Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"The Possibilities," by Kaui Hart Hemmings

George Clooney! For better or worse, that’s who I think of when I think of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ first novel, “The Descendants.” This is because I didn’t read the book, but saw and admired the popular movie based on the book a couple of years ago. Now I have read Hemmings' new novel, “The Possibilities” (Simon & Schuster, 2014), and can focus on her actual writing rather than on George Clooney. This new novel is the story of a woman, Sarah St. John, whose 22-year-old son Cully has died a few months before in an avalanche in her beloved hometown of Breckenridge, Colorado. The story tells of her desperate grief, but also of her very slowly finding her way towards at least seeing the possibilities (see the title) of renewed connection to life, and even moments of happiness. She is fortunate to have a loving and helpful if somewhat eccentric father, Lyle; a good relationship with Cully’s father, Billy; and a close friend, Suzanne. Then into their lives comes a young woman, Kit, whom Cully had, unbeknownst to Sarah and the others, been seeing before he died. These five characters share tears, jokes, anger, and hope, especially as they drive a few hours away to what is supposed to be a memorial service for Cully but turns out to be something else. There are a handful of plot events in the few days on which the story focuses, but what is more important is how each character copes with her or his grief, and the somewhat strange situation of the main characters' incorporating Kit into their group. Also notable is the originality of each character. The story is of course wrenching…how could it not be? Yet the novel shows the way grief surges and recedes, and the way life intercedes and goes on, no matter what. The ending is a bit inconclusive, but that too reflects “real life.” I am aware that my description sounds as if the story is a sort of self-help, Hallmark-y lesson about coping with grief; this is not, in fact, how the novel comes across. There is wisdom, yes, but also bewilderment, deep pain, and affection. I give Hemmings much credit for her perceptive and closely observed portrayal of the complexity and fluctuations of great grief, and of the improbable but somehow realistic humor and flashes of joy the characters experience along the way.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

"Unravished," by Hester Kaplan

Because I was both shaken by and drawn into the worlds of the two books by Hester Kaplan that I read earlier, I was happy to hear of and read her new book, “Unravished: Stories” (Ig, 2014). The two earlier books are “The Edge of Marriage: Stories,” about which I posted on 2/15/13, and “The Tell,” which I wrote about here on 6/29/13. I used the overused, but apt in this case, term “heartbreaking” about the first book, and that word could be applied to the second and now the third of her works of fiction that I have read (she also published an earlier novel, “Kinship Theory,” which I have not yet read). A basic question that Kaplan’s characters keep having to ask, consciously or unconsciously, is how they can possibly live with the seemingly impossible-to-accept situations in which they have somehow been placed. In the case of “Unravished”: What if your spouse is doing something you find morally unacceptable? How do you deal with mixed feelings of revulsion and excitement about the actions of a former lover? How do you face finding you have symptoms of a possibly fatal illness? How can you possibly make sense of slowly realizing that a young girl you are starting to know is being used and abused by a repugnant neighbor? And there are other instances of abuse, of trauma, of life-changing news, and of characters unable to negotiate the difficulties and obstacles of life. How can they possibly face and cope with these life events? Yet they do, they do, somehow they do, because they have no choice. Most devastating of all is the situation in the last story, “This is Your Last Swim,” in which two characters who don’t much like each other – the head and the dean of a boarding school, both women – find themselves alone on the school campus after some sort of destructive world-changing event that has left desolation and hopelessness behind. Facing the end of life as they know it, and perhaps soon of life itself, the two characters have to find a way to help each other in these last days. Usually I am not drawn to these kinds of apocalyptic themes, but in this case, the situation is less about science fiction/dystopia and more about human relationships. The situation in this last story seems to the reader to be the ultimate example of the theme throughout all the stories, that of facing the impossible. But, as in the other stories, the theme is not schematic or monolithic. I don’t want to leave the impression that these stories are all, or only, depressing. Kaplan makes us care about her characters. And her plots are original, so we want to keep reading to see what happens. Even more important, she makes us see that although life is full of seemingly impossible obstacles and sadness, there is always love, hope, and humanity as well. This is a wonderful, compelling, beautifully written collection of stories.

Friday, July 18, 2014

"The Wedding," by Nicholas Sparks

I don’t think I have ever before read a novel by Nicholas Sparks, although I did see the very sweet (with all the good and not so good connotations of that word) 2004 film “The Notebook,” based on Sparks’ 1997 novel. But when I was at the library looking at books-on-CD, and saw that Sparks’ “The Wedding” (Recorded Books, 2003) was a sort of sequel to “The Notebook,” I decided to listen to it. Sparks is a bestselling author known for his romantic novels with compelling stories. “The Notebook” was the enduring love story of a couple whose love was, as they got old, threatened but not extinguished by the wife’s dementia. In “The Wedding,” the wife, Allie, has died, but the husband, Noah, still loves her deeply and comes to believe that a swan he feeds every day is Allie come back to him. Meanwhile, their son-in-law Wilson realizes that he has not paid enough attention to his wife, Jane, and to their marriage, and he fears they are drifting apart. With Noah’s wise advice, and the help of others, Wilson makes a plan to win his wife back and heal his marriage. All of this is lovely, if rather sentimental. The story keeps the reader’s attention, and the characters are interesting and likeable; the problem is the clunkiness of the prose, the too-long-drawn-out scenes and conversations, and a tendency to repetitiveness. I found my mind wandering at times, and by the end just wanted the story to rush to its conclusion. I have to say, however, that the surprise twist at the end was impressive. Overall, it was a reasonably satisfying way to pass a few commuting hours in my car, but I don’t think I will be seeking out more of Sparks’ fiction.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

