Another #10booksofsummer update and other bookish things

We’re right at that part of the #10booksofthesummer challenge where I start to lose momentum. So far I’ve read seven out of the 15 books I chose to give myself a variety of options. Ha, variety. I know the books left in the stack are all probably all range from good to great, but I all I want to do is read something else. I’m kicking myself for not including any nonfiction, for example, at least a couple of options. And then I did a bad thing and bought a bunch of new books for my birthday, and they just look so shiny compared to those tired old books in the (other) stack on my desk.

Shiny new books

I bought Where the Crawdads Sing because I thought Delia Owens sounded interesting in an interview I read; also, I was intrigued by the fact she’s a debut novelist at 70! However, she’s apparently even a bit more intriguing than that…not sure what to think about this. I read the first few chapters of the book, and the writing is quite good.

I won’t lie; I took a bit of a break and read Dreyer’s English, which was just fantastic. I’m happy to report that we agree on everything EXCEPT putting “an” in front of words like “historical.” He says don’t you dare do it, but I will die on that hill because I like how it sounds. Also, in text to be read aloud, that’s one that can be easily misheard: a historical document can too easily become ahistorical document—amirite? You know I am. One of my favorite, favorite things he hates as much as I do: setting long sections (anything longer than a sentence, really) of prose in italics. It drives him as batty as it does me. Why? It’s just kind of cheap, and it also implies the reader isn’t smart (or the writer can’t find a better way to handle whatever they’re using italics for). Also, did you see what happened there? I used “they” with a singular referent and also ended my sentence with a preposition. All Dreyer approved!

Speaking of books with long sections of prose in italics, I also took a break to read Laura Lippman’s new book, Lady in the Lake. I’m going to write a full post on that one! I swear. Short version: solidly entertaining as always, although large parts of it (and not just the WHOLE CHAPTERS in italics) didn’t work for me. Okay, that’s it. That’s all you get for now.

I also re-read Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted and upgraded it from four stars to five. It was sort a whim, re-reading that one. In addition to all the shiny new books I’ve acquired, the other thing I’ve been wanting to do is go back and re-read everything. Okay, not everything, but the list is long. Sometimes I think I could spend a whole year concentrated on re-reading novels and stories and only reading new nonfiction. Notice the “sometimes.” Don’t think it will ever happen. Anyway, if you haven’t read The Enchanted or The Child Finder, I’d say get on that, pronto, so you’ll be ready for her new book, The Butterfy Girl, which comes out in October. It’s the second in the Naomi Cottle series (The Child Finder is the first), and I know it will be amazing. She writes beautifully, but I won’t lie: the subject matter is dark. That said, she writes with such beauty and humanity and hope and empathy, the darkness never takes over.

Finally, back to #10booksofsummer. I read two more books, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Power of the Dog. Each probably deserves a post of its own, but in short: I can see why TLHOD is a sci-fi classic, and I can see now what other (lesser) authors have been trying to do. Also, LeGuin writes quite cleanly and beautifully. Still…well, let’s save that for later. The Power of the Dog was like if Kent Haruf decided to write a psychological thriller. I’m sure Thomas Savage must have been an influence for him. I highly recommend it, but you stand warned: the quiet suspense will make you squirm.

How’s your summer reading coming along out there? Any big hits or duds?

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#10BooksofSummer Check-in

Hello All! I hope your summer is going well. I figure we’re somewhere around the mid-point of #20BooksofSummer (but am too lazy to do any actual counting), so I thought I’d check in and share how things have been going so far.

I’m happy to say that I’ve read five books on the list: Oral History, Truly Devious, Florida, Less, and The Guest Book. I started The Immortalists but didn’t make it very far before setting it down. Right off the bat it felt cliché to me, and the writing was uninspiring. Sometimes our instincts serve us well: I’d never added that one to my TBR because I suspected I wouldn’t care for it, and when it was voted as the choice for book club, I was wary but hoped for the best. I guess I’ll try to sell it back at some point. I’ve also only cheated on my stack once! I re-read Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted, just because. It was even more beautiful the second time around. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly suggest it.

