Here is what I’m currently reading:
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson.
The Man Booker Prize winner. Let’s see if it’s worthy . . .
So far: Not. The writing is insufferable! The characters are caricatures! There is nothing is done unless it would be done. I don’t know if I can read on!!! And so–because this book is hurting my brain–I have moved on to:
What I’ve Read:
Old School by Tobias Wolff. What’s up with the great secret of the New England prep school (think Andover/Exeter) kid being–loud gasp everyone–JEWISH? I think that this book is more sophisticated than Prep, but the two novels certainly share a common ground.
Sweet Valley Confidential by Francine Pascal. What???–you ask. A PhD in English and reading Sweet Valley High (or rather, its vaguely adult equivalent where the 5 foot 6 sun-kissed California twins have sex, drink dirty martinis, and swear??)??? OK, it’s hideously embarrassing, but Sweet Valley High was my gateway drug to Good Literature (as were the books of Judy Blume, Sidney Sheldon, V. C. Andrews, John Saul, Stephen King, and Tom Robbins). So: screw it. Finkler hurt my brain. I decided to read juvenile trash. (On the upside: I am delighted to see a heartfelt thank you given on the opening pages to a former student of mine, who was also given similar words of gratitude by Stephenie Meyer in her acknowledgements for Twilight). The verdict: a fun trip down memory lane, and I think Pascal had a lot of fun too–in particular with her Broadway stories.
Hush by Eishes Chayil. I’m not sure that “Eishes Chayil” is the best writer in the world (to be fair, this book is marketed for teens, not hypercritical English PhD types), but I thought that it was a moving story that–for a rare change in a book about a Charedi community–did not veer into the bizarre (think Yiddish Policemen’s Union) or condemnatory (think The Foreskin’s Lament, which does, I must confess, have the best title ever). Or rather, it condemns, but in a way that is “fair”; it’s about finding a problem in a community, a problem that is a universal one (sexual abuse), and weighing the ways of dealing with it, which are complicated and fraught. It does not, unlike many pseudo-Ortho tales, end with the heroine abandoning her people. Emotional and engaging, with plenty of translations for those who aren’t familiar with such terms as bekeshe, Critzmach, or mishloach manot, or, say, the distinction between Chassidiche and Litvish ultra-Orthodox groups (in brief, the difference between the heart and the head, if you were wondering).
Perfection by Julie Metz. What if. What if your generally awesome, charismatic, affectionate husband, father of your child, companion for 16 years, drops dead? Then, what if you find out he was not awesome, but slime? This memoir is riveting. The writing is good, and Metz builds the anticipation of her readers by keeping us–for a good 70-ish pages–wondering what the little hints are moving us toward. What kind of slime is he going to prove to be? Mind you, I couldn’t help but think that the narrative might have been even stronger without the hints in the first chunk. It was hard, in her anger, it seems, for Metz to have really made us feel the love of the marriage, the belief in the marriage that we’re supposed to buy into at the outset. If I have one other complaint, it’s that the editing could have been more thorough. Do we really want to read her email exchanges with a psychologist? (Clearly, my answer is: no). Rope us in, shock us, then give us the happy ending. ‘Nuff said.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Fun stuff! A bit of a Flowers-in-the-Attic story, but taking place near Las Ramblas, not the Blue Ridge Mountains, so mucho exotico! Murder, incest, haunted houses, missing persons, secrets and lies, Audrina-who-is-really-the-first-Audrina type intrigue. I am not sure that I would have picked it up if not for my book club requiring it, but I’m glad I did. I had a “Girls Weekend” with my lovely lady friends from the west, and on my long flight, with no personal TV (what’s up with these American airlines?? They are so 3rd rate!!) and no kids to chastise, I figured I would be bored bored bored! So thank you, Shadow, you might have been a bit predictable, but you sure were fun!
