Friday, October 21, 2016

Enough "Comfort Reading" For Now

I wrote on 9/12/16 about reading several novels that were the equivalent of comfort food: not necessarily very good, and not literary fiction, but enjoyable and easy to read. I give all credit and thanks to these novels (which I did not review on this blog); they provided reliable pleasure and distraction during a difficult time involving a family member’s health. But now I realize I have had my fill of that type of novels, for now at least. The first sign of this was when I noticed myself getting impatient with the sloppiness of the writing itself. In one case, I was listening to the book on CD in my car, and that may have magnified the problems with the writing. I noticed a lot of repetition of certain phrases, way too may extraneous adverbs, and a general talkiness, not to mention excessive use of clich├ęs. Not that I had not been aware of these shortcomings from the beginning, but I was willing to overlook them for their easy comfort value. But that could only last so long. I began to hunger for better writing, and so I have, for now anyway, changed my reading diet back to my usual more literary novels and memoirs.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

On the Attempt to "Out" Elena Ferrante's True Identity

I was upset to hear that an Italian “investigative reporter,” Claudio Gatti, is trying to unmask the identity of Elena Ferrante. Ferrante is a pseudonym for the author of the highly-praised and internationally bestselling Neopolitan Series and other well-received novels. She has given a few interviews, but for the most part has been adamant about preserving her privacy. She feels it allows her to be freer in her writing, and to keep readers focused on her work rather than on her as an author, her appearance, her marital status, and all the other things that readers often want to know about famous writers. But now Gatti has chosen to investigate her identity and to write publicly, first in Italian and then in English, about his conclusions about her true name and identity. (I will not give the name here, as I disagree with this kind of involuntary “outing,” but of course if you really want to know, you can Google it.) Most fellow writers, and many of us readers, are outraged and unhappy about this intrusion on Ferrante's wish for anonymity. Gatti may or may not turn out to be correct, but in any case, it is a sort of violation of Ferrante’s intent, and of her privacy. A sample response from the writer Roxane Gay is her tweet that “You are entitled to curiosity but you aren’t entitled to having your curiosity satisfied.” To add to the outrage, Gatti seems to intimate that the author he identifies may have been aided in her writing by her writer husband. So his actions are not only violations of privacy but also sexist. I know that some people may argue that writers are public persons and don’t have the right to privacy, but I don’t believe most people would agree with this. This may be true for politicians, but not for writers.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Nobel for Bob Dylan!

The headlines this morning about the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature certainly got my attention, with a small gasp of surprise. Bob Dylan! Really? I must admit I feel torn about this. Of course I grew up with Bob Dylan, listened to his music for many many many hours when I was young (not so much later, except very occasionally when I was feeling nostalgic, or happened upon his music on the radio), and greatly admired (and still admire) him. Who of my generation can forget some of his greatest songs? And yes, his songs were and are poetry, and represented the concerns and emotions of our generation and beyond. But out of all the amazing novelists, poets, playwrights, memoirists, etc., in the world, is he really the best, the most deserving of this uniquely prestigious award? I understand the Swedish Academy’s rationale. The committee says they awarded Dylan the Nobel “for having created new poetic traditions within the great American song tradition,” and their representative, literary scholar Sara Danius, calls him “a great poet in the English-speaking tradition” who can be compared to Homer and Sappho. (Wow!) According to the New York Times, some say this award is for Dylan as a representative of an art form, and that it is a recognition that “the gap between high art and more commercial art forms” has narrowed. I understand and agree with most of this (not sure about the promotion of "more commercial art forms"), but there is still a part of me that can’t quite accept that there are not more deserving literary writers around the world. Am I being a fuddy-duddy? A snob? I need to think more about this…

Thursday, October 6, 2016

"Siracusa," by Delia Ephron

Reading the novel “Siracusa” (Blue Rider Press, 2016), by Delia Ephron, was a rather unpleasant and unsatisfying experience. I am not sure why I kept reading it, but I guess there was just enough suspense to keep me going…and I thought it would get better. But no, it got worse. It is the story of two couples who, with the ten-year-old daughter of one couple, travel together to Italy, first to Rome and then to Siracusa (Syracuse) in Sicily. Although the couples are friends, sort of, they are very different. One connection is that Finn, of one couple, and Lizzie, of the other, used to be in a romantic relationship many years before. Finn’s wife Taylor is completely, unhealthily, caught up in the life of her daughter, and doesn’t care much about anything else. Lizzie’s husband Michael is a semi-famous but stalled writer who is having an affair with a woman back in New York. Not one of them seems very happy, all of them have secrets, and none of them seems to have very robust moral compasses. All seem selfish. The daughter, Snow, is very strange: beautiful and smart, but barely talks, and is portrayed as rather creepy. Long story short, events build up, and there is a disaster which implicates, in one way or another, all of the main characters. What they do, or don’t do, afterward makes the reader like them even less. In other words, although this novel is compelling in some ways, it has a nasty taste.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

