Thursday, December 29, 2016

RIP Anita Brookner

I somehow missed the news that writer Anita Brookner died in March 2016 at the age of 87. (Thank you, John Williams, of the New York Times Book Review, on 12/25/16, for the information, and for your mention of reading four of her novels in 2016, and how you “loved all four.”) I have read Brookner’s novels on and off for decades. She writes exquisitely, usually focusing on women characters who are elegant and self-sufficient but fight loneliness; the tone of her writing is often bleak, even desolate. Her writing is somewhat autobiographical. A London writer whose family were Polish immigrants, she said that they were “transplanted and frail people, an unhappy brood” whom she felt the need to take care of. She had a successful career as an art historian and academic, only starting to publish novels in her early 50s. After that, though, she published a novel almost every year from 1981 to 2011. Her most well known novel, and one that won the Booker Prize in 1984, was “Hotel du Lac.” Although I have not read her novels for some years now, I can clearly remember the feeling of reading these depressing yet perfectly insightful and somehow crystalline and even exhilarating volumes. Reading her was a distinctive experience. So although I am late in acknowledging her death, I feel the need to pay my respects here.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Consolations of Austen

I loved seeing Susan Chira’s short piece, “The Comforts of Jane,” in the Christmas Day 2016 issue of The New York Times Book Review. She writes there of how in a difficult, painful, and stress-filled time (“when the life of someone I loved was hanging in the balance”), she “turned to reading for solace,” and found the perfect book to (re)read was Jane Austen’s novel “Pride and Prejudice.” She says that because she already knew the plot, she “could savor the language, satire and repartee, the cutting observations…Austen was irresistible.” She adds, “I wanted escape, but I needed moral resonance.” She goes on to describe all the reasons that this beloved novel was the perfect consolation and companion during the crisis she was living through. Fortunately her story ended well, as “life righted itself.” She, like most Austen devotees, including me, continues to re-read Austen’s novels, and always remembers “how grateful I remain for the comfort I found in her pages.” Readers of this blog know how central Austen’s novels are to my own reading life, so you will understand how I definitely appreciated and connected to Chira’s story.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"Faithful," by Alice Hoffman

I have ambivalent feelings about Alice Hoffman’s novels. As I wrote on 5/11/15 in a post about her novel “The Story Sisters,” I had gradually stopped reading her novels because of the magical element (although I did enjoy “The Story Sisters”). I have a bit of a bias against novels with magical aspects, although I have read plenty of them over the years, including many by South American writers. In the case of Alice Hoffman’s writing, this bias is somewhat balanced by my enjoyment of her focus on families and especially sisters, and on the lives of young girls growing up. Thus the ambivalence. On a swing back toward her novels, I just read “Faithful” (Simon & Schuster, 2016), and although it too had a bit of low-key but important (seeming) magic in it, I liked it very much. The main character, a young woman named Shelby, has experienced a terrible loss, and blames herself for it. She retreats from the world, is angry and sad, shaves her head, and in general does not engage with life any more than she absolutely has to. But (and I know this sounds corny and too-easily-inspiring, but it works) she gradually, very gradually, finds small reasons and then bigger reasons to re-engage with people and the world. She is fortunate to have people who believe in her and care about her even when she pushes them away. She moves to and gradually falls in love with New York. She starts, by happenstance and with reluctance, rescuing unfortunate dogs, and they become a big part of her reconnection to the world. She connects to the family of her co-worker and becomes a sort of surrogate big sister to the children in that family. She finds romance, albeit romance with twists and wrong turns along the way. She goes to college and is headed toward a satisfying career. In a way the story is predictable, but it is also fresh and original, and contains some real surprises as well. Shelby is a unique character whom the reader cannot help rooting for.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

My Reading is San Franciscan Too

In the “Books” section of the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle, there are Best Sellers lists that include “Hardcover Fiction Bay Area” and “Hardcover Fiction National.” I have frequently noticed that the two lists are somewhat different, although obviously with plenty of overlap. I have also noticed that my own reading tracks more with the San Francisco list than with the national list. On 12/11/16, for example, the S.F. list of ten books included three that I had read (“Swing Time,” “Commonwealth,” and “Today Will be Different,” the first two of which I have recently posted about here), whereas I had read none of the novels on the national list. If this just happened once or twice, I would think it was coincidental, but there is a distinct pattern. What does it mean (if anything)? Most obviously, it seems I am in tune with the local book culture. In addition, I and other San Francisco readers apparently tend more toward literary fiction and less toward the more traditional bestseller fare (although, again, of course there is much overlap, and much divergence among individuals; also, as I have written about before, my own reading is not always "literary"). In this aspect, we are perhaps in tune with other large cities, and university cities, with vibrant literary scenes (many resident authors, many independent bookstores, frequent book festivals and author readings, etc.). I hesitate to post this entry, because I am well aware that it may sound self-congratulatory as well as “San Francisco-congratulatory,” and perhaps it is. But I am, in fact, happy and even proud to live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area, for many reasons, one of which is its literary culture and its support of its bookstores, authors, and literary events. Such stores and institutions are both supported by, and in turn support, a literary culture and more reading, not only locally but nationally.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

RIP Shirley Hazzard

Sad news: Shirley Hazzard, the great Australian writer, has died in Manhattan at the age of 85. (After her family moved from Australia, she lived in Europe and in the United States.) The author of several novels and nonfiction works, she is best known for her great 1976 novel “The Transit of Venus.” I read this novel soon after it was published, and then again in 2013, at which time I was struck, even more forcefully than on the first reading, with the power and insight of this gorgeously written novel. Hazzard’s understanding of human nature is impressive. (I posted about this novel on 4/2/13.) Her novels won several awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for “The Transit of Venus.” Hazzard was married to the late writer Francis Steegmuller, and had a long friendship with the writer Graham Greene as well as with other writers around the world. She will be missed, but her wonderful work lives on.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

"The Jungle Around Us: Stories," by Anne Raeff

“The Jungle Around Us” (University of Georgia Press, 2016), a recently published collection of stories by Anne Raeff, is the most recent winner of the annual Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and the award is well deserved. On 3/2/11, I posted here about Raeff’s astonishing and powerful novel, “Clara Mondeschein’s Melancholia”; I am thrilled that we now have this new book by her. These stories are dazzling! Not dazzling in terms of showy or extravagant, but in terms of being compelling, beautifully written, and displaying absolute control of the material. The stories are international, with various settings in Europe, South America, North America, and Asia. They unapologetically (but not didactically) engage with some of the fearsome events of the past few decades, and how people affected by those events dealt and deal with them. As in Raeff’s earlier book, a constant presence is the memory of World War II and especially of those who were killed in, or escaped from, Europe because of being Jewish. Many escaped first to South America and then to the United States, and here we read about some of the families that did so, being displaced and starting new lives not once but twice. They were torn between being grateful to escape, on the one hand, and having the horrors of the war and displacement hang over them (and their children) their whole lives. In a few cases, characters from one story show up in another, and the reader benefits from these interconnections. The stories are filled with refugees, exiles, separation, uprooting, grief, memory, trauma, and psychological breakdowns, and we are reminded, with great clarity and force, how these are the conditions of life in our modern world. It is good for those of us who have been fortunate enough not to face personally or immediately the kinds of wrenching tragedies and displacements to be reminded of this, and Raeff reminds us in a persistent and effective manner. But besides these powerful reminders, or I should say intertwined with them, Raeff offers us full, rich characters experiencing their lives, going on, getting on with it, so to speak. In fact, the book could be described (although it would be highly reductionist to do so) as an illustration of the interactions between two clichéd but true sayings: “Life goes on” (somehow) and “Never forget.” Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

"Swing Time," by Zadie Smith

I still remember the exhilaration of reading British author Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” when it came out in 2000. What an original and arresting voice! That story of multiracial and multicultural families in London was bursting with life, and Smith, a very young author (in her early twenties when she wrote this novel, and 25 when it was published), was a most welcome fresh new voice. The novel made her instantly famous, winning much praise from critics and readers worldwide. Since then I have read two of her next three novels (“On Beauty” and “NW”) and enjoyed both of them, although “NW” was a little harder to get into, as Smith was experimenting with a new style. (See my post of 10/2/12 on “NW.”) (I tried to read her second novel, “The Autograph Man,” as well, but found it dry, as did many critics, and it seems to be generally regarded as her least successful novel.) Smith has also written essays, given talks, been a writer-in-residence and a professor of writing, and in general is a literary star. I have just read her most recent novel, her fifth, “Swing Time” (Penguin, 2016), and although the reviews have been mixed (mostly positive but sometimes a bit guarded, and in a couple of venues negative), and although I hesitated about reading it, I am very glad I did. This novel, like some of the others, features two friends who grow up together but go in different directions. The friends are the unnamed narrator and her friend Tracey. Both live in a poorer and mostly black area of London; both are biracial; both want to be dancers. Tracey is the more talented dancer, and has some limited success at it, but despite her pride and defiant attitude, struggles with life. The narrator has more education and more experience in the larger world; her job for most of the time covered by the book is as an assistant to a famous one-named singer, Aimee, seemingly based on someone like Madonna. Soon the narrator’s life is completely subsumed to Aimee’s needs, and she jets all over the world with her. A big portion of the book takes place in West Africa, where Aimee has decided to fund and set up a school for girls. This section contains much not-very-veiled criticism of western stars and other philanthropists dropping in to Africa to do seemingly good projects, but often without understanding the contexts and possible consequences of such projects. Readers cannot avoid thinking of such stars as Oprah and Angelina Jolie. Aimee is well meaning but oblivious to nuances and impervious to criticism. There are also subplots to the Africa part of the novel that bring up such issues as romantic and sexual relationships heavily influenced by racial, national, and power imbalances; race; gender; immigration and emigration; poverty; religion (the increasing influence of conservative Islam); and more. All of these issues crowd the pages of the book, and are important and thought-provoking, but (mostly) do not tip over into the didactic or polemic. The characters are compelling, especially the two main characters, along with the narrator’s scholarly and politically active mother, Tracey’s more limited and completely Tracey-focused mother, the two men with whom the narrator becomes involved in Africa, and many more minor but vivid characters. This novel reminds me of the strengths of Smith’s first, “White Teeth,” although it is more mature and less exuberant. Yet Smith’s novels, although she focuses on some common themes throughout her writing, always have new stories, new characters, and new twists. And she is still only 41 years old, so we can look forward to, I hope, many more novels by this gifted writer.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

"The Mistletoe Murder, and Other Stories," by P. D. James

Readers of my recent posts of 11/12/16 and 11/25/16 will know that I have started reading mysteries again, after a long break. Here is one more I just read, and recommend: “The Mistletoe Murder, and Other Stories” (Knopf, 2016), by the wonderful late P. D. James. James is one of the giants of the mystery world, who died, coincidentally (it actually gave me a start when I just Googled her death date and found it to be today's date), exactly two years ago -- November 27, 2014 -- at the age of 94. The stories in this small book were originally commissioned by, and published in, various magazines and newspapers. Thus we are fortunate to have “new” stories even after James’ death. And they are timely, given the arrival of the Christmas season. Two of them feature James’ greatest creation, the detective (and poet!) Adam Dalgliesh. Each of the four is intriguing, surprising, psychologically complex, and very satisfying. This volume would make a good Christmas gift for a mystery reader family member or friend.

