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

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates (Penguin, 2006)

We MulvaneysI’m late reading this; started listening to it years ago and never got very far.  I find that the unrelenting grimness of Oates’s novels often puts me off; I have to be in the mood. I’m about 75% through We Were the Mulvaneys and starting to worry about how it will all end–not well, I’m sure for the Mulvaneys, who have already lost so much. I’ll read to the end, but I’m hoping that there will be redemption for at least some of the characters.

Oates has such command of her material; she’s knows exactly where she’s taking us. She sets the scene beautifully at the beginning of this novel–we understand exactly the status and the role of the Mulvaneys–and their charismatic appeal– in their small town  in upstate New York,  classic Oates territory. As the story progresses, the personalities and proclivities of the characters propel the story.

Corinne and Michael Mulvaney are living a happy life at High Point Farm with four children and assorted dogs, cats, and farm animals. The eldest son, Mike Jr, known as “Mule” Mulvaney from his days as a football star at the local high school, now works with Dad at Mulvaney Roofing. Second son Patrick, “Pinch,” is the straight-A student; he’s serious and aloof. Beautiful, popular, innocent cheerleader daughter Marianne–Button–joins her mother at church, while Judd, the baby of the family, tells the story of what happened that year when life changed for the storybook Mulvaneys.

The problems begin when Marianne goes to the Valentine’s Day Prom with a nice local boy, but comes home the following morning bruised and with a bloody dress. The unthinkable has happened and the Mulvaneys are unprepared. Mike, Sr. sees Marianne as a symbol of his inability to keep his family safe and he can’t look at her, reminded as he is by his own failings. Marianne feels culpable and debased. Other family members react in their own ways and the fortunes of the Mulvaneys spiral down, their lives out of control and they’re unable to help each other. Oates tells the story of the following twenty-five years in the lives of the Mulvaney parents and children as they search for grace and forgiveness.

If you like We Were the Mulvaneys, try Oates’s Little Bird of Heavenone of my favorites of her novels.

Thinks by David Lodge (Viking, 2001)

ThinksThought about thought about the world–and the chemistry between men and women–are the themes of this 2001 novel, in Lodge’s inimitable, sly style. His novels are serious and funny at the same time–a unique combination–and often poke fun at academics. I’ve read and enjoyed several: Small World, Nice Work, Paradise News, and grabbed a paperback copy of Thinks at a used book sale.

Ralph Messenger, Director of the Center for Cognitive Science at the University of Gloucester, spends his days thinking about the nature of consciousness and his chances of adultery with the women on campus. Enter Helen Reed, recently widowed novelist and visiting professor in the Creative Writing program. Helen’s intrigued by Ralph’s field of study; Ralph enjoys their interesting conversations and hopes to get Helen in bed. Helen is interested but worries about the morality of sleeping with Ralph after his wife  befriends her.

As the book progresses, there are conversations about what consciousness is–for Ralph and his colleagues it’s a problem to be solved, which amuses Helen, who sees consciousness from the writer’s point of view, as the “stuff” of the novel. Helen’s conversations with Ralph spill over into her teaching and she gives her students an assignment to write an essay “What it’s Like to Be a Bat” in the style of a well-known modern author. The results are pretty hilarious. Helen also wonders what’s happened to the consciousness of her deceased husband, Martin.

Ralph is conducting an experiment whereby he tape records his thoughts and Helen keeps a diary, so the reader gets to experience the same events from very different points of view. The reader knows what they’re both thinking, but their individual thoughts, their “consciousnesses” if you will, are opaque to each other, which provides the engine for the plot . There’s lots of information about theories of consciousness; characters have great discussions about how we know what we know, but with Lodge’s usual light touch, he inserts this in the most entertaining way.

 

Blood-Dark Track: A Family History by Joseph O’Neill (Knopf Doubleday, 2010)

Blood Dark TrackI enjoyed O’Neill’s last 2 novels, The Dog and Netherland very much. In the latter, the protagonist is British, living in New York, but brought up in Holland. I was curious about how O’Neill came to give his protagonist a Dutch background. When I learned that he had been raised in Holland, I suspected that this memoir about his family would be of more than usual interest. I was right.

