A President Who Reads

I like lists of recommended books whether from movie stars like Reese Witherspoon, industry leaders like Bill Gates, or from Presidents who read. Barack Obama has a list, with a nod to recently deceased author Toni Morrison – “You can’t go wrong by reading or re-reading the collected works of Toni Morrison

His reading list has one of my old favorites – Mantel’s “Wolf Hall.” I wonder if he is just discovering this 2009 classic? Another a book is by an author local to me, Hope Jahren.  Although she has moved on from the University of Hawaii, her book “Lab Girl”prompted me to look for a Hawaiian tree mentioned in her book.  I wonder if she knows they have drastically trimmed its branches.

I will probably skip Chiang’s collection of short stories but will give Whitehead’s new book a try, since a friend has given it high marks. Hurakami is one of my favorite authors but I prefer his novels to short stories.  I suspect, but would rather not know what the internet is doing to our brains in Carr’s “The Shallows.

I’ve ordered Wilkinson’s American Spy from the library, described by Mick Herron in the New York Times as a “murder mystery that offers genuine social insight,” and purchased Tea Obreht’s Inland – I still remember Obreht’s first complicated novel, “The Tiger’s Wife.”

Here’s the list from a President who reads:

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.
Exhalation by Ted Chiang.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.
Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami.
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson.
The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.
How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu.
Maid by Stephanie Land.
Inland by Téa Obreht

Have you read any?

Hatchett Book Group has a website at https://www.hachettebookgroup.com/articles/best-read-u-s-presidents/ with a list of Best-Read U.S. Presidents, ranging from John Adams to Barack Obama. Shakespeare, Washington Irving, Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill, Tom Clancy, Ralph Ellison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Doris Kearns Goodwin were some of the authors who made the list of Presidential favorites.

You Think It, I’ll Say It

41DEW3Ka+yL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_A few good short stories in my old New Yorkers by Allegra Goodman (“FAQs”) in a September, 2017 issue and one by Curtis Sittenfeld  (“Show Don’t Tell”  in a June, 2017 issue, reminded me to download Sittenfeld’s new book of short stories – You Think It, I’ll Say it – a collection of short stories, to Audible.  So far the stories are racier than expected, but with quiet deadpan endings that don’t always register with this listener.  I have been halfway through the next story before realizing I missed the ending of the former.  I could use a gong or a bell to signal the next story starting, but each has a unique and identifiable perspective on the character’s condition – confusion, betrayal, rage, disappointment, regret…

Characters are judgmental, while believing others are secretly judging them.  “Gender Studies” is the  story of a newly single professor having the “anthropological experience” of a one-night stand with a Trump-supporting working-class bus driver.  In “A Regular Couple,”  two women meet again years after high school – one the ugly duckling growing into a successful beauty and the other the popular pretty girl turning into a drudge.  Both are on their honeymoon.  Resentments flair and the final, petty act of revenge horribly satisfying. Sittenfeld’s characters are not very nice but very real.

Susan Dominus in her review for the New York Times says

“In the lives of Sittenfeld’s characters, the lusts and disappointments of youth loom large well into middle age, as insistent as a gang of loud, showy teenagers taking up all the oxygen in the room…The women of “You Think It, I’ll Say It” are, as a group, a demanding breed. They often assume the worst in their imagined adversaries. Sometimes they are wrong, but they are right about just enough (and funny enough) that we forgive them. And, because they know they need absolution for their own worst motives, we forgive those, too.”

Reese Witherspoon has optioned the book for the screen, and Sittenfeld is busy finalizing her next novel, due out in 2019 – she will be imagining how Hillary Clinton’s life might have played out if she had turned down Bill’s marriage proposal and never married him.  I can’t wait.

 

Review of Sisterland

 

 

 

Tell Tale – Shorts by Archer

9781447252290tell tale_5_jpg_260_400    After following the characters in Jeffrey Archer’s Clifton Chronicles for years (one character was named after me, but only my first name appears in one of the short stories), it’s a relief to have a few shorts without cliffhangers in Archer’s new book of short stories – Tell Tale.

In fourteen short stories, Archer targets a range of characters and lifestyles, from the bank executive forced to retire months before his pension, to the iron monger who became a theologian.  In one story, “The Holiday of a Lifetime,” Archer offers the reader a choice of endings, and two well-known literary characters pop up in “A Wasted Hour” and “A Good Toss to Lose.”   Demonstrating his talent for writing clever plots, Jeffrey Archer begins and ends his collection with stories confined to 100 words; the others are varying lengths, but each has a surprising O’Henry twist at the end.

Archer’s newest collection of short stories is as entertaining as his novels, and he ends with a teaser for his fans – the first four chapter of his next novel – “Heads You Win” to be published next year – I can’t wait.

Short Stories

thumbnail_IMG_4133    After listening to Lauren Groff read her short story “Dogs Go Wolf” in the New Yorker about two little girls, ages four and seven, left behind on a deserted island, I thought about why I preferred novels to short stories.  In Groff’s voice, the little girls came alive, their trials of fear and hunger seemed more acute than if I had read about it.  Their misery continues through a half hour – or six pages in the New Yorker – getting more and more horrible, until they eventually fall into a stupor – “two little girls made of air.”  To distract from the horror, Groff inserts a promise of their future – one becoming a lawyer, the other married – before returning to the blazing sun and the little wolves they’ve become.   By the end of the story, they are rescued, but the gap in their lives seems hollow in the short description of the incident on the island that made them whoever they became.   Perhaps Groff will write more in a novel.  I’d like to know more about these brave souls.

Short stories offer a quick glimpse into a moment of the characters’ lives.  Edith Pearlman and Jane Gardam have successfully navigated the difficulty of the short – both offering soundbites worth remembering.  I am looking forward to reading Penelope Lively’s collection in “The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories.”  When I write, I prefer the short story, as difficult as it may be to condense, to spending years with the characters of a novel – but maybe that will change.

For now, the short story is a quick diversion, and when well-written, has a lot to offer, but I still prefer immersing myself in the novel.  Claire Messud’s two little girls in “The Burning Girl” have me mesmerized right now, and I am glad to have them with me for longer than a short.

Do you have a preference?  short story or novel?

To hear Groff’s story – listen to the podcast here

Reviews of Other Books by Groff:

the movie “Arrival” based on the short story – “The Story of Your Life”

51zipo22i7l-_sx322_bo1204203200_  Not until I found the short story by Ted Chiang, “The Story of Your Life,” in his collection of short stories – Stories of Your Life and Others – did I understand the movie Arrival with Amy Adams.  Now I get its message on the importance of language and cooperation, buried in a science fiction drama reminiscent of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  

Someone told me to watch carefully as the story unfolds, and it is good advice – but I may have to watch it again anyway.  The story of Dr. Louise Banks’ encounter with aliens, and her attempt to learn their language is mixed up with her own life and the trauma of her marriage and daughter’s death.  The differences between the written story and the movie had me admiring the screenwriter’s adaptation of the complex linguistic and mathematical theories Chiang uses in his short story; however, Chiang’s explanation of Fermat’s physics Principal of Least Time would have be helpful in understanding Dr. Banks’ flashes of memory. Unfortunately, it was not included in the movie – maybe to keep the viewer guessing until the explanation of events at the end.

In another Chiang short story – Babylon – in the same collection, Chiang theorizes about the notion of time.  As he describes the building of the tower of Babel to reach heaven,  the main character, Hillalum, discovers the same truth as Dr. Louise Banks – “Men imagined heaven and earth as being at the ends of a tablet, with sky and stars stretched between; yet the world was wrapped around in some fantastic way so that heaven and earth touched.”  Chiang envisions time in a circular continuum.

In his short story about the aliens landing on several sites across the Earth, including China, Russia, Pakistan, the United States and Europe, Chiang focuses on the importance of immersion in someone else’s culture to fully understand it, with the scientists and linguists working together to solve the puzzle of the aliens’ visit.  Their purpose for coming is difficult to understand without language.

In the movie, someone at one of the sites gets nervous and shoots first. The aliens are forgiving, and thankfully, the movie stays true to the communication theme and avoids becoming Star Wars.  Instead, nations come together to do something that seems more like science fiction today than ever – they work together.

arrival_movie_poster   If you have not yet seen the movie, you might want to read the short story first, and try not to get lost in some of the technical jargon.  The story of Dr. Louise Banks is at the core of both; just remember to look forward, not back.  And consider what you would do if you could see your whole life, from beginning to end – would you make the same decisions?

Although I’m not a big fan of science fiction in books, I am enjoying Chiang’s collection of thought-provoking short stories.  At the end of the book, Chiang offers “Story Notes,” explaining his inspiration for each -for “Story of Your Life,” Chiang notes his interest in telling a story “about a person’s response to the inevitable.”   Chiang quotes Kurt Vonnegut in his introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary of Slaughterhouse-Five:

“Stephen Hawking found it tantalizing that we could not remember the future…. I know how my closest friends will end up because so many of them are retired or dead now…To Stephen Hawking and all others younger than myself I say, ‘Be patient.  Your future will come to you and lie down at your feet like a dot who knows and loves you no matter what you are.'”

The future will get here, no matter what we do.