Wednesday, July 19, 2017

"The Heirs," by Susan Rieger

“The Heirs” (Crown, 2017), by Susan Rieger, is another compelling novel about family, the kind I like, but a rather chilly one. Not chilling (there is suspense, but not of the scary variety), but chilly. This is mainly because several of the main characters are rather contained, with their own secrets, and their belief that one doesn’t make a fuss or show too much feeling, and one certainly doesn’t have to tell everyone (even one’s own spouse) everything. Rupert Falkes, who was an orphan in England but was able to get a good education and make some good connections, arrives in New York with not much money, but eventually makes his way, and marries the lovely and witty Eleanor. Rupert is successful, the couple has five talented sons, and the family makes a good and very comfortable life (big apartment, private schools and Princeton educations for the children, etc.) for themselves in Manhattan. But when Rupert dies after decades of marriage, a woman claims she had an affair with him a long time ago, and had two sons by him; she sues his estate for what she claims is their share of his money. (This happens very early in the novel, not to mention being the first thing on the front cover flap, so I am definitely not giving away too much of the plot here!) Eleanor takes this with surprising poise, but some of her sons are more upset. This surprising event brings many stresses to the fore, although despite it all, the family stays strong. Gradually the past becomes clearer, and of course it is more complicated than any one side of the story. I found this novel carried me along with interest; the writing is very good, and the author clearly is in complete control of her gifts and of the story. The descriptions of Manhattan and life in the upper middle class there seem to me spot on (of course what I know about that is based on a few visits over the years but mostly on all the many novels set in Manhattan that I have read!). So yes, “The Heirs” features slightly chilly characters, but a satisfying story with enjoyable twists and turns. The front flap copy concludes that this novel “is a tale out of Edith Wharton for the twenty-first century”; I wouldn’t go that far, but there is a whiff of truth in that claim.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Beautiful Book Gifts from a Dear Friend

My wonderful friend B., whom I have known for a very long time, and who knows so much about literature, is downsizing, and last week gave me some beautiful books from her shelves. She had carefully chosen, among a set of beautifully bound and embossed classics, ones she knew I would like, such as “Jane Eyre,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Anna Karenina,” “Vanity Fair,” and “Madame Bovary.” I have read each of these more than once, in different editions, at different times in my life, and hope to read each of them again. It is special to have these impressive volumes of several of my favorites close at hand. I am honored to be the new caretaker of these gorgeous books, and of course they mean even more to me because they were B.’s and because she shared them with me. They now have a space in one of my bookcases, along with some books B. gave me earlier (volumes of the very comprehensive, informative and fascinating Oxford History of English Literature series). These books remind me of the great love of literature that B. and I share; what a bond it is!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

"This Must Be the Place," by Maggie O'Farrell

I love short stories and the occasional nonfiction book (memoirs, etc.), both of which I have been reading lately, but it is always good to get back to novels; novels feel like home. Exciting, different, familiar, loud, quiet, attention-grabbing, subtle versions of home, yes. But home. Maggie O’Farrell’s novel, “This Must Be the Place” (Knopf, 2016) has original (but familiar too) characters, intriguing relationships among the characters, and a satisfyingly unpredictable plot that in the end makes sense. The writing is masterful, without showing off or drawing too much attention to itself. I don’t want to say too much about the plot or risk giving away any of the secrets. But here’s a taste: the main character, Daniel, an academic, spends his life going back and forth among New York, California, and Ireland. He has two sets of children in two places far apart, and has been devastated by not being able to see one set for many years. He loves his wife and younger children now, but there is a huge secret about his family that has to stay hidden, and this secret dominates much of their lives. There is also another secret about his past, regarding his first true love, that he is suddenly reminded of and feels he has to investigate, a secret that intersects with his current life as well. As in most of my favorite novels, though, the important things are the characters, and marriage and family, and how intricately different they are in many ways, yet so similar in other ways. O’Farrell manages a beautiful balance between the unpredictable and surprising, on the one hand, and the known and recognizable, on the other. This is a rich, full novel that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

