Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth
Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues
Judge: Dave Irwin
Judge: Dave Irwin
I've become quite fond of Anita Brookner and her subtle, observant, slowly moving, low-key novels. So I'm pleased to find that HeavenAli is sponsoring Brookner in July. Read about it here.
Top Ten Tuesday is a feature created at The Broke and the Bookish blog. Each week they post a new list for bloggers. Click on the logo to see the lists coming up and those posted in the past. This week's list is
Top Ten Books I've Read So Far in 2013
Pastors and Masters by Ivy Compton-Burnett: Why isn't the blogging world reading and talking about Ivy Compton-Burnett? Her books are exceptional, filled with sometimes amusing, sometimes vitriolic dialog, and not a sign of sentimentality.
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon: I think if I had to name a contemporary author whom I most look forward to a new book, it would be Michael Chabon. He is accused by some of overwriting - after I read his books I find everybody else's novels thin gruel.
Z by Therese Anne Fowler: Zelda Fitzgerald is one of those people (Mrs Carlyle comes to mind) about whom people feel very strongly, taking sides between her and her husband. Did Scott treat her as a cypher sending her into mental breakdown? That's the side this novel takes and I have to say I find the argument convincing.
Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym: This late novel by the incomparable Barbara Pym was unfinished when she died and was finished by her friend and literary executrix, Hazel Holt, from Barbara's notes. Purists tend to dismiss the book compared with Pym's other novels, but I rather like it and of the three Pyms I have read in 2013 this is the one I would recommend to someone new to Pym.
The Hundred and One Dalmations by Dodie Smith: How could I have reached this advanced age and not have read this book, especially as it's written by Dodie Smith, whose I Capture the Castle, is a gem? The five-year-old with whom I read every Wednesday morning recommended it to me and I loved it. Forget Disney.
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud: There's been lots of press about this book and reviews have tended to be very favorable. I would agree that the book is valuable and very well written. But the characters, including the Woman Upstairs herself, are not likable and at times it was work to keep reading. I'm glad I did.
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger:This is probably not the "best" book I've read in 2013, but it's the one I liked best. I wrote about it on my blog here.
Live by Night by Dennis Lehane: This is the second book in a projected trilogy, the first book being The Given Day. The story takes place in the early 20th century in Boston and the main characters have close ties to the city police department. Not as good as Lehane's Mystic River, but then what is?
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope: No one can compare with Anthony Trollope for showing us who we are and what we are doing. This is one of those "ripped from the headlines" books about financial corruption and the men who prey on innocent investors. But it was ripped from the 1870s London headlines. Recent events show some things never change.
The Little Ottleys by Ada Leverson: This is actually a trilogy, beginning with the hilarious satire, Love's Shadow, moving on to the more serious though still amusing Tenterhooks, and finishing with Love's Shadow, still satiric but ultimately sad and a little bitter. Published in the early years of the 20th century, the book's message is still pertinent.
Tags: Ada Leverson, Anthony Trollope, Barbara Pym, Claire Messud, Crampton Hodnett, Dennis Lehane, Dodie Smith, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Live by Night, Michael Chabon, Ordinary Grace, Pastors and Masters, Telegraph Avenue, The Broke and the Bookish, The Hundred and One Dalmations, The Little Ottleys, The Way We Live Now, The Woman Upstairs, Therese Anne Fowler, Top Ten Books I've Read So Far in 2013, Top Ten Tuesday, William Kent Krueger, Z, Zelda Fitzgerald
No history is mute. No matter how much they own it, break it, and lie about it, human history refuses to shut its mouth. Despite deafness and ignorance, the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is. -- Eduardo Galeano
In preparation for the 2014 Buff Orpington Tournament (watch this space next March) I've been helping to collect titles of novels published in English in 2013 to go on our longlist, from which we will choose the Sweet 16 books that will begin our tournament.
