Reader’s Journal

The Tie That Binds

The Tie That Binds CoverKent Haruf is not a writer for everyone. For example, if you have no interest in what goes on, say, outside of Brooklyn, or anywhere in between New York City and San Francisco (or Los Angeles or Seattle), then Kent Haruf is probably not an author for you. Or if you have no interest in stories about real families dealing with real struggles, not in a sensational, reality TV, Duck Dynasty or Honey Boo Boo sort of way. (I don’t know, what other reality TV families are there? Ah, the Duggars. They probably should have had a guest spot on True Detective.)

The Tie That Binds was Haruf’s debut novel, and it introduces readers to the small, fictional town of Holt, Colorado, where all of his subsequent novels are set. An 80-year old woman, Edith Goodnough, has been charged with murder. As the novel opens, a journalist from the Denver paper has come to town to get the story. When the journalist arrives at the house of Sanders Roscoe, who has lived next door to Edith for his whole life, he’s told in no uncertain terms to mind his own business and get the hell out of town. Sanders is our narrator, and after he banishes the journalist he turns his gaze directly to us, the readers, and begins to to tell the story of Edith Goodnough, her brother Lyle, and her father, Roy.

“Most of what I’m going to tell you, I know. The rest of it, I believe.”

Sanders starts at the very beginning, when Roy and his wife Ada traveled to Holt from Iowa, before Edith and Lyman were born. Sanders has learned the history of the Goodnough family from his father, John, who lived with his mother, the county midwife, on the property next door.

On Roy: “He was a mean sort of private man. I know from personal experience with him, and more muleheaded even than he was private. He hated like the very goddamn to be dependent on anyone for anything.”

What follows is a mystery of sorts, and also the simple stories of lives lived on the plains. What Haruf shows in his spare yet rich prose is how often those can be one and the same thing. After her mother dies, even though she is courted by John, Edith chooses to remain unmarried. Her brother Lyman, on the other hand, hotfoots it out of town for the next several decades, leaving Edith alone to care for their ailing, angry, abusive father.

Any other writer might feel the need to give Edith a dark secret to explain her choice. In short, she feels duty-bound. Lyman sends her postcards from all the places he visits across the United States, and she pins them to the living-room wall, an armchair journeyman awaiting his return. Eventually Roy dies, Lyman returns home, and for a while things are good:

In the end that’s what Edith Goodnough had: she had six years of what you may call fun. Or good times. Or better, just the day-in, day-out mean rich goodness of being alive, when at night you lie down in the warm dark pleased with your corner of the world, and then you wake up the next morning still pleased with it, and you know that, too, while you lie there for a time listening in peace to the mourning doves calling from the elm trees and telephone lines, until finally the thought of black coffee moves you up out of bed and down the stairs to the kitchen stove, so that once again you begin it all afresh, with pleasure, with eagerness even. Because yes, Edith had that for a while. During that period it was written all over her face. Her brown eyes shone and snapped for six years.

And then life interferes for the worse. An accident happens, and it changes the nature of the life that Lyman and Edith built together in that short six years. In the end, it leads Edith to murder.

The Tie That Binds is a novel where nothing much happens, yet I’m afraid of giving anything away. If nothing else, that shows how deep Haruf goes into ordinary lives to tell a story–or better, to show that these are stories worth telling. In this first novel I can see all the hallmarks of his later works. The only clue that he might be a less confident writer than in his later novels is how he uses the framing device of the journalist to introduce the real story to the reader. I suspect if this were one of his later novels, he might have found another way in. However, it doesn’t detract from the story, either.

I find it funny that the book synopsis includes this sentence: “As Roscoe shares what he knows, Edith’s tragedies unfold: a childhood of pre-dawn chores, a mother’s death, a violence that leaves a father dependent on his children, forever enraged.” If those things are Edith’s tragedies, then they are also the tragedies of thousands of people across the plains in the early Twentieth century, people living a rough and demanding life on the high plains or prairies of the nation’s middle states. I suppose Edith could be seen as a tragic figure, but for me she emerged as someone who made choices that mystified Sanders Roscoe but made plain, clear sense to her. Ultimately, that is one thing I love about Haruf as a writer: his characters might be ordinary, but they are never without mystery. Four out of five stars.

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A Land More Kind Than Home (and In-Defense of Three Stars)

A Land More Kind Than Home CoverWiley Cash got a lot of love for his debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, and rightly so. Told from alternating first-person points of view, A Land More Kind Than Home is the story of faith and religion gone awry. Adelaide Lyle is the town midwife, and she opens the story by explaining why she left the church that was home and family to her for decades in the tiny western North Carolina town where she lives. After another congregant in the church is killed during some….er, questionable worship practices (and the death covered up by the Reverend Chambliss and Adelaide’s fellow congregants), Adelaide decides she must shield the congregation’s children from things that are happening inside the church. She comes to an uneasy agreement with Reverend Chambliss that she will care for the children while the adults worship, an arrangement that seems to work until the day that Julie Hall decides to take her autistic son to the church.

