Wednesday, January 11, 2017

What is Novel Conversations reading?

Even though I'm a Novel Conversations dropout, I thought you might like to keep up with what the group is reading, so here's their slate for the next six months:
  • February 6: Her Fearful Symmetry—Audrey Niffenegger
  • March 6: Past Imperfect—Julian Fellows
  • April 3: Empty Mansions, the Life of Huguette Clark—Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell
  • May 1: Year of Wonders—Geraldine Brooks
  • June 5: Commonwealth—Ann Patchett
  • July 11: A Gentleman in Moscow—Amor Towles

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Best of 2016

The benefit of putting together a "Best of . . ." list is reminding yourself that you did read some good books--even amid the too numerous bad mysteries and the lack of poetry (not a single book of poetry this year!). Anyway, here are my picks for best of 2016.

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
The Underground Railroad has appeared on more "best of" lists than any other title in 2016, so there's little left to say about it. It's fanciful yet deadly serious and its central character is one of the most fully realized I've encountered this year. I can't recommend it more highly.

Honorable Mention: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy; The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, by Heidi Durrow; The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen; Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett.

Short Stories
Thirteen Ways of Looking, by Colum McCann
This collection is really a novella and three short stories. The pieces are varied--a retired judge is murdered on the street, a writer tries to create a unique story about New Year's, a woman struggles to understand her deaf-mute child, and a nun travels across the ocean to confront a man who raped and tortured her. The novella is the most fully realized but all are interesting and well written.

Honorable Mention: Fortune Smiles, by Adam Johnson

What She Knew, by Gilly Macmillan
Macmillan tells her story well, with excellent character development, solid writing, and an interesting structure. The mystery itself--about an eight-year-old boy who goes missing while walking with his mother--isn't unique, but the book is still compelling.

Honorable Mention: Human Remains, by Elizabeth Haynes

My Kitchen Year, by Ruth Reichl
My Kitchen Year is a beautiful book, a collection of recipes and a photographic and written journal of Reichl's life the year after she lost her job as the editor of Gourmet, My favorite parts of the book were the tweets that she sent as she went through the process of grieving her job and finding new directions. The tweets are impressionistic and evocative, like little poems. Example: "Sun coming up. Hawks hovering outside. Dancing in the kitchen with gnocchi and the blues. Good way to start a Sunday."

Honorable Mention: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A Theme

I noticed that one of the themes in my favorite passages this year had to do with truth--perhaps not coincidental in this year marked by lies and fake news:

"Poets, like detectives, know the truth is laborious: it doesn’t occur by accident, rather it is chiseled and worked into being, the product of time and distance and graft. The poet must be open to the possibility that she has to go a long way before a word rises, or a sentence holds, or a rhythm opens, and even then nothing is assured, not even the words that have staked their original claim or meaning."--Colum McCann

"It's easy to smile just to make other people feel better. But when a person fakes happy, it has edges. Regular people may not see, but the people who count, they can see edges and lines where your smile ends and the real you, the sadness (me) or the anger (Grandma) begins."--Heidi Durrow

"Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach."--Colson Whitehead

Wrapping up December's Books

December was a crazy month both because of work and the holidays and my reading was somewhat curtailed--but there were still some definite highlights.

Still Missing, by Chevy Stevens
Random Acts, by J.A. Jance

The narrative of Still Missing is told as a series of sessions in which Annie O'Sullivan tells her therapist--without interruption from the therapist--about her abduction; year-long captivity in which she was terrorized, raped, and gave birth; her escape; and the effort to find out who her captor was and what his motives were. What she eventually learns is as horrifying as her experiences in captivity. I can understand why the author chose this device--it provides a specific purpose for the telling of the victim's story--sadly, I don't think it really works. The story has some similarities to Room, but lacks the nuance and redemptive power of that superior book.

Random Acts is a novella in which J.A. Jance once again brings two of her characters--Ali Reynolds and Joanna Brady. It's very thin in terms of actual mystery--but the author does kill off Brady's mother and stepfather. Who is going to be around to annoy Joanna now?

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, by Stephen Carter
The Versions of Us, by Laura Barnett
Nobody's Fool, by Richard Russo
Rules of Civility, by Amor Toles
Faithful, by Alice Hoffman
Spectator Bird, by Wallace Stegner
Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett

Stephen Carter asks us to imagine that Abraham Lincoln survived the assassination attempt by John Wilkes Booth (Andrew Johnson was instead killed) and went on to face impeachment. That's the context, but the center of the story is Abigail Canner, a young African American woman who has recently graduated from Oberlin and has returned to her home town of Washington, DC, to pursue a career as an attorney. She finds herself as a valuable and also manipulated law clerk at the firm defending Lincoln. The plot is extremely complicated and the writing occasionally flawed, but The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln is interesting for its exploration of racial, gender, and, well, politics of all types.

Until a few years ago, I'm not sure I had ever read a book that presented different futures for a cast of characters, depending on some relatively minor decision early on in the story; lately such books have proliferated. The Versions of Us is the latest and it adds another layer of complexity by tracing three story lines in the lives of Jim, Eva, and David, students at Cambridge in the late 1950s, Because there are events that cross all three versions of the story, I occasionally found myself struggling to remember which version I was in, who was married to whom in that version, who the children belonged to, and where the characters were in their lives and careers. Nonetheless, I enjoyed following how decisions about family, love, and career evolved and changed subsequent events.

