Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Sisters Mortland by Sally Beauman

I have become absolutely spoiled with advance copies from publishers. I keep picking them up, only to find the same stack languishing on my desk months later. I picked this one up ages ago, because it looked good at the time, and then promptly forgot. But I picked it up again in the hopes that it might be, as advertised, a “gothic page-turner.” I found myself sucked in immediately. It’s the summer of 1967 and Maisie, Julie, and Finn are three sisters living in an old abbey in rural England. Their father died and their mother and grandfather look after them and the estate. The beginning is narrated by Maisie, a gawky, odd 13-year-old girl who lives in the shadow of her father’s death, her sisters’ beauty, and the ghosts of the nuns who visit and speak with her. Daniel, a family friend, is a handsome boy with gypsy blood who is positively besotted with Finn, whose affections may not be his alone. A young painter, Luke, is also staying at the abbey, and is working on a painting of the sisters that will immortalize the girls and that fateful summer. When a tragedy strikes the abbey, all of their lives are changed forever. Flash forward to 1991, where we catch up with Daniel, a broken-down man who has achieved wealth, but left his former self behind. Still searching for the truth and for Finn, Daniel plumbs the past for answers. There are lots of twists and turns in this story, and the writing really moved me to continue. A satisfying gothic family saga.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Brambles by Eliza Minot

This book was so good, and to think I was putting it off, thinking “not another Minot novel”! Nancy Pearl put it on her top 10 books of 2006, and with good reason. It’s perfect for readers who enjoy family dramas and love character. Margaret, Max, and Edie are the three adult Bramble siblings struggling with family, work, self-identity, their mother’s tragic plane accident, and their father’s deteriorating health. The focus is really on Margaret, a mother of three who loves her children and her husband, while rhapsodizing over her stylish, carefree days in New York City. One review called her an “ambivalent mother” which I think is just wrong—she knows that she has sacrificed some of her earlier self to be a mother, but clearly relishes the roll—and the memories and thoughts that she shares about pregnancy, her eldest son’s intelligence, her panic over her children’s health, provide a complex portrait of a stay-at-home mom’s ups and downs. Max is married with a son, Rex, but is much less grown up than Margaret: he’s quit his job and hiding the fact from his wife, who begins to suspect infidelity. And then there’s Edie, a semi-addled bulimic who is the least developed of the siblings. Overall, this was a satisfying read. The “plot,” and the discovery that the Brambles make about their family’s past, was really secondary for me to the rich characterization and the empathy that Minot brought to each portrait. Unlike Franzen’s The Corrections, this was a family I could have spent much more time with.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch

So many of my friends raved about this book (thank you, Hannah!), and I am so glad I picked it up now. It truly swept me away into its world, and I didn’t want to let go at the end. Miles O’Malley lives in Olympia, Washington and is an avid beachcomber—he spends hours, day and night, exploring the tide pools and sands near his home. But this summer turns out to be life-changing for the shrimpy (his height is a constant refrain) 13-year-old in a number of ways. For one, he discovers a giant squid with eyes as big as hubcaps one night when he should have been sleeping. This discovery, and others, makes him a local celebrity and he soon has newscasters and even a local cult trying to track him down. But what I love about Miles are the subtleties in his character, the details that make him real—he’s in love with the older, bipolar, punked-out girl next door, his best friend is an ailing senior with Parkinson’s who used to be a psychic, and he spends his time digging for clams on the beach with a classmate obsessed with sex and air guitar. He’s a Rachel Carson enthusiast and can quote her at will (and boy, do I need to read some Carson sometime soon!). I have a soft spot for coming-of-age novels, and this one swam right past my defenses.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I reread this for my book group (did I mention I’m doing scads of rereading?) and it was just as chilling and effective as the first time. This book is so subtle and unsettling. Again, what struck me about it was how it intimately details the horrors of dehumanization, of what has been and will be the experience of too many. While it uses cloning as its backdrop, it applies to so many other scenarios—and plumbs so many other issues, too. Like how self-hatred is taught, little by little—how deception is inculcated, too, and accepted wholesale once we’ve been conditioned to it (the Iraq War, anyone?). But the power of this little novel is that it’s not an ‘issues’ novel. Ishiguro provides a clear picture of what’s important and what’s at stake in any issue—people and human relationships.

Monday, November 27, 2006

A Big Storm Knocked It Over by Laurie Colwin

I have been doing so much rereading right now—for my book group and other projects—that I was craving something fresh, short, and utterly delightful. Why didn’t I think of Laurie Colwin earlier? I have always enjoyed anything I have read by her for their breezy brilliance, and this is no exception. Jane Louise is a recently married graphic artist for a publishing company in Manhattan whose work is constantly being interrupted by her oversexed co-worker, Sven. Jane Louise and her husband Teddy have a lovely life together, although Jane Louise constantly suffers pangs that he married the wrong woman—he should have married a prim, blonde Christian instead of a skinny, anxiety-ridden Jewish girl. And she allows herself to contemplate sex with the ever-scheming Sven, which sets her into an endless spiral of confusion. But really this is just a sweet, simple novel about a young woman learning about love and family and herself, and learning to trust in the life that she has chosen. I also loved how pregnancy and motherhood and friendship is depicted in this novel. You really feel as though you are among friends when reading Colwin’s books—there is an easy familiarity and chattiness that entertains as it fills a void (for me anyway—my dearest friend is 3,000 miles away and we mainly communicate through letters). It is just so sad to think that this is Colwin’s last novel; she died of a heart attack at the age of 48.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

This is a seamless, compulsively readable short story collection that certainly deserves its Pulitzer Prize. And I still can’t believe that it was a debut! I reread this as Lahiri has been chosen as the 2007 selection for Seattle Public Library’s “Seattle Reads” program, and I am writing discussion questions for a Reading Group Toolbox. My favorite story is still “This Blessed House”—so amazing.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Let me just say that this isn’t the kind of book I generally gravitate to. And that I need to stop reading such morbidly violent books while pregnant! But it is a debut novel by an Entertainment Weekly writer (I love that magazine an obscene amount) and the reviews were good. Camille Preaker is a young journalist who isn’t quite as accomplished as she could be. But her boss believes in her, and pushes her into a big assignment in her old hometown. Two young girls have been found strangled with their teeth pulled out within a year of each other. Camille heads back to a home she has avoided for years to investigate. She stays with her Mom, a beautiful, rich socialite who is as chilly and strange as they come, a vacant step-father, and precociously dangerous, popular teenage half-sister. I was drawn to read the book from the descriptions of the dysfunctional family—and boy is it dysfunctional. Camille has been living in the shadow of her sister who died, and receives no love from her mother. Camille’s past and her family’s secrets get dragged out in the investigation, and there are a few surprises therein. Not, perhaps, as surprising as they could have been. But if you’re in the mood for a dark thriller, this is a compelling one.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

I am reposting this for the benefit of the Library Success wiki and RickLibrarian's page.


Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
Possession by A.S. Byatt
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
The Ramona books by Beverly Cleary
Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin
The Fifth Business by Robertson Davies
Break It Down by Lydia Davis
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Down a Dark Hall by Lois Duncan
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
Anything by George Eliot, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda in particular
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer
China To Me by Emily Hahn
Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi
At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom by Amy Hempel
Oyster by Janette Turner Hospital
The Bone People by Keri Hulme
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Obasan by Joy Kogawa
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Sisters by Mary S. Lovell
The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
Hopeful Monsters by Nicholas Mosley
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Iris Murdoch (everything I’ve read so far, which isn’t much considering how prolific she was)
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman
The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New by Adrienne Rich
Empire Falls by Richard Russo
The Complete Poems by Anne Sexton
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
The Way It Is: Poems by William Stafford
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Waterland by Graham Swift
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Slaughter-house 5 by Kurt Vonnegut
Sleepwalking by Meg Wolitzer
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Friday, November 03, 2006

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

Link’s stories are the stuff of dreams—they are luminous, unpredictable shape-shifters that illuminate the inner workings of the mind. Like her first collection, Stranger Things Happen, these stories are genre-bending—they lean to the fantastical, but can’t quite be pinned down as fantasy or literary. At their spooky best, you are left bewildered and enchanted. My favorite stories in the collection are “The faery handbag” and the self-titled story which features a television show called ‘The Library.’

I had the good fortune to run into Kelly Link at the library where I work a few weeks ago. More to the point, I dashed after her madly after I saw her exit an elevator. I got red-faced and giddy and asked her to autograph my notebook! She was extremely gracious and kind and calm with my fan-ness; apparently, I am the first person ever to recognize her! But I calmed down once we started talking about restaurants in Amherst and Northampton—where she lives and where I once did (and man, is the food good there—I don’t think I like any Seattle restaurants as much as I liked some of the places there.) And later even sent a deck of cards (with the Magic for Beginners cover) and told me that I made her year! It’s so nice when the authors we like turn out to be really cool human beings.
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

This is a book lover’s dream! In every chapter Prose breaks down the art of literature by its dazzling components--the sentence, the paragraph, characterization, gesture, dialogue—and creates an understanding and appreciation for the masters of the craft. The authors, stories, and scenes she uses to illustrate her point are inspired and inspiring—I wanted to run right out and read every author, short story, and novel she cited as examples throughout. One of the final chapters is dedicated to the reading of Chekhov’s short stories and how he broke every rule and convention Prose felt she kept trying to impart on her writing students. I can’t wait to dedicate a little time to Chekhov myself. And I know that I will slow down and savor my reading a little more—pay closer attention to how authors do what they do.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Digging to America by Anne Tyler

Sometimes books come at the right time. I had heard from so many friends just how good this book was, but I didn’t get to it the first time it came in for me. But I was really ready now for something so seamlessly written, with characters so clearly and compassionately drawn. Two American families in Baltimore adopt Korean girls and meet in the airport—the Donaldsons and the Yazdans. The Donaldsons invite the Yazdans into their lives right away, wanting the girls to grow up together, share their Korean heritage. Smoothly transitioning from year to year, from character to character, Tyler explores the idiosyncracies of family life and parenting, as well as the complex terrain of national identity, belonging, and “foreignness.” Sami and Ziba Yazdan are Iranian, and Maryam, Sami’s mother, still feels very much apart from American life even though she has lived there the majority of her adult life. What is an American life? What are the rules of American society, being as so many of them are not made explicit? Tyler evokes the viewpoints of her characters with a warmth and generosity that is infectious. I simply did not want this book to end—I wanted the years to keep scrolling by, the follow both families much longer.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Saturday by Ian McEwan

I thoroughly enjoyed rereading this novel. Rather than synopsize it, a few of my favorite passages:

“At times this biography made him comfortably nostalgic for a verdant, horse-drawn, affectionate England; at others he was faintly depressed by the way a whole life could be contained by a few hundred pages—bottled, like homemade chutney. And by how easily an existence, its ambitions, networks of family and friends, all its cherished stuff, solidly possessed, could so entirely vanish.”

“It’s a commonplace of parenting and modern genetics that parents have little or no influence on the characters of their children. You never know who you are going to get. Opportunities, health, prospects, accent, table manners—these might lie within your power to shape. But what really determines the sort of person who’s coming to live with you in which sperm finds which egg, how the cards in the two packs are chosen, then how they are shuffled, halved and spliced at the moment of recombination. Cheerful or neurotic, kind or greedy, curious or dull, expansive or shy and anywhere in between; it can be quite an affront to parental self-regard, just how much of the work has already been done. On the other hand, it can let you off the hook.”

“Who else could love him so knowingly, with such warmth and teasing humour, or accumulate so rich a past with him? …By some accident of character, it’s familiarity that excites him more than sexual novelty. …This fidelity might look like virtue or doggedness, but it’s neither of these because he exercises no real choice. This is what he has to have: possession, belonging, repetition.”

A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle

A sweet story about life and love after death—set in a New York cemetery where a hermit, a talking raven, and the ghosts of the recently deceased live.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Midwives by Chris Bohjalian

I’m like more than 10 years late on this one; it was a bestseller back when I was working at a bookstore in Amherst, and one of Oprah’s early picks. But Bohjalian’s name came up recently, and I thought, why not? There are simultaneous reasons why I should and should not have picked up this novel. I am working with midwives and planning a home birth, and while this novel does much justice and even celebrates or at least illuminates midwifery, it is at heart about a home birth gone horribly wrong and the trial following a mother’s death from an emergency C-section. But somehow the more gruesome or troubling aspects of the book didn’t get to me that much. Because really this is a mother-daughter story, narrated by Connie, the daughter of the midwife on trial. It’s also wonderfully evocative of Vermont, its intense snows and sloppy mud seasons. And it’s more nuanced than I expected. Overall an enjoyable read that I lapped right up.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

I have been a distracted reader this summer, and was just craving something that would draw me in. I have been hearing much hype about Mitchell for years, but every time I picked up his supposed masterpiece, Cloud Atlas, I kept dropping it faster than a sweaty gym sock. I mean, I’m all for experimental fiction and fractured narratives, but my brain just hasn’t been up for it of late. So when my friend Hannah told me how much she had been enjoying his latest (and my dear friend Nick told me he loved it, too, so I’d had plenty of prompting), I dusted off my advance reader’s copy and finally got down to it.

Let me just say that I am a sucker for coming-of-age novels. If they’re set in the 80’s (when I grew up), then all the better—and if they’re set in Britain (where I wish I’d grown up), well, then, what am I waiting for? The protagonist of this one is Jason Taylor—a lonely 13-year-old who secretly writes poetry and has a nasty, hindering stammer who wants desperately to fit in and be accepted by his peers. Unfortunately, the boys in his school like to use him for a punching bag. But who wants to read about the perfect, popular kid anyway? This book is heartbreaking and always honest about the wretched state of insecure boyhood. And Mitchell has some absolutely memorable characters here, and has created a solid, true story about a boy coming of age during the Falklands war, surviving divorce, and navigating the grisly public school halls while giving you a glimpse of the fine young man he will become.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Brighten the Corner Where You Are by Fred Chappell

I love the title of this novel and I bought a copy years ago for the title alone. I have been cleaning off my bookshelves, deciding what to keep and sell (a friend of mine is totally appalled that I could sell any of my books, but given that I live in 700 square feet that will soon be crammed with all things baby, I just have to!), and found this again. It’s a sweet, Southern story about the narrator’s father, a high school teacher and prankster in 1946. It’s one day in the life of this sly, inventive man—a day of much mischief and surprises, and a school board meeting in which his teaching of Darwin in science class will be called into question. I had fun reading this, and there are some great moments, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. (Which may be partially my fault in waiting 4 years to read it!)
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

