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Nancy Pearl Book Reviews for 7/28/2008

Dave Beck

If you're dreading your next flight on a crowded airplane, you'll relate to a new book of fiction reccommended by Nancy Pearl. She also revisits a novel that didn't pass her 50 page rule the first time.

Anyone who's experienced the vicissitudes of air travel recently will immediately empathize with the situation that 53–year–old Bennie Ford, the complex narrator of Jonathan Miles' Dear American Airlines (Houghton, 2008) finds himself in. On the way to Los Angeles from New York, to walk the daughter he hasn't seen since she was a baby down the aisle at her wedding, his connecting flight is cancelled and he's stuck overnight at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Since Bennie is a writer (a failed poet and a successful translator of Polish literary works), what else can he do but begin a long letter of complaint to the airline that's stranded him and caused a major delay in what he sees as the last step of finally and completely turning his life around. And over the course of this short and comical first novel (just the right length to begin and finish during the course of a cross–country flight), we learn about Bennie's parents, his childhood, marriages, and mostly non–stop drinking. (We even get a good look at his work, since woven throughout the novel are excerpts from the Polish novel he's currently translating.) Bennie's voice — persistent, petulant, narcissistic, and remorseful — is what drew me in, and his story, which is heartbreaking, funny, and hopeful (though not about the possibility of getting a refund check for his cancelled flight from American Airlines), kept me absorbed and entertained.

The first time I started reading Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, I put it down after the first chapter, disappointed and disillusioned. I had really admired Strout's first novel, Amy and Isabelle, for its exquisite use of language and the author's ability to create complexly realistic characters, not all of them totally nice people. (That's an understatement. There's a particularly loathsome teacher in the novel whom I will never get over despising.) But I realized that I really wasn't thrilled about spending any time with the eponymous Olive: I hated that she was married to a kind man to whom she was, more often than not in those pages I read, not kind at all. Then, a month or so later, for some reason that remains unclear to me, I picked it up again, began at the beginning, and was immediately and totally hooked. Olive Kitteridge is what's being called these days "a novel in stories," i.e., interwoven tales that together provide the heft and scope of a traditional novel. And, like the best traditional novels, its characters become utterly familiar to us. I began to accept Olive's quirks and bad behaviors, even if, at first, I couldn't completely understand why she acted the way she did. (And I still frequently winced and wished that she'd change.) Olive, while never an easy person to like, grew dearer (and ever more real) to me as I encountered her in many different situations. Here is how Strout sums up Olive's relationship with her son Christopher, as a child, in the story "A Little Burst": "She can almost not remember the first decade of Christopher's life, although some things she does remember and doesn't want to. She tried teaching him to play the piano and he wouldn't play the notes right. It was how scared he was of her that made her go all wacky. But she loved him!" Isn't that phrase "and doesn't want to" brilliant for its economy in telling us so much more than those four particular words? And though it's particularly painful to read "Security," in which Olive totally loses her cool during a visit with the now–adult Christopher and his new family in New York, who is there among us who has not said precisely the wrong thing (and in the wrong tone of voice) to those we love? Strout writes divinely, using language that is precise and elegant without being phony or high–falutin'; about the ravages and blessings of the passage of time, about grace, and about the possibility of forgiveness, of ourselves and others, for the wrongs, large and small, that have been done to us and by us.

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