Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Elizabeth Strout, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON

This is a quiet book; it is the first-person recalled conversation between a woman (Lucy) who is in the hospital for several weeks for an operation and recovery; and her mother, who comes to visit her from a tiny town in Illinois. It largely concerns Lucy's poverty-stricken, desperate childhood, and how she made the transition to living in New York City, married and with two children, and becoming a writer. (The voice feels deeply authentic, and I couldn't help wonder how much the narrative voice leaned on Strout's own experience.) The prose is even in tone, not at all hysterical or overwrought; but the memories are wildly uneven--from Lucy reading books in a quiet classroom after school (to stay warm, and avoid going home to the garage, where they live) to being locked in a truck for a day, with a snake, while her parents are at work and her older siblings at school. People might gripe that this book "tells" instead of "shows"; I would not say so at all. (To me, "telling" is not the same as reporting events that happen off-stage, or in the past; it's when events happen on stage and the author writes "she was mad" instead of "she hurled the pot at his head." But not everyone would agree with my definition.) This book is, for me, about empathy; how it happens unevenly, how the mother who is incapable of empathy when Lucy was young has developed a crack here and there, but is still largely unenlightened and too fragile to cope with anything real; how marriage shines a bright light on childhood scars; how recovery happens through contact with people who are steady, who are honest, who know how to listen and love. It's a quick read (an hour or two) and worth it.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Geraldine Brooks, THE SECRET CHORD

Geraldine Brooks's earlier novels Year of Wonders and March are still two of my favorites; but this one didn't resonate with me the same way. It's the story of King David, told by his prophet Natan; parts were familiar to me (the slaying of Goliath) and parts not; it's full of war and political intrigue and rape. The use of a secondary character to tell a fiery protagonist's story is often an effective device; but I didn't feel that Natan's point-of-view added as much as it might have, partly because his character did not change throughout; he begins and remains the prophet. (Often, for me, the dual change in two characters can create all kinds of good dramatic tension.) As usual with Brooks, some of the language and phrases just sing--"[I saw] the sinews of his back, taut with the strain of the pulled bow"; "her face was tilted upward, to catch a meager shaft of light." But at times I was pulled up short by certain words that felt very contemporary--"scar tissue" (mid-19th-c), the feet on the stones beating a "celebratory tattoo" (1500s), and the phrase, "Well, you might have suckered my brother but you don't fool me." I will always read Brooks's books, however, and look forward to her next.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016


I was a wreck reading this book. I got halfway through and had to flip to the ending to find the conclusion of the Blythe sisters' story. No small feat, as this book shifts among Edie's story (1992) and the Blythe sisters' (1940-41) and even Meredith's (Edie's mom). But as I got close to the end of the book, and understood more about what I'd read when I jumped forward, I couldn't bring myself to reread the ending. (This makes me sound a wee bit over-invested, I know.) One of the things I loved about this book was how steeped in literature it is--and it feels quite intentional that Edie, an avid "readie," daughter of a woman who once longed to be a writer, tells the story (in first-person) in a way that calls to mind elements of King Lear and Great Expectations; the three Blythe sisters could be the three weird sisters from Macbeth ... or Lear's daughters ... there are elements of the oldest daughter Percy that felt like ruthless Goneril or Regan; central to the novel is the (fictional) best-seller about the Mud Man, ostensibly written by the father of the Blythe sisters but rooted in true horrifying events. The writing is at times a bit overwrought, but mostly it's exquisite, even in the briefest descriptions: "That short hairpin smile." "... a set of tall iron gates, once grand but listing now at broken angles. Leaning, one towards the other, as if to share a weighty burden." "[He] scraped against the shallow floor of his own limited experience." Toward the end, it seemed there was one turn of the screw after another--and it began to feel like almost too much heartbreak for even this long, expansive novel--though the ending, with the last-minute reveal of Juniper's act of kindness and Edie's reconciliation with her mother, offers a shred of redemption.

