Saturday, May 23, 2015

"Early Warning," by Jane Smiley

When I wrote (11/4/14) about Jane Smiley’s novel “Some Luck,” which was identified as the first novel in a projected trilogy, “The Last Hundred Years,” I optimistically hoped for the second installment in two or three years. Smiley must have been writing the second novel while the first one was in production, because -- a happy surprise -- it has already been published. It is titled “Early Warning” (Knopf, 2015), and I have just devoured this 476-page masterpiece, a fitting successor to “Some Luck.” This second novel about the Langdon family, whose story originated on an Iowa farm, covers the years 1953-1986. Walter Langdon, the father of the original family, has died, and the focus moves even more than in “Some Luck” to his five children and their own spouses and children, although the oldest child, Frank, is now less central to the story than he was in the first novel. “Early Warning” is even more crammed with characters than was “Some Luck,” and even though I had read the first novel just a few months before the second, I had to consult the very useful, even essential, family tree diagram (provided in the front matter) frequently, especially at first but even throughout my reading of the novel. This novel moves away from Iowa to a greater extent than the first one did, as all of the now grown children except one move elsewhere: to New York, D.C., California, and other places. As in “Some Luck,” the family and all its members are the focus, but the backdrop of national and international events is also important. The characters are affected by, and participate in, the problems of the economy, farming, the Cold War, politics, the government, the CIA, and more. Smiley does not overtly pronounce judgments on the behavior of the characters, even those involved in rather shady government/CIA-related policies and actions, but the portrayals are vivid and readers can make their own judgments. I can’t possibly summarize the lives of all these characters; again, there are romances, marriages, affairs, births, sibling rivalries, problems with alcohol, careers, career changes, momentous decisions, and so much more. This is a sweeping portrayal of a family and of a country, and it is fascinating, absorbing, and masterfully done. I can’t wait for the third installment, covering the third 33-year period, of the Last Hundred Years trilogy. The only thing that worries me is that another 33 years would take us up to 2019 or 2020, and I do not want to wait that long for the next novel. I don’t know how Jane Smiley is planning to handle that, given that these first two novels came out within a year of each other, but I wait with bated breath to learn the answer. Meanwhile, I think I can say without hyperbole that this trilogy is a masterpiece, one that will be long read by those who both appreciate great literature and want to learn about the essence of life of the United States in the 20th century and beyond.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"Refund," by Karen E. Bender

For some reason I don’t completely understand, but am trying to figure out, I felt a complicated and rather visceral resistance to, and even dislike of, “Refund” (Counterpoint, 2015), Karen E. Bender’s new short story collection. I knew from reviews that the main theme was money and how it, or in most cases in these stories the lack of it, affects its characters and their lives. That sounded intriguing. Upon reading the stories, although I admired them in the abstract, I didn’t like their grimness and, at times, hopelessness. There are, to vastly oversimplify, two main sets of reasons that I dislike a book. One is reasons to do with the book itself. The other is reasons to do with my own tastes and preferences in reading material, and my own attitudes. My reasons for disliking “Refund” are of the second type; I actually think the stories are well written and compelling, but I found them harsh and disturbing. I do think this says something about myself more than about the book, and I am sorry to think that I shy away from stories that make me uncomfortable. As I get older, I wonder if I am just less willing to put myself through that kind of discomfort. If this is true, I am not proud of it. In my own defense, I do sometimes read books that are about terrible, painful topics. But perhaps those books still don’t force readers to confront the gritty realities of some people’s lives in an unvarnished way, with no literary protections? To get back to “Refund”: These are -- sadly -- stories of and for our times, in which people are suddenly laid off for reasons of corporate profit, and/or work two or more jobs to make ends meet, and worry about how they will pay their bills, let alone buy things for their children. Money problems have not only devastating concrete effects, but also emotional effects, destroying people’s confidence and hope for the future. I find the stories powerful, original, and real, and despite my own feelings of discomfort, I am not sorry I read the book.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

"Funny Girl," by Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby is a beloved writer in the UK and in the USA. His novels “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity” have been particularly popular, and both were made into successful movies as well. I have enjoyed reading several of his novels, including the two I just named. His latest one, “Funny Girl” (Riverhead, 2014), tells the story of a teenaged girl from Blackpool in the 1960s who is desperate to get out of that city and to become an actress and comedian. Her heroine has been Lucille Ball, and she has watched the Lucy shows obsessively. She takes the leap and moves to London, living in a cheap flat with a roommate and working at a department store. By chance she meets an agent, auditions for a new TV show, and through her interactions with the writers and producer, which show her wit and talent, she lands the starring role in the show eventually called “Barbara (and Jim).” The novel tells of her interactions with the others (actors, producers, director, etc.) involved with the show, the consequences of the immediate popularity of the show, her adventures with sex and love, and eventually, her future in and out of show business. It is not a deep or complicated story, but the characters -- especially the main character, Barbara-now-named-Sophie -- are endearing, sometimes amusing and sometimes heartwarming. The novel touches on questions of what is important in life. It reveals aspects of life, politics, and culture in the 1960s and onward in London, when everything was changing (the Beatles! the musical “Hair”! gay sex being legalized! sexual freedom and openness!). A heady time. Overall it is a positive, life-affirming story. The reader -- at least this reader, and I suspect most readers, especially those predisposed toward Hornby’s writing -- closes the book feeling satisfied with the reading experience.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

My One Thousandth Post!

To celebrate the occasion of this, my one thousandth (yes, 1,000th!) post on this blog, I want to say how much I truly enjoy writing the blog entries, and how much I treasure the chance to share my ideas and feelings about books, authors, reading, bookstores, libraries, and related topics with you. I would like, too, to thank everyone who “follows” this blog, who has commented on it (on the blog itself, in separate emails, on Facebook, in person, or otherwise), and who reads it either regularly or occasionally. Thanks very much also to those who have contributed guest posts. All these “conversations” and connections among booklovers about books and reading mean so much to me. (Thanks too to the Internet for making possible this thing called a “blog”!)

Monday, May 11, 2015

"The Story Sisters," by Alice Hoffman

I stopped reading Alice Hoffman some years ago, because although I enjoyed some of her earlier work, I felt her writing was too “magical” for my taste. But for some reason I picked up the CD version of her novel “The Story Sisters” (Random House Audio/Books on Tape, 2009), and was quite drawn into it, despite its having its own magical elements. The story (and there are multiple uses of the word, name, and concept of “story” throughout) starts with, and is occasionally interrupted by, a sort of spooky, frightening (although with a thread of resistance and strength) fairy tale about a girl who experiences danger, darkness, and violation, and yet knows how to survive. The main story, situated in the present and mostly in Long Island and New York City, focuses on a family, but most particularly on the character Elv, who as a child also experiences danger, darkness, and violation, and is also resilient, but at a price. Elv is the oldest of three sisters (Elv, Meg, and Claire), the titular Story sisters, who are first described as ideally intelligent, accomplished, beautiful, and close to each other. They even have a secret language that only they understand. Even when their parents split up, they seem to do well, and get strength from their loving mother and from each other. But soon cracks appear in their solidarity, and we learn more about a devastating secret that Elv and her sister Claire share. The third (middle) sister, Meg, does not know the secret, and gradually becomes less close with the other two. Things go downhill from there, as the secret causes Elv to “act out” as she goes into her teenaged years, become rebellious and endanger herself and others. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot; suffice it to say there are many twists and turns in the family’s story, most of them sad, difficult, and even shocking. But eventually, despite horrific events and losses, there is some slow, hard-earned, fragile, but real healing. Reading (or listening to, in my case) this novel is not for the faint at heart, but it is compelling and original. At times it slides into the melodramatic in its style and plot, and I am still not a fan of the magical fairy tale aspects, but those do add an atmospheric, psychological backdrop to the main story. As always, for me one of the most compelling aspects of the novel is the portrayal of the dynamics of the family, and the relationships among the family members. And I have to add a note about something related that struck me: These sisters were very fortunate to have some adults in their lives (besides their devoted mother) who just wouldn’t give up on them. One was their grandmother Natalya, who lives part of the year in Paris and with whom the sisters stay at various times; another was their grandmother’s best friend Madame Cohen; still another was their mother’s significant other, Pete. In particular, the novel reminded me of the role and importance of grandparents in many children and young people’s lives. I had wonderful grandparents, but because I grew up overseas from where they lived, I wasn’t able to see them very often. My own mother, however, has always made a point to spend time with my daughter and her other grandchildren, as did my late father. Those grandchildren feel her love and care, and are the better for it.

