This book had me hooked me page one, and that doesn’t happen often. Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante is the story of a very intelligent doctor named Jennifer White. She is 64 years-old, recently widowed, and in the early stages of dementia. But this is not a heavy drama dealing with the effects of this transition on her and her family, but actually an amazing kind of thriller. Jennifer’s best friend was recently found dead in her home, and Jennifer is a suspect. Yet because of the dementia, she truly doesn’t know what she may or may not have done. And as simple as it may seem, that’s the essence of the story. But the real beauty of this novel is two-fold. First, there are multiple players in the story, including Jennifer, her children, her deceased husband, her friend – the recently deceased Amanda – and Jennifer’s live-in caretaker Magdalena. Each of these characters contains backstories and entanglements that are only revealed as the story moves along, but you get a sense of something beneath the surface from the very beginning, so the novel really pulls you in page by page. The other stellar aspect of this book is the narrative voice, which belongs to Jennifer: the one with dementia. The structure of the book is such that Jennifer will say something – which is printed in normal font – then whenever someone else speaks, it is set off in italics. So the text looks something like a play. But Jennifer also keeps a notebook – at the request of those around her – to help remember and organize her thoughts, and for those around her to write notes in, as well, and these thoughts are also in italics. The problem is, some of the entries by her children and caregiver are signed, some aren’t, and she’s certainly beyond recognizing anyone’s handwriting. And then, as far as her own thoughts are concerned – because of the dementia – is the lucid Jennifer to be found in her notebook, or in her active mind? All of this adds a real sense of suspense to the book, and it’s present from page one. There’s even a curious sense of time in here, as many of the pieces in this book could be separated by hours or days; time just isn’t really a factor. As for LaPlante, she has written several books on creative writing and, with this being her first novel, I think she shows that she really has what it takes to create vivid, creative fiction. She is certainly an author to watch.
My entry into the world of E. Annie Proulx was not The Shipping News, or Close Range – her amazing collection of stories that includes Brokeback Mountain – but her 1996 novel Accordion Crimes. Having read most of her work, this novel is still my favorite, and a perfect encapsulation of Proulx’s gifts as a writer. Spanning almost 100 years, this is the story of an accordion, its maker, its musicians, and the world into which its music was sent. Proulx uses this instrument as her own instrument to relate the story of the immigrants who formed this country, their struggles, their achievements, their traditions. I’m surprised, thinking of this book, how much and how vividly I still remember many pieces of this story, though I read it almost 15 years ago. That kind of imprinting of the mind is something at which Proulx excels, with her signature writing style that is both crisp and clean while still remaining picturesque and evocative. Proulx has never been one for traditionally happy stories, favoring instead a more realistic and often stark world view, but while her sense of tragedy is often Shakespearian, all of her characters make their own choices, and flourish or flounder because of them. Proulx is exceptional at her craft, and if you haven’t read this fascinating tale, make room on your short list.
One type of book that merits continual re-reading is a great collection of stories. A perfect example of this is Dangerous Laughter: 13 Stories by Stephen Millhauser, and it proves – if nothing else – that Millhauser is truly a master of the written word. Some of you may have read Millhauser’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Martin Dressler, or any of his other 10 works but, if you haven’t, these stories are a perfect way to enter his world of unique and memorable characters. In this book, one of his recurring themes is that of a search for something almost unattainable, and the inevitable collapse or cold realizations that follows. The blurb on the book jacket actually says these stories are “united by their obsession with obsession.” These aren’t lurid tales, mind you, but perfectly wrought tales that somehow blend the harshly realistic with the borderline fantastic. There’s a story called “The Other Town” that tells of a small town that has, since it’s origin in the 1680’s, maintained an exact replica town – the other town – just through the woods. Why would anyone do this, you ask? The narrator’s theory is that it allows the residents freedoms they would never dare in their own town: they can climb the unfamiliar stairways of their neighbors, or enter secret rooms and basements. And the story being told is as unique as the story, itself – it doesn’t ask or answer lots of questions, it simply shows us this odd little world, leaving us to wonder about these people who’ve created “the other town.” You finish the story thinking about these characters, and the characters in all his stories, as if you’ve just read an intriguing essay, not a fictional story. The title story, “Dangerous Laughter,” tells of a group of teenagers who engage in a game that, when first described, sounds as if it is clearly something sexual. But while it isn’t sexual, it shares the same strange and seductive power over these teens. It’s about laughing, how it slowly builds, how it takes over and seems to jump from person to person, and just how far can it go? All of his premises are extraordinary, and every story is just as memorably designed and executed.
