Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Messud's The Emperor's Children the best of '06

92. The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud. Fiction , 10-22, pp. 431

The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud’s closely observed novel on the struggle for independence and identity, is the best book to emerge so far in 2006.

The Emperor is Murray Thwaite, a Maileresque journalist and author, of outsized ego and reputation. The children are Thwaite’s daughter, Marina, a some-time model and would-be author who has languished in her father’s shadow; Bootie, Thwaite’s brilliant, but misdirected nephew; and Danielle, a television producer and Marina’s closest friend.

The novel is seen through the eyes of all four characters as well as Marina and Danielle’s gay friend, Julius, who seems to be equally unsuccessful in relationships as he is in jump-starting his career as a critic. Each of the characters is wrestling with issues of ambition and identity – Murray with the gap between who he is and who he is perceived to be, the four younger characters with efforts to define who they are and what their place in the world is. To varying degrees, each of the four younger characters, is also seeking to establish their independence from home, from parents, from lovers and to assert their standing, their gravitas, in relationship to other people and their professions.

Messud is a muscular writers who commands a reader’s attention. Her style of writing can quickly lead to confusion for any reader who allows his attention to wander. There can be a great deal of text between the opening and the closing of a dash. Yet this very demand for focus ultimately serves the reader well. It is on the second, or even third, pass that the depth of Messud’s observation is seen most clearly.

The climax of Messud’s novel comes with the events of 9/11. The introduction of 9/11 into the novel is unexpected, but appropriate and Messud – like Julia Glass in The Whole World Over – is satisfyingly successful in capturing the raw emotions of that day in which the perceptions of entire nation were shaken and altered, perhaps forever.

Late in the novel, after the towers have fallen, Danielle confronts the enormity of the tragedy in the most personal terms, because of the events of 9/11 have robbed her of her lover:

“She had seen the second plane, like a gleaming arrow, and the burst of it, oddly beautiful against the blue, and the smoke, everywhere, and she had seen the people jumping, from afar, specks in the sky, and she knew that’s what they were only from the TV, from the great reality check of the screen, and she had seen the buildings crumble to dust; . . . she had seen these things and had been left, forever, because in light of these things she did not matter, you had to make the right choice, you had to stay on the ground . . . you had to stay on the ground and there was no call to feel anything, there was nothing to feel because you weren’t worth anything to anyone, you’d had your heart, or was it your guts, or both, taken out, you’d been eviscerated . . . and now there was nothing but sorrow and this was how it was going to be, now, always.”

The Emperor’s Children is a splendid, powerful novel.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Dylan's Chronicles accessible, but unconventional

91. Chronicles, Bob Dylan. Biography, 10-16, pp. 293

Volume One of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles is like an extended conversation with the iconic singer and songwriter. It is as non-linear, obscure and insightful as conversations can be. Chronicles opens in New York City where Dylan, sleeping on friends’ sofas, is seeking to break into the folk music scene. We leap to New Orleans where he struggles to record an album that is one of his least known and then, back in time, to his home state of Minnesota where he is living in Dinky Town on the edge of the University of Minnesota and, finally, jetting forward in time, to New York, where he ultimately signs a contract with Columbia.

Although we know the outcome of this story – unparalleled fame is looming around the corner for this skinny, blue-jeaned disciple of Woody Guthrie – we don’t know what he was thinking or feeling or experiencing during this heady time. In Chronicles Dylan attempts to share all that and that is where Chronicles is both unique and exactly what we would expect of Dylan – it is a biography of the internal, far, far more than the external. It isn’t so much about what happened as what he felt and thought and experienced.

It is also intriguing because Dylan shares his influences; the art and books and music that shaped him, who was, in turn, to shape so many. Those influences include Guthrie, of course, but also Robert Johnson, Joan Baez and numerous obscure blues and folk musicians.

It’s a terrific work; accessible, but unconventional – pure Dylan.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Not much to say about The Inheritance of Loss

90. The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai. Fiction, 10-12, pp. 324

I should have something to say about this book, which won the Booker Prize, but I don’t. I finished it Thursday. It’s Sunday and I still don’t have anything to say. I haven’t thought about the book since I put it down, except to fret about not posting to the blog and not having anything to say.

