Tag Archives: Her Fearful Symmetry

Everybody Knows This is Nowhere

Mrs. Somebody Somebody: Fiction by Tracy Winn (Random House; $14.00)

“Lucy Mattsen was nobody – like all the women I worked with – until the day the baby fell out the window.”

With that near-perfect opening sentence, Tracy Winn delivers a collection of short stories that promises more than they deliver.   This is not a bad collection, it’s just that the stories are uneven in tone although they – in theory – are joined by being the tales of a group of individuals who lived in a dying mill town in the Northeastern region of the United States.   These are stories about people in different walks of life:  rich by inheritance and work versus the poor; old bloods versus immigrant arrivals; foppish people of privilege who live in dated but glorious mansions versus the people who live down in the boondocks in the abandoned mills.

What these individuals have in common is that of all the places to live in the world, in this country, they have chosen (or had chosen for them) to live in a place whose time has come and gone.   There’s a sense that they are ghosts in the town where one mill operates in the place of the six that once made it a place of prosperity.   And even that one remaining mill closes.

It is left to the reader to determine the time frame, the date, of each story.   Generally the only clue provided by Winn is a mention of the make and model of an automobile (Chevy Bel Air, Chevette, Dodge Aspen).   Other than this, there’s a sense of disorientation that occasionally may remind the reader of Audrey Niffenegger’s (Her Fearful Symmetry) prose.

Winn can write:  “He imagined her taking long strides under the sprawling shade trees, past the trim hedges of sunny Fairmont Avenue…  the lithe lines of her, the symmetry of her lean face, her pulse beating in the tender skin below her ear.   She’d swing her bare arms, the hot sun on her face, her skirt swishing declaratively.   She walked the way she thought, in a straight clear path.   She sliced through life, clean-edged.”

The issue is that while Winn can build interest in her characters, to this reader they never felt like real persons, true human beings; the stories  often have the feel of writing exercises, of something written for an academic assignment.   Thus, we never come to feel at one with these individuals; these quasi-ghosts remain just that.   (They are not persons we wish to spend much time with.)

The best stories in this group come at the end, as if Winn was beginning to warm up, to find her voice, the closer she came to completing the work.   Tracy Winn surely shows her potential here, although the potential is largely unrealized.   If you’re currently in the market for a collection of short stories, a preferable choice would be Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy (reviewed on this site on June 21, 2010, “Having It All”).   But be warned that Meloy does not open her set with a near-perfect first sentence.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Two of Us

The Last Will of Moira Leahy: A Novel by Therese Walsh (Three Rivers Press; $15.00; 304 pages)

Therese Walsh’s first novel is a story of twins; a pair of near mystical sisters who call to mind the twins in Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.   The twins share thoughts, a unique language and their lives until an accident with tragic consequences for the piano-playing prodigy Moira.   Maeve, the narrator, must then find the means to continue her life on her own.   She’s assisted on her journey by finding a magical keris sword, and this leads her to Europe, where she finds out special things about her life and her sister’s life.

Maeve blames herself for the accident involving Moira and the journey that she takes provides her with a new perspective and much-needed forgiveness.   This is a well-told and very entertaining read from Walsh, although the reader must be willing to suspend reality as parts border on magic and science fiction.   There’s also a tremendous amount of jumping around, jarring the reader’s patience with the lack of chronological order.  

Sticking with the story until the end will, however, reward the reader with a satisfying conclusion to this unique tale by a very promising writer.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

   “This tender tale of sisterhood, self-discovery, and forgiveness will captivate fans of contemporary women’s fiction.”   Library Journal

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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The Book of the Year

Last year, I selected Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel by Audrey Niffenegger as the book of the year.   This year, I’m selecting a novel that is just as daring, powerful and unique – American Music by Jane Mendelsohn.   A long review of American Music was posted on this site on August 22, 2010.   To find that initial review, enter the terms Other Voices, Other Rooms (a tip of the hat to Truman Capote) in the Search It! box on the right and hit enter.

Here is a shorter review that I wrote for Sacramento Book Review:

“He was entering someplace.   It seemed to be his life.”

Author Jane Mendelsohn has produced a taut, sui generis story that should be a major contender for novel of the year.   The storyline is truly unique:  A severely injured Iraq war veteran is treated by a female physical therapist at a U.S. army hospital.   As she works on him, she sees and hears stories that radiate from his body – these stories involve events in 1623, 1936 and 1969.   What’s the meaning of these past lives, and what is their relationship to each other and to the wounded soldier?   The typical reader will want to race through the pages to find the answers.

