Wednesday, October 28, 2015

"Fates and Furies," by Lauren Groff

Fierce! That is the word I thought of when reading, and especially when finishing, Lauren Groff’s novel about a marriage, “Fates and Furies” (Riverhead, 2015). Even the title sounds fierce, doesn’t it? And of course mythic. The marriage is that of Lotto, a renowned playwright, and Mathilde, who both supports him and needs her own identity. They have an extraordinary, and extraordinarily intense, connection. The first half of the novel, “Fates,” describes the beginnings of their love affair and then their marriage and life together, mostly from the point of view of Lotto. The second half, “Furies,” focuses on Mathilde’s experiences and perceptions. Lotto tends to have a positive if somewhat fatalistic view of life, and is happy to benefit from Mathilde’s fierce contending with life on his behalf. Mathilde herself, we find out in the second section, has her own “furies” against the unfairness of life, and against, at times, Lotto’s serene acceptance of fate and his taking for granted of her (Mathilde’s) constant fighting and advocacy for him and his career. Mathilde, in other words, is not always or completely the loving and supportive wife (artistic version) that she appears. Is this good or bad? This is actually an irrelevant question; the description is exactly that: description. Neither character is clearly right or wrong, good or bad, but this novel looks way beyond such categories. Of course feminist readers, myself included, will interpret the story of this marriage, and in particular of Mathilde’s blend of love, work, and fury, through a feminist lens. One thing that slightly bothered me was the assumption, and frequent reiteration, that these two characters are unique, special, extraordinary; readers are supposed to take this on faith. However, this novel is certainly compelling, although sometimes uncomfortable and even unsettling, with its aspects of love, passion, art, success, failure, competition, secrets, betrayal, and more. The portrayal of the world of art and literature is part of the draw of this novel. Most important, perhaps: The writing is powerful, and at times surprising, which is a wonderful quality in fiction.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

"Between the World and Me," by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Please read this book! “Between the World and Me” (Spiegel & Grau, 2015) is Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ powerful, wrenching, heartbreaking letter to his fifteen-year-old son about race in America, and specifically about the lives of black Americans. There is a strong element of memoir, as Coates writes of his own poor and sometimes frightening childhood in Baltimore, of his years at Howard University (which he calls his “Mecca”), of his becoming a great reader and then a writer, of the still pervasive bone-deep knowledge of racism and its consequences, and of his fears for his son. Even as a “survivor” who didn’t get killed and didn’t get jailed, and who has become a successful writer, he has observed and experienced the pain and the dangers of being a black man in the United States. Besides his own story, Coates writes of many black leaders and writers, of the stories of other young black men, of the liberation he felt when he traveled to France, and of his interview with the mother of his Howard friend who was killed by a police officer, among other subjects. There are so many powerful sentences in this short book, but just to provide an example: “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, and the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear” (p. 17). And now he and his son live in the age of Trayvon Martin and all the other “destruction of black bodies” (p. 44). This book is despairing, but there are notes of hope as well, as every parent must hope against hope that his child, and all the children, will have safer, better lives. Seriously, please read this book.

