30 Books in 30 Days: 8.21.11

A Person of Interest by Susan Choi

Reading A Person of Interest is a deeply satisfying experience.  The book delivers on all levels:  plot, richness of prose and depth of characterization.  What stands out most about the book is Choi’s amazing prose. Each sentence is so evenly dense that reading her prose is like adopting a new inner voice where every thought is just a little deeper, just that much more intense than everyday life.  Choi’s prose is the gift of entering Choi’s very brilliant mind.  Because of the subject of the book, the ways the FBI narrows down suspects in a university bombing, the book progresses well, drawing the reader in to the suspense of whodunnit.  Choi makes the main character of the novel, Professor Lee a multi-dimensional character who is only too aware of some of his flaws while also being blind to others.  Even as the FBI case moves forward, agents narrowing in on Lee as a major suspect, the reader is treated to the back-stories of Lee’s previous marriages and his struggles to find relevance as an aging academic.  There is something very current about novels that cover the intrusion of private citizen’s lives, and this novel chronicles the egregious invasions of Lee’s privacy and personal life with acute detail.  And yet, it is a tribute to Choi’s skill as a writer that it is never easy to pinpoint the true victim in this novel.  As the novel draws to a close, Choi rewards with a finely wrought, action packed finale.  I highly recommend this book.  One thing is for sure:  reading this book’s beautiful sentences will make you smarter.  Along the way, you will get a nuanced and insightful account of prejudice and violence in our society today.


30 Books in 30 Days: 8.18.11

Coal Run by Tawni O’Dell

With a first name like Tawni, you know this author’s got to be interesting.  O’Dell’s Coal Run and her third novel, Sister Mine,  both appeal to me for their evocation of place:  the rural and economically struggling areas around the Pennsylvania coal mines.  The main character of Coal Run is an ex-star football player who, after suffering injury, has become a local sheriff who succumbs quite often to drinking when he isn’t on the job.  His dreams of former glory are much like the town’s memories of its former glory when the coal mines brought prosperity to the region.  There’s something about the combination of the beautiful descriptions of the mines, the rambling towns and bars and the people in them and the moving forward of lives even amidst the background of such industrial decay that draws the reader in.  Entire family histories have been affected by the mines, with tales of men and the accidents they’ve survived and sometimes survived only at great cost.  The coal mine is indeed a silent but awesome force that sits at the center of the plot of the book and at the center of these characters’ lives.   The main character’s sister provides counterpoint to our main character’s self-destructive tendencies.  And in the end, O’Dell, herself a native of these Pennsylvania coal towns, shows the hope that smolders on in the land even after the mines have been relegated to another time and place.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.17.11

The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker

The title got me.  I picked it up off the shelf at the bookstore.  When I was reading this book, I kept thinking that the stories were good but that they seemed kind of “thin” to me.  I couldn’t put my finger on it.  They seemed like they were funny but that they also kind of sped along.  It was only after I looked up Elna Baker online that I realized that she is a stand up comic. Her stories in this memoir are like little stand-up vignettes!  They go for the punch-line pretty quickly. And, as she reveals in her book, she did work for the David Letterman show.  Part of me thinks that this might account for the fact that she got this published.  But, on the other hand, more power to her!

Elna’s life is the perfect material for stand-up or memoir.  She is a fish-out-of-water for much of her 20s as she tries to navigate being a Mormon in New York.  What I liked about the book?  Her accounts of being an overweight person and dealing with various diets and other procedures are not the focus of the book even though this is something she struggles with for a good deal of her life.  This book could very well have tried to capitalize upon these weight-loss ups and downs in an attempt to sell copies on the heels of hits like “Biggest Loser” etc.  But instead, this book really is about a woman’s attempt to find herself period.  Dating, religion, weight-loss, career–all of these are components to her very funny memoir.  And, if you get a chance, check her out on her website.  Watching some of the videos of her doing actual stand-up, I got to see her comic delivery which was good in the book and even more hilarious in person.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.15.11