Richard Russo published a sequel to Nobody's Fool and, given its stellar reviews, I decided I should read Nobody's Fool (despite having been in a book group that had a bit of a Russo obsession, I had not read this one) as preparation for Everybody's Fool. If you haven't seen the movie starring Paul Newman (recommended), Nobody's Fool is the story of Sully, a 60-something ne'er-do-very-well who lives in a retired teacher's upstairs apartment in small-town New York. Sully hides his caring under a facade of obnoxiousness and minor criminal behavior. Still, he is the heart of a constructed "family" of the type of oddballs who populate Russo novels. Looking forward to the sequel.

Rules of Civility feels like Edith Wharton's House of Mirth set in the late 1930s. It's the story of Katey Kontent, a young working woman in New York City who by chance becomes involved with a group of upper class New Yorkers. Katey fares better than Lily Bart (perhaps the 30 years difference in the setting made the difference), but the descriptions of the city and the cultural mores of the various social groups were Whartonesque. An enjoyable read.

I am not a huge fan of Alice Hoffman, in large part because of the magical realism aspects of her books. Faithful is the story of Shelby, whose life fell apart when she was in a car accident that left her best friend in a persistent vegetative state. When Hoffman started describing how pilgrims came to the friend's home because they believed she had healing powers, I thought I was going to have to stop reading. But that story line just fizzled out (thankfully) and what Hoffman does in the rest of the book is demonstrate how a broken person can put herself back together. The details may not be all that original, but Shelby's story moved me.

Spectator Bird is, to my mind, one of Wallace Stegner's minor book. In it, retired literary agent Joe Allston is basically waiting to die in his lovely home in the hills above Palo Alto, much as his career was about waiting to retire. Then suddenly he receives a postcard from a Danish woman he and his wife met on a European trip decades earlier. Prompted by the card, his wife prevails on him to read his journals from the trip to her as "bedtime reading," both knowing that they will eventually get to the point where Joe was attracted to the "Countess," as they called her. The Countess' story is sordid and sad, but why both Joe and his wife should be harboring dark feelings they have never discussed is somewhat inexplicable. Still, Stegner's incredible writing makes the book worthwhile.

Historical novels set in 12th century England are not exactly my cup of tea, but when I read The End of Your Life Book Club a few years ago, I wrote down the books that author Will Schwalbe and his mother read together, and The Pillars of the Earth was one.  In a prologue, author Ken Follett describes his long fascination with old churches and cathedrals and how that obsession led to writing a book so different from his usual genre (suspense). The book is about the building of the cathedral at Knightsbridge, England--and the tangled lives of the people involved. The stuff about architecture is interesting, but the rest is just a soap opera, with a bit too much relish for scenes of violence, particularly sexual violence. The writing is also flawed (e.g., Follett uses vocabulary that is out of place in the time in which the book is set). Given that the book is over 900 pages, I feel like Will Schwalbe owes me one!

Young Adult
Side Effects May Vary, by Julie Murphy

Alice is a not-too-lovable teenager who, when diagnosed with leukemia, decides to wreak revenge on everyone who has ever wronged her. Then, a year later, she is in remission and having to deal with the fallout of her revenge bucket-list. Alice is not a sympathetic character and the off again/on again relationship with her friend Harvey is beyond my ken (perhaps I am just too old).

My Favorite Things, by Maira Kalman
Everybody's Got Something, by Robin Roberts

My Favorite Things has been rapturously reviewed--here is an example sentence from one: "From Maira Kalman . . . comes this beautiful pictorial and narrative exploration of the significance of objects in our lives, drawn from her personal artifacts, recollections and selections from the collection of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum." Sounds delightful, right? Sadly (oops, that word keeps reappearing), the book did not move me in the least. In fact, it felt like the author/artist was trying too hard to delight. I wish I could have liked the book as much as other people did.

Everybody's Got Something is Robin Roberts' account of the life-threatening illness brought on by the chemotherapy she underwent after a breast cancer diagnosis. Her ability to fight through another terrible illness and grueling treatment while maintaining a positive spirit is truly admirable, but the book is not really worthy of her story. She is sometimes just too smarmy about her circle of beloved friends, family, and colleagues, and she repeats maxims from her parents over and over. I listed to the audio book, which Roberts narrates herself, and her delivery is overacted (though not sure how you can overact your own story). Perhaps the book would be  uplifting for someone going through a similar experience, but I was disappointed.

Pick of the Litter:  Faithful 

Favorite Passage 
As for Joe Allston, he has been a wisecracking fellow traveler in the lives of other people, and a tourist in his own. There has not been one significant event in his life that he planned. He has gone downstream like a stick, getting hung up in eddies and getting flushed out again, only half understanding what he floated past, and understanding less with every year.
Wallace Stegner in The Spectator Bird (Joe Allston describing himself)

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Giving Thanks for Books: November's Reading

November brought some really good books, some not-so-good books, some popular books that fell flat for me, and some books that made me question my own reactions.

After the Storm, by Linda Castillo
Black Irish, by Stephan Talty

I had missed a couple of Linda Castillo's Kate Burkholder mysteries so have been catching up on them. They're generally okay but not great; this one used an unplanned pregnancy as a plot device that was rather annoying, so definitely not my favorite.

