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.
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