Saturday, February 27, 2016

"The Past," by Tessa Hadley

I had every reason to be quite sure that I would like English author Tessa Hadley’s new novel, “The Past” (Harper, 2016), and I did like it, very much. First, I have read several of Hadley’s novels and both admired and enjoyed them (see my posts of 7/12/11, 7/13/11, and 3/12/14). I had put her on my mental list of authors whose new books I watch out for. Further, the novel is about family members who meet for three weeks for one last stay at a longtime family home in the countryside in England, a house that had been their grandparents’, and that they will probably be selling soon. This gathering of relatives or friends from near and far in a somewhat isolated place and then observing them interact is a device that many writers have used, and one that I am very fond of. It is a riff on Jane Austen’s claim that (paraphrasing and slightly exaggerating here!) by writing about people gathered in a small village, she could illuminate all of life. Another (rather more somber) notable example that springs to mind is the wonderful Irish writer Anne Enright’s 2007 novel, “The Gathering,” about a scattered family that comes together for a funeral after the suicide of a brother. “The Past” also involves adult siblings, four in this case, along with their various spouses and offspring, gathering, talking, interacting, arguing, cooking and eating, and dipping into their past. They have different memories of, and different feelings toward, their parents and grandparents, and their lives as children. They love each other, and in some cases know each other well but in other cases seem not to understand each other at all. They communicate uneasily. There are secrets from the past and present that are sometimes exposed at inopportune times and in inopportune ways. The book is structured in three parts: the first section is about the present, the second about the past of the siblings’ childhoods and of their parents and grandparents, and the third returns to the present. One motif that joins the past and present is a primitive cottage in the woods on the grounds of the family home, a building that is the home at various times to mystery, menace, excitement, discovery, romance and desire. But best of all, for me and I am guessing for most readers, are the portraits of the characters and their interactions. Hadley is a gifted observer of human character and behavior, of how people both change and stay the same as they grow older, and of how family members interact. For all of these reasons, along with that of Hadley’s perceptive and sometimes quite beautiful writing, both about people and about their surroundings in the countryside, this is my kind of novel, one which was a great pleasure to read. Let me leave you with two excerpts, one about family and one about long marriages. About family: “All the siblings felt sometimes…the sheer irritation and perplexity of family coexistence: how it fretted away at the love and attachment which were nonetheless intense and enduring when they were apart. They knew one another so well, all too well, yet they were continually surprised by the forgotten difficult twists and turns of one another’s personalities, so familiar as soon as they appeared” (p. 79). About long marriages: “In bed, while finding her place in her book, Sophy felt the familiarity of her husband’s lean flank against hers, through the cloth of their nightclothes: they lay close together because the bed hadn’t warmed up yet….The lovemaking part of their marriage wasn’t over, but most often these days their contact was merely friendly. After sleeping together for so many years, they hardly had to go through the rigmarole of a rapprochement or a truce before they touched, even if they’d been at odds while they were talking. Their bodies, more prosaic than their souls, were intimate at a level deeper than their argument” (p. 217).

Saturday, February 20, 2016

"A Manual for Cleaning Women: Stories," by Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin’s “A Manual for Cleaning Women” (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015) is a wow!-wow!-wow!-real-deal book. A collection of short stories that are openly based on the author’s life, it embodies the grit, pain, grief, glories, love, joy, ambivalence, rejection, and acceptance of a life extremely thoroughly lived. Although these are stories, they are mostly connected by a similar main character, sometimes but not always named (fittingly) Dolores, along with her sister Sally, her parents and grandparents, her sons, her husbands, and her lovers. There is poverty, abuse, cancer, alcoholism, and death, but there is also great love, intense experience, various places in the world (notably Chile, as well as cities all over the United States) experienced in all their glory, families that explode and implode and reconnect, a love of books and writing, and a main character who both smothers feelings with alcohol and is utterly open to all the world has to offer. Contradictory, yes. Very human, yes. And all observed in these stories with the clearest of eyes. For those of us (OK, me, at least) who like to impose order on artistically arranged disorder, it might have been preferable to have the stories ordered chronologically (correlating with the author's own experiences, not with dates of publication), or grouped according to some principle, but that is like asking life to be more orderly than it is. Besides, the editor of this book, published posthumously, must have had reasons for the way the stories are ordered. I say this not in the least as an indictment of the book, but to poke a little fun at myself for my “control freak” desire to impose a more discernible order. The editor, Stephen Emerson, gathered stories from several previous collections by wonderful but small presses (most notably, Black Sparrow) in order to put together this outstanding collection and to give the stories more exposure. For Emerson, a colleague and friend of Berlin's, along with the other editors and various others who were involved, this book was clearly a labor of love. Lucia Berlin (1936-2004) herself, like her characters, led a complicated and difficult life, including struggling with alcoholism for many years, but eventually became sober and became a beloved professor of writing at the University of Colorado Boulder. All the while, she was sporadically writing. Sadly, she became ill and a few years later died in California, where some of her sons lived. It is quite likely that her work would have been more or less lost to obscurity if it were not for the gathering of her stories into this book, so great kudos are due to the editor, the publisher, and everyone else involved. I only wish she had lived to see the success that the book is having; it has been greeted with much praise and excellent reviews. Adding context to the book is a terrific foreword by the highly esteemed short-short-story writer Lydia Davis and an informative and insightful introduction by the editor, Stephen Emerson. Davis says that in these stories “…we never know quite what is going to come next. Nothing is predictable. And yet everything is also natural, true to life, true to our expectations of psychology and emotion” (p. xiv). Emerson adds that “The prose claws its way off the page. It has vitality….What her work has, is joy….It is writing continuous with the irrepressibility—humanity, place, food, smells, color, language. The world seen in all its perpetual motion, its penchant to surprise and even delight” (p. xix-xx). And, Emerson adds, “a riotous humor animates” her work (p. xxi). All of this is true even when the stories are at their most heartbreaking (see, for example, the story “Mijito”). I hope I – with the help of the words of Davis and Emerson – have convinced you that this is an extraordinary writer and an extraordinary and deeply rewarding collection of fiction. Highly recommended!

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Author Interviews on Fresh Air

On 3/2/10, I wrote about how much I love the NPR radio show, Fresh Air, with the gifted host and interviewer Terry Gross. I think it is time to write about the show’s interviews again. I enjoy the variety of interviews with politicians, journalists, scientists, musicians, artists, and others, but most of all I love the interviews with authors. Gross always chooses interesting and varied authors and books to discuss, and somehow knows exactly the right kinds of questions to ask, the kinds of questions we all have, or would have if we thought deeply about the topic. With these questions, and her follow-up questions, she unerringly elicits the most interesting answers, giving us glimpses into an author’s work as well as her/his life, experiences, and opinions. There is also a blessedly unrushed quality to these interviews. In recent months, for examples of these interviews, Gross (or occasionally her colleague Dave Davies) has interviewed authors Toni Morrison, Tessa Hadley, Gloria Steinem, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rick Moody, Patti Smith, David Mitchell, and Elizabeth Strout, among others. I love encountering the interviews with authors whose work I know, but also enjoy those with authors who are new to me. A chance to hear these authors in person in an accessible way (because although there are live readings in bookstores, etc., which I also love, those happen much less frequently and involve much more commitment of time and scheduling) is invaluable. Fresh Air in general, and its author interviews in particular, offer truly intelligent radio, and are a joy to experience.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

"A Man Called Ove," by Fredrik Backman

My friend F. recommended “A Man Called Ove” (Washington Square Press, 2015), the first novel by the young (34-year-old) Swedish author Fredrik Backman. I had not heard of it, although subsequently I noticed that it was on some bestseller lists. I read and enjoyed it; it is a good read, and although too blatantly aiming to be “heartwarming,” it is in fact heartwarming, and I admit to slightly tearing up a couple of times while reading it, simultaneously laughing at myself for being so easily manipulated. This is the story of an older man, Ove, who has recently been widowed; he is mourning his beloved wife, Sonja, who had been the center of his universe. Ove is the definition of rigid, grumpy, and curmudgeonly. However (predictably for this kind of novel), he is also a moral, honest, and good man at heart, and while downplaying or even hiding it, and grumbling all the way, he helps many people. He learned from his father how to behave in the world, and he follows those principles the rest of his life. But because he misses Sonja so much, and then lost his job (since although he was an excellent worker, he wasn’t willing or able to change with the times), he has decided to end his life in order to join Sonja in the afterlife. (My telling you this is not a spoiler, as the plot point is introduced very early on.) But every time he plans to do this, something happens with one of his neighbors or someone else that demands his attention and assistance, and he reluctantly postpones his suicide. Through these various episodes, he grows closer to old friends and neighbors, and new ones; they form a mutually supportive community of sorts. Although never actually admitting that these people have become important to him, almost like an extended family, the reader can see his heart thawing. The story is charming, but it is just a bit too self-consciously so. Despite this, as I said, I enjoyed it. It is a quick read as well.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