Black Irish reminded me that a couple of decades ago, there were a number of crime novels/mysteries about the IRA and American supporters (as well as episodes of television crime shows); I haven't read a book with that particular focus for quite a while, but Black Irish goes there. Set in Buffalo, it is the story of a gifted but depressive detective, Abbie Kearney, who is investigating a murder involving friends and colleagues of her adoptive father, a retired Buffalo police officer. She is drawn deeper and deeper into the dysfunction of the Irish community, eventually solving not only the murder (which expands into five or six murders--I lost track) but the mystery of her parentage. Either I am naïve or this story is quite far-fetched.

The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes
My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante
Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple
Silver Linings Playbook, by Matthew Quick
The Word for World Is Forest, by Ursula LeGuin
Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
The Painted Veil, by Somerset Maugham
The Last Anniversary, by Liane Moriarty

In The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes imagines the inner life of Russian composer Shostakovich, who endured censorship, reeducation, and a variety of other indignities under Soviet rule, while trying to maintain some degree of artistic integrity. The fear, humiliation, and self-loathing are palpable and, while we cannot assume this is what Shostakovich actually thought, it is a thought-provoking depiction of the effects of tyranny on the artist.

My Brilliant Friend is the first of the mysterious Elena Ferrante's much-ballyhooed Neapolitan novels. It is the story of the two bright young friends who face various challenges as one sticks to the academic path while the other veers off that path and marries young. Each is jealous of the other. Sound familiar? Yes, it sounds like a million other coming-of-age novels! Being set in a poor neighborhood in Naples post-World War II makes it slightly more informative but no more inventive or engaging. Furthermore, there are point-of-view problems--the narrator knows things she shouldn't--and it's clearly a set-up for a sequel, always annoying to me. Not recommended!

And, continuing the theme of "I just don't get it," Maria Semple's Today Will Be Different follows the pattern of her earlier bestseller Where'd You Go, Bernadette. A 30-something Seattle woman struggles with First World issues depicted in a manner intended to be humorous. Most of the action takes place in one day when protagonist Eleanor Flood discovers a former employee has become wildly successful, her child Timby feigns illness for the umpteenth time so he can leave school, and she suspects her husband is having an affair. Flashbacks provide background on her marriage, her career, which is now languishing (her graphic memoir is 8 years overdue), and her family. Some pieces of her story are sad, but she's an annoying character who puts her child in iffy situations while she runs off half-cocked. Sorry . . . this author is, in my view, seriously overrated.

I was recently at a dinner with a group of "book people," when one woman mentioned she doesn't read much fiction but really loves Silver Linings Playbook. I had never read the book because I found the movie somewhat annoying in that it seemed to be getting its laughs at the expense of the two people with mental illnesses. As is generally the case, the book was definitely better--Quick still finds humor in mental illness, but it somehow feels more like we are with the main character, Pat Peoples, than simply observing him. Quick also makes the reader feel that there is still hope for Pat. The dance competition is much less central to the book than it was to the movie, which is also a positive. I didn't love the book but it has caused me to think about how mental illness is depicted in fiction, so that's a positive outcome.

The Word for World Is Forest (great title!) is the third Ursula Guin that I've read--all at the urging of my son Kevin, who is infinitely more knowledgeable about the science fiction genre than I am. In comparison to the previous two--The Dispossessed and The Lefthand of Darkness--The Word . . . seemed very mundane to me. Humans from Earth have colonized the planet Athshe in order to harvest wood from its forests; in the process, they have destroyed the environment and enslaved the peaceful Athseans.  Eventually, the Athsheans rise up and reclaim their planet, but their nature is changed by the experience of violence. The book also suffered because I was reading Children of God at the same time--that book has some similar plot points but is much more complex. Overall, The Word for World Is Forest fell flat.

Children of God, on the other hand, I very much enjoyed. It's a sequel to Russell's The Sparrow, an excellent book about an ill-fated Jesuit-sponsored mission to the planet Rakhat. In Children of God, survivor Father Emilio Sandoz, who was subjected to sexual torture on Rakhat and has been reviled since returning to Earth, is trying to rebuild his life despite the loss of his faith. The order asks him to prepare another group of Jesuits for a second mission to Rakhat and he agrees. But then, just as he is about to be married, he is commandeered into the mission. Meanwhile, on Rakhat, another survivor of the mission, Sonia Mendes, is involved with the struggle between the two species that inhabit the planet--the subservient Runa and dominant Jana'ata. The plot is even more complicated and layered, but what is more notable is how Russell explores a variety of theological, sociological, psychological, and political themes. Highly recommended.

Also highly recommended is Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad. In Whitehead's imagining, the Underground Railroad is an actual subterranean railroad; as refugees from slavery ascend to ground level at various stops, they find different cultures and levels of development. For example, in South Carolina, the protagonist Cora, who has escaped from a plantation in Georgia, finds skyscrapers and a society nominally dedicated to the uplift of the "colored people"--not surprisingly, there is a sinister side to this apparently progressive approach. Cora also spends time in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana--all dealing differently with the formerly enslaved. When I read about this book, I thought--as a friend said the other night--it sounded weird. But somehow Whitehead makes it all work, creating an engaging character, a spellbinding story, and a thought-provoking discussion of slavery and its aftermath. The Underground Railroad recently won the National Book Award--well-deserved!

