Friday, December 28, 2012

Favorite Books of 2012

Once again I face the difficult task of choosing my favorite books of the year.  One thing makes it easier as I get older - I forget more.  If I look at a book title and can't quite remember what it was about, it won't make my list.  But for so many others, not only do I remember them, they call up vivid images, powerful emotions, lasting impressions.

So, in no particular order:

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (Truth in Journalism): a non-fiction book with a story more powerful than a novel.
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (Worth a Second Look): How can the spare story of a simple life leave such a lasting impression?  Johnson's beautiful prose makes that happen.
The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton (A Master at Work): One of America's most influential novelists reminds me why her reputation is so richly deserved.
What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha (A Question of Faith): I don't know why, but this one just really stayed with me.  Maybe because Beha asks hard questions.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (A Day in the Life): Maybe it's because I read this one so recently, but I'm still marveling at how a short book can be so American, so funny, so vivid, so sad,

And yes, I do have runners-up:
Arcadia by Lauren Groff (Commune Life): Revisiting commune life without romanticizing it.
There but for the by Ali Smith (Words, Words, Words): The most unusual premise of the year.
Salvage the Bones by Jessamyn West (Weathering the Storm): A young female protagonist who isn't plucky or adorable, just honest.
Skios by Michael Frayn (Greek Delight): Strictly for the laughs.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Summer Reading): My addictive guilty pleasure this year.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Day in the Life

Nineteen year old Army Specialist Billy Lynn is completing a two week tour of the U.S. with seven fellow surviving members of Bravo Company, second platoon, first squad. Fox News has renamed them Bravo Squad, after its embedded team recorded a fierce firefight on a remote canal in Iraq in which the squad heroically battled Iraqi insurgents. The frequent airing of that video has turned them into national heroes, and the Bush administration has sent them on tour to rally support for the war, culminating on Thanksgiving Day at a Dallas Cowboys football game, where they will be part of an extravagant halftime show.

Ben Fountain's debut novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk spends that day inside Billy's head. He watches oleaginous Cowboys owner Norm Oglesby (who bears a remarkable resemblance to Jerry Jones) bloviate about patriotism, bravery and all things Texan. He observes movie producer Albert Ratner as he attempts to sell movie rights to their story, even if it means letting Hilary Swank play Billy's role. He is mesmerized by the cheerleaders (one in particular) and overwhelmed by frantic excess of the halftime show. The squad is unstintingly polite and obliging to gushing admirers, but raucous, adolescent and over-served when no one is watching. But through all the blitz and glitz Billy is grieving the loss of his beloved sergeant, and wrestling with his feelings about his family, his fellow soldiers and his return to Iraq.

Fountain's language is can be blisteringly sharp, funny, dizzying, and sometimes achingly sad. By the end I was exhausted but reluctant to leave Billy and Bravo Company behind.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

So Sorry

We have entered the era of the non-apology apology, and hardly a day goes by without a new example. They're so common that they are instantly recognizable by catch phrases - “Mistakes were made”, “IF I've offended anyone”, “I'm sorry you misunderstood my intent”. And in Johnathan Dee's novel A Thousand Pardons I learned that public relations firms have 'crisis management' specialists who shepherd their clients through very public crises which demand apologies.

Newly divorced Helen Armstead finds herself employed in that job in the wake of the breakup of her marriage. She discovers that she has a real talent for encouraging her crisis management clients to issue genuine apologies, without excuses or ifs or obfuscations. Ironically, her husband Ben blew up their marriage in such a spectacularly disastrous fashion that no apology could possibly repair it.

With a non-judgmental eye Dee follows Ben, Helen and their pre-teen daughter Sara as each struggles to adjust to a new reality, unable to help each other. But when Helen attempts to manage the crisis of a famous movie star (and high school crush), the family coalesces into an uneasy alliance where they learn to adjust to a new dynamic and to forgive. Dee avoids the cliches of mid-life crisis to present a flawed but believable story of an American family.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Master at Work

How can an author create a character who is completely unsympathetic but completely fascinating? Shouldn't I eventually have gotten fed up with an amoral, cold-blooded, manipulative conniver with the unlikely name of Undine Spragg? Not when the author is as talented as the inestimable Edith Wharton. Her heroine Lily Bart in “House of Mirth” paid dearly for her poor decisions, but in The Custom of the Country Wharton goes down another path.

The book opens with the exclamation “Undine Spragg – how can you?”, and there were many times while reading this book that I felt the same way. Undine has dragged her nouveau riche parents from the midwestern hinterlands of Apex City to New York City so she can advance into high society, and although she has her share of missteps she slowly climbs the ladder. But each time she achieves a new rung her horizon broadens, and she catches sight of her next goal. A woman's road to advancement in society was through an advantageous marriage, and Undine acquires and discards husbands in New York and Paris in much the same way as she does her expensive dresses and hats.

