Monday, August 18, 2014

National Medal of Arts for Maxine Hong Kingston

How wonderful it is that Maxine Hong Kingston was just awarded the National Medal of Arts! It was presented to her by President Obama in a ceremony at the White House on July 28, 2014. I can still remember what a tremendous, exhilarating breakthrough the publication of her first novel, “The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts,” was. It was one of the first novels by a Chinese American writer, and one of an even smaller number of novels by Chinese American women writers. But it was a true first in being a huge success with critics and with the public. Nowadays we are very accustomed to reading fiction by authors of a wide variety of ethnicities, so it is hard to cast our minds back to when this was not so, but when “The Woman Warrior” was published in 1976, fiction by minority writers was rarely published, and certainly not to wide acclaim. Hong Kingston’s work paved the way for that of Amy Tan and many other writers of other-than-Caucasian ethnicities, and especially for women of these ethnicities. Reading “The Woman Warrior” was a heady and illuminating experience for readers; I still remember the shock and excitement of learning about Chinese and Chinese American culture, portrayed with a combination of realistic and magic/mythic stories that were captivating, frightening, and inspiring in turn. And these stories were feminist: they focused on women’s lives. They portrayed the strict limitations under which women lived their lives, as well as the creativity and life force that helped women to survive, and occasionally thrive. Maxine Hong Kingston has also written other novels and nonfiction works, as well as being a longtime (now retired) professor at Berkeley and a frequent speaker. Her writing has made a difference, and she truly deserves the National Medal she has just received.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Mourning the Deaths of Great Writers

Author Thomas Berger died on July 13, just days before his 90th birthday. He is best known as the author of “Little Big Man,” which was later made into a movie starring Dustin Hoffman. Although Berger was a highly regarded writer, and although I mourn his loss as I mourn the loss of all excellent writers, he is not one I read much. But his death reminds me of something I have been noticing lately: the gradually increasing numbers of deaths of writers I “always” knew about and often read, and whom I thought – on some magical level – would be alive and writing forever. Being a reader of a “certain age” myself – let’s say late middle age – I obviously understand mortality. But it still comes as a blow and even a surprise every time I read about the death of one the great writers of our time. Even in the four and a half years I have been writing this blog, I have written “R.I.P.” posts about several of these great writers (who of course are only a small number of all the writers who have died even during that time). These writers about whom I posted because I had read and particularly admired their work include Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, Maya Angelou, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Vance Bourjaily, and Shulamith Firestone. Other important writers who died in 2014 include Peter Matthieson, the wonderful poet Maxine Kumin, and the great Canadian short story writer, Mavis Gallant. Notable deaths in 2013 include those of Seamus Heaney, Ellen Douglas, and Chinua Achebe. I am writing here, though, not simply to list these deaths, although I always value a chance to pay tribute to great writers. Here I am focusing on how our (e.g., readers’) place in life, in the sweep and flow of history, is marked partly by observing those who go ahead of us, whether family members and friends, or authors who sometimes seem like family members and friends because we feel (although this isn’t necessarily true) that we know them through their work. It is always a shock to be reminded of their mortality, and by extension, of our own.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Book Clubs

What’s almost as good as reading books? Why, talking about books! This came to mind when I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle (7/24/14, p. E1) about a book club of gay men in San Francisco. The club is composed of men from 29 to 75, of a range of professions; the common thread is that they all, in various ways, have worked for gay causes, whether as activists, health care professionals, educators, writers, artists, or fundraisers (among other roles). Some of them have been friends and colleagues for decades; the book group itself started 12 years ago. They read a variety of books: fiction, biographies, memoirs, books on historical or political topics, and more. They meet over dinners at members’ houses, thus combining the joys of reading, talking, dining, and enjoying compatible company. Reading about this group reminded me of the importance and pleasure of gatherings of groups, groups with histories, to talk about books and ideas, sharing experiences and ideas. I believe in the power of book groups in general, but such groups are even more powerful communities if they also represent common identities and interests. (Of course there is always, and should be, room for different opinions.) I have written here about the power and joys of book groups, and about the groups I have been part of. In fact, one of my very first posts on this blog (1/26/10) was about a reading group I have been part of for three and a half decades. Book clubs, reading groups, or variations of these exist in many forms, but in all cases, they provide wonderful opportunities to talk about books and ideas, and to form or reinforce communities and connections.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

"Funny Once," by Antonya Nelson

I have written here about how, although the novel is my most-loved literary form, I also very much enjoy and appreciate short stories. But I seem not to have read many short story collections in recent months, until the past three weeks or so, when I (without planning or intending to in any conscious way) read, and posted about here, two such collections -- Hester Kaplan’s “Unravished” and Francesca Marciano’s “The Other Language” -- and now have read and am posting about Antonya Nelson’s “Funny Once” (Bloomsbury, 2014). I also re-read (actually listenied to on CD) Alice Munro’s collection, “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.” “Funny Once” is both funny and sad. This is something I would say about other books I have read by Nelson, including the two I have read since I started this blog: “Bound” (which I posted about on 10/28/10) and “Living to Tell” (posted about on 12/12/13). Many of her characters meander through life, either directionless or powerless or alienated or drinking too much or some combination of the above. This is especially true in the last and longest story in this collection, “Three Wishes,” which is also perhaps the most wrenching one. It starts with three loving but stumbling-through-life adult siblings taking their father to a “home” because of his dementia. (As an aside, I notice that several books I have read just lately happen to include a focus on characters with dementia.) Son Hugh, in his late thirties, still lives in the house where he grew up; daughter Hannah is very competent but feels something is missing, and splits up with her perfectly good husband; youngest daughter Holly lacks confidence about how to live an adult life and raise her young son, who is preternaturally mature and appears to mostly raise himself. They all still feel the long shadow of their oldest brother Hamish’s somewhat mysterious death some twenty years ago. Hugh and Hannah both depend far too much on alcohol to get them through life. Despite all the depressing aspects of this story, we see the characters draw love and strength from each other.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

More on Alice Munro

Regular readers of this blog know that I – like so many others, including the Nobel Prize committee – love and admire Alice Munro’s fiction, especially her short stories. I recently listened to a collection I had already read more than ten years ago, “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” (BBC Audiobooks America, 2002), and was just as entranced with and impressed by it this time as I was last time. What can I say that I haven’t already said about Munro’s insightfulness about human nature, carefully observed details, surprises around some corners, and fine, fine writing? Perhaps the strongest story is the last and longest, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain.” It is a love story, a story of the ways love and marriage change with time, especially in the various contexts of one’s surrounding society. And the love story becomes an even more complicated one when wife Fiona is affected by dementia and falls in love with another man, not her husband, at the institution where she has moved, and husband Grant finds himself facilitating that love because it makes Fiona happy. This Munro story was made into a terrific 2007 film, “Away From Her,” starring Julie Christie. To show that life, once again, is not so very different from fiction: Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor faced a similar situation at about the same time, when her husband, affected by Alzheimer’s, fell in love with another woman; O’Connor stood by him, and even felt happy that his newfound love pulled him out of the depression he had been suffering. Getting back to this story collection: I recommend it as one of Munro’s best, which is to say: the best of the best.

Friday, August 1, 2014

"Fallout," by Sadie Jones

The English author Sadie Jones’ new novel “Fallout” (Harper, 2014), like her earlier novel “The Uninvited Guests” (about which I posted on 6/26/12), has an air of strangeness, of slight removal from real life. In the case of the earlier novel, this was partly because of an obvious unreality, a sort of magical realism. But in the case of “Fallout,” there are no ghosts, no unbelievable events; there is simply a sense that the events happened far in the past, or in a different land. In fact, the novel is set in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly in London. The main characters – Luke, Paul, Leigh, and Nina – are young people starting off in the theater world: Luke is a writer; Paul is a producer; Nina is an actress; Leigh is both an actress and a theater administrator. The four of them are very close, and have romantic, sexual, friendship, and business connections in various combinations at various times. Some of these relationships are extremely intense, but they sometimes end suddenly, sometimes for explicable and sometimes for rather inexplicable reasons. There are also, beneath-the-surface fluctuations of relationships, subterranean connections, longings, tensions. These four characters are intensely compelling, especially Luke, the son of a vivid but mentally ill mother who has spent most of her life in an asylum. Luke is brilliant, charismatic, attractive, and a strange combination of focused and mercurial. The novel reminds me of an extended balletic sequence featuring four dancers in various scenes and in various combinations. The novel is powerful yet somehow keeps the reader at arms length; it is not clear to me if this is intentional on the part of the author or not. In any case, the novel stitches together what could be clich├ęd theater elements with original and compelling portrayals and plot turns. The reader is kept a little off-center throughout; this is not a novel to sink into with a sigh of comfort (and that’s okay). It is a novel that I believe will stay in my mind for some time, as has Jones’ earlier novel, “The Uninvited Guests.”

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"The Arsonist," by Sue Miller

I have read most of Sue Miller’s novels over the years, and I can’t remember ever reading one that didn’t catch me up and keep me reading. “The Arsonist” (Knopf, 2014) is no exception. I gave over most of a recent Sunday to reading this engrossing novel; my long to-do list went by the wayside that day. I never start off – with Miller’s or any other novels – thinking I will read all day, but somehow “just one more chapter,” and “just a little longer” somehow becomes “how did several hours just slip away?” “The Arsonist” is about many topics – arson, fear, mystery, family, new love, Alzheimer’s, Africa, aid work, small towns, summer homes, the tensions between townspeople and summer people, and more – but a unifying theme is finding hope in the midst of loss. The main character, Frankie, has decided after 15 years of aid work in Africa to come home, perhaps for good. She is staying at her family’s summer home in New Hampshire, where she is trying to figure out her next steps; there she starts to tentatively become involved with a local man. The novel's title refers to the fact that over a dozen families in the area lose their homes to suspicious fires. Meanwhile, Frankie's father, Alfie, is losing his memory and appears to have Alzheimer’s. Her mother, Sylvia, is dealing with acknowledging that she stopped loving her husband years ago, long before the dementia began. The young man Tink has had a desolate childhood and lives alone in a mobile home on a beautiful but isolated plateau. Others have their own stories of loss. But there are also so many human connections, so much community, and so much kindness, and these at least sometimes ameliorate the losses.
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