Of course I’d planned to write reviews for all the books I read, but June was a hellish work month and July has been busy with other things. And frankly, I’ve gotten lazy. I’ve stopped thinking as deeply as I used to about what I read. I would love to get back on track with that, but then something else always gets shorted. What a first-world problem! I have time to read. That’s the most important thing, period.

Here’s a quick rundown on what I’ve read so far:
Oral History. Ever got halfway through a book and realized you’ve read it before? That was me with Oral History. I cannot for the life of me remember if I read this book seven years ago or seventeen years ago. Oral History is the story of the Cantrell family, whose stories are told through multiple characters in first or third person, bringing us up to present day, which is the early 1980s (the book was published in 1983). If you aren’t one for reading stories in dialect, this book (and many of Smith’s other books as well) will not be your jam. Several sections are written in what you might call Appalachian English; however, this is no amateur’s [read: citified MFA student’s] attempt at crappy dialect to make the story seem “more real.” Smith, a native of the region, has an empathic and exacting ear for the region’s dialect, as well as for the people who live there.

Truly Devious. This first book in Maureen Johnson’s YA mystery trilogy was solidly smart and entertaining. Stevie Bell gets accepted into the eccentric Ellingham Academy, where she wants to solve the mystery of what happened to the disappeared wife and daughter of the school’s founder, Albert Ellingham. However, soon after she arrives at the school, someone is murdered. Is there a connection? Hm. This book is such great fun. I loved, loved, loved The Westing Game when I was a kid, and this book has some of that same spirit. Johnson deftly weaves in current political and social themes without letting them overtake the central story.

Florida. I loved Delicate Edible Birds and was so hoping to love this—but no. There’s no question that Groff can write beautiful sentences. But there’s something performative about these stories. I felt like I could see her working the lines for effect, which made these stories feel the opposite of effortless. The narrators in three or four stories are interchangeable—middle-aged, professional white women, usually writers or professors, and weirdly, all with two young sons—and the stories overall are filled with middle-class, white malaise. Ultimately, this book didn’t open up or examine anything I haven’t seen before, which I found strange. I expected a more interesting take on location and landscape and especially the people, but I was disappointed. If anything, this felt like the sort of self-conscious prose styling that makes a lot of people avoid picking up short stories.

Less. Arthur Less is about to turn fifty, and his younger ex-lover is marrying another man, so Less embarks on an around-the-world journey over the better part of a year to distract himself. I chortled and hooted my way through this book until the end, when I cried. It took some time for me to warm up to Arthur, but when I did, I could not put the book down. To write a story that is at once funny and also melancholy is no easy feat, and Greer manages to work that delicate balance so cleanly. That means the sadness can cut so sharply through a funny moment, and the humor arises where you might not expect it. This book got so many raves I was a bit wary, but it earns every five-star rating and prize it’s been awarded.

The Guest Book. If this book had been the New England family saga I had expected, complete with top-drawer family secrets and sailing and madras and seersucker, I would have been just fine with it. However, Blake has written a book that’s much deeper–and much more current–than I expected. She takes an unflinching look at the dark side of white privilege, especially WASP privilege, and how so many people who had a hand in shaping America failed to right so many wrongs, mainly because they couldn’t see that they were a huge part of the problem.

I’m currently about halfway through The Left Hand of Darkness. I won’t spoil it, but I will say I can definitely see why readers and writers of all genres hold Le Guin up as a great writer.

I don’t want to brag (or jinx anything), but I think I might actually make it all the way through the challenge this year! How about you? How’s your summer reading going?

10 Books of Summer Challenge

10Well, hello there! Nothing like getting back into the swing of things like joining a challenge. I’ve been itching to get back to the blog, so when Cathy at 746 Books announced her annual 20 Books of Summer challenge, I decided this might be a prime opportunity. Now, I’ve failed to complete this challenge before, so I decided to go easy on myself and commit to 10 books. You’ll notice, however, that I have 15 in my picture. I got a little carried away before I realized that I needed to consider that I’ll have at least three additional books to read for book club, plus I’m bound to go off script and read at least one or two unplanned books, probably re-reads. I average about five books a month, so this should be doable, even though I have a few chunksters there. Let’s get to the list, shall we?

