I recently watched the first season of Justified, and the pilot episode ends with U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens asking his ex-wife if he's an angry man. She turns to Raylan and says that he's the angriest man she has ever known. I kept thinking about this line throughout The Woman Upstairs, which opens with 42-year-old third-grade teacher Nora Eldridge asking, "How angry am I? You don't want to know." As it turns out, hell hath no fury like a schoolteacher. Nora is ready for a change, and she's determined to take what she wants. But it's what she wants that’s questionable.
Nora develops an infatuation with a bullied student, Reza, and his mother Sirena, an aspiring artist. What begins as friendship turns into an obsession. "Don't all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury." Nora is very much in touch with her fury and out of touch with everything else. She's disgusted by everything around her, yet constantly making excuses for herself. The lack of self-awareness becomes the magnet that pulls the reader along as Nora attempts to insert herself in Reza and Sirena's life.
Ursula Todd has many pasts and many futures. Every time she dies, Ursula starts back at the beginning of her life, able to proceed differently the next time (think Groundhog Day meets The Butterfly Effect). Atkinson doesn't spend much time dwelling on the whys of the cosmic trappings of her novel and neither does Ursula, who is barely aware that this is happening to her, except through a sense of chilling déjà vu that causes her to avoid repeating the same tragedies. Accept the metaphysics as a given, because Atkinson isn’t interested in explaining them. Instead, she wants to explore the bigger questions surrounding Ursula's many lives: How does one life affect others? What is the value of a life when you have many of them?
These themes are explored on different scales, and Life After Life leaps back and forth in time, and between alternate histories. It can be a little disorienting at first, but Atkinson gives us just enough to go on that the narrative threads can be followed. We see how Ursula's actions affect her own life and the lives of her friends and family. Toward the end of Life After Life, Kate Atkinson writes, "Sometimes it was harder to change the past than the future."
In this installment of Rock Memoir Book Club, we discuss Luck or Something Like It by Kenny Rogers.
Discussion question no. 1: Who is Kenny Rogers?
I don’t mean in the philosophical, “Who is anybody, really?” sense. I mean, I have no idea who Kenny Rogers is after reading Kenny Rogers’s book. Luck or Something Like It is one of those rock-star memoirs — like Neil Young’s similarly rambling, content-free Waging Heavy Peace — that seeks to re-create the experience of listening to the subject speak amiably about nothing in particular for several hours. Luck is a pleasant-enough read, but don’t expect any insight into what truly makes the Gambler hold ’em and/or fold ’em.
Wave opens immediately as the tsunami hits on Boxing Day in 2004. Sonali Deraniyagala is with her family, vacationing in Yala, a park on the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka. From their hotel room, Deraniyagala can see the wave approaching, and, from a distant, it seems like nothing. “It didn’t seem that remarkable. Or alarming,” she writes. “It was only the white curl of a big wave.”
Moments later, after a failed escape in the back of a jeep, Deraniyagala loses everything — her parents, her husband, her two sons — in the sudden and brutal force of the tsunami. It is with the same unforgiving ferocity that Wave becomes a brave and shattering memoir of survival.
Looks like postmodern-lit icon Thomas Pynchon, the Punxsutawney Phil of American letters, will publish a new novel called Bleeding Edge on September 17, his first since 2009's stoner-P.I. yarn Inherent Vice. According to a year-end financial report released by Penguin Press and subsequently tweeted about by Sarah Weinman of Publishers Marketplace, the book takes place in New York's Silicon Alley during “the lull between the collapse of the dot-com boom and the terrible events of September 11.”
