30 Books in 30 Days: 8.28.11

Townie by Andre Dubus III

This summer, I’ve been reading this memoir and living inside of Dubus’ gritty, violence-infused scenes.  This is a memoir that speaks directly from the New England town of Haverhill, where Dubus grew up with his brother and two sisters under the care of his mother.  Right across the way, living on the college campus of the local junior college, Dubus’ father enjoyed fame as adored writing professor and increasingly renowned short story writer.  While Dubus’ father did see his children once a week, he was far from involved in their lives.

Dubus provides rich descriptions of New England working class neighborhoods, bars, friendships, and codes of the street. Much of the book depicts Dubus’ building of a tough identity as a town fighter, A quiet and diminutive child, he became obsessed with proving himself physically.  But, while building up his physical body he also developed a fighting mentality where he learned to see past the humanity of people to fight them.  His discussion of how he learned to penetrate the membrane of humanity so that he could will himself to fight and be violent is interesting.

At times, I was overwhelmed with the numerous descriptions of fights in the book.  But then, perhaps that is the point.  Dubus was so immersed in fighting and violence that it was soul-deadening.  The violence wears the reader down much as it must have Dubus.

But then, about three-quarters of the way through this book, Dubus describes his emergence as a writer and his discovery that he could write.  This is where I find this book so valuable and moving.  It is often rare to hear a writer describe his birth as a writer.  From the ground up.  Much like everything in Dubus’ life, he had to forge his writing skills and identity himself.  He literally describes sitting down at a clear table, taking a pen to paper, and beginning to write.  I love this image, myself.  It makes me feel not so alone as a writer.  And, it also somehow captures the magic of the writing experience.  Spartan.  Simple.  Hardscrabble.  Life-giving.  Beautiful.

The amazing thing about this book is that Dubus resists the “tell-all” nature of a memoir which certainly talks a lot about the shortcomings of a famous writer, his father.  Instead, Dubus’ tone is straight-froward and truthful.  Yes, there is blame, but it’s not the type of blame where Dubus is exploiting his father’s neglectful parenting in order to gain readers’ sympathy or outrage.  Rather, it is the truth-telling of a son who both reveres his father while also being all too aware of the ways he was absent.  There is a note in the back of the book where Dubus quotes his father (I am paraphrasing here).  Dubus says, “To my father who told me not to wait until my parents were dead to start writing about my family.”  On the one hand, great writing advice from one writer to another.  On the other hand, I can’t decide if Dubus’s father  is gutsy or self-aggrandizing in this advice.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.27.11

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb

This book is a tome.  Something to read over a period of weeks or even months.  And yet, Lamb writes in such a simultaneously accessible and beautiful style that it doesn’t feel like a chore.  It is an elevating book.  One that makes you feel like you’ve grown as a person after reading it.

The book begins with a timely setting:  the shootings at Columbine.  That plot line alone is enough to rivet the reader.  But, Lamb merely starts here. In this way, the book is really a book for our times.  Taking the loss of innocence of our young men as a major premise, Lamb then moves from the tragedies in Columbine to the east coast where a teacher flees after these tragedies, seeking shelter in his family’s Connecticut land after these Colorado happenings.

I do feel a kinship with Lamb since he is a Connecticut writer.  Lamb’s main characters eek out a life in Connecticut despite their spiritual bankruptcy after the Columbine shootings.  At this point, Lamb brings in history as backdrop to these characters’ lives.  And then history even becomes something to interact with and comment upon these particular struggles of these modern-day characters who seem caught in a world where boys’ lives are squandered.  Lamb’s scholarship as well as fiction techniques are high level.  I recommend this book.  It is one of the best books I have read in recent years.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.27.11

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett

Memoirs written by writers about friendship with another writer are a particular genre I’ve been fascinated by.  Another one that I have yet to read, perhaps because of its elegiac tone, is Gail Caldwell’s account of her friendship with the prolific writer, the late Carolyn Knapp, Let’s Take the Long Way Home .

Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett’s moving memoir about her intense and loving friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy is a beautiful paean to all of the sides of friendship–its lows and highs.  Ann is able to evoke the nuances of a friendship marked by moments of intense connection, shared passions and even times of power struggles and even downright unhealthy dynamics.  Throughout it all, she moves through the stages of their friendship from the time they met as newcomers at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop to the time of Lucy’s death because of cancer.  Writing about any friendship is tough.  But writing about a friendship with a figure who is so well-known and also as enigmatic as Grealy is even tougher.  And yet, Patchett shows that it is Grealy’s very engaging and beguiling personality that makes her at once such a joy and love to be with as well as such an object of misunderstanding from those who knew her.  What I love most about reading this memoir of a writerly friendship is that Patchett inevitably writes about her own writing life during the periods of this relationship.  We learn about Patchett’s development as a writer, about the year she waits tables and composes her novel in her head as she is doing waitress station work.  We learn about her moments of competition with Grealy, as any friendship with two writers must be rife with.  We learn also about the ways that these two women seemed to understand each other intimately, complimenting each other with their very different personalities.  To read an account of Grealy’s life, take a look at her memoir, Autobiography of a Face.  I admit to not having read it because I have shied away from its painful subject matter.  Amongst other things, it tells about her bouts with cancer and the subsequent surgeries she has had upon her face.  Patchett’s memoir serves to immerse the reader in the multitudinous layers of friendship without shying away from its most thorny or controversial moments.  It too has its disturbing moments, and I admit to being both drawn in and repelled by Patchett’s accounts of Grealy’s behavior.  Regardless, the book lives up to its name.  A truly beautiful read.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.27.11

This is Not the Story You Think It Is by Laura Munson

By this point, most of my friends have received my heartfelt recommendations about this book.  But, I haven’t recorded my thoughts about the book in writing, yet.  So, here goes.  Every once in a while, a book hits you as if it were meant exactly for you at the time of life you are reading it.  For me, this book is one of those.  I loved the writing.  I loved the message.  And I loved the way the author recorded her own life while reaching out to others.  Here’s the deal:  This book is ostensibly about marriage and how to weather the storms of its ups and downs.  And, for all you married people out there, run out and get this!  But, for those of us unmarried people out there, this book is just as relevant.  It is really a book about living.  About taking responsibility for oneself at whatever point one is on in one’s journey.  I know.  Very new age-y. But, the book is not new age-y.  It is decidedly down to earth.  And beautifully written.  And full of all of the wisdom of a career writer.  Munson describes how she has written something like 14 novels in her life–none of them published.  And she uses this fact to reflect on the fact that many of us have dreams but in some way truncate these dreams, never really fully embracing the scary reality of going all the way with something we care about.  Hence, after writing 14 novels, she finally writes a memoir that in fact makes it to the big time–and, this propels her and her family to a new level of fame and publicity but also to a new level of understanding of each other.  Read this book if you’re in a marriage.  Read this book if you’re in the middle of life.  It is beautiful.  Through carefully described vignettes as well as spot-on reflections about the ways we embrace and avoid our own fears, Munson reaches through these pages with all the candidness and airiness of a good friend.  I recommend this book wholeheartedly.

You can catch Munson at her blog, aptly named These Here Hills based upon her Montana lifestyle.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.27.11

