Tag Archives: American Fiction

Freedom ~ Jonathan Franzen

31 Oct

Back in late-August, early-September I read quite a few novels and had planned a string of reviews. One of those books was Jonathan Franzen’s recent release Freedom. I wanted to offer insight for the novel and, perhaps, for Franzen as well. Then, as I am sure much of the Western World is aware, Oprah announced her newest book club selection: Freedom.

What the hell? Between the global excitement over a new Franzen novel and the Oprah endorsement, what could I possibly add or offer that hasn’t already been said or written? Of course I expected the book to be popular and garner much media attention. Franzen, after all, has been elevated to the status of Great American Novelist thanks to The Corrections but, during the interim between finishing Freedom and the brouhaha that has ensued surrounding both Franzen and his newest novel, I have found each passing day bringing continual and escalating Franzen coverage – interviews; reviews; readings; book lists; blog ponderings; the great eye-glasses theft of 2010; the great eye-glasses recovery of 2010; Franzen-penned revelations. It is a whole lot of Franzen to absorb. I have contemplated writing the author, sharing my suggestion of an all-Franzen, all the time 24hr cable channel to, you know, take absolute and full advantage of the Franzen-crazy gravy-train. Never mind those buckets of cash. Train-cars filled with cash is so much…more. Why not? (She asks, not just a little bit sarcastically.)

So, Freedom, read it, or don’t. You probably will eventually because it is ubiquitous. Do I recommend it? Sure. It is a not bad book. I liked it better than The Corrections but I still find I am more a fan of Franzen, the person, than Franzen, the writer. His prose, to me, feels laboured; as though it has been ploddingly struggled over. It has been nine years since The Corrections was released, so maybe I am not too far off? There is, also, a certain fluidity absent from Franzen’s writing. Both of these contributed to my middling assessment of Freedom. I wasn’t overly invested in any of the characters and I could take time away from the book without feeling a pressing urge to return to it immediately. I found the concept for the story interesting and believable, to a point, but the whole of the novel wasn’t the treasure of a read I was hoping for. I know my opinion is not shared by many and I am not purposefully trying to sway you away from Freedom or be anti-Franzen. On the contrary (who actually says that phrase???). Franzen is a smart man and though given to truthfulness interpreted as harshness, I find him highly likable. So much so (who actually says THAT phrase??) I really, really wanted to love Freedom. I didn’t love it, sadly. But maybe you will? It’s hard to be one person flying the homemade “It’s a’ight.” sign, in a sea of “It’s the novel of the century!!” neon. Ah, well. I still like the dude, even if I don’t love his book.

Excerpt from the book jacket:

Patty and Walter Berglund were the new pioneers of old St. Paul—the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbor, who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually do their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter’s dreams. Together with Walter—environmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, total family man—she was doing her small part to build a better world.

But now, in the new millennium, the Berglunds have become a mystery. Why has their teenage son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter taken a job working with Big Coal? What exactly is Richard Katz—outré rocker and Walter’s college best friend and rival—still doing in the picture? Most of all, what has happened to Patty? Why has the bright star of Barrier Street become “a very different kind of neighbor,” an implacable Fury coming unhinged before the street’s attentive eyes?

In his first novel since The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen has given us an epic of contemporary love and marriage. Freedom comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire. In charting the mistakes and joys of Freedom’s characters as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world, Franzen has produced an indelible and deeply moving portrait of our time.

I will end with a quote from Jonathan Jones, of The Guardian: “Freedom [is] the novel of the century. A formidable and harrowing work, Jonathan Franzen’s new book is on a different plane from other contemporary fiction.”

Maybe you can now see my problem. With affirmations like that, it’s hard not to feel a little let down.

The Map of True Places – Brunonia Barry

14 Jun

Up front I will admit I have not read Brunonia Barry’s very popular novel The Lace Reader yet, so this novel was my first go with Barry’s writing. (I do own The Lace Reader and will get to it, likely, in the fall.) This book presented an interesting problem for me: it was highly readable and had enough compelling moments to keep me moving forward yet the overall work fell very flat for me mostly because of writing style and issues with, what I feel to be, poor editing. When I finished the novel I went in search of reviews, curious about what others are thinking about the story. I kept encountering phrases such as: “masterfully woven”; “all the elements of a great book club book”; “engaging storytelling”; “another big hit”. Clearly, according to the many gushing reviews I read, I had missed the boat of greatness with this novel. And yet…I don’t think I did.

