Friday, July 22, 2016

The Enchanting "Enchanted August," by Brenda Bowen

The word “enchanted” is itself enchanting and appealing. At the library recently, in the new books section, a colorful cover with the title “Enchanted August” (Viking, 2015) exerted its magic on me even before I even realized that it was a modern retelling of the itself enchanting 1922 novel,“Enchanted April” (about which I posted here on12/20/14). That novel was by Elizabeth von Arnim, about four English women who don’t know each other but band together to rent a castle in Italy by the water for a month. The current novel, by Brenda Bowen, is set in the present, and the castle becomes a huge “cottage” on an island in Maine. The four (American) co-renters are three women and an elderly gay man. Although the two novels take place almost a century apart, the dynamics are similar: at first, the co-tenants are awkward with each other, angle for the best rooms, get annoyed at each other at times, try to keep their distance from each other. But the place works its magic, and they take care of each other in various ways, and there is joy and healing. Other characters who enter the story at various times include the owner of the cottage, two husbands, three children, and various local people. An added appeal for me is its “take a small group of people and put them in a fairly confined space and see what time reveals” aspect, of which readers of this blog may remember that I am quite fond. This novel tells a delightful story, and is a lovely variation on the usual “summer” story; although told with a light touch, it shares thoughtful if not particularly original insights about what is important in life. Highly recommended for anyone looking for enjoyable summer reading that doesn’t make you feel it is a “guilty pleasure” (not that there is anything wrong with that!).

Sunday, July 17, 2016

"Goodnight, Beautiful Women," by Anna Noyes

The blurbs for Anna Noyes’ small book of short stories, “Goodnight, Beautiful Women” (Grove Press, 2016) are extravagant, using words and phrases such as the following: precise, fearless, breathtaking, terrible grace, enthralling, a revelation, singular, has the gift, mesmerizing, one of America’s most exciting young writers, wrenching, funny, deeply sensuous, seductive, a book to fall in love with…. I did like the stories, mainly, but I feel the blurbs are truly over the top. Yes, yes, that is what blurbs are generally like, and one should generally take them with a grain of salt. However, this seems like an extreme case. But maybe I noticed this excessiveness more because I was already somewhat uncomfortable with some of the stories. I am trying to figure out why. It can’t be because some of the characters push the boundaries a bit too much, can it? Or is it because of the many of the characters are poor, and it is uncomfortable to read about poverty, or near-poverty? But I have read, enjoyed, and praised many novels and short stories about this class status. Could it be because some of the young women are at that strange cusp between childhood and adult womanhood, and their love affairs and adventures are a little disturbing at times? But I don’t think of myself as easily disturbed, or as prudish. (And, to be clear, although some of the stories are somewhat erotic, they are not unusually so for mainstream fiction.) Am I too old for these stories? But I have always read and enjoyed stories about characters of all different ages and places in life. Now I am feeling uncomfortable about feeling uncomfortable. What has gotten under my skin about this collection? Is the issue with the stories or with me?

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

"Vinegar Girl," by Anne Tyler

It seems that there are more and more books that are fictional retellings of famous literary works from the past. I have written here about the fact that many of Jane Austen’s novels, for example, have been retold in modern settings. I have just read a very new such retelling, in this case of Shakespeare’s play “The Taming of the Shrew’: this version is called “Vinegar Girl” (Hogarth, 2016), and is authored by the inestimable Anne Tyler. Apparently it is part of a planned larger project by Hogarth. Kate Battista, an American woman of thirty, is unmarried, and has a job as a preschool assistant teacher that she doesn’t particularly like. She lives with her father and her much younger sister, taking care of them and the house; her mother has died many years ago. She feels a bit at sea in her own life. The main plot point is that her father, a scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, wants her to marry his research assistant so he can extend his visa to stay in the United States. Kate is of course resistant, and angry at her father. She, like the original Kate, doesn’t care about pleasing everyone, thus the “vinegar” in the title. I won’t give away the rest of the story, although you may be able to guess it. The story is told with Tyler’s familiar verve and warmth. It will be of interest to see which other Shakespeare plays will be retold by writers of today; stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

"They May Not Mean To, But They Do," by Cathleen Schine

The title “They May Not Mean To, But They Do” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) is a reference to Philip Larkin’s famous poem: “They f--- you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do.” The irony in this novel by Cathleen Schine is that the parents and children mess (to use a more polite term than Larkin did) each other up, yet always with love. Impatience and exasperation, yes; resentment, sometimes; misunderstandings, definitely. But always love. Schine is the author of several other novels, including two that I have written about here: “The Three Weissmanns of Westport” (see my post of 4/11/10) and “Fin and Lady” (7/28/13). Schine has a distinctive, observant, wry, humorous, occasionally sharp voice, and she understands the nuances of relationships among family members. In this case, the parents are elderly; Aaron Bergman is suffering from increasing dementia as well as various unpleasant physical ailments, and his wife Joy is exhausted from taking care of him at their apartment in New York. Their daughter Molly has moved to California with her female lover, Freddie, and worries about her parents from afar, calling and visiting frequently; their son Daniel lives in New York too, and he is attentive, but he has a job and a family that limit the time and help he can give his parents. The situation is painful and poignant in its specificity, but also in its obvious relevance to an increasing number of people these days. Everyone is of good will, but there is no way that this situation is not very hard. Yet somehow the novel is not (very) depressing, probably because of the aforementioned love the family members have for each other, and because of the affirmation of the pleasures of life even in the midst of this serious situation. Schine is adept at showing all sides of this situation, and at the same time at not making this a one-issue novel.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Recent Developments in the Bookstore Arena

