Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"Happy are the Happy," by Yasmina Reza

Yasmina Reza, best known as an award-winning playwright, has written a jumpy, nervous, fascinating “novel,” “Happy are the Happy” (Other Press, 2013, translated from the French by John Cullen.) I put the word “novel” in quotation marks, because although it is labeled as such, this book contains twenty short chapters with shared characters, forming something between a short story collection and a novel. The title comes from Borges’ poem about love (“Happy are those/who are beloved/and those who love/and those who can/do without love./Happy are the happy.”). Certain things about the structure of the book feel just slightly gimmicky, such as the fact that each chapter is one unbroken piece of prose, with no separate paragraphs. But the reader’s experience of diving right into the consciousness of each character, and seeing the same events and experiences from the characters’ various perspectives, provide a kind of delicious (although sometimes painful) immersion in the lives of these prosperous Parisians of the intellectual class. The characters do not always behave well, but on the whole are good people, trying to find their way in life. All the classic subjects (and, as regular readers of this blog know, the topics I love so well) are present: love, sex, families, work, illness, despair, redemption, death, and more. Yet in a way these chapters, this book, are not “about” experiences as much as about painting pictures of lives in exquisite detail. The writing is gorgeous. The translator as well as the author deserve credit for that beauty.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Not Happy with Alexander McCall Smith's "Emma"

The newest book in the Austen Project, which has contemporary writers writing modern versions of Jane Austen’s six completed novels (see my post of 7/6/14 about this project) is Alexander McCall Smith’s version of “Emma,” subtitled “A Modern Retelling” (Pantheon, 2014). I never in a million years would have thought of McCall Smith (author of the bestselling “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective” series, among many other very popular books) for this task. It is true that Emma is a sassy, irrepressible character, like some of McCall Smith’s. But really??? However, of course I had to read it, despite these doubts and reservations. And it is a fun read, faithful to the bones of the plot of the original. But it just doesn’t ring true to me, even allowing for the change of time period. For one thing, too many of the characters sound too different – not just more modern, but essentially different. The style is too casual. The match between the writer and the assignment is just not a good one, in my opinion. For Austen devotees, it will be hard to resist reading the book, but I predict rather profound disappointment on the part of most readers. (A coincidental postscript: After I drafted this post and before I posted it, I was making small talk with another juror at the lunch break of a trial I served at, we somehow started talking about this project, and this juror spontaneously offered a very negative assessment of this McCall Smith version of “Emma,” confirming my own reaction.)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

"A Small Indiscretion," by Jan Ellison

Jan Ellison’s novel “A Small Indiscretion” (Random House, 2014) has a teasing, seductive title, and that title sets the tone for the novel. In this book, her first, Ellison writes what qualifies as a literary novel, but with large portions of mystery, even thriller-like structure and plot developments. The novel alternates between the main character Annie Black’s adventures as an American girl in London twenty-plus years ago, replete with adventure, intrigue, secrecy, and of course sex and drinking, on the one hand, and Annie’s present-day life as a married mother of three living in San Francisco, California, on the other. One day a photo arrives in the mail, a sort of intrusion from her London past, reminding her of a lost love, precipitating a new trip to London, and setting off a chain of events that threatens her marriage and family. The story is well constructed, and although at times the quick cuts back and forth between the past and present are too jumpy for my this reader’s comfort, we readers are kept wanting to keep reading. As for the mystery part, I guessed about halfway through what some of the secrets were, but that did not stop me from eagerly reading to the end. The novel is an intriguing blend of romance, adventure, family story, mystery, and drama. For me the story was enhanced by both the San Francisco (and environs) and London settings, with a side trip to Paris for good measure. And if some of the character development is a little thin, and at least one character is a bit “over the top” (the intense but elusive London lover/artist Patrick), one finds oneself (OK, I found myself) not caring about such small details in the midst of the breathless forward movement of the story. For a “good read” with literary qualifications (and isn’t that a perfect combination?), I recommend “A Small Indiscretion.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"After Birth," by Elisa Gilbert

Elisa Gilbert’s main character Ari, in the novel “After Birth” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), is not only not afraid to speak her mind, but seems unable not to do so, strongly, harshly at times, compulsively, emotionally, and with little filter. She has recently given birth by Caesarean section, and feels traumatized and angry about the experience, about the way medicine treats pregnancy and childbirth, and about the fact that no one warned her what the whole experience would be like. Ari lives in a small upstate New York town where her husband teaches at a local college, and where she is supposedly working on her doctoral dissertation in Women’s Studies, but where she has in fact not been able to do anything since her baby boy’s birth. Although she loves her baby, Walker, deeply, and is learning to love him more as he gets older, she is overwhelmed not only by the birth experience but by the complete change in her life, and by her inability to do much more than just survive each day. She is lonely; her mother died when she was young and was not a good mother anyway, she has no sisters, and she has made but almost always somehow lost many friends over the years. Her husband Paul is a good man, supportive and loving, but doesn’t really understand what Ari is going through. A major plot strand is that Ari meets a former musician, Mina, who has given birth even more recently, and they form a bond that helps them both during this difficult time. This novel could have become merely a blast against the medical establishment and against the way motherhood is in the U.S. today, and that is certainly a big part of the message. And it is an important message. Because childbirth and motherhood is definitely a strange new land, one that no woman can be really prepared for. And it is true that the hard parts, the sleeplessness, the postpartum depression, the overwhelmingness of it all, are rarely talked about or written about. (Of course not all women suffer all of these, or at least not as intensely as Ari does, but many do.) So Albert has done a good thing with this impassioned explosion of a novel. But if that were all, it might be more message than literature. Fortunately, despite the cry of anger and desperation that forms so much of the novel, it also features realistic and compelling characters and situations, and growth on the part of the main character. Further, the writing is self-aware, even witty.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Long Hours of Reading While Ill

I recently came back from three weeks of travel, mainly for conferences but also to visit a good friend (thus the paucity of posts here during that time). I had a wonderful time in three different cities out east. Along the way (perhaps on one of those airplanes full of coughing people?), I picked up an illness, the main symptoms of which were a very bad cough and extreme fatigue. I have been back just over a week, and have been gradually recovering, but only yesterday did I feel close to normal again. What does this have to do with books and reading? Well, once I had acknowledged that there was no way I was going to get any work done, beyond responding to emails and a few basic errands and chores (and, yes, a couple of posts on this blog!) (and fortunately I am on sabbatical so didn’t have to arrange coverage for classes), I realized that the only upside to illness (and I rarely get sick, so had forgotten this) is that the one thing I still feel like doing when sick is – of course! – reading. Fortunately I had a newly acquired pile of novels and short story collections available, and so I dived in. Of course I sometimes dozed off while reading, and sometimes didn’t even have the energy to read at all. But I did read for many hours over the past week, finishing several books, (mostly) without the slight guilt I sometimes feel when I read for hours, feeling I “should” be doing something else – writing, other work commitments, housework, correspondence, exercise, errands, etc. I will post on those books in the next few days. I’m very glad to be feeling much better, but slightly sad to leave that other world, the world where (debilitating but temporary) illness takes over and normal work goes by the wayside, the world of long days of getting lost in wonderful fiction.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

"Man at the Helm," by Nina Stibbe

I so enjoyed English writer Nina Stibbe’s memoir, “Love Nina: A Nanny Writes Home” (which I posted about on 6/22/14) that when I saw Stibbe had published a novel, I had to read it. “Man at the Helm” (Little, Brown, 2014) has the same whimsical, slightly eccentric, and utterly engaging tone as the memoir. At first it seems to be a bit of a slight confection, airy and fun and witty, but not with much depth. But underneath the whimsy are some serious reflections on family, especially dysfunctional although loving families, and all the ways that things can go wrong – and sometimes right. The story is narrated by a precocious (in a good way) nine-year-old, Lizzie Vogel. She lives with her parents, her older sister, and her younger brother. When her father leaves the family, there are suddenly a lot of changes to absorb: not only seldom seeing the father, but moving to a village where (this is in the early 1970s) the villagers disapprove of and dislike the family, because they don’t believe in divorce, and they don’t like anyone “different.” The family is remarkably close, but the children, especially the two girls, are constantly worried about their mother, who more or less falls apart after the divorce and move, drinking too much, taking pills, and writing little playlets about her situation. The two girls scheme to bring a new man into their mother’s life, surmising that their family will be better off and more approved if there is a “man at the helm” (thus the title). Their machinations are charming and their knowledge is both incomplete and a bit scarily advanced. Some of their efforts backfire, in one case seriously. Yet there is hope as well. Stibbe hits the right notes: the children are charming and clever but not cloying or unrealistic. We care about the family, and we are entertained by their plans and manipulations, but these plans are also a little heartbreaking. Stibbe’s authorial voice is original and captivating. I look forward to her future books.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Thoughts on Writers Now Seldom Read -- Bellow, Stafford, and More

