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.
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