Thursday, December 31, 2009

My "Best of" List

The year began with I See You Everywhere, by Julia Glass (liked it), and ended with A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore (didn't like it). In between were some very good books, some very bad books, and many in the middle. Here are my favorites:

Best Fiction: Little Bee, by Chris Cleave

This shocking story is narrated by Little Bee, a refugee from Nigeria, and Sarah, the British magazine editor who encounters Little Bee in Nigeria and again at home in London's suburbs. Little Bee spends two years in a British detention center. When she escapes (thanks to another detainee's willingness to give sexual favors to a guard, she makes her way to the home of Sarah and her husband, setting off a startling chain of events. The book deals not only with the UK's response to immigration issues and violence in Africa, but also middle class ennui and infidelity. Nothing is truer in the book than Little Bee's admonition, "So when I say I am a refugee, you must understand that there is no refuge."

Little Bee's voice is one I cannot forget. Here are some other examples:

"We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived!

"They carried themselves like weather presenters preparing to lower expectations for the bank-holiday weekend."

"I was very young then, and I did not miss having a future because I did not know I was entitled to one."

Best Nonfiction: Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell

Using research, case studies, and his own story, Malcolm Gladwell helps us understand why some people succeed at a very high level and others don't. Perhaps surprisingly for readers, the answer is seldom greater innate ability--rather, the story of success involves ability plus intense and lengthy practice, accidents of timing, and cultural influences. After reading this book, I bored people by talking about it repeatedly for weeks (perhaps months). While Gladwell may not be right about everything, he gives the reader much to think and talk about.

Best Poetry: Bicycles, by Nikki Giovanni

Lovely accessible poems about love and loss. Giovanni teaches at Virginia Tech, and the perpetrator of the mass murder there had been in one of her classes; she includes two very different poems about the event (a line from one: "But we will be the same....willful ignorance will overpower indignation every time...."). But most of the poems are upbeat. As Giovanni says at the end of the poem "In Simpler Times":

Taking the roasted chicken
With root vegetables out of the oven
It's easy to see
The delight I am taking
In this life

Best Mystery: The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, by Sally Koslow

I read a lot of mysteries and this year, too often, they were bad mysteries. I'm not even sure The Late, Lamented Molly Marx would be shelved in the mystery section, but it has elements of a mystery--the police are trying to determine what happened to Molly Marx (murder? suicide? a simple bike accident?) and so is she. Yes, that's right, the title character is dead but not quite ready for "The Duration" (Koslow's take on the afterlife). Through her eyes and memory, we reconstruct what happened in her life and death (and death seems to have improved her). An entertaining read.


I want to make note of the great writing that appears in popular magazines, which are dying almost as rapidly as newspapers. This year, I read excellent articles by such noted novelists as Joyce Maynard (More), Karen Joy Fowler (Real Simple), Chang-Rae Lee (Food and Wine), and Pam Houston (one of many luminaries writing for O). Esquire's sarcastic hipster tone often made me laugh. And Newsweek's feature on children's perceptions of race made me think--and talk (it was another one of those pieces I couldn't stop telling people about). Those are just some examples. So next time you're at the bookstore, pick up a magazine along with your books.

A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

Given that A Gate at the Stairs received two strong reviews from The New York Times (and landed on many "best of" lists), I hesitate to say I didn't really care for it...but I didn't really care for it. Moore is a talented writer and I have enjoyed her darkly humorous short stories. Here, however, she struggles to integrate the events in narrator Tassie Keltjin's life into a meaningful whole--or perhaps she didn't care about that integration, but I unfortunately do.

At the book's opening, Tassie, a college student in fictional Troy, Wisconsin (which bears many resemblances to Madison, where Moore teaches), is looking for a job. She hires on as a babysitter for Sarah Brink, who is trying to adopt a child and, after at least one misstep, adopts two-year-old, biracial Mary-Emma. Moore pokes fun at some of the ridiculous notions of modern parenting (Sarah bakes library books to kill the germs before she'll let Emmie read them) and liberals' attempts to talk their way through racism; the conversation that drifts up the stairs to the nursery as members of families that are biracial, multiracial, or "of color" meet in Sarah's living room are both hilarious and painful. Moore can still make me laugh: her litany of 36 fabric colors that begin with P (some complete with exclamation marks--"Paprika, Pinot, Persimmon! Pimento! Pomegrante, Pine!") is wonderful.

