Category Archives: Uncategorized

What do we look for in a novel?

Ruined by ReadingI’ve always believed that appreciating good art in any medium requires our effort. Good art doesn’t come to us–we go to it. The more we extend ourselves to understand what the writer (or artist or composer) intends, the more we can learn from it and the more it will enrich our lives. Of course, that begs the question–what is good writing? How do we know what writing is worth our close attention? Not all writing is good and, of course, “good” is a subjective term. There were even times when Shakespeare was considered just a middling playwright. And maybe, for practical purposes, “good” writing is just what we enjoy whether it’s critically acclaimed or not.

And speaking of critics, I like what Vivian Gornick said in a recent interview with Hannah Gold from The Nation: “I think it was Baudelaire who was the first literary person that I know of to describe criticism as autobiography. The first time I ever saw that sentence I understood how true it was. In other words, what any writer does is essentially give the reader a view of how the writer sees the world…the idea that the critic is omniscient, is committing in ironclad terms the right and the wrong, the good and the bad, as if coming from above, is ridiculous. It’s just not true.” Gornick always has interesting things to say about literature and I’ve read many of her books, mostly essays about literature, life (hers), and feminism.

I recently came across an article on this topic in The Guardian titled Pretentious, impenetrable, hard work…better? Why we need difficult books by Lara Feigel. You may enjoy reading it and thinking about the issues it raises in terms of your own reading. I’ve loved reading the challenging novels that reward close attention, like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, but like a dieter, I enjoy cheating with a thriller, fantasy epic, or mystery. In the same way, I love going to the Frick Museum to feed my soul with those remarkable works of art, but I also enjoy the costume exhibits at the Metropolitan. The pleasures of reading are many and can be found in many places and many genres. Librarians have a saying, “Never apologize for your reading tastes.” My goal with this blog is to provide variety so everyone finds something they enjoy, but it’s also to write about the harder stuff, the stuff that makes great art. I recently spent two years reading Proust with a group in New York. Did I love every word? No, but it was a rewarding experience to spend time with a writer who understands the human heart so thoroughly and with other people who appreciated exactly this quality in his writing. 

The book cover at the top of this post is Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s short memoir Ruined By Reading: A Life in Books , a delightful book about the power of reading in her life. It turns out many readers have the same kinds of experiences with books; Schwartz just knows how to put those experiences into words. 

 

Cemetery Road by Greg Iles

cemetery-road I found Cemetery Road in the tenant library in the basement of our apartment building, and was intrigued by the jacket blurb which promised a classic southern noir novel filled with family secrets and good old boys. The setting is Bienville, Mississippi, a town on the river bluffs that has had its share of economic ups and downs. Marshall McEwan, a native son who left Bienville to become a political journalist in D.C., has returned to see his dying father, the editor of the town newspaper. McEwan left at age eighteen in the sad aftermath of his older brother’s accidental death.

Once again Bienville is down on its economic heels, but a Chinese company is in negotiation to build a large paper mill. It’s a miracle that no one wants to derail, most of all the Poker Club, a group of corrupt businessmen and politicians who’ve run the town for generations.

The Chinese are ready to commit but a local amateur archaeologist has found remains of a very old Native American settlement on the grounds of the factory site. If there are bones among his findings, the state will take over to investigate. The Chinese won’t wait; the archaeologist is found dead. Murder? The Poker Club does its best to brand it an accident. With the aid of Denny, a teen with a passion for drones, McEwan goes to work trying to prove that the Poker Club is behind the murder. He’s also trying to win back Jet, his first love, and make peace with his father.

There are lots of back stories here–old family tragedies, war stories from Vietnam and Iraq–all very well told–which ramp up our investment in the characters. As the novel goes on, nasty motivations are laid bare and there’s more violence. Will McEwan be able to expose the corruption of the Poker Club buddies? Will he win back Jet? Will he take over the newspaper and stay in Bienville? No spoilers here.  A little over-the-top but very entertaining.

