Category Archives: 2009 Fiction

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,, 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.


Going Home

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin.
I started listening to this novel a while ago but at that time I wasn’t able  to slow myself down to its leisurely pace; I returned to it last month and found it full of rewards. Toibin writes about Eilis Lacey, a young girl who has the chance to leave her native Ireland in the early 1950s for Brooklyn and better prospects.  We see the world through Eilis’s eyes, her confusion and how she feels rootless and lonely in Brooklyn, torn from the familiar patterns of Enniscorthy, where she understood how to behave and what was expected of her.  Intelligent, but naive and unmoored, she makes an unexpected decision, and when she is called back to Ireland, she has to come to terms with the consequences of what she’s done. It’s a lovely, character-driven story, evoking a particular place and time but mainly allowing us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. I became so involved with Eilis’s thoughts that there was a point where I had to put the novel down for a day, worried for her and apprehensive about her future. A novel that can do that, well, it’s pretty special.

I grew up in Brooklyn, as did my parents, and I have a fondness for the novels and memoirs that recall the borough’s neighborhoods. Here are a few:
Snow in August by Pete Hamill, a gem of a story about the unlikely friendship between a young Irish Catholic boy and a Jewish Holocaust survivor in a Brooklyn neighborhood filled with violence and lost hopes.
In Case We’re Separated by Alice Mattison. Wm Morrow, 2005. Thirteen very affecting linked stories about several generations of the Kaplowitz family in 1950s Brooklyn: as they connect and spill apart throught the years, we learn of the secret loves, hopes, and despairs. Mattison uses the repeated imagery of six ordinary objects, echoing the poetic form of the sestina.
Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here by Joseph Heller. Knopf, 1998. In this nostalgic and very evocative memoir, Heller, author of Catch-22, recalls growing up in a bustling, thrumming Coney Island at a time when it was filled with immigrants, hustlers, strivers, and a very observant boy and his mother.
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. Doubleday, 1999. Lionel Essrog, orphan and Tourette’s sufferer, recounts his efforts to solve a murder, in this tour de force of storytelling and language.
Sweet and Low: A Family Story by Rich Cohen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. A hilarous look at the rather dysfunctional family that created the familiar sugar substitute.
No list of books about Brooklyn would be complete without including titles about Brooklyn’s two icons:
The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn. Harper & Row, 1972. This classic of sportswriting, perenially in print, is Kahn’s inspiring tribute to the fabled team of his youth, ending with the 1955 season.
The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge by David McCullough. This weighty book is filled with the drama and tragedy of the Roeblings, father and son, both brilliant engineers who gave their lives to build the Bridge. McCullough also explains in great detail how the Bridge was constructed and the risks to the workers toiling in the dangerous caissons.
And then there’s that great trio of short fiction and nonfiction about Brooklyn, published by Akashic Press: Brooklyn Noir, Brooklyn Noir 2: The Classics, and Brooklyn Noir 3: Nothing But the Truth.

What I’m reading now: My Hollywood by Mona Simpson

Very English Childhoods

I was snowed in this past weekend–we had an unusual 2 feet of snow–and I was lucky to have several fat novels and memoirs waiting for me. I chose to read A.S. Byatt’s new novel The Children’s Book, which weighs in at 675 pages; it kept me completely absorbed for 3 days. It’s a sprawling historical and family saga, set in England in the period from 1895-1919 and filled with a huge and diverse cast of characters–artists and writers; bankers and anarchists; upper and lower classes; children and adults. 
Byatt does a wonderful job juggling their intersecting lives and tying them together with the fairy tales Olive Wellwood writes for her children and to support her family.  At the beginning, the Wellwoods, their extended family and friends all seem like a warm and welcoming clan, but, like Olive’s fairy tales, things are not what they seem. Some of the characters will break your heart, some will make you angry. Pottery, puppetry, madness, the rights of women, and a devastating war all mix together in this absorbing tale. I sensed echoes of the Bloomsbury group–the shifting relationships and fondness for country house parties with elaborate costumes and playacting.  Byatt, the omniscient narrator, provides a running commentary on the cultural and social changes in this era. 
If you want to know more about this period, I would recommend  The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just before the Storm by Juliet Nicolson. It’s an engaging romp through social, cultural, and political events in England in a pivotal season.
Byatt’s story exists very much within its time period and it made me think of memoirs I’ve read of English childhoods throughout the twentieth century. Click here for an annotated list of titles.

Half Memoir

Jeannette Walls, author of the very popular memoir The Glass Castle  has a new book coming out next month titled Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel.  I held off reading The Glass Castle for a long time–my philosophy of half broke horsesreading is that if everyone else is reading a book, then I don’t have to. I’m a reader who feels most comfortable with midlist books; I look for the little gems that get the good reviews but not the marketing dollars, the books that are often staples of the backlist. I eventually did read The Glass Castle and enjoyed it, even though it’s hard to feel happy or even comfortable while reading about such a miserable childhood.  

I picked up an advance reader’s edition of her new book at Book Expo last spring and just finished it, with mixed feelings. Walls originally wanted to write about her mother, but her grandmother’s story proved too compelling and it’s her story that Walls tells instead. Lily Casey Smith was quite a feisty, determined woman, someone who took on whatever came her way and fought it at least to a draw. She lived on ranches in Texas and Arizona, working alongside her father to break horses, trekked 500 miles alone at age 15 to her first teaching  job, and when she saw an airplane, she jumped in for a flying lesson. She and her husband suffered the violent ups and downs that go with ranching which meant she was always looking for a way to make money, even if it wasn’t strictly legal.

Half-Broke Horses is a rousing story, well told, but it’s not quite a novel, not quite a biography. With Walls’s subtitle, “a true-life novel,” she’s trying to shoehorn it into both categories, fiction and nonfiction. She’s scrupulous about saying that she’s dramatized her  grandmother’s life based on her own childhood memories and the family stories she heard from her mother and other relatives. The book is written in the first person and I imagine that when Walls sat down to write, Lily Casey Smith just appeared on the page in her own voice. Maybe Walls felt that this was the only way to tell the story.

So, although you’ll remember Lily for a long time and enjoy reading about southwestern ranch life in the early 20th century, Half Broke Horses has very little narrative arc. It ends abruptly with the marriage of Walls’s mother Rosemary rather than with the resolution of a plot.  Not every life has a novel-worthy plot, although we all do have stories. If you read Half Broke Horses and feel cheated because you haven’t read either a novel or a biography, well, I told you so.