Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train is sure to be compared to Gone Girl--it, like Gillian Flynn's work, is a dark thriller featuring troubled/flawed characters, multiple narrators telling their stories asynchronously, and a plethora of red herrings.

Rachel Watson is the titular girl on the train. Looking out the window as she commutes from the suburbs to London every day, she has constructed an idyllic life for a couple she often sees from the train, a couple who happens to live just a few doors down from Rachel's ex-husband Tom and his new wife Anna. Then one day she sees the woman she has been watching--Rachel calls her Jess but we soon learn her name is actually Megan--kissing a man who is not her husband Jason (actual name: Scott). Rachel,  an alcoholic who drinks to the point of blacking out and makes many bad decisions, decides to go to Jess/Jason's house the next day and confront Jess.

The morning after this outing, Rachel remembers nothing of what happened--but she has a head injury and senses that something very bad occurred. Then she sees a news story with a picture of the woman she recognizes as Jess, saying that Megan is missing. Rachel insinuates herself into the investigation, which eventually leads in an unexpected direction. I won't say more because I don't want to ruin the suspense.

I found The Girl on the Train entertaining, although I thought there were perhaps too many red herrings. Hawkins does a good job of making the three women--all of whom narrate sections of the book--quite distinct (I can imagine discussions of what actress should play each in the sure-to-happen movie); the men, unfortunately, are less well-developed. While all the characters are flawed (when the most sympathetic character is a therapist who sleeps with a patient, you know this is true), they are not as repulsive as the characters in Gone Girl. I guess that's not exactly an endorsement, but it does allow you to feel less dirty when you finish the book. I recommend the book for fans of the dark; for those who like their mysteries a bit more light-hearted, stay away!

The Whistling Season, by Ivan Doig

I was out of town most of the week and have a lot of posting to catch up on. First, the Novel Conversations book for February, The Whistling Season, by Ivan Doig. Set in rural Montana in the early 1900s and 1957, The Whistling Season is narrated by Paul, the oldest son of the Milliron family. The long-serving Superintendent of Public Instruction for Montana, the Paul of 1957 faces the spectre of telling the state's rural educators that all of the one-room schoolhouses in Montana are being closed for budgetary/efficiency reasons. On the way to the meeting at which he will make this announcement, Paul decides to take a side trip to the town where he grew up, Marias Coulee. There, he indulges his recollections of a memorable year in his youth. These recollections provide the bulk of the story.

In 1909, Paul's widowed father Oliver sees an ad in the local weekly advertising a housekeeper who "can't cook but doesn't bite." Laughing, he can't resist responding. Soon Oliver, Paul, and the younger sons--Damon and Toby--are waiting for Rose Llewelyn's arrival. When she steps off the train, she brings along a surprise, her brother Morris, who seems to be something of a dandy, as well as a fount of information--perhaps not the ideal Montana homesteader. Soon, however, Morris's knowledge comes in handy, as the schoolteacher elopes with a tent preacher; Morris steps into take her place, and the students respond, even the rather dull eighth-graders.

Doig paints a lovely picture of the Milliron family and the challenging but beautiful environment in which they live. Not everything that happens to them is positive: the boys face bullies, Toby is injured when a horse steps on his foot, their dryland farm needs rain desperately. Yet their lives are full of love and connection--and the one-room school where Morris reigns is central to those connections.

Doig's writing is evocative--he often refers in interviews to "the poetry under the prose"--and captures a way of life that is no more. I found the ending unsatisfying, however--it felt like Doig got to a certain point, said to himself, "Well, I better end this," and threw in a couple of not particularly twists to try to satisfy the reader. I also didn't see the point of the 1957 frame he put around the primary story; perhaps he thought it provided more opportunity to provide reflections on the value of local schools to rural communities, but that point was well-made without the adult Paul's voice. Despite these quibbles, I enjoyed The Whistling Season and would recommend it, particularly for those nostalgic about rural American life.  

Favorite passages:
. . . childhood is the one story that stands by itself in every soul.

My books already threatened to take over my part of the room and keep on going . . . whatever cargoes of words I could lay my hands on I gave safe harbor.

The circumference of love depends on the angle you see it from . . .

