21 March 2014

Spring Reading?

The reading pile, forever calling to me, forever too tall and growing, seems heavily laden right now with stories antithetical to the spring season. So be it. I do love contrast.

I am currently re-reading "Mary Coin" by Marisa Silver, a truly beautiful novel published last year that invents the lives and crossroads of Dorothea Lange and the Depression era farm worker who became immortalized in the photograph "Migrant Mother." I reviewed the book favorably last year and now my book group will discuss, so [happily] another reading. However, the landscape of the story is bleak, the era distressing, and women's lives particularly challenging, so hardly the vitality of spring. Think tiny purple crocus trapped under a hard frost.

In honor of the 75th anniversary of "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck, I am joining a countrywide movement promoted by NPR to re-read the novel. I haven't read this since college [and don't remember any of it] so I look forward to revisiting Steinbeck's elegant prose and gripping landscape, although this too will be a dreary place, like barren branches of a late-bloomer.

And then, for no special reason other than I often like to go back to beginnings, I will read Saul Bellow's award-winner: "The Adventures of Augie March." I was re-reading some early Philip Roth recently and he was a great admirer of the Nobel Prize winner and I confess I never got to this iconic novel so the time has come. Augie too grew up during the Depression so I guess there is a real theme here. This character is said to be quite dynamic, like Jasmine in full bloom.

And because I have to wind my way out of the Depression era, I am going to read a book that only recently came to my attention: "Edisto" by Padgett Powell. Published thirty years ago, the novel has had a recent resurgence, with comparison to Truman Capote, J. D. Salinger, and Flannery O'Connor. A coming-of-age story of a rambunctious boy, perhaps this one will spring fully into the season.

Perhaps these are the right books to read as the country finally begins to lift itself out of the Great Recession, albeit slowly and still painfully. Or, in commiseration with my dear friends on the east coast, my reading list is trapped in the long winter, so even if the calendar and the stars suggest spring, Mother Nature says no, not yet. So I will linger in the chill a bit longer, in literary terms, that is. Southern California is lovely in March.

14 March 2014

Ride the Slightly Wild Side with Jess Walter

Jess Walter is indeed a 10.

Many, perhaps most of us discovered the great Jess Walter with his most recent success, "Beautiful Ruins" which I reviewed favorably last year. Here was a powerful descriptive voice with an engaging storytelling style and a delightfully original tale set from Italy to Hollywood and from the fifties to the present.
Ruins is what reviewers call a break-out novel, so I expected there were other works tucked away, perhaps out of print, so imagine my surprise when I discovered that JW has a large body of work, including an Edgar winner and a National Book Award nominee. Why hadn't I heard of this writer before? I pay attention, I watch for the sleepers, but I missed him. However, now he is fully found.
When interesting writers come to me later in their writing lives, I go back to their backlist, and I downloaded several of JW's books, all markedly different, all original, all compelling writing with powerful narrative thrust and edgy characters. I am officially hooked!
First I read "The Financial Lives of the Poets" a quirky tale of a marriage imploding under the weight of the economy, drugs, boys gone wild and men unwilling to grow up. As funny as it was wise, I even recommended the novel to a snob of a reader-friend of mine who relished every bit of it. Great writing always wins. 

Then I read his recent collection of stories, "We Live in Water" which is, to my mind, and I adore short stories, not as grand as the long fiction, but oh so interesting and again, unforgettable characters and scenarios.
I read next "The Zero" which other reviewers compared to Kafka and which rocked me to the core - an intimate portrait of the after-shocks of 9/11 with a focus on one emergency responder, and told in a way that it might have been any of us. I will never forget this cop. I want to soothe his weary brow.
Now, "Land of the Blind" which may be my favorite. A little mystery, a lot of heart, a novel filled with such a collection of strivers and the lonely it might have been the basis for a Beatles song [think Eleanor Rigby.] And all in the context of the technology boom and the capitalist mania before and during the economic collapse. A coming of age story without dwelling on the coming, which I especially appreciated - we know these characters, and we care about them, without stripping them to the bone.
Did I mention that his novels mostly take place in Washington State - Spokane and Seattle - which may become for JW what Newark was for Philip Roth. Yes, he's so good I speak his name with the master.

"Children know what they are. Try telling a fat kid he looks good, or a child who is a bad athlete that he just needs to try harder. He knows better. But as adults, we start to believe the bullshit. We tell ourselves that cheating on our taxes isn't really stealing and that the job candidate with long legs is really a better fit for the company... We come up with rationalizations and justifications after the fact, and then we convince ourselves that these things are true. We pretend we are doing the best we can."
JW writes with contemporary flair about seemingly real people in the here and now dealing with the same sort of struggles and longings as the rest of us albeit in sometimes unfathomable circumstance. He writes men and women with equal flair and reveals the flaws in all of us with unflinching honesty and acceptance.
"The small things I took for granted then torture me now in their simple perfection: a plate of pancakes, a hand on my shoulder, a look of deep concern. You have no idea when you're so eager to escape your own house, your own life, your own childhood, of the sad truth that no one will ever care for you like that again."
Oh so true. And rarely do you find such clarity and honesty in the midst of a wild tale. I'm going to read "Citizen Vince" next which won the Edgar Award. Join me. JW is a great ride.