Saturday, February 25, 2017

"The Most Dangerous Place on Earth," by Lindsey Lee Johnston

Readers of this blog know that I live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area, and am attracted to fiction about the area. It is great to read about faraway places, and I wouldn’t give that up, but there is something addictive about reading about one’s own territory. Lindsey Lee Johnston’s first novel, “The Most Dangerous Place On Earth” (Random House, 2017), takes place in the small town north of the Golden Gate where I live, Mill Valley. Cue comments about Marin County’s wealthy, liberal, mostly white, self-involved, slightly ridiculous inhabitants. And perhaps some of these stereotypes are partially true, but definitely not all, and not to the extent that Marin County has been satirized for. OK, I won’t be defensive. The author, according to the back flap, was “born and raised” in Marin, and I assume she writes of it with the authority of knowing it inside out. The story is about a group of high school students in Mill Valley, and I am guessing Johnston went to high school there. She definitely traffics in some of the stereotypes, but I am willing to believe there is a lot of truth in her portrayal of the lives of these young people in this particular setting. I have seen and heard enough that the stories, the events, are believable. And much of which she writes about could and does happen in other similarly prosperous suburbs and towns in other areas of California and of the U.S. These young people in the novel have all the pressures that so many teenagers, even or in some cases especially those who are privileged, have: school, families, friends, girlfriends and boyfriends, sex, drinking and drugs, dangerous mistakes, uncertainty about themselves and their directions in life, and more. We meet, among others, the dancer, the drug dealer, the hippie, the misfit, and the popular kids. We also learn about the lives of two teachers at the high school with their own issues. The story is full of plot, fast-paced, sad, sometimes funny. This reader often shuddered and wanted to reach into the story and warn the characters not to do the self-destructive things they are doing. Now to the more mundane but enjoyable pleasures of the book for a fellow resident of Mill Valley (albeit only for a dozen years in my case; I lived in Northern Marin for a dozen years before that, after moving across the bridge from San Francisco): recognizing the streets (including the winding ones on the hillsides like the one I live on), the schools, the stores, the restaurants, the redwoods, Mount Tamalpais, and countless other specific details was an enjoyable plus for a local reader.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"Deceit and Other Possibilities," by Vanessa Hua

Vanessa Hua recently started writing a column for the San Francisco Chronicle, a newspaper I have read very regularly for the many many years I have lived in San Francisco; she lives in San Francisco. Soon after she started writing for the Chronicle, I read a good review of her debut collection of short stories, “Deceit and Other Possibilities” (Willow Books, 2016), so I picked up a copy. This slim collection is packed with jolts and surprises, and often had me wincing, as some of the events in the stories are shocking, at first unimaginable, yet somehow in the realm of the imaginable. Many of the characters are Chinese American or of other immigrant backgrounds. The sites of the stories are worldwide. Of course I was especially drawn to those that take place in San Francisco or more generally in California. Many stories raise issues of cultural differences, but not necessarily the differences one would predict, and they don’t necessarily play out the way one might think they would. A story about a disastrous camping trip at Big Sur, in which a Chinese American family’s campsite is next to that of a mixed group whose members drink and party all night, raises issues of race and gender, yes, but also of ambivalence, mixed identities, mixed motivations, deception, and much more. In another story, an Asian American teenager who has been raised to succeed academically is devastated when she isn’t admitted to Stanford, so she goes and attends classes there and talks her way into staying in the dorm room of other young women. She manages the deception well for quite a while, but of course it eventually all blows up around her. In a disturbing but very believable story, macho posturing, frustration, race, anger and other factors bring a simple golf game to a violent end. Frightening this reader, a recent widow goes on an unwise solo camping trip and gets snowed in for several days, for which she is completely unprepared; miraculously she survives and even helps another camper survive. Also: a Korean American pastor at the end of his rope financially and otherwise bets everything on a trip to a village in East Africa that he hopes will help the locals and solve his own problems too, but nothing goes as planned. From story to story I learned to brace myself for yet another seemingly unlikely yet ultimately, if painfully, believable situation, and for characters who are bumbling their way through life, making spectacular or mundane mistakes. Somehow the reader is drawn in and even implicated in the characters’ bad behavior, and can almost imagine being desperate enough to make these same mistakes, out of frustration and hope against hope. These are compelling stories.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

