Saturday, May 19, 2018

On Avoiding Certain Novels, Until I Don't: "The Immortalists," by Chloe Benjamin

Regular readers of this blog may remember that I occasionally start a post with something like “I didn’t want to read this book because…” or “I resisted reading this book because…” but then say that because of a recommendation, or because a book fell across my path, or some other reason, I ended by reading the book and being very glad I did. As this has happened many times over the years, I am wondering what I can learn from that pattern. Should I chide myself for being too “fussy” about what I read, or too narrow, or too dismissive of certain genres or types of books or of certain topics? Or should I congratulate myself for, in at least some cases, having overcome my initial resistance, somehow knowing on some level that the decision to read the book after all would be a good one? I am still not sure of the answer to these questions. But I do have yet another example to share with you. I read several glowing reviews of Chloe Benjamin’s novel “The Immortalists” (Putnam’s, 2018), and couldn’t get past the woo-woo element of four young siblings’ (just children at the time) being told by a sort of fortune teller the dates of their deaths. The whole thing sounded creepy and left me deeply uncomfortable. But for whatever reason, I decided to read the novel after all, and it is a fascinating one. I won’t tell you whether the fortune teller’s predictions come true, but they do force each of the siblings to face and struggle with the possibility that they might, and each of them is affected by the predictions in different ways. The novel is about more than this, though; it is above all, in my opinion, about families and their lasting deep connections, even when family members don’t see each other for a long time, and even after the death(s) of some family member(s). There are also the larger questions of what is important in life, and how one should live one’s life. Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon live their lives vividly and very differently from each other. Their mother Gertie looms large in the story as well, along with the memory of their father Saul, who dies early on in the novel. An added point of interest for me: The siblings grow up in New York, but two of them move to San Francisco. The author’s San Francisco childhood is evident in her detailed knowledge of the city, which this San Franciscan appreciated. But back to the beginning of this post: perhaps I am encouraging myself and others to push a little past our initial resistance to and dismissal of certain novels and other books, reminding ourselves that there might be a reason for all those good reviews and enthusiastic recommendations, and maybe at least giving those books a chance.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

"An American Marriage," by Tayari Jones

Last year my friend (and longtime supporter of this blog) SB recommended to me the 2011 novel “Silver Sparrow,” by Tayari Jones. I read and was very impressed by it (see my post of 10/26/17). Now I have just read Jones’ most recent novel, “An American Marriage” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2018), and found it equally well written and compelling. By the way, I am happy for this young rising star writer that this book was chosen for the Oprah’s Book Club 2018 selection. (I know some writers and readers scoff at the Oprah selections; you may remember the notorious case of Jonathan Franzen’s novel “The Corrections” being chosen for Oprah’s book club back in 2001, and his disparaging her taste in general and stating that it did not fit “the high-art literary tradition," upon which there was quite a backlash against Franzen, who was called arrogant and ungrateful.) (P.S. As readers of this blog may remember, I agree with those negative comments on Franzen.) The main characters in “An American Marriage” are Celestial and Roy, a young up-and-coming African American couple who seemed destined for a successful and happy life. But something terrible happens: Roy is arrested for, and convicted of, a crime he did not commit, and is sentenced to 12 years in prison. Celestial tries to stay loyal to Roy, but is drawn into a relationship with her childhood best friend, Andre. When Roy’s conviction is overturned and he is released from prison after five years, Celestial is agonizingly torn between the two men and two possible futures. The characters and plot are riveting enough, but in addition readers are drawn in, even if perhaps unwillingly (because of the painfulness of witnessing the blatant unfairness of Roy’s imprisonment, and the obvious racism involved in his being convicted of raping a white woman, solely because he is black and the rapist was black, so he "must have" been the rapist) to the horrors, dangers, and humiliations of incarceration in America’s prisons, especially for black men. Without being didactic, the author makes sure that we readers have to face up to the way black men are criminalized and treated in the U.S. penal system. The novel is psychologically astute about all three of the main characters, along with some peripheral characters such as parents, relatives, friends, and co-workers. And none of the possible answers are easy, even when there is a semi-resolution at the end of the novel. I highly recommend this novel, and will be watching for Tayari Jones’ future fiction.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

