Sunday, November 19, 2017

"Little Fires Everywhere," by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s first novel, “Everything I Never Told You,” was a very big success in terms of both critics’ reception and sales. I found the book powerful and compelling (see my post of 10/31/14). Her new book, “Little Fires Everywhere” (Penguin, 2017) is equally powerful and compelling. Both books focus on families, and excavate the very complex relationships among family members, as well as the societal forces that influence them so strongly. The main characters in the current novel are the members of the Richardson family: Mr. and Mrs. Richardson and their four teenaged children, Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy. They live in the upscale suburb of Shaker Heights, and seem to be living a typical upper middle class life, although Izzy’s attitude and behavior are sometimes troublesome. As the story progresses, we see that each of the family members has her or his own secrets. Then the artist and single mother Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl appear in Shaker Heights and rent a house from the Richardsons. Pearl becomes friends with Lexie, and Izzie becomes friends with and an assistant to Mia as she creates her art. There is something mysterious about Mia and Pearl, and Mrs. Richardson wants to find out what it is. The story has to do with social class, but also race (as in Ng’s first novel) and parenthood, as the Richardsons’ friends adopt a Chinese American baby, and then become embroiled in a court case when the birth mother wants her child back. Ng writes beautifully and with astute psychological insight, as well as awareness of societal pressures and beliefs, in all their nuances. This is a rich, full novel, both satisfying and unsettling.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Mixed Feelings about "Fresh Complaint," by Jeffrey Eugenides

I have written here before about issues of, and my feelings about, gender in literature, meaning mainly the differences (when present) between fiction by female and male authors. Of course – please take it as a given – I believe that great fiction can and is produced by both women and men. But why do I read more novels and short stories by women than by men? Originally, back when I was in late college and in grad school, as a budding feminist, I wanted to reclaim the writing of female authors, and to balance out the years of being taught, and reading, almost all male authors. But I also, often but not always, felt more “at home” in the works of women authors. I resisted that feeling to some extent, not wanting to open the door to men’s saying the same thing about fiction by men. With time, I have found I read a real mix of both, but that I lean (OK, fairly markedly) toward writings by women (as readers of this blog will have noticed). All of this is prologue to writing about my feelings about Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest book, a collection of short stories titled “Fresh Complaint” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017). I found the stories interesting and well-written, but I had an increasing sense of being immersed in a male world. Nothing wrong with that, and Eugenides has certainly written about female characters in the past (although there is some controversy about the way he has positioned those characters), and I wrote a positive post about his novel “The Marriage Plot” (I read his earlier novels “The Virgin Suicides” and “Middlesex” before I started this blog). However, I felt somehow forced into the male perspective in a way that I don’t with women writers, nor with with male writers such as Colm Toibin, Kent Haruf, William Trevor, and Richard Russo. It is true that one of the two main characters in Eugenides’ title story “Fresh Complaint” is a young woman, but she is a young woman who manipulates and partially destroys the lead male character for her own purposes, in a way that will raise alarming connections to some of the news stories of today; some accused men defend themselves precisely by saying that their female accusers are conspiring to defame them. (This is not exactly what happens in the story here, but close enough.) I will add that these stories are not overtly or traditionally masculine or macho; I almost have an easier time with those, as they don’t even pretend to be anything other than that. It is writers such as Eugenides (or Jonathan Franzen), who present themselves as more understanding of female characters and lives, that disappoint me when their work indicates otherwise. (Although, in the spirit of yes-but-no-but, Eugenides does a good job of portraying a kind of “modern guy,” whose attributes still reflect the past but are being dragged into a newer present with different attitudes about gender.) I will end this post by saying that Eugenides’ book raises issues for me, and perhaps for other readers, that I don’t quite know how to resolve. And perhaps that is OK (it would be presumptuous and unlikely for me to claim to do so, when so many others have struggled with these issues), as long as it is part of an ongoing discussion about gender and literature, and of course about gender and politics, equity, and life.

