Friday, August 27, 2010

The Heights by Peter Hedges

This is a story about Tim Welch, a history teacher at an exclusive private school in Brooklyn Heights, and his wife Kate, who begins the novel as a stay-at-home mother devoted to the care of their two young sons. The family of four lives in a small two bedroom in Brooklyn Heights - that is really a one bedroom with a closet. Kate revels in her moments as "the clever mother" and aspires to provide her children with a traditional childhood. All generic enough. Although the idea of a family of four surviving in Brooklyn Heights on the meager salary of one private school teacher seems anything but easy or normal. The Welch family's lifestyle is dramatically changed when they meat Anna Brody, the beautiful wife of a wealth man. Kate, eventually goes back to work and Tim becomes the stay-at-home parent, supposedly working on his long-delayed dissertation.

I was engrossed in this story but found myself detached from the characters. Their humanity (and abundant flaws) was readily apparent and the confessional tone helped to reveal their basest reactions. I enjoyed the inside view of Brooklyn Heights, a neighborhood I've found charming myself. It's always enjoyable to read a book well grounded in a place you know and understand. Hedges clearly knows the neighborhood and he fully develops the Brooklyn Heights presented in the book.

The novel is told in alternating chapters narrated by Kate and Tim, and a few minor characters. I found the ending incredibly off-putting as a somewhat minor character had the final word. We find out her interpretation on the ending scene and thus are left with a lot of questions about what actually occurred. I liked the alternating narration, and found this novel entertaining but it didn't leave me lingering in the story or thinking critically about the characters (beyond wondering initially what truly happened in the end).

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Husband and Wife by Leah Stewart

I'm still trying to wrap my head around my true feelings about this novel. It was engrossing and artful and filled with well-drawn characters and conflict and thought-provoking dialogue and realness. It had texture. I see why Stewart has been recognized for her talent. Her writing is authentic and real and filled with texture and it is so incredibly meta. Here is a book about a woman who discovers her husband, a novelist about to publish a book titled Infidelity has cheated on her. The two met in an MFA program in Austin, where they lived a life with time to discuss the use of the word the, the value of poetry, all of their favorite authors. They lived in a suspended adolescence, and now years later, they are married with children. Sarah, the wife, is no longer a working poet but a cubicle dweller trying to provide her family with health insurance and stability. There is so very much going on in this novel, but its hard not to get drawn into the meta-analysis: a female novelist is writing a story about a male novelist and the aftermath of his story and his actions. How does art reflect life? What does one's writing say about their own thoughts? Can two writers support their family without a more stable job? While part of me was drawn into the story behind the story (how does any of this reflect Stewart's own experiences?), I found myself detached from the narrator's pain. I found myself detached when she fell apart and talked about wanting her husband to die in front of her young children. I understood that many of her reactions were real, and I didn't question her humanity, but it was easier to want to look away. I sympathized for Sarah, and felt anguish on her behalf. I found her husband's actions confusing. But I wished some of her friends would have stepped in and provided a different perspective. It was interesting to watch couple friends support both Sarah and Nathan.

The ending leaves so much up in the air, and I understand why. It makes sense as a stylistic choice. But I found myself yearning for more closure.

This novel is so very different than what it seems when one sees the title, studies the cover and reads the blurb. It is more complicated than simply a story of a man who cheats and his wife's reactions. It is about the complexities of love. We don't see attempts at forgiveness as much as we see love continue until anger bubbles to the surface. We see destructive action and complicated choices. We see that in this relationship each individual has played a role, and these roles have lead to dissatisfaction and a search for more.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Atlas of Love by Laurie Frankel

While reading this book, I decided I wanted to live inside the story. I wanted to be Janey-- an English graduate student who moves in with her two best friends to help raise one of the friend's baby. I loved everything about this book even at moments where I wanted to change the development of the plot. I loved that it grounds itself in literary theory and is so inherently meta. As Janey teachers her English class about poems, short stories, movies, plays and novels, the book itself displays elements of each genre. Janey is the Diggory; she anoints herself the unreliable narrator. And yet she is human, warm, intelligent, thoughtful, everything I desire in a close friend. I loved the characters in this novel (although I didn't understand any of Jill's charms at times). I loved learning how these three disparate women with such different backgrounds came together to form a family and how their community continued to grow to include a gay couple (another graduate student and his chef partner), a Morman boyfriend and husband, a Jewish grandmother, and a History Phd student. I loved The Atlas of Love's vision of family and the message it sends about untraditional families. I wanted to be a part of the motley crew of characters who came together to support each other, who shared Sunday dinners, child rearing and their own real family members.