RIP Nadine Gordimer

I write today to pay tribute to the great South African writer, Nadine Gordimer, who died July 13, 2014, at the age of 90. Gordimer was the author of 15 novels and more than two dozen collections of stories and essays. Her novels include “July’s People,” “Burger’s Daughter,” “A Sport of Nature,” and “The Conservationist,” which won the Booker Prize in 1974. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. She is known not only for her great writing, but also for her lifelong activism against apartheid and white minority rule in her country. This was not easy, as evidenced by the fact that several of her works were banned or censored in South Africa. She worked against racism and supported Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC). I admire Gordimer for being part of a great tradition of courageous authors who are not only excellent by literary standards, but also passionate and active in writing about and fighting against the injustices of their time.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

"My Salinger Year," by Joanna Rakoff

“My Salinger Year” (Knopf, 2014) a memoir by Joanna Rakoff, tells of her experiences in the mid-1990s as a young, newly minted assistant to a literary agent whose most famous client was J.D. Salinger. Rakoff occasionally spoke with “Jerry” on the phone, but only actually met him once or twice; apparently his very few visits to the agency’s office were major events. This memoir is about Rakoff's own young life, her initial steps toward being a writer, her romances, her life in New York City, and her plans and dreams for the future, as well as her daily routines at the agency and the people she worked with there. In a sense, she represents all the young people who flock to New York to live a literary life, however much on the fringes they may be; their hopefulness is touching if naive. Her recounting of her experiences with Salinger is mainly a thread on which to hang her own story, but she does manage to give readers a sense of what kind of person he was; in her experience, he was friendly and genuine, if somewhat eccentric. And toward the end of the book, she conveys quite vividly what his fiction means to her. When she finally reads his fiction, which she has avoided in the past because it is so popular with young people, she is transfixed: “The experience of reading a Salinger story is less like reading a short story and more like having Salinger himself whisper…into your ear. The world he creates is at once palpably real and terrifically heightened, as if he walked the earth with his nerve endings exposed,” she writes (p. 199). This memoir is a combination of young-writer-starting-out memories, literary gossip, insightful portrayals of the various people in her life, and reflections on literature, love, and life. For those of us who love to hear about the world of literature, writing, publishing, and all related matters, this is a lovely, enjoyable, and satisfying memoir. I also enjoyed Rakoff’s 2010 novel, “Fortunate Lives”; she is a writer to watch out for.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Elizabeth Gaskell Train

I just stumbled across the information that there is now an Elizabeth Gaskell train! It is located in the Manchester (England) area where she lived, and where much of her fiction is set. What a wonderful idea and tribute to this great writer! As I wrote here on 4/20/10, Gaskell is a writer whose work I admire and love. Her work was popular in her time, then little read for years, then rediscovered during the 1970s by feminist scholars. Her novels include “Mary Barton,” "Wives and Daughters,” “North and South,” and – my favorite – “Cranford.” She also wrote a biography of her friend Charlotte Bronte. So this news about the Elizabeth Gaskell train made me happy. And in a delightful coincidence: When I was traveling by train in Norway last month, a young female German physician sat next to me and we had a long, enjoyable conversation about all sorts of things, including literature; she, like me, was a great reader. She mentioned reading and liking Gaskell’s “North and South,” and I recommended she also read “Cranford.” To have had an unexpected conversation about Gaskell on a train in a faraway (for me) country, and then a few days later, just by chance, to learn about the Gaskell train, seemed like a lovely case of serendipity!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Austen Project

During my recent European trip, I picked up a book by Joanna Trollope titled “Sense and Sensibility” (The Borough Press, 2013 - this is the British version that I read; the U.S. publisher is Harper, 2013) which, after an initial double take, I realized was her modern reworking of Jane Austen’s novel. Upon closer examination, I learned that this was the first book in the Austen Project, which is matching contemporary writers with Jane Austen’s six novels, each one providing a modern version of the original, in a twenty-first century setting and context. After I returned home, I found the second book in the Austen Project series, “Northanger Abbey” (Grove Press, 2014) by Val McDermid. These two are the only two published so far. Curtis Sittenfeld’s version of “Pride and Prejudice” is the next one up, scheduled to be published this fall. The authors of the other three novel reworkings have not yet been announced; it will definitely be interesting to find out who is chosen to write them. So, what about the first two? I had my usual conflicted feelings (which I have discussed in this blog before) about Austen prequels, sequels, retellings from the viewpoint of other characters, modern versions, etc. But the Austen Project seems more intentionally organized and coordinated than other versions I have seen, with the authors being carefully chosen. And I have to say that both Trollope and McDermid did a good job of capturing the feelings and characters of the Austen novels, but with enough tweaks to make them feel fresh and contemporary. There is, in each, much use of technology and of slang, to signal the contemporary nature of the novel. There are allowances for women’s vastly – but not completely – changed circumstances, along with other changes in society. Both novels are competently written and quite entertaining. So overall, I think the project is a fine idea, and I look forward to reading the other four novels as they come out. Of course no other versions, modern or otherwise, can possibly come anywhere close to living up to the originals, but reading these new versions is all part of the fun of finding different ways to live for a few hours in Jane Austen’s world.
 
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