Sunday, June 17, 2018

"Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces," by Michael Chabon

This post is for Father’s Day today. Happy Father’s Day, everyone who is a father, stepfather, grandfather, uncle, or in any way in a father-like role, and to those who love and are loved by them. I have a very good impression of the writer Michael Chabon, who lives in Berkeley and therefore seems like a kind of neighbor; although I haven’t met him (I once briefly met his wife, a well known writer herself – Ayelet Waldman), I have only heard good things about him. But the fact is that I haven’t read much of his fiction. It is work that I can see in the abstract is very good, but I just don’t relate to. Too male? Too magical/fantastical? I don’t know exactly why, but despite trying a few times, I just haven’t connected to his fiction. However, I do like his nonfiction, especially essays, when I occasionally run across them. I just finished his recent very short collection of essays, “Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces” (HarperCollins, 2018), and enjoyed it. The books starts with a compelling essay, “The Opposite of Writing,” which tells of the author's encounter, early on in his career, with a famous male writer (I wish I knew who!) who told Chabon that he would have to choose between writing and having children, and advised him not to have children. He said that each child would subtract a book from a writer’s lifetime production. This is quite interesting to me, because women writers and readers have discussed this topic -- whether one can be a writer and a mother -- for many, many years, but we usually hear that male writers who are fathers are able to take the time they need for their writing, mostly because they often have a wife or other partner or family member to do most of the childrearing and even to financially support the male writer, in many cases. I am a little torn about this discussion, as on the one hand I admire a male writer who grapples with these issues and doesn’t treat them as women’s issues only, but on the other hand I feel a bit like he is appropriating an issue that women writers have long discussed, and not acknowledging a kind of male privilege he has in the whole discussion. However, I have had the impression, even before reading this book, that Chabon is a dedicated and evolved father, so it is not surprising that he didn’t have to think long before deciding that he didn’t buy the older writer’s reasoning, and that even if he had, he would have chosen to have children. He went on to have four children and publish 14 books. He has some fun, in this essay, with speculating about whether, if he had not had his children, he would have published 18 books. Of the other essays in this collection, the most striking one is “Little Man,” about Chabon’s son Abe, who is fascinated, almost obsessed, with fashion, dresses with flair, and seems not to care that he is out of step with his middle school classmates. Chabon supports his son’s passion by accompanying him to Paris Men’s Fashion Week, where Abe feels he has found his people. The other essays are mostly about the author’s children and such topics as grappling with racism and with sexism. Chabon also writes about baseball and his mixed feelings about his son’s playing in Little League. The book ends with a touching essay on Chabon’s own father and their relationship.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

"When God Was a Rabbit," by Sarah Winman

As I wrote on 6/5/18 in my post on Sarah Winman’s novel “Tin Man,” I liked the novel so much that I wanted to read more by her. Accordingly, I found and read her first, highly acclaimed novel, “When God Was a Rabbit” (Bloomsbury, 2011) and was definitely not disappointed. Winman’s voice – sincere, straightforward, thoughtful, a little whimsical in a very understated way, and very humane – caught me up immediately, as did the plot and the charming, eccentric, and believable characters. The main character is an imaginative young girl named Elly; the other main characters are her brother Joe and her best friend Jenny. The story is bursting with vivid and compelling characters: others of Elly’s family members, people who are so close to the family that they might as well be family members, friends, lovers, and more. The story takes place between 1968 and the recent present (early 2000s). It begins in England and then toggles between England and the United States, New York City in particular. Some events of recent history are important components of the novel. There is much evident love among the characters, as well as confusion, pain, and sadness. The writing is exceptional. Oh, and that title? When Elly is small, she names her pet rabbit God, and that rabbit is a talisman for her even in later life when it is long since physically gone.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

