Tag Archives: Massachusetts

I’ll Follow the Sun

Gone: A Novel by Cathi Hanauer (Atria Books, $24.99, 347 pages)

Take what you need…  Take what you want.   Figure it out, find it, do it.   That’s what he was doing.   That’s what he did.

Cathi Hanauer is one heck of a writer; she’s a woman who can write about serious things and funny things in equal proportions.   This may be because this is the way life is…  Sometimes it plays out the way we think it will, sometimes it shocks and astounds us, and sometimes things simply seem to happen at random.

In Gone, we meet Eve Adams, a mother of two and a wife, whose husband Eric has suddenly left their comfortable home in Massachusetts.   Eric, a once successful sculptor, said he would drive the ultra short-skirted babysitter home, and then simply failed to return.   Eve, the author of a decently selling reality-based diet book, finds out from the credit card statements that Eric has headed west to Arizona (his mother lives in Tucson) – and he’s apparently used the credit card to spend nights in hotels with the babysitter.

We run from our lives, from the mediocrity and the abandoned plans and dreams and the people we’re sick of, including ourselves.   But wherever we go, there we are.   And so we go back, to the people we love.   But you can’t really go back, of course.

The story is told in alternating chapters, first in Eve’s words and then in Eric’s.   As might be expected, each has a different perspective on the pressures that drove them apart.   Eve has had to become the family breadwinner since Eric seems to have lost his artistic inspirations.   Eric feels like a failure and comes to view Eve as overly harsh and judgmental – especially when compared to the babysitter Dria, who tells Eric that he’s both an artistic genius and a nice man.

…he didn’t lose himself around Eve.   If anything, he found himself through her, and lost himself when she wasn’t there to reflect it back to him: to praise his work, to admire what he did.   To love him.

Separated for many weeks, both Eve and Eric have some major decisions to make.   Eve needs to decide if she’ll ever forgive Eric once he returns, if he returns.   And Eric needs to determine if he can be the type of practical family man who can place earning a paycheck in front of his need to be creative (as he’s forced to admit that he hasn’t been a creative artist in years).

In Gone, Hanauer serves up not only an admirable family novel, but adds a couple of bonus items to the menu.   First, she does a fine job of describing the essence of Tucson, Arizona – a city she resided in while teaching writing at the University of Arizona.   (Bear down.)   Secondly, she offers a book-within-the-book, as Eve’s practical tips to dieting and nutrition will serve the average reader quite well.   The tips are both common sense-based and near-brilliant, and, if followed, may add years to one’s life.

One nice aspect about the conclusion of Gone is that the reader discovers that Eve and Eric both have new facets of themselves to reveal.   Neither is a stereotype, and each is a human being loaded with underlying strengths and weaknesses.   That’s the way life is.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Cathi Hanauer succeeds beautifully in creating a story that will make you care and keep turning the pages…”   Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion.   “It’s a compelling, big-hearted book.”   Joshua Henkin, author of The World Without You.

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A review of Gone: A Novel by Cathi Hanauer.

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A Perfect Read

Perfect Reader

Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey (Anchor; $14.95; 288 pages)

“Now the distance leads me farther on/ Though the reasons I once had are gone/ With my maps and my faith in the distance/ Moving farther on…”   Jackson Browne (“Farther On”)

Maggie Pouncey is bringing back language, slow and careful language.   It’s the type of language that began to disappear in the 1960s.   The language that the daughter of a college president might have grown up hearing.

One gave the dog a sop, not a treat or bite; one woke not at dawn but at sparrow fart, and wore not party clothes but finery.   Now it was like speaking Yiddish, or some other dying language; soon there would be nobody around to talk to.

Perfect Reader is a story of a not-so-young 28-year-old woman who returns to her home town after her father’s death.   The town is Darwin, Massachusetts which daughter Flora Dempsey has returned to from, presumably, Boston.   Flora’s father was the president of Darwin College (as the author’s father was the president of Amherst College), and also a noted literary critic, professor and sometime poet.

