Saturday, August 19, 2017

"A House Among the Trees" and "Goodbye, Vitamin"

I apologize for the little break there…This past week has been particularly busy (highlights: my mother’s 91st birthday party; my finishing and submitting the manuscript of my book to my publisher; the beginning of the Fall semester at my university). But I have kept reading throughout, as I always do, no matter what! Here I will just list and briefly annotate the last two books I have read, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. 1. “A House Among the Trees” (Pantheon, 2017), by Julia Glass. I read Glass’s first novel, “Three Junes,” and was pretty much hooked by her work from then on. She is such a great storyteller. This latest novel, a substantial one (349 pages), is the story of a famous author of children’s books, Mort Lear (a writer at the level of and possibly partly modeled on Maurice Sendak), along with several other characters, including his longtime assistant and the actor who is going to portray Lear in a movie. Lear dies in an accident very early in the book, and everyone else tries to pick up the pieces and carry on, meanwhile finding out more and more about aspects of his background, going back to his childhood, that he had not revealed when he was alive. This is a rich, full book, with many characters and story lines; it goes back and forth in time. It is psychologically rich and complex as well. 2. Rachel Khong’s novel “Goodbye, Vitamin” (Henry Holt, 2017) a much slimmer volume (194 smallish pages) but almost as engaging, is narrated by the daughter of a well-known professor father who is in the early-to-middle stages of memory loss and dementia. Ruth is at loose ends, coming out of a broken engagement and not settled into any career, so she goes home to think, take a break, and help her mother during this difficult time with her father. Ruth is dismayed at her father’s situation, but also has some lovely moments of connection with him. She reconnects with old friends as well, and starts to become involved with some local people and activities, including some of her father’s graduate students. She also comes to understand some issues between her mother and father. Ruth narrates the story in diary form, which works well in this book. While not downplaying the terrible damage and pain caused by dementia, both to the person himself and his loved ones and others in his life, the novel is surprisingly positive and even uplifting (but not in a sentimental or self-help sort of way), and very engaging. The fact that there is a fair amount of humor and even whimsy in the book as well is a bright spot. (Oh, and I am proud to say that Khong is yet another gifted San Francisco writer!)

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

"In Other Words," by Jhumpa Lahiri

Those of you who have been reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s wonderful fiction over the years, as I have, may know that she has now done something quite radical. She decided that she wanted to learn Italian, and to write and publish in Italian. So she and her family moved to Rome for over a year to facilitate this immersion in Italian. Writing at all, let alone literary works, in a new language is a staggeringly difficult thing to do. First, learning the language well is very hard in itself, as anyone who has tried to learn a second or third language as an adult knows. Then to learn it well enough to write and publish a literary book, with the added pressure of her audience’s high expectations for her writing, is truly impressive. Yes, other writers have written in new languages (e.g., Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, Eva Hoffman, Samuel Beckett, Milan Kundera), some out of necessity and some because they felt drawn to challenging themselves in this way. But no one has said it was easy. I have just finished reading Lahiri’s book about her decision to learn and write in Italian, “In Other Words” (Vintage, 2017, originally published 2015). The book has the Italian version on the lefthand page and the English translation by the noted translator Ann Goldstein on the righthand page. (As an aside, seeing this layout gave me a flashback to a graduate seminar I took many years ago on Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” with a similar layout of the text; although neither I nor most of the other students knew Italian, our professor had us read the Italian poetry silently and aloud to experience and appreciate its sound and its grandeur.) Lahiri seems modest, and writes earnestly and candidly about her struggles and doubts, and yet she is determined to meet this challenge she has set herself. It is never entirely clear why, although she speaks of her varying and ambivalent feelings about her “mother tongue,” Bengali, and the language she grew up with and has written in, English, and the different relationships she has with each. She does say that unlike her mother, who moved to the United States but always kept her habits and behaviors from Calcutta, she (Lahiri) felt an insistence to transform herself. The first story she wrote in Italian began “There was a woman…who wanted to be another person.” She goes on to say, in this current book (p. 169) that “All my life I’ve tried to get away from the void of my origin….That’s why I was never happy with myself. Change seemed the only solution.” She is mysteriously drawn to Italian, yes, but it also seems she feels the need to set herself this very difficult task, almost to test herself against it. She writes of lessons, of dreams, of progress, of setbacks, of discouragement, of fears. At the end of the book, she says that although she is not satisfied with the book, she feels it is an accomplishment. She is not sure what will happen next, when she returns to the United States, and whether she will continue to write in Italian or go back to English, knowing that each choice would have serious and perhaps permanent implications for her writing.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

