Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014 Favorites

It's time once again for me to pick my three favorite books of 2014, and once again I have had trouble narrowing down my list. But I have to go with the ones that really knocked my socks off, each for a very different reason.

The Son by Phillipp Meyer (Texas Saga), a multi- generational story that held me in its grip from the very first chapter, which ended with this foreboding line from the family patriarch: “The only problem was keeping your scalp attached.”

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast (The Graphic Truth), a graphic memoir that is hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (A Girl and a Boy), the haunting story of two young lives that cross amidst the chaos of war.

My books are already stacking up.  I'm looking forward to hours of great reading in 2015.  Happy New Year to all!

Friday, December 26, 2014

A Year-end Present to Yourself

Run, don't walk, to the nearest library, bookstore, computer or e-reader and get a copy of Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher.  Then set aside an afternoon or evening (it's a small book) for a joyride.  But be sure it is in a place where you will not be embarrassed to laugh out loud (really out loud, not just a smile) again...and again...and again on almost every page.

The structure of this novel is a series of LORs (letters of recommendation) written by a college English professor for his students, his faculty colleagues and a few fellow students from his graduate school days.  These are unlike any recommendation letters that you might imagine.  It makes me wonder what those letters are really like.

Julie Schumacher herself is a faculty member in the Department of English at the University of Minnesota and admits to writing "more letters of recommendation that she cares to recall."  Included in the letters are large doses of college politics, driven by the increasing tensions between the arts and sciences resulting from the pervasive budget constraints affecting most colleges these days.  But it is her arguments supporting the study of English and writing that will stay with you long after the laughter ends.

And if you are familiar with Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener then so much the better (but not necessary.)

I am desperate to talk with someone who has read this book.  If that is you, please leave a Comment below.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Family Bonds

I can't really blame Eileen Tumulty, the main character in Matthew Thomas's debut novel We Are Not Ourselves. Growing up in the 50's in a blue collar Queens apartment with alcoholic parents whose marriage is fragile, it's only natural that she is determined to do better. So when she meets Ed Leary - intelligent, serious, reliable, a talented scientist - he seems the perfect choice. She envisions a bright and prosperous future with a home in her version of Shangri-La – Bronxville. Perhaps she misses some early clues that his seriousness might be tinged with rigidity, or that his idealism might conflict with her ambitions. When reality finally sets in, her desperation to get out of Queens causes her to commit an act of betrayal.

But she has little time to enjoy her Bronxville fixer-upper with Ed and son Connell before she is hit with a stark truth. Her fifty-two-year-old husband has Alzheimer's disease. As anyone who has dealt with it knows, the course of this disease is relentless, and Thomas's description is unsparing (his own father died from it in 2002). Connell stumbles badly in his attempts to face his father's illness and his mother's need for his help, and Eileen is no saint, but Thomas makes them sympathetic even in their failings. I have to admire Eileen's grit and determination in the face of the crushing obstacles she must tackle.

Thomas paints on a small canvas – his characters lead ordinary lives in a circumscribed world (he reminds me of Alice McDermott, who was once his teacher). But his characters have a resonance beyond their own small stage, and the title, taken from King Lear, expresses this well.

We are not ourselves
When nature, being oppressed, commands the mind
To suffer with the body.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Sour Grapes

Count me among the avid fans of Edward St. Aubyn's semi-autobiographical series of Patrick Melrose novels (see my blog). These five books swing wildly from harrowing to hilarious on virtually every page. So when the fifth novel, “At Last”, was ignored by the Booker prize committee in 2011, perhaps St. Aubyn felt a twinge of annoyance, although he has steadfastly denied this.

But you know the old adage “Don't get mad, get even”? Well, clearly St. Aubyn knows it too. In his latest novel Lost for Words he imagines the Elysian prize, funded by a chemicals manufacturer, and proceeds to satirize everyone connected with it in any way. The judges, some of whom are identifiable to those tuned in to the London literary scene, for the most part don't bother to read the books and use their own idiosyncratic agendas to make their choices. The books themselves range from wot u starin at, a portrait of Scottish drug addicts written by an Edinburgh academic, to “The Palace Cookbook”, an actual cookbook mistakenly submitted as a postmodern novel. The character of Sam Black, who seems to be a stand-in for St. Aubyn himself, loses the prize but gets the girl.

