Tag Archives: Her Fearful Symmetry

The Book Of My Life

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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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Not So Harmonious

harmony

Harmony: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (Pamela Dorman Books, $26.00, 288 pages)

In 2003, I purchased and read the then-new novel The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst. I found it to be strange, engaging and more than a bit troubling. Years later I received a review copy of The Nobodies Album, a novel that I found to be flat and dry the first time I read it. For some reason, I later elected to read Nobodies a second time and enjoyed it once I realized that Parkhurst was channeling the cool, icy style of Joan Didion.

And so we come to Harmony, the latest novel from Parkhurst. The first thing I will note is that it’s more Babel-like than Nobodies. Basically, the author has decided to write a giant curveball of a story. Trust me, it’s not what you think it is.

In Nobodies Parkhurst took us into the world of professional musicians. Like a musician, she uses tension to a great extent in Harmony – such a calming title for a tense work, setting us up for what we believe will be discomfort and pain before relief.

We’re not ordinary people anymore. As far as the whole world is concerned, you’re all members of a cult. And me? I’m your leader, I’m your Jim Jones.

In this story, Alexandra Hammond is a mother in Washington, D.C. facing significant difficulties in managing her autistic daughter Tilly. Her husband Josh and her other daughter, Iris, are also highly affected by the situations created by the brilliant, yet socially inept Tilly. Finally, Alexandra finds a savior of sorts, a not-quite psychologist/teacher by the name of Scott Bean. Bean proposes to set up Camp Harmony in the wilds of New Hampshire, a place of refuge and healing for families with unique, difficult (never “special”) children.

It turns out, naturally, that Mr. Bean may be anything but stable himself.

The good news about Harmony is that there are stretches where Parkhurst hits her stride in writing well:

Happiness, as it exists in the world – as opposed to those artificially constructed moments like weddings and birthday parties, where it’s gathered into careful piles – is not smooth. Happiness in the real world is mostly just resilience and a willingness to arch oneself toward optimism. To believe that people are more good than bad. To believe that the waves carrying you are neither friendly nor malicious, and to know that you’re less likely to drown if you stop struggling against them.

But the fine writing is more or less wasted in a tale that’s clever, clever, clever and clever. In the words of a college professor, “This is too clever by half.” Even worse, when Parkhurst reaches the natural ending of the story she refuses to let it lie. Instead, she adds on an “epilogue” that stands alone. It’s unrealistic and calls to mind the magic-centered writing of Audrey Niffenegger (Her Fearful Symmetry).

It’s quite likely that Parkhurst has it in her to write a Niffenegger-style story of hope and deliverance. But this is not that story.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on August 2, 2016.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-harmony-by-carolyn-parkhurst/

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The Pied Piper

art of neil gaiman (nook book)

The Art of Neil Gaiman by Hayley Campbell (Harper Design, $39.99, 320 pages)

Neil Gaiman describes his work as making stuff up and writing it down.

Where to begin? The perfect biographer, the physical book (a large one), the captivating stories and their history coalesce to provide the fortunate reader with the feeling of truly experiencing Neil Gaiman. Audrey Niffenegger, author of the ghost story Her Fearful Symmetry and fellow Brit, sets the mood for Hayley Campbell’s thorough exploration into the evolution of Gaiman, to date.

If there is one thing that characterizes Gaiman as a writer (and McKean as an artist for that matter), it’s that he likes to keep moving on, a habit that was no doubt born during his time as a journalist and seeing writers being trapped in boxes from which they can never escape.

I’m a relative newcomer to the world of Neil Gaiman. The only work of Gaiman’s that I’ve read – and it happened in one sitting, is The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The provocative little novel piqued my curiosity. Who would write in this style and what sort of person are they in everyday life?

art of neil gaiman (alt)

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Biographer (and model) Campbell establishes her bona fides by explaining that she met Gaiman in 1992 when she was just six years old. He was a houseguest and, based on her dad’s enthusiasm at the visit, she knew he was special. Oh, and he was the author of her favorite childhood story. Their friendship has continued to the present. Campbell had free run of the vast archive of his work, mostly stored in the attic of his home.

The Art of Neil Gaiman is appropriately named. Gaiman made conscious and sometimes not-so-conscious decisions to become a writer. At times he took odd assignments to provide himself with food and shelter. Regardless of the job outcomes, it is clear that Gaiman searches for the lesson and value in his experiences. As a writer for magazines, he learned to quickly produce a finished piece. His habit of taking notes of ideas as they occur to him has provided him with a wealth of material.

