Saturday, December 3, 2016

Giving Thanks for Books: November's Reading

November brought some really good books, some not-so-good books, some popular books that fell flat for me, and some books that made me question my own reactions.

Mysteries
After the Storm, by Linda Castillo
Black Irish, by Stephan Talty

I had missed a couple of Linda Castillo's Kate Burkholder mysteries so have been catching up on them. They're generally okay but not great; this one used an unplanned pregnancy as a plot device that was rather annoying, so definitely not my favorite.

Black Irish reminded me that a couple of decades ago, there were a number of crime novels/mysteries about the IRA and American supporters (as well as episodes of television crime shows); I haven't read a book with that particular focus for quite a while, but Black Irish goes there. Set in Buffalo, it is the story of a gifted but depressive detective, Abbie Kearney, who is investigating a murder involving friends and colleagues of her adoptive father, a retired Buffalo police officer. She is drawn deeper and deeper into the dysfunction of the Irish community, eventually solving not only the murder (which expands into five or six murders--I lost track) but the mystery of her parentage. Either I am naïve or this story is quite far-fetched.

Fiction
The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes
My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante
Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple
Silver Linings Playbook, by Matthew Quick
The Word for World Is Forest, by Ursula LeGuin
Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
The Painted Veil, by Somerset Maugham
The Last Anniversary, by Liane Moriarty

In The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes imagines the inner life of Russian composer Shostakovich, who endured censorship, reeducation, and a variety of other indignities under Soviet rule, while trying to maintain some degree of artistic integrity. The fear, humiliation, and self-loathing are palpable and, while we cannot assume this is what Shostakovich actually thought, it is a thought-provoking depiction of the effects of tyranny on the artist.

My Brilliant Friend is the first of the mysterious Elena Ferrante's much-ballyhooed Neapolitan novels. It is the story of the two bright young friends who face various challenges as one sticks to the academic path while the other veers off that path and marries young. Each is jealous of the other. Sound familiar? Yes, it sounds like a million other coming-of-age novels! Being set in a poor neighborhood in Naples post-World War II makes it slightly more informative but no more inventive or engaging. Furthermore, there are point-of-view problems--the narrator knows things she shouldn't--and it's clearly a set-up for a sequel, always annoying to me. Not recommended!

And, continuing the theme of "I just don't get it," Maria Semple's Today Will Be Different follows the pattern of her earlier bestseller Where'd You Go, Bernadette. A 30-something Seattle woman struggles with First World issues depicted in a manner intended to be humorous. Most of the action takes place in one day when protagonist Eleanor Flood discovers a former employee has become wildly successful, her child Timby feigns illness for the umpteenth time so he can leave school, and she suspects her husband is having an affair. Flashbacks provide background on her marriage, her career, which is now languishing (her graphic memoir is 8 years overdue), and her family. Some pieces of her story are sad, but she's an annoying character who puts her child in iffy situations while she runs off half-cocked. Sorry . . . this author is, in my view, seriously overrated.

I was recently at a dinner with a group of "book people," when one woman mentioned she doesn't read much fiction but really loves Silver Linings Playbook. I had never read the book because I found the movie somewhat annoying in that it seemed to be getting its laughs at the expense of the two people with mental illnesses. As is generally the case, the book was definitely better--Quick still finds humor in mental illness, but it somehow feels more like we are with the main character, Pat Peoples, than simply observing him. Quick also makes the reader feel that there is still hope for Pat. The dance competition is much less central to the book than it was to the movie, which is also a positive. I didn't love the book but it has caused me to think about how mental illness is depicted in fiction, so that's a positive outcome.

The Word for World Is Forest (great title!) is the third Ursula Guin that I've read--all at the urging of my son Kevin, who is infinitely more knowledgeable about the science fiction genre than I am. In comparison to the previous two--The Dispossessed and The Lefthand of Darkness--The Word . . . seemed very mundane to me. Humans from Earth have colonized the planet Athshe in order to harvest wood from its forests; in the process, they have destroyed the environment and enslaved the peaceful Athseans.  Eventually, the Athsheans rise up and reclaim their planet, but their nature is changed by the experience of violence. The book also suffered because I was reading Children of God at the same time--that book has some similar plot points but is much more complex. Overall, The Word for World Is Forest fell flat.

