Friday, July 03, 2015

My Stewart O'Nan Summer

West of Sunset - Stewart O'Nan.  Instead of the predictable Gatsby-era take, O'Nan explores the last three years of F. Scott Fitzgerald's life, when he was employed in Hollywood as a scriptwriter. This book hit all my happy buttons: Scott hangs with Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, and even better, Humphrey Bogart is his neighbor. Also, seen through Scott's eyes during brief visits, Zelda comes to life even more thoroughly than she did in the famous biography of her by Nancy Milford. O'Nan so accurately conveys the weird combination of tenseness and tedium that goes with spending time with someone experiencing mental problems. This is O'Nan's latest novel (published early in 2015) and although I haven't made it through all of his works yet, I have a feeling that this is his best one.

The Night Country - Stewart O'Nan. One Halloween night, five teenagers riding around in a car are in a fatal accident. Three die, one suffers severe brain damage and the other is unharmed. The novel properly begins on the first-year anniversary as the ghosts of the three dead teenagers follow the actions and thoughts of the unharmed teenager, who has survivor's guilt; the mother of the brain-damaged survivor, and the cop who was there when the accident happened. There's that same slice-of-life quality that made Last Night at the Lobster so good, but it's also quietly chilling with flashes of sharp, dark humor, like a Shirley Jackson novel.  The ending reminded me of a Coldplay song and I wanted to weep. Weighing in at less than 225 pages, this 2003 novel by O'Nan would be a great read for the R.I.P. Challenge.

The admiration continues. Next up: Wish You Were Here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

That Time I Got a Little Weird and Misery-like with an Author

I had a wonderful time with the Misery read-a-long, sponsored by one of my favorite book bloggers, Care. 

There was no way I couldn't participate. Misery is my very favorite of all of Uncle Stevie's novels, one that I have recommended for years, sometimes several times a year. I had only read Misery once, back in the late 80s, when the paperback version came out, so I was startled to see how much of the book I remembered with such clarity. Annie Wilkes, yikes. What a creation. A three-year-old (I think. At what age do children employ and enjoy expressions like "doody"?) in a crazy-strong woman's body. Did Stephen King have preschoolers around the house during the writing of this novel? He got the language, the cadence so right.

Whatever Annie's many faults though, you have to admit that she got Paul Sheldon to get up off his talent and tell a story properly. I loved the Scheherazade theme and the twin threads of creativity and destruction that run throughout. Stephen King has revisited the disgruntled fan angle in his latest novel, Finders Keepers, and I couldn't be more delighted. Being #7 on the waiting list is a little less delightful, but no disgruntled reader long as they keep the queue moving.

I thought I was all out of cringeworthy bookworm stories to share on this blog, but as I read Misery, an uncomfortable memory stirred. I didn't chop off any body parts or make anyone swallow their meds with dirty mop bucket water, but I did get a little intense. Maybe even creepy:

The year was 1995, and I had just read a first novel by a female writer that I'll refer to as A.S. On the back flap was her picture and a brief biography as well as something I had never seen before: An email address with a warm invitation to readers to contact her there. Email was something that was still relatively new in my life, and I was feeling quite cutting-edge as I composed a short note to A.S. saying how much I had enjoyed her work. Then I clicked 'send'. Sophisticated me.

Much to my surprise, A.S. wrote back! I remember seeing it early on a weekend morning and screaming and waking the whole house. So much for sophistication.

I don't have that email anymore, or even that email address, but as I remember, A.S. thanked me for my email and alluded to working on something new. I felt compelled to write back and thank her for thanking me, and thanks were unnecessary, because my god, she was a writer and I was unworthy. No, it didn't say that, but that was the general tone. I also asked about the work she had mentioned. She replied again saying that the new work would feature some of the same characters.

Now I must rinse.

 No, not really, but my reply was ill-considered. I not only blame myself, but the rapidity of our exchanges and the casual nature of email.

Again, I can't quote directly, but my lengthy reply advised her strongly (did I really have to say 'You'd better not...'?) not to switch from the first person narrative she'd used to third-person. I went on to explain that another author had done that (Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven) and I had been really upset, Actually angry and betrayed at being distanced from characters that I had taken to my heart. I wish I could forget, but I do remember using that rather intense language. I remember thinking that A.S. would be pleased by my insight and by the fact that I was more than a mere reader; I really got into books. I remember clicking 'send' with such conviction.

Guess what? A.S. never wrote back.

 I told someone what I'd written, and this person grimaced and said, "Oh, God, Susan.  Did you really? You didn't. Please say you didn't."

I read over what I'd written, and horrible realization set in. I sounded like Annie Wilkes before she picked up her ax!

Sick, clammy sweat covered me. The forehead-smiting began. For days it was a pattern: Read my stupid email, smite my forehead, Read, smite. Read, smite. Should I write and apologize to A.S. for being presumptuous? No, I couldn't even stand the click-click-click of my own typing; it brought on nausea. I finally deleted our whole exchange.

For years, I couldn't bear to see A.S.'s book in the odd library sale or used bookstore both here and abroad. When I came across it in my reading journal, I hurriedly flipped the page, feeling that same sickening feeling.

Finally after 20 years, I'm over it. I can rationalize: Sometimes ardent readers get a little carried away, and A.S. could probably appreciate that.  I'm just glad I got carried away in the days before social media.

Recently, I looked up A.S. on Amazon and saw that no novels followed that first one I admired so much. What about the new work she'd mentioned? Did I stop her creativity in its tracks with my tirade? That's ridiculous...or is it? I'll always wonder.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Contention by Paul Cunningham

Father's Day is less than a week away, I've seen many good lists of reading suggestions for the male bookworms in our lives. I would like to add one more:

It's getting good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads!

This novel is available in both paperback and ebook form.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

New Bookworm Crush: Stewart O'Nan

My last big author obsession was Emile Zola. It's been nearly three years, so I knew I was due to fall in love again.

A couple of years ago, I read Last Night at the Lobster, a short novel by Stewart O'Nan that follows the last evening of work for employees of a Red Lobster that is closing. The novel seemed so close to real life, as if O'Nan had just shown up like Tracy Kidder and hung out and reported what he saw and heard. When I started thinking that he hadn't really done anything, I realized that he had done something. It was one of those koan moments.

Flash-forward to last week. I was browsing the county library and I found a shelfload of Stewart O'Nan novels. Wonderful! I hadn't realized that he'd written so many. He's also written something with Stephen King. Uncle Stevie! How did that information elude me for so long?

Anyway, I checked out O'Nan's 2012 novel The Odds, which is about a couple who have been married 30 years. They have both recently lost their jobs and are on the brink of bankruptcy and divorce. In a bold move, the husband proposes that they liquidate the rest of their assets, take a "second honeymoon" to a hotel/casino in Niagara Falls (Canada) and make some seriously big bets. This is one of the best novels about marriage that I have ever read.

After finishing The Odds, I went on to an earlier O'Nan offering: Everyday People (2001). This is the one I'm reading now. This novel takes place in O'Nan's native Pittsburgh and describes the lives of several acquaintances in an African-American neighborhood. I've been reading with a critical eye this time, looking for and fearing any missteps or falsity on O'Nan's part, but so far, I've not been disappointed. It's a wrenching story, full of dignity and beautifully told.

I'm not sure which novel I'm reading next, but I am sure that this is going to be my Stewart O'Nan summer. Maybe it can be yours as well.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

I Am Sale-ing, I Am Sale-ing

Ah, library sales! I have missed them, but I had quite forgotten that strange mix of feelings when I see a library book that has been discontinued:

Why, there's ___________! Oh, I've been looking for it for such a long time! Why are they throwing it out of their collection? How DARE they? But wait. That means that I can take ____________ home not just for two weeks, but forever!

Here are some of my recent finds:

1. The Life of Irene Nemirovsky - Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt.  Nemirovsky was the author of Suite Francaise, who died at the hands of the Nazis. Her daughters smuggled that manuscript and others out of occupied France. One dollar.

2. Drama - John Lithgow. Lithgow got my attention more than 30 years ago when he played Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp. I also loved him in Terms of Endearment as Debra Winger's shy Iowan lover. I'm really looking forward to his memoir. One dollar.

3. The Reader's Encyclopedia c. 1970. - Stephen Benet. I love The Reader's Encyclopedia, Especially the older editions. Not only do they define all things literary, there are capsule descriptions of novels and novelists who were popular at the time but have now fallen into obscurity. These delectable tidbits swell my wish lists. One dollar is not too much to pay for a book that contains so much treasure and is also sturdy enough to serve as a doorstop or prop open a window in an emergency.

4. The Late George Apley - John Marquand.  BIG SCORE, as this is the Pulitzer fiction (then called Pulitzer novel) winner from 1938. Even better, it's a hardcover copy! One dollar!!!

5. Alice Adams - Booth Tarkington. Another big score, Pulitzer nocvel winner in 1921 or '22.  I've been looking for Alice for years. Fifty cents!

Sunday, May 03, 2015

A Game of Thrones: Finished!

I did it. I finally finished A Game of Thrones. Wow finish.

Now I have to decide whether to go on with the other books in the saga. I think I'll have to largely because of Daenerys Targaryen.

The decision to go on doesn't have to be made today, but winter is coming.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Bookworm Transitions

One month home, and it's gone by in a blur. Shortly after my last post, Mom and I went to Tulsa to visit The Spawn, and she fell ill. Scary stuff. Somehow, we got her into the car and back here. Her doctor took one look at her and said, "Hospital." One week in the hospital has now turned into 2 or 3 weeks of physical and occupational therapy in a nursing home. Looks like I showed up in the U.S. at just the right time.

The second biggest event in this first month back is that I got a job. Next fall, I'll be teaching three ESL classes at Missouri Valley College in Marshall, about thirty miles away. I'm stunned and relieved that this part of transitioning has been sorted so quickly and easily. In fact, I was so stunned that it didn't even occur to me until this morning that a new job on a college campus equals a new library for Bybee to explore. I also got a small job tutoring a woman who used to be a junior high teacher in Mexico. We meet at Boonslick, the county library.

Speaking of libraries, I have finally gotten the Bybeeary unpacked and organized:

Nonfiction on the left, fiction on the right

Pulitzer fiction winners

As you can imagine, reading has taken a back seat. No, that's not right. Reading isn't even in the car. If anything, it's clinging to the back bumper.

This seems like a running joke, but I'm still reading A Game of Thrones.  I'm also reading Without You, There is No Us by Suki Kim and Let's Just Say It Wasn't Pretty by Diane Keaton.

Book buying: I picked up a copy of the newest Pultizer fiction winner, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and I couldn't resist a hardcover copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo.

Dewey's Readathon: I missed it, as I suspected I might, but it never dawned on me that I would MISS IT miss it as in not even being aware that it was going on until I saw some posts on social media. I hope that part of my life isn't truly gone. Let's see what October brings.

Read Life and Real Life seem poles apart, but I'm slowly finding my way back. Today, I have errands to run and a meeting with my new boss, but first, I want to stop in here for my library fix.

My beautiful hometown library in Sedalia