Thursday, December 03, 2009

Some Recent Favorites

My reading has taken some strange twists and turns this year. Instead of ingesting my regular dose of contemporary poetry and new novels, I've been downing Is Your Mama A Lama almost every night before bed. This new medicine is not without its benefits: I recently discovered that "pat" was a verb in Pat the Bunny. I'd always assumed that Pat was just a gender neutral rabbit name. Imagine my surprise when I turned the pages and my baby was playing peek-a-boo, looking in a mirror and trying on a ring.

In the last month, I've managed to read a few adult novels between encore performances of Goodnight Gorilla and Are You My Mother that probably won't appear on any year-end top 10 lists, but that are worth remembering and discussing. All three of these novels feature strong female characters and interesting narrative twists.

The best of the bunch was Katharine Weber's True Confections. Weber's book won't come out until later this month, but it's been on my radar since the summer, when Weber tracked me down with a friendly email and asked that I give it a try. She thought my love of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint might make me a sympathetic reader. She was right. Here's the recommendation tag that I've written up for the store:

I love an unreliable narrator. The reader has to look for clues in the dialogue, in other characters' reactions and in subtle hints to divine the real story. Weber employs this device to create a brilliant satire on the candy industry. Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky of Zip's Candies tells her story in a rambling affidavit that exposes the racist origins of the company and her complicity in the firm's many disasters.

Weber weaved in so many fascinating and arcane facts about the candy business (my favorite was that Hart Crane's father invented lifesavers) that I began to believe that she made them up. She didn't. Her amazing research gives her quirky narration a verisimilitude that few comic novels achieve. The story lives on in Weber's blog Staircase Writing where she has continued to delve into her candy obsession.

Nancy Mauro's debut novel New World Monkeys was another comedy that featured a lot of obsessive behavior. I felt that Mauro's strength and weaknesses were one and the same. The novel is about a lot of different things (a failing marriage, a mangled ad campaign, a pervert, the excavation of long buried bones, crazy townsfolk) that make for intriguing reading. But sometimes it feels that the novel is too jam-packed. A little focus and quiet space could have allowed her two lead characters to be realized in a fuller way. The pervert, a minor side character, was the most human in the eclectic cast and the reader is both thrilled and terribly disgusted when he succeeds. Here's my recommendation tag:

A rollicking novel about two city slickers who inherit a rural house with disastrous consequences (they run over the town mascot - a wild boar on their initial journey to the home) as they cling to their deteriorating marriage. Lily digs up her ancestor's missing maid and wards off the boar's crazy owner while Duncan works on a sexist ad campaign that mocks the Vietnam War back in New York.

Check out this promotional video that Mauro, an advertising professional, made for the book. It closely portrays the novel's opening scene.

Peter Rock's My Abandonment follows the true story of a girl and her father who lived in Portland's Forest Park for several years. He tells the story from the 13-year old girl's perspective. Her tale unfolds beautifully, almost poetic in the rhythm and language. She's at one with nature in the forest, running through the paths in bare feet, strangely attune to any noises or changes in the direction of the wind. It all comes to an end when the camp is discovered by a backcountry jogger and the pair are taken into police custody.

Rock follows the story past its real-life roots. The pair disappeared some years ago and no one seems to know what became of them. Rock imagines a macabre and paranoid future for the father--one that didn't ring quite true to me based on the family's time in the woods and how he handled his brief confinement. Still, it was a wonderful read that reminded me of some of the great young adult books of my youth, like Island of the Blue Dolphins and Julie of the Wolves. Here's an interview with Peter Rock about the true story behind his novel.