Summer Books I loved, 2017

This summer I read some startling poetry—Paschen, Kaschike, and Sinclair, 2 amazing debuts by Clemmons and Cline, Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders, a book that tips over the whole concept of a novel into something new, Hunt’s book which speaks to what every woman I know goes through, The Snyder which is a really important little manifesto by a brilliant scholar…

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons
The Girls by Emma Cline
The Nightlife by Elise Paschen
The Infintesimals by Laura Kaschike
The Answers by Catherine Lacey
Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy
The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt
On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder
Abandon Me by Melissa Febos
Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair

Women and Children First Bookstore in Chicago

Panel discussion of best books of the year. Dec. 16, 2016 at 7:30pm

Summer, 2016 Eating Books

Little Red Chairs, Edna O’Brien I had never read her before. I love her style and her depiction of small town Irish life and the psychology of a psychopath dictator.

Homecoming by Yaa Gyasi. With its transparent prose, only the story, characters and emotions remain. A 17th century African village is depicted with amazing historical accuracy that never displays the virtuoso research this must have entailed. A seamless and haunting story of the slave trade and its lasting effects.

Burning Down the House by Jane Mendelsohn The style, overtly lyrical, staccato, at times baroque, and the subject , 21rst century wealth and its demented sources, are captivating. The emotional impact is intense and lingering. I loved it.

Hologram For a King by Dave Eggers. At once, naturalistic and modern in its spare lucid descriptions. The story feels like an allegory about the pitfalls of modernity itself. Very Eggers.

Citizen by Claudia Rankine These poems create a memoir of vitality and depth. New insights startled me on every page about race and the struggle to have a self in a world that can’t see you.

Erratic Facts by Kay Ryan. Crystalline poems given as a gift to my husband from poet, Elise Paschen. I read them first and loved them.

Seven Brief Lectures on Physics by Carlo Ravelli. I knew nothing and now I know something.

The Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont A first novel about infidelity and its ravaging consequences on a family, wrought in stunning, original prose. Episodic, lyrical and expertly paced, the novel traces the effects of the breakup over many years and the complex fallout for the children.

Euphoria by Lily King .A novel about anthropologists their genuine searches, their egos and careers by a skilled novelists. The story is lively, fun and deep.

Lost in The Fun House by John Barth I should have read this in college but didn’t. There is an essential artifice in even the most realistic fiction. His stories echo naturalism but are interspersed with commentary on themselves. This would be a great book to teach as it elucidates elements of fiction as it deconstructs them and entertains.

A Brief History of Vice by Robert Evans. Because its good to know you can have one or two. A really engaging, funny read that lets you forgive yourself and learn how to make mead, a celtic beverage.

Today Will be Different by Maria Semple. Hilarious and so familiar it hurts.

A Group from California Spring

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr. Reminicsent of The English Patient. (Haven’t finished this one yet.)

Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness. I loved this memoir about keeping a diary simply for its prose. The topic itself sounds deadly and solipsistic but in the right hands it’s fascinating.

Nell Zink, The Wallcreeper. Refreshingly harsh, ex-patriotic, daring—alert, women have sexual feelings and have affairs—and original in style. Despite this, I felt the artifice of a writer forcing herself to make a novel out of vivid strands. Still I’m excited for her next book, Mislaid.

Julie Lythcott Haimes’s, How to Raise an Adult
I read this is 2 sittings amazed by how much a I “over-parent.” Every once in a while a book captures the cultural zeitgeist. This is that book right now.

Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson. This wildly prolific young-adult writer composed a beautiful autobiography in verse. I was moved to see the way her personal life and the cultural shift in our country around race, from the early to late sixties, meld. Being white, I didn’t personally feel that shift when I was a child. I was moved by seeing the world through her lens.

Crossing to Safety, William Stegner. Uncanny resemblances to writers and academics I know (and we are) although I wondered whether the book defines a moment in history or is perhaps dated.

Atul Gawande, On Being Mortal. This is classic book group fare with ready made—although beautifully written—timely topics for discussion.

Will Schwalbe, The End of Your Life Book Club – I’m not one to get depressed by reading about sad or difficult topics but I was admittedly laid low by reading this second book about dying so close to the last one on the same topic.

Ian McEwan, The Children Act. I nearly always love an Ian McEwan novel; short, intense, topical, shapely and elegant as ever.

Per Peterson, Out Stealing Horses. Blown away by the simplicity of the prose and then the violence and the pattern of the two throughout.