We couldn't ignore a new book by James Salter so I borrowed All That Is from the library and slowly made my way through the somewhat viscous story. I don't really mean that in a bad way - but reading the book you move slowly and sometimes meet resistance from the prose.
There's another problem - the lack of a plot. It's the story of a man, starting in the last days of World War II, as he makes his way in the postwar world, studying, finding a job, meeting and romancing women, moving in a highbrow New York City social circle.
You can read about the book and the author by following the links below. And here's what Publisher's Weekly has to say about it:
The 87-year-old PEN/Faulkner Award-winner's (Dusk and Other Stories) first full-length novel in more than three decades spans some 40 years and follows the accidental life, career, and loves of book editor Philip Bowman. After serving in the Pacific during WWII, Bowman stumbles into publishing at a time when small houses reigned. During extravagant literary parties and travels through Europe, Bowman shares his thoughts on authors both real and imagined. And yet his career is merely a vehicle for his loves and losses, connections made and missed. The women in his life somehow never suit and his many endings are always inexplicable to him. But Salter renders the first blushes of Bowman's loves exquisitely-their giddiness, occasional illicitness, eroticism-and his bewilderment after the relationships fail feels achingly real. By way of counterpoint, the author illustrates the happy but tragic marriage of a close friend, which parallels rather than intersects, since Bowman fails to connect with anyone. The number of characters who parade through the book can frustrate, and Salter's choice to render, for a chapter, a well-known character anonymously was unnecessary. But Salter measures his words carefully, occasionally punctuating his elegant prose with sharp, erotic punches.
I don't know the identity of the unnamed author mentioned in that review, but perhaps the reviews and interviews will tell us eventually. There was one thing particularly interesting about the style. I've been reading the novels of Barbara Pym for the last year with an online group and we have identified a stylistic quirk of Pym that we call head-hopping. She narrates the story from within the mind of one character and then another, sometimes changing the character within a paragraph, and occasionally even within a single sentence.
Salter does something a bit similar, moving from description of one character to another in a lightly linked trail, but looking from the outside in. Do you remember the old riddle, Why Is a Fire Engine Red? (It has 8 wheels and 4 men, 8 and 4 is 12, 12 is a ruler, Queen Elizabeth is ruler of England, England rules the seas, the seas have fishes, the fishes have fins, the Finns fought the Russians, and the Russians are red.) Apply that to the narrative of a novel and you have the protagonist meeting a woman, then being introduced to her father, and his ex-wife, and his ex-wife's current lover. Back to the protagonist, who goes to a party where he meets another publisher, then one of the the publisher's friends, then that guy's girlfriend. Back to the protagonist. Each of these excursions goes on for pages and you are never sure where you will wander next.
So I enjoyed the novel, but did not recommend it for our longlist.
You probably need to know a bit about Seattle to really appreciate Maria Semple's new book, Where'd You Go, Bernadette? It helps to know, for example, that the new Koolhaas Seattle Public Library is so Green it's heated by the body heat of library visitors and that it's cooled by breezes from Elliot Bay piped underground to the building. The good citizens of Seattle are so eager - indeed, anxious - to serve the entire population of potential library users they have created a space for bums to spend the day, isolated a bit from the people who want to do research or find a book but don't want to smell this other constituency. The furniture is designed so that it can be hosed down and disinfected overnight.
Here's one remarkably accurate Urban Dictionary description of a Seattleite:
- Is easily agitated when tourist asks to see the original Starbucks, Microsoft or Kurt Cobain's house. True Seattleites do not care for these things.
- Is a pretentious coffee snob due to the thousands of delicious coffee houses and rostaries that surround them.
- Any person who knows not to visit Pike Place Market on a Saturday.
- Any person who was disappointed by EMP (unlike the inbred hicks from across the country who come to visit it).
- Any person that hates it when Californians drive through Washington and cry about the rain and the cold.
- This is a city that is completely devoid of soccer moms.