A love of music is one common factor, from the creation of the modern drum cymbal to one of jazz’s greatest concerts.   But this is a story that involves more than just mortal humans and their musical creations, there are ghosts and guardian angels in the mix.   Suffice it to say that Mendelsohn brings to life the words of Jackson Browne, “Tracing our steps from the beginning…  Trying to understand how our lives had led us there.”   There are few writers other than Jane Mendelsohn who would tackle something this brilliant, stunning and divinely thought-provoking.

Joseph Arellano

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A Great Book Giveaway

This site picked Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger as the best book released in the year 2009.   Now, thanks to Regal Literary, we are happy to celebrate the release of this novel in trade paperback form by giving away a free copy!

How much, exactly, did we love Her Fearful Symmetry?   Well, we published not one or two but three separate reviews of the dramatic ghost story (September 23, 2009; September 28, 2009; November 7, 2009).   Here is a link to the first of the three reviews (“What Comes After”) that we posted:

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

So, how can you win your own copy?   It’s simple, just post a comment here or send an e-mail with your name and an e-mail address to: Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second entry, tell me why stories about ghosts and/or twins are so very interesting (at least I find them so).   There are no right or wrong answers, just tell me what you think.   You have until midnight PST on Friday, September 10, 2010 to submit your entry(s).

The winner, as drawn by Munchy the cat, will be notified via e-mail and will have 72 hours to provide a residential mailing address in the United States.   The winner’s copy of Her Fearful Symmetry will be shipped directly to her/him by Regal Literary.   The book will not be sent to a business address or a P.O. box.  This is it for the simple rules.

Good luck and good reading!

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Finding the Balance

Finding the Balance in Book Reviewing

A book reviewer needs to find a fine balance in approaching a new work of fiction, although the reviewer is not always going to deliver the product that each reader is seeking.   A review should perform a service by answering the question, “Is this book worth my money or – even more importantly – my time?”   Still, there are other considerations.

Just a Synopsis

First, there’s the knowledge that some readers simply want a synopsis of the story.   Although they could look this up at Google Books or Amazon or elsewhere, they want to know the plot and what the book’s about.   And some reviewers, often newspaper-based, just deliver this skeletal information.   But it’s about as helpful as one of those new car write-ups in which the test driver/journalist tells you everything about the car (price, features, and available options) except whether or not it’s fun to drive.   So a review needs to be more than just a summary.

Is it the Singer or the Song?

The first thing to be analyzed about a new novel is whether the magic lies in the story or in the telling.   Is it the song (story) or the singer (writer)?   If the strength is in the story, then the plot should be laid out in the review, stopping short of revealing the conclusion.   Some authors who are not necessarily the most skilled writers make their living off of great plots, great set-ups.   This being said, many new authors write debuts that start off strong but lose their focus half or two-thirds of the way though.   Good to great ideas are not always sustainable over 300-plus pages.

If the story is not much, but the writing is impressive, then that’s what the reviewer should focus on.   Audrey Niffenegger, for example, does not come up with the most complicated plots…   Her Fearful Symmetry is a ghost story.   So much for the plot, except that she writes the heck out of it; which is why she makes millions per novel.   Hand another 100 writers the same plot, and it’s doubtful that any one of them would write a tale that’s in the same league.   And that’s reality, as John Lennon would say.

Negative Reviews

Once a decision is made as to whether the book has a strong plot or rests on technique, the direction of the review should be clear.   Some novels, sadly, are not going to be excellent in either category.   This may result in what’s called a “negative” review, which may bother some readers of reviews.   It bothers the review writer, also.   Reviewers would love to love everything they devote their time to reading but, in the end, reviewers must have a commitment to truth as they see it…   And if you don’t like the reviewer’s opinion, keep in mind that it’s just that.  

What is, and should be, the reviewer’s obligation is to explain how he or she arrived at his opinion; building the case for the opinion.   You do not have to agree, but you should be able to examine the thought process that a reviewer went through in arriving at a positive or negative opinion.

Opinions

About opinions – sometimes they’re everything in life, sometimes they’re nothing.   Brian Epstein’s guess that the Beatles were a pretty good band was a pretty good opinion.   The opinion of the guy at Decca Records in London who passed on signing them (“The days of guitar bands has passed.”) was nothing.   But he may have been the guy who signed the Rolling Stones to the label.   Such is life.

