Thursday, October 19, 2017

Please subscribe to progressive magazines!

This post is a plea to readers to support progressive magazines. Such magazines have always played an important role in providing readers with information not covered in major news sources, as well as perspectives not always well represented in those major news sources. Now we need this information and these perspectives more than ever. I have subscribed to The Nation, The Progressive, and Ms. magazines for decades, and recently (OK, immediately after the 2016 election) resubscribed – after a gap of some years – to Mother Jones. These are all invaluable resources. I also find important progressive writing in some more mainstream but still quite progressive magazines as The Atlantic and The New Yorker. Many of these magazines report strong upticks in subscriptions after the 2016 election, but they still need wider readership and wider support in order to continue to do their often groundbreaking investigative reports and other important stories. Maybe consider subscribing to one of the above magazines, or another progressive publication? And/or giving a gift subscription?

Friday, October 13, 2017

"Vanity Fair's Schools for Scandals," edited by Graydon Carter

How could I not read this book? Its topics are a heady combination of education, social class, sexual politics, true crime, gossip, current events, social commentary and, yes, scandal. “Vanity Fair’s Schools for Scandals” (Simon & Schuster, 2017) is subtitled “The Inside Dramas at 16 of America’s Most Elite Campuses – Plus Oxford!” The book is a compilation of articles that have been published in the magazine Vanity Fair over the past 20 years or so, and is edited by Vanity Fair’s editor Graydon Carter. Each piece focuses on a "scandal" at one prestigious college/university or boarding school, including Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Duke, and Columbia, and the prep/boarding schools St. Paul’s, Exeter, St. George’s, and Kent. Some scandals involve financial issues, some stories report extreme hazing, and some writers portray administrators and faculty whose outsize personalities and reputations come tumbling down. The most prevalent topic, however, is, sadly, sexual abuse of various sorts, especially in the boarding schools. Because these schools are small, isolated, privileged, and entitled schools, and because the participants share those characteristics, and because sexual abuse by its nature tends to be hidden, these abuses of power sometimes went years, even decades, without being acknowledged or punished. Administrators and Board members obviously wanted to avoid bad publicity, and often turned a blind eye, and/or quietly passed bad actors (often teachers) on to other schools without warning the other schools of the problem; this last had the ugly label but vivid of “passing the trash.” Even when presented with the existence of the abuse, those in charge often stonewalled, refused to believe the victims, or minimized the impact of the abuse (and let’s be clear, abuse ranged from unwanted touching to assault and rape, and sometimes the same abuser would prey on many many victims over many years). At the end of many of the pieces, there are short updates about what happened with court cases, and about where various administrators, teachers, and students are now and what they are doing now. Although I have subscribed to Vanity Fair for many years, and had read almost all of these pieces before (in some cases 10-20 years before), I found that reading them in this collected form was a powerful experience. Vanity Fair’s writers are excellent at capturing the auras and environments of these schools. In many cases, the writers themselves had attended the schools they were describing, or others very like them, so they were able to offer insiders’ perspectives. These writers do good investigative research, and they are persistent in getting the story. They write well, with many telling details. And through their descriptions they capture the essence of affluence and social class privilege that often facilitates these scandals. Postscript: Finishing reading this book just as the news arrived of the movie producer Harvey Weinstein's sexually abusive behavior toward young women actors and others in the movie world was a doubly powerful reminder of the way women are sometimes treated by powerful men in various fields. So no, equality has not yet arrived; and no, we are not living in a postfeminist era. There is still a lot of work to be done.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

"The Use of Fame," by Cornelia Nixon

I like novels about academe. I like novels about writers. I like novels about marriage. So Cornelia Nixon’s “The Use of Fame” (Counterpoint, 2017), which features all three of these characteristics, caught my interest. The two main characters, Abby and Ray, are both poets and have been married for twenty-five years, when their loving and mainly successful marriage is challenged by their taking teaching positions at universities on opposite coasts. Ray is at Brown and Abby is at Berkeley. They try to make this arrangement work, but it is difficult, and puts an increasing strain on their marriage. Infidelity, health issues, alcohol, pills, and class differences all become factors. It is hard not to sympathize with both characters, especially since it is clear that their relationship is deep and meaningful (although one of them is, at least on the surface, more at fault than the other one regarding their difficulties). But the novel reminds us that sometimes love and history together are just not enough. This is a beautifully written, absorbing, and sad exploration of love and marriage.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

And the Winner Is....Kazuo Ishiguro!

