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Tag Archives: fiction

Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad”

When I packed for my long weekend in Phoenix last week, I happened to stick Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad” into my suitcase. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get to it, but you never know when a chaise lounge on a sunny patio will beckon.

Actually, I read it largely in bed and on the plane, but…loved it. And felt fairly virtuous reading it, since it allows me to check yet another Notable Book off of the list for this year.

“A Visit from the Goon Squad” is written as a series of short stories with inter-related characters. Someone who is a minor character in one chapter (story) becomes the focus of another. Eventually, several characters show up in more than one place, and many voices speak. The setting generally is the music scene, often in New York, from the 1980’s to the 2020’s (the final story is set in the musical future).

The first story is about Sasha, who is an assistant to a music producer. She’s talking with her therapist about her kleptomania, and about how she supposedly feels about it. My experience reading novels with multiple perspectives is that the first character sticks with me longer, and I tend to always seek that first character in the rest of the novel. Sasha does re-appear.

A primary theme of this book is “How did I get to be so old?” Another, “I know I’m not an especially good person.” Another, “Is THIS the life I want to live?” Those could create a sad novel, but I didn’t feel that happening here. Nor did I get the feeling of being worn out by clever stories of people who fail. I wanted to keep reading.

What makes it Notable? Egan’s ability to craft the connections throughout the book, and her sense of how people view their own and others’ shortcomings.

I’ll recommend this to people who love the music scene, who are willing to stick with the short-stories-as-novel format, and to those who connect with the sense of time passing. I’d like to have a conversation with others who’ve read it, too.

I Loved this Notable–“The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet”

I continue to read my way through this year’s Notable Books List from the American Library Association.

Last night I finished “The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet” by David Mitchell. And I was sad to reach the last page. What an intriguing novel.

The story begins in 1799, on the island of Dejima, just off of Nagasaki, Japan. The island is where the Dutch are allowed, and just about the only place where they are allowed, to run the Dutch India Company. The closed-in society of just a few Europeans, their Japanese translators, and other officials, is the context for intense relationships. Many of the scenes happen aboard ship, another closed-in space. Must of the action happens in the first few years, but then Mitchell fast-forward to the end of Jacob’s life, back in Europe.

Jacob is an honest man, which doesn’t serve his career well. He falls in love with a fascinating woman, a midwife with a burned face. He secretly proposes to her, not realizing that the messenger he’s chosen is in love with her too. She’s kidnapped away. He endures. He becomes renowned for his courage when he stands firm in an observation tower while a British ship’s cannons attack Nijima.

David Mitchell crafts this very powerfully–I’ve been trying to think of how to describe this. The plot is one thing, but the machinations of the people, the ways that they must operate when communication can’t be direct, create all kinds of confusion and bewilderment. The cultures collide in countless ways. Into the mix come the distance from home, and fierce hopes for success.

Following up on my complaints about long books, I should note that I didn’t sense any sagging in the middle of this book’s 479 pages. It holds up well.

I salute David Mitchell for his ability to write such varied stories. I’d forgotten that he wrote “Black Swan Green,” a lovely Notable Book from 2007, a book about a contemporary British boy. HIs “Cloud Atlas” was also “notabled” in 2005. Really, his books are quintessential Notables. They are one-of-a-kind stories, with almost nothing predictable, and with plenty that deeply resonates and resolves.

I’ll recommend this to people who love literary fiction, who are interested in history or in Asia, and to readers who yearn for something uniquely good.

“Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen

Continuing my reading trek through the American Library Association Notable Books list, I’ve just finished “Freedom: a Novel” by Jonathan Franzen.

A wedge of a book at just over 560 pages, it’s the contemporary story of Patty and Walter Berglund, who begin their married life together in St. Paul, Minnesota. But all is not well. Patty was a star college basketball player who can’t stop wishing her parents had attended her games. As a parent  herself she sets limits that are pretty squishy. Walter’s an earnest man who eventually aligns himself with an environmental concern that itself is aligned with alarming mining interests. Walter’s best friend and Patty are obsessed with each other. Their son moves in with his girlfriend next door. Walter becomes involved with his assistant. He seems to walk toward the life of a misanthropic hermit. Franzen excels in detailing the ways in which each person here falls short. And yet, and yet…within this laundry list of dysfunction, every once in a while someone sees that glimmer of a better way to live and love.

My complaint–too many pages. Franzen’s gift for the absurd, the funny-but-sad ways in which people interact with each other and the world, gains too much momentum. The story sags in the middle, a shame because in the end it slows down to some satisfying emotional conclusions. Every so often, Franzen drops a nugget of drop-dead lovely insight or description.

