Sunday, July 15, 2018

What I Read on my Canada Trip

On a very recent trip in Canada, partly for an academic conference and partly extended after the conference as a vacation, I carried out my usual practice before trips of accumulating several paperback books to take with me. Yes, yes, I could put them on an e-reader, but I prefer the books themselves. As I have alluded to before here, it is a fine art for me to choose just the right books for this kind of travel. I don’t want anything too “heavy” or demanding (not suitable -- at least in my experience -- for reading on airplanes and sitting by an ocean, lake, harbor, or bay), but there has to be, still, at least decently good writing. I won’t discuss each in detail here, but I list them below with minimal annotation, just to give you an idea of my typical “trip reading.” 1. “The Awkward Age,” a novel by Francesca Segal, describes a romance between a widow and her new love, in London, made difficult by each of their children’s actively undermining the new relationship. Complications ensue. Well written and entertaining. 2. “The People We Hate at the Wedding,” by Grant Ginder, is the type of novel often described as a “romp,” full of funny scenes, complications, snide portrayals of the characters, and more. The writing is only OK, but the novel is fun to read. 3. The novel “A Sister in My House,” by the Swedish-born New Zealand resident Linda Olsson, is the most “serious” of the books I read on this trip, a poignant, sad, yet life-affirming story of two middle-aged sisters who spend a few days together after a long semi-estrangement, and finally face some of the difficult facts of their childhood. Beautifully written. (The author translated her own book from Swedish to English.) 4. “Young Jane Young,” by Gabrielle Zevin, describes a Monica Lewinsky-type situation, perhaps especially pertinent during this MeToo era; the novel is very sympathetic to the main female character, and offers a low-key feminist portrayal of the situation. 5. Having “only” brought five novels, and finding one of these not very interesting and therefore abandoning it, I visited a bookstore for reinforcements, and bought two more paperback novels. The first was a British “cozy” mystery, a genre that I occasionally return to over the years; this one is by an author I didn’t know before, Rebecca Tope. The book is part of a series set in the Cotswolds, so an enticement already. (Just the name “The Cotswolds” makes me feel warm and fuzzy…). Titled “Peril in the Cotswolds,” it was comfortable, familiar, and enjoyable to read, and although I wouldn’t put it high on any list of favorite mysteries, it hit the spot on this occasion. 6. Finally, the other book I picked up at the Canadian bookstore near my hotel was “Barrelling Forward,” a collection of short stories by the young Canadian author Eva Crocker. The stories are edgy, raw, and original, and I was glad to discover a “new” (to me) author whom I would probably never have known about if it were not for browsing in this Canadian bookstore. It reminded me of the great pleasure of exploring bookstores while traveling in other countries than my own! So – that’s my list of reading material (supplemented along the way by newspapers and magazines as well) during my very recent, very enjoyable trip.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

"The Only Story," by Julian Barnes

It is always good news when Julian Barnes publishes a new book, whether it be a novel, a collection of short stories, a book of essays, or a memoir. I have read and posted here about several of his books. His most famous recent book is the novel “The Sense of an Ending,” the Man Booker 2011 Prize winner, which I liked very much and wrote about here. His newest is “The Only Story” (Knopf, 2018). It is a love story, but a somewhat unusual and certainly sad one. In the 1960s, a 19-year-old English university student, Paul, meets an older (aged 48) married woman, Susan, at the tennis club where Paul’s parents go. They play doubles tennis, and not long after, begin an affair. Somewhat improbably, Paul is not bothered at all by the substantial age difference, although Susan has some qualms and concerns. Her husband and his parents are, naturally, deeply unhappy about the affair. But it becomes far more than an affair; against all odds, the two move in together and have a very happy life for perhaps a decade. What finally drives them apart is not the age difference, but another serious problem, which I won't describe here, in order to let the reader discover it for her/himself. We see the arc of their story up close, and then toward the end of the book, we find ourselves listening to Paul as a much older man, looking back at the affair. Although it went wrong, he has never forgotten his “only story,” his first and greatest love. This is a very “grown-up” story. It is also a bit claustrophobic, as readers get very little sense of the context of the outside world during the affair, beyond that of the small, upper middle class community where the two lovers meet, and the apartment in London that seems unconnected to the life around it. Interestingly, Barnes chooses for his narrator (the story is told through the eyes of Paul) to vary his pronouns referring to Paul among “I,” “he,” and “you.” “The Only Story” has an unlikely weight to it, and we readers believe that Paul’s story is real and heartfelt, although he steers clear of sentimental or exaggerated language, even about his great love.

