Tuesday, March 29, 2016

"Mr. Chartwell," by Rebecca Hunt

In “Mr. Chartwell” (Books on Tape/Random House, 2011, read by Susan Duerden), Rebecca Hunt animates the famous “black dog” (his own words) of depression that Winston Churchill suffered from his whole life. The metaphorical concept here becomes a huge, real, speaking black dog, one whom only a few people can see and hear. The dog haunts Churchill and others, including the other main character of this book, Esther Hammerhans, a librarian at the House of Commons in London. She has lost her beloved husband to suicide, and when the black dog, variously called Mr. Chartwell and Black Mac, comes to stay as a lodger with her, she comes to understand that he had haunted her husband and now wants to move in with her. The rest of the story is about her struggle to resist him, despite his occasional charm and persuasiveness. At one point Esther meets the elderly, about-to-retire Churchill, and they each realize that the other can see and hear the dog; Churchill knows he can now never escape the dog and the depression himself, but he tries to give Esther encouragement and psychological weapons to fight off the dog and the depression while she is still young and before it is too late for her. I have probably told you too much of the plot, but honestly I don’t really recommend the novel, so I don’t feel bad about telling you this much. For one thing, the story is, well, depressing. And second, the dog character is a weird mixture of person and dog, and is rather disgusting at times. The depression-as-an-actual-black-dog is an interesting conceit, the story made for an entertaining-enough listen during a road trip, and of course I enjoy stories of England and especially London. But otherwise I would have had no reason to read the novel, or to urge you to read it.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

"The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend," by Katarina Bivald

I always feel a sense of caution when a novel is billed as “HEARTWARMING and utterly CHARMING,” as is “The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend” (Sourcebooks, 2016, translated from the Swedish by Alice Menzies), by Katarina Bivald. And the blurbs on the first page and on the back cover (which I always check when deciding whether to read a book) are mostly by relatively unknown or non-literary writers and reviewers. But the novel is about books, an unlikely bookstore arising out of an unlikely friendship, reluctant readers being turned on to books, small town America, an appealing main character who is in love with books, and --- yes, of course -- an unlikely love affair that encounters obstacles that are overcome with the help of the quirky, lovable townspeople. How could I resist? The writing is competent but not polished, those quirky characters are a bit too charmingly eccentric, and the story is quite predictable. Despite all this, I read the book and enjoyed it. The plot involves a young Swedish woman, Sara, who comes to visit her elderly American pen pal, Amy, in a tiny town in Iowa, called Broken Wheel; the town is -- at least outwardly -- as broken as its too-symbolic name suggests. When she gets there, Sara finds that Amy has just died, but this unusual visitor is welcomed, almost adopted by the local people, and improbably ends up setting up a bookstore with their collective assistance. And then the initially confusing, somewhat star-crossed romance begins, with its faint echoes of Elizabeth and Darcy’s initial misunderstandings. There are a couple of side stories of other romances and connections too. All are just too darn heartwarming for words. And sometimes there is nothing wrong with that.

Friday, March 18, 2016

"The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship," by Paul Lisicky

Paul Lisicky has written a memoir about a very close friend, a longtime lover-then-husband, and his mother, and how he loses all three of them in the 2000s. In “The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship” (Graywolf, 2016), the author mostly focuses on the period of 2007-2010, but with dips into the past. The three stories of his three losses are interwoven, with the stories of his friend and of his husband paramount. Although his stated main focus is on his friendship with the late novelist Denise Gess, with whom he has an unusually close friendship, and although she is an intense, vivid person, I never felt that I could see her clearly. The stories from her illness (cancer), treatment, and death are heartbreaking, but Lisicky himself still seems to be at the center of the stories. It is somehow easier to know Lisicky’s partner, the poet Mark Doty (known only as “M” in this memoir). Their breakup after more than a dozen years is also heartbreaking, and it is surprising that Lisicky, although devastated, seems to take it without much protest, almost as if, having been the junior partner (both age-wise and in professional status) in their relationship for so long, he feels he has no agency, no equality in the relationship or the breakup. In addition to losing the relationship, he loses the life the two have led together, including an apartment in New York and a vacation house, and financial support; he briefly but poignantly states that he has very little money or property himself after the breakup. The third loss, of his mother upon her death, is quieter and less an element in the story, but nevertheless, a real loss as well. Although the author shows us that he has gradually gained professional status, he does not emphasize his own achievements, except to speculate that Denise may have felt a bit left behind, as she had little success after her well-received first novel. Interspersed with these stories (thoughtfully introduced with the year in which each happened, a real aid in understanding the back-and-forth of the episodes) are stories of, and meditations on, natural disasters and climate change. Lisicky seems to have a sincere fascination with, and worry about, these unfortunate natural events, but the passages about them seem a bit too self-consciously to match the storms and disasters in his own life. Undergirding, and sometimes undercutting, the stories of strong connection and terrible loss is a strong current of ambivalence about the three people he has lost. He loves them all, is fiercely connected especially to Denise and M, yet at times rebels against the connections and even, in Denise’s case, is semi-estranged from her for periods of time. Of course these are normal shifts and fluxes in human relationships, but sometimes they appeared unexpectedly. I found this memoir quite compelling, and I am glad I read it. However, I have to admit that at times I felt that the author was somewhat too self-conscious about what he was revealing to readers, and that added a layer of separation or distance that he may or may not have intended.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

"Station Eleven," by Emily St. John Mandel

Readers of this blog will know that I have always been completely uninterested in science fiction. OK, I have read a few of Ursula Le Guin’s stories, which are wonderful, and a little more fiction from the genre, including some of the famous utopian and dystopian novels, but overall very little. In fact, I will admit, while acknowledging its place in literature, and that some of it is written at a very literary level, I have been somewhat dismissive of it. (I know, I know…this was highly presumptuous of me.) Recently, during a conversation with my friend J., it came up that I had liked Emily St. John Mandel’s novel “Last Night in Montreal,” (see my post of 11/1/15) but had not read her perhaps more famous novel “Station Eleven” (Knopf, 2014) because it was labeled as science fiction. J. told me that in fact, despite its science fiction aspects, the book was much more than that, and was a compelling book about character, relationships, and choices. Because I trust her judgment, I thought, “Well, I should at least give it a try,” and obtained a copy of the book, thinking I would at least start it and see whether I wanted to continue reading it. Well, J. was right! I was immediately swept up in the novel, and never considered stopping reading it. It is set in the present and the near future, and starts at a Shakespeare performance in Toronto, during which we are introduced to some of the main characters. Soon after, a terrible virus becomes pandemic. The rest of the book tells of the lives of the survivors in a world without infrastructure, electricity, media, etc. The group of people most focused on in the novel forms a traveling combination symphony and theater group, and performs wherever they go. There are some flashbacks to pre-pandemic days, giving us more background about some of the characters. The reason I liked this novel, despite my anti-science fiction preferences, is that the focus is (as J. had told me) still on human behavior, characteristics, and relationships, in a stripped-down version of our modern world. By the way, I am very aware that this is the second recent post in which I have needed to eat some humble pie and acknowledge that I was wrong about my preconceptions about a book. It reminds me of the importance of pushing myself to stretch beyond my immediate responses to hearing about a new book that others are telling me is excellent. Sometimes that first response is right (for me, at least), but I need to give such books more consideration, and maybe at least leaf through them, or read their first couple of chapters, before deciding whether to continue reading them.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

"My Name is Lucy Barton," by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout, best known as author of the highly praised bestseller “Olive Kittredge,” and author of several other works of fiction, has a new novel out: “My Name is Lucy Barton” (Random House, 2016). It is a short book (under 200 pages), and takes place mostly in a room in a hospital, over a period of only a few days, so there is a feeling of focus, containment, and even a bit of claustrophobia. It does allude to earlier events in the characters’ lives as well, but those events seem misty and far away. Lucy Barton has a strange and not-completely-identified illness or infection, following a simple surgery, that keeps her in the hospital for several weeks. Her husband hates hospitals and mostly stays away; he is also busy working and taking care of their two young daughters. Out of the blue, it seems (although it later turns out that Lucy’s husband has made a phone call), Lucy’s long-semi-estranged mother shows up at the hospital and settles into a guest chair, even sleeping there, refusing nurses’ offers of a cot. Lucy has missed her mother, even though she is associated in her mind with a very poor, very difficult childhood, and is touchingly happy to have her mother with her. They mostly talk or just stay quietly together. The talk is about unremarkable topics, such as her mother’s passing on news about people in the small town where she lives and where Lucy grew up. Once in a while they touch on the difficult matters of their lives during Lucy’s childhood, but tend to move away from such fraught topics before they go too deeply into them. However, Lucy derives deep comfort from the half-said things, the brief motherly touches, and her newly gained sense of having a history and being loved, something she was always insecure about. On the surface, this story is quite simple, and the author apparently does not feel the need to, or want to, explain everything about the backgrounds of the characters; she tells of them in glancing ways, and leaves it to readers to understand or speculate, or simply to accept that we can never know all there is to know. Obviously a strong theme is that of mother-daughter relationships, as is the theme of the lasting psychological effects of childhood, especially of difficult childhoods. But there is nothing didactic about this book. Readers feel they are fortunate to be able to eavesdrop on Lucy’s and her mother’s conversations, and even to sit quietly with them during the times when they barely speak.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

"My Life on the Road," by Gloria Steinem

When I heard about feminist icon Gloria Steinem’s new book, “My Life on the Road” (Random House, 2015), I was mildly interested. After all, I have been a feminist since college at least, a subscriber to Ms. Magazine from the beginning, and an admirer of Steinem and other feminist leaders for all these years. But I didn’t immediately rush to get the book, as I thought perhaps there wouldn’t be much that was new to me. I know that sounds, and is, presumptuous, but as one who has followed feminist news and publications all these years, and even done some feminist work (mostly teaching but also some advocacy) and writing myself, on a very small scale, I thought I knew more than, as it turns out, I do. This book is packed with history (personal, national, and global) and politics, gained in a long life thoroughly lived. Steinem is perhaps the epitome of an activist and organizer, as well as, of course, a writer. She is on the road far more than she is at home, even now at the age of 81. She travels to and speaks at an incredible range of political meetings, campuses, organizations, fundraising opportunities, and much more. Despite the long flights and rides, the nights in various hotels, dorms, spare bedrooms, and sometimes on meeting room floors, and the various privations of being far from home (which she alludes to but never at length and never in a complaining tone), she takes genuine pleasure in the experiences she has, the people she meets, and the opportunities to learn as well as speak and organize. The tone of the book is conversational, although the book is clearly organized and well written. Steinem’s voice is positive, informational, enjoyable, and inspiring. Although she does describe many accomplishments of the women’s movement and many achievements helped along by her own work, she never sounds egotistical, she never boasts, and she always gives generous credit to other activists, writers, politicians, and others. And of course she points out what still needs to be done. I am humbled to read more details than I ever knew about her incredible work for the cause of women’s rights, as well as against racism and for other good causes. She believes that sexism and racism are inextricably intertwined, and never allows the fights against the two to compete. I am also, parenthetically, highly impressed by her seemingly limitless energy! And, to get back to my clueless statement about thinking there wouldn’t be much new to me: I was so wrong. I learned from almost every page. I learned so much about the women’s movement, about organizations and activism, about people in various parts of the United States and elsewhere, about Florynce Kennedy and other feminist leaders, and about Steinems’ own parents and childhood years (very humble). Steinem always praises her colleagues and others she encounters. She believes in the importance of each person’s story, and she seems to genuinely listen carefully to, enjoy and learn from the stories of taxi drivers, flight attendants, college students, and others she meets “on the road.” Among other areas about which she has learned are the history, lives, rites, and activism of Native Americans, especially Native American women such as her dear friend, the activist and leader Wilma Mankiller. Steinem obviously has a strong desire to fight for social justice, especially but not only for women, and she does so in a positive, collaborative way that seems to be very effective. I am in awe of her, and of her devoting such a huge portion of her life to this invaluable work. And I am grateful to her for her part in the changes that have come about in the lives of women and others who have lacked equality and justice. I highly, highly recommend this book.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Flashback to Memories of Being the "Book Auntie"

This is a frankly (blatantly?) warm-and-fuzzy family-children-and-books story, one with a (perhaps unseemly) touch of self-congratulation. But I can’t resist. The background: Several of my (six) nieces and my (one) nephew, now all adults or near-adults, have been kind enough to say that I helped to influence them to love reading, which as you can imagine, warms my heart incredibly. When they were small, I enjoyed giving them books, reading to them, taking them to bookstores and libraries, whenever possible. Some of them lived across the country, but I saw them at least once a year in the leisurely setting of my parents’ lakeside summer cottage, where we converged, and where the “Michigan cousins” and my daughter happily played together, basking in the surroundings and in the attention of their wonderful grandparents. One frequent outing was to the charming little local library on its own miniature island, approached by a footbridge. Another was to a nearby bookstore, where I told each child she or he could pick out one book each time as a gift from me. There were piles of books, children’s and adults', at the cottage, and lots of reading to the kids, as well as their reading on their own. Of course they read and were read to at home too, encouraged by their parents, but I enjoyed my special role as the “book auntie.” OK, so bringing the story up to the present: A couple of days ago, one of my nieces, A., who now has three young children of her own, sent me a short video of the oldest one (7 years old) reading to the youngest (2 years old). He was reading her the wonderful, wonderful book “Jamberry,” which I loved reading to my daughter and to my nieces and nephew when they were little, and which I gave A.’s oldest son when he was about one year old. It was so cute, and so heartwarming, to hear this young reader reading the beloved exuberant and poetic book’s words to his little sister, and at the same time to go on a nostalgic flashback to my reading that book to my daughter and her cousins at home and at the cottage. So, I thank my niece A. for providing me with this lovely scene and lovely memory! And I can’t end this entry without putting in an enthusiastic word for this delightful, irresistible book for very young readers (one that is also fun for their parents and other grown-up readers), “Jamberry,” written and illustrated by Bruce Degen. Here are a couple of excerpts:“One berry, Two berry, Pick me a blackberry….Raspberry, Jazzberry, Razzmattazzberry, Berryband, Merryband, Jamming in Berryland…” The words practically sing themselves off the page! The illustrations are equally creative, energetic, and joyful.
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