Where's the book?

Monday, December 28, 2015

#41 (and maybe final)

This could be the last book of the year, unless I hurry up and finish the one I'm into now (more about it later) by Friday. But this one was so big, in every way, that I'd be happy to say it was the last of 2015.

The title, A Little Life, is clearly ironic. The lives rendered here, of four college friends, who remain in each other's lives for the many years the novel covers, are grand. They all become famous, they have gobs of money, famous trips, stunning homes. But nothing is ever played to impress, and despite their good fortune in so many ways, we are never jealous of this foursome. Life has played too hard and fast with them, particularly the character at the center of the story: Jude.

Jude is a mystery. We know nothing of his origins because he knows nothing of them. Abandoned as a newborn, his upbringing borders on fantastical; the level and multitudes of cruelties and abuses are hard to believe, and harder to read about. They leave him a broken man. What sustains him, as much as he can be sustained, are his friends.

It's a strange book, hypnotic, suspended somewhere outside of time. The four men meet at an unnamed college in New England. There is no date given, and very few signifiers of where we are in time. It feels like a perpetual, vague now. There are cell phones, and computers, but no details of the world--no politics, no wars, no 9-11. Time passes, but the things that mark the passage of time in a book of this scope--marriages, children--don't happen. None of the four main characters has a child, and there is not one scene with a child in the book, other than the flashbacks to the main character's childhoods. Once I realized this vagueness was deliberate, I stopped thinking about it, and lost myself in the beauty of Yanagihara's writing. It felt like being immersed in a dream, or a nightmare.

The book raises interesting, big questions, in interesting ways. There are no easy answers. In most books about someone with a tragic childhood there is redemption, there is change. Wounds are healed, lessons are learned. But that doesn't happen in A Little Life (and probably doesn't happen much in real life, either).

I read more than half the book (and at 736 pages, half this book is more than most other books whole) with tears in my eyes. It is deeply sad, but not hard to read. I'm not sure how Yanagihara pulls it off, but she does. It is a moving, tragic, beautiful, compelling read.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

#40: A confession

I feel so guilty. I'm not gonna do it.

I made a vow at the beginning of the year that in 2015 I would read two big books that I've been vowing to read for ages and ages:War and Peace and The Power Broker. But life got in the way.

I was all set to go for the summer. Had my books, the latest W&P translation, and a paperback copy of TPB (because in hard cover it weighs more than that cute guilty puppy over there). Had a quiet summer planned, not much work (not necessarily a good thing), and a comfortable hammock.

And then life got in the way. Work came rolling along, requiring massive hours glued to a computer. Company arrived, then more company arrived.

The work lasted into the fall, nearly until Thanksgiving. And then there was actually Thanksgiving! And after the holiday cleanup and goodbyes, this book came my way from the library:

City on Fire, by Garth Risk Hallberg, all 944 pages of it. How could I say no? It's one of the year's most talked-about novels, certainly the biggest debut novel of the year (maybe literally the biggest debut novel of all time?). And the library was offering it to me for two solid weeks. 

I said yes. And that used up my time until yesterday, when I finished it and brought it back. Which leaves me with 25 days left until the end of the year, which would, maybe, be enough to read one of those two giant tomes, but the library has done it to me again, with this doorstop, 720 pages long:

It's due back on the 18th, at while point I will have 13 days in which to read those two I promised to take on this year. Can I even do one of them? With Christmas Eve, Christmas, the birthday of the figlio minore, company, feasts to prepare, presents to wrap, cards to address, etc etc etc? Stay tuned and find out.

In the meantime, what did I think of the 944-page debut novel? Mixed, sadly. I love a big fat juicy book more than anything, and I also love books set in New York, especially the 1970s. And Hallberg does a great job of recreating that dark time, particularly impressive because he wasn't even alive then. He totally gets that shadowy decade, and what it meant to be young then -- the combination of electricity and optimism and scary end-days futility.

But the book has more than enough -- too much, in fact -- of everything. Too many characters, too much plot, too many story lines. It goes from being plenty to being too much somewhere around page 500, and when a new character gets introduced around page 700, I felt kind of like I felt after Thanksgiving dinner -- this is all really good but there's way too much of it.

The book centers around a mystery and unfortunately, the solution to the mystery lands incidentally, like a big who-cares, since there's been way too much information to absorb along the way. Most of the characters are well developed, although, like Dickens, to whom Hallberg has inevitably been compared, there's much more invested in plot than character. There is little warmth -- in the characters, the settings, the stories -- and absolutely no humor. This is a SERIOUS book. He's a skilled writer, perhaps a brilliant writer, but if I don't care -- if I can't wait to pick it up again and instead pick up a three-months-old issue of Vanity Fair -- then there's something very wrong, and 900 pages becomes a long, slow slog.

His writing is wonderful, but with better editing this could have been a better book. I have nothing against bigger and longer (Middlemarch, A Suitable Boy, and The Goldfinch are three of my all-time faves), but at 500 pages this would have been a work of genius instead of a 900-page near miss.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A race to the finish

Gotta get all these latest reads down on paper before the last two biggies of the year...I just realized what a theme I've got here--of these five books, three are memoirs, one is a faux memoir, and the last is about memoir writing. Did I mention I'm teaching a memoir class?

