Tag Archives: national bestseller

Both Sides, Now

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It: Stories by Maile Meloy (Riverhead Books, 232 pages, $15.00)

“Meloy’s stories are both bold and quiet.”   Angela Meyer

One can’t/ have it/ both ways/ and both/ ways is / the only/ way I/ want it.   – A. R. Ammons

both-ways

Both Ways… is a collection of eleven short stories written by Maile Meloy, the title taken from the one-sentence poem posted above.   Meloy is a writer with a style that’s so cool its chilling; at times she will remind the reader of Joan Didion.   And at least one of the stories here (“Liliana”) reads like something Didion might have written for The Twilight Zone.   In Liliana, a man in Los Angeles hears a knock on the door and opens it to find his grandmother.   Perhaps this does not sound so unusual, except for the fact that his grandmother died two months earlier.

The ten other stories are much more conventional and share a common theme.   These are stories of people who have settled into their lives as they are, but see the chance to escape and live an alternate existence.   These are people who are tempted by other people and other places.   Meloy sets this up so that some of the story subjects elect not to change their lives while others do.   Since each protagonist actually wants to have it both ways – retaining his/her current life while also having it change – not one of them finds true satisfaction…  The exception is the final story, where one man feels both “the threat of disorder and the steady, thrumming promise of having everything he wanted, all at once.”

This compilation of stories is thus brilliantly structured, placed in a very deliberate order like the songs on a classic record album.   As with a great recording, one is tempted to listen to the songs (re-read the stories) to find the messages that were not obvious the first time through.   Part of Meloy’s intelligence is displayed by the manner in which she disguises things.   The first few tales are set in the remote state of Montana (far from L.A.) and the reader comes to think that maybe all of them will take place on that stage.   They do not.

Meloy also sets up situations that make you, the reader, think you know exactly what’s coming along before she fools you.   In one story (“Red from Green”), for example, we see that an older man and a young woman both possess – and practice with – loaded guns before he considers making an uninvited move on her.   Someone is going to get shot, right?   Well, no, but you will need to read that story to find out what does occur.

College literature professors are going to have a wildly great time showing their students the hidden meanings and life lessons buried in Meloy’s seemingly calm and quiet prose.   But you don’t need to pay tuition to enjoy these tales of yearning, wisdom and acceptance.   For the price of a trade paperback you can slide into a seat in Meloy’s classroom.   Take good notes!

Joseph Arellano

Well recommended.

A review copy was provided by the publisher (Riverhead/Penguin).   “Maile Meloy is a true and rare find.”   Richard Ford


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False Profits

Too Good to Be True: The Rise and Fall of Bernie Madoff by Erin Arvedlund (Penguin Group; $16.00; 336 pages)

In this book, financial journalist and first-time author Erin Arvedlund systematically maps out the intricate network of relationships within the Bernard Madoff investment fiasco.   Arvedlund expended a considerable amount of time and energy in developing this book.   She realized that Madoff was full of double talk and could not be delivering the consistent returns to his investors that they thought they were earning when she interviewed him for Barron’s magazine in 2001.   The interview resulted in an article entitled, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”   In response to Arvedlund’s questions, Madoff was typically evasive; he was off-putting when she asked him how his system for investing worked.

The fact that an immense Ponzi scheme was carried out by Madoff through his near-secret advisory activities escaped all but a few of the most Wall Street-savvy auditors.   This secrecy was coupled with the attitudes of his elitist-minded millionaires – there were enough greedy and willing people to feed the pyramid and maintain its immense demand for money over several years – and how many is anyone’s guess.

This reader sends kudos to Arvedlund for her calm, balanced and well-written narrative.   It delivers facts, figures and helpful insight.   Well recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.   Note:  This trade paperback version contains a new chapter that updates events since the date of the original hardcover release.

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Wild Horses

rescue

Rescue: A Novel by Anita Shreve (Back Bay Books; $14.99; 320 pages)

“He wants to go to her.   He’s used to caring for a person who’s sobbing.   It happens to him at least once a week.   But he can’t go to this particular person.”

When Anita Shreve writes, everything is set forth in perfect human scale – neither too large nor too small.   This is why she can take a tale, that in the words of another writer might seem pedestrian and predictable, and turn it into something cinematic.   While reading the novel Rescue, I often felt as if I were watching a movie on a DVD.

