The Good Neighbor–A.J. Banner


Amazon suggested this novel, which I understood better once I saw that it’s published by Amazon. It’s a slim volume–just 194 pages–and it moves quickly.  Sarah writes children’s books and is married to a hunky dermatologist, Johnny.  They live in a small town on a court where the houses are the same to all but those who live there.  Sarah knows her neighbors, or thinks she does, until the night her neighbors’ home burns and takes down hers, as well.  Deeply unsettled, Sarah begins to question all of her assumptions–about her neighbors, about her husband, even about her own judgment.

As Sarah questions, she invites the reader to do so, as well, and to join her paranoia.  Who can we trust?  Can we trust Sarah, the narrator?

The story moves quickly and is successful at setting a paranoid, eerie tone.  The dialogue is realistic, but there were several times that I found myself noticing odd narrative constructions.  Banner has promise as a writer of thrillers, but is not yet a master.

Finished 3/31/16


Song of Solomon–Toni Morrison


I first read Toni Morrison as a freshman in college in the fall of 1990 when my freshman seminar on the African diaspora included Beloved.  That moment of racial awakening, of beginning to peer into the depths of my white privilege, is etched in my memory.  So why, I wonder, has it taken me so long to return to Morrison’s older work?  Bluest Eye has been on my list for years, but it wasn’t until this Penguin edition of Song of Solomon appeared on the discard shelf outside our library that I took up the call.

Her prose is, as so many have said, masterful.  It’s poetic, but spare rather than flowery.  She opens Song of Solomon with a suicide jump from a hospital tower and the first “colored” birth in that hospital that are set against red velvet rose petals swirling in the wind.  How’s that for vivid imagery.  The suicide’s role in the plot is unclear, a seed planted that Morrison will come back to for its fruit later.  The birth is more direct, as it’s the birth of the main character, Macon Dead, whose mother is the daughter of the town’s first black doctor and whose father is the slumlord who does not realize or care how white his fellows see him.

Morrison uses sexual tension throughout the novel.  Macon’s mother is pregnant while her daughters are half grown and her pregnancy is an embarrassment, proof that middle-aged people continue to be sexual.  She nurses Macon until he’s a young boy, only stopping when she is spied enjoying this guilty pleasure.  Later a grown Macon loses his virginity to his cousin, Hagar, and carries on a decade-long affair before breaking it off on account of their familial relationship.  His sister, Corinthians, overcomes her class bias and her fear of her father to fulfill her own sexual desires well into her forties.  This sexual tension continues to the end of the novel, when Macon goes on a pilgrimage to find gold and instead finds his people and finally his identity.

Song of Solomon made me think and analyze much the way Beloved had done twenty plus years earlier, but this time I could hear the voices of many others as I thought it through.  I heard friends who have expressed their frustration at tracing their family trees, knowing they will run into the wall that is America’s slavery past, having to use different tools to discover and trace family history, relying much more on oral history and tradition, pulling apart puzzles, like Macon does with the Song of Solomon, to come closer to some truth.  I heard a fellow academic talk about being torn between the academic world and the world of  her home that sees belong to academia as a betrayal.

Although Song of Solomon was written in the late 70s, at moments its utterances were too timely, like the discussion of Emmet Till’s death, when Freddie, the rent collector, says, “They say Till had a knife,” and Guitar, Macon’s best friend, replies, “They always say that.  He could of had a wad of bubble gum, they’d swear it was a hand grenade.”

Returning to Morrison makes me want to go back to Beloved and finally pick up Bluest Eye and get into a book group to chew on them together.

Finished 3/30/16


Joe Gould’s Teeth–Jill Lepore


Jill Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard University, but, despite her Ivy League credentials, she has become known as a historian who can write popular history.  Her most recent book is The Secret History of Wonder Woman.  Joe Gould’s Teeth comes out May 17, 2016 and is reviewed here as an uncorrected proof.

One of the highest forms of praise for any book, in my mind, is to say to yourself after closing the back cover that your mind is unsettled.  That is how Joe Gould’s Teeth left me.