Children of God, on the other hand, I very much enjoyed. It's a sequel to Russell's The Sparrow, an excellent book about an ill-fated Jesuit-sponsored mission to the planet Rakhat. In Children of God, survivor Father Emilio Sandoz, who was subjected to sexual torture on Rakhat and has been reviled since returning to Earth, is trying to rebuild his life despite the loss of his faith. The order asks him to prepare another group of Jesuits for a second mission to Rakhat and he agrees. But then, just as he is about to be married, he is commandeered into the mission. Meanwhile, on Rakhat, another survivor of the mission, Sonia Mendes, is involved with the struggle between the two species that inhabit the planet--the subservient Runa and dominant Jana'ata. The plot is even more complicated and layered, but what is more notable is how Russell explores a variety of theological, sociological, psychological, and political themes. Highly recommended.

Also highly recommended is Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad. In Whitehead's imagining, the Underground Railroad is an actual subterranean railroad; as refugees from slavery ascend to ground level at various stops, they find different cultures and levels of development. For example, in South Carolina, the protagonist Cora, who has escaped from a plantation in Georgia, finds skyscrapers and a society nominally dedicated to the uplift of the "colored people"--not surprisingly, there is a sinister side to this apparently progressive approach. Cora also spends time in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana--all dealing differently with the formerly enslaved. When I read about this book, I thought--as a friend said the other night--it sounded weird. But somehow Whitehead makes it all work, creating an engaging character, a spellbinding story, and a thought-provoking discussion of slavery and its aftermath. The Underground Railroad recently won the National Book Award--well-deserved!

The Painted Veil is a character study of a shallow but beautiful Englishwoman living in Hong Kong in the 1920s. Shockingly still unmarried in her mid-twenties, Kitty ties her fortunes to a scientist, Walter Fane, but is soon bored with her intellectual but not amusing husband. When Walter discovers that she is having an affair, he forces her to go to a cholera-infested area in China. There, she for the first time finds herself interested in something other than herself--she enjoys working with the children being cared for by nuns. However, she soon finds herself pregnant and widowed; she returns to England to seek shelter with her father. The book is often described as an affirmation of the human capacity for growth and change, but I'm not convinced of real growth on Kitty's part and unless you are particularly interested in the lives of British colonials in the Far East, I wouldn't recommend The Painted Veil.

My friend Suzy and I recently went to hear Liane Moriarty talk at the Tattered Cover; I found her as I expected from having read several of her books--sarcastically funny but also warm. When asked which of her books was her favorite, she equivocated but expressed some fondness for The Last Anniversary.  Ergo, I decided to read it. Like her other books, it has numerous quirky narrators and deals with serious topics (in this case post-partum depression) and relationships in a humorous way. Although I have found several of her books very funny, I found myself bothered by the humor in the last two I have read. Maybe they just aren't as effective--or maybe as I age, I'm just finding life more sad/less funny. It does have me questioning myself. But back to the book--Moriarty frames the book around the mystery of what happened to a young couple who disappeared during the Depression, leaving their daughter behind. Most readers will figure out the mystery fairly readily and perhaps become a little annoyed with the ongoing hints--however, at the end, Moriarty does throw in a twist that I did not expect--so kudos to her for a genuine surprise.

Classics
Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
Night, by Elie Wiesel

I remember seeing the movie version of Turn of the Screw many years ago and being pretty creeped out, but I had never read the book. Sadly, the book did not have the same impact. The story revolves around a young woman who is engaged to care for two orphaned children whose uncle wants to hear nothing about them once he hires someone to replace their previous governess, who died. The governess finds the little girl to be delightful, the little boy (who has been expelled from boarding school) somewhat less tractable. But soon enough, she realizes that the previous governor and her lover, a handyman around the estate, are visiting the children. And creepy events ensue. Perhaps I am harder to shock today or I knew too much about the story to find it scary. I also think the frame that James used--presenting it as a "ghost story" being told by a man to his friends--lessened its impact. Whatever the reason, Turn of the Screw was a disappointment.

Sadly, I also found myself less moved than I thought I should be by Night, Elie Wiesel's account of a young man's horrifying experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. The depiction of man's inhumanity to man is certainly beyond comprehension, but perhaps we have seen, read, and heard so much about the Holocaust that it ceases to shock. Perhaps it is peculiar to me and yet another sign of aging. But if it's more general, it's worth thinking about how we can keep our horror alive to prevent future genocides (somehow the recent election makes this seem timely).

Nonfiction
Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela
The Road to Character, by David Brooks
Without You, There Is No Us, by Suki Kim
Why We Write, edited by Meredith Maran

Nelson Mandela is one of my heroes, and I hoped this biography (covering from childhood up to his election as president of South Africa) would give me some insight into how he maintained his positive spirit and staved off bitterness despite the travails he experienced. The book was definitely informative, particularly about the work and strategies of the ANC and others in the movement to end apartheid. Yet, I still don't understand Mandela's indomitability--perhaps I'm just not capable. I also wished he had talked more about what happened with Winnie--he claimed to have believed in her innocence, but nonetheless they divorced and she seems simply to have disappeared from his life. Again, he is probably too good to go into the details and I am venal enough to be interested. Not entirely fulfilling but worthwhile.

David Brooks is a conservative with whom I, not a conservative, often agree. Brooks found himself concerned about the imbalance of attention on "resume virtues"--achieving wealth, fame, and status--and our "eulogy virtues," those that exist at the core of our being: kindness, bravery, honesty, or faithfulness, focusing on what kind of relationships we have formed."  This, I think, is a very worthy concern, and Brooks approached it by examining how notable people whom he judged to focus more on eulogy virtues--Francis Perkins, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George Marshall, Dorothy Day, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and others--worked, sometimes struggled to develop character. At some point, I became a bit bored with the case studies, wishing there were fewer or that some might be contemporary figures. I actually preferred the parts of the book in which Brooks simply talked about aspects of character and its development. Overall, I have to give The Road to Character a thumbs-sideways review.

I recently heard Suki Kim being interviewed on NPR; she was complaining that her book about teaching in a school for privileged North Korean boys was being marketed as a memoir rather than a piece of brave (she was in North Korea under false pretenses) investigative journalism. She felt this was largely due to her being a woman. I had some sympathy for this argument, so I decided to read her book and guess what? It's a memoir! Yes, she did something dangerous. Yes, we do get insights into the effects of tyranny and leader-worship on people, especially young people. But she didn't really do any additional reporting outside of her life at the school and she didn't even seem to do any additional research. It's totally the story of her experience/her emotions . . . yes, it's a memoir. Interesting, but my sympathy for her dissipated.

Why We Write is a collection of interviews the editor did with 20 authors, ranging from Isabel Allende, Sebastian Junger, and Jennifer Egan to Jodi Picoult, Michael Lewis, and Terri McMillan (whose angry comments are my favorites). Maran asked them not just why they write, but when they are happiest, when they are saddest, tips for writers, etc. I found little new insight--most say they write because that's what they do, perhaps all they can do and their advice tends toward "just sit down and write." A few struck me as particularly over-confident (James Frey is notable here) but most seem quite unprepossessing. If you've never read any authorial reflections, this might be interesting; if you have, it's pretty mundane.

Pick of the Litter:  The Underground Railroad and Children of God

Favorite Passages:

What mattered was not so much whether a particular story was factually true, but rather, what it signified. Though it was also the case that the more a story circulated, the truer it became.

What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves—the music of our being—which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history.
All his life he had relied on irony. He imagined that the trait had been born in the usual place: in the gap between how we imagine, or suppose, or hope life will turn out, and the way it actually does. So irony becomes a defence of the self and soul; it lets you breathe on a day-to-day basis. . . .
However, he was no longer so sure. There could be a smugness to irony, as there could be a complacency to protest. . . If you turned your back on irony, it curdled into sarcasm. And what good was it then? Sarcasm was irony which had lost its soul.
Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time

Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.
Time enough for Cora to take stock of her journey from Randall and make a thick braid of her misfortunes. List upon list crowded the ledger of slavery. The names gathered first on the African coast in tens of thousands of manifests. That human cargo. The names of the dead were as important as the names of the living as every loss from disease and suicide and the other mishaps, labeled as such for accounting purposes, needed to be justified to employers. At the auction block, they tallied the souls purchased at each auction and on the plantations the overseers preserved the names of workers in rows of tight cursive. Every name an asset, breathing capital, profit made flesh. The peculiar institution made Cora into a maker of lists as well. In her inventory of loss, people were not reduced to sums but multiplied by their kindnesses, people she had loved, people who had helped her . . . the ones who disappeared . . .
Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad



Sunday, November 6, 2016

An Evening with Ben Montgomery

One of the highlights of the One Book One Broomfield program (just completing its 11th year--woot, woot!) is the author visit. This year, as a member of the committee that chose the book, I was lucky to have dinner with other committee members, library staff, our mayor, and the author and his wife--very fun! Ben Montgomery, author of Grandma Gatewood's Walk, is a good storyteller (as is Bill Roberts, husband of committee member Irene Roberts) and we laughed and talked books, food, hiking, and other topics. I won't tell their story, but Ben and his wife Jennifer had a story about David Sedaris that caused me to throw out the one David Sedaris book I owned.

But on a more serious note, last night Ben talked about Emma Gatewood's through hike of the Appalachian Trail and the process of researching and writing the book. Two points stood out for me. First, Ben continued working his "day job" as a reporter at the Tampa Times while writing the book, which led to some very long days in which he admits he wasn't much help in terms of the family's home life (as he put it, "It takes a village to raise a book"); it's a reminder of how few authors are able to devote themselves solely to writing (at least if they want to eat). Second, I was touched by Ben's  deep affection for Grandma Gatewood (without overlooking her less positive traits)--so deep that he found himself breaking into tears near the end of the writing process when he knew he was going to have to write about her death. It reminded me a bit of hearing Kent Haruf talk about the people of Holt, Colorado, people he had created and clearly loved. So how is it different to write a book about someone you don't like, whether a real person or one you have created? Is it easier because you don't care about them? Or harder because you don't like them--or do you have to like them at some level to write about them. Something to ponder.

Kudos to the Mamie Doud Eisenhower staff, who planned a great series of events around the book. I'm proud that our little community has sustained this community reading program when our larger neighbors (I'm looking at you, Boulder and Denver) have given up the program.


Monday, October 24, 2016

Really, Ian McEwan?

Focus is elusive today, so I've decided to catch up on the blog, even though it's not the end of the month. The most remarkable book -- but not in a good way -- is Ian McEwan's newest, Nutshell, featuring one of the most ridiculous narrators of all time. But more about that later.

Mysteries
The Forgetting Time, by Sharon Guskin
Hell or High Water, by Joy Castro
Her Last Breath, by Linda Castillo
Exhume, by Danielle Gerard

Her Last Breath, one of Castillo's Kate Burkholder's mysteries set in Amish country, was by far the best of these books. Most disappointing was Exhume--I thought this might be a new and interesting series about a medical examiner, but that character--Dr. Anna Schwartzman, strangely referred to by her last name throughout the book--is, sadly, utterly stupid.

Fiction
Heat and Light, by Jennifer Haigh
Girl in Translation, by Jean Kwok
Stories for Wartime, by Rebecca Makkai
The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Bookstore on the Corner, by Jenny Colgan
Small, Great Things, by Jodi Picoult
Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

It's hard to write a political novel without it becoming more of a screed. Jennifer Haigh clearly set out to write a book about the hazards of fracking and drilling for gas. She seems to have tried to avoid the book becoming a polemic by writing in innumerable characters and issues--infidelity, Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, loss of faith, addiction, Three Mile Island, gender identity, subsidized science. It's way, way too much--and it still feels like a book written to advance a position.

