Recommending short story collections always feels risky. They aren’t a popular choice among readers. Rarely does a short story collection appear on the best-seller list. (Exceptions that come to mind are the stories of Nobel Laureate Alice Munro and The Stories of John Cheever.) Put another way, I’ve never met a reader who said they stayed up all night reading short stories.

Even so, story collections continue to hold a firm place in literary publishing, with the industry releasing respectable numbers of collections by new and known authors every year.* One of them, in the “new” category for this year, is The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead by Chanelle Benz, who creatively employs elements of crime and mystery in her assorted plots.

An example is a story that takes place at a monastery in the 16th century. An English monk must denounce his abbot and deny his vow of obedience. That’s because Thomas Cromwell is at work, declaring the king’s supremacy over the church. The destruction of the monk’s beloved home and livelihood challenges his faith and, later, drives him to take unholy revenge.

In another story, this one set in the 19th century, children attempt to reunite an aging, beautiful woman with her one and only true love, a man whom she says turned out to be quite mad. “It was a bad plan,” the children tell us. “A wicked plan. We did not know if it came from us or the Devil so full was it of deceit.”

These collected stories are mini page-turning dramas that sparkle in their diversity of settings, including not only England during the reign of Henry the VIII, but also 19th century American cowboy towns, the 21st century Middle East and a future created by climate change. The characters are widows, thieves, holy men, siblings and survivalists. They are colorful, and we care about them, which increases our need to learn their fates.

In one story set during the present day, a girl leaves home to do missionary work in the Middle East; however, an instance of violence causes her to join forces with a brutal, manipulative mercenary. She trains as a sniper and assumes different identities. Sections of the story are disturbing but skillfully handled to keep us focused on the worry of what will happen to her.

One of the most powerful stories builds toward moral outrage and violence in the pre-Civil War South. It’s a stunning depiction of an educated black poet from Boston who visits a Louisiana plantation to give a poetry reading. She trusts her companion, a Northern white man, who assures her safety.

There are 10 stories in all, and what binds them into a cohesive whole is the similar enticing narrative style. The author writes as effectively in the present as in the near and ancient past. Weapons, notably guns, come into play in most of the stories, heightening the dramatic danger. I’m tempted to slap the author’s hand for using such easy tools to incite page-turning urgency; and yet, these stories fall together so intelligently it’s hard to find fault.

So many story collections, especially debuts, reverberate with themes of modern relationships, lost and displaced souls, and broken hearts. While two of the stories in The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead could fall into this category, for the most part, what’s at stake in the others lifts the collection away from thoughtful snapshots into secrecy and lawlessness. Some of the story titles, like that of the book, are colorful adventures in and of themselves. The title of the unforgettable story involving the monk is, delightfully, “That We May All Be One Sheepfolde, or, O Saeculum Corruptissimum”.

*Best-selling author Richard Russo and Man Booker winner Penelope Lively are both publishing story collections in May: Trajectory by Russo and The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories by Lively.

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.”

 

Letters from bewilderment

January 18, 2017

the-correspondence-by-j-d-danielsJD. Daniels deserves high praise in this essay collection for his droll narrative style and razor-sharp insight. Sometimes he’s deliciously funny. Other times he describes life situations with perfect cleverness. Always, he calls it like it is. There’s a moment in one of the essays when he describes a waterfront bum walking toward him, the kind of guy whose darkly tanned, wrinkled skin has spent a lifetime in the sun. Daniels tells us, “He looked like a wallet someone had been sitting on for forty years.” In the essay about Kentucky, he writes: “…I ate a plate of biscuits and sausage gravy that would almost have fit into a football stadium.” And that deliciously funny part of the equation? “When Martha was a little girl and asked her father why she had so many freckles, he told her she had been standing behind the cow when it farted.”

The Correspondence is a small, unpretentious book in appearance – no dust jacket or colorful, eye-catching illustration – yet it’s large and affecting in its content. The six essays are written as letters, although they’re not addressed to anyone in particular; if anything, they are written for that unseen audience we all talk to in our private moments. In the majority of the essays, Daniels’ writes about significant times in his young life. His singular authorial voice sings with sarcasm, confusion and casual wonder, which altogether are magnetically seductive.

In the best essay, “Letter to Cambridge,” Daniels tells of the time he joined a fight club to learn Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He’s a self-described bookish, hairy, skinny guy getting pummeled by hulks with shaved heads. He even signs up to fight in tournaments where he’s clearly the underdog. In one of those droll moments that are so entertaining to read, his doctor reacts indifferently to Daniels’ broken nose, pointing him toward the X-ray room without pity or concern for his repeated, pointless injuries. Only, they’re not pointless. Daniels tells us he came to fighting after years of self-destruction. He writes: “You learn a lot about yourself when you train to failure, when you go out to the edge of your ability…”

In another great essay, “Letter to Majorca,” it’s several years later, and Daniels continues to be unsure about what he should be doing with his life. He signs up to work on a 43 foot boat with four Israelis off the coast of Spain. He encounters an overwhelming sea sickness and a language barrier, yet he finds focus in the daily work. The captain tells him, orders make you stupid, figure it out for yourself, and although Daniels breezes past this comment, we recognize its significance to his unsettled state.

