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Tag Archives: notables

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.

An Interesting Notable, “The Convalescent”

In a nutshell, “The Convalescent” by Jessica Anthony is a remarkably absurd novel, alternating the contemporary story of Rovar Pfliegman with the history of his ancestral Hungarian people. Rovar is an outcast living just outside a small town in South Carolina. He sells meat (his people are butchers) from an abandoned school bus which doubles as his home. He develops a relationship of sorts with Dr. Monica, a pediatrician who is willing to explore Rovar’s various ailments. These include some fascinating dermatological symptoms. The history of his people includes generations of failure, remarkable feats of magical proportions, and some spectacular liaisons.

In some ways, “The Convalescent” has much in common with other novels of outcasts, such as “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole. I loved that book when I read it years ago. I confess that I respond to these characters with a little impatience. On the one hand, they’re often funny in the sense of how someone quite outside the mainstream interacts with “regular” people. On the other hand, their continued isolation is sad–and I realize that I want them to Get Better, whatever that means. In this case, I didn’t sense my interest in Rovar growing once he was introduced. Sometimes a book like this just asks the reader to suspend expectations and enjoy the ride.

Why is this on the Notable Books list? It’s creative. Anthony uses words well. She seemed to have a great time creating Rovar and placing him in remarkable situations.

I’ll probably recommend this to only a few people. Although it isn’t for the mass of readers who expect a novel with a linear plot from introduction to conflict to resolution, it IS for those who prefer to have it all turned upside down from time to time.

“Little Bee” from the Notables List

I have a new way of evaluating how well a book is working for me–do I find it engaging when I read it in the evening? Many of you recall that I’m a morning person, and if a book doesn’t make it for me around 5 a.m. on Saturday morning, it never will. Conversely, if I find a book compelling after dinner, well, THAT’s a good book.

Little Bee” by Chris Cleave came from the fiction portion of this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list AND I enjoyed reading most of it in the evening. I hadn’t exactly been looking forward to reading it. I knew that it involved a girl who’d been chased and … I wasn’t sure what… in Nigeria before ending up in England.

As it turns out, I enjoyed reading this, despite the intense Nigerian scenes of Little Bee’s sister’s death, and a British woman’s violent act to save Little Bee. The story is told in the alternating voices of Little Bee and Sarah, that woman.  Part of the effectiveness of the story lies in the contrast between Little Bee as a traumatized and marginalized undocumented alien and Sarah, a stylish magazine editor. Neither is all bad or good, and yet both won my sympathy. I admire the way that Cleave doles out pieces of their stories and weaves secrets together. Sarah’s story is that of a regular person who finds herself in the midst of a bewildering and dangerous situation. She wants to rise to that, despite her clear shortcomings. Now that I think of it, Little Bee, too, is a regular person who finds herself in the midst of a bewildering and dangerous situation.

I’ll recommend it to readers who appreciate a fine sense of plot and timing and who are willing to work through difficulty to consider how the human spirit responds to evil.

“Born to Run” from the Notables List

I’m continuing my reading of the American Library Association Notable Books List.

I’m delighted to say that “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Great Race the World Has Never Seen” by Chrisopher McDougall exemplifies why I love the Notables list–I find titles like this that I haven’t heard of, and that I enjoy immensely.

McDougall has done a good deal of writing about outdoor sports for periodicals such as “Men’s Health” and “Outside.” In this book, he tells his own story of becoming obsessed with a group of people called the Tarahumara, a tribe of people in Mexico’s Copper Canyons. He’s heard that they can run hundreds of miles, that they can chase down animals such as deer, and that (the most amazing thing) they enjoy it.

In the course of the story, he travels to Mexico in search of these people, then gets to know athletes in the United States who are ultramarathon runners, covering up to 100 miles through day and night. Eventually, this all comes together in a race in the Copper Canyons, with a mix of Tarhumara runners and US elite athletes. It’s quite a story, full of personalities, with a few interesting background sections on topics such as the effectiveness of running shoes and whether it makes any sense to think that a person could run down a deer.

I know that I’m a sucker for this kind of nonfiction that picks up the thread of a story about an interesting subculture that I know nearing nothing about, and then weaves a fabric that seems to get stronger as the story progresses. It can be a real challenge for an author to insert himself far enough into the story for interest, and to explore certain emotional aspects, without making the story about HIM. McDougall succeeds on this count.

I’ll embrace this title when I choose which books from this year’s Notable List to highlight. I’m recommending it to runners, to people who love to read about extreme behavior, and those who are happy to read a story that’s quite outside of their own experience.

Another Notable–“Tinkers”

Over the Independence Day weekend, I finished “Tinkers” by Paul Harding, one of the fiction titles on the American Library Association Notable Books list. I’d started it before, but an odd thing happened. A little over halfway through, I encountered a two-page spread that was blank. Those two pages were simply gone. I figured I could live without them, but a few page turns beyond, and another two pages were blank, in all, 16 blank pages. I decided that was too much of 191 total pages, and so awaited a better copy.

The break between starting the book, and then re-reading until I got to my previous place, was good. This is one of those books where mostly the protagonist is looking back (think of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson). Things happen, but the pace can seem awfully slow, especially if the reader wants Something To Happen. I was prepared for this.

In this case, George Crosby lies dying of kidney failure in a hospital bed in the living room of his own home, surrounded by his family. The first sentence tells that he is eight days from death, and as the book progresses, the reader learns how many hours remain. He hallucinates some, he returns to the world around him some, and he thinks about his father. Scenes from his father’s life intersperse, told not by George, but by an omniscient observer.

George’s father was a peddler early in the 1900’s. He was also an epileptic, a poet, and a magical thinker. He left George’s mother, George, his brother, and sister, when he realized that George’s mother was preparing to place him in a hospital for the mentally ill due to his seizures. He returned once just to see George, then a young married father, just to see him and say hello, not to stay, not to explain, not to re-establish the relationship. That scene of his showing up on George’s front step on a Christmas Day may be the image that I carry from this book. Something about it strikes me as especially poignant.

George himself becomes a teacher, then a counselor, and in retirement, a noted clock repairer. He clearly lives within a family sphere.

By book’s end, both men have died.

This book won the Pultizer Prize for fiction this year. Harding uses such clear language, creates such quietly intense scenes, contrasts personality against personality, and memory against present. This is a book for readers who love stories about people, who revel in language and dialogue, and who are perfectly okay when Something Does Not Happen.