It’s written well enough, although the author indulges in the occasional obscure riff that I find annoying. It is set in both New York and in India at the foot of the Himalayas near the Nepal border. The Indian immigrant to New York has a tough time, is mistreated by both Americans and fellow Indians alike, is engaged in demeaning work and never fits in.

The characters in India are caught up in an insurgency by Nepalis who want their own country. Since they apparently can’t have their own country, they content themselves with taking what others have. The insurgency comes between two young lovers, who seem to have been less in love with one another than in love with the idea of being in love.

Nothing in this novel resonated with me. It did not haunt me. It did not move me. I guess it was OK. Others might find something to say about the bitter residue of colonialism or the immigrant experience or the global conflicts of nationalism, religion or race, but I don’t have anything to say about that.

I liked the title more than the book itself. I like the title a lot.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Tender Bar all a memoir should be

89. The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer. Memoir, 10-7, pp. 368

A book recommendation from a friend or co-worker can be a perilous thing. Perhaps you do not like the book. Perhaps you are revolted by it. And what can you say? It was OK. I didn’t like it. It was . . . interesting. I didn’t share your enthusiasm.

But there are other times when the recommender has carefully considered the book and the reader and the match is, well, one made in book heaven. That was the case with J.R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar. It is all you hope a memoir to be – warm, insightful and instructive with passages that are laugh-out-loud funny.

The book was recommended to me by a Beth Finkel, a colleague of many years. The first time I met Beth we talked books. I’m not sure what started the discussion but I was reading something by Frederick Busch at the time and Beth was familiar with his novel, Girls. That impressed me. Beth knew (knows) her stuff. Since that time we’ve traded lots of book recommendations.

None have been better, by either party, than Beth’s recommendation of The Tender Bar. Set in Manhasset, New Jersey, it is Moehringer’s account of how one neighborhood bar, which loomed large in his imagination as a child, and the men who inhabited it became an important part of his life. Moehringer’s father was absent from his life—a distant voice on the radio—and men in the bar, including his uncle who was a bartender there, filled a role as surrogate fathers and masculine role models.

The one disturbing aspect to the book is the quantity of alcohol the men, including Moehringer, consume. It’s clear that alcohol is used as an escape for just about everyone who inhabits the bar, again, including the author. It’s reassuring, then, to learn that Moehringer no longer drinks.

That concern aside, The Tender Bar is a captivating memoir. Moehringer is a talented writer (a journalist, he won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writer) who brings the characters to life and vividly recaptures his childhood, adolescence and angst-ridden early twenties.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

National Book Award '06 shortlist


  • Mark Z. Danielewski, Only Revolutions (Pantheon)
  • Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (Ecco/HarperCollins)
  • Richard Powers, The Echo Maker (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
  • Dana Spiotta, Eat the Document (Scribner/Simon & Schuster)
  • Jess Walter, The Zero (Judith Regan Books/HarperCollins)


  • Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 (Simon & Schuster)
  • Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone (Alfred A. Knopf)
  • Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (Houghton Mifflin)
  • Peter Hessler, Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present (HarperCollins)
  • Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Alfred A. Knopf)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

McCarthy's The Road a tale of horror and hopelessness

88. The Road, Cormac McCarthy. Fiction, 10-4, pp 241

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is spare and unsparing and starkly poetic.

The world has ended. All is grayness and cold and ashes. And through this bleak terrain of hopelessness and unrelenting horror walk a man and a boy, suitably nameless. They are journeying south in the wasted hope of something better – warmth, food, a welcome.

Each of McCarthy’s previous novels was preparation for this book. The casual violence and rage that erupted against individuals in previous novels has here been unleashed against an entire world, against not merely mankind, but the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. The humans that survive are clearly divided into two camps –those that eat and those who are eaten.

In the starkness of the narrative, of the dialogue and the plot, McCarthy lays bare the foolishness of hope and the impossible optimism of every post-apocalyptic novel that preceded The Road. Think of those novels: Tales of mankind overcoming vast odds, banding together, husbanding knowledge and resources, tinkering to create clever devices, finding life, love, hope.

