The Nix

I really didn’t want to read Nathan Hill’s 620 page novel this summer; I think the nix made me do it.

shopping    A Nix is a Norwegian mischief maker, a mythical spirit character who can be dangerous.  In Nathan Hill’s novel The Nix, a house spirit from Norwegian folktales is only the seasoning adding to the overall flavor of his expansive examination of pretty much everything politically and socially in the 1960s leading to an overwhelming examination of what is wrong with today, politically and socially.  The “meat” of his story, however, is about how people overcome their fears and guilt, relate to one another, and are never, ever, who you think they are.

Although Hill’s long Faulkner-like paragraphs ramble to include every detail of scenes I often did not want to know so much about,  his  characters are funny, human, pathetic, happy, and miserable – all at once – reminiscent of John Updike or Philip Roth.   His ability to suddenly jolt with information through switchbacks from the late 1960s to the almost present kept me riveted.  His surprises came at times just when I was about to stop reading, but then could not.

What was the book about?  So many reviews have been written, some as rambling as the novel itself.  In his review for NPR, Jason Sheehan encapsulated the plot:

Hill’s novel is the story of Samuel. Of the boy who became him and the man that he is in 2011, in an Occupy Wall Street America, where he is obsessed with an online videogame called World Of Elfscape and failing at pretty much everything else. But when his vanished mother suddenly reappears on every TV screen in America — this forgotten ’60s hippie radical now emerging as a viral sensation with a handful of gravel and no good explanation — he is given a chance to write a book about her. A hatchet-job in which he, the abandoned son, is contractually obligated to savage his own mother in lurid, tell-all fashion…

The Nix is about a lot of things — about politics and online gaming, about the tenuous friendships of adult men and the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It is a vicious, black-hearted and beautiful satire of youth and middle-age, feminine hygiene products, frozen foods and social media. But more than anything, it is a treatise on the ways that the past molds us and breaks us and never lets us go. How it haunts us all.

Read Sheehan’s complete review here  

Not everyone will agree that reading a novel over 600 pages is worth the time – remember The Goldfinch?  I liked that book too. But, for me, The Nix became a book I had to finish – not only to find out how lives finally resolved, but just to catch more of the humor and wisdom between the lines.  Not for everyone, but I’m glad I listened to a fellow reader and fell in.

 

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Edna Ferber’s So Big

510bo6vlmhl-_sx330_bo1204203200_   Needing an old classic to soothe my brow from the news of political appointments, I found Edna Ferber’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, So Big.  Although written in 1924, the story addresses the disparity still felt today as we juggle the meaning and price of success in the world.

The adaptations of Edna Ferber’ work into movies and plays are as famous as her books: among them, Giant, Showboat, Stage Door, Dinner at Eight.  The 1932 version of So Big, starring Barbara Stanwyck motivated me to find the book in the library. So Big is the story of Selina, the schoolmarm turned farmer who never lost her view of nature’s beauty from the moment she saw the plains outside of Chicago.   I may have read it in school years ago, but this time, So Big brought its message and comfort to me with the reminder of what is really important in life.  For those who would disregard music, art, and literature, and see them as inferior to hard science or practical engineering, Ferber’s story is a lesson in integrity.

Although So Big focused on the spiritual and financial struggles of a farm wife, similarities to the author’s life lay the foundation.  Ferber’s parents were Jewish shopkeepers who ran a general store in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Her mother took over the family business when her father began to go blind, just as Selina takes over and improves the farm after her husband Pervus dies.  Within 283 pages, Ferber spans Selina’s life, aging her from a young girl who travels from place to place with her gambling father to a young schoolteacher and then wife of a farmer, then widow, and finally an old wrinkled woman on her farm.

As she raises her son, Dirk – fondly called So Big – she tries to model the value of hard work and the appreciation of beauty, giving him education and opportunities she never had (remember this is the turn of the twentieth century).  Ideas and being able to create are important – even if it takes years of work and pain. Sadly her reward is not a bright son curious and inventive, but a money-grubbing bond salesman who wears bespoke suits.

Roelfe, the young boy she mentored when she was a schoolteacher, returns years later as a middle-aged artist still struggling but content with his work and his life –  representing the strong contrast with her son who never has enough and never is happy, and, as a result, cannot get the one thing he really wants.   Because despite what  we hear lately, real life isn’t about who can yell the loudest or make the most money, but the satisfaction of a life well led.

“I want you to realize this whole thing called life is just a grand adventure. The trick is to act in it and look out at the same time. And remember: no matter what happens – good or bad – it’s just so much velvet.”

 

 

 

Want to Get Away? Read “The Borrower” by Rebecca Makkai

Some days, who doesn’t want to hop in the car and keep driving – as far and as long as you can?  I remember mornings when blue skies and endless roads held a promise of escape, and it was hard to turn into that parking lot for work.  In Rebecca Makkai’s The Borrower, twenty-six year old children’s librarian Lucy Hull, unexpectedly finds herself on a road-trip with her favorite library patron, ten-year old Ian Drake.

The story centers on two characters: Lucy, the only daughter of Russian immigrant parents, who is doing her time at her first job since graduating from Mount Holyoke as an English major; and Ian, the library regular who devours any books Lucy suggests.  Unfortunately, Ian’s mother, suspicious of fictional influence, does not approve of all of Lucy’s selections.  Lucy knows books, and so does Makkai, as she cleverly inserts classic book titles and songs-for-the-road, incorporating the storyline from some favorites you will recognize.

Lucy is happy to conspire with Ian to help him read books about anything he is interested in – sometimes, checking out the books to herself to maintain his cover, other times subversively slipping Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing into his backpack.  Mrs. Drake has enrolled Ian in Pastor Bob’s anti-gay camp, and her list of readings is confined to Pastor Bob’s suggestions.

When Ian packs his knapsack, runs away from home, and hides out in the library, Lucy decides to cooperate in his escape plan – and the road trip begins. The odyssey continues from Missouri to Chicago to Pittsburgh and Vermont.  Makkai uses other characters along the way to add humor and convenient ploys that work to help Lucy in the end.  When Lucy and Ian make a rest stop at her parents’ luxurious apartment on the lake in Chicago, Lucy’s Russian immigrant father tells his story of his harrowing and heroic escape from Russia.  Later, when she visits her uncle in Pittsburgh, the story gets retold, and the family’s connections to shady underworld characters is confirmed.  Having connections can be very helpful when you are in danger of being arrested for kidnapping.

Makkai cleverly spins the story so that you vacillate between wondering if Lucy and Ian will be caught, and hoping that they will get away.  Makkai’s plays on words are sometimes funny:  a scene in a New England bar when a man who has had too much to drink calls her a libertarian, and she thinks she – the librarian –  has been discovered; Lucy listing the seven deadly sins – Sloth as measured in calories not burned; Avarice – apparent sense of entitlement; Lust – untalented musician slept with…

It all works out in the end.   If you can laugh and just enjoy the ride, you will enjoy the adventures of this unlikely pair, despite – or maybe because of  – Makkai’s obvious political musings.