Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I had little intention of reading Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, because I don’t think I’m interested in the life histories of despicable people.  (Except, I am.)  I have The Corrections, and know all the scandals that surround Franzen, but just was not interesting.  One thing changed that: NPR.  Right when Freedom came out, I was doing a lot of traveling and listening to NPR on the road.  The interview with Franzen was fascinating and I loved the excerpt he read.  I knew that as soon as I could get my hands on a copy I had to read it.

Now that I have read it, it absolutely lived up to my expectations.  I know that a lot of my appreciation has to do with the writing style; the particularly detailed, almost omniscient narrator is my favorite.  I found Franzen’s voice refreshing and his vision of the US life, though somewhat bleak, was so realistic that the characters could have been my neighbors.

Freedom is a family history of the fictional  Berglunds, from Patty and Walter’s childhoods to their lukewarm courtship and their mutual betrayals over time.  Patty, a college athlete turned housewife, throws herself into renovating their house, but once the project is finished finds herself depressed.  Walter, a strong believer in population control and environmental protection, rides his bike to work every day but eventually changes jobs to a career that will alter his life forever.

Did I like Walter and Patty, or their mutual musician friend Richard?  Absolutely not.  Did I agree with the decisions their children made?  Not once.  Did I enjoy reading about their lives?  I couldn’t get enough of it.

Though I do not think this is the perfect novel, or the perfect US novel, I do think that this story perfectly captures a moment in our history with characters who, yes, are somewhat like caricatures of their real-life counterparts.  But never does Freedom venture into the unbelievable, rather only the extreme.  There is a little bit of all of us, our worst sides, in these characters.

Walter, though for much of his life he thinks he knows what he wants and how to get it, finds himself unsure of everything as he gets older and his children and wife disappoint him.  This is how that feeling is described for Walter:

“He didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know how to live.  Each new thing he encountered in life impelled him in a direction that fully convinced him of its rightness, but then the next new thing loomed up and impelled him in the opposite direction, which also felt right.  There was no controlling narrative: he seemed to himself a purely reactive pinball in a game whose only object was to stay alive for staying alive’s sake.” (318)

I also loved that Freedom existed wholly in its time period, from the late 70s to the late 2000s, with the appearances of appropriate music details and technologies, including Twitter, Priuses and Obama:

“Linda was very offended by this conversation.  Walter wasn’t really even a neighbor, he didn’t belong to the homeowners association, and the fact that he drove a Japanese hybrid, to which he’d recently applied an OBAMA bumper sticker, pointed, in her mind, toward godlessness and a callousness regarding the plight of hardworking families, like hers, who were struggling to make ends meet and raise their children to be good, loving citizens in a dangerous world.” (544)

“Anxieties hung like a cloud of no-see-ums on Canterbridge Court; they invaded every house via cable news and talk radio and the internet.  There was plenty of tweeting on Twitter, but the chirping and fluttering world of nature, which Walter had invoked as if people were still supposed to care about it, was one anxiety too many.” (546)

Freedom is going to be one of my favorite novels of the year.  It reminded me of all the things I love about Wally Lamb, with none of the problems I have with his fiction.  Will novels like Freedom and The Hour I First Believed, which are so entrenched in a time period and actually occupy the same time period, eventually sound dated?  I hope not.  I hope that they simply serve as a glimpse into our society’s idiosyncrasies and complexities.  I am eager to read The Corrections, a pre-9/11 novel, to compare it to Freedom.

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR pile

Also reviewed by: Caribousmom, Lous_pages, Steph & Tony Investigate, 1000 Books with Quotes, Tales from the Reading Room,  Feminist Texican [Reads], The New Dork Review of Books.

Top Ten Tuesday – Top Ten Books that Made You Cry

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday list is near and dear to my heart – books that make you cry!  Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I tend to let the waterworks flow when it comes to anything that is remotely sad.  That Kleenex commercial where everyone talks about their sadnesses?  Yup, made me cry.  That phone commercial where the couple falls in love and their son becomes president?  Might have shed a tear or two.  Every Lifetime movie ever made? Forget about it.  When it comes to books, I’m a little more discerning.  Only certain books have really made me cry buckets, but here they are.

Note: Yes, this means I have returned from Spain!  I will be posting all about it soon!  Once I get all my pictures in order.  Oh, friends I have some stories to tell you!

 

1. If I Stay by Gayle Foreman – This book didn’t just make me cry, it made me sob.  I sobbed unrelenting buckets of tears, all the while trying to remain very very quiet because everyone in the house was still sleeping.  If I Stay is about Mia, a girl who has a wonderful life with her wonderful family and boyfriend.  Except for when, on an afternoon drive, her mother, father and brother are killed in a car accident that leaves her in a coma, but still conscious of her surroundings.  Mia is left with a choice: should she stay, and live in this new world she doesn’t understand that doesn’t include her family, or should she join her family?  And I know that description sounds trite, but this book is full of absolutely wonderful moments that make the loss of Mia’s family unbearable.  My review of this book is clearly pitiful because I did not once mention how much it made me cry.

