If you’d told me I’d like a novel narrated by a Justin Bieberesque 11-year-old pop star, I would have called you nuts. But I found this tragicomic novel by Teddy Wayne, author of 2011′s Kapitoil, very affecting.
Posts by Jan Kline
The prospect of a fat new Michael Chabon novel always makes me clear the reading decks for action. Telegraph Avenue sounded especially appealing, with its Bay Area setting, musical subject matter (two of the four main characters are co-owners of a vintage record store), and Chabon’s established track record for skillful yet affectionate mockery of a certain brand of East Bay liberal orthodoxy (see his Manhood for Amateurs, 2009). Read more
In the past few months I’ve been reading like there’s no tomorrow. Here’s my attempt to catch up the blogging to the reading.
This was a book club read, and not a genre I generally visit: Nordic crime fiction. Probably Stieg Larsson fans would devour it, or at least I guess they would (I’ve only seen the Dragon Tattoo movie — parts of it with my hands over my eyes — and haven’t read the book). Plot-driven doesn’t begin to describe it; I will say that the pages practically turned themselves. Read more
I’ve loved Russo’s novels forever, and noticed that a lot of them had absent or flaky fathers, so I always wondered if this was part of his past. Elsewhere cleared that up: Russo’s father did leave when Richard was a child. But we also learn one of the main reasons: his mother’s mental illness. As an only child, Russo spent all of his childhood, as well a huge chunk of his adult life trying to make things all right for her. As with many families affected by mental illness, the family members are in a constant state of triage, dealing with the fallout, without acknowledging (or in some cases even fully realizing) that the illness exists. This was definitely the case with Russo. Read more
From Jacket Copy, Carolyn Kellogg’s LA Times Book Blog:
The finalists for the 33rd L.A. Times Book Prizes were announced Thursday morning — the complete list is below. In addition to the 50 books in 10 categories that are in the running for the awards, two authors — Margaret Atwood and Kevin Starr — will receive special recognition.
Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan
McEwan’s latest is set in England in the early 70s. Serena Frome, a lover of fiction, gets talked into majoring in math at Cambridge by her mother, but ends up writing book reviews for a short-lived high/low culture magazine started by a fellow student. This leads to involvement with a history professor, who, aware of the anti-communist rants she’s indulged in for the student magazine, begins grooming her for a position in British government intelligence. Serena is then selected for a secret program involving Tom Haley, an up-and-coming fiction writer. Soon she’s progressed to loving him as well as his writing. She never manages to tell him about her job or the project. McEwan’s writing pulls you along with plot, wit, and character development, as well as a mind-bending twist at the very end.
How It All Began, by Penelope Lively
Another British novel, this one set in the present. The plot is driven by the repercussions from a mugging. Charlotte, a retired English teacher, is knocked down by a couple of thugs who steal her purse. Since she breaks a hip, she temporarily stays with her daughter and son-in-law. A Polish immigrant she tutors in English now comes to her daughter’s house for their session, and strikes up a friendship. The daughter’s job with a self-important historian unravels as a suavely self-serving young academic worms his way into the historian’s good graces. An interior designer sends a text message to her lover, which falls into the wrong hands, at the same time that her biggest client disappears, leaves her holding the bag on a major innovation. The relationships between the characters are intricate, and almost everything that happens can be traced back to the mugging. Lively makes all of them three-dimensional and engaging.
This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz
It’s easy to forget that this isn’t a novel, but a collection of short stories. In all of them, a character named Yunior describes his romantic misadventures, and there’s a spectacular pattern of serial cheating which generally results in an explosive end to the relationship. After that, he experiences remorse to varying degrees, recovery, and the pattern starts over: couple, stray, regret, repeat. In other hands, this could be an exercise in disgust, or at least eye-rolling, especially for the female reader. But Yunior manages to remain a sympathetic character even as we see him fall off the fidelity wagon again and again. He’s just hard enough on himself to engage us, and yet self-mocking enough that we don’t dismiss him as a drama queen. And in the last story, The Cheater’s Guide to Love, we get to see him finally wise up, and begin to heal himself by (what else?) writing about it.
author photos, from top:
Carolyn Cole/LA Times
This is another in my Bad Parenting series, this time with two generations of bad dads: the author’s father mortifies his children by mooning his friends in public on a regular basis; the author by sliding so far financially that he’s feeding his son with whatever spare change he can scare up in the house. For much of the memoir, Ben is hanging off a monetary cliff, by his fingernails. And while his situation is bleak, the brand of humor he slips in saves the book from being Les Miserables for the New Millennium. The description of his dad’s three varieties of mooning are worth the cover price:
My father is about to moon someone. In the A&P parking lot.
