Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Nix Tops My List for First Six Months of the Year

I just looked at the calendar and realized that it's been two weeks since I've written, which is a no-no in blog land. That means that it's been two weeks since things fell apart, literally. My apologies to Achebe. Two weeks ago over dinner, wine, and politics, my partner's face turned a strange hue. His knee, which had been replaced (badly) several years earlier, had actually come apart. Femur detached from prosthesis. I could only concentrate on how to get him well. I'm relieved to tell you that the outcome appears to be better than we could have hoped.

So now I'm back, and thrilled to tell you that I've just discovered the next Jonathan Franzen, though you'll have to wait until the end of August to share my admiration. Thank you to journalism professor, Lyn Millner, for tipping me off to this debut novel by one of her former colleagues, Nathan Hill.

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I simply cannot believe that "The Nix" is a first novel. Mr. Hill seems so young (I met him at Book Expo), yet his book is so wise, funny, and all-encompassing that it feels like the work of a mature, experienced writer. And the research he must have done in order to so expertly describe for his readers the physical toll on the body of a person suffering from addiction to gaming, or the incredible concentration of a violinist preparing for a concert - well, it's just overwhelming. Oh, and I defy you not to laugh out loud as Hill skewers academia today, the coddled students, the political correctness, and the guaranteed grades that are ruining our institutes of higher learning.

So what is the book about you ask. Just listen to this first line.

 "If Samuel had known that his mother was leaving, he might have paid more attention."

This is a story of abandonment, of a young man so deeply scarred by the disappearance of his mother when he was only a boy, that he doesn't even recognize the damage. When, twenty-some years later, Samuel gets a call from an attorney asking if he'll provide a character reference for his mother, you might not blame him for declining. He wants nothing to do with her. He doesn't even know this woman, branded by the media as an aging radical hippie, on trial for allegedly throwing gravel at a Trump-like politician and accidentally blinding him.

But then, in another hilarious trashing of the publishing industry, Samuel, a budding writer without a story, is blackmailed by his agent into writing a tell-all about his mom, Faye Andresen-Anderson. So, for all the wrong reasons, Sam tries to reconnect with his mother and we readers are treated to a tour-de-force of gorgeous prose.

Hill takes us back to the turbulent sixties. As he describes being smothered in the crush of a political demonstration gone out of control, horses and cops bearing down on students, the feeling of fear and breathlessness is visceral. The memories of Sam's own lonely childhood are wonderfully explicit, the boy reading under the covers at night, penning his own "Choose Your Own Adventure" story, is a child you want to wrap your arms around.

Secondary characters are incredibly drawn and nuanced, especially the twins, Bishop, Sam's troubled best friend, and Bishop's sister Bethany, who will always be Sam's north star. And there's Sebastian, the charismatic leader of the Chicago protests, Faye's first love, who incites naïve students to do his bidding yet never seems to be there himself when the arrests are made.

The depth and breadth of this 600 plus page novel is astounding. Hill writes with great insight about friendship, love, responsibility, convictions, and courage. I mentioned that I see him as the next Franzen but I believe that Hill has more humanity, a more generous, forgiving nature for his fellow human beings. "The Nix" is a must-read and is now firmly at number one out of the sixty books I've read so far this year. I would love to send my copy to the first new commenter on my blog. Trust me, you'll be glad you spoke up.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper

If you know anyone who is going through the grieving process, and more importantly, is open to some kind advice, buy them this book. It is a sweet meditation on grief and lives well lived. Sometimes fiction can be the better antidote than a well-meaning self help book, and I believe it's often easier to recognize ourselves and our foibles through a fictional character as opposed to say, a Joan Didion or a Diane Rehm.

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When Phaedra Patrick's ( novel opens, sixty-nine-year-old Arthur Pepper is hiding in his own house, breathing shallow, praying that the old neighborhood busybody will just GO AWAY. Bernadette is known in the village of Thornapple as the patron saint of lost causes. Arthur does not intend to be one of them.

Since his wife Miriam's death, a full year ago now, Arthur has become a recluse. They had forty beautiful years together, a peaceful life of love and contentment  ended by pneumonia. Now Arthur wants nothing more than to be left alone to live with his memories, his only companion, his fern, Frederica. Son Dan has his own life in distant Australia and his daughter Lucy? She didn't even come to her mother's funeral and Arthur doesn't have the heart or curiosity to ask why.

After Bernadette abandons all hope of raising Arthur, she shoves a few "self-help" brochures through the mail slot and trundles away. Arthur decides that he can put if off no longer. Today is the day he will bag up and dispose of Miriam's things. Reminiscing and tearing up, he sorts through clothes, shoes, handbags, and papers, remarking again on what a simple woman Miriam was, so easy to live with, asking so little of him.

