Where's the book?

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

#1 and DONE!

It took longer than any other book I've ever read, I'm fairly sure of that. Longer than War and Peace. Longer than A Suitable Boy (still one of my favorites). Longer than anything by Proust. But I have finally finished Robert Caro's groundbreaking (and Pulitzer-winning) The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, all 1100+ pages of it.

One of the interesting things I learned from reading about the book is that it was originally one-third longer. Robert Gottlieb, Caro's editor, cut 300,000 words. I can't even imagine. As it was, reading the book was challenging, not so much because it demanded tremendous concentration (which it did), but because it was heavy--literally. Taking it with me to read on buses or subways was courting a hernia. Reading in bed was out. Try resting this book on your lap as you read and you'll end up in the ER with internal injuries. Reading in a chair was a challenge--you can't hold it up, and you have to put a pillow in your lap to rest the book on.

I read most of this book sitting at a table or counter, which is not the most comfortable reading spot. But I did it. And, thankfully, the book was fascinating. For anyone who loves New York City and its history, this book is an important read. Robert Moses held power in this city longer than pretty much anyone else in the 20th century, and he not only held it longer, he held more of it. He was the actual person running the city during the mayoral administrations of La Guardia, O'Dwyer, Impelliteri, and Wagner. He had the money, thanks to his control of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, which was rolling in surplus millions while the city and the state were bordering on bankruptcy, and he had, more importantly, the power. He controlled people, he controlled projects, and, most frighteningly, he controlled the future. He is far and away the person who has had the greatest impact on the city of today. The list of projects that he created and built is truly mind-boggling: pretty much every major parkway and expressway in the New York City area, from the LIE to the Southern and Northern States, the Saw Mill, the Major Deegan, the West Side Highway, the FDR, the Wantaugh, the Meadowbrook, the Cross-Bronx, the BQE...the list goes on and on. Massive public works like the United Nations, Lincoln Center, the Forham University campus, the World's Fair of 1964-65. Literally dozens of state parks from Jones Beach to Niagara. Most of the ways the city's boroughs link together, from the Triborough Bridge to the Verrazano, the Whitestone, the Throgs Neck, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, the Henry Hudson Bridge... You can see why the book needed to be so long.

Moses was a fascinating man. In his youth, he was an idealistic reformer, a crusader, and a failure. His mother had to support him and his wife and children until he was 39 years old, because he couldn't seem to hold onto a paying job. But once he found his first real position, as Secretary of State  under his mentor and substitute father figure Governor Al Smith, he never looked back. He accumulated power more successfully than perhaps anyone in our history. And once he realized how to go about "getting things done" (his mantra), he was unstoppable. He grew into a monster, a man who would not brook even the slightest, mildest of questions. A man who squeezed, and controlled, and doled out favors and patronage, who lived like a royal, and expected royal treatment at all times. His hold on power seemed absolute--even Franklin Roosevelt, who despised him, had to defer to him--until someone came along who had enough smarts and power of his own to dethrone him. Want to know who? Read the book!

By then he had turned the city into his toy, and twisted and turned it the way he wanted. He built the city but he also corrupted it. He destroyed neighborhoods and people in the process of "getting things done." The amount of good he did and the amount of bad are both enormous, and one of the things I appreciated about the book is that it doesn't try to present a final tally. It simply shows us the story of what is, in the final analysis, the man who made New York.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Mea culpa.

I didn't fulfill my 2016 vow, to finish those two doorstops, War and Peace and The Power Broker by year's end, but I didn't make it. 

I managed War and Peace (thank you very much), which made me proud, and made seeing the wonderful Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet so much more enjoyable (and comprehensible). 

But the 1200 densely-packed pages (really, that book has to break a record for words-per-page) of The Power Broker are taking longer than any book I've ever read. In my life. Ever. Since it is so complicated--the deal-making and all the many characters and the complexity of New York's politics and finances--I can't read at my usual rapid pace. It's necessary to go slowly and really concentrate--two things I'm not all that good at. 

