By Adrienne Fontaine, Senior Publicist
As a part of my summer reading, I read four of the five books written by Americans and named on the longlist for the Man Booker prize. The fifth, Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog, is not yet available in stores.
I started with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler (best known for The Jane Austen Book Club). The book is about a young woman named Rosemary Cooke, whose father—a psychology professor—adopts a chimpanzee named Fern and tries to raise it as a second daughter within the family, as part of a research experiment. The experiment goes awry and the chimp is sent away to a lab and kept in captivity for the rest of its life. The banishment of the chimp causes an unbridgeable rift in the family, for the young son takes up the cause of animal activism and takes it to domestic-terrorism levels.
The book shows the complex relationships between humans and chimps, between members of a family, between science and morality, between males and females, and between friends in their adolescence. I like how the book uses a stranger-than-fictional plot at the beginning to later realistically portray and comment on animal cruelty.
I then moved on to Orfeo, by Richard Powers (best known for The Echo Maker). The book is about Peter Els, an aged composer of experimental music whose passion is to create a kind of “music of the spheres.” With a failed marriage and one long-lost love behind him, he has become a recluse who, when not trying to write sacred music, dabbles in harmless chemistry experiments and takes care of his dog Fidelio. When Fidelio dies, he calls the police instead of Animal Control and they, in turn, mistake his lab chemicals for biological terrorism. Anxious and frustrated, Peter abruptly flees the scene and the book follows him as he goes on a sort of Dante-an journey through his past and current relationship to women, music, and success (or lack-there-of). All along the way, Peter is being tracked by the public via the Internet and social media.
The book shows the difficulty of making authentic art, the difficulty of artistic collaboration, the difficulty in romantic relationships, and the difficulty of being truly understood. I like the contemporary nature of the book—how it points out the anxieties of the modern world and the absurd effects of the Internet age.
Next came The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt (best known for What I Loved and her marriage to Brooklyn novelist Paul Auster). The book is about the life and work of Harriet Burden, an underappreciated artist who convinces three dynamic young male artists to exhibit her art as their own. The book is structured in an inventive way – each chapter is either a diary entry of Harriet’s, an interview with one of the artists or a member of the arts community, or a discussion with Harriet’s children.
The book shows the sexism that can exist within the art world, the commercialist nature of the art world, and the unseen reality inside the art world. I like how the book portrays an impassioned, resourceful woman who does not conform to anyone else’s expectations. It’s not an easy read and if you do not consider self-expression to be an ultimate goal, it can be hard-going.
Finally, I read Joshua Ferris’ To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (best known for Then We Came to the End). The book is about Paul O’Rourke, a listless dentist who can’t help but take everything very, very seriously. He takes great care of his patients, but he has a hard time finding romance and a simple life in trend-obsessed, decadent NYC. One day, he discovers that someone unknown has created a webpage for his dental office and is using his name to post comments on various social media sites. The common thread running through the commentary is that it discusses and quotes from an obscure religion. Exasperated by the identity theft, especially since he is an atheist, Paul goes on a quest to find the person(s) responsible. In doing so, he finds out more about himself than anyone else.
The book shows the challenges of living in today’s media obsessed culture, the challenges of religious certainty, and the challenges of human connection. I like the funny, irreverent dialogue and the earnestness of the main character. Ferris does a great job at showing how hard it is to live and think as both an individual and a member of a group in a world that either wants you to conform or doesn’t want you as a member. I highly recommend this book.