"The Faraway Nearby" by Rebecca Solnit

March 13, 2014 by PatLeach
Rebecca Solnit's "The Faraway Nearby" exemplifies my favorite thing about the American Library Association's Notable Books List--I find excellent books there that I hadn't heard about previously.

"The Faraway Nearby" begins with apricots, picked from Solnit's mother's tree. The three boxes of apricots were too many to manage, her mother too far gone with Alzheimer's to know. Solnit's preservation of the fruit via jams, liqueurs, and other devices contributes one of the first metaphors in this rich book.

I was intrigued by the title, "The Faraway Nearby." Here is what she says about that, "After years in New York  City, Georgia O'Keeffe moved to rural New Mexico, from which she would sign her letters to the people she loved, 'from the faraway nearby.'" (p. 108)

Solnit employs thirteen chapters, the first six leading to the seventh, "knot." The remaining six mirror the first, going backwards to apricots once again, ending where she began. Within this firm structure, she rambles amid her mother's story, her own cancer scare, and an artistic escape to Iceland. How she works in Che Guevara, arctic explorers, Scheherazade, Frankenstein, Buddhists, and others, is a wonder. And yet it feels like excellent conversation over coffee, how she goes from one story to another, linked by ideas. Throughout, she reflects on how we tell our stories. She considers how we work over the material in our past to create a promising future.

I found particular resonance in this excerpt, as she describes how her friends took her in hand through a serious health scare. "People gathered from all directions, and I was taken care of beautifully...Afterward, during my convalescence, I occasionally wished that life was always like this, that I was always being showered with flowers and assistance and solicitousness, but you only get it when you need it. If you're lucky, you get it when you need it. To know that it was there when I needed it changed everything a little in the long run." (p. 122) This perfectly describes my own experience when my husband died, and she's right. It has changed everything a little.

At first, I was put off by MY wanting the action to move forward more quickly. I won't recommend this to readers who want to march through a plot. It was worth slowing down to savor the extras that she brings to her story of herself. I do indeed recommend this to those who enjoy a lusciously long conversation through unexpected imagery and reflection, as if the coffee pot would never run dry.


Tagged in: nonfiction, memoirs, Notable Books, "The Faraway Nearby",
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"Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See" by Juliann Garey

February 25, 2014 by PatLeach
I chose "Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See" by Juliann Garey because it's on this year's American Library Association Notable Books list.

Briefly, it's a novel about a man's descent into mental illness, in this case bipolar disorder, eventually climbing back toward a glimmer of hope for his recovery.

Greyson Todd narrates all twelve sections, each correlating to an electroshock treatment in a psychiatric ward. He includes flashbacks to his adulthood and childhood, revealing the lingering impact of his father's mental illness.

Todd has achieved high success as a studio executive in California when he decides to leave his wife and daughter. It has become more and more difficult to hide the manifestations of his illness. He has ample money, so he travels to various countries, living all kinds of adventures before that money runs out.

I've been reading most of the books on the Notable Books lists for over 20 years, and my bar is now set very high. This one barely measures up. I can't point to particular faults with it, I simply didn't feel the pull of strong narrative or compelling characters.

Even so, it is a potent book group book. Where Garey excels in this story is when revealing the connection between Todd's behavior and the progress of his illness. In doing so, she asks important questions. What does it mean to hit rock bottom? How do we respond to someone who's mentally ill, especially when he is violent? How do families re-build? Can mental illness be cured without love? How does trust ever happen?


Tagged in: Notable Books, fiction, Juliann Garey, Juliann Garey,
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"The Woman Upstairs"

February 20, 2014 by PatLeach
Working my way through the American Library Association Notable Books list, I picked up "The Woman Upstairs" by Claire Messud.

Its narrator is Nora Eldridge, a third grade teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She introduces this novel, "How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that." Nora intended to be an artist. But that has been set aside. At 42, she is a popular teacher, a dutiful daughter, and a dependable friend. She is "the woman upstairs." And nobody knows how furious she is.

She goes on to tell how five years previous her dreams were reawakened by a remarkable family who entered her life. First the son joins her class, then the mother who is an artist invites her to share space, then the father, a visiting professor, becomes special to her. Each of them possesses a personality that matches Nora's needs--their jigsaw pieces seem to complete her puzzle. But it doesn't last, and worse, it leads to betrayal.

