Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Review: "The Explanation for Everything" by Lauren Grodstein

Title: The Explanation for Everything
Author: Lauren Grodstein
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Date of Publication: September 3, 2013
Pages: 352

How I Heard About It: I found this book through Netgalley, and publisher Algonquin Books kindly provided a digital copy for review. 

Two Sentence Summary: College professor Andy Waite has built his life, his research, and his academic syllabus around a fixation on his wife's murder by a young drunk driver named Oliver. When student Melissa recruits him to advise her independent study on intelligent design (an "anti-evolutionary creationism"), Andy finds that his spirituality and attempts at recovery are called into question and, for the first time, fall under a different type of microscope.

Author Lauren Grodstein

"He had never grown used to her absence, but he had learned to endure it, and to ignore her ghost, who was often waiting for him around the corner, or behind him in the office when he thought he was alone. He used to talk to her; during his first several years in New Jersey he talked to her several times a day. She would smirk or nod or roll her eyes, as expressive in death as she had been in life."

Things I Think: Very rarely do I dive into a new read without any background info. It's a strange delight, but one I don't often feel inclined to experience. (When you have a "TBR" pile as big as I do, taking a risk on the unknown can sometimes be a saddening loss of time.) I also typically avoid books with religious tones (over- or under-), so prior knowledge of the plot would have perhaps caused me to stay away. In the case of "The Explanation for Everything," the risk was well worth it.

Making morality a key character in a novel is a dangerous choice, but also brave: one false move can drive away 50% of a writer's audience in a heartbeat. So how to straddle, delicately, the infamous fence between creationism and evolution? Grodstein's tactic is to represent both sides equally. Characters in each camp are equally redemptive, equally flawed, perfectly balanced in terms of basic, believable, humanity.  Further, characters like Sheila (Andy's friend and neighbor) are realistically indifferent, do not seem affected by or interested in the debate. As a result, there is no silent champion. The space Grodstein creates is safe for a spectator, free from proselytizing or judgment.

The individuals, unique in their circumstances, come into focus because of the great debate, instead of the other way around, and this is what makes "The Explanation..." riveting. 

For everyone in my neck of the woods, Lauren will be making a few stops in San Francisco on her nation-wide book tour:

October 16
Google event with Adam Mansbach
345 Spear Street, San Francisco CA
Time TBD
October 18
Book Passage
51 Tamal Vista Boulevard, Corte Madera CA
7 pm
October 19
Women’s National Book Association Panel
Books Inc. Opera Plaza, 601 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco CA
1 pm
October 21
The Booksmith: In-conversation event with Adam Mansbach
1644 Haight Street, San Francisco CA
7:30 pm

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review: "The Fountain of St. James Court..." by Sena Jeter Naslund

TitleThe Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman
Author: Sena Jeter Nasland
Publisher: William Morrow
Date of Publication: September 17, 2013
Pages: 448

How I Heard About It: My interest was greatly piqued when TLC Book Tours asked me if I would review this hot-off-the-presses novel by best-selling author Sena Jeter Naslund. Sena taught a creative writing workshop while I was an undergraduate, the first of many roundtable workshop classes I would go on to join. 

Two Sentence Summary: The novel weaves together the lives of two female artists in different time periods. Kathryn is a novelist of today in her sixties, living in Louisville, KY and wrapping up the first draft of her most recent creation; Elisabeth is a post French Revolution portrait painter known for her humanizing portrayals of key historical figures from her era. 

Sena Jeter Naslund
Things I Think: This is a very different type of review for me, as "The Fountain..." is the first book in a while I can chalk up as a DNF (Did Not Finish)*. There are a few reasons for this. 

Naslund's prose is uniquely hers: a lyrical, lengthy treatment of sentences; a quietness of plot and pace; intense dedication to three-dimensional description. These stylistic pieces feel consistent with other work of hers that I've read (primarily "Ahab's Wife", which garnered her first big bout of attention and, reputedly, no small amount of money.) 

In the case of "The Fountain..." these elements felt ramped up to a degree that was distracting. The lyricism of the sentences and descriptive pieces, for example, felt almost florid to excess. 

The plot, on the other hand, had little meat on its bones. Kathryn's storyline in particular experienced this lack of momentum, a single action or thought often meriting an entire chapter of its own. Coupled with the intricacy of the sentence structures themselves, the story lost its breath and lost its connection with me.

I hate abandoning books, but the length of this novel plus my difficulty finding purchase in its pages made me move on despite reservations. 

On to the next! 

*I've decided not to post a rating, since I didn't make it to the end of this one.*