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.
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