St. Aubyn writes elegant prose and can be wickedly funny and insightful, but the plot meanders and it's all just a little too snarky for me. Better to stick with Patrick Melrose.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Graphic Truth

If you are a New Yorker reader you're familiar with Roz Chast, the cartoonist whose squiggly-lined drawings manage to make the mundane, the maudlin, or even the misanthropic events of everyday life seem unexpectedly funny. My favorites often involve parents and children, and the ways in which they can drive each other crazy. So I expected that her graphic memoir “Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant” would offer similar enjoyment. And it does. But this book is so much more than that.

Chast's parents George and Elizabeth are an eccentric, mismatched pair, essentially friendless, who have lived in a decidedly untrendy section of Brooklyn for over sixty years. Her father is gentle and kind, but also fearful of everything and ineffectual. Her mother is angry and critical. No surprise that Roz exited as soon as she could. But old age begins to take its toll on both of them, and Roz reluctantly accepts that she has to step in. What follows is the familiar litany of memory loss, emergency room visits, hospital stays, confusion, guilt, financial worries, resistance, anger. As grim as this sound, it is also very, very funny.

If you or anyone you know has dealt with the struggle of aging parents, you will find this story unerringly accurate and brutally candid. Chast does not paint herself as a saint. In fact, her drawings of her angry and frustrated self – bulgy-eyed, teeth-bared, hair crackling - are searing (and hilarious). But her humor and honesty make this a powerful and compelling story.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Girl and A Boy

Time for my beach read, and this year it is All The Light We Cannot See. It's a story about a girl and a boy. In August of 1944, in the waning days of World War II, the picturesque Breton town of Saint-Malo, occupied by the retreating German army, is being bombed by Allied forces. Alone on the top floor of a tall narrow house, a French sixteen-year-old blind girl named Marie-Laure LeBlanc fears for her life. Five blocks away eighteen-year-old German private Werner Pfennig, a radio specialist stationed in a grand old hotel, is assigned to intercept messages from Allied sympathizers and eliminate them. The two have never met.

Having set them so close together, author Anthony Doerr then jumps backward to 1934, to tell the parallel stories of their childhoods. Hers is the tale of a comfortable life in pre-war Paris near the Jardin des Plantes, with a loving father who teaches his daughter that her blindness is no handicap. His is the harsher existence of an orphan in a coal mining region outside Essen, but he is saved from a life in the mines or on the front lines by his extraordinary talent with radios. In brief chapters, Doerr cuts back and forth between Saint-Malo of 1944 and the paths each took from the start of the war to their current precarious state.

I know, I know. Blind girl, orphan boy, war, danger, love conquers all, sentimental and predictable. Not at all. This beautifully written book is many things – suspenseful, emotional, nuanced, heartbreaking, joyous – but it is resoundingly unsentimental. Yes there are a few coincidences, but none that disturb the flow of this haunting story. An added plus – short chapters! Beach, plane trip, waiting room, DMV line – this book is the perfect choice.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Everyday Life

What possessed me? Why did I want to read volume one of a six volume autobigraphical novel, translated from Norwegian, short on plot, frequently described in reviews as boring and banal? But My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard has also generated a firestorm of interest, both in Europe and the US, generating lavish praise from literary figures and bitter criticism from a few unimpressed critics, as well as from family members who objected to Knausgaard's frank depictions.

So, what's it like? It's like being inside someone's head. You're a witness to everything Karl Ove is thinking, from his deeply felt views on art, death, parenthood to his adolescent plotting to obtain beer for a New Year's Eve party. His style is straightforward and reportorial, but not without lyricism. Most of the second half of the book revolves around Knausgaard and his older brother dealing with the aftermath of their father's death. Karl Ove's relationship with his father was difficult, so as he cleans up the mess (literally) that his father has left behind he speaks frankly of his self-doubt and his attempts to come to terms with the loss of this cold, judgmental man.

What makes this book so unusual is Knausgaard's willingness to risk being boring by talking about ordinary, everyday events – a haircut, a cleaning chore, a train ride – without losing the reader's interest, and to examine his life with unsparing honesty. Somehow, it worked for me.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Act Three

How would the story of “Pride and Prejudice” look through Mr. Darcy's eyes? In fiction we're always locked into the view that the narrator chooses. But Jane Gardam, God bless her, has broadened the vista. In Old Filth she gives us Edward Feathers - Raj orphan, QC and judge in Hong Kong, husband of Betty, sworn enemy of fellow QC Terry Veneering – looking back on his life from old age. In "The Man in the Wooden Hat" it's Betty's turn, and unsurprisingly much looks different from her perspective, and secrets unknown (or maybe not?) to Edward are revealed. Now the third leg of the triangle is put into place, as Gardem's tells Terry's story in Last Friends.

The novel begins with Old Filth's memorial service, but quickly jumps back to Veneering's humble beginnings in the fishing village Herringfleet, his improbable escape from death during the war, his later success in law, his lifelong passion for Betty. Unfortunately Gardam also spends time with some less interesting characters, but even then her lucid, flowing prose keeps things interesting.

If you've ever been annoyed that the last 50 pages of a novel seem flabby or uninteresting, fear not – Jane Gardam must share your annoyance. She manages to reveal powerful secrets near the end of each of these books, without in any way seeming gimmicky. These novels make great summertime books, since they are best read in quick succession, and they are almost impossible to put down.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Stages of Life

Late in Tessa Hadley's Clever Girl, main character Stella muses that “the highest test was not in what you chose, but in how you lived out what befell you”. She is certainly talking about herself. Each of the book's ten chapters describes what 'befell' Stella in a period of her life, from her childhood with a single mother in postwar Bristol England in the early 1960's, to her own single motherhood and commune life in the 70's, to her married middle age. (If you are a New Yorker reader you may recognize some of the early chapters, which appeared there as short stories). Although Stella can be clever, she is often the victim rather than the driver of her fate. She somehow manages to be impulsive and passive at the same time, and the result is a life that lurches forward with plenty of wrong turns.

I am often annoyed with passive characters (I had that problem with “The Flamethrowers”), but Stella is so clear-eyed and honest about her mistakes that I grew to admire her. Hadley's prose has a lot to do with that. It is crisp and concise, not at all showy, but sharply observant, and by the end incidents that seemed isolated and unconnected form a cohesive portrait.

Stella is not always clever, but she does have the good sense to read great literature to keep her sanity when her life is chaotic. You've got to like a girl for that.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Act II

What if the most exciting part of your life occurs before you're old enough to appreciate it? In some ways that's what happened to Jules Jacobson in Meg Wolitzer's “The Interestings” (See my blog). For Joan Joyce in Maggie Shipstead's Astonish Me it comes when, after she has slavishly devoted her childhood and adolescence to ballet, she is accepted into a company and moves to New York. There she confronts what must be the case for many talented young people – she is very good but she will never be great. And she meets someone who is great – the charismatic Russian dancer Arslan Rusakov. Improbably, he chooses Joan to help him defect, and for a time they are lovers and she can bask in his reflected glory.

But when the relationship inevitably fails, she chooses a very different Act II – marriage to her high school sweetheart, a child, and a new life in a Southern California suburb. As Joan struggles to let go of her perfectionism her husband Jacob struggles to make her content in this new life. When their son displays unusual talent as a dancer, Joan is drawn back into the dance world.

OK, I think I'm making this sound like a soap opera. But it's much more nuanced than that. Shipstead examines some universal themes – hopes and disappointments, ambition and envy. She shows the dangers when parents attempt to live through their children's lives. In addition, although I know only a modest amount about ballet, I thought Shipstead did a terrific job of describing the ballet world – the tedium and physical pain of the endless practice, the subtle but powerful differences between a competent dancer and an electrifying one. She captures the joy and pain of short-lived success at a young age and its long term effects on the life that follows.  

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Summer Friendships

Is summer camp a rite of passage? If so, it's one I missed. But for the six characters in Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings, the bond they form in the 70's at a summer arts camp informs their lives for the next three decades. For Julie Jacobson, who arrives in camp as a suburban nonentity and leaves as 'Jules' with five sophisticated urban new best friends, the camp experience is especially transformative.

The camp has given them all the sense that they are talented and special, destined for extraordinary lives. In the power center of the six are the Wolf siblings Ash (sister) and Goodman (brother). Children of privilege, charismatic, living in Manhattan, they represent for Jules all that she admires and aspires to. But success comes instead to Ethan, the gawky nerd, when he creates a Simpsons-like animated series that brings him artistic and financial success. His marriage to Ash gives her the money and prestige to create a career in feminist theater.

And Jules is jealous. Wolitzer deftly and humorously explores how friendships evolve when success does not bless all equally. She creates no monsters, but gives each character a believable arc in the journey to maturity. More importantly, Wolitzer tracks the ebb and flow of the friendships over a thirty year span with a nuanced hand. She paints them as complicated, conflicted and, yes, interesting.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Texas Saga

Wow, this is not my kind of book. The Son, by Philipp Meyer, is a sprawling, multi-generational saga set in Texas and spanning over 160 years, replete with such standard Western elements as cowboys, Indians, cattle, oil, death, greed, betrayal - not exactly in my wheelhouse. Yes, I loved “Lonesome Dove” - not multi-generational but certainly a saga – but so often books in this genre fall into the cliches of the strong, silent cowboy, the noble savage, the patient wife, the money-grubbing oilmen, the romanticized view of the Old West. So I took advantage of Kindle's option to sample the first few chapters before deciding if it's worth buying. And let me just say that when I finished that sample I could not push the Buy Book button fast enough. I would say those early chapters were hair-raising, but, given that they involve Comanches attacking a homesteading family, that would be a little too literal.

The book's chapters alternate in three different voices. Centenarian Eli McCullough, patriarch of the family, speaking to a WPA recorder, narrates the story of his long and eventful life, beginning with his abduction by the aforementioned Comanches. His son Peter's story is told by entries in his diaries. They reveal a man who possesses the moral compass his father lacks, but who is powerless against the dogged ruthlessness that allows Eli to build his empire. Eli's great-granddaughter Jeanne Anne has inherited his greed and determination, even his brutality, but at the start we see her as an eighty-six year old lying helpless on the floor in her mansion, and even as she unfolds the events of her life, we sense that she has sown the seeds of her own destruction.

This is a long, rich, powerful story that avoids every stereotype. There are no heroic cowboys, no brave Rangers, the Indians are noble and they are savage, the strong steal from the weak. The three narrative perspectives eventually merge into a complicated tapestry of Texas history.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Fairy Tales

The first line of Helen Oyeyemi's Boy, Snow, Bird could have been “Once upon a time”. A fairy-tale quality permeates the story, a modern twist on the Brothers Grimm. A young girl named Boy lives in New York with a violent father who makes his living as a rat-catcher, using techniques that would horrify the Pied Piper. She runs away to the small New England town of Flax Hill, where she marries a man with a beautiful little daughter named Snow. After the birth of her own child Bird, Boy becomes something of an evil stepmother, and the story becomes a distorted version of “Snow White”, complete with banishment, mirrors, and difficult questions about who is the fairest of them all.

Oyeyemi's style retains the rhythm of a fable, but, especially in the portions where Boy is the narrator, it captures the complex, layered voice of a modern observer, facing issues that are still unresolved in modern society.

Monday, March 31, 2014

My First

If I were drawing up my literary bucket list, Zombie Novel wouldn't be on it. But there's a first time for everything. And how better to dip my toe in the genre than with respected literary novelist Colson Whitehead? So with some trepidation I stepped into Zone One.

The story is set mainly in Manhattan, in the section south of Canal, where the narrator, nicknamed Mark Spitz, is part of a team of three “sweepers” searching for “skels” - short for sleletons. The word zombie is never used, but these skels are the walking dead and they feed on human flesh, so you get the picture. An unexplained plague has struck the world, and those unaffected are attempting to seal off a section of the island as a safe zone, while unnamed powers in Buffalo devise the structure of a new civilization. All survivors suffer from P.A.S.D. (post-apocalyptic stress disorder), but Spitz, a self-proclaimed slacker who was content in his mediocrity, functions better than most because his expectations are low and he views his situation with clear-eyed honesty. And yet, his flashbacks reveal a touching tenderness and sadness for what has been lost.

