Saturday, September 24, 2016

"The Excellent Lombards," by Jane Hamilton

“The Excellent Lombards” (Grand Central Publishing, 2016), by the excellent writer Jane Hamilton (I have read and liked at least two of her earlier novels) is about an excellent family (the Lombards) and their excellent orchard and excellent apples. The narrator is a young girl, Mary Frances (also called Frances), so we see the situation described, and the story told, through a child’s perspective. We see how living in an apple orchard, as part of a family enterprise, is mostly idyllic, but as with any family, there are undercurrents of stress, competition, misunderstanding, and disappointment. Mary Frances’ closest person is her slightly older brother Michael. She also has wonderful if at times a bit eccentric parents. Her mother is the head librarian at the local small town library; what’s not to love about a mother who memorizes passages from Edith Wharton? There is a fair amount of tension between Frances’ father and her father’s business partner. There are other characters: cousins, somewhat mysterious and eccentric relatives, and a longtime worker who is practically a member of the family. Then there is the gifted and beautiful teacher who lives next door and whom Mary Frances adores. Despite some adventures and some upsets, Frances’ and Michael’s childhood seems like the kind of childhood all children should have: surrounded by loving adults, living on beautiful land, being able to help with the family’s work, but never being overworked, enjoying the pleasures of a small town, and more. I wonder how many children have such a life these days? Or did they ever? Is the author exaggerating? And, I should mention, Mary Frances’ idyllic childhood is sometimes infused with her deep fear that somehow it will all be taken away from her, by money problems, or by distant relatives, or by some other factor. The author herself lives in an apple orchard in Wisconsin, so perhaps she knows the answer to the questions above.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The 2016 Man Booker Shortlist

The six-book shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize has just been published (9/13/16) (, and I am embarrassed to say that not only have I not read any of these novels, but I have not even read reviews of, or had any other prior knowledge of, them, that I can remember. Deborah Levy? Graeme Macrae Burnet? David Szalay? Madeleine Thien? Paul Beatty? I do know the name of one author, Ottessa Moshfegh, but I don’t think I have actually read anything by her (perhaps a New Yorker story?). One excuse I have is that only two of the novels were (originally at least) published in the U.S.; two others are from the U.K., one from Canada, and one from “Canada-UK.” Books published in the U.K. and Canada are usually not published until later in the U.S., if at all. Also, to be fair to myself, I have usually recognized and sometimes read a couple of titles on the shortlist in past years. Still, this ignorance of these titles and authors this year makes me ponder how it is that I can read as much as I do (over 100 books a year, as well as many magazines and newspapers that include many book reviews), and what I read is mostly literary fiction, and still there can be a list of what are supposed to be the six best books written in English this year, and they are all completely unfamiliar to me. Perhaps I really have limited my reading (of contemporary fiction) too much to a certain type of (mainly) literary fiction by a certain type of author and novel: mostly American, mostly women, mostly “domestic” fiction, mostly character- and relationship-driven. There are many exceptions in my reading to every one of those descriptors, but still, it is overall an accurate summary of my reading preferences. I can’t decide whether I should simply accept this as normal -- everyone has reading preferences, naturally -- or limited and provincial. I do read many book reviews in many venues, and I do try to stretch my reading boundaries (including to many books from different countries and originally written in different languages). Probably I need to try harder. (Addendum: I just saw a brief review of Deborah Levy's book, "Hot Milk," in the New Yorker, 9/26/16. It sounds great, and I am putting it on my "to read" list.)

Friday, September 16, 2016

RIP Edward Albee

The playwright Edward Albee died today (Sept. 16, 2016), at the age of 88. The New York Times (9/16/16) calls him the “playwright of a desperate generation.” Albee said about his own plays that they were about “people missing the boat,…coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done.” His most famous play was the wrenching story of a bitterly confrontational marriage, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (later made into the unforgettable 1966 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton). Other plays included “The Zoo Story” and “A Delicate Balance.” Although I don’t think I have read his plays since college, and have only attended his plays in the theater once or twice over the years, I have always admired Albee’s work, and he has been a huge presence on the arts scene for fifty-plus years. Albee’s goal, he said, was for his audiences to be “challenged to confront situations and ideas outside their comfort zone,” and that he surely achieved.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Craving Narrative for Comfort

Besides loving, and reading copious quantities of, literature (and studying it and teaching it) over many years, I have a parallel, intertwined craving for narrative, for story. Literature is much more than story, of course, and I appreciate all that is involved in that “much more.” But at the base of it all, perhaps, is that need for story. Sometimes so much so that it becomes a bit separated from “literature” in its highest manifestation, and becomes a sort of provider of entertainment, distraction and comfort. Especially when one is – OK, when I am – stressed, worried, or “down,” a kind of “medicine” is a direct application of large doses of story, well written but not “great literature.” Some of the novels in this category that I read are ones that I don’t usually post about here. Not that there is anything wrong with them, or reading them. To the contrary. But the way I consume them is not with deep thought, and sometimes I can’t remember much about them after I read them. They serve a purpose, but are not necessarily important for me to share my thoughts about. They still have to be well crafted; I don’t completely turn off my critical faculties when reading them. But I am less demanding, and looking for something a little bit different, than when I am reading recognized literary fiction. Some of the providers of story, and the comfort that comes with such novels, that I have been reading lately (at a time when a family member is quite sick) are written by such popular (for a reason!) authors as Jane Green, Emily Giffin, Elin Hildebrand, Jodi Picoult, and Anita Shreve. I thank these and other authors for the enjoyment they provide, and for the time away from worry that they offer.

Monday, September 5, 2016

"Invincible Summer," by Alice Adams

It is strange for me to write about a novel by an Alice Adams, when the Alice Adams isn’t the gifted one I have read for so many years. That first Alice Adams was a San Francisco writer, now no longer with us, who wrote sparkling and astute fiction about women who were generally prosperous, liberal, and artistic. The Alice Adams whose novel “Invincible Summer” (Little, Brown, 2016) I have just read is half Australian, lives in England, and is writing now, unlike the earlier Alice Adams, who wrote her many novels and short story collections (and published often in The New Yorker) mainly in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. But after I made the transition to the “new” Alice Adams, I quite enjoyed this novel about four friends in England, a novel that follows them from their college years in the early 1990s until they are in their early forties in 2015. The post-college years of Eva, Benedict, Sylvie, and Lucien (Sylvie’s brother) diverge, and sometimes they grow apart for years at a time, but they always reconnect. There are romances, marriages, children, good jobs and not-so-good jobs, wealth and poverty, drugs and music, deaths of family members, and all the other things that can and do happen to young people growing into the adulthood of “real life.” This aspect of the story reminds me of the novel I posted about on 8/23/16 that concerned itself with a similar theme -- young people's facing the fact of actual adulthood and all that that condition brings with it -- although in New York City in that case. It is of course an eternal theme, but perhaps experienced more self-consciously in recent decades. My favorite part about the book is the part that is always my favorite: the relationships among friends and family members, and all their twists and turns.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Books as Symbols of Our Lives

Books can symbolize so much, even in the small events of everyday life. Let me give you an example. A couple of days ago, I went to my department office to check my mailbox, and found three books there. One was a book I had lent a new colleague, and she was returning; this symbolized to me the give and take, the mentoring and collegiality, of our department and of my colleagues. The second was an academic book that had been sent to me by the publisher as a thank-you for having reviewed the book proposal and sample chapters for that book, a couple of years ago. This symbolized the service we academics all do for our professional communities, a way to contribute to the larger academic work we engage in. The third was not actually a book, but a copy of a book cover, plus an acknowledgements page, left there for me by a USF colleague in a different department (Philosophy), one with whom I had written regularly during the fall semester, when he was finishing up his book, of which he has just received a preview copy. During breaks from writing, we had talked quite a bit about our respective projects, and I particularly remember discussing his proposed title, with which he was struggling. He was kind enough to include me in his acknowledgements, about which I felt pleased and honored. This cover and page symbolized the faculty writing culture at my university, and the rich and enjoyable collegial relationships I have with many faculty members in different departments there. Something about the confluence of finding these three books at the same time in my mailbox reminded me of the wonderful web of professional and personal connections I have at my university and elsewhere, and for a moment I savored that feeling and thought about how fortunate I am to be doing this kind of work I love: teaching, researching, writing, reviewing, working with colleagues and students both at my institution and all over the country and world.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Break in Case of Emergency," by Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter has a very fresh, very distinctive voice, as evidenced in her debut novel, “Break in Case of Emergency” (Knopf, 2016). There are three intertwining topics or themes (although the novel is only a tiny bit didactic, and mostly an unusual mixture of the satirical and the touching). First and foremost it is a novel about what it is like to realize, as one approaches and enters one’s thirties, that one is now irrevocably an adult. Friends Jen, Meg, and Pam were best friends in college and after, and still are, but their lives are diverging in some ways. Jen finds that her friends, whose money didn’t mean much when they were all in the same boat in college and starting off in New York, are now cushioned by family money in a way that publicist Jen and her teacher husband Jim are far from experiencing. Second, Jen is working for a sort of vanity philanthropy, in which a rich woman is using her huge divorce settlement to play at female-empowerment through her hazily focused, New Ageish foundation that is pretty much all talk and no action. Winter’s portrayal of the celebrity philanthropist, Leora Infinitas (not her original name, you will not be surprised to hear), is a very funny caricature; some of her minions are equally outrageously over the top. Jen of course sees through it all, but needs the job. The third theme is, in deep contrast to the parody of the second, very serious, touching, and at times sad: Jen and Jim are attempting to have a child, but experience both infertility and miscarriage. As with so many coming-of-age-in-New-York stories (and there are SO many of those), the city is not only a backdrop but almost a character in its own right, as I have observed about other New York-based fiction, most recently on 8/17/16. The real pleasure of this novel is, as I started off by saying, the author’s voice and style, which feels true, and yet humorous, and yet wistful, and yet again filled with pizazz that grabs the reader’s attention.
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