Saturday, January 20, 2018

"Marlena," by Julie Buntin

"Marlena” (Henry Holt, 2017), Julie Buntin’s debut novel, is a real knockout. The main characters are two young girls, Marlene (age 17) and the narrator, Cat (age 15). At the beginning of the story, Cat and her mother and brother have just moved from the city of Pontiac, Michigan, to a very rural area in northern Michigan, a big change for Cat. She meets Marlene, who lives next door, and they become fast friends. But very early in the novel, we find that Marlene dies very soon after Cat meets her. The book’s chapters alternate between the time of their friendship in Michigan and a period twenty years later when Cat is living in New York. In the latter setting, although she has a good job in a library, and a reasonably good marriage, and loves New York, Cat is still haunted by the loss of her friend Marlena, and by guilt about whether she could have done more to save her. The main focuses of the book are an intense and fine-grained depiction of adolescence among those teenagers who are both exuberant and on some level hopeless; an up-close look at the powerful and destructive influence of drugs in rural areas; a portrait of families in trouble; and the ever-present difference that even small variations in social class (degrees of poverty and education, in this case) make. But portrayal of these issues, as important as they are, never detracts from the vivid, realistic portrayal of the central friendship of the novel, and of the way such friendships seem to be the most important thing in the world to young girls. There are also boys, there is also sex, there is also the general fearlessness and recklessness of adolescence, with its pranks and problems and bad decisions. But the friendship, along with the serious drugs that Marlena does (including opioids) and the drinking that Cat does, both as a teenager and as an adult, are always front and center. Both girls have been influenced toward, perhaps doomed to, their addictions by their addicted parents. The difference seems to be that Cat has an extra degree of stability in her family, as well as a little bit more social class stability (not a lot, but enough to make a difference). But will she ever forgive herself for surviving when Marlena did not? For me this book had the added power of its setting in northern Michigan. Although I never experienced the kinds of places and lives these two young women did, and although I led a much more privileged life than they did, I do know that area of Michigan a little, and some of the details about it resonate and ring true. Buntin is a powerful and insightful writer, and I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.

Monday, January 15, 2018

"Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology," by Ellen Ullman

I am not a particularly “techie” person (OK, that is an understatement), but when my friend BE gave me a copy of her friend Ellen Ullman’s new book, “Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), a collection of essays, I happily embarked on reading it, as I knew Ullman to be a good writer. She was one of the earlier computer programmers and software engineers, starting in 1978, and one of the rare women in those fields back then (and, unfortunately, the situation is not a whole lot better now). Before writing this book, she had already written a memoir, “Close to the Machine,” about her life as a software engineer early on, along with other books and essays about the world of technology. (She also writes fiction.) Her gift in those publications and in this one is to “translate” that world into terms that even those of us not gifted or very knowledgeable in the area, or even particularly interested in the area, can not only understand but also enjoy. The back flap of the current book says her work describes “the social, emotional, and personal effects of technology,” and that pretty much sums it up. I learned so much from this book, and at the same time, admired and savored the wonderful, sometimes even poetic, writing. Ullman helped me expand my knowledge and understanding of the world of technology and the people who develop and work on computers, the Internet, and more. She shows us the delicate balance between the human factors and personalities, on the one hand, and the mechanical/technological factors on the other. The topics she writes about here include the pleasures of being in quiet isolation with the machine and its codes, free to focus utterly on these; the Y2K drama; robots; sexism in the world of programming and technology; social class aspects of who has access to technology, knowledge about technology, and high level technology jobs; technology and education; the benefits of, and problems with, online classes; the dangers of ever-increasing surveillance through technology, and the ensuing erosion of privacy; and the sometimes unfortunate changes that have occurred in her (and my) beloved San Francisco due to the tech revolution. She is always thoughtful and fair-minded, attempting to see and acknowledge all sides of an issue or concern. In a sense, she is a philosopher of technology and the current world, as well as an excellent writer who elucidates the issues in an understandable, relatable, and thought-provoking way.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Sometimes Only Fiction Will Do

