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Tag Archives: fiction

Notables–“Room” and “Next”

I kicked off July with two novels from the Notable Books List–“Room” by Emma Donoghue and “Next” by James Hynes.

“Room” is narrated by Jack, a five-year-old who has spent his life with only his mother in one room, actually a storage shed converted to a living space. She was kidnapped several years before by “Old Nick” who still visits her regularly for sex (while Jack is tucked away in the wardrobe), and to deliver food, clothes, and other necessary items. She has raised Jack to believe that their room is pretty much the whole world. He’s beginning to ask questions, and she realizes that the charade must end. Spoiler alert–Jack escapes.

I was reminded of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” as I read this due to Jack’s distinctive sensibility and voice. He doesn’t have concepts for talking with others, for vehicles in motion, for navigating in a world full of people. He reveals his mother’s courage and cleverness in protecting and nurturing him. He does his best to understand what’s happening, especially in the media frenzy surrounding his and his mother’s escape. In some ways, using Jack as the narrator is genius. In others, it limits the depth of the telling. Ultimately, even though it’s a fine novel, I don’t believe it lives up to its promise.

Even so, I think this will have a lot of play among book groups–there are nearly infinite discussion possibilities.

I’m adding it to my mental list of novels with great set-ups that don’t quite live up to their potential.

On the other hand, “Next” by James Hynes had me almost quitting in the middle, only to have the story take a sharp (and sharply effective) turn in the middle, leading to an engrossing second half.

I would have said that it was narrated by its protagonist, Kevin, but looking back, I see that an unknown narrator is at work here. The story happens all in one day. Kevin is on a plane landing in Austin, Texas, where he has a job interview. He hasn’t told his girlfriend in Ann Arbor that he’s seeking such a move. He becomes obsessed with the attracive young woman who sits next to him on the plane, and thus begins his series of reveries on old girlfriends, sex, and how he’s ended up where he is, a 50-year-old in good physical shape, but emotionally unattached. He ends up following this young woman throughout downtown Austin, until an accident on the sidewalk knocks him out, and she disappears.

Then, an interlude with a woman who rescues him, patches up his minor injuries, takes him to the store to replace his torn clothes, and then engages in an emotionally revealing conversation over lunch.

He arrives for his interview, and a terroristic event, something foreshadowed throughout, actually happens. Kevin is left with only his wits and will to live. His reveries move from sex to his family, especially to death, and to how he hasn’t lived up generally. And then there’s what’s next….

I LOVE a novel with a second half that exceeds the first.

This is almost a tailor-made book group book, as long as the group is cool with sexually graphic descriptions, and ongoing sexual thoughts.

I’ll recommend this to general fiction readers–Hynes  packs an awful lot in to this one day. As an added bonus, one of my reading friends noted that one of the sex scenes in this book was named the best sex scene in a book this year by Salon.com.

Yes! I Have Read the One Book One Lincoln Finalists

A good time was had by all on the dock of The Mill in the Haymarket Monday morning when the three finalists for One Book One Lincoln 2011 were announced. Yes, I’ve read them all.

And thanks to the fine people at the Mill who hosted this event as a benefit for the Foundation for Lincoln City Libraries, one of my favorite organizations, after all.

I’d written about “Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers earlier. It’s nonfiction, about a Syrian immigrant to New Orleans, a man who decides to stay in the city through Katrina. I confess–I really liked this book when I read it, and I’ve recommended it to a variety of people who also enjoyed it. And regular readers of this blog know that I am on a campaign for America to Read More Nonfiction. So “Zeitoun” was a natural for me.

I finished “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese on Sunday May 29, sitting in the car during a rainy spell while we were camping at Victoria Springs up by Anselmo, Nebraska. And…I liked this one, too. A novel, not that we’ll hold that against it. Told by a man named Marion, who looks back on a life in Ethiopia, one of twins born to an Indian nun who dies during childbirth, fathered by a white doctor of British Indian background who abandons them. Marion and his brother, Shiva, are raised by loving adoptive parents and become medical men themselves. Swirling about this story are the dangerous politics of Africa, the impact of grinding poverty, betrayal by a woman he loves, success in medicine, and always, being a twin. I’m afraid that many general readers will be put off by some fairly graphic medical procedures, but I also think that the novel holds rewards that overcome those difficult scenes.

