Tag Archives: suburban angst

The North Country

Jack Pine: A Northwoods Mystery (Koehler Books, $15.99, 300 pages)

Jack Pine

Hazelgrove Pulls Off Another High Quality Tale In An Unlikely Setting

Jack Pine is an inferior pine that has been relegated to Indian cultivation. When an Indian moves from suspect to witness in a rape, Jack Pine takes off, and Deputy Sheriff Rueger London follows his intuition, defies authority, falls in love, and eventually supports his status as the moral conscience of an entire region, the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota, which border Canada.

The story includes the contemporary themes of man versus environment, second chances, good versus evil, etc., and manages to defy convention or stereotype because author William Hazelgrove has a unique ability to construct characters that the reader cares about.

Rueger must relive his past in order to imagine a future. An unlikely, and, in retrospect, welcome visitor inject life into a man who has been pretending and going through the motions for years. In order to be true to himself and fair to one who has challenged his imagination, Rueger puts his reputation on the line, only to face the indignation of the community and an equally uncertain future.

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Hazelgrove is at his best when he takes on the theme of suburban angst, as he does in Rocket Man and Real Santa, but his storytelling translates well to the hinterlands because he is, at heart, a storyteller. Jack Pine is not merely a whodunit or a love story, nor is it subject to the confines of time and/or place. It is about people, and Mr. Hazelgrove is awfully darn good at getting the essence of all of our collective and individual strengths and weaknesses.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is the Superintendent of the Elmhurst (Illinois) Community Unit School District 205, and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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The Great Pretender

Rocket Man (Hazelgrove)

Rocket Man: A Novel by William Hazelgrove (Koehler Books, $16.95, 290 pages)

“Poor man wanna be rich/Rich man wanna be king/And the king ain’t satisfied/Till he rules everything.” Bruce Springsteen (“Badlands”)

What We Pretend to Be

William Hazelgrove’s Rocket Man is simply superb. He captures the essence of suburban hypocrisy with such aplomb that it is almost impossible to give another person an idea of how good this book is without blurting out, “Just read the damn thing!” Especially if that person never actually experienced this great wonder we call suburbia.

The story, strictly speaking, is about a man whose marriage and relationship with his son is falling apart due to the weight of unrealistic expectations of what a man, marriage, and family should be. Financial stress, combined with having to pretend one is something they are not, comes to a head when Dale Hammer’s out-of-work father shows up at his doorstep.

If Dale is not Ward Cleaver, it is a safe bet that his wife, Wendy – who has been conspiring with their neighbor to generate divorce papers, is far from June. Dale is a former aspiring writer who, ironically, can’t close a sale on a house, while Wendy is a lawyer, who, for some reason or another, stands idly by and refuses to work as their life continues its descent.

The title comes form a scouting activity in which Dale becomes the “Rocket Man,” the scout leader who fires off all of the kids’ rockets during the ever popular Rocket Day. The book features a happy ending when Dale, in one final act of defiance, “blows up” the myth of the American Dream and the lie his life has become.

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Rocket Man does not spew venom. Instead, it very subtly forces the reader to question his or her values and challenges anyone who has ever confused some monstrosity of a house in a subdivision where everyone pretends to be “just like them” with the American Dream. There is a fine line between freedom and slavery.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Dave Moyer is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

You can read other reviews of Rocket Man here:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2009/07/28/harmony-a-review-of-rocket-man-the-novel/

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2009/07/07/rocket-man-a-book-review/

http://troybear.blogspot.com/2009/04/rocket-man-by-william-elliot-hazelgrove.html

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You’ve Got Your Troubles

The Neighbors are Watching: A Novel by Debra Ginsberg (Crown; $23.99; 325 pages)

“It was as if Gloria was sabotaging herself, Sam thought.   Well, they were both sabotaging themselves, just going about it from opposite directions.”

Debra Ginsberg has populated her latest novel with a score of self-sabotaging and dysfunctional characters.   This is the story of Diana, a young pregnant woman who is thrown out of her mother’s home and forced to live with the father she’s never known.   Dad Joe lives in the suburbs of San Diego near the ocean with his second wife, Allison.   Joe made Allison abort her only pregnancy years earlier, and Allison knows nothing about the existence of Diana.   Therefore, when she appears on Joe’s driveway the marriage is suddenly in serious trouble.

But it turns out that everyone in the neighborhood is in trouble as the fires of late October and early November 2007 approach.   Fourteen people died and at least 70 were injured when a half-million acres burned.   One million San Diego County residents were evacuated, the largest evacuation in California history.   This is the not-so-pleasant back-drop for Ginsberg’s troubled tale.

It appears that all of the neighbors in Joe’s suburban community have their serious quirks and troubles.   There’s a sometimes-happy and sometimes-bickering lesbian couple, Sam and Gloria, and a heterosexual married couple, the Werners, whose son Kevin is a lazy weed smoker with no intellectual or athletic skills.   This is a ‘hood that is seemingly over-populated with drug users and abusers.   One has to wonder how accurate a reflection this is of America’s Finest City and its residents.

The one exception to the group of losers is an Asian couple, whose quiet son shoots hoops and practices the piano for hours on end.   This is a stereotype of sorts, although it’s one that was likely not meant to be offensive.   However, Ginsberg includes a highly troubling reference to Diana, who happens to be half African-American.   Early on, Kevin’s mother refers to Diana as “an uppity pregnant girl who had no business even being in the neighborhood in the first place.”   This is offensive on two counts – first, in using a term that is knowingly offensive to African-Americans, and also in the implication that there’s a “place” within which people of a certain color are not welcome.

Perhaps Ginsberg intended this non-P.C. reference to serve as a reminder of the destructiveness of racism, but she could and should have adopted a more subtle and temperate way of expressing that notion.   Another flaw with the telling is that Ginsberg chooses the rather unfortunate name of Joe Montana for Diana’s father, which makes it seem like some kind of inside joke.   “Joe Montana, like the football player?”   Yes.

One of the key problems with Neighbors is that the story is made needlessly complex.   When Diana surfaces with disastrous consequences for her father’s and stepmother’s marriage, the storyline seems logical.   But then Ginsberg takes it further – Joe suddenly has an affair with a young neighbor and Diana hooks up with Kevin, the worst possible choice for her.   More is not always better.

There’s this dividing line…  A dividing line between the fictional account which feels to a reader like real life, and the feeling that it’s a good effort but there’s a sense of magic that’s lacking.   Ginsberg produced a fine attempt in this novel but it struck this reader as a manuscript rather than as a fully developed work.   It needed some editing, trimming and rethinking.   All in all, the author seemed to be sabotaging herself like the characters in her dysfunctional fictional neighborhood.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Bird in Hand

Bird in Hand by Christina Baker Kline (William Morrow Paperbacks, $13.99, 320 pages)

Yeah we were desperate then/ To have each other to hold/ But love is a long, long road.   Tom Petty

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Full and proper character development appears to be becoming a lost art in fiction, but author Christina Baker Kline does her bit to revive the art in the intriguing novel Bird in Hand.   This is a fine story, extremely well told, of four people, partners in two marriages and very good friends.   We get to know all four characters and hear their stories – from their own perspectives – in this well-constructed tale.

The narrative begins with Alison whose life seems to be virtually perfect until two things happen.   First, she becomes involved in a deadly accident while under the influence and the ramifications of this threaten to tear her world apart.   Second is something that she’s completely unaware of, which is that her husband is having an affair with someone she considered a friend.   Thus, her world changes overnight:  “For Alison, now, the world was a different place, and yet it was strangely the same.   She was present and not present in her own life.”

Kline writes with the same cool, suburban angst filled tone as Richard Ford (Independence Day, The Sportswriter).   There’s a question that is asked in Ford’s writing and in a Talking Heads song:  How did I get here?   “She walked around the silent house and looked at the framed photographs that lined the mantelpiece and cluttered the bookshelves, wondering, Is this really my life?   This collage of frozen moments, frozen in time.”

In Bird in Hand, we also meet Charlie, Alison’s steady if unfaithful husband; Claire, the newly published author and friend of Alison’s; and Ben, Charlie’s successful if somewhat dull and introverted husband.   It’s rare to find a work in which all four characters are so well fleshed out and, yes, real.   Here’s an example in how Alison describes Charlie:  “…as they started talking she realized that there was…  something in his character that she couldn’t  put down.   He wasn’t cocky, and his humor was gentle.   He had a mild confidence, a lack of self-consciousness, an ironic take on the world that wasn’t caustic or bitter.   Despite his social ease, he had a solitary air.”

At one point, Charlie describes Claire in words that could apply to the author’s style in writing this novel.   “She could be formal one moment and irreverent, even crude, the next.”

