Monday, June 29, 2015

"Adult Onset," by Ann-Marie MacDonald

My late friend and fellow voracious reader, C., told me a few years ago about the Canadian author Ann-Marie MacDonald. (I’m the former Canadian, but she had worked in Canada for some years.) I am always glad to know about Canadian writers, as they do not get enough press in the U.S., unless their names are Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood (both of whose work I love and am in awe of). I then read MacDonald’s novel “Fall on Your Knees” and was very impressed. Now I have read her latest novel, “Adult Onset” (Tin House Books, 2014), and my positive impression of her writing has been reinforced. At first, it seems that this may be a typical “woman’s novel” in that it focuses on the overwhelmed and sometimes desperate feelings of a stay-at-home mother who is used to being a career woman. It is a little different from the usual such novel in that the main character, Mary Rose MacKinnon (note the similarity to the author’s own name) is married to a woman, Hilary. But being a lesbian mom is of course in most ways very similar to being a “straight” mom, when it comes to the day-to-day life of mothering small children full time. (I have to mention here that I am very pleased to post about this fictional married lesbian couple in Canada, just three days after the historic United States Supreme Court decision making same sex marriage legal throughout the United States. Hurray for marriage equality!). Mary Rose is an author, but has very little time or energy to write any more, especially since Hilary is often away for her work in theater. But this novel goes beyond the usual “mom” novel in its exploration of the many psychological forces Mary Rose is dealing with, and at times we worry about her psychological balance and safety. The novel alternates between feeling like a lot is going on and then that – excruciatingly – almost nothing happens some days and weeks. Just like real life, in other words. The writing in this novel is crisp, pointed, and vivid. I hope that Ann-Marie MacDonald and her writing will become increasingly recognized in the U.S. as it is already in Canada.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

"A View of the Harbor," by Elizabeth Taylor

Another Virago book! Last time (6/25/15) I wrote about Polly Samson’s book “Perfect Lives” and mentioned that it was published by the venerable and revered (by me among others) feminist publisher Virago. By chance, the next book I read, Elizabeth Taylor’s novel “A View of the Harbor” (originally published 1947, republished by Virago in 1987) was from the same press. The Samson book was an example of a contemporary Virago book; Taylor’s book is an example of the Virago’s important work republishing (rescuing) books from the past by excellent women writers. The paperback I just read has a 2005 introduction by the author Sarah Waters, in which she praises Elizabeth Taylor, and says that ironically the author’s sharing a name with the famous movie star may have hurt the author’s reputation and the longevity, of lack thereof, of her work. I have long admired this author’s work, having read (and in some cases re-read) at various times many of her 17 works of fiction (twelve novels and five short story collections). This one, “A View of the Harbor,” takes a classic situation of a small community -- really mainly the occupants of one short street -- in a small town and explores each character, and the characters’ relationships, in detail. The inevitable comparison is with the novels of Jane Austen and of Elizabeth Gaskell. Taylor’s work is deceptively quiet and very insightful. Yes, there are events in the novel, but “what happens” is secondary to the depictions of the characters and their interactions. The main characters are two long time friends, Tory and Beth, who live next door to each other. Beth, a novelist, lives with her husband Robert, a doctor; her 19-year-old rather odd and disaffected daughter Prudence; and her six-year-old rather spoiled daughter Stevie. Tory lives alone, after her divorce from Teddy; her young son Edward is away at boarding school. Down the street are the disabled, gossip-hungry Mrs. Bracey, who is rather a tyrant to her two adult daughters, Iris and Maisie; another neighbor is the widowed Lily, living above and haunted by her family business, a wax museum. Then there is the new man in town – also a classic character in that he is interested in and makes friends with everyone, thus being a good device for revealing their traits and doings. He is Bertram, a suave and basically kind man of about 60 who flirts and connects, but has always avoided commitment in the past; questions in the novel include whether he will continue to do so, and if not, which of the available women he will become seriously involved with. One of the earlier mentioned characters is -- although so beautiful and elegant -- a study in selfishness, carelessness, and callousness; she is perhaps the most interesting character in the novel. The setting itself is of interest; the area of the harbor written about has seen better times, with more summer visitors, but now is somewhat neglected and decayed, as the action has moved to a newer area of town. The time is just post-World War II, so there is a lingering sense of deprivation; some food is still rationed, for example. Taylor also, through discussion of the novel-writing character Beth, slips in some meta-musing on the experiences of writing fiction; Beth sometimes wonders if her writing is really worthwhile, and if it will last, but feels she cannot stop writing, as writing is life itself to her. Readers cannot help but conclude that these thoughts echo those of the author herself. Taylor’s books are dramatic in a low key; her observations and insights are thoughtful and ring true. I recommend them highly, especially if you already appreciate fiction by two other novelist Elizabeths with whom she shares some aspects of sensibility: Elizabeth Bowen and Elizabeth Jane Howard. (One note: Perhaps some readers will remember the 2005 filmed version of Taylor’s novel “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont”; it was a beautifully directed and acted film, starring Joan Plowright and Rupert Friend, and well worth viewing.)