O’Neill’s memoir tells 2 stories: his mother’s family was Turkish; his father’s family was Irish and for most of the book the chapters alternate about the two branches. Growing up he spent summers in the small city of Mersin, Turkey, with his mother’s family but hardly any time at all in Ireland until undertaking the research for this book. Both of O’Neill’s grandfathers, in a strange turn of fate, were imprisoned by the British. His Turkish grandfather, Joseph Dakad, was imprisoned during a trip to Jerusalem during World War II on  suspicion of being an Axis spy. His Irish grandfather, Jim O’Neill, an active member of the IRA, was interned by the de Valera government at roughly the same time.

The curious coincidence of these events sparked O’Neill’s exploration into his family’s past. It’s hard to imagine 2 more different lives. Joseph  Dakad, a Turkish Christian, was a sophisticated hotelier in the port city of Mersin. O’Neill recreates the exotic ambience of the 1920s and 1930s and the tensions among the various minorities: Muslim, Christian, and Armenian. As his research brings him deeper into that time, he toys with the possibility that his grandfather’s trip to Jerusalem for lemons was not so innocent.

In Ireland, he spends time with his grandmother and uncles, who were active participants with Jim O’Neill in IRA activities. Was his grandfather, who certainly took part in violent incidents, also a murderer? As the author explores these questions, unearthing family papers and interviewing the aging participants of that era, he learns much about himself and his relation to his family. The role of memory assumes great importance; here’s a quote to give an example:

“The reservoir of O’Neill republican confidences was Brendan. He was the son whom my grandfather trusted, and to whom he vouchsafed knowledge of certain matters so that Brendan might bear witness to them and, it could be inferred, keep them in memory until they might safely emerge at the lit surface of history.”

That “lit surface of history” is a wonderful image of what memoir does, but even more, it’s what good historical writing, like this, is all about.

This would be a good choice for readers who enjoyed The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal,  She Left Me the Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me by Emma Brockes, or Out of Egypt: A Memoir by Andre Aciman.

 

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter (HarperCollins, 2009)

I’m always thinking about reading more books by authors I enjoy, but I’m often seduced into moving forward, reading the latest, checking out the books that received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly. I’m determined in the coming year to go back and pick up earlier books of authors I’ve enjoyed.

This title’s a case in point: I loved Walter’s Beautiful Ruins from 2012 so I picked up this earlier title. It’s told in the first person and on the first page there’s a distinctive and appealing voice:  the narrator, Matthew Prior. Prior is a hilarious guide through his financial troubles and bad choices. Do you remember that old Barbra Streisand movie Up the Sandbox? It’s something like that. Prior’s lost his job as a reporter at the local newspaper and with a wife and two kids and a house with a mortgage that’s under water and with payments overdue, he needs a quick way to get his finances back on track. He has a harebrained idea for a website, poetfolio.com, that will combine poetry with financial advice, he calls it “moneylit.” But his real moneymaking scheme is selling pot to middle-aged folks who yearn for their earlier, stoned days. We pretty much know how that will turn out but that doesn’t spoil the pleasure of reading.

Prior’s poetry is sprinkled throughout the book, blank verse that addresses the financial meltdown and Prior’s own troubles.  The novel exhibits Walter’s characteristic affection for his characters, even the sleazy ones. It may seem like just a quick, entertaining read, but there’s more going on–Walter makes Prior an Everyman of the financial crisis; we’re all at risk from the bad choices made by others.

 

My Favorite Books of 2014–Nonfiction

I’ve been reading more nonfiction the past few years, following some of my interests, which you’ll see reflected in this year’s reading. I posted my favorite fiction last week, so scroll down for that one.

Nonfiction

The Innovators: How A Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson. Simon & Schuster, 2014.
I read this for my nonfiction reading group and had a good time revisiting the early years of the computer industry. Isaacson is a terrific guide through the technology and personalities. He writes about the brilliant researchers who were able to see the potential for personal computing and information access while others were blinkered. The women mathematicians at the Moore School in the early days of computer development–who, by the way, were the first real programmers–was a reminder of how  men have claimed the field as their own. (There’s a lovely documentary, Top Secret Rosies: Female Computers of WWII,  about this group.)  I remember our first computer, a Commodore 64, a machine that required endless patience for a small payoff, but opened our eyes to what was to come. Isaacson often referred to the book What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry by John Markoff, so I read that book next. Markoff focuses on the West Coast and the personalities of the people involved in the early PC world who had a very different “take” on the role of the technology. Drugs, est, The Whole Earth Catalog, the Free Speech Movement, and the Grateful Dead were all in the mix, shaping and predicting the path of the R&D. East Coast computer R&D culture was hierarchical and influenced by its beginnings as a resource for the military.

