Friday, December 26, 2014

Lost a few months. Harback, Wainaina, and Alarcón

Fall semester. Lost months. Can't remember what I've read. I see my copies of three recent ones lying around, so I'll attempt a few words about them, for my own record:

At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón
Beautifully crafted, interestingly structured, masterful storytelling about a young actor in a three-person traveling theater troupe in a post-war Peru-like country. But the ending? What up with that?

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Smoothly told, easy-down page-turner about a college baseball player. Compelling characters... though the women perhaps a bit less so. Well crafted.

One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina
Lush, loose, rich language, but somehow--despite the turbulence of the time and place--this memoir of growing up in Kenya somehow kept me at a remove... it felt like nothing much was happening... even though it was. Maybe it was that the writing was so opulent that the forest got lost for the trees.

Monday, August 4, 2014

AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Best when she’s writing about race and culture. But the love story—the bulk of this novel—is ordinary and slo-o-o-ow. The protagonist, a Nigerian woman who moves to the U.S. and then back home, writes a social commentary blog (and makes a living at it; nice work if you can get it). The blog posts are the snappiest, freshest parts of the novel, but get weighed down in a nearly 600-page version of girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy again. I’m not giving anything away. You know what’s coming. Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun was better. This is getting more attention, imho, because it hits certain PC high notes in its frank and on target discussion of being Black in America.

THE AWAKENING by Kate Chopin

Very good

I subsist largely on a diet of contemporary literature. I don’t think much about it, until I read something else. Chopin’s slender, poignant novel about a woman in a unhappy marriage was written in 1899. It expresses emotions that are just as valid today, yet with a formal quality and language that mark it as not of this time. The ying-yang of the crisp, cultivated writing with the universal feelings worked on me like an elegant meal.

BREATHE by Kelly Kittel

My friend Kelly has written a frank, raw, brave memoir about losing two children, and embracing life with passion and vigor in the wake of soul-crushing tragedy.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

ONE DAY by David Nicholls

Very Good!

Delightful, tender, funny, smart. His life/her life on one particular day each year.



Nothing really happens—a woman’s  husband of many years has an affair. They get over it. But nothing really needs to happen. The writing is magnificent—compact, outside the box, poetic, compelling, insightful. I read it in one sitting.

New new rating system.

Pencils very cute. But x out of five not working for me. If I reserve five pencils for Richard Wright or Ursula LeGuin or William Faulkner, give four pencils to the books I've loved and would recommend, that means three pencils for the very good ones--maybe not "Oh, you *have to* read this," but "Oh, this was good; I think you might like it." Three pencils isn't enough for that. And what about good (but not fabulous)? Now we're down to two pencils, and that just isn't right.

So I tried to do it with simple words.

Truly awful. Bad. So-so. Decent. Good. Very good. Excellent. Truly stellar.
Okay. That's better. But that's eight pencils. Too much. So for the moment, I'll just use those words and see if it's working. And I'm going to add a ♥ icon if the book was written by someone I know. So I don't have to stick it with a rating, and can just enjoy my friends' accomplishments.

(This is why I hate putting a grade on student work. Among other reasons.) 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

THE INTERESTINGS by Meg Wolitzer✎✎

Not. Despite some stellar reviews by big names.

Starts out breezy and fun, but somewhere in there it turns whiney and… not very interesting. Poor Jules. Her BFFs are… rich!! And she is… poor??? She has a full-time, private therapy practice in NYC. Gimme a break. Okay, so her hubby is Mr. Mom and doesn’t work. Her apartment is small. (Dude, this is NY.) Wouldja stop bitching? Newsflash, Meg Wolitzer: Your heroine is in the top 10% on the planet. Her problems are the dull, ordinary middle class ones we read to escape from. Somewhere around page 400, I realized how annoyed I was. But judge for yourselves: “Over time, the two couples continued to live their lives, sometimes separately, sometimes not, but always differently from each other. One couple traveled the world. The other couple unpacked the rest of their boxes and hammered the same old posters up on the walls, and placed the same lightweight silverware in a drawer.” I should have closed the book at the word ‘lightweight,’ but I didn’t. I finished the last 150 or so pages anyway.

THE SNOW QUEEN by Michael Cunningham✎✎✎

I loved The Hours enough to buy Cunningham’s latest in hardcover. The characters and setting of The Snow Queen—a group of proto-hipsters making their way in a pre-gentrified Bushwick—enticed me. But the book didn’t deliver vigorously on the promise. I enjoyed it, but wasn’t blown away. It’s overwritten in places, and never fully takes off. Granted, I expect a lot from Cunningham.

AMY FALLS DOWN by Jincy Willett ✎✎✎½

I love Willett.  Amy Falls Down continues Willett’s dark, sharp, comic take on writers, writing, writing class… the whole industry. While the first half of the book is stronger than the second, this is a smart, funny, thoroughly entertaining read. And if you haven’t read Willett’s Jenny and the Jaws of Life, do.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

DRY by Augusten Burroughs ✎✎✎✎✎

Yes, I rated it a half a pencil higher than a book that just won the Pulitzer. I'm not sure I like the five-pencil system. The Goldfinch was excellent, but not on my year's best list. So. Four pencils, right? And I simply enjoyed this one more. It made me laugh. And it was wonderfully crafted and written. So. Five? Well, not exactly. If five is the top mark, then I need to reserve it for my all-time favorites--the ones up there with Geek Love and Black Boy and To Kill a Mockingbird. Well, how about a ten-pencil system? Offers a more accurate rating, perhaps, but gets a zero in the visual literacy department. ✎✎✎✎✎✎✎✎✎✎? Not. Switch to letter grades? (A- for the Pulitzer book, A for Dry, A+ for Black Boy.) Damn, this blog is 'posed ta be teacher's time off. Besides, I'm partial to the little pencil icons. And no matter what rating system, a four or a B+ or a 'Very Good' could indicate so many different things about the strengths and weaknesses of a book. This is why I didn't rate the books on this blog from the get-go. I hate grades. As a teacher, and as a blogger. Yet somehow, they offer up a handy road sign.

As for Dry, Burroughs' memoir of getting clean, he manages to make a harrowing story breezy and seriously funny, while in no way diminishing its potency. His writing is terrific, and the story is put together beautifully.

THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt ✎✎✎✎ out of five (maybe four-and-a-little-bit)

Wrote down all the books I read in February and early March on a little sheet of paper that I can't find. For the record, those titles are missing here.

But how could I forget all 800-something pages of The Goldfinch? Many people whose reading tastes I respect immensely have called it their top book of the year. And, hey, it just won a Pulitzer. And while I liked it a lot, I'm not in that camp. Eight-and-a-half stars out of ten? Four pencils out of five? (Et voilà! I've added a rating system to my blog.)

I love the protagonist. Beautifully drawn. When we first meet him, Theo is 13, the survivor of a terrorist bomb at the Metropolitan Museum, that kills his beloved mother. He walks away with a valuable painting... and the story is launched. The plot is full of compelling twists and turns. And there's so much really great sentence-by-sentence writing. But. It's just too long. And it's not because I'm becoming an intellectual lightweight in my mid-middle age (though that may, in fact, be true). The book is flabby. It needs an editor. It would be better--a tighter read--if half as long.

I felt this way about Middlesex, too. Excellent book. Needed an editor.

Monday, January 20, 2014


Three highly acclaimed ones for the discard pile, one keeper.

THE COLOR OF WATER is one of my favorite books. The intertwined stories of McBride and his mother are compelling and beautifully woven, and his jazz musicianship is apparent in the cadences of his language. But I put his recent novel down after four or five chapters. I wanted to love it. McBride does John Brown and abolition with humor. But there's something about the voice. Not exactly inaccurate, but... not fully McBride's. And a lot of blubber that passes for action. Is there a danger in moving from fresh, vital memoir to... the conventions of storytelling? I'm thinking of how I love Dave Eggar's nonfiction, but both his recent novels have left me cold.

ARE YOU MY MOTHER? by Alison Bechdel
Oh, dear. Both McBride and Bechdel were classmates at Oberlin. And I love both their breakthrough books. Bechdel's graphic memoir, FUN HOME, is a great read/look, about her father. This one, about her mother, is okay-ish... but an exhaustive description of one's psychotherapy is better left on the couch.

MY EDUCATION by Susan Choi
At least with this one, I don't have to feel guilty about not liking a college classmate's book. Choi writes to massive accolades from the literati in this novel about a grad student obsessed with a professor. But little old moi found this novel so overwritten and self-conscious that I stopped at around page 30. Tell me if I'm wrong:
"[He] drove a very old, very damaged Volvo sedan the color of calamine lotion where it wasn't afflicted by rust. The car was so barely distinguishable from the countless other aged, rusted, neutral-toned Volvo sedans living out their last days in that town it might have been part of a utopian experiment of ubiquitous, ownerless cars, as with bicycles in some parts of Europe and indeed even here, in the seventies, when the university had apparently paid for a fleet of bicycles for public use on the campus, all of which had wound up within just a few days abandoned at the bast of the hill."

All the juicy story material of a good chic lit novel, with the insight and dry humor of a British comedy of manners. Nathaniel P., on the verge of literary success in hipster Brooklyn, dates and writes and comments. Nothing about world peace or big ideas... just extremely well-crafted, beautifully written entertainment. Recommended.