There’s no sentiment in these six essays, no grabbing at our emotions, rather an alluring genius that traps us with its smart twists and turns. It’s in full play in “Letter to Kentucky,” the state where Daniels grew up. He names places he passes, as he travels the roadways on his visit, such as Cash Xpress and Mister Money, Xtreme Auto Sounds, the Heart of Fire City Church, Urban Creek Holiness Church, Jimbo’s 4-Lane Tobacco, the Federal Correctional Institution and, my favorite, Chain Saw World.  The essay is about nostalgia and the roots of Daniels’ bewilderment.

The remaining three essays lack the power of the ones I’ve mentioned, although they retain the bold remarks and colorful detours in storytelling. They’re just not as well-rounded in their delivery. Even so, they don’t diminish this unusual debut that heralds a promising future for J. D. Daniels.

A bibliomaniac’s burden

September 1, 2016

Regeneration by Pat Barker_1

The original “stiff” paperback

I’ve always been one to love the feel of a book: the softness of an age-old paperback with a loose cover in my hands, or the heft of an epic novel the size of a microwave on my lap. I’m also a sniffer, with an automatic impulse that pulls a book up to my nose, so I can smell the paper. It never occurred to me that pressing my nose into the middle of a book would be considered odd behavior, until a stranger stared at me with an expression of having observed a weirdo.

Given this, I suppose it’s not odd to admit that I spent precious time on a weekend afternoon in search of a more pleasing edition of a book I had started reading and had to put down because it felt too stiff in my hands.

For a long time I’ve been meaning to read Pat Barker’s acclaimed World War I Regeneration Trilogy. When I found a paperback of Regeneration, the first book in the trilogy, at a Half Price Books Clearance Sale, I took it as a sign that it was time to begin. This trilogy is considered to be among the best in World War I fiction, right up there with Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Of its three books — RegenerationThe Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road — the trilogy’s third book was awarded the 1995 Booker Prize.

I was pretty excited to start reading, until a few pages into Regeneration I felt dissatisfied and whiny about the way the book felt: There was no softness of the pages typical to paperbacks and no flexibility to the spine. The cover felt like rigid cardboard. It was like missing the scruffiness of an old shoe or the comfort of a familiar sweatshirt. Silly as it seemed, I stopped reading and drove to the library and then a Half Price Bookstore and then a used bookstore to find a better book. (This may be a bibliomaniac’s version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.)

I’ve rejected a book to pick up a better translation, but this is the first time I’ve driven around town looking for a better tactile experience in a book. The hard-bound library book could’ve worked but, at this point, I gave in to all my pickiness and put it back because I didn’t like the abstract illustration. At Half Price Books, I found a great copy, but there was handwriting and underlining on the pages. At the used bookstore, in the history section, on the very top shelf, I found a paperback copy that worked — the  softness, the flexibility and enough of a smell were present. I felt victorious.

And then this:  I got to the cash register and told the bookseller that I didn’t like the paperback I already owned. Yes, here I was spending money on yet another copy of the same book. I didn’t offer any details, as I pulled my original copy out of my purse and showed it to him. He reached for it and immediately frowned. He said, “It’s very stiff.” All my feelings of silliness dissolved. I eagerly agreed and then went home to read this great book that felt just right.

Little Women by Louisa May AlcottSummertime is classics TBR time for me. That is, a time to dig into those “to be read” books from the past. Maybe it’s the long summer days hearkening back to the childhood time of summer reading lists for school or reading on the porch at night to the comforting sounds of the cricket and cicadas that call me toward the classics. I don’t get to a lot of books published in the past – new books demand I keep up with them — but just a few classics is a enough.

The other day I came across the Penguin Random House list of “21 Books You’ve Been Meaning to Read.” It’s one of those lists that are fun to scroll through and see what you’ve already read. And of course, it will entice you to pick up the ones you haven’t read.

If anything, check out the Penguin Random House list for the beautiful and intriguing cover illustrations, such as the one you see here for Louisa May Alcott’s classic, Little Women.

The following two books aren’t on the Penguin Random House list, but they are on mine and now checked off. I recommend both of them.

The Optimist's DaughterThe Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty
I could’ve read this short novel in a day, but I held onto it for a second day because I didn’t want to reach the point where I had to leave the story. Welty’s characters grapple with the untimely death of Judge McKelva, notably his daughter, Laurel McKelva Hand, and the Judge’s young second wife, Fay. Welty won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel in 1973, and deservedly so. The Optimist’s Daughter is fine literature and a memorable story told with undeniable talent. Welty profoundly captures Laurel’s shock, loneliness and courage as she tolerates her father’s crude, second wife behaving selfishly (and ignorantly) at the Judge’s deathbed and funeral – and also as Laurel recognizes she must let go of the past. Mississippi writer Eudora Welty is known for her southern settings, themes and characters. She’s highly acclaimed for her short story collections.The Guardian wrote in her obituary: “In spite of the countless accolades and awards her work garnered, both in the United States and abroad, she remained a regional writer, whose quietly magnificent short stories and novels are suffused with Chekhovian wit and clear-sightedness.”

The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtryThe Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry
This year marks the 50th anniversary of this classic McMurtry novel, first published in 1966, a coming-of-age story about two boys, Duane and Sonny, graduating from high school in a go-nowhere small town, Thalia, Texas. Atmospheric, populated with quirky, memorable characters, The Last Picture Show took hold of me and reminded me why I love to read books rich in storytelling about ordinary life. Duane loves Jacy, who’s the popular, rich girl, whose parents don’t want her to marry Duane; Sonny yearns for Jacy at a distance while getting sexually involved with the high school coach’s wife. Fist fights and football games; a local café diner, pool hall and movie theater; big cars and pick-up trucks; and a lot of sex and drinking (what else is there to do?) fill the time for Duane, Sonny and Jacy. But there also are kind, wise, tired small-town folk in this wonderful book that was made into a movie in 1971 with Cybill Shepherd (Jacy), Jeff Bridges (Duane) and Cloris Leachman (coach’s wife).

If you need assistance selecting classics you might want to read, I highly recommend Michael Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure. As the dust jacket says: “This is not your father’s — or your mother’s — list of classics. In these delightful essays, Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Dirda introduces nearly ninety of the world’s most entertaining books.”

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Six Four by Hideo YokoyamaSix Four has caught my attention not as much for the story as for the fact that it sold one million copies in six days in Japan, according to its publisher (via The Guardian). Author Hideo Yokoyama is hugely popular in Japan for his crime novels and often likened to Stieg Larsson, the Swedish author who penned The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. From The Independent: “Like Stieg Larsson, with whom he has been (unhelpfully) compared, he is a driven workaholic and, like the late Swedish writer, suffered a heart attack after working continuously without breaks for many hours.”

The plot of this immense book (640 pages) is typical crime-novel fare. In 1989, a seven-year-old Tokyo schoolgirl was kidnapped, ransomed and murdered. The killer was never identified or found, and the Japanese public neither forgot nor forgave the botched investigation. In 2002, Inspector Yoshinobu Mikami must arrange a visit by the police commissioner to the girl’s family on the latest anniversary of the crime. Mikami is the police press director. He takes a look at the case file and discovers an anomaly. From the publisher’s book description: “He could never imagine what he would uncover. He would never have looked if he’d known what he would find.”

From what I’ve read about the book in several publications, much of the story is spent delving into police bureaucracy, hierarchy, procedure and corruption. While such detail can be antithetical to what one would expect in a page-turning crime thriller, it sets this book apart. Reviewers agree time invested in the long story is well worth it, claiming readers will find themselves involved, gripped and rewarded. The Guardian calls Six Four a “binge read.”

The Times Literary Supplement writes,“The denouement is surprising, but there are no neat endings to the various strands of this well-written epic tale, which reads beautifully in Jonathan Lloyd-Davies’s translation. Six Four is far more a monument to the idiosyncrasies of Japanese bureaucratic life than it is a simple detective story.”

The Japan Times writes: “Yokoyama’s strength lies in his portrayal of the police: the stifling hierarchy, the politics and duplicity Mikami has to navigate. In true police-procedural fashion Six Four takes its time to reach its conclusion, all the while fleshing out characters who are headed for a denouement that is as original as it is ingenious.”

The Guardian writes: “The plot would grip in any language but, for readers in the west, there is extra fascination in Six Four being not just a police procedural but a guide book to Japan. Some of the local details – such as the cops’ repeated concerns with ‘losing face’ – might have been rejected by an English writer on Japan as too stereotypical. Other material, though, is educationally exotic.”

All of this fascinates me and, given the time, I’d jump into this book for the adventure of it. The Guardian writes: “It’s very different, in tone, narrative and style, from almost anything else out there.”  I don’t often read that – or say that myself – about a book. Six Four is Yokoyama’s sixth novel and the first to be translated into English. It’s not been published by a U.S. publisher, but it’s released in Britain by Quercus, translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies.  You can order it online. Maybe by the time – and if – it arrives in the U.S., I’ll have reading space and be ready for it.

It’s always fun to check out what the literary community believes is “best in show” for novels. Here are three major international awards and their winners, recently announced.