Flora is a rootless person who has not yet decided what to do with her self, her life.   She’s disoriented coming back to the small college town built on “liberal well-meaningness”; it’s a town more than a bit reminiscent of Davis, California.   But then she felt no more at home working in the city.

Flora’s parents had been divorced many years before and she had made a career out of avoiding contact with her father.   Now the time for avoidance has passed.   She must handle his funeral arrangements, and everything her father owned – his home, his writings, his books – has been left to her.   This is not the least of things, as Flora learns that her dad had a lover, a female instructor from the college.   The woman wants to be close to Flora, but Flora just wants to isolate herself; she wants people to leave her alone while she ponders her next steps.   In a strange way she envies her father’s escape from the people who trouble you:  “The dead left you alone, but it was the living who filled you up with loneliness.”

Flora felt her life shrinking.   The smallness of the table provided a good metaphor.   No room for other people.   Soon her life would cease to be a table; it wouldn’t even be a cocktail table.   It would be a solitary chair, hardbacked and wooden…

This likely sounds depressing but in the telling – a careful and precise telling – it is not.   The Boston Globe called it, “(An) exquisitely observed drama.”   This is because it comes down to the words, the language, which makes the reader feel like he or she has picked up a novel from the wrong decade, if not century.

It is, however, slow.   This is something that some readers will likely have a problem with but it is deliberately slow.   The author has said that, “so many of the books I love are slow.”   If and when the novel is made into a film, there will be no car chases, no gun battles, no slaps or loud confrontations.   It will be a moody movie (like The Hours) that will be loved or hated.

I loved this very contemplative story set around a basic theme.   Does a child, even an adult child, grow up by escaping her past or embracing it?   Whose life is it anyway and, presuming it’s your own, why do we pay such a high price for not fulfilling the expectations of others?

Although Flora’s father has passed (and Flora hates that people will use any word in the English language but dead) she must nevertheless battle her mother’s expectations, and the fact that she fails to heed her mother’s advice.   In one prime scene, Flora’s mom suggests that she volunteer somewhere in order to provide “some structure” to her life.   “How wonderfully helpful, Mom.   How sage…” responds Flora who is tired and “regressing, moving backward, growing down.”

Yes, our protagonist is not someone who everyone will like or relate to.   She’s brittle and angry and exhausted but, two years short of her third decade on this world, she’s reached the point of decision-making.   Who and what is she going to be in her life?

Perfect Reader is not for everyone.   For me, it was close to a perfect read.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Perfect Reader Pouncey

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   “Maggie Pouncey’s Perfect Reader is wry, vivid, loving and exuberantly BOOKISH.   I enjoyed it tremendously.”   Meg Wolitzer, author of The Uncoupling: A Novel.  

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In the White Room

The Season of Second Chances by Diane Meier (St. Martin’s Griffin; $14.99; 320 pages)

“…my house, my home, had become something deep and comforting to me, far beyond what I’d ever expected to find or feel in…  a world outside of ideas, of letters or literature.”

“…most men tend to live one-dimensional lives…”

Have you ever watched one of those home improvement shows where you patiently wait throughout the entire show for the big reveal at the end – and then the end is a disappointment?   That’s the way I felt about reading this book, which I wanted to like more than I did.   There was just less here than I expected to find.

This is the story of a romance between an academically minded homeowner, Joy Harkness, and a handyman-carpenter by the name of Ted Hennessey.   Joy leaves the politics of Columbia University to teach in an innovative new program at Amherst College in Massachusetts.   She has plenty of money so she buys her first real home, which is a run-down Victorian.   Naturally, it needs to be run-down in order for Teddy to enter the picture.

