With not even half the year gone, I feel a need to organize some of the literary impressions hammering at my brain, so I’m going to review–or more accurately, touch upon–a few books with which I’ve lately become familiar. (Is that sentence elegant or clunky? When you’ve been editing as long as I have, you tend to see at least 50 ways to word each sentence or phrase. Which is, as you can imagine, crazy-making.)
Kaaterskill Falls / Allegra Goodman
The title Kaaterskill Falls refers to the make-believe town in upstate New York where a sect of Orthodox Jews migrate every summer from the steaming city an hour or so south – women and children first, their men following on weekends. Goodman’s dive into the hearts and minds of these true believers is fascinating—even though, as a non-observant Jew, I tend to be embarrassed by the Orthodox, with their payes (long side curls on men) and black top hats, the women with shaved heads hidden under wigs. (What sense does it make to get rid of your hair and then suffer in discomfort with fake hair? Defies logic—unless suffering, like so much of Jewish practice, is the point.)
The story zooms in on a few families, primarily one with six girls whose mother decides, in a barely believable moment of epiphany, that it’s her destiny to open up a kosher store upstate so the Jewish cooks don’t have to wait for their menfolk to deliver the Sabbath challah and kosher meats.
I liked the book, with some reservations, such as the almost unbelievable drama mentioned above. Another problem is geographical; Goodman’s errors undermine the reader’s ability to “suspend disbelief”. The problem is this: Kaaterskill Falls is an invented village, but the surrounding towns are real: having lived in upstate New York some 15 years, I recognized them. The author, however, apparently didn’t look at a map: she puts Phoenecia way too close to Palenville—which it is not (click for map)—and that’s just one of several similar mistakes.
I won’t go into the other minor sticking points, since KF is ultimately a good read, almost tailor-made for summer, especially if you’re lucky enough to be sitting on the porch of a lakeside cabin (I’m drooling at the vision). So evocative is Goodman’s writing that the reader can almost feel the sticky night air and hear the shouts of kids running after lightning bugs with Good Humor bells jingling in the background. Trust me: you don’t have to be Orthodox, or even Jewish, to like Kaaterskill Falls.
State of Wonder / Ann Patchett. I wrote a bit about this when I first read it a few months ago. It’s one of those novels that’ll probably stay at the top of my annual best until 2014 if not longer, one that I loved madly and tore through without scribbling a single idea to use in a review. There are times when I just want to kick back and read, y’know what I mean? I recommend taking a look at some other review of State of Wonder, then try a few pages on for size. I thought it was sensational.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake / Aimee Bender
Though marinated in sorrow, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake still manages to deliver an element of fun. The protagonist, a little girl who grows up before our reading eyes, develops an alarming, magical skill: she can identify the circumstances under which the food she eats was created, from her mother’s lemon cake to processed vending machine snacks. Not only can she tell where and who made the food, but she understands the cook’s mood and personality. It’s a case of extreme empathy that brings on moments of synesthesia. She knows her parents will get a divorce years before they do, and she’s the only one in the family who sees her brother’s strangeness as dangerous and permanent.
Readers might touch on their own craziness, swinging from giggles and awe to bouts of terror. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon
As deeply worthwhile as this book is, I cannot with a clear conscience recommend it to the average reader: it’s over a thousand pages long. Had I known this beforehand, I probably wouldn’t have reserved it myself; when I got to the library and saw it taking up half the shelf I almost passed out. Since two close friends had separately recommended I read it, though, I figured it mattered. It does.
Andrew Solomon identifies a class of “horizontal” conditions that separate a child from his or her parent(s): it could be a chronic medical condition, deafness, being gay, or certain “disabilities” (Solomon doesn’t really see anything as dis-). In a review for the New Yorker, Nathan Heller says that for him “…being the parents of a deaf child meant travelling into a foreign country.” This resonated with me and probably will with other parents: I’ve frequently felt that the experience of raising a child with a chronic medical condition is akin to ending up in the wrong country than the one I’d bought tickets to visit. For starters, it takes time to adjust to the “surprise” place that you find yourself in, learning a whole new set of cultural cues, and to deal with the disappointment of missing the place where you’d planned to go. (See “Welcome to Holland” by Emily Perl Kingsley on my blog.)
FFTT is an important book that makes you think–I mean really think. And I don’t mean think about tolerance and all those oh-so-noble sentiments, but about a whole new way of looking at people, both children and their parents, who face unique challenges and unforeseen disappointments, all of which ripple out and affect every area of life. Solomon isn’t speaking merely in terms of individuals either, but as cultural transformation. Readers who’ve had direct experience will get it right away. Those without such experience might learn – although, as in a few other life circumstances, there’s no real substitute for experience.