Saturday, April 30, 2016

"Eligible," by Curtis Sittenfeld

Here it is at last (there seemed to have been some delay since the novel was originally announced): the fourth book in the Austen Project’s modern reimaginings of Jane Austen’s six complete novels! “Eligible” (Random House, 2016), by Curtis Sittenfeld, follows the earlier entries: Joanna Trollope’s “Sense and Sensibility,” Val McDermid’s “Northanger Abbey,” and Alexander McColl Smith’s “Emma.” I have read all of them, and found them all somewhat enjoyable but rather tepidly interesting and, to be honest, undistinguished. “Eligible” differs from the earlier three in the “series” in that Curtis Sittenfeld has changed the title (it is based on “Pride and Prejudice”), and sets her story in the United States, Cincinnati to be specific. Her writing is sharper and funnier than that of the other authors. But it feels like she is trying too hard. Or maybe it is just too hard to accept the fact that Jane and Elizabeth are in their late 30s, and that Kitty and Lydia are not only silly but vulgar and mindless, and that the family lives in Ohio in the 21st century. The references to the Internet and other allusions to “modern life” feel artificial and stilted. Sittenfeld also brings in topics such as transgender and fertility treatments, which merely reinforces the “trying too hard to make it contemporary” feeling. It is true that Sittenfeld is an observant writer, and aware of human foibles, as Austen was to the nth degree, but she is definitely not in Austen’s league. And therein lies the problem: no one is in Austen’s league, and Austen devotees – such as I am – just can’t accept any kind of imitation. Yes, these contemporary versions are fun, and it is enjoyable to see where there are parallels and where there are not. And yes, we know they are not meant to be at the same level as Austen. And yes, yes, we read them, despite ourselves. I confess to reading "Eligible" eagerly and quickly. But it left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth that I can’t shake. Now I am wondering who will write the last two books, those based on “Mansfield Park” and “Persuasion”; there has been no announcement yet that I can find. I am hoping against hope that wonderful writers will be chosen (and will accept the invitation), and that they will somehow transcend the inherent pitfalls of this type of reimagined novels. I am not very optimistic. But I am pretty sure – oh, who am I kidding? I am very sure – that I will read them both anyway, no matter who writes them and no matter how good or bad they are.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

"Miller's Valley," by Anna Quindlen

An Anna Quindlen novel is a reliable pleasure. It is a “good” bestseller, a solidly enjoyable and thoughtful piece of fiction. I have enjoyed Quindlen’s work through the years, not only as a novelist but also as a longtime New York Times columnist and as a memoirist. “Miller’s Valley” (Random House, 2016) fits the profile of her other novels. It has a compelling plot, well portrayed characters, an emphasis on relationships, familial and otherwise, and a tendency to focus on women’s lives and issues. All of these make me happy! It is also very accessible. This new novel is the story of a family, the Millers, and a community, the residents of Miller’s Valley, which appears to be in or near Pennsylvania. There is a central issue: whether, and if so, how soon, the government will choose to flood the valley to extend a dam and create a "recreational area." Most of the residents obviously oppose this, as they will lose their longtime farms and homes and their community; the government’s compensation cannot possibly make up for such losses. Slowly, however, some people give in to what seems like the inevitable. The more personal level of the plot revolves around the narrator, Mimi Miller, her parents, her agoraphobic aunt, her two very different brothers (one traditionally successful and one troubled), and their neighbors and friends. The family farm is failing, despite Mimi’s and her father’s best efforts. Meanwhile, Mimi’s mother and her sister are in a lifelong feud, yet Mimi’s family takes care of that sister. Mimi is very bright, and has a promising future, but is torn between her loyalty to her family and the farm, on the one hand, and her higher education and advancement, on the other. Mimi’s best friends are strong characters as well, each in her or his own way. Mimi’s first serious romantic and sexual relationship, with Steven, is well portrayed, as is her longer term on and off relationship with her childhood friend Donald. There are several family secrets that are revealed, or partially revealed, leaving us with tantalizing questions about the past. And there is a satisfying epilogue that tells us what happened with the characters in the years following the main story. This is a true “good read,” in the best sense of the term.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

"The Nest," by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

I recently (4/7/16) wrote (once again) about enjoying novels about families and their relationships, including family “sagas.” I just read another such novel, mostly about just two generations, titled “The Nest” (HarperCollins, 2016), by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. This one, a current bestseller, is a bit snarkier than most, and features mostly overly entitled characters. Four siblings have been waiting for years for the disbursement of the trust their parents set up for them, the “nest” of the title, to be received when the youngest sibling turns 40. Just before that time, the oldest, least responsible sibling, Leo, has an accident caused by alcohol and drugs and, ahem, sexual activity while driving. (This last sentence may be the most risqué sentence I have included in this blog over the years….) Leo's mother, who is in charge of the trust and is allowed to make decisions about it up until the time it is disbursed (his father has died), chooses to use a huge chunk of the nest to pay off the young woman who was hurt, as well as Leo’s wife, who immediately makes high financial demands in the course of a divorce case. The other three siblings, all of whom have made unwise financial expenditures and commitments based on their expectations, are angry to find out that their share of "the nest" will be dramatically smaller than they had expected. They try to put pressure on Leo to pay them back (in the past, he had made a lot of money, and they believe he has either money salted away, or the capacity to make more), and he claims he will, but the story becomes complicated. The interesting part is watching the four siblings (and their rather cold and detached mother, as well as various spouses and significant others) interact, with the money issue front and center. Although it doesn’t seem to be true for this mother, the scenario, or any other such scenario involving family money, trusts, inheritances, loans, etc., is one that gives many parents pause, and even nightmares. They want to help their (adult) children, but they also don’t want the money to become a source of contention and division among their progeny. The characters in this story, especially the four main ones, are, to various degrees, self-centered, entitled, whiny, and pathetic, but also very human and sometimes redeemed by flashes of decency and, yes, love. The novel is both entertaining and squirm-inducing, and I never once considered not reading it to the end.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