2. Say the Word by Jeannine Garsee – I read this book for Nerds Heart YA and it made it all the way to the final round!  Though it was runner-up and not the winner of the whole tournament, this book is one that everyone should read.  Shawna’s mom leaves her father for another woman and Shawna never forgives her.  In the first few chapters, Shawna’s mother dies and she is left with all sorts of questions about what happened between her mother and father, not to mention an entirely new family.  This book is touching and real  and often heartbreaking, but it’s a wonderful story.

3. Looking for Bapu by Anjali Banerjee – This book is bound to make anyone cry, about a precocious young boy whose grandfather dies when they go on a walk together.  Anu tries to understand his grandfather’s death by becoming closer to the gods.  This book is seriously amazing and paired with the fact that I read it shortly after losing my own grandmother, I cried, a lot.

4. The Untelling by Tayari Jones – Jones’s lovely novel about a woman who is trying to have a baby is perfect.  I loved every single thing about it, including the connection I felt with Aria.  Her situation brought me to tears quite a few times.

5. The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb – I have a lot of bones to pick with Mr. Lamb, but the first 100 or so pages of this book that described, through Lamb’s unique fictional lens, the tragedy of Columbine absolutely shattered me.  I didn’t stop crying and finished the rest of this 700-page doorstop in two days.

6. City of Thieves by David BanioffCity of Thieves is a comedy, so perhaps it’s a bit strange that it is appearing on this list, but it is exactly because of its humor that the ending of this book is so tragic and tear-worthy.

7. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters – I’m sure you’ve heard me talk about this book before.  I loved this book to pieces and I think it is the best thing that Sarah Waters has ever written (yes, it’s better than Fingersmith).  I don’t know that I thought that at the time I read it, but since then it has made it possibly into my top ten list.  This story is so sad, like most of Waters’s stories, so you’re going to go into it prepared, but it still made me cry.  I listened to it on audio, so that was awkward.  I guess I could always say I was crying because of the traffic.

8. Kitchen by Banana Yohsimoto – Go read this book.  Just do it.  It defies description and is just amazing.  Also might make you cry.

9. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patric Ness – I’m sure this one made a lot of lists.  This book is sad for many reasons, but there’s always that one reason that gets everyone in the end.  I’m currently reading Monsters of Men, the third book in the trilogy and I was just reminded about that thing that made everyone cry and I almost teared up again.

10. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien – This is another book that I have shouted from the rooftops that everyone should read, but nothing made me cry like hearing Tim O’Brien read aloud from this book and a book that he is currently working on.  There was not a dry eye in that entire tent during the 2009 National Book Festival.

For more Top Ten Tuesdays, check out The Broke and the Bookish.

Review – I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb

So I know I’ve told you this story before, but I’ve always had this prejudice against Wally Lamb because  my grandmother and my aunt, who read a lot and whose opinion I trust very much, both read She’s Come Undone and hated it with a burning passion.  But then The Hour I First Believed came out and something about it made me have to read it. And I read it, and I liked it, though I thought it could have been cut down a lot.  Now that I’ve read I Know This Much is True I think the same exact thing is true here.

I Know This Much is True is about Dominick Birdsey and Thomas Birdsey, identical twins. Thomas has schizophrenia and Dominick does not.   That alone is a fascinating set-up, but of course in a Wally Lamb novel I have learned that one trauma is never enough.   Even though I don’t like to begin a review with my complaints, but my complaints about I Know This Much is True are so Wally Lamb-ish you probably already know what they are.  The book is too long, to start with.  The story-within-a-story weighs the entire novel down.  But most of all, just too many awful things happen to Dominick that it stops being believable, a problem I also had with The Hour I First Believed.

As for the good, I Know This Much is True explores a truly fascinating relationship, the relationship between identical twins, and what happens when one twin is ill and the other isn’t.  The family history presented in the novel is sweeping and interesting, though I thought the novel-within-a-novel, Dominique Tempesta’s account of his life was mostly uninteresting to me, until the last few sections.  Dominick and Thomas’s grandfather Dominique’s story is integral to the novel, but it ended up taking away from Dominick’s story.  The ending of I Know This Much is True was very satisfying, and even though I slogged through the middle of the book, I never stopped being fascinated by the Birdseys.  Like all Wally Lamb books (well, the two I’ve read), the middle 200 pages are really inconsequential and could have been removed all together.

I know it sounds like I’m railing on this book pretty hard for how much I actually liked it.  Lamb’s books are clearly well-researched.  They are well-loved, every aspect of these characters’ lives are planned out perfectly.   But I hope someone knocks on Lamb’s door and tells him, “Hey, you know, you don’t have to write so much.  Maybe then we’d see your next book faster.  And really, no one’s lives are that bad.”  Finally, I’m left thinking, in the end, could I really tell Dominick apart from the hero of The Hour I First Believed, Caelum?  Probably not.

So go read this!:  now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR

Also reviewed  by: Hey Lady Watcha Readin’?, Musings of a Bookish Kitty, caribousmom.

PS. After writing this review, I really started thinking that I would have liked this book a whole lot better if I had never read The Hour I First Believed. THIFB used all the same tricks, but less successfully, and therefore I was sick of said tricks before I could even enjoy them.  Ya know what I mean?