I tend to retain one or two images from every book, and from “Freedom” I will remember Joey Berglund swallowing his wedding ring and seeking it in the toilet while on a vacation with another woman. I will remember that he gained great confidence from his success in finding it.

This novel has had so much press that many people will be reading it to stay in the literary loop. I’m pretty sure that book groups would find plenty to discuss here, and so I recommend this to groups who’ll take on a long novel. I also recommend it to readers of contemporary stories, people who seek out irony and absurdity, and yet who are not put off by true love–in all its crazy shapes.

From the Notables List–“The Surrendered” by Chang-Rae Lee

I’m continuing my journey through this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list with a novel, “The Surrendered” by Chang-Rae Lee, an author of fine reputation.

“The Surrendered” begins with a harrowing scene from the Korean War–a teenage girl is fleeing the war in the north with her younger twin brother and sister. They end up riding on the top of a traincar full of refugees. When the train makes a sudden stop, the brother and sister fall, and then are run over when the train lurches forward. The sister is dead, and the brother bleeding beyond hope. She decides to leave them both and runs for the departing train.

Lee then develops a story of braided lives and times. There is that Korean sister, June, now in her 50s and suffering from cancer, closing up her antiques shop in New York, having engaged a private detective to help track down her son. There is Hector, possibly the father of that son, who worked in the Korean orphanage where June landed after the war. There is Sylvie, whose pastor husband oversaw that orphanage, and who develops troubling relationships with both June and Hector. There is Dora, the woman who finally offers Hector true love. And there is June’s son, off in Europe, apparently engaging in small-time theft. The settings move between contemporary America, Europe, Korea, and China, and from the Korean War to contemporary New York to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.

Lee is the master of the small gesture, of the failed attempt to be better, of minor selfish decisions that lead to tragedy. He offers hope when decisions sustain life or create kindness, and especially when kindness is accepted.

Lee manages those multiple plots and people masterfully. I sensed an expert plot-writer at work, and at one point believed that the story would morph into a thriller. Instead, Lee is about the people, and how they change as time moves along. They might appear to be common people living everyday lives, and yet they harbor secrets and memories that remain hidden until their paths cross again, and what seems to be the past pushes into the present.

I’ve had many conversations with people about why we read books about this kind of violence and tragedy. Often it seems to be that despite the difficulties, they offer hope. Lee returns to that first searing scene as the story ends, and does so with an overwhelming sense of hope, of life.

From the Notables List, “Generosity” by Richard Powers

I consider the Labor Day Weekend a complete success. I enjoyed a visit from old friends, AND I read a whole book, “Generosity: An Enhancement” by Richard Powers.

I chose “Generosity” because it’s one of the titles on this year’s Notable Books List from the American Library Association. I’ll be making a presentation on these books at the Nebraska Library Association/Nebraska Educational Media Association Conference in Grand Island next month. Once that presentation is prepared, I’m happy to make it to other interested groups, so if you need such a presentation for a group, contact me.

My overall review of this book–great set-up, somewhat disappointing resolution. The book opens with the narrator describing a young man on the El, in Chicago, in the somewhat near future. He’s on his way to teach his first writing class. His name is Russell Stone. His class includes an amazing woman, Thassadit Amzwar. She is happy. She is contagiously happy. She is happy despite what happened to her and her family in the Algerian war. She is so happy that her smart and cynical classmates love her and are made better by her presence. She’s a living work of art.

Part of this future is the common use of drugs to enhance happiness. Russell chooses not to participate in such use. He has his own story of unhappiness to savor. I happen to love this part of the story because it makes Russell seem both talented and flawed. Russell had some early success with creative nonfiction pieces. Then he heard from the people on whom his essays were based (and from the people who loved them), and they loathed him and what he said about them. He cannot get over the harm he did. I imagine David Sedaris-like pieces, and poor Russell with his thin skin.

And then…an array of others, including a school counselor, the host of a popular science show, a researcher on the science of happiness, and a talk show host who seems suspiciously like Oprah, all become fascinated by Thassadit. She becomes an object of public fascination. She actually grows miserable, and Russell tries to save her.

I did finish the book. I tend to be interested in research about happiness; I’m familiar with much of the information that Powers works into the story. I appreciate the way that the story explores these issues. Is happiness really mostly about chemistry? What kind of people can’t tolerate this level of happiness in others? Is Thassadit crazy to have experienced such horror and yet remain happy? How essential is misery? How authentic is emotion?

Despite the clever way that Powers weaves all of these people and all of this plot together, the complexity of the story steals too much from the simple power of Thassadit’s happiness. While I don’t see myself recommending this book to many people, I would welcome conversation with others who’ve read it. I respect the choices of the Notable Books committee, and I’m open to being convinced.