Posted by: Jeanie F | June 28, 2017

The Nix by Nathan Hill

One of the greatest joys of being a reader is finding a BIG book and knowing, by the time you’ve finished the first chapter, that you’re going to love this book. That is exactly what The Nix, Nathan Hill’s first novel, was for me and, honestly, 620 pages flew by. This was one of those books that I couldn’t wait to return to every time I was forced, by life’s circumstances, to put it down.

The Nix is the story of Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a English professor and would-be author, who we follow from his early, unhappy childhood to his later, unhappy adulthood. His mother left Samuel and his father when Samuel was six years old. And this wasn’t the “I’ll see you every other weekend” kind of desertion. She told him goodbye and vanished, leaving no forwarding address. Samuel gets on with his life as best he can, but the specter of her abandonment never leaves him. This event is “The Nix” – a Norwegian house spirit who finds a person and inhabits them for life – the instant when life slips out of your control and never recovers.

We follow Samuel through his childhood, through important friendships he makes with a pair of siblings, his coming of age, and up to his eventual opportunity to find some kind of reconciliation with his mother. But there is so much encompassed in this seemingly simple story, that these bare bones are no more than the scaffolding of events that encompasse decades of not only Samuel’s life but our national history. In his review of The Nix, Jason Sheehan, writing for NPR Books, says this:

… The Nix is about a lot of things – about politics and online gaming, about the tenuous friendships of adult men and the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It is a vicious, black-hearted and beautiful satire of youth and middle-age, feminine hygiene products, frozen foods and social media. But more than anything, it is a treatise on the ways that the past molds us and breaks us and never lets us go. How it haunts us all.

For me, one of this most striking aspects of this book was how real everything feels – as if it was possible for Nathan Hill to personally experience the events, the emotions, the essence of everything he wrote.  One example is a section in which Bishop, Samuel’s childhood friend, has grown up and joined the army. He is in Iraq, in an armored tank with the other men in his unit, including one named “Chucky”. Chucky is a bit of a nerd, but he becomes a favorite among the men when he tells the story of getting up the nerve, on his first leave home, to ask the most beautiful girl in his school for a date. He tells them she said yes, and now they’re in love. And then, here’s how Nathan Hill follows up:

What everyone likes about the story is the part where he finally asks out the girl. Because the way Chucky tells it, it’s not like he had to work up the courage to do it. It’s more like it no longer required courage to do. Or maybe he discovered that he had plenty of courage all along, inside him, ready to be used, and everyone likes imagining that. They hope the same thing has happened to them, too, because they are occasionally terrified out of their minds over here, and they hope when the time comes for them to be brave, they will be brave . . . If a kid like Chucky could land a girl like Julie Winterberry, surely they can make it through one lousy war.

And this is the strength and the beauty of this book. We don’t just get the action, we don’t just get the emotion, but we crawl inside the skin, the hearts, the minds of the characters in ways you rarely encounter in a novel. I’ve never been in the military (thank God), or ridden in a tank down a road that could be littered with IEDs, but reading Hill’s description of it, seen through the eyes of a few men in a tank, made it as real as only the best literature can do.

I could give you many, many more examples of the ways that this book knocked me out, made me laugh, made me cry, and made me really sorry that Nathan Hill limited himself to 620 pages. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Grade: A+

 

 

Posted by: Jeanie F | May 30, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

I wouldn’t normally have followed a book like Evicted with another non-fiction work on similar issues, but this is our book club book this month so there really wasn’t much choice. The demographic is different – Evicted dealt primarily with inner city blacks, Hillbilly Elegy with, well, hillbillies. In this case, hillbillies who moved from Appalachia to southwestern Ohio, the Rust Belt, in the mid-20th century.

Before I delve too deeply into the book itself, let’s agree to the particular population we’re talking about:

Wikipedia (2017): People who dwell in rural, mountainous areas in the U.S., primarily in Appalachia and the Ozarks. The move North to locations such as Chicago, Cleveland, Akron, and Detroit became known as the “Hillbilly Highway.”

New York Journal (1900): A free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he get it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.

I include both definitions because, to read J.D. Vance’s version, not much has changed between the two definitions, other than the “hillbillies” moved.

Hillbilly Elegy has been a best seller, currently touted as a way to explain the extreme populism of Trump supporters and his presidency. Besides the requirement to read it for my book club, I was interested because I mistakenly believed that it was a sociological study. It is, in fact, a personal memoir, written by a man who had a difficult childhood. Yes, his family practiced any number of the bad habits that are stereotypical of low income, disenfranchised populations – brawling, anti-social behavior, drug addiction, alcoholism, to name a few – but, in fact, their move to Ohio brought with it union membership, employment security, middle class incomes, home ownership, and many of the other perks that job stability affords. However, they remained tied to the Appalachians through frequent trips back “home,” where their deepest ties remained.