The story’s other narrators are Jess, a nine-year old boy whose mother is one of the church’s congregants, and the Sheriff Clem Barefield. Through Jessie, we learn exactly what happens to his brother inside the church that later leads to his death. Sheriff Barefield rounds out the story by introducing more of the Hall family and its connection to a tragedy in his own family decades earlier.

The story is not a wholly original one, in that the reader can easily guess what is going to happen to Jess’s brother (nicknamed Stump) in that backwoods evangelical country church. But to Cash’s credit, he expertly paces the events surrounding what happens to Stump and Jess, weaving in the Sheriff’s backstory in way that shows us the ties that bind and those that have been torn. In addition, the ending is something of a surprise in terms of choices some of the characters make.

Cash easily could have been much more heavy-handed with all the religious material, but he does a good job of showing how good people can be caught up by a more powerful personality, especially when that personality is promising them everlasting salvation. Reverend Chambliss would have been right at home as a character in HBO’s True Detective, but that’s less because he’s a stereotype than because he’s a simple fact in some parts of the South. Not long after I finished Cash’s book, a news story broke about a preacher in Kentucky killed as a result of snake-handling.

Cash also does a good job moving between characters. In particular, the reader understands Jess’s distress and confusion as he tries to manage what he sees happening to his family due to his mother’s devotion to the church even after Stump’s death.

I hope it doesn’t seem that I am damning this book with faint praise by giving it three out of five stars. It is a solid, well-written debut, one that makes me eager to read Cash’s latest, This Dark Road to Mercy. I’m giving it three stars primarily because the story is not wholly original, and neither are the characters. The author has some characters make interesting choices at the end, but that doesn’t make the book ground-breaking in any way. That said, this novel is definitely worth reading, and Cash will be a writer to watch.

And on the three-star rating: Lately I feel I’ve been grading on a curve. I’ve been giving solid, well-written books four or sometimes even five stars. But some of those books weren’t great, and it occurred to me one day that there is absolutely nothing wrong with three stars. Lately, I think that three stars have generally come to mean, “Meh, it was okay.” To me, three stars means that author got most things right: the writing, the pacing, the character development, the story. But I’ve decided to save those fourth and fifth stars for books that sweep me away, that show me something wholly original, that make me marvel and wonder at the effort–or effortlessness–of the writing.

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What I’ve Been Reading Lately

I’ve been so, so bad about reviewing what I’m reading these last few months, which is such a shame because I’ve read some terrific books this summer. A couple of these books really deserve dedicated reviews, but my memory is short and so is my time, so I decided something is better than nothing.

The Sisters Brothers CoverThe Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt. The Sisters brothers are Eli and Charlie Sisters. They are hired killers who work for a man called the Commodore. Narrated in first person by Eli Sisters, the story takes place during the California Gold Rush. The Commodore is sending the Sisters brothers from Oregon to San Francisco to kill a man named Herman Warm, and Eli chronicles their misadventures along the way and what happens upon their arrival. Eli is a thoughtful and compelling narrator, and the book is full of dark humor, adventure, and melancholy. In all honestly, it’s not only one of the best books I’ve read this year but in a long, long time. I’ve seen several apt comparisons of this book to True Grit, which happens to be one of my favorite books of all time. I have a soft-spot for Westerns, especially when the characters are as well drawn as Eli and Charlie Sisters and the tale avoids all cliches.

Even though I sometimes play a fun game in my head where I cast a book as though it were a movie, the number of books I actually WANT to see turned into a movie is almost zero. I say “almost zero” because The Sisters Brothers is one of those rare instances in which the book is perfect as a story on the page but oh my, in the right hands (I’m looking at you, Coen brothers. Everyone else: hands off!) it would make a spectacular movie. (Funnily enough, though, I didn’t find myself casting any parts.)

Lamb CoverLamb, by Bonnie Nadzam. Lamb is a beautiful, thought-provoking, and disturbing book. David Lamb is a man whose world is slowly crumbling. He’s lost his father, his marriage, his job at a company he founded. Through a series of slow (and desperate) acts, he befriends and eventually abducts an eleven-year-old girl named Tommie, taking her West from her Chicago home to a farmhouse somewhere in the Rockies he claims was owned by his father. Lamb is a shallow and manipulative man in many ways, but he is no Humbert Humbert, and Tommie is no Lolita. If anything, Lamb (who tells Tommie his name is Gary) and Tommie have a chemistry born of a shared desire to be understood by and belong to someone. In many ways, Lamb’s abduction and—I guess the best word for it is education, for he wants to teach her about life but also to name plants and trees, to fish and to survive in the wilderness—of Tommie is a selfless act. He imagines her life is difficult overall, her mother neglectful, her friends cruel. He wants what is best for her, but he also wants something from her, something she is not equipped to offer. I should probably mention here that there is no overt seduction in a purely sexual sense (there are weirdly romantic overtones), but Lamb is no less disturbing for that fact. On top of that we have Nadzam’s knockout prose, which is both lyrical and sinister in all the right ways. (For example, she uses a third-person narrator who frequently refers to Lamb as “our guy,” making the reader complicit in the “hero’s story.”) The reader wants Lamb to get caught, but also on some level to get away with it so that he can, in the end, do the right thing and take Tommie home. Lamb, Nadzam’s debut, is suspenseful, itchy, and wonderfully written.