Each time I would think that Undine was about to get her comeuppance she would execute an unexpected pivot, leaving spouses, friends and even her own child foundering in her wake, and sail on to another success. Wharton has a keen eye for the foibles of the rich and for the customs of American and European society. She has created a character who is memorable, if not admirable, and thoroughly entertaining.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Word Nerds

Although I seldom read mysteries, I stumbled upon one (wish I could remember who recommended it) that seemed to be up my particular alley. In David Carkeet's Double Negative the murder takes place at the Wabash Institute, an Indiana linguistics think tank where socially inept academics study the babblings of toddlers in order to learn more about the formation of language. This hits three of my favorites – well-crafted plots, quirky and humorous characters, and my previously undisclosed love of linguistics.

Jeremy Cook is Carkeet's clueless hero, a star linguist caught up in the petty jealousies and feuds typical of academia. So when a colleague's dead body turns up in Jeremy's office, the cantankerous police detective, as well as some of his co-workers, suspect him. And in his bumbling way Jeremy continues to draw suspicion to himself even as he attempts to find the real killer.

Sometimes Carkeet's humor is a little broad (the murdered man's name is Stiph and a clumsy colleague's name is Woeps), but I enjoyed the clever sendup of academic life, the nerdy linguistic in jokes, and the twists and turns of the plot.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Going Home

Voyage and Return is one of the seven basic plots of literature. Odysseus, Gulliver, Alice in Wonderland, Orpheus, Dorothy Gale – the list goes on and on. But when I picture a hero/heroine returning home I don't normally imagine that home to be Detroit. But that's where Scott Lasser's characters wash ashore.

David returns to help his father deal with his mother as she slips into dementia. Carolyn comes back for the funeral of her older sister Natalie, David's high school flame. But they both also stumble towards the realization that they are looking for a way to restart their lives, and returning to their hometown seems to make that possible. But Detroit? It's a city of high crime rates and abandoned neighborhoods. Hardly the background conducive to a blooming romance. And David's attempt to 'save' thirteen year old drug dealer Marlon further complicates matters.

Lasser knowledge of the geography and psyche of Detroit makes the story feel grounded and authentic, even if the plot twists are sometimes a little forced. It's ultimately a story about second chances, for the characters and for the city itself.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Travels of AIDS

As a health care professional who worked in San Francisco hospitals in the 1980's when gay men first were admitted with a mystery disease, I thought I knew something about AIDS. Daniel Halperin and Craig Timberg's book, Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It adds so much more.  They describe how genetic studies have traced the virus to equatorial forests in Cameroon, how and when the virus was likely transmitted to humans, and more importantly, how it was transported to the colonial city of Leopoldsville. There it was free to break out and spread widely, carried to Haiti by returning Haitian temporary workers and then to the US via the gay community which vacationed in Haiti.

The book's primary focus is Africa, however, where heterosexual AIDS has been overwhelmingly disastrous.  The West contributed by opening Africa to new colonial cities and blazing routes through areas which never before had been connected. Missionaries discouraged polygamy but instead new patterns of multiple sexual partners developed, which fostered rampant spread of the virus.

The authors then describe how Western AIDS groups have focused on preventions which proved ineffective while not supporting more accurately targeted homegrown efforts. Halperin is a very strong advocate of circumcision, which has been shown to decrease HIV transmission by 60%, but was not initially supported by the aid groups. Africans have been open to it, since it was and still is practiced by some tribes. Reading reviews of this book on Amazon, I was amazed to see vigorous attacks by anti-circumcision advocates. Just the facts, folks.

Because patterns of sexual contacts are so different in Western countries from those in Africa, heterosexual AIDS epidemics there never have been likely. This is clearly illustrated. And there's so much more.  It's a fascinating book, despite the undertone of West bashing and the sense of crusading by Halperin. Read it and learn.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Sentimental Journey

Why would a successful New York lawyer leave his wife and daughter and vanish without a trace? That's the question that Jan-Philipp Sendker asks in The Art of Hearing Heartbeats. That's the mystery Julia Win is trying to solve when, four years after his disappearance, she discovers a love letter her father wrote many years earlier to a woman in Burma. He would never discuss the first twenty years of his life which he spent in Burma, so she reasons that the answers to her questions might lie there, perhaps with the woman addressed in the unsent letter, the mysterious Mi Mi in the tiny village of Kalaw.

Julia travels to Kalaw and meets a mysterious man named U Ba who seems to know all about her. The bulk of the book is a series of flashbacks in which U Ba tells Julia the story her father Tin's life. It's a story full of hardship, sadness, hope, endurance and love. It is frankly sentimental and I am frankly not, so the soap opera, 'if only', aspects of the story wore me down. Also, it's translated from German and seemed a little heavy on cliches.