Family Life by Akhil SharmaInternational Dublin Literary Award
Akhil Sharma wrote seven thousand pages over twelve and a half years to produce his 224 page novel Family Life. The story is based on the author’s own experience, according to an article he wrote for The New Yorker. (The article reveals the technical difficulties Mr. Sharma encountered writing the book.) Nominations for this award, formerly known as the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, are received from public libraries in cities all over the world. Family Life was selected from 160 contenders nominated by librarians in 118 cities and 43 countries. The prestigious award recognizes both writers and translators. Mr. Sharma is the third American author to win the International Dublin Literary Award in its 21 year history. Here’s the plot summary of his novel, from the publisher’s description: “Growing up in Delhi in 1978, eight-year-old Ajay Mishra and his older brother Birju play cricket on the streets, eagerly waiting for the day they can join their father in America. America to the Mishras is, indeed, everything they could have imagined and more—until tragedy strikes. Young Ajay prays to a God he envisions as Superman, searching for direction amid the ruins of his family’s new life. Heart-wrenching and darkly funny, Family Life is a universal story of a boy torn between duty and his own survival.”

The Vegetarian by Han KangMan Booker International Award
The 2016 Man Booker International Prize has a new focus this year – to encourage more publishing and reading of quality fiction in translation. The prize money, divided equally between the author and the translator, is now awarded annually for a single work of fiction. Prior to 2016, the Man Booker International Award highlighted one living writer’s overall contribution to fiction on the world stage and was announced every two years. The 2016 award went to South Korean author Han Kang and translator Deborah Smith for The Vegetarian. The novel’s spare prose tells an unsettling story of a woman who, after a disturbing dream, stops eating meat. Her husband and family react with shock, anger and disapproval, as if Yeong-hye has committed an unforgivable crime. What unfolds is a difficult family story about Yeong-hye’s emotional demise and her family’s controlling abuse and angry incomprehension. From the Man Booker International Award website: “As her rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, Yeong-hye spirals further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree. Fraught, disturbing, and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire, and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.”

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerneyBaileys Women’s Prize (formerly the Orange Prize)
The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction is the UK’s annual international book award for fiction written by a woman. According to the award website, founded in 1996, the Prize was set up to celebrate excellence, originality and accessibility in writing by women throughout the world. This year’s winner — The Glorious Heresies written by Irish writer Lisa McInerney — is about life on the fringes of Ireland’s post-crash society. Set in the dark, underbelly of the city of Cork, the story brings together several misfits after a murder, including a 15-year-old drug dealer, his alcoholic father, a prostitute and a gangland boss. From the publisher’s press release: “In this gritty, darkly comic novel, McInerney crafts a twisted web of shifting loyalties and betrayals while interrogating notions of salvation, shame, and the legacy of Ireland’s past attitudes towards sex and family. She quietly explores money, violence, and the unbreakable bonds we form with each other through the story of one accidental murder and its rippling effects on five people who exist on the fringes of Ireland’s post-crash society.” From a review in Britain’s Telegraph: “The Glorious Heresies is a spectacular debut … Tough and tender, gothic and lyrical, it is a head-spinning, stomach-churning state-of-the-nation novel about a nation falling apart.” The Guardian’s more tempered review says “the energy level flags in the final third of the book, as the characters keep repeating the same patterns of behaviour to less compelling effect.” The book is scheduled for release in the United States in August.

 

 

 

 

 

What would you say?

January 5, 2016

the-6-41-to-parisThere are ordinary moments from my youth that remain as clear to me as the moment they happened. Why, I’m not sure, other than they impacted me with some unresolved wonder, such as a few minutes I experienced on the subway during graduate school in Chicago. I was in my late 20’s, working and going to school. A fellow student boarded the train and took the seat beside me. I was infatuated with him, often staring at him during classes. There were many other seats available on the train, and I think taking the seat beside me was his attempt to get to know me. I remember the gray evening light, the cold in the poorly heated car, and also how frozen I felt emotionally, petrified in my shyness. I couldn’t say anything, not even hello, let alone look at him and smile. The train shuttled along. He also didn’t say a word. And then, he rose from his seat and got off the train. Why didn’t I say something?

In The 6:41 to Paris, a man sits beside a woman on a train. In this instance, there are no other seats available. This simple act ignites Jean-Philippe Blondel’s captivating, brief novel that builds tension with each character’s inability to acknowledge the other. They sit in silence, paralyzed by uncertainty and insecurity, as I was. When they were 20 years old, Cécile Douffaut and Philippe Leduc dated. Back then, 27 years ago, Cécile was plain, “nothing striking”, while Philippe was handsome, popular and cocky. They came together in a flirting fluke, and what kept them together was Cécile’s unpredictability and her refreshing nerve that intrigued Philippe. All along, he intended to dump her. Three or four months later, during a trip to London, Philippe’s arrogance demolished the affair with emotional cruelty.

