I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel

totally wrong

Knopf, January 6, 2015

 

I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel is an intellectual version of the Bickersons, as authors David Shields and his former student Caleb Powers spend four days in a cabin in the Cascade mountains of Washington and disagree about everything from movies to major life issues. In the course of this dialogue there are no holds barred and, in its own way, it has a certain fascination—whether from a cerebral or gender perspective, I’m not sure. Discussions citing Voltaire, Goethe, Camus, Stanley Milgram, and Pessoa abound. Shields’ well-known disdain for the novel is in full force

“Maybe it’s a limitation of my aesthetic: basically, the only thing I really love is listening to people think really well about existence for 120 pages. What else is worth my time?” 

so Franzen comes in for a shellacking (who doesn’t love that?) but Wallace catches a break. It’s these sections that make me feel like I’m back in college and not in a good way.

I Think You’re Totally Wrong bills itself as a book that “seeks to demolish once and for all the Q&A format, rendering any such future interviews laughably artificial; it also seeks to confound, as much as possible, the divisions between “reality” and “fiction”, between “life” and “art””. This is a pretty tall order from a book that weighs in at 256 pages of nothing but back and forth between two middle-aged men while they drink beer. I’m not even sure what exactly is meant by that mission statement but what I got was an alpha male and alpha male junior, neither of whom is willing to concede to the other’s position. It is only when they slip into more personal territory that the book piques my interest. For both men there is a wistfulness attached to the fact that neither of their wives is particularly enamored with their writing. Shields says

“I’d say it’s one of the sadnesses in my life. She reads my work and she semi-likes it sometimes—there’ll be passages she likes—but she’s not exactly riveted. 

It is these glimpses into the masculine psyche—even when they include much about porn, sports and one-upmanship of professional success—that show there is more to be gotten from I Think You’re Totally Wrong. When Shields and Powell drop the quarreling premise that both revel in and speak freely on the more mundane topics of marriage, children, and work, this book comes to life. My favorite line in the entire book:

We rarely have arguments, although we disagree about everything. – Caleb Powell about his marriage

 

This book can be purchased online at:

I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel
by David Shields and Caleb Powell
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

And the Dark Sacred Night

dark sacred night

Anchor, pbk release January 6, 2015

 

Kit Noonan is in his early 40s and finds himself stuck at a place in his life where he doesn’t want to be. Jobless, he stays at home with his twin son and daughter while his wife works. When she suggests that his inability to get on with his life is related to the fact that he doesn’t know who his biological father is, he begins a backwards search to move forward. This is Julia Glass’ new novel And the Dark Sacred Night, and through it she explores the many layers of family relationships in a way that makes for thoughtful reading.

Kit’s mother Daphne has always refused to tell him about his father and even when he presses her now, she says only that he is dead. Beyond that she feels it’s “water under the bridge” and should not be pursued so Kit goes to her second husband, Jasper, the man who largely raised him and who knows part of Daphne’s secret. A quiet and respectful man he reaches out to Kit’s paternal grandmother to get her consent to meet with Kit. For Lucinda Burns this is the moment she has been waiting for since Daphne cut her out of Kit’s life decades ago but she is now a grandmother and her own children do not know about Kit’s existence. The only truth Daphne has given Kit is that his father is indeed dead. Beyond that there are a number of familial intricacies to be navigated and Glass does with a hand that is both gentle but firm. This is no extended family fairytale.

There is much to be told in And the Dark Sacred Night just as there is in any family history but it is not a story of suspense nor does Glass intend it to be. Instead, it is a beautifully wrought novel of the impact the past has on the future and how the decisions made by one person can have ramifications for those who come after them. With her careful prose she brings together a widespread cast of characters who confound the traditional standards of family to forge their own connections. She does so with a quiet manner of commonsense that acknowledges the limits of all involved and the realities of time but still leaves room for hope and an eye to the future.

This book can be purchased online at:


The Elliott Bay Book Company

It’s Monday January 26th: What are You Reading?

It’s not often most people get to say this but I am SO HAPPY about this Monday. Enough so, that I’m going to stray off the bookish topic to explain why. Most of you know that I live in Seattle but you may not know that currently my husband and I live in a small rental house and that we’ve been looking for a house of our own for a year. Who knew Seattle was one of the most competitive housing markets in the U.S.? We didn’t but we’ve learned it the hard way by looking at over 150 houses, bidding on and losing three houses we liked, and writing a cover letter to one seller trying to explain why we were the best people to buy their house (and as a writer, losing that house really hurt).

