Friday, April 18, 2014

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

Julie Jacobsen is an awkward suburban teenager, attending an arts summer camp on scholarship, when she meets and embraced by a group of five Manhattanites who seem to her the pinnacle of sophistication. The group calls themselves "The Interestings" and includes Cathy (a dancer), Jonah (a talented musician who is the son of a famous folksinger), Ethan (a gifted animator), and brother and sister Goodman and Ash Wolf. The group even gives Julie a new nickname--Jules--that she embraces as more fitting than her pedestrian given name. Ethan tries to start a romantic relationship with Jules; while she likes him, she feels no romantic interest in him.

Once summer camp is over, Jules maintains her friendship with the group, traveling into the city most weekends to hang out with "The Interestings" and assiduously keeping them from visiting her modest suburban home. Events that I won't reveal force Cathy and Goodman from the group, but the other four Interestings remain friends into middle age. Ash and Ethan marry and Ethan becomes fabulously successful with his animated television series for adults; Ash becomes a somewhat successful feminist producer/director, though it seems likely that the opportunities that come her way are due to Ethan's prominence. Jonah, who has been damaged by abuse suffered at the hands of a musician friend of his mother's, gives up music, briefly joins the Moonies, and then becomes a designer of assistive devices for disabled people (while Jonah's story is less central than those of Jules, Ash, and Ethan, he may be the most sympathetic and compelling character in the book).

Jules, who hoped to become a comic actress, eventually realizes her talent is limited; she marries a lovely (but not "special") man named Dennis, has a daughter, and becomes a therapist. Despite her achievements, she is envious not only of Ash and Ethan's lifestyle and wealth but their ability to sustain the artistic dreams of their youth. She is blind to problems or frustrations in their lives (their son Mo is on the autism spectrum and Ethan questions his ability to love Mo--a pretty serious challenge), as well as to Ethan's enduring love for her. Her envy is corrosive, preventing her from fully inhabiting or appreciating her own life.

I probably would not have read The Interestings if Novel Conversations hadn't chosen it. It relies on a plot device (following what happens to a group of childhood friends as they enter adulthood) I generally find ineffective, and books on privileged Northeasterners aren't my favorites. However, I very much liked the book and its exploration of how we judge our own and others' success.

In 2012, Meg Wolitzer published an essay in The New York Times, questioning why books by women that deal with family issues do not receive as much acclaim as similarly themed books by men (e.g., the highly regarded The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen). It's an interesting piece ( and, having read all three books, I would regard The Interestings as the equal of the Eugenides and Franzen titles. Definitely a topic worth considering.

Favorite passages
You didn't always need to be the dazzler, the firecracker, the one who cracked everyone up, or made everyone want to sleep with you, or be the one who wrote and starred in the play that got the standing ovation. You could cease to be obsessed with the idea of being interesting.

. . . he's infuriated that his e-reader allows him to only know the percentage of a book he's read, nto the number of pages. This, he thinks, is 92 percent stupid.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum

Since pretty much everyone in the world has seen the Wizard of Oz, I am not going to summarize the plot, except to say that the book struck me as considerably more violent than the film (although it has been a long time since I saw the film and I could be wrong)--the tin man certainly does a lot of damage with that ax!

For years, various writers have speculated about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz being an allegory for populism and monetary policy in the 1890s. I am sorry to say I am way too literal to get that. For me, the story is about relying on yourself and your friends rather than the powerful--hmmm, maybe that is populism.

I listened to the book and, although Anne Hathaway occasionally got a little too dramatic, I generally enjoyed her narration.

Favorite passage:
Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don't you think?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Magician's Assistant, by Ann Patchett

"Parsifal is dead. That is the end of the story." Those are the opening lines of Ann Patchett's The Magician's Assistant--but, quite obviously, that is not the end of the story, as his widow Sabine believes. Rather, it is the beginning of at least two entirely new stories--Parsifal's real, previously hidden story and Sabine's future.

Parsifal was a magician (and the owner of two successful rug shops in Los Angeles, where he actually earned his living). Parsifal married his assistant Sabine after the love of his life Phan, a techie wunderkind from Vietnam, died of AIDS. Sabine had long loved Parsifal, while always knowing he was gay. While Parsifal also had AIDS, he died suddenly of an aneurysm, leaving Sabine so depressed she is barely able to get out of her bed in their lovely home. Phan haunts her dreams with reports from the afterlife.

