Monday, April 30, 2018

Exes Writing Novels: A Puzzle of This Month's Reading

The oddest reading experience this month was the mostly accidental pairing of ex-married-couple Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer's new novels. The highly regarded and formerly married authors released Forest Dark (Krauss) and Here I Am (Foer) after long intervals since their previous novels. Both books feature characters in failing marriages; those characters spend a lot of time either thinking about the significance of Israel to American Jews; both are struggling--Jacob in Here I Am is having a midlife crisis that plays out in sexting with a colleague and a decision to go to Israel to fight in the war that has broken out following a natural disaster while Nicole in Forest Dark is a writer who can't find the thread for her next book (and who feels that she has somehow slipped into the multiverse). I didn't love either book, but of the two I preferred Here I Am, in part because the children in the failing marriage were so interesting; the book's narrative structure was also more traditional than that of Forest Dark, which in this case I thought worked better. Finally, Forest Dark had so many long passages about Kafka that it sometimes felt more like a textbook than a novel. I wonder if Krauss and Foer see the similarities in their books or whether they would deny, pointing to the many differences. Still, to me it was fascinating that a couple who is no longer coupled would produce works with so many similarities.

On to other reading . . .

The Best Books I Read This Month

Tales from the Tummy Trilogy, by Calvin Trillin. Mr. Trillin describes some of his eating adventures, and it's not deep but it is good fun. I also always appreciate the way Trillin talks about his late wife, for whom he obviously had great respect and affection.

Improvement, by Joan Silber. Improvement is a novel in the form of linked short stories. It starts and ends with a young single mother Reyna, living in New York; her boyfriend Boyd is on Ryker's Island. When he gets out, he involves her in an illegal scheme with some of his friends. We bounce from her life, to her eccentric aunt who lived in Turkey as a young woman, to a couple the aunt met casually while traveling across Europe, to the girlfriend of one of Boyd's friends who doesn't know he was killed in a car accident, to the sister of another friend. There are some overly coincidental connections, but overall the book works, in part because Silber makes us care about nearly all the characters.

Matilda, by Roald Dahl. Matilda is a very funny book about a gifted little girl who wreaks havoc on her horrible parents and the abusive headmistress of her school. Dahl captures the revenge fantasies every child must have felt, while still making Matilda entirely lovable. Recommended by me and my granddaughter!

The Female Persuasion, by Meg Wolitzer.  Greer Kadetsky is a young college student, enraged to be stuck at a second-rate New Jersey college because her aging hippy parents couldn't figure out the financial aid forms at Yale. She becomes friends with the much more political Zee Eisenstadt and, through her, meets the feminist Faith Frank, a Gloria Steinem-esque character. The timing is perfect, as Greer is recovering from being groped by a fraternity bro and needs inspiration for her new activism. After a conversation in the restroom following a campus speech by Frank, Frank gives Greer her card. Upon graduation, Greer calls Faith and gets a job with her (in the process, betraying Zee). Greer and her high school boyfriend have managed to sustain a long-distance relationship (he went to Princeton and then got a job in Asia) until a family tragedy turns his life upside down. The book explores feminism, friendship, and mentorship (along with an unnecessary side trip to lambaste Teach for America--I agree with Wolitzer's point but the section in which Zee works for a TFA stand-in is out of place in the book) and I enjoyed it--although the ending seemed a tad too neat.

Also Read

The Babysitter's Club: Kristy's Great Idea, by Ann M. Martin, and Katie and the Cupcake Cure, by Coco Simon. My granddaughter's been loaning me books (I feel honored) and I found it interesting that these two are both about entrepreneurial girls struggling with friendship issues. Both were entertaining and gave me some insight into my granddaughter's fifth-grade life! I'm afraid of middle school!

Drinking in America, by Susan Cheever. My sister found this book really interesting and I can understand why, but I was irritated by Cheever's historical misstatements and attempts to draw connections for which she provided little evidence. Still, I was intrigued by the idea that drinking has been rampant among soldiers at war throughout U.S. history. I'd need more evidence to feel really confident she's right about this, but it's an idea that makes sense to me.

Defensive Wounds, by Lisa Black. I can't even remember this book, so . . .

Young Jane Young, by Gabrielle Zevin. An intern has an affair with a politician, gets vilified by the press, and rebuilds her life. Okay but lacks the heart of Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

Heartburn, by Nora Ephron. I read this book years ago and wasn't crazy about it but decided to give the audible version (featuring Meryl Streep) a try. I liked it better this time but still didn't love it--perhaps if I had read it just as I was getting divorced, it might have resonated.

The Light between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman. A young couple meets, falls in love, marries, and takes up life as lighthouse keepers. When a child washes up in a boat, the wife, who has had multiple miscarriages, begs the husband to keep the child and pretend she is theirs. The husband agrees but his regrets will bubble up again, dooming their happiness. Ugh.

The Leavers, by Lisa Ko. I heard Lisa Ko talking on NPR and enjoyed the interview, so decided to read her highly reviewed book, which is an immigrant and adoption story. It took me three starts to get through it and almost didn't make it--the two mothers in the book are so terrible and their shared child's life so screwed up, it was really hard to take.

Daughters of the Samurai, by Janice P. Nimura. Somewhat interesting account of Japanese girls sent to the United States to be educated in the late 1800s and how they fared when they returned to Japan.

A Criminal Defense, William L. Myers, Jr. At first, I thought this legal thriller was somewhat interesting, but as the book progressed, every character was revealed as to be so morally repellent and the story so far-fetched that it lost its appeal.

Fire and Fury, by Michael Wolff.  There really wasn't that much new in this book--just a close-up view of what we already knew to be true about the Trump White House. My favorite moment: George W. Bush saying about Trump's inaugural address: "That was some weird shit."

Favorite Passages

And how strange, too, that laughter would characterize so much of what they did from that night on, even if some of it was the laughter of helplessness in the face of what was unfixable.

Meg Wolitzer, The Female Persuasion

But people often wanted payment for what they only wished they'd done.

Joan Silber, Improvement


Saturday, March 31, 2018

Hamilton--Better than Any March Books!

I saw Hamilton this month and it did not disappoint. In fact, it dazzled. None of the books I read this month came close to Hamilton's virtuosity (write a book, Lin-Manuel!), but that will not stop me from some literary commentary. The month's reading seemed to have a couple of themes--how hard it is to be a teenager (or pre-teen) and what home means. 

The Best Books I Read This Month

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng. Set in wealthy suburb Shaker Heights, OH, in the 1990s, Little Fires Everywhere is an indictment of suburban smugness and conventionality. The Richardsons appear to be an ideal family, both parents are professional, their four children are (mostly) doing well. Certainly, Pearl Warren, who lives with her art photographer mother Mia in a house owned by the Richardsons, is enamored by the family's surface perfection.  Little Fires Everywhere has a structural similarity with Ng's earlier book Everything I Never Told You, in that we know from the beginning that the story will end with a disaster, in this case an arson fire at the Richardsons' home. Between the arrival of the Warrens in Shaker Heights and the fire, Ng deals with many issues, notably teen pregnancy and abortion, cross-cultural adoption, race, and what it means to be a good mother. Although some of the characters are one-dimensional, the story is still engaging. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Mia's work--I really wanted to see the photographs (much like the installation constructed by the protagonist's mother in Bee Season).  Not a perfect novel, but well worth reading.

The Story of Arthur Truluv, by Elizabeth Berg. Arthur is a widower in his 80s who eats lunch every day at his dead wife's grave. He has a special gift (or an especially good imagination) for sensing the lives of the folks buried nearby. Maddy is a bullied teenager with an unhappy home life who spends her lunch hour at the cemetery to avoid the school cafeteria. Most of what happens after the two meet is utterly predictable, and it still manages to charm. An actual feel-good book.

Also Read

Memory's Last Breath: Field Notes on My Dementia, by Gerda Saunders. Saunders combines a rather clinical discussion of dementia with recollections of her childhood in South Africa and her adult life in Utah. I appreciate the author's courage in taking on this task following her diagnosis, but I didn't love the book.

Blubber, by Judy Blume. This book scared the bejesus out of me on behalf of my fifth-grade granddaughter, who loaned me the book. I asked her if fifth-grade was as bad as it is portrayed in this book (these kids are freaking brutal!) and she said "no," but I'm still scared.

Stalking Susan, by Julie Kramer. Number 1 in a mystery series featuring a Twin Cities TV reporter--mediocre but not bad enough to ensure I won't try number 2 in the series.

Night Moves, by Jonathan Kellerman. Better than some of the other recent entries in the Alex Delaware series.

Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate.  The story of child stealing and illegal adoption in the first half of the 20th century that this novel reveals is shocking, but the novel itself is not that great.

