The Devil and Webster — An Unsettling Academic Novel by Jean Hanford Korelitz

Jean Hanff Korelitz has written another deeply unsettling novel about an accomplished middle-aged woman who suddenly confronts unexpected attacks on her sense of well-being.  In her 2014 n0vel You Should Have Known, the therapist heroine is suddenly thrown the ultimate curve when she learns that husband has gone way off the rails.  In Korelitz’s most recent work, The Devil and Webster, Naomi Roth is a single mother and the successful president of an elite university and she is going to confront some big-time challenges.

Korelitz writes in a suspenseful style, so you are fully alerted to the fact that bad things are going to happen.   Naomi presents as a loving mother and successful academic who thinks of herself as a good, responsible person and who is generally regarded as such.  But as events unfold, Naomi learns that she hasn’t thought enough about important things and that ultimately she hasn’t been responsible enough.  

Naomi hasn’t done anything particularly bad, and she isn’t nimble in the face of unexpected adversity.  This presents problems as it turns out that Naomi has taken the wrong things for granted and has missed some important clues.   So when events overtake her and make her the bad guy she doesn’t know how to react.   She is bewildered and furious.  She also feels terrible wronged.

I recommend this book, even though it is unsettling.  There is this sense, which Naomi certainly has, that if you lead a productive honorable life, your efforts are to be rewarded, or at least that you shouldn’t fall victim to vicious attack from people who have absolutely no interest in understanding you or respecting anything you’ve ever done.  There is also the strong tension of waiting for the bad things to happen to someone not equipped to handle them.

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Small Admissions is a Wise, Funny Novel about a Couple of Serious Topics

I thoroughly enjoyed Amy Poeppel’s first novel Small Admissions.  This is a funny book and not a heavy read, but Poeppel has deft insights about friendship and our assumptions about our friends and relatives.  The characters are appealing and just a little more complicated than they seem.  Even the “bad guys” are kind of charming.  Without giving too much away, Peopppel plops a young woman who is reeling from multiple personal failures into the admissions office of a highly competitive Manhattan private school.  The book is populated with several points of view and highly entertaining emails, all of which combine to keep a brisk, neurotic pace.  Poeppel’s deft treatment of neurotic, competitive parents, coupled with the highly useful question of how much can and should you help flailing friends makes this a thoughtful book, that was also a hoot to read.  Small Admissions would make a great movie!

A Big, Wonderful Novel — A Little Life

Hanya Yanagihara has written a wonderfully long novel, A Little Life, about the forty year friendship of four men.  Jude,Willem, JB and Malcolm start out as college roommates in New England and end up in New York.  After various struggles, they all achieve significant success in their chosen fields.  More importantly they are all interesting and likable men.  With the exception of JB as an occasional foil, they are fundamentally kind and loyal.  Their careers and their sex lives figure in the story, but they aren’t the main thing.  Their friendship is the heart of the book, even as all four men lead independent lives.  

 Jude commands most of the attention.  Brilliant, kind, fragile and needy, he is a singular character.   I kept wanting to fix his life.  (I would literally wake up in the morning with some notion about how Jude could do something differently, and that isn’t my normal reaction to a book.). The slow unwinding of Jude’s past shapes drives the narrative.  We gradually learn more about Jude than do his friends, who persist in their loyalty to him even when he makes that hard to do.  Similarly, Ms. Yanagihara slowly peals away the past of the other men so that we come to understand them.

This is a long, rich book.  I just had to keep reading.  The deep, evolving friendships and a pervasive acknowledgement of kindness and ethical behavior consistently held my interest.  The very idea of four men remaining friends for such a long period  was intriguing.   

Perhaps because the book was so long, I became very invested in the characters.  I wanted more for them.  Some problems can’t be overcome, but I found myself wishing that a character might be stronger or more resilient.  If only they could have gotten past some obstacle…  

For some reason, I assumed this novel was written by a man, and I only realized that it was written by a woman after I finished it.  (You don’t get dust jackets when you read on Kindle.)  Ms. Yanagihara’s style is clear, and she skillfully tells the story from a number of perspectives and points in time.  I was driven to keep reading because I needed to know more, and it was hard to accept that ultimately the book came to an end.

I highly recommend A Little Life.

Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings Captures a Certain Kind of Friendship

The principal characters in Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings have dubbed themselves cool and interesting.  They come together as teenagers at an artsy summer camp in the early 1970’s, and the novel follows them into their fifties.  The group, initially comprised of a wealthy brother and sister, a striving would-be cartoonist and the talented son of a folk star, invites Jules (previously know as Julia) Jacobson to join them.  Although told in the third person, the story is largely seen through Jules’ eyes.   As the story begins, Jules is a miserable teenager from a middle class New York suburb. Her father has  recently died, and she feels estranged from just about everything.  Awarded a scholarship by the camp, Jules is mystified as to why she has been invited to join this “cool” group of New Yorkers.  She eagerly joins them, and a great story of decades of friendship ensues.

