Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Selected Shorts

A short selection of short story collections I've been delving into:

American Innovations: Stories

The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories 
Something Rich and Strange: Selected Stories

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

"And dear they are, but not so dear"

Frances Thorpe works for the books pages of a London newspaper. The weekends see her visiting her parents, babysitting for her nephews, or lamenting her unpainted bookshelves over a takeaway curry.  Her life changes one Sunday evening, driving back to London, when she comes across an overturned Audi by the side of the road. While waiting for the ambulance, she sits next to the vehicle and talks with the driver, Alys, who is trapped inside. Frances notices at once how well the “expensive, cultured voice” goes with the car. 

Since she was with Alys in her last moments, Frances is offered (but declines) an opportunity to meet with the family to provide closure. It is not until she discovers that Alys was the wife of an acclaimed author, Laurence Kyte, that she decides a meeting may actually be beneficial. 

Aptly called “manipulative, resourceful, [and] chippy,” Frances seizes the opportunity to enter into Alys’ world of “ease and comfort and significance.”  First, she befriends Alys’ daughter and gets herself invited to the weekend home. Next, she gets herself into Laurence's good graces, and, as one might have guessed, his bed.

The appeal of Alys, Always by Harriet Lane is in both its description of an opulent life and the unhappiness that lies therein. Frances’ narration keeps one on guard as well, giving the whole thing a delightful air of suspense and suspicion.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Sportswriter by Richard Ford

The first three weeks of the New Year are heaven for the football lovers in my family as the college football season presents its champions. This year the football bug has hit my six-year-old for the first time. He matter-of-factly spouts off facts such as, “A safety is when you get tackled in the end zone” and “mostly you don’t go for the fourth down even when it’s four and one.”

Unlike my son and husband, the closest I get to listening to sports is if this guy happens to be on the radio. And actually it’s been his voice I hear in my head as I read The Sportswriter by Richard Ford.

“If sportswriting teaches you anything, and there is much truth to it as well as plenty of lies, it is that for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret.” 

Frank Bascombe is the sportswriter of the title. As he takes us through a play-by-play of his week, his ruminations touch on his marriage, divorce, the mourning of his son, his town, travels, and of course, his career as a writer. 

Patience with his musings is rewarded: “It was her voice I loved first, the sharpened Midwestern vowels, the succinct glaciated syntax: Binton Herbor, himburg, Gren Repids. It is a voice that knows the minimum of what will suffice, and banks on it.”

Although reading about a sportswriter isn’t as thrilling as, say, [insert sports metaphor here], it may end up being just as heartbreaking.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

“airport, car door, buy a shower curtain, get divorced”

“Our house was taken away on the back of a truck one afternoon let in the summer of 1979.” So begins the novel All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. In it, Yoli’s family can’t seem to catch a break. In childhood, it’s because her family balks against the rules of their conservative Mennonite village in Canada. They harbor a forbidden piano to foster her sister Elfrieda’s musical talents. When not at the piano, Elf spray paints the letters AMPS (“all my puny sorrows”) around the village in further rebellion.

In Yoli and Elf's adult years, the family suffers from Elf’s unhappiness. Elf’s career as a concert pianist is overshadowed by her multiple suicide attempts.Yoli has been traveling back and forth from Toronto to support her mother and brother-in-law and sit at her sister’s bedside. When not at the hospital, Yoli can be found sitting on her friend Julie’s porch. It is here the novel provides cathartic humor to balance the sadness of the rest of Yoli’s day. 

Toews brightens the pages of this devastatingly sad novel with Czech violinists, Italian agents, huffy nurses, and eccentric aunts. The brightest character, however, is Yoli. Her struggles to see her sister’s point of view, her texts with her teenage children, her endless to-do-lists, her trysts with mechanics and violinists, and her sometimes flinching optimism all carry the reader onward - even when the Kleenex box is empty.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Memorable Reads of 2014

From the books I've read over the last year, images and characters from the following books have stayed with me.

The Visitors by Sally Beauman
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

Year in Quirk

  1. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman 
  2. The Explanation for Everything by Lauren Grodstein 
  3. The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills 
  4. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami 
  5. The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland 
  6. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion 
  7. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

"The pulse of the post-strip-club shopping crowd"

I took the opportunity this past summer to take my kids here. Rather than finding it intriguing, they were spooked. I have not doubts they would have found Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore equally spooky.

Clay, an out of work web designer, begins working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s. Of his job search he says, “At first I had insisted I would only work at a company with a mission that I believed in…After that I decided it just couldn’t be evil. Now I was carefully delineating my personal definition of evil.” Eventually it is not evil but boredom that drives Clay to begin investigating the customers. Rather than buy books, these characters check out titles from the mysterious multistoried collection in the back of the store. He goes through the log of book loans and maps the patterns of their borrowing. In doing so, he begins unraveling the mystery in weeks that most customers have spent lifetimes solving.  

Sloan manages, in the course of these events, to bring a little romance into Clay’s life. Clay falls in love with a Googler who attempts to help him to crack the mysterious code. “Books: boring. Codes: awesome. These are the people who are running the Internet.” But ultimately the romance fails since he and his other friends have a more romantic view of the world: “I have waited my whole life to walk through a secret passage built into a bookshelf.”

I shudder to think which side my kids would choose.