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 This was surprisingly non-repetitious, and the arguments, discussions, reflections, and historical references were balanced and intriguing, even to someone like myself who has no interest in religion.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”

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!