Saturday, January 16, 2016

Thirteen Ways of Looking . . . and Other Early January Reading

So I've decided to change my approach again--posting semi-monthly instead of monthly (I forget too much in a month's time . . . sad).

The year got off to a good start with Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann, a volume that includes a novella and three short stories. The title novella is the story of an elderly widower, formerly a judge, who goes out to lunch and is killed. Alternating chapters present (1) his internal monologue about the indignities of aging, the frustration of dealing with his son (whom he loves and dislikes in equal measure), and other matters and (2) the investigation into his death--but in a manner unlike any other crime story. Investigating a crime is compared to writing poetry, and these chapters include many lovely set pieces, including an wonderful riff on snow.

The three stories that make up the rest of the book are varied. "What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?" is written from the perspective of a writer who has an assignment to write about New Year's Eve and wants to do something that breaks the mold. He thinks he'll write a story set in Afghanistan, with a woman alone in a post, waiting to call her partner and her partner’s son at midnight. "Sh’khol" (a Hebrew word for a parent who has lost a child--no comparable word exists in English) is the haunting story of a woman who adopts a deaf-mute six-year-old from Russia. She buys him a wetsuit for Christmas. The next morning, he puts on the wetsuit and disappears for 48 hours. When he returns, she realizes she’ll never know what happened in those two days. What will happen when he grows older and stronger is a frightening prospect for her and the reader. The final story is "Treaty," in which a nun sees the man who raped and tortured her on the news 37 years later and travels across the Atlantic to confront him

The book also has an interesting back story--it was written before and after McCann was assaulted on the street in New Haven while trying to assist a woman. I thought for sure the novella was written after that event--but it turns out I was wrong. So the effects of the incident aren't necessarily obvious, but they are there.

Definitely recommended.

And more from the first half of the month . . .

Playing with Fire, by Tess Gerritsen

Gerritsen is the author of the Rizzoli and Isles mystery series, but here she branches out with a stand-alone thriller (not her first) that combines the contemporary story of a violinist whose toddler has suddenly become violent with a parallel story of a young violinist in World War II Venice whose family is sent to a concentration camp. Gerritsen is trying for something meaningful, but it falls flat.

Fiction Ruined My Family, by Jeanne Darst.

Fiction didn't ruin Darst's family . . . alcohol and bad decisions did. Just another tale of a sad childhood leading to young adult dysfunction. I've read enough of those.

Adam Bede, by George Eliot

George Eliot's first novel is the story of two highly moral characters, carpenter Adam and the Methodist evangelist Dinah; two morally compromised characters, Adam's beloved Hetty and the local squire Arthur; and a host of villagers, including several very annoying mothers/aunts who plague the younger people in their families. Adam Bede is a morality play in which the righteous, after pain and suffering, find a happy ending while the sinners pay the piper. Questions of class, religion, and women's roles play a part in the story as well. As a newcomer to Eliot, I found Adam Bede less complex and rewarding than Middlemarch but interesting nonetheless.

Small Blessings, by Martha Woodroof
The Bookseller, Cynthia Swanson

Small Blessings reminded me in its general outline of The Storied Life of AJ Fikry--a bookish man is brought out of his shell by gaining sudden responsibility for a child, whose presence also brings an engaging woman into the man's life. But Woodroof's plot is less believable than Zevin's and, even though our book group didn't think The Storied Life was particularly deep, the comparison shows Zevin's greater care and concern for the realities of parenting and the relationships people have with literature. So if you're choosing, read The Storied Life of AJ Fikry instead of Small Blessings.

Set in 1962-1963 Denver, The Bookseller is the story of a 38-year-old woman who suddenly begins to dream an alternative life in which, instead of being a single bookstore owner, she is the married stay-at-home mother of triplets, one of whom is autistic. At first she enjoys the dreams, but gradually she faces serious challenges in both her dream and real lives. There's a twist at the end that actually did surprise me, which is fairly unusual, so hats off to the author for that. I especially enjoyed the description of our city in a period of transition (every period in Denver seems to be a period of transition).

Our library had a Local Author Fair today, and Cynthia Swanson was the keynote speaker. She mentioned that the book has been compared to the film Sliding Doors (to which I recently compared the not-so-successful All the Difference). Swanson does the alternative futures scenario in a way that makes the book more psychologically complex--because it's a dream, we assume, the married-with-children-scenario is wish fulfillment for the author; thus, when it starts to be a source of stress rather than enjoyment, we look to her emotions--rather than an external source--for an explanation. I think this is a good complication.

I asked Swanson about the title of the book, which I did not find to be evocative of the story (I didn't say that). She shared that she had been through several titles (one was Life at This Moment, which I prefer), but her editor at Harper Collins felt that the title needed to convey that the book was about someone who owned a bookstore. Ergo . . .

The Bookseller is cleverly plotted and an enjoyable read.

Erratic Facts, by Kay Ryan
The Book Club Cookbook, by Judy Colman and Vicki Levy Krupp

I had previously only read a couple of poems by Kay Ryan and had enjoyed them. This collection of terse pieces left me cold, however. Since Ryan is a highly regarded poet, I'm sure others might enjoy Erratic Facts, but it definitely wasn't for me.

The Book Club Cookbook is a book you can imagine two friends taking on as a fun project. The book includes brief synopses of more than 100 books; each is accompanied by one or more recipes for food either eaten by characters in the book or representative of the type of food they would have eaten. Occasionally, these recipes were even provided by the authors of the books being discussed. For each book, there is also a description of one or more book groups that have discussed that particular title along with their way of wedding book talk and food. I was surprised at how many book groups seem to make food related to the books a part of their experience and found the descriptions of how the book groups operate interesting. If I were starting a new book group, I would consider a lot of ideas from this book (though probably not the heavy emphasis on food). The recipes did not tempt me to try them out (and I'm a person who regularly tries out recipes), so the book failed as a cookbook but succeeded as an examination of book groups. My favorite part of the entire book was a brief story about food and writing sent to Colman and Krupp by Julia Glass, an author I really enjoy. The fact that her story ends with the following sentence just topped it off beautifully: "We ate every bit of it [a wonderful meal based on one served in her book Three Junes], we talked and laughed and drank wine, and then I read from my book. I stood up before a crowd of happily sated readers under the comforting beams of that fine old creaky house and I thought, You need not always be careful what you wish for." I'm probably going to hang on to this book just for this story.

Pick of the Litter:  Thirteen Ways of Looking 

Favorite passages:

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.

He looked as if he had dressed himself in the third person.

[Both from Thirteen Ways of Looking, from which I might have chosen many other passages.]

Thursday, January 14, 2016

What Is Novel Conversations Reading?

So, I have recently stepped back from facilitating the Novel Conversations group; nonetheless, I can report on their slate of upcoming books:

--February: Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas
--March: Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
--April: A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman
--May: Restless by William Boyd

--June: Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris