Saturday, August 19, 2017

"A House Among the Trees" and "Goodbye, Vitamin"

I apologize for the little break there…This past week has been particularly busy (highlights: my mother’s 91st birthday party; my finishing and submitting the manuscript of my book to my publisher; the beginning of the Fall semester at my university). But I have kept reading throughout, as I always do, no matter what! Here I will just list and briefly annotate the last two books I have read, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. 1. “A House Among the Trees” (Pantheon, 2017), by Julia Glass. I read Glass’s first novel, “Three Junes,” and was pretty much hooked by her work from then on. She is such a great storyteller. This latest novel, a substantial one (349 pages), is the story of a famous author of children’s books, Mort Lear (a writer at the level of and possibly partly modeled on Maurice Sendak), along with several other characters, including his longtime assistant and the actor who is going to portray Lear in a movie. Lear dies in an accident very early in the book, and everyone else tries to pick up the pieces and carry on, meanwhile finding out more and more about aspects of his background, going back to his childhood, that he had not revealed when he was alive. This is a rich, full book, with many characters and story lines; it goes back and forth in time. It is psychologically rich and complex as well. 2. Rachel Khong’s novel “Goodbye, Vitamin” (Henry Holt, 2017) a much slimmer volume (194 smallish pages) but almost as engaging, is narrated by the daughter of a well-known professor father who is in the early-to-middle stages of memory loss and dementia. Ruth is at loose ends, coming out of a broken engagement and not settled into any career, so she goes home to think, take a break, and help her mother during this difficult time with her father. Ruth is dismayed at her father’s situation, but also has some lovely moments of connection with him. She reconnects with old friends as well, and starts to become involved with some local people and activities, including some of her father’s graduate students. She also comes to understand some issues between her mother and father. Ruth narrates the story in diary form, which works well in this book. While not downplaying the terrible damage and pain caused by dementia, both to the person himself and his loved ones and others in his life, the novel is surprisingly positive and even uplifting (but not in a sentimental or self-help sort of way), and very engaging. The fact that there is a fair amount of humor and even whimsy in the book as well is a bright spot. (Oh, and I am proud to say that Khong is yet another gifted San Francisco writer!)

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

"In Other Words," by Jhumpa Lahiri

Those of you who have been reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s wonderful fiction over the years, as I have, may know that she has now done something quite radical. She decided that she wanted to learn Italian, and to write and publish in Italian. So she and her family moved to Rome for over a year to facilitate this immersion in Italian. Writing at all, let alone literary works, in a new language is a staggeringly difficult thing to do. First, learning the language well is very hard in itself, as anyone who has tried to learn a second or third language as an adult knows. Then to learn it well enough to write and publish a literary book, with the added pressure of her audience’s high expectations for her writing, is truly impressive. Yes, other writers have written in new languages (e.g., Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, Eva Hoffman, Samuel Beckett, Milan Kundera), some out of necessity and some because they felt drawn to challenging themselves in this way. But no one has said it was easy. I have just finished reading Lahiri’s book about her decision to learn and write in Italian, “In Other Words” (Vintage, 2017, originally published 2015). The book has the Italian version on the lefthand page and the English translation by the noted translator Ann Goldstein on the righthand page. (As an aside, seeing this layout gave me a flashback to a graduate seminar I took many years ago on Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” with a similar layout of the text; although neither I nor most of the other students knew Italian, our professor had us read the Italian poetry silently and aloud to experience and appreciate its sound and its grandeur.) Lahiri seems modest, and writes earnestly and candidly about her struggles and doubts, and yet she is determined to meet this challenge she has set herself. It is never entirely clear why, although she speaks of her varying and ambivalent feelings about her “mother tongue,” Bengali, and the language she grew up with and has written in, English, and the different relationships she has with each. She does say that unlike her mother, who moved to the United States but always kept her habits and behaviors from Calcutta, she (Lahiri) felt an insistence to transform herself. The first story she wrote in Italian began “There was a woman…who wanted to be another person.” She goes on to say, in this current book (p. 169) that “All my life I’ve tried to get away from the void of my origin….That’s why I was never happy with myself. Change seemed the only solution.” She is mysteriously drawn to Italian, yes, but it also seems she feels the need to set herself this very difficult task, almost to test herself against it. She writes of lessons, of dreams, of progress, of setbacks, of discouragement, of fears. At the end of the book, she says that although she is not satisfied with the book, she feels it is an accomplishment. She is not sure what will happen next, when she returns to the United States, and whether she will continue to write in Italian or go back to English, knowing that each choice would have serious and perhaps permanent implications for her writing.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

"Less," by Andrew Sean Greer

I like books that surprise me, and “Less” (Little, Brown, 2017), by Andrew Sean Greer, did that. I was already a fan of this writer, especially of “The Story of a Marriage,” so I was predisposed to like “Less,” and I did like it. The “Less” in question is Arthur Less (but clearly the title can be interpreted in other ways too…this insecure character may feel he is “less”), a middle-aged, mid-list writer who decides he absolutely cannot attend his former lover Freddy’s wedding; it would be too sad and too humiliating. So Less decides to make sure to be out of town, and in fact mostly out of the country, for several weeks. He does this by cobbling together acceptances to invitations to teach, speak, read, and write, in Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Morocco, and India. Naturally various adventures, mostly comic, ensue, along with a bit of romance. Arthur is sometimes a bit of a sad sack, but he is very self-aware about this, and he is also an endearing character whom one roots for. The way the novel is structured is intriguing (a chapter for each country Less visits), and enjoyable to read. Greer has some fun with some stereotypes about gay men facing the prospect of aging, about writers, about Americans abroad, about lovers and ex-lovers everywhere, and various other targets, but the fun is administered lovingly.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

"The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up," by Marie Kondo

You have probably heard of the worldwide bestselling little hardback book by the Japanese writer, Marie Kondo. It is titled “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” (Ten Speed Press), and is translated from Japanese into English by Cathy Hirano. I am an easy mark for books on organizing. Although I seldom follow their advice, I enjoy reading them, or at minimum, feel virtuous just having them on my bookshelves. This one is actually fun to read, and I have been reading little chunks of it for about a year; I finally finished it a few days ago. Meanwhile, a few months ago I went with my daughter -- also a fan -- to hear Marie Kondo speak, and we both enjoyed the event thoroughly. Kondo is a bit quirky, charming and very charismatic, and even the fact that her talk was translated from Japanese into English as she went along did not slow down or mar the audience’s evident great appreciation for and enjoyment of her speech, accompanied by a few – but only a few – props and power point slides. She’s obviously a star, with enthusiastic fans. Her main point can be boiled down to this: Put all your belongings (according to categories) out, and lift and touch each one to determine if it “sparks joy.” If not, get rid of it. Meanwhile, treat your possessions with respect, even talking to them and thanking them for what they do for you. If you do this, not only will your house be clearer and more peaceful, but so will your life. There are many specifics, including lists, and many examples from her work with hundreds of clients in Japan and elsewhere (she has a three-month waiting list). Her method is called the KonMari Method. I am quite enchanted with all this, but I haven’t yet put any of it into practice. My daughter, on the other hand, has been working her way through the categories, and has gotten rid of (given away, recycled, thrown away) large quantities of possessions. (She still has plenty left!) It may be that Kondo is not telling us anything very different from what dozens of other organization specialists have, but she has her own perspective and her own method, enhanced by her charming personality that comes across clearly in her little book. Who knows, one of these days maybe I will actually try her method!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

"The Accomplished Guest" by Ann Beattie

Of course I had to read the new Ann Beattie short story collection! I have been reading her for decades, from the beginning. I may not have read every single one of her 20 books (novels and short story collections), but I am guessing I have read at least 15 of them. Not to mention all the New Yorker stories she has published (I have been reading the New Yorker most of my adult life). Beattie has such a distinctive voice: engaged but somehow dry, ironic, with a little distance. There is emotion, but it is muted, understated, not quite acknowledged. This latest collection is titled “The Accomplished Guest” (Scribner, 2017). Beattie lives in Maine and in Key West, Florida, and many of the stories in this book take place in those settings, as well as in East Coast points in between the two. Her main characters tend to be affluent and older. People are often traveling to weddings, reunions, and other such gatherings, fraught with possibilities of tension and unpredictable reactions. Interestingly, the men in the stories tend to be sad, depressed, deprived, abandoned, sick, alcoholic, or otherwise impaired. I know that I will keep reading Ann Beattie’s fiction.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

"The Identicals," by Elin Hilderbrand

I am writing an academic book (no, not a novel, although I wish I had the talent to do so!); the deadline for submitting my manuscript to my publisher is next month, so I have been spending much of my time this summer working hard to finish. One recent weekend, I spent my morning doing my usual Saturday home-related chores and errands, and my afternoon writing for several hours at our local library, where I also checked out some books, mostly novels. I came home planning to eat dinner and then write some more. But after dinner I thought I would read for a few minutes before working. I sat down with a novel I had specifically gotten for relaxation, a classic “beach novel,” “The Identicals” (Little, Brown, 2017), by Elin Hilderbrand. A half an hour later, I told myself to stop reading and start working again. Then: “Well, just a little longer.” And “just one more chapter.” You can see where this is going, right? Three or four hours later, I finished the last chapter and finally came up for air. Was it worth it? Well, yes. It is a classic page turner, goes down easy, and I just couldn’t break away. My rationale afterward was that I had worked pretty hard that day (and week, and month), and I “needed” something fun and relaxing; this book fit the bill perfectly. (And I went back to writing the next day with renewed energy!) The story involves twin sisters in their late thirties, one of whom lives on Martha’s Vineyard and the other on Nantucket; they used to be very close, but became semi-estranged after one goes to live with one parent and the other with the other. Each of them has a complicated life, including a complicated love life. Lots of plotty plot ensues, including mix-ups (they are, after all, identical twins; there are even allusions to the Hayley Mills twins movie, “The Parent Trap”), heartbreak, suspense, and yes, lots of scenes of beaches and of the charming towns of the two islands. There is also much mention of markets, cafes, and food, including the specialties of various places on each island. All great fun. Throughout there is a half-serious, half-humorous mention of a rivalry between the two beautiful islands, the backdrop to a sort of rivalry between the twins. Hilderbrand, the author, has lived on both islands, but has lived on Nantucket for the past 24 years. She writes, she says in her afterword, two books a year. She has clearly found her lane and knows her audience, and that is an honorable thing: she gives her readers pleasure and relaxation. I have written before about my mixed feelings about “beach reads” and “chick lit,” but I believe most of us readers enjoy different genres of books at different times for different purposes. “The Identicals” was just what I needed at this specific time.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