At first it seems like there will be few surprises in this family novel.   A young paramedic, Peter Webster, comes across a car accident in which a drunken young woman has nearly killed herself.   The woman, Sheila, is clearly troubled and promises to darken the life of anyone who comes close to her.   Peter falls in love with her even before she’s removed from the wreckage.   In a matter of weeks, they’re shacking up before getting married and having a child – a little girl named Rowan.

As we expect from the very beginning of this story, Peter has let an accident come in the front door and his life is nearly turned into wreckage by Sheila.   When Sheila has a second DUI accident, and seriously injures a man, Peter knows he needs to protect himself and his daughter.   He banishes Sheila from their lives.

Fast forward 18 years and Rowan suddenly appears to be the second coming of her mother, drinking too much and endangering herself.   And then the completely unexpected happens… the ever-responsible Peter elects to do something that seems almost mad.   He invites Sheila back into their lives.   And this is where Shreve the writer hooks the reader, putting you in a position where you cannot put the novel down.

Peter let Sheila nearly ruin his life once, and now he’s giving her a second chance?   It’s a disorienting twist on what seemed to be a plot that was traveling down a straight road – now it’s gone sideways.   But this is Anita Shreve and in her cinematic style, this is where the cameras begin to zoom-in, to focus on the major players as events escalate.

“Sheila turns her head.   ‘Go slowly and be careful,’ she says.”

No spoiler alert here, but Shreve will surprise you in the way life itself constantly surprises us.   One never knows exactly what’s coming next; the fact that the telling of this tale reflects this is a reason Shreve is one of our best story tellers.   This story is taut, engaging, realistic and fulfilling.   At its conclusion it teaches us that life’s next lesson is not in the here and now, it’s up ahead, just down the road apiece.   You’ll know it when you get there.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Love and Marriage

A Reliable Wife: A Novel by Robert Goolrick (Algonquin Books)

I just finished a marathon reading of A Reliable Wife.   It was one of those books that I literally couldn’t put down.

A Reliable Wife is a beautifully written novel set in the harsh winter of Northern Wisconsin in 1907 (location: Fictional town of Truitt somewhere on the shores of Lake Superior).   Ralph Tuitt has lived a lonely past twenty years after a very tragic and mysterious married life.   He advertises for a mail-ordered “reliable wife.”   Catherine Land answers his advertisement and upon arrival is not the Plain Jane in the picture that she sent to Ralph.   She is beautiful, and has many secrets of her own to hide.   There is a roller coaster of events that I will leave off so as to not spoil the book.

The lyrical prose of this book was wonderful, starting with the first line, “It was a bitter cold, the air electric with all that had not happened yet.”   The setting of the novel in the cold, bitter winter in a land of depressed people was stark and perfect for the novel.   Ralph and Catherine are both troubled souls seeking redemption.   As the book progresses, it is interesting to see how two people who start off seeming so unalike are actually quite similar.   I enjoyed their characters and learning more about them.

The story was unpredictable and twisted and turned to an ending I certainly did not predict.   It kept me riveted.   I really wanted to read this book after seeing it compared to my favorite authors, Daphne Du Maurier and the Bronte sisters.   While it did have a gothic sinister darkness to the plot that was also driven with despair, it is really its own novel.   I did love it, but I wouldn’t rank it above Jane Eyre or Rebecca.    

With the setting of the novel in 1907, one would expect it to be staid and sexless, it is anything but.   At first I was put off by Ralph’s constant thoughts about sex as it just wasn’t something I was interested in reading.   But sex and the way different characters handle it or have issues with it is definitely a main part of this book and I grew accepting of that.  

One small complaint I had is that sometimes the setting did not seem accurate.   I lived for six years in Houghton, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula, which is isolated and routinely receives 300 plus inches of snow in a year.   I now currently live in Northeast Wisconsin.   It seemed strange to me that the world would be so winter locked in the fall.   I could see that happening around Thanksgiving and especially in January or February, but not before.   I also wondered about the trips to Chicago without mention of Milwaukee or Minneapolis, both of which would be closer to Wisconsin or the Lake Superior shore.   Like I said, though, these were small items that seemed only out-of-place to me as I’ve lived in the area.   It just showed to me that the author had not, but he still wove a fantastic story.

Overall, it was a great riveting tale that will keep you guessing until the end.

