Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon
Scribner • $37.50 • ISBN 9780743236713
On sale November 13, 2012
I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon is the most fascinating book I have read in 2012—or at least it is so far, and I'm only 120 pages in (out of about 700 pages of text . . . there are also 701 footnotes and an extensive bibliography and index). The book explores "horizontal identities" and how parents, children and the world at large respond to difference. This might sound a little dry, but stick with me.
Vertical identities are identities that are naturally passed from generation to the next. For example: Most Jewish children also have Jewish parents; most parents who speak Greek raise their children to speak Greek, too; most African-American kids have African-American parents. Families can relate to each other based on these shared identities that they've passed through the generations.
People with horizontal identities were born with (or acquired) traits that their parents don't have, so they had to form identities from a peer group. People with horizontal identities might include: deaf people, dwarfs, people with Down syndrome, people with schizophrenia and transgender people.
Solomon is gay (he was born to straight parents) and writes poignantly of his own horizontal identity in the first chapter. Then, in chapters grouped by type of exceptionalism he profiles hundreds of families, provides historical context and shows how many, many ways there are moving through this world. Yes, some of the stories are depressing or sad, but so many are hopeful and beautiful. This book is messy and it will make you think.
From what I've read, each chapter feels like a book in itself. (Besides the horizontal identities I mentioned above, Solomon writes about autistic people, severely disabled people, prodigies, people born of rape and criminals.) Far From the Tree is thoughtful and respectful and encourages readers to make their own conclusions. I am enjoying it very much and can't wait for some extended reading time over Thanksgiving.
It's hard to choose an excerpt for this post, since the real value in the book comes from taking in the many different experiences of the families Solomon talks to. But those stories are long and nuanced and don't lend themselves to a short excerpt. So, here's an excerpt that might make you think a bit about cochlear implants and the experience of children born deaf. (I had always assumed that the implants were a good thing—full stop . . . and had never considered the devices as a threat to Deaf identity and community.)
The question, really, is how we define the relationship between parents and children. A hundred years ago, children were effectively property, and you could do almost anything to them short of killing them. Now, children are empowered. But parents still decide what their children should wear, what they should eat, when they should sleep, and so on. Are decisions about bodily integrity also properly the province of parents? Some opponents of implants have proposed that people make their own choice when they turn eighteen. Even putting aside the neural issues that make this impractical, it is a flawed proposition. At eighteen, you are choosing not simply between being deaf and being hearing, but between the culture you have known and the life you have not. By then, your experience of the world has been defined by being deaf, and to give it up is to reject whom you have become.
Children with implants have experienced social difficulties; if the objective of the implants is to make the children feel good about themselves, the results are mixed. Some become what William Evans of the University of California has called "culturally homeless," neither hearing nor Deaf. The population at large does not like threats to binaries; binaries drive homophobia and racism and xenophobia, the constant impulse to define an us and a them. The wall between hearing and deaf is being broken down by a broad range of technology: hearing aids and implants that create what some activists call the "cyborg mix," bodies that are physically enhanced in some way.
Though some implanted adolescents disconnect them in their teen years, most perceive them as extremely useful. In one study from 2002, two-thirds of parents reported that their children had never refused to use the implant; there is presumably more adolescent resistance to, for example seat belts.
What are you reading today?
Indiscretion by Charles Dubow
Morrow • $25.99 • ISBN 9780062201058
On sale February 5, 2013
And what a page-turner it is. The plot follows the life of a seemingly perfect woman who is married to a National Book Award-winning author. They spend their summers in a lovely cottage in East Hampton; life is good. Early in the novel, they take a young woman, Claire, under their wings, and she comes to adore Harry and Maddy. Claire's very sad when the summer is over, but that winter she comes back into their lives with a vengeance, and nothing is ever the same . . .
The editor's letter compares Indiscretion to The Great Gatsby. Though the storytelling here doesn't have the elegance of Fitzgerald's classic (what does?), the plot does follow the same sort of tortured upper-class characters who experience a tragic fall from grace. If you like reading about glamorous lifestyles and the split-second choices that can upend a person's life, then this book is for you.
In the novel, the narrator is Maddy's best friend, Walter, an observer of the summer's activities and all that comes after. Here's an early scene:
Labor Day. The summer's last hurrah. Already night is falling earlier. Autumn is waiting on the doorstep. People bring sweaters when they go out in the evening.
Claire is driving with me. She has been out every weekend. She is now one of the gang, part of a nucleus that never changes even when minor characters drift in and out at restaurants, cocktail parties, lazy afternoons at the Winslows' or at the beach, nights playing charades, sailing in my little sailboat, Johnny's ninth birthday, skinny-dipping in the ocean, or sitting under the stars listening to Verdi. We are all tan. [...]
I am deposing her. Where she was born, where she lived, where she went to college, what she studied, why she does what she does, who she is. My right hand itches for a yellow legal pad to scratch it all down, but I will remember it well enough.
She is a willing witness, her tongue loosened by gin. And I am on my best behavior, not aggressive, but solicitous, empathetic. She tells me about her father, her French mother, her younger brother, who lives in California, where he works for a software company. But I also know witnesses have their own motivations. They will lie, or twist facts, if they have to. They can be resentful or closed, releasing only the most meager information. Others want me to like them thinking that will color my interpretation of the law.
And it is clear that Claire wants me to like her. Not romantically, alas. No, she is too easy around me for that. Instead, she treats me the way one would treat a prospective employer.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Little, Brown • $25.99 • ISBN 9780316204279
on sale August 14, 2012
Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette may just be the most unique and hilarious book I've read all year. It's a sendup of the culture of Microsoft and Seattle private schools. An epistolary novel that includes emails, faxes, police reports and even a TED talk. A surprisingly poignant story of a family's love.
A former TV writer, Semple partially based the novel on her own experience of moving from Los Angeles to Seattle, she explains in an interview in BookPage. At first, she didn't like the city. (She likes it now.) Neither does her main character Bernadette, an agoraphobic architect who makes the same move, never to design again, after a terrible accident at the beginning of her high-profile career. In Where'd You Go, Bernadette, Bernadette disappears after a disastrous school fundraiser and before a planned family trip to Antarctica. Her resourceful daughter Bee will do anything to figure out where she's gone.
Here's a section in Bernadette's voice. Are you hooked yet? You can start reading more on Tuesday, when the novel goes on sale.
As much as I try not to engage people in the grocery checkout, I couldn't resist one day when I overheard one refer to Seattle as "cosmopolitan." Encouraged, I asked, "Really?" She said, Sure, Seattle is full of people from all over. "Like where?" Her answer, "Alasksa. I have a ton of friends from Alaska." Whoomp, there it is.
Let's play a game. I'll say a word, and you say the first word that pops into your head. Ready?
What you've heard about the rain: it's all true. So you'd think it would become part of the fabric, especially among the lifers. But every time it rains, and you have to interact with someone, here's what they'll say: "Can you believe the weather?" And you want to say, "Actually, I can believe the weather. What I can't believe is that I'm actually having a conversation about the weather." But I don't say that, you see, because that would be instigating a fight, something I try my best to avoid, with mixed results.
Getting into fights with people makes my heart race. Not getting into fights with people makes my heart race. Even sleeping makes my heart race!
What are you reading today?
A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller
Minotaur • $24.99 • ISBN 9781250003485
On sale August 21, 2012
Before I even cracked the cover, it was obvious that Julia Keller's debut novel, A Killing in the Hills, has a lot going for it. The author is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune journalist, and her book has received advanced praise from four of the best suspense novelists around: Dennis Lehane, Scott Turow, Laura Lippman and Tom Franklin. I'd call that a pre-publication publicity home run . . . wouldn't you?
Fortunately, the story that's inside the cover holds up to the hype. It's a spooky and atmospheric tale of what happens after three men are murdered in a coffee shop in the small Appalachian town of Acker's Gap, West Virginia. A teenaged waitress sees the murders, but she's not just any old witness: Her mother is the county prosecuting attorney. Turns out both mother and daughter have a stake in catching the killer . . . who may not be done with his rampage.
Here's an excerpt from the beginning of this suspenseful story:
The old men sat around the little plastic table in the crowded restaurant, a trio of geezers in shiny black jackets, mumbling, chuckling, shaking their heads and then blowing across the tops of their brown cardboard cubs of coffee, pushing out their flabby pink old-man lips to do so.