It was the character of Teddy Hennessey that just did not add up for me and made the read slower than it should have been.   When we first encounter Teddy, he’s the handyman who listens to The Who cassettes all day on his boom box.   That’s when he’s not reciting the poetry of Yeats, from memory no less.   Now, really, what are the chances of finding a handyman like that?   Well, virtually none in the real world.   Highly improbable to say the least.

“I’ll always be her child!” he snarled.

Oh, but then we think that maybe Teddy’s a closet intellectual who is just dying for the chance to go to college, something that Joy can help him with, right?   No, it turns out that our Teddy is afraid of going to school because then he’d have to abandon his sainted mother who has him wrapped around her finger like a 9-year-old.   So we’re left with a man-child who is simply not likeable…  Why the once-married, yet seemingly independent, Joy is attracted to this wuss is a sheer mystery.

Since the romance between Teddy and Joy (note the juvenile names) is doomed, Joy develops an attraction to her abode.   This is merely a comforting, if hardly an earth shattering, premise on which to build a novel.

“I turned and noticed, as I climbed the steps to the porch, that my house looked warm and inviting.   The rooms were lit, glowing from within; the colors they reflected were soft and inviting.   There was life in this house, and I was part of it.”

There was also a lot of crying in this book.   “Tears ran down my face and puddle around my nose before soaking the pillow.   I didn’t know why I was crying…”   “I’ve cried more this year than in the past twenty combined.”   “(I) cried until I didn’t think there could possibly be any liquid left in my body.”   I’m not sure why the otherwise solid – and growingly feminist – protagonist needs to experience such intense crying jags, another confusing factor.

One more confusing thing relates to a major scene in the book.   Joy’s married-but-separated friend Donna is savagely attacked by her former husband.   Donna’s ex uses a golf club to beat her nearly to death; pieces of her scalp are found on the club by the police.   Donna apparently has several broken bones in her face and is in critical condition.   She’s rushed to the hospital for life-saving surgery and facial reconstruction.   A number of characters in this story act commendably, taking care of Donna’s children during the time that she’s away.   Eventually, Donna returns home on Valentine’s Day and the very thing the reader wants to know goes hauntingly unanswered – what does her face look like?   (It’s as if the character departs as a human but returns as a ghost.)

On the plus side, there’s some nice humor.   “I went into the dressing room and emerged from the curtain in outfit after outfit, like a puppet in a Punch and Judy show.”   But as for the ending of this story, it simply appeared to run out of steam rather than concluding in a definitive and logical way.

Some might be attracted to this tale because of its promise of a type of late-in-life feminism, or the notion that someone can, in a sense, partner with one’s surroundings.   Both are promising and positive notions but they did not eliminate a sense of hollowness.

“I had no story, or, at least, none that I could see.   But my vantage point was, perhaps, too close to the shore to see that I had, at last, begun to swim toward my own life.”

This novel may present, for the right reader, lessons that will assist in commencing a journey of self-examination and discovery…  I was not that reader.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher. The Season of Second Chances was released in trade paperback form on March 29, 2011.

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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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A review of Mrs. Somebody Somebody: Fiction by Tracy Winn.

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Rescue Me

Rescue by Anita Shreve (Hachette Audiobook)

Anita Shreve is one of my all-time favorite authors.   I have read every one of her novels.   This is my first time listening to one of her books instead of reading it the old-fashioned way.   I enjoy audiobooks and it was interesting to determine whether a Shreve novel would translate well to an audiobook.

Rescue is a novel that encompasses many of Shreve’s themes throughout the portfolio of her work.   Sheila Arsenault is a woman on the run from an abusive relationship.   After crashing her car in an alcohol fueled incident, Sheila is rescued by rookie paramedic Peter Webster.   Webster is taken by the beautiful young victim and searches her out after she is discharged from the hospital.   Webster is determined to help her and falls in love along the way.   Sheila is happy to be rescued, but finds that old demons are hard to leave behind.