I kept hearing wonderful things about this book, that it was a sure-fire book group pleaser and all that, and I tell you—it was! It’s a simple, spare novel about 19th century China when footbinding was still very much a part of women’s lives and friendships as well as marriages were arranged. Our narrator, Lily, had an “old sames” or laotong friendship arranged with Snow Flower, a young girl from a more auspicious family. Women had their own phonetic written language called nu shu and these girls shared their lives and thoughts over the years through letters (I automatically love novels about letters—just so you know). But misunderstanding and resentment begins to grow between them through their years as wives and mothers. Written with great sadness, Lily revisits her friendship with Snow Flower, slowly unfolding where they both steered wrong, where they both lost track of their true selves and one another. Not a book to finish on the bus—I had to choke back tears and regret that I didn’t give myself a proper, messy cry!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

I thank my lucky stars all the time that I know Nancy Pearl! And she’s done it again by recommending a wonderfully diverting vampire novel! McKinley is most well known for her teen fiction, but this one is very adult, and so good! It starts out rather benignly, where we meet Rae/Sunshine who works in her step-father’s bakery in a sleepy town making cinnamon rolls as big as your head. But not far into the story you begin hearing about the Voodoo Wars and the Others—this is no ordinary, sleepy love story after all. I really loved this book—for its intelligent, grounded, and surprising main character and utterly beguiling, chillingly charming vampire.
Operating Instructions: a journal of my son’s first year by Anne Lamott

I must admit that I put off reading Lamott, even though I had heard this book is good and that she is good, because of her emphasis on Christianity in her work. I fully admit that I have a kneejerk reaction to Christian writings, and let’s be honest, Christianity in general. But I am so glad I read this book. For one, I am expecting so it was wonderful to read about another mother’s thoughts—on her terror at having a boy and her own conflicted experiences and perceptions of maleness and penises (I don’t know if I am having a boy or a girl, and I do have some concerns about having a boy, or a girl for that matter). Secondly, she wrote this book during the reign of Bush Senior and spends a lot of time railing against the evils of Republicanism—but it did break my heart to think here I am with a child being born into the 2nd Bush reign which is unarguably worse that the former. Lamott also explores her faith, and calls its craziness into question at times, in a truly refreshing way. I may not be able to handle her books which deal squarely with this topic, but I appreciated her candor and questioning in this one.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

City of Your Final Destination by Peter Cameron

Julia Glass recommended this book at her visit to the library, and I am so grateful! It was just what I was craving: well-drawn, intriguing characters, witty dialogue, and some academic satire thrown in for good measure. I hope to read more Cameron quite soon.
Howards End by E. M. Forster

My book group didn’t love this book, and while it’s flawed, there are certain passages that I just loved:

“It is so easy for an Englishman to sneer at these chance collisions of human beings. To the insular cynic and the insular moralist they offer an equal opportunity. It is so easy to talk of ‘passing emotion,’ and to forget how vivid the emotion was ere it passed. Our impulse to sneer, to forget, is at root a good one. We recognize that emotion is not enough, and that men and women are personalities capable of sustained relationships, not mere opportunities for an electrical discharge. Yet we rate this impulse too highly. We do not admit that by collisions of this trivial sort the doors of heaven may be shaken open. To Helen, at all events, her life was to bring nothing more intense than the embrace of this boy who played no part in it.” (21)

“Was Mrs. Wilcox one of those unsatisfactory people-there are many of them—who dangle intimacy and then withdraw it? They evoke our interests and affections, and keep the life of the spirit dawdling round them. Then they withdraw. When physical passion is involved, there is a definite name for such behavior—flirting—and if carried far enough it is punishable by law. But no law—not public opinion even—punishes those who coquette with friendship, though the dull ache that they inflict, the sense of misdirected effort and exhaustion, may be as intolerable.” (67)

Friday, July 14, 2006

My Old Sweetheart by Susanna Moore

I am so glad that I gave this book a chance, because I hated In the Cut. This book is a marvelous novel set in Hawaii about a twisted, co-dependent mother/daughter relationship. A young woman looks at her childhood and her mother’s intoxicating beauty and suffocating need in the hopes of trying to understand the past and not duplicate the same unhealthy relationship with her own daughter.
English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

My book group just loved this book and I was so terrified that they would hate me for choosing it! Several members told me that an hour just was not enough for discussing this book.
I really enjoyed it too, but it took me so long (two weeks) to read it, that I began to resent it a little. Or resent myself a little for being mostly incapable these days of reading more than one book at once. But it is right up my alley—a historical novel about Tasmania told from multiple characters’ perspectives detailing the colonization of the island and the destruction of the Aboriginal people and culture.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Come Back: a mother and daughter’s journey through hell and back by Claire and Mia Fontaine

This mother-daughter memoir really packed an emotional wollop for me. For one, because my sister has been struggling with depression and substance abuse and is in a rehabilitation facility right now. Claire and Mia tell their stories about how at 15 Mia ran away from their Los Angeles home to live with street youth and ‘experience life.’ Mia had been hiding a dark, double life she had been leading—a darkness that led her to believe that she did not deserve a stable, comfortable life and could spare her parents pain if she ran away. Mia was abused by her biological father as a young child, and those emotional scars ran deep—something Claire was not wholly prepared for. When Mia was found in a skinhead’s van in Indiana, Claire decided to send her to a behavioral modification facility in the Czech Republic. Thus begins a year of hardship and emotional transformation for both Mia and Claire. The workshops and personal journeys that they undertake were the most powerful sections for me—for how honest they were, for the honesty the sessions demanded, and for what they learned about themselves and each other. I couldn’t put this book down, and was so thankful that they shared their stories.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Morning, Noon and Night by Spalding Gray
Life Interrupted by Spalding Gray

Spalding Gray committed suicide in 2004 by jumping off the Staten Island ferry. I still remember being stunned by the news, being a casual admirer of his work and having no knowledge of the car accident in Ireland that left him in so much pain. Reading Morning, Noon and Night with the specter of his death was odd—because it’s ostensibly a celebration of family life at a point when Spalding was welcoming the arrival of his second son, Theo. Spalding never thought he’d have kids or become a family man, and he says at one point in the book that he thought that if he did have children it would be late in life so that he would die before they became teenagers. Sadly, he got his wish. But Spalding brought great wit, thought and energy to his life while he lived and was clearly a great father. Reading Life Interrupted afterwards just made me cry copiously—it includes the last monologues he was working on and the eulogies that were read at the services in New York and Rhode Island.

I need to go re-watch “Swimming to Cambodia” and “Monster in a Box” very
The Whole World Over by Julia Glass

I am soooooooooo behind on writing for this blog and sharing what I’m reading that I am going to force myself to be brief. Julia Glass writes character so well and I was utterly absorbed from the first chapter. It’s a novel about love, marriage, and how past decisions and choices have to be reckoned with in ways we perhaps never imagined. People’s paths intersect in mysterious and portentous ways in Glass’ books, which she explores with tender possibility. While it ties up a bit too nicely in the end, you just can’t help but accept it because you really want the best for the characters you have grown to love.
Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

If you’ve ever had a love-hate relationship with your neighbor, if you ever thought that Frances Mayes’ vision of expatriate Italy was a little too precious, if you enjoy novels with unusual recipes, and you enjoy Odd Couple comedies then this is the book for you! Gerald Sampson, who buys a villa in Tuscany, is a snobby Brit who ghostwrites books for sports stars and fancies himself an experimental cook—and he does experiment—with cat, otter and like the title says, lots of the herbal spirit, fernet branca! He even whips up a concoction called Alien Pie—but you’ll just have to discover that for yourself! His neighbor Marta is from the fictitious ex-Soviet country of Voynovia where her father is a Mob boss and is in Italy to work on a film score. Gerald and Marta get on each other’s nerves from day one—but the real comedy is in the fact that you get the story from both of them, and they each have a different version to tell! This is an oddball comedy that is a real send-up of running off the Italy for the good life!