My Odd List of Recent Favorites:

-Enormous Changes at The Last Minute by Grace Paley. She’s unique–vivid, brutal, syntactically original, voice driven– and always restores my faith in stories.
-The Department of Speculation by Jenny Offil. This is a great book about a modern marriage. I feel you, Jenny Offil.
-The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. Tight, obsessive (in a good way!) essays.
-Elena Ferrante’s six amazing novels. I read these just as the hype began and I now believe it thoroughly. I’m left wondering why certain works of fiction feel autobiographical. There’s a completely tethered connection to the physical and meta-physical real.
-The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman. I loved to hate Nathaniel P. He’s the reason one can’t marry a male New York writer.
-Infidelities. Poems by Elise Paschen. This is her first book and it is fierce, haunting, laced with resonance and a sense of inevitability that feels close to narrative.
-Lean In by Cheryl Sandberg. I caved and finally read it. Fine, so there was a ghost writer and a researcher but the basic data needed to be revealed…by someone: Inequity between the sexes still persists and she dishes the proof.

More books….

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed changed her name to “Strayed” when she couldn’t stop straying from her husband; this fact makes her loveably odd—who does that?—and pretentious. Yet because this is a memoir of her life in her twenties, we forgive her. The book’s inviting frame, a memoir about the death of her mother and her decision to hike the Pacific Coast Trail by herself, is, in a way a ruse: the book’s strength is that it is about ordinary youth, its extreme vanity, its foolishness, its grandiosity and despair, its ignorance and bravado and its inevitable stumbling blocks. As much as her childhood poverty, her bereavement, and her hiking distinguish her, the book’s power is in her ordinariness and her willingness, not to boast of her strength in face of adversity (who among us doesn’t face adversity after all?) but to reveal the details of herself that betray a quiet universality: her insatiable hunger after hiking and the delectable first bites of a chocolate bar, the unbelievable thirst she feels and her new passion for Snapple Lemonade, her relatable decision to send herself a brand new black lace bra to wear after a grueling hike and a shower in the hopes of finding someone to undress her and delight in discovering it. These smaller details kept me riveted.

The Silent Wife, by ABA Harrison

I’ve lived in Chicago for ten years and I think The Silent Wife captures the essence of the city more than any book I’ve read: the Ferrari of a successful, self-made man zipping down the cavernous streets of the Loop, the Lakeside aerie of the would-be perfect couple hovering over Michigan Avenue, two best friends digging into beer and burgers at The Drake, and above all, the all-American sexism. The American dream is portrayed as one that is achievable for him and doomed for her. When the silent wife in question, Jodi—dutiful, loyal, culinarily gifted and professional, albeit more devoted to her household–comes to this realization, she crumbles, revealing a world of passion and rage that is wholly human. It’s a wonderful moment for a reader who is close to disbelieving in the wife’s powers of dull containment and then is absolutely fulfilled by her startling dissembling.

Days of Abandonment by, Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante is an incredible writer. The slow incremental stacking of sentences creates a slow burn. The emotion is so real it scorches. I was sobbing as I read this book of a woman’s undoing by her husband’s affair with a younger woman. It sounds cliché, but the power with which she conveys her protagonist’s reactions take it far beyond cliché. We come to understand, truly, what a human betrayal is, why it debilitates, and what are its costs.

Quiet, by Susan Cain

Clearly there aren’t two types of people in the world and many people contain traits of introverts and those of extroverts, the classic labels created by Carl Jung. Cain explores the deeper meanings of these labels and how our culture perhaps devalues the power of introversion. This is the book’s biggest contribution: to point out the incalculable value of creativity, which arises from those who work alone instead of in groups. Introverts are often artists, scientists, thinkers, whose revelations come to them through time and solitude. At times, a reader may feel too much the defensiveness of a true introvert at work, trying, in that conflicted way introverts sometimes have, to assert herself. Cain is a self-avowed introvert and admits struggling for years to learn public speaking. The roots of why she felt compelled to do this, other than for her need to publicize this book, must be in her own self-doubt: An introvert can easily write with no fear of public speaking and with no real need for it (aside from the need for marketing one’s book which today is perhaps a real concern.) Although Cain’s repeated focus on her need to learn public speaking it comes off feeling like a conflicted desire for attention, or, worse, greed. Just when she has reigned me in so forcibly—I am an introvert and my daughter is too—she has to turn me off with her, highly viewed Ted talk!
Despite this perhaps unconscious lack of self-acceptance on her part, I was completely captivated by her descriptions of ordinary American life and its bias towards extroverts in school and the workplace. Equally impressive is her grounding in the work of Kahn, a psychologist who’s experiments with thousands of infants lay the groundwork for a deeper physiological understanding of introversion and extroversion and introversions relationship to sensitivity: highly reactive infants grew up to be introverts while those who were less responsive to the same stimuli grew up to be extroverts. Highly sensitive people, require less stimulation and less sensitive people require more external stimulation. It’s a fascinating study that Cain elucidates well and makes Quiet worth reading.

