Where's the book?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Did it!

I said that I would do it and indeed I did. 

Says Henry Higgens and me.

Of course, he created a lady. I just read 52 books. Plus one extra for good measure. And there are still two days left. Who knows what I can do if I hurry (and do nothing else for 48 hours).

#52 Three Wishes, by Liane Moriarty

Another accomplishment this year -- I've read the complete oeuvre of Liane Moriarty, Australia's hot chick lit author. It's good chick lit (she protests), well written, often insightful, with interesting characters and compelling narratives that keep you turning pages. Her more recent books are much better than her earlier ones; you can actually see her learning from book to book. This is one of the earlier books, so it feels thinner than the later ones like Big Little Lies and The Husband's Secret (still my favorite). It's the story of three sisters, triplets in fact, who are celebrating their 33rd birthday against a rather tumultuous background. They fight, they suffer, they make up, they meet men, they lose men... the usual stuff. It's good entertainment, but not nearly as good as her later novels.

#53 Offcomer, by Jo Baker
I picked this up because I liked her latest, Longbourn, so much. This book was published here because of Longbourn's success, and it doesn't do Baker's reputation any good.
Offcomer is Baker's first novel, and it is also the Lancashire dialect's word for "newcomer." It's a slim story of a young woman who is lost in the world, caught in a sad, empty relationship with a pompous academic, nearly friendless, living in a strange city, working a dead-end job. To say that Claire suffers from low self-esteem would be putting it mildly. She cuts herself, bites her lips, pulls at her cuticles until they bleed, describes herself as ugly...she is so unkind to herself you want to call the cops to come take her away for cruelty.
The back-cover blurb says that it's set against the "backdrop of The Troubles in Northern Ireland." But there is literally not one mention of those Troubles. It also says she is "stunned by the recent emergence of secrets from her mother's past." The secrets are fairly lame, and in fact I had a hard time seeing why they were of any importance at all. It also says the book is "an honest and affecting work of real and quiet power." No way. It's rather dull and very depressing. There's a sense of repetition that becomes drone-like: "Claire knew she was a freak. She'd been born and grown up and lived her life so far without a skin. There didn't seem to be a line where she stopped and everything else began. Her surface was smudged and pulpy, too permeable." We get it. We get it.
Or check this out for unvarying sentence structure: "She heaved herself up off the bed, bent down again, slid her hand under a heap of clothes and crushed them up against her chest. She walked stiffly over to the chest of drawers. She opened each drawer in turn, then closed each of them again. Every one of them was full. Slowly, she turned to the wardrobe...She looked back across the room at the dark open mouth of her rucksack...She pushed the rucksack back into the corner. She picked up her mug..." I think I missed something because I was lulled to sleep.
Repetition can sometimes be powerful, it can build, it can ratchet up tension and emotion. In this case it's more like endless reportage. She did this, she did that, she did that again. Someone wake me up, please.
The book, like Claire, starts to seem trite. It feels like the same growing up all of us do, the same insecurities we conquer, the same low self worth we battle. Nothing pulls it out of the ordinary or makes it worth reading. Thank goodness Baker's talents grew.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The next-to-the-last-one four

I think I might actually make it. 52 books in 52 weeks. I’m on the last one now, and it’s a quickie (you’ll see why shortly). I might even get a head start on 2015, although I don’t think I’ll be trying for a book a week again (more about that later). In the meantime, before the grand finale, here’s a quick rundown of the latest:

#48 My Brilliant Friend, by Elana Ferrante
There’s been a lot of fuss about this book, the first in Ferrante’s Neopolitan trilogy. Critics love the books, which all came out in the US in the last couple of years. Part of the fascination is Ferrante’s anonymity. She uses a pen name, doesn’t give interviews, doesn’t promote her books. There is even some speculation that she’s not a she. The press just eats that up. But the book itself, for me, was not especially gripping. I found the stories of growing up in Naples in the 1950s – still  desperate postwar years in southern Italy – very interesting. But her writing style feels monochromatic, rhythmically bland, and the cast of characters is vast, too vast for me to connect with. She doesn’t give as much flavor or texture to her characters as she does to their living situations, and since I primarily read for interesting character, I found myself not caring a great deal about what happened. I don’t think I will read the second two books in the trilogy, but we’ll see. It’s hard to let go of the story of these two women’s lives when it’s ended so early. I might need to see how things turn out.

#49 The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald
Speaking of fuss, Penelope Fitzgerald, an author I never heard of until the last month, has been everywhere lately, even though she died in 2000. In fact, if you type the letters “p-e-n” into Google, she’s the first thing to come up – she's even ahead of Penelope Cruz! That’s some level of fame. It’s mostly due to the new autobiography by Hermione Lee that came out a couple of months ago and received all sorts of plaudits. But there also seems to be a resurgence of respect for an author who didn’t publish her first book until she was nearly 60 and then wrote one acclaimed book after another until she died at the age of 83. The Blue Flower is the fictionalized story of the poet Novalis, set in eighteenth-century Germany, and his love for Sophie, a twelve-year-old girl. He not only adores a child, she's a particularly dull, unattractive little girl. I didn’t find the delight in the story that so many readers and critics have; for me, it was as dull and unappealing as Sophie herself. I don’t think I’ll be visiting more of Ms. Fitzgerald’s work.

#50 The Last Anniversary, by Liane Moriarty
I guess that in addition to vowing to read a book a week, I should have also vowed to read the entire oeuvre of Australia’s Moriarty. Her books are perfect palate-cleansers after something more twisty and dense. This one centers on a long-ago mystery (a particularly easy one to unravel -- if I can solve it, you know it's easy) on a small island off of Sydney, and the family living there. It’s not as much fun as some of her others, but perfectly pleasant, like a nice light salad in between more elaborate feasts. 

