Monday, January 30, 2017

"The Mothers," by Brit Bennett

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

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

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

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

Friday, January 20, 2017

"The Secret Place," by Tana French

Apparently my substantial time away from mysteries has ended for the present. (I have written more than once here about how I go in phases or cycles regarding mysteries: sometimes I binge on them, and other times I am completely uninterested in them for months or years at a time.) This recent "return" to mysteries started with "discovering" Louise Penny (thank you, KS!) and then I finally tried the Donna Leon mysteries I had been hearing so much about for so long, partly because I was reminded of them by my friend Mary (see my posts of 11/12/16 and 11/25/16). Most recently, I have read new (to me) author Tana French’s fifth mystery, “The Secret Place” (Viking, 2014). I had vaguely heard about her work, and had read a couple of good reviews of her newest (2016) novel, “The Trespasser.” “The Secret Place” takes place at a girls’ boarding school in Ireland, and I am drawn to novels about girls, women, girls’ schools, women’s colleges, and such. A major focus of the novel is the friendships of a group of four teenaged girls at the school, and of their “enemies,” another group of four girls. The girls’ school is next to a boys’ school, and of course there is much going back and forth, licitly and illicitly. The murder that precipitates the story is of one of the boys, but on the grounds of the girls’ school. The case has gone cold, when a year later one of the girls brings a big clue to a police detective, who talks his way into being part of the reinvestigation of the case. The two main detectives, one male and one female, are a quirky, eccentric pair who had never worked together before. The case is slowly unveiled, as layers and layers of clues are revealed. As with all good mysteries, the careful plotting is very important but is not enough; the characters have to be interesting, there has to be more at stake than “whodunit,” and the writing must be strong and compelling. These are all characteristics of "The Secret Place." I was impressed by the novel, all 452 pages of it, and am now very inclined to read more of French’s work. So now I have a pleasant problem: how to fit in reading more of these three “new” (to me) mystery novelists’ work with my usual reading.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

"They Came Like Swallows," by William Maxwell

A mention of William Maxwell in Robert Gottlieb’s memoir, “Avid Reader” (see my 1/5/17 post) reminded me of what a wonderful writer he was. He was a masterful novelist and short story writer, as well as a longtime editor, including being fiction editor of The New Yorker for almost 40 years in the mid-twentieth century. This reminder of Maxwell, some of whose work I have read, but very long ago, prompted me to find his early novel “They Came Like Swallows” (Vintage, 1997, originally published 1937). This slim novel describes a Midwestern family of which the mother, Elizabeth Morison, is the center and the focus. Much of the story is told through the eyes of the young boy Bunny, who adores his mother. His father James is a good man, and his older brother Robert, although they fight as siblings do, supports and defends Bunny when needed. Something terrible happens that changes everything for the family; we are shown the family both before and after this event. The setting of the Midwest in the early part of the twentieth century is beautifully portrayed, and the characters are drawn with careful observation and affection, as well as a hint of lyricism. The portrait of Bunny is particularly masterful and touching. Maxwell based much of his fiction on his own life, although of course transformed by art. I was moved by the story, and impressed by Maxwell’s restrained but powerful depiction of this small but absorbing family and world, long ago but in many ways timeless and universal.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

"Julieta," a Film by Pedro Almodovar

Readers of this blog may remember how much I admire and love the fiction of Alice Munro, the wonderful Canadian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. A couple of days ago, I went to see the Spanish film “Julieta,” directed by Pedro Almodovar and based on three Munro stories from her collection “Runaway” (2004), but with the setting changed from Canada to Spain. The film is in Spanish with English subtitles. The stories are “Change,” “Soon,” and “Silence.” (Almodovar originally called the film “Silence” after one of the stories, but when he found that Martin Scorsese’s new film was to have the same title, he changed it.) Warning: although I try not to give too much of the plot away, some might consider that the following contains spoiler alerts. OK, warning given, I will proceed: The film is about a mother, Julieta, whose daughter, Antia, unexpectedly left when she was 18 and for 12 years never communicated with her mother except for a few blank birthday cards. In the “present” of the film, Julieta is about to move from Spain to Portugal with her new lover, when she runs into Antia’s childhood friend, who says she recently saw Antia by chance and that Antia is now living in Switzerland, is married, and has three children. Julieta immediately changes her plans to move, and stays in Madrid, where she hopes Antia will someday contact her. Meanwhile, we get an extended flashback to when Julieta met Xoan on a train, they became lovers, and she eventually moved in with him and had her daughter, Antia. There are many twists and turns in the stories of the past and of the present, including a tragic death. I will of course not reveal these, nor the ending of the story. The role of Julieta is played by two actresses, one as Julieta in her 20s (Adriana Ugarte) and one, in the present, as Julieta in her early 50s (Emma Suarez). The actresses look startlingly alike, and both are terrific. Almodovar, in interviews, said that despite the rather melodramatic events of the story, he was aiming for a film of austerity, restraint, and solitude, and he achieves this, in my opinion. To me, the most powerful part of the film is the emotional connection between mother and daughter, which is so strong and then becomes severed. Julieta’s pain and mourning are palpable and wrenching. Even when she has found new love with a very supportive man, she is willing to give it all up on the tiny chance that her daughter will get back in touch with her. I felt I had to see this film because of the Alice Munro connection, but even without knowing of that background, I would have very much liked the film and been very moved by it.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

"Avid Reader: A Life," by Robert Gottlieb

Editor/critic/writer Robert Gottlieb’s memoir, “Avid Reader: A Life” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) is a big box of goodies for those of us who love reading. Gottlieb, who is now in his mid-80s, still healthy and still working, has given us a book crammed full of stories, names, discreet but (almost) never mean-spirited gossip, opinions, and wonderful insights into the world of publishing, as well as into his own life. The index is one of the longest lists of literary and related figures I have seen in a book. And much of the book is a kind of annotated listing of the authors he has edited, the people he has known. Name dropping? Yes indeed. But he has earned the right to do so. And he does it with such joy that it is hard to fault him. There are a lot of stories that start and end with how close Gottlieb became to this and that big name author or smaller name editor or agent or other person in his life. He does seem to have a genuine talent for many close friendships, and he says toward the end of the book that this comes at least partly from his yearning for family. He has his own family – a (second) wife (who is an actress) and three grown children – but lacked a close relationship with his family of origin, in which he was the only child of loving but sometimes difficult parents. Gottlieb seems to have lived two or three lives, not only with his editorial work at Simon and Schuster, Knopf, and the New Yorker, but with his intense involvement with his family and his friends; with the world of dance (especially the New York City Ballet and the Miami City Ballet) through various types of work and support and board memberships; with much travel; with his several homes spread out over the U.S. and in Paris; with his own writing (which he started in late middle age, and which includes literary and dance criticism among other topics); with his several intense collecting projects (he has collected and written about many quirky pop culture items such as plastic handbags); and more. And throughout, he always, always, always reads and reads and reads. There is a certain amount of humblebragging, but somehow it is easy to forgive him, as his persona, at least in the book, is easygoing, friendly, and engaging. I have to note and appreciate that Gottlieb seems to deeply admire (without making a special point of it or patting himself on the back for it) and have many (platonic) friendships with women. Okay, the good stuff: Here are some of the names of people he has edited or otherwise connected with, and this is just a tiny fraction of those he discusses in the book: Toni Morrison, Joseph Heller, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Bill Clinton, Nora Ephron, Susan Sontag, Jessica Mitford, Cynthia Ozick, John Cheever, Antonia Fraser, Katherine Graham, Gail Godwin, Pauline Kael, Michael Crichton, Chaim Potok, John le Carre, Doris Lessing, Natalia Makarova, Edna O’Brien, George Plimpton, Twyla Tharp, Barbara Tuchman, and so many, many more. In case I haven't made it clear: reading “Avid Reader” was pure, pure pleasure for me!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

"Hungry Heart," by Jennifer Weiner

I truly admire Jennifer Weiner’s candor, gutsiness, and courage, as well as her humor. She is now known not only for her bestselling fiction, but for speaking up on a number of issues, most notably the uneven (OK, unequal, unfair) treatment of women writers, in terms of fewer and more negative reviews, condescending attitudes of critics and others, and more. She has been attacked for, and mocked for (including obscene and horrible comments by the now-ubiquitous trolls on the Internet), speaking out, but she doesn’t let that stop her. The New Yorker has called her “an unlikely feminist enforcer,” and I say “Brava!” to that! Her new book, “Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing” (Atria, 2016), is billed as a memoir, and it is that, albeit in the form of a series of connected essays, some previously published. She exposes her most difficult experiences and feelings, in order to make readers, especially women, realize they are not alone, and in order to give them hope. She also writes of overcoming problems, as well as of her personal and professional successes. This all sounds very self-help-ish, but Weiner’s gift is to be able to tell her stories with self-awareness, humor, and even joy. Her topics include her lifelong struggle with her weight (and with the ways she has been criticized and even insulted for it, especially as she became a prominent writer and public personality); the ups and downs of her love life; being a mother; writing what she proudly acknowledges is women’s literature, even “chick lit,” but the dismissal of which she fights against; aging; and much more. She offers heartfelt advice to her readers, with a caring tone but a light touch. This memoir, like her novels, is entertaining, accessible, authentic, generous, and engaging. I love her bravery and her “realness.”
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