Books I Love

Heroes of the Frontier October 06 2016, 0 Comments

"The novel is a slapdash, picaresque adventure and spiritual coming-of-age tale — “On the Road” crossed with “Henderson the Rain King” with some nods to “National Lampoon’s Vacation” along the way. It’s not as moving as “Hologram” and hardly as bravura a performance as the author’s stunning debut, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” but Mr. Eggers has so mastered the art of old-fashioned, straight-ahead storytelling here that the reader quickly becomes immersed in Josie’s funny-sad tale. (...)
Mr. Eggers’s cleareyed portraits of these children remind us of the indelible portrait he created in “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” of his 8-year-old brother, Toph, whom he brought up after their parents died within weeks of each other. Of Toph, he wrote: “He is my 24-hour classroom, my captive audience, forced to ingest everything I deem worthwhile” — “to not have Toph would be to not have a life.”
That bone-deep knowledge of a child’s relationship with a parent informs Mr. Eggers’s portraits of Paul and Ana, and their love for and dependence upon Josie — by far the strongest and most deeply affecting parts of this absorbing if haphazard novel."
Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

Absorbing, yet haphazard novel. That is exactly it. It took me a while (more than 200 pages) to really get into this one. The meandering plot and daydreaming prose didn't seem to go anywhere but Eggers' characters dug deep into my heart and I finished the novel with a profound and very satisfying feeling of cumulative emotional power that still resonates within me to this day.

The more I reflect on this book, the more there is to think about. Underneath its seemingly simple plot (a mother of two goes off on a road trip to Alaska to escape from her life), runs a powerful undercurrent of American existentialism, very similar to the one you can feel in films like "About Schmidt" or "American Beauty".

The themes of restlessness, independence, social and geographical mobility, consumerism, freedom, family, domesticity, self-actualization, choices and children are all addressed sideways, all evoked with subtlety and a quiet, muted persistence. Eggers is a very eloquent and elegant writer.

I really love books that are tough nuts to crack. I actually love having to stop and ask myself "What is going on here? What is the author actually trying to say?" Richard Ford does this. Jim Harrison does this. Mark Slouka does this. Zadie Smith does this. Their themes run deep beneath the surface and yet they are right there for the eye to see if you are willing to do the work.

Haphazard: characterized by lack of order or planning, by irregularity, or by randomness; determined by or dependent on chance; aimless. Much of life is haphazard and this novel explores the meeting of this existentialist truth with the dizzying immensity of the American continent. There is beauty and terror in the possibilities offered by the vastness of the land, in this "frontier" that can still be pursued for one's personal sake. Dissatisfaction meets the open road, hunger for meaning meets the great Alaskan wilderness.

And finally, this novel is at heart a gripping portrait of what it means to raise children. How we really end up being taught by them and how, if we are willing to let them run free, they will reveal their true colors and innate character to us without our help or intrusion.

They are the true heroes of the frontier.

Good Morning, Midnight October 06 2016, 0 Comments

“Good Morning, Midnight is a remarkable and gifted debut novel. Lily Brooks-Dalton is an uncanny chronicler of desolate spaces, whether it's the cold expanse of the universe or the deepest recesses of the human heart."
—Colson Whitehead

If you loved The Dog Stars by Peter Heller.

If you loved Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

If you loved Solaris by Stanislaw Lem.

If you loved All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

You will probably find much to love in this slow burn of a book.

I thought this novel was a literary avatar of Night Shyamalan's cinematic universe.

The book shares Shyamalan's hypnotizing slowness, stylistic spareness and psychological depth. The writing was broody in both senses of the word: meditative and oppressive. Its ultimate elegance lay in that dichotomy.

It took me a while to fully appreciate the story but once I was able to put the pieces together and take a step back, a beautiful and lonely tableau took shape in the vastness of space. The descriptions of the universe and our place in it are truly heartbreaking.

The title "A Heart of Darkness" would also seem fitting to describe the separate voyages of two individuals into the poetry and blackness of the universe. Two journeys as physically grueling as they are psychologically transformative.

A novel that is unhurried, deliberate and incredibly graceful.

Fates and Furies May 16 2016, 0 Comments

"Even from her impossibly high starting point, Lauren Groff just keeps getting better and better. Her debut novel, “The Monsters of Templeton” (2008); her stirring story collection, “Delicate Edible Birds” (2010); and my favorite book of 2012, “Arcadia ” — all demonstrated her exquisite style and tough, heartbreaking compassion. But her new novel, “Fates and Furies,” is a clear-the-ground triumph. Spanning decades, oceans and the whole economic scale from indigence to opulence, this novel holds within its grasp the story of one extraordinary marriage. Not yet 40, Groff nonetheless captures the complicated ways love blesses, transforms and, yes, deceives us over many years. (...) Swelling with a contrapuntal symphony of passions, “Fates and Furies” is that daring novel that seems to reach too high — and then somehow, miraculously, exceeds its own ambitions."
Ron Charles in the Washington Post


It's hard to pin down exactly what Lauren Groff managed to do here but one can only sit back and think hard on what just happened to you once you finish reading this truly stunning novel. Similarly to my experiences with "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay", "American Pastoral", "The Corrections", "The Interestings", "Station Eleven" and "The Woman Upstairs", I had goose bumps after reading the first pages of "Fates and Furies" and wanted to live in that creation forever.

