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.
The Boy in the Suitcase, by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis.
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
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
If you can’t stand another made for TV version of “The Christmas Carol”, if you go homicidal if you someone suggests watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” again, and if you change your Facebook timeline photo to the Grinch this time of year, you’re probably not in the market for some feel-good seasonal fictional fare. I’ve recently read a couple of excellent novels that might fit the bill.
The World without You by Joshua Henkin takes place during the anti-Christmas season, the 4th of July, and most of the characters are Jewish. If that’s still not Noel-averse enough for you, the main reason the Frankel family is gathering is for the memorial of their son Leo, a Daniel Pearl-like journalist who was killed a year earlier. The shock has also driven a wedge in the long marriage of the parents of the family, a sad fact that they plan to announce to their surviving children once everyone arrives. Bleak enough yet?
This isn’t a complete drama-fest, however; the characters are quirky enough to have some foibles, sometimes laughable ones. Noelle, for instance, who was a bit of a slutty slacker in high school, has now become an orthodox Jew, and won’t be seen anywhere without her headscarf. She may or may not have a hearing problem — it seemed to fade in and out as needed when she was a teenager. Now she’s feeding her family off paper plates, since even the extra set of dishes her parents have bought specifically so that she can keep kosher on her visit have become defiled, in her eyes at least, due to some minor infraction.
Her sister Clarissa, meanwhile, is in that special circle of hell inhabited by 39-year-old wives who decide suddenly that they must have a child. And the third sister, Lily, a lawyer, is permanently mad at everyone, on general principle. All the old sisterly resentments crop up. Here’s Clarissa, facing down the prospect of in vitro fertilization, and reliving her past accommodation of her sister’s flakiness:
Clarissa, meanwhile, remains silent. She’s doing the dishes again, the tendons in her forearms ballooning as she applies pressure to the steel wool. The water is as hot as she can tolerate, her hands turning pink as jellyfish. She’s thinking of their childhood, of the chorus that rang through their days. Go bring Noelle her knapsack, she forgot her homework. Go pick up Noelle from school, she lost her keys. Go take care of Noelle, she f*cked the wrong guy. And now Noelle is lecturing her on responsibility. “You’re right,” she says. “Nathaniel and I should have gotten here sooner.”
“Okay,” Noelle says. “That’s all I was saying.”
“Jesus, Noelle. Would you leave her the f*ck alone?”
Added to the Frankel family mix are the spouses of the children, including Thisbe, Leo’s widow, who’s wondering how and when to let the family know that she’s dating someone. When Noelle’s husband gets his feelings hurt and takes off for hours, Noelle is forced to be an adult, for her children and her siblings, as well as to honor Leo’s memory. I enjoyed this eccentric, sometimes frustrating family, and found the story’s resolution satisfying, and, while still realistic, much less bleak than the plot outline sounds.
I started reading via audiobook Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin back in September. Shriver is a favorite of mine — I’ve read and enjoyed So Much for That and, more recently, The New Republic. She’s often funny, but her humor is pitch black (the two books referenced above, for instance, center around degenerative disease, failing marriages, and terrorism, among other things), so when I heard that her earlier book We Need to Talk about Kevin had a Columbine style mass murderer at its center, I wasn’t surprised. I might have skipped it if I hadn’t seen the trailer for the movie, which looked very promising. The bleakness factor made it easier to handle in audio, on the treadmill, in small doses. While none of the characters are sympathetic, I was completely drawn in by the first paragraph, and wanted to continue, despite the dread of what was going to happen next. And I definitely wanted to see the movie once I finished the book.
If I’d doubted the relevance of this book for a minute, that was all over with the Newtown murders. I started to confuse the fictional teenager with the real one, and if anything, my need to finish it was even more urgent. While the weaponry and the age of the killer differ, there are a lot of parallels. Shriver has said in interviews that readers’ reactions to her story mostly fell into two groups: those who found the killer’s mother completely blameless — how could she have seen this coming? the kid was a bad seed! — and 100% at fault — of course he turned into a mass murderer! she was cold and incapable of loving him properly! She claims that this is what she intended. Another stark contrast is between Kevin’s parents: his mother believes he’s a disaster waiting to happen; his father believes he’s merely misunderstood. She makes all three of the basically unlikable characters completely believable. I have yet to watch the movie, but from the trailer it looks very true to the book:
This wrist-breaker is hard to do justice to. Centering on one block of well-to-do Pepys Road in London, it has so many characters that more than once I had to stop and flip some pages: “Wait. WHO is this again?” It’s not that any character in this book is minor; they’re all completely drawn, and every one of them is important to the plot. It’s just that there are so many of them! A clueless banker and his spendthrift wife, the Polish carpenter remodeling their house, their Hungarian nanny, the Pakistani shopkeepers at the end of the street, a graffiti artist who carefully guards his identity, his feckless assistant, a Senegalese football player… this is by no means the whole list, but gives you an idea of the range and number of moving parts that Lanchester keeps chugging away, and meshing in unexpected ways.