Monday, July 2, 2018

"Mrs.," by Caitlin Macy

Why am I so often enthralled by fiction about wealthy families in Manhattan? Their habits, their haunts, their relationships, their belongings, the schools their children attend, the restaurants they patronize, and more…all catnip for me. As I have written before here, I feel some embarrassment about this, but on the other hand I justify it – perhaps rather feebly, but with a kernel of truth – by noting its relationship to my research and writing on social class, and especially on affluent students and families from around the world. I will also point out here that some writers focus on this topic – the wealthy in Manhattan (and surroundings and related locales) -- with much more seriousness than others (which is not to say that even the serious ones don’t include some snarky humor in their portrayals of this one percenter class). The tone of a very recent novel by Caitlin Macy, “Mrs.” (Little, Brown, 2018), is serious, funny, sometimes grim, even “savage” as one reviewer noted. Macy, the author of an earlier novel, “The Fundamentals of Play,” and of a short story collection, “Spoiled” (which I wrote about here on 4/26/18), obviously knows this territory well (she comes from a formerly wealthy family, studied at a prestigious boarding school, attended Yale, and lives in New York, and all her fiction directly or indirectly deals with social class). Her inside knowledge manifests itself in hundreds of details about schools, home decoration, manners, dress, and other habits of the affluent. The main characters in “Mrs.” are three couples whose children attend a posh, very selective Upper East Side pre-school, St. Timothy’s. Philippa Lye is beautiful but with a murky past; her husband Jed is a banker from old money, but would rather spend his time on the longtime family farm in Connecticut. Minnie Curtis comes from a poor background but “landed” a rich (also formerly poor) financial industry man, a nasty climber with a trail of rapes behind him, John D. Curtis. The third couple is not wealthy: Gwen Hogan, although formerly a gifted chemist, stays home with their daughter, while her husband Dan is a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office. Other characters include various family members, as well as other parents at St. Timothy’s. The story is told from several points of view, including those of the six main characters, and one small daughter’s perspective. The year is 2009, just after the financial crash. Soon the stories of the various characters become enmeshed in the financial and other improprieties of some of them, and some characters are caught up in difficult moral dilemmas. In addition to the moral dilemmas, there are issues about the alcohol problems of some characters, and about the insecurities that so many of the characters experience as they struggle to gain and maintain increasing status in the social world. Although social class is the main focus, gender issues are definitely explored as well. Women in this environment are often regarded as accessories only, witnesses to the main action by the men. Despite this novel’s being focused on the women’s perspectives, part of what all of the women know on some level is that their power, if any, is largely dependent on that of the men in their lives. “Mrs.” is a serious, thoughtful book about serious topics, but it is also completely engaging, and at times very entertaining. Although it is about 350 pages long, I devoured it over big chunks of two summer days, often when I “should” have been accomplishing other things. But, after all, what is more important than reading? And if not on summer days, when? And if I can classify it as “research” for my work on social class, all the better!