The story covers just three days. Whitehead's prose may seem over-wrought early in the book, but he is masterful at conveying grim humor, horror and tenderness, with social commentary stirred in. I can't compare this to other zombie novels, but let me just say this - the third day is scary, scary, scary.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

It's Not You, It's Me

Rachel Kushner, your novel The Flamethrowers is beautifully written and deserves the many accolades (including National Book Award finalist) it has received. I admire the power of your prose, the engaging stories your characters tell, the deft weaving of fiction with historical events, the subtle skewering of the art world, the vivid scene you painted early in the novel of the speed trials in the Bonneville Flats.

And I really wanted to like it. I know the problem is mine, not yours. But it just didn't work for me. I'm frequently critical of readers who insist that a good novel must have a character they like, even admire. But I now realize I have my own prejudice. I need to feel engaged. Reno, a young woman from Nevada who enters the New York art scene in the early 70's, is by nature a passive observer. She is acted upon but rarely initiates action. This is not a failure by Kushner – she means for Reno to be a non-judgmental narrator. But this kept me at a distance from her, and I had trouble staying interested.

Sorry, Rachel. I look forward to trying again with you.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Life's a Mess

Life doesn't run smoothly when you're a character in an Andre Dubus III story. In his earlier novel, "House of Sand and Fog", he sent his characters on collision courses with each other, with disastrous results. His latest work, Dirty Love, is a collection of four stories, somewhere between long short stories and short novelllas. The setting is a small New England coastal town. His characters all yearn for love, but they make desperate choices and are often their own worst enemies.

These stories are not for readers who like characters they can admire. I often wanted to grab them by the shoulders and shake hard. But Dubus's talent is to make them so vividly real, so desperate and vulnerable and frightened by their choices, that I was never tempted to judge them. And in each story the characters are left with a flickering of hope that they might yet sort out the mess in their lives.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Big Brother Is...

In The Circle, David Eggers's imagined society in the not so distant future, it's not that Big Brother is watching. Instead, everyone is watching each other. The Circle is a fictional Silicon Valley corporation which has absorbed earlier social media outlets like Google, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook into the all encompassing TruYou. It sounds so appealing – one password, one identity, one account which connects you to everything and everyone.

Mae Holland joins The Circle as a starry-eyed enthusiast of this new vision, and is thrilled by her job. The 'campus' is luxurious, with fountains, playing fields, artwork, themed buildings, gourmet restaurants, even dormitories for those wanting to avoid commuting home. And if her job Customer Experience at first seems menial, she is buoyed by the constant encouragement she receives as she works to keep her satisfaction rating above 98%. In fact, much of her life begins to revolve around numbers and ratings. The more she 'likes', the more she 'zings' (the tweet replacement), the more she joins groups, signs petitions, answers surveys, the higher her ratings climb. In this utopian atmosphere transparency is the new normal and company mottoes like “Privacy is Theft” and “Sharing is Caring” encourage the notion that if everyone knows everything then social ills will be eliminated.

Is this so hard to imagine, with so many people today willingly giving up their privacy to social networks? Eggers certainly pushes the envelope, but he raises interesting questions about how persuasive our own version of Big Brother can seem.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Favorite Books of 2013

It's time again to pick my favorite books of the year. My blog production was down this year – my New Year's resolution is to produce more in 2014. But I still have lots of recommendations for books that touched me, surprised me, fascinated me. So here are my top three, with three move runners-up too good to ignore:

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers surprised me - he managed to encapsulate so many of the themes of America in the twenty-first century into the travails of one decent man.


Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son fascinated me – it was an eye-opening glimpse at life in North Korea as well as the heart-warming story of an everyman who became a hero.

Alice McDermott's Someone touched me – McDermott managed to turn the ordinary life of an ordinary woman into a pitch perfect narrative.

Kate Atkinson's Life After Life is an absorbing exploration of second chances.

Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – What is a family? What does it mean to be human?

Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers – True stories in a Mumbai slum which are far more powerful than fiction.