What we have in Semple's new novel is a portrait of Seattle as seen through the eyes of Bernadette Fox, an architect from LA who is "allergic" to Seattle even after eighteen years of living there, and her husband, a Microsoft guru. They have promised their twelve-ish daughter Bee that she may have whatever she wants if she gets all As in middle school. They think she will ask for a pony, but she wants a trip to Antarctica. Bernadette, the marginally sane mother who is mildly agoraphobic and depressed because of some sort of architectural disaster in LA, is deeply distressed at the idea of crossing the rough waters of Drake Passage between Cape Horn and Antarctica. She is also distressed at having to spend time with people.
But Bernadette is bravely making plans to go on this excursion until a neighbor who lives downhill from her insists that Bernadette get rid of the blackberry vines that are creeping under and over the fence into her neighbor's perfectly maintained garden. (Not to mention crawling under and over the house that Bernadette and her family live in. They keep a weed whacker in the living room to control the shoots coming up through the floorboards.) What nobody seems to realize is that these vines are providing erosion abatement and when Seattle experiences an unusually heavy rain (predicted by Cliff Maas on his web site which everyone in Seattle reads) shortly after the vines are removed, the resulting mudslide is ruinous to the neighbor's garden and the back of her house. Partly as a result of this altercation Bernadette decides she cannot make the Antarctic trip and disappears.
I have complained that this book has been chosen by Spokane Reads as the one book everyone in our city is encouraged to read and talk about this year, but I want to withdraw that complaint. There is little Spokaneites enjoy more than making fun of Seattleites and this novel provides a cache of ammunition. Here is Bernadette on househunting in Seattle:
My first trip up here, to Seattle, the realtor picked me up at the airport to look at houses. The morning batch were all Craftsman, which is all they have here, if you don't count the rash of view-busting apartment buildings that appear in inexplicable clumps, as if the zoning chief was asleep at his desk during the sixties and seventies and turned architectural design over to the Soviets.
Everything else is Craftsman. Turn-of-the-century Craftsman, beautifully restored Craftsman, reinterpretation of Craftsman, needs-some-love Craftsman, modern take on Craftsman. It's like a hypnotist put everyone from Seattle in a collective trance. You are getting sleepy, when you wake up you will want to live only in a Craftsman house, the year won't matter to you, all that will matter is that the walls will be thick, the windows tiny, the rooms dark, the ceilings low, and it will be poorly situated on the lot.
The mud-spattered neighbor suffers from the particular snobbism of old-time Seattleites, resulting from the fact that white settlement in the city goes back only to 1853 and that by far most of the people in Seattle have arrived recently from elsewhere. The neighbor brags of her family history:
Within a four-mile radius is the house I grew up in, the house my mother grew up in, and the house my grandmother grew up in. . . . My great-grandfather was a fur trapper in Alaska . . . Warren's great-grandfather bought furs from him. My point is you come in here with your Microsoft money and think you belong, but you don't belong. You never will.
This phenomenon is called the "Seattle freeze," which is attributed to all the Scandinavian blood in the city.
But Bernadette has some upper-middle-class prejudices of her own. She is eavesdropping on a nearby table in a restaurant:
They don't know the difference between a burrito and an enchilada! . . . Oh my God, they've never heard of mole. . . . They're covered with tattoos! . . . Did you see the tattoo one of them had on the inside of his arm? It looked like a roll of tape. . . . Know what one of the guys at the drive-thru Starbuck's has on his forearm? . . . A paperclip! It used to be so daring to get a tattoo. And now people are tattooing office supplies on their bodies. . . . Oh my God. It's not just any roll of tape. It's literally Scotch Tape, with the green and black plaid. . . . If you're going to tattoo tape on your arm, at least make it a generic old-fashioned tape dispenser! . . . Did the Staples catalog get delivered to the tattoo parlor that day?
