Tag Archives: Jonathan Franzen

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues

The Corrections: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen (Picador, $17.00, 576 pages)

Corrections Franzen

“I’m going back to New York City/I do believe I’ve had enough….” Bob Dylan, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”

I received this book as a gift from my son, which is why I proceeded to read an author I had not previously sampled. It’s a unique gift when an avid reader discovers a writer that, for lack of a better term, “lights them up.” Some novels are decent, enjoyable for certain audiences of a certain time; quaint, funny, guilty pleasures. But one occasionally comes across an author who can just plain write the hell out of a story. Jonathan Franzen is one of these gifted writers. His National Book Award (2001) winning work, The Corrections, is as fine a contemporary novel as I have encountered.

(I don’t know why I did this – because I never do – and it isn’t fair. But as I was reading the book, I could not resist the urge to compare Franzen to another accomplished author whose work I have read, Philip Roth. Roth is brilliant when he’s good, occasionally doles out some nonsense for his readers to deal with, and appears to possess a certain love-hate relationship with writing.)

Emid Lambert has been the caretaker of her ailing husband Alfred, a sympathetic victim of Parkinson’s disease. Her only desire is to enjoy one last Christmas get together with all of her children at her home in the fictitious community of St. Jude. Lambert’s perception of what constitutes the “perfect family” – considering the badly flawed personalities of her children – is comical at times; but it’s presented in a prescient way. Talk about humanity and life on a page!

Chip is an intellectual with tremendous promise as a college professor who loses it all because he cannot keep his zipper shut (ever hear that one before?). He’s so obsessed with getting his screenplay accepted, he actually abandons his parents – who have traveled across the country to see him – without warning, leaving them for his sister Denise to attend to. She is a brilliant cook who apparently has been sexually confused for most of her life, and a lesbian affair ruins her meteoric rise to stardom. Just when you want to like Denise, she comes across as some bizarre combination of helpless, frigid and psychopathic.

Gary, who lives the suburban dream to his great financial resources, corrals a middle school boy’s vision of perfection (a combination Barbie doll, cheerleader and model), Caroline. Who could ask for more? He is initially a sympathetic figure, with his wife appearing to be a highly manipulative woman, until it becomes obvious that he could be the most self-centered individual in the rather strange family!

It is a bit more than implausible that Chip somehow disappears with a Lithuanian revolutionary. Each child’s story is told in succession rather than interwoven, and this leads to characters being abandoned for lengthy portions of the almost 600 page story. It’s not completely clear why Denise’s relationship must be explored in great detail to advance the story and satisfy the reader. What is clear is that in the end, Enid sort of gets her wish fulfilled. Be careful what you wish for.

Franzen seems to have over-written the story in order to fill the expectations for a lengthy, classic, modern novel. So I would not consider this to be a “perfect” book. But is it a good read? Absolutely!

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

Mr. Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Corrections

A review of The Corrections: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen.

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The Singer Not The Song?

On First Glance

Novelist Amy Hatvany (Outside the Lines, Best Kept Secret) introduced an interesting discussion on Facebook by asking, “Do you think most book reviews are about the book or the reviewer?”   Interestingly, most of the respondents – a majority of whom seemed to be writers – selected the latter option.   I would like to respectfully disagree with this perspective.

It’s sometimes asked about a great song, “Is it the singer (the artist) or the song (the product)?”   When it comes to a review of a new book, I think the reviews are mostly about the product, before touching upon the author and/or the reviewer.   Why do I say this?   Because I’ve had multiple instances in which I love a book (often a debut or second novel) by an author, only to be disappointed by a later work.   So I know that my judgment is not about the writer as a person – or as a writer in general – but about the latest book he or she has completed.

This does not mean, as I’ve said before, that mine – or another reviewer’s – is the correct view.   It’s simply the one arrived at by a particular reader-reviewer.   I have no problem with considering other views as likely to have merit because each of us comes from a different time in life with different experiences…   Let’s say we were considering two memoirs by women writers.   Would we expect the one written by the 55-year-old cancer survivor to be the same as the one written by the 25-year-old right out of college?   Of course not – yet each would be a valid view on life as she knows it.

It’s All Personal

Someone wrote that music mix tapes/CDs are as much about the person putting them together as the person they were intended for.   I certainly concur with this.   We each demonstrate something of ourselves in the things we love – whether it’s a book, painting or music selection.   Sometimes people can learn more about us, inadvertently or not, by studying our favorite things.   And this begins to explain why book reviews are, yes, also about the reviewer.   The fact that a reviewer likes or does not like a particular book tells us something about him/her, and we hope the connection is revealed in the review and not kept hidden.

One of the highest recommendations for a book is that a friend has read it and loved it.   I recently lost a good friend who sought to convince me, since last September, that I must read the novel Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.   Since the paperback’s over 600 pages, I declined the invitation.   But now I will likely do so.   Why?   Because I will not have the chance to communicate with my friend again; and I suspect that in reading Franzen’s novel I will find something of her in it that will help me to see why she loved it, and what it had to do with her time on earth.

Very Personal

Some innovative new research appears to indicate that our personal views about books and films are even more individual than we suspected.   There are automated programs based on mathematical algorithms that attempt to predict what we might buy.   At Amazon, for example, you might be informed that, “If you liked this book by author Joe Blow, you may also like the new novel by Sally Snow.”   But guess what?   These programs don’t seem to work in practice.

As noted in an article in the U. C. Berkeley alumni magazine, California (“Taste By Numbers”) – quoting Professor Ken Goldberg:  “When you’re rating or evaluating something like a book or a movie…  you’re doing something that’s a matter of taste.   I think it’s not easily pigeonholed into a series of boxes.   Matters of taste are almost physiological.   It’s literally taste – part of your digestive system.   Or we talk about a gut reaction…”

So the next time you read a review of a book that you don’t agree with, you may want to chalk it up to simple differences in life experiences – or the reviewer’s Irritable Bowel Syndrome!

Joseph Arellano

This article is dedicated to the memory of Barbara Weiss of Sacramento, California.

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Coming Attractions

This is a quick look at recently released books, and soon-to-be-released books that I’m looking forward to reading.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (Simon and Schuster; 10/24/11)

This is already the best-selling book in the country, based on pre-release orders at Amazon.   Isaacson earlier wrote the mega-selling Benjamin Franklin: An American Life and the recent, tragic death of Steve Jobs will only heighten the interest in this almost 700 page biography.   This is an authorized bio, as (according to Reuters) Jobs knew that his death was imminent and wanted his kids to know him through this expected-to-be definitive work.   Jobs had made clear to his friends and co-workers that nothing in his personal or professional life was off-limits.

Steve Jobs will also be available as an audiobook; unfortunately, an abridged one.

Freedom: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen (Picador; 09/27/11)

If you’re like me, one of the two dozen or so individuals who did not read this book when it was originally released, you now have a chance to pick it up as a Picador trade paperback for just $16.00.   USA Today called Franzen’s novel about a troubled marriage, “Smart, witty and ultimately moving.”

Blueprints for Building Better Girls: Fiction by Elissa Schappell (Simon and Schuster; 09/06/11)

This is a hybrid between a short story collection and a novel, as Schappell has penned eight interlinked tales (“Spanning the late 1970s to the current day…”) about the experiences that turn girls into women.   Tom Perrota, author of The Leftovers and Little Children, says of Blueprints for Building Better Girls:  “Elizabeth Schappell’s characters live in that zone where toughness and vulnerability overlap.   In this remarkable, deeply engaging collection of stories, Schappell introduces us to a wide variety of female characters, from reckless teenagers to rueful middle-aged moms, and asks us to ponder how those girls became these women.”

The Marriage Plot: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 10/11/11)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides returns with a story about a not-so-calm year in the lives of three college seniors (one female and two males) attending Brown University in the early 1980s.   It’s about love lost and found, and the mental preparations that young people must make before entering the stolid world of adults.

The Drop: A Harry Bosch Novel by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown and Company; 11/28/11)

From the author of The Lincoln Lawyer and The Reversal, comes the latest thriller involving LAPD Detective Harry Bosch.   A bored Bosch is getting ready for retirement when two huge criminal cases with political and other implications land on his desk.   Both cases need to be solved immediately and, as usual, Bosch must break some major investigative rules in order to do so.

“Connelly may be our most versatile crime writer.”   Booklist

Joseph Arellano

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