Saturday, June 28, 2014

Walking Where Great Authors Walked

One of the many joys of travel is seeing the places where great authors that one has read and admired actually lived and worked. For example, I was moved to tears when, about eight years ago, I visited my beloved Jane Austen’s last home in Chawton, which is now a small museum preserving the house as she lived in it with her mother and sister during some of the happiest and most productive years of her life, until she became ill. To see her bedroom, the small table she wrote at, and other aspects of this home was something I won’t forget. Then I visited her burial place in Winchester Cathedral, which was also an extremely moving experience for me. A few days ago, during a trip through Finland, Norway, and Denmark, I walked on Henrik Ibsens Gate street in Oslo, and saw the Ibsen Museum, reconstructed from Ibsen’s last home, also in Oslo. It reminded me of Ibsen's austere, powerful plays, many of which I read years ago, but still remember. In particular, “A Doll’s House” resonated for me, as it has for so many women throughout the years, with its powerful message about the destructive effects of society’s constricting, inflexible roles and requirements for women throughout much of history. This great playwright with his profound understanding has influenced so many readers and theater-goers, once again illustrating the power of literature. So seeing the places where he lived and worked was a moving and meaningful experience for me. Turning to another author-related experience on the same trip, regarding a very different but also important writer: When I was in Copenhagen, I walked along Hans Christian Andersen Street, and during a canal tour there, saw three of the buildings where he lived. Whenever I have experiences such as these, seeing up close places where a great writer lived or worked or is memorialized, I feel, just for a moment, a spark of connection with that author and her or his era and work. Those moments, those sparks, feel like gifts, for which I am very grateful.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"Wish You Were Here," by Stewart O'Nan

I was happy to “discover” Stewart O’Nan’s fiction these past couple of years (see my posts of 5/17/11, 1/26/12, and 3/14/13), and very much appreciate and enjoy his writing. I have just read one of his earlier novels, “Wish You Were Here” (Grove, 2002), and although I enjoyed it and admired, as always, his insights into his characters and their relationships, especially family relationships, I enjoyed it less than I did the other novels I have posted on here. I am guessing this is because it was written earlier, and in most (although not all) cases, as a writer practices and refines his/her craft, that writer becomes better with time. All O’Nan’s wonderful qualities are in this book, but parts of it seem a bit belabored. The novel describes a week in a family’s summer house in Chautauqua (New York), as they are closing up the house one final time, in order to sell it. Emily, recently widowed when her longtime husband Henry died, has made this decision; neither Henry’s sister Arlene nor Emily's and Henry’s two adult children Meg and Kenneth (and Kenneth’s wife Lise) are happy about this, but none of them can afford to keep up the place. Four young grandchildren are also present during this week. Each character has her or his own memories, worries, problems, and flashes of happiness during the week. The family does various activities, including following certain traditions such as certain outings, certain dinners. This is actually a kind of set-up that I really like in a novel: a family or group of friends gathered together in one place for a certain period of time; a vacation setting; a chance to observe the characters as they interact. Not a lot “happens,” yet the dynamics of the family are increasingly revealed throughout. The family is basically a loving one, but it is hard to ignore some of the fissures and resentments present, some springing from childhood days and some more recently. It took me a while to finish this long (517 pages) novel, and I put it aside a couple of times while reading other things. I know this sounds philistine-ish, but I think the novel could have been a hundred or so pages shorter. But even as I type this, I feel a bit reluctant, because I do so admire O’Nan’s writing, and do not want to say anything that would discourage readers from pursuing his novels. I will say that my favorite novel by him is still “Emily, Alone,” which I posted about on 5/17/11; I highly recommend it. And by the way, the Emily of that title is the same Emily as in this novel, “Wish You Were Here.”