Friday, May 8, 2015

"The Children's Crusade," by Ann Packer

What a wonderful novel Ann Packer’s newest book is! “The Children’s Crusade” (Scribner, 2015) is even better than her earlier bestselling novel, “The Dive from Clausen’s Pier.” Readers of this blog know how much I like novels about families; a good such novel has all of the world in it. Of course such a novel, including this one, also has strong characters, connections, conflicts, transitions, secrets, and more. There is love, there is hatred, there is separation, there is estrangement and there is -- sometimes -- re-connection. There is pain, illness, and death. But, again, there is also great love. Let me be more specific. This novel is about the Blair family, and takes place over a period of about fifty years. Bill Blair marries Penny, and they buy land south of San Francisco (in what is now “Silicon Valley”) and build a house there. It is a boom time, an idyllic time, and the couple prospers. They have four children. But Penny is not satisfied with the life of a wife and mother, and increasingly withdraws from the family, focusing on her art. The three older children grow up mostly happily, and are successful in their adult lives. The youngest, James, is a difficult, demanding child, and grows up to be the black sheep of the family. After his father dies, James comes back to visit the other siblings and their old house, and disrupts their generally peaceful (although not without problems) lives. Their lives are mostly calm and controlled; his is undisciplined, unpredictable, and disruptive (in the old sense of the word, not in the newly fashionable sense used in the world of technology to suggest innovation and creativity, and if I sound snarky about this twisting of the language, yes, you are right, I am in fact feeling snarky about it…). This book is a generous 432 pages long, bursting with character, plot, and insights, and I didn’t want it to end. Packer is a gifted writer, and this novel is gift I was glad to get.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

"The Dream Lover," by Elizabeth Berg

George Sand, the French woman novelist, was a fascinating, passionate, flamboyant writer and character. She provides a contrast to George Eliot, her near contemporary (both were born early in the nineteenth century), who used the same male name, in her case in order to win more acceptance of her writing, and who was also independent and strong, but not at all flamboyant (although she flouted society's conventions in living with her longtime lover). They shared, however, an unstoppable desire to express themselves in writing, at a time when it was not easy for women to do so. George Eliot was the greater writer, but Sand was also a strong writer with a large following. I have to admit I know more about Sand’s life than I do about her work, and have read very little of the actual work (as opposed to my extensive reading of and deep admiration of Eliot’s fiction). Parenthetically, here is an odd related personal memory: When I was in high school, we (very amateurishly) performed a musical titled “Enchanted Isle,” about Sand’s stay on the Spanish island of Majorca with Frederic Chopin, her lover at the time. This memory has stayed with me, and I think of it whenever I hear something about George Sand or Frederic Chopin, although I now realize the musical was a highly romanticized version of their love affair and time together. All of this is prelude to saying that I have just read Elizabeth Berg’s novel, “The Dream Lover” (Random House, 2015), a fictionalized biography of George Sand. It is written in the first person as if Sand herself were writing, and written in what seems to be the style of the time period in which Sand lived and wrote. It is somewhat dramatic, even melodramatic at times, and certainly captures the reader’s interest. Berg has chosen to alternate between Sand’s childhood and young adulthood, on the one hand, and her later years once she has left her husband and started her writing life, on the other hand. The author shows Sand as a very complex woman. She has had a difficult childhood, and is affected for the rest of her life by that childhood. She is determined and disciplined about her writing, frequently staying up all night to write. She believes that women should be able to do everything that men can. She is also not afraid to break society’s rules, and, for example, has many lovers over the years. She is constantly looking for love, and is often in passionate relationships that deteriorate or end, leaving her in despair. She is a loving mother, but struggles with her daughter, and repeats some of the same mistakes her own mother made with her. She is a very appealing, although flawed, character, especially for feminists, artists, readers, Francophiles, and all combinations of these. I am, as readers of this blog can imagine, a fan of books – fiction or nonfiction – about great women writers, so although I think this one is a good but not great novel, I thoroughly enjoyed “The Dream Lover.”
 
Site Meter