Sunday, December 28, 2014

"Florence Gordon," by Brian Morton

Brian Morton is a male author writing about a (fictional) leading feminist scholar and author. I initially did a slight double take when I realized this, but then thought “why not?” After all, I tell my students that men can (and should, in my opinion) be feminists too. And I believe that good writers can write about anyone and anything, and should not be limited to writing about their own gender, race, experience, etc. Morton’s novel “Florence Gordon” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) focuses on an aging (75-year-old), rather grumpy, uncompromising, fearless woman who refuses to admit any weaknesses, and who is hard on her family and others around her. It could be said that she is missing some basic social skills. But it could also be said that she doesn’t feel the same socialized need that so many women do to always be aware of and cater to the needs of those around her, and always speak diplomatically. For Florence, her work -- her research, writing, and activism -- is paramount. The only other character that gets her attention and with whom she develops a rapport -- albeit slowly and very undemonstratively -- is her granddaughter Emily. Florence is a forbidding character, yet one that obviously cares about making the world a better and more equitable place for both women and men. I admire Morton’s creation of this character, one who is not easy to like, yet is clearly a good person who makes a difference. But the author resists doing what some authors too obviously do: sentimentalizing by making a slightly difficult character one with a "heart of gold." I also admire his choosing to focus on an older person, which is not very common in modern fiction (as I have discussed here before). The story takes place in New York City, where Florence lives and teaches. The events of the story arise largely out of the interactions among Florence and her son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter, the latter three of whom have recently come to New York for various reasons. Each of the main characters -- Florence, her son Daniel, her daughter-in-law Janine, and her granddaughter Emily -- has her or his own secrets. There are flirtations with infidelity, entanglements with disturbed others, illness, and more intriguing plot points. Morton tells the story in quite short chapters, which makes the novel very accessible and reader-friendly; at first I felt it also somehow oversimplified it, but I got over that feeling after a while. For those who like portrayals of strong women, for those who care about feminism, for those who appreciate novels that include or even focus on older characters (for a change), for those who like to read about family interactions, and for those who like novels set in New York City, this novel has much to offer.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Reading Glasses Bookshelves Shuffle

As a person who wears contact lenses and reading glasses over them as necessary (and they are often necessary for a frequent reader/writer/computer user such as I am), I am probably an odd sight when looking at books on shelves in bookstores or libraries. There is already the awkward sideways turn of the head and leaning of the body to see the titles printed along the books’ spines, and the slow shuffling along the length of the shelves to see more and more books. Then there is the constant putting on and taking off of the reading glasses. They need to be off for books on higher or lower shelves, but on for those at eye level. Further, they need to be on when taking a book off the shelf to look at it more closely, inspecting the front and back covers and perhaps leafing through it. Then back off they go, either to be held dangling from my right hand, or pushed on top of my head. Finally they end up back in their case in my purse. But sometimes as I am walking out, the reading glasses have to be fished back out one more time (or two or three) so I can look at another shelf of books, or a display that has just caught my eye. And if I am buying or checking out books, the glasses come back out to facilitate the process of signing the credit card slip or navigating the self-checkout machine. Many years ago I said (with the arrogance of youth) that I would never be one of those people with my reading glasses on a chain around my neck, but I may have to rethink that. On another note, Happy Holidays to all!

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Guilty Pleasure: "The Andy Cohen Diaries"

I debated with myself about whether to post about this book; in other words, I had to decide whether I wanted to admit to reading it. Andy Cohen seems like an amiable, funny television producer, host, and personality. But his shows are lightweight, purely for the sort of guilty entertainment that we all partake in occasionally (don’t we?): his Watch What Happens Live show, and the Real Housewives franchise, most notably. (I have not personally watched any of these, although I have seen glimpses of them, but I am not claiming high ground, as I have watched some equally “bad” shows….). What is appealing about Andy Cohen is that he seems to know very well how unserious his shows are, but acknowledges and shares with viewers the fun of watching something a bit naughty, with no particular “redeeming value.” His (second) book, “The Andy Cohen Diaries: A Deep Look at a Shallow Year” (Henry Holt, 2014), is equally lightweight, and he is equally aware of this, as indicated in the subtitle. So why did I read it? I guess I just felt in the mood for something light, funny, gossipy (he does a lot of name dropping, with some juicy although not-very-consequential revelations, but does so in a mostly non-meanspirited way). And he gives at least the appearance of being candid and self-deprecatory about himself and his life. Along with the hobnobbing with famous people, in beautiful places (clubs, restaurants, awards shows, the Hamptons), he writes affectionately about his parents and besottedly about his new dog. (There is a LOT about his dog.) He writes about friends, dieting, working out, real estate, Manhattan, food, movies, cross-country flights, vacations, and much more. Its 343 pages could perhaps have been condensed a bit; reading it all is a bit like eating way too much candy. But if read just for fun, without too many expectations, it is an enjoyable way to while away a few hours.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

"Enchanted April," by Elizabeth von Arnim

I read “Enchanted April” (1922), by Elizabeth von Arnim, some years ago, and loved it. Recently I listened to it on CD (Blackstone, 1994) in my car, and loved it all over again. The pleasure of the novel was enhanced by Nadia May’s beautiful reading on the CD. What’s not to like about a novel about four English women in the early twentieth century who rent a small castle in San Salvatore, Italy, near Portofino, for the month of April? These women did not know each other before, and are from very different backgrounds. Three of them are young, including one who is a “Lady”; the other is much older and a bit crotchety. The place is gorgeous, sunny, comfortable, full of flowers and fresh air, a stark contrast to the dark, dull, and cold London they have just left. After some initial awkwardness, they very quickly all forget their problems and their difficulties with husbands or family members, and grow to appreciate and love each other. As one of the four women says, the place is magic, and the magic comes from love. This is a story about how people are basically good, and when they are given the chance, they blossom. It is about the power of love. And it is, quite simply, a marvelously delightful novel.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"Stoner," by John Williams

When I was in Europe for a conference this past summer, John, a UK colleague at the conference, and I talked about books one night over dinner. He raved about a novel titled “Stoner” (Vintage, 2012) by the American writer John Williams. (No, not that kind of a stoner; Stoner is the name of the main character.) Soon after, when I was still traveling in Europe, I saw the book in a bookstore, and decided to buy it on John’s recommendation. I also looked up reviews, and found that others were also raving about it, and that it was considered a rediscovered gem. When it was originally published in 1965, only 2000 copies were sold; then it was pretty much forgotten. The author died in 1994; it is unfortunate that he didn’t live long enough to know that “Stoner” was republished by the New York Review of Books Classics in 2006 and that it has been so well received. I ended up not reading it in Europe, and it somehow got to the bottom of a stack of books on my shelf, but I finally read it a couple of weeks ago, and was very impressed. It is the story of William Stoner, who was born in 1891 and grew up poor and lonely on a farm in Missouri. As a teenager he discovered literature, went to college despite his extreme poverty, and eventually became a professor of English at the University of Missouri. The novel tells of his difficult marriage to a woman with mental health issues, and of department politics and other professional problems in his career. But throughout, Stoner did his best to be a good teacher, to publish, to take care of his wife and his dear daughter, and to live a good life. He was an honorable man. He did have a brief love affair, but gave it up to preserve his marriage and career. His life was not dramatic, but it was admirable. The novel has a sort of Sinclair Lewis style realism, plainness and simplicity. However, this not-very-exciting plot summary cannot capture the compelling nature of this quiet but somehow riveting novel. I highly recommend it.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Another Austen-Related Novel: "First Impressions," by Charlie Lovett

A Jane Austen “fan” such as myself is always tempted by books that somehow connect to her fiction, even though we have often been disappointed. I have written here before about the prequels, sequels, backstories, mysteries, etc. that either feature Austen herself in some fanciful setting, or extend the stories and characters in her novels. Some are very enjoyable, but many are poorly written. “First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen” (Viking, 2014), by Charlie Lovett, is definitely one of the better Austen-related fictions I have read. Its chapters alternate between a story about Austen’s (fictional) friendship with an elderly clergyman, and a present day story about a young booklover, Sophie Collingwood, who especially loves Austen’s work. When Sophie is working in an antiquarian bookstore, she gets involved in a mystery about an old manuscript related to Austen’s writing. The title “First Impressions” refers to the original title of “Pride and Prejudice,” but it also has implications for the modern day story, which reflects some elements of the plot of Austen’s best known novel. Both stories are brisk and well written, and fairly quickly come together. There is genuine suspense, along with literary gossip, romance and sex (in the present day story), and the characters are quite well drawn. This “First Impressions” is no masterpiece, but it is a brisk, enjoyable read, with some clever connections made and some decent writing.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

"The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher," by Hilary Mantel

In the past my attitude toward the highly and justly esteemed English writer Hilary Mantel’s fiction has been one of respect rather than liking. I found her earlier novels very dark, and I did not share the seemingly universal liking of her historical novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies.” (Actually I only dipped into the latter two, and stopped for lack of interest.) But for some reason I decided to read her new collection of short stories, “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” (Henry Holt, 2014). Catchy title, right? The stories are dark, yes, although less intensely so than her earlier novels. And occasionally they veer toward cleverness rather than insight. But they are original, revealing, and compelling. And as the inside flap puts it, the stories are “unpredictable, diverse, and sometimes shocking.” Another word used about her work is “sinister” and it is somewhat apt as well. Characters are sometimes sly, eccentric, unknowable, yet curiously believable. In a strange way, a way that causes the reader to shake her head while quickly turning the pages, the stories are quite entertaining. One small thing, among many others that I enjoyed, was Mantel’s occasional allusions to other writers and their work. For example, one line in the story “How Shall I Know You?” is as follows: “I stood debating this with myself, and saying come now, come now, what would Anita Brookner do?” I laughed out loud when I read that line.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Gendered Aspects of Who Reads Whom

