel Then We Came to the End with those who were familiar with the previous work less favorable to this one. Is that fair to an author: to judge him or her with reference to another of his or her own works?

I'm not sure that I actually bought into the walking compulsion but you can certainly substitute other compulsive behaviors with the same results. The subplot about the murder trial of Tim's client seemed contrived. But Tim's determination to defeat the demons in his body, be they physical or psychological, is awesome in the fullest sense of that word. He refuses to yield... a good lesson for all of us.

After you have read the book, here is the text of an interview with Jonathan Ferris that may shed some light on what he is trying to do.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Falling Apart

Don DeLillo is a New Yorker who has written renowned novels about such topics as the atomic age, and the Kennedy assassination, so it was not surprising that he should take on the huge burden of writing a novel about 9/11. The question is, whether it is too soon to translate the happenings of that day to a work of fiction?

In “Falling Man”, written in 2007, DeLillo focuses on the life of one man who made his way down the dark, crowded stairwell of the North Tower, on 9/11, with other dazed and terrified survivors to emerge on a street covered with ash, rubble, mud and falling debris. Keith Neudecker is an attorney estranged from his wife, Lianne, a freelance editor. On that day Keith walked aimlessly and was finally given a lift in an old panel truck. He told the driver to take him to his wife’s apartment. His wife decided to take him back, to be a family again, when everything around them was falling apart.

Keith lost a lot on that day, but instead of healing, he loses touch with reality. He goes to Las Vegas and loses himself in the numbness of on-going poker tournaments giving little thought to his wife and child, a child who scans the skies with binoculars looking for planes and worrying about Bill Lawton (a child’s phonetic approximation for Osama Bin Laden).

DeLillo’s story is divided into three parts. At the end of each part, DeLillo, or the narrator, goes into the mind of one of the 9/11 hijackers. The narrator, Hammad, speaks in a compelling way, giving the reader an insight into what may have been his “religious” purpose. DeLillo does not portray Hammad as a villain but lets the reader make that decision.

The “falling man” of this novel is a performance artist who Lianne encounters one day. The falling man has been appearing around the city, falling from high places, fully dressed in a business suit, with a briefcase in hand, only to be caught by a harness and suspended in midair.

I was left with the feeling that this story attempted too much and achieved too little. The falling man, mirroring the people who jumped from the towers, is bizarre and unsettling, and Keith Neudecker is a self absorbed man who survived a horror but can’t make sense of his life.

Don DeLillo is a wonderful writer who wants to show us the overall state of “numbness” that people fall into, a numbness that can totally take over a life. He has taken on a huge feat with this novel, bringing in many different characters and points of view. It is questionable whether he has achieved what he set out to do. But this novel is definitely worth reading, so that you can make that decision for yourself.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Mistaken Identity

Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply starts out by alternating among three unrelated stories about alienated characters. One is Lucy, an orphaned high school senior in Ohio who becomes infatuated with her charismatic AP History teacher George Orson. Another concerns Ryan, a confused college dropout from Iowa who belatedly learns the identity of his biological father. The third character is Miles, a lonely thirty-something, working at a magic store in Cleveland, who is searching for his missing twin brother Hayden, a schizophrenic who periodically sends Miles cryptic messages about his whereabouts.

The separate stories move both forward and backward in time, which is less confusing than it sounds. The book opens with a very dramatic scene involving Ryan, and for most of the rest of the book we follow Ryan's life prior to this event, all the while knowing that Chaon has to somehow get us back to this harrowing scene. In all three stories characters are struggling with their own identities but also with the identities of those they love. And as the stories progressed I increasingly felt that these ever-shifting identities must somehow connect to each other.

I don't see how I can tell you anymore without spoiling it. The title refers to a line in a spam e-mail we've probably all gotten from an African businessman asking you to take temporary possession of twenty million dollars. Chaon explores this internet world where identities are interchangeable and elusive. This book is dark and scary psychological thriller, but also a literary examination of the human desire to find one's true self.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Worthy Recorded Books

Car travel will now increase with spring weather and adventures that beckon. Over the last several months, a number of audio books have added to my listening pleasure, all narrated by excellent voices (no small feat). Ruth Reichl nicely narrates her amusing adventures as the NY Times restaurant critic in Garlic and Sapphires. Kazou Ishiguro's book When We Were Orphans is well narrated and captures the mystery and eerie nature of that tale. Per Peterson's treasure of imagery, Out Stealing Horses is effectively narrated by Richard Poe, though I preferred to linger over the beauty of the language when reading it myself. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks has a wonderful narrator who handles the character voices quite well and carried me effectively during a long trip. Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje still haunts my memory as I hear the voice of the narrator in my head describing a sad, often heartbreaking tale. A surprise favorite, idly selected from the library, was Murder in Montparnasse, by the talented Australian writer, Kerry Greenwood. She has created a mystery series with the lead character Phryne Fisher as an elegant, classy woman with a past, who finds herself in threatening and compelling situations as she delves into the dark side. The narrator is wonderful, as is the character, in her Phryne Fisher series. These all provide a good listening experience as you exercise, meander or travel this spring and summer. Worthy considerations, all.

British Short Stories

Jane Gardam, now in her 80's, is a British writer, winner of many literary awards in Great Britain. However, until recently her work has not quite translated to the U.S. so we are only recently discovering her gifts. Her newest book Old Filth received a very positive review on NPR and I elected to start with an earlier collection of her short stories. The People on Privilege Hill is a quirky, sometimes hilarious and often moving collection of tales about individuals living in London during and after World War II. They range from 3 retired and lonely judges, to a woman who formerly drove young women in a home for unwed mothers to court where they gave up their babies for adoption during the war. One titled Babette, of course caught my eye! It's a clever and very funny tale of a woman who thinks Babette (author of one hit novel followed by years of obscurity) is dead, but our writer is contacted by the author Babette after reviewing her work for a publication. Babette bequeaths several unusual and very heavy antiques to our writer, which are hidden away and sealed in an old attic. The tale of what then occurs provides the delightful surprising almost slapstick humor in the story. Gardam intimately understands the small, daily lives, routines, heartaches and delights of her characters and is clearly skilled at making them real. The added bonus (perhaps) is that I did look up three words in her story that were not entirely familiar to me (stave, balaclava, rime) and thus expanded my vocabulary as well. It's well past the time when this talented writer should finally be discovered by Americans.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Inside Pakistan

The epigraph to In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Daniyal Mueenuddin's debut collection of eight linked short stories, is a Punjabi proverb: ”Three things for which we kill – Land, women and gold”. All the stories are set in Pakistan, all intersect in some way with the household of a wealthy landowner named K.K. Harouni, and all do indeed revolve around land, women and gold. Some stories are about rich and powerful members of the Punjabi elite, while others are drivers, cooks, managers who serve the rich and try to improve their place in life.

Many of the women characters try to use sex to maneuver themselves into positions of power, but most find themselves kicked to the curb in the end. The men have more options but seem to lack backbone.

Mueenuddin does a great job of showing class differences not with detailed descriptions but with slight gestures that pass between characters. He was born in Lahore (to a Pakistani father and American mother), and he has an insider's view of life in Pakistan. But although the stories often seem to belong quite specifically to the Pakistani culture, they also powerfully reflect the basic human emotions that all readers can recognize.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Be Our Guest

To our readers:

"Read any good books lately?" How often do we ask that question of one another? Finding an answer was one of the reasons that we started this blog more than two years (and 276 books) ago.

Have you read a book that doesn't appear in our blog catalogue? Would you like to recommend it (or not) or just share some of your thoughts about the book?

We invite you to put those thoughts in a Word document (long is not necessarily better: 200 words is fine) and email it to A title and category tags are optional. We'll put it on our blog and send it into the blogosphere. If you've never seen your own words online, you may be surprised at how good it feels.

And be sure to tell us whether you wish to publish as Anonymous, Guest or select your own alter ego as we did: Charlotte, Anna, Emma, Babbette and Dorothea.

We look forward to hearing from you...and finding some more answers to this question.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Stairway to Heaven

Critics and writers all seem to be very aware of the author Lorrie Moore. I think one of the best things about blogging books is the many writers I am encountering that I have never read or have not been aware of. Lorrie Moore’s “A Gate At The Stairs” is her first novel in fifteen years. It has appeared on many "Best-of-2009" lists. So I was intrigued when I received it as a Christmas gift.

The story takes place over a year in the life of twenty year old Tassie Keltjin, who is a college student at a small, liberal, Midwestern college in the city of Troy. Tassie grew up on a small farm where her father raised organic potatoes which he sold to upscale restaurants. College life has opened up a new and fascinating world to Tassie. Between semesters Tassie looks for a part time job as a baby sitter. She is finally hired by the eccentric Sarah Brink, who owns a French restaurant and her husband Edward, a cancer researcher. But strangely, Sarah and Edward do not have any children. They are in the process of adopting a child and they want Tassie to accompany them as they interview mothers who are giving up their babies. When Sarah and Edward adopt a biracial toddler, who they name Mary-Emma, Tassie begins a strange journey.

