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BOOK REVIEWS: September

BOOKS WE LOVE: In which we editors gush about the books—new or old—that have knocked our respective socks off.

 


NOAH’S COMPASS
by Anne Tyler
(Knopf, January 2010)


According to the Wall Street Journal, a literary “revolution” is taking place at your local supermarket in the popular-fiction aisle. In an article entitled “Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard,” Lev Grossman laments “difficult” novels, the ones in which “pleasure must be bought with large quantities of work and patience.” Without specifically fingering any contemporary culprits, Grossman, not surprisingly, contrasts Joyce and Faulkner (Modernists who had their time and place) with Thackeray and Dickens (champion storytellers). Because readers today want to be entertained, and they will pay for books that don’t “bore them,” Grossman suggests that intelligent writers should learn the plot techniques of mass-market genres, like romance novels and young-adult fiction. He warns that: “Lyricism is on the wane, and suspense and humor and pacing are shedding their stigmas and taking their place as the core literary technologies of the 21st century.”

Grossman implies that if a literary novel (“one of the best-reviewed of 2008”) only sells 16,000 copies, it is irrelevant. A book in the Twilight series sells eight million copies in a few months—therefore, that is what readers want and that is what writers should strive for.

*

Luckily, Anne Tyler doesn’t seem to heed the marketplace or trends but has consistently produced engaging, funny, and nuanced novels. Her newest, NOAH'S COMPASS, focuses on a modest fellow, Liam Pennywell, who has lost his job as a high-school teacher and is downsizing his living quarters while edging into what he calls “the final stage, the summing-up stage. The stage where he sat in his rocking chair and reflected on what it all meant, in the end.” (He is a mere sixty-one years old but has the outlook of an octogenarian.) Poor Liam Pennywell, whose humble name carries a whiff of Dickens, whose wants and needs are so meager and, yes, pennypinching! He seems both stalwart and numb when he considers his life: “Two failed marriages…three daughters who led their own lives, and a sister he seldom spoke to. The merest handful of friends—more like acquaintances really. A promising youth that had somehow trailed off in a series of low-paying jobs far beneath his qualifications.” Ho hum, right? No, because Pennywell, who craves inertia, also experiences a dramatic kick in the pants (or a blow to the head) in the first chapter. There is a mystery here to be solved, but that is not what will keep you reading. Imagine Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums, a likeable, misunderstood oddball (why is everyone mad at him?), and you will get a feel for the low-key, droll allure of this character. Tyler may not play tricks with language but she messes with the mind, squeezing blood and meaning from an uneventful life. It is possible or even probable that a reader like Lev Grossman would enthusiastically review this novel, but I also get the feeling he might miss some of Tyler’s marvelous insights into the darker realms of the human spirit.

Lines we liked: “We live such tangled, fraught lives, he thought, but in the end we die like all the other animals and we’re buried in the ground and after a few more years we might as well not have existed.
    This should have depressed him, but instead it made him feel better.”

—CAF



A MIRACLE OF CATFISH
by Larry Brown
(Algonquin/Shannon Ravenel Books, 2007)

The late Larry Brown's final, unfinished novel focuses on the interwoven struggles of a handful of characters in Yocona, Mississippi, whose perspectives he believably and authoritatively renders: a young boy and an elderly widower; a black man in a homemade shack and a white woman who has left Mississippi for middle-class Atlanta; even crows, dogs, and a giant catfish named Ursula. His writing, filled with equal parts humor and pathos, is powerful and arresting.

It’s impossible to know exactly how this novel would have turned out if Brown had lived to write the conclusion and see the entire work through the editing process. Even with editor Shannon Ravenel’s cuts, it’s the longest of his books, weighing in at over 450 pages. Still, despite its unfinished state, the novel’s masterful balance, pacing, and well-timed shifts of perspective keep its sprawling scope in check, leaving the reader wanting more rather than less. How sad it is that there will be no more. 
 
Lines we liked: "So he just lay there. Waiting. For what he did not know. Enlightenment, maybe. The hand of God. A tomato sandwich."

—SCA


 

THE CONFESSIONS OF EDWARD DAY
by Valerie Martin
(Doubleday, 2009)

Valerie Martin is a master of reinvention—each of her novels penetrates new terrain—and so it is fitting that in her latest, THE CONFESSIONS OF EDWARD DAY, she turns to the theatrical world of shape-shifters, in the form of an ambitious, charismatic, motherless, and chilly-souled young actor named Edward Day. Transporting us to 1970s New York (remember when Lee Strasberg goaded actors to unleash their psyches on stage?), Valerie Martin embeds you in the consciousness of a man who is intensely self-absorbed, competitive, dissembling, and fragile—and then makes you cheer for him. Beyond the rich character study, Martin also provides an unusually engrossing tale of suspense involving an obsessive, sinister guy named Guy, also an actor, and the woman they are bent on possessing.

Lines we liked:
“Imposture is an evolutionary strategy for survival.”

