Wednesday, December 29, 2021

The Crossroads

CrossroadsCrossroads by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Crossroads is the beginning of a trilogy from Jonathan Franzen, a detailed exploration of the life of a Midwest pastor, his wife and their four kids. With the exception of the nine-year-old, each member is pretty screwed up and the author chapter by chapter describes their failings, history and sorry denouements. There was considerable religious commentary not unusual in a pastor's story, but which left me in the dark. The plot jostles along, but nothing about the writing made me sit up or read aloud to my reading companion. I noted "lambent" as a favorite adjective among others. There is one of the best descriptions of speed-induced mental derailment I've read. But though I read compulsively, surely someone will notice and help these characters, I did not love this novel as much as I did his first book, The Corrections.

But don't mind me. Here's one of my favorite reviewers, Ron Charles of the Washington Post, reviewing this book last October: "The result is a story of spiritual crises with a narrative range more expansive than Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels, which can sometimes feel liturgical in their arcane ruminations. Franzen is working closer to the practical theology and moral realism of John Updike’s “Rabbit, Run” and “In the Beauty of the Lilies.” Grasping at reeds of grace and selfishness, the Hildebrandts demonstrate in the most poignant way how mortals stumble through life freighted with ideals that simultaneously mock and inspire them."

My philosophy gaps are showing.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2021

I Love You but I've Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins

I Love You But I've Chosen DarknessI Love You But I've Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In sometimes very funny and sharp prose, the author tells a story of a young woman fleeing her husband and baby daughter, probably with post-partum depression, to live in the Mojave Desert where she was raised, all true of the author. She starts the story with activities of her father, described on a Tecopa website, "Paul Watkins, the famous member of Charles Manson’s Family who testified against Manson, securing his conviction for the notorious Helter Skelter murders. Watkins founded the Death Valley Chamber of Commerce, and his daughter, writer Claire Vaye Watkins, grew up here, near the Old Spanish Trail." He died young and Claire Vaye Watkins focuses much of the later chapters on her erratic alcoholic mother and reliable sister and her many boyfriends. In many ways, this angry and intense tale smacks of memoir and reviewers label it as autofiction. Enchanted by the title, I moved quickly through the first half of this book but found it bogged down in the found letters from her mother as a teen. I skimmed until we were back in Tecopa and desert living as the author finds some peace in solitude: “Pull my hair. Be kind to all plants and animals and children. Leave me alone. That’s how I like it,” she demands in this look at the injustice of making mother and woman and artist and lover mutually exclusive.

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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

The PlotThe Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Plot was an entertaining suspenseful view of novel writing with an absorbing story-within-a-story scheme which hiked up the suspense. I rarely care "who done it" in a mystery, but the twist was obvious as soon as her childhood was described exactly as a famous novel. Although I thought characterization was a bit weak, especially in the main characters, Anna and Jake, I still enjoyed the story, and the level of tension kept me turning pages. Also, as a native, it was fun to read about the Seattle settings.

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A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies

A Lie Someone Told You about YourselfA Lie Someone Told You about Yourself by Peter Ho Davies
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A well written and complicated auto-fiction (?) story of a couple choosing to abort their probably-damaged-fetus who do eventually have a healthy child. The guilt and politics which torment them as they cope with having a new baby and the writer's introduction to fatherhood make for absorbing reading. The narrator is a writing teacher at a local college which contributes to the humorous subplot in this moving family story.

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Beautiful World, Where Are You? by Sally Rooney

Beautiful World, Where Are YouBeautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was my first book from this popular author. I found it absorbing enough to finish, to find out what happened to the various relationships among the foursome, but I was not as affected by the prose as I had hoped I'd be. Competently written but not poetic. Interesting ideas crop up in the style alternating email with action such that a long philosophical chapter is relieved by a scene-filled action chapter. And her political ideas are solid (“My theory is that human beings lost the instinct for beauty in 1976, when plastics became the most widespread material in existence”).

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Exteriors by Annie Ernaux

ExteriorsExteriors by Annie Ernaux
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Trenchant observations of people and thoughts while on the subway, in the mall, at the grocery. Occasionally funny, always astute and empathetic.

