Author Archives: Administrator

Coping with war

The Facts of Life by Graham Joyce

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I loved Graham Joyce‘s The Limits of Enchantment and was looking forward to reading more by him. This has a similar touch of supernatural grounded in what is essentially a literary novel about a family coping with the aftermath of World War II. Symbolically, the family’s struggles parallel and reflect those of the city they live in, Coventry.

The general approach of the novel is interesting, and there are some key scenes that are stellar, just beautifully written. But while I enjoyed the novel overall, the narrative focus is spread thin across a large cast of characters, and, as a result, I never found myself getting very involved. It comes across as a bit Dickensian at times, with some of the characters becoming almost cartoonish caricatures. I was particularly turned off by one with some sort of speech impediment who is depicted for much of the novel as just saying “Eeeeeeee…” and “Aeeeeee.” He eventually becomes an interesting character, so the undue stress on his inability to get through his sentences seemed incongruous with the rest of the novel. Maybe it was supposed to be a comic touch, but it just didn’t work for me.

If you have more of an affinity for large family sagas than I do, you might love the novel. I thought it was an interesting story with some creative supernatural elements. It called to mind Stella Benson’s classic “Living Alone” at one point, which I really enjoyed. But I just never got very involved with the characters and, in the end, although I was curious to see where it was all going, I never came to care all that much.

Also, this is a poor title, really describing nothing about the book, but it’s especially awful for Americans, as it plants the earworm of the theme song from the old TV show every time you look at it.

Not much light shining here

Solar by Ian McEwan

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’ve enjoyed past novels I’ve read by Ian McEwan. I particularly loved Atonement and Saturday. But I just couldn’t get through Solar. In it, McEwan indulges his worst instincts, with utterly despicable characters that he moves around on a chess board to teach readers the desired lesson. I could write more about it, but I found a review that perfectly summarized my thoughts. Here is Walter Kirn, writing in the New York Times:

“McEwan’s novel of Decline and Fall becomes a case study in Decline and Stall, lapsing into a display of his finesse as a spinner of silken sentences and composer of sonatalike paragraphs. The performance is an exquisite bore, with all the overchoreographed dullness of a touring ice ballet cast with off-season Olympic skaters.”

The review is actually pretty amusing overall. You can read it here:

Poems published at ONE ART!

I’m very excited that three of my poems were published today in the online journal ONE ART: a journal of poetry: “My Aunt When She Drank Scotch,” “Memory of My Grandfather,” and “My Mother Loses Me at the Department Store.”

As proud as I am to see these poems in such a fine journal, alongside poet laureates and other poets much more accomplished than I, I’m a little uneasy at their publication, as I know from past experience that people will inevitably ask me whether they are “true,” if these events really happened as I depicted.

The poems grew from my work with the marvelous poet Judith Harris, who I first met when I took her workshop at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. She encouraged us to mine the past—not to document it but to find feelings and perceptions that could be crafted into poems that others could relate to. So they began with memories and impressions, but shouldn’t be taken as a chronicle of the past. This isn’t memoir; it’s poetry. But there is truth to them, and hopefully they feel true to you. I hope you enjoy them.

You can find them here:

On running and writing

Cover of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m a writer and runner much like Haruki Murakami. As I recently read and enjoyed Kafka on the Shore, I thought this book would be right up my alley. It’s essentially an edited journal of his thoughts as he participates in various marathons and triathlons. He’s most vivid at describing how running can be painful, although he notes that it’s also good for you in many ways, and says it has played an integral part in his life.

I found this a pleasant read, but there’s probably little here for a non-runner. I was expecting more insight into Murakami’s writing and how running affects his process, but it stayed fairly distant. In the end, while there were some interesting thoughts about running and aging, I didn’t feel there was much to it.

Time, life, and art

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To the Lighthouse is such a radical book, it’s hard to capture how it left me feeling in a brief review. In the first section, Virginia Woolf glides through the thoughts of various characters, painting a portrait of those gathered at the Ramsey’s seaside vacation home. These include an aging poet, a painter struggling with her art, a young couple in love, and the Ramseys themselves with their eight children. The novel focuses in large part on the relations between people and how we all try to understand each other. But it also touches on the brutal effects of time, the meaning of life, and the role of art. Much of the last is reflected in the very way the novel is written and put together, and I found this aspect of it fascinating.

