Thursday, February 11, 2016

"Alive, Alive Oh!", by Diana Athill

I absolutely loved British publisher and writer Diana Athill’s best-known memoirs (out of seven she has now written! but I think only a few of them have been published in the U.S.), “Stet” and “Somewhere Towards the End,” as well as some others of her writings (letters, etc.). Athill, now 98 years old, has had a long, fascinating life working in publishing and living a somewhat unorthodox personal life (unorthodox by the standards of society during her youth and middle age); it has been a pleasure to hear her perspective as a vital older woman. And she is a terrific writer. When I heard she had just published a new memoir, “Alive, Alive Oh!” (Norton, 2016), I was interested, but thought perhaps she wouldn’t have a lot that was new to say. How wrong I was! In “Stet,” she focused on her earlier years and her career and love life, among other topics. In “Somewhere Towards the End,” she wrote frankly about what it is like aging and being an older woman, meanwhile weaving in stories of her past. In this new book, which is divided into several sections (including “My Grandparents’ Garden,” “Post-War,” “Beloved Books,” and a few more), she focuses on different aspects of her life. She says, for example, that in earlier memoirs she has written mostly about people in her life, but as she is deep into her nineties now, she thinks a lot about landscapes, scenes, and gardens in her life; she describes some of them here. She writes about moving into a retirement home, and how she initially didn’t really want to, but did so out of worrying about the friends who would have to take care of her if she didn’t. She discovers, to her surprise, that the new home offers interesting and rewarding new experiences and friendships. When she does look back, she remembers what life was like after World War II; she tells us with scrupulous and painful candidness about a time she was unexpectedly pregnant, agonized about what to do, decided to keep the baby, and then lost it to miscarriage; she muses on how quickly the British Empire fell apart; she writes about what she learned during her time living in Tobago, and is particularly astute about race, including writing thoughtfully but pointedly about the self-congratulatory and condescending attitudes of white Europeans living there and “helping” the inhabitants of the island; other topics are equally intriguing, and she is equally thoughtful and incisive about them. This book, like the earlier ones, is engaging, thoughtful, fresh, and beautifully written. We get a real sense of Athill’s personality, character, temperament, opinions, preferences, and life. And although she is now 98, I would never say this book is “good, considering how old the author is”; not at all; in fact, it is excellent coming from any author, at any age. And we readers benefit from her experience, her hard-won wisdom, and her ability to write compellingly about it all. I hope she will write more memoirs!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Which Words in Blurbs Attract You to a Book?

I’ve written before that certain words in book reviews and book blurbs attract me, and certain others are almost always deal-breakers for me. I imagine you have the same experience with blurbs. Here’s an example of words used in a full-page ad for the novel “The Vegetarian,” by Han Kang (I saw it in The New York Times Book Review, 2/7/16, p. 5). I don’t know anything else about the book than what I saw in the ad, which contained blurbs from various authors. The words in the blurbs that were positive for me: beautiful, unsettling, terrific, complex, scarily familiar, incredible, stunningly moving, searing, painfully tender. The words in the ad that turned my interest off, at least to some extent: violence, terrifying, surrealism, Kafka, strange. Of course if I read an actual review, or leaf through the book at a bookstore or library, I will have a better sense of the balance of these elements, and a better sense of whether it is a book I might want to read. (P.S. After I wrote this, I noticed that there is a review of the book later in the same issue of The New York Times Book Review. I read the review, and it sounds well written, powerful, and very depressing. I think it might be the kind of book I would admire but not enjoy.)

Thursday, February 4, 2016

More on the Reading Group, Still Thriving

After a hiatus of many months, a delay that just sort of happened rather than being intentional, the longtime Reading Group of which I am a part met last Sunday. Martha was our host, as always creating a warm and inviting place and afternoon for us. We shared wine, appetizers, and a delicious meal, while we talked and talked, catching up on everyone’s lives. Since we hadn’t met for a long time, we didn’t have a particular assigned book this time, but rather each person shared what she had been reading lately, and exchanged ideas of what else we could read. I have written here about this Reading Group on 1/26/10 and 1/8/12, and now want to write about it again because it is such a privilege and pleasure to be part of this wonderful group of six women, and I want to acknowledge and celebrate it once again. The group has now existed for decades, in evolving forms, and with some changes over the years, and has throughout been an ongoing mix of talk, books, and sharing of our lives, book-related and otherwise. I sometimes marvel at what we have created with this group: a rare and treasured community with much history. Our gatherings and our talks are pure joy. We look forward to many more years, many more meetings, many more books, and many more conversations.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