This isn’t one of those character-driven novels where nothing happens, either. The plot is carried forward by a mystery: everyone on the street receives unsigned postcards, picturing their own doorways, with the phrase “We Want What You Have” written on the back:
At first light on a late summer morning, a man in a hooded sweatshirt moved softly and slowly along an ordinary-looking street in South London. He was doing something, though a bystander would have been hard put to guess what. Sometimes he crept closer to houses, sometimes he backed further away. Sometimes he looked down, sometimes he looked up. At close range, that bystander would have been able to tell that the young man was carrying a small high-definition video camera — except that there was no bystander, so there was no one to notice. Apart from the young man, the street was empty. Even the earliest risers weren’t up yet, and it wasn’t a day for milk delivery or rubbish collection. Maybe he knew that, and the fact that he was filming the houses then was no coincidence.
The mystery escalates; some of the Pepys Road residents are convinced that they know who the culprit is, but for various reasons, can’t make the accusation, or prove it.
The story is huge, multi-threaded, as good on the small details of life as on its biggest questions. Sometimes tragic, often hilarious, I thought it was an entertaining and memorable read.
Continuing with my theme of arguments for contraception and/or abstinence, I recently read Where’d you go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. One of the most complex characters I’ve had the pleasure to encounter lately, Bernadette is an ex-architect, wife of a Microsoft bigwig, and mother of Bee. She’s moved unwillingly with her family from California to Seattle, and hates it to an almost unimaginable degree. At first, the fellow parents she hates so much are drawn with such broad strokes that I was afraid the book was going to be too cartoonish for me. Gradually the caricatures get fleshed out, though, and turn out to be more real than they seemed. And some of Bernadette’s snarkiness is hard not to snicker along with:
Remember when the feds busted in on that Morman polygamist cult in Texas a few years back? And the dozens of wives were paraded in front of the camera? And they all had this long mouse-colored hair with strands of gray, no hairstyle to speak of, no makeup, ashy skin, Frida Kahlo facial hair, and unflattering clothes? And on cue, the Oprah audience was shocked and horrified? Well, they’ve never been to Seattle.
There are two hairstyles here: short gray hair, and long gray hair.
Bernadette is instantly at war with her neighbors and the PC parents at Bee’s school, Galer Street Elementary (grading system: S = Surpasses Excellence, A = Achieves Excellence, W = Working towards Excellence). The family, at Bernadette’s urging, buys a crumbling mansion in an advanced state of moldy decay. Soon she’s in a major bitchfest with her neighbor Audrey over blackberry abatement.
But the plot really thickens when Bee collects on her reward for getting straight S’s on her report card: she insists on a family trip to Antarctica, on which Bernadette disappears. It’s left to Bee, who refuses to believe that Bernadette isn’t alive, to make sense of the clues, many of which arrive in a package from a very surprising source. The characters are quirky and hilarious, and the story ends up being emotionally satisfying in a way I did not see coming.
Beautiful Ruins is a very different story. Unlike Bernadette, it has multiple plot lines, an army of characters, and jumps around from Italy in the early 60s to Edinburgh and Hollywood in the present. A fictionalized Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor have significant roles in the 60s portion, and the characters who connect the two time frames are an Italian innkeeper and an American film producer — on location in Italy in the 60s, doing damage control to prevent a possible scandal, and in Hollywood in the present, addicted to plastic surgery and still running the show.
The first impression one gets of Michael Dean is of a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed. After all these years, it may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch-ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals, and stem-cell injections that have caused a seventy-two-year-old man to have the face of a nine-year-old Filipino girl.
All the hopping around with different characters, the movie stars, and the Botox, could very quickly turn into a door-slamming farce, in the hands of a lesser author. But Walter manages to make believable, and at least occasionally sympathetic characters out of the scads of people populating this novel. Themes that run through the book are fleeting youth, the quest to be a star, fame and power. I didn’t want this one to end, and will watch for future novels (and dig for earlier ones) by Walter.