Henderson The Rain King, by Saul Bellow

I’m a writer and an aesthete and I love language so much as to forgive the giants of American literature, Updike, Roth Cheever, their sexism. But I can’t forgive Bellow. Where the others elucidate sexism as a part of their culture and time, and are able to transcend it and discover the basic humanity in their characters, Bellow can’t. I loved Henderson The Rain King when I read it as a teenager for its imaginative flight, its sentences and descriptions and its wonderful conceit—Henderson abandons ordinary life and goes to Africa to start anew—but couldn’t love it this time as much as a I’d hoped too. Forgive me, Chicago and literati but Bellow, who strips his female characters of any shred of humanity, making them into grotesque animals, more foreign and beast-like than any animals he encounters in Africa, is not great.

Bedside Table:

A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver

I read this book in one sitting, prone on the couch, drained by Sunday and sure that I was redeemed by beauty.

How Fiction Works by James Wood

Every critic should be like Wood; wise, seasoned, passionate and erudite. His graceful prose is a balm.

The Fun Stuff by James Wood

This book contains harshness not found in the previous one; ie saying Paul Auster essentially stinks, but it is fun.

The Blindfold  by Siri Hustvedt

I re-read this book after I finished writing my own, certain that hers had been a book that in some deep way had inspired me. I first read it in my twenties and it is spare, formal, nearly remote but written in such a lucid style that it’s almost hyper-real.

Fiction Ruined My Family by Jeanne Darst

The title alone is compelling (not to mention scary) and she’s hilarious. She approaches writing about EGO –her own, her father’s, all artists– with blunt, refreshing candor.

May We Be Forgiven? by A.M. Homes

I read A.M. Homes early on and love her use of language, and the way she comfortably traipses around an edge–of death, of sex with the wrong person, of popping pills with your nephew–like no one else. This book has a wonderfully engaging propulsive plot;  the situation Homes creates is allegorical and fierce and impossible to turn away from.

Dear Life by Alice Munro

Every once in a long while you read work that makes you question the form. And so you say, what is this thing, a short story? You are dumfounded, stumped, awed in the same way that we can’t fathom the complexity and richness of life itself or of another human being.  Munro is a master of omission, artfully sculpting the matter  (life) and leaving only the very deliberate remains.

NW by Zadie Smith

Another genius. Critics might say she tries to be Joycean. She succeeds and does more. We are fully inside consciousness.

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

It’s my first time and I’m in love. The letters are spectacular.

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

I once lived in Madrid for no good reason. Ben Lerner writes so well about it.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson

I’m surprised I missed Markson in graduate school. He is a  deceptively simple writer. Incremental statements build and accrue and then become complex. My friends, a married couple who read to each other in bed, gave this to me.

Far From The Tree by Andrew Solomon

Solomon is a conversational writer who fully employs manners on the page; he’s always engaging, never dull or pedantic, and never interrupts (his own stream of  thoughts) thus your own stream of thoughts.  Like the smartest of smarties, he’s never pretentious. It’s a pleasure to follow him down any path.

Carry The One by Carol Anshaw

I’m just dipping my toe in. Lovely.

Some very short reviews of books I loved:

A Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes

The dialogue among childhood friends—British, bookish boys in the 60’s—provides a full sense of their worldview and the dynamics of any teenaged group. Barnes is wonderful at portraying them at the micro level  and then pulling back twenty years into the future to provide the macro lens and the inevitable distortion of time.

 

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson

This is an amazing first novel full of visceral energy (in particular what it is like to be a teenager, the child of hippies, in the drug-fueled 80s;) the raw, unadorned doom of adolescence; and the fate of biology.  I gobbled it up.

 

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

I feel like Harbach is a clairvoyant and a ventriloquist. Oh, and he’s experienced past lives and knows, for example what it is like to be a sixty-something college president who’s in love with a student. He knows what it is like to be his daughter, Pella, a young woman struggling to find herself, to be an uber-gifted athlete and a person like Schwartz who’s ambition and wisdom and drive outstrip his own talent. These creations are unforgettable and true.

 

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

Dana Spiotta like De Lillo, is a modernist; she gives us the story in the most elliptical, spare, deliberate, gorgeous fashion she can while insisting that the way it’s told is of equal value with what is told. The story itself is a one of the modern obsession with image, fame and identity: Spiotta tracks the sister of a would-be rock star through their interactions and through his own homemade scrapbook of invented concerts and self-generated rave reviews.  We come to question the difference between a life of true fame versus imagined, and, at the same time, feel the tragedy of a life and a talent that remains unrealized.

