#FridayReads for 1/31/14

AtonementMoses Utomi (Editorial Assistant) is reading Atonement by Ian McEwan.

I came to Atonement expecting a lot. I had heard quite a bit about the book, heard about the movie, heard that it was McEwan’s (an author I admire) best work and one of the better novels of all time (according to TIME). Did it live up to the hype? No. And yes. I’ll explain. Briony Tallis is one of the more fascinating characters I’ve encountered. Her chapters kidnapped me, tossed me into a van and threw me into the dank basement mind of a creative and/or psychopathic teenage girl. Her frequent histrionics, romantic ideations and mental gymnastics are a pleasure to read. Unfortunately, the novel splits between many characters, none of whom are as captivating and tragic as Briony. The entire second act of the novel (spoiler alert!) follows Robbie’s post-prison, wartime service. While the section pointedly conveys the relentless drudgery of war, it was – not gonna lie – a bit tedious. Getting to read adult Briony afterwards was much more appealing, and the musings of elderly Briony at the end of the novel were equal parts heartbreaking and satisfying.

Jennifer Valdez (Senior Reader, Nonfiction) is reading Mary Coin by Marisa Silver. Mary Coin

In the novel Mary Coin, Marisa Silver reinvents Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” photograph and takes the reader on a journey behind the infamous snapshot that embodies the Great Depression. Silver brilliantly parallels the lives of Mary Coin, the woman in the photo, and Vera Dare, the woman behind the camera. Three vital characters anchor the omniscient narrative. Mary, the migrant mother with great courage who would do anything for her children; Vera, an ambitious photographer who leaves her children behind in pursuit of her work; and Walker Dodge, a present-day history professor who uncovers a family secret involving Mrs. Coin. Mary Coin is a page-turning story of loss, poverty, motherhood, and the reality of life during the Great Depression. This breathtaking tale digs beneath the surface of a crucial moment in history.

Magical ThinkingAdrianna Robertson (General Reader, Poetry) is reading The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

Life changes fast.
Life changes in an instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.

This is the way that Joan Didion begins her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. It is the beginning of a journey into recounting the final moments of her husband’s (writer John Dunne) life and the dark time that followed—a time that included dealing with the sickness of her daughter, as well. Life truly does change in an instant. It might only be a story of utter sadness and loss if not for the poise and precision with which Didion tells it. Her both brutally honest and eloquent delivery of this extremely personal experience is an enviable feat. Somehow Didion manages to straddle that line between the personal and universal seamlessly, never missing a thing. Her writing is sparse and matter of fact but layered with the repetition of key phrases, literary references and the specifics of every day life. The Year of Magical Thinking is a memoir that I had been hearing about for years, but just had not gotten around to reading. Sometimes, when we hear so much about a book before actually reading it, we can end up disappointed—somehow the buildup was too great. However, this was not so with Didion’s memoir; it actually delivered. From both a reader and a writer perspective, it is beautifully done. And, in the end, I think we can only marvel at Didion’s adeptness for capturing feeling (real and raw) and for attempting (through her writing) to make sense of all that is nonsensical about human experience. A perfect example of this is found in these seemingly simple, yet poignant lines towards the end of the book: “I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.” For anyone who has lost a loved one, this of course is the very truth laid bare.