Friday, November 25, 2016

"Death at La Fenice," by Donna Leon

On 11/12/16 I wrote of returning to mysteries for the first time in a long time, because of my friend K.S.’s recommendation of Louise Penny’s Armande Gamache novels. After reading and enjoying three of the novels in the series (and I am sure I will read more), I took my friend M.V.’s recommendation, which actually reinforced that of others through the years, to try Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries, set in Venice. M.’s recommendation reminded me of how my beloved late sister-in-law, who was Austrian, loved Donna Leon’s mysteries and even read them (in German) in the hospital when she was very sick. And I finally visited Venice in January of this year. So maybe the confluence of all these signs was telling me it was time to investigate these well-loved mysteries. I have now read the first in the series, “Death at La Fenice,” (Perennial, 1992), and did in fact enjoy it very much. The Venice setting, the musical world where the murder took place, and the intriguing characters, all drew me in. Of course the mystery itself, with its twists and turns, its clues and its red herrings, all contributed to my enjoyment as well. As to why I am suddenly open to and enjoying reading mysteries again after a long period away from them, I don’t really know the answer. I think it is just cyclical. But I am happy to have discovered these two “new” (to me) mystery writers (Louise Penny and Donna Leon) and their thoughtful and multifaceted detectives (Gamache and Brunetti), and look forward to reading more novels in each series.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

RIP William Trevor

I was sad to read that the noted Irish author, William Trevor, has just died at the age of 88 in England, where he had lived since 1952. Although a wonderful novelist and playwright, he is best known for his absolutely incomparable short stories. I have long admired, marveled at, and enjoyed those stories, and somehow thought he would always keep writing them. He, along with V. S. Pritchett and Alice Munro, are the modern masters of the short story in English, as far as I (and many critics too!) am concerned. Trevor told the Guardian in 2009 that he “considered short stories the best vehicles for studying character” (according to the Associated Press story published in the San Francisco Chronicle on 11/22/16; some other material in my post is taken from that article, as well as some background and insights from Marisa Silver’s 11/23/16 New Yorker article and elsewhere). Most of all, he considered himself a storyteller, and a great one he was. He always thought of himself as a bit of an outsider, perhaps from moving often as a child, and from that stance observed people carefully, depicting the small movements and conversations of everyday life in an illuminating but never flashy way. His work felt quiet but revelatory. I remember that when I read his stories, they often started quietly and then sneaked up on me, and suddenly I was in awe of his insights into the human mind and motivations and behaviors. Trevor won many literary awards, including the prestigious Whitbread (three times), and was short-listed four times for the even more prestigious Booker Prize. He received three honorary titles in Britain, including a knighthood. I loved hearing that “he produced all of his stories on blue paper – a habit from his ad agency days – on a manual typewriter, followed by much revision.”

Thursday, November 17, 2016

My Mom is Reading Again!

My mother got very ill about three months ago, a source of great worry for all the family. Fortunately, her health has very gradually but definitely improved. She is not back to her old self, but getting closer. I am very grateful to my two brothers and my sister-in-law who live in the same city as she does, and who have taken such great, loving care of her. I visit on weekends when possible, call her, and write to her, but they are the heroes of this story. I write about this here because as some of you may possibly remember, one of our great connections is our love of reading, and I enjoy choosing books for her that I think she will like. When she got so sick, it was hard for her to read. But one sign that she was getting better was that she started reading the newspaper again. And then she started reading the book I had chosen for this particular time: “Miller’s Valley,” by Anna Quindlen (see my post of 4/24/16). A while ago she told me she was reading it, and a few days ago she said she had finished and enjoyed it. It took her longer than usual to read it, but I was so happy that she had gotten back to reading. She also told me she had started the next book I had chosen for her: “The Excellent Lombards,” by Jane Hamilton (see my post of 9/24/16). I hope she will like it as well. I am so happy that she is reading again – a real sign of recovery!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

"Still Life," by Louise Penny

I have written more than once about my lifelong enjoyment of mysteries, but I have also written of how I sometimes go “off” mysteries for years at a time. I have now gone through a long period, several years, without mysteries (with one or two exceptions) during those years. But a colleague who is an editor who reads very widely, K.S., recently told me about a mystery writer new to me – Louise Penny – and her Chief Inspector Armand Gamache books. K. S.’s enthusiastic recommendation, plus the fact that the books are set in a small town in Quebec, Three Pines, convinced me to try at least the first one, “Still Life” (Minotaur, 2005) (K. had recommended reading them in order of publication). I may have mentioned to her that my favorite mysteries are British “village cozies” as they are known, with thoughtful and intriguing inspectors/investigators. Although this mystery is set in Quebec, the “village cozy” model is in evidence. A beloved older woman, a mainstay of the village, is found dead of a wound from a bow and arrow. At first it looks like an accident, but of course (this being a mystery novel) it is not. We get to know all the chief residents of the village, many of whom are quirky and eccentric, but who support each other despite some feuds. We find that their stories are entangled going back many years in their individual and town histories. Gamache is a good watcher and listener, and knows his psychology. He is also very likable. There is a satisfyingly surprising ending that once known makes complete sense. A side story is Inspector Gamache’s having to deal with an odd, ambitious, brash, socially inept assistant. Apparently there are a dozen or so more novels in this series, and I think I may be hooked. I will read at least one more…the next one…and see what happens.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

"Commonwealth," by Ann Patchett

If you like beautifully written novels about quirky, dysfunctional but loving families, read the wonderful author (of such novels as “Bel Canto” and “State of Wonder,” the latter of which I posted about on 9/19/11) Ann Patchett’s new novel, “Commonwealth” (Harper, 2016). Really. Read it! Two families are friends; early on in the novel (so this is not a spoiler) the husband in one family and the wife in the other fall in love and get married. The focus is on the six children of the two families, who are now bound together as stepsiblings. They bond but also fight, and live through some very difficult times, sent back and forth between their new sets of parents, sometimes living together and sometimes separately. They resent each other yet cling to each other; they fight yet back each other up. They suffer, some more than others, and there is at least one tragedy. Some of them feel lifelong guilt. But there is much humor and much resilience as well. The novel covers 50 years. We follow the children into adulthood, and among other events, a new crisis is precipitated when a famous author becomes the lover of one of the grown siblings and uses the family story as the basis of his next novel, which becomes a huge bestseller titled “Commonwealth,” just as this real novel with the same title has become a big bestseller (very meta). The plot thickens: Patchett is open about the fact that this novel is very autobiographical; there was a similar set of divorces in her childhood, and she too has stepsiblings. She and those stepsiblings also regularly crossed the U.S. to be with the various parents. So one question the novel raises is that of who owns our stories, and what obligations we have regarding our own and our family’s stories and privacy. Highly recommended!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Try the Search Box

A longtime reader of this blog, M.L., suggested that I point out to readers that they can search the blog, using the small search box on the top left of the blog. Besides searching for specific titles or authors, which would likely be the most common searches, a reader might want to search for a specific genre (e.g., memoir, mystery, campus novel, poetry) or a specific setting (e.g., San Francisco, Manhattan, India). And if you have trouble getting results with this, please don’t hesitate to email me directly to ask a book question, and if I possibly can, I will happily answer.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

"We Could Be Beautiful," by Swan Huntley

A little romance. A little domestic drama. A little social commentary on life in upper-class Manhattan. And elements of a thriller, perhaps of the general genre of “Gone Girl” or “Girl on a Train,” although a little more literary and a little less overtly dramatic and frightening. These are the strands of “We Could Be Beautiful” (Doubleday, 2016), by Swan Huntley. Unfortunately, some of the story, and the writing, are squirm-inducing. And the many portentously presented hints and clues are not very subtle, so readers start to see the denouement of the narrative coming far in advance. Catherine West is a rich, beautiful, art-loving 44-year old woman living in an expensive Manhattan apartment. She desperately wants to get married and have a child, but has been unlucky so far. At the beginning of the novel, she meets the older, handsome, seemingly perfect William Stockton, and it turns out their parents had known each other long ago. Before we know it, they are engaged. But there is a note of something “off,” which Catherine tries to ignore but eventually cannot. There are a few twists in the story, including, I must admit, some I had NOT expected, but still the substantial majority of the ending was quite predictable. This is a somewhat creepy quick read that might be entertaining if you are in the mood for it, but not something I recommend.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Enough "Comfort Reading" For Now

I wrote on 9/12/16 about reading several novels that were the equivalent of comfort food: not necessarily very good, and not literary fiction, but enjoyable and easy to read. I give all credit and thanks to these novels (which I did not review on this blog); they provided reliable pleasure and distraction during a difficult time involving a family member’s health. But now I realize I have had my fill of that type of novels, for now at least. The first sign of this was when I noticed myself getting impatient with the sloppiness of the writing itself. In one case, I was listening to the book on CD in my car, and that may have magnified the problems with the writing. I noticed a lot of repetition of certain phrases, way too may extraneous adverbs, and a general talkiness, not to mention excessive use of clichés. Not that I had not been aware of these shortcomings from the beginning, but I was willing to overlook them for their easy comfort value. But that could only last so long. I began to hunger for better writing, and so I have, for now anyway, changed my reading diet back to my usual more literary novels and memoirs.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

