Monday, December 22, 2008

The Gathering by Anne Enright

Just the thing for a cheery Christmas read. A homeless alcoholic brother is washed away by the tide and his large, Irish family gathers for his funeral. Very upbeat!

Even though it isn't a "feel good" book, The Gathering is well worth the read. Winner of the Man Booker prize in 2007, it is beautifully written and not as gloomy as the short description intimates. It's often funny and always witty. Enright's prose is lovely and her characters are brutally honest, if not with themselves, then to each other.

Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris

I loved this book! I loved everything about it. The style, the wit, the style, the pathos, the style, the pace, the style. Can you tell I loved the style? It's told in first person plural, and how Ferris managed to do this so seamlessly was, to me, a marvel.

The people in the novel are copywriters and editors at a firm in Chicago. He uses the plural because they act like a herd at their cube farm. Every minor thing that happens affects all of them in disproportionate amounts. Every look, every encounter with their manager, every compliment, every slight is amplified by bouncing off each and every one of them.

If you've worked in an office and suffered through the little indignities that corporate life foists upon you, you'll empathize with these people. Especially if the office is in your past. If it's not, this might cut too close to the bone.

Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo

I've read all of Russo's novels, and have enjoyed the lot. Oddly, this wasn't my favorite. I find that odd because this is by far his biggest book and delves very deeply into a smaller ensemble than usual. Maybe that's why I didn't enjoy this one as much. Russo's previous books skirted along the surface of his wide-ranging characters; showing us just enough to care about them but not so much that we felt we knew them better than their therapists did.

In Bridge of Sighs he wants us to understand every major event that has happened to his 3 main characters; no matter that the events are, in fact, often fairly minor. That's not to say that their lives are without strife or grief. But he's trying to make a few events give us the keys to the psyches of these people, and, when we get inside we see there's not a hell of a lot going on. They're just relatively normal people who lead, for the most part, very simple lives.

I don't think there's anything wrong with writing novels about simple people leading simple lives, and, as I said previously, I've read and liked all of Russo's previous works. This one just seems a bit of a reach.

I read the book over two days and I was up until 3 a.m. reading it the first night. I would have stayed up all night reading but I couldn't manage it. But I cooled on it the second day. Not enough to put it down, but I was hoping for a bigger payoff. I could guess the resolution of all of the story lines, and that's always a bit disappointing. And the few things I couldn't guess seemed out of character, which is also a letdown.

Russo won the Pulitzer for his previous work, Empire Falls. I'd heartily recommend that book, as well as his previous novels. Bridge of Sighs isn't without merit, but for me Russo's reach didn't meet his grasp.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

This book got a lot of publicity when it was first issued in 2000. Eggers owns McSweeney's, the publishing house, and publishes a monthly literary magazine. He's one of the young writers who came of age at the millennium, and his work has a unique style.

I found the book on a shelf of a house I was staying in, and decided to read it mainly to see how it read 8 years after its debut. I've often thought that many books that stand out for their unique style get dated very quickly, but I didn't find that to be true for this one.

The narrative line for the book is Eggers struggle to raise his young brother after their parents both die. Eggers was just finishing college, and his brother was eight at the time, and, even though Eggers wasn't truly ready to take on the responsibility, the brothers' other two siblings were in even less ideal circumstances.

If he'd written this as a standard "I did something remarkable" kind of memoir I'm sure it would have sold a few thousand copies and gone into the returns bin. But this is a long way from a standard memoir.

His style is unique, and that's probably best. Not because it's not entertaining, but because it's so unique that it would be trite and silly to try to replicate it. It's hard to describe, but the book has a stream-of-consciousness feel to it. Actually, it feels like he's talking to you in real time in a few spots. It also seems a bit like a diary, where the diarist is often kicking himself in the ass. At times it has a "let's write a novel!" energy, like a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney movie where the characters have no business putting on a play in dad's barn but manage to present a polished work.

The paperback version, which I read, has a large addendum of the mistakes made in the book that's printed upside-down at the back of the book. Eggers is also a cartoonish/artist, and he includes all sorts of little drawings and schema.

In many ways it's very amateurish, but that's part of its charm. He's trying to write this book while getting his little brother to school, having water-balloon fights, sliding on their socks through the house, and not cleaning their apartment. The writing is so unselfconscious that it wouldn't surprise me to learn that his young brother had written it. That's not to say it's immature. It's just that childlike.

I definitely recommend the book, but only for those who are amenable to something callow and wide-eyed.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Fare thee well, New York. I hope to return soon.

My partner and I have sold our co-op to take refuge in New Jersey while waiting for the real estate market to settle down. I hate to leave New York, but we had the opportunity to capture a gain, and we try to use our analytical minds in decisions like these, rather than our hearts. Not that there's anything wrong with New Jersey, of course. We really enjoy being down the shore. But we both like a more lively night life, so New York is much more in sync with our needs.

I saw the following on the subway last night and it seemed so perfect that I wanted to share it. It's by one of my favorite New Yorkers, E.B. White.

