Sunday, December 10, 2017

Don't Get Between Me and Finishing My Story!

The other day while waiting in my dentist’s office, I started reading a story in one of those magazines that I only (honest!) read there, or at the beach, or at airports: magazines about celebrities, movies, etc. I wasn’t able to finish the story before my dental work was done, so – true confession – I took the magazine home. In my defense, it was one of many on the tables in the waiting room, and it was about four months old. Still, I shouldn’t have taken it. Or at least I should have asked. I’m sorry, Dr. L! The reason I tell this story is that it reminded me of the power of story, and how once we hear or read part of a story, we want very much to hear or read how it ends. I learned this in childhood. One particular example still stands out in my mind. In early elementary school, a librarian came to read to my class, and at the most exciting point in the story, she STOPPED READING! She cheerfully told us that if we wanted to know the ending, we could go to the library and finish the book there, and she left us without finishing the book. I was both very disappointed and a bit outraged, because I wanted to hear the rest of the story immediately. I also didn’t think I would be able to go to that library and find that book, and as it turned out, I never did hear or read the end of the story.I don’t remember the title of the book, or what it was about, but I vividly remember my feeling of something like betrayal, as if we children, listening with upturned faces, had been tricked. I understand now the motivation of the librarian, showing us the excitement of reading, but I thought then, and still think now, that she chose the wrong way to illustrate it. Years later – perhaps 25 years ago – I had a similar experience when I accidentally left a Barbara Pym book I had almost finished on an airplane. When I realized it, I rushed back to the plane, where the workers were sympathetic but said the airplane had already been cleaned. However, they said they would try to track the book down, and lo and behold, they did find it and return it to me perhaps a half hour later! (I am doubtful that airlines would be that helpful nowadays….) I had read the book years before, and I knew I could probably find it again, but it was somewhat obscure, and would take time to track down. I certainly wouldn’t be able to get a copy during my trip. So I was thrilled to have my book back, and be able to finish the story. I guess the lesson is never to get between an avid reader and her or his ability to finish a book or story!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

"The Leavers," by Lisa Ko

My good friend SB, the same one who recommended the novel “Silver Sparrow,” which I very much liked, and about which I posted on 10/26/17, also recommended the novel “The Leavers” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2017), by Lisa Ko. I had read reviews of the novel and it sounded interesting, and was being very well received, but somehow I wasn’t drawn to read it. But after SB recommended it, I took another look at it, and then got completely caught up in it. It is very good on so many levels. It is being labeled by reviewers as a novel about the immigrant experience, and it is certainly that. But it is also about what constitutes family, what constitutes “home,” the meaning of the parent/child connection, gender, class, race, adoption, addiction, and the moral ambiguities that we all encounter. It is also fascinating on the level of a good story that draws the reader in. The two main characters are a mother, Polly, who is an immigrant from China (and therefore already a “leaver”), and her American-born son, Deming. Polly struggles to manage financially and to take care of her son, but her life is hard. She lives in New York City with her partner Leon and others of his relatives, including Deming’s friend Michael. Then one day when Deming is eleven years old, Polly disappears, a "leaver" once again. Soon after, Leon disappears. No one else among the relatives can afford to take care of Deming, so he is adopted by a white American couple, professors at a university in a very white town in upstate New York. He becomes “Daniel,” and has to adjust to a completely new life, meanwhile always wondering what happened to his mother, and why she left him. His new parents are good people, but they are na├»ve about cultural issues (despite their best intentions and efforts, and their academic knowledge) and cannot understand Daniel’s true self. The story follows Polly and Deming/Daniel in alternating sections, as Daniel grows up into his twenties and has trouble figuring out who he is, where he belongs, and what he wants to do with his life. He becomes a sort of “leaver” as well, making several moves in a sometimes aimless fashion. But he is also a “searcher” for the truth about what happened to his mother. I won’t give away any more of the story, but will say that it is alternatingly painful and hopeful. Readers will not be sorry to undertake a journey with these two deeply and carefully described characters. So once again, thank you, SB, for this recommendation! And I will look forward to reading future fiction by this gifted first-time novelist, Lisa Ko.

Friday, November 24, 2017

"Generation Wealth," by Lauren Greenfield

I just finished reading – and looking at the extraordinary photographs in – a huge slab of a book: “Generation Wealth” (Phaidon, 2017), by the photographer Lauren Greenfield, with a useful foreword by the well-known sociologist Juliet Schor. There is text throughout the 500 pages of this large and heavy book, but the photos on every page are the stars. Greenfield started taking photographs in the 1990s in Los Angeles, and has continued to take photos until the present, very often focusing on social class, wealth, and celebrity, not only in California but also across the U.S. and in Ireland, Iceland, Dubai, and elsewhere. One of her main themes is fluxes in wealth, and a related one is what happens when there is a crash, societal or personal, that changes everything. The financially disastrous year 2008 is a focus here, especially in a chapter titled “The Fall.” Some of the other sections of the book are titled “I Shop Therefore I Am,” “The Princess Brand,” “Sexual Capital,” “The Cult of Celebrity,” “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” “Old Money,” and “The Queen of Versailles.” The photos themselves are big and bold, in vivid, supersaturated colors. Most of them feature faces and bodies (some quite intimate) and their surroundings (houses, property, parties, shops, doctors’ offices, etc.). One could just look at the photos and the book would be fascinating, but one gains insights by reading the accompanying text, especially quotations from the people pictured. I found the book compelling, and in particular it resonated with the theme of social class that is one of my research focuses.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

"Little Fires Everywhere," by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s first novel, “Everything I Never Told You,” was a very big success in terms of both critics’ reception and sales. I found the book powerful and compelling (see my post of 10/31/14). Her new book, “Little Fires Everywhere” (Penguin, 2017) is equally powerful and compelling. Both books focus on families, and excavate the very complex relationships among family members, as well as the societal forces that influence them so strongly. The main characters in the current novel are the members of the Richardson family: Mr. and Mrs. Richardson and their four teenaged children, Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy. They live in the upscale suburb of Shaker Heights, and seem to be living a typical upper middle class life, although Izzy’s attitude and behavior are sometimes troublesome. As the story progresses, we see that each of the family members has her or his own secrets. Then the artist and single mother Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl appear in Shaker Heights and rent a house from the Richardsons. Pearl becomes friends with Lexie, and Izzie becomes friends with and an assistant to Mia as she creates her art. There is something mysterious about Mia and Pearl, and Mrs. Richardson wants to find out what it is. The story has to do with social class, but also race (as in Ng’s first novel) and parenthood, as the Richardsons’ friends adopt a Chinese American baby, and then become embroiled in a court case when the birth mother wants her child back. Ng writes beautifully and with astute psychological insight, as well as awareness of societal pressures and beliefs, in all their nuances. This is a rich, full novel, both satisfying and unsettling.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Mixed Feelings about "Fresh Complaint," by Jeffrey Eugenides

I have written here before about issues of, and my feelings about, gender in literature, meaning mainly the differences (when present) between fiction by female and male authors. Of course – please take it as a given – I believe that great fiction can and is produced by both women and men. But why do I read more novels and short stories by women than by men? Originally, back when I was in late college and in grad school, as a budding feminist, I wanted to reclaim the writing of female authors, and to balance out the years of being taught, and reading, almost all male authors. But I also, often but not always, felt more “at home” in the works of women authors. I resisted that feeling to some extent, not wanting to open the door to men’s saying the same thing about fiction by men. With time, I have found I read a real mix of both, but that I lean (OK, fairly markedly) toward writings by women (as readers of this blog will have noticed). All of this is prologue to writing about my feelings about Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest book, a collection of short stories titled “Fresh Complaint” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017). I found the stories interesting and well-written, but I had an increasing sense of being immersed in a male world. Nothing wrong with that, and Eugenides has certainly written about female characters in the past (although there is some controversy about the way he has positioned those characters), and I wrote a positive post about his novel “The Marriage Plot” (I read his earlier novels “The Virgin Suicides” and “Middlesex” before I started this blog). However, I felt somehow forced into the male perspective in a way that I don’t with women writers, nor with with male writers such as Colm Toibin, Kent Haruf, William Trevor, and Richard Russo. It is true that one of the two main characters in Eugenides’ title story “Fresh Complaint” is a young woman, but she is a young woman who manipulates and partially destroys the lead male character for her own purposes, in a way that will raise alarming connections to some of the news stories of today; some accused men defend themselves precisely by saying that their female accusers are conspiring to defame them. (This is not exactly what happens in the story here, but close enough.) I will add that these stories are not overtly or traditionally masculine or macho; I almost have an easier time with those, as they don’t even pretend to be anything other than that. It is writers such as Eugenides (or Jonathan Franzen), who present themselves as more understanding of female characters and lives, that disappoint me when their work indicates otherwise. (Although, in the spirit of yes-but-no-but, Eugenides does a good job of portraying a kind of “modern guy,” whose attributes still reflect the past but are being dragged into a newer present with different attitudes about gender.) I will end this post by saying that Eugenides’ book raises issues for me, and perhaps for other readers, that I don’t quite know how to resolve. And perhaps that is OK (it would be presumptuous and unlikely for me to claim to do so, when so many others have struggled with these issues), as long as it is part of an ongoing discussion about gender and literature, and of course about gender and politics, equity, and life.

Friday, November 10, 2017

"Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York," by Roz Chast

“Going Into Town” (Bloomsbury, 2017), by the inimitable writer/artist/cartoonist Roz Chast, is subtitled “A Love Letter to New York,” and that it is indeed. Chast's love for the city is palpable. Chast is well known to New Yorker readers as a longtime contributor of her unique cartoons. She is also the author/artist of the bestselling 2014 graphic memoir, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?”, which deals with the author’s relationship with her aging parents (see my friend Mary’s guest post on that book on 5/31/14). Chast herself grew up in Brooklyn and always thought of Manhattan as the center of everything. She and her husband did move to a “leafy suburb” north of New York when their children were little, but she never lost her love for New York. She says that the germ of the current book was her desire to offer her daughter some basic facts and guidance about Manhattan when the daughter was about to move to the city for college. She instructs her daughter in such things as the basic layout of Manhattan, the subway system, apartments, museums, and Central Park. Each page has a detailed, quirky drawing, along with dry, wry commentary. For example, she writes candidly that “For some reason, I’ve always preferred cities to Nature. I’m interested in the person-made. I like to watch and eavesdrop on people” (p. 40). And “When you walk around, keep your eyes and ears open. Partly for safetly… but also because there’s SO MUCH MATERIAL. The people, the buildings, things expected, things unexpected, or something surprising…” (p. 50). Chast's people are drawn as somewhat frumpy, in an utterly charming way. This book is an absolute joy to read and look at, and repays repeated readings with new surprising details on each page. And as a bonus: although I have visited New York many times over the years, I learned some new facts about it in this book.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

"Silver Sparrow," by Tayari Jones

Many thanks to my good friend SB, a regular reader and supporter of this blog, for recommending the novel “Silver Sparrow” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2011), by Tayari Jones. The book opens with the attention-catching line “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” and everything else in the story spins off from that central fact. James married his wife Laverne when they were both at a very young age, when she became pregnant (and later lost that baby); later he met and fell in love with Gwen, and started his second family. The daughter of his first family, Chaurisse, born a few years after the first baby died, and Gwen’s daughter, Dana, are about the same age. His second family is aware of the first, but not vice versa. Gwen’s and Dana’s lives are consumed by a fascination with and resentment of James’ first family. Dana and Chaurisse get to know each other during their late teen years, and the plot accelerates from there. Other major characters are Raleigh, James’ ever-present best friend who is as close as a brother, and who quietly adores Gwen, and the girls’ grandmother, Miss Bunny, who raised both James and Raleigh. The main story (not counting brief background information about James and Raleigh as children) takes place over a period of about 40 years, from the late 1950s/early 1960s to the year 2000 (the latter in a brief epilogue); the characters are African American and live in Atlanta. The reader might expect James to be the "bad guy" of the story, and in a way he is, but one cannot help feeling compassion for, and even admiration of, this responsible and dependable (aside from the obvious!) and a bit nerdy man who is trying to do right by both wives and daughters, and everyone else as well. The first half of the book tells the story from Dana’s perspective, and the second half through Chaurisse’s eyes. The book is suffused with the duality of the two families, two wives, two daughters, two perspectives. The novel has much to say about marriage, about males and females, about parenthood, about young African American girls, about female friendship, about middle class African American life, about honesty and dishonesty, about living up to one’s responsibilities and how complex that can be, about pride, and much more. This novel tells a compelling story, with compelling characters, and leaves the reader with much to think about, including the fact that almost no moral decisions are completely right or wrong, good or bad, but always encompass various shades of grey.
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