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I don’t know about this one.

I was engaged throughout the novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder, but skeptical, too–a fitting state for a novel that is so much about faith, I guess. Structurally, the book alternates between Charlie’s first person chapters, happening in the present but largely recounting the past, and Sophie’s third person chapters, more immediate in action vs. exposition terms, but issuing from the recent past. The two were in a deep yet tenuous relationship in college until they had a falling out, Sophie underwent a religious conversion and married a less-than-appropriate Catholic classmate post-grad. Both Sophie and Charlie were writers and talked about writing and literature more than anyone outside of a book ever would. In her very early twenties, Sophie published a collection to wild critical acclaim; in his late twenties Charlie published a largely ignored semi-autobiographical novel that even he knows is mediocre. When Sophie comes back into Charlie’s life soon after the failure of his novel, this novel commences. Read the rest of this entry »

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I’ve been reading so much lately and it feels great. I think I took out The Newlyweds, which is a pretty hefty novel, in about three days. Thanks, NYC school bus strike and ensuing work cancellations for that extra time.

I would have been into this novel at any time, but reading it back-to-back with Beautiful Ruins made me appreciate Nell Freudenberger’s fiction crafting skills all the more. I was impressed by Jess Walter’s ability to pull together such an intricate network of stories and styles in his book, but my heart definitely lies with this kind of novel–intimate, linear and immersive. Even though The Newlyweds was told in the third person, the distance between reader and protagonist was so collapsed that I felt I was inside of the book. I knew Amina to the point where I felt nearly embodied within the story. There was a tiny few paragraphs in the last third of the book where the use of the second person dropped in, page 225-6, which further emphasized this closeness. Amina, returning to Bangladesh after three years away, was in a place she both knew and didn’t. The “you” created distance for her and closeness for the reader. I think it was used only three times–a minuscule yet expert narrative device.  Read the rest of this entry »

I read Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter last week while I had the flu. It sustained me while my face felt like it was going to explode and entertained me between endless episodes of Say Yes to the Dress, but as perhaps you can tell from the fact that I was watching endless episodes of Say Yes to the Dress, my powers of concentration seriously were diminished during my illness. So, I have to say, I probably did not get the best read of this book. Although there is a definite fever-dream aspect to parts of it, so perhaps this wasn’t a bad way to read it after all.

There is A LOT going on in this book. I don’t know if I want to call it post-modern–I think I don’t–but we flip back and forth between 1960s Italy and “recently” in LA (then northern Idaho), with other chapters interspersed from a never-finished semi-autobiographical WWII novel, a movie pitch about a member of the Donner party (the movie to be called Donner!), a discarded chunk of a memoir/self-help book and more. Within the 1960s Italy and recent LA sections, there are a multitude of different protagonists, each with their own back stories, trajectories and relationship to the overarching narrative of the whole thing, which has to do with the young American actress who arrived at a tiny coastal Italian hotel during the filming of the Liz Taylor film Cleopatra, her condition at that time, and her present whereabouts. (I just remembered that there is also a whole section set in the UK in the recent past, dealing with the comedic musical one-man show of a failed Nirvana-era indie musician. See? LOTS going on. Richard Burton is an actual character, too.)

I don’t want to say that I’m a purist when it comes to fiction–I have the capacity to really love experimental work–but I did wish I could pick this book apart for some of its threads, calm down the frenetic pace of it, let some of the story lines breathe. Then again, it was thrilling to see a reference in one section to something that the reader, up until that point, had no idea had transpired between two disparate characters–it took this fractured structure and a system of reverse-reveals to create the anticipation involved in finding out what happened during the intervening time. With the particular aspect of the story that I’m thinking of, what really impressed me is that it was a gift that kept giving narratively–after the reader finally knew what happened, there was still a totally heart-rending moment when, long after the sequence of events was resolved, the reader watched another character have to put it together, too. I can’t imagine, as a writer, being able to operate on so many levels.

Hollywood factors large in this novel, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the book was a bit flashy for me. There was something about how realized the whole thing was (a weird complaint, I know)–the complete physical descriptions of each character down to the perfect, perfect head-to-toe choices regarding their outfits, their first and last names being mentioned in their introductions and how incredibly fitting those names were–that made it seem overdone. Like the movie pitch and book chapters within it, the novel seemed almost like an example of a novel…an ur-novel…? It’s what I imagine people imagine when someone tells them they’re working on a novel, perhaps. I sound like such an asshole here–I don’t mean to diminish Jess Walter’s immense talent–I can’t approach creating worlds within worlds connected to worlds like he does in this novel. It almost seems so well-realized, so fully thought out, though, that there isn’t room for the reader to make his/her own connections or interpretations.

That aspect of the novel–how it in a sense closes the reader out by doing so much itself–hits full tilt at the end but, here’s a contradiction that would probably make Jess Walter punch me in the face if he could–by the end, I was actually on board with that. I’d given in and given up and by the time he breaks into this amazing coda where he resolves every single story line in the book–including of all things, the Donner party one–I was having flashbacks to the amazing ending of the HBO series Six Feet Under where we got to see the full life and death of every character on the show. That whole section is the part where, if Beautiful Ruins were a movie (which I can only imagine it will be at some point?), the audience would be laughing, crying and cheering. The over-the-top ending, though, was well-earned.

I saw Jess Walter read once and listened to his Other People Podcast interview and he seems great on top of being a one-of-a-kind mind. Despite my bizarre mixed feelings about the book, I’m very glad I read it.

My friend Lindsay gave me this book to read; she said I’d love it but for some reason it took me forever to get around to reading it. When I finally did, I loved it–predictably, because Lindsay knows me quite well. I also came to realize that I’d read Laurie Colwin before, having been gifted her Home Cooking years ago. I never get rid of books I like but somehow I’ve misplaced Home Cooking–I’ll have to buy a replacement copy. This one, though, this short story collection from 1981, is something I should have landed on years ago. It’s how I felt when I finally read Stephanie Vaughn for the first time–these books have been around the entire time I have and yet I’m just reading them now? On the other hand, it’s comforting to know that there are so many literary soul mates yet to be discovered.

Speaking of Stephanie Vaughn–I promised a FB friend yesterday that I’d be making this comparison in my blog post about this book. The stories in The Lone Pilgrim plug in nicely in the neighborhoods of Stephanie Vaughn, Ann Beattie, Lorrie Moore and Amy Hempel. Short with great attention to sentence construction, wit, relationships and singularity, they are especially remarkable for their happy endings. Those other writers I’ve just listed probably have as many happy endings between them in their careers as Laurie Colwin has in this one book. It’s remarkable and something I didn’t realize is so unusual until I saw them here again and again.  Read the rest of this entry »

Emma Straub is omnipresent–everyone I know knows her, she is involved with every other literary event, blog, journal, article, scandal (the one I’m thinking had to do with whether she was too nice…jeez…) in the world, etc. It may sound like I’m complaining here, but I’m not. Emma gets attention for all the right reasons–her talent, her literary advocacy, her kindness. Emma-saturation is a good thing.

It also explains why I asked for her latest book, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, for Christmas when it isn’t something I normally would gravitate towards. There is nothing that turns me off about a novel set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, following a woman from her Midwest beginnings to her movie star heyday to her decline and comeback, but nothing that particularly grabs me, either. Of course, it is useful to read books one normally wouldn’t read and this was no exception.   Read the rest of this entry »

Acknowledgement from Kristen Witucki: Thanks to Our Books Are Better than We Are, who requested help from her friends to fill her blog with guest columns during May and June while she was unable to attend to it.  I volunteered to do so and even chose the book about which I would write but was unable to write the column when she needed it most.  Weeks after my broken promise, when she was back in her domain again, I sent her a brief letter begging forgiveness and telling her I was a terrible friend, and yes, being somewhat melodramatic about my own inability to keep a promise I had made.  I rarely had disagreements or arguments with my friends, but the ones I remember involved melodrama.  She wrote back simply and calmly saying that if I wrote this post two years later, she’d put it up two years later, that no matter when I wrote it or if I wrote it, I was still fundamentally all right.  Her generosity of spirit reminded me that even the best of friends and lovers let each other down sometimes, but to go on, we must weigh the transgression, decide whether it is large or small and either forgive or move on.  This post is, among other things, a tribute to the fundamental truths of friendship, but I believe that this acknowledgement is also a fundamental truth of the book I’m about to attempt to describe.

Cheryl Strayed had a loyal fan base, who knew her as Cheryl Strayed, and then the cult following of people who knew her as Sugar.  I was a member of the latter group.  Rebecca Walker, whom I know very, very slightly, posted a link to the “We Are All Savages Inside” column on her Facebook page one day, and I read the column and was transfixed. I had never felt the literary jealousy akin to swallowing battery acid, but Sugar had reminded me that I wasn’t above the feeling, that a very small inkling of it might have stirred within me whether I ever admitted it to myself or not and that I needed to show happiness for people’s success by being happy for them.  In short, suddenly, I, as the reader, had become the letter writer and Sugar both, the savage and the saint and the human in between.  Then I discovered that this column was a weekly, then biweekly, event, and I was hooked.  I subscribed to it in every way that I could, so that I could learn more.  I can’t say I’ve never read an advice column before that, but usually advice columns filled me with Schadenfreude, not the necessity to rebuild.  Suddenly, advice was constructed of literature, which was constructed of the interconnectedness of the life of the letter writer with the life of Sugar with my life with the life of anyone on the planet, known or unknown.

Sugar came out as Cheryl Strayed on Valentine’s Day.  I lived about as far away from the event as an American living in America can possibly live, and I felt a vague jealousy that I couldn’t attend her coming out.  At the same time, I was grateful that my appreciation of Sugar would always be at least somewhat solitary, that I wouldn’t physically have to negotiate a crowd or worry about whether I should or should not talk to her.  You know, all those giddy teenaged feelings about celebrity authors, which I, at least, haven’t fully gotten over.

I woke up on February 15 and read the Facebook post that morning, “My name is Cheryl Strayed …”  Strayed.  Had my computer pronounced that correctly?  (I’m blind and use a screen reader).  Yes, that was her name.  I double-checked: S-t-r-a-y-e-d.  She was not an author I’d ever read.  But strayed, having wandered off the path, having left one existence for another, was something I knew. Read the rest of this entry »