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

What We See When We Read, by Peter Mendelsund

Peter Mendelsund is a book designer/art director who has used his visual approach to address the question of what and how readers visualize what they are reading about and how that process affects the meaning they ascribe to what they read; eventually, he extends the analysis to include how people "read" reality. Mendelsund draws examples from literature of various vintages and approaches the focus question from a variety of perspectives.  The book is lavishly illustrated with black-and-white drawings, charts, photographs, and manipulations of type.

Unfortunately, I found the book to be a novelty, but one that's a bit of a jumble and lacks penetrating insights. Examples: "A novel invites our interpretive skills, but it also invites our minds to wander." "Words are like arrows--they are something, and they also point toward something." ". . . no matter how pure the data set that authors provide to readers--no matter how diligently prefiltered and tightly reconstructed--readers' brains will continue in their prescribed assignment: to analyze, screen, and sort." Not exactly earth-shattering statements and all too typical of What We See When We Read. Perhaps a more visual person would find the book design and illustrations, which are certainly creative, inspirational, but with a few exceptions, they also failed to move me.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami

When I told my son I had downloaded this book from Audible, his immediate response was "Why? You're not interested in running." I admitted this was true, but said I had read that it was actually about writing, which might be interesting--and I had a $10 credit on Audible and the book was less than $10.

In truth, the book was partly about writing, partly about Murakami's life and personality--but in great part about running. The parts about running did start to bore me, although the two sections that had been published in magazines--pieces on an ultra-marathon and running the original marathon route in Greece in the midsummer heat--were well done and engaging. The parts about Murakami's life revealed him to be a rather anti-social and rigid guy obsessed with getting older (the book was written around the time that he realized that no amount of training was going to allow him to improve his performance any more).  It was, however, interesting to read about how he decided to become a writer--while sitting in the outfield at a baseball game, he suddenly had the thought, "I could write a novel." And he did.

The parts about writing were interesting. Murakami sees three things as essential to successful writing: talent, endurance, and focus.  He sees running as a means of both developing his endurance and focus and somehow flushing out the toxins that a writer encounters in the process of plumbing the depths of human character. Working to become a better runner or triathlete allows him to become a better writer as well. Although he does not state it in the same way, he seems to share Jonathan Franzen's notion that before you can write your next novel, you have to become a better person because you've already written the best novel you can write in your previous state of being.

Murakami doesn't seem like a guy who would be much fun to hang out with. He seems to have no sense of humor about himself and is forthcoming about the fact that he is essentially a lone wolf who'd rather follow his own pursuits than worry about building or maintaining social connections (though he's been married for decades). The only relationship I see between his writing in this book and his rather surreal fiction is his frequent use of the well metaphor, which clearly holds deep meaning for him.

I was happy What I Talk About When I Talk About Running was relatively brief but it was interesting enough to keep me listening.

Favorite passage:
Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that's the essence of running, and a metaphor for life--and for me, for writing as a whole.

My American Unhappiness, by Dean Bakopoulos

What could be more rewarding than spending ten years compiling an inventory of American unhappiness? That is the pet project of Zeke Pappas, the executive director of the Great Midwestern Humanities Initiative, which has about run through the $10 million in federal funding a Wisconsin Congressperson sent its way. It is also being audited by an obscure office of the Department of Homeland Security.

Meanwhile, Zeke is also dealing with problems at home. Zeke's father, brother, and sister-in-law have recently died (his wife disappeared a dozen years ago in the first weeks of their marriage).  His twin nieces and mother live with him, but he soon learns his mother is terminally ill and has designated his sister-in-law's sister as the girls' guardian when she dies--unless Zeke can find a wife before her demise. As delusional in his personal life as in his work, Zeke thinks he might be able to convince his assistant, his recently divorced next door neighbor, or the barista at Starbucks to marry him; if all else fails, he has a hunch Sofia Coppola might be interested.

