Saturday, August 30, 2008

Review: Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

I remember reading and liking Strout's first novel, Amy and Isabelle, around the time that it came out. But Strout's new book, Olive Kitteridge: Fiction, made a much bigger impact on me. Olive Kitteridge is not a novel, but a book of thirteen short stories, linked by the character of Olive Kitteridge, a cranky middle school math teacher in a small town in Maine. Some of the stories are from Olive's point of view, others are about other characters in the town who have some relationship, large or small, with Olive, and the stories span a time period from Olive's youth to her old age.

I really admire Strout's writing--it's economical, yet gorgeous, and she has real insight into the human condition. She uses small details to create scenes of great emotional power. Her characters are complicated, and though they live small-town lives, they deal with all the big issues--suicide, addiction, loss, bad marriages, miscommunication--really, the gamut of human issues.

Strout paints us a nuanced picture of Olive, and of the community she lives in, by telling us stories that center not just on Olive, but on the people around Olive; her husband, son, and neighbors. We see Olive's misanthropic, difficult, angry side, and we also see how, as a strong woman and teacher, she has strengthened those around her. Olive is a great character because we both love and hate her; we identify with her and yet abhor many of her actions. And what's brilliant about this book is that the small, seemingly disparate portions add up to a vibrant whole--for example, a particular story may only have a tiny bit about Olive in it, but that tiny incident will inform some action of Olive's later in the book.

The book is definitely dark. It deals with a foiled suicide attempt, anorexia, adultery, prostitution, illness and death. Small town Maine, as depicted here, seems to be a world that knows the dark side, though it is not without hope. But the sadness feels emotionally honest, and I know many such stories really exist in small towns, as elsewhere. And even though the book was sad, it was compelling, and I really enjoyed every page, and highly recommend it. I'll definitely put Strout's earlier novel, Abide With Me, on my TBR list.

Friday, August 29, 2008

"Field Report"--Encouragement to Write!

I just heard about an interesting new site called Field Report, where they publish people's non-fiction. Then they hold contests where they give fairly hefty cash prizes for the best writing. It's a really interesting idea, and I think it could be a great way for fledgling writers to get their work out there.

I like anything that encourages people to write.

If you want a taste of some really good writing that appeared on the site, read the essay by the first contest winner, Murr Brewster, who, it would appear, is a postal worker with a heart of gold and a way with words. It's really good.

I think this could even encourage me to write...

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

Over at My Friend Amy, Amy has decided that we book bloggers need some appreciation, so she has created Book Blogger Appreciation Week. To fully celebrate book bloggers, she has also created awards, so you can nominate your favorite book blogs.

Here's the text of her post about the awards:

It's time to open nominations for Book Blogger Appreciation Week Awards 2008! Listed below are the categories of awards. There are many. You may not have a nomination for each award. It doesn't matter. Nominate up to two blogs per category and send an email to BbawawardsATgmailDOTcom with your choices. You DO NOT have to have a blog to make nominations. Comments left on this post will NOT be accepted as nominations. Each category will be narrowed to the top five blogs by number of nominations received, so don't be shy!!! Support your favorite blogs and bloggers! Nominations will close on August 31st. And the categories for the Book Blogger Appreciation Week Awards 2008 are:

Best General Book Blog
Best Kidlit Blog
Best Christian/Inspirational Fiction Blog
Best Literary Fiction Blog
Best Book Club Blog
Best Romance Blog
Best Thrillers/Mystery/Suspense Blog
Best Non-fiction Blog
Best Young Adult Lit Blog
Best Book/Publishing Industry Blog
Best Challenge Host
Best Community Builder
Best Cookbook Blog
Best History/Historical Fiction Blog
Best Design
Most Chatty
Most Concise

Most Eclectic Taste

Best Name for a Blog

Best Published Author Blog

Best Book published in 2008

Best Meme/Carnival/Event

Most Extravagant Giveaways

Best Book Community site

Write In--think we missed something? Write in your category and nomination and if there are enough other write-ins of the same category it will be added!

So go ahead, nominate your favorite blogs for an award. I'm sure they deserve it!

And thanks to Amy for all the appreciation!

Book Buzz Meme

J.S. Peyton over at Biblioaddict tagged me for a meme, and it's a good one. Short and to the point, interesting, an instant classic. Thank you, J.S.! The meme started at MyFriendAmy--she is sponsoring Book Blogger Awareness Week (button on my sidebar--more on that later).

Here are the rules:

I am going to list three categories of books. 3 MUST Read Books, 3 Keep Your Eyes on These, and 3 Look For These Soon. Keeping with the theme, I am going to tag at least 3 bloggers. They should put these same lists on their blog but SUBTRACT one book from each list and ADD one of their own. Then they should tag at least 3 more bloggers. It will be fun to see how the lists change as they go around the blogosphere. Please come back to this post and leave a comment so I can see how the lists are changing. Since this is Book Buzz…please keep your lists to titles released in 2007-2009.

So, here goes…

[Stars are next to my additions]

3 MUST Read Books:

When We Were Romans, by Matthew Kneale
The Book of Lost Things, by John Connolly
*Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell

3 Keep Your Eyes on These:

Monique and the Mango Rains, by Kris Holloway
Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill
*The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer

3 Look For These Soon:

Home, by Marilynne Robinson
The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman
*Indignation, by Philip Roth

3 Tags to keep this meme going:

Bybee at Naked Without Books!
Lisa at Books on the Brain
Tara at Books and Cooks

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Review: Matrimony, by Joshua Henkin, and a BONUS!

Julian Wainwright is a New York child of privilege, but he doesn't want to follow in his financier father's footsteps and go to Yale. Instead he wants to write, and to do that, he decides to go to Graymont, a small New England college where he can study fiction writing with Professor Stephen Chesterfield. At Graymont, in Chesterfield's writing workshop, Julian meets Carter Heinz, the only other student Chesterfield thinks has any promise. Carter is a Californian from a less wealthy background, and he envies Julian his east coast wealth and polish, but despite their differences, the two writers become friends. And over time the twosome becomes a foursome, as Carter dates Pilar, and Julian dates Mia Mendelsohn, a smart and beautiful student from Montreal.

Matrimony's focus then becomes the relationship between Julian and Mia. It is the story of a marriage, pressured into existence, perhaps too early, by family tragedy, and tested by youthful mistakes. In a way, it is also a novel about growing up--about how some people avoid it, and some people are forced into it, but everyone, eventually, does it.

Henkin's prose style is straightforward, yet understated, and works really well in telling this story. The smaller moments in the story were well observed, but I found Henkin's understated style was even better employed in the situations that had more emotional weight. For example, there was a real power to the spare writing when Mia was interacting with her dying mother, or Julian was trying to figure out his parents' failing marriage.

As I've said many times, good characters really make a book for me, and Henkin's characters are very well realized. Carter, Julian's best friend/rival, was a character I enjoyed disliking. He has a huge chip on his shoulder and has a hard time growing up--he's flawed, like real people are--and his development throughout the story felt real.

Not only did I relate to the main characters, I also enjoyed the colorful minor characters, especially curmudgeonly (or maybe it's long-suffering) Professor Chesterfield, Julian's first writing teacher. His commandments about writing made me laugh: "Thou shalt never use pass-the-salt dialogue, Thou shalt populate your stories with homo sapiens, Thou shalt not confuse a short story with a Rubik's Cube." All good advice, I'm sure! In fact, Chesterfield gives a nugget of writing advice that is among the best I've ever heard, and gets around the old adage that you should only write what you know: " should write what you know about what you don't know or what you don't know about what you know. Keep it close enough to home that your heart is in it but far enough away that the imagination can take over." I read this to my husband, who occasionally teaches screenwriting, and he said, "Ooh, that's a good way to say it," and wrote it down.

The novel also has a wonderful sense of place. I happen to know many of the places Henkin describes, which made the book feel familiar and comfortable. But even the places I've never been felt familiar; to me that's a sign that Henkin's descriptions really ring true.

Overall, I found this book to be a quietly satisfying read, something I looked forward to returning to. The characters were like old friends, and the stories of love and friendship were skillfully woven together into an understated yet elegant package.

I've rounded up some information for you regarding this book. Author Joshua Henkin has a great website you should visit, and he did a really interesting interview about book groups on Lisa's blog, Books on the Brain.

Matrimony, which was a New York Times Notable Book for 2007, is being released in paperback this month.


And now for the BONUS:

In honor of this book's release in paperback, I'll be holding a drawing for a brand spanking new copy of the paperback edition of Matrimony during the week of September 22nd. More details then!

Isn't the new paperback cover nice?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Beach reading

I'm back from a week on Cape Cod, where we get together with my husband's family every summer. We had gorgeous weather, and I had lots of time to read on the beach and at the pool, which was a little slice of heaven. However, there were pitfalls, too, including several plagues--lice and a vicious stomach virus. We managed to stay uninfected until the day we were leaving, when my littlest one came down with the stomach virus, and vomited cross-country on the plane ride. Sorry for the grisly details, but really, it was a trial for me. I don't like plane travel at the best of times, and this was a little slice of hell. However, we are home, and my small one has her appetite back--at last!

Before we left, I threw it out there that I was looking for light airplane reading, and the charming and ever-informative Litlove suggested I find something by Elinor Lippman or Barbara Trapido. I couldn't find anything by Barbara Trapido, but found a book by Elinor Lippman that fit the bill, a novel called Then She Found Me. Apparently it was made into a movie. It was a nice, light, engaging airplane read for the flight out--just right!

While on the Cape, my sister-in-law--who is always looking out for me in the reading department, bless her--brought me a book of linked short stories by Elizabeth Strout called Olive Kitteridge. I really liked this book. Not only was it set in a small town in New England--I always like to read about the places I'm visiting--it was also beautifully written, sad and sweet, and a wonderful study of human nature. I had read an earlier novel of hers, Amy and Isabelle, which I also liked. But to me, this was even better.

Then I got to something that had been languishing on my to-read pile, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O'Farrell. It was a suspenseful read, and terribly sad, and set in Scotland, both in Edwardian times and in the present--I enjoyed the juxtaposition.

I also bought a couple of books while I was there, at the Brewster Book Store, an independent book shop that I've posted about before. I love to support the independents! I bought The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows, which I got through in one day. It was a lovely little book that I had heard about on the book blogs, and when I was at the cash register, the woman behind the counter said I would love it. She was right, it was charming and a page-turner.

I also bought The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, by Helene Hanff, a sequel of sorts to her memoir, 84, Charing Cross Road. 84, Charing Cross Road is one of my all-time favorite books about books and reading, and it's something I find myself re-reading every once in awhile. It was satisfying to read about Hanff's journey to London after the publication of 84, Charing Cross Road, where she finally got to meet some of the people she had corresponded with for so long. But though it was entertaining and well worth reading, it wasn't quite as good as the first book.

And, on the recommendation of my sister-in-law, I bought Beginner's Greek: A Novel, by James Collins--another book to read on the plane. Of course, I didn't get any reading done on the plane on the way home, but I did manage to start the book at least, and I'm finding it to be warm and witty at the same time.

All in all, a great vacation for reading! (Mostly because my kids were totally engaged with their cousins and I barely saw them!) What have you read on vacation this year?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Booking Through Thursday--Gold Medal Reading

Here's this week's Booking Through Thursday question:

You, um, may have noticed that the Olympics are going on right now, so that’s the genesis of this week’s question, in two parts:


  • Do you or have you ever read books about the Olympics? About sports in general?
  • Fictional ones? Or non-fiction? Or both?