Lepore introduces Joe Gould as he saw himself–a brilliant historian who was creating a new form, the oral history, which would record the everyday voices and happenings of common people to balance the political/diplomatic/intellectual history that reigned in the early twentieth century.  He wrote in common composition notebooks with mottled black and white covers and wrapped stacks of them in twine, also a very common material.

He had uncommon friends:  Ezra Pound, ee cummings, Joseph Mitchell.  He was a prolific letter writer.  Later psychiatric hospital records would call it paranoid letter-writing.  These letters gave Lepore a glimpse into Gould’s mind and his relationships.  Friends reported that they had read pieces of The Oral History of Our Time, but when publishers asked Gould for chapters, he had trouble producing them.  Joseph Mitchell, the New Yorker writer who wrote a profile of Gould in 1942, gave weight to the Oral History‘s existence, but when he wrote again about Gould in 1964, he called its entire existence into doubt.

Gould’s story wins the title and his descent into madness and his ability to get away with sexual assault, racism, verbal assault, bad friendship, begging, and just plain anti-social behavior while still having people who cared about what happened to him, is a fascinating morality tale.  Hint–the story does not end well for him, so the rule breaker gets his in the end.

However, what was more interesting to me were the stories of two women–Augusta Savage, whom Gould stalked and perhaps assaulted, and Lepore herself, who was drawn into their stories.

Savage was a sculptor and patron of black art and artists at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance who eventually fled New York for a quiet home in the countryside and who likely destroyed as much of her work as she could get her hands on.  Lepore is fascinated with her, but I was left feeling that she had just started exploring her story when Joe Gould’s Teeth ended.  I felt Lepore was trying to suggest something about history and who is reflected and how in the historical record, but that she was just building to it when she quit writing.

Lepore’s story, perhaps not surprisingly, was most interesting to me.  She came to Gould’s story as a small part of a class on biography and was sucked in when she began searching for supporting materials and realized that the story, the received narrative, did not match the sources that should have created it.  Lepore, one of our great historians, was caught by a man who called himself the greatest historian of his time.  She would find the missing Oral History, maybe “under a bush, in a gutter, down a ditch.”  The class ended, but she could not stop looking.  She found a notebook dated 1922, “Meo Tempore. Seventh Version.  Volume II.”  And she kept looking.  She speculates that those who supported him, those who wrote about him, did so because they saw pieces of themselves, alternate feared fates, in Gould’s story.  Because he is me, she writes.  She finds the answer to her question about biography.  She keeps searching after Augusta Savage and visits the home in which she ended her days, commenting that the property contains a cistern that could drown a man, echoing the “chasm” into which she fell when she began researching Gould’s story.  In her epilogue she relates packing up the materials she had collected and returning the books she had checked out of libraries.  I could almost hear the pride/resolution when she confided that she had not called back a man who said he had some of Gould’s notebooks.  She then goes into a vision she has of madness and scholarly pursuit.  Like Gould, Lepore wants to broaden the scope of history.  At the heart of the puzzle, for an American historian, is race, sex, privilege.  In the vision the pieces are present, but, unlike Gould, Lepore does not go down the rabbit hole too far.  She backs out of the room, shuts the door on the madness.   And that, perhaps, is why I closed the covers wanting her to do more, to say more, to answer more.

Finished 3/25/16


The Grownup–Gillian Flynn


George R.R. Martin asked Gillian Flynn for a story and this is the result.  She begins “I didn’t stop giving hand jobs because I wasn’t good at it.  I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it.”

Hmm, I thought.  But why the scary skull/house graphic on the cover?

Gillian Flynn is a master at getting into our heads and making us question who are the good guys and who the bad guys.  Old houses, ghosts, evil children, immoral fathers create a cocktail.

This 62-page story, published alone, was originally part of an anthology edited by George R.R. Martin.  The week I read it, I saw an ad by James Patterson for a series of similar publications.  Is this the way we will move forward?  Short books that can be consumed in a single setting?  Particularly from big-name authors?

The thought brings me back to the closing of Flynn’s story.  “I got in bed and watched the door of the adjoining room.  Checked the lock.  Turned off the light.  Stared at the ceiling.  Stared at the adjoining door.  Pulled the dresser in front of the door.  Nothing to worry about at all.”