But Tassie experiences some very bad things (I won't say what they are out of respect for future readers of the book), and, in my view, Moore is less skillful in weaving these events into the story. They feel as though they were plunked into the narrative to give Tassie an experience of loss that she can then process. But they make little sense in terms of a plot, and Tassie's efforts to move on are unevenly rendered--two of the three bad things that happen to her are reflected on at length, the other (though heart-rending) seems to have had much less impact.

Tassie's narration is uneven. At times, her actions and her thoughts reflect a naive girl from rural Wisconsin. At others, she seems to be a typical college student struggling to find herself. Those two "selves" make sense, but at other times she thinks and acts in a way that suggests a great deal of intellectual (and implausible) sophistication. Some reviewers have complained about the puns in the book; for the most part, they don't bother me. I was, however, bothered by the ending, in which Moore employs an Austenesque "Reader, I..." device that awkwardly draws the book to a close.

Favorite passages:

Tragedies, I was coming to realize through my daily studies in the humanities both in and out of the classrooom, were a luxury. They were constructions of an affluent society full of sorrow and truth but without moral function. Stories of the vanquishing of the spirit expressed and underscored a certain societal spirit to spare.

(This is beautifully written--and a good example of narration that doesn't seem true to the 20-year-old Tassie.)

I strung a thick old rope between the poles [of an abandoned tennis court], and I took my collection of Rumi poems and carefully flattened and unstrung it so I could hang folded pages along the crease, tacking them into the rope with pushpins, and I lay underneath and read.

(Okay, I love the idea of the poems on the rope more than the actual writing here.)

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Locked In, by Marcia Muller

In her 26th book in the Sharon McCone series, Marcia Muller has found a way to make the book fresh--Shar is shot in the head in the first chapter and spends the next 200 pages unable to talk or move (although she is conscious and can communicate by blinking). The book follows Shar's husband Hy as he deals with her health crisis and various operatives at her detective agency as they try to figure out who shot their boss. Through their investigations, they link two apparently unrelated cases into a major corruption scandal in local government (which seems fairly far-fetched, but maybe I'm naive) and figure out who shot Sharon.

Focusing on Mick, Rae, Julia, Craig, and Hy freshens the series by letting long-time readers get to know these characters better. Chapters on Sharon are also interesting, as we track her thinking as she realizes what it means to be "locked-in" in her own mind and body. I didn't find the story particularly suspenseful, but it was an fun, quick read for weekend/holiday diversion.

Favorite passage: None

Thursday, December 24, 2009

You or Someone Like You, by Chandler Burr

You or Someone Like You introduces its two main characters in a scene in which movie executive Howard Rosenbaum is leaving his wife Anne. The book then goes back a year, to a point at which Anne's life changes considerably. Despite having a doctorate in English literature, she has until then been a housewife who tended to her garden, raised her son, and went to events with her prominent husband. A scene at a dinner party illustrates how Howard sucked up all the attention in the room (he even sucked up a teaching job at UCLA that Anne had originally applied for). But at that same dinner party, a producer asks Anne to make her a reading list. The reading list develops into a reading group (Anne is adamant that it is not a book club) and then a series of specialized reading groups for directors, writers, producers, etc. As the popularity of the groups feeds Anne's ego, her confidence grows and she is asked to read scripts, make recommendations about books worthy of becoming films, and even become a producer.

While we read the literary analysis Anne provides to her groups, we also learn the back story of Anne and Howard's apparently happy marriage. Howard was raised as an observant Jew in Brooklyn; Anne grew up all over the world, wherever her British father's diplomatic career took the family. Although Howard's parents disapproved of Anne, they married, moved to Los Angeles, had a son Sam, and apparently left all thoughts of religion behind them. Much of their parenting and their own relationship seems to take place through reading and/or quoting literary works. Through Anne's recollections, we also learn that she sees herself as an elitist but not a snob (the distinction to my mind is misplaced, as she appears to be both).

