Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Best Books I Have Read in 2015

It’s that time of year: time for a “best books" list! But I don’t claim to have covered the territory well enough to call my list “best books”; instead these are “the best books that I read this year,” otherwise known as my thirteen favorite, most enjoyed, most admired, and most valued books of 2015. I list them in order of when I read and posted about them. After each title, I note the date I posted about the book here on this blog, in case you want to read more about why I chose these particular books as the "best." Here is the list: “Last Hundred Year Trilogy” ("Some Luck," "Early Warning," and "Golden Age"), by Jane Smiley (11/4/14, 5/23/15, and 12/17/15); “Lila,” by Marilynne Robinson (2/23/15); “Family Life,” by Akhil Sharma (3/1/15); “Honeydew: Stories,” by Edith Pearlman (5/2/15); “The Children’s Crusade,” by Ann Packer (5/8/15); “A God in Ruins,” by Kate Atkinson (6/8/15); “Our Souls at Night,” by Kent Haruf (6/21/15); “The Green Road,” by Anne Enright (7/3/15); “A Spool of Blue Thread,” by Anne Tyler (7/13/15); “The Illuminations,” by Andrew O’Hagan (7/17/15); “After the Parade,” by Lori Ostlund (10/19/15); “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (10/24/15); “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters: Stories,” by Bonnie Jo Campbell (12/19/15). Some quick observations on the list: 12 are fiction, 1 nonfiction (“Between the World and Me”); 10 of the 12 fiction books are novels, 2 are short story collections; 9 books are by female authors, 4 by males. On another note, please keep on shopping in independent bookstores!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

"Killing and Dying," by Adrian Tomine

I have read and posted about several graphic novels over the years, finding some of them amazingly creative and of high literary quality. One of the best known American graphic fiction writers, some of whose work I have read, is Adrian Tomine. I have just read his most recent book, a collection of six short stories in graphic form. It has an off-putting title, “Killing and Dying” (Drawn & Quarterly, 2015), but the stories are about seemingly small-scale, quirky and rather sad topics. A man spends years of his life trying to sell the odd and unpromising idea of “hortisculpture.” A young woman receives unwanted attention everywhere because of her resemblance to a porn star. A man secretly goes into someone else’s apartment regularly, always leaving it the way he found it. A nerdy young girl decides to be a stand-up comic, despite her parents’ lack of faith that she has talent. The stories and drawings are full of the small, revealing details that show us people’s characters, interactions, failings, hopefulness, deceptions, and self-deceptions. It is possible to read these stories fairly quickly for the plots, but it is worthwhile to force oneself to slow down and savor the details of the words and, especially, the drawings.

Monday, December 21, 2015

"Negroland: A Memoir," by Margo Jefferson

Margo Jefferson’s “Negroland: A Memoir” (Pantheon, 2015) is a fascinating study of middle-to-upper-middle class African-American society, especially during the middle of the twentieth century, the time during which Jefferson herself grew up. This group of American Blacks has called themselves “the colored aristocracy,” “the colored elite,” “the colored 400,” and other such names (p. 7). They descend from the group that W.E.B. Du Bois famously titled “The Talented Tenth.” These Black leaders and families took pride in their status, and also felt an enormous responsibility to represent their race well, and -- by their example -- to contradict and counteract negative stereotypes that many White Americans had about Black Americans. “In Negroland we thought of ourselves as the Third Race, poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians….The Third Race possessed a wisdom, intuition, and enlightened knowledge the other two races lacked. Its members had education, ambition, sophistication, and standardized verbal dexterity” (p. 51). Jefferson, who grew up in such an upper-class family, writes of her childhood in Chicago, her parents, and her own inner conflicts and concerns. She strove to be the perfect girl, working hard at school and at extracurricular activities, dressing correctly, displaying perfect manners in all situations, and being a high achiever. Later, as a young adult, she took up more radical ideas about race. She went on to be a theater and book critic for Newsweek and The New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, a writer on many topics, and a professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts. She does not write much about her life beyond college years, focusing instead on her formative years. She puts her own life in the context of African-American history, writing about several prominent Black leaders and public figures throughout the years, and analyzing the phenomenon of the elite group to which her family belonged. Being part of that group brought privilege, yes, but also the tension and emotional drain of having to be constantly on guard, constantly worried about upholding the reputation of her group and her race. Jefferson’s blend of memoir, history, sociology, and fearless and candid analysis of herself and of her cohort is an effective one. The details about her own life and those of others illuminate the more general points she makes. At times the book is wrenching to read, but at other times it shows us everyday life for her and those in her social stratum. The book is enhanced by photographs of her and her family and of others Jefferson writes about.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

"Golden Age," by Jane Smiley

Reading the wonderful first two novels of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy made me eager to read the third one, and now that I have read it, it more than lives up to the anticipation. “Some Luck,” about which I posted on 11/4/14), and “Early Warning” (see my post of 5/23/15), described the ever-growing Langdon family. The third novel, “Golden Age” (Knopf, 2015), brings the story up to the year 2019. As in the other two novels, Smiley organizes the novel through providing one chapter for each year. The Langdon family has proliferated, and further spread out across the country, so less and less of the story takes place in the original Iowa farm setting, but still the family farm is the historical and emotional center and core of the family’s experience, its reference point. The original six siblings (children of the founding family, Walter and Rosanna Langdon) and their spouses are now elderly or have died. The six siblings’ children and grandchildren are the focus of this latest novel. When I started reading it, even though I had just read the second novel a few months before, I felt plunged into the storylines helter-skelter, and it took some pages to find my footing again. But I soon remembered the connections, and then the story swept me along. I can’t say what it would be like to read this third novel without having read the first two; I think it would be fine, after the first 50 pages or so, but I highly recommend reading all three novels, and of course in order. As I mentioned in my earlier posts, the number of characters caused me to look frequently at the family tree diagram at the front of the book to remind myself who a certain character was, or how a certain character was related to another. The novel, like the other two, is longish (443 pages) and stuffed with story. As with the other novels, Smiley interweaves the stories of the family and the specific characters with the events going on around them in the United States. There is a particular focus on climate change and the environment, and even more particularly on how climate change affects farmland and farming. Another focus is the financial misdeeds leading up to the crises of 2006-2008. These two focuses are intertwined, as financial crimes affect farm owners in terrible ways; together, the two forces are harmful beyond measure. As mentioned above, the author takes her story up to 2019, and the events of the last few years edge into the apocalyptic. Clearly the author strongly believes that the U.S. is on an incredibly self-destructive path. There are many ironies along the way, or perhaps baleful views of humanity; for example, one of the characters in the world of finance is directly and maliciously responsible for dreadful harm done to other characters and to the family farming tradition. But I don’t want to leave the impression that this novel is mostly an issue-driven one, or mostly an apocalyptic one; it is those things, but our interest is always drawn back again and again to those stalwart qualities of good fiction: plot and character. And what characters Smiley creates! Various, fascinating, and oh so human. What an amazing accomplishment this trilogy is! I believe that it will be a longlasting one, one that is truly a great American novel capturing the sweep of time in 100 years of American history and culture. Although it is a real commitment to read these three long novels, I can say with great confidence that readers will find the time investment more than worthwhile, and will enjoy themselves along the way.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

"Citizen: An American Lyric," by Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine’s book of prose poems and essays, “Citizen: An American Lyric” (Graywolf, 2014), is wrenching and heartbreaking. It forces the reader to face the harsh realities of racial prejudice in the United States (and elsewhere), and the terrible, ongoing effects of that prejudice on every Black person. The poems, the essays, the artwork all connect and reinforce each other. Some of the work is elliptical and indirect, while other sections could not be more direct. Many of the prose poems refer to specific events and people. For example, there is a section about the great Black tennis player Serena Williams, and the blatant prejudice and discrimination she has experienced. I knew a little of this reaction to Williams, but not the extent of it, and Rankine makes sure we see it up close. One section is a memorial to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, when it became crystal clear that Black lives did not in fact matter. Other sections are also memorials, to Trayvon Martin and other victims of prejudice that destroyed these young men’s lives. Still other sections delineate the “small” moments of everyday life, when White people choose not to sit next to a Black person on a train, for example, or when they treat a Black woman differently than they treat her White friend in a shop or restaurant. Rankine shows us how these moments can wear a person down. This book will not let readers turn away from the evidence, so much evidence, of ongoing racism, devastating racism that plays out in large and small ways all the time. The author also shows us the obliviousness of many White people to this racism all around them. A small but telling example is of the White man who steps ahead of the (Black female) narrator in the line at a store, and when the clerk points out that the woman was there first, the man is genuinely surprised, and says “I didn’t see you.” I highly recommend this beautifully written and hugely painful but instructive book.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

"Mothers, Tell Your Daughters," by Bonnie Jo Campbell

In “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters” (Norton, 2015), by Bonnie Jo Campbell, we are definitely in the land of Dorothy Allison and Carolyn Chute, so it is no surprise to see that those two authors blurbed Campbell’s short story collection. The stories are about working class lives, often tough lives, especially for women with minimal resources. The settings are mostly in the poorer areas of Michigan (a state where the author herself lives, and where I used to live many years ago, and that are recognizable to me, although I was fortunate not to live in the less prosperous areas). Some of the characters are indeed mothers and daughters, and in any case are mostly women. These are stories of pain, abandonment, poverty, and living on the margins, and also stories of grit and survival. That sentence is full of clichés, I know, and although those attributes are in fact the subjects of the stories, they don’t feel as grim -- or as stereotypical -- as the sentence suggests. I like these stories very much, first because they are so well written, but also because they remind middle class readers that there is a big part of the United States that is rarely portrayed in literature these days: the working class and the poor. In media stories, yes, sometimes, but not so much in fiction, which is why I alluded to the work of Allison and Chute, even though their most well-known work was published quite a few years ago. All three of these authors write about disadvantaged women, but women who don’t ever let their poverty and other problems define them. I had never heard of Campbell before, but now she is on my “I’ll read anything she writes” list.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

"Mendocino Fire: Stories," by Elizabeth Tallent

Because I had read, liked, and admired some of Elizabeth Tallent’s earlier stories, and because she is a writer held in high esteem by many, I very much wanted to like her new story collection, “Mendocino Fire” (Harper, 2015). The stories being mostly set in Mendocino (a few hours north of where I live) was an added attraction. And I did admire the stories, and liked some of them. But there is something distancing about many of them. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I felt that there is a sort of semi-transparent screen between the reader (OK, this reader) and the stories. The author lives in Mendocino, and obviously knows it well. The characters are distinct, their lives are often a bit rough, and the reader sympathizes with them. The writing is precise and specific. I honestly don’t understand why I felt a bit removed from the stories, and I fully admit that the fault could be mine rather than the author’s. On another note, unrelated to my main point about the stories, but about a paragraph that really hit home for me: The story “The Wilderness” opens with the following. “Her students are the devotees and tenders of machines. Some of the machines are tiny and some of the machines are big. Nobody wrote down the law that students must have a machine with them at all times, yet this law is rarely broken, and when it is, the breaker suffers from deprivation and anxiety.” This is a phenomenon I have increasingly observed with my own students, most notably this semester. My students and I have discussed it, and they admit that they feel extremely uneasy and at a loss if their smartphones are not constantly with them. My colleagues have confirmed that this is the new reality, an issue they have all faced. (Am I showing my age by wishing that students were less dependent on their phones, and more able to focus on other non-electronic events and activities around them?)

