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Turbulence by David Szalay
May20

Turbulence by David Szalay

David Szalay is a writer about whom I had heard good things, particularly about his novel All That Man Is, which was nominated for a Booker Prize. I happened to have an advance reader copy of his novel Turbulence, which I must have been holding onto for a while because it was published in July 2019. It’s very short, 145 pages, so I was able to read it in a night. The story opens with a woman standing at the window of a man’s apartment, looking down at the leafless trees of his street on Notting Hill in London. The man, it turns out, is her 50-something year old son, who has just come home from the hospital, where he was being treated for prostate cancer. His case is serious, and for the past month, his mother, who lives in Spain, has been staying at his apartment while he was in the hospital. Now that he is home, he seems eager to book a flight for her to go home. Airplane flights are what connect the chapters of this book, and the turbulence of the title is both literal, as in what the passengers experience sometimes on the plane, and literal, as in the shake-ups in their lives. Each chapter is titled with two abbreviations for the airports to and from which the featured character is traveling, hence chapter one is called LGW-MAD, as the mother is traveling from London Gatwick to Madrid. I had fun trying to guess which cities were featured as I came to each new chapter title. In the book, we cover much of the world, from MAD to DSS to GRU to YYZ and so on. The author fills you in, but it’s fun to try and guess at first. The book is a sort of game of dominoes, with one character setting off another’s story. As a character from each chapter travels to their next destination, they meet someone along the way, and that person carries the story into the subsquent chapter, leaving the first person behind. And so the woman whose son is ill meets a man on the plane ride home, and the next chapter is his, and the one after that features someone who intersected with that man’s life, and so on through this short book. In the end… well, I won’t say, but we are certainly led to see that the randomness of life may not be so random after all. The moments we witness in the lives of the characters we meet are short and dramatic; each chapter could exist on its own as a short story. There...

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Milk Fed by Melissa Broder
Apr20

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

What is Milk Fed, a new novel by Melissa Broder, about? It’s about many things… It’s about individuation. It’s about a Jewish woman in her early twenties trying to manage, no – cope with, no—overcome her relationship with her mother. Her mother is in some ways only superficially interested in Rachel’s life, except when it comes to food, and boy, has her mother given this daughter one giant eating disorder. From the age of six, she was comparing her to other, thinner, girls her age and warning her against the greatest of all possible sins: becoming chubby. As a result, when we meet Rachel, she has a relationship with food that is more about deprivation than it is about enjoyment, and to call her a calorie counter would be a huge understatement. Her therapist (because of course there’s a therapist) recommends detox by means of cutting of communication with her mother. Clearly she desperately needs help coping with this toxic relationship. And meanwhile, she’s living in LA and working in the film business, so she is surrounded by a body-conscious culture where a woman displaying an appetite is a charming anomaly. And then there is the temptress with the frozen yogurt: the zaftig, pure, lovely, orthodox Miriam. And there’s also the golem. You see why I’m overwhelmed? There’s a lot going on here. There’s curvaceous clay figure that Rachel’s therapist encourages her to make and that represents the body Rachel fears and desires and which becomes a stand in for the golem (I offer you the Wikipedia definition: “A golem is an animated anthropomorphic being in Jewish folklore that is created entirely from inanimate matter (usually clay or mud”). And then there’s the real-life full-bodied Miriam, whom Rachel greatly sexually desires. And there are other objects of desire as well: a film star, an office mate. And plenty of detail about what Rachel eats and doesn’t eat (and I’m not just talking about food). All of this is an oversimplification of a complex book; I’m just trying to get at the core of what it is. I think it stands among other significant books by contemporary American Jewish women writers in that it grapples with the particularities of the Jewish mother/daughter relationship (and throw in the golem and a bit of hand-wringing over Israeli politics). It’s also a coming-of-age novel. It’s also a very sexy book, by which I mean it contains a lot of very vividly described sex. And it’s funny. Rachel is a wannabe stand up comic, and you can’t write about that without being funny, which this author is. Wryly observant may be a better way to describe...

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Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri, translated by Morgan Giles
Apr09

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri, translated by Morgan Giles

One of the best things a book discussion group can do is help you appreciate aspects of a book that you didn’t understand or enjoy when you read the book on your own. A good book discussion brings a book to light and to life in a way your individual reading didn’t; it enhances and enlarges what you were able to get out of the book on your own. Sometimes a book you didn’t enjoy reading will nonetheless lead to an enlightening discussion, leaving you glad you read the book after all. This is what my Hot Off the Press book discussion class often does for me. After one of our talks, I quiver with new insights, things I wouldn’t have come to on my own.  Exploring a book with my literary comrades is so much better than doing it alone. This week we discussed Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri, translated by Morgan Giles and winner of the 2020 National Book Award for translated literature. And yes, as you may have surmised from my comments above, this was a book that I found difficult to read, not only because of its bleakness, but because of the way it jumps around in time and its many references to history and tradition with which I am unfamiliar. But all of that can be a good and welcome challenge in the right context, i.e. in my book discussion class! This book took us deep into another culture, led on our journey by Kazu, an elderly Japanese man who has had a difficult life. When we meet him, he is homeless and has been living for years in Tokyo’s Ueno Park as part of a large contingent of homeless people. His life has been full of the struggle of the underclass to make a living and feed his family, full of hard labor mixed in with great tragedy (not giving you any plot spoilers!). The book is also a comment on this often-unseen side of Japan, a country which prides itself on its polished and clean exterior. But is this image achieved by hiding the underside? The book offers a look at Japanese culture and history, reflecting on centuries of Japanese tradition as well as on contemporary trauma in the form of the Fukushima nuclear accident brought on by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.  But it also offers a strong universality in how it looks at struggle and grief. It is part of what the givers of the National Book Foundation award called a global literature. And if we can turn our gaze around the world and partake of a shared literary...

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Some more quick reads!
Mar26

Some more quick reads!

I like to keep up with current fiction, so here are some notes on a few very new books that I’ve read in the past week or two… [Note: Now that I see these books all together I notice that they all have bright orange-yellow in their cover design. I must be drawn to that color. These books do look good together on the shelf!] SUPERHOST by Kate Russo I chose it because it sounded like a fun plot, the outlines of which are: Bennett, age 55, lives in London, is recently divorced (i.e. dumped unexpectedly by his wife of more than 20 years for being “stuck”), and is an artist who had a reputation but hasn’t sold anything of late. He decides to make a living by decamping to his studio/shed in the backyard and renting out his huge house on AirBed, aka Airbnb. The story follows Bennett as he finds himself and as 3 women guests cycle in and out of his house. They each get a chapter or two, sometimes focusing on their lives and issues and sometimes on how they interact with and influence Bennett, and we also meet his college age daughter and his new girlfriend. It’s a light, easy read which at some points I wasn’t sure why I stuck with but I found Bennett to be very appealing and I did enjoy watching him begin to find his way back to being the person he once wanted to be. The writing is fine (and just that). I didn’t know at first but I later discovered that the author is the daughter of Richard Russo. THIS CLOSE TO OK by Leesa Cross-Smith In this one we are plunged into the drama of the book right away. The protagonist, a 40-something therapist named Tallie, also recently divorced (that’s not why I’m picking the books – it just keeps happening!) is driving across a bridge in the rain (city is at first unnamed, turns out to be Louisville, Kentucky), when she sees a man about to jump and pulls over to try to stop him. She succeeds, so she takes him out to a coffee shop to dry off and see if she can further help him (she’s a helpful type) and then takes him back to her house where he spends the weekend and they spend time getting to know each other and keeping secrets from each other. They’re both very appealing characters with compelling backstories, and it’s enjoyable to see how the author spools this story out. Tallie and the guy (we’ll call him Emmett) spend a lot of time sitting around the...

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Meet Shakespeare’s Wife & Children
Mar16

Meet Shakespeare’s Wife & Children

Maggie O’Farrell says she first read Hamlet in high school (she didn’t call it high school, as she was in the UK, but I’m translating!). Since then, she has been very taken with the play, even dressing up as Hamlet for a costume party, carrying around a skull, of course. Later in her studies, she learned that Shakespeare and his wife had a son named Hamnet who died at age eleven in the black plague. She says several things were very interesting to her about this: History books, she says, make it seem like losing a child in those days wasn’t a big deal because of the general high child mortality rate. She wasn’t buying that.Very little is known about Shakespeare’s life, even though he left behind such a great body of work. His wife, typically called Anne Hathaway, is often presented as an older woman who trapped him into marriage and whom he did not love. O’Farrell disputes that. Shakespeare was 18 when he married her, btw, and she was 26. She says all the time Shakespeare was in London  he sent most of his money back to his family in Stratford and when he retired he moved back there to live with his wife, so she sees those facts as disputing the belief that he did not care for her. Also her name, legal records show, was Agnes, not Anne.She credits an article by scholar James Shapiro for pointing out that in those days the names Hamlet and Hamnet were interchangeable. And that therefore the fact that Shakespeare wrote a play called Hamlet four years after his son died is, as she puts it, “not nothing.” Now that I’ve given you some background, I will say: this book is a master work. Not that that is my judgment only; it has already won numerous accolades in 2020. O’Farrell is in total control of this story, spooling it out at a slow pace and getting us deeply inside the emotional heart of the story. And although you might think, as I did, that this book is mostly an historical story, a retelling/reimagining of the story of Shakespeare and his wife, which is what I expected, it is not that. This is a story of grief and of a woman losing a son. It is heartbreaking beautiful. In my canon of contemporary literary fiction that is sure to have long-lasting value, this book belongs there. A must read. Also interesting to see how this book was published in other countries. Here is the original UK cover: And here is the Canadian cover. In Canada, interestingly, the book had a...

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