Olive Kitteridge is a series of linked short stories by Elizabeth Strout (Random, $16.50), author of Amy & Isabelle and Abide With Me. Alice Munro...moreOlive Kitteridge is a series of linked short stories by Elizabeth Strout (Random, $16.50), author of Amy & Isabelle and Abide With Me. Alice Munro is the master of linked short stories – as recently acknowledged by the Man Booker Prize for lifetime achievement. I feel that Elizabeth Strout bears positive comparison to Alice’s talent. They both convey insights into the human condition via brief stories about lives in small towns. The eponymous Olive is a retired school teacher in Crosby, Maine. Her husband Henry is the town pharmacist. In the opening story, he tries to help a new staff member cope with the loss of her young husband, a victim of a hunting accident. Olive resented being asked to host them for dinner – she serves a can of beans with plain ice cream for dessert – and is suspicious of Henry’s solicitations after the funeral. Twelve more stories follow, some focused on Olive but in many she has only a walk-on role. We see her through the eyes of the townsfolk, many of whom she taught in school, as a crusty, big-boned loner whose bluntness rarely conveys empathy, in contrast to her husband’s social conscience. They have a single child on whom all their hopes are laid. But when he marries a doctor whom he met as a client (he is a podiatrist) they feel betrayed. Suzanne is an outsider, “too smart for her own good” and Olive gets through the wedding ceremony, held at the house that she and Henry built for their son, by snooping in their daughter-in-law’s closets and stealing a bra and one shoe! Several of these stories have abrupt moments of violence that, while believable, made me peripherally aware of the author’s puppet strings. A young man returns to Crosby with the intent of killing himself, as his mother had done when he was growing up. Olive has no inkling of this but gossips with him as they watch a young waitress pick flowers on the cliff next to the restaurant where she works. Suddenly she slips off the cliff and he jumps into the surf to save her – all thoughts of his own demise are vanquished. In a later story Olive and Henry are out for dinner but on the way home she insists that he stop at the nearest washroom, at the local hospital. The emerg nurse insists that she see the doctor when the ER is taken hostage by two hooded men demanding drugs.
Olive Kitteridge encompasses an entire life. I read it in less than two days, including several of the stories aloud to my wife, who then read the rest. We’re still talking about Olive and Crosby. The book ends with suggested topics for book group discussion and an interview with the author and with (a virtual) Olive herself! I’d love to meet her. (less)
**spoiler alert** Schriver, an American writer who lives in London, has a reputation for bringing insight to topical issues. We Need to Talk About Kev...more**spoiler alert** Schriver, an American writer who lives in London, has a reputation for bringing insight to topical issues. We Need to Talk About Kevin, winner of the 2005 Orange Prize, dealt with a Columbine-like high school killing, but with bow-and-arrows, not rifles. So Much for That (HarperCollins $32.95) takes on the American medical insurance mess. Shep Knacker is finally going to do it. For years he’s been researching third-world countries where his savings (he sold his handyman business) will go further than in the States. His wife, Glynnis, a sometime metal smith, doesn’t share his fantasies of The Afterlife. On the night he plans to leave without her, she drops the bomb: she has a rare, and probably terminal, cancer. Of course he will stay with her and see this through. The ensuing months are filled with her chemo treatments as Shep watches his savings dwindle. He’s back at work for the jerk that bought his company, and also coping with a reclusive teenage son, an elderly father and never-grown-up sister. His best friend at work is likewise burdened with a disabled daughter, and a secret – he’s had penis enlargement surgery that’s gone horribly wrong. So Much for That reminded me of the biblical tale of Job, an upright man suffering from no end of physical and social torments. Shriver’s writing borders on the satirical: we need to laugh to reassure ourselves that this shouldn’t be happening. She also leaves no thought unturned. The extensive interior dialogue of each of her characters leaves little to the imagination. But her timing regarding social issues is impeccable. Although written over the past 3 years, it was released in March in the midst of the Obama health insurance debate. (less)
Anne Tyler is another American writer with a long bibliography and sensitivity to the malaise of modern life. Noah’s Compass (Doubleday $32.95) is the...moreAnne Tyler is another American writer with a long bibliography and sensitivity to the malaise of modern life. Noah’s Compass (Doubleday $32.95) is the story of Liam Pennywell who has at 60 has just been down-sized from his teaching job at a private boy’s school. His first wife suicided and his second wife left him. He is moving into a smaller apartment, hoping for quiet days to read his philosophy books. This would make for a pretty dull story except he is mugged the first night in his new digs and his ex-wife and three daughters come to his aid. He has no memory of the assault and seeks a neurologist to help him recall it. The doctor reassures him that he likely will never remember it. But in the waiting room he is attracted to a woman who is the personal assistant to a tycoon with Alzheimer’s. Liam steps away from his shy character and seeks her out for a coffee, pretending that he wants to find a job working for her boss. Life is about to get a lot more complicated but Liam, as one reviewer put it, mistakes his emotional numbness for stoicism. Tyler’s skill is in making us genuinely concerned for this less-than-likeable character. (less)
Up From the Blue is a first novel by Susan Henderson, a New York writer with a couple of Pushcart Prize nominations to her credit. It came out last Se...moreUp From the Blue is a first novel by Susan Henderson, a New York writer with a couple of Pushcart Prize nominations to her credit. It came out last September (HarperCollins $15.99) but I only discovered it last week, thanks to a review in Shelf Awareness, my favorite e-newsletter about the book trade. The fact that I read it in just two days has more to do with how good a book it is, than my deadline for this column. The ending brought me to tears, and an urge to call up the author to find out if this novel was indeed her story. But I get ahead of myself. Tillie Harris is eight years old and her mother is becoming unglued. Her family lives on an Air Force base in Albuquerque but her dad’s work on missile guidance systems means that they will move soon to Washington, DC. It is 1975. (Actually the novel opens with Tillie rushing to the hospital with premature labor symptoms. Her husband is in Paris and her estranged father is the only relative she can call. But it is her childhood memories that take over the narrative.) Momma is a misfit among the military wives: she paints her front door purple and ignores the social protocols of military life. She has stopped making meals or doing the wash. Mostly she sleeps on the couch, barely rousing herself to tuck in to bed Tillie and her older brother Phil. When moving day comes, Tillie is left behind for two weeks with her father’s prissy secretary. And when she finally gets to fly to Washington her mother is nowhere to be found. To Tillie’s frantic pleas, her father will only say that Momma needs time to rest away from them. School starts and of course Tillie is an outsider. Her poetry gains the respect of her teacher but no one will play with her. This book reminded me of The Glass Castle, Jeanette Wall’s bestselling memoir of a childhood emotionally impoverished by an uncaring mother. Jane Urquhart’s novel The Stone Carvers also contains a scene of a child who was chained to a clothesline, a scene that some reviewers found far-fetched. I remember that when she read from it for OBOC in Cambridge, an elderly woman defended the veracity of the passage. She too had been chained in her room every day. Up From the Blue is a testimony to a child’s will to survive; and a plea for recognition of the family trauma around mental illness. I read it with tension in my chest – will Tillie, and her mother, survive? In that Shelf Awareness review, the author spoke of the response to her book. If there's a defining characteristic for Tillie, the narrator, it "is that she's wonderfully obstinate," Henderson observes. "She has an oomph--that thing that also makes her a handful--but I think it gives her courage, and she's determined to find humor and love and hope wherever she can. I wanted to use those strengths as I pulled that knot loose so that she wasn't stuck in time, and so she had a full range of choices for her future--not sugar-coated, but still hopeful." At bookstore events, when Susan reads a passage about Tillie's habit of biting classmates, she often notices a particular expression on the face of someone who "knows what it's like to walk home from school as the one who's seen as the problem. And they know what it's like to enter a house full of secrets and try to make sense of it without ever breathing a word." In the throes of delivering her first child, Tillie speaks across the years to her mother: “It wasn’t perfect, but I never needed perfect.” I hope that Up From the Blue reaches as wide an audience (including book clubs) as The Glass Castle and The Stone Carvers. (less)
Jeffrey Eugenides rose to fame with his novel, Middlesex, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. It followed his 1993 debut, The Virgin Suicides, which...moreJeffrey Eugenides rose to fame with his novel, Middlesex, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. It followed his 1993 debut, The Virgin Suicides, which was made into a movie in 1999. His latest is called The Marriage Plot (Knopf Canada, $32) and involves a love triangle between three students at Brown University in the early 1980s. Madeleine is the preppie daughter of an academic father and is writing a thesis on the marriage plot in 19th-century British novels, from Austen to Henry James and George Eliot. But the English faculty has been invaded by the deconstructionists, and she is falling in love with Leonard, the charismatic member of her semiotics class. As she tries to figure out her own marriage plot, she turns to Mitchell, the religious aesthete. After graduation she moves with Leonard and his manic-depressive mood swings to his grad work in a science lab; and Mitchell heads off to Europe and India where he discovers that working in Mother Teresa’s hospice repels his spiritual aspirations. Like Jonathan Franzen, Eugenides’ novel is cluttered with sociological references to its period. By the end of the book, I was much less caring about its characters than I was with Middlesex. Nonetheless I felt fully there in this book’s creation of the young idealism and its search for love and the delight of ideas.(less)
Chad Harbach hits a home run with his first time at bat in The Art of Fielding (Little, Brown, $28.99). It seems like a lifetime ago that I read W.P....moreChad Harbach hits a home run with his first time at bat in The Art of Fielding (Little, Brown, $28.99). It seems like a lifetime ago that I read W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe (later made into the movie, Field of Dreams) and was inspired to join a slo-pitch league in Mount Forest (where we opened our first bookstore). I doubt that The Art of Fielding will have the same impact but it did re-awaken memories of baseballs, gloves, and green grass. Henry is recruited to play shortstop for Westish College, a third division liberal arts school in Wisconsin. By his junior year, his scrawny frame has filled out thanks to the take-no-prisoners coaching of Mike, the team captain, and he’s racking up records for error-free games and being courted by major league scouts. But his career is about to falter. One bad throw knocks out his room- and teammate Owen. Henry cannot find a way to restore his game: his throws continue to go astray despite the improving fortunes of his team. When Pella, the college president’s daughter, shows up on the run from her marriage, she and Mike begin a relationship but neither can find a way to help Henry overcome his fear of success. And Owen’s gay romance with Pella’s father is bound to erupt in scandal. Will the team make it to the national finals with or without Henry? This is a campus novel as much as a baseball story. As the former it bears comparison to Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot which was also published last fall. They are both over 500 pages in length and revel in literary references but Harbach’s writing is more leisurely. Eugenides’ novel felt crammed with contemporary “product placement” as if he wanted to ensure that historians fifty years in the future could use it to catalogue the culture of the 1980s. I enjoyed both, but The Cat’s Table outshines them. (less)
Ms. Strout wowed me a few years ago with Olive Kitteridge. I'm even more impressed with Burgess Boys, having devoured it in 24 hrs last week at the co...moreMs. Strout wowed me a few years ago with Olive Kitteridge. I'm even more impressed with Burgess Boys, having devoured it in 24 hrs last week at the cottage. She has a strong ability to get inside the family of 3 siblings whose adult lives are entangled despite their efforts to stay apart. Longer review to follow.(less)