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

"Why Not Me?", by Mindy Kaling

Since I wrote on 1/13/15 about Mindy Kaling’s first book, “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?”, I still haven’t watched her show. But my daughter, who gave me that first book, just gave me Kaling’s second one, “Why Not Me?” (Crown Archetype, 2015), which is equally engaging and funny. It is also a sort of memoir in the form of a series of short essays about various aspects of her life and work. In both books, she deals with issues of race, gender, and power, but always with a light touch. She is now quite a powerful woman in the world of television, as the creator, writer, and star of “The Mindy Project” (following her role on “The Office”). As we know, Hollywood and show business are not generally worlds where women -- especially women of color (Kaling is from an Indian family) -- play equal roles. So although Kaling is low-key about it, she is a force to be reckoned with, as well as a role model. Another way she has been a role model is through her normal-size figure, which because of Hollywood’s tradition of very thin women stars of television and movies, is considered unusual by many. She speaks openly about this, and provides a note of common sense. The 21 or so chapters in this book address many different topics, including her long days at work, her friendships, her dating and relationships, clothes, her meeting President Obama, and many more. There are also some candid photos. On one level, this book is light and entertaining, which is great in and of itself, but it also, on another level, slips in some important discussions about the way Hollywood and the larger U.S. society treat women, people of color, and anyone who is “different” from the “norms.”

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Reading the Acknowledgments

Do you read the acknowledgments pages in books? Some may find them tedious, but I always read them, sometimes before I read the book itself. I find them fascinating. I like to know: Who do they mention? Many people or a few? Do I recognize any of the names? (The thought is probably unfair, but I am both impressed by mention of “big names” – other authors – and suspicious that the acknowledger is namedropping so we know they know famous writers….) What do they say about their family members? (Is there any new way to thank one’s spouse or significant other?). One reason I enjoy reading acknowledgments is that, like blurbs, they sketch out the network of connections that the author in question, along with other authors, is part of. Readers can generally see how well connected (or not) an author is by seeing who blurbs her or him, and who is acknowledged by her or him. In addition to the content of the acknowledgments, the tone and style are of interest. Some are straightforward, some slightly intense or even emotional, some lighthearted, and some humorous. These choices are also of interest to me. Oh, and you could probably guess this: I also read the front and back jacket flaps with great interest, and examine the author’s brief self-portrayal in the biography on the back flap. Photos are also of interest (but how do all authors, even those of middle or advanced age, look so young and polished? Old photos? Make-up and hairstyling? Gentle photoshopping?).

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

President Obama and Marilynne Robinson in Conversation

What an unexpected and enjoyable experience it was to read a two-part conversation in the New York Review of Books (NYR) (Nov. 5 and Nov. 19 issues) between President Obama and writer Marilynne Robinson! At first the idea of Obama and a writer sitting down for a conversation such as this one was surprising. But upon further thought, it made perfect sense. Not everybody reading this will agree with everything President Obama has said or done, and I don’t always agree with him, but I do consider him as a person and leader deeply concerned with moral issues. And Marilynne Robinson is known not only for her fine books but for their explorations of moral issues. Obama and Robinson had met before, and hit it off. At the beginning of the conversation, Obama says that he doesn’t often enough get a chance to sit down with someone he enjoys and is interested in, and “have a conversation with them about some of the broader cultural forces that shape our democracy and shape our ideas, and shape how we feel about citizenship and the direction our country should be going in.” He goes on to say how much he loves Robinson’s writings, starting with the novel “Gilead” and most recently the essay “Fear,” published in the NYR (Sept. 24, 2015), and collected in her new book of essays, “The Givenness of Things.” The conversation is wide-ranging, and includes discussion of, among other topics, Robinson’s background and values; her books and why and how she wrote them; the importance of books; faith; fear; education; government; the Midwest; Europe; the dangerous idea of “the sinister other”; and the gap between “goodness and decency and common sense on the ground, and…rigid, dogmatic, often mean-spirited politics” (Obama). It is a thoughtful conversation, and reminds us of Obama’s reflective side. For those who are interested in Robinson’s books: her best-known novels are “Housekeeping” (1980), “Gilead” (2004); “Home” (2008); and “Lila” (2014). I read and admired “Housekeeping” and thereafter seldom read Robinson because she only published nonfiction for over 20 years, but then she came out with the three other novels I just listed, which form a sort of trilogy. I posted here on “Lila” (2/23/15), which I found strikingly original and compelling, and which I highly recommend. To get back to the conversation between President Obama and Marilynne Robinson: New York magazine said it made them think that Obama’s post-presidency years were going to be very interesting, and I concur with that prediction.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

"Everybody Rise," by Stephanie Clifford -- A Twenty-First Century "House of Mirth"?

The beautifully written and heartbreaking Edith Wharton novel “The House of Mirth” (1905) is one of my all-time favorite books, one I have read many times and taught several times. A novel I just finished, “Everybody Rise” (St. Martin’s, 2015), by Stephanie Clifford, is clearly and intentionally modeled on the Wharton novel. It too features a young woman in New York who wants to be part of high society, to marry well, and to ensure a secure future. Both Wharton’s Lily Bart and Clifford’s Evelyn Beegan use their beauty and social skills, and a large amount of strategy, to connect to the arbiters of New York society, and both believe that they can achieve a place in that society. Lily Bart has a head start with her connections, but ultimately is not able to succeed in her quest. And even in the 21st century, the hierarchy is too rigid, and the rules are too subtle and too exclusive for social-climbing young women such as Evelyn to have much of a chance. Further complicating the picture, both Lily and Evelyn find themselves spending large quantities of money they don’t have on clothes, travel, charity events, and in Lily’s case, gambling; both end up in deep debt. Both make miscalculations and mistakes along the way. Each of their lives spirals downward in a way that is terrible for the reader to witness. (I don’t want to give away details, but I will say that Evelyn’s story has a less devastating ending than Lily’s story does.) But despite these similarities, I have to make it clear that “Everybody Rise,” while being an interesting and sometimes acute depiction of the power of social class roles, is no “House of Mirth.” It is reasonably well written, and provides many intriguing (and sometimes distressing) specific details about the lives of the society elite in contemporary New York, but it lacks the larger themes and the astonishingly powerful writing of Wharton’s novel. Of course that is an extremely high standard, and although the author herself invites a comparison by choosing to write the story of a contemporary Lily, it is hardly fair for readers to make this comparison. (But of course that is exactly what I am doing here....) “Everybody Rise” starts off as quite entertaining, almost lighthearted, then gradually enters “I can’t take my eyes off this horrible situation” territory. It provides a useful and illuminating exploration of the role of social class at this level of society. I am interested in the workings of social class, and have written academic articles about the topic, so this novel appealed to me on that level, as well as on a human interest level (and OK, I admit it, a little of the same somewhat "guilty pleasure" interest that I sometimes feel on reading Vanity Fair articles about the wealthy and elite). I think that other readers who are interested in New York City life, the culture and workings of the social elite, and/or the lives of young women today, will also find this novel worth reading.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

"The Art of Memoir," by Mary Karr

Mary Karr is the author of three shocking, painful, heartbreaking, beautifully written memoirs (“The Liars’ Club,” “Cherry,” and “Lit”). I have read and admired all three. She has also taught memoir writing for thirty years. These facts, along with my increasing interest in memoir over the past 15 years or so (yes, I know, along with many other readers), drew me to her new book, “The Art of Memoir” (Harper, 2015). I have to say that although I am not sorry to have read it, I found it a bit disappointing. It seems a bit cobbled together (consisting of many short and mostly freestanding chapters). Much of it, especially the instructional elements, seems a bit stale. The parts I liked best were her discussions of others’ memoirs, many of which she has taught and clearly knows inside out. Some of her favorite memoirists discussed in this book include Maxine Hong Kingston, Mary McCarthy, George Orwell, Frank McCourt, Maya Angelou, Vladimir Nabokov, Michael Herr, Frank Conroy, Cheryl Strayed, Geoffrey Wolff, and Tobias Wolf, most of whose memoirs I too have read and valued. There is also a generous list of memoirs at the end of the book. Despite my less-than-completely-enthusiastic comments at the beginning of this post, I do feel this book could be of interest and useful to aspiring memoirists and to those of us readers who seek out literary memoirs.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"A Window Opens," by Elisabeth Egan

“A Window Opens” (Simon and Schuster, 2015), by Elisabeth Egan, is a light-ish, moderately enjoyable, but fairly predictable novel in the growing “women trying to balance home and work and everything else” genre. Alice Pearse refers to the difficulties of trying to do it all and have it all, but because of the cushion of an almost unbelievably excellent nanny, a flawed-but-basically excellent husband and father, back-up support from Alice’s parents, seemingly extremely well-adjusted children, and slight money problems that turn out not to be too serious, the difficulties are somewhat diluted. As a committed feminist, I would be the last to dismiss the problems encountered by women (and men) balancing careers and families, with woefully inadequate societal support systems that the United States should be ashamed of. It is just that this story doesn’t really make readers feel how hard this situation can be. There is also a whiff of building the story around issues: not only the work-life balance issue, but also that of soul-less corporate America (tech version), here in the guise of something ostensibly, initially, positive but then not (a business about reading electronically that turns into a business about video games), but that the author (rightfully) depicts as clearly completely inauthentic and hypocritical. Other issues addressed include how technology is affecting our world and especially children, sometimes negatively, and the dangers of alcohol addiction (although the novel seems to downplay the latter problem, and makes it seem easy for a person to stop drinking excessively). Alice is also facing the serious illness and then death of her beloved father. All of these are certainly very real parts of the life of a contemporary woman in New York City (living in the suburbs, working in the city) and elsewhere, and perfectly legitimate plot points and themes, but somehow it seems that they are a bit artificially inserted into the story as representatives of various issues.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

"Mary Coin," by Marisa Silver - What Was Behind that Famous Photo?