#51 The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
Apparently another vow I made this year, unbeknownst to myself, was to re-read the complete works of J.D. Salinger. It was a bit of a rollercoaster ride. Loved some (Franny and Zooey!), liked a few, not crazy about some, bored to tears by one (Seymour, an Introduction). Catcher in the Rye generated a middling response. I can certainly see why it was a groundbreaking novel. And I can also see why I loved it so when I first read it in high school. I remember feeling that Holden spoke for me – all that angst, all that anger, all that disaffection. But reading it again fortysomething years later generates a different reaction. Salinger brilliantly captures the tortured mind of an intelligent adolescent. But it’s so damn hard to hang out in the mind of that adolescent, who is, in addition to being intelligent, insufferable. Holden is me at 16. And maybe I just found out that, at 16, I was a prick. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Too busy to write, but not to read

Birthdays, Thanksgiving, celebrations…all of it getting in the way of reading, not to say writing about reading. It’s going to be a real nail-biter to see if I can fulfill my vow of reading a book a week for 2014. Remind me not to do this again. It’s made me look at books completely differently. I weigh them first. Check out the font size. Look at the number of pages. Can I spare the time for a Trollope? Shouldn’t I do another Liane Moriarty? For the most part I’ve read what I wanted to read without regard for length and girth. But I have avoided a biography of Caravaggio that I picked up a while back because it’s 600 densely written pages. Same for another Dickens I’ve had sitting on the bedside table. Next year: War and Peace. And Dickens. And Trollope. Always more Trollope.

So, in the interest of squeezing more reading into the little time I have left, here are my two-sentence reviews of the last six books to date:

#42 The Hypnotist’s Love Story by Liane Moriarty. Yes, another Liane Moriarty. Fun read, not as compelling as the others. She hadn’t quite gotten her groove on with this one.

#43 Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson. Excellent read, similar to Life After Life in its playing with time, but more complex, many more characters, and therefore not as absorbing as her later book, and occasionally even confusing. She may just have bitten off a bit more than she could chew.

#44 We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas. A really old-fashioned, wonderful first novel. The story of one woman’s life, nothing remarkable or exceptional other than the amazing eye for detail and humanity. And many scenes in New York City and Bronxville, right next door to where I grew up made it fun. 

#45 Two novellas by Anton Chekhov: The Steppe and The Duel. Loved The Duel, particularly the debate between natural selection (promoted by the Germanic Von Koren) and the futility of life (embodied by Laevsky, a lazy, self-indulgent government employee). Didn’t much like The Steppe, a picaresque tale of a young boy traveling across, you guessed it, the Russian steppe.

#46 Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Wow! A literary post-apocalyptic novel, about what happens after a virus kills 99% of the world’s population, which I was reading the week Ebola came to New York City in the person of Dr. Craig Spencer. Talk about timely. And what an excellent read, a real look at how people survive, how the world goes on, and what it means to be human. I hope someone is making this into a movie.

#47 Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour an Introduction by J.D. Salinger. Two more stories in the Glass family saga. Carpenters is Buddy writing about Seymour’s wedding, and it’s wonderful, like so many of his stories are wonderful. I want to say I loved Seymour just as much, because it’s a much more “difficult” story (and in fact, really isn’t a “story” at all) but I found it rough going.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Post-vacation catch-up #36-41

Been away on a wonderful visit to the old country (at least the old country I wish I had). Much catching up to do, so have to be brief:

#36 Time to count Herman Melville's duo. I finished Bartleby the Scrivener a few books back, but finally read Benito Cerino so can count the book as an entry. Loved Bartleby and want to read it again already. Such a spell it casts! But stories of the sea generally leave me cold, and Benito was not an exception. Half a great book -- does that mean 5 stars for half or half of five stars?

#37 When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson. Another of her Jackson Brodie mysteries, although Brodie at times seem almost an incidental character. Lots of story lines, lots of different voices, all of them well defined. But maybe too many different characters to really grab my interest? Not sure, but I wasn't gripped, although I wanted to be.

#38 What Maisie Knew by Henry James. To be honest, I bought the book because it was a charming little secondhand paperback with a cover illustration by Edward Gorey. And it looked like a relatively short, relatively digestible James, more along the lines of Washington Square (love) than The Golden Bowl (huh?). It turned out to be longer than it looked, and required slow, careful reading to pull apart the thickets of James's many-claused sentences. It tells a fairly small story -- a period (of unclear length) in the life of a young girl (of unclear age) whose divorced parents use and abuse her as a weapon in their battle. She observes their intrigues and involvements with each other and subsequent stepparents and lovers with a keen eye that is above moral judgements, because she has not learned morality, at least conventional morality. A challenging book to get through, but satisfying.

#39 What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty. Put this and the prior book together and maybe what Maisie knew is what Alice forgot. Or vice versa. Another fun read from the bestselling author of The Husband's Secret. Read it on the plane going to Paris and if a book can keep you turning pages on a crowded, uncomfortable plane, it must be good. Moriarty is chick lit at its highest form, or maybe calling it chick lit is an insult. She's a skilled writer who creates fascinating, believable characters, and compelling, unusual situations. These are the kind of books that keep you up late turning pages and -- bonus -- you don't feel dirty afterwards. In this one, a 39-year-old woman hits her head falling off her bike in spin class and wakes up without any memory of the last ten years -- years in which she had three children, her marriage ended, and she went from being a gentle childlike naif to a uber-competent soccer mom. Now wouldn't you want to see how that story evolves?

