Sunday, December 31, 2017

RIP Dorothy Bryant

I am sorry for two RIP posts in a row. But today I saw the obituary of writer Dorothy Bryant in the San Francisco Chronicle. I hadn’t thought about this author for a long time, but memories came rushing back as soon as I saw her name. I most associate Bryant’s work with my longtime Reading Group (see my posts of 1/26/10, 1/8/12, and 2/4/16 for more on this group), as we read several of her novels in the mid- to late-70s, when our group was young (as were we!) and when Bryant published her first few books. Bryant was born in San Francisco and lived in the Bay Area most of her life; she died in Oakland on Dec. 21, 2017, at the age of 87. She was the daughter of Italian immigrants, the first in her family to graduate from college, and some of her fiction reflects that background. It has aspects of the local (San Francisco and Oakland), of immigrant culture, and of working class life, as well as of the teaching life. Bryant taught in schools and community colleges in the Bay Area, and was known at least a bit to some of my friends in the Reading Group (all of us educators) through those teaching circles. We read her books because she was local and because she was a feminist, and we thoroughly enjoyed and celebrated those books. She also wrote plays and a book about writing. I am not sure how well known she was outside of the Bay Area, but here she was known with respect and affection, especially among women, and most especially among feminists. I am happy to remember those days of reading her fiction with my Reading Group friends, and connecting it to our lives in those early days of our group and of second wave feminism. Thank you, Dorothy Bryant, for your sustaining work.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

RIP Sue Grafton

I am very sad to hear of the death of writer Sue Grafton on Thursday, December 28, in Santa Barbara, of cancer. She was 77. Grafton was the much-beloved author of the best-selling series of mystery novels featuring private detective Kinsey Millhone. Each novel's title begins with a letter of the alphabet, in order, starting with "A is for Alibi" and ending with "Y is for Yesterday." Unfortunately, there will never be a "Z is for..." novel. The alphabet novels are entertaining and enjoyable for the mystery plots, but also for the cast of interesting characters (neighbors, friends, police officers, others) we grow to know as we proceed through the alphabet, and for the setting in the mythical Santa Teresa in Southern California. We soon feel we know the territory and the characters well, which enhances the reading experience; of course every new book offers many surprises as well. Most of all, readers enjoy the character of Kinsey herself, whom we feel we know well after reading several of the novels. Something that has been important to me in the series is that without in any way being explicit, didactic, or polemical, these novels are definitely feminist. When Grafton published the first book in the series in 1982, novels featuring women detectives were rare, and thus such novels were happily welcomed by many of us. As her longtime editor Marian Wood says, "Unlike so many female characters in the mysteries that preceded her appearance, [Kinsey] is not a loyal helpmate or willing employee or second banana. Now, how refreshing is that?" Kinsey Millhone is smart, funny, tough, and resourceful, but sometimes prone to mistakes, sometimes endearingly self-deprecating, and sometimes even a little goofy. What a joy it has been for readers -- women and men -- to get to know, appreciate, and enjoy Kinsey and her adventures. On a personal note: Although, as I have written here before, I love mysteries but go in and out of phases of reading them, sometimes for years at a time, I always came back to Grafton's series. Just within the past few months, I went back to catch up on some in the series that I had missed, and then read the last one (without knowing it would be the last one), "Y is for Yesterday." Thank you, Sue Grafton, for the great pleasure, entertainment, and joy you have given so many, many readers over the past 35 years! And I am sure that many more readers will have the pleasure of discovering these books in years to come.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Happy Holidays, Dear Fellow Readers!

Dear fellow readers, On this Christmas Day, I want to wish you a Merry Christmas (if you celebrate Christmas), Happy Holidays, and a wonderful New Year! Today I am counting my blessings, and in addition to being grateful for family and friends, I am most grateful to you who read this blog and for all the other readers in the world. I am grateful for books, for writers, for publishers, for editors, for bookstores, for libraries, for book reviewers, for those who teach children to read, for those who teach literature, and for all the others involved in the process of giving us the wonderful gift of books.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