#35 Negroland by Margo Jefferson
Been reading a lot of memoirs lately and, sad to say, this was not one of the better ones. I thought it would be really interesting--the story of a woman who grew up in the African-American upper crust, whose father was a doctor and head of a hospital and whose mother was a socialite--yes, that's what she calls her, a socialite. But there isn't much story there, just lots of rambling exposition that gets tiresome quickly. I wanted to yell at her, "Show, don't tell!" Someone forgot to remind her of the prime directive of writing, and the book really suffers because of it.

#36 The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
I thought I would get so much more out of this book. After all, it's by the author of one of my favorite memoirs, Liar's Club, and two others I haven't read, who is also a famed teacher of memoir at Syracuse University. But the book rambles and meanders, and there is almost no concrete writing instruction or advice. There is a lot of interesting discussion of different memoirs that Karr uses in her teaching, but I was hoping for some illumination, not just entertainment, and I didn't get much.

#37 The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison
Oh, wow. A memoir by Harrison about her affair with her long-lost father. The book is short but packs quite a punch. Although the writing isn't always beautiful and she wanders in time and tense, the subject is so fraught and intense that I found myself literally holding my breath. Harrison was raised by her mother--a damaged and distant woman herself--and grandparents, after her father left when she was a baby. She saw him twice as a youngster, finally reconnecting with him when she was in college. The intensity of their reunion and his need to dominate and control her soon led to a sexual relationship. The story resonated with me, and I respected her honesty and the careful but powerful way she deals with what could have been a lurid recounting.

#38 I Claudius by Robert Graves
Read it for the first time back in the '70s and loved it. Read it again for book group and, well, liked it a bunch. It's a fascinating faux memoir of much of the life of the Roman Emperor Claudius. The story begins with his childhood and ends with his becoming Emperor. But there's no narrative arc--it's one (very interesting) story after another, but because of the lack of through-line (and the fact that so many of the characters drop out of the book because they're poisoned, or die in battle, or are killed) it's hard to truly connect with the story. It's kind of like sitting on a barstool in some ancient Roman pub listening to the guy on the next stool telling really cool stories about his whacko family. It's interesting, but you never cry, and you don't really care, and you don't remember half of them in the morning.

#39 As You Wish by Cary Elwes
The Man in Black speaks! Or writes! He isn't much of a writer, even with his co-author, but for anyone who loves The Princess Bride like I love The Princess Bride (and I know it's a large club but I count myself one of the premier members), it's so much fun to hear his stories of the making of the movie...of how sweet and good-hearted Andre the Giant was, and how Billy Crystal as Miracle Max was so funny they had to clear the set during his scenes so as not to ruin the takes with laughter, and how difficult the fencing training he and Mandy Patinkin had to do was, and how insanely hot the R.O.U.S. costume was and on and on. It was like eating delicious candy and just made me love the movie more. And he has little sidebars of stories from all the other people involved (except poor Andre of course). One of my favorites: Billy Crystal said not a week goes by when someone doesn't come up to him in a restaurant or an airport or a store and say, smiling, "Have fun storming the castle!" and he loves it.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Life gets in the way

Somehow I got very far behind. Actually, I know how I did it. It's called life. I was working a lot, and going to plays, and watching great television (just discovered Fargo--how did I not know about this show???), and playing with friends, and cleaning the bathroom, and cooking dinner...

Anyway, numbers 30 through 34 coming right up, in brief. Numbers 35 through 38 to follow shortly.

#30 Wild by Cheryl Strayed
More memoir reading for the memoir class, and I liked this one a whole big bunch. She's a terrific writer, which I knew because I had read Dear Sugar. And she had a great story to tell, about how after the death of her mother, the breakup of her marriage, and a scary drug addiction, she decided to tackle a huge (some might say insane) challenge: hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. She wasn't a hiker, didn't plan well, and faced some serious obstacles. But the story of the hike is interwoven so skillfully with flashbacks to her childhood, her mother's illness and rapid decline, her misbegotten marriage, and dalliances with drugs and dangerous men, that I couldn't tell if I enjoyed the story more, or the way she kept all her balls in the air and never dropped one. Respect for the writer and the woman!

#31 Lucky by Alice Sebold
A beautifully written memoir, as you would expect from the author of The Lovely Bones, about an awful experience--her rape as a college freshman. It's hard to read, in a good way, and a very moving, honest account of an awful, brutal attack. I was happy to see that the book doesn't rely on the cliches of an experience like this--brutalization of the victim, backwards cops, cold clinicians. Sebold has many people who help her through this time--and a few who turn away--but she doesn't flinch in her honest, compelling writing.

#32 Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurzel
A memoir that could turn you off memoirs. Self-indulgent, poorly written, repetitive, boring...so many ways this book went wrong. It slips around loosely in time and place, never actually rooting you in any events or any characters. Nothing is described, no person is depicted, so you can't visualize anyone or anything. And there are few actual scenes, just page after page of her talking about her craziness, her depression, her need for help that never comes. It's hard to believe this got published, but she was pretty and it was 20 years ago and Prozac and depression were new and exciting. Could that have been it? I can't see any redeeming value in this boring, dreary, poorly written book.