The Painted Veil is a character study of a shallow but beautiful Englishwoman living in Hong Kong in the 1920s. Shockingly still unmarried in her mid-twenties, Kitty ties her fortunes to a scientist, Walter Fane, but is soon bored with her intellectual but not amusing husband. When Walter discovers that she is having an affair, he forces her to go to a cholera-infested area in China. There, she for the first time finds herself interested in something other than herself--she enjoys working with the children being cared for by nuns. However, she soon finds herself pregnant and widowed; she returns to England to seek shelter with her father. The book is often described as an affirmation of the human capacity for growth and change, but I'm not convinced of real growth on Kitty's part and unless you are particularly interested in the lives of British colonials in the Far East, I wouldn't recommend The Painted Veil.

My friend Suzy and I recently went to hear Liane Moriarty talk at the Tattered Cover; I found her as I expected from having read several of her books--sarcastically funny but also warm. When asked which of her books was her favorite, she equivocated but expressed some fondness for The Last Anniversary.  Ergo, I decided to read it. Like her other books, it has numerous quirky narrators and deals with serious topics (in this case post-partum depression) and relationships in a humorous way. Although I have found several of her books very funny, I found myself bothered by the humor in the last two I have read. Maybe they just aren't as effective--or maybe as I age, I'm just finding life more sad/less funny. It does have me questioning myself. But back to the book--Moriarty frames the book around the mystery of what happened to a young couple who disappeared during the Depression, leaving their daughter behind. Most readers will figure out the mystery fairly readily and perhaps become a little annoyed with the ongoing hints--however, at the end, Moriarty does throw in a twist that I did not expect--so kudos to her for a genuine surprise.

Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
Night, by Elie Wiesel

I remember seeing the movie version of Turn of the Screw many years ago and being pretty creeped out, but I had never read the book. Sadly, the book did not have the same impact. The story revolves around a young woman who is engaged to care for two orphaned children whose uncle wants to hear nothing about them once he hires someone to replace their previous governess, who died. The governess finds the little girl to be delightful, the little boy (who has been expelled from boarding school) somewhat less tractable. But soon enough, she realizes that the previous governor and her lover, a handyman around the estate, are visiting the children. And creepy events ensue. Perhaps I am harder to shock today or I knew too much about the story to find it scary. I also think the frame that James used--presenting it as a "ghost story" being told by a man to his friends--lessened its impact. Whatever the reason, Turn of the Screw was a disappointment.

Sadly, I also found myself less moved than I thought I should be by Night, Elie Wiesel's account of a young man's horrifying experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. The depiction of man's inhumanity to man is certainly beyond comprehension, but perhaps we have seen, read, and heard so much about the Holocaust that it ceases to shock. Perhaps it is peculiar to me and yet another sign of aging. But if it's more general, it's worth thinking about how we can keep our horror alive to prevent future genocides (somehow the recent election makes this seem timely).

Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela
The Road to Character, by David Brooks
Without You, There Is No Us, by Suki Kim
Why We Write, edited by Meredith Maran

Nelson Mandela is one of my heroes, and I hoped this biography (covering from childhood up to his election as president of South Africa) would give me some insight into how he maintained his positive spirit and staved off bitterness despite the travails he experienced. The book was definitely informative, particularly about the work and strategies of the ANC and others in the movement to end apartheid. Yet, I still don't understand Mandela's indomitability--perhaps I'm just not capable. I also wished he had talked more about what happened with Winnie--he claimed to have believed in her innocence, but nonetheless they divorced and she seems simply to have disappeared from his life. Again, he is probably too good to go into the details and I am venal enough to be interested. Not entirely fulfilling but worthwhile.

David Brooks is a conservative with whom I, not a conservative, often agree. Brooks found himself concerned about the imbalance of attention on "resume virtues"--achieving wealth, fame, and status--and our "eulogy virtues," those that exist at the core of our being: kindness, bravery, honesty, or faithfulness, focusing on what kind of relationships we have formed."  This, I think, is a very worthy concern, and Brooks approached it by examining how notable people whom he judged to focus more on eulogy virtues--Francis Perkins, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George Marshall, Dorothy Day, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and others--worked, sometimes struggled to develop character. At some point, I became a bit bored with the case studies, wishing there were fewer or that some might be contemporary figures. I actually preferred the parts of the book in which Brooks simply talked about aspects of character and its development. Overall, I have to give The Road to Character a thumbs-sideways review.

I recently heard Suki Kim being interviewed on NPR; she was complaining that her book about teaching in a school for privileged North Korean boys was being marketed as a memoir rather than a piece of brave (she was in North Korea under false pretenses) investigative journalism. She felt this was largely due to her being a woman. I had some sympathy for this argument, so I decided to read her book and guess what? It's a memoir! Yes, she did something dangerous. Yes, we do get insights into the effects of tyranny and leader-worship on people, especially young people. But she didn't really do any additional reporting outside of her life at the school and she didn't even seem to do any additional research. It's totally the story of her experience/her emotions . . . yes, it's a memoir. Interesting, but my sympathy for her dissipated.

Why We Write is a collection of interviews the editor did with 20 authors, ranging from Isabel Allende, Sebastian Junger, and Jennifer Egan to Jodi Picoult, Michael Lewis, and Terri McMillan (whose angry comments are my favorites). Maran asked them not just why they write, but when they are happiest, when they are saddest, tips for writers, etc. I found little new insight--most say they write because that's what they do, perhaps all they can do and their advice tends toward "just sit down and write." A few struck me as particularly over-confident (James Frey is notable here) but most seem quite unprepossessing. If you've never read any authorial reflections, this might be interesting; if you have, it's pretty mundane.