On the Attempt to "Out" Elena Ferrante's True Identity

I was upset to hear that an Italian “investigative reporter,” Claudio Gatti, is trying to unmask the identity of Elena Ferrante. Ferrante is a pseudonym for the author of the highly-praised and internationally bestselling Neopolitan Series and other well-received novels. She has given a few interviews, but for the most part has been adamant about preserving her privacy. She feels it allows her to be freer in her writing, and to keep readers focused on her work rather than on her as an author, her appearance, her marital status, and all the other things that readers often want to know about famous writers. But now Gatti has chosen to investigate her identity and to write publicly, first in Italian and then in English, about his conclusions about her true name and identity. (I will not give the name here, as I disagree with this kind of involuntary “outing,” but of course if you really want to know, you can Google it.) Most fellow writers, and many of us readers, are outraged and unhappy about this intrusion on Ferrante's wish for anonymity. Gatti may or may not turn out to be correct, but in any case, it is a sort of violation of Ferrante’s intent, and of her privacy. A sample response from the writer Roxane Gay is her tweet that “You are entitled to curiosity but you aren’t entitled to having your curiosity satisfied.” To add to the outrage, Gatti seems to intimate that the author he identifies may have been aided in her writing by her writer husband. So his actions are not only violations of privacy but also sexist. I know that some people may argue that writers are public persons and don’t have the right to privacy, but I don’t believe most people would agree with this. This may be true for politicians, but not for writers.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Nobel for Bob Dylan!

The headlines this morning about the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature certainly got my attention, with a small gasp of surprise. Bob Dylan! Really? I must admit I feel torn about this. Of course I grew up with Bob Dylan, listened to his music for many many many hours when I was young (not so much later, except very occasionally when I was feeling nostalgic, or happened upon his music on the radio), and greatly admired (and still admire) him. Who of my generation can forget some of his greatest songs? And yes, his songs were and are poetry, and represented the concerns and emotions of our generation and beyond. But out of all the amazing novelists, poets, playwrights, memoirists, etc., in the world, is he really the best, the most deserving of this uniquely prestigious award? I understand the Swedish Academy’s rationale. The committee says they awarded Dylan the Nobel “for having created new poetic traditions within the great American song tradition,” and their representative, literary scholar Sara Danius, calls him “a great poet in the English-speaking tradition” who can be compared to Homer and Sappho. (Wow!) According to the New York Times, some say this award is for Dylan as a representative of an art form, and that it is a recognition that “the gap between high art and more commercial art forms” has narrowed. I understand and agree with most of this (not sure about the promotion of "more commercial art forms"), but there is still a part of me that can’t quite accept that there are not more deserving literary writers around the world. Am I being a fuddy-duddy? A snob? I need to think more about this…

Thursday, October 6, 2016

"Siracusa," by Delia Ephron

Reading the novel “Siracusa” (Blue Rider Press, 2016), by Delia Ephron, was a rather unpleasant and unsatisfying experience. I am not sure why I kept reading it, but I guess there was just enough suspense to keep me going…and I thought it would get better. But no, it got worse. It is the story of two couples who, with the ten-year-old daughter of one couple, travel together to Italy, first to Rome and then to Siracusa (Syracuse) in Sicily. Although the couples are friends, sort of, they are very different. One connection is that Finn, of one couple, and Lizzie, of the other, used to be in a romantic relationship many years before. Finn’s wife Taylor is completely, unhealthily, caught up in the life of her daughter, and doesn’t care much about anything else. Lizzie’s husband Michael is a semi-famous but stalled writer who is having an affair with a woman back in New York. Not one of them seems very happy, all of them have secrets, and none of them seems to have very robust moral compasses. All seem selfish. The daughter, Snow, is very strange: beautiful and smart, but barely talks, and is portrayed as rather creepy. Long story short, events build up, and there is a disaster which implicates, in one way or another, all of the main characters. What they do, or don’t do, afterward makes the reader like them even less. In other words, although this novel is compelling in some ways, it has a nasty taste.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

"How to Party with an Infant," by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Kaui Hart Hemmings is most well known for her novel “The Descendants,” set in Hawaii, which was made into a popular movie starring George Clooney. Hemmings has published other novels and short stories as well. “How To Party With an Infant” (Simon and Schuster, 2016), is set in San Francisco, where the author lived for a time, before returning to Hawaii. I know, of course, that we are not supposed to assume any autobiographical elements unless told that they are present, but it seems that several elements of this novel match elements of the author’s life. In any case, the main character and narrator, Mele Bart, is the single mother of a young child, Ellie. Her main connections are with the members of her mothers' group. She had to try out several groups within the larger organization, the San Francisco Mommy’s Club (SFMC), until she found one that she felt comfortable with. The major reasons that I enjoyed this novel are: 1. The author and her narrator have a wry, dry sense of humor and voice (as indicated by the title). 2. The novel both explores the world of mothering (in middle-to-upper-class, mostly white, urban America) and makes fun (sometimes gentle and sometimes rather scathing) of the super-self-conscious parenting found in liberal, prosperous enclaves these days. 3. And this third reason is personal because I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, used to live in San Francisco itself, have worked there my whole career and go there almost every day, and enrolled my daughter in preschool and then school there (many years ago...): I loved reading about the various areas and scenes in San Francisco. The narrator loves her daughter dearly, but finds single parenting difficult and lonely at times. This is a sometimes humorous, sometimes sad story, but overall an entertaining one that makes some sharp points, as well as some perhaps too-easy ones.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

"The Excellent Lombards," by Jane Hamilton

“The Excellent Lombards” (Grand Central Publishing, 2016), by the excellent writer Jane Hamilton (I have read and liked at least two of her earlier novels) is about an excellent family (the Lombards) and their excellent orchard and excellent apples. The narrator is a young girl, Mary Frances (also called Frances), so we see the situation described, and the story told, through a child’s perspective. We see how living in an apple orchard, as part of a family enterprise, is mostly idyllic, but as with any family, there are undercurrents of stress, competition, misunderstanding, and disappointment. Mary Frances’ closest person is her slightly older brother Michael. She also has wonderful if at times a bit eccentric parents. Her mother is the head librarian at the local small town library; what’s not to love about a mother who memorizes passages from Edith Wharton? There is a fair amount of tension between Frances’ father and her father’s business partner. There are other characters: cousins, somewhat mysterious and eccentric relatives, and a longtime worker who is practically a member of the family. Then there is the gifted and beautiful teacher who lives next door and whom Mary Frances adores. Despite some adventures and some upsets, Frances’ and Michael’s childhood seems like the kind of childhood all children should have: surrounded by loving adults, living on beautiful land, being able to help with the family’s work, but never being overworked, enjoying the pleasures of a small town, and more. I wonder how many children have such a life these days? Or did they ever? Is the author exaggerating? And, I should mention, Mary Frances’ idyllic childhood is sometimes infused with her deep fear that somehow it will all be taken away from her, by money problems, or by distant relatives, or by some other factor. The author herself lives in an apple orchard in Wisconsin, so perhaps she knows the answer to the questions above.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The 2016 Man Booker Shortlist

The six-book shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize has just been published (9/13/16) (, and I am embarrassed to say that not only have I not read any of these novels, but I have not even read reviews of, or had any other prior knowledge of, them, that I can remember. Deborah Levy? Graeme Macrae Burnet? David Szalay? Madeleine Thien? Paul Beatty? I do know the name of one author, Ottessa Moshfegh, but I don’t think I have actually read anything by her (perhaps a New Yorker story?). One excuse I have is that only two of the novels were (originally at least) published in the U.S.; two others are from the U.K., one from Canada, and one from “Canada-UK.” Books published in the U.K. and Canada are usually not published until later in the U.S., if at all. Also, to be fair to myself, I have usually recognized and sometimes read a couple of titles on the shortlist in past years. Still, this ignorance of these titles and authors this year makes me ponder how it is that I can read as much as I do (over 100 books a year, as well as many magazines and newspapers that include many book reviews), and what I read is mostly literary fiction, and still there can be a list of what are supposed to be the six best books written in English this year, and they are all completely unfamiliar to me. Perhaps I really have limited my reading (of contemporary fiction) too much to a certain type of (mainly) literary fiction by a certain type of author and novel: mostly American, mostly women, mostly “domestic” fiction, mostly character- and relationship-driven. There are many exceptions in my reading to every one of those descriptors, but still, it is overall an accurate summary of my reading preferences. I can’t decide whether I should simply accept this as normal -- everyone has reading preferences, naturally -- or limited and provincial. I do read many book reviews in many venues, and I do try to stretch my reading boundaries (including to many books from different countries and originally written in different languages). Probably I need to try harder. (Addendum: I just saw a brief review of Deborah Levy's book, "Hot Milk," in the New Yorker, 9/26/16. It sounds great, and I am putting it on my "to read" list.)