Sunday, June 22, 2014

"Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home," by Nina Stibbe

What a treat it was to read Nina Stibbe’s dryly hilarious memoir of a certain time in her life, told through letters to her sister. “Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home” (Little, Brown, 2013) tells of the time in her life (1982-1987) when she was a nanny and then family friend and lodger to the family of Mary-Kay Wilmers (MK), deputy editor of The London Review of Books, and her two young sons Sam and Will. A frequent visitor to the household is Alan Bennett, the famous playwright, screenwriter, and actor; he comes over for dinner from across the street almost every evening. Many of MK’s and therefore the family’s neighbors and friends are also in the worlds of literature, the theater, and music; these include the film director Stephen Frears (father of MK’s two sons), the theater director and actor Jonathan Miller, the writer and editor Claire Tomalin, and the writer Michael Frayn. Other characters in the stories told by Stibbe include neighbors, the boys’ friends, Nina’s family members, fellow nannies, and Nina’s classmates when she starts at a local university. So part of the fun of reading this book is the glimpses into the lives of these well-known and witty literary people. But what is fascinating is that the everyday conversations in the home, between MK, Stibbe, and the boys, are just as funny, witty, and meaningful as the adult conversations reported. And Stibbe’s own voice as she tells her sister snippets of her life in London is original, deadpan, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. The actual events Stibbe narrates are far from earthshaking, but she makes the reader care about them, and want to know what happens next. She is a great observer, and can be wry and pointed in her descriptions, but basically has a good-hearted and good-humored perspective on life and on those she knows. She is confident enough to be amusingly self-deprecatory, and is very funny about her literature classes and her preferences in reading matter. It helps too if the reader loves –- as I do -- literature, all things British, and understated humor. “Love, Nina” is one of those rare books that doesn’t remind you of other books, because it is so fully and uniquely itself; it is truly sui generis.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"The Vacationers," by Emma Straub

“The Vacationers” (Riverhead, 2014), by Emma Straub, is, as one blurb claims, a “beyond-the-beach read.” In other words, it is a perfect summer read, and it takes place in and around a gorgeous summer house in Mallorca, but it is intelligent as well as enjoyable to read. It is a quick read, and mostly for fun, but it does grapple a bit with issues of family, love, growing up and becoming more mature, and learning when to forgive. The Post family – Jim and Franny and their young adult children Bobby and Sylvia – takes a two-week vacation in Mallorca, along with Bobby’s girlfriend Carmen and two family friends, the gay married couple Charles and Lawrence. Jim has recently made some serious mistakes which jeopardize both his marriage and his career; Franny hasn’t decided whether to forgive him; Bobby and Carmen are also having relationship problems; Sylvia is about to leave for college and wants a new start there. In Mallorca, they take day trips, eat delicious food, swim, have arguments, make love, negotiate their issues, and with a few twists and turns, move on to the next stages of their lives. All of this is expertly handled by the author. “The Vacationers” is a light and beautifully prepared soufflĂ© of a novel.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

On Learning to Read Maeve Binchy

Perhaps we are supposed to regard Maeve Binchy’s fiction with a little bit of condescension. After all, she was so very popular, not only in her native Ireland but around the world. And reading her fiction is not demanding. But her books are engrossing and humane, and she is a great storyteller who creates distinctive characters. She writes about Dublin and Dubliners with familiarity and love, and makes readers feel they know and love Dublin as well. I usually don’t quote blurbs, but a few on the back of “Chestnut Street” (Knopf, 2014) will give readers a pretty good sense of what Binchy’s fictional world is like. The New York Times Book Review says she is “a wonderful student of human nature.” The San Francisco Chronicle tells us that “Binchy makes you laugh, cry, and care. Her warmth and sympathy render the daily struggles of ordinary people heroic and turn storytelling into art.” The Boston Globe calls her “An author of exceptional grace [with] a wickedly subtle sense of humor and a great deal of kindness.” I just read “Chestnut Street,” which was published after Binchy’s death in 2012 at the age of 72. It is a collection of stories, each separate, yet connected by the setting on Chestnut Street in Dublin. Some characters from some stories reappear in others. Each story moves along gently but smartly, and in each story a character, at the end of the story, has a realization or makes a decision. The main characters are mostly, although not only, women, and often the realizations that Binchy gives them have to do with valuing themselves more than they have; in a sense, though very subtly and without ever using the word, they are feminist in this way. Sometimes certain characters, often male, get their comeuppance, but even those scenes are relatively gentle. This is only the second of Binchy’s many books that I have read, but I found it charming and irresistible, so I will get over that sense of condescension (about which I am now embarrassed) and will probably read more of her work.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Choosing Books for a Trip

