Saturday, April 26, 2014

Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates

To be brought up in a family that reads, can anyone be more fortunate? My mom introduced me to Joyce Carol Oates more years ago than I care to imagine. I consider Ms. Oates to be the female incarnation of Philip Roth, and though I read that she's retiring next year from teaching at the young age of 75, I doubt very much that she'll ever follow Roth into retirement from writing. Writing must be like breathing to her.

I've had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Oates and hearing her speak at conferences. The disconnect between what you see in person and what you get on the page is so great as to be almost laughable. This fragile-appearing, delicate woman with a wisp of a voice is so powerful and passionate in her writing that it takes your breath away. Her latest novel, "Carthage," is one more in a lengthy line of works that reach the heights of Greek tragedy.

Upstate New York is a familiar landscape for Oates and the fictional Carthage could be any one of those towns whose names harken back to the myths of Syracuse, Utica or Troy. Perhaps the myth is that growing up in these supposedly idyllic small towns is as peaceful as depicted in a Norman Rockwell painting.

The perfect Mayfield family consists of Zeno, the former mayor of Carthage, his lovely wife Arlette, and daughters, Juliet, the pretty one, and Cressida, the difficult one, over-sensitive, moody, unsociable, maybe even on the autism spectrum.

Brett Kincaid is engaged to marry the sunny one, Juliet, a school teacher, an eternal optimist. But then, 9/11. Small town hero wannabe, just like the Tom Cruise character in  the devastating film, "Born on the Fourth of July," Brett signs up for duty in Iraq.

Oates opens her novel after Kincaid has returned, physically maimed and psychologically broken. With every fiber of her being she has written into Brett Kincaid her own horror of war and its inevitable outcome. How, she asks, can we expect to train impressionable young men in the violent ways of warfare and not have that violence turned back on us?

When Brett ends his engagement to Juliet, Cressida sees an opportunity to join forces with him. After all, shouldn't two outcasts, different from the others in Carthage, choose to be together, to help each other, to combine their darker natures? Brett and Cressida ride out into the woods together after an alcohol fueled conversation at a local biker bar. In the morning, the police find Brett asleep in his blood splattered jeep on the side of the road. They don't find Cressida.

One would think that shared grief would draw loved ones closer together but life teaches us that this is seldom the case. Hounded by the news media, in shock, anger, and sorrow, the Mayfields, once a proud Carthage family, begin to disintegrate before our eyes, as they slowly face the fact that Brett must have killed their younger daughter.

This is a remarkable novel. There's no doubt in my mind that Joyce Carol Oates will one day walk away with the ultimate prize for literature that has so far eluded her. Through the prism of the Mayfield family she manages to lay bare the heart of our broken prison system, the horror of solitary confinement, and the futility of the death penalty.

She examines love in its many iterations, the ebb and flow of a marriage strained to the breaking point, and the difficult relationship of two sisters, thrown together by the accident of birth, but with no common ground upon which to build a friendship.

She writes of faith and the lack of it, the ability of some to forgive and the complete inability in others. This novel is honest and raw and Shakespearean in heft. What more can I say? To get a feel for JCO and the depth and breadth of her writing, click here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Summer House with Swimming Pool

I didn't plan to write about this novel because it is so horrifyingly evil that I'd almost feel guilty recommending it. But I was struck by a line I read in Sunday's "New York Times Book Review," which changed my mind. Edmund White, in his cover article about the new Francine Prose book, says, "It's a daring thing to write about an evil person......And yet evil characters are usually dynamic and fascinating, upstaging all the goody-goodies."

Do you agree?

If so, keep your eyes fixed on June when Herman Koch's new novel, after the ferociously diabolical, "The Dinner," will be released. After you read "Summer House with Swimming Pool," you will never be able to look at your family doctor in the same way.

Marc Schlosser's medical practice suits him perfectly. The office runs smoothly, each patient allotted his twenty minutes of face time. The doctor listens, placidly smiling, blank eyed, while his mind percolates with mean-spirited thoughts about his patients. Still he makes sure each leaves with a prescription for something, anything that will keep him coming back, and moves swiftly on to the next.

Schlosser has what would appear to be a great life, a wife he still cares for, reasonably enough, and two lovely pre-pubescent daughters whose beauty makes him inordinately proud. The family is not rich but they certainly want for nothing, until, that is, aging film star and man-about-town, Ralph Meier and his wife Judith, enter the picture along with their two teen-age sons.

Koch creates in Ralph a stereotype of an actor on the wrong side of forty. Pushy and egotistical, Ralph thrives on being the center of attention. He's not Marc's type at all and yet the two families form an uneasy friendship that's fueled by too many late-night parties, too much booze, and a hefty dose of sexual tension between the couples.

Against his wife Caroline's wishes, Dr. Marc manages to navigate the annual summer camping trip with the girls, to a beachside area that's only spitting distance from the Meiers' palatial summer house. In just a matter of hours, the two families "accidentally" run into each other at an outdoor restaurant and, by the following day, Ralph and his wife Judith insist that the Schlosser family move their camping equipment to the side yard of the summer house.

Koch ratchets up the tension in such a cautious, understated way that, as you read, your stomach turns and you're not even sure why. Where "The Dinner,"  was in your face, "Summer House with Swimming Pool" is a more subtle, psychological look at a similar theme. How far will a person go to protect his family? Herman Koch provides a stunningly provocative answer.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Sue Monk Kidd, Dissident Daughter

Long before she became famous for her novels, "The Secret Life of Bees," and "The Invention of Wings," Sue Monk Kidd was known in certain circles for her Christian writing. Perhaps I knew this subconsciously and simply didn't pay attention, as her earlier titles would not have been on my radar. Now, I'm very glad that I went back to Ms. Kidd's turning point, "The Dance of the Dissident Daughter," because, not only did it speak to me on a personal level, but it gave me greater insight into her fiction writing.

If you are a seeker who has ever questioned the bible, your faith, whatever it may be, or the patriarchal hierarchy of most religions, governments, and societies, then this book is for you. First published almost twenty years ago, this is a painfully honest, brave, and yes, dissident telling of Ms. Kidd's journey away from her Christian tradition toward a more feminist sensibility of the sacred.

I remember clearly the first time that I internally challenged the logic of something one of the nuns told me in Sunday school. I couldn't have been more than 9 or 10 years old. Of course, I couldn't speak with anyone about my questions and doubts. At least, I didn't think so at the time.

Like Ms. Kidd, I struggled to work within church boundaries, teaching Sunday school, serving on adult education committees and parish boards, until one day, about twenty-five years ago, I simply got up and walked out of my church in the middle of a gospel reading, most likely from Paul. I never looked back.

But for a woman like Ms. Kidd, the daughter and the wife of Baptist ministers, coming to grips with a loss of faith in the standard, male dominated Christian tradition, created a shattering internal upheaval, which she writes of passionately and gracefully in her book. What a catharsis it must have been.

She speaks lovingly of her husband, Sandy, who reluctantly at first, took the journey with her, and of her beloved daughter Ann, whose misogynistic treatment through the words of two strangers, served as the catalyst for Sue's awakening to the power of the feminine.

Now that science has proven that all humankind began in Africa, a matriarchal society that worshipped and reflected in its art, the fecund female form, it is even more ironic that most faith traditions are rooted in the belief that only men are holy enough, perfect enough, to lead their flocks to God. Ms. Kidd's affinity for Africa and also for Greece, lead her to the realization that the sacred is indeed feminine.

Naturally, it is much more complicated than that, but Ms. Kidd takes us on her six-year search for female identity and self worth, through lengthy retreats and deep reading, explaining logically as she goes, how each wrongful, male dominated myth fell by the wayside. Try to remember how you felt as a girl the first time you were subjected to the Adam and Eve story.

Sue Monk Kidd tells her story with kindness, but she is not above well-founded anger. At one point she describes sitting in church, roiling with anger. I could almost laugh at the painfully similar memories that came back to me. She says, " female soul was shouting for her life." She goes on to say, "This is a stupendous moment for a woman...when she decides to live from her own inner guidance."

This book is a revelation, an homage to Mother Nature, to the wisdom of matriarchal societies, and an explanation of the very best in the often maligned word "feminism." It is the story of women who invented wings, a phrase that twenty years later would become the title of Kidd's novel about the crossed paths of the abolitionist and women's suffrage movements in the early twentieth century.

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Weekend with A. J. Fikry

Whenever you see that Algonquin Books, out of Chapel Hill, is publishing a new novel, you can be sure that it's going to be a little gem. That is their much deserved reputation. Such is the case with "The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry," which I read over the weekend. Garth Stein, "The Art of Racing in the Rain," provides the cover blurb. That should tell you all you need to know.

This novel is a bibliophile's delight, set as it is in a quirky bookstore on a Nantucket-like island off the coast of Massachusetts. The sign over the store,

"No Man is an Island; Every Book is a World,"

 doesn't seem to reflect the sensibility of the curmudgeonly owner, A. J. Fikry, who hides in his office, bellowing orders to the sullen part-timer at the register.  Advanced readers copies of publishers' hot list titles pile up and overflow in every corner of the cramped store. Most evenings, Fikry heads to the apartment upstairs where he drinks himself into a stupor. You see, his wife Nic, dead two years now from an auto accident, was the life of the store. Without her, A.J. feels that its soul is missing.

A. J. reads deeply and has strong, some might say outdated, opinions of just what makes great literature. He argues passionately with Amelia, the fresh, young sales rep from the Knightley Press, against anything new. Closet book snobs will laugh out loud at some of his prejudices, which include anything involving vampires, magical realism, maudlin memoirs, Holocaust fiction, celebrity bios, and god forbid, children's books.

Yes, Amelia has her work cut out for her, but somehow we understand early on that she's up to the task. And when Fikry, while closing shop one evening, discovers a strange package left behind near the Maurice Sendak section, (the only children's author he'll tolerate), an entire small town full of wonderful characters step in to help him decide what to do. I especially loved the not-so-macho, Jeffery Deaver-reading policeman, Chief Lambiase, who forms the Chief's Choice book club for law enforcement officers. 

So, who is Garbrielle Zevin? I'll never be able to keep up with all the talent out there. It seems that she's been around for quite a while, having written seven novels, including an American Library Association Notable award winner for children. You can hear an NPR interview with her at her website:

This is a very special novel, one I did not want to put down. Zevin has managed to create a mash up of mystery, love story, tragedy, and redemptive fiction all in one 260 page bundle. "The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry" is full of heart, not to mention an eclectic reading list. If fiction has ever saved your life as it did mine, this book is for you.

Friday, April 11, 2014

George Pelecanos, A Writer's Writer

Like so many readers, I know what I like but I may not always be able to express why. Participating in a writing class has helped me focus on, or maybe I should say, recognize, the qualities I love about certain authors. Since the class I'm taking is in the journalism department, the stress is on "showing, not telling." This is tricky, and involves writing short, concise sentences (something I've never done), and sparing the adjectives and adverbs. As the professor says, powerful verbs don't need adverbs.

George Pelecanos has intrigued me for going on twenty years and now I know why. His style epitomizes classic, spare wordsmithing. There is rarely a wasted word in his novels. With George, reading is seeing. I often listen to his novels while I'm walking and it's like watching a movie. Narrator, Dion Graham, recorded all of the gritty Derek Strange novels and is now on board with Pelecanos's new series featuring Spero Lucas.

I missed "The Cut," which introduced Spero, but will rectify that mistake shortly. What I did just finish is "The Double." Briefly, I will tell you that The Double is a painting that once hung in Grace Kincaid's home until it disappeared in the hands, we fear, of a nasty piece of work that Grace had been dating.
Lucas, an Iraq War veteran, pulls down big bucks as a private investigator and Grace offers an enormous sum if he'll just get The Double back to her.
He figures he can knock this job off quick and easy as an aside to his full-time job as an investigator for a DC defense
attorney for whom he's looking into a murder. But soon, the
two cases collide, the danger ratchets up, and Lucas's dark
side, the one he so desperately tries to keep hidden from the V.A. psychiatrist, emerges.
There is nothing simple about the crime fiction of George Pelecanos, a complicated man, writing complex characters that reflect the way Pelecanos sees the world. A true Washingtonian, Pelecanos breathes life into the District of Columbia, a traditionally black city with a vibe and soul that's giving way to gentrification, a phenomenon he's obviously conflicted about.
Spero Lucas serves to remind readers of the hundreds of thousands of veterans who return as damaged goods, just one drink, one toke, or one wrong word away from the soul killing violence they've had to subsume in order to re-enter the land of the living.
And then there are the kids on the street and the overwhelming temptations they face as their single moms cry out for the male role model who will make the difference between an education and a jail cell.
I've met George Pelecanos. His face appears to carry the weight of the world in it. I suspect that book tours are tough for him. It's obvious, when you read his work, that he's burdened by the random unfairness of the world. I know that he's working in his own way to alleviate some of these evils. Perhaps he gets it all down on the page or on film, (The Wire, Treme), so that he can sleep at night.
Don't let the darkness keep you away. This man can write like nobody's business. He's the real deal. You can find interviews, reviews, and essays at his Facebook page.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Casebook, A Novel and a Giveaway

Do you enjoy reading novels narrated by kids? Do you especially love those smart, snarky kids who talk to you or to themselves throughout the book, dragging you right into the middle of the action? I am thinking of stories like the Flavia deLuce novels by Alan Bradley or, perhaps, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time" by Mark Haddon. Did you fall head over heels for Paloma, the teenage narrator of  Muriel Barbery's "The Elegance of the Hedgehog?"