Time Magazine online, on 12/1/14, in an article titled “Survey: Readers Prefer Books Written by Authors of Their Own Gender,” by Eliana Dockterman, reported on a Goodreads poll of readers in England. The poll indicated that 90 percent of the most-read books by each gender were by authors of that same gender. I find this discouraging but not very surprising. And yet I acknowledge (and I have written about this before here) that after my high school, college, and graduate school years, during which most of the literature assigned in my classes was by male authors, I began to read more and more novels, stories, plays, and poetry by women, in a burst of discovery. I felt I was making up for lost time, balancing out the canon, and relating more directly to the works with female perspectives. And ever since then, I have read more fiction by women than by men. But there are many male authors whose work I also read, value, admire, and treasure. Contemporary male writers in this category include William Trevor, Ian McEwan, Colm Toibin, Richard Russo, Julian Barnes, Andrew Sean Greer, Tom Rachman, and Stewart O’Nan, to name just a few. But back to the survey: What does this division mean? Maybe it is natural? But surely the point is that we publish and read the best of what is written, giving everyone wonderful choices? On the other hand, we know that “the best of what is written” is at least partially subjective, and influenced by who has power in the publishing world and elsewhere. This is a complex and vexed topic, and I am not entirely sure of the ins and outs of my own views on it. I will conclude with another intriguing piece of information found by the Goodreads survey: Both genders rated books by women more highly than those by men.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

"The Heather Blazing" and "The Blackwater Lightship," by Colm Toibin

I have written several times here about the great Irish writer Colm Toibin and his novels, and about hearing him speak and read on the radio and in person (1/28/10, 12/4/12, 1/20/13, 11/9/14, and 11/16/14). Upon hearing him read at a local bookstore lately, and then reading his most recent novel, “Nora Webster,” I was motivated to go back to read some of his very early novels that I had not yet read. I have now read his second novel, “The Heather Blazing” (Viking, 1992), and his fourth, “The Blackwater Lightship” (Scribner, 1999). Both of them are deeply rewarding. They are connected in that they take place mostly in the same area of Ireland where Toibin himself and his family were deeply rooted, and in that they share a few minor characters. But each stands firmly on its own. “The Heather Blazing” is about a judge who is upstanding and caring, but who because of a difficult childhood, has trouble expressing himself to his own family. “The Blackwater Lightship” is about a family coming together, despite former estrangements and tensions, to be with their family member Declan as he is dying of AIDS. Three generations of women – Declan’s grandmother, mother, and sister – along with two of Declan’s close friends – try their best to understand each other in spite of their rifts. Both of these stories are deeply human, very believable, and engrossing. What a body of work Toibin has created, and is still creating! I consider him one of the greatest writers of our time.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

RIP, Kent Haruf

I am sorry to write another “RIP” post so soon, but I was sad to hear the news that Kent Haruf, the author of several novels set in small town Colorado, died November 30, 2014, at the age of 71, and I want to note his passing and pay tribute to his fiction. This fine writer’s best known novel is “Plainsong,” which is truly beautiful in its understated story and insights. I posted a very positive “review” of his most recent novel, “Benediction,” on 1/1/14. Haruf’s novels are about “ordinary” people, in the sense that they do not live in glamorous places or have unusual lives; they are usually working class people, not given to talking about themselves or their lives, just getting on with the business of living. Haruf’s writing is spare, beautiful, and powerful. It is, in a sense, stealth writing, as it seems low-key but somehow sneaks up on the reader. Some have compared the realism and small town aspect to the work of Sinclair Lewis; I don't think that is quite right, but I see the connection. It is most unfortunate that this writer has died relatively young. One consolation for his readers is that his sixth and last novel, “Our Souls at Night,” will be published in 2015.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

RIP, P. D. James

The great, great British mystery writer P.D. James died November 27, 2014, at the age of 94. She created wonderful mysteries, mysteries that are intriguing, compelling, very well written, and of high literary quality. Her books are enormously popular, selling in the millions around the world. They have also been made into very popular television adaptations. Her most famous character, featured in many of her mysteries, is the “elegant, intellectual” and “gentlemanly” detective Adam Dalgliesh (thank you, Associated Press, 11/28/14, for these phrases and for some of the information in this post),with whom some of us readers were somewhat in literary love. Although written in elegant prose, James’ novels deal with many difficult contemporary issues, such as terrorism, drugs, and child abuse. James didn’t publish her first book until she was almost 40, and had to fit her writing in around her civil service jobs. Some of her best known novels are “Cover Her Face” and “Innocent Blood.” Her 2011 novel, “Death Comes to Pemberley,” features characters and a site from Jane Austen’s novel “Pride and Prejudice,” thus attracting both P.D. James fans and those dedicated to all things Austen; I am sure a good number of readers of this novel are, like me, both P.D. James and Austen readers. I loved the book and posted on it here on 12/28/11. P.D. James received numerous awards and honors, including being made Baroness by Queen Elizabeth II in 1991. This writer has given so much pleasure to so many readers for so many years; she will be missed. But her books are still here for present and future readers to discover, read, and re-read, and I am grateful for that.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

"Olive Kitteridge" on Television

Elizabeth Strout’s 2008 novel, “Olive Kitteridge,” was a bestseller, and I was one of the many readers who found it compelling. So when HBO created a four-hour mini-series of the novel that showed a couple of weeks ago, I had to watch it. I was very impressed by the production, which was quite faithful to the novel. Those who produced and directed it were not afraid to show the dark side of the novel and the main character; by “dark” I don’t mean evil but rather damaged, sad, depressed, cynical. Frances McDormand does an excellent job of portraying Olive in all her complexity; despite Olive's sad, harsh, and unbending side, McDormand shows the humanity and vulnerability of this character as well. Richard Jenkins, the actor who portrays Olive’s husband Henry, is equally good; his character is long-suffering, trying to understand and be patient with Olive. Their love for each other is clear, despite rarely being openly expressed. Because they have trouble communicating, they both turn to others for some of their emotional connections; although there is probably also some attraction in both these cases, it is not acted on, or at least this production does not suggest that. The other actors are also good, and the production is beautifully executed. Although it may seem slow to some viewers, it is slow in a realistic way, showing the daily lives of these characters in a small town; watching the characters and their interactions is riveting. For readers with access to it, I highly recommend this mini-series version of “Olive Kitteridge.”

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Resurgence of Independent Bookstores in the San Francisco Bay Area

One of many reasons that I am so happy to live in the San Francisco Bay Area is its wealth of independent bookstores, book readings, and book events. There are also many authors living in the area. And despite the loss of independent bookstores (and even chain bookstores) in so many places (largely because of online booksellers), there is actually a resurgence of such stores in this area. A 10/27/14 article in the San Francisco Chronicle listed several new or expanded bookstores. New stores include Diesel in Larkspur (where I have shopped recently), Copperfield’s in San Rafael (I have shopped at the Healdsburg and Calistoga branches of this small local chain), and Mr. Mopps’ in Berkeley. A new branch of a beloved and revered longtime San Francisco bookstore (and one of my favorites), Green Apple, has recently opened across the Golden Gate Park from the original. And Laurel Bookstore has moved to a much larger and more central location in downtown Oakland. This is all wonderful news for the book scene in the Bay Area! I know that similar things are happening in a some other parts of the country, and I hope that this resurgence will continue elsewhere as well. And while I am writing about independent bookstores, I will conclude this post with my annual urging of readers, as we enter the holiday season, to support independent bookstores by buying holiday gifts there.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"An Unnecessary Woman," by Rabih Alameddine

There was a time in my twenties that I methodically read through large swathes of contemporary literature from various parts of the world, including the Middle East. Later on I taught classes in women’s literature, including one called “Contemporary Fiction by Nonwestern Women” that included several works by Middle Eastern writers. But it has been years since I have read much if anything in this broad category. Reading a couple of very positive reviews led me to Rabih Alameddine’s 2013 novel, “An Unnecessary Woman” (Grove Press), and I am so glad it did. This is an intense novel about a woman in her early seventies who has lived in Beirut her whole life. Aaliya Saleh is semi-estranged from her family, had an early, short, unsuccessful marriage, and has lived on her own in an apartment ever since. For a long time she worked in a bookstore, and she did have one very close friend, Hannah, but that friend died some years before the present time of the novel. Her salvation, through everything, including the terrible wars and destruction affecting Lebanon for so long, has been literature. She reads and reads and reads, both fiction and nonfiction. And she translates. She has chosen a new book every year for some years, and translated it into Arabic. Then she has put the translation away and begun a new one. A room in her apartment is full of these translations, which no one else has ever seen. She does not believe her translations are of interest to anyone else, and does not attempt to publish them. But they are her life’s work, her joy, her consolation. She loves and mourns the city of Beirut, and often walks through it. She does have interactions with a few people, including three other older women who live in her apartment building, but not often and not in any sustained way. There is not much plot, although some events of the past are gradually revealed throughout. And near the end of the novel there is an event that affects Aaliya strongly, in a negative way but ultimately, in a note of hope, in a positive way. It is not a critical plot point in the sense of a surprise twist, and if I gave it away here, it would not change your appreciation of the book if you read it, but still, I will respect the convention of not doing so. In any case, this thoughtful, beautifully written novel is very much focused on the main character rather than on plot. Aaliya is a world of her own. We learn about her appearance, her habits, her preferences, but most of all we learn about her deep engagement with literature, which is her obsession and her savior. It took me a little while to become engaged with the novel, but once I did, I found it deeply repaid my attention. In its own understated way, it is a truly masterful portrait and a riveting one.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Love Me, Love My Taste in Books?

