Tag Archives: Algonquin Books

The Book Of My Life

our-short-history

Our Short History: A Novel by Lauren Grodstein (Algonquin, $26.95, 352 pages)

It’s admittedly early in 2017, but I suspect that this may well wind up as one of the best novels of the year.

Grodstein’s novel is about Karen Neulander, a powerful and successful political consultant in New York City.  Karen has fought a tough battle with ovarian cancer.  As we meet her, her cancer is in remission but is likely to return.  Karen’s doctors have been doing all they can to extend her life but can offer her, at best, no more than an additional 48 to 60 months.  (They cannot promise her that she will have the best quality of life in the time that remains.)

Karen relies on her younger sister Allie – a wife and mother and Seattle resident, to take care of both her and her six-year-old son Jake.  Jake represents absolutely everything that matters to Karen.  She will willingly surrender her career, her health, her life if it means that Jake will be alright.

“The truth is that even more than I want to be healthy, I want you to be okay.  Even more than I want to live forever, I want you to live forever…  Thank you, baby boy.  For as long as I’ve known you, you have given me the strength I need to keep on living.  I look at you and I feel strong.  Every day you help me feel strong.”  

Karen comes to realize that Allie can take her place and serve as a replacement mother to Jake once she dies.  But then the best laid plans evaporate as Jake decides that he wants to meet his father, Dave.  Dave never wanted children.  When he and Karen were together, Dave pressured her to abort the child she was carrying.  This led Karen to walk out on the relationship and to sever all contact with Dave.

Karen must now decide whether to connect Jake with the man who literally wished his son had never been born – a man she still loves but detests, or to refuse Jake’s request in order to protect herself.  Either way the outcome is likely to be unpleasant.  As part of her personal care, Karen decides to write a history of her life with Jake; that personal journal – full of good times, but also hard truths, blemishes and defeats, is this novel.  (It’s meant to be read by Jake decades after Karen’s passing.)

This is Grodstein’s sixth novel but it reads like a debut work.  It has the voice of a writer attacking a story while narrating it with a quiet confidence.  In that, it calls to mind Audrey Niffenegger’s brilliant Her Fearful Symmetry.    

Grodstein permits the reader to live, for a period, the life of a terminal cancer patient.  It is hardly a pleasant experience, nor is it meant to be.  She allows us to see that even in human pain and suffering, existence has a purpose.  Karen has found her purpose; in this, she is a lucky person.

In the words of author Celeste Ng, “This novel will leave you appreciating both the messiness of life and the immense depths of love.”  Well said.

The reader who makes it to the final pages of Our Short History will have paid a price – in smiles, laughter, heartbreak, fear and tears.  It’s a price well worth paying as Grodstein’s story is a nearly perfect representation of the notion that everything in life – painful and pleasing, has relevance.  One’s life is lived not in days or weeks, but over years and decades.

This is a literally breathtaking, life affirming work.  It’s not a ghost story like Her Fearful Symmetry, but it’s written from the perspective of a woman who knows that her time on earth is limited.  (After she’s gone, the “short history” – the personal story she’s recorded – will communicate with her son in a ghostly fashion.)  Our Short History is beautifully, finely written and haunting in its own way.  Look for it in March.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

 

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China Boy

leavers

The Leavers: A Novel by Lisa Ko (Algonquin Books, $25.95, 352 pages)

“There’s no heavier burden than a great potential.”   Charles Schulz

Sometimes a writer can outthink herself.   I found this to be the case with The Leavers: A Novel.   The central character is a boy from China who is adopted by American parents.  Deming Gou’s mother, who is an undocumented immigrant in New York City, one day leaves home to go to work at a nail salon but never returns.   Subsequently Deming – who becomes Daniel Wilkinson, is adopted by white parents, both professors at a small private college in upstate New York.

Daniel suddenly becomes a stranger in a strange land.   Used to the hustle and bustle and diversity of the big city, he must learn to survive in a quiet community where he is The Other; being Chinese, he is known to his Anglo classmates as Special No. 2 (a selection from a Chinese menu).

For so long, he had thought that music was the one thing he could believe in: harmony and angular submelody and rolling drums, a world neither present nor past, a space inhabited by the length of a song.   For a song had a heart of its own, a song could jumpstart or provide solace; only music could numb him more thoroughly than weed or alcohol.  