Monday, October 19, 2015

"After the Parade," by Lori Ostlund

Although I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago, I have been putting off writing about Lori Ostlund’s wonderful novel, “After the Parade” (Scribner, 2015). Why? Because I liked it so very much that I am afraid of not being able to do it justice in this short post. But I have decided to just plunge in, and try to convey a little bit of how compelling and truthful this amazing novel is. I read and was so impressed by Ostlund’s collection of short stories, “The Bigness of the World” (about which I posted on 12/21/10), so I was primed to like this novel, her first, and it more than lived up to my high expectations. The main character, Aaron, is (like Ostlund herself) originally from the Midwest, which both influenced him greatly (for better and for worse) and made him realize he had to escape it. He was “rescued” by his much older mentor and lover Walter, had a good life with him in New Mexico (also a place that Ostlund lived for some years) but eventually felt he had to establish his own life as a separate person, and left, rather suddenly and alone, for San Francisco (where Ostlund now lives). In San Francisco (here I shift to the present day) he works as an ESL teacher in a fly-by-night type school, and lives in a rather dismal apartment in a renovated (just barely) garage. He is alone much of the time, and very lonely (loneliness is a dominant theme in the novel), but he also at last feels free to explore and discover the kind of life he will lead from now on. He alternates between sadness and a pronounced interest in what he sees as he moves about the city. The novel, too, alternates, in this case between the present day and the past, allowing the readers to gradually understand what has made Aaron the person he is. The scenes in the past and in the present are both powerful. But because the past was in some ways so painful, so quietly dramatic, those scenes are perhaps more intense than those in the present. Aaron’s abusive father died dramatically in a fall from a parade vehicle (thus the title of the book) when Aaron was a young child, and his mother, although loving, became vaguer and vaguer and finally disappeared from his life a few years later. So he was essentially abandoned and on his own, although there were people who took care of his basic needs. How does a young person recover from such abandonment and from the claustrophobia and scrutiny of a very small town, especially when he is different, not only in his sexual identity but also in his love of language and books, and his sense that there is a bigger world (note allusion to Ostlund’s first book’s title) out there? Aaron has escaped his past, but has not yet recovered from it. Moving to San Francisco is his attempt to forward that process, but once he has made the move, he does nothing dramatic; that is not his style. His tendency is to walk, think, observe, and of course read. He has friends, but only in a sort of politely remote way. He enjoys his teaching, and is fond of his students and worries about them, but there is of course a distance between him and them (although some of them share his outsider status, for various reasons), and in any case they cannot fill the void in his life. Only at the very end of the novel do we see a glimpse of a possibly more connected future for Aaron. Words such as “precise” and “attentive” have been used about Ostlund’s writing, and these are very apropos. Her writing is not flashy (that’s not her style), but her characters, settings, and events are so carefully observed that each word, each description matters. Her control over her material is impressive, a gift to her readers. At times, too, the writing is suffused with a sort of wry, low-key humor, especially when Ostlund focuses on some of the minor characters, or on Aaron’s everyday life. “After the Parade” has been well reviewed and well received, and I am so pleased that it has been getting the level of attention is has. The fact that it is set in San Francisco is of course a bonus. Oh, and that beautiful confetti-strewn cover.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

"The Odd Woman and the City," by Vivian Gornick

I have read Vivian Gornick over these many years, and I was already positively predisposed toward her writing; the intriguing title sealed the deal. The “odd” part of the title “The Odd Woman and the City” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015) alludes to Gornick’s single status, but also echoes the title of George Gissing’s 1893 novel, “The Odd Women,” about women who are perhaps a little different than tradition asks, and at the same time are “extra,” as there were more women than men in England at the time. Gornick, a feminist journalist, essayist, and memoirist, turned 80 this year, and has (mostly) lived in New York City since her birth there, thus the “city” part of the title. She loves the city, and has always walked through it regularly, sometimes six miles a day. This small book focuses on Gornick’s life in New York, and mostly consists of short episodes and vignettes involving herself, her friends and lovers, as well as the people she closely observes as she walks around, or takes public transportation through, the city. She experiences loneliness, yet absorbs it and moves beyond it. She is exceptionally generous in sharing her thoughts, feelings, and experiences, almost always in the context of life as a writer, friend, lover, and flaneur. A favorite line in this memoir is this: “The most vital form of communication other than sex is conversation,” and she thrives on conversation. She is also exceptionally observant of the city life around her. I have such respect for Gornick and women like her, especially women who were born in the 1930s: intellectuals and writers, yes, and feminists, yes, as well as women who are strong, courageous, and vulnerable, at a time that it was even harder to be strong and courageous than it is now. And coming back to the city of New York: this city has been a great contributor to the ability of women like Gornick to have the intellectual life and (relative) freedom that has allowed them to live rich and full (although not always easy) lives. The memoir is also a reminder of the complexity and richness of life as one ages (if one is fortunate). “The Odd Woman and the City” is a worthy successor to Gornick’s acclaimed 1987 memoir, “Fierce Attachments,” which I also liked very much.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

