Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Visit from the Goon Squad

By Jennifer Egan

New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010

Week 39 Fiction

You know it is an amazing week when you can be blown away by two books in one week. First by Jesus Freak by Sara Miles and now by A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

I latched onto Goon Squad from the reviews synthesized in BookMarks magazine, which gave it 4 stars. Because the format is so different from any of my last several books (it is not linear in any way), I had a terrible time at the beginning. Then I realized that the scattered nature of the book is not scattered at all. Each chapter is a story about the interlocking characters of the book, and each story may have been told in the past, the present, or the future. Then, I went back and made an outline of the book and wrote down the narrator and the characters included in each story and the time frame of the story. Suddenly, the whole thing made sense and became utterly fascinating.

What is the book about? Well, ostensibly the book is about the music business, where it was in the 1970s, how it became digitalized and lost its soul, and then how in some distant future, it finds itself again. The book is even divided up into two sections A and B, like the two sides of a vinyl record.

All the stories revolve in some way or another around Sasha and Bennie. In the first story, Sasha at age 30-something is Bennie’s assistant. Bennie is a music producer. The stories circle back into their youth and how they happened to arrive where they did; future chapters relate the stories of others on the periphery of their lives, and on into the future giving us an intimation of where they all end up. Bennie and Sasha are not particularly appealing characters, nor are any of the other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. The messes they create are neither pleasant messes nor are the resolutions clean cut.

So what is the attraction of this book that made it such a brilliant piece of writing? First of all, the structure keeps you on your toes all through the book. Who is this chapter going to be about? What happened to ____ (fill in the blank)? How is this situation going to fit into the bigger picture? Chapter 12 is a PowerPoint presentation created by Sasha’s pre-teen daughter…ever seen one of those in a novel?

Secondly, there is the history of rock music that runs throughout the book. One reviewer suggested that a CD should be included in the book. Interestingly enough, the music is on an 8-track on Egan’s website. One could play each piece of music as it is encountered in the book. Another reviewer suggested that each chapter title could be the name of a track on the record, A Visit from the Goon Squad, i.e. “Ask Me if I Care,” and “Out of Body.”

Most importantly, the theme of the book is time, fate and destiny. Egan explores the question, “How did we get from where we were to where we are now?” As an example, Scotty is a down-and-out musician who seeks out Bennie the music producer. They had known each other as kids. He asks, “I came for this reason: I want to know what happened between A and B. A is where we were both in the band chasing the same girl. B is now.” That encounter is in chapter 6. In chapter 13, the last chapter in the book, Scotty finds his answer.

I remember the cosmic moment at about age 8 when I realized with stunning clarity that I was not the center of the universe and that the other people whose lives intersected mine were busily involved in creating their own realities. Each of the characters in A Visit from the Goon Squad is busily creating reality--sometimes chasing the same girl, sometimes totally losing touch, and finally, finding each other again.

Life is not a circle that begins and ends at the same point; it is a zigzag pattern that can veer off in a totally different direction at any moment. Yet, Egan suggests that there is circularity to even the most zigzagging life and that all our patterns are interwoven into the same great circle of experience that encompasses us all.

Here is a good review in San Francisco Gate.com:

Here is a passage from a wonderful review from The Book Lady’s Blog:
"The stories in this novel are connected, but they are not pieces of puzzle, and if you read them looking for a way to construct a single whole picture, you’ll just be missing the point. And you’ll be horribly confused. By experimenting with format, narrative structure, narrative voice, point-of-view, time, and, well, another handful or two of writing techniques, Egan succeeds in not only telling several people’s stories but forcing readers to think about how we take in moments as they occur and how we reshape them when we talk about them later. She pushes the boundaries of contemporary fiction and gives us an entirely fresh (and refreshing) reading experience, and I’m just going to stop talking about it now and tell you that if you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t need a straight narrative and a clean ending, you don’t want to miss A Visit from the Goon Squad."

Here is an interview with Jennifer Egan in the Economist:

Jennifer Egan’s website: which is very cool by the way: http://jenniferegan.com/
Be sure to look at Alison’s power point and listen to the soundtrack of the book.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead

By Sara Miles

New York, Jossey-Bass, 2010

Week 38  Spiritual Memoir

Every Friday afternoon upwards of 800 people come to get as much free food as they can carry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. It is a major ministry of that church and the brainchild of author Sara Miles. Jesus Freak is the story of that food ministry and of the people who are touched by it.

Journalist and chef Sarah Miles walked into St Gregory’s church at age 46 and was converted by the sacrament of communion that she received on that day. She recounts that tale of conversion and its consequences in her book, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion. Now she considers herself a “Jesus freak.” She runs the food pantry program at the church and is the program director for the church as well.

She says she is a Jesus freak because she truly believes that each of us and everyone around us are Jesus and filled with his power…to “just take his teachings literally, go out the front door of your home, and act upon them.” What that means is that loving one another literally means to love everyone, that there is no one who is the “least among us.”

