A good place for serious readers

Welcome to A Reader’s Place–a resource for readers of memoirs and narrative nonfiction–well, fiction, too.  In addition to blog posts (below) and reviews,  there’s a special section devoted to memoirs. Click on the Memoirs tab above or the links to the right and you’ll find Reading Lists, Award Lists, quotes, and other interesting information about the genre that keeps on giving. Please feel free to comment, make suggestions, or contact me about speaking.

Read On Life StoriesMy book, a readers’ guide to memoirs and autobiographies–Read On…Life Stories: Reading Lists for Every Tastewas published by Libraries Unlimited/ABC-CLIO in 2009. It seems like everyone is writing memoirs these days and we’re all reading and talking about them. Read On…Life Stories will help you find memoirs you’ll enjoy reading, thinking about, and discussing with friends.

To order the book from Amazon, click here.
Booklist magazine review

Small Mercies by Eddie Joyce (Penguin)

Small MerciesI loved this family story, a first novel that’s full of life and characters that live beyond the page. It starts off slowly, building the reader’s relationship with the Amendola family, especially Gail, the Irish girl from Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood, who married into an Italian Staten Island family and learned to live with the rules of the culture she adopted, for  better or worse.

The novel takes place over the course of one week, but with a generous use of flashbacks we learn all about the Amendolas, what they think and feel. Wife Gail and her retired firefighter husband Michael had 3 sons, but the youngest, Robert, also a firefighter, was killed on 9/11. It’s now 10 years later, but the family is still reeling from the loss as they prepare for the birthday celebration of their grandson Bobby, Jr., this small son of their own youngest son, who has never known his father.

I always hope that the first pages of a novel will  tell me something wonderful about what to expect in the way of the writing. Each chapter in Small Mercies is told from the point of view of a family member, and on the second page, in a chapter told from Gail’s perspective, I found the nugget that let me know that I was in the hands of a great storyteller. Gail’s on her way out: “A quick look in the mirror. Not for vanity, not anymore, but for its older sister: dignity.” Brilliant. Joyce has something to say and says it well.

The Amendolas are part of a close-knit culture of Italians and Irish in Staten Island; what one character calls “the servants’ quarters of the city.” They share the neighborhood rituals and enthusiasms: liquor and sports anchor this community. There is some chafing at expectations: oldest son Peter couldn’t wait to get out and as a teenager rode the ferry to Manhattan to remind himself of where he wanted to be. But even as a successful lawyer, with a WASP wife, he’s unable to shake the feeling he’ll never fit in. Middle son Franky never recovered from the death of his younger brother and turned to alcohol to anesthetize his grief. Bobby’s widow, Tina, still tied closely to the Amendolas, wonders if 10 years is long enough to be a single mother as she starts to date. Gail and Michael have their own issues to work out and there’s reference to the ways they pleased and disappointed their own parents.

Joyce brings us into the thoughts of these characters and some terrific minor folks as well. He clearly loves them all. I enjoyed the structure, which allows him to introduce depth and reveal backstory. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a single character, but these alternate with Gail’s chapters, always coming back to her experiences and point of view. As the reader moves through the novel, hearing each characters’ thoughts, the characters become more rounded, more alive, and the story becomes more emotional and revealing. It’s an example of how domestic fiction, in the hands of a good writer, can be completely absorbing.

The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein

The title refers to the setting of this novel in the northernmost part of Norway, in the summer, where two unlikely Americans meet at a Viking Museum. I need to back up to set the scene for this unusual, affecting story.

Francis, a young artist, has just broken up with her boyfriend, who tells her that painting is of no use to the world: “What you do doesn’t help anybody.” Other parts of Francis’s life are broken: her parents are divorcing and her younger sister Sarah is getting married to a man that her parents dislike. Everyone is unhappy. Francis has the opportunity for an internship in Lofoten, a group of islands 95 miles north of the Arctic circle and it seems like the right time to get away. She’ll be working on something called the Yellow Project.

