Olive Kittridge, Elizabeth Strout

Cover illustration for Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth StroutOlive Kitteridge is easily the most depressing book I’ve read in years…maybe ever. This is the kind of book that sucks your soul away. The volume consists of 13 internlinking vignettes about the residents of a small Maine town, with the title character, Olive Kittridge, appearing in each. In some of sections, Olive is the star of her own story, in others she merely wanders, Where’s Waldo like, through the background.

This is no quaint charmer, however. Olive Kittridge is a book about resignation, disappointment, and loss, leavened with the lightest dusting of dark humor. These are stories of violence, illness, and divorce. There are robberies at gun point, near drownings, hunting accidents, strokes. Multiple characters have lost parents to suicide. A young girl starves herself to death, dying of a heart attack, a symptom of her chronic anorexia. The parents of a murderer become recluses, leaving the house only at night for twenty years. A lonely barroom piano player leaves her married lover. A wife discovers her spouse and childhood sweetheart’s infidelity on the day of his funeral.

More than the dark events, however, what makes this work so incredibly difficult is the overwhelming sense of helpless inertia. Strout shows us a sad, quiet town plagued by senseless, insurmountable pain. There’s no adventure here, and little hope. Only a grim decline, prejudice, gossip, resistance to change, inescapable circumstance, everything that’s worst about small town life, condensed into 250 pages.

Olive herself is eminently sympathetic without being exactly likable. A middle school math teacher, smarter than she needs to be, with a caustic edge capable of delivering dry humor or bitter reproof. Enormously judgmental, sporadically capable of profound intuitive empathy, insatiably hungry for a level of meaningful human interaction she can never attain.

All this isn’t to say Olive Kittridge is a bad book, necessarily. Its intelligent and nuanced, with moments of real beauty. It won a Pulitzer for a reason, after all. Its just very difficult. More difficult, for me, than stereotypically difficult novels, like 1984, The Road or the Bell Jar, because of its sickening, solid realism, untempered by the interest inherent in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, authoritarian dystopian government, or elegant madness. These are real people in circumstances not outside the realm of possibility for any of us.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender

Cover illustration for The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee BenderAs gifted a short story writer as Aimee Bender is, the long form is not her strong suit. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is ploddingly, draggingly, achingly slow–especially considering that the events of the story are actually pretty fantastical.

The narrator, Rose Edelstein, is the eager younger sibling in an ordinary middle class family of four living in Los Angeles–reserved lawyer father, crafty hippie mother, still searching for her place in life, brilliant older brother, cut off from his high school peers and, increasingly, from the world at large. But at the age of nine, Rose begins to experience a strange new phenomenon: when she eats, she can taste the emotions and often even discern the secrets of the person who prepared it. Alienated by her ability, Rose grows up avoiding decisions, depth, relationships. Her brother Joseph, meanwhile, becomes increasingly antisocial, until finally he simply disappears, a development that leaves the family bereft. Rose cannot bring herself to follow a traditional path–leaving home, attending college–but in time she finds some solace in cooking her own food and working in a restaurant and discovers the secret behind her strange ability and her brother’s disappearance.

I see The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake as an inverted Like Water for Chocolate set in a Southern California suburban wasteland, minus all the drama and most of the sex (wasn’t there also a Sarah Michelle Geller movie with this exact same premise?). I don’t want to imply that this book wasn’t good–it was well written, intelligently crafted–but also extremely slow. The plot is so simple in its essentials that it cannot sustain a whole novel. As a short story, it would have been brilliant. As it is, it comes up lacking.

This is exacerbated by a certainly flatness about the main character and narrator, Rose. In the early chapters, nine-year-old Rose is effectively and endearingly animated by childish confidences and concerns, but as she matures the burden of her gift seems to take over her whole personality. Her character is stripped away, leaving a passive observer of a first person narrator, inert and ill-defined. This is a deliberate choice on Bender’s part, and a truth Rose herself discovers when sampling her own food, “I was left with two particularly disturbing first impressions. One was the sickly-sweet nostalgia, in the taste of a tantrum, the longing for an earlier, sweeter time with an aftertaste like cancer-casing sugar substitution. And the second was that factory.” (241) Later, when the taste of the factory continues to show up in her cooking, she concludes, “it must’ve come from the cook.” (242) She has been so dominated by her ability that her emotions have become mechanical, her internal life repressed out of a desire for self-preservation. This is a sensible choice for the character, but a 300 page novel in which we know as much about the main character at the end as at the beginning doesn’t exactly make for a page turner.