As we follow Vance and his family into Ohio, Vance appears to  benefit from his grandparents’ – especially his grandmother’s –  solid place in his life, but the family remains distressed and unstable. His grandparents live apart and continue to fight, often violently. They carry guns with them everywhere they go, and aren’t afraid to use them if “necessary”. Vance’s mother blows through relationships and marriages, ignores and/or abuses Vance and his sister, Lindsay, and is, herself, a lifetime drug addict. I lost count of the number of “fathers” Vance and Lindsay have, but the instability and violence have taken their toll. It is a long walk uphill to find the lives they hope to live.

Vance, himself, eventually finds his way out of this destructive cycle, but has paid a steep price.

The dis-functionality and depression experienced by Vance’s family seems almost identical to the problems associated with the inhabitants of the mobile home park in Evicted!, without the accompanying poverty. Somehow this is never clearly addressed: how is it that financial security; good and secure employment, including opportunities for advancement; adequate education; and freedom from hunger and poverty hasn’t helped this population to  succeed?

One review I read refers to the “hopelessness” of this “hillbilly” society. The flaw in this book is that it never offers a satisfactory explanation as to why this population, who relocates and, in doing so, reaches a realistic possibility of improvement, fails to achieve it.

Grade: C

 

Some of you may not know this, but I’m married to a real estate attorney. Along with the really dull stuff, like transactions, and the really happy stuff, like people buying new homes, he also has to deal with some of the tragic, such as evictions. When this book came out, I debated whether or not I wanted to read it but, for over thirty years I’ve heard him talk about both sides of this sad story – the evicting and the evicted. Believe me, there is plenty of blame, tragedy, greed, and stupidity on both sides of this issue, but I decided I wanted to know more about it than the frustration that inevitably accompanies a law suit. I wanted to understand something of the human side.

The fact that it won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction helped.

The author, Matthew Desmond, is an “Urban Sociologist” and associate professor at Harvard University. He’s also co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project, so he’s well-qualified to study this subject.

In the Prologue to this devastating, yet compelling, work, Desmond tells us this:

Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. They used to draw crowds . . . These days, there are sheriff squads whose full-time job is to carry out eviction and foreclosure orders. There are moving companies specializing in evictions . . . data-mining companies that sell landlords tenant screening reports . . . housing courts swell, forcing commissioners to settle cases in hallways.

To write this book, Desmond moved into a trailer park in a poverty-stricken area of Milwaukee. He lived among the poorest of the poor, people scraping by – or not – day by day, sometimes hour by hour, and cataloged their struggles. Of this experience, he wrote in his journal: “I feel dirty, collecting these stories and hardships like so many trophies.”

It’s true that many of his neighbors have contributed to their predicaments through a lifetime of bad choices – many of which began before they had any control over them. They live hand-to-mouth, day-to-day, making heart-wrenching choices about whether to feed their family or pay the rent. When they decide not to starve their children, they have often made a decision that will result on them being – literally – on the street. Or living in their storage shed. Or with an abusive relative. And that, of course, can result in them losing their children to Social Services.

They live, day-to-day, with a Hobson’s Choice – choosing one means losing the other.

The flip side of this story is that of the owners of the park. There are two landlords: Sherrena Tarver, and Tobin Charney. We read of their vacations, their trips to the casinos, their annual income in the millions of dollars as they grow their investments in low-rent properties. I suppose that, depending on whose side of the story you relate to, it would be possible to understand Sherrena and Tobin’s points of view – their tenants flake out on the rent (that is often as high as 80% of their income), they do drugs, they fight, bringing police to the park, they live in filth – but I found it hard to garner sympathy for Sherrena, who says, “Love don’t pay the bills,” and evicts one tenant and her children just before Christmas.

There is little enough hope in this brutal book. There are some important takeaways, that Desmond shares in the Epilogue, titled “Home and Hope.”

  • America is supposed to be a place where you can better yourself, your family, and your community. But this is only possible if you have a stable home.
  • If [the poor] didn’t have to dedicate 70 or 80 percent of their income to rent, they could keep their kids fed and clothed and off the streets.
  • Between 2009 and 2011, roughly a quarter of all moves undertaken by Milwaukee’s poorest renters were involuntary.
  • Evicted families often lose the opportunity to move to public housing because Housing Authorities count evictions and unpaid debt as strikes when reviewing applications.

Perhaps, as a compassionate society, we could look at these markers and make some changes. Personally, I don’t see it happening any time soon.

Desmond ends by telling us that eviction impacts every aspect of the evicted’s life, but it impacts us as a society as well. Neighbors who cooperate with and trust one another can make their community safer and more prosperous, have lower crime rates. Children who are continuously misplaced are far more likely to end up being removed from their homes and placed in social services or foster homes. Desmond sheds some hope with public programs that help support the poor, and legal cases that provide them with legal services, but he leaves us, finally, with words of condemnation, not a solution:

Whatever our way out of this mess, one thing is certain. This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering – by no American value is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.

Visit Desmond’s website at http://www.evictedbook.com

 

Posted by: Jeanie F | April 14, 2017

Match Book!

Illustration by Joon Mo Kang

 

The New York Times Book Review has come up with a great new concept, one that they call a “literary  advice column.”  Much like the helpful Ann Landers or Dear Abby advice columns, “Match Book,” written by Nicole Lamy, is here to solve your reading problems. This new column was introduced in March in this way:

Trying to figure out which book to read next? Searching for a book you loved years ago but can’t fully remember?  Want to know where to start in a prolific author’s oeuvre?

Who among us wouldn’t love to have a literary guru to steer us to exactly the book we are looking for? This week marks the debut of Match Book, which can be found here. If you have a question you’d like to submit, you can do so here.

We readers are also invited to contribute by

emailing matchbook@nytimes.com with details about your reading habits — old favorites, new books that exceeded your expectations, and those that fell short. The weekly column will connect readers with book suggestions based on their questions, their tastes, their literary needs and desires.

I’m already thinking of questions:

  • I heard there was a “modern day” version of Madame Bovary. If there is, what’s the title?
  • One of my favorite books is A Fine Balance by Rhintin  Mistry. I’ve read all his other books as well. Is there a comparable Indian writer?
  • Does the fact that I adore Cormac McCarthy say something suspicious about my character?
  • What current writer could be compared to Dorothy Parker or Nora Ephron?

How about you? What would you like to ask Match Book?

Posted by: Jeanie F | April 2, 2017

Looking for Something New to Read?

What a day we had yesterday, the hundreds of us who were able to get tickets to the annual authorfest sponsored by the Orange County Public Libraries. This event has become so popular that over two hundred potential readers had to be turned away. And its popularity is well deserved, as we enjoyed a full day that provided

  • Keynote speakers Marcia Clark, Christina Baker Kline, and Fannie Flagg;
  • Fifteen author panels, featuring forty-four authors and a vast variety of discussion topics;
  • A tote bag that came complete with either Christina Baker Kline’s newest book,  A Piece of the World, or Fannie Flagg’s new The Whole Town’s Talking;
  • A bookstore teeming with great books;
  • A chance to spend a day surrounded by book lovers.

I can only speak authoritatively of the three Author Panels that I attended, but they were all good enough to make me break my promise to Peter that I wouldn’t be bringing home more books to add to my To Be Read list. Fat chance!

Panel 1: “Behind the Orange Curtain”

I loved this panel. For you readers who live outside of “the OC,” we know we have a certain reputation here for being somewhat shallow, rubber-stamped stucco, Disneyland dominated, but it was great to listen to this panel talk about not only our infamy but, also, our rich history.

The specific books discussed (and I’m going to put a * beside the titles that I either did buy or am planning to buy) were:

The panels I didn’t attend (but heard great things about): “Mystery: California Crime,” “Cultural Mosaics,” “Family Fiction: The Ties that Bind,” and “Romance: Hot Nights.”

Panel 2: “Fiction: Novel Journeys”

As a lover of novels, of course I had to attend this panel, and what an exciting panel it was! I have every intention of buying each of the three novels that were discussed:

  • *The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang. This is a novel about a Chinese-American family attempting to regain their family-owned land in China that was confiscated during the Cultural Revolution. Ms. Chang was bright, animated, and fascinating to listen to, as she explained the background to this work.
  • *Grace by Natashia Deón, a novel that looks at a little-known aspect of slavery – those held in south-eastern states with no access to the Underground Railroad, who tried to get to Mexico to gain their freedom.
  • *People Who Knew Me by Kim Hooper. Ms. Hooper has written a post-9/11 novel, the story of a woman who uses this horrific event to forge a new life.

Other panels: “Food: Eat Your Words,” “Mystery: Shock & Awe,” “YA: The Perks of Being a Teenager,” “*A Conversation with Martha Hall Kelly.”

*Although I didn’t attend the panel, I would say that Ms. Kelly’s book, Lilac Girls, got the most buzz of any single book presented. This is the story of three teenage girls during WWII. All I can tell you is that the members of my book club who went to this panel have insisted that we add this book to our reading list.

