Rest of Us by Jessica Lott

My review in Shelf Awareness is here.

The Boston Globe review also praised it, saying that, while the plot line was the stuff of chick lit, Lott has written  “a compelling, resonant, richly nuanced, and sometimes heartbreaking portrait of cross-generational love and the meaning orest of usf art. The Chicago Tribune praised Lott’s comic sensibility, adding that Lott writes “with tenderness and restraint about life’s inevitable tragic turns.” NPR’s review called the first chapter “opening chapter is etched in acid….Lott demonstrates a wicked gift for mimicking the meaningless pronouncements of hoity-toity culture criticism….Lott nails that sense of being stalled, of being an adjunct in life when everybody else seems to be a fully inducted player. The Rest of Us itself stalls a bit toward the end, although Lott executes some unexpected riffs on the student-professor relationship plot.”

What I tread too literally, the Trib and NPR nailed as social satire. I love that! Re-reading a book to find what other readers saw is, to me, an essential tool in being a better reader and reviewer.


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Poetry: Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting and Jump Soul

This post covers two recent Shelf Awareness poetry reviews (April is poetry month, after all). The first is the debut collection Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting by Kevin Powers, author of the much-praised novel and National Book Award finalist The Yellow Birds and the second is Jump Soul: New and Selected Poems by Charlie Smith.

The power of Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting comes from its visceral and pitiless images of war. The poems are all first person, mostly narrative, and leave no doubt about the degree to which Powers’ experiences haunt him still and probably always will.

I tend to love poetry that uses concrete, grounded images, one following the other and without needing commentary, to convey emotion and meaning. Magic happens when poets trust their imagination enough to offer juxtaposed associations, no matter how unlikely, but which suggest a larger truth. They build from metaphors writ large in gorgeous and precise language. Poetry to me is always more than the sum of its parts because it relies on that magic. It’s also the reason that it’s generally impossible to express the “meaning” of a poem in other words, because no prose summary of a poem can capture the emotional aftershock those sparks generate. And poetry usually needs compression for this to happen.

Powers’ poetry is different. It feels more literal. It is almost more “prose poetry” formatted with shorter lines.  His narrators offer observations about the meaning of their experiences in lines that, while lyrical, tend to the abstract, and abstractions can be disconnected and disorienting even though they also suggest something profound. It’s a different approach that does not rely on poetic intensity of line, on metaphor to carry the meaning. But the poems’ haunted quality, their openness, the way his more introspective musings always connect back to his felt experience results in a collection that cannot fail to move readers. It also makes for a collection that is very accessible, and drawing in more readers is an excellent thing.

Smith’s collection is just as powerful but does have that compression where the line is the metaphor. I love his manifest delight in words. He takes such pleasure in layering both. But he’s not piling them on gratuitously. The resulting fullness is not excess but encompasses the full range of lived experience, both darkness and light, both pleasure and loss, in the same breath.

Both collections are must-reads. Each demonstrates the very different possibilities of poetry’s generous ability to share experience and perception.

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Shelf Awareness for Readers Review: The Telling Room, by Michael Paterniti

My review for Michael Paterniti’s The Telling Room is posted here.

It’s always good to look at other reactions:  The New York Times review, while positive, acknowleged its overwrough quality, comparing it to those little handwritten descriptions pinned to cheeses in upmarket shops, calling it  “is essentially a book-length version of one of those little signs. This is mostly a good thing, though your level of appreciation may vary in accordance with your tolerance of floridly descriptive curd-driven prose.”  It goes on to praise the infectious enthusiasm of the writing, but adds a pointed caveat that I agree with, though I also think many general readers will just skip the footnotes and be carried along by Paterniti’s voice:

“Paterniti is too besotted with his material and with Ambrosio, to the point of becoming overwhelmed by both. He cops to being the kind of writer “given to tilting the most quotidian events into a Viking epic,” and, indeed, he puffs up what probably would have been a perfectly formed little book into a flabby, overly digressive 300-plus-pager.

I think that’s just about right, and it would have improved my review had I figured out a way to make that point in 250 words (an irony, of course, given the book under discussion!)  But the NYT goes on to make a more insightful point:

Like many a writer following in the footsteps of David Foster Wallace, ­Paterniti is keen on shaggily discursive footnotes — about Spanish history, random whimsies, the way Ambrosio addresses him, whatever. These footnotes, in the early going, seem fun, like added value, but as they persist, growing on the page from about the thickness of a Three Musketeers bar to that of a Carnegie Deli sandwich, they become draggy, oppressive. You want to nudge the author in the ribs, clear your throat and interject, “Anyway, Mike!” — get the guy out of his own way.”


