New this month

March 1, 2017

stranger-in-the-woods-by-michael-finkelThe Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel
When my life gets chaotic and frustrating, I’ll make insincere but wistful “ditch the rat race” announcements, something along the lines of, “I’m buying an Airstream and moving to Montana!” Well, here’s a guy who actually walked away from it all. When he was 20 years old, Christopher Knight left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, abandoned his car and disappeared into the woods. According to the book description, he wasn’t frustrated or angry, rather he simply preferred to live alone, which he did for 27 years: “Living in a tent even through brutal winters, he had survived by his wits and courage, developing ingenious ways to store edibles and water, and to avoid freezing to death.” Knight got arrested for stealing food, bringing him out of the woods and back into civilization in 2013. Michael Finkel caught up with him to write Stranger in the Woods. Forecasts from Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly praise the book for the questions it poses about solitude and life meaning in these modern times.

exit-west-by-mohsin-hamidExit West by Mohsin Hamid
This new novel by the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia tells a timely story of migration. Saeed and Nadia are young lovers in an unidentified country that is descending into a civil war and tearing apart their city. They flee for their lives, joining other migrants in search of safety, finding their way to Mykonos Island in Greece, London and San Francisco. They don’t travel across treacherous waters or make long treks over dangerous lands, rather they go through doors that open up and function as portals to other places in the world. The Washington Post writes: “If in its physical and perilous immediacy Nadia and Saeed’s condition is alien to the mass of us, Exit West makes a final, certain declaration of affinity: ‘We are all migrants through time.’” Kirkus Reviews gives the book a star and writes, “One of the most bittersweet love stories in modern memory and a book to savor even while despairing of its truths.”

sorry-to-disrupt-the-peace-by-patty-yumi-cottrellSorry to Disrupt the Peace
by Patti Yumi Cottrell

In this debut novel, a 32-year-old woman in Manhattan gets word that her adoptive brother has taken his own life. Like her brother, Helen is Korean American and also adopted. She knows she must investigate the reasons for the suicide and buys a one-way ticket to the family home in Milwaukee. From the book’s description: “But what starts as a detective’s hunt for clues soon becomes Helen’s confrontation of her own place in the world — why she’s estranged from her past (she hasn’t seen her adoptive parents in five years), and what she is doing with her life as a counselor for troubled youth.” Publisher’s Weekly, in its starred review, writes: “Cottrell gives Helen the impossible task of understanding what would drive another person to suicide, and the result is complex and mysterious, yet, in the end, deeply human and empathetic.” Meanwhile, the publisher describes the novel as “a bleakly comic tour de force that’s by turns poignant, uproariously funny, and viscerally unsettling.”

 

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn IveyTo the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
Due out next week, this new novel by Alaskan resident Eowyn Ivey is an epic tale set in her state at the end of the 19th century.  A husband ventures out on an expedition to explore unknown southern territory  and keeps a daily journal. His wife, back home, embarks on her own adventure of discovery by exploring the art of photography. Much that I’ve read about this fictional tale promises an engrossing read.

From the publisher’s plot description: “In the winter of 1885, decorated war hero Colonel Allen Forrester leads a small band of men on an expedition that has been deemed impossible: to venture up the Wolverine River and pierce the vast, untamed Alaska Territory. Leaving behind Sophie, his newly pregnant wife, Colonel Forrester records his extraordinary experiences in hopes that his journal will reach her if he doesn’t return…”

Kirkus Reviews gives the novel a star rating, saying “…this is an exceptionally well-turned adventure tale, rich with Allen’s confrontations with brutal snowstorms and murky underwater beasts and Sophie’s more interior efforts to learn her craft and elbow local busybodies out of her way.”

Publisher’s Weekly also starred the new book, saying Ivey’s fictional tale is “an entrancing, occasionally chilling, depiction of turn-of-the-century Alaska.”

Watch this YouTube video summary of the book, describing it as “a sweeping epic Alaskan tale with just a touch of magic.”

The Golden Age by Joan LondonThe Golden Age by Joan London
The Golden Age of this new novel’s title refers not to a period of time, rather a polio clinic in Perth, Australia, where teenagers Frank and Elsa fall in love and together face the challenges of their crippling disease, adolescence and the adults in their lives. First published in Australia, The Golden Age has won several literary awards and will be available in the U.S. mid-August from Europa Editions.

