Seeing yourself in “Outline”


Just finished reading Rachel Cusk’s Outline. What a beautiful, quiet, spare book. It reminded me, in ways, of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. They share a gift for highlighting truths about the human condition that sort of sneak up on you as you’re reading. They both, too, shun traditional plot development in favor of pulling stories out of carefully drawn characters.

In Outline, our narrator is a writing instructor who has traveled from England to Greece to teach a writing course over the summer. The book’s constructed as a series of conversations and experiences she has, with most of the information about her coming out in bits and pieces as these conversations are recounted. We meet an aging Greek man who has been married and divorced multiple times, who has been rich and then poor. We meet her writing students, people of all ages with an itch to express themselves. We meet a newly famous author, basking in the literary limelight but with lingering reservations about her place in the world. We meet people struggling to connect with their kids, their spouses, the purpose they’d originally set for themselves in life. In other words, we meet ourselves, one way or another.

The focus seems to be on the other people in the book, but what’s so brilliant here is the way she, the narrator, is reflected back to herself through her interactions with others. And the way they reflect off of her and off each other, too.

Aren’t we all in this same position? Who are we outside of our relationships? How are we shaped by the people we know or meet along the way? Casual encounters, lifelong friendships, marriages, parents, kids — we are shaped, formed, propped up by all of these things, setting up our identities in opposition to the people around us. Who are we, really, outside of this?

And how do we edit our own stories when we’re sharing them with people? What do we leave out? What do we emphasize? What outlines do we create from our own lives, our own experiences, that we hope make us matter, make us real? How does it shift over time? How does it change depending on who you’re talking to?

Rachel Cusk will make you consider these questions, as you also get swept away reading about summer in Greece, with its blinding heat, its white beaches and blue water, the boats and the cafes, the Greek food and wine. You feel as though you’re there, listening to a friend tell you about her summer and the people she met. You feel yourself, even, being reflected back as you read, feel yourself identifying with certain characters, suddenly sure you’re not so alone after all.


“Did You Ever Have a Family” Explores Forgiveness, Love, and Grief

Literary agent and author Bill Clegg is no stranger to the best-seller list, whether from the agent’s side or the writer’s. His own success as an author came several years ago with the publication of his two memoirs, which dealt with addiction and his subsequent recovery. Now, he’s returned with his outstanding fiction debut, the beautiful and poignant Did You Ever Have a Family.


Long-listed for both the Booker Prize and the National Book Award, Clegg’s novel explores what we mean when we use the word “family” and how we come to understand and love and forgive one another even during times of unspeakable tragedy. The book opens with just such an event, a devastating house fire that kills four people, and the rest of it unspools around the resulting grief and mystery.

The story’s told through several different characters and their points of view, with each chapter in the book reflecting one character’s outlook. The overall picture builds slowly, the details fleshed out little by little. The effect keeps you hanging on, trying to piece together exactly what happened the night of the fire and who was responsible.

Central to the book is June Reid, who lost her daughter and her future son-in-law, as well as her ex-husband and her boyfriend, in the fire at her home the night before her daughter’s wedding was to take place. In her pain and her desire to get out of the small Connecticut town where this awful event happened, June drives west towards the Washington coast. She’s understandably numb and in shock, reliving her life in daydreams, questioning decisions made long ago, trying to understand the path that led to where she currently is, all alone in the world. We can feel her regret and her broken heart.

In addition to June, we also meet other characters trying to process the tragedy and trying to explain the inexplicable. June’s boyfriend’s mother figures prominently here, as do two innkeepers in coastal Washington state, in the tiny town where June eventually ends up. There’s Dale, the father of June’s would-be son-in-law, and Silas, a teenager who’d been working for June’s boyfriend. The dead, in a sense, come back to the life here, their lives and stories told by those who love and miss them, the empty spots they left made whole through memories. The characters’ crisscrossing backstories are captivating, underscoring how connected we all really are.

This book’s bittersweet, filled with such emotion and such life, in the face of tremendous pain. It will stick with you long after you’re finished.

(Originally published here:

“In Paradise” Presents Hard Questions About Humanity & the Holocaust

Writer and conservationist Peter Matthiessen’s last book, In Paradise, was published just a few days after his death in April 2014. He was known for writing both fiction and nonfiction, and for being the only writer ever to win National Book Awards for both. However, Matthiessen himself believed that he was primarily a fiction writer at heart, so it’s fitting that his final work was a novel.


And what a novel it is. Many of his earlier books explored themes around the environment and how human civilization has changed it throughout time. He also traveled extensively and his books served to highlight different cultures and ecosystems across the globe.

Here, however, he brings his pointed gaze squarely onto us, asking hard questions about the nature of good and evil and about the human condition. He does this in In Paradise by writing about the Holocaust.

Matthiessen was a Zen Buddhist, and starting in 1996, he attended three meditation retreats at the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. This experience would undoubtedly go on to inspire the fictional account of a similar retreat in In Paradise.

The main character here is the “Polish-born American poet and scholar,” Dr. Clements Olin. He is at the retreat, he tells the others, not to participate formally in the silent meditations, but instead, for research purposes. This is the first time Olin has ever visited the country of his birth. As the book unfolds, so does Olin’s personal history, which is more tightly bound to the Holocaust than he initially lets on.

Alongside him on the retreat is a diverse group of about 140 people, including Catholic nuns and a priest, a few young Germans, some elderly survivors of the Holocaust, Jewish rabbis, and several spiritual seekers. They are thrust together in meditation while sitting on, for example, the train platform where SS doctors sorted prisoners into those who would be put to work and those who would be put to death immediately. They sleep in the barracks that the Nazi officers used and eat in their cafeteria.

Emotions run high. Even in this most solemn of places, in the cold dark dampness of December, flashes of human frailty pop up, as the retreat members find themselves arguing and attacking one another personally, with some doubting others’ motivations for coming. They debate, too, about whether another Holocaust could happen, whether we have learned anything at all.

In Paradise asks some difficult questions about the limits of empathy and compassion, and the nature of evil and humanity. It’s a thought-provoking, intensely worthwhile book.

(Originally published here:

In “Far North,” a Chilling Look at a Dystopian Future

It seems to be part of the human condition that, along with wondering about our own mortality, we inevitably think about the end of the world, or the end of time, as well. When will it come? What will it look like? What will be left? Who will be to blame?

Vivid explorations of these questions, whether in movies or in books, have existed for years and continue to fascinate. Most, if not all, of these types of stories could be described as “dystopian,” and Marcel Theroux’s 2009 novel, Far North, is no different in that sense. However, he does approach these questions from a unique angle.


Set in Siberia, we find one single, solitary survivor living in what was formerly a city settled by Quakers. The survivor, named “Makepeace,” is the sheriff of this place, and continues to patrol it, despite no one else living there. Makepeace’s parents, along with other Quakers and peace-seeking people, had left the modern world behind years ago, and moved as a group to this isolated land in Siberia, where they went about setting up a new kind of society.

This worked well for some time, and Makepeace, having known no other way of living or being, might never have known the violent, materialistic world outside had it not come knocking at their door. But knock it did, as people in more modern cities across the globe continued to consume more than they needed, driven to excess by greed and fear. The earth’s resources were plundered and disrespected, and the consequences were dire. When both crops and economies began to fail, hoards of desperate, hungry people traveled to settlements like this one, asking for help, for food, for protection. Before long, the settlement was overrun by the very problems of the modern world that they’d tried to escape.

There are indigenous tribes of people in the area, but Makepeace knows of no other existing communities. One day, however, an airplane flies overhead and crashes, sending the sheriff off into new lands in the hope of finding others who’ve also survived. We travel along on this cold, lonely journey, getting glimpses along the way of what could have been, had only societies thought longer-term and made better decisions.

We find the world described here by Theroux a hostile place, where little humanity remains in the people still there, and where they’re ultimately held accountable for their actions. A finalist for the National Book Award, Far North, because of its dark subject matter, isn’t exactly a light-hearted read, but it is a compelling one.