Usually I decide what to read by reading (many) book reviews, and by choosing the latest books by my already favorite writers. But of course I also browse in bookstores and libraries and sometimes find books that surprise and impress me. That is how, when I wanted a book-on-CD for a recent short road trip, I found in my local library the novel “Mary Coin” (2013, Penguin Audio) by Marisa Silver. What initially caught my attention was the (slightly altered) photo on the front of the CD case: the famous 1936 Dorothea Lange photo, titled “Migrant Mother,” of a poor woman and her children in the agricultural Central Valley of California, working as pickers, during the Depression era. The actual woman in the photo was later found to be Florence Owens Thompson; she and her family had very mixed feelings about the fame of the photo. Marisa Silver takes this basic story and tells a novelized version of it from the perspectives of three main characters over many years, before, during, and after the taking of the photo. The first is the woman in the photo, here named Mary Coin. The second is the photographer, here called Vera Dare. The third is a professor, Walker Dodge, who is, he finds, probably connected to the story through a long-ago secret, and who is now investigating the background of everyone involved, out of both academic and personal interest. The novel ranges back and forth among these stories, and back and forth in time. The story is often sad -- especially about the brutal poverty that some of the characters experienced -- but compelling, and the characters held my interest. It is of particular interest to see how women at the time, with and without money, often had to take on much of the burden of survival for themselves and their families. In their own separate ways, both of the two main women characters were incredibly courageous. The reminders of this painful time period -- for women, men, and children -- in American history are chilling.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

"The Prize," by Jill Bialosky - Too Much Angst about Too Little

Sometimes I am about to post a less-than-enthusiastic review of a novel, and then question my right to pronounce judgment on a kind of writing that I would never be able to do myself. I write academic articles, books, and conference papers, and I write book reviews, including in these posts. But I don’t have the gift of being able to write fiction. (I wish I did! But I long ago accepted that I do not.) So if someone has produced even a decent effort at a novel or short story, it seems presumptuous of me to criticize it. But then I tell myself that everyone has her or his own role, and the role of the book reviewer or critic or blogger is to provide a sense of a book and its strengths and weaknesses, along with one’s personal response to the book. This is a conflict I have struggled with before, but from time to time I revisit it. This time it is a prologue to saying that I need to critique the novel I just finished, Jill Bialosky’s “The Prize” (Counterpoint, 2015), as it is a rather unsatisfying book. It is set in the art world, and the main character, Edward Darby, is a partner in a leading New York art gallery. The novel does provide a window into some of the workings of that world, which is of interest. But mostly it consists of the ditherings of that character, Edward. He is, perhaps, having a midlife crisis. He questions the meaning of his work, he sulks about his most famous artist’s work and her betrayal of him, he worries about his marriage and his wife, and simultaneously has an affair with another artist, but not without much guilt, much back and forth about whether he should or shouldn’t be having that affair. All of this is very angsty and trite, accompanied by anguished conversations that seem essentially lightweight and predictable, walks through Manhattan in the rain, various sojourns in various European cities, and plenty of time spent in hotel bars drinking and dissecting his feelings. But all of this just doesn’t amount to much, as nothing truly serious seems to be at stake. “The Prize” is reasonably well written, but just doesn’t seem to matter very much. (But I still feel a little nervy being so “judgy” about a reasonably decent novel that I could never write myself….) (Some readers might say it is a little late to be worrying about that, after a fair number of negative or at least less than positive reviews over the almost six years I have been writing this blog….) (I could even be accused of doing a little angsty dithering myself, right here in this post….)

Sunday, November 1, 2015

"Last Night in Montreal," by Emily St. John Mandel

I had never heard of Emily St. John Mandel’s “Last Night in Montreal” (Unbridled Books, 2009) until the recent spate of accolades about Mandel’s newest novel, “Station Eleven, which has received very positive reviews and won, or been a finalist for, several literary prizes and “best of” lists. Because “Station Eleven” is of the postapocalyptic genre, I am not interested in reading it, but a brief mention of this earlier novel, the author’s debut, attracted my attention. It is a sort of mystery (although not of the mystery genre), combined with the story of a young woman’s growing up years. Lilia has been abducted by her father from her mother’s house at the age of six, and spends the next ten years on the road, hiding from the law, with her father. She loves her father and (mainly) does not resent the life they lead. But of course such a life has enormous effects on her. Even when her father finally settles down in one place, Lilia’s life is unmoored, and even on her own, she feels compelled to move on from place to place again and again. A sort of parallel story is that of the private detective, Christopher, who has looked for and followed Lilia for years, and the strange fascination he has developed with the case, to the detriment of his own wife and daughter, Michaela. Christopher and Michaela’s semi-estranged relationship, and Lilia and her father’s attached but unusual relationship, form a sort of contrapuntal interweaving connection. The fifth main character is Eli, Lilia’s boyfriend who she has most recently abandoned in her need to keep moving on, and who goes to search for her in Montreal, where he has been told she is now. There are a lot of missed connections, characters’ outmaneuvering other characters, and delays and frustrations on everyone’s part. Toward the end of the novel there are some revelations that change our perceptions of some of the events in the novel, and to some extent explain some of the characters’ behaviors, in some cases toward a more positive interpretation and in some cases more negative. Despite all the pain and difficulties encountered by all of the characters, there are connections, and there is love. This is an unusual novel, and one that I had trouble with at times, especially when I felt plot revelations were artificially delayed. On the other hand, the writing is strong, and the author’s voice fresh.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

"Fates and Furies," by Lauren Groff

Fierce! That is the word I thought of when reading, and especially when finishing, Lauren Groff’s novel about a marriage, “Fates and Furies” (Riverhead, 2015). Even the title sounds fierce, doesn’t it? And of course mythic. The marriage is that of Lotto, a renowned playwright, and Mathilde, who both supports him and needs her own identity. They have an extraordinary, and extraordinarily intense, connection. The first half of the novel, “Fates,” describes the beginnings of their love affair and then their marriage and life together, mostly from the point of view of Lotto. The second half, “Furies,” focuses on Mathilde’s experiences and perceptions. Lotto tends to have a positive if somewhat fatalistic view of life, and is happy to benefit from Mathilde’s fierce contending with life on his behalf. Mathilde herself, we find out in the second section, has her own “furies” against the unfairness of life, and against, at times, Lotto’s serene acceptance of fate and his taking for granted of her (Mathilde’s) constant fighting and advocacy for him and his career. Mathilde, in other words, is not always or completely the loving and supportive wife (artistic version) that she appears. Is this good or bad? This is actually an irrelevant question; the description is exactly that: description. Neither character is clearly right or wrong, good or bad, but this novel looks way beyond such categories. Of course feminist readers, myself included, will interpret the story of this marriage, and in particular of Mathilde’s blend of love, work, and fury, through a feminist lens. One thing that slightly bothered me was the assumption, and frequent reiteration, that these two characters are unique, special, extraordinary; readers are supposed to take this on faith. However, this novel is certainly compelling, although sometimes uncomfortable and even unsettling, with its aspects of love, passion, art, success, failure, competition, secrets, betrayal, and more. The portrayal of the world of art and literature is part of the draw of this novel. Most important, perhaps: The writing is powerful, and at times surprising, which is a wonderful quality in fiction.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

"Between the World and Me," by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Please read this book! “Between the World and Me” (Spiegel & Grau, 2015) is Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ powerful, wrenching, heartbreaking letter to his fifteen-year-old son about race in America, and specifically about the lives of black Americans. There is a strong element of memoir, as Coates writes of his own poor and sometimes frightening childhood in Baltimore, of his years at Howard University (which he calls his “Mecca”), of his becoming a great reader and then a writer, of the still pervasive bone-deep knowledge of racism and its consequences, and of his fears for his son. Even as a “survivor” who didn’t get killed and didn’t get jailed, and who has become a successful writer, he has observed and experienced the pain and the dangers of being a black man in the United States. Besides his own story, Coates writes of many black leaders and writers, of the stories of other young black men, of the liberation he felt when he traveled to France, and of his interview with the mother of his Howard friend who was killed by a police officer, among other subjects. There are so many powerful sentences in this short book, but just to provide an example: “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, and the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear” (p. 17). And now he and his son live in the age of Trayvon Martin and all the other “destruction of black bodies” (p. 44). This book is despairing, but there are notes of hope as well, as every parent must hope against hope that his child, and all the children, will have safer, better lives. Seriously, please read this book.

