The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel of North Korea Cover

After last year’s committee chose not to award a Pulitzer for fiction (which was pretty controversial), I was more interested than usual in this year’s results. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson has won the prize.  I’ve not read this one, but it’s been on my TBR list since it won the Tournament of Books against some pretty tough competition.  This year’s winner, set in a fictional North Korea, is particularly relevant given recent events.

What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank: Stories (Vintage) Cover The Snow Child Cover

The finalists were Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (perhaps someone ought to send the Biebs a copy of this one) and Eowan Ivey’s The Snow Child.  I remember a lot of buzz about Englander’s stories and saw this one mentioned as a possible Pulitzer contender, but The Snow Child is a surprise to me.  I remember some positive reviews, but not the rush of critical acclaim the other two have gotten.  I’m not even sure it got a NYT review (based on a quick google search I think it was overlooked).  So here’s to a female author getting some recognition from the Pulitzer committee! This one’s going to the top of my TBR list.

What do you all think about the Pulitzer this year?

The Interestings Cover The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls Cover The Flamethrowers: A Novel Cover My Brilliant Friend CoverThe Dud Avocado Cover Swimming Home Cover The Count of Monte Cristo (Oxford World's Classics) Cover    To the Lighthouse CoverThe Death of the Heart Cover  Little Known Facts Cover The Pink Hotel Cover Zelda: A Biography (P.S.) Cover

In a month or so, there are going to be summer reading recommendations everywhere.  They will invariably include books about female friendship and the beach.  Usually both.  I’ll probably enjoy the hell out of some of them.  But I don’t really need to read about the beach when I’m already there.  So here’s what I’m looking forward to reading this summer:

If I had to pick one thing I loved the most about summer when I was young, it would be camp.  Day camp , Girl Scout camp, Band camp (I blog about books, of course I went to band camp) and even French camp.  I don’t think I’m alone on this one.  I think summer makes everyone nostalgic for the adventures of youth.  I wish I could still go to camp (especially French camp which had amazing food and fencing).  Instead, I go to the office, freeze my air-conditioned ass off and try not to stare out the window too much.  This summer, there are two books that appear to be both literary and about camp!  Lucky me.

The first, is Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which just came out, but which I am going to try to wait to read until summer.  This is a novel that follows the lives of a group of friends that meet as teenagers at a summer arts camp.  I read Wolitzer’s The Wife this winter and couldn’t put it down.  It was really witty, tackled some pretty heavy issues, and was a total page-turner all at the same time.  Based on the early buzz, I fully expect the same from The Interestings.

The second, which doesn’t come out until June, is Anton Disclafani’s The Yonahlosse Riding Camp for Girls.  If I had to pick a second favorite thing about summers when I was young, it would be horses.  During my junior high summers I spent almost every day with horses.  I can’t remember another time when I’ve been  both covered in dirt and insanely happy.  So a coming of age story about a riding camp in the 1930s is at the top of my list.  Also, it has been described with adjectives like lush and transportive.  Those are summer adjectives.

After camp, I’d love nothing more than a backpacking trip around Europe.  Wouldn’t everyone?  The next best thing to actually traveling is to plan a summer reading trip.  The ex-pat in Europe makes for a great beach read.  I can’t imagine that The Sun Also Rises would be anywhere near as perfect as it is except when read in the glaring heat.  Ditto for Tender is the Night.

So, where will I go first?  Italy, of course.  I’m pretty excited for Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers.  It sounds sort of scandalous (artists, motorcycles and Italian terrorists!) and it combines two summer themes:  the ex-pat in Europe and the coming-of-age novel.  There’s something about a day at the beach that makes me feel totally in love with the world.  That’s the best feeling with which to approach a coming-of-age novel.

I think I’ll stay in Italy a little while longer so I can visit Naples.  Books about southern Italy are best when read outside in the sun.  Preferably somewhere with a lot of noisy traffic for ambiance.    I think it’s because I’m Sicilian that the further south I get, the happier I am in Italy.  Naples is dangerous, dirty and decaying, but it’s also a real, live city (as compared to say the Disneyland that is Florence).  Amid the chaos, there’s a fascinating beauty.  I’ve been hearing so many good things about the Italian author Elena Ferrante’s latest novel, My Brilliant Friend, that it’s been a struggle to save it for summer.  This is a story of female friendship (beach read!), only it’s about growing up tough in the city of Naples, rather than growing up rich in Nantucket.