The Chicago Tribune review was more glowing, praising the book’s quirky and rustic charm and pointing out that the narrative is really not about chasing down the cheese:  “Because the stuff about the cheese? About the pleasures of food and family and finding meaning in the old ways of life? That’s just the framework. What Paterniti’s really writing about is storytelling itself.”  Yes – though I think this reviewer misses one small point, that the story is also about letting go of a fantasy of an idealized life, along with the big sexy story.  The Boston Globe loved it, calling it “a classic example of how the tale of getting the tale can, in the right hands, be storytelling gold.”  The reviewer adds that Paterniti “gets to the bottom of this instinct to narrate, especially through loss.”  NPR similarly raved, “It is a wonderful book that can take so simple a thing and in it find much that is profound.”

I think “profound” is a big claim; the book feels a little too self-indulgent for that, but it has its truths, and they’re told entertainingly.

My review:

In 1991, as a struggling young writer working as a proofreader for the fabled Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Mich., Michael Paterniti chanced upon a description of the most expensive cheese the deli sold. The rich, dense and intense cheese was made in small batches in Guzman, a tiny hill town in Castille, Spain, from an ancient family recipe, with milk collected daily from cheesemaker Ambrosio Molinas’s own sheep.

Still obsessed a decade later, Paterniti found himself in Ambrosio’s “telling room”–a harvest room and neighborhood gathering place–listening to the story of the “world’s greatest cheese,” along with hints about the terrible betrayal that led the end of Ambrosio’s cheese business. Seduced by the charismatic cheesemaker and his larger-than-life story of accomplishment, loss, revenge and betrayal, Paterniti was determined to write a book about the mysterious fate of the cheese. He returned to Guzman often over the next 10 years, even moving with his growing family for months at a time. As he uncovered the information that finally solved the puzzle, he began to understand his real story was not about the cheese, but about one man’s attachment to an idealized version of life–and his ultimate acceptance of his own choices.

Funny, exuberant, celebratory and sometimes over-the-top in its enthusiasms and story-telling, with digressions and footnotes as long as stand-alone chapters, The Telling Room will entertain while it reminds the reader of the human need for story and, finally, acceptance.

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Shelf Awareness for Readers Review: The Rest of Us, by Jessica Lott

Here* is my Shelf Awareness for Readers review for Jessica Lott’s debut novel The Rest of Us Simon & Schuster, $24.99, hardcover, 9781451645873.  The advance reader’s copy came with blurbs from Elissa Schappell, Ha Jin and Adam Langer.  Many years in the business watching blurbs come in made me no less impressed by this line-up.  And indeed, I very much enjoyed this novel overall, with just a few minor quibbles.

The reviews so far have also been very good.  The Boston Globe commented, “[I]n the hands of a lesser writer, Jessica Lott’s literary debut could have become clichéd chick lit. But Lott focuses less on the beginnings of the relationship than on its aftermath, years later, and “The Rest of Us” proves to be a compelling, resonant, richly nuanced, and sometimes heartbreaking portrait of cross-generational love and the meaning of art.”  Maureen Corrigan on Fresh Air says “Lott nails that sense of being stalled, of being an adjunct in life when everybody else seems to be a fully inducted player….Lott executes some unexpected riffs on the student-professor relationship plot.” The Chicago Tribune says that”from the start it’s evident that Lott has a mordantly acute comic sensibility” and notes that the novel feels so alive it feels autobiographical.

It is interesting to me that something both the latter two reviews saw as comic struck me as mannered (the quotation marks around the commentary of famous artists and writers).  I completely got the irony and critique of the self-importance of cultural celebrities but still saw it as more self-conscious than comedic.  It is always useful to look at something from another point of view.

*My review:

     Jessica Lott’s The Rest of Us is the story of Terry, a photographer in New York whose life is jolted by seeing the obituary for Rhinehart, one of her college professors, a Pulitzer-winning poet with whom she had fallen in love. Then, just as suddenly, she runs into Rhinehart–still, in fact, very much alive–and the chance reunion after 15 years leads to a renewal of their relationship.
     Rhinehart struggles with his history and protracted writer’s block while Terry begins to realize her long-dormant artistic aspirations, guided by Rhinehart’s estranged wife, Laura, an art collector who takes an interest in her work and introduces her to the New York art scene with its power brokers, celebrity and influence. In an ironic twist, it is in part Terry’s neurotically self-involved friend Hallie who helps her negotiate the differences between love, purpose and seduction.
     Terry is a reflective and observant narrator, tossing off literary references alongside vivid descriptions and critiques of the New York art scene and its poseurs as she recounts Rhinehart’s story and her own. While the resulting inside peek at the rarified cultural scenes is appealing, it sometimes has the forced feel of namedropping. Yet the novel effectively conveys the enormous personal courage that true creative expression can require; its portrait of Terry’s struggles are sensitive and believable. Lott’s writing is lovely and lyrical, and her themes of the place of art, the changing ways we love and the people we hold close over time lend texture to an intelligent and ambitious literary debut.
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This review* for Shelf Awareness for Readers was challenging to write, both for the need to capture complex ideas in 250 words and for required refresher on the many interpretations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

It is widely accepted that the core of play centers on Hamlet’s indecision and inability to act, and ultimately, to revenge his father’s death. But what lies behind this indecision – what explains this gap? That is the preoccupation of this slim and lively volume, and Critchley and Jamieson tour the analyses offered by a variety of “outsider” thinkers and offer plenty of opinions of their own.

I love writing reviews in part because it forces me to be clear enough in my own thoughts, to distill them and capture them in a very few words.  That process takes time but is essential.  It also takes time and distance detach from one idea and see something in a new, more objective or more satisfying way.  On rereading it now, weeks after writing it, I don’t think I quite got there.  The review ended up affirming that conventional interpretation of Hamlet, rather than showing how the book captures the varied and contradictory reasons for and implications of Hamlet’s inaction and the pleasures of that excursion.  Nor did I adequately address the authors’ take on the play’s suggestions of nihilism and alienation.

Salon‘s review by Laura Miller got at this quality of Critchley and Jamieson’s book while commenting on the book with appreciation and insight.  Miller writes that the authors avoid the conclusion that Hamlet is a nihilist play in large part because Ophelia retains her passionate commitment to Hamlet, and openness to love.

In retrospect, I would connect those dots more clearly.

The Wall St. Journal review by Eric Ormsby also had wonderful comments, notably that “Much of the enduring freshness of “Hamlet” comes from the uncanny feeling that Shakespeare was as startled by the drama as we are, that a kind of intensity of amazement was guiding his pen.”  Ormsby says “Hamlet is enigma personified; that is his strength. But he is enigmatic to himself; that is his weakness. We never know what he’ll do or say next, and he seems to be as surprised as we are by his own belated decisions or sudden actions.”

At an event at McNally Jackson, Critchley noted that the play retains its pull because it resists any pre-existing grid people want to impose on it to support their interpretation and philosophical view of the world.  Christian redemptive, Romantic, heroic, psychoanalytical, nihilist interpretations all miss the point in small or large ways, as though Shakespeare says, “no, not that, either.”  It was one of the best author events I’ve attended in terms of author interaction and audience attentiveness.

*My review:

In the lively and thoughtful Stay, Illusion! The Hamlet Doctrine, the husband-and-wife team of philosopher Simon Critchley and psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster engage closely with the text of Shakespeare’s play in brief, conversational chapters, unpacking its many layers and interpretations.

They argue that Hamlet’s tragedy rests on his inability to bridge the gap between thought and action, starting with his failure to avenge his father’s death, and show that this gap reappears throughout the play. Hamlet can do “nothing” despite his anguished plotting; he is paralyzed by the horror of life’s wrongs. They examine very different interpretations of the play by such “outsiders” as James Joyce, Hegel, Freud and Melville, considering issues of historical context; whether it celebrates Christian redemption; the nature of tragedy; and the problem of nihilism. In a particularly intriguing analysis, they question whether Ophelia, equally battered by loss and madness but never losing her ability to love or desire or act, is more the play’s hero.

Critchley and Jamieson’s take always feels fresh, in part because they address a range of interpretations, many of which they are unafraid to challenge. On Freud and psychoanalytic criticism, they write, “It is not a matter of putting Hamlet on the couch… but rather to hear something in Hamlet that allows us to put psychoanalysis on the couch and to the test.” Erudite, witty and probing, Stay! Illusion offers new insights into a literary touchstone while deepening our appreciation for its complexity and its enigmatic core.


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Review: The Human Spark: The Science of Human Development, by Jerome Kagan

Here is my Shelf Awareness review for Jerome Kagan’s  The Human Spark: The Science of Human Development.  The relationship between nature and nurture has always fascinated me.  The idea that nurture confirms or mitigates or triggers what nature bestows is confirmed by current research.  The relationship between and “self” is another rich topic and I admire Kagan’s clear distinction between self-awareness and self-respect on the one hand versus self-indulgence on the other, a distinction, he argues, that many young people do not presently learn.

