Tag Archives: Knopf

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A preview-review of The Foremost Good Fortune: A Memoir by Susan Conley.

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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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Hello Goodbye

Antonia Fraser is known in England as Lady Antonia Fraser, her father having been an Earl.   Her forthcoming book Must You Go? – My Life with Harold Pinter will be released in the U.S. on November 2, 2010 by Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday.   Fraser’s memoir centers on her 33-year love affair with, and marriage to, the celebrated playwright and poet Harold Pinter.  

We’ll have a review up by the release date of Must You Go? but, in the interim, it’s worth noting that this memoir is getting fantastic write-ups on the other side of the pond.   Here’s a small sampling.

“Writing with exemplary clarity and courage…  Fraser keeps her gaze steady and her heart open.”   – The Independent

“The book is intimate without being confessional, and on certain subjects (Fraser) prefers to say nothing.   But she’s not so discreet as to be dull, and there’s a lot of humour.”   – Blake Morrison, The Guardian

“It may lack sensational revelations but Antonia Fraser’s memoir of married life with Pinter is eccentric and hilarious.”   – Rachel Cooke, The Observer

“It is neither autobiography nor biography but a love story, romantic, poignant and very funny, illuminating her husband’s character and creativity.”   The Times

“This book works, just as it appears their lives (together) worked, as the most touching and enduring of love stories…  The ending is… almost unbearably moving.   The whole of this lovely book fills you with a gratitude that happenstance can, once in a while, not screw up and find the right girl for the right boy.”   – Dominic Dromgoole, Financial Times

“It’s enormously enjoyable to read…  because this is a book that’s intimate without being confessional, and that’s a very unusual thing today.   At the end of it you feel you’ve had an insight into a great romance…  She’s really pulled off something of enormous subtlety.”   Tina Brown, The Daily Beast

“This book – full of funny and tender things – satisfies on more than one level.   It is an intimate account of the life and habits of a major artist; it is a pencil sketch of British high society in the second half of the 20th century; and it is, more than either of these things, and much more unusually, a wonderfully full description of the deep pleasures and comforts of married love.”   – The Spectator

“The final third of Must You Go? is dominated by Pinter’s ill-health, his award of the Nobel prize, and his courageous struggle still to speak out on the issues that concerned him.   In many ways they are the best part of the book.”   – Robert Harris, The Sunday Times

Interested?   Lady Antonia Fraser will appear at the Los Angeles Public Library (630 W. 5th Street) at 7:00 p.m. on November 8, 2010; and at the San Francisco City Arts & Lectures Herbst Theatre (401 Van Ness Avenue) on November 9, 2010 at 8:00 p.m.

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Other Voices, Other Rooms

American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn (Knopf, 237 pages, $23.95)

“When you’re lost in Juarez/ And it’s Easter time too/ And your gravity fails/ And negativity don’t pull you through…”   Bob Dylan (“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”)

“The memory was like an explosion and he was inside it, living through it and it surrounded him and slowly he breathed into it…  This was where he was headed.   He was entering someplace.   It seemed to be his life.”

This one is a brilliant and one-of-a-kind experience.   Author Jane Mendelsohn has written a novel about disorientation and jumbled lives, where people are not sure whether they are living now or in the past.   Or in the future.

“…she seemed to enter that new future and for an instant the past disappeared.”

The novel starts out with an Iraq war veteran – circa current times – being treated for his injuries by a 21-year-old physical therapist whose name is Honor.   As Honor works on the wounded soldier, whose name is Milo, she begins to feel and hear stories…  His body “is like a haunted house.”   She feels the stories in his limbs and in his bones, but bit by bit he also begins to tell her the stories that he sees.   He tells the stories and they both listen thinking that somehow these stories may involve people from the past.

Yet, the stories are disjointed and cover very different periods of time:  17th century Turkey (1623 to be exact), 1936 and 1969.   These life stories of five separate individuals are seen in visions and/or heard by our two protagonists.

Music and its simple joys is one of the themes that unite the distinct stories.   A dancer in Budapest in 1623 inspires a man of chemistry to invent a cymbal, the prototype of today’s premium brand found on many drum kits.   Count Basie’s inaugural performance at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City on Christmas Eve brings lovers together:  “The music had swung them here…  this happy romantic rhythm would kill them both.”

Another theme is the past as prelude.   We cannot fully understand who and what we are now without understanding our ancestors and how their choices during their lives led us to the current moments in our lives.

“Do you ever regret coming east and leaving the movies?”  Anna asked.

“No, I don’t,”  Pearl said.   She was looking straight up with her eyes open.   Anna, already falling asleep, couldn’t see the tears.   “If things hadn’t happened exactly the way they did,” she said, “I wouldn’t have been here with you.”

