What I’ve been reading

My last post came from New York where I spent four wonderful days enjoying the city and the company of a number of new friends. I visited Sara Weiss, my editor at Grand Central, and came home loaded with books to read. When I finished those, I bought some more.

They were all fiction with the exception of THE FIRE OUTSIDE MY WINDOW, Sandra Younger’s powerful story of the 2003 Cedar Fire, the largest wildfire in California history.

I remember where I was when I realized that it was no ordinary fire, burning too far away to worry about. We live in the city within shouting distance of Mission Bay. I was standing at the closed outdoor barbeque when something like a feather landed on my nose. And then on my eyelid. I looked at the top of the grill and saw that it was covered with a thin coating of ash. At that moment I realized that the air smelled of smoke and the sky was stained the color of nicotine. Sandra is a gifted storyteller and a first class journalist. Even if you prefer fiction over nonfiction, you’ll be riveted by THE FIRE OUTSIDE MY WINDOW.

A warning about YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN by Jean Hanff Korelitz: if you’re inclined to doubt the men you love, don’t read this because it’ll feed your every suspicion. The book starts a little slowly for my taste and maybe Grace could have felt the pain a little more intensely — again, that’s my taste. With a couple of reservations, this book is a lot fun and hard to put down once it warms up.

THE MIDDLESTEINS is the big-hearted story of two generations of a dysfunctional Chicago family. Quirky? Yes, but real from their dandruff to their ingrown toenails. Again and again this novel surprised me. Made me laugh aloud and until the end, I wasn’t sure how it would resolve itself. Jami Attenberg is a wonderful writer.

THE BLESSINGS: another family “saga.” I confess, it’s a favorite genre of mine. Elise Juska’s novel is really a series of short stories about the Blessing family, residents of a working class Philadelphia neighborhood. One by one, the family members reveal themselves, and as each develops in richly depicted layers of desire, resentment, disappointment and hope, the family picture comes into sharp focus. As in THE MIDDLESTEINS, the details are right on key and I felt as if I’d known Juska and Attenberg’s characters all my life. In both books the arc of every relationship curves toward love.

The most unusual novel I read during the fall was BURIAL RITES, the first novel by Australian Hannah Kent. The story is set in – of all things for an Aussie to write about – early Nineteenth Century Iceland and is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir who was accused of conspiring to murder her lover. Kent is a beautiful writer, vigorous, poetic, and unsparingly honest. She brings to life a time and place and way of life that is almost impossible to comprehend now, from the vantage point of sunny Southern California, 2014. I had to keep reminding myself that this wasn’t a fantasy. I became immersed in BURIAL RITES and swept along by the towering waves of Agnes’s misfortune: born too poor, too willful, too beautiful and intelligent to be allowed to live.

In January I’ll put aside other writers’ stories and begin work on two projects. I’ll start my next novel and I’ll take the first steps toward putting online my weekend bootcamp for writers, NovelCram. Both jobs will be a challenge. I’ll keep you posted on my progress. In the meantime, have a safe New Year’s Eve and read a lot of good books in 2014.

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