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BookSnob’s Best Reads 2010–Or Your Money Back Guaranteed

You’ve seen everyone’s list of the top 5 fiction, top 100 books, this and that. Even your local bookstore is likely getting in on the action telling you what to buy or read.

It’s been an amazing year for great books.
So I’ll keep this short and sweet. wait, there’s more

Best Movie for 2011: Cutting for Stone

I had low expectations for Cutting for Stone. When the pull quote on the cover is from USA Today, well, it’s not a big selling point. Oh, and Entertainment Weekly gave it an “A”. Now there’s a clincher. wait, there’s more

A Visit From the Goon Squad: 2 Jennifers & A Gem

Jennifer Egan is not new. In fact, she’s been strutting her stuff with all the cool kids–Harper’s, New Yorker, New York Times Mag–for a while now. wait, there’s more

I’ve been dating a bad book.

I could write a lot of lame excuses for why I haven’t posted in a while.

Work, kids, travel. Not to mention laziness. 

I found the culprit and it’s all very simple:
I have been caught in a bad relationship.

We spent a lot of time together, we tried to work it out, I gave second chances and final chances and I was hopeful Geoff would change. I tried to change. But he didn’t. And I didn’t.

So we broke up.

I’m to blame. I trusted one of those nifty hand written cards dangling from the shelf from “Sam” an employee at a rogue bookstore. The warning signs were there. I don’t normally hang out at this joint and he was decidedly not my type,  but hey, it seemed kind of intriguing.

Except it wasn’t.

This (god damn) paperback has flown more than 20,000 airline miles with me and yet still (still!) I am on page two seventy something. The end is in reach. And yet the weeks just slipped by.

Which of course, you can see, makes me a bit mad.

Because what am I really going to write about on my little blog about not-a-bad-book-but-not-a-good-book?
It’s just a steer-clear-from-if-you-care-about-your-time-book.

Geoff Dyer is, I’m sure, a talented writer. The novel is likely clever and intellectual and maybe even would have been the best novel I read all year, if, well, I could have finished reading it. But instead, I kept going back to chapter twenty something and re-read it for the umpteenth time and tried to get my mojo back. And move this story forward.

There was only 75 pages left and I STILL (STILL!) couldn’t get ‘er done.

Of course we all realize that a so-so book demands far more than a mediocre tv show (50 minutes) or movie (2 1/2 hours max). So why the heck do we persist? To show we aren’t a quitter? Do I really care if Geoff Dyer thinks I am a quitter????

Let’s just apply some logic here: do you recall the last time you spent 10+ hours (is it 15? 20? how long did I spend on Jeff In Venice?) doing something that was SUPPOSED TO BE FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES and well, wasn’t entertaining.

Exactly.
You need to put a bullet in it, people, and move on.

So, that behind me.

I picked up the next book on my list, A Visit From the Goon Squad, and that novel was down the chute like an ice-cold beer in a humid midwestern summer. Easy. Less than 6 days cover to cover.

So, work, kids, travel, hectic days and tired evenings…are those real excuses.
Nah. All of us will find the time to date a winner.

I Curse The River of Time

Oddly, the title of Per Petterson’s book comes from a poem from Chairman Mao:

Fragile images of departure, the village back then.
I curse the river of time, thirty-two years have passed.

We follow the narrator Arvid–a 37 year-old Norwegian man, brother, son and former communist–as he travels his own river of time. This includes the years falling in love with his soon-to-be-ex-wife, and the memories of being a son to his soon-to-be-dying mother.

Rather uplifting I should say, right?

Well, for those of you who have read Per Patterson’s remarkable book Out Stealing Horses (A MUST read), the territory covered in I Curse the River of Time is very familiar. The language is sparse, crisp, stark, lonely–perhaps what we expect a Norwegian winter day to be like. The writing brings to life a desolate landscape.

I am not just talking the physical here. Be warned, this is seriously raw emotion.

But we can survive the cold, because the writing is exceptional.

“On the twelfth floor I got out of the lift and took a few steps to the right. I did not feel ready. I stopped and stood very still. Something was stuck in my throat and I could not get it out. Right in front of me there were large windows with a view to the north. I went right up to one of them and leaned my forehead against the glass and looked down, and I felt such an unexpected blow to my stomach that I thought perhaps I was going to fall right through the window all the way to the ground. A flush of heat washed through my body, and it was as if a wind came through my head with a deafening blast and all sorts of trash I had long forgotten crashed against the walls of my brain. I spread my legs like sailors do and pressed both palms against the windows, and with my forehead still hard against the glass, I held my eyes open and forced myself to remain there….Then I squeezed my eyes tightly shut and sucked the air into my lungs and held it there for as long as I could, and when I finally opened my eyes, the world stood still.”

