Ann Patchett: The Dutch House

It seems there isn’t much we can count on these days. I write this as PG&E has turned off the power in my neighborhood but not just down the street. Don’t even get me started.

DutchHouse-165x249One thing we can rely on is that Ann Patchett is a consistently great writer. Her latest novel, The Dutch House, is a rich multi-layered family story complete with a wicked stepmother who turns out not to be a stereotype. Imagine that.

The novel centers on a lavish mansion in suburban Philadelphia, the Dutch House of the title. It’s purchased by Cyril Connolly at the end of WWII, enabling him to build a real estate empire and bring his family from poverty to extreme wealth.

For reasons that become clear as the novel unfolds, Cyril’s wife Elna is uncomfortable enough with everything the house signifies that she abandons her husband and two children.

The Dutch House centers on the children, Danny and Maeve, and their life in the decades after their mother’s departure and father’s remarriage. Patchett makes the house a symbol of home and everything that implies for Danny and Maeve. And just like the stepmother, she treats that theme in a way that feels fresh and revelatory.

She also creates a marvelous maternal, independent character in Maeve, and chooses to tell the story from Danny’s point of view so we get the benefit of seeing her from a distance. The strength of the sibling bond is beautifully rendered here.

In a conversation with Mary Laura Philpott, who writes a column for Parnassus Books—Patchett’s bookstore in Nashville, and, yes, she started a vital independent bookstore as if being a celebrated novelist wasn’t enough—Patchett says the inspiration for The Dutch House came from Zadie Smith, who told her the character of the mother in Swing Time was autobiographical because the mother in the book was the mother she didn’t want to be. Andrea, the horrific stepmother in The Dutch House, says Patchett, is the stepmother she doesn’t want to be.

So there you have it. A great story, a wonderful read, perceptively-drawn characters acting in a manner that tells us something about the human condition. Ann Patchett makes it look easy.

Pascal Mercier: Night Train to Lisbon

The decision about what books to take on a trip just as important to me as what goes in the suitcase. Actually, it’s more important. To find myself stranded in a train station or airport with nothing good to read would be far worse than having the wrong pair of shoes (and honestly, I always have the wrong pair of shoes anyway).

I did a lot of thinking about what books to take on my recent trip to Portugal. I looked at the best-known Portuguese writers, poet Fernando Pessoa and novelist Jose Saramago, and just couldn’t go that route; Pessoa felt too intellectual/esoteric, Saramago just too damn depressing. I know there’s lots more to these writers than that short dismissal but I’m just telling you how I felt.

NightTrainSo I packed a copy of Night Train to Lisbon in my carry-on. The author, Pascal Mercier, is Swiss rather than Portuguese, but it takes place largely in Lisbon, and the Portuguese language and character are a big part of the story, so it seemed fitting.

And I carried the real book, not the Kindle version. I stopped reading on Kindle years ago, preferring paper in my hands for all kinds of reasons. To my mind it’s totally worth the extra luggage weight.

It was a wonderful choice. The novel’s main character, Raimund Gregorious, is stuck in a buttoned-down joyless rut teaching classics at the same Swiss lycée he attended as a student. A chance encounter with a Portuguese woman and a mysterious book of philosophical observations cause him to abruptly flee his well-established life and, quite impulsively, head to Portugal.

The book that so intrigues him is by Amadeus Prado, an enigmatic, brilliant doctor and philosopher who left a huge imprint on everyone who knew him and who, ultimately, came into conflict with the brutal Salazar regime. Gregorious spends much of the novel tracking down those who knew Prado—his sister, a priest, a childhood friend, a lover—attempting to get at the heart of his philosophy and solve the mystery of his life.

Great portions of Night Train are devoted to quoting the book of Prado’s that falls into Gregorious’s hands, and I admit I cheated a little bit, skimming some of those passages. While they’re erudite and thought-provoking, I was more interested in Gregorious’s own journey. The idea of a man who has followed the same routine for years suddenly opening his life and opening to the possibility of change is fascinating.

Among its many themes, Night Train considers the safety of routine, the fear of intimacy, the nature of risk, the hypocrisy of religion, and the art of self-delusion—it questions our very understanding of identity.

I could definitely go back and re-read this book, as I’m certain I missed big important chunks essential to Prado’s thought process and conclusions about life. But when I closed the last page, I was very satisfied. And since I finished on the train from Porto to Lisbon (sadly, during the broad daylight or it would have been too perfect), I Ieft it on the train for another traveler to discover. Seemed like the right thing to do.

Javier Marías: Berta Isla

You have to give time and attention to Javier Marías’s novels. His books are complex and the characters talk and reflect a great deal. They’re an acquired taste.

To my mind, they’re worth the occasional heavy lifting. If you want to understand the legacy of Franco and how he shaped Spain, Marías is your man. Also he knows better than almost anyone how to parse the complexity of marriage (a subject, admittedly, I’ve never mastered).

My first of many visits to Spain was in 1968, when Franco was still in power. I lived for a summer in San Sebastian where the Basque separatists were very much underground … even open expression of their language was forbidden.

Today, in retrospect, I understand the iron grip Franco had on the country and the unspeakable crimes that were committed in his name. I’ve also come to understand the horrible legacy of the 1976 pacto de olvidio (pact of forgetting), wherein the Fascists agreed to cede power on the condition that no one be held accountable for crimes committed during the Civil War and dictatorship.

I first encountered Marías when my book club read A Heart So White, a novel that centers on a translator and the mystery of his father’s marriage. Then I read Thus Bad Begins, a novel about a young man who works as an assistant to a film director, his employer’s dysfunctional marriage and his possibly criminal friend and associate.

BertaIsla-550x745His new novel, Berta Isla, tells the story of Tomas Nevinson, a brilliant young man with an uncanny facility for flawlessly speaking multiple languages who, against his will, is conscripted into the British Secret Service. He and his wife, the title character, meet in the 60s, both convinced they are destined for each other. This conviction is sorely tested during the course of the novel as Nevinson’s work requires him to live multiple other lives, fraught with constant danger. Berta is kept in the dark about the nature of her husband’s work and must suffer his long absences.

The novel’s background is the major social and political upheavals from the 60s to the near present: the Falklands War (about which I’d almost entirely forgotten), the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Berta Isla is herself highly intelligent, literary (there are allusions to Elliot, Melville, Shakespeare, Dumas), and reflective. And that’s a good thing because the novel spends a lot of time on her inner world. The chapter where her child’s life is threatened by an IRA operative is one of the most chilling I’ve read in a long time.

Berta Isla is an unusual suspense novel, sort of a slow thriller. It’s a book about secrecy, suspicion, deception, loyalty, trust, and, ultimately, about marriage and the limits on ever completely knowing another person. It’s also about national character, Spain’s and Britain’s, and what shaped each.

Yes, it’s a bit rambling and discursive but somehow it works. You just have to have an appetite for that sort of thing.

Barbara Demick on North Korea

As you probably know, non-fiction is not my best subject. It works for me only when I can find the story in it. That’s why I’m raving about Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.

DemickNorth Korea? Heavy lifting, right? Well, yes with a big “but.” In an extraordinary piece of reporting (right up there with Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity) Demick takes us inside the lives of six ordinary North Koreans before and after defection.

We’ve all read the news stories about the repressive totalitarian regime, the starvation, the disillusionment and hopelessness. Demick brings it alive and we care desperately about these people. We root for them. It’s not an exaggeration to say it reads like a suspense story.

When I told people I was reading a book about North Korea, let’s just say the response was tepid at best. Trust me, there’s a reason. This book tells you more about the twisted psychology of a brutal dictatorship and the tenacity of the human spirit than any I can remember.

I’ll spare you any analogy with the worst tendencies of our current administration in regard to manipulation of the media, outright lies, the cult of personality (and the list goes on). Just read this book, OK?

