Last Fortnight’s Reading: April 23-May 6

Looking for the Gulf Motel, by Richard Blanco: I read most of these poems out loud, in the car with my family on the way to my grandfather’s funeral, and was surprised to find myself tearing up a bit. Mr. Blanco (the 2013 inaugural poet) grew up in the Cuban exile community in Miami, and the poems in Looking for the Gulf Motel speak movingly of his family and childhood memories. If you’re looking for a smooth-reading collection with a strong sense of place, I highly recommend it.

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill: This very short, almost pointillist novel anatomizes a disintegrating marriage, and it’s particularly sharp on motherhood. Recommended.

Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill: This 1988 collection, Ms. Gaitskill’s first, could have been written yesterday; its themes of discontent, isolation, and desire still resonate. I’m not sure there’s a single likable character in the book, which makes it simultaneously fearless and disquieting. The writing is very, very good, but I can’t say I’ll come back to this one.

Loop of Jade, by Sarah Howe: One of the best collections I’ve read this year (and I’ve read some great ones). I loved Ms. Howe’s use of form, her facility with language, the sheer variety in Loop of Jade. Ms. Howe was born in Hong Kong and lives in the UK (her father is British, her mother Chinese), and Loop of Jade explores her heritage through narrative and lyric poems. Exquisite, and highly recommended.

Trajectory, by Richard Russo: After last year’s disappointing Everybody’s Fool, I was wary about this collection of four stories/novellas (three can be found elsewhere; one is brand new). However, Mr. Russo is back to form here. Particularly affecting are “Horseman” (a college professor confronts a cheating student and her own past) and “Milton and Marcus,” which features thinly-veiled portraits of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Recommended.

Three Recommendations Based on Sara Majka’s Cities I’ve Never Lived In

IMG_6462Sara Majka’s Cities I’ve Never Lived In* is a collection of stories profoundly concerned with isolation, so much so that at times I felt almost too distant from the action and the characters. Still, I was impressed by these glimpses of other lives, and impressed by Ms. Majka’s ability to seamlessly blend fiction and autobiography. The narrator of many of these stories is divorced and rather adrift; she collects stories as a way to connect. The people we read about are in many cases scraping by: a man who abandons his daughter in northern Maine when he can’t find work in their town; an artist who sells a piece he doesn’t have any right to sell; an grandfather looking after his grandkids while their mother works a ferry ride away. (It’s not a coincidence that islands feature prominently in the collection).

There are unsettling stories. People go missing; a whole island disappears; a young woman drowns. I sometimes felt as if I were reading through a mist, that Ms. Majka’s simple but subtle prose had lulled me into thinking I could easily understand these characters and these places. But that wasn’t the case.

I thought that instead of an extended review of Cities I’ve Never Lived In (you can read one here and another here), I’d try to give you a sense of it by recommending (somewhat) related works.

IMG_6534If you were to pair Cities I’ve Never Lived In with a painter, the immediate choice would be Edward Hopper. Though best known for Nighthawks, I’ve always preferred his stark New England Landscapes (like Hills, South Truro, held at the Cleveland Museum of Art) and his portraits of women in isolation, like Morning Sun, held at the Columbus Museum of Art).




Richard Russo’s 2002 collection The Whore’s Child and Other Stories came to mind when I read Ms. Majka’s descriptions of life in economically depressed Maine. Mr. Russo is a chronicler of small-town New England and New York (state); if you liked the settings of Cities I’ve Never Lived In and are looking for stories with a different feel (more drama, varied narrators), you might give this collection a try.

And here’s the oddball of the bunch: Lost in Translation, the 2003 movie set in Tokyo that stars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. Chances are you’ve seen it—I don’t know many people who haven’t—but the main narrator of Cities I’ve Never Lived In makes me think of Scarlett Johansson’s wandering and wistful Charlotte, and both works are explorations of loneliness and the impermanence of connection.

If you’ve read Cities I’ve Never Lived In, what other books or artwork did you connect it with?

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.


Recovery Reading

One of the delights  of our wedding day — which, yes, took place at a bookstore/restaurant — was working with our wonderful photographers, Matt and Paulette, who are friends of the best man and all-around great human beings.

