This month I was the subject of “Q & A” in the L Magazine.
I’m feeling sheepish that I spent so much time commenting on the length of books…it strikes me as bordering on shallow to be so concerned about how long a book is.
But…of the 12 fiction titles on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books List, 7 are more than 400 pages long, and 3 of those top 600 pages. This reminds me of the quote often attributed to Mark Twain but probably more likely from Pascal, along the lines of “I’m sorry that this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to write a short letter.” As a reader, I suspect that authors of such long novels could have created better books by taking the time to pull out more of what is not essential. In both “The Lonely Polygamist” by Brady Udall and and “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen, I sensed the story sagging in the middle. Both books have great scenes and lovely characters but too much, too much, too much.
I don’t wish to be a shallow reader, or a shallow reviewer. I am willing to read (and I hope sometimes love) a long book that needs to be a long book, and that has the narrative structure to support its length. But life is short, and I will be most happy to read a book that is only as long as it needs to be.
I’m continuing in my annual trek through the American Library Association Notable Books List. Over the Presidents Day holiday, I finished reading “Citizens of London: The Americans who Stood with Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour” by Lynne Olson.
This book exemplifies what I love about each year’s Notable List–it brings forward splendid books that got little attention.
“Citizens of London” also allows me to get up on my soapbox to encourage America to read more nonfiction, or to read it at all.
Lynne Olson does a great job of creating a narrative thread in this book, even as she weaves in necessary information to create context. In this case, the story is about the Americans in London, primarily a small group of men, who worked long and hard to promote the British case for the United States to become involved in World War II.
Readers may recall that many in the United States held a strong isolationist stance in the late 1930s. President Franklin Roosevelt instituted the lend-lease program to assist Britain, but it was seen in Britain as not nearly enough, at too dear a price. Journalist Edward R. Murrow, Ambassador to the Court of St. James Gil Winant, and Lend-Lease representative Averell Harriman became “citizens of London” and promoted the position that the United States had to do more to support England against Germany.
Of course, much changed with the United States entering the war after Pearl Harbor. Olson takes this story through the end of the war and just past, showing how these three men continued to play a role in maintaining the relationship between the United States and Britain. The story begins fairly simply with the focus on the three men, and as the war progresses, more people enter the picture as joint military campaigns must be agreed to and staged, and finally a post-war world shaped.
I’m left with much respect for these three, and for Dwight Eisenhower, who was placed in the position of having to make a joint command work.
I’m also left with Olson’s gift of connecting these world-changing events to the everyday lives of common people in London during this time. Her ability to tell a specific story that illustrates a wider point is what made me enjoy this book so much.
I’ll recommend this to readers who enjoy history, and to that large group of people with special interest in World War II. I’ll also recommend it to fiction readers who are willing to dip into something a little different, into a nonfiction book that still follows the thread of a compelling story, and that develops interesting characters.
This was my second try for “Just Kids” by Patti Smith, her memoir of friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe in New York in the late 1960s and 70s. When I checked it out last fall, it hadn’t yet been named a National Book Award winner, and it hadn’t been included in the American Library Association Notable Books List.
Because I’d gotten at least halfway through the first time, I accomplished the reading quickly this time. (An irritating by-product of reading books off of a list is that sometimes I’m more invested in marking a title off the list than in relaxing and savoring the book itself.)
Patti Smith is a poet, artist, and rock star legend, enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Robert Mapplethorpe became a renowned and groundbreaking photographer (some might add notorious for the shocking sexuality of his work) before his death due to AIDS in 1989.
This true story of their friendship, if a novel, would seem past belief. They first met in New York City. Patti encountered Mapplethorpe when she was looking for one of her friends, someone she hoped might help her out and give her a place to stay. Instead at first she lived on the street, homeless. She ran into him again when she needed a friend badly. They became friends and lovers, people who saw possibilities in each other often unseen by outsiders, friends who nurtured the artist in each other. For a time they lived in the Chelsea Hotel. They rubbed elbows with the likes of Janis Joplin and Diane Arbus. But they had difficult times, with too little money for food or medical treatment. Smith describes those times straightforwardly, not romanticizing them except in the sense of how she and Mapplethorpe pooled what they had, and in the deepest sense, took care of each other. This story is before they knew success, though Mapplethorpe had a sense of his gift, and Patti gradually began to sense her own.
What a great book group book this is–issues of feminism, of artists developing, of following one’s dream, of choosing to be vulnerable, of falling in love.
My own reservations about the book mainly involve writing that sometimes seems off-kilter. In general, Smith writes in a deceptively simple conversational way. However, she descends or ascends stairs, never just goes down or goes up. She often uses the “for” where typical conversation would use “because,” as in, “I was good at tending the sick, bringing one out of fever, for I had learned that from my mother.” (p. 97)
Now that “Just Kids” has won the National Book Award and is probably being read by a wide audience, I wonder whether it needs a foreward to provide context. People of a certain age or with a certain background know of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, and are familiar with their remarkable positions in our culture. Some readers may need that context.
Given the attention that this book has received, I don’t know that I’ll much need to recommend it to others. I will keep it in mind for my friends who enjoy memoirs, for people who like to read about artists, and to those who will recognize and revel in the sense of being an outsider.
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.
“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.