What I Learned from Reading 55 Books in 52 Weeks

My original goal was to read 52 books in 52 weeks last year. By the numbers – here are the results of my 2012 reading challenge:

2012 Reading Challenge Summary

I’d completed smaller reading challenges before – finishing John Updike’s Rabbit series in the course of a summer, reading a book I didn’t like by a certain deadline – but never so many over such a long period of time.

Chris Lam’s blog, What I Run Into, made me consider it; bumping into Chris at BlogWorld and hearing her enthusiasm for the endeavor gave me the encouragement (and some of the finer details) I needed.

So, 2012 became my year of reading in new, richer and more diverse ways. In large part, it was because I’d made a public declaration of the whole thing on my blog and, with other people’s interests in mind, I didn’t simply reach for books that matched my own tastes or do as much re-reading. And that was a good thing; it pushed me out of my comfort zone and taught me more about character, plotting and critiquing in fiction and why it’s important not to meander and include every last detail when writing a nonfiction book or memoir.

Some things had to happen to accommodate my year of reading differently:

  • Fairly early, I recognized that my interest in older books didn’t necessarily translate; I began making an effort to incorporate at least one recently published book into my challenge each month, so my reviews reflected what you might find in bookstores.
  • I cancelled Netflix, and I don’t see it coming back in the future.
  • I joined Amazon Prime, which cost $79/year, but gave me free shipping on virtually everything I ordered and free streaming videos. (This is not an endorsement; I’m just reporting on a personal choice I made to facilitate faster reading.)
  • Magazine reading suffered significantly in 2012; I’m particularly looking forward to becoming reacquainted with my love of The Economist in ’13.
  • TV-watching diminished accordingly – I quite happily gave up vegging in front of shows I didn’t really care about, just to occupy my time. I had a schedule to stick to, so the TV got turned off and I read a lot more. (This is a habit I hope to keep in the new year!)
  • I deliberately didn’t read certain books this year. Right before I started the challenge, I’d completed the almost-1,000-page 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. There was no way I’d choose a book even half that length in 2012, which left out a lot of great books I was interested in reading.
  • Likewise, there were reference books and a couple of textbooks I wanted to read to refresh my skills, and I had no time for them.
  • I finally, finally, learned to set aside a book if it wasn’t a good read (those are the two unfinished books you see on the chart above; they aren’t included in the total of 55). I can walk out of a bad movie, I’ll pounce on the radio dial when I don’t want to listen to a song, but I’ve always given books the benefit of the doubt and kept plugging away at ‘em, no matter how many years it took or how miserable it made me. Critic Joe Queenan apparently is the same way: He says he once started a book in 1978 and finished it 34 years later “without enjoying a single minute of the enterprise.”

My Best of 2012 List

When you read 55 books in a year, some stand (way) out. Here are the ones that made the best impression on me in 2012:

Fiction

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin
Equator by Miguel Sousa Tavares
How It All Began by Penelope Lively

Memoir

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama by Allison Bechdel
Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie

Nonfiction

The Social Media Strategist: Build a Successful Program from the Inside Out by Christopher Barger
Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others by Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

I’ll admit there were points along the way when I felt not that I couldn’t accomplish this challenge, but that 55 seemed like a low number. I’m a slow reader. I spend a good deal of time making sure what I’m reading really registers. I haven’t ever been able to scan.

Queenan, it turns out, is on board with this. In his charming essay, “My 6,128 Favorite Books,” he observes, “I do not speed-read books; it seems to defeat the whole purpose of the exercise, much like speed-eating a Porterhouse steak or applying the two-minute drill to sex.”

Like Queenan, I plan to continue to be part of the “slow reading movement,” taking maximum enjoyment from the things I read, even if it means my book-completion totals for the year remain down in the double-digits.

The thing I learned that will be most helpful to me in the future is the practice of reading one book at a time – especially if I’m on deadline to write a review, for example – because that focus is what kept me on track and ensured the completion not just of my weekly selection but of the entire year’s challenge.

Am I taking a vacation from reading?, you may wonder. Nope. I finished my 55th book of 2012 at 11:38 p.m. on Dec. 31. It was the harrowing The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus. I didn’t want to go to sleep with those images in my head, so I grabbed the most lighthearted, fun book I had, Jennifer Weiner’s The Next Best Thing, and dove in, reading well past the changeover to the new year and into early morning.

I plan to keep going, minus imposed deadlines. This year, I’m mulling over a more personal challenge around my journal writing. This is writing I do just for me. I’ll let you know when I define that pursuit more clearly, but I won’t be publishing what I’m doing this time.

How about you? Are you planning a reading or writing challenge in 2013? What are you most looking forward to? What are you dreading?

Check back! Book Giveaway: starting Jan. 17, 2013 – As an appreciation for my readers who put up with this year-long reading challenge, I’m going to give away selections from my 2012 favorites list.

Listening and reading that inspired me this week:

NPR’s “Monkey See” gang discuss their reading, listening and TV- and movie-viewing resolutions for 2013 on the latest edition of their “Pop Culture Happy Hour” podcast.

One of the BlogHer bloggers offers a fantastic round-up of different types of reading challenges – from all-novels to getting through serializations – in this post. Beware! It may set you off on a reading challenge this year.

December’s Dyspeptic Dystopias, Plus the Search for the El Dorado of the Amazon

Photo by Vickie Bates.

December’s reading. Photo by Vickie Bates.

We’ve reached the end, Dear Readers, and I’m thrilled to tell you that I achieved my 2012 reading challenge – finishing at least 52 books in 52 weeks! Thank you for taking this journey with me.

I’ll save the musings on What I Learned from Reading 52 Books in 52 Weeks for a later post. Though the book-lovers among you might want to note that when it does appear, that post will involve a reader giveaway of some of my favorite books of 2012.

I would like to thank the amazing Chris Lam, the woman behind the terrific What I Run Into blog, who introduced me to annual reading challenges in the first place and provided long-term inspiration. Chris recently completed her own challenge, reading 50 in 2012. Go, Chris!!

Standard disclosure: I bought the Meek book, borrowed The Flame Alphabet from my local library, and received the other two as gifts. All four are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.

SCORECARD

December
4 down, 52 + 3 completed!

REVIEWS

The Heart Broke In by James Meek
A novel about rock ‘n’ roll and science? You’d think I’d be in geek heaven. Except rarely have musician characters been done so wrong – these are the rockers who should hope to die before they get old.

The scientists hardly fare better. As with the ludicrous plot of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder and the recent movie “Contagion,” we get another piece of popular culture depicting researchers who test vaccines on themselves.

It’s beyond absurd for any number of reasons. I’ll list just three:

  1. It doesn’t translate that a vaccine that’s safe and works in one person will ever work for another human being (that’s why regulatory agencies mandate clinical trials).
  2. Even if you were going to test a vaccine on yourself, you’d try it on mice first to make sure it was safe because…
  3. You don’t want your lead researcher, who’s trying to stop a deadly contagion, to die suddenly, taking all her knowledge with her and setting back progress by months if not years.

The novel suffers from being in the heads of too many characters. We’re not with the main characters long enough to get close to them. After darting from perspective to perspective, the reader finds herself in the head of a peripheral character – the mother of one of the scientists – on page 231. In a 401-page novel. This is too late to introduce a new point of view, which is dropped anyway, just as suddenly as it appeared.

Bec, the valiant malaria researcher, is given a variety of motivations for everything she does yet none are believable. She discovers a parasite that may or may not guard against malaria, but the side effects bring on sudden blindness. She names the parasite after her father, a hero soldier, and deliberately infects herself with it. Her admiration for her dead father – and her inability to let go of the living parasite that now bears his name – is supposed to be her rationale for not taking medicine to kill the parasite, which is causing said blindness, so that she almost kills Alex, the man she loves, in a car accident. She continues to refuse to take the medicine, even when Alex asks her to, even when they try to get pregnant. Right. Because that would happen.

Alex, meanwhile, is the unlikely scientist and former drummer for a ‘70s-style band, led by Bec’s brother, Ritchie, and his wife Karin. Ritchie is the target of a labored blackmail scheme by a tabloid editor who used to be in love with Bec. While Bec’s parasite drama unfolds, we get chapter after chapter of Ritchie sweating it out as he waits to see his name smeared in the Fleet Street rags. One reason this never happens is because the blackmailer at first gives him a year to cough up something nasty about his sister to save his own reputation. When that time runs out, the blackmailer gives him several more months. A daily tabloid?! Never in a million years.

Okay, but is fiction supposed to be realistic? Don’t we read to escape ordinary life? And don’t we want authors to create never-before-realized new worlds for us to explore? Yes, yes and yes. Fiction doesn’t always have to be about real life, but when a writer devises a story, he must choose to set it in the world we live in (realism) or some other world (sci-fi, fantasy, etc.). Whichever he chooses, the bargain he makes with the reader is to establish the rules of that world. That’s the fourth wall Meek keeps breaking. We’re in our present, everyday world and characters need to act and react in ways that make sense for their own motivation and for the world; they can’t do things just because it’s convenient for the author. For example, the only reason Ritchie has more than 12 months to deal with his blackmailer is because the author has nothing else for the character to do while he plays out Bec and Alex’s love story.

I read this novel back-to-back with The Flame Alphabet (reviewed below) which offers a world like ours, perhaps slightly in the future or diverted a bit from history as we know it. It was difficult to read because the author places us so firmly in that world that he never breaks the fourth wall – we’re there, the world is different in small ways all around us, and we’re never jerked back to our own world for a little respite or explanation. We have to figure it out as we go along. That is the best kind of reading, tough though it may be, because it assumes the reader has the intelligence to understand what’s going on. Meek is trying so hard to push us along the tracks that he doesn’t recognize the train is derailed.

Supremely Successful Selling by Jerold Panas
(I received a free review copy of this book from the author. Opinions my own.)

You’ve heard of the Horse Whisperer? Jerold Panas is the Customer Whisperer.

Don’t let the title of this book fool you. In Supremely Successful Selling, Panas has written a guide for anyone, in any role or industry (and those trying to land a job), who wants to engage effectively with stakeholders or needs to make the case for a product, service or initiative.

In his 14th book, Panas outlines the key attributes of a successful salesperson, features lessons from the Great Ones – among them Mary Kay, Stanley Marcus (Neiman-Marcus) and Melanie Sabelhaus (who went from IBM to second-in-command at the Small Business Administration) – and provides proven techniques from a lifetime spent “making the sale.”

Panas probably would dismiss that nickname, Customer Whisperer, because he firmly believes the role of a salesperson is to listen, rather than talk.

“You’ve heard about salespeople who talk too much,” he writes. “But you have never heard about a salesman who listens too much.”

Listening creates rapport, according to Panas, and it’s only when a salesperson strikes up an honest and long-term relationship with a potential buyer that she or he can learn what the customer really needs.

“In order to listen the sale, you talk during the presentation for 25 percent of the time. The likely buyer talks for the balance, 75 percent of the time,” he notes.

Throughout, Panas reminds the reader that selling isn’t an end unto itself: “Your job is not to make a sale. It is to make a friend and a life-long customer.”

He dedicates several chapters to nurturing good customer relationships – “stewardship” – and focuses on the critical role of ethics in selling. “Integrity isn’t important – it is everything,” he insists.

“It can’t be just a win for you…That’s not integrity selling. It must be a win-win,” he writes.

With short, focused chapters, lively writing, and excellent case studies from companies of all sizes, Supremely Successful Selling inspires while presenting a detailed path to follow in your own work.

The appendix includes a list of 12 objections to getting a visit with a potential buyer and how to overcome them, as well as a variety of sample letters requesting a visit.

Throughout, Panas is clear that a primary success factor for any salesperson is doing your homework. I can’t think of a better way to get started than to add this book to your required reading list.

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus
You generally know when you’re in the presence of an original mind, and that is the case with Ben Marcus, who has written a post-apocalyptic horror story about a contagion that makes children’s voices fatal to adults.

The narrator, Sam, struggles with his love for his wife, Claire, wasting away before the onslaught of their daughter Esther’s words; wrestles with his limited understanding of the toxicity and clings to a desperate hope that science, medicine, the authorities, someone, will figure out a cure.

“All the guidance I knew was written for unexceptional times,” he admits.

