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.
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