You Are One of Them CoverYou Are One of Them, by Elliott Holt. The tale in this thoroughly enjoyable novel belongs to its first-person narrator, Sarah Zuckerman. A hapless young girl whose family is haunted and torn apart by the specter of an older sister who died, Sarah Zuckerman befriends her new neighbor Jenny Jones, and all-around all-American girl. For years, Sarah, whose mother is mostly agoraphobic and whose father has left for his native England, finds comfort and acceptance as part of her best friend’s family. On the cusp of adolescence and its attendant games of popularity that threaten to tear them apart, Sarah decides one day to write a letter to Yuri Andropov, the Soviet Premier of the USSR. Jenny also writes a letter—but hers receives an answer, and she and her family are invited to travel to the Soviet Union. Upon her return, Jenny becomes a national celebrity, appearing on talk shows and at speaking engagements for several years until she and her parents are killed en route to an engagement in Maine. Almost ten years later, Sarah receives a mysterious letter from a Russian woman who hints that Jenny might not have died in the plane crash after all. Since Jenny’s death, Sarah has helped her mother to run a foundation dedicated to her memory and has still never really come to terms with what happened, so she decides to travel to Russia to see if she can finally uncover the truth.

I expected more of a political thriller when I picked this up, but truly this is a coming-of-age story about friendship told in a charming and original way. While the book has a real mystery at its heart—what happened to Jenny?—it also considers the mysteries of friendship, why we are drawn to certain people, why we often rely so much on others to define who we are.

The Virgins CoverThe Virgins, by Pamela Erens. Not unlike Sarah Zuckerman, Bruce Bennett-Jones is haunted by something in his past, this time the romantic relationship between two classmates, Aviva Rossner and Seung Jung, at a New England boarding school in the late 1970s. The book moves between a third-person omniscient narrator and Bennett-Jones reminiscing in first person about what he remembers or has learned about the couple over the years since graduation. In some respect, he is an active participant in the tragedy that finally befalls the young lovers near the end of the novel, and it’s clear that he still finds their relationship—and his involvement in it—both mystifying and captivating. The Virgins reminded me very much of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, and not to cheat, but I think what I said in that review holds true for this novel as well: “I think we all have people from our pasts, people whom we may no longer keep in touch with or who may be gone, people we may not have ever been close to, really, in the first place, but who still hold sway over our memories, who still seem larger than life to us. It’s strange to think how people can stay trapped in our memories like insects in amber, forever frozen as who they were…” The Sense of an Ending had a certain wit about it. Bennett-Jones is more clear-eyed than that story’s narrator about who he is and his role in things, and this lack of self-deception (even if he doesn’t really understand why he acted as he did) is what lends The Virgins a much more melancholy tone.

*Full disclosure: All review copies are my own. All images from Powells; I receive no compensation for any of the provided links.

Reader’s Journal: Notorious

In the last month, by some accident of fate, I’ve read two terrific novels based on true stories about women accused of murder. Burial Rites, the debut novel by Australian author Hannah Kent, is based on the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person executed for murder in Iceland since 1830. Agnes, along with Fridrik Sigurdsson and Sigridur Gudmundsdóttir, was convicted of murdering her lover and employer, Natan Ketilsson and another man, Pêtur Jonsson. Agnes and Fridrik were condemned to death and beheaded on January 12, 1830. On appeal Sigridur received a lesser sentence and was sent to prison for life, where she died. Through two alternating narratives, Burial Rites tells the story both of Agnes’s last months living and working on the Jónsson family farm as she awaited her execution and, through her own voice, the events of her life leading up to and including the murder of Natan.

Product DetailsCartwheel, the second novel by Jennifer DuBois, is loosely based on the story of Amanda Knox, the American college exchange student accused and convicted (along with her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito) of murdering her British roommate, Meredith Kercher. DuBois offers us the story of Lily Hayes, who has gone to Buenos Aires, Argentina to study for a semester. The book opens with Lily’s father, Andrew, and her sister, Anna, arriving in Argentina soon after she has been placed into custody by authorities for the murder of her roommate, Katy Kellers, looping back to Lily’s arrival in Argentina and up to the time of the murder from her point of view and from the point of view of her “lover,” Sebastien LeCompte (“which sounded to Andrew like the name of a high-end suit store”).