My American Unhappiness ranges from very funny to very sad. I was especially fond of the names of projects funded by the GMHI, which are inserted throughout the text ("The Coming Death of the Postal Service and the Coinciding Decline of American Imagination," "The Weather as Divinity in World Literature"). The answers people give Zeke when he asks why they are so unhappy are both funny and sad, as are Zeke's fund-raising letters. But the story of Zeke's family is sad--Zeke genuinely loves his nieces and is devastated at the thought of losing them. Still, everything he does to try to keep them with him is absolutely ridiculous and ill-considered.  Some of Zeke's critiques of modern culture seem perceptive, but he's so generally delusional that you feel almost ridiculous if you find yourself agreeing with him.

I enjoyed My American Unhappiness, but it's not for everyone. Zeke is not a sympathetic character, and the pop culture references (the chapter titles are Zeke's Facebook status updates) and frenetic style might be annoying to some readers.

Favorite passage:
. . . we, as a nation and perhaps as a human race, recently stopped loving stories about the other; we began to love stories only about ourselves. We love stories in which we are the protagonists in search of truth. I do not want to judge this. But my feeling is that we can cope with the increasing smallness, rapidness, and indifference of our changing, violent world only by seeing ourselves as nobel characters caught in the struggle. . . . YouTube, Myspace, blogs--all of these things are ways for us to make ourselves protagonists on a very crowded, violent, and unjust stage.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Florence Gordon, by Brian Morton

Florence Gordon is a 75-year-old feminist writer and thinker, an icon among a certain group of women, including her daughter-in-law Janine. Then her latest book receives a glowing front-page review in the NYT Review of Books, and she achieves a certain celebrity. At the same time, she is having some health problems and is dealing with her family--son Daniel, Janine, and their daughter Emily are in New York (they normally live in Seattle) for the summer.  Not being a warm and fuzzy person, Florence doesn't enjoy hanging out with the family (her ex-husband Saul is also inserting himself into her life, hoping she will find him a job).  Yet, when Emily volunteers to act as an assistant for the summer to help Florence work on her memoir, she accepts. The two begin to forget a tentative but largely tacit understanding.

Meanwhile, Emily is dealing with a former boyfriend and decisions about having sex and using drugs; Janine is starting an affair with the psychologist supervising her work on the fellowship that brought the family to New York; and Daniel, the son of two academics who became a cop, is spending his vacation reflecting on his life and his marriage.

Florence Gordon has some features of a typical family drama, but Florence's refusal to compromise who she is and how she chooses to construct her life make it anything but typical. Some of her "adventures," like her encounter with a deluded "writer" who drives her to an event on her book tour, are very funny; others, like her interactions with an even older friend who has hygiene issues, are equally sad. Questions about her health and whether she and Emily can build an enduring relationship provide compelling through-lines. Janine's and Daniel's stories are less interesting, but help convey the idea that people are often unaware of their loved ones' concerns and perspectives.

An unusual stylistic feature of Florence Gordon is the varying length of chapters. Many are very short, even though the next chapter continues the same event. Other chapters are much longer. I couldn't fathom exactly why Brian Morton did this or how he decided which scenes would be cut into short chapters or which would be contained within a single chapter, but it did disrupt the rhythm of reading in an interesting way.

Florence Gordon is not a character the reader exactly likes, but she is compelling, making Florence Gordon the novel a book I would recommend.

Favorite passage:
She'd been a young woman during the 1960s, and if you were young in the sixties--"bliss was it in that dawn to be alive"--there's a sense in which you can never grow old. You were there when the Beatles came to America; you were there when sex was discovered; you were there when the idea of liberation was born; and even if you end up a cranky old lady who's proud of her activist past but who now just wants to be left alone to read, write, and think--even if you end up like that, there's something in your soul that stays green.

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Crime and Punishment is, of course, a classic, and you can find synopses, analyses, and glowing reviews all over the Internet. Thus, I am not going to say much about it, since I found myself bored to sleep (literally) by the constant yammering of an array of mentally unstable, manipulative, morally corrupt men trying to justify unjustifiable acts.  I bow to the intellectual superiority of anyone who finds this discourse engaging in the 21st century (perhaps I would have found the philosophical arguments more interesting had I read it in, say, 1870). If you haven't read the book and decide to do so, I recommend keeping a character list, as every character is referred to by multiple names in the Russian tradition, which can be quite confusing. Personally, however, I wouldn't recommend investing the time in reading this monster.