I usually have several books going at once. A few days ago, I found that the books on my current, partly-read pile included three nonfiction books and one book of poetry, as well as a book of short stories that was turning out to be something I wasn’t at all enjoying reading. (That last one got taken back to the library only partly read. No sense wasting any more time on it.) The first four books were all interesting and satisfactory, but something was missing. I needed to have at least one novel or short story collection on the pile, one that I was enjoying and looking forward to reading more of. How could I have forgotten that I always have to have fiction easily available, i.e., in my house? (Of course I have novels on my bookshelves, but mostly classics that I have read several times, and I wasn’t in the mood to re-read at this particular time.) I didn’t have time to immediately go to a library or bookstore, but fortuitously I remembered that I had a library book in the trunk of my car that I had put there in case I needed it while waiting somewhere. (My philosophy is to always have something to read wherever I am! Waiting at the doctor's office; waiting in line; having unexpected times between errands.) Hurray! It was a novel that I had already read and enjoyed some time ago, but liked it so much that I wanted to re-read it. I went to the garage, retrieved the book, plunged in, and immediately felt the joy, relief, comfort, and pleasure of being immersed in well-written fiction, and in a world that I wanted to learn more about. The book was “The Flight of the Maidens” (Carroll & Graf, 2000), by the inestimable writer Jane Gardam. I have read most of Gardam’s novels and short stories with great pleasure and admiration (see my posts of 3/8/10; 6/3/12; 6/22/13; and 9/9/14), and every one of them is well worth reading and re-reading. I have read this book before too, but before I started this blog, so I have not posted about it here. It is the evocative story of three young women, friends, from Yorkshire, England during the summer of 1946, before they leave home for college, all on scholarships. Each is figuring out who she is and what she wants. Each has secrets. Each has adventures that summer, going out into the world on her own. The writing is, as Gardam’s always is, of a very, very high quality, and at the same time very approachable and compulsively readable (not that these are incompatible, but perhaps you know what I mean.) If you haven’t discovered Jane Gardam’s fiction yet, please consider checking it out. And, getting back to my main point in this post: in the future I will make sure that I always, always, have some (good!) fiction at hand!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

My Favorite Books of 2017

There were some wonderful books published in 2017. Here is my list of the best ones I have read, in my opinion, in the order in which I read them. After each one, I put the date of my blogpost on that book, in case you want to read more about it. 1. “Difficult Women: Stories,” by Roxane Gay (1/24/17). 2. “The Mothers,” by Brit Bennett (1/30/17) (I cheated a little in including this book, which was published in 2016 but which I read in 2017). 3. “Another Brooklyn,” by Jacqueline Woodson (2/5/17) (Like #2, this one was published in 2016 but I read it in 2017). 4. “Anything is Possible: Stories,” by Elizabeth Strout (5/28/17). 5. “Trajectory: Stories,” by Richard Russo (6/3/17). 6. “Bad Dreams: Stories,” by Tessa Hadley (6/5/17). 7. “The Leavers,” by Lisa Ko (12/3/17). 8. “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” by Jesmyn Ward (12/15/17). 9. “The Ninth Hour,” by Alice McDermott (12/19/17). A few notes: 1. Readers of this blog know that I mainly read fiction, and will not be surprised that all of the books I list here are either novels (five books) or short story collections (four books). 2. Eight of these nine books are by authors whose other books I have read and enjoyed and written about on this blog (all but Ko). 3. Eight of the nine books are written by women (all but Russo). (Sorry, male authors, but remember how I studied and read your books almost exclusively for the first 20+ years of my reading life?) (But note that I have always, and will always, read everything and anything written by -- in addition to Russo -- male authors Julian Barnes, Kent Haruf, Alan Hollinghurst, William Maxwell, Stewart O’Nan, V. S. Pritchett, Tom Rachman, Colm Toibin, and William Trevor, among others.) 4. Most of the main characters in these books are also women. 5. The authors, and the main characters, are racially diverse, with (to the best of my knowledge) four African American authors (Gay, Bennett, Woodson, Ward), one Asian American author (Ko), three white American authors (Strout, Russo, McDermott), and one white British author (Hadley). 6. Most of the books focus on family, friends, and relationships -- my favorite topics. 7. Several of the books grapple with issues of gender, race, and social class.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

