Stewart O’Nan’s novels just keep getting better and better (and they were good to start with). If you missed Snow Angels, his 1995 debut, remedy that situation soon. I loved Last Night at the Lobster, and now Emily, Alone, his newest novel, is just about all that a reader looking for three-dimensional characters, terrific writing, and a true-to-life plot could ask for. It seems to me that those of us—and I am one —who are drawn to character-driven novels are really voyeurs at heart; we want to get inside a character’s head and understand what makes them tick. O’Nan’s novel satisfies that desire. Emily Maxwell, 80-year-old widow, mother, grandmother, and loyal support to her late husband’s sister, Arlene (although she doesn’t always like her), returns. (O’Nan first introduced Emily in his earlier book, Wish You Were Here, but it’s not necessary to read it to love this one.) O’Nan gives us a vivid picture of Emily’s slowing-down life: the museum visits, the funerals of friends, a trip to the flower show, doing the crossword puzzles she loves, worrying about her aging dog Rufus, listening to classical music, and, after Arlene’s stroke, caring for her sometimes difficult sister-in-law. O’Nan is spot on as he makes us understand the push and pull, tension and love, of three generations of a family, as he describes, for example, Emily’s attempt to remain close to—but not dependent on—her two grown children and four grandchildren. She tries—and sometimes succeeds—in not resenting when thank-you notes don’t arrive promptly (or at all), or when long-lived family traditions are thrown to the wind by the younger generation. In this glimpse into one family’s life over the course of most of a year, O’Nan shines a light into all our lives. Fans of Evan Connell’s masterpiece, Mrs. Bridge, or Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge are natural readers for this powerful and moving novel.
Dystopian novels for teens have been around for a while, but this particular sub-genre of fantasy got a huge second wind from Susanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. If a teen you know is looking for a good follow-up, point them toward Matched, a first novel by Ally Condie (Dutton, 2010). The novel is set in a world controlled by an all-powerful group known as The Society, in which everything about each person’s life—food intake, profession, marriage partner, date of death—is determined by statistical formulas. Seventeen year-old Cassia Reyes gets her first hint that something’s not right during the all-important Matching Ceremony when she learns who her husband will be. It turns out that it’s her best friend, Xander. But when she gets home and looks at the picture she’s been given, it’s that of Ky, one of the school outcasts. How could this discrepancy occur in a perfectly regulated society? And is there anything she can do? Can any individual take on The Society—and win? Matched is followed by Crossed, which is due out in November, 2011; but I somehow doubt that the story will end there. Perfect for 7th graders and up.
Mysteries with a touch or more of the supernatural are not hard to find on library and bookstore shelves these days; but I found Ben Aaronovitch’s novel of elastic realism, Midnight Riot, to be something special, mainly because of the voice of the narrator, London Police Constable Peter Grant. Caught in the wrong (or right?) place at the right (or wrong?) time, he stumbles upon a murder scene where a ghost approaches him and claims he witnessed the crime. As a result, Grant is assigned to work with Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, the Department’s go-to man for crimes involving magic. In short order, he finds himself enmeshed in a family feud among the personifications of the various tributaries (both above and below ground) of the Thames River. Meanwhile, this being a police procedural, he and Nightingale plod away at unraveling not only the original murder, but various other nasty events that seem to be related to it. And, under Nightingale’s tutelage, Grant begins to develop the magical abilities that he seems to have a gift for (as evidenced by his having been able to talk to the ghost witness in the first place) but of which he’s been previously unaware. Grant’s voice is colloquial and self-deprecating, the pages turn quickly, and London comes alive in all its squalor and beauty. And did I mention Toby, one of the best canine sidekicks in contemporary fiction? Fans of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere should enjoy Aaronovitch’s novel and its sequels quite a lot. Now to decide whether to shelve it with the mysteries or the fantasies…
In Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family, Patricia Volk delivers an affection-filled tribute to both family and food. In a series of vignettes, she lovingly describes her adored extended family. Each chapter, titled for a different food, from Butter Cookies to Caviar, is primarily devoted to one of her relatives. Among them are her great-grandfather, who was the first to import pastrami to New York; her grandfather, who invented the wrecking ball; her mother, forever trying to improve her daughters (“Mom made me, and now she will make me better”); her beautiful and best beloved older sister, Jo Ann; her embittered Aunt Lil, who embroidered a pillow with the phrase, “I’ve never forgotten a rotten thing anyone has done to me”; and her magnetic father, who taught her:
…how to swim, speak French, drive, eat using the utensils American-style (which nobody in America seems to do), spot welder, solder, emboss, ride English, ride western, merengue, sing pop songs from World War I’s “Keep Your Head Down Fritzie Boy” up through his favorite—the one that chokes him up, although he’s not sure why—“Younger Than Springtime,” remove a splinter, sap a blister by sticking a sterilized threaded needle through it then tying the exposed ends in a knot, carve a Thanksgiving turkey, chop, dice, and mince, make canapés, deglaze a pan, suck meat off a lobster a lobster doesn’t know it has, blind a mugger, kill a rapist with a rabbit punch, remove stains, cloisonné, and intimidate a tennis opponent by clenching my teeth then drawing my lips back and growling like a gas-station dog.