Friday, September 16, 2016

RIP Edward Albee

The playwright Edward Albee died today (Sept. 16, 2016), at the age of 88. The New York Times (9/16/16) calls him the “playwright of a desperate generation.” Albee said about his own plays that they were about “people missing the boat,…coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done.” His most famous play was the wrenching story of a bitterly confrontational marriage, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (later made into the unforgettable 1966 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton). Other plays included “The Zoo Story” and “A Delicate Balance.” Although I don’t think I have read his plays since college, and have only attended his plays in the theater once or twice over the years, I have always admired Albee’s work, and he has been a huge presence on the arts scene for fifty-plus years. Albee’s goal, he said, was for his audiences to be “challenged to confront situations and ideas outside their comfort zone,” and that he surely achieved.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Craving Narrative for Comfort

Besides loving, and reading copious quantities of, literature (and studying it and teaching it) over many years, I have a parallel, intertwined craving for narrative, for story. Literature is much more than story, of course, and I appreciate all that is involved in that “much more.” But at the base of it all, perhaps, is that need for story. Sometimes so much so that it becomes a bit separated from “literature” in its highest manifestation, and becomes a sort of provider of entertainment, distraction and comfort. Especially when one is – OK, when I am – stressed, worried, or “down,” a kind of “medicine” is a direct application of large doses of story, well written but not “great literature.” Some of the novels in this category that I read are ones that I don’t usually post about here. Not that there is anything wrong with them, or reading them. To the contrary. But the way I consume them is not with deep thought, and sometimes I can’t remember much about them after I read them. They serve a purpose, but are not necessarily important for me to share my thoughts about. They still have to be well crafted; I don’t completely turn off my critical faculties when reading them. But I am less demanding, and looking for something a little bit different, than when I am reading recognized literary fiction. Some of the providers of story, and the comfort that comes with such novels, that I have been reading lately (at a time when a family member is quite sick) are written by such popular (for a reason!) authors as Jane Green, Emily Giffin, Elin Hildebrand, Jodi Picoult, and Anita Shreve. I thank these and other authors for the enjoyment they provide, and for the time away from worry that they offer.

Monday, September 5, 2016

"Invincible Summer," by Alice Adams

It is strange for me to write about a novel by an Alice Adams, when the Alice Adams isn’t the gifted one I have read for so many years. That first Alice Adams was a San Francisco writer, now no longer with us, who wrote sparkling and astute fiction about women who were generally prosperous, liberal, and artistic. The Alice Adams whose novel “Invincible Summer” (Little, Brown, 2016) I have just read is half Australian, lives in England, and is writing now, unlike the earlier Alice Adams, who wrote her many novels and short story collections (and published often in The New Yorker) mainly in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. But after I made the transition to the “new” Alice Adams, I quite enjoyed this novel about four friends in England, a novel that follows them from their college years in the early 1990s until they are in their early forties in 2015. The post-college years of Eva, Benedict, Sylvie, and Lucien (Sylvie’s brother) diverge, and sometimes they grow apart for years at a time, but they always reconnect. There are romances, marriages, children, good jobs and not-so-good jobs, wealth and poverty, drugs and music, deaths of family members, and all the other things that can and do happen to young people growing into the adulthood of “real life.” This aspect of the story reminds me of the novel I posted about on 8/23/16 that concerned itself with a similar theme -- young people's facing the fact of actual adulthood and all that that condition brings with it -- although in New York City in that case. It is of course an eternal theme, but perhaps experienced more self-consciously in recent decades. My favorite part about the book is the part that is always my favorite: the relationships among friends and family members, and all their twists and turns.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Books as Symbols of Our Lives

Books can symbolize so much, even in the small events of everyday life. Let me give you an example. A couple of days ago, I went to my department office to check my mailbox, and found three books there. One was a book I had lent a new colleague, and she was returning; this symbolized to me the give and take, the mentoring and collegiality, of our department and of my colleagues. The second was an academic book that had been sent to me by the publisher as a thank-you for having reviewed the book proposal and sample chapters for that book, a couple of years ago. This symbolized the service we academics all do for our professional communities, a way to contribute to the larger academic work we engage in. The third was not actually a book, but a copy of a book cover, plus an acknowledgements page, left there for me by a USF colleague in a different department (Philosophy), one with whom I had written regularly during the fall semester, when he was finishing up his book, of which he has just received a preview copy. During breaks from writing, we had talked quite a bit about our respective projects, and I particularly remember discussing his proposed title, with which he was struggling. He was kind enough to include me in his acknowledgements, about which I felt pleased and honored. This cover and page symbolized the faculty writing culture at my university, and the rich and enjoyable collegial relationships I have with many faculty members in different departments there. Something about the confluence of finding these three books at the same time in my mailbox reminded me of the wonderful web of professional and personal connections I have at my university and elsewhere, and for a moment I savored that feeling and thought about how fortunate I am to be doing this kind of work I love: teaching, researching, writing, reviewing, working with colleagues and students both at my institution and all over the country and world.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Break in Case of Emergency," by Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter has a very fresh, very distinctive voice, as evidenced in her debut novel, “Break in Case of Emergency” (Knopf, 2016). There are three intertwining topics or themes (although the novel is only a tiny bit didactic, and mostly an unusual mixture of the satirical and the touching). First and foremost it is a novel about what it is like to realize, as one approaches and enters one’s thirties, that one is now irrevocably an adult. Friends Jen, Meg, and Pam were best friends in college and after, and still are, but their lives are diverging in some ways. Jen finds that her friends, whose money didn’t mean much when they were all in the same boat in college and starting off in New York, are now cushioned by family money in a way that publicist Jen and her teacher husband Jim are far from experiencing. Second, Jen is working for a sort of vanity philanthropy, in which a rich woman is using her huge divorce settlement to play at female-empowerment through her hazily focused, New Ageish foundation that is pretty much all talk and no action. Winter’s portrayal of the celebrity philanthropist, Leora Infinitas (not her original name, you will not be surprised to hear), is a very funny caricature; some of her minions are equally outrageously over the top. Jen of course sees through it all, but needs the job. The third theme is, in deep contrast to the parody of the second, very serious, touching, and at times sad: Jen and Jim are attempting to have a child, but experience both infertility and miscarriage. As with so many coming-of-age-in-New-York stories (and there are SO many of those), the city is not only a backdrop but almost a character in its own right, as I have observed about other New York-based fiction, most recently on 8/17/16. The real pleasure of this novel is, as I started off by saying, the author’s voice and style, which feels true, and yet humorous, and yet wistful, and yet again filled with pizazz that grabs the reader’s attention.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

"The Believers" and "A Perfectly Good Family": Two Novels about Families

I have a small backlog of novels to report on, so here for a change I will give just a short (even shorter than usual!) summary of two of them that, despite very different settings, have common themes of families after the death of parent(s), and the squabbles and yet love expressed by the very diverse adult children in each case. First, “The Believers” (Harper Perennial, 2008), by Zoe Heller, tells the story of what happens when leftist lawyer Joel Litvinoff has a stroke, goes into a coma, and eventually -- but only after a long, drawn-out time in the hospital -- dies. His feisty (okay, sometimes downright mean and rude) wife Audrey and his three very different adult children (with very different beliefs, thus the title) are both drawn together and divided. The characters are understandable and very fallible, and sometimes not very likeable (I have discussed the topic of unlikeable characters several times, most recently on 8/12/16). There is much angst, family drama, and interpersonal strife. The city of New York is not only the setting but a kind of additional character in the novel. Second, “A Perfectly Good Family” (Harper Perennial, 2007), by Lionel Shriver (who is, by the way, a female writer), is also about a family drawn together and yet separated by the death of parents, in this case both parents, also lefties but of a more liberal stripe. There are also three adult children who live very different lives but now have to make decisions together, especially about their parents’ grand historical house. Sell it? Share it? Or…? As they gather in the house to take care of their parents’ financial and other matters, and to decide about the house, all the old childhood differences and dramas, stemming from their very unlike relationships with their parents, resurface. In this case the setting is North Carolina, a very different background than the New York of “The Believers,” so there is a little bit of the heaviness of Southern history, and a touch of Southern Gothic atmosphere, as a backdrop to the story. The strength of both these novels is the portrayals of the family dynamics, which definitely keep the reader’s attention. There are side stories in each, including descriptions of spouses and other characters, and revelations about good and bad behaviors, but the families, their histories, and their interactions are the main focus.

Friday, August 12, 2016

"She Poured Out Her Heart," by Jean Thompson

I used to think I liked Jean Thompson’s fiction. My liking wavered a bit when I read “The Humanity Project” (about which I posted on 5/17/13). I have just finished reading her most recent book, “She Poured Out Her Heart” (Blue Rider Press, 2016), and although this novel mostly kept my attention, I found myself needing to take a break from it from time to time, and by the time I finished, I realized that for some reason I just didn’t particularly like the novel. It is quite well written, and the characters are well drawn. The plot has enough “mystery” that it draws the reader forward. Maybe the problem is that I didn’t like the characters much, although there were reasons to be sympathetic with each of them, and one of them (Bonnie) is more sympathetic than the others. This is an issue I – and many others – have often discussed: do we need to “like” characters in order to admire a novel? The answer is pretty clearly “no,” although sometimes in real life reading (as opposed to intellectual discussion of reading), it may feel otherwise. Or maybe I didn’t like the novel very much because the characters were presented in a complex-but-still-somehow-flat manner (a stylistic matter?)? Maybe it was a distaste for some of their behavior, even though the behavior is not out of the norm for contemporary novels, or truly outrageous, and even though the author shows us quite clearly the roots and causes of those behaviors in a way that should make readers sympathetic to them? The four main characters (all in their late thirties except for Patrick, who is a few years younger) are Jane, Bonnie, Eric, and Patrick. Jane and Bonnie have been best friends since college, and are very close although very different. Jane has lived a more traditional, expected life, with marriage to a doctor, two young children, and a nice house in a nice area of Chicago. Bonnie has never settled down, is hooked on the adrenaline and excitement of constantly revolving relationships with men who are attractive losers; even her job flirts with danger, as she works advising police in crisis situations involving people on the edge of explosion, such as hostage takers and armed suicide-threateners. She likes to think of herself as nontraditional, a rule breaker, a person who does what she wants, led by passion, rather than what society expects, but she finds at some points that this ideal and reality do not always coincide. Eric is Jane’s physician husband, who tries hard to be a good husband and father, yet can’t figure out how to deal with Jane’s problems, and is sometimes a little too quick to take the easy way out. Patrick, a handsome and sweet-talking bartender, is one of Bonnie’s loser-type lovers. The plot involves Jane’s unhappiness and emotional/mental health problems, Bonnie’s attempt to help, Eric’s attempts to cope, and Patrick’s increasing prominence in the tangled relationships of the other characters. Thompson is very good in examining complex emotions, the ways in which we are all inconsistent and even hypocritical in our behaviors, and the ways we justify those inconsistencies and questionable behaviors, behaviors that are both self-destructive and betrayals of our closest connections. I admire the psychological insights. And I understand the motivations of the characters. I actually admire the book on several levels; I just don’t like it very much. Perhaps what I react negatively to is an element of subtle creepiness I felt, although I can’t really back up this assertion clearly. Maybe -- probably -- it is just a simple matter of personal taste in reading matter. I write about it here because it is an example of something that happens fairly rarely to me: admiring and liking a writer to the extent of putting her high on my list of “must get every new title” authors, and then over time changing my impressions and preferences enough to feel I probably will not read more of this author’s fiction. This sometimes happens with authors I liked many years ago and then changed my mind about as I got older, but not often with those I seriously liked within the past decade.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

"Housebreaking," by Dan Pope

I admit it: I usually get my literary domestic drama (in the broad sense of focusing on families and their relationships) fix from novels by women writers. The few exceptions among contemporary writers (living or only recently deceased) include (some of) the fiction of Julian Barnes, Peter Cameron, Kent Haruf, Andrew O’Hagan, Stewart O’Nan, Richard Russo, Akhil Sharma, Colm Toibin, and William Trevor. A review of Dan Pope’s novel “Housebreaking” (Simon & Schuster, 2015) caught my interest, I found it in the library, and I must say it held my attention quite firmly throughout. It is about two youngish families living in Connecticut who have recently moved (or moved back) to the same street, and how their lives intersect in ways that are both positive and problematic. Each family member gets her or his own section of the novel, so we readers see some of the same events from several perspectives. There are two marriages in trouble, one adolescent who is seriously struggling after a heartrending loss in the family, and one elderly widowed father and his surprising but comforting new love interest. We also get glimpses into the work worlds of some of the characters, especially the Cadillac sales business and the big law firm business. Some of the elements in the troubled lives of the main characters are adultery, tragedy, love, loyalty, drugs, sex, juvenile delinquency, unhealthy and dangerous use of smartphones and social media, and more. The tone is a mixture of jaunty, world-weary, vulnerable, and hopeful. "Housebreaking" feels very believable and organic.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

"The Summer Before the War," by Helen Simonson

A new novel by Helen Simonson, the author of the absolutely charming and compelling novel “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” (about which I posted on 6/16/10), and which is a hard act to follow, is “The Summer Before the War” (Random House, 2016). It does not disappoint – far from it. The war it refers to is World War I, and the setting is the small town of Rye, in Sussex, England. It is a glorious summer, with all the gentle pleasures of England at its best, but it is soon marred by the approaching reality of the war. The local people form committees and try to defend their own area, offer support for the soldiers going off to war, and take care of their share of refugees, in this case from Belgium. The beauty of this novel is evident in layers. On one level, we see the gentle pace of life in the town, and the interactions of its residents. On another level, we see the pain and fear and tragic losses caused by the war. On still another level we see the problems brought about even in a small town by prejudice, infighting, rigid morality, and pettiness: discrimination based on class, ethnicity, gender, and sexual identity, among other types. To be fair, these prejudices are typical for the time period, but that does not make them any less angering and saddening. In addition, though, suffused throughout is a sense of humanity, as well as some understated humor of the Jeeves/Lucia/garden party type. The characters include the wonderful (and surprisingly liberal, for her time, but always in a diplomatic and careful way) Aunt Agatha, the center of the town’s activities; her nephew, the serious Hugh, a newly minted doctor who is torn between two romances; her other nephew Daniel, a budding poet who charms everyone but is caught up in a scandal because of who he loves; Beatrice, a writer who has had to make her way in the world alone since her scholarly father died; the scheming and petty Lady Fotheringill; the bright and intrepid young Gypsy boy, nicknamed Snout, who loves Latin and learning but whose promise is cut short because of society’s intolerance of his people; and many more. There is even a famous writer clearly based on Henry James (who did in fact live in Rye), who is revered but also gently (and at one point not so gently) skewered for putting his writing before his loyalty to humanity. As the story moves from the “before the war” portion to the “during the war” part, it gets darker, for obvious reasons, and we start learning increasingly bad news. Although very little of the novel takes place at the battlefront, there is enough for us to be horrified and saddened, and these feelings are reinforced by the pain of the survivors back home. “The Summer Before the War” is one of those “big” novels that contains much about human nature, England, war, love, ambition, and more, and the reader cannot help but be drawn in. That the author can balance the weight of all these topics with an intermittently light touch is admirable, almost miraculous.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

"The Red Notebook," by Antoine Laurain

Thank you, B., one of my very favorite people with whom to talk about books, for your recommendation of the delightful (and delightful is the perfect word here) French novel, “The Red Notebook” (Gallic, 2015), by Antoine Laurain (translated into English by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken). It is a small book, a lovely romp. The story is that a young Parisian woman, Laure, is mugged, and a bookshop owner, Laurent, finds her beautiful mauve-colored bag on the street, minus money and identifying information. He tries to turn it in to a police station, but is given a bureaucratic runaround, so he starts looking for clues to her identity himself, using various objects in the bag as tenuous leads. So the story is a sort of mystery, with a bonus of reading about the various Paris locales depicted, as Laurent follows leads. Laure is obviously a book-lover, and some of the clues Laurent finds are literary, including a book in Laure’s bag signed by the famous but somewhat reclusive writer Patrick Modianao. Other characters include Laurent’s daughter, Chloe, and Laure’s co-worker and good friend William. Did you notice that the author’s name and those of the two main characters all include versions of “Laur…”? Well, you can guess where the story goes, but I won’t spoil it by telling you more here. You can read this slim novel in an hour or two, and I can pretty much guarantee you will be completely charmed in the process. Paris, books, a bookshop, an author, a mystery, a beautiful cat, and the hint of love in the air...what's not to like?

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

"Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty," by Ramona Ausubel

Money, money, money. “Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty” (Riverhead, 2016), by Ramona Ausubel, is a novel pondering the age-old questions of “What is the meaning of life?” and “How should I live?” But as the title indicates, and as a theme throughout the book, money and privilege provide the main focus, even when the main characters, who greatly benefit from family money, are constantly downplaying (but ambivalently) its importance. “How do I live when I have money but feel guilty about it?” Fern and Edgar, a married couple with three children, both come from money; in Fern’s parents’ case it is old(ish) and confident, while in Edgar’s parents’ case it is new and anxious. But the center of the anguish and ambivalence about money is Edgar, who declines to take over his father’s steel business because he believes the business and its profits are tainted by – well, by American history, slavery, corruption, and…the list goes on. So he takes the "moral" stand of living on Fern’s parents’ money instead; he knows that if one goes back far enough in history, that money is tainted as well, but perhaps the passing of time makes it more palatable to him than that of his parents. He constantly talks about and worries about the negative effects of money, and tries in his mostly symbolic way (not actually denying himself anything he really wants) to live (ostentatiously) simply, but still accepts the “ease and plenty” provided by Fern’s family money. The author’s rather surprising achievement is to make Edgar a somewhat likeable character, despite all of his self-indulgent angst about money, the angst of a privileged person for whom nothing truly material (his family’s welfare, for example) is at stake. His ostensible reason for not taking a job is that for ten years he has been writing a novel about his own situation and moral dilemma, including a merciless attack on his father and his business. The crisis that activates the plot of this novel is Fern’s parents’ deaths and the subsequent revelation that they had spent and given away all their money; nothing is left, and now Fern and Edgar for the first time will actually have to figure out how to make their own money and support themselves and their children. This sends them both into existential tizzies, and very soon they do surprising and out of character actions that precipitate an unintended and possibly dangerous result for their children. SPOILER ALERT: The children end up fine, and it seems that the couple and family will be fine as well. This novel is well written, and raises important questions about money and privilege in human lives. To me, its major achievement is that it portrays so very well a certain type of self-involved, self-conscious, self-congratulory angst-without-anything's-actually-being-in-the-balance attitude that readers will recognize.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Enchanting "Enchanted August," by Brenda Bowen

The word “enchanted” is itself enchanting and appealing. At the library recently, in the new books section, a colorful cover with the title “Enchanted August” (Viking, 2015) exerted its magic on me even before I even realized that it was a modern retelling of the itself enchanting 1922 novel,“Enchanted April” (about which I posted here on12/20/14). That novel was by Elizabeth von Arnim, about four English women who don’t know each other but band together to rent a castle in Italy by the water for a month. The current novel, by Brenda Bowen, is set in the present, and the castle becomes a huge “cottage” on an island in Maine. The four (American) co-renters are three women and an elderly gay man. Although the two novels take place almost a century apart, the dynamics are similar: at first, the co-tenants are awkward with each other, angle for the best rooms, get annoyed at each other at times, try to keep their distance from each other. But the place works its magic, and they take care of each other in various ways, and there is joy and healing. Other characters who enter the story at various times include the owner of the cottage, two husbands, three children, and various local people. An added appeal for me is its “take a small group of people and put them in a fairly confined space and see what time reveals” aspect, of which readers of this blog may remember that I am quite fond. This novel tells a delightful story, and is a lovely variation on the usual “summer” story; although told with a light touch, it shares thoughtful if not particularly original insights about what is important in life. Highly recommended for anyone looking for enjoyable summer reading that doesn’t make you feel it is a “guilty pleasure” (not that there is anything wrong with that!).

