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I read a pre-publication review of this debut novel by Swan Huntley and thought it sounded different. It is. It’s the story of Catherine West, a wealthy, bored forty-three year old woman from the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She’s been engaged twice, and wants desperately to be married. Her sister Caroline is married to a pediatrician and has three kids. Their mother, Elizabeth, a somewhat stereotypical cold rich woman with strong opinions, has Alzheimer’s and lives in a swanky assisted living facility. Catherine lives on her trust fund, although she owns a small store selling expensive art greeting cards. Her best friend, Susan, is also wealthy and owns a small bonsai store.

If this all sounds boring, it seemed that way to me too at first. But in the opening pages, Katherine meets William Stockton, and her life seems to finally head in the direction she’s always wanted. He’s marriage material, she can tell, and before long they’re engaged. She seems to notice that she has deeper conversations with her masseuse and her wedding planner than with William, but she’s willing to deal with it.

But her mother has an immediate reaction to the news that she is dating William. He tells Catherine he broke an expensive, irreplaceable vase once, as a child, when he was at their apartment with his parents. But Catherine suspects there is more to the story. As the novel unfolds, she tries to understand why her mother can’t stand the idea of William being her son-in-law, and readers learn the secret her parents kept for decades.

That part is interesting, and I enjoyed the mystery of it, even though the secret turns out to be pretty awful. But I also really liked watching Catherine begin to grow up, finally, as she goes through the discovery and eventual emotional fallout. She is trying to be as good a person as she can be, even if her way of being that isn’t terribly well informed. She tells herself she’s not an awful rich person because she provides her housekeeper health insurance, for example, and works in a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving. Most of the time she is still completely out of touch with reality, but by the end of the book she’s working on being vulnerable emotionally with someone instead of awkwardly aware of how her wealth separates her from others. I also really enjoyed the way Huntley writes about Catherine’s relationship with Caroline, and the way the sisters interact with their mother, who has never shown either of them much love.

The story isn’t new — money can’t buy happiness, you have to make your own way in the world, even if your family gives you every advantage, etc. Catherine thinks to herself, towards the end of the novel, “I had thought that beauty was in the flashy, pretty things you acquired to prove that you were happy.” But she has figured out, “Our lives could be beautiful in the quietest ways, and already were.” In some ways it’s hard to understand why she didn’t know that all along, but when you consider her family life, maybe it’s not. We Could Be Beautiful is a fun, entertaining read, but not weightless — I’m still thinking a couple of days later about the characters and their lives.

 

 

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Emerson College professor Steve Himmer’s new novel Fram is about Oscar, a “minor bureaucrat” in the Bureau of Ice Prognostication, a government agency tasked with completely imaginary work: inventing “discoveries” in the Arctic, creating records relating to their use, and recording these in reports and files in their basement office somewhere in Washington. For example, “Perhaps a town’s population had boomed—was a streak of silver discovered and a spoon factory built? Or perhaps a coal vein ran dry and the families of miners packed up and left it behind. Generations of prognosticators could return to the same parts of the Arctic and find something new . . . .” Their work is carried on under an old lightbulb with a “cloth-wrapped cord.” “The bulb wasn’t bright, but its wan glow was faithful.”

So is Oscar. His cover story is that he works on creating more efficient filing systems for the government, but “polar fever” as his wife Julia calls it, extends into his personal life, as he reads again and again about the great expeditions North and obsessively watches “Pole cam” on his phone. He is quietly dedicated to the Arctic, day and night.

One day Oscar’s diligent work is interrupted by unprecedented news: he and his new partner, Alexi, have been summoned by their director with orders to travel to the Arctic themselves. And this is where the novel begins to feel a lot like walking on ice, solid but unstable – the reader slips and slides, in one moment upright, slightly off balance the next. I never quite wiped out, but I was never absolutely certain where I stood.

Oscar goes home baffled and unsure of this mysterious trip. Julia isn’t home, and he muses on how they’ve grown apart, and how dearly he holds their private jokes and memories, the shared stories that make a marriage its own little ship on stormy seas. He notes how difficult it is, lying to Julia about what he does.

And the next morning, Oscar is seized. From there, his journey North is confusing and strange. He’s never sure who is BIP and who is not, who might be trustworthy and to whom he should deliver an envelope marked “Northern Branch.”  Spy-like figures, who readers first see on the Metro when Oscar leaves work the fateful day he learns of his journey, appear on trains and boats and in the snow. There’s a gunbattle aboard a ship. A mysterious hunter/terrorist who travels South, bent on destroying BIP’s work. Conspiracy theorists who posit online that BIP is a sham, balanced by hints that the “discoveries” are not in fact invented at all, but rather their invention is invented.