Eighteen years later, Webster is raising their daughter, Rowan, alone.   Rowan unfortunately seems to have inherited some dangerous addictions and traits from her mother.   Will Webster be able to save his daughter or is it already too late?

I enjoyed listening to this audiobook.   Dennis Holland did a fairly good reading of the novel, although I found his attempts at a Boston accent to be rather jarring.   I almost wanted to do the dishes every day so I could listen to what was going to happen next.   I found the plot to be compelling, but the best thing about the novel was the in-depth character studies.   Rash decisions that were made in one’s youth can lead to consequences that can last a lifetime.

I also found Webster’s job as a paramedic to be very interesting as were the stories of his rescues.   I’ve never read a book with a paramedic as the main character and I really enjoyed it.   It left me wanting to know even more about the profession.   I think it was a great way to talk about how Webster rescued people as his job in life, but that he had troubles with rescuing his wife and his daughter.   It’s not as easy to rescue those you love from addictions and bad behavior.

Anita Shreve is a gifted writer.   I love her style of writing.   That being said, while Rescue was a good book, I still hold some of her earlier works such as The Weight of Water and Fortune’s Rocks in much higher regard.   I miss her historical books!

Overall, Rescue was a compelling read with characters that I enjoyed listening to. This review was written by Laura Gerold and is used with her permisson.   We interpret this review to be the equivalent of a recommended position on this novel.   You can read more of Laura’s fine reviews at http://lauragerold.blogspot.com/ .

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Mother and Child Reunion

LEFT neglected: A Novel by Lisa Genova (Gallery Books, a division of Simon and Schuster)

In an interview with Jennifer Northcutt, a buyer for Borders bookstores, neurologist Lisa Genova says an anecdote about left-side neglect in a book she read years ago by neurology and psychiatry professor Oliver Sacks piqued her curiosity.   She knew the clinical manifestations of a right-hemisphere brain injury, but wondered how one could possibly cope with such a condition.

The result of that curiosity is Sarah Nickerson, 37, protagonist of LEFT neglected.   Sarah is the hard-charging, Harvard MBA-toting vice president of a Boston consulting firm who can’t recall the last time she had sex with her husband, Bob, but does keep track of her wins when they play Rocks, Paper, Scissors to see who gets stuck taking their three kids to school/daycare before work on Fridays.   Sarah’s hyper-drive lifestyle downshifts abruptly when an auto accident (she’s looking for a number on her cell phone) leaves her with a traumatic brain injury.

Left-side neglect is an intriguing condition.   Asked to draw a clock, a patient will only draw the noon-through-six side.   Food on the left side of her plate will go unseen.   She knows that she has a left leg, but her brain is unable to find it or control it, making walking impossible.

Genova tells Sarah’s story in the first person, which lets the reader in on her unvarnished thought process as she comes to grip with maddening limitations.   Sarah retains her intellect and her competitiveness, which she and Bob assume will drive her to regain everything she’s lost.   She is blunt and funny, and her pity parties are few and brief.   Oddly enough, however, it is Sarah’s relationship with her long-absent mother that truly humanizes her.   When mother shows up at Sarah’s hospital bedside, Sarah openly hates her.   The reason, which resurfaces slowly, rescues Sarah from superwoman flatness and makes her a compelling and sympathetic character.   The evolution of the mother-daughter relationship colors the novel with poignancy and grace.

Genova’s writing is inventive.   She shows the stress of Sarah’s pre-accident life in the clack-clack-clack cadence of Sarah’s four-inch, Christian Louboutin heels and deftly contrasts it post-accident in Sarah’s cane-step-drag-breathe pattern of learning to walk again.

As a neurologist, Genova is well acquainted with the pathology of brain afflictions.   Her first novel, Still Alice, is about Alzheimer’s.   It was a New York Times bestseller, and odds are good that LEFT neglected will be, too.   Highly recommended.

By Kimberly Caldwell Steffen.   This is a “second look” review.   LEFT neglected was released on January 4, 2011.

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