Sunday, July 17, 2016

"Goodnight, Beautiful Women," by Anna Noyes

The blurbs for Anna Noyes’ small book of short stories, “Goodnight, Beautiful Women” (Grove Press, 2016) are extravagant, using words and phrases such as the following: precise, fearless, breathtaking, terrible grace, enthralling, a revelation, singular, has the gift, mesmerizing, one of America’s most exciting young writers, wrenching, funny, deeply sensuous, seductive, a book to fall in love with…. I did like the stories, mainly, but I feel the blurbs are truly over the top. Yes, yes, that is what blurbs are generally like, and one should generally take them with a grain of salt. However, this seems like an extreme case. But maybe I noticed this excessiveness more because I was already somewhat uncomfortable with some of the stories. I am trying to figure out why. It can’t be because some of the characters push the boundaries a bit too much, can it? Or is it because of the many of the characters are poor, and it is uncomfortable to read about poverty, or near-poverty? But I have read, enjoyed, and praised many novels and short stories about this class status. Could it be because some of the young women are at that strange cusp between childhood and adult womanhood, and their love affairs and adventures are a little disturbing at times? But I don’t think of myself as easily disturbed, or as prudish. (And, to be clear, although some of the stories are somewhat erotic, they are not unusually so for mainstream fiction.) Am I too old for these stories? But I have always read and enjoyed stories about characters of all different ages and places in life. Now I am feeling uncomfortable about feeling uncomfortable. What has gotten under my skin about this collection? Is the issue with the stories or with me?

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

"Vinegar Girl," by Anne Tyler

It seems that there are more and more books that are fictional retellings of famous literary works from the past. I have written here about the fact that many of Jane Austen’s novels, for example, have been retold in modern settings. I have just read a very new such retelling, in this case of Shakespeare’s play “The Taming of the Shrew’: this version is called “Vinegar Girl” (Hogarth, 2016), and is authored by the inestimable Anne Tyler. Apparently it is part of a planned larger project by Hogarth. Kate Battista, an American woman of thirty, is unmarried, and has a job as a preschool assistant teacher that she doesn’t particularly like. She lives with her father and her much younger sister, taking care of them and the house; her mother has died many years ago. She feels a bit at sea in her own life. The main plot point is that her father, a scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, wants her to marry his research assistant so he can extend his visa to stay in the United States. Kate is of course resistant, and angry at her father. She, like the original Kate, doesn’t care about pleasing everyone, thus the “vinegar” in the title. I won’t give away the rest of the story, although you may be able to guess it. The story is told with Tyler’s familiar verve and warmth. It will be of interest to see which other Shakespeare plays will be retold by writers of today; stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

"They May Not Mean To, But They Do," by Cathleen Schine

The title “They May Not Mean To, But They Do” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) is a reference to Philip Larkin’s famous poem: “They f--- you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do.” The irony in this novel by Cathleen Schine is that the parents and children mess (to use a more polite term than Larkin did) each other up, yet always with love. Impatience and exasperation, yes; resentment, sometimes; misunderstandings, definitely. But always love. Schine is the author of several other novels, including two that I have written about here: “The Three Weissmanns of Westport” (see my post of 4/11/10) and “Fin and Lady” (7/28/13). Schine has a distinctive, observant, wry, humorous, occasionally sharp voice, and she understands the nuances of relationships among family members. In this case, the parents are elderly; Aaron Bergman is suffering from increasing dementia as well as various unpleasant physical ailments, and his wife Joy is exhausted from taking care of him at their apartment in New York. Their daughter Molly has moved to California with her female lover, Freddie, and worries about her parents from afar, calling and visiting frequently; their son Daniel lives in New York too, and he is attentive, but he has a job and a family that limit the time and help he can give his parents. The situation is painful and poignant in its specificity, but also in its obvious relevance to an increasing number of people these days. Everyone is of good will, but there is no way that this situation is not very hard. Yet somehow the novel is not (very) depressing, probably because of the aforementioned love the family members have for each other, and because of the affirmation of the pleasures of life even in the midst of this serious situation. Schine is adept at showing all sides of this situation, and at the same time at not making this a one-issue novel.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Recent Developments in the Bookstore Arena

Readers know that I am a great supporter of independent bookstores, was sad and worried when many of them went out of business, and was encouraged when their numbers recently went back up a bit. Two recent related articles are of interest. The first, by Alex Shephard for The New Republic, says that the huge chain Barnes and Noble is in financial trouble and may close some or all of its stores. Shephard writes that although some of us independent bookstores supporters may be tempted to rejoice, we should not do so; B and N’s closing, if it happens, will hurt the publishing business. The chain can order large numbers of books, which contributes to the publishers’ being able to publicize the books more widely, support author book tours, etc., all good for the book business. Books in certain robust genres with hard-core fans, such as romance and science fiction, would be less affected by a closing than would “literary” fiction. A second related article, on The Literary Hub (a site which, by the way, I recommend), points out another (more positive) trend: some indie publishers are now starting indie bookstores. Several examples were given, including Melville House Publishing’s opening a bookstore in Brooklyn in 2008. The other examples were more recent, or were still in the planning stages. This is certainly an encouraging trend.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories," by Elizabeth Harrower

I am embarrassed to say that I excitedly felt I had “discovered” the Australian writer Elizabeth Harrower when I picked up her novel “In Certain Circles” and was so very taken by it. (See my post of 1/24/15). My only excuse is that Harrower is in her late eighties; her books were out of print for a long time even in her native Australia, until a press republished them starting in 2012; in the case of “In Certain Circles,” Harrower wrote it and just as it was about to be published, withheld it from publication for almost fifty years, before she finally agreed to publish it, to great acclaim, in 2014; and her books were mostly not available or at all well known in the United States until the past couple of years. I am so glad she is being rediscovered. I have now just read the recently published collection of Harrower’s short stories, “A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories” (Text Publishing, 2015), and am grateful for this gift of her stories. Although I prefer the novel to the short stories, and although the collection is a bit uneven, as such collections often are, there is much to rejoice about and to enjoy in this volume. The stories’ main quality is their unflinching looks at characters’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and at the way the characters interact with family members, friends, lovers, co-workers, and in fact with life itself. Most of the characters are women, and most of them are unhappy, although there are moments of hope. Several of the stories portray the ways that people who love each other can deeply hurt each other, sometimes without even realizing it, because of their own limitations. We also see how constrained the lives of young people, especially young women, can be. Occasionally we get a sense of the desperation of people who live in certain dreary small towns of Australia (but they could be small towns anywhere). There is a grimness to some of the lives depicted. But despite all these darker aspects of the stories, there are almost always glimpses of, and eruptions of, a powerful life force.

Friday, June 24, 2016

"Genius," a Film about Editing (and Much More)

The minute I heard about the new film “Genius,” I was determined to see it, and soon after, I did. This movie depicts the relationship of the novelist Thomas Wolfe (played by Jude Law) and his Scribner’s editor, Maxwell Perkins (played by Colin Firth). To those of us readers who think of the creation of a literary work as an almost holy process, any insights into this process are a great gift. As is fairly well known, Wolfe was a wildly creative and seemingly undisciplined writer with an outsized personality who brought in enormous manuscripts, was very attached to his own words, and kept adding to them up to the last minute. His manuscript for “Look Homeward, Angel” had been rejected by over forty publishers when Perkins accepted it for Scribner’s. Then the two men embarked on a long, difficult process of editing it, cutting it down to a reasonable length. Much of the film shows the two in Perkins’ office, or walking, or on the train, or in various other locales, constantly talking and arguing about each phrase, each sentence, each description. Perkins was mostly endlessly patient with this brilliant but uncontainable author, and they became friends; some suggested they had an almost father-son relationship. The big question, of course, and Perkins himself brought this up at one point, is what the job of an editor is, and whether his (at that point, in the 1930s, it was always a “he”) editing made the work much better, or molded it in a way that diluted the original strength, vision, and style of the author. We also see Perkins’ family (his wife is played by Laura Linney), and Wolfe’s lover and inspiration Aline Bernstein (played by Nicole Kidman). Aline left her family for a passionate and deep relationship with Wolfe; ultimately, though, Wolfe’s allegiance was always first and foremost to his writing, and he left people behind along the way. Perkins also edited F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and there are a few scenes with those writers as well, showing the competitiveness and jockeying for reputation (and for Perkins’ favor) that took place among the three writers. The movie has received somewhat mixed reviews, as has the acting. Jude Law is accused of overacting, and Colin Firth of being too restrained. There are also complaints about British and Australian actors playing American literary figures. And some say it is just too hard to make s story about editing dramatic and interesting; it has been called "slow." To all of which I say (forgive my informality), “Whatever!” I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, the acting, the literary history, and the glimpses into the writing and editing and publishing processes, and I think you will too.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

"Noonday," by Pat Barker

British author Pat Barker is perhaps best known for her “Regeneration trilogy,” three connected novels about England during World War I. She has now completed another trilogy of connected novels, this time about England during World War II. I have not yet read the “Regeneration trilogy,” although I plan to, but I have now completed these most recent novels, “Life Class,” “Toby’s Room” (about which I posted on 11/15/12), and “Noonday” (Doubleday, 2015), all of which are very powerful, and beautifully written. When I say these six novels in the two trilogies (and Barker has written others as well) are “about” the wars, it would perhaps be more accurate to say that they take place during the wars. They do include battle scenes, but even more, they depict the English, especially Londoners, who were affected by the wars in many different ways. They fought, they returned from battlefronts, often wounded; some didn’t return; they waited for their loved ones; they experienced the bombings and the deaths and injuries and the deprivations; they worked as wardens and rescue workers and ambulance drivers; they struggled with the emotions of wartime and massive loss. “Noonday,” which I just finished reading, takes up the same characters as the earlier two novels in this trilogy: a group of art students in the earliest novel, and now in the third one, middle-aged adults, still artists, who either have fought and been damaged physically and mentally, and/or are trying to keep their lives going in London and the countryside, despite repeated bombings, losses of their homes, being witness to terrible destruction of life and property, and always worrying about their relatives and friends and their city and country. Remarkably, they still work on their art when they can; art, along with love and friendship, is what keeps them going. Sometimes this desperate situation leads various characters to behave bravely, and sometimes to behave badly (the latter in their personal lives), but there is some question about whether the “normal” (non-wartime) rules about, for example, marital fidelity, apply in the midst of such destruction. It is fascinating to see how these characters –- mainly Elinor, Paul, and Kit, who have been art school classmates and friends and lovers at various times -- grow and change, and how their relationships also evolve through the 25-plus years they have known each other. These novels bring us up close to the horrors of war, yet show that daily life and relationships go on too. I can only describe this trilogy, and this novel, clumsily, as I have been fortunate never to experience anything like this. But I do want to say how exquisitely masterful Barker’s depictions, and her writing are; I highly recommend this trilogy. And now I plan to go back and read the earlier trilogy as well.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