I especially appreciated her thought that communion is the same as dinner, and when you feed someone or share a meal with someone, you are practicing communion. “We’ll stay hungry if we eat alone. We’ll be lonely if we think we can only share fellowship with the right people…We’ll starve if we believe that a community is a supernatural kind of miracle, or a product we can buy—not something we create by offering ourselves recklessly to others. We’ll never feel truly fed if we’re constantly competing to get our share. If we believe that love is scarce, and are afraid to give it away.”

Often in her work, she speaks to other churches that have food ministry programs, but many of them are like my local church, where the recipients of the food are screened, sent with a paper saying they can receive food but only once or twice a month. The extravagance of the program Miles runs boggles the mind, but like the story of the loaves and fishes, there is always enough.

The next part of the book discuss the healing (as opposed to curing) aspects of the food ministry and the burn out that comes when those who are enabled try to fix the problems of the poor. The powerful last chapter tells the story of Laura, who is dying of emphysema and needs to make arrangements for her teenage son. Sara guides her through the process of dying; it is a powerful story of the risen Jesus. Miles says that we raise the dead every time we Christians “stand around in our boring churches, eating little wafers or pieces of whole wheat pita, saying aloud that Christ is risen. It’s what we do whenever we continue in simple, literal acts: breaking bread, praying without hope of perfect outcomes, admitting our weaknesses, and loving people who don’t deserve it. It’s what we do when we remember that death is not the end.”

Throughout the book, there are stories of acceptance, of caring, and of redemption. Like the review that follows, I was “blown away” by this book. I have a friend, Ken, who is in jail in Florida for assault—an assault that happened when he was drunk and in a schizophrenic rage. During his jail term, he has gotten sober, gotten his medications regulated, and found Jesus. Throughout this book, I kept thinking Ken needs to find a place like this, where he can be useful and find acceptance. Maybe when his jail term is done, he needs to find Sara Miles and her church and feed those people who are in need.

Review of the book: http://www.blogher.com/review-why-book-jesus-freak-knocked-my-socks

Video of Sara Miles and the food pantry:

Sara Miles website: http://saramiles.net/

The story of the benefit dinners Sara Miles and others run in their neighborhood as described in the book:

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott

By Kelly O’Connor McNees

New York, G P Putnam’s Sons, 2010

Week 37      Fiction

When I was a girl, my summer would begin with the intent to read all the young adult books in the Duluth Public Library. I would march into the library in June and begin at the As. Thus, I read all of Louisa May Alcott’s books every summer for several years. Frankly, I never got much beyond the As, but to my benefit, I read Little Women, Little Men, Jo’s Boys, and all the rest of the books in the Alcott lexicon several times over.

So, it was with a great deal of pleasure that I received a copy of the new book, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O’Conner McNees. Louisa May Alcott has always been a fascinating person to me—a woman author at a time when expectations for women were to be wives and mothers, hostesses and housekeepers. Additionally, I had studied the philosophy of transcendentalism in college and had visited Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond and other sites famous to that movement when I lived in Boston. Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson appear as characters in this book, just as they were people much involved in the lives of the Bronson Alcott family. And Walt Whitman’s poem, Leaves of Grass, is a pivotal plot device in the story line.

McNees does an excellent job creating the setting for the last summer of Louisa May Alcott’s youth—the summer before she became a full-time author. The reader gets a very real understanding for the family dynamics, and to a certain extent, its dysfunction. If you will remember, in Little Women, the women in the March family are alone because their father is away at the Civil War. Subsequent biographical information about Louisa May Alcott might indicate why he was perhaps conspicuous by his absence. McNees gives a clear picture of Bronson Alcott, a man who is no earthly good, caught as he is in a heavenly world of books and philosophy. Geraldine Brooks, who wrote a novel about him (March) called him “the most transcendent transcendentalist of all.” The family moved 20 times in 30 years because the bills didn’t get paid. Bronson didn’t believe that he needed to do worldly work. Abba Alcott, Marmie to her four daughters, was overworked and long-suffering. She doted on her third daughter, Elizabeth, who was frail, and depended upon her older daughters Anna and Louisa to do the work of the house along with her. Nothing much was expected of May the youngest daughter, who is portrayed as a young teenager.

The novel takes place during the summer Louisa is 22. The family has moved to Walpone, New Hampshire to a summer house lent to them by a relative. They are terribly poor, and the house is in great disrepair. Louisa had planned to only spend a few weeks helping the family get settled, but as the novel begins, it seems that she will be spending the entire summer helping out, much to her dismay. She has squirreled away some money from a couple of published stories with which she intends to move to Boston as soon as she can to be on her own. However, she is feeling extremely guilty because she has this saved money when the family doesn’t have enough money to function properly.

These facts are true; what McNees has done is to imagine what might have happened to Louisa and her sisters during that summer. Biographers have always speculated about Louisa’s love life or if she ever had one. McNees fills in that aspect of her life with a romance with a young merchant in the community. At the end of the summer, Louisa forsakes love, exerts her longed-for independence and moves to Boston, where fame and fortune awaited her. Throughout the novel, the expectations about the role of women are preeminent, and the struggle to be an independent woman plagues Louisa as she tries to find her place. Written from the perspective of the 21st century, one can only imagine what life must have been like for her, which is of course, what convinced the author that there was a story to be told.

