Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You by Amy Bloom

A patron described her love of an Amy Bloom story to me a few months back. While describing it, you could tell that the story had really meant something to her, that the language had sung. After that I decided to work though my silly aversion to short story collections and give Bloom a try. Now I'm a convert.

Bloom has a visceral style all her own. The title story is about a mother and her son who are spending time together before he gets a sex change operation to physically become a man. The mother recounts how her daughter always knew that she was given the wrong body. Her love of her son, her acceptance and support are heartbreaking. Another story that struck a chord with me was "Stars At Elbow and Foot" which is about a woman who had a stillborn child. It was difficult to read, because it brought me back to the moments after my son was born, when he was being intubated and we waited for his first cry. Bloom captures wonderfully the anger and heartbreak.

More Bloom for me soon!
Flower Children by Maxine Swann

Four children grow up wild and largely unsupervised in a 1960's hippie household. Their parents smoke pot, have skinny-dipping parties with their friends, and over-share about their lives (sex with lovers, bowel movements, etc.). Narrated alternately from the plural "we" and the first-person, the children grow older with each chapter, sharing their experiences of the world. My friend Linda said that what she liked about the book was that there was no judgment in the writing. The author did not set out to say "look how crazy these hippies are" (although I couldn't help but think that on occasion), she simply set out to describe and present.

Swann is an accomplished writer, to be sure, but like her debut novel, this one also felt lacking. It reminded me of Susan Minot's Monkeys, which I remember liking much better. I was predisposed to like this one as it had gotten such raves from Eliza Minot (and I loved her book The Brambles). Another case of high expectations and hype foiling my reading experience.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo

Richard Russo is becoming one of my favorite authors. He brings to his writing the kind of compassion and understanding for humanity that I have found in George Eliot, which can be a balm in the thick of the overly cynical, clever books that keep getting churned out to no end.

His latest is the perfect book for a reader who enjoys character. It's all about character development, and little else, honestly.

Lou Charles "Lucy" Lynch has lived his whole life in Thomaston, New York. All of his memories and his identity are tied up in that town. At 60, Lou, a man who lives and breathes in reminiscence, revisits his memories of the father he adored and who adored him, Big Lou, and his mother, a woman who tempers her husband's boundless optimism with a realist's edge. And then there's Bobby Marconi, the wild boy that Lucy looked up to, whose friendship he sought at every turn. And Sarah, the woman Lucy married. These three form a classic love triangle.

What "happens" in the book is much less important than the revelations that these characters make about themselves and each other. While it is a little long in the tooth, I never wavered as a reader. Russo creates characters that you want to know, that you don't mind spending a little extra time with. This is a writer that I will follow anywhere.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Waiting for Birdy: A Year of Frantic Tedium, Neurotic Angst, and the Wild Magic of Growing a Family by Catherine Newman

I am now a sucker for a good, funny parenting memoir or blog. Yes, as soon as I went preggo, I couldn't get enough of the stuff. Catherine Newman's memoir is one of the best. I laughed, nodded, exclaimed "amen, sister!," read bits aloud and in general just thoroughlly enjoyed myself. But my friend Tricia wrote the absolute best review of this book on her blog. Here is one of the best book reviews ever for a book that truly deserves such praise:

"I like a book that makes my husband laugh. This is one of those books that we kept in the bathroom for a little light reading while doing the do. My husband said one night, "That book in the bathroom is really good. It makes me wish I had to keep shitting just so I can read it." The truth is, I feel the same way. That book makes me wish I had to keep shitting. "

Amen, sister.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Serious Girls by Maxine Swann

This book captures just perfectly what it's like to be a teenage girl and a bit of an outcast (although doesn't everyone feel outcast as a teen?). Two sixteen-year-old girls meet at an East Coast boarding school and strike up a friendship. They wonder what life will bring them and decide to jump into life instead of waiting for it to find them.

Unfortunately, the book as a whole didn't live up to its initial promise for me. The author put her main characters into some situations that I felt didn't quite mesh with my sense of the girls. Or maybe it's not what I wanted to happen to them, to be honest. One meets a 32 year old man in New York and has an affair. The other gets into an abusive relationship with a local drop-out. When the narrator starts drifting and becoming discontent in her relationship with the older man she recedes in some ways that made me hate her and find her whiny.

Swann is an amazing writer, and I hear that her new novel, Flower Children, is amazing. But her debut disappointed me. I think I wanted it to be a different book. I wanted something more about the interior lives of these girls, more about their friendship. I just wanted more of something different than what I found. Maybe that's a fault I shouldn't place in the book. I just wish I knew someone else who's read this so I could hash it all out.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Austenland by Shannon Hale
Nice premise, but I found it disappointing and forgettable. I hear her young adult novels are quite good.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Book of Joe by Jonathan Tropper

I loved this book. It was everything that I was looking for. It was funny while having surprising depth and poignancy.

Joe Goffman returns to Bush Falls, Connecticut when his father is hospitalized by a stroke. But Joe hasn't been back to Bush Falls for seventeen years, and with good reason. He had a miserable time growing up there in the wake of his mother's suicide and his father's disappointment that he didn't become, like his father and older brother, a basketball star. Joe chronicled his rage at his town's small-minded ways in his debut novel and is now universally hated by his old neighbors. Needless to say, this complicates Joe's visit. (And make no mistake, Joe has a pretty Job-like ability to bring misfortune into his life.) Add to that an old high school flame that he has never gotten over, an old friend dying of AIDS, a vindictive bully, countless '80's and Bruce Springsteen references, and a main protagonist who is 34-going-on-18 and you've got the general idea.

This is a witty, compulsive read.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Blindness by Jose Saramago

I have been hearing for years how I simply must read Saramago. But sometimes I don't pick up much-lauded books until I end of scheduling them for my book group.

This is definitely a powerful book. It's also harrowing and prophetic. Saramago illustrates the baseness of human nature as well as its finer points. But it's a bleak draught. I hear a movie is in the works and I am pretty sure I won't want to relive the nightmare. Oh, but this New York Times article was utterly fascinating.
The Godmother by Carrie Adams

I picked up this one as an antidote to Blindness. It's a rather typical British chick-lit about Tessa King, a 30-something woman who is always a godmother and never a mother. She spend more than half the book daydreaming about having what her friends have and attending to their every crisis. There were some darker elements to it though that I didn't expect (a particularly bad miscarriage scene--a head's up for anyone sensitive to such topics). It was diverting, though, and I found myself sneaking paragraphs while my son played. I'm a bad Mama.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Alexie's first teen novel is honest, heartbreaking and hilarious--everything you would expect. In this autobiographical novel, Junior is an aspiring cartoonist who dreams big, and does what few other Indians do--he leaves the rez to make sure that his dreams become reality. Seattle artist Ellen Forney's illustrations are perfect. Destined to become a teen classic.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud

Yes, the writing is a bit overwrought and the characters are whiny (and few are likeable), but it was a compulsive read. It's the story of three 30-something friends from Brown University trying to make lives for themselves in New York before 9/11. They expect the world, and find that life doesn't quite meet up to their expectations. There are some memorable and curious characters in this book--the enigmatic political journalist, Murray Thwaite, who has an affair with one of his daughter's friends, his wife who is a compassionate public defender, and Murray's nephew, the aimless social misfit "Bootie," who fancies himself an intellectual. This reminded me of Zadie Smith's On Beauty and Julia Glass' The Whole World Over.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

But Enough About Me: A Jersey Girl's Unlikely Adventures Among the Absurdly Famous by Jancee Dunn

If you are looking for a delightful memoir that isn't a dysfunctional family pity party, then this is the one for you. Jancee Dunn, one-time MTV VJ and Rolling Stone reporter, writes affectionately about growing up with two younger sisters in New Jersey in the 1960's and 70's. This memoir is tender and funny and jam-packed with fantastic period detail. While she does dish on her celebrity interviews, it is her writing about family and relationships that makes this a standout.

PS: This is the book that my baby was trying to pounce on in the photograph a little further below!

Tomorrow by Graham Swift

Waterland is one of my all-time favorite novels. And while I have enjoyed other novels by Swift (Ever After was another good one), none have quite measured up to Waterland.

I had high hopes for this one. It reminded me of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, which in retrospect I liked more than I initially thought (McEwan has a sneaky way of writing in a maddeningly evocative way). This, too, feels like a novella. One night in 1995, Paula Hook stays awake, her husband Mike sleeping beside her, braced for the following morning when they will be sharing a secret they have been keeping for years with their 16-year-old twins, Kate and Nick.

Paula begins the story about how she and Mike met, how they have loved one another deeply for 25 years (echoes of McEwan again, who wrote movingly about a loving marriage in Saturday--a novel whose love story some critics thought too idealized, but I found a welcome reprieve from most predictably affair-ridden contemporary fiction). The suspense builds, but I felt a bit let down until the last few pages. There is a nice little twist there that Paula'd been hinting at all along.

But I am sad to report that it just didn't have the resonance of a McEwan novel for me. It was a pleasant, if forgettable read.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

A Death in the Family by James Agee

What a book. I had heard that this was an amazing novel from many dear friends and were they ever right. The writing is impeccable, clean, perfect. Agee evokes the feeling of childhood so well that it just feels real. I was reminded of William Maxwell's They Came Like Swallows (which is also largely autobiographical and about the death of a parent) with its similar themes of childhood, memory, family and loss. And it approaches these themes with a sentimentality that is rarely replicated in contemporary fiction, a reminiscence free of treacle or melodrama. Agee is pitch perfect in every scene, evoking emotion in what is said and unsaid, in what is thought and remembered.

Posthumously published after Agee's death, there are pieces of writing that were folded in after the fact. It certainly hangs together just fine, but I couldn't help but wonder if Agee would have sequenced it differently, or added anything. Like Maxwell's book, this was luminous and heartbreaking. When I turned the last page, I felt a pang of regret that it was finished and that I could not read more about this family.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Update: I will be back in action very soon.

In the meantime, here's a lovely photo of me and my son Blix, who is already quite taken with books.