Where to next?  France!  First, to Paris with Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado.  This is apparently a cult classic, but I’d never heard of it before last year.  I love it when that happens. This 1950s novel of the American girl abroad is supposed to be a great romantic comedy.   Then onto a summer villa in the hills above Nice with Deborah Levy’s Booker short-listed Swimming Home.  This one sounds a little bit dark and suspenseful.  Perfect for a rainy day.

I can’t leave France without having a little adventure.  What better book for whiling away a week at the lake than the classic The Count of Monte Cristo?  With Revenge on hiatus for the summer, a good dose of literary vengeance might just fill the void.  Clocking in at around 1000 pages, this is the perfect book for that week when all you have to do is lie in the sun and read.  We all need at least one week like that or what’s the point of summer?

Before returning stateside, I’ll hang out with the British modernists for a bit.  Really stunning writing is almost meditative when you’re lying on the beach.  There’s nothing better than drifting in and out of beautiful prose with the distant cacophony of seagulls and surf in the background.  Read, close your eyes to the sun, and then read some more.  It’s dreamy.  This summer, it’s going to be Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart.  Chosen not just for their transcendent prose, both books feature classic summer locations: the house on the lake and the sea-side resort.

When I get back to the States, I think I’ll wind up the summer with a road trip out west.  I know most summer reads take you out East for a little cottage on the seashore vacation, but I love the gritty heat of summer in the city too.  Also, it’s almost pointless to read about Los Angeles in the middle of winter when you live in the Midwest. I don’t care how great the book, it’s just not the right experience when I’m staring out the window at three feet of snow.  Winter here is best spent reading the Russians.  This summer, I’m looking forward to Christine Sneed’s Little Known Facts and Anna Stothard’s The Pink Hotel, both set in L.A.  The dual nature of L.A. seems well-represented by these two since one is the Hollywood side and one the seedy side.  This part of the summer reading list is borne out of last summer’s reading of Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, which was all sorts of awesome in both Italy and L.A.

Finally, I have not forgotten that this is the summer of Gatsby.  I’ve had Nancy Milford’s 1983 biography, Zelda, on my coffee table for about a year now and this seems like the perfect time for it.  Yes, I know there is a new novel about Zelda that just came out, but I didn’t really like The Paris Wife and this new Z novel is too similar in concept.  It’s hard to read about a fictionalized Hemingway or Fitzgerald in a novel that’s obviously inferior to anything either of them ever wrote.  Well, that was how I felt about The Paris Wife anyways and while I’ll try to keep an open mind about Z: A Novel, I don’t have high hopes.  If I have time, I think I’d rather revisit some of Fitzgerald’s novels because I’ve been wanting to do that ever since I read this awesome installment of Lydia Kiesling’s Modern Library Revue for The Millions.

So these are my top picks for summer.  What are you planning on reading at the beach this year?

When You Reach Me Cover    Splendors and Glooms Cover

Most avid readers are familiar with the dreaded reading slump.  You have piles of great books, but you can’t seem to read more than a few pages at a time.  So you try another book and abandon it.  And then another.  Nothing seems to hold your interest and the time you usually spend relaxing with a book you spend Facebooking and watching TV (thank God for Hulu, because oh Revenge, let me count the ways that I love you).

What causes my reading slumps? Well, I seem to be experiencing the whole trifecta right now.  Really intense workload, two books in a row that have been less than enjoyable, and spring fever all rolled into one.  I know the signs and the fact that I’ve spent the last two nights binge watching Glee on Hulu can only mean one thing (other than that I’m a total dork who loves musical television).  I’m in a slump.

So what’s my trick for getting out of it?  Children’s literature.  Even though we’re married with books instead of with children (for now at least), I really enjoy kid’s books.  As adults, I think we tend to assume that kid lit is overly simplistic or boring.  It’s not.  I figured this out last year when I started re-reading some of my childhood favorites.  I picked up a copy of  Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, which I read over and over again when I was a kid, and I couldn’t put it down.  It was just as good as I had remembered.  Same thing with E.L. Konigsburg’s From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Because I was so happy re-reading my childhood favorites, I started to think about all the great books that have probably been written since I was a kid.  It’s not like childhood classics stopped being written because I’d grown up.  It was pretty exciting when I realized there were all these classic stories out there that I’ve yet to discover.  It’s also kind of great that when we do become married with children, I’ll already have an awesome selection of books for them to read someday.

