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Archive for the ‘Alfred A. Knopf’ Tag

A Different Mother and Son Reunion   Leave a comment

 

The NixSomebody get Nathan Hill an editor! The author of The Nix is creative, daring and has a good – no excellent – story to tell. The problem is that it’s about 250 pages too long, including an 11-page sentence. Really?!

Moving back an fourth between a tumultuous Chicago in 1968 just before the Democratic national convention and a calmer 2011, the novel ‘s focus is on the relationship between Samuel Andresen-Anderson and his estranged mother, Faye. It’s been decades since he last saw her. When Samuel was a child, Faye abandoned him and her husband.

Samuel teaches literature at a Chicago university. His heart isn’t in his work; his students are neither inspired, nor inspiring. After hours, on his faculty computer, he plays an immersive video game. He is also 10 years behind on a book that he’s been contracted to write. Samuel is a likeable guy and it’s painful to consider him a loser. But.

Hill is at his best in his descriptions of Samuel’s childhood, before his mother left. It’s vivid, engaging and explains so much about this character. Equally engrossing are the sections about Faye’s youth in a rural town in Iowa.

Less appealing are some of the other characters and situations, if only because the depth of their portrayal is extraneous. Take the sentence that is a chapter unto itself. It chronicles the symptom-by-symptom, reaction-by-reaction experience of a compulsive gamer as his body shuts down.

Ultimately, all the reader, like Samuel, wants is to understand why Faye left.

The Nix
Almost Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016
620 pages

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No Great After Taste   Leave a comment

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Sweetbitter is a combination love story and homage to restaurant life, particularly servers. It’s far from reverent and certainly doesn’t offer a warm-hearted view of the front and back of house scenes. It demonstrates that working in a restaurant is often a lifestyle and not just a job.

Told from 22-year-old Tess’s point of view, Stephanie Danler’s novel is unflinching when it comes to sex, drugs and ego trips. Tess arrives in New York City from the Midwest. With only limited diner experience, she lands a job as a back waiter in an upscale Manhattan restaurant. She’s unsure of herself, has no true motivation, but still simply seems ready to get on with her life, whatever it may be.

The novel’s four sections are broken down by seasons beginning with a sweltering summer. As each progresses I was increasingly disappointed. Summer and fall had my full attention as I expected Tess to develop interests and become more confident. By the winter and spring segments, I was disappointed. Yes, Tess makes some self-discoveries, but they’re minor in the scheme of things.

Part of the problem is that Danler never makes Tess’s obsessive fixation on Jake, the bartender, tangible or credible enough. His relationship with Simone, an older server who, inexplicably, fascinates Tess, is a mystery waiting to be solved; but it lacks tension. Instead, predictability takes control, which is far more bitter than anything sweet Danler has to offer.

Sweetbitter
(Barely) Three bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016
352 pages

Children of the Holocaust   Leave a comment

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Just when it seems there can’t possibly be more to write about the horrors of the Holocaust, Jim Shepard in The Book of Aron reminds us why it is something we must never stop reading about – and, hopefully, learning from.

In Aron, the young narrator, Shepard has created a selfish, defiant, naïve and curious young boy. The German invasion of Poland and the subsequent establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto are described through Aron’s experience. He and his friends turn to smuggling. They couch their activities as efforts to help their families; however, the thrill of seeing not only what they can unearth, but also what they can get away with are, initially, stronger forces.

Shepard’s descriptions of the harsh living conditions, the threat of being caught by the authorities for dealing in contraband and the pain induced by being cold and hungry are painfully vivid. At first Aron treats the situation as little more than an inconvenience and the smuggling as something to keep him and his cohorts occupied.

As Aron slowly loses his family and friends, he finds himself on the streets struggling to survive. Dr. Janusz Korczak, who ran the Warsaw orphanage, rescues him. Before the war, Korczak was well-known as a children’s rights advocate. As portrayed by Shepard, he is a man old before his time motivated by a need to instill hope in children trying to endure hopeless lives.

This fictionalized account of the eventual friendship between Aron and the good doctor is harrowing and riveting.

The Book of Aron
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
253 pages

 

Family Knots   Leave a comment

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Families can be so complicated and Anne Tyler has banked on this fact in all of her novels. Her most recent, A Spool of Blue Thread, is no exception.

Abby and Red Whitshank are the kind of folks that raise their four kids, go to work every day, are regarded favorably, pay their bills, have a peripheral connection to a church and know little about either each other or their family history. At one point, in a jesting tone, the omniscient narrator notes there are two family stories: one about the family home on Bouton Road in a respectable, comfortable Baltimore neighborhood, and the other about Red’s sister’s marriage.