"The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell," by W. Kamau Bell

I am proud to say that the comedian/writer/performer/activist/television personality W. Kamau Bell intentionally lives in the San Francisco Bay Area (Berkeley to be specific), and hopes to live here indefinitely, although many have advised him he needs to live in Los Angeles or New York. In his quasi-memoir, “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6’4,” African-American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian” (Dutton, 2017), he writes lovingly of the comedy scene in San Francisco over the past decades, and how he got some of his best opportunities at local comedy clubs. But before that, he lived all over the United States as a child, and points out that he grew up as a “blerd” (black nerd) rather than as a cool kid. This memoir is a somewhat loosely connected set of essays, more or less in chronological order, about his life, his slow climb in the comedy world, his setbacks and his successes, his marriage to a white woman, his two little daughters, what it is like to be a black male (especially a tall one) in America, his thoughts about politics and especially racism and sexism, and more. His voice is engaging; he tells hard truths but tells them in carefully chosen words. He comes across as very candid, very open, very concerned about the future of the country and of his daughters, and committed to making a difference however he can, especially through using his comedic gifts and through being the best father he can be. The essayistic format does mean there is some repetition across the chapters, but this is a small quibble.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

"The Heirs," by Susan Rieger

“The Heirs” (Crown, 2017), by Susan Rieger, is another compelling novel about family, the kind I like, but a rather chilly one. Not chilling (there is suspense, but not of the scary variety), but chilly. This is mainly because several of the main characters are rather contained, with their own secrets, and their belief that one doesn’t make a fuss or show too much feeling, and one certainly doesn’t have to tell everyone (even one’s own spouse) everything. Rupert Falkes, who was an orphan in England but was able to get a good education and make some good connections, arrives in New York with not much money, but eventually makes his way, and marries the lovely and witty Eleanor. Rupert is successful, the couple has five talented sons, and the family makes a good and very comfortable life (big apartment, private schools and Princeton educations for the children, etc.) for themselves in Manhattan. But when Rupert dies after decades of marriage, a woman claims she had an affair with him a long time ago, and had two sons by him; she sues his estate for what she claims is their share of his money. (This happens very early in the novel, not to mention being the first thing on the front cover flap, so I am definitely not giving away too much of the plot here!) Eleanor takes this with surprising poise, but some of her sons are more upset. This surprising event brings many stresses to the fore, although despite it all, the family stays strong. Gradually the past becomes clearer, and of course it is more complicated than any one side of the story. I found this novel carried me along with interest; the writing is very good, and the author clearly is in complete control of her gifts and of the story. The descriptions of Manhattan and life in the upper middle class there seem to me spot on (of course what I know about that is based on a few visits over the years but mostly on all the many novels set in Manhattan that I have read!). So yes, “The Heirs” features slightly chilly characters, but a satisfying story with enjoyable twists and turns. The front flap copy concludes that this novel “is a tale out of Edith Wharton for the twenty-first century”; I wouldn’t go that far, but there is a whiff of truth in that claim.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Beautiful Book Gifts from a Dear Friend

My wonderful friend B., whom I have known for a very long time, and who knows so much about literature, is downsizing, and last week gave me some beautiful books from her shelves. She had carefully chosen, among a set of beautifully bound and embossed classics, ones she knew I would like, such as “Jane Eyre,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Anna Karenina,” “Vanity Fair,” and “Madame Bovary.” I have read each of these more than once, in different editions, at different times in my life, and hope to read each of them again. It is special to have these impressive volumes of several of my favorites close at hand. I am honored to be the new caretaker of these gorgeous books, and of course they mean even more to me because they were B.’s and because she shared them with me. They now have a space in one of my bookcases, along with some books B. gave me earlier (volumes of the very comprehensive, informative and fascinating Oxford History of English Literature series). These books remind me of the great love of literature that B. and I share; what a bond it is!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

"This Must Be the Place," by Maggie O'Farrell

I love short stories and the occasional nonfiction book (memoirs, etc.), both of which I have been reading lately, but it is always good to get back to novels; novels feel like home. Exciting, different, familiar, loud, quiet, attention-grabbing, subtle versions of home, yes. But home. Maggie O’Farrell’s novel, “This Must Be the Place” (Knopf, 2016) has original (but familiar too) characters, intriguing relationships among the characters, and a satisfyingly unpredictable plot that in the end makes sense. The writing is masterful, without showing off or drawing too much attention to itself. I don’t want to say too much about the plot or risk giving away any of the secrets. But here’s a taste: the main character, Daniel, an academic, spends his life going back and forth among New York, California, and Ireland. He has two sets of children in two places far apart, and has been devastated by not being able to see one set for many years. He loves his wife and younger children now, but there is a huge secret about his family that has to stay hidden, and this secret dominates much of their lives. There is also another secret about his past, regarding his first true love, that he is suddenly reminded of and feels he has to investigate, a secret that intersects with his current life as well. As in most of my favorite novels, though, the important things are the characters, and marriage and family, and how intricately different they are in many ways, yet so similar in other ways. O’Farrell manages a beautiful balance between the unpredictable and surprising, on the one hand, and the known and recognizable, on the other. This is a rich, full novel that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

"Living in the Weather of the World," by Richard Bausch

I have not read a lot by Richard Bausch, the novelist and short story writer (and occasional poet), but what I have read (mainly short stories), I have liked. I recently finished reading his latest short story collection, “Living in the Weather of the World” (Knopf, 2017). Great title, right? Bausch’s characters are very realistic, but caught up in odd sorts of situations. A police officer and the man who held him up at gunpoint end up talking about their difficult marriages; what is fascinating is that the assailant’s disintegrating marriage and his devastation are the focus of the story, rather than the crime he commits. A wife leaves her husband because of his affair; he is shocked and overwhelmed; he tells his mistress and it turns out she is about to leave him as well. Ah, the irony! A man fields a phone call from his suicidal mistress in the middle of the night, with his sleeping wife nearby; this reader finds herself torn about whom she is supposed to sympathize with. A wife discovers her own straying husband when the hospital calls and says he is in ICU; she thought he was at a movie with his brother, but apparently he was with his mistress. So there is a lot about marriage and a lot about infidelity in these stories. Depressing, but interesting. Also: A man meets his half sister, whom he hasn’t seen since she was a child. A 99-year-old man is reunited with the German soldier who saved his life 72 years earlier. And so on. The intriguing events certainly hold our interest, but as always, for me, it is the portrayals of the characters and their interactions (including marriage) that most capture my attention (and admiration, in the case of a gifted writer such as Bausch). The author has just the right distance from the characters – involved, but with a necessary wariness as well. He is also a master of dialogue.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Blogging as a Feminist Reader

I compose my blog posts as an individual, as a woman, and as a feminist. (As we know, the latter two categories overlap but are not the same; some women are not feminists, and some men are.) I am pretty sure that those who have read this blog with any frequency will have noticed that I read and post about substantially more books by women than by men. And I often discuss in my posts a writer’s status as a feminist, or the feminist perspectives of certain books. (A quick search in the search box in the top lefthand corner of this blog will show numerous uses of the words “feminist” and “feminism.”) As a feminist reader, I am drawn (although of course not exclusively) to books by women writers, and/or with women main characters. I think about which gender messages the book sends. I think about how the book contributes to the larger history and culture of literature by women and literature in general. Of course I read and appreciate good books by male writers, and especially appreciate them if they seem to have a feminist sensibility, by which I mean they include women characters as people, not as marginal characters or accessories to the main story, or worse. But for so many years, especially during my childhood and young adulthood, most books that were available, and that we read in school, or that were recommended to us as classics, as “the best,” were by male writers. So in a sense I have been, in my own reading, in my teaching, and in my blogging, evening the balance ever since. I am very glad that more women are writing and being published and read. But reports from writers and women’s organizations show that there is still discrimination in the publishing world, such as in the ways books (and other literary works – stories, poems, essays) are chosen, labeled, marketed, reviewed, and awarded prizes. (For information on this, I recommend the organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, especially its annual counts of representation of women in literary magazines, etc.) So there is still progress to be made. I hope it is clear that I am not prejudiced against books by male writers, or for books by female writers. I just want a balance in their roles in the world of books.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