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"Perfect Lives," by Polly Samson

I had never heard of the British novelist and short story writer, Polly Samson, but recently read a review of her new novel, “Kindness.” That novel is not yet at my local library, but I decided to sample one of her other books, “Perfect Lives” (Virago Press, 2010), a collection of short stories. I thought if I liked it, I would make the effort to find the new novel, and if not, not. Well, this is one of those cases where I am just on the line between yes and no. I enjoyed the stories, and they address some of the big issues – love, family, relationships – and some of the small events of everyday life – that I like reading about. But they seemed a bit “light”; they just didn’t have the substance I prefer. So I haven’t decided yet whether to pursue reading her new book, and perhaps her earlier books. A side note of interest: Samson is married to Pink Floyd member David Gilmour, and has been a co-writer of some of his, and Pink Floyd’s, songs. (My husband and I were great fans of Pink Floyd in the “early years” – theirs and ours!) Another side note, of even more interest to me, is that this book is published by Virago Press, the great feminist British publisher that rediscovered and published many “lost” (or at least badly neglected) women’s writings back in the 1970s and onward. It has undergone various changes in ownership and management, but is still proudly feminist and still publishes work by women and occasionally by male authors writing about feminist or female-related themes. I still remember reading some of the earliest Virago titles in the 1970s and being so grateful to the press for resuscitating and preserving some great writing by women. They included titles by Vera Brittain (whose “Testament of Youth” is now out as a film, one which I saw last week and highly recommend), Antonia White, Christina Stead, Dorothy Richardson, Winnifred Holtby, and many others. As a bonus, and a kind of statement of the value of these books, they were and are beautifully produced, with gorgeous covers.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

"Our Souls at Night," by Kent Haruf

I was very sad to hear of author Kent Haruf’s death in November 2014 (see my post of 12/4/14). But I was happy to hear that we loyal readers would have one more chance to enter his world, mostly situated in the town of Holt, Colorado, through his posthumously published last novel, completed shortly before his death, “Our Souls at Night” (Knopf, 2015). This is a short novel, one that I read in maybe two hours, but it is a deeply humane and deeply satisfying one. As with his other novels, including “Benediction,” which I wrote about here on 1/1/14, it is deceptively simple, with a beguilingly original premise. Addie, a woman of about 70, visits her neighbor Louis, a man of the same age. Both are widowed. She makes the proposal that he come to her house every night and sleep and talk with her. She is not suggesting a sexual relationship (although sex ultimately enters the picture) but would like the warmth and connection provided by sleeping and conversing together. He is surprised; although they have both lived in the small town of Holt for a long time, and of course know each other, they haven’t been particularly close before. But he is also lonely, and agrees. They carry out the plan, and develop a close, supportive and happy relationship. They ignore some judgmental town gossip about their relationship, and soon it becomes unimportant; some people even quietly support and even envy them. Both their lives open up to more human connection and some mild adventures (trips, picnics and other outings together). In particular, when Addie’s grandchild Jamie comes to stay with her, the three of them – Addie, Louis, and Jamie – develop a close relationship. Unfortunately Addie’s somewhat troubled adult son Gene (father of Jamie) can’t accept her relationship with Louis, and so their relationship is threatened. This novel provides a sensitive treatment of age, loneliness, the importance of human connections, and the complications of family relationships. I won’t, of course, reveal the ending, but will reveal that it is bittersweet. When I closed the book, I again mourned the loss of author Kent Haruf at the age of only 71, and the loss of the possibility of more of his quietly insightful and beautifully written novels. Words like “shy,” “humble,” “muted,” and “tender” are used about the author and his writing; I agree, but hope that such adjectives do not cause potential readers to underestimate or dismiss this gifted writer. To anyone who has not yet discovered this author, I suggest starting with his 1999 “breakthrough” bestseller novel, “Plainsong,” continuing with “Eventide,” “Benediction,” and then “Our Souls at Night.” Or if you like the above description of “Our Souls at Night,” start with that, and I am pretty sure you will want to go back and read all his novels, including the two that preceded “Plainsong.” In any case, I urge you to read this wonderful writer if you haven’t already.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Resurgence of Independent Bookstores!

