I recall standing in Seattle's Queen Anne Bookstore on a rainy late autumn afternoon in 2009, reading the jacket of this book and ultimately, passing.I recall standing in Seattle's Queen Anne Bookstore on a rainy late autumn afternoon in 2009, reading the jacket of this book and ultimately, passing. I wasn't familiar with Jess Walter, although this book seemed to be making quite the splash. I was, however, all too familiar with the effects of the global recession and I just wasn't ready to find it funny. Nope. Not yet. In fact, that very bookstore became one of its casualties a few years later.
Fast-forward into a new decade. Jess Walter has become one of my favorite contemporary American writers. And although the effects of the recession are no less unfunny, time and perspective have only strengthened the relevancy of this book, if for the sheer amazement that America seems to have learned few lessons from its time teetering on the precipice of collapse. The cost of housing in Seattle is once again approaching the stratosphere; more than ever, it has become a City of Have More Than Anyone Else.
But The Financial Lives of the Poets isn't set in that shining city on the Sound. It's set in perennially grim Spokane, Walter's home, the conservative capital of the Northwest's Inland Empire. Spokane's a bit stalwart, a bit stale, but solid, uncompromising, built on farming fortunes. A good place to raise a family. As long as you don't hang out at the 7/11.
As long as you don't bet your family's financial security on a website that offers financial advice in poetic form. I mean really, what could go wrong?
Matt Prior has been out of work for a while. When things were flush—only a few days ago, it seems—he and his wife Lisa bought their dream house (more than they could afford of course, but remember when home loan companies were just THROWING money at us?) and Matt poured money into the stock market, congratulating himself for investments that seemed sure bets. She had a good job, he bid a snarky adieu to the crumbling newspaper biz to launch poetfolio.com, and for a heartbeat, the future was theirs. Then the economy collapsed. You can guess what happens next. Personal Finance Shitstorm.
As the story opens, forty-six-year-old Matt has less than a week to make a $31,000 balloon payment on his mortgage. He and his wife, Lisa, have no health insurance. Their savings, including once-flush 401(k)s, are tapped out, Lisa's working a crap job in an optometrist's office, Matt's dementia-inflicted dad has moved in, Catholic school tuition for their two elementary-aged sons is killing them (the Priors aren't even Catholic, but their neighborhood has stopped gentrifying and the local school is like Rikers Island for the Wii set), and Matt is fairly certain Lisa is having an affair with her high school sweetheart, Chuck.
Could you blame him, then, for hanging out at the 7/11 with a bunch of satin tracksuit-clad white gangbangers, smoking weed and eating pork rinds? Could you blame him for seeing the financial opportunity in selling pot to his middle-aged friends, just until he can get his family out of their financial hole? Tapped into the keg of American zeitgeist, Walter—à la Weeds and Breaking Bad—sends us down the rabbit hole of Very Bad Decisions made with Generally Good Intentions.
Matt's insomnia imbues the narrative with a slightly surreal, hallucinatory glow, heightened by his pot-laced paranoia and Grandpa's dementia. There is tender relief offered by his two sons, reminding us that this is a book about the aspirations and failings of fathers, the vulnerability of sons, and how boys become men, or at least try to.
The brilliance of Jess Walter is the LAUGH OUT LOUD caper crazies of his characters, who kill you with their cluelessness yet manage to retain such believable humanity, such depth of sincerity, that you cheer them on from one fuck-up to the next. Because there is always a sense of "There but for the grace of God, go I". We know and love and are embarrassed and infuriated by these people because they are us.
The Financial Lives of the Poets is social satire with a warm, beating heart, with fleshed-out, wounded characters who earn our compassion even as we are choking on our laughter.
Oh, and that bookstore on Queen Anne that bit the recession dust? Some local residents and former employees banded together and resurrected it in 2013 as Queen Anne Book Company. It's going strong.
You know, it really was a coincidence that I picked this up at the library the day after the HBO miniseries won something at the Emmy awards. I'm lateYou know, it really was a coincidence that I picked this up at the library the day after the HBO miniseries won something at the Emmy awards. I'm late to the Olive Kitteridge party because I never intended to go in the first place. But there I was, in-between reads, waiting for all the books I'd requested to arrive at the library (which they nearly all did in a single day, three days later) and here was Olive Kitteridge, sitting on a rotating rack of paperbacks that you can borrow on the honor system. It was slim, it had the gold Pulitzer Prize seal, the library was moments from closing, and who can leave the library empty-handed? So, Olive Kitteridge came home with me for a couple of days.