"My Life with Bob," by Pamela Paul

When I heard that Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, had a new book out about her years of keeping a list of all the books she had read, I was excited. This is something I have done since I was ten years old. This was one of the first topics I wrote about when I started this blog (see my post of 11/24/10, one of three posts I wrote that day; I was eager to get blogging!). A day after that first post, I posted the first 50 and the 50 most recent titles on that list, to give a flavor of my early reading and my current reading. I have always treasured my book list, kept in plain notebooks; I am now on volume 4. Like Pamela Paul, I enter the author’s name and title for each book. She writes the dates by months; I write the date that I begin each new page in the notebook. I also number each book, which she does not, although she says in the book that she wishes she had. I sometimes add the genre of the book (but the default is fiction), or a note if I listened to the book on tape or CD, or, if it is a second or third read, a note to that effect. I have thought of more elaborate notations, perhaps dates of publication, a word or two of evaluation, etc., but decided to keep it simple. Pamela Paul’s book is titled “My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues” (Henry Holt, 2017). So it is a book about a "book book," if I may put it that way. “Bob” is an abbreviation of “Book of Books”; I never thought of giving my list a name. I wonder if it is too late now? I will have to ponder that. Paul started her list a little later than I did – in high school. She has now kept the list for 28 years; I have kept mine for quite a few years more, but I am too vain to tell you the exact number! She treasures Bob, and in this book, tells the story of the list as it illustrates not only her love of books, but also how books have been part of every facet of her life. This is a memoir centered around Paul’s life in books. She says that “Each entry conjures a memory that may have otherwise gotten lost or blurred with time” (p. 4), and I generally have had the same experience, except that I freely admit that there are some books listed that I can’t remember at all. I will use as my excuse the above-mentioned greater length of time I have been keeping a list, along with the greater number of books I read per year than she does, according to her own count (not that this is a competition!). She, like me, notes every book, whether it be a children’s book, great novel, bestseller, beach read, or any other type of book, and I think for both of us this is an important reminder of the breadth of our reading, and of our enjoyment of different genres at different times. We don’t censor by leaving out books we think might not reflect well on us, or might not be “worthy” of being on the list. Of course I noticed, as I read her opinions and explanations about many of the books she read, that -- as might be expected -- we sometimes agreed about certain books and sometimes disagreed. Paul writes about why she read certain books at certain times in her life, and how they connected to her feelings during high school, college, her travels, her various jobs, her career as a writer and editor, her relationships, her family life, and her being a mother. I admire how she weaves together stories of her reading and her life; we all know these are related, but we cannot all explain the connections as well as this author does. She concludes her book with the following words: “When I look through Bob, the actual stories between his mottled covers may have been written by others, but they belong to me now. Nobody else on the planet has read this particular series of books in this exact order and been affected in precisely this way” (p. 240). Agreed!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

"The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories," by Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively’s writing is like an old friend to me, so much so that I almost feel that Lively herself is an old friend. Of course she is not, but I wish she were. She is wise, she is astute, she is funny, she is worldly, she is observant, and she is kind but aware of human failings. I have written frequently about her fiction here, as well as about a memoiristic book. (A quick check through the search box in the top lefthand corner of this blog will give details for those interested.) Lively is 84, has won the Booker Prize and many other awards, and was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She does not seem to have slowed down in writing; I have just read her latest book, “The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories” (Viking, 2016). I was a bit put off by the first story, which is also the title story, because it is historical (not that I am always against historical fiction, but sometimes I am…perhaps a topic for a future blogpost…) and, especially, because it is whimsical. Lively does occasionally dabble in such stories. I am not saying it is a bad story, just that I am not drawn to such stories. But after that first story, I was back with the Penelope Lively that impresses me every time. I have written about her fiction (and memoir) several times, as I mentioned, and don’t have new ways to say how well she writes, how understanding she is of human nature, and how compelling her stories are, generally in a quiet rather than flashy way, but no less compelling for that. There seem to be two main themes in this collection: the mysteries of marriage (and marriage-like relationships) and the complexities of aging. In particular, regarding marriage, Lively explores marriages, or phases of marriages, that are not, or no longer are, at the romantic stages. Characters, especially wives, start to wonder why they married this particular person, and why they feel they don’t really know him (or her) at all, and whether they should or will stay together. There are so many unknown areas, so many misunderstandings. Or sometimes they feel they have become too familiar to (and sometimes bored with) each other. But then, often, there are reminders and there is understanding that there are factors that keep them together: history together, children, small gestures of caring, and more. These stories show the insides of, the nitty-gritty parts of, marriages and relationships, the good, the bad, and – most often – the complex in-between aspects of marriage. As for aging, Lively often (although not only) writes about characters who are in their sixties or seventies or older. They think about their lives, partly assessing where they have been and where they are, partly surprised to think of themselves as old. Sometimes the two themes -- marriages and aging -- meld. These wise, insightful, clear-eyed, compassionate stories are made of the stuff of real life, and I value and enjoy them more than I can say.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

"Mr. Rochester," by Sarah Shoemaker

These days I am living partly in the 21st Century and partly in the early-to-mid 19th Century. Interwoven with my regular life, I am listening to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” on CD during my commute and a recent road trip. Meanwhile I am reading a hefty (450 pages) novel called “Mr. Rochester” (Grand Central Publishing/Hachette, 2017) by Sarah Shoemaker. This is a novel that imaginatively tells the story of the Mr. Rochester of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” giving us a couple of hundred pages of back story before even reaching the events recounted in the original novel. Those who know me, and/or have read this blog with any regularity, know how devoted I am to Jane Austen’s novels and how many times I have read them all, so I won’t write more about “Pride and Prejudice” in this post except to say that I am, as always, thoroughly enjoying hearing it read to me, and as always, detecting new (to me) nuances as well as revisiting old pleasures of this unsurpassed novel. But I will recommend “Mr. Rochester” to readers. As I have written before, I am somewhat wary of prequels, sequels, alternate versions, etc. of well-known classic novels; they are very hit-or-miss. But this one is definitely a “hit.” It beautifully evokes the style, language, and era in which “Jane Eyre” is set. It is imaginative and creative in filling in the story and character of Rochester, but never violates the spirit of the original. The story of his childhood and early years of manhood definitely makes Rochester more understandable and sympathetic. Shoemaker polishes Rochester’s rough edges a bit, and such softening may be too strategic, making him a more traditional romantic hero. But I am okay with this. As much as I love the novel “Jane Eyre,” and its great romance, it was always a bit hard for me to warm up to Rochester as a character. I know, not every character has to be lovable. And Rochester is admirable in many ways, not to mention the male protagonist of a great love story and a sort of prototype of the strong, gruff, intimidating hero/love interest of many novels in the decades after “Jane Eyre” was published and ever since. But still, I feel that I know and understand his character much better after reading “Mr. Rochester.” I am obviously in no position to know how Bronte would have felt about this book that complements her own, but I tend to think that she would have found it of interest and possibly would have admired it.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

My Favorite Books of 2016

It is time for another list of books I have most admired and enjoyed recently. My last such list was on 12/29/15, when I wrote about “The Best Books I Have Read This Year” (2015). I neglected to make such a list for 2016, so although we are now almost halfway through 2017, I am going back to make a 2016 list. Following are the nine books (all novels or short story collections, mostly published in 2016), in the order that I read them. After each one, I put the date of my blogpost on that book. 1. “A Manual for Cleaning Women: Stories,” by Lucia Berlin (2/20/16). 2. “The Past,” by Tessa Hadley (2/27/16). 3. “My Name is Lucy Barton,” by Elizabeth Strout (3/12/16). 4. “Station Eleven,” by Emily St. John Mandel (3/15/16). 5. “Everybody’s Fool,” by Richard Russo (5/4/16). 6. “The Excellent Lombards,” by Jane Hamilton (9/24/16). 7. “Commonwealth,” by Ann Patchett (11/6/16). 8. “Swing Time,” by Zadie Smith (12/1/16). 9. “The Jungle Around Us: Stories,” by Anne Raeff (12/8/16). If you missed some of these in 2016, I highly recommend taking a look at them. I will save my favorite books so far in 2017 for a new list at the end of this year. (Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed that three of these 2016 authors -- Hadley, Russo, Strout -- also had new books that I posted about in 2017, in fact within the past month.)

Friday, June 16, 2017

RIP Judy Brady

No, Judy Brady wasn’t a famous writer. But she wrote one short and very powerful essay that rapidly became a feminist classic: “I Want a Wife” (sometimes found under her married name, Judy Syfers). This essay, which was published in 1972 in the first issue of Ms. Magazine, and was republished countless times in various anthologies and college textbooks, dramatically and in detail made the point that women could be much more devoted to and successful at their educations, careers and other outside pursuits if, like men, they had wives to take care of all the labor of domestic life. Who wouldn’t want a wife who would cook, clean, care for one’s children, keep track of appointments, organize one’s social life, and take care of one’s emotional and sexual needs? These and many other details of family life were, at the time Brady wrote, considered the expected work of wives. Unfortunately, to varying degrees, these are still considered by many to be the duties of wives. Believing the essay to still be highly relevant, I taught it in a class as recently as two years ago. Brady was, however, not a one-note writer (although that is such an important note!); she was an activist and fought for various social justice causes such as health and the environment, edited two books, and wrote many articles. I was sad to see in the San Francisco Chronicle’s death notices that Judy Brady, who was born in and a longtime resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, died on May 14, 2017 at the age of 80. Thank you, Judy Brady, for your activism and your writing, and for the way you dedicated your life to social justice and to equality for women.

Friday, June 9, 2017

"Saints for All Occasions," by J. Courtney Sullivan

J. Courtney Sullivan has won me over again and again with each of her dramas of friends and families, all sweeping novels: “Commencement” (2009), “Maine” (2011), “The Engagements” (2013), and now “Saints for All Occasions” (Knopf, 2017). In each case, I was a little suspicious of the novels’ being “chick lit” (not that I necessarily have a problem with that genre, if indeed it is a genre, although I do have a problem with the label, as I have written about before with ambivalence…). All four novels tell good stories, ones that make you want to keep reading (for example, I read this latest 300+ page novel in one and a half days during a long holiday weekend); they are about well-developed characters, they have a strong sense of place, the stories play out over many years, they are realistic and compelling, and -- very important to me -- relationships are always the focus. The two main characters are sisters, Nora and Theresa, who leave Ireland in the 1950s as very young women to go to the United States in search of better lives. The story tells something of their lives in Ireland, but most of the novel is set in the U.S., especially Boston and surroundings, with brief side trips to Vermont and to New York. We get to know the sisters’ many relatives, and we see their lives diverging after a dramatic event, a secret that affects the sisters and other family members for decades. Well-delineated are the spouses, children, houses, jobs, lives and deaths in the story, all extraordinarily vivid and real. Nora is a particularly vivid presence. A bonus and a very good sign for me was the blurb by one of my favorite authors (see my very recent post of 6/3/17), Richard Russo, in which he called “Saints for All Occasions” “strong and wise and beautiful and heartbreaking.” If Richard Russo says so, I will never argue, and after reading this compelling novel, I have no inclination to do so.

