So Much to Read
"A man ought to read just as inclination leads him, for what he reads as a task will do him little good."—Samuel Johnson

20 March 2017
A Good School
Richard Yates

I quite enjoyed this little book, perhaps because of its unadorned style. It's about a boys' prep school, set in the early 1940s, just as the United States is entering the war. Dorset, founded by an eccentric older woman and struggling to stay afloat, attracts boys who wouldn't quite fit in elsewhere. The novel offers glimpses into the lives of several of the boys, faculty members, staff, administrators, and families that have ended up at the school. It's clearly autobiographical, and it's interesting to see how the Yates character, a budding writer, is unflattering yet sympathetic. I did have trouble keeping everyone straight, (Gaines, Haskell, Jennings, etc., all white teenaged boys, all in uniform) and the hazing descriptions made me glad I was never a boy. Some of the most tragic events at first seem to be related matter-of-factly, even hastily, but there are dark shadows rippling under the surface.

15 March 2017
The Stranger in the Woods:The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit
Michael Finkel

Chris Knight was 20 years old in 1986 when he drove his car into a Maine forest, left the keys on the dashboard, and set off into the woods with the clothes on his back. He was extremely adept and resourceful, but he quickly realized that he wasn't going to survive long on what he could find and make. He felt strongly that stealing was wrong, but never having been comfortable around other people, his determination to protect his total solitude came first. So for the next 27 years he regularly broke into cabins in the area, hauling back food and supplies to maintain his hidden waterproof home. His discipline and skills are remarkable, and it was hardly an easy life: for fear of being detected, he never built a fire. In the coldest nights he would wake himself up at two in the morning and leave his sleeping bag to walk around to keep from freezing to death. The surrounding community, who lived with the mysterious trespasser for decades, seems evenly divided among those who admire this exceptionally careful and almost considerate thief, and those who resent the peace of mind he stole from them along with their potato chips, batteries, and paperback novels. Finkel supplements the story with a brief history of hermitry and references to the modern "hermit community" (it's mostly found online, naturally), and talks admiringly of those who pursue idleness and reject a culture of hamster-wheel busyness. Okay, but where did everything that Knight used to survive and thrive come from? The stolen Land's End jeans, Game Boys, and Rubbermaid totes? Other people, cooperating with others and toiling away at their jobs. Knight does not excuse his crimes at all; it is others who do that. And perhaps that is his contribution to society, to be a myth come alive. It seems a bit sad that a determined game warden finally caught him, as it's conceivable that he would have survived several more years and passed quietly away, swallowed by the woods, without ever having been discovered. But then we would never have known his amazing story.

12 March 2017
All Grown Up
Jami Attenberg

This is less a novel than a series of vignettes, skipping back and forth in time over Andrea Bern's life, focusing mainly on her thirties in New York City. She works in advertising, having started out as a painter and rather quickly given it up, with regret. She hooks up with various men and has no intention of getting married or having children ("because marriage sounds like a goddamn job, and why would I want another one of those?"). She drinks and uses drugs more often than she'd like, and has an uneasy relationship with her mother and brother. Attenberg gets a lot right, such as the garbage women have to put up with and the conflict between making art and making a living, but there's not enough balancing it out. Something must keep Andrea going. Andrea even says, comparing her life to a wealthy married friend's, "...mine is a stew, a juicy, sloppy mess of ingredients and feelings and emotions, too much salt and spice, too much anxiety, always a little dribbling down the front of my shirt. But have you tasted it? Have you tasted it. It's delicious." I believe her. But I want to see more of the delicious part.

12 March 2017
Min Jin Lee

I've never been one for historical fiction, and will pretty much reject out of hand anything described as "sweeping", but Lee's first novel was excellent so I made sure to check this one out. It's nearly 500 pages but I devoured it in three days. It's the story of a Korean family, beginning in the early twentieth century when a young girl notices a mysterious older man in the market. This sets the course for the family's life, leading to their exile in Japan and to extremes of both good and bad fortune. Lee has a straight, unadorned writing style that I love and that works well here, as the poverty, racism, and oppression the family suffers speak powerfully for themselves. In the same way, I really like how Lee uses non-English words without translation. She trusts the reader to figure them out from context, or to look them up if necessary, as her writing has no room for any excess. It takes a lot of work to make something so spare and yet so rich.

12 March 2017
On Second Thought
Kristan Higgins

It's been a real pleasure to see Higgins nudge the boundaries of the contemporary romance a little further with each new book. In this, her sixteenth, she takes more risks than ever, with a character who uses his cancer as a bid for attention, a stalker subplot, and some sketchy workplace dealings. Her characters are getting more complicated; not everyone's behavior is exemplary, even the heroine's, but most of it is understandable.There's plenty of the usual romantic fun, but not necessarily leading to happily-ever-after. It's a different kind of satisfying, and, as always, I am looking forward to her next book.

6 February 2017
A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful
Gideon Lewis-Kraus

Lewis-Kraus is in his twenties and apparently has the means and connections to pick up and relocate to any city in the world he chooses, which he does regularly. After living a while in Berlin he grows tired of the endless opportunity for intellectually stimulating diversion and decides to focus on modern pilgrimages and the reasons people take them. The section where he walks the El Camino de Santiago in Spain with his friend Tom is as funny as A Walk in the Woods as he makes light of them, their quest, and the assortment of international characters they encounter. I'm not sure if the other sections weren't as good or if I'd just grown tired of Lewis-Kraus's company. By the time we got to the Shikoku pilgrimage in Japan, a circuit of 88 temples, I was skimming, and even the passages about his rocky relationship with his father, a rabbi who came out as gay in his forties, weren't enough to hold my interest. Still, the first three or four chapters make this book well worth picking up.

6 February 2017
Alice K's Guide to Life: One Woman's Quest for Survival, Sanity, and the Perfect New Shoes
Caroline Knapp

Some books you just arrive at too late. I might have been able to read the Harry Potter series if it had been published when I was still a child (I know adults read it, but my tolerance for fantasy didn't survive my teen years. I'm just glad I found The Once and Future King in time. I regret that I never read more Tolkien than The Hobbit). This collection of the late Caroline Knapp's Boston Phoenix columns isn't fantasy, it's just terribly dated. The references to nylon stockings, Morgan Fairchild, and $1.37 muffins are amusing only in a nostalgic way, and I'm not even sure that back in 1994 I would have been impressed by her "women love shoe shopping, amirite?" shtick. We're told that Alice K. can't manage her budget or take proper care of her car because she's a woman. Alice K. lives in a major American city, so why does she even have a car she can't afford? I know this stuff probably seemed a lot fresher 25 years ago, before a glut of writing by women about being single in the city. And some of Alice's bafflement at feminine nonsense still holds up: "Alice K. does not know if she is a summer or a spring or a chilly evening in the third week of October." But other passages read as if they're not only from another time but another planet. Alice K. is dating a male "computer consultant" who reads literary fiction and has a shelf full of Anne Tyler books—which is not good enough for Alice K. Maybe this is fantasy after all.

2016 reviews

"There was so much to read, for one thing, and so much fine health to be pulled down out of the young breathgiving air... I was rather literary in college—one year I wrote a series of very solemn and obvious editorials for the Yale News—and now I was going to bring back all such things into my life and become again that most limited of all specialists, the 'well-rounded man.' This isn't just an epigram— life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all." —F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby