About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

#80: The New Republic

The New Republic, by Lionel Shriver
(New York: Harper, 2012)
"Ostracized as a kid, Edgar Kellogg has always yearned to be popular. A disgruntled New York corporate lawyer, he's more than ready to leave his lucrative career for the excitement and uncertainty of journalism. When he's offered the post of foreign correspondent in a Portuguese backwater that has sprouted a homegrown terrorist movement, Edgar recognizes the disappeared larger-than-life reporter he's been sent to replace, Barrington Saddler, as exactly the outsize character he longs to emulate. Infuriatingly, all his fellow journalists cannot stop talking about their beloved 'Bear,' who is no longer lighting up their work lives.

"Yet all is not as it appears. Os Soldados Ousados de Barba -- 'The Daring Soldiers of Barba' -- have been blowing up the rest of the world for years in order to win independence for a province so dismal, backward, and windblown that you couldn't give the rat hole away. So why, with Barrington vanished, do terrorist incidents claimed by the 'SOB' suddenly dry up?

"A droll, playful novel, The New Republic addresses weighty issues like terrorism with the deft, tongue-in-cheek touch that is vintage Shriver. It also presses the more intimate question: What makes particular people so magnetic, while the rest of us inspire a shrug? What's their secret? And in the end, who has the better life -- the admired, or the admirer?"

Opening Line:
"Whisking into his apartment house on West Eighty-Ninth Street, Edgar Kellogg skulked, eager to avoid eye contact with a doorman who at least got a regular paycheck."

My Take:  
I didn't realize this when I checked the book out (after We Need to Talk About Kevin and So Much for That, I'm such a fan of Shriver's that her name on the spine was all the convincing I needed), but there's an interesting back story here. According to the author's note at the beginning, she completed The New Republic in 1998, but American publishers wouldn't touch it; for one, this was before Kevin and Shriver's earlier titles weren't selling well, and second, no one thought the public was interested in terrorism anyway. Then came 9/11, and it was several years before anyone could even think about releasing a book that treated the subject with anything approaching humor. The first few chapters hold some promise, so stay tuned.

Long overdue update. Mostly enjoyed the book, though it was a bit of a slow starter. Funny premise; execution not as good as Shriver's later books became.

#79: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski
(New York: Ecco, 2008)
"David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle explores the silent world of the novel’s protagonist, Edgar Sawtelle. Edgar lives in Wisconsin during the middle of the twentieth century. Born mute, he is a teenager who seems to prefer the language of dogs more than the words of the adults around him. From his earliest memories, his favorite job on the farm was to name the new puppies that were born there. He chooses names randomly from a dictionary. As he grows older, his connection with the dogs becomes more profound. He helps to train them through sign language.

"Wroblewski begins his novel with Edgar’s grandfather, telling readers about how the dog farm began. When Edgar’s father, Gar, dies suspiciously, Edgar blames his uncle Claude, his father’s younger brother, who has meant nothing but trouble for the family. When Claude makes romantic overtures to Edgar’s mother, Trudy, Edgar is outraged.

"The story is filled with loving family memories until Claude arrives. Claude spends most of his time in the barn or at the local bar. The details of Claude’s life are sketchy at best and Edgar finds Claude to be two-faced. The man presents his best side to Edgar’s mother. She falls for him, allowing him to fill in the vacant spaces left behind from her husband’s death. Edgar sees the other side of Claude, a side that Edgar finds dangerous.

"When tensions become too strong between Edgar and Claude, Edgar takes his favorite dogs and runs away from home. For the story itself, this tension raises the level of curiosity for the reader. It is at this point that the novel takes on the form of a mystery or a sort of detective story. Edgar fears the police are looking for him because of an accidental death that he played a part in. Readers worry that Edgar might be caught because Claude is suggesting to local officials that Edgar committed murder. In the end, it is Edgar versus Claude—a fight to the finish. Unfortunately, there are no winners."

Opening Line:
"In the year 1919, Edgar's grandfather, who was born with an extra share of whimsy, bought their land and all the buildings on it from a man he'd never met, a man named Schultz, who in his turn had walked away from a logging team half a decade earlier after seeing the chains on a fully loaded timber sled let go."

My Take: 
OK, this one I liked. For a change, I actually preferred the first, oh, two-thirds or so to the end (suffice it to say that I have a low tolerance for characters speaking or otherwise interacting with the dead) but it was still an engaging story with deep characters and an unusual setting.

#78: Spring Fever

Spring Fever, by Mary Kay Andrews
(New York: St. Martin's Press, 2012)
"The New York Times bestselling author of Summer Rental delivers her delicious new escapist novel about small towns, old flames, and deep secrets.

"Annajane Hudgens truly believes she is over her ex-husband, Mason Bayless. They’ve been divorced for four years, she’s engaged to a new, terrific guy, and she’s ready to leave the small town where she and Mason had so much history. She is so over Mason that she has absolutely no problem attending his wedding to the beautiful, intelligent, delightful Celia. But when fate intervenes and the wedding is called to a halt as the bride is literally walking down the aisle, Annajane begins to realize that maybe she’s been given a second chance. Maybe everything happens for a reason. And maybe, just maybe, she wants Mason back. But there are secrets afoot in this small southern town. On the peaceful surface of Hideaway Lake, Annajane discovers that the past is never really gone. Even if there are people determined to keep Annajane from getting what she wants, happiness might be hers for the taking, and the life she once had with Mason in this sleepy lake town might be in her future."

Opening Line:
"From her seat in the sanctuary of the Church of the Good Shepherd, Annajane Hudgens wondered if there had ever been a more flawless day for a wedding."

My Take:
I seem to be saying or at least implying this a lot lately, but meh. I expected fluffy chick lit, sure, but it wasn't particularly original or exciting at that. It's pretty obvious from the very beginning that Celia will turn out to be evil and Annajane and Mason will get back together, and sure enough, they do. The means by which they get there aren't especially novel or entertaining. In short, Summer Rental was much more fun. I came away from this one mostly feeling like I'd read variations of this story many times before.

#77: The Life Before Us

The Life Before Us (Madame Rosa)
by Romain Gary (Emile Ajar), translated by Ralph Manheim
(New York: New Directions Pub. Corp., 1986)
"The Life Before Us is the story of an orphaned Arab boy, Momo, and his devotion to Madame Rosa, a dying 68-year-old, 220 lb. survivor of Auschwitz and retired “lady of the night.” Momo has been one of the ever-changing rag-bag of whore’s children at Madame Rosa’s boarding-house in Paris ever since he can remember. But when the check that pays for his keep no longer arrives and Madame Rosa becomes too ill to climb the stairs to their apartment, he determines to support her any way he can.

"This sensitive, slightly macabre love story has a supporting cast of transvestites, pimps, and witch doctors. Published by Romain Gary under the pseudonym of Émile Ajar, this novel won France’s premier literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in 1975, making Gary the only author to have won the Goncourt twice (illicitly). The Life Before Us breaks many other rules, as well as the reader’s heart."

Opening Line:
"The first thing I have to tell you is that we lived on the seventh-floor walk-up, so you can take my word for it that Madame Rosa, with all the pounds  she had to lug around with her, had more than her share of daily life with all its sorrows and cares."

My Take:
This is my hometown's (and our biggest college's) community read this year, so I thought I'd give it a try even though there was little chance I'd be home enough to attend any of the community events (which I've never done in the past even when I was home, anyway). Turned out to be better and more engaging at the end, but still didn't really speak to me. This may be partly a function of the translation, but I found the stream-of-consciousness, wise-beyond-his-years-but-still-prone-to-frequent-malapropisms style in which Momo narrates the novel off-putting. Rare is the author who can make a child or adolescent narrator both engaging and authentic, and I don't think Gary pulls it off here. The book seems a surprising choice for a community read, and I can't help skeptically wondering if it was selected more because a) it reminds us that the lines between different religions, ethnicities, and genders can be quite blurry, and b) depicts strong friendships, even love, across the lines, albeit among those who live somewhat outside the margins of French society. Perhaps I'd have enjoyed the novel more if I were reading and discussing it with a group, but as it was, I don't think I fully appreciated it on my own.

#76: The Folded World

The Folded World, by Amity Gaige
(New York: Other Press, 2007)
"Charlie Shade was born into a quiet, prosperous life, but a sense of injustice dogs him. He feels destined to leave his life of "bread and laundry," to work instead with people in crisis. On his way, he meets his kindred spirit in Alice, a soulful young woman, living helplessly by laws of childhood superstition. Charlie's empathy with his clients—troubled souls like Hal, the high-school wrestling champion who undergoes a psychotic break, and Opal, the isolated young woman who claims "various philosophies have confused my life"—is both admirable and nearly fatal. An adoring husband and new father, Charlie risks his own cherished, private domestic world to help Hal, Opal, and others move beyond their haunted inner worlds into the larger world of love and connection."

Opening Line:
"At the moment she was born, five hundred miles away, a small boy, his mouth ringed with jam, paused in his play on the carpet."

My Take:
(Quickly, as I'm both backlogged and -- having gotten up at 2:45 to catch an early flight -- tired.) OK after a bit of a slow, confusing start, but not exceptional. Yet another meta-critique that may or may not have been what the author intended: for a novel that's all about how there are typically many more facets and much more complexity to an individual or a relationship than what we see on the surface, the novel almost seems too much aware of its own intricacy ... to the detriment of the characters and plot.