The numerous illustrations are widely varied – photocopies of scribbled notes, childhood pictures, sketches for various projects and illustrations from finished works. The book is easy to read and engaging. Each page entertains the reader.

I savored the vignettes along with meals. There was no urgency as one feels with a mystery novel. The unfolding tale of Gaiman’s development as an artist is fascinating. The sections are arranged in quasi-chronological order. Some contain parallel time frames but different aspects of his development as a writer.

So, just what sort of person is this artist in everyday life? Neil Gaiman has a genuine appreciation of readers as well as being a kind person. Oh, and his imagination is boundless!

This book will remain a permanent part of my library.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

You can read a review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane (by Neil Gaiman) here:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2013/07/01/i-am-a-child/

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Spirits (Having Flown)

What I Had Before I Had You: A Novel by Sarah Cornwell (Harper, $24.95, 275 pages)

What I Had Before

This is a novel that seemed to promise a good story. Unfortunately, the story was lost in the execution. The book involves two plot lines, the first about a young woman – Olivia Reed – who loses her nine-year-old bipolar son at Funtown Pier on the Jersey Shore. The second plot line involves her coming into contact – years earlier, with the supposed ghosts of her twin sisters that died at birth. This latter plot line caught my attention as I hoped it would offer some of the unique enjoyment found in Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.

The two disjointed stories, regrettably, come together to no apparent purpose. One reason is that Cornwell sacrifices the two plot lines for a third – the story of Olivia’s psychic and mentally troubled mother, Myla. This means that the narrative jumps awkwardly and often incoherently between present and past times. As greatly disappointing as this is, the reader learns early on that this is no ghost story. The supposed twin ghosts are in fact living young women (how it is that Olivia believed they were the spirits of her dead sisters is never made clear).

Cornwell may have potential as an author but in this debut novel she mixes bad and good writing. Her prose is often leaden as in this example:

The dorm is a high-rise with a view of the Hudson River. In the elevator, older boys look me up and down. I think I’d better be wild tonight: I could use a thrill to get out of my head after all the illuminations of the week. I study Cortney’s warped reflection in the elevator’s chrome wall and see not the flesh-and-blood girl I know she is, but the ghost staring back at me, and this gives me a little push, a little reignition. When the elevator stops and she gets out, we are mortal again, and I feel the loss and need a drink.

And sometimes she writes well as in these two examples:

They are seeing my mother move through the house, while I am seeing the house move through my mother. There is a sense of brokenness and insufficiency and then a sense of crushing loneliness. My mother turns around to look me in the eye and smiles a grim smile. She knows I am receiving her.

I make female friends rarely, but when I do, I find myself acting slightly different: bubblier or quieter or more intellectual, or less. These small calibrations wear me out; I am exhausted after spending time with women.

(Note that Cornwell uses dated words for a story set in modern times – illuminations, calibrations.)

What I Had Before I Had You may appeal to those who harbor intense, lifelong anger at a parent. These readers may identify in some way with the horribly dysfunctional relationship between Olivia and Myla. Yet I suspect that most will fail to connect with this strange, highly troubling tale.

About half way through the reading of this rather short novel, some readers will have figured out a logical conclusion; however, this would rest upon Myla’s being alive. No spoiler alert is needed, but Cornwell figures out a way to get to that conclusion despite the fact that Olivia’s mother is dead. It’s like watching someone pound a square peg into a round hole, and it is not satisfying.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on January 7, 2014.

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Vintage Clothes

Astor Place Vintage: A Novel by Stephanie Lehmann (Touchstone, $16.00, 396 pages)

The theme of Astor Place Vintage is familiar — vintage clothes, an old apartment and mysterious experiences provide a marvelous link to the past. It’s as if The Secret Lives of Dresses melded with Her Fearful Symmetry and The Secret Keeper. Alternating chapters, from 2007 and 1907, make for engaging reading. The issues faced by women who choose to be on their own, but a century apart, are similar and yet not.

Astor Place Vintage

This is a multi-generational tale about women; however, it is clearly not chic lit. Author Stephanie Lehmann has invested serious time and effort researching very early 1900s New York City. The restaurants, stores, street names and events portrayed (such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire) are real. Numerous excellently-reproduced photographs allow the reader to have a glimpse into the working world of women of that era. Department stores and garment factories were their primary employers.

In 2007, Astor Place Vintage shop owner, Amanda Rosenbloom, who is nearing 40, wishes she could convince her lover of many years, Jeff, to leave his wife. Jeff has been subsidizing the shop and the apartment upstairs; in other words, Amanda is a kept woman. Her livelihood is in peril when she receives a notice to vacate the store. Relocating is unrealistic as shop rents have become astronomical.

In 1907 upper middle class 20-year-old Olive Westcott moves to NYC with her widower father who manages a Woolworth’s store. She yearns to be on her own. Be careful what you wish for! Olive’s life takes a sharp turn and the tale begins in earnest.

A very elderly woman, Jane Kelly, who is 98, is the living link between the clothes worn by Olive and Amanda’s shop. Although the book is a novel, the lives of the characters naturally lead to intrigue and prompt the reader to speculate how the story lines will converge.

This is Stephanie Lehmann’s fifth novel, and while it is the first of hers that this reviewer has read, it won’t be the only one. Ms. Lehmann’s smooth writing style, excellent dialogue and meticulous research efforts prove to be an unbeatable combination.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Insightful, charming and wholly entertaining.” Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner.

Astor Place Vintage will be released on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

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Comin’ Back to Me

You Came Back: A Novel by Christopher Coake (Grand Central Publishing, $24.99, 416 pages)

“…he’d spent the year before Brendan’s death sullen and sulky as a little boy…  he’d spent his nights drinking and staring at the Internet instead of trying to explain to Chloe how he felt.”

Great ghost stories – ones that seem both plausible and questionable – don’t come along every day.   One of the most recent great ones was Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.   Symmetry had us so enthralled that we posted three separate reviews of the haunting novel on this site.   Now Christopher Coake has presented a story with all the depth of Symmetry, interestingly set in the neighborhoods of Columbus that adjoin the Ohio State University campus.

Our protagonist, Mark Fife, entered a period of isolating and drinking too much, which spurred his wife Chloe – the true love of his life – to leave him at home one night, supervising their young son Brendan.   Mark orders his son to go upstairs while he drinks and watches an Ohio State basketball game on the TV downstairs.   At some point Mark hears a strange sound and gets up to find that Brendan has fallen down the staircase, and has died from a broken neck.   Thus begins the ruination of Mark’s existence.   Chloe, who blames him for their only child’s death, divorces him and sells the house where the family once happily lived.   Mark goes on to spend years living in a townhouse, drinking far too much and thinking about ending it all.

As the story opens, seven full years have gone by and Mark’s now happy with his life.   He’s met Allie, the upbeat woman he’s engaged to, and he’s got a great friend from college, Lewis, who helps him to remain firmly footed in reality.   And then…  The woman who purchased Mark and Chloe’s former home has a story to tell.   Chloe eventually sends Mark a letter explaining that this woman’s son has seen and heard Brendan’s ghost in the house.   Is this for real or is it simply a ruse for Chloe – who hated Mark when she filed for divorce but now professes to once again be in love with him – to break up Mark’s forthcoming marriage to Allie?

Mark has spent his adult life being powerless when it comes to Chloe, and now she’s asking him to go to their old house to see Brendan’s ghost.   Mark doesn’t believe in ghosts (“I’ve never believed anything like this.   Never.   This is hard.“), he never has, but then remembers that his serious and grounded friend Lewis once saw a ghost – and Lewis now tells him that seeing the ghost was one of the most authentic experiences in his life.

Will Mark run back to Chloe and in the process perhaps re-destroy his own life?   Or will he spurn her and maybe lose out on the chance to again communicate with his long-lost son?   What is real and important in life?   Mark Fife is about to find out…

“…he went over the same looping sentences.   If-thens, what-ifs.   He came to no answers.   Either Brendan was in the house or he wasn’t.   Either way, Mark himself was trapped.   Either way, he would hurt Allison or Chloe.”

Coake writes in an all-too-smooth style; one in which flawed humans are portrayed so realistically that the tale moves along as if it’s being projected onto a film screen.   And, like Niffenegger, there’s a calmness about the telling that draws you in – but with the understanding that you’ll receive hints when the story is about to dramatically explode.