Those who enjoy fairy tales about star-crossed lovers will be drawn to this book - there's a kind of operatic grandeur to the story.   And there are some beautiful descriptions of the natural world in the remote Burmese countryside. But I'm afraid my disbelief just refused to suspend itself.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Summer Reading

I really debated whether I should write about this book. It falls somewhere between the literary fiction I usually write about and pop fiction. And it's not as if I'm alerting you to a book you might otherwise miss, since Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl sits atop many bestseller lists and on the laps of many summer vacationers. It reminds me of the summer when every time I turned around I saw someone reading Scott Turow's “Presumed Innocent”.

And it bears some resemblance to that novel, since both have at their center a married couple in which both spouses are keeping secrets. Flynn's characters, Nick and Amy Dunne, are unreliable narrators, and they both kept me whipsawed as I tried to stay ahead of their maneuverings. Flynn cleverly sprinkles clues that sometimes clarify and sometimes obfuscate, and though occasionally the plot turns strained credulity, I never stopped enjoying the twists.

Her book certainly qualifies as a suspense novel, but it is also the dissection of a marriage where outside pressures and personality conflicts contribute to a meltdown with massive repercussions.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Growing Up with Secrets

Roy Jacobsen, the Norwegian author of "ChildWonder" tells us that this is a story about an Oslo of "rather rough experimentation. Before oil. Before anybody had any money at all. " The award winning author grew up in this era. The story takes place on an "estate" (we may recognize it as a sprawling group of apartment buildings) in a working class area outside of Oslo. The narrator is Finn, a boy of about nine years old. He lives in a two bedroom apartment with his divorced mother. When his mother suddenly decides to advertise for a tenant to live in the second bedroom, Finn's life undergoes radical changes. The story, from Finn's perspective, is riveting. Because Finn is nine years old, he is unable to really understand what is happening around him (aka the unreliable narrator). His mother is no help at all. Similar to parents, world wide, in the 60s, she makes life altering decisions without consulting with Finn. And then she mysteriously disappears with no explanation, for weeks. The reader is often left as much in the dark as poor Finn.  A tenant arrives who has his own secrets. And most perplexing is the arrival of Finn's half-sister, Linda. But something is seriously wrong with Linda. It becomes the job of Finn's mother and then Finn himself to help Linda.  The ensuing events of the story lead the reader to question what really happened that year and the extremes people will go in the attempt to "make things right".  The conclusion comes abruptly without warning. And then the last chapter advances about ten years  and allows Finn to explain some of the choices that were made, but it does not explain the complicated history that led to those choices. It seems that many of the answers will stay Finn's mother and the people who grew up in the 50s and 60s protecting their secrets. This is a beautifully written story about Norway in the 1960s told by an author who may have lived this story more intimately than he has led us to believe.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Question of Faith

I've read my share of novels about beautiful, talented young people graduating from college and making their way in the world, tackling problems in their professional and personal lives. Johnathan Dee's “The Privileges” and “The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides come to mind. And that's the direction in which Christopher Beha's What Happened to Sophie Wilder seemed to be heading.

In alternating chapters Beha follows the lives of Charlie Blakeman (narrated in the first person) and Sophie Wilder (told in third person), who met as college freshmen in a writing class, and bonded over their shared aspirations to be writers, their shared loss of parents and their shared devotion to the power of fiction.

But Sophie's conversion to Catholicism turns the story into something far more compelling than post-collegiate angst. It tackles questions about the power and the burden of faith, the obligations of children to parents, parents to children, the living to the dying, the believer to the non-believer.

Don't be put off – this is not a book written to defend Catholicism or to condemn it. But religion does offer Beha's characters a means to delve into questions about their deepest values, and also about the importance of writing to explain the complex motives that govern their lives.

What happened to Sophie Wilder? When I read the last page I realized what a complicated question that was. This is a story that is still spinning around in my head – I think I will have Charlie and Sophie with me for a long time.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

R and R - It's Not What You Think

Rock and Roll - No
Rest and Relaxation - No
Rules and Regulations - No

Readers and Recommendations - YES

Our friend and faithful living2read blog reader Kate has sent in the following recommendations:
I just finished A Dead Hand, a novel by Paul Theroux.  It was a good, creepy little puzzler. 

I also read The Northern Clemency, by Philip Henschler. It was on the short list for [the] Booker Prize. It was a novel about two families in Sheffield, England in the 70s, 80s and 90s.  I liked it a lot; the writing was vivid and witty, the characters were complex, and since it was so long, it made for a very absorbing read.  The length worked against it a bit simply because such a long book is a commitment.  I also wish I knew more about the region and what a Sheffield accent sounds like.

I don't know what comes next in my reading list, I may pick up a good suggestion from your blog.