The depth and levels of understanding at work in our lives, the subterranean currents running beneath our feet, the invisible lines of randomness and chance crisscrossing in our midst, the past informing the present, the inner life feeding the one we present to others, the ocean that sometimes lies between the two, the elemental, character-defining events of our youth perpetually tinting our actions. This book contains multitudes.

The themes are big and bold, yet rooted in the finite and delicate details of the everyday. The intimate is brought to life with such precision and uniqueness. With cruelty and tenderness. With cunning and smartness. The construction is daring and ambitious and wild. It will leave you breathless and grateful. Be ready for Part 2 and its astonishing "Furies"...

Mathilde, oh Mathilde, I will never forget you.

And what can one say about the writing? Prose that sings and soars and melts like butter on your tongue. Visceral and poetic and visually evocative. An absolute dream.

What a f***ing trip. (Please excuse my language)

Dead Man's Float March 31 2016, 0 Comments

"Conversing with the poet-novelist is somehow akin to watching his dogs work the cover for birds. They race off on tangents, describing broad loops and arcs, or tight circles, always returning in a controlled, if circuitous, pattern that is at once instinct, training, ritual, and play.

Harrison is a man of prodigious memory and free-wheeling brilliance and erudition, as well as great spirit and generosity, lightness and humor; so the reader should imagine wild giggles and laughter throughout, and supply them even when they seem inappropriate—especially when they seem inappropriate. Imagine, too, the sounds and the textures in the background of the tapes: the easy talk of friends and hunting cronies; the light, cold drizzle of the wettest fall in Michigan history; sodden leaves and branches underfoot; and always the ringing of the dogs’ bells, sometimes nearby, sometimes barely discernible, fading into the woods."
Jim Fergus, The Paris Review

"It’s the origin of the thinking behind The Theory and Practice of Rivers. In a life properly lived, you’re a river. You touch things lightly or deeply; you move along because life herself moves, and you can’t stop it; you can’t figure out a banal game plan applicable to all situations; you just have to go with the “beingness” of life, as Rilke would have it. In Sundog, Strang says a dam doesn’t stop a river, it just controls the flow. Technically speaking, you can’t stop one at all."
Jim Harrison, The Paris Review

When I heard of Jim Harrison's passing last Saturday, my heart broke in a million pieces. I broke down in tears in front of my mother-in-law who probably thought that I was downright crazy. Some people will never be able to understand how you can sustain an imaginary conversation with a writer for half your life and consider them your family. Jim Harrison was one of those writers for me.

Above my writing desk in Canada, I had four photographs of writers pinned under glass like butterflies: Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Richard Ford and Jim Harrison. I talk to them when I'm distraught. I sit with them in Adirondack chairs at dusk and watch rivers go by in the roaring silence. I ask myself what they would do in certain situations. I stare at their faces as if they contain all the secrets of the universe, but mostly of a life well-lived, my elusive holy grail.

I cannot think of anyone whose appetite - his celebratory and constantly renewed hunger for life is legendary - is more contagious and more exquisite than Jim Harrison's. The joy he finds in the world, in the wilderness, in birds, in a dog's personality, in movement, in the passing of seasons, in the bodies of women, in the company of dead poets, in tree logs, in fly-fishing, heats up your heart like a floating sun.

The poems in Dead Man's Float are full of mortality and aging and grief and melancholy and yet you won't find more life and vigor and tenacity and attentiveness in any other book you've read recently. Jim Harrison talks to his own beloved poets (Garcia Lorca, Mandelstam, Rimbaud) the way he has his entire life and ends the book sitting with Machado at the edge of a suspended bridge above the sea. This poem both floored me and filled my heart with an animal pulse.

by Jim Harrison

Most of my life was spent
building a bridge out over the sea
but the sea was too wide and it didn't
go anyplace. I'm proud of the bridge
hanging in the pure sea air. Machado
came for a visit and we sat on the
end of the bridge which was his idea.
Now that I'm old the work goes slowly
but the material keeps coming as I hang
here in the air. Ever nearer death I like
it out here high above the sea bundled
up for the arctic storms of late fall,
the resounding crash and moan of the sea,
the hundred foot depth of the green troughs.
Sometimes the sea roars and howls like
the animal it is, a continent wide and alive.
What beauty in this the darkest music
which imitates the sky's thunder
over which you can hear the lightest music of human
behavior, the tender connection between men and galaxies.
So I sit on the edge, wagging my feet above
the abyss, the fatal plummet. Tonight the moon
will be in my lap. This is my job, to study
the universe from my bridge. I have the sky, the sea,
the faint green streak of Canadian forest on the far shore.

Now go and read him.

Dancing in the Dark (My Struggle Book 4) March 22 2016, 0 Comments

"Book 4 is also the airiest book in the ­series. The pages are rarely dense with text. The essayistic passages that elevate the earlier volumes, bold in their old-­fashioned European profundity and full of keen, original, brilliantly associative thinking, are nowhere to be found. Everything here is dramatized, scene after scene, compellingly so but without the gravitas of the earlier books and suggestive of a lighter, more carefree period in Knausgaard’s life.