Luckily, there are a lot of sources for finding excellent children’s books.  The Newbery Medal is an obvious and reliable one.  There’s also the School Library Journal’s annual Battle of the Kids Books, which is a lot of fun.  And of course, there are the blogs.  Author, teacher, and Newbery judge Monica Edinger blogs about children’s lit at Educating Alice and writes book reviews for the New York Times.  If she likes a book, you can trust that it’s a good book.  Gretchen Rubin, the former lawyer, author and blogger behind the Happiness Project, has an online book club featuring her favorites.  While I’m not really into the whole self-help happiness thing, I appreciate Gretchen’s love of children’s literature.  She has really good taste in books.

I definitely wouldn’t want to read children’s literature all the time, but it’s great when I’m looking for an easy read that’s still going to be enjoyable and smart.  So it’s perfect for breaking out of a reading slump!  I convinced one of my friends to give it a try when she couldn’t read a book to save her life last year.  That time, Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting and Elizabeth Enright’s Gone Away Lake totally did the trick.

Two newer children’s books that I’ve really enjoyed this year are Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, which won the Newbery Medal in 2010, and Laura Amy Schlitz’s Splendors and Glooms, which was a 2012 Newbery Honor book.  When You Reach Me  is a fantastic tribute to another childhood classic, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.  It also stands on its own as a beautifully written story about life in the sixth grade.  There’s a bit of a mystery and a little science fiction that keep the plot moving, but it’s also a wise reflection on friendship.  Miranda is such a likeable, memorable heroine that I think this one’s an instant classic.

Spendors and Glooms is a dark, Dickensian fairy tale set in Victorian England.  There’s a magician, a witch, a puppet show and three kids who get mixed up in all of it.  It’s atmospheric, imaginative and a page-turner.  This is one that will appeal to fans of The Night Circus or Harry Potter.  I finished it in one sitting this past Februrary when I was too sick from the world’s worst cold to do much else.  It was such an escape from the real world I almost forgot how crummy I felt.

So what am I going to read to break out of my current slump?  I just ordered a copy of Rebecca Stead’s newest book, Liar and Spy, which I’m pretty excited about.  A bookseller at our local indie told me it was great and I’m a sucker for stories set in New York.  It went down to Splendors and Glooms in this year’s Battle of the Books, but it seemed like a close call.  So that’s my trick for breaking out of the spring reading slump.  What’s yours?

The Leftovers Cover

When a book dissapoints, I’m not shy about airing my grievances.  What is the point of only writing about books I liked?  That excludes an entire part of what it is to be a reader.  If I was just going to post positive reviews, I might as well forego the whole blog thing and just like my favorite books on Facebook.  Sure, I’m exposing myself to all sorts of criticism in return (that I’m an elitist snob or I didn’t understand the book or whatever), but that’s fine by me since disagreement is a hell of a lot more interesting than holding hands and singing Kumbaya because we’re all afraid that any bad reviews will be the final nail in the coffin of the dying act of reading.  Encouraging people to read crappy books isn’t exactly going to help the problem either.

I get extra angsty when disappointing books get good reviews.  A few bloggers I usually rely on for recommendations really liked Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers.  Both The New York Times and The Washington Post named it a notable book in 2011.  So I was kind of excited when I found a hardcover copy on the bargain table at B&N for six bucks last week (I’ll admit that it’s totally my fault that I ignored past experiences with the bargain table…)

About 50 pages into The Leftovers, I began to despair that Perrotta’s great concept was going to be sadly undermined by less-than-great writing and a ho-hum story.  A novel about the survivors of a rapture-like event had so much potential!  What a great way to explore survivor guilt or the political aftermath of an apocalyptic event. What aspects of society become ridiculous when viewed from the rear view mirror of disaster?  What aspects of our lives are strong enough to transcend the before and after?

There were a few spots when I thought the book lived up to its potential in presenting the weird consequences of a rapture in contemporary society.  I loved the mention of the celebrities who’d disappeared.  Imagine a world in which both JLo and the Pope disappear in the rapture.  What can that mean?  Also loved it when the Christians became stridently anti-rapture after they were left behind.  Too bad there wasn’t more of this larger social commentary.  The more imaginative aspects of the book were pretty much abandoned for a story about the world’s most boring family.