Not that it isn't interesting. I enjoy New York history, and this book is packed full of it. It's also interesting reading about this complex man, so brilliant and so arrogant. His life, so far (I'm on page 724) was an arc from powerless, idealistic failure to incredibly powerful, arrogant, tyrant. And his influence on New York was assuredly greater than anyone else's, ever. 

So I will finish it, probably not today or tomorrow, but in the next few days. 

In the meantime, below is my list for 2016. There were a few I loved (Brooklyn, Americanah, The Night Watch) and plenty I liked but, it seems, more disappointments than usual. 

Doesn't matter...on to next year...and to finishing the story of the modern Moses and a year of great reading!

1.     A Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
2.     To Dwell in Darkness by Deborah Crombie
3.     The Apartment by Greg Baxter  
4.     War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
5.     Brooklyn by Colm Toibin 
6.     Plays: The Crucible by Arthur Miller, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
7.     The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins by Irvine Welsh
8.     The Vacationers by Emma Straub
9.     Between You and Me: Memoirs of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
10.  Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
11.  The Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy
12.  The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig  
13.  Purity by Jonathan Franzen
14.  Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim
15.  Speedboat by Renata Adler  
16.  Hamilton, the Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter
17.  Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale
18.  Compromising Positions by Susan Isaacs
19.  Cocaine Blues (A Phryne Fisher Murder Mystery) by Kerry Greenwood
20.  Flying Too High (A Phryne Fisher Murder Mystery) by Kerry Greenwood
21.  Murder on the Ballarat Train (A Phryne Fisher Murder Mysery) by Kerry Greenwood
22.  Act One by Moss Hart
23.  The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine by Alexander McCall Smith
24.  Emma by Alexander McCall Smith
25.  The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
26.  Siracusa by Delia Ephron
27.  Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
28.  The Girls by Emma Cline
29.  Drinking: A Love Story by Carolyn Knapp
30.  The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale
31.  In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
32.  The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
33.  Love the One You’re With by Emily Giffen
34.  Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie
35.  Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
36.  A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean 
37.  Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 
38.  On Writing by Stephen King
39.  Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story by George Eliot
40.  Shipwreck by Louis Begley  
41.  In the Woods by Tana French
42.  The first 700 pages of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Go into the woods for #41

I bought this book because of the cover. I'm not kidding. It looked like such a cool cover that I just had to have it.

Luckily the book was cool too. The first book from Irish writer Tana French, it's a dual mystery story. The present-day mystery is of a 12-year-old girl who has turned up murdered on the site of an archeological dig in a Dublin suburb. The two investigating detectives are Cassie Maddox and Rob Ryan. And there's the second mystery. Twenty years earlier, three children disappeared in the woods in the same neighborhood. Only one was ever found, alive, clinging desperately to a tree, his shoes filled with blood, with no memory of what happened. That surviving child is Rob Ryan, then known as Adam.

The book is narrated by Ryan, who starts to crumble under the strain of investigating a murder in the same location as his childhood trauma. Memories from his haunted past begin to return, floating desperately outside his consciousness. There are wonderful characters, and both Ryan and Maddox are vivid and empathetic human beings. There are some flaws, particularly in the obvious lies of one of the people involved. They are telegraphed so broadly that it seems impossible that a supposedly intelligent detective like Ryan, even in his mentally addled state, would not see them as well as the readers do.

But there are some really gripping scenes and a few revelations that come as a huge surprise. And there were even a couple of moments where I found myself holding my breath. I would read more of French's work. Even if the covers are not as cool as this one.

But for now, I must face the other massive volume I promised to read this year: The Power Broker, all 1200 densely packed pages of it. I promised to read this book and War and Peace by year's end, and December 31st is coming at me fast. Better get back to reading...

