Precious Objects by Alicia Oltuski
I went on a bit of a Twitter bender this summer, following a couple dozen authors, some vaguely known to me, others complete mysteries. I took notes on how these writers spread the digital word about their novels, short story collections, and blogs. After two weeks of research, I unfollowed most of these personalities to unclutter my Twitter timeline, but a handful remained, mostly because their book was one that sounded interesting, and I wanted to read it… someday. One such author was Alicia Oltuski, her book Precious Objects.
Precious Objects, the idea of reading it, sat idle with a hundred other titles on my “books to read” list, bumper to bumper with best-sellers by Grisham, Connelly, and Lehane to name just a very few. I was crushing the 2nd semester reading list for my MFA program, eyeing the holiday season as a time to devour a few books of my own choosing. Oltuski’s book would have missed the cut since I have a stack of not yet read already sitting on my bedside table. Objects was merely a good intention, a future redemption of an Amazon gift card, or an impulse buy while killing time at a Barnes and Noble after the New Year. However, an Oltuski tweet jumped out at me during my biweekly scroll through the Twitter-sphere, “Anyone interested in reviewing my book?”
I responded with an enthusiastic, “yes!”
Assuming that her publisher was looking for some serious movers and shakers to send copies of the book, I admitted that my circle of influence only entailed a few devoted friends and family members who read my sporadic blog out of pity. But, did I mention my peeps are worldly and have impeccable taste? Surely there was a sale out there in the extended Snellgrove family.
Months later (coincidentally the day my semester ended), to my surprise, I received a package from Simon and Schuster Inc. You would have thought my Klout score was nearing 90. So with new book in hand, Precious Objects jumped in front of Gone Girl (see below for my thoughts on this) and The Roundhouse thus becoming my first pleasure read of the holiday season.
An intriguing profile of the business of diamonds, Oltuski gives the reader an intimate portrait of the industry by detailing her own family’s history buying and selling the oft adorned precious stones. Tragic, funny, and heart-felt, the book reads as if you were sharing coffee with a trusted friend. Revelations about the writer’s grandfather’s post-Holocaust introduction to the diamond trade leaves you nodding your head in admiration. Oltuski reveals the Jewish traditions and customs that helped the industry thrive and find a home in Manhattan’s Diamond District by recounting stories from her childhood and from stories passed down to her by friends and relatives. I imagine Oltuski had a blast prodding her father for tales from his life in the trade. I laughed aloud when I read about his working the undiscovered diamond market of Brazil in the mid eighties wired on caffeine.
Having touched on all the right notes in her quasi-history of the diamond, Oltuski made me feel like a gem expert. The ring on my wife’s finger has greater significance now. Leonardo Di Caprio’s award winning film Blood Diamond rings louder. The Jewish struggles of the last century and the African conflicts still raging make more sense. There is little doubt that specific chapters of Precious Objects will stick with me and undoubtedly be referenced at future parties and family gatherings.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
I was told I had to read this thriller. Multiple promises were made that I would love it. And I did!
Flynn uses a creatively plotted mystery to give readers a twisted, cynical view of love and marriage. A relentless page turner, Gone Girl is delivered through husband and wife narrators, their voices distinct and compelling. The plotting is devilish and the ending will provide plenty of fodder for any book club.
The Roundhouse by Louise Erdrich
The National Book Award winner grabbed headlines and ultimately my attention. I had high expectations for The Roundhouse, maybe too high. The story is told from the perspective of a 13 year-old Native American boy living Reservation life in the eighties. Roundhouse has some nice moments when it reveals the struggles of the Native American population’s efforts to hold onto their identity, cultural and religious practices, and land amidst the influences and injustice of the outside world.
However, the book’s protagonist, Joe, remains the book’s focus throughout. Despite having to deal with the effects of a brutal physical assault leveled on his mother, Joe still gives readers plenty of standard teenage coming-of-age frivolity that has been the engine for popular movie’s like Porky’s and American Pie. Who knew pubescent Native American boys also obsess about women’s breasts? These moments feel contrived, ultimately falling flat for me. Perhaps it is just tougher for a female author to get the raging testosterone induced life of a thirteen year-old boy just right.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was a finalist for the award that Roundhouse ultimately won. The Dallas Cowboys are mentioned in the book’s blurb, and I was unable to resist the possible marriage of literary excellence and the NFL. Author Ben Fountain can craft a sentence, a top notch wordsmith, no doubt. But in his novel he uses his talents to mock the working class, disparage the wealthy, and ridicule NFL players and fans. The book’s major themes are familiar, war is bad, enlisted men made up primarily of the less-privileged suffer deep psychological scars from witnessing death during battle. While Fountain does create a rich and textured cast of characters, his protagonist, at times, is a little hard to believe. A 19 year-old virgin with only a speck of religious faith brings a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader he has just met minutes before to climax during a brief fully-clothed (if Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders could ever be described this way) dry-hump session in the shadows of a staged hero’s press conference. I can’t decide if this is the story’s highlight or lowlight. The book is worth a read because the writing is rock-solid, but I won’t promise that you’ll enjoy it.