#33 The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts
Read it for the class I'm teaching. Not terribly helpful but there were some choice bits and pieces about structuring memoir, with an awful lot of unhelpful stuff in between.

#34 They Came Like Swallows by Joseph Mitchell
Oh, what a wonderful book. Beautiful story, beautiful characters, and so beautifully written. It's quite short, and every page and paragraph feels perfectly crafted, almost like poetry. Although it was published in 1937, it has an unusually modern conceit--the book is divided into three parts, and each part is seen from the POV of a different character: an eight-year-old boy, his older brother, and their father. The lives of each revolves around the mother in the family, a loving figure who holds the household together. The first section, from the eyes of the young boy, is the best depiction of a child's-eye view of the world that I have ever read.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Memoirs and More

I'm trying to read a lot of memoirs now, for the memoir writing class I am scheduled to teach in October, so two out of the next three books are from that genre. And there will be more. Luckily, I just love memoir!

But first:

#26 Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Verghese is a doctor-writer who grew up in Ethiopia, and his knowledge of both his homeland and his chosen profession informs every page of this book. It is the story of twin boys, born to an Indian nun working in a mission hospital in Addis Ababa. Their mother dies at their birth, and their father, the staff surgeon, vanishes. They are raised under the very loving care of married doctors and the entire mission staff. The book is fascinating for its portrayal of Ethiopian life and history, as well as the way medicine is applied in such a place. But it goes on (and on and on) and the last third, when the main character ends up in the Bronx in the 1970s, becomes tedious.

#27 Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home 
by Rhoda Janzen
The memoir of a woman whose life falls apart and she is forced to go home again. It's a frequently used trope -- the escapee forced to turn to the people who have to take her in -- and I wish I could say this is a whole new slant on it that makes the old tale new again. But other than learning about the Mennonites and getting a few nice Mennonite recipes, the book felt meandering and shallow. Joanne tells us what happens in the story, but she doesn't go deeper to tell us how she felt about the events, what the repercussions were, what she learned, how she changed. It moves along nicely enough, but it's a pretty meaningless ride.

#28 Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
Another memoir, this one even thinner than the last. Susanna Kaysen's story of being committed to McLean Hospital at the age of 18 is padded with wide margins, pages of her committal papers (which repeat the same information over and over), and wide open spacing. Put together normally, it's probably shorter than an article in The New Yorker. There are no meaningful discoveries, no compelling characters, no distinctive narrative or voice. It's hard to imagine how this ever got published -- much less made into a movie. I guess I'll have to watch the movie and see what they did with it.

#29 Thinking About Memoir by Abigail Thomas
A very (very!) slim little book about writing memoir by one of my favorite teachers from the MFA program at the New School. It's more like listening to her talk for an hour or so, memories from her life, occasional writing exercises, ramblings about time and order and events. To paraphrase Spencer Tracy, "There ain't much to it, but what there is is choice."

Saturday, August 22, 2015

#25 More by Sarah Waters: Fingersmith

Yes, I'm on a Sarah Waters roll. First (literally the first book of the year) was The Paying Guests, which was terrific. Next, a couple of months ago, was The Little Stranger, not as terrific, but very good. And just recently was Fingersmith, which fell somewhere between very good and terrific. Very very good? Nearly terrific? 

It's the story of a young fingersmith -- a thief -- in London in 1862. Sue Trinder is an orphan, left in the care of Mrs. Sucksby, a baby farmer who doses her babies into quietude with gin. Sue has been left in Mrs. Sucksby's devoted care by her mother, a fingersmith herself who was hung for her crimes.

The story is set in motion when Mrs. Sucksby and Sue are visited by Gentleman, a fallen swell, who has a plan to set Sue up as maid to a wealthy orphan as step one of a plot to steal the other young woman's fortune. But things are pretty much never as they seem, and there are a couple of Gone Girl-style gasp-inducing moments that had me going back and re-reading entire sections, just to make sure I was getting it all right.

The plot gets a little convoluted at times, but Waters keeps all the balls (and your head) spinning. The characters are as colorful as anything Dickens ever came up with, and the ever-thickening plot reminded me of his work as well. But things with Waters go deeper than Dickens ever did, and I ended up enjoying the book mightily, even though I couldn't begin to explain everything that happened.

I just discovered that the book was made into a British mini-series with Imelda Staunton and Sally Hawkins. Netflix, here I come!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The great and the not-so-great

#21 Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
The graphic memoir is the sequel to Fun Home, and it disappoints. The first was emotionally gripping, a painful and personal examination of Bechdel's troubled childhood, her coming out as a lesbian in college, and her relationship with her father, who revealed his own homosexuality shortly after Alison did, and then committed suicide. And, of course, the book was made into the wonderful, beautiful, moving musical of the same name.

