Pearl's Picks for May
Little Bee - by Chris Cleave
When Sarah O'Rourke, the editor of a Vogue-ish monthly in Britain, takes her husband on a junket to a Nigerian resort in what she knows will likely be a futile attempt to save her marriage (futile because, in fact, she's not all that keen to), they become forever and fatally linked to the lives of two African sisters. We're pretty far into the novel before we learn what actually occurred that day on what was supposed to have been a bucolic beach. In fact, we first meet Little Bee, the youngest of the sisters, two years after the events on the beach, when she's uneasily residing at a detention center in England, spooked by the past and fearful of every encounter, always planning various ways to kill herself, should "the men" ever come near her again. The events in Nigeria, how (and why) Little Bee and Sarah reconnect in England, and what follows their reunion form the basis of Little Bee, an unforgettable novel by Chris Cleave. Cleave's writing is breathtaking and the story will, quite simply, break your heart. He moves readers effortlessly between the points of view of both women, so that we come to understand both Little Bee and Sarah, as well as the various actions they are forced by choice and circumstance to take. Cleave's decision to make Sarah not always either totally admirable or even entirely likeable (although her actions on that beach in Nigeria seem to me to be honorable), goes a long way toward making her much more three-dimensional and real than many fictional characters seem to be. Because of the solid characterizations, the dynamite ending, and the particulars of the plot, Little Bee is an excellent choice for book groups.
The Sealed Letter - by Emma Donoghue
Emma Donoghue's The Sealed Letter is a "ripped from the headlines" re-imagining of an actual 1864 lawsuit. While her novel illuminates the place of women, the state of marriage, and the hypocrisies of Victorian England, at its heart it's about the painful and sometimes staggering costs of remaining true to your beliefs. The two main characters are unlikely friends: staunch feminist and spinster Emily "Fido" Faithfull (readers will discover that her name is quite apt), who is known in London circles as the publisher of such pro-women periodicals of the period as English Woman's Journal and Victoria Magazine, and the beautiful Helen, unhappily married to Vice-Admiral Henry Codrington. Indulging in a series of love affairs with her husband's junior officers during the family's seven year posting in Malta, Helen continues to flaunt convention even after the Codringtons move back to England. When the two old friends meet by chance (or is it chance?) on a London street, Helen begs Fido to help her secretly spend time with the young army officer with whom she's currently infatuated. Fido is torn between her love for Helen and her knowledge that what her friend is asking of her is wrong. When Codrington finally reaches the end of his patience with his wife's behavior and sues for divorce, there ensues a courtroom drama that rivals television's Divorce Court for its display of all aspects of human behavior--from the most noble to the rankest, from a semen-stained dress to a betrayal of friendship to doing the right thing at whatever cost. What Donoghue excels at is richly descriptive writing; here is Fido, thinking about the city she loves: "The fact is that for all its infinite varieties of filth, London is the thumping heart of everything that interests her, the only place she can imagine living." Donoghue also opens up the past to us--she has the ability to make a contemporary reader understand the behaviors and beliefs of an age supposedly quite different from our own. Ah, you will ask yourself when you finish this intriguing historical novel, but has human nature changed over the intervening years?
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon - by David Grann
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann would be a perfect gift for any dad on Father's Day. Or for anyone, male or female, who enjoys a bit of history, a bit of mystery, and a lot of (true) adventure. Although reading it doesn't provide quite the same adrenaline rush as, say, Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air or Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, it definitely deserves a place next to them on any bookshelf. Certainly, fans of those two books won't be disappointed with Grann's tale. The author, a staff writer at The New Yorker, combines first rate reporting skills, an engaging style, and an adventurous spirit to tell the story of British explorer Percy Fawcett. Fawcett, his 21-year-old son, and his son's best friend disappeared in the Amazon in 1925 while looking for remnants of the fabled once-flourishing and wealthy City of Z. Before that final, fateful expedition, Fawcett had made six successful, groundbreaking, and health-destroying treks through the deepest jungles of the Amazon, all in pursuit of geographical knowledge. But he was determined not to give up his dream of finding that tantalizing lost City of Z. As Grann pores over maps and diaries and visits Fawcett relatives, he decides to retrace Fawcett's last journey through the "green hell" of the Amazon (which he does, accompanied by his samba dancer guide and despite the fact that he's unable to read a map, likely to get lost in his home borough of Brooklyn, has bad eyesight, and has never been what you would call an outdoorsy sort of guy) to see what he can find out for himself. One of the reasons I like books like this is that you tend to pick up a lot of tangential information as you're reading. Following Grann as he follows Fawcett, we learn about the founding of Britain's Royal Geographic Society, the great explorers of the 19th century, the influence of Fawcett on Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Lost World, and of the many dangerous, and frequently deadly, insects, fish, and parasites that would seemingly put anyone in their right mind off a trip into the great rainforest of the Amazon. Luckily for those of us who take our adventures vicariously, it didn't deter either Fawcett or Grann.
Gone Tomorrow - by Jack Fredrickson
P. F. Kluge's affecting new novel, Gone Tomorrow, is the story of George Canaris, a writer who spends his career not writing but rather as a creative writing teacher at a small, bucolic Ohio college. (The college is, I suspect, not unlike Kenyon, where P. F. Kluge not only attended as an undergraduate, but where he has taught for a number of years.) This tale of the blessing and curse of an academic life for writers is framed by the search for a long-awaited, possibly non-existent, new novel of Canaris's. He wrote one novel in the 1960s, which brought him fame, fortune, a permanent place on the list of greatest works of fiction of all time, and a tenured position at a small but prestigious college. Then his agent and his publisher, not to mention the president of the college, the head of his department, his students, and his legion of fans, waited--in vain, as it turned out--for the appearance of a second novel, supposedly called The Beast. Finally--and against all the rules of tenure--the college decides to replace Canaris with a younger, more with-it (and productive) writer. What follows forces Canaris (and us) to think about fame, about what's important in life, and about love, loyalty, and the nature of creativity. Canaris is a simply wonderful character; the story of his life is moving, honest, tender and--occasionally--very funny. (When George meets John Henry Mallon, the wunderkind writer of gargantuan novels who replaces him, George reports this exchange in his journal: "'I've read your books,' he said. 'Great.' 'I've lifted yours,' I responded. 'Heavy.'") This is a good choice for readers who enjoy character-driven novels, but it's a must read for anyone who's spent any time in the world of academe. Kluge knows whereof he writes.
Roberto: The Insect Architect - by Nina Laden
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I love picture books that play with language. Those are the books that I most enjoy sharing with my granddaughters, since they offer something of interest to readers (and listeners) of all ages, and hold up exceptionally well under the burden of the multiple readings always demanded by young children of their favorite books. Even if kids don't get all the wordplays, jokes, and puns, and I am forced (lamely, I'm afraid) to try to explain them, they still get a kick out of my enjoyment. Plus, books like these are a good way to introduce children to the delights that can be found in words and sounds. One of my all time favorite read-alouds, Nina Laden's Roberto: The Insect Architect, is just such a book. Roberto has always wanted to be an architect and to work with such luminaries in the field as Fleas Van Der Rohe or Hank Floyd Mite. Unfortunately, Roberto is a termite, and among his friends and family tearing down structures, rather than building them up, is the norm. They think his ambition shows he's a mite off his rocker and that with such a lofty goal Roberto would definitely be biting off more than he could chew. Should Roberto compromise his dreams? Is it possible for him to go where none of his kind has gone before? Laden's lively collages complement the text, and from the tips of his antennae all the way down to his red high-top sneakers, Roberto cuts a figure it's impossible not to root for. And the book's message--follow your dreams--is one that nobody can hear often enough. I emailed Nina Laden recently to tell her how much I enjoyed her book, and she wrote back and said, "I worked long and hard on that book, and I even dreamt in collage when I did the illustrations. My father, Robert, wanted to be an architect."
So Long, See You Tomorrow - by William Maxwell
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When I interviewed David Wroblewski (author, of course, of the best-selling The Story of Edgar Sawtelle) for a program at the Cuyahoga County Public Library, he said that one of his favorite books--a book that had influenced him and his writing--was William Maxwell's novella So Long, See You Tomorrow. (Maxwell was for many decades a fiction editor of The New Yorker and had, in that capacity, a great influence on the course of American writing in the mid-twentieth century.) I recalled reading this novella when it was first published in 1980, but of course once that I knew that Wroblewski was one its fans, I was eager to reread it and try to understand why he liked it so much. I discovered, upon this second reading, that it was even better than I remembered. It's a masterful exploration of the how the past weighs on and shapes the present, and how there are some things we do, or that happen to us, that can never be forgotten or forgiven, of one's self or others. The unnamed narrator--writing from the perspective of an adult looking back some 50 years or so--reconstructs the events surrounding a tragic murder/suicide that took place in 1921 in his central Illinois hometown, when he was 12 years old. The murderer is the father of his friend, Cletus. And a year and a half after the murder, the narrator behaves--in his own eyes--shamefully toward his friend. In trying to understand what led up to the deaths, the narrator is also trying to understand and forgive his own conduct, which was at least partially motivated by the death of the narrator's mother three years before and his father's subsequent remarriage. All of this is presented in prose so lean and precise that it evokes much more than it ever literally says. Like poetry, every word chosen by Maxwell is necessary; it would be impossible to edit down this brilliant novella. A great choice for a book group, then, especially if you've already done The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. You can start off by asking why Wroblewski likes this novella so much--that's a question that will take the group in many different directions.
The Tender Bar: A Memoir - by J. R. Moehringer
J. R. Moehringer's The Tender Bar sets an extremely high bar (pun intended) for memoirs. To me, his book ranks right up there next to such entries as Mary Carr's The Liar's Club and Haven Kimmel's Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana. Moehringer's childhood includes a mostly-absent father (a radio disc jockey, whom he knows primarily as "The Voice"), a mother struggling with three jobs to make ends meet, and a series of quirky and crotchety relatives. Born in 1965, J. R. grew up in Manhasset, a Long Island suburb of Manhattan, in his grandparent's house, then moved to Arizona with his mother as a teen, later graduated from Yale, worked at The New York Times and other papers (and won a Pulitzer Prize), and now lives in Denver. But those are just the broad outlines of this remarkable book. What gives it both its charm and its substance are the descriptions of the people who most influenced him, including his mother (I've seldom read as loving a picture of a mother/son relationship); his remarkably dysfunctional extended family (especially his irascible grandfather); the bookstore managers in Arizona who gave him his first literary education; and especially his uncle Phil and the other men who worked and/or hung out at Publicans, a bar exactly 142 steps from where Moehringer lived on Long Island. As Moehringer brings these men to life--the men who were stand-ins for his absent father and who became his role models, I felt as though I had known them my whole life, too. Moehringer tells us that he always wanted to write a novel about Publicans, but I think he's done something even better here.
Living to Tell: A Novel- by Antonya Nelson
After I finished reading Antonya Nelson's new collection of stories, Nothing Right (see below), I went back and reread one of her earlier books, Living to Tell, which has long been a favorite of mine. It's a perfect choice for readers who, like me, especially enjoy novels about quirky families, like Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Searching for Caleb, Eliza Minot's The Brambles, and Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. (This is part of why I love reading--the way one book takes you to another and another and another--an endless trip with no known destination and no certain arrival date.) The main characters in Nelson's novel are the Mabies. The family consists of a retired professor (who is mourning the death of his best friend), his wife (who's losing her eyesight), and their three grown children (and two grandchildren) all living together at the family home in Wichita, Kansas. There's Emily, a single mother with two young children; her brother, 33-year-old Winston, coming home--on the day the book opens--from spending five years in state prison for the drunk driving accident that caused the death of his grandmother; and Mona, the youngest of the siblings, who has truly terrible taste in men, and has just survived a suicide attempt. Nelson is especially good at portraying the mix of feelings that inevitably run like an underground river through family relationships: those thoughts and emotions we choose to share with others, those we keep hidden, and those we bury as far from even our own consciousness as we can. Not one member of the Mabie family goes unscathed during the tumultuous year following Winston's return, and we share all their pains and triumphs.
Nothing Right: Short Stories - by Antonya Nelson
This is the first time in the history of Pearl's Picks that I have included two works of fiction by the same author in the same month--in this case, an older novel, Living to Tell (see above), and a newer one, a collection of stories called Nothing Right. (When I finished Nothing Right, I knew I had to go back and reread her earlier novel, because I wasn't yet ready to give up Nelson's particular writerly talents: a sense of the absurd, a deep respect for her characters, and the skill to bring those characters to vivid life). Two of Nelson's great strengths are her astonishing insights into human behavior and her remarkable talent for giving us three-dimensional characters in just a sentence or two. Both are on full display in every story in this collection. I think we know nearly everything there is to know about Sadie, the main character in the story "DWI," from this: "As was the case with most new experiences, therapy ended up resembling school: vocabulary, irksome effort, anxiety, tests, and failure. Would anything ever not seem like some new set of lessons Sadie would neglect to learn?" In "Or Else," she describes Telluride, Colorado, this way: "At night, the stars devastated the clear, clear sky." I was simply stunned by how perfect the verb in that sentence was. Everyone will have a particular story or two or three that most appeals--but I would definitely recommend the title story, about a teenage father and his divorced mother, "Kansas," and "Falsetto." Fans of Lorrie Moore's short stories will not want to miss getting acquainted with the Nelson's fiction, both short and long.
A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx - by Elaine Showalter
It's perhaps hard to imagine that a survey of American literature could be described as "fascinating reading." Yet I am convinced that it's true of Elaine Showalter's remarkable A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx. Not only does Showalter write in a sprightly, witty, and inviting style, but her insights into the works of women's literature and their authors have the potential to make us all better readers. On nearly every page of this intelligent (and opinionated) book she offers us something of interest. In her instructive introduction, Showalter writes about the movement of women's writing going through three phases: "feminine," "feminist," and "female," before culminating, thus far, in "free," that is, writing that is not hobbled by form or subject. Her example of a woman writer whose work exemplifies that fourth phase is Annie Proulx. Reading Showalter's book will introduce you to many women whose writings have for the most part disappeared out of the public consciousness, like Mary Rowlandson (c.1635-1678), who wrote about her captivity by Native Americans, or the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Susan Glaspell, whose plays were once considered on a par with Eugene O'Neill's, but are no longer being produced, Pulitzer or no. Showalter provides mini-biographies of lesser-known writers like the political radical Meridel Le Sueur or the feminist intellectual Tess Slessinger, as well as those who are better known, like Katherine Anne Porter and Mary McCarthy, whose lives were richly complicated. She offers her insights into the lives and poetry of Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Adrienne Rich, as well as ranking their places in the pantheon of 20th century poetry. Obviously, one of the subversive pleasures for readers of a book like this is to disagree with not only the evaluation of different writers, but also with whom Showalter chose to include and whom she's omitted, especially when it comes to those late 20th and early 21st century writers. But that's a fun bone to pick, and Showalter obviously intends her book to be something for both scholars and ordinary readers to react to. If you're looking for some suggestions for books to read, you could do far, far worse than open Showalter's book to a random page and go check out the book she's discussing.