I should pause for a moment and explain, from the safety of adulthood, that my father had three major styles when it came to mooning. The first and probably the most common type happened in the car, when my father was behind the wheel. Let’s call it the Face in the Window. If we were driving through Gloucester and passed a friend from his wilder, artsy crowd, he would sometimes put the car in neutral, crouch up on the seat yank down his pants and press his bare ass to the glass…I had seen the Face in the Window from the outside enough times to fear it: the twin mounds of flesh pressed hard against the window; the dark crevice down the center, like a crack in the earth; the beard of pubic hair and dangling ball sack. No one, no matter what his suit of character armor, should have to contemplate the furry pucker of his father’s asshole in the window of a car, or anywhere else. It is like seeing your own death. Actually, it’s like seeing your own death and staring at your father’s asshole at the same time.
His second style of mooning was an offshoot of the first: the Breezeway. This is identical to the Face in the Window, except the car windows are open. It’s fresher, more natural. Easier to shrug off, if you happen to catch some collateral.
The third style of mooning is the easiest to employ on the fly: the Quick Drop. This is the moon my father used when he was on foot. It could happen in an instant, at any time. He dropped his pants, threw himself over forward, and reached behind to spread his ass cheeks wide. Without the spread it was still a full-on mooning, but the effect was a little more restrained, more polite.
With parenting like that, it’s a wonder Anastas didn’t die of mortification during his teens. And as if his dad weren’t enough of a handful, it was actually his mother who was the certifiably mentally ill one. The whole family stays for a time at a residential psychiatric facility, in hopes of restoring his mother’s sanity. This period is what gave the book its title: the therapists, in a chilling moment of tough love, hang derogatory signs around Benjamin’s and his siblings’ necks. His brother’s sign reads MR. KNOW-IT-ALL, his sister’s says CRYBABY, and Benjamin is labeled TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE. So the reader tends to cut him a little slack on his own shortcomings. He successfully (to me, at least) explains how, through a combination of unlucky breaks, weak moments, publisher stinginess, and internet-induced procrastination, he comes be be significantly worse off than penniless, even though his first novel was successful, and he was given an advance for his second. It’s only when he hits rock bottom that he remembers some of the most traumatic moments in his screwed-up childhood.
There’s a lot in this book, even though it’s less than 200 pages long. Along with his finances, his marriage has also fallen apart. He’s started another relationship, one he’s desperate to succeed at. He writes beautifully about this as well, lest you think this is a short book of poor-mouthing and mooning. Here, he describes his dashed hopes for the broken marriage, expressed in two dilapidated chairs at the house he’s rented during a temporary teaching appointment. His wife was supposed to join him, but never does.
I’d been more interested when I rented the house in a pair of green deck chairs set under a tree at the end of the winding path through the woods to the pond. They had a nice view of the water; I had imagined sitting there with Marina at the end of my teaching day with a book and a glass of wine. I had never really fantasized or even thought that much about what married life with her would be like, how it would be different from the years we had already spent as a couple — so far it was just like it had always been before we decided to get married, only worse…At first I ignored the chairs down at the water. If I saw them through the window when I looked out toward the pond, or caught a glimpse of them, between the trees, while I came down the driveway in the Volvo at the end of the day — two rickety green chairs, sitting side by side — I felt a pang in my heart that I hated, but it was real. I didn’t like missing my wife the way I did, and it bothered me that when I daydreamed about sitting with her at the pond it was like something from a commercial for instant coffee…
While Anastas’ situation is bleak, he manages to end on a modestly optimistic note. I enjoyed watching him get there.
author photo: Lorena Ros