For now, that's all we know. The almost-contemporary setting is a surprise, given that Pynchon's last three books took place in the late 18th century (Mason & Dixon), at the turn of the 20th (Against the Day), and in 1970 (Vice). But the author has been a (more-or-less-anonymous) Manhattanite for many years, and presumably experienced both the crash and 9/11 as directly as everyone else in the city did back then. Smart money — to the extent that there's a smart-money bet to be made with regard to the plots of still-aborning Pynchon novels — says the two cataclysms will turn out to be connected in a million ways and maybe posited as the product of the same set of historical forces. Or maybe it'll be about the rise and fall of a thinly disguised Kozmo.com-like company that's actually an arm of the Tristero. Please let that be the case.
A friend recently told me that I didn't recommend enough novels in this column, which I thought was a little crazy, because the majority of my suggestions skew heavily toward fiction. "No," he said, "I want to read a NOVEL." I told him saying "novel" more loudly didn't really clarify his point.
But after thinking about it, I believe what he was looking for was a novel in the classic sense — something lengthy and ambitious, something that attempts to be A Great Work of American Fiction. So to anyone who feels the same way, I wholeheartedly recommend Stuart Nadler's sweeping, decade-spanning debut novel, Wise Men. It's the sort of patiently paced story you can settle into, steeped in rich characters and historical context.
My favorite Kurt Vonnegut novel is Timequake, in which a cosmic ripple forces everyone on Earth to relive the past decade of their lives but are unable to change any of their actions. It's part Vonnegut autobiography, part exploration of determinism: People re-experience their greatest mistakes and the death of loved ones. The Reenactments puts memoirist Nick Flynn in a similar position.
Flynn has penned two books, one about his alcoholic father (Another Bullshit Night in Suck City) and one about his mother's suicide (The Ticking Is the Bomb), which in 2012 were combined into a single film adaptation called Being Flynn. The Reenactments collects Nick Flynn's experience penning the script and working on set. This isn't a Hollywood behind-the-scenes sort of affair as much as it is a tale of Flynn coming to terms with seeing the hardest moments of his life staged and filmed. Flynn plays with a lot of ideas here: conflicts of self, consciousness, and memory are evoked through his interactions with the film's director, Paul Weitz, and the actors in the film. There's a great scene where Robert De Niro, who plays Flynn's father, meets Flynn's real-life alcoholic father in Boston, as well as some sticky interactions with Paul Dano, who plays Flynn himself. (Dano is equally poetic: In an e-mail to Flynn, he asks "Where are your scars?")
After 30 years of marriage, Richard Middlestein leaves his wife Edie, a lawyer whose lifelong love of food has slowly but surely pushed her weight above 350 pounds. This is the setup for The Middlesteins, an honest, hilarious portrait of a fractured Jewish family in the Midwest. Throughout September, I'd recommended the book to friends as a funnier, shorter Jonathan Franzen novel. I said this to three or four people before someone pointed out that the cover has a blurb by Franzen on it. (It does not say "a funnier, shorter version of my work.")
In college, I had a creative writing professor who claimed Junot Díaz had read 100 short-story collections before he penned a single word of his first book of stories, Drown. That professor (or maybe it was a friend of hers) later met Díaz and asked him if that was true. It turned out to be false. He had actually read 400 books of short stories.
Junot Díaz became a literary icon when he authored the universally revered The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This might be a crude parallel, but much in the way Louis C.K. is a comic’s comic, Díaz is a fiction writer’s writer. He’s gifted, well read, and eschews pressures to be commercially successful. A great way to not sell so many books: follow up a Pulitzer Prize–winning novel with a collection of linked short stories about, of all things, a boy falling in love. (From an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Díaz says, “I know for a fact that — it’s just the way our biases work now in the industry of literature, but certainly a short story collection does not receive the same kind of attention as a novel.”)
This week on the podcast, Andy and I once more wade fully clothed into the in-ground pool that is Breaking Bad. We address the anvil-on-the-chest charm of Walter and Skyler White's domestic life, with a special segment dedicated to their aversion to turning on lamps. Has Walter White become too evil? And does that matter? Also, can we get a show that's just Mike, Lydia, and Jesse eating at a diner?