Then sipping. Then blowing again.
Jesus, Carla thought. What a bunch of losers.
Watching them made her feel, in every restless inch of her seventeen-year-old body, so infinitely superior to these withered fools and their pathetic little rituals that she was pretty sure it showed; she was fairly certain her contempt was half-visible, rising from her skin in a skittish little shimmer. The late-morning sunshine flooding in through the floor-to-ceiling glass walls made everything look sharper, rawer, the edges more intense. You can't hide a thing in here.
She would remember this moment for the rest of her life. Because it was The line.
Because at this point, she would realize later, these three old men had less than a minute to live.
What are you reading today?
And When She Was Good by Laura Lippman
Morrow • $26.99 • ISBN 9780061706875
On sale August 14, 2012
I am a huge fan of Laura Lippman—her smart thrillers make me think, stick with me for days and (best of all!) keep me turning pages long into the night. Her newest novel, And When She Was Good, is no exception. It's also now officially tied with I'd Know You Anywhere as my favorite Lippman thriller.
The story is about Helen, a smart girl from an abusive family who eventually turns to sex work to make ends meet. She risks her life to sneak away to the library, but she never receives a formal education. She ends up pregnant by her pimp, who eventually goes to jail for a series of illegal deeds. Fast forward more than 15 years, and Helen—now Heloise—has a relatively normal life. She lives in a nice house on a quiet street, and her polite son excels in school. Only thing out of the ordinary is that she's actually an efficient and successful suburban madam (and working call girl), catering to the beltway's elite. She's got a clever cover for her business and a foolproof method of destroying her paper trail—but her situation starts to get increasingly dire when a madam from the next county over winds up dead. Here's a taste of the plot:
When the Suburban Madam first showed up in the news, she was defiant and cocky, bragging of a little black book that would strike fear in the hearts of powerful men throughout the state. She gave interviews. She dropped tantalizing hints about shocking revelations to come. She allowed herself to be photographed in her determinedly Pottery Barn-ed family room. She made a point of saying how tough she was, indomitable, someone who never ran from a fight. Now, a month out from trial, she is dead, discovered in her own garage, in her Honda Pilot, which was chugging away. If the news reporters are to be believed—always a big if, in Heloise's mind—it appears there never was a black book, no list of powerful men, no big revelations in her computer despite diligent searching and scrubbing by the authorities. Lies? Bluffs? Delusions? Perhaps she was just an ordinary sex worker who thought she had a better chance at a book deal or a stint on reality television if she claimed to run something more grandiose.
A woman's voice breaks into Heloise's thoughts.
"How pathetic," she says. "Women like that—all one can do is pity them."
The woman's pronouncement is not that different from what Heloise has been thinking, yet she finds herself automatically switching sides.
What are you reading today? Have you read any good thrillers lately?
In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
Simon & Schuster • $25 • ISBN 9781451657708
On sale August 7, 2012
Vaddey Ratner's debut novel caught my attention when I read this effusive recommendation from author Chris Cleave: "In the Shadow of the Banyan is one of the most extraordinary acts of storytelling I have ever encountered." Turns out the story, which details a family's experience during the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s, actually lives up to that high praise.
The main character and narrator is Raami, a tough little girl who is separated from her family and forced to perform hard physical labor—an experience that mirrors the real life of the author, who was five when the Khmer Rouge came to power. It is difficult to read about Raami's hardships, and sometimes it seems like she will never emerge from her life's hell. What makes the story so remarkable, however, is how Ratner constantly juxtaposes horror with small moments of beauty. Even her characters are aware of this tension, and it really is satisfying to read about the resilience of human beings.
Here are a couple examples:
"Do you know why I told you stories, Raami?" he [her father] asked. We'd left the others, their panic and fears, and hid ourselves in the solitude of the meditation pavilion.
I shook my head. I knew nothing, understood nothing.