That’s the bad news (and bad it was) but now we found a house and as of today we closed on it. WE. OWN. A. HOUSE again and I am mighty happy about it. It was built in 1958 and has never been updated so it will be a little while before we can move in but that’s all right. Who knows, house renovation posts may sneak into this blog!

For now, it’s enough to say that I’m a bit scattered. Add to that, it makes me skittish when I go too long without a book I love so I’m feeling a bit off. Here’s what I’m taking a chance on this week.

 

what are you reading

Holt, January 27th, 2015

Another wacky cover and title which I’m hoping goes better than last week’s reading of Rabbit Back Literature Society.

what are you reading

Viking, January 22, 2015

I’m always a sucker for a play on words and from the looks of it this title says it all. It’s supposed to have a psychological component mixed in with a criminal element.

So what are you reading? And are you in a slump or finding all kinds of great books?

The Girl on the Train

girl on the train

Riverheard, January 13, 2015

 

Take the unreliable narrator format from Gone Girl and multiply it times three and you’ve got Paula Hawkins’ debut novel The Girl on the Train. Three women—Anna, Rachel, and Megan—all pass through the same time and space but each from a very different perspective, varying from sad to what appears to be flat out crazy. For Rachel, being unable to conceive leads to solace found only in alcohol. When her husband cheats on her with Anna she moves out and after five years of steady decline has lost her job but not her obsession over her former marriage. She spends her days on the commuter train, drinking as it goes by her old house and fantasizing about Megan who lives near her old house. She is also stalking her ex and his new wife and their young daughter—calling their home at night and trying to get him to talk to her about what went wrong.

Hawkins wastes no time in subtlety but launches Rachel directly from her cans of gin and tonic on the train into the midst of the police investigation for Megan, who has gone missing. Her alcoholism is so out of control that she cannot account for wide swathes of time, including the night when Megan disappeared. Her behavior towards her ex and his wife makes her even more suspicious and for Anna it becomes the perfect time to get Rachel out of their lives once and for all.

 The Girl on the Train piles on the drama trauma in a way that will impact readers one of two ways. Either you’ll be drawn in and tear through the book, eating up every detail, or you’re going to find it over-the-top. I fell into the latter group. For me, using Rachel’s alcoholism as the tool to smash her credibility feels a bit like cheating. Her bruises, cuts and lack of any memories when she’s drinking is too easy and sets her up too well. Her behavior is largely shown when she’s drunk and so, removes any psychological element from her actions. Of course, she’s unreliable—she’s drunk! This is where the comparisons to Gone Girl go off the track—everyone in that novel was, on the surface, “normal” which made their actions and the resulting mystery and tension that much more shocking. That is not the case here. As the central protagonist Rachel sets the tone for the novel and as her actions become more unstrung and pathetic attention for the rest of the story wanders.

 At the same time, The Girl on the Train will gain a following because it does utilize the mental gymnastics performed so well by Gillian Flynn. Hawkins gets points for sticking her landing with a reveal at the end that is surprising but while it goes some way towards alleviating my feelings about her representation of Rachel it isn’t enough to move this novel from good to great.

This book can be purchased online at:

The Girl on the Train
by Paula Hawkins
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

The Undertaker’s Daughter

undertaker's daughter

Gallery Books, January 13, 2015

 

Kate Mayfield takes readers into the world of her childhood in The Undertaker’s Daughter, a memoir that combines the unique circumstances of growing up in the 1960s in a small town in Kentucky while living above a funeral home. Through her we learn about a life and family held tight by the rituals of death. For Kate and her siblings, life was an odd combination of normalcy and living in service to death as their home was above the funeral facilities. When the call came, her father ceased being her parent and became the kindly and sympathetic man who guided the bereaved through their loss. She recounts these episodes, as well as the darker side of her family life, with a flair for storytelling and a wry humor that makes this memoir read like a novel.