(Originally published here:

Carver’s Legacy Shines in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

Acclaimed short-story writer and poet Raymond Carver created a world in his writing that was much like his own hard Oregon upbringing: sparse and challenging, sparing no one heartbreak. Heavy drinkers and disillusioned people making bad choices fill Carver’s work. Credited with helping launch a resurgence in the modern American short story in the late 70s/early 80s, he died of lung cancer in 1988 at age 50, but left behind a towering literary legacy.

His second short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, published in 1981, is a slim volume of about 150 pages. With tales of love and woe, everyday life and the sometimes-unbelievable weirdness of it, and men and women locked in battle with each other and with themselves, the book would garner Carver resounding praise at the time and create an army of creative-writing-student devotees.


One of the most striking things about the collection is its economy of phrase; you get the feeling that not a single extra word dare show itself. Carver’s writing here is lean, spare, and cool. Characters react to one another with passion, but there’s a distance between them and Carver’s rendering of their world that became part of his signature style. Crisp and unemotional, his work set a tone for modern American fiction that many still try to emulate today.

His short stories have also found their way onto the big screen, inspiring creative adaptations including director Robert Altman’s Short Cuts in 1993, which was based on nine of Carver’s stories from across several collections. More recently, the title story for What We Talk About When We Talk About Love was featured in 2014’s Birdman, as the basis for the main character’s attempted Broadway production.

Birdman, which starred Michael Keaton, won the most recent Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, as well as the awards for Original Screenplay and Cinematography. Undoubtedly, Carver’s work got a boost from Birdman’s success.

Interestingly, thanks in part to efforts from Carver’s widow, unedited versions of the stories from this collection have been published in the last decade. There are some significant differences between what Carver actually wrote and what his editor Gordon Lish published. Unedited, Carver wrote much longer and much lusher prose, with more evident emotion. This revelation has created questions about his so-called signature style.

Don’t let this dissuade you, though. I read the edited versions as well as a few unedited and enjoyed them both. You can find Carver in them all.

(Originally published here:

Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” Merges Murder With Academia

With the publication of her third novel, The Goldfinch, which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Mississippian Donna Tartt’s place in literary history was assured. Her first book, The Secret History, is every bit as fascinating and has been hooking readers with its blend of chilling mystery and social commentary since its publication in 1992.

Born in Greenwood and raised in Grenada, Tartt’s experience at Ole Miss as a freshman is the stuff literary legends are made of. She enrolled in the fall of 1981, and her work caught the eye of then writers-in-residence Willie Morris and Barry Hannah. Together they encouraged her to take her talents elsewhere and she transferred after one year to the exclusive, private, liberal-arts-focused Bennington College in Vermont.

It’s no surprise, then, that the setting for her first novel is the fictional Hampden College, which is described in the book as a small liberal arts school in Vermont. If she’d stayed at Ole Miss and written a similar book, would it have been filled with images of the Grove in the fall instead of winter in New England? We’ll never know. Regardless, she started writing it in her second year at Bennington, and thanks to help from friend and classmate Bret Easton Ellis, managed to get an agent, a deal, and a $450,000 advance for it. It was an unabashed success, selling more than five million copies.

A perfect blend of murder mystery and decadent college tale, The Secret History focuses on an elite group of Greek classics students at Hampden who kill one of their own classmates. You find out from the first sentence that they’ve committed this crime, but the reasons behind it develop slowly over the book’s 576 pages.

Richard Papen, a kid from California who transfers to Hampden and falls in with this isolated group of wealthy, intellectual oddballs and their reclusive professor, serves as narrator. Richard never quite feels he fits in and is at a sort of distance throughout the novel from the other characters. Therefore, we as readers are, too, and we’re left to piece things together as Richard does, always intuiting that there are bits of knowledge and information beyond our grasp.

So vivid are Tartt’s descriptions of college life and Vermont that it’s easy to feel you’re right there, surrounded by old brick buildings, dusty library books, and drunken underclassmen. The book works, too, as a modern stand-in for a classic Greek tragedy, complete with the seemingly fated inevitability of each character’s subsequent outcome.

The Secret History itself seems fated to have become a classic and is well worth a read.

(Originally published here:

In “House of Sand and Fog,” No Clear Moral Choices

Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog is a story of contrasts, of the twists and turns of fate, and of the modern pursuit of the American dream. Compulsively readable, this National Book Award nominee will keep you on edge throughout, as you try to decide, again and again, which character’s right, and which is wrong.