Then Sabine learns that the background Parsifal had created for himself--a rich orphan from Connecticut--was entirely false. Instead, he was from rural Nebraska, where his mother, two sisters, and nephews still live. Soon, his mother Dot Fetters and his sister Bertie visit Sabine in LA; Sabine is shocked to learn more about the childhood of Guy Fetters, Parsifal's original name. Bertie and Dot invite Sabine to visit Nebraska, and she surprises herself by agreeing. She arrives in the midst of a Nebraska blizzard--the winterscape providing a physical representation of how she views her beloved's childhood. As she learns more about Guy's family and grows to care for them as flawed but lovable individuals, however, she again must readjust her thinking.

The Magician's Assistant is an entertaining look at the intersection of family and place but much of the plot seems unrealistic to me--why would a talented and beautiful woman continue to love a gay man for 20+ years? Why would Parsifal's family not have tried to contact him when they knew he was a magician (they saw him on the Tonight show) and he sent them money periodically? I have other questions, but asking them might ruin the read for some. I also found the ending abrupt and unsatisfying. So it's a mixed review for me.

Favorite passages:
She imagined her loneliness taking the shape of boxes and boxes of other people's possessions, a terminal moraine that would keep all she had lost in front of her.

There was never any point in taking someone else's comfort away, even if it was comfort from another time, but Sabine did not agree with Dot's assessment of the view. Things were better in other places. People had different lives. Many suffered less. Many were happier. Sabine knew without question that Parsifal must have come to this spot. What he saw was not a life that was the same in all directions.

This time of year everyone was late anyway, cars didn't start or they slid off driveways and lodged in snowbanks. Winter was nothing but a long excuse for tardiness.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Dirty Love, by Andre Dubus III

Dirty Love is a collection of four loosely connected stories/novellas that explore love, loneliness, and the multiple ways in which people manage to screw up their relationships. Manage is an especially appropriate word to apply to the first story, "Listen Carefully, As Our Options Have Changed," in which Mark Welch sets a private detective to following his wife Laura. When the detective videotapes her having sex with another man, he confronts her and ends up living in the "mother-in-law" apartment with his mother. Banished from his home, he plots responses in which he will apply his  skills as a project manager to the wreck his marriage has become. Those skills prove to be remarkably ineffective, and Mark seems to be careening ever closer to a violent confrontation.

"Marla" is the story of a chubby bank teller, who shares her apartment with a cat. When one of her customers, Dennis, asks her out to dinner, she begins to hope that her life will come to resemble that of her happily coupled friends. Marla and Dennis move in together, but the experience is not what Marla expected.

In "Bartender," Robert believes he is a poet, but he makes his living as a bartender. Something of a playboy, Robert meets and marries Althea, primarily because her eyes on the eyes they met reminded him of a phrase that had pleased him that morning when he thought of it: "eyes of black hope." Althea soon becomes pregnant, and Robert believes a new live has started . . . . but he can't quite keep himself from sleeping with one of the waitresses at the bar.

The final story, "Dirty Love," is particularly poignant. It features Devon, an 18-year-old whose reputation has been ruined by "friends" who have posted a picture of her performing oral sex online. Her father has turned away from her, and she is now living with her elderly great-uncle Frances, a lovely man who knows Devon is troubled but doesn't know the details of what happened. Frances, a retired teacher, is trying to prepare Devon to take the GED. Meanwhile, Devon tries to lose herself in music and online encounters.

Dirty Love is a bleak portrayal of human relationships (and humans for that matter), but there's something about Dubus's prose that keeps you reading despite being in the slough of despondence.

Favorite passage:
She  began to cry, and it was as if she were falling backwards into a dark hole, for how could she have forgotten she was a dull, round woman who'd been a dull, round girl, lucky enough now to have found anyone at all? That for all Dennis was not, for all that she didn't feel for him, he was better than a lifetime of nobody.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line, by Michael Gibney

Sous Chef  is a detailed account of 24 hours in the life of the second-in-command at a fine dining restaurant in Manhattan. Written in the second person to give the reader a sense of immediacy, the book provides insight into not only the pressures on the kitchen staff but also the thinking process of the chef. The mountain of work do be done to serve 300 people a memorable dinner, the frenetic pace, the utter exhaustion at the end of service, the satisfaction of a job well done, and the frustration of making a mistake (not to mention the executive chef's resulting rage) are all described in an effective "you are there" mode. Unless you have worked in a restaurant kitchen, you will definitely learn a lot about how the work is organized and completed. Given how many of the kitchen staff are hungover (according to Gibney), I am amazed that the food comes out at all, much less in a timely fashion, beautifully presented and tasty.

