The Journey is the Destination: The Journals of Dan Eldon. Death by the will of the people. I didn’t want to write about this death, but can’t seem to put it aside. It’s been almost twelve years since Dan Eldon’s death on July 12, 1993. I first learned about it from the book of his journals which I picked up on the sale table at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
4/13/15 GILLIAN FLYNN TIMES THREE
Gone Girl was all the rage in 2013 and into 2014, especially with the announcement of taking the book to film. Everyone I knew that had read the novel seemed to grumble about the ending. None of them seemed to like it. In fact they were outraged, as though they’d been cheated. I’m sure they would have asked for their money back if they could. Begrudgingly (probably due to my jealousy of Flynn’s flaming success) I decided that I would just have to read the darn thing myself, but first, my journey to Gone Girl would have to begin with Sharp Objects.
4/10/2015—BOOK REVIEW: LILA BY MARILYNNE ROBINSON
Lila is a novel about nothing and about everything. The plot is simple: an abused, neglected child is stolen by a woman and raised with a band of migrant workers until the woman disappears, and the child, now a young adult, is left to take care of herself. She spends time in a brothel in St. Louis and then one day wanders into Gilead, Iowa, where she meets John Ames, an older preacher whose wife and child died years ago.
The young woman (Lila) and John are drawn to each other by forces that maybe aren’t love, but are just as powerful. They marry, and then, almost by accident, they have a son together. That’s it. That’s the plot. And most of that story is told in flashbacks. The immediate story is the relationship between Lila and John. Within that relationship lies the mystery and the magic of Lila.
4/04/2015 – ENDINGS: MUSINGS ON STATION ELEVEN
As I pulled into the last paragraph of Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven, I flipped to the last page to confirm I was nearing the end, trying to concentrate on every word and how it felt to read it because everything was about to change. I often play this game when nearing the end of an engrossing novel, superimposing my awareness of the impending close over the experience of still being in the story, doing whatever I can to prolong the moment and appreciate the incompletion. I know that yet another world is about to end for me, and I want to savor every remaining moment before I am shut out forever.
“Nowadays, you eye the young and remember…[h]ow it was to have smooth skin and a supple body, to be able to bend and squat and lift and run for a bus and skip down the stairs. To have this long unknowable future, in which lurked heaven knows what, and it is the mystery that is so alluring. Your own future is also unknowable, except that you can make a few shrewd guesses, and it is not particularly alluring.”
3/13/15 Book Review, Come Sit with Me, by George Spain
As the title, along with its subtitle, Come Sit with Me…and listen to the stories I want you to hear… suggests, this is a book for casual reading. Author George Spain’s voice echoes through the words as if a favorite uncle is telling tales of what once was and can never be again, stories you know to be true, some you know to be exaggerations, and some that you know came from the far reaches of his mind.
3/7/2015 — BOOK REVIEW: MIRIAM TOWES’ ALL MY PUNY SORROWS
Miriam Toews has managed to do the seemingly impossible: Write a novel about depression and suicide that is funny, loving, witty, heartbreaking, clever, and insightful, all while contributing to the public debate over an individual’s right to die with dignity. Toews has long been a best-selling, award-winning author in her native Canada, but readers south of the border have been slow to discover her. All My Puny Sorrows, her sixth and arguably best novel, should change that.
3/04/2015 – REIMAGINING THE MOMENT
I’ve just finished reading two novels that re-envision a few days out of history, one about a famous battle, the other an obscure murder. Both novels include meticulously researched historical details, stretched here and there to fit the arc of a story and perhaps highlight a deeper truth, but still leaving readers with a fresh sense of worlds long vanished. More than that, though, both novels reminded me of the infinite richness in the smallness, shortest of moments, something all writers should remember.