"The Ninth Hour," by Alice McDermott

Sometimes it takes a while to write and post about a book I have read, because I am too busy to write (although, apparently, never too busy to read!). But occasionally the reason for a delay between finishing a book and writing about it is my worry about not being able to adequately convey how good the book is. The latter is the case with why I finished reading “The Ninth Hour" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), by the consistently wonderful writer Alice McDermott, a couple of weeks ago but have not posted on it until now. But here goes. I have read most of this author’s novels and am in awe of her talent. (See my post of 1/29/13 on “Someone”; her other works were published before I started this blog). The current novel has many elements of McDermott’s earlier novels: a focus on female characters; locales and storylines steeped in Catholicism, usually with Irish-American settings; explorations of family dynamics; and a clear-eyed but forgiving description of human foibles, and a deep sense of the histories and backgrounds of the characters. Her characters always seem completely real and specific, yet also universal. Her stories are always soaked in history and always evocative. “The Ninth Hour” takes place in early twentieth-century Brooklyn, and the main character is a young woman named Annie, newly widowed at the start of the story when her husband commits suicide. Her daughter, Sally, who never knows her father, is another major character. Both are exquisitely delineated in all their complexities. However, the characters who steal the story in many ways are the nuns of the Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, whose vocation is to help whomever in their neighborhood needs it. Sister St. Saviour, Sister Jeanne, Sister Illuminata, and all the other nuns are true saints, true heroines. Of course they have their weaknesses and quirks, but they are truly selfless, devoted and hardworking for others. They take the young widow Annie in by giving her a job in the laundry of the convent, and Annie’s daughter grows up playing there, knowing the nuns, in a strange but in some ways enchanted childhood. Many intriguing characters enter the story. I won’t say more about the plot, in fear of giving spoilers, but I will say that in its gentle but compelling (and sometimes surprising) way, the story certainly keeps readers’ attention. As when I have read others of McDermott’s novels, I feel strongly how humane her stories and characters are, not whitewashed, but understood. I highly recommend this beautiful, and exquisitely written, novel.

Friday, December 15, 2017

"Sing, Unburied, Sing," by Jesmyn Ward

“Sing, Unburied, Sing” (Scribner, 2017), by Jesmyn Ward, is a powerful dirge, relentless and deeply sad, yet with a spark of hope and life in its midst. It tells the story of the fateful road trip of 13-year-old Jojo and his black family traveling through rural Mississippi to pick his white father Michael up from prison at the end of his sentence. Jojo lives in a very rural area with his unreliable mother Leonie, torn by her own history and addictions, as well as with his almost saintly, loving grandparents. His grandparents are both great inspirations to Jojo and provide a rock solid loving foundation for him, but the grandfather has his own demons, and the grandmother is painfully dying of cancer. Jojo is also the one who takes care of his little sister Kayla, a child being a rock for a still younger child. The family burden, besides a history of discrimination and pain, is the loss of Leonie’s brother Given to a senseless shooting. The road trip is dogged by unhappy events, but ultimately achieves its goal. Back home, despite a deep love between them, there is still strife between Leonie and Michael, made worse by the fact that Michael’s father cannot accept that Michael loves and has children with a black woman. Throughout the story, Jojo is visited by the ghost of his uncle Given, as well as by the ghost of a young man, really almost a child, Richie, whom Jojo’s grandfather had tried to save when the two of them were in the same prison where Michael was later; these two are the unsettled, unhappy, still questing, “unburied” of the title, although the titles resonates in other ways as well. It turns out that several members of the family have intuitive qualities and can see and hear ghosts. With the presence of ghosts, and the structure of the road trip, there is a mythic quality to this story. It is hard to exaggerate the power and compelling qualities of this novel. Of course there is no such thing as one “rural Southern African-American experience,” but this novel gives readers a riveting look at one family in Mississippi whose story combines the details of everyday life and the mythic in one potent package. Ward is a passionate, gifted writer, whose also-powerful memoir “Men We Reaped” I posted about here on 1/24/14. Having been moved and shaken by these two books, one fiction and one nonfiction, I will definitely seek out her other work, past and future.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Don't Get Between Me and Finishing My Story!

The other day while waiting in my dentist’s office, I started reading a story in one of those magazines that I only (honest!) read there, or at the beach, or at airports: magazines about celebrities, movies, etc. I wasn’t able to finish the story before my dental work was done, so – true confession – I took the magazine home. In my defense, it was one of many on the tables in the waiting room, and it was about four months old. Still, I shouldn’t have taken it. Or at least I should have asked. I’m sorry, Dr. L! The reason I tell this story is that it reminded me of the power of story, and how once we hear or read part of a story, we want very much to hear or read how it ends. I learned this in childhood. One particular example still stands out in my mind. In early elementary school, a librarian came to read to my class, and at the most exciting point in the story, she STOPPED READING! She cheerfully told us that if we wanted to know the ending, we could go to the library and finish the book there, and she left us without finishing the book. I was both very disappointed and a bit outraged, because I wanted to hear the rest of the story immediately. I also didn’t think I would be able to go to that library and find that book, and as it turned out, I never did hear or read the end of the story.I don’t remember the title of the book, or what it was about, but I vividly remember my feeling of something like betrayal, as if we children, listening with upturned faces, had been tricked. I understand now the motivation of the librarian, showing us the excitement of reading, but I thought then, and still think now, that she chose the wrong way to illustrate it. Years later – perhaps 25 years ago – I had a similar experience when I accidentally left a Barbara Pym book I had almost finished on an airplane. When I realized it, I rushed back to the plane, where the workers were sympathetic but said the airplane had already been cleaned. However, they said they would try to track the book down, and lo and behold, they did find it and return it to me perhaps a half hour later! (I am doubtful that airlines would be that helpful nowadays….) I had read the book years before, and I knew I could probably find it again, but it was somewhat obscure, and would take time to track down. I certainly wouldn’t be able to get a copy during my trip. So I was thrilled to have my book back, and be able to finish the story. I guess the lesson is never to get between an avid reader and her or his ability to finish a book or story!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

"The Leavers," by Lisa Ko

My good friend SB, the same one who recommended the novel “Silver Sparrow,” which I very much liked, and about which I posted on 10/26/17, also recommended the novel “The Leavers” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2017), by Lisa Ko. I had read reviews of the novel and it sounded interesting, and was being very well received, but somehow I wasn’t drawn to read it. But after SB recommended it, I took another look at it, and then got completely caught up in it. It is very good on so many levels. It is being labeled by reviewers as a novel about the immigrant experience, and it is certainly that. But it is also about what constitutes family, what constitutes “home,” the meaning of the parent/child connection, gender, class, race, adoption, addiction, and the moral ambiguities that we all encounter. It is also fascinating on the level of a good story that draws the reader in. The two main characters are a mother, Polly, who is an immigrant from China (and therefore already a “leaver”), and her American-born son, Deming. Polly struggles to manage financially and to take care of her son, but her life is hard. She lives in New York City with her partner Leon and others of his relatives, including Deming’s friend Michael. Then one day when Deming is eleven years old, Polly disappears, a "leaver" once again. Soon after, Leon disappears. No one else among the relatives can afford to take care of Deming, so he is adopted by a white American couple, professors at a university in a very white town in upstate New York. He becomes “Daniel,” and has to adjust to a completely new life, meanwhile always wondering what happened to his mother, and why she left him. His new parents are good people, but they are na├»ve about cultural issues (despite their best intentions and efforts, and their academic knowledge) and cannot understand Daniel’s true self. The story follows Polly and Deming/Daniel in alternating sections, as Daniel grows up into his twenties and has trouble figuring out who he is, where he belongs, and what he wants to do with his life. He becomes a sort of “leaver” as well, making several moves in a sometimes aimless fashion. But he is also a “searcher” for the truth about what happened to his mother. I won’t give away any more of the story, but will say that it is alternatingly painful and hopeful. Readers will not be sorry to undertake a journey with these two deeply and carefully described characters. So once again, thank you, SB, for this recommendation! And I will look forward to reading future fiction by this gifted first-time novelist, Lisa Ko.

Friday, November 24, 2017

"Generation Wealth," by Lauren Greenfield

I just finished reading – and looking at the extraordinary photographs in – a huge slab of a book: “Generation Wealth” (Phaidon, 2017), by the photographer Lauren Greenfield, with a useful foreword by the well-known sociologist Juliet Schor. There is text throughout the 500 pages of this large and heavy book, but the photos on every page are the stars. Greenfield started taking photographs in the 1990s in Los Angeles, and has continued to take photos until the present, very often focusing on social class, wealth, and celebrity, not only in California but also across the U.S. and in Ireland, Iceland, Dubai, and elsewhere. One of her main themes is fluxes in wealth, and a related one is what happens when there is a crash, societal or personal, that changes everything. The financially disastrous year 2008 is a focus here, especially in a chapter titled “The Fall.” Some of the other sections of the book are titled “I Shop Therefore I Am,” “The Princess Brand,” “Sexual Capital,” “The Cult of Celebrity,” “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” “Old Money,” and “The Queen of Versailles.” The photos themselves are big and bold, in vivid, supersaturated colors. Most of them feature faces and bodies (some quite intimate) and their surroundings (houses, property, parties, shops, doctors’ offices, etc.). One could just look at the photos and the book would be fascinating, but one gains insights by reading the accompanying text, especially quotations from the people pictured. I found the book compelling, and in particular it resonated with the theme of social class that is one of my research focuses.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

"Little Fires Everywhere," by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s first novel, “Everything I Never Told You,” was a very big success in terms of both critics’ reception and sales. I found the book powerful and compelling (see my post of 10/31/14). Her new book, “Little Fires Everywhere” (Penguin, 2017) is equally powerful and compelling. Both books focus on families, and excavate the very complex relationships among family members, as well as the societal forces that influence them so strongly. The main characters in the current novel are the members of the Richardson family: Mr. and Mrs. Richardson and their four teenaged children, Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy. They live in the upscale suburb of Shaker Heights, and seem to be living a typical upper middle class life, although Izzy’s attitude and behavior are sometimes troublesome. As the story progresses, we see that each of the family members has her or his own secrets. Then the artist and single mother Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl appear in Shaker Heights and rent a house from the Richardsons. Pearl becomes friends with Lexie, and Izzie becomes friends with and an assistant to Mia as she creates her art. There is something mysterious about Mia and Pearl, and Mrs. Richardson wants to find out what it is. The story has to do with social class, but also race (as in Ng’s first novel) and parenthood, as the Richardsons’ friends adopt a Chinese American baby, and then become embroiled in a court case when the birth mother wants her child back. Ng writes beautifully and with astute psychological insight, as well as awareness of societal pressures and beliefs, in all their nuances. This is a rich, full novel, both satisfying and unsettling.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Mixed Feelings about "Fresh Complaint," by Jeffrey Eugenides

