Category Archives: Sarah Nelson
Hmm….. on the one hand, it’s very atmospheric, makes you feel the Haifa poverty and inner city activity of the time period (post-WWII). On the other, translated books have that one-step-removed feel, and this novel has that in spades. It feels like reading from behind a curtain.
The story centers around a woman who decides to marry a guy from Barcelona, both Jewish, different classes, dealing with a lot of the ethnic and economic and political effects of the day. Marriage strains, sick babies, family members who aren’t cooperating, etc. If it weren’t for being set in Haifa, it would be an Aga Saga. But instead, it’s kind of an atmospheric time piece. Maybe even a peek behind the curtain.
I love character-driven books best of all, and this one isn’t. It’s setting-driven, and I have to admit that works really well. I didn’t care about the people, but it was like watching a television instead of reading in terms of the filled-in living details and little tossed-on-top nuggets of unexplained culture. It’s written from the inside, and those of us on the outside can learn a lot just from watching the casualness of the unexplained as it appears.
It’s not a book in which a lot happens action-wise, at least not most of the time, but it’s a great depiction of how time, place, and money can rock a marriage. Any marriage, any time, any place.
Four stars, shall we say?
So this isn’t really a book you LIKE. It’s a book I personally read to see how writers handled the subject (a point in your life about which you are ashamed). I wanted to study them, from style to emotion to word choice.
Some of them handled it very well, and others left me feeling like the story they had to tell wasn’t the one they were telling.
This book is a collection of short stories/essays by women who have felt shame for something, ranging from divorce to making fun of people to being bad in school. The stories tend to focus on women who have influence and affluence (discovering her husband was having an affair, one writer lobbied his Emmy at his head, if that gives you an idea). They’re not “on the ground” stories of not being able to provide, etc.
They’re also not as no-holds-barred as I was expecting as a whole, although in some cases they’re so intense that much is demanded of the reader. I read this book because Seal Press, who published it, have a great reputation for women authors with meat on their wordy skeletons. These women have things to say, and because I was dealing with a point in my own writing where shame came up, I wanted to see how they could do it graciously, conversationally, without justification or haranguing.
Well, some did and some didn’t, but when one reads for instruction and edification, one gets those things. I’m glad I read it, but it’s not a sit-down and feel-good book. In fact, at the risk of sounding demeaning or facile, this is the kind of book one keeps in the smallest room in the house, and ponders piece by piece. To do otherwise might be overwhelming. I found that reading a chapter a night dragged me down, whereas a bit here, a bit there, with time to ponder and piece together ideas and smell the flowers between, was better for my mental health.
So this is less half-hearted endorsement than an upfront admission that I read this for personal reasons, to gain insight into good writers talking about bad stuff, and I got what I came for. If you’re not interested in how shame holds us, or you’re more interested in the inspirational side a la Brene Brown, you may not like this book. But it certainly got interesting.
I really like memoirs, so when Browning’s came in with the charming title, “How I lost my job, put in my pajamas, and learned to enjoy life” I packed it on a recent flight. (It is also smaller than the average trade paperback.)
Although following a predictable pattern – NYC insider gets the boot because of hard times – what I liked about the book was Browning’s meta-writing: slow, lyrical sentences to illustrate how her life slowed down, picked up on music and gentle living, and added some herbs.
Granted, Browning is wealthy. Even though she wrote about the fear of the plummeting stock market harming her retirement savings, well, she had savings. And another house to move into that she could afford to renovate. Etc. This is a yuppie memoir.
And beautifully written. Her lazy, gentle sentences don’t meander. They are densely packed with words you might have to look up every now and then. Her observations are pithy but not concise. I found myself following her for the way she told the story, not the story she was telling. Browning is a writer’s writer.
Following my quest to find how other writers handle making the inaccessible (or at least the non-experienced) interesting to readers who don’t share the passion of the book, I read Browning to the end, and enjoyed it. If you like lyrical writing and peeking at others’ strange lives, this is a good one for those of us who don’t live, and don’t care to think about living, in Manhattan.
A full bouquet of home-grown roses for Dominique Browning’s SLOW LOVE.
How many ways is Endgame bad – the writing that has characters doing abrupt turns from their previous hopes and dreams, all in the space of one sentence? The conceit of hiding a treasure hunt inside, along the lines of that golden rabbit buried a couple decades back, and getting people to buy the book so they can do the math and be one of the treasure hunters? The really, really stupid plot device of 12 ancient lines who all know about themselves but not each other, and who have successfully passed this secret from family to family without anybody else knowing? Kids killing each other – wow, where did you get such a great new idea in YA fantasy?
Shall I go on, or do we now have enough reasons to leave James Frey’s book alone? He’s the guy who wrote A Million Little Pieces in which he claimed to have had dental surgery without anesthetic, crawled into a crack house within weeks of getting clean in order to carry his girlfriend out and enroll her in a program holding a spot for her, and been taken into the fold of a gangster who treated him as a son during their rehab. At the time I was reading Pieces I was working with addicts in a literacy program, and I remember thinking about halfway through the book, “No way, man. He’s lying.” Which turned out to be what everyone else thought, too.
Give it up, world. There is no taste, no truth, and no future. The Sky Gods are coming for us all, unless we’re one of those ancient lines or found the golden rabbit.
Short version: this book sucks.
So let me start with a caveat: this is one of those books where I liked the story more than the writing. The overly-dramatic turn of phrase and use of tension and the occasional slide into outright sentimentality might turn some people off.
But, I’m a sucker for character, and beneath the lines is a story of two true characters. Laura met Maurice when he was eleven, she divorced in her thirties. They became friends, and she pretty much mentored him and helped him through childhood without doing too many silly things. The book details several practical concerns: getting him upstairs in her posh apartment building without the doormen going crazy; dealing with what people could think when a middle aged white lady takes a teen boy into her place, and how vulnerable that makes both of them; why it was a bad idea to buy Maurice anything expensive, and what happened the one time this rule got broken. These were interesting to read about, straight up and sensible.
Then there’s the story that’s not getting told – like Laura’s second marriage and her husband’s inability to encompass Maurice as anything but an anomaly Laura had going until she met him. Etc. etc. There’s a lot of story going on behind the scenes, and I wished she had told it more up front, the way she did the practical elements.
The book also moves back and forth between Laura’s upbringing in an abusive home and Maurice’s dysfunctional family. Without saying too much, it draws subtle parallels along the lines of “things are tough all over.” This is really well done.
And the kicker is, even not really enjoying how the language of the book flowed, I wanted to know what happened next. That’s the mark of a good story to be told. Which this was.
Jack and I are headed out to emcee the Sycamore Shoals Celtic Festival in Elizabethton, TN this weekend. Busy and running about, I offer in place of a hand-written blog this LOVELY piece of news.
INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES ARE THRIVING!!!! Click the link to read all about it.