Tuesday, June 28, 2016
I am embarrassed to say that I excitedly felt I had “discovered” the Australian writer Elizabeth Harrower when I picked up her novel “In Certain Circles” and was so very taken by it. (See my post of 1/24/15). My only excuse is that Harrower is in her late eighties; her books were out of print for a long time even in her native Australia, until a press republished them starting in 2012; in the case of “In Certain Circles,” Harrower wrote it and just as it was about to be published, withheld it from publication for almost fifty years, before she finally agreed to publish it, to great acclaim, in 2014; and her books were mostly not available or at all well known in the United States until the past couple of years. I am so glad she is being rediscovered. I have now just read the recently published collection of Harrower’s short stories, “A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories” (Text Publishing, 2015), and am grateful for this gift of her stories. Although I prefer the novel to the short stories, and although the collection is a bit uneven, as such collections often are, there is much to rejoice about and to enjoy in this volume. The stories’ main quality is their unflinching looks at characters’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and at the way the characters interact with family members, friends, lovers, co-workers, and in fact with life itself. Most of the characters are women, and most of them are unhappy, although there are moments of hope. Several of the stories portray the ways that people who love each other can deeply hurt each other, sometimes without even realizing it, because of their own limitations. We also see how constrained the lives of young people, especially young women, can be. Occasionally we get a sense of the desperation of people who live in certain dreary small towns of Australia (but they could be small towns anywhere). There is a grimness to some of the lives depicted. But despite all these darker aspects of the stories, there are almost always glimpses of, and eruptions of, a powerful life force.
Friday, June 24, 2016
The minute I heard about the new film “Genius,” I was determined to see it, and soon after, I did. This movie depicts the relationship of the novelist Thomas Wolfe (played by Jude Law) and his Scribner’s editor, Maxwell Perkins (played by Colin Firth). To those of us readers who think of the creation of a literary work as an almost holy process, any insights into this process are a great gift. As is fairly well known, Wolfe was a wildly creative and seemingly undisciplined writer with an outsized personality who brought in enormous manuscripts, was very attached to his own words, and kept adding to them up to the last minute. His manuscript for “Look Homeward, Angel” had been rejected by over forty publishers when Perkins accepted it for Scribner’s. Then the two men embarked on a long, difficult process of editing it, cutting it down to a reasonable length. Much of the film shows the two in Perkins’ office, or walking, or on the train, or in various other locales, constantly talking and arguing about each phrase, each sentence, each description. Perkins was mostly endlessly patient with this brilliant but uncontainable author, and they became friends; some suggested they had an almost father-son relationship. The big question, of course, and Perkins himself brought this up at one point, is what the job of an editor is, and whether his (at that point, in the 1930s, it was always a “he”) editing made the work much better, or molded it in a way that diluted the original strength, vision, and style of the author. We also see Perkins’ family (his wife is played by Laura Linney), and Wolfe’s lover and inspiration Aline Bernstein (played by Nicole Kidman). Aline left her family for a passionate and deep relationship with Wolfe; ultimately, though, Wolfe’s allegiance was always first and foremost to his writing, and he left people behind along the way. Perkins also edited F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and there are a few scenes with those writers as well, showing the competitiveness and jockeying for reputation (and for Perkins’ favor) that took place among the three writers. The movie has received somewhat mixed reviews, as has the acting. Jude Law is accused of overacting, and Colin Firth of being too restrained. There are also complaints about British and Australian actors playing American literary figures. And some say it is just too hard to make s story about editing dramatic and interesting; it has been called "slow." To all of which I say (forgive my informality), “Whatever!” I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, the acting, the literary history, and the glimpses into the writing and editing and publishing processes, and I think you will too.
Sunday, June 19, 2016
British author Pat Barker is perhaps best known for her “Regeneration trilogy,” three connected novels about England during World War I. She has now completed another trilogy of connected novels, this time about England during World War II. I have not yet read the “Regeneration trilogy,” although I plan to, but I have now completed these most recent novels, “Life Class,” “Toby’s Room” (about which I posted on 11/15/12), and “Noonday” (Doubleday, 2015), all of which are very powerful, and beautifully written. When I say these six novels in the two trilogies (and Barker has written others as well) are “about” the wars, it would perhaps be more accurate to say that they take place during the wars. They do include battle scenes, but even more, they depict the English, especially Londoners, who were affected by the wars in many different ways. They fought, they returned from battlefronts, often wounded; some didn’t return; they waited for their loved ones; they experienced the bombings and the deaths and injuries and the deprivations; they worked as wardens and rescue workers and ambulance drivers; they struggled with the emotions of wartime and massive loss. “Noonday,” which I just finished reading, takes up the same characters as the earlier two novels in this trilogy: a group of art students in the earliest novel, and now in the third one, middle-aged adults, still artists, who either have fought and been damaged physically and mentally, and/or are trying to keep their lives going in London and the countryside, despite repeated bombings, losses of their homes, being witness to terrible destruction of life and property, and always worrying about their relatives and friends and their city and country. Remarkably, they still work on their art when they can; art, along with love and friendship, is what keeps them going. Sometimes this desperate situation leads various characters to behave bravely, and sometimes to behave badly (the latter in their personal lives), but there is some question about whether the “normal” (non-wartime) rules about, for example, marital fidelity, apply in the midst of such destruction. It is fascinating to see how these characters –- mainly Elinor, Paul, and Kit, who have been art school classmates and friends and lovers at various times -- grow and change, and how their relationships also evolve through the 25-plus years they have known each other. These novels bring us up close to the horrors of war, yet show that daily life and relationships go on too. I can only describe this trilogy, and this novel, clumsily, as I have been fortunate never to experience anything like this. But I do want to say how exquisitely masterful Barker’s depictions, and her writing are; I highly recommend this trilogy. And now I plan to go back and read the earlier trilogy as well.
Thursday, June 16, 2016
Readers of this blog, and everyone who knows me, knows that feminism is an important part of who I am, and of my beliefs. So of course I was happy to find that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of the wonderful novel “Americanah” (about which I posted here on 5/24/14) and other fiction, has a slim book called “We Should All Be Feminists” (Anchor Books, 2015). The book is really more like a booklet, is based on a TEDx talk the author gave, can be read in less than an hour, and is well worth your time. For longtime feminists, there may not be a lot that is “new” per se, but the ideas can't be emphasized too often. And Adichie’s perspective, stories, and powerful yet humorous presentation all make her a compelling advocate for women’s rights and equity. She is Nigerian, and lives both in Nigeria and in the United States; this talk focuses on the African context, but also the larger world context. Ms. Magazine had a famous saying that all feminists have their “click” moments of recognition about inequality; Adichie tells of her moment when she was a young schoolgirl, was promised that whoever got the highest score on a test would become class monitor, but when she did get the highest score, was told that the promise only applied to boys. The boy with the second highest score was given the position Adichie had longed for and worked hard for. Adichie writes about how girls and women are not supposed to be angry, how they are taught to want to be liked, and how they are taught to focus on getting married. She writes about progressive men who say, “I don’t even think about gender,” and points out that this is because they have, and don't even realize they have, the privilege of not needing to think about it. I very much like this small book, and in fact I gave copies to several of my nieces last Christmas.
Sunday, June 12, 2016
Michael Kinsley, a longtime journalist/writer and editor of and for various prestigious periodicals (The New Republic, Harper’s, Slate, etc.), was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (“PD”) in his forties. For a while, he did not reveal this condition, fearing he would be pitied and perhaps not be considered for jobs, but eventually decided to do so. He has now lived with PD for about twenty years, and has been helped by medicine and surgery to live a relatively healthy and certainly very productive life. In his short book, “Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide” (Tim Duggan Books, 2016), a compendium of essays that form a coherent book, he writes candidly about his PD. Part of his purpose here is to educate readers and to demystify the disease. But his larger topic is how the Boomers generation is now learning about and confronting aging and, inevitably, death. The book is a combination of memoir, philosophical musings, story telling, medical information, advice, and more. Kinsley’s style is accessible, humane, occasionally a bit humorous, and realistic.