Daniel is a screw-up but a fascinating character.   He plays electric guitar in a rock band, but keeps dropping out of the group even though success is on the horizon.  He has a problem with gambling (stereotypically) and loses thousands of dollars borrowed from friends.   He drops out of college and ruins multiple chances to go to school at the university where his adopted parents teach.   His story is interesting and linear, and it builds momentum, until…

One third of the way through the book, author Ko suddenly turns her attention to Polly Gou, Deming/Daniel’s birth mother, and transports us to China.   The telling now comes to a halt and the air seems to go out of the story.   Polly was deported from the U.S. and winds up with virtually nothing in her homeland, but somehow goes from rags to riches.   It seems improbable, and Ko spends too much time painting a melodramatic – over-the-top – account of Polly’s pre-deportation period spent in a detention camp in Texas.   The details are highly unpleasant.   Although it’s an attempt to get the reader to identify with, and side with, Gou, for me it had the reverse effect — making me want to put the book down.

The primary issue is that the straight ahead story of Daniel Wilkinson becomes lost and diluted by the long and winding, twisty, road that’s Polly Gou’s story.   It’s as if Ko attempted to meld two different half-novels together.   It didn’t work. The initial story – the fascinating tale of an adoptee attempting to find himself – was dumped for an adjunct creation.   (Basically, Gou’s story subsumes Wilkinson’s.)

Of course, once the final third of the book arrives, Ko has found a means of bringing Daniel Wilkinson and Polly Gou together again after many years.   It’s too clever, and by then I didn’t care.

The Leavers had great potential which sadly goes unfulfilled.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Leavers, a debut novel, will be released on May 2, 2017.

 

 

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Working 9 to 5

The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker by Janet Groth (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $14.95, 240 pages)

The Receptionist

Then there was the shame of the writer who doesn’t write. The me who carried within my breast in equal shares the conviction that I could write and the certainty that I could not.

Longtime fans of The New Yorker magazine are the perfect audience for this memoir. Ms. Groth writes of her 20+ years as a receptionist on the 18th floor of the building where the magazine offices were located. The floor housed 40 writers and six or more cartoonists. The reception desk can be likened to a ringside seat at a much-loved and revered weekly publication.

The opening chapters serve as a low-key introduction to Ms. Groth, a newly-minted graduate of the University of Minnesota with aspirations of becoming a writer. The move to New York City was like going to a foreign land after living in the Mid-West. These slowly-evolving vignettes are strung together to illustrate her rather humble beginnings at the magazine.

The vignettes offer the reader glimpses into a world of art and literature based in Manhattan where the game of six degrees of separation can be traced back to Ms. Groth’s earliest years – beginning in 1957, right up to her “graduation” to the world of college teaching in 1978 after earning a PhD in literature from NYU. Her grammar is impeccable and the evenly-paced narrative becomes remarkably open with many elements of her life that are both risque and expected for life in Manhattan during the sexual revolution. It is as if the reader is delving into all aspects of Ms. Groth’s life after getting to know her.

A young woman whose job is receptionist in a rarefied circumstance sees and hears rather remarkable things. She can become indispensable to the staff and literally become part of their lives outside of work. This is especially true when she is a constant presence in an otherwise changing array of personnel. Clearly, some of the long-time and revered writers and editors form the nucleus of the staff and their interactions with Ms. Groth are fascinating.

Today it would be unusual for an employee to maintain a receptionist position for such a long time in one department or company or area of an organization. To her credit, Ms Groth provides the reader with an even-handed account of her ownership of what transpired over her two decades at The New Yorker. It is a sui generis true story.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Coming Up Next…

The Receptionist 2

A review of The Receptionist: An Education at the New Yorker by Janet Groth.

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Full of Grace

 

pictures of youPictures of You: A Novel by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin Books, $13.95, 336 pages)

There was no cause and effect. There was no karma. The truth was that he wasn’t so sure he understood how the world worked anymore.

At the opening of Pictures of You, two women — April and Isabelle — are literally driving away from their marriages when they collide into each other on a foggy highway. Only Isabelle survives. This leaves three survivors, including Isabelle’s husband Charlie, April’s husband Sam and his needy 9-year-old son, Sam. In his neediness, Sam comes to view Isabelle as an angel placed on earth to save him.