Monday, June 5, 2017

"Bad Dreams and Other Stories," by Tessa Hadley

I am really on a roll! After reading the short story collections discussed in my last two posts, both so terrific and both displaying such deep knowledge of human nature, I have been fortunate enough to hit a triple (yes, StephanieVandrickReads can use sports metaphors!). Another of my favorite writers, Tessa Hadley, has an excellent new book of short stories out: “Bad Dreams and Other Stories” (HarperCollins, 2017). Author of several wonderful novels and short story collections, including her compelling recent novel “The Past” (see my post of 2/27/16), Hadley always leaves me with (as I put it in another earlier post on Hadley) that “Wow!” feeling readers experience on encountering writing that is original, exciting, real, and both new and deeply familiar. Hadley is English, and these stories take place in England. They focus on the seemingly small moments of everyday life, small moments that reveal larger truths. Themes include secrets, memories, fears, connections, families, childhood, marriage, sex, social class, and more. One common topic is the way children observe adults and adult life, and how children and adults are bound to misunderstand each other so often and in so many ways. Another is what it is like to leave home and live far away, and how disconnected to one’s family one sometimes becomes. As these last three sentences indicate, the stories are infused with all the ways that even loving families and friends can be mysteries and strangers to each other. This is of course sad, but in Hadley’s hands, the stories and emotions are always more complex than that. And not in an abstract way; the characters are always intriguing. These three short story collections that I have read and posted on most recently remind me of how much I, although my first love is novels, am drawn to short stories as well, when the practitioners of that art are as brilliant as authors Elizabeth Strout, Richard Russo, and Tessa Hadley.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

"Trajectory," by Richard Russo

A new book by Richard Russo is always cause for excitement. What a wonderful writer he is! I was not surprised to hear from a writer friend who has spent time with Russo that he is as kind and approachable a person as his fiction would lead us to believe. I know, I know, one should not confuse the writer and the writing, but when such decency and understanding of human nature comes through so clearly in the writing, the reader feels that the writer must be a good person. I have so enjoyed and appreciated Russo’s novels, such as “Empire Falls,” “That Old Cape Magic,” and “Everybody’s Fool,” as well as his memoir, “Elsewhere.” The new book, the one that I have just read, is “Trajectory” (Knopf, 2017), a collection of four stories. This fiction is, as always with Russo’s work, engaging, compelling, deeply grounded in his knowledge of humanity, and gently humorous, sometimes even outright comedic; see, for example, his hilarious and scarily on-point campus novel, “Straight Man.” And speaking of campus fiction, of added interest to me is that two of the stories in this current collection are about characters who are academics; both are in confusing situations. Actually all of Russo’s characters face confusing situations, and the stories are basically about how they face them, how they muddle through, caught between the past and the future, uncertain but somehow at least somewhat positive despite it all. The young female professor in “Horseman” is dealing with a student’s plagiarism, a topic that all of us in academe have to deal with. She is torn about the plagiarist and the plagiarism; at the same time we learn of the complexities of her marriage, her child with serious problems, and her relationships with other academics in her past and present. “Voice” is the story of a sort-of-retired professor who has become fixated on a disabled, brilliantly creative female student, but in a less predictable, less blameworthy, more complicated and interesting way than this might sound. In the main part of the story, he is on a tour in Venice with his brother, with whom he has a strained relationship, which becomes more strained during the course of the story. “Intervention” features illness, family history, and family relationships (often difficult). The story I liked least of the four was “Milton and Marcus,” about a screenwriter and his current and past history with movie people; however, a story I like least in a Russo collection is still a wonderful story; it is all relative. I highly recommend this book, as I do all of Russo’s books. If you haven’t discovered this terrific writer yet, please do find and read one of his novels or short story collections. P.S. In my last post (5/28/17), I spoke of author Elizabeth Strout’s work being strikingly “humane”; I could say the same of Richard Russo’s work. Reading these two books one after the other has reminded me once again of what riches contemporary fiction has to offer, if one looks in the right places.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

"Anything is Possible," by Elizabeth Strout

The word I kept thinking of while reading Elizabeth Strout’s new book, “Anything is Possible” (Random House, 2017), was “humane.” There is so much wisdom, so much caring, so much understanding of human nature in this collection of short stories. As I type this description, I think it makes the book sound treacly, sentimental, and “inspiring” in an intentional, bestseller way; it is none of these things (although it is, happily, a current bestseller). Those who have read Strout’s other fiction, the most well known of which is “Olive Kittredge,” and the most recent of which is “My Name is Lucy Barton” (a 2016 novel, which I posted on here on 3/12/16), know that her work is far from overtly sentimental; it is bracingly down-to-earth and understated. The same can be said of this new book, a collection of somewhat interrelated stories, some of which include reference to the character of Lucy Barton. Strout writes of working class and poor characters, families, and towns, and of those who have escaped those lives but are still tied to them in many ways. They often think about their pasts, and about the family members they now rarely see. Some of the most poignant stories are those of such characters revisiting their pasts, their towns and family members, and of the mixed feelings they experience in doing so. They love their families yet feel disconnected from them in many ways; still, they want to maintain the connection, even when it seems tenuous or fraught. Although there are many sad and difficult events narrated, especially those from the past, there is also a deep connection among the characters, as well as satisfaction in doing what needs to be done, in surviving and even thriving despite difficulties. The stories in this book are thoughtful, intimate, slow paced, with less “plot” than thought and conversation and memory. The stories are beautifully written, and should be read slowly in order to savor them. They are unsparing, unsentimental, yet, as I wrote at the beginning of this post, deeply humane and therefore deeply satisfying to read. Strout’s fiction gets better and better with every new work published. Highly recommended.

Friday, May 19, 2017

"You Are Having a Good Time," by Amie Barrodale

In my last post (5/14/17) I “confessed” my incurable although vexed love of an English accent (posh version), along with many things English. Continuing in the confessional mode, I will admit (as I have before, although perhaps not this directly) that I don’t like “edgy” fiction. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say I don’t like fiction that is trying too hard to be “edgy.” It is a little difficult to define what I mean by that. Part of it is an experimental quality. But a larger part is a too-obvious effort to be slightly shocking, slightly off-kilter, slightly eccentric, but at the same time hip and cool. Often the novels or stories I refer to here feature somewhat kinky or slightly masochistic or reckless sex, but this is not the part I object to. I think the part that bothers me most is that these stories often feature young women with no sense of direction that lead aimless lives, meanwhile complaining about those lives but also flaunting their unconventionality. I fully admit that there is an intangible quality that I am trying to describe, and I may not be very successful at doing so. The reason I am thinking about this (again) is that I have just finished reading a short story collection by Amie Borrodale titled “You Are Having a Good Time” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). As the back-cover description states, “…the veneer of normality is stripped from her characters’ lives to reveal the seething and contradictory desires that fuel them.” The description goes on to say that this fiction is “startlingly funny and original.” I agree with the first part of the description, although I think it makes the stories sound more interesting than they are. I disagree with the second quotation, as to me the stories are neither funny nor original, except in a very superficial, trying-too-hard way. I also disagree with the back-cover blurb contributed by Mary Gaitskill (herself known for her edgy writing, which I admire although I can't really enjoy), which states that Barrodale is “witty, soulful, and sharp” and that this book is “delightful and touching.” (Here I will give the same disclaimer I often give when I am posting a negative “review”: I know I could never write even mediocre fiction myself. Despite this, I believe serious readers have the right to share their responses, negative and positive and everything in between, to what they read.) In the stories in “You Are Having a Good Time,” there are odd meetings between odd characters, too much drinking, semi-spiritual beliefs undermined by unwelcome desires, a ghost or two, a very unethical psychiatrist, strained relationships among family members and friends, a preoccupation with bodies and appearances, the semi-poverty of youth launching themselves into the adult world and figuring out their next steps, urban life, strange coincidences, the aforementioned sex, and more. I did keep reading to the end, so obviously I found something interesting in this story collection. But I was left with a feeling of the inauthentic. And whether fairly or not, I attribute much of that to what appeared to me to be the author’s trying too hard to be edgy, original, and unusual, but not succeeding in doing so.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Swooning over an English Accent

As a longstanding, inveterate Anglophile, I found on a very recent car trip that it was a wonderfully distracting delight to listen to Penelope Dellaporta read to me, via Books on Tape (1993), “Shroud for a Nightingale” (1971), by P. D. James. Her lovely, lilting English accent, in all its permutations as she read the voices of various characters, was music to these ears. The story itself, a mystery which I have read before, is compelling, even on a second read. Over a period of many, many years, I have read most if not all of P.D. James’ wonderful novels, both mysteries and otherwise. James, a hugely well-esteemed author who died in 2014 at the age of 94, wrote literary mysteries, books that were admirable and enjoyable far beyond the who-done-it aspect, as well as other novels. But as much as I have praised and want to praise again this author, and as much as I have praised and want to praise again the joys of listening to books on tape/CD, my main point here is how fascinated, delighted, and soothed I am by the English accent itself, which of course is reinforced by the English vocabulary and style found in England as opposed to in the United States, where I live. There are more traces of “English English” in my native Canada than here in the U.S., but still there are big differences. I feel some ambivalence about my rather predictable and romanticized worship of the English accent; I have spoken and written about this in my academic work, especially as it unfortunately implies, perhaps, a kind of colonial perspective. As a student of linguistics and especially sociolinguistics, I am also aware that there is not just one “English accent,” and further that the whole idea of “accent” is fraught with political and social issues. But, as Emily Dickinson said about love, “The heart wants what it wants,” and my heart is always rendered mushy by a certain classic type of English accent. For that matter, I have also had a decades-long literary crush on P.D. James’ fictional hero, the Scotland Yard chief detective ("commander" is his title) and poet (how romantic is that?!) Adam Dalgliesh, who is described as speaking beautifully. I know he is a fictional character but I would love to hear his voice. I guess it is time for me to peruse more British Books on Tape, more BBC, and more of a certain genre of PBS's Masterpiece (think "Downton Abbey").