Yasha, a young man of 17, lives with his father in Brighton Beach where they own a bakery. Their lives are broken, too. Yasha and his father Vassily immigrated from Russia 10 years ago, but Yasha’s mother never followed them and refuses to communicate with them. They both miss her terribly and after Yasha’s high school graduation they decide to return to Russia to find her. Vassily suffers a heart attack in Russia and Yasha, according to his father’s wishes, takes his body to–you guessed it–Lofoten, to bury him as he wished. In the time Yasha spends in Lofoten, he finds much more than he ever imagined–he grows up, for one thing.

The joy of reading this unusual novel is in Dinerstein’s writing, which is circular, elliptical, and utterly captivating. She manages to convey the way we think and converse–the serious and mundane things that crash about simultaneously in our heads; the emotions we can’t or won’t convey; and the feelings of loss and loneliness that we all share. The setting and supporting characters are delineated in a few quick strokes, but their voices are unique.

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Turner HouseThis is a terrific family story, combining compelling characters and social history.  Flournoy does a great job of creating fully rounded characters–even the siblings that appear only briefly are real people. I suspect (and hope) she has more stories about the Turners  that didn’t make it into the novel.

The Turner family has lived on Yarrow St. in Detroit for over 50 years. Francis and Viola raised 13 children there and witnessed the precipitous decline of the city’s East Side. Widowed and elderly, Viola is now in danger of losing the house, which is worth less than the mortgage payments. Her children and grandchildren have strong–and different–feelings about whether the house should be saved.

From the oldest–Cha-Cha–to the youngest–Lelah–everyone weighs in with an opinion or a plan, depending on what the house means to them. Cha-Cha feels responsible for making decisions and providing for his mother; he irritates his younger siblings with his need for control. Lelah, the youngest, is secretly living in the old house; she fears that her brothers and sisters will learn about her gambling addiction. Troy, a policeman, has a scheme to make money by selling the house illegally. Turner focuses on these and several other siblings but we get a terrific sense the family dynamics. With all these stories and family collisions, there’s also a subplot about a “haint” that appeared to Francis and now Cha-Cha. The meaning of the “haint” is unclear to Cha-Cha, and he worries that it’s providing a message that he needs to understand. Turner cleverly doesn’t let the “haint”  turns the novel into a ghost story, but uses it as a device to reveal some of the dark undercurrents in the family’s history.

Flournoy’s descriptions of the Turner family dynamics and the house that holds them together is filled with the family dynamics we all know; it’s a universal story of how we love and struggle with our parents and siblings.

Wednesday at Book Expo 2015

This is one of my favorite events of the year–a chance to meet authors and hear about forthcoming books, even take some home. The best. Today was the opening day, a half day really, starting at 12:30 with Laura Miller of salon.com interviewing Jonathan Franzen. A big crowd as you can imagine. Franzen had just come back from a birdwatching trip in east Africa and acknowledged that he was having a hard time inserting himself back into talking about the book, Purity, due out Sept. 1. He was, I’m going to say it, more than just a little inarticulate. I took notes as best I could and some interesting tidbits are below.

He talked about how each novel gets harder to write, because the early novels mine the easily accessible material, the stuff that’s most present. With each novel, he digs deeper, ultimately into areas that are difficult to write about. He talked about process–how he starts with an outline but once he starts writing  he always realizes that the book as outlined will never work. In fact, he wrote the first chapter of Purity quickly, based on the outline and was stuck; he didn’t go back to it until a year later.

Miller asked questions about the relationship between plot and character and Franzen spent some time discussing the conundrum of getting the reader to turn the pages in a novel where character takes precedence over plot.

An interesting note: the German edition of the book can’t be called Purity–the word carries too much baggage there.

From that interview I went up to the exhibit floor and waited on line to get a signed poster from Maira Kalman from her new book Beloved Dog. I told her that I had seen the small collection she curated at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum this winter and how interesting it was. She asked if I remembered seeing Toscanini’s pants and she told me that they belonged to her. She loaned them to the museum for the exhibit. (She also has the suit jacket.) I’d love to know what else she’s collected over the years. Of course I told her how much I loved the New Yorker “stans” cover.

Late in the afternoon, laden down with advance copies of books and some nifty canvas bags, I made my way back home. I’ll be back to the Javits at 9 tomorrow.

The Crotchety Reader

We all have things that we love and things that we hate in novels. I really really dislike bad grammar and words used  incorrectly.   I’m not talking about books published by small presses–this happens in books published by the big trade houses. If a novelist can’t use the language correctly why should I read the book? One of the reasons I read is to enjoy the use of language to create meaning and emotion. It’s like art or music, isn’t it? Artist needs to know their craft.

Two examples of what I’m talking about, just from books I’ve tried to read this week. I won’t name them. In the first, the author writes about a couple whose car breaks down. They abandon it and a day or two later they go back to “recuperate” it. This was not written in jest.  In the other example, from a historical novel, two sisters are in a palace and they are given a room “donning the garden.” Neither of these books is a first novel; both were published by big trade houses. In both cases I stopped reading the books.

I know agents who do line edits of manuscripts. Authors’ acknowledgements are filled with thanks to editors who did such a great job. I feel like I’m missing something–why did those mistakes not trigger a correction?

I’ve learned to skip over incorrect uses of some words, like “enormity” and “fulsome;” I’ve turned a blind eye to “graduated college.” These misuses signal a change in the way the language is used, even if I’d prefer not to embrace those changes. But the two examples I’ve given, above, of words used incorrectly are not in that category.  They’re wrong! Enough carping. Next novel, please…

Other books I’ve been reading…

I intend to blog about every book I read, but writing about reading is very different than thinking about what you’ve read. The woolly thoughts in my head often don’t translate easily to words that work on paper. But that is, after all, what  writing is all about and it’s the practice that makes it happen.  I recently spent the afternoon with a writer friend from Israel, Pnina Moed-Kass. Pnina goes to the gym at 6:30am every morning, returns home to eat a big breakfast, and then sits down to write until 3pm. Of course, that doesn’t happen every single day, but it’s Pnina’s goal and she has some great children’s and YA books to show for it.

Even after  a fit of self-disciplinary angst after seeing Pnina, I knew I would not write individual blog posts about the books I’ve been reading. I decided that in order to get back on track, I’d write in one omnibus post about a few of the books I’ve read recently. Here they are, with comments  long and short.

leaving before the rainsLeaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller (Penguin, 2015)
I’ve read and loved all of Fuller’s memoirs: Don’t Let’s Go To the Dogs Tonight, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, and Scribbling the Cat. “Love” is an awkward word to use with Fuller’s books since they contain so much pain, but it’s her ability to depict emotional states that makes her books so engrossing. This latest memoir may just be her best. Fuller’s childhood in Africa, living in countries that shucked off the British colonial yoke, was full of violence, but her parents stayed and moved from one not-quite-safe place to another. Their commitment to living on the edge became the way that Alexandra saw her own life: always at risk, fueled with adrenaline, and supported by her father’s pragmatic and fatalistic attitude. Her marriage to an American and move to Wyoming took her to a different place, physically and mentally, and ultimately she couldn’t make it work. Fuller, in addition to her talents in describing messy emotional states, is a great nature writer, and with Africa and Wyoming she has two of the most dramatic places to write about, and she does it very well.

leaving berlinLeaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon (Atria, 2015)
Kanon’s thrillers are mostly set just after World War II, in that messy period of anarchy and revenge. This one is set a little later, 1948, and concerns  Alex Meier, who is caught up in the Communist witch-hunts that were starting to upend people’s lives. He makes a deal with the CIA to work for them in East Germany; in exchange, he’ll return to his family with a clean slate. Alex thinks it will all be quite simple, after all, he’s not a trained spy, but almost immediately he’s caught up in a kidnapping and murder. East Berlin is still in post-War turmoil, with sspy agencies from several countries spying on each other. The double dealing makes Alex’s head spin and he works hard to find his footing. Filled with real characters, like Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Zweig, the twists and turns are fun to follow (or not!). I’ve read others by Kanon and always enjoy his atmospheric tales.

