Thursday, May 19, 2016

"The Swans of Fifth Avenue," by Melanie Benjamin

WHY did I read “The Swans of Fifth Avenue” (Delacorte, 2016), by Melanie Benjamin? Well, I know why: it has a literary aspect, in that it tells the story of the well-known author Truman Capote’s betraying the confidences of his society women friends (Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Pamela Churchill, etc.) (dubbed "the swans") when he wrote about them, in thinly disguised form, in “La Cote Basque 1965,” the first installment of a planned (but never finished) novel “Answered Prayers.” This was a major literary and social scandal at the time (1975). Of course the New York City aspect also attracted me. But why did I think I would learn anything new, or that reading about this old scandal would be enjoyable? Yes, this novel about a real-life situation is fun in a sort of catty way, with bits of insight and occasionally thoughtful portrayals of both Capote and his friends, as well as of the “high society” of the times. And of course there is some juicy (but old) gossip. But mostly it just doesn’t live up to the potential of its topic or its real-life characters. OK, I did keep reading, and I did finish the novel. But I closed the book with the question I started this entry with: WHY did I read it?

Saturday, May 14, 2016

"Everybody's Fool," by Richard Russo

I really, really don’t want to essentialize gender roles. But sometimes, for reasons of either nature or nurture, or some combination thereof, there do seem to be differences between men and women, and also in the ways that male writers and female writers portray life and the universe. And these differences are an element in the reasons I read far more fiction by female writers than males. There is a tendency for women to write more about characters and relationships, it seems, and those are among the most important qualities to me when reading novels and short stories. Obviously these statements of mine are broad generalizations, and there are many exceptions. There is probably some kind of Venn Diagram somewhere portraying the overlap, when the work of individual writers of each gender (not forgetting those who do not fit into this binary) is analyzed and classified. Which leads me to the work of Richard Russo, and specifically to his new novel, “Everybody’s Fool” (Knopf, 2016), which I have just read with great enjoyment and a bit of awe at what an amazing writer he is. In this novel (and in some but not all of his others, several of which I have read and which I highly recommend), he writes mostly about male characters, mostly of the working class, and there is a lot of male-type action (if I am allowed this shorthand, appended to which readers will please assume all the usual caveats and hedges), such as heavy drinking in dive bars, fights and brawling, guns, criminal behavior (mostly petty, but not all), crazy stunts, and “guy talk” about the bodies of women. Those are all elements that I usually am not very interested in. But Russo makes these characters come alive, with all their complicated qualities, and makes me care about them. “Everybody’s Fool” is a sort of sequel to “Nobody’s Fool,” taking place about ten years after the events of that novel. The main character in the original novel, Sully, is a complicated, ornery, tough, confused, devil-may-care, seemingly aimless guy (played, incidentally, by my longtime favorite actor, Paul Newman, in the movie version of that novel). Sully is a main character in this current novel as well, but other main characters step up, including a minor character from the first novel, Doug Raymer, now in a much more prominent role as the somewhat hapless police chief of the small, hapless upstate New York town of Bath. Other male characters such as the mayor, Gus Moynihan, and a failing developer, Carl Roebuck, are in equal parts swaggering and overwhelmed by life. The fewer women characters generally don’t fare better, and mostly serve as foils for the men. One wife and one ex-wife are mentally and emotionally ill. Only one female character, Chief Raymer’s assistant, Charice, is (mostly) confident, healthy, independent, and strong, and even she often prioritizes her commitment to help her emotionally crippled brother Jerome over her own needs and desires. But I don't want to leave the impression that Russo slights women characters, or that they are one-dimensional; neither characterization is true. Mostly, all the characters, male or female, just muddle along. There are many robust plot points in "Everybody's Fool," some comedic and some tragic, and most some combination of the two. The novel's characters are all caught in an environment of failure, in a town that progress has passed by, yet its inhabitants find ways to get by. After all, Bath is home, and those co-inhabiting the town are -- whether loved, loathed, or simply tolerated -- family members, ex-spouses, friends, former classmates, drinking buddies, and former and present love interests. Despite some rivalries and resentments of past slights and fallings-out, there are many moments of humanity, of mutual support, of good intentions, and of insights hard won. Russo never, ever condescends to his characters, but he also is not afraid to show their foibles and limitations. All this is a long way of saying that I believe Russo’s fiction combines the best of “men’s fiction” (otherwise known by some as “mainstream literary fiction”) and “women’s fiction,” and the result is rich, funny, sad, entertaining, uplifting but not in a sappy way, and just plain bursting with humanity. During the time period when I was reading this novel, I happened to stumble on -- with great delight -- Russo being interviewed on the radio, on "Fresh Air," by the terrific Terry Gross (about whom I have written here as well), and he sounded like a man I would love to know in person: a classic smart, gifted, funny and caring "nice guy." So thank you, Richard Russo; I "heart" you and your wonderful fiction. Please write many more novels!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Too Long Without Reading Makes Me Feel Out of Sorts