"As Close to Us as Breathing," by Elizabeth Poliner

Readers of this blog have probably figured out that I am easily enticed by family sagas. I just finished a novel that fits in this category: “As Close to Us as Breathing” (Little, Brown, 2016), by Elizabeth Poliner. The family in question is the Leibritskys, who have a cottage on the “Bagel Beach” (Jewish) section of the Woodmont, Connecticut shore. Three sisters have inherited the cottage from their parents, and love to see each other and bring their families there every summer. The women and children are there all week, and the men come on the weekends. The main part of the story happens in 1948, when ethnic and religious groups were still very separate. For example, when one teenaged Jewish character dates an Irish girl, he keeps it from his family because he knows they will consider the relationship completely unacceptable. The story roams back and forth in time, with much family history continuing until the early twenty-first century. The focal point of the story is a terribly tragic event affecting one member of the family and therefore all the family members. The consequences reverberate for years to come, and some changes are irrevocable. The portrayal of this family and this community at this time in history seems very authentic. And the portrayal of the tensions, connections, love, dissension, pain, and comfort associated with this specific family also seem on some level universal. That combination (the specific and the universal) is, of course, what makes the best literature. I admire the way the characters are drawn. I also am interested in the way the book reflects the lives of women during the early second half of the twentieth century. This novel manages to draw on the pleasures of the family novel, the beach novel, the (recent) history novel, the Jewish novel, and the thwarted-romance novel, yet (mostly) not get caught up in the clichés of any of these.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Parnassus Bookstore's "Bright Blue Bookmobile"

What a wonderful idea! Parnassus Books, beloved novelist Ann Patchett’s and Karen Hayes’ co-owned Nashville bookstore (a terrific story in itself) has set up and sent out into the world a “bright blue bookmobile” that will “roam about town, stopping at food truck rallies, farmers’ markets and outside restaurants” (according to Alexandra Alter, New York Times, 3/24/16). Some public library systems have bookmobiles, a great thing for people who cannot easily get to libraries, or who just love the idea of these libraries-on-wheels, but bookstore bookmobiles are a rarity. Besides making books more accessible and increasing sales, the roving library is good advertising for the bookstore. This one carries about 1,000 books, and includes padded blue benches where customers can sit and browse. The New York Times article about Parnassus’ bookmobile also brings us the excellent news that “independent [book]stores are thriving again, after years of decline." This is one more reminder that there is nothing like an independent bookstore. Let’s all keep supporting the ones in our areas, and exploring others when we travel as well.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

"Mr. Chartwell," by Rebecca Hunt

In “Mr. Chartwell” (Books on Tape/Random House, 2011, read by Susan Duerden), Rebecca Hunt animates the famous “black dog” (his own words) of depression that Winston Churchill suffered from his whole life. The metaphorical concept here becomes a huge, real, speaking black dog, one whom only a few people can see and hear. The dog haunts Churchill and others, including the other main character of this book, Esther Hammerhans, a librarian at the House of Commons in London. She has lost her beloved husband to suicide, and when the black dog, variously called Mr. Chartwell and Black Mac, comes to stay as a lodger with her, she comes to understand that he had haunted her husband and now wants to move in with her. The rest of the story is about her struggle to resist him, despite his occasional charm and persuasiveness. At one point Esther meets the elderly, about-to-retire Churchill, and they each realize that the other can see and hear the dog; Churchill knows he can now never escape the dog and the depression himself, but he tries to give Esther encouragement and psychological weapons to fight off the dog and the depression while she is still young and before it is too late for her. I have probably told you too much of the plot, but honestly I don’t really recommend the novel, so I don’t feel bad about telling you this much. For one thing, the story is, well, depressing. And second, the dog character is a weird mixture of person and dog, and is rather disgusting at times. The depression-as-an-actual-black-dog is an interesting conceit, the story made for an entertaining-enough listen during a road trip, and of course I enjoy stories of England and especially London. But otherwise I would have had no reason to read the novel, or to urge you to read it.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

"The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend," by Katarina Bivald

I always feel a sense of caution when a novel is billed as “HEARTWARMING and utterly CHARMING,” as is “The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend” (Sourcebooks, 2016, translated from the Swedish by Alice Menzies), by Katarina Bivald. And the blurbs on the first page and on the back cover (which I always check when deciding whether to read a book) are mostly by relatively unknown or non-literary writers and reviewers. But the novel is about books, an unlikely bookstore arising out of an unlikely friendship, reluctant readers being turned on to books, small town America, an appealing main character who is in love with books, and --- yes, of course -- an unlikely love affair that encounters obstacles that are overcome with the help of the quirky, lovable townspeople. How could I resist? The writing is competent but not polished, those quirky characters are a bit too charmingly eccentric, and the story is quite predictable. Despite all this, I read the book and enjoyed it. The plot involves a young Swedish woman, Sara, who comes to visit her elderly American pen pal, Amy, in a tiny town in Iowa, called Broken Wheel; the town is -- at least outwardly -- as broken as its too-symbolic name suggests. When she gets there, Sara finds that Amy has just died, but this unusual visitor is welcomed, almost adopted by the local people, and improbably ends up setting up a bookstore with their collective assistance. And then the initially confusing, somewhat star-crossed romance begins, with its faint echoes of Elizabeth and Darcy’s initial misunderstandings. There are a couple of side stories of other romances and connections too. All are just too darn heartwarming for words. And sometimes there is nothing wrong with that.
 
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