Neshama's Choices for 4th week in November

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This installment:  an assistant to a difficult Parisian photographer gets in over her head; a father takes off spontaneously with baby in tow (uh oh); new novellas by Jim Harrison; woes of the well-off—ahh, schadenfreude; a luminous memoir about a baby’s death; and wise-guy short stories.


   Lessons in French by Hilary Reyl


Kate, a budding painter, joins prestigious photographer Lydia in Paris to be her assistant.  She speaks some French from the time she was sent there at 9 while her father was dying at home.   Lydia is narcissistic, demanding, charming and unpleasant in turn, and Kate must jump to do her bidding.  Then there’s the rest of Lydia’s complex family: her older writer husband who strays, a suspicious and edgy grown daughter with a not so nice but magnetic (ex?) boyfriend who gets mixed up with Kate (uh-oh).  Plus Kate’s French cousin with his own secret life.  Meanwhile the Berlin Wall is coming down, Lydia is documenting it, and Kate’s trying to meet the needs of all these folks and acclimate to this amazing city.  It all collapses at the end and Kate goes home with new insight and perspective. Colorful and engrossing.


   The Sunshine When She’s Gone by Thea Goodman


One of those books where I don’t quite believe the premise (husband takes 6-month-old baby to the Caribbean on impulse without his wife’s knowledge) but was entertained by how it played out. Exhausted Veronica’s finally sleeping in and John wants to give her a break. So he puts Clara in the pouch, checks the mail (passports have arrived), and off he goes. He’s never really spent hands-on time with the baby and it’s a steep, uncomfortable learning curve with harrowing episodes as well as sweet ones.  It takes a while for Veronica to dope out what’s going on before panic sets in.  Clara gets sick, it’s a rocky homecoming, but the marriage survives after a bit.  No apparent economic concerns here, which add to the fairy tale quality.


   The River Swimmer: novellas by Jim Harrison


In the first novella, another of Harrison’s familiar over-the-hill antiheroes goes home.  In this case Clive returns to Michigan where he grew up to help his old mother.  Life hasn’t delivered; he’s divorced and his career as an art historian feels dead-end. He reconnects with two old loves:  the girlfriend of his youth, and painting. Much better.  In the title piece, a young man on the run makes a long, arduous journey by water from farmland to Chicago.  Kind of Midwest Magical Realism, to me, with mysterious “water babies,” a timely young heiress, and an old Indian named Tooth. Fun to read even if some of it eludes me.


   The Carriage House by Louisa Hall


Another novel about the miseries of the well off.  (Ahh, schadenfreude…)The Adair family seems to have it all. William, an architect, is always pushing his girls to excel, primarily in tennis.  His wife Margaux has been gracefully fading away with early onset Alzheimers for years. An old “friend “Adelia with designs on William steps in. But there’s rot right under the glossy surface, as exemplified in the eponymous structure the neighborhood council intends to raze. Once exquisite and unique, it’s now overrun with vermin.  The daughters aren’t doing too well themselves and return home, ostensibly to help but more for refuge.  As it turns out, it’s the simple life that truly delivers, but they don’t realize this until after the controversial structure has been torched, then recreated by the oldest daughter, an architectural student who’d been floundering. Whenever money seems no object in novels I’m suspicious but it works if I think of the story as a fable of sorts. And on that level, this is quite entertaining.


   The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp


A diagnosis of Tay Sachs disease can only lead to heartbreak, as parents learn their baby will stop growing early on, lose capacity, and die.   How can you bear such a grim prognosis? As a writer and theologian, Rapp uses her skills to keep from drowning in grief and the result is this exquisite, deeply thoughtful chronicle of their brief time with son Ronan. Rapp calls on good company by quoting poets, philosophers, and even songwriters who offer perspective and wisdom. The solace she finds then becomes a gift to her readers.  One fascinating perspective: Ronan, with his truncated future, becomes the essence of now. Finely wrought yet firmly grounded.


   The Fun Parts by Sam Lipsyte


Wise guy short stories, not exactly my thing, but with their own weird charm. Like the first piece set in a tony afterschool program in NYC, in which Tovah is singled out to work with an obnoxious little girl whose randy old father has his own plans for her teacher.   Another story plays with a video game set up that seems to influence “real life.”  The language is gross and funny—I could almost hear the rim-shots after deft, profane comebacks. A band is called the Annihilation of the Soft Left. So indeed there are many ironic fun parts to sample in these snarky, nose-thumbing stories.

Back next Monday




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Posted by: Neshama

Neshama works at the Fairfax Library.

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