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 clich├ęd 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.
 
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