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The Spare Room by Helen Garner

The Spare RoomThe Spare Room by Helen Garner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I started with Helen Garner Everywhere I Look and read Claire Fuller's review which is hard to top. I was also reminded of the plot of the Sigrid Nunez What Are You Going Through about friendships under strain. Engrossing story and a refreshing Australian setting.

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Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

HamnetHamnet by Maggie O'Farrell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Everyone is right. Why did I postpone it for so long? Beautiful book, the writing, the tale, the imagination. Thanks to all who kept recommending it to me.
The author's exposition of grief is extraordinary bringing a tear to my hardened eye.
So many quotations to savor, i.e. this of his pregnant wife: "His mind is traversed for a moment, by an image of her body in its current astonishing shape, as he saw it last night; limbs, neat rib cage, the spine a long indent down the back, a cart-track through snow, and then this perfectly rounded phere at the front. Like a woman who had swallowed the moon."

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The Promise by Damon Galgut

The PromiseThe Promise by Damon Galgut
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Pleased that this family story of apartheid and beyond in South Africa won the Booker Prize this year. Absorbing tale with a surprising thread of humor running through it.

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My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name Is Lucy BartonMy Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Enjoyable story of a mother-daughter and their often strained conversations, told in spare prose by the daughter who is a writer. I wanted more about Lucy at the end, but am pleased to see there's another volume Oh William!.

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The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen

The Copenhagen Trilogy: Childhood; Youth; DependencyThe Copenhagen Trilogy: Childhood; Youth; Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I lollygagged through the initial book (Childhood), then gave up on this dense memoir. Recently, I tried again by going straight to Youth and goose-stepped to the end through the German occupation of Copenhagen, Tove Ditlevsen's four marriages, three kids, her intense devotion to writing numerous poems and novels, her appallingly realistic descriptions of addiction to Demerol, the cravings and trials of getting clean. Her craving never stops as she describes in Dependency, while she's at the mercy of her mentally ill medical researcher husband for her injections: "Hell on earth. I'm freezing, I'm shaking, I'm sweating, I'm crying and yelling his name into the empty room." I was continually aware of how much better the Danish medical system is than ours (doctors actually came to the house and answered calls at unlikely hours), she spent months in a rehab facility at state expense under a caring doctor). Her specificity is part of her writing skill. A very good book.

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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

Burnt SugarBurnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I just read the Booker nominee Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi in which the narrator describes her fraught love-hate relationship with her mother who is sliding into dementia, and retraces the mother's neglect of her daughter growing up in an ashram in Pune, and the lover the two shared after the daughter grew up. The girl's American-born husband, Dilip, "was handsome and tall in a way that let everyone know he'd grown up abroad. Baseball caps, good manners and years of consuming American dairy," struggles to accommodate her foibles, her inexplicable repetitive art, her relationships with her family. The writing is lively and interesting. Much attention is devoted to smells (the bakery, the smoking rickshaw engine, fried cumin and garlic, armpits, food (dal, pakoras, samosas, koftas), memories and anger, and time in the book is askew. I read it with interest, occasional amusement, and a longing to revisit India. The character of the daughter is not sympathetic, but she is not dull and her reactions and thoughts are insightful as she struggles to do her duty by her mother.
"The habit of waiting has already been instilled...deeply ingrained. I wonder if, when I'm old and frail and can see the shape of my end in front of me, I will still be waiting for the future to roll in."

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Monday, September 13, 2021

A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion

A Crooked TreeA Crooked Tree by Una Mannion

I read A Crooked Tree last night. The writing is good, and even better is her characterizations of teens. Told by a fifteen-year-old, one of five siblings growing up outside of Philadelphia in the Seventies, the tale is authentic and each of the kids is distinct. The widowed mother is not responsible as a parent, engaged in an affair, working too much, and letting her anger get the best of her so Libby is forced to make her own decisions. An evil character has them all cowed in fear, but they are reluctant to share info with parental or civic authorities. The suspense accelerates and the last quarter of the book is an unputdownable mystery after some slowness in the middle.