Originally I had planned to write about each of these books separately, but I realized, after seeing that Amanda Knox will, yet again, be tried for murder beginning this week in Florence, Italy, that these stories have much in common, particularly the fact that in both cases, the notoriety of the accused has eclipsed everything else, even the victims. And in both cases, although accomplices were allegedly involved, the character of the woman in particular—Agnes and Lily/Amanda—is basically tried in a public court and found wanting. (Interestingly, although both Knox and Sollecito were convicted of murder, in DuBois’s story only Lily is apprehended and eventually arrested and tried.)

In Burial Rites, Agnes says to the priest confessor charged with bringing her to God before her execution, “To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things.” The Jónsson family believes the stories they have heard about Agnes—that she is a violent criminal (and possibly a witch, as her lover Natan Ketilsson was also notorious in his own way for creating powerful potions to heal and to do who knows what else), capable of anything—but slowly, as they listen to her confessions to the priest, they begin to have a different understanding of her. And likewise, we begin to understand their prejudices against her come as much from what they know about Agnes herself (which is really very little) as from their own experiences.

This prejudice also happens also in Cartwheel, where the prosecutor Eduardo Campos believes he sees in Lily the same erratic character that he sees in his estranged wife Maria. Maria is an elusive mystery to Eduardo; she is whimsical and childish, but also dangerous because she holds his heart captive, and he believes he can never, ever please her. In Lily, who speaks Spanish confidently but often poorly, who is naive about certain cultural customs, and who is often overtaken by childish whimsy (as when she performs a cartwheel in an empty interrogation room, waiting for investigators to return from a break), Campos believes he sees a person who, when he sees her on video surveillance before she is picked up by authorities, “looked…harassed. Inconvenienced, If she looked anything at all.” He reads through her Facebook status and finds her wanting; he reads a piece of fiction written for a creative writing class and posted online almost as though it were a confession.

Perception and reality, public versus private selves, and the power of language are important to both stories. In both cases, even with letters and public documents and interviews and videos, we will never know what happened. In Burial Rites, as Agnes is taken from her first host family where she has been kept not even as well as a farm animal, she steps out into light after months in the darkness and sees a crowd. In that crowd, she spots a familiar face: “It was a comfort to see someone I recognized, and I smiled involuntarily. But the smile was wrong, and it unlocked the crowd’s fury.”

A cartwheel, a smile: these are not the actions of innocent women, the crowd believes. And beauty is also suspect. In Burial Rites, Lauga, the Jónsson’s youngest daughter, asks her mother Margrét “whether she thought there would be an outward hint of the evil that drives a person to murder. Evidence of the Devil: a harelip, a snaggle tooth, a birthmark; some small outer defect.” Margrét tells Lauga no, but then goes on to wonder if Agnes might not be beautiful: “It was not so hard to believe a beautiful woman capable of murder, Margrét thought. As it says in the sagas, Opt er flagð í fógru skinni. A witch often has fair skin.”

Andrew laments his daughter’s inability to dress herself “appropriately” in the heat of Buenos Aires. At a religious landmark, she has taken a picture of herself wearing a spaghetti-strapped tank top that doesn’t adequately cover her generous bosom. This picture is picked up by the media and also seen as evidence of some moral flaw by the prosecutor Campos.

Yesterday I saw a picture of Amanda Knox online—she was unsmiling, her long dark hair swept back from her face as though caught by a strong breeze—and I thought, in the next moment she might have cocked her head, turned to someone familiar, perhaps even given a smile. She is pretty either way, that much is undeniable. I don’t know when or where the picture was taken, or who she was with, but this is the image the media has chosen to present. Who is she really? We do not know.

Both stories are compelling, both stories will always present us with more questions than answers. Kent does a magnificent job of taking us to early Nineteenth century Iceland, of tying in historical research and setting a compelling scene that drives the narrative and helps us to understand Agnes all the better. If the book has a flaw, it’s that at times Kent’s writing is a bit over the top. Ravens, snow, black against white, swirling snow clouds, storms—ominous portents, we get it. (She also uses some form of the word “sour” on what seems like every other page during the first 50 pages or so, but thankfully stops.) But she has filled in the gaps of her research and created such compelling characters, not only in Agnes but in Margrét and Toti, Agnes’s priest confessor, and their story easily carries the reader away. I read all but 30 pages during a nine hour plane flight, and I might have finished had I not stopped to do things like eat and stretch my legs.

In my opinion DuBois had a bigger challenge, as the Amanda Knox story is current and ongoing. I haven’t followed it closely myself, but I can imagine someone who has might feel the need to pick apart the details. The book drags a bit when it follows the other characters, and DuBois offers up a slightly heavy-handed Hayes family history that seems meant to add weight to the story, but overall the characters are if not compelling then fully realized. But truly Lily’s story is her own, and for me she came to life as her own person. Sometimes while reading I felt an overwhelming sadness for Lily, just as I did for Agnes, because in everything she was only a person who was simply trying to be:

“She sat in bars drinking Quilmes and trying to look mysterious; she sat in cafes eating alfajors and licking powdered sugar off her fingers and not minding that she looked silly.