Pulling out a pair of mukluks still good enough for the church sale, Arthur feels 
something bunched up in the toe. He is startled to discover a red, heart-shaped box holding a gaudy, gold charm bracelet, so unlike anything Miriam would wear that he laughs out loud. And then, as people with too much time on their hands are wont to do, he begins to wonder. Why had he never seen it before? Whose could it be? Why was it hidden away? And the exotic charms? An elephant? A tiger? What could they mean?

This discovery galvanizes Arthur in a way that nothing has done in the past year. He becomes obsessed with knowing all he can about Miriam's life before they met and the charms act like Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs. The story takes on a fantastical air as Arthur, in hot pursuit of Miriam's youth, comes back to life himself. He makes phone calls, follows up leads, begins to travel, to talk to people he never would have engaged with before. The origin of the elephant charm nets him an invite to India, and the tiger, well, let me say that Arthur's quest becomes a piece of slapstick comedy writing. And don't ask how he ends up posing in the nude for an art class!

Ms. Patrick's book is no literary masterpiece and it doesn't pretend to be. But it does represent the kind of homespun wisdom that you would find in an Alexander McCall Smith book or in "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry." It's such a pleasure to watch Arthur rediscover the joy of living, reconnect with humanity, and accept that we must not waste a single moment of the life we've been blessed with by mourning the past. In fact the author tells us, we actually have an obligation to the people we have loved, those who have died before us, too young, too soon, to fully embrace each day that we are given. I've always believed this.  "The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper," reaffirmed it for me in the guise of fiction, the only form I understand.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

More From Chicago and Life Lessons from Louise Erdrich

It's been almost a month since my friend Maryellen and I made sure we'd be first in line for a table at the  Adult Librarians' Author Lunch sponsored by Arriving on the dot of noon we found that we could not outsmart those greedy librarians who had showed up early for the freebies - books by all the authors who were speaking, not to mention the boxed lunch!

Though I had to leave without a copy, the title I'm most anticipating this summer is Jodi Picoult's "Small Great Things." Her talk with us was humorous, inspiring, and important. Her book, one she said she's been wanting to write for years but didn't have the courage or the wisdom to tackle, is about race.

"Oh no, not again," you may be saying, but not so fast. I expect this novel to be on every book group's radar for discussion this year. I say this because of the way Picoult went about researching the topic. She admits to being a middle-class white woman from a happy, stable childhood, who had all the white privilege afforded to so many of us. What could she possible have to say about what if feels like to be a black woman?

Particularly one like her main character Ruth, a nurse on a maternity ward who's been told that she may not touch or otherwise care for the newborn of a white supremacist couple. What happens if the baby is in distress and Ruth is the only one on duty? Will she act as her medical oath says she must or walk away? Repercussions?

I'll say no more. If you'd like to hear more from Picoult, she was interviewed at the PBS stage at Book Expo here:

I did pick up a copy of Fredrik Backman's "Britt Marie Was Here." Backman made a name for himself with a surprise hit last year, "A Man Called Ove." Now he's taking on the female of the species with a curmudgeonly, OCD -inflicted, middle-aged woman who leaves her unfaithful husband to make her way in a world that is not in the least organized to her liking. Called funny, observant, and humane, the Swedish Backman overcame what is obviously a deep aversion to public speaking in order to follow in Jodi Picoult shoes. He kept the audience laughing with his sweet, self-deprecating humor.

This panel was way too large, brimming with outsize personalities, to be contained within the short time frame. I felt embarrassed for Noah Hawley, of TV's "Fargo" fame, who had the unfortunate position of last speaker of the day. He only had a few minutes as we were all rising from our seats to rush off the next presentation. I doubt that it will matter though since his new novel, "Before the Fall," was being advertised everywhere. Even our nametags were used as pitches for this follow up to "The Good Father," a heartbreaking study of a family trying to come to grips with the deadly action of their lost son. Janet Maslin of the New York Times called Hawley's latest, "one of the Year's best suspense novels." Place your holds now! Maryellen, you're going to send me yours, right?

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich, for me, has been an acquired taste. When I was younger I don't believe that I fully appreciated, or even understood, her deep desire to acquaint non-native Americans with the nuances of the native culture into which she was born. And certainly, not until "Round House," did I absorb the passion that Erdrich feels for her Ojibwe ancestors and for the difficult balancing act that they and other native peoples perform as they try to live in two worlds.

