Tag Archives: Joshua Ferris

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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Heaven

Proof of Heaven: A Novel by Mary Curran Hackett (William Morrow; $14.99; 336 pages)

Grief never ceases to transform.

proof-of-heaven

Mary Curran Hackett has drafted a stirring and remarkable, life-affirming novel.   This is the story of a very sick and courageous five-year-old boy, Colm, who suffers from a rare disease that will kill him within two years.   He knows this and wants simply to see the father he’s never known before he departs this earth.

Colm’s mother, Cathleen, is an intensely religious Irish-American Catholic woman who will do anything to extend her son’s life, although she knows that “if her son were a dog, they would have put him out of his misery already.”   This includes taking him on a pilgrimage to the Abbey of San Damiano in Italy in the hope that Colm will be cured by a miracle.

Colm was one of a kind.

Colm’s disease is idiopathic, meaning that its origins and treatments are unknown to the medical world.   Colm suffers strokes  which put him into a condition of appearing to be dead before he returns to consciousness.   Colm believes that he has literally died on at least one or two occasions, and comes to accept that there’s nothing waiting for him after his death.

Colm (pronounced “calm”) is quite reminiscent of the character Tim Farnsworth in the novel The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris.   Farnsworth comes to give up hoping that the medical profession will save him, and he remains – despite having a wife and family – ultimately alone in his struggle against a unique, crippling disease.   Colm also thinks of himself as being alone, despite the smothering efforts of Cathleen to protect him, until a potential savior – a physician – arrives on the scene.

Dr. Gaspar Basu is a man who lost a son at an early age in India, and comes to love Colm as a type of replacement for his late son Dhruv.   Dr. Basu also comes to fall in love with Cathleen.   And so, he installs a pacemaker in Colm’s chest – in the hope of preventing further near-death experiences for Colm and agrees to accompany Colm and Cathleen on their journey to Italy.   Dr. Basu also joins with Colm’s uncle in supporting Colm’s efforts to find his father who was last known to be living as a musician in Los Angeles.

…by Colm’s seventh birthday he hadn’t had any other near-death experiences after leaving Italy.   To Cathleen it was a sign that God was answering some of her prayers.   Colm may not have been physically healed, but at least he hadn’t died again.   Perhaps the worst was behind him.   Perhaps the miracle took…

proof-of-heaven-rear

The other details of the story should be left for the reader to discover.   Kudos to Hackett for presenting a real world, gritty, yet soaring tale in which humans must make their own choices between hope and hopelessness (in a spiritual sense).   And rest assured that  once you’ve finished reading Proof of Heaven you may well look at life and its inevitable conclusion in a new way.

He had loved her.   She had loved him.

It was enough.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. 

“…it was the tale of one boy’s search for heaven that brought me to tears.   I loved this book.”   Shelley Shepard Gray, author of Christmas in Sugarcreek

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For What It’s Worth

This is a link to a handy listing of 61 book reviews that we’ve written for this site and the New York Journal of Books:

http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/reviewer/joseph-arellano/

The listing may be useful as a quick reference guide when you’re considering whether or not to purchase a particular book.   Thank you to author Therese Fowler for discovering this link!  

Joseph Arellano

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Against the Wind

In the Rooms: A Novel by Tom Shone (Thomas Dunne Books, $24.99, 342 pages)

She probably only dated snowboarders with a rap sheet as long as their arm, the cheekbones of Viggo Mortensen, and a penchant for whittling driftwood into small but meaningful tokens of their appreciation for Life’s Bounteous Gifts.   I failed on both fronts.   I had neither misbehaved with sufficient abandon nor reformed myself with enough zeal.   I was just trying to get home without being tripped up, or found out, just like everyone else.

This debut novel might have been entitled Dim Lights, Big City as it is a reverse  image of Jay McInerney’s book and film Bright Lights, Big City.   In McInerney’s story, a young man turns to drinking and drugs to evade the memories of  his dead mother and an estranged wife.   In Tom Shone’s novel, protagonist Patrick Miller turns to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings as a way of shoring up his sagging career as a Manhattan-based literary agent.

Miller, who grew up in England (like his creator), has been shaken up by relationship problems – his girlfriend is bitterly honest about his flaws – and this has affected his ability to attract successful writers to the firm he works for.   And then, suddenly, he finds that his favorite author in the world – one-time Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Douglas Kelsey – is back in the Big Apple after spending years hiding out in the artists’ community of Woodstock.   Miller impulsively follows Kelsey when he spots him one day out on the streets of the city, and learns that the trail ends at an AA meeting in a church.

How is Miller going to get to speak to the reclusive Kelsey, a modern-day J.D. Salinger?   Well, simple, he will just pretend that he has a drinking problem and begin joining the meetings “in the rooms” of NYC.   But, actually, it’s not so simple because as he carries out his plan, Miller finds that he’s now lying all of the time to the two sets of people in his life – to his co-workers, he insists that he’s not a heavy drinker and does not have a problem (they think he’s in denial); to his new fellow AA members, he insists that he can’t handle his liquor or his women (oh, so he’s co-addicted to sex, just as they suspected).

If things aren’t complicated enough, Miller is soon attracted to Lola, a young woman he meets at one of these meetings – a woman who serves as a trusted liaison between him and the respected author – and they begin to get physical.   But, Catch-22, the rules of AA prohibit them from getting close to each other for a minimum of a year – a year based on mutual sobriety.   Eventually, Miller is not quite sure what he wants and just as he’s becoming addicted to Lola, his ex-flame comes back into his life.

If all of this sounds a bit glum, it’s not as told by Shone.   The novel is quite funny, as my wife can testify since I read no less than 8 or 9 lengthy excerpts of it to her…  Readers will identify with Miller as he’s a want-to-be nice guy who makes mistake after mistake, even after he’s decided mentally that he’s going to get his act together.   It seems that he just can’t win, as life keeps throwing unexpected changes his way.

Shone makes the telling especially interesting with many insights into both the book publishing world and AA.   While his characters are sometimes critical of the 12-step process, they’re also positive that the program works.   Here’s the ever-cynical Kelsey on Bill (Wilson) of the Big Book:   “Well, Bill’s no Steinbeck.   That’s for sure.   There’s nothing original to any of it.   He filched the whole thing.   It’s just religion’s greatest hits.”

The more that Patrick Miller learns about AA, the more he wonders if he may indeed have some problems.   Whether he drinks too much or not, virtually every AA member that he encounters tells him that he spends too much time inside of his head.   Miller is so busy analyzing life, and trying to find the right path and rules to follow, that it seems to be passing him by.

The true charm of In the Rooms, is its conclusion, in which our hero must make the right choices – the exact right choices – to prove to himself and others that he  is, in truth, the nice guy that he’s always wanted to be.   He’s helped along in this by what he’s come to learn “in the rooms” and so he comes to see that – ah, yes – it works!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   “Sharp, funny, and ultimately touching…  Recommended for readers of Nick Hornby and Joshua Ferris.”   Library Journal

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The Unnamed

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris: A Novel (Back Bay Books, $15.00, 320 pages)

ferris unnamed amazon

The heart asks pleasure first, and then excuse from pain.   Emily Dickinson

God, if He was anything, was the answer to the mystery of why you got sick…   Joshua Ferris

Joshua Ferris (Then We Came to the End) has written a second novel.  The Unnamed, is a dark and mystical tale that brings the pain before it delivers the pleasure.   This is about Tim Farnsworth who is blessed with status and a fine career.   Good luck and good fate lead him to take two things for granted: his health and his family.

Tim’s a successful lawyer in a private New York City firm until he’s hit with a mysterious condition that causes him to walk.   When the condition strikes, he’s forced to abandon whatever he’s doing and walk for miles and hours until he drops and falls asleep from exhaustion.   The condition – which the medical establishment does not want to label a disease (Tim being the only person on record affected by it) – goes into remission twice enabling Tim to resume his work.   But Tim’s already lost 17 months to this condition when, as the story opens, “it’s back.”