At any rate, as we read about Anne's emerging career, it seems likely that the shift of power between Anne and Howard will be the cause of the rift portrayed in the opening scene. But no! The cause of the rift--and the subject of the second half of the book, which borders on being a screed--is Howard's sudden decision to return to the practice of Judaism and thus to reject his gentile wife and son. The precipitating event is Sam's experience on a spring-break trip to Israel, where he is expelled from a yeshiva for being "unclean" (because his mother is not Jewish, he is not Jewish under Jewish law). For me as a parent (who is neither Jewish nor religious but does know something about diverse families), Howard's response to this event is completely unbelievable. However, it gives Chandler Burr (who, according to an "Author's Note," had a similar experience as a young man) the opportunity, through Anne, to rail against an Orthodox definition of Jewishness that is exclusionary and based on racial categories (and the hypocrisy regarding anti-Semitism that he perceives as inherent in this definition). Because Howard is no longer speaking to her, Anne makes her points through her reading groups and through a speech on why people hate literature; evidently in Hollywood no remark goes without multiple repetitions.

The human tendency to divide people into "us" and "them" is a persistent problem worthy of discussion. I'm not persuaded by Burr's analysis, in part because he does not deal with power differentials, which I believe are critical to understanding group identity. Still, Burr could have written a thought-provoking article posing the same questions and explicating how literature casts light on the subject. Unfortunately, framing the questions in novelistic form doesn't add much to the discussion. The book's two halves feel like they belong in different novels (or perhaps a novel and a nonfiction work), and the characters' responses to life events don't seem real. One example in addition to Howard's response to Sam's experience in Israel: would you take your recently out teenage son and drop him off at the home of a gay writer you met once for three hours (when you witnessed an accident in which the writer hit a gardener with his car), so your son could learn about being a well-adjusted gay man? I think not. The substitution of literary discourse for conversation becomes wearisome. And, on a more picayune point, the incessant name-dropping of Hollywood luminaries and New York's literary lions is annoying and unnecessary.

Favorite passage:
. . . it is impossible to overestimate the pleasure of being included. Even for one who has never much wanted to be.

Of interest:
Burr has established a website where readers can comment on the book or the issues it raises:

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Wrong Mother, by Sophie Hannah

The Wrong Mother provides a creepy look at the dark side of motherhood and children, wrapped up in a complicated mystery. The story is told in three different ways. Sally, a scientist and struggling mother of two, provides first-person accounts of her misadventures: she is pushed under a bus in the first chapter (the bus misses) and then discovers the man she had a dalliance with on a secret vacation the year before is not Mark Bretherick (the name he gave her) when she sees a news report on the murder of Bretherick's wife and daughter. She immediately begins to investigate on her own, with predictably dangerous results.

The work of the six police officers investigating the murder case is told in the third person. Each officer has issues of his/her own, which, while humanizing the officers, overcomplicates the story. We probably do not need to know everything we learn about these people. If the author focused on the two most compelling officers--Charlie (a woman) and Simon--that would be more than enough to convince us these are real people.

The third narrative device the author uses is to include the diary entries found on the computer of Geraldine Bretherick (Mark's wife). Here is where we see the dark side of parenting. The diary includes many entries like this one: "I have never hit her. Not because I disapprove of hitting children . . . but because sometimes I want to hit Lucy so much and I know I would have to stop almost as soon as I started, so what would be the point? It would be like opening a box of delicious chocolates and only being able to eat one." The diary entries are truly cringe-worthy. But the author doesn't spare the children either; some are out of control, one is a cruel bully, and another is a chronic liar--and they're all six or under!

The diary is one of the key clues enabling the police to crack the case--in a twist that seemed totally out of left field to me. And even when they have the culprit in custody, the police still don't quite have the story right, as we learn through a lengthy explication at the end (something we see in way too many mysteries).

While I have a lot of quibbles with the book, I did find it interesting reading and certainly the depiction of parenting would provide ample maerial for discussion.

Favorite passage:
My children spill into the kitchen like survivors form the wreck of the Titanic: damp, unkempt and full of complaints. I tell them in a bright voice that it's shepherd's pie for tea, their favourite . . . Zoe sobs, "Mummy, I don't want shepherd's pie for supper. I want shepherd's pie!"