Jeanine Cummins & Vivian Gornick

AmericanDirtThe good news about Jeanine Cummins’s new novel American Dirt is it’s the best book I’ve read this year, last year and every year since I can remember. The bad news is they’ve delayed the publication and it’s not coming out till January. If you can get your hands on an ARC (Advance Reading Copy), DO IT NOW. Or pre-order it. I promise you it will fly off the shelves.

I kept looking at Cummins’s picture on the back flap to see how this very white Irish-looking person wrote such a compelling, terrifying, realistic novel about a Mexican mother and son escaping drug cartel violence in Acapulco and riding atop The Beast, the train to el norte. It’s impossible that she herself had this experience so I can only conclude that she’s one hell of a reporter and an equally talented writer.

It’s not a spoiler to tell you the book opens with the violent act that cause Lydia, a well-educated bookstore owner, and her precocious eight-year-old son Luca to flee. It comes at you with the opening sentence: “One of the very first bullets comes in through the open window above the toilet where Luca was standing.”

Lydia has inadvertently befriended the head of a drug cartel and when her journalist husband exposes him, the consequences are disastrous. Their heart-pounding escape and journey to the U.S. are told in harrowing detail and blistering prose.

Cummins is the wife of a formerly undocumented immigrant and she’s said because the migrants at the Mexican border have been portrayed as a “faceless brown mask,” she wanted to give them a face, unique stories of their own. Boy does she ever.

This book is being compared to The Grapes of Wrath. The comparison is apt. Just as that novel told the story of the migration west during the Dust Bowl, this story captures and personalizes our current immigration nightmare. If there’s one book you should read this year, American Dirt is it.

FierceAttachmentsI kept coming across Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, written in 1987, on lists of best memoirs. Since memoir and biography are the non-fiction I like best, I finally got to it.

Wow. Gornick has a difficult mother. Her book tells the back story of their family life in the Bronx and chronicles her present walks around New York with her no-less difficult-with-age parent.

An accomplished journalist, both vulnerable and strong, she’s in the powerful grip of this complicated woman. The merest slight renders her an insecure child again. Any woman who’s ever been victimized by a mother—and really, who hasn’t?—will relate.

There were so many places in this book where I saw my mother and just as many where I saw myself. That’s great writing.

Peter Orner

I got an advance copy of Peter Orner’s collection of very short stories Maggie Brown & Others a while back and it’s been sitting on my night table for a few months. I dip into it whenever whatever else I’m reading isn’t working. The truth is I’m savoring it … I want it to go slowly. Because it’s that good.

Orner-MaggieIn the meantime, this rave appeared in the Times this past week. Dwight Garner really captures Orner’s genius. And I do mean genius. The book is so multi-faceted and full of memorable characters, I wasn’t sure I could do it justice. So I selfishly didn’t share it with you.

Stories I loved: “Ineffectual Tribute to Len” (even snippets of lines like “Then in February, it was always February that year…” kill me); “1984,” in which a group of stoned kids try to barbecue some frozen chicken breasts they’ve rooted out of the freezer; the sad sweetness of “Erwin and Pauline,” which ends with everyone gathering post-funeral for “cold cuts”—and oh my god the names: Joey Pignatari and Newt Shakenberg and Cindy Roo and Itchy Burman. They’re stories in themselves.

Orner’s characters are Jewish “like they wore shoes or overate at lunch,” the kind of Jewish that has its own language, behavior, set of values, and humor and feels familiar to anyone who is or has ever hung out with Jews.

It’s a whole rich world full of love and regret and pathos and the very ordinariness and insanity of life that Peter Orner conjures up in this collection. Put it by your bedside and dip in as you would with a box of the very best chocolates. You’re welcome.

Ingrid Contreras & Anne Fadiman

Back in the 80s when I was traveling in South America I was scared to even leave the airport in Bogota. And I wasn’t exactly the cautious type.… I traveled through Peru sola when the Sendero Luminoso was blowing things up on a regular basis. During those years The South American Handbook advised chaining your suitcase to your wrist and the overhead rail on the train to keep it from being stolen.