Do you want your spouse, significant other, family members, and friends to read and like the same books that you do? Will you be upset if they don’t? The New York Times Book Review (11/2/14) asked two of their regular “Bookends” columnists “Have you ever had a relationship end because of a book?” Zoe Heller answered by telling of a vacation with a long-ago boyfriend who, when seeing she was reading Sybille Bedford while he was reading Hunter Thompson, “was deeply troubled by our clashing literary tastes” and “kept worrying the subject…By the end of the vacation, we were at war. His view was that our failure to enjoy each other’s books was a sign of a more general and fatal incompatibility.” They soon “parted ways.” Heller feels that “the value of agreeing with one’s friends about books has always seemed to me overrated.” She goes on to say that “insisting that your loved one’s literary judgments be in harmony with your own suggests to me a rather dull and narcissistic notion of what constitutes intimacy” and concludes, after a story about a happier romance with a different man, “Love is not love which alters when a man fails to appreciate ‘Herzog.’” Anna Holmes, on her part, says that although different tastes in books don’t necessarily have to be a problem, “books…have strained some of my most important love affairs…I was drawn to men who displayed a tendency to chafe at the very idea that I might find sustenance or succor in anything other than them.” She also noted that in the case of one early live-in romance, she “refused to mingle my books with his, preferring to keep mine on a bookshelf in a room that he rarely entered,” which raises other questions as well. Of course, upon reading this column, I asked myself where I stood on this question. In general, I am drawn to others who love to read, and of course it is always a pleasure when one shares similar tastes in literature. I treasure certain friends partly because of the bond we have in our mutual love of books, and especially similar books. It is a great pleasure to be able to discuss books with them, to be part of book clubs, to go to bookstores and book readings together, and to give and lend books to them and vice versa. But for me, sharing similar tastes and habits regarding books and reading is not a requirement in a spouse, friends or family members. Going back to Zoe Heller’s response: “This surely is one of the great advantages of reading as a pursuit – that its pleasures do not rely on teammates or fellow enthusiasts, that the reader’s relationship with an author has no need of endorsement from third parties.”

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Nora Webster," by Colm Toibin

Very occasionally I almost resist writing here about a book I have just finished, because I am afraid there is no way I can do it justice. I ask myself if I can simply write “This book is wonderful, amazing, beautifully written…You MUST read it!” So I do say that now about “Nora Webster” (Scribner, 2014), by Colm Toibin. (My 11/9/14 post was about hearing him speak at a local bookstore.) When I finished and closed the book, I felt both moved and fortunate to have read it, and sad to have the experience come to an end. This is a novel powerful in its particularities of the everyday, and profound in its revelations of the mysteries and tides of life, death, and change. The way Toibin portrays Nora Webster is a marvel, a masterpiece, but always with restraint. She is a woman in a small town in Ireland in the late 1960s whose beloved husband Maurice has recently died; the novel covers the three years after his death. She has four children, each also portrayed with precision and perception, as are her sisters, aunts and uncles, co-workers, and friends. In addition to etching these individual portraits, the novel portrays a community, one that can be smothering and yet can be, and is, a dependable and loving source of strength and support. Although Nora is a strong woman, and more independent than is necessarily common during that time period, she is part of a traditional society and lives in a small town where everyone knows what everyone else is doing. During the course of the three years, she gradually learns how to live without her husband, and to find out what makes her happy. There are no radical changes, just what may seem to readers very small steps, but her process of growing into herself is tangible and exquisitely delineated. She gradually understands that she must – and can – make her own decisions. It is both a burden and a freedom. She does have the help of her extended family and her community, but finally she needs and wants to be in charge of her own life. She starts to work again. She fiercely defends her children when it is necessary but lets go and lets them become more independent when that is necessary. She starts to take singing lessons, reclaiming her beautiful voice that she seldom used after her marriage. She starts listening to and learning about classical music, buys a gramophone and more and more records, and derives great pleasure from them. She renovates her house and decorates it to her own taste. She buys new clothes. She comes to terms with some people in her life with whom there has been dissension. The impression is always of a woman who does things thoughtfully and at her own pace, but with passion and decisiveness when necessary. She has her times of weakness and sadness and pain, but overall she is able to handle those moments too. And she becomes happy in her new life. By the end of the novel, she is able to give away her husband’s clothes, symbolic of her moving on. She will always love him, but she has learned to continue with and enjoy her life. As I reread this summary, it sounds much more schematic than the progress of the novel actually feels, and I hope I do not do the book a disservice with this perhaps too-neat portrayal. Toibin is a writer of great subtlety, and no mere summary can convey the feeling of this beautiful and perceptive novel. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"The Palace of Illusions," by Kim Addonizio

Hmmm. Lately I seem to have read -- without my planning it that way -- several short story collections that have an element of mystery, magic, the supernatural. San Francisco writer Kim Addonizio’s new story collection, “The Palace of Illusions” (Soft Skull Press, 2014), has an edginess partly derived from that sense of mystery, that presumption that anything can happen at any time. In the kind of fiction I am talking about, it is a fine line between things that happen because they are inevitable and things that happen that are supernatural. One story in this collection, “The Hag’s Journey,” is explicitly a fairy tale. Another, “Ever After,” is a modern day play on the “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” story. Mostly Addonizio’s characters are outsiders, have had rough lives, but are still holding onto their illusions, even though those illusions are shattered again and again. These are characters who are strongly etched, and mostly sympathetic; the reader’s response is most often pity. The stories are generally about gritty situations, with carnivals, grim apartments, and storage units as obvious indicators of outsiderness. Another kind of outsiderness appears in “The Cancer Poems,” but this story is also one of the stories in this collection that amid sadness introduces a grace note, one that arises from human connection.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Listening to Colm Toibin

A few days ago I had the good fortune to hear the wonderful Irish writer Colm Toibin speak and read from his new novel, “Nora Webster,” at my favorite local independent bookstore, Book Passage in Corte Madera. I have read, admired, and enjoyed several of his novels and short story collections over the years, including “The Master,” “Mothers and Sons: Stories,” “Brooklyn” (which I posted about on 1/28/10), “The Empty Family: Stories" (my post: 1/28/11), and “Testament of Mary” (1/20/13). I was already planning to read “Nora Webster,” and hearing Toibin read passages from it made me even more eager to do so. His reading voice is beautiful and expressive but not over-the-top. Even better were his introductory and between-passages comments, and his answers to questions after the reading. His comments were thoughtful, humorous in a low-key way, gently self-deprecating in a wry, confiding way, and conversational. He shared stories about his childhood and youth, as well as his more recent life. He spoke about Ireland, especially the small towns, about Catholicism, about his family, and about why he wrote about Henry James (in “The Master”), among other topics. He treated each question with thought and respect. In other words, his persona was engaging and impressive. His audience was rapt and responsive. As people were leaving the event area of the bookstore, I heard one woman say “I just wanted him to go on and on!” and I agreed with her. It was a privilege and a pleasure to hear this great author speak. And if I sound like a bedazzled fan, I’m OK with that!

Friday, November 7, 2014

"Not That Kind of Girl," by Lena Dunham (Yes, That Lena Dunham)

Agewise, I am not the target audience for Lena Dunham’s television show, “Girls,” nor for her new book of very personal essays, “Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s ‘Learned’” (Random House, 2014). Yet I have occasionally watched and been intrigued by the show, and I have just finished reading the book. Dunham is known for being successful in her early twenties; she is also known for her willingness to be extremely self-revealing about her experiences and feelings, whether good, bad, or (often) embarrassing. She is still only in her late twenties, and some would call it presumptuous to write a quasi-memoir at such a young age, but her candidness and self-deprecation are disarming. On one level, the book is very personal, with topics including her dating life, sex life, work, creativity, health, body and body image, relationship with her parents, friendships, therapy, and much more. On another level, she is speaking for a certain subset of her generation, mostly privileged, urban young women who are educated, liberated, but still often confused, aimless, and lost. Some of the chapter headings provide an idea of the scope and focus of the book: “Take My Virginity.” “Girls and Jerks.” “Sex Scenes, Nude Scenes, and Publicly Sharing Your Body.” “Therapy & Me.” “Emails I Would Send If I Were One Ounce Crazier/Angrier/Braver.” The book is very readable, and besides the essays themselves, includes a number of catchy lists on topics such as “15 Things I’ve Learned from my Mother,” “10 reasons I [Heart] NY,” and “13 Things I’ve Learned Are not Okay to Say to Friends.” There is plenty of humor and whimsicality, but also pain. Although there is the occasional cringe-worthy passage, mostly Dunham’s writing is both engaging and endearing. And although I began by saying that agewise, I am not the target audience, there are many aspects of young women’s experiences that sound familiar even to a woman quite some years past the teens and twenties. I am sure it will be of interest to some men as well. Those who love “Girls” will love this book. Those who dislike “Girls” will probably dislike this book as well. But I think there are also other readerships: those who have mixed feelings about the show, or have never heard of it but are interested in the topics Dunham addresses. Even those who are not big fans of “Girls” may well find much to like in this book.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

"Some Luck," by Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley’s writing is both well respected and popular. I have read and enjoyed several of her novels, my favorites being the novels “A Thousand Acres” (her best known book) and “Moo.” Smiley has made a point of writing in many different genres of fiction, including historical fiction, comedy, and mystery, along with more straightforward literary fiction. Her subject matter varies widely as well. Her new novel, “Some Luck” (Knopf, 2014) is a family saga, and is projected to be the first of a trilogy. The phrase “family saga” often intimates a bestseller-ish, predictable novel, but Smiley’s version, although already a bestseller, is not predictable. It is beautifully written and moving. It takes place on a farm in Iowa between 1920, the year the main character -- Frank -- is born, and 1953. We know which year it is at any given time, because Smiley writes one chapter for each year, and the title of that chapter is the year. Although Frank is at the center of the novel, many other family members are equally important; his parents, Rosanna and Walter Langdon, their own parents, their other children, and various relatives, neighbors, friends, classmates, lovers and spouses all have their places in this novel. Most of the story takes place on the farm and surrounding land and in nearby small towns, but some characters venture out into the wider world, most notably when Frank fights in Europe during World War II, and when some family members move to New York and others to California. Through the lives of these characters, we experience the important and influential – for better or for worse – events of the time, including the Depression, World War II, and the McCarthy era. There are plenty of events moving the plot along: successes, failures, romances, marriages, births, deaths, trips, danger, physical and mental illnesses, and more. But the greatest strength of the novel is -- as it should be, in my opinion -- in its very individual characters, their relationships, the ways they deal with hardship, the importance of family, and the particular connection that farmers have with the land. This novel starts a little slowly, but it is well worth persisting, because the book is a wonderful one, a realistic one, an engrossing one, a moving one, sometimes a heartbreaking one, and arguably a masterpiece. I look forward with eagerness to the second and third installments of the trilogy. I am glad Jane Smiley is quite a prolific writer, because that probably means we won’t have to wait more than two or three years for the next book.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

"Stone Mattress: Nine Tales," by Margaret Atwood

I have always thought, as have so many others, that the great Margaret Atwood is a powerful writer in complete command of her writing. I so appreciate her pointed explorations of political and social issues, especially those regarding gender (see, for example, “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Cat’s Eye,” both brilliant modern day classics). I also admire the way she cuts through nonsense. There is a bracing tartness to most of her work. And I just plain enjoy her work. I read almost everything she wrote until she started writing in the science fiction/fantasy vein (from “Oryx and Crake” onward); as readers of this blog may remember, that is not a genre I enjoy, even when produced by great writers such as Atwood. So I was happy to read her recent collection of “tales”; although there is an occasional bit verging on fantasy or magic, as the word "tales" might indicate, these stories are not predominantly in that genre. And what stories! The book is titled “Stone Mattress: Nine Tales” (Doubleday, 2014), and it is a joy to return to the competent -- no, brilliant -- writing of this great writer. (And I -- a former Canadian -- have a special pride in the work of this Canadian writer.) Several of the stories deal with old age; although Atwood herself seems ageless, she will be 75 this month, and I assume she draws (creatively and indirectly, of course) on her own thoughts and feelings as an aging person. The final story, for example, “Torching the Dusties,” is chilling in its portrayal of what could happen when some people believe that the old should be forced to step aside to make room for the young. Another story on the theme of age, “Revenant,” is a devastatingly negative portrayal of an aging male writer who, long past his artistic prime, is still extremely sensitive about his reputation and his ego. (I can't help wondering if Atwood had a particular writer in mind!) One story, “Alphinland,” tells of a writer who has created a fantasy world in her books, one which is extremely popular and makes her rich and famous (or relatively so), although it allows others to look down on her because what she writes isn’t, in their view, real literature. Readers will of course wonder if Atwood is describing her own situation here, when she turned to science fiction. The other stories have various themes and topics, all with a bite; imagine, for example, the threat of danger that the main character thrives on when he meets the woman whose storage unit he has just bought sight unseen (a la "Storage Wars" on television). Hint: the title of the story is “The Freeze-Dried Groom.” Each of these stories is highly original and highly satisfying.

Friday, October 31, 2014

"Everything I Never Told You," by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s novel “Everything I Never Told You” (Penguin, 2014) reminds me yet again of how difficult the issue of race is in America. This seems like an obvious point, but when a story brings the impact of racism -- both overt and covert -- to the fore so powerfully and so sadly, one cannot help but have to face it, and at the same time -- if one has the privilege that goes with being white in this society -- cannot help but have to acknowledge that privilege. The story of the Lee family in the 1960s and 1970s in a small town in the U.S., in which the father is Chinese American and the mother Caucasian-American, and in which their two children are marked by their mixed race, reveals the slights and prejudices the family members encounter practically daily. The children are each the only non-whites in their classes, and although they are successful students, they are always aware of their being “different”; the stares, the clumsy remarks, and the fingers to the outer corners of the eyes are constant reminders. Complicating the story are issues of gender, as we learn how the mother, Marilyn, struggled to fulfill her desire to be a doctor, and all the obstacles she faced; she never achieved that goal. Further, there are the issues of parents’ trying to live out their dreams through their children. Marilyn wants her daughter Lydia to be a great scientist and doctor, and is constantly urging her on. The father, James, wants his children to have a happier life, with more friends and “normal” childhood and adolescent experiences, than he did. Lydia, the middle child, the one with blue eyes, becomes the focal point for the dreams of both parents, although the other two children do not escape the pressures of these dreams. The parents truly love their children, and they cannot simply be classified as “tiger” parents; the situation is much more complex. Then something terrible happens (we find this out very early on, so this is not a spoiler on my part): Lydia disappears and then is found dead. As much as this novel is “about” race and gender and family and society, it is also a very specific, personal story about five particular characters in a particular family in a particular community, and the delicate dynamics among them all. This is a truly wrenching story, yet a riveting one.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

"Bad Feminist," by Roxane Gay

I was a little uncertain about the title “Bad Feminist” (Harper Perennial, 2014), a collection of essays by Roxane Gay. I admit I am sensitive about the way “feminist” has, to many people, become a negative word, even to those generally supportive of women’s rights and equality. I am proud to call myself a feminist, as I have been for my whole adult life. But upon reading the reviews, I realized that Roxane Gay is in fact clearly a feminist, but chose this title to indicate and explore the complexity of the term and of her own and many other people’s grappling with what feminism means, whether there is one way to be a feminist or not, how feminism intersects with issues of race and class, how the term is used in larger culture wars, and more. I have just finished reading the book, and am enormously impressed by the range, depth, and complexity of Gay’s analysis and interpretations of feminism, in the context of sexism and racism in today’s culture. She writes powerfully and passionately, yet always thoughtfully and never dogmatically. She is sometimes unpredictable and inconsistent – a good thing! – in that her life, ideas, and behaviors don’t always comport with the stereotype of feminism. For example, she freely admits to watching plenty of “bad” television, and to not always being politically correct in her own life and romantic/sexual attractions and behaviors. This gifted thinker and writer is a young, black professor, critic, and dissector of news stories, movies, television shows, Internet discussions, politics, and more. She shares her own experiences generously but not gratuitously; they provide perspective and connections to important topics in the larger culture. There are so many gems, so many thought-provoking essays here. Among many topics, she addresses sexual violence, body weight, academe, comedy, journalism, the law…the list goes on. Gay is also brave in the way she takes on topics of gender, race, and sexuality; especially on the Internet, this sometimes exposes her to toxic attacks. Further, and happily so, Gay is an excellent (even, dare I say it, entertaining) writer, and although her topics are mostly very serious, her writing is never ponderous. Once I started, I wanted to keep reading, and not just because of the importance of the topics. I will now read anything Roxane Gay writes.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Women & Power & The New York Times Book Review

I felt a small jolt of joy when I saw the cover of the October 12, 2014 issue of the New York Times Book Review. An elaborate maze-style design included the titles of about 15 reviews of books authored by, and reviewed by, women. Readers would have to look carefully to see the small title at the top of the cover page, “Special Issue,” and to see that spelled out in stylized letters in the middle of the maze design were the words “Women & Power.” There are many studies, including those by the wonderful organization Vida, that show that books by women are under-reviewed, and that reviewers are more often men than women. There are also controversies about whether having special issues about women marginalizes them, especially if the rest of the time the problem continues. I am not going to address those issues now (I have addressed them in the past, and I am sure I will in the future), but now I just want to say how happy I felt to see this issue, a Christmas-morning-I-can’t-wait-to-open-the-gifts feeling. And what riches the special issue contains! My only personal regret is that most of the books reviewed are nonfiction rather than fiction. But that makes sense in an issue about “Women & Power”; although fiction also often addresses this issue, it generally does so less directly. The books reviewed include titles by Caitlin Moran, Katha Pollitt, Gail Sheehy, Lena Dunham, Kirsten Gillibrand, Rebecca Makkai (“The Hundred Year House,” which I wrote about here on 8/31/14), and the wonderful Roxanne Gay (whose book “Bad Feminist” I will post on in a few days). The one book by a male author (Jonathan Eig) is included, I assume, because his topic and title are “The Birth of the Pill.” Reviewers and columnists include Meghan Daum, Sloane Crosley, Kimberle Crenshaw (the law professor who first wrote about intersectionality), and Cheryl Strayed. It is sad that we still need special issues on women writers and women’s issues, but since we do, I always appreciate, value, enjoy, and learn from them.

Friday, October 24, 2014

"Dear Committee Members," by Julie Schumacher

I admit I am partial to academic novels, and especially to those that are satires on academic life. Some of the most famous and hilarious examples of these satirical novels are Kingsley Amis’ “Lucky Jim”; David Lodge’s “campus trilogy” of “Changing Places,” “Small World,” and “Nice Work”; and Jane Smiley’s “Moo." I have read each of these, sometimes more than once, with pleasure and laughter. “Dear Committee Members” (Doubleday, 2014), although not quite at the level of the above examples, is a worthy member of their group. In this brief epistolary novel, Julie Schumacher skewers many aspects of academe today. The book consists of a series of recommendation letters written by the increasingly grumpy and beleaguered professor at a third tier university (not very subtly named Payne University) in the American Midwest. Professor Jason Fitger writes reference letters for fellow faculty members and, mostly, students. The letters are for grad school, jobs, internships, fellowships, promotions, and more. But Professor Fitger cannot bring himself to merely spout the traditional platitudes, or to pretend a student is brilliant when she/he is not. The letters often go off on hilarious (but in a way sad) sidetracks about his own problems at work and in his personal life (they often intertwine), the decline of his university and of academe in general, and his impatience with the foibles of his colleagues and of students. And yet, it is clear that underneath it all, he cares about his students and others in his life, and genuinely wishes things were better for the state of academe today. A thread throughout the novel, for example, deals with his increasingly desperate, although still somewhat comic, efforts to help a bright but impoverished student; Fitger pleads with everyone he knows to provide the student with financial aid, a job, a place to stay, anything to enable him to continue studying and to survive. This novel, although with roots in the novels mentioned above, is truly original, and both entertaining and dismaying. But mostly it makes the reader, especially but not only a reader herself associated with academe, laugh, often out loud, albeit with an exasperated recognition of the truth of the situations portrayed.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"The Children Act," by Ian McEwan