Sunday, May 7, 2017

"The Dark Flood Rises," by Margaret Drabble

The dark floods in English writer Margaret Drabble’s latest novel, “The Dark Flood Rises” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), refer to the inevitability of illness and death, as well as the current seeming inevitability of rising waters encroaching on dry lands in this time of climate change. The part about climate change is important, but not discussed in a didactic or apocalyptic way. The part about aging is also so important, and is portrayed and discussed more directly. The main character, Fran, is in her early seventies, and works as a sort of consultant and supervisor for residences for aging people in England. She feels the encroachment of old age herself, but being fortunate enough to be healthy (although with some slowing down), she likes continuing to work, feeling the work is important, and also feeling more engaged with the world than she would if she were retired. She has a fairly positive attitude about aging: “ageing [the British spelling] is, says Fran to herself gamely…a fascinating journey into the unknown” (p. 21), although that attitude is shaken at times, especially when she sees in some of the old-age homes that longevity is not always a good thing. In the course of her work and her personal life, she observes many examples of ways different people age. In her personal life, she brings meals to her ex-husband, who is housebound and dying. She regularly visits her friend Theresa, who is also dying. And then there is her acquaintance, the writer and art historian Bennett, who has retired to the Canary Islands with his life partner, Ivor, where they live a comfortable life (except for the ominous rising of the surrounding waters, and the frequent horrible journeys -- and sometimes deaths -- of desperate refugees from North Africa), until Bennett’s health takes a turn for the worse. Other characters are Fran’s son Christopher, a journalist, who also visits the Canary Islands, and Fran’s daughter Poppet, who is a conservationist of sorts, lives near a sort of flood plain and worries about the fate of the earth. Fran is the one who connects them all, and Fran, being a classic worrier, worries about everything: each of her family members and friends, the people in the old-age residences, climate change, her car’s brakes after her car partially sank into a flooded road near Poppet's home, and more. I find Fran an engaging and very believable character, somewhat like women I have known and know. And I admire Drabble’s focus on, and forthright grappling with, the issues of aging, the increasing number of aged people, and the responsibilities of family, friends, government, and society toward aging people, who are, after all, our parents and friends and eventually ourselves. I have read several of Drabble’s novels over the past decades, and have always admired her excellent writing and her unique tone, a certain bracing matter-of-factness, a down-to-earthness that is refreshing. It is always a good occasion when she has a new novel out. Drabble is also a respected scholar who has written biographies of Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson and has edited “The Oxford Companion to English Literature.”

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

RIP Robert Pirsig

Many of us Baby Boomers read Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” when it came out in 1974. Who could resist a title like that? This quirky, intense book combined the Zen/Eastern religions/meditation/New Age influences of the 1970s in the United States with the daring, heady sound of freedom evoked by the “motorcycle” part of the title. We had already read the work of D.T. Suzuki and others writing about Zen Buddhism, had read Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” (published in 1957 but still a big seller in our youths), and had seen the movie “Easy Rider” (1969). I remember reading Pirsig’s book eagerly and believing it was full of wisdom. The book was well received, and praised for its blend of the author’s narrative about his own life and particularly a road trip he took with his son, on the one hand, and his philosophical/metaphysical beliefs, on the other hand, all blended together. A New Yorker critic even compared the book to “Moby Dick.” Although it had taken a long time to get the book published, having been turned down by over 100 publishers, it soon became a million-seller. Pirsig was brilliant but troubled, and had a difficult life and career, doing various jobs, and occasionally having to seek treatment for severe mental illness, probably schizophrenia. This gifted writer died April 24 at the age of 88. As soon as I heard the news, my mind and emotions flew back to the 1970s, those years of hope, experimentation, and grappling with thrilling new ideas and new combinations of ideas. I am sure I am far from the only one whose reading of Pirsig’s obituary took them back to those days, and who felt a twinge of sadness at the passing of this author and the passing of time. In today’s world, it is hard to preserve the expansive, hopeful attitude reflected in such books of that time period as “Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance.” Thank you, Robert Pirsig, and RIP.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

How I Read the Newspaper

In which order do you read the sections of a newspaper? I have noticed that different people read them in different orders. And over my years of faithful daily newspaper reading, I have found myself reading the paper in different orders. When I was a kid, I would go for the comics and then a cursory read of the headlines in the first section. As a teenager and young adult, I would dutifully read or at least skim the paper from front to back. (Apparently I was a nerd….) For a long time I would automatically dismiss the sports section from my reading, or at most glance at the front page of that section in years when local sports teams were doing well. Once a fellow passenger on a plane asked me for my copy of the newspaper (after I was clearly finished with it) but then his face fell with evident shock and disappointment when I told him he was welcome to it, but I had thrown away the sports section in the airport. Now that I have become an enthusiastic Golden State Warriors (basketball) fan, I actually start with the sports section (I know, I know…in the past I would have been shocked to read this sentence about myself!), then go to the Bay Area section, which has lots of local news and several excellent columns about politics and life. Then the Arts/Entertainment section, but read less thoroughly than in the past, and finally the front section, with its world and national news. Given that the front section reports on the most important news, why do I read that section last? Perhaps because the news is so often so grim? Actually the very last section I read, after the front section, is the Business section, and sometimes I put it in a pile to be read later. Of course all of this is becoming somewhat of a moot point, since fewer and fewer people read newspapers in print, and when people read online, I believe they read in a less linear fashion; I know I do, on the occasions that I read online. I still greatly prefer reading newspapers (and magazines, journals, and books, for that matter) in print; my husband and I linger a bit over the newspaper along with our morning coffee, exchanging sections as we go; it is our morning ritual. (He reads them in this order, usually: front section, sports section, Bay Area section, arts/entertainment section, and business section.) I know that this post “outs” (or confirms) me (and my husband) as old-fashioned, but I can live with that.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

They Call Them "Foodoirs"

I somehow missed learning the term “foodoir” until I saw it in The New York Times Book Review of 4/16/17, though I am a great fan of this type of book. It means, as is obvious, memoirs about food. It seems a little artificial and awkward, but it does concisely describe what has become a growing genre of books. A quick Internet search told me that this vocabulary item has been in use since at least 2010. Learning this term reminded me of some of the food memoirs I have read and thoroughly enjoyed over the past few years, and in many cases written about here. These latter include a list of several such books posted on 2/4/10, as well as posts about former San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times food critic’s Kim Severson’s “Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My life” (6/29/10); Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Book, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef” (4/26/11); Marcus Samuelsson’s “Yes, Chef” (7/21/12); novelist Kate Christenson’s “Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites” (8/1/13); Michael Gibney’s “Sous Chef” (1/10/16); and several others. I am remembering with special fondness two of the famous food critic Ruth Reichl’s beautifully written memoirs that I read before I started this blog: “Tender at the Bone” and “Comfort Me with Apples.” I find the world of food, especially the world of restaurants, fascinating, and am especially interested to read how chefs, food writers, and other food professionals became so interested in making food the center of their careers. In the cases mentioned here, they also became writers about their lives in the world of food, and their great love of food, cooking, and sharing food; the ones I have listed are all not just writers, but good writers. Of course not all “foodoirs” are good ones, or well written; in fact, I have read some very mediocre ones. But when they are good, they are a joy to read.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Birth of a New Bookstore in My Neighborhood!

It is a lovely, light-filled space in beautiful downtown Sausalito, looking out on boats bobbing in the sparkling water. It is a brand new bookstore, Book Passage, a branch of the mothership a few miles north in Corte Madera (a local treasure for many years), and a cause for great celebration! I walked into the shop a couple of days ago with great delight. A new independent bookstore in the area is good news indeed! After years of hearing the sad news of many bookstores closing, there has been a recent resurgence of such stores. Hurray! I have long been a frequent customer of the Corte Madera Book Passage, a large bookstore a few miles north of where I live, with many readings and other events going on all the time; it is one of the two bookstores that I most regularly patronize (the other is Books, Inc., in Laurel Village in San Francisco, near where I teach), although of course I go to many other bookstores when possible. The new store is, as I said, in Sausalito, which is the next town over from ours. Although smaller than the Corte Madera store, this new store will continue the tradition of readings, although on a smaller scale, about two or more a week, as the manager, Jeff, told me on my visit to the Sausalito store. The store only opened in February of this year, but both locals and tourists are taking notice, and as we approach the peak tourist months, Jeff hopes, as do I, that many of these tourists will visit the store. I wish the store great success, and I plan to be a regular visitor and customer there. (Please forgive the giddy tone of this post, but I am very excited both by the opening of this specific bookstore in this specific location near where I live, and by what it represents in terms of the survival and growth of bookstores in an age when they were thought to be dying out.)