The reason these books feel so much like life is that there’s only one main character. For all of his gifts, Knausgaard ­never leaves an indelible impression of other people. I have only a limited sense of his ­father and mother despite having read hundreds of pages about them, and the figures Knausgaard meets in Hafjord, his teaching colleagues, the girls he falls for and his students, tend to merge. You never get inside these people. It’s impossible to be inside them without altering the focus of Knausgaard’s solipsism. This wouldn’t work with most writers. They wouldn’t be interesting enough, tormented enough, smart, ­noble, pitiless or self-critical enough. With Knausgaard the trade-off is more than worth it. His is such an interesting brain to inhabit that you never wish to relinquish the perspective any more than, in your own life, you wish to stop being yourself. One of the paradoxes of Knausgaard’s work is that in dwelling so intensely on his own memories he restores — and I would almost say blesses — the reader’s own."
Jeffrey Eugenides, The New York Times

Eugenides hits the nail right on the head here. As much as I will give 10 stars to the entire My Struggle series (and I have yet to read installments 5 and 6), this one felt much, much lighter than the previous three. There were a lot less flights of the mind between the past relived and the present moment of writing the book. There were a lot less of the existential digressions and philosophical asides that I loved so much in the first two books. There was a lot less free play and improvisation in the writing.

There was a lot of sexual yearning. A lot of booze. A lot of (very) young girls with perfect bums and breasts outlined underneath their shirts. A lot of self-awareness. A lot of hunger for life, for transcendence, for excitement, for heat in all its manifestations, for independence. The adolescent male in its primeval glory.

And yet. There is absolutely nothing like living inside Karl Ove Knausgaard's mind. If this volume is more airy than the previous ones, it is precisely because it portrays a shifty, self-conscious, arrogant and confused period of life. There is no room for much complexity here because the entire self is pointed and taut like an arrow, aimed at one thing and one thing only: sex. So it must be.

And this is where Knausgaard's genius lies. If you trust him, if you are willing to tread through the mundane as well as the sublime, you will be rewarded in ways that you will never suspect. You will experience what it's like to be in someone else's head, literally. Lives are messy, boring, mucky and repetitive. Lives are also unique, unpredictable, elegant and heartbreaking. As Oscar Wilde said, we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

H is for Hawk March 14 2016, 0 Comments

"If birds are made of air, as the nature writer Sy Montgomery says, then writing a great bird book is a little like dusting for the fingerprints of a ghost. It calls for poetry and science, conjuring and evidence. In her breathtaking new book, “H Is for Hawk,” winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Book Award, Helen Macdonald renders an indelible impression of a raptor’s fierce essence — and her own — with words that mimic feathers, so impossibly pretty we don’t notice their astonishing engineering."
Vicki Constantine Croke, The New York Times

I am late to the game with this one. This book sat on my shelf for months, patient, attentive, the delicate bird of prey on its cover looking in my direction every time I walked by.

And then I just dived in. And words will fail me. My words feel bland after Helen Macdonald's chirping and buoyant prose, at once bristling, raw, descriptive and vital. A work that is filled to the brim with the elements, with heart, with grief, with grit, with feathers and blood. I never thought I would care this much about a baby goshawk called Mabel, bought for 800 pounds on a Scottish quayside, and trained in the English countryside.

A wildly endearing feat of nonfiction, a wondrous journey suffused with pain and beauty, elegance and wit (the humor in this book, self-deprecating and wry!), nature and history, wildness and city.

A contemporary journey mirrored by an ancient one, T.H. White's "The Goshawk", an 18th century treatise which echoes the author's awakening in the most touching and mysterious way.

I fail to do justice to the delicate nature of this book, its evasiveness, its frailty, its iridescence, its stupendous command of language. It changes like the weather, it fluctuates like the heart, it grows like a baby goshawk into its tremendous adult self. It will seduce you like nothing else can.

City on Fire November 12 2015, 0 Comments

So last night in DC, I got this beauty signed (Politics & Prose, you rock my world) and was pretty damn lucky to hear Garth Risk Hallberg read and talk about his most buzzed about debut novel. I cannot tell you how charming, unaffected, humble, funny and wise he was, as well as a superb reader. A tall and lanky teenage-looking father of two, he beguiled the audience with stories and anecdotes about characters, craft, life, writing, fate, influences and the mysterious, magical pull of cities. A truly lovely evening. 

The Story of a New Name March 28 2015, 0 Comments

"Partly because her work describes domestic experiences – such as vivid sexual jealousy and other forms of shame – that are underexplored in fiction, Ferrante’s reputation is soaring, especially among women (Zadie Smith, Mona Simpson and Jhumpa Lahiri are fans). Her writing has a powerful intimacy – as if her characters, to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, are the lenses through which we read our own minds. The novelist Claire Messud emailed, “When you write to me and say you love her work, I have a moment where I think, ‘But … Elena is my friend! My private relationship with her, so intense and so true, is one that nobody else can fully know!’ It’s strange – and rare – to feel proprietary of a book, or a writer, in that way.”"

"In a 2003 written interview, Ferrante said, “The true reader, I think, searches not for the brittle face of the author in flesh and blood” but instead for “the naked physiognomy that remains in every effective word”. Whoever Ferrante is, in the novel she is free to invent, to fabricate, to play, to revisit old wounds, to be less than beautiful. This is what writing can do: create a space for the savage within, for the contradictory and the wild, and make it real. There may be no consolation except the art itself, but what a pleasure for those of us who get to read it. I would not want to forget what Ferrante herself so eloquently stated in one of her letters: the mystery of literature is in some ways its difference from the person who wrote it, the unfathomable effacement of self that leads to its creation."

Meghan O'Rourke in The Guardian

To create a space for the savage within, for the contradictory and the wild, and make it real.

