Sunday, May 28, 2017

"Anything is Possible," by Elizabeth Strout

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

Friday, May 19, 2017

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

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

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Swooning over an English Accent

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

Sunday, May 7, 2017

"The Dark Flood Rises," by Margaret Drabble

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

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

RIP Robert Pirsig

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