BOOK REVIEW: A Friend of the Family
By Lauren Grodstein, Algonquin Books, Hardcover, 2009, 304 pages, $23.95
I love books that surprise me. I love it when 10 pages in I'm wondering if I'll even bother finishing it and by the end I'm asking my wife to hold dinner for ten minutes because I have to find out how the story ends. "A Friend of the Family" by Lauren Grodstein is such a surprise.
The story revolves around Pete Dizinoff. A successful internist, a good husband, a loyal friend, and a devoted father, Pete is the essence of a good man. Yet when the book opens he has lost it all. Kicked out of his medical practice, cast out of his house, estranged from his only son, on the cusp of a divorce and a nasty medical suit, Pete's future is a car gone over the cliff. All we can do is stand next to him by the broken guardrail as he stares down at the crumpled wreckage of his life and wonder how it all happened so fast.
A writing instructor at Rutgers University with several other books to her credit, Grodstein's writing style is engaging and descriptive. "An old drawing table sits in the corner, next to a double sized futon buried under a pile of airplane blankets. On the opposite wall rests a slightly corny oak dresser covered in scrollwork and brass, which Elaine's parents gave us for our wedding and we dutifully kept in our bedroom for twenty plus years." Her characters are deliciously familiar. "My wife approached sex with the same competence and enthusiasm with which she approached dinner parties, as a taxing but ultimately pleasurable chore, and something that should be done regularly for the sake of a healthy marriage."
Given that Dr. Pete's woes are largely self-inflicted, I was skeptical at first if I would be able to feel empathy for him. However, Grodstein's skillful portrayal of Dizinoff as a man whose very strength of character provides the seeds of his own undoing, ultimately reveal Pete to be a most sympathetic figure. Moreover, like her surgeon protagonist, the author slowly cuts open the Dizinoff family and peels back the layers of their domestic conflict in ways that will make you re-examine your own family relationships. Finally, the book is impressive for the way the author draws us in and pulls us along, skillfully revealing just enough detail in each chapter to pique our curiosity.
Though the book did contain a few awkward jumps between past and present that left me momentarily confused as to where I was in the story, the author's realistic, well-rounded and sympathetic characters, and her tantalizing plot revelations make "Friend" a thoroughly and yes, surprisingly, interesting read.
BOOK REVIEW: Essays
By Wallace Shawn, Haymarket Books, Hardcover, 2009, 161 Pages, $18.95
Over the years I have hit upon a couple of tests that can be used to quickly determine whether or not a book of essays is worth reading. The first test is painfully simple: read a passage or two out loud. Talented essayists have a knack for assembling sentences and paragraphs so that the words themselves are as pleasing to the ear as a sweet liqueur is to the palate. The second test is a bit more complex, but not much. It involves asking a "Seinfeld" type question: Do the author's observations make me go "hmmm?"
In considering these two tests, I'm happy to report that Wallace Shawn's new book "Essays," passes with flying colors. Consider the following passage: (Go ahead; don't be shy; read it aloud.)
"We like the sensation of being served by others and feeling superior to them, but if we're forced to get to know the people who serve us, we quickly see that they're in fact just like us. And then we become uncomfortable -- uncomfortable and scared, because if we can see that we're just the same, well, they might too, and if they did, they might become terribly, terribly angry, because why should they be serving us? So that's why we prefer not to talk to waiters."
Shawn has had a successful career as both a playwright and actor. His best-known work, "My Dinner With Andre," is still a cult classic. As a writer, Shawn often reveals wisdom -- and humor -- through a kind of light-hearted philosophical dialectic. Think Socrates meets Woody Allen and you're close.
In contrast to much of his theatrical and movie work, "Essays" concentrates less on laughs and more on personal reflection. Nevertheless there are plenty of pithy gems sprinkled throughout the book, like this one on America's "fetish" of patriotism: "For citizens of small, weak countries, patriotism might be connected to a yearning for justice. For people who are despised, who despise themselves, more self-esteem might be a good thing. But for people who are already in love with themselves, who worship themselves, who consider themselves more important than others, more self-esteem is not needed. Self-knowledge would be considerably more helpful."
In "Essays," Shawn more than holds his own. And best of all, he draws on his years of experience in the theater and follows the golden rule of show business: leave them wanting more.