Altogether, this is a masterpiece of modern writing. I did something I’ve never done before: I read it once and then immediately went back to the beginning to read it through again, both because I didn’t quite absorb everything I’d read and because I didn’t want to leave this world quite yet. This novel needs to be read slowly, with full concentration, to be fully appreciated.

In the end, though, I didn’t quite love it. It’s so intellectually rigorous, I found its method somewhat cold and detached even as it detailed the inner thoughts of its characters. It prods you to think deeply about the issues it raises but at the same time calls much attention to its method by its very nature. As a reading experience, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I admired it, marveling at the technique as I tried to decode its rich layers of meaning. But this is a great book, no doubt, and well worth putting the time and effort into.

Not at all what it seems

Book cover of Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first tried to get through Mansfield Park many years ago but found it unreadable. After reading and liking every other Jane Austen novel, I wanted to give it another try. This time, I pushed through the sequence that stopped me last time, in which the characters put on a play. By the time I’d finished the novel, I was really confused about what Austen intended here. On its surface, this is a moralistic book about living according to higher principles. I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as any other Austen novel, and its messages didn’t seem to me to fit with the novels that she wrote before or afterward. It almost seemed as if it were ghost written by someone else–a good imitation, but not an Austen novel at heart.

After some thought, though, I’ve reassessed what Austen intended here and think this book is actually quite subversive and brilliant (warning: spoilers ahead). The story is about a girl who’s sent to be raised at her wealthy aunt and uncle’s house, where she falls in love with the only cousin who’s nice to her and, after many years, eventually wins him over with her strict adherence to the principles she learned from him.

A couple of things bothered me about the book. Fanny, the heroine, is dull and witless, and her cousin Edmund is priggish and judgmental. Austen abruptly wraps up everything at the end, neglecting to depict their coming together, which in other books she plays out before our eyes. I couldn’t understand why she’d skim over what she’d lingered over in other works. I was also struck by how the characters that Fanny and Edmund reject are treated by the couple, with a condescending disdain, and yet we are told that both had the potential to be better people had Fanny and Edmund opened their hearts to them and given them a chance. I would think that Fanny and Edmund would have been better off as well, drawn out of the insular lives they were determined to live together.

The ideas here also just don’t fit with the novels that Austen wrote both before and after, in which strong heroines buck the societal expectations and guidance that would make them miserable and wind up better off for it in the end. Instead, Fanny is sickly and weak, and does in the end what she’s learned would be best.

And finally, there’s some very disturbing subtext to this novel. Like the satire Northanger Abbey, it’s named after a place rather than a person or a principle. The title “Mansfield Park” focuses attention on the estate that Fanny goes to live on, which is built upon a fortune dependent on slaves working sugar plantations in Antigua. This is never addressed directly, but hinted at. At one point, Fanny asks her uncle a question about the slave trade, which he neglects to answer. When Edmund bring it up to her afterward, he speaks of her delicacy in handling the conversation, but neither has the character to address the much bigger and more important humanistic issue here: the appalling practice that has made this family’s fortune. Note that the book opens talking about money and status; that is what its characters are concerned with. They think and talk about principles all the time, but this family and their wealth are built on the morally corrupt practice of slavery. There is rot at its core.

Like the vapid characters the story focuses on, the novel presents us with a shallow surface sheen, but I’m convinced that Austen had much deeper intentions. What this book is really about is how the pursuit of wealth, status, and “principle” is morally corrupting. To summarize the plot another way, it’s about how Fanny and Edmund utterly destroy the people who really love them and wind up settling for each other because they are the only people who meet their own impossible ideals of virtue, giving up any chance at true happiness that they might have. Fanny’s love for Edmund is a child’s love, formed because he is the only one who was nice to her. He loves her, in turn, because he has shaped her, and no one else can meet his egotistic standards of moral perfection.

I’ve come to think of this as a remarkable, if not necessarily enjoyable, novel. However, I would read it only after you’ve read all Austen’s other novels so that you know the author well and can form your own judgments about what she is trying to do here. This is a complex and nuanced work of art, and without question her most challenging novel.

All about Grace

Grace book cover

Grace by T. Greenwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Grace is a novel about a family coming apart at the scenes and a store clerk who’s perhaps the only one who perceives it. The opening is harrowing and brilliantly done. I don’t believe in putting spoilers in reviews, but go ahead and sample this book online to read the beginning and see if you can put it down.

T. Greenwood has an uncanny ability to make you sympathize with every character in this book, even if you don’t like them. But what I appreciated most about it was its structure and how the lives of the characters are so tightly woven together. Greenwood rotates between perspectives and always seems to jump in an out in at the exact time that will keep you turning the pages. You feel almost as if you’re reading an action story and not a saga about the intricacies of family relationships.

The main thing I could criticize about this novel is how the problems are piled on–also like an action novel, it’s packed with complications. One person has a hoarding disorder, the next has crippling restless leg syndrome, another a compulsive stealing problem. Things are also wrapped up neatly and a little too coincidentally, much of it tied together through the name Grace.

That said, while these things broke the spell for me a little bit, they didn’t bother me much as I was reading, and I found this an absorbing and rewarding novel.

A visit from people you’d rather not spend any time with

Book cover for A Visit From The Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A Visit from the Goon Squad is a series of connected stories centered around a record company executive and his assistant. It won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and is something of a work of writing bravado, shifting between characters and jumping back and forth in time. Jennifer Egan has a sure hand, and I particularly appreciated the moments she jumped far forward in time to tell you what happens to people in the future.

I found little else to like in this book, though, and wound up skimming and skipping ahead when I was a bit more than halfway through. I just didn’t care what happened to any of the characters, and didn’t feel there were really any insights into human nature other than that self-destructive people tend to, well, destruct. Time goes on and beats you up as you age. Okay, I get it.

I know some people love this kind of thing, but stories that are mostly about people who feel sorry for themselves just don’t hold my attention. I would try another book by Egan because she does create vivid characters and write well, but I just didn’t want to spend any more time with these people.

What to take from a pandemic

Station Eleven book cover

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Station Eleven is about a pandemic flu that wipes out most of the world’s population, but it’s very much a literary novel. Much of the focus is on a group of nomadic actors and musicians called The Traveling Symphony, and its theme is about the place of the arts in our lives and how they help to give people meaning.

This was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Some critics criticized how Emily St. John Mandel skipped over the devastation itself, not focusing more on the immediate pain of it. I had no problem with that as a reader, since I’ve read and seen this type of scenario a thousand times before; there’s nothing new to do in that realm. I thought the author handled it deftly, giving a chilling sense of how quickly the world changes without indulging in grotesque description. I found it very effective overall.

This is definitely a bit of a fantasy in its positive focus about a global calamity, but I found that it got under my skin in all the good ways, making me think of it long after I’d finished. By depicting all that is lost, Mandel managed to make me look with fresh eyes on what we have now, a great accomplishment to pull on a jaded reader like me. Maybe part of that is living through the current pandemic, but while this came out in 2014, it still seems fresh. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

A classic novel from Africa

Thing Fall Apart book cover

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a remarkable novel about life in an African tribe and how it changes after white Christian people begin to arrive. With vivid descriptions and rich characters, it depicts this harrowing time with an artful clarity.

I’d just finished a contemporary book about Nigerian life that had gotten great reviews but completely underwhelmed me. As it referenced Things Fall Apart, I decided to pick this book up and am really happy I did. Aside from telling a great story, Chinua Achebe achieves some really difficult things here as a writer. He manages not to glorify tribal life before the arrival of the white people, nor to demonize all those who come believing they’re bringing a more civilized culture. He also creates a main character–an unsettled warrior driven by anger–that you empathize with despite the fact that he does some terrible things.

I’ve read great novels about colonial Africa written by white people, but this is a powerful book written from the other point of view. It’s also a wonderful work of literature that touches on universal human themes. It doesn’t feel at all dated even though it was published in 1958.