Despite fears about the disappearance of independent bookstores, the number of such bookstores is actually growing! Hurray! Although the numbers are still way down from a quarter century ago, they have recently been making a comeback. A 5/27/15 San Francisco Chronicle article notes that there were 5,000 members of the American Booksellers Association 25 years ago, the numbers went down to 1,401 in 2009, but are now up to 1,752. The head of the association speculates that reasons for the “revival” of independents include the closing of Borders; the leveling out of book e-sales (“print books have remained the primary medium”); the “buy local” movement; and the passing of ownership of many stores to younger ones with “a whole new sense of energy – they’re more tech savvy and sophisticated. Their energy is contagious.” (I’m not sure about how I feel about this last reason listed;it seems to imply a slight denigration of older owners, but I won’t cavil too much in view of the overall good news.) Let's all remind ourselves of the pleasures of wonderful independent bookstores, get to our local ones more frequently, and buy more books there!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

"God Help the Child," by Toni Morrison

I hesitate to even try to “review” a book by the justly revered Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison. I have read most of her novels, some more than once, and have taught her work as well. So here I will just jot down a few notes about her new novel “God Help the Child” (Knopf, 2015), rather than evaluating it. This is a powerful novel about race, color, parenting, and relationships, among other topics. One central focus is the prejudice, even among some African Americans, against those whose skin is very dark (which is why I listed race and color separately in the last sentence). The main character, Bride (who chose this name for herself as an adult, jettisoning her birth name of Lula Ann) is born very dark black. Her mother, Sweetness, and her father, Louis, are both light-skinned blacks, and can’t accept the child’s color. Louis is suspicious that Sweetness must have had an affair, and leaves the family; there is no further mention of him in the novel. Sweetness can never bring herself to love her child, treats her very strictly, and almost never touches her. Lula Ann, soon to be Bride, feels unloved, leaves home as soon as possible, and makes her own way in life, becoming a successful businesswoman and communicating with her mother only rarely, although she does send her money. But the emotional scars and insecurities persist. So the second focus of the novel is on the longterm effects of the way parents treat their children. There are other topics: sexual abuse, lies, the fragility of connections in Bride’s relationships, and more. The writing, as always with Morrison, is beautiful, original and moving. In Bride, Morrison has created a vivid and compelling character, although one with mysterious aspects and a certain unknowability. One matter of note is that this novel does not feature the supernatural, mythical, magical aspects that are so prominent in many of Morrison’s earlier novels; this is neither a good or bad thing, just different. Although this novel is short (178 smallish pages), there is a lot of “story” and emotion, and much to think about and react to, packed into those pages. I am glad I read it.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Books and Transgender

There is increasing attention in the media to the transgender community and to transgender individuals; examples include such television shows as “Orange is the New Black” and “Transparent,” and most recently the publicity about -- and Vanity Fair cover and article about -- Caitlyn Jenner, formerly the famous Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner. This is a welcome development, but much more education and support is needed on this topic. I was pleased to see (in a New York Times article published in the San Francisco Chronicle on 6/7/15) that there are now a few children’s books on this topic. Until very recently, this was extremely rare, “the last taboo” according to the article, but now there have been several memoirs, self-help books, and novels. This year, according to the article, “children’s publishers are releasing around half a dozen novels…that star transgender children and teenagers.” As an example of how important such books can be, the article tells the story of Sam Martin, who 23 years ago was browsing in a bookstore and ran across portraits and interviews of transgender men. Martin started crying; “I thought, my God, I’m not the only one...When I was growing up, I never saw people like me in movies or books.” Soon after, Martin started transitioning from female to male, and now has written a story about a transgender teenage boy. To me, this is yet another powerful example of the power and necessity of books that portray the full range of the variety of human lives and experiences.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Literary Finds While Traveling