"Days of Awe," by Lauren Fox

Despite what I said in my recent post of 10/4/15 about suddenly tiring of what I labeled as “women-in-the-city-and-their-love-affairs-marriages-children-jobs-angst novels,” just before that post I had read one of this type that I did enjoy: “Days of Awe" (Knopf, 2015), by Lauren Fox. It has all the requisite elements: problems in a marriage, problems with children, problems with friends, joys, sadness, the inevitability of change, fast-paced scenes, a bit of humor, a bit of mystery. The main character Isabel’s husband has moved out, yet the two maintain a warily amicable relationship. Her daughter is entering puberty and is suddenly becoming a sometimes-rebellious mystery to her mother. Her best friend has died in somewhat mysterious circumstances (note the recurrence of the theme of mystery, not as in mystery novels, but as in the normal mysteries of life). Fox is a good writer, and she kept my interest. One thing I liked was that the novel took place not in one of the more well known settings for contemporary American novels, but in Milwaukee, in the Midwest, a nice change of pace. But I must say that reading this novel just before I started to retreat from this genre of novels makes me think I enjoyed “Days of Awe” in a sort of routine, automatic way rather than with the true enjoyment and appreciation that occurs when a novel feels fresh and different, and thus was perhaps the penultimate cause of my stepping back from this type of fiction. (However, as I stated in that 10/4/15 post, I predict that this stepping away won’t last long.)

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Newest Nobel Prize in Literature Winner: Svetlana Alexievich

The Nobel Prize in Literature has just been announced: the winner is Svetlana Alexievich, of Belarus. She is a journalist and mostly nonfiction writer, one of the few such writers ever awarded the Prize. The New York Times (10/8/15) states that she is “known for her deeply researched work about female Russian soldiers in world War II and the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster” as well as the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The author herself describes her writing as follows: “I am writing a history of human feelings.” When I saw the New York Times news alert message on email, I eagerly opened the message, hoping the winner would be an author I had read and admired. I remembered how exhilarated I was when the great Canadian short story writer Alice Munro, one of my favorite writers of all time, won in 2013. But the name I saw today was completely unknown to me, and according to the NYT article, to most Americans. Her work is little translated into English, and barely available in the U.S. I felt a bit of disappointment. But as I thought more about it, I was reminded that one of the purposes of this prize is to bring great, although perhaps not famous, writers to the attention of the world. We -- whatever our own country and language -- should know about writers from countries, cultures, and languages that are not our own. I chided myself for being English-centric, and West-centric. As I read more about Alexievich’s work, I was impressed; she is truly trying, through her careful research and writing, to show the effects of war and other disasters on ordinary people. Perhaps her most well known book is “War’s Unwomanly Face” (1988). Of course I was glad too that a woman had won, as she is only the 14th woman awarded this immensely prestigious literary prize.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Phases in My Reading Life

Like most readers, I go through phases of reading, and then abruptly or gradually move away from that phase (but often return to it later, in a new phase). For example, there have been times in my reading life – a lot of times, actually – when I have read many mystery novels, and then have gotten tired of them for months or years. (I posted about this on 1/27/10 and have mentioned it in other posts as well.) I have gone through phases of reading fiction from certain countries, from certain authors, and from certain “genres” such as “beach books,” “books about writers,” “books about books and bookstores,” "books set on college campuses," “books set in Manhattan,” “books set in Nantucket/Martha’s Vineyard/Cape Cod” (okay, this one overlaps with "beach books"), “books set in San Francisco,” "books set in England," "books set in India,"and other favorites, often (but not always) connected with my own background and likes. A “genre” of novels (although they are generally not labeled as a genre) that I very much like and read large numbers of is the women-in-the-city-and-their-love-affairs-marriages-children-jobs-angst novel. This oversimplification and lumping-together is of course highly unfair to the novels and their authors, but I use it as a shorthand here. A few days ago I started to read one of these, suddenly felt myself get tired and bored, briefly skimmed through it to the end, put it down, and decided I just didn’t feel like reading more of this book or this type of books for a while. I had another novel of this type on my to-read pile, tried it too (the same day) and stopped reading it as well. I know it might have been just those two particular novels that I didn't like, or thought I wouldn't like, but I think it was more than that. I doubt my boycotting of this “genre” will last long, but it reminds me of the natural phases of my reading over the years.
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