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.
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