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In her new novel, "LaRose," released a couple of weeks ago, Erdrich returns to North Dakota where another tragedy decimates a family, pointing to the vast differences between tribal justice and state laws. In the book's shocking opening scene, tribal member Landreaux Iron aims steadily at a deer on the edge of the property line that separates his land from that of his wife's half-sister, Nola and her husband, Peter. But as the deer flees, a small body crumples to the ground. Landreaux has killed a little boy, his son Larose's best friend, Dusty.
Though eventually cleared of legal wrong doing by the police, Landreaux's burden of guilt invades his entire being, affecting his relationships in town and in his family, especially with his wife Emmaline. Seeking the spiritual solace of his ancestors, Landreaux approaches Emmaline asking the impossible. They must give their beautiful boy, LaRose, to Peter and Nola, for them to raise as their own child. This is the tribal way.
It may seem outrageous to readers and yet, in her research, Erdrich found that this was in fact a means of atonement in other cultures too. What is so unforgivable is that the boy, LaRose, is not really told why his family is basically giving him away. Yet, when he moves in with Nola and Peter, he intuits that he is there for an important reason, and with a knowledge way beyond his years, he accepts his situation and vows to be all that Nola needs to help her through her grief.
Grief is at the heart of this novel, depicted so beautifully, that all-encompassing inability to find joy in life or in the love and support of family. Nola is debilitated to the point where her older daughter Maggie, also devastated at the loss of her brother, joins forces with LaRose in a pact to watch over and care for their mother, to keep her from the ultimate act of a woman without hope.
And what, you might ask, of Emmaline? What can she be thinking, seeing her own last born child being raised by another woman, running into her son in the store, feverish with desire to hold and squeeze him to her breast, yet unable? What hatred and resentment does she nurture as she lies next to her husband at night, unable to feel anything after the loss of her boy?
And what of the fathers? Peter? Is he less of a man because he cannot bring himself to kill Landreaux in an act of vengeance? Might it have been easier on everyone if Landreaux had been found guilty of a crime? Perhaps he was drunk? After all, he was an alcoholic at one time.
This novel is agonizing to read and yet Ms. Erdrich injects just enough backstory, dollops of humor, and, as is her style, a native myth tracing the LaRose name back through generations, attached to both male and female characters gifted in the healing arts. In this way she miraculously weaves a thread that will eventually stitch these two families into a semblance of one. It's a tale of power, redemption, reconciliation, and love, feelings sorely needed in today's world. A magical read.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

More Forthcoming Treats from Book Expo

Product DetailsTwo debut authors and two seasoned veterans shared the big stage in the afternoon at Library Journal's Day of Dialog, and I'm especially excited about the novels from the newbies.

I wasn't able to snap up a copy of Emma Cline's "The Girls," but will be watching for it. Those of you who were riveted by the publicity surrounding the Charles Manson murders will recognize the time and place of Cline's book, northern California, late '60's, a novel which Cline remarks is not so much about the murders themselves as it is about the way in which naïve young women, desperately wanting to fit in, to be included, can be mesmerized by the tremendous power of evil. Published by the wonderful Bill Clegg ("Did you Ever Have a Family"), and already optioned for a film, the 26-year-old, Cline is on her way. To read more see this interview:

Product DetailsThe beautiful, passionate, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Jamaican-born, Cornell-educated writer, was there every time I turned around at Book Expo. Her credentials are impressive, and the buzz on her first novel, "Here Comes the Sun," is hot. I DID manage to get a copy and will be offering it as a giveaway the moment I finish it.

The book revolves around a major corporation that buys up the much sought after Jamaican waterfront property to build oases of opulence and indulgence for tourists, without giving a thought to the native population who once worked their own land. Jamaicans are supposed to consider themselves fortunate to be able to smile ingratiatingly while they man the phones, clean the rooms, and serve the food, for the foreigners who deign to fly in for a week of R and R and a chance to get on "Jamaican time, mon."

One senses that this will be a very personal, difficult novel to read based on the fact that Dennis-Benn broke down in sincere, deep sobs at one point during her talk with librarians at a private luncheon. She was able to escape to a better life here in the states but what about those who aren't so fortunate? That's who this book is about.

And what can I say about Colson Whitehead? His writing defies cataloging. A wunderkind in the literary world and too darn handsome (can I say that? Is it sexist?), his work has come up on the short list for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle awards ("John Henry Days"). My personal favorite was "Sag Harbor," and his last one was the non-fiction look at the world poker championship in Las Vegas, "The Noble Hustle."

Product DetailsBut coming later this summer is the novel he's been thinking about, he told us, for the last twenty years. "The Underground Railroad," mixes the facts gleaned from slave narratives complied in the 1930's by the WPA with Whitehead's stab at magical realism, in which the underground railroad is not just a turn of phrase but an actual railroad that runs underground. Readers follow Cora and Caesar as they navigate the railroad from a plantation in Georgia north to freedom and learn the dark history of America's dependence upon the economics of slavery along the way. I'm told it's a must read and yes, I'll be sharing my copy.

And that's not all! Chris Cleave, Amor Towles, and Jodi Picoult, still to come, along with my reviews of Louise Erdrich's "LaRose," and the quirky new "Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper."