Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr . . . or Do I Really Hate Memoirs?


If you have read much of this blog, you know I quite often say I don't like memoirs. Indeed, I have tried to read two of Mary Karr's memoirs and been unable to get into them. So why am I devoting an entire entry--something I rarely do anymore--to her book of advice about writing memoirs? Because it caused me to think about memoirs and why I do or don't like them.

In the book, Karr intersperses chapters about writing (finding your voice, choosing details, structuring the narrative) with chapters in which she analyzes memoirs that she admires. Since I have no intention of writing a memoir, I'm not sure how useful the information is for potential memoirists, but some of it is quite useful to readers. For example, she breaks down the first two paragraphs of Michael Herr's Dispatches in a way that encourages me to be a more careful reader. Similarly, her discussion of voice motivates me to look more closely at voice as I read.

One aspect of Karr's perspective that annoyed me was that she takes a lot of shots at fiction (whether out of defensiveness or genuine belief that memoir is superior, I don't know). She says that memoir is harder to create and more truthful than fiction. She seems to see fiction as blurred memoir, saying at one point that "even" a fictional character can feel like the reader's pal. I would disagree with all of these claims, but perhaps the claim that most helps explain my oft-stated aversion for the genre is the motivation she attributes to memoirists: to "recover some lost aspect of the past so it can be integrated into current identity." Integrating the past into current identity is a worthy pursuit--particularly for therapy. But if it results in a book, that book does not necessarily deserve to be published.

Indeed, I think that memoirs written in order to find the truth of one's past are the memoirs I don't generally like, especially if they are about sad childhoods and alcoholism/drug addiction. Perhaps the first 100 such books served a purpose--helping people with similar problems/life experiences work through their own search for an integrated identity--but enough already. I find these books tiresome. I suspect Mary Karr might think I am in denial--but I had a pretty decent childhood and have dealt with any lingering issues from childhood privately. Similarly, addiction is not part of my story. I just don't find such accounts rewarding in any way. And I mostly don't read them anymore--except when an author tricks me by, for example, calling her book Fiction Ruined My Family. Now if that were really the truth of her story, I could for sure get into it, but it was just another tale of alcohol and bad decisions.

Here I must admit that a very few memoirs have had emotional resonance for me--the writer experienced something difficult that had some similarity to an event in my life and wrote about it in a way that helped me process my own feelings (quite importantly, these authors did not whine--compare Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking with Joyce Carol Oates's annoying A Widow's Story).  As I think about memoirs I have liked and disliked, I find that I  like memoirs in which the writer has done something interesting with his/her life that I enjoy learning about; of late, these have often been works by chefs (Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson and Grant Achatz's Life, on the Line come to mind). I also admire (though don't always totally understand) memoirs in which the writer draws parallels between his/her life and events in the larger world, essentially making the writer's life a metaphor for more global issues. Examples here would include When Women Were Birds and Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams and Nobody's Son by Luis Alberto Urrea.

So I have resolved to stop making the blanket statement that I don't like memoirs and avoid those memoirs I know I will not find meaningful, hoping that there are other folks who will find these books resonate with them. I guess I should thank Mary Karr for that.

Favorite passage:
Truth works a trip wire that permits the book to explode into being.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

What Is Novel Conversations Reading?

So I haven't been to Novel Conversations since January, but I'm still tracking what they're reading. Here's their slate for the rest of the year:

July--My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry, by Frederick Backman
August--What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty
September--Clara and Mr. Tiffany, by Susan Vreeland
October--One Book One Broomfield choice
November--The Kitchen-House, by Kathleen Grissom
December--no book
January 17--A Fall of Marigolds, by Susan Meissne

Midsummer Reading

It's not really midsummer yet, but for me the Fourth of July always feels like the point when the remaining days and weeks of summer are going to race by rapidly. Still, I am hoping those days and weeks bring some good books. In June, most of my reading was uninspiring, but Cormac McCarthy's The Road rose above the mundane. 

Mysteries

Angel's Tip, by Alafair Burke
Corrupted, by Lisa Scottoline

I have read some of Alafair Burke's books over the years but recently decided to give her Ellie Hatcher series a second try (I had apparently read the first title in the series years ago, though I remember very little about it). Ellie is a New York City homicide detective who has risen very quickly through the ranks, causing suspicion among her colleagues. But her partner, J.J. Rogan, a dapper African American detective, backs her up, even when she goes off in some odd directions while trying to solve the case of a murdered college girl on spring break in Manhattan. Okay but not a great mystery by any means.

I did not care for Corrupted, the latest entry in Scottoline's series about an all-female law firm in Philadelphia, a series I think I may have to abandon. While Scottoline brings in a current issue--corruption in sentencing juveniles to for-profit prisons--The Good Wife did the same topic better. The part of the story that focuses on a romance senior partner Benni had with the uncle of a young miscreant is utterly ridiculous. So not recommended.

Young Adult

Among the Barons, by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer

Among the Barons is number 4 in the Shadow Children series recommended by my granddaughter. This one involves the hero of the series--Luke--being forced to become involved with the family of the young man whose identity he's assumed as a way of avoiding detection as an unlawful third child. The family has money (ergo "The Barons"), and Luke cannot figure out why they want him around. As usual, he doesn't know who to trust, evil deeds transpire, and you are as confused at the end of the book as when you started. My granddaughter claims that, by the seventh book, I will understand everything. I am forced to trust her.

I didn't realize Belzhar was a YA title when I downloaded it on OverDrive (I'm only familiar with Meg Wolitzer's adult novels). It's the story of five teenagers who've been sent to The Wooden Barn, a boarding school for "fragile" young people; they meet in a class, "Special Topics in English," that is focusing on the words of Sylvia Plath. Their teacher gives them antique journals in which to write during the semester and, when they write in them, they are transported back in time to before the trauma that sent them to The Wooden Barn. They call this "place," Belzhar (say it out loud and you'll understand how they got this name). As the end of the semester approaches, they must find a way to live in the present. I found the premise silly, but it's possible that kids in their early teens (there are numerous references to sex, so I wouldn't recommend it for younger kids) might find it engaging.

Classics

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

I tried to read Catch-22 when I was in college, but I just couldn't get into it. Recently, my son and I exchanged some "favorite" book lists and this was on his list, so I decided to give it another try, this time in audio book format. I did succeed in finishing it, but I didn't really enjoy it. Yes, it's an on-point satire of war and the military bureaucracy. Yes, it is at times quite funny. But it goes on way too long, providing more evidence for my argument that satirical novels should be limited to around 300 pages (Catch-22 is over 500). And, as with other male writers of his era, Heller writes about women in a way that is degrading; of course, one can argue that he is only reflecting the attitudes of the male characters in the book but surely there could be a female character who wasn't simply a toy/foil for the men.  If an intrepid reader wants to give the book a try, I might recommend not going with the audio book--so much of the dialogue is shouted that listening to the book wore me down (and, on a side note, the reader makes Yossarian sound like Alan Arkin, who played the role in the movie, which I found somewhat odd).

Fiction

The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
LaRose, by Louise Erdrich
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
Patricia Highsmith: Selected Novels and Short Stories, by Patricia Highsmith
Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishigura
Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave

The Dispossessed was another of my son's recommendations, and I found it interesting if not exciting. The protagonist is a physicist named Shevek, who is seeking to develop a General Temporal Theory. He lives on Antarres, a planet inhabited by people who broke off from their twin planet Urras, led by the anarchist Odo. While Antarres purportedly has no government, but the waning of its revolutionary spirit has created a culture of conformity, and Shevek's research, which flies in the face of accepted thinking, is not well accepted. He therefore decides to travel to Urras--an unheard of decision--to continue his research and open scientific communication between the two societies. But he struggles on Urras as well. Alternate chapters detail Shevek's life on Antarres and his life on Urras, playing with time and the relationship of events in the two phases of his life. The novel is not at all plot-driven; rather, it is a novel of ideas--ideas about time, science, the structuring of society, human relationships, the environment, the effect of scarcity on society, and more. I'm sure I missed a lot of what LeGuin is saying, but I enjoyed the opportunity to think about these ideas.

I used to read a lot of Louise Erdrich, though I was always kind of scratching my head and wondering what exactly she was trying to say in her complicated tales about Native American life and mythology. So I stopped reading her for awhile; then I read her three most recent books (Shadow Tag, The Round House, and Plague of Doves) and found them much more firmly rooted in the present and ergo easier for me to grasp; I admired all three. I was therefore disappointed when LaRose fell flat for me. It's the story of two families the Ironses and the Ravitches (the wives are half-sisters). When Landreaux Irons accidentally kills five-year-old Dusty Ravitch, he and his wife decide they must give their five-year-old son LaRose to the Ravitches as reparation. Both sets of parents (and Dusty's sister) suffer as a result of these events, and their suffering is made worse by the actions of another man, whose son is being raised by the Irons family. Family history woven into the story reveals how boarding schools that separated Native American children from their families scarred the children, both mentally and physically. As I write this description, I am thinking "I should have been really engaged with these characters" . . . and yet I wasn't.

The Road is a grim depiction of a post-apocalyptic world in which a man and his young son are trekking across the American West, surviving on their wits and good luck. The man loves his son (their wife/mother committed suicide) and tells him they are "the good guys," but the son begins to question that description as his father uses violence against other survivors they encounter. As I was listening to the book, I told my son I was afraid the ending was going to be too devastating for me to handle, but instead it was almost too upbeat. Still, I really liked The Road both for McCarthy's gift for description and the depiction of two sad but somehow inspiring characters in the midst of ruin.

Included in the Patricia Highsmith collection are two novels--Strangers on a Train and The Price of Salt. I knew the general outline of Strangers on a Train but had never read it or seen the Hitchcock film based on it. Several things about the book surprised me--that the "strangers" had not really agreed to the plot, that the man who committed the first murder was so clearly deranged, that the story had homoerotic undertones--dark and suspenseful (though also dated). The Price of Salt is in some ways more interesting, as it is essentially a lesbian love story that Highsmith published under a pseudonym. I can see that this book would have been groundbreaking in the early 1950s, but, sadly, I found it as annoying as I would find a love story in which a much younger woman is emotionally abused by a man she loves (other readers don't seem to have found Carol as manipulative and abusive to Therese as I did but I thought she was despicable). I guess I will now watch the recent movie Carol that was based on the book--perhaps it will make me change my mind. The short stories included are varied--I enjoyed some, found others really strange, but then I'm not a short story person.