And two weeks ago, I enjoyed a Passionate Reader Jackpot–starting and finishing “The History of Love” by Nicole Krauss all in one weekend. A little like “People of the Book” by Geraldine Brooks which was a One Book One Lincoln selection in recent years, this novel is about a book. The story’s a little complicated, on the one hand about a Jewish man who escaped from Europe during the World War II era, ending up in New York. On the other hand, there’s a girl whose father has died, whose mother has found meaning in a book called “The History of Love.” That girl, Alma, goes in search of the book’s author. Eventually the stories intertwine. There are some absolutely lovely aspects to this book, in the ways that Krauss uses small gestures to show big things, and in her constant return to the power of hope.

So…read them! And tell me what you think. And be sure to vote for your favorite before voting ends on July 31.

Elizabeth George’s “In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner”

Just Desserts Logo 225inpursuitofthepropersinnerDuring our May 2011 meeting, the Just Desserts mystery fiction group discussed Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley mystery, In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner.

This book was discussed at the Just Desserts meeting on May 19th, 2011. Whether or not you attended the actual meeting, you are welcome to share your own thoughts and opinions about this book (and series) in a reply comment to this blog post, below.

Join us next on June 30th, 2011, at South Branch Library (6:30 p.m.), as we discuss author Sarah Graves’ The Book of Old Houses. Additional titles for upcoming months’ discussions have also been posted to the Book Groups page on the libraries’ BookGuide web site.

And, for additional reminders about upcoming Just Desserts meetings, don’t forget to sign up for the Just Desserts e-mail list. Or, if you’re logged into your account on Facebook, you can visit the Events page for the Lincoln City Libraries, and mark whether or not you plan to attend upcoming sessions of Just Desserts!

What did you think of In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner?

Another Notable–“Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter”

Over the Easter weekend, I hit the Passionate Reader Jackpot–I started and finished a book within the space of the weekend. Truly, that’s one of my favorite things.

The book–“Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” by Tom Franklin. It’s from the fiction portion of the American Library Association Notable Books list.

First–the title. An introductory page tells, “How southern children are taught to spell Mississippi– M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I.”

I might describe this book as a literary mystery. Two men from rural Mississippi were friends as boys, one white, one black. As they grow up, their lives intersect and intertwine. The white man, Larry, is accused while in high school of the murder of a girl who disappears. He endures his role as a scourge of the community. That her body is never found keeps the tension alive. The black man, nicknamed 32 but named Silas, is a constable in the area. When another young woman goes missing 20 years after the first, 32’s attention turns to his old friend.

I don’t want to spoil the story, so no more about the plot.

Looking back on the book, I felt somewhat “underwhelmed” by the conclusion. I expected something more dramatic. But on further reflection, I think that Franklin did right by his story. He’s a master of revealing the story slowly, adding tantalizing ideas and details one by one. I knew that each scene was placed for a reason. He steps right up to the brink, but doesn’t go over.

There are many issues swirling around race, reputation, family ties of love and hate, and maybe even redemption. Those are part of the lives of these fairly everyday people. Franklin draws them realistically.

 When I read novels, I usually look for the person that I want to trust, and I wanted to trust 32. I could sense that he wanted to do right by Larry.

I’ll recommend this to many of my reading friends because most of them appreciate novels that reveal the drama behind our everyday lives, and that sometimes reveal the everyday-ness behind the drama. There’s something compelling, too, about the Southern setting with race as a decades-old factor in individual lives. I see a wide audience for “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.”

Further Thoughts on “A Visit from the Goon Squad”

There should probably be a word for the thoughts that come after a blog entry is written.

When I wrote about Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad” yesterday, I didn’t mention the impact of a long chapter late in the novel that is written as a Power Point presentation. As I discussed the book a little with a friend on Facebook, I realized that this chapter was key–it broke my groove. It changed my sense of the book overall. On a purely personal note, the “Power Pointedness” of the selection led me to read very quickly. I had previously anticipated how much of the book was left, and suddenly at the end of the selection, fairly few pages remained. This seemed jarring somehow.

As you would expect, one result of it being Power Point was that while some pithy facts were revealed, they were not explored deeply. I realize that to some extent this was Egan’s intended impact. While I still enjoyed the book, I now pinpoint this one chapter as the place when the timing and pace seemed to get thrown, without enough book remaining to get back on track.