Friday, July 31, 2015

Review of After You'd Gone By Maggie O'Farrell

This will probably not come as a surprise, but I just read another book about grief. The book jacket promised family secrets and intrigue, and yes, those things are part of the story. But boiled down, this is yet another book in my string of books about sad sad sad sad.

That said, I enjoyed this book quite a bit (assuming “enjoy” is the right word for sad sad sad). Maggie O’Farrell is one of my favorite contemporary authors. I particularly love two of her books -- The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and The Hand That First Held Mine.  I think that O’Farrell is notable for her spider web writing. The reader is held at a distance at first but is quickly pulled tighter and tighter into the center of the drama.

After You’d Gone was O’Farrell’s debut novel, published in 2002. The story focuses on Alice, who begins the book by getting hit by a car and falling into a coma. The reader knows that something bad has happened in her life, that she has witnessed something difficult. The narrative jumps back and forth in time, allowing the reader to learn about her family and her marriage and the events leading up to the accident. In addition to being a book about grief, this is also book about loyalty and deception. For whom would you sacrifice yourself? Does the truth set you free?

It took me a while to ease into this story, mostly because the time and narrative voice switch often – in the same chapters and without warning. I struggled in the beginning to figure out who was speaking, and the organization felt a bit clunky.  In those ways, the book definitely seemed like a debut. But as much as I didn’t want to be reading about grief, I think that O’Farrell nailed it. I felt every aching minute. The tangible quality of one character’s pain gave me a good glimpse of what a fantastic writer O’Farrell would soon become.

When you find an author that you enjoy, do you tend to go back and read his or her entire catalog? Do you find that satisfying? I think that I would have liked this book even more if I had read it before I had read all of her others. Here’s an old column from the New York Times Book Review about backlists in the book business.

And you can find an interview with O’Farrell here and here.

After You’d Gone is on my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge list.  I’m making slow and unsteady progress toward my goal of finishing (and freeing!) 12 books that have been sitting on my leaning stack for too long. Of course, if I succeed at my challenge, I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m going to reward myself by putting new books on the stack. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

It's Monday! And Pants Are Optional!

Hello, internet! I wish that I had something bookishly fabulous to tell you, but I have not been reading (*gasp*). I know that is a terrible thing for a book blogger to say, but two things happened:

1) I went on a family trip to New York City. I imagined that I would find myself steeped in literary culture and plow through scads of books. But instead I ate lots of carbs and walked for miles and burned up in the crazy heat. At night in the hotel room, it was all I could do to check Facebook to see pictures of other people’s vacations.

2)   I started Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. My book club chose this for a multi-month summer read. I left it until the last week, because that’s the kind of thing that I do.  It’s only 847 pages, so a totally reasonable choice, right? Well, I am stuck. Really stuck. Stuck on page 85 and unable to budge. Whenever I open that thing, my eyes blur and I switch back to Facebook.

My usual policy is to give a book 50 pages and abandon it if it’s not working for me. But so many people have loved this book, and it won the Man Booker Prize in 2013. And most importantly, I hate going to book club and not contributing. One person told me that I should break my rule this time and read to page 200 before making the decision about whether to abandon the book.  Sadly, I just can’t seem to get there.

Now that I’m back home, I’ve started Maggie O’Farrell’s After You’d Gone, which is one of my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge books. I’m not sure what I’ll choose after that. This isn’t exactly a reading slump, but I definitely feel like I’ve lost my groove.

I’ll leave you with a picture of The Strand bookstore in Manhattan:

And the stack of used books I bought for under $15:

And a photo of one of the many things in NYC that cracked me up:

Please bear with me, readers. I’ll be back at it again soon.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review of Language Arts by Stephanie Kallos

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I just finished another novel about grieving. What is the matter with me? My goal for the second half of 2015 will be to find a different theme to explore. What do you think it should be? Rage? Hunger? Shopping?

Language Arts by Stephanie Kallos is a novel about Charles, a man whose son is diagnosed with severe autism. As his son is set to age out of state care, Charles is coming to grips with all the ways in which his life did not go the way he had planned. At the same time, he is pulled backward by memories of his elementary school years and his friendship with a boy who had a developmental disability. The reader knows that something difficult happened, something that will be revealed as the novel progresses.

The “Language Arts” of the title refers to many things. Charles teaches Language Arts at a private school in Seattle. In elementary school, he was selected to be part of a pioneer program in Language Arts, before it was a standard subject. His son has limited language ability, and Charles hasn’t discovered the art of communicating with him. He does, however, communicate freely in writing with his college-aged daughter, and part of what is he navigating is her physical absence from his daily life.