Friday, December 18, 2009

Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder

In the early 1990s, when I first discovered Tracy Kidder, I inhaled The Soul of a New Machine, House, Among Schoolchildren, and Old Friends. While I was spending months reading Kidder, Deogratias, the young Burundian man who is the subject of Kidder's newest book, was spending months trying escape genocide and civil war in his home country and neighboring Rwanda. Deo eventually found his way to the United States, and the first half of Strength in What Remains intercuts Deo's memories of his youth, his flight, and his early years in New York.

Deo's youth in a cowherding Tutsi family was certainly challenging, but he pursued an education and was a medical student interning in a rural hospital when the killing began. The story of what happened to Deo during the months he was fleeing is harrowing, perhaps only bearable because Kidder presents the events in a matter-of-fact tone. When Deo happens upon a baby clinging to the breast of its dead mother (one of many dead bodies at the site) and must leave the baby because he cannot help it, the horror is overwhelming. It is not surprising to learn that this is one of the incidents that haunts Deo a decade later, when he is still struggling to reconcile what he experienced with the possibility of living some kind of normal life.

Even when he reached the United States, Deo faced years of struggle--he slept in Central Park for some months; worked delivering groceries for a pittance, many days barely eating; and spent hours in the library and Barnes and Noble, surrounded by books he couldn't read but that still provided comfort. Despite the truly awful things he experienced, Deo was in some ways lucky. He survived an attack on the hospital where he was working because he forgot to shut and lock the door when he hid under the bed--the open door convinced the militia that he had fled. Other people repeatedly reached out to help him, both in Burundi and New York. Indeed, a former nun named Sharon found a couple, the Wolfs, who took Deo in and became his de facto parents, helping him enter Columbia University.

The first half of the book is written as though Kidder simply took the story as Deo told it to him and reframed it in third person, without interpretation. In the second half of the book, Tracy Kidder enters the story as an authorial presence. In 2003, Kidder met Deo in Boston, where he was studying public health and working for Paul Farmer at Partners in Health (the person and organization who were the subject of Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains). In this section, Kidder, writing in the first person, describes visiting significant sites in New York with Deo and then spends an extended period on a trip to Africa that he took with Deo in 2006. Deo was by then a medical student at Dartmouth but was also trying to build a clinic in the small community in Burundi where his parents were living. Here, Kidder shares his own interpretation of Deo's actions and explores the conflicting needs to forget and to remember.

Strength in What Remains (the title is from a Wordsworth poem) is a powerful work. The first part of the book becomes more and more difficult to read as we learn more about what Deo endured. I was grateful for Kidder's presence in the second half , helping me make sense of Deo's experiences and, perhaps, protecting me from their weight. And Deo himself is an inspiration, scarred but not broken, able to move to what Kidder calls "that place beyond horror," a place that few of us can imagine.

Favorite passages:

Deo looked forward to those times after sunset, when, all the chores done, his grandfather would tell stories, out in the mountains and especially back in Butanza. Children were warned not to traffic in made-up stories during daylight hours. If you did, you'd never grow up, the adults said. But fictions were permitted at nighttime, especially stories told by elders.

Nothing had come of the threat. It was like the noise one hears lying in bed at night, a noise outside the house. As time goes by you doubt the noise was real, and then again you don't.

I imagined him sitting late at night in one of Butler Library's twenty-four-hour study rooms, poring over the likes of Kant and Hume and Plato, his favorite of all the philosophers he read, looking for a means to close the gap between what he'd experienced and what he was able to say, looking for something reliable in a world that had become untrustworthy, looking for some sort of structured belief, some grand encyclopedia with an index in which he could look up "genocide" and learn where it fit in the universe. He was, I imagined, looking for an antidote to loneliness, both cosmic and personal. And needless to say, he hadn't quite found it.

A lot of Western thought and psychological advice assume that it is is healthy to flush out and dissect one's memories, and maybe this is true. And yet for all that, I began to have a simultaneous and opposite feeling: that there was such a thing as too much remembering, that too much of it could suffocate a person, and indeed a culture. Our tour of sites began to seem relentless. Observing Deo's endlessly renewed sorrow, I found myself thinking that there was something also to be said for a culture with a word like gusimbura.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

No Time to Wave Goodbye, by Jacquelyn Mitchard

In 1996, Jacquelyn Mitchard's The Deep End of the Ocean leapt onto the bestseller list when Oprah picked it as the first selection in her book club. The book chronicled the troubles of the Cappadora family, whose son Ben was kidnapped at age 3. Father Pat throws himself into work, mother Beth (mad with grief) becomes essentially a zombie, and older son Vinnie blames himself and eventually slides into trouble. Only baby Kerry seems to have a chance to be happy/normal despite the horrendous parenting she receives. When Ben is found nine years later, the initial joy is quickly replaced by new conflicts (e.g., Ben, who prefers to be called Sam, loves the father who raised him [unaware that his wife had kidnapped her son] and cannot relate to his biological parents), many left unresolved at the end of the book.

Thirteen years later, Mitchard has written a sequel, and it starts promisingly. The Cappadora family is at the premiere of Vinnie's second documentary film; Beth and Pat do not know that kidnapped children are the subject of the film, on which Vinnie, Ben, and Kerry all collaborated. Beth's shock when she realizes what the film is about is understandable, but she quickly decides to put her own feelings aside and support Vinnie, who has struggled to emerge from his troubled youth. We also get glimpses of five other families whose children have been kidnapped and who are still living in the agony of not knowing what happened to the kids. These snapshots of the families are also compelling.

Soon, however, the book descends into soap opera territory--Vinnie is nominated for an Oscar, another child in the family is kidnapped, police from so many jurisdictions get involved that you can barely keep track of who they are, and Vinnie, Ben, and a professional tracker head off into a mountain snowstorm looking for the missing child (what happens to them is utterly predictable). The final chapter feels like a piling-on of happy endings.

Having liked The Deep End of the Ocean, I was sorry this book fell apart after the first 50 pages.

Favorite passage:
(Finding my favorite passage in the last paragraph of the Acknowledgments says something about the writing of the book itself, I'm afraid.)
This is a work of fiction, set in an imagined Chicago and an imagined California, where the real and the fictional slip over each other like plates of the earth. The choices I made were composed of the geography of fact and the geography of dreams. All the events are products of the author's imagination, and any similarity to actual localities and events is both the result of coincidence and the sum of my own experience.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, by Zadie Smith

I've been an avid reader since I learned to read (with a few "lost years" while my children were young). When I consider the essays of literary criticism in this collection by Zadie Smith, however, I wonder if what I do even qualifies as reading. She brings to the task knowledge of literary history and theory, analysis tools, and a willingness to read, reread, and read again in the pursuit of the "difficult gift" of understanding. Indeed, she advocates for that kind of close reading--and yet, I know that, while I may try to become a more careful reader, I will never construct sentences resembling this one (and dozens if not hundreds of others): "It's a little perverse, in fact, how profoundly he was attracted, as a fiction writer, to exactly those forms of linguistic specialization he philosophically abhorred."

So it may not be surprising that I preferred the essays in the volume that are not literary criticism. "That Crafty Feeling" explores how Smith approaches the work of writing a novel--something that is always interesting to the members of our book group. She categorizes writers as Macro Planners (who have the structure, characters, and plot of their book worked out before they start writing) and Micro Managers (who don't know what they are going to write until they start writing) and describes how she, as a micro manager, works.

In "Speaking in Tongues" Smith reflects on voice, examining what adopting a certain accent means in class-conscious England (Smith herself is a biracial Brit from a working class family who reports that she now speaks in the posh tones of someone educated at Cambridge--but regrets the loss of her other voice) and on what it may mean for the American president to be someone raised "between cultures, between voices." These two essays appear in a section titled "Being," which also recounts a trip to Liberia.

In "Seeing," Smith includes movie reviews, paeans to two of her favorite actresses (Katherine Hepburn and Greta Garbo), and an amusing essay entitled "Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend." The section "Feeling" includes three essays about her family.

Smith writes beautifully and I enjoyed many of the essays; the literary criticism was a tough slog and made me feel inadequate to boot. So my recommendation would be to be selective in approaching this volume unless you love literary theory and/or have no self-esteem issues!