#40 Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. I liked Alice so much, I picked up Moriarty's current bestseller. If she were writing less grabby storylines, she would be considered literary fiction, or at least close. Her characters are believable, and her understanding of the motivations and urges of ordinary woman is precise and complex. In this one, three different women's stories are intertwined, and each is shadowed by lies from the past. I can't imagine another writer juggling story lines of abuse and rape without being cheesy, but she manages. She also deeply understands the less charming sides of women -- competitiveness, envy, jealousy -- without being cynical or bitchy. Couldn't put this one down either, and look forward to the next.

#41 Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami. I'd never read any Murakami before -- been put off by talk of magical realism and meta-fictional narrative. But this book was fascinating. The entire story -- of a 36-year-old man whose life was changed by the rejection of his closest friends when he was in college -- felt like a spell, like a dream. In fact, there were many times when I thought the entire book was going to be a dream, and Colorless Tsukuru would turn out to be a spirit. There are many mysteries in the story -- why his friends rejected him, what happened to them, why another friend also vanished from his life, and what's in the little bag that the pianist holds. But only some of the questions are answered, yet the book did not leave me unsatisfied. There's a lot to it, despite its simple, direct language. It's a book I already plan to read again.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Bits and pieces

 My reading has been odd lately. I read half of a novel, which was strange for me. It's pretty rare that I don't finish a book I start. But in this case, I read about two hundred pages of Eleanor Cattan's Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries and I was only a quarter of the way through the 850-page novel. Every page (and they were crowded pages, with small type and minimal margins, design decisions I'm sure were made in order not to have to print a 1,000-page book) was like slogging through mud. I didn't care about the story (set in the 1860's New Zealand gold rush), or the characters, or her writing style. Finally, after realizing that after 200-something pages, I still wasn't sure what the book was about, I put it down. Sorry Ms. Catton. This is not a book for me.

But, since I did read at least 200 pages, I'm counting it as #33. Because it took so much time, and because I really did try again and again. And because I'm not going to count the two Italian easy reader murder mysteries that I read to keep my Italian going while class is not in session: Omicidio alla Moda (Murder in Style) and its sequel, Omicidio alla Passarella (Murder on the Runway). Despite being fairly simplistic (written for i stranieri--foreigners--at an advanced beginner or early intermediate level), they were both far more entertaining than those unilluminating Luminaries. 

#34 was a better choice, Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children. I had enjoyed her book, The Woman Upstairs, a while back. This one has a similar appeal. There's something deceptive about Messud's writing, I've decided on the basis of these two books. Her style is simple, direct and detailed. Her characters, although often unlikable, are relatable (maybe that says something about me). The story moves along and holds your interest and then, bam! something comes out of left field and knocks you over the head. I like that element of surprise, and I like both books. This one was particularly appealing to me, being set in New York. It's the story of three young people of a certain amount of privilege, intelligence, and ability. They are friends, and their lives intertwine. And then there's a fourth, who lacks the gifts the other three often take for granted. He also weaves into and out of their worlds. The ending left me screaming (internally) but I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing.

For #35 I again revisited a writer I'd read recently. I had loved Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings a while back, and wanted to read more by her. And the concept of The Uncoupling interested me--a modern take on Aristophenes' classic play, Lysistrata, in which the women of Athens go on a sex strike until their men end the war against Sparta that has been going on for more than 20 years. But in Wolitzer's book, the strike isn't caused by a protest or an uprising. It's because of a magical spell. Magic is not one of my favorite themes--it always seems like a cheap way for an author to get characters to do something out of character, or to make an interesting story out of an uninteresting one. And this was no exception. The happily married people become less happy. The unhappy ones become even more unhappy. Stuff happens, none of it all that compelling. And then the spell ends. There are some wonderful observations and interesting moments, but overall The Uncoupling feels like Wolitzer learning her way around novel-writing. Stick with The Interestings if you want a walk down Wolitzer way. 

I also read Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville, but it was only one-half of a book of two long short stories (short novellas?) by Melville, so I'm not going to count it until I read the other half. And I will. Promise. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Passing the time...

After the heft of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, I needed something a bit more light – in weight if not in content. So I tripped lightly over to re-read some of my favorite Edith Wharton short stories in Roman Fever and Other Stories (#30). “Roman Fever” itself is one of my favorite short stories ever – marvelous characters created in just a few sentences, a beautiful setting, delicate yet powerful emotional value, and even a gasp of surprise at the ending. I don’t adore all the stories in the book as much as the title one, but they are all great reading.

I followed Edith up with a murder mystery for #31, Ruth Rendell’s A Guilty Thing Surprised. I don’t think I’ve ever read one of hers before, at least not in the last few years during which I’ve kept my book list. It had a great setting – a wealthy couple in their grand country home – and even though the book is set in 1970, it feels remarkably like an Agatha Christie manor house mystery. It’s well written, definitely a cut above many mysteries I’ve read, and Chief Inspector Wexford, her recurring hero, is a decent enough fellow to spend a murder investigation with. Not sure I’ll read too many more of hers, but maybe just one to say I’ve given her a real chance. 
#32 was a not-very-good Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. The story is fairly interesting, set in Seattle in 1986 with flashbacks to the main story set in the years of World War II. The main character is a middle-aged Chinese-American man who is looking back on his first love, a Japanese-American girl he met in school when he was 12, in 1942. She and her family are interned during the war, and learning some more about the Japanese internment was interesting. But Ford’s writing is pedestrian and his characters are not compelling. They walk through emotions like puppets, and repeat the same words and actions. Henry, our main character, is emotionally constipated, formal and constrained. Keiko, his love, has almost no personality, just a collection of traits. Henry and his grown son Marty have the same stiff, formal relationship that Henry had with his own – surprise – distant father. It’s all pretty predictable and pretty dull, but easy enough to read. I wouldn’t pick up anything else by this author, though. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

So long, Anthony, so long

#29 definitely took longer than any book I've read for a while. I've been keeping fairly successfully to my book-a-week schedule, with the occasional one taking slightly less and the less occasional one taking slightly more. But book #29, The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope, was a monster, a massive, heavy, 825-page, 100-chaptered, tiny-type killer of a book. Fortunately it was also wonderfully entertaining, so I don't regret getting slightly off schedule because of it.