—CAF


 

BIG WORLD
by Mary Miller
(Short Flight/Long Drive Books, 2009)
 
In her recent short story collection, BIG WORLD, Mary Miller doesn’t guide her characters toward astonishing epiphanies. Rather, and thankfully, she lets the characters steer themselves; she listens to their conversations, and witnesses their choices without prejudice. Her characters don’t rely on transformative life moments; instead they tell lies, love the wrong person, and pretend to be someone they’re not. This is not a book to devour in one reading. All eleven stories are perfect slices, to be savored leisurely.
 
Lines we liked: “I watch my hands pretend they’re birds and then I take a sip of my coffee, and he takes a sip of his and we’re sort of pleased with ourselves, with what feels like a revelation but isn’t.”

—MB



LOVE IS A FOUR-LETTER WORD: TRUE STORIES OF BREAKUPS, BAD RELATIONSHIPS, AND BROKEN HEARTS
edited by Michael Taeckens
(Plume, 2009)

You don't have to be nursing recent breakup wounds to appreciate the wry humor and painfully honest self-deprecation of LOVE IS A FOUR-LETTER WORD. In fact, if you've had even one failed relationship—and who over the age of thirteen hasn't?—you can laugh and cringe and relive the agony of heartbreak along with Junot Diaz, Maud Newton, Gary Shteyngart, and the others who bare their souls and their sex lives in the pages of this collection. Besides Wendy Brenner’s standout essay “I Love You in Twelve Languages” (which appeared in THE OA earlier this year), highlights from OA contributors include George Singleton relieving himself in the litter box belonging to his ex-girlfriend’s cat and Brock Clarke in his college days, slipping in a pool of someone else's vomit while running after a girl.
 
Lines we liked:
"Surely, a world war could transform a mumbling, indifferent seventh-grade guy into a road warrior with smudged biceps. At school I'd consider the possibilities while gazing across the lunch room at my crush objects. You ignore me now, Joshua Kroger, I'd think, but it would be different if we were stranded in an underground bunker." —Wendy McClure, "The Last Man on Earth"

—SCA

 


 

ENDURING
by Donald Harington
(Toby Press, September 2009)

Someday, a visionary filmmaker will stumble on the novels of Donald Harington and realize that here are American epics—churning with the kind of rich specifics that parlay into universal significance—to enthrall moviegoers who enjoy adventure, romance, sex, comedy, eccentric characters, soaring vistas, a smattering of special effects, plot twists, and good old-fashioned narrative suspense.

Harington has written twenty or so engrossing and highly addictive novels, which focus on the multigenerational denizens of a backwoods hamlet in Arkansas and their occasional cross-country and cross-continental forays. From personal experience, I can testify that the soaring beauty of the Ozarks, the region Harington potently describes, is thunderously real, but to infiltrate the fertile depths of the folks who live there, I feed on his fiction. Harington is a natural storyteller, with a clench-hold on the finer aspects of his craft, but he is not averse to inserting playful elements (inventive language, authorial asides, and graphic sex) into the narration. This spirit of play is Harington’s trademark—how else to explain the sheer joy that infuses his books?

Like Marilynne Robinson, who was “discovered” by the masses years after her most magical work was written, Harington will perhaps be unearthed as one of the greatest novelists of all time by future generations. His sentences are beautiful but they do not distract from the destinations. He is one of those rare writers who create a tapestry without getting entangled in the weave. He is more Tolstoy than Dostoyevsky, more García Márquez than Faulkner. But—and maybe this is the Ozarkian influence—his stories are often lowbrow funny and outright steamy.

In Harington’s new novel, ENDURING, he revisits a character, Latha Bourne, introduced in one of his earliest novels, LIGHTNING BUG, and paints with Vermeer-ian detail and Hieronymous Bosch-ian delight (like the scholar of art that he is) her one hundred and twenty-one years of living. An irrepressible postmodernist (in judicious doses), Harington dedicates the novel to Latha, and by the time you finish this absorbing tale, you will intuit that Latha is indeed real because she has been fully imagined. We think, therefore we exist, to paraphrase Descartes, who provides one of the book’s epigraphs. For a woman from an itty-bitty town (population 112 and annually sagging), Latha’s life has been unusually dramatic. (You may begin to suspect that we all possess these layers of fateful event and willful escapade, even if we are not immortal goddesses.) This is a woman’s tale—nay, a grandmother-with-dozens-of-cats tale—told by her favorite granddaughter (in turn, told by a male author) and yet it is not sentimental. The great risk Harington takes in presuming to tell a woman’s story, uncensored, quickly becomes a non-issue. For the imaginative powers that allow him to depict Latha’s long and terrible stay in an insane asylum (this part of the book = a tour de force) also allow him to portray a woman’s sexual desire, her fluctuating whims, and one ambiguous rape scene. How carefully Harington teases—confirming, then subverting—the stereotypes of hillbillies! When you finish the novel, the world may briefly seem a prudish and colorless place. This cinematic effect will eventually burn off. After all, stories in books aren’t real, right?

Lines we liked: “The secret of enduring is not to harden oneself against loss but to soften oneself in acceptance.”

—CAF

 

 

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