I could not express what these Neapolitan novels do any better than Meghan O'Rourke does in her fiercely intelligent and perceptive review of Elena Ferrante's novels for the Guardian.

You will simply never experience women characters in this way anywhere else. You get to read and feel the female psyche with more vibrancy and complexity and beauty than you can ever hope to find in a literary work. And the novels never feel literary. The characters feel as if they are coming into being right in front of your eyes, sentence by sentence, page by page, in a electrifying mess of living matter.

One of the most thrilling reading experiences I've had in recent years.

Meghan O'Rourke's review can be read in full here:

My Brilliant Friend January 18 2015, 0 Comments

"The women in my stories are all echoes of real women who, because of their suffering or their combativeness, have very much influenced my imagination: my mother, a childhood girlfriend, acquaintances whose stories I know. In general I combine their experiences with my own and Delia, Amalia, Olga, Leda, Nina, Elena, Lenù are born out of that mix. But the echo that you noticed maybe derives from an oscillation inside the characters that I’ve always worked on. My women are strong, educated, self-aware and aware of their rights, just, but at the same time subject to unexpected breakdowns, to subservience of every kind, to mean feelings. I’ve also experienced this oscillation. I know it well, and that also affects the way I write."
Elena Ferrante - The New York Times

"Ferrante’s Naples books are essentially about knowledge—its possibilities and its limits. Intellectual knowledge, sexual knowledge, political knowledge. What kind of knowledge does it take to get by in this world? How do we attain that knowledge? How does our knowledge change us and wound us and empower us, often at the same time? What things do we want to know and what would we prefer to leave unknown? What can we control? Who has power over our lives?"
Rachel Donadio - The New York Review of Books

"Life has actions in it. In reading a novel, it’s profound to experience the self-in-other in memory or contemplation, but it’s sometimes just as profound to experience the self-in-other during moments of decision. In Ferrante, we have both — they’re told in the first person, but they’re the story of more than a single person, of many equally weighted people. The plotting of their stories is so skillful, indeed so unplotted, in the sense that life is unplotted, in the sense that we don’t know the future, that as readers we suddenly exist both in other actions and in their actors’ consciousness of them. Not the latter alone."
Charles Finch - The Millions

There are so many layers at work in this astonishing novel that I don't even know where to begin... As soon as you start reading Elena Ferrante, you know you are in the hands of an extraordinary writer whose mind, heart and natural abilities have inextricably fused in the greatest of fires. The writing takes over your days and nights, seeps into your veins like crack. Straight into your bloodstream.

Very much like Karl Ove Knausgaard, she is able to play with the clearest, most fluid language to evoke simultaneously the multitude of details of everyday life and the ever shifting patterns of the mind. The words sizzle with grace, candor, terror and light.

The birth of a friendship between two little Neapolitan girls born in 1944 becomes the conduit for a ruthless and intoxicating exploration of what it means to become yourself. What is innate and what is acquired? What part of life is random luck and predestination? What part of character is emulation and what part is natural gift? How does the will to power play out if you are born poor in an uneducated and violent environment? How much does the past affect our present lives and can you escape it?

I read this breathtaking book over the course of three days, almost in a trance, and it seems that I have no choice to echo what Charles Finch wrote at the end of his piece on his year of reading in 2014 for The Millions:

"What I do know is that before 2014, I thought Philip Roth was the greatest novelist alive. Now, for me, he’s second."

That says it all.

Redeployment November 21 2014, 0 Comments

"In “Redeployment,” Phil Klay, a former Marine who served in Iraq, grapples with a different war but aims for a similar effect: showing us the myriad human manifestations that result from the collision of young, heavily armed Americans with a fractured and deeply foreign country that very few of them even remotely understand. Klay succeeds brilliantly, capturing on an intimate scale the ways in which the war in Iraq evoked a unique array of emotion, predicament and heartbreak. In Klay’s hands, Iraq comes across not merely as a theater of war but as a laboratory for the human condition in extremis. “Redeployment” is hilarious, biting, whipsawing and sad. It’s the best thing written so far on what the war did to people’s souls."
Dexter Filkins -- The New York Times Book Review

Deep down, I was secretly rooting for Emily St. John Mandel's "Station Eleven" but when the National Book Award for fiction was awarded to Phil Klay for "Redeployment", which I was almost done reading, I smiled with gratitude and approval.

When Phil Klay walked up on stage and started reading his notes for his acceptance speech, the myriad of emotions running across his face, which he painstakingly tried to subdue, held the audience captive from the first word to the last.

I cannot do justice to this collection of stories. They are the most brutally honest, unflinchingly raw and morally complex accounts of what the Irak and Afghanistan wars did to the minds and bodies of the most innocent, the most naive and the bravest of all of us: the soldiers and Marines who served and still serve over there. Whether or not you supported or understood these wars, you cannot not feel an extraordinary sense of empathy for these young men and women thrown into the pits of hell and expected to come out unscathed.

I will leave the last words to him, from his incredible essay "After War, a Failure of the Imagination", published in the New York Times earlier this year:

"It’s a powerful moment, when you discover a vocabulary exists for something you’d thought incommunicably unique. Personally, I felt it reading Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim.” I have friends who’ve found themselves described in everything from science fiction to detective novels. This self-recognition through others is not simply a by-product of art — it’s the whole point. Hegel once wrote, “The nature of humanity is to drive men to agreement with one another, and humanity’s existence lies only in the commonality of consciousness that has been brought about.”

To enter into that commonality of consciousness, though, veterans need an audience that is both receptive and critical. Believing war is beyond words is an abrogation of responsibility — it lets civilians off the hook from trying to understand, and veterans off the hook from needing to explain. You don’t honor someone by telling them, “I can never imagine what you’ve been through.” Instead, listen to their story and try to imagine being in it, no matter how hard or uncomfortable that feels. If the past 10 years have taught us anything, it’s that in the age of an all-volunteer military, it is far too easy for Americans to send soldiers on deployment after deployment without making a serious effort to imagine what that means. We can do better."

The essay can be read in its entirety here:
After War, A Failure of the Imagination

And then you can rush and get a copy of this superb collection of stories.

Mortality November 21 2014, 0 Comments

"The moment life departs the body, it belongs to death. At one with lamps, suitcases, carpets, door handles, windows. Fields, marshes, streams, mountains, clouds, the sky. None of these is alien to us. We are constantly surrounded by objects and phenomena from the realm of death. Nonetheless, there are a few things that arouse in us greater distaste than to see a human being caught up in it, at least if we are to judge by the efforts we make to keep corpses out of sight. In larger hospitals they are not only hidden away in discreet, inaccessible rooms, even the way they are concealed, with their own lifts and basement corridors, and should you stumble upon one of them, the dead bodies being wheeled by are always covered. When they have to be transported from the hospital it is through a dedicated exit, into vehicles with tinted glass; in the church grounds there is a separate, windowless room for them; during the funeral ceremony they lie in closed coffins until they are lowered into the earth or cremated in the oven. It is hard to imagine what practical purpose this procedure might serve. The uncovered bodies could be wheeled along the hospital corridors, for example, and thence be transported in an ordinary taxi without posing a particular risk to anyone. The elderly man who dies during a cinema performance might just as well remain in his seat until the film is over, and during the next too for that matter. The teacher who has a heart attack in the school playground does not necessarily have to be driven away immediately; no damage is done by leaving him where he is until the caretaker has time to attend to him, even though that might not be until some time in the late afternoon or evening. What difference would it make if a bird were to alight on him and take a peck? Would what awaits him in the grave be any better just because it is hidden? As long as the dead are not in the way there is no need for any rush, they cannot die a second time. Cold snaps in the winter should be particularly propitious in such circumstances. The homeless who freeze to death on benches and in doorways, the suicidal who jump off high buildings and bridges, elderly women who fall down staircases, traffic victims trapped in wrecked cars, the young man who, in a drunken stupor, falls into the lake after a night on the town, the small girl who ends up under the wheel of a bus, why all this haste to remove them from the public eye? Decency? What could be more decent than to allow the girl's mother and father to see her an hour or two later, lying in the snow at the site of the accident, in full view, her crushed head and the rest of her body, her blood-spattered hair and the spotless padded jacket? Visible to the whole world, no secrets, the way she was. But even this one hour in the snow is unthinkable. A town that does not keep its dead out of sight, that leaves people where they died, on highways and byways, in parks and car parks, is not a town but a hell. The fact that this hell reflects our life experience in a more realistic and essentially truer way is of no consequence. We know this is how it is, but we do not want to face it. Hence the collective act of repression symbolized by the concealment of our dead."
Karl Ove Knausgaard, A Death in the Family (My Struggle Book One)

There is no tinted glass here, no windowless room. Christopher Hitchens faces death and his own mortality with the same clear-eyed attentiveness, truthfulness and razor-sharp intelligence that he applied to any other subject throughout his life. No self-pity, no sentimentality, no avoiding the pain and suffering, no swerving away from the ultimate absence of "higher meaning". He looks death in the face every step of the way.

Harrowing and life-affirming at the same time, this slim little volume is packed with more grittiness and wisdom and heart than most books you will read this year.

The Woman Upstairs October 30 2014, 0 Comments

Annasue McCleave Wilson from Publishers Weekly:
"I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim."

Claire Messud:
"For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?” Nora’s outlook isn’t “unbearably grim” at all. Nora is telling her story in the immediate wake of an enormous betrayal by a friend she has loved dearly. She is deeply upset and angry. But most of the novel is describing a time in which she felt hope, beauty, elation, joy, wonder, anticipation—these are things these friends gave to her, and this is why they mattered so much. Her rage corresponds to the immensity of what she has lost. It doesn’t matter, in a way, whether all those emotions were the result of real interactions or of fantasy, she experienced them fully. And in losing them, has lost happiness."

What is this strange obsession with the "likeability" or "unlikeability" of Nora's character in this stupendous novel?! It seems so stale and entirely besides the point to me that I don't even know where to begin. Thank goodness for my Goodreads friends Gloria, Marianna and Ami who were quick to jump to this woman's defense, underlining how much they actually identified and empathized with her as opposed to feeling appalled by her inner demons.

When have you last heard a female's voice so sharply defined, so feverish, so inhabited, so perceptive, so damn heartbreaking as Nora's? Here is a shimmering, complex and broken character whom Virginia Woolf would have revered. Who has never felt envy towards others? Obsessive friendships? Unrealized and stubborn aspirations that eat at you like a plague? There is no "likeability" or "unlikeability" here, only the furious will to live and hunger for feeling.

I could go on and on but I will leave the last words to Margaret Atwood, taking part in the debate in The New Yorker:

"Also, what is “likeable”? We love to watch bad people do awful things in fictions, though we would not like it if they did those things to us in real life. The energy that drives any fictional plot comes from the darker forces, whether they be external (opponents of the heroine or hero) or internal (components of their selves)."

