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.
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