Well, I won't go on, but I do recommend the book, which is charming and witty and filled with satire at the expense of the uber-hip, the liberals who are so far left they have fallen off the continuum, the people who refuse to buy salmon unless they know the name of the boat it was caught from, a population that is divided neatly into those who work at or have made shocking amounts of money from Microsoft and those who, despite the enormous advantages to the city and the University of Washington of all that money having been channeled their way, and despite the fact that Microsoft, along with Boeing, is the very basis of the city's economy, nonetheless cherish a bitter hatred of Bill Gates and his company.
About 30 years ago someone removed bottles of Tylenol capsules from the shelves of a Chicago drugstore, added potassium cyanide to them, and returned them to the shelves. Seven people died. Johnson & Johnson, the parent company, cooperated with the police, FBI, FDA, and media, immediately withdrawing all Tylenol from the shelves, warning people not to take their product, and eventually offering to replace capsules with tablets. Product packaging changed overnight to the belligerent packaging we have today. It was the first really effective crisis management episode, with Johnson & Johnson, within a few months, in better shape than before the poisonings. Their success was based on apology followed by complete transparency.
Public relations and that subset of it called crisis management is big business these days. But despite the J&J example people and companies in trouble seem not to have learned the lesson that a prompt acceptance of responsibility without excuses is the most ethical and most effective way to handle a serious PR problem.
The protagonist of A Thousand Pardons, Helen Armstead, knows this instinctively and when her husband, Ben, has a spectacular mid-life crisis and she goes back to work, this is the way she handles some small-time crises for the clients of the four-person PR company that hires her. She soon is hired by a very large PR firm. But just as she is handed the biggest and most important case of her new career she finds herself trying to help a famous movie star whom she knew in elementary school (but who doesn't remember her) when he blacks out and thinks he has harmed a young woman. As her husband attempts to get back on his feet and her 14-year-old daughter gives her the grief that 14-year-olds so often do, she struggles to balance her work life, her personal life, and this project to aid the panicked but not very grateful star.
The characters in this book are engaging, even the out-of-control husband and the bratty daughter. The actor not so much. But Helen's career successes are entertaining as is Ben's attempt to straighten out his life. It is believable (if only just) that a world-famous man might turn to Helen for help when he found himself in serious trouble, and her short-term solution is a logical move. But somehow the second half of the book was unsatisfying for me.
The author of the novel, Jonathan Dee, studied under John Hersey, was an editor at The Paris Review, and had a novel (The Privileges) short-listed for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize. His prose is smooth and this is not a difficult book to read. The character development of the Armstead family is well done. The plot is believable (if only just.) The book will probably do very well. And some readers will like it very much indeed. I read it as part of early filtering of novels for the 2014 Buff Orpington Tournament and I will recommend that it be included but with reservations.
I'm Elaine's Reading Mentor. Her mom asked me to take on this task about three years ago as a way to introduce Elaine to books and for her to have someone to talk to about what she reads.
That sounds like a great idea, and of course, it is, but what we plan and what actually happens are seldom the same thing. And so Elaine has taken on the role of my Reading Mentor. She goes to the library every week and she picks out picture books for us to read together. She has really good taste in picture books and she knows me well enough by now to pick books that I will enjoy.
Someday I'm sure I'll get around to introducing Elaine to my favorite books, but meanwhile she is quite astute at choosing books that have those qualities that I particularly favor.
1. Excellent illustrations (Elaine had chosen this year's Caldecott winner months before the winner was announced.
2. Colors, lots of primary colors, colorful end papers
3. Repetition (for example, There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, Horton Hatches an Egg)
4. Books about friends who help one another out
5. Books about trains (this is fortunate as Elaine herself loves books about trains)
Today's favorite book falls into none of these categories. And I'm not sure why Elaine picked it because she had no idea until I explained it to her the significance of the title and the story. It is Who's on First? by Abbot and Costello.
I've sent her a clip from You Tube with the original comedy skit, but it didn't take her very long as we read to figure out what was coming next and so we both knew when, as I turned the page, to shout: Third Base!