Think of yourself in such a situation: Cécile and Philippe are now 47 years old. Each recognizes the other but doesn’t know if the other recognizes him/her. Philippe is now a balding, divorced TV and stereo salesman with a middle-aged paunch who knows he settled for less in life. Cécile is now an attractive, successful, married entrepreneur who pushed herself to rise above her humiliating youth yet still wrestles with feelings of inferiority. What would you say? For the non-stop ride, neither speaks ups. Philippe is ashamed about his self-centered actions those many years ago, and also depressed about his unsuccessful life. Cécile finds herself still enraged by what happened in London.

The story simmers with tension over who’s going to speak first, as the train travels for an hour and a half from Troyes, a town southeast of Paris, to the capital city. Blondel cleverly pieces together his characters’ individual life stories, with each thinking about their worthiness as spouses and parents, their statuses in their work and, most moving of all, their failure so long ago. Their inner voices in self-conversation capture relatable human concerns and emotions that draw on our compassion. We read to find out what happened in the past and if, in the present, Cécile and Philippe will finally say something to each other, as I wish I had done long ago in Chicago.

The 6:41 to Paris is translated from the French by Alison Anderson.

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.

It’s the economy, stupid

October 20, 2015

Refund by Karen E. BenderI put aside Garth Risk Hallberg’s stunning behemoth City On Fire to read Karen E. Bender’s story collection, Refund. City On Fire is engrossing, no doubt there, definitely a good novel to sink into, but I just wanted to step aside for a moment – reading Hallberg’s 900+ pages is a huge investment in reading time, and these 13 collected stories provided the perfect, temporary wayside.

They are tied together by a theme of money — how it rules and changes American lives and the emotional damage and exhaustion that creates. The characters are financially trapped by their jobs, some needing second and third jobs, some getting fired and struggling to make ends meet, some unable to get off the sofa to do anything but go to the job. They are blind to the happiness and security present in togetherness with others, which is the way Bender infuses the stories with hope – because the solution is right there – available — for most of the characters.

These characters include a life-long swindler on an Alaskan cruise, the executive producer of a hit TV game show called “Anything For Money,” a loan officer, an appliance doctor, a political candidate, artists and more. They are funny, familiar, heartbreaking and relatable. In the title story, probably my favorite, a woman astronomically increases the amount a couple owes her as a refund for subletting their apartment in New York when the 9-11 terrorist attack happens. It’s an unforgettable story about money’s inability to replace that aforementioned togetherness.

The author uses a dramatic event to ignite her plots, such as a school shooting that opens “The Sea Turtle Hospital.” The story is about the assistant kindergarten teacher, alone after moving to North Carolina with her boyfriend and then breaking up with him – and about her student, Keisha. No one comes for either of them after the shooting, so the teacher takes Keisha to the sea turtle hospital by the ocean. There they meet the blind turtle Hugh, bumping into the walls of his tank with no way out. The teacher and Keisha imagine what it would be like if Hugh regained his sight, and when they do that, it’s impossible not to think of a metaphor for everyone who is burdened by money’s influence regaining sight of life’s purpose and meaning:

“Maybe, I had said, we would all gather at the shore and watch him swim out, and he would take in the sea with his perfect new vision, he would remember how to swim, and he would feel the buoyancy of the waves under his fins as he floated into the deep blue water.”

One day, I was stopped at a forever red stoplight. I picked Refund up off the passenger seat and began reading. I completely let go of my surroundings, violating my rule for stoplight reading that requires me to peripherally be aware of the red brake lights of the car in front of me in order to know when to put the book down. I shouldn’t read at stoplights, I suppose, and this book is a case in point: It grabbed and dragged me into the story so fast I fell out of my present reality, woken by the driver behind me firmly pressing the horn. Huh? What?

Refund by Karen E. Bender is in the final running for the National Book Award in fiction. Winners in fiction, non-fiction, poetry and young people’s literature will be announced November 18.

The title of this post is a tip of the hat to James Carville and the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign.

 

 

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg“Did You Ever Have a Family” appeared on the Man Booker longlist of prize candidates for 2015. It did not make it to the shortlist. (The winner from the shortlist will be announced October 13.) This beguiling novel is now among the longlist of nominees for the National Book Award in fiction. (The shortlist will be announced October 14.) I provide this information simply to showcase the attention the book is getting from this season’s major literature awards.

I recently recorded the following review of “Did You Ever Have a Family” for broadcast on WOSU 89.7 fm.

Mid-way through Bill Clegg’s debut novel, his main character June Reid, a divorced mother in her 50’s, poses the question that is the book’s title. She asks it out of fatigued exasperation, weeping on a log in the woods outside her house in Wells, Connecticut, speaking to the sister of her daughter’s fiancé. Did you ever have a family? It’s an odd question because — of course Pru has a family. Her brother Will is marrying June’s daughter Lolly — and Pru’s parents are flying in the next day for the wedding.