The second book is an examination of her relationship with her distant mother. It is far more clinical, much less emotionally involving, and sometimes even boring. Maybe Bechdel was intimated into her emotional remove by the fact that her mother, a pretty damn chilly gal herself, is still alive. She spends a good chunk of the book reporting on her therapy over the years, and her research into infant and child psychology, her reading of various experts in the field, and reporting on their theories. It doesn't make for much of a story grabber, more like reading a text, with pictures. The book ends up as cold, and clinical, and distant as her mother is. 

#22 The News from Spain, by Joan Wickersham
I read Joan Wickersham's The Suicide Index a couple of years ago and loved it. This book is more recent, and very different from that memoir of loss. It's a collection of short stories, each one titled "The News from Spain," and each one featuring the phrase in a different way. The book's subtitle is "Seven Variations on a Love Story," and each story tells of a different type of love, between different types of people. That probably all sounds like some sort of silly writing challenge, like writing a whole book without an "e" or without using an adverb. But this book feels completely organic, and beautiful, and every one of the stories was moving and wonderful. I have to read more from this terrific writer. 

#23 On the Move, by Oliver Sacks. 
I have always enjoyed Dr. Sacks's non-fiction writing about his work as a neurologist. I wish I could say I enjoyed this, his memoir, as much. I did find out a lot more about him. I never knew he was British, or Jewish (a cousin of Abba Eban, whose real name was Aubdrey!), or gay. His childhood, the son of a fascinating and accomplished family (his father was a physician, his mother one of the first female surgeons in Britain), and his early years in the US, were moderately interesting. But he tends to write clinically, like the scientist he is, and the lack of emotional content became frustrating. He writes about hinting to his parents as a boy that he had different feelings towards other boys. His mother responds by saying she wishes he were never born, which had to have been devastating, but he can't seem to bring himself to express it. He mentions later that he goes without sex for 35 years. But he never says why, or what that meant to him. The last quarter of the book starts to feel like a long list of scientific endeavors and achievements, and I nearly started to skim. Dr. Sacks has had a fascinating, accomplished, unusual life, but maybe he's not the best one to chronicle it. I look forward to the gripping biography someone will someday write. 

#24 The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy.
A beautifully-written debut novel (thank you, E.) about a large African-American family who have lived in Detroit for 50 years. The Turners have 13 children, and its a real testament to Flournoy's powers that you never get them mixed up. The book does not parse out its attention equally, thank goodness, but the family members who are in the spotlight are well drawn and very interesting -- and she manages to make the secondary characters colorful and clear as well. It's also a wonderful portrait of a city in decline, and what ends up happening to the people who stay behind. It's a very ambitious book, and kudos to Flournoy for pulling it off. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Chateau: #20

I absolutely adore William Maxwell's They Came Like Swallows, a brief, beautiful, powerful novel of love and loss and family. I would say the same about So Long, See You Tomorrow.

Unfortunately, I would not repeat the praise for this book of his.

The Chateau, unlike those two slim volumes, is a long book. I don't mind a long book. In fact, some of my favorite novels are long books (A Suitable Boy! The Goldfinch! Anything by Anthony Trolloppe!). But this book felt long. Set in France just after World War II, the story -- if what the book encompasses can be called a story -- is of Barbara and Harold Rhodes, a young American couple spending three months traveling in Europe. Maxwell captures well the feelings of travel, the thrill of new vistas, the discomfort of not understanding the habits, the awkwardness of getting the customs wrong. And it is interesting to get a view of France immediately after the way, especially after so many books I've read recently that are set in Britain in the same time period. But there are paragraphs, sometimes pages, that chronicle the couple wandering down one street and another, walking for hours, trying to find a hotel...it all becomes nearly as tedious as doing it in real life.

The book centers around the couple's visit to a chateau, a once-regal home that, because of the new post-war circumstances, is now accepting paying guests, where they meet various people and don't do much of anything. They visit other towns, have a picnic, eat dinner, meet people who are sometimes nice, sometimes not, rarely interesting. There are questions raised -- of how the family lost their fortune, why one visitor is pleasant one minute and rude the next. But those questions are not answered until part two of the book. Entitled "Some Explanations," this relatively brief section poses the questions readers might have, and answers them. The tone reads as condescending, a bit snarky, as if Maxwell is saying, "Do you really need to have everything explained to you, you dim hidebound provincial reader?" And the explanations are anything but rewarding. Perhaps if more of the background had been woven into the thin framework of the narrative, it would have felt like a more robust, more fulfilling novel. But as it is it reads as a beautifully written travelogue, and frankly I'd rather experience the journey than read about it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Little Stranger: #19

I think Sarah Waters is my new favorite writer. I absolutely loved The Paying Guests, which was my first book of the year (and one that it's going to be hard to top). And now I've read another Waters novel, The Little Stranger and thoroughly enjoyed it. Apparently, she likes exploring different time periods in her work. The Paying Guests is set in London in 1922, and much of the story is set in motion by events relating to World War I. The Little Stranger follows the Second World War, and the deprivation and altered economic states of so many Brits form the backdrop for the tale.

The narrator is a doctor in a small country town who comes to care for the family of the local squire. When Dr. Faraday was a child in the town, the Ayres family was at the top of the social heap, the family that hosted the annual fete and gave out medals to the promising local youngsters (like the doctor himself). Now, their fortune has evaporated and their house, lands, and future are all in a desperately precarious state. The father is dead, the son is damaged, physically and mentally, by the war, and the daughter has returned home to help try to keep the ancestral home from crumbling around their ears.