She would be dead one day, but she was not dead yet.”

Disclosure: I received the ebook version of Cartwheel from NetGalley. I read my copy of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites.

Reader’s Journal: Two Mysteries

I seem to be on a mystery kick, but then, it is summer. It must be something about the warmer temps and the (stifling) humidity that makes me want to read about crime. As recently as six or seven years ago, I almost never picked anything in the mystery/crime genre on my own. No no no. While I credit Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know for drawing me in, the book that finally convinced me that mystery/crime and literary fiction were not mutually exclusive categories was Tana French’s In the Woods. Since then I’ve read all of French’s books, discovered authors such as Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott, and watched the literary world revise its view of psychological thrillers in particular. They’re rather trendy these days, and so enter two new(ish) novels: The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison and The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood.

For some reason, A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife is being marketed as this year’s Gone Girl. In truth, the only things The Silent Wife has in common with Gone Girl: both books are about a relationship gone awry, both books contain a twist of sorts, and they both are told from alternating points of view. The Silent Wife begins promisingly enough: Jodi and Todd have been together for well over two decades (they have a common-law marriage). A part-time psychotherapist, Jodi is an expert at glossing over the unpleasantness in her life—including the fact that Todd is a serial cheater—and in the lives of her clients. In fact, she mostly refuses to treat clients who suffer from anything more serious than insecurity and a vague melancholy. Todd, a real-estate developer, has not only made a highly questionable choice when it comes to his latest conquest, but he’s also decided he cannot go on living a lie, and so the disintegration of the relationship begins.

The Silent Wife is narrated in close third person, so it lacks a necessary immediacy. (Okay, I’ll say it: the kind of immediacy the reader gets in Gone Girl). Add to that, both characters are unlikable in the most pedestrian sort of way. Now wait a minute—I don’t mean I want them to be likable! I want them to be unlikable in an interesting or charismatic way. Because they both lack charisma, the book overall lacks tension. The reader never feels pulled to root for one over the other, which is critical in a she said/he said narrative. I suppose some readers might feel bad for Jodi because she’s the wronged party, but that’s so very Lifetime movie. Harrison gives each of them some underlying childhood problem (to explain how they are, I guess), but really…if they were guests on a talk show, you’d change the channel. And so the novel plods to the not-so-big twist and lands with a dull thud. I gave it 2 out of 5 stars.

The Wicked Girls is British journalist Alex Marwood’s (a pseudonym, by the way) debut novel. In 1986, two eleven-year-old girls are involved in an incident that leads to the death of a young child. They are found guilty and punished by the law, and perhaps more so by the media and the public. When they are eventually released from prison, they are issued new identities and instructed never to contact one another again. More than two decades later, a string of murders in the seaside resort town of Whitmouth brings them together again. Amber Gordon is the head cleaner at Funnland, Whitmouth’s amusement park; Kirsty Lindsay is a freelance journalist. When Amber finds a dead woman in Funnland’s House of Mirrors, the police take notice and begin to believe they have a serial killer on their hands. Kirsty is sent to Whitmouth to write about the murders. The reader learns rather early in the book who the killer is, but the real story in The Wicked Girls is Kirsty and Amber, and how current events threaten the lives they’ve built for themselves over the last quarter-century. Throughout the course of the book, Marwood tackles serious issues such as Britain’s struggling economy, unemployment, sensationalism in media, and the rehabilitation of young offenders. The story moves back and forth in time between present day and the events in 1986; present day events are told in third person mostly from Amber and Kirsty’s points of view.

Reading The Wicked Girls reminded me of reading something by Laura Lippman—Every Secret Thing comes to mind—or Tana French. Like Lippman, Marwood does a terrific job of letting the story be character-driven, so it’s never overwhelmed by issues. What reminded me of French was how Marwood writes about place, which lends well to the overall sinister feel of the book. The heart of the novel deals with lies, misunderstanding, and miscommunication. Much of what happens in past and present has to do with how characters perceive themselves based on how other people have treated them. The book has a few rough spots–the killer is one readers have seen before (of the “women are sluts who ask for it” variety), and the pace begins to drag at the end. The flashback chapters also go on for too long; the pacing would have been helped by Marwood getting to the past accident/crime quickly, and then either dropping the flashbacks entirely or focusing more on what happened to Kirsty and Amber during and after prison. The ending was also somewhat unsurprising. I skimmed through the final chapters, I admit, but ultimately the book still worked well. It was less that I wanted a surprise ending—truly, it has the right ending, it felt organically inevitable to the rest of the story—than that Marwood could have taken a shorter road to get there. I’m hooked, though, and looking forward to her next book. I gave it 3 out of 5 stars.

Full disclosure: I received both books from NetGalley.

