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reading

Our dog was misbehaving in Pythonga so every morning after breakfast I’d take him for a long walk up the road. There he’d run ahead of me, into the woods, then scamper back, checking in with me. It was raspberry and almost blackberry season, so I brought a small tub with me, filling its base. That gave me uber-fresh berries for my midday salad, for my morning fruit and yogurt.

I didn’t like the reason for the walk — that our dog couldn’t be trusted alone — but the (ha!) fruit it bore seemed some kind of karmic payback. Bad dog; good fruit.

Some days that 20 minute walk was my sole exercise. My Pythonga this year was lazy: no hike up the mountain, no portage into Stony Creek, no morning kayak to Lac Moore. It was cold some days and nights; I’d make a fire indoors, curl up beside it, read, nap. I swam, but not my usual to the island and back. It was still Pythonga, of course: shore lunches, star gazing, before and after dinner cocktails and conversation. Reading: on the porch, on the dock, in a boat on a beach. Also talk of books: last year’s hits, this year’s maybes, the forevers.*

The read that made me happiest: Cathleen Shine’s newly published Fin & Lady. Eleven-year year old Fin is orphaned; he leaves his Connecticut farm to live with his 24-year-old half-sister, who is fabulous, beautiful, undependable. It is 1964. They live in Greenwich Village and become a family, of sorts, along with Lady’s three suitors, who invade at cocktail hour. Who is narrating this smart, sweet tale? To find out, you’ll have to follow Lady, and then Fin, to the sun-kissed ancient island of Capri.

Coming-of-age novels come in all varieties: James Salter’s A Sport and A Pastime (1967) tells the story of a Yale dropout’s erotic liaison with a beautiful but not very bright French girl. Salter’s writing is exquisite; his descriptions of rural France and Paris are cinematic. My sole complaint: erotica, in general, is a thrill and a bore.

More pleasing in the canon of unequal-love literature: Junichiro Tanizaki’s Naomi, first published serially in Japan in 1924. An engineer from an upstanding family takes in a teenage waitress whose family runs a brothel; he aims to make her over into a woman who could be his wife. Naomi is an unusual beauty, often mistaken for the American actress Mary Pickford. Naomi plays along, pretending to study English and ballroom dancing, overspending on delivered food and clothing…all the while keeping up love affairs with younger men. When the engineer discovers her duplicity, he runs her out of their home…but she keeps coming back, teasing him. A strange, intoxicating read.

I picked up and put down and picked up Lara Feigel’s The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War, a non-fiction account of London writers during the Blitz. Every day could bring death…how would you behave? (This is a scholarly work, well written and researched.)

Never a bore and always a thrill: the fiction of Carl Hiaasen. His latest, Bad Monkey, sets a disgraced Key West detective on a hunt for a Medicare fraudster who fakes his own death. Of course there’s a monkey involved…and he is very, very bad. Also a voodoo priestess and a hapless Northerner, trying to flip a waterside monstrosity. A smart, sleazy read.

I’m back in Chicago; my (bad) dog still in Quebec. I go to the farmer’s market alone, and buy peaches and string beans and flowers. It’s good to be home, but I am missing my dog, and that walk, and those berries, and unbroken hours to read.

* Canada, by Richard Ford. A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers. John Updike’s “Rabbit” series.

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Wow. How many doorstoppers in a row?

First, Peter Orner’s “Love and Shame and Love.” A great title! His story is multigenerational but so choppily told I lost interest in every character.

Next, Anna Solomon’s “The Little Bride.” Another great title, well reviewed. I put it down two-thirds of the way through. If you put a young mail-order bride in a home with an old husband and young adults sons, something — O’Neill anyone? — should happen.

I couldn’t get through even the first (confusing) chapter of Lauren Grodstein’s “A Friend of the Family.”

I thought I was much farther into Edie Meidav’s “Lola, California: A Novel” before I quit. Again, a wonderful premise that stalls: a charismatic father on Death Row, dying from cancer. Nearby, at a nudist retreat, his estranged daughter, one of his followers and her best friend from high school. This set up goes on and on and on.

One book I liked a lot: Philip Larkin’s “Jill.” Set during World War II, a working-class scholar rooms with an aristocratic hellion at Oxford University. To make his roomate jealous, the scholar imagines a girl named Jill. Then Jill appears! It’s an odd story, a delicious read.

I did all this stop and start reading during recent travels to Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C.

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Van Gogh Close Up” runs through May 6. See it. Some of these works are in the U.S. for the first time. Also in Philadelphia, Parc Restaurant & Bistro is as good as any in Paris and opens out to beautiful Rittenhouse Square.

Because I grew up on Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, I’m a tough critic. What a delight, then, to be completely charmed by the Broadway musical “Once.”  An at-the-bar dinner followed, at Bond 45, an Italian steakhouse in Times Square. Another New York highlight: an evening stroll on the High Line and a bistro meal at Pastis, on Ninth Avenue.

In Washington we lucked into a guided tour of the U.S. Capitol, thanks to Senator Dick Durbin. The American plants and flowers woven into the interior architecture, and its dome — George Washington lounging with thirteen maidens — were highlights for me. Also Doug Aitken’s SONG 1, cinema and music that envelopes the Hirshhorn Museum, from sunset to midnight, through May 16.

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In the months after summer’s heat, Chicago’s crisp sunny days pull me, and my dog, to the beach. There’s no one there!

My North Avenue beach is banked by man-made dunes. Get yourself beyond those and the beach offers a wide swath of sand pebbled with crushed shells. Also washed-up wood slabs from wave-smashed piers, a dead fish or two, emptied booze bottles.

Our boat-shaped bathhouse is closed. Nets strung for beach volleyball leagues have been taken down, rentable beach chairs and umbrellas packed away.

What a place to walk! Before me is the city’s cutout skyline, fronted by the seemingly infinite lake. There’s so few people on the paths and the beach on a weekday morning it feels eerily post-apocalyptic. There is the city; where are its people?

The lakefront’s beautiful desolation this morning reminded me of a section of Faulkner’s “The Wild Palms: If I Forget Thee Jerusalem.” Faulkner describes the Midwest’s off-season gift of warmth as “the long sigh toward autumn and the cold.” His doomed lovers overstay the season in their Lake Michigan beachfront shack, and nearly freeze, almost starve.

Dan Chaon’s masterful “Await Your Reply,” gives us a Northwestern University college student presumed dead in Lake Michigan’s frigid waters. We stand over his shoulder as he reads the news story of his probable suicide. Gulp.

In Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes,” the eponymous narrator spends his Chicago off-hours drinking excessively, bedding beautiful young women whose names he checks scraps of paper to remember. “In the first flush of the morning sun, the city lay spread out to my left, more like a dream than I had ever imagined it….the city gave everything…and I bawled like a goddam madman to be so lucky…”

In the enchanting “The Art of Fielding,” Chad Harbach compares a scholar’s love for literature with Lake Michigan. “Walking along its shore called forth some of the same deep feelings that his reading of Melville did, and that reading explained and deepened his love of the water, which deepened his love of the books.” Unexpectedly, and memorably, the lake becomes this man’s final resting place.

In Patricia Albers’ rich portrait of the abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell, the biographer says Mitchell painted the lake her whole career. “She watched rain clobber the lake, ice lock it up, thunderheads billow above…it shimmered, turquoise and sapphire like a tropical lagoon, or pulsed with dark ochre along its edges…”

“‘The Lake is with me today,’” Joan would say, years after leaving Chicago. “‘The memory of a feeling. And when I feel that thing, I want to paint it.’”

For more Chicago in literature: http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/448.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I’m one of the few readers on earth who didn’t finish Erik Larson’s 2004 mega-hit, “Devil in the White City.” I had researched and written about the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago — the White City — so those chapters bored me. The serial killer chapters scared me. I couldn’t read it!

