Saturday, January 14, 2017

"They Came Like Swallows," by William Maxwell

A mention of William Maxwell in Robert Gottlieb’s memoir, “Avid Reader” (see my 1/5/17 post) reminded me of what a wonderful writer he was. He was a masterful novelist and short story writer, as well as a longtime editor, including being fiction editor of The New Yorker for almost 40 years in the mid-twentieth century. This reminder of Maxwell, some of whose work I have read, but very long ago, prompted me to find his early novel “They Came Like Swallows” (Vintage, 1997, originally published 1937). This slim novel describes a Midwestern family of which the mother, Elizabeth Morison, is the center and the focus. Much of the story is told through the eyes of the young boy Bunny, who adores his mother. His father James is a good man, and his older brother Robert, although they fight as siblings do, supports and defends Bunny when needed. Something terrible happens that changes everything for the family; we are shown the family both before and after this event. The setting of the Midwest in the early part of the twentieth century is beautifully portrayed, and the characters are drawn with careful observation and affection, as well as a hint of lyricism. The portrait of Bunny is particularly masterful and touching. Maxwell based much of his fiction on his own life, although of course transformed by art. I was moved by the story, and impressed by Maxwell’s restrained but powerful depiction of this small but absorbing family and world, long ago but in many ways timeless and universal.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

"Julieta," a Film by Pedro Almodovar

Readers of this blog may remember how much I admire and love the fiction of Alice Munro, the wonderful Canadian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. A couple of days ago, I went to see the Spanish film “Julieta,” directed by Pedro Almodovar and based on three Munro stories from her collection “Runaway” (2004), but with the setting changed from Canada to Spain. The film is in Spanish with English subtitles. The stories are “Change,” “Soon,” and “Silence.” (Almodovar originally called the film “Silence” after one of the stories, but when he found that Martin Scorsese’s new film was to have the same title, he changed it.) Warning: although I try not to give too much of the plot away, some might consider that the following contains spoiler alerts. OK, warning given, I will proceed: The film is about a mother, Julieta, whose daughter, Antia, unexpectedly left when she was 18 and for 12 years never communicated with her mother except for a few blank birthday cards. In the “present” of the film, Julieta is about to move from Spain to Portugal with her new lover, when she runs into Antia’s childhood friend, who says she recently saw Antia by chance and that Antia is now living in Switzerland, is married, and has three children. Julieta immediately changes her plans to move, and stays in Madrid, where she hopes Antia will someday contact her. Meanwhile, we get an extended flashback to when Julieta met Xoan on a train, they became lovers, and she eventually moved in with him and had her daughter, Antia. There are many twists and turns in the stories of the past and of the present, including a tragic death. I will of course not reveal these, nor the ending of the story. The role of Julieta is played by two actresses, one as Julieta in her 20s (Adriana Ugarte) and one, in the present, as Julieta in her early 50s (Emma Suarez). The actresses look startlingly alike, and both are terrific. Almodovar, in interviews, said that despite the rather melodramatic events of the story, he was aiming for a film of austerity, restraint, and solitude, and he achieves this, in my opinion. To me, the most powerful part of the film is the emotional connection between mother and daughter, which is so strong and then becomes severed. Julieta’s pain and mourning are palpable and wrenching. Even when she has found new love with a very supportive man, she is willing to give it all up on the tiny chance that her daughter will get back in touch with her. I felt I had to see this film because of the Alice Munro connection, but even without knowing of that background, I would have very much liked the film and been very moved by it.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

"Avid Reader: A Life," by Robert Gottlieb

Editor/critic/writer Robert Gottlieb’s memoir, “Avid Reader: A Life” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) is a big box of goodies for those of us who love reading. Gottlieb, who is now in his mid-80s, still healthy and still working, has given us a book crammed full of stories, names, discreet but (almost) never mean-spirited gossip, opinions, and wonderful insights into the world of publishing, as well as into his own life. The index is one of the longest lists of literary and related figures I have seen in a book. And much of the book is a kind of annotated listing of the authors he has edited, the people he has known. Name dropping? Yes indeed. But he has earned the right to do so. And he does it with such joy that it is hard to fault him. There are a lot of stories that start and end with how close Gottlieb became to this and that big name author or smaller name editor or agent or other person in his life. He does seem to have a genuine talent for many close friendships, and he says toward the end of the book that this comes at least partly from his yearning for family. He has his own family – a (second) wife (who is an actress) and three grown children – but lacked a close relationship with his family of origin, in which he was the only child of loving but sometimes difficult parents. Gottlieb seems to have lived two or three lives, not only with his editorial work at Simon and Schuster, Knopf, and the New Yorker, but with his intense involvement with his family and his friends; with the world of dance (especially the New York City Ballet and the Miami City Ballet) through various types of work and support and board memberships; with much travel; with his several homes spread out over the U.S. and in Paris; with his own writing (which he started in late middle age, and which includes literary and dance criticism among other topics); with his several intense collecting projects (he has collected and written about many quirky pop culture items such as plastic handbags); and more. And throughout, he always, always, always reads and reads and reads. There is a certain amount of humblebragging, but somehow it is easy to forgive him, as his persona, at least in the book, is easygoing, friendly, and engaging. I have to note and appreciate that Gottlieb seems to deeply admire (without making a special point of it or patting himself on the back for it) and have many (platonic) friendships with women. Okay, the good stuff: Here are some of the names of people he has edited or otherwise connected with, and this is just a tiny fraction of those he discusses in the book: Toni Morrison, Joseph Heller, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Bill Clinton, Nora Ephron, Susan Sontag, Jessica Mitford, Cynthia Ozick, John Cheever, Antonia Fraser, Katherine Graham, Gail Godwin, Pauline Kael, Michael Crichton, Chaim Potok, John le Carre, Doris Lessing, Natalia Makarova, Edna O’Brien, George Plimpton, Twyla Tharp, Barbara Tuchman, and so many, many more. In case I haven't made it clear: reading “Avid Reader” was pure, pure pleasure for me!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