And, Second:

  • Do you consider yourself a sports fan?
  • Because, of course, if you’re a rabid fan and read about sports constantly, there’s a logic there; if you hate sports and never read anything sports-related, that, too … but you don’t have to love sports to enjoy a good sports story.
  • (Or a good sports movie, for that matter. Feel free to expand this into a discussion about “Friday Night Lights” or “The Natural” or whatever…)
And here's my answer: I've never read anything about the Olympics, though I am enjoying watching them, as usual. I tend not to read sports books at all, unless the sport element is incidental. For example, I just finished and enjoyed Joseph O'Neill's novel Netherland, which is sort of about the world of cricket, though fortunately, he does not spend much time describing the actual game play.

I'm not a sports fan, but I come from a family of sports fans. I enjoy playing some sports, but not the team variety. I haven't read many books with sports in them, but I've enjoyed many movies with a sports setting, like "The Natural", which was mentioned above. I also loved "Bull Durham", which I just watched again recently. Baseball seems to have a lot of quirky atmosphere that lends itself to movie storytelling, at least.  A good friend of mine wrote a fun baseball movie called "Little Big League", which is very entertaining, too.  He's kind of a renaissance guy, my friend Greg, as he is a fiction writer, poet, and also a blogger--check out his poetry and other great stuff at Gotta Book.

As far as other sports go, I'm sure there must be some good books out there in a sports setting.  Do you have any recommendations?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Vacation Reading

Here's a photo of the beach in Malibu, where we went to visit old friends of my husband's yesterday. If you click on the picture, and look closely, you can see one of my sons waving at me, and the other one ignoring me, while they boogie board.

I remember last summer a bunch of bloggers I know and love (really, kisses to all of you) blogged about the concept of "summer reading". I remember some of the bloggers were, shall we say, disdainful about the term "summer reading", as they didn't get why reading in the summer should be different than reading any other time.

I understand their argument, but as I've been nearing the start of my only actual summer trip, I've been thinking a lot about what books I want to bring, and I've realized that I do think differently about books to read on vacation, summer or otherwise.

First of all, I always have to think about something light yet immersive to read on the plane. I'm not the world's most comfortable flyer, so if I can concentrate on a book at all, it needs to be something that really grabs me. Sometimes that's a tall order. Then I need to make sure I have enough books to interest me for the week that I'll be gone, but I don't want to lug hardbacks, especially now that the airlines are making us pay for every bag.

I've pulled a few things from my tottering book pile for my trip to Cape Cod next week:

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O'Farrell
The Photograph, by Penelope Lively
The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson
Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived, by Penelope Lively
The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, by (you guessed it) Amy Hempel

But clearly this is overkill, so I'm going to have to whittle down the pile so that it will fit into my luggage. So obviously I need your help.

Does anyone have any favorites here? Anything I have to take, or absolutely shouldn't, on this list? Or do you have another suggestion that I need to go out and buy immediately? (I have a couple of coupons, so I might actually do it!)

Let me know what you think!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Quartet in Autumn, by Barbara Pym--a review

One of the things I like the best about Barbara Pym's writing is that it is unflinching in its portrayal of ordinary people. And Quartet in Autumn is one of her most unsentimental books, about four English office workers who face aging in different ways. Edwin, Letty, Marcia and Norman have little in common except that they have worked in the same office for many years.

One expects, and hopes, that these four people, who have no spouses or close family, will forge a bond in their loneliness, but Pym never gives us anything so easy. No, the bond they feel is almost against their will. They are each eccentric and difficult in their own way, and resist connections with each other. Letty is a spinster who doesn't know why life seems to have passed her by. Marcia is an anti-social eccentric, whose quirks and paranoia are becoming more pronounced since her mastectomy. Edwin is a widower obsessed with church-going. And Norman is a "strange little man" with a sarcastic sense of humor and more than a touch of misanthropy.

In typical Pym fashion, these four characters dance around each other, unable to commit to truly knowing one another. They know each other's habits and eccentricities, but they don't really know each other. And when one of them goes into a decline, the other three notice, and try to move into action, but ultimately can do little to help.

This may not be an uplifting book, but it is certainly sharply funny, observant, sad and true. I always enjoy Pym's clear-eyed observations about her fellow humans--while she shows her characters with warts and all, she does not judge them. They are real people, worthy of her respect. As usual, Pym has worked her magic with humor and realism and created another wonderful portrait in miniature.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill--a review

In the aftermath of 9/11, ex-pat Dutchman Hans Van den Broek feels adrift in New York. His wife, Rachel, needing to get away from New York, and needing a break from their marriage, moves back to her native England with their young son Jake. Hans, a victim of inertia, stays in New York, in their temporary digs at the Chelsea Hotel. Hans also falls into the sphere of enterprising, larger-than-life Trinidadian Chuck Ramkissoon, an entrepreneur and a dreamer whose dealings are not all on the up and up. Chuck has the dream of building a state-of-the-art cricket stadium in Queens to attract world-class cricket to New York, where he believes the many immigrant communities would support it. Hans, who played cricket as a boy in Amsterdam, begins to play again with the mostly Indian and West Indian immigrants who play the game in New York.

Netherland is mostly about healing the breach in Hans's relationship with his wife that was caused by the trauma of 9/11, and about the relationship that Hans forms with Chuck, a person totally outside of Hans's normal sphere. This relationship grows partly because Chuck is not affected in the same way as Hans by 9/11; unlike Hans, Chuck is not stopped in his tracks, but continues to make strides forward in his life.

I had read that people compare this book to The Great Gatsby, and it's easy to see where those comparisons come from. Chuck Ramkissoon makes a great modern-day Gatsby, a Trinidadian immigrant go-getter with questionable business dealings, who is attracted to Hans for his legitimacy. Chuck is both a naive believer in the American dream, and is willing to be a hustler to achieve it. And Hans is similar to Nick Carraway, detached observer but also drawn into Chuck's charismatic world.

It is a really interesting portrait of two enigmatic men, one who speaks too little, and one who speaks too much, but both of whom, despite some indefinable connection they feel, remain mysterious to each other.

Of course, the two men are also mysterious to others--to the other people in their lives. O'Neill's portrayal of Hans is that of a man who thinks a lot, but says little. In his struggle to remain married to his wife, there are so many times when he remains quiet in the face of her judgements, opinions and pronouncements about their relationship. He often seems like a deer caught in her headlights. Hans tells us what he feels and thinks, but he often cannot tell his wife.

Chuck, though voluble, is just as enigmatic. He has hidden layers to his life, layers that Hans can only guess at, and that end up being dark and dangerous. Chuck's pursuit of the American dream, like Gatsby's, ends in tragedy. O'Neill's vision of the American dream, as elusive and fraught with hidden pitfalls, and as likely to end in failure as success, definitely provided me with much food for thought.

I found O'Neill's writing style to be accessible, yet multi-layered. I loved his evocation of New York, as it is also multi-layered. He takes us to Chelsea, Brooklyn, Queens, and up the Saw Mill River parkway to towns outside the city, as well as to London, Amsterdam and Trinidad.

And I have to admit, I love books where I read a passage and I think, "I've thought that. I really relate to that." There were many such times in this book. The most obvious one I can point out (and it's trivial in the story, really), is a point in the book when Hans is with his son, asking if he wants to learn to play cricket. Then Hans says, "He is only six. When he plays football he is still dreamy in the extreme and only kicks at the ball if woken up by a shout. It is like Ferdinand the Bull and the flowers." And that is exactly how I describe my son, who played soccer (football to Hans) for only two years. When he was six, on his first soccer team, and would stand out in the field dreaming instead of participating in the game, I used to describe him as "Ferdinand the Bull." I love it when something like that happens when I read a book--when it seems an author is speaking to me in particular.

I also enjoyed Hans's subtle journey from dark to light. At the beginning of the story, Hans is paralyzed and depressed, and O'Neill, through the crucible of New York and Hans's relationship with Chuck, takes him through the darkness to a kind of healing. I found O'Neill's New York, and the immigrants and the dreamers who fall under its spell, to be a very involving place.