Around Christmas 2012, Matt was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease that led to renal failure, and so Paulette orchestrated the search to find a kidney for Matt. Amazingly, it turns out that Matt’s best friend John is a match, and the transplant happened this past week — a great success! (So very happy to write that sentence!)

Excellent people that they are, Matt and Paulette asked that anyone who felt so inclined send cards, notes, books, movies, etc. for John (c/o Paulette & Matt) during his long recovery at home, so that he feels showered with love and thanks. It’s a fabulous idea, especially since there are many, many people out there grateful for his generous act of friendship and love.

We’re two of them, of course. We don’t know John that well, but we do know that he likes to read. And having been hospital-bound myself a few times, I know just how the right book can distract you from, well, not being well. (Turns out that the stellar biography of George Washington is not as effective as Thisbe Nissen’s short stories. Thanks again, Amy!)

So what books to you send to a wonderful guy who did this incredibly generous thing but who you don’t know that well? Here’s hoping the three we sent are good choices.

photo (99)Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo. One of my all-time top-ten favorite novels, Nobody’s Fool is the engrossing and hilarious story of down-but-not-quite out Sully as he goes about his business in a tiny town in upstate New York. A few lines can’t do justice to how great this book is.



The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy. Ok, haven’t read this one, but that’s part of why we picked it. We figured John might have read The Road or No Country for Old Men, but this is one Cormac McCarthy novel that’s flown a bit under the radar. Plus, there’s nothing like McCarthy-esque violence to take one’s mind off post-op pain, right?

photo (96)The Road to Burgundy by Ray Walker.  This is a light and cheerful memoir, as noted in my review, and we figured it would be perfect pre-nap reading. A little escapism goes a long way, though we hope John won’t pack up and move to France . . .



Hope we made the right calls, and we’re wishing John a speedy recovery. If you’ve found a particular book distracting or cheering during a recovery, please share in the comments! And if you’d like to send something John’s way, let me know and I’ll message you the address.

Other ways to send books to patients: 

Donate books directly to your local hospital (call or email first)

Reach Out And Read (link to Boston Children’s Hospital program, but it’s nationwide)

Books for America 

Have another idea? Let me know and I’ll add it to the list!

Recommended Reading: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon

My copy of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh includes an interview with Michael Chabon, in which he talks about the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Philip Roth on this, Mr. Chabon’s first published novel. While I haven’t read enough Roth to comment on the connection (truly, one of his novels was quite enough for me, though you may, if you choose, think me a Philistine), The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, without being at all similar in plot or setting, did indeed seem caught up in the summer-long wave of events that is The Great Gatsby; the last page of the novel, especially, savored strongly of the green light.

Art Bechstein, the narrator, spends his first post-collegiate summer in Pittsburgh looking for adventures and answers with a new, wildly interesting set of friends.

That’s not a great summary, but really, how do you summarize a novel? I’ve always found it tremendously difficult, and the stress that results from worrying about what to leave out and what to highlight makes me thirst for a tall gin and tonic.

But I digress.

This is my third Chabon novel. I very much enjoyed Wonder Boys, which I like to read in conjunction with Straight Man, by Richard Russo, my number-one contemporary lit-fic squeeze, and I recommend Mr. Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to just about everyone. It was the first-year summer reading at Ohio State (Go Bucks!) when I was a freshman (lo these many years ago), and it was an awesome pick.

Reading a first novel after reading those polished, longer pieces was delightful; I saw later characters germinating, saw the beginnings of Mr. Chabon’s wit and breadth of view. It wasn’t jarring (the way that reading The Comedy of Errors after reading King Lear is almost terrifying), but rather gave me a chance to appreciate the author’s mature prose in light of his youthful exuberance, without denigrating either.

A few other stray thoughts: I’m a sucker for kind but clear-eyed descriptions of north-easternly cities that aren’t New York (hailing as I do from Cleveland by way of Buffalo), and Mr. Chabon’s Pittsburgh is a character in this novel. The first-person narration works, and the slight departure from it in the penultimate chapter made me sit up and take notice of what was happening, without fanfare or fireworks.

It’s a fine bildungsroman with charm and verve, and it comes highly recommended.

By the way, I hear there’s a film version, and that you shouldn’t see it.