Sunday, June 26, 2016

Before the Fall - Overhyped?

Call me a cranky book reviewer but I've just got to let off some steam. I am getting so jaded by the ridiculous hyperbole being used by publicists to sell books these days. Authors, especially, should know better than to overhype their friends' literary efforts. You aren't doing your readers any favors when you do this because we will undoubtedly be disappointed. And really, does it sell that many more books? Don't worry, writers, we'll find you if you're good.

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Noah Hawley's latest novel, "Before the Fall," is a perfectly fine example of suspenseful summer reading but "a ravishing and riveting beauty of a part Dennis Lehane, one part Dostoevsky"? Michael Cunningham, you should be ashamed. If this kind of praise is lavished on a story so obviously written for a future film, what words are left for truly great literature?

Soon after take-off from Martha's Vineyard, a privately owned jet crashes into the ocean for no discernible reason. Of the eleven souls on board, two miraculously survive. Scott Burroughs, acquaintance of the plane owner's wife Maggie, and Maggie's four-year-old son, make it to shore, likely thanks to the fact that Burroughs was once a medal-winning competitive swimmer.

But Hawley's book isn't about a plane crash. It is a clever rant against the media shills who, with absolutely no basis in fact, promote their own theories and agendas to an uninformed public only too happy to believe the worst of their fellow man. If one TV channel paints Burroughs a hero, another wants to tear him down. An obnoxious Bill O'Reilly type is a composite of these TV personalities we love to hate.

As the NTSB and the Coast Guard look for the black box amidst the wreckage at the bottom of the sea, Burroughs hides out from the press, worried only about the traumatized little boy whom he rescued. The FBI investigation focuses on the business dealings of the men on the flight, wondering if sabotage was involved. And then there's a nasty hint about the body guard, a former Israeli soldier. I trust that many of you smart readers will suss out the truth before it's laid out for you.

Hawley's writing technique satisfies as he delves into the prior weeks in each victim's life, treating readers to a fuller sense of each character. But pulse-quickening suspense? It's just not there. Nor is it easy to dredge up much empathy for the victims who are portrayed as superficial and one-dimensional. If you want to read Hawley at his best, pick up a copy of "The Good Father," a devastating portrayal of a parent trying to come to grips with the motivation behind a son's evil act.

Have you read it yet? Am I being too hard? Let's have a discussion.

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 na├»ve 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?