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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

September Reads

A list of the books I read and what I thought of them.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

This 2001 third novel by American novelist Jonathan Franzen is the sweeping saga of the Lambert family centered around the planning of one last Christmas celebration together. Living in the small, conservative Midwestern town of St. Jude, Alfred Lambert, a retired railroad engineer in his seventies, with a stubborn demeanor and set ways, whose Parkinson’s and dementia worsen by the day, spends most afternoons in a blue chair in his basement, nearly entirely dependent on his wife Enid, the dutiful, melodramatic, and hypercritical matriarch whose obsession with her three adult children borders on the compulsive. Their oldest child is Gary, a banker living in the suburbs outside Philly, who is in chronic competition with his wife Caroline over the attention, affection, and allegiance of their three boys, and above whom the burden of imminent parental care hovers precariously. Chip, the middle child, is an unsuccessful scriptwriter and former college professor, who, after being fired, finds himself at wit’s end, destitute, in debt, and desperate for work. And Denise, the youngest, is one of the nation’s most prolific chefs, who, upon meeting young entrepreneur Brian Callahan, gets the opportunity of her life: to head a cutting-edge restaurant of her own; but she soon finds herself caught in a love triangle with Brian and his wife Robin. Set in the months preceding the winter holiday, with events involving a dangerous senior cruise, a dystopian pharmaceutical drug, and a Lithuanian financial scheme, the novel leaps back and forth across the latter part of the twentieth century, revealing in their gross excess the very complications which define a family in crisis.

The novel won the 2001 National Book Award for fiction, the 2002 James Tait Black Memorial Prize, was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer, and was the selection for Oprah’s Book Club in 2001, the latter doubtless fomenting the unescapable ubiquity of his name across Best Seller’s List readership and celebrity book club membership, as well as the greater literary sphere at large. But none of his accolades are unjustified. The Corrections consumed me from the outset, pulled me into a life, or rather lives, so realistic, so authentic, so true to form and familiar and anxiety-inducing, I felt, at the end of the week it took me to read its 566 pages, as if I had lived multiple lives, in a family different than my own but one no less real. There’s a short line from the novel that I think captures its essence: “tragedy rewritten as a farce” – the absurdity, outrageousness, and exaggeration which limn the novel’s satirical surface belie the deeper excavations into reality which reside in the subterranean roots of its material. It’s a novel about family and love and hate; about disease and mental deterioration and aging; about desperation, despondency, and despair; about ethics, science, philosophy, and fate; about what it means to make corrections in one’s own life, to redeem one’s self, and make up for past faults; about the very real implications and repercussions of one’s actions, whether intentional or inadvertent; about the inherited traits, effects, and trauma which inevitably seep from one generation to the next and so on and so forth ad infinitum. All these concepts, conundrums, and more are explored through the vehicle of what is undoubtedly the crowning achievement of the novel: Franzen’s incredible characterization. Franzen’s ability to create characters is truly a triumph of the imagination – each one is unique in their own personality, their idiosyncrasies, and mannerisms; their positions, relations, and current enterprises; and their fantastically dense, emotionally moving, and realistic histories. These backstories comprised my favorite parts of the novel–I dove headfirst into tidal waves of incredible detail, stories within stories with large casts of minor characters, and the hyper-description which glues it all together. Franzen’s prose meanders in a Knausgaardian way, except that each word, every sentence, is specifically meaningful, tailored, always adding to a larger narrative, like microscopic pieces in a massive mosaic. It’s this precise excess, this meticulous profusion, these sentences which at times feel endless, that would seize my faculties and leave me breathless by their punctuated end. There’s something at once maximalist and minimalist in Franzen’s work, “hysterically realist” to borrow critic James Wood’s phraseology, and tragically true, a quality by which I admit I am helplessly enamored. I truly cannot wait to dive into his other work and will have to try to savor it as best I can.

The Family That Couldn’t Sleep by D.T. Max

This 2007 second book by American essayist and journalist D.T. Max is an in-depth scientific probe into one of biology’s greatest mysteries, one which took millions of animals, thousands of patients, hundreds of scientists, and multiple centuries to unearth. An inherited disease ravages generations of a noble Venetian family for centuries, with symptoms manifesting in middle age: insomnia, perspiration, and myoclonic convulsions, before ushering in an early death; its cause unknown. Thousands of sheep across Britain begin exuding strange behavior, rubbing themselves raw in the attempt to sate an imaginary itch, before, too, perishing prematurely. Young members of a primitive Papua New Guinean tribe are plagued by spasmodic fits of laughter and other abnormal behaviors, before, too, quickening an untimely demise. At the heart of these strange phenomena, long elusive to scientists, is the prion, a kind of brain-eating protein mutation which can replicate itself despite being a nonliving agent. A list of devastating diseases spawns from the microscopic misfolded molecule: scrapie, chronic wasting disease, and spongiform encephalopathy in animals; and in humans, kuru, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker disease (GSS), and the one which plagues the Italian family, Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI). All said diseases taxonomically parallel neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS and MS; however, life expectancy of the patient is much shorter with prion diseases. As enigmatic and terrifying prion diseases are, so too is its bizarre history of discovery which Max charts in all its horrifying, befuddling, and confusing detail from its first recognition to the present day.