The other characters are almost equally elusive. Kind, vague father, smart and efficient, and yet haunted in someway; mother, lost in her own life, waiting for signs and portents, missing her lost son; and George, her brother’s charming best friend and her own lifelong crush, perpetually cheerful, insightful, good, but always receding–college, grad school, married, gone. It’s a story of profound and unavoidable loss–of innocence, of loved ones, of human connection, of hopes for the future. As the title promised, a truly depressing novel.

The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter

Cover image for The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

On the back of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, an endorsement from Jonathan Lethem compares Aimee Bender to Angela Carter. I had never heard of her, but I loved Bender’s debut collection and I’ve been known to enjoy a Lethem novel or two, so I promptly put The Bloody Chamber on hold at the library. A month or two later, it came.

First of all, I just have to say, this work has nothing in common with Aimee Bender’s aside from a faint leaning toward the fantastical. While Bender’s prose is spare and modern with little ironic flourishes, Carter’s is rich and Baroque. Complex, mythic, layered. Her stories have the heavy overtones of sex and magic inherent in the traditional fairy tale, while Bender’s surreal tales dryly juxtapose elements of the fantastic with the mundane. These dense, lyrical stories are far more comparable to the work of Francesca Lia Block than that of Aimee Bender. However, while the Lethem’s comment proved patently untrue (maybe it allies more closely with her novels? or was recommended by a publicist?), I did greatly enjoy Carter’s collection.

The Bloody Chamber includes ten stories based, with varying degrees of fidelity, on popular fairy tales–Blue Beard (the title story), two takes on Beauty and the Beast, and three versions of Little Red Riding Hood, as well as Puss in Boots, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and, somewhat less well known in the United States, the Erlking. The stories are structurally simple and stylistically lush, dense with repeated images of caged birds, flowers, blood, and beasts.

The tales are mostly set in the years leading up to World War I, in a Europe in which horse-drawn carriages and automobiles mingle on the roads and the contradictory systems of magic and logic agitate on one another’s boarders. The setting is more driven by atmosphere than any afinity for or loyalty to the past. Carter has created a neo-gothic world of secluded mansions and forests primaeval, a close cousin to Du Maurier’s Cornwall. In keeping with the collection’s 1979 publication date, however, the stories have a distinctly second wave feminist sensibility and explore issues of female sexuality and power, examining the limitations and restraints of femininity and offering surprising glimpses of strength and transcendence.

Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney

Cover illustration for Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerneyBright Lights, Big City is, for me, both brutally timely and eerily nostalgic. Nostalgic partly because of it’s old school Vintage cover art, it’s beat up laminated library binding and the check out slip dating from March of 1989, but also because of it’s angsty-cum-tragic tone, the narrator’s early youthful bitterness. It is, for me, all high school. Holding it in my hands, that particular peeling library binding feel, those particular manila colored pages–watermarked, of course–reminds me of being 14, sitting on the hallway carpet in front of the wall heater, reading in the hours between school and dinner, dishes and bed. Timely, because, well–we all know what Bright Lights, Big City is about, right? Failure on all fronts: professional, romantic, artistic, financial.

The novel opens at a Manhattan night club around 2:00 am, where the narrator and his friend, the unstoppable hedonist Tad Allagash, are imbibing and attempting to either score some coke or separate one of the weaker women from the herd. Or both. We will come back to this scene a few different times.

Our hero is in the midst of a brief spiraling downfall punctuated by parties, bars, and mountains of Peruvian flake. On the verge of loosing his job as an entry-level fact checker at a prestigious magazine. In the aftermath of his wife’s desertion. In the realization that, at 24 he has failed to achieve the early promise he felt on his arrival in the city at 22.

Bright Lights, Big City Movie PosterFrom the description so far, this novel may seem to exhibit all the markings of a Bret Easton Ellis nihilism fest, but I don’t mean to give that impression. McInerney’s style and voice is anything but. His work is full of wit and humor. Dry for the most part, but at times almost slapstick, he offers a gently mocking portrait of fading glory of the New York literati, the 1980s nightlife, and a few boyish pranks. It also contains moments of startling honesty and clarity, in which a character grounded in escapism suddenly cuts through the bullshit and delivers an insight for which he seems thoroughly unprepared.

My only real gripe with this book (other than the uncomfortable feeling of resonance) is the ending, which, without offering too big a spoiler, adheres too closely to trends in literary fiction at the time and concludes with an abrupt hopeful up-note which, this reader felt, was not quite justified.