"Straying," by Molly McCloskey

The last few years I seem to have read more fiction by Irish writers than usual; something has drawn me to it. Part of this is my affinity for Colm Toibin’s and Anne Enright’s fiction (not to mention my longtime admiration for the late William Trevor’s work), but there have been other works I have enjoyed as well. The novel I just read, “Straying” (Scribner, 2017), by Molly McCloskey (who is Irish but now lives in Washington, DC), is beautifully blurbed by the above-mentioned Anne Enright: “As gripping as a memoir and as intimate as a poem…a novel that is both urgent and reflective, a tender and unsentimental exploration of love’s dark corners.” Yes. Indeed. “Exploration” is a good word for what happens in this novel. “Straying,” set almost entirely in Ireland, mostly in a small town outside of Dublin, with trips into Dublin, features as the main character a young American woman named Alice who moves to Ireland almost on a whim, and soon finds herself embedded in life there. She travels, works, learns, and meets the man she will marry: Eddie. They are happy, but – as the title of the novel indicates – Alice “strays,” as in falling into an affair with another Irish man, Cauley. Her own feelings are complicated, as are those of both men involved. In some senses, of course, this story of a love triangle is a classic story, a well worn one. Yet McCloskey brings a freshness to it. Alice is a complex yet very relatable character. She does a lot of pondering about her situation and about love, connection, family, and more. At some point in the novel, the story jumps about 30 years into the future, where we find that Alice has long been an aid worker, working all over the world in countries in various types of crisis, and she is well respected for her work. She is now back in Ireland. She sometimes muses about her youthful time in Ireland, and about her mother, and about all she has seen and learned since then. The plot sounds low key, and on some level it is; even what seem like the “dramatic” aspects of the story are not overly dramatized. This is a thoughtful novel about thoughtful characters, albeit ones who make some mistakes (but who doesn’t?).

Thursday, April 26, 2018

"Spoiled: Stories," by Caitlin Macy

Regular readers of this blog might remember that I am very interested in the topic of social class and how it affects everyone and everything. I often read nonfiction and fiction on the topic, and have written and published about it as well (as it connects to educational settings). I also like fiction by and about women. And I like fiction set in New York City. So, what was not to like about a book of short stories by Caitlin Macy titled “Spoiled” (Random House, 2009)? It was a bonus that the book’s epigraph is a quotation from Edith Wharton (whose works I have read often and with great pleasure and appreciation). “Spoiled” does, as the title suggests, feature young women who live in New York City and who have, in general, had material and other advantages. However, as we know, those advantages do not guarantee happiness or fulfillment. And sure enough, these characters often struggle and often misstep. Sometimes the author is quite sharp-penned in her revelations of the kinds of petty competitiveness that sometimes exist in the world of prosperous but often insecure (financially and otherwise) young women in their Manhattan setting, as illustrated in the story “Christy.” Sometimes they are out of their depth and almost arrogantly oblivious when they travel abroad, as in the ill-fated trip one young couple took to Morocco, portrayed in the story “Taroudant.” Class differences and the uneasiness caused by them come out in stories about the relationships of one woman with her nanny, and of another woman with her cleaning woman. Although many of the main characters are definitely “spoiled,” the author makes sure we see their complexities as well, and they are never defined only by their class statuses. The stories are well-written, with many telling details.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

On Beginning to Read "The Female Persuasion," by Meg Wolitzer

I don’t think I have posted here before on a book before I actually read it, but a book I just began reading reminded me of how enjoyable the anticipation of reading a long-expected new book, along with the pleasures of the first few pages of that book, can be. I was happy when I got an email from my wonderful local library telling me that my turn in the library queue had come up. The book is the novel “The Female Persuasion” (Riverhead, 2018), by one of my favorite contemporary writers, Meg Wolitzer. I have been reading her novels with pleasure for years, most recently “The Interestings” (see my post of 4/18/13). I had read positive reviews of this new novel, learning that it was about a leading feminist writer, Faith Frank, and the young college student, Greer Kadetsky, who is inspired and influenced by her for years after their first meeting. The front flap copy says that the novel is about “power and influence, ego and loyalty, womanhood and ambition.” It sounds like a good list to me! What attracts me as I start reading this novel is the prospect of a story that puts feminism at the center, and at the same time has compelling characters and an equally compelling plot. I love that the book is dedicated to several women writers, including Nora Ephron, Mary Gordon, and the author’s mother, Hilma Wolitzer. I love the prospect of two feminists (and more) being at the core of the novel. And, as a related side note, I love that Greer is a devoted reader, one who has read voraciously since childhood, when she early on discovered “the strange and beautiful formality of the nineteenth century” (p. 7). I can’t wait to keep reading this novel, and will just have to guard against it taking over all the time that should be devoted to more pressing (but less interesting) matters!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

"The Alice Network," by Kate Quinn

When my friend F. suggested that I would probably like the book “The Alice Network” (William Morrow, 2017), by Kate Quinn, I hesitated a bit, because I understood it to be about spies during World War I, and spies are not a major interest of mine. But I trust F.’s judgment, and the main spy in question was a woman who was recruited rather than choosing the “job,” so I decided to at least look at it. Well, you can see where this is going: I started reading and got completely caught up in the story. The plot has two parts and two heroines. Eve is the spy, and we see her in 1915 and then again in 1947, when she meets a young American woman named Charlie in London. We soon find that there is a connection between these two women. But first a mystery has to be disentangled. Along the way, we learn much about the two women’s lives and relationships. And yes, we learn much about the particular network of spies in German-occupied France, and I found this more interesting than I expected to, as well as inspiring; these were immensely courageous women. These women, led by the titular “Alice,” are amazing, and risk their lives over and over again to save many lives. But there is misunderstanding and unfinished business, and this is what we start to understand when Eve and Charlie come together. This book appeals on many levels, and I appreciate F.’s recommending it to me.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

"White Houses," by Amy Bloom

It has long been known, though only discussed very openly in the past couple of decades, that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had a close and cherished woman friend/partner/lover for some years, including much of the time she was in the White House. At the time, their relationship was only known in certain circles, and was tolerated (if reluctantly in many cases) by those in those circles. Her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt tolerated it because he had his own extramarital relationships, in some cases quite well known in certain circles as well. A new novel, “White Houses” (Random House, 2018), by Amy Bloom, fictionalizes the relationship between Eleanor and her lover, the newswoman Lorena Hickok. Furthermore, this novel tells the story from the point of view of Hickok. Bloom’s portrayal of this relationship is open, candid, thoughtful, loving, revealing, and enjoyable to read. The two women obviously had a close and loving relationship, one that outlasted their romantic relationship; both had the best interests of the other at heart (although Eleanor, probably understandably given her high position, was usually the one with more power and agency in the relationship). This novel gives us great insights into the time period, the White House, the Roosevelt presidency, and the society of the times (especially the 1930s). Lorena came from a very poor and deprived background, yet by dint of her brilliance, her hard work, and her hunger for knowledge and a better life, she created a career for herself first as a reporter and then in a job in the Roosevelt White House. We also learn more about Eleanor’s character and personality. She was formidable and admirable indeed, yet with a tender, loving side that we see in this book. I note that the author of "White Houses," Amy Bloom, is one whose fiction I have already read, admired, and enjoyed; see my posts on “Where the God of Love Hangs Out: Stories” (2/27/10) and on “Lucky Us” (9/24/14). If you have not discovered Bloom’s fiction yet, I highly recommend it.
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