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. One of my greatest frustrations going into this book was the lack of description to be found anywhere. Described as a “puzzle,” an “enigma,” and as “Russian nesting dolls,” the book seemed to have no story. Or too many. On the other hand, this book has a very faithful following. So what is it about? Well, goodness, if nobody else is willing to tell you, why should I? Let’s just say the book has something for everyone: 19th century travel narrative that’s part missionary, part humanitarian, part-Typee; a post-apocalyptic tale a la Oryx and Crake; a sci fi story with clones out of that Scarlett Johansson/Ewan MacGregor 2005 flop The Island (only Korean); an epistolary narrative featuring a debauched European artiste; a ’70s pulp fiction murder-mystery; and a Kafkaesque/picaresque tale of seniors escaping from their home. Did I cover them all?
The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Meh. I was reminded of The Day of the Locust–Hollywood in its heyday (or one of)–but I felt West did it better. Then again, Fitzgerald never finished Tycoon–so it seems a bit unfair to judge it as a fait accomplit. I wasn’t drawn into the male lead’s character (and male lead he was) and the narrator appeared and disappeared at will. The romance didn’t seem very romantic, although the book is touted as a great love story. I was, however, intrigued by the somewhat ambivalent depiction of Jews–although for the most part it was not so good, which, considering the time and authorship, is not so surprising.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Wonderful, exciting, just-one-more-chapter-before-I-go-to-bed read!! I have been meaning to read this forever (haven’t we all? those of us who swear we will one day read Ulysses and Moby Dick–check for that one–and Shakespeare’s collected works?). It is fast paced and surprising. Every time I thought I knew where the narrative was heading, I was wrong. I am curious to see how they made this very long book into a movie. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get a hold of the Robert Donat film version–without paying for it, I mean–but I want to watch it as Evey and V watch it, debating which impulse drives the narrative: revenge or romance.
Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. A big disappointment. I don’t know why I had high expectations of this book, but I did. I wanted a saga of New York, a literary fantasy, a time-stopping romance, and a story that I just couldn’t put down. In fact, it was none of those things (but see what I mean about high expectations?). I don’t know what it was, apart from a tremendous tome of words, words, words, words, words. Too many words! And to what end? Was there a great payoff in the end? Did the (less than believable) romance that began the novel bring it to a sweeping close? No. In fact, I have no idea what happened–after all those words, within all those words, the story was lost.
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch. I loved this book! It had me at the subtitle! (which is, by the way, “Yet another troll-fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl”). It’s funny, it’s smart, and it’s a great addition to the current trend of Orthodox fiction. The colors were a perfect match for the story, and we get to know the characters through both their words (English and Yiddish) and their fabulous images. I hope that Deutsch writes many more stories of Hereville.
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. I’m ambivalent about this book. At first, I really liked it. Then I couldn’t bear it–the main character, Lee, went from awkward to completely unlikeable, and I didn’t want to be in her life anymore. I didn’t particularly know any of the other characters, so it was pretty much be with her or drop the book. It was an easy read, so I read on. And I found myself pulled in again. Something about one of her relationships hit home; I felt as though I had dredged up an old diary that should have stayed buried. Because frankly, I am no more enamored with Young-Me than young Lee. In the end, I’m glad I read the book. It had its moments that were annoyingly didactic, but it also had moments that were very insightful. And I liked the Jewish subtext–what Jew wouldn’t know Sugarman is a Jewish name?
Crossing the Border by Joyce Carol Oates. Most of the characters in these stories cross north–from the US to Canada–although they occasionally cross back. If you like Alice Munro–in other words, if you like the stories of women who seem to live small, parochial lives, but in fact offer readers a tremendous amount of food for thought–I’m pretty sure you’ll like these stories. My favorite, “The Transformation of Vincent Scoville,” revolved around a petty English department in a petty, small-town college. Most of my attraction to the story was the depiction of academia, but a small part of it was its focus on a man who can’t match his will to his actions. The book was written in the ’70s, and the women (again, like many of Munro’s) frustrate me: they are smart but weak, working in dead-end jobs or no jobs, unable or unwilling to express or act upon their intelligence, creativity, and desires.