"When I thought you couldn't walk, I wanted to make sure you could fly." His voice was calm, soothing, as if it were just another evening, another conversation. "I told you stories to give you wings, Raami, so that you would never be trapped by anything—your name, your title, the limits of your body, this world's suffering." He glanced up at the face of the wooden Buddha in its corner of the room and, as if conceding to some argument they'd had earlier, murmured, "Yes, it's true everywhere you look there is suffering—an old man has disappeared, a baby died and his coffin is a desk, we live in the classrooms haunted by ghosts, this sacred ground is stained with the blood of murdered monks." He swallowed, then cupping my face in his hands, continued, "My greatest desire, Raami, is to see you live. If I must suffer so that you can live, then I will gladly give up my life for you, just as I once gave up everything to see you walk."
Joy and sorrow often travel the same road and sometimes whether by grace or misfortune they meet and become each other's companion.
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Random House • $26 • ISBN 9780812992977
on sale June 26, 2012
The story is about Julia, a sixth-grader who lives in suburban California. She's preoccupied with fitting in at school, buying her first bra, talking to her crush—and something that has global consequences. Julia wakes up one morning, and the earth has started to rotate at a slower pace. At first, it's just a few minutes added on to every day, but before long, days and nights are twice as long as they used to be. Crops can't grow and gravity is messed up. People are getting sick from sunburns, and electricity isn't consistent. World leaders insist on keeping to a 24-hour schedule, but some "real timers" try to stay awake during sunlight and sleep when it's dark, keeping up with circadian rhythms.
This is a tender and beautiful coming-of-age story with a chilling sci-fi twist—except "the slowing" feels hauntingly plausible. Aimee Bender calls the novel "at once a love letter to the world as we know it and an elegy," and I completely agree. Here's an excerpt that describes some of the consequences of "the slowing."
Five thousand years of art and superstition would suggest that it's the darkness that haunts us most, that the night is when the human mind is most apt to be disturbed. But dozens of experiments conducted in the aftermath of the slowing revealed that it was not the darkness that tampered most with our moods. It was the light.
As the days stretched further, we faced a new phenomenon: Certain clock days began and ended before the sun ever rose—or else began and ended before the sun ever set.
Scientists had long been aware of the negative effects of prolonged daylight on human brain chemistry. Rates of suicide, for example, had always been highest above the Arctic Circle, where self-inflicted gunshot wounds surged every summer, the continuous daylight driving some people mad.
As our days neared forty-eight hours, those of us living in the lower latitudes began to suffer similarly from the relentlessness of light.
Studies soon documented an increase in impulsiveness during the long daylight periods. It had something to do with serotonin; we were all a little crazed. Online gambling increased steadily throughout every stretch of daylight, and there is some evidence that major stock trades were made more often on light days than on dark ones. Rates of murder and other violent crimes also spiked while the sun was in our hemisphere—we discovered very quickly the dangers of the white nights.
We took more risks. Desires were less checked. Temptation was harder to resist. Some of us made decisions we might not otherwise have made.
The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani
HarperCollins • $26.99 • ISBN 9780061257094
Published April 3, 2012
This is one of those novels that you just want to curl up with. The story unfolds slowly, but it doesn't drag; by the end of the nearly 500 pages, the characters will have touched your heart and become like family.
The story is about Enza Ravanelli, poor but happy and devoted to her family, and Ciro Lazzari, an orphan who is raised by nuns in a convent. They two meet as teenagers in the Italian Alps and sense a strong connection—but they don't have an easy happily ever after. Separately, they end up in the United States, where Ciro becomes a shoemaker, and Enza eventually works as a seamstress for the great Enrico Caruso at the Metropolitan Opera. Along the way, their paths cross again . . .
Here's an excerpt from one of their early meetings in America.
An accordion played in the distance, underscoring peals of laughter and the low drone of scattered conversation from the porches and yards close by. The cool night air had the scent of buttery caramel and cigar smoke. Rolling gray clouds from the last of the fireworks hung over the jagged rooftops of Little Italy as the moon, full and blue, pushed through the haze to illuminate the garden.
"You have a tree!" Enza exclaimed.
"How many trees did we have on the mountain?" Ciro asked. He put his hands in his pockets and stood back from her, observing her delight.
"More," Ciro remembered. "And here, all I have is this one tree, and it's more precious to me than all the forest below Pizzo Camino. Who would have thought that one tree could bring me so much joy? I'm almost ashamed."
"I understand. Any small thing that reminds me of home is a treasure. Sometimes it's small—a bowl of soup that makes me think of my mother—or it's a color. I saw a blue parasol in the crowd this afternoon that reminded me of the lake by the waterwheel in Schilpario. It's the kind of thing that catches you unaware and fills you with a deep longing for everything you once knew. Don't apologize for loving this tree. If I had a tree, I'd feel the same."
Ciro wished he had more time to talk with her.
Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik
Del Rey • $25 • ISBN 9780345522863
published March 6, 2012
Since the 2006 publication of her first novel in the Temeraire series, His Majesty's Dragon, Naomi Novik's star has risen quickly in the world of science fiction and fantasy. The Temeraire books (named for the dragon whose exploits they follow) have earned praise from such luminaries as Stephen King and director Peter Jackson, who has optioned the series for a possible film adaptation. There's no doubt they would make terrific movies, with their vivid characters (both human and dragon), their exciting battle scenes and their lush and varied historical settings.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Temeraire and his captain, Will Laurence, have traveled across the globe in the service of Britain's Royal Aerial Corps, from England to China to Turkey to the southern tip of Africa to, most recently, Australia (for reasons that I will refrain from revealing, so as not to spoil readers new to the series). Now, in Crucible of Gold, they are being sent to South America to negotiate with the Portuguese royal family in Brazil.
In this excerpt, the dragons Temeraire and Iskierka display their very dragonish love of treasure and fine things:
"I cannot say much for a pavilion without a roof," Iskierka said, with quite unbearable superiority, "and anyway you cannot bring it along, so even if it were finished, it would not be of any use. I do not think anyone can disagree I have used my time better."
Temeraire could disagree, very vehemently, but when Iskierka had chivvied a few of her crew—newly brought on in Madras—into bringing up the sea-chests from below, and throwing open the lids to let the sunlight in upon the heaped golden vessels, and even one small casket of beautifully cut gemstones, he found his arguments did ring a little hollow. It seemed the Allegiance had in her lumbering way still managed to get into flying distance of not one but three lawful prizes, on the way to Madras, and another one on the way back, when Hammond's urgent need of a transport to carry Temeraire to Rio had necessitated her abrupt about-face and return.
"It does not seem very fair," Temeraire said to Laurence, "when one considers how much sea-journeying we have done, without even one French merchantman coming anywhere in reach; and I do not find that Riley expects we should meet others on the way to Brazil, either."
"No, but we may meet a whaler or two, if you like," Laurence said absently. Temeraire was not mollified; whales were perfectly tolerable creatures, very good eating when not excessively large, but no-one could compare them to cartloads of gems and gold; and as for ambergris, he did not care for the scent.
Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick
Algonquin • $24.95 • ISBN 9781565129238
Published June 12, 2012
The novel takes place in 1948 in Brownsburg, Virginia. This is a small town where "no crime has ever been committed" and where people start to talk when a stranger, Charlie Beale, comes to stay. Charlie gets work at the butcher shop, and practically becomes part of the butcher's family—soon acting as a second father to Sam, the butcher's five-year-old son. A drifter who is looking to finally belong in a community, Charlie also buys up land, tries out all the local churches and longs for the love a woman. Unfortunately for Charlie—and for all of the people of Brownsburg—he falls for Sylvan Glass, the wife of the richest guy in town, a man who is also the least popular. For reasons I can't explain here (I don't want any spoilers!), their relationship profoundly affects Sam, and everyone else in Brownsburg. Here's an excerpt that describes Charlie's obsessive love for Sylvan:
He would die for her, just as he lived, now, for Sylvan and Sylvan alone. He would be a better person on her behalf, and he would be patient as Job, saying nothing, applying no pressure, wanting everything and expecting nothing. But it was hard for him, it was hard to pay attention to anything else, to focus on anything that didn't have to do with her.
Everybody in town began to notice the change in him, the distance. What he did with his body began to show in his face. They could sense, dimly at first and then more clearly, that his enthusiasms had become particular, and they knew they had become particular for a particular woman.
What are you reading today? Will you check out Heading Out to Wonderful in June? Are you a fan of A Reliable Wife?