Volk’s family is sufficiently odd enough to keep anyone’s attention, while her writing (she’s also the author of a novel and two collections of stories) is both witty and tender. I pored over the all-too-few family photographs, and wished that that I, too, could be part of the whole Volk/Morgen clan.
Darin Strauss’s moving memoir, Half a Life ,is painfully honest and inherently dramatic without seeming either precious or self-pitying. When the car he was driving hit and killed Celine, a high school classmate whom he knew only casually, Strauss’s life was, as one might suspect, altered forever. Although he was held to be blameless in Celine’s death (what insurance companies refer to as “a no fault fatality”), Strauss found that this event—which occurred nearly 20 years ago—has now shaped almost half his life. In prose that is introspective, evocative, and unaffected, Strauss shares with us his musings on life, death, blame, and self-doubt. I wondered, as I read it, how I would have lived the rest of my life after the parent of someone for whose death I was, however innocently, responsible, says this to you:
I know it was not your fault, Darin. They all tell me it was not your fault . . . But I want you to remember something. Whatever you do in your life, you have to do it twice as well now . . . Because you are living it for two people . . . Can you promise me? Promise.
So how do you live your life after that?
There are so many memoirs being published these days that the ones I read sometimes blend into one gigantic life story in my head, but there’s no way I’m going to confuse Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life with any other memoir any time soon. I had forgotten, until I reread it recently, what a delight it was to spend time with this self-described “ordinary” person, learning her quirks and hang-ups, her likes and dislikes, her everyday (and not) adventures (including the inspired way she attempted to get out of paying a parking ticket—you’ll love it, trust me), all arranged, encyclopedia-style, from A (“Amy” ;“Anxious, Things That Make Me”; “Ayn Rand”) to Y (“You”), with appropriate cross-references and clever drawings to supplement the text. To get a sense of Rosenthal’s writing style (and humor), here’s how the Foreword to the book begins:
I was not abused, abandoned, or locked up as a child. My parents were not alcoholics, nor were they ever divorced or dead. We did not live in poverty, or in misery, or in an exotic country. I am not a misunderstood genius, a former child celebrity, or the child of a celebrity. I am not a drug addict, sex addict, food addict, or recovered anything. If I indeed had a past life, I have no recollection of who I was.
I have not survived against all odds.
I have not lived to tell.
I have not witnessed the extraordinary.
This is my story.
I am not a foodie, although some of my best friends are. Thus, there’s no way I would have picked up Kate Moses’s Cakewalk to read but for the photograph on the cover, which made me smile. (See, you can judge a book by its cover!) I continued reading it because Moses is a writer of salutary talents. And if I hadn’t read it, I would have missed not only an affecting memoir, but also some recipes that I feel sure—if I were a baker— I would immediately try out. If my oven works. Luckily, those friends of mine who do bake have—in return for lending them the book—let me try samples of the ever-so-tasty results of several of Moses’s recipes. Mainly focused on her life during the 1960s and 70s, her memoir is marked by parental discord and differences (her mother and father were spectacularly unsuited to one another), frequent moves, and a thorny family history. Cooking (and reading) were her lifelines out of the unhappy situations she found herself in. Each chapter includes a recipe, and each—from cheese cake to linzer tort, from spiced pecan cake to chocolate truffles—sounds more scrumptious than the one before. One bit of advice I feel compelled to give: brownies, page 209. Thanks to my friend Jeanette, I know the first version (with walnuts) is amazing.