Paperback Picks – July

THE NIGHT CIRCUS

by Erin Morgenstern

4 stars

Erin Moregenstern has created something quite spectacular in this debut novel. Playing with ideas of magic, illusion and perception, she unveils a truly fantastic circus.  More driven by characters and imagery than by plot, Morgenstern nonetheless drew me into a labyrinth of moves and counter moves. I felt the tension, especially in the love story between the players. And, rather than fill her book with peripheral characters, she makes each person three dimensional and important. But alas, the ending lingers on too long. Morgenstern falls trap to that author’s need to explain what we’ve just read — not trusting either her story or her readers enough. Still, I was rapt all the way through and was not disappointed by this book which I have awaited for months. It’s worthy of its buzz.

You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”

STONE ARABIA

by Dana Spiotta

4 stars

I’m thinking about past events. I’m interested in recall, exact recall, of what was said, who said it and to whom. I want to know the truth, undistorted by time and revision and wishes and regrets.

So says Denise Kranis, the 40-ish narrator of Dana Spiotta’s brilliant novel, Stone Arabia. Denise is comparing her own story-telling to that of her brother Nik’s, which involves much more elaborately constructed and documented versions of reality. I love this truth-seeking premise, even more so for the way Spiotta juxtaposes the siblings’ styles and temperaments. They are both truth seekers, but who’s to say which is the real truth?

Spiotta smartly tells her story in short chapters from Denise, which move both forward and backward in time. We know she is after some explanation (some truth) to explain where (Nik’s place) and why (upset) she is the moment we meet her.  But to get to that explanation, we have to know Denise and how she thinks, what she longs for. This unveiling is where Spiotta truly shines.

I felt the memory of my father on my body, the way you feel a breeze or the heat of the sun. He did not feel – and so was not – entirely lost to me. Inside, beyond my recall of events and dates and talk, there was this hot-wired memory of his body…your experiences, the hard felt ones, don’t fade. They are written forever in your flesh, your nerves, your fingertips.

THE WORLD WE FOUND

by Thrity Umrigar

4 stars

I finished it in one day because I never wanted to put it down. I don’t know what it is about books by Indian writers, but they seem more lush and intimate to me than many American or British authors.
Here Umrigar is exploring the bonds forged by 4 women who came of age in the tumultuous India of the 1970s. 30 years later an illness brings them together again. As you would expect, there are lingering dramas, unclaimed passions and misunderstandings. All those issues are handled deftly by the author as she shifts narrators among, not just the four women, but some of their husbands as well.
She explores the cultural differences among these friends, both in light of their idealistic youth, and from the perspective of “middle age.” Muslim, Parsi, atheist, wealthy, American — all these labels come into play without being stereotyped.

So all I’m saying is, everything that seems important–our quarrels, or philosophical differences–in the end, it doesn’t matter much.  You know?  In the end, what matters is what remains.”

THE HOMECOMING OF SAMUEL LAKE

by Jenny Wingfield

4 stars

Jenny Wingfield has created something very special in this whirlpool of a novel. She wrote a story that continued to pull me in deeper and deeper, while still surprising me. Despite all the drama and heartache present in the Lake and Moses lives, I never felt emotionally manipulated and the plot never seemed contrived. Those are significant accomplishments, especially for a first-time novelist.

What ultimately unfolds is a story of family, loyalty and faith that I found hard to put down. At times deeply disturbing, I found these characters ultimately inspiring and very real.

Jenny Wingfield is definitely a writer to watch.

And she knew Life well enough to know that if one person in a house gets really miserable for any length of time, the misery spreads like smallpox.”

New Review: Stone Arabia

I’m thinking about past events. I’m interested in recall, exact recall, of what was said, who said it and to whom. I want to know the truth, undistorted by time and revision and wishes and regrets.”

So says Denise Kranis, the 40-ish narrator of Dana Spiotta’s brilliant novel, Stone Arabia. Denise is comparing her own story-telling to that of her brother Nik’s, which involves much more elaborately constructed and documented versions of reality. I love this truth-seeking premise, even more so for the way Spiotta juxtaposes the siblings’ styles and temperaments. They are both truth seekers, but who’s to say which is the real truth?

Everything about this book feels fresh and modern. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Good Squad received much more buzz, but this is the better book. For one thing, we care about the characters so much more. Denise is a woman I know in my heart. She is solid and trustworthy, but also broken and seeking. She scrapes by, adores her daughter, takes care of her mother (whose struggles with dementia add another layer to the truth & memory subtext).

Most importantly, she spoils and forgives her ne’er-do-well brother, Nik. Nik has all the trappings of a modern-day loser. A musician poised just on the wrong side of success, he is an unapologetic addict, who does not seem worthy of Denise’s loyalty. And yet, Spiotta writes him with such passion, that I loved him too.

Getting dizzy-high was just the beginning. Swing sets were his gateway drug. Nik had an intense appetite, a special extra need, and as he grew older he grew hungry for any and all alterations. I watched it; it was impossible not to miss his difference, how he craved anything that undid his equilibrium.”

Spiotta smartly tells her story in short chapters from Denise, which move both forward and backward in time. We know she is after some explanation (some truth) to explain where (Nik’s place) and why (upset) she is the moment we meet her.  But to get to that explanation, we have to know Denise and how she thinks, what she longs for. This unveiling is where Spiotta truly shines.

I felt the memory of my father on my body, the way you feel a breeze or the heat of the sun. He did not feel – and so was not – entirely lost to me. Inside, beyond my recall of events and dates and talk, there was this hot-wired memory of his body…your experiences, the hard felt ones, don’t fade. They are written forever in your flesh, your nerves, your fingertips.”

Into these passages, she intersperses excerpts of Nik’s Journals, which read like the Rolling Stone version of Denise’s recollections.  Add to this mix, Denise’s daughter, a documentary film-maker and you start to get the many layers Spiotta adds to the story-telling.

My eternal thanks to Kathy, for reminding me over and over that I really needed to read this book. She was right.