Most of all, Sam struggles with faith: “One’s faith was meant to yield actionable material at times like this, I always thought, when one’s own imagination had failed, when nothing seemed possible. Wasn’t this why we accommodated an otherwise highly irrational set of beliefs?”

Horror begets tragedy as dying parents begin abandoning their toxic offspring, who seem to be “launching ammunition” from their faces. Tragedy begets more horror as children are first “voluntarily quarantined” and, later, branded “medical waste,” rounded up and imprisoned, until adolescence makes them susceptible to the voices of the young, too. And there is still more horror to come.

Reading this story is, as a friend once said about Flannery O’Connor’s stories, “unrelenting.” Yet there’s beauty in the writing and twisted insight in the creation of this world and the enormity of the loss – of loved ones, knowledge, sharing, thought – that it endures.

“It was early December. Year of the sewn-up mouth. The last December of speech. If you were not a child, safely blanketed in quarantine, bleating poison from your little red mouth, you were one of us. But to be one of us was to be something so small and quiet, you may as well have been nothing. If we had last messages, we’d crafted them already, stuffed them in bottles, shoes, shot them out to sea. Words written for no one, never to be read.”

“This is a plague among cavemen,” another character warns Sam, “and soon we’ll only be grunting to each other about it.”

I felt a bit of a caveman reading this. Whether it was my lack of knowledge about the Bible and religious practices and stories or the author’s vagueness about this world that seems a lot like ours yet veers slightly from our present-day experience. Some scenes repeat, sections go on longer than they need to, there seems to be a Chuck Palahnuik-like need to design technological objects with flesh-and-blood components – it is not an easy read. I’ll warn you: I like dystopias, but I’m not a fan of horror, and this novel, with its allusions to pogroms and concentration camps and its direct use of the Jewish faith, driven underground and blamed for the outbreak, made me queasy.

But on the whole, it is, as Michael Chabon says in his book jacket blurb, “something new and unheard of.” If you’re looking for a challenging read, Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet is it.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
How fitting to end my reading challenge as it began: with a book recommended by my Brazilian friends. And The Lost City of Z was equally as exciting as Equator.

How did I not know this astounding tale of adventurer Percy Fawcett?

Fawcett is to the Amazon what T.E. Lawrence was to the desert peoples of Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. He is largely responsible, in his work for the Royal Geographic Society at the turn of the last century, for mapping the territory between Bolivia and Brazil and presenting a more up-to-date view of the Amazon, its indigenous people and its ecosystem.

View of Amazon basin forest north of Manaus, Brazil. Photo by Phil P. Harris, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

View of Amazon basin forest north of Manaus, Brazil. Photo by Phil P. Harris, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the early 1900s, the prevailing view of the Amazon was that small tribes clustered around the Amazon River and its tributaries, relying on it for food and supplies from colonial outposts. Fawcett believed a once-great civilization had populated the interior, away from the rivers. He wove tales akin to those about El Dorado, painting a picture of a city dripping with gold, abundant in food, rich in culture. Most people thought he was nuts.

Scraping by – funds for exploration were far easier to put together for the more romantic Antarctic explorations of the era – Fawcett still managed six expeditions before his final, fatal one.

One of his best attributes was a willingness to learn as much of the Amazon Indians’ dialect – and inquire about the languages used deeper in the rainforest, in areas he wanted to venture – and a fierce moral code that made him insist upon meeting new tribes without his weapons (at a time when most white Amazon explorers turned guns on the Indians as a show of force).

As a result, Fawcett trekked farther into the Amazon than any explorer before, mapping the landscape and bringing back scientific knowledge to a world eager to learn about this wild land with 20-foot snakes, crocodiles and strangling vines.

“Fawcett’s ability to succeed where so many others failed contributed to a growing myth of his invincibility, which he himself began to believe,” author David Grann notes.

Fawcett and his eldest son disappeared on a 1925 trek into the heart of darkness, leaving his widow and their two younger children in poverty. Yet the mystery – the Fawcett party’s remains have never been located – sparked a century-long quest by thrill-seekers (known as “Fawcett freaks”) determined to find out what happened and locate Fawcett’s so-called Lost City of Z.

“Despite the passage of time and the diminished likelihood of finding him, some people seemed to grow more rather than less fanatical,” Grann writes. “For decades, they had pestered the Society for information, concocting their own bizarre theories, before setting out into the wilderness to effectively commit suicide.”

Grann is one of those drawn to retracing Fawcett’s final steps, despite the fact that he estimates almost 100 explorers have lost their lives over the years.

I won’t spoil the ending for you because Grann’s journey is as thrillingly recounted as the best adventure stories, like Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm. Along the way, he discusses both the history and the current state of the precarious Amazon territory. He also restores Fawcett’s rightful position as a modern-day Byrd, Livingstone and Shackleton.

It’s a hard irony that Fawcett’s vanishing may have done more to revive interest – scientific, ecological, anthropological – in the Amazon than his mapping expeditions. Late in the story, a scientist tells Grann that, “like the theory of who first populated the Americas, all the traditional paradigms had to be reevaluated,” including whether a wondrous ancient city like Z might once have thrived deep in the jungle.

A fantastic adventure, made all the more thrilling for being true.

Of Spies, Sisters and the Old Switcheroo

Ian McEwan, photographed during the 2011 Paris book festival. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of November’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I bought the McEwan book and the Bean play and borrowed the rest from my local library. All are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.

SCORECARD

November
6 down, 1 to go!

REVIEWS

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
It is 1970s London, a time of austerity, attacks by the IRA, and three-day work weeks. Serena Frome is lucky to land a job with MI5, despite the fact that she “didn’t use, and hadn’t even heard, the word ‘totalitarianism.’ I probably would have thought it had something to do with refusing a drink.”

Serena’s is no Ian Fleming or John le Carré tale, however. After months toiling in obscurity, her first real assignment is to vet writer Tom Haley, his short fiction and journalism, and report back to MI5 whether she thinks he’s ideologically sound enough to receive funding (funneled through a literary foundation to make it look legit) – a gamble on his future output and whether it’ll hue to the party line.

At this point, the reader familiar with McEwan’s work will note that Haley’s short stories are McEwan’s (wink). Because Serena is “the basest of readers,” only interested in stories with protagonists like herself, she doesn’t have the kindest words for Haley’s sexually depraved characters and “tricksy” plots, and her observations seem derived from those (few) less-than-favorable reviews of McEwan’s first collections (wink, wink).

Serena earns points for signing up Tom for project Sweet Tooth, but commits the ultimate indiscretion by falling in love with him. Much of the middle section of the novel deals with Serena’s inner debate over telling Tom the truth and her doubts that they can have a genuine long-term relationship while she keeps such an insidious secret:

“I was tumbling through dimensionless space, even as I sat smiling demurely in a Brighton fish restaurant. But always, at the further edges of thought, was that tiny stain. I generally tried to ignore it, and I was so excited I often succeeded.”

Turns out Tom has surprises up his sleeve, too. The financial windfall allows him to finish a novel, much like The Road, which proceeds to win a major literary prize (just as The Road did), while McEwan dissects the bleakness of the novel (wink, wink, wink) in the guise of Serena’s MI5 handlers, complaining that their largesse has been used to fund a novel that criticizes, rather than celebrates, western society.

Meanwhile, Tom finds himself giving readings with McEwan’s friend Martin Amis (wink, wink, wink, wink), as the young Amis makes his dazzling literary debut with The Rachel Papers.

But Tom’s fame won’t be of the same order as Amis’. Still, he gets the last wink in Sweet Tooth, which veers a bit too close to Atonement, with its twisty, epistolary ending. Depending on whether you loved or hated Atonement (I’m the latter), the final chapter will send you back to the beginning of the book, desperate to re-read and reassess, or it’ll make you want to heave the bloody thing across the room.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré
It’s taken me a while to warm to le Carré. All that Cold War-mongering seemed of my parents’ generation.

But, when the remake of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” appeared last spring, I saw it twice and enjoyed the nuanced storytelling. Reviews tended to zero in on le Carré’s “peel-back-the-onion-layers” approach. That tactic – which keeps you on the edge of your seat – is in full form in le Carré’s third novel, published in 1963, which brings the reader up to date on British intelligence characters, introduced in his first novel, like Control, George Smiley and Peter Guillam, as well as their is-he-or-isn’t-he arch-enemy Hans-Dieter Mundt, an East German assassin.

Le Carré’s protagonist this time is Alec Leamas, back in England after a disastrous stint in Berlin, where the agents he was running were picked off, one by one, by someone on the eastern side of the Wall, most likely Mundt.

The first part of the novel involves Leamas establishing his cover, disgraced and fired from “the Circus,” le Carré’s nickname for British intelligence, and drifting until he winds up in jail.

The second half involves Leamas’ undercover assignment, pretending to go over to the Dark Side and reveal the Circus’ trade secrets. It’s an art, trying to convince the enemy that you’re one of them:

“They would expect him to be afraid; for his Service pursued traitors as the eye of God followed Cain across the desert. And finally, they would know it was a gamble. They would know that inconsistency in human decision can make nonsense of the best-planned espionage approach; that cheats, liars and criminals may resist every blandishment while respectable gentlemen have been moved to appalling treasons by watery cabbage in a departmental canteen.”

What sets le Carré apart, of course, is his time in the trenches, working for the MI’s 5 and 6 during the Cold War. But real-world experience doesn’t guarantee good writing, and that’s le Carré’s other secret weapon. It’s his ability to set the scene with perfect detail (“She reminded Leamas of an old aunt he’d once had who beat him for wasting string.”) – this is what makes the subterfuge so thrilling, when the reader realizes she or he has been set up to believe one thing when what’s really true is quite another.

Le Carré was one of the early writers to cast the Cold Warriors in ambiguous terms; the West wasn’t always moral and expediency shaded intelligence operations.

After all, Leamas notes, “What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too…people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London, balancing rights and wrongs?…This is a war. It’s graphic and unpleasant because it’s fought on a tiny scale, at close range; fought with a wastage of innocent life sometimes, I admit. But it’s nothing, nothing at all beside other wars – the last or the next.”

I’m looking forward to reading more about the Circus’ tiny wars – and, next time, I’m going to start at the beginning.

(A footnote: Wikipedia informs me that le Carré, whose given name is David John Moore Cornwell, has a son from his second marriage, Nicholas Cornwell, whose pen name is none other than Nick Harkaway…)

The Photograph by Penelope Lively
Kath is gone. Wife to Glyn, sister to Elaine – so beautiful that no one paid attention to anything beneath the surface. But when an old photograph reveals her involvement with another man, Glyn is forced to reevaluate: “suddenly everything has to be looked at in a different light.”

That’s inconvenient for Kath’s older sister because, in death, Kath had become “biddable…docile, as she never was. She comes and goes, and sometimes she comes when she is not wanted, but she is under control.”

For Glyn, a landscape archeologist, the past he thought he’d laid to rest must be sifted through again; old territory rediscovered and remapped. “Why? Why? Why?” Glyn wants to know. “Motive is all. Motive is clarification. Motive explains. Motive soothes, perhaps.”

Glyn’s need to unearth the truth disturbs the foundations of Elaine’s relationship with her husband Nick and with Kath’s beloved niece, Polly. Even people peripheral to Kath’s life are shaken up.

Without Kath to blame and interrogate, all they have left is their own behavior to examine and the memories aren’t always pretty:

“Elaine finds other Kaths crowding in. These Kaths are not clear and precise, they do not say anything that she can hear, they are not doing anything in particular; they are somewhere very deep and far, they swarm like souls in purgatory, disturbing in their silent reproach.”

It’s a premise along similar lines to Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom, winner of the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, and a tale equally stunning, heartbreaking and well told. This is the second Lively novel I’ve read in the span of several weeks and just as delicious. With more than a dozen other novels to her credit, I’m looking forward to reading more from this great writer.

Sister by Rosamund Lupton
“Grief is the ultimate unrequited love,” shares the minister at Tess’s funeral. “However hard and however long we love someone who has died, they can never love us back.”

Cold comfort to Tess’s older sister, Beatrice, who’d always felt that looking after Tess “is an essential part of my job description.”

Bee’s sense of failure is overwhelming, and it turns Lupton’s Sister into a memento mori:

“I threw everything we had together – the strong roots and stems and leaves and beautiful soft blossoms of sisterhood – into the earth with you. And I was left standing on the edge, so diminished by the loss that I thought I could no longer be there. All I was allowed to keep for myself was missing you.”

Despite the sadness, there’s an urgency about Sister that kept me reading this debut novel late into the night. The suspense, when Tess goes missing and Bee jets back to London to find her, drives the reader on – long past the point when the plot becomes ridiculous.

I’d been warned by a review that this was the case. It’s no spoiler to let you know that Tess is found dead in an abandoned park lavatory because the main thrust of the novel is Bee’s single-minded pursuit of justice for Tess, who she believes was murdered. The police and everyone around Bee are convinced it was a suicide and that Bee just can’t bring herself to admit this fact.

Standing up for her belief brings Bee a sense of self-confidence she never knew she had:

“That’s how I’d been living my life, in tiny measured doses. But your death was a vast sea, and I was sinking. Did you know that an ocean can be seven miles deep? No sun can penetrate that far down. In the total darkness, only misshapen, unrecognizable creatures survive, mutant emotions that I never knew existed until you died.”

But, it also puts her at risk of meeting the same fate, since whatever evil force overtook Tess is still out there. This is where Sister breaks apart entirely. Like a TV procedural, there are many false leads, people with suspicious motives to be questioned and set aside. Unfortunately, the author’s decision to bring a big pharmaceutical company and its clinical trial into the mix ultimately does the plot in. Just like Ann Patchett’s laughable State of Wonder, where Big Pharma Is The Bad Guy, Lupton hasn’t a clue how clinical trials are managed and regulated. For lack of research, a well-paced, well-written plot unwinds into sheer silliness.

Next time, let’s hope Lupton sticks with what she knows, which includes a stunning poetic ability to define a character’s heart and soul.

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
This guy Portnoy sure does complain a lot. He complains about his mother. He complains about his girlfriend (“Who sets off inside me daily explosions of disapproval, hourly thunderclaps of admonition!”). He complains that the world doesn’t cater to his every need. He complains enough to fill an entire book.

As Rabbit Run was in 1960, Portnoy’s Complaint was considered groundbreaking in 1967. I’m old enough to (barely) remember ’67 and the times as they were a’changing, but reading this in the 21st century is a bit disconnective, which is unfortunate. It’s hard to imagine someone who doesn’t remember the ‘60s understanding exactly what’s going on. And it would be a shame to bypass such great writing, such a great character, because it feels like we’ve met him before. If that’s the case, it’s because Roth made him up first.

Roth tackles Portnoy in first person, and he’s perfectly realized in voice and action. Since it’s the ‘60s, Alex is still in thrall to Freudian theory, and here he is, complaining to his shrink about his mother:

“The great dark operatic themes of human suffering and passion come rolling out of those mouths like the prices of Oxydol and Del Monte canned corn! My own mother, let me remind you, when I returned this past summer from my adventure in Europe, greets me over the phone with the following salutation: ‘Well, how’s my lover?’ Her lover she calls me, while her husband is listening on the other extension! And it never occurs to her, if I’m her lover, who is he…? No, you don’t have to go digging where these people are concerned – they wear the old unconscious on their sleeves!”

It comes as no surprise to learn that Portnoy’s favorite word in the English language is “indignation.”

Portnoy reminds me of that line in a Barenaked Ladies song: “If you think growing up is tough/then you’re just not grown-up enough.” In the end, he feels so real, you want to lecture Alex, just as Naomie did:

“‘Do you know,’ she said, and without a trace of charity, ‘there is something very wrong with you.’”

If only he knew, Portnoy would complain about that too!

One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean
I had the pleasure of catching this British import when I was in New York City in August. The play is uproarious. Reading the book brought it back to life and demonstrated how a beautifully crafted structure can support the anarchic talents of an actor like James Corden, who plays Francis Henshall, the One Man of the title.

Playwright Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Bean’s farce allows the improvisational brilliance of Corden, till now content to play sidekick in U.K. television’s “Gavin & Stacey,” to come to the fore. Here, he takes on the role of the Harlequin, a man driven by base urges, causing chaos, but no less than the characters around him.

“Yes, the fourth wall is violated in improvisation with theatergoers,” notes The New York Times review, “the most delicious I’ve ever seen on Broadway.”

I agree. Outside of “Arcadia,” this is hands down the best evening I’ve had on Broadway in decades (and that includes plays by Wendy Wasserstein, whom I love, and seeing Whoopi Goldberg in the revival of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum…” in which nothing funny happened).

Bean updates a commedia dell’arte classic, “The Servant of Two Masters” by 18th century Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni, setting “Two Guvnors” in early ‘60s Brighton.

Rachel Crabbe’s boyfriend, Stanley, has just murdered her twin brother, Roscoe, in a knife fight. They flee to Brighton, under separate cover, with Rachel dressed up as Roscoe in order to take the heat off her beloved. (But the newspapers have already published an artist’s impression of what she’d look like as a man and a friend warns her: “You ended up looking a bit like Ringo Starr, who’s already been arrested twice.”)

Rachel is determined to collect a large debt, owed to Roscoe, which will allow the runaway lovers to hide out in Australia.

“Australia!” wonders her friend Lloyd. “Oh my God, no, that’s really terrible. Why Australia? Do you like opera?”

Meanwhile, Francis has lost his gig with a skiffle band (a lively skiffle band plays onstage as the audience finds its seats before the play begins, at intermission, and at scene changes). Broke and hungry, he accepts Rachel/Roscoe’s offer of a week’s work in Brighton, but all he can think about is fish and chips, and he doesn’t get paid until the end of the week.

Enter Stanley, who also needs an assistant while on the lam, and who’s willing to pay Francis by the day.

Now all Francis has to do is keep both guvnors in the dark about his double dipping, keep his duties straight, and remember that he’s engaged in yet another deception, playing his doppelganger Paddy, in order to impress a dame, called Dolly.

“So, do you see how commedia dell’arte works?” Francis addresses the audience as the Second Act gets under way. “In the first half I’m driven by my animal urges, hunger, but in this second half, because I’ve eaten, I am humanized, civilized, and I can embrace the potentiality of love. Which, in this version, is expressed as a leg-over in Majorca.”

Corden puts his portly frame to perfect use throughout, but perhaps best during the first bit of improv, when Francis tries to lug Stanley’s steamer trunk into the hotel. He can’t budge the obstinate trunk for trying and resorts to calling two beefy members of the audience up on stage to help him. There’s a brief mention of audience improv in the book. What ensued on the night I attended was 20 glorious minutes of comedic riffing – the word “side-splitting” comes to mind – and this was his second show of the day!

See this wonderful version of a comedy classic if you have a chance and, if not, the book sure looks good from here.

Back on Track with the Brits

Angelmaker, Nick Harkaway, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan, NW, Zadie SmithI thought August and September’s reading challenges were going to undo me – though I love reading too much for anything to change my relationship with books for very long, even books themselves.

Reconnecting with my long-time appreciation of British writers (and one San Franciscan who obviously adores books) got me back on track. Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of October’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I bought the first three books and borrowed the last from my local library. All four are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.

SCORECARD

October
4 down, 7 to go!

REVIEWS

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Strange things are afoot at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore, and Clay Jannon, the clerk on the shop’s graveyard shift is ready to ignore his boss’s warnings, embark on a hero’s journey, win the girl, and solve a centuries-old mystery.

Robin Sloan’s first novel is that rare thing: a celebration of both the book and the new technology that sometimes threatens to obliterate physical books. And it’s all wrapped up in the kind of adventure pre-teens dream about while reading sci-fi/fantasy serials.

Whether you love The Old Curiosity Shop, Sherlock Holmes mysteries or newer-fangled fare like Nick Harkaway’s, you’ll appreciate this tale, which is perfectly set in a post-bubble San Francisco.

There’s a girl – Kat – a lover of all things data. “I am really into the kind of girl you can impress with a prototype,” Clay moons after their first meeting.

Kat works at Google, of course, and is ready to throw considerable computing resources at the baffling code Clay discovers in the books on the shadowy back shelves of Mr. Penumbra’s store.

“A fellowship of secret scholars spent five hundred years on this task. Now we’re penciling it in for a Friday morning,” Clay observes. But the project unexpectedly pushes Kat and Clay apart and threatens the future of the bookstore, its owner and his loyal patrons.

I can’t say much more without revealing the intricacies of a fun caper.

As with many first novels, there were a few moments the reader may take issue with, such as:

  • the over-reliance on an already ubiquitous, real-world brand (Google) to drive a fictional plot (it makes the novel feel like one of those stories paid to be written around a brand; imagine a less-cool brand, like Preparation-H, mentioned so prominently and frequently, and you’ll understand why it’s so distracting);
  • [SPOILER ALERT: Jump to Bullet 3, if you don’t like learning even small plot points] there’s a whopper of a mistake regarding the code in Mr. Penumbra’s books, which is supposed to be virtually indecipherable. This is where the real-world brand truly draws the reader out of the story. The code is so simple that the drama of dragging Google into the plot (yeah, right, Google, which lives and dies on speed-of-service, would allow its search engines to grind to a halt for 3 seconds while it tries – and fails! – to decode the books) makes the story unrealistic – and even fictional universes need to feel realistic;
  • the writing gets the job done, but is so plain, the plot occasionally loses its sense of awe right when it needs to be suspenseful or astonishing (you may want to weigh this comment against my review of Harkaway, which follows).

Sloan saves the good stuff – the eloquence – for the very end (literally the last few paragraphs). It’s lovely (especially a turn of phrase like “the right book exactly, at exactly the right time”), but I wish he’d trusted himself more as a writer to, as Annie Dillard advised in The Writing Life: “give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now.”

The last page augurs good things and perhaps great books from Sloan in the future. Anyone who loves and respects books this much while reveling in all the advances that new technology provides is worth watching.

For you fans of fantasy/sci-fi fiction: The jacket of the hardcover glows in the dark! Wicked cool (and a bit eerie the first time you realize your nightstand lights up like the tiny core of a nuclear reactor).

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
After the tommy-gun prose of Nick Harkaway, Sloan’s just-the-facts approach was actually appealing. Interesting that Harkaway writes a blurb on Sloan’s dustjacket. Ideally, they’d be merged, and Sloan’s DNA would bring brevity and calm to Harkaway, while Nick’s traits help Robin develop a sense of daring and wonder.

At 478 pages, Angelmaker is actually 20 pages shorter than Harkaway’s previous work. But it feels eons longer.

The protagonist is Joshua Joseph Spork (remember that name…), scion of a British gangster, who rejected dad’s criminal legacy and inherits instead his grandfather’s clock-repair business.

Joe is “the man who arrives too late. Too late for clockwork in its prime, too late to know his grandmother. Too late to be admitted to the secret places, too late to be a gentleman crook, too late really to enjoy his mother’s affection before it slid away into a God-ridden gloom. And too late for whatever odd revelation was waiting here. He had allowed himself to believe that there might, at last, be a wonder in the world which was intended just for him. Foolishness.”

That moment of quiet reflection will be Joe’s last. The past quickly endangers the present as Joe inadvertently sets off an old clockwork-like device, built by his grandparents, that unleashes hives of mechanical bees (yes, you read that right) into Europe’s airspace. The Apprehension Engine was supposed to bring truth and peace to the world – as if that’s what premiers and tyrants want:

“To the leaders of the world, though, they are bad bees. They are bees of aggression, not bees of honey and peace. They are evil bees, and cannot be tolerated.”

Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World also featured a massively destructive weapon, and its purpose was clear. The origins, construction and uses of the Apprehension Engine are anything but, and the novel takes several long diversions to offer up the WWII-era exploits of a friend of Joe’s grandmother, a spy, who barely survives an attempt to rid the world of evil dictator Shem Shem Tsien (remember that name…).

“Before [Joe] can even reach for that future, or one like it, he has to climb on top of the rubble of the past and see what the world actually looks like.”

This is true, as far as this tale goes, but unfortunately the stakes in Angelmaker aren’t as directly related to our central character as they were in The Gone-Away World. There are a lot of peripheral characters and their random business – all insisting they owe allegiance to Joe, who we’ve never seen earn it, simply because he’s his father’s son. That would be a father who never comes into play in the plot.

This novel should be 40 pages shorter, at least, and would be if Joe’s name wasn’t constantly bandied about. Sadly, Harkaway is not a writer to say something once when it can be fussed and fidgeted over 10 times: “The Spork boy? Joe Spork? Why didn’t you say so sooner, you bloody fool! Joe? Joe! Joseph! Get in here and give me a kiss!”

Most writers are taught to dispense with the Hello-how-are-yous and get to the point; for Harkaway, they’re golden opportunities to run his protagonist’s name into the ground:

– “Don? It’s Joe Spork.”
– “Joe? Joe Spork? Oh, for God’s sake, little Josh?”

This has progressed to other characters, too. Shem Shem Tsien, whose name is already redundant, is AKA the Opium Khan AKA the Khaygul-Khan and AKA a bunch of other names by the time the book’s done. Joe’s grandmother has several monikers. There are three Bethanys at Nobelwhite Cradle, the fixer’s office Joe turns to for help – each, of course, has another name.

And Polly Cradle, Joe’s love interest, is AKA The Bold Receptionist. But it’s never that simple in Angelmaker: “Not Pollyanna. Polly, like Molly. Molly like Mary. Mary like Mary Angelica…,” muses Joe, realizing he knew her as a child.

As with The Gone-Away World, there’s a major twist late in the game. The problem, I think, for this novel is that the twist happens to a character we don’t care about. In his first book, a shocking revelation changes the game and ups the stakes for the protagonist. With Joshua Joseph Spork and his bees, the sting doesn’t leave the reader itching to know more.

NW by Zadie Smith
NW stands for northwest London; in NW, Zadie Smith is focused on the community living in council estates (government-subsidized housing) further north and west of now-trendy Notting Hill and Islington.

While many residents are immigrants from Jamaica and Africa, a certain mindset feels long-entrenched here. Two bright young women, Leah and Natalie, use education to find their way out of the estates. But they never quite escape the idea of – to use that lovely British expression – who they are when they’re at home. Family and community have claims on their identities.

Leah, in particular, is struggling with expectations that her relationship with Michel move to the next stage despite her desire to keep things just as they are, without a baby. Here is Leah at work, surrounded by a pregnant co-worker and colleagues who’re already moms:

“A room full of women laughing. Some shared knowledge of their sex to which Leah is not party. She puts her hands either side of the bump, and smiles, hoping that this is the sort of thing that normal women do, women for whom trying is half the fun and ‘you’re next’ does not sound like the cry of a guard in a dark place.”

It’s thrilling when a writer is this good at placing you in the mind of her protagonist, and I wish I could tell you there was more of this in NW.

Meanwhile, Natalie, a lawyer, is “living the dream” with a banker husband and two children, yet keeps finding ways to destroy everything she has built.

If that synopsis sounds coherent, the book is not. It’s suffering from three major flaws:

  1. There is far too much dialogue to really get to know and understand the characters deeply.
  2. The entire second section of the book is a series of short blurbs about Leah and Natalie (185 in total), bits and bobs of background detail.
  3. We are too often in the heads of characters we don’t care about, who have little relationship to Leah, Natalie or the plot.

Smith’s third novel, On Beauty, about a family living in the rarified academic community around Harvard, was a tour de force of writing, characterization, ideas.

NW is a collection of notes on character, scraps of dialogue. Sadly, they are too jumbled to suss.

How It All Began by Penelope Lively
Now here is an author, masterfully moving characters through a story, connected by a simple, but poignant idea: that one seemingly insignificant event can turn the trajectory of many lives.

It begins with a purse-snatching that leaves widowed Charlotte injured on the pavement, £60 poorer and forced to recuperate at the home of her daughter, Rose, and Rose’s husband. Inadvertently, the thief has set the dominoes in motion and – though they fall – the outcome brings pleasant surprises as often as hard tumbles.

Rose manages cheerfully with the inconvenience of Charlotte, even though it means the occasional missed day of work as an assistant to “his lordship,” Henry, an aging academic. Henry’s career-woman niece, Marion, substitutes just fine for Rose at one of Henry’s luncheon lectures and, in turn, her life becomes a series of turbulent episodes thanks to a chance encounter at the event.

Like many of these characters, we meet Marion at the point when she must figure out whether change is for the better or worse.

“What has happened?” wonders Marion. “My life is in upheaval, and all because of a man I met at a lunch, and something called the financial downturn…Am I making a ghastly mistake? Am I going to regret this? But you have to be flexible, swerve off course if it looks right – I’ve not done it enough, I’ve just plowed ahead. And anyway I was swerved. Things happened.”

Having been quite literally swerved, Charlotte copes with her new circumstance by turning to books.

“She read to discover how not to be Charlotte, how to escape the prison of her own mind, how to expand, and experience. Thus has reading wound in with living, each a complement to the other. Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information, of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost, but is in there somewhere, and has had an effect on who she is and how she thinks. She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without.”

Someone else in Charlotte’s life is near starvation: Anton, one of her English-as-a-second-language students. Every moment he struggles to learn English keeps him from pursuing his profession in his new country and, with Charlotte no longer teaching, he falls further behind. Charlotte agrees to tutor him at Rose’s house, and this small change in routine brings Anton to the brink of a new life while Rose must consider the cost of breaking up her old one.

“All meetings are accidents really,” Rose supposes. “They might never have happened.” From Charlotte’s “transitory, intimate” encounter with a mugger, Penelope Lively weaves a beautiful tapestry of lives transformed by joy, fear, love and loss.

A Challenging Month for My Reading Challenge

Even though I said right from the beginning that I wanted some flexibility in a reading challenge, September was the month where I just couldn’t get my selections sorted and keep my reading on track, and so my scorecard only shows three books completed over four weeks.

Most of my lost reading time was due to this little guy during the first week of the month. But I lucked out when I picked up Salman Rushdie’s memoir and Lisa Cron’s writing book. They’re just the kind of treats – great writing, thrilling adventure, juicy details, motivational – that make you fall in love with reading (and writing) all over again. They helped me feel renewed for October.

Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of September’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I bought all three books. Two are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.

SCORECARD

September
3 down, 11 to go!

REVIEWS

Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie
It would be comforting to believe that 1989 was a simpler, less violent time, but, as Salman Rushdie reminds us in his memoir, the “terrorism-by-fatwa” sponsored by Iran in the wake of publication of The Satanic Verses left many people, in both Europe and the Muslim world, dead and injured – even if it, thankfully, failed to destroy its primary target.

The past is prologue, Rushdie quotes Shakespeare in his epigraph, and he likens his troubles to the first crow that appears in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” before the beating wings of thousands cast a frightening shadow over the world.

“Something new was happening here: the growth of a new intolerance,” Rushdie writes. “It was spreading across the surface of the earth, but nobody wanted to know…A religion was not a race. It was an idea, and ideas stood (or fell) because they were strong enough (or too weak) to withstand criticism, not because they were shielded from it. Strong ideas welcomed dissent.”

The memoir unfolds chronologically, detailing the historical origin of “the satanic verses” debate within Islam and the ideas that became the novel The Satanic Verses. Rushdie notes, a bit miffed, that when the book first came out, it received some indifferent reviews and was dissed as a story you couldn’t follow past page 15.

Then came the death warrant from a dying Ayatollah Khomeini, urging the faithful to make the author (and anyone else responsible for publishing and selling the book) pay. The book found its place in history.

Thanks to a dedicated protection squad, loyal friends and a good sense of humor, Rushdie survived nine long years as a hunted man. He shares the claustrophobia and deep frustration of being essentially under house arrest despite being the victim rather than the perpetrator of terrorism.

It’s a long book, but reads like a political thriller, partly because it’s told in third person.

Along the way, we learn about the efforts of free speech groups, booksellers, organizations dedicated to intellectual freedom, nations and individuals to alternately shame Iran or rally moderates in the Iranian government to remove the bounty on his head.

“He wanted to speak, too,” he says, “for the idea that liberty was everyone’s heritage and not…a Western notion alien to the cultures of the East. As ‘respect for Islam,’ which was fear of Islamist violence cloaked in Tartuffe-like hypocrisy, gained legitimacy in the West, the cancer of cultural relativism had begun to eat away at the rich multicultures of the modern world…”

Gradually, he begins to emerge, often in the United States, where he was allowed to move freely, without bodyguards tracing his every step.

Rushdie’s writing on his attempts “to defend the book against the burners of books” is eloquent throughout. In a 633-page memoir, though, there were a few areas that needed editing.

It’s interesting that the media characterization Rushdie repeatedly strained against was the idea that he is a less than pleasant person. He defends himself, then provides picayune details that highlight the inadequacy of others, including close friends.

There’s the moment where Ian McEwan defends him in the press, writing about standing in his kitchen with Rushdie, hearing a news story about a group condemning the author, and gets the group’s name wrong. Understandably, Rushdie was taking copious notes about his ordeal. It doesn’t mean everyone did. Calling out such a minor error is just picky.

There are scenes that exist only because a bold-faced name appears in them. One, also involving McEwan, describes two separate visits to get takeaway with the Atonement author and seems to be there only because Rushdie wants to insult the Thai proprietor’s English pronunciation. (Yes, he does the whole insulting Ls-pronounced-as-Rs bit.)

Petty and pointless, these vignettes diminish his dignity when his arguments for tolerance are otherwise so profoundly moving. It’s in these latter moments where the writing takes wing – not like the harbinger crow of “The Birds” – but with a soaring appeal to great ideals:

“We should all be free to take the grand narratives to task, to argue with them, satirize them, and insist that they change to reflect the changing times. We should speak of them reverently, irreverently, passionately, caustically, or however we chose. That was our right as members of an open society. In fact, one could say that our ability to re-tell and re-make the story of our culture was the best proof that our societies were indeed free. In a free society the argument over the grand narratives never ceased. It was the argument itself that mattered. The argument was freedom.”

Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
I was three-quarters of the way through Chapter 1 of Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story when I realized what wasn’t working with a short story I’ve been stuck on for years. I filled up my white board three times with notes, a new outline, and a stronger sense of what’s at stake for my protagonist. When I was done, it was clear new scenes had to be written and that my opening had to go.

As Cron notes, a story needs to grab readers from the very first line and make them feel there’s something important about to happen: “This means that whether it’s an actual event unfolding or we meet the protagonist in the midst of an internal quandary or there’s merely a hint that something’s slightly ‘off’ on the first page, there has to be a ball already in play. Not the preamble to the ball. Not all the stuff you have to know to really understand the ball. The ball itself.”

I was hardly through the first chapter, but it put me back on track – got me sitting down to write my story again!

I’ve mentioned I’m a little leery of spending more time reading books about writing than doing the writing itself. But Wired for Story is more like the reference book you keep at your desk to remind you of what you need to focus on than the book you read for inspiration and then let gather dust on your shelf.

I’d taken a class several years ago with Lisa Cron at the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program and found her an astute reader. What a pleasure to discover she’s a great writer, too. With concepts from neuroscience and psychology, she provides tremendous insight into how our brains are hard-wired for storytelling – “what, specifically, the brain is hungry for in every story it encounters” – and what that means for writers who want to hook the reader with memorable characters, coherent themes, exciting conflicts, and endings that feel earned.

Cron, who has worked in publishing, and as an agent, producer and story consultant in the film and TV industries, is especially good at breaking down the key components of stories we know, such as Gone With the Wind and “Sullivan’s Travels,” to provide specific examples. Checkpoints at the end of each chapter serve as user guides for revision.

She also makes sense of the rewrite process and is wonderfully encouraging about the payoff of perseverance – “Butt in chair. Every day. No excuses. Ever.” – which ultimately enables the writer’s vision to be experienced by readers.

This is one writing book that’s a great read and a valuable deskside reference.

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman
I ordered this novel from the U.K. (it publishes in the U.S. in February) because it’s been longlisted for the Man Booker prize and the story, about inventing a teleportation device during the rise of the Third Reich, sounded intriguing. Instead it left me baffled. How did this poorly plotted, tediously paced story ever find its way into the hands of Booker judges, much less make the list?

It’s 1931 Berlin when Beauman introduces us to Egon Loeser, whose not-so-subtle surname describes his protagonist’s trajectory in love, career, friendship and life. There’s nothing driving this character. Even his use of drugs like cocaine and ketamine doesn’t fire him up.

There’s an ingénue, “It Girl” Adele Hitler (no relation; like bad punk rock, it’s there purely for shock value, not clarity or insight), whom he chases from Berlin to Paris to Pasadena, which is supposed to propel the plot, but only detours it. At one point, Loeser is blackmailed by a spy who nevertheless gives him six months to come up with the goods. Six months? Way to build tension!