What is most striking about The Undertaker’s Daughter is that the stories of the facts of death and burial are expected to be dark, sad, and even salacious but for Mayfield it is her family and the dynamics of small town life that are the more confusing and difficult to understand. Her mother is not the nurturing kind but of the school that believes children need discipline and punishment more than hugs and kind words. Her father is the one who seems to enjoy her company and lets her spend time with him. He is the recipient of her childish love and admiration for his debonair appearance and dedication to the ethos of being an undertaker. It is only as she reaches adulthood that she learns what her younger self could not understand.

After I put the phone down, for the first time in the years and the distance that had passed between my mother and me, the penny dropped. How selfish my father had been, how hurtful, how careless…the deceit and embarrassment he foisted upon my mother would have been crushing.

Mayfield is able to combine these larger issues with the smaller ones within her family with an ease that gives both the weight they would have to someone of her age at the time. The Undertaker’s Daughter includes not only the eccentricities of life in a small Southern town but layers in the confusion of not understanding what is happening in one’s own family and in the world outside that family. For Kate, there is a mother and sister whose behavior is inexplicable but a cook whom she loves and a quirky old woman who, as the town’s wealthiest citizen, becomes a large part of her family’s life. The Undertaker’s Daughter has the entertainment value of fiction but what makes it memorable are the very real aspects of puzzlement and confusion that come with growing up, no matter where one lives.

With my arms folded and my face screwed up in a stew I sat quietly, swelling with resentment and irritable that yet another person had died. But as I grew older and death continued to claim our citizens, I learned why silence was necessary: Respect. This is the word I heard consistently though out my childhood. When a life fades and ends, the family deserves a quiet place to mourn. I gradually made peace with a life that demanded to be lived in quantities of silence. 

 

This book can be purchased online at:


The Elliott Bay Book Company

It’s Monday January 19th: What are You Reading?

It’s another Monday (funny how they keep showing up) and I’m back to share what I’m reading now as part of a meme from Sheila at Book Journey. When we met last week there seemed to be a general malaise about good books and reading so I’m hoping things a little peppier for you all. I’m not un-slumped yet except for The Undertaker’s Daughter which I finished this past weekend and really liked. A review should follow later in the week. I also finished I Think You’re Totally Wrong and hope I can get my thoughts to coalesce enough to write something about it. I just don’t read much male-centric non-fiction and so found it hard to stay focused on a book that is nothing but a dialogue between two middle-aged men. I mean, nothing against middle-aged men (I’m married to one) but, well…yes, this need more thought.

Here’s what’s happening this week:

what are you reading

Thomas Dunne Books, January 20th, 2015

The Rabbit Back Literature Society: this is either going to be really good or make me really mad because a title this wacky can only go one of those two ways.

 

what are you reading

St. Martin’s press, January 6, 2015

The Shock of the Fall: this showed up unannounced and is a paperback release but I’m taking a chance on it.

 

what are you reading

Gallery Books, January 13, 2015

The Deep: I liked Nick Cutter’s first book The Troop- in all its goopy horror so when I had an opportunity to get an e-copy of this one I said yes. Daytime reading only, I don’t do scary at night.

 

How about you? What are you reading this Monday? 

Brilliant: A Novel

I came across this winter-time review from before I even had this blog (yes, I wrote reviews just for myself) and it brought back such happy memories of this book I decided to go public with it. Happy Friday!

brilliant

St. Martin’s Press, 2003

 

Maybe it’s the grey on grey days or simply my misguided decision to try and read War and Peace several weeks ago but in the past week I have felt an intense need for reading that would amuse and relax me. No sweeping sagas of epic theme, no alcoholic memoirs (Lit), just pleasure. Pure pleasure.

I don’t like to get all weird about it but often when I feel a need about reading, the perfect book falls into my hand. This is one of the perks of volunteering in a library. I’m exposed to thousands of books but many of them are of no interest at all (science fiction? Please, no). It just happens that the right one moves itself out of alignment and more to the front of a shelf. This was the case when I saw Marne Kellogg’s Brilliant. The fact that it has diamonds on the front cover had nothing to do with it.

Without getting into too much hoity-toity review-speak (which I’m not even sure I could pull off) this is a great read. It perfectly fills the space between chick lit (which I love, so don’t cramp) and literature. Chick lit is so frothy and fun that your mind leaves the book as soon as you put it down. Literature may stay with you but not always in a good way. It requires concentration and sometimes, for me, re-reading of paragraphs. Enjoyable in its way but still kind of…work. Brilliant hooked me in the first ten pages and made me want to continue reading. I wasn’t haunted or plagued by it but looked forward to picking it up again.

The story is about Kick Keswick, a seemingly innocuous executive assistant who is in reality, a jewel thief. She’s forty-something, plump, intelligent, feisty, and lives alone. She likes the good life and her independence, both qualities I prize in a heroine. She works at a prestigious auction house which provides several exciting back stories and just enough intrigue to keep the reader surprised.

Kellogg seamlessly imbues the text with Keswick’s dry, witty tone. It’s very neatly done and told from Kick’s perspective the improbable seems plausible. Add to that intricate details on the making of fine jewelry, from the different type of stones and their grades to how to properly set them in precious metals and you’re left looking at the results of either a lot of research or Kellogg was a jeweler in a previous life. I appreciate details in my books. It means I can’t skim which is an unfortunate habit left over from college (not ALL the time, just when something bores me- like all of the pages about war in War & Peace).

This book is a great anecdote to the fall/winter blahs. Not too arduous but thoroughly engaging and enjoyable. You’ll cheer for Kick as her ‘bland’ exterior allows her to move through the world unseen but leaving her mark. The best news is there are three more books in the series. Oh happy day! I’ve already checked two of them out and will be heading back into Kick’s world tonight. Join me and let me know what you think.

One more note: I have read the entire series by now and continued to be enchanted by Kick and by Kellogg’s writing. The bad news is that she has not written anything new since 2013. I’ve tried to reason with her about this but with a restraining order in place there is only so much I can do. (that is a joke, seriously, a joke)

 

This book can be purchased online at:

Brilliant
by Marne Davis Kellogg
Powells.com

Slow Motion: A Memoir of a Life Rescued by Tragedy

slow motion

Mariner Books, 1999

 

I have always believed my mother would live forever. While I have never said goodbye to my father without the thought crossing my mind that I might never see him again, my mother has seemed indestructible, fixed in my consciousness like a gnarled and stately tree that has taken root there. If she is ripped away at this moment in my life, she will take her roots with her and I will be left with less than nothing: a ragged, empty hole.

Recently I read a post over at Cynthia Robertson’s blog about memoirs that read like novels and I immediately thought of Dani Shapiro’s Slow Motion, which I finished reading this weekend. It covers her early twenties, when she dropped out of college, started an acting/modeling career and was having an affair with Lenny, a much older married man; basically, a full-on rebellion against her religious upbringing. One that was interrupted by the news that her parents had been in a horrible car accident and were not expected to live. From freewheeling hedonistic ennui Shapiro is plunged into a world of hospital rooms, medical terminology, and the pain that comes from seeing loved ones in pain.

Slow Motion navigates through Shapiro’s journey as she tries to continue with her self-destructive life while dealing with both her parents being in a hospital in critical condition. When her father dies and family dynamics implode around her, only Lenny is able to resolve the issues and to take care of her, even as his lies about his wife, family, and even other girlfriends increase. In the midst of her grief over her father and fear for her mother, Shapiro is also grappling with this conflict and its impact on her self-esteem. At twenty-three she has really never stood on her own, relying on her looks to gain entrée to a world far beyond anything she herself could achieve. When even the rug of Lenny is yanked out from under her feet, she finally begins to claim herself.

Shapiro’s story read so much like a film that I looked up certain well-known people who were key players in the tumultuous times of her early twenties and one thing led to another (as it so often does on the internet). I discovered that a portion of Shapiro’s life at this time was left out of the book even though it was the time in her life being detailed. After re-reading those segments of Slow Motion again I was left a little uncertain and…disappointed but not sure that I ought to be, if that makes sense. I thought memoir and autobiography were largely the same thing. So, I looked up the definition of memoir and it is “a record of events written by a person having intimate knowledge of them and based on personal observation” which sounds like an autobiography, yes? Regardless, Shapiro’s decision to omit significant personal relationships in Slow Motion caused a bit of an uproar in the reading world with some going so far as to compare the book to James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. Shapiro responded with this letter in Salon which I found to be an interesting exercise in avoidance as she does not deal with the specific questions posed about the memoir, just strongly asserts that it was not her job to write the specifics. I’ve given it a lot of thought and do feel that knowing this information might have changed my perception of her subsequent actions and yet, the book was engrossing without them. Needless to say, I’m still confused by what or how much I expect an author to reveal when writing about themselves. It may be that if a very specific time of life is covered then I expect it to be fully covered not selectively.

What do you think? Is a memoir selected parts and pieces of the author’s life as interpreted by them or should it be held to a standard of accuracy within the timeframe described?

 

This book can be purchased online at:

Monday January 12th: What Are You Reading?

It’s the second Monday in January but feels more like the beginning of the year. Or maybe I just wish it was because, two weeks in and I’m not being bowled over by anything I’m reading. At the end of the year, I was reading a book that rocked me so hard (Vanessa and Her Sister) I’m going to break all the rules and include it in my best of 2015 when next December comes around. Yes, I’m that kind of crazy.

 Don’t get me wrong, I have read a couple of strong books and I’ve reviewed them on Monday and Wednesday. Those are the days my blog has the most traffic and so I like to showcase the books I really love. And yet, here we are today and I have no showcase. Spoiler: I have nothing to showcase for Wednesday either so it may be kitten gifs or pictures of bad dresses from the Golden Globes awards.

 Instead of writing about what I’ve read here’s what I’m reading. Let’s hope they’re so good I’ll be compelled to come back and review the hell out of them.

 

what are you reading

Gallery Books, January 13, 2015

 

what are you reading

Knopf, pbk release January 6, 2015

 

what are you reading

Knopf, January 6, 2015

It’s your turn now:

What Are You Reading?

A Pleasure and a Calling

pleasure and a calling

Picador, January 6, 2015

 

Invisibility has for so long been the linchpin to my favourite, most memorable moments.

Mr. Heming is exactly what one wants in a real estate agent—quiet, innocuous, and well-versed in the pros and cons of a neighborhood or a house itself. He imposes none of his own opinions but merely shares his knowledge and leads the buyer to the perfect house as determined by his practiced eye. He is the man who makes one so comfortable it would not be possible to think poorly of him…or really, to think of him at all. How disconcerting, then, would it be to know that he keeps a key of your house in a special room in his flat? And not just your house but every house he’s ever sold. This is the real estate agent as seen by British author Phil Hogan in his new novel, A Pleasure and a Calling.

Hogan strikes the perfect balance of maliciousness with solicitousness in Mr. Heming. He is as likely to right a wrong as he is to stalk someone he feels has committed a crime. This is how he comes into contact with Douglas Sharp, a man who does not feel inclined to clean up after his dog. This is for Heming’s to use his vast knowledge of the neighborhood to exact his own small justice on the man, a justice that goes horribly awry when Heming cannot resist greater intrusion into his private life. As he discovers more about Mr. Sharp and the secret compartments of his life he goes further in his actions and brings unwanted attention to himself, for as much as Mr. Heming knows about others very little is known about him.

A Pleasure and a Calling works as a psychological thriller because you can’t help being drawn into Heming’s odd and creepy mind but, to use real estate jargon, the book suffers a bit from a choppy layout, in that Hogan moves back and forth to Heming’s childhood at irregular intervals and in some cases right in the midst of the present day tension which is disorienting. He also alludes to Heming’s childhood, with his mother’s death, a baby brother, his father’s marriage to his aunt…things that are critical to a full understanding of how this man thinks but he does it so subtly and briefly its importance is easy to overlook. Obviously, Heming has deep issues but how far down they go is unclear as is just how unstable and malevolent is his mind.

Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Heming is a great realtor and will lead you to the house of your dreams. Whether he will leave you alone in it is another matter altogether. By exploiting the duality in Heming’s nature in A Pleasure and a Calling Hogan takes the reader on a twisty ride. His love for every house in his town is matched only by his belief that, as owner, you must be worthy to live there. And locking your doors at night is not enough to keep him away.

But this is the place I sleep, surrounded by my keys, of course—shimmering on every wall under the dimmed lights like gold and silver, each opening a lock in a portal to pleasure and adventure. I go to sleep counting sometimes. I have no idea how many hundreds or thousands there are…

 

This book is available online at:

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