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

3 October 2013
My Education
Susan Choi

This terrific novel lurches from one gear to the next and stalls a bit in the middle, but finally starts to purr at the end. It begins with a love affair from the main character's early-90s college years in a town that is unnamed but sounds exactly like Ithaca, N.Y. The contrast between the assured first-person voice of the middle-aged woman telling the tale and the obsessively lovesick youth she once was makes the story a little less believable but a much better read for the perspective of distance. I'm noticing that almost every book I read, including this one, has at least one character who is extremely wealthy, usually because they had some quirky idea that made them a lot of money with barely any effort. Wealth is easy to write about, especially wealth that doesn't require much work. A rich character can fly across the country on a moment's notice without a thought, solving a lot of plotting problems. Rich people can buy most any object or experience that the writer feels like describing. And rich people are free to spend their time conversing and playing, which is much more fun to write about than toiling at a boring job or worrying about finances. It also seems like I find a lot more books (again, like this one) set in the years before smart phones and even email, when people had to talk to each other face to face, had chance meetings and missed connections, had to wait for and anticipate things they wanted, and spent time with their own thoughts. All of which makes for good literature—and a good life.

3 October 2013
The Unknowns
Gabriel Roth

It isn't often that I wish a book were less well-edited, but that might be the case with this slim novel. Each scene flows smoothly to the next, connecting the present with the backstory of the past, like a tightly written piece of code. It's billed as the story of a high-school programming whiz trying to crack the "girl problem," but it's really about a young man with misgivings about his life who falls for a journalist with a painful history. It's set in the early days of the invasion of Iraq, and asks whether in love (or in a war started because of rumors of WMDs) you should trust what you're told rather than trying to get at the truth. As in so many books, one character's extreme wealth greases the wheels of the plot (in this case, it's a dot-com millionaire programmer, more believable than most). Roth is a sharp observer and can be very funny, but also handles a dark subject with ease. I don't wish it were a less polished book, of course. I just wanted there to be more of it.

3 October 2013
Big Brother
Lionel Shriver

I hated the writing at first, but nevertheless this book hooked me right away. It's the first of Shriver's that I actually kept reading after starting it. I've since read We Need to Talk About Kevin, which is a heavier novel in both subject and style, although Big Brother is hardly light. It's another critique of American culture, but, again, the critical protagonist doesn't spare the self-scrutiny. Obesity is the issue this time around, and the questions of who bears responsibility for it and what we owe our family members. And once again, we have the ubiquitous character who gosh-just-had-this-whimsical-idea-and-somehow-it-took-off-and-made-me-very-wealthy. Shriver has a strong voice and a tendency to run with a sentence, and doesn't seem to care if the word she's chosen isn't quite the right one, in this book much more than in Kevin. And what is the deal with the crazy, awkward names she give these characters? She must be having fun, and it's a good enough book that after a while these things stopped bothering me. In fact, it made me want to read more of her.

3 October 2013
And the Heart Says Whatever
Emily Gould

There is no shortage of super-smart, witty, aimless twenty-something New Yorkers, certain they're meant for better things but happy to share their failings. Gould is among the best of them writing about her time at Oberlin, her stint at Gawker, bad dates, stifling relationships, and crummy jobs. It's the literary equivalent of Girls, which also tackles work and money and having to earn a living head-on, unlike Sex and the City, which treats those subjects as a joke, making it an empty farce. Gould's essay collection is very good, but hits only one note and is best read in small doses.

6 July 2013
Curtis Sittenfeld

Identical twin sisters in St. Louis are psychic. Kate, the narrator, is disturbed by her powers. She's uncomfortable with difference in general and a bit of a doormat, her unexamined prejudices being her most distinct character traits. Her sister Violet, in contrast, has turned her gift into a career. She's impulsive and unfiltered and steals every scene she's in. The radical difference in these identical twins' temperaments is much harder to believe than their clairvoyance. Another stretch is Kate's impossibly perfect, adoring husband, especially given Kate's near-total absence of personality. But her function is really to observe, anyway. The supernatural twist gives the story a magical, unsettling thrill, but the paranormal takes a back seat to the normal. This novel, like Sittenfeld's earlier work, is really about mean high school girls, awkward family secrets, life in the suburbs, and the calculations and balances in a marriage, and it is excellent. But it's this perfect rendering of the real, everyday world that threatens the foundation of the plot, which is that Violet's prediction of an earthquake in St. Louis generates a frenzy of national media attention. Clearly, this is not the real world after all, and that's a jarring disconnect in a novel with such a sound, sensible style. None of which is to say that this isn't another wonderful Curtis Sittenfeld book. The four or five years I have to wait between them is always worth it.
More about twins and the supernatural: Her Fearful Symmetry

6 July 2013
The Best Man and others
Kristan Higgins

I've tried several contemporary romance writers, and no one comes close to Kristan Higgins. I've read five of her books so far (I'm pacing myself so I can savor the ten she currently has out) and they all have the same basic plot: a thirtyish woman with modest professional success but romantic failure returns to her pretty little Northeast home town to live near her family. There's a hunky blue-collar guy who has caught her fancy but who is off-limits for some reason. She has a dog, she loves ice cream and old people, she goes on comically bad blind dates, and when she gets upset she cleans (please, how can I arrange to be like that?). She's self-deprecating but persevering. These may be romances, with their attendant predictability, but there are elements I don't remember appearing in Danielle Steel, like a gay best friend (Higgins' girls always have them), a heroine who's a six-foot-tall athlete or a Civil War reenactor, and gross-out slapstick, not to mention a heroine who sleeps with the hero—or some other guy—just because she enjoys it. There's nothing too challenging here, but that's the point. They are fun and funny and a joy to read.