Friday, April 14, 2017

Julian Barnes' "The Sense of an Ending": Book, Film, and Unsettling Birthday Experience

It was my birthday, and as a gift to myself, I went to a movie. Let me back up: I hardly ever go to movies during academic semesters, although I do go during breaks in the academic year. But I had been wanting to see the new movie version of Julian Barnes’ “The Sense of an Ending” (a Booker-prize winning novel about which I posted here on 1/6/12; readers can find out more about the story there; today I instead focus on my own experiences and feelings before, during, and after seeing the film). On my birthday morning, I thought I would check online to see how much longer the movie would be at a local theater, and found that the last showing before the film left the theater would be in the late afternoon on that very day. OK, so it was apparently meant to be. I left campus a little earlier than usual, got to the theater a little early, and casting around for something to read to pass the time, leafed through a book I had put in my trunk in order to return it to the library, having decided not to read it after all: Peter Orner’s “Am I Alone Here?” This is a book about books, and as I flipped through it during those fifteen minutes before the movie was to start, within seconds my eye was caught by a very negative mention of Barnes’ novel; in fact, Orner claims he threw the book out of a car window, reacting very strongly against the main character in the book, Tony, as well as sarcastically impugning it as a "book club copy." The story was meant to be humorous, but the negative feelings came through. This was unsettling on several levels. First, what a coincidence that glancing through a book I had already "rejected" myself, I happened across a reference to its author rather scornfully rejecting a book I had liked very much, the film of which I was about to see! Was this somehow the book’s revenge on me for rejecting it? A message from the universe? With mixed feelings, I watched the movie, and I liked the movie, although I didn’t love it. I mainly liked it because it was about the juxtaposition and connections between our older selves and our younger selves (something I have had reason to think about a lot lately), and because the two lead actors – Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling – were excellent. Also, more generally, I especially like movies set in England, and "quiet" movies about people's lives and relationships (as opposed to "action" movies, "big" movies, genre movies, and movies where the action is more important than the conversations). But against my will, Orner’s emphatic dismissal of the book left its mark, and I found myself comparing my feelings with his as I was watching the movie. In other words, I couldn’t ignore what I had read about the book and by extension the movie, and although I disagreed with and resented Orner’s comments, they had insidiously worked their way into my brain and affected my response to the film. This small tale of my birthday gift to myself made me reflect on coincidences in our lives, as well as on how easily we are influenced by the opinions of others, even those we actively resist.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

"To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters," on PBS Masterpiece

I have always been fascinated by the Bronte family, as have so many other readers of their novels. Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” and “Villette” have been of special interest to me; I have read both multiple times, and taught “Jane Eyre” several times. So of course I was pleased to hear that PBS’ Masterpiece was presenting “To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters” (March 26, 2017). It is a fascinating look at the lives of the three sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne) and their unfortunate brother (Branwell), as well as their overwhelmed father. I already knew the story of their lives quite well, from studying and reading about them in various sources. This PBS production is partially based on Charlotte’s letters. It is a riveting but extremely bleak look at the family’s intensely intertwined lives in the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire, over a period of three years when their novels began to be published. You would think that the time of these publications would be an occasion for joy for the family, and there were a few -- very few -- moments of joy, but these were muted, and any expressions of such emotion was suppressed by societal and family concerns. The societal concerns were, of course, the fact that women writers were not generally encouraged, respected, or accepted at that time. The family concerns were that the Bronte sisters’ brother, Branwell, was expected (by his family and by Branwell himself) to be the writer in the family, the one who would be published and gain fame, but he never did, perhaps from insufficient talent but mostly because he was an extreme alcoholic whose life was chaotic, full of debt, and much complicated by a failed love affair with a married woman. These were the two reasons the sisters (famously) chose to write their novels under pseudonyms. The three of them who were living at the time of this portrayal (two other sisters had died in childhood) were constantly having to take care of their brother, rescue him, cover up his misdeeds, and go along with his delusion that he was the gifted one in the family whose work (as a writer and as an artist) would soon be recognized. In other words, Branwell was the dysfunctional and highly disruptive center of the family, and the sisters were forced to be, and also chose to be, his enablers. Their mother was dead, and their father was bewildered and overwhelmed by dealing with his deeply troubled son. Branwell’s role in the family was a huge part of the grimness of the sisters’ lives, but it was exacerbated, it seems, by their isolation in a small town in Yorkshire, by the spare and cold aspect of the Parsonage where they lived, and by money worries. This Masterpiece production emphasizes the bleakness, the grimness of the lives of these amazing writers, through its portrayal of the parsonage, the scenery, the claustrophobia of the family members’ lives, the sisters’ plain clothing and severe hairstyles, and the fact that almost no one in the production ever smiles or laughs. There is affection among the family members, especially the three sisters, and they are a great support to each other, but the overall situation is depressing. In fact, I realize in writing about this production two weeks after I saw it that I am remembering it as if it were in black and white, although the actual show was in color. The sisters are portrayed very well by three strong actresses, and the actors playing Branwell and the family’s father are also good in their roles. This is a powerful piece, and of interest both to those already devoted to the Brontes and their work, and to those who know less about them but want to learn more.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

"All Grown Up," by Jami Attenberg

Jami Attenberg’s “The Middlesteins” (2012) was a bestseller, a sprawling family story. Her new novel, “All Grown Up” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) is a smaller and quieter book, focusing mainly on one character. That character, Andrea, narrates the book in a series of chapters that are almost like individual short stories, telling of different aspects of, and episodes in, the character’s life. They are not in chronological order; they skip back and forth from Andrea’s twenties to her forties, often going over the same ground more than once, from different angles. Although the focus is on one character, and the writing is straightforward rather than out-and-out stream-of-consciousness, I noted elements of a Virginia Woolf novel, “The Waves,” in the recursive style. Although there is mention of and attention to Andrea’s family members, friends, and work colleagues, “All Grown Up” is predominantly inward-looking. However, we readers are not allowed to learn too much even about this character. The closest we get is peeks into Andrea’s ambivalent-yet-close relationship to her mother, and her description of her beloved brother and sister-in-law, who are barely coping with watching their young, very disabled daughter die in slow motion. Andrea herself feels her life is going nowhere, yet doesn’t quite know what it is she wants. She has a decent job but doesn’t really like it. She has a fairly nice apartment in New York City, not an easy thing to find. She dates quite a bit, but doesn’t have a long-term partner or husband or child; she claims not to want these, and yet seems sad not to have them, and surprised to find herself forty years old without having acquired any of them. She has friends, but seems to be disconnected from them for long periods of time. She is an art-school dropout who rarely practices her art, yet spends many hours over many years drawing and re-drawing the Statue of Liberty, which she could see outside her apartment window until a new, tall building blocked her view. This latter sequence is surely symbolic of her own status in her own eyes. “All Grown Up” doesn’t have much drama, doesn’t really “go anywhere,” yet perhaps encapsulates what becoming an adult consists of for some people: not being dramatically successful, not dramatically failing, but being somewhere in the muddled in-between state where many people exist as their lives proceed in ordinariness (and that is if they are fortunate; I know the whole context is one of privilege). I applaud Attenberg for capturing this common condition, but I also have to say that reading about it is rather dispiriting.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Poetry "Speaks Truth to Power" in These Troubled Times

The Sunday, March 12, 2017 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle’s book section announces that it has just begun a new weekly feature, “State Lines: California Poetry.“ Every Sunday, it will publish a poem by a California writer, or a poem about California. The announcement goes on to note that “the appearance of poetry in public forums is more important than ever before. When language – even the language of verified truth and scientific fact – is attacked by the institutions we rely on for safety and prosperity, poetry plays a vital role. Not only does poetry offer us comfort and moral nourishment, but it speaks truth to power” (p. 35). Amen to that. As the article points out, publishing poetry in newspapers used to be more common in the distant past; I welcome this small move toward wider exposure of poetry. And while I am on the subject, I thank the general interest magazines that do publish poetry regularly, most notably The New Yorker, but also The Atlantic and The Nation, among others. The inaugural poem in this new San Francisco Chronicle feature is “Almost Livin’ Almost Dyin’: For all the Dead,” by Juan Felipe Herrera, the current U.S. poet laureate and former California poet laureate. The poem is “a breathless, breakneck poem” that “teeters, like life itself, between mourning and praise”(p. 35). It references many of the issues of today, including racism and the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

"Footnotes from the World's Greatest Bookstores," by Bob Eckstein

A package arrived in the mail, and when opened, turned out to contain a beautiful book full of photos of bookstores. What bounty! My friend F. had seen it and thought it would be perfect for me, and she was right. The book is “Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores: True Tales and Lost Moments from Book Buyers, Booksellers, and Book Lovers” (Clarkston Potter Publishers, 2016) by Bob Eckstein, with a foreword by Garrison Keillor, a bookstore owner himself. In his introduction, Eckstein tells us that he chose the bookstores “based on recommendations, word of mouth, social history, and contributions to the locale,” and then gathered stories from the shops. He started with a list of 150 bookstores from all over the world, and eventually narrowed the list to 75. He praises bookstores not only for the great gifts of the books themselves, but also for bookstores' roles as “a hangout, a place of solace, a community center, and a venue for cultural entertainment.” He concludes his introduction by saying that the book “is intended to be a celebration of independent bookstores everywhere and for all those who love books.” The format of the book gives each bookstore a two-page spread. On the left side is the name of the bookstore, its location, how long it has been (or was, if now closed) open, and a brief description. On the right side is a charming illustration in color (all illustrations are by Eckstein), capturing the look and feel and personality of the store, along with a hand-lettered sentence or two related to that bookstore. Some of the sentences are quotations from the bookstore owners, others are quotes from customers, and others are interesting facts or comments about the store. The book is handsomely produced, nine inches wide and seven inches high, with a sturdy hard cover and thick, coated pages that display the illustrations at their best. The bookstores are located in such widespread spots as Portugal, Scotland, and India; however, most of them are in the United States, with a very large contingent from New York City, where the author/illustrator lives. Of course I immediately looked to see if any of my own favorite bookstores were listed, and sure enough I found a few, including, right here in the San Francisco Bay Area, City Lights in North Beach and Moe’s Books in Berkeley. Favorites in other places I have traveled include The Golden Notebook (in Woodstock, New York) which I visited just two years ago on a short trip to the Hudson Valley; Rizzoli Bookstore (in New York City) (those art books!); the Strand Bookstore (in New York City), which I fell in love with when my late dear friend and fellow book-lover C., then a resident of New York City, took me there many, many years ago; Shakespeare and Company (in Paris), to which just about every literature-struck young person visiting Europe makes a pilgrimage, and which I vividly remember these decades after my first visit there; Powell’s Books (in Portland, Oregon); and Elliott Bay Book Company (in Seattle). Leafing through this book and enjoying the illustrations and comments, I am reminded of a dream I have occasionally had of planning a trip based on visits to some of the best, most interesting, most historical, and/or most quirky bookstores I know of. Maybe I will really do it one of these days or years! Meanwhile, I almost always seek out bookstores wherever I happen to travel.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

