We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas spans about five decades, telling the story of a woman named Eileen Leary (nee Tumulty), her husband Ed, and their son, Connell. In many ways, I am in a unique position to love this book. It starts off in Irish Woodside, Queens, mere blocks from where I live in a dramatically changed, multi-ethnic neighborhood today. It was thrilling to read about the history of my area, so carefully and thoughtfully observed. Later, the action moves a few subway stops further into Queens, into Jackson Heights, a section of the city I also know very well. Even later, the characters make a huge conceptual, though slight geographic, move to the Westchester town where I attended grad school. I could picture every street named, the window of the bridal shop that opened during the course of the book. A few days after finishing the book, I walked down Court Street in Brooklyn past a church that was named often in the book, the site of one of Eileen’s major realizations. Many books are set in New York City, but not in MY New York City (Alice McDermott’s books excepted!).

we-are-not-ourselves-9781476756660_hr

In most ways, though, I am not poised to love this book any more than anyone else, simply because it is so good I can’t make too many claims on it. If you don’t know much about the book, I would implore you not to read about it before diving into the book itself–I am not going to write about the plot here. I knew just a shred about it before starting it, but I think my experience would have been better had I not known what to anticipate. This is especially important with this book because Thomas’s pacing is just masterful. The book is about something long before that thing actually starts to happen (sorry to be vague!) and much of the story’s power is in its sequencing, its slow dawning, its close observation. It makes the most of the distance between the reader and the characters–in some ways, the reader gets to see the characters’ situation more clearly than they do, but in other ways, they know–or some of them know–what is going on long before the reader. It is an incredible act of balancing and calibrating.

The pacing can also be really brave–for such a long book, there are major life events that are compressed to mere sentences. One example, which I will give away, is that after a long, difficult and despairing period of trying to get pregnant, Eileen conceives, carries, gives birth to and nurtures baby Connell, all in about three lines. By contrast, late in the book, she takes two pages to inventory every scrap contained in her husband’s wallet. This all goes back to serve that amazing balancing act Thomas executes in this book.

Another act of bravery on the writer’s part is in allowing one of Eileen’s attributes to be–among many other wonderful ones–bitter, unsubtle racism. It makes total sense for the character and for her circumstances, but I think a lot of writers wouldn’t let her go there. (There’s never a time when her racism could be confused for the writers, by the way). The times when she checks herself, or comes around completely, are hard won and believable, too.

The book ends twice. Somewhere in the middle of the novel, Connell starts to have his own chapters, so it is fitting that Eileen and Connell each get their own separate endings. Eileen’s is touching, a bit sentimental in a good way and brings the story somewhat full-circle. It is hard to describe Connell’s ending without giving away everything I want you to read for yourself, but I found it absolutely devastating, chilling and truly horrifying, yet also, impossibly, hopeful and beautiful.

I finished this book a few weeks ago and I don’t think I’m lying when I say that I’ve thought about it everyday since. It’s truly incredible.

I met a friend at a bar and we both had the book with us!

I met a friend at a bar and we both had the book with us!

It may appear, based on the evidence exhibited on this blog, that I haven’t been reading very much. In a way that’s true; I’ve been reading a little less than usual. Is it because I’ve been focusing–narcissistically–on MY BOOK? Maybe. (Do I ever pretend to be anonymous on this blog? I don’t know–sort of!–but oh well. I’d rather you buy my book than not know who I am!) Is it because I’ve been teaching so many children that my reading time has devolved into decompress-in-front-of-food-travel-shows time? More likely.

sasquatch

One book I actually have read lately is The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac by Sharma Shields. It is a long, wild novel that spans decades and spins out from the moment little 9-year-old Eli Roebuck’s mom abandons him to head into the woods with her lover, a Sasquatch named, improbably, Mr. Krantz. Many chapters have Eli at their heart, but others follow the stories of the women in his life–his two wives, his two daughters, his mother. When I saw Sharma read, she called the novel “messy,” then revised it to “feral.” I definitely don’t think it is messy. If I picture the trajectory of the book in my head, it looks sort of like a frayed rope. There is a solid, traceable center, made up of braided stories. Each is recognizably separate but also serves the whole. Coming off of those strands, are smaller threads–the complications of each sort of sub-story. It’s a brave and exciting way to structure a book.

I tend to have the same problem when I read a lot of books with supernatural elements in them: I think that they aren’t REALLY supernatural. I take the alternate world as a metaphor or the super tall hairy monster as the projection of a traumatized child. But some books really are science fiction, or speculative, or have fantastical elements to them. This book is one of them. For a good long while, i was convinced that there wasn’t really a Sasquatch, even though the reader immediately gets the good look at him that most of the characters never do. It wasn’t until a succession of other supernatural beings and phenomena showed up that I understood–no, he really IS a Sasquatch. Whose problem is this? Certainly not Sharma’s. One benefit that my skepticism had, though, is I feel like I spent a little extra time considering Eli’s psyche, and a little extra time empathizing with all the characters who thought that Eli was delusional, because I thought he was, too.

Though complicated and multi-faceted, The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac is also a quick, fun read. Sharma is from Spokane, and wove the Northwest landscape through the novel in a way that this East Coast reader found fascinating, too. Pick it up!

This book has gotten a lot of attention (including being a finalist for the National Book Award) and, now that I’ve finally read it, I see why. It’s a fairly substantial novel yet I read it in a day–it is one of those books that inspires that kind of dedicated binge reading with its story, which sets up several lines of narrative tension. It was also a pretty easy read, sort of pop-y and weirdly fun for the (post-apocalyptic / mass-death) subject matter.

StationElevenHCUS2

Station Eleven kicks off in our world, in a theater, at a production of King Lear through the eyes of a paramedic in training named Jeevan. By the end of the chapter, there is a shockingly direct revelation that the book is not at all what it has seemed up until that point. From there on, the narration jumps between characters and time periods, following a pandemic that kills most of earth’s population and causes the collapse of civilization, sometimes stretching back decades before that opening scene, sometimes filing in parts of the intervening years. We see Jeevan at various points in the future, and while I would have liked to spend even more time with him throughout the book, I thought he was a really interesting choice as a lens for the beginning of the end.

The main characters are all connected, in some way, to that King Lear performance. This was both neat and slightly undermining of a mystery in the book. The true identity of a nefarious character, known as the Prophet, is unknown to the book’s characters and maybe also is supposed to be to the reader, but, I found it almost immediately obvious, which made the information’s slow revelation a bit tedious. A plot point that had, for me, the opposite problem was one involving the childhood friend of a central character, a famous actor, who published an unauthorized collection of letters he sent her. I felt like, and still feel like, I missed something important in terms of why this whole thread is in the book. The last aspect of the book I felt a bit unconvinced by was the emphasis on a set of sci-fi graphic novels, created by one character and treasured by two others. I liked the device of the books except for their content, which spoke too directly to the post-civiliization circumstances of the book. Their plot had almost no resonance with the broader story because the parallel was so clear that there was no use even thinking about it.

The use of science fiction as a device overall, though, was more successful. While I’m not a big Star Trek fan myself, I grew up with a lot of Star Trek because of my parents and brother, so I got a kick out of the many Trek-related quotes and allusions. A mantra in the book, “Survival is insufficient,” comes from Star Trek (not even the old Star Trek!) and is pretty compelling, I thought.

Despite the handful of misgivings I described above, I definitely recommend this book. It is an absorbing and entertaining read, with clear, strong writing.

I downloaded Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men as part of a Kindle promotion ages ago and then forgot about it. The other day, I noticed it sitting there unread and opened it up. And I actually really loved it.

summer_without_men_199x293

I say it that way, with a bit of surprise, because if I got super analytical about it, there are certain aspects of the book that I shouldn’t have liked. For one, the narrator occasionally directly addresses the reader–“Dear Reader”-style–which was, on the surface, sort of annoying. But the narrator, Mia, is a poet and a reader, and references books like Middlemarch, Jane Austin’s entire oeuvre (nearly), and The Golden Bowl, so the antiquated literary convention made thematic sense. There’s also an entire mystery in the book that, I think, goes unsolved. Did I miss something? No, I don’t think so. It was maybe not supposed to matter, in the end, who Mia’s strange email stalker, Mr. Nobody, was–or maybe he was just that, a nobody email stalker. But, man, I wanted to know! Was that part of the point? Maybe.  Read the rest of this entry »

I saw Rebecca Scherm read at the Sackett Street Reading Series at BookCourt and promptly picked up her first novel, Unbecoming. It’s an absorbing read that, although it is literally about antique and jewelry heists, I was surprised to read described as a book about antique and jewelry heists. It is a book about Grace, the protagonist–the rest of it is just the plot.

unbecoming

The readers gets to know Grace in a close, intimate and uncomfortable way over the course of the fairly long novel, from her childhood–when she begins to suspect that she’s a “bad apple”–through her teenagerhood, spent almost entirely in the family home of her boyfriend, a boy named Riley whose family she worships, into her brief stint in New York as a college student, through the downward spiral that comes next. Structurally, the book is interesting in that this all doesn’t happen in a linear fashion, until the end when the narration becomes fairly straightforward. Before that, chunks of the book happen in the far past, in the more recent past, and in the present. This structure both diminishes suspense early on and builds it later.  Read the rest of this entry »

My friend and I got tickets to see Miranda July and Lena Dunham do an event together so long ago that we assumed the event was focused on Dunham’s book; we didn’t even realize July had a new one when we shelled out for our prime BAM seats. It wasn’t until we settled into said seats that we realized the format of the evening was that Lena Dunham was interviewing Miranda July about HER new novel, The First Bad Man. We were fine with this turn of events, of course; the only thing that would have made it better would have been if we’d had a chance to read July’s novel before hearing them talk about it. Since it had only come out that week, or maybe the one before, they were careful not to give too much away about it plot-wise, and instead talked about more process-oriented or big-picture concerns. It was a really fun, inspiring night and hilarious to watch the two real-life friends and their dynamic on stage. My favorite pull-quote from the night, which I don’t actually remember verbatim, was when July said that publishing a novel made her feel more vulnerable than performing on stage because there was no way to conceal how hard she tried with her novel.

first bad man

I immediately bought The First Bad Man and read it in the three days following the conversation. It is a dark, bizarre book. What I felt was brave about it was how willing July was to go to very unappealing places. Cheryl, the protagonist, is herself a bit unappealing but endearingly so. Her antagonist, Clee, though–oh boy. One of her prevailing characteristics–which does morph into a plot point–is that she has hygiene issues, and particularly smelly feet. The phrase that echoes in my head is “yeasty feet.” It is so great, though, that July is able to make these two particular people, each with their own host of repulsive qualities, three-dimensional and complicated, people that the reader cares about and–at least for me–wants to see prevail. I really don’t want to say anything about what happens in the book, but in general terms, it tackles violence and sexuality in a way that I’ve never read before and found extremely surprising.

Besides that one horrifying phrase, the other aspect of the book that i keep returning to in my head is the very ending. July said that she was really proud of it, but I was unconvinced when I first read it. It seemed too short and vague to provide the payoff I was looking for and the emotional impact it seemed to be striving towards. As time has gone on, though, the fact that it stuck with me in a way that I can really picture, and feel, makes me think that she was right to end the book where and how she did. Read it and let me know what you think!

At the hours dwindle until I head to New Orleans, I managed to read a NOLA class in just an hour or two: A Streetcar Named Desire. I haven’t read a play in years; it was really fun. Despite the heavy material–alcoholism, mental illness, death, domestic abuse, rape, class and ethnic bias–the play was surprisingly easy to take in.

Set inside or just outside one Elysian Fields apartment, the heart of the story is the relationship between two sisters, Stella and Blanche, and Stella’s husband, Stanley. Secrets are revealed, trust is broken, many hearts, too, are broken, and everyone is implicated. Despite the real love that many characters have for each other, they treat each other and behave terribly.

Music and setting are important elements in A Streetcar Named Desire, but are hard to appreciate when only reading the text. I hope to see the play sometime!

I’m going to New Orleans on a family vacation this week, so I finally dove into my list of related reading. I read part of The Sound and the Fury, and then finished Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. I know that neither of these books are actually set in New Orleans–or even in Louisiana–but they’re close!

salvage the bones

Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones is told from the point of view of a fifteen year old, secretly pregnant girl named Esch, who lives in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi with her three brothers and father, her mother having died after giving birth to the littlest sibling, a seven year old named Junior. Esch’s brother Skeetah is obsessed with his pit bull, China, who’s just given birth to a precarious litter of puppies. (Do you see a theme here? Down to the number of puppies–four–who survive the birth.)  Read the rest of this entry »

File another one under “late to the party.” I just finished Fun Home by Alison Bechdel and, no surprise, it was amazing. I live by Alison Bechdel’s “Bechdel Test” in terms of my writing–consciously following or consciously not following it with every story I write. (For a work of art–film, theater, writing, etc.–to pass the Bechdel Test, you probably know, there must be at least two named female characters who have a conversation together about something other than men.)

fun home

So why did it take me so long to read this book? I’ll admit–I have a slight bias against graphic novels. It’s not that I don’t think they’re worthy or valid or just as good as other forms of literature, but, for me, I usually think they tend to do too much. I like to meet the work I’m reading halfway, but I think, in some cases, graphic novels, by supplying both words and images come at me with more than half the work done already. Honestly, this was somewhat the case with Fun Home, though, so I think I might just be wrong. The words compliment the pictures, which, as the best “illustrated” works do, don’t illustrate the pictures but tell complimentary, but different, pieces of the story. The images were often witty, self-effacing counterpoints to the words, or lent ambiguity to what might seem more decisive if limited to pure text.

Bechdel’s book is a memoir, covering her childhood until her father’s death, while she was in college and he was in his forties. The story isn’t linear; at times chapters retread different time periods, but revealing different information and perspectives. In this way, she starts with broader information about her family and then goes psychologically and thematically deeper as the book progresses. The book as a really careful, calculated, but seemingly natural structure.

This is a moving, complicated, beautiful book that I’ll probably read again.

I’ve had Far from the Tree on my to-read list ever since it came out in 2012. I was very happy to receive it as a gift for Christmas this year, but as soon as I started reading it, I realized that I should have gone out to buy it myself three years ago. Words like “monumental” and “life-changing” get bandied about in relation to this book, and honestly, they’re not exaggerations. This is a truly important book; it’s scope and subject matter reframe the world. It is also a mind-boggling achievement. Researched for what must have been at least twenty years, over 700 pages long, not counting the extensive notes, and extremely wide-ranging in its breadth, I literally can’t imagine how Solomon managed to put it together.

far from the tree

Very early in the book, Solomon presents his organizing principle: vertical vs. horizontal identities. Vertical identities often are shared between parents and children: race, nationality, religion. Horizontal identities often are not: trans, deaf, gay. Of course children can be of a different race than their parents and children of gay people can also be gay–this isn’t an absolute distinction. What Solomon delves into, though, are the relationships between parents and their children whose assorted horizontal identities that they don’t share. He profiles particular people and families, goes into various movements’ histories, explores science and morality, and inserts his own experiences, impressions, and interpretations. It seemed, at least to me, that he did a really good job presenting a cross-section of experiences, including families of diverse of socio-economic, racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds–although he immediately admits that there is an element of self-selection in terms of his subjects which may skew the perspectives he presents.

The book is organized into twelve chapters: “Son,” “Deaf,” “Dwarfs,” “Down Syndrome,” “Autism,” Schizophrenia,” “Disability,” “Prodigies,” “Rape,” “Crime,” “Transgender” and “Father.” Read the rest of this entry »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 68 other followers