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.
Site Meter