San Francisco Chronicle's book blog: Bookmarks

Although I have seen mention of the San Francisco Chronicle’s book blog, titled Bookmarks, almost every week in the Sunday book section, I have never actually checked it out until now. I like the topics there; they are a mixture of San Francisco Bay Area topics and national ones. The most recent post tells the sad story of the closing of Black Oak books in Berkeley, after 33 years. The post points out that even though independent bookstores are now, after a steep decline, holding their own, there are still closures, especially because such bookstores often operate on a very narrow profit margin. If you are interested, and especially if you live in the SF Bay Area, check it out at

Blog "Follower" Issues

Google has informed me that it no longer supports “followers” who follow from non-Google sources. If you are one of those who got “cut” as a follower in the past few days (I don’t know if you got any notice of this or not), you can either rejoin through Google, or just continue to read the blog as before, and even comment if you like, without “following.” And you can always contact me directly at with questions or comments. Let me take this opportunity to say thanks very much to all of you who read the blog, either as official "followers" or not, and either regularly or occasionally.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Library and Bookstore Conversations

I love the random conversations that occasionally spontaneously arise in bookstores or libraries. Just the other day, a man at the self-service checkout machine next to mine at my local library (sometimes I use the self-service if the librarians at the front desk are busy) looked over at the books I was checking out, and enthusiastically exclaimed, “Oh, you are going to read ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’! I just came from a reading by the editor of that book, Stephen Emerson, who is a friend of mine. You are going to love the book!” We exchanged a few more sentences, and I left the library feeling that small but enjoyable glow of connection around shared book conversations, long or brief as they may be. Over the years I have had several of these brief, spontaneous conversations with other patrons of the library, other customers in bookstores, and with librarians and booksellers. There is always that same spark of connection. The topics don’t have to be profound; once a woman next to me at the bookshelves in a bookstore and I started laughing at the same time, because we were both in that familiar, identical, and parallel crouch with our heads turned sideways, reading the titles of books on the lower shelves. We had a chuckle and a brief conversation about this common bookstore posture, just one of those little experiences shared by frequent bookstore habitu├ęs. These brief book-and-reading-related conversations definitely brighten a booklover’s day!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"What Belongs to You," by Garth Greenwell

Lori Ostlund, author of the recent, wonderful, and very well-received novel “After the Parade” (see my post of 10/19/15), a few weeks ago recommended Garth Greenwell’s new novel, “What Belongs To You” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) (my first 2016 title!). Since I value and trust Ostlund’s recommendations, I got and read the book. It is the story of an American man who seems to be in late youth or early middle age teaching English in Sofia, Bulgaria. He is gay, and the main focus of the novel is his meeting with and ongoing relationship with Mitko, a young hustler. Although the nameless main character and narrator pays Mitko for sex, they develop a further connection that is hard to define. There is lust, a kind of indefinable love, and a sort of friendship, yet there is still and always a transactional nature to their meetings and their complicated intertwined lives over a couple of years. There is an element of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” story. Although those two stories, and the main characters, and the degree and type of connection between them, are all different, there is a common element of an older man from another country longing for and mesmerized by, even obsessed by, a beautiful younger man (boy, in the case of Mann's story) in the country he is visiting. Greenwell demonstrates how hard it is to categorize relationships. He also reminds us of how our heads and our hearts and our libidos sometimes lead in very different directions, and reconciling them is nearly impossible. All of this takes place in the beautiful but also sad and crumbling country of Bulgaria, where most of the young people feel they need to leave the country in order to have a life. The character of Mitko is an original, both very physical and transparent and yet mysterious and unpredictable as well. Despite his charismatic and gregarious personality, he doesn’t seem to find a way to settle into life; he drinks far too much, and is often semi-homeless, impoverished, and disconnected. Greenwell writes beautifully and evocatively about identity, sexuality, being an outsider in a country far from one’s own, and wondering what one is doing and where one is heading in life. I can’t say I “liked” the book, but I found it quite compelling.
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