The horror of their declining fortune is mirrored in a series of strange events that begin, slowly, to occur, gathering force as the novel progresses. There is a sense of growing horror, a constant feeling of unease. Waters has a remarkable ability to slowly, slowly move the dreadful tale along. The crumbling home, the threatening weather, the local gossips -- it all combines to create a feeling of awfulness, of decay, of terrible danger. It's a compelling and creepy web she weaves, a web that reminded me of the tense and fearful feeling I get from reading Wilkie Collins, or Emily Bronte. I can't think of another writer who has the sense of pacing that Waters possesses. Even when almost nothing is happening, you can feel the darkness gathering outside the window. And the slow, inevitable creep of tragedy keeps you turning pages, even while holding your breath. The fact that she is using gothic horror to spotlight economic and social themes just makes her writing more impressive.

I've already got my next Waters novel: I bought Fingersmith this week.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Chalk and cheese: #17 and 18

I love that old British expression, "as different as chalk and cheese." Apparently, it goes all the way back to the 14th century, although no one knows exactly why chalk and cheese were chosen as the two items used to express comparative differences. One theory says that it's just because they are snappy, alliterative words. Another says it's because some cheese can look like chalk on the outside, and vice versa, but oh! what a surprise you would get if you tried to bite into chalk, or write with cheese.

In any event, the next two books on my list were quite the chalk and cheese. The first, #17, was a short, silly, fluffy little novel named Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn. It actually is about exactly what it sounds like: a bored, slightly addled Queen Elizabeth II wanders out of Buckingham Palace and takes the train to Scotland. She's feeling somewhat under attack, unappreciated, and nostalgic, so she decides to go visit a place that will remind her of happier times: the former royal yacht Brittania, now moored near Edinburgh. There are other characters, a slight romance, a friendship between palace servants, but the whole thing is so fluffy and undercooked that it literally leaves your brain as you are reading it, like disappearing ink of the mind. I read it just a couple of weeks ago, and I can't even tell you the name of a single character, other than Elizabeth. Duh. I don't mind a good mindless read, but this is so mindless you can't get much benefit from the escapism. It's like empty calories that don't even taste good. 

Book #18 was the chalk, or the cheese, whichever one would be more substantial and nourishing. Let's say cheese. Going Clear:  Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (a Pulitzer Prize-winner) is one terrifying book. Scientology has always fascinated me, as well as exploring what is the difference between a religion and a cult -- and even whether or not all religions are cults at their core. But this book made the difference quite plain. Scientology is a cult. A scary, scary cult. Some of what the book reported is hard to believe, but Wright is a highly respected author, and everything he reports has been verified and re-verified. It left me feeling shocked and appalled. I am not surprised by people's willingness to forego skepticism, even to give over the reins of their own lives. I am more surprised what this organization has been able to get away with untouched by law for decades. Extortion, threats, kidnapping, bribery, physical and emotional torture...if Scientology were a foreign power they would be on the terrorist watch list. I vote we go the way of Greece and ban Scientology. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A woman in her prime, and a woman who is not

#16 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

I read this book for the first time in my twenties, perhaps even while in college. But I remember it better than anything I read last year. Not so much because it's such a brilliant book (although it is) but because I had a memory then. Anything I heard or read in my first 30 years is lodged in the Velcro side of my brain, where things stick. Anything I heard or read in my last 15 years is housed in the Teflon portion of my brain, where things slide right out. The decade or so in between the Velcro Age and the Teflon Era is up for grabs.

Miss Brodie may have been in her prime, but clearly, I am not.

What did I remember from my first reading of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? I remembered the dramatic, charismatic Miss Brodie, and her girls, the "Brodie set," each of them famous for something: one for sex, one for her beauty, one for her temper, one for her tiny piggy eyes. I remembered the setting, Edinburgh in the early 1930s, and the two men Miss Brodie becomes involved with. But I didn't remember the book as being funny, which it is, and the amazing structure Spark builds, in which the future is revealed inside the present, and we know how things will unfold and where everyone will end up, but we don't know why.

Spark's precision of language is remarkable, and she manages to compress and reveal so much with so few words. She's like a surgeon, carving away all the fat and fluff, and leaving us with a powerful distillation of people, time, and place.

It's a wonderful read and also a great book to discuss. Book clubs everywhere, put this one on your list!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

#10 and more

So little time lately, to read, or to write. Been very busy with theater- going and -reviewing and -writing on (such excellent linguistic skills!) and a million other things. So quickly, quickly, the last several, trying to catch up.

#10. Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr. I had read about Huguette Clark's life and the two books recently written about her in the paper and wanted to read more, wanted to understand how one of the richest women in the world ended up living the last twenty years of her life in a small hospital room, estranged from her family, when there was really nothing wrong with her. It's a fascinating story, and not just her own tale. Her father was one of the richest, if not the richest man in America, richer than Rockefellers and Carnegies. He was a U.S. Senator who had to resign in disgrace. And he's certainly the richest man that no one ever heard of. His story and Huguette's were both little known and incredibly interesting, and the book is well written by journalist Dedman, with a few remembrances from her cousin Newell, who has little to say except that he talked to her on the phone occasionally for several years. Six transit gloria, I guess. 