A dedicated reader will often find literature-related materials and experiences when she travels, whether they be unique and charming bookstores, libraries, museum exhibits, or public monuments. All of these are enjoyable to find (sometimes intentionally and sometimes serendipitously), and also give the traveler a sense of how a city or country values and honors literature in general and its own writers in particular. I wrote about this (6/28/14) after my Scandinavian trip last June, citing tributes to Henrik Ibsen and Hans Christian Andersen. On a trip to the Netherlands and Scotland last month, I explored several bookstores, the best of which I stumbled across in the beautiful and historic university town of St. Andrews, Scotland; there I spent a happy interval in the wonderful Topping and Company Booksellers. When I was in Edinburgh, Scotland, I noted the frequent mentions of Scotland's native son authors Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The most prominent example of this was the imposing statue of Sir Walter Scott, surrounded by a huge, tall, elegant monument, in a very central location of the city. It makes me happy to see evidence of a city’s pride in its literary figures, and especially to see such an author’s being given such a place of pride in its most visited landscape.

Monday, June 8, 2015

"A God in Ruins," by Kate Atkinson

I wrote here (6/1/15) about the “undemanding” novels I read on my very recent trip to Europe. They were perfect for my travels. But what a contrast, shock, and pleasure it was, one I experienced almost viscerally, to read, on my return, a truly masterful novel by a masterful writer, Kate Atkinson. (As an aside, I do wish the term “masterful” were not so male, but it seems appropriate here.) The novel, “A God in Ruins” (Little, Brown, 2015), is a companion novel to the wonderful “Life After Life” (see my post of 8/6/13). The focus of each is the lives of the members of the Todd family before, during (especially), and after World War II in England. In the earlier novel, Ursula Todd was the main character; in this one, her younger brother Teddy is the focus. As the author states in her afterword, she chose to write in the first novel about the London Blitz, and in the second one about the “strategic bombing campaign against Germany.” As Teddy is a military pilot during the war, there is in fact quite a bit about the latter, including some very up-close, detailed, harrowing descriptions, in “A God in Ruins.” Readers are not spared the horrors of war; we also see the bravery of many soldiers. The author captures the intensity of wartime for all involved, but also the dailyness, and the sense that people have only the present to be sure of. But the book is about much more as well, as it portrays the larger context of the “before” and the “after” of the war. As in the earlier novel, the chapters go back and forth in time, with the years listed at the beginning of each chapter. We follow Teddy’s, and his family members’, lives over about a hundred years. Teddy comes from a large, basically loving but sometimes contentious and overwhelming family; his future wife is the “girl next door.” We learn about his parents, his siblings, his wife, his child, his grandchildren, and his crew members on the fighter planes, along with many other characters. Family relationships are described with clear eyes; for example, some of the characters love their families but don’t want to spend much time with them. The author is a sharp observer, and some of the characters are portrayed in all their weaknesses; for example, some of the mothers are not very maternal, although loving in their own ways. Yet there is almost always understanding of, even kindness toward, all but the worst of the characters. The complex character of Teddy is especially beautifully delineated. The novel is, among other things, an exploration of the nature of love, loyalty, family, hopes, dreams, reality, and of what is truly worthwhile in life. The writing is crisp, and the author is in complete control of her material. And although Teddy doesn’t keep dying and coming back to life, as Ursula did in the earlier novel, the author has some surprises and twists, including a very significant one, for us in this novel as well. “A God in Ruins” absorbed me so much that for a couple of days I was caught up in this 450-page novel, neglecting other things I should have been doing (with the faint excuse of a mild cold I am trying to get over). When I finished, I felt dazed, as if re-entering my own real world with difficulty and reluctance. I am in awe of the writing in "A God in Ruins" and of the Atkinson’s creation of a world so alive, so compelling.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Flannery O'Connor Stamp

Today the United States Postal Service is issuing a stamp portraying and honoring the great Southern writer Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). This 93-cent stamp is part of the Literary Arts series. The picture on the stamp is a painted version of a photograph from O’Connor’s college days, surrounded by peacock feathers signifying her life on her Georgia family farm. The picture has been criticized by some as leaving off her “trademark” eyeglasses and of not conveying her persona as the author of strong, dark, “Southern Gothic” fiction. In any case, glasses or not, I am happy to see this unique writer honored. She was the author of several striking and memorable books, including the novels “Wise Blood” and “The Violent Bear It Away” and the short story collections “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Unfortunately she died at the age of 39 of lupus; one can’t help imagining how much more of her powerful, thought-provoking, and disturbing fiction she would have produced if she had lived longer. A devout Catholic who studied both in Georgia and at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, who lived in New York for a while before she became ill, and who knew many of the prominent American writers of her day, she explored moral issues in ways that were blunt, often violent, and shocking to readers. Biographer Brad Gooch wrote that “O’Connor said that modern writers must often tell ‘perverse’ stories to ‘shock’ a morally blind world.” During my college years and after, I read all of her major work, and I still remember how unusual, how vivid, and how unexpected her harsh portrayals of evil and of struggles with evil were. They seemed so incompatible with the persona of the author, as she looked and was written about, and yet that seeming mismatch was a lesson in itself. When I re-read her work a bit later, I always hoped (in a cowardly way) that somehow the endings would not be as brutal as they were the first time, but there was no mercy on O’Connor’s part. I hope that readers still read her work, and I hope that this stamp will in a small way remind the world of her pathbreaking, heartbreaking writing that doesn’t let readers -- or the human race -- off the hook, ever.

Monday, June 1, 2015

On Perfectly Undemanding Novels for my Travels

I just returned from a two-week trip to the Netherlands and Scotland; I had a wonderful time there. Of course an important question for me was what to read on the trip, especially on those very long flights back and forth. I packed some unread magazines from my pile at home, along with a couple of novels I had picked up recently (“The Submission,” by Amy Waldman, and “The Archivist,” by Martha Cooley, both of which were quite good). But I didn’t want my reading material to take too much space in my bag (I know, I know, I should have an e-reader, but I just haven’t gotten to that step yet…I am obviously still resisting on some level). So I needed to buy some books along the way, in airports and bookstores. (When I finish a book while traveling, I just leave it on the airplane or at the hotel, and replenish my supply, always making sure to have enough reading material in reserve at any given time….) I realized that for my travels I wanted books that were interesting, enjoyable, well written, but not too demanding. Travel is wonderful but tiring, and for me it is usually not the time to read a “heavy” or very literary book. These are the books – all novels, all fitting the above requirements – that I bought and read: “The One and Only,” by Emily Giffin; “The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year,” by Sue Townsend; “As Good as it Gets,” by Fiona Gibson; “Saving Grace,” by Jane Green; and “The Husband’s Secret,” by Liane Moriarty. All the authors are women (some American, some British), all the books are in paperback, and all of them fall under the general category of domestic drama. Most are told from the point of view of a middle- or upper-class woman -- either in the USA or in England, or sometimes going back and forth -- who is struggling in some way, generally either with her marriage or job or children or elderly parents or general ennui, or some combination of the above. Marriage is the most common focus; most of the characters felt that something had gone wrong with their once strong and happy marriages, but weren’t quite sure if they were correct, or what exactly was wrong, or what to do about it. Each novel had its own twists, of course, and in some ways they were quite different, but I was surprised by the way I ended up -- without planning to -- choosing five novels so similar in genre and type. As readers of this blog know, my usual reading is much more varied, and in general more “literary,” with occasional exceptions for “beach books” and such. I have written here about “middlebrow” novels (2/8/10) and I think the novels I read on my trip more or less, or almost, belong in that category. I enjoyed all of these novels thoroughly, and they were perfect for my trip. I give much credit to the very skilled writers who gave me the pleasure provided by these enjoyable and even sometimes thought-provoking but not overly demanding novels.
Site Meter