"Browsings," by Michael Dirda

I usually savor books about books and reading. For example, I recently read and posted (1/5/17) very enthusiastically about editor/writer Robert Gottlieb’s book memoir “Avid Reader.” My enjoyment of that book reminded me anew to keep an eye out for related books. I then picked up Michael Dirda’s “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books” (Pegasus, 2015), a collection of short essays that he had originally written for The American Scholar. Dirda, a “longtime book columnist” for the Washington Post, as well as a writer for various periodicals and author of several books, here writes on a miscellany of books and book-related personal stories. It is the type of thing I would normally enjoy, but I did so only intermittently in this case. Why? First, Dirda mostly (in this collection, at least) writes about science fiction, thrillers, obscure popular fiction, and other genres that are not of much interest to me. Second, he focuses on his collecting of books, with many stories of all the bookstores, auctions, sales, conventions, etc., that he attends, and how he keeps buying more and more books despite not having room for them in his house. He describes himself as an addict, but clearly finds no problem with his obsessive collecting. Which is of course absolutely fine, but to be honest, rather dull and even off-putting to read about in such detail. Third, his style and voice are a bit too “hail fellow well met,” jokey, and faux-modest for my taste. Of course I have favorable feelings about any one who loves books as much as Dirda does, and who reads as extensively as he does. But these other factors got in the way of my enjoyment of the book, and I was happy to reach the end of it (with a little judicious skipping along the way).

Friday, February 10, 2017

RIP Bharati Mukherjee

RIP Bharati Mukherjee, who died January 28th at the age of 76. This wonderful Indian-American writer was part of the exciting and long overdue burst of multicultural writing of the 1970s and beyond. She, along with writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, were true pioneers who broke the boundaries and opened up American fiction to a much broader range of writers and topics and experiences, and fiction has been the better for it ever since. It is perhaps hard for younger readers to realize the huge contrast between the pre-1970s and now, when we perhaps take for granted the much wider and more inclusive universe of writers and writing available in the U.S. now. Mukherjee’s writing was generally about immigrants, many Indian-American but also many from other backgrounds. This author was born in India, studied at the famed University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, lived and taught at several places in Canada and the United States, notably UC Berkeley, and spent many years in San Francisco, where I live. I heard her read at least twice. My friend J. was her colleague and friend at a college in the East where their teaching overlapped for a while, and spoke highly of her. Mukherjee was scheduled by her parents for an arranged marriage, but she made her own decision when in Iowa and married the writer Clark Blaise; they were married for 53 years, and he survives her. Her fiction includes “The Tiger’s Daughter,” “Wife,” “The Middleman and Other Stories,” "Jasmine," and “Desirable Daughters,” among other books. I read most of her books, always with great interest and pleasure. She was a terrific writer and an influential one. On a personal note, I feel connected to her and her work not only through the San Francisco connection but also because of my childhood in India. But most of all, as a longtime voracious reader of English and American literature, I was thrilled when at last there were more books being written and published in the United States by women and more books by people from various national and ethnic backgrounds.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

"Another Brooklyn," by Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson is known as a prize-winning and bestselling author of children’s and young adult fiction, as well as for her memoir (written for children/young adults), “Brown Girl Dreaming.” With “Another Brooklyn” (HarperCollins, 2016; audio version -- to which I listened -- by Blackstone/Harper Books), she writes a novel that can be appreciated by either adults or young adults; the subject matter and level of writing are too mature for children. This short novel takes place in the Brooklyn of the early 1970s, when the section of Brooklyn where the main characters live is changing from mostly white to mostly African American, because whites are fleeing. The main character, August, is a young African American girl who, along with her father and younger brother, moves to Brooklyn from a rural area of Tennessee, where they seemed to have had an idyllic life, until the children’s mother died, a suicide. The children do not accept that she has died, believing (or convincing themselves to believe) for years a fantasy that she will soon be coming back to them. Meanwhile, August becomes part of a group of four girls who are extremely close friends, and who sustain each other through the years of late childhood into mid-adolescence. The story is a paean to, and reminder of, the closeness that girls’ friendships can achieve. But it is also, like Roxane Gay’s short stories (see my post of 1/24/17), a powerful and terrible reminder of the fragility of young women’s lives. The girls learn early on that they are objectified and vulnerable as females. At first they are confident that their female friendships can protect them against the boys and men who leer at them, or molest them, or pressure them for sex. But sadly, they learn that as life comes at them, there are some things that friends cannot protect against. This book captures very well the mixture of feelings and experiences that so many young girls and women experience in a racist, sexist society (although the novelist does not use those terms explicitly). It also captures the way that some young women are able to escape or overcome the difficult and even traumatic parts of their lives, and some are not; it is not always predictable which ones will be which.