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Saturday, September 11, 2021

A Ghost in the Throat

A Ghost in the ThroatA Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Ghost in the Throat stunned me with the beauty of its writing and its passion. The author/narrator is a young wife with four children under the age of six consumed by her exploration of an 18C Irish Gaelic poet named Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. The book is a paean to research as she scours the archives for information almost impossible to find on women of that era, on the "female text." She has to look at the men around Eibhlín Dubh to imagine what was happening with the poet as she tragically faced the murder of her husband. Much of the book is Ní Ghríofa's fantasies of the poet's life alternating with her own memoir of the last decade, another female text composed while sleepless, nursing and performing innumerable chores, "a dirge and a drudge-song, an anthem of praise, a chant and a keen, a lament and an echo, a chorus and a hymn."
"O my belovèd, steadfast and true!
The day I first saw you
by the market's thatched roof,
how my eye took a shine to you,
how my heart took delight in you,
I fled my companions with you,
to soar far from home with you.
And never did I regret it..."

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Friday, August 20, 2021

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura

IntimaciesIntimacies by Katie Kitamura
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Intimacies is narrated by an interpreter working in the Court at The Hague. She tells us more of the back stories of her friends and lover than her somewhat mysterious self and the "strange intimacy" of her encounter with the accused former president of an unnamed African country in his cell or in the conference room with his lawyers. She translates from the French not his native Arabic, but he "sees" her in a way that frightens her as she ponders the power of language.
Another compelling thread of the book is her lover, Adriaan, who leaves her alone in his apartment for weeks while he goes to resolve his divorce with his wife in Lisbon. When will he return, or will he? Troubled by the adulterous affair of her friend Eline's bookseller brother who she espies in a restaurant, our unnamed heroine is uncertain of her own affair. She also questions her affinities with other people recently met in her move to Holland.
The book is well written in spare language and readable in short eventful chapters. I gobbled it up even though not entirely at ease with the ending.
Read Ron Charles review:

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Saturday, June 12, 2021

Secrets of Happiness by Jean Silber

Secrets of HappinessSecrets of Happiness by Joan Silber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Who knew where happiness came from? Well, actually, there were theories. In the Buddhism my father sometimes followed you heard arguments on the vanity of grasping for happiness. Whatever you ran after and clung to was destined to slip out of your hands, melt like snow, dissolve into thin air. What could be more obvious? The truth of impermanence was somehow a cheering idea to my father...he believed in freedom, my father." p. 218

The book is divided into seven chapters each focused on one character in this tale of two Manhattan families and their extended lovers and friends, told in the first person each time. Occasionally, I would forget who my character was but always enjoyed reading about them. The tension is good, the writing is clear and competent, and I would race to continue each night enjoying the through line of Cambodia or Thailand or elsewhere in Asia visited by the characters.

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Sunday, February 7, 2021

Undocumented Americans

The Undocumented AmericansThe Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Portraits of the thousands of people who deliver our sustenance (waiters, delivery people, day laborers, farmworkers) and pay into the American Social Security System but realize nothing from it as they age and must keep working at bottom-rung wages. The author focused on people like her family (she's a DACA participant who graduated from Harvard), visiting key cities in the U.S. and giving voices to those who were not afraid to talk with her about their journey. The book is a well written and documented justification for her righteous anger. It is a slim, compelling volume which puts faces to headlines. Read it.

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Friday, February 5, 2021


MigrationsMigrations by Charlotte McConaghy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I stayed up all night reading Migrations by Australian Charlotte McConaghy.
An absorbing futurist tale of species extinction and the last Arctic terns chased by a hungry herring fishing boat. The crew and their boat end up scattered to Antarctica sought by authorities. Guided by a troubled but determined young woman who's tagged a couple of the birds and traces them on her laptop, we learn though flashbacks of her peripatetic background and sketchy history. The tale kept me up way too late and while not my usual fare, I was completely taken with the writing and the story.

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Thursday, February 4, 2021

The Waves

The WavesThe Waves by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This plot-less exploration of lifetime friendships and the fluidity of the characters from childhood to old age offers a deeply involving if difficult reading experience. Woolf's lyrical writing and colors, nature, animals, meals, made it worthwhile and it's best to let The Waves wash over the reader without trying too hard to parse meaning. Play-like, Woolf Virginia takes on identity, mortality, and friendship: in six characters who are perhaps one character based on the author. Bernard, the writer with his phrases, is our anchor, and Louis, is "stone-carved, sculpturesque; Neville, scissor-cutting, exact; Susan with eyes like lumps of crystal; Jinny dancing like a flame, febrile, hot, over dry earth; and Rhoda the nymph of the fountain always wet." The bonds and points of view shift in the soliloquies. There is no dialogue.
I think one of the most enjoyable reviews is Fionnuala's
I want to read more Woolf, this is said to be the most challenging of her books.

