After a spate of disappointing novels which I’m not going to name (why would I when the point of these missives is to recommend good stuff?), it was such a pleasure to come across Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth. From the opening pages I settled into that delicious feeling of being, as they say, in the hands of a master.
Commonwealth is the story of two families—four adults and six children—brought together and wrenched apart by the breakup of a marriage. Patchett manages their stories and multiple locations (Virginia, Los Angeles, the Hamptons, Brooklyn, Switzerland) over the course of 50 years with clarity, compassion and insight. And of course there’s her way with language, most evident in a simple phrase as when she describes one of her characters as “thin and quiet as a knife.” How does she do that?
I had the good fortune to interview Ann Patchett a few years ago and she’s exactly what those of us who love her books want her to be—funny, approachable, generous, incredibly smart. That’s so rare. Often I’ve found my literary heroes aren’t people I’d want to hang out with in real life (I’ll name names privately). And she’s co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville and a champion of independent book stores. How cool is that?
I suspect you’re going to hear a lot about The Nix, a first novel by Nathan Hill (big guns like John Irving have blurbed it enthusiastically) and I’m going to recommend it with reservations. It’s a mammoth incredibly ambitious doorstop of a book about a college professor and blocked writer who seeks to uncover the mystery of the mother who abandoned him when he was a child. There’s a chunk about the 1968 riots in Chicago, also on-line gaming, academia, Norwegian mythology, social media, and the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Hill is a major new talent and gifted storyteller and there are lots of gems in this book. The section about Laura Pottsdam, a student who lives on-line (mostly on an app called IFeel) and cheats her way through college captures the zeitgeist of her generation in a way that feels fresh and new.
Unlike Patchett, however, Hill loses control of his characters and their stories. Although I started running out of steam toward the end of this 600-plus page book, I found lots to admire. Dip into it and see what you think. What do you have to lose?
On another note entirely, I listened to Jay McInerny’s Bright, Precious Days on Audible. Yup, I listen to books, a practice I’d foolishly, snobbishly resisted for years. It was an unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo (narrated by Bill Homewood) that converted me. Wow!
I hadn’t read McInerny’s fiction for years (although I liked some of his wine writing) and missed the first two books of the trilogy that Bright, Precious Days completes. Despite the cliches (the obligatory sendup of an over-the-top foodie experience—fish sperm!—at a secret Manhattan impossible-to-reserve restaurant), there’s something here about the post 9/11, cusp of the 2008 financial meltdown life of the privileged New York intelligentsia that I found juicy and entertaining. We’re not talking Patchett here, more like guilty pleasure. Then again, I’ve been known to devour People magazine.
I also listened to Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson’s highly praised novel about girls coming of age in 1970s Brooklyn. While moving and evocative, it felt too spare to me. This is one of those books that is undoubtedly better on the written page, due to the poetic nature of Woodson’s prose. She exquisitely captures the feel of the time and place … you can almost smell the steamy streets and dank hallways of Woodson’s Brooklyn.