"We Should All Be Feminists," by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Readers of this blog, and everyone who knows me, knows that feminism is an important part of who I am, and of my beliefs. So of course I was happy to find that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of the wonderful novel “Americanah” (about which I posted here on 5/24/14) and other fiction, has a slim book called “We Should All Be Feminists” (Anchor Books, 2015). The book is really more like a booklet, is based on a TEDx talk the author gave, can be read in less than an hour, and is well worth your time. For longtime feminists, there may not be a lot that is “new” per se, but the ideas can't be emphasized too often. And Adichie’s perspective, stories, and powerful yet humorous presentation all make her a compelling advocate for women’s rights and equity. She is Nigerian, and lives both in Nigeria and in the United States; this talk focuses on the African context, but also the larger world context. Ms. Magazine had a famous saying that all feminists have their “click” moments of recognition about inequality; Adichie tells of her moment when she was a young schoolgirl, was promised that whoever got the highest score on a test would become class monitor, but when she did get the highest score, was told that the promise only applied to boys. The boy with the second highest score was given the position Adichie had longed for and worked hard for. Adichie writes about how girls and women are not supposed to be angry, how they are taught to want to be liked, and how they are taught to focus on getting married. She writes about progressive men who say, “I don’t even think about gender,” and points out that this is because they have, and don't even realize they have, the privilege of not needing to think about it. I very much like this small book, and in fact I gave copies to several of my nieces last Christmas.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

"Old Age: A Beginner's Guide," by Michael Kinsley

Michael Kinsley, a longtime journalist/writer and editor of and for various prestigious periodicals (The New Republic, Harper’s, Slate, etc.), was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (“PD”) in his forties. For a while, he did not reveal this condition, fearing he would be pitied and perhaps not be considered for jobs, but eventually decided to do so. He has now lived with PD for about twenty years, and has been helped by medicine and surgery to live a relatively healthy and certainly very productive life. In his short book, “Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide” (Tim Duggan Books, 2016), a compendium of essays that form a coherent book, he writes candidly about his PD. Part of his purpose here is to educate readers and to demystify the disease. But his larger topic is how the Boomers generation is now learning about and confronting aging and, inevitably, death. The book is a combination of memoir, philosophical musings, story telling, medical information, advice, and more. Kinsley’s style is accessible, humane, occasionally a bit humorous, and realistic.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

"Sweetbitter," by Stephanie Danler

I realize that I often write about the settings of novels, and that I generally prefer these to be small spaces: a village, a vacation town, a college, or even a house. As Jane Austen said about her own writing, “Three or four families in a country village is the very thing,” the setting that allows a concentration of human characteristics and behavior to be observed in detail. After reading the novel “Sweetbitter” (Knopf, 2016), I realized how its intense focus on one place, a prominent New York City restaurant, and to a much lesser extent its surroundings, allowed the author, Stephanie Danler, her close observations of this small universe of its own. The restaurant, apparently based on the famed Union Square Café, where I have read that Danler herself worked at one point, provides the main character, Tess, the new world she is looking for when she leaves her small town life and flees to New York. This specific, concentrated world is very difficult for an employee to enter, and requires months or years of training and acclimatization, and Tess struggles to learn how it all works and how she can do well at it, yet from the beginning takes to and loves the place, the people, the experience. The novel contains much information about how a high-end restaurant works, about food and wine and service, but also about the tight yet ephemeral society created by the employees. Drugs and alcohol and sex are ever present. But so is dedication to service. Tess takes it upon herself to learn everything she can about wine and food, with the help of her mentor Simone and her crush and eventual lover Jake. But not all is what it seems, and there is both great joy and great betrayal. I thought I would be writing about this novel mainly as yet another example of the tsunami of restaurant books, mostly memoirs, that have been published the past few years, many of which I have read and enjoyed. But strangely, when I started writing about “Sweetbitter” here, I realized that the restaurant part, although fascinating, especially to those of us who love good restaurants and who dine out fairly often, was not even the main point. True, readers can learn much about restaurants and fine dining when reading this novel, but we learn more about youth, ambition, the great attraction of the big city of New York to young people all over the United States, and the way that each (especially young) person has to learn for herself or himself the age-old lessons of how the world works.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

"The Children," by Ann Leary

“The Children” (St. Martin’s, 2016), by Ann Leary, combines two elements of one of the types of novels I enthusiastically lean toward: a focus on a family and their various relationships with each other and with other people in their circle(s), and a family home that is the setting for most of the action. This novel also includes, unexpectedly to the reader until at least halfway through, elements of a psychological thriller, and a surprise ending (although of course there are clues). Leary is the author of the bestselling “The Good House” of a few years ago (see my post of 2/11/13), a novel that also focused on characters in the confined setting of a house in a small town. In the case of “The Children” the town is called “Lakeside,” in Connecticut. The family in question is a blended one; the main resident of the home, Joan, married the owner, the late Whit, and both brought small children to the marriage. Now the children are grown, but both their love and resentments from the past are resurfacing, and the resulting fissures, aggravated by the both charismatic and jarring presence of the love interest of one of the (step)siblings, form the spine of the plot. Other complications include psychological issues in at least two of the siblings. Interesting subplots/themes include music (Whit was a banjo maker and his children are musical) and Internet/blogging activities (one of the characters has a parenting blog, although she is not a parent, and there are various musings about the power of the Internet). All these elements combine for a compelling novel, and I couldn’t stop reading it. Yet when it ended, it left me let down and with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. Why? Maybe the fairly sudden switch to thriller mode? Maybe the characters just didn’t reach out and make me care abut them? Or maybe something else I can’t put my finger on. I am, once again, reminded of the unpredictability of readers' feelings toward a book. A few works are unquestionably masterful (oh how I wish there were a female or neutral substitute for this word, and for “masterpiece”!); some I like for my own reasons and because of my own tastes; some I don’t particularly like but I can see why others do, again a matter of taste; and some seem unquestionably subpar. But except for the clear occupants of both ends of the scale (and even these can change with the passing of time and changes in critical judgments), these are to some extent -- aside from fairly obvious divisions along the scale -- matters of judgment, taste, and personal preference.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

"Love and Friendship," the Movie

If you love Jane Austen’s work, as you know I do, I recommend you see the new movie “Love and Friendship.” It is based on Austen’s early, unfinished book, “Lady Susan.” (This is a little confusing, because Austen’s first published juvenilia was a novella titled “Love and Freindship,” and yes, the misspelling was in the original title.) I have read the book several times (although fewer times than Austen's complete novels; it is Austen, so I love it, but it is clearly not at the level of her six finished novels), and just saw the film and liked it very much. It (the book and the film) is a bit darker (not too dark though) than most of her work, and than the other movies based on her work. Both still have the wit, the comedy, the razor-sharp observations of Austen’s work. What is different is that the main character, Lady Susan Vernon, is truly unscrupulous and manipulative, more than most of Austen’s characters in her other novels, especially women characters (there are a few deceiving rakes in the other novels, but even they are usually repentant at some point, and/or have some redeeming qualities). But even so, we see that as a female on her own, a widow with few financial resources, Lady Susan has to use whatever she can to survive (one of Austen's messages in some of her other novels, but usually in less blatant form). She has her own agency, and is able to achieve her goals (eventually) of marrying off her daughter and then getting married herself, flirting and having affairs with others, always playing one man off against another. The acting is excellent, with Kate Beckinsale in the part of Lady Susan, and other wonderful actors, some recognizable (Stephen Frye, Jemma Redgrave), some not. As a bonus, the beautiful costumes and the settings of the impressive country houses are splendid.

Friday, May 27, 2016

"The Pursuit of Love" and "Love in a Cold Climate," by Nancy Mitford

While reading a review of yet another book (at least two or three of which I have read) about the famous Mitford family, I saw mention of “The Pursuit of Love” and “Love in a Cold Climate” (originally 1945 and 1949, but available in many editions since then) as Nancy Mitford’s best novels. I was reminded of how much I have enjoyed her several novels over the years, and feeling in need of something light, humorous, and very British, I re-read these two interlocking (although each can stand on its own as well) novels (each of which I have read a couple of times before, but not recently) and enjoyed them thoroughly. Readers probably know the background of the Mitford family, but just as a quick refresher: The family of six sisters and one brother were part of the British upper class, raised during the period between World Wars I and II in a huge house in the country with little education (for the girls) but much exposure to books and educated people. They developed their own little society with secrets, inside jokes, special languages, and general hilarity. What makes them noteworthy is that Nancy became a bestselling novelist; Jessica became a famous Communist and muckraking writer (“The American Way of Death”) in the United States; Diana and Unity, in stark contrast, became Fascists and were involved with Hitler; only Pamela and Deborah led quieter, more conventional lives. These two novels are, in slightly disguised form, about the girls during their childhoods, and into their early adulthoods, but focus by far the most on Nancy herself (“Linda” in the novels). Political differences, or even politics at all, are rarely discussed; they would definitely not fit with the mostly lighthearted (although with some personal sadnesses) stories in these novels. A cousin “Fanny” is invented to serve as an involved observer and narrator who has spent much of her childhood with the Mitfords (the “Radletts” in the novels). “The Pursuit of Love” focuses on the childhood years, and then jumps to the girls’ young adulthood years. “Love in a Cold Climate” has most of the same characters, but focuses largely on a grand neighboring family, the Hamptons. Again, Fanny serves as the main observer and narrator. The plots of the novels are both too complicated and too light (although at times turning quite serious) to summarize here. Suffice it to say that they are mainly about family life, outsized characters, the relationships of the “girls” with each other, their parents, their neighbors, and their various suitors. The books are beautifully written (writing in this style is much harder than it looks), very entertaining and funny, if you like this genre of British domestic comedy of the early-to-mid twentieth century, and I do, very much. But it is not everyone’s cup of tea. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!) Another issue is that the books are sometimes quite blatantly un-PC, and certain storylines definitely jar on our twenty-first century sensibilities. I, although I concede to no one in my PC-ness, thank you very much, am willing to give the novels partial passes in view of the time period when the events happened and when the novels were written.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

"The Swans of Fifth Avenue," by Melanie Benjamin

WHY did I read “The Swans of Fifth Avenue” (Delacorte, 2016), by Melanie Benjamin? Well, I know why: it has a literary aspect, in that it tells the story of the well-known author Truman Capote’s betraying the confidences of his society women friends (Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Pamela Churchill, etc.) (dubbed "the swans") when he wrote about them, in thinly disguised form, in “La Cote Basque 1965,” the first installment of a planned (but never finished) novel “Answered Prayers.” This was a major literary and social scandal at the time (1975). Of course the New York City aspect also attracted me. But why did I think I would learn anything new, or that reading about this old scandal would be enjoyable? Yes, this novel about a real-life situation is fun in a sort of catty way, with bits of insight and occasionally thoughtful portrayals of both Capote and his friends, as well as of the “high society” of the times. And of course there is some juicy (but old) gossip. But mostly it just doesn’t live up to the potential of its topic or its real-life characters. OK, I did keep reading, and I did finish the novel. But I closed the book with the question I started this entry with: WHY did I read it?

Saturday, May 14, 2016

"Everybody's Fool," by Richard Russo

I really, really don’t want to essentialize gender roles. But sometimes, for reasons of either nature or nurture, or some combination thereof, there do seem to be differences between men and women, and also in the ways that male writers and female writers portray life and the universe. And these differences are an element in the reasons I read far more fiction by female writers than males. There is a tendency for women to write more about characters and relationships, it seems, and those are among the most important qualities to me when reading novels and short stories. Obviously these statements of mine are broad generalizations, and there are many exceptions. There is probably some kind of Venn Diagram somewhere portraying the overlap, when the work of individual writers of each gender (not forgetting those who do not fit into this binary) is analyzed and classified. Which leads me to the work of Richard Russo, and specifically to his new novel, “Everybody’s Fool” (Knopf, 2016), which I have just read with great enjoyment and a bit of awe at what an amazing writer he is. In this novel (and in some but not all of his others, several of which I have read and which I highly recommend), he writes mostly about male characters, mostly of the working class, and there is a lot of male-type action (if I am allowed this shorthand, appended to which readers will please assume all the usual caveats and hedges), such as heavy drinking in dive bars, fights and brawling, guns, criminal behavior (mostly petty, but not all), crazy stunts, and “guy talk” about the bodies of women. Those are all elements that I usually am not very interested in. But Russo makes these characters come alive, with all their complicated qualities, and makes me care about them. “Everybody’s Fool” is a sort of sequel to “Nobody’s Fool,” taking place about ten years after the events of that novel. The main character in the original novel, Sully, is a complicated, ornery, tough, confused, devil-may-care, seemingly aimless guy (played, incidentally, by my longtime favorite actor, Paul Newman, in the movie version of that novel). Sully is a main character in this current novel as well, but other main characters step up, including a minor character from the first novel, Doug Raymer, now in a much more prominent role as the somewhat hapless police chief of the small, hapless upstate New York town of Bath. Other male characters such as the mayor, Gus Moynihan, and a failing developer, Carl Roebuck, are in equal parts swaggering and overwhelmed by life. The fewer women characters generally don’t fare better, and mostly serve as foils for the men. One wife and one ex-wife are mentally and emotionally ill. Only one female character, Chief Raymer’s assistant, Charice, is (mostly) confident, healthy, independent, and strong, and even she often prioritizes her commitment to help her emotionally crippled brother Jerome over her own needs and desires. But I don't want to leave the impression that Russo slights women characters, or that they are one-dimensional; neither characterization is true. Mostly, all the characters, male or female, just muddle along. There are many robust plot points in "Everybody's Fool," some comedic and some tragic, and most some combination of the two. The novel's characters are all caught in an environment of failure, in a town that progress has passed by, yet its inhabitants find ways to get by. After all, Bath is home, and those co-inhabiting the town are -- whether loved, loathed, or simply tolerated -- family members, ex-spouses, friends, former classmates, drinking buddies, and former and present love interests. Despite some rivalries and resentments of past slights and fallings-out, there are many moments of humanity, of mutual support, of good intentions, and of insights hard won. Russo never, ever condescends to his characters, but he also is not afraid to show their foibles and limitations. All this is a long way of saying that I believe Russo’s fiction combines the best of “men’s fiction” (otherwise known by some as “mainstream literary fiction”) and “women’s fiction,” and the result is rich, funny, sad, entertaining, uplifting but not in a sappy way, and just plain bursting with humanity. During the time period when I was reading this novel, I happened to stumble on -- with great delight -- Russo being interviewed on the radio, on "Fresh Air," by the terrific Terry Gross (about whom I have written here as well), and he sounded like a man I would love to know in person: a classic smart, gifted, funny and caring "nice guy." So thank you, Richard Russo; I "heart" you and your wonderful fiction. Please write many more novels!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Too Long Without Reading Makes Me Feel Out of Sorts

Edgy, cranky, out of sorts, sorry for myself…that’s how I feel when I don’t have time to read fiction. As I wrote about on 1/23/16, when there are periods of time when I don’t read my beloved novels and short stories for days or weeks, I feel like an addict without her fix. I know that sounds exaggerated, and of course it is, but it often feels like the right simile. Because of a very busy semester, and especially because of preparing for, traveling to, attending, and returning to the backup of things to do after, two academic conferences out east in early-to-mid April, I have barely read any fiction for about five weeks. Two novels, yes, but that is a small number for me. (I know I posted here about four novels in April, but I had read two of them a few days earlier.) Newspapers and magazines, yes, and I do enjoy those, but they do not fulfill the same need in the same way. Of course I loved the conferences, and wouldn’t have missed them for anything, but now I really need to get back to fiction reading, and in that way back to my “normal” self. I just picked up and starting reading -- well, I will write about it soon, so I won’t say the title now, but let’s just say a big novel by a wonderful, favorite writer of mine -- and I already feel substantially more like myself.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

"Eligible," by Curtis Sittenfeld

Here it is at last (there seemed to have been some delay since the novel was originally announced): the fourth book in the Austen Project’s modern reimaginings of Jane Austen’s six complete novels! “Eligible” (Random House, 2016), by Curtis Sittenfeld, follows the earlier entries: Joanna Trollope’s “Sense and Sensibility,” Val McDermid’s “Northanger Abbey,” and Alexander McColl Smith’s “Emma.” I have read all of them, and found them all somewhat enjoyable but rather tepidly interesting and, to be honest, undistinguished. “Eligible” differs from the earlier three in the “series” in that Curtis Sittenfeld has changed the title (it is based on “Pride and Prejudice”), and sets her story in the United States, Cincinnati to be specific. Her writing is sharper and funnier than that of the other authors. But it feels like she is trying too hard. Or maybe it is just too hard to accept the fact that Jane and Elizabeth are in their late 30s, and that Kitty and Lydia are not only silly but vulgar and mindless, and that the family lives in Ohio in the 21st century. The references to the Internet and other allusions to “modern life” feel artificial and stilted. Sittenfeld also brings in topics such as transgender and fertility treatments, which merely reinforces the “trying too hard to make it contemporary” feeling. It is true that Sittenfeld is an observant writer, and aware of human foibles, as Austen was to the nth degree, but she is definitely not in Austen’s league. And therein lies the problem: no one is in Austen’s league, and Austen devotees – such as I am – just can’t accept any kind of imitation. Yes, these contemporary versions are fun, and it is enjoyable to see where there are parallels and where there are not. And yes, we know they are not meant to be at the same level as Austen. And yes, yes, we read them, despite ourselves. I confess to reading "Eligible" eagerly and quickly. But it left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth that I can’t shake. Now I am wondering who will write the last two books, those based on “Mansfield Park” and “Persuasion”; there has been no announcement yet that I can find. I am hoping against hope that wonderful writers will be chosen (and will accept the invitation), and that they will somehow transcend the inherent pitfalls of this type of reimagined novels. I am not very optimistic. But I am pretty sure – oh, who am I kidding? I am very sure – that I will read them both anyway, no matter who writes them and no matter how good or bad they are.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

"Miller's Valley," by Anna Quindlen

An Anna Quindlen novel is a reliable pleasure. It is a “good” bestseller, a solidly enjoyable and thoughtful piece of fiction. I have enjoyed Quindlen’s work through the years, not only as a novelist but also as a longtime New York Times columnist and as a memoirist. “Miller’s Valley” (Random House, 2016) fits the profile of her other novels. It has a compelling plot, well portrayed characters, an emphasis on relationships, familial and otherwise, and a tendency to focus on women’s lives and issues. All of these make me happy! It is also very accessible. This new novel is the story of a family, the Millers, and a community, the residents of Miller’s Valley, which appears to be in or near Pennsylvania. There is a central issue: whether, and if so, how soon, the government will choose to flood the valley to extend a dam and create a "recreational area." Most of the residents obviously oppose this, as they will lose their longtime farms and homes and their community; the government’s compensation cannot possibly make up for such losses. Slowly, however, some people give in to what seems like the inevitable. The more personal level of the plot revolves around the narrator, Mimi Miller, her parents, her agoraphobic aunt, her two very different brothers (one traditionally successful and one troubled), and their neighbors and friends. The family farm is failing, despite Mimi’s and her father’s best efforts. Meanwhile, Mimi’s mother and her sister are in a lifelong feud, yet Mimi’s family takes care of that sister. Mimi is very bright, and has a promising future, but is torn between her loyalty to her family and the farm, on the one hand, and her higher education and advancement, on the other. Mimi’s best friends are strong characters as well, each in her or his own way. Mimi’s first serious romantic and sexual relationship, with Steven, is well portrayed, as is her longer term on and off relationship with her childhood friend Donald. There are several family secrets that are revealed, or partially revealed, leaving us with tantalizing questions about the past. And there is a satisfying epilogue that tells us what happened with the characters in the years following the main story. This is a true “good read,” in the best sense of the term.
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