Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"A Spot of Bother," by Mark Haddon

I picked up Mark Haddon’s book, “A Spot of Bother” (Vintage, 2006) more or less on a whim. Yes, I had heard of his bestselling book “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” but that book had not particularly appealed to me and I did not read it. This book – “A Spot of Bother” – immediately plunged me into the world of a family that has plenty of problems, yet is very real, very realistic, a little odd, sometimes funny, sometimes maddening, and sometimes touching. I can’t quite say why this family portrait drew me in so quickly and completely, but it did. The story takes place in England, and the family consists of parents George and Jean and their two adult children, Katie and Jamie. George has just retired at the age of 61, and is a bit adrift. He starts having panic attacks about his health and about the fact that everyone dies eventually. Jean loves George, works part-time, and is having an affair with a former colleague of George’s. She is adjusting to having George home most of the time, something she is not used to. Although it sounds racy that Jean is having an affair, she is a down-to-earth woman and a loving wife and mother. Daughter Katie is divorced, with a young son, Jacob, and a fiancé, Ray. George and Jean don’t think Ray is good enough for Katie, and she occasionally has doubts herself, although she is grateful for his love, kindness, help with Jacob, and financial solidity. Jamie is a real estate agent, gay, in a relationship with Tony, but there is a lack of commitment in that relationship. So the threads throughout the novel, the sources of suspense, are the questions of what will happen to George, whether Katie and Ray’s wedding will take place, and what will happen with Jamie’s and Tony’s relationship. The author skillfully manages these plot threads, and we gradually get to know each character quite well, and pull for them all, despite some perhaps reprehensible behavior on the part of each. The portrayal of George is particularly powerful, as he embodies the fears of many aging men (and women), and his apparent irrationality at times has at its core some very realistic and universal fears. The portrayal of Jean is strong too, because it shows how a woman of her age and situation might feel, and how feeling desired again (by her lover, David) conflicts with – but she wishes it didn’t – her loyalty to, and love of, George. This novel is both a little off-kilter and very believable. My only two quibbles are that George is treated as “old” at age 61, and that his obviously serious psychological problems are not taken as seriously by anyone, even the author, as the symptoms indicate they should be, in my opinion. But overall “A Spot of Bother” is artfully constructed, skillfully written, and satisfying to read. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

"There's Something I Want You to Do," by Charles Baxter

Charles Baxter is one of the leading American writers today, although I don’t think he gets the credit or reputation he deserves. I read and liked (and posted about here on 3/22/10) his novel “The Feast of Love”; I have also read some of his short stories. His new story collection, “There’s Something I Want You to Do” (Pantheon, 2015), mainly set in Minneapolis, does what every story collection should do: Every story is a mini-masterpiece, in which something important happens, big or small, and we are caught up in the story. As the title suggests, there is usually something someone wants someone else to do, and those specific words are even sometimes used: “There is something I want you to do.” Everything springs from those situations. There are some characters that appear in several of the stories, and our encountering them more than once enriches our knowledge of them, but each story stands alone. Some of the stories are very touching, very sad, yet there is always something positive as well, and that something is usually human kindness. I don’t mean that the characters are all saints, not at all, but there is a thread of human caring, human connection, throughout the book. There are stories of love – gay and straight -, marriage, divorce, children, jobs, money problems, departures, illnesses, and other events, but always with an original yet believable take on the situation. In at least three cases, someone rescues someone else; in two of these cases, an “ex” comes to the rescue of the former love, illustrating the centrality of human kindness and caring, even when it is for someone once but no longer loved.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

"My Brilliant Friend," by Elena Ferrante

The first thing I love about Elena Ferrante’s novel “My Brilliant Friend” (Europa Editions, 2012; translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein) is its intricate, dense, and very credible portrayal of a close friendship between two girls. Such portrayals are not common. Elena and Lila have grown up in a poor part of Naples in the 1950s, and their friendship is the great thread throughout their lives. The second thing I love about the book is that it takes the girls and their intellectual and emotional lives very seriously. Both of these girls are very bright, and interested in philosophical and other matters, but because of financial reasons and strict traditional ideas about women, it is hard for them to be allowed to study to any advanced level. Elena manages to do so, at least to high school; Lila does not, but studies on her own and outdoes all the other young women and men in the neighborhood in her knowledge. The emotional lives of these girls are a fascinating and realistic blend of the above-mentioned thirst for knowledge and the more traditional interests in boys and romance. Elena is a little more of a conformist than Lila, who usually does just what she wants, although in the end she shapes her life partly in a way that will benefit her family. I say “in the end,” but at the end of this novel the girls, although they seem much older, are only sixteen. They are both wonderfully clever and rather naïve, because they have such constricted lives; on the other hand, within their small universes, they see and experience a lot, good and bad. Until they were in their early teens, they had never been out of their own neighborhood in Naples. However, we can learn more about Elena and Lila: there are two more novels in this “Neopolitan Novels” series published so far, and a fourth and final one is to come this fall. There is a bit of intrigue about the author: “Elena Ferrante” is a pseudonym, and there is some speculation about her true identity. Regardless, I was fascinated by being allowed into the world of these two girls, a world focused both on their tight friendship and on introducing us into the life of a certain part of a certain city, a life that is both very specific and universal. This novel lives up to the hype and the strong reviews it has received, with its exceptional quality of writing and its close-up view of two compelling characters and their close relationship in a neighborhood with all its activities and relationships vividly depicted. Now I need to read the other novels in order to find out what happens next to these friends.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Tribute to a Great Columnist: Jon Carroll

I will say this flat out: In my opinion, Jon Carroll is the best columnist writing today. He has been a San Francisco Chronicle columnist for 35 years, and I have been faithfully, enthusiastically, and joyfully reading his column all those years. The hard part is describing his column, because it is so various, and yet one always, always feels the presence of a thoughtful person behind the columns, no matter what the topic. He writes about politics, current events, literature, San Francisco, Oakland (where he lives), childhood, his family, music, theater, his cats, the small pleasures of life, and so much more. In all those years I can’t remember more than a handful of times that I haven’t found the column of interest. I am not a cat person, and used to skip the cat columns, but then I read some and enjoyed them, so after that I never skipped any of his columns, ever! There have been hundreds -- probably thousands -- of times when I have thoroughly enjoyed his column and learned from it. And among those hundreds of times, there have been dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of times that I felt the column was pure genius. Because of Carroll’s wide and deep knowledge of so many topics, his many years in journalism (he used to write for and edit several magazines, such as Rolling Stone and the Village Voice), his left-leaning but never polemical politics, his own experiences, his open-mindedness, his appreciation of life, his wisdom, his humor, his thoughtfulness, and of course his wonderful way with words, every column feels informed by all of who he is and what he knows and thinks and feels, and reading him is pure pleasure. Today, for example, he wrote about the great San Francisco Beat poet and founder of the famed City Lights bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, still going strong at age 95. Then Carroll wrote about his own love of poetry, and about poetry in general, with a few side trips along the way, ending by coming back to his tribute to Ferlinghetti; it was a rich, lovely tribute both to Ferlinghetti and to the appeal and joy of poetry. How he can consistently write so well, always with fresh and engaging and thought-provoking ideas and expressions, day after day (now four days a week, down from when he used to write five days a week) is amazing to me. In 2008, Carroll was given the prestigious Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award, an award given annually by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Thank you, Jon Carroll, for your wonderful columns over all these years, and may there be many, many more.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

On Reading Book Reviews

I have written before about the many periodicals I read, and especially the book reviews I devour. I want to focus again here on how I relish magazines whose purpose is to write about books, and other magazines that include book reviews. In the former category, I subscribe to and read The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, the San Francisco Chronicle Books Section, The Women’s Review of Books, and the London Review of Books. I also read the book reviews in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Nation, The Progressive, Ms. Magazine, Vanity Fair, and occasionally other magazines. I thoroughly enjoy reading these. First and foremost, I learn about the newest books and get ideas about what to read next. Second, I learn about books that I don’t necessarily want to read myself, but I want to know something about. Third, I learn interesting things from the non-book-review sections of book review publications, such as the columns by authors, the debates, the bestseller lists, and other accompanying material; examples include The New York Times Book Review’s “Open Book,” “TBR: Inside the List,” “By the Book,” and “Bookends” columns. Fourth, and this is something more amorphous but important to me: Reading these publications and reviews makes me feel connected to the world of literature.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

"The Unspeakable," by Meghan Daum

Meghan Daum’s personal essays are certainly attention-grabbing, compelling, original, and hard to put down. In her second collection of essays, “The Unspeakable: and Other Subjects of Discussion” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), she writes about her fraught relationship with her mother, her mother’s deathbed, her waiting until her late thirties to marry, her decision not to have children, her great love of dogs and especially her late dog Rex, her love of lesbians, a sudden and potentially catastrophic illness that she miraculously recovered from, her love of Los Angeles after years living elsewhere and finally settling in L.A., and why she is not a foodie, among other topics. She writes with a directness and candidness that is at times breathtaking, yet does not seem to be writing to shock. She is also matter of fact and does not seem to be attempting to manipulate her readers emotionally. Being an essayist of this talent is no easy thing; I think that people like me who value fiction above all sometimes forget how hard it is to write good essays, and how rewarding it is to read such essays. I should know this (the part about its being hard) as my academic writing has increasingly taken on essayistic qualities. I do not mean -- at all! -- to compare myself to gifted and well known essayists such as Daum, but simply to say that this is a topic I have thought a lot about, and has been part of forming my own practice of writing. But back to Daum’s book: If you want a bracing read, one that is almost exhilarating for the surprises and for the tone, I think you will very much like “The Unspeakable.”

Sunday, March 1, 2015

"Family Life," by Akhil Sharma

Akhil Sharma’s novel, “Family Life” (Norton, 2014), is both heartbreaking and life-affirming. I know that sounds corny and trite, but it does in fact encapsulate the feelings the novel engenders. It is a short novel that seems to be several different novels in one: an illness narrative, a family story, an immigrant experience, and – perhaps most of all – a classic-but-very-individual bildungsroman. The narrator and main character, Ajay, and his family are Indians who move to the United States in 1978, when Ajay is eight years old. The dramatic center of the story is the diving accident and ensuing brain damage that befalls Ajay’s older brother, Birju, a brilliant student who had just been accepted into a prestigious high school in New York City. Birju is ever after bedbound, blind, and does not speak or understand others' speaking; he needs round-the-clock care in every aspect of his life. After that, the family’s life revolves around taking care of Birju, first in the hospital and nursing home, and then -- for the rest of the years covered in the novel and into the future -- at home. This accident is, obviously, devastating, and changes the family’s life forever. Ajay and his father and mother all take part in Birju's care, with help from nursing assistants. Ajay’s father starts drinking far too much, and his mother becomes angry much of the time. The family is alternately supported by the Indian community and shunned; they are supported when the accident happens, shunned when the alcoholism is discovered. They are also visited at various times as a cautionary story for families' children, as a model of family love, and -- since Ajay is an excellent student -- as inspiration or motivation to other children. Much of the story revolves around which parts of the family’s lives are public and which are private, even secret, and on what happens when secrets are exposed. Meanwhile, the novel is, as I mentioned, a coming-of-age story; throughout everything that happens to the family, Ajay is going to school, doing well academically, being bullied at times, experiencing racism, sitting at the “Indian table” in the cafeteria at lunch time, having a sweet relationship with his girlfriend Minakshi, and, eventually, going to an Ivy League college and having a successful career. Throughout, he is both loyal to his brother and family and sometimes resentful of how Birju’s need for constant care, and his total unresponsiveness, take over the family's time and attention. Then he feels guilty about his feelings. But Ajay is a good son, almost always. The question is whether he will allow himself to be happy despite the central event of his and his family’s life, the event that shadows and shapes everything else. The ending of the novel is ambiguous on this point. I hope this description of the novel is not too depressing and does not discourage readers. As I said earlier, the book is also life-affirming, in that it shows the strength of the family despite everything, and it shows how a child can grow and thrive despite everything (albeit with a shadow that will always be present to some extent). There is even some gentle humor regarding Ajay’s adolescent years, and regarding the Indian community. Now I am going to add something that I usually don't write about here: the fact that this novel is an autobiographical one. Sharma has spoken openly about this in published interviews, and dedicates his book to his wife, his parents and "my poor brother Anup Sharma." He says in the acknowledgements and elsewhere that it took him 12 years to write this novel; one can only imagine how hard it must have been to turn this tragic yet not-only-tragic story into fiction. His brother died three years ago, 30 years after his accident.
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