Hey Mikey! I liked it!!
Earlier generations had Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio to illustrate slices of Americana pie; we have Elizabeth Strout's Crosby, Maine. Her technique—the weaving together of individual stories with repeating characters and a common setting—is not unique, of course, but her empathy, poignancy, and clear-eyed storytelling are as fresh and bracing as a salty spring wind blowing off the Atlantic.
"Soul custody" is one character's heartbreaking malaprop, but it so perfectly captures what happens here, in the hours we give ourselves over to this town and its residents, particularly its eponymous protagonist. Soul custody, indeed. Olive Kitteridge is the collection's axis. The book is comprised of thirteen vignettes that are like tilts of a kaleidoscope: each offering a different way of looking at life in a place that seems to change very little from a distance, but when you look more closely, emotional fortunes are made and lost with the changing tides.
Olive herself is maddening and endearing. How to understand the tenderness you can feel for a woman who would beat and belittle her only child, then wonder in mealy-mouthed resentment why he would chose not to stay near her as he matures and creates his own life? That is the magic of Strout's character development, the way she is able to inhabit Olive's heart and head: you see a complete woman, with all her flaws and her ungracious attempts at humanity. And this deep character empathy is true for everyone we meet in Crosby, ME (and in a foray to New York City): in these brief moments, so much is shown and learned about an aging lounge singer/piano player whose hair is dyed shade too crimson; a young girl whose flesh and muscle wither away because she simply will not, cannot eat; a young man on the verge of emotional collapse as he trains a gun on four hostages locked in a hospital bathroom; an older married man on the troubling border of fatherly concern and a lover's yearning for a young woman in crisis.
This book, despite its emphasis on life's unkindnesses, is so empathetic and humane that it is impossible to remain in despair. It is an acknowledgment that to feel life, to feel it deeply, is terrifying. It is also irresistible.
And it's impossible to read Olive Kitteridge and not crave doughnuts. ...more
Not a book to read cover-to-cover and set aside, but one to reference, ear-mark, jot down notes, ideas. I bought this just a year ago, after a workshoNot a book to read cover-to-cover and set aside, but one to reference, ear-mark, jot down notes, ideas. I bought this just a year ago, after a workshop with the author, wondering if/when I'd ever have cause to use it. Now that I'm five months out from the launch of my first novel, I find inspiration, comfort and wisdom within.
The guide's first half is a practical laundry list of ideas and recommendations for the time and budget-strapped author. Regardless of our publishing method or size of publisher, we're all expected to devote significant time and cash to building our author platforms and promoting our books. Daunting. Terrifying. Stressful. Bewildering. Exciting! Particularly for those of us out there for the first time, flailing, wondering where best to spend our time and energy. But Everyday Book Marketing breaks it down into manageable chunks.
The second half is devoted to Q&A with authors and book/author promotion experts. I loved this. Midge Raymond is from the Pacific Northwest and many of the writers she interviewed are those I know or with whom I'm familiar; it's wonderfully encouraging to see some of the same faces I've met at conferences or workshops and encounter on Facebook detailing what has and hasn't worked for them. And to read how many of them are surprised by how much they enjoy promoting their work. Cannot wait until I can say the same!...more
Meticulous and ponderous, Matthew Thomas's debut novel, We Are Not Ourselves spans several decades, from a classic New York Irish immigrant story to tMeticulous and ponderous, Matthew Thomas's debut novel, We Are Not Ourselves spans several decades, from a classic New York Irish immigrant story to the grinding tragedy of dementia and health care in the 21st century United States (at least prior to the Affordable Care Act).
I've just lost a loved one to Alzheimer's and there is tremendous mercy to be realized in the relatively short span of time between diagnosis and death—only a few years and only in the final months was the decline as devastating as what is portrayed in We Are Not Ourselves. Still, the descriptions of what patient and caregivers endure as the brain slips into the shadow of dementia are chilling, heartbreaking, and painfully familiar.
Despite the connection to the themes, and many beautifully written passages, I struggled to connect with much of the narrative. It often read like a laundry list of events, rather than a story of flesh and heart. The relevance of Eileen Tumulty's childhood, her Irish immigrant parents, her mother's alcoholism, her father's conflicting public and private personas is lost as the decades roll on and Eileen becomes someone else entirely. That she is largely insufferable is not a detriment to the story-I have little patience for readers who have little patience for "unlikeable" characters-but the immigrant story seems to belong to a different book.