Saturday, July 23, 2016


This book doesn't argue that it doesn't matter where you (read: "your kid"; this book is aimed at parents) end up at college; it does argue against the notion that if your kid doesn't go to the Ivy League/Stanford/MIT, they're doomed to a lesser life. On the surface, that doesn't sound like much; but the anecdotes about the crazy things that happen during the college admissions process (Bruni has plenty of good ones, including one about a girl who wrote in her Yale admissions essay about urinating on herself rather than leave an engaging conversation with a teacher, to prove her passion for education) makes me think the premise is worth examining. He also reminds us that in the name of recruiting, universities do things that are misleading bordering on unethical to drive up the number of applications, in order to lower their acceptance rate, which increases their bond rating; and he exposes the flimsiness of the basis for the USNews rankings. Bruni (U of NC) provides plenty of examples of people who have not gone to the Ivy League and have done very well, including senators, Fulbright scholars, CEOs and your average famous folk: Condoleeza Rice (Denver); Joe Biden (Delaware and Syracuse); Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb (RI School of Design); Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks (Northern Michigan U), etc. What emerges from their stories (which he relates in detail) is that during the college years, they all had a solid work ethic--a desire to find mentors, explore new interests, develop their leadership skills, and so on, which is--perhaps--more likely when one is not quite so small a fish in a huge college pond. At the very least, it argues for at least considering colleges beyond the highly competitive ones. At one point he notes that this is all driven by fear--a quite illogical one--that without this ivy-green ticket, the kid won't be happy. And that's what we all want for our kids, right? Fair enough. But as he points out, happiness is often the way we conduct the journey, the *way* we attend college; and the focus on *getting in* to the exclusive college sometimes leads the kids to feel like, "Ok, I did it. I'm done." Bruni's story about how he taught at Princeton and was pressured to overlook a student's cheating, to give him a do-over, feels really bad to me. Of course it happens elsewhere, too; but what are we teaching our kids? That once your ticket is punched, you can sit back and wait out those four years? What a sad thing--when those four years can be a dedicated time to think and reinvent and get out of our comfort zone and grow.

Sunday, July 17, 2016


This is the first I've read by Julie Mulhern, and this mystery is different in tone than any I've ever read--and I'm trying to figure out exactly why. It's a quick-read cozy, with an almost-40, professional painter protagonist named Ellison; there are seemingly multiple attempts on her life that are outright violent--a bullet, a firebomb, a car accident, a poisoning--yet throughout the entire book, I found myself smiling at Ellison's wry one-liners. There is at once a lightness about the book and an intense pain--which to me came less from the attempted murders than from the characters in this fairly dysfunctional family--characters who are petty and selfish and self-sabotaging and full of secrets and yet still care about one another. The protagonist makes allusions several times to her first husband (dead) ... I'll be interested to read that one!

Friday, July 15, 2016


This is an important, well-written, and accessible book. I buy Duckworth's formulation that our culture's focus on "natural talent" potentially keeps us from recognizing that talent might count, but effort counts *twice* when it comes to achievement. I grew up believing that having to work at something was a sign of inferiority, that persevering was what you did if you weren't clever enough to succeed right away. I had to unlearn that idea, painfully, when it came to trying to get my own book published. Grit is, as Duckworth points out, about falling down seven times and getting up eight. It's about hanging onto the idea that if we haven't accomplished something, we just haven't accomplished it *yet.* Grit is something that can be developed--largely as a result of rewriting the stories we tell ourselves about the world and how it works. This book mingles scientific studies; psychological insights; practical guidelines for cultivating grit in ourselves and our children; and anecdotes from CEOs and West Point grads and football players and coaches.

I was somewhat surprised that Duckworth didn't engage with the work of Brene Brown, whose recent book RISING STRONG has a lot in common with GRIT. From the cover of RISING STRONG: "If we are brave enough, often enough, we will fall. This is a book about what it takes to get back up." Like Duckworth, Brown is a Ph.D. and an avid researcher into human behavior; they both lean on both science and personal anecdote in their books; both have presented TED talks and have published books to acclaim; they both run their own institutes. Brown's groundbreaking previous book DARING GREATLY draws its title from Roosevelt's "Man in the Arena" speech--which Duckworth quotes at length toward the end of her book. (It IS a knockout passage, worth quoting.) Duckworth's ideas stand on their own, of course; but I think it would be interesting to see what Brown and Duckworth might come up with, working together.