We then move on to lighter fare to discuss one of the few premiering shows this summer, NBC's new Matthew Perry vehicle, Go On. Somehow we go off on a tangent about accordion-friendly 1980s stand-up comic Judy Tenuta. Don't ask.
For Pepper, what should be a 72-hour stay at the New Hyde Hospital's psych ward turns into a prolonged, drug-induced incarceration. But as a troublemaker with a cynical edge, the mental institution gives Pepper the chance to confront his personal demons. And also a real demon. New Hyde, it turns out, is haunted by the devil.
The premise is silly, but The Devil in Silver is a smart, savvy piece of literary horror. It's ambitious without being self-serious, and it's also appropriately spooky when it wants to be. Victor LaValle became a critical darling with his last novel, Big Machine, which dealt with themes of race and class. The Devil in Silver follows suit, its characters the victims of a cruel and unsympathetic system.
The Super Lab may have been destroyed, but that won’t stop Chris Ryan and me from getting back in our lab and cooking up some podcasts for our hungry audience. First up is the return of Breaking Bad (:50): We chop it up about the season premiere and what it means for the rest of these final 15 episodes. Then we take a look at the new USA series Political Animals (13:00), which features Sigourney Weaver, an insane performance by Ciarán Hinds, and a menacing bathroom of truth. Then it's off to the multiplexes, where we marvel over the strange beauty of Beasts of the Southern Wild (30:10) and preview our excitement over the imminent release of The Dark Knight Rises (38:05). (There may or may not also be a little crosstalk about America’s soon-to-be-favorite talking space raccoon.) Finally, the Double Down Book Club (49:35) marches on with the inevitable inclusion of John D. MacDonald and his immortal creation, Travis McGee. Check out The Deep Blue Good-by or, really, any of the 21 books in the series. Just don’t forget the cold beer.
Cheryl Strayed will be best known for her memoir Wild, released earlier this year and, last month, featured as the first pick of Oprah's relaunched book club. But this month, Strayed has an equally terrific book out, Tiny Beautiful Things, which collects the best pieces from her anonymous advice column, "Dear Sugar."
"Dear Sugar" was originally written by Steve Almond on the daring (and sometimes curmudgeonly) literary site The Rumpus, but it wasn't until Strayed took the reins that "Dear Sugar" found its dedicated Internet following. In the introduction of Tiny Beautiful Things, Almond identifies Strayed's gift for "radical empathy," the way she relates the strangest, darkest stories from her life to understand and console her pained readers.
Chris Ryan and I tried assembling the Avengers this week, but only Tigra and Dr. Druid showed up. So we left them cooling in the Quinjet and had a (spoiler-free!) conversation about The Avengers movie instead (1:20). From there, we segued into a discussion about this summer’s other upcoming blockbusters, The Dark Knight Rises and Prometheus (12:15) before circling back to our own personal tesseract, Sunday-night TV. We unpacked heavy hitters Game of Thrones (20:50) and Mad Men (29:35), as well as the newest candidate for space on your DVR, PBS’s Sherlock (40:10). To finish, we branched out into other, older media by talking up the new Japandroids album (42:00) and launching our new Double Down Summer Book Club (46:38) with a look at the work of George Pelecanos. It’s a guaranteed better time than reading back-issues of Hawkeye & Mockingbird in a Vermont cabin. We promise.
It's a book. And it’s not one of those Urban Outfitter-front-table “Cute Guys Holding Sea Otters” type of book, either. The mind-exploding screenwriter is writing a proper, real-deal novel, one that will be released by Grand Central Publishing and then probably win a Pulitzer and be required summer reading forever and get on Oprah’s Book Club. (Wait, do they not do Oprah’s Book Club anymore? OK, then they will resuscitate Oprah’s Book Club for this one.) It hasn’t yet been announced what the novel will be about, so hopefully it’ll be a biography of his imaginary twin brother Donald? Nicolas Cage could do the audiobook!