Today, of course, tourists are blithely adding Colombia to their itinerary. Whole families even! A friend’s daughter is leading trips out of Medellín. Medellín! Where Pablo Escobar et al. once held sway.

Contreras_treeIngrid Contreras’s Fruit of the Drunken Tree takes us back to those days when Escobar and the paramilitary were waging war; car bombings, assainations and kidnappings were the order of the day; young children were being conscripted to join the guerillas; and the whole country was in a state of fear and anxiety.

She tells the story through the eyes of seven-year-old Chula Santiago, who lives with her upper middle class family in a gated community in Bogotá. The family hires a teenage maid, Petrona, who comes from the mountainous slums with whom Chula falls in love a little, in a little girl crush-like way.

The novel is told in alternating chapters from Chula and Petrona’s point of view. The voices ring authentic and true not only in describing the events around them but also their inner lives.

The prose is gorgeous. When Petrona first comes to Chula’s family she’s almost mute. Chula “always imagined the silence in Petrona’s throat like dry fur draping over her vocal cords, and when she cleared her throast, I imagined the fur shaking a little, then settling smooth like hair on a fruit.”

And this: “War always seemed distant in Bogotá, like niebla descending on the hills and forests of the countryside and jungles. The way it approached us was like fog as well, without us realizing, until it sat embroiling everything around us,”

Early in the novel, the Santiago family is engaging in their weekly Friday television watching: “When Mama changed the channels we were regularly disturbed by the graphic quality of the news reports. I could piece something together from the news –massacres in the countryside, common graves found in farms, peace talks with the guerillas, but I didn’t understand who was responsible for what or what any of it meant.”

One Friday she recognizes a nearby street, the site of a car bomb. The reporter points out a young girl’s severed leg with a red shoe and white sock still attached. It reminded me of the image seared into our current collective consciousness of the three-year-old Syrian refugee boy dead on the beach. The difference for Chula is the nightmare is right outside her window, in her neighborhood. And later her mother takes Chula and her sister to a rally for a presidential candidate which ends in horrific violence.

This is novel about family and class, the haves and the have-nots, and ultimately those who have choices and those who don’t. Most of read read about the Escobar reign of terror and tsk tsked. This book brings you right inside it and its very human toll. It’s a beautifully told story about a tragic time, one that opens your heart and rips it apart.

I have to thank my cousin Linda for re-introducing me to Anne Fadiman’s book Ex Libris. I picked it up when it was first published 20 years ago and I was moving too fast to take it in. I’m in exactly the right place now to appreciate her exquisite sensibility.

Faidman_ExLibrisAnne Fadiman loves words and language and books and has a way of making what’s fascinating to her fascinating to us as well. Did you ever know you cared about Arctic exploration or William Kunstler’s bad sonnets? Trust me, you will.

Fadiman comes from an uber-literary family. Every Sunday night they gathered around the TV for G.E. College Bowl and Fadiman U, as they called themselves, won almost every time. Just like your family and mine … not. When she was four, she “liked to build castles with [her] father’s pocket-sized, twenty-two volume set of Trollope.” Me too, said no one.

Fadmiman has a great sense of humor whether writing about the challenges of merging her library with her new husband’s, books about food (“My moist frequent response to gastronomic references in literature is an immediate urge to raid the refrigerator”), her compulsion to read anything (“I’d rather have a book but I’d settle for a set of Water Pik Instructions”), and the joys of what she calls “You-Are-There Reading,” reading books in the places they describe (e.g. Steinbeck on Cannery Row, John Wesley Powell in the Grand Canyon).

I know you’re a book lover because you’re reading this. You owe it to yourself to read this book. It’s an absolute delight. Thank you, Linda.

Lori Gottlieb & Laila Lalami

A book about a therapist who writes about her patients and her own therapy? Are you kidding me? As one who’s had a fair amount of her own experience with therapy (you’re shocked, right?), why would I want to read about anyone else’s?