A Final Issue

Should a reviewer read other reviews of the same book before writing his or her own?   It is probably best avoided until after the review is written, so that the reviewer is not influenced by the opinion of others.   Reviewing is not – and should not be – about finding consensus or mirroring public opinion.   It can, however, be helpful for a reviewer to scan other reviews in order to spot unique literary devices.   For example, earlier, I read a review in a newspaper in which the reviewer compared the novel’s story line to a bit of poetry.   I really liked that, so the very next time I read a novel, I searched for a line of poetry that seemed relevant for the review and I included it.

A nice idea and, hey, I don’t think anyone has a copyright on dead poets!

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review and San Francisco Book Review.   First in a series.

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Only Us

I’m coming home again, home again / And I hear you calling me home again / I am coming home again    Peter Gabriel

When the dead are done with the living, the living can go on to other things.    Alice Sebold

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

So here is what we know about The Lovely Bones, a novel by Alice Sebold.   It was first published in 2002 and took seven full years to gain some traction.   Then it belatedly became a best-seller in book form and was made into a relatively successful film.   Some claim that the unique story was first recognized by young adults who gravitated toward the tale of a young woman who was killed by a serial murderer; a girl who monitors the search for her killer from heaven, while also monitoring the activities of her father, mother, maternal grandmother and sister.

Sebold herself has indicated that she wrote the story in order to give life to the invisible victims, the young long-haired women, killed by serial killers like Ted Bundy.   We also know, by a quick glance at a few websites where readers can post their comments, that most readers seem to experience either a love or hate relationship with this novel.   Which makes me different, I suppose…   I didn’t find The Lovely Bones to be one of the best stories I’ve read nor one of the worst.   I would not assign it an A or an F but, if placed on a polygraph, I’d give it – at best – a C+ to B- grade.

Much credit goes to Sebold for fashioning a unique story that starts off so, well, so tragically.   We feel the death of Susie Salmon and take it personally.   More than anything, we want justice and revenge.   We want to see her killer, Mr. Harvey, captured and punished and this is why we keep reading.   And this is where the problems begin.   After such a great start, the story seems to plod along for chapter after chapter.  

As with the twins in Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, ghosts are real in Sebold’s novel.   They appear to the living “like an unexplained breeze,” or an image that’s there for just a second.   But I wished so very much that this story – which at its end still felt like the skeleton of a story – had been written by Niffenegger who would have added flesh and blood.   Perhaps the biggest flaw with Bones is that the villain eventually meets, or is given, justice in an artificial manner that comes off as totally fake…  It won’t be disclosed here, but it’s an inside joke on something that occurs earlier in the telling, something juvenile.

Sebold’s strength is in creating an artificial world, if not a universe, in which the living and the dead miss each other.   She uses her story to assure us that life goes on (even in death), that love conquers all, and that unless we move forward each day, “Life is a perpetual yesterday for us.”   Yet, I doubt that I would purchase another work by this author and (based on the audio excerpts I’ve heard) I would certainly not be interested in reading The Almost Moon.

This review is based on the unabridged 10.5 hour audiobook (9 CD) version of The Lovely Bones ($19.98 U.S./ $24.98 Canada), read by the author and purchased by the reviewer.

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Homer and Langely

Home & Langely: A Novel by E. L. Doctorow

“I am telling you what I know – words have music and if you are a musician you will write to hear them.”

I believe it was John Updike who said, “Review the book, not the reputation.”   E.L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime, has a great reputation as a writer and it is well deserved.   In Homer & Langely, he writes beautifully – in a style that often calls to mind Audrey Niffenegger – but there’s simply so little story to be told that the words are wasted.   It’s as if a musician were given a score to play that hid all of his strengths and talents.

This is a 208-page novella that runs on too long; the basic tale could well have been told as a 30- to 40-page short story.   Two brothers, wealthy by birth, become hermits while they’re living in a mansion across the street from New York City’s Central Park.   One brother is blind and the other is either bizarre or mentally ill.   This is not only a summary of the plot, but of almost everything that happens in H&L.   The most interesting scenes come when the brothers are visited by a tribe of hippies.

Doctorow’s latest was, for this reader, a novella that was far too easy to put down.

Random House, $26.00, 208 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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