Shantarum by Gregory David Roberts. Action, adventure, lust, poverty, filth, and crime all wrapped up into a mere 950 or so pages of a painfully sentimental exoticization of India where everyone waggles their heads and (as in Titanic), the poor are optimistic and good-natured and communal and kind even as they’re being wiped from the earth. If you’re wondering if each moment in India–the village, the slums, the clubs full of high-rollers and foreigners–is indelibly carved into the narrator’s engorged heart, wonder no more. He’ll tell you. And then he’ll tell you again. Is Lindsay/Linbaba/Shantaram really Roberts? Roberts would like you to think so, as though the “story truth” would somehow make the tale more compelling, more deeply felt, more real. But for me, what would make it more compelling is better writing–clearer, sharper. In other words, more eye, and LESS. FREAKIN. HEART.
A magazine called Brain, Child. I admit it’s not a book. But it’s a good magazine, and those are rare. It was a gift from a wonderful friend whom I must call so we can discuss the contents (I’ll probably focus on the gossipy bits like The Facts of Life‘s Blair becoming a Conservative Christian writer advocating hot-saucing children, a mild form of child abuse, and she’ll probably focus on the intellectual aspects, perhaps even of the same article, and talk about the power of influence friends of friends of friends have on one’s parenting).
What’s in a name? Everything it seems. While I found the title of the mag at first baffling (the brainchild of what?), it makes perfect sense to me now: Brain, Child. As in, you too can have a Brain and a Child (note the name is not Brain, Baby, because that would not be believable. Did I ever tell you about the time–Baby MoFo was about 3 months old–when I brewed my pot of coffee, standing over the coffeemaker the whole time, desperate and eager for the completion of its cycle, only to then unscrew my jar of peanut butter and pour the whole pot of coffee into it? I didn’t quite cry the way I did when my mother shrunk the pillow cover on My Brest Friend–“You don’t understand!!! My Brest Friend really IS my BEST friend!!!!”–but there were some tears. Exhaustion makes you really brainLESS and also really emotional) (to be honest, just two days ago I spent the whole day out of the house with my shirt inside out, but Baby MoFo is only one–on the cusp between baby and child, still more on the baby side–so I am not quite “smart” yet). The Scientist calls this mag “The New Yorker for parents.”
The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman. Initially, I was disappointed. The beginning felt trite, tired. Two (pretty, of course) opposisters of Northern California (one a hippy at Berkeley, one a CEO of a high-tech startup), one dead mother with a secret history, several men in love with the girls (most with great wealth), some cheesy kissing scenes. Kaaterskill Falls this is not, I thought. But because I’ve thus far enjoyed most of what this talented author has written, I decided to give The Cookbook Collector a chance, and I’m glad I did. The narrative was engaging. The treatment of the nascent dot.com era was compelling and engaging, as was that of 9/11. Goodman is a writer for readers.
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer. There is a trend afoot: like Nicole Krauss’s Great House and Geraldine Brooks’s The People of the Book, and the film, The Red Violin, we follow the lives (mostly tragic) of people through a thing/place (Even the title is similar to Krauss’s in its location of the story within a space, both wholly constructed, and yet, somehow meaningless without it changing human content). The writing is beautiful and the historical detail rich. I do have a few complaints: Mawer is occasionally heavy-handed (the glass room is a place of exposure and concealment. Got it). There is a core plot for about 300 pages, but the last 100 pages or so spirals off a little. The ending is a bit pat. That said, I think it is definitely worth reading. I feel like the story and characters will stay with me for a long time. Also, the lack of dates allows the reader to be carried through history as the characters are, so that if we are confused about what is happening, that confusion proves to be historically accurate: we are confused as they were confused, unsure of the future as they were.
The Lovers by Vendela Vida. If your first name is Vendela, you should have a last name like Vida. Action, nostalgia, and a lot of random visitors in Turkey. But where does it all lead? In this novel, one comes to know the life of the heroine through her travel log. In other words, Turkey becomes a key trope that allows the reader to understand her emotional landscape: welcoming (Merhaba!) and suspicious; full of history; spiritual and material; dizzying (think whirling dervishes) and claustrophobic (think the caves of Cappadocia).