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin. I don’t read a lot of Sci Fi, but I’ve always felt like this was a standard must-read for any person who considers themselves well-read. (For the record, I do not consider myself well-read because my reading has always been all over the place, so I have a lot of gaps.) But this is #4 in a series? Oof. Well. Anyone read it? Do I have to read the other three first? That’s a lot of Sci Fi for this reader, ya’ll, even if I am trying to better myself.

The Dog of the South, Charles Portis. True Grit is one of my favorite books of all time, and I’ve had this one sitting on my shelf waiting to be read for several years.

The Power of the Dog, Thomas Savage. Ha, I should have listed this and The Dog of the South first in an attempt to make you all believe I was only going to read books with dog in the title! Anyway, I just added this dark, modern Western about two brothers vying for the same woman to my list after seeing a review of it on Goodreads a few weeks ago from someone with very similar tastes. Plus, I’m a total sucker for a Western.

Truly Devious, Maureen Johnson. I don’t read a lot of YA, but I’m familiar with Johnson because I used to follow her on Twitter. Her exchanges with the Brothers Green (John and Hank) were always so amusing. Larry from It’s Either Sadness or Euphoria (honestly this guy cannot be human—he reads and reads and then produces the most incredible reviews of everything) reviewed this on Goodreads a few weeks ago and it looked so cute I thought this boarding school mystery (the first in a series) would be a fun summer read.

The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin. Honestly, I have been on the fence about this one, but my book group picked it to read for our next meeting, so the decision was made for me. Let’s hope it’s worth it. It does have a gorgeous cover.

The Guest Book, Sarah Blake. An East Coast multi-generational family saga.                 Sorry, did you need more explanation than that?

A Brightness Long Ago, Guy Gavriel Kay. I’m not sure if it’s just Game of Thrones ending or what, but I got the itch to read some Fantasy, and apparently this guy (see what I did there) is amazing. My MIL really enjoys his books and the description sounded fun, so I thought, why not try it?

Oral History, Lee Smith. Ever since reading Fair and Tender Ladies (oh, how that title makes me cringe, but it is such a wonderful book), I’ve wanted to read all of Lee Smith’s books. But since I have the attention span of a……..what was I saying?

Florida, Lauren Groff. I used to read short stories almost exclusively. Now I can’t remember the last time I picked up a collection, other than to re-read something. I’m not a huge fan of Groff’s novels, but I did love her collection Delicate Edible Birds, which was one of the first books I reviewed here. I’m a little worried about the hype, but we’ll see.

Red Clocks, Leni Zumas. Honestly of all the books on the stack this is the one I am least likely to read. I got it as part of a first editions/new releases subscription through Powell’s last year. I had just read The Power, which was alright, and was not in the mood to read another feminist dystopian novel. I’m still not, truth be told (and I already have Le Guin!), because we’re all just living the dream…er, nightmare…right now, aren’t we?

Less, Andrew Sean Greer. I bought this right before we moved to Amsterdam, so it was on a boat and then in storage and then it went on the shelf and I forgot about it until I went hunting for books to read for this challenge. It’s supposed to be laugh-out-loud funny, so sign me up.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne. There was so much hype around this one I tried to resist it, but then I read the first few pages at the bookstore and thought, yes. Then we moved and see Less by Greer, Andrew Sean above.

Marlena, Julie Buntin. If I remember correctly, this came out right around the same time as Emma Cline’s The Girls (which I thought was fantastic), so I bought and I’ve tried several times to read it and…meh. But maybe there will be some sort of cosmic convergence and I’ll not only actually finish this 10 Books of Summer challenge but I will do so by reading this book! I love it when things just work out, don’t you?

