fiction reviews

Review – The Arsonist by Sue Miller

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The lesson was there were things you had to let go of, losses and mysteries you had to learn to live with.

Sue Miller‘s new book, The Arsonist, is about the biggest things that happen in the world and how anyone manages to keep going despite them, about the edges of the divides between us that we stand near and peer across, and most of all, about falling into or out of love, how easy and sudden and unexpected love creeps up on you or sprints away from you. Maybe, then, this is a book about how little control we really have in the world, and how coming to terms with that is never simple.

After 15 years of working for an NGO in Africa, Frankie has come home. She usually drops by for a visit, but this time she’s not sure she wants to go back. But how can she stay? She’s been setting up food stations, fighting hunger at refugee camps, and compared to where she was in the world, life in the quaint New Hampshire town her parents have retired to is a life of ease, abundance, and in the face of all the world’s plight, insignificance.

Frankie’s parents, Sylvia and Alfie, were once summer people in the town of Pomeroy, but in retirement they’ve chosen to move full-time to the old farmhouse which has acted as the family’s summer vacation home, hoping to ease the pressures of their own quiet crises with a quiet life. Intellectual Alfie’s memory loss seems to be getting worse and worse, and Sylvia keeps gulping down glasses of wine and early afternoon drinks, hoping to find a way to cope with what she fears could be the end of her husband as she knows him.

In the midst of all this disaster, big and little, global and familial, an additional, artificial one is created: fires begin to bloom at night, setting homes ablaze. When Frankie first hears the siren of the fire truck, a foreign sound to her after her time in Africa, she doesn’t recognize it, and thinks it must be some sort of animal. The local paper owner Bud, a city refugee himself, reports on the fires as he struggles to decipher Frankie’s intentions–will she stay or will she go? Is she capable, after seeing so much world out there, of caring about this small little piece of it here?

I’m a fan of long books, and I loved the time Miller took telling the beginning of this story. As other reviewers on both Goodreads and Amazon complained, however, the story is uneven, as the end quickly wraps up. If anything, though, I think this is a testament The Arsonist‘s ability to build characters that draw us in so much we are angry when they leave us. I could have happily read this book, doubled in length. I’m also a huge fan of leaving mysteries unsolved, and not wrapping up all the details precisely, and Miller manages to do this here, without leaving the reader feeling cheated. If you do finish this book wanting a simple conclusion to its many questions, big and small, you haven’t been paying attention.

The Arsonist by Sue Miller on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Review – Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

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Chromed long-haulers glinted like showgirls among logging trucks caked in oatmealy mud, white exhaust thrashing flamelike in the wind from their silvery stacks.
― Smith HendersonFourth of July Creek

Sometimes a book rises up out of nowhere, something unexpected and fresh for all the right reasons, with language so pretty it rolls off the tongue, molding the world around you into something so crisp and haunting it seems exactly like the way things are but at the same time so much more than you’ve ever perceived, like you’ve stepped out of real life and into the prettiest, messiest coloring book you’ve ever seen.

Fourth of July Creek’s story is sad but brilliant, and angry in a way that we all might be a little angry, as we’re all doing our best and sometimes that just doesn’t seem to be enough. Protagonist Pete Snow is far from the stereotypical social worker, a man working in rural Montana and partying out his pain when what he sees gets to be too much. Rather than creating a stereotypically “difficult” protagonist or the opposite, a soft spoken hero, Pete is somewhere in between, reminding us how much of our reality is acted out in places most books, movies, and magazines don’t dare visit.

What I wanted Pete to be, what role I expected him to fulfill in the novel from the start, was so far from where he ended up it was a startling reminder of how individual characters often fail to bloom into full realizations of human strength and failure, greatness and ugliness, all rolled into one.

The local, small high school calls Pete to handle a malnourished and dirty teenager who stumbles upon the grounds, and Pete begins to help this hesitant, wild boy and his father, a paranoid extremist who has seceded from society. Speckling this story is the story of Pete’s daughter, in interview format, and this separate storyline becomes a sort of call and response ode to how simply things go awry, to how easily we make decisions with little understanding of why, and ultimately, to how well we keep going despite it all.

I didn’t think twice when I started Fourth of July Creek–I had no idea what it was about, I just saw the title around a few places and thought I should read it, as my endless struggle to read all the books in the world continues. Right away, this book had me. Smith Henderson’s trawling, plodding use of language is eloquent in a peculiar way which feels true to the Montana country featured in the novel, also feels comfortable. Other reviews compared Henderson’s language, unavoidably, to Cormac McCarthy’s, but this is McCarthy’s country at its most human.

Rather than being overworked with grammatical fireworks, the book’s stunning language is nestled deep and snug within the story, within the pull of strained relationships and a man diving in to save everything or maybe nothing. It is (dare I say?) my best book of the year thus far. Give it a read, I urge you.

Fourth of July Creek on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Review – Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson

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Imagine waking up in an unfamiliar bed. You vaguely recall going out with friends, assume you drank too much as the previous evening is blurry. You assume you went home with a guy you don’t know too well. Things are hazy. Looking up, you see a woman’s robe and slippers. An older woman’s robe and slippers. Looking over, you see an older man in the bed. You, being a twenty-something yourself, are confused. Did you somehow get picked up by an older, married man? Sliding quietly out of the bed and into the bathroom, the mirror image shocks you: the woman in the mirror isn’t the twenty-something you remember, but an older woman with an aged face you can’t recognized. You turn, and see pictures and notes on the bathroom wall. YOUR HUSBAND. BEN. The notes explain, plastered next to photos of you and the older guy from the bed. Photos of you both over a span of what must be decades–decades missing from your memory entirely.

He’s woken up now, this older man, and he’s standing in the bathroom door. You’ve never seen him before, you are sure. “I’m Ben,” he says. “I’m your husband. You had an accident. You don’t remember. But its okay.”

This is how each day begins for Before I Go To Sleep’s Christine, who has short term memory loss. She’s unable to form new memories the way most of us recall yesterday and three days ago–only her long term memories are deeply stored in her mind, sometimes hazy and sometimes bright and flashing, causing each day to be a shock of new realizations and old grasps at reality. All new memories formed wash away as she crawls into bed and falls asleep, causing the next morning to be a repeat of the jarring scene above, as she awakens confused. Each day is a puzzle for Christine, with acquaintances made strangers, routines unknown, and endless trust placed in those around her.

That trust, so crucial for her survival, as she awakes each day in bed with a stranger who walks her through their life together, begins to erode slowly when she gets a call from a Dr. Nash. He’s been seeing her secretly, he says, without her husband Ben’s approval. He recommended she keep a journal. The journal is hidden, and he tells her where to find it. In the front of the journal, Christine reads in her own handwriting: DON’T TRUST BEN.

And thus begins the mystery of Before I Go To Sleep, a puzzle where the entire plot has been erased with Christine’s short term memory. This is the worst type of unknown, a different sort of dread and fear–rather than not knowing who waits for her down a dark hallway, Christine is unable to remember her own motives for previous actions, or her own reasons for choosing to trust or distrust those in her life. She is unable to act as her own protector, holding those around her accountable for past events. She finds herself forced to take the word of her husband and her doctor about what she has said she wanted, or needed. She frantically writes in her journal, attempting to document everything each day, as she knows she won’t be able to remember it all clearly the next.

Before I Go To Sleep has been on my to-read list for years, as it was published in 2011 and I never got around to seeking it out. I happened upon it on a clearance shelf at a bookstore, and I’m glad I picked it up. I’m the type of person who always judges and calculates the mystery as its happening, and this was one I thought I had figured out towards the middle. I was ready to dismiss the book as too simple, with glaring hints everywhere about the plot’s outcome and an overly naive narrator. Luckily, there was a twist towards the end that I hadn’t expected, and it kept me interested and renewed my faith in the book. Thrillers like this are just the right level of easy to fall into, like a warm bath that isn’t too hot. Once you are in this book, you don’t want to get out again.

It is impossible not to compare this book, or really any short term memory psychological thriller, to the 2000 movie Memento (which was inspired by a short story, “Memento Mori.”) But there is non-fiction documenting short-term memory loss as well. Before I Go To Sleep‘s author S. J. Watson was influenced by Forever Today: A Memoir of Love and Amnesia by Deborah Wearing. Oliver Sacks discusses the case of an older man who believes himself to be a young sailor in his classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales. Sacks says of his work with this man, in “The Lost Mariner,” “I kept wondering, in this and later notes–unscientifically–about ‘a lost soul’, and how one might establish some continuity, some roots, for he was a man without roots, or rooted only in the remote past.” Sacks recommends his lost mariner keep a diary, just as Dr. Nash recommends to Christine in Before I Go To Sleep.

