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One could argue that all literature has the writer opening themselves up to the reader. And that’s probably true as far as it goes. But very few writers can truly invite the reader in, laying bare everything and inviting our examination.

Haruki Murakami invites you in.

His latest is “First Person Singular” (Knopf, $28), a collection of eight stories that are all told – you guessed it – in the first person, tales of absurdity and magic and passion. Whether we’re getting accounts of talking monkeys or sweetly weird looks at first love or poems about baseball, it all springs from the same never-ending font of humanism, melancholic though it may sometimes be.

These are stories about being apart, being other. They’re stories offered up from the perspective of eight similar-but-different characters, only one of whom cops to the name that in truth they all fundamentally share – Haruki Murakami.

Published in Buzz

What is love?

It’s a question without an answer to which we nevertheless try to respond. Artists have been seeking that answer since there has been art. And while we’ll never have a definitive answer – it’s not that kind of question – a lot of brilliant people have come up with a lot of brilliant responses.

Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro has a few of those responses in his bibliography. His latest is “Klara and the Sun” (Knopf, $28), and it too is a response to that existential question, though that’s far from the only building block of the human condition the book explores. It’s a book that deftly embraces speculative elements in service to the telling of its very human story, all reflected through the eyes of someone who may or may not actually be … someone.

Published in Style

Introspection is difficult. Looking within ourselves and asking questions about who we are is a challenge that the vast majority of us are unable (or unwilling) to face. One can pay lip service to the notion of self-examination, but the actual doing is hard.

Too often, memoirs trend toward the lip service side of things. That’s not a judgment – it’s tough enough to tell the story of your truth to yourself, let alone to the world. It just means that the autobiographical explorations that really dig into a person’s identity are vanishingly rare.

Derek DelGaudio’s “AMORALMAN: A True Story and Other Lies” (Knopf, $27) is such a rarity, a work of thoughtful, honest self-awareness that isn’t quite like anything I’d ever read before. And believe me – that’s a good thing. It’s a story of truth that is unafraid of untruth, which might sound contradictory, but when you delve into DelGaudio’s words, it makes perfect sense.

This book is magic in multiple senses of the word. It is magic because it is narratively transportive, a book that sweeps the reader up into the world being created, pages crammed with vivid storytelling. But it is also magic in the performative sense, in that it is also about the art of stage magic, specifically sleight-of-hand. And it is magic in that it allows its author to reinvestigate his own history, to use the perspective of the present to change his view of the past – a transformation of both the man he is and the man he once was.

Published in Style

I’m always leery when I engage with a creative work from an artist who is operating outside their usual purview. It’s not that I question the ability to branch out – I’m a firm believer in the artistic power of multihyphenates – so much as that I recognize how difficult it is to excel in one aspect of creation, let alone more than one.

And so it was with trepidation that I approached Ethan Hawke’s new book “A Bright Ray of Darkness” (Knopf, $27.95). Specifically, I’ve been burned by actors-turned-novelists before, so you understand my caution. Hawke has four books in the rearview (though distant – it’s been 20 years since the last one) but I hadn’t read any of them, so again – maybe the most interesting part of the book is the name attached to it.

I needn’t have worried. Hawke has crafted an engaging work of literary autofiction, a story clearly drawn directly from his own personal experiences, yet rendered in such a way as to not feel bound to his life as it was lived. It’s something that many writers – many talented writers – fail to pull off, but he manages it quite deftly.

This tale of an actor struggling with his shifting reality – moving from a world of movie stardom to the Broadway stage, torn between accepting his crumbling marriage and striving to reassemble it – and making sometimes questionable choices in the process is tightly woven and densely packed, a meditation on masculinity and the value – both external and internal – of the redemption he seeks through his art.

Published in Style

We’ve all heard the old saw “Write what you know.” However, we don’t all agree on what that actually means.

For a writer like Susan Conley, it means carrying a deep, fundamental understanding of the sorts of people and places that you’re going to bring to life. That understanding – that knowledge – is what makes her work so engrossing and compelling.

Conley’s newest book is “Landslide” (Knopf, $26.95), a thoughtful exploration of the demographic and economic shifts that have been taking place in towns up and down the Maine coast in recent years. It’s a story of struggles – the struggle to make ends meet, the struggle to find fulfillment, the struggle of married life and motherhood – marked by occasional small moments of personal victory. All of it refracted through the prism of one woman’s perspective.

Grasping the importance of connection is a hallmark of Conley’s work – see 2019’s excellent “Elsey Comes Home” for a prime example – and she continues along that path with this one. She sets up shop in her protagonist’s head, giving the reader a first-hand look at the inner strife that comes with experiencing changes that are largely unwelcome and more than a little frightening.

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There are few better feelings than the sensation that comes with the dawning realization that the book you are reading isn’t just good, but great. No matter how much hype you’ve seen, no matter how many recommendations you’ve received, it all comes out in the reading. When the language captivates you and the narrative enthralls you and the themes provoke you … that’s a great book.

Emily St. John Mandel’s “The Glass Hotel” (Knopf, $26.95) offers up just such greatness.

It’s a mesmerizing puzzle box of a book, one whose many interconnected parts are in seemingly constant motion, both through space and time. That sense of propulsive perpetuity creates an almost insatiable hunger in the reader; we simply can’t stop. There’s a rhythm to the steady movement that borders on the hypnotic, sweeping us away at speeds that vary from snail-paced to breakneck – all in service to an incredible story.

Published in Buzz

As the old adage goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. That may be true, but what about this: you can lead a donkey to the road, but you can’t make him run.

That’s the question asked by author Christopher McDougall in his new book “Running with Sherman: The Donkey with the Heart of a Hero” (Knopf, $27,95). In this nonfiction account, McDougall tells the story of Sherman, the donkey that he and his family rescued. From sad, almost tragic beginnings, we watch as Sherman – thanks to the boundless love and patience of Chris and his family and friends – goes from a shy, sickly, socially maladjusted donkey to a lean mean racing machine … eventually.

It’s a story about a donkey, yes. But it’s also a story about the lives that are touched by the indomitable spirit of that donkey. Through the successes and the bumps in the road alike, Sherman’s refusal to give up serves to rally the people around him. It’s the story of a man who has moved his family into the middle of Amish country in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The story of a man touched by the generosity and gentleness of the Amish people.

The story of a man and his donkey.

Published in Adventure
Tuesday, 30 July 2019 22:02

Take a chance on ‘Chances Are…’

One of the realities of life is that as we grow older, it becomes more and more difficult to hold onto all of the pieces of our pasts. Parts of our lives that were earth-shattering at the time prove to not be nearly so important or even memorable. Our best friends at 20 are too rarely our best friends at 60 – and even if they are, all of us are so very different.

Time changes us all.

Few contemporary novelists capture that inevitability quite like Richard Russo. He has an incredible gift for treating the passage of time with honesty while also finding ways to accentuate the positives that come with age. His grasp of how relationships ebb and flow with time and place is largely unparalleled.

His latest is “Chances Are…” (Knopf, $26.95), a story of three men, former college roommates now in their mid-sixties, returning to the summer cottage where the paradigm of their relationship had forever changed one fateful decades-ago night. This might be the last time they’re ever together like this, so the question is – what is left to be said?

Russo’s many strengths come together here in one thoughtful and extremely readable package. His quietly elegant prose is perfect for rendering forth the emotional dynamic of the aging man; his knack for bringing small towns to life and his love of the coast come into play as well. And through it all, the steady tick-tock of time passing – a sound that is far less frightening when Russo controls the clock.

Published in Style

I’ve been a book reviewer for over of a decade. As such, I have seen a lot of books cross my desk – so many, in fact, that there’s no way that I could ever read them all. Some cuts are easy, while others are genuinely hard decisions.

One such cut I made back in 2011 was Susan Conley’s memoir “The Foremost Good Fortune.” It was one of the hard ones, but I made it. And when I finally revisited the book some years later, I realized that not only was the decision difficult … it was wrong. I promised myself I wouldn’t miss out on another offering from such a talented writer.

Hence, when I received my copy of Conley’s new novel “Elsey Come Home” (Knopf, $25.95), I immediately dug in. And what I got was a beautiful, ethereal piece of writing – a look at the power of family, the nature of creativity and the dynamics of addiction. It’s an exploration of one woman’s psyche, a look both deep and broad into what makes a person tick, packed with emotional resonance and deftly-turned phrases.

Published in Buzz
Wednesday, 19 April 2017 11:36

‘The Stars Are Fire’ burns bright

Historical fiction follows one woman’s tragedies and triumphs

Published in Style
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