For fans of southern noir, try also Attica Locke. I’ve enjoyed Heaven My Home; The Cutting Season; and Bluebird, Bluebird

 

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies

Lie Someone Told YouA few years ago I read Davies’ novel The Fortunes and knew that I had found a brilliant writer to follow. In four unconnected chronological sections, Davies told the history of the Chinese in America with the most poignant stories imaginable. It was a tour de force of making the historical, personal in the vein of Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men and The Woman Warrior.

In his new and very different novel, A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself, Davies tells a universal but very twenty-first century story. A young couple make the difficult decision to abort a baby who may have major congenital difficulties. It’s a wrenching decision that haunts their lives but may have driven them closer together. They go on to conceive a second child who turns out to have developmental difficulties but not the kind that show up in tests during pregnancy. The child may well be autistic; a doctor describes him as “2e,” doubly exceptional: brilliant and difficult. The possibility of an autism diagnosis hangs over the parents, but they put off the certainty that could come with testing. What difference would it make? They are doing their best to love and nurture their difficult child as he is.

I read this short book in two sittings, unable to put it down for long, not because of the plot, of which there is very little, but because the writing is perfectly attuned to the parents’ feelings. The father narrates and we never learn his name, his wife’s name, or their son’s name. The book consists mostly of dialogue between the husband and wife along with the husband’s thoughts. The reader sees the son only from a distance, watches how his life affects his parents. It’s a beautiful, moving novel about chance and choices. The paradox of Schrodinger’s cat enters the text several times, emphasizing the random and contingent nature of our lives, the way not-knowing shapes us.

Just before I read the book I listened to an interview with Davies on the podcast First Draft: A Dialogue on Writing. As I expected, Davies’ insights into the novel and its conception were enlightening. He talked about how the narrator is haunted by uncertainty and how the many white spaces in the book were designed to provide space for readers to enter the page with their own uncertainties and thoughts about chance. It’s a thoughtful and gripping novel.

Southern Noir: The Fortunate Ones by Ed Tarkington

Fortunate OnesI’m sure you can tell that I’ve been reading more escapist novels than usual in this strange winter of our isolation. Southern noir certainly fills the bill.

Echoes of The Great Gatsby haunt The Fortunate Ones, a story of moral decay among the moneyed classes in Nashville, TN. Charlie Boykin, brought up on the wrong side of the tracks by a beautiful but feckless mother, unexpectedly receives a scholarship to a prestigious private school. Charismatic student Archer Creigh is assigned to him as a mentor and much to Charlie’s mystification and delight, he and Arch become close friends. Suddenly his life expectations are changed and with Arch at his side he’s admitted to Nashville’s upper crust. Arch introduces Charlie to the glamorous Baltom family and when Charlie’s mother is hired as Mrs. Baltom’s assistant and they move into the garage apartment, everything seems just perfect. Charlie has a crush on Vanessa Baltom although he knows that she’s in love with Arch. Everyone’s in love with Arch Creigh–he’s the golden boy. 

The story is told by Charlie as a flashback; he’s our Nick Carraway guide to this privileged but morally bankrupt world. As Charlie matures into early adulthood his idealization of Arch and the Baltom family undergoes several revisions, but it’s not until Arch runs for Mayor and then Senator, that Charlie sees how his own life has been manipulated. 

There’s lots of plot here and well delineated characters that make it all, told in a haunting tone of wistfulness, nostalgia, and regret. I found myself thinking of Ethan Canin’s wonderful novel America, America, another story of a young man drawn into the orbit of a wealthy political family for better or for worse.  

 

White River Burning by John Verdon

White River BurningThis mystery is #6 in a series featuring the retired New York police detective Dave Gurney. I haven’t read the earlier titles in the series but now that I’ve enjoyed this one so much, I’ll go back and try the others in order.

White River Burning takes place in upstate New York in the present day. It’s the one-year anniversary of the fatal shooting of a Black motorist by a white policeman. The policeman was cleared of guilt. During a demonstration in town led by the Black Defense Alliance a policeman is shot.  More killings, some quite gruesome, add fuel to the literal flames and the town is featured on RAM-TV, a right-wing national news show. This ups the ante for the police; the crimes must be solved quickly before White River is the focus of any more negative national attention and more violence occurs. 