All of the other Interestings are from New York City, and Jules views everything about them as hip, fascinating and special in contrast to her own stifled life in the suburbs.   She can’t believe she is part of this group and becomes known as a consistently loyal and wryly funny member.   Jules’ view that the other characters are special and generally lead relatively charmed lives in contrast to her own more prosaic and periodically impoverished existence is one of the central themes of the book.  Jules spends  a lot of time regretting that she hasn’t been more “successful” as she stubbornly defines it and discounting her own significant, real-life accomplishments.  We all know people like this, and they can get pretty annoying, but Jules held my interest.  Her struggles and the decisions she made were heroic in their own way and gave structure to the book.

Whereas Jules’ backstory is pretty much laid out at the beginning of the book, Wolitzer supplies the details for the other characters as the story proceeds.  The novel tracks these friends well into their fifties, through years of crazy success, economic hardships, romantics ups and downs and various highs and lows.  At times each of these characters gets pretty annoying.  I wanted them to suck it up and got on with their lives.  Sometimes they do, but often they don’t.  Whereas Jules is persistently observant and dissatisfied, the others generally seem far more caught up in the details of their own lives and more accepting of the lives they have been dealt. 

In the end some of the characters have luck and others don’t; some of the characters adjust and some of them don’t; and the definition of success is probed and redefined.  Wolitzer’s writing is clear and gives the reader plenty of time to think about the choices the characters make.   I liked this book.  It made me think a lot about past and current friendships. 

Murder in the Math Department — Faye Kellerman’s Latest Murder Mystery

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Faye Kellerman’s The Theory of Death  is an engaging mystery with great characters, a clever plot and very human characters.   Pete Decker is a retired LA homicide detective who has taken a job with a small police force in an Eastern college town.  Decker is aging and thinking about it, but of course there is a murder to keep him occupied.  Ever since I first read Amanda Cross’s Death in a Tenured Position, I have loved academic mysteries.  This one is set in the hyper-competitive math department of a small college, and there is lots of petty intrigue and jealousy to keep the story moving.

This series has been around for a long time and also features Decker’s wife Rina, an interesting orthodox woman of great understanding and warmth.  Inevitably she gets drawn into the efforts to figure out who did what to whom and why.  Decker is also an observant Jew and that adds a unique dimension to his character.  Since moving East, this series has acquired a young, irreverent yet dedicated cop, Tyler McAdams.  The tension and repartee between the experienced Decker and the newbie McAdams add to the charm and the bite of this series.

If you have never read an of Faye Kellerman’s Pete Decker series, you might want to start at the beginning.  The Theory of Death stands on its own, but I really liked the early books because they set up Decker’s relationship with his wife and also offered a crash course in orthodox Jewish practice, in much the same way as Chaim Potok’s The Chosen.  I have a always loved this series and particularly like this foray into academia.

One Fat Englishman — Kingsley Amis Strikes Again

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Kingsley Amis wrote bitingly funny academic novels.  Lucky Jim, published in 1954, made me laugh so hard that I wept.  Nine years later, Amis wrote One Fat Englishman in a similar vein.  I really liked Lucky Jim (which was reviewed on this blog this summer).  It was funny, and even though Jim was a hapless fool, he had some redeeming qualities.  His struggle to hang on at a mediocre university while unable to control his impulses was ultimately hilarious.  Whatever Jim was, he wasn’t deliberately mean, and so I more or less rooted for him even as I laughed at his predicaments.  Apparently I am much more likely to like a novel if I find the main character at least vaguely likable.  I completely subscribe to the Jennifer Weiner school on this and refuse to accept that literature is automatically more worthy if the main character is thoroughly reprehensible.

For these reasons, I had a problem with Roger Micheldene, the title character of One Fat Englishman.  He was consistently self-centered, lecherous, gluttonous and out of control, with a mean streak.  If Micheldene had redeeming qualities they were kept under wraps.  There were many funny scenes and predicaments, replete with an unending supply of self-important academics.   Reading this book just wasn’t as much fun as reading Lucky Jim, although if I were less annoyed by the main character, I would have to concede this is also a very funny book that sends up conceited, academic nitwits in stellar fashion.

Lucky Jim — Hilarious Academic Classic

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I’ve bought and given away more copies of this very funny novel than I can count.  Lucky Jim was Kingsley Amis’s first book, and what a debut!  This post WWII novel concerns the travails of Jim Dixon, a mediocre academic desperately trying to hang on at a mediocre English university.   Why he wants to be there is unclear.  He is reliably his own worst enemy and turns all opportunities into disasters.  He can’t navigate the murky academic waters, and yet he persists in trying.   Along the way, Jim mixes it up with all manner of ridiculous academic caricatures.  If you have spent any time at all on an academic campus, this book rings absolutely true.  Very funny, but very true.

It is summer.  You deserve a fun read.  Try this!