Sunday, December 15, 2013

THE CIRCLE, Dave Eggers, THE VIEW FROM THE SEVENTH LAYER, Kevin Brockmeier, SOMEONE, Alice McDermott

THE CIRCLE, Dave Eggers
I guess I just don't like Eggers' fiction. And I keep getting set up for disappointment because I love most of his nonfiction. The Circle is a Facebook-Google-like corporation that has swallowed all its competitors, and where "Everything That Happens Must Be Known." It's not that Eggers doesn't have the right idea. I agree with what he's preaching in this novel. But the plot is massively predictable, and the characters and writing wooden. He crafts a good sentence in his nonfiction books, and uses effective fiction to techniques to tell real stories. He could use more of that here.

More excellent Brockmeier (see my October 5th post ), marrying 'realistic' fiction with a surreal strain of science fiction. This time short stories, including a piece of twisted Star Trek fan fiction, "The Lady with the Pet Tribble," that's brilliant and beautifully penned.

SOMEONE, Alice McDermott
The life of an entirely ordinary woman from Depression era Brooklyn. Nothing much happens. She is young, she grows up, has a failed romance, marries and raises a family, grows old... and somehow McDermott makes her story lift off the page with quiet, unshowy, virtuoso writing. On my Best of 2013 list.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

THE ILLUMINATION by Kevin Brockmeier, STITCHES, by David Small

New school year, limited reading time. Nevertheless, after Leaning In the wrong direction on a few titles, I'm back to some good ones.

As he did in the stunning The Brief History of the Dead, Brockmeier seamlessly weaves together realism and science fiction in The Illumination. One night, people's wounds begin to glow and shimmer. What happens in a world where where pain is suddenly visible? The language is rich and gorgeous, the characters deeply human. A great read.

One picture truly worth a thousand words, in Smalls' graphic memoir about growing up in a cold, distant household where words were in short supply. The angles, perspective, shading, sequencing and sheer imagination of his images pair beautifully with the simplicity of his lines and storytelling.

Monday, August 26, 2013

LEAN IN: WOMEN, WORK AND THE WILL TO LEAD by Sheryl Sandberg; ANT FARM by Simon Rich


Feminism for Dummies. A reductive, pedantic and whiney book, by a writer who equates success with being the boss. Did I say writer? Not really. The writing is pedestrian. (“Find the right career for you and go all the way to the top… I would not suggest that anyone move beyond feeling confident into arrogance or boastfulness. No one likes that in men or women. But feeling confident—or pretending that you feel confident—is necessary to reach for opportunities. It’s a cliché, but opportunities are rarely offered; they’re seized.”) A national bestseller? Well, okay. If what she’s saying is new to you, then you need this book.

While I’m at it, Sandberg is yet another person reviling teachers and making inaccurate generalizations about us: “Boys are more likely to call out answers and when they do, teachers usually listen to them. When girls call out, teachers often scold them for breaking the rules and remind them to raise their hands if they want to speak.” True in some classrooms, no doubt. But decidedly not the case in many others.

ANT FARM by Simon Rich

Uh-oh. Has my roll of fabulous summer reading run its course? Thumbs down for two-in-a-row. I was in the mood for something light and funny; Rich’s book had a laudatory quote from Jon Stewart, and was a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor (okay, so I’ve never heard of the Thurber Prize). But I read all of Part I without so much as cracking a smile. These literary potato chips—a page or two in length apiece—are, imho, obvious and not funny. (Oh, and full of nitwit teachers.)

TENTH OF DECEMBER by George Saunders

One more great read. The latest collection of stories by the acclaimed Saunders. Even Thomas Pynchon has come out of his hidey hole to praise the writer’s “graceful, dark, authentic and funny” voice. A study in getting inside characters’ heads, Saunders thinks the think and talks the talk of his motley bunch. Here's how to do interior monologue with brilliance and wit. Wildly original. What an ear!

Friday, August 9, 2013



Deserves every syllable of adulation it’s getting in the press. Multiple stories of Americans over the course of the last century, that intersect in small but poignant ways. Lest that sound like a sprawling epic, these are slender vignettes in Seussian-metered verse (with the occasional cartoon-like illustration). The whole book clocks in at 128 pages, but is a tiny, potent firework, packed with plot and character, heart, insight and joy of language. Like nothing I’ve read before. Tragic, funny, acerbic, fresh… this is the Great American Novel refashioned into a completely different beast. Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish was published posthumously. I hope Rackoff is looking down and enjoying his work’s success.


Important, superbly researched, well written, highly readable. The inhabitants of a slum at the edge of the Mumbai airport struggle to survive and maintain their humanity. An eye-opening look at India in an age of global change, and also a clear-sighted picture of the nearly insurmountable hurdles for anyone at the bottom of a society’s social and economic pile. A worthy companion to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

HOW IT ALL BEGAN by Penelopy Lively

The construct for this novel is 'the butterfly effect.' An older woman gets mugged; various relationships change in the wake of this. But that's simply an organizing principal for the interwoven stories of nine Londoners, in this particular slice of time. Lively draws her smart, sharp portraits with prose that's both snappy and elegant, funny and tender, with insight into her characters--from the inside and from the outside, and with perfectly controlled story-telling. I loved this book.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

THE YELLOW BIRDS by Kevin Powers

Gorgeous. One small story that paints a poignant, sweeping picture of what it's like to go to war. Exquisite, painful, poetic, immediate. Add to the canon of must-read war literature, with Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


A terrific beach read for people, like me, who aren't the beach read type. When brilliant, sharp-tongued, socially phobic Bernadette goes missing, her 8th grade daughter, Bee, seeks to find her. At once a satire about life in Seattle and sweet mother-daughter story, well crafted, well written, nicely built characters, funny. I devoured it in in a few sittings.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

WILD by Cheryl Strayed

A lot of my fantasy life is devoted to planning the big adventure... getting in my car in NYC with no itinerary, and driving until I reach Patagonia; hiking the G-7, moving to a cabin on the coast of fill-in-the-blank. Maybe this is in my future, when my kid finishes school and I retire from my steady gig. Meanwhile, I'll content myself with my little adventures--two weeks solo in Cuba; paddling, hiking, busing and training from California to Canada; three weeks of eating my way through Laos and Vietnam; and instead of an endless summer, the endless coffee break--body surfing wherever and whenever I can, in little snippets of free time. And while I dream bigger, I'll read about the folks who dreamed and actually did. Cheryl Strayed hiked the Pacific Coast Trail by herself, and wound up more at peace with herself. Her story is highly entertaining and well-crafted. She writes a good sentence, knows when to show, when to tell, what to put in and what to leave out. A vicarious thrill. Thanks, Cheryl!

Sunday, June 16, 2013


On page 64, and about to give up. Loved her early books, got lost and fell away from her later ones. Phillip Lopate advises memoirists "To Show and Tell." This book is all tell, tell, tell... whine, whine, whine. Little bits and pieces that never take flight. Get over how much you hate your mum. We all do our best, and it's never good enough. NYT bestseller. Vogue calls it a tour de force. Bored, recently, by a string of critically acclaimed books. Is it me?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson and THE OUTLAW ALBUM by Daniel Woodrell

The literary barometers love Life After Life. Once again, I may be missing something. Here’s the conceit: What if you could keep coming back to life until you got it right? And so the protagonist dies over and over, and comes back again and again, until she does what you pretty much know she’s going to do from early on in the book. It’s very cleverly structured. A neat parlour trick. But the writing is pedestrian.

Daniel Woodrell is the freshest, darkest, most compelling voice I’ve read this year. He’s been around for a while, writing what he’s coined ‘country noir,’ but somehow I missed him until now. These stories, set in the Ozarks, knocked my socks off.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

SWIMMING HOME by Deborah Levy

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Man, I must be missing something. Cliché language, cliché plot, cliché characters, drawn so thinly you don't care a wit about them. How many times do you want to read about the beautiful, ethereal, unstable poetess-wanna-be's copper-colored curls that cascade down her back?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

THE BONE PEOPLE by Keri Hulme, HOPE: A TRAGEDY by Shalom Auslander, THE CAT'S TABLE by Michael Ondaatje, MYSTIC RIVER by Dennis Lehane, THE LEFTOVERS by Tom Perrotta...more

Derelict in the reading blog department. And now I've lost track of everything I've read since September, except what is still lying around at the foot of my bed. The whole point of this blog is to help me remember what I've read. Dammit, Gumby.

In reverse reading order, calling up what very little remains in the mental sieve, the foot of the bed books are:

Possibly the most disturbing novel I've ever read. I am pulled toward dark fiction, but this book--exquisitely written though it is--was so painful I found myself skimming over entire chunks of her poetic, evocative prose, and mining entire sections of her outside-the-lines narrative for plot only, so I could continue on and, um,  get thee behind me, Bone People. Hulme tells the story of of a sprite of a boy who is severely abused by people who nevertheless truly love him. No one comes out smelling good, but you empathize with all of them, and even like them. That's a hard thing to pull off. The book is masterful... but I'm glad I'm finished with it.

HOPE: A TRAGEDY by Shalom Auslander
I'm a fan of Auslander's. And it takes chutzpah to write a dark comedy with Ann Frank as the supporting actress. Problem is that the Frank character is fabulously annoying--intentionally so--and reading about her is kind of annoying, too, and the laughs didn't quite get off the page. The construct is good, the ideas are good, the book isn't my favorite of his.

MYSTIC RIVER by Dennis Lehane
A literary murder mystery, and poignant portrait of three men who were friends as boys. Beautifully done.

THE LEFTOVERS by Tom Perrotta
What sets Perrotta's novels apart from guilty pleasures, is that he can write. His books are compulsively engaging and well-crafted. He's good. I wish I could do what he does. When a new Perrotta comes out, I buy it. And choose it for a plane ride over the more hoity-toity lit I've also packed in my luggage. Does this sound snobbish? Guilty. But not because I'm reading Perrotta's latest. The Leftovers takes on The Rapture in suburbia--smart, funny, meaningful.

Also reread TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, reviewed elsewhere in this blog. Taught it again, read it again. Never get tired of it. Always find myself stopped in my tracks in various places, asking myself, "How does she do that?"

No doubt I've missed an armful of books I've read this fall and winter.