The plot meanders in a slow and plodding way. Tassie’s family dynamics enter into the picture as she learns that her younger brother wants to join the service and her father decides on a new venture. The story takes place just after 9/11, and Tassie falls in love with a fellow student who tells her he is from Brazil but is really from the Middle East. Moore has a wonderful way with words and her descriptions of nature and the weather, although beautiful, seem to go on forever. There is also amazing commentary about race in America as Sarah has meetings in her home for “transracial, biracial, multiracial families”. Sarah is determined to change the world. Lorrie Moore has a special voice that shows how ridiculous and humorous well meaning people can be. The title refers initially to the gate which is broken at the entrance to Sarah’s house, but it appears more than once as a metaphor for the stairway to heaven and as lyrics in songs that Tassie writes.

A reader who stays engaged for the first 200 pages will be greatly rewarded. The last quarter of this novel is startling in its revelations. It is a story of overwhelming loss and grief, and how people need to pay attention or life will blindside you. In the end this is a haunting novel where the narrator grows and changes and the reader is rooting for her all the way. After reading this novel I am looking forward to reading Lorrie Moore’s critically acclaimed short story collection, “Birds of America”.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Food, Glorious Food

Ruth Reichl's memoir Garlic And Sapphires has three different ways to entertain you. If you've read the previous two volumes of her memoirs, “Tender at the Bone” and “Comfort Me With Apples”, you know that she's an engaging writer who mixes reminiscences and recipes into an interesting read.

In this volume Reichl writes about her stint as the restaurant critic at the New York Times starting in 1993. For those interested in a behind the scenes look at The Gray Lady, she gives glimpses of the unglamorous digs and the political in-fighting that are part of life at this famous institution. She aims a few sharpened arrows at her predecessor, whose tastes ran more towards high end continental cuisine, and who trashed Reichl in letters to her superiors for her reviews of sushi bars and Korean fire pot joints.

But even if you have no interest in newspaper gossip, you will enjoy her descriptions of her alternate personalities. Determined to maintain her anonymity when visiting restaurants, she creates a series of elaborate disguises with a name and personality to match. It's especially touching when she disguises herself as her mother Miriam, renowned in Reichl's first memoir for her terrifyingly horrible cuisine, and feels the joy she knows her mother would have felt at a meal at the Four Seasons.

And of course if you love reading about food, you'll be entertained by her near-orgasmic descriptions of great food and her hilarious encounters with bad food and bad service. Sprinkled throughout the book are her own recipes, simple food that she enjoys preparing for her husband and son.

The book ends as Reichl, concerned that her job is causing her to lose her sense of self, leaves the Times in 1999 to become editor of Gourmet magazine. We know now that this job ended abruptly in 2009 when the magazine folded. I don't know what she's doing now, but according to internet rumor the book will be made into a movie this year.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bon Appetit!

I have never owned a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking but after just finishing My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme I think I may have to get a copy - at least Volume 1 - for the design and reading if not for cooking but I might actually give that a try, too.

This is a great read although I was never comfortable with the "voice". Alex Prud'homme is Paul Child's (Julia's husband) grand nephew. He had access to the many saved letters written by Paul and Julia to Paul's twin brother. So Alex wrote this book based on the letters plus interviews with Julia when she was in her nineties BUT the book is written in the first person as if Julia is telling the story. True, Julia read portions as they were written and offered corrections and additions but it's not quite the same as her having written the book, at least in my mind. Is it autobiography? I don't know.

Nevertheless, I am delighted to have learned the facts of her life and how her books and TV shows came to be. Did those following the book and shows at the time realize how involved Paul was as her collaborator and partner? He encouraged her from the beginning, when they first arrived in France, to learn the language and take cooking classes at the Cordon Blue. He helped her with kitchen design, photographs, illustrations. He coached her about her presentation style when she first started giving cooking lessons. Some spouses are like that. It was for his career that they went to France...and for hers when they came back thirty years later. We also get some insight into Julia's relationships, professional and personal, with her two "cookery-bookery" co-authors Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholde.

And, guess what? There is not one recipe in this book. Another reason to get a copy of MTAFC. If this book is correct, MTAFC was another French revolution.