So Much to Read
"A man ought to read just as inclination leads him, for what he reads as a task will do him little good."—Samuel Johnson

30 December 2008
Youngblood Hawke
Herman Wouk

A big book about a big man with big ideas. Like his contemporary Marjorie Morningstar, Hawke is pursuing the artistic life and seeking security. Unlike Marjorie, Hawke is a man, and marrying into money isn't his only option, although he does consider it. All he wants is to pursue his punishing nocturnal writing schedule and churn out big novels with gripping plots and fascinating characters that people love to read (just like what Herman Wouk himself has spent his life producing). But everyone wants a piece of this poor boy from the hills of Kentucky turned cash cow, and Hawke himself chases after riches, knowing it will buy him the freedom to produce his ambitious masterwork. Is there a more romantic place than Manhattan in the 1940s? The hats, the gloves, the silk stockings, the cabs hailed in the rain? Even better, the publishing world, with sharp-tongued editors in glasses defending intellectual freedom? McCarthyism provides a subplot and a stirring commentary on American life and communism. Wouk has a troubling horror of aging women and gay men, which is unfortunate in a novel set in the New York theatre and publishing worlds. But his characters are fully fleshed out, his plot roars along like a freight train, and this is a rich read.

30 December 2008
He Is...I Say
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Neil Diamond

David Wild

Since Neil Diamond is basically a nice, straightforward guy, Rolling Stone music critic Wild doesn't have much to do but say "Isn't Neil Diamond awesome?" and then talk some more about himself. Neil Diamond is awesome. He's just not cool, perhaps because he's so sincere. Or maybe people just don't know what to make of a Jewish cowboy in sequins. There's a little bit of Brill Building background here, and a couple of amusing anecdotes, possibly the best being that Diamond, who was born with the perfect show business name, considered changing it to "Noah Kaminsky." That was one option; his other choice is just too embarrassing to repeat, so you'll have to read the book.
Much more about pop music coming out of Brooklyn and Los Angeles in the 1960s and '70s: Girls Like Us

2 October 2008
American Wife
Curtis Sittenfeld

Laura Bush and her marriage have always been a bit of a mystery to the public; maybe that mystery is part of her popularity. Sittenfeld's novel fills in the spaces between the basic facts of the first lady's life, taking many liberties but also including entertaining stand-ins for Karl Rove and Barbara Bush and an ersatz president as appealing as he is appalling. At first, it seems like Sittenfeld has taken Laura Bush's life and grafted on her own obsessions (namely, bodily functions and sexual humiliation), which still results in a great read very much like Prep. But later she explores the gap between a public image and a private self, speculates on the lasting effect of an early tragedy, and, most intriguingly, asks how much responsibility one spouse has for the other's actions (actions like, say, starting a bloody and costly war for questionable reasons). In this fictional world, the first couple's marriage makes sense. As the Laura Bush character responds to one critic, “I did not contradict myself; I live a life that contains contradictions. Don't you?”
Also by Sittenfeld: The Man of My Dreams

24 September 2008
The Size of the World
Joan Silber

The six narrators in this book take turns telling their overlapping stories, which span the twentieth century, several wars, and three continents. Mostly Americans, they've all left their homes: An American expatriate living the life of a boss-man in Thailand returns to San Francisco; an American woman leaves her husband and runs away to Mexico; an Italian bride immigrates to New Jersey. This book calls itself a novel (in linked stories) but is really the opposite: Rather than being one story, with one narrator, peopled by many different personalities, its six sections each have separate stories and different narrators—who all speak with the same voice. I found the characters most interesting when seen from the outside in someone else's story, when they seemed most different from each other. But their common voice is a welcome one; it's that of a person who has known tragedy, who is grateful for what he has, and who is aware of his own failings. And finding the connections among the stories is a pleasure, as each new narrator offers a change of angle, like the turning of a prism. Place matters to these characters, and Silber writes beautifully whether she's describing the streets of Vietnam or the beaches of Florida. As one of her characters says, "I began to think of each spot on the globe as a mere part, the section any lesson had to be broken down into."

9 September 2008
Old School
Tobias Wolff

A boarding school is a wonderful setting for a story. The formality, order, simplicity, and often beauty of the place; the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake; the higher calling of an honor code; the power of tradition; the nostalgia for childhood (for these stories are written by adults); the ever-present, if not openly acknowledged, complication of class; the intimacy that develops from living in an insular world—it's rich material. And single-sex schools, like the boys' academy in this book, provide an added dynamic. Wolff is a short-story writer, of course, and this isn't a novel as much as a series of stories, but that doesn't diminish its power. The main character, who is never named (that I just realized that now is testament to Wolff's skill), is enthralled by the idea of putting words on a page but is not sure yet who he is. This is a book about pretending—not always intentionally—to be what you're not. And the cameo appearances by real, famous writers are delightful.

