10:04 by Ben Lerner

Writing: 5+/5 Plot: 2.5/5 Characters: 4/5

A literary tour-de-force — fascinating, though not necessarily enjoyable, to read. Beautifully written with intriguing sub-stories and descriptive prose (social, internal and external) to rival the best. It’s very difficult to describe what it is “about.” It feels like a loosely disguised description of portions of the author’s own life, complete with self-referential discussions of selling the idea of the book to the publishers, the art scene in New York, relationships and vignettes on various inspirations that resulted in “him.” Lerner explores the boundary between fiction and non-fiction and the fact that there is no such thing as something which is fully one or the other.

The writing is the real star of the show — this was one of those books that I had to read slowly so as not to miss any of the insights or the brilliant prose. Lots of stream of consciousness, but far more coherent than Joyce or Pynchon. As individual sentences went off on tangents and lasted longer than any sentence has a right to, I found myself actually caring about what would be at the end (of the sentence). Plenty of sharp, Tom Wolfe-style social commentary, though less acerbic and more focussed inward than outward on others. A more modern and neurotic version of Proust. I had to read this book in stages — it was absolutely worth reading but definitely a lot of work.

I tried to find some of my favorite lines but it was a bit difficult to find lines that were good out of context. My favorite was a description of the moment Lerner knew he wanted to be a poet. It was while listening to Ronald Reagan’s post Challenger disaster speech. In the speech, Reagan quoted from an inspiring poem written by young flyer a few weeks before his death. When Lerner researches this later he finds that the poem was actually cobbled together from stolen bits of other poems in what he calls “a kind of palimpsestic plagiarism.” I just love that phrase.

A few of other good lines:

“She chose you for your deficiencies, not in spite of them, a new kind of mating strategy for millennial women whose priority is keeping the more disastrous fathers away, not establishing a nuclear family.”

“Art has to offer something other than stylized despair.”

“…not to mention a checkout system of radical, willful inefficiency.”

“…but I could dodge or dampen that contradiction via my hatred of Brooklyn’s boutique biopolitics, in which spending obscene sums and endless hours on stylized food preparation somehow enabled the conflation of self-care and political radicalism.”

“Most desire was imitative desire.”
Also, an astonishing number of words that were new to me:
nosological — the branch of medical science dealing with the classification of diseases.
craquelure — a network of fine cracks in the paint or varnish of a painting.
prosody — the patterns of rhythm and sound used in poetry.
poeisis — from ancient greek: the activity in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before.
chenopod — russian thistle, waterhemp, or pigweed
pareidolia —psychological phenomenon in which the mind responds to a stimulus, usually an image or a sound, by perceiving a familiar pattern where none exists.
lachrimal — something to do with tear or crying as in a “lachrimal event”

The Golden Tresses of the Dead by Alan Bradley

Thanks to NetGalley and Random House Publishing Group for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on Jan. 22, 2019.

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 3.5/5

New word (to me): deliquescence — the process by which a substance absorbs moisture from the atmosphere until it dissolves in the absorbed water and forms a solution.

Shakespeare’s sonnet on grave robbers starts “Before the golden tresses of the dead…” which gives a hint as to the subject matter of this delightful installment of the Flavia De Luce series. For those of you who haven’t met Flavia before, she is the precocious pre-teen with a penchant for poisons and passion for chemistry and now the owner of Buckshaw — the somewhat decaying family estate in Bishop’s Lacy. This episode was internally referred to as the “Curious Case of the Clue in the Cake” (said clue was the finger bone of a recently deceased Spanish guitarist found in Flavia’s sister’s wedding cake!) — but the digit-based investigation uncovers a more deliciously evil plot swirling around homeopathic distillations and murder.

Bradley’s writing is fun — every volume is full of arcane references in the fields of literature, history, anthropology, architecture, and of course Flavia’s favorite: chemistry. My favorite line:

“Like a sponge the human brain can only absorb so much before it begins to leak.”

This one is pretty good too:

“Great music has much the same effect upon humans as cyanide, I managed to think: It paralyzes the respiratory system.”

You can certainly read this one without the others — or really start anywhere you like in the series, though there is a nice progression to going in order.

The Matchmaker’s List by Sonya Lalli

Thanks to NetGalley and Berkeley Publishing Group for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on Jan. 22, 2019.

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5

Women’s fiction pairing romcom humor with a smart, capable, protagonist. Complex themes with authentic resolutions. Multi-cultural and sexual diversity interest.

29 year-old Raina Anand is under constant pressure from her beloved Nani to get married. Her best friend is about the tie the knot and the close knit Indian community in her Toronto suburb is all geared up to help her follow suit. However, Raina is keeping a shameful secret — she is still in love with the man she left (in another country) 2 years ago. In order to protect this secret, she allows her Nani to believe she is gay — with broad and surprising consequences.

This is not your typical romcom. There are no firemen, no Fabios flexing muscles, and no ditzy but lovable blondes prepared to make some man very happy. The story continually veers off into unexpected territory and allows the main character to experience real emotional growth while trying to find her way in the world. Opening on Raina’s 29th birthday, the narrative carries through to her 30th, interspersed with reverse-order flashbacks to previous memorable birthdays. Her family is not typical (is anyone’s?). Half Indian, half caucasian, she was raised by her grandparents and only rarely saw her mother who bore her when only 16. But even this is not exactly as it seems — there is depth and nuance in this story.

There is a strong theme of sexual orientation diversity — portrayed in an interesting way because while our first person narrative protagonist is not gay herself, this “small” white lie highlights the clash of tradition and modernism simmering beneath the surface of her small, tight-knit, community.

