Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"A Permanent Member of the Family"

I have long but rather inattentively admired Russell Banks’s writing, mostly from afar. For one reason or another, I have not read much of his work. I did see and very much like the sad but beautiful film made of one of his novels, “The Sweet Hereafter,” which stayed in my mind long after I saw it, quite a few years ago, and still leaves an impression. I recently picked up at the library, more or less in passing, Banks' 2013 collection of short stories, “A Permanent Member of the Family” (Ecco). By the time I was a few stories in, I was truly impressed. The title story focuses on a family dog as a sort of symbol of the family’s center before, during and after a divorce. When the dog dies, “the girls did not want to talk about Sarge,” and the family drifts apart. It is a heartbreaking look at the ways in which families hold together and fall apart. Other stories tell of families, of affairs. One, “Big Dog,” tells of the complicated responses of a man’s friends when he wins a MacArthur. Another, “Blue,” is a harrowing story of an African-American woman who accidentally gets trapped in a car lot with a vicious dog. Another details a car ride with a couple and their dead dog, as the couple tries to decide where to bury the dog. (Until I typed these last few sentences, I didn’t consciously realize how many of the stories in this collection featured dogs!) Banks understands families and relationships, and although most of the stories are told from male characters’ points of view, he seems to understand women characters quite well too. In any case, Banks -- as of course many readers already know -- is a fine (and successful) writer and one whose work I will seek out more often.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

"All He Ever Wanted," by Anita Shreve

On 2/8/10, I wrote about “middlebrow” literature, and gave Anita Shreve as one example of an author of such literature. Shreve writes reliably enjoyable and compelling novels, and I have read and enjoyed several of them over the years. I recently finished listening to “All He Ever Wanted” (Time Warner Audio Books, 2003), her 2003 novel set in the early part of the 20th century and featuring one man’s obsession with one woman. The young Professor Nicholas Van Tassel glimpses Etna Bliss across a restaurant during a destructive fire, helps her and her relative get home safely, and cannot stop thinking about her. He courts her and eventually marries her, but he always knows that she does not love him as he loves her; he is willing to accept this, as long as she is his wife and he can see her and be with her. They have a life, and two children, and get along fairly well, but there are strains and stresses, and eventually secrets from the past explode in their lives. Van Tassel tells the story many years later, and although he is fairly oblivious of his own faults, the reader can see that there were many mistakes, many misunderstandings on both sides. And we gradually see, as Nicholas writes, that his obsession led him to some foolhardy, misguided, and very wrong actions. At first this character is likeable and understandable, if slightly pompous and very fixated, but as the story proceeds, we get the uneasy feeling that he is willing to go too far in order to keep Etna with him. By the end of the story, we still basically sympathize with him, but with a much-tempered view of his character. The character of Etna is less known to us because Nicholas is telling the story, so throughout there is a slightly mysterious sense about who she really is and what she really feels and thinks. Only very occasionally do we get a more direct sense of her life and feelings. The focus is always on Nicholas, his obsession, his feelings, his actions; Etna's actions are portrayed mostly in reaction to Nicholas'; however, we do find out that Etna has her own secrets and passions. I like the fact that Shreve portrays the obsession with restraint and subtlety; although his laserlike focus on Etna is the driving force of Nicholas' life, the story is never out of control or "over the top"; there are no horrific or ultra-dramatic scenes just to keep the reader's attention. The setting of this story of genteel but powerful obsession reminds us that the basic human stories of love and relationships do not change much throughout history; the story takes place a hundred years ago, but could easily take place today. There are other parts of the plot of interest, such as the academic posturing, plotting and competition at the small, rather mediocre New England college where Nicholas teaches, and a sad reminder of the anti-Semitism of the time, even in academe. There are also many allusions to and examples of the limits put on women at that time, and how desperate some women were to have some freedom, some independence, some privacy. All in all, this novel is more than competently written, addresses some important and even riveting issues, and is quite engrossing.