If you overlook the Victorian language and references, The Way We Live Now could have been published this year. It's the Victorian version of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, which in itself refers back to the serialized satirical novels of the Victorian era. (Round and round and round we go.) The book is a story of financial scandals, Madoff-like frauds, greedy society swells and social climbers, amid a general atmosphere of scandal, dishonesty, and moral decline. See what I mean about it being published yesterday?

Trollope wanted to make a moral point by satirizing what he saw as a society in moral ruin. He said, "If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners, and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel."

David Suchet as the great Augustus Melmotte
There are multiple plots and sub-plots, and while much of the action revolves around the great financial wizard Augustus Melmotte, the man himself doesn't make much of an appearance until the final third of the book. Melmotte has a shady background (he might be--horrors!--a Jew), lax moral behavior, and a very modern way of doing business. He invests in an American railway concern without actually putting any money into it, then sells the shares that increase rapidly in value simply because the great Melmotte has invested in it. He buys an elegant London home from a desperate and nearly penniless Lord, takes title, then turns around and mortgages it for more money than its worth. He's a powerful character, compellingly ugly and low. Unfortunately for Trollope, but lucky for the reader, it's a low characters in the book who are far more interesting. The moral points of view belong to only a few, and they are a rather dull bunch. I found Melmotte's daughter Marie, who he is assiduously trying to marry off to a future Marquis, a wonderful character. She goes from being in love with a simpleton, just because he's pretty, to standing her ground against her strong-willed, abusive father, and marrying finally, the man she chooses.

Trollope apparently agreed about his immoral characters being of greater appeal to the reader. "The interest of the story," he once wrote, "lies among the wicked and foolish people."

Melmotte is a low scoundrel, but he's an entertaining, vivid, low scoundrel. He's a man with juice, and I'd rather read a story about a juicy low scoundrel than a dull and proper man of morals.

I'm looking forward to watching the 2001 BBC mini-series made of the novel, with a great cast (David Suchet, Cillian Murphy, Matthew Macfayden (Mr. Darcy!), and Miranda Otto, among many others).

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Writing Process Blog Tour Q&A

Jackie Clark Mancuso, the uber-talented author and illustrator of Paris-Chien, Adventures of an Expat Dog and the upcoming Hudson’s French Vacation: Paris-Chien in Provence invited me to join the Writing Process Blog Tour. It’s my turn this week, next week you can check out another mega-talented friend and author Amy Kathleen Ryan (the Sky Chasers trilogy—Glow, Spark, and Flame—as well as Vibes, Zen and Xander Undone, and other books), on her blog, amykathleenryan.blogspot.com.

Since I’m still reading book #29 (it’s 800 pages, thank you very much, and I’ve had a lot of company lately) (thank goodness I built in some extra days), I’m glad to have something to write about in between booking and cooking posts. Stay tuned for the recipe for the super-simple and super-delicious clams with escarole and bacon that I made a couple of nights ago. And another book soon, I promise.

What am I currently working on?
I think it’s a jinx to talk about anything I’m working on, so I won’t be specific. Also, since it took me 10 years to get my first book written and published, I’ve got a rather loose definition of “upcoming.” Suffice it to say that I write occasional poetry (which no one but me reads), blog posts, and I’m working on a novel loosely based on real life.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Jessica Lost, my memoir, differs greatly from most of its genre because it is two stories, intertwined, by two authors. Written in alternating chapters by my birth mother and me, the book tells her story of how she found herself at 20, alone and frightened, pregnant with a baby she could not keep. It also tells my story of finding her four decades later, and what it meant to both of us to lose and then regain these missing pieces of ourselves.

Why do I write what I write?
I have to give an answer appropriate to a blog about books. I write what I write for the same reason I read what I read: to understand the world and learn how to live in it better. I choose books based mainly on strong, compelling, well-crafted characters, and that is what I hope to write. I also like to be moved—to laughter, tears, anger, any emotion, really—and look for vivid emotions in books I read and books I write.

How does my writing process work?
Slowly. There are always so many better, more interesting things to do, like reading, or Candy Crush, or washing my hair. I struggle with narrative, with character development, and with endings. Beginnings are easy, middles somewhat less so. But endings…endings are misery. I try to write every day, even if just a diary entry, but I don’t always achieve it. The world calls…I must answer. 

Remember to visit Amy's website next week for her responses to the questions at amykathleenryan.blogspot.com. And check out her terrifically entertaining books. 