Initially, Tim places his faith in medicine, doctors and mental health practitioners until he comes to see that “there was never anything anyone could do” for him.   He’s first affected physically, then mentally and becomes “removed from the person who knew how to form ideas.”   He becomes a man without hope, which to him seems worse than death.   Tim comes to envy cancer patients who have the “power of a familiar and fatal disease.”

It’s not difficult to see that this is pretty dark and dangerous territory for a novel but Ferris is skilled enough to turn the ship around.   A tale of illness and disease is transformed into one about marriage and family and the strength – physical and emotional – that these can provide.   Tim loses everything – career, family, wife, daughter – before he becomes stronger (in a strange sense) than the world around him.   His suffering has a pay-off and he sees and experiences hope before the end of his days.

This is a story about redemption.   Tim literally walks away from everything, including spouse Jane, until he has to decide whether to return to her – no matter what the cost.   Eventually, Jane and others come to be amazed that he “could suffer like that.”   In the end Tim, like every one of us, comes to experience joy in life’s small things: seeing children play, observing birds, having a couple of beers with an old friend, feeling the love of a daughter.

Ferris’ work is close to breathtaking here, although the second half of the work feels much longer than the first half.   Maybe that’s because the reader is meant to experience Tim’s disease states – pain, fever, disorientation, hallucinations – before he returns to normalcy.   We wonder if he’s gone insane in his battle with “The Other” – a condition, a disease, a devil, a fear, his mortality – until he accepts that it’s his inalienable right to have a life, a normal life.

She didn’t need a prescription, she needed a life.

ferris unnamed back

Taut, engaging, emotional…   Tinged in genius and yet troubling.   The Unnamed is a stunner and one of the few novels most readers will come across in which each and every chapter closes brilliantly.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by Reagan Arthur Books (Hachette Book Group, U.S.A.).  

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An Audio Book Giveaway!

First, congratulations go out to Cheryl Kelley of Gilberts, Illinois and Margie Takala of Minnetonka, Minnesota as the winners of Life and Life Only, a fine novel by Dave Moyer!   Munchy the cat picked their names out of the official contest bucket.   Life is about life, especially as it relates to baseball, love and Bob Dylan.  

Now we would like to announce another great giveaway.   This time we’re giving away three (3) copies of the audio book version of The Unnamed by Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award-winning author, Joshua Ferris.   This is an unabridged version of the novel, read by the author, on 7 CDs.   This Hachette Audio book has a value of $34.98.

This was an Amazon Best Books of the Month selection on its release.   I’ve started to listen to it and it’s terrific.   Anyone who has ever had a health condition that the medical establishment does not quite seem to “get” will relate to this story.   It is the tale of a man attacked by an unknown condition that makes him walk until he literally drops and sleeps from exhaustion.   He’s lost 17 months of his life due to this condition – skeptically called “The Condition” by his mental health professionals – and he’s now experiencing the third occurrence.   Maybe, he’s told, this condition is just brought on by stress or worrying.   Right.

That’s my take and here is part of the official synopsis from the publisher:

With The Unnamed, Ferris imagines the collision between one man’s free will and the forces of nature that are bigger than any of us.  

Tim Farnsworth walks.   He walks out of meetings and out of bed.   He walks in sweltering heat and numbing cold.   He will walk without stopping until he falls asleep, wherever he is.   This curious affliction has baffled medical experts around the globe – and come perilously close to ruining what should be a happy life.   Tim has a loving family, a successful law career and a beautiful suburban home, all of which he maintains spectacularly well until his feet start moving again.

This is a novel about Tim Farnsworth, a man who believes that he’s going to lose his house and everything in it.   How can you win a copy of the audio book?   It’s simple.   Just send an e-mail with your name included in the message to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   That’s all you need to do to be entered once.   For a second entry, tell me why you would like to win this particular audio novel.   You have until midnight PST on Wednesday, March 17, 2010 to submit your entry(s).  

Anyone in the U.S. or Canada is eligible.   The only restriction is that you must supply a residential address if you’re selected as a winner.   Audio books cannot and will not be mailed to a P.O. Box.   Thanks to Anna at Hachette Audio for making these prizes available to our readers.

Good luck and good listening!  

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