My experience with this book is much like my experience with all of this author’s work. On the one hand, I admire her aspirations to write complex novels with big themes. This one asks some provocative overarching questions about religion (Why do bad things happen? Is there a plan? Is there value in disability?). But I do find that her work veers quickly into the territory of “too complicated.” There are multiple narrators here, as well as a shift between present and past. There’s a patchwork sense about the book, and the reader has to wait a long time for the pieces to knit together.

One thing that I thought about while reading this one is role of setting in an interesting novel. This is a book about Seattle. Kallos gives specific place names on every page, so if you have local knowledge, you will be walking on familiar ground.  But I wonder what the experience would be for readers who aren’t from Seattle. Is all the heavy description of setting helpful or distracting?  Does it make you feel connected or does it isolate you?

You can find an interview with the author here.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Review of Summerlong by Dean Bakopoulos

I finished Summerlong by Dean Bakopoulos during a heat wave, which is appropriate because each chapter of this dark Midwestern comedy starts with an announcement about the scorching temperature. I read this book in a sweaty and uncomfortable state, with my feet in a kiddie pool.

I chose this book because of its summery cover. I have been looking for a good “summer read,” and all signs pointed to this one (Beach chair by a pool! “Summer” in title!). I liked this book quite a bit and was very entertained, but it wasn’t a quintessential summer read for me – mostly because the all the characters were unsettled or unhappy. That fact made me wonder if my own definition of a good “summer read” involves a happiness payoff, a literary frozen treat at the end, perhaps.

Summerlong is a story about midlife ennui. The central characters are part of a married couple living in a college town in Iowa. Claire wrote a book years ago but has since bumped along as a stay-at-home-mom.  Don is a struggling realtor who keeps secret how unsuccessful he is. When the book starts, Don wakes up in a drug-induced state with a beautiful but grieving younger woman. At the same time, Claire spends the evening skinny dipping with a younger man. The novel follows these characters as they try to escape the chains of their own lives.

There is something theatrical about this book. I could almost see it playing out on stage. The ennui is realistic, but the ways in which the characters come together and interact are farcical. There are, however, quite a few nude academics (gah!) in the story, so it might translate into the kind of play that embarrasses everyone.

This book made me think about midlife crises in literature. I did a quick google search and found that there are plenty of lists with titles like, “Popular Midlife Crisis Books!” All of them have exclamation points on them, which strikes me as funny punctuation for a state of mind that is defined by a feeling of immobility and lack of purpose. Most of the books on the lists seem to involve flabby white men coming to terms with their bad decisions. Is there a list that includes diverse midlife crisis experiences? Perhaps that will be a reading challenge for 2016.

In the meantime, this article from The Atlantic suggests that things do indeed get better when midlife passes. Claire and Don should put their clothes back on and hang in there.

You can find an interview with the author here and here.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Review of Charming Billy by Alice McDermott

I have had Charming Billy by Alice McDermott in my stack forever, so I decided it would be a great addition to my 2015 TBR PILE Challenge. One note about my 2015 TBR PILE Challenge: I am very behind.  I have only read four of the twelve books I promised to read, and it’s already July. I’m thinking that I might have to write a future post on Bookish Procrastination – though it’s likely that I’ll never get around to it.

Here's the TBR pile I promised to read
Little did I know when I picked up Charming Billy that I would be reading yet another book about grieving. Other books I have read recently that consider this theme are A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman, The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood, and Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín.

Charming Billy is more than just a story about grief, however. It’s also a story about faith. And I’d argue that it’s more specifically about how faith works as part of Irish-American cultural identity. The book’s plot– if you want to call it that – involves a gathering of friends and family at Billy Lynch’s funeral. As they mourn together, they grapple with whether Billy died of alcoholism or of the effects of a broken heart. The reader learns about both conditions – his drinking and his loss – as the narrative jumps around in time.

At the center of Billy’s life is a romantic loss. When he finds out that the love of his life has died back in Ireland, he is devastated, and that devastation goes on to influence all of the decisions he makes. But it turns out that perhaps Billy does not know the whole truth about his love’s death – in fact, he has been told a story about her that is not real. McDermott is asking whether comforting stories help or harm. And with that, she is asking questions about the function of religion as an organizing feature of this particular community’s world.

This book won the National Book Award in 1998, and it has many of the features of a lot of award-winning contemporary literature. The writing is gorgeous and subtle, and the ideas it plays with are big and profound. I’m glad I finally read it. But I will stress that this the kind of book to read when you’re feeling cozy and contemplative. It is not a page-turner, and I was surprised how long it took me to get through this slim volume. 

This is definitely a good novel to check out if you’re interested in Irish American ethnic culture or identity. The characters’ traditions, the way they care for one another and offend one another, the way they celebrate and self-destruct, and the way they communicate seem particular rather than universal. It would be interesting to pair this with a novel about another American cultural group and do some literary comparison (hint: book club idea!).

You can find a good interview with Alice McDermott here.