"Less," by Andrew Sean Greer

I like books that surprise me, and “Less” (Little, Brown, 2017), by Andrew Sean Greer, did that. I was already a fan of this writer, especially of “The Story of a Marriage,” so I was predisposed to like “Less,” and I did like it. The “Less” in question is Arthur Less (but clearly the title can be interpreted in other ways too…this insecure character may feel he is “less”), a middle-aged, mid-list writer who decides he absolutely cannot attend his former lover Freddy’s wedding; it would be too sad and too humiliating. So Less decides to make sure to be out of town, and in fact mostly out of the country, for several weeks. He does this by cobbling together acceptances to invitations to teach, speak, read, and write, in Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Morocco, and India. Naturally various adventures, mostly comic, ensue, along with a bit of romance. Arthur is sometimes a bit of a sad sack, but he is very self-aware about this, and he is also an endearing character whom one roots for. The way the novel is structured is intriguing (a chapter for each country Less visits), and enjoyable to read. Greer has some fun with some stereotypes about gay men facing the prospect of aging, about writers, about Americans abroad, about lovers and ex-lovers everywhere, and various other targets, but the fun is administered lovingly.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

"The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up," by Marie Kondo

You have probably heard of the worldwide bestselling little hardback book by the Japanese writer, Marie Kondo. It is titled “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” (Ten Speed Press), and is translated from Japanese into English by Cathy Hirano. I am an easy mark for books on organizing. Although I seldom follow their advice, I enjoy reading them, or at minimum, feel virtuous just having them on my bookshelves. This one is actually fun to read, and I have been reading little chunks of it for about a year; I finally finished it a few days ago. Meanwhile, a few months ago I went with my daughter -- also a fan -- to hear Marie Kondo speak, and we both enjoyed the event thoroughly. Kondo is a bit quirky, charming and very charismatic, and even the fact that her talk was translated from Japanese into English as she went along did not slow down or mar the audience’s evident great appreciation for and enjoyment of her speech, accompanied by a few – but only a few – props and power point slides. She’s obviously a star, with enthusiastic fans. Her main point can be boiled down to this: Put all your belongings (according to categories) out, and lift and touch each one to determine if it “sparks joy.” If not, get rid of it. Meanwhile, treat your possessions with respect, even talking to them and thanking them for what they do for you. If you do this, not only will your house be clearer and more peaceful, but so will your life. There are many specifics, including lists, and many examples from her work with hundreds of clients in Japan and elsewhere (she has a three-month waiting list). Her method is called the KonMari Method. I am quite enchanted with all this, but I haven’t yet put any of it into practice. My daughter, on the other hand, has been working her way through the categories, and has gotten rid of (given away, recycled, thrown away) large quantities of possessions. (She still has plenty left!) It may be that Kondo is not telling us anything very different from what dozens of other organization specialists have, but she has her own perspective and her own method, enhanced by her charming personality that comes across clearly in her little book. Who knows, one of these days maybe I will actually try her method!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

