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Hi everyone! I used to contribute diaries on a weekly basis until work and other real life matters took over for a spell. But I've missed you and missed working through my ideas about books by writing about them, so here we go.

When it was first announced that the Man Booker Prize, the ultimate literary award in the Commonwealth, was going to be opened up to other books, including those from the U.S., the reaction was not praise. Which makes sense. There are already prestigious American book awards. Why should we pushy Yanks have to muscle in on the Booker as well as so many other things?

Now that the longlist has been announced, the results this first year are not too bad. The Goldfinch isn't on the list but that's all right. It won the Pulitzer and the hearts of many readers. It doesn't need another bright and shiny trophy.

One of the titles on the Booker longlist from an American author is a genuine delight. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris is a novel that begins light and quirky, gets dark and murky and then shines like a heart filled with love at the end. The novel also has been named to the longlist for the International Dylan Thomas Literary Prize.

The novel begins in straightforward fashion. Paul is an ordinary dentist with minor eccentricities. He has a practice in Manhattan but adores the Boston Red Sox and tapes every game on TV. That was his father's team, and some of his best-preserved memories are of being a boy, sitting at his father's feet, during games.

He hasn't had much practice with women. (He has had such little practice that he uses a highly offensive term to describe what others might call being in complete thrall to the object of one's love.) The two he has loved the most, he also has fallen in love with their families. But it got uncomfortable very fast as the hapless young man tried to ingratiate himself, wanting to become Catholic like the first love's family and then Jewish like the second love's family. Paul's former second love still works in his office and, although they show no interest in getting back together, they have fallen into the comforting kind of routine that old married couples share. Now that he's on his own again, he's decided to be an atheist.

Paul doesn't have much to do with the internet, although he does post a few things about baseball. And he does it on purpose:

You think I alienate myself from society? Of course I alienate myself from society. It's the only way I know of not being constantly reminded of all the ways I'm alienated from society.
But as the online impersonations escalate, Paul becomes more attached to his "me-machine", whether it takes the form of tablet or smart phone, more than his employees or his patients.

This is only the beginning. First, there's a website about his practice. Then social media accounts. It's all accurate. But it's not him. And it's getting to him. Who is this guy pretending to be him?

This setup is light, amusing and sails by. But as the online masquerades escalate, things get deeper, darker and far more murky. The imposter starts posting quasi-biblical, important-sounding things about a lost people who are scattered around the planet. Comparisons are made to Jewish people. Paul is more than uncomfortable (and so was I, especially as someone who knows she is no expert). Connie, his ex-fiance who still works for him, is Jewish. His older office manager is a Christian. Neither recognizes what this person, who they both think is Paul, is posting.

Is it Paul who is posting and not an imposter? Is he fooling himself? Is Ferris fooling the reader? Would that be the case if he emails the imposter and gets back the response: "How well do you know yourself?" Say, just what is going on here?

Just when it looks to get very uncomfortable reading about a group of people that is "so wretched they envy the history of the Jews", the story changes again. There's a specific reason Ferris has gone this route, and it has a lot to do with self-awareness and belonging. Remarkably enough, it is Paul's patients -- people who he sees in real life and who have genuine concerns, not phantoms in the "me-machine" -- who provide him with an epiphany about faith, the power of doubt and how a person could consider how he fits into the world.

Ferris was able to bring together so many different ideas -- love for a father who abandoned his child in the worst possible way, trying to find a family, wanting to belong so badly that you would be willing to believe almost anything, being confronted with the idea that doubt is powerful in a positive way. Any of these are the kinds of ideas that have value and can be mulled over, say, when someone has as much trouble sleeping through the night as Paul does and has done such he was a child.

The novel once appeared it was going to go off the rails in spectacular fashion. But instead, it ends up feeling heartfelt and provides an emotional homecoming that means it was all worth it in the end, that just like our protagonist, what we yearn for is to be able to get a good night's sleep and to rise again at a decent hour to spend another day here in the world.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Jul 29, 2014 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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