At the conclusion of American Music we see how the past and present stories are related.   But this is not the key point.   Once the past is fully encountered and understood, Mendelsohn tells us, we can’t hold on to it.   Once it has served its purpose (once our relatives have lived and died for us) it is time to let the past (and them) go.

“She saw the…  figures walk into the desert and she watched them…  and she knew for the first time that she had not been letting them go and then the car drove on and she let them go.”

There’s an angel, a guardian angel of sorts that appears to a character in this book.   He delivers a message and then disappears after doing his job.   Jane Mendelsohn has done her job here so very, very well that it’s remarkable and more.   I can almost see where the wings attach to her shoulders.

Highly recommended.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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A Blurb Too Far

OK, so we all know that book blurbs (those quotes of high praise you find on the front and back covers of books) can be more than a bit full of hyperbole.   But most of them attempt to remain within the bounds of reality.   The following one may be an exception and it’s one that’s getting a lot of attention online.   (So we’ll add to that attention.)  

This blurb was written by one Nicole Krauss about To the End of the Land, a forthcoming novel by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen.   Are you ready?   Fasten your seatbelts.   Here’s the fantastical blurb:

Very rarely, a few times in a lifetime, you open a book and when you close it nothing can ever be the same.   Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling, of existence itself, has opened in you that was not there before.   To the End of the Land is a book of this magnitude.   David Grossman may be the most gifted writer I’ve ever read; gifted not just because of his imagination, his energy, his originality, but because he has access to the unutterable, because he can look inside a person and discover the unique sense of her humanity.   For twenty-six years he has been writing novels about what it means to defend this essence, this unique light, against a world designed to extinguish it.   To the End of the Land is his most powerful, shattering, and unflinching story of this defense.   To read it is to have yourself taken apart, undone, touched at the place of your own essence; it is to be turned back, as if after a long absence, into a human being.

Wow!   And she wrote that, I’m sure, while typing with her gloves on and without taking a breath.   No, I don’t know exactly what I mean, but did she?   Whew…   Unflinching, unique light, turned back into a human being, all of that and more.   (So much more.)

So let me ask you – Would you  want to read a book that takes you apart and touches you at the place of your essence?   Me neither but, who knows, it could be a good read anyway.   LOL.

To the End of the Land will be released to the physical universe by Knopf in hardbound form and in a cozy digital Kindle Edition on September 21, 2010.   The novel will run 592 pages, so you’ve been warned…  But if you love it (especially if it turns you back into a human being), remember that you first heard about it here!

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On Wisdom

Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience by Stephen S. Hall (Knopf, $26.95, 320 pages)

Whether you’re fascinated by psychology, philosophy, or science, you’re likely to find much of interest in this survey book by Stephen Hall.   This is a search for the meaning and definition of “wisdom” with a capital W – sometimes interpreted to be emotional intelligence or an internal calmness.   Hall’s journey reads like the script for a public television documentary, one that might have been entitled: “The Search for Wisdom.”

Boomers will like the conclusion that older persons are apparently wiser, calmer and far more content than those with their entire futures ahead of them.   Research shows that younger people become angrier about daily slights and hold onto these negative feelings longer than their elders.

Although the language in this nonfiction work is generally clear, it unfortunately sometimes sounds like an academic textbook.   It also often comes close to parody (“proverbs and aphorisms…  are the cocktail peanuts of conventional wisdom”; large events in the world can “change the lens of one’s emotional view like a new prescription from a spiritual optometrist.”).   Wisdom could have used a lot of wise editing, still it offers both old and young readers a chance to re-examine their lives and their yet-to-be-made choices.

Recommended.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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How It Ended

This is a collection of twenty-six short stories written by Jay McInerney over twenty-six years, from 1982 to 2008.   Sad to say, I simply do not understand the quality differences in his writing.

This grouping starts off with the brilliant drug-induced piece, “It’s Six A.M. – Do You Know Where You Are?” which became the base for the well-known novel and screenplay Bright Lights, Big City.   Unfortunately, the other stories that follow dim by comparison.

“Smoke” is a Roald Dahl-ish piece in which nothing is as it seems.   “Invisible Fences” is a crude sex tale that might have been written for a men’s magazine twenty to forty years ago.   “The Madonna of Turkey Season,” about a family’s travails made worse by holiday gatherings, reads like Joan Didion but without her charm or cool, laser-like, focus.   Except for “It’s Six A.M.” we never, in fact, feel the presence of a human narrator.  

Based on his reputation and/or press clippings, McInerney is the next great American writer; a fact that is not easy to see in these twenty-six tales.   Rather, How it Ended reads quite like a career-spanning collection of the music of the Doors, complete with a brilliant start, weak middle, and middling finish.

Knopf, $25.95, 331 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.How it ended 2

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