Monday, December 19, 2016

Round the world with #39 and #40

#39, a slender volume, has been sitting in my to-read pile for ages. Mr. Gilfil's Love Story is by one of my favorite writers, George Eliot, but I'd never heard of it, so was fascinated. Turns out the book is actually one of the three long stories that make up Scenes of a Clerical Life, Eliot's first published work.

It concerns the life of a clergyman named Maynard Gilfil, and starts out with a long and rather dreary introduction to the Reverend Gilfil's lonely middle-aged life. I rarely find Victorian writing difficult to read, but this long opening passage (pages and pages long) made me understand why so many people find the Victorian novelists difficult.

George Eliot
One the story got underway it improved. Somewhat. Most of the tale flashes back to Mr. Gilfil's earlier life, when he was in love with a young woman named Caterina, the ward of a wealthy nobleman. But Catarina is in love with the nobleman's nephew and heir, who has made her love him but now plans to marry a more suitable woman. We already know from the dreary opening that things end badly for Catarina. She loses her love, marries Gilfil, but dies in childbirth, leaving Gilfil to live out his life a lonely, heartbroken man.

It's not a pick-me-up, and it never gets terribly interesting. I think in future I'll leave the other two "stories" from Scenes of a Clerical Life alone and stick to Eliot's novels instead.

#40 is not so slender, but equally uninteresting. Shipwreck, by Louis Begley, is a strange tale. It's told by the writer John North to an unnamed narrator he meets in a bar. We know nothing at all about the narrator who makes his appearance known only occasionally. The entire story is told by North. Since Begley does not use quotation marks, the few and far between moments when the actual narrator intervenes with a comment or thought can be startling and confusing, since you have almost completely forgotten about his existence.

The story North tells is of his moral disintegration (although I'm not convinced he ever had much in the way of morality to disintegrate). He has woken up one morning and decided that every word he has written is, basically, crap. In Paris for the publication of his latest novel he decides to be unfaithful--for the first time--to his wife, a wife, he says, that he absolutely adores. Since he claims to be fully satisfied in every way by his wife (who appears to be nothing less than a saint), the decision appears to be arbitrary and absurd. Of course, things don't go very well with the young woman he chooses for his fling. In fact, things get fairly out of hand. Along the way, we come to pretty much despise North, who is selfish, cold, calculating, nasty, and, perhaps, antisemitic.

The book has been sold as a sexual thriller, hot and heavy, but Begley's sex scenes are about as cold as North (just realized how well the name works). They are the farthest thing from erotica. In fact, it's really only North's evaluations of power and money, especially as it concerns his old-guard Protestant family versus his wife's wealthy Jewish bunch, that seem to pack any sort of punch. He is an amoral man who does so much wrong that he should be interesting, but unfortunately, he isn't. In a better author, one with some power in his pen, this could have been a roller-coaster ride of a story. Too bad.


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

#38 Reading About Writing

He may not be the most brilliant writer, but he sure is prolific, and more than competent. In Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he has some smart, sensible words of advice to anyone who wants to write just about anything.

I had read the book about ten years ago, and was about to give it to a writer acquaintance of mine, so thought I should re-read it before sending it on its way. I am glad I did. I had completely forgotten that the first half of the book is a snapshot-y memoir of the events and people that influenced his development as a writer, beginning back in his early childhood. It's very entertaining, and vivid, and reads a lot like a King novel. The middle chunk of the book is his advice, which, like King himself (I like to think), is straightforward, unpretentious, and occasionally wise.

Writing is a craft, he says, hence the subtitle. King takes all the pomposity and pretentiousness out of writing. Work at it, he says, and you'll get better. Read a lot, write a lot. Don't stop writing for more than one day in a row. It disconnects you from your story and you lose the thread. Avoid adverbs. Close the door of your writing room (if you have one) and don't let yourself get interrupted. And use "said" in your dialogue tags, since readers don't really read that word anyway. Basically: be smart, work hard, and don't get all fancy-pants on us.

There's some good advice on finding an agent and getting published, although a lot of it is technically outdated in a world in which we send emails rather than letters. But conceptually, it works. And there's plenty of thanks to his mother and wife for his support of his writing over many years. I couldn't help thinking, when he says for the fifth time that you have to close the door and go to your desk and write every single day without allowing interruptions, that it's fine and dandy to do that if you have a wife who's taking the kids to school and doing the wash and going grocery shopping and making dinner. Otherwise, it's not so easy to get to the nice, quiet, solo space every day. Virginia Woolf sure had it right. Also Judy Brady.

The last section of the book is about his near-fatal accident in 1999, when he was hit by a van while walking along the road near his home in Maine. He thought it might be the end of his writing career. Luckily for all of his fans (me included), it was not.

Monday, December 12, 2016

#37 An modern immigration story

I love a good immigrant story. And I've read many about Indian immigrants, Italian immigrants, Jewish immigrants. But this may be the first I've read about an African immigrant: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Ifemelu, the narrator, is getting her hair braided in New Jersey, and telling us her story of her childhood in Nigeria, her arrival in America to go to college, and the years since. We also get excerpts from the blog she writes about life as a "Non-American Black" in which she explores Racial Disorder Syndrome (her term). The blog, and the book, are wonderfully written, finely observed, funny at times yet also sad, free of lectures and preaching, a truly individual story that is also universal. We also get the story of the man she left behind, Obinze, who has his own journey from Nigeria to London as an undocumented immigrant, and his eventual return to Lagos.

The story is beautifully written, with complex and fascinating characters, all of whom feel as real as the people you live with. My only complaint would be the back-and-forth to the hair braiding salon, which interrupts the flow of the very compelling story. I understand that Achebe wanted to contrast the narrators success in America with the difficult lives of the women in the hair salon--more stories of arrivals and their ability to adapt--but it felt distracting and unnecessary. But that's a minor quibble. Americanah is a marvelous, absorbing, and wonderful book that sticks with you for a long time.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

#36 A River Runs Through It

I knew it was a movie. And that it starred Brad Pitt. But I had no idea that the movie was based on a book--more a novella--by the author Norman Maclean, who I had never heard of. 

Maclean was a scholar, a revered professor at the University of Chicago who taught the Romantic poets and Shakespeare. When he retired in 1973, his children encouraged him to write the stories he liked to tell, many about growing up in Montana, his minister father, and fly fishing. This book, officially titled A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, was the first book of fiction published by the University of Chicago Press. 

The title story is beautifully written and completely absorbing, much of it about fly fishing and the relationships between two brothers and their minister father. The best way to describe it is to quote from an interview with Maclean in Esquire magazine from 1981:

Brad in the movie, young and gorgeous
"It is a story about Maclean and his brother, Paul, who was beaten to death with a gun butt in 1942. It is about not understanding what you love, about not being able to help. It is the truest story I ever read; it might be the best written. And to this day it won’t leave me alone."

In the same article, Maclean was quoted as saying:

"I thought for a while it was the writing that kept bringing it around. That’s the way it comes back to me: I hear the sound of the words, then I see them happen. I spent four hours one afternoon picking out three paragraphs to drop into a column I was writing about the book, and in the end they didn’t translate, because except for the first sentence—'In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing'—there isn’t anything in it that doesn’t depend on what comes before it for its meaning."

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Do I only read books by women?

Seems that way lately. The last 11 have all been by female writers. After I took my first feminist lit class back in college I made a vow to only read women writers for five years. And I stuck to it, and even added a couple of years. I'm so grateful I did and also glad I widened my horizons eventually. But lately I think I've renewed that vow. At least these last seven, in brief, are all penned by gals.

