Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer



When the students in Mrs. Quenell’s Special Topics in English receive their journals, they have mixed emotions. However, when they start to write, they discover the journals take them to the moment in time in their lives just before tragedy struck. For the narrator, Jam, this moment is on a field with her boyfriend Reeve just before his death. Jam and the other students decide to name the world of their transported experiences. Pronounced like the zhuh in Jacques, Belzhar is a French take on Bell Jar to honor the writer they are studying, Sylvia Plath.  At first, trips to Belzhar become an obsession for the students. But as the semester progresses, they find solace not in traveling to the past, but in each other.

Meg Wolitzer, best known for her adult fiction, has written a fast-paced novel for teens.  The reader, like the students, is easily transported through the writing. Even if the cynical reader rolls her eyes at Jam’s young love, she is guiltily rewarded when she finds out the narrator has not been recounting events exactly as they occurred. That, along with a happy resolution for one of the other tragic stories, helps the book end on a sweet, rather than bittersweet, note.

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.