Thanks, Kate.

If any other readers of this blog would like to submit a recommendation with comments that we can post, please send  your text to us in care of and we'll take it from there.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Love Among The Ruins

I could pretend that there was some high literary motive behind my choice to read Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins, but the fact is that when I saw that the story opened in a tiny village on the Ligurian coast of Italy I couldn't resist. I was there in May and was happy for a chance to revisit that beautiful setting. And the first chapter pulled me right in. In the tiny (imaginary) village of Porto Vergogna, at the south end of Cinque Terre, a handsome, hunky, bare-chested, aqua-eyed Italian named Pasquale watches the arrival of a small boat carrying a beautiful blonde American actress. She has come to this remote cliff-side village to stay at its only pensione, the Hotel Adequate View, run by Pasquale's family. The year is 1962 and the actress has fled from Rome, where she had a small part in the infamous movie “Cleopatra” with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, because she has been told that she is dying.

Chapter 2 leaps forward nearly fifty years, to the Hollywood office of legendary film producer Michael Deane, where his assistant Claire is listening to a young man deliver possibly the worst movie pitch ever (the film's title “Donner!” tells you all you need to know), at the same time as she tries to sort out the motives of an old Italian man clutching a wrinkled, stained business card with Michael Deane's name on it.

The story continues to leap back and forward in time, to locations as disparate as Edinburgh, Seattle, Florence and even Sand Point, Idaho. On one level it's a witty, entertaining story that exposes the seamy side of Hollywood. But it's also a meditation on the price of fame, the power of art and the endurance of love. It's a good choice for a beach read, even if your beach isn't in Italy.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Family Ties

Is it just a coincidence that in the last year I have read three novels that began with a wedding? Is this a literary convention? I'll admit that it is a handy way to get all your main characters together in a situation where the combination of stress/passion/alcohol may well trigger dramatic scenes. In the previous two – Jean Thompson's “The Year We Left Home” (Leaving Home) and Johnathan Dee's “The Privileges (How The Other Half Lives) – the weddings served as vehicles to launch characters into adulthood, but in Carol Anshaw's Carry The One a single powerful event on the night of the wedding alters the lives of all the characters in the novel.

Does tragedy bind people more closely than passion? The three Kenney siblings – bride Carmen, her brilliant but fragile brother Nick, and her older sister Alice, a talented painter – all have desires which pull them in different directions, but they are drawn together. Surviving a common childhood with parents who waiver between indifference and malevolence helps explain this bond. And they share the same crackling sense of humor. But for twenty-five years all their lives are colored by the same tragic accident, and each compensates in a different way.

Anshaw's humor and sympathy makes this book far more entertaining and less depressing than it may sound from my description. Her portrait of the complex network of emotions that ties the siblings to each other and to their shared tragedy is honest and powerful.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Weight of History

In the beginning it seems simple enough. Sam Leroux, a writer and academic, comes to the Cape Town home of aging South African writer Clare Wald, who has reluctantly agreed to allow him to write her biography. Yet even in the opening chapters of Patrick Flanery's Absolution there are hints that there is more between these two than either of them is ready to admit.

The story advances in fits and starts, as the chapter narratives alternate points of view. It is clear when the narrative voice belongs to Sam or Clare, but at times other, conflicting, accounts appear, and it's only as the book progresses (accompanied by much flipping pages backwards on my part), that the source of each voice becomes clear.

And what Sam and Clare are describing is incredibly powerful and unsettling. The story is set in present day South Africa, but the violence and terror of apartheid has saturated both their lives. I was familiar with only the broad strokes of this era of South Africa's history, so I found Flanery's descriptions of the horrific events and the oppressive atmosphere disturbing and riveting. Both Clare and Sam keep revisiting pieces of their pasts, trying make sense of history and of their personal lives, haunted by guilt.

Flanery's does not make excuses for his characters but he does not judge them. He does makes it clear how difficult it can be to receive absolution.

Friday, June 29, 2012

An Open Door

Reading a short story is like peering through an open door into an unfamiliar house. You're dropped into the lives of the residents. You watch for a while, people talk, things happen, and then the door closes – sometimes with a slam and sometimes very quietly. So my criterion for a good short story is simple – did I hang around until the door closed or did I just shrug and walk away?

When I chose to read a short story collection entitled Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned I didn't really expect the stories to be about good deeds rewarded or true love conquering all. So I wasn't surprised that many of the characters in Wells Tower's stories were in some way either ravaged or burned or both. But they all passed my test – I never walked away before the door closed (although there was one where I maybe wish I had).

Tower's characters are bumbling, conflicted and confused, and they keep bumping up against forces they can't quite handle. If you think this sounds like overworked territory it's only because you haven't read Tower's prose. It's dark and funny, tight but beautifully descriptive. His characters recognize their own shortcomings in refreshingly honest voices.

My one caveat concerns the last story which, unlike the others, which are set in present day, deals with a band of marauding Vikings. Its title is the same as the collection's, and there's plenty a ravaging and burning, a little too much for my tastes. But the other eight stories more than make up for it.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Greek Delight

If you're looking for a book to occupy you on a long airplane flight or a rainy day at the beach, I can recommend the highly readable Skios by Michael Frayn. Frayn is no stranger to farce, having written the hilarious play “Noises Off” and the deliciously entertaining novel “Headlong” (Country Life).

Set on the fictional Greek island of Skios, this farce begins in a classic way with a case of mistaken identity. Nikki, the blond and ambitious personal assistant to the head of the Fred Toppler Foundation, arrives at the airport to pick up the featured speaker for the foundation's annual gathering. When she holds up the name Dr Norman Wilfred to the arriving passengers, an attractive scoundrel name Oliver Fox impulsively steps forward and assumes the role of a man scheduled to speak on the compelling topic of “Innovation and Governance: The Promise of Scientometrics,”

How could he possibly pull this off, and why doesn't Dr. Wilfred immediately correct the error? You'll just have to put yourself in Frayn's hands and let him carry you through a dizzying series of wild taxi rides, lost luggage, mosquito netting, Greek security guards and so many mistaken identities that I lost count.

In the end Frayn can't quite keep all his plates spinning and things come to a crashing and somewhat confusing conclusion, but by that time I was so entertained that I didn't really care.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Who wins the diversity challenge?

"The Israelis", by journalist Donna Rosenthal, is a terrific read, each chapter devoted to a different group in Israel - the Ashkenazi, the Bedoin, the Mizrahi, the Arabs, the Christians, the Druze, the Ultra-Orthodox, and more.  Who would have thought that the Jewish nation of Israel would contain such insular and varied groups, each with its own customs and agenda? The book reads easily, like an extended newspaper feature, and is enlivened by many interviews with ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives amidst the social and political challenges. Chapters address the army, social and sexual norms and more, filling out the picture of life there.

I could not put this book down. Ultimately, it provides a vastly better understanding of the challenges facing Israel from within as well as from its neighbors, challenges which seem overwhelming.  Highly recommended.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Weathering the Storm

I've read several examples of post 9/11 fiction – Joseph O'Neill's “Netherland”, Don DeLillo's “Falling Man”, Amy Waldman's “The Submission”- but this is my first post Katrina read. The action in Jesmyn West's Salvage The Bones takes place in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi during the twelve days leading up to and just after Hurricane Katrina. The narrator is 15-year-old Esch, the only girl in a poor black family. I have developed somewhat of an aversion to plucky young female narrators, so I'm happy to report that Esch is not plucky. She longs for her mother, who died giving birth to Esch's younger brother Junior, she moons over a boy named Manny, whose interest in her is purely sexual, and she buries herself in Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology” as she attempts to liken her situation to Medea pursuing Jason.

Ignoring the impending storm, despite warnings from their father, the four children battle the complications of their young lives. Most powerful is the story of Esch's brother Skeetah, whose life revolves around his devotion to his dog China and her newborn pups. But fair warning – his unconditional love for his dog doesn't prevent him from pitting her against another dog in an extraordinarily vicious and bloody fight. It took me four tries to get through that chapter.

But, as the storm bears down on them, West gradually reveals the love that binds these tough, gritty siblings to each other and lifts their simple lives to the grand themes of honor, revenge, tragedy and loyalty of mythology. She occasionally wallows in too many metaphors, but her language is as powerful and tender as the family she describes.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Remembering Everything

"The Art and Science of Remembering Everything" sure sounded appealing, what with my increasing lapses lately.  But "Moonwalking with Einstein" by Joshua Foer isn't about that at all.  It explores the history and science of memory. And it describes the bizarre memory competitions, U.S.and World Championships in which competitors memorize the order of decks of playing cards, large lists of numbers, entire poems and more, with time limits of just a few minutes. The author, a journalist, becomes so fascinated by his subject that he himself trains and competes in the U.S. Memory Championship.

The methodology of memory competitors, which is interesting because it could be put to more practical use, involves constructing vivid visual images for each item.  A visual image, the more outlandish the better, placed in a mental location such as the front door of one's childhood home, is the key to retrieval.

I found it amazing that even the Greeks had a well-developed memory methodology which was similar. Remembering things was so much more important in early times before widespread access to written material. And today we have externalized so much to electronic devices that we barely need to recall anything, only where we're stored the information.  Who knows the phone numbers of their friends any more? Or their own schedules?