What Clegg frames for emphasis here is June’s despair over the conflict between herself and Lolly. They haven’t gotten along since the divorce, and now June doesn’t want her ex-husband sleeping at the house the night before the wedding, but Lolly insists.

Ultimately, this deeply felt story is about bearing up through tragedy, but by taking this question for the book’s title, Clegg wants to draw us to that moment in the woods as if to say, no matter the state of a family, if you lose it, you lose everything, and June loses everything. The night before the wedding, her house explodes from a gas leak. The wedding couple, June’s ex-husband and her boyfriend Luke die in the blast. Why June is alive is one of the questions pushing forward the narrative, along with the larger question of why the gas leak occurred.

Clegg deftly uses a handful of character viewpoints in dedicated chapters to tell the story. There’s the wedding florist and caterer, the father of the groom and owners of a motel on the Pacific Ocean where Will and Lolly once stayed. June leaves Connecticut and settles at the motel. She abandons Lydia, the mother of Luke whom gossips speculate caused the catastrophe. Lydia, for comfort, clings to the attention of a persistent, flirtatious phone solicitor.

Each character’s offering is compulsively readable as Clegg progressively connects the players not just through heartbreak but also secrets and regrets from the past. The story isn’t as much melancholy as poignant, illustrating the classic truth that disasters make us see what we can lose. It’s also redemptive, as Clegg enlightens June and Lydia in truth and hope. “All we can do is play our parts and keep each other company,” one character says in the end, providing simple wisdom for daily purpose.

The lesson of the book critic

September 24, 2015

There’s not been much activity here on TLC this month. That’s because all I want to do is read, and when I finish a book, all I want to do is pick up the next one. But all I want to read are the books on my reading table. The ones I’ve been saying I’ll get to eventually — the ones I keep re-arranging into different pile configurations: Lydia Davis’ translation of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, Louis Bromfield’s 1926 Pulitzer Prize-winner Early Autumn, Michael Crummey’s second novel The Wreckage, Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery Gaudy Night, Declan Kiberd’s nonfiction book Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living, John le Carré’s famous novel The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Kathleen Jones’ biography Katherine Mansfield: The Story-Teller, to name a few.

I don’t seem to be interested in the new books being published this fall, aside from Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, which I keep intending to read, but then I pick up another book. The galley sits on my dining room table like a spaniel patiently waiting for a biscuit. I’ve actually dusted it. Meanwhile, I reread Lord of the Flies. I finished the Patrick Melrose series by Edward St Aubyn, finally completing the Booker-nominated Mother’s Milk and At Last. I read John O’Hara’s National Book Award winner 10 North Frederick and Erskine Caldwell’s The Last Night of Summer, written about in the previous post. I read Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks mystery, published in 1989, The Hanging Valley, the fourth in his detective series I began long ago.

The other night I combed through the forecasts of new books coming out in October and November, and then I proceeded to start reading Fragments by Jack Fuller. Originally published in 1984 and reissued by the University of Chicago Press in 1997, Fragments is counted among the best Vietnam novels – Michiko Kakutani, in her review for The New York Times, February 1984, described it as an “elegantly executed” story about “the uses of memory – to transcend, not simply to recapture, the past.”

I bought Fragments three years ago and then delayed the gratification of reading it. I think that’s what’s gotten to me – the employment of delayed gratification, mixed with hope and promise, isn’t holding the pile steady anymore. I’ve come to think this may be due to a deepening feeling that constantly advancing forward to read the next new book is becoming a chase when, right under my nose, terrific, published-in-the-past books are in my house waiting to be read. Put another way, delayed gratification is beginning to feel more like neglect.

I’ll still be reading new books (I have to, I want to!), but as for the books I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, it looks like their day has arrived. At least, for now.

Here are three I’m moving toward, after I finish Fragments.

I don’t know how I found The Last of the Just. It was originally published by Editions du Seuil, Paris (Le Dernier des Justes), in 1959. It won the Prix Goncourt, the top literary prize in France awarded by the Académie Française. The English translation followed in 1960 by Atheneum House. The novel, a literary sensation during its time, must’ve been referenced by someone, or mentioned in something I read, which then took me down the discovery trail. The Herald Tribune is quoted on the back of the book, saying: “A drama that seizes you and will not let you go.” From Overlook Press, which issued the novel in paperback in 2000, here’s a story summary:

“On March 11, 1185, in the old Anglican city of York, the Jews of the city were brutally massacred by their townsmen. As legend has it, God blessed the only survivor of this medieval pogrom, Rabbi Yom Tov Levy, as one of the Lamed-Vov, the thirty-six Just Men of Jewish tradition, a blessing which extended to one Levy of each succeeding generation. This terrifying and remarkable legacy is traced over eight centuries, from the Spanish Inquisition, to expulsions from England, France, Portugal, Germany, and Russia, and to the small Polish village of Zemyock, where the Levys settle for two centuries in relative peace. It is in the twentieth century that Ernie Levy emerges, The Last of the Just, in 1920s Germany, as Hitler’s sinister star is on the rise and the agonies of Auschwitz loom on the horizon.”