Of course, there are more, many more. And Tyler slowly, almost teasingly, reveals them. There’s a good reason why she spends so much time describing the Bouton Road house built by Red’s father.

Initially, the novel appears to focus on Denny, the ne’er-do-well son who floats in and out of the family’s vision. Once he’s clearly established as unreliable and secretive, the focus shifts. Multiple times. Denny has two sisters, but they are the least developed characters. Stem, the youngest son, soon becomes a focal point, as do Red’s parents. Though separated by a generation, the secrets and pasts associated with these three are what move the narrative.

Tyler is not afraid to throw in surprises, which in retrospect were actually subtly foreshadowed. Her ability to show the strengths and foibles of family life are engaging, occasionally humorous and always insightful.

A Spool of Blue Thread
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
368 pages

Pillow Talk   Leave a comment

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Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf is best described as sweet. This terse novel was published posthumously, and its content makes me imagine that the author was in his final days when he penned it. This is a story of finding a way out of loneliness while believing that the opinions of others have little value or impact.

Addie Moore and Lewis Waters are widowed and living in the fictional town of Holt on Colorado’s eastern plains. This is Haruf’s preferred setting as many of his previous works have centered around this small communityand its residents. Anyone familiar with his writing will recognize names and places.

One day, Addie calls Lewis. They have known each other for years, but only peripherally. She wonders if he would like to spend the night. This is no brazen, immoral solicitation. It is one lonely heart reaching out to another.

Addie’s son and grandson figure into the narrative as does Lewis’s daughter. The townspeople make sure these adult children are aware of what their parents are doing.

Haruf provides a lot of detail such as teeth brushing and lawn care for someone trading in a scarcity of words (after all, the book is less than 200 pages long).

Unfortunately, the premise, which is touching and somewhat whimsical, overshadows the writing, which is too mundane to be enchanting. Anyone who has experienced a meaningful relationship (be it lover or friend) will appreciate the warmth drawn from conversations that happen just before sleep.

Our Souls at Night
Three bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
179 pages

The Girl in the Crime Series Lives!   2 comments

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When author Stieg Larsson died 11 years ago, it appeared to be the death knell for the Millennium Series featuring Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist and heroic bad girl Lisbeth Salander. Thanks to David Lagercrantz, the demise of the fictional characters was greatly exaggerated.

Lagercrantz has written the fourth installment, The Girl in the Spider’s Web — doing so in a voice and style remarkably similar to Larsson’s. This is a good thing.

The two protagonists have moved on with their lives;  Blomkvist still writes for Millennium magazine and Salander continues to hack computers. They have not stayed in touch with one another. Then, Blomkvist receives a call in the middle of the night from a source who has been in contact with a hacker whose description can only fit Salander. This thinnest of threads ultimately expands to hold the narrative together. Blomkvist’s source and Salander’s work for him are linked to international cyber-spying, old family vendettas and the pair’s respect and faith in one another.

Many characters introduced by Larsson have new-found life thanks to Lagercrantz. He follows a similar pattern of simultaneous stories occurring within a single chapter until they ultimately come together.

Blomkvist’s source is murdered, the NSA is hacked and a child autistic savant not only has the missing piece to the puzzle that brings these events together, but he brings out an unlikely, albeit extremely slight, maternal side in Salander.

There’s intrigue, righting wrongs and descriptions of Stockholm that make it seem as if Lagercrantz is channeling Larsson.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
400 pages

Sky Watching   Leave a comment

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A few weeks ago I reviewed Peter Heller’s The Painter. That was  shortly after Station Eleven. While I enjoyed both books, I thought I’d wait before starting another work by Heller, and I certainly had no intention of being drawn into another novel about a post-apocalyptic world. Then I heard Heller talk. He shared his experiences as a freelance writer and told how he came to write fiction. He read some from The Painter and The Dog Stars. I really had no good excuse not to read the latter.

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It takes a little time adjusting to Heller’s stream of consciousness style with no quotation marks and single word sentences. It’s a terse yet fitting approach for Hig, a pilot who’s survived a flu pandemic, to tell his story. He lives with his dog, Jasper, and Bangley, a weapons-hoarder-ask-questions-later neighbor on an abandoned airfield northeast of Denver.

They must constantly be on alert from human predators. Hig is the least vigilant of the trio. What’s left of the world is not a friendly place. Yet, despite his best efforts, given the losses he’s faced, Hig is an optimist. A chance static-riddled radio transmission three years earlier from western Colorado has made him restless. Against Bangley’s better judgment, Hig needs to know what and, more importantly, who may still be out there.

His discovery is beautiful and gut-wrenching. Like Hig, the reader comes to appreciate Bangley. Although it hardly seems possible, as the story progresses Hig’s sensitivity and humanity gain greater significance.

The Dog Stars

Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2012
320 pages