Now Larson has put out “In the Garden of Beasts,” a widely praised nonfiction account of an American ambassador and his family posted to Berlin in 1933, as the Nazis come to power. Its first pages pulled me in. William E. Dodd is chairman of the history department at University of Chicago. An aging scholar, what Dodd wants most is to finish his multi-volume history of the South and retire to his Virginia farm. A call from Washington changes his life.

Off to Berlin with him is wife Mattie and their two adult children Martha, 24 and Bill, 28. (Endearingly frugal, Dodd ships their Chevrolet.) Recently divorced, Martha’s affairs on both sides of the pond cause even a modern gal to blush. Strangely, Martha hardly comes to life, even though we’re let in on her teas and parties, her lakeside and late night outings.

I’d like to say this is a thrilling read. It’s not. It is well written, and sobering. There’s the drip drip drip of Nazi aggression coupled with Dodd’s well-meaning but ineffective diplomacy. He’s a decent man in a magnificent country headed by murderous statesmen. Dodd gives speeches, he brings warnings to high places. No one listens.

Is this a time and place worth revisiting?

Dodd is dull but admirable. I pined with him as he ached to spend time on his farm, and worried with him that he’d die before finishing his “Old South” manuscript. Berlin comes to life, but the Dodd family barely registers. (Indeed, I was more concerned for the Jewish family who rented the Dodds their mansion, then hid in its attic.) The Nazis and their brutal rise to power overwhelms this story.

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Unexpected book grief. Ian McEwan’s “Solar” is that rare thing: a wickedly funny satire about science featuring a wholly unlikeable main character. I loved every page of it.

When we first meet Michael Beard he’s 53 and fat, a Nobel-prize winning physicist riding the high-fee, high-calorie lecture circuit. His (fifth!) marriage is in shambles and his public comments about women’s intellect has made him a reviled household name. Even a boondoggle to a polar region, to witness global warming, turns sour: Beard mangles the skin of his penis when it freezes to his zipper.

And he keeps getting fatter.

Why read on? I fell for the lunacy of Beard’s situation. He’s a snob. It’s great fun seeing him brought to his knees by wives, lovers, thinkers, artists, outdoorsmen, doctors, business associates, scientists and the young daughter he most certainly did not agree to father.

Charmed by a serial adulterer? I was. Beard pines for his wife, nursing himself with excess wine and late night television, listening to Patrice dress for her lover and leave the house. ”No woman had ever looked or sounded so desirable as the wife he suddenly could not have.”

Same with his misadventures in the polar region. Always the last to arrive, in ill-fitting outerwear and cracked goggles, the one who can’t find the “start” button on his ski-doo: Beard tugged at my heartstrings.

I even bought into his complicity in framing Patrice’s lover for a murder.

Not so much his theft of a dead colleague’s research, which he’ll use to create an energy source that could save the planet. Couldn’t he share credit?

Of course not: Beard is liar, thief, cheater, glutton. Beard is the Military/Industrial Complex: brilliant but uncaring, consuming, destroying, polluting.

And he keeps getting fatter.

“As he listened to Parks enumerate his possible futures, he decided not to mention his recent acquisition of a classic symptom, the occasional sensation of tightness around his chest. It would only make him appear even more foolish and doomed. Nor could he admit that he did not have it in him to eat and drink less, that exercise was a fantasy. He could not command his body to do it, he had no will for it. He would rather die than take up jogging or prance to funky music in a church hall with other tracksuited deadbeats.”

McEwan is one of our finest living authors, smart and accessible. His blockbuster “Atonement,” and smaller works such as “Saturday” and “On Chesil Beach” are skillfully told, but serious, even grave.

“Solar” is playful, outrageous. McEwan tells it with great calm, one nutty situation rolling into another. It’s a delicious situation: a man who won’t save himself may hold the key — which he stole! — to saving the planet.

A very funny, uncomfortable read. (My friend Libby hated it.)

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Why do we give authors second chances? Once burned, why invest again?

Because books, and their creators, are like lovers: we may have parted but we want to recall the initial attraction.

Rose Tremain’s “The Road Home” disappointed. It was so predictable: an immigrant comes to London, sleeps in a corner, lucks into better and better jobs, falls in love, and goes home. Tremain writes beautifully, and the characters were likable. But the whole story was linear, and plodding.

Tremain’s newest novel surprises. “Trespass” begins with a frustrated school girl, unhappily relocated from Paris to a village in the Cevennes, in rural France. The girl wanders away during a group picnic and discovers something that shouldn’t be in the stream.

This isn’t a thriller, but the story kept me in its grip. At stake: an old French estate, the Mas Lunel. Its owner, Aramon Lunel, is an alcoholic mess. He can’t keep himself or the grounds or his hunting dogs clean. He decides to sell. But everyone who comes to look at the estate has one complaint: there’s an ugly bungalow at the edge of the property. Whose is it? Can it be removed?

Audrun Lunel owns the bungalow and its land, split from the estate when their father died. Audrun had a happy life while their mother was alive, but when she died, Audrun was a young teen. She was taken from school and made to work in an underwear factory. Far worse, her father and Aramon sexually abused her.

Forever dirtied by them, Audrun spurns the one good man who would love her.

Enter Anthony Verey, an English antiques dealer who wants to leave his life in London behind. House hunting, he falls in love with Mas Lunel; he must buy it. But there’s that unsightly bungalow.

When Verey returns for a second look, he disappears.

Coming off a bender, Aramon finds the Englishman’s car in the barn and two empty cartridges in his hunting rifle. Quite literally, Aramon becomes sick with worry. Did he kill the man? Where are the car keys? Why are there spent cartridges in his gun, when he always empties it?

There is no happy end to this story. Its last pages shock and sadden.

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Dan Chaon’s “Await Your Reply” (2009) is a beautifully told and highly compelling tale about identity: losing one, stealing others, gaining another (and another, and another). It’s rare that I finish a book and want to start reading it again, to figure out how the author pulled off such a clever feat of storytelling.

This book haunts.

Chaon gives us three narratives that eventually merge. We first meet college student Ryan as he’s losing consciousness, comforted by his father. Ryan’s hand has just been sliced off by some thugs. Next, we meet Lucy Lattimore, who has ditched her small-town life in Ohio with George Orson, her high school history teacher. Miles Cheshire is the third leg; he’s on a quixotic drive to the Arctic Circle in search of his identical twin, Hayden, who’s clinically insane. (It’s a 4,000 mile drive: who’s the crazy one?)

I was hooked by all three but I confess a fondness for Lucy, a dumpy orphan who blossoms under the tutelage of her older, wiser lover. Theirs is the most Gothic of the three stories: George takes her to his family’s home, a Victorian house beside a shuttered motel, on the banks of a dried-up lake. There he hides himself in the study, with computers and a wall safe. Lucy, like any out-of-place teenager, watches t. v. and eats poorly. Even she gets bored with that routine. When George leaves her alone too long, she has to snoop — and what she finds in the safe turns her into a player.

It’s a dangerous game.

I liked Chaon’s first novel, “You Remind Me of Me” (2005) but had a hard time recommending it because it was so sad. In it, a young man whose face was scarred by the family’s dog sets off to find his brother, who was given up for adoption as an infant. The scarred brother has spent his whole life with the mother who regrets her decision. Beautifully written, but heart wrenching.

“Await Your Reply” will find a larger audience. It’s not a thriller, but its characters will keep you in their grip.

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Why do we read books that puzzle and confound?

Earlier this week I was fortunate to join in a book club’s discussion of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. I hadn’t talked about a difficult read, at length, with a group of smart, educated women since I was in college. Such interesting talking points: Does it matter if a character is unknowable? Unlikeable? If there’s a plot? If we know the story’s end at its beginning?

When we couldn’t agree on the book’s subject — alienation? immigration? colonialism? a marriage? — the hostess (thank you) piped up. She liked the “business” of the book we were discussing, but pined for a structured read with a character-driven plot. Such as? “Jane Austen.”

I enjoy difficult reads, but I also welcome and sometimes deeply need an Austen-like read, where there’s a problem, or three, worked out in a pleasing way that sometimes ends with a marriage. “Or two marriages,” a book club member observed.

weissmanns-lgThis is a long way to recommending Cathleen Shine’s The Three Weissmans of Westport. Using Austen’s Sense and Sensibility as a frame, Shine provides a smart, funny, satisfying read about two adult sisters who move with their elderly mother, newly divorced and homeless, to a Connecticut cottage. They’re all New Yorkers, so the dislocation from fabulous lifelong digs on Central Park West, to the suburban seaside, is a hilarious jolt.

They’re a recognizable but nutty bunch. Instead of divorce, the mom pretends she’s widowed; after all, she is mourning a marriage. Sister Miranda falls in love with … her lover’s toddler son! Sister Annie frets over their collective spending (they have no money!) and her puzzling on-again, off-again romance with a famous writer.

Sure, it’s Austen’s set up, but Shine unravels the story in new, fresh, witty ways. I laughed out loud, on a city bus, reading it. Best of all, the book ends with a funeral that’s as good as a wedding.

A delightful read.

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More book grief. Zachary Mason’s “The Lost Books of the Odyssey” is that rare thing: a retelling of a classic that holds you in its grip just as the original did. Will Odysseus survive the war? Will he finally return home to Ithaca? Will Penelope be waiting?

base_mediaMason offers alternate tellings and endings for the Trojan War and Odysseus’ life. Achilles is “reborn” in clay, and continues his ruthless fighting. Odysseus never goes home. Penelope marries another. Penelope is dead. Ithaca is abandoned. Revisiting Troy, Odysseus finds a carnival town for tourists, his shield remade as a cheap souvenir.

I found myself weeping, more than once, while reading these tales. Incredible, to be moved again and again by these characters! Credit Mason, who is never glib or jokey. His tone is majestic, befitting these great ancient tales. I easily bought into the book’s conceit: because “The Odyssey” was from an oral tradition, there were many other tellings and retellings, additions, subtractions. This novel is those “lost” and now found books.

And in this age of Kindle, I particularly enjoyed holding this book in my hands, tucking it into my bag. It’s tiny: short and thin, with a white paper cover that features a warrior etched in red and black lettering mixed with silver discs, for the words’ O’s. While I was reading it other people wanted to touch it, or picked it up when I’d put it down.

With so many wondrous tales retold, this story could go on and on and on. I was sorry to come to its end.

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Can a book be grieved? It’s not a person, after all, or a beloved pet, or a plant you’ve cared for and coaxed into bloom each spring. It’s a book.

I’ve said before that books are like lovers. Private companions. We take them to bed, tuck them into our bags, panic (as I did) when we misplace a book pages from its conclusion.

picture The object of my grief? Russell Banks “The Darling” (2004). Hannah Musgrave is a 60ish hippie farmer who returns to Africa to find the body of her husband and the fate of their three young sons.

Hello? Why is a counterculture WASP who clings to her Puritan roots sneaking into Liberia in the back of a flatbed, under a tarp?

The answer to that question is the story of the book, and in Banks’ hands it is a deliciously slow, steady, surprising read.

It’s a discomfiting tale. Hannah is variously cold, uncaring, willfully blind, criminal, proud, foolish, naive, mean, generous, racist, sexist. Also, an adulterer, and a thief. Her husband is a high-level functionary in a corrupt African government; it is he who calls her Hannah, darling.

Like the characters in Banks’ “The Book of Jamaica” (1980) and “Continental Drift “(1985), Hannah is the American dreamer who loses herself in a foreign place, with tragic consequences.

As with all Banks’ work, this is a story of place. He weaves Liberia’s fantastic past into the story’s present, where the nation and its decorous capital turn from civility to savagery.

I didn’t especially like Hannah — she trades a false American existence for a hollow wifely life in Africa — but I understood her choices. At its close, I felt like I’d lost a difficult but treasured friend, one whose life was more varied, and more foolish.

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