I dragged my feet on reading this one, despite all the great reviews: after all, it was about baseball, wasn’t it? and I wasn’t interested in a book about baseball, no matter how well written. But The Art of Fielding is about baseball like To Kill a Mockingbird is about ornithology. Actually, that’s a bad analogy. I learned a lot more about baseball from this book than I learned about birds from Mockingbird, not to take anything away from either experience.
There are five main characters in this book, three of them ballplayers at Westish College, the other two the college president and his daughter. Harbach took me so completely into each of their heads that I did end up caring how their season went. In fact some of the most suspenseful parts of the book for me were the final games. For a baseball fan, that would be expected, but as someone who doesn’t merely not care about baseball, but is actively bored by watching even a few minutes of it, I surprised myself. I enjoy watching stereotypes shattered, even if they’re ones I’ve been carrying around in my head since childhood, and the three ballplayers in this story (Henry Skrimshander, an overly self-analytical prodigy; Owen Dunne, a gay environmentalist and compulsive reader; and Mike Schwartz, a grumpy student coach with the knees of a 90-year-old and an encyclopedic knowledge of the classics) left shards of my assumptions littering the floor around me.
The college president and his estranged daughter were as singular characters as the other three. President Affenlight, a single father for most of his life, has lost his daughter Pella to a teenage marriage to a much older man. Now the marriage is falling apart, and his daughter’s psyche is unraveling. She makes a snap decision to come home to her dad, and arrives without luggage, which leaves her dad off balance: is she home to stay, or just for a visit? During the season, both Affenlight and Pella’s lives become entangled with those of the ballplayers to a life-changing degree for all five of them.
Harbach’s writing is being compared to Jonathan Franzen and John Irving, as well as the baseball writings of Roger Angell and Bernard Malamud. I wasn’t reminded of either Irving or Franzen, though I’m a fan of both, and haven’t read Angell or Malamud;s The Natural.
Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the book — Schwartz is seeing Henry play for the first time:
When he opened his eyes the South Dakota shortstop was jogging back onto the field. As the kid crossed the pitcher’s mound he peeled off his uniform jersey and tossed it aside. He wore a sleeveless white undershirt, had an impossibly concave chest and a fierce farmer’s burn. His arms were as big around as Schwartz’s thumbs. He’d swapped his green Legion cap for a faded red St. Louis Cardinals one. Shaggy dust- blond curls poked out beneath. He looked fourteen, fifteen at most, though the tournament minimum was seventeen.
During the game, Schwartz had figured the kid was too small to hit high heat, so he’d called for one fastball after another, up and in. Before the last, he’d told the kid what was coming and added, “Since you can’t hit it anyway.” The kid swung and missed, gritted his teeth, turned to make the long walk back to the dugout. Just then Schwartz said — ever so softly, so that it would seem to come from inside the kid’s own skull — “Pussy.” The kid paused, his scrawny shoulders tensed like a cat’s, but he didn’t turn around. Nobody ever did.
Now when the kid reached the worked- over dust that marked the shortstop’s spot, he stopped, bouncing on his toes and jangling his limbs as if he needed to get loose. He bobbed and shimmied, windmilled his arms, burning off energy he shouldn’t have had. He’d played as many games in this brutal heat as Schwartz.
Moments later the South Dakota coach strolled onto the field with a bat in one hand and a five- gallon paint bucket in the other. He set the bucket beside home plate and idly chopped at the air with the bat. Another of the South Dakota players trudged out to first base, carrying an identical bucket and yawning sullenly. The coach reached into his bucket, plucked out a ball, and showed it to the shortstop, who nodded and dropped into a shallow crouch, his hands poised just above the dirt.
The kid glided in front of the first grounder, accepted the ball into his glove with a lazy grace, pivoted, and threw to first. Though his motion was languid, the ball seemed to explode off his fingertips, to gather speed as it crossed the diamond. It smacked the pocket of the first baseman’s glove with the sound of a gun going off. The coach hit another, a bit harder: same easy grace, same gunshot report. Schwartz, intrigued, sat up a little. The first baseman caught each throw at sternum height, never needing to move his glove, and dropped the balls into the plastic bucket at his feet.
The coach hit balls harder and farther afield — up the middle, deep in the hole. The kid tracked them down. Several times Schwartz felt sure he would need to slide or dive, or that the ball was fl at- out unreachable, but he got to each one with a beat to spare. He didn’t seem to move faster than any other decent shortstop would, and yet he arrived instantly, impeccably, as if he had some foreknowledge of where the ball was headed. Or as if time slowed down for him alone.
After each ball, he dropped back into his feline crouch, the fingertips of his small glove scraping the cooked earth. He barehanded a slow roller and fired to first on a dead run. He leaped high to snag a tailing line drive. Sweat poured down his cheeks as he sliced through the soup- thick air. Even at full speed his face looked bland, almost bored, like that of a virtuoso practicing scales. He weighed a buck and a quarter, maximum. Where the kid’s thoughts were — whether he was having any thoughts at all, behind that blank look — Schwartz couldn’t say. He remembered a line from Professor Eglantine’s poetry class: Expressionless, expresses God.
Then the coach’s bucket was empty and the first baseman’s bucket full, and all three men left the field without a word. Schwartz felt bereft. He wanted the performance to continue. He wanted to rewind it and see it again in slow motion. He looked around to see who else had been watching — wanted at least the pleasure of exchanging a glance with another enraptured witness — but nobody was paying any attention. The few fans who hadn’t gone in search of beer or shade gazed idly at their cell- phone screens. The kid’s loser teammates were already in the parking lot, slamming their trunks. Fifteen minutes to game time. Schwartz, still dizzy, hauled himself to his feet. He would need two quarts of Gatorade to get through the final game, then a coffee and a can of dip for the long midnight drive. But first he headed for the far dugout, where the kid was packing up his gear. He’d figure out what to say on the way over. All his life Schwartz had yearned to possess some single transcendent talent, some unique brilliance that the world would consent to call genius. Now that he’d seen that kind of talent up close, he couldn’t let it walk away.
author photo: Philip Boroff / Bloomberg via Getty Images
I seem to be on a jag of novels with very bad parents as major characters.
First came the master manipulators: Caleb and Camille Fang of The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson, are performance artists who refer to their children, Annie and Buster, as Child A and Child B. They throw their children into their pieces almost as soon as they’re born, attempting to defeat the sentiment expressed by their teacher: “kids kill art”. They come close to killing their own kids, emotionally at least, by throwing them into situations that involve pulling the rug out from under them emotionally. Public humiliation doesn’t begin to describe what they suffer in the name of their parents’ Art. They wind up emotional basket cases: Buster so guarded that he trusts no one, including himself, and Annie so thoroughly angry that she humiliates herself rather than letting anyone else do it to her again. Caleb and Camille, meanwhile, feel betrayed by the simple fact that their progeny grow up and leave home — they apparently expected them to stay home and continue to participate in family projects indefinitely. In partial retaliation, they dream up the biggest project ever, one so extreme that Annie and Buster must make a major decision on their own on how to deal with it. They mystery of what Caleb and Camille are really up to, and the uncertainty of how Child A and Child B will deal, make the second half of this book an exciting ride, in addition to a disturbing one. The characters are unique and unforgettable. Nicole Kidman’s production company has bought the rights to the movie, and David Lindsay-Abaire (The Rabbit Hole) is going to write the screenplay.
The next pair of parents who should have considered contraception are in Alison Esapach’s The Adults. They produced Emily Vidal, an only child, in a wealthy Connecticut suburb. Witness to — and participant in — a variety of bad adult behavior (suicide, philandering, sexual abuse), Emily alternates between being a pawn and a would-be parent to her shattered mother. As she struggles to grow up, her childhood traumas continue to follow her around, even as far as Prague.
Emily was sympathetic in many ways, once I got over her snarkiness. Here’s an early example:
They arrived in bulk, in Black Tie Preferred, in one large clump behind our wooden fence, peering over each other’s shoulders and into our backyard like people at the zoo who wanted a better view of the animals.
My father’s fiftieth birthday party had just begun.
It’s true that I was expecting something. I was fourteen, my hair still sticky with lemon from the beach, my lips maroon and pulpy and full like a woman’s, red and smothered like “a giant wound,” my mother said earlier that day. She disapproved of the getup, of my yellow fit-and-flare dress that cradled my hips and pointed my breasts due north, but I didn’t care; I disapproved of this party, this whole at-home affair that would mark the last of its kind.
The women walked through the gate in black and blue and gray and brown pumps, the party already proving unsuccessful at the grass level. The men wore sharp dark ties like swords and said predictable things like, “Hello.”
but I found I spent a lot of the book wanting to shake her till her teeth rattled. I loved the writing, though, and found the story very affecting. All the characters seemed very real, but most of them behave badly, so if you need a lovable character to enjoy a book, this one may not be for you.