My research about this forthcoming book intrigues me not only for its setting and premise but also for Frank’s family as Jewish refugees from World War II Hungary. The story entices with the promises of an involving plot not only about the teenagers but also regarding their parents. From the publisher’s plot description: “Elsa’s mother Margaret, who has given up everything to be a perfect mother, must reconcile her hopes and dreams with her daughter’s sickness. Frank’s parents, transplants to Australia from a war-torn Europe, are isolated newcomers in a country that they do not love and that does not seem to love them. Frank’s mother Ida, a renowned pianist in Hungary, refuses to allow the western deserts of Australia to become her home. But her husband, Meyer, slowly begins to free himself from the past and integrate into a new society.”

Kirkus Reviews says, “Every character, however minor, comes to life in these pages.”

Publisher’s Weekly says, “It is pretty much perfect.”

The Nix by Nathan HillThe Nix by Nathan Hill
The page count on this debut novel clocks in at more than 600 pages. Such a size always provokes me to consider if the investment of time will be worth it. I’m leaning toward a big YES for The Nix,  given the positive forecasts and also for this comment by Kirkus Reviews: “There are hints of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys as Hill, by way of his narrative lead, wrestles alternately converging and fugitive stories onto the page, stories that range from the fijords of Norway to the streets of ‘Czechago’ in the heady summer of 1968.” I loved Wonder Boys. The protagonist in The Nix similarly is a college professor and stalled writer.

From the publisher’s plot description:  “It’s 2011, and Samuel Andresen-Anderson … hasn’t seen [his mother] in decades, not since she abandoned the family when he was a boy. Now she’s re-appeared, having committed an absurd crime [throwing rocks at a presidential candidate] that electrifies the nightly news, beguiles the internet, and inflames a politically divided country. The media paints Faye as a radical hippie with a sordid past, but as far as Samuel knows, his mother was an ordinary girl who married her high-school sweetheart. Which version of his mother is true? Two facts are certain: she’s facing some serious charges, and she needs Samuel’s help.”

As did Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly gave the novel a star while The Huffington Post listed The Nix among 2016 summer books not to miss. New York’s Strand Bookstore lists the forthcoming novel among the 16 books we can’t wait to read this summer.

 

 

 

I’m one who reads the acknowledgements at the back of books. Those mile-long, effusive thanks for all the people who’ve helped the author become an author and/or write the book. I like how this conventional page that typically presents a formidable list of names can shed light on the network of literary others associated with the author, as well as on how the book came together.

Jonathan Evison’s acknowledgements in his new book, This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!, go beyond the typical, deserving a shout-out. It is one of the best I’ve ever read.

“The author would like to gratefully acknowledge to [sic] following people: first, the courageous women in my life, the women who have nurtured me, educated me, disciplined me, sacrificed for me, suffered for me, and never forsaken me; my mom, my grandma, my sisters, my wife, and my third grade teacher, Mrs. Hanford, to name a few. The women who have often settled for less, the women who’ve never quite gotten their fair share, who have soldiered on in the face of inequity, frustration, and despair, who have forgiven beyond reasonable measure, absorbed beyond reasonable expectation, and given, given, given with no promise of recompense. I wanted to thank them with this portrait of one woman, inspired by all of them, from the moment of her conception, to her last breath.”

This Is Your Life Harriet Chance by Jonathan EvisonThat one woman is 78-year-old Harriet Chance, whose fictional life Evison reveals with quirky brilliance, using a jocular Master of Ceremonies as a guide through Harriet’s reflections of her past life, “pinballing across the decades” between 1936 and 2015. Without sentiment, he advises, explains and encourages, creating a humorous, uplifting narrative despite the darkness that shadows Harriet’s life — the absence and bullying of Harriet’s husband, Bernard, throughout their long marriage; her parents’ indifference when she was a child; her troubled daughter Caroline, who embraced drugs, alcohol and theft; her best friend’s duplicity; and the law degree that got put aside for marriage and kids.

In the present, the widowed, 78-year-old Harriet receives a call about an Alaskan cruise that Bernard won in a silent auction before his death.  Her children discourage her, but off Harriet goes to board the ship, even though her best friend Mildred backs out of the trip at the last minute. The first night on the boat, Harriet learns a startling truth about her past and, in response, gets drunk and messy in the boat’s bar, making a fool of herself with a plateful of crab legs and too many glasses of white wine. Out of the blue, the next day, her estranged daughter Caroline joins her on the boat, for infuriating reasons.

