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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Catching up

My figlio maggiore has been visiting for a couple of weeks, along with his new and adorable and lovable and sweet and affectionate...beagle. Pepper, as he has named the rescued pup, is about two years old, and is the prettiest puppy I've ever seen. Her colorations range from ivory white to chocolate brown to a sweet dark brown patch right on the top of her head. I'm torn between wanting to hug her and wear her. I can see how Cruella De Vil got her start. It always begins with love.

In between spending time with the FigMag and the puppy, and visits to the beach, and trying to stay cool (it's hot here, really hot), and cooking and baking (world's best cobbler recipe, coming soon), there has been plenty of reading time. And since I've been plowing through books like a hot knife through good brie, I'm going to use this space to play a little bit of catch up.

#25 The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer
The story of a group of young people who meet at an arts camp in the early 1970s. Wolitzer follows them from there through the next three or so decades of their lives. The central character is a girl from Long Island named Julie, who quickly transforms, thanks to the sparkling group of young people she falls in with at camp, into the far more creative "Jules."

I was primed to love this book. After all, I grew up in the New York City suburbs at roughly the same time as these kids (I would be maybe two years older than them). I went to arts camp. I changed my name at 14 from the pedestrian Jill Ann to the far more creative "Jilann." I longed to live in Manhattan, to be creative, to be witty, to be...interesting.

Luckily (for me), I did love the book. Despite covering so many lives for so many years, it never feels thin or contrived. Wolitzer knows these characters inside and out, and by the end of the book, so do we. Although she skips blithely through many major chunks of life (raising kids seems to happen while you're looking the other way), you never feel like she's losing touch with her story. And the book touches on something I can't remember reading about in other stories -- the envy people can feel for the wealth or happiness or achievements of friends, even friends they love. And how to remain friends despite that envy, and through that envy. It's a powerful topic and, in large or small ways, we've all felt it. The books was a rewarding, rich, thoroughly engrossing read. It took me back to my adolescence like a Proustian madeleine and I could smell the bug juice and popsicle sticks of camp.

#26 The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout
Since I had read and loved Olive Kitteridge I was excited to read another book by Strout, especially since I had seen several good reviews of this one. But I was, sadly, so sadly, very disappointed. One of the things I loved about Olive was her compassionate and loving portrait of so many different and differently flawed characters, including the stiff, cold, proud title character. Strout seemed to have the ability to put herself in so many different skins, and to make them all not only believable, but understandable, even when they behaved badly.

But in this book she seems to have lost her way. The Burgess boys themselves -- two grown brothers named Jim and Bob -- along with their sister Susan -- are all unlikable, particularly the older brother, Jim. A successful lawyer, Jim is arrogant, abrasive, domineering -- almost to the point of abusive. His younger brother Bob seems like a simp for putting up with it, as does his thinly drawn wife. The action revolves around a seemingly racist act committed by Susan's strange son Zach, which drawns Bob and Jim back to the failing Maine town in which they grew up, and in which their father died in a strange accident that has haunted the "boys" ever since.

Bob is meant to be the book's conscience, and heart, but his inability to stand up to either his brother or his nasty, cold (figuratively and literally -- she keeps her house so frigid that Bob has to sleep in his coat) sister Susan, made me lose patience with him. Since Strout does not extend her hand to me as a reader in liking or even fully understanding these characters -- and they weren't entertaining enough to keep me drawn in without some compassion extended toward them -- I found myself bored and irritated throughout. A disappointment, truly.

#27 Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain
Although the book has a gimmick -- it takes place during one day in the life of a returning hero from Iraq. Billy and his Bravo squad's battle at Al-Ansakar Canal has been captured on video, and they are media heroes, traveling the country on display, possibly the subjects of a movie, and, most importantly, about to return to Iraq for another tour. On this day they are at Dallas Cowboys stadium, where Billy will drink, smoke pot, meet a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader and fall for her, text, talk, take part in Hollywood negotiations and a Destiny's Child halftime show, and a whole lot more. Except for one extended flashback to Billy's painful visit home, the entire tale unfolds in this one long, crazy day. Billy is a wonderful character -- a 19-year-old boy who has been kicked into the role of a man, and tries, hard, to live up to it. Fountain's language is as wild a ride as his story, it is rich, twisty, evocative. I don't like war stories (even when they don't involve actual war) or male-dominated stories (what could be more male dominated that a book about a war hero?). It was, therefore, not a book I thought I would like, and I didn't like it. I loved it.

#28 Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart
And speaking of wild language... Welcome to the Shteyngart universe. Buckle up, it's going to be a bumpy ride. Falling somewhere on my personal Shteyngart spectrum between The Russian Debutante's Handbook (loved it!) and Absurdistan (hated it!), this book is set in the not-too-distant future when America's economy has collapsed, various foreign powers are taking over (China! Norway!), and war with Venezuela is background music to it all. Our Russian-immigrant hero, Lenny Abramov, works for a company that is developing technology to make immortality a reality (but only for HNWIs -- High Net Worth Individuals), and is involved in a whole lot of other shady dealings as well. The story swings from Lenny's diary to the texts (now called "teens") of his new lady love (a much-younger daughter of Korean immigrants named Eunice Park). Shteyngart's imagination seems to know no bounds, and, thankfully, his vision of the dystopian future seems entirely original. And the book is about many things (consumerism! old world-new world! immigrant mentalities!) but mostly about the real biggies: love, loss, and, above all, mortality. But despite the big themes (and I love a book about love and death as much as the next anhedonic Jew) somehow it didn't all come to life -- I just didn't care if Lenny lived forever or if he and Eunice and her adorable freckles made it work or even if New York City fell apart in the "Rupture" that finally brings America to her knees. It was all too much sizzle and not enough steak.

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