Friday, April 18, 2014

R.I.P. Gabriel Garcia Marquez

R.I.P., Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the great Colombian writer who died yesterday at the age of 87. Although he was Colombian, he also lived in various places in Europe and South America, and was regarded as a revered representative of all of Latin America. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, is widely considered to be the greatest writer writing in Spanish, and is one of the greatest writers writing in any language. He wrote several novels, novellas, short story collections, and books of journalism, but is best known for his novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” (1967), which has sold more than 50 million copies in more than 25 languages. Other notable and also very popular novels are “Love in the Time of Cholera” and “Autumn of the Patriarch.” An indicator of the wide reach of his work: According to the Associated Press (San Francisco Chronicle, 4/18/14), “His flamboyant and melancholy fictional works…outsold everything published in Spanish except the Bible.” He is generally known as a leading representative of Latin America’s “magical realism,” but is also noted as being an astute observer of everyday life. He was influenced by the work of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, among others. This great author wrote about Latin America in a way that showed the world its beauty and its sorrows, as he put it himself in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. This certainly included politics, but, as Michiko Kakutani writes in the New York Times (4/17/14) upon Garcia Marquez’s death, “In the end, it’s not politics, but time and memory and love that stand at the heart of Mr. Garcia Marquez’s work.” This is what draws so many readers, and this is what makes him such a great writer. I have read some of his novels over the years, and at one time was very interested in magical realism, reading several of the great South American writers; in later years, I was less drawn to such writing, but I never stopped admiring the greatness of this writer for the ages, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Monday, April 14, 2014

"Dept. of Speculation," by Jenny Offill

Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation” (Knopf, 2014) is a small, original, compelling novel-in-a-non-novel-format. I was first put off by the description of the novel’s unusual format; I sometimes find myself quite traditional about such innovations. But the reviews have been heady, practically rapturous, so I succumbed and read the unorthodox novel. The whole novel, divided into chapters, consists of short, discontinuous chunks of prose, set off as if they are freestanding paragraphs, but not indented, and not flowing one into another. Some of them connect one to the next fairly explicitly, but many do not. However, somehow, bit by bit, they build a story. Or I should say, yes, a story, but more, a snapshot of a woman who is struggling. The narrator and main character, who sometimes calls herself “I” and sometimes “the wife,” has written one book and now cannot seem to write another, mainly because she has been derailed by marriage and motherhood. She is often in despair at her inability to write, at her baby daughter’s constant crying, and at the troubles in her marriage. Yet there are moments of happiness with her husband and her baby, and a fierce love for both, especially the latter. This young woman also has various friends who are sometimes a great comfort to her. The voice of this narrator/character is strong, individual,and striking. And the structure that I dreaded as being “experimental” (regular readers of this blog know I am not fond of such writing) was very readable; it “worked.” So now I understand the rave reviews, and add my own praise to that of others. Highly recommended.

Friday, April 11, 2014

John Updike's Use of "Real Life" in his Fiction

Are you sometimes curious about how much of a given author’s work comes from “real life”? I am. New York magazine (3/24/14) gives us at least a partial answer in the case of John Updike. In an excerpt from his forthcoming biography of Updike, Adam Begley tells of several cases where Updike used his own experiences, and those of others, almost exactly in his fiction. In one case, for example, journalist William Ecenbarger, after an interview with Updike, was “astonished to find…Updike had transcribed – verbatim – their exchanges” in a New Yorker story, and had included many details of their time together. Apparently Updike openly acknowledged his common use of real events and remarks, using a “startling simile” (in Begley’s words), as follows (Updike’s words): “We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves.” In other words, Updike says further, “The artist who works in words and anecdotes, images and facts wants to share with us nothing less than his digested life.” The image is slightly off-putting, but captures a sort of pragmatic laser focus on his work that he feels is necessary. To quote Begley further, on Updike’s using scraps of his life and of others’ lives: “No one was spared; not his parents, not his two wives, not his four children.” Updike once wrote that “the nearer and dearer they are, the more mercilessly they are served up.” And Updike’s eldest son, David, said in a public television interview that his father “decided at an early age that his writing had to take precedence over his relations with real people”; Updike himself agreed that this was true. This is sad and disturbing, yet perhaps understandable. In a novel I just finished reading, Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation,” the narrator plans and longs (and fails) to be an “art monster,” someone who is totally dedicated to her art and allows nothing, no human connections, to get in the way of that. Perhaps this is the dilemma of many writers and other artists: on some level they feel they have to choose whether they are in “all in” regarding their art, or whether they will allow human connections to come first, and possibly to distract them from or dilute their artistic work. What a terrible dilemma this is, if in fact this is a choice many feel they have to make. I cannot say whether such a choice is absolutely necessary, but it seems to me that many great writers have also been good children, spouses, parents, and friends, without sacrificing their loved ones to their art. However, I could be wrong.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

"The Days of Anna Madrigal," by Armistead Maupin

I have lived in San Francisco long enough to have read Armistead Maupin’s first iterations of “Tales of the City” as they were serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle in the mid-70s, when I had very newly arrived here. These stories of new and established, young and old, gay and straight, struggling and rich residents of San Francisco were an instant hit, and we readers eagerly awaited each installment. Part of the fun was reading about local places and institutions we recognized, and learning about corners of the city and its various lifestyles that we hadn't known about. Since then Maupin has written nine volumes in the Tales of the City series, published between 1978 and 2014, most of which I have read, as well as a TV mini-series, starring the wonderful Laura Linney, which I watched with enjoyment some years ago. The ninth volume, and according to Maupin, the final one, has just been published; it is “The Days of Anna Madrigal” (Harper, 2014). This novel reunites us with the beloved characters we have followed over the years, but has a bittersweet sense of endings. As with the earlier novels, this one checks in on the lives of Michael Tolliver (now in a happy relationship with his younger husband, Ben), Mary Ann Singleton, and other main characters. The focus this time, as the title indicates, is the aging Anna Madrigal, who was the landlady of the building where the characters met and lived back in the beginning, when Michael and Mary Ann were very young and very new to San Francisco. Anna, who is transgendered, has always been the heart of the group, the surrogate mother, the source of wisdom and support and humor and, oh yes, of a seemingly bottomless supply of neatly rolled joints to be shared with her friends. Now that she is aging and needs help from the devoted young Jake (also transgendered) and other friends, she has to conserve her energy, but with the help of her friends, she is able to fulfill her wish to revisit the town she came from so long ago and to resolve a longstanding regret she has had about her first young love there. This novel also takes many of the characters on a trip to Burning Man. Although the writing is perhaps not for the ages, the characters are as compelling as always, and feel like old friends to those of us who have followed them all these decades. Maupin himself has moved to Santa Fe with his husband, but he is clearly still very fond of and connected to San Francisco. He and his work will always be symbols of the exciting times in this city when life opened up in so many ways for the young people who arrived here, looking for freedom to be themselves. Thank you, Armistead Maupin, for all these years of engaging stories and characters, and for what amounts to an extended love letter to San Francisco.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Do you know who Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is? If you do, you know more than I did, until I read William Deresiewicz's 3/24/14 article, "Dread and Wonder," in The Nation magazine. He says that she has won many major awards, is Russia's leading dramatist, and is widely thought to be "its leading author of fiction, the mother of contemporary women's writing in the country." He even speculates that she may at some point be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. I am somewhat chagrined to know nothing of this clearly important writer. Reading about her reminds me of how, in some ways, provincial my reading is. Although I do read widely, I mostly read contemporary American and British novels, with only a smattering of fiction from other countries, sometimes translated. I have read many of the classics from around the world, such as the Russian writers Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, etc., and the French writers Balzac, Zola, Flaubert, Proust, and Colette, to name a few, but most of these I read a long time ago, in some cases as long ago as college and grad school. The Nation article about this prominent Russian writer, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, has nudged me to resolve to read more contemporary fiction from more countries, including translations from a variety of languages.
 
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