Monday, October 19, 2015

"After the Parade," by Lori Ostlund

Although I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago, I have been putting off writing about Lori Ostlund’s wonderful novel, “After the Parade” (Scribner, 2015). Why? Because I liked it so very much that I am afraid of not being able to do it justice in this short post. But I have decided to just plunge in, and try to convey a little bit of how compelling and truthful this amazing novel is. I read and was so impressed by Ostlund’s collection of short stories, “The Bigness of the World” (about which I posted on 12/21/10), so I was primed to like this novel, her first, and it more than lived up to my high expectations. The main character, Aaron, is (like Ostlund herself) originally from the Midwest, which both influenced him greatly (for better and for worse) and made him realize he had to escape it. He was “rescued” by his much older mentor and lover Walter, had a good life with him in New Mexico (also a place that Ostlund lived for some years) but eventually felt he had to establish his own life as a separate person, and left, rather suddenly and alone, for San Francisco (where Ostlund now lives). In San Francisco (here I shift to the present day) he works as an ESL teacher in a fly-by-night type school, and lives in a rather dismal apartment in a renovated (just barely) garage. He is alone much of the time, and very lonely (loneliness is a dominant theme in the novel), but he also at last feels free to explore and discover the kind of life he will lead from now on. He alternates between sadness and a pronounced interest in what he sees as he moves about the city. The novel, too, alternates, in this case between the present day and the past, allowing the readers to gradually understand what has made Aaron the person he is. The scenes in the past and in the present are both powerful. But because the past was in some ways so painful, so quietly dramatic, those scenes are perhaps more intense than those in the present. Aaron’s abusive father died dramatically in a fall from a parade vehicle (thus the title of the book) when Aaron was a young child, and his mother, although loving, became vaguer and vaguer and finally disappeared from his life a few years later. So he was essentially abandoned and on his own, although there were people who took care of his basic needs. How does a young person recover from such abandonment and from the claustrophobia and scrutiny of a very small town, especially when he is different, not only in his sexual identity but also in his love of language and books, and his sense that there is a bigger world (note allusion to Ostlund’s first book’s title) out there? Aaron has escaped his past, but has not yet recovered from it. Moving to San Francisco is his attempt to forward that process, but once he has made the move, he does nothing dramatic; that is not his style. His tendency is to walk, think, observe, and of course read. He has friends, but only in a sort of politely remote way. He enjoys his teaching, and is fond of his students and worries about them, but there is of course a distance between him and them (although some of them share his outsider status, for various reasons), and in any case they cannot fill the void in his life. Only at the very end of the novel do we see a glimpse of a possibly more connected future for Aaron. Words such as “precise” and “attentive” have been used about Ostlund’s writing, and these are very apropos. Her writing is not flashy (that’s not her style), but her characters, settings, and events are so carefully observed that each word, each description matters. Her control over her material is impressive, a gift to her readers. At times, too, the writing is suffused with a sort of wry, low-key humor, especially when Ostlund focuses on some of the minor characters, or on Aaron’s everyday life. “After the Parade” has been well reviewed and well received, and I am so pleased that it has been getting the level of attention is has. The fact that it is set in San Francisco is of course a bonus. Oh, and that beautiful confetti-strewn cover.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

"The Odd Woman and the City," by Vivian Gornick

I have read Vivian Gornick over these many years, and I was already positively predisposed toward her writing; the intriguing title sealed the deal. The “odd” part of the title “The Odd Woman and the City” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015) alludes to Gornick’s single status, but also echoes the title of George Gissing’s 1893 novel, “The Odd Women,” about women who are perhaps a little different than tradition asks, and at the same time are “extra,” as there were more women than men in England at the time. Gornick, a feminist journalist, essayist, and memoirist, turned 80 this year, and has (mostly) lived in New York City since her birth there, thus the “city” part of the title. She loves the city, and has always walked through it regularly, sometimes six miles a day. This small book focuses on Gornick’s life in New York, and mostly consists of short episodes and vignettes involving herself, her friends and lovers, as well as the people she closely observes as she walks around, or takes public transportation through, the city. She experiences loneliness, yet absorbs it and moves beyond it. She is exceptionally generous in sharing her thoughts, feelings, and experiences, almost always in the context of life as a writer, friend, lover, and flaneur. A favorite line in this memoir is this: “The most vital form of communication other than sex is conversation,” and she thrives on conversation. She is also exceptionally observant of the city life around her. I have such respect for Gornick and women like her, especially women who were born in the 1930s: intellectuals and writers, yes, and feminists, yes, as well as women who are strong, courageous, and vulnerable, at a time that it was even harder to be strong and courageous than it is now. And coming back to the city of New York: this city has been a great contributor to the ability of women like Gornick to have the intellectual life and (relative) freedom that has allowed them to live rich and full (although not always easy) lives. The memoir is also a reminder of the complexity and richness of life as one ages (if one is fortunate). “The Odd Woman and the City” is a worthy successor to Gornick’s acclaimed 1987 memoir, “Fierce Attachments,” which I also liked very much.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

"Days of Awe," by Lauren Fox

Despite what I said in my recent post of 10/4/15 about suddenly tiring of what I labeled as “women-in-the-city-and-their-love-affairs-marriages-children-jobs-angst novels,” just before that post I had read one of this type that I did enjoy: “Days of Awe" (Knopf, 2015), by Lauren Fox. It has all the requisite elements: problems in a marriage, problems with children, problems with friends, joys, sadness, the inevitability of change, fast-paced scenes, a bit of humor, a bit of mystery. The main character Isabel’s husband has moved out, yet the two maintain a warily amicable relationship. Her daughter is entering puberty and is suddenly becoming a sometimes-rebellious mystery to her mother. Her best friend has died in somewhat mysterious circumstances (note the recurrence of the theme of mystery, not as in mystery novels, but as in the normal mysteries of life). Fox is a good writer, and she kept my interest. One thing I liked was that the novel took place not in one of the more well known settings for contemporary American novels, but in Milwaukee, in the Midwest, a nice change of pace. But I must say that reading this novel just before I started to retreat from this genre of novels makes me think I enjoyed “Days of Awe” in a sort of routine, automatic way rather than with the true enjoyment and appreciation that occurs when a novel feels fresh and different, and thus was perhaps the penultimate cause of my stepping back from this type of fiction. (However, as I stated in that 10/4/15 post, I predict that this stepping away won’t last long.)

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Newest Nobel Prize in Literature Winner: Svetlana Alexievich

The Nobel Prize in Literature has just been announced: the winner is Svetlana Alexievich, of Belarus. She is a journalist and mostly nonfiction writer, one of the few such writers ever awarded the Prize. The New York Times (10/8/15) states that she is “known for her deeply researched work about female Russian soldiers in world War II and the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster” as well as the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The author herself describes her writing as follows: “I am writing a history of human feelings.” When I saw the New York Times news alert message on email, I eagerly opened the message, hoping the winner would be an author I had read and admired. I remembered how exhilarated I was when the great Canadian short story writer Alice Munro, one of my favorite writers of all time, won in 2013. But the name I saw today was completely unknown to me, and according to the NYT article, to most Americans. Her work is little translated into English, and barely available in the U.S. I felt a bit of disappointment. But as I thought more about it, I was reminded that one of the purposes of this prize is to bring great, although perhaps not famous, writers to the attention of the world. We -- whatever our own country and language -- should know about writers from countries, cultures, and languages that are not our own. I chided myself for being English-centric, and West-centric. As I read more about Alexievich’s work, I was impressed; she is truly trying, through her careful research and writing, to show the effects of war and other disasters on ordinary people. Perhaps her most well known book is “War’s Unwomanly Face” (1988). Of course I was glad too that a woman had won, as she is only the 14th woman awarded this immensely prestigious literary prize.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Phases in My Reading Life

Like most readers, I go through phases of reading, and then abruptly or gradually move away from that phase (but often return to it later, in a new phase). For example, there have been times in my reading life – a lot of times, actually – when I have read many mystery novels, and then have gotten tired of them for months or years. (I posted about this on 1/27/10 and have mentioned it in other posts as well.) I have gone through phases of reading fiction from certain countries, from certain authors, and from certain “genres” such as “beach books,” “books about writers,” “books about books and bookstores,” "books set on college campuses," “books set in Manhattan,” “books set in Nantucket/Martha’s Vineyard/Cape Cod” (okay, this one overlaps with "beach books"), “books set in San Francisco,” "books set in England," "books set in India,"and other favorites, often (but not always) connected with my own background and likes. A “genre” of novels (although they are generally not labeled as a genre) that I very much like and read large numbers of is the women-in-the-city-and-their-love-affairs-marriages-children-jobs-angst novel. This oversimplification and lumping-together is of course highly unfair to the novels and their authors, but I use it as a shorthand here. A few days ago I started to read one of these, suddenly felt myself get tired and bored, briefly skimmed through it to the end, put it down, and decided I just didn’t feel like reading more of this book or this type of books for a while. I had another novel of this type on my to-read pile, tried it too (the same day) and stopped reading it as well. I know it might have been just those two particular novels that I didn't like, or thought I wouldn't like, but I think it was more than that. I doubt my boycotting of this “genre” will last long, but it reminds me of the natural phases of my reading over the years.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

"The Little Paris Bookshop," by Nina George: Sweet, Strange, or Both?

Charming. Wistful. Philosophical. A wee bit fey. A wee bit self-helpish. And occasionally a wee bit dull. These are some of the words and phrases that went through my mind as I was was reading “The Little Paris Bookshop” (Crown, 2014), a novel by Nina George, translated from the German by Simon Pare (2015). Of course with that title, I had to read this novel. And who wouldn’t fall in love with the main character, Jean Perdu? He is a bookseller, a book-lover, loving, thoughtful, sensitive, loyal, and yes, charming in a self-deprecating way. He has a bookstore on a barge in Paris, and he always knows which book to “prescribe” for customers and friends. He has a secret, though, that has dominated his life for more than 20 years: He had a grand affair with the love of his life, Manon, who happened to be married to a very understanding husband, Luc; Manon got fatally sick but didn’t tell him, wrote him a letter to ask him to visit her before she died, which he never opened, thinking she was ending their relationship. He pined for Manon for 20 years, but didn’t open the letter for those 20 years. When he finally did, the letter precipitated an upset in his life: he unanchored the barge for the first time and went off for an ill-planned trip, accompanied by a couple of other unusual (also charming, each in his own way…note the recurrence of the word “charming”) men with secrets. The bulk of the story is the adventures they had, in the course of their individual but intertwined quests. Somehow even the little problems they ran up against all magically get solved. (I am not giving away too much with this plot summary, as these events all happened very early in the novel, and the rest of the novel is the adventures and their conclusions.) In some ways this is a romance novel, but of a very literary type. Isn’t it romantic that Jean Perdu (notice the symbolism of his name) stayed true to Manon for those 20 years without seeing her, and never loved or even had a relationship with another woman during that time? At the same time, isn’t this highly unrealistic and even a bit weird (excuse my unliterary choice of words….)? And I wonder: would it have been less romantic and more weird if it had taken place anywhere but in France, with its lovingly described meandering rivers, canals, and scenery, and the charming (yes, again, charming) characters the men met along the way? Both the scenery, and the constant interweaving of references to books and their power, were certainly appealing. In any case, the story is both lovely and strange, both compelling and a little off-putting, a little over the top. But yes, very romantic and sweet. And -- have I said? -- charming.

Monday, September 21, 2015

"Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Kinship," by Joshua Gamson

Joshua Gamson, a University of San Francisco colleague who is a sociologist, has written a compelling book titled “Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship” (New York University Press, 2015). It is a fascinating combination of sociological text, memoir, and gripping and suspenseful stories (Will the technology work? Will the surrogate change her mind? Will the legal issues be overcome?). It is also both thought-provoking and moving. Gamson looks at the topic of today’s various ways of forming families, focusing on several lesbian and gay parents who created their families through technology, surrogacy, adoption, and other ways now available. The sociological observations are woven throughout a series of extended true stories. One of the stories is his own; he and his partner, with the help of friends, kind strangers, technology, and some good fortune, have two daughters together. The path was not easy for them or for the other parents and their families described here. There were hesitations, discussions, money spent, trips taken, legal issues overcome, setbacks, disappointments, hope, hope dashed, and fear of others changing their minds, but finally, there were children and there were families. Gamson outlines many of the issues from a sociologist’s point of view and approach. He also addresses issues of equity, exploring the possible inherent moral issues in, for example, using a surrogate who is doing it partly for the money, or in adopting children from a faraway country and/or a different race than the parents. Also discussed are the political issues and fights that have led to the possibilities of these "modern families." And of course there are still fights to fight, in society and with the law. The author also reminds us how problematic it is that currently it is almost impossible for those without middle or upper-class resources to achieve families in the ways that those in the book have done. But this book is definitely not only for fellow sociologists, or just for activists; Gamson’s writing makes the book, and its stories and its issues, accessible, extremely readable, and even gripping to the general reader. And of course the fact that one of the stories is his own, and others are stories of friends and acquaintances, makes the stories feel very up-close and personal. The author is generous in sharing his own experiences and feelings, as are the others portrayed here, although of course he protects their privacy to the extent that they requested it. He writes engagingly, with passion, openness, and a bit of humor. What comes through most strongly is that these adults wanted children and families so much that they were willing to spend a tremendous amount of time, money, energy, and emotions in order to create those children and families. Their joy at doing so is beautifully evident. And the reader can’t help feeling joyful for them as well. This particular reader was drawn in to the stories, worried about the families, read faster to see what happened, and rejoiced with them when they were ultimately successful.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Jonathan Franzen's "Purity" Arrives with Great Pomp and Circumstance

Oh my goodness, what a tamasha, what a big fuss! Jonathan Franzen, who is apparently now regarded by many as our greatest and most famous American writer, has produced a new novel, “Purity” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), even heftier (576 pages and 1.5 pounds, according to an online bookseller) and more portentous than his prior novels, it seems. I have not yet read it, and haven’t decided whether I will do so, although I did put my name on the local library request list for it, just to have a look at it. Longtime readers of this blog may remember that I liked “The Corrections,” but was very put off by “Freedom,” to the extent that I posted about it several times (on 11/8/10, 11/11/10, and 11/13/10); I did, however, finish it. In the past few weeks, I have read an outpouring of reviews of “Purity”; it is obvious that for better or for worse, when Franzen publishes a novel, elaborate attention much be paid. The reviews have been respectful but mixed. They mostly note that the nickname of the main character, “Pip” (her real name is the Purity of the title) draws attention to the Dickens-like intentions of the novel, which is bursting with topics and characters. They note the length of the novel, and the word “sprawling” is frequently used. They mention that Franzen addresses many issues of our time, including the dangers of the Internet. (There is a sort-of-based-on-Snowden character, who is also a sort of cult leader.) They point out that in “Purity,” as in Franzen's other novels, the story is really a collection of several characters’ stories, told in separate sections and gradually connecting with each other. Most reviews have been what I would term cautiously positive, although a couple of them have been rather negative, deeming the novel disappointing. Colm Toibin (one of the great writers of our time, in my view) concludes his review in the New York Times Book Review (8/30/15) as follows (note the hedges and the damning with faint praise): “It is, in its way, an ambitious novel…but there is also a sense of modesty at its heart as Franzen seems determined not to write chiseled sentences that draw attention to themselves. He seems content with the style of the book, whose very lack of poetry and polish seems willed and deliberate.” Maureen Corrigan on NPR’s Fresh Air gave a similarly cautious review. Elaine Bair, in Harpers (September 2015), had a more positive take, but then moved into a long and somewhat confusing riff on how Franzen has been accused of sexism, but he is no worse than other male writers, but on the other hand he seems to be trying on some level to be sexist (!). I will not even attempt here to summarize the story, although I feel I have a decent grasp on it after reading and hearing so many reviews. If I do read the novel, I will write more about it. Here I am simply noting how each of Franzen’s novels receives increasing attention, and it almost seems that the novel is as much a media event as a literary event. Perhaps I should be pleased that a novel can still get this much attention, in these days of worry about decreasing readership. And I admit that after reading “Freedom,” and also after reading Franzen’s strange, sexist, and condescending article about Edith Wharton in the Atlantic (see my post of 2/22/12), along with some other pieces by and about him that I have read, I am somewhat biased against him, quite possibly unfairly so. If I do read ”Purity,” I will try (sort of….) to be open-minded about it. To be continued…perhaps.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

"Primates of Park Avenue," by Wednesday Martin

“Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir” (Simon and Schuster, 2015) got a lot of attention when it came out a few months ago. Its cover shows the side and legs of a slim-but-curvy woman in a leopard skin skirt and shoes, and that sets the tone. The articles about, and even the reviews of, the book emphasized the most “shocking” aspects of the book, such as its assertion that very rich men on the Upper East Side of Manhattan paid their wives bonuses for doing a good job as wives in this hyper-wealthy and competitive area. The book itself is a strange mixture of a memoir, a tell-all, an anthropological study, and a compendium of tabloidish stories. The author, Wednesday Martin, tells us often that she has a PhD and works as a “social researcher.” When she moved from lower Manhattan to the Upper East Side because of her husband’s job, she decided to a. fit in as well as she could, for her children’s sake; and b. study the mothers and families in this elite neighborhood as if doing anthropological field work in an alien culture. She tells us about these mothers’ exclusive cliques at the expensive private schools where her children go, how the women exercise obsessively, how they shop and dress, how they spend money, how they decorate, how they socialize, how and where they vacation, and much more. Interspersed among the stories are mini-lectures on the anthropological and primatological aspects of all this, including comparisons to primates (gorillas, etc.) and their societies and customs. There is also some standard-issue (and certainly endorsed by me, albeit going over much-covered territory) feminist analysis of how the women’s high-flown lifestyle was very dependent on their husbands, and how the women had to always be very thin and beautiful and well-dressed. Also included are the author’s own feelings about how she was treated at first (as an outsider) and how she gradually became part of the society, even when she was somewhat horrified by some of the customs. She also openly admits that she had trouble keeping her outsider’s "neutral" research stance, as she began to care very much whether she was accepted by these women. She does have a slightly humorous and self-aware voice, which makes it easier for the reader to connect to her writing. Near the end of the book, we hear about a sad loss she suffered, which takes us readers into a much closer and more sympathetic relationship with her. So the mixture of aspects and sections and perspectives sometimes seems a bit confusing, undigested, and even unnerving, but still oddly intriguing. Throughout, I wondered how much of the book was written for shock value and titillation (“see how these crazy rich people live”), how much out of a genuine academic interest, and how much as the author’s own story and experience (the book is, after all, billed as a memoir). Throughout, I felt the book was aimed at bestsellerdom, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but somewhat compromises the earnestly scholarly tone taken sporadically throughout. It reminds me a bit of an extended Vanity Fair article (and I say this as someone who subscribes to and reads and enjoys Vanity Fair, but who knows to expect a certain type of article, a certain tone). So, to be blunt, the book is a bit of a mishmash, and it seems to me that there is less “there” there than advertised. Nevertheless, the book is entertaining, and has a few mildly interesting insights about gender and social class, served up with many dollops of fashion and bling and a soupcon of scandal.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

"The Pawnbroker's Daughter," by Maxine Kumin

Maxine Kumin’s posthumous memoir, “The Pawnbroker’s Daughter” (W.W. Norton, 2015), reminds me a bit of Gail Godwin’s memoir, which I posted on a few days ago (8/22/15). They are both slim volumes, focused on both the writers’lives and their writing. The two writers are about half a generation apart in age: Kumin was born in 1925 and died in 2014; Godwin was born in 1937. Kumin was mainly a poet but also wrote fiction and essays; she was a U.S. poet laureate and won a Pulitzer Prize. Godwin is a novelist who has also written in other genres; she too has won various awards and honors. Both had supportive husbands; Kumin’s survived her, while Godwin’s died a few years ago. Both liked living or at least regularly retreating outside of cities, although Kumin’s situation was much more isolated and rural; she and her husband created a horse farm where they happily raised their family. Of course these two wonderful writers’ biggest commonality was/is their intense devotion to their writing. In “The Pawnbroker’s Daughter,” Kumin wrote fairly chronologically, describing her childhood, her meeting of and long marriage to her husband, her poetry, and her life on the farm. Although she does not dwell on it, we also see her strong feelings about politics and especially about women’s lives; she was a feminist, an environmentalist, and an activist. Throughout, Kumin shares some of her wonderful poetry, as well as evocative photographs.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

"Valley Fever," by Katherine Taylor

On 8/11/15 I wrote about Katherine Taylor’s debut novel, “Rules for Saying Goodbye.” Her new novel, “Valley Fever” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015) is also well written, and also features a semi-lost young woman as the main character who is trying to figure out what she wants to do in life. “Rules” took place mostly in New York; the very different setting for “Valley Fever” is Fresno, California, where the character Ingrid returns to be with her family after a relationship breaks up. Fresno is a midsize city in the San Joaquin Valley (which is in turn part of the Central Valley) with agriculture as the main focus. Ingrid plans to stay only a short time while she figures out what to do next with her life, but gets drawn into helping her father with his vineyards. Also, although there are things she dislikes about Fresno, in other ways it feels like home, and she soon takes up with old friends and old ways (e.g., she immediately returns to the same bars and restaurants she used to go to, and starts hanging out with some of the same people, including her former boyfriend). The novel is unusual in its close, detailed portrayal of a site rarely focused on (“The Valley”), and of actual working people. Not people working in offices in New York, or writing, or doing any of the more glamorous jobs often featured in novels, but people working hard at keeping an agricultural enterprise going. There is so much that can go wrong with the grapes and other crops grown in California’s great valley, to do with weather, diseases, shortages and gluts, labor, politics, and much more. So this novel is a refreshing change in this way, although it is also a grim reminder of the difficulties and uncertainties faced by farmers. Ingrid finds herself drawn to this work, and even feels good about the hard work and long hours. She finds she is quite good at the work, and manages it well. But she, like her father with his trust and integrity, also finds that it is very hard to know whom to trust, and that competing with the big boys can be a treacherous enterprise. “Valley Fever” also gives us insights into family dynamics, the intimate connections among the main players in the story, the shifting friendships mixed with business relationships, and the ways in which people can in some cases support, but in other cases profoundly betray, their “friends” and those they do business with. I realize that this may sound less than enticing as a novel, but it kept my attention, and I think other readers might also appreciate the unusual setting and the portrayal of a world not so often delineated in fiction these days, along with the insightful portrayals of the characters and their relationships. I also found it interesting because although I never lived there, I have family in Fresno; they have no personal connection to farming or vineyards, but agriculture is part of the environment and ethos of the area. I could recognize some of the descriptions of the city and the surrounding areas. Katherine Taylor is definitely a writer to watch.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Sarai Walker's "Dietland" - An Angry, Funny, Wonderful Feminist Novel

Sarai Walker’s novel “Dietland” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) reminds me of Marilyn French’s furious 1977 novel, “The Women’s Room.” That novel described the lives of women in the U.S. during the 1950s and early 1960s, and was full of anger about the restricted roles, prejudice, and discrimination that women faced at the time. Although not tremendously well written, in my opinion, the book struck a chord with many, many women, including me; I remember being riveted by it. “The Women’s Room” was, in a sense, the novelized version of Betty Friedan’s hugely influential 1963 nonfiction book, “The Feminine Mystique,” but angrier and more radical. Those of us who were feminists in the 1970s and onward hoped and believed that most of the problems of sexism would be remedied in the coming decades. And of course much progress has been made. But “Dietland” reminds us how many problems still exist, even in “developed” countries such as the United States. Walker starts with the issue of the pressure on girls and women to be thin and beautiful, no matter what they have to do to achieve that status (hence the title). But we soon see that this issue is only part of the focus on larger issues of discrimination and violence against women. The novel -- and it is a novel, not nonfiction, but it deals with many issues -- describes a group of women who fight back, using unorthodox and even illegal means, which they feel are justified by the crimes and violence done against women. The central character and narrator, Plum Kettle, is a very large woman who has experienced daily discrimination as such, and is planning to have weight loss surgery. She is contacted by several loosely connected women who try to convince her not to have the surgery, and not to give in to society’s expectations regarding women’s bodies and lives. Soon she is both supported by these women and drawn into some of their activities, legal and not-so-legal. The novel is powerful and, as two of the back cover blurbers term it, “subversive.” But the novel is not just a feminist screed (not that there would be anything wrong with that, in my opinion!); it is also a page-turner of a story, with plot twists, surprises, fascinating characters, and touches of humor. I haven’t seen such an explicitly feminist novel for a while, and I welcome it; we need more fiction that engages with important social issues, including those regarding women’s lives. Brava, Sarai Walker!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Why I Am Not Reading "Go Set a Watchman"

A reader asked me what I thought about the publication this year of “Go Set a Watchman,” by Harper Lee, and if I would be reading it. As I am sure readers know, this is the story of the same characters and events (more or less) as those in Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but set some years later. There is some dispute about whether this was actually a separate novel, or an earlier draft of Lee’s famous masterpiece. I have gone back and forth about reading it, but have concluded that I probably will not, for the following reasons. 1. It is disillusioning to find that Atticus Finch was actually quite racist, and not the pure hero that the other novel portrayed him as. This in itself should not be a reason not to read the book, as one should not flinch from the hard facts about the prejudices of that time period. But I am also concerned about the following. 2. The fact is that the novel, from all reviews I have read, is much less well-written than “Mockingbird,” and is in essence an early, unpolished draft, which Lee thoroughly rewrote following the suggestions of her editor, including changing the time frame and narrating the story from the point of view of the young girl, Scout. Reviewers have been restrained and diplomatic, on the whole, but it is clear that there is a big difference in quality between the two novels. This point leads to the third. 3. There is a bit of mystery about how and when the manuscript of “Watchman” was “discovered,” and about how much the author had to do with the decision to publish it. It seems that Lee had forgotten about this manuscript, and/or thought it was long lost. After her sister, who had managed her literary affairs, died, another person who got involved claimed to have discovered this manuscript, but the story that person tells about the discovery has changed several times, so what we know about what happened is a bit murky. Lee is elderly and in poor health, and it isn’t clear how much she understood about the decision to publish. I know that some readers are just so glad to have another novel by the author of “Mockingbird” that they welcome it no matter what, and indeed sales have been good. But some reviewers and others have felt, and I concur, that there is a whiff of exploitation about this whole publishing event. It would be sad if Harper Lee’s reputation were marred by the airing of a manuscript that was never intended to be published as such, and that reflects badly on the author. I may change my mind in the future, but right now I just don’t want to read “Go Set a Watchman.”

Saturday, August 22, 2015

"Publishing: A Writer's Memoir," by Gail Godwin

Gail Godwin is both a critically acclaimed author and a popular one, although, by her own description, less popular than in the past. She is the author of fourteen novels, two short story collections, and two nonfiction books. Her best-known novels include “The Odd Woman” and “A Mother and Two Daughters.” Her style is a bit understated, and often alludes to spiritual and ethical themes. She focuses on relationships between and among people, and does so beautifully and thoughtfully. Over the years, I have read, admired, and liked all of her novels and short stories. Thus I was pleased to read “Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir” (Bloomsbury, 2015), a kind of behind-the-scenes story of how the author came to write; how she found an agent and publisher; how negotiating for publishing contracts worked for her; how publishing companies kept changing, along with their editors and other personnel; what it is like to do a book tour; and the various wonderful and occasionally not-so-wonderful people she met through her writing and publishing life, among other topics. The story is not told in chronological order, but rather in thematic chapters that move backward and forward in time. In a sense, each chapter is a mini-collection of relevant vignettes. Godwin is diplomatic, so there are no shocking disclosures or even putdowns of people she met along the way, yet her feelings are subtly conveyed and we readers are drawn in to listen to her stories. There are many fascinating details about how books are edited, how titles are chosen and sometimes argued over, how book covers are selected, and much more. There are also a few brief glimpses of her life with her late husband, her beloved retreat in Woodstock, and other personal aspects of her life. This is a slight and quiet book, but one that attracted me, and I think would be of interest not only to Godwin’s readers, but to anyone interested in the world of book writing and publishing. The writing is illustrated and enhanced by charming, simple line drawings done by Frances Halsband.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Favorite Living Fiction Writers Recently Read

Today I list some of my favorite living writers of fiction. To keep the list from being too long, I include only authors whose books I have read at least one of during the past three years. These conditions of course do not allow me to list “classic” writers, or those whose works I have enjoyed in the past but haven’t read lately. So, given those conditions, here is my list of the authors, in alphabetical order. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Rabih Alameddine, Kate Atkinson, Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, Robin Black, Peter Cameron, Kate Christensen, Anne Enright, Joan Frank, Jane Gardam, Gail Godwin, Mary Gordon, Tessa Hadley, Joshua Henkin, Hester Kaplan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Penelope Lively, Alice McDermott, Ian McEwan, Claire Messud, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Antonya Nelson, Stewart O’Nan, Ann Packer, Ann Patchett, Edith Pearlman, Richard Russo, Lore Segal, Jane Smiley, Zadie Smith, Colm Toibin, Anne Tyler, Kate Walbert, Meg Wolitzer. The parameters of this list made me leave out some favorites, such as Kent Haruf, who died very recently, and Lori Ostlund, whose wonderful first book I read more than three years ago, but whose second book ("After the Parade") will appear next month and is much anticipated. Note that of the 36 writers, 28 are women; those who read this blog regularly will not be surprised at this. In any case, like any list, this list is in no way definitive of anything, but it provides a summary of some of my most-treasured current novelists and short story writers. Note that I have posted here on many of these authors’ books during the past three years.

