Tuesday, December 6, 2011


November has caught me reading several books at a time, which is always tricky - once I divert my attention it's hard to say whether it will ever return. 

I started An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England: A Novel, by Brock Clark, but only got through about half. The tone charmed me at first, but soon grated. He's sort of a modern-day Vonnegut, and his novel would benefit from Vonnegut-like brevity. 

I'm mid-way through Chang and Eng, by Darin Strauss, which I'm enjoying but seem to have put down for a little while. More about that one in the future.

We the Animals, by Justin Torres, is a first novel and a truly wonderful book, which always bodes well for the future. It's very short, which lets you gulp it down in a sitting or two; just the way it should be experienced. This story of the youngest of three bear-cub brothers and their very young parents is emotionally charged, to say the least. It's one of those very visceral novels, with no real dialogue, and a compelling immediacy. Highly recommended. It really deserves a post of its own, but may not get one.

I read two kid's books this month:

The Liberation of Gabriel King, by K.L. Going, is a good story, well-told, about a fearful boy and his best friend in the just-starting-to-segregate South of the 60's. 

I Am the Ice Worm, by Maryann Easly was so-so; interestingly set in the Arctic, but spotty in terms of plot and character. My book-obsessed 10-year-old liked it.

Now we're into December, and I'm reading yet another great book. Stay tuned... 

Friday, October 28, 2011

My Lousiana Sky, by Kimberly Willi Holt

This is the kind of book I devoured by the dozen when I was a middle-schooler. On the young end of the YA spectrum, it features a misunderstood heroine on the brink of adolescence, struggling with issues that are just a little harder than average.

This charming novel has an interesting twist on the outcast theme: 12-year-old Tiger's parents are what is currently called developmentally disabled. In 1957, when the book takes place, they were referred to as retarded, or worse. When Tiger's grandmother dies, she's invited to move to the city to live with her glamorous aunt. But there's the question of who will take care of her parents, especially now that her grief-stricken mother refuses to bathe or leave the house.

Tiger is a red-headed tomboy, which is probably reason enough for her to be ignored by the popular girls. Add her embarrassing parents, and you can just imagine the catty comments. Her mother, however, is sweet and kind, her father hard-working and gentle. This is a classic don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover story, with the good and pure ultimately winning out over the mean and incompetent. Oh, that life could mirror formulaic children's literature!

I'd recommend this to girls in the 10-13 age group. It's thought-provoking in a quick-read kind of way, with a very satisfying it's-okay-to-be-yourself message.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Condition, by Jennifer Haigh

This is possibly the most unredemptive book I've read this year. I am of the general belief that people don't intrinsically change, that they really embody their original characters until the end. But still. Jeez. This family is completely mummified; none of them are going to change an iota over the next several millenia.

Okay, in fact there are a few moments of almost enlightenment, but they don't seem to help the enlightenees in any noticeable way. Lifelong grudges and misunderstandings are left intact, feelings of helplessness and inadequacy persist.

And the attitude about aging! Ms. Haigh was born 3 years after me, putting her at 43. Here is the term she uses to describe the older generation of the family, now ensconced in their late 50's: aged. And then there's this, from a character just turned 60:

Was this old age, then: the end of all wanting? ... Whatever he'd desired from life had
been gotten, or not; his wishes satisfied, or not. His wishes - Paulette's too - were       exhausted.

It's not that this book is bad; it's pretty well-written, and is an interesting examination of how a family can break down under a combination of bad news and rigid personalities. Ultimately, my issue with the book is that I didn't really like any of the characters. I felt empathy for all of them, and I rooted for each one as they seemed on the verge of breaking away from their iron-clad trajectories. But I'd hate to be trapped in the back seat with any one of them.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ninth Ward, by Jewell Parker Rhodes

This book was recommended to me by my thirteen year old daughter, possibly because she wanted help with the paper she had to write about it. It's a very charming story that touches on some difficult topics. It's girl power at its finest, which I always like.

Lanesha is an orphan being raised by the elderly midwife who birthed her moments before her teen aged mother died. Mama Yaya is a seer, and an equally feared and revered caretaker of the entire neighborhood. Lanesha is an outsider, an odd, brainy, watchful girl who has never had a friend. As Hurricane Katrina threatens the Gulf Coast, her life becomes as tumultuous as the approaching storm. This is a story about overcoming your ideas about your place in the world, as well as celebrating your own untapped strength.

My daughter didn't like the ending, which does rather leave you guessing about the ultimate fate of both Lanesha and her new friends. I kind of liked it, because the aftermath of heroics, like storms, seems a lot less interesting than the acts of bravery themselves. I finished the book with the feeling that Lanesha will manage pretty much anything that comes her way.

Chilling satellite images of Hurricane Katrina.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Room, by Emma Donoghue

For a long time I was scared to read this book. The premise seemed so horrifying that I couldn't bear to open it, despite its fabulous reviews. I'm so glad I changed my mind.

I do a fair amount of reading, and I am constantly amazed by authors who reimagine the world in totally new ways. This is a family story unlike any I have ever read; despite the odd circumstances, Emma Donoghue tells of a an existence that is as measured and predictable as any other. She gets at the truth of our relationships to one another, and at the broad range of reactions to trauma  among different people.

The basic story is that of Jack and Ma. They live in an 11'x11' room. Ma has been held prisoner here for seven years, since the age of nineteen, but to Jack, Room is the world. It's filled with all the things they want and need, and the rest of the world is relegated to to being "only tv." The story is told by Jack, and opens on his fifth birthday. So here we have two really incredible authorial feats: making this situation seem believable, and telling a complex story using the diction of a pretty literate five year old. Emma Donoghue pulls it off on both counts.

I really love the manner in which the author tracks reactions to this odd and terrible situation. Ma is an exemplary parent, whose ability to create a very normal life for her child, despite their situation, is admirable.  She's damaged, though; how could she avoid it? As the story progresses, we see the ripple effect of the one incredible central fact of the story, namely that a monster trapped a child, then that child's child, in a tiny room, indefinitely.

I absolutley refuse to spoil a moment of this book for any future readers, so I will just tell you to read it, read it, read it. You will be amazed.