Whenever I read British author Ian McEwan’s novels, I think of my late friend C., about whom I have written in this space; she was one of my best friends, and best book friends; she died in 2011. I still miss her so much. And one thing I miss, among many others, is the way she and I would exchange recommendations and comments about books, in emails, phone calls, and yes, old-fashioned letters, across the continent and further. (After graduate school, where I met her, she lived in Pennsylvania, Japan, New York, Montreal, and Washington, DC.) She was the one who kept recommending, many years ago, that I read McEwan’s novels. At first I resisted; I hadn’t heard much about his work (this was before he became so well-known), and what I heard didn’t sound like “my type" of novels. Finally I read “Atonement,” and that was it – I was a McEwan reader. I went back and read some of his earlier novels, which I didn’t always like as much, but still appreciated. And I have read every novel he has written since then. I have liked them, although with some caveats, except for “Solar,” about which I was less enthusiastic (see my post of 4/17/10). I think McEwan is a wonderful writer who writes on varied topics, always with depth and humanity. I have just read his newest novel, “The Children Act” (Doubleday, 2014), and found that it continues in this tradition. The author takes on an important social issue and makes it come alive for the reader. The situation is this: Judge Fiona Maye, of the Family Court, must decide on a case in which a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness and his parents do not want him to be treated with a blood transfusion, which is against their religious beliefs. The hospital in which young Adam is being treated has asked the court to overrule this objection, in order to most effectively treat his cancer and save his life; otherwise he will surely die. The “Children Act” is the applicable law that Fiona must interpret in this case. She listens to the arguments, and rather unconventionally, goes to visit and interview Adam in the hospital. On the one hand, she wants to honor his beliefs, but on the other hand, she feels he is too young to make such a momentous decision and give up his life. She is drawn to him, a very bright and creative young man, and they share interests in music and poetry. I will not reveal the ensuing plot developments, as she gets to know Adam better, but must maintain her judicial distance, and I of course will not say here what she decides, and how the story ends. It is a riveting story, although McEwan is too good a writer to ratchet up the suspense factor artificially. The novel is about a social issue, but we also get to know two complex and compelling characters in Fiona and Adam. Meanwhile, there is another intertwining story element: Fiona’s 30-year and seemingly very good marriage seems to be unraveling after her husband has delivered a jarring demand. Again, I will of course not reveal the resolution of this storyline. All in all, “The Children Act” is a thoughtful, beautifully written, important novel.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

My Cousin's Bookstore

Readers of this blog know how much I love and appreciate independent bookstores. Recently I suddenly thought about how there is actually a wonderful independent bookstore in my own extended family. I hadn’t thought before about writing about it here, because it is in Canada and I have only visited it once, some years ago. I wrote to my cousin Craig Carson, whom I rarely see because of geography, but with whom I recently connected on Facebook. Craig first worked with, and then took over this bookstore, Second Page, from his mother, my Aunt Mali Carson, some years ago when she was no longer able to continue running it. He has owned and managed it ever since; between them they have run it for 35 years. I asked him for background information about the bookstore, and he was kind enough to write up a brief history for me. Below is a slightly edited (with his permission) version of that history. It makes me happy to think of this bookstore and its family connection! And I so admire Aunt Mali and Craig for making this bookstore a community center and a beloved place for all booklovers as well as a successful business that contributes to the local economy and environment. I wish I lived nearer so I could visit it more often. Here is Craig’s story about Second Page. “In 1979, Mali Carson and her business partner Dorothy Carmichael purchased an existing used book store in Courtenay, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island. Second Page was the business name chosen by my mother to reflect the second unnumbered page in a book, which is often the title page. The store was housed in one room for fifteen years until it was expanded into the vacant shop next door. I purchased Dorothy's share of the business in 2000 and Mom and I worked together for the next three years. In 2003 she had to stop working as her physical health was failing. The next three years included phone calls to Mom at the end of each workday to discuss the day at the store. In 2006 the main room in the store was renovated; I was happy that the renovation was finished in time for my mother to be pleased with the final result before she died later that same year. Soon after, I was dealing with some personal difficulties, but was able to overcome them, and I found that my experiences enriched my connections with the bookstore and its customers. My ability to communicate understanding and compassion within the store has led to many in depth conversations that have been beneficial both to myself and the customers. As mother in her way bonded with her customers, so have I have been inspired to share life changing stories with many of my customers. This is what makes the store my favorite place. It is full of humanity and compassion, respect and love. It is a gathering and sharing place open to one and to all, a safe place for those who need it, with hugs on request and occasionally tears. The store has two cats, each 10 years old, brother and sister from the same litter. Boo the Magnificent weighs in at 22 pounds and his little sister Princess Teeka, the boss of us all, is a more normal 10 pounds. Fourteen years ago the store was situated on a quiet side street. That same street today is second in activity only to the main shopping street. Now in 2014, six years after the recession, our downtown core is finally recovering from that recession and the onslaught of big box stores and their like. Second Page is proud to be an active member in the renewal and transformation of Courtenay's downtown core, as well as to provide books and a gathering place for the community."

Friday, October 17, 2014

Tedious, annoying, tedious, annoying...

But I kept on reading…. Why? I really don’t know. I picked "Cutting Teeth" up from the library because I had read a decent review or at least short notice of the novel in one of the publications I read regularly, although now I can’t remember which one. There is a modicum of a story – actually several stories – to be found in Julia Fierro’s novel (St. Martin’s, 2014). It tells the story of a New York “Mommies” playgroup, the members of which decide to go for a weekend at the beach, with their spouses and children. We hear a lot about the problems of each adult, problems that are child-related, fertility-related, marriage-related, career-related, (clinical-level) anxiety-related, drug-related, petty-crime-related, and more. Furthermore, the adults seem to have little in common besides their children, and they don’t seem to really like each other or each other’s children very much. Their relationships when under the pressure of living in the same house for a long weekend soon deteriorate badly. The author does capture the way parents, perhaps especially parents in their thirties living in New York,and their ilk elsewhere, are so focused on their children’s being perfect and having perfect lives that they crumble when their children have developmental or behavioral or other issues, including, in some cases, just being "normal" instead of excelling at something or everything. Every parent can understand this, but the message is drawn out in a way that is at first annoying and then maddening. Even though some of the characters and families are facing genuinely difficult situations, it is hard to be very sympathetic because they themselves are both unsympathetic and irritating. I know that readers don't have to "like" the characters to appreciate the novel, but here their annoying and self-indulgent behavior and dialogue is just too much. Perhaps one has to be in the same situation to fully appreciate this novel? I am a parent, but of an adult daughter, and although I recognize some of these parental behaviors and attitudes, and very probably was guilty of some of them myself, I find this book’s portrayal of them, and the general whininess and unpleasantness of the characters and their interactions, almost intolerable. So I ask myself again: Why did I keep reading? And I answer again: I am not sure. Perhaps it is one of those “it’s so bad that you can’t stop watching” situations.

Monday, October 13, 2014

"Lucky Break," by Esther Freud

Being an author with a very famous name inherited from a very famous person or persons must be a mixed blessing, but it does initially get one noticed. When I was browsing and picked up a novel by Esther Freud, of course I immediately wondered about her possible relationship to Sigmund Freud. It turns out she is the great-granddaughter of the great psychoanalyst, as well as the daughter of the famed painter Lucian Freud. Another reason I picked up Freud’s novel “Lucky Break” (Bloomsbury, 2011) is that when wandering through bookstores during a recent European trip, I noticed that there were many books by British authors (beyond the most famous writers such as Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, A. S. Byatt, and Martin Amis) that don’t seem to make the trip across the Atlantic, or at least if they do, they do not get much publicity. I have always read the British classic novels, and have some favorite English and Irish authors (e.g., Penelope Lively, Margaret Drabble, Julian Barnes, Pat Barker, Alan Hollinghurst, Maggie O’Farrell, Ali Smith, Anne Enright). But the ones I have just alluded to are the less well known, at least in the U.S. So now I consciously look out for such novels. Getting back to “Lucky Break”: This is the story of a group of young people who all want to be actors, and who meet at drama school. The novel follows them into their thirties, telling of their artistic successes and failures, as well as their personal relationships. It is an ensemble novel, with four of the characters receiving the most attention from the author. It shows the difficulties of making a life in the arts, and some of the minor characters give up early on. However, apparently it is not the author’s aim to show true poverty or difficulty, in that all the characters somehow manage to maintain decently comfortable lives, albeit sometimes in less-than-ideal housing, and don’t seem to truly suffer. The characters are interesting, and their interactions are as well. There are suggestions of competition and jealousy, but these never become major themes. This is a pleasant, enjoyable, occasionally quirky, well-written novel, but not one I am likely to long remember.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

RIP Carolyn Kizer

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carolyn Kizer's death on Thursday (10/9/14) at the age of 89 is sad. But we are fortunate that she left us her wonderful poetry. The New York Times obituary sums it up well: "Ms. Kizer's poetry is known for its wit, deep intellectualism and rigorous craftsmanship; its stylist hallmarks include impeccably calibrated rhyme, near-rhyme and meter. It is unsentimental, at times unsettling, but also luminous and warm." Her poetry is also "unmistakably feminist." Her work and life, even beyond her poetry, demonstrated her commitment to equality for women. For example, in 1998 "she and Maxine Kumin resigned as chancellors of the Academy of American Poets to protest the lack of women and minority group members in its leadership." This reminds me once again of the many, many women writers and artists who have each done what she could, in big and small ways, to fight the good fight against sexism in the arts (and elsewhere). Each such action has moved the cause of equity forward, inch by inch. Brava to this great poet both for her poetry and for her work on behalf of fairness and equity. One more thing: Carolyn Kizer lived in Sonoma (45 minutes north of San Francisco), so I feel an added connection to her.

Friday, October 10, 2014

"Thunderstruck," by Elizabeth McCracken

I seem to be reading a lot of short story collections these days. The latest is “Thunderstruck” (Dial Press, 2014), by Elizabeth McCracken. I had not heard of this author until I read reviews of this new book, but it turns out that she is an established, esteemed and award-winning writer. This reminds me, yet again, of how very many good fiction writers there are, and how even readers who follow the reviews in many periodicals and other sources cannot possibly know about more than a fraction of them. This is both a good thing – how wonderful it is that there are so many gifted writers and terrific books! – and an unfortunate one – many good writers get overlooked, and readers cannot possibly keep up. In any case, I now feel I have “discovered” another terrific author of fiction. McCracken writes about very human characters, involved in very human relationships and interactions: those to do with love and families, as well as neighbors and coworkers and people randomly met as well. (Regular readers of this blog know that these are exactly the qualities I like in fiction.) The characters are very believable, yet neither they nor the things that happen to them are predictable. Which reminds me of an important element in fiction, perhaps especially in short stories: that of surprise. It is a delicate balance between making readers believe the stories and yet keeping them on edge with unexpected events and developments. McCracken manages this balance beautifully.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"All the Rage," by A. L. Kennedy

British writer A. L.Kennedy is much better known in the U.K. than in North America, although she is respected by critics and readers on both sides of the ocean who do know her work. I have been vaguely aware of her work for a while, and I believe I have read something of hers sometime, perhaps in The New Yorker, but not much. Her recent story collection, “All the Rage” (published in the U.S. by New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) is getting good reviews, and I decided it was time to get to know this writer’s work. A word often used about her work is “fierce,” as in “fiercely observant and very funny” (Evening Standard). I think it is an apt word for these stories. She is clearly a brilliant writer. The stories I liked best were the most traditional, rather than those that consisted of interior monologues, but in all cases, I was impressed. Kennedy describes unusual situations and quirky characters. There is a deep sense throughout, despite a certain edginess, of the humaneness of her vision. I think Kennedy's work is a bit of an acquired taste; I am not quite sure if I have acquired it completely myself, but I am glad I read this collection, and will seek out more of her work.

Monday, October 6, 2014

"Not Now But Now," by M.F.K. Fisher

M.F.K. Fisher was a widely revered food and travel -- but especially food -- writer, a literary one. Although she lived and traveled all over, she was perhaps especially famous here in the San Francisco Bay Area, living north of San Francisco for many years. She died there in 1992. I have only read a few excerpts of her writing, and know her mostly by reputation. But when I saw a copy of her only novel, “Not Now but Now” (Viking, 1947, North Point 1982) at our monthly library sale, I bought it on the strength of that reputation. It is the story of Jennie, a stylish and irresistible woman who appears at various points in the past century, always on a train, and meets various people whom she proceeds to enchant. It is very important to her to feel this power, but at some point the people she gets involved with become suspicious and even resentful of her, feeling betrayed, and she walks away from the situation, telling herself she prefers to be free. There is some magic, some fantasy, and much psychology in these linked stories of the same woman, always young, although in situations decades apart. But the novel is a bit too schematic, and the character is not likeable. There is an “Afterword” in which the author says she basically wrote the novel because her publishers urged her to do so, and she did it almost as a lark, and in hopes of making money from it. For me, reading this admission made me like the novel even less. Obviously Fisher was just saying what many authors must have felt, but her candor was off-putting rather than endearing.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

"The Liar's Wife," by Mary Gordon

I have been reading Mary Gordon for decades, and have always been a fan of her novels, stories, and memoirs. Her new book, “The Liar's Wife: Four Novellas,” doesn’t disappoint. The novella is not a very common form of fiction, but it has its advantages, being longer and more developed than a short story but more compact and to the point than a novel. Each of these four novellas is a gem. The title story tells of an older woman who is visited, after 50 years, by her first husband, Johnny, an Irishman to whom she was married for two years. She had been passionately in love with him, and they had moved from the U.S. to Ireland to live. But her attraction to and love for him couldn’t overcome her inability to accept his constant exaggerations. Now as she sees him and a new wife, down on their luck but still positive and optimistic, she wonders if she had given up some magic when she left him. She has had a good, even prosperous life with her good husband, but as people do when they get older, she can’t help thinking about what might have been. She knows in her heart that it would never have worked, but his visit makes her think about different paths in life, and what one gives up and gets with each life decision. The next two stories take famous writers/thinkers and imagine them in fictional situations: “Simone Weil in New York” and “Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana.” Both are intriguing blends of the real and the imagined, and both have much to say about choices people make, in this case in particular regarding World War II. The fourth story explores what a young woman learns during her months doing research in Europe. What she sees, especially the art, makes her rethink much about her life and about her lover/professor. Each of these four novellas is compelling and thought-provoking, exploring important questions and delineating fascinating characters. Gordon’s writing is, as always, exceptional.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Blurb Connections

My most recent post was on Amy Bloom’s new novel, “Lucky Us." Then I picked up two books from the library, books about which I had read good reviews. The first was “Thunderstruck: Stories,” by Elizabeth McCracken. Glancing at the back of the book, as I always do, I saw that it was blurbed by Amy Bloom. The second book I got that day was “Bad Feminist: Essays,” by Roxane Gay. And the first blurb on the back of that book was by – yes, you guessed it – Elizabeth McCracken. A little roundelay of blurbs. Well, we know that many authors blurb each other’s books. I have heard rumors that sometimes it is a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” situation, although I imagine it is not quite that clearly articulated. (Not to imply that this is the case in these particular situations.) Another interpretation, in this case, is that the types of books and authors I read are closely related, so this kind of confluence of blurbs is not surprising. I think both explanations may be at least partially true. It makes me wonder if my reading choices are perhaps too predictable, too constricted. Hmmm. I know that I have pretty strong feelings about what I like and don’t like, but I would like to think that what I like is still quite varied. I’ll watch the back-cover blurbs on the books I read in the upcoming weeks, and see if I see more of this pattern, or if it was just a coincidence.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

"Lucky Us," by Amy Bloom

I wrote on 2/27/10 about how impressed I was with Amy Bloom’s collection of short stories, “Where the God of Love Hangs Out.” I have just read her new novel, “Lucky Us” (Random House, 2014), and I find some of the same themes as in some of those stories: family love and family dysfunction; families cobbled together from disparate, unconventional sources; unsettled conditions; occasional reprehensible behavior (usually out of desperation); and various betrayals, one particularly terrible. The story takes place in the 1940s, mostly in the U.S., and World War II’s shadow lies over much of the story, especially for certain characters. Questions of race and ethnicity, especially regarding Jewish and black characters, are threaded through the story. But the novel is not just “about” these themes; the main characters are strong, idiosyncratic, and skillfully drawn. Eva is the center of the story, and in her quiet but focused way is a compelling character. She and her more flamboyant sister Iris leave a complicated home situation as teenagers; make their way in the world, although generally in poverty or close to it; fall in love with seemingly unsuitable people; are rejoined by their charming but ne’er-do-well father; work; move from place to place; and in general are always trying to find their way, but with increasing support from their makeshift new families. What I like best about this novel is the very specific and distinct quality of the characters, the fearlessness of the main character despite all odds; and Bloom’s ability to weave in important themes without ever taking away from the story and the characters. As an interesting aside: Bloom is a cousin of the eminent literary critic Harold Bloom.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

"Blackboard," by Lewis Buzbee

Lewis Buzbee, who teaches at the University of San Francisco, where I also teach, has written yet another thoughtful, thought-provoking, and enjoyable book: “Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom” (Graywolf, 2014). (See also my 3/9/10 post on one of his earlier books, “The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop”). “Blackboard” is, as the subtitle states, a kind of memoir of Buzbee’s own schooling through the years, starting in elementary school. He actually went back and visited the schools he attended, which helped jog his memories, and is also evocative for the reader. He also interweaves his childhood memories with what he observes in his own daughter’s schools now. Buzbee writes beautifully and persuasively about the power of teachers and education. He is a great supporter of public education, and gives example after example of specific teachers and specific things they did to educate, encourage, and inspire him. He freely states that because of certain difficulties in his early life, especially the death of his father, he could have easily gone off the rails and gotten into trouble, and even started in that direction, but that over and over again it was dedicated and caring teachers who took the time and effort to go beyond their normal duties and help and guide him. This is such a good response to, and countering of, the too-often-heard negative comments about teachers these days. And interestingly, Buzbee, as mentioned above, became not only a writer but also a teacher (at the college level) himself. The book is full of vivid, telling and intriguing details, and bursting with the sense of how things actually happen in real-life classrooms. We feel we know Mrs. Moody and her kindergarten classroom, including how it was set up. We learn about Mrs. Talley and the first grade classroom, and about Buzbee’s crush on Miss Cleveland, his second grade teacher. We meet several other amazing teachers Buzbee had in middle school, high school, and college. We hear how he fell in love with books, largely because of his teachers, and how reading became so central to his life and his future as a writer. As someone who comes from a family of teachers –- grandparents, great-aunt, aunt, mother, brothers, sister-in-law -- I am happy to see this kind of recognition of what good teachers do, day in and day out, and how they influence generations of young people. But this book is not didactic or (only) message-centered; it is an engaging memoir and story. “Blackboard” is a small book that will inspire readers in a big way; it certainly inspired me.