Readers know that I am a great supporter of independent bookstores, was sad and worried when many of them went out of business, and was encouraged when their numbers recently went back up a bit. Two recent related articles are of interest. The first, by Alex Shephard for The New Republic, says that the huge chain Barnes and Noble is in financial trouble and may close some or all of its stores. Shephard writes that although some of us independent bookstores supporters may be tempted to rejoice, we should not do so; B and N’s closing, if it happens, will hurt the publishing business. The chain can order large numbers of books, which contributes to the publishers’ being able to publicize the books more widely, support author book tours, etc., all good for the book business. Books in certain robust genres with hard-core fans, such as romance and science fiction, would be less affected by a closing than would “literary” fiction. A second related article, on The Literary Hub (a site which, by the way, I recommend), points out another (more positive) trend: some indie publishers are now starting indie bookstores. Several examples were given, including Melville House Publishing’s opening a bookstore in Brooklyn in 2008. The other examples were more recent, or were still in the planning stages. This is certainly an encouraging trend.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories," by Elizabeth Harrower

I am embarrassed to say that I excitedly felt I had “discovered” the Australian writer Elizabeth Harrower when I picked up her novel “In Certain Circles” and was so very taken by it. (See my post of 1/24/15). My only excuse is that Harrower is in her late eighties; her books were out of print for a long time even in her native Australia, until a press republished them starting in 2012; in the case of “In Certain Circles,” Harrower wrote it and just as it was about to be published, withheld it from publication for almost fifty years, before she finally agreed to publish it, to great acclaim, in 2014; and her books were mostly not available or at all well known in the United States until the past couple of years. I am so glad she is being rediscovered. I have now just read the recently published collection of Harrower’s short stories, “A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories” (Text Publishing, 2015), and am grateful for this gift of her stories. Although I prefer the novel to the short stories, and although the collection is a bit uneven, as such collections often are, there is much to rejoice about and to enjoy in this volume. The stories’ main quality is their unflinching looks at characters’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and at the way the characters interact with family members, friends, lovers, co-workers, and in fact with life itself. Most of the characters are women, and most of them are unhappy, although there are moments of hope. Several of the stories portray the ways that people who love each other can deeply hurt each other, sometimes without even realizing it, because of their own limitations. We also see how constrained the lives of young people, especially young women, can be. Occasionally we get a sense of the desperation of people who live in certain dreary small towns of Australia (but they could be small towns anywhere). There is a grimness to some of the lives depicted. But despite all these darker aspects of the stories, there are almost always glimpses of, and eruptions of, a powerful life force.

Friday, June 24, 2016

"Genius," a Film about Editing (and Much More)

The minute I heard about the new film “Genius,” I was determined to see it, and soon after, I did. This movie depicts the relationship of the novelist Thomas Wolfe (played by Jude Law) and his Scribner’s editor, Maxwell Perkins (played by Colin Firth). To those of us readers who think of the creation of a literary work as an almost holy process, any insights into this process are a great gift. As is fairly well known, Wolfe was a wildly creative and seemingly undisciplined writer with an outsized personality who brought in enormous manuscripts, was very attached to his own words, and kept adding to them up to the last minute. His manuscript for “Look Homeward, Angel” had been rejected by over forty publishers when Perkins accepted it for Scribner’s. Then the two men embarked on a long, difficult process of editing it, cutting it down to a reasonable length. Much of the film shows the two in Perkins’ office, or walking, or on the train, or in various other locales, constantly talking and arguing about each phrase, each sentence, each description. Perkins was mostly endlessly patient with this brilliant but uncontainable author, and they became friends; some suggested they had an almost father-son relationship. The big question, of course, and Perkins himself brought this up at one point, is what the job of an editor is, and whether his (at that point, in the 1930s, it was always a “he”) editing made the work much better, or molded it in a way that diluted the original strength, vision, and style of the author. We also see Perkins’ family (his wife is played by Laura Linney), and Wolfe’s lover and inspiration Aline Bernstein (played by Nicole Kidman). Aline left her family for a passionate and deep relationship with Wolfe; ultimately, though, Wolfe’s allegiance was always first and foremost to his writing, and he left people behind along the way. Perkins also edited F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and there are a few scenes with those writers as well, showing the competitiveness and jockeying for reputation (and for Perkins’ favor) that took place among the three writers. The movie has received somewhat mixed reviews, as has the acting. Jude Law is accused of overacting, and Colin Firth of being too restrained. There are also complaints about British and Australian actors playing American literary figures. And some say it is just too hard to make s story about editing dramatic and interesting; it has been called "slow." To all of which I say (forgive my informality), “Whatever!” I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, the acting, the literary history, and the glimpses into the writing and editing and publishing processes, and I think you will too.
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