RIP Paula Fox

I am sad to write another “RIP” post, but it is important to me to stop and take note of writer’s lives and deaths, and to pay tribute to the work they did and the art that they have left to the world. Paula Fox was the author of several novels, two memoirs, and more than 20 books for children and young people. Her most famous book for adults was “Desperate Characters” (1970), a devastating novel about the end of a marriage. Her children’s books won many recognitions, including the very prestigious Newbery Medal. In 2013, she received the Paris Review’s Hadada Award for lifetime achievement. Fox had a difficult life, starting with being born unwanted and shuttled around to various relatives and friends during her childhood, and continuing with a couple of unsuccessful marriages and a mugging that left her with brain damage that it took years to overcome, among other misfortunes. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that her work, as the New York Times obituary (3/3/17) put it, “illuminated lives filled with loss, dislocation, and abandonment.” I remember being fascinated, in a sad and depressed way, by “Desperate Characters,” which I read at an impressionable age, but also being struck by her sharp observations, her depictions of the minute details of her characters’ lives and surroundings. Even her children’s books did not shy away from difficult and painful topics, as Fox believed that “we do them [children] no service by trying to sugarcoat dark truths.” Fox died on March 1, 2017, in Brooklyn, at the age of 93.

Monday, March 13, 2017

On Jane Austen's "Sanditon"

Regular readers of this blog will likely remember that I am a dedicated, devoted reader and admirer of Jane Austen’s fiction (along with millions of other readers, I know!). I have read and re-read (and listened and re-listened to, on tape and CD) her novels multiple times over the years; I have read some of her juvenilia (most notably “Love and Freindship” (sic); I have read other authors’ sequels and prequels of her novels; I have read many books about her, both biographies and literary criticism; I have taught her work several times in college Women’s Literature classes; and I made a pilgrimage to her beloved Chawton (where she lived and wrote for the last eight years of her life) and to Winchester Cathedral (where she was buried) about ten years ago. The novels I have read the fewest times are the unfinished ones: “Lady Susan (more or less unfinished); “The Watsons,” and “Sanditon.” These three have in general been rated as definitely worth reading but not at the same level as the six full-length novels. The current issue of The New Yorker (March 13, 2017) contains a fascinating essay by Anthony Lane in which he examines “Sanditon” in the context of its being written as Austen knew she was dying. Lane describes the novel as follows: “Although -- or precisely because – ‘Sanditon’ was composed by a dying woman, the result is robust, unsparing, and alert to all the latest fashions in human foolishness” (p. 77). He writes of her trademark puncturing of human pretensions, in this case largely about hypochondriacs; she writes, for just one example of her sharp and wonderfully worded appraisals, of “competing invalids.” But besides her depicting human frailties in her usual humorous but pointed way, in this book there is a different context: her own failing health as she was writing it. Lane calls “Sanditon” “a mortality tale,” and goes on to say that “Austen knew as well as anybody that, in the long run, hypochondriacs aren’t wrong. They’re just early. We will all die…. That certainty haunts the book, sharpens the pitch of its comedy, and sets it apart from her earlier works.” Lane’s reflections on “Sanditon” give me a new way to look at this unfinished novel, and I now feel the need to read it again. Parenthetically: Lane also reminds us that this summer will be the bicentenary of Austen’s death, on July 18th, 1817, at the age of 41. I look forward to the writings and events that will ensue.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

"All the News I Need," by Joan Frank

Joan Frank, a Northern California author whose work I like very much (see, for example, my posts of 7/11/10, 4/9/12, and 1/5/13) has published a new novel that focuses on aging and death, but especially aging. “All the News I Need” (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017), winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction, is as thoughtful and understanding of human nature as I have found all of Frank’s work to be. Her two main characters are a rather prickly and snarky Fran, a fairly recent widow, and a shy gay man, Oliver, who has also suffered a major loss a few years before the story starts. Both are lonely, and almost by chance (Oliver was friends with Fran’s late husband), are each other’s best and almost only friends. But there are still issues between them, and although they care about each other, they don’t always understand or communicate very well with each other. Neither of them works, and they are both casting about for how to fill their time. Both feel old and left behind. On a whim, followed by detailed, almost obsessive preparation, they decide to take a trip to Europe together, a trip that is less than successful, although it has its moments. One thing I like about the novel is its setting (except for the Europe trip) in the San Francisco Bay area, and all the familiar details about the area. The main thing I don’t like – or rather that has me puzzled – is that these characters are cast as old, over the hill, yet it turns out that Oliver is only 62 and Fran 58. I understand very well that there are difficulties and issues with getting older, even in one’s 50s and 60s. But since neither of them has major health or financial problems, it seems strange to focus on their not-so-old ages as a period of decline and loss that leaves them feeling so bereft, so at sea. I don’t mean to question that the characters feel old and lonely, and as I said, they have both suffered losses, but the strong sense of, and focus on, aging seems a little exaggerated in their cases. Having said all this, I will say that the two characters, their histories, and their relationship are all beautifully and insightfully depicted. Although the story is a bit on the bleak side, it did draw me in.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

"Books for Living," by William Schwalbe

I have posted recently on two books about books and reading, one of which I liked very much (posted on1/5/17) and the other which I found disappointing (posted on 2/15/17). I have now read a third such book. (Just as I sometimes read several books in a row by one author, I sometimes read several books in a row or in close proximity on a certain theme). This third book, “Books for Living” (Knopf, 2017), by Will Schwalbe, is a collection of 28 short essays on a variety of subjects, mostly on specific books but sometimes on other book-related topics. The essays on specific books are not reviews, let alone academic “literary criticism,” but meditations on the books and on how Schwalbe connects to and/or learns from them. The title of each chapter lists the book in question and then a brief subtitle; examples include “Stuart Little: Searching,” “Giovanni’s Room: Connecting,” “David Copperfield: Remembering,” and “1984: Disconnecting.” The range of books on which Schwalbe focuses is eclectic: old and new, famous and not famous, literary and less so, excellent and not-so-excellent-but-met-a-need-at-one-point, novels and memoirs, books he read as a child and books he has read more recently (he is now “fifty-something”). In addition to those already mentioned, the books include, to give just a flavor of his choices: “The Importance of Living,” “Bartleby the Scrivener,” “The Little Prince,” “Song of Solomon,” “Rebecca,” and “Death Be Not Proud.” The author’s voice is modest, conversational, questioning, musing. To provide a better idea of his focus and tone, let me quote a few sentences from the introduction. “What follows are stories of books I’ve discovered that have helped me and others in ways big and small with some of the specific challenges of living in our modern world, with all its noise and distractions.” And: “’What are you reading?’ isn’t a simple question when asked with genuine curiosity; it’s really a way of asking, ‘Who are you now and who are you becoming?’” I found the low-key but sincere tone of these short meditations on books to be engaging, thought-provoking, and enjoyable.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

"The Most Dangerous Place on Earth," by Lindsey Lee Johnston

Readers of this blog know that I live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area, and am attracted to fiction about the area. It is great to read about faraway places, and I wouldn’t give that up, but there is something addictive about reading about one’s own territory. Lindsey Lee Johnston’s first novel, “The Most Dangerous Place On Earth” (Random House, 2017), takes place in the small town north of the Golden Gate where I live, Mill Valley. Cue comments about Marin County’s wealthy, liberal, mostly white, self-involved, slightly ridiculous inhabitants. And perhaps some of these stereotypes are partially true, but definitely not all, and not to the extent that Marin County has been satirized for. OK, I won’t be defensive. The author, according to the back flap, was “born and raised” in Marin, and I assume she writes of it with the authority of knowing it inside out. The story is about a group of high school students in Mill Valley, and I am guessing Johnston went to high school there. She definitely traffics in some of the stereotypes, but I am willing to believe there is a lot of truth in her portrayal of the lives of these young people in this particular setting. I have seen and heard enough that the stories, the events, are believable. And much of which she writes about could and does happen in other similarly prosperous suburbs and towns in other areas of California and of the U.S. These young people in the novel have all the pressures that so many teenagers, even or in some cases especially those who are privileged, have: school, families, friends, girlfriends and boyfriends, sex, drinking and drugs, dangerous mistakes, uncertainty about themselves and their directions in life, and more. We meet, among others, the dancer, the drug dealer, the hippie, the misfit, and the popular kids. We also learn about the lives of two teachers at the high school with their own issues. The story is full of plot, fast-paced, sad, sometimes funny. This reader often shuddered and wanted to reach into the story and warn the characters not to do the self-destructive things they are doing. Now to the more mundane but enjoyable pleasures of the book for a fellow resident of Mill Valley (albeit only for a dozen years in my case; I lived in Northern Marin for a dozen years before that, after moving across the bridge from San Francisco): recognizing the streets (including the winding ones on the hillsides like the one I live on), the schools, the stores, the restaurants, the redwoods, Mount Tamalpais, and countless other specific details was an enjoyable plus for a local reader.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"Deceit and Other Possibilities," by Vanessa Hua