I saw the film Remains of the Day years ago and remember it as being a very sad depiction of a man whose emotional life was stunted by the role he had to play as a butler. Because my son described the book as "goofy," I decided to read it and, while I'm not sure that's the word I would have used, it definitely has a more comic/ironic tone. Stevens, the protagonist, has been the butler at Darlington Hall for decades, first serving Lord Darlington, now serving an American who has bought the estate and operates it with a much reduced staff. After receiving a letter from the former housekeeper, Stevens takes some time off to drive cross country to her home, hoping she has decided to leave her husband and might return to work at Darlington Hall. As he drives, he reflects on the meaning of the word dignity, an essential trait of a great butler in his view; on his relationship with his late father, also a butler, and Miss Kenton, the housekeeper; and on his experiences serving Lord Darlington. In his encounters with people on his trip, he several times denies having worked for Lord Darlington, whose reputation was sullied by his pro-German stance leading up to World War II; each time he feels guilty about doing so but cannot admit to strangers that he spent his life serving a man unworthy of the sacrifices he made. So, as this description should make clear, the book is about what I remember the theme of the movie being--but the tone is different (unless I am remembering the film incorrectly). I did enjoy the book and plan to rewatch the film to check my memory!

In 2015, Hogarth Press launched a project to have Shakespeare plays retold by modern authors (I'm not quite sure why someone would think that is a good idea). Vinegar Girl is purportedly a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew (which, sadly, I have neither read nor seen performed--and I took a semester of Shakespeare in college!), set, of course, in Baltimore. Our modern Kate is a college dropout, working as an assistant preschool teacher (she often acts about as mature as her students and is perpetually on probation) and taking care of her eccentric scientist father and obnoxious teenage sister, both of whom show little respect for Kate. Then her father has the idea to arrange a marriage between Kate and his colleague at the lab, whose visa is about to run out. The kinds of adventures you'd expect in an Anne Tyler novel ensue. Tyler does try to twist the sexism in The Taming of the Shrew on its head, but it didn't quite work for me. I feel about this book as I did about Curtis Sittenfield's retelling of Pride and Prejudice--amusing but essentially just light entertainment.

I loved Chris Cleave's Little Bee and liked Incendiary a lot; Gold, a story told in the arena of sports, fell flat.  Everyone Brave Is Forgiven moves back to looking at how people deal with violent conflict, in this case World War II. At the heart of the story is Mary, an 18-year-old girl from the privileged classes, who signs up at the War Office as soon as war is declared. She is assigned to be a teacher--but, when her students are evacuated, the head teacher tells her she is not needed or wanted in the country. With the help of the school district head, Tom, who becomes her lover, she gets her own class of students whom no one in the countryside will take in--disabled and black students. Through Tom, she and her friend Hilda meet Alistair, who is serving on the front. All four characters experience great trauma and loss (one of them is killed, while the other three are seriously injured and face numerous challenges--some of which they handle in ways that don't seem realistic), but the book ends on an upbeat note. While I was intrigued by the story of black entertainers and children in London during the War, the four main characters did not hold my attention. Perhaps there have just been too many World War II books lately. Or perhaps historical novels aren't Cleave's forte. Whatever the reason, I can't recommend Everyone Brave Is Forgiven.

Nonfiction

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi

By any standard, Paul Kalanithi was a high achiever, his degrees in literature, medicine, and neuroscience so numerous and impressive as to be downright intimidating. In his mid-30s, he was chief neurosurgery resident at Stanford Hospital, about to embark on what would assuredly have been a remarkable career. Then he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer and decided to write a memoir; about half of the slim book is a recounting of his life before the diagnosis, half of his life as a doctor with cancer. An afterword by his wife tells of the rapid decline after two years of treatment and of his death. Kalanithi was a talented writer and his story is moving; while many reader reviewers have said they found inspiration in the book, I'm not sure I have taken anything from it other than profound sadness. Still, I would recommend the book.

Pick of the Litter: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

Favorite passages:

No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grade and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.

From The Road, by Cormac McCarthy


When he played his father's music, he was almost back home. But a tune had no fixed place in time. It was a city before the eternal. It was only ever a joint.

From Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave


When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man's days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

From When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalinithi (parting words addressed to his infant daughter)


Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Showers of May Books

I thought I was behind on work because I was busy this month, but now that I've looked at what I've read this month, I think it might be because I've been reading too much (is that even possible?).

Mysteries

Judgment Calls, by Alafair Burke
The Cruelest Month, by Louise Penney
The Bitter Season, by Tami Hoag
Try Not to Breathe, by Holly Sedden
Ripper, by Isabel Allende
A Kiss Before Dying, by Ira Levin

The first three titles listed here are series mysteries, okay but nothing to write home about. Try Not to Breathe, which is being hyped to fans of Gone Girl and Girl on a Train, lacks the suspense of those two books but does feature a rather unlikable protagonist, in this case alcoholic journalist Alex Dale. Alex happens onto Amy Stephenson, a young woman who has been in a vegetative state for 15 years following a brutal beating at the hands of a mystery assailant. Alex sets out to solve the case and does--though it's pretty hard to believe that someone who drinks to the point that she wets the bed could actually accomplish such a feat. Not recommended.

Also not recommended is renowned author Isabel Allende's attempt at a mystery. Allende weaves in numerous hot topics--child abuse, transgender issues, online gaming, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their effects on veterans. But the story takes way too long to develop and frankly makes very little sense.