The Lesson of the Master by Henry JamesHenry James’ The Lesson of the Master is part of the Melville House series The Art of the Novella. Others in this series include, to name just two out of many, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. From the dust jacket description about The Lesson of the Master:

“With extraordinary psychological insight and devastating wit, the novella captures the ambiguities of a life devoted to art, and the choices artists must make. They were choices the expatriate James knew well by the time he published the novella in the Universal Review in 1888, and the work reveals him at the height of his powers.”

Odd that I would want to read Philip Roth’s The Human Stain first, the third in his American Trilogy, preceded by American Pastoral and I Married a Communist. Why not start at the beginning? I own almost all of Roth’s novels, including these two. But like other books I pick up or select along my reading and book-buying paths, this one sparkled and got singled out. So I’m trusting there’s a strong reason I dropped The Human Stain onto my delayed gratification pile. On the back of my Vintage International paperback, there’s this summary:

“Coleman Silk has a secret, one which has been kept for fifty years from his wife, his four children, his colleagues, and his friends, including the writer Nathan Zuckerman. It is Zuckerman who stumbles upon Silk’s secret and sets out to reconstruct the unknown biography of this eminent, upright man, esteemed as an educator for nearly all his life, and to understand how this ingeniously contrived life came unraveled.”

In 2012, Philip Roth wrote an Open Letter to Wikipedia in The New Yorker about incorrect information on the site concerning his inspiration for The Human Stain. He mentions Wikipedia’s response to his attempt to fix the misstatement — they said they required secondary attribution (as if the author wouldn’t know the inspiration of his own novel). Wikipedia currently references Roth’s letter and incorporates the correction.

Nominees for the 2015 Edgar® Awards were announced last week. These awards honor the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and television. Sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America, they are widely acknowledged to be the most prestigious in the mystery genre.

Invisible City by Julia DahlThe full list of nominees can be found on TheEdgars.com in a handful of categories that includes Best Novel, Best First Novel by an American Author, Best Paperback Original, Best Fact Crime and more. If you’re a Mary Higgins Clark fan, you might want to take a look at the nominees for The Simon & Schuster Mary Higgins Clark Award. Of note is that Invisible City by Julia Dahl is nominated for both the Higgins award and Best First Novel by an American Author. Marilyn Stasio, Crime columnist for The New York Times Sunday Book Review, describes it as “a harrowing tale.

World of Trouble by Ben H. WintersEven though novels are raised up to “award nominee,” this doesn’t guarantee a five-star reading experience. As I always say, one person’s great read is another’s epic bore. Kirkus Reviews went negative on World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters, nominated for an Edgar Best Paperback Original, saying, “This final installment in Winters’ trilogy (Countdown City, 2013, etc.) is the weakest, marked by a falling off of both the writing and the story that made the first entry worthwhile. ”

I’ve selected one novel from each of three Edgar categories, based on indications of a page-turning thriller (Best Paperback Original, The Day She Died), smart plot complexity (Best Novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible) and a unique perspective (Best First Novel by an American Author, The Life We Bury). Below you’ll find brief descriptions of these three.

The Day She Died by Catriona McPhersonThe Day She Died by Catriona McPherson
A young woman gets romantically involved with a man whose wife killed herself. But not everything she learns about his family adds up. This mystery received mixed reviews, but the positives are raves. Kirkus Reviews describes it as “a creepy psychological thriller that will leave you breathless.” Library Journal gives its verdict as: “Keep the lights on and batten down the hatches, for McPherson’s psychologically terrifying stand-alone demands to be read all night. … Scottish author McPherson has written a top-notch tale of modern gothic suspense that is sure to please Charlotte Brontë and Daphne du Maurier fans.” Whoa. Count me in.

Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian RankinSaints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin
I’ve not read Ian Rankin, and it’s time I did, although I’m jumping in with #19 in his Inspector Rebus series here. Hopefully, I’ll not lose any of the thrill, being a latecomer — Rebus is coming out of retirement. He’s been demoted from Detective Inspector to Detective Sargent. A case from long ago that involved his team is being questioned and re-opened. Publisher’s Weekly loved this book, saying: “The immense and intricate canvas includes dozens of characters, plots within plots, and multiple themes, from Scottish independence to the insidiousness of corruption, public and private. Too much may be going on at times for some readers, but distinctive characters (including Edinburgh itself) make the book memorable.” Paperback will be available end of this month.

The Life We Bury by Allen EskensThe Life We Bury by Allen Eskens
Suspense Magazine listed this mystery among its Best of 2014 books.  The publisher, Seventh Street Books, writes: “A young man, caught in the dark maze of circumstances surrounding a crime that occurred thirty years ago, must confront several ugly truths as well as direct threats to his own life.” That young man is Joe Talbert, a junior at the University of Minnesota, who receives a class assignment to write a biography of someone who has lived an interesting life. His subject is Carl Iverson, a Vietnam veteran dying of cancer in a nursing home, who has been medically paroled after spending thirty years in prison for murder. The combination of old connecting with young in storytelling calls to me, as well as the promise of a good mystery. Kirkus Reviews writes, “Eskens’ debut is a solid and thoughtful tale of a young man used to taking on burdens beyond his years—none more dangerous than championing a bitter old man convicted of a horrific crime.”

The Edgar Award winners will be announced April 29.

Two 2014-published books, which I didn’t get to read until now, are those below. It happens almost every year, this kind of desire in January to read one or two books from the previous year before I head further into the new books of the new year, because I know I won’t get to them in maybe, well, forever. These two novels are gripping in ways unique to each: Euphoria for its love story and exotic setting of New Guinea in between the World Wars; and the Young Adult novel We Were Liars for the unknown of what happened one summer night.

Euphoria by Lily KingEuphoria tips its hat to anthropologists Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and Reo Fortune during their brief time together in 1933 on the Sepik River in New Guinea, as noted by Lily King in her Acknowledgments. Their true story inspired her to write this fictional story that draws from their lives but does not reflect them. King writes, “I have borrowed from the lives and experiences of these three people, but have told a different story.” And what a great story it is — beautifully written with soulful needs, desires and hopes palpably rendered in the characters, as well as a fascinating window into anthropological study of native cultures (those, too, fictional in Euphoria).

Here’s a plot summary.

Famous American anthropologist Nell Stone and her Australian husband Fen unexpectedly run into English anthropologist Andrew Bankson at a Christmas Eve party in the Village of Angoram, New Guinea. The Stones, on their way to Victoria to study the Aborigines, are fleeing a discouraging and frightening time with the bloodthirsty Mumbanyo tribe. Desperately lonely and isolated, Bankson urges them to stay and find a new tribe on the Sepik River where he’s studying the Kionas. He succeeds, and as the three work together in the upcoming weeks, Bankson falls in love with Nell.

Her passionate work behavior and the off-hand way she carries herself, a person of the mind and not of her own well-being, comes across as endearing. Nell squints to see, having lost her glasses, and Bankson gives her spectacles that once belonged to his deceased brother. Nell is brilliant and driven and yet vulnerable — she’s feverish and limping in the beginning. Bankson yearns to take care of her, while Nell’s husband Fen pushes her to get going. He’s constantly fierce with her, jealous of her success, having published a popular book in the United States. Nell recovers her strength and flourishes with the new native tribe on the Sepik River, while Fen neglects their research. The relationship among the three, their work and the surprising conclusion tell a memorable story.

We Were Liars by E. LockhartE. Lockhart’s Young Adult novel (ages 12 and up) is told from the viewpoint of teen-aged Cadence Sinclair Eastman. She describes summers spent on Beechwood, a private island off the coast of Massachusetts owned by her Sinclair family. Lockhart provides a map of the island and the locations of the clan’s four houses and staff buildings, as well as a family tree. (I referred to them often.) The Sinclairs are self-interested, stoic, moneyed Democrats. They are athletic and beautiful. Cadence tells us, “We are Sinclairs. No one is needy. No one is wrong.” The patriarch Grandad and his three divorced daughters show forth with perfect appearances of control, privilege and power, yet below that perfection rumbles the reality of greed, insecurity and false love. We Were Liars makes use of the story of King Lear with narrative interludes about a king who had three beautiful daughters and who “as he grew older…began to wonder which should inherit the kingdom.”

An accident happens to Cadence on the island during the summer she is 15 years old. It causes her unbearable migraines and memory loss. Whatever happened also diminishes her closeness to her cousins and fellow liars, Johnny and Mirren, as well as to the non-Sinclair liar Gat Patel, who is the nephew of her Aunt Carrie’s boyfriend and the boy Cadence falls madly in love with. Summer 16, Cadence is taken to Europe. Summer 17, her first return to the island after the accident, she tries to find out what happened summer 15, but everyone is close-lipped.

Much of the story’s allure is the Sinclair’s East Coast, old money mystique and stiff-upper-lip attitude. The story’s power, however, is the uncertainty Lockhart maintains until the mystery is solved. It took me completely by surprise. The ending is horrific in one sense although, being written for young adults, tempered so as to be GP rated. Cadence leaves one to wonder why she did what she did, and how she’ll ever go forward into her life. That, too, makes for powerful reading, which even adults will find intriguing.

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