A Few Brief Comments on Books I Need to Return to the Library…

…before they take out a contract and start posting my picture at all the branches.

Cover illustration for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark HaddonMark Haddon’s bestseller, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has been on my to-read list for years. It’s one of those bestsellers that even my writer friends rave about.

There’s defiantly something special about this book. I’ve never read anything quite like it. Hoddon’s severely autistic main character, Christopher narrates with a striking combination of literal observations, misinterpretations, dramatic irony, and involved tangents about maths.

The story begins when Christopher finds the body of his neighbor’s poodle, stabbed with a garden fork in her front yard, but, as in the original “curious incident,” the dog is somewhat incidental, a clue and a catalyst, rather than the heart of the story. The “murder” of the dog inspires Christopher to write a murder mystery about the crime for school, leading to conversations with neighbors, confrontations with his father, and eventually, the uncovering of a much larger truth about his own life, and the people close to him.

The work does have it’s challenging moments. Christopher is a prickly character, at times difficult to like, but his novel and intricate voice keeps readers engaged. His frustrated and overworked parents are similarly difficult to empathize, though the difficulties inherent in raising Christopher do make them a bit more sympathetic. The novel decrescendos in a rather rushed style, wrapping up all the loose ends in a way that makes the author’s hand show a little too clearly.

Overall, however, I found this a fascinating, original novel.

Cover illustration for Push by SapphireI read the beginning of Push for the first time on Amazon’s search inside. Normally, I haven’t got much patience for that particular feature (hate how they skip pages!), but when I discovered Push, I just couldn’t look away. The novel’s famous vernacular narration is exquisite and compelling. Though she is sometimes criticized as a foil, the narrator comes through, clear and whole, as far as I am concerned.

So, why’s it taken me three library renewals and who knows how much in fines to finish it?

This is a bit of a spoiler, but I’m just going to go ahead and say it: it’s after she gets HIV. It was just so horrifically heart breakingly awful. As a reader, you become so sympathetic to this character, and so absorbed in her personality, and then she gets this news and just collapses, and you’re right there with her.

I put it away for a while.

Not that I’m recommending that for anyone else.

Push, by legendary slam poet Sapphire, tells the story of Clarisse Precious Jones, an illiterate and 15-year-old girl living in Harlem with her abusive mother. Pregnant with her second child by her vicious rapist father, Precious is expelled from public school but referred to an alternative school where she meets teacher and mentor Ms. Rain, develops her literacy (and literary) skills, and becomes one in a tight community of young women students.

Kicked out of her mother’s house after the birth of her son, Abdul, Precious finds shelter in a half-way-house near school, and really begins to come into her own.

Then, her mother tells her than her father had died of AIDS, and more questions about Precious’ future arise. Ultimately, the author leaves the conclusion of Precious’ story ambiguous. Having criticized Alice Walker for the fairy tale ending of The Color Purple through the voice of her narrator, Sapphire ends her own tale on a tenuously, precariously hopeful note–but no more.

Anagrams, Lorrie Moore

Cover art for Anagrams by Lorrie MooreThere are more puns in Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams than I have heard in the whole rest of my life combined. During the weeks I spent reading this novel, I became an obsessive word play spotting machine. One of the teachers at work was creating a homophone matching game with index cards. I completely lost control. Be and Bee. Night and Knight. See and Sea. Meet and Meat. Fare and Fair. I actually uttered the explanatory phrase, “Feet like feet, and feat like a ‘feat of daring do.” I may or may not have punched my fist into the air as I said that. Bazaar and Bizarre. I couldn’t stop myself.

Anyway (or, as Lorrie Moore’s main character would say, “anyways….”)

Anagrams tells the story of Benna and Gerard. Sometimes friends, sometimes lovers, their relationship is profound and difficult to pin down. The novel begins with three chapter-length vignettes. In the first, Benna is a night club singer, Gerard her near-beer guzzling, secretly admiring neighbor. Then, Benna is a geriatric aerobics instructor in a troubled relationship with Gerard. Then, they are a separating couple holding a garage sale (Sale and Sail). Through it all, Benna’s best friend Eleanor offers a funny if sometimes slightly disturbing counterpoint–cheating with Gerard, selling an old skirt and neglige at at the garage sale.

Then, abruptly, the short stories give way to a broader more novelistic approach. In all her incarnations, Benna a character terrified of movement, change, relationships, and connections. In this version she’s stalled out somewhere just short of her doctorate, retreating into a fictional life. Benna is a widow, a struggling poetry professor at a less than prestigious junior college who spends her days hanging out with a cheerful semi-alcholic lounge singing Gerard and fantasizing about an imaginary daughter and best friend (Eleanor, again).