Reader’s Journal: The Affairs of Others

Four or five years ago, publishers seemed to be releasing novels about zombies every five seconds. Okay, the novels weren’t all about zombies–there were vampires and werewolves in there, too–and maybe not every five seconds (every ten seconds), but you get my drift: lots of novels about zombies.

Amy Grace Loyd’s The Affairs of Others is not a novel about zombies. But it is set in Brooklyn. Lately I find that just about every other book description I read is about a character or set of characters who live in Brooklyn. Mostly, the authors of these novels also live in–you guessed it–Brooklyn. Brooklyn is the new zombies.

Not that I have anything against Brooklyn. Over half the people I follow on Twitter seem to live there. I have a dear, longtime friend who lives there. It has many terrific book stores and restaurants. It has lots of wealthy people and gentrification but also some borderline affordable neighborhoods where young creative types gather. It has parks with actual trees.

Celia Cassill lives in Brooklyn, in a brownstone apartment building that she bought and renovated after losing her husband to cancer five years ago. Celia is only in her mid-thirties, and the couple was childless. She has enough money so that she does not have to work. Her building has three tenants: a retired ferryboat captain, a young(ish) married couple with no children, and a middle-aged school teacher, George, who decides to travel to France and sublet his apartment to his friend, Hope, who is going through a separation from her marriage of 25 years.

I’m not going to lie to you: this novel is filled with first-world problems and angsty navel gazing. While being widowed at a young age (or any age, really) is surely a tragic thing, and while grief often takes its own individual course (five stages of grieving be damned), Celia is comfortable enough financially that she can isolate herself from much of the world as she chooses, which leaves her a lot of time to think about herself and about her grief. Hope (the person who sublets the apartment, not the thing with feathers) becomes something of an object of infatuation for Celia and disrupts her quiet life not only with her beauty and warmth but also with her own…oh, what’s the word I want for it…idiocy.

Why idiocy? Hope’s husband, a highly successful investment banker, has left her for a younger woman. By choice, Hope has moved out of their palatial Brooklyn townhome and into George’s apartment, where she takes up with a former lover who sexually and emotionally debases her. Hope’s two adult children are distraught and concerned for her, but Hope seems only to care about…hollowing herself out by having rough sex (accompanied by really nice wine and cheese, of course).

I hate that I felt this way, but much of the time I was reading I just wanted Celia and Hope to get a grip. They live in an interesting city (Brooklyn!), they both have enough money to do pretty much anything they want (Hope more so than Celia), and this is what they choose? To be isolated and debased? Like I said, first-world angst.

So then why did I keep reading? Because Celia is not completely annoying. In fact, overall she’s rather compelling, even if she has some annoying habits, like picking up strangers on the subway and having sex with them. She may be self-pitying and a bit stupid, but she’s also an interested and interesting observer (the novel is in first person), that sort of literary outsider infatuated with–yes, the affairs of others that I tend to enjoy. And to give her credit, even Celia finds Hope’s desire for debasement ridiculous on some level. But the best parts of the book occur when Celia is focused on her other tenants, the ferryboat captain Mr. Coughlan and the couple Angie and Mitchell. These two small subplots give the book a more generous viewpoint and keep it from becoming like that one person you knew in college who had everything (looks, brains, talent, money, connections) but who did nothing but complain and wallow in self-pity.

The book’s style and structure reminded me of reading something by Lydia Davis. If you’ve read Davis and enjoyed her work, you know I mean that as high praise. Loyd’s episodic narrative is fully fleshed-out, and she turns a phrase beautifully. Unfortunately, I only have an ARC* and cannot offer any quotes as evidence. Her masterful pacing also lends to the book’s intimate feel, and because of it she is able to turn a bit of a trick.

First-world angst of the privileged abounds in this novel, and in the hands of a lesser writer the book would probably keep on going down its relentless course until someone is homeless or institutionalized or dead. We’ve all read those novels. Instead, Loyd lifts everybody up out of themselves and gives them all to each other. I won’t say how, and I won’t say this book doesn’t have moments of real sadness, but the ending has a real sense of celebration about it, an awakening. Three out of five stars.

*I received an e-ARC of The Affairs of Others from NetGalley.

Reader’s Journal: Night Film

This year, two of my favorite writers are publishing new books. In October, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch will be released, and in August, Marisha Pessl’s Night Film hits the shelves. I was lucky enough to score an electronic copy of the ARC of Night Film from NetGalley, and oh, people, let me tell you: it’s terrific.

A veteran investigative journalist, Scott McGrath, is drawn to investigate the alleged suicide of Ashley Cordova, the daughter of a famous cult-film director named Stanislas Cordova. Years before Ashley’s death, McGrath had been investigating the elder Cordova, a recluse whose films explored the darkest human impulses. After receiving an anonymous phone call with a tip about some of Cordova’s darkest acts, McGrath threatens to expose the director, but eventually finds the tables turned when he’s sued for libel and loses everything, including his marriage. Still convinced of Cordova’s guilt, McGrath sets out to take revenge on the director by trying to prove that Ashley’s death was no accident. Along the way, McGrath teams up with Nora, a young wannabe actress from Florida, and Hopper, a handsome lone-wolf drug dealer, each of whom are also drawn to investigate Ashley’s death for their own reasons.