“Real life, she knew, was just beginning.”

One of the ironies of reading Bird in Hand is that its fictional account of the disintegration of a marriage feels far more true to life than two contemporary nonfiction accounts:  How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed by Theo Pauline Nestor and Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies.   I much preferred Nestor’s account but neither narrator seemed as true to me as the character Alison in Kline’s work.

It may be because Kline gives us not just a story, but the motivations that spur on the individuals.   With Alison, it’s disillusionment.   “Nothing about her life at the moment was what she’d envisioned for herself when she got married.”   Alison’s husband Charlie is moved by the feeling that he’s made the wrong choices for himself.   “He was doing this because he could not keep skimming along the surface of his life without one day crashing into something hard and unpleasant…  he was convinced he would get only one chance to feel this kind of passion, to express it, to live.”

And then Kline reveals that motivation, intent, means little or nothing because all humans act with incomplete – flawed – knowledge (quoting Alice McDermott):  “As if…  what was actual, as opposed to what was imagined, as opposed to what was believed, made, when you got right down to it, any difference at all.”   So, ultimately, this is an impressive work about real, flawed, individuals doing the best they can at a certain point in their existence, making mistakes but ultimately moving forward.   “It was real life, the way things should be, and even as it was happening it felt to Alison like a distant memory, the moment already slipping into the past.”

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A great deal of praise should be bestowed on author Kline for creating characters that adult readers can relate to.   At one point in Bird in Hand, Kline writes of Alison’s experiences as a young woman, “It was a strange and magical feeling.”   Kline has delivered a strange, unique, magical and borderline brilliant story.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review (hardbound) copy was provided by William Morrow.  

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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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Coming Up Next…

Independence Day 5A review of the novel Independence Day by Richard Ford.

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Friend of the family

“I’m a lucky man, I know that…  My son, my wife, my job, my mother, my brother.   I have done enough damage to lose them all…”

First the positives.   A Friend of the Family, a novel by Lauren Grodstein, tells quite an intriguing story.   This is a tale about a doctor who, through a minor omission on his part, lets a patient of his die from an undiagnosed condition.   The pulling of this thread causes the fabric of his previously secure and comfortable life to come apart; the set up has parallels to Carol Cassella’s fine novel Oxygen.   In this case, the physician is a male in his early fifties and Grodstein does a quite commendable job of getting us to believe the man’s voice (sometimes not the case with female authors).

The plot line would have been fine for a medical-legal drama…   Dr. Pete Dizinoff has made a mistake that threatens a reputation it has taken him a lifetime to build.   His best friend, a medical specialist, is not only aware of Dr. Dizinoff’s error, he in fact urged him to order a test that might have saved the life of his young woman patient.   Will his friend protect him or turn on him?  

Unfortunately, the author fails to be content with this straight forward story line, so subplots are added – the main one being a possible romantic relationship between Dr. Dizinoff’s 20-year-old son and the troubled 30-year-old daughter of his best friend – and things get confusing and hard to follow.   There’s also a debate about the value of life in the suburbs.   Dr. Dizinoff thinks, “Evening in the garden of good and suburban…  Suburbs, man.   I don’t care what anybody says.   It’s the only way to live.”   Yes, the main character is quite satisfied with living in the suburban community of Round Hill.   Contra, the young woman who may be involved with his son says, “Isn’t the whole point of (living in) Round Hill that you can be gone for ten years and not miss a thing?”   But these issues are not the biggest problem with the narrative.  

The story told here would likely have been a fascinating one if it had been told in simple chronological order.   Instead, like an overly clever Hollywood film, the story starts in the present, with abrupt (even neck whiplashing) movements to events that happened three, four, thirty and even forty or so years in the past.   Each time a new chapter or sub-chapter begins the reader is forced to ask, “So where are we now?”

I’m not at all sure what’s the supposed appeal of this style of quick-cut and retro-scene storytelling.   I just know and believe that the story got lost in the complexity of its telling.  

I considered adding a few comments about what Grodstein’s characters tell us about life, but this time I’ll refrain from doing so.   There are some gems and rewards for the reader, to be sure.   This reader just hopes that the  clearly talented Laura Grodstein keeps it simpler the next time around. A friend 4

A Friend of the Family will be released by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill on Tuesday, November 11, 2009.   

Thank you to the publisher for providing the review copy.  

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