Thursday, April 29, 2010

Every Last One

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen is an absolutely stunning work of fiction.  It's meticulously crafted, beautifully layered, and written in Quindlen's signature warm style.  It's the story of a family, a normal, endearing, ordinary family. 

The momentum Quindlen builds is key here.  The first half of the book is just getting to know this likeable family:  Mary Beth Latham, her husband Glen. and their three children, Ruby, Max and Alex.
I found Max particularly endearing.  A bit of an outcast, depressed, creative and alone, he feels totally alientated from his popular twin, Alex.  Their older sister Ruby is engaged in prom dresses, her friends, and plans for college.

And there is where I will leave you.  

I urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to ignore every review out there that could reveal any of the plot of this story (including the back of the book) and just go out, buy the book, and start reading.  The plot and the pacing have been so artfully crafted that Ms Quindlen, and you, deserve the full impact of the story as it unfolds.

Having said that, I am so looking forward to the day when everyone on the planet has read this book, (I hope) so I can finally talk to someone about it without wrecking it for them.  I am dying to discuss this book with somebody!! 

Publisher: Random House (April 13, 2010)

ISBN-13: 978-1400065745

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Executor

The Executor by Jesse Kellerman has one of the best opening lines I’ve read in a long time: “I used to own half of Nietzsche’s head.” I hadn’t read Mr. Kellerman before, and that is something I intend to remedy. He is one hell of a writer.

The story is this: young graduate student, who can’t seem to graduate, notices an ad “Conversationalist Sought. Serious Applicants Only” Intrigued, and desperate for some quick cash, he answers the ad, only to meet one Alma Spielmann. Part philosopher, part Santa Claus, and all charm, Ms. Spielmann quickly welcomes Joseph, our protagonist; into her life, her home, and her will (although Joseph is initially unaware of the last item).

As I read, I kept thinking “how does he do it?” I even reread a few pages to see if I could catch it and couldn’t. Without ever resorting to obvious foreshadowing gimmicks such as “little did I suspect….” or, “if only I had known what lay beyond that door….”, Mr. Kellerman manages to convey an atmosphere of intense creepiness and menace even when there is nothing to fear. And when there is something to fear, the tension is almost unbearable. Or quite a ride; depending on how you look at it.

Mr. Kellerman has Joseph speaking in the first person, which is brilliant. Joseph considers himself a “man of the mind”, and not concerned with material possessions. Because we see the world through Joseph’s eyes, it takes a while to pick up on the clues he is leaving. Is that a bit of superiority there? A spot of self-pity? A load of rationalization? Why isn’t that dissertation finished, anyway? It’s fascinating to see how quickly this “man of the mind” is corrupted to “mineminemine”.

And we see where the menace is coming from.

Kellerman’s writing is superb. I especially enjoyed the voice of Alma Spielmann, whose slightly formal, witty, and well-educated conversation is a delight. Even more of a delight for me is in knowing that there are several more books out there by Jesse Kellerman just waiting for me to explore.

Publisher: Putnam (April 1, 2010)
ISBN-10: 039915647X
ISBN-13: 978-0399156472

Monday, April 19, 2010

Beatrice and Virgil

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel is the hot book this week, so I’m going to start with that one to show how up-to-date and “with-it” I am. Yeeah.

I’ve got to preface this with a disclaimer…I find Martel very difficult to read. He’s too good. He can be brutally descriptive, and I both recoil from it and find it very effective. This works to great effect in Beatrice and Virgil. A second disclaimer: I don’t want to spoil anything for the gazillions who will read this book, so if I’m a little mysterious, bear with me.

The story is narrated by an author, Henry, who is contacted by a mysterious stranger asking for his help. Assuming the stranger to be a fan who wants some help with a manuscript, or an autograph, Henry arrives at a taxidermy shop whose owner (another Henry…. hmmm) is writing a play featuring a donkey and a howler monkey. They are named Beatrice, and Virgil, respectively. (Another hmmm… anyone read Dante’s Inferno lately?)

Henry the Taxidermist (or Henry the T as he will henceforth be called, to differentiate him from Henry the N) wants Henry the N’s help with his play, but will only reveal scenes one at a time, which he reads aloud, and in the order he chooses. Henry the N, despite himself, is intrigued, as much by Henry the T’s wonderful shop as he is by the taciturn Henry T.

As I was meant to, I was enchanted by Beatrice and Virgil, and increasingly protective of them. Their behavior is fearful, and the reasons why are slowly revealed.