Girl in Translation is the story of Kimberly Chang and her mother, immigrants from China to New York. Kimberly is bright and hard-working and ends up in private school--but she does not tell her classmates that she works at  garment factory with her mother after school (the aunt who owns the factory is truly a horrible person) and lives in a one-room unheated apartment overrun with vermin of various types. Nonetheless, Kimberly and her mother perservere--and the reader cares whether they succeed. I didn't care for the direction the book took near the end, but overall thought it was a moving description of one immigrant experience.

I often find short stories to be head-scratchers, and Stories for Wartime provided plenty of scalp stimulation. Several of the stories are written as fairy tales or myths--those I must say I did not get at all. Others were strange but enjoyable. For example, "Couple of Lovers on a Red Background" involves the appearance of a miniature J.S. Bach in a woman's apartment; he gradually gets taller and she decides she'd like to have a baby with the composer. "The Museum of the Dearly Departed" opens with a gas leak killing everyone in an apartment building, including a woman's fiance and his supposedly long-dead ex-wife. The woman finds herself involved with others affected by the tragedy, including an artist who is building a replica of the apartment building complete with artifacts from each apartment and an elderly couple who are the only surviving residents (the husband was a Nazi).  A very few are rather ordinary--for example, "The November Story" is about the manipulations behind the scenes at a reality show (but I still liked it). My favorite story was "Everything We Know about the Bomber," which presented bits of information showing how the image of an accused criminal comes to be "known." I doubt anyone will love all the stories, but the collection is worth checking out.

The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer last year, and it is a worthy recipient. Complex and layered, the book takes the form of a confession by an unnamed protagonist who served in the South Vietnamese secret police but was actually a spy for the North Vietnamese. When Vietnam falls, he organizes one of the last flights out of Saigon--and is on it himself, along with his boss ("The General") and one of his two best friends--Bon, who is a South Vietnamese loyalist. In the United States, the protagonist is to keep an eye on these loyalists, who have not given up the struggle, despite their displacement. While in the United States, he also serves as a consultant trying to bring Vietnamese perspectives to a war film being made by a director referred to as "The Auteur" (purportedly Frances Ford Coppola). Eventually, however, his dual role causes serious problems--The General demands that he kill two men and he defies his North Vietnamese handler (his other best friend, Man) by taking part in an ill-fated mission to Southeast Asia because he feels compelled to try to save Bon. While my synopsis of the plot makes this seem unlikely, the book is often quite funny as it provides a Vietnamese perspective on the Vietnam War and skewers American politics and culture of the time. Highly recommended.

I had seen several positive notices about The Bookshop on the Corner but found it vacuous. If you believe that a stranger can come to town, start selling books, turn everyone in town into readers, and find love, then this book is for you (as is The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend). Maybe if I had read it on a beach . . .

Small, Great Things has many of the standard Jodi Picoult devices--multiple narrators, family conflict, a controversial legal issue. The conflict at the center of the book is interesting, however--an African American nurse is asked not to touch the newborn son of a white supremacist couple. Then she finds herself alone with the child when he experiences a medical crisis--what should she do? Can she be held legally responsible if the outcome is bad? Is a white public defender correct when she says they should not bring up race in the trial? I enjoyed the book until the very end, when Picoult has the public defender engage in a long drawn-out philosophical discussion with herself and another character undergoes an unbelievable transformation.

And, now, Nutshell, which begins with the line "So here I am, upside down in a woman." Yes, the narrator of this slim novel is a fetus, one who can identify the wine (varietal and vintage) he shares with his mother, was disappointed when his mother gave up on the audiobook of Ulysses, which he was enjoying (puh-leeze!), and describes in gross detail his mother's sexual encounters with her lover, who happens to be his father's brother. There's a crumbling mansion, a murder plot,  humorous word play--all causing some reviewers to rhapsodize about the magic McEwan has pulled off with this unique narrator. Seriously? This. Book. Is. Ridiculous.  I could not suspend disbelief regarding the narrator and could not discern any real point to having a fetus narrate the book. In fact, I couldn't see that the book had a point. It doesn't take long to get through this book--and yet it's still not worth the time!