Today I have been thinking about the rather melancholy topic of famous writers who are now seldom read, either because their reputations have been re-evaluated, or because they have somehow simply slipped out of fashion. I was reminded of this subject when I read an essay by Lee Siegal in the March 23-April 5, 2015 issue of New York on two biographies of Saul Bellow. Siegal used the review as an occasion to note that ”many people under the age of 50 have barely heard of Bellow, if at all,” and to ponder why and how Nobel Prize-winning Bellow’s reputation seems to have slipped. Some say it is because his persona has been revealed to be cantankerous, or, worse, because his views on gender and race appear to have been very backward. Siegal also speculates that “Bellow’s fiction turned off readers and writers suspicious of intellectual abstractions and doubtful of the authority behind them.” Yet the reviewer remembers a time when Bellow’s fiction was extremely important to him, and he can’t forget that. I have written here (4/27/10) about my own extensive reading of and (very slight) connection with Bellow: I read and connected to his fiction in my early 20s, and met him briefly in my 30s, but never really read him after that. Just as I was thinking about the case of Bellow, I read a poem by Craig Morton Teicher in the Spring 2015 issue of The Paris Review, titled “Book Review: ‘The Mountain Lion’ by Jean Stafford.” The poet mourns that Stafford, a writer he ardently admires, is no longer read. He writes: “No one reads Stafford anymore – I asked/on Facebook. Stafford died, her/legacy gently dispatched/into the low air. O, life/is terrible, literature/ridiculous. Stafford’s prose,/teaming and rich as loam,/could take Jonathan Franzen’s/for a walk, feed it biscuits./But who cares? Who remembers?” What a powerful and sad (and witty! I like the parts about Facebook and about Franzen…) tribute! The sad fact, in the cases of Bellow and Stafford and so many other authors, is that time moves on, new authors are born and write and come into favor and displace the old, all except for the very few at the very top. And even “the very top” means little except perhaps that they have survived, and thus the argument becomes circular: the best survive because they are the best, and we know they are the best because they survive? And yet, and yet…during the period of decreasing readership for any given author, there are readers who do remember, and who are grateful for what they have experienced in reading these once well-known writers. Surely these authors' writings leave a trace for a long time. And their books are still in libraries and bookshops, waiting for at least a few new readers to discover them. So yes, this is a melancholy topic, and yet I can’t accept that any good writer’s work is wasted, gone completely. Somewhere, somehow, their influence must linger.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Author Gives to School Libraries

Despite the dreams of many young would-be authors, the vast majority of writers don’t make huge amounts of money. Even well recognized writers generally have other jobs such as teaching. But there are those few who are always on the bestseller list and make very good money. It is gratifying to hear that one of these, James Patterson, who has already given more than $1 million to help independent bookstores, is now starting an initiative to provide funds for books and other needs at school libraries. He has committed $1.25 million to the project. According to the San Francisco Chronicle (3/11/15), Patterson, who has strong memories of his weekly visits to libraries as a child, said that he "wanted to ‘shine a light’ on the problem of public schools with no libraries or underfunded libraries.” The Chronicle notes that in 2111-12, more than 8,000 public schools in the U.S. did not have libraries. Patterson is known as a philanthropist, focusing on book-related organizations and prizes. I know there are other authors as well who donate their money and/or time and expertise to reading-related causes, and I am grateful to them.
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