6 July 2013
He's Gone
Deb Caletti

A Seattle woman wakes up in her houseboat the morning after a party to find her husband has disappeared. Her memory of the night before is hazy—she took some pills, they had an argument—and the longer he's gone the more she starts to panic. Should she be worried for his safety, or angry that he has walked out on her? She and Ian left their spouses for each other, and it has been a heavy burden to have to prove that their marriage was worth upending their families' lives for. His daughters are furious at her, her ex-husband is furious at everyone, and she's not sure she can trust his coworkers—or herself. This novel, Caletti's first for adults, is engrossing and unnerving and hard to put down.

6 July 2013
The News from Spain
and The Paper Anniversary
Joan Wickersham

The seven stories in the collection, all equally strong, all contain the phrase "the news from Spain," but it never feels like a gimmick. I'll leave it to better readers than I to find any other connection between these pieces; all I know is every one of them is great, and that that's rare in a story collection. If I had to find a common theme, it would be something about a woman who has missed her chance at something, but what sticks with me more is the little chocolate eggs with toys inside that one character's lover brings her as presents. The collection spurred me to track down Wickersham's novel, The Paper Anniversary, which I somehow missed in the 1990s, and I'm very glad I found it. It's about young newlyweds Maisie and Jack who, almost as soon as they're married, realize they have competing visions for their lives. He wants to live in Maine and run the French fry factory he has inherited, she has vague ideas about working in publishing in New York. They circle around, together and apart, trying to decide what they want, experimenting with other people, Maisie trying to figure out if she's the love of Jack's life or just his crazy first wife.

6 July 2013
The Good House
Ann Leary

I doubt it was Leary's intention, but this novel makes binge drinking seem like a lot of fun. Sixty-something Hildy Good is a real estate agent in the Massachusetts town she's lived in her whole life, still surrounded by people she knew in high school or used to babysit when they were kids. She's back from rehab, but maybe not quite as recovered as she says or thinks she is. She befriends an odd and intriguing new woman in town, and soon holing up in her house after a swim in the lake, with her dogs and a case of red wine (sounds pretty nice, right?) isn't making her problems go away. Hildy is hilarious and good company, and the reader will stick with her, trying to figure out through her alcoholic blur what is really going on.

6 July 2013
Here I Go Again
Jen Lancaster

Lissy Ryder, the most popular, meanest girl in high school, had everything going for her, but by her twentieth reunion it has all come back to bite her. Her career and marriage are both in tatters, and everyone she tormented years ago hates her. What if being nicer in high school would have made her life turn out better? And what if she got a chance to find out? Lancaster makes Lissy the perfect blend of obnoxiously clueless and honestly sympathetic, the girl who says those things you barely dare to think and that you feel a little bad for laughing so hard at. Plus, time travel! It's a ton of fun.

6 July 2013
A Thousand Pardons
Jonathan Dee

A woman leaves her screw-up husband and needs to support herself and her mouthy teenaged daughter. She chances into a job as a corporate spokesperson, finds she has a gift for smoothing over scandals, and becomes sort of a professional apologizer. When she reconnects with an old friend who is now a famous movie star, she has to muster all her scandal-handling skills to get them both out of trouble. I gave Dee's earlier novel, Pulitzer Prize–finalist The Privileges, two good shots and I still couldn't read it. This one I took to right away.

6 July 2013
The Interestings
Meg Wolitzer

Five teenagers meet at an arts camp in the Berkshires and become lifelong friends, despite eventual wide disparities in their fame and fortune. It's Wolitzer's biggest and best book yet, and it occurred to me that in scope and themes it's very much like Freedom; it's satirical, smart, funny, and political, but even more polished and assured. Why isn't Meg Wolitzer on the cover of Time magazine?

3 February 2013
The Middlesteins
Jami Attenberg

Food is always on hand in this novel about Edie Middlestein and her family. Attenberg is fair to her characters, never making a stereotype out of the aging single daughter, the high-strung sister-in-law, or Edie herself: successful lawyer, weight-reduction -surgery candidate, retiree, divorcee, and not especially likable woman. The only discernible plot is the preparation for Edie's twin grandchildren becoming b'nai mitzvah. Like any good meal, it's easy to gobble up, comfortably filling with a bit of an unfamiliar spice here and there.

3 February 2013
The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving
Jonathan Evison

I couldn't get into the author's highly praised recent novel West of Here, but this one grabbed me from the start. A father escaping a tragedy gets a job as a caregiver for a teenaged boy in a wheelchair who has his own father issues. The disabled boy is a fully realized character, not just a catalyst for the main character's development. The book reminded me a little of After the Workshop, with a hapless protagonist trying to find a little adventure in a cheerless life.

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"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