fighting chanceA Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren (Picador, 2015)
I listened to this and hearing Warren read it herself was a treat. She tells a great story about her fight for better bankruptcy laws and her Senate race in Massachusetts. From a career teaching law, she’s drawn into legislative battles over bankruptcy and other issues, especially when she joins the Congressional TARP oversight committee. She ends with the story of her bruising but successful campaign for Massachusetts Senator. I don’t want to get into politics here, but will just say that she’s a compelling politician who speaks up for working families with an uncommon blend of common sense, intelligence, and charisma.

buried giantThe Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf/Doubleday, 2015)
Not sure about this one. I kept hoping that it would get better, clearer, more compelling. Ishiguro’s story, set in the post-Arthurian Britain, about an elderly couple–Axl and Beatrice–who go in search of their son, encountering treachery and danger along the way. A mysterious fog has settled over the country clouding the landscape and clouding memory as well. As Axl and Beatrice travel some of the fog lifts and the many of the memories are painful. There is food for thought about the role of memory in our lives, but for me there were ultimately too many labored passages.

Chaucer 1386Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury by Paul Strohm (Penguin, 2014)
I never thought much about the kind of life that Chaucer lived, so this book was a revelation. A little dry, but very interesting. Chaucer married into a prominent family–his brother-in-law was the powerful and testy John of Gaunt–but he and his wife rarely lived together and he was estranged from his children. For a number of years, Chaucer had a position (gained through patronage) as the controller of customs at the Wool Wharf. The description of his dreadful accommodations, over one of the London gates, is sobering. In 1386,  the year that Strohm focuses on, Chaucer lost his patronage job and with it his housing. Without a job or a place to live he is forced to leave London and the intellectual and social milieu that nourished him, however, it did give him the space to write his masterpiece, Canterbury Tales. Strohm has an interesting section on the nature of audience in the 14th century that’s very much worth reading.

Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life by Vivian Gornick (Yale Univ. Press)

Emma GoldmanI’ve read about Emma Goldman in passing and wanted to read more about this feisty anarchist, “Red Emma,” a woman reviled, jailed, and ultimately deported from the U.S. in 1919. Vivian Gornick’s compact biography, Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, is part of the terrific Yale Univ. Press’s Jewish Lives Series.

Goldman was born in Lithuania in 1869 and came to Rochester, New York as a teenager to live with her older sister; the rest of the family joined her a year later. She was desperate to accomplish something, to change the world, and was galvanized by the Haymarket Affair, a workers’ protest in Chicago that was disrupted by an anarchist’s bomb. It was a defining moment in U.S. labor history and she wanted to be part of it.

Goldman, too volatile and rebellious for her family, left home with her sewing machine and a few dollars, headed for New York City’s Lower East Side, where she found radicals of every stripe meeting in the cafes. The very first day, she met her soulmate, Alexander Berkman, the first in a series of lovers, mentors, and partners. She became a fiery, riveting speaker, traveling around the country talking about worker injustice.

Gornick gives us the outline of the life Goldman led in service to the anarchist movement, but what’s so fascinating about this biography is the insight Gornick offers into Goldman’s motivations and personality. Unlike most biographers, Gornick is right there with the reader, commenting on Goldman’s behavior, adding asides, and digging, digging, digging into who Goldman was, why she acted as she did; all the messy contradictions of her life (and loves). The energy of Gornick’s writing is terrific; a great match for Goldman’s single-minded drive to change the world.

Fierce AttachmentsIn conjunction with Goldman’s bio, I read Gornick’s own memoir Fierce Attachments, probably for the third time. Each time I read it, I’m hooked again, drawn into her childhood world and tangled relationship with her mother. It’s a feminist classic for good reasons, but also a startling evocation of the conflicted, haunting relationships we have with our childhood influences.