Book brief: The Lacuna

LacunaLike all the women in post-war America, I fell in love with Mexamerican author Harrison Shepherd, to whom Barbara Kingsolver gives some mighty writing chops in this 2009 novel. Frida & Diego, Trotsky, and stenographer Violet Brown have their own lovely orbits around Shepherd. Rich and immersive, effectively interweaving true historical events with these fictional characters, the novel presents real and fabricated newspaper accounts to enhance the central character's many personal journals. (Not entirely unlike what Marisha Pessl did with new media in her latest, the last read I blogged.) I learned more than I remember having previously known about American history, especially the HUAC action of the Cold War era. And as a native Tar Heel, I love that Harrison landed in Asheville when he returned stateside. With its surprises and subtleties, in hindsight I wish I had read this saga straight through rather than putting it down when I reached a section break to take my own break with one or two other novels. I feel disloyal to Harrison and Mrs. Brown! 

Superlatives: Character I'd most like to hang with: Arthur Gold. Character I'd most like to hear more from: Violet Brown. Most honest character: Harrison Shepherd. Most caricatured character: Tom Cuddy. Most throwaway character: none. 

From the publisher:

With deeply compelling characters, a vivid sense of place, and a clear grasp of how history and public opinion can shape a life, Barbara Kingsolver has created an unforgettable portrait of the artist – and of art itself. The Lacuna is a rich and daring work of literature, establishing its author as one of the most provocative and important of her time.

Book brief: Night Film

Night.filmMarisha Pessl's sophomore novel, Night Film,  is a hot ticket; I had to keep it hostage from the library to finish it, and my $1.50 in fines for the nearly three extra weeks was more than worth the book's wild ride. I loved being the first one to check it out, in its first week of publication, and indeed there was a hold on it when I turned it in today (complete with the review from NYTimes Book Review I'd clipped one Sunday while I had the book). At first, I feared that the tale might be too creepy; horror is not my genre, but I can enjoy a mystery. Night Film proved to be a psychological thriller, and I read it in big gulps, sailing through a dozen tiny chapters at a sitting. (There are more than a hundred chapters in its 624 pages.) Its innovation is the use of reproduced (fictional, but with permissions) web pages, magazine clippings, and records, which I found effective in pulling me in and giving a feel of primary-source material. Apparently, there is also a digital component, but I decided not to go down that rabbit hole in the wake of my recent iOS7 update. One may be able to access the "real" Cordovite Blackboards, but I don't want to. While I recall really enjoying Pessl's first book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006), I don't remember it all that well. My sense is that book was more "literary" in both style and content; I wasn't dazzled by the writing in Night Film, nor was I put off by it in any way. Mostly the story compelled me forward, maybe because I'm a film fan, or because I love New York, or because Scott's dogged pursuit of the truth captured me. Pessl has crafted another amazingly inventive tale.

Superlatives: Character I'd most like to hang with: Nora. Character I'd most like to hear more from: Inez Gallo. Most honest character: Nora. Most caricatured character: Marlowe Hughes. Most throwaway character: none. 

From the publisher's page

On a damp October night, beautiful young Ashley Cordova is found dead in an abandoned warehouse in lower Manhattan. Though her death is ruled a suicide, veteran investigative journalist Scott McGrath suspects otherwise. As he probes the strange circumstances surrounding Ashley’s life and death, McGrath comes face-to-face with the legacy of her father: the legendary, reclusive cult-horror-film director Stanislas Cordova—a man who hasn’t been seen in public for more than thirty years.
For McGrath, another death connected to this seemingly cursed family dynasty seems more than just a coincidence. Though much has been written about Cordova’s dark and unsettling films, very little is known about the man himself.
Driven by revenge, curiosity, and a need for the truth, McGrath, with the aid of two strangers, is drawn deeper and deeper into Cordova’s eerie, hypnotic world.
The last time he got close to exposing the director, McGrath lost his marriage and his career. This time he might lose even more.

Book brief: The Burgess Boys

Burgessboys1I picked this novel (Random House, 2013) up at the library while in the midst of reading another, and I'm glad I did. Taking a break from The Lacuna brought me back to it eagerly after I savored every minute with Bob Burgess and his people. While I had read author Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteredge, that collection of linked stories didn't grab me the way this tale did. And despite its familial focus echoing the last novel I finished, The Burgess Boys takes place over years rather than a weekend, and ranges in location from NYC to tiny Shirley Falls, Maine, with a few other stops afield. I read a review that described the book's voice as "close third-person," which I can't recall hearing used before, but I like how aptly it decribes the way Strout takes us inside some characters heads, but not everyone's. Ultimately, younger brother Bob is the central focus, but we get to know his twin, his ex, and his sister-in-law. Also the Somali immigrant Abdikarim. Squirrely sibling Jim, not so much. The Burgess Boys opens with a conceit of a first-person narrator laying out an overview of the story, which may have helped to engage this reader; I can't un-read it and imagine starting the saga blind. We all belong to families, and taking an inside look at this one increased my appreciation for my own, while entertaining me well for a few weeks this summer. 

Superlatives: Character I'd most like to hang with: Margaret Estaver. Character I'd most like to hear more from: Zach. Most honest character: Bob. Most caricatured character: That lady who lives upstairs at Susan's (can't remember her name). Most throwaway character: Pam (but not really). 

Publisher's blurb: 

Haunted by the freak accident that killed their father when they were children, Jim and Bob Burgess escaped from their Maine hometown of Shirley Falls for New York City as soon as they possibly could. Jim, a sleek, successful corporate lawyer, has belittled his bighearted brother their whole lives, and Bob, a Legal Aid attorney who idolizes Jim, has always taken it in stride. But their long-standing dynamic is upended when their sister, Susan—the Burgess sibling who stayed behind—urgently calls them home. Her lonely teenage son, Zach, has gotten himself into a world of trouble, and Susan desperately needs their help. And so the Burgess brothers return to the landscape of their childhood, where the long-buried tensions that have shaped and shadowed their relationship begin to surface in unexpected ways that will change them forever.


Book brief: Seating Arrangements

SAcoverOften I grab a novel from the New Fiction bookcase at our neighborhood library; I found my 2012 favorite, Arcadia, that way, an unexpected pleasure. Granted, I tend to take books that sound a note of recognition, which would linger in my mind from a Sunday Times Book Review, NPR, or my guilty pleasure, Entertainment Weekly. I'm trying to take advantage of my Goodreads membership, too, and find friends' recommendations there. Despite having an older Kindle, I still like the heft of hardback. 

Two weeks ago I checked out Maggie Shipstead's Seating Arrangements (Knopf, 2012), because I remembered some positive press. New England WASPs getting married on tiny islands are not generally my thing, what with being a single Southerner, but the writing on the first page engaged me, and darned if that book didn't suck me in and keep me reading until I finished it back there at the West End branch this morning. Her prose is beautiful, and Shipstead does a masterful job of managing multiple points of view, moving between them to offer a family portrait that is unique yet universal. Protagonist Winn Van Meter, patriarch and father of the bride, went from someone I couldn't imagine understanding to a character I was rooting for as he literally and figuratively swayed in the wind. Both he and second daughter Livia, 40 years his junior, grow up over the course of the weekend the novel narrates. From whale-covered trousers to whale-blubbered beach, the details, decades and desires woven into the tale left me laughing, but with moist eyes, as I handed the volume to the librarian.

Superlatives: Character I'd most like to hang with: Dominique. Character I'd most like to hear more from: Biddy. Most honest character: Sterling. Most caricatured character: Celeste. Most throwaway character: Poppy (was that even her name?). 

From the publisher's page

Winn Van Meter is heading for his family’s retreat on the pristine New England island of Waskeke. Normally a haven of calm, for the next three days this sanctuary will be overrun by tipsy revelers as Winn prepares for the marriage of his daughter Daphne to the affable young scion Greyson Duff.  Winn’s wife, Biddy, has planned the wedding with military precision, but arrangements are sideswept by a storm of salacious misbehavior and intractable lust: Daphne’s sister, Livia, who has recently had her heart broken by Teddy Fenn, the son of her father’s oldest rival, is an eager target for the seductive wiles of Greyson’s best man; Winn, instead of reveling in his patriarchal duties, is tormented by his long-standing crush on Daphne’s beguiling bridesmaid Agatha; and the bride and groom find themselves presiding over a spectacle of misplaced desire, marital infidelity, and monumental loss of faith in the rituals of American life.