This review was written by Laura Gerold of Laura’s Reviews.   You can read more of her fine reviews by going to:  http://lauragerold.blogspot.com/ .   A Reliable Wife was checked out of the Kewaunee Public Library.

 

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American Tune

Independence Day

Independence Day: A Novel by Richard Ford (Vintage, $16.00, 464 pages)

“A sad fact, of course, about adult life is that you see the very things you’ll never adapt to on the horizon.”

“I’m the man who counsels abandonment of those precious things you remember but can no longer make hopeful use of.”

The genre of the suburban angst novel was likely created by John Updike’s 1960 novel Rabbit Run.   That was the story of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, a superb athlete and high school basketball star who finds that his life has peaked at the age of 26.   Angstrom’s solution was basically to run away from the obligations of adulthood and family.

Updike has certainly received a great deal of praise as one of the best American writers; although to me each of the three books in the Rabbit trilogy came off as flat and tired.   Updike’s genius may lie in the fact that this was precisely what he intended.

Richard Ford

Move ahead to the year 1995 and second-time author Richard Ford (The Sportswriter) moves the category along by leaps and bounds with the release of Independence Day.   Come the new year, this novel will be 20 years old but it reads as if it was written just last month.   Frank Bascombe, a divorced former newspaper sportswriter, is living in his ex-wife’s house attempting to get by as a realtor.   This at a time when there’s a significant (early 90’s) recession, rapidly falling real estate values and high unemployment levels.   Employment down, building down, rents low, cost to buy high:   “… dug in for the long night that becomes winter.”   Sound familiar?

Bascombe has decided that the best times in his life have – like his former spouse – left him behind.   “Why should you only get what you want?   Life’s never like that.”   So Bascombe simply resolves to get through, to keep living, during his self-titled Existence Period.

At first the reader – not knowing any better – accepts Frank Bascombe as a depressed 53-year-old man who thinks things like, “When you’re young, your opponent is the future. When you’re not young, your opponent’s the past and everything done in it…”.   But eventually we realize that Frank’s actually an optimist – “It’s my experience that when you don’t think you’re making progress that you’re probably making plenty.”

As we read this 451-page novel, we see that Bascombe is making progress in pushing the re-start button on his life.   He’s not a bad person, really, it’s just that he has his own way of looking at things – one of the small points on which his ex-wife and his troublesome girlfriend can agree on.   Like a writer, he looks at things and sees something different from real actual life.   “You might never have been quite as happy as you like to believe you were.”

Bascombe is often let down, unfortunately, by the other people in his life, like one of his post-divorce female partners:   “… she had very little facility for actually thinking about me and never in the time we knew each other asked me five questions about my children or my life before I met her.”   Yet we somehow sense that Frank will be blessed with the victory of what Bob Dylan called “simple survival.”

How good, exactly, is this piece of American literature?   In 1995, The New York Times included it in the year-end list of best books.   As 1996 began, Ford was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Independence Day.   This Frank Bascombe novel (like John Updike’s Rabbit books) was part of a trilogy, but don’t worry about what came before or after.

Independence Day was Ford’s singular masterpiece, his van Gogh, his Sunflowers painting.   Or The Starry Night.

This is essential reading.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Independence Day 3

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What We Wanted

all we ever wanted

This popular fiction release starts out quite promisingly and at a fast pace.   The premise is an interesting one:  Janice Miller has lived with her business world husband for years and raised two daughters and, it appears, will finally live to see the fruits of her and her husband’s labors as an IPO makes them multi-millionaires.   But on the same day as she learns she’s incredibly rich, she also learns that her husband is leaving her for her thought-to-be-best friend.   The set up is great, but then the story starts to stumble.

Janelle Brown decides to add to the tale by focusing on the troubles of an at-home daughter, and of a daughter who returns to the nest from a not-so-successful life as a new age-pop magazine editor.   So the story of Janice’s freedom and presumed transformation changes into one, instead, of mother and daughter relationships that run less than smoothly.

In addition to the change in the storyline, the author has problems with scenes involving sex; they’re not detailed enough to be disturbing but not interesting enough to explain (or justify) their inclusion.   It would have been better to have left them out.   This is a fictional story that had great potential – potential that simply goes unfulfilled.

Joseph Arellano

Spiegel & Grau, $14.00, 434 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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