Just announced as the winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Literature is Kazuo Ishiguro, the British writer of such novels as "The Remains of the Day" (which was made into a critically acclaimed movie starring Anthony Hopkins) and "Never Let Me Go," as well as five other novels. The Swedish Academy describes his novels as "uncover[ing] the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world." One official of the Academy, Sara Danius, says that Ishiguro is "a writer of great integrity," and intriguingly describes him as a mixture of Jane Austen, Franz Kafka, and Marcel Proust. The New York Times lists his themes as "the fallibility of memory, mortality and the porous nature of time." Adjectives commonly used about his work include "restrained," "reserved," and "fastidious." The choice of Ishiguro was a bit of a surprise (other writers who had been considered more likely to win included Margaret Atwood, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Haruki Murakami, and Salman Rushdie) but a welcome one by most commentators. Some are particularly glad to see a return to a more traditionally literary author, after last year's contentious choice of Bob Dylan. Interestingly, Ishiguro, a sometime songwriter, has been quoted as saying his hero is Bob Dylan!

Saturday, September 30, 2017

"Do Not Become Alarmed," by Maile Meloy

Last time I posted about a rather predictable and only mildly amusing “travel” novel, “The Last Laugh.” The “travel” novel I write about today is much less predictable, much more gripping and suspenseful. “Do Not Become Alarmed” (Riverhead, 2017), by the well-regarded Maile Meloy, tells of two families who take a cruise together from the U.S. into Central America. The families, two couples with two children each, are related, and the trip is planned as a change of pace and healing distraction for one of the women, whose mother has died recently. At first everyone is excited about the luxuries and variety of activities on the ship, and the sense of adventure they feel. But one day soon, they take a day trip into an unnamed country, and suddenly everything goes horribly awry. The children, along with two adolescents they have met on the ship, disappear. (This has been mentioned in every review of the book that I have read, and happens early on, so this is not a spoiler.) The rest of the book consists of how the children deal with being lost and falling into the wrong hands, and how the parents panic and do everything they can to find the children, but feel horribly helpless and overwhelmed with fear and grief. The stories are told alternately. To tell the truth, when I initially read the reviews that revealed this plot, I thought I would not be able to bear to read the book, but somehow I changed my mind and read it after all, and am glad I did. It is in fact painful to read in some parts, but the story is so vivid, so well told, with such interesting characters and plot developments, that it completely captured my attention. Clearly it has done the same for many other readers, as it has been on some bestseller lists. Meloy is a gifted writer.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

"The Last Laugh," by Lynn Freed

Lynn Freed’s novel “The Last Laugh” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017) is a sort of slightly dispiriting, rather self-conscious making-fun-of-the-genre romp. Three women friends in their late sixties with backgrounds in South Africa, Europe, and the United States decide to live on a Greek island together for a year. They (or at least two of them) decide they have outlived passion and men, and are also tired of the complications of their grown children’s lives; they just want to take a break from all that and enjoy the pleasures of Greece with good friends, good food, sunshine, and the other cliches about this kind of adventure. Of course real life intervenes in the form of badly-timed family visits, love affairs, a bit of jealousy, and more. I kept thinking of the most famous older (early 20th century) example of this genre, “Enchanted April” (about which I posted on 12/20/14), and how lovely it was, although (because?) it was set in an earlier time. At one point, one of the characters in Freed’s novel alludes to “Enchanted April” as unrealistic. Perhaps “The Last Laugh” is more realistic, but it is also clumsier and more self-consciously whimsical. It is a quick, fun read but rather forgettable.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

"The Burning Girl," by Claire Messud

Fiction about young girls and their friendships is important, and I am happy to find such novels when they take those girls and those friendships seriously. Claire Messud, an undeniably serious writer (see, for example, “The Emperor’s Children” and “The Woman Upstairs,” the latter of which I posted about here on 5/29/13), has written about such a friendship in “The Burning Girl” (W.W. Norton, 2017). The narrator, Julia, looks back on her long, intense childhood friendship with Cassie, a friendship that ended four years earlier in late middle school when the two drifted away from each other and then experienced a dreadful event that brought them together in a way that their friendship could not survive. The two girls had always been extremely close, despite somewhat different family backgrounds. They felt they could almost read each other's minds. Julia’s family is more traditional; her loving parents are still married and middle-class. Cassie’s single mother is also loving, and a little less middle-class; Cassie's father died when she was very young. Some of the events the two girls go through are the usual ones of early adolescence, but nothing is “usual” about Messud’s dead-on description. The friendship starts to go awry when Cassie first endures the entrance into her life of her mother’s new and controlling boyfriend, and is further derailed as she imagines that her father might still be alive, which belief preoccupies her and leads to trouble. There is also a sort of complicated competition for a boy, Peter. Messud’s achievement in this novel is not so much about the specifics of the plot (although it is a compelling one) as it is about its portrayal of girls’ lives and relationships at that critical and delicate time period when they are emerging from childhood. Adults often do not take the intensity of girls’ (or perhaps of boys’ either) feelings and experiences as seriously as they should. Those adults vaguely remember some of this, but experiences and feelings fade, and we perhaps downplay their importance and their longterm influences on us. We may remember very well that those years were intense, but we can’t really recapture the depths and textures of that intensity, and life moves on. It is both pleasurable and painful to be reminded by this very evocative portrayal of what those years can be like.
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