The book is lauded by a number of prominent science journalists including David Plotz, Laurie Garrett, and even Michael Pollan, who described it as, “a riveting detective story.” And rightfully so, too, as the book is an incredible piece of science writing, a nonfiction work replete with astoundingly dense research, historical evidence, and familial anecdotes, as well as innumerable tangents into a litany of different aspects. That it was as accessible, comprehensible, and easy to fall into as it was completely fascinating is a true testament to Max’s writing ability and ingenuous eye for narrativizing scientific history. I had heard of the “prion” before reading this book but just barely, certainly not having learned the details of its biology, history, and mechanics of transmission. Much of the current understanding of prions is due to one man: American scientist Daniel Carlton Gajdusek, who, despite being a Nobel Prize-winning physician, was a convicted criminal, charged with committing unthinkable crimes. Formative to the scientific history of the prion, his appalling story turns what is overwhelmingly a science book into a blend of true crime and bizarre biography. However, his part is but a fraction compared to the main character: the prion–and now, having gained a more than rudimentary understanding of it from this book, I’m not sure if I’m better off as I most assuredly have a new phobia. It’s a terrifying biological agent entailing terrifying medical repercussions, which will surely remain in the recesses of my mind, always present and at the ready to wreak havoc at my first brush with sleeplessness. But alongside the terrors of the prion, Max paints in lucid detail and emotion and inevitable pain attached to prion diseases, focusing the light onto the families whose members have suffered and capturing the intimacy and heartache with an empathy necessary in the treatment of such a subject. This book was a gift from a close friend with whom I read it, and I’m so grateful for the experience. It had been a minute since I last read a work of science or medical nonfiction, and this one completely reintroduced me to the genre. I had forgotten how much I enjoy these kinds of books, and I’m already looking forward to jumping into another one soon enough.

Storm by George R. Stewart

This 1941 novel by American historian, toponymist, and author George R. Stewart is both a thrilling, at times horrifying, tale about the indifferent forces of nature, and a contributing work of “eco-fiction.” Set in the mid-twentieth century, following a yearlong drought in California, the novel tracks the life of an extratropical cyclone named “Maria.” A junior meteorologist at the San Francisco Weather Bureau first breaks the discovery, having detected the slightest mathematical discrepancies in his data alluding to its plausible origin. At first the storm, relatively small in size, seems a godsend, a blessing bringing forth the much-needed precipitation of which numerous cities, towns, and farms have so long been deprived. But after the Byzantion, a ship stationed in the Pacific, sends out an SOS, it appears the storm may in fact be an unstoppable “act of God.” Polar gales and blizzards begin surging through the Midwest as California is wracked by the wrath of winds, the “terrors of the tempest” the likes of which haven’t been seen in over a century. What unfolds through the experiences of a large cast of witnesses–scientists, crewmates, traffic control operators, powerline repairmen, farmers, mechanics, a young couple vacationing for a weekend, and even a lone coyote–is a story of destruction, devastation, and disaster, and its protagonist is Maria, a storm of unimaginable size, force, and ferocity.

It’s the novel that helped popularize the naming of storms, particularly hurricanes, women’s names, undoubtedly due to the unforgettable character at the heart of the story: Maria. Each person, from the multiple scientists tracking the storm to the humble gas station attendant chatting with his customers, is a minor character compared to the storm whose indomitable power decides the fate of each and every one of them. Never have I encountered such terrifying depictions of weather. Stewart invokes the wrath of God in his descriptions, each word as hard-hitting as the drops in the torrential rain plummeting from the skies. Stewart personifies the weather, turning a storm not into a person but a monster hellbent on the destruction of all in its path. Storm explodes both the classic trope of man-versus-nature, favoring instead an ecological fatalism against which the will of man proves futile, as well as the conventional mode of narration–the novel is structured in a series of vignettes which leap from character to character, points of view crossing like a panoramic drone (or radiosonde) over distance and terrain, its lens zooming into one scene before panning out again and moving onto the next. Scenes span from long to short, solid to sparse, from events to news headlines, and dialogue to radio announcements, all the while stringing the reader along at an accelerating rate. It was truly like watching a movie, one which I couldn’t draw my eyes from. It was exhilarating in ways I did not expect, and now I’m determined to dive deeper into this thrilling, newly discovered genre for me, the “eco-novel.”

The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty

This 1972 novel by American short story writer and novelist Eudora Welty is a bleak comedy exploring peculiar family relations in the wake of death. The story follows Laurel McKelva, a young woman living and working as a designer in Chicago, who travels to New Orleans upon learning that her father, Judge McKelva, must undergo eye surgery and needs care. Present as well is Judge’s second wife, Fay, a capricious and insensitive woman even younger than Laurel, to whom Judge, a widower, had gotten married after meeting her at a law conference years after Laurel’s mother Becky had died. Much to the surprise of the women, Judge unfortunately fails to recover from the surgery and dies, leaving Laurel and Fay, their respective families, and the friends of Judge to mourn him. However, by the time of the funeral which is held in Laurel’s hometown of Mount Salus, Mississippi, it becomes quite evident that Fay, overly distraught and overtly inconsiderate to Laurel and all on her side of the family, may have an ulterior motive regarding Judge’s death and the will he left behind. What ensues is an unruly rivalry between families, a clash of clans, at the center of which is a keen young woman simply trying to grieve naturally and take matters into her own hands.