 

This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman

Helen Schulman does a rare thing: she satirizes her characters (they are upwardly mobile, private -school New Yorkers) with such a light touch that we are also able to see the distinctions among them—some host parties for six-year-olds at the Plaza and some, like our protagonist, Liz, merely attend them—and to feel the pain of their imploding marriages, and lost dreams.  The beautiful life is falling away in the midst of a sex scandal and the Internet and the beautiful children and adults within the story, who love one another with ferocity, are revealed.  I’ve always loved her prose style, a lyricism and precision that are rarely concomitant.  With each careful sentence, the pieces are stacked. And then they fall beautifully.

August reading…

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

In Amina, a Bangladeshi woman, new to this country, Nell Freudenberger has created a character with a tangible inner life. This may be the essential job of the novelist yet often we are not lucky to see it. Instead we may find signifiers for who a person is—their clothing, the material world around them—external markers. Freudenberger reveals Amina  first in these material ways, the ways that perhaps Amina sees herself, aspiring as she does to obtain all the outward signs of American success, and then later, internally.  She’s a character who doesn’t know her thoughts, suffers from self-deception, perfectionism, her own outgrown ambitions and her buried desires.

As its title suggests it’s a book about marriage. The relationship depicted is at first deceptively simple. It thickens incrementally as Freudenberger reveals its origins. In the end I came to see the institution in a new way: it’s a formal bond that may start from an authentic connection or from nothing more than a contractual exchange of needs (Amina needs to become an American with George’s help, George needs to create a family with her help.) Yet within that dry, almost mercenary start, a true connection blooms.

Her method is never flashy; slow, incremental, precise and clear, she guides us into her characters and their position in the world. The feat is huge: Amina convinces you that Freudenberger has been possessed by a Bangladeshi woman when she is truly an American from LA. (Amina’s perception of Bangladesh when she returns is searingly vivid and palpable.) In the author’s full identification with this character, we gain full access to what feels like a real life.

 

The Marriage Plot by Jeff Eugenides

Leonard is insane. He’s also the most compelling character in this book about three Brown students in the late eighties.  The hollow grayness of boredom, the fear of growing up, the high of being in love, a sense of failure and then grandiosity, are all depicted as—not just the heart of his illness– but the heart of human nature. The pages in which Leonard decreases his medication in order to feel himself (whatever that inimitable thing a self, actually is) are pages of genius; he is not just compelling, he is sympathetic. As we read, he is no longer a freak but a tragic figure.

A friend commented that Eugenides must have suffered manic depressive illness himself or have known someone who had.  That’s irrelevant. It’s his imagination (whether connected to an ill or “normal” mind) and his use of language that has enabled him to create this indelible, painfully accurate portrait.

 

Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman

Can your baby wait for a marshmallow? The answer may determine their future success. Druckerman describes a study in which toddlers are asked to delay gratification; such an ability, she writes is endemic to French children in contrast to their American counterparts. Living in Paris and raising three children, Druckerman writes beautifully about the cultural differences among French and American parents. Her tone is humorous, relying at times on good doses of generalization.  I found her lament familiar and hilarious while my mother and her peer didn’t seem to connect to it. My guess is that the divide about parenting is perhaps not only national but generational. Our parents knew to make us wait for gratification, but somehow our generation can’t make our children do the same. My American friend living in Europe put it this way, “French parents say “non” more than any other word.”

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

“I think you’re obsessed with him,” my oldest friend told me over lunch when I told her about the book for the second time. It wasn’t him, the author, but yes it was his first book and I found myself blushing, which only enforced her suspicion.  What I am also obsessed with is the secret of marriage, of every marriage. Yet my relationship to this book was love/hate.  The next day I told another friend the book was, “the definition of misogyny.” She asked why I was reading it. The answer was I could not put it down.

In the sticky days that followed, as I both eschewed it and then drew it to me as I climbed into bed, I tried to understand the power of Mr. Peanut.  It’s an unsuitable, light title for a book filled with death and wife-murder.  As for misogyny—I meant it quite literally. It starts off as a sort of mystery about a man accused of killing his wife, but then the detective on the case also has a depressive wife who he dreams of murdering and then there’s a second matricide in there too; the victim is the oft betrayed, overburdened wife of a womanizing surgeon. Yet Ross describes so well the way the surgeon liked to wear scrubs with no underwear and feel himself swinging as he walked the hospital halls. He details with such precision the numbing and also comforting morning routines of couples, the endlessness of their meals and their beds and their coffee, the almost unbearable predictability of intimacy and also its addictive power.

Sentence by sentence his earthy yet precise writing redeems him. And his very flawed obsession (wife murder!) is something, to his credit, that we come to see actual humanity in.  Aggression—as it appears in many forms—is the engine of this book. Like Updike and Roth, Ross writes so well and with such pathos about what is essentially base, that we (I) forgive him.