"Living in the Weather of the World," by Richard Bausch

I have not read a lot by Richard Bausch, the novelist and short story writer (and occasional poet), but what I have read (mainly short stories), I have liked. I recently finished reading his latest short story collection, “Living in the Weather of the World” (Knopf, 2017). Great title, right? Bausch’s characters are very realistic, but caught up in odd sorts of situations. A police officer and the man who held him up at gunpoint end up talking about their difficult marriages; what is fascinating is that the assailant’s disintegrating marriage and his devastation are the focus of the story, rather than the crime he commits. A wife leaves her husband because of his affair; he is shocked and overwhelmed; he tells his mistress and it turns out she is about to leave him as well. Ah, the irony! A man fields a phone call from his suicidal mistress in the middle of the night, with his sleeping wife nearby; this reader finds herself torn about whom she is supposed to sympathize with. A wife discovers her own straying husband when the hospital calls and says he is in ICU; she thought he was at a movie with his brother, but apparently he was with his mistress. So there is a lot about marriage and a lot about infidelity in these stories. Depressing, but interesting. Also: A man meets his half sister, whom he hasn’t seen since she was a child. A 99-year-old man is reunited with the German soldier who saved his life 72 years earlier. And so on. The intriguing events certainly hold our interest, but as always, for me, it is the portrayals of the characters and their interactions (including marriage) that most capture my attention (and admiration, in the case of a gifted writer such as Bausch). The author has just the right distance from the characters – involved, but with a necessary wariness as well. He is also a master of dialogue.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Blogging as a Feminist Reader

I compose my blog posts as an individual, as a woman, and as a feminist. (As we know, the latter two categories overlap but are not the same; some women are not feminists, and some men are.) I am pretty sure that those who have read this blog with any frequency will have noticed that I read and post about substantially more books by women than by men. And I often discuss in my posts a writer’s status as a feminist, or the feminist perspectives of certain books. (A quick search in the search box in the top lefthand corner of this blog will show numerous uses of the words “feminist” and “feminism.”) As a feminist reader, I am drawn (although of course not exclusively) to books by women writers, and/or with women main characters. I think about which gender messages the book sends. I think about how the book contributes to the larger history and culture of literature by women and literature in general. Of course I read and appreciate good books by male writers, and especially appreciate them if they seem to have a feminist sensibility, by which I mean they include women characters as people, not as marginal characters or accessories to the main story, or worse. But for so many years, especially during my childhood and young adulthood, most books that were available, and that we read in school, or that were recommended to us as classics, as “the best,” were by male writers. So in a sense I have been, in my own reading, in my teaching, and in my blogging, evening the balance ever since. I am very glad that more women are writing and being published and read. But reports from writers and women’s organizations show that there is still discrimination in the publishing world, such as in the ways books (and other literary works – stories, poems, essays) are chosen, labeled, marketed, reviewed, and awarded prizes. (For information on this, I recommend the organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, especially its annual counts of representation of women in literary magazines, etc.) So there is still progress to be made. I hope it is clear that I am not prejudiced against books by male writers, or for books by female writers. I just want a balance in their roles in the world of books.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