After the first killing, the District Attorney calls on Gurney to help him out. It’s a messy situation, with ambitious, belligerent cops jockeying for position and pushing their own version of events. Gurney senses something’s wrong–the evidence gathered is thin in some spots and too thick in others. As an outsider, how much can he push back?  The police wish he’d stop picking holes in their tidy case. But Gurney’s too much of a problem solver to leave it alone, despite the tension his involvement raises with his wife Madeleine, who wishes he’d just find a quiet hobby. 

It’s easy to see why Gurney was hailed as a hero before he retired; he’s analytical and persistent. So is the author, John Verdon. The plot is so timely and realistic it will have you thinking of the current state of race relations in the U.S. Kirkus Reviews said: “It’s easy to see why this series is so popular, blending as it does the hard-boiled social observations of noir fiction with the inscrutable pleasures of classic ‘whodunit’ puzzle-solving.” That just about nails it. 

The Summer of Kim Novak by Hakan Nesser, trans. by Saskia Vogel

Summer Kim NOvakI haven’t read many of the Swedish and Norwegian thriller/mysteries that are so popular. They’re often too violent and dark, like the Lisbeth Salander series. (I did watch the first two movies, but the violence in the second movie was over the limit for me.) I’d much rather recommend The Summer of Kim Novak, a Swedish coming of age novel that has a little violence but lots of insight into the human condition. 

It’s the end of the school year for high school student Erik and his friend Edmund. The summer stretches out before them, and they fantasize how they’ll spend the lazy days. Lots of time, they know, will be taken up with thinking about their substitute teacher, Ewa, a Kim Novak look-alike (this is 1962). Ewa is unlike any other teacher they’ve had: beautiful, flirty, and very approachable. She’s the girlfriend of a famous soccer player who lives in their town. 

Erik’s mother is dying of cancer that summer and his father decides to send Erik, along with Edmund, to their summer cottage on the lake to give Erik a break from those sad hospital visits. Henry, Erik’s much older brother, will look after them. Henry’s a free spirit, maybe not the best chaperone choice for two teenagers who are intensely curious about the sex lives of adults. And of course, who turns up at the lake, but Ewa and her soccer-star boyfriend. Ewa attracts–or invites–trouble and there’s some violence at a carnival and then a murder. When Erik and the police find out that Henry’s been sleeping with Ewa, he’s high on the suspect list. Erik hardly knows what to think, but he and Edmund try to sort it all out. 

It’s hardly the summer that Erik’s Dad imagined, but the boys learn some important lessons about the grownup world and each other. The reader often knows more than the boys do and that’s an enjoyable aspect of reading the novel. We get to see Erik and Edmund absorb the lessons they’ve learned and change. It’s all very atmospheric with just the right amount of tension. 

 

The Lives of Edie Pritchard by Larry Watson

Edie Pritchard is the girl we remember from high school who had it all. Smart and beautiful, you would have picked her out of the class picture as the most mature, the girl who understood what it was all about. The photographer for her senior photo told her to look as if she knew a secret, and she did. But unlike so many novels these days, it’s not a family secret that Edie knows. “All of us are someone else in the eyes of others.” That’s what Edie Pritchard knows and that’s what shapes her life in small town eastern Montana.

The Lives of Edie Pritchard is a novel in three parts, catching up with Edie every twenty years. Her first husband, high school classmate Dean Linderman, is a brooding, bottled-up sort of guy, convinced that Edie really meant to marry his more volatile and ambitious twin brother, Roy. That sets the tone for the controlled menace that permeates the story. Grudges, jealousy, and settling scores haunt all these people and define their lives. Edie wants none of that, but she’s trapped, defined by her beauty queen high school history.  “When I was young I wanted love but sex is what I got.”

Twenty years later, Edie is in a different town with a different husband and a sullen teenage daughter. Her circumstances may have changed but her life is not much different; she’s still defined by her looks and the memories of others. Twenty years after that, well, I’ll let you read the book.

Watson is terrific at creating these characters, delineating them quickly and keeping their relationships tense.  We worry about them all, especially the ones who lack self-reflection. Roy, the twin, is an especially heartbreaking and frustrating character. A charismatic flirt and bad boy, Roy can’t get out of his own way. But it’s Edie who captures our hearts in her attempt to live on her own terms even though she understands why it will always be difficult to do that. “What makes me think we have the right to control the memories of others?” she wonders. Atmospheric, even poetic at times, The Lives of Edie Pritchard is an absorbing, character-driven novel; a good read for a winter’s day. For those who enjoyed Olive Kitteridge, this would be a good choice.

Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Moonflower MurdersYou may think you haven’t heard of Anthony Horowitz, but you’ve probably been eagerly consuming the various wonderful British TV series that he’s created or to which he’s contributed. Foyle’s War, anyone? Collision? Midsomer Murders? Agatha Christie’s Poirot? And then there are his entertaining mystery novels, like Moonflower Murders.

The prolific Horowitz has command of all the mystery genres and he riffs on them all. Moonflower Murders is the second in his Susan Ryeland series; it’s a classic country house murder with some twists. I read the first one in the series, Magpie Murders, when it came out in 2016 and enjoyed it, but, frankly, I couldn’t give you any details. Pure entertainment goes into the fizzy portion of my brain and when the fizz vanishes, so does the plot. (That’s not a criticism of the book!)

It’s hard to give a short plot summary of this mystery because it’s layered and has a complicated setup (but it’s very easy to follow on the page). Susan Ryeland, the repeating character in the series, is a former fiction editor who’s now in Crete with her boyfriend; they own a small hotel. In her literary life, one of her most successful authors was Alan Conway, who wrote a very popular mystery series. Conway was murdered. A mystery author murdered? This is the first inkling for the reader that life and art will be very much intertwined.

A British couple, the Trehernes, come to see Susan and ask for her help. They own a posh boutique hotel in Suffolk where there was a grisly murder eight years earlier. Their daughter Cecily has just gone missing after reading a mystery that references that murder. The author of the mystery? Alan Conway, Susan’s murdered author. The Trehernes believe that their daughter saw something in Conway’s novel that related to the eight year old murder and now she’s in danger. They want Susan to visit the hotel and re-read the mystery to see if she can figure out what their daughter might have discovered. There is someone in jail for the murder, but it’s not at all clear that he did it. Is the real murderer after Cecily? 

Susan’s intrigued and she needs a break from the hectic pace at the hotel in Crete, so off she goes. Then the fun starts: the multiple characters with motives, the secret financial problems, the red herrings, and the illicit relationships. Horowitz even includes the full text of Alan Conway’s earlier novel so the reader can try to find the answer for herself. It’s quite an entertaining romp.

In addition to Magpie Murders and Moonflower Murders, I read another Horowitz mystery, The Word is Murder, in which the author himself becomes Watson to a surly detective’s Sherlock. The connections between life and art in these novels are brilliant and fun. Horowitz’s style is just right for these mysteries: a little breezy, just the right level of detail to be atmospheric, and a raft of idiosyncratic characters.

The Round-Up

These are some of the best books I read this year: I worked hard to winnow the list down to seven fiction and seven nonfiction titles. Not all were published in 2020. If I wrote a post about a book, I’ve provided the link.  They’re just in order by title.

FICTION

The AbstainerThe Abstainer by Ian McGuire
A very literate historical thriller about an Irish policeman in Manchester, England in 1867. See my post here.

 

American Dirt

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
An immersive, frightening, and all-too-realistic story about a mother and son on the run from a Mexican drug lord. Will they reach the U.S. border before the cartel’s henchman catch them?

 

Gone So LongGone So Long by Andre Dubus III
An ex-con father wants to see his estranged daughter in this haunting tale. See my post here.