"Alive, Alive Oh!", by Diana Athill

I absolutely loved British publisher and writer Diana Athill’s best-known memoirs (out of seven she has now written! but I think only a few of them have been published in the U.S.), “Stet” and “Somewhere Towards the End,” as well as some others of her writings (letters, etc.). Athill, now 98 years old, has had a long, fascinating life working in publishing and living a somewhat unorthodox personal life (unorthodox by the standards of society during her youth and middle age); it has been a pleasure to hear her perspective as a vital older woman. And she is a terrific writer. When I heard she had just published a new memoir, “Alive, Alive Oh!” (Norton, 2016), I was interested, but thought perhaps she wouldn’t have a lot that was new to say. How wrong I was! In “Stet,” she focused on her earlier years and her career and love life, among other topics. In “Somewhere Towards the End,” she wrote frankly about what it is like aging and being an older woman, meanwhile weaving in stories of her past. In this new book, which is divided into several sections (including “My Grandparents’ Garden,” “Post-War,” “Beloved Books,” and a few more), she focuses on different aspects of her life. She says, for example, that in earlier memoirs she has written mostly about people in her life, but as she is deep into her nineties now, she thinks a lot about landscapes, scenes, and gardens in her life; she describes some of them here. She writes about moving into a retirement home, and how she initially didn’t really want to, but did so out of worrying about the friends who would have to take care of her if she didn’t. She discovers, to her surprise, that the new home offers interesting and rewarding new experiences and friendships. When she does look back, she remembers what life was like after World War II; she tells us with scrupulous and painful candidness about a time she was unexpectedly pregnant, agonized about what to do, decided to keep the baby, and then lost it to miscarriage; she muses on how quickly the British Empire fell apart; she writes about what she learned during her time living in Tobago, and is particularly astute about race, including writing thoughtfully but pointedly about the self-congratulatory and condescending attitudes of white Europeans living there and “helping” the inhabitants of the island; other topics are equally intriguing, and she is equally thoughtful and incisive about them. This book, like the earlier ones, is engaging, thoughtful, fresh, and beautifully written. We get a real sense of Athill’s personality, character, temperament, opinions, preferences, and life. And although she is now 98, I would never say this book is “good, considering how old the author is”; not at all; in fact, it is excellent coming from any author, at any age. And we readers benefit from her experience, her hard-won wisdom, and her ability to write compellingly about it all. I hope she will write more memoirs!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Which Words in Blurbs Attract You to a Book?

I’ve written before that certain words in book reviews and book blurbs attract me, and certain others are almost always deal-breakers for me. I imagine you have the same experience with blurbs. Here’s an example of words used in a full-page ad for the novel “The Vegetarian,” by Han Kang (I saw it in The New York Times Book Review, 2/7/16, p. 5). I don’t know anything else about the book than what I saw in the ad, which contained blurbs from various authors. The words in the blurbs that were positive for me: beautiful, unsettling, terrific, complex, scarily familiar, incredible, stunningly moving, searing, painfully tender. The words in the ad that turned my interest off, at least to some extent: violence, terrifying, surrealism, Kafka, strange. Of course if I read an actual review, or leaf through the book at a bookstore or library, I will have a better sense of the balance of these elements, and a better sense of whether it is a book I might want to read. (P.S. After I wrote this, I noticed that there is a review of the book later in the same issue of The New York Times Book Review. I read the review, and it sounds well written, powerful, and very depressing. I think it might be the kind of book I would admire but not enjoy.)

Thursday, February 4, 2016

More on the Reading Group, Still Thriving

After a hiatus of many months, a delay that just sort of happened rather than being intentional, the longtime Reading Group of which I am a part met last Sunday. Martha was our host, as always creating a warm and inviting place and afternoon for us. We shared wine, appetizers, and a delicious meal, while we talked and talked, catching up on everyone’s lives. Since we hadn’t met for a long time, we didn’t have a particular assigned book this time, but rather each person shared what she had been reading lately, and exchanged ideas of what else we could read. I have written here about this Reading Group on 1/26/10 and 1/8/12, and now want to write about it again because it is such a privilege and pleasure to be part of this wonderful group of six women, and I want to acknowledge and celebrate it once again. The group has now existed for decades, in evolving forms, and with some changes over the years, and has throughout been an ongoing mix of talk, books, and sharing of our lives, book-related and otherwise. I sometimes marvel at what we have created with this group: a rare and treasured community with much history. Our gatherings and our talks are pure joy. We look forward to many more years, many more meetings, many more books, and many more conversations.
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