"My Life with Bob," by Pamela Paul

When I heard that Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, had a new book out about her years of keeping a list of all the books she had read, I was excited. This is something I have done since I was ten years old. This was one of the first topics I wrote about when I started this blog (see my post of 11/24/10, one of three posts I wrote that day; I was eager to get blogging!). A day after that first post, I posted the first 50 and the 50 most recent titles on that list, to give a flavor of my early reading and my current reading. I have always treasured my book list, kept in plain notebooks; I am now on volume 4. Like Pamela Paul, I enter the author’s name and title for each book. She writes the dates by months; I write the date that I begin each new page in the notebook. I also number each book, which she does not, although she says in the book that she wishes she had. I sometimes add the genre of the book (but the default is fiction), or a note if I listened to the book on tape or CD, or, if it is a second or third read, a note to that effect. I have thought of more elaborate notations, perhaps dates of publication, a word or two of evaluation, etc., but decided to keep it simple. Pamela Paul’s book is titled “My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues” (Henry Holt, 2017). So it is a book about a "book book," if I may put it that way. “Bob” is an abbreviation of “Book of Books”; I never thought of giving my list a name. I wonder if it is too late now? I will have to ponder that. Paul started her list a little later than I did – in high school. She has now kept the list for 28 years; I have kept mine for quite a few years more, but I am too vain to tell you the exact number! She treasures Bob, and in this book, tells the story of the list as it illustrates not only her love of books, but also how books have been part of every facet of her life. This is a memoir centered around Paul’s life in books. She says that “Each entry conjures a memory that may have otherwise gotten lost or blurred with time” (p. 4), and I generally have had the same experience, except that I freely admit that there are some books listed that I can’t remember at all. I will use as my excuse the above-mentioned greater length of time I have been keeping a list, along with the greater number of books I read per year than she does, according to her own count (not that this is a competition!). She, like me, notes every book, whether it be a children’s book, great novel, bestseller, beach read, or any other type of book, and I think for both of us this is an important reminder of the breadth of our reading, and of our enjoyment of different genres at different times. We don’t censor by leaving out books we think might not reflect well on us, or might not be “worthy” of being on the list. Of course I noticed, as I read her opinions and explanations about many of the books she read, that -- as might be expected -- we sometimes agreed about certain books and sometimes disagreed. Paul writes about why she read certain books at certain times in her life, and how they connected to her feelings during high school, college, her travels, her various jobs, her career as a writer and editor, her relationships, her family life, and her being a mother. I admire how she weaves together stories of her reading and her life; we all know these are related, but we cannot all explain the connections as well as this author does. She concludes her book with the following words: “When I look through Bob, the actual stories between his mottled covers may have been written by others, but they belong to me now. Nobody else on the planet has read this particular series of books in this exact order and been affected in precisely this way” (p. 240). Agreed!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

"The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories," by Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively’s writing is like an old friend to me, so much so that I almost feel that Lively herself is an old friend. Of course she is not, but I wish she were. She is wise, she is astute, she is funny, she is worldly, she is observant, and she is kind but aware of human failings. I have written frequently about her fiction here, as well as about a memoiristic book. (A quick check through the search box in the top lefthand corner of this blog will give details for those interested.) Lively is 84, has won the Booker Prize and many other awards, and was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She does not seem to have slowed down in writing; I have just read her latest book, “The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories” (Viking, 2016). I was a bit put off by the first story, which is also the title story, because it is historical (not that I am always against historical fiction, but sometimes I am…perhaps a topic for a future blogpost…) and, especially, because it is whimsical. Lively does occasionally dabble in such stories. I am not saying it is a bad story, just that I am not drawn to such stories. But after that first story, I was back with the Penelope Lively that impresses me every time. I have written about her fiction (and memoir) several times, as I mentioned, and don’t have new ways to say how well she writes, how understanding she is of human nature, and how compelling her stories are, generally in a quiet rather than flashy way, but no less compelling for that. There seem to be two main themes in this collection: the mysteries of marriage (and marriage-like relationships) and the complexities of aging. In particular, regarding marriage, Lively explores marriages, or phases of marriages, that are not, or no longer are, at the romantic stages. Characters, especially wives, start to wonder why they married this particular person, and why they feel they don’t really know him (or her) at all, and whether they should or will stay together. There are so many unknown areas, so many misunderstandings. Or sometimes they feel they have become too familiar to (and sometimes bored with) each other. But then, often, there are reminders and there is understanding that there are factors that keep them together: history together, children, small gestures of caring, and more. These stories show the insides of, the nitty-gritty parts of, marriages and relationships, the good, the bad, and – most often – the complex in-between aspects of marriage. As for aging, Lively often (although not only) writes about characters who are in their sixties or seventies or older. They think about their lives, partly assessing where they have been and where they are, partly surprised to think of themselves as old. Sometimes the two themes -- marriages and aging -- meld. These wise, insightful, clear-eyed, compassionate stories are made of the stuff of real life, and I value and enjoy them more than I can say.
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