While Harriet marches through the gift shops of Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan; makes amends with her daughter; befriends another cruiser, the morbidly obese Kurt Pickens; and attempts to make the best of the trip, she also mentally tries to put her life together in a way that makes sense. Why did she fail to hold the attention of her elusive husband? Why did Caroline become a misfit? How is it her devotion and servitude didn’t help her relationships with Bernard and Caroline? What happened to the frank, uncompromising, funny, tough woman she saw in her other self that wanted to become a lawyer?

“Ding-dong-ding, thwack-thwack-thwack, how on earth did we arrive way back here, Harriet? It’s 1946, and Vaughn Monroe is on the radio. If you listen closely, you can still hear them celebrating victory in Times Square,” says the MC, introducing us to a chapter when Harriet is nine-years-old. This is no ordinary life study, thanks not only to the MC but also the appearances of dead Bernard, popping up in the earthly realm to talk to Harriet, although he’s not sure what he’s trying to accomplish — and he’s getting himself in trouble with Heaven’s Chief Transitional Officer, Carmichael.

Bravo to Evison for pulling off the quirkiness without schmaltz and also departing from the heavy dysfunctional family story with a light touch, an insightful nod to life’s disappointments and a big hand for living one day, one week, one year at a time to the best of one’s abilities, and that includes with courage and forgiveness.

Our imperfect memory

October 24, 2011

I expected Julian Barnes’ new novel to be stunning. Not because it recently won the 2011 Man Booker Prize (the odds-on favorite) but because of the subject of memory and remorse captured in a small page count (163 pages). No over-written narrative that spans a character’s life legacy here. The Sense of an Ending promised instead an emotional snapshot of potent human elements. What I didn’t realize was how strongly The Sense of an Ending would drive home a truth we casually brush aside — as we grow older, our memories become not only approximate but also deformed by time into certainty.

That’s what the novel’s ordinary and “peaceable” narrator Tony Webster discovers in his 60s. He lets us know from the outset that his “approximate memories” are at the heart of this unforgettable story that he begins in Part One with his pretentious high school days in 1960’s central London. His chums are Alex, Colin and Adrian, who go their separate ways after graduation to universities and a father’s business. Once, they come together again in London to meet Tony’s girlfriend, Veronica. It’s pretty clear Tony and the difficult Veronica aren’t marriage material – Tony informs us that she’s not only difficult but manipulative and, after a home visit to meet her parents, likely “damaged.” They break up, and Veronica falls into the romantic arms of Adrian. Tony writes the two off, graduates from college and travels for six months in the United States.  When he returns, he learns Adrian committed suicide.

In Part Two, 40 years have passed. Barnes effortlessly leaps us forward through Tony’s marriage, parenting, divorce and retirement, keeping us focused not as much on the events as on “the compromise and littleness that most lives consist of.” Also, Barnes keeps us deeply involved and as baffled as Tony by the turn of events, especially when he inherits 500 pounds and Adrian’s diary from Veronica’s mother. Veronica and Tony haven’t seen each other for all these 40 years. 

Veronica is in possession of the diary and won’t give it up. The former college lovers enter a battle of wills via email and uncomfortable, brief meetings. When Tony asks “why me?” about the inherited money, he receives a terse, perplexing reply in his inbox: “blood money.” That’s a small glimpse of the monstrous resentment the difficult Veronica presents to Tony. Her refrain of “you don’t get it” to his insufficient responses illuminates how he failed – and continues to fail – to see the depth of the story between her and Adrian. But Tony’s lack of awareness comes across as an uncomplicated man just trying to connect again. His combined innocence and ignorance intensifies the mystery.

Throughout the slim novel, Barnes elegantly walks the fine lines of what was and is between Tony and Veronica, unfolding the story as Tony first knew it in his memory versus what, as an omniscient narrator, he knows now. An easy example to give is a school event, observing the Severn Bor: In Part One, Tony attends the natural event with university friends, but in Part Two, the 60-year-old Tony realizes Veronica was there also. And so this award-winning novel, short enough and compelling enough to read in one sitting, leaves us not only with a good book to recommend but additionally some disquieting messages that Barnes communicates through his humbled narrator: “What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed” and “the reward of merit is not life’s business.”

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