There is a section entitled Four Endings, which are more like appendices, providing minor additional details about various characters and taking the plot back to 1691 and forward to 1947, 1962 and 19310 – a long, long way to go for very little.

Job-wise, Loeser is mildly interested in recreating a device by a famous Italian set designer, Lavicini, that was meant to teleport actors from one part of the stage to another and instead wound up destroying a theater and apparently taking the lives of dozens of audience members.

This sounds like it’s going to fulfill the promise of the title, but the potential for mystery is dropped as quickly as it’s brought up while the reader trudges through almost a decade of boring details before Loeser begins to do anything remotely related to wooing Adele or investigating the possibility of a modern teleportation device. During long years of inaction, he willfully ignores what’s happening to friends back in Berlin, particularly his Jewish mentor, and ultimately he and the book shrug off the massive destruction of lives brought about by the Nazis.

At one point, when the plot transports us to the past, we hear Lavicini tell his biographer: “…the hero of a successful play must be a man the audience would be happy to invite into their homes for supper. Otherwise no one will want to sit through the whole thing. Your ‘hero’ who abandons his friends to their deaths – he doesn’t sound like that sort of man.”

Exactly.

Like many of the characters in Chuck Palahniuk’s books, Beauman seems deliberate in his invention of a protagonist the reader despises (under interrogation, a government official asks, “Mr. Loeser, one last question. Why are you such a total prick all the time?”). Which begs the question: Why would anyone, writer or reader, spend their precious time on such a character?

Reading through the Dog Days

Nora Ephron at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and David Shankbone.

August began with BlogHer, and I lost a week of reading due to the confluence of conference-travel-sightseeing-playgoing in New York City. Thank goodness for novella-length books from several great writers – they saved the month yet again and got me through the dog days of reading.

Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of August’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I purchased the first two books reviewed here, borrowed the second two from my local library, and received the fifth as a free review copy from the publisher. The Brzezinski and Updike books are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.

SCORECARD

August

5 down, 14 to go!

REVIEWS

Knowing Your Value: Women, Money, and Getting What You’re Worth by Mika Brzezinski
Katie Couric recommended this book to me (me and 4,999 others, during her keynote at BlogHer ’12…but, c’mon, how often do you get to start a sentence like that?). It’s been an instructive and depressing read.

Depressing because women still earn less than men, even when they have the same skills and perform the same job at the same level. We’re still underrepresented in the boardroom, among CEOs and other leadership positions, and in technology and science careers where there is greater earning potential. Worse, research suggests that human resources professionals and MBA students, when presented with the exact same resume, consistently rank a job applicant as less experienced and skilled when a women’s name, instead of a man’s, appears at the top.

If this sounds overly familiar to you, it is. Researchers who study the world of work have described these biases since the middle of the last century.

What’s new here is that Brzezinski frames discussion of the gender wage gap, valuing your skills, and salary-negotiation tactics with her own story. It’s one that may come as a surprise to anyone who looks at television as a glamorous, high-paid industry.

Brzezinski is cohost of “Morning Joe,” an MSNBC anchor and author. Right off the bat, she tells you she’s made mistakes in her salary negotiations – and they’ve set back her earning potential over the long run of her career.

She describes being so grateful to have a job after a lengthy period of unemployment that she accepted what was offered and didn’t ask for what she needed to support her family. Doing so led her to a point where, while her morning show was exceeding all expectations in terms of ratings and pulling in plenty of ad dollars for MSNBC, she was struggling with an overdrawn checking account every month.

Brzezinski is clear that her problems stemmed from not understanding the value of her worth to the network. She gives vivid descriptions of several failed attempts to renegotiate her contract, where she went wrong and why.

“What makes a persuasive argument are solid facts and figures about what you’ve done and what other people, with the same skills and experience and accomplishments, are making for the same job,” she notes. “Let me say it again: You are not prepared unless you know the market value of your contributions.”

With the advent of the Internet, this information is no longer a deep, dark secret, and Brzezinski discusses how women can find out that information and put it to work in negotiating their worth.

Through interviews with experts, like Suze Orman, Jack Welch, White House advisor Valerie Jarrett, Tina Brown, Donald Trump, Nora Ephron, and others, she presents a variety of viewpoints on the current state of women in the workplace – they don’t all agree with each other, which is refreshing.

Brzezinski dares to address the uncomfortable topic of whether women support each other enough at work, offers some nuanced advice to women who want career and family, and explains the important difference between mentors and support networks.

“Encouraging women to take control of their own destinies is very much at the heart of this book,” she writes. And this book is a great place to start understanding the knowledge and behaviors required to steer your own ship.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
It’s probably a good thing we’re assigned books like this in high school.

Stability – via Henry Ford’s “principle of mass production at last applied to biology” – is the goal of the society Huxley satirizes. Leaving behind the sticky complications of love, marriage and “viviparous reproduction,” these Brave New clones remain forever youthful, productive at work, dedicated to consumerism, and continuously blissful, thanks to the Prozac-like soma.

Re-reading Huxley, it doesn’t surprise me that George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has had a stronger cultural influence. We’d read the two books back-to-back in my high school English class, and they’d stood, in my mind, as equals. Now, I don’t get what all the fuss was about.

Frankly, this doesn’t work as a novel. Even alongside the clumsy attempts at world-building that can be the hallmark of dystopias, this is clunky stuff.

There’s the tedious opening, done as a guided tour of the London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. Always a bad sign when an author doesn’t recognize that the inhabitants of his world already know this stuff and, if you design a world around mind control, you probably don’t show off your conditioning process to the people being oppressed.

There’s the heavy-handed quoting of Shakespeare (the title, my 15-year-old’s scrawl informs me, is lifted from “The Tempest,” wherein the word “brave” means “wondrous” as opposed to “courageous”) – except now I see that the whole Prospero-Miranda-Caliban reference (nor the “Romeo and Juliet” allusion that’s also thrown in) doesn’t translate.

There’s the choice to remain a distant, omniscient author, jumping around from one character’s head to the next. This device is perhaps necessary because the supposed protagonist, Bernard Marx, is such a weasel – hardly brave-courageous, he’s disloyal to his friends and serves only his ego. Even the author doesn’t introduce Bernard till Chapter 3, and then halfway through the book, he’s usurped as protagonist by the Savage, discovered among the Native American reservations, which have been crammed into the state of New Mexico, along with the few remaining practitioners of world religions.

The opening tour is bookended by a long argument between the Savage and World Controller Mustapha Mond (many of the characters are staggered with awkward mantles). Mustapha, one of the few allowed to read banned literature and study independently until he chose to give up the ability to think critically in favor of political power, acknowledges the trade-offs.

“…stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability,” he explains. “And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

Neither is the ending. (Spoiler alert!) Rather than a revolution, the subversives merely say their lines. Then, like Prospero, they’re banished to islands, where, along with others of their ilk, they’ll apparently form reading groups and have rap sessions, enjoying the intellectual freedoms they’d always desired.

It’s far from the frightening shore that Winston Smith washes up on, which ultimately for me is what makes Orwell’s the more powerful and lasting commentary.

Toward the End of Time by John Updike
I struggled with this book all summer, renewing it twice, and still wound up returning it to the library five days late. It’s not my favorite of Updike’s books, but still hard to put down because his writing is always so darn good.

I’d hoped to pair my review of this with The Age of Miracles; they share some striking similarities. Both take place in a near future, where life as we know it has been altered (by the slowing of the Earth’s rotation in Miracles; the devastation of the Sino-American War in Updike).

These are slight dystopias, though. Updike makes small attempts at building a post-apocalyptic world, where welders replace dollars, states replace the federal government, and every form of network – from communications to commerce – is broken down. Nevertheless, the Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe still arrive every morning like clockwork.

The clockwork of nature – “time that churns the seasons” – is what Updike seems most concerned with here. The beauty of the book is the way it captures all those small changes that denote the turning of one season into the next. Along the way, his protagonist, Ben, experiences similar upticks and spirals in mood and health.

Here is Ben in winter:

“I had looked down once again into the dismal basement of life, where in ill-lit corners spiders brainlessly entrap segmented insects, consume them bit by bit, leave a fuzzy egg sac, and die. All those leggy spider corpses, like collapsed gyroscopes, that we see dangling from cobwebs – did they perish of starvation, having spun a web in vain, or of old age, in the natural course of things, after years of drawing upon Medicare and Social Security?”

And admiring the barn swallows of late spring:

“It happened today: the air was suddenly full of careening baby birds. They fly swervingly up and down, on the edge of control, like children first on a bicycle…In a mere two weeks the helpless and hideous babies have been fed into feathers and wingpower enough to be launched, blue-backed and roseate-bellied, as darting, dipping predators in their own right.”

Perhaps the reader is meant to take time with this book. It was certainly a pleasure to be reading it over summer in New Hampshire, as Updike describes the steady march of flora and fauna that appears between June and August in nearby eastern Massachusetts. It made me wish he’d dropped the flimsy post-war premise; the glorious peek into his journal of a man in his waning months was more than enough.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron
I’d never read Ephron’s novel, a famously (if barely) fictionalized account of the demise of her equally famous marriage to Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein.

As I’ve mentioned, I admired Ephron’s essays as a journalism student. What I didn’t say was that I met her around that time and, as the saying goes, it’s way too soon to share that story. But, in recalling the opportunity – fledging journalist getting to see a favorite writer in person – it suddenly dawned on me that the fiasco that led to the implosion of the Ephron-Bernstein marriage was probably quite fresh and may have had something to do with her demeanor at the time. Which brought me to Heartburn.

If you’ve seen the movie or read the gossip columns, you’re familiar with the outlines of this novel. Rachel, writer of chatty cookbooks, marries famous journalist Mark, moves from cultural mecca Manhattan (where there are “six kinds of smoked salmon”) to the backwaters of D.C. They trade rat-a-tat-tat screwball comedy dialogue until she discovers him cheating while she’s pregnant with their second child. Pour in a bowl, mix with assorted erudite friends and shrinks, and watch as the farce rises.

If you’ve read any of Ephron’s essays, you quickly note that this is a novel in name only; it’s basically a journal of the break-up of her second marriage. But, her voice as an essayist is so strong, so funny and self-deprecating, you tend to go with it just to savor the way she makes a point.

Here is Rachel, for example, recounting the rationalization that enabled her to marry a man who’d already cheated on her while they were dating:

“I believed in change. I believed in metamorphosis. I believed in redemption. I believed in Mark. My marriage to him was as willful an act as I have ever committed; I married him against all the evidence. I married him believing that marriage doesn’t work, that love dies, that passion fades, and in so doing I became the kind of romantic only a cynic is truly capable of being. I see all that now. At the time, though, I saw nothing of the sort. I honestly believed that Mark had learned his lesson. Unfortunately, the lesson he learned wasn’t the one I had in mind: what he learned is that he could do anything, and in the end there was a chance I’d take him back.”

Mark manages to be just as persuasive in wooing her back to Washington a second time. A recipe for disaster, surely, but by this point, Rachel’s cynicism is fully baked.

Of her husband’s tearful entreaties to come home, she observes, “It’s true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive to and in touch with are their own.”

Through her fictional proxy, Ephron also manages this dig at Bernstein’s writing: “He’d write it in that dumb Hemingway style he always reserved for his slice-of-life columns.”

Ouch! Never anger a writer.

What it lacks as a true novel (genuine characters with depth), it makes up for in brain-confectionary. It’s perfect for a summer afternoon hammock break, full of Ephron’s trademark wit and storytelling.

Social Marketology: Improve Your Social Media Processes and Get Customers to Stay Forever by Ric Dragon
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher. My review, “Making Sense of Social Marketology,” can be found on the Social Media Club website.

New Titles and Old Favorites

Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of July’s selections.

SCORECARD

July
4 down, 19 to go!

REVIEWS

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Walker’s first novel has been compared to The Lovely Bones, another elegy for a lost childhood.

One Saturday morning, just before soccer practice, 11-year-old Julia’s entire world is upended. At this age, everything feels like a catastrophe – from break-ups with BFFs and crushes on boys to parental betrayals – and she’ll have to go through those traumas, too, but on this day, Julia is just one of billions whose life on Earth changes, literally and irrevocably, by the slowing of the planet’s orbit.