The astute reader (as we are) figures out pretty quickly, as does Henry the N, that the play is really an allegory for the Holocaust…a story that Henry the N has also been trying to tell in a new way. This is the help that Henry the T is looking for. And yes, Beatrice and Virgil are guides to Henry’s hell, with Henry the T as Charon, as yet another allegorical aside.

I think Martel’s brilliance lies in his choice of animals as the victims. In using animals, Martel brilliantly captures our sentimentality for our furry friends, while revealing our callousness to the suffering of human beings. As a society, we are sometimes more protective of our pets than of our neighbors. The shock I felt at animals being treated brutally shamed me. Are they somehow more innocent than innocent people? Are they more defenseless? I realized that brutality to animals seems worse to me, more unfair; crueler; than brutality to people.  And I don't think I'm alone in that.  Hello, PETA.

Once he has made his point, Martel drives it home with a series of questions that will haunt you for weeks.

Beatrice and Virgil is incredibly powerful, beautifully written, wise and compelling.

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau; (April 13, 2010)

ISBN-10: 1400069262
ISBN-13: 978-1400069262

Monday, April 12, 2010

Imperfect Birds

Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott

I’ve got to tell you. I flat out love Anne Lamott. She was there when I was getting sober, cost me my (ha!) dignity while reading in public by causing snorting, giggling, and once, weeping. She just seems like someone I would love to have as a friend, and someone who is like many of my friends. I’m lucky that way.

Elizabeth Ferguson is a recurring figure for Ms Lamott. One can be forgiven for suspecting that she is a fairly thinly disguised version of Ms Lamott herself, having some of the same flaws, and endearing vulnerabilities already confessed to by the author.

Elizabeth is surrounded by a circle of friends that anyone would envy: her friend Rae, who is warm, wise, generous, and pees a little when she laughs…what could be better than that? Rae’s husband, Lank, invented a ministry just for Elizabeth called “Seeing the Light Ministry”. The main tenet is WAIT or, “why am I talking?” when dealing with teenagers who are trying to provoke a fight. “Lank provided Elizabeth with Seeing the Light responses to everyday demands, such as “ The instructions are inside the lid of the washer”. And finally, there is James, Elizabeth’s second husband and Rosie’s stepfather, after her natural father died when she was young. James is supportive, funny, loving, open, and importantly, less vulnerable to manipulation than Elizabeth.

Elizabeth and her daughter Rosie have now reached Rosie’s 17th year. Rosie has been, in many ways, an exceptional child…tennis star, smart, beautiful, and wise beyond her years…sometimes having had to be the parent to Elizabeth in the wake of her father’s death, and Elizabeth’s alcoholism. Rosie has become that most feared of all creatures: the human teenager. And who among us has not been on the receiving end of that look;the one that reduces us from fully functioning adult to the lamest organism ever to stain the tiles of the mall.

But worse than the attitude, is that the evidence keeps mounting that Rosie is using drugs. She is lying; she is manipulating; her friends are not good for her. All textbook parental terror bells. And it just keeps getting worse the more James and Elizabeth try to step in and control the situation. A major contributing factor is Elizabeth’s vulnerability and secret guilt about her own alcoholism. She knows that Rosie has seen her drunk on numerous occasions, and recently in a couple of emotional meltdowns. She secretly fears she doesn’t have any credibility, or even the right to demand more of Rosie. She fears she was a poor parent, and is over lenient as a result. More than anything, she fears the loss of Rosie’s love, and Rosie knows that, and uses it to her own advantage. James sees this underplay and is powerless to stop it.

This book can be difficult at times because it is so frustratingly real. I found myself wanting to slap some sense into Rosie, and yes, into Elizabeth as well, even while my heart broke for her. She stumbles a bit, and bumps into the furniture, but makes the right decisions, aided by James and her friends, and ultimately by Rosie herself.

This is the story of facing your deepest fears and doing what you know to be right, despite what it may cost you, because you may face a greater loss if you don’t. It’s funny, and sad, and sweet, and heartbreaking, and inspiring, like so much of Lamott’s work. Her honesty, the reverence she has for everyday courage, and the beauty she sees in the flaws that make us individuals are as refreshing as her humor. Ms Lamott seems to genuinely appreciate people and I’m glad to say that we appreciate her back.

Imperfect Birds, Anne Lamott
ISBN 978-1-59448-751-4
Coming in April 2010 Riverhead Books, Penguin Group