The People We Hate at the Wedding, by Grant Ginder. I perversely loved the title of this novel, but perhaps it should have warned me the book would be full of hideous people. Ugh.

The Martian, by Andy Weir. I am late to The Martian party and didn't really love it--too much "uh-oh something broke," "How can Mark fix it?", "Mark can fix it," "Yay, Mark fixed it!" for me.

Down a Dark Road, by Linda Castillo. A bit of a bounce-back for the Kate Burkholder series but by no means a fabulous mystery. 

Dear Fahrenheit 451, by Annie Spence. I really wanted to like this book, which is a series of letters from the author to books she has read and it wasn't the two subtitles, the foul language, and the ironic sass that ruined it--it was the fact that it essentially added up to nothing.

The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man's Quest to Be a Better Husband, by David Finch. Good insight in Asperger's (and how hard it would be to be married to someone with Asperger's), but perhaps not the book for a devoted anti-marriagist like me.

Say You're Sorry, by Melinda Leigh. More a romance than a mystery.

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones. Like a couple of the other books on this "Also Read" list, An American Marriage deals with important content: the devastation to families/marriages when someone is wrongly convicted due to racism. If I hadn't developed such a strong dislike for all of the characters, I might recommend the book, which was an Oprah book club selection.

Best Day Ever, by Kaira Rouda. The author chose to have the villain be the narrator of the book and he is perhaps one of the most despicable characters ever. And predictable, so totally predictable.

The Burning Girl, by Claire Messud. This was a highly regarded book in 2017, and I admit that the author writes beautifully. However, the plot feels like something I've read before: BFFs grow apart as they grow older and one spirals downward, in part due to the villainy of her mother's boyfriend.

Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell. This book has some similarities to The Burning Girl except that it involves a high school romance that allows a troubled girl to escape her home, where life is hell due to the villainy of her stepfather. Many reviewers seem to find the description of the young couple falling in love "delightful," but I (perhaps because of my grandmotherly status) found it slightly creepy.

What Remains True, by Janis Thomas. The free Kindle books you get from Amazon Prime really aren't very good.


Favorite Passages


Arthur thinks that, above all, aging means the abandonment of criticism and the taking on of compassionate acceptance.

Sometimes I wonder what the world would sound like if everybody stopped their complaining. It sure would be a quiet place.

Hiraeth: A Welsh word that means a homesickness for a home you cannot return to, or maybe never was. It means nostalgia and yearning and grief for lost places.

Elizabeth Berg, in The Story of Arthur Truluv


“Home”was that feeling of falling asleep to the distant muffle of your parents’conversation, a sound rising through the floorboards almost as a reverberation not just in your ears but in your body. It was a particular set of familiar smells—the orange-flower soap in the downstairs bathroom, or the tinge of old fire smoke in the living room even in summertime, when it rained—and patches of warm air near the vents, followed by a chill near the windows.

Sometimes I felt that growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid.


--Claire Messud, The Burning Girl

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Cold February, Hot Books: The Best Books I Read This Month

It was a cold February in Denver, but I did read some good books--two of which were books I had originally read years ago and decided to "revisit"--good decision!  I also (as usual) read some less-good books, but such is life.

The Best Books I Read This Month

Mrs. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell. Set in Kansas City in the 1930s, Mrs. Bridge is the story of a well-to-do woman who lives as an appendage to her husband and children. In a series of vignettes, we see her go to the club; interact with her children, husband, friends, and household help with little apparent insight into their wants or needs; judge others for their clothes and their children's behavior (while fearing that others are judging her). Her life is essentially meaningless, and at some level she knows and regrets this. The book has a flat tone but still manages to be funny (the family's attempts to engage a chauffeur, for example), insightful, and sad.

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath. I read this book in my late teens or early twenties and found the story of Esther Greenwood, a college student whose mental health breaks down over the course of a summer, devastating. While it doesn't have quite the same emotional resonance when read at 67, it's still a wonderfully written (semi-autobiographical) novel that provides a window into how depression colors every part of life and insights into gender relations as seen through the eyes of a young woman. The book is doubly sad because of our knowledge of the author's own life.

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner.  I also read this book some time ago (probably in my 40s), but it was well worth a second look. Angle of Repose operates on two levels: it is simultaneously the story of retired and wheelchair-bound historian Lyman Ward, who is writing a family history focused on his grandparents (especially his grandmother), who lived in the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the family history that he writes. Ward's grandfather, Oliver Ward, was a mining engineer and inventor who worked at various locations around the West, often being screwed over by the mine owners and investors. His grandmother, Susan Ward, was an Easterner, disappointed in love when the refined man she wanted married her best friend; she brings to her Western life with her rough-around-the-edges husband a rather stiff and judgmental point of view. Yet she perseveres, even in light of tragedies and numerous setbacks. As he constructs Susan and Oliver's story, largely from Susan's letters to her best friend, he reconsiders his own life. The book works on both levels and is beautifully written, though those who don't like kind of a iterative style may not enjoy it as much as I did. I also think the title is one of the best ever, since it has both a geological meaning and a metaphorical one and is, to me, beautiful.

The Woman in the Window, by A.J. Finn. First  I have to say I am happy A.J. Finn did not call this The Girl in the Window (I am heartily sick of titles that use the term "girl" to describe a woman in peril). The book is about a woman suffering from agoraphobia who spends her days observing the people in her neighborhood and posting on a webpage for agoraphobics. Things start to get strange when a new family moves into the neighborhood. I don't want to give away too much, so I'll just say the book is very "twisty" and I was surprised by several developments throughout the novel. Not perfect, but it kept me interested!

The View from Mount Joy, by Lorna Landvik, I read Landvik's Patty Jane's House of Curl 20 years ago and thought it was hilarious but have been disappointed by subsequent books until The View from Mount Joy. Joe Andreson is a budding hockey star who moves to Minneapolis with his widowed mother. He becomes enamored with the high school's "hot girl," Kristi Casey, who manages to keep his attention for 30 years. At the same time, however, he makes lifelong friends in the quirky Darva and Kristi's brother Kirk. As Joe and Kristi grow into adulthood, their paths diverge (Joe becomes a grocer whose store is a community in itself, Kristi becomes an evangelist) but always seem to "re-tangle." The book is funny and a bit corny, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Sunburn, by Laura Lippmann. Sunburn is one of Lippmann's stand-alone mystery/thrillers and it's a pretty good one. I enjoyed it primarily because I didn't see the twists coming. The characters are a pretty despicable lot. Basic plot outline: a PI (he's not so much despicable as stupid) is hired to find out where a woman has hidden money his client regards as rightfully his; the PI and his subject become involved. As more is revealed about the woman's past, he begins to question whether he can stay with her--but he can't make himself leave. Things end badly--but not for everyone.

Also Read

Letters to a Young Writer, by Colum McCann. I have enjoyed Colum McCann's work, but this was more a collection of one-line encouragements than deep advice about writing. If you love an Irish accent, however, the author's voice reading his work on the audiobook edition will be enough to satisfy.

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew Sullivan. Because it was written by a former employee of the Tattered Cover, I wanted to enjoy this mystery, but it was rather pedestrian.

Running Blind, by Lee Child. My first and last Jack Reacher.

Look for Me, by Lisa Gardner. Okay mystery featuring both D.D. Warren and Flora Dane--but the guilty person was obvious long before the end.

Tips for Living, by Renee Safransky. A ridiculous mystery with a potentially fun device (the protagonist writes an advice column) that isn't used in any meaningful or entertaining way.

All Dressed in White, by Mary Higgins Clark and Alafair Burke. Dumb, just dumb.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, by Rhoda Janzen. Funny memoir focused on a period of the author's life after her husband left her for a man and she returned to her parents' home to recover from a car accident. I wish she hadn't made quite so much fun of her mother, who I thought was charming (perhaps this is the defensive mother in me reacting).

M Train, by Patti Smith. Random thoughts and accounts that bored me silly (sorry to the many people who love Patti Smith's work). The author's recording of the book was nominated for a Grammy but I thought it was as monotonic, mostly good for falling asleep to.

The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather. It took me years to finish this book and I was unmoved by the story of Thea Kronberg, her musical talent, and her (to me) inexplicable ability to get adult men to fall in love with her while still a child.


Favorite Passages


For a while after their marriage she was in such demand that it was not unpleasant when he fell asleep. Presently, however, he began sleeping all night, and it was then she awoke more frequently, an dlooked into the darkness, wondering about the nature of men, doubtful of the future, until at last there came a night when she shook her husband awake and spoke of her own desire. Affably he placed one of his long white arms around her waist; she turned to him then, contentedly, expectantly, and secure. However, nothing else occurred, and in a few minutes he had gone back to sleep.

This was the night Mrs. Bridge concluded that while marriage might be an equitable affair, love itself was not.