But there is no hope. Even those who survive only do so in the full knowledge that the world is dead and that all life is a loan:

“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” (p. 110)

The world we knew is a shadow, a memory – now fleeting and faint:

“He could not construct for the child’s pleasure the world he’d lost without constructing the loss as well and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he. He tried to remember the dream but he could not. All that was left was the feeling of it. He thought perhaps they’d come to warn him. Of what? That he could not enkindle in the heart of the child what was ashes in his own. Even now some part of him wished they’d never found this refuge. Some part of him always wished it to be over.” (pp. 129-130)
The Road is a grim reminder of how precarious life is. Few of us today live with the fear of the nuclear holocaust as so many did in the 50s and 60s. Perhaps we should. But, then again, as McCarthy shows us there is nothing we can do, but live for a time and then die.

And yet. Love not only survives between the father and his son, but is strengthened by their misery and loss, their shared need one for the other. In his weakest moments, the father ponders whether he can take the son’s life in order to save him. He knows that he cannot.

In the final pages, too, there is some suggestion that kindness and love have not gone cold, have not entirely vanished from the icy cinder that is man’s heart.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Lederer's Poker Face a winning hand

87. Poker Face, Katy Lederer. Poker, 10-2, pp. 209

Katy Lederer is the sister of Howard Lederer and Annie Duke. Anyone who watches one of the ubiquitous poker programs on TV knows that Howard and Annie are two of the more talented and charismatic of the new wave of poker players that have taken Vegas and popular culture by storm.

Poker Face is the story of the Lederer clan, who are both dysfunctional and brilliant, as well as Katy’s efforts to imitate her siblings and join her brother and sister around the rail of the high stakes tables in Vegas. Katy doesn’t succeed in her mission – she understands the game well enough, but is too soft hearted to make a great gambler.

Instead, Katy becomes a writer and poet and that’s all too the good. The result is the lyrical Poker Face and its insights into the heart and mind of the gambler. Poker Face makes it imminently clear that Katy made the correct decision. Although the denizens of Vegas might disagree, we need good writers more than we need another bad gambler.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Child's My Life in France: Bon Appétit

86. My Life In France, Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme. Biography, 10-1, pp. 302

Until reading this book most of what I knew about Julia Child was limited to Dan Aykroyd’s classic Saturday Night Live portrayal of the PBS’ chef and author. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that one of the photographs in this biography is of Child and her husband, Paul, in the tub together, soap bubbles artfully arranged. It is, to coin a phrase, a paradigm shift. The photo, one of many in the book, is a Valentine that the Childs sent annually to friends and family.

In an enchanting 302 pages, My Life in France explains how Child developed her passion for French cooking, wrote THE American cookbook on French cooking, became a TV star via her PBS-based cooking show and, in the process, transformed the landscape of American cookery and became an American icon whose TV kitchen is now faithfully exhibited in the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History.

Child’s prose (and that of her grandnephew, Alex Prud’homme) is as delightfully digestible as her cooking. The photographs, most taken by her husband, Paul, serve to illuminate the text, and add greatly to the book and the reading experience.

What can I say but . . . Bon Appétit.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Special Topics is something of a calamity

85. Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl. Fiction, 9-29, p. 514

There was a bit of a stir about first-time author Marisha Pessl’s age, advance and appearance after she signed her contract for Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Her age: 27. Her advance: hefty. Her appearance: attractive. There was some suggestion that the size of the advance was directly linked to her youth and attractiveness, rather than any qualities inherent in Special Topics.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first 12 to 20 pages of Special Topics. It seemed funny, quirky, inventive and refreshing. But it got old, quickly, and – unfortunately – there were another 500 pages to go. Special Topics is the strange story of Blue van Meer a brilliant high school senior who annotates her every thought with references from books and movies, well, really, literature and cinema.

Late in the novel a group of erstwhile friends who are unhappy with Blue discuss her fate.

“Or we could stone her like they do in that short story. When all the townspeople descent and she starts to scream.”

“’The Lottery,’” I said, because I couldn’t help myself (Jackson, 1948).

She can’t, she really can’t help herself and it’s a conceit by author and character that grows increasingly tedious as the book progresses. The mystery at the heart of Special Topics is intriguing, but not enough to sustain the novel that utlimately is more cute than clever.