2013 Reading: Prosperous Friends by Christine Schutt

13595028Prosperous Friends by Christine Schutt is probably not for everyone. But if you like lyrical sentences and complex characters, and don’t need to have a raucous plot, you’ll like this book very much. I did.

The writing is stunning, and the characters of Ned and Isabel are fascinating. And there IS a plot. It’s just not one that involves much mystery or action. Consider this book the antidote to Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. The enjoyment of that book was in its breathless pace and surprise (fueled, it has to be said, by deception), but the characters were flat and implausible. Here, the reader practically feels Ned and Isabel in the room with him.

Maybe because they’re writers? They meet at Columbia. They marry, too soon, probably, they go to London, travel on the Continent. They come back and they’re not very happy. He’s struggling to find his voice—he writes short stories and can’t get a collection published, imagine that—and she’s just floundering. And then there’s Phoebe, Ned’s ex-girlfriend. Isabel is jealous, sort of.

More fascinating characters: Clive and Dinah. Clive is a somewhat famous painter (and uncle of Phoebe’s husband Ben). Dinah is his current wife. Sally is Clive’s depressed daughter. I would gladly have read more about them all.

And sex? Schutt’s writing style is elliptical, and so much of what happens is missing, but is there just the same. Beautiful stuff.

Here’s a review of the book by Ron Charles in the Washington Post.

By way of disclaimer (and bragging), I should say that Christine Schutt was kind enough to blurb my book (which you can read more about here).

2013 Reading: Home by Toni Morrison

homeHome by Toni Morrison is a real disappointment. I read A Mercy when it came out a couple of years ago and thought it was fantastic, on par with Morrison’s masterpiece, Beloved. While Home has some powerful moments and extremely important subject matter, the language is indifferent and overall the story isn’t fresh.

Frank “Smart” Money has returned from the Korean War, but he’s a mess. We gradually learn that his two childhood friends Mike and Stuff died in the war, but his problems go beyond his mourning. He connects with a sweet woman, Lily, who is making her own way as a seamstress, but his problems are too much for him to take. He gets words that his sister Cee is dying and needs help, and so he heads home to Lotus, Georgia, running into his share of trouble along the way.

The one thing that makes the book stand out, and the only thing that could have saved it, is the reason for Cee’s illness. Desperate for a job, she works for a Doctor who uses her to conduct experiments. This is explosive stuff, but Morrison makes it seem like a minor aspect of the novel, which mostly centers on Frank and his problems.

It’s a very short book and fast read, though, so I’m still glad I read it.

2013 Reading: How to Predict the Weather by Aaron Burch

how to predict the weatherI confess that I picked up Aaron Burch’s How to Predict the Weather out of my to-be-read pile (one of many, in truth) because it was short. I know Aaron, and so I’d intended to read it eventually anyway, but brevity is what drew me to it last night. And I liked it a lot. The book is extremely hard to categorize. It reads a bit like a collection of poetry (at about 100 pages in a small format, it’s about the right length). But it’s all prose, and the individual pieces are of two types. There are the instructions, in italics. And then there is the narrative of the unnamed man and woman and the trials and tribulations of their relationship. Since these latter pieces have, more or less, an overall narrative arc, leavened by the italicized instructions, the effect is of one cohesive short work—a novella in flash, maybe. Cool cover, too. There’s a lot to like about this little book.

2013 Reading: Love’s Winning Plays by Inman Majors

loves winning playsLove’s Winning Plays: A Novel by Inman Majors is a quick, fun read. It’s about Graduate Assistant Coach Raymond Love, a Division III quarterback who dreams of a career in college coaching. He’s at an unnamed SEC school in a precarious position, hoping to get a regular coaching gig. In the meantime, he’s exposed to the seamy underbelly of big time college athletics.

War and Peace it’s not—a good thing, maybe—but it’s a highly entertaining story about honesty, integrity, and loyalty. And there’s a little romance along the way, plus some jabs at sensational journalism, football boosters, sports fan chat-rooms, and ass-kissing underlings. And Athletic Directors. Athletic Directors don’t come off very well, either.

I enjoyed it, and it helped prolong the college football season one more day!

2013 Reading: Arcadia by Lauren Groff

arcadiaArcadia by Lauren Groff is my first book of 2013. I enjoyed it very much, especially in the second half. The book is narrated by Bit, the child of Abe and Hannah, a couple of wonderful hippies who are founding residents of Arcadia, a sprawling commune in upstate New York. In the first half of the book, Bit is still very young, and I confess that I have a bias against fiction narrated by children. So I resisted, but I still found the boy’s voice engaging and the story compelling. Bit sees what’s going on and while he may not understand everything, he’s a sensitive and perceptive child. Among other things, he understands that Hannah is subject to mood swings—she is one person during the spring and summer, but withdraws come winter.

Time passes and eventually Bit has moved on and grown up, but Arcadia is still part of him. It has shaped who he is and the people he loves are his Arcadia family. The heart of the story, for me, then, is what happens to Bit later in life and what draws him back to Arcadia.

Groff takes some chances with this book. Although it seems clear where her sympathies lie, the Arcadians are not idealized at all. The flaws in the commune model are evident, but so are the qualities of the true believers, like Abe and Hannah.

The last section of the book was something of a surprise for me, and I won’t reveal it. When I got there I was skeptical, but on reflection it really worked.

It’s a book I highly recommend.