Favorite passages:

The novels we know best have an architecture. Not only a door going in and another leading out, but rooms, hallways, stairs, little gardens front and back, trapdoors, hidden passageways, et cetera.

It's oddly oppressive to set off on a journey into a place so thoroughly imagined by other people.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Best Friends Forever, by Jennifer Weiner

I heard Maureen Corrigan give this book a favorable review on NPR, so I decided to give Weiner, one of the most successful "chick lit" writers, another chance. The story is set on the weekend of a class reunion, when Valerie, a TV weather woman, decides to take her revenge on Dan, who raped her in high school. After leaving him nude in the parking lot, she accidentally hits him with her car. Fearing she has killed him, she seeks out her old friend Addie, a greeting card illustrator who has recently lost a lot of weight. Jordan, the chief of police in the town, immediately falls for Addie when he comes to her house to question her about the blood and belt found in the parking lot after the reunion. The two women then take off on a cross-country trip to evade the police, but Jordan has a hunch that they are headed for Key West and follows. Meanwhile Dan has been picked up by an evangelical classmate, Merry, who tends to him while trying to convince him to repent for his sins (Kathy Bates's character in Mercy is referenced).

We get glimpses into the difficulties in Valerie and Addie's childhoods and Addie's sad romantic life through first-person chapters narrated by Addie; the trials of Jordan's marriage and the police investigation into the crime are told through third-person chapters from his viewpoint. Occasional chapters describe Dan's nearly hallucinogenic experience of the weekend. Of course, all ends well.

I don't know what Maureen Corrigan was thinking: this book is idiotic. Jennifer Weiner is once again off my list!

Favorite passage: None

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff

Ebershoff has crafted a very interesting novel, combining the stories of Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young's 19th wife, who became a crusader to end polygamy, and Jordan Scott, a modern-day "lost boy" from a polygamist cult. Young's story is told through fictionalized historical documents, including her memoir (she actually wrote a memoir that sold widely in the late 1800s, but Ebershoff has re-created the document to meet his purposes), letters from one of her sons to a researcher, excerpts from Brigham's diaries, newspaper articles, LDS church documents, and a modern-day senior thesis by a budding feminist LDS scholar. While almost all of these documents were written by Ebershoff, they give readers a sense of constructing the story themselves as they sift through the documents. And Ebershoff does a good job of giving the supposed creators of the documents individual voices.

The contemporary story--which involves Jordan in trying to solve the mystery of his father's murder, for which his mother (also a 19th wife) has been arrested--is told in a more traditional first-person narrative. The mystery is wrapped up a bit too conveniently, but Jordan and the friends he makes in the process of exonerating his mother are endearing. For a considerable number of pages, the parallel stories seem only to be connected by the common subject--polygamy and the 19th wife--but another more direct link appears later. The way that link plays into the ending of the book actually caused me to rethink how I read the earlier sections, which was an enjoyable twist.

The book is much more than the two stories, however; it is also a look at the history of the Mormons, the practice of polygamy, and whether the modern-day church bears any responsibility for the treatment of women and children in the polygamist cults that have been much in the news in the past few years. While many events in the story as told by Ebershoff cast a negative light on the early LDS church, the author also shows respect for the power of faith.

While I didn't love this book, I found it very interesting and I am really looking forward to discussing it Monday night when Novel Conversations meets. I think it's an excellent book group selection--much to discuss about the writing, the construction of the text, and the ideas Ebershoff presents.

Favorite passage:
To me, this younger Brigham looks a lot like Russell Crowe.

(This is a footnote in the women's studies senior thesis written by character Kelly Dee--and it cracked me up. Though I'm not sure a young scholar would include such a footnote in her paper, she definitely would have had the thought. And to give her more respect, below is her [and Ebershoff's, we presume] take on the church's responsibility for modern-day polygamists.)

At some point, I saw the connection between Ann Eliza Young, nineteenth-century Mormon polygamy, and the polygamists of today. Polygamists like the Firsts in Mesadale are not Mormons; we are not of the same Church. This is not in dispute. Yet they are the unintended consequences of Joseph and Brigham's polygamous policies. To deny this is to deny the cold facts of history. To ignore their stories is to abandon Christian principles. And so I could not look away.