There are roughly three New Yorks.

There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable.

Second, there is the New York of the commuter — the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night.

Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something.

Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.

Susan from Jersey

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Two Lives by Vikram Seth

I've been so remiss in adding blurbs about the books I've been reading that I've started to purposefully avoid posting. Yes, that's dumb, and it must stop!

I have a long list of things I've read recently, but I'll start with the latest. "Two Lives" is a big book that wouldn't necessarily grab me. But I'm staying in a house where it was the only title that caught my interest, so I picked it up and took it for a test drive.
It's the story of an unusual marriage of two unusual people. Shanti is an India-born, German-educated dentist. Henny is his German-born Jewish wife. They meet when Shanti goes to Germany in the 1930s to obtain his training as a dentist. It's not abundantly clear why he chose Germany as his training ground, since he didn't speak German, nor know anyone in the country. But choose it he did.

He wound up living with Henny's family after her family had some financial reverses. They become friends, but nothing more and Shanti leaves Germany for London well before the 3rd Reich comes to power. But he and Henny and their circle of friends stay close.

Eventually, Henny is able to emigrate to England, but her sister and mother can't get a visa. 

The story is told from the present day, with Shanti's nephew Vickram slowly learning the full story of his uncle and aunt, who house him when he comes to London to study economics. By the time he figures out all of the permutations of their lives and their love both Shanti and Henny are dead. But as is so often the case, it's not until those close to us die that our interest in their early lives gets piqued.

Seth does a great job of making all of the impossible choices faced by German Jews during WWII seem as complex and murky as I can only imagine they were really. Henny was one of those remarkable people who can survive great loss and seem unfazed by it. I'm sure that wasn't the case, but the fact that she could even seem that way was fairly remarkable. And Shanti, who made his way alone to two alien countries, served with the British during the war and lost an arm during fighting in Italy is equally remarkable.

Essentially, "Two Lives" is just that--the story of a single couple. But their circumstances and their brave and sometimes short-sighted choices gives an insight into their time that's moving and enlightening.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

This compelling book could serve as a cautionary tale on the havoc mental illness can create in a family.

The protagonist reflects on killing her mother in the first sentence and that remarkably honest viewpoint continues throughout the book. Given that her mother was elderly, had begun to fail to recognize familiar people, was no longer able to live on her own but was terrified of leaving the house one could call this a mercy killing. But make no mistake, this woman was murdered.

The time-line switches frequently and without a lot of warning. But the style wasn't as disorineting as it could have been. Sebold is a very adept writer, and the reader should be able to orient herself in a sentence or two.

As I said, the book focuses on mental illness. The narrator seems to think that her mother was the main victim of this illness, but it attacks every member of the family either directly or indirectly. By the time I was finished I was filled with empathy for the 3 generations we meet, as well as the people who came before and will come after. Mental illness is the awful gift that keeps on giving.

I wish I could say the novel wasn't all grim, but it was. Sebold doesn't try to soften her message with humor. This novel doesn't flinch in being brutally honest and graphic. The kinds of things that make most people turn away don't phase Sebold. She plods right through them, making the reader descend into the hell the narrator is plunging into.

Sebold's first novel, The Lovely Bones, was a huge success, while this book hasn't been nearly as well received. I can see why, but I think people are missing out on a brave work if they miss this one. Sebold is an incredibly strong writer, and just because she isn't afraid to show the horrors of life is no reason to diminish her accomplishment.

Many reviewers have said the situation was unrealistic. I can only assume those people have never been a caregiver for a desperately ill, difficult person--or a colicky baby. Caregiving can make the most well-adjusted person consider murder, and Helen, the narrator, is a long way from well-adjusted.

I'd recommend it highly to people who are interested in a fast-paced tale of family dynamics-no matter how dark they may be.


Monday, January 14, 2008

The Book of Dave by Will Self

Self has written a strange, often funny post-apocalyptic novel with a unique conceit. 

Dave Rudman is a London cabbie. Divorced from his wife, refused permission to see his young son, he writes his thoughts down and, in an act of quiet insolence, buries them in his wife's backyard.

500 years later, England is an isolated archipelago, and the only text the villagers of Ham have to guide their lives is the Book of Dave. It's their bible, their Koran, their Pentateuch, and their guide to daily life.

But Dave wasn't a happy guy when he wrote his epistles, and the parts of the book that show how this civilization blunders about trying to follow his precepts are terrifically clever. They use his "London cabbie speak" to name the elements of their world. The sun is the headlamp, the sky is the dashboard, etc. It's fun to figure out some of the nomenclature, and troubling to see how they deal with the only animal they have for food--a cross between a cow, a pig and a 2 year old child. Odd? Oh, yes!

I didn't enjoy the parts of the book which dealt with Dave and his family. He's a very bitter guy, and he's made a wreck of his life. But for fans of quirky futuristic fiction, and people who like to see a writer use his creative juices on something fairly different--this one is worth a read.