Thursday, December 1, 2016

"Swing Time," by Zadie Smith

I still remember the exhilaration of reading British author Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” when it came out in 2000. What an original and arresting voice! That story of multiracial and multicultural families in London was bursting with life, and Smith, a very young author (in her early twenties when she wrote this novel, and 25 when it was published), was a most welcome fresh new voice. The novel made her instantly famous, winning much praise from critics and readers worldwide. Since then I have read two of her next three novels (“On Beauty” and “NW”) and enjoyed both of them, although “NW” was a little harder to get into, as Smith was experimenting with a new style. (See my post of 10/2/12 on “NW.”) (I tried to read her second novel, “The Autograph Man,” as well, but found it dry, as did many critics, and it seems to be generally regarded as her least successful novel.) Smith has also written essays, given talks, been a writer-in-residence and a professor of writing, and in general is a literary star. I have just read her most recent novel, her fifth, “Swing Time” (Penguin, 2016), and although the reviews have been mixed (mostly positive but sometimes a bit guarded, and in a couple of venues negative), and although I hesitated about reading it, I am very glad I did. This novel, like some of the others, features two friends who grow up together but go in different directions. The friends are the unnamed narrator and her friend Tracey. Both live in a poorer and mostly black area of London; both are biracial; both want to be dancers. Tracey is the more talented dancer, and has some limited success at it, but despite her pride and defiant attitude, struggles with life. The narrator has more education and more experience in the larger world; her job for most of the time covered by the book is as an assistant to a famous one-named singer, Aimee, seemingly based on someone like Madonna. Soon the narrator’s life is completely subsumed to Aimee’s needs, and she jets all over the world with her. A big portion of the book takes place in West Africa, where Aimee has decided to fund and set up a school for girls. This section contains much not-very-veiled criticism of western stars and other philanthropists dropping in to Africa to do seemingly good projects, but often without understanding the contexts and possible consequences of such projects. Readers cannot avoid thinking of such stars as Oprah and Angelina Jolie. Aimee is well meaning but oblivious to nuances and impervious to criticism. There are also subplots to the Africa part of the novel that bring up such issues as romantic and sexual relationships heavily influenced by racial, national, and power imbalances; race; gender; immigration and emigration; poverty; religion (the increasing influence of conservative Islam); and more. All of these issues crowd the pages of the book, and are important and thought-provoking, but (mostly) do not tip over into the didactic or polemic. The characters are compelling, especially the two main characters, along with the narrator’s scholarly and politically active mother, Tracey’s more limited and completely Tracey-focused mother, the two men with whom the narrator becomes involved in Africa, and many more minor but vivid characters. This novel reminds me of the strengths of Smith’s first, “White Teeth,” although it is more mature and less exuberant. Yet Smith’s novels, although she focuses on some common themes throughout her writing, always have new stories, new characters, and new twists. And she is still only 41 years old, so we can look forward to, I hope, many more novels by this gifted writer.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

"The Mistletoe Murder, and Other Stories," by P. D. James

Readers of my recent posts of 11/12/16 and 11/25/16 will know that I have started reading mysteries again, after a long break. Here is one more I just read, and recommend: “The Mistletoe Murder, and Other Stories” (Knopf, 2016), by the wonderful late P. D. James. James is one of the giants of the mystery world, who died, coincidentally (it actually gave me a start when I just Googled her death date and found it to be today's date), exactly two years ago -- November 27, 2014 -- at the age of 94. The stories in this small book were originally commissioned by, and published in, various magazines and newspapers. Thus we are fortunate to have “new” stories even after James’ death. And they are timely, given the arrival of the Christmas season. Two of them feature James’ greatest creation, the detective (and poet!) Adam Dalgliesh. Each of the four is intriguing, surprising, psychologically complex, and very satisfying. This volume would make a good Christmas gift for a mystery reader family member or friend.

Friday, November 25, 2016

"Death at La Fenice," by Donna Leon

On 11/12/16 I wrote of returning to mysteries for the first time in a long time, because of my friend K.S.’s recommendation of Louise Penny’s Armande Gamache novels. After reading and enjoying three of the novels in the series (and I am sure I will read more), I took my friend M.V.’s recommendation, which actually reinforced that of others through the years, to try Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries, set in Venice. M.’s recommendation reminded me of how my beloved late sister-in-law, who was Austrian, loved Donna Leon’s mysteries and even read them (in German) in the hospital when she was very sick. And I finally visited Venice in January of this year. So maybe the confluence of all these signs was telling me it was time to investigate these well-loved mysteries. I have now read the first in the series, “Death at La Fenice,” (Perennial, 1992), and did in fact enjoy it very much. The Venice setting, the musical world where the murder took place, and the intriguing characters, all drew me in. Of course the mystery itself, with its twists and turns, its clues and its red herrings, all contributed to my enjoyment as well. As to why I am suddenly open to and enjoying reading mysteries again after a long period away from them, I don’t really know the answer. I think it is just cyclical. But I am happy to have discovered these two “new” (to me) mystery writers (Louise Penny and Donna Leon) and their thoughtful and multifaceted detectives (Gamache and Brunetti), and look forward to reading more novels in each series.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