Think Walter White in "Breaking Bad". Isn't he one of the most riveting, complicated, morally torn and furiously alive character you've ever encountered? Nora Eldridge is cut from the same cloth.

An astounding novel.

The Bone Clocks October 01 2014, 0 Comments

Dear James Wood,

We read and love writers for very different reasons. I read Albert Camus and I read Jorge Luis Borges. I read Milan Kundera and I read Malcolm Lowry. I read Richard Ford and I read Doris Lessing. I read Lawrence Durrell and I read Saul Bellow. I read Samuel Beckett and I read Jim Harrison. I read Emily Bronte and I read Michel Tournier.

David Mitchell's dazzling gifts are not those of Karl Ove Knausgaard, yet I need them equally in the fabric of my life. They bring different qualities to the literary landscape, they light up different areas of the brain. You cannot posit that one is superior to the other without falling into the trap of a certain form of elitism that we can surely do without today.

"The Bone Clocks" is not only superb and entrancing storytelling but it does have plenty to say about the human condition. Suspension of disbelief does not annihilate meaning. I found this novel to be quite profound in parts, a love letter to family, an ode to imagination, a dire warning to humanity about the next fifty years.

I was transported, engrossed and moved. Since when were these emotions second-rate?

Rainey Royal October 01 2014, 0 Comments

"Dylan Landis’s captivating and unnerving novel “Rainey Royal,” set in Manhattan of the 1970s and early ’80s, is not a thriller, but it smolders with these loaded questions: How far will an adolescent girl go to gain a sense of belonging; and how can her unaimed sexual power put others, and herself, at risk? Reading this book, following its characters along a shaky tightrope that stretches between vulnerability and cruelty, confidence and catastrophe, you may thank heaven, or St. Catherine of Bologna — Rainey’s chosen protectress, the patron saint of artists — that you are not a teenage girl. That is, of course, unless you are one; in which case you can take heart in the author’s intimation that this perilous transit can be achieved with something that ends up feeling, in a small way, like grace."
Liesl Schillinger, New York Times

I like to quote reviews that put their fingers on the very delicate pulse that beats within a book and Liesl Schillinger gets to the heart of things when she speaks of a "captivating and unnerving novel", "a shaky tightrope that stretches between vulnerability and cruelty, confidence and catastrophe".

This book was everything that I wanted Salinger to be: reckless, direct, brave, unapologetic, unadorned, psychologically naked, elegant without being affected, smart without being pretentious, fiery without being theatrical.

A penetrating and heartrending portrait of an adolescent girl, caught between her need for innocence and her hunger for self-affirmation. Greenwich Village in the 70's, a personal romanticized obsession of mine, is depicted with a quiet and subdued fierceness very much akin to Rachel Kushner's in "The Flamethrowers".

A struggle, an ascent, a shedding of skin and a rebirth that will stay with you for a very long time.

The Empathy Exams: Essays July 30 2014, 0 Comments

"She wants an empathy that arises out of courage, but understands the extent to which it is, for her, always rooted in fear. Imagining the pain of others means flinching from it as though it were our own, out of a frightened sense that it could become our own. She refers to psychological studies in which fMRI scans have observed how the same kind of brain activity is provoked by the observation of other’s physical pain as by the experience of one’s own. She says that she feels heartened by this instinctive identification, but wonders what it might finally be good for. Much of the intellectual charge of Jamison’s writing comes from the sense that she is always looking for ways to examine her own reactions to things; no sooner has she come to some judgment or insight than she begins searching for a way to overturn it, or to deepen its complications. She flinches, and then she explores that flinch with a steady gaze."
Mark O'Connell for Slate

Of all the reviews I've read about this phenomenal collection of essays (part memoir, part journalism, part travelogue, part philosophical treatise), Mark O'Connell's in Slate was the only one to put its finger on one of the essential qualities that make these essays astounding and one of my favorite features of this book: Leslie Jamison's dazzling (yes, the superlatives abound here and so be it) mind constantly oscillates between fierceness and vulnerability. If the main theme is that of empathy, there is also a constant search on her part for absolute truthfulness in her accounts of encounters, emotions, events and intellectual musings.

The level of observations and reflections, of intellectual and emotional involvement in the stories of others, is on par with the few essays I've read by Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, Mark Slouka, George Packer and Rebecca Solnit.

A book that defies characterizations. A book that is relentless in its honesty and willingness to dive in, to go deep, to dwell where it hurts, whether real or imaginary. Trust the words of Mary Karr: "This riveting book will make you a better human."

A humbling and and transformative reading experience.

Read the entirety of Mark O'Connell's review here:



All the Light we Cannot See July 17 2014, 0 Comments

I always thought, or imagined, that there were these invisible lines trembling in our wake, outlining our trajectories through life, throbbing with electric energy. Lines that sometimes cross one other, or follow in parallel ellipses without ever touching, or meet up for one brief moment and then part. A universe of lines crisscrossing in the void.

Anthony Doerr's astonishing new novel "All The Light We Cannot See" follows the complex arcs of two such invisible lines through the lives of Werner Pfennig, an orphan boy in pre-World War II Germany and Marie-Laure Leblanc, a blind girl living in Paris with her father. Through riveting flash forwards and flash backs, the novel charters the course of their lives as they struggle to find out wether it is possible to really own your life when it is swallowed by the black holes of history. One is driven by a deep love of science while the other is inhabited by the power of books. In the midst of the rise of German fascism and the birth of the French Resistance, how does youth manage to stay true to its essence?

A war story, a coming-of-age story, a philosophical fable, this is a novel that constantly oscillates between the moral uncertainties of life and the chiselled precision of the natural world that surrounds us. Between the political morass of war and the stupendous beauty of organisms, the ocean, the human brain.

The language is so fantastically precise - Anthony Doerr does things with verbs that make entire paragraphs sing - that the visual component of this book is quite astounding.

In the end, what this novel illuminates is the miraculous impact that seminal events have on the rest of our lives, whether it be the magic of radio broadcasts on the mysteries of science or the extraordinary adventures of Jules Verne's "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea".

A deeply moving and enthralling work that echoes the power of early impressions on the building of a self, such as the philosopher Simon Critchley recently evoked so beautifully in a stunning essay published in The New York Times entitled "The Dangers of Certainty":

Opinionator Blog - NYTimes: The Dangers of Certainty


The Goldfinch July 17 2014, 0 Comments

"We have art in order not to die from the truth."

There are books inside which I have wanted to live. "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay". "The Alexandria Quartet". "The Great Gatsby". "Under The Volcano". "Dalva". "The Adventures of Augie March". "Belle du Seigneur".
There are characters who are more real to me than many real-life people. Josef Kavalier. Jay Gatsby. Isabel Archer. Frank Bascombe. Tereza. Geoffrey Firmin. Jane Eyre.
They live and speak and go on existing in my mind, as tangible as the ripples and circles agitating the waters of the river which I can see from my window. Little fires burning in the winter light.

I wanted to live inside "The Goldfinch". After a few pages, I knew I wanted to follow Theo Decker for the rest of my life and sit quietly in the corner of his mind as he experienced the world. Donna Tartt brought to life a mesmerizing and elusive New York, both bohemian and aristocratic, and cracked open its doors to let you in, awe-struck and exhilarated.

Theo. Welty. Hobie. Pippa. Mrs. Barbour. Boris. A handful of unforgettable characters brought together by coincidence and chance in an astounding Phoenix of a book, continually rising from its ashes into different forms: thriller, Bildungsroman, philosophical treaty, coming of age tale, epic, travelogue, memoir.

A novel that will etch itself into your mind with a pocket knife like an "I love you" into a tree.

A pure act of love. Sublime.

The Other Language July 17 2014, 0 Comments

charm (v.)
c.1300, "to recite or cast a magic spell," from Old French charmer (13c.) "to enchant, to fill (someone) with desire (for something); to protect, cure, treat; to maltreat, harm," from Late Latin carminare, from Latin carmen (see charm (n.)). In Old French used alike of magical and non-magical activity. In English, "to win over by treating pleasingly, delight" from mid-15c. Related: Charmed; charming. Charmed (short for I am charmed) as a conventional reply to a greeting or meeting is attested by 1825.

Francesca Marciano's stories are as delightful and light as they are deep and complicated. They will charm the hell out of you at the turn of a sentence and fill you with a sudden desire for more exotic locales (Rome! Africa! India!) and a heightened sense of living. From the exquisite nostalgia of the story "Chanel" to the life-affirming epiphanies in "The Presence of Men", here is a writer whose humanity shines through and through in her sharp observations of women's inner lives. And what to say about the radiant beauty at work in "Quantum Theory".

Because the real exotic locales depicted here are the subtle tectonic plates at work inside these phenomenal female characters, always in motion, always shifting from one mood to the next, in constant evolution. These are women who are not afraid to be weak and untameable, needy and independent, light and impossibly heavy, courageous and riddled with doubt. The stories are brilliant at conveying the ebb and flow of women's psychological strengths and vulnerabilities. We know these women. We are these women.

A wickedly smart and elegant collection that I was damned lucky to read ahead of its publication date in April 2014, a gorgeous whiff of spring in the beginning of winter.

The Interestings July 17 2014, 0 Comments

So. Fucking. Great.

I'm going to gush. It's going to come out all wrong. But that's ok.

There was so much soul and perceptiveness in this genius novel that I don't really know what to say other than "go read it now".

What happens to talent over time? What happens to teenage friendships over time? What happens to passion and ideals and dreams over time?

This novel will fill your heart to the brim and break it like a twig all at the same time.

I will echo another Goodreads friend and say that it is simply perfect. I will echo another Goodreads friend who said that it felt like a mix between "Freedom" and "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" but even better. It is.

The Flamethrowers July 17 2014, 0 Comments

The critic James Wood in his review for the New Yorker pin-points it perfectly:

"Rachel Kushner’s second novel, “The Flamethrowers” (Scribner), is scintillatingly alive, and also alive to artifice. It ripples with stories, anecdotes, set-piece monologues, crafty egotistical tall tales, and hapless adventures: Kushner is never not telling a story. It is nominally a historical novel (it’s set in the mid-seventies), and, I suppose, also a realist one (it works within the traditional grammar of verisimilitude). But it manifests itself as a pure explosion of now: it catches us in its mobile, flashing present, which is the living reality it conjures on the page at the moment we are reading."

Alive. Rippling with stories. Historical. Realistic. A pure explosion of now.

What a vibrant, electric ride this was. A novel as wild as it is elegant, zooming in and out of scenes so perfectly brought to life that they will shimmer in your memory for a long time. A doe-eyed, inhabited, wonderful female character who hungers for experience at every turn of the page and steals your heart in one swift move with her innocence and willingness to take it all in.

