* Outline by Rachel Cusk


Outline is constructed as a series of stories around the heroine, showing her mostly against other protagonists rather than as herself. Interesting experiment, but the stories often drown in insignificant tedium, and could not keep my interest. They would undoubtedly work better for a more patient and introspective reader.

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** All Days are Night by Peter Stamm


All Days Are Night starts with a terrible accident that leaves the main female character, a successful  TV host, disfigured. In the first part of the story, the most successful for my taste, she navigates the medical system, tries to gain control over her damaged body, and attempts to gain some control over her new life. I thought that the un-sentimental, almost clinical description of her recovery was very effective.

She then reconnects with a past lover, a self-absorbed artist who narrates the rest of the story — and his inner world I found really boring…

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*** Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir


In the first chapter of Butterflies in November, the heroine hits a goose with her car (not good for the goose!), and gets dumped by both her lover and her husband. But she quickly decides to move forward, cooks the goose for dinner, wins two lotteries, and takes off on a wild drive around Iceland — no doubt she would have gone for something more exotic, but her best friend landed in the hospital and needs her to take care of her deaf four-year old, so off she goes with the kid in the back seat and her millions in the glove compartment!

They meet many delightful characters along the way, cope with a deluge, and find new hope. If that makes you think of the Hundred-Year Old Man who fled his birthday celebration in the nursing home, me too! This story is as zany but more grounded in reality, and you can enjoy the local customs along the way such as mayonnaise sandwich cakes for funerals, fish soup, and the aforementioned goose. The depiction of the four-year old is excellent, and the leaving-but-wanting-to-come-back husband character is also most entertaining.

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** 1/2 Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman


So this is how a historical novel can work: Love and Treasure traces the story of a locket, stolen from a train that carried the possessions of Hungarian Jews through three characters: the American officer who took the locket, his granddaughter who searches, decades later, for its owner, and the psychoanalyst of the owner. There are no lectures about WWII, just stories of people living it. I particularly enjoyed the third part, in which the middle-aged psychoanalyst tries in vain to cure his patient, a spirited young woman, of her physical ailments through classic Freudian means, while ruminating about the adventures of his own, similarly-aged daughters. He is clueless and I thoroughly enjoyed his cluelessness.

 

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* Delicious by Ruth Reichl


Delicious! did not make for delicious reading for me. I had liked the author’s memoir and adventures as a food critic but this sentimental and predictable story of a young journalist at a foodie magazine who finds a secret cache of letters to James Beard did not hit the spot.

Trying to analyze my distaste, I can think of two aspects beyond the predictability of the story. One is the Pygmalion theme. Again! Can’t a young woman grow and learn without an older male mentor to tell her to buy new clothes? The other is the awkward mix of the story and the research, here on WWII. The transitions from one to the other are as grating as the sudden bursting into songs in musicals.

Still, there are some lovely characters, in particular the Pygmalion figure, with his over-the-top elaborate discourse. Not enough to make me recommend the book, alas.

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*** The Life-Changing Magi of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo


The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing has given rise to much merriment online, most centered around the essential question she thinks we should ask of our belongings: “Does this give me joy?”. (If not, we are to banish them immediately.) But I’m not sure the question is either revolutionary or ridiculous. After all, most organizing gurus would recommend asking ourselves whether we love something, a very close concept, I think, especially post-translation from the Japanese.

What may be revolutionary is her approach. For instance, she advises organizing by categories (such as clothes or books) and not by area (the master closet), which makes a lot of sense to me. And the subtitle to her section on sorting paper is “Rule of thumb — discard everything”! Music to my ears.

What made the book most charming to me were the cultural references. The sizes of apartments given in tatami mats. The author’s initial attempt to create systems based on blood types… And sometimes cultural differences get in the way.  Storing all one’s possessions in one spot may work well in a seven-tatami mat apartment, but in a sprawling house I like my jacket near the door, thank you very much.

The book is full of cute references. For instance, the author recommends against horizontal piles (I wholeheartedly agrees) and justifies it by the plight of those items at the bottom of the pile: they will feel overburdened by the ones on top! This is from someone who believes that folding is a dialog with one’s wardrobe and that items of clothing will tell us how they want to be folded.

You will love this book, even if, like me, you never fold anything beyond napkins. I think they are telling me they like to be folded in thirds.

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** Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm


Unbecoming explores the seedy side of the art world with a heroine who starts as a good girl but ends elsewhere. I was skeptical at first about the Paris setting, fearing another romantic illusion common in American writers, but it’s all about the business of fakes and not the mystique of cobbled streets. The slow unfolding of the real story is reminiscent of Gone Girl, and the art fraud themes of Caveat Emptor. Quite a good story!

 

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