19 August 2008
Mrs. Bridge
Evan S. Connell

I had to keep checking the copyright date on this book to confirm that it was written in 1959. Its spareness and understatement belong to much more recent literature; even the form, a series of vignettes, is contemporary. The Bridges are a comfortably middle-class family in Kansas City in the 1930s. Mrs. Bridge's life is her home and family, and she's content to keep out the rest of the world. But her world soon grows so small that, unable to express her unhappiness, she boxes herself in. It would be easy to make her a comic or pathetic figure—and the book is often funny and frequently sad—but Mrs. Bridge's uncertainty and unfulfilled desire make her fully human. Connell followed up ten years later with Mr. Bridge (below).

19 August 2008
Mr. Bridge
Evan S. Connell

Written ten years after Mrs. Bridge, in 1969, Mr. Bridge's side of the story follows the same form as his wife's: third person narration mostly limited to the title character's inner thoughts. Mr. and Mrs. Bridge are the center of each others' lives, but they are almost complete mysteries to each other. We find out that Mr. Bridge is complicit in the sheltering of his wife, yet he is also alarmed at her ignorance. Mr. Bridge, in contrast, is aware of the wider world, but chooses to cling to his beliefs rather than entertain doubts. He is much like Stevens the butler in The Remains of the Day, giving his life to serve his employer (in order to serve his family), but what he gives his family (his income) isn't what they want or need most from him.

5 August 2008
Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation
Sheila Weller

If the thought of knowing which Joni Mitchell songs were written about Jackson Browne makes you salivate, then this is your book. Big and juicy, it's crammed full of trivia and anecdotes about the New York and California folk/rock scene in the 1960s and '70s. Weller's slightly clunky writing style took a little adjusting to; like many music reviewers and celebrity biographers she's so taken with her subjects that she seems to need to cram in every reference she can in tribute. But she clearly knows her stuff. She's placed these three artists' stories in the context of women's lives in this still-restrictive era. Lumping together these three very different women—King, the workhorse professional behind the 1960s pop canon; Mitchell, the ethereal diva, one step ahead of everyone in her melding of jazz and folk; and Simon, the neurotic girl's-best-friend with the soaring voice and giant smile—demonstrates Weller's very point: that rock and roll is a man's game. And my goodness, those men can be mean! And nearly every one of them in here has the morals of an alley cat. But then, it seems to be friction that makes for the best music, if not for happy-ever-after.

29 July 2008
The Remains of the Day
Kazuo Ishiguro

Stevens is the consummate professional butler in postwar England, prizing dignity to a fault. I think we're meant to see him as a patsy and to wish that he could have cut loose a bit and found the True Happiness that we all know comes from Rejecting Authority. But it's easy to forget how clear hindsight is, especially in moral choices, and let's not be too quick to condemn professionalism, or to scoff at those who take pride in doing what they do well. Stevens' gentle courtliness and his attention to human behavior are beautifully rendered here. It's a sad story, but this character, extreme though he may be, is not that different from any one of us in the compromises we make.
Also by Ishiguro: Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall

10 July 2008
The Men and the Girls
Johanna Trollope

Hugh and James are lifelong friends in their sixties, both living comfortable lives in their English university town. Each is married to a woman twenty-five years his junior. In one couple, the super-capable wife provides stability for her husband when he falters; in the other, the woman is restless. Also on hand are a curmudgeonly uncle, a flighty American housewife, a handsome suitor, a sulky teenaged girl who's a big softie underneath, and the sensible Miss Bachelor, always ready with a stern talking-to. For a while the novel, overall a middling read, seemed headed down a predictable path, so I was pleased when it surprised me.

1 July 2008
Marjorie Morningstar
Herman Wouk

Marjorie Morgenstern is the daughter of upwardly mobile Jewish immigrant parents in 1930s New York City. Everyone in this novel is concerned with how to live—that is, how to make a living—but for a young woman, marriage is the only answer to either question. Marjorie, the embodiment of feminine beauty and charm, is too lovely even to be taken seriously as an actress, which is her dream. She has no shortage of suitors, yet her allure and the choices it offers (she's more prize to them than person) arguably make her less happy. The male characters have the more interesting problems, such as whether to pursue life as an artist or support a family in the suburbs and how to keep living in the face of tragedy and guilt, and their speeches on those topics are the meat of this engrossing story. Marriage itself receives very little attention; the whole novel is about getting to the chuppah. Although it seems ironic that the goal is far less exciting than its pursuit, the real race is that against time. This novel is about lost moments.
More by Herman Wouk: Youngblood Hawke

<—2007 reviews

2009 reviews—>

"There was so much to read, for one thing, and so much fine health to be pulled down out of the young breathgiving air...I was rather literary in college—one year I wrote a series of very solemn and obvious editorials for the Yale News—and now I was going to bring back all such things into my life and become again that most limited of all specialists, the 'well-rounded man.' This isn't just an epigram—life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all."—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby