Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"After Birth," by Elisa Gilbert

Elisa Gilbert’s main character Ari, in the novel “After Birth” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), is not only not afraid to speak her mind, but seems unable not to do so, strongly, harshly at times, compulsively, emotionally, and with little filter. She has recently given birth by Caesarean section, and feels traumatized and angry about the experience, about the way medicine treats pregnancy and childbirth, and about the fact that no one warned her what the whole experience would be like. Ari lives in a small upstate New York town where her husband teaches at a local college, and where she is supposedly working on her doctoral dissertation in Women’s Studies, but where she has in fact not been able to do anything since her baby boy’s birth. Although she loves her baby, Walker, deeply, and is learning to love him more as he gets older, she is overwhelmed not only by the birth experience but by the complete change in her life, and by her inability to do much more than just survive each day. She is lonely; her mother died when she was young and was not a good mother anyway, she has no sisters, and she has made but almost always somehow lost many friends over the years. Her husband Paul is a good man, supportive and loving, but doesn’t really understand what Ari is going through. A major plot strand is that Ari meets a former musician, Mina, who has given birth even more recently, and they form a bond that helps them both during this difficult time. This novel could have become merely a blast against the medical establishment and against the way motherhood is in the U.S. today, and that is certainly a big part of the message. And it is an important message. Because childbirth and motherhood is definitely a strange new land, one that no woman can be really prepared for. And it is true that the hard parts, the sleeplessness, the postpartum depression, the overwhelmingness of it all, are rarely talked about or written about. (Of course not all women suffer all of these, or at least not as intensely as Ari does, but many do.) So Albert has done a good thing with this impassioned explosion of a novel. But if that were all, it might be more message than literature. Fortunately, despite the cry of anger and desperation that forms so much of the novel, it also features realistic and compelling characters and situations, and growth on the part of the main character. Further, the writing is self-aware, even witty.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Long Hours of Reading While Ill

I recently came back from three weeks of travel, mainly for conferences but also to visit a good friend (thus the paucity of posts here during that time). I had a wonderful time in three different cities out east. Along the way (perhaps on one of those airplanes full of coughing people?), I picked up an illness, the main symptoms of which were a very bad cough and extreme fatigue. I have been back just over a week, and have been gradually recovering, but only yesterday did I feel close to normal again. What does this have to do with books and reading? Well, once I had acknowledged that there was no way I was going to get any work done, beyond responding to emails and a few basic errands and chores (and, yes, a couple of posts on this blog!) (and fortunately I am on sabbatical so didn’t have to arrange coverage for classes), I realized that the only upside to illness (and I rarely get sick, so had forgotten this) is that the one thing I still feel like doing when sick is – of course! – reading. Fortunately I had a newly acquired pile of novels and short story collections available, and so I dived in. Of course I sometimes dozed off while reading, and sometimes didn’t even have the energy to read at all. But I did read for many hours over the past week, finishing several books, (mostly) without the slight guilt I sometimes feel when I read for hours, feeling I “should” be doing something else – writing, other work commitments, housework, correspondence, exercise, errands, etc. I will post on those books in the next few days. I’m very glad to be feeling much better, but slightly sad to leave that other world, the world where (debilitating but temporary) illness takes over and normal work goes by the wayside, the world of long days of getting lost in wonderful fiction.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

"Man at the Helm," by Nina Stibbe

I so enjoyed English writer Nina Stibbe’s memoir, “Love Nina: A Nanny Writes Home” (which I posted about on 6/22/14) that when I saw Stibbe had published a novel, I had to read it. “Man at the Helm” (Little, Brown, 2014) has the same whimsical, slightly eccentric, and utterly engaging tone as the memoir. At first it seems to be a bit of a slight confection, airy and fun and witty, but not with much depth. But underneath the whimsy are some serious reflections on family, especially dysfunctional although loving families, and all the ways that things can go wrong – and sometimes right. The story is narrated by a precocious (in a good way) nine-year-old, Lizzie Vogel. She lives with her parents, her older sister, and her younger brother. When her father leaves the family, there are suddenly a lot of changes to absorb: not only seldom seeing the father, but moving to a village where (this is in the early 1970s) the villagers disapprove of and dislike the family, because they don’t believe in divorce, and they don’t like anyone “different.” The family is remarkably close, but the children, especially the two girls, are constantly worried about their mother, who more or less falls apart after the divorce and move, drinking too much, taking pills, and writing little playlets about her situation. The two girls scheme to bring a new man into their mother’s life, surmising that their family will be better off and more approved if there is a “man at the helm” (thus the title). Their machinations are charming and their knowledge is both incomplete and a bit scarily advanced. Some of their efforts backfire, in one case seriously. Yet there is hope as well. Stibbe hits the right notes: the children are charming and clever but not cloying or unrealistic. We care about the family, and we are entertained by their plans and manipulations, but these plans are also a little heartbreaking. Stibbe’s authorial voice is original and captivating. I look forward to her future books.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Thoughts on Writers Now Seldom Read -- Bellow, Stafford, and More

Today I have been thinking about the rather melancholy topic of famous writers who are now seldom read, either because their reputations have been re-evaluated, or because they have somehow simply slipped out of fashion. I was reminded of this subject when I read an essay by Lee Siegal in the March 23-April 5, 2015 issue of New York on two biographies of Saul Bellow. Siegal used the review as an occasion to note that ”many people under the age of 50 have barely heard of Bellow, if at all,” and to ponder why and how Nobel Prize-winning Bellow’s reputation seems to have slipped. Some say it is because his persona has been revealed to be cantankerous, or, worse, because his views on gender and race appear to have been very backward. Siegal also speculates that “Bellow’s fiction turned off readers and writers suspicious of intellectual abstractions and doubtful of the authority behind them.” Yet the reviewer remembers a time when Bellow’s fiction was extremely important to him, and he can’t forget that. I have written here (4/27/10) about my own extensive reading of and (very slight) connection with Bellow: I read and connected to his fiction in my early 20s, and met him briefly in my 30s, but never really read him after that. Just as I was thinking about the case of Bellow, I read a poem by Craig Morton Teicher in the Spring 2015 issue of The Paris Review, titled “Book Review: ‘The Mountain Lion’ by Jean Stafford.” The poet mourns that Stafford, a writer he ardently admires, is no longer read. He writes: “No one reads Stafford anymore – I asked/on Facebook. Stafford died, her/legacy gently dispatched/into the low air. O, life/is terrible, literature/ridiculous. Stafford’s prose,/teaming and rich as loam,/could take Jonathan Franzen’s/for a walk, feed it biscuits./But who cares? Who remembers?” What a powerful and sad (and witty! I like the parts about Facebook and about Franzen…) tribute! The sad fact, in the cases of Bellow and Stafford and so many other authors, is that time moves on, new authors are born and write and come into favor and displace the old, all except for the very few at the very top. And even “the very top” means little except perhaps that they have survived, and thus the argument becomes circular: the best survive because they are the best, and we know they are the best because they survive? And yet, and yet…during the period of decreasing readership for any given author, there are readers who do remember, and who are grateful for what they have experienced in reading these once well-known writers. Surely these authors' writings leave a trace for a long time. And their books are still in libraries and bookshops, waiting for at least a few new readers to discover them. So yes, this is a melancholy topic, and yet I can’t accept that any good writer’s work is wasted, gone completely. Somewhere, somehow, their influence must linger.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Author Gives to School Libraries

Despite the dreams of many young would-be authors, the vast majority of writers don’t make huge amounts of money. Even well recognized writers generally have other jobs such as teaching. But there are those few who are always on the bestseller list and make very good money. It is gratifying to hear that one of these, James Patterson, who has already given more than $1 million to help independent bookstores, is now starting an initiative to provide funds for books and other needs at school libraries. He has committed $1.25 million to the project. According to the San Francisco Chronicle (3/11/15), Patterson, who has strong memories of his weekly visits to libraries as a child, said that he "wanted to ‘shine a light’ on the problem of public schools with no libraries or underfunded libraries.” The Chronicle notes that in 2111-12, more than 8,000 public schools in the U.S. did not have libraries. Patterson is known as a philanthropist, focusing on book-related organizations and prizes. I know there are other authors as well who donate their money and/or time and expertise to reading-related causes, and I am grateful to them.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"A Spot of Bother," by Mark Haddon

I picked up Mark Haddon’s book, “A Spot of Bother” (Vintage, 2006) more or less on a whim. Yes, I had heard of his bestselling book “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” but that book had not particularly appealed to me and I did not read it. This book – “A Spot of Bother” – immediately plunged me into the world of a family that has plenty of problems, yet is very real, very realistic, a little odd, sometimes funny, sometimes maddening, and sometimes touching. I can’t quite say why this family portrait drew me in so quickly and completely, but it did. The story takes place in England, and the family consists of parents George and Jean and their two adult children, Katie and Jamie. George has just retired at the age of 61, and is a bit adrift. He starts having panic attacks about his health and about the fact that everyone dies eventually. Jean loves George, works part-time, and is having an affair with a former colleague of George’s. She is adjusting to having George home most of the time, something she is not used to. Although it sounds racy that Jean is having an affair, she is a down-to-earth woman and a loving wife and mother. Daughter Katie is divorced, with a young son, Jacob, and a fiancĂ©, Ray. George and Jean don’t think Ray is good enough for Katie, and she occasionally has doubts herself, although she is grateful for his love, kindness, help with Jacob, and financial solidity. Jamie is a real estate agent, gay, in a relationship with Tony, but there is a lack of commitment in that relationship. So the threads throughout the novel, the sources of suspense, are the questions of what will happen to George, whether Katie and Ray’s wedding will take place, and what will happen with Jamie’s and Tony’s relationship. The author skillfully manages these plot threads, and we gradually get to know each character quite well, and pull for them all, despite some perhaps reprehensible behavior on the part of each. The portrayal of George is particularly powerful, as he embodies the fears of many aging men (and women), and his apparent irrationality at times has at its core some very realistic and universal fears. The portrayal of Jean is strong too, because it shows how a woman of her age and situation might feel, and how feeling desired again (by her lover, David) conflicts with – but she wishes it didn’t – her loyalty to, and love of, George. This novel is both a little off-kilter and very believable. My only two quibbles are that George is treated as “old” at age 61, and that his obviously serious psychological problems are not taken as seriously by anyone, even the author, as the symptoms indicate they should be, in my opinion. But overall “A Spot of Bother” is artfully constructed, skillfully written, and satisfying to read. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

"There's Something I Want You to Do," by Charles Baxter

Charles Baxter is one of the leading American writers today, although I don’t think he gets the credit or reputation he deserves. I read and liked (and posted about here on 3/22/10) his novel “The Feast of Love”; I have also read some of his short stories. His new story collection, “There’s Something I Want You to Do” (Pantheon, 2015), mainly set in Minneapolis, does what every story collection should do: Every story is a mini-masterpiece, in which something important happens, big or small, and we are caught up in the story. As the title suggests, there is usually something someone wants someone else to do, and those specific words are even sometimes used: “There is something I want you to do.” Everything springs from those situations. There are some characters that appear in several of the stories, and our encountering them more than once enriches our knowledge of them, but each story stands alone. Some of the stories are very touching, very sad, yet there is always something positive as well, and that something is usually human kindness. I don’t mean that the characters are all saints, not at all, but there is a thread of human caring, human connection, throughout the book. There are stories of love – gay and straight -, marriage, divorce, children, jobs, money problems, departures, illnesses, and other events, but always with an original yet believable take on the situation. In at least three cases, someone rescues someone else; in two of these cases, an “ex” comes to the rescue of the former love, illustrating the centrality of human kindness and caring, even when it is for someone once but no longer loved.
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