#29 Drinking: A Love Story is a well-respected memoir by Caroline Knapp, focusing--big spoiler alert here--on her years, or rather decades, of alcohol abuse. Sadly, the book is less of a memoir and more of an extended essay about alcoholism, its roots, its dangers, its challenges. And more sadly, Knapp died of cancer only a few years after finally getting sober. Anyone think life is fair? I found it a slow read, and I kept wishing it were more of an actual story and less of an analysis of addiction and its consequences.

#30 was such a disappointment. I had read Kate Summerscale's Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace, a true story of the first divorce in Victorian England, and found it quite interesting. And her new book seemed like a fascinating followup and got good reviews. The Wicked Boy is another true story, about a 13-year-old boy who murdered his mother in 1895, while his father is away. He and his 12-year-old brother leave the body in bed where the deed was done and go to cricket matches, pawn shops, and chips sellers, until the stench gives them away. Sounds fascinating, right? Sadly, it wasn't. The book is drastically padded--Summerscale clearly didn't have enough to work with, so there are lengthy descriptions of the weather (do we really need to know that the Monday of the trial was damp and chilly and on Tuesday the sun came out?), what people wore, how the cricket match progressed (really tedious for a reader who doesn't have a clue how cricket is played), etc. And in the end, there isn't much in the way of insight. I still don't know what drove Robert to kill his mother. I wish she had written an article instead; whittling away all the extraneous information might have made for an interesting story.

#31 was another Ruth Ware. The Woman in Cabin 10 was a relatively fun read, and her prior thriller, In a Dark, Dark Wood, turned out to be equally entertaining, and, hurrah! the main character was not a drunk or complete emotional mess. Only a partial one. The whodunnit was so completely obvious to me that I disdained the main character for not seeing it as clearly as I did. But it was gripping enough, and easy enough, and, at a couple of moments, downright scary.

#32 Finally! A genuine, well-written piece of literary fiction. Sarah Waters never disappoints and The Night Watch lives up to her reputation. It tells the story of four Londoners during World War II. The book starts in 1947 and moves backward to 1941 to tell of how their complicated relationships began. I was wary of the gimmick, and think the book would have been better off without it. Her characters are so deeply drawn and her stories so interesting that the backwards path made the reader focus more on the unanswered questions of how it started instead of staying completely with the story as it progressed. But despite that irritation, it was a moving and handsomely crafted book, with compelling characters and a terrific evocation of London during that dark time.

#33 I picked up Emily Giffen's Love the One You're With while traveling, trading it for In a Dark, Dark Wood. I think the hotel I left Ware's thriller in got the better end of that deal. Giffen's novel is complete piffle that can be summed up in one sentence: A woman in a seemingly perfect new marriage runs into an old flame and the spark reignites. Will she leave her handsome, rich, kind, intelligent husband? Who also happens to be the brother of her very best friend? Will she have an affair with the dark, handsome, bad boy she can't shake? Who cares. You can read this book in a day, and that may be the best thing I can say about it.

#34 Another hotel find: the always entertaining Agatha Christie's Cards on the Table. Although it probably would have made the book more fun if I understood bridge, since the murder takes place at a bridge party and the score sheet is an important clue, it's always fun to spend some time with the great Christie and her greatest creation: the brilliant Hercule Poirot exercising his "grey matter" with the greatest of skill.

#35 Ugh. A New York Times bestseller? Finalist for the National Book Award? President Obama's favorite book of 2015? Really? I thought Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies was pretentious and overwritten. The story of a marriage, told in the first half of the book from his perspective and in the second half from hers, it annoyed the heck out of me and I couldn't wait for it to end. Every sentence seems like half-baked college-age poetry, and the characters and the story are absurd. Have I said ugh? Ugh.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

#26, 27, 28: a trio of new releases by women

Somehow this summer I've gotten into reading the recently released. It could be because I found a new bookstore I like and I can't seem to stop going there and buying more books. Or it could be because I keep reading about new books that sound so interesting. Unfortunately, in all three of these new releases, I've been pretty disappointed.