I have written here before about issues of, and my feelings about, gender in literature, meaning mainly the differences (when present) between fiction by female and male authors. Of course – please take it as a given – I believe that great fiction can and is produced by both women and men. But why do I read more novels and short stories by women than by men? Originally, back when I was in late college and in grad school, as a budding feminist, I wanted to reclaim the writing of female authors, and to balance out the years of being taught, and reading, almost all male authors. But I also, often but not always, felt more “at home” in the works of women authors. I resisted that feeling to some extent, not wanting to open the door to men’s saying the same thing about fiction by men. With time, I have found I read a real mix of both, but that I lean (OK, fairly markedly) toward writings by women (as readers of this blog will have noticed). All of this is prologue to writing about my feelings about Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest book, a collection of short stories titled “Fresh Complaint” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017). I found the stories interesting and well-written, but I had an increasing sense of being immersed in a male world. Nothing wrong with that, and Eugenides has certainly written about female characters in the past (although there is some controversy about the way he has positioned those characters), and I wrote a positive post about his novel “The Marriage Plot” (I read his earlier novels “The Virgin Suicides” and “Middlesex” before I started this blog). However, I felt somehow forced into the male perspective in a way that I don’t with women writers, nor with with male writers such as Colm Toibin, Kent Haruf, William Trevor, and Richard Russo. It is true that one of the two main characters in Eugenides’ title story “Fresh Complaint” is a young woman, but she is a young woman who manipulates and partially destroys the lead male character for her own purposes, in a way that will raise alarming connections to some of the news stories of today; some accused men defend themselves precisely by saying that their female accusers are conspiring to defame them. (This is not exactly what happens in the story here, but close enough.) I will add that these stories are not overtly or traditionally masculine or macho; I almost have an easier time with those, as they don’t even pretend to be anything other than that. It is writers such as Eugenides (or Jonathan Franzen), who present themselves as more understanding of female characters and lives, that disappoint me when their work indicates otherwise. (Although, in the spirit of yes-but-no-but, Eugenides does a good job of portraying a kind of “modern guy,” whose attributes still reflect the past but are being dragged into a newer present with different attitudes about gender.) I will end this post by saying that Eugenides’ book raises issues for me, and perhaps for other readers, that I don’t quite know how to resolve. And perhaps that is OK (it would be presumptuous and unlikely for me to claim to do so, when so many others have struggled with these issues), as long as it is part of an ongoing discussion about gender and literature, and of course about gender and politics, equity, and life.

Friday, November 10, 2017

"Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York," by Roz Chast

“Going Into Town” (Bloomsbury, 2017), by the inimitable writer/artist/cartoonist Roz Chast, is subtitled “A Love Letter to New York,” and that it is indeed. Chast's love for the city is palpable. Chast is well known to New Yorker readers as a longtime contributor of her unique cartoons. She is also the author/artist of the bestselling 2014 graphic memoir, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?”, which deals with the author’s relationship with her aging parents (see my friend Mary’s guest post on that book on 5/31/14). Chast herself grew up in Brooklyn and always thought of Manhattan as the center of everything. She and her husband did move to a “leafy suburb” north of New York when their children were little, but she never lost her love for New York. She says that the germ of the current book was her desire to offer her daughter some basic facts and guidance about Manhattan when the daughter was about to move to the city for college. She instructs her daughter in such things as the basic layout of Manhattan, the subway system, apartments, museums, and Central Park. Each page has a detailed, quirky drawing, along with dry, wry commentary. For example, she writes candidly that “For some reason, I’ve always preferred cities to Nature. I’m interested in the person-made. I like to watch and eavesdrop on people” (p. 40). And “When you walk around, keep your eyes and ears open. Partly for safetly… but also because there’s SO MUCH MATERIAL. The people, the buildings, things expected, things unexpected, or something surprising…” (p. 50). Chast's people are drawn as somewhat frumpy, in an utterly charming way. This book is an absolute joy to read and look at, and repays repeated readings with new surprising details on each page. And as a bonus: although I have visited New York many times over the years, I learned some new facts about it in this book.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

"Silver Sparrow," by Tayari Jones

Many thanks to my good friend SB, a regular reader and supporter of this blog, for recommending the novel “Silver Sparrow” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2011), by Tayari Jones. The book opens with the attention-catching line “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” and everything else in the story spins off from that central fact. James married his wife Laverne when they were both at a very young age, when she became pregnant (and later lost that baby); later he met and fell in love with Gwen, and started his second family. The daughter of his first family, Chaurisse, born a few years after the first baby died, and Gwen’s daughter, Dana, are about the same age. His second family is aware of the first, but not vice versa. Gwen’s and Dana’s lives are consumed by a fascination with and resentment of James’ first family. Dana and Chaurisse get to know each other during their late teen years, and the plot accelerates from there. Other major characters are Raleigh, James’ ever-present best friend who is as close as a brother, and who quietly adores Gwen, and the girls’ grandmother, Miss Bunny, who raised both James and Raleigh. The main story (not counting brief background information about James and Raleigh as children) takes place over a period of about 40 years, from the late 1950s/early 1960s to the year 2000 (the latter in a brief epilogue); the characters are African American and live in Atlanta. The reader might expect James to be the "bad guy" of the story, and in a way he is, but one cannot help feeling compassion for, and even admiration of, this responsible and dependable (aside from the obvious!) and a bit nerdy man who is trying to do right by both wives and daughters, and everyone else as well. The first half of the book tells the story from Dana’s perspective, and the second half through Chaurisse’s eyes. The book is suffused with the duality of the two families, two wives, two daughters, two perspectives. The novel has much to say about marriage, about males and females, about parenthood, about young African American girls, about female friendship, about middle class African American life, about honesty and dishonesty, about living up to one’s responsibilities and how complex that can be, about pride, and much more. This novel tells a compelling story, with compelling characters, and leaves the reader with much to think about, including the fact that almost no moral decisions are completely right or wrong, good or bad, but always encompass various shades of grey.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Please subscribe to progressive magazines!