RIP William Trevor

I was sad to read that the noted Irish author, William Trevor, has just died at the age of 88 in England, where he had lived since 1952. Although a wonderful novelist and playwright, he is best known for his absolutely incomparable short stories. I have long admired, marveled at, and enjoyed those stories, and somehow thought he would always keep writing them. He, along with V. S. Pritchett and Alice Munro, are the modern masters of the short story in English, as far as I (and many critics too!) am concerned. Trevor told the Guardian in 2009 that he “considered short stories the best vehicles for studying character” (according to the Associated Press story published in the San Francisco Chronicle on 11/22/16; some other material in my post is taken from that article, as well as some background and insights from Marisa Silver’s 11/23/16 New Yorker article and elsewhere). Most of all, he considered himself a storyteller, and a great one he was. He always thought of himself as a bit of an outsider, perhaps from moving often as a child, and from that stance observed people carefully, depicting the small movements and conversations of everyday life in an illuminating but never flashy way. His work felt quiet but revelatory. I remember that when I read his stories, they often started quietly and then sneaked up on me, and suddenly I was in awe of his insights into the human mind and motivations and behaviors. Trevor won many literary awards, including the prestigious Whitbread (three times), and was short-listed four times for the even more prestigious Booker Prize. He received three honorary titles in Britain, including a knighthood. I loved hearing that “he produced all of his stories on blue paper – a habit from his ad agency days – on a manual typewriter, followed by much revision.”

Thursday, November 17, 2016

My Mom is Reading Again!

My mother got very ill about three months ago, a source of great worry for all the family. Fortunately, her health has very gradually but definitely improved. She is not back to her old self, but getting closer. I am very grateful to my two brothers and my sister-in-law who live in the same city as she does, and who have taken such great, loving care of her. I visit on weekends when possible, call her, and write to her, but they are the heroes of this story. I write about this here because as some of you may possibly remember, one of our great connections is our love of reading, and I enjoy choosing books for her that I think she will like. When she got so sick, it was hard for her to read. But one sign that she was getting better was that she started reading the newspaper again. And then she started reading the book I had chosen for this particular time: “Miller’s Valley,” by Anna Quindlen (see my post of 4/24/16). A while ago she told me she was reading it, and a few days ago she said she had finished and enjoyed it. It took her longer than usual to read it, but I was so happy that she had gotten back to reading. She also told me she had started the next book I had chosen for her: “The Excellent Lombards,” by Jane Hamilton (see my post of 9/24/16). I hope she will like it as well. I am so happy that she is reading again – a real sign of recovery!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

"Still Life," by Louise Penny

I have written more than once about my lifelong enjoyment of mysteries, but I have also written of how I sometimes go “off” mysteries for years at a time. I have now gone through a long period, several years, without mysteries (with one or two exceptions) during those years. But a colleague who is an editor who reads very widely, K.S., recently told me about a mystery writer new to me – Louise Penny – and her Chief Inspector Armand Gamache books. K. S.’s enthusiastic recommendation, plus the fact that the books are set in a small town in Quebec, Three Pines, convinced me to try at least the first one, “Still Life” (Minotaur, 2005) (K. had recommended reading them in order of publication). I may have mentioned to her that my favorite mysteries are British “village cozies” as they are known, with thoughtful and intriguing inspectors/investigators. Although this mystery is set in Quebec, the “village cozy” model is in evidence. A beloved older woman, a mainstay of the village, is found dead of a wound from a bow and arrow. At first it looks like an accident, but of course (this being a mystery novel) it is not. We get to know all the chief residents of the village, many of whom are quirky and eccentric, but who support each other despite some feuds. We find that their stories are entangled going back many years in their individual and town histories. Gamache is a good watcher and listener, and knows his psychology. He is also very likable. There is a satisfyingly surprising ending that once known makes complete sense. A side story is Inspector Gamache’s having to deal with an odd, ambitious, brash, socially inept assistant. Apparently there are a dozen or so more novels in this series, and I think I may be hooked. I will read at least one more…the next one…and see what happens.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

"Commonwealth," by Ann Patchett

If you like beautifully written novels about quirky, dysfunctional but loving families, read the wonderful author (of such novels as “Bel Canto” and “State of Wonder,” the latter of which I posted about on 9/19/11) Ann Patchett’s new novel, “Commonwealth” (Harper, 2016). Really. Read it! Two families are friends; early on in the novel (so this is not a spoiler) the husband in one family and the wife in the other fall in love and get married. The focus is on the six children of the two families, who are now bound together as stepsiblings. They bond but also fight, and live through some very difficult times, sent back and forth between their new sets of parents, sometimes living together and sometimes separately. They resent each other yet cling to each other; they fight yet back each other up. They suffer, some more than others, and there is at least one tragedy. Some of them feel lifelong guilt. But there is much humor and much resilience as well. The novel covers 50 years. We follow the children into adulthood, and among other events, a new crisis is precipitated when a famous author becomes the lover of one of the grown siblings and uses the family story as the basis of his next novel, which becomes a huge bestseller titled “Commonwealth,” just as this real novel with the same title has become a big bestseller (very meta). The plot thickens: Patchett is open about the fact that this novel is very autobiographical; there was a similar set of divorces in her childhood, and she too has stepsiblings. She and those stepsiblings also regularly crossed the U.S. to be with the various parents. So one question the novel raises is that of who owns our stories, and what obligations we have regarding our own and our family’s stories and privacy. Highly recommended!
 
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