Panel 3: Fiction: Home Truths

Each of the titles discussed on this panel deals with a life crisis and how one moves on in the aftermath. Very powerful stuff!

  • The Practical Navigator by Stephen Metcalfe is the story of a man who must come to terms with a series of crises in his life: a mother who may – or may not – be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, a son diagnosed on the autism spectrum, and a wife who bails on him, leaving him to cope in the aftermath.
  • Forever, Interrupted by Taylor Jenkins Reid is “in development” to be made into a movie. The story looks at what the flip side of Tom Hanks’ movie, “Castaway,” might have been like from the wife-left-behind’s point of view. This is the story of a woman whose husband, like the Hanks’ character, is lost at sea. She grieves, and then works to get her life back together. And then he returns . . .
  • *Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley is a story about a man and his aging dog. The author talked to us about his own experience losing his beloved dog. All he said about the book was that it is about a dog with an octopus on its head. The Amazon.com review says, “Lily and the Octopus reminds us how it feels to love fiercely, how difficult it can be to let go, and how the fight for those we love is the greatest fight of all.” I was very moved by the author and his discussion of his experience.

Other panels: “Random House: What Do I Read Next?,” “Memoir: No Limits,” “BFFs: Our Best Furry Friends,” and “Mystery: Webs We Weave”

I have to say that I would gladly read any of the books that I heard discussed, and I always find it fascinating to hear the authors talk about their process, their inspiration, their frustration, and everything else about bringing a new book into the world.

As you can see, Literary Orange truly had something for everyone. I wish I could have attended every one of the panels, because they all sounded fascinating. This celebration of books comes around every April. I can’t begin to encourage you enough to consider attending in the future, but one word of warning: buy your ticket early. It sells out fast!

Posted by: Jeanie F | January 9, 2017

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

underground-railroad

 

The protagonist of this powerful book is Cora, a slave on a plantation in antebellum Georgia, whose experience encompasses the full range of horrors and indignities subsumed in that time and place. Colson Whitehead, author of this disturbing novel, has done his homework, combing through the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s for background information. He does not spare his readers the harsh truth. Along with the realities of slavery in pre-Civil War America, which have been well documented in both fiction and non-fiction, Mr. Whitehead has added an element of fantasy, conjuring up a literal “underground railway” – a collection of train cars, tracks and stops from Georgia to Indiana that ferry runaways to safety. As anyone who has read any of the body of work about slavery in America knows, “safety” was never guaranteed to those trying to escape the horrors of their situation, and Mr. Whitehead makes sure we are never too comfortable about Cora’s chances of success.

The winner of the National Book Award for 2016, not to mention a choice for Oprah’s Book Club, The Underground Railroad has received plenty of attention and been reviewed by every prominent reviewer around. Some of the observations have been:

*The journey is more rocket ship than train, as Cora shoots through tunnels and we go with her. Each chapter leapfrogs over the next as we are yanked, jostled, dragged into lands beyond imagination. We see a kaleidoscope of macabre colours: brown skin charred black after being torched. The soil turning into red mud. Mouths sewn shut. This uncanny novel never attempts to deliver a message – instead it tells one of the most compelling stories I have ever read. (Cynthia Bond, The Guardian)

*One of the remarkable things about this novel is how Mr. Whitehead found an elastic voice that accommodates both brute realism and fablelike allegory, the plain-spoken and the poetic — a voice that enables him to convey the historical horrors of slavery with raw, shocking power. He conveys its emotional fallout: the fear, the humiliation, the loss of dignity and control. And he conveys the daily brutality of life on the plantation, where Cora is gang-raped, and where whippings (accompanied by scrubbings in pepper water to intensify the pain) are routine. (Michiko Kakutani, Books of The Times, New York Times)

*This is grim material to be sure, but hope animates the story, and Whitehead’s narrative is a fascinating lamination of disparate tones. Sentences seem to twist phrase by phrase — mocking, mourning, satirizing, celebrating. While describing the horror of the plantation, he also honors the slaves’ courage and relishes their wry humor. Elegant lawn parties are undercut by casual references to torture. But the ultimate effect of sabotaging our glossy history is to remind us that we stand upon “stolen bodies working stolen land.” (Ron Charles, Washington Post)

This was not an easy read. One of the problems with difficult emotional material in the hands of an outstanding writer such as Mr. Whitehead is that you feel every lash of the whip, every indignity, every heartbreak, just as the author intended you to do. But I will end by quoting Ron Charles one more time:

The canon of essential novels about America’s peculiar institution just grew by one.

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