Edgy, cranky, out of sorts, sorry for myself…that’s how I feel when I don’t have time to read fiction. As I wrote about on 1/23/16, when there are periods of time when I don’t read my beloved novels and short stories for days or weeks, I feel like an addict without her fix. I know that sounds exaggerated, and of course it is, but it often feels like the right simile. Because of a very busy semester, and especially because of preparing for, traveling to, attending, and returning to the backup of things to do after, two academic conferences out east in early-to-mid April, I have barely read any fiction for about five weeks. Two novels, yes, but that is a small number for me. (I know I posted here about four novels in April, but I had read two of them a few days earlier.) Newspapers and magazines, yes, and I do enjoy those, but they do not fulfill the same need in the same way. Of course I loved the conferences, and wouldn’t have missed them for anything, but now I really need to get back to fiction reading, and in that way back to my “normal” self. I just picked up and starting reading -- well, I will write about it soon, so I won’t say the title now, but let’s just say a big novel by a wonderful, favorite writer of mine -- and I already feel substantially more like myself.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

"Eligible," by Curtis Sittenfeld

Here it is at last (there seemed to have been some delay since the novel was originally announced): the fourth book in the Austen Project’s modern reimaginings of Jane Austen’s six complete novels! “Eligible” (Random House, 2016), by Curtis Sittenfeld, follows the earlier entries: Joanna Trollope’s “Sense and Sensibility,” Val McDermid’s “Northanger Abbey,” and Alexander McColl Smith’s “Emma.” I have read all of them, and found them all somewhat enjoyable but rather tepidly interesting and, to be honest, undistinguished. “Eligible” differs from the earlier three in the “series” in that Curtis Sittenfeld has changed the title (it is based on “Pride and Prejudice”), and sets her story in the United States, Cincinnati to be specific. Her writing is sharper and funnier than that of the other authors. But it feels like she is trying too hard. Or maybe it is just too hard to accept the fact that Jane and Elizabeth are in their late 30s, and that Kitty and Lydia are not only silly but vulgar and mindless, and that the family lives in Ohio in the 21st century. The references to the Internet and other allusions to “modern life” feel artificial and stilted. Sittenfeld also brings in topics such as transgender and fertility treatments, which merely reinforces the “trying too hard to make it contemporary” feeling. It is true that Sittenfeld is an observant writer, and aware of human foibles, as Austen was to the nth degree, but she is definitely not in Austen’s league. And therein lies the problem: no one is in Austen’s league, and Austen devotees – such as I am – just can’t accept any kind of imitation. Yes, these contemporary versions are fun, and it is enjoyable to see where there are parallels and where there are not. And yes, we know they are not meant to be at the same level as Austen. And yes, yes, we read them, despite ourselves. I confess to reading "Eligible" eagerly and quickly. But it left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth that I can’t shake. Now I am wondering who will write the last two books, those based on “Mansfield Park” and “Persuasion”; there has been no announcement yet that I can find. I am hoping against hope that wonderful writers will be chosen (and will accept the invitation), and that they will somehow transcend the inherent pitfalls of this type of reimagined novels. I am not very optimistic. But I am pretty sure – oh, who am I kidding? I am very sure – that I will read them both anyway, no matter who writes them and no matter how good or bad they are.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