"How to Party with an Infant," by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Kaui Hart Hemmings is most well known for her novel “The Descendants,” set in Hawaii, which was made into a popular movie starring George Clooney. Hemmings has published other novels and short stories as well. “How To Party With an Infant” (Simon and Schuster, 2016), is set in San Francisco, where the author lived for a time, before returning to Hawaii. I know, of course, that we are not supposed to assume any autobiographical elements unless told that they are present, but it seems that several elements of this novel match elements of the author’s life. In any case, the main character and narrator, Mele Bart, is the single mother of a young child, Ellie. Her main connections are with the members of her mothers' group. She had to try out several groups within the larger organization, the San Francisco Mommy’s Club (SFMC), until she found one that she felt comfortable with. The major reasons that I enjoyed this novel are: 1. The author and her narrator have a wry, dry sense of humor and voice (as indicated by the title). 2. The novel both explores the world of mothering (in middle-to-upper-class, mostly white, urban America) and makes fun (sometimes gentle and sometimes rather scathing) of the super-self-conscious parenting found in liberal, prosperous enclaves these days. 3. And this third reason is personal because I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, used to live in San Francisco itself, have worked there my whole career and go there almost every day, and enrolled my daughter in preschool and then school there (many years ago...): I loved reading about the various areas and scenes in San Francisco. The narrator loves her daughter dearly, but finds single parenting difficult and lonely at times. This is a sometimes humorous, sometimes sad story, but overall an entertaining one that makes some sharp points, as well as some perhaps too-easy ones.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

"The Excellent Lombards," by Jane Hamilton

“The Excellent Lombards” (Grand Central Publishing, 2016), by the excellent writer Jane Hamilton (I have read and liked at least two of her earlier novels) is about an excellent family (the Lombards) and their excellent orchard and excellent apples. The narrator is a young girl, Mary Frances (also called Frances), so we see the situation described, and the story told, through a child’s perspective. We see how living in an apple orchard, as part of a family enterprise, is mostly idyllic, but as with any family, there are undercurrents of stress, competition, misunderstanding, and disappointment. Mary Frances’ closest person is her slightly older brother Michael. She also has wonderful if at times a bit eccentric parents. Her mother is the head librarian at the local small town library; what’s not to love about a mother who memorizes passages from Edith Wharton? There is a fair amount of tension between Frances’ father and her father’s business partner. There are other characters: cousins, somewhat mysterious and eccentric relatives, and a longtime worker who is practically a member of the family. Then there is the gifted and beautiful teacher who lives next door and whom Mary Frances adores. Despite some adventures and some upsets, Frances’ and Michael’s childhood seems like the kind of childhood all children should have: surrounded by loving adults, living on beautiful land, being able to help with the family’s work, but never being overworked, enjoying the pleasures of a small town, and more. I wonder how many children have such a life these days? Or did they ever? Is the author exaggerating? And, I should mention, Mary Frances’ idyllic childhood is sometimes infused with her deep fear that somehow it will all be taken away from her, by money problems, or by distant relatives, or by some other factor. The author herself lives in an apple orchard in Wisconsin, so perhaps she knows the answer to the questions above.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The 2016 Man Booker Shortlist

The six-book shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize has just been published (9/13/16) (, and I am embarrassed to say that not only have I not read any of these novels, but I have not even read reviews of, or had any other prior knowledge of, them, that I can remember. Deborah Levy? Graeme Macrae Burnet? David Szalay? Madeleine Thien? Paul Beatty? I do know the name of one author, Ottessa Moshfegh, but I don’t think I have actually read anything by her (perhaps a New Yorker story?). One excuse I have is that only two of the novels were (originally at least) published in the U.S.; two others are from the U.K., one from Canada, and one from “Canada-UK.” Books published in the U.K. and Canada are usually not published until later in the U.S., if at all. Also, to be fair to myself, I have usually recognized and sometimes read a couple of titles on the shortlist in past years. Still, this ignorance of these titles and authors this year makes me ponder how it is that I can read as much as I do (over 100 books a year, as well as many magazines and newspapers that include many book reviews), and what I read is mostly literary fiction, and still there can be a list of what are supposed to be the six best books written in English this year, and they are all completely unfamiliar to me. Perhaps I really have limited my reading (of contemporary fiction) too much to a certain type of (mainly) literary fiction by a certain type of author and novel: mostly American, mostly women, mostly “domestic” fiction, mostly character- and relationship-driven. There are many exceptions in my reading to every one of those descriptors, but still, it is overall an accurate summary of my reading preferences. I can’t decide whether I should simply accept this as normal -- everyone has reading preferences, naturally -- or limited and provincial. I do read many book reviews in many venues, and I do try to stretch my reading boundaries (including to many books from different countries and originally written in different languages). Probably I need to try harder. (Addendum: I just saw a brief review of Deborah Levy's book, "Hot Milk," in the New Yorker, 9/26/16. It sounds great, and I am putting it on my "to read" list.)
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