A page-turner about identity and family dynamics: A. M. Homes has written a black comic wristbreaker about two brothers: George, a high-powered TV exe...moreA page-turner about identity and family dynamics: A. M. Homes has written a black comic wristbreaker about two brothers: George, a high-powered TV executive, and Harold, a nebbishy Nixon scholar. George is as volatile as Harold is passive; when George erupts violently, Harold assumes responsibility for his children, his house, and some of the collateral damage, almost by default. This is a big, enjoyable read. Salman Rushdie says “This novel starts at maximum force — and then it really gets going.” I didn’t see the similarity to John Irving till near the end, but I think she outdoes him, and I like John Irving.(less)
This book should quickly clear up any romantic notions you might have about how idyllic it might have been to live on a commune in the 60s. True, it’s...moreThis book should quickly clear up any romantic notions you might have about how idyllic it might have been to live on a commune in the 60s. True, it’s fiction, but the numerous ways it could go wrong (winter, infidelity, bad parenting, rock star egos, and outhouses, to name but a few) are so convincingly portrayed that I found myself searching the author’s bio to see if she might have done time in one herself.
The story is told from the viewpoint of one of Arcadia’s children. Bit is the son of Abe, the commune’s main carpenter, and Hannah, a baker and historian. A child narrator can be a difficult feat to pull off effectively — make the kid too smart, and it doesn’t ring true; too childish, and it feels like reading a children’s book — but Groff makes it work. In this case, the story is told from Bit’s viewpoint, but in the third person. We watch him struggle to cure his mother’s winter depression, to grow up in this inbred and limiting world that he loves, to imagine finding love and a life for himself outside the community. Arcadia’s members interact occasionally with the people of a nearby Amish community, and while the two groups are wildly different in politics, sexual behavior, and musical taste, it’s hard to miss how alike they are in the grip they have on the individual.
This is a great story, with a lot of sadness in it, but it manages to be uplifting by the end.
If you’d told me I’d like a novel narrated by a Justin Bieberesque 11-year-old pop star, I would have called you nuts. But I found this tragicomic nov...moreIf you’d told me I’d like a novel narrated by a Justin Bieberesque 11-year-old pop star, I would have called you nuts. But I found this tragicomic novel by Teddy Wayne, author of 2011′s Kapitoil, very affecting.
Off on a national tour managed by his party-hearty mother, Jonny the star (not to be confused with “the Jonny”, his trademark hairdo) is heading for a crisis. Furtively logging on to his mother’s computer to try to locate his absent father, worrying his market share in various demographics, and dealing with the specter of a changing voice, his awakening sexuality, and his first pubic hair, Jonny has a lot to fret about, especially for an 11-year-old. Add to that a malfunctioning stage set, and a completely staged “date” with a girl pop star, and it’s no wonder that Jonny’s seriously considering his tutor’s suggestion that he hang it all up and go back to school in his home town.
Wayne does an excellent job of showing us the crazy bubble world of a pop star. Jonny refers frequently to “MJ”, and it’s easy to see how Michael Jackson would be both a hero and a cautionary tale to him. Because he’s so easily recognized, he spends much of his time in his hotel room, obsessively playing a video game, The Secret Land of Zenon, which at times becomes a kind of metaphor for his life. His bodyguard is about the closest thing he has to a friend, though Jonny realizes that he’s only there because he’s getting paid. Jonny’s search for his father moves the plot forward to a satisfying, if bittersweet emotional climax.
This is an earlier novel by Walter, who wrote Beautiful Ruins. Ruins jumped from Italy to Edinburgh to Hollywood, from the 60s to the present. This on...moreThis is an earlier novel by Walter, who wrote Beautiful Ruins. Ruins jumped from Italy to Edinburgh to Hollywood, from the 60s to the present. This one is solidly American in setting and themes, but no less entertaining The main character, Matt Prior, has given up his day job as a reporter to pursue a venture that sounds like a joke: a financial journalism website composed entirely in blank verse. Unfortunately for Matt, his wife, their two sons, and their mortgage (with its upcoming balloon payment), this works about as well as it sounds like it would.
But this isn’t a book of blank verse; it’s one of this funniest suburban nightmare novels I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Once the website fizzles, Matt goes back to the newspaper, only to get laid off a few months later. Now he suspects his wife is having an affair, his dementia-addled dad is living with them (after losing his life savings to a twenty-something stripper, of which he remembers nothing), he’s within days of losing the house (which he hasn’t told his wife), and his kids may have to leave their private school and attend what Matt thinks of as Alcatraz Elementary, where he fears the most crucial thing they’ll learn will be how to make a plastic spork into a shiv. So when a couple of stoned boys in a 7-11 offer him a hit of their killer weed, he starts thinking of a quick entrepreneurial fix to all his problems.
For me, this novel was a perfect summer read. It starts in an summer arts camp in the Berkshires in the mid-1970s. This is a classier camp than I ever...moreFor me, this novel was a perfect summer read. It starts in an summer arts camp in the Berkshires in the mid-1970s. This is a classier camp than I ever went to, full of privileged, talented high school students. There’s something about the experience of being thrown into communal, semi-outdoor living with a bunch of strangers at that age that’s universally traumatic and memorable. I could almost smell the musty, reindeer-flannel-lined sleeping bags.
Wolitzer has created some great characters, and she follows them from their teens to middle age. Their artistic talents range from animation to acting to pop music to modern dance; some are successful, others hang it up and find day jobs. Some of the questions the characters confront: how long do I keep believing in my talent? would my friend have made it on her own artistic strengths, without her husband’s money? if I have talent in the same field as my successful mother, can I hope to follow in her footsteps without looking like a pale imitation? Is a life lived in a more ordinary career less worth living? Envy, money, talent, confidence, age: these are the forces that swirl around the characters.
I'm pressing my friends to read this one -- and it's fun to see which of the six main characters they most identify with.