Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Book of Other People

This collection of captivating and amusing short stories is so great that I think you will all read it in one sitting. Or standing up in the bookstore like I did. However you read it, you really must! Editor Zadie Smith, author of On Beauty and White Teeth (which you can find a great review of right here, thanks to Lisa), asked 22 authors and artists to invent a character. Seems a simple and obvious task for authors of fiction, right? Well, the resulting collection is far from predictable and ordinary; it is remarkable! The stories, each named for the invented character, are both familiar and surprising, hilarious and heartbreaking.

Most stories are wonderful but there are a few that I think are outstanding: Jonathan Lethem’s "Perkus Tooth," a critique of critics; Aleksander Hemon’s "The Liar"; Miranda July’s quirky "Roy Spivey" is just one of her new short stories that should not be missed; Jonathan Safran Foer’s "Rhoda," a very short, stream-of-consciousness monologue from a Jewish grandmother – it’s an absolute gem; "Gideon," ZZ Packer’s gut-wrenching story of loneliness; Zadie Smith’s sympathetic story of family and loss, "Hanwell Snr"; and Dave Eggers’ "Theo," a fairy-tale of a giant who falls in love.

There are many more stories and even a few graphic-short stories (Chris Ware, Nick Hornby, Daniel Clowe). Each author’s voice is unique from the next and each of their characters are extraordinary and flawed and endearing in a much different way from the character that came before. Most impressively, each author approaches “character,” personhood, and character development differently, which makes this collection all the more thoughtful, wise and fascinating.

Plus all proceeds of this book benefit 826 New York, a literacy/creative writing project for youngsters in urban schools – I’m a tutor in the Boston center and I tell ya, it’s a good cause!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Atonement, by Ian McEwan, is about a crime and its consequences over the course of six decades. It's the mid-thirties, and a precocious young girl stands on the threshold of adolescence with all its inner drama and self-absorption. On a languid summer day, Briony glimpses strange incidents and misunderstood intimacies between her 20-something sister and her friend, Robbie. Late that night, someone is attacked, and Briony’s overactive imagination and overindulged self-importance send an innocent man to prison, destroying two lives as his wrongful conviction breaks up a love affair just as it’s begun.

Those events make up only a portion of Atonement: the rest is the aftermath. Five years farther down the path to adulthood, Briony realizes what she’s done and gives up college to become a nurse tending soldiers wounded in WWII to atone for the damage she caused as a child. There's also a long, intense section following Robbie's tour of duty in France—he joins the army because anything, including war, is better than the "daily stupidity" and claustrophobia of prison. Briony's real atonement, however, turns out to be not so much the stint with nursing—it comes decades later and I won’t say how because that would ruin McEwan’s surprising if somewhat contrived ending.

Atonement is a compelling story and fantastic book, complex and beautifully written, with a psychological acuity to which few living novelists can lay claim. In the first section, the author captures with such clarity the child's emotions and motives and her muddled understanding of adults' complex emotional lives. That first section pulses with heat and light; the descriptions are lush, unexpected, beautiful. Later the writing becomes more gritty (what with the war) but no less amazing. Throughout the novel, McEwan's writing is vibrant, precise, wrenching and intense.

To sum up: The movie was good, the book is great.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Bound on Earth

I just finished a fantastic new LDS novel: Bound on Earth, by Angela Hallstrom. With honest, lucid prose, Hallstrom offers the best, most real, picture of contemporary Mormon life I've seen. It is a moving multi-generational story of one family drawing together through all their trials and foibles. Rather than centering her story on conversions, Hallstrom centers it on endurance. The complex, well-realized characters do not find simplistic answers to deeply troubling challenges; instead, there is often just simple, daily, difficult faith. They earn our compassion and teach us much about how to live well as flawed humans in a flawed world. Hallstrom gives us all this in just under 200 pages of tightly focused moments, deftly shifting from one time and perspective to another. This quietly affecting family portrait left me more compassionate toward myself and those I am bound to.

P.S. I'm so excited to get the word out on this book I even posted this review on amazon. :-)