Why We Came To The City by Kristopher Jansma

Don’t let the fact that it took me a while to get around to reviewing Kristopher Jansma‘s latest novel Why We Came To The City deceive you. I loved it. I loved it more than his debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards (review). It’s a novel that’s stuck with me and that I’ll be pushing into quite a few people’s hands. Continue reading

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

shotgun-lovesongsJust between you and me, I think that Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler is going to be a big book this spring. Everyone I know is reading it and loving it. Butler has the kind of credentials that make a great writer (read: Iowa Writer’s Workshop). And that may be why it is so hard for me to come out and say that I didn’t really like it.

Shotgun Lovesongs is about a group of aging male friends. All have found varying degrees of success in their lives and careers. Hank is a happily married struggling farmer. Lee is a rock star who prefers life in his rural community. Ronny has found love in the most unlikely of places and Kip is struggling. Put this all together and you have the kind of book i normally really like. Continue reading

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

the-interestingsSee? This is what happens when I clean off my desk. I read The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer weeks ago and then dutifully shelved the book, and in the process I forgot to actually write the review. My thoughts are no longer fresh, but I will try my best.

The Interestings is about a group of young people who meet at a summer arts camp. The novel traces the lives of this group of six individuals as they grow, marry, have children and move into middle-agedom. Throughout this period there are some key friendships, but also some shifts. And of course, at the heart of it all there is a scandal. If you know me then you know that this novel is right up my alley.

What impressed me most about The Interestings, however, was the writing. For some reason, I had always slotted Wolitzer into the category of chick lit without having read her. Boy, was I wrong. And I should have known how wrong I was when Wolitzer called out the New York Times on their gender bias in book reviews. Wolitzer is a first class literary writer. She has a straight forward sensibility and draws characters beautifully.

Who would like this book? If you like a novel with a strong ensemble cast, then The Interestings is your book. The characters and the friendships in the book highlight many of social movements of the later half of the twentieth century. That is to say, The Interestings was not written in a vacuum. Wolitzer was clearly aware of the world surrounding her characters and brought that into the story. I think this would be a perfect read for a book club of long standing friends who came of age together during the 1970s and 80s.

Have you read The Interestings? What did you think? Send me a link to your review and I will include it in my post.

River City Reading

my little heart melodies

The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble

pure-gold-babySeveral years ago Margaret Drabble announced that she was retiring from writing. With a novelist as prolific as she many were tempted not to believe her. And they were right, for Drabble has just come out with her latest novel The Pure Gold Baby. I have not read any Drabble before this book, so I cannot judge how it compares to the rest of her oeuvre. What I can say, however, is that I found The Pure Gold Baby to be a rather odd book. That is not to say that it is not a good book. It is a dense book, replete with literary references and illusions. I think it would be one of those books that only gets better as one studies more. Notables such as Sylvia Plath, Shakespeare and Pearl Buck make repeated appearances in the telling.

At first glance the story appears to be the type of thing I tend to like: an anthropology graduate student gets knocked up by her professor, decides to keep her baby and leaves him in the dust. The story spans the greater part of Jess and her daughter Anna’s life together. Anna initially appears to be a rather normal, happy child – a pure gold baby. As she and her cohort age, it becomes increasingly noticeable that there is something different about Anna and that she will never mature past the age of about five.

The oddity of the novel comes in the narration of it. Initially it seems straight forward enough. The story of Jess and Anna’s life is told by a friend of Jess’s. But as the novel proceeds there is something about this voice that seems a little off. I don’t know how to describe it. At times I thought the story was going to turn out to be more about the narrator than Jess and Anna, but that never came to fruition. It remains a very banal telling of the life of one family as observed by an outsider.

Who would like this book? I think The Pure Gold Baby is tailor made for a book club with a decidedly literary bent. I am quite certain that most of the cleverness of the novel went right over my head since my knowledge of the classics is not where it should be. This novel would also appeal to “those of a certain age”, that is to say people who were procreating in the late 60s and early 70s. In many ways it is a story about a certain time. Views on children with differing mental capacities, women working outside the home, and advances in healthcare were not what they are now.

