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.
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