I have an appreciation for several facets of The Map of True Places. I thought the characters of Zee, Finch and Melville to be well written and the relationship between Zee and her father, Finch, believable, particularly through the worsening of his Parkinson’s disease. The inclusion of historical details about the shipyards of Salem and the boat Friendship were very interesting too. The problems for me, as I have already mentioned, had mostly to do with editing. It seems to have been sloppily done. Pieces of writing are repeated, nearly word-for-word, only a couple of pages later giving the sense of being hit over the head with details so we don’t forget. Dabblings in the mystical arena along with the use of coincidence did not endear me to the novel.

Here is the book description from the publisher, William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins:

Zee Finch has come a long way from a motherless childhood spent stealing boats—a talent that earned her the nickname Trouble. She’s now a respected psychotherapist working with the world-famous Dr. Liz Mattei. She’s also about to marry one of Boston’s most eligible bachelors. But the suicide of Zee’s patient Lilly Braedon throws Zee into emotional chaos and takes her back to places she though she’d left behind.

What starts as a brief visit home to Salem after Lilly’s funeral becomes the beginning of a larger journey for Zee. Her father, Finch, long ago diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, has been hiding how sick he really is. His longtime companion, Melville, has moved out, and it now falls to Zee to help her father through this difficult time. Their relationship, marked by half-truths and the untimely death of her mother, is strained and awkward.

Overwhelmed by her new role, and uncertain about her future, Zee destroys the existing map of her life and begins a new journey, one that will take her not only into her future but into her past as well. Like the sailors of old Salem who navigated by looking at the stars, Zee has to learn to find her way through uncharted waters to the place she will ultimately call home.

The book description offers readers a trifecta of intrigue, mystery and transformation. It is unfortunate The Map of True Places doesn’t deliver more resoundingly. While certainly quaint, this isn’t enough for me to feel rewarded or emotionally invested in Barry’s second novel.

The Gin Closet by Leslie Jamison

1 Jun

The Gin Closet is the debut novel of Leslie Jamison. I have a particular interest in ‘first novels’. I want to know, or at least try to discover through reading them, what it was about a a given ‘first’ book that grabbed a publisher’s attention and made it to market. Usually I can find good reasons in compelling stories. Sometimes, admittedly, I am left scratching my head and wondering how, HOW a story ever made it through the publishing process. Occasionally I am blown away by potent talent. Leslie Jamison is a potent talent.The Gin Closet is the strongest debut novel I have ever read; it has been with me daily since I finished reading the novel two weeks ago. I am left wondering what Jamison could possibly do next but, in the mean time, I am awed by her writing and have absorb her characters as though they were wayward, delicate children needing a place of safety and protection.

I share with you the publisher’s description for this novel:

In the beginning, there was Tilly: fabulous and free, outrageous and untamable, vulnerable and terrified. Was it the Sixties that did her wrong, or the drugs, or the men, or was it the middle-class upbringing she couldn’t abide? As a young woman, she flees home for the hollow neon underworld of Nevada, looking for pure souls and finding nothing but bad habits. She stays away for decades, working the streets and worse, eventually drinking herself to the brink of death in the middle of the desert. One day, after Tilly has spent nearly thirty years without a family, her niece shows up on the doorstep of her dusty trailer.

Stella has been leading her own life of empty promise in New York City. She makes her living booking Botox appointments and national-media appearances for a famous (and famously neurotic) “inspirational” writer by day; she complains about her job at warehouse parties in remote boroughs by night; she waits for her married lover to make time in his schedule to screw her over, softly; and she takes care of her ailing grandmother in Connecticut. Before Stella’s grandmother dies, she tells Stella the truth about Tilly, her runaway daughter, and Stella decides to give up the vast and penetrating loneliness of the city to find this lost woman the family had never mentioned.

The Gin Closet unravels the strange and powerful intimacy that forms between Tilly and Stella as they move to San Francisco to make a home with Abe, Tilly’s overworked and elusive son. Shifting between the perspectives of both women, the narrative documents the construction of a fragile triangle that eventually breaks under its own weight.

With an uncanny ear for dialogue and a witty, unflinching candor about sex, love, and power, Leslie Jamison reminds us that no matter how unexpected its turns are, this life we’re given is all we have: the cruelties that unhinge us, the beauties that clarify us, the addictions that deform us, those fleeting possibilities of grace that fade as quickly as they come. In the words of writer Charles D’Ambrosio, this extraordinary novel teaches us that “history has its way, the body has its way, and the rebellions we believe in leave behind a bleak wisdom, if we’re lucky — and defeat, if we’re not.” The Gin Closet marks the debut of a stunning new talent in fiction.

A friend inquired as to whether the book was good – it is; very, very good – but I feel as though there are not sufficient words to express, in a review, my thoughts about the story or the writer. I need to invent new words to do this novel justice. The book is urgent and raw, and without requesting the readers sympathy, it demands of the reader to be a sentient human being. That Jamison, in this, her first novel (I can’t emphasize this enough apparently), can create and sustain these senses – of urgency, of compassion, of exposed nerves – is to be commended. Her writing elevates the story from being ‘another story about a disjointed and struggling family’ to being something wholly new. Jamison has given readers a work that is heart-achingly beautiful.

Straight Man by Richard Russo

14 Apr

(Via Curled Up With a Good Book, who says it better than I could!)

Amid all the quips and clever comebacks that fly through the halls of the dysfunctional English department at West Central Pennsylvania University in this novel, you find the reason for both all the antagonistic levity and the book’s title. William Henry Devereaux, Jr., the story’s narrator, states clearly: In English departments the most serious competition is for the role of straight man. Hank Devereaux, temporary department chair and determined wild card, revels in creating harmless chaos in his little corner of academia, and so rarely gets to play that coveted “straight man” role. He’s a wisecracker who intentionally tries to hold the bad stuff in life at bay. He’s a convincing, friendly point-of-view man, however, and his voice succeeds at drawing us into this hilarious, poignant novel of academe.

Continuing funding slashes have got rumours of staff cutbacks running rampant, and Hank’s colleagues suspect him of having prepared a “list” that recommends who should get the boot, regardless of tenure. Hank hasn’t, but it’s not in his character to tell them if he has or not, and the English department threatens mutiny, calling a vote for a new chair.

That each and every member of the department should fear firing is not surprising, for paranoia is part of the academic game, and every person on staff has good reason for suspecting he (or she) won’t make the grade. There’s white linen-suited Finny, who outed himself just long enough to get divorced before reverting to claims of heterosexuality that no one believes, and who has a Ph.D. from American Sonora University, an institution that exists, so far as we’ve been able to determine, only on letterhead and in the form of a post office box in Del Rio, Texas, the onetime home, if I’m not mistaken, of Wolfman Jack.

There’s non-tenured Campbell “Orshee” Wheemer, the pony-tailed protofeminist who forbids books and writing in his classes (he uses taped TV sitcoms and makes his students turn in video cassettes for semester projects), who appends every use of the masculine pronoun in department meetings with “or she.” There’s the aging prima-donna poet Gracie DuBois, whom every man in the college lusted over back when she was hired twenty years ago, now gone to fat; she’s got a harassment suit in the works against Hank concerning his eternal wisecracking. There’s meek Teddy Barnes, Hank’s erstwhile best friend, who’s been a little bit in love with Hank’s wife for years; there’s June, Teddy’s wife, who is rumored to be having an affair with Orshee. There’s Paul Rourke, Hank’s nemesis and neighbor, who’s sworn never to laugh at anything Hank says. And then there is Hank, who hasn’t published a book since his own hiring almost half his lifetime ago.

While he wrestles with this motley crew over department matters, Hank’s got much more in life that demands his attention. His daughter, who has failed to inherit Hank or his wife Lily’s love of language and writing, is in deep debt moneywise over her house (a copy to the room of her parents’) and on the outs with her unemployed husband. Hank himself is unsure whether or not he’d care if he got canned. Lily is checking out distant job opportunities, and Hank vaguely suspects that she’s having an affair with his dean.

His adopted dog has developed enough self-assurance to “groin” everyone who visits. He worries that he’s developing a stone — as runs in the men in his family — due to his having one hell of a time trying to pee. The biggest thing is perhaps his mother’s informing him that the man he’s tried hard not to think much about for most of his life, the father who deserted Hank and his mother for a succession of trophy graduate students, is going to be making a reappearance, perhaps for good, in their lives.

This novel of campus, family, midlife crisis and death threats against ducks bursts with humor and tenderness. Richard Russo has created characters who come quickly to colourful life. You won’t want the story to end because you want to keep on seeing Hank Devereaux’s world through his incomparable eyes. You will, however, be happy that you spent some time along with him for the ride.

Writing about regular people with regular lives is Russo’s forte. His ability to turn the mundane or ordinary into nuanced stories is incredible. He also writes with amazing humour and wit. I laughed out loud reading this novel and give it 5 stars.


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