This type of mystery, which explores the weaknesses and faults of the human mind, is disorienting and a bit maddening. Presenting more than just an unreliable narrator, Before I Go To Sleep reminds us how delicate and frail our perception of the world is, and how easily that view can be shattered.

Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson on Amazon.com/Barnesandnoble.com/Indiebound.org

If you liked Before I Go To Sleep, put these books on your to-read list:

Review – To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

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I encouraged my patients to floss. It was hard to do some days. They should have flossed. Flossing prevents periodontal disease and can extend life up to seven years. It’s also time consuming and a general pain in the ass. That’s not the dentist talking. That’s the guy who comes home, four or five drinks in him, what a great evening, ha-has all around, and, the minute he takes up the floss, says to himself, What’s the point? In the end, the heart stops, the cells die, the neurons go dark, bacteria consumes the pancreas, flies lay their eggs, beetles chew through tendons and ligaments, the skin turns to cottage cheese, the bones dissolve, and the teeth float away with the tide. But then someone who never flossed a day in his life would come in, the picture of inconceivable self-neglect and unnecessary pain— rotted teeth, swollen gums, a live wire of infection running from enamel to nerve— and what I called hope, what I called courage, above all what I called defiance, again rose up in me, and I would go around the next day or two saying to all my patients, “You must floss, please floss, flossing makes all the difference.”

Joshua FerrisTo Rise Again at a Decent Hour

I unfortunately read this book in a month with several dentist appointments, for a crown (my first ever!) and multiple fillings.

“I’m reading a book about a dentist,” I said to my dentist. He’s the simple, happy sort of dentist who chats continuously while my mouth is forced open with a metal contraption for an hour and a half, chatting as he drills and buffs like we’re having a cup of coffee, oblivious to my non-participation in the conversation.

“Oh yeah? Is he a good guy, or a bad guy, or what?” My dentist asked. Considering this question, when presented with To Rise Again at a Decent Hour‘s protagonist, Paul O’Rourke–a dentist beleaguered, a man so without his own religion he obsesses over the families of the women he dates, their Jewish rites or Catholic sternness, a man so exhausted from working to afford his prestigious Manhattan office he has no time to enjoy the New York around him–I didn’t even know the answer to the question.

Like an alien anthropologist studying our civilization for the first time, Joshua Ferris has always written with fresh eyes on things most of us find unremarkable. He explored the desperation of the American office worker in his first novel, Then We Came to the End, and the madness of undiagnosed illness with The Unnamed. With To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, he presses further into the harshest landscapes of our modern culture, with an at times shocking, always funny, always sad examination of a dentist’s search for a religion that may not exist.

O’Rourke is struggling through the usual rituals of dentistry, regretting his decision to forgo a private office in his business’s floorplan, gazing into the eyes of his masked dental assistant and wondering what exactly she is thinking, when he discovers his identity has been hijacked online. The hijackers may or may not be part of the oldest, most secret religion of all time, and they begin using O’Rourke as a figurehead for tweets and posts about their sacred texts and past persecutions. Yes, this is an incredibly odd, brilliant book.

Joshua Ferris writes like the lovechild of Don DeLillo and Christopher Buckley, if those two authors were trapped as cubicle-mates in a droll office environment where technology constantly broke around them. Sometimes I worry that more than any other living author, Ferris will be remembered as the voice of our time period’s mad combination of consumption and lack of self care, our dizzy running on a wheel to nowhere. This worries me not because he’s a bad writer, but because his writing seems to reveal so much of modern society’s malaise while staying honest, never slipping into some sort of too-cool-hipster-Hollywood apathy.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is unique in that it is alarmingly funny, so depressing at times that it is hard not to laugh out loud. This bitter humor is Ferris’s specialty, it seems, as it runs through each of his previous books. Ferris is a fan of humor in fiction, and doesn’t think we see enough of it. He said in a recent Paris Review interview, “We’re here also to make one another laugh, and to use humor to mitigate some of the shit and misery that goes on. I think the best advice I could give a young writer would be ‘Don’t forget about the funny.’ Humor is a part of life, so make it a part of your fiction.”