You’ll have to devote the time to reading 400 plus pages to appreciate Coake’s offerings.   It’s a worthwhile price to pay for discovering a highly talented, powerfully skilled writer.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   You Came Back was released on June 12, 2012.  

“When I finished the last page of Christopher Coake’s amazing new novel, I set the book down with a real sense of wonder…  (This story) is less concerned with the supernatural than with the all-too-real specters that haunt us all – the ghosts of our former selves, the ghosts of the lives we might have lived had just a few things turned out differently…  What an incredible writer.”   Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of She’s Not There and I’m Looking Through You.

Here is a link to one of the reviews of Her Fearful Symmetry

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2009/09/23/what-comes-after/

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It Was A (Very) Good Year

The Year-End Literary Review

In my opinion, this was a good to very good year to be a reader; not as good as 2010 in terms of its offerings, and hopefully not as good as what’s to come in 2012.   Let’s look at some of the highlights and lowlights of 2011.

The rise (and fall?) of the e-reader

The e-book readers offered by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony began to finally take off in terms of general acceptance.   Even a Luddite such as I am picked up a Nook Color tablet, as the issue of glare seemed to have been resolved with the fine screen manufactured by LG.   But just as e-readers were taking flight, the reading public received some very disturbing year-end news (“…rising e-book prices causing sticker shock.”).

It seems that publishers are about to kill their golden goose by raising the prices on e-books to levels that will match or exceed the print versions.   Yes, it appears to be a replay of what happened with the recording industry…  Music CDs first appeared with reasonable prices of $9.99 and then shot up to double that and more; and the industry then wondered what happened to their sales figures.   Duh.

Fine biographies

It was a good time for biographies, the two most notable being Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Robert Redford by Michael Feeney Callan.   Both were examples of treating famous people as more than living legends – turning them into three-dimensional figures with true strengths and weaknesses.   Callan’s book is such a fascinating portrait of the actor that you’ll want to see every film mentioned in it.

Intriguing debuts

It’s always fun to discover new writers at the start of their career, and both Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett and The Violets of March by Sarah Jio were engaging life and love-affirming debut novels.   Kudos!

Mixed memories

It was a mixed front when it came to personal memoirs.   Christina Haag produced a singular New York Times Bestseller with Come to the Edge: A Love Story, her entertainingly nostalgic account of the five years she spent as the girlfriend of John F. Kennedy, Jr.   If you’ve missed this one, it will be released in trade paper form in January – with a cover that’s sure to capture the female reader’s eye!   (Some will remember that JFK, Jr. was once named “The Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine.)

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates might have been a groundbreaking account of what happens to a wife after her husband dies suddenly.   But it was preceded four years earlier by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.   Oates’s account unfortunately read like a note-for-note  cover of Didion’s earlier account.   Oates and Didion are, no doubt, two of our best writers but only one of them could assemble a uniquely first tragic memoir.

A troubling trend

2011 was the year in which a few fictional works were introduced that I wound up calling “plotless novels.”   These were books whose plots generally centered around an ensemble cast of characters, occupying only a few days in time; time in which nothing noteworthy seemed to occur.   Reading one of these novels is like, paraphrasing Jerry Seinfeld, perusing “a story about nothing.”   A few misguided or mischievous critics made them popular by praising them as being clever.   Well, they were clever in getting a few unfortunate readers to pay money for a book without a beginning, middle or ending.

Hurry up, already

Another parallel troubling trend had to do with novels that took 90 or 100 pages to get to the beginning of the story.   Any story that takes that long to get started is, trust me, not going to end well.

Good and very good, but not necessarily great

While there were some good and very good works to read this year, it’s hard to think of standouts like we had in 2009 (Her Fearful Symmetry by Anne Niffenegger) or 2010 (American Music by Jane Mendelsohn, Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott, The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris).   One novel that did receive plenty of attention was The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, which the average reader seemed to find either brilliant or meandering and tedious.   One hundred and sixty-eight readers posted their reviews on Amazon and these love it or hate it views balanced out to an average 3-star (of 5) rating.

Give me someone to love

Some were troubled by Eugenides’ novel because of the lack of likeable characters, a critique to which I can relate.   If an author does not give me a single character that I can identify with, trying to finish a novel seems pointless.   Why invest the time reading a story if you simply don’t care what happens to the characters the writer’s created?

In summary

This year was filled with unrealized potential.   Let’s hope for a bit more excitement in the publishing world in 2012!

Joseph Arellano

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