Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

I'm generally a big fan of short stories. I love how a skillful short story writer can pack a whole lot into a small space. Strout has taken that format and made it much tougher for herself by linking the short stories in "Anything Is Possible."

Everyone in these stories is somehow related to the main character in her previous novel, "My Name Is Lucy Barton," which is a clever choice. I read an interview with Strout in which she said she wrote both books at the same time, moving back and forth between them as a scene occurred to her. I'd think that was a tough way to write a novel, but whatever works!

Her writing it spare, which fits with the bleakness of her characters' lives. This is my third Strout novel, and I've yet to read about anyone chipper and carefree. These are some tormented people! Every type of malady and misfortune has beset these folks, and most of them don't deal with their troubles very well. Nearly everyone should be in intensive therapy, but some of the characters are too far gone to have even great therapy help much.

I know this sounds like a book no one would want to read, but she's a great storyteller, able to weave in little pieces of the characters' personalities to make each of them whole. They're not very likable, they wouldn't be fun at a party, and your life would not be enriched by knowing most of them. But she does such a great job of creating them and making their horrible lives interesting that you can't put the book down. If you want to read a book where you can say, "Boy, my life is sooooo much better than all of those people," this is the one for you.

Outline by Rachel Cusk

It's not often you read a book written in a style you're unfamiliar with, but "Outline" was a new experience for me. It's not really a novel, and it's not really short stories. I suppose you could call the chapters "conversations," since each focuses on an interaction between the narrator and another person, or group of people. But that's not really accurate, since the conversations aren't traditional conversations. They're more like summaries, with the narrator sometimes slipping between tenses.

Cusk breaks a lot of rules, but she's breaking them intentionally and carefully. Her powers of description are excellent, and the conversations are mostly interesting. But it's not the kind of book that draws you in emotionally. Part of that is the style, since she's created an emotional distance between you and the characters. But part of it is because no one's really that appealing. Every character has something or many things that make them hard to like. Clearly, she's doing this on purpose, and that allows her to create very realistic characters. But when you dig beneath the veneer of most real people, you find things you wish you didn't know, and that's exactly what happens in "Outline." The characters seem like real people you wish you didn't have to interact with .

So if you'd like to read very thoughtful, deep conversations between vaguely unlikeable people, with beautiful descriptions of where they are, you're in luck!

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen

I loved reading Anna when she had a regular column in the NY Times, and I still think she's a very good observer of this place, in this time.

Alternate Side was easily as good as her other work, and reading it was a pleasurable experience. But... This year, I decided that I was generally only going to read books by women, then I changed my rule to include men of color. That's going pretty well, but I'm coming to realize that I've read the story of a middle-aged, upper-class New Yorker more times than I can count. The books are good, but they're not telling me much I don't already know. So I'm going to narrow my list down a little more. My new goal is to find writers whose lives are different than mine in some significant way. Even though I have a decent amount of time to read, I don't have enough to tread the same ground over and over again.

So I give two thumbs up for Alternate Side if you aren't overly familiar with the indignities of owning a full-floor brownstone on the Upper West Side, while aging slightly, but not enough that rich and powerful men still chase you. I know that sounds snarky, but I don't intend for it to be. I think books like this are very popular with straight women who can empathize with the narrator's small trials and tribulations. I suppose they're like romance novels for lesbians, but with less sex and more ennui.

I'm not going to post an Amazon review for this because I'm not enthusiastic enough about it to praise it. I'm not averse to slamming a book that's sloppily edited or carelessly researched, but I never do that to a good book that wasn't quite for me.