Frankel's depiction of graduate student life in Seattle makes me want to run away to Seattle and study literature (even if I will be reading, writing, and grading forever). I loved the world these characters inhabited. There are dinner parties and thought-provoking conversations, conflicts and differing opinions, but also deep abiding friendship.

Frankel has created something beautiful and unique in this story. It is a novel about female friendship, motherhood, love and emerging adulthood, and yet it is uniquely different from all the other novels that touch on similar ideas. Frankel has a unique perspective and a clear voice. Her own experiences as a graduate student and professor clearly enrich the honesty of the story. Beyond that, she has a great eye for the humor in modern life. Her story is playful and fun, yet real and honest. This is truly the type of novel I can imagine reading over and over.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Father of the Rain by Lily King

I have loved both of Lily King's previous novels. I remember finding and reading The Pleasing Hour before it was chosen as a BandN Discover New Writer's pick. I was proud of myself for discovering it on my own. Years later, details from The Pleasing Hour and The English Teacher still stand a fresh in my mind. I know that Father of the Rain will stay with me for quite a while as well. King is such a talented writer. Right now she can do no wrong in my eyes (although I have to admit I didn't love the end of Father of the Rain.

I was immediately drawn into Father of the Rain. I felt the rawness and vulnerability of eleven year old Daley. Daley has a secret -- she and her mother are leaving her father-- and because of this secret she chooses an ugly dog as her birthday present. Daley doesn't choose a Newfoundland, knowing that such a dog would make it harder to leave. This detail was so anguishing, so real. Following Daley as she navigates between her mother and father's worlds and homes is fascinating and painful. Throughout I was frustrated to see that no one was helping Dailey through this transition. But I am sure that was very realistic of the time period.

King's rendering of the time period, the seventies, is fascinating. The details she chooses to harness the story in this time period are evocative, and grounded in history. She sprinkles in details of pure historical texture: "Project Genesis" (black students attending "camp" while swimming at rich white people's houses), the variety of reactions prior to Nixon true colors are revealed, the freeness about sex. Poor Daley is left asking what a boner is when Elyse, the five year old daughter of her father's new partner(Dailey's best friend Patrick's divorced mother) says: "Gardiner you better watch it or you will get a boner." It's sad that this little five year-old knows this term but not surprising considering the lifestyle happening at Dailey's father's house. Elyse is an intriguing character as she is so little and exposed to such crazy behavior. I was intrigued right away to see if Dailey's father marries Mrs. Tabor and Patrick, Elyse and Frank become Dailey's step children or if the cohabitation would end and lead to further confusion.

I truly enjoyed so many details in this story. Watching Dailey navigate between diametrically different parents in a time period that is ripe with confusion is fascinating. Dailey loves her father fiercely, even as she sees his flaws, as she is only eleven. King deftly portrays the naivete of a preteen so captivatingly.

The second part of the novel shifts to Daley's adulthood, as she prepares to drive cross-country to move in with her boyfriend (a black man) and begin a teaching position at UC Berkley. The adult Daley (a professor of anthropology) has rejected her father's narrow worldview. But after years of minimal contact with her father, she is lured home to help him get sober and her dream future sits unbalanced on a precarious edge. The reader wants to scream at some of Daley's actions and her choices to give her father more chances -- and yet her actions are incredibly human. While there is so much about Daley's father to dislike (his small-mindness, his bigotry, the way he belittles some of his children's choices), one understands why Daley cannot turn her back on him. He is after all her father. King displays humanity in a broad swath: while Daley's father, Gardiner, is a truly flawed man, he is also oddly beguiling. I don't understand or like his choices, and while they are surprising they are also somehow deeply human. He is a man who is scared to be alone. A man who grips onto relationships for dear life. And so it is surprising that he chooses to marry so soon after his wife leaves, and yet not. It is surprising that he thinks it is a good idea to cohabitate with his best friends wife in the hopes that he will become his third wife (even though she has been married to his friend for forty years). Gardiner is a man who is a product of his upbringing, and his time period, as Margot Livesey writes: he is a "man who lives in the everyday world but follows almost one of the everday rules." While one wants him to be able to ground himself, grow up and truly embrace help (and while I was shocked by the way he throws away all his daughter's efforts even after all she has done for him) the reality is many people are incapable of truly recovering. King takes no easy outs in making the story what one expects. I was truly surprised by various turns in the story. King embraces some inherent ugliness and for that I applaud her.

In his review of the book Jim Shepard writes: "Lily King's Father of the Rain is the most unsettling and exhilarating kind of love story--the sort that interrogates just how resilient the bonds of unconditional love can remain, even after a lifetime of damage at the hands of a heedless parent. This is a passionate and beautifully observed and fair-minded novel." And yes. YES.

The one thing that irked me about the novel is the final ending. Both Father of the Rain and the book I read subsequently (Men and Dogs) had tie-ins to Obama's election. And while I understand how powerful it is to this narrative to show how Daley's world (and our world) progressed from the complex world of the 70s, I found the ending too neat. I believe that Daley and her partner would celebrate the election with their children. I am just not sure how much I believe in the final version of Gardner we are introduced to. That being said, I think Gardiner is truly unpredictable and so maybe I can't attempt to predict his actions.

King broadly paints America and humanity in this novel. She creates memorable characters, she explains how far we have come as a nation, she captivates the reader and forces us to face ugly realities. I loved this novel. Part of me wants to read it again to find even deeper meaning. I can't wait to hear what others thought about this deeply crafted novel. How did you feel in the end?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Waiting on Wednesday: The Widower's Tale

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine that spotlights upcoming releases.

My pick this week's:
The Widower's Tale
by Julia Glass
Publication Date: September 7, 2010

From Publisher's Weekly:

Percy Darling, 70, the narrator of Glass's fourth novel, takes comfort in certitudes: he will never leave his historic suburban Boston house, he is done with love (still guilty about his wife's death 30 years ago), and his beloved grandson Robert, a Harvard senior, will do credit to the family name. But Glass (Three Junes) spins a beautifully paced, keenly observed story in which certainties give way to surprising reversals of fortune. Percy is an opinionated, cantankerous, newly retired Harvard librarian and nobody's "darling," who decides to lease his barn to a local preschool, mainly to give his daughter Clover, who has abandoned her husband and children in New York, a job. Percy's other daughter is a workaholic oncologist in Boston who becomes important to a young mother at the school with whom Percy, to his vast surprise, establishes a romantic relationship. Meanwhile, Percy's grandson, Robert, falls in with an ecoterrorist group. Glass handles the coalescing plot elements with astute insights into the complexity of family relationships, the gulf between social classes, and our modern culture of excess to create a dramatic, thought-provoking, and immensely satisfying novel.

I loved Glass's last novel. Can't wait for this one!

Friday, August 6, 2010

This is Where We Live by Janelle Brown

I am an equal opportunity reader: I will chase any engaging story to its point of closure. But two things deepen my reading experience and make a novel stand out. The first is powerful writing: lyrical sentences, the bite of the real, an author's ability to spell bind me with their craft. The second is a story that forces me to think deeply about new ideas.

Having finished Brown's sophmore release earlier today, I realize it's not her writing that stands out. I didn't stop while reading to linger on any artful phrases. But I did nod throughout, enjoying th realistic portrayal of modern life and Brown's ability to make me think deeply about a variety of aspects of modernity.

Janelle Brown has her finger on the zeitgeist. I remember thinking the same thought when reading her first novel and it is vividly apparent while reading This Is Where We Live, as well. She takes these planitive, straight phrases and grows them into a well-developed story with a critique of society mixed right in for good measure. "All We Ever Wanted Is Everything," and "This Is Where We Live" both dissect modern society.

To be honest, I'm not even sure I liked the characters in this novel. At times I was very frustrated with their choices. Claudia (a wife and scriptwriter/director) and Jeremy (a husband and rock musician) were realistic and like characters on a reality tv show --I cared about their story not because of some binding connection but instead because their experiences barreled forward dramatically and allowed me to reexamine my own life.

The inside of this book deems it "A novel about subprime mortgages, ruthless hollywood economics, and the unraveling of a young marriage." While those three entities are at the heart of the story, it is about so much more: the information age and its pandering to an audience which with more cyncism can be recast as "the fractured soul of the post-modern age," delayed adolescence, human disconnection. It is about vacillitating between the polls of pragmatiscism and fuck the norm idealism/following the fire in your belly passions.