Himmer aims his considerable dark wit at government bureaucracy, at “big data,” at murky virtual communities, even at extreme eating competitions and Bond-like villains – no one escapes skewering but Oscar, who is “fast as a lightbulb,” and seems to stand for honesty and diligence, hard work and faith, trust and loyalty. And even Oscar is slightly ridiculous, a lackey who never wavers from the make-believe of his own work even when his trip spins out of control, a grownup who spends all his spare time focused on his boyhood obsession, a man who misses the closeness he enjoyed with his wife even as he’s failed to really notice her own secrecy for years. These parts of the book resonated most with me – I enjoyed Oscar’s recollections of moments in his marriage that add up to a life together. I was rooting for him to return to Julia and make things right again. But that, like so much else in Fram, seemed uncertain with every new development.

Should a book, even one so reliant on polar seas and pack ice, leave its readers feeling so off-balance? Fram defies category; it doesn’t have the pacing or predictability of a mainstream thriller, nor the singular focus of a satire. Interspersed with the main narrative are very brief chapters that reference the history of Arctic exploration that Oscar holds so dear. Other slivers of story reveal glimpses of what else might be happening as Oscar is caught up in some strange intrigue. All of this adds to the off-kilter feeling.

But I wanted to finish Fram, the tilt-a-whirl sensation was not off putting, and I found the end intriguing rather than frustrating, even though I can’t say I’m entirely sure what happened. It’s a book you’ll want to discuss with someone – if your book group likes to try something unusual, this would be a good choice. Spending several hours reading Himmer’s fine prose is always a pleasure. If you’ve resolved to read something different this year, try Fram.

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When Hoopoes Go to Heaven is the sequel to Gaile Parkin’s international best seller, Baking Cakes in Kigali. The Tungaraza family has moved to Swaziland, and ten year old Benedict, the “eldest son,” isn’t sure about all the changes going on around him. His mama, Angel, can’t find customers for her cakes. His brothers prefer kicking balls and his sisters like spending time with the girls next door; he wishes he had someone who enjoyed exploring nature with him.

But the unsettling things in Benedict’s life are beyond his family; he feels “like water that somebody had sent a stone skipping across.” There is an illness no one likes to speak of, and it’s killing a lot of people; a strange report of planes flying into buildings in America; a teacher at the high school who seems to be frightening his friend. Benedict hears all of it, and many other things he doesn’t quite understand, even though Mama sends him out when she and Baba discuss grown up things.

I enjoyed the way Parkin explored societal challenges – drugs, crime, epidemics, inequality, discrimination, gender issues, and even just ordinary family problems – through a child’s eyes. It made me reflect on what unsettling things my own kids heard snippets of growing up. And as in her first book, Parkin brings Africa alive with vivid descriptions that help the reader see, hear, feel, smell, and taste what Benedict is seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, and tasting. I like a book that takes me not only into someone else’s life, but also to places I’ve never been.

Evenings in the bookconscious house are for catching up with each other these days, so I’m finding myself with less time to read. I would probably have enjoyed When Hoopoes Go to Heaven more if I’d read in longer stretches than 10 minutes here or there.

How do you read when your time is limited?

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I just finished Nicholson Baker’s novel Traveling Sprinkler, due out Sept. 17, which takes up the story of Paul Chowder, poet and former bassoonist, who was struggling to finish the introduction to an anthology of rhyming poetry when we met him in The Anthologist. I was glad to see Paul again; here’s what I wrote about him when I reviewed the book here: “Chowder is such a richly wrought character — you feel like you know him well by the end of this short book. . . .(I felt) as if I’d had a long satisfying discussion with an old friend when I got to the last page.”

This time I felt as if I’d listened to a long, interesting podcast. Maybe because Traveling Sprinkler is just as concerned with the sound of things but this time, instead of poems, it’s the sound of Debussy’s compositions, electronic dance music, chords, bassoon solos, lots of songs, very nuanced parts of songs and their singers’ voices, a barn floor collapsing, a traveling sprinkler, the end of a headphone cord stuck in a car door bouncing along the road, little sounds in the silence of a Quaker meeting.

In between these riffs on sounds, Paul Chowder teaches us about cigars, all kinds of music (and composers, singers, performers, instruments, recordings), the history of the CIA, drone warfare, the iron content of black strap molasses, Logic music software, chickens, traveling sprinklers, Victorian porn, the difference between a poet’s works and voice, Reiki massage, shrink-wrapping boats, electronic keyboards, and all kinds of other things I couldn’t possibly list here.