So what was my problem with this book? Both the prose and the characters were flat flat flat. The plot was extremely thin.  It was a depressing book without the artistry to make the emotional drain even slightly enjoyable.  I had hoped for something more imaginative and alive.  I understand that the people and the place are supposed to represent anyone, anywhere in America, but I still wanted them to be interesting.  Never before have cults, adultery, and teenage rebellion felt so thoroughly boring.

Tom and Jill are clearly meant to represent anyone’s children by the normalcy of their lives before the rapture as well as their Dick and Jane names.  Jill is a good girl who rebels after she loses a friend and her mother abandons her family for a sinister cult.  Tom is a college frat boy who joins a hippy-love type cult.  Well, he actually joins two hippy-love type cults, but whatever.  The problem is that they are just as boring after the rapture as they were before.  You would think at least the teenagers would start having some original or interesting thoughts at some point while embarking on a downward spiral, but their aimless rebellion was as uninteresting as their parents’ mid-life crises.

Maybe, in Perrotta’s world, shaving your head, getting stoned, and skipping class is a dramatic event worthy of a post-rapture rebellion?  If that is the case, then we have lived through the apocalypse my friends, because I think most of us would just call that Junior Year.

Also, why must we signify major turmoil and changes in female characters through haircuts?  Is a woman shaving her head or dying her hair blond or letting her hair go grey really meant to symbolize big changes on the inside?  In this book, yes.  In real life, no.  I cut all my hair off once because I was drinking while watching Grease and thought I could make myself look like Rizzo.  Other than learning that I don’t look nearly as hot as Rizzo did with short hair, it was a pretty meaningless exercise in personal grooming.  I could have stood for one symbolic hairstyle in this novel, but not three, which just seems like a really lazy way to write female characters.

While we’re talking about poor effort in female characterization, let’s talk about Christine.  Was she not the most boring pregnant teenage bride of a jailed cult leader that ever was?  No attempt to get inside her head whatsoever, which might have been interesting.  We’re really given no reason why Tom was so drawn to her except that she’s pretty.  Apparently that has something to do with the fact that her face didn’t get fat when she was pregnant.  At least Perrotta remembers to tell us about her hair, which is “gleaming black.”  Anyway, she’s not really a character because we only hear about her from Tom.

Then we have Nora.  The former “top-notch girlfriend” with her perfect “straight and shiny” hair.  She starts dating Kevin (after her whole family vanishes and she very publicly finds out her vanished husband was a sleazy adulterer) and worries that she’s not a good girlfriend anymore because she’s paralyzed with grief. Which, okay, fine.  But the origin of her greatest girlfriend ever thing involves Glamour quizzes and blowjobs.  Basically, Nora is the most superficial sad person ever.  Like three pages on her decision to dye her hair blond superficial.  Here’s one paragraph from that agonizing decision:

Nora read these testimonies[about bad dye jobs] with some trepidation, but not enough to change her mind.  She wasn’t dying her hair for cosmetic purposes, or because she wanted to have more fun.  What she wanted was a clean break with the past, a wholesale change of appearance, and the quickest, surest way to do that was to become an artificial blond.  If her pretty brown hair turned into plastic grass in the process, that was collateral damage she could live with. (310)

Three pages regarding the life-changing dye job.  How am I supposed to care about this person’s grief after reading this?  Then, Kevin doesn’t recognize her standing on his porch because she’s blond.  No, really.  But then she finds a baby his son left on the porch that the teenage bride of the jailed cult leader abandoned and so there’s hope after all?  The end.  Remember when I said the plot was a little thin?

Don’t even get me started on Laurie.  Let me just say that she has let her hair go grey since she joined the cult and that Kevin thinks it makes her look younger.  The most interesting part of the novel was probably the cult that Laurie joins.  This was an aspect of the story that felt like it could have been great… if only this had been a Margaret Atwood novel.  There was just no atmosphere of suspense or dread or horror or anything.  There were a few good details, like the mandatory smoking, but not enough to make it all that memorable.

Then there’s Aimee.  She wears skimpy clothing and her best friend’s dad has the hots for her.  That’s super original.  She also has pretty hair.

She gathered her long hair with both hands as if making a ponytail, but then changed her mind, letting it spill back over her shoulders, soft and pretty against the rough twill of her jacket. (299)

When the female characters in a novel are basically different versions of a L’Oreal Paris ad, you can see how I’m slightly perplexed by all the good reviews.  I think this one got good reviews because the premise is so good that you want to like it.  This could have been an awesome book, but it wasn’t.  If the writing was original and engaging or the plot relatively interesting, I could have overlooked the lame female characters.  (Ahem, I’m looking at you Billy Lynn.)  Sadly, there wasn’t much that could redeem the endless parade of hair models.

