To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

To Rise again at a Decent Hour

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is one of those books that is so fun to read that you don’t realize just how weighty it is until you’re turning the last few pages and find that a little bit of yourself, a tiny little cell or two, has been changed.

Main character Paul is an annoying, neurotic dentist.  Only it turns out he’s not.  He’s a dentist, anyway, but maybe not so neurotic.  He’s been through a lot in his 30-odd years, but he’s not complaining.  Instead, he’s seeking his place in the world, a sense of belonging, a family, a purpose.  He has a weakness for women with large, religious families.  First Sam, of the devoutly Catholic Santacroce family, and more recently Connie, his office manager and member of the large Jewish Plotz clan.  Paul’s longing for love, family, and purpose manifests in an obsessive fascination with his girlfriends’ religions, and he finds himself stepping over boundary lines in his quest to get just a bit closer, to understand the privilege of a religious heritage just a little better.

We first join Paul when his post-breakup pining and analyzing and mooning for Connie’s family is interrupted by his discovery that someone is impersonating him online.  Eventually his online doppelganger begins to post comments that could be construed as anti-Semitic, and Paul is aggrieved and itchy with the discomfort of knowing the Plotz’s may be attributing these comments to him.  But when fake-Paul offers real-Paul an almost irresistible chance to belong, to claim a heritage of his own, what will real-Paul do?

Much of the action here takes place in Paul’s head, or in his Manhattan office, or in his apartment.  Paul’s journey is existential, and by its end, “neurotic” Paul has revealed himself as an engaging, thoughtful, vulnerable, full fledged human being. Who just happens to be a dentist.

The Plover by Brian Doyle

Declan O’Donnell is escaping a messy life (we only learn bits and pieces of the mess, but like most good messes, it involves family) by sailing “west and then west” off the Oregon coast into the Pacific Ocean on his fishing boat, The Plover.  He intends to bob along aimlessly and alone, but right off the bat he is joined by a seagull who follows him out onto the ocean.  Declan doesn’t mind the company, but he doesn’t feel nearly as accommodating when, several weeks later after a quick stop at an island to refuel, he finds himself hosting another two passengers, a father and daughter whom he knew from Oregon.  Declan gets used to his small crew and makes the best of the company, but then, as more passengers are picked up under an assortment of remarkable circumstances, Declan finds his solo journey has transformed into, in Declan’s own words, “a fecking ferry service.”

Declan and all of his various passengers are good people who, sometimes grudgingly, elicit the best in each other; they are by no means perfect, but they are portrayed, in all their quirks and imperfections, as worthy of love, grace, and forgiveness.

There is a beauty and a wholeness to this work that defies easy categorization or description.  The whole world is in or about The Plover.  It is the center of a radius that includes all, from the deepest point of the ocean under the boat up into the sky as far as the eye can see.  Notice is paid to each creature in this bubble — the seagull following the boat is a character in its own right, as are the two timid castaway rats and the warbler with an injured wing who is hiding under the boat’s water tank.  The ocean is treated with its own wholeness — Doyle’s tale doesn’t limit itself to the human-reachable surface, the waves and storms and the sparkling reflection of the sun as they are experienced by Declan and his crew.  The deep crevices and unseeable creatures, the reach of the ocean from shore to shore, the underwater topography — it is all a part of this tale, which is infused with an aura of mysticism or enchantment.

There are moments here that could be considered quite dramatic, as when Declan dives into the ocean on a moonless night to rescue a kidnapped passenger, but even these moments are told in an understated lilt that makes them feel like the stuff of fable. The overall impression is rocking on the waves of the story, drifting where it leads, the world spread out around us, welcoming and whole, and above all, good.

A Guide to Being Born: Stories by Ramona Ausubel

A Guide to Being Born

You CAN judge a book by its cover. Perhaps that’s not fair to Ausubel, whose book stands on merits far beyond its colorful, fantastic cover. But that’s what first attracted me to this book, and happily, the contents within proved to be every bit as fantastic and engaging.

I was enchanted by the opening tale of a ship carrying a cargo of puzzled grandmothers. Where were they? How had they gotten there? Where were they going? The dream haze of the story slowly clears as one of the grandmothers recognizes and embraces her journey.

I also loved Magniloquence, which features an auditorium of professors waiting for a speaker to arrive. They wait and wait, and as they wait, inhibitions are shed and speeches are improvised and many cookies are surreptitiously eaten.

Love is at the core of each of these stories, and in most cases, that love is sure and calm and gentle. And sometimes it is odd, and sometimes oddly compelling, as in Poppyseed, when two parents employ unorthodox means to honor their disabled daughter.

Ausubel’s writing is exquisite. Enter this book with an open mind and enjoy the strange and moving beauty.