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue

This is a ghost story that takes a while to unfold. It’s also a love story—in the past and the present. Raziela Nolan died in the 1920’s in New Orleans—a vivacious, opinionated woman ahead of her time, dedicated to women’s reproductive rights, and in love with a promising young man, Andrew. Seventy years later, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Razi haunts a young couple who are experiencing some martial troubles. But why is Razi haunting them? The truth comes out late in the book, but what really makes this book worth reading are the scenes of Razi’s youth and the relationship between Andrew and Razi. You just can’t believe that these vibrant, three-dimensional characters don’t still exist, and that their love was interrupted

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Okay, I know this is a book blog, and maybe a music list doesn't belong here. But I can't help but merge my loves now and again. They do oftentimes go hand in hand. Some novels remind me of the albums I was listening to over and over again while I read them. (Here's a sample: Tears For Fears' Songs from the Big Chair and Jesus & Mary Chain's Barbed Wire Kisses while reading the many tawdry "Flowers in the Attic" books; The Cure's Faith while reading Wolitzer's Sleepwalking; P J Harvey while reading Jane Austen in college, etc., etc.)

One more rationalization--I like many of the bands on this list for the same reasons I chose the books on the other top 50 list--for an amazing turn of phrase, for the mood they set or transport me to, for the naked truth of the emotion expressed.

So anyway--my husband, Stuart, and I made lists independent of one another, so I can't help but share his too. Lots of overlap (he influenced me, I influenced him, and we have simply long been fans of indie rock) between us--much like you know you've met a kindred spirit when you share a love for the same books or authors.

1. Fiona Apple: When The Pawn…
2. Arcade Fire: Funeral
3. The Bats: Daddy’s Highway
4. The Beautiful South: Welcome to the Beautiful South
5. Belle & Sebastian: If You’re Feeling Sinister
6. The Boo Radleys: Kingsize
7. David Bowie: Hunky Dory
8. Billy Bragg: Must I Paint You a Picture: The Essential Billy Bragg
9. John Cale: Paris 1919
10. Neko Case: Blacklisted
11. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: The Boatman’s Call
12. The Church: Starfish
13. The Cure: The Head on the Door
14. Nick Drake: Bryter Layter
15. Echo & the Bunnymen: Ocean Rain
16. The Go-Betweens: 16 Lover’s Lane
17. David Gray: The Century Ends
18. PJ Harvey: Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea
19. Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
20. Robyn Hitchcock: Eye
21. Ida: I Know About You
22. The Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs
23. Paul & Linda McCartney: Ram
24. Modest Mouse: The Moon & Antarctica
25. Mojave 3: Ask Me Tomorrow
26. Moloko: Statues
27. Sinead O’Connor: I do not want what I haven’t got
28. The Pogues: If I Should Fall From Grace With God
29. Pulp: We Love Life
30. Radiohead: Kid A
31. REM: Life’s Rich Pageant
32. Rolling Stones: Let It Bleed
33. Saint Etienne: Good Humor
34. Seam: The problem with me
35. The Smiths: Louder Than Bombs
36. Elliott Smith: Roman Candle
37. Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation
38. Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros: Global A Go-Go
39. The Sundays: Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic
40. Tears for Fears: Songs From the Big Chair
41. The The: Mind Bomb
42. Tompaulin: Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt
43. Trembling Blue Stars: Her Handwriting
44. U2: Joshua Tree
45. Unrest: Imperial
46. The Waterboys: Fisherman’s Blues
47. The Wedding Present: Sea Monsters
48. Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
49. XTC: Skylarking
50. Yo La Tengo: And the Nothing Turned Itself Inside


1. Beach Boys Pet Sounds
2. Beck Sea Change
3. Beautiful South Welcome the Beautiful South
4. Belle & Sebastian If You’re Feeling Sinister
5. David Bowie Ziggy Stardust
6. Neko Case Blacklisted
7. Nick Cave The Boatman’s Call
8. The Charalambides Market Square
9. Leonard Cohen Songs of Leonard Cohen
10. Cornershop Woman’s Gotta Have It
11. Bob Dylan Desire
12. Echo & the Bunnymen Heaven Up Here
13. The Fall Grotesque
14. Felt Me, a Monkey & the Moon
15. Gang of Four Entertainment
16. The Go-Betweens 16 Lovers Lane
17. PJ Harvey To Bring You My Love
18. Husker Du New Day Rising
19. Ida I Know About You
20. It’s Jo and Danny Lank Haired Girl to Bearded Boy
21. The Jesus & Mary Chain Psychocandy
22. Low Christmas
23. Mark Kozelek Rock N Roll Singer
24. Marvin Gaye What’s Goin’ On
25. Massive Attack Blue Lines
26. Moloko Statues
27. My Bloody Valentine Loveless
28. New Order Power Corruption & Lies
29. Sinead O’Connor I Do Not Want What I Have Not
30. Prolapse Pointless Walks to Dismal Places
31. Pulp This Is Hardcore
32. REM Automatic for the People
33. The Replacements Let It Be
34. Saint Etienne Good Humor
35. Sleater-Kinney One Beat
36. Slowdive Pygmalion
37. Elliot Smith Figure 8
38. Sonic Youth Sister
39. Spacemen 3 The Perfect Prescription
40. Dusty Springfield Dusty in Memphis
41. Stereolab Peng! 33
42. The Stone Roses The Stone Roses
43. Throwing Muses Throwing Muses
44. Unrest Imperial FFRR
45. Rufus Wainwright Want One
46. The Waterboys Fisherman’s Blues
47. The Wedding Present Sea Monsters
48. Whale We Care
49. The Wolfhounds Attitude
50. Young Marble Giants Colossal Youth

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


I got this idea from a Kevin Brockmeier reading--apparently he hands out his top 50 (which he explains includes few classics because he's being entirely honest) books to the audience. Which is just brilliant, really. How many times are authors asked to cite their influences?

Not that anyone's asking, but here are mine. This month, week, moment, anyway. But I will refrain from changing and adapting it for at least 24 hours.