2/10/2015—BOOK REVIEW: WHAT THE ZHANG BOYS KNOW BY CLIFFORD GARSTANG
In social psychology, the proximity principle says that people tend to form interpersonal relations with those who are close by. What the Zhang Boys Know by Clifford Garstang confirms that principle and also tests it severely by gathering a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-generational group of people as residents in a Washington, D.C., condominium building called Nanking Mansion. A Chinese father and his two sons, an African-American lawyer, a painter, a sculptor, a gay aspiring poet, and an unemployed woman who’s selling her jewelry so she can eat are among the people trying to make their way in this minimally refurbished building in a neighborhood that’s just beginning to turn around.
I spent a few days in Haiti last week without leaving home. My tour guide was Edwidge Danticat, and the mode of transportation was her magnificent novel, Claire of the Sea Light, which brought Haiti’s sights, sounds, smells to my senses, while introducing me to the people and their incredible courage, perseverance and hope. It was a remarkable journey, one I won’t forget for quite a while.
Agnar Mykle’s Lasso Round the Moon—& a Rant about American Literary Parochialism
“So much of American fiction has become playful, cynical and evasive,” says novelist Joy Williams, and she goes on to deplore its “inconsequentialities”. I agree. And because I am ever more bored by the contemporary American novel, which strikes me, to add some adjectives to hers, as increasingly myopic, solipsistic and parochial, not to mention uninspired—especially the hip sacred cows like Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders, and Miranda July—I find myself ‘playing truant’ whenever I can, running for refuge to Latin America or Europe, where writers have not yet learned to turn out the MFA novel, which generally comes in one of two flavours: either flawless technically but deadly dull, dealing with domestic melodramas (Richard Russo, Jane Smiley) or else ‘quirky’, linguistically imaginative (July, Saunders, Shteyngart, Safran-Foer) and yet shallow and pretentious.
1/20/15 Review of Joseph D. Haske’s North Dixie Highway A prologue explains that no single “Dixie Highway” exists, but instead the term applies to roads south that reach as far north as Canada. Haske’s story lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Publisher Texas Review Press offers, in part: “Weaving multiple storylines with vivid description of characters and landscape, Haske’s debut novel brings new life and a unique voice to the fiction of rural America. North Dixie Highway is a story of family bonds, devolution, and elusive revenge.”
Author reviewer Larry Fondation adds (in an Amazon editorial review) “It may be fueled by alcohol and anger, but it’s based on love and loyalty: avenging the dead, defending the living.”
12/7/14 — REREADING JAMES JOYCE’S THE DUBLINERS
This is the time of year for reconnecting with family and friends, a time to renew bonds and remember what makes a relationship special. So, too, with good books. I often find that the holidays are the perfect time to reread the classics, those priceless novels that offer something new, no matter how many times you read them.
11/20/14 “It is rather funny I think,” wrote Barbara Pym in 1939 of her novel-in-progress, Crampton Hodnet. The war prevented her from pursuing publishers, and after the war she felt the book was dated and turned her attention to another of her novels. As a result, Crampton Hodnet wasn’t published until 1985, among the last of her works to appear. Every now and then I re-read one of the thirteen novels of Pym, among my favorite novelists, a master of postwar English humor and ahead of her time in her views of male-female relationships.
11/10/2014 – BOOK REVIEW: GODS IN ALABAMA BY JOSHILYN JACKSON
Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson starts with a shock and ends with an even bigger shock. Set in the tiny town of Possett, Alabama, the story is a classic example of Southern Gothic literature, which includes works by Flannery O’Connor (the queen of Southern Gothic), William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Carson McCullers. You can tell a story is Southern Gothic by its preponderance of violence, weird characters, loners, ghosts, and other grotesque occurrences in any and all combinations. Jackson’s protagonist, Arlene Fleet, fulfills most of these requirements all by herself.
10/21/15 REVIEW OF M. L. DOYLE’S THE GENERAL’S AMBITION
Given lemons, make lemonade. M. L. Doyle is no longer a Late Last Night Books blogger, so I’m taking advantage of our loss by reviewing her latest book, something I couldn’t have done while she was one of us. Whether in or out of uniform, press corps Army Sergeant Lauren Harper faces the problems of today’s Every Woman as she is drawn into a murder investigation. Her direct superior in the press corps, now divorced and without his family, imposes his affections upon her. He wants to marry her, rather than to be her best friend. Lauren once longed for this but thought it could never be. But is she in love with him now? Or is she in love with a British front-line soldier never before willing to let a woman worry about whether he will or will not return from each of his missions?
8/10/2014 BOOK REVIEW: GUESTS ON EARTH BY LEE SMITH
Sanity and insanity are more closely linked than most people realize, particularly in the lives of artists. Why is creativity often accompanied by some degree of madness? And why are women, particularly in the past two centuries, more likely to be judged insane than men? With a captivating mixture of fictional characters and people who actually lived, Lee Smith explores these questions and others in her latest novel, Guests on Earth.
When I told my wife and some friends that I was finally going to take their advice and read one of Louise Penny’s Inspector Armand Gamache novels, they all told me the same thing: You must read them in order! So of course I started with No 2, A Fatal Grace, and then turned to The Beautiful Mystery, which is No. 8. Well, I’m here to tell you that despite what everyone tells you, you can read Penny’s novels out of order and still live to sing their praises.
But unless you’re also the ornery type like me, why would you? You’ll be doing yourself a favor to follow directions and start at the beginning with Still Life.
8/4/14 – THE JANE AUSTEN PERSUASION
When I told my adult daughters and son-in-law I’d be reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion for book club, all three pulled disgust faces. “Why?” groaned my older daughter, a Harvard graduate. “I couldn’t even finish Pride and Prejudice,” said my son-in-law, who had reveled in Plato and Cervantes and the rest of St. John’s Great Books curriculum. My younger daughter, another product of a Great Books curriculum, recalled that Harold Bloom had a reputation for droning on about Persuasion for reasons she was unable to fathom.
Lynn Darling spent her life losing her way. She used to love the adventure, but by the time she’s into her fifties, a widow of ten years with her daughter off to college, getting lost has lost its allure. In order to find her way, both practically and metaphorically, Darling runs away to the Vermont woods only to find more ways to be lost.
THE SUBJECTIVITY OF READING: HOW DO YOUR FAVORITE BOOKS FARE ON AMAZON?
I noticed recently that one of my favorite books, Anita Brookner’s Booker Prize-winning Hotel Du Lac, averages only 3.7 stars with 82 Amazon reviewers. Not a terrible rating, but surprisingly low to me since I love the book. Amazon features this sentence, quoted from one of the reviews: “The main character was dull and not very likeable, but that may have been the point.” Amazon adds, “10 reviewers made similar comments.”
7/10/14—A REVIEW OF THIS BRIGHT RIVER BY PATRICK SOMERVILLE
Sometimes a novel is interesting because of its story. Sometimes because of its characters. And sometimes because of the author’s writing techniques. I started reading This Bright River by Patrick Somerville expecting to be enticed by the novel’s story. I had read Somerville’s previous novel, The Cradle, a few years ago and liked the story about expectant parents’ search for the mother’s childhood cradle, an effort that brings them much more than a cradle. From the beginning, however, This Bright River is different and much darker.
7/7/2014 — WHY YOU SHOULD REREAD ANNA KARENINA — AT LEAST ONCE A DECADE
I have a confession to make. I don’t read long books—not even after e-books eliminated two of my complaints (hard to hold in bed and painful if dropped on a toe). The problem is that too many long books just aren’t worth the investment of time, often because of authors who don’t know what to leave out or editors too submissive to cut. I did try to read The Goldfinch to see what the fuss was about, but the laborious writing and the abuse of the semicolon (my favorite mark of punctuation) led me to give up after five pages.
Of course there are exceptions to my big book phobia—beginning with almost everything Tolstoy and Dickens wrote. And it’s one of those exceptions that I want to talk about today. I want to urge you to reread Anna Karenina at least once a decade. And if you’re a writer, make that a requirement, not a suggestion.