Posts tagged ‘New York City’

A full length mirror – “We are not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas

Unknown“We are not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas, Published in 2014 

This is Matthew’s first novel and it is quite a feat.  It led me through such a range of emotions and made me want to hug my husband and my children repeatedly.  I will throw out this warning – this is not the book to read if you are going through a tough time.  While it is beautifully done, some novels are best saved for our healthier mental health days – this is one of those books.

Eileen is born in New York to two Irish immigrants.  They are both terrible alcoholics and she spends much of her childhood picking up after them both physically and emotionally.  As Eileen sees more and more of the city around her, she begins to imagine her future – one with a husband and a house all her own with a career that is not cleaning up other people’s messes. When she meets Ed, he is the perfect fit for the future is sure she deserves. He is a responsible, gentle, open hearted man with a successful science career ahead of him.  And so she marries him.

They buy a house, not the house of her dreams but still a house.  They have a child, though Eileen wanted more originally it is just one son, Connell.  Ed decides to stay a professor at a community college instead of taking other more prestigious jobs, which is not what Eileen wants but at least he is working.  And this is Eileen’s life.  Everything is fine, but it is not necessarily what she dreamed it would be.

As Ed and Eileen reach middle-age something starts to change with Ed.  He begins coming home each day from work, sitting for endless hours listening to records.  Then he begins listening to the records with head phones on, as if disconnecting from everyone.  And things begin to slip, his appearance, his temper, and the dynamic of the family begins to change.  Eileen is then stuck in that place we all get to, when we realize that what we had was maybe not what we dreamed but was really all we needed.  By then it is too late to cherish it and life for Eileen is upended as she tries to determine what is happening to Ed while pretending that everything is normal and going to be okay.

The middle of this book is hard. Eileen and Ed fight dreadfully for quite a lot of pages. Ed is terribly cruel but Eileen is so harsh it is cringe worthy.  And the fact that Thomas can capture this back and forth so beautifully is a great credit to him. But for me it took too long to get to the point where Eileen finally determines what is happening to Ed.  It was painfully drawn out.  But in truth, this is an accurate depiction of what this kind of decent into mental darkness looks like. It is long, scary and lonely for everyone involved.

There are so many truths in this book.  And those truths are terrible to examine, not unlike standing naked in front of a full length mirror looking at all of your defects.  We are many pieces of different things but we often define ourselves in ways that are not based in the core of who we actually are. Money, status, careers these are not the core of who we are really, they are manifestations.  And our defects are large.  When those around us need us most we will disappoint both them and ourselves.  We will be harsh and cruel when love is all that is needed.  We will lose patience and miss important moments of our lives in that impatience.  And we will find ourselves years later sitting on a front stoop somewhere reflecting and wishing for that simple day that seemed like nothing at the time but was everything.  But what comes from that reflection is what is important and this is how we come back to ourselves and move on.

“When life seems too cruel, and there seems too little love in it. When you feel you have failed. When you don’t know what the point is. When you cannot go on. I want you to draw strength from me then. I want you to remember how much I cherished you, how I lived for you. When the world seems full of giants who dwarf you, when it feels like a struggle just to keep your head up, I want you to remember there is more to live for than mere achievement. It is worth something to be a good man. It cannot be worth nothing to do the right thing.”

Other reviews to check out:

A Bibliophile’s Reverie

Rhapsody in Books

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January 9, 2015 at 8:53 pm Leave a comment

Sometimes Disappointment comes in Threes

The beloved author is quite the phenomenon. They publish a book, and there they are on NPR, in Huffington Post, in the New York times, suddenly selling books hand over fist.  But along with that belovedness comes expectations (*cue music* She’s got high hopes, she’s got high hopes).  If the author gets all this attention shouldn’t the writing be at the very least good? Enter three books, all by the beloved, all unfortunately a bit of a disappointment.