#11. Shirley by Charlotte Bronte. I think this was the only Bronte book I had never read, and now my work is complete. An incredibly long book, and not very interesting. It meanders around the story of wealthy Shirley and poor orphan Caroline Helstone and mill owner Robert Moore. Much of the focus is on the nascent Luddite movement, which is interesting, but lengthy and repetitive descriptions of the countryside and long diversions into storms, festivals, local dances, etc., make it a slog. I usually have no trouble with 19th century classics, even the lengthiest and most long-winded, but this one was a challenge. A challenge I am proud to say I met!

#12. The Lost Estate by Henri Alain-Fournier. The only novel by Alain-Fournier, who died in World War I, The Lost Estate tells the story of a captivating young man who stumbles about a wedding in a mysterious house, falls in love, and spends years trying to find the house and the girl again. It reads like fairy tale, filled with mystery and a sense of something vanishing just as it's reached. A wonderful look at the longing and confusion of adolescence, the book has the reputation of being the Catcher in the Rye of France.

#13. The Whites by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt. Strange author attribution, no? Price started out thinking he was going to write a potboiler and didn't want to do it under his real name, so he invented Harry Brandt. But the book ended up being more of a typical Price novel than he expected, and he was outed anyway, so both names appear on the cover, which seems pretty strange. It tells the story of a group of former "wild geese" -- enthusiastic young cops, and "the whites" are the ones that got away, their own Moby Dicks. It's a twisty story with too many turns and too many characters for my taste. I continually had to look back to remember which white went with which goose, and what had happened to them all over the years. And while I was looking back and figuring out, my attention just wandered away. Lush Life a much better Price, imho.

#14. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. The reviews are right: it ain't no Gone Girl, despite how hard it's trying. I didn't gasp, I didn't startle. I did get bored. The narrator, a woman in her thirties who has lost everything--her husband, her job, her home--and spends most of her time riding the train and drinking, witnesses something out the window of said train that, she thinks, affects the investigation into a missing woman. But she is drunk or on her way there for most of the book, so the cops don't believe her, the husband of the missing woman doesn't believe her, and, frankly, I didn't care.

#15. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Pulitzer Prize-winner, and deserving of it. A beautifully written story set in Germany and France during the second world way, Light is the story of a young German soldier and a blind French girl. There's also a diamond, much machinery (the boy is something of a mechanical genius), a miniature city, a museum, a Nazi officer in search of said diamond, French resistance members, and more. A hard-to-put-down tale. 

Yeah, all caught up!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

And many more

Good thing I decided on that book-a-week resolution last year. This year has been so much busier. I never could have managed it. I'm still going to stick to my fewer-but-bigger plan (War and Peace, really!) but I just haven't had the chance yet. Here's where I am so far, after those first two...

3. Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast
Wonderful, wonderful graphic memoir by the brilliant comic artist about her elderly parents ends. Sounds sad, and it is in parts, but it's also hilariously funny, especially if you know from old Jews in denial. I am exactly Chast''s age, and her parents had the same difficult attitude (and the same hoarding tendencies) as mine, and boy, did I relate. Love it, loved it!

4. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
Brilliant writer and physician Gawande on the American approach to death, which is, as we all know, seriously screwed up. Should be read by everyone over a certain age.

5. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Had to get over my reluctance to read anything from the Eat, Pray, Love machine, but this was a wonderful, thick, juicy novel about an eighteenth-nineteenth century female botanist from Philadelphia. A really terrific read.

6. Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano
Read for book group. By the Nobel Prize-winning French author. A slender, strange novel of a man's search for a girl he never knew. A Holocaust novel, a book about memory, about lives touching lives...interesting and unusual.

7. A bunch of plays, read for acting class: Doubt by John Patrick Shanley, 'Night Mother by Marsha Norman, The Children's Hour by Lillian Hellman, Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz, August: Osage County by Tracy Letts. All of them very moving. Have seen them all (Children's Hour only as a movie) except "Night Mother, which was the most devastating, a story of a woman who has decided that life is no longer worth living. The entire play is her last couple of hours, as she explains her decision to her mother, and they argue about the value of her life. 

8. Home by Marilynne Robinson. Home takes place at the same time as Gilead, which I had read a couple of years ago, but in a different household. It tells the story of a wayward son's return home. I love Robinson's simple, poetic language. Her books are almost hypnotic. And beautiful.

9. Lila by Marilynne Robinson. The third of the Gilead (the name of the town) novels, this one is about the woman married to the main character in Gilead, a strange woman who in the prior book we learn little about. Also beautiful.

More to come...still playing catch-up...

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Really good, really easy pan pizza

This one is for D & E, since I know they like to make pizza at home. It's ridiculously easy. No need to knead. No stretching and pulling. No special equipment, other than a cast iron skillet (which everyone should own anyway). The recipe makes two pan pizzas. You can put the dough in the fridge for a couple of days to wait until you're ready for it, and even freeze the dough and the sauce. Both are delicious and very adaptable to both your schedule and desire for creativity. And it's delicious, promise.