The novel won the Pulitzer Prize the year after its publication and has long been regarded as Welty’s finest work. It was not might first brush with Welty; earlier this year I had read her short stories The Petrified Man and The Wide Net, both of which were quite good, particularly the former. Famous for writing about the American South, Welty wields elements of Southern Gothic fiction and molds them to her will: she blurs the distinction between levity and severity, twists the grotesque for comic purposes, and exposes the paradoxical absurdity in social order and tradition. Locations, convention, culture, family and the bizarre, at times frightening, relationships which tie them together comprise the terrain of her oeuvre, and such was the case for this novel, the bulk of it dedicated to long conversations and scenes of near entire dialogue. But midway through the novel’s second half comes an extraordinary, beautiful, long description of memory, of both Laurel’s and her mother’s childhoods. These were some of the finest lines in the novel–exquisite depictions of nature, of joy and innocence, of heartache and confusion, the sweet-tinged air filled with cries of laughter and of grief, emotions which impinge upon the reader, invoking a nostalgia which stings with hope and loss. And all throughout the novel are subtle hints which allude to greater thematic explorations–sight, vision, blindness, curtains, and many more push and pull the reader’s eye, inspiring thought and contemplation of Welty’s diction. It’s a fantastic short novel, one which I could imagine being taught in college English classes, as there is much to gained from it.

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

This 2013 debut novel by American author Hanya Yanagihara is a fictionalized memoir written by American physician Dr. A. Norton Perina from the confines of a jail cell and edited by his close friend and colleague Dr. Ronald Kubodera over the course of Perina’s incarceration. Perina recounts his childhood, adolescence, and years as a promising medical student before, in the year 1950 shortly after his graduation, he is offered a peculiar opportunity: to travel to a small island in Micronesia to accompany the renowned anthropologist Paul Tallent in his research of an aboriginal tribe. Eager for a change and adventure, young Perina accepts and soon finds himself deep in the dense jungles of the island, battling both bugs and humidity as he, Tallent, and Esme, Tallent’s research assistant, study the mysterious “people in the trees.” Soon, Perina discovers that the aborigines, enigmatic in both their physical features and behaviors, have achieved a nature-defying feat: immortality, but which comes at a terrible price. Those destined to live forever are also destined to endure extreme mental deterioration, which effectively renders them nothing more than a shell of the person they were before. Tracing the life-sustaining effect to an enormous species of turtle which the tribe catch, sacrifice, and consume ceremoniously, Perina knows he’s stumbled upon a discovery which will shock the scientific community, and he’s correct. He returns to the states with a few of the tribesmen, to study and research in a lab, eventually publishing his findings to great acclaim. But with fame and success comes great detriment and destruction not simply for the island and its inhabitants, but for Perina himself. It is an anthropological story which explores the clashing of cultures, the exploitation of the marginalized, and the sinister secrets which reside below the veneer of innocent curiosity.

After I finished Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel A Little Life back in August of 2020–a novel which consumed me for the entire month and claimed second place on my top ten list for that year–I vowed to read more of her work, the next being her debut novel The People in the Trees, especially after I had seen the great reviews it received upon publication. “Exhaustively inventive and almost defiant in its refusal to offer redemption or solace,” blurbed The New York Times Book Review; if I wasn’t sold simply by her second novel, this description certainly sealed the deal. However, the book left me in a total state of ambivalence. The novel is indeed a great work, entertaining, in-depth, and inventive, but unfortunately it fell short of my expectations. Perhaps, I had hyped it up too much in my mind. From the onset, the story captivated me, especially narrated in its unconventional form–it’s loosely based on the life of Daniel Carlton Gadjusek, which I did not realize until I had started reading the book and things seemed eerily familiar (imagine my astonishment when I discovered its inspiration, especially having just read The Family That Couldn’t Sleep which contains a definitive account of Gadjusek’s story). But the execution of the narrative fell short. It’s a novel that feels much longer than it actually is, which, as a lover of long, maximalist novels, is sometimes a good thing. But in this case, it was not. For me, the writing itself seems overpowered by the detail. There were no memorable lines or descriptions that stood out to me, nor any truly thought-provoking instances. And because the writing fell short to the content, the moments of great distress–the oddly-placed, graphic events which readers of the book will know what I’m referring to–did not shock or puzzle me, but instead left me in a strange state of disappointment and confusion. Part of me thinks that I missed the important aspects of the book, the introspective, subtextual analyses that explore themes of postcolonialism, historicism, the psychology of dominance, and the whitewashing of scientific record; and for these reasons I’ll probably reread it in the future, but for now, I place it far behind A Little Life. We’ll see how it compares to Yanagihara’s latest novel, To Paradise, the last of which I have yet to read.

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