As you can see, Arvid struggles. His mother has been diagnosed with cancer, but he is the one who wanders. He asks his mother if she is scared of dying and she says: “No, I am not afraid of dying. But dammit, I don’t want to die now.” He compares that with his own thoughts of death, to which he says: “I was scared. Not of being dead…” but because “suddenly you realize that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone for ever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember.”

Arvid lurks in the shadow of a brother who died too early in life, though we never quite learn how. He fails at attempts to make something of himself. His desire to be a communist worker is not at all appreciated, given his family’s sacrifice for his fantastic education. He is haunted by the dissolution of his own marriage, which he summarizes as: “how impossible it was to grasp that in the end something as fine as this could be ground into dust.

Yep, this novel certainly lacks in an upbeat message, but you can’t help but admire how wonderfully it is written. You ebb and flow and bob downstream with Arvid and it feels random and streaming. You cross long years effortlessly.

With all this Stieg Larsson craziness (The Girl series), I couldn’t help but think that the Swede has eclipsed the brilliant Norwegian Petterson simply by dying. Because if you’re looking to Scandinavia, there is a clear winner.

All the above being said, after finishing I Curse the River of Time, I felt in desperate need of a funny book…or my funny family.

Because, as you can see, this book is no laughing matter.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Simonson’s First.

I originally intended the first line of this review to say:
this book was silly.

Well, I’m not sure if anything I say after that will allow the book to recover from your ‘pass’ pile. But, I will persist anyway. Upon reflection, and a few conversations, maybe I am just being unkind?

This is Helen Simonson’s first book. One might even say an admirable first novel. And let’s face it, she also had the misfortune of following Jonathan Franzen in the queue—not a fair comparison.

As the English say: “Oh bad luck!”

Let me start here instead:
the central story to this novel is very good.

Major Pettigrew is meant to symbolize all we would expect of an elder gentlemen in a small English town. He has strong beliefs about hard work (what does his son do exactly at that ‘hedge’ fund?), decorum (you do not speak to the club’s membership director that way), justice (the Churchill guns left to he and his brother are meant to be paired together upon one of their deaths), and respect (please call me Major, not Mr. Pettigrew).

Except if Major Pettigrew is all that, he is none of that.

We would expect Major Pettigrew to do nothing but play by the rules of English society. When, in fact, he is the only one who has the courage not to.

He is the most open of all the characters, the one that grows the most and challenges the petty assumptions his society has about what to think and feel and live.

The catalyst for this change is Ms. Ali, a Pakistani shopkeeper in the Village who he befriends. They share a love of reading. They share tea. To both, this mutual friendship is born in the loneliness of their widowhood and perhaps them both being slightly out of the mainstream in their own way. It ultimately grows into a deeper love.

So, the key to the story is watching Major Pettigrew navigate the social rules while doing what he pleases. His son thinks he has lost his mind, the neighbors’ tongues wag, and there is an absurd tribute to English imperialism at the country club’s summer party. Ms. Ali serves as a consultant on the Indian food they are to serve at the gala, only to shock everyone when she shows up at the Major’s guest. There are some funny scenes.

There are nuggets of an excellent novel in MPLS, but oh boy is the story cluttered.

Imagine a great beautiful tree where the trunk is strong and impressive but hundreds of useless, scraggly branches confuse the view.

We have Ms. Ali’s nephew and his religious pursuits, his failed romance.

We have the Major’s son who is a caricature of a greedy, selfish ass soon to marry a ridiculous, ugly American.

We have the Lord of the village who is engaged in a pressing real estate deal to subdivide the English countryside into high-end estates.

And on…

Simonson starts all these story lines in motion and distracts us from the main attraction—which is Major Pettigrew and Ms. Ali.

This unfortunately forces Simonson into a Hollywood ending, as she tries to desperately tie together these disparate threads into one satisfying ending. In the last 75 pages alone, we race through a called off wedding, we learn of an abortion, witness blood and murder, reflect on a spurned marriage proposal and save a suicide attempt.

No. I am not kidding.
Crazy, right?
I’m sorry, I thought this was supposed to be the quiet, bucolic countryside…

There are moments of strength and the writing is enjoyable enough.  Somewhere on my scribbles on the back page I wrote: “Underdeveloped characters and overdeveloped plot.”

I don’t want to be unkind…this is not a hard cover purchase I can in good faith recommend.

But, as the back cover states: “I can’t wait to see what she does next.”

Freedom, The President & A Bundt Cake

President Obama bought the new Franzen book Friday. I was comforted to know the Prez has good taste. Actually, I was delighted that the press called him a ‘book snob’.