Monday, January 30, 2017

"The Mothers," by Brit Bennett

"The Mothers” (Riverhead, 2016) is a very strong debut novel by Brit Bennett. Set mostly in Oceanside, California (near San Diego), the story revolves around the members of a middle-class African American church, Upper Room Chapel. The main characters are Nadia, Aubrey, and Luke, who at the beginning of the story are aged 17 (in the case of the two girls) and 21 (Luke); the story takes place over a period of about 10 years. They have each experienced both love and sadness in their childhoods, including the suicide of Nadia’s mother. Each of the three main characters is close to each of the others, but there are important secrets among them, secrets that rend their relationships. In the background is a chorus of a group of older women from the church, known as “The Mothers.” They observe, they talk, they advise, they comment, with both judgment and, sometimes, mercy. All of the characters are strongly portrayed, and the writing is powerful and assured. I generally am attracted to novels about families, mothers and daughters, female friends, and other relationships, and I was to this novel’s stories as well. But one hesitation I had, and this was mentioned in at least one review of the novel, was about the tendency of the novel to verge on being an anti-abortion screed. The biggest secret in the book involves an abortion, and it seems the author will not allow the young woman to ever get over this event in her life, despite gaining an education at a prestigious university, traveling extensively, and in general being successful. Of course the author has the right to include such a theme, and to represent what she believes some young women have experienced; some readers will agree with this perspective and others will not. In any case, Bennett’s is a vivid new voice on the literary scene, and I look forward to seeing her future writing.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

"Difficult Women," by Roxane Gay (And the Seventh Anniversary of This Blog)

A horrific event in the childhood of two sisters changes their lives forever; the sisters suffer unendingly, yet unwaveringly, taken to extremes, support each other through childhood and into adulthood. This story, “I Will Follow You,” is the first in Roxane Gay’s new short story collection, “Difficult Women” (Grove Press, 2017). The book ends with an equally violent, shocking, and heartrending story, “Strange Gods.” The stories in this book are deeply disturbing, troubling, even brutal at times. They vividly illustrate the widespread abuse and violence that many girls and women experience. Yet there is a vein of humanity, caring, strength, resilience running through them as well. The main characters are all women, as the title indicates, and they tend to be bruised (often literally) and beaten down by life, but somehow are still strong, stubborn, and autonomous. The women are damaged, but still in charge of themselves and their lives. These characters are complex and believable. I do not mean, however, to make this point in any kind of redemptive way; no matter how well the women cope with sexual abuse, it is a terrible thing, and it leaves lifetime scars. These are complex stories, never simple narratives of violence or, on the other hand, of inspiring “we shall survive and flourish” sentiments. Some other (interrelated) elements of the stories: great love, great lust, great loss, much sex, much infidelity. There are many marriages that feature deep connections, sexual and otherwise, yet are fraught with difficulties. Although these are common elements of much literature, Gay’s stories contain many twists and turns, many psychological byways, many surprises. There is the woman who pretends not to know that her husband and his twin sometimes switch places. There is the couple that both knows the other is having affairs. There are the intersecting lives of rich and poor families in a subdivision in Florida. There is the black scientist who works in Northern Michigan and feels totally isolated; well-meaning but ignorant people keep asking her if she is from Detroit (as if that is where all black people come from). These stories are fierce (but not didactic) meditations on race, class, and, especially, gender. Gay, also the author of “Bad Feminist,” a collection of essays (discussed here on 10/29/14), is a truly compelling writer, whether of fiction or nonfiction. She is an important voice who should be widely read. Now I am eagerly waiting for the upcoming publication of her memoir, “Hunger.” (And on another note: This post marks the seventh anniversary of the StephanieVandrickReads blog.)
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