#26 is Siracusa by Delia Ephron. I heard her interviewed on the radio and she made the book sound so fascinating I couldn't resist, especially since I'm heading off to Sicily next month. Sadly, she talks a better game than she writes. It's the story of two couples who go on vacation together, accompanied by one couple's strange ten-year-old daughter. The tale is told in alternating voices by each of the adults, which is actually the most interesting thing about the book. Ephron manages to create four very distinct (if not always credible) voices, so that even if you pick the book up without knowing which chapter you were in, you would quickly recognize which character was speaking. That--and a few tips on places to visit in Sicily and Rome--is the best part of the book. The story is moderately interesting, and there's a big shocker that occurs toward the end that is blatantly telegraphed early on, in a Chekhov's gun moment that just leaves you waiting to see who's going to be getting the bullet to the head (I'm speaking metaphorically here, there's no gun in the book). Kind of a disappointment, but at least it made me more excited about my upcoming trip.

#27, however, was a massive bummer. Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler has gotten all kinds of hype this summer, and since it's set in New York City and about the restaurant industry and a young woman's coming of age (all topics that push my reading buttons), I was very excited to open the covers. Sad to say, it's an overwritten, undercooked, melodramatic, disjointed piece of junk. The cliches abound, the endless drink and drugs are as dulling to the reader as they are to the narrator, the character development borders on nil (greasy-haired bad boy, wise but cruel older woman...), and, worst of all, it's boring. So is all the hype because the author is young and pretty and her book is supposedly based on real-life places and people? Probably. It certainly can't be because of her writing talent.

#28 is another big recent release, another first novel, by another pretty young woman. And it too has gotten plenty of positive press. And it too disappoints, although not as much as Sweetbitter. Emma Cline's The Girls is loosely based on the Charles Manson family, and is another young woman's coming-of-age story. In this case the narrator is the lonely and lost fourteen-year-old Evie, who becomes a hanger-on at the ranch populated by Russell, the Manson-like leader, and his followers. But Cline is a far better writer, and her depiction of what it's like to be a sad young teenager trying desperately to figure out how to be in the world is spot on. She captures perfectly the confusion and insecurity, and the dangerous attraction to a confident and charming older girl. The book shifts back and forth in time, to a present-day middle-aged Evie, and those shifts fall flat. But much of the book is fascinating, even if ultimately far less interesting than all the buzz would have you think. The main difference is: Cline can write.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

#24 girl on a boat

I do like a good thriller, even if it has "girl" in the title. In this book's case, the girl is upgraded to a woman, but it's the same idea. The only other change is the female in the title, the actual woman in cabin 10, is not the narrator or even the main character. She's a young woman, seen briefly in a cabin on a cruise ship by our story's narrator. No one else sees her. No one else seems to know she ever was there. In fact, the woman is cabin 10's existence is strenuously denied by everyone involved. Hence the mystery.

The only proof that the narrator has is the tube of mascara she borrowed from the woman in the next cabin. But the tube mysteriously disappears -- and that disappearance ironically proves that the woman in cabin 10 did exist. Because if she didn't, and if she hasn't met with foul play, then why would anyone need to disappear the mascara?

It's a twisty, turny book, decently (not brilliantly, not even very well) written, with a neat resolution that's mostly unexpected. My only complaint is why do the narrators of these types of books have to be such pathetic wrecks? The main character in The Girl on the Train, this main character, and so many others -- they drink too much, they wallow in self-loathing, they're clinically depressed, they have sex with the absolutely wrong men. At lease the gone girl in Gone Girl was confident and powerful, although she was a total sociopath. Can't there be a sane, smart, together female who comes across a crime and attempts to solve it? Whatever happened to stories like the one I read a few books back, Compromising Positions? Decently written (as good as this one or The Girl on the Train for sure), and the heroine is smart and confident. And that was the eighties! Have women gotten more delicate and depressed and drug-addled since then? Maybe. Miss Marple was more of a strong, "modern" woman than these gals.