1. “The Circle” by Dave Eggers –  Mae is that young twenty-something who lands a job with the premiere West coast social media company, the Circle.  Very quickly she turns over all  of her personal information (medical history, financial information) and becomes one of fold.  The eventual result is that privacy becomes a thing of the past. Mae becomes completely transparent with her life videoed all the time, sent to a live stream for the world to see.  The Circle begins working on videoing everything in the world with tiny, unnoticeable cameras. Want to know if the surf is up? Check the live video feed. The Circle begins a project to imbed GPS locators in children so that no one will ever wonder where they kids are. But then when they become adults what happens to their privacy with these GPS locators? Eggars commentary is interesting and it is the new if a tree falls in the woods – if something happens in your life and it is not on the internet for everyone to see, does it matter? This novel was interesting, but it takes the long way to bring it home.  A lot of it could have been edited down and still the point would have been made. Do I really need to read about every screen and exchange Mae has on her computer, I am going with no.  Eggers may be above the editing fray (does that happen?) but I would have loved this book a lot more if it were more succinct.

General-Tom-Thumb2. “The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb” by Melanie Benjamin – Much to my surprise, there really was a Tom Thumb (his real name was Charles Stratton).  He was a tiny man who traveled the world in the mid-1800s as one of the spectacles for Mr. Phineas Barnum’s traveling curiosities.  This story is told by Vinnie also a small person who, as the title indicates, eventually marries Tom Thumb. The two travel the world and have a wedding covered by all of the major newspapers.  They meet the British royals and hobnob with high society. It is both an amazing story and a heartbreaking one.  Always having people gawking and staring at you because you are different is a harsh reality.  The fact that they were able to make money off of their “oddity” is both savvy and tragic.  Benjamin highlights all of this very well and truly the topic is fascinating. Where Benjamin failed for me is that Vinnie, this woman who defies all odds and becomes this rich and famous woman, was just not likable.  I found her a bit trite, conceited and condescending.  For that reason alone I really cared a whole lot less about what happened to her.  It is still worth a read if the topic interests you but then you might as well grab some nonfiction on the topic – because there is plenty out there.

3. “Still Life with Bread Crumbs” by Anna Quindlen – This book is mentioned everywhere you turn and I caved. There it was on the library shelf so I grabbed it.  Out of the three on this list, it is certainly the best and I am hesitant to include it here. But it was a bit disappointing. Rebecca Winter is a divorcee in her early 60s. In her younger years she was an extremely successful photographer. Finding her career in a slump and her finances in even more of a slump, Rebecca rents out her Manhattan apartment and rents a small home in a small town in upstate New York.  The town has all of the quaint charm of a small country town and all of the quirkiness as well.  Predictably, Rebecca finds everything she needs to make a fresh start (and the music swells).  This novel has no surprises and it has several cliches. What everyone loves about the novel is that Rebecca is not the beautiful twenty-something, she is 60 and has lived.  Why writing such a character is a novelty is beyond me, because a character like Rebecca has so many interesting dimensions because she is not a clean slate. She has experience and stories.  But I don’t think that is enough to make this book as amazing as claimed.  It is really still a lovely summer read.

 

I am sure even with these minimal disappointments, I will likely be suckered in next time these authors hit the book reviews. But here’s hoping the acclaim is a bit more deserving next time – and honestly, in all fairness everyone gets a one off.   A little disappointment never killed anyone.

 

 

July 27, 2014 at 12:19 pm Leave a comment

Beauty wedded to meaning – “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch (1654), showing Fabritius' use o...

The Goldfinch (1654), showing Fabritius’ use of cool colour harmonies, delicate lighting effects, and a light background (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt, Published in 2013

I am awestruck by this novel. It is harsh and tough to read in parts but so amazingly beautiful.  It is long (700+ pages) but worth every page. And the last twenty pages are written so poignantly – I promise it is worth the investment.  I have been wondering how I should talk about this book, because I try hard on this blog not to have spoilers. But I  have read reviews on this book and it seems that they all share the same facts so I don’t think I am giving anything away.

Theo, at thirteen, lives with his beautiful mother in New York. His father, an abusive drunk, left them months before with no forwarding information or money to survive.  On an ordinary day in May, Theo and his mother are on the way to meet with the principal of his school – he has made some missteps and is being suspended – when his mother decides they will stop on the way to the art museum to view a painting she has always loved, Carel Fabritius‘ “The Goldfinch.”  And it is then that ordinary day that becomes a “rusty nail on the calendar.” The museum is bombed and Theo finds himself lying in the rumble next to an elderly gentleman who gives him an address, a ring and points to “The Goldfinch” as though he would like Theo to take it. And he does. Theo, dizzy with a concussion and ears ringing, helplessly watches the old man die and then walks out a back door of the museum with the painting.  What follows is an agonizing couple of days waiting for his mother to come home. Of course she never does.