Fun, witty, writing. Well structured with good messages about diversity, values, and the danger of letting shame drive you into making bad decisions.

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Writing: 4/5 World Building: 4/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5

A “wow” book for me — a blend of African style juju, speculative fiction twists, and a hard boiled detective story. Real noir. I hadn’t heard of Lauren Beukes before but can’t wait to read more — luckily she is prolific.

Zinzi Lelethu December is our first person narrator — the “animalled,” ex-junkie, hard-boiled, Sam Spade style character with a hefty past just struggling to survive in a dark environment. Hints of being a post-apocalyptic, or at least a post-civilized world, it frankly sounds pretty close to parts of South Africa today — Zoo City is full of the hustle vibe. “Zoos” refer to the intense people-animal pairings that come unrequested to many of those who have committed a crime — Zinzi’s animal is a sloth; boyfriend Benoit’s a mongoose. Zoo City is the area of Johannesburg that has become a hustler ghetto for the animalled.

Zinzi is a finder of lost things — the “talent” that came with the acquisition of her animal. This helps her see webs of connection between people and the things they have lost. While this brings her some remuneration, she works off the bulk of her large drug debt by writing the form letters and processing the responses for current affairs sympathy scams. She is depressingly good at it. In the midst of her self-loathable existence as a petty criminal, she is offered a great deal of money to find someone. And then things start going very wrong.

Although there isn’t a great deal to like about Zinzi, we can’t help but root for her the whole time. I believe this is because we love flawed characters who have or are developing a strong moral sense. While Zinzi makes her way through an unsavory underground, she starts to gain a real sense of right and wrong and develops an interest in actually making something better.

City of Secrets by Victoria Thompson

Thanks to NetGalley and Berkeley Publishing Group for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on Nov. 6, 2018.

Writing: 3 Plot: 4 Characters: 3.5

A thoroughly enjoyable historical mystery by the author of the Gaslight cozy mystery series. The second in the Counterfeit Lady series (I seem to have missed the first), this series centers on Elizabeth Miles, a “reformed” grifter who is making her way in New York polite society in the 1920s. In this episode, she is moved to help a new friend who was twice widowed and found herself penniless — her second husband having managed to go through all of her money as well as his own in a short amount of time. The plot twists in fun and surprising ways, leveraging an eclectic set of characters including ministers who are not what they seem, society matrons, and Elizabeth’s slightly unsavory (but utterly charming and oddly moral) pals from her grifting days. Nice historical touches covering the suffragist movement (not suffragette which they find demeaning), the social rules of etiquette as extracted from Mrs. Edith B. Ordway’s The Etiquette of Today, and the origin of safe deposit boxes. Interesting discussions on the rules of law, the roots of civilization, and how to determine what is morally appropriate in a situation.

Great read!

A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl by Jean Thompson

Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on Oct 9, 2018.

Writing: 4 Characters: 3.5 Plot: 3

This (well-written) book could easily be subtitled: “Three Generations of Unhappy Women.” Evelyn — the matriarch — gave up the intellectual life she craved to marry a man she didn’t love. Her daughter, Laura, became a “pleaser,” working constantly to smooth tensions between her mother, her husband, her troubled son, and the rest of the world. Laura’s daughter, Grace, struggles to free herself from family binds but can’t seem to make much progress.

The book is 336 pages of pure drama — unwanted pregnancies, extramarital affairs, alcoholism, cancer, drug addiction and rehab, and just plain old meanness fill the pages giving the characters the opportunity to experience grief, angst, anger, and numbness in a raucous merry-go-round of emotions. While it is very well done — a real page turner — I found it a little annoying that most of these problems (the cancer excepted) were of their own devising and fully under their own control to fix. There was little insight, revelation, or determination brought to bear on the various situations. I personally did not identify with, or even particularly like, any of the characters.  That’s just me — I’ve read some of the other early reviews and people seem to really like the emotional intensity of the story and identify with the troubles these people face — maybe you will too!

Listen to the Marriage by John Jay Osborn

Thank you to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and NetGalley for an early review copy which will be published Oct. 23, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 3.5 Plot: 3.5 Characters: 3

A surprisingly interesting book — all the “action” takes place in the marriage counselor’s office where Steve and Gretchen meet weekly for the 9 months following their split. I have a somewhat skeptical view of how helpful therapists usually are, but I found this view into the detailed process both plausible and fascinating. The novel enumerates the session conversations, revealing the bad habits and miscommunications that can develop between people without their realizing it.

Sandy (the therapist) makes it clear to her clients that she has never been a “neutral” marriage counselor. “You can ask whatever you want,” she says. “I don’t do the therapist-must-keep-her-distance thing.” She views the “marriage” as an entity in and of itself and allocates an odd-looking chair in the room to be its representative.

I have no insight as to why John Jay Osborn of “Paper Chase” fame is writing a novel about marriage counseling, and with a female therapist to boot. I’m always nervous when a man writes a book from a woman’s perspective (and similarly unhappy when a woman writes a book from a man’s) but in this case, Sandy comes across as a gender neutral being. Her role in the therapy, and her thoughts, actions, and words, could equally well have belonged to a man. Even her name appears to have been chosen to be gender neutral.

The book felt slightly too long — while realistic, the repetition required in good long term counseling can get a bit dull for the reader — and the ending was a bit too sappy for me (though not in the way you’d predict), however I did find it a fast and absorbing read.

Good for fans of Irvin Yalom.