My promotional people are truly doing some great work, I tell ya. Remind me to send them a bundt cake, would you?

So. Freedom.

The punchline:
This guy is a master at creating characters.

Which we knew before. The Corrections, of course. But now, thankfully, Franzen is back after a 10 year hiatus.

We meet Walter and Patty Berglund in the suburbs of St. Paul, Minnesota in the late 80s. They’re affable, and seemingly happily married, blessed with two nice children.

But if the skies are sunny, the forecast looks heavy with storms. We don’t doubt for a moment that dysfunction lies ahead. After all, we have seen our author in action before.

In a slim 26 pages, we learn that their 16-year-old son Joey has moved into the neighbor next door’s house so he can sleep with his girlfriend who resides there. Conveniently, this also helps him to avoid his overbearing mother with a ridiculous lack of boundaries.

Franzen tells this story through two different lenses: (1) a third person narrator who watches Walter and Patty from afar as if a nosy neighbor and (2) a couple of meaty sections told in first person by Patty as her ‘autobiography’. Entitled aptly: “Mistakes Were Made”.

The sections told from Patty’s perspective were fantastic. Her voice was so strong and her self-awareness so high that you forgive her some of her faults. Well, kind of.

We follow Patty & Walter from the moment they meet, through their courtship in college and idyllic initial married years, to rough roads that lead to their demise. They are joined on this journey by an important third wheel, Walter’s best friend Richard Katz—an inspired but failing and then wildly successful musician.

This story is vast. I can’t do it justice with 562 pages covering 30 years.

But the plot isn’t the point. If that makes sense. You willingly follow along to understand the context which makes Walter and Patty the rich, flawed characters that they are.

It’s a love story, of sorts. Well, yes, it is a love story. But it’s complicated. It’s messy and it’s destructive and it’s sweet and it’s tender and it’s depressing and it’s flawed.

To give you a sense, these are the notes I had scribbled on a page I kept in the book:

  1. There is a general sense of being constantly dissatisfied.
  2. The desire for something you don’t have but the disappointment with what you do.
  3. Characters are so fragile. Though twisted, the characters often seem human and understandable. Flawed, but somehow noble.
  4. Battle lines between family members – Walter/Daughter and Patty/Son and then how roles are reversed.
  5. The clouded sense of boundaries in all relationships.
  6. The notion that we love for the wrong reasons.

So, um, you’re thinking love story, right?

It is. It is the fragility and complexity and messiness of real love. Deep love.

If I had read this book on an iPad, I could have searched for two words that appeared hundred of times in the book: competition and yep, freedom. Franzen weaves these two themes across the book continuously.

The first is competition in our human relationships. Walter competing with his friend Richard; Patty competing with her sisters, the neighbors, her son’s girlfriend; their children competing with one other. It is astounding how many references there is between how competition wreaks havoc in our families and on our love for one another.

And the second one, Freedom. Well, I think I need either a book group or just a bigger brain to sort out exactly what Franzen is saying about freedom. What I hear him saying is the freedoms that we have—so much choice!—ultimately leads us to bad decisions and can even, quite literally, make us miserable.

But that certainly doesn’t seem that I have connected the dots correctly. It’s not exactly uplifting, is it?

But seriously, people, who cares.

If you love fiction, well, skipping this story is not an option.

Deliciously good writing, fantastic characters, time suspending enjoyment.

You won’t like every part of the book. It’s not perfect. It strays at times and ludicrous behavior becomes the absurd.

But the writing. The writing.

Buy it.
Available in stores now.

Right Barack?

Nightstand Piles Up With New Fiction

I know I haven’t been posting as regularly.
I got some private email grief about this, to which I say:

Whew.

Thanks for noticing.

You’re sweet blog people, you.

While my writing may be sporadic, the night stand is still filled. (Remember? I had them analyzed for god’s sake.)

But while my writing falling behind is one thing, I’m missing those comments from all of you.
I am used to more activity, people.

Well, the book lists usually bring you out in droves–so pile on this!

This month, it’s a bit hardback bound, so get out those Kindles and iPads to save some dough. There’s been some good stuff, new stuff released. So stay on top of it folks.

In no particular order and definitely aspirational….

1. Freedom, Jonathan Franzen (half way through, loving)

2. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender (on the fence here, anyone?)

3. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson (Hat tip: Peter S)

4. What is Left the Daughter, Howard Norman (author The Bird Artist, good review)

5. I Curse the River of Time, Per Patterson (author Out Stealing Horses, wonderful)

This is what is sitting (figuratively in some cases) on the nightstand.

And for the visually inclined, here for easy identification…


What are you reading BookSnobs?