The review in its entirety:

Jerome Kagan, emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of The Nature of the Child, is one of the pioneers of developmental psychology and among its most influential thinkers. His focus has been in the area of children’s cognitive and emotional development, especially the genetic or environmental roots of temperament. In the thought-provoking The Human Spark, Kagan identifies the development of cognitive, emotional and moral stages that children reveal at common ages and shows what variances can be traced to environmental factors like parenting, birth order or social norms.

Far more than another round in the nature/nurture debate, Kagan describes how flawed research based on cultural assumptions can lead to widely accepted conclusions that influence public policy. For example, he presents research that disproves infant determinism, the common notion that certain negative early childhood experiences doom a child to an unhappy adulthood. In one of many fascinating asides, he suggests that this idea developed out of a larger historical trend favoring a middle class with nuclear families, where a new class of stay-at-home mothers were given social responsibility for infant emotional and intellectual development and behavior–an idea that continues to drive policy and shape cultural expectations.

Authoritative and surprising, Kagan guides us through the most current research in the field, tracing its shifting intellectual fashions from emphasizing “nurture” to the current reliance on neuroscience and showing how these fashions play out culturally. This wise and affirming book is essential reading for anyone interested in what makes us human.


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Shelf Awareness for Readers Review: Love Among the Particles: Stories, by Norman Lock

My review of Norman Lock‘s story collection Love Among the Particles (Bellevue Literary Press, $14.95, paperback, 9781934137642) was published in the current Shelf Awareness for Readers.

I loved this collection.  Kirkus gave it a starred review, and it was an Atlantic Wire Spring Book Preview Recommendation.  Bookslut called Lock “our finest modern fabulist”; Kate Bernheimer hailed him as a writer “whose narrative soul sings fairy tales, whose language is glass.”  (That latter description is itself a sentence worth celebrating.)  I loved being seduced by the story form, executed perfectly with perfect language, into a fabulous world where we see ourselves in thrall of what we might otherwise, with some normal measure of objectivity, view with ambivalence.  Lock’s genius is that he always recognizes the humanity of his characters and thus, of his readers.

Here’s the review in its entirety:

Norman Lock is one of the best writers you’ve never heard of, but that could change with Love Among the Particles, a collection of stories that combines absurdist elements and avant-garde fiction with conventional storytelling to satirize our romance with devices and our penchant for confusing technology with living.

The worlds in these stories are nearly recognizable, familiar but disguised by Lock’s fabulist instincts. The first story, “A Monster in Winter,” adopts flawless Edwardian language to tell the story of an ambitious journalist’s efforts to exploit Mr. Hyde, with horrifying consequences. In the title story, with a nod to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, a man dematerializes, becoming nothing more than particles in a digital space alongside data bits, longing for true love as he observes the world happen around him. 

Lock’s writing is beautiful, with clean, clear, perfect sentences. He might delight in pyrotechnics but they are never self-indulgent; his language and imagination are always in service of the story. Each story feels total, complete, seducing the reader with language and narrative into a fully realized alternative world to say something new about our own. 

Philip Roth invited a young Lock to his writing seminar and helped launch a career that has included recognition from George Plimpton at the Paris Review and the publication of four novels and hundreds of short stories and plays. Love Among the Particles is topical, astonishing and provocative–and should help Lock reach his widest audience yet.  

Discover:  A masterful collection of short fiction by a writer discovered by Philip Roth who transcends his roots in experimental fiction and reveals a perfect ear for language.

Publisher Bellevue Literary Press also published Paul Harding’s Pulitzer-prize winning Tinkers. (Michele Filgate is responsible for bringing it to their attention – thanks, Michele!)   

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Notes on reviewing Books: The Millions, The New Yorker, and Christian Wiman

Critic Michael Bourne in The Millions has an excellent piece on book reviewing, where he discusses how the digital age has changed their purpose and scope.  Typical reviews typically opened with a brief context-setting introduction;, followed by a thumbnail outline, with the rest of the piece devoted to an assessment of the book’s worthiness.  Reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads have taken over this role, he argues, though he allows for the value of intelligent literary criticism or a piece featuring an overlooked gem.

Reviews in the digital age should instead engage in conversation:

“not as an exercise in personal taste – I liked/didn’t like this book, and here’s why – but as a mini-essay using the book under review as the focal point of a larger, more interesting story. In a great many cases, this will mean reviewers having the sense to shut up when they have an opinion about a book but have nothing to add to the conversation beyond whether they liked or didn’t like it. This might be called The Thumper Rule of Literary Criticism: “If you can’t say something interesting – Shh! Say nothing!” 

When critics do wade into the conversation, they should be thinking how they can bring a special talent or experience they possess to the table. This can be as simple as having an unusually good eye for how narrative and language works, like James Wood of The New Yorker, whose reviews are worth reading even if you don’t agree with him or intend to read the book he’s talking about. Other times it can entail bringing a deeper knowledge of a subject to bear on a review.”