Ongoing foreshadowing led me to expect some kind of huge awful explosion. It didn't happen as I expected, and perhaps that is why this is a strong book. It seems entirely realistic--this earthshaking interior change in Nora, instead of propelling her into a life of art, kindles fury instead. She stokes it because it makes her feel alive.

Messud has mastered choosing and describing key interactions. Nora is aware of feminist aspects of her situation and  sees herself enduring dates with duty. Her telling leaves plenty of space for the reader to see more than she does.

The story reads like an extended conversation. It's tailor made for book groups. I salute Messud for the open ending, a perfect discussion point. I still can't decide whether it's hopeless or hopeful. I'll recommend this to many of my reading friends, and look forward to extending the conversation with them.


Tagged in: fiction, Notables, Claire Messud, "The Woman Upstairs",
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Herman Koch's "The Dinner"

February 06, 2014 by PatLeach
The American Library Association's Notable Books List (for adults) was announced Sunday, January 26. It includes "The Dinner" by Herman Koch, a contemporary novel first published in the Netherlands in 2009, now available in English.

The action happens during a dinner at a high-end Amsterdam restaurant. Two brothers and their wives are gathering to discuss their sons. The narrator, one of the brothers, seems to poke fun at every aspect of the restaurant's style, food, and service. He's an unemployed teacher, his brother a candidate for prime minister of the country. Slowly we learn that their sons may be responsible for a death. The dinner conversation will address what comes next. In almost comic ways, the dinner is interrupted by telephone calls, trips to the restroom, and other extended absences. The story takes a sharp turn when the narrator reveals his own history of mental illness and violence, building the bridge to events that grow out of control. Koch seems to be almost calling a bluff with violence, probing what can happen when the stakes are that high. It puts the sons' alarming behavior in an even more alarming context. I couldn't stop reading, a testimony to Koch's plotting and pacing.

Some of the scenes struck me as completely harrowing, partly due to the contrast with the initial setting in the overly civilized restaurant. I appreciated how Koch allowed the narrator's tone to move from humorous though begrudging to almost monstrous. Looking back, I salute Koch for so deftly combining civilization, humor and violence, thus heightening the impact of all. The references to Tolstoy's quote, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" remind the reader that this is a distinctive family indeed.

I recommend this to book groups, readers of suspense, and others who seek books that plumb extreme behavior. The classic book discussion issues of how children are raised, how far parents will go to protect them, how mental illness shapes behavior, and how families communicate are all right here. And more.


Tagged in: Notable Books, fiction, "The Dinner", Herman Koch,
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"Longbourn" by Jo Baker

February 03, 2014 by PatLeach
I learned about "Longbourn: a Novel" by Jo Baker when a friend posted about it on Facebook. She wrote, "Just finished the best book I have read in months, 'Longbourn.' Read it immediately. It will fill you with joy." And Voila! I was perusing the New Books display at Bennett Martin Library, and there it was. It contributed to one of my favorite things--a weekend when I started AND finished a book.

"Longbourn" might be described as "Pride and Prejudice" as experienced by the household staff. Jo Baker takes the skeleton of events from "Pride and Prejudice" but writes a totally separate, stands-on-it-own story. Its primary focus is Sarah, a young housemaid who came into service from the orphanage. She comes across as practical, competent, and intelligent. Once a new footman joins the staff, we see how she learns for love. Her awareness of the limitations of her situation grows as she finds herself wanting more than a life of laundering, scrubbing, and emptying chamber pots. Baker's spot-on depiction of the stress of difficult work, done with only the family's good will as job security, keeps the story from growing saccharine.

I was struck by how well Baker portrayed realistic misunderstandings as people get to know each other romantically. She impressed me when one of the contenders for Sarah's affection shows himself to be a much better man than we expected. Overall, I admired how she gathered together the household staff and created a family of them under the wing of Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper. It rang true when sometimes their life together seemed claustrophobic in how closely they work with and observe each other.

I'm not sure this book needs to be recommended since it can ride on the coattails of the always popular Jane Austen and currently popular  "Downton Abbey." Even so, I will recommend it to readers who will appreciate the quality Jo Baker instilled here. Her writing doesn't try to be Jane Austen's, but might be described as of the period.

Aside from a few quibbles about some anachronistic social views, I agree with my friend. "Read it immediately. It will fill you with joy."


Tagged in: fiction, Jane Austen, Jo Baker, Longbourn,
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