This is a 3D image of Room, which will give you an idea of the scope of Jack and Ma's world. Wow. Tiny. Here is a short interview with the author, in which she explains how she created Jack, and gave him his extraordinary voice.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Hand That First Held Mine, by Maggie O'Farrell

In a recent post I described new parenthood as interesting only to the parents themselves. How wrong I was! This author describes new motherhood in minute detail, and it is absolutely fascinating. This may be because these scenes are interspersed with so many other slivers of life. To me, the difficult thing about having an infant, aside from the utter lack of sleep, is that it is so unrelenting in its repetition. Change, feed, pat, rock, feed, change, rock... Maggie O'Farrell manages to pull out specific moments, while conveying the overwhelming whole.

Elina can't quite remember how her baby got from inside her to next to her; a traumatic birth has left her with a sense of unreality that will be familiar to anyone suffering sleep deprivation, but even more so. As she tries to navigate her new situation she is careful not to alarm her boyfriend, Ted. He, in turn, is hiding the confusion and apprehension he is feeling as a result of a deluge of near-memories of his childhood.

Their story is told in parallel with that of Lexie, a vivid character from an earlier generation. The two stories are seemingly unrelated, but of course a connection eventually reveals itself.

I loved this book from the opening. I don't remember hearing anything about it, I just found it while browsing at the library. Which reminds me of how enjoyable it is to read a book with no preconceptions. It seems especially appropriate in this case, as the characters move in seemingly random loops and arcs.

There is one oddly unreal character wandering the halls of this book. He stands in stark contrast to the others, who are so carefully drawn. A connector, rather than a person. This flaw did not, however, dull my enjoyment of this book. I really had a hard time putting it down, and was riveted right up to the end. The author uses lots of color and visual detail, which stuck in my mind long after I finished reading. AN author I'll definitely revisit.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, by Peter Cameron

No one uses language the way Peter Cameron does. The precision of every word is a luxury not often experienced in modern literature. In this book, the juxtaposition of perfect grammar and an astute vocabulary emanating from the mouth of a disaffected eighteen year old boy is, well, affecting. What is most interesting is the subtle way this character's diction changes over the course of the novel. As he begins to accept his unhappiness and descend, slowly, from his aerie of isolation, his use of language loosens up ever so slightly. By the end he is far from slinging around slang, but he sounds more like a resident of the 21st century than the 19th.

This is one of those books that almost makes me wish I'd grown up in New York City. There is something about that experience that is hard to fully imagine, as opposed, say, to growing up on a farm in Appalachia. This is also foreign to me, but it's somehow easier for me to mentally put myself there. A childhood in Manhattan will forever be something I don't want, but want to know.

As for what happens in this book: James is eighteen, spending the summer before his freshman year (he's going to Brown) working at his mother's art gallery. His mother is recovering from her day-long third marriage. His father is preparing for his first bout of cosmetic surgery. His sister, who attends Barnard, is having an affair with a married professor of linguistics. His therapist is dedicated to making him initiate their conversations. His only friend, John, is trolling online for men when the gallery is empty, which is most of the time. This is the backdrop of James' life, a collection of extremely intelligent, outwardly successful urbanites, none of whom seem particularly happy.

The one bright spot in James' life is his grandmother, keeping her house in the affluent suburbs spotless as she embodies a more graceful era. She may provide the impetus for her grandson's lone hobby: endless online searches for beautiful, inexpensive houses in the Midwest.

There isn't a lot of action in this book. There are a couple of seminal events, one told in flashback, and there is a lot of self-examination. All of which is engrossing, because it is so well-written, and the main character is endlessly sympathetic and charming. Even when he's being kind of a self-absorbed smart alec. I liked this book almost as much as I liked The City of Your Final Destination, which I recommend with stars in my eyes. And clearly Peter Cameron should win some sort of literary prize for the best titles.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Slam, by Nick Hornby

One wonders if Nick Hornby has a son just cresting adolescence...

This is a cautionary tale, though one which recognizes that no amount of warning, or even personal experience, can keep a teenager from making a life-changingly stupid mistake. That knowledge will, of course, never keep adults from trying to protect their children. Stop here if you can't abide spoilers; there is no way to talk about this book without revealing the big event in its midst.

Sam's mother was sixteen when he was born. Now thirty-two, she likes to compare herself, age wise, with celebrities (four years younger than Jennifer Aniston, three years older than David Beckham). They're doing pretty well, but Sam is well aware that his appearance threw a spanner in his mother's plans. Or perhaps just kept her from making any. But teens will be teens, and soon Sam finds himself in love. And soon enough, his girlfriend finds herself pregnant. And history repeats itself.

The greatest thing about this book is Sam's voice. He has a couple of moments of great maturity and insight, but primarily he's a dumb kid, more interested in skateboarding than anything that could be called a future. Like most of Hornby's heroes, he's a fairly self-absorbed, not particularly self-aware guy who vaguely wonders why the women in his life are making all the rules. He's trying to do the right thing, but it is painfully obvious that he is a child himself. I can't quite imagine what it would be like to face the prospect of teenage fatherhood, but this seems to me to be a pretty dead-on description.

There's a little class warfare thrown into the book for good measure: Sam has knocked up the daughter of a pair of university professors, who squarely blame him for dragging her into the ghetto of teen pregnancy. No one outside of the families seems exceptionally surprised or upset about the situation; in fact the high school administration are thrilled to try our their new teen mother program.

A couple of unusual plot devices keep the story moving in a zig-zag - it's not quite clear where its going to end up. The ending is a little anticlimactic, as is childbirth. After all of that preparation and anxiety, taking care of an infant is exhausting drudgery, if physically enlightening and emotionally stratospheric. Although it's fascinating to live through, it's a little less interesting to read about.

Overall, very good, an easy page-turner, an interesting perspective on a situation we all hope we don't have to get experience first, or even second-hand.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin

Do you ever worry about not being happy enough? Gretchen Rubin wasn't especially unhappy, but she thought that maybe she could do better. So she made a lot of lists, and charts, and amassed a ton of books, and set about upping her happiness quotient.

I love that she was so task-oriented in tackling this project: maybe more people would experience greater happiness if they stopped thinking about it and just attacked the problem head-on! Super un-Buddhist, I know, but very American. I'm willing to bet that most of us don't have the kind of energy and single-minded focus that Ms. Rubin does, so it's nice that she's done a lot of the work already.

The book is divided into months; each month is devoted to a different area of life. January is all about finding more energy, since a year-long happiness project is sort of a marathon. Other months include improving her (already pretty great) marriage, becoming a better parent, learning new skills; the list goes on. Each month she sets herself a series of tasks to help accomplish her goals. You can see the straight-A law student in Gretchen; she's got axioms, a bibliography, theses, proofs, conclusions. She's even got an extremely comprehensive website devoted to the project, with a whole toolkit you can use to blaze your own trail to happiness. What this woman gets done before breakfast every day boggles the mind.

Here are a few of the things the author learned from her experiences that ring true to me - and I only had to spend a few days reading to glean them!

1. You like what you like, and it won't make you remotely happy to spend your time doing things you wish you liked.

2. Thinking about being happy leads to being... happy.

3. Acting happy makes life more bearable, even when it isn't actually enjoyable.

4. All that crap you tell your kids really is true: if you don't have anything nice to say, shut the hell up; you don't have to like it, you just have to do it without complaining; you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar (okay, no one really uses this old chestnut any more, but it sounds better than the way we currently express this idea).

Here is another thing I really liked about this book: The author is very happy to admit to her own shortcomings. This keeps the reader from feeling envious of her and her happiness. I mean, who wouldn't like to have an entire year to devote to being happy? It's hard not to feel a little jealous of a woman who seems to have it all, and then gets to devote her life to being happier. Although the project does, in her estimation, increase her levels of joy and fulfillment, she's not completely transformed into an incontestably amazing wife and mother with a perfect yoga body and unshakable inner peace. She still has bad days, and bad habits. She is happier, because she's concentrating on being happier, which kind of indicates that a modicum of effort can have a real and positive affect. Even if you have to work at a real job.

Finally, and most importantly to me, how does this woman manage to read so many books? I know it's part of her job, but still, the rate at which she plows through them is incredible, and enviable. My very own happiness project might easily be derailed by giving in to the desire to do nothing but sit around reading all day.

Visit The Happiness Project website for lots of ideas about bettering your life.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray

The title says it all....

Well, not really, but you've got to love an author who puts the main event right there on the cover. It's as though Paul Murray just wants to be clear, right up front, that this is what is going to happen. It won't be the end of the story, but it will be a very important factor, and we might as well just get it out there on the table from the outset.

This book is much longer than I realized, being printed on extremely thin paper, and set in very small print. My copy is 660 pages. In this respect it is physically and thematically similar: the story doesn't seem as though it is going to touch on quite so many truths, from quite so many different angles.

To wit: Seabrook is a traditional Irish Catholic boys' school, running full frontal into the 21st century. There is a varied cast of characters: a disappointed futures-trader-turned-history teacher, a boy genius, an altruistic priest, a beautiful girl, a thug, an ambitious administrator, a swimming coach, and many others, all, it seems, with secrets. And of course there's Skippy, who has at least two gigantic secrets.

The story takes place over the course of an academic year. People fall in love, people cheat, restrain themselves, plan clandestine scientific explorations, sneak into the neighboring girls' school, deal and take drugs - the usual school stuff. There is complicated science, and crass pornography, and 19th century poetry. And somehow it all ties in, connects, reflects endlessly.

The most amazing thing about this book is how deeply the reader falls into the lives of the characters. There is a metaphorical hall of mirrors at Seabrook, with each succeeding generation experiencing the same epiphanies, and false starts. They're coming at life from from different angles, but somehow it's all  the same. They're trapped in that hall, inevitably bumping into their distorted reflections, and mistaking them for reality. The themes of impotence, regret and futility are wound around one another, always present but never obvious. Most of the inhabitants of Seabrook are adolecents, and they have that terrible and misguided sense that what is happening at any one moment is the truth.

Did I mention that this book is also really funny? It is. And despite the fact that it took me way longer than I had imagined to get to the last page, I was kind of heartbroken at having to finish. The word I keep thinking of is engaging; the characters are just barely eccentric, the dialogue is always spot-on and hilarious, the many little subplots and interstices and wild imaginings hold your attention just perfectly.One of my very favorite books of the year, thus far.

You can hear all about Paul Murray's life, writing and literary tastes in the Powell's interview.

Jess Walter reviews Paul Murray. What's (slightly) better than reading a great book? Reading another's author's take on it.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Half a Life, by Darin Strauss

I first heard Darin Strauss on This American Life, telling this story. I found it so intensely moving that I listened to it again in its entirety. In short: at the age of 18 Darin hit and killed a 16 year old girl, she on a bike, he in a car. No one blames him, it wasn't his fault. This, of course, hasn't stopped him from feeling guilty, and feeling guilty about feeling guilty, for half his life.

The accident itself was not so very huge - the car didn't suffer any damage past a cracked windshield, and none of its occupants were hurt. Despite the sad outcome, it's the kind of event that you'd read about and then pretty quickly forget. Unless, of course, you happen to be the one in the driver's seat. In which case it colors everything you do for years, maybe forever.

Strauss says in this book that had this episode never occurred, he may not have become a writer. Which is hard to imagine. I kept thinking that another, less introspective person might not have spent so very much time obsessing over his every reaction to the pivotal event in his life; he's not sad enough, he's selfishly sad, he's not demonstrative enough, he's faking it. This is probably naive of me. Probably the truth is really that not everyone in this situation would do such a good job of describing his feelings.
Somewhere in the midst of the story, I realized that this book is not a memoir of Darin Strauss' whole life, but more a very close look at the lens through which he's lived his life. He doesn't tell us about the many times he didn't think about Celine, because that's not the point of this story.

It's hard to imagine living with the weight of having accidentally taken some one's life. This small book serves as a reminder that life can change on a dime; a moment can stretch into eternity. I really recommend listening to Darin tell the story, here.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Another NPR book list!

I'm a sucker for book lists. I can't stop myself from browsing them, admittedly in part to see how many of the titles I've read. NPR just published another one of their readers' choice lists: Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books. I was surprised to find that I've read 25 or so - depending on whether you count a couple of series I've abandoned after a book or two. This isn't really what I think of as my genre, but it does include books I wouldn't have thought to put in this category, like Watership Down, The Time Traveler's Wife, and The Handmaid's Tale. I won't get into a discussion of just what constitutes fantasy, because I think that subject has been exhaustively argued by more passionate fans already. It just makes me happy to pretend that I have eclectic taste, after all.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornby

I love Nick Hornby. I will read anything by Nick Hornby. This, I must admit, is not my favorite of his novels. Luckily, even a mediocre Nick Hornby book is still pretty good.

Duncan is obsessed with Tucker Crowe, a singer-songwriter who turned his back on the world in the 80's, while on tour to publicize his biggest hit. Annie has been Duncan's default girlfriend ever since they both moved to a depressing seaside town where nothing much happens. When a new Tucker Crowe recording turns up, Duncan, Annie and Tucker all confront the limbo they've been trapped in for the past 15 years, with varying results.

Nick Hornby is really great at this kind of writing. He writes women sympathetically; his men are openly flawed. Music is generally the backdrop, and often a kid appears to keep everyone focused. This book has all of these elements, plus a couple of difficult girlfriends to keep the ball rolling.

One thing I missed in this novel was the soundtrack. Tucker Crowe is fictional, and while his genre of music is easy to classify, I couldn't hear his music in my head, since, well, it doesn't really exist. I'm used to a background of hits from my youth accompanying Hornby's novels, and I couldn't quite find it.

The basic idea of this book is a good one - Annie strikes up a relationship with her boyfriend's idol, unbalancing the staid balance of everyone's lives. We get to see how obsession taints its object, how losing your convictions leads to waste of all kinds, why regrets are useless. Really, all the elements of a very satisfying novel. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite come together the way I would have wished. It seems just a little contrived, a little too simple. This could be a summer movie; a romantic comedy, which I might be enticed to see if the stars were of the Cusak/Downey, Jr. variety. There's even a great role for Jack Black. Nick Hornby has had great luck in having his books made into really good movies; maybe we'll see this one on the big screen. It will gain a much bigger audience, have a really good soundtrack, and no one will be bothered by its predictability.

My next Hornby book: 31 Songs, a collections of essays about the songs that have changed his life.

Friday, July 15, 2011


I'm on a little sabbatical. Here's what I've been reading over the past few weeks:

This book is great - all that hype is really valid. Most prolific and interesting use of colons I have encountered in a novel.

I'd give this one a B. The setting, in Labrador, is an interesting twist on this story of a child who is born a true hermaphrodite. There are a few too many predictable elements, but overall an interesting and nicely written book.

I don't know why I ever bother with crime fiction. This book has an interesting theme: bullying and its extreme consequences. I don't think I learned anything new about the subject, and there wasn't really a conclusion to the story, satisfying or otherwise.

I disliked the last Tim O'Brien book I read, so I returned to this classic to remember how great he is. The war in Vietnam is the backdrop for these connected stories. If you haven't read it, I encourage you to do it now. There is some heartbreak, but these stories are about people, not military maneuvers; it's a war book for the civilian.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Keep, by Jennifer Egan

This novel is a little bit gothic, and a little bit rock and roll. It is full of rabbit holes and dramatic shifts of perception. There's a ghost story, some romance, life-threatening adventure, childhood trauma, and deep dark, secrets. In short, it's got just about everything crammed into it, and yet it flows along smoothly, and the shocking surprises seem utterly plausible. Very impressive.

Danny, a wannabe New York player, finds himself scaling the walls of a castle somewhere in the no-man's land between Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic - fairy tale land. His cousin is trying to create an experiential vacation spot for tourists seeking inner peace. Or something. There's a traumatic childhood secret binding and repelling these two, and the situation at the castle is fraught with interpersonal dysfunction and possibly a little supernatural shenanigans. I hesitate to say much else, because the twists and turns should really be experienced with the sudden intensity that comes from complete ignorance. There is a second simultaneous story in the novel, about a prison inmate and his writing teacher; I wouldn't call it subplot, exactly, more a concurrent reality.

Suffice to say the complete story is told from the points of view of several different characters. These perspectives are different enough to really pretzel your mind, in a way I found most satisfying. In the end there are several unanswered questions; in fact, the whole narrative seems to be about opening one door after another, wandering down hallways, becoming intrigued more with the path than the destination. There is also an underlying theme of conectedness: Danny, who relies on his digital connections to feel any sense of self, is cut off from the outside world the moment he steps inside the castle grounds. Ray, the lifer, is cut off from the self he left outside the prison walls. Questions about the nature of reality, and communication, and maintaining personal strongholds are intertwined in a manner that makes (this)  reader wonder if she has any idea what these things mean at all.

There's a lot going on in this book, much of it funny, some of it heartbreaking, all of it written with a vividness that makes it seem immediate and real. There's so much story telling going on, you might fail to notice that it's written very, very well.

Here's an interview Jennifer Egan did with the editor of the New York Times Book Review - no spoilers, and she's enviously articulate.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

This Is Not the Story You Think It Is..., by Laura Munson

This book captivated me. It's so interesting to get inside some one else's head, and hear the details of their thoughts and feelings during an especially fraught and complicated time in their lives. And then to have it edited. Because honestly, although we'll put up with repetition and incomplete sentences and poor timing from our friends when they need us, it's really more interesting to have the clean, thoughtful version.
Laura Munson's husband of twenty years, father to their two children, tells her one day that he no longer loves her, and wants out of their marriage. She responds that she doesn't buy it. She determinedly gives him time and space to consider what he might be giving up, and refuses to react with anger or recriminations. She doesn't tell many people what they are going through over the course of a very long summer, partly because not many people have much patience for a guy who stays out all night and blows off holiday weekends with his kids.
I admire Laura Munson for her clarity of vision, and for the strength of her convictions. I'm inclined to agree with her assessment of her situation, although I don't think that I could have kept my anger and fear contained as she did all those months. This book is at its heart the story of how Munson deals with her own emotions. Her husband's crisis is an arena in which she can practice intentionality. She is constantly mindful of her actions, and refuses to live her life in reaction to events beyond her control. Impressive!
As a single mother, I was a little put off by the author's assertion that if her husband moved out, her children would automatically suffer from abandonment issues, and grow up to have dysfunctional relationships. Ideally, children live in big happy families in which everyone supports one another and nobody ever leaves. But strong, well-adjusted people can suffer greater trauma than divorce and go on to lead pretty happy lives, can even, I've heard, have long and happy relationships. And people who grow up with caring, happy, ever-married parents who stay together for life can end up with lots of relationship issues. Having a mother like Laura Munson probably leads to incredible self-awareness; her children are lucky.
I enjoyed the shared diary format of the book, which invites the reader to really share the experiences as they unfold. There are a lot of great truths in this story of the type that are explored in self-help books, but I for one am more likely to take these lessons to heart because they are told with such immediacy and passion. This woman is very clear about her own shortcomings; if she can do it, I can do it to, right?
In the end, I don't think Laura Munson and I would be likely to be friends in real life. I say this not to be snarky. In fact, I admire her more because of it. It's one thing to want to emulate the person you'd most like to spend time with, and to love her book. It's another to want to emulate someone you think you might find a little bit annoying, and to still love her book.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

War Dances, by Sherman Alexie

I think I would be a better person if I spent a little time in Sherman Alexie's presence every day. He's smart and funny and reasonable and passionate. And he's good at taking a stand. I have really enjoyed everything I've read of his, including many interviews. Here is a very funny clip of him talking to Steven Colbert about why he won't allow any of his work to be sold electronically.

Some of the things I love about this book:

It is a perfectly balanced collection of prose and poetry. Everyone likes poetry, right, but how many of us can manage a whole book of it? Much better to have it mixed in with good old-fashioned prose.

It is always hard to tell whether these stories are autobiographical, fictional, or a combination of the two. For some reason this makes them all seem very real and very true. And it's not at all distracting, as I would have expected. Instead of wondering which parts are the author, and which parts are imagined, I find myself thinking that these are the thoughts and actions of a real person in a real situation.

The people in this book are all flawed, and are all exactly the kind of people I would like to hang out with. Alexie's characters all share an authenticity that is rare and delicate. I've always wondered how one would invent a person and make her true to herself; half the time I don't know how I'm going to feel about something, so how on earth would I know how my fictional character would feel? Apparently Sherman Alexie does not have this problem.

This is a quick read. Yet it is not at all fluffy. This, I think, is a rare gift, to be able to write stories that are true and rich and yet simple. It feels as though he's sitting a the table with you, telling you the story, choosing his words carefully, but not deliberating overlong, not complicating things.

I read The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian about a year ago, then immediately watched Smoke Signals, a movie for which he wrote the screenplay. I am now tempted to gather all things Alexie and power through them, but that would be like eating all your jellybeans on Easter morning. An indulgence which ultimately makes you wish you had some restraint.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Luis Zafon

This book was a little too melodramatic for me. I was initially charmed by the setting, and was prepared to wander down the alleys and sit in the cafes of Barcelona along with the protagonist. But then there was the part about him falling in love with the truly awful-sounding novel. And maybe adolescent boys in Spain, during Franco's rule, were very different from adolescent boys in the United States, in the 21st century, but this kid seemed way too self-possessed and self-reflective to be true. I was completely on board for the more fantastical magical stuff, but honestly there was very little else that seemed remotely plausible. A quarter of the way into it, I was wondering how soon I'd be done. So I stopped.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Bonk, By Mary Roach

This book is subtitled "The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex". Which sums up Mary Roach's combination of humor and academic rigor. This book will tell you every single thing you never wanted to know about sex, in shuddering detail. I found myself physically cringing an awful lot while reading this book, but I had a hard time putting it down. It's not surprising that researchers want to understand the mechanics of sex more thoroughly, but some of their experiments verge on the masochistic.

Mary Roach is a very funny woman, which is one reason that I, an avowed avoider of nonfiction, read all of her books. She also has a talent for exploring subjects that are a little uncomfortable (see Stiff). I really admire her willingness to climb out from behind her stack of books to experience the ickier side of science. In the case of this book, she, and at times her apparently very understanding husband, participated in several of the studies she describes. That is dedication I admire.

The author herself notes that sex is not a subject that can be understood without taking into account the emotional side of the equation. Most of the studies she uncovers are, however, all about mechanics. It makes sense, of course, that scientists are interested in pure data. And I can imagine that funding proposals for sex research have to be carefully written. It is true that this kind of scientific pursuit has led to breakthroughs in both medicine and technology, but I still maintain that there is a little bit of magic at work in really good sex, and all the studies in the world aren't going to make either a pill or a device that can deliver it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Solar, by Ian McEwan

What a trifecta; Dan Chaon, Willy Vlautin and Ian McEwan! Every month should be filled with such great writers.

I have always maintained that success and happiness depend a lot on the personality traits one is born with. Luck of the genetic variety. The protagonist of Solar, Michael Beard, is blessed with both brilliance and confidence, and is unhampered by empathy. The combination is a fortunate one for him, if not for his professional associates and many ex-wives. A man of unappealing personal habits, and few physical charms, he nontheless seduces women at a rate that would make Wilt Chamberlain jealous. Twenty years after receiving the award, Beard is resting on his Nobel Laurels, collecting steep fees for describing the Beard-Einstein Conflation, the theory he piggybacked onto the more famous E=MC2. Unable, in his middle years, to come up with anything resembling his youthful brilliance, Beard falls back on the time-trusted method of stealing ideas. Which works pretty well for him.

I love this book, the way it makes a mockery of the idea that good deeds are rewarded, and that villains come to a bad end. McEwan builds the story with his usual skill, as his hero flees one mess only to land in another. Eventually his life is a tangle that will take a miracle to escape. I am not, of course, a spoiler, so you'll have to read it to see how it turns out.

Ian McEwan's books are different enough from one another to make me want to read them all. He certainly has a style, but it is more in the way he creates tension and drives a story to its climax than anything else. My favorites of his are On Chesil Beach, which is an incredible book, and Saturday, powerful in its own right.

Great fact about Ian McEwan: He wrote the libretto for the Opera For You. Although it is available in book form, why would one want to read an opera? I would, however, love to see it. Opera seems like the perfect venue for his talent.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Northline, by Willy Vlautin

Once again Willy Vlautin has ripped out my heart and left me bleeding, only to have me beg for more. Kind of like Eminem and Rihanna, without the egomaniacal violent misogynist part. One thing I love about Mr. Vlautin; no matter how devastated you feel at the end of his books, he leaves you with a sliver of grimy hope.

Allison Johnson is a great protagonist. She's more messed up than you, but maybe you've felt exactly the way she does, on your worst days. And maybe you've persevered as she does on your best days, though I think she's got me beat in that category. The story follows her through a harrowing year as she tries to escape her nightmare boyfriend, and manage her monumental anxiety. This girl has made a lot of bad choices, but it's hard to fault her, she is so clearly aching to do better. Her saving grace, aside from being likable, is her imaginary relationship with Paul Newman, who talks her through some of her lowest moments. Once again Willy Vlautin shows us what it's like to be a resident of the fringe of society, where expectations are low and behavior is generally bad.

The writing is the same plain gritty beautiful prose I fell in love with in Lean On Pete. Everyone in this book is damaged, and everyone is fully three-dimensional. Even the terrible boyfriend seems to have a few redeeming qualities, which I think is true of most people. If abusers were 100% awful, most would never get their hands on the fragile souls they feed on.

This book has a soundtrack! It's written and performed by WillyVlautin himself, along with Paul Brainard. A cd accompanies every book! How cool is that? Embedding a song in this post is beyond my technological powers, though I have tried valiantly. Read the book, listen to the music; they're both great.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon

Well, I have a new literary crush. That being said, I did this book a great injustice by reading it in little bits and pieces, over the course of almost two weeks. It deserves some undivided attention. It is comprised of three stories, which are ultimately intertwined, beautifully mirroring one another. As though they reflect one another on a slightly wavering surface, so that just as you glimpse the similarities, they are gone.

Each narrative is told from the point of view of a runaway. Ryan is fleeing his parents after learning that he is not who he thought he was. Lucy escapes her small town in the wake of her parents' death, in the front seat of her history teacher's Maserati. Miles has been uprooting his life for decades, in search of his elusive identical twin. The action switches between the present and the past; many pasts, as it turns out. The structure is complex, but it remains clear what is happening to whom, and how it fits into the overall timeline. Which is pretty impressive.

Is it possible to walk away from your life, and make it over entirely? This novel continually made me ask myself, "Are people really like this? Is this going on all over America?" It is a testament to the fine writing that I kept answering myself in the affirmative. What a feat! In less skillful hands it would have seem contrived and ridiculous. As it was, I was kept guessing until the end, unsure of how the trio of tales would resolve themselves, anxious to get learn the truth, but wanting to make the book last.

The author describes his novel as Hitchcockian. Hitchcocklike? Rest assured, he put it more gracefully. It has many characteristics of a thriller, and I had to read one section through slitted eyes, because it was so suspenseful and clinically creepy. I am not a fan of the mystery/crime genre (much to my own disappointment); this book rides the line between genre fiction and just generally really well-written fiction, which to me is a perfect combination. In short, I loved it, and can't wait to read his other work.

Here's a great interview with the author. He's pretty nerdy/dreamy, which is the best kind of dreamy, in my book.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Love, Aubrey, by Suzanne LaFleur

This is my just-turned-ten-year-old daughter's favorite book. About a month ago, she was reading it in her bed, tears streaming down her cheeks, saying, "This is the best book EVER! But it's so sad." Two weeks later, there I was in bed, reading this book and crying. I won't say it's the best book ever, but it's pretty good.

Eleven-year-old Aubrey has lost her father and sister in a car crash, and now her mother has disappeared, leaving her to fend for herself. Fortunately, her grandmother takes her in, and the book takes place over the course of the next year. As you can imagine, Aubrey's got a little processing to do. Heavy stuff for a kids' book, but I think it's just the right mix of serious and fun; it turns out that life doesn't end when your family is gone, though it seems like it should.

The author, Suzanne LaFleur, is exactly the kind of adult I wanted to be when I was a child. She's in her mid-twenties, and so hasn't been a bona fide grownup for all that long - I hope she can sustain her absolute coolness. You can read about her on her website. If you loved Harriet the Spy and heroines of her ilk, you will love Suzanne LaFleur.


I don't read that much kids' lit these days, but when my children particularly love something I will give it a try. I remember reading my favorites over and over again, in a way I just wouldn't as an adult. This is a great pick for the tweeners, and not a bad grownup read if you're ready to shed a few tears.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

This book is everywhere these days, including the top of many must-read lists. I've been surfing the net for hours, trying to figure out who likes this book so much, and why. I have come to the conclusion that it is beloved by people who adore bodice-ripping romances, but like them to feel like good literature.

As for it being a prime choice for book clubs, my bias against that designation has just increased. Surely people who get together to explore character and motivation would require something with a little more subtlety and substance.

I admit to having finished the book; I wanted to see how it ended (though I hated the ending). It struck me, originally, as a typical first novel; a little obvious, with the author tending to explain what was happening, rather than just letting events unfold. Eventually, however, the prose descended to platitudes, with characters summing up their entire lives in single sentences. From chapter to chapter, everybody's behavior changed one hundred and eighty degrees, yet they all calmly stated that they would never return to their former ways. Except that they did, over and over. Then they'd state again that they had changed, utterly.

The plot snapshot is this: 1907, Wisconsin. A wealthy, and I mean Midas-like, widower waits for his mail-order bride. Surprise, she is not the woman she claimed to be. No problem, he is patience itself. She goes off, at his request, \ in search of his long-lost son. Surprise, she returns to the former life we, the readers, had guessed she'd led. She returns to her husband, and yes, she does chooses this version of her life after all. Then the son throws a wrench into the works. Love, guilt, shame, and emotional blackmail ensue. And sex, lots of sex.

The thing that bothered me the most about this book was the timeline. It all takes place over the course of a single winter. Now I know that Wisconsin winters are long and hard, but honestly, this one must have lasted for 17 months! Statements such as "night after night" and "day after day" are used with great frequency in this book, which leads the reader to assume that each section of the book lasts for, well, weeks and weeks.

As I mentioned, other people do like this book. Here's a much more complimentary review, from the Washington Post. I might still read Goolrick's memoir, The End of the World as We Know It. It sounds like the kind of dysfunctional family history I enjoy, and it's set in the South, where they really know how to do family drama. He should probably have left the cold, austere winters of Wisconsin alone.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Alternatives to Sex, by Stephen McCauley

Steven McCauley's books always seem to end too soon. There is something about the easy pacing that has me settling in for a long read, only to discover that it's over.  His characters are so familiar to me; perhaps I like his books so much because they could be written about me, if I were a fastidious gay man with no kids.

This is not my favorite of his books, but here are some things I liked about it:
  • It has a good ending. No neatly wrapped packages, but some resolutions - perfect.
  • The protagonist is likable, but also slightly annoying. This makes him not only seem real, but makes him seem like a friend - one you've known for a long time, and whose bad habits you accept.
  • There are a lot of post-9/11 ruminations and discussions, but you're not beaten over the head with the tragedy. In fact, there is a slightly sardonic, nothing-will-be-the-same-blah-blah-blah tone.
Somehow the writing didn't seem quite as polished as his other work. I think it was getting better as it went along. If you've never read Stephen McCauley before, start with another, such as Insignificant Others, or his beautiful debut, The Object of My Affection. If you already love him, go ahead and read this one next.

    Saturday, March 12, 2011

    The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

    I would probably not have read this book had it not been passed along to me by my sister, who does not share bad books. The title smacks of the kind of ladies lit that does not generally appeal to me, and frankly, it had gotten a little too much perfect-for-your-book-club press. Fortunately, I found myself with nothing to read several days ago, and decided to try it. It is popular with good reason, a sweet, funny book with a nice amount of historical tragedy. I was so charmed that for once I was gunning for a happy ending, which is very rare for me.

    In short, a writer in London starts a correspondence with the members of literary group on one of the Channel Islands. It is 1946, everyone is still traumatized from the war, and the author, Juliet, is just learning of the German Occupation of Guernsey. It's an interesting little chunk of history; most of us didn't know that any of England was occupied.

    I was always a big fan of the show Northern Exposure, and this is kind of the post-war British version. The cast of characters are unlikely allies, and altogether more fun than people in real life. Who wouldn't want to live in beautiful Guernsey with plucky, supportive friends who chat about books and have endless casual dinner parties?

    I like epistolary novels, and for the most part the format works for this story. It seems a little forced by the end, with the main character doing an awful lot of writing without garnering very many responses. Juliet is funny, and witty, and self-deprecating; in short, a sympathetic narrator who adores her subjects. Much has been made of the author, who did not live to see the enormous sucees of her only novel. I was surprised to learn that she was American; this book seems so perfectly British. All in all a really fun read.

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011

    The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, by Hiedi W. Durrow

    Another great local author! Well, localish - among the many places she's lived, she counts Portland as the one she hails from. The book is great, and the author is nothing short of amazing. She's already been extremely successful in both academics and several varied careers. She hosts the annual Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival, and my favorite thing, co-hosts the weekly podcast, Mixed Chicks Chat, with her friend and colleague Fanshon Cox. Listen to it here, you'll be glad you did. As long as you're on her site, read her quick interesting bio and look at her family photo albums.

    Okay, enough hero-worship, on to the book. This is one of those that should be extremely depressing, but somehow isn't. It is certainly heartbreaking; the eleven-year-old protagonist loses most of her family in a tragedy, which remains shrouded in mystery until the end of the book, and even then is fairly incomprehensible.  It is just about the complete opposite of Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto, which I finished a couple of days earlier. That book was all finely wrought physical details, and little sense of the world outside. This novel is made up of a series of events, clearly stated, reacted to, and reflected upon.

    Although it's not very long, an awful lot happens in this novel. The protagonist, Rachel, is a child of mixed race and nationality. She has lived most of her eleven years on Army bases, unaware of the oddity of having a black American father and white Danish mother. When most of her family dies in a bizarre accident, she is sent to live with her grandmother in Portland. Here she is quickly made aware of racial differences; in Portland, she is black.

    This is one unlucky family, and Rachel seems to be the only one who is holding up. The story unfolds in waves, following Rachel, a boy who witnessed the accident which killed her family, and a former friend of her deceased mother. Most of the members of her family buckle under the sorrow of loss, but this girl is tough. Come to think of it, I'd be tempted to classify this as YA, though it doesn't seem to be advertised as such. It has all the hallmark of good YA lit; a young heroine who makes her mistakes but stays true to herself, an out-of-the-ordinary friend who makes the real difference in her life, messed-up adults to rebel against... I recommend it.

    Monday, February 28, 2011

    Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates, by Tom Robbins

    I've always had a soft spot for Tom Robbins, and I was pretty interested in what might happen to the main character. But God help me, I couldn't sit through 415 pages of tangential rantings on the part of an egomaniacal CIA agent who has an inappropriate relationship with his 16 year old stepsister. Actually, it was the underage stepsister that really got me; a 32 year old white guy who thinks he knows more than anybody else is something for which I've kind of built up a tolerance.

    Saturday, February 19, 2011

    Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto, by Maile Chapman

    I have no idea what happened at the end of this book. The conclusion was so intentionally murky that I didn't get it at all. Plot, however, is not really the point of this novel. It's all about atmosphere and repressed emotion.

    That makes it easy to synopsize: Sunny is head nurse at Suvanto, a hospital in rural Finland that caters, in part, to a clientele of wealthy not-sick but not-well women. These "up-patients," so called because they live on the top floor of the building, are in many cases there to hide out from life as much as to recover from illness. Sunny herself is hiding out, having fled the United States (I think) soon after the protracted death of her mother.

    There is no indication of what is going on in the world outside. In fact, I have only the vaguest idea of when the story takes place. I originally thought it was the 1940's, but then decided it was more like the twenties... or thirties? There is no mention of war, which usually provides an anchor for novels set in the first half of the 20th century, particularly in Europe. If the characters are between wars, they don't ever mention the one that's past. Likewise, personal details about all of the characters are shrouded, hinted at, and sometimes revealed in intriguing but frustratingly brief nuggets.

    In contrast, both the setting and present events are told in beautiful detail. I have such vivid pictures in  my mind of the hospital hallways, the patients, the rooms. Corny as it sounds, I can feel the heat of the sauna, and hear the rare muffled sounds of the forest in the snow. Reading this book is a profoundly sensory experience.

    If one wanted to escape, an island off the coast of Finland might be the best place to do it. The language is extremely hard to master, the people private in the extreme, and it's dark a whole lot of the time. A huge hospital in a remote ice-locked bay seems like a setting for an intensely spooky story.  There is one creepy event near the end, but for the most part the disturbing stuff is all internal.

    Each personal story is tinged with a sense of the difficulty of being a woman. Some characters are pushed into being caretakers,  some mildly abused by the men in their lives,  others scared of sexuality. Ultimately, the up-patients create a catty society of one-upmanship that is not unlike a high school clique, while Sunny, the outsider, flees from a chance at real friendship. All of this is gently blanketed by the calm daily routine of the hospital, just as the footprints of miscreants are covered with the deep winter snow.

    Tuesday, February 8, 2011

    Louisiana Power and Light, by John Dufresne

    Note to self: next time read John Dufresne on vacation! His novels have so many well-drawn characters, all of whom are connected through odd circumstances. As it was, reading a little bit a day, I found myself leafing back through the book several times, trying to remember who they all were, and how they were related.

    The novel, much like his later Requiem, Mass., rattles along at breakneck speed, scattering colorful details and random erudition in its wake. This is a very funny book, which veers fearlessly into tragedy. I am reminded of Larry McMurtry, another author who is not afraid to kill off absolutely any character, and usually just as you've come to love them.

    Billy Wayne Fontana is the last of a cursed tribe. The Fontana clan runs exclusively to male progeny, who are often deformed at birth, and rarely make it to childbearing age. Which may be just as well, considering the trouble they get themselves into as adults. As the last living Fontana, it looks as though Billy Wayne may have escaped the family fate. He is almost done with seminary when he meets Earlene deBastrop, and his life veers into maelstrom of love and expectation.

    Much of this book is taken up with the question of whether one can avoid one's fate, and the corollary question, do our expectations determine the trajectory of our lives? I got a little bogged down with Billy Wayne's travels down this road. Mostly, he seems to have avoided acting on many of his good impulses. The resulting downward spiral belies the hopeful beginning, which should probably come as no surprise, given the narrator's dire predictions.

    I do think I might have enjoyed this novel more had I read it more quickly; unfinished books eventually become tiresome. It is funny, fast-paced, and filled with memorable characters.

    Saturday, January 29, 2011

    Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky

    This is an extremely moving book; the knowledge that the author perished at Auschwitz makes it all the more affecting. Irene Nemirovsky's older daughter possessed the manuscript for many years without realizing what it contained; she thought it was a diary, and thought it would be too painful to read. Instead, she found two of a planned series of five novellas about the German Occupation of France.

    These two short novels contain vivid descriptions of both the flight from Paris during the invasion, and life under Occupation in the countryside. They seem contemporary; events and reactions that could as easily take place today. I love that the stories do not just illuminate the struggles between nations, but differences in class. Life as a refugee is, not surprisingly, easier when one is rich and well-connected.

    The stories are linked but separate, some characters appear in both. Events are seen from several points of view, which gives a great perspective on the whole. War is the central event in the book, but it is also a lens that brings each personality into focus. The characters and their reactions to their situations are, in the end, more interesting than what is happening to them.

    Several of the reviews I read, like this one from the New York Times, that marvel at Nemirovsky's ability to write so reflectively about devastating events as they transpire. Doubly amazing as she was in constant danger of being arrested and separated from her young children. This did, alas, come to pass, and she was at Auschwitz for only a month before 'dying of typhoid', likely a Nazi euphemism for being gassed. Her husband soon followed.

    I generally skim biographical data that accompanies novels, but this story was so interesting and heartbreaking that I read quite a it. The translator, Sandra Smith, is clearly devoted to the subject of her work. The appendix includes vast amounts of research and many contextual explanations, as well as photocopies of the manuscript itself.

    I put off reading this book for a long time, because I thought it would be depressing and dated. I was happily surprised to find that it was neither.

    Tuesday, January 25, 2011

    Raising Ourselves: A Gwich'in Coming of Age Story from the Yukon River, by Velma Wallis

    Velma Wallis' mother was not planning to have children, because she knew what the life of an Alaskan mother looked like. She ended up having 14 of them, bowing out of motherhood well before they were old enough to do without her.

    This is a heartbreaking story of a culture in transition. Fort Yukon in the 60's is probably like a lot of native towns in that era. Modernity has brought white bread and alcohol, and nothing a whole lot more useful. Velma loses her parents and most of her siblings to the bottle. At 13, she and her brother take over the household, caring for their 4 younger siblings while their mother battles alcoholism. At 15, she moves out to the family land (by herself) to live by trapping, as her ancestors did. I am in awe of what she went through by the time she hit voting age.

    My overall impression is of a family united by love, but ravaged by addiction and poverty. The book could use some further editing, and is not what you'd call finely wrought. I was riveted, though, by this view into the life of an American girl not so far from my own age, but a world apart in terms of culture and opportunity. A good book for when you're feeling whiney - you will definitely get over yourself..

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011

    Blood Brothers, by Richard Price

    Do teenage boys really talk to each other this way? If so, I have just developed a new love for teenage boys...

    This is Richard Price's first novel. It seems evident that author himself is young, not far removed from the choices his protagonist is making. Stony DeCoco (yes, yes, possibly the best name in fiction!) is wonderfully real, and engagingly communicative with both his friends and family. What a great window into both an era and a neighborhood. I felt as though I was actually holding my breath during most of this book; Stony is right on the verge of turning into the adult he is going to be, and it's hard to tell which way he's going to go.

    Very nicely told; the dialogue is particularly good, and you can just see that Richard Price is also coming into his own. I like it when authors write about their native places, it always makes me want to know those places as intimately as they do.

    This book reminded me that there's a lot going on under the surface of seemingly unremarkable people, maybe especially in teenagers. Stony is such a dude, with such a loving and tender side. Very nicely told, the dialogue is particularly good, and you can just see that Richard Price is also coming into his own.

    Here's an interview with Richard Price. He sounds just like his characters.

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011

    Peace Like A River, by Leif Enger

    It's not easy to write about an angel and not sound saccharine - at least I assume it's hard, since so few people are successful at it.

    Here's an odd thing about this book. I couldn't decide, upon picking it up, whether I had read it, or just had it on my to-read list for a long time. Pretty shortly into the first chapter, I decided that I had in fact read it. And really liked it. But at no point in this rereading did I find myself thinking "Oh, yeah, now I remember what happens." In fact, I didn't remember the ending at all; it was brand new to me. And yet it's a really great book, with memorable characters and an interesting plot. Which means either that I am closer to full-onset senility than I thought, or the book is just a tiny bit miraculous.

    The novel tells the story of a year in the life of a family of extraordinary people, told from the perspective of its most ordinary member, 11 year old Reuben. His father is a gentle man inclined to produce miracles, his 9 year old sister writes epic poetry and runs the household, and his 16 year old brother is a level-headed and kind dispenser of vigilante justice.

    The book is set in the early 60's and shows an America just on the cusp of modernity. There are still wide open spaces in which a man can hide from the law indefinitely. Technology hasn't yet made many inroads, and rural life is not so different than it was 30 years before. I loved the descriptions of the Western landscape, and the sense that this story hangs right on the edge of a whole new era, not only for the characters, but for the world.