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

There’s nothing like a hurricane to get one hunkered down and blogging. Thanks, Hurricane Irene, for getting me in front of the computer.  So, where are we?  For today’s post, I thought I’d talk about a “hurricane” of a book in that it sparked such a controversy.  You all know what I’m talking about: The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen.  You know, Franzen. He’s the one who, after Oprah put his novel on her booklist, had the audacity to tell her he didn’t want the recommendation.  Which led to cries of elitism from many.  Which led to his re-accepting Oprah’s support. Which led to another great drama for Oprah to show on her show.  Which, of course, led to more publicity all around for The Corrections.  The thing is, scandal and fanfare aside, The Corrections is a good book.  I really enjoyed it.  It took me awhile to get to reading it just because of all of the hoopla surround ing it.  But, when I finally sat down and read it, I was completely absorbed.  It covers an American family, both the parents and the adult children, as they navigate personal, family and national crises.  And, Franzen creates such lively story lines and individual voices for each character that the reader can totally lose herself in the pages.  Parts of the novel were especially well done, captured  tragedy and humanity and humor all at once.  For example, Franzen’s rendering of the character of the father of the family is spot on, portraying the father as he descends into a senility that is horrifying and ridiculous as once.  One child works in the restaurant business in Philadelphia–and Franzen’s scenes of restaurant life play out realistically.  One son works for a company in Lithuania, and Franzen’s portrayal of this son’s search for meaning through bizarre capitalistic schemes is very true to our modern life.  Franzen captures the midwestern sense of place in his descriptions of the family homestead, while simultaneously capturing the midwestern sense of displacement when family members uproot themselves and become ensconced in an urban east coast lifestyle.  By the end, Franzen has portrayed a family both maddening, heartbreaking and funny.  If the sign of a good author is one who can make the reader feel with great intensity, then Franzen has accomplished this.  All hulabaloos with Oprah aside.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.24.11

Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal by Julie Metz

This is a tale of a woman who did not know her husband as well as she thought she did.  And, page by page, we learn of the rather elaborate other life he led all while married to her.  I guess the reader reads partly to see how this woman could have missed it.  We may read a little bit to feel like, “Wow, thank god this isn’t me!”  We may read for the delicious scandal of it (even though this isn’t the tale of anyone famous.)  At the end of the day, I guess, it’s just a book that gives a window into another person’s life.

I have to say, by the time I got to the end of this book, I was a bit exasperated.  Metz states, (and I am paraphrasing) toward the end of the book, “I have come to see that I am just a pretty poor judge of character.”  By the time I had read to the end of this harrowing story between this man and wife, Metz’s statement seemed like the largest of understatements!  The reader can’t believe her husband is so deceiving.  But the reader also can’t believe what Metz accepted as reality for a long time.

Metz is a good writer.  Her depictions of life in the suburbs as well as the city are accurate and help to show how these two different settings can in fact contribute to romantic happiness or discord. This book may in fact get a lot of readers if only because of its promise to tear open the “perfection” of what looks so good and satisfying on the outside.  I guess the trouble with reading books like this is that, though they are fascinating, they can, in fact, break your heart when they show just how cruel the world can be.  I can’t say I felt very uplifted by the end of this book.  I felt a little trashy for having been so voyeuristic in looking in at someone else’s pain.  And, I felt sorry for Metz.  The writing, in the end, is where I hope that Metz has found her solace.  Though she writes about happier relationships after this failed marriage, I feel that her greatest comfort, hopefully, has been the introspection and insight gained through using her writing voice to tell her story. 

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.21.11

Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta

This novel has some similarities to A Person of Interest, covered in my previous post. Both novels depict the intersection between private life and systems of surveillance in our society. Novels that portray characters who have completely remade their identities, running from past lives particularly intrigue me.  Eat the Document‘s main character is a woman who has managed to start a new life, completely remaking her identity.  She has had to do so because of her involvement in revolutionary activities during the 1970s.  Yet, memories as well as cultural artifacts from her past life serve to penetrate the present time, leaving chinks in the smooth surface she is trying to maintain.  The brilliance with which Spiotta uses music as a key to this past life is a tribute to Spiotta’s knowledge about music as well as her ability to evoke  a time period’s spirit through writing about its music.  Perhaps because of the way my own father has made the 60s as a time period very much alive to me, I enjoy the way in which Spiotta manages to show the ways in which our seemingly futuristic present time has grown out of that past.

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.