A Kiss Before Dying was Ira Levin's first novel, written in the early 1950s. It's the story of a young WWII veteran determined to be successful, by marrying a wealthy woman if necessary. In that pursuit, he works his way through the three daughters of a wealthy industrialist. While not as creepy as, say, Rosemary's Baby, A Kiss Before Dying is a frightening (though somewhat dated) portrait of a sociopath.

Classics

Herzog, by Saul Bellow
The Optimist's Daughter, by Eudora Welty

May was a bad month for me and classics (one might say most months could be described thusly). Left by his second wife, Saul Bellow's Moses Herzog, a failed academic philosopher, reflects on his life, and what a long and painfully narcissistic journey I found it. Laurel, Eudora Welty's heroine, is also dealing with a second wife, in this case the vulgar second wife of her father, Judge McKelva. Following the judge's death, Laurel confronts her memories and ponders why her husband married a woman so inferior to Laurel's mother. Neither of these "masterpieces" held any appeal to me. I am open to reeducation.

Fiction

American Housewife, by Helen Ellis
Among the Imposters and Among the Betrayed, by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Foreign Affairs, by Alison Lurie
The Quickening, by Michelle Hoover
Boston Girl, by Anita Diamant
Under the Influence, by Joyce Maynard
Alice and Oliver, by Charles Bock

American Housewife is a collection of satirical short fiction about the lifeways of American women of a certain ilk. One gets a sense of the tone from the titles: "How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady," "How to Be a Patron of the Arts," and "What do Do All Day." One of my favorites was "Hello, Welcome to Book Club"--in this book club, it turns out, new members are recruited to be surrogates for infertile members of the group. Not necessarily deep--but funny.

Among the Imposters and Among the Betrayed are the second and third books in the Shadow Children series beloved by my granddaughter. It's pretty amazing how complex the conspiracies in these books are--not sure I could have tracked them when I was a third-grader!

Foreign Affairs won the Pulitzer back in the 1980s and, though it's hard to believe it was the best novel of the year, it is a worthwhile look at two extremely different American academics doing research in the UK. Both are lonely and that loneliness may be the impetus of their two apparently unlikely love affairs. The examination of cultural differences between the US and UK and the curious relationships and pressures faced by academics were both interesting and amusing. I didn't love Foreign Affairs, but thought it was worth reading.

The Quickening and Boston Girl both feel like books I have read before--The Quickening is about the difficult lives of women on farms on the Northern Plains, Boston Girl about the difficult lives of immigrant women in the urban centers of the Northeast. Both are fine--but not fresh.

I should probably read every other book that Joyce Maynard writes, as I seem to only like alternate Maynard works. Under the Influence was one I didn't like--it's packed with annoying people and unbelievable situations and I don't really want to say any more about it.

I knew Alice and Oliver was a book about a marriage affected by the wife's illness. I didn't realize that the wife's illness was the same type of leukemia that a friend's husband is currently being treated for. Luckily, my friend's husband is handling the treatment more easily than the character Alice, because the description of what happens to Alice is horrific. Equally interesting and moving is the way in which author Charles Bock (whose first wife died of leukemia) talks about the stresses on the marriage and the long-term effects on the family. Recommended (but with a warning that it is harrowing).

Nonfiction

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Becoming Nicole, by Amy Ellis Nutt
This Town, by Mark Leibovich
Columbine, by Dave Cullen

Between the World and Me, winner of the National Book Award, is an essay about race, written in the form of a letter to the author's teenage son. It is in many ways a sad book (see quotes below), as Coates sees racism in America as so pervasive as to change the minds and threaten the bodies of young people of color, as compared to young people whose parents "think they are white." As a mother who thinks she is white and her sons are biracial, I did not find the content surprising or offensive (as many reader-reviewers evidently did). Although the book is fairly short, I did find it repetitive at some points. That flaw notwithstanding, it is worth reading--if you can do so with an open mind.

A friend gave me Becoming Nicole with the caution that she didn't think it was that good (now that I think about it, she's said that as she's given me several books--hmmm).  It may not be a great book--it's written in a very unemotional journalistic tone--but it's an interesting look into the experience of an "average" family dealing with the fallout of having a transgender child. I felt particular empathy with Nicole's twin brother, but the entire family conducted themselves admirably as they sought to have their daughter treated fairly in her school and community.

Mark Leibovich uses Tim Russert's funeral as a launching point for his "expose" of the stew of self-aggrandizement, influence-peddling, and sucking up characteristic of the politicians, political consultants/advisors, lobbyists, and media that forms the culture of Washington, DC. From time to time, the book is quite amusing, but I started to feel uncomfortable when I recognized to what extent  Leibovich is bound up with the culture he is mocking.

I had never intended to read Columbine, but when a friend told me she was reading it and was learning that a lot of what she believed had been proved wrong, I decided I'd give it a try. Perhaps because she lives in Chicago and I live in Denver, I discovered that I had known the myths were untrue for a long time. So it's interesting to me that people in other areas still believe some of the myths that were perpetuated by the media in the days and weeks following the tragedy. I did learn that the Jeffco officials were even more dishonest and unethical than I had known and was interested to read that the author found the Rocky Mountain News (now defunct) provided much more accurate coverage than the Denver Post. Worth reading.