Because this is what this gorgeous novel does, it takes it all in. It brings to life (visceral, complicated, ever-shifting life) every single theme and locale it touches upon: the New York art scene in the 70's, the grittiness and primal energy of the Bowery of those years, the coming of age tale that never resolves itself, the radical left-wing groups that terrorized Italy at the same period, the beauty of motorcycles and the intoxication of speed throughout history, from World War I to salt flats races in Nevada.

This is writing at its best. It will swallow you up in one big gulp and spit you back out on the curb, leaving you breathless and wondering what just happened to you.

A Field Guide To Getting Lost July 17 2014, 0 Comments

Say you're a coin.
You're resting quietly in somebody's palm.
Someone says "heads" or "tails" and suddenly you are thrown high up in the air, as high as you can go.
As you twirl, you meet Walter Benjamin and his illuminations, you meet Daniel Boone and his adventures in the wilderness, you meet Robert Hass and Simone Weil, you meet the color blue and all its meanings, you meet Cabeza de Vaca, Eunice Williams, Mary Jemison and Cynthia Ann Parker, you meet the Clash and Isak Dinesen, you meet Alfred Hitchcock and his vertigo, you meet Yves Klein and the blue of distance, you meet the desert and rattlesnakes, you meet lovers and friends and houses and maps and cartographers.
And then you land flat on the ground.
Is it heads? Is it tails?
It doesn't matter. You've had a glimpse of the world.
One of the most elegant and arresting intellectual digressions that I have ever read.
I could have lived inside Rebecca Solnit's head forever, following the trails of thoughts that spread and separated and merged like weeds at the edges of a river.
Historian, poet, philosopher, thinker, this woman can write about anything and writes looking up at the stars, her feet firmly rooted in the dirt.

Levels of Life July 17 2014, 0 Comments

Oh wow...

I need to strike while the iron is hot with this one.

Don't be fooled by the apparent anecdotal aloofness of the first two sections of this recollection of grief. They deal with balloons and height and stories of Englishmen and Frenchmen, famous and less famous. They deal with Sarah Bernhardt and Nadar and officers and life lived "on the level" (I will let you discover exactly what that means). The third section's more personal narrative could not have been written without them. Their context is what underlines every single word that follows.

Here, even in mourning, Julian Barnes is Julian Barnes. A writer obsessed with leitmotifs, patterns, stories as they are told to us and learned in books, historical anecdotes as they serve to illuminate our own lives, animating them like shadow-theatre. A writer obsessed with metaphors. A writer obsessed with connecting and interweaving past events with our trembling, seeking present.

Julian Barnes writes about love and life and grief through the most delicate exploration of the "levels of life", from intoxicating heights to unbearable lows, with the radical intelligence and beating heart that inhabit all his books.

This is simply one of the most beautiful declarations of love that I have ever read.

So Long, See You Tomorrow July 17 2014, 0 Comments

Speechless... That was extraordinary.

(24 hours later)

I knew I was in for something special when I heard Richard Ford saying that this was one of his all-time favourite books but I didn't expect this level of amazement and mastery as I zipped through these 150 pages on a rainy October Sunday. How did someone manage to pack so much humanity in such a tiny work of art? The last time I felt such mind blowing concision was when I read "The Great Gatsby" for the first time. Every single sentence contains an entire world of thought and imagery and sensory detail that burns into your mind like a red-hot iron. The entire story is eerily seamless, moving like water from point of view to point of view, gathering speed like a storm about to burst. Rarely have I felt such emotional rawness and truths expressed in so few words. This is a true feat of the heart and mind.

I was also lucky enough to read this masterpiece with a most luminous and intelligent introduction by Ann Patchett. Obviously enamoured with this piece of work, she writes the following:

""So Long, See You Tomorrow" is structured not like a novel, but like the inner workings of the human brain. There are no surprises, only a constant circling of facts, the question of how things might have gone differently, the familiar retreat into personal experience. The narrator puts himself into characters he has no connection to, imagines their days, imagines the dog, without apology or explanation. Why has he stepped into someone else's life? Because this is how we try to make sense of the things we cannot possibly understand. It is an exercise in compassion."

Ann Patchett chose this novel as one to pass on to future generations. So would I.

Middlemarch July 17 2014, 1 Comment

Oh, the slow burn of genius.

I always tread lightly when it comes to using the word "genius" but there is no way around it here.

It took me a good 200 pages to fully get into the novel and its ornate 19th-century turn of phrase but very quickly, I was so completely spellbound by its intelligence and wisdom that I couldn't put it down.

George Eliot's astonishing authorial voice is something to behold. It takes the (mis)adventures of a handful of characters and peels their layers one by one with so much subtlety that you often have to reread a sentence several times to fully grasp the keenness of its observations.

The entire novel feels like a giant lens zooming in and out of human follies with such gusto and empathy that you cannot help but feel privileged to witness the inner workings of people's thoughts and (re)actions.

Not only does "Middlemarch" make you ponder many aspects of our motivations, desires, aspirations, limitations, ideals, dreams, behavior and inclinations but it keeps you on the edge of your seat like a ferocious psychological thriller.

The end will leave you teetering on the brink, revisiting all of your personal, deep-seated assumptions about people, what is a successful life, what is a good marriage, how you measure goodness and your impact on others' lives.

A work of vertiginous beauty.