Gottlieb_MaybeBecause, it turns out, Lori Gottlieb’s book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is entertaining (especially if you’re something of a voyeur, like me), well-written, and, most importantly, has that quality I look for in every book I read: it tells us something about the human condition.

An aside: I generally steer clear of any book that feels even the slightest bit self-helpy. For whatever reason I feel that my own issues are far too complex, interesting and, well, special to benefit from advice doled out by the author of a book intended for the masses. Gottlieb’s book, without proclaiming itself self-help, sneakily causes us to examine our own behavior as we read about her own emotional trials and tribulations as well as those of her patients.

Here’s a section I underlined that felt illuminating: “therapy is about understanding the self that you are. Part of getting to know yourself is to unknow—to let go of the limiting stories you’ve told yourself about who you are so that you aren’t trapped by them, so you can live your life and not the story you’ve been telling yourself about your life.” Hmmmmmmm.

By the way, Lori Gottlieb is funny, self-deprecating, and almost uncomfortably honest. She’s also a little bit nuts, which makes her relatable. Her portraits of her patients, admittedly composites, ring true and we root for them on their journey to self-discovery. We root for her too, although I was pleased she didn’t solve all her issues and ride off into the sunset with a man on a white horse by the end of the book.

A note on Gottlieb’s own therapist, whom she calls Wendell in the book. She presents him as extremely skilled and compassionate, pretty much the dream shrink. He even dances with her when she’s ready – you’ll have to read the book to understand this. I’m a little miffed my shrink never danced with me. I many have to take it up with her.

Lalami_OtherIn March I finally visited Joshua Tree National Park to see the desert in bloom, a trip I’d been meaning to do for years. Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans caught my eye because it takes place in Joshua Tree and I was curious to see how the Mojave figured into the novel.

The book revolves around an unresolved murder, a hit and run involving a Moroccan immigrant. His daughter, who has left the desert behind for the life of a struggling composer in Oakland, returns home, becomes involved in solving the mystery of her father’s death, and falls in love with an old classmate.

This novel is much more than a police procedural. It’s about life in contemporary America post 9-11 for a Muslim family who, no matter how many American flags they fly at their business are still vilified. It’s also about the ugly racism experienced by a black female police detective, the justified paranoia of an undocumented Mexican immigrant, the PTSD of Iraqi war veterans, and the failed American dream of the white middle class. And almost every character is harboring secrets.

It’s not a pretty picture: the personal and the political are on a collision course in the small community in which the novel takes place. On my visit to Joshua Tree I had the definite sense there are many different slices of America living in close proximity in the small towns that line Highway 29: families from the 29 Palms Marine Corps base, old hippies running funky health food stores, artists who’ve flown LA, drawn by the beauty of the desert and cheap real estate, motorcycle freaks, and stoners on the lam from who knows what. It’s the perfect place to set a novel and Lalami makes the most of it.

Elizabeth Gilbert

I wish Elizabeth Gilbert had never written Eat, Pray, Love. Because despite what you thought of that memoir—whether you loved it as a celebration of female strength and self-discovery or loathed it as the self-indulgent journey of a spoiled brat (I’ve actually heard her accused of single-handedly ruining Bali)—it will forevermore be attached to her name. She’s actually one hell of a writer with a multi-faceted accomplished body of work.

Go back and read The Last American Man, written two years before Eat, Pray, etc., the true story of Eustace Conway, who at 17 left suburbia and went back to nature in the Appalachian mountains. A complex, tortured individual, Conway becomes a missionary for the idea of leaving the materialistic world behind, a man Gilbert describes as “a cross between Davy Crockett and Henry David Thoreau.” It’s a fascinating, sensitively rendered portrait.

Or The Signature of All Things. The fictional story of world renowned 19th-century botanist Alma Whitaker, the novel takes us around the world at a pivotal moment in science. You’ll never look at moss the same way again.

Gilbert_cityNow comes City of Girls, Gilbert’s new, highly entertaining romp of a book that stars Vivian Morris, Vassar dropout and aimless rich girl who arrives in New York City in 1940 and falls happily into her black sheep aunt’s world, which centers on a struggling theatre company. Vivian takes to the life of showgirls and night clubs (lots of booze and cigarettes) and promiscuous sex like the proverbial duck to water. And it’s all great, spirited fun until her scandalous behavior almost lands her in Walter Winchell’s column in a most unflattering way.

This is a novel replete with richly drawn characters—among them the aforementioned aunt, her globe-trotting, stare-fucking glamorous scoundrel of an ex-husband, an elegant British stage actress, the highly individualistic teenage daughter of a Jewish schmatte family, and a playboy from Hell’s Kitchen who’s highly skilled in the art of lovemaking

Gilbert is very funny. The hilarious scene where Vivian loses her virginity is especially refreshing in an age where so much young sex is portrayed as negative and traumatic. It wasn’t until after I finished the book that I read the introductory author’s note, wherein Gilbert announces her intention to write a book “about promiscuous girls whose lives are not destroyed by their sexual desires.” Mission accomplished.

Not only is her fast-moving plot highly engaging, she also writes clever song lyrics and authentic-sounding theatre reviews from actual critics of the day. City of Girls is a tonic for our dark, often depressing, highly serious age. It sometimes seems everything we do these days, what we eat, how we speak, how we comport ourselves in the world, is judged from some impeccable moral bench. Whatever happened to fun?

The word that kept coming to mind as I read this book is madcap. But it’s deeper than that and Gilbert closes the novel with a totally unexpected, unconventional and moving love story. It’s a tiny bit schmaltzy but by that point I didn’t care. I’d fallen in love with Vivian and her world. She’s a character I wanted to keep hanging out with even after the book came to an end.

Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney’s new book Normal People is ridiculously good. So good that it ruined me for a time. Everything I picked up afterwards seemed fake and hollow by comparison.

Rooney tells the story of two people who connect in a deep way in high school and circle around each other as friends and lovers through college and beyond.

Rooney_normalConnor and Marianne seem ill-suited at first: he’s a popular athlete with a hidden smart side, she’s a bookish loner. I’m not going to take away from your pleasure in finding out how their personalities morph over time (I hate when reviewers tell us too much plot), but let’s just say they change and evolve.

Who cares, right? You will because the way Sally Rooney writes about her characters’ outer and especially inner lives has a perceptive quality and authenticity that’s startling. She has an uncanny ability to describe how they see themselves and how others see them and how those worlds are sometimes in stark contrast to one another.

Rooney, a writer from the west of Ireland, takes on timeless subjects like class and money and the ways our families can wound us in a way that seems fresh and original.

Here’s Connor, poor his whole life, who comes into some scholarship money, on his first trip around Europe: “It’s like something he assumed was just a painted backdrop all his life has revealed itself to be real: foreign cities are real, and famous artworks, and underground railway systems, and remains of the Berlin Wall. That’s money, the substance that makes the world real. There’s something so corrupt and sexy about it.”

On attending a reading by a writer visiting his college: “Connell couldn’t think of any reason why these literary events took place, what they contributed to anything, what they meant. They were attended only by people who wanted to be the kind of people who attended them.” Ouch. As one who’s spent a big part of my professional life setting up literary events, it pains me to admit there’s more than a grain of truth in that.

And later on the same topic: “It was culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they like to read about.” Double ouch.

The initially quiet brutality of Marianne’s family life is ever more harrowing because of the subtle way Rooney describes it. It creeps up on us. There’s nothing really quotable here; it’s more a sense of dread that permeates the novel.

The fact that we root for these characters to end up together and truly find the comfort they both deserve in one another—and we care about them enough to feel they do deserve it—speaks to Rooney’s strength as a writer. If you read this book—and you should—make sure that whatever you read next is really really good.