Friday, August 14, 2015

"Re Jane," by Patricia Park

In my 8/11/15 post on Katherine Taylor’s novel “Rules for Saying Goodbye,” I described a common genre of novels with young women characters starting off their adult lives and careers in New York, almost always Manhattan or possibly Brooklyn. Patricia Park’s new novel, her first, “Re Jane” (Viking, 2015) starts with that template, but immediately diverges from it by having the main character come from a far from upscale part of Queens. Her main character differs,too, from most of the ones in the novels I was describing: Jane is American, her parents a Korean woman and a white American man; they died when she was young, and she has grown up in Queens, living with her uncle and aunt and cousins. Her post-college job in finance has fallen through because of the limping economy, so she is working in her uncle’s shabby food market (named “FOOD”). She decides on a whim to take an au pair job in Brooklyn; the family there consists of a women’s studies professor, an English teacher, and their daughter, adopted from China. Various plot twists ensue, including a love affair and a trip on Jane’s part to Korea where she ends up staying with relatives and teaching English for a year. Throughout, she feels torn among various identities and various loyalties. But when she returns to New York, she is more at ease with herself, and gradually starts figuring out how to live her life. This novel gives readers an up-close look at the experiences and confusions that life as a racially, ethnically, and culturally “mixed” young person can bring. Jane is not the only one who experiences identity conflicts. The girl she takes care of, Devon, also struggles with fitting in; she is Chinese by birth and ethnicity, but is growing up in an academic white American family, and has trouble fitting in with the various ethnic cliques at her school. We also find realistic portrayals of social class differences, as well as, of course, cultural differences. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned yet that the main character’s name “Jane” is a tribute to the novel “Jane Eyre.” There is no explicit attempt to do a modern version of Bronte’s story, but throughout the novel there are various allusions to the earlier Jane’s story. For example, in Korea Jane finds a photo of her father and herself as a baby, with the notation “Currer Bell and his daughter Jane.” (Readers may remember that “Currer Bell” was Charlotte Bronte’s writing pseudonym.) There is the lover who is at first cold with Jane and then later is intensely in love with her (Rochester, anyone?). There is Jane’s flight to Korea when it seems the love affair cannot ethically continue (like Jane Eyre’s flight from Rochester when the existence of his mad wife is revealed.) And so on. The novel would stand on its own just fine without these Jane Eyre references, but the references provide an extra layer of recognition and enjoyment.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

"Rules for Saying Goodbye," by Katherine Taylor

A common genre among novels I am attracted to and read is that of the young middle- or upper-middle-class woman starting out, generally just post-college, living in New York City (usually Manhattan, occasionally Brooklyn but in the latter case working in Manhattan) (usually having moved from elsewhere in the U.S.), stumbling a bit, feeling some financial pressure (but somehow always managing, sometimes with fortuitous help from family members, including magical access to rent-controlled apartments in some cases), hoping for career success and for love, and also reaching for independence. There is usually a lot of going out in the evenings, a lot of drinking, and a lot of flings. There are also detailed, often romanticized descriptions of parts of Manhattan, as well as of various lovers’ and friends’ apartments (housing is a big issue and topic in New York). This set-up for a novel is usually interesting and enjoyable to read about, despite being well worn. The trick for the author, of course, is to somehow make this situation and this character feel fresh. Katherine Taylor, in her first novel, “Rules for Saying Goodbye” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), does this well. Her main character, Kate, has moved from California, by way of school in New England and a side trip to Rome. Kate bartends so she can write her novel. She has an on-again-off-again relationship with Lucas, a journalist (hence the time in Rome, where he is on assignment). She, following the pattern for this type of novel (and for ambitious, educated young women who want to do something creative and/or important with their lives) goes out with her friends, drinks, has flirtations and flings, and spends a lot of time rehashing her adventures and woes with her friends. She feels pressure (mostly from within) to be a successful writer and (from within but also from her mother) to find the right partner/love interest. One of the most poignant and yet clever and entertaining parts of the book is the chapter titled “Rules for Saying Goodbye,” which consists of an actual list of eleven such “rules” for leaving a boyfriend. Rule One says, in part, “Do not leave until he has mentioned two ex-girlfriends in casual conversation.” Rule Two says “Leave if he starts writing songs about other people. These will be songs of loss and their details will have nothing to do with you. Shame on you for dating a musician. At your age.” And so on, up to Rule Eleven: “Call a taxi…Leave in tears, broken…Do not go back to retrieve things you have forgotten…Once you are gone, be gone for good.” Taylor has acknowledged in interviews that this novel is partly autobiographical. This author also has a new novel, her second, just out, which I am about to read, and will likely post about here soon.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Love the Authors, A Little Dissatisfied with Some of Their Books

I suddenly saw a pattern in four books I read very recently. What they have in common is: 1. They are all paperback books I picked up while browsing at my local Friends of the Library sale a few weeks ago. 2. In each case, I chose to buy the book because it was by a writer I very much admire and like. 3. I found them all perfectly fine, well written, but for some reason I didn’t look forward to reading them, and found them not quite satisfying. I am not sure why this latter is so. Are they all lesser examples of their authors’ work? In three of the four cases, they are earlier works of the authors; could that be the reason? Maybe it is just a coincidence, or maybe the issue is me, not the books (but why? how?). Whatever the reason, I don’t feel strongly enough -- positively or negatively -- about any of the books to post about them individually. I will simply list the books here, and say again that they are all just fine, but I just couldn’t get very excited about any of them. They are: 1. “After the War,” by Alice Adams (Washington Square, 2000); Kaaterskill Falls,” by Allegra Goodman (Delta, 1998); “As Max Saw It,” by Louis Begley (Fawcett Columbine, 1994); and “Our Fathers,” by Andrew O’Hagan (Harvest, 1999).

Monday, August 3, 2015

RIP James Salter, E. L. Doctorow, and Alan Cheuse

We have lost three important American writers in the past two months, and I want to note and mourn their passing. James Salter, novelist and short-story writer, died June 19th at the age of 90. He was the sort of "writer’s writer" who was respected but not vastly successful commercially; however, his last novel, “All That Is,” published when he was 87, received the most critical and popular attention of his works. (I posted on that novel here on 5/27/13.) E. L. Doctorow, the most famous of these three writers, was a novelist and essayist who died July 21st at age 84. His most famous novel was “Ragtime.” And Alan Cheuse, novelist, creative writing teacher (at the famous Squaw Valley Community of Writers, as well as at George Mason and other universities), and book reviewer, died just a few days ago, on July 31st, at the age of 75. Cheuse was perhaps best known as a longtime literary commentator/book reviewer on NPR. RIP, James Salter, E.L. Doctorow, and Alan Cheuse. Thank you for all your contributions to the world of literature; they are your legacy and will live long after you. Even many years from now, when perhaps you are not very often read or talked of (most literary reputations have time limits, alas), once in a while someone will browse in a library or bookstore (or online catalog) and serendipitously find and read and appreciate one of your books, and then look for more of them. Or a critic will “rediscover” your work, publish an article about it, and give new life to your books. And each time this happens, it will be a small but significant victory for literature.

Friday, July 31, 2015

"You'll Enjoy It When You Get There," by Elizabeth Taylor

You can tell that Elizabeth Taylor is a writer I treasure; she was one of the first authors I wrote about on this blog, back on 2/13/10, less than a month after I started the blog. Because of the famous name, I titled that post “Not THAT Elizabeth Taylor.” And just last month (6/27/15) I wrote about her novel “A View of the Harbor.” Now I want to strongly recommend a collection of her short stories taken from her five earlier collections, so in effect a “best stories” collection, selected and introduced by the great British writer Margaret Drabble. The book is titled “You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There” (New York Review Books, 2014). These stories were originally published between 1954 and 1995 (although the writer lived from 1912 to 1975, dying at age 63 – too young! – of cancer). Most of the stories have to do with women’s lives, and often focus on one or two events that reveal larger truths about those lives. There is often a mournful but accepting-of-the-inevitable tone in these closely observed stories. The details are vivid and pointed, and the reader feels that yes, things must have happened just this way, for better or for worse. There are many sad women, sad relationships (especially marriages), and perceptive glimpses into those incidents that appear to be ordinary but reveal the larger lives stretching before and after those moments. Many of the stories take place indoors, and the author is excellent at describing these various interiors of various houses, flats, and rooms. Taylor is especially good at depicting disappointment. But not all is sadness; there are many moments of human connection, and of children learning and thriving despite difficult circumstances. I’d like to thank the publisher, New York Review Books, for putting together this collection and thus bringing Elizabeth Taylor’s work back to our attention (in the case of those who already knew of her) and newly to the attention of a younger generation; NYRB has published dozens, perhaps hundreds, or NYRB “Classics,” a wonderful way of preserving these works and extending their readership into the future.

Monday, July 27, 2015

"Not My Father's Son," by Alan Cumming

I happened to have a few minutes to browse in the Diesel Bookstore in Marin County, and on a whim, I picked up actor Alan Cumming’s memoir, “Not My Father’s Son” (HarperCollins, 2014). In chapters alternating between his past and present, Cumming tells of his difficult childhood with a cruel, abusive father, and of his recent stint preparing for and participating in the television show “Who Do You Think You Are?” The show involves extensive investigation of a famous person’s geneology and history, and often comes up with facts that surprise the person as well as TV viewers. So this memoir is partly structured around two mysteries involving Cumming’s father and his maternal grandfather. This structure works well to keep readers’ interest, and Cumming’s writing is personal and revealing; besides writing about the main topics, he includes some discussion of his relationship with his husband, his education, his work, and other topics. He also writes beautifully about the Scottish settings where he grew up (another aspect of interest for me, with my own Scottish ancestry and my trip there two months ago). But the abuse and the mysterious family history are mostly front and center, and we readers feel sympathy, anxiety, and suspense all at once. I don’t often read show business celebrity memoirs, but this one is compelling and well written, and focuses much less on the theater/movie business than on the personal side of this famed and excellent actor’s life. Readers cannot help but feel pain and sympathy for Cumming’s terrible childhood, but also admiration and gladness for his surviving and thriving despite that childhood. This book also includes a generous selection of photos. Oh, and by the way, the book was blurbed by Andrew O’Hagan (also from Scotland), about whose work I posted here on 7/17/15; I enjoy finding these interconnections among the books I read.