"Hungry Heart," by Jennifer Weiner

I truly admire Jennifer Weiner’s candor, gutsiness, and courage, as well as her humor. She is now known not only for her bestselling fiction, but for speaking up on a number of issues, most notably the uneven (OK, unequal, unfair) treatment of women writers, in terms of fewer and more negative reviews, condescending attitudes of critics and others, and more. She has been attacked for, and mocked for (including obscene and horrible comments by the now-ubiquitous trolls on the Internet), speaking out, but she doesn’t let that stop her. The New Yorker has called her “an unlikely feminist enforcer,” and I say “Brava!” to that! Her new book, “Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing” (Atria, 2016), is billed as a memoir, and it is that, albeit in the form of a series of connected essays, some previously published. She exposes her most difficult experiences and feelings, in order to make readers, especially women, realize they are not alone, and in order to give them hope. She also writes of overcoming problems, as well as of her personal and professional successes. This all sounds very self-help-ish, but Weiner’s gift is to be able to tell her stories with self-awareness, humor, and even joy. Her topics include her lifelong struggle with her weight (and with the ways she has been criticized and even insulted for it, especially as she became a prominent writer and public personality); the ups and downs of her love life; being a mother; writing what she proudly acknowledges is women’s literature, even “chick lit,” but the dismissal of which she fights against; aging; and much more. She offers heartfelt advice to her readers, with a caring tone but a light touch. This memoir, like her novels, is entertaining, accessible, authentic, generous, and engaging. I love her bravery and her “realness.”

Thursday, December 29, 2016

RIP Anita Brookner

I somehow missed the news that writer Anita Brookner died in March 2016 at the age of 87. (Thank you, John Williams, of the New York Times Book Review, on 12/25/16, for the information, and for your mention of reading four of her novels in 2016, and how you “loved all four.”) I have read Brookner’s novels on and off for decades. She writes exquisitely, usually focusing on women characters who are elegant and self-sufficient but fight loneliness; the tone of her writing is often bleak, even desolate. Her writing is somewhat autobiographical. A London writer whose family were Polish immigrants, she said that they were “transplanted and frail people, an unhappy brood” whom she felt the need to take care of. She had a successful career as an art historian and academic, only starting to publish novels in her early 50s. After that, though, she published a novel almost every year from 1981 to 2011. Her most well known novel, and one that won the Booker Prize in 1984, was “Hotel du Lac.” Although I have not read her novels for some years now, I can clearly remember the feeling of reading these depressing yet perfectly insightful and somehow crystalline and even exhilarating volumes. Reading her was a distinctive experience. So although I am late in acknowledging her death, I feel the need to pay my respects here.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Consolations of Austen

I loved seeing Susan Chira’s short piece, “The Comforts of Jane,” in the Christmas Day 2016 issue of The New York Times Book Review. She writes there of how in a difficult, painful, and stress-filled time (“when the life of someone I loved was hanging in the balance”), she “turned to reading for solace,” and found the perfect book to (re)read was Jane Austen’s novel “Pride and Prejudice.” She says that because she already knew the plot, she “could savor the language, satire and repartee, the cutting observations…Austen was irresistible.” She adds, “I wanted escape, but I needed moral resonance.” She goes on to describe all the reasons that this beloved novel was the perfect consolation and companion during the crisis she was living through. Fortunately her story ended well, as “life righted itself.” She, like most Austen devotees, including me, continues to re-read Austen’s novels, and always remembers “how grateful I remain for the comfort I found in her pages.” Readers of this blog know how central Austen’s novels are to my own reading life, so you will understand how I definitely appreciated and connected to Chira’s story.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"Faithful," by Alice Hoffman

I have ambivalent feelings about Alice Hoffman’s novels. As I wrote on 5/11/15 in a post about her novel “The Story Sisters,” I had gradually stopped reading her novels because of the magical element (although I did enjoy “The Story Sisters”). I have a bit of a bias against novels with magical aspects, although I have read plenty of them over the years, including many by South American writers. In the case of Alice Hoffman’s writing, this bias is somewhat balanced by my enjoyment of her focus on families and especially sisters, and on the lives of young girls growing up. Thus the ambivalence. On a swing back toward her novels, I just read “Faithful” (Simon & Schuster, 2016), and although it too had a bit of low-key but important (seeming) magic in it, I liked it very much. The main character, a young woman named Shelby, has experienced a terrible loss, and blames herself for it. She retreats from the world, is angry and sad, shaves her head, and in general does not engage with life any more than she absolutely has to. But (and I know this sounds corny and too-easily-inspiring, but it works) she gradually, very gradually, finds small reasons and then bigger reasons to re-engage with people and the world. She is fortunate to have people who believe in her and care about her even when she pushes them away. She moves to and gradually falls in love with New York. She starts, by happenstance and with reluctance, rescuing unfortunate dogs, and they become a big part of her reconnection to the world. She connects to the family of her co-worker and becomes a sort of surrogate big sister to the children in that family. She finds romance, albeit romance with twists and wrong turns along the way. She goes to college and is headed toward a satisfying career. In a way the story is predictable, but it is also fresh and original, and contains some real surprises as well. Shelby is a unique character whom the reader cannot help rooting for.
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