What we can and must endure for those we love is deeply private and personal; Matthew Thomas shows us the terrible costs exacted by dementia: the tragic loss of money, time, memory, patience, energy, vitality, and hope.
Back in the day, I was a huge fan of the TV show thirtysomething. Back when I was still in my teens and thirty-something seemed impossibly distant andBack in the day, I was a huge fan of the TV show thirtysomething. Back when I was still in my teens and thirty-something seemed impossibly distant and terribly romantic. Babies and briefcases. I loved all the navel-gazing angst, the soap-operatic lives, Hope Steadman's hair. I wanted to be Hope: a writer, a mother, wife to a hunky, kind of dorky husband. Amazingly, now that I'm fortysomething, I got most of what I wished for, except the babies. And I definitely don't have that hair.
I derived the same sink-into-a-comfy-chair-and-be-entertained pleasure from Nickolas Butler's Shotgun Lovesongs as I did from that iconic, pre-grunge television series. Lots of hunky guys, gorgeous women, everyone leading terribly romantic lives with heavy doses of angst and melodrama, all to a great soundtrack (the character Lee is based on Justin Vernon, the singer/songwriter behind Bon Iver, a favorite band of mine; Butler knows Vernon from their Eau Claire schooldays).
I have to chuckle when I read the professional reviews of Shotgun Lovesongs; it's as if—at least in the critics' eyes—Butler has broken new literary ground by telling a straight-forward story about the emotional journeys of everyday characters, set against the backdrop of domestic life, weaving in the antics of BFFs, and entanglements of the heart. Women authors have been doing this for years, in case they hadn't noticed. There's even a whole category devoted to these stories: Women's Fiction. Although Women's Fiction is largely ignored by professional reviewers and award-givers, readers have known for years that a sentimental story, with empathetic characters and relatable themes, can be deeply satisfying.
Nickolas Butler has a terrific sense of place and his affection for his homeland of Wisconsin is so evident, it had this devoted Pacific Northwesterner recall her years in the Midwest with homesick longing. The characters are warm and cuddly, all wrapped in flannel and Carhartts. This is meat-and-potatoes comfort food reading. The plot's a bit of Lycra stretched too tightly and occasionally Butler falls in love with his own voice, veering to purple, poetic phrasing, but it has the same small-town America charm as a Bob Seger song. You'll be singing "Mainstreet" (if only because you can't actually discern the words to any Bon Iver song). ...more
"One thing I think proved, I shall never write to "please," to convert; now am entirely and for ever my own mistress." Virginia Woolf, 'A Writer's Dia"One thing I think proved, I shall never write to "please," to convert; now am entirely and for ever my own mistress." Virginia Woolf, 'A Writer's Diary'.
Above the Waterfall is Ron Rash's thirteenth work of prose and fifth work of poetry. Hmm, yes, you read that correctly. It is a novel written in part as a prose-poem, alternating between the straightforward storytelling voice of Les, a small-town sheriff three weeks out from retirement, and the slipstream soliloquies of Becky, a park ranger traumatized by a childhood tragedy and a disastrous love affair with an eco-terrorist.
We are in familiar Rash territory: the kudzu- and hemlock-choked borderlands of North Carolina and Tennessee, where the Appalachian struggle between poverty and progress plays out like a Shakespeare tragedy. The terrible beauty of the natural world is present in every scene, haunting and seductive.
Gerald Blackwelder (oh, that name!), an embittered old-timer, is accused of poisoning the habitat of speckled trout on land that belongs to a wealthy resort tycoon. His most vocal champion is Becky Shytle, the park ranger with a poetic, wounded heart. She is also the sheriff's sometime girlfriend. The ambiguity of their relationship is due not only to Becky's emotional fragility, but to Les' fear of ruining another relationship. His marriage ended after his wife attempted suicide; Les's neglect and indifference was nearly her death knell.
The grimy, rotten-mouthed world of meth addiction and production is woven into the plot—it adds a shiver of doom to Les' final days as sheriff—but it is not the main thread. This is a story of characters who struggle to maintain their footing in a place that holds them so close, it nearly crushes the air from their lungs. It is a profoundly-felt work, rich with imagery as all Rash's work, but somehow more personal. Becky's poetry-speak is a window into the author's own fervent, compassionate, lyrical humanism. With Above the Waterfall Rash is now entirely and forever his own master. ...more