He then is temporarily placed with the Barbour family, the affluent friends of his parents.   While there he finds the address he was given by the elderly gentleman and meets Hobie, who restores antique furniture.  He also meets Pippa, who had caught his eye in the museum before the explosion. She too has suffered greatly from the explosion and Theo finds their connection gives him the first peace he has known since he lost his mother.  Only then his father makes an odd and untimely appearance – taking him back to his McMansion in Las Vegas in a suburb of vacant houses.  Theo’s father is as troubled as he always was but now has made a living (or maybe not) as  professional gambler.  His girlfriend is a bar manager hopped up on cocaine.  Theo finds himself alone.  Until he meets a boy named Boris, who has lived all over the world and is equally alone.  They become fast friends and he becomes one of the few constants in Theo’s life, apart from the painting.  And Theo’s life continually changes but always with the painting in tow or close.  It is, in a way, the thing that moors him to his mother, to his loss, to his sanity.   It defines him but it also weighs him down, he, like the goldfinch in the painting, is chained to his decision on that fateful day in the museum.

I will not rehash more of the storyline, there is a lot to rehash.  And I would hate to give away too much. But Tartt has an understanding of youth and art, the relationship between beauty and loss, that is stunning.  She is able to grasp that thing that makes us so needful of beauty and explain it to the reader – “images that strike the heart and set it blooming like a flower, images that open some much, much larger beauty that you can spend your whole life looking for and never find.” Perhaps more importantly Tartt understands that the objects we love or even hate but hold onto have meaning often because of something else.  And that we do not love objects merely because they are beautiful.

“The pursuit of beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, that beauty has to be wedded to something meaningful.” 

We hold onto things, we hold onto memories, even painful ones, because leaving them behind means we will lose the beauty of our past or even our present.  Sometimes we hold onto objects because we have nothing else and life keeps moving us on to the next thing when all we want is to stay.  Tartt wants us to understand that life is tough, it throws everything at you. It is painful and anyone who tells you differently is lying to you and themselves.  But beauty and love, they are what make us get up each day and face the music.

“That life- whatever else it is- is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it.  That maybe even if we’re not always glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open.  And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.” 

Other reviews to check: 

December 15, 2013 at 12:44 pm 6 comments

It is all in how you tell it – “Memories of a Marriage” by Louis Begley

“Memories of a Marriage” By Louis Begley, Published in 2013 

I loved this look into the marital troubles of an upperclass New York socialite.  It is hard to put my finger on exactly what I liked about this book. I am pretty sure it is what a lot of us love about reading the gossip magazines about celebrities – the train wreck is hard to not watch.  And when the story is written by Louis Begley it will be a well told train wreck.

The narrator is a past his prime writer and widower, Phillip, who, while taking an intermission from the Opera one night, runs into his former acquaintance/one night stand, socialite Lucy de Bourgh.  It is awkward, she is not really as interesting as she once was and neither are as young and shiny as they were in the 1950s when they first met.  Phillip has not really16085480 seen Lucy since her husband, Thomas Snow, left her, fairly quickly remarried and passed away (run over by both a motor boat and the waterskier it was pulling).  Lucy quickly catches on that Phillip may be less than thrilled to see her but invites him to her apartment for dinner later in the week.  Phillip having no excuse that he thinks would be believeable finds himself at Lucy’s apartment where she begins to tell the tale of her woeful marriage to Thomas.  Phillip finds himself drawn into the story, particularly Lucy’s narrative, enhanced by quite a few highballs, of how cruel and subversive Thomas was.

Phillip begins to dig into Lucy and Thomas’ marriage finding that there are always two sides to how a marriage goes terribly wrong.  While he tries to figure out what truth is in the story-telling he also returns to the country home where he and his wife had spent many happy summers.  The parallel between his fear that the story of his happy marriage will die with him is a beautiful background to the painful story of the de Bourgh-Snow alliance.

Begley’s study of relationships is an interesting one.  We all have our versions of our bad relationships.  The person who walks out on us must be evil, unforgivably cruel and callous.  Of course we eventually come to the point of self-examination – wondering what we did wrong, how it could have been better or successful. Often this self-awareness is accompanied by ice cream, in pint sizes.