The Italian Teacher, Tom Rachmann. I wholeheartedly enjoyed both The Imperfectionists and The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, so when I saw this on sale at the book store I bought it. And then I went on to read something else. Not that it’s a pattern or anything.

The Gunners, Rebecca Kauffman. Honestly, I think it was on sale? Like The Immortalists, this is one that got a lot of hype and I felt sort of wary about but obviously I had a brain fart and now look at me, proud owner of this book.

So there you have it. Is anybody still out there? Have you read any of the books on my list? Please share in the comments…and stay tuned to see if this will be my year!

Reader’s Journal: Train Dreams

Train DreamsTrain Dreams is one of those books that has seemed to crop up on “Best of” lists at the end of each year for the last few years. I first had the chance to read Denis Johnson in graduate school when I was assigned to read Fiskadoro for a class on the post-modern Twentieth century novel; it was a chance I didn’t take. I was much more interested in reading short stories at the time, and my interest in getting a PhD was starting to dwindle as I realized that none of my friends who were close to completing their degrees were getting job offers and that much of my time and energy would be less devoted to reading and writing what I liked and more to finding ways to say things about literature that either probably didn’t need to be said or would be said in better ways by somebody else.

Nevertheless, I’ve carted Fiskadoro around for the last twenty-three years, sure that I’ll get to it at some point. The chances look better this year than ever before, however, since I made Train Dreams my first book of 2019 and was stunned by this beautifully haunted (and haunting) narrative of the American West. The novella’s protagonist, Robert Grainier, works a variety of jobs across Montana and Washington State, including logging and hauling. He was sent to the Northwest Territories (specifically Idaho) as a child from either Utah or Canada to live with his aunt and uncle, although he has no recall of his early life or how he came to be in his present place. He doesn’t know exactly how old he is. Instead, he relies on accounts of himself from his cousins, even as those accounts differ completely from each other. In his thirties he takes a wife and they have a daughter, but while he’s away working a great fire consumes the valley where their small cabin resides. When he returns the land is devastated, his family gone. He returns to the land as it begins to recover, living first in an old canvas tent and then rebuilding a small cabin in the footprint of the former. He works in the area hauling goods and doing odd jobs for the rest of his life. At night, he howls with the wolves. He flies once in an airplane at a county fair. He sees a train carrying Elvis, watches the interstate being built. He never sees the ocean or speaks on a telephone. He never remarries.

All his life Robert Grainier would remember the vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he’d ever witnessed waking–the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of the Brussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utterly still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world.

The story is non-linear and made up more of anecdotes about Grainier’s encounters and dreams than anything that shows an arc across his almost eighty years. Things happen to Grainier, and while he’s certainly affected he remains largely unchanged throughout his life. He’s an everyman, in a sense, and also a reminder that even the smallest lives can be full of wonder. About fifteen years ago I worked with a person who had gone from Atlanta to visit some relatives in northern Alabama, and I remember him telling me that several of them had never experienced technological advances that we took for granted: microwave ovens, for example, and ATMs. They could not fathom walking up to a machine and having it dispense cash. This was 2005. I say this not to make fun, nor to point out how backwards things can still be in the American South. I bring this up because I find it so interesting how easy it is to exalt lives like these in literature, and then so easily forget they still exist in real life until they come upon us in such ugly ways, like the 2016 election. These are people who are poor and largely forgotten, living in deeply rural areas in flyover states. In 2011 when this book was published it would have read as a dream or an allegory. Today I read it and wonder, how did it all go so wrong? The ugliest comments I’ve seen would say these people should simply die, and that is most likely what will happen, as they are either blocked from services that can offer help or refuse those services outright when they are available. But in literature they remind us they should not be discounted, that the circumstances of their lives bring them to experience the world in a very particular way that makes sense to them. This, ultimately, is why a book like Train Dreams is so important, not just for its beautiful language, for its particular account of the American West, but to remind us of the humanity, to remind us to stop and consider lives so wholly different from our own, something that seems harder to do in our own country but easy to afford to those from elsewhere. How do we begin to change that world? What is the new story America must tell itself, even as these dreams remain?