Don’t be fooled, however. This is the humor of a man laughing his way to hell. Those hoping for a light read should look elsewhere. The funny is there, yes, but Ferris’s power lies in his razor-sharp depiction of some of the desperation and loneliness of daily life, and the greater questions hanging over these daily routines we all struggle through alone. Now please, don’t forget to floss.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour on Amazon.com/Powells.com/Indiebound.org

I’m assuming that because of the Amazon/Hachette dispute, as I’m writing this the hardcover is $26 right now at Amazon, $18.20 at Powell’s.

Further Reading:

Review – The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

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I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be—basically gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful. I do not like genre mash-ups a la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and — I imagine this goes without saying — vampires.
― Gabrielle ZevinThe Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

If you are still pining for Ajax Penumbra, the lovable curmudgeon of a bookstore owner introduced in Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, than The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is the book for you. We meet protagonist Fikry as he seems to be drinking, eating, and grouching himself to death. As the owner of Island Books, his community’s only bookstore, he stocks books strictly to his limited tastes. He lives above the bookstore, and he frequently blacks out over his plate of frozen noodles after an evening of heavy drinking alone.

And then, an unfortunate (or fortunate?) series of events occurs: something is lost, and a little baby is gained. The mom abandons the baby to Fikry, hoping to give the charming tiny girl an opportunity to grow up amidst books and become quite a smart person someday. Yes, this explains the little baby in a basket on the book’s cover. As Fikry finds himself frantically googling how to raise a 2-year-old baby, the community rallies around him and his charming mystery child. Like magic, the irritable old man settles into his place in the world as a book lover who spreads that love to others, the curious baby reminding him that he has knowledge to share.

I knew I had to get this book when I received its (audio version) press release, with a quote from Scott Brick, the book’s narrator and my favorite narrator of all time, singing the novel’s praises:

I was told up front that The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was a beautiful book, but I was still completely unprepared for just how beautiful. I was absolutely stunned by the experience of narrating Gabrielle Zevin’s latest book. It drew me in from the very first page. It was the kind of book that I might ordinarily find myself finishing after only three days in the studio, yet I found myself stretching it to four, then five, simply because I hated the idea of it being over. I wept while recording it, more than once. I’ve been blessed to narrate over 600 audiobooks thus far, and this book instantly pushed its way to the top of my list of absolute favorites. I told someone recently that I wish I could redo the book, and they asked, ‘Why, did you not like the way it turned out?’ I said ‘No, I just wish I could have that experience of reading every word again over and over again.’

Wow, right? If Scott Brick loved it that much, I’m all in. Although I didn’t get the audiobook version, the novel totally drew me in from its first pages, and I drank up the entire book over the course of a few days. The combination of flawed, honest, real characters and constant fiction references made for quite fun reading. Despite all the wit, there is a lot of heartbreak here, and I can usually do without a bit more of the sappy stuff. I appreciated Fikry’s clever banter with those around him much more than the commentary on love and loss. But beware, if you are the teary type–get your tissues ready.

The brilliance of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is in its book talk, as this is a book written for readers to truly appreciate. Fikry knows the town’s sheriff enjoys mysteries, and gradually suggests more complex mysteries until the policeman is reading Kate Atkinson’s Case HistoriesFinally the cop leaves genre behind entirely, and runs a book club out of Island Books for his police force. This is what happens to your friends when you are a lover of books, the story seems to be saying–it is impossible for that love not to rub off, even just a little bit, on those around you.

Reading is often isolating, in our world of constant competition for attention, where movies are now in IMAX 3D, video games now read your movements so you don’t even press buttons while you play, and Buzzfeed produces countless lists that spread insidiously through the internet just begging to be read like little itchy viruses. When so many things with bright lights and big noise compete for our spare time, reading for pleasure can sometimes get left behind with its quiet little books snuggled onto shelves or hidden within a flat e-reader. But books like The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry are a secret duck call to all the readers out there in the world, reminding us how powerful our pastime is, and how much stories matter. Human connections are made, vibrant discussions develop, and babies who read books blossom into book-loving writers themselves. Reading is, perhaps more than any other pastime, a study of human nature and human experience, and this is something The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry celebrates on every witty, heartbreaking page.

