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Tag Archives: notables

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.

“The Warmth of Other Suns” another Notable

Whew! I almost made it through the month without noting that I’d read a book. Now that I’m primarily reading the nonfiction from this year’s Notable Books list, I’m moving much more slowly.

I find that I need a different kind of concentration for reading nonfiction. I do best with them when I have early mornings free on weekends–and those were rare in June.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson reads quite quickly for nonfiction, due to Wilkerson’s storytelling ability. She follows the paths of three African Americans who move from the South to the North in the early 20th century. The three stand in for millions who made this trip. Using extensive interviews Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling, and Robert Foster, she tells what they left, why they left, and what happened after that. She rarely loses the narrative thread. I found each person to be as interesting as the others.

The larger themes emerge, of triumphing over adversity, of mustering courage beyond expectations, of feeling like an outsider everywhere, of taking pride in surviving. The remarkable danger and indignity that everyday life represented for African Americans in the South colors each journey. Each person’s various choices in career, in marriage, in leisure, shape their migration story.

Wilkerson is a professor of journalism whose own parents were part of the Great Migration, moving from Georgia to southern Virginia to Washington, D.C. She adroitly combines interviews with other information, setting each context well without losing a sense, ultimately, of story.

I finished this book with a sense that I knew my country’s history better. I’ll recommend this to others who enjoy social history and readers who seek out others’ stories.

“Skippy Dies” from the Notables List

I felt quite a sense of reading accomplishment when I finished page 661 of “Skippy Dies” by Paul Murray. It’s the longest of the novels on this year’s American Library Association’s Notable Books list.

I’ve ranted elsewhere about the unnecessary length of some of the books on this year’s list. I’m still evaluating this one, both overall and in terms of its length…I can’t seem to come to a final sense of it.

It’s a novel set in a contemporary Irish boys boarding school. The novel begins when a student named Skippy indeed dies during a doughnut-eating contest. It backs up to place Skippy in that critical event, and then does a little follow-up afterward.

Here’s  the blurb for “Skippy Dies” from the Notable Books list website, “Filled with warmth and humor, this coming-of-age novel set in a Dublin boys school is a sprawling homage to adolescence, string theory, donuts, and unrequited love.” That makes this sound like fun reading, but while it had some hilarious scenes, overall this is a sad sad story. It’s full of young people who can’t figure out how to be true to themselves AND connected to others. I’m wondering now if I took it all too seriously.

In brief–Skippy falls in love with a girl who’s in love with a violent boy who takes advantage of her sexually in return for providing her with drugs. Skippy’s part of the swim team, but hates the team even though he’s always enjoyed swimming. One of the priests at the school is fighting his own crush on Skippy. Spoiler alert–the swim coach takes sexual advantage of him. His mother is seriously ill and his father isn’t coping well. The girl ends up acting as if she likes Skippy to deflect her parents’ concern about her involvement with the other boy, He uses his phone to make a sexually graphic video of her that he sends to several students. In Skippy’s upset over her, he takes an overdose of the unprescribed drugs his swim coach provided him. And then, he’s off to the donut shop.

I didn’t sense enough warmth and humor to overcome the tragedy in all of that.

I’m not saying it isn’t a good book. It is. But please don’t dive into this without realizing that at its core is a sense of emotional and physical danger. The ways in which people try to band together to address the danger is one source of hope here.

In conclusion, I’m thinking about to whom I’ll recommend this. I can think of a few reading friends who are fairly cynical and will find the school’s principal a perfect example of what’s not right in education. They might also enjoy the forays into the places where scientific thought seems to border magic realism. I would love the chance to have some conversation with others who’ve read this, so that I can develop a more firm opinion of “Skippy Dies.”

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.”

A Long Way for a Notable–“Travels in Siberia”

Earlier this week I finished Ian Frazier’s “Travels In Siberia,” one of the nonfiction titles on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list.

It made an excellent companion to “The Tiger” by John Vaillant, my most recent Notable, also nonfiction. “The Tiger” happens in far eastern Siberia, and as I wrote previously, captures the entire geography and history of that particular region within the story of one tiger.

Frazier, one the other hand, is all over Siberia. And it’s an awfully long way across. This book describes several trips he makes into Siberia, the largest by far a trek with two guides along the route of the Trans-Siberian highway.

I hadn’t read Frazier before, though many of my reading friends recommend him highly. I expected that the book would be as much about him as about Siberia, which was fine. I appreciated his often self-deprecating humor, and his ability to recognize when he was inserting just a little too much of himself. I also enjoyed his “birdwalks” of distraction into details or stories about the places he was visiting. Just when I lost track myself of why we were going down a particular narrative path, he would once again connect his story to the place at hand. It seemed effortless, but is a mark of a strong writer.

Frazier refers to a kind of “Russia fever” that he caught, a condition that kept him from ever feeling quite finished with the country. Even after the primary journey of the book, a months-long journey across Siberia, he has to go back.

A question I usually ask myself when I finish a book is–what image will I keep from this? And in Frazier’s case, it’s his description of the smell of places, especially Russian airports and restrooms. I think this explains part of his popularity–he plumbs the depth of his travel experience, and employs every sense.

The key to my enjoyment of “Travels in Siberia” was to relax and enjoy the telling, and not be in a hurry to get to a destination. I did enjoy the reading, but I never felt that luscious compulsion to return to this, the compulsion that I always hope to sense when I crack open a new book.

I’ll certainly recommend this to people who enjoy travel books, who have a particular interest in Siberia, or who enjoy stories of cross-cultural experiences.