Reader’s Journal: November Road

November RoadLou Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone was an amazing surprise for me in 2017, so when I heard he had a new book coming out this year, I immediately made it a priority. Of course, I make lots of books a “priority”—that’s how I ended up with 266 unread books in my possession. I always have good intentions, but what matters, of course, is follow through, and in the case of Berney’s latest, November Road, I’m happy to say that I, in the parlance of my Southern friends, “got her done.” Ew.

Anyway, the book! The year is 1963. Frank Guidry works for the mob in New Orleans. Charlotte is a housewife in Woodrow, Oklahoma, with two daughters and an alcoholic husband who has trouble holding down a steady job. For Frank, the Kennedy assassination sets into motion a chain of events that send him on the run. For Charlotte, the meaninglessness of such a momentous event to her everyday life makes her realize that something has got to change, so she takes her two girls, Joan, 8, and Rosemary, 7, and hits the road for California. Frank and Charlotte’s paths cross in New Mexico after Charlotte’s car goes into a ditch. They wind up staying at the same hotel, and Frank, realizing that a man traveling with a wife and two daughters is far less suspicious than a man traveling alone, begins to charm Charlotte and the girls. Together, the four of them head west. On their trail is hitman Phil Barone.

The thing is, up to a point, this is a predictable story. You know Frank and Charlotte are going to fall for each other. You know Barone will catch up with them eventually. You know Charlotte will figure out that Frank isn’t the person he pretends to be. But the beautiful thing about this book is that the characters don’t go in exactly the direction you think, and that’s not because Berney throws in a big plot twist at the end. See, November Road is the kind of novel that you can hold up as a fine example of the fact that in the very best fiction, the characters drive the plot, rather than existing in service to it. Frank, Charlotte, and Barone are so well developed that you really want them all to come out ahead. Even Joan and Rosemary come across as two real little people rather than plot devices or clichés. In fact, nothing in this story is cliché, when it so, so easily could have veered that way. Another terrific thing is the way Berney uses details specific to the time period, like the Kennedy assassination and certain music, like Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” without being heavy-handed like, “It’s 1963! Huge turning point for America!” Instead, he shows how these things matter to the characters, who are having their own huge turning points that really have nothing (and then also, in some ways, everything) to do with current and coming world events.

Lately I feel that the highest praise I can offer a book is to say it’s worth re-reading. Both November Road and The Long and Faraway Gone earn this praise. Maybe it’s a phase I’m going through, but I follow so many publishers and bloggers, and I have started to feel more than overwhelmed by what’s NEW, NEW, NEW all the time. Everyone’s hyping the same books, and they come and go so quickly. I’ve done more re-reading this year than I have in a long time, and it feels good. It feels much better than trying to keep up with new releases and books longlisted or shortlisted for this or that prize that seem like the judges simply raced through and didn’t notice the smoke and mirrors. Forget those books. Read Lou Berney. Read him twice. You won’t be sorry.

Reader’s Journal: Why you should read Anthony Marra (if you haven’t already)

A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaThis year I’ve read both of Anthony Marra’s books, The Tsar of Love and Techno and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Both works were on so many ‘Best of’ lists the years they were published that I was wary, but I needn’t have worried. They both live up to the hype, especially The Tsar of Love and Techno, a series of linked stories set across the former Soviet Union (Chechnya, a Siberian city called Kirovsk, Leningrad/St. Petersburg) that move between the Soviet era just before World War II to near present day. Recently I saw someone on Goodreads say about a book that the best way they could share how much they loved the work was simply to quote from it extensively. This is exactly how I felt about The Tsar of Love and Techno, and to a lesser extent A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, which was Marra’s debut novel, as I seemed to find myself highlighting some turn of phrase or passage on every other page. In fact, I underlined so much that the best way for me to share my feelings might simply be to hand someone the entire book. I’ll admit that A Constellation did drag a bit in places; it’s more bleak than The Tsar, dealing exclusively with the aftermath and devastation of both the First and Second Chechen Wars for a small group of characters. A Constellation covers only five days in the present but moves across time to share the lives of the principal characters. In both books the characters are connected either as family or friends, or by history or direct circumstance, and at times by all of the above. Some of these stories take too long to tell, the suspense building not to a bang but a whimper that can leave the reader feeling that the time spent on something that the plot reveals as inevitable might have been better spent on another character, another story. This is why I think The Tsar is better: Marra seems to have honed these connections, to have figured out exactly how much to tell in one place so that later, when a small but significant detail from an earlier story appears as a major element in a later one, the reader feels the power of the mystery of coincidence. There is much less of a feeling of “of course” and more of a sense of wonder at the ping and response of human activity across time.