In my reading of the work, it’s this longest section that is the true one, or, at least, the most true. Partly, this is simply because it is the longest. Also the most depressing. But more importantly, this is the part of the story that offers some explicit meaningful symbolism,

some clue to what it’s all about.

Midway through this longer, more novelistic section, the main character recounts the story of her separation from her late husband, a few months before his suicide. The couple are brushing their teeth side by side the morning after a big fight. Her husband says, “I never want to see you again,” but she hears “I want to see again” and a confusing and embarrassing discussion ensues. Benna reflects,

“When I was little, I didn’t understand that you could change a few sounds in a name or phrase and have it mean something entirely different…I thought Bing Crosby and Bill Cosby were the same person. That buddy Holly and Billie Holiday were the same person. That Leon Trotsky and Leo Tolstoy were the same person….Meaning, if it existed at all, was unstable and could not survive the slightest reshuffling of letters. One gust of wind and Santa became Satan. A slip of the pen and pears turned into pearls.”

The anagram metaphor, this idea of twisted reality–the same but different–lies at the center of Moore’s story.

While this novel is, like all Moore’s work, clever, poignant, and stylistically excellent, it’s not my favorite. As a reader, I became distracted and occasionally even bored. The concept behind Anagrams is fascinating and the execution is strong, but when you get right down to it, not much happens in this novel. I can only spend so long peering over the shoulder of an profoundly disassociated character as she drags through her days. Even the best writing in the world can only carry something like that for so long.

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Aimee Bender

Cover art for The Girl in the Flammable SkirtThere’s really nothing bad I can possibly say about The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. I honestly really loved it. Bender strikes a delicate balance between whimsical, eccentric content and constrained, precise prose, juxtaposing magical realist fare against a clear, open voice, threaded with subtle humor.

These short, surreal tales are difficult to summarize, and they probably sound more fantastical in descriptions than they feel when you experience them. A woman watches her lover experience reverse evolution, transitioning from man, to ape, to sea turtle, and beyond; a mermaid and an imp hide out in high school; a girl follows her one night stand down a man hole; an orphaned boy develops a gift for finding lost things; a stolen ruby ring turns the ocean red.

It reminded me of a lot of things. An darker, starker, and more modern Francesca Lia Block; a more feminine George Saunders; a Melissa Bank who writes of people with giant holes through their abdomens, instead of people with cancer. But that’s not to say it isn’t original–Bender definitely stakes out her own spot on the post modern magical realist chick-lit-leaning continuum.

I’m looking forward to reading more of her stuff.

Skippy Dies, Paul Murray

Cover image for Skippy Dies by Paul MurrayFINALLY! I finished Skippy Dies! And I only had to renew it three times and pay $4.90 in late fees. I probably could have saved money by picking up a used copy, but frankly I don’t need my own; I won’t be reading this book again.

Not that it’s not good, exactly. It’s just, in some fundamental sense, not genuine. A bit too cute and a bit too ironic. Also, about 250 pages too long. This book says nothing in 661 pages that couldn’t have been said in 400. Easily. And possibly more compellingly.

Skippy Dies is a medley of interconnected narratives concerning the students and teachers of Seabrook College, a Catholic boy’s school in Dublin. At the center of the story is Daniel “Skippy” Juster, a sweet, nerdy 14-year-old with a troubled inner life and a huge crush on the beautiful Lori (a.k.a Frisbee girl), a student at the neighboring girls school. The complete strata of the high school universe is represented in frequently sympathetic, always slightly mocking terms–the geeky science nerd, the frustrated over-achiever, the bully/nemesis, the goofy friends, downtrodden teachers, and blow-hard faculty.

The book is skillfully constructed and structurally sound–a great technical achievement. Murray’s gift for dialog is on display throughout, especially in the alternately funny and earnest conversations between the 2nd year boys, and the Dickens-esque rants of the school’s acting principle, the “Dominator.” The work is also thematically strong–all the disparate elements are tied together in sometimes surprising ways, and the conclusions are all hard “earned,” as we used to say in writing workshop.