Quite differently, privileged Lucy is not bothered by any such self-revelation.  She instead loses any of her carefree, energetic self to a bitter, angry determination to remain in her version of the truth.  It is graceless and isolating.  Luckily, Begley doesn’t leave her there though. He gives her a sympathetic edge so that while the reader loves to hate her, the reader also can’t help but hate that you kind of feel bad for her.  That kind of complexity makes reading fascinating.  Truth is overrated anyway.

October 13, 2013 at 8:12 pm Leave a comment

Anyone for a cocktail? – “Rules of Civility” by Amor Towles

“Rules of Civility” by Amor Towles, Published in 2011 

So this read was quite unlike my last one.  “Rules of Civility” is just plain fun and though a bit mired down with “meaning” it does a good job of transporting the reader to New York City in the late 1930s.

Katey and her roommate are celebrating New Year’s Eve at a jazz club in 1938 when they meet Tinker Grey, an attractive and rich banker.   Their lives intertwine and then ultimately change when the three are in a car accident together.  While Katey tries to navigate these friendships after the accident, she finds herself in a new job, with new rich friends, and a seemingly unusual drive to make something of herself. And of course, as in all novels like this, not everyone or everything is exactly what it seems. Drunken, laughing desperation is always so easily mistaken for happiness.

Towles uses various art forms to define his characters – what they are reading, what music they enjoy, the art they make, the clothes they wear – all to show the reader exactly what each character is made of and perhaps even who they destined to be.  Towles’ narrator, Katey, is very likeable and the characters that surround her only enhance her appeal to the reader.  There is a whole a lot of drinking, wonderful restaurants, fabulous clothes and fun parties.  In parts this reminded me of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” with everything lavish and spectacularly overdone while the characters suffer their own lonely fates. All through-out, Towles touches on the issues of feminism, fatalism, classism, war, economics and fate.

But understand – this novel doesn’t get bogged down in its own sense of importance. Towles writes with a light touch and for that I was grateful though it could be a bit disappointing if you are looking for more depth. If you do read this book, please, have a martini while you read it because this pregnant lady so wished she could have.  And if you can have a martini in a cafe in New York City while reading this book, then my friend, you are really on to something.

A gin martini, with olive, in a cocktail glass.

Image via Wikipedia

Other reviews to check out:

March 14, 2012 at 9:10 pm 5 comments

“There are still so many stories to be told” – “Let the Great World Spin” by Colum McCann

Let the Great World Spinby Colum McCann, Published in 2009

Cover of "Let the Great World Spin: A Nov...

Cover of Let the Great World Spin: A Novel

This is the book to read, if you have not already gotten to it.  I will say around page 200 I felt like I was losing my focus but then the book picked up again and it was well worth moving past my lazy reading moment.

In 1974 Phillippe Petit walked a tight rope between the Twin Towers in New York City. McCann uses this true event to propel the fictional stories of his characters in New York City. Each chapter is its own vignette with its own narrator, some told in third person, some in first person.  Though each story seems insulated as you continue to read each character becomes connected to the other characters in the book making a beautiful patchwork of stories and experiences.  And each character is somehow affected by Phillipe Petit’s tight rope walk.

The stories are all touching but what makes McCann’s writing so profound is his ability to jump from prostitutes to Park Avenue housewives, from the lost of a child to the loss a brother, from death to the embracing of life.  He deftly moves through classes, races and gender with an amazing flow and amazing skill.

All of the characters walk a tight rope, as I guess we all do – that straight line of hope that we will be better, be great, or just be true to our goals.  And each character falls off, some landing in a better place than they plan and some not landing at all.  But they each touch the lives of the other characters in a way that makes the reader reflect on how maybe it is not important that we become who we dream we will be. But perhaps it is more important that we just do the best we can and help others, whose lives we touch, reach their dreams instead.  And if they fail while trying then at least we were there to give them hope – maybe that same hope we had lost for ourselves.  Then our most important role becomes standing below, staring up at the towers, and cheering our tight-rope walker on.

                    “The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.” 

For other reviews on this novel please check these out:

For more on Phillippe Petit please check out the website for the documentary “Man on a Wire.” 

December 11, 2011 at 5:22 pm 5 comments


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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.

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