Pick of the Litter: Alice and Oliver

Favorite Passages: 

My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent toward chaos then concluded in a box.

I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dress-making and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone.

The galaxy belonged to them [white parents], and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs.


All from Between the World and Me

Saturday, April 30, 2016

April: Month of Blizzards and Books

When it's supposed to be spring but instead is snowing with some regularity (it's snowing RIGHT NOW), nothing could be better than wrapping up in a blanket and reading a book. Quality did not match quantity, so here's hoping May will bring better if fewer books.

Mysteries

Zero Day, by David Baldacci
Clawback, by J.A. Jance
Human Remains, by Elizabeth Haynes

Zero Day is the first in what is evidently a series featuring Army investigator John Puller, who is called to rural Virginia to find out who killed an entire family (the father of the family is military, which accounts for Puller's involvement). He uncovers a massive conspiracy, which is interesting but not the kind of thing that makes me love a mystery.

Clawback is the latest in J.A. Jance's Ali Reynolds series and involves Ali and her husband B. in ferreting out what happened to Ali's parents retirement savings and who killed multiple murder victims strewn around Sedona. Not the most engaging of Jance's mysteries but not horrible.

Human Remains is an intriguing book featuring police data analyst Annabel, who notices that an unusually large number of dead bodies are being found in their homes. The dead appear to be isolated--they have been dead for some time before anyone notices anything is amiss or misses them--and there is no evidence of foul play. Still, the numbers are so large that Annabel decides she should try to interest investigators in the case. Eventually, she does that--but she also falls victim to the villain in the case, Colin. Colin is fascinated with decay and has developed a method (we never learn exactly what it is, though it seems to be some form of hypnotism) that convinces people to go to bed and stop eating and drinking. Interspersed through sections from the perspectives of Annabel and Colin are brief accounts from those who have died. Very creepy and interesting.

Classics

Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

Wow--what a crazy and funny look at humankind. The protagonist is a writer who is working on a book about what important people were doing on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. In the course of researching his book, he becomes involved with the children of a scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project and ends up (briefly) the ruler of a Caribbean nation and a practitioner of Bokononism, a religion created by a calypso singer. An entertaining satire of religion, science, and modern life.

Fiction

The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard
Shine Shine Shine, by Lydia Netzer
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters
Among the Hidden, Margaret Peterson Haddix
Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfield
Golden Age, by Jane Smiley

Many of the Amazon reader reviews of The Maytrees verge on ecstatic. Sadly, I found the book eminently forgettable. In fact, I had to look at Amazon to remember what it was about--a couple marry, they have a child who breaks his leg, the man runs off with a "hippie-ish" friend, and the woman takes him in when he returns 20 years later needing care. I'm sure it's a weakness on my part--after all Annie Dillard is a highly respected writer--but this book made no impression on me.

Shine Shine Shine features Maxon, a brilliant scientist and astronaut who is clearly on the autism spectrum, his wife Sunny with whom he fell in love when they were both children, and their autistic son Bubber. Sunny (who has been bald since birth) has been working hard to be normal--in fact, to be an uber-suburban trendsetting mother. Pregnant with their second child, Sunny is furious with Maxon for going on a space expedition during the later stages of her pregnancy. And her fury seems justified, as things are not going at all well for Sunny--nor are they going too well for Maxon, as the mission is threatened and the crew may not survive. Shine Shine Shine has some fantastical elements that did not appeal to me but I concede that it is, by any standard, original.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane has been described as a fairy tale, which I guess is apt. After attending a funeral, a middle-aged man is driving around the area where he lived as a seven-year-old boy. In a dream/reverie, he relives the frightening and supernatural experiences of the period, when he was threatened by a wicked nanny and saved by a magical trio of women who lived nearby--a grandmother, mother, and daughter. I won't go into details other than to say if you ever have something that looks like a hole in your foot, be afraid, be very afraid. Fantasy is not my cup of tea and at the end of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I had the "Hunh?" reaction--but it held my interest.

I'm not sure what I expected from The Paying Guests, but it definitely surprised me. Frances Wray is a 26-year-old "spinster," living with her mother in the family home in 1922. Her two brothers were killed in World War I and her father also died, leaving the Wray women impoverished. To address their economic problems, they rent out the second floor of their London home to a young couple, Lillian and Leonard Barber. The Barbers are of the "clerk class," and Frances's mother does not deign to socialize with them. Frances, however, is drawn to Lillian and, as the two become more involved (warning/spoiler: if you are put off by descriptions of lesbian sex, stay away from this book), dark deeds and legal problems ensue. The depictions of class differences and how crimes were investigated and tried in the period between the wars are interesting, but Frances's near-constant mental agonizing and Lillian's whining become tiresome. By the end, I really didn't care what happened to them or anyone else.

This winter, by eight-year-old granddaughter got totally into a YA series called The Shadow Children, so I decided to give the first book--Among the Hidden--a try. It's set in a dystopic future when famine has caused the government to enact a two-child limit. Third children, like the protagonist Luke, must be hidden away at home. Although Luke has been able to play in the nearby woods, when the woods is destroyed to make room for a housing development, Luke can no longer leave the house. Watching out the attic window, however, he sees a girl in one of the new homes and decides she, too, is a hidden child. When the two become friends, Luke learns Jen is something of an online rabble-rouser, organizing a protest she thinks can bring about change. Things do change, but not as she expected. The book seems dark for a third-grader, but it's an interesting premise that again (as in the Hunger Games) makes young people pay for the mess adults have made.