Wednesday, June 8, 2016
I realize that I often write about the settings of novels, and that I generally prefer these to be small spaces: a village, a vacation town, a college, or even a house. As Jane Austen said about her own writing, “Three or four families in a country village is the very thing,” the setting that allows a concentration of human characteristics and behavior to be observed in detail. After reading the novel “Sweetbitter” (Knopf, 2016), I realized how its intense focus on one place, a prominent New York City restaurant, and to a much lesser extent its surroundings, allowed the author, Stephanie Danler, her close observations of this small universe of its own. The restaurant, apparently based on the famed Union Square Café, where I have read that Danler herself worked at one point, provides the main character, Tess, the new world she is looking for when she leaves her small town life and flees to New York. This specific, concentrated world is very difficult for an employee to enter, and requires months or years of training and acclimatization, and Tess struggles to learn how it all works and how she can do well at it, yet from the beginning takes to and loves the place, the people, the experience. The novel contains much information about how a high-end restaurant works, about food and wine and service, but also about the tight yet ephemeral society created by the employees. Drugs and alcohol and sex are ever present. But so is dedication to service. Tess takes it upon herself to learn everything she can about wine and food, with the help of her mentor Simone and her crush and eventual lover Jake. But not all is what it seems, and there is both great joy and great betrayal. I thought I would be writing about this novel mainly as yet another example of the tsunami of restaurant books, mostly memoirs, that have been published the past few years, many of which I have read and enjoyed. But strangely, when I started writing about “Sweetbitter” here, I realized that the restaurant part, although fascinating, especially to those of us who love good restaurants and who dine out fairly often, was not even the main point. True, readers can learn much about restaurants and fine dining when reading this novel, but we learn more about youth, ambition, the great attraction of the big city of New York to young people all over the United States, and the way that each (especially young) person has to learn for herself or himself the age-old lessons of how the world works.
Saturday, June 4, 2016
“The Children” (St. Martin’s, 2016), by Ann Leary, combines two elements of one of the types of novels I enthusiastically lean toward: a focus on a family and their various relationships with each other and with other people in their circle(s), and a family home that is the setting for most of the action. This novel also includes, unexpectedly to the reader until at least halfway through, elements of a psychological thriller, and a surprise ending (although of course there are clues). Leary is the author of the bestselling “The Good House” of a few years ago (see my post of 2/11/13), a novel that also focused on characters in the confined setting of a house in a small town. In the case of “The Children” the town is called “Lakeside,” in Connecticut. The family in question is a blended one; the main resident of the home, Joan, married the owner, the late Whit, and both brought small children to the marriage. Now the children are grown, but both their love and resentments from the past are resurfacing, and the resulting fissures, aggravated by the both charismatic and jarring presence of the love interest of one of the (step)siblings, form the spine of the plot. Other complications include psychological issues in at least two of the siblings. Interesting subplots/themes include music (Whit was a banjo maker and his children are musical) and Internet/blogging activities (one of the characters has a parenting blog, although she is not a parent, and there are various musings about the power of the Internet). All these elements combine for a compelling novel, and I couldn’t stop reading it. Yet when it ended, it left me let down and with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. Why? Maybe the fairly sudden switch to thriller mode? Maybe the characters just didn’t reach out and make me care abut them? Or maybe something else I can’t put my finger on. I am, once again, reminded of the unpredictability of readers' feelings toward a book. A few works are unquestionably masterful (oh how I wish there were a female or neutral substitute for this word, and for “masterpiece”!); some I like for my own reasons and because of my own tastes; some I don’t particularly like but I can see why others do, again a matter of taste; and some seem unquestionably subpar. But except for the clear occupants of both ends of the scale (and even these can change with the passing of time and changes in critical judgments), these are to some extent -- aside from fairly obvious divisions along the scale -- matters of judgment, taste, and personal preference.