Sunday, January 29, 2012

Last Night at the Lobster, by Stuart O'Nan

Okay, here's the back-story. My son's friend's mom is in charge of a yearly charity luncheon where Big Name Authors come to speak. The mom knows I'm studying creative writing, so she shares the top secret authors' names with me before they're made public. And, because I'm the worst liar in the world, it's not worth it for me to even try to hide the embarrassing fact that I never recognize any of the names! Yup. That's me: Literary fraud. This year she trotted out Stuart O'Nan's name and, once again, I had to confess ignorance. My next move, naturally, was to find out who the hell O'Nan is. I scoured his titles and, naturally, looked for his shortest book! And that's the story of how I made 160-page "Last Night at the Lobster's" acquaintance.

O'Nan's title certainly had me quizzically tilting my head. Couldn't imagine what this novel could be about. Turns out LNATL has a simple premise. It's a lean, tight portrait of Manny Deleon, the manager of a Connecticut Red Lobster on its last day before closing for good. Not an edge-of-your-seat novel, not a plotty book, but an eerily dead-on character study. And man, oh man can O'Nan write! In this way books are like life: when you come across something truthful, you just know it. You automatically connect. So even though, at first glance, LNATL seems to be about the closing of a chain restaurant, in fact it's book about life and loss.

What can I say? A former O'Nan ignoramus, I'm now a staunch O'Nan fan. LNATL gets two claws. (Sorry, too cheesy to resist.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Memory Palace, by Mira Bartok

Thought I was on a roll, had finally posted a few reviews at weekly intervals. So what happened?

Spring semester. Last semester I didn't have class responsibilities, I only audited. I feel like a classroom virgin again. Despite my struggles to get back in the rhythms of my fab creative writing program, it's great to be 'back in the saddle.'

The Memory Palace had glowing reviews and I anticipated a fine read. The premise is delicious and has all the necessary components of compelling memoir. As an adult, Mira Bartok is injured in a serious car accident. She can't think straight, suffers from cognitive deficits. While she struggles with a loss in brain function, she reconnects to her long-estranged, ailing mother, Norma. Both Mira and her sister cut off contact with Norma years before, going so far as to change their names, to protect themselves from Norma's abusive, paranoid and violent behavior. Their mother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.

I don't envy Bartok's job as a writer because telling the true story of growing up in a crazy world is excruciatingly tough. When you grow up in an environment where everything and everyone around you is crazy your ability to form and process memories becomes impaired. From this, I know. So maybe that's why The Memory Palace had a disjointed, ephemeral feel. I read this a few months ago, and my own memory falters here, but what I remember is this: I was a frustrated reader. The narrative fragmented, slipped in and out of time. I tried to hang on, to stay engaged, but fought to keep my interest from slipping. Bartok's prose kept me at arm's distance. What I wanted: to feel more of a connection to the author, to hold onto the thread of her story in a more linear fashion.

Next up, something completely different -- Stuart O'Nan's "Last Night at the Lobster."

Friday, January 6, 2012

Your Voice in My Head, by Emma Forrest

When asked for parenting advice, Lori Palatnick, the leader of the group which sponsored the trip I took to Israel this past summer, said this: What children -- and adults -- want, more than love, is to be understood. For someone to "get" them.

My friend, Nancy, wrote a story about how she struggled with anxiety while on a walking tour abroad. At the story's sweet end Nancy finds inner calm by connecting with another traveler. Both Lori's advice and Nancy's story illustrate the allure of memoir: by attending to our innate need to forge relationships with others, we find meaning, and gain a deeper understanding of ourselves.

Read "Your Voice in My Head." Emma Forrest's own voice is funny, sarcastic and staggeringly honest as she writes about her rocky path. Depressed, bulimic, lonely and self-mutilating, she finally finds an understanding, sympathetic and trustworthy psychiatrist. One day, unable to reach him, she discovers he had died. Then, as she struggles to overcome the shock and pain of this loss, her serious boyfriend (Colin Farrell, for all you People Magazine and TMZ lovers), breaks up with her.

Forrest, so unmoored and mired in loss, takes the reader deep to the core, to that place of honest connection. It's a courageous book. A hopeful book. I didn't want Forrest's story to end, but when it did, I felt changed.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Possibility of Everything, by Hope Edelman

"The Possibility of Everything" was my beach read on our family's end-of-summer trip to the Outer Banks. Gawd, I wanted to love this book. Edelman's "Motherless Daughters" will always hold a place close to my heart. When I read that book I felt, for the first time, that someone understood about growing up in a one parent, motherless household. Unexpectedly, I felt liberated, as if I'd come out of the closet.
Edelman set the bar high.
TPOE, a momoir (mommy memoir), has a great and promising premise. Edelman is an anxious mother (yup, I'm still relating, Hope), who struggles with her three-year-old's behavioral issues and takes her to Belize to find alternative, native cures. To her credit, Edelman doesn't sugar coat. Nevertheless, there was something that didn't sit quite right in TPOE. Maya's (the daughter's) behaviors never came across as pathological, although it was clear Edelman viewed them as such. Also -- and I'm hesitant to write this, as I don't want to be perceived as judgy -- Edelman often came off looking like one of those mothers. You know the ones I'm talking about -- the ones in restaurants who blithely ignore their misbehaving tots until the chaos has gone on so long, and created such a ruckus, that any attempt to reign in the child is too little and too late. Unfortunately, Edelman appeared a bit bumbling and ineffective, while poor Maya tantrumed her way across Belize.
Edelman did a disservice to the pace by slowing the narrative, plugging in too many big chunks of the history and culture of Belize. Nevertheless, her story, despite being a little unsettling, still compelled.