Sunday, June 24, 2018

"Last Stories," by William Trevor

What more can I, or anyone, say about the late great author William Trevor’s writing, and especially his short stories? He, along with fellow geniuses Alice Munro and V.S. Pritchett, rule the world of short stories. In my 12/24/10 post on a collection of Trevor’s stories, I described them as “perfect”; I always put him on my various lists of “best” and “favorite” writers. I was sad when Trevor died in 2016, at age 88, but glad that I could always revisit his stories. Now we have a new book, “Last Stories” (Viking, 2018), and as soon as I saw announcements and reviews of the book, I knew I had to read it. The stories are as wonderful as ever. I had already read a few of them that were published in the New Yorker, but was glad to re-read them, as well as to read the ones I had not seen before. Because at this moment I seem to be stuck in the simplistic mode of “His stories are so, so, so good…you should all read them!”, which is a truly inadequate response, I am going to borrow the words of S. Kirk Walsh’s San Francisco Chronicle review (May 27, 2018): “…the author charts the unremarkable lives of men and women who rarely leave their small towns, usually in Ireland and England. As he deftly excavates his characters’ inner worlds, Trevor once again produces a sort of subtle alchemy on the page.” Further, Walsh writes, “Like Alice Munro, Trevor magically compresses these private narratives, advancing through lifetimes in the mere space of 10 or so pages.” Walsh also reminds us that Trevor once, in an interview with the Paris Review, defined the short story as “the art of the glimpse,” and this description resonates with me. As I have written before, the best parts about Trevor’s stories are his portraits of very real characters and his seemingly low-key style, a style that steals into the reader’s mind and heart. In “At the Caffe Daria,” we read about two women who were childhood friends, and what happened when one’s husband left her for the other. Now that he has died, they briefly reconnect, and we learn what happened before and after his death. The story is sad, and delineates the fragile relationships among the three main characters. In “Making Conversation,” a marriage is imperiled when a married man is in a relationship with another woman, and his wife comes to tell his mistress about the marriage. “An Idyll in Winter” is about a broken love story, and what happens when it is revisited. And “The Women” tells of a teenaged girl finding out the unlikely truth of who her mother is; this story is inflected by social class and adolescent self-consciousness, as well as by the heartbreak of the mother who just wants to see a glimpse of her daughter. The other stories in the collection are equally compelling. As I describe the book and its stories, I feel again, as I said at the beginning of this post, that my comments are extremely inadequate to convey the exceptional quality of Trevor’s stories. So maybe I will just repeat what I said above, bluntly but with heartfelt enthusiasm, “His stories are so, so, so good…you should all read them!”

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

PBS's "Little Women"

PBS recently showed a three hour production of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” My friend B. had seen it before I did, and she was not enthusiastic about this production, especially decrying the last hour, which she felt rushed too quickly through the later parts of the characters’ lives, skipping years at a time. I partly agree with this assessment, BUT – perhaps being overly sentimental – I still enjoyed it, including (I admit) weeping through several parts of it. The acting was good (although I couldn’t help remembering the terrific 1994 film directed by Gillian Armstrong and featuring a star-studded cast: Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, Christian Bale, Gabriel Byrne, and Susan Sarandon). Of course I loved being reminded of this book, so cherished by so many, and read and reread multiple times, especially by young girls and women. We loved the gumption of Jo, and dreamed of being writers like her. We worried about Beth’s ill health. We got annoyed at Amy’s occasional brattiness. We loved that Marmee and her minister/soldier husband and their four girls were so close, and so kind, but with interesting quirks as well. There was romance as well. Who among us didn’t have a little crush on Theodore “Laurie” Laurence? One part I think the production wisely downplayed was the very moralistic, didactic preachy aspects of the novel. I remember rereading it some 25 years ago after a long time away from it, and being surprised by the heavy, transparent, unapologetic preachiness embedded in the charming and inspiring story. I have read that Alcott didn’t necessarily believe in or endorse a lot of that, or at least wouldn’t necessarily have featured it so strongly, but that her editors and others encouraged it, because such “lessons” in fiction, especially for young readers, were considered important at the time that the author wrote. Still, nothing could turn me against this treasured and often reread novel, and it was a pleasure to see the new KQED production. And sometimes it is enjoyable to weep about a story!