I think this is right, mostly.  It is very difficult to avoid injecting personal opinion, but whether a book “works’ or not, whether as fiction or non-fiction, is still important, and should be grounded in why and how the book works, or should address how well it covers its subject.

Last week’s New Yorker includes a review of poet(and editor of Poetry) Christian Wiman’s memoir, My Bright Abyss:  Meditations of a Modern Believer.  It is the story of his return to Christianity in midlife, after almost simultaneously falling in love and receiving a diagnosis of cancer.  Critic Adam Kirsch writes a wonderful review connecting Wiman’s memoir with his earlier poetry and essays, pulling in Wallace Stevens along the way to making his poetic and his religious sensibilities converse, and renewing my interest in both his memoir and his poetry.

It is exactly what a good review should do.

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Review: Gish Jen, Tiger Writing

Here and below is my review of Gish Jen”s Tiger Writing: Art, Culture and the Interdependent Self, published by Harvard University Press in March; it ran in today’s Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Gish Jen’s elegant and wide-ranging Tiger Writing–a collection of the award-winning novelist’s talks in Harvard’s annual Massey Lecture series–explores the differences between Eastern and Western ideas of the self in fiction and culture, and why they matter.

When he was 85, Jen’s father wrote a 32-page family history that began 4,000 years in the past, reflecting an Asian sense of connection to place and history and an interdependent idea of the self. By contrast, the Western notion of an independent self focuses on individual experience as the basis for observing and narrating the world. Jen synthesizes cross-cultural and cognitive studies with analysis of Western literature and other art forms to argue that the novel, which celebrates the truth of individual experience, could develop only in the West and expresses the core American values of individualism and exceptionalism.

Jen, the child of Chinese immigrants, loved novels because they were an “Outsiders’ Guide to the Universe.” She read to understand her context, not to see herself reflected on the page as her young American friends did. Both cultures influence her fiction, she writes, concluding that literary fiction is important because it can express either way of understanding oneself: “The novel knows much more than the person who wrote it.”

The hardcover  edition of Tiger Writing is physically beautiful–printed on ivory paper with photos throughout, intimate in the hand and a pleasure to touch and hold. It seems fitting that a book about writing, connection and culture provides such a full sensory experience. It is a perfect metaphor for its contents.

DiscoverGish Jen (Typical American; Mona in the Promised Land) looks at the development of the novel, holding it up to contrasting ideas of the self in Eastern and Western culture.

The New York TImes Book Review ran its review this past Sunday.  It was written by Wesley Yang (who writes regularly for New York Magazine and whose piece Paper Tiger, published in that magazine in May 2011, argues that Asian Americans raised with traditional values of academic over-achievement through college often have difficulty in the hard-charging corporate career world.)

In his review, Yang focusses on Jen’s cross-cultural psychological arguments rather than their artistic expression, and he seems to look for their inherent contradictions.  He writes, “Jen is acutely conscious that to affirm that Asians have a strongly reduced sense of individuality in relation to their Western counterparts risks endorsing the view that Asians are ‘robot- or sheeplike.’ She is therefore keen to assert that her father made significant innovations in the scientific field in which he worked.“ But he dismisses one of her arguments simply on the grounds that it is made  “silkily” though he does not explain what he finds lacking or unpersuasive.  He speculates that her father’s disciplinary action against an insubordinate student is a possible incidence of bullying, which of course undermines Jen’s argument but makes his own seem small-minded and resentful.  And disappointingly, he does not engage deeply with Jen’s point about the way these differing views of the self contribute to each side’s cultural output.

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Writers and Writing: George Saunders does not tweet

Nor does he own a Kindle.  He lugged Infinite Jest along when he travelled to Asia, preferring the pleasure of carrying an actual “book.” He does not spend leisure time browsing online; it cuts into his reading time, as he points out in this piece in The Guardian.

It is a good thing that Saunders clears time for writing.  It is even better that he values the act of writing for anyone who wants to participate, as he makes clear in this quote a wonderful and worshipful New York Times Magazine feature that kicked Tenth of December off and onto its bestseller run (short stories, no less!):

“The process of trying to say something, of working through craft issues and the worldview issues and the ego issues — all of this is character-building…I’ve seen time and time again the way that the process of trying to say something dignifies and improves a person.

Words to live by.  It does indeed improve and dignify, in part because putting words on paper forces the writer to make distinctions, to choose the words that most accurately convey one’s intended meaning, an effort which encourages more critical less reactive thinking.

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