Pick of the Litter:  The Underground Railroad and Children of God

Favorite Passages:

What mattered was not so much whether a particular story was factually true, but rather, what it signified. Though it was also the case that the more a story circulated, the truer it became.

What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves—the music of our being—which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history.
All his life he had relied on irony. He imagined that the trait had been born in the usual place: in the gap between how we imagine, or suppose, or hope life will turn out, and the way it actually does. So irony becomes a defence of the self and soul; it lets you breathe on a day-to-day basis. . . .
However, he was no longer so sure. There could be a smugness to irony, as there could be a complacency to protest. . . If you turned your back on irony, it curdled into sarcasm. And what good was it then? Sarcasm was irony which had lost its soul.
Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time

Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.
Time enough for Cora to take stock of her journey from Randall and make a thick braid of her misfortunes. List upon list crowded the ledger of slavery. The names gathered first on the African coast in tens of thousands of manifests. That human cargo. The names of the dead were as important as the names of the living as every loss from disease and suicide and the other mishaps, labeled as such for accounting purposes, needed to be justified to employers. At the auction block, they tallied the souls purchased at each auction and on the plantations the overseers preserved the names of workers in rows of tight cursive. Every name an asset, breathing capital, profit made flesh. The peculiar institution made Cora into a maker of lists as well. In her inventory of loss, people were not reduced to sums but multiplied by their kindnesses, people she had loved, people who had helped her . . . the ones who disappeared . . .
Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Sunday, November 6, 2016

An Evening with Ben Montgomery

One of the highlights of the One Book One Broomfield program (just completing its 11th year--woot, woot!) is the author visit. This year, as a member of the committee that chose the book, I was lucky to have dinner with other committee members, library staff, our mayor, and the author and his wife--very fun! Ben Montgomery, author of Grandma Gatewood's Walk, is a good storyteller (as is Bill Roberts, husband of committee member Irene Roberts) and we laughed and talked books, food, hiking, and other topics. I won't tell their story, but Ben and his wife Jennifer had a story about David Sedaris that caused me to throw out the one David Sedaris book I owned.

But on a more serious note, last night Ben talked about Emma Gatewood's through hike of the Appalachian Trail and the process of researching and writing the book. Two points stood out for me. First, Ben continued working his "day job" as a reporter at the Tampa Times while writing the book, which led to some very long days in which he admits he wasn't much help in terms of the family's home life (as he put it, "It takes a village to raise a book"); it's a reminder of how few authors are able to devote themselves solely to writing (at least if they want to eat). Second, I was touched by Ben's  deep affection for Grandma Gatewood (without overlooking her less positive traits)--so deep that he found himself breaking into tears near the end of the writing process when he knew he was going to have to write about her death. It reminded me a bit of hearing Kent Haruf talk about the people of Holt, Colorado, people he had created and clearly loved. So how is it different to write a book about someone you don't like, whether a real person or one you have created? Is it easier because you don't care about them? Or harder because you don't like them--or do you have to like them at some level to write about them. Something to ponder.

Kudos to the Mamie Doud Eisenhower staff, who planned a great series of events around the book. I'm proud that our little community has sustained this community reading program when our larger neighbors (I'm looking at you, Boulder and Denver) have given up the program.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Really, Ian McEwan?

Focus is elusive today, so I've decided to catch up on the blog, even though it's not the end of the month. The most remarkable book -- but not in a good way -- is Ian McEwan's newest, Nutshell, featuring one of the most ridiculous narrators of all time. But more about that later.

The Forgetting Time, by Sharon Guskin
Hell or High Water, by Joy Castro
Her Last Breath, by Linda Castillo
Exhume, by Danielle Gerard

Her Last Breath, one of Castillo's Kate Burkholder's mysteries set in Amish country, was by far the best of these books. Most disappointing was Exhume--I thought this might be a new and interesting series about a medical examiner, but that character--Dr. Anna Schwartzman, strangely referred to by her last name throughout the book--is, sadly, utterly stupid.

Heat and Light, by Jennifer Haigh
Girl in Translation, by Jean Kwok
Stories for Wartime, by Rebecca Makkai
The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Bookstore on the Corner, by Jenny Colgan
Small, Great Things, by Jodi Picoult
Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

It's hard to write a political novel without it becoming more of a screed. Jennifer Haigh clearly set out to write a book about the hazards of fracking and drilling for gas. She seems to have tried to avoid the book becoming a polemic by writing in innumerable characters and issues--infidelity, Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, loss of faith, addiction, Three Mile Island, gender identity, subsidized science. It's way, way too much--and it still feels like a book written to advance a position.

Girl in Translation is the story of Kimberly Chang and her mother, immigrants from China to New York. Kimberly is bright and hard-working and ends up in private school--but she does not tell her classmates that she works at  garment factory with her mother after school (the aunt who owns the factory is truly a horrible person) and lives in a one-room unheated apartment overrun with vermin of various types. Nonetheless, Kimberly and her mother perservere--and the reader cares whether they succeed. I didn't care for the direction the book took near the end, but overall thought it was a moving description of one immigrant experience.