Friday, September 19, 2014

"The Stories of Jane Gardam"

I finished reading “The Stories of Jane Gardam” (Europa Editions, 2014) a couple of weeks ago, but haven’t written about it yet because I fear I can’t possibly adequately convey how wonderful these stories, selected from her collections over the years, are. Readers of this blog may remember that I have written about British writer Gardam’s work before. I wrote about the first two novels of her great “Old Filth” trilogy (3/18/10), her novel “Crusoe’s Daughter” (6/3/12), and the third novel in the aforementioned trilogy (6/22/13). As I wrote on 6/22/13, Gardam “is quite simply a genius in the strength and depth of her writing, and in the way she captures this particular world and the nuances of the characteristics of each person, and the relationships among them. Her writing is evocative but never sentimental; it is descriptive without going overboard; she involves readers without pandering to them.” As I think about her writing after reading “The Stories,” one adjective that occurs to me is “bracing.” The stories are powerful, energizing, and somehow make the reader feel fortunate to be part of the experience of Gardam’s world. There are a couple of stories that I liked less because of the elements of whimsy or fantasy or experimentalism, but only because of my own tastes in literature. The overwhelming majority of the 28 stories are wonderful, original, thought-provoking, written with such control, and pure joy to read. A couple of the stories show the originals of later novels, such as the story titled “Old Filth” (“Failed in Hong Kong Try London”). The stories such as “Old Filth” that focus on lives of British colonials and expatriates are of particular interest to me because of my background growing up in India, and my own research and writing on the experiences of Third Culture Kids, including missionary children. Gardam, who is 86 years old, has given us an amazing wealth of great writing, and seems to be going strong, still writing. I look forward to reading her future work.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

"Early Decision," by Lacy Crawford

Many of us, especially those involved in the higher education world and/or those who have children, are fascinated with the admissions process and everything that leads up to and accompanies it. Applying to colleges, at least the top-ranked colleges, has become a sort of arms race. More and more students apply for the limited spaces, agonizing over their grades, SAT scores, extracurricular activities, volunteer work, and the all-important “personal statement” essays. Sometimes it is the parents who are most invested in the process. There have been a few books -- both nonfiction and fiction -- about this process recently. The latest is “Early Decision” (William Morrow, 2013), by Lacy Crawford, a novel. The main character is Anne, a private college counselor. The novel covers one application season, and focuses on five students with whom Anne is working to help them write the perfect essays and maximize their chances of admission to top-tier universities. The focus is on the five students and their evolving interests and abilities and choices; an almost equal focus is on the parents of the five students. A major “message” of the novel is that parents are too involved in the process, and are too invested in ensuring their children are accepted to name-brand (preferably Ivy League) colleges. The portrayals of the students are empathetic, as it is clear that some of them have different desires regarding their educations than their parents do. In contrast, the portrayals of the parents are scathing. Anne walks a fine line: she is hired by the parents to help their children get into high-status schools, but she also wants to help the students discover their true interests and preferences, which might not always be found at these most prestigious colleges. We also learn about Anne’s own issues and insecurities. She is highly educated but can’t figure out what she wants to do with her life; she is successful at what she is doing, but doesn’t see it as a lifelong career. She has also spent too many years with her boyfriend, a handsome, dashing actor who is unreliable, unsupportive, and unfaithful. By the end of the book, especially as explained in an epilogue, there are some happy endings and some not-so-happy ones…just like in real life. This novel succeeds as an exploration of the craziness of the “Harvard or die” mindset among some parents and thus among some of their children. It also succeeds as a story that catches and keeps readers’ attention to the end.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"Men Explain Things to Me," by Rebecca Solnit

Readers may have heard the term “mansplaining,” referring to men’s explaining things to women – often condescendingly – that women already know about, and may even be experts on. Rebecca Solnit -- an expert on many matters, including the environment, San Francisco, walking, and the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, among other topics, and the author of 15 books -- inspired this phrase, with her essay “Men Explain Things to Me.” Now she has published a slim collection of her essays -- “Men Explain Things to Me” (Haymarket/Dispatch, 2014) -- that includes this essay. Solnit, who lives in San Francisco and whom I have heard speak (she is an excellent and engaging speaker), hastens to point out that not all men do this, but that it is enough of a phenomenon to warrant pointing out. Solnit provides some jawdropping examples, not only from her own experiences but from those of many others, including contributors to the website “Academic Men Explain Things to Me,” where “hundreds of university women shared their stories of being patronized, belittled, talked over, and more.” Solnit explains that this problem is not just a small annoyance, but something that has larger contexts (sexism) and larger consequences (silencing women). She notes “It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field: that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence” (pp. 4-5). Most of the other six essays in this small but powerful collection also deal with issues of gender and power. “The Longest War” and “Worlds Collide in a Luxury Suite: Some Thoughts on the IMF, Global Injustice, and a Stranger on a Train” deal with rape and other sexual assault. Other essays speak of so many instances throughout history of women’s powerlessness, voicelessness, erasure. One essay explores the connections between same-sex marriage and women’s issues. Solnit always writes with passion backed up by facts and reason. She alludes to history, politics, art, literature, and current events. One essay focuses on the life, thought, and writing of Virginia Woolf. This is a potent, important collection of essays from one of our leading writers and thinkers. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

On Not Wanting to Read David Mitchell's "The Bone Clocks"

I am reading the rapturous reviews (and a couple of less rapturous ones) of David Mitchell’s new novel, “The Bone Clocks,” with trepidation. It may well be wonderful, but it is clearly not my kind of novel. Vanity Fair, for example, calls it “a “genre-warping, time-tripping, metaphysical thriller with a vengeance and a cast of thousands” (September 2014, p. 184). In my own reading choices, I am averse to each and every one of those five descriptors. More detailed descriptions of the novel have done nothing to make me think I would enjoy it or even get through it. That is all fine; I fully admit that my reading preferences are not always those of others, and I definitely understand that they may indicate limitations on my part. But what is the problem? Why can’t I just decide not to read “The Bone Clocks,” and leave it at that? Well, it seems that this novel is the latest “must-read,” and that I will feel out of touch and unadventurous if I am not willing to read it. Of course I have felt this dilemma numerous times over the years. And it is clearly not a big deal, for me or anyone else. But as I felt those familiar oh-oh feelings as I was reading the reviews, I was reminded of how we all have our own very clear preferences in reading, and of how those preferences do not necessarily align with what is anointed as “the best” by literary critics and other readers. And I was reminded of how I still have some of that feeling – perhaps left over from literature classes in college and graduate school? – that as a reader of serious fiction, I limit myself in ways that may or may not make sense, and may or may not be good for my own intellectual growth. Do any of you worry about this?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

"Friendship," by Emily Gould

I love reading novels about friendships, especially friendships between and among women. My own friendships, some very longtime, have meant so much to me. One of the (many!) joys of raising my now adult daughter has been seeing her great gift for friendship, making and keeping and nourishing her many friendships, especially but not only with women, from various times and aspects of her life. So I was prepared to enjoy the novel “Friendship” (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014), by Emily Gould, and mostly I did – simply because of the subject matter – although I wasn’t bowled over by it. Bev and Amy are longtime best friends, living in New York City, now thirtyish. They have each had serious ups and downs in their stuttering careers, their finances, their housing, and their romantic lives. Gould’s portrayal of these often-difficult years in millennials’ lives, especially in today’s economic climate, is one of the strongest features of this novel. These two characters are educated, come from at least middle-class backgrounds, and have been raised to think that they will be able to step into good jobs and prosperous, successful lives; it is hard for them to accept that it doesn’t necessarily work that way. We see how they struggle, doubt themselves, sometimes delude themselves, and are both hopeful and frightened about their futures. When one character is doing better and the other worse, their relationship is threatened, especially at times when one feels the other is not being supportive, or one disagrees with the other’s life decisions. One problem with the portrayal of the friendship, I feel, is that we are told over and over what great friends the two young women are, yet there seems to be something missing, something not quite convincing, about their friendship. Overall, though, this novel is very readable and, despite the setbacks the characters suffer, we as readers feel fairly confident that there will be at least reasonably happy endings for Bev and Amy.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

"The Hundred-Year House," by Rebecca Makkai

Writers and artists. Academics. Intriguing characters. Complicated relationships. A mystery. What more could this reader want? Rebecca Makkai’s novel, “The Hundred-Year House” (Viking, 2014) provides all of the above and more. The story of the Devohr house and its various inhabitants starts in 1999 and moves backward in time almost a century. As it does so, layers of secrets are gradually revealed. One of the most interesting aspects is that the house was first a family house, then an artists’ colony, and then a family house again; many of the family members were entangled with the residents of the artists’ colony in various ways, either simultaneously, or later as they did research. (As an aside: just the phrase "artists' colony" is enough to make me want to read a book....) Some of the characters are appealing, some not, but almost all are interesting. One reservation I have about the novel is that even at the end, there were a couple of loose ends in the plot that were not tied up (or perhaps were revealed so subtly that I didn’t figure it out?), and that was a bit frustrating.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

What I Read Before, During, and After My Trip

Just before, during, and just after a recent international trip (including long plane trips), I read several books that I am not going to discuss individually here, but simply list. 1. “The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories,” by Marina Keegan…..2. “Life Drawing,” by Robin Black…..3. “You Should Have Known,” by Jean Hanff Korelitz…..4. “The Awakening of Miss Prim,” by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera…..4. “Instructions for a Heat Wave,” by Maggie O’Farrell…..5. “Gone Girl,” by Gillian Flynn…..6. “The Silver Star,” by Jeanette Walls…..7. “Things We Never Say,” by Sheila O’Flanagan. The two among these that I most recommend are “Life Drawing” and “Instructions for a Heat Wave.”

Monday, August 25, 2014

On Re-Reading "Franny and Zoey"

After reading and posting (7/12/14) about Joanna Rakoff’s new memoir about her connection to Salinger, I thought about how I hadn’t read his work since my teens and twenties, and maybe it was time to go back to it. I picked up his novel “Franny and Zoey” (1955), the story of a brilliant, talented, and neurotic sister and brother in their early twenties, the youngest members of a large New York City family of brilliant, talented, and neurotic parents and seven children. I remember now my reaction when I first read it: I both admired and didn’t totally “get” it. And I had a similar reaction when I finished it this time. I was as angsty, intense, self-involved and concerned about the big questions in the world as any 20ish young person (I still remember marathon all-night sessions in college earnestly and intensely discussing the meaning of life and other momentous topics), but even to me, this novel and these characters seemed, and seem, a bit “much.” I was going to go back to Salinger’s other fiction as well, but now I think I won’t. Don’t get me wrong: I do understand how this fiction resonated, and still resonates with, so many young people, and to some extent it did with me as well, at least the first time I read it. And I do admire Salinger's gift of capturing the extreme version of this late adolescent condition. I am definitely glad to have read it. But I don’t think I need to read any more now.

Friday, August 22, 2014

RIP Bel Kaufman

Did you read “Up the Down Staircase” in high school or later? I am reminded of this funny but disturbing bestselling 1965 autobiographical novel because its author, Bel Kaufman, died July 25th at the age of 103. The book was lauded because it portrayed the best and the worst of life in schools, with all the bureaucracy and problems, along with the joys of teaching and helping students learn and grow. According to the Associated Press, the book has sold more than 6 million copies, “Kaufman became a heroine for teachers and students worldwide,” and the book “helped start a trend of candid education books.” I remember reading this book and being bowled over by how real it seemed, and by how recognizable the school scenes were. Also by how strongly it criticized the educational realities of schools, yet how caring the main character was about her students. And the book was fun to read, and funny! As an aside: I had not known before I read Kaufman’s obituaries that she was the granddaughter of the famous Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. It makes one wonder, yet again, if there is a literary gene. In any case, thank you, Bel Kaufman, for this wonderful, influential, inspiring, and enjoyable book, and for your long career as a teacher, writer, and lecturer. You educated so many of us, and made a difference in so many lives, always with wit and humor.

Monday, August 18, 2014

National Medal of Arts for Maxine Hong Kingston

How wonderful it is that Maxine Hong Kingston was just awarded the National Medal of Arts! It was presented to her by President Obama in a ceremony at the White House on July 28, 2014. I can still remember what a tremendous, exhilarating breakthrough the publication of her first novel, “The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts,” was. It was one of the first novels by a Chinese American writer, and one of an even smaller number of novels by Chinese American women writers. But it was a true first in being a huge success with critics and with the public. Nowadays we are very accustomed to reading fiction by authors of a wide variety of ethnicities, so it is hard to cast our minds back to when this was not so, but when “The Woman Warrior” was published in 1976, fiction by minority writers was rarely published, and certainly not to wide acclaim. Hong Kingston’s work paved the way for that of Amy Tan and many other writers of other-than-Caucasian ethnicities, and especially for women of these ethnicities. Reading “The Woman Warrior” was a heady and illuminating experience for readers; I still remember the shock and excitement of learning about Chinese and Chinese American culture, portrayed with a combination of realistic and magic/mythic stories that were captivating, frightening, and inspiring in turn. And these stories were feminist: they focused on women’s lives. They portrayed the strict limitations under which women lived their lives, as well as the creativity and life force that helped women to survive, and occasionally thrive. Maxine Hong Kingston has also written other novels and nonfiction works, as well as being a longtime (now retired) professor at Berkeley and a frequent speaker. Her writing has made a difference, and she truly deserves the National Medal she has just received.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Mourning the Deaths of Great Writers

Author Thomas Berger died on July 13, just days before his 90th birthday. He is best known as the author of “Little Big Man,” which was later made into a movie starring Dustin Hoffman. Although Berger was a highly regarded writer, and although I mourn his loss as I mourn the loss of all excellent writers, he is not one I read much. But his death reminds me of something I have been noticing lately: the gradually increasing numbers of deaths of writers I “always” knew about and often read, and whom I thought – on some magical level – would be alive and writing forever. Being a reader of a “certain age” myself – let’s say late middle age – I obviously understand mortality. But it still comes as a blow and even a surprise every time I read about the death of one the great writers of our time. Even in the four and a half years I have been writing this blog, I have written “R.I.P.” posts about several of these great writers (who of course are only a small number of all the writers who have died even during that time). These writers about whom I posted because I had read and particularly admired their work include Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, Maya Angelou, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Vance Bourjaily, and Shulamith Firestone. Other important writers who died in 2014 include Peter Matthieson, the wonderful poet Maxine Kumin, and the great Canadian short story writer, Mavis Gallant. Notable deaths in 2013 include those of Seamus Heaney, Ellen Douglas, and Chinua Achebe. I am writing here, though, not simply to list these deaths, although I always value a chance to pay tribute to great writers. Here I am focusing on how our (e.g., readers’) place in life, in the sweep and flow of history, is marked partly by observing those who go ahead of us, whether family members and friends, or authors who sometimes seem like family members and friends because we feel (although this isn’t necessarily true) that we know them through their work. It is always a shock to be reminded of their mortality, and by extension, of our own.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Book Clubs

What’s almost as good as reading books? Why, talking about books! This came to mind when I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle (7/24/14, p. E1) about a book club of gay men in San Francisco. The club is composed of men from 29 to 75, of a range of professions; the common thread is that they all, in various ways, have worked for gay causes, whether as activists, health care professionals, educators, writers, artists, or fundraisers (among other roles). Some of them have been friends and colleagues for decades; the book group itself started 12 years ago. They read a variety of books: fiction, biographies, memoirs, books on historical or political topics, and more. They meet over dinners at members’ houses, thus combining the joys of reading, talking, dining, and enjoying compatible company. Reading about this group reminded me of the importance and pleasure of gatherings of groups, groups with histories, to talk about books and ideas, sharing experiences and ideas. I believe in the power of book groups in general, but such groups are even more powerful communities if they also represent common identities and interests. (Of course there is always, and should be, room for different opinions.) I have written here about the power and joys of book groups, and about the groups I have been part of. In fact, one of my very first posts on this blog (1/26/10) was about a reading group I have been part of for three and a half decades. Book clubs, reading groups, or variations of these exist in many forms, but in all cases, they provide wonderful opportunities to talk about books and ideas, and to form or reinforce communities and connections.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

"Funny Once," by Antonya Nelson

I have written here about how, although the novel is my most-loved literary form, I also very much enjoy and appreciate short stories. But I seem not to have read many short story collections in recent months, until the past three weeks or so, when I (without planning or intending to in any conscious way) read, and posted about here, two such collections -- Hester Kaplan’s “Unravished” and Francesca Marciano’s “The Other Language” -- and now have read and am posting about Antonya Nelson’s “Funny Once” (Bloomsbury, 2014). I also re-read (actually listenied to on CD) Alice Munro’s collection, “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.” “Funny Once” is both funny and sad. This is something I would say about other books I have read by Nelson, including the two I have read since I started this blog: “Bound” (which I posted about on 10/28/10) and “Living to Tell” (posted about on 12/12/13). Many of her characters meander through life, either directionless or powerless or alienated or drinking too much or some combination of the above. This is especially true in the last and longest story in this collection, “Three Wishes,” which is also perhaps the most wrenching one. It starts with three loving but stumbling-through-life adult siblings taking their father to a “home” because of his dementia. (As an aside, I notice that several books I have read just lately happen to include a focus on characters with dementia.) Son Hugh, in his late thirties, still lives in the house where he grew up; daughter Hannah is very competent but feels something is missing, and splits up with her perfectly good husband; youngest daughter Holly lacks confidence about how to live an adult life and raise her young son, who is preternaturally mature and appears to mostly raise himself. They all still feel the long shadow of their oldest brother Hamish’s somewhat mysterious death some twenty years ago. Hugh and Hannah both depend far too much on alcohol to get them through life. Despite all the depressing aspects of this story, we see the characters draw love and strength from each other.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

More on Alice Munro

Regular readers of this blog know that I – like so many others, including the Nobel Prize committee – love and admire Alice Munro’s fiction, especially her short stories. I recently listened to a collection I had already read more than ten years ago, “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” (BBC Audiobooks America, 2002), and was just as entranced with and impressed by it this time as I was last time. What can I say that I haven’t already said about Munro’s insightfulness about human nature, carefully observed details, surprises around some corners, and fine, fine writing? Perhaps the strongest story is the last and longest, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain.” It is a love story, a story of the ways love and marriage change with time, especially in the various contexts of one’s surrounding society. And the love story becomes an even more complicated one when wife Fiona is affected by dementia and falls in love with another man, not her husband, at the institution where she has moved, and husband Grant finds himself facilitating that love because it makes Fiona happy. This Munro story was made into a terrific 2007 film, “Away From Her,” starring Julie Christie. To show that life, once again, is not so very different from fiction: Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor faced a similar situation at about the same time, when her husband, affected by Alzheimer’s, fell in love with another woman; O’Connor stood by him, and even felt happy that his newfound love pulled him out of the depression he had been suffering. Getting back to this story collection: I recommend it as one of Munro’s best, which is to say: the best of the best.

Friday, August 1, 2014

"Fallout," by Sadie Jones

The English author Sadie Jones’ new novel “Fallout” (Harper, 2014), like her earlier novel “The Uninvited Guests” (about which I posted on 6/26/12), has an air of strangeness, of slight removal from real life. In the case of the earlier novel, this was partly because of an obvious unreality, a sort of magical realism. But in the case of “Fallout,” there are no ghosts, no unbelievable events; there is simply a sense that the events happened far in the past, or in a different land. In fact, the novel is set in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly in London. The main characters – Luke, Paul, Leigh, and Nina – are young people starting off in the theater world: Luke is a writer; Paul is a producer; Nina is an actress; Leigh is both an actress and a theater administrator. The four of them are very close, and have romantic, sexual, friendship, and business connections in various combinations at various times. Some of these relationships are extremely intense, but they sometimes end suddenly, sometimes for explicable and sometimes for rather inexplicable reasons. There are also, beneath-the-surface fluctuations of relationships, subterranean connections, longings, tensions. These four characters are intensely compelling, especially Luke, the son of a vivid but mentally ill mother who has spent most of her life in an asylum. Luke is brilliant, charismatic, attractive, and a strange combination of focused and mercurial. The novel reminds me of an extended balletic sequence featuring four dancers in various scenes and in various combinations. The novel is powerful yet somehow keeps the reader at arms length; it is not clear to me if this is intentional on the part of the author or not. In any case, the novel stitches together what could be clich├ęd theater elements with original and compelling portrayals and plot turns. The reader is kept a little off-center throughout; this is not a novel to sink into with a sigh of comfort (and that’s okay). It is a novel that I believe will stay in my mind for some time, as has Jones’ earlier novel, “The Uninvited Guests.”
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