Some of Julia’s friends turn to religion, other families stay on “real time,” rather than “clock time,” as the days gain minutes and then hours, stretching to 30 hours and beyond, followed by equally long, frosty nights. Birds, whales and even people succumb to “gravity sickness.”

There is some hoarding and looting, but mostly folks cling to ordinary life and hope things will go back to normal. This means Julia enters middle school on schedule and has to cope with everything that adolescence (the Age of Miracles of the title) brings with it, including loneliness.

“Maybe it had begun to happen before the slowing, but it was only afterward that I realized it: My friendships were disintegrating. Things were coming apart. It was a rough crossing, the one from childhood to the next life. And as with any other harsh journey, not everything survived.”

The one person who seems to understand her is Seth, the boy she has a crush on, but he’s experienced a personal catastrophe, which leaves him standoffish, serious and a bit morbid.

“We collected the neighborhood’s last blades of grass. We kept the final flowering of daisies, of marigolds, of honeysuckle. We pressed petals between the pages of dictionaries. We lined our shelves with relics from our time. Look here, we pictured saying someday, this one we called maple, this one magnolia, this aspen, this oak. On dark days, Seth drew maps of the constellations as if those bodies, too, might soon fall away.”

As you can see, there’s some beautiful writing in this novel. There are also some real clunkers, especially at the beginning:

“Bare of the glasses, his eyes always looked squinty to me, and too small.”

“I was glad to be sitting in a classroom full of kids who had none of them been at the bus stop.”

“At the appointed hour, my alarm clock exploded.” (It rang loudly.)

Basic science is discarded in favor of lyricism:

Describing the astronauts stranded on a space station because of the slowing: “They’d been away for ten months, the last humans left who had not yet experienced a day longer than twenty-four hours.” (Well, no. Space stations don’t simply float around in space, they orbit the earth, like satellites, yet none of these man-made heavenly bodies apparently is affected by the change in gravity from the slowing Earth. Nor are insects. Only birds.)

Later, when the Earth’s magnetic fields weaken and sunlight brings risk of radiation exposure, no one goes out during the day again. So it was odd to read that, weeks later, Julia spies Seth’s tan stomach.

Simple editing and scientific fact-checking would have gone a long way to making this book more accurate. The story also would have benefited from a bit more extrapolation: it moves along on the rather unbelievable premise that there is no panic, rioting, looting, or war as food supplies dwindle, huge swaths of territory grow arid and water dries up.

Ultimately, Julia, at far too young an age, becomes a lot like her octogenarian grandfather. The story sings when these two are together, each locked in a house of memento mori.

Crazy Salad by Nora Ephron
When Ephron passed away June 26, many news stories credited her as the ultimate Hollywood hyphenate: screenwriter-director. Growing up as one of four talented daughters of two screenwriters, this second career was probably inevitable. But, she started out as a journalist and essayist, and a darn good one, too.

After learning the news of her death, I immediately pulled this essay collection off my bookshelf and began re-reading. This is one of the books I cherished as a journalism student, learning about literary journalism and magazine writing.

More than a salad, this book is a smorgasbord of subjects that were buzzing around the zeitgeist of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. The fact that they were buzzing was thanks to Nora Ephron’s brilliant observations about Linda Lovelace, Dorothy Parker, breasts, Gloria Steinem, bake-offs, feminine hygiene, sex fantasies and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, to name a few.

It was quite funny to realize that Ephron gave Sally Allbright in “When Harry Met Sally…” her own sexual fantasy. And to read again about consciousness raising, encounter groups and The Rap (not a type of hip-hop, but a very formal-sounding way of describing “rapping,” also known as “letting it all hang out”). I was going to say this is what people did before reality TV, but ever ahead of her time, Ephron includes a discussion of the Louds, the family with “no selectivity index whatsoever” when it came to letting it all hang out in the spotlight.

Ephron is up front with her concern about reporters “getting really involved in what they were writing about.” But, one reason she was hired by Esquire and New York magazines was to represent what women were thinking, especially as the women’s movement took hold in the American psyche.

“I would still hate to be described as a participatory journalist,” she writes in one essay, “but I am a writer and I am a feminist, and the two seem to be constantly in conflict…ever since I became loosely involved with it, it has seemed to me one of the recurring ironies of this movement that there is no way to tell the truth about it without, in some small way, seeming to hurt it.”

Personally, I think Ephron’s honesty about some of the divisions in the women’s movement, between Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, for example, is what keeps this book relevant some 37 years after it was published.

She allows everyone their say and if sometimes people hang themselves out to dry, Ephron lets them do it in their own voices, on their own terms. And, with a sharp wit, she lets you know what she’s thinking about it all, too. (Like the brief fad among consciousness-raising groups for – this is as delicately as I can put it – bodily self-examination, about which Ephron sighs, “It is hard not to long for the days when an evening with the girls meant bridge.”)

She aims her wit at anti-feminists, as well, penning excellent pieces on the man who brought feminine-hygiene sprays to market, the porn industry that corrupted Linda Lovelace, and Bobby Riggs, among others.

According to Entertainment Weekly, which wrote a moving tribute on Ephron’s legacy, Crazy Salad is “tragically out of print and unavailable as an e-book.” Ephron died at 71, having written six essay collections, 13 screenplays, plays and the novel Heartburn. Her latest collections, 2006’s I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections, shared her thoughts on aging.

I’m sorry we won’t have Ephron’s insights and humor to get us through the crazy salad days ahead. But, gosh, it was delicious tucking in to this well-worn book again.

Blue Nights by Joan Didion
I had the opportunity to hear Didion speak at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hamshire, in late June, and combined Didion’s comments on writing with a few thoughts about her latest memoir in a previous post, “A Blue Night with Joan Didion.”

Navigating Social Media Legal Risks: Safeguarding Your Business by Robert McHale with Eric Garulay
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher. My review, “Unraveling the Mystery of Social Media Law,” can be found on the Social Media Club website.

Summertime and the Reading is Easy

Are You My Mother?

Beauty and complexity at play in Allison Bechdel’s latest graphic novel “Are You My Mother?”

My transition to the east coast can take a few days, especially when little critters like to winter in your summer home, so I panicked at losing reading time during the first week of the month. I grabbed Allison Bechdel’s graphic novel at my country bookstore, thinking it would be a quick read, spotted a new book by favorite writer, Anne Lamott, then picked up several John Updike novels at the library, and boom! I was off.

Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of June’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I bought all of these books except the Barnes and Updike novel, which I borrowed from my local library. Several are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.

SCORECARD

June
5 down, 23 to go!

REVIEWS

Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son by Anne Lamott and Sam Lamott
At first glance, I thought this was a sequel to Operating Instructions: Annie shares the foibles of raising a teenager. Then my jaw dropped as I re-read the subtitle: It’s not about Sam as a kid, it’s Sam’s kid!

I felt like I’d just read the journal of Sam’s first year of life a few months ago. How old could he be? Nineteen, it turns out.

Like Operating Instructions, Some Assembly deals with the all-too-human aspects of coping with the unexpected, the mistakes you make along the way, the anger, the exhaustion, the kindness of strangers, and the miracle that is a loving family and friends.

Lamott shares co-authorship with her son, writing the throughline of her grandson’s birth and first year in journal entries. Sam provides his perspective on new fatherhood via transcribed phone interviews and emails, as does his girlfriend, Amy, who is Jax’s mother.

What’s lovely about this generous shifting of authorship is that you get to see a beautiful circle being completed, from the baby we first met in Operating Instructions to the stroppy teen of Blue Shoe to the bewildered, but all-in dad here. Through these books, memoir and fiction, we’ve had the rare opportunity to watch a family be made, grow and be remade.

“I watched Sam and Jax gaze at each other while Jax sucked on the bottle,” Lamott writes. “To have mothered this young father fills me with visceral feelings of awe, joy, and dread. Love, fierce pride, a new power, and faint anxiety flitted across Sam’s face: you love your kids way too much to ever feel safe again. I could see in his love that this baby had broken his turtle shell, the way Sam broke mine.”

Nevertheless, the unplanned pregnancy meant that everything from Sam finishing art college to whether Sam and Amy would remain a couple and where Amy (and ultimately baby Jax) would live – the Bay Area or back in Chicago – was up in the air.

Hard for a control-junkie to handle. I won’t spoil how, or whether, these threads get tied up by book’s end. Reading Anne Lamott so often feels like receiving a gift, her brave, honest, wise observations reminding us to have faith no matter how crazy life becomes: “Since Jax’s birth, my ideas about what would be best for everyone usually got in the way. Life is already an obstacle course, and when you’re adding your own impediments (thinking they’re helping), you really crazy it up. You should not bring more items and hurdles to the obstacle course.”

Exactly. Bring this book instead.

Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama by Allison Bechdel
I hadn’t heard of Bechdel before seeing rave reviews for her latest graphic novel. I picked this up, thinking it would be a quick read. What I discovered, from its gorgeous presentation in hardcover to the complexity of Bechdel’s storytelling, stunned me.

Told in seven parts or chapters, Are You My Mother? places Bechdel’s relationship with her mother under a microscope, focusing on memories, analysis sessions, the views of major psychoanalysts on the parent-child relationship, Virginia Woolf and women writers, and the author’s present-day experiences with her mom. Pretty amazing territory for a comic.

Bechdel draws in black, grey, white and a maroon red. She uses this muted palette to perfect effect. Each chapter opens with a dream – vivid and powerfully emotional, these are drawn against a black background. As she delves into her own studies of analysis, the background is a pale maroon with frequent intrusions of white, as the character Allison highlights key points for us in the texts she’s reading. Memories are diffused with a soft grey, like Bechdel is shaking them free of cobwebs; flashbacks also feature sharp swaths of maroon.

Honest and thought-provoking, Bechdel takes this medium where few have, using it to investigate multiple points of view and points in time, complex theories of the mind, her childhood, her parents’ lives, and how women struggle (with their pasts and their family obligations) to become writers.

The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes
The 2011 Man Booker Prize winner is Barnes in full bloom, a masterfully compact showcase of prose, plotting and characters. The basic outline of schoolboy friendships and a youthful affair are quickly covered in part one; part two is where the nuances of those relationships, the harsh judgments of adolescence, the march of time, and the tricks of memory play out.

Don’t let the simple arc of part one dissuade you from going deeper, as Barnes does. This is a plot with more twists than a mystery like Gone Girl. Once you finish, you immediately want to re-read to place the truth in context.

One of the disarming aspects of this novel is that Barnes is so comfortable in his prose, it could be confused for a journal. But he’s clearly constructed a thoughtful narrator, looking back at an incident in his life and recognizing that there was more to it than he’d imagined.

His narrator, Tony Webster, observes, “The history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent. We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history – even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?”

What starts as a tragic take on the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, girl-goes-out-with-boy’s-more-popular-friend plot morphs again and again as Tony digs through uncomfortable truths.

“My younger self had come back to shock my older self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being,” he notes.

“I had underestimated, or rather miscalculated: time was telling not against them, it was telling against me.”

What’s happened to the characters, especially the girl and Tony’s more popular friend, is sad and haunting, but the writing never is. Tony may be clueless, as Veronica describes him, but it’s his commitment to bringing the truth to light – even one that shines harshly on himself – that makes his journey so enthralling.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Flynn’s latest mystery turns the standard boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl narrative on its head, as well. This is a page-turner, intriguingly plotted, though the writing is utilitarian, moving characters from A to B and back again. And it would be nice if Flynn, like so many other procedural writers who fail to research their subjects, understood forensics and technology a bit better before allowing major plot points to hinge on them.

Strangely enough, for a writer who once worked at a national media outlet (Entertainment Weekly magazine), Flynn’s prose is dullest during the frequent scenes of media hordes following the scent of a juicy story, when Amy, an unhappily married woman, goes missing and her husband, Nick, becomes the prime suspect.

Part One is all set-up; Part Two reveals a major plot turn that the characters struggle to come to terms with all the way through Part Three. It’s impossible to say more without spoiling the entire story. A perfect beach read.

Bech: A Book by John Updike
A few summers ago, I read my way through Updike’s Rabbit series, which, in a way, inaugurated this year’s reading challenge. This trilogy – and Henry Bech – may be less well-known than Rabbit Angstrom, but the stories perfectly encapsulate the eras in which they were written.

