Saturday, May 31, 2014

Guest Post: "Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?" by Roz Chast

My friend Mary emailed me about how much she liked the New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast’s new graphic/cartoon book, “Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?” (Bloomsbury, 2014). I have now read it and agree that it is wonderful. But Mary described the book, and her own reactions to it, so well that, with her kind permission, the rest of this post is a slightly edited version of her email. Mary says: “This book reads like a novel – or a gripping memoir, which it is. It’s a combination of funny and heartbreaking. It describes her parents during the last few years of their lives, when they are very old. Chast had a very unhappy childhood, and an especially difficult mother. Her parents are both now dead. But despite this, I laughed out loud, with tears of hilarity rolling down my face during much of the time I read it. Yet much of it was also very touching, brutally, unflatteringly honest, and very sad. Sometimes the sad parts and the hilarious parts were interwoven. The written and the visual combine in a powerful way, as they do in graphic novels. Since I read it, the theme of her story has been haunting me. Chast is unblinking in her description of the last, raggedy endings of her parents’ lives. This is a funny, sad, lovely and eloquent book throughout.”

Thursday, May 29, 2014

RIP Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, poet, memoirist, civil rights advocate, women's rights advocate, singer, dancer, film director, and educator, died yesterday at the age of 86. She was a great woman, and had a great presence and influence. The papers and the Internet are full of details, quotes, etc., so I will simply say that I, like countless others, greatly admired her, and will here share some times and ways in which she and her work entered my life more specifically. First, some years ago, Dr. Angelou read her work at the University of San Francisco (USF), where I teach. I was awed by her work, her voice, and her presence, as were the students and other faculty in attendance. I don't think anyone who has ever seen or heard her will ever forget that experience. Second, last fall a six-evening reading/discussion group of faculty women, especially but not only faculty women of color, took place at USF; I was a member. The group was called "And Still We Rise," after Angelou's great poem "And Still I Rise." Her spirit inspired and infused the group. I have also taught that poem, and others by her. Another connection is that Angelou lived here in San Francisco on and off for many years of her life. RIP Dr. Maya Angelou.

Monday, May 26, 2014

"A Circle of Wives," by Alice LaPlante

A friend casually mentioned with approval the author Alice LaPlante, so I picked up and read a copy of her new novel, “A Circle of Wives” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014). All my life, I have had phases of enjoying mysteries and reading many of them, and phases of being tired of them and not reading any for years at a time. However, I have generally not liked the genre of thrillers or suspense novels. This book is a sort of literary, domestic mystery/psychological thriller, and I must say it is well written, suspenseful, and entertaining. The mystery is the murder of a respected plastic surgeon whose body has been found in a hotel room (and what was he doing there?) in Palo Alto (and readers of this blog know I enjoy books set in my geographical area, the San Francisco Bay Area; as a side note, LaPlante also lives and teaches in the Bay Area). The three main characters are the wives of the title: the three very different wives of the surgeon, to be exact. It turns out that only one wife, the first, knew about the others. Somehow the surgeon managed a busy, complicated career and being part of three different households. The other main character is the young detective assigned to the case, Samantha Adams, who has her own issues with personal relationships. So the mystery is, of course, the identity of the killer, as well as how she/he pulled it off. And LaPlante constructs a strong and mystifying puzzle, as good mystery writers should. What makes this book more than a mystery is the character development, the setting, and the very capable writing. This is a great summer read, an intriguing mystery with literary flair and panache.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

"Americanah," by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“Americanah” (Knopf, 2013) is both a great achievement and a very enjoyable read. This novel by the accomplished writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is bursting with engaging plot, compelling characters, and acerbic observations on immigration, culture, and – especially – race in America. The title refers to Nigerians who go to America. The story focuses on two characters, the young woman Ifemelu and the young man Obinze, who grow up and fall in love in Nigeria, but become distanced when Ifemelu goes to the United States and Obinze to England. In their new countries, both struggle with financial problems, discrimination, and mystification at American and English ways. Eventually they both achieve success, in Ifemelu's case in the United States, and in Obinze's case back in Nigeria; they both end up back in Nigeria after quite a few years abroad, and there they each experience a sort of reverse culture shock but also a feeling of belonging. This novel lavishly describes workplaces, houses, love affairs, relationships with families and friends, fascinating supporting characters, and much more, in three different countries; it is a BIG novel, not only in its 477-page length, but in its scope and capaciousness. It reminds me of the great 19th Century English novels of Dickens et al. But what really distinguishes this novel, on top of the compelling story and characters, is the aptness, particularity, and tartness of Ifemelu’s insights and stories about how Americans think and talk and act regarding race. The device of her writing a very popular blog on race in America enables some of these observations; others rise out of the story itself. The comments are sometimes humorous but also barbed; they will leave many a “liberal,” including me, wondering if we have been as clueless -- even if unintentionally -- about race and culture as the people she writes about. But the writing is too good for the book to be simply a kind of disguised sermon; it definitely makes the reader think, but also gives the reader the traditional pleasures of a big, well written novel with the aforementioned engaging characters and turn-the-pages-to-see-what-happens-next plot. Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

"Cambridge," by Susanna Kaysen

Like Mona Simpson’s recent novel, “Casebook,” which I posted about last time (on 5/13/14), Susanna Kaysen’s new novel, “Cambridge” (Knopf, 2014), is told from the perspective of a child. In this case the child is a girl, Susanna, and the story tells of a family that moves from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Cambridge, England, with stays in other European cites as well, and back. Her family is academic, intellectual, and artistic. She has a kind of privileged life, but she is not necessarily happy with that life. She is obviously bright and perhaps too self-involved and self-conscious. The fact that the narrator has the same first name as the author, along with the fact that the author is best known for her memoirs, including the famous “Girl, Interrupted,” blurs the line between memoir and fiction, as other reviewers have pointed out as well. In any case, reading this novel at almost the same time as I was reading “Casebook” was instructive for me. Although the early adolescent angst of the narrator, and her complicated relationship with her family, is well portrayed and both familiar and of interest, the novel as a whole seems episodic and meandering, and the writing suffers in comparison to Mona Simpson’s. Even if I had not read these two novels almost simultaneously, I think my response to "Cambridge" would have been mild appreciation, mild enjoyment, but no more.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

"Casebook," by Mona Simpson

I have read most of Mona Simpson’s novels; she is a gifted author who writes absorbingly. Her newest novel, “Casebook” (Knopf, 2014), follows one of the main themes in her fiction: family members trying to find and/or figure each other out. The story in this novel is a stand-in for those of all the children everywhere who are confused by the lives of their parents and other adults in their lives, and who are trying to puzzle out what adult life is all about. Young teenagers Miles Adler-Hart and his best friend Hector play boy detectives in order to understand Miles’ divorced parents, and his mother’s somewhat mysterious boyfriend, better. They listen to conversations, snoop through possessions and mail, and even enlist an actual private investigator who eventually becomes a friend of the family. There are wrenching revelations and profound betrayal in this story, but there is also great love. Fortunately the love wins out. Besides the focus on the search for knowledge, there are strong and engaging portrayals of a rich variety of characters. Simpson’s novels always remind me of journeys to understanding, jam-packed with adventures, misadventures, and surprises, as well as many human, touching, sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes heartwarming moments. The setting in the various communities of Los Angeles serves as another character.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

"Over Easy," by Mimi Pond

I have written about a few graphic books (novels and memoirs) I have read (e.g., 7/26/11, 1/23/12, and 2/1/12), and I am increasingly interested in the creativity shown by the authors/artists of contemporary graphic books. The latest one I have read is “Over Easy” (Drawn and Quarterly, 2014), by Mimi Pond. It is the author’s memoir of taking time off during her art school days to earn money as first a dishwasher and then a waitress in The Imperial Café in Oakland, California. One appeal of the book, for me, was its Oakland setting, just across the Bay from San Francisco; the book captures some of the gritty, original, hipsterish/punkish, sometimes exciting and sometimes dreary feel of the part of Oakland where the café is located. There is not a lot of plot in this book, but there are terrific, entertaining, moving, funny portrayals of the cast of characters at the restaurant, mostly those who work there but also some of the customers and friends who come in to eat, talk, drink, sell and use recreational drugs, start sexual and/or romantic relationships, and more. The narrator portrays herself as somewhat plain and naïve, yet eager for experience; she soaks up all the drama around her, and soon is participating in that drama as well. The drawings are wonderful, especially the facial expressions of the characters. The dialogue is entertaining and sometimes revealing. The drawings are all in black, white, and a kind of muted green, which subtly affects the reader’s perceptions. This book is clever, observant, and humane in a mostly non-sentimental but very approachable way.

