The Astonishing Life of August March by Aaron Jackson (Fiction)

August March grew up in the theater — literally. Tossed in a laundry basket at birth by an empty-headed starlet, raised by the laundress who found him, but left him in the theater at night so she could sleep, and educated by a typically vain and pompous leading man (who was the only one to know he existed), August indeed had the titular astonishing life advertised.

A fast romp through New York from the 30s to the 60s, the best parts of the book are August’s classics inspired dialog and soliloquies. He was trained in the theater (never, in fact, leaving the physical building until he was in his teens), and he behaves like a character in the dramas he observed. While the tone is light, there is a serious thread throughout — August craves family and belonging as most of us do, but has never been in a position to find it. He adapts, he survives, but it’s often a lonely existence.

I wouldn’t call the plot realistic in any sense, but who cares? Lots of fun, well written, and featuring a character who, while understandably flawed, forges a strong path through his own life.

Thank you to Harper Collins and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 7th, 2020.

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Literary Fiction)

Fantastic book! Jennifer Egan’s writing is extraordinary. This was an audio book — not my preferred reading mechanism, and it just about killed me not to be able to write down the many, many, (many!), amazing lines.

This story is a whole set of interlocking vignettes that rocket backwards (and sometimes forwards) in time from two main characters: Bennie and Sasha — a record executive (and former punk rocker) and his (somewhat kleptomaniac) assistant. Real in-depth characters with surprising cameos in each other’s stories, the later impact of chance meetings, and plenty of odd “where did they end ups.” The stories pan across time and space — from New York City to the high desert to unlabeled countries with genocidal generals — with music and / or the music industry playing a major or minor role.

All the tales have one thing in common — the impact of time. Every one of the characters is trying to figure out — how did I end up here? How did this happen? One thing they all agree on — “Time’s a goon.”

Jennifer Egan is the best — I have to go back and find out what else I have missed.

The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead (Children’s Fiction)

10-year old Bea has largely adjusted to the big changes in her life — 2 years before her parents divorced so that her father could be the gay man he had always known himself to be. Bea alternates living with each parent day by day and weekend by weekend. Now her father and his boyfriend Jesse are getting married and Bea might be getting a sister — something she has always wanted.

While not as creative as some of Stead’s earlier books, this is a well-done dive into the experiences of a young girl struggling to understand the massive changes in her life. The book serves as an excellent template for how to handle a divorce. The eponymous “List of Things That Will Not Change” is for Bea when she finds out about the divorce — my favorite item: “We are still a family, but in a different way.” And indeed, that is how they behave.

Bea also sees a therapist — Miriam — and the advice she recollects at various points is clear and useful. I’m not a big fan of therapy, but I found this summary of the process and techniques for Bea to be excellent. This would be a useful book for both the target 8-12 year olds and their parents. If I had one small complaint about the book, it is that the focus is all on Bea and the new life of her gay father. Her mother doesn’t get to have much of a new life and although portrayed lovingly, doesn’t get a lot of air time (and she deserves some!).

Thank you to Wendy Lamb Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 7th, 2020.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5

A family drama told largely through recollection in a loosely ordered, but well-timed set of memories. Danny tells the story — full of recognition of his then-obliviousness — of himself, his older sister Maeve, and their sometimes senseless path through life. Much of the story centers around the Dutch House — the outrageously lavish estate purchased by their newly-minted real estate mogul father at the end of WWII) — which purchase begins the unraveling of their family.

I’m a big Ann Patchett fan — her insight into character and how it is expressed and molded by events and situations is incomparable. While sometimes frustrating in the cluelessness of characters (as seen from our safe reader’s perch) and lack of closure, the story is ultimately a realistic portrayal of the way lives and relationships evolve and what we do and don’t learn from the path. It’s one of those books that gets even better the more you think about it after reading, although to be honest it is not one of my favorite Patchetts.

Thank you to Harper Collins Publishers and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 24th, 2019.

The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall (Historical Fiction)

A slow-paced, deeply interior book about love, marriage, and faith. It follows a linear progression through the lives of four individuals, two marriages, and a forty-year shared ministry.

The real center of the book is the place of God in people’s lives. Each character has his or her own relationship (or lack thereof) with God: Charles knows absolutely that there is a God and that he has a calling to the ministry; his wife Lily is equally certain that there is no God and has no affinity with the tasks expected of a minister’s wife, preferring an academic life. Nan is a minister’s daughter and has never questioned her faith; James is not religious and has doubts about God, but feels the ministry would be a good platform for his drive towards social justice.

As each character grows into his or her life and faces difficulties both large and small, God is at the center of many thoughts and actions and is present on most pages. This was surprisingly non-repetitious, and the arguments, discussions, reflections, and historical references were balanced and intriguing, even to someone like myself who has no interest in religion.

The characters are all very earnest — even in their doubt and questioning, there is no cynicism (or any humor which I’m now realizing is often predicated on cynicism). It was somewhat refreshing and made me realize how very cynical the world feels today and how it wasn’t always that way.

The prose is beautiful, though at times over wrought. It is a philosophical and reflective look at life and marriage and documents the details of a healthy approach to personal growth — listening, discussing, reflecting, and resolution.

I was initially quite put off by the number of references to God and faith — it really isn’t my thing — but I found myself quite taken by the four individuals and their personal quests for understanding and a fulfilling life. I learned quite a bit more than I expected.

Thank you to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 13th, 2019.

To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer (Middle Grade)

I’ve been reading a lot of depressing (but very good – stay tuned) books lately and decided I needed a happy break — enter To Night Owl from Dogfish. An impressive, fully epistolary (email style) novel, following the grudging friendship developing between two 12-year old girls who have been sent to summer camp by their romantically involved, single, gay dads in order to get to know each other. What follows is a touching and simultaneously funny (and convoluted) story reminiscent of The Parent Trap.

Californian Bett Devlin is afraid of nothing, loves animals, sports, and a lack of rules. New Yorker Avery Bloom is afraid of everything, likes the indoors, and loves for things to be under control and absolutely safe. As their dads head off for a motorcycle trip across China, they communicate via iPad having already decided that they will under no circumstances be friends or even speak to each other at camp! Things head off in unexpected directions (I really didn’t see *any* of the plot developments coming) and include Avery’s previously unknown biological mother and Bett’s (somewhat loony) grandmother from Texas.

A fun read!

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”