I’m not surprised that HBO is developing a series based on The Leftovers.  It’s not the kind of book you’d need to stay true to in a TV adaptation.  There’s nothing particularly memorable about the story or the characters.  It’s not like casting Nora or Aimee or Christine requires more than hiring an actress with shiny hair.  This may be a rare instance in which the adaptation is better than the book. Here’s hoping HBO does really cool stuff with the whole post-rapture premise, keeps a cult or two as part of the story, and writes some female characters with more brains than hair.

Dear John

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk Cover

Like pretty much every other woman in America (or at least the ones I’m friends with on Facebook), I can’t stop thinking about what just happened in Steubenville, Ohio.  It’s so sad and so horrible I almost feel bad writing about it on a book blog.  But, books have always been a part of how I try to understand the world.  Sometimes literature provides the best insight into the really troubling aspects of our society.  I’d say that’s the case with Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, so bear with me for a minute.

While we don’t have a TV, I’ve watched the media’s bizarrely sympathetic coverage of the convicted rapists (cable news just won the tough battle with reality television and saving the environment for the #1 reason I don’t own a TV).  After watching this this clip all I wanted to do was spend the rest of the day listening to old school Ani Difranco.  The year or two the rapists will spend in Juvie is apparently a death sentence for their football careers.  And some people are very upset about this because football is the most important thing in the world, especially if you live in Steubenville, Ohio.    Do we really value football more than women’s health and safety?  Yes, we do.

The fact that I blog about literary fiction, don’t own a TV, and just admitted to being into Ani fifteen years after it was cool (if it was ever cool), might reasonably lead you to believe that I already think football is dumb and boring and bad.  You’d be so wrong because you’d have forgotten the most relevant fact: I’m from Wisconsin.  I love watching football.  I threw a Superbowl party in my (all-girls) dorm when the Packers won Superbowl XXXI.  I still have the VHS tape I used to record the game so that I could watch it whenever I wanted, like I did with my favorite movies.  The next year, I got in an actual email fight with one of my then best friends (who happens to be from Chicago) when she got all gloaty after we lost to the Broncos.  My angry, drunken, The Bears Still Suck emails were not a highpoint in our friendship. Soooo, I was totally, embarrassingly, emotionally involved in football when I was in college.

How did I learn to equate winningness in football with happiness in life? From my Dad.  Who this very past fall stormed out of my birthday party when this happened.  In the world of true football fans, no emotional outburst is too extreme when your team loses.  When 4th and 26 happened, I threw shrimp at my parents’ television.  That I’d just dunked in red cocktail sauce.  Were my parents pissed that I got in a food fight with the Philadelphia Eagles in their living room?  Of course not.  There’s not a Packer Fan on earth who’d have blamed me.  It was a heartbreaking loss.

So I think I understand the emotional connection that people in Steubenville have with football.  I don’t condone it, but I think I understand how it works.  Here in Wisconsin, it’s socially acceptable for my dad to storm out of my birthday party because the replacement refs blew a call and cost the Pack the game.  But what was the effect on me?  Well, it made me feel like a football game was more important to my dad than the day I was born.  Which made me sad.  Now, take this and multiply it by a million.  In Steubenville, the football careers of high school rapists are more important than the young woman who was victimized.  Which isn’t just sad, it’s tragic.

For a while now, I’ve known that getting emotional about football is stupid.  Like really, really stupid.  In the years since college, I’ve learned that the final score of the Packer game has absolutely no bearing on the real world or my life.  I don’t really care who wins anymore.  But, I still love to watch football.  Why?  Because it’s fun.  I get to wear this T-shirt, tailgate (beer and brats!), and hang out with my friends and family for a few hours on the weekend.  I know it’s barbaric, but it’s exciting to watch.  And sometimes, I still can’t help but get a little tiny bit involved in the soap opera plotlines.  If Greg Jennings ever reads this I’d like him to know I was none too happy to hear about this, but I commend whoever is handling his publicity.  You get the picture:  I’m still a Packer Fan.

