Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Remembering Laughter, by Wallace Stegner

This novella was Stegner's first published long-form fiction, written for a contest that won him $2500, a huge sum at the time (1937). While not as complex as his later, longer work, Remembering Laughter nonetheless has many of the features that were to become hallmarks of Stegner's writing: a strong sense of place; themes related to betrayal, forgiveness, and emotional repression; and the beautiful use of language.

Remembering Laughter begins at Eric Stuart's funeral and then flashes back to critical events that happened some 17 years ago. Eric and his wife Margaret are at the train station near their Iowa farm, waiting for the arrival of Margaret's sister Elspeth, who has immigrated from Scotland. We know immediately that Margaret is a little too restrained and Eric, who has a fondness for drink and wild stories, perhaps a bit too far toward the opposite pole. Nonetheless, the sisters are delighted to be reunited, and Elspeth quickly falls in love with the farm and its workings and, all too soon, with Eric, who finds her a welcome change from his uptight wife. The results of their affair are cruel for all three characters.

In its brevity and focus, Remembering Laughter reminds me of a Greek tragedy. The emotional death of the characters is stark, particularly in contrast with the lovely language in which their story is told. Highly recommended.

Favorite passage:
Almost any sentence could be a favorite. Here are just two examples:

The perfect weather of Indian Summer lengthened and lingered, warm sunny days were followed by brisk nights with Halloween a presentiment in the air.

. . . as she sat quietly finishing her breakfast, she looked across the table into the comfortless future, and the sternness of her unforgiving was bleak in her eyes.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

Novel Conversations is reading Gone Girl this month, which I have already read. Since I didn't think I could stomach a re-reading, I decided to try another Gillian Flynn novel, Dark Places. Libby Day is in her early 30s. She has lived her entire adult life on donations sent to her after the grisly murder of her two sisters and her mother Patty and her teenage brother Ben was convicted of the crimes. For most of the nearly 25 years since, she has tried not to think about the crimes or her imprisoned brother or  how she might create an actual life for herself. Then her lawyer tells her there is less than $1000 left in her trust and she needs to find a job.

Libby, however, doesn't see herself as the type of person who can be relied on to show up for work every day. So she becomes involved with a group of misfits, Kill Club, whose hobby is investigating old crimes. Some of the members are particularly interested in the Day case because they believe Ben was wrongly convicted and that little Libby's testimony (she was 7 at the time) was fabricated. Members of the club, led by the sad-sack Lyle, offer to pay her to talk to people who might know something about the case, in hopes of determining what really happened on that terrible night in 1985. They believe people will be more likely to talk to Libby than to them, and she agrees to do it for the money.  Libby sets off on her investigations, talking to her brother for the first time in 24 years and finally looking through some of her family's belongings, boxed for more than two decades (in part, she looks through the items with the intent of selling some of them to Kill Club members). She looks up her ne'er-do-well father and contacts such other people as a younger girl Ben was accused of molesting.

Flynn intercuts accounts of Libby's activities in the present with Ben and Patty's narrations of events on the day of the murders. Both Ben and Patty are spiraling downward--Ben because he has, in his desperation not to be the weird poor kid too small for sports, made several bad decisions about who to hang out with and Patty because her financial situation is reaching desperate straits and rumors about Ben's behavior (involving both child molestation and devil worship) are circulating around their small Kansas town as fast as a plains tornado. Meanwhile, back in the "now," Libby is finding that she wants to know what happened for her own sake, not for the morbid curiosity of the Kill Club. While I was convinced at one point that the book was going to end without unearthing the truth, that did not happen.

Dark Places is definitely dark; the rapidity with which things can go wrong is stunningly depicted, as is the effect that becoming pro-active can pull a person back from the brink. While Libby starts as an obnoxious character, she grows more sympathetic as she struggles to make sense of what happened to her family. For me, this is a key difference with Gone Girl, in which the reader becomes more and more convinced that the characters are unredeemable; here, Libby redeems herself, making Dark Places a more palatable, though still disturbing, read.

Favorite passages:
Coffee goes great with sudden death.