Nothing to worry about at all.  Maybe we can keep our attention longer than 62 pages.  The dresser in front of the door is rattling.

Finished 3/23/15

Burning Down George Orwell’s House–Andrew Ervin


I cannot remember for certain what made me buy Andrew Ervin’s debut novel, but I know that the title was an enticement.

Ervin wants to write a serious story.  Ray Welter flees his bankrupt materialist life for the Island of Jura.  He is separated from his college professor wife and possibly in love with an intern from his office who has gone off to South America to start a charitable organization for women.

Welter is hiding from the world by living in the remote house that was home to Orwell while he wrote 1984.  The locals are generally suspicious of him and some are downright hostile, including Pitcairn, the father of rebel/artist/teenager Molly.

Welter spends much of his time drunk on the wonderful scotch produced on the island and, despite the draw of the rugged nature outside his windows, trapped indoors in fear.  He reveals his sins.  He crafted an advertising campaign for military-grade SUVs that made their sins into desirables, that equated the consumption of fossil fuels with patriotism and liberty.  He was so successful that he was asked to do the same for the fracking industry.  That was when he headed for Jura.

Welter meets a handful of locals.  He hikes a bit. He stares at the Paps and dreams of hiking them.  He drinks and drinks and drinks.  He accomplishes little.  He seems to move forward when Molly seeks refuge from her abusive father by hiding with him, but when  Pitcairn drags her home, Welter returns to his drunken stupor.

The highpoint of the novel is anticlimactic and its conclusion equally so.  Orwell’s house never burns down.  It barely smokes or smolders.  I could feel Ervin wanting to say something grand, but he might have been better off saying something universal and genuine.

Finished 3/23/16

Among the Ten Thousand Things–Julia Pierpont


Pierpont opens her debut novel with a letter from a scorned mistress to the wife.  This letter comes with a box of emails that the doorman hands to the 11-year-old daughter, who reads them and shows them to the teenage son, who shows them to the wife.  The husband/lover/father is an artist who creates large-scale installations and sometimes sleeps in his studio.  The wife teaches ballet and was a ballerina at Lincoln Center until she became pregnant with her married lover’s child and they married and she became a dance teacher rather than a dancer.

My favorite passage–“The end is never a surprise.  People say, Don’t tell me, Don’t spoil it, and then later they say, If only I’d known….We thought we were living in between-time, after this and before that, but ti’s the between-time that lasted.”  Do with it what you will.

I closed the covers last night and fell asleep thinking about whether I liked this book, whether it had lived up to the wonderful dramatic beginning of the bombshell letter and emails.  That bombshell was followed by the husband’s (Jack’s) installation, a bombed out home that was meant to suggest anywhere. Only later does Pierpont suggest that maybe it isn’t anywhere.  It’s post 9/11 New York.  It’s 9/11 New York.  Jack was in Manhattan on 9/11.  He moved his studio to a safer part of town.  His mother is an emotionally distant alcoholic.  He loves his family, but doesn’t know how to connect with them.  He is the Kinell poem with which Pierpont opens the novel and after which she names her novel.  “Little sleep’s-head sprouting hair in the moonlight/when I come back/ we will go out together,/ we will walk out together among/ the ten thousand things,/ each scratched too late with such knowledge, the wages/ of dying is love.”

Pierpont is a young novelist.  She may identify with the jilted mistress (I started to suspect she was the jilted mistress when she revealed near the novel’s end that the mistress who wrote the letter began writing about what she had done).  The wife/mother, Deb, is a middle-aged woman the way a young woman imagines she will be in middle age.  She is unlike any middle-aged woman I know and, being middle-aged myself, I know many.  Pierpont graduated from the NYU Creative Writing Program and the craft is here, but the complexity of the characters lacks maturity.  Their outlines are the harder, more defined vision of people we all have when we are young and believe actions are good or bad, selfish or altruistic.  She wants them to be more complicated, but she’s not there yet herself.  That was what I finally concluded, anyway, as I wrestled with whether or not I liked the novel and why.  The adults are flat.  The children, the victims, are sympathetic, quirky, memorable.

And then there’s that quote.

Finished 3/7/16