Sunday, June 17, 2018

"Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces," by Michael Chabon

This post is for Father’s Day today. Happy Father’s Day, everyone who is a father, stepfather, grandfather, uncle, or in any way in a father-like role, and to those who love and are loved by them. I have a very good impression of the writer Michael Chabon, who lives in Berkeley and therefore seems like a kind of neighbor; although I haven’t met him (I once briefly met his wife, a well known writer herself – Ayelet Waldman), I have only heard good things about him. But the fact is that I haven’t read much of his fiction. It is work that I can see in the abstract is very good, but I just don’t relate to. Too male? Too magical/fantastical? I don’t know exactly why, but despite trying a few times, I just haven’t connected to his fiction. However, I do like his nonfiction, especially essays, when I occasionally run across them. I just finished his recent very short collection of essays, “Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces” (HarperCollins, 2018), and enjoyed it. The books starts with a compelling essay, “The Opposite of Writing,” which tells of the author's encounter, early on in his career, with a famous male writer (I wish I knew who!) who told Chabon that he would have to choose between writing and having children, and advised him not to have children. He said that each child would subtract a book from a writer’s lifetime production. This is quite interesting to me, because women writers and readers have discussed this topic -- whether one can be a writer and a mother -- for many, many years, but we usually hear that male writers who are fathers are able to take the time they need for their writing, mostly because they often have a wife or other partner or family member to do most of the childrearing and even to financially support the male writer, in many cases. I am a little torn about this discussion, as on the one hand I admire a male writer who grapples with these issues and doesn’t treat them as women’s issues only, but on the other hand I feel a bit like he is appropriating an issue that women writers have long discussed, and not acknowledging a kind of male privilege he has in the whole discussion. However, I have had the impression, even before reading this book, that Chabon is a dedicated and evolved father, so it is not surprising that he didn’t have to think long before deciding that he didn’t buy the older writer’s reasoning, and that even if he had, he would have chosen to have children. He went on to have four children and publish 14 books. He has some fun, in this essay, with speculating about whether, if he had not had his children, he would have published 18 books. Of the other essays in this collection, the most striking one is “Little Man,” about Chabon’s son Abe, who is fascinated, almost obsessed, with fashion, dresses with flair, and seems not to care that he is out of step with his middle school classmates. Chabon supports his son’s passion by accompanying him to Paris Men’s Fashion Week, where Abe feels he has found his people. The other essays are mostly about the author’s children and such topics as grappling with racism and with sexism. Chabon also writes about baseball and his mixed feelings about his son’s playing in Little League. The book ends with a touching essay on Chabon’s own father and their relationship.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

"When God Was a Rabbit," by Sarah Winman

As I wrote on 6/5/18 in my post on Sarah Winman’s novel “Tin Man,” I liked the novel so much that I wanted to read more by her. Accordingly, I found and read her first, highly acclaimed novel, “When God Was a Rabbit” (Bloomsbury, 2011) and was definitely not disappointed. Winman’s voice – sincere, straightforward, thoughtful, a little whimsical in a very understated way, and very humane – caught me up immediately, as did the plot and the charming, eccentric, and believable characters. The main character is an imaginative young girl named Elly; the other main characters are her brother Joe and her best friend Jenny. The story is bursting with vivid and compelling characters: others of Elly’s family members, people who are so close to the family that they might as well be family members, friends, lovers, and more. The story takes place between 1968 and the recent present (early 2000s). It begins in England and then toggles between England and the United States, New York City in particular. Some events of recent history are important components of the novel. There is much evident love among the characters, as well as confusion, pain, and sadness. The writing is exceptional. Oh, and that title? When Elly is small, she names her pet rabbit God, and that rabbit is a talisman for her even in later life when it is long since physically gone.
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