The Group by Mary McCarthy

thegroupThe Group by Mary McCarthy is one of those book I had always heard about but never read. Originally published in 1963, it was alternatively praised as a frank piece of early feminist literature and derided as sexually explicit filth. It is also said to be the inspiration for Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City. Hmmm, sounds interesting.

The story focuses on eight Vassar graduates in New York in the 1930’s. It chronicles their struggles and triumphs as they leave the comforting and sequestered upper class world of their youth and break out into the world for themselves during the years of the Great Depression.


More than anything else, The Group provides a insightful look into the lives of women during those turbulent years. Each character encounters her own obstacles whether it be obtaining contraception for the first time or work place harassment. Unfortunately, many of these issues are still struggled with by women today.

Although the style of writing is very contemporary, some of the issues are dealt with in such an instructional manner that The Group can almost be considered a how-to guide. This was particularly true of the episode in which Dottie looses her virginity. It was laid out in a way that could have been subtitled Things Your Mother Never Told You. It is likely because of this, the premarital sex and the drawn out descriptions of birth control that The Group garnered itself a bit of a reputation when it first came out.

I must admit that I did not finish the novel. As much as I enjoyed it in the beginning, the more I read the more tedious and tiresome I found the book to be. I did not feel invested in what was going on in the lives of the charact

ers and that is important to me. There was nothing to make me want to keep turning the pages.

Who would like this book? This book would be of interest to those who enjoy (women’s) social history. In spite of the fact that I put it down, I was fascinated by the conflicting politics of the group, which very much reflected an end to the gilded age for the affluent. I also enjoyed the perspectives on what constituted a fulfilling life for women in the 1930’s. And of course there is humor to be found in some of the views such as the conveniences of modern living which included casseroles made from cans of Campbell’s soup and the new super crispy Iceberg lettuce. I would wholeheartedly recommend The Group to book clubs. It definitely provides fine fodder for discussion in how much times have (and haven’t) changed. In fact, it may be a nice companion piece to The Astronaut Wives Club, although it is set in a different period.

A Serpentine Affair by Tina Seskis

serpentine affairI think that it is significant that I started reading Serpentine Affair by Tina Seskis while cottaging with three of my closest friends from university. You see, A Serpentine Affair is about a group of university friends at their annual get together. The main difference between my get together and the one recounted in the novel is the presence of a dead body, and that can liven things up a little!

The group of seven old friends meet up on the banks of the Serpentine in Hyde Park for an evening of picnic. This seemingly bucolic setting is disturbed by the baggage each of the women brings along with them. For some it is old feuds that have never been fully resolved (this brings to mind Friends and ‘We were on a break!”), for others it is recently discovered infidelities and for one friend it is the presence of store bought sausage rolls! Needless to say, too much alcohol is consumed and secrets and accusations throw the picnic off kilter.

Seskis lets the tension build slowly, dropping larger and larger bombs as the evening progresses. The picnic itself is interspersed with flashbacks that shed light on the alliances and enmity  between various diners. The aftermath of the picnic is also explored as the friends discuss and decide how they will deal with the police investigation that follows the discovery of a dead body. This, more than anything, gives Seskis the opportunity to show each character’s true colors.

My one quibble with A Serpentine Affair is that there are too many characters to keep straight. I ended up having to write little notes about each character’s personality and alliances. Because the women’s shared histories spans so many years, it was difficult to keep track of who had a crisis when and who was there to offer support. Aside from that, A Serpentine Affair was a well timed summer read.

Who would like this book? This book would definitely appeal to those interested in exploring issues of friendship and betrayal. In my head I’ve grouped it together with books like The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer and The Group by Mary McCarthy, which I plan to read for its re-release in later this month. Seskis’ novel is also very much about place, making a great read for anybody heading over to Old Blimey.