Planning for a trip abroad, I had the pleasant task of deciding which books to take with me, especially for the plane portions of the trip. As I thought about this, I revisited the “Kindle dilemma” that I wrote about here on 12/8/11, and have alluded to elsewhere. I am still resisting the Kindle (and other e-readers), although not as actively as before. I know I will likely get one eventually (way behind the curve technologically, as usual), but I decided that this was still not the time. I know, I know, it makes so much sense for traveling. But I cherish my tradition of choosing and taking a few paperbacks on a trip, and shedding them along the way as I finish them. So, after a preliminary survey of the unread books on my home shelves, I made a bookstore trip for the sole, enjoyable purpose of choosing books for the trip. I didn’t want anything too “heavy” physically or too demanding mentally. True confession: although many of my academic colleagues use plane trips to get work done and catch up on academic reading, I look at that time as an opportunity for light (but of course not too light) reading, all fiction or memoir, along with a pile of magazines. I won’t tell you here exactly what I bought, as I may be posting on some of these during or after the trip. But suffice it to say, they were all chosen for pure pleasure reading; not a single one is in the “I should read this” category. Meanwhile, as I was anticipating choosing the books, and then selecting and buying them, I had flashbacks of all the times I have carried out this ritual of picking out and buying books before a trip. My favorite such memory is how I chose my stack of books each year when I went to my parents’ summer cottage on a beautiful lake in northern Michigan (see my post of 7/9/13, about the book “The Suitors,” in which I wrote about our idyllic days at that cottage). For many years throughout my twenties and thirties, I spent two or more weeks there every summer, along with, depending on the year, my husband, my daughter, and of course my parents, brothers, and other family members at various times. The cottage was small and far from fancy, but its setting was gorgeous and peaceful, and along with all the other activities, there was time to sit by the lake and read and read. Such pure joy! And no, reading on a plane and while traveling (on trains and in hotels and cafes) is not the same as that memory, but it all connects to a sort of primal feeling of time out of time, time set aside from one’s regular busy life, and to me a lovely pile of specially selected books is an inextricable part of such time.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

"Solsbury Hill," by Susan M. Wyler

Usually, in my experience, sequels, prequels, and other takeoffs written by (much!) lesser known writers on a famous author’s novels are poorly, or at best merely competently, written. I won’t say they are ripoffs, because sometimes it is obvious they are written at least partly out of love of the great authors’ works. Although I feel this way, I have read my share of such follow-up novels, especially those related to Jane Austen’s great, great novels. And once in a while, I am surprised and impressed by such “tribute” novels that have real literary value in and of themselves. For example, as I wrote about on 3/15/14, Rachel Pastan’s novel “Alena,” loosely based on Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel “Rebecca,” is beautifully written, actually better written than “Rebecca.” The other day I picked up at a library sale a novel titled “Solsbury Hill” (Riverhead, 2014), by Susan M. Wyler. The back cover states rather breathlessly that this novel is “inspired by” “Wuthering Heights,” and that the setting is a great house and estate on the Yorkshire moors that, supposedly, Emily Bronte and/or her fictional Heathcliff and Catherine (the book is a bit muddled in explaining this) lived in. The main character in “Solsbury Hill,” Eleanor, is a young woman in New York who is unexpectedly called to visit her long-out-of-touch and now dying aunt, Alice, at the estate in question, and finds out that when Alice dies, the place will be hers. This is one of many improbable plot turns in the novel: apparently Eleanor knew nothing about all of this until now. Eleanor also sees ghosts, is led to secret documents that tell us about a previously unknown lover of Emily Bronte’s, and eventually realizes a highly surprising and unlikely fact about Eleanor's own family. Meanwhile, she is torn between two good-looking, clever, adoring men; one is her longtime boyfriend in New York, Miles, and the other is the newly met Mead, who lives on the estate. This is somehow (again, in a rather muddled way) connected with a supposed long family history of women’s deciding between two men and generally making the wrong decision; we are meant to hope that Eleanor’s decision will finally reverse this trend. The writing in this novel is sometimes quite competent, and then suddenly veers into pure romance novel prose. The sudden changes can be quite disconcerting to the reader. I actually almost didn’t post about this book, thinking it was too close to the romance novel genre, and too exploitative of the putative connection with Bronte and “Wuthering Heights,” but then I thought it was interesting in the context of the genre of tributes to classic writers. However, I don’t recommend “Solsbury Hill” to anyone except perhaps Emily Bronte fans who are willing to overlook the coincidences, ghosts, and often clichĂ©d writing because they simply want to feel close to the “Wuthering Heights” story.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