Friday, May 9, 2014

"Novels Written by Young and Youngish Men"

Soon after I started reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel “Americanah,” (about which I will likely blog soon), I ran across the following passage, which resonated for me. The main character, Ifemelu (a Nigerian woman educated in the United States), thinks about the differences between books her American boyfriend Blaine likes and those she likes. Blaine speaks “in that gently forbearing tone he used when they talked about novels, as though he was sure that she, with a little more time and a little more wisdom, would come to accept that the novels he liked were superior, novels written by young and youngish men and packed with ‘things,’ a fascinating, confounding accumulation of brands and music and comic books and icons, with emotions skimmed over, and each sentence stylishly aware of its own stylishness” (p. 12). I have to say her description both rang true and made me smile with recognition. Of course I would never claim this description was true for all male writers, or even all "young and youngish" American male writers; this is far from the truth. But there is certainly a subset of young male writers who are rather accurately described by this passage. I have sometimes felt that I “should” appreciate and like such novels, but at a certain point I got over that feeling. I can’t help applauding Adichie’s offhand but razor-sharp critique!

Monday, May 5, 2014

"And The Dark and Sacred Night," by Julia Glass

Julia Glass, the bestselling author of “Three Junes,” which I read and enjoyed, has since written four other novels, the latest of which is “And The Dark and Sacred Night” (Pantheon, 2014). The main character, Kit, is stalled in his life, and decides to go on that classic quest: the quest for his father. His loving mother has never told him who his father was, and he is now realizing -- with a push from his wife -- that in order to move on with his life, he needs to find out. He speaks to his former stepfather, who gives him a clue, and as one thing leads to another, he eventually learns what he needs to learn, but with a twist. Along the way, he connects to several people related to him, to his mother, and to his father, and he realizes he is part of a larger and more loving family than he ever knew. There are some great characters in this novel, along with a brisk and engaging plot, and we readers learn much about families and identities. In other words, this is a rich, satisfying novel.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

On Re-reading Multiple Times

I have several times written about re-reading certain books or authors, but have not written much more generally about the habit of re-reading fiction. My dear friend, the late C., kindly contributed a wonderful post about that topic here on 10/17/10. Lately I have been thinking a lot about my own re-reading of certain novels over the years. Re-reading favorite books offers great rewards and pleasures. Often the experience is a perfect combination of rediscovering the greatness of the book and finding new – to the reader – nuances and understandings. I have to admit that occasionally re-reading produces a feeling of disappointment and anticlimax, but much more often it is a rewarding and even exhilarating experience. With my greatest favorites, I have to ration myself not to re-read too often, for fear of wearing out my enthusiasm for the books (unlikely as that seems!). This latter point most applies in the case of my beloved Jane Austen’s six brilliant novels, the books I most often re-read. I love them so much that I dare not risk over-reading them. I have read each of them many times, perhaps as many as 15 to 20 times in the case of “Pride and Prejudice.” Other writers whose work I have re-read several times, and plan to continue to do so, include George Eliot (especially “Middlemarch”); Charlotte Bronte (especially “Jane Eyre”); Virginia Woolf (especially “Mrs. Dalloway,” “To the Lighthouse,” and “The Waves”); E. M. Forster (especially “Howards End,” “A Room with a View,” and “Passage to India,”); Edith Wharton (especially “The House of Mirth” and “The Age of Innocence”); Willa Cather (especially “My Antonia”); Barbara Pym (especially “Excellent Women”); and Carol Shields (especially “The Stone Diaries,” “Larry’s Party,” and “Unless”). Others whose novels and short stories I have re-read more often than once, but less often than the ones just listed, include Leo Tolstoy, Kate Chopin, Colette, Alice Munro, Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood, and Penelope Lively, to name those that spring to mind.
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