Paul is trying to work on a poetry collection called Misery Hat, which his editor thinks is an unappealing title. Instead of working on it he finds himself drawn to smoking a cigar that “really smacks your brain” and trying to write the perfect protest song. Or dance song. Or love song. Or all of those. He takes care of his neighbor’s chickens, worries about his ex-girlfriend Roz, works out at Planet Fitness, walks his dog, and goes to Quaker meeting.

Even though Paul’s monkey mind is sometimes hard to follow — I found myself wishing I could have read the book in one sitting, because I sometimes had to flip back to recall references — he’s a very endearing character. The scene in which he visits Roz after she has a hysterectomy and she asks him to check if the doctor inadvertently left one staple in her incision is one of the most touching and improbable love scenes you’ll find in literature. Throughout the book, you feel what a deeply humane person Paul is.

And he’s a hero for our age: a man whose work doesn’t really make anything as tangible as a traveling sprinkler, who is facing late middle age without a permanent relationship, whose mind darts and turns and changes direction as quickly as he surfs from You Tube videos to New York Times articles, a man who knows what is beautiful and important in life but feels as if it is always slightly out of reach, often because of events far beyond our control: endless wars, the mysteries of the modern economy, and the use of mono instead of stereo microphones, to name a few.

You can’t help rooting for him. If you’ve never read Baker, fasten your seat belt. His work is dazzling and strange and wondrous, and heart-breakingly beautiful often on the same page where it is stunningly of-the-moment and even in-your-face. If all this sounds confusing, don’t worry. Just listen to Paul: “Maybe that’s what a chord progression can teach us. Out of the shuffling mess of dissonance comes a return to pax, to the three-note triad of something basic and pure and unable to be argued with.” That’s what Nicholson Baker’s fiction is, to me. “Something basic and pure and unable to be argued with” that comes from the “shuffling mess” inside his characters’ minds.

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I just finished Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer. The structure felt cumbersome and I found the characters a little unbelievable, but it’s a debut and the writing isn’t bad, so I suspended disbelief. It’s the story of an eighth-grader named Lorca whose chef mother is too much of an emotional disaster herself to deal with her. Lorca has a psychological condition that causes her to cut or burn or otherwise hurt herself. When the book opens she’s been suspended after getting caught cutting herself at school. That in itself seemed wrong (although I have no idea how accurate).

Her mother’s not-so-kind response includes threatening to send her to boarding school. Lorca overhears her mother and aunt talking and decides that she will get back in her mother’s good graces by learning to make a complicated Iraqi fish dish called masgouf that her mother remembers eating in a restaurant. An older boy, Blot, who works in a nearby bookstore, and who Lorca has a crush on, ends up helping.

They track down Victoria, who owned the now-closed restaurant. She’s a recent widow, and she and Lorca each begin to believe, without telling each other, that she might be Lorca’s grandmother (her mother’s adopted and as far as Lorca knows, never found her birth mother). As this poor child tries to please her unsympathetic mess of a mother, we hear about Victoria’s also (to me) unbelievable past. Part of which includes learning something she never knew about her husband.

What made me finish the book, which I would probably have put down otherwise, was that I got to thinking about the way people know or think they know about each other. And I wanted, despite despising a key character and finding some of the book’s architecture unwieldy, to find out whether anything Lorca and Blot and Victoria thought they knew would help them. Some books I’ve been reading for my next column — one about WWI dough boys interviewed in very great old age, another a novel about a very small town in Maine, another a brilliant debut novel about a Taiwanese immigrant — also hinge on this very human problem.

We are always so sure we know what we know. Especially about each other. Just turn on the news and you’ll hear this play out again and again. In the case of the Boston bombers. Or in my town, of a boy who was arrested, then cleared of a felony charge which turned out to be based on false witness. Or of three people, one of whom is the victim’s mother (I guess I have to cut Jessica Soffer some slack) accused of torturing an eighteen year old boy. In the case of atrocities and conflicts around the world and our perceived interest or potential role in them, people who claim to know argue endlessly in the public sphere, often as people unknown to us as anything other than faces in the news are irrevocably impacted. (All good reasons to consume less news, as I mused last week). True or untrue, full story or sketch, what we know is often just a fraction of what we could. 

So what DO we know? For me, books are a way to explore this question, to look at human frailty in the context of universal stories rendered specific by authors who lead us on the search for what an Episcopal priest I know calls “Big T Truths.” Books allow some distance — fictional detachment in the case of novels and poems, reflective analysis in the case of history, memoir, and narrative prose — through which we can try to reach what is known and unknown. Which is one reason I read. Books are a far more comfortable home for ambiguity than news.