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
Possession by A.S. Byatt
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
The Ramona books by Beverly Cleary
Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin
The Fifth Business by Robertson Davies
Break It Down by Lydia Davis
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Down a Dark Hall by Lois Duncan
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
Anything by George Eliot, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda in particular
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer
China To Me by Emily Hahn
Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi
At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom by Amy Hempel
Oyster by Janette Turner Hospital
The Bone People by Keri Hulme
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Obasan by Joy Kogawa
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Sisters by Mary S. Lovell
The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
Hopeful Monsters by Nicholas Mosley
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Iris Murdoch (everything I’ve read so far, which isn’t much considering how prolific she was)
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman
The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New by Adrienne Rich
Empire Falls by Richard Russo
The Complete Poems by Anne Sexton
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
The Way It Is: Poems by William Stafford
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Waterland by Graham Swift
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Slaughter-house 5 by Kurt Vonnegut
Sleepwalking by Meg Wolitzer
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Tenth Circle by Jodi Picoult

I read this one really fast, but with much less enthusiasm and wonder than with My Sister’s Keeper. It’s about the Stone family in Maine: father Daniel is a stay-at-home dad who pens graphic novels, mother Laura is a college professor who specializes in Dante’s Inferno, and 14-year-old daughter Trixie is nursing a broken heart after her popular, older boyfriend Jason breaks up with her. We learn early on that Laura is cheating in her husband with a student, Daniel has a dark, violent past, and Trixie isn’t as sweet and innocent as her parents think she is. Everthing is up-ended when Trixie is raped by Jason at a party. The party also involves a lot of shock-value teen sex-play—the kind of stuff that may or may not actually be happening—“rainbow” and “daisy chain”—which felt like an of-the-moment, Oprah-session type of choice. The town blames Trixie and her family, because Jason is a beloved hockey star. While this isn’t as devastating as Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys, a novel in which a raped girl finds her family and the entire world turned against her (I wanted to throw this bleak, bleak book out the window), it’s also not as powerful. There are some graphic novel sections in here, which are fun if a little hokey. If you want to see what Picoult can do, read My Sister’s Keeper.
Drew Barrymore: The Biography by Lucy Ellis and Bryony Sutherland

I don’t generally read movie star biographies. Generally I get my fill from inane Entertainment Tonight-type programs and People magazine (well, and US Weekly and Entertainment Weekly). But Stuart’s Dad was in town and he always stops into Cinema Books, which is this amazing little store crammed to the gills with film related books, magazines and photo glossies. The woman who runs it also has an encyclopedic knowledge of film and her own organization scheme for the layers and stacks of books in the entire place. Cinema Books is a veritable treasure trove and it’s right down the street from Scarecrow Video. So when Stuart found the script for “The Apartment,” I felt we should buy one other thing, and I picked up the Drew bio. I can’t help but mention that I absolutely adore her; I can’t help it. I buy nearly every magazine she appears in, and Stuart often kids that he wonders where the shrine is hidden. The biography was an exquisite guilty pleasure. I’m not sure how good it is, but I did enjoy it.

Monday, May 15, 2006

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

This book was exactly what I was looking for—a combination of two of my favorite novels, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. What I love about many British novels, like those by Smith and Mitford, is that everyone’s just so proper—properly eccentric, that is. Rice’s American debut is also host to many eccentric, witty, and intriguing characters.

It’s 1954 in England, war rationing is still a reality, and life has yet to fully return to ‘normal.’ Penelope Wallace, whose father died in the war, lives at Milton Magna Hall, a once-grand mansion home that was requisitioned by soldiers during the war, with her beautiful mother and music-obsessed younger brother, Inigo. Penelope has lived a quiet, uneventful life in Magna until she meets a girl at the bus stop who invites her to hop in a cab with her and come to tea at her Aunt Clare’s. Charlotte is a spark, a girl with “a great gift for circumnavigating normal behavior,” with a winsome humor and style. Penelope has no idea why she has been called out: “She was the sort of person one reads about in novels yet rarely meets in real life, and if this was the beginning of the novel—well!” Charlotte brings Penelope out of her shell and opens her up to new experiences. Penelope and Charlotte form a real bond from their chance encounter, and Charlotte begins to bring Penelope out of her shell. As a result, Penelope gets quite mixed up with Aunt Clare’s aspiring magician son, Harry. Harry is in love with a wealthy American and he ropes Penelope into his attempts to break off the engagement. Penelope just might be falling for Harry in the process, but her real heartthrob is American singer, Johnnie Ray. This is a delightful, utterly charming coming-of-age novel that’s pure enjoyment. A perfect summer read.

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Town That Forgot How to Breathe by Kenneth J. Harvey

This book starts out with the promise of John Crowley’s Little, Big: a woman who could once commune with spirits walks down a path, gathering lilacs, talking with her townspeople, telling stories and strange asides. It begins with a rich sense of magic and foreboding. Set in Newfoundland in the small fishing village of Bareneed, it is about a town that has all but lost its main industry—fishing cod has been outlawed because of they have started to die off. A fisheries officer and recent divorcee, Joseph Blackwood, and his young daughter, Robin, come to Bareneed for a summer break. But things get strange and spooky straight away. A young woman living next door’s dead daughter appears and disappears in windows and starts talking with and influencing Robin. And soon people of Bareneed become stricken with an illness that causes them to become violent and then stop breathing. And dead bodies from past generations start being pulled intact from the sea. Mythological sea creatures also start to appear.

I wanted to like this book, for its exquisite creepiness and for its writing—which is quite lush at times—but the story just got increasingly long and the premise just seemed too flimsy. It took me far too long to read and I was glad to be done with it when I finished. Somehow it can be more frustrating when you can see how much better a book could have been with some editing or more thought.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Girls by Lori Lansens

Rose and Ruby were born during a tornado in Canada in 1974. They were also born joined at the head, craniopagus twins. The nurse who assisted with their birth, Aunt Lovey, took them in as her own when their mother skipped town. Rose and Ruby are joined in such a way that they have never seen one another except through mirrors, but Rose says: “I know Ruby’s gestures as my own, through the movement of her muscles and bone> I love my sister as I love myself. I hate her that way too.”

Rose wants to be a writer and begins penning her memoir before their 30th birthday, with her sister, Ruby, adding her own chapters, when they are told they may not have long to live. Aunt Lovey and her husband, Uncle Stash, have always insisted that the girls have as normal a life as anyone else—Aunt Lovey never let anyone or anything stand in their way and made them both work through any physical limitations. She was also honest with Ruby and Rose about life and didn’t over-protect—I really found her a compelling figure in the novel for her strength and her love. Alternating between Rose and Ruby’s voices, in which they tell stories of their shared life, you realize how much they love each other and how very different they both are.

I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up this book—I thought the girls might be sheltered wallflowers or that a novel about two girls joined at the head might be a mere curiosity or exercise is sheer voyeurism. But Lansens brings real depth and emotion to all of her characters in this surprising, touching novel.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes

Twelve-year-old Martha Boyle’s life changes the moment she is given a page from Olive Barstow’s diary before summer vacation. Martha didn’t get to know Olive before she died, but it turns out they shared a secret: they both wanted to be writers. Martha’s family head to the Cape to visit her grandmother, Godbee, but Martha just can’t stop thinking about Olive, a girl she hardly knew. Martha and Godbee also have an agreement that they share something new about one another every day. (Godbee is such a cool grandma, too—I could have listened to her stories forever!) It’s a summer filled with pondering life, death, friendship and love. This sweet, subtle book was recommended to me by a girl who likes “sad books” (I wanted to squeeze her when she said that—so sweet). While it’s a little bit sad, it’s also a find--like a ocean-washed glass in your pocket.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

I keep thinking about this book. It's coming out in June and I want more people to read it so I can check and see if it's really as good as I think. Bechdel even started appearing in some dreams of mine. Very weird.

It's just so moving and powerful and packed full of intriguing questions and gaps. I want to do this with a book group.