Evan Connell, Mrs. Bridge


I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn't groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again.

To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar


Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.

I wonder if ever again Americans can have that experience of returning to a home place so intimately known, profoundly felt, deeply loved, and absolutely submitted to. It is not quite true that you can't go home again. I have done it, combing back here. But it gets less likely. We have had too many divorces, we have consumed too much transportation, we have lived too shallowly in too many places.

Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose


It was one of those still days of intense light, when every particle of mica in the soil flashed like a little mirror, and the glare from the plain below seemed more intense than the rays from above. The sand ridges ran glittering gold out to where the mirage licked them up, shining and steaming like a lake in the tropics. The sky looked like blue lava, forever incapable of clouds—a turquoise bowl that was the lid of the desert. And yet within Mrs. Kohler’s green patch the water dripped, the beds had all been hosed, and the air was fresh with rapidly evaporating moisture.

Willa Cather, Song of the Lark

Thursday, February 1, 2018

In the Bleak Midwinter: The Best Books I Read in January

January was not a great reading month--in part because I was so busy with work that I mostly read mindless fair and in part because I listened to a 36-hour book, which sucked up a lot of the reading time I did have. Thus, the "best books" list is a bit slim this month.

The Best Books I Read This Month

Conscience of a Conservative, by Jeff Flake. There's a lot of space on the political spectrum between Jeff Flake and me. I disagree with him on most issues and cringe at his oft-expressed admiration for Barry Goldwater. But I do agree with his analysis of the destructiveness of our current political climate and his call for a return to debating ideas and fighting for principles. While the book has been billed as an attack on Trump--and it certainly is that--it is also broader, pointing out the contributions of both parties to the polarization and dysfunction that characterize government today. Even if you, like me, are a progressive/liberal/lefty, it's a worthwhile read.

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid. A highly regarded book of 2017, Exit West is the story of two young lovers fleeing a war-torn country. Sound like any other refugee story? Not so much, as fantastical and dystopic features and wonderful writing give the story a deeper resonance. I'm not describing this well--it's hard to describe--but it's interesting and strange and recommended.

Black Man, White House, by D.L. Hughley and Michael Malice. This is not a book I would have picked up, except that I was having trouble finding any interesting audio books on Overdrive and this was available. Presented as a set of fake oral history comments about the Obama campaign and presidency, with (fake) Michelle Obama providing the narrative thread (President Obama himself gets only one line), it is laugh-out-loud funny. Like most satires, it sometimes misfires, but if you can't laugh at Dick Cheney and Rahm Emanuel (two of my least favorite politicians of the past 20 years), I feel bad for you. I don't know if it would be as amusing in print, but the audio book is very entertaining.

Also Read

Water Signs, by Janet Dawson. Mediocre mystery but I was interested to learn that the publisher, Perseverance Press, is completely dedicated to mid-list mystery authors dropped by larger houses. Interesting mission!
The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead. A weird book about elevator inspectors and race. I admire the creativity but didn't really love the book.
I Almost Forgot about You, by Terry McMillan. I think McMillan peaked with Waiting to Exhale.
No One Is Coming to Save Us, by Stephanie Powell Watts. This book has been called Great Gatsby set amid African Americans in the South . . . but I do not get it at all.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundahti Roy. I did not care for this book (and I feel bad about that).
Host, by Robin Cook. I hadn't read a Robin Cook book for at least a decade, but they haven't changed at all--nefarious doings in drug companies and hospitals. Plus this one has a slightly weird racial vibe between the best friends who uncover the wrongdoing.
Where They Found Her, by Kimberley McCreight. Bad mothers in various guises--ugh! By the end, we learn the dads are bad, too, but it doesn't redeem the book.
All the Missing Girls, by Meagan Miranda. I thought this sounded interesting because part of it is told in reverse chronological order. Not really.
4 3 2 1, by Paul Auster. This is the 36-hour book--I listened to the whole thing and it held my interest. But it's too long--even given the fact that it's really four books in one, since it presents four different versions of the life of Archie Ferguson. However, it's not the best of what I call "Sliding Doors" books; for a better review than I could write, see the review in the New Yorker, which was spot on (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/30/paul-austers-novel-of-chance).

Favorite Passages

Decency on this occasion won out, and bravery, for courage is demanded not to attack when afraid.

Mohsin Hamid, Exit West

If principle is only defended when there's nothing at stake, then it is probably not much of a principle after all.

Jeff Flake, The Conscience of a Conservative