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.
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