 

Homeland ElegiesHomeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar
This is auto-fiction with a raw, hungry immediacy. Akhtar’s linked stories about life in the U.S. as a Muslim, the son of immigrant parents, are unforgettable, often shocking. He writes about the bigotry he experiences as a Muslim, the narrowmindedness in his own community, and and the way those things affect his feelings about living in the U.S. It’s the right book for this time.

Bring up the BodiesThe Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
The third and final volume in Mantel’s brilliant fictional life of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from the son of a blacksmith to Henry VIII’s confidant and enforcer. See my post here.

 

Pull of the Stars

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
Eerily prescient, Donoghue’s latest claustrophobic novel is set in a hospital during the influenza pandemic of 191x and follows a nurse who cares for pregnant women who have the flu. I found this riveting for its carefully drawn characters and emotional content.

Topeka SchoolThe Topeka School by Ben Lerner
A coming of age novel, a trenchant commentary on the lives we live today, full of brilliant set pieces, Lerner’s novel delves into many aspects of our cultural dysfunction. See my post here.

 

NONFICTION

Anthony Powell Dancing

Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time by Hilary Spurling
Powell is often called the English Proust; I read his magnum opus, the 12 volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time years ago and loved it. A trenchant picture of English society in the first half of the twentieth century. See my short post here.

CasteCaste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
Wilkerson makes the case that caste not racism accounts for the way Blacks have been treated in our society. India and Nazi Germany provide other examples of caste-based systems to make the argument clear. An important book to read now.


Chasing ChopinChasing Chopin: A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions
by Annik LaFarge
A short but pithy life of Chopin and his music. See my post here.

 

Eat the Buddha

Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town by Barbara Demick
Demick follows the life of citizens in a small town in Tibet before and after the Chinese takeover. See my post here.

 

Georgia O'keeffe

Georgia O’Keefe: A Life by Roxana Robinson
I am sure this is the best biography about O’Keefe and a model of biographical writing. I love Robinson’s fiction, too: Cost and Sparta are among my favorites.

 

gods-shadow-1God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World by Alan Mikhail
Mikhail explores the fraught relationship between the Ottoman Turks and Europe in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. See my post here.

An OdysseyAn Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn
Mendelsohn, a classics scholar writes about the Odyssey and his father, joining their stories together in remarkable ways. Read my post here.

 

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The Cold Millions by Jess Walter

cold-millions-1I enjoyed Walter’s last book–Beautiful Ruins–so much, that I was eager to read The Cold Millions and have the same experience all over again. Well, it doesn’t happen like that. A good writer changes it up. Like Beautiful Ruins, there is a mix of historical and fictional characters in this new novel but it’s very different. I wasn’t disappointed.

The Cold Millions is set in Spokane, Washington in 1909 when the IWW, the workers’ union often known as the Wobblies, tried to hold a series of free speech rallies. Two brothers, Gig and Rye, have been drifting around Montana and Washington after the deaths of their parents and sister. They pick up jobs when they can and ride the rails to places where there might be work. Gig takes easily to this vagabond life, but Rye, only 17 years old, is not so sure this is the life for him. Gig worries that he can’t take care of Rye properly.

The brothers are drawn into the Wobblies’ world, caught up in the fervor for workers’ rights. Workers are the “cold millions” of the title, compared to the rich mining barons who run the town and live in warmth and luxury on the South Side. Enter Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the historical rabble rousing young woman whose fiery speeches, determination, and charisma keep the Spokane workers riled up.

The rich industrialists won’t give in to the workers’ demands and they have the means to pay off the Spokane police and hire thugs. How Gig and Rye are tested in their loyalties forms the core of the story. Walters portrays Spokane as a wild and woolly town and the dialogue is rich in colorful slang and equally colorful secondary characters. It’s easy to picture the setting: rainy, muddy, and cold, and filled with cheap hotels, tawdry saloons, and prostitutes. As the story develops, the reader becomes attached to Gig and Rye, especially Rye, who is so young and vulnerable. What will happen to the brothers in this soup of labor violence? The historical characters drive the plot but the brothers are the real beating heart of the story.