That's what they were: a home past its expiration date.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

From the first sentence--"Lydia is dead"--you know Everything I Never Told You is going to be sad, and it is so very sad. Lydia is the 15-year-old middle child of James and Marilyn Lee, their acknowledged favorite. One morning, Lydia isn't in her bed; when she is eventually found dead in a nearby lake, the family falls apart. But chapters about the past, intermingled with those focused on the weeks after the tragedy, reveal that the family was falling apart for years.

Lydia was a focal point for the family's unhappiness. She got more attention than brother Nath and little sister Hannah but also was subjected to greater pressure. James, a Chinese American history professor who never felt like he fit, wanted Lydia to be popular. He gave her dresses he bought off mannequins in store windows because he assumed they were "in"; he pressured her to call her friends (she often pretended to be talking on the phone but there was no one on the line); he gave her How to Win Friends and Influence People as a Christmas gift. Marilyn, his Anglo wife gave up her dream of being a doctor--still an unusual goal for a girl in the late 1950s--to marry James. She wanted Lydia to be a scientist, and she pressured her daughter to do well in school and gave her scientific tomes and biographies of female scientists for Christmas.

Lydia was miserable--she was failing physics, she had only one friend, and she was so desperately unhappy about her brother's impending departure for college that she hid his acceptance letter from Harvard. Both before and after Lydia's death, Nath could not wait to escape his family and the small Ohio town where he too felt totally out of place. Meanwhile, Hannah was so starved for attention that she stole from her family members, squirreling away small objects in her room. During conflict, she could often be found rolled into a ball under a table.

While there is some "mystery" about what happened to Lydia, the real story is how little people know even those they love most and think they know best. The members of the Lee family love each other--and the author provides an ending that builds on that love (somewhat overly optimistically in my opinion)--but they really understand nothing about each other, despite their shared experience as outsiders in small town 1970s Ohio.

For all but the most self-confident parents, Everything I Never Told You cannot help but prompt reflection on well you know your own children, the expectations you placed on them, and the ways in which you failed them. For parents whose families were in some way different from the majority (my family would fall in this category), the reflection may be even more difficult. Nonetheless, I would recommend this book.

Favorite passages:
All afternoon Nath had played his record over and over, but he has finally let it wind to a stop, and now a thick silence, like fog, seeps out onto the landing.

Years of yearning had made her sensitive, the way a starving dog twitches its nostrils at the faintest scent of food. She could not mistake it. She recognized it at once: Love, one-way deep adoration that bounced off and did not bounce back; careful, quiet love that didn't care and went on anyway.

Years from now, they will still be arranging the pieces they know, puzzling over her features, redrawing her outlines in their minds. Sure that they've got her right this time, positive in this moment that they understand her completely, at last.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Quiet Gentleman, by Georgette Heyer

I used to read Georgette Heyer regularly--but probably hadn't read one of her books in the past 40 years. When one was available as part of a BOGO offer from Audible, I decided to give her a try. It also seemed like something essentially escapist would be a good antidote to the rigors of Midnight's Children.

Heyer's Regency romances appear to have been inspired by Jane Austen--many are set in the time period when Austen lived and about which she wrote (although Heyer was writing in the mid-20th century), they satirize Regency England, and they generally end with an engagement. In The Quiet Gentleman, she satirizes both the aristocracy and the intellectuals who opposed the monarchy. She also incorporates an element of mystery (she also write in that genre)--who is trying to kill the new Earl of St Erth, recently returned to his family estate from service in the military?

I enjoyed listening to the book, although the narrator from time to time "overacted." Will I pick up another Heyer soon? Probably not, but I don't regret revisiting this author from my youth.


Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie

Reading Midnight's Children took me nine years after my son recommended it to me (finally got through it on the third try--but listening rather than reading). It has also taken me several days to sit down to write about it because I feel like I have little sensible to say. Even summarizing major plot points is difficult. But here's an attempt.

Midnight's Children covers 60 years in India's history, with independence--and the birth of the book's protagonist/narrator--as the fulcrum point. The 30 years prior to Saleem Sinai's birth just as the nation became independent are examined primarily from the perspective of his mother's family, a Muslim family with a share of dysfunctions equal to those of any modern American family. Eventually we reach the point at which 1001 babies are born in the first hour of India's independence; two--Saleem and a boy named Shiva--are exchanged by a nurse seeking approval from her revolutionary beloved (she believes that giving the poor Hindu child born to a street entertainer's wife the life of the wealthy Muslim boy will please him). After a misadventure at 9 years old that involves breathing the drawstring of a pair of pajama pants into his sinuses, Saleem believes that he can convene the surviving "Children of Midnight," who have a variety of supernatural powers, in his mind, which he does every night. While Saleem and Shiva quickly become rivals, Saleem believes these children will be the salvation of India. He is bereft when his parents trick him into having sinus surgery, which causes the loss of his ESP.

Saleem's family eventually emigrates to Pakistan, where his sister becomes a famous singer and he falls in love with her, assuming that, because they are not biologically related, she may agree to a relationship. Alas, he is wrong about this, and his life takes a turn for the worse. Not only is he pulled into every major event in Indo-Pakistani history, he concludes that the purpose of each event was to harm someone important to Saleem--his family is wiped out in the war of 1965, and the surviving Children of Midnight are sterilized and sperectomized (suffered the removal of hope) during the emergency declared by Indira Gandhi ("The Widow").  As he approaches his 31st birthday, Saleem is running a chutney factory started by the woman who exchanged him with Shiva as a baby. Although he plans to marry the woman, Padma, to whom he has been narrating the story of his life on his birthday, he also believes he will die that day (he sees his body cracking--though doctors deny this--and believes he will fall apart into dust).

Saleem is the ultimate unreliable narrator--he refers to himself in both the first and third persons and even admits that he is misremembering some events. He is so unreliable that I took the aspects of the book that many reviewers have described as magical realism or myth-making to be evidence that he is insane. His insanity was then, I thought, symbolic of the insanity of colonialism, post-colonial politics, and religious division on the Indian subcontinent. This is not the reading of scholars of either literature or Indian/Pakistani history, but it's what seemed to make sense to me.

Midnight's Children has won many prizes, including twice being named the best book in the history of the Booker prize (at the 25th and 40th anniversaries of that prize). It's certainly a book of great imagination and humor with a serious purpose. I feel a sense of achievement in having gotten through it--but I don't feel changed by the reading. Nor would it be likely to win the Singleton Prize if there were such a thing.

Favorite passages:
Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems--but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible. . . Am I so far gone, in my desperate need for meaning, that I'm prepared to distort everything--to rewrite the whole history of my times purely in order to place myself in a central role? Today, in my confusion, I can't judge. I'll have to leave it to others.  For me, there can be no going back; I must finish what I started, even if, inevitably, what I finish turns out not to be what I began . . .

The process of revision [Laurel's note: in making chutney--and in writing autobiography] should be constant and endless; don't think I'm satisfied with what I've done! Among my unhappinesses: an overly-harsh taste from those jars containing memories of my father; a certain ambiguity in the love-flavor of "Jamila Singer" (Special Formula No. 22), which might lead the unperceptive to conclude that I've invented the whole story of the baby-swap to justify an incestuous love . . . yes, I should revise and revise, improve and improve, but there is neither the time nor the energy. I am obliged to offer no more than this stubborn sentence: It happened that way because that's how it happened. . . .

One day, perhaps, the world may taste the pickles of history. They may be too strong for some palates, their smell may be overpowering, tears may rise to eyes; I hope nevertheless that it will be possible to say of them that they possess the authentic taste of truth . . that they are, despite everything, acts of love.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward's memoir of growing up in an impoverished African American community in south Mississippi and watching five young men in her life--including her only brother--die over a four-year period is sad in so many ways that it's hard to write about (I can't even imagine how sad it was to live and to write). Ward's parents had four children and a troubled relationship, separating and reconciling numerous times before they finally divorced. Her father dreamed of having his own martial arts school, and her mother supported that dream, working as a housekeeper to keep the family financially afloat while he unsuccessfully tried to launch the school. Despite her mother's best efforts, her father's infidelity and inability to stay focused on his family (he had six other children by four different women) brought the marriage to an end.

As the oldest child, Jesmyn was often responsible for taking care of her siblings, just as her mother had cared for younger siblings while her mother worked. Jesmyn "looked at my father and mother and understood dimly that was harder to be a girl, that boys had it easier." And yet, boys and young men also had it hard: "Men's bodies litter my family history. The pain of the women they left behind pulls them from the beyond, makes them appear as ghosts."

Bullied by students in her public school, Jesmyn was offered the chance to attend a private school (her mother's employer volunteered to pay her expenses), where she was one of only a handful of black students and faced racism and the persistent experience of being "the other." Between her school life and her father's leaving the family, she felt herself to be worthless. And yet she worked hard at school, loved to read and write, and managed to leave Mississippi for an education at Stanford, work in New York, and a second advanced degree at Michigan.

The stories of the death of the five young men--one by a heart attack that may have been brought on by drug use, two in car accidents, one by suicide, and one the victim of an unsolved murder--are heartbreaking, particularly that of her beloved brother. After his death, Ward struggled mightily, considering suicide. The aspect of her story that I found most devastating was how Ward was constantly drawn back to her home town, where her depression and the community's culture led her to drink, get high, and hang out aimlessly, just as she might have had she not escaped to college. Of course, we know that she has become a very successful writer and professor, so she has indeed built a different life for herself, but she doesn't make clear how she managed to rise above the psychological damage that poverty, racism, lack of trust, and grief created.

Ward tells the story of her life chronologically, interspersed with chapters that briefly recount each young man's death, starting with the last death first. This structure is somewhat confusing but then suddenly seems to make sense when the two parts of the book converge at the time of her brother's death. I only wish we had the chapter of the book that takes place when she begins to heal.

Favorite passages:
What I did not understand then was that the same pressures were weighing on us all. My entire community suffered from a lack of trust: we didn't trust society to provide the basics of a good education, safety, access to good jobs, fairness in the justice system. And even as we distrusted the society around us, the culture that cornered us and told us we were perpetually less, we distrusted each other. We did not trust our fathers to raise us, to provide for us. Because we trusted nothing, we endeavored to protect ourselves, boys becoming misogynistic and violent, girls turning duplicitous, all of us hopeless.

How could I know then that this would be my life: yearning to leave the South and doing so again and again, but perpetually called back to home by a love so thick it choked me?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Grace Reinhart is a family therapist who is about to publish her first book, You Should Have Known, which provides advice to women on how to avoid marrying the wrong person; Grace truly believes that the wrong man always tells you that he is the wrong man, if only you will listen. Grace is married to a successful pediatric oncologist, sends her son Henry to the same private school she attended as a girl (and the parents at the school are portrayed just as those of us not living in New York would imagine them to be), and is happy nesting with her family in the same apartment she grew up in. While she, Henry, and husband Jonathan Sachs may not have many (or any) friends, they are a happy family.

But then things start to go wrong. She cannot reach her husband when he is supposed to be at a medical conference, and another mother at the Reardon School is the victim of a violent attack. When the police come to question her, Grace cannot imagine what she could possibly tell them that would be helpful. Soon, however, everyday brings revelations about her marriage that, perhaps, she "should have known." As her carefully constructed life collapses, Grace must figure out how to rebuild.

This book starts rather slowly--readers have to make it through a long interview Grace gives a reporter from Vogue about her book and accounts of two events at the school. While these sections establish Grace as the smug and judgmental, yet still somewhat insecure, person that she is and introduce us to her philosophy and the cultural milieu in which she lives, they could perhaps have been somewhat briefer. For me, one of the most interesting things about the book was trying to figure out why I stayed interested in an unsympathetic character like Grace--particularly when the reader spends the entire book inside Grace's head, subject to her self-delusions, judgments, panic, pain, recriminations, and on and on. I never really found an answer to that question, but I give Korelitz credit for making me care what happened to Grace despite not liking her (and, in fact, disliking her rather fiercely early on in the book).

I don't think this is a great book, but I did find it entertaining.

Favorite passage:
Someone has custom-written a horror story for my life, like those people who take your family members and turn them into a song for the golden anniversary celebration. But not like that at all.