Foolproof Pan Pizza
Adapted from Serious Eats
Makes 2 10-inch pies, each of which serves 4-6

2 1/2 cups flour, plus more for sprinkling
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for sprinkling
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons lukewarm water (see note)
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing pans
1 1/2 cups pizza sauce (recipe below)
12 ounces grated full-fat mozzarella cheese (not fancy fresh mooz, just the regular old Polly-o kind
Toppings you like
Fresh basil leaves (optional)
2 ounces grated parmesan or Romano (optional, but good)


  1. Combine flour, salt, yeast, water, and oil in a large bowl. Mix with hands or a wooden spoon (hands are easier) until no dry flour remains. 
  2. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap, then let rest on the countertop for at least 8 hours and up to 24. The dough should rise dramatically, to 3-4 or more times its original size.
  3. Sprinkle the top of the dough lightly with flour and transfer to a well-floured work surface. Divide the dough into two pieces and form each into a ball by holding it with well-floured hands and tucking the dough underneath itself, rotating it until it forms a tight, smooth ball.
  4. Pour 1-2 tablespoons of oil in the bottom of two 10-inch cast iron skillets or round cake pans (or just one, and save one dough ball for later--it will keep 3 days in the fridge, wrapped well in plastic wrap, or for a few months in the freezer). Place 1 ball of dough in each pan and turn to coat evenly with oil. Use your palm to press the dough around the pan, flattening it slightly and spreading the oil to the edges. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 2 hours. After the first hour, adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 550 degrees.
  5. After two hours, the dough should mostly fill the pan to the edges. Use your fingertips to press it around until it fills in every corner, popping any large bubbles. Lift up edges to let air bubbles underneath escape. 
  6. Top each crust with 3/4 cup sauce, spreading with the back of a spoon. Top with mozzarella cheese, season with salt, add any other toppings you like, drizzle with a little olive oil and scatter with basic if using.
  7. Transfer to oven and bake until the top is golden brown and bubbly and the bottle in golden and crisp when you peek. If the bottom is not as crisp as you'd like, place the pan on a burner and cook on medium heat, moving the pan around to cook evenly until crisp, 1-3 minutes. Remove the pizzas and transfer to a cutting board. Slice and serve.
Note: How to tell if the water is the right temperature? Too hot and it kills the yeast. Too cold and it rises too slowly (although that's not much of a problem with this recipe, since it has such a long rise). The perfect temp is between 95 and 110, in other words, roughly the temperature of the human body -- 98.6. The easiest way to make sure your water is that temperature is to let it flow over the inside of your wrist, the most sensitive part of your body (that's why moms in the old movies shake the milk bottle over their wrist to check if it's too hot). If it feels cool as it flows, it's probably too cold. If it feels hot, it's most likely too hot. But if it feels pretty much like nothing because it's the same temperature as you are, then, Goldilocks, it's just right. Remember that cold measuring cups and bowls will chill the water slightly, so err on the warmer side if you err at all. That's a tip I learned in Home Economics in 7th grade, which was perhaps the most useful class I ever took in 13 years of public education. Geometry? Still don't understand it. But I can sew on a button and measure flour accurately, skills I use all the time. 

New York Style Pizza Sauce
Makes enough for 2-4 12-inch pies

1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 medium cloves garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon dried oregano (I use a bit more--I like the oregano-y flavor)
Pinch red pepper flakes
Kosher salt
2 6-inch sprigs fresh basil with leaves attached (I haven't done this yet but will once summer and my herb garden arrive)
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and halved
1 teaspoon sugar

  1. Process tomatoes and their juice in food processor until pureed. Doesn't need to be completely smooth, but not too chunky.
  2. Combine butter and oil in medium saucepan and heat over medium-low heat until butter is melted. Add garlic, oregano, pepper flakes, and a large pinch of salt and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant but not browned, about 3 minutes. Add tomatoes, basil, onion, and sugar. Simmer very slowly (bubbles barely breaking the surface), stirring occasionally, until reduced by half, about one hour. Season with salt, allow to cool, and store in covered container in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, or freeze.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Book #2: Euphoria

I started off the year with a bang (The Paying Guests) and now here's a whimper.

Euphoria, by Lily King, was on a lot of 2014 best-of lists. But I'm not sure why.

Loosely based on the early life of anthropologist Margaret Mead, the book takes place in New Guinea in the 1930s. The woman at the center of the story, Nell, has already made a name for herself in, and outside of, her field. Her husband Fen is jealous and competitive. And Andrew, the fellow anthropologist they meet up with, is so lonely, lost, and depressed that he is, when the story begins, suicidal. He is rejuvenated by his connection with Nell and Fen, and Nell responds to him as he reinforces her passion for her work.