If you live in my home state of California, this is a great book to pick up at a local bookstore on May 3rd, CA Bookstore Day. What better way to celebrate the power of bookstores than with the story of Island Books and its owner.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin on Amazon.com/Indiebound.org

Further reading:

Review – The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

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Mr. Girardi spent an entire class period comparing Henbane to paintings of hell. The land was rocky and gummed with red clay, the thorny underbrush populated by all manner of biting, stinging beasts. –Laura McHugh, The Weight of Blood

If we learned one thing from Winter’s Bone, it was that the often overlooked Ozarks have powerful stories to tell. Laura McHugh understands the forested, mountainous region covering the lower half of Missouri and drifting down into Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas; she knows the allure of, and the distrust present in, those small towns nestled deep within the Ozark Mountains, as she lived in Ozark County (pop. 9,723) as a child. The Weight of Blood, McHugh’s first novel, allows its rustic setting to combine with a familial mystery so dark and paranoid it borders on surreal.

The Weight of Blood introduces the indomitable Lucy Dane, a model of teenage self-sufficiency. The mystery Lucy encounters (foremost, her friend Cheri dismembered and stuffed into a tree) unravels itself along with the mystery of Lucy’s mother, who went missing shortly after Lucy’s birth. The narrative perspective alternates between that of Lucy and her mother, between now and then. As the story progresses, the perspective changes to that of other characters surrounding the two women.

This alternating narration makes the story unpredictable and addictive. The Weight of Blood isn’t a whodunnit as much as a family drama where the reader must anxiously await to find out who exactly knew what was going on, and when they knew it. As with many deep dark family secrets, there are layers of willful ignorance surrounding the actual crimes. The Weight of Blood peels back layers of involvement like an onion, as everyone surrounding Lucy recounts their own experience.

I made the mistake of starting The Weight of Blood during finals, and it called out to me as I tried to study. I read many books of this type (I love mysteries of varying quality), and I rarely come across something with enough intrigue to keep me reading even when I’m tired. The Weight of Blood kept me reading way past bedtime, trying to get through just one more chapter…

None of the individual characters stood out for me here (Lucy herself, as with most teenage protagonists, borders dangerously close to a static Young Adult heroine) as much as the complicated motives and social dynamics between the characters enmeshed in each others’ lives. The Weight of Blood reminds us that other people, their intentions and their ties, are the truly unsolvable mystery.

The Weight of Blood on Amazon.com/Indiebound.org

Related Links:

Review – You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt

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The Americans with Russian girlfriends–“pillow dictionaries,” they called them, aware that these lanky, mysterious women were far better-looking than anyone they’d touched back home–began to sound like natives. They were peacocks, preening with slang…A little bravado goes a long way toward hiding the loneliness. You can reinvent yourself with a different alphabet.
― Elliott Holt, You Are One of Them

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt is a love song of a book: a love song to foreign lands that always seem impossibly perfect until you get there; a love song to a different time when we were younger and everything around us looked so much bigger; a love song to the beliefs we have when we are children, and the hope that we can grasp tightly onto even as adults.

Narrator Sarah had a best friend growing up, a perfect best friend, named Jennifer Jones. They grew up in Washington, D.C. together during the paranoid madness of the Cold War. Sarah’s mom is neurotic, charting nuclear fallout on huge maps spread along the dining table, while Jennifer’s parents are so idyllic they seem quaint.

The girls write letters to the Soviet Union asking for peace, and suddenly Jennifer Jones (just Jennifer Jones, not Sarah) is famous. Her letter has been published in the Soviet papers and answered by their president. They’ve asked her to come to the USSR as an ambassador of sorts. As Sarah watches from home, Jennifer is made America’s darling. And, as Sarah watches from home, Jennifer and her parents crash into the ocean on a small plane, never to be seen again.

Then, years later, Sarah receives a mysterious e-mail from Russia. A woman who knew Jennifer as a child, who hosted her when she visited, asks, “Would Sarah come? Doesn’t she have questions?” She will, and she does. Sarah packs up, and is off to Russia, searching for a truth she isn’t sure exists regarding her long lost friend Jennifer.

If there is a single strong point in Holt’s writing, it is paralleling the disorienting experience of childhood with the disorienting experience of wandering a new country alone. In both situations Sarah seems totally lost and at the mercy of those around her, almost adrift in a sea of people she needs to lean on but may not be able to trust.

In the best way possible, You Are One of Them reminded me of The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert, one of my favorite books when I was younger. Both books very much have this “Let me sit you down and tell you what I do and what I do not know about my past” feel to the narration, which creates a feel of unraveling a web of dark secrets and drama with the narrator as they explore their own memories.

