Friday, April 24, 2009

I'm Loving This Book!

I'm reading a stunningly great book right now, and even though I'm only about halfway through, it's so good I just had to tell someone. (Hello, is anyone out there?) I realize I'm a little late to the party. I should have known this would be a wonderful book. It was named one of the Top Ten Books of the Year by The New York Times. It was also named a top book by The Washington Post Book World, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle P-I, the Christian Science Monitor, and The Atlantic magazine, among others. Finally, last week it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, so I realized it was time to stop resisting and start reading. And boy howdy am I glad I did!

The book is Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout. It's a novel in stories set in a small community on the coast of Maine, wrapped around family dynamics, small-town gossip, and grief. Olive Kitteridge, a seventh grade math teacher married to a pharmacist, is prickly, ok, maybe even gruff, and a large presence. The book slides in and out of different perspectives, but Olive is always there. And I know she is someone who will stay in my mind. The characters in this book are complicated, and not always admirable, but boy are they compelling.

This is what the Pulitzer committee had to say: "a collection of 13 short stories set in small-town Maine that packs a cumulative emotional wallop, bound together by polished prose and by Olive, the title character, blunt, flawed and fascinating." Louisa Thomas, in a review in The New York Times, said this about the book: "There's nothing mawkish or cheap here. There's simply the honest recognition that we need to try to understand people, even if we can't stand them."

Strout was raised in small towns in New Hampshire and Maine. After graduating from college she earned her law degree from the Syracuse University College of Law. In an interview with Lisa Mahon, she said this about her brief foray into the practice of law: "I have always wanted to be a writer, from my very earliest memory. My mother encouraged me, buying me notebooks and telling me at the end of the day, 'Write it down.' I'm talking about when I was no more than five or six. So I always thought in terms of sentences. Then as I got older I thought I might also go into the theatre, because I loved theatre very much. But by the end of college I realized that the solitariness of writing suited my nature better, and so the emphasis went back to that.

"I confess, however, that a few years out of college I went to law school, and this was partly because I was very afraid of failing as a writer. Somehow I thought if I failed as a lawyer, it wouldn't mean as much to me, and besides, I was tired of cocktail waitressing. Well, I did fail as a lawyer, I was a terrible lawyer, and I hated it. What I learned was that it was far better to attempt to be a writer and fail at that, than to attempt to be something else. This was an important lesson to learn. (And expensive.)"

Strout is the author of two other novels. Amy and Isabelle, her first novel, was shortlisted for both the 2000 Orange Prize and the 2000 PEN/Faulkner award for fiction. Her second novel was Abide with Me.

Granted I haven't read the entire book yet, but the likelihood of something this deliciously good -- and so universally acclaimed -- falling on its face in the second half is unlikely. And those of you counting pennies (and I count myself in that bunch) will be happy to know the book is out in paperback. Run, hurry,lickety-split, down to Broadway Books and get your copy and settle in for a sensational, intense weekend of spectacular reading.

PS: I have no explanation for why some of this posting is bold faced and a different color, but I give up trying to make it not be so. Life is complicated, and some things you just have to accept and move on.

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