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!''