If so, you are in for a treat from award winning writer Mona Simpson, whose new novel "Casebook" comes out this month. I was able to read an advanced copy from Library Journal and my review was published March 15th. It begins like this:

Miles Adler prides himself on being a snoop, but after wiring a secret phone extension under the master bed, he overhears a conversation between his parents that turns his stomach. His perfect folks are soon to become a divorce statistic, and if Miles is to stay apprised of the situation, he has no choice but to continue spying. Monitoring his mom's emails is easy; keeping his overactive imagination in check is not.

Like all kids with over-the-top imaginations, Miles and his best buddy Hector, consider themselves brilliant spies. They are writing a graphic novel of spy craft based upon their observations of Miles' mom as she struggles to create a new life for herself after the breakup of her marriage.

You see, she's been swept off her feet by an odd little man named Eli Lee who has so many secrets that the boys' suspicions compel them to hire a private investigator to look into Eli's murky background. Using their wits and taking advantage of the fact that their folks are too busy with their own problems to pay much attention, the boys do some hilarious footwork before they approach the detective.

Suspend disbelief and roll with the idea that this private dick would actually contract with two middle-school boys to unearth the truth about a potential suitor. This novel is cleverly written, full of authenticity and heart. In my review I defied readers not to fall half in love with the precocious nine-year-old Miles as he navigates his awkward teen years, walking that tightrope between his mom and dad, accepting that they will not be reuniting but that they may actually remain friends.

I loved this novel and hope you will to. Fortunately, my editor sent me a completed hardcover copy of the book that I'd like to share with you. Have you read other novels by Mona Simpson? Have you heard any scuttlebutt about the new book? Comment or send me your name and address and I will mail "Casebook" to you asap. If you're shy about public commenting then please email me at I enjoy getting the chance to share.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Rosie Project

How pleased I was to discover that I had readers out there who, though invisible to me, have been following my blog for a while. One of these lovely people mentioned that she had trouble wallowing in the darkness with me. Yes, I tend to read about the worst in humanity. So, with this in mind, I picked up Australian writer Graeme Simsion's "The Rosie Project."

I seldom laugh out loud when I'm reading but this novel provided the exception to that rule. Professor Don Tillman is a mathematician, a geneticist, and a researcher. He is also a thirty-eight-year-old man with Asperger's Syndrome. I was going to write that he "suffers" from Asperger's but that would not actually be true. Don is perfectly content. It is his friends, Gene and Claudia, who suffer from Don's Asperger's.

Briefly, for those who are not familiar with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Don's disease manifests itself with what some might see as obsessive-compulsive behavior. Don keeps himself to a strict behavioral regimen that allows a set number of minutes or hours for certain tasks, for instance eating only a specific food (lobster) on a specific day (Tuesday). Adults with Asperger's, which varies in severity, may often be inept in social situations, speaking without filtering immediate thoughts and observations, avoiding eye contact or physical touch, and completely missing body language cues.

You can imagine how this might impair one's ability to form long-term relationships. Don has run the numbers. He knows that, mathematically, a married man will live a longer, happier life than an unmarried one. Now, how to find a wife? The Rosie Project, of course.

With the help of Gene and Claudia, Don creates a foolproof questionnaire designed to attract his perfect mate. There's only one problem. It is so restrictive that it will eliminate just about every living, breathing, flawed, lovely woman in the world. And then, along comes Rosie.

Rosie Jarman wants to know who her biological father is. Don Tillman has the smarts to help her in her quest. Because Rosie is everything Don doesn't want in a mate, a smoking, drinking, never-on-time, flibbertigibbet, he is relaxed and comfortable around her. As they delve into Rosie's "Father Project," Don allows her to upend his rigid schedule and, no surprise, he enjoys it.

Readers will see the writing on the wall long before Don does, but that's OK. In this delightful novel, it's the trip, not the result, that is the heart of the book. It's funny and heart-warming to watch Rosie skillfully drag Don out of his comfort zone while he, not completely oblivious to her charms, continues to monitor his questionnaire for suitable partners.

There are lessons to be learned here, about failing to appreciate what's right before us, about compromise, and the incomprehensibility of love, but they are lightly proffered. Mr. Simsion's first novel is deeply satisfying with nary a dark corner to be found. It's especially apropos reading for April which is Autism Awareness Month. Grab a copy, find a reading chair in the sun, and devour this book in one sitting.