Wednesday, January 24, 2007

2007 Conversation with Books

On Monday evening, my alma mater hosted its annual alumnae event, Conversation with Books, which I attended with my friend-since-college Caryl and her mother. I have been anticipating this discussion since September, when the list of books was announced. A few weeks ago, as often happens, the panel added a book—The Love of Impermanent Things, by Mary Rose O'Reilley, which I copyedited for Milkweed way back in October 2005.

The panel consists of four women, alumnae-friends who love to read and have been meeting to talk about books for the past 42 years. The each share some comments about each of the books. Since the invitation only goes out to alumnae, it wasn’t until well after I had graduated that I knew about this event. Even then, I can’t say that I was very interested. But a few years ago Caryl told me she and her mother had been to a CWB the previous year and had a nice time. We vowed to attend the next. I had such a great time, I regretted my initial reluctance. Though it seemed odd to pay money to watch, but not participate in, a book group, I rue all the discussion I missed.

Just as Oprah tends to gravitate toward a particular kind of book, so does CWB. They group their selections into categories, one of which is Writers Familiar to Our Conversation. Some examples of repeat-authors include Anna Quindlen, Alice McDermott, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Penelope Fitzgerald, Alice Walker, Jon Hassler, Madeleine L’Engle, and Barbara Kingsolver. Yes, heavy on women writers, but not surprising for their women's college background and venue. Yes, the group mostly reads fiction, but they do read memoirs and biographies with rich narratives that read as easily as fiction does.

Before the big night, I try to read at least one book because it’s fun to see how the opinions of the panelists compare to my impressions (and I managed to have a few more insights into one of the books I read this year). While I may achieve my reading goal, I find that my work is never done. At the end of each discussion, I inevitably add more titles to my insurmountable TBR list. And, the funny thing, the books I want to read coming out of the conversation are the books I was least i
nterested in reading before I went in. Next year I just may start with those titles.

Here is 2007 list of books:

The Whole World Over by Julia Glass
read it

Joe’s War: My Father Decoded by Annette Kobak
this recaptured story of a Czech soldier as told by his daughter received an amazing review; I'd like to read it

Small Island by Andrea Levy
class, race, culture told in intertwined stories with lovable characters; I’ve toyed with reading since it was published and may read it yet

Eudora Welty: A Biography by Suzanne Marrs
the only positive thing any of the panelists had to say about this dense bio is that it has a great index—and that it made them want to reread either Optimist's Daughter or the short stories; I don't think my life will be any less rich if I give Welty a pass

After This by Alice McDermott
No ringing endorsement here, except to read Charming Billy, an earlier McDermott novel

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
Caryl read this and is letting me borrow her copy, which I'm eager to read

The Love of Impermanent Things: A Threshold Ecology by Mary Rose O’Reilley
Beautiful spiritual memoir with observations of the natural world

Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen
a light-hearted novel of two sisters; could be good vacation fare

Digging to America by Anne Tyler
a novel about adoption, with Tyler's trademark quirky characters

The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty
classic Welty, classic novel

Monday, January 22, 2007

NBCC finalists are in

The National Book Critics Circle finalists have been announced, and I think it's fair to say that there are no surprises here. From the fiction list, I would like to read Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Dave Eggers's What Is the What, and from the nonfiction list Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma has been nagging at me since before it was publishing. I have until March 8 before the winners are announced—better get crackin'.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Whole World Over

Way back in April, as I was looking through the Coming Soon literature "aisle" at, I made a note that Julia Glass had written a new book, The Whole World Over. Her debut— Three Junes, a masterful, intricately woven novel of a Scottish family—won the National Book Award in 2002. When a first novel wins a prestigious literary award, you pay attention.

Even though I made a note to read the book, I think this book chose me. I had checked it out from the library no fewer than four times before I cracked the spine, happy to carry it around as long as I could. In November or so,
The Whole World Over appeared on the list for my alma mater's Conversation with Books, an evening of book discussion between four friends (sort of like a book group on stage with an audience). Coincidentally, I had the book in my possession—and I have been slowly, steadily reading it since then.

The emotional core of this novel is Greenie, a Greenwich Village-based chef, who is in apparent need of shaking up her life. Wooed away to New Mexico to cook for the governor, she leaves behind her psychotherapist husband, Alan, and her four-year-old son George. This move sets into action a series of events that changes the course of their lives. Written in rich, dense prose (
Entertainment Weekly called the novel extravagantly long) that sometimes feels like swimming through molasses, Glass uses a lot of words, and somehow, they all seem utterly necessary.

Glass is gifted at weaving multiple storylines, the characters of which pass in and out of the each other’s stories. There’s Walter, Greenie’s gay friend who owns a neighborhood restaurant; Fenno McCleod, the bookstore owner who makes a guest appearance after starring in Three Junes; and Saga, a brain-damaged woman who rescues animals—each complexly drawn.

Places really stand out too. Greenwich Village offers brownstones, the bookshop, and a restaurant; Maine delivers a craggy island where Greenie’s family maintained a rustic cabin; and New Mexico serves up mountains, punctuating luminous skies.

The novel ends with a September 11 moment, and I’m not really sure what to make of it so I’ll leave it at that. Julia Glass doesn’t need comparisons—she’s won the sort of literary award that cements reputations, but I think anyone who likes Barbara Kingsolver will also like Glass.

I'm looking forward to hearing what the Conversation friends have to say about it on Monday evening.