"I felt leap up that old impulse, which has moved me all my life, to be thrown up and down on the roar of other people's voices, singing the same song; to be tossed up and down on the roar of almost senseless merriment, sentiment, triumph, desire."

"Some people go to priests, others to poetry; I to my friends, I to my own heart, I to seek among phrases and fragments something unbroken--I to whom there is not beauty enough in moon or tree; to whom the touch of one person with another is all, yet who cannot grasp even that, who am so imperfect, so weak, so unspeakably lonely. There I sat."

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Saturday, January 30, 2021

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult TimesWintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times is not my usual fare according to its categorization as new age/self-improvement but the writing was skillful and lovely enough to disregard preconceptions. And as a summer person I balked at snow and ice, the frigid settings of Iceland and the Arctic, but I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the Sami and their reindeer, the adaptable hard-working Finns and the Polar Bear Clubbers. The story of her husband's burst appendix resonated with personal experience (my husband's appendix burst on a camping trip) and her exploration of her own illness, pulling her unhappy child our of school and the captivating incident of losing and regaining her voice held my attention. Wolves, bees as one organism, friendly robins and kids books carried me along with the narrator. The best quote: "They say that we should dance like no one is watching. I think that applies to reading, too" which she says of her familiar loose, exploratory reading during nights of insomnia, "a chapter here, a segment there." And best of all, February 1st marks the Gaelic festival of Imbolc or St. Brigid's Day when we dust away our cobwebs to welcome spring hovering just over there. My snowbells are up, the tulips leaves visible.

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Friday, January 22, 2021

The Bloater

The BloaterThe Bloater by Rosemary Tonks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a lark! So glad to have snagged a copy of this book from Interlibrary Loan and listened to the Backlist Podcast. Min is a classic female character in this delightful confection of the Sixties as she copes with her opera singer admirer called The Bloater ("this huge, tame, exotic man" "I personally can smell him from the kitchen...I do see that he is large and washing takes time") lusts after a coworker named Billy, gossips with friends and an inciteful neighbor ("he has property, knows everything, and occasionally tells me near-truths about myself.") She pretty much ignores her husband, George. She suffers from gout and is absorbed by her clothing, her home décor and her cleaner, occasionally her job in electronic music, but mostly is concerned with her love life. When her husband complains, "I am bewildered, and my ego falls down off her plinth." Fun to read. A closing salvo from Min: "I'm able to put up with the present only by attaching it to the future."

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Sunday, January 10, 2021

Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar

Homeland ElegiesHomeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 stars. My response to this book was mixed--the writing is smart and skilled and the personal relationships between father and son and male friendships held my interest, but the lengthy discourses on politics and why his Black friend votes Republican. religion, economics, market timing, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Robert Bork, the 45th president, Islamaphobia post September 11th, all dragged in verbosity. One of his more prescient observations: "Trump had just felt the national mood, and his particular genius was a need for attention so craven, so unrelenting, he was willing to don any and every shade of our moment's ugliness, consequences be damned." I've seen and appreciated Akhtar's short, one-act punchy action-filled plays including the Pulitzer-winner, Disgraced. I wanted more of that in the novel, but the author wanted to expound.

Many questions answered in this review:

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Friday, January 1, 2021

What Are You Going Through?

What Are You Going ThroughWhat Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, "What are you going through?”

― Simone Weil

The first half of the book deals mostly with the narrator's attendance at a lecture on the inevitable end of the world and then an amalgam of anecdotes as she meets people who tell her of their suffering. This section moved slowly. The latter half of the book is her attendance on a friend with terminal cancer who is intent on euthanasia and I responded more to this section, in fact laughed out loud at some of its incongruities like the flood, or:
"Flaubert: To think is to suffer.
Aristotle: To perceive is to suffer.
Hitchcock: Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.
Sylvester the Cat: Sufferin' succotash."
The philosophical topics are meaty and many on the decimation of earth, illness, death, friendship and animals' role in our lives. Some consider it a companion piece to The Friend as it deals with similar topics of friendship and aging.
There's not much plot nor even characterization, but I enjoyed the literary references, the quotidian activities caring for each other, the author's telling how to sit with a terminal friend as the earth too is dying.

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