Okay, I will move on. Really, I will.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

I finally read it. I know it’s completely uncool that it took me so long. I have to say I really enjoyed it. Even as the plot and the day got increasingly more improbable, I was in it hook, line and sinker. And as an ex-Catholic and feminist, I found the questions and concepts it plumbs very satisfying. I just wonder if its popularity at all means anyone else is questioning the patriarchy that is promulgated in our religions, politics and culture. But it’s dumb of me to think a pulp novel can change anyone’s mind about anything. I think Jon Stewart said it best: “Religion. It's given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.”
Willful Creatures: Stories by Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender is sometimes needlessly obtuse and long-winded with her fables, but when she gets it right she really gets it right. Her best stories remind me of my good friend Sarah in Connecticut who has the most playful and artful way of talking sometimes—her sentences are sprinkled with nonsensical words, root vegetables, crazy brainfarts. My favorite story in this collection is about a wealthy woman who goes to a party intent on kissing three men: one with black hair, one with red hair, and a blond. It’s a little funny, a little strange, and all Bender. But I have to say I still like her novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, better than her short story collections.
My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

There is a reason that Picoult is a best-selling author: she’s really good. In this case, she takes a ripped-from-the-headlines type of plot-line and infuses it with warmth, dimension and surprising humanity. Anna’s older sister Kate has APL, an aggressive form of leukemia, and was conceived as a perfect genetic match so that she could “help” her sister when her immune system crashes. Anna loves her sister Kate and loves her parents, but at 13, after years of donating her blood, bone marrow and her chance at a normal life, and with the possibility of the donation of one of her kidneys, she decides to sue her parents for medical emancipation. Told from different perspectives, Picoult builds this story about a complex issue with true balance and depth. But I must warn you: don’t finish this book in a public place—I was sniveling and honking my nose like a big baby.
As Simple As Snow by Gregory Galloway

In what feels like a literary homage to the film “Donnie Darko,” this coming-of-age novel is sneaky, dark and just a little elusive. It’s got a great first line: “Anna Cayne had moved here in August, just before our sophomore year in high school, but by February she had, one by one, killed everyone in town.” Anna moves into town and starts writing obituaries for every single person. The narrator goes unnamed and is a self-described bland and ordinary teenager. But something in him is inexplicably drawn to the new girl in his small town, Anna (Anastasia), a blonde goth girl who’s book-smart, street-smart and an all-around enigma. Our narrator falls for Anna’s penchant for literary allusions, notes, letters, packages and mix cd’s that are puzzles in themselves, and her sheer delight for life’s mysteries. He and Anna create a secret code, much like Houdini and his wife did, and when Anna is done writing her last obituary, she disappears. I enjoyed this one for the little unresolved clues and puzzles and questions it leaves, but wanted more. One thing I can say: Galloway knows how to make an awesome mix-cd.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I haven’t read Ishiguro in quite a while (I read his first couple of novels), and while I had heard that his latest was about clones, I somehow didn’t expect to find a novel so reminiscent of Atwood’s speculative (let’s come out and say it: science fiction) work. Straight-forward in style, and narrated by Kathy H., a young woman with a penchant for picking apart past interactions and thoughts, it tracks the lives of three young people who meet in the swank English boarding school, Hailsham, in which they are raised. Kathy and her friends Ruth and Tommy are told that they are special by the “guardians” that look after the Hailsham students. They are told in insidious and subtle ways that they will become “donors” or “carers” someday, that they cannot have children, and that their greatest artworks will be taken away from them to a mysterious “Gallery.” (The art piece reminded me of Lois Duncan’s teen novel Down a Dark Hall, a spooky little book that I read over and over again in junior high.) While Kathy tells the story of her complicated friendship with Ruth and Tommy, and tries to piece together an understanding of who and what they are and will become, Ishiguro weaves a sense of growing foreboding and injustice. I don’t want to say too much about this book (although most probably already know what it is about), but I found this a well-told speculative work on what could be the near-future.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Inheritance by Lan Samantha Chang

I read Chang’s novella, Hunger, years ago and found her writing strong, spare and evocative. Hunger was a story about two Asian-American sisters and their domineering father. Inheritance is also a story about sisters, but this time spanning seven decades, in pre-war and wartime China and in America. Junan and Yinan are as different as can be, but both are shaped by their mother’s suicide. Their mother drowned herself out of fear that she would be unable to bear a son and that her husband might abandon her or take another wife. This marks Junan and Yinan’s views of love and marriage, and while Junan takes a cool, calculating approach to life, Yinan recedes into her reading and writing. Junan marries a soldier, Li Ang, but finds that holding herself back from love, from passion and possession, may be harder than she thought. And this struggle within Junan herself, and the love that Yinan and Li Ang eventually share, changes the sisters’ relationship forever. Narrated by Junan’s eldest daughter, Hong, this novel about family secrets and stories and the heartbreak of the past is expertly drawn. While it lags a bit in the end, or tries to tie too much together, really, I found that Chang’s talents were more fully realized here. I just hope she doesn’t make me wait another 6 years for the next one.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Bechdel is known for her long-running comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” but, with any luck, will reach a broader audience with this graphic novel memoir. Bechdel’s memoir focuses on her relationship with her father, his secret life and her coming-of-age as a lesbian. Bechdel grew up in Pennsylvania in a Victorian home her father meticulously restored and reigned over. Alison, her two brothers, and Mother all lived in the house as though they were part of an installation, simply part of Mr. Bechdel’s master plan or artifice. The Bechdel family also ran a funeral home where Alison’s father worked part-time while also working as a high school English teacher. Bechdel tells her story with a rich layering of time, discovery and literary allusions that befit the passion her father shared with her, the power of the written word. Her father’s death when she is 20 ruptures her world, and leaves her to question the complex figure that he cut in her life. Before his death, just when she comes out to her parents, Alison learns that her father had been having affairs with other men and boys throughout her parents’ marriage. This revelation has long-ranging effects and reverberations, but in all that Bechdel learns about her father, the more questions spring to life for her and the reader. The artful execution, the well-detailed graphics, the emotional complexity, and the literary layers all converged just stunningly. This has got to be one of my favorites, right up there with Blankets and Persepolis.
Rose of No Man’s Land by Michelle Tea

Mogsfield, Massachusetts is a nowhere town, a backwater with little to offer. There’s the high school and the vocational school and strip malls as far as the eye can see. Trisha Driscoll is a 14-year-old loner with a hypochondriac Mom who lazes on the couch all day and lets Trish drink beer, a disgusting-excuse-for-a-man step-Dad-type who eats ramen like it was potato chips, and a popularity-hound sister, Kristy, whose big dream involves getting onto MTV’s Real World. Here is how the film “Pretty in Pink” would run-down in Trish’s town:

“If Molly Ringwald had been going through that drama in Mogsfield she would’ve ended up with her ass kicked at some horrid teen dance club on Route 1, Ducky would’ve been fagbashed, she would’ve never found that cool women who gave her the dress, and her father would have been a more serious loser, like a molester. Molly wouldn’t have made it to the dumb prom at all—she’d have gone out with some other fuckups, gotten a little too wasted, had sex with someone regrettable, and wound up pregnant.”

Trish’s life picks up when she meets the reckless, enigmatic Rose at the mall. They go on a drugged out adventure together, through which Trish learns that she just might be a lesbian.
I had high hopes for Tea’s novel, but all in all found it a little disappointing. There’s some great stuff here, but I didn’t entirely buy the voice—Trish didn’t sound like a teen a lot of the time. Even though she’s growing up fast and cynical, and Mogsfield is a little behind, I felt that the references were being made by the 30-something author, that the cultural touchpoints and knowing air were not quite fitting. I’m holding out hope that Tea will follow this up with something a little different.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Wrong About Japan: A Father’s Journey With His Son by Peter Carey

Peter Carey is one of my favorite writers—I can say this even though I haven’t read his past few novels. While this is a non-fiction, I felt I just had to read it when I saw it on my colleague David’s desk. Carey, an Australian, lives in New York and decides to visit Japan with his youngest son who has become obsessed with Japanese comics, manga, and anime. Carey finds his son’s interest in manga and Japanese culture infectious, and books a trip for the both of them to meet some manga and anime creators. His son makes his father promise he won’t drag them through “Real Japan”—the old temples and museums that most tourists want to see. Twelve-year-old Charley wants to see how real Japanese live, the modern apartments and shops and arcades that represent the Japan of the now. Carey goes to gain a deeper understanding of Japanese culture and pop culture, but what he finds is quite different than he expects. Carey asks questions of everyone he meets—about the symbolism in certain manga series, about the popularity of manga in Japanese culture (“Everybody in Japan read manga, except those just born or about to die.”), or about the definition and usage of the term that’s often used to describe the manga-obsessed, otaku—but receives little for his pains. He never gets a straight answer. For one, he is a foreigner, and as a Western person, he can never hope to understand Japan. His assumptions are wrong, his questions are wrong, and every time he is made to feel that he is barking up the wrong tree. That Carey shares his humbling experience in this slim volume, and that he shares his bonding experience with his son was quite touching. Sometimes, when it comes to art, we don’t need to understand everything, or can learn to find contentment in our own understanding.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

Some of my favorite books these days have a speculative edge to them, or employ an improbable or fantastical element to illuminate real human emotions, ideas and themes. (Examples: The Confessions of Max Tivoli; The Time Traveler’s Wife; Little, Big.) This one mixes the improbable (depending on your religious beliefs, I suppose) with the scarily probable. There are two stories at work: one in which a virus ravages the planet and kills people off by the millions, and one in which the dead who are still remembered by the living arrive in a City where they continue their ‘lives’ until those who remember them dies. In the City, the dead live on—meeting new people, working, watching movies—and do what many of us would like to do: start over armed with more knowledge about ourselves and how to appreciate what little time we have. There are some beautiful sequences here, and some evocative writing; the City is ample playground for Brockmeier to ruminate on life, memory, connection, human understanding and life itself. Parallel to this is the story of Laura Byrd, a wildlife researcher for Coca-Cola stranded alone in the Antarctic who discovers day by day just how alone she is. Some great questions and concepts emerge here—like, try to make a list of absolutely everyone you have come into contact in your life: postal workers, retail clerks, teachers, classmates, people you noticed on the bus. How many people has your life touched without your even thinking about it? The virus that kills off the human race was so scary to me, and conjured memories of my first reading of Stephen King’s The Stand (I read the expanded version years later); I remember reading that one with a cold, no less, and having nightmares. (And I just saw V for Vendetta which drove it home as well.) While the end of this book is a bit crushing, I found it a compulsive read with many memorable characters and moments.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Sportswriter by Richard Ford

Frank Bascombe is a sportswriter, an everyman who lives life in avoidance of too much darkness or depth. While he is a failed novelist, lost his wife and witnessed his oldest son die from Reyes (he has two other children), he does not let life’s setbacks or travails give him much pause. He loves his boring, quaint New Jersey town and loves the mindlessness of sports writing and enjoys his current girlfriend with a little less enthusiasm than the previous subjects. Frank's general philosophies are that the past doesn’t or shouldn’t much matter, that love should be entered lightly and often (although he refers to his ex-wife only as X, which belies a stronger, more lingering feeling than is shown), and that a little mystery should be allowed for in life. Despite the fact that Frank wasn’t the most sympathetic character in my eyes—hell, he cheated on his wife after their son died with 18 women, an act and a number that he ruminates on often—I still found the writing compelling at times, and illuminating. Ford is a good writer, I just wish he’s chosen a different subject or, like Russo does in Straight Man, anchored this man’s nonchalant bravado with a little more depth and denial. (Oh, and Frank uses the word Negro far more often than I’m comfortable with, and which I found puzzling given that this book came out in like 1986.) There is a wry distance to the character, even in recounting his own life, a lack of feeling, that was frustrating for this reader. The writing is impeccable, but I found myself a little exhausted and impatient towards the end. Fans of Updike, Cheever and Yates might like this one—but I find Yates to be the most satisfying of them all (and I know Ford admires him too).

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Okay, a brief pause from books.

My friend Caitlin (her blog:

wants me to do this questionaire thingy:

4 Jobs I've Had:
Skipper's Fried Fish Girl (I even wore a baseball cap with ponytail)
Bagel Shop
Health Food Store

4 Movies I Could Watch Over and Over:
Never Been Kissed
Say Anything
The Apartment
Waking the Dead

4 Favorite TV Shows:
Gilmore Girls
Sports Night
Freaks & Geeks
Six Feet Under

4 Places I Have Lived:
New London, CT
Brattleboro, VT
Amherst, MA
Turners Falls, MA

4 Places I Have Vacationed:

4 Sites I Visit Daily:
MSN (For celebrity gossip)

4 Favorite Meals:
Channa Masala
Halibut tacos at Agua Verde
Panang Curry
Stuart's quesadillas

4 Places I'd Rather Be:
A literary salon
Ireland/Scotland (competing obsessions)
Murren, Switzerland
In bed reading

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America by Elizabeth Wurtzel

My sister has been depressed since we were both very young. I went through some cranky, snarky stages and listened to endless hours of maudlin rock (still do, truth be told), but in retrospect have never truly experienced what it means to be deeply depressed, hopeless or suicidal. In an effort to try to understand diseases that are rampant in my own family, I have been reading books about addiction and depression.

I borrowed my sister’s battered copy of Wurtzel’s book because it came highly recommended from her. And it’s layered with her underlining—in highlighter and blue and black pen—and little asterisks here and there. There is something unsettling about reading a memoir this personal, about one young woman’s frightening, all-encompassing descent into uncontrollable depression, and to find a loved one’s story mirrored in it.

It has also made me think about how we all read so differently, all essentially read a different book. My sister underlined this: “One morning you wake up afraid you are going to live.” Here is a line I underlined in the book, a line that may not have spoken to her: “I know how much latent discontent and sorrow that visible determination can mask…”

Wurtzel’s book is well-written—the girl is obviously well-read, for one—and you get the sense throughout, as her friends do, that she has such talent, wit, humor, and is somehow throwing it all away. But that’s the essence of depression—what you cannot see or how nothing is enough to staunch the wounds. Depression can be relentless, incapacitating. As Wurtzel says in her afterward: “I wanted to portray myself in the midst of this mental crisis precisely as I was: difficult, demanding, impossible, unsatisfiable, self-centered, self-involved, and above all, self-indulgent….Depression is a very narcissistic thing, it’s a self-involvement that is so deep and intense that it means the sufferer cannot get out of her own head long enough to see what real good, what genuine loveliness, there is in the world around her.”

This memoir is brave, brutal stuff.

I don’t know if I have come away with a better understanding of how to help my sister, but I have come away with a better understanding of depression.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster

Okay, let me just say that I was wrong about Auster. Which isn’t to say that I now miraculously love The New York Trilogy (I don’t) or that I’m going to run out and reread the back-catalog (I’ve read plenty enough already, thank you), but he has definitely redeemed himself in my eyes with this book. It’s back to basics good-storytelling that calls to mind his screenplay for “Smoke.” He explores those serendipitous connections between people, how their joys and sorrows overlap, impinge, spark.

It’s about Nathan Glass, a retired insurance salesman who has made it through cancer and come to Brooklyn to die. But soon after he arrives in the borough he grew up in, he meets up with his long-lost nephew and an assortment of other characters that make his last years anything but quiet. Tom Wood, Nathan’s nephew, was once a literary scholar with promise, destined to academic greatness, but when Nathan finds him washed up and dejected at 30, working in a used bookshop, he knows he has to do something to rescue his nephew’s future. Add to this Harry, the intellectually sharp gay owner of the bookshop with a nefarious past, Tom’s delinquent, disappeared sister Aurora, Nancy, the B.P.M. (Beautiful Perfect Mother) that Tom dotes on from afar, and Nathan’s daughter Rachel with whom he is trying to make amends. Interspersed between these stories are Nathan’s collection of “follies,” the tragic, sometimes hilarious circumstances that occur in life that he assembles in an ever-growing manuscript.
In addition to the wonderful characters and stories in this book, I enjoyed the details. I lived in New England for a short time, and love little details that take me back to the East Coast: place names, New York idiosyncrasies (especially Brooklyn, my favorite borough), delis, and the distinctive accents, speech patterns and personalities those regions create. I also loved that they visit Vermont, a state that will always melt my heart because I spent such formative (college) years there.

In more ways that one, I did not want this book to end.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

The writing of this book is just so great—it’s got deft wordplay that isn’t in the least showy and a conveys the mood of the setting just perfectly. It’s set in a semi-sci-fi world that parallels ours in many ways. It’s different, but not so much really. It’s a world in which skyscrapers have taken over the cities and conversely elevators are largely important in society. Lila Mae Watson is the first black female elevator inspector and an Intuitionist—meaning, that unlike the Empiricists, she inspects elevators with her mind rather than with her tools. She uses her inner eye, rather than simply her eyes. Racism is still rampant in the North, and is subtle and covert at turns. Lila Mae is made to feel her difference in every situation, but her bold assurance in her own skills and her disdain for those who would impede her progress and passion for elevators keeps her grounded. But Lila Mae becomes a suspect when an elevator plummets in a building she had inspected and given a clean bill-of-health just days before. She finds herself a pawn in a political power struggle between the Empiricists and Intuitionists and doesn’t know who to trust. Lila Mae’s quest for the truth, for her hero Fulton’s rumored “black box” invention, is both riveting and illuminating. Race, class and corruption collide in a satisfying conclusion.
Beach Music by Pat Conroy

Booklist Review: As is the case with so many likely best-sellers, the publisher of Pat Conroy's new novel did not distribute advance galleys to prepublication review media, ensuring that by the time you read this review, library patrons will already be clamoring for the opportunity to weep their way through another melodramatic extravaganza from the author of "The Prince of Tides" (1987). They won't be disappointed. Conroy evolves from the Margaret Mitchell school of southern writing, where everything must be Big--the smartest, most beautiful people on the planet living the biggest lives on the grandest sets and, of course, wracked by the greatest tragedies. It's all here in the story of Jack McCall of Waterford, South Carolina, his five brothers, drunken father, white-trash mother, and Holocaust-surviving in-laws. Nothing small happens in this book: the McCalls' story is played out against World War II, Auschwitz, the sixties, and, of course, the South in all its triumph and tragedy. Even the little moments are big in their way: the best cup of cappuccino, the most beautiful southern evening, the freshest shrimp, the most precocious kid. And yet, sneer as we will, we also must admit that Conroy plays the high-concept game as well as anyone. Like Mitchell, he builds narrative momentum that is impossible to resist, and he writes with a hammy eloquence that, while often infuriating, fits his subject matter perfectly. You won't stop reading, but you'll hate yourself in the morning. ((Reviewed July 1995)) -- Bill Ott

Bill Ott’s review is right on—Conroy’s novels are melodramatic, feature larger-than-life characters, and lay the emotional baggage on heavy. And while his eloquence dips into the overdone, there is a richness and a lush melancholy that sucks you in. Jack, the novel’s main character, is almost too obstinate and swaggering in his views at times, but I appreciated his humor, his expatriate perspectives on America, his religious ambivalence and the love and hope that he shares with his daughter. It took me far too long to read this, and while I felt I was neglecting other books, I just couldn’t stop. Conroy makes the pain, confusion and complications of family life strangely compulsive. And his resolutions and the realizations that his characters arrive at are deeply satisfying without being chintzy or slight. The themes of suicide, depression, family violence both figurative and literal, of belonging to self and place, and learning how to love all get explored with the belief that the difficulties and horrors that life sets in front of us can be overcome if we are willing to take chances and to spend the years of hard work it takes to reconcile ourselves to ourselves and to rescue some of our dreams from the refuse.
Two Lives: Reading Turgenev & My House in Umbria by William Trevor

I was so impressed by how well Trevor gets into the interior thoughts and lives of his female characters. I was absolutely sold on it. His writing is so beautiful and insightful without being in the least overdone. There is a lushness for the simplicity. Reading Turgenev is about Mary Louise, a woman growing up in a poor Protestant family who marries Elmer Quarry, an older man who owns a drapery. Their marriage is loveless from the start and while Elmer begins losing himself in drink, Mary Louise spends time with her ailing cousin, Robert, and falls in love with him. He reads Turgenev to her in the graveyard and tells her of his feelings. When he dies, Mary Louise recedes further from her marriage and wretched life with his backbiting, conniving sisters and is eventually placed in a mental home. As despairing as it sounds, there were such moments of beauty in the sadness.
My House in Umbria is about a woman with a checkered past who writes romance novels. When a bomb explodes in her train car, the survivors come to live with her for a time in Umbria—and she becomes attached to a young orphaned American girl whose uncle comes to take her away. At one point, the uncle is overheard saying that “Her imagination has consumed her.” She lives a sad, drifting life of the mind and never quite connects with people in the way she wants to. The little girl, Aimee, represents the children she aborted, the life she did not have.
These novels were quietly, subtly satisfying. I can’t wait to read more Trevor!

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

I was really surprised by this book and loved it. The book begins with three cases, unsolved mysteries that haunt the people they effected well into present day. There’s the Land sisters whose youngest sister, Olivia, disappeared after a night spent in a backyard tent. A doting father’s favorite daughter is murdered. A woman goes to prison, separated from her baby, after killing her husband. Private detective Jackson enters into these stories of loss and shares in them. A somewhat sad, solitary man since his wife left him for another man, Jackson tries to connect with the daughter he loves while investigating these cases. The stories are deftly interwoven, the prose is impeccable and just so insightful into the characters, and while it goes to some dark places (murder, incest) I just felt buoyant after reading it. And I didn’t want it to end. I credit Stephen King for finally getting me to read it, even though everyone else I know said so too.

Stephen King in Entertainment Weekly:CASE HISTORIES, Kate Atkinson Not just the best novel I read this year (it actually made EW's ''official'' top 10 fiction list in 2004), but the best mystery of the decade. There are actually four mysteries, nesting like Russian dolls, and when they begin to fit together, I defy any reader not to feel a combination of delight and amazement. Case Histories is the literary equivalent of a triple axel. I read it once for pleasure and then again just to see how it was done. This is the kind of book you shove in people's faces, saying ''You gotta read this!''