The Sky Chasers trilogy by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again…

That’s one of the most famous opening lines in all of literature, the first sentence of book #28, Rebecca, by British author Daphne du Maurier. In fact, that great opening line (so rhythmic, so melodious, so pull-you-in creepy) is on this website’s list of the top 20 opening lines in literature, sandwiched between The Hobbit and 1984. But Rebecca is so much more than just an opening line. It’s deep and mysterious, dark and passionate, a tale of secrets and hauntings. The rich, handsome, and haunted estate of Manderley is as much a character as its owner, the rich, handsome, and haunted Maximillian de Winter. Manderley is filled with the ghost of its former mistress, the perfectly elegant, accomplished, stunningly beautiful Rebecca, a woman beloved by all, admired by all. She’s dead, but her spirit lives on in the house, its beautiful grounds, and, most of all, the memory of the hostile, evil housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. The unnamed second wife, the narrator of the tale, walks timidly into this dark, twisted world, and we walk with her, the tension building as we compulsively turn the pages. I’ve seen the movie many times (Hitchcock did a terrific job translating the spirit of the book into celluloid) but even though I knew every reveal, every surprise, and the ending, I couldn’t put the book down. What a story, what a writer. Read the book, see the movie.

Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier in Rebecca

Judith Anderson as the creepy Mrs. Danvers

Monday, June 30, 2014

What is more important than Truth and Beauty, #27?

Lucy Grealy was a poet, essayist, and memoirist who had lost part of her jaw to childhood cancer and suffered through years of chemo, radiation, and failed reconstructive surgeries. Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and other novels, was Lucy’s best friend. This beautiful book covers the 20 years of their friendship, their fame, and their pains, loves, and losses. Grealy was not an easy friend; filled with joy and life at times, at other times overwhelmingly needy and demanding. Even if Patchett only did half of the things for Grealy she claims, even if she only gave half of the love and the loyalty she writes about, she was still one of the most giving, loving, and loyal friends ever. I was moved to tears and also cries of frustration at times, and the book made me question the extent I am willing to sacrifice for a friend. It made me want to be friends with Ann Patchett (which I already wanted to be because she owns a bookstore in Nashville, where she lives!) and it also made me want to read Grealy’s memoir, Autobiography of a Face.

Friday, June 27, 2014

An American Classic: Crossing to Safety, #26


Beautifully crafted, wise and moving, Crossing to Safety is a book for grown-ups. It’s the story of four lives, two couples, following them from their twenties as beginning academics in the depression through 40 years of trials and joys. And despite covering forty years and moving from Wisconsin to Vermont to Italy and back again, the entire book actually takes place in just one day. Wallace Stegner wrote Crossing to Safety late in his career and it is a quiet, compassionate, powerful look at friendship, marriage, youthful optimism and hard-won wisdom.

“How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these?” the narrator Larry Morgan asks. You make it just like this.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Keeping up, catching up

A somwhat unexciting threesome:

#23 How to Be Good, by Nick Hornby. I enjoy Hornby's writing, especially About a Boy (like the movie too) and High Fidelity (ditto), but this one lacked his usual charm. Perhaps he isn't as comfortable in the skin of a woman, particularly this very unlikable woman. Katie Carr, the narrator, is a family doctor, a profession she seems to think warrants her immediate promotion to sainthood. She is a "good person," as she tells us over and over, as if palpating tummies and checking for ear infections makes her Mother Teresa. Her husband David is a professional crank, who works (quite minimally) as the writer of a column in their local paper. In his column, "The Angriest Man in Holloway," and in their daily life, he carps and complains about everything that's wrong with their lives, their town, and their world. Katie is desperate for David to be nicer, happier, less impossible to live with. She's pretty cranky and miserable herself, which she blames on him. But when he undergoes an almost magical conversion into a kinder, gentler person, she is even more miserable, complaining and criticizing constantly. Is it because if David is the good guy in their marriage, she becomes the bad guy? Is it because she's impossible to satisfy, no matter how David behaves? Those questions go pretty much unexplored, as do so many things in the book -- questions aren't answered, characters flit in and out, people behave in absurd ways and their behaviors are never explained. It's a cool premise, but an unsatisfying book, and the writing often feels thin and rushed. I wish that the really good writer of About a Boy would step in and do a better version of this story. Where did he go?

#24 Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers. Seems like re-reading books I once loved is a theme lately -- and it's doesn't always pan out (see here). But I was in the mood for a good old-fashioned British mystery, something with a little more heft than an Agatha Christie, but a little less sturm und drang than a current Elizabeth George. So I picked up the first of the Lord Peter Whimsy mysteries by Dorothy Sayers. I had read the entire series years ago, long enough that I don't really remember much about any of them, except that I thoroughly enjoyed them. And, wonderfully, this book didn't disappoint. Lord Peter was just as I remembered him: charming, urbane, flippant with a tragic dark side. And his wonderful manservant Bunter was also just as loyal, intelligent, and crafty as I remembered. And I had completely forgotten the solution to the mystery, which made it all the more fun. Book number two in the series, Clouds of Witness, will be coming soon. Good beach read, I think.

#25 Lady Susan, by Jane Austen. I think I've run out of good Jane Austen stuff. I've read all her books a zillion times. I've seen the movies so many times that I can recite Keira Knightley's or Emma Thompson's lines along with them. And I've even read books about the books (see here and here). I can't bear the thought of reading her unfinished works, The Watsons and Sandition, which feels like it would be so unsatisfying. So I finally turned to Lady Susan, her short, early epistolary novel, and the only complete Austen work I hadn't sampled. While as much (or nearly as much) of a pleasure as all of Jane's work, it seems obvious that this is an early attempt, particularly in the abrupt conclusion, that steps in when the letters seem to become too complicated for the youthful author to continue, and ties all the little plot strands up in a neat bow. But while they continue, the letters are a pleasure to read, particularly the ones from the Lady herself, who is a heartless, compassionless adventuress. She is cruel to her daughter, first ignoring her, then forcing her to marry a man she does not care for. She is cruel to her "friends," stealing a husband from one, enticing another's foolish brother to fall in love with her against his family's wishes and his own good judgement. Her letters are divinely nasty; here's a sample from one to her friend Alicia, bemoaning her disappointment that because of Alicia's husband's illness, Lady Susan will not be able to come stay with her in town: "My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a Man of his age -- just old enough to be formal, ungovernable and to have the Gout -- too old to be agreeable, and too young to die." How's that for heartless? It's a short, light, fun read, but really only for Janeites who need to complete their collections.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Moules, marvelous moules

It's been such a long time since I posted a recipe, and for that I apologize to my hungry army of followers. All eight of you. But this recipe is worth the wait, I promise. It's easy, cheap, delicious, impressive, and, just for emphasis...really yummy.

