A book worth finishing

For the first 40 or so years of my life, if I started a book, I finished it. But then the sense of my own mortality hit, and I realized that there weren’t enough days left in my life to waste any of them on bad books. So, reluctantly, and with some trepidation, I adopted a new philosophy. If I started reading a book and really, truly thought it was terrible, I'd just stop and put it aside. It’s still hard for me to give up on a book, but I’ve gotten better at it.

In the past month or so I’ve read a number of books. Only one was really wonderful, and only one was so bad I had to abandon it. The rest fell somewhere in between.

The wonderful book I loved is Calvin Trillin’s About Alice, a tribute to his wife and muse, written five years after her death. Fans of Trillin, a staff writer at The New Yorker for the last 40 years, met Alice in almost every article and book he wrote over the years. In the beginning of About Alice, Trillin tells of the letters he received after his wife’s death, many of them from people who had never met her. “I got a lot of letters like the one from a young woman in New York who wrote that she sometimes looked at her boyfriend and thought, ‘But will he love me like Calvin loves Alice?’” This slender volume - a mere 78 pages long - is hard to categorize. I would be tempted to give it as a gift both to young couples embarking on a life together, as well as to those who’ve lost a spouse after many years of marriage. You can read it in a single sitting, and you won’t regret it.

Now for the in-betweens:

Author Vendela Vida has a lot going for her, not the least of which is her very cool name. She’s also a very decent writer. Her latest book, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name probably won’t win any prizes or last into the next millennium, but it has many things in its favor. The writing is clear, the story is engaging, the pacing is excellent, and the title is lyric.

But Vida has the challenge of being married to Dave Eggers, the hugely successful young author of, among other works, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and What Is the What. It has to be difficult to be known as Dave Eggers’ wife, and to have him casting his long literary shadow on every review of one’s work, including this one.

As the book begins, 28-year-old Clarissa Iverton is on her way to Lapland to try to find her real father. Richard, the man she has always assumed was her dad, has died. In looking through his papers, she has discovered that another man’s name is on her birth certificate. Add to this the fact that Clarissa’s mother, Olivia, abandoned her husband, daughter, and young developmentally disabled son when Clarissa was 14, and you’ve got one strung out heroine.

The book could use a bit more padding for character development. The reader is forced to lean on the various tragedies and injustices in Clarissa’s life to explain her attitudes and actions; I would have preferred to care a bit more about her first. But Vida does a good job of moving the story along and building momentum, and by the end, one does care what happens to Clarissa. And Vida gives us that rare treat — a sort of epilogue, that tells us exactly how things turn out. Very comforting.

In her acknowledgements at the end of the novel, Vida says her book grew from curiosity “about the kind of person who would see their past as unconnected to their present.”

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka is a book that seems to perpetually lie on the front table at Island Books, but after reading it, I’m not sure why. The quotation on the front cover of the paperback, “Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blond Ukrainian divorcee. He was eighty-four and she was thrity-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade …” makes one think that they’re in for a hoot. But the story, as it unfolds, has more to do with elder abuse and issues that are alarmingly reminiscent of the Anna Nicole Smith story that’s recently captivated the nation. Valentina, the young, blond, immigrant bombshell, is all about marrying an old man for money and not knowing who is the father of her baby. Lewycka has a difficult time navigating the tone of this book, and the whole part about throwing in italicized excerpts from the old father's treatise on the history of the tractor was incomprehensible.

A better read is Jeannette Walls’ memoir of growing up poor, The Glass Castle. Walls’ father was brilliant but alcoholic, and her eccentric mother, who didn’t want the responsibility of raising a family, saw herself as an artist. Walls and her three siblings had a nomadic childhood and more or less raised themselves and each other. This is one of those stories that makes you admire people who overcome incredible adversity and go on to lead interesting, productive, and successful lives. It’s also a book that speaks to family loyalty and to the ties that bind.

Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, a novel about a circus during the Depression, is based on research the author did on circus life in the 1920s and 1930s. Romance, drama, and good characters, both human and animal, make for a fun read.

Less successful is Gayle Brandeis’ Self Storage. Flan Parker, a young mother of two, spends her time at auctions, buying up the contents of self-storage lockers that have been forfeited by their owners for non-payment. Flan then sells the contents at garage sales or on eBay. Her husband is distant, working on his dissertation without much forward progress. Brandeis throws in a few extraneous characters, and then builds a flimsy plot around an incident with one of Flan’s neighbors, a burka-clad Afghani woman. Brandeis has the makings of a decent writer of novels, but she’s not quite there yet.

The book I abandoned is Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl. I tried; I read 100 pages. But I just couldn’t finish it. The voice of the narrator, Blue van Meer, a high school senior, is so annoying that I couldn’t stand it. She’s supposed to be funny, smart, and precocious, but I found her tiresome, and the plot just wasn’t advancing fast enough to make it worth reading more. The book jacket hints at intriguing plot points, so perhaps I really missed something here by not sticking it out. If anyone out there did, e-mail me and let me know. Maybe I’ll give it another try before donating it to the library. There’s another thing I never did until I turned 40 — give a book away.

Breck Longstreth can be reached at

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