I often find short stories to be head-scratchers, and Stories for Wartime provided plenty of scalp stimulation. Several of the stories are written as fairy tales or myths--those I must say I did not get at all. Others were strange but enjoyable. For example, "Couple of Lovers on a Red Background" involves the appearance of a miniature J.S. Bach in a woman's apartment; he gradually gets taller and she decides she'd like to have a baby with the composer. "The Museum of the Dearly Departed" opens with a gas leak killing everyone in an apartment building, including a woman's fiance and his supposedly long-dead ex-wife. The woman finds herself involved with others affected by the tragedy, including an artist who is building a replica of the apartment building complete with artifacts from each apartment and an elderly couple who are the only surviving residents (the husband was a Nazi).  A very few are rather ordinary--for example, "The November Story" is about the manipulations behind the scenes at a reality show (but I still liked it). My favorite story was "Everything We Know about the Bomber," which presented bits of information showing how the image of an accused criminal comes to be "known." I doubt anyone will love all the stories, but the collection is worth checking out.

The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer last year, and it is a worthy recipient. Complex and layered, the book takes the form of a confession by an unnamed protagonist who served in the South Vietnamese secret police but was actually a spy for the North Vietnamese. When Vietnam falls, he organizes one of the last flights out of Saigon--and is on it himself, along with his boss ("The General") and one of his two best friends--Bon, who is a South Vietnamese loyalist. In the United States, the protagonist is to keep an eye on these loyalists, who have not given up the struggle, despite their displacement. While in the United States, he also serves as a consultant trying to bring Vietnamese perspectives to a war film being made by a director referred to as "The Auteur" (purportedly Frances Ford Coppola). Eventually, however, his dual role causes serious problems--The General demands that he kill two men and he defies his North Vietnamese handler (his other best friend, Man) by taking part in an ill-fated mission to Southeast Asia because he feels compelled to try to save Bon. While my synopsis of the plot makes this seem unlikely, the book is often quite funny as it provides a Vietnamese perspective on the Vietnam War and skewers American politics and culture of the time. Highly recommended.

I had seen several positive notices about The Bookshop on the Corner but found it vacuous. If you believe that a stranger can come to town, start selling books, turn everyone in town into readers, and find love, then this book is for you (as is The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend). Maybe if I had read it on a beach . . .

Small, Great Things has many of the standard Jodi Picoult devices--multiple narrators, family conflict, a controversial legal issue. The conflict at the center of the book is interesting, however--an African American nurse is asked not to touch the newborn son of a white supremacist couple. Then she finds herself alone with the child when he experiences a medical crisis--what should she do? Can she be held legally responsible if the outcome is bad? Is a white public defender correct when she says they should not bring up race in the trial? I enjoyed the book until the very end, when Picoult has the public defender engage in a long drawn-out philosophical discussion with herself and another character undergoes an unbelievable transformation.

And, now, Nutshell, which begins with the line "So here I am, upside down in a woman." Yes, the narrator of this slim novel is a fetus, one who can identify the wine (varietal and vintage) he shares with his mother, was disappointed when his mother gave up on the audiobook of Ulysses, which he was enjoying (puh-leeze!), and describes in gross detail his mother's sexual encounters with her lover, who happens to be his father's brother. There's a crumbling mansion, a murder plot,  humorous word play--all causing some reviewers to rhapsodize about the magic McEwan has pulled off with this unique narrator. Seriously? This. Book. Is. Ridiculous.  I could not suspend disbelief regarding the narrator and could not discern any real point to having a fetus narrate the book. In fact, I couldn't see that the book had a point. It doesn't take long to get through this book--and yet it's still not worth the time!

Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy

I am catching up on my Tolstoy--and it's a worthwhile endeavor. The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a novella, so it doesn't require the time commitment of Anna Karenina (or War and Peace, which I haven't yet taken on), but its impact is intense. The book begins with the announcement of his death--his colleagues are lining up to take his position as a judge, his wife obsessing about her pension. But who is this person whose life seems to have mattered so little? Tolstoy then takes us back through Ivan Ilyich's life, which has been dedicated to upward mobility. While successful on the surface, there's little below that surface. When he becomes terminally ill, his family's lack of concern is devastating--and his death is described in terrifying terms. Not a depiction of humanity's finer moments but a work that will leave you examining your life.

Working Stiff, by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell

This book's subtitle--Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner--aptly describes its content. The author (writing with her English-major husband) covers, often in gruesome detail, cases that she encountered during her two years in the New York City's Medical Examiner's office, a period that included 9/11 and the plane crash in New York that occurred about two months later. Although some people would likely find the subject matter hard to take, I enjoyed the book (the author has a sense of humor but also a reverence for life--both of which help).

Pick of the Litter: The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Favorite Passages:

Faith, in the end, is human stubbornness on a heroic scale--the passionate denial, the absolute and abiding refusal to die.

Jennifer Haigh, Heat and Light

I was in close quarters with some representative specimens of the most dangerous creature in the history of the world, the white man in a suit.

He had a Minnesotan's admiration for resourcefulness in the face of hardship, bred by generations of people one very bad winter away from starvation and cannibalism.

He had hung an elaborate Oriental rug on his wall, in lieu, I suppose, of an actual Oriental.  [This one is the choice of my son Kevin.]

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The 32-Hour Book and Other September Achievements

Last night I told my older son (a computer engineer who's not much of a reader) that I had finished the 32-hour book recommended by my younger son (the soon-to-be literary scholar). His response: "Is that the title?" Well, no, it's how long the audio book of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is! Given its length and the fact that my iPod refused to play the last 5 hours, finishing it was my major September achievement. . . but there were other good reading moments as well.