I wouldn’t even begin to try and untangle the complicated plot for you, mainly because I wouldn’t want to ruin any of the fun. This novel could easily be termed Hitchcockian, with all the twists and sleights it has at its disposal. I have no doubt that we’ll see the usual too-cool-for-school, “Yawn, I had this figured out from page X” reviews. Ignore them. As much as I hate to use the tired term gripping, that’s exactly what this book is. Even if you think you have it figured out (I did, several times, and I was wrong, wrong, and wrong again)—even if you do figure it out—the ride is too much fun. One thing I enjoyed about this book and Pessl’s first book was that she is so at ease as a storyteller. Some authors who write books with complicated plots cannot seem to get out of their own way; they act less like storytellers and more like annoying tour guides who want to make sure you see how clever they are. And even though the book includes “actual” web sites and news articles (which, I’ll admit, don’t work so well on Kindle, but might be terrific on an iPad), these never seem gimmicky like they might in a weaker book or in the hands of a less assured author. Pessl does a terrific job of getting out of the way of her characters and her plot, which means as readers, we are right there with them. She also creates a terrifically noir atmosphere.

And frankly, here’s the best part: I know what happens, and I still want to read it again. When I finished reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics for the first time, I immediately turned back to the first page and started the book again. I’ve pre-ordered my hardback copy of Night Film, and when it arrives I’ll be cracking it open and enjoying all the terror and thrill of reading it a second time. The best books, like the best movies, never lose their suspense and surprise, even if you know what happens.

Reader’s Journal: The Burgess Boys

Let me begin by saying, I loved Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Olive Kitteridge was essentially a novel in stories that involved the title character, so what emerged at the book’s end was the story of a life from many viewpoints. As a character, as a person, or however one chooses to think of her, Olive Kitteridge was not an entirely likable woman, but she was interesting and complicated in her own way. I knew some people and some reviewers who were bored by that book, and they were generally people who believe something has to happen, as if life isn’t enough action in and of itself.

I wonder if that criticism of Olive Kitteridge—nothing happens—wasn’t on Strout’s mind when she sat down to write The Burgess Boys. She won the Pulitzer for Olive Kitteridge, so it’s hard to imagine she was worried about her critics. Perhaps she just wanted to try her hand at something new. The Burgess Boys is a curious mixture of things, and it never quite seems to make up its mind what it wants to be. At the center are the Burgess boys, Jim and Bob, and Bob’s hapless twin sister Susan. Their relationships are shaped—and strained in many ways—by an early family tragedy: they were playing in the parked family car when it was knocked out of gear and rolled down a hill and killed their father. Bob is thought to be the responsible party, and he carries the burden around like a child with a threadbare favorite toy. To be fair, his older brother Jim, a famous, successful Manhattan lawyer married to a wealthy socialite, never really lets him forget it. The dynamic and the differences between these two are just a little bit too pat—Bob, the kind but hapless sad-sack, divorced and and borderline alcoholic, who works for legal aid, and Jim, rich and powerful, with a full family life, who’s a proverbial master of the universe.

Although plenty happens in The Burgess Boys, the action doesn’t kick off right away. Instead, the novel opens with a prologue narrated in the first person by a woman from the Burgess’ hometown of Shirley Falls, Maine. The woman explains that she and her mother would discuss the Burgess kids with some frequency over the years, that it was a neutral topic to which they would return when things were strained between them, and near the end of the prologue the woman tells her mother she has decided to write their story. I suppose what follows in the novel is what the woman wrote, but I found it a very curious opening. It serves well enough to provide some necessary backstory on the Burgess family, and to set some general ideas in the reader’s mind, specifically the general distrust or dislike that certain New Englanders hold for New York City. The problem for me was that Strout introduced a compelling narrative voice in the prologue, and then promptly dumped it once the story began. I kept waiting for Strout to return to the woman, but eventually it dawned on me that the prologue was nothing more than a device to introduce information that probably could have been worked into the narrative in a more compelling way.

The Burgess story itself begins when Bob and Jim learn about an incident involving Susan’s son Zachary, who has thrown a pig’s head into the mosque in Shirley Falls. The act is viewed as a hate crime against the many Somali refugees who have taken up residence in the town, and it draws national attention. The events are told in alternating third-person points of view, shifting between Bob, Jim’s wife Helen, Susan, Bob’s ex-wife Pam, and a Somali refugee named Abdikarim. Rather than giving the reader a full picture of events comprised from different points of view, this technique serves to make the novel all the more disjointed. The characters come across more as types than as people, and the novel swerves between sweeping family drama and political commentary. If Strout had committed to one or the other, the story probably would have been much stronger, but instead she seems to hedge. With the hate crime and the shifting points of view, I thought Strout was setting us up for her version of a Tom Wolfe type commentary, but the incident sort of fades away near the middle, and we are left to watch some not-so-compelling characters flounder in the face of other life events.