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt on Amazon.com/Indiebound.org

Related links:

Review – Elders: A Novel by Ryan McIlvain

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A story of faith and doubt, a study of two young men’s struggle to navigate a forced, brief, intensely personal relationship, and ultimately a look at what we think makes us good and what really shows us to be good; Elders by Ryan McIlvain is a character study, so close-up it hurts, of the dance we do as we try to navigate those around us even as they echo our own weaknesses.

Elders takes place on the dusty and seemingly silent streets of Brazil, where Mormon missionaries do the thankless work of knocking on unanswered doors day-to-day. Elder McLeod is anything but a model Mormon: he’s had questions about the faith and its beliefs in the past, and he’s happily nearing the end of his time in Brazil. As if by a test from God himself, Elder McLeod’s new companion (Mormon missionaries work in intense twosomes, they are forbidden to ever leave their companion’s side) seems to be his foil: Elder Passos, a converted Brazilian who is fired up about the church, is immediately enforcing regulations, preaching enthusiastically, and getting under Elder McLeod’s skin.

Having heard of the book from a friend, the summary of the plot didn’t sound that intriguing. Such a character-driven rather than plot-driven book, especially as a first novel, sounded possibly dull or bogged down with each character’s introspection. Once I gave the book a chance, I found this wasn’t the case at all. McIlvain chronicles the emotional struggle of each character with such intensity that this was a hard book to put down, more so than any plot-based thriller. Rather than over-writing and letting the words get in the way of the story, McIlvain seems to have written just enough to make his characters become fully realized and no more.

This book has been dropping onto and off of my radar since its release in the Spring of 2013. I grew up in Utah, in a suburb outside of Salt Lake City, but I didn’t belong to the dominant LDS religion. One of my elementary school teachers brought in pictures of her mission to share with us her experience, and the question “What ward are you in?” became a normal one for me to hear and answer. To furrowed brows and pursed lips, I would explain that my family wasn’t any religion. At a sleepover in my pre-teens, several of my best friends tried to give me a Book of Mormon. They didn’t even need me to read it, they explained earnestly, with their big, concerned eyes gazing into mine. Cornered against the side of a pink and blue quilted bed while we all lay akimbo on swishy sleeping bags, I pushed the book under the bed once the subject was changed, where its fate remains unknown to me.

My parents certainly didn’t realize the extremism of the Mormon religion in Utah before we moved there, and I think I can safely speak for them in saying had they known we wouldn’t have made the move in the first place. Once I left Utah, wide-eyed at California’s huge freeways and city streets, I began to realize what a bizarre experience living in Utah as a non-LDS kid had been. When people ask where I’m from, I immediately follow my “I’m from Utah” with a “But I’m not Mormon,” as the expected follow-up question. I laugh at recognizing restaurants, slang, and culture from the TLC show Sister Wives, and tend to check out books pertaining to the religion as I feel I have an intimate, if  outsider, knowledge of its pervasiveness in some areas of our country. By no choice of my own, my own story became enmeshed with the story of this religion.

After reading only a few pages of the Elders, my question was, is this author Mormon? The answer is on the book jacket’s back flap, on McIlvain’s author bio: “Ryan McIlvain grew up in the Mormon church and resigned his membership in his midtwenties.” Elders must have been an intensely personal book for the author to write, and it manages to resonate as such. I can’t wait to see what comes from McIlvain in the future.

Elders by Ryan McIlvain on Amazon.com

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Review – The Circle by Dave Eggers

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Josiah rolled his eyes. ”No, I mean, I know this is a tangent, but my problem with paper is that all communication dies with it. It holds no possibility of continuity. You look at your paper guide, and that’s where it ends. It ends with you. Like you’re the only one who matters. But think if you’d been documenting. If you’d been using a tool that would help confirm the identity of whatever birds you saw, then anyone can benefit — naturalists, students, historians, the Coast Guard. Everyone can know, then, what birds were on the bay on that day. It’s just maddening, thinking of how much knowledge is lost every day through this kind of shortsightedness. And I don’t want to call it selfish but — ” –The Circle, Dave Eggers

Dare I say this beautiful work of publishing, The Circle by Dave Eggers, is the most debated book of the year?  Certainly it is the most debated since Reza Aslan’s Zealot.

First, there was the excerpt published as the New York Time Magazine‘s first ever fiction cover story.  Then, there was the plagiarism claim.  The claim was part humorous (Kate Losse, author of The Boy Kings, hadn’t actually read The Circle but just the excerpt from the NYTmag), and part ominous (both stories, one fiction and one memoir, feature a young woman exploited publicly by a menacing tech company).  After that, there was Eggers’ somewhat flippant and confusing reply to the plagiarism claim.  He said that he “didn’t want The Circle to seem to be based on any extant companies or upon the experiences of any employees of any extant companies.”  In a book that had a ripped-from-the-headlines feel, with aspects clearly grabbed from Facebook and Google, this seemed to be an odd statement to make.  After Eggers’ proclamation of obliviousness, there was the backlash from the technocrats, who claimed Eggers knew nothing about computers.  Oh, the madness surrounding The Circle!

I was so excited to get The Circle I purchased it for its $27.95 cover price at an indie bookstore rather than getting it through Amazon at a $10 discount.  Yay me, saving small bookstores one irresistible and pricey hardcover at a time!  I had listened to the excerpt from the book (“We Like You So Much and Want To Get To Know You Better”) for free on Audible.com, and I was blown away.  Those who enjoyed the excerpt and choose to check out the book should prepare themselves.  Where “We Like You So Much..” was concise and edited, The Circle itself is a sprawling tome spelling out its message again and again.

The Circle follows malcontent but kindhearted Mae, excited to leave her mundane job at the local electric company for a customer service position at The Circle, a sort of Google-Facebook-Apple-and-then-some tech giant.  Mae, who feels so honored to get this supercool job, becomes exhausted as she struggles to keep up with the increasing demands of the perfection-seeking corporation.  Mae is encouraged by her superiors to use the company’s social media heavily, and she becomes depressed and disconnected from real life.  The Circle is making a lot of statements surrounding technology, privacy, and the companies who control these two aspects of our lives;  Eggers seems focused on just getting the message across, loudly and clearly, instead of in a way that might make the book more believable.

There was a lot I liked here.  The manipulating use of positive language rang especially true to me, as I worked at a .com company where we had a list of positive words we could say on the phone and to each other.  The almost constant addition of screens to Mae’s workstation is comical; she is excited about having two monitors, then she gets a third, then a fourth… And most importantly, as Mae finds more affection online, in her rankings and likes and shares, she feels lonelier in the real world.  There is a great moment in The Circle when Mae has left her phone at her desk while running an errand on the company’s gigantic campus.  When she comes back to her desk, her phone is overloaded with texts from her friend Annie:

She read the first:  Hey Mae, realizing I shouldn’t have gone off on Dan and Alistair that way.  Wasn’t very nice.  Not Circly at all.  Pretend like I didn’t say it.

The second:  You get my last msg?

The Third:  Starting to freak out a little.  Why aren’t you answering me?

Fourth:  Just texted you, called you.  Are you dead?  Shit.  Forgot your phone.  You suck.

Fifth:  If you were offended by what I said about Dan don’t go all silent-treatment.  I said sorry.  Write back.

Sixth:  Are you getting these messages?  It’s v. important.  Call me!

Seventh:  If you’re telling Dan what I said you’re a bitch.  Since when do we tattle on each other?

Eighth:  Realizing you might just be in a meeting.  True?

Ninth:  It’s been 25 mins.  What is UP?”

I think we all rely on this instant gratification style of comfort from text messages and social media. The compulsive way immediate communication has affected us all is illustrated well here.  There are always those times I have to tell a girl friend, “Dude just stop texting that guy!  Put down the phone!”  But we all now have this need to reach out for reassurance of our self worth, and fall into a panic if a reply doesn’t appear on our time table.

That being said, there was a lot about The Circle that was hard to take.  I wasn’t sure if Eggers was purposefully making Mae incredibly naive, or if he is maybe just not able to create a believable female character.  Mae’s obliviousness throughout the novel is completely unbelievable, and almost laughable by the end.  I’m not sure how to explain this without giving it away, but one of the main plot points relies on Mae not noticing something simply impossible not to notice; this makes the entire book a frustrating read.  I’m not sure if Eggers believes people capable of missing obvious connections or if Mae’s character is supposed to be some sort of caricature of idiocy.  What feels like clever speculation in the beginning (The Circle introducing affordable small cameras, so you can observe your social networks activities) becomes more dramatic and extreme, until actions towards the end of the book are totally unbelievable.  Even if the technology Eggers presents is plausible, Mae’s reaction to it is so distracting that any message is completely lost.  She is like the buxom blonde in the horror movie, oblivious to the monsters we can all so clearly see creeping up on her.  The warning of a society without privacy owned by a Google-like company has no bearing on the real world, because people simply don’t act like Mae acted.  As commenters on Goodreads noted, Mae acts with the flighty lack of self-knowledge or awareness equal to a character in a YA Romance novel.  And that makes The Circle hard to take seriously.

I’m a huge Eggers fan.  I thought A Hologram for the King was the best book of 2012, and How We Are Hungry showed early on that he has some seriously amazing ability to write great fiction.  I love McSweeney’s and I’ve heard Eggers speak on the good works he does tutoring kids in San Francisco and building the Voice of Witness series, so I have no doubt this guy is a saint.  Eggers still has my heart, but The Circle was a spectacular crash and burn for me.

The Circle on Amazon
The Circle on Indiebound

Review – Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem

dissidentgardens

I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Lethem.  His books are always oddness worded authentically, and I think he is able to capture a lot of the bizarre struggle of life we go through in a way only the greatest authors can.  My favorite of his books are the ones considered the more genre-fied odd ducklings of the bunch, such as This Shape We’re In, Gun, With Occasional Music, and As She Climbed Across the Table.  I think the fact that he can dabble in different genres (like Margaret Atwood is so easily able to) is a testament to his ability to write great stories, regardless of their setting.

Lethem’s newest novel Dissident Gardens, released last month, is not a genre novel.  The story documents the struggles of three generations of a radical Leftist family.  Rose is the almost-Jewish Communist matriarch, “a dark tower, a ziggurat.” Struggling to escape mom’s shadow, “like crawling out of a bomb crater,” is daughter Miriam; a cool, confident hippie chick in the way only the daughter of a rebel can be.  Miriam’s Quaker-raised son Sergius struggles to find his own identity amidst the mayhem of his history.  Stealing the show is Cicero, a sort of step-son to Rose, a frustrated gay black professor who prides himself on making the simpletons surrounding him uncomfortable:  “Cicero, like Rose in the end, preferred his listeners stunned and bleeding, all masks on the floor, or on fire.”  There has been much talk of what this more realist book means for Lethem – is he growing up, is he demanding respect as a legitimate author, is he giving in to reviewers’ requests that he give up comic books already?  Lethem has a great interview on Slate answering many questions about the book. The summary: the metaphysical here is the concept of ideology, of that intangible better way of living each character is searching for.  And I can certainly dig it.

I was hesitant when reading the summary of Dissident Gardens, because I love a story with bells and whistles (a mystery, an apocalypse, a drug-laced seedy background).  Once I began reading, however, I was reminded immediately that Lethem could rewrite the phone book into something meaningful said in a way I never would have imagined.   His unique but effortless wording had me doing double takes.  Even the first scene, of Communists gathering in Rose’s kitchen, has sentences so well crafted it is hard not to pause and mull over them for a while:  “They’d overdressed, overcompensated with vests and jackets, now arraying themselves on her chairs like some Soviet oil painting, postured as if on some intellectual assignment.  In pursuit of that chimera, the Dialectical Whosis, when really there was to be no dialectic here. Only dictatorship.  And the taking of dictation.”  An ocean atmosphere is “noon-luminous”, Cicero allows his class to sit in silence and “plummet into that abyss of the inexpressible where the truth lies.”

The intensity and accuracy with which Lethem allows his characters to document their emotional landscapes, and the room with which he gives them to grow large in his words, remind me here of that other Jonathan who has created epic American family dramas, Jonathan Franzen.  And like that other Jonathan, Lethem shows us everything it is to be part of a family, everything there that isn’t as simple as love.

The surreal feeling of past books is there, when Miriam competes in a TV quiz show and begins to have almost hysterical fantasies under the blinding studio lights.  It is there as Rose falls for, and meets, Archie Bunker.  The surrealism is there as these characters reach out for a sense of certainty in their beliefs, struggling to reconcile an imagined idealism with the harsh realities laid out before them.  Lethem shows us that struggling through true life, with bizarre self-talk and strings of random experience molded into belief, can be just as disorienting as any supernatural tale.

Dissident Gardens on Amazon.com

Dissident Gardens on Powell’s Books