This was a fun book, with an intruiging subject, lots of scientific anecdotes as well as nearly certifiable characters.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Smart Girl

I don't read a lot of non-fiction, but I've always been an admirer of Tina Fey. I read an excerpt from her autobiography Bossypants in the New Yorker, and it was so smart and funny that I went to my friendly local library and checked it out. Fey started her career at Saturday Night Live as a comedy writer, and she's got the chops.

She has Nora Ephron's talent for witty self-deprecation, but mixed in with hilarious stories about her awkward adolescence, her ill-fated honeymoon cruise and her insecurities about motherhood, are doses of honest and practical advice about succeeding in a male-dominated field.

Here's one of my favorites: “So my unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism or ageism or lookism or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: 'Is this person in between me and what I want to do?' if the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. Then, when you're in charge, don't hire the people who were jerky to you.” See what I mean? If you want to know her advice if the answer is yes, you'll just have to read the book.

Friday, April 27, 2012

A Suggestion from Maureen

NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan was describing a scene in her local bookstore where she overheard a conversation between two women who were looking for “a new British novelist”. She didn't interrupt, despite having a good suggestion, namely author Peter Cameron, an American who spent part of his childhood in England. (Maureen, if you're ever next to me in a bookstore, go ahead and jump in.)

Cameron's latest novel is set in 1950's England, but if not for the presence of electricity and automobiles it could have been a century earlier. Coral Glynn, a young private duty nurse who is "rather pretty ... in a plain way." comes to a country house to care for the dying mother of middle-aged, war-damaged Major Clement Hart. Are you thinking Jane Eyre? When the mother dies, what seems inevitable happens, except it doesn't quite. What the characters do next seems predictable, except it isn't exactly. And how things finally turn out seems unexpected, or was I just not paying attention? And although there is no crazy wife in the attic, there is an oddly Gothic scene that spins the plot around.

At various times I was ready to grab both Clement and Coral by the shoulders and shake some sense into them, but these are not people who would have responded well to my intervention. Each is damaged and repressed, and both are capable of impulsive and sometimes inexplicable behavior.

If you're a fan of “Jane Eyre”, or even “Rebecca”, I think you'll enjoy the resonances even though the plot twists in a different direction, and I'd definitely recommend this as a plane ride or beach read.

Friday, April 20, 2012

When In Doubt

When in doubt, try Irish. That's my general rule when I'm looking for something to read. I'm a sucker for Irish authors. I can hear the accent as I read the words. I love the names of the locales – Enniskerry, Youghal, Clonskeagh – and I like to roll the characters names around in my mouth – Aileen, Fiona, Fiachra.

In Anne Enright's The Forgotten Waltz the Irish voice belongs to married woman Gina Moynihan as she narrates her affair with Séan—himself married and a father. Gina isn't exactly an unreliable narrator, but she certainly doesn't attempt to be a sympathetic one. The affair begins in the midst of the Celtic Tiger economy of the early 2000's, when acquisitiveness of all kinds was the norm among Dublin's smart, affluent set, and Gina almost seems to regard her affair as a more exciting alternative to buying a vacation home.

But the novel shifts backward and forward in time, so between the passages where Gina describes the thrill and danger of the early days of the affair are passages where she reflects more soberly on its long term effects. Much like the Irish economy, the relationship loses some of its luster, and collateral damage becomes clear. Their marriages ended, Gina and Séan live in a house that they cannot sell, and Gina reluctantly faces the effects of their actions on Séan's daughter.

I admire Enright's courage in presenting a character who does not ask for the reader's sympathy. Gina is sharp and funny, sometimes self-delusional and sometimes bracingly honest, Irish to the bone but with elements of Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina transposed to the new millennium. 

Editor's note:  Time to spruce up the website.  Slight refresh to the format, but our devotion to books and reading remains steadfast.

Monday, April 9, 2012

What is it that history teaches us?

Does it help us hear the cries of the past? "The Warmth of Other Suns" is a beautifully written, stunningly researched account of the migration of 6 million black Americans from the south to northern and western cities between 1915-1970. They fled Jim Crow laws, lynchings, violence and exploitation and streamed into major cities, emptying the south of its agricultural labor.

This history comes alive through the stories of three individuals: Mississippi sharecropper Ida Mae Gladney, who left for Chicago in 1937, educated activist George Starling, who fled Florida for Harlem in 1945, and surgeon Robert Foster, who abandoned Louisiana for better opportunity in Los Angeles in 1953. All were driven from their birthplaces by institutionalized racism, crushing humiliations, and the determination to find something better.

Author Isabel Wilkerson, herself a child of southern migrants, follows her subjects on their journeys. They struggled in new communities where they could now vote and sit anywhere on a bus but faced invisible, unwritten barriers. Still, nearly all would say that opportunities were greater and life was better. They cooked southern food and practiced their southern faith. They worked long hours, had small families, and stayed married. Yet somehow the ghettos into which they were crowded became dangerous places for their children.

This story is absolutely engrossing. Wilkerson gives us the details which bring it vividly and compellingly to life.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Truth in Journalism

Truth isn't just stranger than fiction; it's far more powerful and moving. At least that's how I felt after reading Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity. Boo, formerly a Washington Post journalist and now a New Yorker staff writer, lives part of each year in Mumbai with her Indian husband. Determined to present a portrait of slum life more nuanced than that of “Slumdog Millionaire”, she spent three years in Annawadi, a squatter settlement of three thousand people crammed into and around 335 huts, located next to a lake of sewage in the shadow of the Mumbai airport and vast luxury hotels.

Boo might have chosen to write a book packed with sociological statistics and economic analysis, but instead she does something far more effective; she simply tells a story. Or rather, she lets the people she comes to know tell their own stories. She focuses on Abdul, a teenaged boy who supports his family of eleven as a garbage trader (a position which places him higher on the economic ladder than the scavengers who bring him their goods), and Asha, a thirty-nine-year-old mother whose ambition is simple: “For the overcity people who wished to exploit Annawadi, and the undercity people who wished to survive it, she wanted to be the woman-to-see”. Working within a system of byzantine politics and rampant corruption she attempts to build a better life for her daughter. A single impulsive act has a profound effect on both of these families.

Boo's book reads so much like a novel (reminded me of Dickens) that I kept having to remind myself that these were real people. Please don't be put off by the subject matter. I'm sure you will find this book as compelling, powerful; and inspiring as I did.

PS: You might enjoy this Fresh Air interview with the author.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Words, Words, Words

I've hosted some dinner parties that didn't go smoothly, but nothing to compare with the scenario presented by Ali Smith in There but for the. Between the main course and dessert, one of the guests goes upstairs, locks himself in the guest room, and refuses to leave. Awkward!  But when the snarky dinner table conversation is described it crossed my mind that I too might have headed for the guestroom to escape it.

The guest's name is Miles Garth, the hosts had never met him before that evening, and no one seems to know much about him. In the novels four sections, “There,” “But,” “For” and “The,” Smith tells the stories of four characters whose paths have crossed somewhat tangentially with Miles. We learn a little about him – he seems to be a kind and gentle soul, if somewhat enigmatic.

This novel is not for those who like linear narratives. The sections each jump right into the middle of a story, and it takes a while to sort out the various connections. In some ways the book is like a puzzle, and the section that opens the book can be understood only at the end of the story. Smith's writing is clever and witty, but can also be tender and touching. It's clear she loves language and she challenges the reader to slow down and enjoy it. One character who embodies this love of language is Brooke Bayoude, a “preternaturally articulate” nine year old who is present with her parents at the dinner party and later forms a special bond with Miles. Unfortunately I occasionally found her just a little too articulate to be believed, and I felt Smith's wordplay was trying too hard.

In the end I felt exhilarated, amused and entertained but also a little dizzy.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Worth a Second Look

I'm taking another run at Denis Johnson. I tried before with “Tree of Smoke” and I just couldn't get out of the starting blocks. Maybe I just wasn't ready to tackle a Viet Nam novel, and somehow it seemed so very male. I gave up early. But I always feel a little guilty when I abandon a book. So when I saw Johnson's new novella Train Dreams (short read!) I decided to try again. I'm so glad I did.

The story is simple (and still quite male) – it follows the life of Robert Grainier, an orphaned boy who works on logging crews in the Northwest in his youth, loses his wife and child to a wildfire, and lives out his life in a remote cabin in Idaho where his only company is wolves, coyotes and the sound of the train's whistle as it passes through the valley two miles below him. He makes a modest living using his horse cart for hauling, and rides the train to Bonners Ferry when he's in need of supplies or human contact.

Doesn't sound like much of a story? In Johnson's hands it becomes a spare, honest portrait of a man's life. Grainier's existence is basic, but his connection to nature is powerful and profound, and Johnson slips effortlessly from the simple declarative sentences that describe Grainier's unadorned life, including the occasional humorous encounter with an odd assortment of characters peculiar to the isolated West, to the evocative dream-like descriptions of his experience of the force and mystery of the natural world.

You can read this entire book on a plane ride or on a rainy afternoon. I hope you will find it as powerful and absorbing as I did.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Commune Life

If you're old enough to remember an era of history does it make a novel about that time more interesting for you? Or do you just get annoyed because the author has gotten some details wrong? In the case of Lauren Groff's Arcadia it's neither for me. Although I remember the 60's and 70's, I have no idea if she got the details right because I have no idea what life was like if you joined a commune. But I admit I've always been curious.