World without End by Ken Follett: I call it Book without End. I spent 11 months of my life on it, often cursing it for being all plot and no thought. Rape, murder, banishment, the Plague, abortion, adultery, architecture, feminism, friendship, love, hatred, war, religion, medicine–is there anything that doesn’t get covered in this book, all at the speed of The Da Vinci Code (only instead of, just as the character is facing absolute inevitable capture and death, a plane suddenly landing before him, it’s a horse come to whisk him away). This is my first real dip into historical fiction (what does that mean, anyway? isn’t almost all fiction historical in some way or another?), and it took a while to get used to the idea of 14th century characters speaking like the teenagers on my block, but I will confess that after 10.5 months, when I finally got to page 600, I was hooked. I couldn’t put it down!
The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado. I like some of the imagery, and I like learning about Cairo of the ’40s. Memoirs in general, however, often suffer from editing problems. The authors often want to include every detail of their family’s lives because it’s important to them. Audiences don’t always feel the same way. Reading this book and Bezmozgis’s simultaneously puts HIAS on my brain. And, of course, what HIAS stands for: Jews in motion, Jews in European purgatories between there and here.
The Free World by David Bezmozgis. This is not a book by Aleksandr Sozhenitsyn capturing the essence of the Soviet experience; nor does it fit nicely into the new genre being created by Russian emigrés (Vapnayar, Shteyngart, Ulinich, Krasikov). The Free World is not about the “land of the free,” a chosen destination, but instead about the liminal or transitional space that exists in the movement toward it, in the choosing itself. Think of a plane flying from the Soviet Union to North America, from East to West, from Communism to Capitalism. Imagine, if you will, that someone is able to slow down time, to stop that plane mid-flight, and hold it there for half a year or more. Finally, picture a master of elegant, economical prose peeling back the fuselage walls and describing all he sees there. Now call the airplane Rome, and you have The Free World.
And China Has Hands by H. T. Tsiang. A short, but provocative read. The Chinese immigrant to America arrives in NYC thinking he will make his fortune; the biracial black-Asian Southern woman comes to NYC to escape her fate as a “Negress” in a segregated society. The two meet but but can’t seem to see each other beyond their own expectations of each other (she fetishizes and Orientalizes him; he fetishizes women and their body parts–his favorite body parts being women’s ‘tennis balls with Lee Chee nuts’) until they are both destroyed by the cruel, capitalist, machine-driven world they inhabit.
Mythologies by Roland Barthes. I’ve read a number of these essays before, but I’ve never read the whole collection. It’s great! Barthes is always counterintuitive–whether he’s describing Einstein’s brain, an abbé’s haircut, or Elle magazine recipes (he loves Elle), he always makes me think.
Great House by Nicole Krauss. The Great, Illuminated Loud House of Love Vegans with a Tree of Codes outside of it is incredibly good and extremely entertaining. The form, involving readers in a series of tangentially-related, mostly trauma-filled stories–with the tangent being an object–is not unfamiliar. Think The Red Violin or (sorry, NK) People of the Book. Krauss’s use of it is just better. Engaging, interesting, and wide-ranging. Krauss makes up half of my favorite Brooklyn Books of Wonder couple.
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore. I liked it, but it took a while for me to feel that way. I just couldn’t figure out where the story was headed, what was up with all the Jane Eyre references, and why there was this wholly gratuitous Judaism thrown in (still haven’t figured that part out). It’s not particularly believable (“Let’s have some bubbly! I was going to tell you the whole backstory of my life, like when I killed someone in Vermont and got rid of the evidence with a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. Oops, there’s the doorbell. Go off for a couple of chapters of filler about a brush with a potential terrorist, and then I’ll get back to my drama . . .”). Then again, I’m not sure believability is what Moore’s after. It’s definitely funny, and its strongest moments are when the white parents sit around discussing how to deal with their problems with their black or biracial children.
What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell is a fantastic storyteller. The introduction should be read by anyone who wants to write (or teach writing). It’s about ideas and where they come from (everywhere). He marvels at his own movement from metaphor to idea describing the brandishing of a vegetable chopper: “He held it in the air as if he were holding up a Tiffany vase.” He repeats his own line and then produces a moral from it: “That’s where you find stories, in someone’s kitchen on the Jersey Shore.” (I really think someone should invite me to their kitchen on the Jersey Shore this summer. I can come up with lots of ideas).