RIP Dorothy Bryant

I am sorry for two RIP posts in a row. But today I saw the obituary of writer Dorothy Bryant in the San Francisco Chronicle. I hadn’t thought about this author for a long time, but memories came rushing back as soon as I saw her name. I most associate Bryant’s work with my longtime Reading Group (see my posts of 1/26/10, 1/8/12, and 2/4/16 for more on this group), as we read several of her novels in the mid- to late-70s, when our group was young (as were we!) and when Bryant published her first few books. Bryant was born in San Francisco and lived in the Bay Area most of her life; she died in Oakland on Dec. 21, 2017, at the age of 87. She was the daughter of Italian immigrants, the first in her family to graduate from college, and some of her fiction reflects that background. It has aspects of the local (San Francisco and Oakland), of immigrant culture, and of working class life, as well as of the teaching life. Bryant taught in schools and community colleges in the Bay Area, and was known at least a bit to some of my friends in the Reading Group (all of us educators) through those teaching circles. We read her books because she was local and because she was a feminist, and we thoroughly enjoyed and celebrated those books. She also wrote plays and a book about writing. I am not sure how well known she was outside of the Bay Area, but here she was known with respect and affection, especially among women, and most especially among feminists. I am happy to remember those days of reading her fiction with my Reading Group friends, and connecting it to our lives in those early days of our group and of second wave feminism. Thank you, Dorothy Bryant, for your sustaining work.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

RIP Sue Grafton

I am very sad to hear of the death of writer Sue Grafton on Thursday, December 28, in Santa Barbara, of cancer. She was 77. Grafton was the much-beloved author of the best-selling series of mystery novels featuring private detective Kinsey Millhone. Each novel's title begins with a letter of the alphabet, in order, starting with "A is for Alibi" and ending with "Y is for Yesterday." Unfortunately, there will never be a "Z is for..." novel. The alphabet novels are entertaining and enjoyable for the mystery plots, but also for the cast of interesting characters (neighbors, friends, police officers, others) we grow to know as we proceed through the alphabet, and for the setting in the mythical Santa Teresa in Southern California. We soon feel we know the territory and the characters well, which enhances the reading experience; of course every new book offers many surprises as well. Most of all, readers enjoy the character of Kinsey herself, whom we feel we know well after reading several of the novels. Something that has been important to me in the series is that without in any way being explicit, didactic, or polemical, these novels are definitely feminist. When Grafton published the first book in the series in 1982, novels featuring women detectives were rare, and thus such novels were happily welcomed by many of us. As her longtime editor Marian Wood says, "Unlike so many female characters in the mysteries that preceded her appearance, [Kinsey] is not a loyal helpmate or willing employee or second banana. Now, how refreshing is that?" Kinsey Millhone is smart, funny, tough, and resourceful, but sometimes prone to mistakes, sometimes endearingly self-deprecating, and sometimes even a little goofy. What a joy it has been for readers -- women and men -- to get to know, appreciate, and enjoy Kinsey and her adventures. On a personal note: Although, as I have written here before, I love mysteries but go in and out of phases of reading them, sometimes for years at a time, I always came back to Grafton's series. Just within the past few months, I went back to catch up on some in the series that I had missed, and then read the last one (without knowing it would be the last one), "Y is for Yesterday." Thank you, Sue Grafton, for the great pleasure, entertainment, and joy you have given so many, many readers over the past 35 years! And I am sure that many more readers will have the pleasure of discovering these books in years to come.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Happy Holidays, Dear Fellow Readers!

Dear fellow readers, On this Christmas Day, I want to wish you a Merry Christmas (if you celebrate Christmas), Happy Holidays, and a wonderful New Year! Today I am counting my blessings, and in addition to being grateful for family and friends, I am most grateful to you who read this blog and for all the other readers in the world. I am grateful for books, for writers, for publishers, for editors, for bookstores, for libraries, for book reviewers, for those who teach children to read, for those who teach literature, and for all the others involved in the process of giving us the wonderful gift of books.
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