There are lots of easy ways to make mussels. They don't need much more than some garlic and white wine and a sprinkling of fresh parsley. But this recipe requires only a teensy bit more effort, and is worth those three or four additional minutes, especially if you like the bright, tongue-tickling flavors of Thai cuisine.

You start by adoring mussels. Go get yourself some plump pretty coral ones (local, if possible, but please not farm-raised) and just do this:

Coconut Curry Mussels

Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as an appetizer

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 stalks lemongrass, dry parts removed

3 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger

1 can (13.5 ounces) unsweetened coconut milk
 (not cream, and not skim)
3 tablespoons red or green Thai curry paste
 (I prefer red)
3 pounds mussels, rinsed (discard open or cracked mussels and any beards you find)

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (about 2 limes)

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

  1. In a large pot with a lid, melt the butter over medium high heat. Pound the lemongrass with the back of the knife to bruise it, cut it into 1-inch pieces. Add the lemongrass, along with the garlic and ginger, to the pot, and cook until fragrant, 1 minute. 
  2. Whisk in coconut milk and curry paste, stir to combine, and bring to a simmer over high heat.
  3. Add the mussels, stir to combine, cover, and reduce heat to medium-high. Cook until mussels open, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the lime juice and cilantro. 
  4. Serve in bowls, along with lots of country bread or baguette (there will be much dipping). 

Be sure to discard any mussels that don't open or that open slightly but refuse to budge any more without a lot of force. Accompanied by a salad and crisp white wine, this is the perfect simple summer supper. The broth is so delicious, you definitely will need to serve it with spoons so you can slurp up every last drop. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Maybe she's a good lawyer

The author of #22, A Book of Salt, Monica Truong, is a lawyer specializing in intellectual property. I hope she hasn't given up her day job.

The Book of Salt is a slog. A dreary, overwritten, underplotted slog through the "adventures" (which mainly consist of remembering his unfortunate past) of the cook employed in the 1930s in the Parisian household of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Finding out the "B" in Alice B. Toklas stands for "Babette" may be the most interesting thing in the book.

Binh, the cook, who narrates the tale, has a tendency to apply a minimum of three adjectives to every noun. He applies cutesy names to the other characters (I think it's meant to be poetic), like his lover, Sweet Sunday Man. And then he repeats the name endlessly, so half of the paragraph is really just his lover's three word name over and over again. The writing is dense and opaque, to the point where I had no idea what the narrator was talking about, even when he's describing something as simple as making an omelet. Some of it is so pretentious, so absurdly overwrought, that it made me burst out laughing. One of my favorites, a description of Toklas's arrival at Stein's door in Paris: "Why ask whether there were other hearts fluttering, racing, at 27 Rue de Fleurus before she walked through the door, before she slid through the vivid red, the scarlet-curtained walls of her second birth canal?"

Gertrude and Alice
Her second birth canal? Oy.

Or this: "The empty clotheslines of her lips." Or: "Skin the color of slowly pouring cream." Or: "Hair the color of properly brewed tea." And those are all from just one paragraph!

There are no interesting peeks into either Stein or Toklas's lives and characters, or any mention of the other artists and writers who frequented their famous Parisian salon. There's not much of a portrait of Vietnam (which is why I read the book in the first place) or even Paris. It's so hard to glimpse anything through the "slowly pouring cream" of the language that the main thing the book left me thinking about, was why I read the whole darn thing in the first place.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Mysterious disappointments

I'm a very picky mystery reader. I loved Elizabeth George's Inspector Linley series, until she completely lost it -- really, the woman's writing ability fell off a cliff somewhere. I like, although a little less with every new book, Deborah Crombie's Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series. I loved all of Ngaoi Marsh and Dorothy Sayers (Lord Peter!). Is there a theme here? Is the Pope Catholic? Mystery + a charming, sardonic, pretending-to-not-care detective + a tough, smart, superficially-disinterested-but really-madly-in-love-romantic interest = bingo! I like the mystery to be just as much about will-they-won't-they as it is about will-he-solve-the-crime.

The interesting locales, like Venice or Sicily or the backwoods (backfjiords?) of Norway don't really grab me. Put it in England, please. Preferably London, please. Country houses are nice, especially if there's a rose garden and a nearby Vicar. (This is so making me want to go and re-read Sayers, start to finish).

But I keep trying. This week's attempt to find a new mystery writer was another look at Kate Atkinson, whose Life After Life was so wonderful. But Case Histories (#21) was just middling, the kind of book that's interesting enough while you're reading it, but almost instantly forgettable, as if the words and lines just slid right off the page and out of your brain. Case Histories is the first in Atkinson's series of four (to date) Jackson Brodie mysteries, all of which have been adapted by the BBC starring Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy!) as Brodie.

Lucius Malfoy as Jackson Brodie?
Brodie's an interesting but somewhat unformed character. There are assumptions made in his personality that made the book feel more like the third or fourth in an established series, where there could be some shorthand in his characterization, than in the book that introduces him. There are three (three!) mysteries -- case histories -- being investigated, one the disappearance of a little girl from her backyard, one the murder of a young husband by his wife, and one the seemingly random murder of a young woman at her father's law office. The book moves back and forth in time, roams from place to place, and incorporates a large cast of characters. It isn't confusing, it more has the effect of watercolors, a canvas thinly covered. Atkinson, as she does in Life After Life, has an amazing ability to get a lot across very economically, like a good short story writer. But there are too many balls in the air here, and there's a sense that she's stretched herself too far.

I enjoyed reading it just enough to maybe give book number two in the series a shot. But I think I'll go find my old Ngaoi Marsh first.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Sometimes it's not good to revisit the past

Although re-reading In Cold Blood after perhaps 40 or so years was a wonderful experience, and restored my faith in my memories of much-loved books (and thank you, too, Franny and Zooey), sometimes it's better to leave good memories alone. Who said you can't go home again? Oh, yeah, this dude. I'm embarrassed to admit I've never read any of his work. Onto the list he goes.

But sometimes you really shouldn't revisit the past. Leave a good memory alone and it stays a good memory. But how do you know that until it's too late and you've re-visited a book you once loved and found out it's just...okay. Or, even worse, kinda lame. I don't think you can know, so watch out Hesse and Vonnegut and Fowles and Wouk and all the other writers I loved in my youth: I'm coming your way again. I'm choosing optimism -- the books I loved then, I will love now. I hope.

However, that doesn't change the fact that there will be bumps along the way. And this week's choice was exactly that: a rather slow, creaky, not very unexciting bump.

When I first read Time and Again (#20), back in the '70s, I loved it. New York in the 1880s is my favorite time and place, and the book let me vicariously travel back to 1882 along with the time-traveling hero Simon Morley. I thought it terrifically captured the time I was living in, as well as the time I longed to visit.

The Dakota in its early years
But reading the book now... it all just felt clumsy. Visiting 1970 -- the present-day setting of the book -- already felt like time traveling before Simon took his time-traveling journey. The language, the images, the attitudes towards African-Americans and women, all felt so dated. It almost made me laugh, when it wasn't making me appreciate how far we've come. The women are all secretaries, in stockings and heels, who are described as attractive or not. Even in 1970, was it appropriate for a boss to swipe his secretary on the "rump"? Maybe I've forgotten. And there are no people of color, except for the scary groups of young Negros that Simon crosses the street to avoid. And speaking of those streets, I found two geographical errors in just the first 50 pages. At one point, traveling east on the Upper West Side, he crosses Amsterdam, then Broadway, then stops for a light at Columbus. Which is, of course, geographically impossible, since Amsterdam is in between Broadway and Columbus.

A little later, he talks about how Central Park is exactly the same now as it was in 1882, even going into detail about it. But anyone familiar with Central Park history knows that what is now the Great Lawn, a giant oval of grass and baseball diamonds, was originally a reservoir. It remained that way until the early years of the 20th century, when it was filled in. But in 1882 it would have been a giant body of water. Not remotely the same! He also gets wrong the reason the famous Dakota apartment building (of Rosemary's Baby and John Lennon assassination fame) is called the Dakota, but I like that story (because it was so far north of the settlement of New York when it was constructed in the early 1880s that folks said it might as well have been in the Dakotas) better than the real story (the builder was fascinated by Western territories and liked the name), so I'm inclined to overlook that one. Perpetuating falsehoods that are cool is fine.

I could have gotten past all that if the book weren't, sin of all sins, boring. Not stupefyingly boring, not cant-read-another-word boring, but just somewhat boring. As in not very well written. Simon Morley is not a well drawn character, his emotions and affiliations seems to shift without much reason, and the book's action doesn't really get going until late in the tale. Once it does, it's fairly interesting. But it never rises to the heights that, for all these years, I held it in.

The arm and torch on display 1876-1892
One thing I did love unreservedly, was Simon stumbling across the forearm and torch of the Statue of Liberty, on view for all to see and enter (for just 50 cents), in Madison Square Park. The arm was displayed there as a fundraising effort, to obtain the costs necessary for constructing the pedestal of the Statue in New York Harbor. In the book, Simon climbs to the viewing balcony that circumnavigates the torch, and is able to see nearly all of the much smaller-scale New York from that perch. How wonderful to imagine a New York in which the height of just the Statue of Liberty's arm is the tallest thing in sight.

Time to re-read The Alienist, a much better visit to New York in the late 19th century. Or maybe not. Let sleeping books lie?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A masterpiece

I first read In Cold Blood (#19) a long time ago, perhaps in high school. Of course, I remembered the story well, having since seen the movie, the movies about Capote, etc. But in my hazy memory, the book was approximately 75% murder, 25% background and follow-up. Boy, was I wrong. Out of about 400 pages, there are perhaps 5 that describe the actual murder. And they don't come until about three-quarters of the way through the book. The rest is the lead-up to the murders (the first of four sections is called "The Last to See Them Alive"), the search for the killers, the arrest, the trial, and, fairly quickly, the five years until the murderers are executed.

There are no surprises, of course. We all know who did it, and we all know they hung for it. But the true surprise is how incredibly well-written and gripping the book is. How can there be a page-turner, when we already know
The killers: Dick Hickock and Perry Smith
the outcome? Capote manages to give us the details of this fairly mundane family -- the Clutters -- and these almost pathetic killers -- Dick and Perry -- and keep us glued to our seats in the process. All while he was pretty much inventing a new genre, the non-fiction novel.

The really interesting part of the book, to me, is how it's put together. The story is the story, and although Capote may have invented pieces here and there (and there's a heck of a lot of controversy about what was "true" and what wasn't), the tale is told as it happened. But the choices (what to convey in description and what in dialog, or monolog; whether or not to follow the action chronologically; what to put in and what to leave out) are fascinating. One example: The book begins on the day before the family is killed, and we follow them through every moment of their day, in tremendous detail. The story of their last hours is intercut with the story of Dick and Perry, and their plans for the murder, their purchases, even the food they eat. We follow both arcs right up until just before the moment they intersect -- as the killers are driving up the road to the lonely Clutter farmhouse. And then we skip ahead to the discovery of the bodies the next morning. Why? In a book that is almost steadily chronological, with background filled in throughout, why is such an important event -- THE important event -- off-screen?

Capote and Catpote
We don't find out exactly what happened that night for a long time. And when we do, it comes buried in a monolog of Perry's, after the two men are arrested in Las Vegas. Perry speaks for pages and pages, and tells us every detail of that infamous night. That is, until he gets to the actual murders, and then the omniscient narrator returns, and in one short paragraph, tells us how the Clutters died. And then we return to Perry's first-person narration.

Why? Why play with time and voice, which he does throughout the book? My personal theory: Capote identified with Perry, another broken child-man with a heartbreakingly awful childhood. And because Capote identified with him, and perhaps had even grown to care for him in the many years he worked on the book, he wanted to keep the story that would surely harden our hearts against Perry away from us. He didn't want to tell us the gruesome facts of the murder so early in the book. And he didn't want us to hear it from Perry himself. Better it come anonymously, where it might not cause us to condemn Perry so severely.

There are so many fascinating narrative choices. Capote famously had 8,000 pages of notes for the book, and how he whittled them into this compelling story might be an interesting tale in itself. But what we do have, in 350 un-put-down-able pages, makes for intense reading. In Cold Blood is the first of its kind. It's also the best.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Back to the Bennets.

There's only so often you can re-read Pride and Prejudice. Or other Austen masterpieces. And there are only so many books like this one, that talk about Jane and her works. But I finally got to read Jo Baker's Longbourn (#18), which I've been meaning to do since it came out last year, and it was wonderful.

Longbourn is, of course, the Bennet home in Pride and Prejudice. And Longbourn is the "downstairs" view of that home, the story of the servants: Mrs. Hill, the redoubtable housekeeper, her withering husband, the bold and intelligent housemaid Sarah, and the very young housemaid Polly. And of course, the mysterious footman James, who enters and upends their lives. 

It's also fascinating to read about what goes into running a home like Longbourn, a relatively small domicile (and there's a visit to Pemberly, Mr. Darcy's estate, so we clearly see the difference). Just doing the washing of all the undergarments used in a household of six women was a nearly overwhelming task. Keeping the clothing clean and the food cooked was a massive job, and Baker clearly did massive amounts of research to get it all right. But the research doesn't show, the story and characters reign. 

If you know the story of Pride and Prejudice, it enriches and deepens the book, since you will understand, and appreciate, all the references to what is happening upstairs. But Longbourn is its own tale, and it's a beautifully written, thoroughly entertaining one. There are appearances by all the beloved Bennets, a brief moment or two of Mr. Darcy, and some longer scenes involving Mr. Wickham. But the story belongs, mainly, to Sarah, and it's a very good story indeed. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Actually on track

Although I doubt I can keep it up, I am actually on track with the book-a-week schedule. Of course, it probably helps that work is slow and I'm not doing all the other things I really should (exercise, socialize, leave the house). Exaggerating slightly, but I do spend a lot of time sitting down, which I am told, repeatedly and endlessly -- why has the media become so obsessed lately with how much we sit? is it some kind of anti-chair lobby? -- is bad for me. But sitting is just so much fun! And all the things I really like to do (except cooking) involve sitting. It's hard to read a book standing up. Or go to the theater. Or watch Game of Thrones (although I do bounce around a lot for that -- it's hard to sit still when someone is having their head lopped off).

I digress. As I said back there somewhere, I am actually on track. It's the sixteenth week of the year and I have just completed book number 17 (giving myself a little bumper for future longer reads). Drumroll please, here are the two latest:

#16 Zoli by Colum McCann. After reading Let the Great World Spin last year, and loving it beyond measure, and then going to hear him read (charmingly) as part of the launch of this Esquire book, which he edited, I was determined to read more of Mr. McCann. But this book disappointed. It's the story of a Romani (Gypsy) woman, spanning most of the 20th century and told in several voices. But none of the voices felt compelling, and although it was interesting to learn about a world and a people that are completely unfamiliar to me, the writing felt somehow both dense and thin -- hard to get through and unrewarding at the same time. But I will not abandon McCann. More of his work is in my future reading plans.

#17 The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. A completely different reading experience. This book was very compelling, despite being a relatively simple story. The narrator is in her late thirties, an elementary school teacher, living a
mundane, somewhat sad, existence. But underneath it all she is surging with emotion and desperate to hide her anger, her jealousy, and her desperation. As a young woman, she wanted to be an artist, and dreamed of a life fame and artistic creativity. Now she lives in the town she grew up in, tends to her elderly father and aunt, and teaches third grade. The story focuses on her newfound friendship with a family that moves to town. She falls in love with all of them -- the artist mother, academic father, even the sweet child. They are the artists, the travelers, the intellectuals, the family she wants for herself. The writing has you sitting on the edge of your seat -- you know something dreadful is going to happen, but you can't imagine what direction it's going to come from. Messud captures the envy women have for other women, the sense of betrayal when our needs are not met, and the feeling of dreams that have been swallowed, denied, or simply ignored. It's a powerful and intelligent book.