The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention by Guy Deutscher. Henry Holt, 2006.
If you’re interested in how language evolves, this is the book to read. Deutscher explains things I never thought could be explained about how languages change over time. His writing is just right: never ponderous, even when explaining complicated issues, and filled with delightful, cheeky humor. I also read and enjoyed his later book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages but the earlier one is a gem.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities
by Jane Jacobs. Random House, 2011 (50th Anniversary Edition)
At my nonfiction book group we talked about reading this for several years and finally dove in. Even at 50+ years old, Jacobs’ ideas about how to make cities livable remain brilliant and compelling. She had a terrific ability to cut through the noise and point out the obvious. It will change the way you see urban–or even small town–streetscapes. There’s so much anger in the book about bad city planning and the “starchitects” whose bad decisions are enshrined in our urban environments. I wonder what she would have thought of the HighLine.

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor. Knopf/Doubleday, 2014.
The opening pages of Sotomayor’s autobiography are riveting, about how this 8-year old girl, just diagnosed with life-threatening diabetes, realizes that in order to survive she can’t rely on her parents to give her insulin shots. She has to learn to do it herself. Self-reliance is a theme here, as well as the support of family members and friends. A very heartwarming and inspiring story that’s not the least insipid or sentimental, filled with intelligence and insight.

Amsterdam, A History of the World’s Most Liberal City
by Russell Shorto. Knopf/Doubleday, 2013.
I loved Shorto’s earlier book about New York, The Island in the Center of the World, for its focus on the personalities of the early settlers in New York and its origins as a commercial hub. He does a similar history of Amsterdam, but focuses on the city’s liberal tradition. There was no feudalism in Holland; in order to survive, everyone needed to work together to reclaim the land from the North Sea. This early sense of community set Holland apart from the rest of Europe. His theory about the liberality of Amsterdam is often hard to sustain through out its history, but it does provide a lens to see the city’s history and the history of the Netherlands in general. Shorto frames the book with the story of an elderly Holocaust survivor that is quite affecting.

A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance–Portrait of an Age
by William Manchester. Little, Brown, 2005.
Manchester packs so much information into this book, from art to religion, politics, and exploration. It was a turbulent period, filled with religious barbarity (and depravity) and sublime art. If you’re interested in this period, read also Stephen Greeblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, which tells the story of how the Catholic Church did its best to suppress all knowledge of classical civilization, and how the determined scholars who searched out classical literature jumpstarted the Renaissance. As an example, I recently learned that the techniques of concrete work, practiced in Rome, were “forgotten” after 500A.D., until the 1300s.

The Parthenon Enigma by Joan Breton Connelly. Knopf/Doubleday, 2014.
I’m a classical art and history junkie and with a trip to Greece planned (at last!) I was free to read and re-read for several months before our trip last spring. I re-read the Mary Renault novels about Theseus (they’re still gripping), and was riveted by Connelly’s interpretation of the Parthenon sculptures. Her interpretation is novel and I know there are naysayers, but I found it consistent and compelling. The usual interpretation sees the Parthenon and the annual Panathenaic procession as the way Athens venerated its protecting deity, Athena; Connelly has a different approach. She writes about the mythological basis of the Parthenon sculptures, the way they provided a visual record of the founding myths of Athens and reinforced ideas of Athenian democracy, including sacrifice for country. Her interpretation of the friezes and metopes tells a very powerful story, one that would have resonated for Athenians, for whom myth and history were intertwined. After reading this book, walking up to the Acropolis following the ancient route of the Panathenaic procession, was a thrilling experience.

A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube
by Patrick Leigh Fermor. New York Review of Books, 2005.
Here’s a link to my review of this travel memoir from earlier this year. Leigh Fermor was a great prose stylist and one of the best travel writers.

The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi. Random House, 2014.
Definitely the best book cover of the year, but it’s far more than a pretty face. Taibbi’s a great guide through our turbulent and hypocritical times, puncturing holes in what we think we know just because we read the newspapers. I’ve just started reading this and it’s very upsetting–what a friend used to call “a 20 minute burn” book. You read for 20 minutes then stop to let the steam out of your ears.  His opening story about the prosecution of the employees of the Abacus Federal Savings Bank in Chinatown (according to Taibbi the only bank to be indicted for mortgage fraud), and how the employees were brought to court in chains, is only the beginning of his scathing attack on our financial and justice systems and politicians of all stripes. It’s pretty scary stuff but necessary.

My favorite books of 2014–Fiction

I don’t think this has been a great year for literary fiction. I read great quantities of the stuff and enjoyed the novels I’ll list here, but for me there haven’t been more than a few standout novels. I tend not to read the titles that populate the bestseller list, since it’s now virtually all genre fiction. At the moment I think there are 3 literary fiction titles on the NY Times bestseller list. That’s okay if you’re a genre fiction fan! I’m just not.

I’m including books I read this year, regardless of year of publication–I have such a long list of books I’ve missed and I’m always trying to catch up. I’ve also been reading more nonfiction every year, so the list is divided into two parts, nonfiction to come shortly. I hope as you look through it, you’re nodding your head in agreement, or adding to your list of books to read.

Fiction
The Lives of Others
by Neel Mukherjee. W.W. Norton, 2014.
I have a weakness for fat novels set in India. (A Suitable Boy is still one of my all-time favorites) Mukherjee combines two stories; one is a domestic tale about an extended family in decline. It’s sharply observed and quite engrossing. The second thread follows one of the family members who rejects the family’s materialistic life and joins the Naxalite movement, fomenting revolution in the countryside. This novel is not for the faint of heart; characters lead troubled lives and trouble the lives of others; most are not at all likable. The novel is filled with thwarted dreams and poisonous relationships; I often felt that the author was writing in anger. Very powerful.

Barracuda
by Christos Tsiolkas. Crown, 2014.
Dan Kelly, a working class Melbourne boy, wins a swimming scholarship to an elite private school where he’s always an outsider. He sets his sights on the Olympics but after an early defeat turns to drugs and violence. Tsiolkas’s depiction of how rage fuels Kelly’s life is riveting. You may remember Tsiolkas’s previous novel, The Slap, which made a big splash a few years ago; it was longlisted for the ManBooker Prize and soon to be a TV miniseries.  I enjoyed that one, but liked Barracuda even more.

The Fortune Hunter
by Daisy Goodwin. St. Martin’s Press, 2014.
The love triangle created when handsome cavalryman Bay Middletown is sought by an English heiress and Empress Elisabeth of Austria is the engine of this delightful historical romance with details of fox hunting and horsemanship and terrific character development. The historical characters are lovingly detailed.
This is without a doubt the most entertaining novel I listened to this year. The narrator was wonderful, not only distinguishing every voice, but conveying  the nuances of each characters’ personality in her voicing. Entertainment of the best kind.

Netherland
by Joseph O’Neill. Knopf/Doubleday, 2009.
I enjoyed O’Neill’s 2014 novel, The Dog, but prefer this earlier one, a story of post-9/11 New York. The main character, Hans, a transplanted Englishman with Dutch ancestry, is at loose ends when his wife and child return to England; he searches out the immigrants who play cricket and finds a community in this diverse group. This reflective novel explores themes of identity and exile in the most graceful way; O’Neill’s writing is marvelous.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Penguin, 2014.
Ng’s story of an interracial family in 1970s Ohio gets to the heart of the matter in ways that haunt the reader. We learn immediately that Lydia, oldest child of Marilyn and James Lee, is dead. The story is how Lydia’s life led her to that destination. Don’t dismiss this book because you think you’ve read enough books about missing/dead children (it seems to be a genre in itself). Ng’s story explores issues of race, gender, and identity in mid-20th century America in unforgettable ways.

