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Abounding with wit and insight, historical and biographical information, this coruscating anatomy of the writing of a great American novel is spellbinding in itself. Sarah Churchwell not only gained access to the diaries of many of F. Scott Fitzgerald's writer friends, including Ring Lardner, H.L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson Jr., John Dos Passos and, of course, Zelda (one wonders how they could drink so regularly and write a darned thing), but she took note of Jazz Age nightclubs, traffic laws, fashion, parties, football games and roadside signs (many reproduced in this book). She also fine-tooth-combed newspapers the author would have been reading. As it happened, a lurid double-murder had taken place in New Jersey. The bodies of a man and a woman, each married to someone else, were found artfully arranged in a public park. The police made a hash of their investigation and the papers ran riot. In short - very short - Ms. Churchwell demonstrates how Fitzgerald absorbed all these particulars and used them in his glorious creation. Even the most casual reader will be amazed.
With her third novel just published, I can say that Ruth Ozeki, the most innovative novelist I know, has never failed me. A Tale For The Time Being relates Ruth's (fictional) reactions when she encounters and reads the diary -- possibly washed all the way across the Pacific in the 2011 tsunami -- of a cheeky and irresistible Japanese teenager named Nao. Within this journal is the story of Nao's great-grandmother, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun who took up that calling after her son was forced to be a kamikaze pilot and died in World War II. She enlightens and entertains not only Nao but also Ruth and, most importantly, the reader. These three magnificent female characters are completely diverse in age, language, thought, and deed.
Ruth Ozeki never shies away from politics, history's cruel realities, or environmental catastrophes; instead these subjects are always naturally and seamlessly attached to the characters' lives. All this, and the narrator discusses the act of writing and its purpose.
If this masterwork doesn't win top honors from critics and booksellers, I'll throw the book at them.
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Packed into one glorious paperback volume titled "The Patrick Melrose Novels" are four short autobiographical novels that are absolutely wowsome. Edward St. Aubyn, a Brit, obviously grew up in an eccentric, aristocratic, comic yet diabolical household. You would think he'd have done away with himself by now -- and indeed he did have a spell of death-defying drug use -- but instead he's fictionalized the droll and sometimes grotesque events of his life. He describes the many unconventional characters he's known in a witty, acerbic, and superlative prose style. He's masterful. St. Aubyn's dramatis personae could easily be the grandchildren of Evelyn Waugh's creations in Brideshead Revisited. To me, St. Aubyn is even funnier. The fifth and final novel in his quintet, At Last, has just been published in paperback. I'll be diving in momentarily.
By the end of The Angry Buddhist, I was wondering if its lowlife characters -- who include ex-cons, call girls, corrupt police, a gun-for-hire, a blackmailer, a dog- and kidnapper, two rival politicians, and their spouses and aides -- didn't live in the unforgiving desert of California, would they be less harsh and callous and nutsy? No wonder the would-be Buddhist of the title is angry. While I read this novel John Edwards' trial was underway and the parallels between reality and the book's plot amazed me. It also called to mind Fargo, Congresswoman Mary Bono's career strategy, and a few of the more amusing Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen narratives. Happily, the novel is grounded by an ironic mystery-blogger who serves to remind the reader that the author is fully in control of his hardscrabble desert rabble.
Who among us has been able to effect change to the good in this turbulent world? If you find the question dispiriting you must read Tattoos on the Heart by Father Gregory Boyle. Written by a man of true intellect and compassion, it inspired me. After officiating at far too many funerals of young gang members, Father Boyle made it his life's work to give kids good reasons to abandon the gangs that have been rampant in Los Angeles. This priest has boundless energy, as well as a vast knowledge of philosophy, literature, psychology, and sociology. But he is also an entrepreneur and promoter who founded Homeboy Industries with the idea that "nothing stops a bullet like a job." I have been a donor to Homeboy Industries for some years but after reading this poignant, very readable, and inspiring book, I celebrated with a lunch at Homegirl Café on the edge of Chinatown. Waited on by former gang members, eating the delicious meal cooked by former gang members, I marveled at Father Boyle's amazing accomplishment.
Andrew Winer's The Marriage Artist is the novel I would absolutely nominate for a National Book Award, if I could. This one work of fiction contains two love stories, a historical novel and a psychological thriller, and dares to journey into the minds of artists and their critics, all told in a thoughtful and eloquent voice.
Two seemingly separate narratives, one contemporary and one in pre-World War II Vienna, are revealed. Ultimately they are in place to answer the question of why a young and acclaimed New York artist committed suicide, if that is really what happened.
Themes abound. Are our children and grandchildren molded by the times we live in? Is there any escape from this fact? Is there a place for God or religion in modern life? Is He help or hindrance? Does death always hover? Is love ultimately detrimental or a blessing? What is the meaning and purpose of marriage? What is the meaning and purpose of art?
The Marriage Artist is an especially excellent book group book that will fuel hours of discussion.
William Boyd's remarkable novel describes the life of an Englishman, Logan Mountstuart, from his birth in 1906 to his death in 1991 at age eighty-five, a life lived through the waning of the British Empire. Our all-too-human protagonist does a stint in a British boarding school, attends Oxford, fights in the Spanish Civil War and is present for almost every important historical event that follows. He becomes a celebrated writer for a time; works for British intelligence; keeps the dreadful Duke and Duchess of Windsor out of the hands of the Nazis; is captured while on a spying mission and put into prison; meets everyone from Picasso to Hemingway; has continuous flirtations with various women; often drinks too much; marries badly and almost perfectly. Because the novel is told in journal form, we're privy to Logan's intimate thoughts on literature, art, politics, war, drink, sex, friendship and love. Although towards the end Mountstuart seems surprised by his lack of success, this reader felt triumphant in knowing him so completely. In the month since I read this novel I've thought of Logan countless times.
A lovingly written, meticulously researched and fully engrossing novel of the Vietnam War, The Lotus Eaters concerns Helen, a female photographer who arrives early on in the war to learn the truth about her brother's death. She believes that a photographer's credentials will give her more access to delicate information and is soon enamored with the country, the culture and its people; she also realizes America shouldn't be fighting there. Though Helen must confront the old boy's network of photojournalists (who don't take kindly to her), she falls in love with a heroic lensman, a romantic bad-boy type. He and his Vietnamese assistant, Linh, assume responsibility for helping Helen travel to the areas she wants to capture on film, and the war as seen through Linh's eyes is spellbinding. Though the narrative is told mostly from a woman's point of view, the author doesn't shy away from describing battles or the cruelty and crassness of soldiers. "Every war photo is an anti-war photo," Helen says. Tim O'Brien gave this novel a superlative endorsement (as did reviews) and I heartily agree with him.
After reading about Richard Powers' novels for years, I've finally, very gladly, read one. His latest is Generosity: An Enhancement wherein the lynchpin character is a teacher of writing at an arts college in Chicago. Having early success as a writer but soon thereafter falling victim to writer's block, he feels inadequate in most elements of his life. Astonishingly, in his class he meets an Algerian refugee who, despite a terribly harsh past, has always maintained a constancy of happiness. She is an inspiration to his students but a worry to him, so much so that he consults a psychologist at the college.
A scientist studying the Algerian's "disorder" (called hyperthermia) and a videographer also become involved so that the novel embraces many subjects. Among them: the art of writing, the video arts, the study of genomes and how they can be manipulated or even manufactured for profit; what teachers owe their students and vice-versa, how technology is transforming our lives, the ethics of psychology and the mystery of love. And more. The narrator's occasional intrusion as the writer struggling to understand his characters and get them right also reminds readers that writing fiction is no easy task, and makes me look forward to reading more of Richard Powers' oeuvre.
This Is Where I Leave You made my bout with seasonal flu almost a pleasure. The novel is impiously, devilishly funny. Judd Foxman must sit shiva for his atheist father with his equally non-believing family. This means he will be staying in the basement (he's the last to arrive) of his childhood home with his mother, brothers and sister, their spouses, children and lovers. One week with this bunch and family secrets seep and ultimately gush out. It's a splendid conceit especially since only a few days before his father's death Judd catches his wife in (extremely comical) flagrante delicto with his boss! A warm current runs through this ocean of hilarity because Judd really does mourn his father's death. Sharing his grief and nostalgia eventually unites him with his siblings and mother. And I won't say what happens with his wife, but this novel worked better for me than any antiviral drug.
Madness Under the Royal Palms, about some of the denizens of Palm Beach, shocks and roils if not awes. It is to my mind an entertaining and thorough anthropological study of some of America's super rich. If you ever actually thought money could bring you happiness, reading this book will bring to light your mistake. Add to that the knowledge that many of the book's non-fiction "characters" wound up in Bernie Madoff's maw and you will delight that you vacation at 39 Palms in lieu of Palm Beach.
The House on Fortune Street is Margot Livesey's best novel to date. It explores the best-friendship of two young women: one extremely ambitious and hard working, the other kindly, malleable and willing to share whatever she has. Yes, they are by nature poles apart. I found myself thoroughly caught up in their backgrounds, parental hang-ups, love-lives and work-lives, their friends, boyfriends and living arrangements - all in the service of explaining what makes them tick. The novel's structure is an unusual one that truly enhances the story; writers will wonder if the non-chronological organization came first or last. There are surprises, romance, and even an ongoing mystery. Ultimately, though, this is a book about the responsibility of friendship.