The Tsar of Love and TechnoTwo things I loved in both books. First, the humor, which I completely did not expect. A Constellation has its fair share, especially when it brings together two of the primary characters, Akhmed and Sonja. He is a mostly incompetent village doctor who would prefer to be an artist; she is a talented surgeon who studied in London but returned to Chechnya for complicated reasons having to do with her younger sister. At the beginning of the novel, Akhmed brings a  child, Havaa, to the hospital where Sonja works, hoping that as a doctor Sonja will agree to take the homeless child into her care if he agrees to help her manage patients in the hospital. To test him, she asks what he would do with an unresponsive patient brought into the emergency room. He  responds that he would give the patient a questionnaire:

She had asked what he would do with an unresponsive patient, and he, in a blundering moment, had taken it to mean quiet or unwilling to talk , and had thought of the mute village baker, who communicated only through written notes—which had proved problematic the previous winter when the baker suffered from a bout of impotence he was too ashamed to write down, even to Akhmed. Akhmed had resolved the problem—shrewdly, he thought—by giving the mute baker a questionnaire with a hundred potential symptoms, of which the baker checked only one, and so had saved the baker’s testicles, marriage and pride.

Marra is highly adept at using humor to bring levity to the darkest moments. Although occasionally slapstick, this humor is often the most complicated kind, pulled from moments of misunderstanding or desperation to remind us all that the human condition is equal parts comedy and tragedy.

The second thing I love is a small thing: how Marra tells us something significant about even the most seemingly insignificant characters. For example, a man in A Constellation who is brought in after hitting a land mine:

The man, and he was a man, it was so easy to forget that with all his insides leaking out, had graduated from architecture school and had been searching for employment when the first bombs fell. When the land mine took his leg, he had already spent nine years searching for his first architectural commission. Another six and three-quarter years would pass before he got that first commission, at the age of thirty-eight. With only twenty percent of the city still standing, he would never be without work again.

I love this especially because it’s something I wonder about not even so much in novels as in real life, just passing people on the street or in the grocery store. These little glimpses make these bit players into something whole, give us a chance to see the detail framed against the bigger story.

A Constellation was Marra’s first book, but I recommend reading The Tsar first. I think they’re both worth reading and the quotes I’ve shared above are both from A Constellation, The Tsar is just…better. I’m not sure, but perhaps with A Constellation, Marra needed to write out all the blood and horror and betrayal to get some perspective, because it’s certainly the perspective piece of things that makes The Tsar the better book. And so, to convince you, I will leave you with a string of quotes (but I promise it’s not the whole book) from The Tsar. You’re welcome.

Radiographs of broken ribs, dislocated shoulders, malignant tumors, compacted vertebrae had been cut into vague circles, the music etched into the X-ray surface, the center hole punctured with a cigarette ember, and it was glorious to know that these images of human pain could hide in their grooves a sound as pure and joyful as Brian Wilson’s voice.

Yellow fog enshrouded the city like a varnish aged upon the air.

Despite inheriting her grandmother’s beautiful figure, Galina danced with the subtlety of a spooked ostrich.

You see, Kolya was a hundred meters of arrogance pressed into a two-meter frame, the kind of young man who makes you feel inadequate for not impressing him.

The Lenin statue once stood in the square outside this school, arm raised, rallying the schoolchildren to glorious revolution, but now, buried to his chin like a cowboy sentenced to death beneath the desert sun, Vladimir Ilich waves only for help.