If you love Pride and Prejudice (as I do), you may enjoy Curtis Sittenfield's modern adaptation, in which Mrs. Bennett is a shopaholic hoarder and the Bennett girls are involved with, among other things, donor insemination, reality TV, a transgender Crossfit trainer, and bowling. Eligible is silly and predictable, but it's also kind of fun.

Golden Age is the final volume in Jane Smiley's Last Hundred Years trilogy. Like the first two books in the trilogy, it takes us year by year through some "highlights" in the lives of multiple generations of the Langdon family, whose roots are in Iowa farmland. The book covers the years from 1987-2019 and engages family members with many of the big events of the time period--global warming/climate change is a major theme,but GMOS and other changes in farming, financial scandals of various types and eras, 9/11, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan all affect the family as well (unfortunately, the Langdon family, while engaged in many current events, seems little interested or concerned about the racial problems that confront the United States--Ferguson, Eric Garner, and Charleston are one-sentence references). Smiley predicts a dismal short-term future for the United States, primarily due to climate change. Because there are so many characters, I once again found it challenging to care deeply about any of them. Not Smiley's best work (although the writing often offers its own rewards).

Nonfiction

The Oregon Trail, by Rinker Buck
About Alice, by Calvin Trillin

I know several people who loved The Oregon Trail, Rinker Buck's account of driving the historic trail in a covered wagon pulled by a mule team, with  his brother as company. I found some parts of the book entertaining, but it's too long, in large part because Buck doesn't seem to have an editing capability. He feels compelled to tell everything he learned as he prepared for and took the trip--I, for one, don't need to know as much about mules as he conveys. I struggled to finish the book.

About Alice, in contrast, is a very brief book, essentially a love letter from Calvin Trillin to his late wife. It's sweet and heartening to a cynic like me to see that love can endure. Overall, however, it didn't tell me anything more than that.

Pick of the Litter: Human Remains, by Elizabeth Haynes (not great literature--but engaging)

Favorite Passages

"I'm not strange to myself, but I realize that I contrast with others fairly sharply."

If your life remained in your mind, complex and busy, full of what you had read as well as what you had done and whom you had met, you could carry it into the future, and it would all, somehow, flow together.

Both from Golden Age, by Jane Smiley

Friday, April 1, 2016

A Potpourri Topped with an Excellent Mystery

I often exhort myself to stop reading mysteries--so many of them just aren't very good. But somehow I can't make myself give them entirely (though I don't read as many as I used to)--and when I come across a good one, I'm reminded why I started reading mysteries in the first place.

Mysteries
What She Knew, by Gilly Macmillan
What Was Mine, by Helen Klein Ross
The Quality of Silence, by Rosamund Lupton

What She Knew is  told in retrospect by two narrators--the mother of an eight-year-old boy who goes missing when they are walking in the woods and the police officer  in charge of the investigation (he's writing the story out for his therapist). Their stories are interspersed with the therapist's notes and media stories, which add even greater complexity to the narrative. The "mystery" itself is not unique but Macmillan tells it so well, with excellent character development, solid writing, and an interesting structure, that What She Knew holds your attention from first page to last.

What Was Mine illustrates that the story of child abduction is not unique, as it too is the story of a child abducted, this time an infant taken from an Ikea store. It too has multiple narrators, but the story belongs primarily to Lucy, the abductor, who also happens to be a very successful ad executive who hires a nanny to do much of the actual care of "her" child. Because the child's birth mother is not always portrayed positively, I began to feel like Helen Klein Ross was trying to make us empathize with a child abductor. I wasn't able to do that and it made reading What Was Mine somewhat uncomfortable. I guess that's an authorial achievement, but it made me wish I hadn't read the book.

Several years ago, I picked Rosamund Lupton's Sister as my favorite mystery of the year, so I approached The Quality of Silence with enthusiasm. Unfortunately, it is so completely unbelievable that I couldn't even enjoy the parts that are done well (descriptions of the Arctic tundra in Alaska, the depiction of a hearing-impaired child's thinking and frustrations). To illustrate the utter implausibility of the story: a British woman who brings her daughter to Alaska to visit their photographer husband/father ends up driving an 18-wheeler across the ice-surfaced Dalton Highway in mid-winter (no, she's never driven a truck before). Please.

Classics
Howard's End, by E.M. Forster

Howard's End is the source of the epigrammatic "Only connect," which represents the philosophy of protagonist Margaret Schlegel. She and her sister Helen are upper-class English women who spend their time attending concerts, traveling, and attending discussion groups. At one concert, they happen to meet a working man, Leonard Bast, with whom their lives will be forever entangled. On a trip to Europe, they meet the Wilcox family, with whom they will also be entangled. The Wilcox family owns the country home Howard's End, which the surviving members of the Wilcox family do not appreciate. The entanglement of the Schlegels with Bast and the Wilcox family allows Forster to explore several themes, including country vs. city living and how urbanization was affecting British life, class differences and the responsibility of the wealthy for the poor, and the meaning of home. Of course, Howard's End is a classic, but it did not move me personally (despite an excellent reading by Emma Thompson), at least in part because the characters seemed more like they were written to represent ideas than actual people.

Fiction
The Guest Room, by Chris Bohjalian
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, Katarina Bivald
Who Do You Love, by Jennifer Wiener

In The Guest Room, Richard Chapman, a happily married money manager, hosts a bachelor party for his younger and wilder brother; the brother's friend hires two prostitutes who turn out to be sex slaves--and things go downhill, way downhill from there. Richard's life gets out of control so quickly that it's mind-boggling, but also a cautionary tale on the precariousness of life. Not optimistic in any way.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend has gotten a lot of ink, but I don't quite understand why, as it's an essentially silly story. A young out-of-work Swedish woman named Sara travels to Broken Wheel, Iowa, only to discover that the pen pal Amy she is going to meet has died and the town is pretty close to expiring as well. Of course, she decides to start a business (without a proper visa) selling Amy's books, manages to revitalize the town and the collection of off-beat characters who live there, and falls in love. Bivald's book only seems tolerable in comparison to Jennifer Wiener's sappy Who Do You Love, about which I cannot bring myself to say more.

Nonfiction
My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor
The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell
Grandma Gatewood's Walk, by Ben Montgomery
Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice, by Adam Makos

My Beloved World is the story of Justice Sotomayor's life before she became a member of the Supreme Court, with emphasis on her childhood and her years in college. Her childhood was far from easy--her father was an alcoholic who died young, her mother was hard-working but emotionally distant, she herself was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, a very serious illness at the time. She worked hard in school and was able to gain admittance to Princeton, followed by Yale Law School. Her time in college was not without challenges, however, as she realized that high school had not prepared her for the kind of thinking that was expected in elite colleges. At the same time, she had to work to feel at home in these privileged environments and to build friendships; she became an activist for causes related to Latino students, faculty, and staff. She touches upon her early career in the DA's office and in private practice, but tells us little about her work as a judge and nothing about the Supreme Court. This is disappointing for SCOTUS followers but hardly surprising, given that institution's penchant for secrecy. Overall, My Beloved World is an enjoyable read.

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell looks at what causes rapid change, whether in fashion or more significant areas such as reduction in crime rates or increase in smoking among teens. Gladwell essentially identifies three factors: the context, the "stickiness" of the idea, and whether the people involved are "connectors, mavens, or salespeople." The examples are interesting, but the book does not seem as ground-breaking as it was considered when it was published; of course, that might be because it was published in 2002.

Grandma Gatewood's Walk is the story of a woman who decided to walk the Appalachian Trail when she was 67 (the author repeatedly refers to her as elderly or old--annoying!). Completely unprepared for the rigors of the hike (in part due to false advertising), Gatewood nonetheless managed to walk the entire length of the trail in the summer of 1955, persevering (she survived an abusive husband and raising 11 children so her strength was undeniable) and relying on the kindness of strangers. As her trek continued, she drew national press attention, which helped to increase interest and investment in the trail. An engaging yarn.

The Korean War is often called the "Forgotten War," so it was interesting to read Devotion, a book about the Korean War. The book focuses on two Navy pilots, Tom Hudner, a white pilot from a privileged background, and Jesse Brown, the Navy's first African American pilot, who was from a hardworking but not well-off Southern family. The book tells their back stories as it progresses toward an extended description of the battle at the Chosin Reservoir. Author Adam Makos does provide a lot of historic information about the war and Tom and Jesse's story is touching, but their relationship feels less like a friendship, as claimed in the book's subtitle, than mutual respect and admiration among teammates. In addition, the book in telling this one story presents a very rosy view of the racial integration of the military, a process that was actually lengthy and much more difficult than presented here.  Okay for those who like to read about the history of wars, but not for the average reader (a group in which I'd include myself).  


Pick of the Litter: What She Knew

Favorite Passage

. . . I watched the grainy night contours of my garden morph slowly into a strangely lit morning where the rising sun tinted the pendulous clouds so that they were not entirely black, but colored instead with bruised fleshy tones, burnished in places. It was the kind of light that nobody would mistake for hope.

From What She Knew, by Gilly Macmillan

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Shakespeare as a Plot Device . . . This Month's Fad

Is it possible for a sixteenth-century writer to be a twenty-first-century fad? Yes, apparently it is, as books that make Shakespeare and Shakespeare scholars an element of their plots seem to be trending . . . at least on my book list. The fad started in January with Small Blessings and continued this month with several items discussed in Fiction below.

Mysteries
Breakdown, by Jonathan Kellerman
Find Her, by Lisa Gardner

These titles are both the latest releases in long series. The Kellerman book, featuring child psychologist Alex Delaware, starts very slowly, as Alex is called in to help a psychotic actress whose son he evaluated several years previously. When she is found dead, he launches his own investigation, eventually drawing his buddy Police Lieutenant Milo Sturgis into the case, which gradually grows more complex and involves multiple murders. Not great but not bad either. The same could be said of Gardner's latest D.D. Warren book, in which the Boston detective is searching for Flora Dane, a woman who was kidnapped and held captive for over a year and has now been kidnapped again while serving as a consultant to a dad whose daughter is missing. Far-fetched but still moderately entertaining.

Fiction
Still Time, by Jean Hegland
The Bookman's Tale, by Charlie Lovett
The Rent Collector, by Camron Wright
Purity, by Jonathan Franzen
Language Arts, by Stephanie Kallois
The Secret Chord, by Geraldine Brooks
Kissing in America, by Margo Rabb

Still Time is my favorite of the Shakespeare books. It focuses on a Shakespeare scholar whose fourth wife has put him in memory care due to his worsening dementia; at the same time, she encourages his daughter, from whom he has been estranged for a decade, to make an effort to reconnect. The story goes back and forth in time, helping us understand John's relationship, his life as a scholar who blames his daughter for blowing his one chance to vault into the academic "big time," and the frightening state of his mind as his dementia deepens--often he can quote long passages of Shakespeare but cannot remember why he chose that passage or the identity of the young woman he is talking to. I found Still Time to be profoundly moving.

In The Bookman's Tale,  Charlie Lovett examines the mystery of who wrote the Shakespeare ouevre. The novel's protagonist, Peter Byerly is an antiquarian book dealer who moved to England after being widowed. Trying to track down the source of a 100-year-old painting of a woman who looks exactly like his late wife, he becomes involved in investigating the provenance of several documents that might shed new light on the Shakespeare controversy. The book bounces between the present in which these events are occurring, ten years previously when he and his wife were falling in love, and centuries earlier when the documents were created. Although there's a twist at the end that is utterly unbelievable, overall the book is entertaining.

The Rent Collector probably shouldn't be included in the Shakespeare fad because the bard is only mentioned as one of a number of writers whose works inspire the two heroines of the book--a young wife and mother living in a Cambodian dump, where her husband scavenges to support their family and the title character, whom the young woman convinces to teach her to read. The process changes both of their lives. The author's son made a documentary about living in the dumps, which inspired Camron Wright to pen this book, which presents interesting background on the Khmer Rouge and conditions in Cambodia and covers intriguing themes, like the power of stories and traditional vs. Western medicine (the young mother has a sick child). Somehow, however, the book doesn't quite feel authentic. This feeling may have been strengthened by the fake Asian accent that the narrator of the audible book chose to employ in reading the book.

Jonathan Franzen is not one of my favorite authors, but I always feel compelled to read his books because they garner so much publicity. Purity has some of the same features as Franzen's earlier novels The Corrections and Freedom--multiple points of view, nonlinear plotting, a section that is someone's autobiography or memoir, engagement with current issues (here journalism vs. hackers/leakers such as Assange and Snowden), sexist portrayals of female characters. I found the first part of the book boring and the rest repellent--I don't even want to waste time describing its characters, plot, and themes. Read it if you love Franzen and avoid it if you don't.

Language Arts is the story of a couple, Charles and Allison, whose marriage was destroyed by the inevitable conflict that raising an autistic child causes. They try to work together to make good decisions about their son Cody's care, but it's difficult. Charles is a teacher who lives alone now that his daughter Emily has gone to college, and he writes her lovely long letters. One of Charles's students begins a project that involves both Cody and a former nun with dementia (perhaps dementia is also a theme) who often relives the years of World War II in her mind. Without going into depth but Charles and the nun have a deep attachment to the Palmer handwriting method, which is used to surprising effect in the story. Although the book is sometimes painfully sad, it is also hopeful, and I recommend it highly.

I loved Geraldine Brooks's first three novels, but her more recent ones have not enthralled me. The Secret Chord is the story of King David, narrated by his prophet Natan. My religious education (and practice) stopped in about 1968, so I'm hardly qualified to judge whether Brooks gives David a fair treatment. I will say that the story features murder; unceasing war; rape and abuse; plotting against friends, foes, and family; and a variety of other nefarious acts. Suffice it to say that bringing David to life, as many reviews claim the book does, seemed a pointless effort to me.

Kissing in America is a charming coming-of-age story. Sixteen-year-old Eva's father was killed in a plane crash two years ago and not only will her mother not talk about him, she is dating the charmless Larry. Craving love and attention, Eva falls in love with the enigmatic Will; when he moves to California, she cooks up a scheme that involves her and her best friend Annie taking a bus trip to LA, ostensibly so Annie can be on a quiz show for smart girls but really to see Will. Naturally, the bus trip provides numerous adventures, both the quiz show and rendezvous with Will are disasters, and Eva and her mother achieve some rapprochement. Predictable--but still entertaining.

Other
Unforgettable: A Son, A Mother, and the Lessons of a Lifetime, by Scott Simon

I love the way Scott Simon tells stories on NPR. In Unforgettable, he's telling his mother's story; as Patricia lies dying in a Chicago hospital, they reminisce about her unconventional life and his childhood. Chapters start and end with tweets that Simon sent out from her hospital room; while the tweets evidently engendered some considerable criticism, I liked their use as bookends. Simon doesn't tread new ground with his account of maternal death; nonetheless, I found the book affecting.
 

Picks of the Litter: Still Time and Language Arts

Favorite Passages:
Memory--uncorrected, uncorroborated, and (by its very nature) unreliable--is what allows us to retroactively create the blueprints of our lives, because it is often impossible to make sense of our lives when we're inside them, when the narratives are still unfolding: This can't be happening. Why is this happening? Why is this happening now. Only by looking backward ae we able to answer those questions, only through the assist of memory. And who knows how memory will answer? Who will it blame? Who will it forgive?

From Language Arts, by Stephanie Kallos

We don't become the people we are all at once. But if we are lucky, every love, laugh, and loss puts a wrinkle in our hearts to make us distinctive.

From Unforgettable, by Scott Simon