Vanessa Hua recently started writing a column for the San Francisco Chronicle, a newspaper I have read very regularly for the many many years I have lived in San Francisco; she lives in San Francisco. Soon after she started writing for the Chronicle, I read a good review of her debut collection of short stories, “Deceit and Other Possibilities” (Willow Books, 2016), so I picked up a copy. This slim collection is packed with jolts and surprises, and often had me wincing, as some of the events in the stories are shocking, at first unimaginable, yet somehow in the realm of the imaginable. Many of the characters are Chinese American or of other immigrant backgrounds. The sites of the stories are worldwide. Of course I was especially drawn to those that take place in San Francisco or more generally in California. Many stories raise issues of cultural differences, but not necessarily the differences one would predict, and they don’t necessarily play out the way one might think they would. A story about a disastrous camping trip at Big Sur, in which a Chinese American family’s campsite is next to that of a mixed group whose members drink and party all night, raises issues of race and gender, yes, but also of ambivalence, mixed identities, mixed motivations, deception, and much more. In another story, an Asian American teenager who has been raised to succeed academically is devastated when she isn’t admitted to Stanford, so she goes and attends classes there and talks her way into staying in the dorm room of other young women. She manages the deception well for quite a while, but of course it eventually all blows up around her. In a disturbing but very believable story, macho posturing, frustration, race, anger and other factors bring a simple golf game to a violent end. Frightening this reader, a recent widow goes on an unwise solo camping trip and gets snowed in for several days, for which she is completely unprepared; miraculously she survives and even helps another camper survive. Also: a Korean American pastor at the end of his rope financially and otherwise bets everything on a trip to a village in East Africa that he hopes will help the locals and solve his own problems too, but nothing goes as planned. From story to story I learned to brace myself for yet another seemingly unlikely yet ultimately, if painfully, believable situation, and for characters who are bumbling their way through life, making spectacular or mundane mistakes. Somehow the reader is drawn in and even implicated in the characters’ bad behavior, and can almost imagine being desperate enough to make these same mistakes, out of frustration and hope against hope. These are compelling stories.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

"Browsings," by Michael Dirda

I usually savor books about books and reading. For example, I recently read and posted (1/5/17) very enthusiastically about editor/writer Robert Gottlieb’s book memoir “Avid Reader.” My enjoyment of that book reminded me anew to keep an eye out for related books. I then picked up Michael Dirda’s “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books” (Pegasus, 2015), a collection of short essays that he had originally written for The American Scholar. Dirda, a “longtime book columnist” for the Washington Post, as well as a writer for various periodicals and author of several books, here writes on a miscellany of books and book-related personal stories. It is the type of thing I would normally enjoy, but I did so only intermittently in this case. Why? First, Dirda mostly (in this collection, at least) writes about science fiction, thrillers, obscure popular fiction, and other genres that are not of much interest to me. Second, he focuses on his collecting of books, with many stories of all the bookstores, auctions, sales, conventions, etc., that he attends, and how he keeps buying more and more books despite not having room for them in his house. He describes himself as an addict, but clearly finds no problem with his obsessive collecting. Which is of course absolutely fine, but to be honest, rather dull and even off-putting to read about in such detail. Third, his style and voice are a bit too “hail fellow well met,” jokey, and faux-modest for my taste. Of course I have favorable feelings about any one who loves books as much as Dirda does, and who reads as extensively as he does. But these other factors got in the way of my enjoyment of the book, and I was happy to reach the end of it (with a little judicious skipping along the way).

Friday, February 10, 2017

RIP Bharati Mukherjee

RIP Bharati Mukherjee, who died January 28th at the age of 76. This wonderful Indian-American writer was part of the exciting and long overdue burst of multicultural writing of the 1970s and beyond. She, along with writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, were true pioneers who broke the boundaries and opened up American fiction to a much broader range of writers and topics and experiences, and fiction has been the better for it ever since. It is perhaps hard for younger readers to realize the huge contrast between the pre-1970s and now, when we perhaps take for granted the much wider and more inclusive universe of writers and writing available in the U.S. now. Mukherjee’s writing was generally about immigrants, many Indian-American but also many from other backgrounds. This author was born in India, studied at the famed University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, lived and taught at several places in Canada and the United States, notably UC Berkeley, and spent many years in San Francisco, where I live. I heard her read at least twice. My friend J. was her colleague and friend at a college in the East where their teaching overlapped for a while, and spoke highly of her. Mukherjee was scheduled by her parents for an arranged marriage, but she made her own decision when in Iowa and married the writer Clark Blaise; they were married for 53 years, and he survives her. Her fiction includes “The Tiger’s Daughter,” “Wife,” “The Middleman and Other Stories,” "Jasmine," and “Desirable Daughters,” among other books. I read most of her books, always with great interest and pleasure. She was a terrific writer and an influential one. On a personal note, I feel connected to her and her work not only through the San Francisco connection but also because of my childhood in India. But most of all, as a longtime voracious reader of English and American literature, I was thrilled when at last there were more books being written and published in the United States by women and more books by people from various national and ethnic backgrounds.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

"Another Brooklyn," by Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson is known as a prize-winning and bestselling author of children’s and young adult fiction, as well as for her memoir (written for children/young adults), “Brown Girl Dreaming.” With “Another Brooklyn” (HarperCollins, 2016; audio version -- to which I listened -- by Blackstone/Harper Books), she writes a novel that can be appreciated by either adults or young adults; the subject matter and level of writing are too mature for children. This short novel takes place in the Brooklyn of the early 1970s, when the section of Brooklyn where the main characters live is changing from mostly white to mostly African American, because whites are fleeing. The main character, August, is a young African American girl who, along with her father and younger brother, moves to Brooklyn from a rural area of Tennessee, where they seemed to have had an idyllic life, until the children’s mother died, a suicide. The children do not accept that she has died, believing (or convincing themselves to believe) for years a fantasy that she will soon be coming back to them. Meanwhile, August becomes part of a group of four girls who are extremely close friends, and who sustain each other through the years of late childhood into mid-adolescence. The story is a paean to, and reminder of, the closeness that girls’ friendships can achieve. But it is also, like Roxane Gay’s short stories (see my post of 1/24/17), a powerful and terrible reminder of the fragility of young women’s lives. The girls learn early on that they are objectified and vulnerable as females. At first they are confident that their female friendships can protect them against the boys and men who leer at them, or molest them, or pressure them for sex. But sadly, they learn that as life comes at them, there are some things that friends cannot protect against. This book captures very well the mixture of feelings and experiences that so many young girls and women experience in a racist, sexist society (although the novelist does not use those terms explicitly). It also captures the way that some young women are able to escape or overcome the difficult and even traumatic parts of their lives, and some are not; it is not always predictable which ones will be which.

Monday, January 30, 2017

"The Mothers," by Brit Bennett

"The Mothers” (Riverhead, 2016) is a very strong debut novel by Brit Bennett. Set mostly in Oceanside, California (near San Diego), the story revolves around the members of a middle-class African American church, Upper Room Chapel. The main characters are Nadia, Aubrey, and Luke, who at the beginning of the story are aged 17 (in the case of the two girls) and 21 (Luke); the story takes place over a period of about 10 years. They have each experienced both love and sadness in their childhoods, including the suicide of Nadia’s mother. Each of the three main characters is close to each of the others, but there are important secrets among them, secrets that rend their relationships. In the background is a chorus of a group of older women from the church, known as “The Mothers.” They observe, they talk, they advise, they comment, with both judgment and, sometimes, mercy. All of the characters are strongly portrayed, and the writing is powerful and assured. I generally am attracted to novels about families, mothers and daughters, female friends, and other relationships, and I was to this novel’s stories as well. But one hesitation I had, and this was mentioned in at least one review of the novel, was about the tendency of the novel to verge on being an anti-abortion screed. The biggest secret in the book involves an abortion, and it seems the author will not allow the young woman to ever get over this event in her life, despite gaining an education at a prestigious university, traveling extensively, and in general being successful. Of course the author has the right to include such a theme, and to represent what she believes some young women have experienced; some readers will agree with this perspective and others will not. In any case, Bennett’s is a vivid new voice on the literary scene, and I look forward to seeing her future writing.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

"Difficult Women," by Roxane Gay (And the Seventh Anniversary of This Blog)

A horrific event in the childhood of two sisters changes their lives forever; the sisters suffer unendingly, yet unwaveringly, taken to extremes, support each other through childhood and into adulthood. This story, “I Will Follow You,” is the first in Roxane Gay’s new short story collection, “Difficult Women” (Grove Press, 2017). The book ends with an equally violent, shocking, and heartrending story, “Strange Gods.” The stories in this book are deeply disturbing, troubling, even brutal at times. They vividly illustrate the widespread abuse and violence that many girls and women experience. Yet there is a vein of humanity, caring, strength, resilience running through them as well. The main characters are all women, as the title indicates, and they tend to be bruised (often literally) and beaten down by life, but somehow are still strong, stubborn, and autonomous. The women are damaged, but still in charge of themselves and their lives. These characters are complex and believable. I do not mean, however, to make this point in any kind of redemptive way; no matter how well the women cope with sexual abuse, it is a terrible thing, and it leaves lifetime scars. These are complex stories, never simple narratives of violence or, on the other hand, of inspiring “we shall survive and flourish” sentiments. Some other (interrelated) elements of the stories: great love, great lust, great loss, much sex, much infidelity. There are many marriages that feature deep connections, sexual and otherwise, yet are fraught with difficulties. Although these are common elements of much literature, Gay’s stories contain many twists and turns, many psychological byways, many surprises. There is the woman who pretends not to know that her husband and his twin sometimes switch places. There is the couple that both knows the other is having affairs. There are the intersecting lives of rich and poor families in a subdivision in Florida. There is the black scientist who works in Northern Michigan and feels totally isolated; well-meaning but ignorant people keep asking her if she is from Detroit (as if that is where all black people come from). These stories are fierce (but not didactic) meditations on race, class, and, especially, gender. Gay, also the author of “Bad Feminist,” a collection of essays (discussed here on 10/29/14), is a truly compelling writer, whether of fiction or nonfiction. She is an important voice who should be widely read. Now I am eagerly waiting for the upcoming publication of her memoir, “Hunger.” (And on another note: This post marks the seventh anniversary of the StephanieVandrickReads blog.)
 
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