Although I don't have a lot to say about the book or a favorite quote from it, I definitely recommend it, especially for aspiring foodies.

Friday, March 28, 2014

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell has a gift for taking data and case studies, historical and contemporary, and drawing out counterintuitive conclusions that cause the reader to think seriously about their assumptions. In David and Goliath, the assumption Gladwell takes on is that superior strength or other perceived advantages assure positive results. Beginning by arguing that David actually had the advantage in the original David v. Goliath battle in the Valley of Elah, Gladwell then moves on to examine a variety of cases in which advantages turn out to be disadvantages. One of the examples is reduction in class size, which data indicates offers advantages only to a certain point; when class size goes below a certain point, improvements in student performance disappear. Gladwell calls this pattern the inverted-U curve. Another example the case of a high school student who loved science and was elated to be accepted at an Ivy League school. There, however, she struggled in classes in which every student was extremely bright. She ended up abandoning her long-held dream of being a scientist. But Gladwell presents data showing that her chances of achieving her dream would have been much better had she attended her state university. The advantage of attending an Ivy actually became a disadvantage for this student.

In the second section of the book, Gladwell examines circumstances in which disadvantages can become advantages, looking at dyslexics who developed coping strategies, took risks, and became highly successful; people who lost parents as children develop unusual courage that enables them to solve problems others turn away from; and oppressed groups who have nothing to lose and therefore can take risks and employ "trickster" strategies.

Finally, Gladwell discusses the limits of power, those cases when exerting the full power of the state has negative consequences. Here his case studies involve Three Strikes laws, as well as the British Army strategy in dealing with the Irish Troubles. Perhaps the most moving story in the book is that of the French residents of the tiny Huguenot town of Le Chambon, which became a haven for Jewish children. Following the Vichy government's cooperation in the round-up of Parisian Jews, the townspeople made it clear they were not going to collaborate, giving a Vichy minister a letter that ended, "We have Jews. You're not getting them."

As was the case in reviewing Gladwell's Blink, I don't feel that I have done his work justice. Although the insights here were not as personally meaningful as those in Blink or Outliers, David and Goliath is well worth reading.  Indeed, I cannot imagine anything this exceptional thinker and writer could produce  that I would not find thought-provoking.

Favorite passage:
It was not the privileged and the fortunate who took in the Jews in France. It was the marginal and the damaged, which should remind us that there are real limits to what evil and misfortune can accomplish. If you take away the gift of reading, you create the gift of listening. If you bomb a city, you leave behind death and destruction. But you create a community of remote misses. If you take away a mother or a father, you cause suffering and despair. But one time in ten, out of that despair rises an indomitable force. You see the giant and the shepherd in the Valley of Elah and your eye is drawn to the man with the sword and shield and the glittering armor. But so much of what is beautiful and valuable in the world comes from the shepherd, who has more strength and purpose than we ever imagine.

Reconstructing Amelia, by Kimberly McCreight

Reconstructing Amelia, although not advertised as such, is really a mystery: attorney and single mom Kate Baron is trying to figure out why her daughter fell/jumped off the roof at her private school in Brooklyn. At first ruled a suicide, Amelia's death is reinvestigated when Kate receives several emails saying "She didn't jump." The narrative is constructed in an interesting way--through first-person narratives from Amelia's point of view, beginning with the start of sophomore year and ending with her death and through third-person narratives from Kate's perspective, beginning with Amelia's death and ending (except for an epilogue) with the resolution of what happened. Interspersed throughout are texts between Amelia and friends, Amelia's Facebook posts, blog posts from a gossip site about Amelia's school, and emails and recollections from the time when Kate got pregnant.

Unfortunately, the mystery doesn't really work--all of the plot twists are foreshadowed too heavily so that nothing is a surprise and it's completely ridiculous to think that a police lieutenant would allow the victim's mother to accompany him as he questions witnesses and suspects. On the other hand, the book is effective in terrifying parents (or in my case grandparents) of girls--Amelia went from a happy high-achieving kid to an emotional wreck, bullied by a club of "cool girls," pressured by the school administration to turn in members of the group that they had failed to control, and betrayed by her favorite teacher and her closest friends--and that's just scratching the surface of the things her mother did not know were going on in her life. Disturbing!