"Miller's Valley," by Anna Quindlen

An Anna Quindlen novel is a reliable pleasure. It is a “good” bestseller, a solidly enjoyable and thoughtful piece of fiction. I have enjoyed Quindlen’s work through the years, not only as a novelist but also as a longtime New York Times columnist and as a memoirist. “Miller’s Valley” (Random House, 2016) fits the profile of her other novels. It has a compelling plot, well portrayed characters, an emphasis on relationships, familial and otherwise, and a tendency to focus on women’s lives and issues. All of these make me happy! It is also very accessible. This new novel is the story of a family, the Millers, and a community, the residents of Miller’s Valley, which appears to be in or near Pennsylvania. There is a central issue: whether, and if so, how soon, the government will choose to flood the valley to extend a dam and create a "recreational area." Most of the residents obviously oppose this, as they will lose their longtime farms and homes and their community; the government’s compensation cannot possibly make up for such losses. Slowly, however, some people give in to what seems like the inevitable. The more personal level of the plot revolves around the narrator, Mimi Miller, her parents, her agoraphobic aunt, her two very different brothers (one traditionally successful and one troubled), and their neighbors and friends. The family farm is failing, despite Mimi’s and her father’s best efforts. Meanwhile, Mimi’s mother and her sister are in a lifelong feud, yet Mimi’s family takes care of that sister. Mimi is very bright, and has a promising future, but is torn between her loyalty to her family and the farm, on the one hand, and her higher education and advancement, on the other. Mimi’s best friends are strong characters as well, each in her or his own way. Mimi’s first serious romantic and sexual relationship, with Steven, is well portrayed, as is her longer term on and off relationship with her childhood friend Donald. There are several family secrets that are revealed, or partially revealed, leaving us with tantalizing questions about the past. And there is a satisfying epilogue that tells us what happened with the characters in the years following the main story. This is a true “good read,” in the best sense of the term.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

"The Nest," by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

I recently (4/7/16) wrote (once again) about enjoying novels about families and their relationships, including family “sagas.” I just read another such novel, mostly about just two generations, titled “The Nest” (HarperCollins, 2016), by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. This one, a current bestseller, is a bit snarkier than most, and features mostly overly entitled characters. Four siblings have been waiting for years for the disbursement of the trust their parents set up for them, the “nest” of the title, to be received when the youngest sibling turns 40. Just before that time, the oldest, least responsible sibling, Leo, has an accident caused by alcohol and drugs and, ahem, sexual activity while driving. (This last sentence may be the most risqué sentence I have included in this blog over the years….) Leo's mother, who is in charge of the trust and is allowed to make decisions about it up until the time it is disbursed (his father has died), chooses to use a huge chunk of the nest to pay off the young woman who was hurt, as well as Leo’s wife, who immediately makes high financial demands in the course of a divorce case. The other three siblings, all of whom have made unwise financial expenditures and commitments based on their expectations, are angry to find out that their share of "the nest" will be dramatically smaller than they had expected. They try to put pressure on Leo to pay them back (in the past, he had made a lot of money, and they believe he has either money salted away, or the capacity to make more), and he claims he will, but the story becomes complicated. The interesting part is watching the four siblings (and their rather cold and detached mother, as well as various spouses and significant others) interact, with the money issue front and center. Although it doesn’t seem to be true for this mother, the scenario, or any other such scenario involving family money, trusts, inheritances, loans, etc., is one that gives many parents pause, and even nightmares. They want to help their (adult) children, but they also don’t want the money to become a source of contention and division among their progeny. The characters in this story, especially the four main ones, are, to various degrees, self-centered, entitled, whiny, and pathetic, but also very human and sometimes redeemed by flashes of decency and, yes, love. The novel is both entertaining and squirm-inducing, and I never once considered not reading it to the end.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

"As Close to Us as Breathing," by Elizabeth Poliner

Readers of this blog have probably figured out that I am easily enticed by family sagas. I just finished a novel that fits in this category: “As Close to Us as Breathing” (Little, Brown, 2016), by Elizabeth Poliner. The family in question is the Leibritskys, who have a cottage on the “Bagel Beach” (Jewish) section of the Woodmont, Connecticut shore. Three sisters have inherited the cottage from their parents, and love to see each other and bring their families there every summer. The women and children are there all week, and the men come on the weekends. The main part of the story happens in 1948, when ethnic and religious groups were still very separate. For example, when one teenaged Jewish character dates an Irish girl, he keeps it from his family because he knows they will consider the relationship completely unacceptable. The story roams back and forth in time, with much family history continuing until the early twenty-first century. The focal point of the story is a terribly tragic event affecting one member of the family and therefore all the family members. The consequences reverberate for years to come, and some changes are irrevocable. The portrayal of this family and this community at this time in history seems very authentic. And the portrayal of the tensions, connections, love, dissension, pain, and comfort associated with this specific family also seem on some level universal. That combination (the specific and the universal) is, of course, what makes the best literature. I admire the way the characters are drawn. I also am interested in the way the book reflects the lives of women during the early second half of the twentieth century. This novel manages to draw on the pleasures of the family novel, the beach novel, the (recent) history novel, the Jewish novel, and the thwarted-romance novel, yet (mostly) not get caught up in the clichés of any of these.
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