This post is a plea to readers to support progressive magazines. Such magazines have always played an important role in providing readers with information not covered in major news sources, as well as perspectives not always well represented in those major news sources. Now we need this information and these perspectives more than ever. I have subscribed to The Nation, The Progressive, and Ms. magazines for decades, and recently (OK, immediately after the 2016 election) resubscribed – after a gap of some years – to Mother Jones. These are all invaluable resources. I also find important progressive writing in some more mainstream but still quite progressive magazines as The Atlantic and The New Yorker. Many of these magazines report strong upticks in subscriptions after the 2016 election, but they still need wider readership and wider support in order to continue to do their often groundbreaking investigative reports and other important stories. Maybe consider subscribing to one of the above magazines, or another progressive publication? And/or giving a gift subscription?

Friday, October 13, 2017

"Vanity Fair's Schools for Scandals," edited by Graydon Carter

How could I not read this book? Its topics are a heady combination of education, social class, sexual politics, true crime, gossip, current events, social commentary and, yes, scandal. “Vanity Fair’s Schools for Scandals” (Simon & Schuster, 2017) is subtitled “The Inside Dramas at 16 of America’s Most Elite Campuses – Plus Oxford!” The book is a compilation of articles that have been published in the magazine Vanity Fair over the past 20 years or so, and is edited by Vanity Fair’s editor Graydon Carter. Each piece focuses on a "scandal" at one prestigious college/university or boarding school, including Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Duke, and Columbia, and the prep/boarding schools St. Paul’s, Exeter, St. George’s, and Kent. Some scandals involve financial issues, some stories report extreme hazing, and some writers portray administrators and faculty whose outsize personalities and reputations come tumbling down. The most prevalent topic, however, is, sadly, sexual abuse of various sorts, especially in the boarding schools. Because these schools are small, isolated, privileged, and entitled schools, and because the participants share those characteristics, and because sexual abuse by its nature tends to be hidden, these abuses of power sometimes went years, even decades, without being acknowledged or punished. Administrators and Board members obviously wanted to avoid bad publicity, and often turned a blind eye, and/or quietly passed bad actors (often teachers) on to other schools without warning the other schools of the problem; this last had the ugly label but vivid of “passing the trash.” Even when presented with the existence of the abuse, those in charge often stonewalled, refused to believe the victims, or minimized the impact of the abuse (and let’s be clear, abuse ranged from unwanted touching to assault and rape, and sometimes the same abuser would prey on many many victims over many years). At the end of many of the pieces, there are short updates about what happened with court cases, and about where various administrators, teachers, and students are now and what they are doing now. Although I have subscribed to Vanity Fair for many years, and had read almost all of these pieces before (in some cases 10-20 years before), I found that reading them in this collected form was a powerful experience. Vanity Fair’s writers are excellent at capturing the auras and environments of these schools. In many cases, the writers themselves had attended the schools they were describing, or others very like them, so they were able to offer insiders’ perspectives. These writers do good investigative research, and they are persistent in getting the story. They write well, with many telling details. And through their descriptions they capture the essence of affluence and social class privilege that often facilitates these scandals. Postscript: Finishing reading this book just as the news arrived of the movie producer Harvey Weinstein's sexually abusive behavior toward young women actors and others in the movie world was a doubly powerful reminder of the way women are sometimes treated by powerful men in various fields. So no, equality has not yet arrived; and no, we are not living in a postfeminist era. There is still a lot of work to be done.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

"The Use of Fame," by Cornelia Nixon

I like novels about academe. I like novels about writers. I like novels about marriage. So Cornelia Nixon’s “The Use of Fame” (Counterpoint, 2017), which features all three of these characteristics, caught my interest. The two main characters, Abby and Ray, are both poets and have been married for twenty-five years, when their loving and mainly successful marriage is challenged by their taking teaching positions at universities on opposite coasts. Ray is at Brown and Abby is at Berkeley. They try to make this arrangement work, but it is difficult, and puts an increasing strain on their marriage. Infidelity, health issues, alcohol, pills, and class differences all become factors. It is hard not to sympathize with both characters, especially since it is clear that their relationship is deep and meaningful (although one of them is, at least on the surface, more at fault than the other one regarding their difficulties). But the novel reminds us that sometimes love and history together are just not enough. This is a beautifully written, absorbing, and sad exploration of love and marriage.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

And the Winner Is....Kazuo Ishiguro!

Just announced as the winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Literature is Kazuo Ishiguro, the British writer of such novels as "The Remains of the Day" (which was made into a critically acclaimed movie starring Anthony Hopkins) and "Never Let Me Go," as well as five other novels. The Swedish Academy describes his novels as "uncover[ing] the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world." One official of the Academy, Sara Danius, says that Ishiguro is "a writer of great integrity," and intriguingly describes him as a mixture of Jane Austen, Franz Kafka, and Marcel Proust. The New York Times lists his themes as "the fallibility of memory, mortality and the porous nature of time." Adjectives commonly used about his work include "restrained," "reserved," and "fastidious." The choice of Ishiguro was a bit of a surprise (other writers who had been considered more likely to win included Margaret Atwood, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Haruki Murakami, and Salman Rushdie) but a welcome one by most commentators. Some are particularly glad to see a return to a more traditionally literary author, after last year's contentious choice of Bob Dylan. Interestingly, Ishiguro, a sometime songwriter, has been quoted as saying his hero is Bob Dylan!

Saturday, September 30, 2017

"Do Not Become Alarmed," by Maile Meloy

Last time I posted about a rather predictable and only mildly amusing “travel” novel, “The Last Laugh.” The “travel” novel I write about today is much less predictable, much more gripping and suspenseful. “Do Not Become Alarmed” (Riverhead, 2017), by the well-regarded Maile Meloy, tells of two families who take a cruise together from the U.S. into Central America. The families, two couples with two children each, are related, and the trip is planned as a change of pace and healing distraction for one of the women, whose mother has died recently. At first everyone is excited about the luxuries and variety of activities on the ship, and the sense of adventure they feel. But one day soon, they take a day trip into an unnamed country, and suddenly everything goes horribly awry. The children, along with two adolescents they have met on the ship, disappear. (This has been mentioned in every review of the book that I have read, and happens early on, so this is not a spoiler.) The rest of the book consists of how the children deal with being lost and falling into the wrong hands, and how the parents panic and do everything they can to find the children, but feel horribly helpless and overwhelmed with fear and grief. The stories are told alternately. To tell the truth, when I initially read the reviews that revealed this plot, I thought I would not be able to bear to read the book, but somehow I changed my mind and read it after all, and am glad I did. It is in fact painful to read in some parts, but the story is so vivid, so well told, with such interesting characters and plot developments, that it completely captured my attention. Clearly it has done the same for many other readers, as it has been on some bestseller lists. Meloy is a gifted writer.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

"The Last Laugh," by Lynn Freed

Lynn Freed’s novel “The Last Laugh” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017) is a sort of slightly dispiriting, rather self-conscious making-fun-of-the-genre romp. Three women friends in their late sixties with backgrounds in South Africa, Europe, and the United States decide to live on a Greek island together for a year. They (or at least two of them) decide they have outlived passion and men, and are also tired of the complications of their grown children’s lives; they just want to take a break from all that and enjoy the pleasures of Greece with good friends, good food, sunshine, and the other cliches about this kind of adventure. Of course real life intervenes in the form of badly-timed family visits, love affairs, a bit of jealousy, and more. I kept thinking of the most famous older (early 20th century) example of this genre, “Enchanted April” (about which I posted on 12/20/14), and how lovely it was, although (because?) it was set in an earlier time. At one point, one of the characters in Freed’s novel alludes to “Enchanted April” as unrealistic. Perhaps “The Last Laugh” is more realistic, but it is also clumsier and more self-consciously whimsical. It is a quick, fun read but rather forgettable.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

"The Burning Girl," by Claire Messud

Fiction about young girls and their friendships is important, and I am happy to find such novels when they take those girls and those friendships seriously. Claire Messud, an undeniably serious writer (see, for example, “The Emperor’s Children” and “The Woman Upstairs,” the latter of which I posted about here on 5/29/13), has written about such a friendship in “The Burning Girl” (W.W. Norton, 2017). The narrator, Julia, looks back on her long, intense childhood friendship with Cassie, a friendship that ended four years earlier in late middle school when the two drifted away from each other and then experienced a dreadful event that brought them together in a way that their friendship could not survive. The two girls had always been extremely close, despite somewhat different family backgrounds. They felt they could almost read each other's minds. Julia’s family is more traditional; her loving parents are still married and middle-class. Cassie’s single mother is also loving, and a little less middle-class; Cassie's father died when she was very young. Some of the events the two girls go through are the usual ones of early adolescence, but nothing is “usual” about Messud’s dead-on description. The friendship starts to go awry when Cassie first endures the entrance into her life of her mother’s new and controlling boyfriend, and is further derailed as she imagines that her father might still be alive, which belief preoccupies her and leads to trouble. There is also a sort of complicated competition for a boy, Peter. Messud’s achievement in this novel is not so much about the specifics of the plot (although it is a compelling one) as it is about its portrayal of girls’ lives and relationships at that critical and delicate time period when they are emerging from childhood. Adults often do not take the intensity of girls’ (or perhaps of boys’ either) feelings and experiences as seriously as they should. Those adults vaguely remember some of this, but experiences and feelings fade, and we perhaps downplay their importance and their longterm influences on us. We may remember very well that those years were intense, but we can’t really recapture the depths and textures of that intensity, and life moves on. It is both pleasurable and painful to be reminded by this very evocative portrayal of what those years can be like.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

RIP Kate Millett

RIP Kate Millett, leading second wave feminist, brilliant scholar, writer, activist, and artist. Millett died Sept. 6, 2017, in Paris, where she and her wife had gone to celebrate Millett’s upcoming 83rd birthday. Her “Sexual Politics” (1970) was a groundbreaking book on feminism that made a huge impact. It was based on her dissertation at Oxford, and blended literary analysis, history, politics, and philosophy. Millett wrote ten books, on topics such as her bisexuality, her mental illness, and the lives of various other women. She also created much visual art. Her life was not easy, but she never gave up on trying to make a difference for women and others. Gloria Steinem (as quoted in the New York Times) remembers her as follows: “She wrote about the politics of male dominance, of owning women’s bodies as the means of reproduction, and made readers see this as basic to hierarchies of race and class.” It is hard to say strongly enough how influential Millett’s work was, especially “Sexual Politics,” and how it was a critical part of the heady days of second wave feminism. Steinem also notes that Andrew Dworkin said that Millett "woke us up." I remember those days well, and I still have on my bookshelf a somewhat worn copy of “Sexual Politics,” which indeed, along with other feminist classic books, woke this lifelong feminist up. I also read several of her other books. Here I want to offer my heartfelt tribute to Kate Millett and to thank her for her powerful and original writing and her fearless activism.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

"The Customer is Always Wrong," by Mimi Pond

I hadn’t read a graphic novel for a while, but have just read Mimi Pond’s “The Customer is Always Wrong” (Drawn & Quarterly, 2017). This was enjoyable to read, although (because?) very similar to her 2014 graphic novel, “Over Easy” (about which I posted here on 5/11/14). Both books are semi-fictionalized versions of the author/artist’s time working in a restaurant in Oakland, California, back in the late seventies and early eighties, and the characters and story lines are quite similar, although this seems to be a sequel to the earlier novel. It could easily be titled something like “More Stories of My Crazy Days in the Restaurant” or some such. The main character, Madge, is a little older and a little less naive than she was at the beginning of “Over Easy,” and since she has had some comics published, she has her ambitions to move to New York and make a career as a comics/graphics writer; she is saving money toward that, but that stash of money keeps getting diverted. Meanwhile she continues to be a server at the restaurant, and tells the stories of the various fellow workers there as well as of some of the “regulars.” There are still a lot of drugs, and there is still a lot of sex. And lots of drama, in this case even including some rather scary criminals (although this storyline ends up softened, eventually…). And some sadness. The manager of the restaurant, Lazlo, is probably the most interesting character: a poet, a confidant to Madge and others, tough but kind. The drawings are still in green ink. The facial expressions of the characters are, again, a highlight.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

"Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage," by Dani Shapiro

Dani Shapiro has written a lovely, thoughtful, sad, inspiring, and thought-provoking memoir about marriage (and life…). “Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage” (Knopf, 2017) is Shapiro’s fourth memoir, so does not claim to be an all-inclusive take on her life, but instead focuses on the 18 years of her (third) marriage, to the man she here calls “M.” Before their marriage, M. was a foreign correspondent all over the world, including in many dangerous war-torn countries. He is now a writer, notably a screenwriter. Shapiro herself is a longtime writer. The couple married when she was 35 and he was 41. They are now in their fifties, with a sixteen-year-old son, and live in Connecticut. This memoir appears to be remarkably candid, yet at the same time Shapiro is respectful of the feelings of her husband; this is a true balancing act. They seem to be deeply in love, yet have had to deal with difficult pressures and questions and events, as almost all married couples do. Both the author and M., individually and together, wonder about the roads not taken in the past, and worry about the future. Shapiro faces head-on the fact that all married couples know (if they allow themselves to think about it): no matter how much they love each other, and no matter how long they have been together, they never truly know each other completely, and they can never be completely sure about what the future will bring to their marriage and their lives. Shapiro’s writing is insightful, beautiful, full of vivid examples, and always inconclusive, just like life. Marriage is both made of specific events, feelings, and phases, on the one hand, and completely mysterious, on the other hand. And it is sometimes heartbreaking, as Shapiro clearly shows. She effectively draws on literary sources. She gracefully moves back and forth between the immediate and the longterm, between the specific and the general. Intertwined with the topic of marriage are, as the title indicates, the topics of time and memory. This is a beautiful, evocative little (145 pages) book that I recommend to anyone who is or has been or plans to be married, or in a similar relationship. I know that while and after reading “Hourglass,” I did some thinking about and made some connections with my own longish (OK, 38 years long) marriage. Here I want to give tribute to my very recently widowed friend B. and her late husband S., the latter of whom died last week, and their 67-year marriage. They have had their share of ups and downs regarding life circumstances, but they have had one of the most solid, joyful, and inspiring marriages I know, along with being two of the kindest, best people I know.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