"Astonish Me," by Maggie Shipstead

In college and afterward, when I started attending dance performances – ballet and other – I fell in love with this great art. Over the years, I have been fortunate to see some of the great ballet and modern dance companies of the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. I have also gone to Indian dance concerts (which have resonated with me because of my childhood in India), and sometimes to the annual Ethnic Dance Festival here in San Francisco, which consists of performances by a wide variety of dance groups, mostly local but with origins in various countries around the world: Indonesia, Mexico, Scotland, the Philippines, China, Ireland, various countries in Africa, and many more. Then when my daughter started taking ballet lessons, she took to it and was good at it, and that was a big part of her life for many years. All of this is a preface to saying I enjoy seeing dance and, by extension, reading about it. A new novel by Maggie Shipstead, “Astonish Me” (Knopf, 2014), tells the story of a dancer called Joan and the Russian male dance star whom Joan helped to defect, Arslan. It is also, later, the story of Joan’s son Harry, who also becomes a star ballet dancer. The story is fiction, but there are elements that seem drawn from reality. The company seems to be based on the New York City Ballet, and the director/choreographer seems to be based on the great Balanchine. The defecting Russian dancer is clearly a version of Mikhail Baryshnikov. All of these are loose fictional portrayals, of course, but the bones of the similarities are there. The novel moves back and forth among several time periods, over a period of about three decades, and also moves among geographical locations, mostly New York but also Europe, California, and elsewhere. The portrayal of the world of ballet is powerful, moving, attractive, and sad in turns. The novel is compact, but much happens. The central events have to do with Joan’s love of dance, her being a good dancer but realizing she will never be a great dancer, her love of and affair with Arslan, his rejection of her for a more gifted ballerina who is also from Russia, her marriage to a good man completely outside of the dance world, their move to California, their gradual realization that their son Harry is becoming an immensely talented dancer, and the consequences as past meets present, including a surprise revelation near the end of the novel. This novel is fascinating as a portrayal of the dance world, as a story about choices in life, and as a reminder of the ways that life can surprise us. "Astonish Me" is psychologically intriguing and definitely keeps the reader’s interest throughout.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Why I Read So Much

As I have mentioned here before, I often read several books at the same time. In addition, I may be listening to an audiobook in my car, and reading stories in magazines. So during any period of time, I have several stories streaming through my mind, and I thrive on that. I sometimes wonder if this love of, even dependence on, a constant stream of stories is maybe a little unhealthy, a means of escape or avoidance of my real life. On the other hand, I revel in the way so many stories open up the world to so much knowledge of how people live and feel in so many places, so many contexts, so many situations. In what other way could I possibly be exposed to such a panoply of human experience? And to such knowledge? In what other way could I both realize the variety of human experience and understand its universals? To me, what reading, especially reading fiction, does for us is a miracle, a way of extending ourselves out into the world. Yes, our own experiences are very important, as are those of our family and friends and others we know, observe, and speak with firsthand. Yes, there are other important ways to extend our experiences, such as education and travel, which I also value highly. But nothing else can give us the breadth of experience than reading can. And the huge bonus is that reading is also such a rich and enjoyable experience. I know the above thoughts are not original by any means, but once in a while I like to stop and reflect on the grandness, depth and breadth that reading brings to our lives.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

"Turn of Mind," by Alice LaPlante

After I read Alice LaPlante’s novel “A Circle of Wives,” which I wrote about last week (5/26/14), I decided to read her earlier novel, the bestselling “Turn of Mind” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011). This too is a sort of murder mystery, but one incredibly complicated by the fact that the main suspect is a former doctor, Jennifer White, a woman in her mid-sixties who has had to retire because of the onset of Alzheimer’s. The story is told through Dr. White’s own observations, journals, and random thoughts, as well as her interactions with her caregiver and her two grown children, all of whom have their own complicated lives, motivations, secrets, and agendas. The police investigating the crime must struggle through the frustration of dealing with Jennifer’s shifting condition and memory; some days she is quite clear and others not at all. I must admit that upon initially looking at the premise of the book, and the fact that much of it is told through the eyes of a woman with dementia, I was somewhat daunted, and considered not reading it. But after a few pages, I was utterly engaged in it, and I read it in a few hours. The character of Dr. White is a fascinating one, even as she alternates among a deep fog, acerbic comments, and deeply etched memories of her career as a very capable and respected doctor, and as a wife and mother. Of course the topic of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia is one much discussed these days, as we all know sufferers of these diseases. (And by coincidence, the book discussed in the guest post here of 5/31/14 also addressed dementia.) LaPlante reminds us of the strange, deeply debilitating, tragic effects of the disease, yet also reminds us of the humanity and personalities of those affected by it. She honors them by acknowledging their true selves, not just focusing on their current conditions. Finally, the solution to the mystery in "Turn of Mind" is a satisfying one, one with an unexpected twist. This post is dedicated, with love, to those in my life who have experienced this disease, including my late grandmother F., my late Uncle L., my late Aunt J., my Uncle B., and my friend B.'s husband S., as well as their closest family members and friends who have loved and supported them amidst the sadness and difficulties of watching the progress of the disease.
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