The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl

A little foray into the genre of memoir today.  My mom, one of my best reading buddies, someone I can share books with and talk about books with for hours, is not a memoir reader.  She can’t stand them.  I on the other hand, love memoir. I eat it up.  Maybe it’s the pure dishiness of it–getting the full scoop on the author’s personal life, everything from love life to friendships to family secrets to major successes and major low points. But, I think it’s not only this that keeps me coming back to this genre for more.  It’s the poetry of it.  The way that impressionistic details meld with narrative to form a beautiful evocation of a life.  Add in the analysis that also inevitably goes along with an author’s account of his or her life, and we have, to me, a perfect mix of the elements of fiction and non-fiction.  My mom’s main complaint about memoir is that it often lacks plot. And she is right on that.  It may be that I simply don’t need as much plot as she does in a good read.  I honestly could read the impressionistic detail paired with the next impressionistic detail for hours.  And of course, there are badly written memoirs, which, can account for some of the genre’s bad press.

The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl is not even Hampl’s best known work.  Her memoir A Romantic Education is a well-received work that portrays her search for her Eastern European roots.  She also has written a book of essays about the genre for memoir, I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory, a work of great insight and intelligence.  These books, I might cover in a future post.  The Florist’s Daughter is a book I purchased because of my desire to get my hands on anything by Hampl.  After reading these other books, I wanted more!

When I started The Florist’s Daughter, I confess that I thought I had finally found a book of hers that was less than stunning. I put it down after the first 20 pages.  It seemed trite and perhaps a bit sad to me.  There it sat on my shelf for probably a year or two, before, in search of some good memoir, I took it out again, and begain reading in earnest.  And, I found that Hamp as I knew her was still there, in this book.  If anything, I found her insights and writing in here even perhaps a bit more light and translucent, their beauty and insight balanced and beautiful.

Hampl chronicles the decline of her mother’s health, holding vigil by her mother’s bedside.  These current day events give way to Hampl’s memories of her mother and father as she was growing up.  Hampl credits her mother’s avid storytelling with Hampl’s own poetic development.  But it is her father’s work as a florist that Hampl credits with giving her the eye for the important image, the important color, the important detail that makes her the writer she is.  The sense of place Hampl creates as the backdrop to her family life in Minnesota is beautiful.  And, Hampl portrays both the frustrations and heartbreaking moments of pain in her family’s history as well as the moments of mundane beauty that ultimately, serve to be everyone’s saving grace.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.13.11

The Privileges by Jonathan Dee

We are familiar with books that depict the lives of the rich and famous.  Whether a book shows wealth as a wonderful world of escape for the reader or whether a book portrays wealth as a negative influence that causes pain for everyone involved, it is fun to immerse ourselves for a few hundred pages into the worlds of the wealthy.

But, escapist read this book is not.  It is instead a thought-provoking investigation into a character’s almost sociological experiment, one which pushes the limits of wealth and success.

The catch?  Author Jonathan Dee puts us inside the mind of the wealthy and successful main character, portraying him as someone sympathetic, someone even boyish and innocent, someone close to us, the readers.  We feel, somehow, like rooting for him, even as he makes rather questionable decisions.

What do you do when you have it all?  When you have reached the pinnacle of success and still have more life to live?  When you want more and are capable of more?  Is success enough?  When you’ve reached massive success, where do you go from there?  And, even more interesting, and also perhaps even more relevant for future generations, what do children of privilege do?  When everything has been given to you, when you want for nothing, when you know that any adventure, challenge, experience is open to you, that there are no limits, what do you do?  The answer to that question is something that author Jonathan Dee considers carefully.  The children of the main character and his wife are the characters who most captured my sympathy and interest in this novel.  Dee’s portrayal of their rather unique and strange predicament is something I haven’t thought much about.  And the ways these two children deal with their parents’ success as well as their parents’ god-like power is initially surprising, but then ultimately, quite fitting.  And sad.

The only problem I had with the book is that sometimes, so intent is Dee on investigating the ramifications of his philosophical question, that he spares scene development and characterization.  At times the narrative moves rather quickly through years and scenes, providing short, intense glimpses into moments in the characters’ lives, but, I yearned for more.  Perhaps I simply want 200 more pages in this book, where the author can slow down and fully evoke the three-dimensional scenes of these characters’ lives.  Because of the schematic tendency in some scenes, halfway through the book, I lost some of the connection Dee did a very good job of creating in his earlier chapters.

Bottom line:  Dee is a skilled writer, and the scenes of New York City investment banking life are spot on.  Read this and ponder.  Read this and consider the ethics of privilege.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.10.11

For my latest post, I thought I’d bend the rules a bit.  Instead of a book, I’m going to discuss a recent magazine issue:

Spin Magazine:  August 2011 issue–dedicated to the 20th Anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind

The other night, I found myself in Penn Station with 45 minutes to wait until my train.  Surrounded by Saturday night’s best, I headed to Hudson News to check out the magazines.  I bought the latest issue of Spin, an issue dedicated to the 20 year anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind.  Ok, so, seeing this issue and then buying it was surreal. Spin as a magazine has gotten decidedly thinner, as have most magazines and newspapers that are lucky enough to still be in print. I haven’t bought a music magazine in a while. Back in high school and college, Rolling Stone and Spin were the only magazines I would buy.  What happened to those days?  Now, I read The New Yorker and O!  omg.

It was most bizarre seeing this cultural moment from my youth loudly proclaimed as an anniversary–the 20th, at that.  And so, enveloped in a two-fold nostalgia, I absorbed this commemorative issue, cover to cover, as I sat in the Penn Station waiting area, surrounded by the drunk, the high-heeled, the leopard printed and the camped out.

It was nice.  Good.  Good to be so absorbed by reading about bands. Like rifling through a CD store, enjoying the references that lead to other references that lead to others–a web of musicians and albums and personal associations of the music lulling me into a comfortable stream of consciousness.   I read quotes and accounts by other musicians as they weighed in on where they were when Nevermind came out.  It’s that kind of cultural event, or at least Spin treats it this way in this issue. “Where were you when Nevermind was released?”

But what is up?!? Where did the 20 years go?  You mean, my generation is no longer the focal point of youth and coolness?  You mean, that was a long time ago?  You mean, my friends and I matter, perhaps, a little less than we did back then?  Just a smidgen less?

Sometime, long ago, I learned this. I’ve known this for many, many years.

But, suddenly having one of my cultural reference points referred to as something so far in the past has caught my inner 18-year-old unawares.  I mean, not to belabor the point, but, I can see a 10 year anniversary.  But 20th?  That’s something for parents and grandparents.  Not me.  Not us.

OK, thanks for that.  Back to the issue.

Some of the quotes in Spin I enjoyed the most were from the musicians or pop culture icons who said that Nevermind never hit them at the time (or now!)  as some great musical moment.  Not that Nirvana wasn’t big.  But that Nevermind as an album was more poppy and slick and produced, and so, never really felt that revolutionary.  These quotes were fun to read, because, in some ways, they are the more important and interesting.  They show the complexity of this time period–more than the hyperbolic, grand endorsement that a 20th anniversary edition seems to ask for, almost require.The real question with something like Nirvana and Nevermind and Cobain and Love and all of the things that go along with their whole coterie of moments is not what did you think of that big album release, but, when did Nirvana come to matter to you?  Most likely it’s not something that we felt at that moment when an album was released or when the news proclaimed Cobain’s death or when we saw Nirvana do something even more boundary-pushing onstage than the concert before.  Most likely, the authenticity of Nirvana or grunge lies embedded in our memory, stitched together through a series of mundane moments,  joined with those one or two times that the song hit you just at some crucial emotional  instant of connection or just breaking through.  Singing along in the car. Letting out anger about something going on in your life by putting on Nirvana.  Hearing it in the background when out with friends.  Seeing a music video in your dorm common room when you were wasting a Sunday after being out all Saturday night.

When I do see or hear the band now on the radio or on TV, I look and listen for the rawness of the time period they evoke.  It’s not the rawness of their music that hits me.  It’s the raw newness of my own life then.  20 years ago.  Before I even knew about 20 year anniversaries.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.8.11

Can you Keep a Secret?  Sophie Kinsella

A little chick-lit interlude here!  As part of my roommate’s recent gift of several volumes of chick-lit, I recently finished this pink book.  Loved it.  Kinsella is perhaps even lighter than the other chick-lit titles I discussed earlier in my blog.  On the one hand, her plot and her characters are not as complex as the other books in this category.  But, on the other hand, there is a brilliance to Kinsella’s pacing and humor that makes this book stand out.  I am noticing that there seems to be a tradition, a la Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, of British chick-lit in which an imperfect, accident-prone heroine finds her doddering way in the world–capturing, at the end of the day, the man, the job, and the heart of the reader.  From page one, our first person narrator’s point of view flows seamlessly along a series of blunders and hilarious misadventures as she experiences the travails of inadvertently sharing secrets with her friends, co-workers and love interests. It’s her reactions to these moments that make her a lovable character.  And, it’s the timing of the anecdotes and banter between characters that keeps the reader zipping along, turning page after page.  Deep reading?  No!  But a study in excellent delivery and spot-on humorous observations about human foibles?  Decidedly Yes.  I can only hope that in reading this book I have absorbed a small morsel of Kinsella’s decidedly British comic delivery.  If you’re looking for that perfect book to make you forget about the cares of the day–to make you feel like you’re lying on a beach somewhere even if you happen to just be on a park bench in your local park, then pick up this book.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.7.11

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital  by Lorrie Moore

I can’t write about Lorrie Moore without heading right into a discussion of her book–a novella, really–Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?   This is a special book, one so close to my heart because of the very prescient way it covers the delicate period of female friendships, from the closeness of friends from childhood through the transitions that high school and college bring.  On the one hand, this is a common enough topic for a book.  Many do it.  But Moore is anything but a conventional writer. The book’s enigmatic title says it all. Perhaps the strength of the book is that it skillfully allows the reader to live inside the protected world of this friendship.  And, Moore’s narrative is enmeshed with the idiosyncrasies of the small-town setting and the characters’ amusement park summer job.  The quirky side-characters in the book serve to draw the two main characters further into their own world while keeping them observers and sometime-participants in the world of their coworkers.

Without giving anything away, there is this one point in the book where the main character states how all of the intrusions of the outside world of growing up have affected this childhood friendship.  And, there is a sense of a loss, a loss of something that cannot be retrieved, that renders this portrayal of a friendship so spot on and so precious to the reader.  Read it, and you will understand.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.7.11

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Those of us accustomed to Moore’s short stories and her whimsical, witty and word-playing ways were delighted to read her newest book, this one about the world post 9/11.  As I said in my last post, this novel reminds me of Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me because of the way it too covers truly 21rst century issues and also because of the way the characters interact across an American landscape that includes both east coast cities and the midwest.

It is a difficult challenge:  how to write about events of the present, when we are still so very close to the events of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent effects?  Jonathan Safran Foer has done this in his book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which I have yet to read.  Regardless, Moore tackles this post 9/11 topic, and I was drawn in.  She sets her novel in Wisconsin, a setting familiar to Moore because of her teaching post at University of Wisconsin, Madison.  Writers on this post 9/11 topic seem to delight in placing their tales in the midwest, if only to show that it is truly America that was affected by 9/11, not just New York.  Indeed, it is this midwestern setting’s very out-of-the-way location that makes it a strong lure for characters trying to escape the imbroglio of the eastern cities.

OK, so, here’s what this book delivers:  richly lyrical, vibrant imagery of setting.  Honestly, some of the descriptions are so densely layered with physical description of color and flora and fauna and scenery I would linger over them, delighting in their almost taste-able richness.   The main character has some appeal. And the parents of the main character along with her brother provide scenes of family bonding as well as disconnection that can be poignant. Moore also brings in the topic of adoption which provides an interesting side-focus for the main character’s own search for happiness. There are several times when Moore uses the technique of listing dialogue between groups of people as a sort of microphone for Americans’ various reactions to 9/11 and the various versions of xenophobia that resulted.  This felt a bit transparent and forced.  I was like, “OK, here is where Moore is acting more like an anthropologist/journalist than a novelist.”  But, on the other hand, I appreciate that she gets this panorama of sentiments down on paper.  She is, after all, making a record of the points of view in our current 21rst century world.   It is when Moore brings all of the pieces of her novel together that she provides us with the “zinger” of the plot.  Because it is such a zinger, I almost wanted her to go on longer, to truly draw out all of the ramifications of the story she had portrayed.  She leaves the reader with an ending deeply poetic in imagery and description.  I simply wanted a bit more in terms of her filling in of the “so what”.