Or at least I was until today.  Admittedly, I should have ditched football a long time ago.  I broke up with Catholicism when I was thirteen because its anti-feminist, anti-gay, pro-pedophile, big money politics sickened me. Sound like any other all-male organization that’s been in the news a lot lately?  As the child of a Sicilian immigrant, was it really easier to break up with this church than with this one?  It’s not just one corrupt program at one university or a few bad seeds.  At every level, football is a fundamentally corrupt institution.

We’re part of a society that mistakenly treats athletes like heroes.  Over and over and over again.  We somehow invest so much of ourselves in a game that it becomes more important than real life.  We have a bad, bad relationship with sports.  It’s not just a fun game anymore.  It’s not just a nice escape from the real world for a few hours on the weekends.  We’ve allowed this hero-worship to perpetuate a rape culture so pervasive even our high schools are infected.

So what’s the first step in breaking up with football?  To stop spending money on it.  I don’t think I’ll every pay for Packers’ tickets or buy another Aaron Rodgers T-shirt.  If more women in America did that, we might get somewhere, because it’s all about the money.

Then, with the money I save, I’m going to buy everyone I know a copy of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.  Happy Birthday!  Here’s a book I think you’ll love.  Merry Christmas!  I got you a book.  Despite its flaws (overly wise nineteen-year old protagonist, lame female characters etc.), I think Billy Lynn says a lot of what really needs to be said about our absurd national obsession with football.  It’s also a really good read.

Placing Billy and the Bravos at a Dallas Cowboy’s game on Thanksgiving is a brilliant concept.  Through the eyes of actual soldiers, Fountain exposes the sad absurdity of our misplaced hero-worship for overpaid athletes.  When Billy and the rest of the guys meet the players, Billy is struck by the uselessness of this well-fed, well-supplied team.  Sarcastically, Billy imagines sending the NFL, with all of its warrior propaganda, to an actual war:

Attack with all our bears and raiders, our ferocious redskins, our jets, eagles, falcons, chiefs, patriots, cowboys… they are so huge, so strong, so fearsomely ripped that your bombs and bullets bounce off their bones of steel.  Submit, lest our awesome NFL show you straight to the gates of hell!  (184)

But, war pays a lot less than football and the huge gulf between the actual soldiers and the Sunday warriors widens as they interact.  Fountain deftly explores the contrast between these two groups when Billy and Sargeant Dime tour the equipment room.  Overwhelmed by the amount of supplies and resources, Billy thinks:

How does it come to be, that’s what he wants to know, not just the how but the why off all this stuff. Only in America, apparently.  Only America could take such a product-intensive sport and grow it into the civic necessity it is today.  (182-3)

It’s not just our American obsession with stuff that the reader takes away from this scene, but the contrast with how dangerously under-supplied our troops were in Iraq.  The supply room perfectly illustrates the extraordinary expense and effort wasted on a meaningless game.  The power of corporate greed and the superficiality of the spectacle paints a disturbing portrait of American values.

While this isn’t a novel that deals with women all that well, it seems to get at the same feelings I have about Steubenville.  Our real lives and the real people in them are more important than sports. In the same way that I can’t believe we care more about football than we do about women’s safety, Billy is appalled by parents who care more about football than their own children. (Hi dad!)  After meeting the players, Billy decides to give away his autographed football to a kid who looks like he could use it.

Outside the Whataburger booth he spots him, a smallish, twitchy kid with a head too big for his neck, ill dressed for the cold in a thin cotton hoodie and fake falling-apart Reeboks, and why the fock would parents spend hundreds of dollars on Cowboys tickets when their son lacks a proper winter coat? (189)

Why do we feel like it’s okay to elevate a game above other people’s well-being?  After Steubenville, I hope more people are asking themselves that question right now. That’s one of the great things about Billy Lynn – it asks that question while also being funny, smart, sad, entertaining and well-written.  It’s a book about a lot more than football, but after this week in the news, I’ve got football on my mind even if it is officially out of my life.

Anna Karenina (Everyman's Library) Cover    Half-Blood Blues Cover  Dear Life: Stories Cover

This past January, I ended up reading three books at the same time.  I hadn’t intended to get involved in this menage a trois, but I’d already started Anna Karenina when I realized I needed to read Half Blood Blues for book club and then bought Dear Life on an impulse at the bookstore (I cannot resist the dual temptation of a beautiful cover and a staff recommendation note).  So for a few weeks in January I read one of Munro’s stories every day along with either Anna Karenina or Half Blood Blues.  Strangely, it all made sense.

