Sunday, October 21, 2007

Russo rocks with Bridge of Sighs

Books now read in ’07: 98
Title: Bridge of Sighs
Author: Richard Russo
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 10-16
Pages: 528

Richard Russo is a superb storyteller.

His newest novel, Bridge of Sighs, is a rich and humorous and insightful as his previous works.

The novel is the story of boyhood friends; one who stays and one who goes. The friends, Lou C. Lynch – who has the unfortunate nickname, Lucy – and Bobby Marconi – now Noonan – are both 60, as is Lou’s wife, Sarah.

Lou and Sarah have lived all their lives in Thomaston, New York, where they run a series of convenience stores. Bobby has fled America for Europe, changed his name and become a well-known painter.

In Bridge of Sighs, Russo returns to his familiar theme of small-town life as he explores the relationship between Lou, Bobby and Sarah (who loves them both) as well as the boys’ relationships to their fathers. Lou is excessively devoted to his father. Bobby loathes his.

For me, this was a novel to linger over.

Books now read in ’07: 99
Title: Julie & Julia
Author: Julie Powell
Genre: Food
Date Completed: 10-19
Pages: 307

Julie Powell’s account of how she cooked her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year is entertaining enough, but ultimately disappointing. All food analogies will be strenuously avoided.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Where there's smoke . . . there isn't always fire

Books now read in ’07: 97
Title: Tree of Smoke
Author: Denis Johnson
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 10-6
Pages: 614

Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke is an ambitious novel that ultimately stumbles on its own ambition.

Johnson strives for some combination of Conrad (Heart of Darkness) and Greene (The Quiet American), but ultimately achieves the brilliance of neither. His Kurtz-like Colonel is only an ineffectual drunk, while the Colonel’s guilt-ridden nephew drifts into irrelevance and piracy uncertain whether he’s a quiet American or an ugly one.

The novel opens in the Philippines in 1963 and concludes in 1983 in multiple locations including Thailand, Malaysia and America. In between, of course, the action takes place in Vietnam. There are two principal stories; the first involving the Colonel and his unauthorized efforts to place a double agent in North Vietnam and the second featuring the two Houston brothers. The stories intersect briefly, and violently.

Tree of Smoke is a big, muscular novel. Johnson was going for the fences with this book, and there are some fine passages, but the whole is not greater than a sum of the parts. Tree of Smoke has its fans. Its reviews have been uniformly generous, it was shortlisted for the National Book Award and is the likely winner of that honor. Still, I didn’t like it much.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Richard Russo on Bridge of Sighs

Well into the writing of his new novel, Bridge of Sighs, Richard Russo told his agent he thought he was writing a trilogy. The problem was that Russo had three main characters and in order tell their stories – from the past to the present – he’d written more than 600 pages “with no end in sight.”

Russo’s agent said no, the book wasn’t a trilogy. Russo simply had lots of rewriting to do, rewriting that would significantly alter the structure of the book. Russo told his agent why his suggestion wouldn’t work, then went home and began to do exactly as his agent had recommended.

The result is a complex structure (very un-Russo-like, the author admits) with a story that weaves between time – the past to the present to the past again – and space – from a small town in upstate New York to Venice.

A complex structure, but a simple story, Russo said. In its simplest terms, he said, the novel is the story of boyhood friends; one who stays and one who goes. The friends, Lou C. Lynch – who has the unfortunate nickname, Lucy – and Bobby Marconi – now Noonan – are both 60, as is Lou’s wife, Sarah. “60 is the age when you look at life,” Russo said, which is what all three characters are doing.

Lou and Sarah remained all their lives in Thomaston, New York, where they run a series of convenience stores. Bobby has fled America for Europe, changed his name and become a well-known painter. “He’s given up on marriage,” said Russo, “but not on married women.” In Bridge of Sighs, Russo returns to the theme of small-town life as he explores the relationship between Lou, Bobby and Sarah as well as the boys’ relationships to their fathers. Lou is excessively devoted to his father. Bobby loathes his.

In the present, Bobby (Noonan) is painting a picture of his father that everyone assumes is a self-portrait. The famous Venetian Bridge of Sighs is in the distance. In legend, the view from the Bridge of Sighs was the last view of Venice that convicts saw before their imprisonment. The bridge name, given by Lord Byron in the 19th century, comes from the suggestion that prisoners would sigh at their final view of beautiful Venice out the window before being taken down to their cells.

In Bridge of Sighs, Russo said he wanted to explore “that depth of feeling common to all people . . . a sense of complexity. What I’m after, if not universal, is nearly so.”

Bridge of Sighs is Russo’s six novel and seventh book. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his last novel, Empire Falls.

Russo came to writing late, only realizing in his late 20s that writing might be something he could and wanted to do. He said much of his style of writing was shaped by his reading. While would-be novelists of his acquaintance consumed contemporary literature, Russo was reading Dickens, Twain and Fitzgerald.

“I was trained as an old-school writer,” he said. Dickens taught him the importance of a large canvas and the value of minor characters. Twain showed him that if you go to dark places – racism, ignorance, brutality – that you had best go armed with humor. Twain also showed him the importance of irreverence toward authority.

From Fitzgerald, Russo learned to write about the quintessential American story, that our lives need not be determined by who our parents are or where we are from, but that we have the right to reinvent ourselves.

The lessons of those authors are all on display in Russo’s Bridge of Sighs.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

National Book Award Finalists Announced


  • Fieldwork, Mischa Berlinski
  • Varieties of Disturbance, Lydia Davis
  • Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris
  • Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson
  • Like You’d Understand, Anyway, Jim Shepard


  • Brother, I’m Dying, Edwidge Danticat
  • God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens
  • Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, Woody Holton
  • Ralph Ellison: A Biography, Arnold Rampersad
  • Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, Tim Weiner

Friday, October 05, 2007

McMurtry examines six Western massacres

Books now read in ’07: 96
Title: Oh What A Slaughter
Author: Larry McMurtry
Genre: History
Date Completed: 10-4
Pages: 161

All six of my regular readers are aware of my penchant for the brief biography as best represented by Penguin Lives. This book, by novelist Larry McMurtry, fits squarely into that mold. With the pictures and white space, it is generous to describe it as 161 pages of narrative. (There is also an index and bibliography. Bibliographies are always welcome.)

McMurtry isn’t trying to provide a comprehensive account of six western massacres, from 1846 to 1890, which are the subject of his brief inquiry. Oh What A Slaughter is more of an essay than history, an extended rumination on the violence that man can do (and did) to fellow man in the settling of the West.

The massacres that McMurtry examines are the Sacramento River Massacre, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the Sand Creek Massacre, the Marias River Massacre, the Camp Grant Massacre and the Wounded Knee Massacre. Three – Mountains Meadows, Sand Creek and Wounded Knee – are well known. The others less so.

For my taste, McMurtry strikes exactly the right balance between too much and too little. Those who want to know more (and I don’t) can turn to the helpful bibliography at the end of the book.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

New York has a great article on The Best Book You've Never Read. I've read three of the books and throughly agree these are books to add to your reading pile.

They are:

  • The Accidental by Ali Smith. Compelling and creepy.
  • Drama City by George Pelecanos. George is the best.
  • Unless by Carol Shields. I agree with the observation that it is important the late Shields continue to be read.
Three books on the list I have not read, but about which I have something to say are:

  • Mortals by Norman Rush. After reading Mating I can't bring myself to read Rush again.
  • The Wife by Meg Wolitzer. No one is funnier than Wolitzer. I will seek this book out.
  • The Road Home by Jim Harrison. Love Harrison. This book is in my reading pile.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

On Dogs and Ann Patchett

In society, fiction lays the groundwork for a compassionate life, said author Ann Patchett, who appeared at a Borders in Northern Virginia last night to promote her new book, Run.

“The importance of fiction in society is that we need to imagine the lives of others,” Patchett said. “That is the essence of a compassionate life.”

The 43-year-old Patchett quickly engaged the audience with her disarming candor, delightful sense of humor and bold, animated reading style.

Although she is on tour to promote Run, Patchett said she has actually embarked on the “book tour of failing eyesight,” as she donned a pair of reading glasses. She attributed the need for reading glasses to William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. Midway through the novel, she said, her eyesight began to fail. She’s currently reading the large-print version of Henry James’ The Golden Bowl.

The book tour is also about Bel Canto and Truth & Beauty, her two previous books. “People come for your last book,” she said. Bel Canto propelled Patchett into the upper ranks of American authors – it was short-listed for the National Book Critics 2001 award for fiction and won the 2002 PEN/Faulkner prize for fiction. In Truth & Beauty, Patchett turned to non-fiction – her first such effort – with a powerful memoir about her decades-long friendship with the late author, Lucy Grealy.

“I love that book,” Patchett said. “It’s where I put my memories.”

In response to audience questions, Patchett said she is never surprised by the direction her writing takes because she spends a great deal of time in preparation before she begins writing. She expressed skepticism of authors who talk airily about their characters seizing control of the narrative, suggesting it was unprofessional on their part.

When asked about writing outside her realm of personal experience – Bel Canto was about an opera singer held hostage at a Japanese embassy in South America – Patchett said, “Writing about what you know is OK if what you know is interesting . . . but there’s nothing going on with me.”

She said her work style is haphazard and that she does not write every day. “I don’t have something to say every day,” Patchett said.

Patchett received an unusual introduction. The Borders employee read a brief essay she had written for Outside magazine about the importance of making a loving commitment to a dog. Her essay concludes:

Dogs know something about love writ large. The rotten part is that their life span is so much shorter than ours. Barring some seriously bad luck, I will outlive Rose by a large margin. She is 11 now. She has cataracts, and her back legs are weak. When we take long hikes, I always wind up carrying her home on my shoulders. Rose has taught me how to be a better person. I'm not sure I've taught her anything, except how to tell me when she wants another biscuit. Rose could not be a better dog. When she dies, I imagine I will howl like her ancestors, but the inevitable end of a relationship is no reason not to go there in the first place.

During her talk, Patchett said she was glad she wrote Truth & Beauty because the writing helped her deal with the loss of her friend and that now the book gave people a reason to ask her about her feelings around the loss of Lucy. She said people want to talk about those feelings, but seldom have the opportunity.

I never do this sort of thing with an author. I never assume we’re making some sort of connection, but this must have felt like an invitation.

After the reading, as Patchett prepared to sign my copies of Run and Bel Canto, I said, I’d love talk with you about dogs. Do you have dogs? she asked. Two, I said. Black-top corgis. Gracie and Dolly. She paused between books and fished something from her purse. It was photographs of her dog, Rose.

Somehow I found myself telling Patchett about last year when I lost my mother and my beloved seven-year-old corgi, Regis, in a matter of months. I’d had five years to prepare for mom’s death from cancer, but Regis’ death came quickly and unexpectedly. I was away on business when he was put down and had no time to prepare for the loss. When my wife called with the news I was on a shuttle bus at the airport and, at 52, I sobbed. I sobbed all through a sleepless night and was morose for weeks. It’s still hard to think about him. It’s hard to explain, I said, and I feel bad, but it was harder to lose him than my mom. It was the expected vs. the unexpected.

Later, after returning home, I opened Bel Canto to the title page to see what Patchett had written. She said, “To John, From my good dog to your good dogs. I understand. Ann Patchett.”

I think she does understand, and in that understanding she derives her power as a novelist.