It may be this perfection that, in the end, leaves me cold. The whole thing was just too stylistically self-conscious to allow for the kind of absorption I, personally, look for as a reader. I just can’t handle this insipid hipster shit anymore. Even in a diluted Dubliner version.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan

Cover illustration for A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer EganThis was a great one. Seriously. I enjoyed it more than anything I’ve read in recent months. A Visit from the Goon Squad is funny, sad, creative, endearing. The writing is spectacular–smart and apt, with an absorbing natural flow. The characters are fully fleshed, thoroughly flawed, and extremely winning.

Like most fiction with a claim to the “postmodern” label, A Visit from the Goon Squad is highly structured, with a somewhat nebulous plot. The novel is episodic, and Egan makes use of a variety of literary styles. Although a standard intimate third person past tense dominates, there are segments of present tense and first person, a mock-celebrity magazine article complete with footnotes (a well known staple of postmodern fiction), and even power point presentation. I’m frequently annoyed by these types of devices, but this came off beautifully. I have to agree with Ron Charles when he writes, “If Jennifer Egan is our reward for living through the self-conscious gimmicks and ironic claptrap of postmodernism, then it was all worthwhile.”

A Visit from the Goon Squad follows a series of interconnected characters, all linked (occasionally though several degrees of separation) to record producer Bennie Salazar. The novel opens with Sasha, Bennie’s klepto assistant, in contemporary New York City. It flashes back to Bennie’s youth in the 1970s San Francisco punk rock scene; follows his producer-mentor on a family vacation to Africa; introduces his son, his (sometimes ex)wife, her journalist brother, and her boss, struggling publicist Dolly. We meet troubled actress Kitty Jackson, an assortment of Bennie’s high school friends, an unnamed dictator, and Sasha’s closest friend from college. Characters occasionally surface unexpectedly in the midst of other character’s narratives. The narrative slides smoothly through time and place without fanfare, a series of loosely connected anecdotes gradually building toward a climactic moment some ten or twenty years in the future.

Though the thematic core of the work centers on loss, on the slow chipping away over time, it’s surprisingly not nostalgic (except perhaps as concerns the music industry). Egan exhibits throughout an acute sense of humorous perversity, making the novel light and fast even in it’s more depressing moments.

Egan achieves a rare balance between the completely entertaining and the beautifully executed.

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

Illustrations from Northanger AbbeyThough obviously distracted by the ongoing tax debate (which seems to have become inexplicably focused on the estate tax, rather than the >$250k break point, but whatever) I did manage to finish a novel this weekend: Northanger Abbey, the lost Austen.

Begun in 1798 and finished in 1803, Northanger was one if the first novels Austen completed, as well as her first sale, though it did not appear in print until after her death. She had already written Lady Susan and had started both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, however. It was a particularly unhappy and tumultuous period in the novelists’ life, encompassing her father’s retirement and the family’s subsequent move to Bath, a city she loathed, as well as her over night engagement to Harris Bigg-Wither.

The novel follows 17-year-old Ann Radcliffe enthusiast Catherine Morland on a visit to Bath. Under the guardianship of complacent childless family friends, Catherine visits the pump room and attends public balls, making new acquaintances. She quickly meets and befriends the lovely but manipulative Isabella Thorpe, and it emerges that the two girls older brothers also know each other at Oxford. When the young men pay a visit to Bath a dual brother-sister match seems eminent, or at last intended. Catherine, however, dislikes Mr Thorpe and remains blissfully unaware of his blundering attempts at courtship. She’s much too interested in Mr. Henry Tilney, a clever and handsome young clergyman. Just Catherine’s visit draws to close, she is invited by Henry’s sister to visit the Tilney family at their home, (you guessed it) Northanger Abbey.

Northanger is perhaps the least sympathetic of all Jane Austen’s satires. Though frequently both critical and comedic, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion, all have the benefit of a compelling heroine and at least one honest romance. Catherine, on the other hand, is in many ways a foil–a nice girl, honest and not too bright, but with a healthy imagination where melodrama is concerned. She is Harriet Smith, with a better family and a stronger character. Her romance with Henry Tilney also lacks the weight of the relationships in Austen’s other novels–it’s funny and frequently charming, but, like Catherine herself, not too deep.

The real pleasure of the book comes from Austen’s language, her frequent tangential diatribes on the nature and import of novels, and her many hilarious digs at Ann Radcliffe–who as far as Austen is concerned, seems to have been the Stephenie Meyer of her day (only pro-woman, a better writer, and a different kind of crazy). Indeed, though the older author clearly influenced Austen’s work, Radcliffe jokes were something she could never quite give up–witness the roll The Romance of the Forrest plays in the breech between Harriet and Robert Martin in Emma.