When I kept seeing a common theme between three randomly chosen books, I assumed it was my brain’s way of making sense of this haphazard trio.  One was a short story collection about the small, quiet lives of (mostly) women in Canada in the years after World War II.  Another was one of the greatest novels ever, Tolstoy’s portrait of Russia in the nineteenth-century, as told through the story of three marriages.  The other was a Booker shortlisted novel about a group of multiethnic jazz musicians in Berlin and Paris at the onset of World War II.  Yet all three seemed to present a similar theme: “The Moment.”

I don’t think I’m alone in thinking about Munro’s Dear Life as a collection of stories that focus on the decision, or The Moment, when our lives irrevocably change course.  A soldier who jumps from a train before he reaches the stop where his fiance is waiting;  an engagement broken on the way to the wedding; a sister’s leap into a cold, deep pond.  Almost every single story in this beautiful collection depicts a lifetime shaped around a moment.  As well, these stories explore how our individual actions become the events that change the lives of both strangers and family alike.

What struck me was how this theme seemed equally important to my understanding of Anna Karenina and Half Blood Blues.  In Anna Karenina, it’s the moment when Anna and Vronsky sleep together that I’d identify as pivotal to everything that comes before and after in the novel.  Immediately after Anna and Vronsky consummate their affair, Vronsky compares himself to a murderer as she declares that her life as she knew it is ended.  “All is over,” she said; “I have nothing but you.  Remember that.” (173)  In an instant, she realizes that she has been irrevocably changed, her life forever altered. “She felt that at that moment she could not put into words the sense of shame, of rapture, and of horror at this stepping into a new life…” (173)  Despite the fact that there are about 750 pages left in the novel, Anna’s life has been decided in this one moment.

I’m not sure that everyone who reads Anna Karenina views it as being as fatalistic as I do, but it seemed to me that once she rejected her marriage with Karenin, she would never be able to change course.  We can’t help but envision Anna galloping to her demise with too much momentum to save herself when we see Vronsky in the steeplechase, proclaiming his love for his horse while at the same time racing it to its death.  In Anna’s case, it’s hard to see her affair with Vronsky as anything but destructive.  Everyone suffers as a result: Anna, Vronsky, her children, even Karenin.

In Half Blood Blues, the moment that changes everything is morally ambiguous.  On an impulse, Sid makes a decision that forever changes the history of Jazz, but also destroys a life.  It is both horrible and understandable; destructive and creative; selfish and altruistic.  Everything that happens in the novel, both before and after we find out what Sid did is shaped by one brief moment.   Perhaps this theme in all three books is best explained when Sid tells us:

Hell, I known this was it, this was our moment, our lifetime.  Folks think a lifetime is a thing stretched out over years.  It ain’t.  It can happen quick as a match in a dark room. (205)

What each of these three books explore in their own way is the consequences of that moment.  What motivates people to act and what are the consequences of our actions?  Can we know how important a single moment is as it occurs, as Anna did, or only realize it when we look back on our life, like Munro’s characters?

After finishing (and loving) Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues, I was looking for reviews of the novel and more info about the author, when I found this interview!!  Who are Edugyan’s favorite authors?  Tolstoy and Munro! No joke.  I’ll take this as a sign that the unifying theme in all three works was less a figment of my imagination than I’d thought.  It seems that by some happy accident, I’d immersed myself in a perfect literary trio.  It was a great reading experience, in part because all three books were amazing, but also because the questions they raised were perfectly interrelated. Gotta love a little literary serendipity.

The  2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist has been announced!  Formerly the Orange Prize, it is the UK’s prize for women writers from around the globe and a good way to find out about literary fiction that might not have gotten a lot of press.  Out of the 20 books nominated, I’ve only read three: Bring Up The Bodies, Gone Girl, and Flight BehaviorNW and Where’d You Go Bernadette are in my TBR pile on the coffee table.

So that leaves fifteen new books to consider!  Well, almost.  I’ve been following the Morning News Tournament of Books and I’m pretty sure May We Be Forgiven and How Should A Person Be are not my cup of tea.  Some of the nominees on the longlist look like straight up chick lit which is also not my thing.  Ignorance and Lamb, for example, both have a headless woman  on the cover.  Although the recent treatment of The Bell Jar suggests I might want to follow the old advice and not judge by the cover.

Of the other books on the list, The Innocents and Alif The Unseen are the two books that I’m most interested in reading.  Maybe The Marlow Papers as well?

I’ll be curious to see what makes the shortlist in April!