The Jewel of Paradise, by Donna Leon

This may be a first--a month in which I read only one mystery. Sadly, the story of a Venetian musicologist investigating the contents of two trunks of ephemera left by a composer is boring and barely a mystery at all. (Note this is not one of what is evidently a very popular Leon series about a character named Commissario Brunetti.)

Landline, by Rainbow Rowell
Carthage, by Joyce Carol Oates
Miller's Valley, by Anna Quindlen
Clara and Mr. Tiffany, by Susan Vreeland
The Hopefuls, by Jennifer Close
The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henriquez
Slade House, by David Mitchell
The Japanese Lover, by Isabel Allende
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

I don't know why I decided to read Landline, since I had just read another Rainbow Rowell book and found it to be essentially silly. The same can be said of Landline, which includes a fantastical element--when the protagonist, who has stayed at home to work over Christmas while her husband and children have traveled to visit the grandparents, calls her husband on the landline, they are transported back to an earlier period in their relationship when they almost broke up. Rowell is clearly interested in the effects of technology on human relationships, but her books are too lightweight to actually advance our understanding of those effects.

Carthage has three parts that feel almost like three separate novels. The first is the story of a family whose somewhat strange younger daughter suddenly goes missing and the impact of the disappearance on the family and on the family of the Iraq War veteran suspected of harming her. The second (SPOILER) is the story of what happened to the daughter, written without naming her, as she works with a researcher studying the death penalty. The third reveals what happens--to herself, her family, and the man serving time for "killing" her--when she returns to her home. It's a peculiar combination and the ending does not seem realistic, but I still somewhat inexplicably enjoyed the book.

Sadly, the same can not be said of Miller's Valley, which is the story of Mimi Miller, whose somewhat dysfunctional family has lived on their Pennsylvania farm for generations. Development and the proposed construction of a dam threaten that existence; at first it feels like the book is going to be about this economic/environmental issue, but then it seems to switch focus to the difficulty of escaping the rural/working class poor life (and the draw that life can still have once you've escaped). A big disappointment from Anna Quindlen.

Clara and Mr. Tiffany is interesting--the fictionalized story of the real female artist who developed many of the ideas for glasswork that brought Louis Tiffany his fame. The account of women's struggle for any sort of recognition and even for their jobs, when male workers became jealous of the women's success, is fascinating. The story of Clara's personal life is less engaging, but the book is worth reading, particularly for those interested in art and/or women's history.

The Hopefuls is the story of a young couple that brings their idealism and ambition to Washington, DC, when the husband gets a job in the nascent Obama administration. Wife Beth hates DC while husband Matt grows frustrated with his lack of upward mobility; he therefore jumps at the chance to run his friend Jimmy's campaign--for a minor office in Texas. Beth and Matt decamp for Texas with Jimmy and his wife Ashleigh, and their marriage suffers. I found the book interesting while focused on their life in Washington (although I was annoyed that the author referred to the Education Department as the DOE, which is the designation for the Department of Energy--I know it's a small thing, but if you're writing a book as a Washington insider, you should get these details right!) and soap opera-ish when they end up in Texas.

The Book of Unknown Americans focuses on the largely immigrant population of a rundown apartment building in Delaware. Two families are particularly important to the story--the Riveras, who have recently come from Mexico to seek treatment for their daughter Maribel, who sustained a brain injury in a fall, and the Toros, who fled Panama 15 years earlier, The Toros' son Mayor and Maribel form a friendship that is good for both of them but eventually causes a rift between the families. While tragedy strikes one family, there is still an optimistic tone--people care for and help each other and believe that good will eventually come to them. Even for a cynic such as myself, The Book of Unknown Americans is a rewarding read.

Slade House is, according to other reviews, a follow-up to David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, which I tried to read but could not get into. One does not need to have read that book, however, to follow the (soon predictable) pattern of Slade House. Every nine years, someone disappears into an alley in London, never to be seen again. A mother and son are followed by a police officer looking into their case, a young woman who is part of a paranormal investigatory team, that young woman's sister, etc, They have become prey of a pair of centuries-old twins who require fresh souls to renew themselves. The first couple of chapters are entertaining, but I quickly found the book predictable and rather tedious. Cloud Atlas this is not.

I am not a fan of Isabel Allende but downloaded the audio book of The Japanese Lover because it was available on a day when I couldn't find anything else--and a friend had told me she enjoyed the book. It's the story of Alma, an elderly doyen of San Francisco's upper crust who was sent to live with relatives in California when her parents began to see the path of Nazism in Poland; Ichimei, her lifelong friend and the son of the Japanese gardener for Alma's relatives; and Irina, a young immigrant from Moldova who suffered hideous abuse from her stepfather but has become a beloved care-giver at the idyllic retirement home to which Alma has decamped. Allende jumps around in time to give us these characters' backstories, but none of the characters come alive, even when terrible things happen to them--and a broad array of social ills befall them. Definitely my last Allende--and I mean it!

My son Kevin described Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell as "the greatest stand-alone work of fantasy of our time." I must take his word for this, as he is a voracious reader in this genre, while I am not. I did, however, find it an imaginative and complex work that held my interest for 32 hours! It is set in the early 1800s, when British magic was apparently dead. Theoretical magicians talked about and studied magic--but did not practice it. The one exception was Mr. Norrell, who not only could perform impressive magic but intended that he be the only magician in England. Enter Jonathan Strange, a much younger, more vibrant, and more sociable man who convinced Norrell to take him on as a student. I cannot possibly describe what happens in the book, but suffice it to say it is complicated, dark, and not always fast-reading (there are numerous footnotes!) or -moving. I enjoyed the book, but I am not sure what to make of it now that I am done . . . so I guess I can say it has me thinking, which is always a good thing.

In the past, I have liked Ann Patchett's books with more exotic settings and themes (Bel Canto, State of Wonder) better than her more domestic works. But I loved Commonwealth, which is the story of two families--the Keatings and the Cousins--whose lives become entangled as the result of Bert Cousins' decision to attend a christening at the Keatings simply to get away from his wife and children on a Sunday afternoon. Three of the four parents seem to be largely unscathed by the upheaval in the two families, but the six children are scarred, in ways large and small. And yet they persevere--and we come to admire and respect them. Patchett's work covers some of the same ground as the novels of Jonathan Franzen and is equal to, if not better than, those more-lauded books. Commonwealth is definitely recommended.

Breakfast at Tiffany's, by Truman Capote
Animal Farm, by George Orwell

I feel like I could not possibly have anything original to say about either of these novellas, both widely read and written about--but I'll give a couple of personal reactions nonetheless. Having never read or seen the film of Breakfast at Tiffany's, I was surprised to find Holly Golightly a rather crude character. While I enjoyed Capote's writing and the narration of Michael C. Hall, I was not taken with Holly or the story. I had, of course, read Animal Farm in high school, but I had forgotten how disturbingly violent it is. While the removal of the fear of Communism might suggest the book is no longer relevant, I find its depiction of human/animal nature as timely and accurate as ever.

Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit
The Folded Click, by Heidi Julavits
In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Men Explain Things to Me begins with an anecdote that will resonate with virtually every woman who has ever had a conversation with a man. She is at a party and a man asks her what she does. She responds that she is a writer. He asks what she has written and she begins to describe her most recent book. He interrupts her to tell her about the "very important new book" on the same topic. After some minutes, Solnit's friend must interrupt the man to tell him he is describing Solnit's book, which, of course, he has not actually read--he has only read a review! This story introduces the title essay in the collection, which is a scathing look at the silencing of women. It is followed by an essay on violence against women that should be required reading for people of all genders. In another essay, Solnit recasts objections to the marriage equality movement as having less to do with same sex marriage than the thought that women might become equal within the marriage relationship; I'm not so sure about that assertion but it is interesting reading. Less interesting to me was her piece on Virginia Wolfe. I generally liked this slim volume, though I found Solnit to be a little overly self-referential, which may have been at least in part a result of the essays having been published individually first. Still, some editing might easily have eliminated repetitive references to what she included in earlier works.

When you have established a journal that eschews snarkiness and includes only positive reviews, as Heidi Julavits has, critiquing your work puts a reviewer in an uncomfortable situation, especially when looking at a work like The Folded Clock, which invites snarkiness. Why do I say it invites snarkiness? First some background. Julavits found her old diaries and hoped they would show she was destined to be a writer (she seems to be spend considerable time looking for signs), but instead finds them banal. She decides to keep a diary—although The Folded Clock is hardly an actual diary (even though every entry begins with “Today I”).  The entries are not provided in chronological order, bouncing around in a two-year period in which Julavits wrote the reflections or essays (rather than entries). While other reviewers have been enchanted, I found myself wondering if she was intending to be funny because the problems she obsesses about are so shallow. They are the definition of first world problems—her consternation when she turns up at her therapist’s and the therapist doesn’t answer the door, her fear of sharks, her jealousy of the doctor who invented the diet her husband is on to improve his health.  She lives in Maine and Manhattan, she swans around Europe, she very deliberately does not name drop—but she does mention knowing a lot of famous actors,theater people, writers, artists, etc. She uses men in her life to develop her sense of self. It's really quite annoying. And--in the theme of small errors that rankle--she refers to the Dewey Decimal system and then gives a call number in the Library of Congress classification system. Didn't anyone edit this thing? 

In Other Words is a memoir that Indian American author Jhumpa Lahiri wrote in Italian while living for three years in Italy. (It also includes two short stories written in Italian.) The English edition includes Italian on the verso, English on the recto--an arrangement that is not enlightening to most of us non-Italian-speaking Americans. Lahiri recounts her love affair with Italian, as well as her ruminations on why Italian calls to her more strongly than English or Bengali (her parents' native language) and the challenges and rewards of writing in a new language. I admire Lahiri's previous work and think it’s interesting that she is drawn to Italian and attributes it to not feeling truly at home in Bengali or English. Some of what she writes about writing is very interesting and beautifully stated. But much of the book feels like self-analysis; perhaps instead of writing a book, she might have crafted a very fine article and taken a trip to a therapist to talk about her many irritations and her angst.  (And, yes, I know I have descended into complete snarkiness here.)

Pick of the Litter: Commonwealth 

Favorite Passages 
A conversation involves a sort of collaboration and, often, an act of forgiveness. When I speak I can make mistakes, but I’m somehow able to make myself understood. On the page I am alone. The spoken language is a kind of antechamber with respect to the written, which has a stricter, more elusive logic.

Why do I write? To investigate the mystery of existence. To tolerate myself. To get closer to everything that is outside of me.

If I want to understand what moves me, what confuses me, what pains me—everything that makes me react, in short—I have to put it into words. Writing is my only way of absorbing and organizing life. Otherwise it would terrify me, it would upset me too much.

Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words

Every woman knows what I'm talking about. It's the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men's unsupported overconfidence.

Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me