On the one hand, we have Colonel Behrani, formerly of the Iranian Air Force. Forced to flee his home country (and his extravagant lifestyle) after the overthrow of the Shah, the Colonel has moved his wife, his daughter, and his son to the Bay Area of California. Given his background, Colonel Behrani assumed he could find employment easily at one of the aerospace companies there. However, as the book opens, he’s working with a trash detail composed of mostly immigrants, picking up garbage along a busy interstate. At night, he works behind the counter of a convenience store. He’s frustrated, beaten down, and nearly out of money, thanks to the expensive apartment he’s maintained to keep up appearances.

On the other hand, Kathy Nicolo is herself desperate and out of options. A former drug addict and current recovering alcoholic, Kathy’s husband has left her. She clings to the one thing she has left in the world – the house she lives in, which she inherited from her father.

The ownership of that house, and everything it represents, is the central conflict of this book. Kathy is evicted from it, on grounds (which turn out to be false) that she didn’t pay taxes she owed. Colonel Behrani decides to use his last bit of savings to buy it at auction, believing he can then sell it for three times the cost and put his family’s life back on track.

Both believe they are the rightful owners, and reading his point of view on the situation and then hers, it’s impossible not to sympathize with each. You feel as though you’re seeing two cars take off at top speed, heading toward each other on a dark road, knowing there’s no clean and easy outcome.

A third character, a married cop Kathy begins an affair with, tips the balance, and the whole mess careens out of control. I won’t give the ending away, except to say that it’s heartbreaking.

This is a novel about property rights and bureaucratic mistakes, yes, but also about expectations and appearances. It’s beautifully written, taut with tension throughout. Every character is flawed; there is no black and white. Like the fog of its title, it’s a book enveloped by gray.

(Originally published here:

“Mating” Is a Worthwhile Classic That Endures

I was excited the other night to see that The Paris Review is hosting a virtual book club for Norman Rush’s Mating. Here’s what they say about it:

Starting next Monday, March 16, we’re running a series of posts about Rush’s seminal 1991 novel, Mating. Twice a week, from start to finish, we’ll have writers examine a twenty-five-page installment of the book—not just to discuss the plot, but to offer the same spirit of reflection, debate, and restless inquiry that animates the novel itself. Whether you’re an avid fan of the book or completely new to it, we invite you to read along.

I read Mating about 5 years ago, and it completely captured my imagination. There’s a good chance I’ll read it again and follow along with The Paris Review. I managed to dig up a few thoughts I jotted down on that initial read. (They’re from June 2010 and are below.) Will be curious to see what changes for me the second time around. After all, as I’ve written about here before, each reread brings out different things for me.


Norman Rush’s National Book Award winner Mating is, not surprisingly perhaps, about love — about finding someone you like, about that first burst of seemingly limitless euphoria, where you’d give up anything and everything to be with that person, about the act of getting to know someone and the natural, normal tempering of the euphoria, and about the reality that despite loving and knowing someone, there is always some part of them you can’t reach, always some part of them you can’t fully know. You can get close, but people surprise you again and again.

At its heart, this is what Mating is about. But it’s wrapped in this expansive text that covers so much ground it can be nearly overwhelming. The book is set in Africa in the 1980s. Our narrator is an unnamed American anthropology grad student who has become disconnected (both emotionally and academically) from her thesis and is trying to figure out her next steps.

Her voice is one I related to — she’s smart, funny, obsessive, self-critical but also proud. She’s also driven nearly nuts by the love she feels for the main male character, a sort of retiring star on the stage of theories about developing world economies. The book addresses economics, geo-politics, feminism, culture, and yes, the state of the human heart at the beginning, middle, and perhaps end of love.

There’s a lot going on here, but throughout it all, the narrator is there, guiding you through, at times frustrating you, at times making you realize you’d have done the same exact things she did. And her vocabulary? Well, I had to keep a dictionary handy, which hasn’t happened for me with a piece of fiction in quite some time. It doesn’t come off as trite or false, though. It’s believable she would talk and write that way.

