Books Read, Fiction:
Foreign Affairs (1984) – Alison Lurie
A Summons to Memphis (1986) – Peter Taylor
The Monsters of Templeton (2008) – Lauren Groff
A Long Way from Home (2017) – Peter Carey
Every Shiny Thing (2018) – Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison
Books Read, Non-Fiction:
Look Alive Out There: Essays (2018) – Sloane Crosley
Autumn (2017) – Karl Ove Knausgaard
See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism, and Commentary (2018) – Lorrie Moore
I started this Month of Books installment on June 13. In a ’40s movie (or even in this year’s Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water”) pages flying off a wall calendar would represent my extended delay. What was taking me so long? I had eight books to cover. I started with snapshots of the novels, only to find myself mired down, starting over and then reluctant to open up the Word document at all. The fact is, the only novel I enjoyed was Every Shiny Thing. Full disclosure: Laurie Morrison, one of the co-authors of this middle-grade novel set in Philadelphia, is the daughter of a dear friend, and my copy was an autographed gift. I am not biased, however, when I say it was the only one of the five that I couldn’t put down. I really wanted to find out how the two middle school girls at a Quaker private school got through the predicaments they faced. The writing does not talk down, the voices of the two narrators are distinctive and genuine, and I recommend it as an example of the best kind of age-targeted novels out there today.
In contrast to the other four novels, all three of the non-fiction collections were noteworthy.
Look Alive out There is Sloane Crosley’s third essay collection. Her first collection came out in 2008, promptly became a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and was optioned for an HBO series. I was a fan of hers even before then as she originated the “Townies” column in the New York Times, and has since written for every publication a humor essayist would want to write for. And her 40th birthday is still weeks away! She writes of dealing with noisy neighbors, ascending a volcano, having an older relative who was a porn star, catching cabs in New York City. Her observations of the world around her can be laugh-out-loud funny, darkly mordant, gently snarky, and, in this third volume, poignant – sometimes all in the same essay. I am wildly jealous of Sloane Crosley. I want to be the Sloane Crosley of her mother’s generation.
Lorrie Moore is probably best known for her short story collections, in particular Birds of America (1998), which was a New York Times bestseller and won several awards. I first came to her through her novel A Gate at the Stairs (2009). Two scenes in that novel are so harrowing that I still have bad dreams about them. When she appeared on the Author Events schedule at the Free Library of Philadelphia I signed up, to see what she was like in person. Turns out she was terrific, completely engaging and entertaining, with a sly, dry sense of humor. She read an excerpt from her non-fiction collection See What Can Be Done, a recounting of her spur of the moment wedding. Her timing and intonation were pitch perfect. (Not all authors read their own works well.) And her handling of the Q&A was generous. Luckily, I had bought a copy of the book before the talk started, so I stood in (the long) line to get her autograph – not because I wanted the autograph, but because I wanted to ask this charming, lovely woman how she had written those two scenes that haunt me. When I asked her, she sat back, thought a moment, then said she didn’t know how she did it, that she procrastinated and kept writing around them. Not a complete answer, but I got the sense it was as hard for her to write the two scenes as it was for me to read them. I then started reading the new book in the car on the way home. (Jon was driving.) It is also terrific, completely engaging and entertaining. A chronological sampling of her non-fiction writing from 1983 to 2017, the bulk of the pieces in the collection are book reviews she has written for the New York Review of Books. But Moore’s book reviews are really broad-ranging essays. She also includes profiles and a handful of traditional personal essays. Each piece was a delight to read. Her reviews range from Nora Ephron to John Updike, Alice Munro to Richard Ford. She also covers television series and movies. Her range of knowledge is awe-inspiring, and her agility with the English language and metaphor so potent that you always know exactly what she means and then some. For example, when talking about the television series True Detective (a show I never watched, but now wish I had) she praises the originality of the program, noting that key elements are “in perfect sync with one another.” The setting, the cinematography, and the acting are “all threaded on the same needle” by the director. She is also a champion of the novel form: “We don’t always know what intimate life consists of until novels tell us.” And she is wary of academic film theory, “often written in a prose with the forensic caress of an appliance warranty.” She is fun to read (if a little too fond of adverbs). She also happens to be part of another one of my spooky coincidences. I learned that Lorrie Moore was a student of Alison Lurie’s at Cornell, and a generation later Moore was a mentor to Lauren Groff. I had no clue of this inter-generational connection when I chose my novels for this set of reading.
I recommend the Crosley and Moore collections without reservation. In fact, I strongly encourage you to have both handy to dip into whenever you want a treat. The third essay collection, Autumn, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, is another matter.
To quote Wikipedia, “Karl Ove Knausgård is a Norwegian author, known for six autobiographical novels, titled My Struggle.” I had read enough about these novels to know that I wasn’t interested in reading them. However, about a year ago I enjoyed his essay on chewing gum in the Sunday New York Times Magazine‘s “Recommendations” column and noted that it was adapted from an essay in Autumn. I also learned that Autumn was the first of four collections of essays, gathered by season, written as letters to his then unborn daughter. This premise appealed to me, so I bought the book. The essays are short sketches of things encountered in his every day life. Some are beautiful renderings of unlikely subjects (Petrol); some are silly (Bed); some are surprisingly fun (Telephones) and charming (Toilet Bowls, “the swans of the bath chamber”). Some I could do without (Piss, Vomit), and some I just couldn’t follow at all (Silence). The bigger concern for me, however, is what I always struggle with when reading something in translation. What am I really reading? How much of the nuances of Norwegian am I missing, or conversely, how much of some of the charm is actually due to the work of the translator, in this case Ingvild Burkey? And what’s with the weird punctuation? Was that also an attempt to capture something about the flow of Norwegian prose, or was it just that Penguin didn’t want to let a copy editor near the book?
In any event, I cannot in good conscience recommend Autumn without reservation. Yet I am glad that I read it, and I have bought both Winter and Spring. I’ll keep you posted.