Every so often, a book appears that manage to both tell a story you haven’t heard before, and tell it so amazingly well that you can’t believe you haven’t heard it before. This is also one of the most well-written and readable books I’ve seen in a long time, and it makes you proud to know that people can work their way through unbelievable circumstances to get to where they deserve to be, while also making you a little depressed that people ever had to go through those circumstances, in the first place. This is The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, and it’s the story of the migration of millions of black southerners to northern cities, roughly dating from 1915 to 1970. What makes this book so readable and evocative is that she tells it through the stories of three specific people. Ida Mae Gladney, who moved from Mississippi to Chicago in 1937; George Starling, who left Florida for Harlem in 1945; and Robert Foster, who left Louisiana in 1953 to practice medicine, and eventually became the personal physician of Ray Charles. Each of these stories is highly moving and completely fascinating, and Wilkerson – who has previously received a Pulitzer Prize for journalism – perfectly balances her overarching story as she moves between each persons life. What she actually did was to almost make this a suspense story. Although each of her protagonists took different routes for different reasons and – most importantly – at different periods in time, we get a window into Ida Mae’s journey, then George, then Robert, then perhaps a brief narrative from the author where her voice steps in and we gain a little perspective on something we’ve just read, or a brief story of some other man or woman and the paths they chose. What’s really interesting is that Wilkerson was able to find three people so very different in their origins and eventual life stories, but the barriers and obstacles they faced were remarkably of the same cloth. Ida Mae and her husband barely afforded four tickets to leave the farm where they were sharecroppers; George was basically fleeing Florida for his life, on a train bound for New York, after taking part in an effort to get citrus grove owners to pay the workers a few more cents per box; and then we have Robert, who drove himself in his Buick Roadmaster from Louisiana to California, leaving behind a chance at a rather comfortable life, to be honest, but one that was nevertheless mired in its own kind of southern caste system, and he simply wanted the best life – period – for himself and his family, not the best life to be found in the Jim Crow south. Wilkerson clearly spent considerable time with these three people, and the care and heart she devoted to telling their stories exemplifies the entire idea of this Great Migration. It’s a fantastic book, rich in detail, history, and emotion, and I think everyone who reads this book will love it.
I have a feeling, and a hope, that many of you are already familiar with the brilliant and engaging works of Oliver Sacks. Best known for books like Awakenings, The Island of the Colorblind, and Musicophilia, Sacks is an amazingly curious and dedicated scientist with the writing skills of a top-notch journalist. All of his works are worth reading, but I thought I’d mention this particular title - Vintage Sacks - and also the series to which it belongs.
If you haven’t read Sacks before, this is a perfect place to start. Featuring excerpts from six of his books, this is a very accessible way to enter a world of the more fascinating and yet less-examined aspects of human existence. We learn about Ruth R. from Awakenings, and her sleeping sickness (as made famous by the film of that book), postlingual and prelingual deafness from Seeing Voices, and are given a peek into Sacks’ own childhood with the lovely section from his memoir Uncle Tungsten. This is a wonderful introduction to the work of a man whose curiosity and dedication to his field has truly added to the human experience. It is highly recommended.
Also, this entire series of books – Vintage… - is highly recommended as each volume is a kind of mini-anthology of some of the best writing you will ever read. The name has a dual meaning, as the books do compile “vintage” material, but they are also published by Vintage Publishing, the highly respected paperback branch of Random House. Other titles in the series feature the works of people such as Haruki Murakami, Vladimir Nabokov, Alice Munro, and Martin Amis, among others. Each volume is a roughly 200-page anthology of the best writing of some of the world’s best writers, and they are all worthy of your time.
This is not the typical “great book you may have missed,” though its subject matter certainly fits the bill. Why Read Moby-Dick? is a brief but brilliantly conceived testament by bestselling author Nathaniel Philbrick to the enduring merits and majesty of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Philbrick talks about Melville’s life and the process of craft that brought him to write Moby-Dick, and he explores the relationship between Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne that played such a vital role in Melville’s state of mind during this time in his life. Philbrick has also written a penetrating examination of not just the power of Moby-Dick as a narrative, but the scope of this novel as an analysis of the historical and cultural United States. What makes this book so special to me - however – is the fact that it not only serves its purpose as being a wonderful advertisement for reading one of the greatest novels of all-time, but that it explores in a very accessible way the importance and breadth of fiction. There are books that are much more than their basic plotline, much more than their superficial content. And I think that Philbrick’s decision to craft this as basically a kind of essay – it runs only 144 pages long and is the size of a mass-market paperback – helps foster his idea of the accessibility of great literature. Is everyone who reads this going to read, or re-read, Moby-Dick? Probably not. Yet perhaps those who choose not to follow Ahab and the great white whale may seek out some other long desired experience of literature and find the beauty in that work of art. Or maybe they’ll start to look behind the curtain a bit and read more critically the next time around. Whatever happens, whenever it happens, Nathaniel Philbrick has done the world another favor by continuing to produce insightful, historical work that helps us navigate the oceans of our collective past.
While I am often hesitant to feature books of poetry, I wanted to mention a novel that’s about poetry. This is The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker, an author best known for his novels Vox and The Fermata, and a very famous or infamous book among librarians called Double Fold. This book is one of the best books on the appreciation of poetry I’ve ever seen, and perhaps the reason it’s so good is that it’s not a traditional study of poetry, at all. The main character is named Paul Chowder, a moderately successful poet who is in the midst of writing an introduction to a new anthology of poetry. The problem is he simply cannot write. The frustration and intense writer’s block he’s suffereing has cost him his girlfriend as well as any sense of stability. This is one of those beautiful novels that isn’t about following a plot, so to speak, but the unveiling of a character and his place in his world. It also helps that it’s a brilliant look at poetry in its many styles and creators, and the way in which the lives of those poets are often of more interest and use than their actual poetry! I also read a wonderful review that made a point for how this is a perfect Nicholson Baker book. Baker is famous for the diversity of his work, never really repeating the subject matter or even genre of his previous books, but there is one consistent thread through all of his work, and it’s that he structures his main story very loosely, so he can veer off into any digression he chooses. He’s an incredibly intelligent and opinionated man, so his favorite style of writing seems one where he can show off his knowledge, humor, and incredibly skilled writing ability to best effect. In one instance, his choice of an egg salad sandwich for lunch launches him into thoughts of Tennyson – naturally – then he goes down to the creek behind his house to think about the nature of rhyme. This shifts into a section on how babies learn to use their tongue to suck milk, then make sounds, and then speak, all the while making sounds that rhyme with each other, or mimicking the sounds the baby hears from the people around it. And before you know it, you’ve learned some fundamental issues about rhyme and the familiarity of sound while he hasn’t really stated anything about poetry, specifically. But he’s made his case, nonetheless. It’s a remarkable way to tell a story, and a remarkable way to discover the art and craft of poetry without any of the tedium some people unfortunately associate with poetry. Baker’s work has always garnered great acclaim, and this title is no different. It’s a brief, lovely little diversion, and I really think you’ll enjoy it.