The story is seen through the eyes of Bit (Ridley Sorrel Stone), child of commune members Abe and Hannah, who live in a bread truck in the sprawling commune Arcadia somewhere in upstate New York. In the book's four sections Groff shows us Bit at pivotal times in his life: at five, at fourteen, in his twenties and approaching fifty. The commune is not painted in idyllic tones, but in the early sections it's easy to see Bit's love of the beauty of nature, even as he struggles to understand the adults around him. His turbulent adolescence is mirrored in the turbulence and discord within the group itself. And as an adult he and other commune members struggle to fit into life outside Arcadia.

But Groff isn't just telling a story about the effects of commune life. She is ultimately telling a story about families, and she creates an array of complicated, flawed but believable characters. Her beautiful descriptions of nature combined with her sensitive portrayal of the evolution of a family made this an interesting read for me.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Unhappy Families

Did you know that there is something called the Anna Karenina principle? (What did we do before Wikipedia?). It derives from the famous Tolstoy line “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. In statistics this is translated to mean “there are any number of ways in which a dataset may violate the null hypothesis and only one in which all the assumptions are satisfied”. In ecology it is used to explain the fragility of ecosystems, since the failure of any one element can cause the entire system to fail.

And what does all this have to do with Leah Hager Cohen's The Grief of Others? Well, it is certainly about an unhappy family. Each member of the Ryrie family – parents Rickie and John, teenager Paul and his younger sister Biscuit - is unhappy for a different reason, and a shared tragedy serves to isolate them from each other even more. Perhaps in a happy family the members would mourn together a loss that has touched them all (the birth and rapid death of a severely damaged infant), but because there were already fissures in the relationships, each is pulled farther apart, and their lack of communication causes these fundamentally decent people to hurt each other.

Cohen takes time to unfold the complicated layers of each of her characters, so I found each one sympathetic even as I winced at their mistakes. The slow rebuilding of trust is unforced and powerful. Cohen tackles an extremely difficult subject and presents it honestly. I know this sounds depressing but I found this book moving and ultimately hopeful.

Friday, February 3, 2012


On a summer afternoon in suburban Melbourne, a group of friends and family gather with their assorted children for a barbecue. The host Hector is of Greek descent, his wife Aisha is Indian, and their guests are a mix that probably represents Australia in the 21st century – white, aborigine, Muslim, Jewish, gay, straight, wealthy and working class, young and old. Three-year-old Hugo has been behaving obnoxiously all afternoon, but his parents keep making excuses for him rather than correcting him. Finally, wielding a cricket bat, he vaguely threatens nine-year-old Rocco, whereupon Rocco's father Harry, Hector's cousin, slaps him.

That's the starting point for The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, and the reverberations from that slap ripple through the entire story. Tsiolkas divides his book into eight sections, each one exploring the inner life of one of the characters from the party. Some of the storylines directly follow the effect of the slap – Hugo's parents press charges, family and friends are forced to take sides in the dispute, friendships are threatened. Others explore more personal stories – marriage and infidelity, mid-life crisis, the bonds of friendship, adolescent coming-of-age and dealing with the loss of aging friends. Through them Tsiolkas examines racism, homophobia and class prejudice without ever preaching or sentimentalizing.

Every time I thought he was headed for a stereotype he swerved from it to give a realistic but sympathetic view of a character. I found some stories more compelling than others (maybe I've just read too many coming of age tales?), but Tsiolkas does an admirable job of keeping all eight threads woven together. Starting with a single shocking act he paints a nuanced picture of a network of complex relationships.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Spies...and More Spies

With the recent release of the new movie version of John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I thought that I would read the book instead. (I am no longer going to say "re-read" even if I remember that I read it previously because my memory of the details of the book will be virtually non-existent). I was immediately struck by the epigram attributed to the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes:

The version that I learned growing up started with:
Oh, well. Another one of life's mysteries. Maybe there's a dissertation here on changes in cultural norms.

Having now finished the book and while gathering my thoughts for this blog, I happened to open the latest issue of The Hoover Digest and there it was: "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier...Priest?", Donal O'Sullivan's article about "two treacherous clerics and the Communist infiltration of the Vatican." Yikes!!! The KGB had 2 agents, Pine and Sun, posing as theology and law students in Rome from 1956-1963. Their "mission" was " identify anti-Soviet elements, collect compromising information on Lithuanian priests living in Western Europe, and close down secret communication channels between the Vatican and its bishops behind the Iron Curtain." It doesn't get any stranger than this in Le Carre's fiction. You can read the full article here.

TTSS is 99.9% plot: minimal introspection, minimal description, no sex, no violence (what there is of both takes place out of sight). Much of the plot is told through flashbacks (which makes it a great book for a Kindle so that you can look up the previous references to a particular character or code name.) For this aging brain, the intricacies of the plot were best handled in a compressed time frame. That was just the right prescription for a weekend getaway without leaving home.