This book has set on my shelves for years, made it through several moves, without being read, poor thing. I’m happy I finally was drawn to it and put the time in to appreciate it. Highly recommend it.

Modern and Smart, “The Financial Lives of the Poets” Is Captivating

The Financial Lives of the Poets is the first work of fiction I’ve read that’s focused on the time period leading up to and during the 2008/2009 financial crisis. The book was written and published quickly, coming out in 2009, as the economy was continuing its downward spiral.

Typically, you’d think that literature reacting to swift societal changes would need some time and distance from the events, to process the outcomes and interpret the various causes and effects of what happened. But author Jess Walter saw the world around him shifting and, luckily for us, he didn’t wait to see how things shook out. Instead, he jumped right into the melee himself.

The book’s protagonist, 46-year old Matt Prior, is not having an easy go of things when we meet him late one night in a suburban 7-Eleven. A former business journalist, he’d quit his safe local newspaper job a few years earlier to start a website he dubbed “,” where he imagined readers flocking to read, yes, poetry based on business and financial topics. When it didn’t go as planned, he returned to his newspaper gig, only to find that the outlook for ad-based print media had weakened considerably and before long, he’s laid off.

Adding to Matt’s troubles is the sad truth that he’s days away from having his home foreclosed on, thanks to falling behind on his payments after losing his job, plus years of taking equity out of it coupled with a housing market that no longer seems to magically be going up. He lives in this house with his wife, their two sons, and his dementia-suffering father. Oh, and Matt’s also worried his wife might be carrying on an affair (or planning one via Facebook) with her old high school sweetheart.

Here’s the thing, though: this is actually a very funny book, in a dark sort of way. Matt’s resigned to calamity, it seems, and we watch him make bad decision after bad decision. Jess Walter has created a character that we can all, at least in some small way, see ourselves in while also thinking smugly, “That wouldn’t happen to me.”

This book’s astute, though, and keys in on the some of the factors at the center of the financial crisis: too many people owning more house than they could afford, too much risk-taking on Wall Street and beyond, too much credit flowing too freely, and too many overleveraged banks and financial institutions near the brink. It’s a cautionary tale for everyone that entertains as much as it illuminates.

(Originally published here:

Books: On Station Eleven

If I were to tell you that a book about the end of the world (as we know it) could somehow leave you optimistic and encouraged, I doubt you’d believe me. But the incredible novel Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, would prove me right, despite its often harrowing twists and turns.


A finalist for this year’s National Book Award, Station Eleven takes what has come to be a standard apocalyptic trope (world ends, people flee, all hope’s lost, everything’s bleak) and turns it upside down. True, in Mandel’s imaginary world (which, incidentally, does not feel too far off from our own current world) a fast-moving flu wipes out an enormous percentage of the earth’s population and people do indeed flee, into seemingly hopeless, bleak times.

But the similarity to other books of this kind ends there, thanks to her brilliant character development, intricate plot, and the overall feeling of the story. Several characters’ lives unfold before us, as time jumps back and forth, and we learn about them both before and after the pandemic. Included in this number is a huge Hollywood star, a photographer-turned-paramedic, a Shakespearean stage actor, and the members of what’s known here as the Traveling Symphony.

After the collapse of civilization, with people spread out into small groups and communities, the musicians and actors in the Traveling Symphony go from place to place to perform concerts and Shakespearean plays. In a time when most people are struggling to just merely survive, the Symphony’s belief in the importance of preserving beauty and art is admirable – and often risky. The members want to give their fellow human beings who made it through the worst of it, as they did, a reason to remember what was beautiful and meaningful about the world before the pandemic.

Mandel writes with such precision and care, and her book is paced perfectly, so that you’re compelled to just keep reading, to keep finding out what happens to these characters you grow to care about so much. She has you rooting for them, and more than that, rooting for art and literature and culture, and hoping that maybe those things would actually endure in similar circumstances.

Whereas some other apocalyptic stories can seem so spare and so dark, Mandel gives this book rich details and a lifelike feeling. Of course, her observations of what the end of the world would be like are, naturally, unsettling and upsetting. They have to be. But that’s not the end of it here. She gives us so much more than that, in this beautiful and ultimately hopeful book.

(Originally published here: