Recent reads: Ellen Ullman, Brian Moore, Chad Harbach, Sara Levine

By Blood by Ellen Ullman.  This 2012 novel takes place in San Francisco in the 1970s, narrated by a professor who is on work leave following what, we eventually suss out, was some kind of sex scandal or impropriety (shades of Coetzee’s Disgrace?).  He is deeply depressed and, simply to keep himself sane and to force himself to leave his bedroom, he rents an office to go to every day.  In the office he soon realizes that he can hear the sessions conducted by the psychoanalyst in the room next door.  Our creepy narrator starts listening in and becomes obsessed with one particular patient, a lesbian woman struggling with issues related to her adoption and her heritage.

This is one of those novels that’s super-literary and smart but also has thriller/pulp fiction tendencies. (I noticed it was recommended recently in the NYT Magazine’s “summer reads” feature.)  Complex issues of Jewish/Israeli/ German identity come to the fore in unexpected ways, and to be honest, at times it’s all laid on a bit thick, but it kept me hooked.

Brian Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (the recent NYRB reissue edition).  This 1955 novel was Brian Moore’s first success and was made into an 1987 film starring Maggie Smith and Bob Hoskins that I believe I saw at the time.  Set in 1950s Belfast.  From the NYRB site: “Judith Hearne is an unmarried woman of a certain age who has come down in society. She has few skills and is full of the prejudices and pieties of her genteel Belfast upbringing. But Judith has a secret life. And she is just one heartbreak away from revealing it to the world.”  The novel is, in part, about alcoholism, and about Catholicism at this period in Ireland.  Great novel, kind of devastating.  It’s a very lonely passion…

Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding.  This was the/a big literary breakthrough this year.  I think I did not like it quite as much as many others did, but I didn’t regret reading it either and liked/enjoyed various things about it.  I probably just came to it too late in the hype/backlash cycle.

Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!!  This weird and very funny novel is narrated by a feckless young woman who could, maybe, fit into the world of Lena Dunham’s Girls.  She has a crappy job, mooches off her parents and her long-suffering boyfriend, sister, and friends, and longs for excitement.  A chance reading of Stevenson’s novel sets her off on a misguided quest for “adventure.”  It’s very amusing, sharp and surprising.

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