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Bookconscious readers know I try to read a selection of new books at the library where I work part time. I’d heard good things about Sebastian Faulks and hadn’t read anything by him, so I requested his new book A Possible Life: a Novel in Five Parts.  I enjoyed each of the five parts alluded to in the subtitle. But I don’t think together they make a novel.

The book’s parts are five stories: “Geoffrey”, set in 1938; “Billy,” set in 1859; “Elena,” set in 2029; “Jeanne,” set in 1822; and “Anya” (which to me really should have been called Jack), set in 1971. The first and last stories are 80 and 90 pages each, so novellas really. As you can see they are not told in chronological order.  I’m not sure the reason(s) for the order they are in.

I’m not really sure of anything about this book. I didn’t dislike it. I did find the ending of “Jeanne” strange — Faulks writes Jeanne’s whole life story and then revisits a seminal moment from her youth, tacking it on after she dies as if it was an afterthought, even though it was formative. “Elena” seemed to go on a little longer than it needed to as well. But overall they are well crafted stories peopled by interesting characters struggling with engaging problems.

I admit I turned to reviews to try to make sense of what Faulks is saying with these disparate parts. Even after reading what others had to say about it I had a hard time believing the tenuous threads made for a cohesive whole. There is a thematic ribbon to tie the narratives together: each of the protagonists imagines at one point or another what things might be like if their lives had not gone the way they had.  Certain ideas do appear in the stories over and over: questions about faith, war, love, family, identity, and self-awareness.

So, a good read, with plenty to discuss. In fact, I’d probably have enjoyed this more with a book group. But if anyone can explain to me what makes this novel, I’d appreciate it.

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If you pick this book up after reading a blurb about it being a “sweet read” and without knowing much about McEwan, you’ll be irritated. McEwan is a master of exposing the worst of human nature. When you start a book and the opening paragraph warns you that the protagonist “was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover” you can’t expect an uplifting story to unfold. And then there’s the setting — the 1970’s weren’t exactly a sweet time.

Yes, it’s a love story, but I was suspicious of Serena’s capacity for love from the start. She’s a very mixed up person masquerading as a strong woman ready for anything. McEwan lays out the psychological workings: a distant but irreproachably admirable father, an affair with a married man old enough to be her father. That man manipulates Serena into her first job out of Cambridge, just as her parents manipulated her into studying maths instead of literature.

In her first job (at MI5) she develops a crush on another (for reasons I can’t expose without spoilers) unattainable man. This reader wanted to shout, “Serena, get a clue!” — she has so far explained her affection for a gay man, for a married man, and now for another guy who you sense will lead to nothing but grief. When she also gains a strong willed, outspoken best friend, Shirley, you think she’s going to get a clue.

But instead she walks straight into the arms of yet another man, one she meets as part of Operation Sweet Tooth. The program funnels financial support to promising anti-communist writers without their knowledge, to fight the Cold War via literature. Her affair with Tom, the writer she brings into the program (and Sweet Tooth’s only novelist) is unprofessional and she knows it. We know she’s not particularly attached to her job, that she’s there for reasons not her own, but you have to wonder, why doesn’t she just quit instead of engaging in self-sabotage? If she’s so bloody smart, why is she acting like such an idiot?

I suppose McEwan is telling us that you can be terribly smart and have marvelous opportunities (or at least as marvelous as they could be for a woman working in the British intelligence community in the 1970’s) and still be flawed, or maybe scarred. Serena thinks she’s got it all together but it turns out she doesn’t really know Tom, who never seemed quite right to me. My suspicions were confirmed late in the book, which is all I can really say without giving away the plot.

As for the writing? Brilliant. McEwan’s ability to evoke a place, a person, an emotion, damned near anything he sets out to evoke in just a few words is unparalleled. It’s a nice book for readers, because he references dozens of writers and books. It’s fun for spy thriller fans (of the old school — no special effects, just good old fashioned LeCarre style intrigue).  And the finale, in which we learn what Tom’s been up to, threw me, which I suppose is what McEwan set out to do.

Somehow I’m still not convinced Serena pulls off what McEwan wants her to. But maybe he needed her to be a less than perfect heroine in order to showcase his central premise.  Anyway it’s both smart and page-turning, original and witty and quite a fascinating take on spying and also on novel writing.  You’ll feel both smart and entertained when you’re through. But it may not entirely satisfy. I suppose that’s the trouble with having a sweet tooth — the craving never goes away.

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