The jungle setting is not one that every interests me. Although there are near constant references to the bugs and heat, King didn't really convey the setting, and although there were certain interesting details, I didn't feel myself there, in the place, with these people. The people themselves were nearly as thinly portrayed. Nell herself, the woman at the center of the story, is not terribly well-drawn, Andrew slightly better, and Fen is little more than a stock character -- the angry, jealous husband. He is so Snidely Whiplash-despicable that it's hard to give Nell the credit she deserves, since she chose this buffoon as her mate.

I appreciated the way King wove the many strands and voices -- Andrew's first-person account, Nell's diary, an omniscient third-person narrator. And the exploration of the science of anthropology itself was interesting -- King makes the case that the work reveals more about the anthropologist than the people studied. But it's hard to recommend a book when the most positive thing you can say about it is that it's relatively short and reads quickly. But there it is -- it's relatively short and goes by in a breeze. Enough?

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Starting off the new year with a bang (and a resolution)

I resolved in 2014 to read a book a week, 52 books in total for the year. And I did it, with one book to spare: 53 books in all. Some were quick reads (any of Liane Moriarty's) and some took a while (any of Trollope's, particularly The Way We Live Now). But given my pace, I was a bit hesitant to go in for the really deep dives. So this year my resolution is somewhat different: instead of going wide, I'm going long.

I resolve to read those big, heavy, hard-to-hold-in-your-lap books that I've put off reading (or in one case, re-reading). In 2015 I will read War and Peace (doesn't everyone say that? but I mean it!) and The Power Broker and several more big Victorians (there are many of Dickens and Trollope that I've never cracked) and George Elliot's Daniel Deronda. And I will re-read A Suitable Boy, because it's been a long time and I loved it so much.

Onward! And read-ward!

Herewith the first book of 2015. And it was a good one:

#1 The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Absolutely brilliant. I completely agree with all the critics who put it on the Best Books of 2014 lists. Set in London in 1922, it's total immersion in post-WWI England. 26-year-old Frances Wray and her widowed mother have lost nearly everything in the war -- Frances's father, her two brothers, and almost all their money. All they have is their home, into which they are forced to welcome lodgers -- the paying guests of the title -- a young, lower-class married couple. Dozens and dozens of pages go by with very little happening, but it doesn't matter in the least. Frances scrubs the floors, makes lunch, her mother reads the parish newsletter, they go to the cinema to see the latest American crime thriller. The detail is anything but dull -- you are completely absorbed into this world. And unlike so many writers of period novels, Waters isn't showing off how much research she did -- she's pulling you so far in that you start to feel like you've time traveled to another era.

But just when you're wondering where it's all going, it goes places with a bang. A forbidden love story, lust, sex, murder, an investigation, an accusation...so much happens and it's all absolutely gripping. Alfred Hitchcock would have loved to make this book into a movie -- it reminded me very much of the quiet tension and particularly British Rebecca or Dial M For Murder. 
darkness of

Nearly 600 pages in three days -- that's an un-put-downable book. What a great way to start the year.

Monday, January 5, 2015

All the books I read in 2014

Here's the list, in chronological order, starting back in January:

  1. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
  2. Someone by Alice McDermott *
  3. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel *
  4. The Boy Who Went Away by Eli Gottlieb
  5. The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth Silver
  6. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Store
  7. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles *
  8. Little Failure by Gary Schteyngart *
  9. Straight Man by Richard Russo
  10. The Reef by Edith Wharton
  11. Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger *
  12. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson *
  13. Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger *
  14. Citizens of London by Lynne OIson
  15. Dr. Wortle’s School by Anthony Trollope
  16. Zoli by Column McCann
  17. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud *
  18. Longbourn by Jo Baker *
  19. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote *
  20. Time and Again by Jack Finney
  21. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
  22. The Book of Salt by Monica Truong
  23. How to Be Good by Nick Hornby
  24. Whose Body? By Dorothy Sayers *
  25. Lady Susan by Jane Austen
  26. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner *
  27. Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
  28. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier *
  29. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
  30. Roman Fever and Other Stories by Edith Wharton (also Omicidio alla Moda)
  31. A Guilty Thing Surprised by Ruth Rendell
  32. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
  33. ½ of The Luminaries by Elinor Catton
  34. The Emperor’s Children by Clair Messud
  35. The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer
  36. Bartleby the Scrivener * and Benito Cerino by Herman Melville
  37. When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson
  38. What Maisie Knew by Henry James
  39. What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
  40. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
  41. Colorless Tsukuru Tasaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruka Murakami *
  42. The Hypnotist’s Love Story by Liane Moriarty
  43. Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
  44. We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas *
  45. The Steppe and The Duel* by Anton Chekhov
  46. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel *
  47. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters * and Seymour an Introduction by J.D. Salinger
  48. My Brilliant Friend by Elana Ferrante
  49. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
  50. The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty
  51. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  52. Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty
  53. Offcomer by Jo Baker
The ones with asterisks are those I particularly liked. My favorites? We Are Not Ourselves, Station Eleven, In Cold Blood, and Crossing to Safety. Two old, two new. How tidy. All quite different -- a post-apocolypic adventure, a rich family saga, a non-fiction crime novel, and a powerful story of friendship and marriage. But all have compelling characters, fascinating narratives, and beautiful, moving language. It was a good year. Onward!