It’s quite an innovative set-up for an extremely well written novel by Caroline Leavitt. Leavitt writes in a calm, methodical, factual style that brings to mind both Michelle Richmond and Diane Hammond; and like those authors (and Elizabeth Berg) she intends to impart a few of life’s lessons in the process of telling a story. One lesson has to do with powerlessness: “You could think you understood things, but the truth was that you could never see the full picture of someone else’s life.”

Than there’s the fact that we look for something more than human in times of grief and trouble: “Maybe tomorrow, the angel might be the one to come for him.” “People believed in angels when they were most in trouble.”

…he had somehow photographed her so that her shoulders were dark and burly, as if she had wings under her dress… (as if) she might spread them to lift off the ground and fly away.

Sam’s desire to make something sacred out of the very human Isabelle is a representation of the fact that everyone seeks comfort and safety in life. When Sam’s father reads the obituaries in the newspaper, “He (doesn’t) bother to brush away his tears… each one said the same thing: Come home. Come home.”

It wasn’t a pill or a car that made her feel safe.

Isabelle, however, is the one who has the clear chance to re-start her life, and the reader will be intrigued to see what choices she makes. The beauty of Leavitt’s telling is that what the reader thinks is going to happen does not. And this, in itself, makes it a very special book.

Pictures of You concludes with a perfect ending in which everything is fully and satisfactorily resolved. There’s also a Hollywood-style postscript, a look back from 21 years later, that adds a nice cinematic touch to the account. All in all, this is an amazing novel.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. 

The reader who enjoys this book may want to read American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn, which also wrestles with the notion of angels on this earth.

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On the Way Home

Pictures of You (original)

Pictures of You: A Novel by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin Books, $13.95, 336 pages)

Caroline Leavitt has built a reputation for insightful probing of motives, desires, and the emotional gears that mesh, don’t mesh, or can be worn to mesh as lives intersect. Pictures of You demonstrates that human gears, unlike their mechanical counterparts, have the ability to regrow and change shape, like calluses that evolve in response to physical exertion.

The synopsis on the book’s back cover does not do the book justice. It sets up the bleak scenario of two thirty-something women, both married, one with a child and the other unable to conceive, whose paths cross in a violent collision on a foggy highway as they both flee unhappy marriages. Isabelle survives the crash. April, the mother of nine-year-old Sam, who was hobbled by severe asthma, does not. Potential readers with an aversion to made-for-TV melodrama might hesitate to wade into an emotional journey so fraught with tragedy. But that would be a mistake.

The story, alternatively told from the viewpoints of Isabelle, Sam, and his grief-stricken father, Charlie, is an examination of assumptions and the actions that spring from them. It’s not a book that leaves one with a happy glow of contentment. Rather, it is a wake-up call to talk, ask questions, challenge operating principles and decisions, to dive below the surface and know the people you love, or think you might be able to love.

Sam witnesses the collision from the side of the road, and in the fog, he sees Isabelle, whom he believes is an angel. It is that childish impression — like a photograph without a caption — that drives the plot forward, prompting the intersections of Charlie and Isabelle’s lives. And Sam ultimately provides the closure that eludes Charlie and Isabelle, as well as a note of hopefulness. Ironically, however, Sam’s viewpoint is the only one of the three that sometimes rings false, his thoughts seeming too adult for a nine-year-old, or too precious.

He didn’t care that people might say it was impossible. Lots of things were impossible. At school, Mr. Moto, his science teacher told them how light could be both a wave and a particle, which was supposed to be impossible. You could go to a distant planet and somehow come back younger than you were when you left because the laws of time were all screwy.

But the way Isabelle’s feelings develop — the clash of grief and the thrill of new love — and Charlie’s struggles to solve the mystery of April’s desertion and to balance his needs and his son’s are beautifully drawn. Leavitt’s prose is luminous and her characters are layered. Charlie, a house builder, takes bold steps, and then reverses himself; Isabelle, a photographer, watches, reacts, questions her own impulses. Pictures of You is compelling, not so much because of the tragic intersection of paths chosen, but because of the characters’ failure to know each other as they envision their lives together. It’s not the portrait of Charlie, Isabelle and Sam that will haunt you long after you finish the book, but it’s negative.

Recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Coming Up Next…

Caroline Leavitt’s new book, Is This Tomorrow: A Novel, will be released on Tuesday, May 7, 2013. Before this, we will take not one but two looks at her prior novel, Pictures of You.

Pictures of You (alt.)

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