Friday, July 24, 2015

On Re-reading "The Group," by Mary McCarthy

I just took a trip down memory lane, as I re-read (after more than perhaps 45 years) “The Group” (Harcourt, Brace and World, 1954), by Mary McCarthy. An offhand mention in another book I was reading sent me back to this novel that so reflected its time. It follows the eight members of “the group,” classmates and friends at Vassar College, class of 1933, in the years after they graduate. These privileged (although not all wealthy, especially during the Depression, when some families have lost much of their money) young women embark on life with great hopes. Some of them have some vague career aspirations, while others only want to do volunteer or some other undemanding work until they get married and have children. It is a time when educated young women have some career opportunities, but these are still quite limited by tradition and prejudices. Meanwhile, women who are not married by about age 26 are considered over the hill and unlikely to ever marry. Although the women live in different places, largely but not only grouped around New York and Boston, they keep in touch, and sometimes fly or take a train to help another member of the group as needed. They are very supportive of each other, although some are closer to each other than others, and there are certainly some tensions among them. Their lives interweave; we also get to know their boyfriends, husbands, parents, and other friends. When “The Group” was first published, readers and reviewers were fascinated by the depiction of these privileged young women in the exclusive circles of the Seven Sisters colleges and the blueblood families most of the women came from. However, the main topic of discussion was not their wealth or careers, but the book’s frank depiction of their sex lives in a time when at least educated women were starting to feel justified in having sex lives. These young women were ambivalent about having sex outside of marriage, and were both proud of themselves and secretive, worrying about what others would think. There are a few (but fewer than I remembered…the novel seemed far more risqué when it was published than it does now!) fairly explicit sex scenes. There is also a detailed scene of one of the characters, after her first sexual experience, going to a doctor and clinic to obtain birth control, a source of very mixed feelings for her; doing so makes her feel modern and free and in control of her own life, on the one hand, and rather ashamed on the other hand. McCarthy, in other words, captures the lives and milieus of a certain class of women in the United States at a certain time in history. Some of these concerns and ambiguities, both regarding careers and regarding sexuality, were still issues for women well into the seventies, and some continue at some level even now. So on the one hand “The Group” is very specific to its time; on the other hand its messages (not that it feels like a “message” type book) are still relevant regarding women's lives. I have to add that the novel is enjoyable to read, or as in my case, re-read. Because of McCarthy’s often satiric tone, the novel holds up well, despite a slight feeling of datedness. Think of it as a pointed, astute, observant social document that is also fun to read.

Monday, July 20, 2015

"The Sunken Cathedral," by Kate Walbert

Reasons Why I Should like Kate Walbert’s new novel, “The Sunken Cathedral” (Scribner, 2015): 1. I have very much liked her earlier novels, “A Short History of Women” (about which I posted on 6/13/12) and “The Gardens of Kyoto” (my post was on 7/13/13) and her short story collections, which I posted about on 7/24/13 and 7/26/13). 2. It is getting excellent reviews. On the other hand: Reasons Why I Didn’t Particularly Like or Enjoy It: 1. As in Walbert’s other fiction, there is much slipping back and forth in time, which is fine, but here the slipping becomes so constant and sometimes confusing that I found it an irritant. 2. There is no main focus. Having a plethora of characters and plots and wisps of memories is all fine, but I -- rightly or wrongly -- require some kind of focus in my fiction. At times it seems a scrambled mess. 3. The device of including many long -- sometimes more than a page each --footnotes telling back stories, adding facts, etc. is all very experimental and catchy, but distracting and, for me, not effective. 4. The novel is set mainly in Manhattan (something I always enjoy; this is not the problem here) against a background, or rather a pervading presence, both there and nationally and internationally, of a vaguely apocalyptic threat of climate change, rising waters, unusual weather, but this again is rather indistinct and not specific. For all these reasons, I could never settle into the book; I felt tugged around and back and forth. I did have the chance to get somewhat involved in the lives of some of the main characters (two elderly friends, Marie and Simone; their elderly art teacher, Sid; Marie’s tenant, Elizabeth), but even then, the outlines of their lives were unclear in so many ways. I like to think that I am at least somewhat open to experimentation in fiction, but perhaps I am just too old-fashioned in my desire for a somewhat clear plot and well-drawn characters. Going back and forth in time is also fine, but with a few more signposts than are offered here. I realize I am sounding like a grouchy traditionalist, and there may be some truth in that description! None of this negates my admiration for and appreciation of this gifted author, Kate Walbert, and her fine fiction. I am just a bit less taken with this novel, “The Sunken Cathedral,” than with her other fiction.

Friday, July 17, 2015

"The Illuminations," by Andrew O'Hagan

Why have I never heard of the author Andrew O’Hagan before? Not only is he a well known (although, as I said, not by me…), prize-winning author of four novels and two nonfiction books in the UK, but he is also an editor of the London Review, which I have sporadically subscribed to and read over the years. I just read his most recent novel, “The Illuminations” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), which was a revelation. The novel’s very original premise and structure is based on the close relationship between Anne Quirk, formerly a gifted and somewhat well known photographer, and her grandson Luke, who is an officer in the British army based in Afghanistan. Anne is failing mentally, and lives in a sort of retirement home. There are various intimations about her past life that we don’t exactly figure out the significance of until fairly late in the novel. Suffice it to say that she had one great love, Henry, had a daughter Alice by him, and Alice, although she felt neglected by Anne, is her dutiful daughter and Luke’s loving mother. Luke feels that his grandmother Anne is the one who taught him about life, art, seeing things clearly, and being perceptive about life. He is very loyal to her, and their relationship is important to both of them, and touching to observe. Towards the end of the novel, Luke honors Anne’s desire to go back to Blackpool, where most of her relationship with Henry had taken place and where she has not been for many years; he takes her there and finds her old friends there. Most of the novel goes back and forth between Anne’s current life – and allusions to her past life – on the one hand, and Luke’s sometimes horrific and traumatic experiences in Afghanistan, on the other. Their two stories come together at the end of the novel during the trip to Blackpool. These two stories seem and are very different, but the indirect connection (besides these two characters’ close relationship) is that both characters have been adventurous and unafraid, yet have suffered. I sometimes had trouble reading the Afghanistan chapters, but that was my failing, not the author’s. In any case, this is an unusual novel, well written, and challenging in the sense of making the reader think about what is important in life (but not in a didactic way). I am very pleased to have “discovered” this new – to me – author, and will look for more of his novels.

Monday, July 13, 2015

"A Spool of Blue Thread," by Anne Tyler

Do you ever want to tell your reading friends “Just read this book! Trust me! You will be glad you did!”? I sometimes feel that way. But I know that I need to provide a little more information and support to those statements; after all, some friends have different tastes in books, or (understandably!) want more information before committing to a book. Certainly, readers of this book blog would not likely be pleased with a blog entry that said only “Read this book! Trust me!” So, although I always feel this way about Anne Tyler’s wonderful novels, and I do once again about “A Spool of Blue Thread” (Knopf, 2015), I will provide a little more information about this, her latest novel. First, though, I have to say how fortunate we are to have a writer of this caliber among us, and one who has given us 20 novels to read, savor, ponder, enjoy, and learn from. Tyler’s novels (most of the time) take place in Baltimore, Maryland, where she lives too. The community of Baltimore, or at least the part of Baltimore that she writes about (mostly white, middle or upper middle class, with working class roots) is an integral background and part of her novels. The other common characteristic of her novels is the emphasis on family and family dynamics. In the case of “A Spool of Blue Thread,” the family is the Whitshanks, and we learn about four generations of the family, but especially the middle two generations. The story goes back and forth in the history of the family, each time revealing new aspects of the family history, including some surprising secrets. Abby and Red Whitshank have four adult children. Three of them live near their parents; one, who has always been the odd one, the one with secrets, lives in various places elsewhere, often out of touch with his parents and siblings. Yet he keeps coming back, and obviously loves his family, despite a huge chip on his shoulder about some of the family history, especially one big aspect of it: the way his younger brother came to be part of the family. As Abby and Red get older, and Abby starts to have health problems, the family draws together to help, and during this time, feelings are revealed, decisions are made and disputed, and everyone comes to understand the inevitability of time and change, but also the solid foundation that they as family provide each other. Besides her wonderful insights about, and rich descriptions of, families, the great thing about Tyler’s writing is her beautiful writing about everyday life in all its details, at the same time that she is portraying how we are all part of a longer history. Readers who already know and love Tyler’s novels do not need me to convince them to read “A Spool of Blue Thread.” To readers who have not yet read her fiction, I say “Read this book! Trust me!”

Friday, July 10, 2015

"Spinster," by Kate Bolick

The word “spinster” is a fraught one, meaning “unmarried woman” but with connotations of “woman who couldn’t get a man” or “pathetic woman left behind.” In Kate Bolick’s intriguing exploration of the term and the concept of spinsterhood, “Spinster” (Crown, 2015), the author presents a much more positive view of the word and the condition. This book is a memoir, one with literary, sociological, historical, and philosophical sections and aspects. The throughline is Bolick’s own life, as she has arrived at age 40 without getting married; although she feels ambivalent about this, she also knows that she has intentionally, although not always consciously, steered clear of the married state. She has had a series of relationships, some quite long-term, but eventually she has always left them or let them die a natural death. Why? In a word: freedom. It is not that she hasn’t been with wonderful men, whom she takes care to praise (while preserving their privacy by using initials rather than names when discussing them). Her devotion to her work (writing and editing, but especially writing) and her need to keep control over her own life, both everyday life and long term destiny, make her leery of marriage. She makes the useful point that because relationships end does not mean they were failures; each man she was with, and each relationship, enriched her life. Another, related throughline in this book is Bolick’s description of five women writers who have been inspirations to her: Edith Wharton, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Maeve Brennan, and Neith Boyce. These women were all independent, although some of them were married at some points, usually briefly. She has learned something from each of them. Here she describes these writers and their lives, both professional and personal; she does research on them, including in some cases visiting places they had lived and interviewing relatives and others who knew them. Although Bolick does have times of wondering if she is missing out by not getting married, and not having children (which she also decides not to do), she is at peace with the decisions she has made. By the end of the book, she concludes that “spinster” represents a positive way of thinking and living for women; it does not necessarily mean not marrying, but it means being an equal human being, an independent one, and one who has goals and talents and work besides being wives and mothers. I have to say a word about the type of writing in this book: as mentioned above, it is a sort of hybrid of memoir and other genres, and I admire the way Bolick has blended these various parts. This book is a serious one, one that makes a contribution to the ongoing discussion of how women can and should live, and especially one that delineates a rich and complex option for women, one that is not as valued perhaps as the more common option of living a more traditional married life. In addition, Bolick makes the argument in an interesting, accessible way. And, for me and other readers I am sure, the exploration of the five women writers’ lives is an added pleasure – informative, inspiring, and (although not always happy) enjoyable.
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