Falling From Horses
by Molly Gloss. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.
Something about this novel reminded me of Jess Walter’s wonderful 2013 novel Beautiful Ruins. It’s probably the love that the authors have for their characters and the setting on the fringes of the movie industry. After a family tragedy, 19-year old Bud Frazer leaves the ranch in Oregon where he grew up, determined to become a movie cowboy, a stunt rider. It’s 1938 and the time and place are beautifully portrayed, along with the people and horses he meets up with. A quiet novel with a real beating heart at the center.

We Are Not Ourselves
by Matthew Thomas. Simon & Schuster, 2014.
Sometimes you know on the first page that you’ve found something special; I felt that way when I started We Are Not Ourselves, a very accomplished first novel. It’s hard not to make comparisons with Philip Hensher, Colm Toibin, or Richard Yares. Eileen Tumulty, an Irish-American woman raised in Woodside, Queens, is determined to grasp the American Dream for her own; her struggles and triumphs mirror the lives we led in the last half of the 20th century. 

The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit. Bloomsbury, 2014.
Nesbit tells the story of the Manhattan Project from the viewpoint of the wives of the researchers. She uses first person plural– you may remember The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka and  The Ladies Auxiliary, by Tova Mirvis were also written from that viewpoint. It creates a hypnotic effect  and a powerful emotional sense of the experience of the out-of-the-ordinary lives those women lived for 3 years as enforced homemakers and secret keepers.  The growing tension in their lives parallels the creation of the bomb. Moral issues pervaded the novel for me and I think will provide much food for thought for groups. I can’t resist a quote to give you the flavor: “We looked back on the time of our arrival to Los Alamos, how we felt very young. Some of us thought it was much better then, earlier, before we understood anything, though in our futures there was much more to learn.” Shivery stuff.

Tepper Isn’t Going Out by Calvin Trillin. Random House, 2003.
The phrase “are you going out?” addressed to someone sitting in a car, has a special meaning on New York streets, where parking spaces are hotly contested. How Trillin can write a hilarious and engrossing novel about a parking problem is a tribute to his genius for dry humor and insights into the intractable problems of urban life. I suspect if you’ve never tried to park a car in Manhattan this one might not be for you…

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee. Penguin, 2014.
Lee’s dystopian novel is eerie and compelling, a departure in setting from his previous novels, but with the same precise examination of the human heart. In a future America, ruled by the all-powerful “Charters,” a young girl, Fan, makes a crucial mistake by falling in love. In her search for her young lover, Reg, she goes deep into the outlaw heart of the country.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
by Elena Ferrante. Europa Editions, 2014.
This is the third novel in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series and they just keep getting better. I read the first, My Brilliant Friend, and was hooked, thought it was my special secret, then discovered that I was far from alone. Ferrante writes like no one else, in a propulsive style that captures the lives of the two protagonists, Elena and Lila, as they grow up and try to extricate themselves from the brutality of life in their village near Naples. The second novel is The Story of a New Name. If you haven’t read any of them, do it now!  If you’ve been reading Ferrante, then it’s no news that this third novel of a fraught friendship is another masterpiece, a brilliant picture of the times as seen through the lens of women’s lives.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

The NewlywedsI started listening to this lovely novel and was drawn into the story of Amina, a young Muslim woman from Bangladesh, who comes to Rochester, NY to marry a man she met via the Internet. George seems like a nice guy, an engineer with a good job, and Amina works hard at learning to adjust to life in that small, cold, upstate NY city.  She’s a particularly intelligent, thoughtful person, and the story’s told from her viewpoint as she tries hard to balance her new life and aspirations against her parents’ expectations, especially their hopes that she’ll continue to live as an observant Muslim.

Since novels are based on complications, we learn that Amina and George have prior relationships that cause tension in the marriage. And George’s family has some issues that complicate Amina’s life. Amina wants to bring her parents to Rochester as soon as she gets her green card, although in the course of the novel she begins to understand how difficult that will be. In the last section of the novel, Amina returns to Bangladesh to shepherd her parents through the visa process and flight to the U.S. There are problems, and she ends up staying longer than expected, immersed in the old rivalries and jealousies that she went to America to escape.

The novel ends without much resolution, leaving the reader (or listener) with lots to ponder about what Amina has in store for her. The narrator was excellent, although since the pacing is slow, I eventually became frustrated and went to the library and read the last section. For those who enjoy immigrant stories, The Newlyweds is a little gem.