"Tin Man," by Sarah Winman

Sarah Winman’s fiction is new to me. I also did not know much, if anything, about her as a British actor who has appeared in many films, plays, and television shows. But her new novel, “Tin Man” (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2017) completely grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go. It is the story of an unusual triangle of friends and their relationships. Ellis and Michael are childhood friends who become lovers. Annie is the woman who later marries Ellis and welcomes Michael as the third member of their close (but nonsexual in the case of Annie and Michael) mutual relationship. On the face of it, such a very close, happy, longlasting relationship among the three (an apparently bisexual man, a gay man, and a straight woman) seems unrealistic or at least very unusual, yet Winman makes us believe in it, and rejoice in it. At some point, though, Michael disappears, and not until years later do we find out what happened. We also learn of the family backgrounds of the three, especially of Ellis and Michael. Ellis’ parents had a difficult marriage, but his mother Dora had a streak of strength and independence that served her and Ellis well; Dora also became a source of strength and nurturance to the young Michael, who badly needed her surrogate mothering. The characters are all compelling, and the story is both believable and mysterious. The writing is exceptional. Although I often or even mostly read authors I already know, I occasionally “discover” new (to me, at least) authors, and it is always a joy; Winman is the most recent writer in that category for me. Now I plan to find and read Winman’s earlier two novels. (No, I don't know if the fact that Tin Man and Winman rhyme is significant, and if so, how, but I would assume it has something to do with identification with the character.)

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Remembering Favorite Authors Who Have Died

The recent death of Philip Roth (see my post of 5/26/18) reminded me of how many great writers we have lost in the eight years (and a few months) since I have been writing this blog. I have posted about the deaths of several of these authors, writers whom I have read and admired and to whom I have felt somehow connected. Some of these are more well-known than others, but each one of them is missed by me and by many others. As a reminder of, and in honor of, the writers that have died, and about whom I have written “RIP” posts, I list them here (in alphabetical order): Edward Albee, Maya Angelou, Vance Bourjaily, Judy Brady, Anita Brookner, Dorothy Bryant, Alan Cheuse, E.L. Doctorow, Shulamith Firestone, Paula Fox, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nadine Gordimer, Sue Grafton, Kent Haruf, Shirley Hazzard, P.D. James, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Bel Kaufman, Carolyn Kizer, Ursula Le Guin, Doris Lessing, Philip Levine, Kate Millett, Bharati Mukherjee, Robert Pirsig, Philip Roth, James Salter, Anita Shreve, and William Trevor. (As a reminder, you can search for any of these posts in the small search box on the top lefthand side of this blog.) It makes me sad all over again to construct this list. But I remind myself that each of these writers has left a legacy of her or his written work. And we can always find and read or re-read their work. My great hope is that more readers, now and in the future, will continue to discover these great writers.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

RIP Philip Roth

The prolific and much admired American writer Philip Roth died May 22, 2018, at the age of 85. He was often spoken of as a possible recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. (I wonder if he might have done so this year, if it were not for the scandal that prevented any writer’s being chosen for this year, and now it is too late, as Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously.) Although he did not win the Nobel, he received two National Book Awards, a Pulitzer, a Mann Booker Prize, several PEN awards, and many other prestigious recognitions of his work. He received a National Humanities Medal in 2010, presented by President Obama in the White House. He wrote 27 novels and four books of nonfiction. I, like so many, read, admired, and enjoyed his early books. At a certain point, though, I became more disinclined to read his novels because they were so heavily representative of a very male, very masculine viewpoint. On the one hand, I admire any thoughtful and truthful representation of human experience and thought, and I did and do admire Roth for portraying areas of male experiences and especially sexual behavior that were not much written about before by mainstream literary authors. I am not a prude, and am not offended at all by this. But as an individual female reader, I felt discouraged from continuing to read every novel he published. Still, I want to honor him as one of the great American writers of the mid-to-late twentieth century, often grouped with Saul Bellow and John Updike as the preeminent American writers of their time. I also acknowledge that he wrote about many themes besides male (heterosexual) sexuality, including some political and historical ones, as well as, in particular, about Jewish American life. Roth will be long remembered for his fearlessness as well as for his great gifts as a writer.

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.
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