Claudia, who in my opinion is much more likeable than her husband offers: "Everyone we know thought they were going to be artists. Painters or musicians or filmmakers or writers, somehow more authentic than everyone else right? But really, how many have done what they thought they would? We were all so naive. We live in an information age, not a truth age; the only way to really make it now is to sell out to the biggest distributor, pander to the broadest one cares about art anymore." (p. 121)

Brown's novel reflects modern society back at its tenants. She takes the mortgage crisis and a simple craftsman style two bedroom domicile and uses it to riff on so very much of modern life. Her novel is a discussion about the value of technology and the relevance of art in a new world. It is about reexamining what makes the good life.

I valued the way this novel made me think deeply about modern life. I think Brown's true craft is in the simple way that she coats a plot driven narrative with much larger questions and discussions. One of my two critiques is that certain plot elements were cliche. Maybe that is an intentional choice. But the idea of a failed scriptwriter teaching film was cloyingly cliche (after all, those who can't do, teach) and the brouhaha Claudia gets herself into when she chooses to give the daughter of a hollywood bigwig an As she doesn't deserve so that he will advance Claudia's career was a little too obvious for me. I suppose this happens all the time in LA - people use any connection they can to plot their careers but it just felt like a forced plot device. The second critique is the ending was too rushed for me. After three hundred and sixteen pages I wanted more resolution. Although as I continue to think about the characters, the narrative and its many messages I am starting to understand why the story ends the way it does.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt

I saw my mother shortly after finishing this memoir and was trying to explain to her why I enjoyed it so much. I had already told her about it's tragic premise: "a gifted doctor and young mother, collapses and dies and her parents move in with their son-in-law to help take care of their daughter's three children, all under the age of six." I was explaining to her that Roger wanted to be called Guapo instead of Grandfather (for the handsome one), but none of the children could pronounce it so he became "Boppo." "Boppo" often visited his grandchildren's school to discuss writing and so when children saw him they would happily announce to their classmates: "Boppo's here!" The idea of this erudite and educated man becoming a universal "Boppo" to an entire school of children warmed my heart immensely.

This book is filled with heart-warming details and resounding moments of familial love. It is a story that can renew one's belief in the goodness of people.

There is an artfulness and a power in the simplicity of Rosenblatt's writing. His entire memoir is filled with the "bite of the real," --moments that sing with their honesty, everyday-ness and vibrancy. I fea rI can't possibly testify to how much Making Toast touched me. It is a story about humanity, family, loss. It is a story about the good life (even though at the heart of the story is a huge tragedy).

As much as I grieve for the Solomon children who lost their amazing mother, I know they are being raised wonderfully in a warm and loving family. Making Toast is a clear testament to the fact that families can come in different forms and still be nurturing and a fertile environment for positive development. The Rosenblatt's story clearly illustrates what has been lost in a modern world where children often don't spend a great deal of time with their extended families, including their grandparents. Both of my parents had grandmothers who lived with them in childhood - it's sad that such a practice has been purged in modernity.

In the book Ligaya, Bubbie's (the youngest Soloman child who is actually named James) nanny says: "You are not the first to go through such a thing, and you are better able to handle it than most." And this is obviously true. The Solomans and Rosenblatts are surrounded by friends, family, positive experiences. Up until the sudden death of Amy many of the individuals seem truly blessed. Rosenblatt himself admits that before his daughter's death he was accustomed to most things going his way.

I love how clearly drawn all the individuals are in this memoir. We get a full-developed sense of Amy, but also of her amazing children. Their comments, like most young children's comments are spot-on, humorous and profound. In one passage Rosenblatt talks about visiting his granddaughter Jessie's class to discuss a book he wrote Children of War. Rosenblatt writes: "Introducing the subject, I told the second graders that one of the sad and difficult things about children everywhere is that they have no power. Jessie raised her hand. 'That's not true Boppo,' she said. 'We have the power of thought and kindness."

This memoir truly spoke to me. In Amy's short life she touched so many people. I appreciated her ability to embrace life and make decisions without regret. Beyond that, I found Rosenblatt to be so incredibly likeable. Everyone he describes in the book is portrayed in the best light. Even in the wake of a tragedy, he find the best in everyone and brings a sense of humor and lightness to life. I learned so very much from this story and I know I will continue to think about it for quite a while.