The hero and narrator of Standard Deviation is the mildly confused husband of a pure extrovert, once married to a very contained professional woman, and parent of a middle-schooler with Asperger’s. The novel tells of the family’s adventures as the bubbly mother invites various friends and strangers to be their guests for lengthy stays, gets her son into a mysterious origami club, befriends the ex-wife, and has various marriage-damaging adventures. All the while, the husband observes, and worries (and cooks!). There are some hilarious passages, including a stay at an origami convention and various private school charity functions, but the general tone is more subdued and focused on how surprising spouses can appear to each other, years into a marriage.
What if we were somehow taxed on our happiness? The hero of The Invoice, a Kafkaesque novel, receives a large bill from a mysterious organization because, well, he has led a very happy life — not a showy life, certainly not a rich life, but one that has been remarkably content. He tries to find out more about the bill, of course, and ends up tangled into infinite bureaucracy, although he manages to fall in love with one of the handlers (and she with him!) Unlike a Kafka novel, there is no undue angst or doom. After all, the hero is endlessly content. An interesting look at what is success and how we measure it.
In Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home, Amy Dickinson steps away from her column and talks about her life, including how she moved far away from her small town in New York state but returned eventually to take care of her ailing mother, and, unexpectedly, find love (and the complications of stepdaughters). There’s a lot of adventure but all described with great kindness to all around her.
Swimming Lessons is the story of a woman who unwisely marries her much older college professor, dooming herself to a life of subservience and betrayal. The story is told, very cleverly, through short notes hidden by her in the many books of her husband’s before she mysteriously disappeared many years ago. (The contemporary story, of her daughters coming back home to look after their aging father, holds little mystery or interest and is centered on a classic conflict between elder and younger daughter.)
I found the book to be immensely depressing. Do we need another novel about sweet young things being seduced into marrying older, callous men? You may have a tougher constitution than I have.
The author of Into the Gray Zone: A Neuroscientist Explores the Border Between Life and Death tells medical stories of how his team found that some people in vegetative state actually had some brain function, and some subsequently regained some consciousness. The science if fascinating, if a work in progress. The concern, if course, is that although some patients, can indeed “wake up”, it’s completely unclear whether they will regain full consciousness or continue to exist in an in-between state. It seems, for now, that the few complete successes recalled in the book are more flukes than models.
The Good Girl unwisely goes home with a stranger who has a contract to kidnap her — and indeed takes her to a remote cabin where they nearly freeze to death, and almost starve. It turns out that there is a big twist to the story, which should make readers happy but it seemed to me to make the whole story wholly unbelievable. Still, the stifling atmosphere of the cabin and the relationship between gaoler and captive make for a gripping story.
The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit tells the story of a man who disappeared into the Maine woods and lived there, alone, for 27 years, helping himself to various supplies from the many vacation cabins around him, but eluding discovery despite maintaining an elaborate camp — and surviving Maine’s notorious old winters.
The author spoke with the hermit himself (not surprisingly, a man of a few words!) and describes extensively how he managed to survive, which makes for a strong and enjoyable narrative. The musings into why someone would stay alone for so long are less successful but give pause and respect to those who want to lead a truly different life.