One of the greatest books I have ever read – meaning that its impact, tone, and content still resonate with me 20 years on – is the first book by Donna Williams, entitled Nobody Nowhere: The Extraordinary Autobiography of an Autistic (1992). What was initially so fascinating about this book was that most works dealing with autism are written by doctors, specialists, or parents discussing the issues involved with raising autistic children. But here we have a personal story, painfully honest and open, recounting Donna’s “story of two battles, a battle to keep out “the world” and a battle to join it.”
Donna was born in Australia in 1963, and was misdiagnosed by doctors and mistreated by many in her family, for years. The word “autism” wasn’t even mentioned to her until she was 25 years old. That she was able to advance in the world, at all, let alone go to college, live on her own, publish multiple books, and become a speaker and advocate for autism, is stunning. One of the passages that sticks in my mind is when an adult Donna visits a school for autistic children. She watches the “teachers” – the professionals - basically shouting at this one young girl, trying to “get through to her,” but Donna saw something else; she saw a part of herself. She wound up interacting with this girl in a probably inconsequential way, to outward eyes, but what she provided was an invaluable connection, and a tool to help that child find her center in a world that constantly overloaded her senses.
This is truly an exceptional book, as are the two that followed, Somebody Somewhere, and Like Color to the Blind. Yes, they are about autism, yes they are about Donna’s personal journey and struggle, but all of these books resonate on a universal level with the attempts we all make to find our center, and make a balanced movement through life.
Although his legacy to the general public stems more from his personality than his creative output, Truman Capote remains – sentence for sentence – one of the greatest American writers. His stories, plays, novella (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), and his famous non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, are all intricate and beautifully crafted works that demand to be read multiple times. Perhaps his most striking creation, however, is his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948).
This is a highly autobiographical novel – published when Capote was 23 - telling the story of Joel Knox, a 13-year old boy sent to stay with his rather peculiar family in Alabama. Truman spent much of his youth in Alabama – similarly placed in the care of close relatives as both of his parents were off pursuing their own interests (they did so separately, though they were not yet divorced). The themes of loneliness, trying to find one’s place in the world, and Joel’s search for clarity in his developing awareness of his homosexuality, make for a delicate and almost insular book that is nonetheless a universal statement on the particular combination that is adolescence and alienation from love. Truman’s words and phrases are among the finest I have ever read, and I can feel the heat of the afternoon and the heaviness of the curtains from inside the darkened rooms of that Alabama house, even now, years after I last read this book.
If, somehow, you have not read Truman Capote before, this is a wonderful place to start. If you simply haven’t read this specific book before, there’s no time like the present.
I was surprised last week, though not shocked, to see that Michael Brandman - producer and co-writer of the Jesse Stone television films starring Tom Selleck - had written the first new Jesse Stone novel since Robert Parker’s passing in January 2010. It’s called Killing the Blues, and it’s not what I’m here to suggest, as I haven’t read it as yet, but it got me thinking about how much I’ve enjoyed the Stone series. After years of 1st person storytelling with Spenser, Parker created his other, great male protagonist in Jesse Stone. And while Stone was certainly different than Spenser (though still similar), the greatest change was that these books are written in the 3rd person. This gave Parker much greater leeway in his storytelling, and I dare say he created a more fully crafted character in Jesse Stone. Where Spenser is essentially the perfect man (in Parker’s mind), Stone is a recovering alcoholic whose “recovering” status is often in question; his career as a ball player fell apart; he’s been fired as a cop; his marriage failed, yet he can’t seem to break the tie between himself and his ex-wife. Yet, this is a Parker novel, after all, so he does manage to seduce or be seduced by most of the women who come within 10 feet of him, but I’ve always felt a connection to Jesse that was just as strong as my connection to Spenser. So, if you’ve never read Parker (how is that possible?), or you never warmed up to Spenser and his idealized self and girlfriend, try the Jesse Stone novels that begin with Night Passage. Parker may not be around to craft more of these tales, but we can relish the nine he left behind.