Who is Henry Bech? Bech, like Rabbit, spends a good deal of time pondering the world and his place in it (and borrowing from his hero, James Joyce, in the process):

“Who was he? A Jew, a modern man, a writer, a bachelor, a loner, a loss. A con artist in the days of academic modernism undergoing a Victorian shudder. A white monkey hung far out on a spindly heaventree of stars. A fleck of dust condemned to know it is a fleck of dust. A mouse in a furnace. A smothered scream.”

Updike started publishing short stories about Bech in the mid-1960s, and this book features a collection of them up through 1970. He clearly enjoyed conjuring this alter-ego – a writer crippled by writer’s block and, later, by existential crisis – and subjecting him to the politics, culture, whims and neuroses of the time.

“Am I blocked?” Bech asks his mistress.  “I’d just thought of myself as a slow typist.”
“What do you do, hit the space bar once a day?”
“Ouch.”
“I’m sorry, that did sound bitchy. But it makes me sad, to see someone of your beautiful gifts just stagnating.”
“Maybe I have a beautiful gift for stagnation.”

Bech is fairly active for a stagnating man: This first volume sees him traveling behind the Iron Curtain on a cultural exchange, summering off the Cape as the youthquake takes hold, gutted by a visit to the fecund South, and having a confused fling in Swinging London.

It’s just that he’s not writing novels, after a brilliant debut and two politely received follow-ups, any longer. And his lack of legacy is making him panic.

“What was that sentence from Ulysses? Bloom and Stephen emerging from the house to urinate, suddenly looking up – The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit. Bech felt a sadness, a terror, that he had not written it. Not ever.”

Thankfully, Updike is a prolific writer, so I have two more Bech books to look forward to this summer, and a final short story in The Complete Henry Bech. Can’t wait.

May Reading Challenge Update

Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going plus reviews of May’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I bought the first four books and received the last one free as a review copy from the publisher. Several are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.

SCORECARD

May
5 down, 28 to go!

REVIEWS

In-Flight Entertainment by Helen Simpson
Helen Simpson’s Four Bare Legs in a Bed was the book I begged friends visiting England to bring back for me. At the time, it was unavailable in the United States, but I’d just finished Getting a Life and had to have more.

Whether her protagonists are young lovers, eager to explore and abuse the workings of their hearts, newly marrieds, a young lawyer required to attend a whisky-soaked corporate dinner dedicated to quoting copious stanzas of Scottish poet Robert Burns, or parents helping kids navigate the treachery of divorce and homework, Simpson puts us squarely in their heads and reveals the subtle pitches of their emotions.

In her latest collection of 13 stories, the characters’ unease is frequently underscored by global warming, whether as political viewpoint or the cause of environmental devastation. The subject makes an appearance in the title story, “Ahead of the Pack” and “Geography Boy,” but especially in the chilling, post-apocalyptic “Diary of an Interesting Year,” which first appeared in The New Yorker.

In “In-flight Entertainment,” Simpson enacts a marvelous scene where two businessmen pick over the bones of the global warming debate, making idle conversation as they shuttle over the Atlantic, while a fellow first-class passenger succumbs to heart failure:

“There was a flurry across the aisle and Alan craned his neck to make out the doctor arming himself with some sort of wire machine. Whump, it went; whump, whump. Pause. Alan saw the old man’s hands fly up in the air and come down again.
‘What’s that?’ he asked the air stewardess with a jerk of his head. Her eyes were suspiciously watery despite her professional smile. She shook her head and moved away.
‘That’ll be the defibrillator,’ said Jeremy.
Alan realized she had failed to take his pudding order and wondered if he could call her back.”

Meanwhile, in “Geography Boy,” a young woman in love still doesn’t believe her boyfriend’s protest group will have any impact on global warming. Her apathy almost brings their relationship to an end.

“He lifted her again and whirled her in his arms until they were both dizzy. Breathing hard, exhilarated, they leaned into a mutual embrace, this time for balance as much as anything. Then they stood in the fathomless dark and stared saucer-eyed beyond the stratosphere into the night, as troupes of boisterous planets wheeled across the blackness all around them.”

There is whimsy here, as well. In “The Festival of the Immortals,” two old school friends run into each other at an authors’ fair featuring Jane Austen, “Rabbie” Burns (again!), Alexander Pope, and the Bronte sisters, along with a reluctant Shakespeare: “He’s supposed to be arriving by helicopter at four this afternoon, but it’s always touch-and-go with him…it’s impossible to pin him down.”

The collection ends with the lyrical “Charm for a Friend with a Lamp,” a beautiful meditation on helping a friend with a terminal illness:

“We’ll have a party there this Midsummer’s eve, up by the tomato plants and ranks of romaine lettuce, just the two of us. Let’s write it on our calendars now. I can’t spare you. You’re indispensible! We’ll have a party and pledge your health by moonlight on the one night of the year when plants consumed or planted have magical powers. There is a great deal of talk about the benefits of mistletoe extract and so on, but I’m not convinced. You can spend a lot of time and energy chasing magic potions, when you might be better occupied weaving your own spells over the future.”

Helen Simpson is that rare writer, dedicated to the difficult art of the short story, creating very real, funny, poignant and full lives in the space of a few pages. If you don’t know her work, this is the perfect place to start and discover why the Financial Times calls her “the best short story writer now working in English.”

Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer by Chris Salewizc
How do you write an objective biography of an artist you’ve idolized and befriended while still mourning his untimely death?

If you’re author and journalist Chris Salewicz and the friend is Joe Strummer, lead singer of the Clash and The Mescaleros, who died at 50, you turn over the microphone to the extraordinarily jam-packed band of friends, fellow musicians, film directors, actors, managers, music industry people, and family members, including Strummer’s Scottish clan.

Salewicz does a neat trick here. He captures the diverse observations of a man many found both inspiring and exasperating. You don’t achieve harmony when you blend all those voices, but you do reveal a genuine life, with all its achievements and disappointments, loves and larks.

“Joe was the personification of Carl Jung’s view that all great truths must end in paradox,” Salewicz writes.

That paradox, between flashes of brilliance and all too mundane lives, is what makes artists so fascinating. If they weren’t human, we probably wouldn’t be paying attention in the first place.

Friends knew Joe Strummer under many pseudonyms: Woody the Hippie, the Merry Prankster, the Pied Piper of Punk, and, through long, Armagideon Times of doubt and depression, Chief Thundercloud.

He was born John, like that other outspoken bandleader, whose life his so frequently mirrored. Both Lennon and Strummer knew tragedy from a young age (Strummer’s older brother, David, committed suicide when Joe was 16). Both were poor students and wound up in art college. Both found salvation in rock ‘n’ roll and formed and disbanded a number of groups before finding the right mix. (The Clash, like the Beatles, didn’t gel till they found their drummer.) Strummer, as with Lennon, was never afraid to attack the issues of the day through lyrics and the media. Both had tumultuous relationships with women until their second marriages. Each struggled through his own Wilderness Years after breaking up beloved bands and suffering the wrath of fans. Thankfully for music history, they found their voices again, producing inspired music before exiting the stage. They both died in December, far too young and left enduring legacies. (Strummerville: The Joe Strummer Foundation for New Music)

Whether you were a fan of punk or not, by any stretch of the imagination, Joe Strummer had an extraordinary life. He traveled throughout the Mideast, Africa and Mexico at a young age, the son of a diplomat. He was involved in social, political and musical movements of his time, starting with the squatters protests in 1970s England, out of which grew pub rock and his early band, the 101ers. He was the leading spokesman of punk rock. When he found that limiting, he pushed the Clash into the Rock Against Racism movement and was an early proponent of world music.

Late ‘70s Britain was an era of speaking in CAPITAL LETTERS. Politics dictated what certain bands recorded, said to the media, who their friends were (many of Strummer’s squatter-hippie friends didn’t hear from him for a decade after he embraced punk rock), how they dressed and combed their hair.

“I’d like to think the Clash were revolutionaries,” Strummer once joked with an interviewer, “but we loved a bit of posing as well. ‘Where’s the hair gel? We can’t start the revolution till someone finds the hair gel!’ We were revolutionaries on behalf of punk rock.”

Nevertheless, the Clash were one of the very few bands ever to stand up for fans. They let in kids who couldn’t afford concert tickets through the backdoors of venues and allowed them to crash on their hotel room floors at night. They fought a crippling battle with their record company (forcing them into more Draconian terms) in order to release the double-album “London Calling” and triple set “Sandinista!” at the one-disc price. They refused to play Japan until the audience was allowed to stand up and dance. And, when their eight-night appearance at Bonds nightclub in New York was over-sold, they played an additional 10 shows to honor the tickets fans had purchased.

The Clash played a different set list every concert because they wanted each one to be a unique experience for fans. And, anyone who saw the Clash live (I saw them four times, plus once as Clash Mark II, after Mick Jones exited the group) will attest, they gave 110 percent onstage, Strummer pouring his heart out, night after grueling night.

Salewicz does an excellent job of recreating the scene that fuelled, ruled and finally imploded the Clash just as they were reaching a larger audience.

As with Lennon – and John Lydon – family, friends, bandmates and critics found Strummer’s brutal honesty funny, refreshing and painful. But, it was impossible for the man himself to live up to.

Was it difficult being the wise man of punk and politics?, Salewicz asked Strummer after the Clash split: “Yes, it was,” Strummer replied. “Drove me nuts sometimes.”

With any artist’s biography, it all comes back to the art. Salewicz has the details and discographies down pat thanks to three years of interviews and research. He’s a fair critic of Strummer’s less inspired work and fills in gaps in the life of a man who needed to get off the radar in order to renew his artistry.

It was fascinating to learn that anti-hippie Joe found his way back to old friends and a more peaceful life via rave culture and the campfires of Glastonbury, an annual U.K. music festival. The gathering of the tribes around the campfire – musicians, artists, extended family, friends and fans – became a ritual for Strummer, one that his foundation continues to this day.

For those of us who were long-time fans, it was devastating to learn that the man who gave it all, heart and soul, to his fans, and who once said, “My heart is when I’m onstage,” lost his life to a congenital condition he wasn’t aware of. “A main artery that should have run around his heart went through it instead. He could have died suddenly at any point during his fifty years,” Salewicz observes.

There have been plenty of books about the Clash. What’s lovely about Salewicz’s story is that it shares that wonderful sense of symmetry Strummer’s life had – like Lennon, he was able to find love, happiness, peace and renewed musical brilliance in the last few years of his life.

(The Pop Matters website features excerpts from Redemption Song.)

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta
I thought this novel might be off to a good start when I spotted a line from the Clash’s “Garageland” as one of its epigraphs. Like A Visit from the Goon Squad, Dana Spiotta’s most recent work is being called a “rock ‘n’ roll novel” (by none other than Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth).

While it features a character, Nik, with a brief career in a critically acclaimed band, the book mainly is about Nik’s sister, Denise, and how the two of them shape the stories of their lives into narratives. Nik, no longer with the band, has conjured an almost-fictional career for himself, producing album after album of his own music, following the sounds in his head, rather than contemporary taste, designing the covers (each one a piece of a larger collage), and even writing the reviews and a purported history, called The Chronicles. Denise, meanwhile, is stuck in mundane reality, trying to help Nik meet rent and stay healthy and occasionally correcting the story in The Chronicles.

To tell this tale, Spiotta plays with point of view. We start, rather dully, with Denise and Nik’s unhappy family back in the ‘70s, in third person. The novel gets going when it switches to an apparent first person present. But, the rug gets pulled out when we discover, toward the end (and now back in third person), that Denise has been writing all this first person detail to figure out Nik, who has disappeared after years of ill health and depression.

Late in the story, Denise’s daughter attempts to become a third participant in this point-of-view mish-mash, hoping to film a documentary about Nik. Luckily, this thread is dropped before it adds to the narrative confusion.

There are awkward constructions, as well. For example, a man brushes past Denise on a crowded New York City street, and he evokes her father, who hasn’t been an important part of this story since the opening chapter, in large part because he died when she and Nik were very young: “I felt the memory of my father on my body, the way you feel a breeze or the heat of the sun. He did not feel – and so was not – entirely lost to me.”

Three problems with these lines: 1) Denise consistently tells us throughout the story that she has no memories of her father. 2) The first sentence is about memory and not at all about anything darker that might be going on between Denise and her father, but it’s so poorly constructed that it has to be read at least twice for the reader to be sure of what’s going on. 3) The clause set off by dashes in the second sentence makes the reader lose the meaning again. “He did not feel” because he’s dead? “And so was not” alive? Oh, the reader realizes, when she arrives at the end, Spiotta really means to have Denise say, “I felt like my father was not entirely lost to me.”

The narrative grinds to a halt for five brief chapters about various topics in the news that Denise fixates on, as well as another sidebar that takes Denise to a devout New York community, somewhat like the Amish, called Stone Arabia, where a woman’s daughter has been abducted and is presumed murdered. Presumably, despite the entirely different circumstances, Spiotta sees some relation between the mother’s loss and Denise’s, but the scene of Denise, coming all the way from California to accost the mother in an effort to learn something is just plain embarrassing and unrealistic.

This many distractions for the reader are too much for a short novel (235 pages in hardcover) to withstand. There are any number of enticing chords that could have been struck and orchestrated into a melodic whole. Sadly, we’re left with an incoherent cacophony. This one hardly rates a 4, and you can’t dance to it.

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida
Vida is one of the promising pack of young women writers, like Nicole Krauss, who’ve avoided the clever-cleverness of their husbands’ prose (Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer) and forged new ground. This is her second novel and fourth book, and it takes the reader above the Arctic Circle on a daughter’s journey to discover her true origins.

Along the way, we learn how Clarissa’s mother abandoned the family and returned to the wilderness of northern Finland, where she’d lived in her 20s and which was the setting for a pivotal, devastating experience in Olivia’s life. The plot is tied up with the history of the Sami, the indigenous people of this region, who still herd reindeer across the vast tundra.

Northern Lights is a compact tale. It finishes after 226 pages of tightly drawn scenes. Every sentence is Subject-Verb-Object. Every sentence is terse. “I unbuckled my belt. My head pulsed.” The brain grows a bit cranky, wanting to bust out of this construction and learn more about this alien landscape and the fascinating people who have managed to survive almost impossible conditions for generations.

This is the entirety of Chapter 10, when Clarissa deserts her boyfriend to journey across Finland and Finmark:

“I left our apartment at six a.m., passing Pankaj sleeping on the couch, his right foot extended on the coffee table. No one knew I was going anywhere. Disappearing is nothing. I learned this from my mother.”

These kinds of statements are meant to seem like they reveal character, but really they don’t. Disappearing means nothing because the author chooses to tell us nothing. It’s a fear too many callow writers have – the idea that revealing emotions is somehow too sentimental, too corny, too much the hallmark of genres like romance – that Literature should be more reserved. It made me yearn for the fearlessness of a John Updike, whose sentences are like an electric jolt to the head and heart. His perfectly captured moments (“…spangled his insides with fear”) tell you more about a father’s emotions than some authors accomplish with a chapter’s worth of words.

Perhaps trusting yourself with emotions comes as writers age. Vida already is a master plot-maker, and I can see her going to those deeper places, even as the novel progresses:

“…and on some nights in bed, in that moment before sleep erased the day, I would picture the way the sky in Lapland looked the morning I left, how the train had sped south beneath a sky that was brighter than it had been in weeks. It had pulsed with reds and oranges, as though hiding a beating heart.”

Lines like that make me look forward to hearing more from this writer.

The B2B Social Media Book: Become a Marketing Superstar by Generating Leads with Blogging, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, E-Mail, and More by Kipp Bodnar and Jeffrey L. Cohen
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher. You can read my review, “B2B Social Media Marketing Is All about the Benjamins, Not Buzz,” on the Social Media Club website.

Writing that inspired me:

“Ignore Alien Orders”
~ sticker on Joe Strummer’s guitar

Reading Lessons

I’d been happily wending my way through books week after week as part of a personal year-long reading challenge, when April arrived and brought a few surprises along with its traditional showers.

April was National Poetry Month, and to celebrate and fill in a (gawping) hole in my experience, I read an entire book of poetry. This was also the first time in a very long time (at least since college) that I devoured a book in one sitting (actually, I’m lying – I was prone).

Nothing wrong with either of these events except that I was so curious about the collection of Mick Imlah poems and so thrilled to read Jeanette Winterson’s memoir after hearing her talk about how reading led to her life as a writer that, the moment these two books arrived in the mail, I set aside my “assigned” weekly reading and plunged headfirst into my new acquisitions. And it took a while before I could get back into the frame of mind to pick up The Stolen Child again – this was the book I’d stolen time from to devote to the others.

It occurred to me that I own quite a few books with tongues hanging out of their pages, some marked a quarter of the way through, some half. The reason is that I lost steam, or my mood changed, or I developed fervor for a different book and just had to read it now, as I did with Imlah and Winterson.

It also struck me that while “assigned reading” – reading one book until it’s done, then picking up the next selection in an orderly fashion – seems almost too structured for free time or pleasure, there’s still value in the discipline. Up until April, it certainly kept me on track for this goal I’m hoping to achieve. I didn’t blow it, but I could’ve, and I recognize how I’ve fallen off course with other books before. So, just for this year, I’m going to try to read sequentially instead of the anything-that-strikes-my-fancy and everything-at-once approaches I usually take, and see where it gets me.

How about you? Do you organize your pleasure reading in any way?

Standard disclosure: I bought the first four books and received the last one as a free review copy from the publisher. Several are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.

SCORECARD

April
5 down, 33 to go!

REVIEWS

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
This is the book I finished in one go. It arrived during a rare rainstorm in Los Angeles, the perfect evening to curl up with a great book while the heat radiated through a cozy room and the rain pitter-pattered on the roof.

If you’ve seen a review of Winterson’s memoir or read her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, you’re familiar with the outline of this story: Winterson was an infant when she was adopted by an evangelist couple. They lived hardscrabble in northern England, spent summers proselytizing, no books but the Bible allowed in the house.

I, too, was adopted within weeks of birth and about a year after Winterson was. Obviously, I grew up with a love of books – fully aided and abetted by my adoptive parents, who adored reading – and so this story was enthralling in its own sad and scary way.

Winterson had at least three coming-out episodes with her mother, a woman with no joy in her life, who took her religion far more literally than Winterson’s father appeared to. The first battle was over young Jeanette’s love of books and reading, the second was caused by her break with the church, and the third, which created a final, unrecoverable rift, over her mother’s refusal to accept Winterson’s love for other women.

She left home at 16, lived out of her car, and, despite years of struggle at school, became an autodidact, reading her way through the library’s fiction section from A – Z.

“I had no one to help me, but the T.S. Eliot helped me,” Winterson writes. “A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.”

The memoir examines these early years, up to Winterson’s arrival at Oxford, with an unexpected fair-mindedness. There is then an intermission of 25 years – a wise choice to skip the details, well-travelled by book reviews and profiles, of Winterson’s successful career as an author – with the story picking up again as she suffers a dark night of the soul.

Part of recovery involves searching for her birth mother; the book describes how frustratingly difficult and bureaucratic the effort is, despite the loosening of Britain’s privacy laws regarding adoption records.

I won’t spoil the ending for you. This is a sharply observed life, told with powerful economy (coming in at 230 pages) and language that has the ability both to stagger and uplift. Much of the memoir focuses on the ability of books to nourish one’s strength (or soul, as Mrs. Winterson might have it), create us, help us define our beliefs and values, and make us whole again when those beliefs are shaken.

I’m lucky enough to live within the listening area of public radio station KCRW, which beams Michael Silverblatt’s “Bookworm” to the world. He recently interviewed Winterson about Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, and it was pure magic to listen to both of them talk about the transcendent nature of reading. (This is a 30-minute program.)

A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight
Straight has a remarkable facility for character voice. Through Moinette, 12 at the time the novel opens, she evokes the lives and experiences of slaves working the sugarcane plantations around New Orleans in the early 19th century.

The novel follows Moinette’s journey from Azure, where she was born to an enslaved mother and white father, to the troubled family that owns the de la Rosiere plantation, and, later, as she is sold to a young lawyer, Msieu Antoine, who has his own reasons for needing a beautiful young slave in his house. Moinette is only 18, and mother to a son by her former owner. She has been torn away from her fiercely protective mother, Tretite the cook, and all the other older women who looked after her and loses her son because Msieu Antoine cannot afford to buy them both.

“And now I was eighteen and had already collected memory people. Is that how the balance shifted for the rest of life, as Tretite has once tried to explain to me? She said you grew older and lived inside your memory, the things you saw and tasted and smelled in the past. My son hadn’t remembered me at all this time. Not until I said my name.”

This is Straight’s sixth novel and it weaves together historical fact (like the laws established by the Code Noir and the harsher treatment of both slaves and free people of color when Louisiana became an American territory) and wonderfully realized details of daily life, such as the way Spanish moss is boiled and dried to use as mattress stuffing and the ingredients that go into the laundry soaps that Moinette’s mother uses.

With the grace of a poet, Straight keeps the reader with Moinette through all the pain and suffering, the small acts of kindness and the fragility of existence along the rough edges of bayou.

Collected Poems by Mick Imlah
“His early death was an incalculable loss to poetry,” writes Alan Hollinghurst in the introduction to this collection, and one is left with an unexpected frisson, a curious combination of thrill and mourning after reading Imlah.

Hollinghurst, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of my favorite writers, and he dedicates his latest, The Stranger’s Child, (the plot of which revolves around a charismatic young poet, gone before his time) to Imlah. This led me to a remembrance by Hollinghurst in the English press and the desire to read at least one of the two books published during Imlah’s lifetime. It took a while, as neither Birthmarks nor The Lost Leader seem to be available in print. Selected Poems gathers examples from both with several unpublished poems.

I struggled with many of the later poems about Scotland, where Imlah makes detailed (and obscure, for the uninitiated reader) reference to ancient kings and battles. But elsewhere Imlah’s turns of phrase – “too burgled to speak,” “his eyes pin-clear, pleading” – helped me press on.

As Hollinghurst notes, “What dazzles and thrills throughout the thirty-year span of Imlah’s work is his inventiveness, the sense of a mind pondering and producing at any turn something wholly unexpected…”

You’ll encounter an evolutionist in his bathtub, short verses describing the counties of England, alcoholism compared to a birthmark, Quasimodo, Alfred Lord Tennyson, all those Scottish ballads, and two late poems for his children. Not your typical stuff of poetry, but all imaginatively handled, some in rhyme, others that read almost like newspaper reports or essays (with footnotes!).

Imlah was the poet I decided to read during National Poetry Month, and it’s a good thing because he’s put me in the mood for a quest (perhaps it was all those Scottish legends) for more, more, more.

The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue
While myths and certain aspects of science fiction intrigue me, fairy stories haven’t been a draw. So I approached this with trepidation and found a unique story that tackles the subject without being cloying or cutesy.

Donohue keeps the myths of stolen children part of the mystery – are the bands of changelings in the woods innocent fairies or hobgoblins and devils? Are the abducted children better off with the supernatural powers of changelings while a hobgoblin assumes human form and their rightful place in a family? Donohue explores all of these ideas, alternating chapters from the point of view of Henry Day, the stolen child, whom the changelings rename Aniday, and the sprite (a century-old abductee himself) who takes Henry’s place, finally allowed to grow to human adulthood, marry and have his own family.

The book is filled with longing and doubt on both sides, as the decades pass and the city spreads into the countryside, encroaching upon the woods, threatening the cyclical life of the changelings forever.

There are some fairly big slip-ups in the plot – a major discovery that happens twice, a big revelation that once out of the bag doesn’t make any sense, the changelings’ powers appear and disappear at the author’s convenience – and Donohue tends to tell us what characters are feeling rather than show us. The alternating-chapter structure means that the fairy story in the woods drags along with repetitive scenes in order to accommodate all the years it takes new-Henry to grow up. And the reader never really senses why Aniday, especially in the days and weeks after he’s first taken, remains with his captors rather than giving in to his homesickness.

However, Donohue does a good job of creating his own mythology of changelings and stolen children and there’s a good deal of tension between new-Henry and his parents, with the reader curious to find out just how much the Days know and whether or when they’ll act on their suspicions.

Optimize: How to Attract and Engage More Customers by Integrating SEO, Social Media, and Content Marketing by Lee Odden
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher. My review, “SEO: It’s All about the Customer,” can be found on the Social Media Club website.

Listening that inspired me this week:

NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour” podcast features a lovely discussion about books and reading challenges.