This book ultimately frustrated me. Strout is such a terrifically insightful writer, and her prose is clean and natural, but the story simply never came together for me. Not only were the characters stock, but several events are too neatly resolved while others are simply unbelievable. For example—and I suppose this might be a spoiler so fair warning—at one point Zach, whom as far as we know has never set foot outside the state of Maine, somehow manages to leave the country to go live in Sweden with a father he has not seen in seven years. I suppose we are to assume that his powerful Uncle Jim arranged it all, but it simply seemed unbelievable.

If The Burgess Boys had simply been a family drama where “nothing happens,” focused deeply on one or two characters, I think it would have been a far more satisfying book. From reading Amy & Isabelle and Olive Kitteridge, I know she is a master at creating believable, well-drawn characters, especially characters who come from small towns and lead quiet lives. In The Burgess Boys, I can’t tell if she’s out of her depth with characters such as Abdikarim, who seems stock, even for all the detail Strout gives about the Somali community and their struggles, and Helen, who comes across as selfish, shallow, and smug for much of the book. Especially in the case of Helen, Jim, and Pam, it’s as if she agrees with characters in the book who believe New York is full of strivers who aren’t “real people.” The happy endings are reserved for those who return to their roots or who know their place, whether it’s high or low on the class scale. I gave it 2/5 stars on Goodreads.

Full disclosure: I received my copy of The Burgess Boys from NetGalley.

Reader’s Journal: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

The Middlesteins CoverThe Middlesteins tells the story of Edie and Richard Middlestein; their two children, Robin and Benny; and Benny’s wife Rachelle and their two kids Emily and Josh. Edie has a weight problem. She’s eating herself to death, and even after two surgeries for arterial disease in her legs and facing the possibility of heart surgery, she cannot—or more accurately will not—stop eating. As a child Edie was loved and somewhat indulged. Her parents were smart and affectionate people. She eats because she’s hungry, because food makes her feel powerful and complete. The story is told from varying third-person points of view including all the family members, and at one point even from a second-person plural view of friends of the family.

After her husband Richard leaves her, Edie continues to eat, while her family members do their best to deal with the effects of illness and the separation on their own lives. Edie is clearly smart and capable, but she is also angry. She is, you might say, fed up. Richard is by turns helpless, guilty, hapless, and righteous in his decision to leave a woman who clearly was gone long before he physically left her. For Robin, Benny, and Rachelle, Richard is clearly the bad guy for leaving his sick wife. But for the reader, Attenberg quite smartly never makes it easy to lay blame either on Edie or Richard. Neither one of them is particularly likable, but it’s easy to empathize with both their positions, and they both deserve a second chance.

Reading The Middlesteins is a bit like watching an indie comedy-drama about family. It has a daughter with a borderline alcohol problem who teaches private school and has a difficult time with relationships; it has the tightly wound sister-in-law obsessed with raw vegetables and stalking her mother-in-law; it has the hapless Chinese cook who is helplessly in love with Edie and cooks wonderful large meals especially for her. You may not have seen these exact characters on the screen, but you know what I mean—and you can see the story very clearly in this way in your mind as you read. Well, you can if you happen to like indie comedy-dramas, which I do.

The Middlesteins is relatable and easy to read, and I gave it 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. (Note: This post was written before the announcement that Amazon bought Goodreads. I haven’t abandoned them yet; I’m planning t osee how things evolve over the coming months.) Attenberg writes her characters well—they are wholly flawed and human, likable sometimes and annoying the next. She’s both funny and empathetic. This is a story that could have easily turned the corner into being either absurd or macabre, but it never goes outside the bounds of exactly what it is: the story of an unremarkable family dealing with a problem that’s probably not altogether uncommon—but it’s also a problem that’s strangely difficult to discuss. Lots of novels exist about families dealing with relatives who are drug addicts or alcoholics or who have depression, and in a way, dealing with a family member who is obese seems no different, at least on the surface. The problem is, how do you tell someone to stop eating, when we must eat to survive? That conundrum is exacerbated by the fact that until we have medical evidence to the contrary, we cannot say that someone who chooses to keep eating in the face of death is not of sound mind. We want to believe, as Edie’s daughter-in-law Rachelle does, that eating healthy and exercising and love and support from family can be enough to help someone facing a weight problem. But what if the person does not want to be helped?

This novel seems more personal than political. Attenberg does not make Edie either an object of self-righteous “fat pride” or an object of scorn. And in fact that’s probably the best thing about the book—she doesn’t make Edie an object at all, or a stereotype. She’s just a flawed human, making her way in the world the best way she can.