Friday, November 10, 2017

"Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York," by Roz Chast

“Going Into Town” (Bloomsbury, 2017), by the inimitable writer/artist/cartoonist Roz Chast, is subtitled “A Love Letter to New York,” and that it is indeed. Chast's love for the city is palpable. Chast is well known to New Yorker readers as a longtime contributor of her unique cartoons. She is also the author/artist of the bestselling 2014 graphic memoir, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?”, which deals with the author’s relationship with her aging parents (see my friend Mary’s guest post on that book on 5/31/14). Chast herself grew up in Brooklyn and always thought of Manhattan as the center of everything. She and her husband did move to a “leafy suburb” north of New York when their children were little, but she never lost her love for New York. She says that the germ of the current book was her desire to offer her daughter some basic facts and guidance about Manhattan when the daughter was about to move to the city for college. She instructs her daughter in such things as the basic layout of Manhattan, the subway system, apartments, museums, and Central Park. Each page has a detailed, quirky drawing, along with dry, wry commentary. For example, she writes candidly that “For some reason, I’ve always preferred cities to Nature. I’m interested in the person-made. I like to watch and eavesdrop on people” (p. 40). And “When you walk around, keep your eyes and ears open. Partly for safetly… but also because there’s SO MUCH MATERIAL. The people, the buildings, things expected, things unexpected, or something surprising…” (p. 50). Chast's people are drawn as somewhat frumpy, in an utterly charming way. This book is an absolute joy to read and look at, and repays repeated readings with new surprising details on each page. And as a bonus: although I have visited New York many times over the years, I learned some new facts about it in this book.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

"Silver Sparrow," by Tayari Jones

Many thanks to my good friend SB, a regular reader and supporter of this blog, for recommending the novel “Silver Sparrow” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2011), by Tayari Jones. The book opens with the attention-catching line “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” and everything else in the story spins off from that central fact. James married his wife Laverne when they were both at a very young age, when she became pregnant (and later lost that baby); later he met and fell in love with Gwen, and started his second family. The daughter of his first family, Chaurisse, born a few years after the first baby died, and Gwen’s daughter, Dana, are about the same age. His second family is aware of the first, but not vice versa. Gwen’s and Dana’s lives are consumed by a fascination with and resentment of James’ first family. Dana and Chaurisse get to know each other during their late teen years, and the plot accelerates from there. Other major characters are Raleigh, James’ ever-present best friend who is as close as a brother, and who quietly adores Gwen, and the girls’ grandmother, Miss Bunny, who raised both James and Raleigh. The main story (not counting brief background information about James and Raleigh as children) takes place over a period of about 40 years, from the late 1950s/early 1960s to the year 2000 (the latter in a brief epilogue); the characters are African American and live in Atlanta. The reader might expect James to be the "bad guy" of the story, and in a way he is, but one cannot help feeling compassion for, and even admiration of, this responsible and dependable (aside from the obvious!) and a bit nerdy man who is trying to do right by both wives and daughters, and everyone else as well. The first half of the book tells the story from Dana’s perspective, and the second half through Chaurisse’s eyes. The book is suffused with the duality of the two families, two wives, two daughters, two perspectives. The novel has much to say about marriage, about males and females, about parenthood, about young African American girls, about female friendship, about middle class African American life, about honesty and dishonesty, about living up to one’s responsibilities and how complex that can be, about pride, and much more. This novel tells a compelling story, with compelling characters, and leaves the reader with much to think about, including the fact that almost no moral decisions are completely right or wrong, good or bad, but always encompass various shades of grey.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Please subscribe to progressive magazines!

This post is a plea to readers to support progressive magazines. Such magazines have always played an important role in providing readers with information not covered in major news sources, as well as perspectives not always well represented in those major news sources. Now we need this information and these perspectives more than ever. I have subscribed to The Nation, The Progressive, and Ms. magazines for decades, and recently (OK, immediately after the 2016 election) resubscribed – after a gap of some years – to Mother Jones. These are all invaluable resources. I also find important progressive writing in some more mainstream but still quite progressive magazines as The Atlantic and The New Yorker. Many of these magazines report strong upticks in subscriptions after the 2016 election, but they still need wider readership and wider support in order to continue to do their often groundbreaking investigative reports and other important stories. Maybe consider subscribing to one of the above magazines, or another progressive publication? And/or giving a gift subscription?

Friday, October 13, 2017

"Vanity Fair's Schools for Scandals," edited by Graydon Carter

How could I not read this book? Its topics are a heady combination of education, social class, sexual politics, true crime, gossip, current events, social commentary and, yes, scandal. “Vanity Fair’s Schools for Scandals” (Simon & Schuster, 2017) is subtitled “The Inside Dramas at 16 of America’s Most Elite Campuses – Plus Oxford!” The book is a compilation of articles that have been published in the magazine Vanity Fair over the past 20 years or so, and is edited by Vanity Fair’s editor Graydon Carter. Each piece focuses on a "scandal" at one prestigious college/university or boarding school, including Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Duke, and Columbia, and the prep/boarding schools St. Paul’s, Exeter, St. George’s, and Kent. Some scandals involve financial issues, some stories report extreme hazing, and some writers portray administrators and faculty whose outsize personalities and reputations come tumbling down. The most prevalent topic, however, is, sadly, sexual abuse of various sorts, especially in the boarding schools. Because these schools are small, isolated, privileged, and entitled schools, and because the participants share those characteristics, and because sexual abuse by its nature tends to be hidden, these abuses of power sometimes went years, even decades, without being acknowledged or punished. Administrators and Board members obviously wanted to avoid bad publicity, and often turned a blind eye, and/or quietly passed bad actors (often teachers) on to other schools without warning the other schools of the problem; this last had the ugly label but vivid of “passing the trash.” Even when presented with the existence of the abuse, those in charge often stonewalled, refused to believe the victims, or minimized the impact of the abuse (and let’s be clear, abuse ranged from unwanted touching to assault and rape, and sometimes the same abuser would prey on many many victims over many years). At the end of many of the pieces, there are short updates about what happened with court cases, and about where various administrators, teachers, and students are now and what they are doing now. Although I have subscribed to Vanity Fair for many years, and had read almost all of these pieces before (in some cases 10-20 years before), I found that reading them in this collected form was a powerful experience. Vanity Fair’s writers are excellent at capturing the auras and environments of these schools. In many cases, the writers themselves had attended the schools they were describing, or others very like them, so they were able to offer insiders’ perspectives. These writers do good investigative research, and they are persistent in getting the story. They write well, with many telling details. And through their descriptions they capture the essence of affluence and social class privilege that often facilitates these scandals. Postscript: Finishing reading this book just as the news arrived of the movie producer Harvey Weinstein's sexually abusive behavior toward young women actors and others in the movie world was a doubly powerful reminder of the way women are sometimes treated by powerful men in various fields. So no, equality has not yet arrived; and no, we are not living in a postfeminist era. There is still a lot of work to be done.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

"The Use of Fame," by Cornelia Nixon

I like novels about academe. I like novels about writers. I like novels about marriage. So Cornelia Nixon’s “The Use of Fame” (Counterpoint, 2017), which features all three of these characteristics, caught my interest. The two main characters, Abby and Ray, are both poets and have been married for twenty-five years, when their loving and mainly successful marriage is challenged by their taking teaching positions at universities on opposite coasts. Ray is at Brown and Abby is at Berkeley. They try to make this arrangement work, but it is difficult, and puts an increasing strain on their marriage. Infidelity, health issues, alcohol, pills, and class differences all become factors. It is hard not to sympathize with both characters, especially since it is clear that their relationship is deep and meaningful (although one of them is, at least on the surface, more at fault than the other one regarding their difficulties). But the novel reminds us that sometimes love and history together are just not enough. This is a beautifully written, absorbing, and sad exploration of love and marriage.
 
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