Nothing like a debilitating head cold to send you diving into some fiction. Luckily I had lots around the house when the latest snot tsunami hit.
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
This one had been languishing on my bookshelf at home, being edged out by books with due dates on them. It tells the story of Eilis, a young woman who immigrates from Ireland to the US in the 1950s. Just as she’s establishing herself there, she is called home for family reasons. I’ll confess that Eilis was such a leaf in the wind that sometimes I wanted to give her a good shake. She ends up having to choose between two very different lives, and to my great relief, she finally did choose. Seeing her tottering back and forth indecisively kept me turning pages, but also irritated me. I suppose a good Irish Catholic girl in the 50s could have been that passive, but it made the last parts of the book a tough go for me.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
This has been on my “want to read” list for months, and I was glad to be able to read it almost in one sitting (or in my ailing case, one lying). It jumps around between various time periods and characters, and I can see how a reader might lose the thread if he or she were reading it a bit at a time. The main characters are a record executive (and former punk rocker) and his kleptomaniac assistant. We meet them in the present, but also go back to their youth, and even briefly into the future to meet their children. Along the way, other characters appear (and in some cases reappear), and weave in and out of the main story. As it turns out, Egan first wrote much of the book as separate stories. She goes into detail in a series of podcasts on this page at Amazon.
Some customer reviewers criticized the characters as unlikable and the narrative as gimmicky, but I didn’t agree (with the possible exception of one of the final chapters, which is in faux PowerPoint). I found the book affecting, sometimes very funny, and creatively and uniquely structured.
Half a Life by Darin Strauss
This memoir, barely 200 pages long, centers around an early, life-altering event in novelist Strauss’s life. While a newly-licensed driver in high school, he struck and killed a girl on a bicycle. She was a classmate and acquaintance, but not a close friend (unlike Laura Bush’s similar tragedy, detailed here).
Strauss is unrelentingly hard on himself, questioning every facet of his behavior after the accident. He alternately accuses himself of over-dramatizing, of avoiding the issue. He vividly describes his emotional life and how it was complicated by this accident for years afterwards. Every time he started dating someone, the questions began. Do I tell her? When do I tell her, and how? How will she react? For a book that’s almost wholly about the life inside his head, once the facts of the original accident are told, it’s completely compelling. I’ll be watching for Strauss’s next novel. Here’s an joint Newsweek interview with Bill Clegg (literary agent and author of an addiction memoir) on the complications of writing about your own life.
author photos, from top:
Pieter M. Van Hatttem/Vistalux
courtesy Darin Strauss
Red Diaz/Duende Publishing