Narrative structure isn't very sexy and it's not the first thing most people notice about a novel. Although I, too, like a lively plot and character development, I always find myself drawing the architecture nof the narrative. Where are the characters, how did they get there, what changes when they move about, do we get to see them moving (on the train, in the carriage, etc.), and do we move around in time as well as in space during the course of the story?
The narrative structure of Ann Hood's The Obituary Writer (2013) is divided into two times and places: San Francisco at the time of the earthquake, moving to Napa during the early 20th century. And 1961 in Arlington, Virginia, and Providence, Rhode Island. The obituary writer is a woman, Vivien Lowe, who was in the middle of a passionate affair with a married man in San Francisco when the 1906 earthquake occurred and her lover was killed. Vivien's best friend has married a vintner and moved to Napa Valley and in the wake of the destruction of her life, Vivien moves to the town of Napa to be near her friend. It is there that she begins writing obituaries. These are not the usual obits we are used to, telling us the degrees the dead person earned and his jobs and the awards he was given. She writes instead about what the person loved, what her friends loved about her, little vignettes of her life.
We meet her in 1917 when she has just read in a newspaper story that a man with amnesia who fits the description of her lover is said to be in a Denver hospital. This raises hopes that her lover is not really dead and she prepares to take the train to Denver when an unexpected death keeps her in Napa.
The second woman, Claire, has been having a passionate affair in Northern Virginia in 1960 until her husband, Peter, comes home and finds her with her lover. She soon finds she is pregnant and thinks the child is that of this other man. She doesn't know what to do - stay with her difficult husband or leave to be with the father of her child.
The family goes to Providence, Rhode Island, to celebrate the birthday of Peter's mother, whom everyone calls Birdy. When Birdy has a heart attack and Claire a serious accident, Claire becomes closer to her mother-in-law.
And eventually some characters find the love they seek and others come to understand who they are and what they can do with their lives. A very satisfying book.
Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond (1956) is one of the strangest novels I've read. It certainly has one of the strangest opening lines I can think of:
"Take my camel, dear," said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from the animal on her return from High Mass."
A charming opening with a sharp hook. Who can resist wanting to know what this camel is doing in Oxford and what other eccentricities we will find in Aunt Dot's daily life. The narrator's low-key humor draws the reader into the story as well as our curiosity about aunt Dot.
The narrator's name is Laurie, and she goes off with her aunt, Dorothea ffoulkes-Corbett, and Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg, a Church of England priest, to convert the Muslim women of Turkey to high-church Anglicanism. Aunt Dot, who is thought to have been inspired by Dorothy L Sayers, has traveled the world for many years but now finds much of it "spoiled."
"Abroad isn't at all what it was." She looked back at the great open spaces of her youth, when one rode one's camel about deserts frequented only by Arabs, camels, flocks of sheep, and Gertrude Bell.
The book takes on many aspects of a travel guide as the party, joined in Constantinople (as Father Chantry-Pigg insists on calling it) by a feminist Turkish doctor who converted to Anglicanism during a visit to England, travel along the coast of the Black Sea to Trebizond, once the capital of the Empire of Trebizond (early 13th to mid-15th century. It was the birthplace of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1494.)
Having no success with their missionary attempts, Aunt Dot gives her camel to Laurie and she and Father C-P slip across the border into Russia. Laurie in the course of her travels to Biblical sites re-examines her faith. She has chosen love over the church and is engaged in a long-term adulterous relationship. (The author was the mistress for 24 years of a former priest.) The camel, who has mental health issues and is suspected of substance abuse (azalea flowers) provides Laurie's transportation to these evocative places and the animal probably has a deeply significant meaning, though I can't discern what that might be.
The ending of the book surprised me. The whole novel surprised me, with its combination of humor, satire, philosophical musings, feminist rhetoric, a weak and wandering plot, and mystical religion. It is highly thought of by those whose thoughts on such matters carry weight and it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction.