Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Can you believe she used to be a lawyer?

#4, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, Ayelet Waldman

And now she's a talented writer.

How can you not be amused by a mystery that begins:
I probably wasn't the first woman who had ever opened the door to the Fed Ex man wearing nothing from the waist up except for a bra. Odds are I was not even the first to do it in a nursing bra. But I am willing to bet that no woman in a nursing bra had ever before greeted our apple-cheeked Fed Ex man with her flaps unsnapped and gaping wide-open. You could see that in his face.

I had thought about being embarrassed, but decided that since I'd been too tired to notice that I wasn't dressed, I was definitely too tired to care. "You have to air-dry them," I explained. "Or they can crack."

"That has to hurt," he said.
That's how Ayelet Waldman begins The Big Nap, one of her Mommy-Track mysteries. Not that I can identify. Okay, I lie. October 1999, Jehovah's Witnesses. That's all you need to know. But,I digress. That first paragraph is spunky and humorous and, at the very moment I read it, a breath of fresh air to the mystery genre.

I could write a lot about my Ayelet Waldman love, which starts with and always comes back to her role in a literary couple (you most likely know that she's married to writer Michael Chabon). But, I'll spare you the hagiography. I just devoured Waldman's hot-off-the-press, stand-alone novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits. In three sittings, something I rarely, if ever, do since I am an excrutiatingly slow reader.

I'm not even going to attempt a plot synopsis, but I did find Waldman to be at the top of her form in creating a funny, sophisticated, compelling novel, populated by sufficiently complex characters and amusing/heartbreaking situations. It's hard not to empathize with hapless Emilia Greenleaf--who is attempting to navigate her life through the minefield of losing a child and learning to love a stepson--even when you want to smack her alongside the head. And, there's New York City, which is also hard not to love, even when you want to smack it alongside the head. Cabs, snarly traffic, Central Park, doormen, the Flatiron, throngs of people. Should I go on?

One last thing about Waldman: She has a blog where she maintains a book log, consisting mostly of short impressions of books she has recently read. I think she should update more frequently, and I think more readers should keep lists like this online.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

At this rate, I'll never finish 50 books in a year

#3, The City of Falling Angels, John Berendt
What can I say? I'm a sucker for popularly written history, and Berendt's book does not fail to disappoint when it comes to transporting the reader to Venice. As with Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which graced the New York Times bestseller list for a record-setting stupid amount of time, Berendt examines a crime that is as much about the city--its people and places--as the crime itself. In CoFA, Berendt's jumping-off point is the Fenice opera fire and resulting investigation. In between the arson story are luscious descriptions of Venice and an depiction of the wacky cast of characters who inhabit the city.

More than half of the book seriously diverges into melodramas that I couldn't possibly be bothered to care about and that do very little to enhance the narrative thread. Any self-respecting editor would have cut them. A much slimmer volume would have been the result, a book that could have been so much more interesting at half its 400-page length. Okay, I admit I did enjoy the long chapter about Save Venice, a historic preservation group comprised of American social climbers who violently and cattily disagree in public. In this group, I recognized Alexis Gregory, publisher of The Vendome Press (who painfully presented his own titles at sales conference when I was at Holtzbrinck), and gloated over his histrionics. And, the Ezra Pound chapter made me sad.

#2, The World to Come, Dara Horn
Please don't misunderstand me, I think Dara Horn is a remarkably talented writer, and often as I read her sophomore novel, I was carried along as if on a tide. A member of the book group to which I belong, largely made up of professional booksellers and publisher's reps, chose this title. We discussed it last week, and even people who hadn't finished reading the novel were prepared to call Horn a genius. I'm not willing to make that leap, but I would agree that she does some amazing, subtle things with her writing, with the characters and the plot. Possibly the greatest problem I had with Horn is that she has been favorably compared to Nicole Krauss (they're even published by the same house, W.W. Norton). I have read and love Krauss recently enough where I found Horn to be distractingly similar. As I read The World to Come further, Horn's plot became distinct, then enjoyable, followed by utterly, page-turningly compelling.

The novel opens with the theft of a painting from a Jewish museum during a singles mixer (based on actual events) and alternates storylines with 1920s Soviet Russia. Without spoiling any of the plot, I will say that Marc Chagall is the common thread. The characters are pleasantly complex and the plot is satisfyingly sophisticated. A few scenes are so incredibly well written, including one set in Vietnam that is startlingly graphic and another where in one paragraph, Horn paints every nuance in the relationship between three characters. These more than make up for heavy-handed imagery (especially characters that float or fly, as in a Chagall painting) and repetitive vocabulary and phrases. These are things a good copy editor, or line editor, should catch, for they are the detritus of writing that distracts even readers who are only half paying attention.

Ultimately, the potent combination of folklore, romance, history, and mystery was compelling. And, as happened after finishing Nicole Krauss's The History of Love, I need to immediately find Dara Horn's first novel, In the Image. I will happily read whatever she writes next.

#1, Don't Get Too Comfortable, David Rakoff
Quite possibly the best part of David Rakoff's essay collection is the subtitle--The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisinal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems. This book came highly recommended by an acquaintance who was a rep for Rakoff's publishing company, and she wasn't wrong. Rakoff, who is best known for an occasional turn on Public Radio International's This American Life, writes sharp, snarkalicious essays about consumer behavoir that are in equal turns gut-busting funny and uncomfortably mean-spirited (and still funny).

In December I thought this book was "endlessly humorous" on the basis of the first essay, which, at the end of the day, was my favorite. It begins with a bang: "George W. Bush made me want to become a citizen." How can you not laugh at that? Or scoff in disbelief? Rakoff then reveals that he didn't feel safe here as a lawful, permanent resident, even though he's not Muslim and comes from a country that enjoys "cordial relations" with the U.S. In a unique narrative, Rakoff then relates his travails in becoming an American citizen (he was born Canadian). He applies a similarly sardonic wit to other essays, whether partaking in the last ride on the Concorde or covering Fashion Week in Paris.