I fear for her future in a country whose citizenry is forced to assemble its own furniture.

Then she’s gone and I’m left alone with the assistant whose saccharine perfume smells of vaporized cherubs.

Danilo, a contract soldier, body build like a flour sack and brain wired like a firecracker…

The megalopolis in his mind has quieted to a country road. He does his work, he eats his bread, and he sleeps with the knowledge that today hasn’t added to the sum of human misery. For now at least it’s a peace of a kind he hadn’t imagined himself worthy of receiving.

Kolya entered the chorus with an orchestra of punch-drunk madmen living in him, belting the tune to the velvet yellow, to the misting lake, to the carcinogens no song could dislodge from his capillaries, and in this amphitheater of decimated industry, on this stage of ice and steel, he taught the granddaughter of a prima ballerina to dance.

The strip of concrete, scabbed in gray forest, stretched to the intersection where it linked with another sidewalk, which in turn intersected with another and another, circumscribing the limits of her life. How often had she walked down them silently? How often had she censored her thoughts, her judgments, her beliefs, her desires, consigning them to some region of her soul where they couldn’t betray her?

Took a long time to understand the American mindset. The fear of their cruel and capricious government weighs heavily on their psyches. They’re more inclined to believe they’ll lose what they have than receive what they want.

Let’s Talk about Manhattan Beach

Manhattan BeachI finished Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach yesterday, and I wish I had someone to talk to about it, spoilers and all. I’ve seen lots of lower-than-expected ratings for this book, but I generally thought they were due to most people only having read her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. As a work of historical fiction, Manhattan Beach is vastly different from Goon Squad, a book I admit I did not love as much as everyone else did.

Anna Kerrigan lives with her father, mother, and severely disabled sister Lydia in Brooklyn. At the beginning of the novel she’s 11, and running an errand with her father, to whom she is clearly very close. In a borrowed car (that used to be his own—he had to sell it after the Crash), he takes her to a large, well-appointed house that overlooks the sea. It’s here that she first meets Dexter Styles, a gangster her father is trying to get in good with, although she knows none of this at the time. Left on her own with Styles’s children, she finds herself drawn to the ocean. Eight years later, Anna’s father has been missing for several years, and goes to work at the Brooklyn Naval Yard to support the war effort (and her family), and she will find herself desiring to become a diver, going into the depths to clear wreckage and to perform repairs on docked ships. She will also meet Dexter Styles again.

Now, Egan clearly did a lot of research for this book, and I certainly cannot fault the book’s atmosphere. If anything, she’s just over the line of too much detail, but not so much that it gets in the way of the story. The characters are well-developed and interesting, especially Anna…at least until about two-thirds of the way through the book, when she makes a decision that simply doesn’t ring true for her character, and that one decision breaks the book—or at least it did for me. Why? Because after that point, I felt like I could predict so much of what was coming, because the plot becomes standard issue. If you’ve read enough fairly decent literary fiction or seen enough movies, I imagine the same thing will happen for you. You’ll find yourself thinking, “Please, please don’t let her [fill in the blank]…,” and then she does [fill in the blank]. And if I’m being honest, one can go all the way back to the beginning, when Anna first meets Dexter Styles, and see much of the setup. I did, but I hoped against hope it wouldn’t take the easy direction. It did.

In my opinion, the book’s other big flaw is a scene that takes place about three-quarters of the way through that just seems so far-fetched and preposterous and out of character that…well, it made me almost not finish the book.

And so that’s that. Not much of a review—really more of a complaint. Egan has said in numerous interviews that this book took her nine years to write and tremendous effort to wrangle the story into its current shape. She clearly took a lot of care in her research, but I do wish that she’d found a way to make the story less pedestrian. I don’t mean for that to sound unkind, although I suppose it does. I can’t imagine what a huge task it must have been to pull everything together. The thing that bothers me the most is that all that needed to happen to make the story less ordinary was to have Anna make a few different choices.