"The Accomplished Guest" by Ann Beattie

Of course I had to read the new Ann Beattie short story collection! I have been reading her for decades, from the beginning. I may not have read every single one of her 20 books (novels and short story collections), but I am guessing I have read at least 15 of them. Not to mention all the New Yorker stories she has published (I have been reading the New Yorker most of my adult life). Beattie has such a distinctive voice: engaged but somehow dry, ironic, with a little distance. There is emotion, but it is muted, understated, not quite acknowledged. This latest collection is titled “The Accomplished Guest” (Scribner, 2017). Beattie lives in Maine and in Key West, Florida, and many of the stories in this book take place in those settings, as well as in East Coast points in between the two. Her main characters tend to be affluent and older. People are often traveling to weddings, reunions, and other such gatherings, fraught with possibilities of tension and unpredictable reactions. Interestingly, the men in the stories tend to be sad, depressed, deprived, abandoned, sick, alcoholic, or otherwise impaired. I know that I will keep reading Ann Beattie’s fiction.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

"The Identicals," by Elin Hilderbrand

I am writing an academic book (no, not a novel, although I wish I had the talent to do so!); the deadline for submitting my manuscript to my publisher is next month, so I have been spending much of my time this summer working hard to finish. One recent weekend, I spent my morning doing my usual Saturday home-related chores and errands, and my afternoon writing for several hours at our local library, where I also checked out some books, mostly novels. I came home planning to eat dinner and then write some more. But after dinner I thought I would read for a few minutes before working. I sat down with a novel I had specifically gotten for relaxation, a classic “beach novel,” “The Identicals” (Little, Brown, 2017), by Elin Hilderbrand. A half an hour later, I told myself to stop reading and start working again. Then: “Well, just a little longer.” And “just one more chapter.” You can see where this is going, right? Three or four hours later, I finished the last chapter and finally came up for air. Was it worth it? Well, yes. It is a classic page turner, goes down easy, and I just couldn’t break away. My rationale afterward was that I had worked pretty hard that day (and week, and month), and I “needed” something fun and relaxing; this book fit the bill perfectly. (And I went back to writing the next day with renewed energy!) The story involves twin sisters in their late thirties, one of whom lives on Martha’s Vineyard and the other on Nantucket; they used to be very close, but became semi-estranged after one goes to live with one parent and the other with the other. Each of them has a complicated life, including a complicated love life. Lots of plotty plot ensues, including mix-ups (they are, after all, identical twins; there are even allusions to the Hayley Mills twins movie, “The Parent Trap”), heartbreak, suspense, and yes, lots of scenes of beaches and of the charming towns of the two islands. There is also much mention of markets, cafes, and food, including the specialties of various places on each island. All great fun. Throughout there is a half-serious, half-humorous mention of a rivalry between the two beautiful islands, the backdrop to a sort of rivalry between the twins. Hilderbrand, the author, has lived on both islands, but has lived on Nantucket for the past 24 years. She writes, she says in her afterword, two books a year. She has clearly found her lane and knows her audience, and that is an honorable thing: she gives her readers pleasure and relaxation. I have written before about my mixed feelings about “beach reads” and “chick lit,” but I believe most of us readers enjoy different genres of books at different times for different purposes. “The Identicals” was just what I needed at this specific time.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

"The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell," by W. Kamau Bell

I am proud to say that the comedian/writer/performer/activist/television personality W. Kamau Bell intentionally lives in the San Francisco Bay Area (Berkeley to be specific), and hopes to live here indefinitely, although many have advised him he needs to live in Los Angeles or New York. In his quasi-memoir, “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6’4,” African-American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian” (Dutton, 2017), he writes lovingly of the comedy scene in San Francisco over the past decades, and how he got some of his best opportunities at local comedy clubs. But before that, he lived all over the United States as a child, and points out that he grew up as a “blerd” (black nerd) rather than as a cool kid. This memoir is a somewhat loosely connected set of essays, more or less in chronological order, about his life, his slow climb in the comedy world, his setbacks and his successes, his marriage to a white woman, his two little daughters, what it is like to be a black male (especially a tall one) in America, his thoughts about politics and especially racism and sexism, and more. His voice is engaging; he tells hard truths but tells them in carefully chosen words. He comes across as very candid, very open, very concerned about the future of the country and of his daughters, and committed to making a difference however he can, especially through using his comedic gifts and through being the best father he can be. The essayistic format does mean there is some repetition across the chapters, but this is a small quibble.
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