The novel is very engaging and the plot is plausible, speculative though it may be. Like all good historical fiction, the setting and peripheral details feel authentic. McNees has done her homework, and I had to keep reminding myself that this is a novel. It has the feel of a biography. For example this short passage describes what it must have felt like to have been an Alcott, one of Bronson’s daughters. “But Alcotts did not succumb, no matter the burden. There might not be a thing to do except struggle to wobbly feet and stand in the torrent, but sometimes that was enough to wear the torrent down, to coax out its final pathetic gust. In the end, an Alcott, though raw, bruised and worn, was still standing.” In another passage, McNees illustrates the tension that appears to have been always under the surface in the household. Abba confronts her husband about the lack of food in the house. Abba is heard to say, “I do not see how working for bread implies unworthy gains.” Bronson replies, “Wife, I must be true to this philosophy, no matter what the cost.” To which Abba responds, “Give me one day of practical philosophy. It is worth a century of speculation and discussion.”

As a piece of historical fiction, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott fits well with other novels of the period. And it can take its place with dignity as a part of the lexicon of books by and about Louisa May Alcott. A visit to the website about the home Louisa owned as an adult shows this book as part of the literature connected with the house. The website also mentions a PBS documentary about the life of Louisa May Alcott that looks very appealing: http://www.louisamayalcott.org/

A quote from the review in the Washington Post:
“McNees gets the period details just right: the crinolines and carriages; the spare, aesthetic plainness of 19th-century New England. And although the love affair with Joseph is invented, she remains faithful to the broad outlines of Alcott’s biography. In fact, The Lost Summer is the kind of romantic tale to which Alcott herself was partial, one in which love is important but not a solution to life’s difficulties. Devotees of Little Women will flock to this story with pleasure.”

An interview on WGN Chicago: http://www.wgnradio.com/shows/sundaypapers/wgnam-kelley-oconnor-mcnees-the-lost-summer-of-louisa-may-alcott,0,4616791.mp3file

Here is the website for Kelly O’Connor McNees:

Friday, September 3, 2010


By Marilynne Robinson

New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Week 36     Spiritual

When the Rev. John Ames was in his late 60s, he was given a second chance at life. He married a much younger woman and became a parent. At 76, he receives a diagnosis that his heart is failing, and he realizes that he will not live long enough to see his son, now 6, grow up. The book Gilead is his rambling musings on his life, his ancestry, and the lessons he wants his son to learn. He says to his son, “How I wish that you could have known me in my strength.”

John Ames grew up in Gilead, Iowa and remained there to pastor the church that his father pastored. That does not make him a country bumpkin by any means; he is educated and cultured and finds beauty and truth in the Iowa countryside. His best friend is Broughton, a Presbyterian minister, who grew up with John and spent his entire career in Gilead, as well. They spend many hours ruminating on faith and on life, but Broughton has the discouragement of knowing that his son, John (named after his friend) is a prodigal. John Ames Broughton returns home for a visit and his presence is a vexation to the protagonist, John, as he is writing down his thoughts.

And that is about the sum of the plot of the book. Like The Elegance of the Hedgehog, this book is not about plot. As a matter of fact, it is very similar to The Elegance of the Hedgehog in that explores the inner workings of the human mind with all its foibles. John’s son would know these foibles and these thoughts if he would be able to know his father long enough to ask the questions, but John is sure that he will not live that long. Consequently, John tries to imbue his theology into his son through small sermons, like the following. “So my advice is this—don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them.”

Marilynne Robinson has truly written a masterpiece. In fact, it won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for literature. Imbued with scriptural parallels, the book portrays a man at peace with his life, still enthralled with the tasks of the ministry, hopeful for the future, and comfortable with the thought of his own mortality. Robinson is very comfortable with scripture herself, and none of the references –scriptural or theological—seemed forced or contrived. Because she wrote the book in short burst-like journal entries, the reader is able to read a section and ponder it a bit. I found myself underlining whole passages because of their truth or their beauty. In that way, although it is fiction, it is a spiritual book in the purest sense of the term. Robinson affirms the power of the sacred in the small details of the book as well as in the grander expository passages. One knows the very soul of the Rev. John Ames, loves him, and affirms the faith he espouses. Yet, as the reviewer in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution comments, “Readers with no interest in religion will find pleasure in this hymn to existence. It is a story that captures the splendors and pitfalls of being alive, viewed through the prism of how soon it all ends.”

My grandfather, the Rev. Edward Stodghill, began his career as a Methodist minister in rural Iowa and throughout the book I saw my grandfather, tall, thin, white-haired, with the mellifluous voice of an actor, speaking poetry from the pulpit. He took the visual place for the Rev. John Ames in my mind. My grandfather had the same educated, gentle spirit as John Ames, and the same grace-filled attitude toward people and religion. The book had a double impact for me because it brought my grandfather back to me.

I do not know why I had not read this book before, but I would highly recommend it. It will fill your soul with the goodness of a very human but very spirit-filled man.

A brilliant review of Gilead and interview with the author in 2004:


Audio interview with Terry Gross on PBS about Gilead: