Saturday, December 31, 2011

Blue Nights, by Joan Didion

So the real last book of 2011 is Joan Didion's Blue Nights, a slim melancholy volume that matches my mood of a New Year's Eve. ("What? The year is over and I didn't accomplish anything? Alus I'm getting so old.". . . You get the drift.) If you read Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, you know that in the year after her husband died suddenly, she was also dealing with her daughter Quintana's illness. Quintana died a year and a half after her father. This slim volume is a moving meditation on the loss of a child, parenting, and aging.

Didion describes memories of Quintana's life--both pleasant and troubling--and castigates herself for not understanding the emotional issues that her daughter struggled with. Quintana was adopted as an infant, and her parents followed the recommended method of telling their daughter that she was a chosen child, but this approach did little to assuage Quintana's fear of abandonment (she often asked her parents what would have happened if they hadn't been home to answer the phone when the doctor called to say a baby was available). Didion also wonders if she and husband John Gregory Dunne placed their daughter in adult situations too early

At the same time that Didion is dealing with her daughter's death and self-doubt about her parenting, she is facing nagging health problems of her own and sometimes-crippling fear that she will fall and be injured, that her legs simply will not hold her when she tries to stand. She has, in her words, lost her "sense of the possible." As she grapples with the problem of having no one to list as an emergency contact when she checks into the hospital, she realizes that her fear is really the fear of losing her memories of her daughter.

I find it difficult to describe how Didion has constructed the book--she dips back and forth in time, returning to certain scenes, stories, and especially quotes from Quintana as touchstones in her reflections. She occasionally addresses the reader directly, particularly as she worries about her ability to think and write as she once did ("Even the correct stance for telling you this, the ways to describe what is happening to me, the attitude, the tone, the very words, now elude my grasp.") The construction nonetheless conveys well the thoughts that torture Didion as she grieves her daughter, regrets he failures as a parent, and experiences the difficulties of aging.

Favorite passage:

In certain latitudes, there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue. . . . Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.

[The sentences above are the first and last sentences of the book's first chapter, one long paragraph that explains the title and beautifully sets a tone for the book.]

. . . when we talk about our children what are we saying? Are we saying what it meant to us to have them? What it meant to us not to have them? What it meant to let them go? Are we talking about the enigma of pledging ourselves to protect the unprotectable? About the whole puzzle of being a parent? Time passes.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Addendum to Best of 2011

I love magazines, and every year read lots of good essays and articles in magazines that I don't make note of and (because I have the memory of a 61-year-old) cannot remember specifics about when I do my "Best of" post. This year, I want to recommend two recent David Brooks' columns from the NYT, in which he highlights some of the best magazine essays of the year. The two columns can be found at and I am working my way through the essays right now and, while I expect to disagree with Brooks on some of his selections (I certainly disagree with him on plenty of other things), I join him in celebrating long-form journalism. Let's not let great magazines die in 2012!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Best of 2011

This year began with a mystery, The Last Lie by Stephen White, and included several somewhat unsatisfying mystery-reading binges. Although the year isn't yet over, I'm willing to say it has ended with The Astral, a look at marriage too negative even for me--and I thought I had a jaded view of the institution. Here are the best books I read between the two:

Best Novel: The Submission, by Amy Waldman

The Submission is a complex look at the tragic effects of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001--both impacts on individuals, on the Muslim and non-Muslim communities of New York City, and even on the national psyche. Two characters are central to the book-- Claire Burwell, a 9/11 widow who is representing families on the jury choosing a design for the memorial to built at Ground Zero, and Mohammad ("Mo") Khan, the Muslim-American architect who submitted the winning plan. This choice is, not surprisingly, controversial, and that controversy gives first-time novelist Amy Waldman an opportunity to explore ideas about right and wrong, ambiguity, and the ways in which people deal with powerful emotions--and she takes up the challenge with grace and insight. The Submission is not a perfect novel, but it's a very good one that raises issues all of us should spend time thinking about.

Honorable Mention: Private Life, by Jane Smiley

Best Mystery: The Girl in the Green Raincoat, by Laura Lippman

For the second year in a row, a mystery by Laura Lippman tops this category. The fact that this was a very slim book, originally written to be published as a serial in The New York Times Magazine, indicates something about the Italicquality of many of the mysteries being published (and read by me). Its origin as a serial story is one of its interesting features, as Lippman has structured it so that each chapter contributes to the overall story (which pays homage to Rear Window and The Daughter of Time) while presenting a mini-mystery of its own. The story also marks a major turning point in the life of Lippman's character, Tess Monaghan. While Tess made a brief appearance in Lippman's The Most Dangerous Thing (which I did not like), we are still waiting to see how Tess will cope with parenthood. Hopefully, we will not have to wait too long--it's one of the few things in series mystery that I am still interested in!

Best Short Stories: Swim Back to Me, by Ann Packer

I often find short stories a bit too opaque for my rather literal and logical-sequential mind. In reviewing this year's reading, however, I notice that I read a lot of short story collections and enjoyed quite a few of them. Swim Back to Me, by Ann Packer, includes six stories. The first and last are linked by characters who appear in both; the four in the middle are stand-alone stories. I found all but one moving examinations of how people deal with pain and loss. In a relatively small number of pages, Packer creates multidimensional characters and places them in authentic relationships and places.

Honorable Mention: You Are Free, by Denzy Senna, and You Know When the Men Are Gone, by Siobhan Fallon

Best Nonfiction: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was a young African-American mother with cancer. The cells taken from the tumor on her cervix lived much longer than she did--becoming the first ever to live and reproduce in lab cultures. Rebecca Skloot weaves together the stories of Henrietta and her children with an examination of how the HeLa cells, as they became known, were used and the controversies that arose around them. Through these narratives, she explores issues of poverty, race and medicine, and the ethics of research that uses tissue taken from human beings. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a good story that also raises important sociocultural and ethical issues.

Honorable Mention: The Long Good-Bye, by Meghan O'Rourke

Best Poetry

Once again, I have read precious little poetry this year. I do read the poem that comes out every day in Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac ( and enjoy the poetry posted on FB by Wisconsin poet (and old friend) Norma Gay Prewett. Gay is an early riser, and her FB friends are happy on those mornings when she crafts an early morning poem and drops it on FB for us to savor.

Resolution for 2012: Make more of an effort to read poetry (perhaps making time for poetry by reading fewer mysteries)!

Odd Stylistic "Trend" of the Year: First-Person Plural Narration

I read three books that were written in the first-person plural this year. Each author used this rather odd device for a different purpose. In The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown used first-person plural to show how closely bound the three sisters were, even though they appeared to have taken very different paths in life. In The Fates Will Find Their Way, Hannah Pittard used first- person plural to heighten the mystery around the disappearance at the heart of the novel. The only use of this technique that I found to be effective was in The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka. Because she does not create individual characters, Otsuka's book is truly the story of a group--Japanese picture brides who came to the United States in the early 20th century. By not individuating, the author gives the story of the struggles of these women a power that the stories of a few individuals would not have had.

The Astral, by Kate Christensen

Harry Quirk is a poet--one who cleaves to traditional notions of rhyme and meter--translated from his native Iowa to New York City. For more than 30 years, he has been married to Luz, a Mexican-American nurse whose work has supported him in his poetic efforts. In the apartment building known as The Astral, they raised two children, both of whom have taken unusual paths as adults: Karina is a lesbian freegan, who forages for food and consumer goods to give to the poor people she lives among, while Hector has joined a cult on Long Island, where he is being groomed as the Second Coming.

As the book opens, Luz has thrown Harry out because she found(and destroyed) his latest book--a collection of sonnets she believes Harry wrote to his long-time friend Marion. Although Harry denies that he ever slept with Marion, he did have an affair 12 years earlier, an affair Luz has never forgiven him for. Harry is desperate to get back together with Luz--despite the fact that he and others often refer to her as "crazy"--and thinks and worries the problem while he walks and, later, bikes around Brooklyn. He lodges in five different places over the course of the few weeks in which the book takes place, drinks in at least as many local dives, has endless conversations about marriage in general and his marriage in particular (sometimes internal dialogues, sometimes engaged in with other people), and manages to get two friends to give him jobs (having spent most of his life writing poetry, his work experience is extremely limited).

With a couple of exceptions (Harry and Marion's friendship, his relationship with Karina), marriage, family relationships, therapeutic relationships, and friendship all come off badly in The Astral. People are either untrusting or untrustworthy, they gossip and take sides, they betray and take advantage of one another. In many of the relationships depicted, women are portrayed as manipulating bitches, men as pawns who allow themselves to be manipulated to meet other needs. Very little happens in the book--perhaps because Christensen sees people as doing very little that is proactive, including Harry and other artists among his friends, who are not producing very much art. (The exceptions are Karina and her freegan friends.) It's a depressing depiction and not one that I felt added to my understanding of the human condition.

While I give Christensen kudos for creating a middle-aged male character who seems (to this slightly-past-middle-aged woman) authentic, I have to admit that, were the author of this book a man, I'd probably be calling him misogynistic. I had read several positive reviews of The Astral, but I cannot recommend it.

Favorite passage:
Back in the cold, bright day, I made my way to Marion's empty house, where I lay in lordly supine bliss like an emperor on the couch and surfed a fresh wave of hope and joy into a long, restorative nap.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

V Is for Vengeance, by Sue Grafton

A recent Princeton graduate borrows money from mobster Lorenzo Dante, blows it all in Las Vegas, and is thrown to his death from the top of a parking garage. Kinsey Milhone sees two women shoplifting in Nordstrom's, turns one of them in, and is almost run down by the other. Days later, the shoplifter who was apprehended jumps from a railroad bridge. Kinsey attends her wake and is hired by her fiance to find out the truth about her death. Meanwhile Nora, the wife of a wealthy attorney learns her husband is having an affair. Building up her cash reserves, Nora tries to sell some jewelry to Dante, who is immediately attracted to her. But he is also dealing with problems in his business: the shoplifters worked for him and his brother made the decision to eliminate one of them--just as he decided to eliminate the Princeton graduate. If all this were not enough, Kinsey is called on to help a small-time crook who once hired her from prison; neighbor/landlord Henry is in Michigan caring for his older sister, who was injured in a fall; and a copy from Kinsey's past is dogging her.

Does this sound like a well-plotted mystery or an overly complicated series of coincidences and subplots? I vote for the latter. I was also surprised--after the questions raised in the U volume in the series--that this book completely ignored Kinsey's attempts to learn more about her family history, which I thought would play a major role in V-Z.

Favorite passage: None

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, by Caroline Preston

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt is a graphic novel--but not in the comic book/manga sense. Rather, it is constructed as a scrapbook kept by a recent high school graduate. Each full-color page is decorated with memorabilia, clippings, letters, and notes from Frankie Pratt, a small town New Hampshire girl with dreams of becoming a writer. The scrapbook covers eight years in Frankie's life, in which she goes to Vassar, gets a job writing at True Story, works as an editor at a literary magazine in Paris, and returns to New Hampshire to care for her mother. Despite being a feminist (her hair is bobbed after all), Frankie has a penchant for falling in love with the wrong man and then running away. Yes the plot is straight from the chick-lit supply of story lines--with a dash of history and social commentary.

But this book is not about the thin plot--it's about the way Preston tells the story and develops Frankie's character through the scrapbook technique. While it takes little time to "read" this book, you could spend hours looking closely at the memorabilia. For example, on the first page after Frankie enrolls at Vassar are pictures of the campus overlaid with the rules at Vassar, definitions of Vassar slang, a Vassar joke, and a Vassar song; the facing page shows her class schedule, three pictures of stylish girls cut from magazines, and Frankie's assessment of the "pecking order of freshman girls" (public school scholarship students like her are the lowest level). When, in her New York phase, the magazine her friend Oliver is working for publishes its first issue, there are clips from that first New Yorker, as well as a list of reasons Frankie finds the issue a bore (starting with "British fop on cover"). From her time in Paris, there is a page of wine labels, partially visible under a list of the topics expats talk about when drinking in bars.

I don't think the scrapbook format will become as ubiquitous as the comic book style of graphic novel; nonetheless, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt is an entertainment worth checking out.

Favorite passage:

Commenting on her love of This Side of Paradise: I take it as a zoological study of how rich college boys think and talk. (And more useful than my zoology text, which I am 2 chapters behind in already!)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Restaurant Chef, by Gabrielle Hamilton

Despite its subtitle and chapters on the author's cooking at a summer camp, for catering companies, and finally in her own restaurant, Blood, Bones and Butter seems to be more about Hamilton's search for family than her development as a chef. Hamilton was the youngest of five children born to somewhat bohemian parents. Life in the family was, for her, best captured in the huge annual party they threw--the mix of people who attended, the teamwork required to prepare and roast five lambs and create numerous side dishes, the beauty of the evening in rural Pennsylvania.

But then, when Hamilton was 12, her parents divorced and essentially left the children to finish raising themselves. At age 13, Hamilton realized she needed a job to sustain herself and began working in restaurants. She also began smoking, stealing cars, breaking into houses, and...well, you get the picture. As a 16-year-old high school graduate, she moved to New York City with $235 and began working at a restaurant where the staff did copious amounts of cocaine and stole from their employers.

It is something of a relief when Hamilton jumps forward a few years and the reader learns that she has managed to graduate from college and forge a relationship with another woman. She is working in what she calls "the most unsavory corner of the food industry, except for maybe poultry processing"--catering. Her description of this work, as well as her summer job cooking at a camp, is both hilarious and somewhat frightening (thinking about the catered meals I've eaten).

After getting an MFA in creative writing, Hamilton has an opportunity to open her own restaurant, and she jumps at the chance. Surprisingly, the chapters devoted to the restaurant are fairly thin, although it is clear that the restaurant crew is becoming her family (her girlfriend is the bartender).

Enter her future husband Michele, an Italian medical researcher who has worked in the United States for more than a decade. They have an affair and he courts her; when he suddenly has green card problems, they marry although the marriage is far from traditional. They do not live together (although Hamilton's girlfriend has moved out!), and Michele seems to lose interest in any real interaction with his wife, even after they have two sons. Hamilton, for her part, refers to the marriage as "performance art" but also talks about her dream of a "real" marriage. And clearly, she yearns to be enfolded into Michele's Italian family, which they visit every year. While they are welcoming, she realizes in the final chapter that she will never truly be part of the clan.

I'm not a big fan of memoirs, but felt drawn to this one because the reviews I had read suggested it was a book about eating and cooking. Certainly, a chef cannot write about her life without writing about food, but that hardly seems the primary focus of the book and, in the search for family that actually dominates, there are many questions about why Hamilton does what she does that remain unanswered.

Favorite passage:
She [Michele's mother Alda] and I do not speak the same language, and because of that our relationship really thrives. . . . we just hug and cook a lot. Which can seem, at times, like a greater intimacy than the one I have with her son, and a very compelling reason to stay married to him.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Blueprints for Building Better Girls, by Elissa Schappell

Ironically titled after an etiquette book of decades past, Blueprints for Building Better Girls is a collection of short stories, some linked, about young women with wide ranging problems. One is a high school student with an undeserved reputation as a slut, an alcoholic father, and a depressed mother; she forges a relationship with a formerly fat wrestler and is devastated when he ignores her in order to impress some of the "mean girls" who make her life miserable. In a later story, we learn that she has married and has a son, who she is now trying to dissuade from a romance with an older woman by telling him about a tragic event in her college years (although she pretends it happened to a friend rather than to her). Another character is suffering a nervous breakdown after being raped; her mother delegates her the responsibility for checking in with her grandfather, who has dementia, and the results are darkly humorous...but not good. Yet another character is a college student whose out-of-control drinking, drug use, and sexual behavior cause increasing isolation.

Short stories are not my favorite genre. While Schappell's characters are well-drawn, I think I am too old to gain much from these stories except a deep sense of sadness. If I'm going to get depressed about the state of young women, I guess I'd rather do it via a novel.

Favorite passage:
Then I forgot about it. I rarely ever dreamed about Ray. When I did, the dreams felt like gifts. I wasn't sad or angry anymore; what I felt was tenderness for the girl I'd been in the dream, the first self I'd ever really liked.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton

I started to write a summary of this book's plot, but I think I'll just's a very long book about multiple generations of a British and Australian family with an unusual number of dysfunctions. The book jumps from time to time and character to character, interspersing the narrative with examples of "fairy tales" written by one of the characters. There's a mystery to be solved, but most people in our book group had figured out the solution well before the end...or simply didn't care anymore by the time they got to the denouement.

A couple of people in our group enjoyed the book...but mostly not so much. And this time, I wasn't the only person to say it should have been shorter, much shorter.

Not recommended.

84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff

84, Charing Cross Road is a charming but slight book that presents the correspondence between New York writer Helene Hanff and a rare book store in London. In 1949, Hanff saw an ad for Marks & Co. in the Saturday Review and sent off an inquiry regarding several books she had been unable to find in New York. Frank Doel, who handled her request, became a regular correspondent and long-distance friend. With Britons still subject to rationing, Hanff felt moved to send "care" packages to the employees of Marks & Co., many of whom responded with their own letters, sparking additional friendships.

The letters trace Hanff's search for books, as well as the general outlines of her writing career (she wrote for the Ellery Queen television series, among other jobs), British and American politics, and her long-postponed plan to visit London and her friends at the bookstore. Unfortunately, Doel died before Hanff made the trip: the last letter in the book is from one of his daughters, agreeing to publication of the letters.

I have to admit that I thought 84, Charing Cross Road was an epistolary novel--and I liked it better when I was suffering under that delusion. Helene is charming as a fictional character; oddly, as an author publishing her own letters, for me she becomes somewhat too self-consciously clever and kind. Still, the book only takes about an hour to read and it's definitely worth that.

Favorite passage:
i go through life watching the english language being raped before me face. like miniver cheevy, i was born too late.
and like miniver cheevy i cough and call it fate and go on drinking.