"Isn't That Rich?" Life Among the 1%," by Richard Kirshenbaum

Because of my scholarly interest in social class issues (I have spoken about these matters at academic conferences and published about them in academic journals and as chapters in books), I am always on the lookout for related books, whether scholarly or popular. “Isn’t That Rich? Life Among the 1%” (Open Road, 2015), by Richard Kirshenbaum, is decidedly of the latter type (popular). Kirschenbaum is in Advertising and is also an author; the essays in this book are taken from his New York Observer column about the lives of the rich and famous in New York City. He appears to mingle freely with many of these, and writes with what appears to be inside knowledge and authority, as well as with humor. He (wisely!) mostly doesn’t name names, but uses aliases for his examples and informants, such as Master of the Universe, Chic Brunette Heiress, International Playboy Posse, and Our Lady of the East River. His tone is diplomatic, fond, and bemused (but very aware) rather than sharply critical or mocking. In fact, he takes a sort of faux-anthropological perspective on the New York one percent. His writing is lively and his examples are entertaining (although sometimes it is hard to deal with the excessive behavior that goes with excessive wealth in some cases). His topics include marriages of rich people, divorces, nannies and drivers, exclusive private schools, art collecting, “paid friends,” restaurants and food, charity events and other parties, the Hamptons, the Upper East Side, international travel to the most fashionable places in Europe and elsewhere, “social climb-overs” (using one rich friend to meet a new, probably even richer, friend), and “the reverse brag.” Although the world of the richest New Yorkers isn’t directly connected with my academic topic (wealthy and well-traveled international students in the United States, and the implications of having many such students at U.S. universities), this book contributes overall context. And, I must admit, it is fun to read, if somewhat horrifying at times; it definitely sets off alarms and offends my political/social belief in more equality and a much smaller gap between the rich and the poor. So I read it not knowing if I should feel guilty when I was amused and entertained. It is a good thing that I can (honestly) tell you (readers of this blog) that my excuse for reading the book is that it informs my academic research!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

"Morningstar: Growing Up with Books," by Ann Hood

As does the book “My Life with Bob,” by Pamela Paul (posted about here on 6/27/17), “Morningstar: Growing Up with Books” (Norton, 2017), by Ann Hood, tells of the author’s passionate reading history as she was growing up. Hood’s title refers, as some readers will guess, to the book “Marjorie Morningstar,” by Herman Wouk, a hugely popular book when it was published in 1955, and one that Hood – like so many other bookish young women, including me – related to for decades after. This is the book featured in the first chapter in Hood’s current book. Hood, like Paul, and like me and probably a number of you, was the classic eager young reader who felt that all of life was to be found in books. She writes that it is “hard to describe the magic that books held for me then” and speaks of how books made her so happy. In her introduction, she writes of the powerful hold that the book “Little Women” had on her (and I can relate to that!). The rest of the book is organized around specific books that were important to and meaningful to her as she was growing up. There are ten chapters, each labeled as “lessons” and each title beginning with “How to…” – “Lesson 1: How to Dream,” and so on. Some of the books she discusses are “The Bell Jar,” by Sylvia Plath (“it seemed to be written just for me”); “Love Story,” by Erich Segal; “The Grapes of Wrath,” by John Steinbeck; and “Rabbit, Run,” by John Updike. I have read every one of the ten books she lists, some of which I have long forgotten (e.g., “Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows,” by Rod McKuen; “The Harrad Experiment,” by Robert H. Rimmer) but which came back to me as I read Hood’s descriptions. I love that Hood includes some books that are now generally considered to be not particularly well written, because she shows that at the time she read them, they taught her something, or made her feel less alone, or in some way touched her. These are the books that bookish young woman of her and my generation would and did read. In any case, she captures very well the yearning, the connection, the reassurance, the epiphanies, the opening up the world that a certain type of young person (yes, me, and probably you!) feels when entering the world of books. As an aside, a small related story: I remember reading Ann Hood’s first book, a novel titled “Somewhere off the Coast of Maine,” when it was published in 1987. I can still distinctly see, in my mind’s eye, this book as part of a pile of books I took to my parents’ summer lakeside cottage in Michigan that summer of 1987. As I have written before, for me one of the great pleasures of a vacation, especially a leisurely vacation of 2-3 weeks, has always been planning what to read, and storing up a pile of books appropriate for such vacations. During my time at the cottage, I would gradually work my way through the pile, sometimes sitting down by the lake, sometimes in the evenings after dinner, and reading those novels added to the pure joy of the vacation, the time with family, the beauty of the lake and surroundings, and the freedom of those weeks.

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").
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