Classics
Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy

I am catching up on my Tolstoy--and it's a worthwhile endeavor. The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a novella, so it doesn't require the time commitment of Anna Karenina (or War and Peace, which I haven't yet taken on), but its impact is intense. The book begins with the announcement of his death--his colleagues are lining up to take his position as a judge, his wife obsessing about her pension. But who is this person whose life seems to have mattered so little? Tolstoy then takes us back through Ivan Ilyich's life, which has been dedicated to upward mobility. While successful on the surface, there's little below that surface. When he becomes terminally ill, his family's lack of concern is devastating--and his death is described in terrifying terms. Not a depiction of humanity's finer moments but a work that will leave you examining your life.

Nonfiction
Working Stiff, by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell

This book's subtitle--Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner--aptly describes its content. The author (writing with her English-major husband) covers, often in gruesome detail, cases that she encountered during her two years in the New York City's Medical Examiner's office, a period that included 9/11 and the plane crash in New York that occurred about two months later. Although some people would likely find the subject matter hard to take, I enjoyed the book (the author has a sense of humor but also a reverence for life--both of which help).

Pick of the Litter: The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Favorite Passages:

Faith, in the end, is human stubbornness on a heroic scale--the passionate denial, the absolute and abiding refusal to die.

Jennifer Haigh, Heat and Light

I was in close quarters with some representative specimens of the most dangerous creature in the history of the world, the white man in a suit.

He had a Minnesotan's admiration for resourcefulness in the face of hardship, bred by generations of people one very bad winter away from starvation and cannibalism.

He had hung an elaborate Oriental rug on his wall, in lieu, I suppose, of an actual Oriental.  [This one is the choice of my son Kevin.]

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The 32-Hour Book and Other September Achievements

Last night I told my older son (a computer engineer who's not much of a reader) that I had finished the 32-hour book recommended by my younger son (the soon-to-be literary scholar). His response: "Is that the title?" Well, no, it's how long the audio book of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is! Given its length and the fact that my iPod refused to play the last 5 hours, finishing it was my major September achievement. . . but there were other good reading moments as well.

Mysteries
The Jewel of Paradise, by Donna Leon

This may be a first--a month in which I read only one mystery. Sadly, the story of a Venetian musicologist investigating the contents of two trunks of ephemera left by a composer is boring and barely a mystery at all. (Note this is not one of what is evidently a very popular Leon series about a character named Commissario Brunetti.)

Fiction
Landline, by Rainbow Rowell
Carthage, by Joyce Carol Oates
Miller's Valley, by Anna Quindlen
Clara and Mr. Tiffany, by Susan Vreeland
The Hopefuls, by Jennifer Close
The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henriquez
Slade House, by David Mitchell
The Japanese Lover, by Isabel Allende
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

I don't know why I decided to read Landline, since I had just read another Rainbow Rowell book and found it to be essentially silly. The same can be said of Landline, which includes a fantastical element--when the protagonist, who has stayed at home to work over Christmas while her husband and children have traveled to visit the grandparents, calls her husband on the landline, they are transported back to an earlier period in their relationship when they almost broke up. Rowell is clearly interested in the effects of technology on human relationships, but her books are too lightweight to actually advance our understanding of those effects.

Carthage has three parts that feel almost like three separate novels. The first is the story of a family whose somewhat strange younger daughter suddenly goes missing and the impact of the disappearance on the family and on the family of the Iraq War veteran suspected of harming her. The second (SPOILER) is the story of what happened to the daughter, written without naming her, as she works with a researcher studying the death penalty. The third reveals what happens--to herself, her family, and the man serving time for "killing" her--when she returns to her home. It's a peculiar combination and the ending does not seem realistic, but I still somewhat inexplicably enjoyed the book.

Sadly, the same can not be said of Miller's Valley, which is the story of Mimi Miller, whose somewhat dysfunctional family has lived on their Pennsylvania farm for generations. Development and the proposed construction of a dam threaten that existence; at first it feels like the book is going to be about this economic/environmental issue, but then it seems to switch focus to the difficulty of escaping the rural/working class poor life (and the draw that life can still have once you've escaped). A big disappointment from Anna Quindlen.

Clara and Mr. Tiffany is interesting--the fictionalized story of the real female artist who developed many of the ideas for glasswork that brought Louis Tiffany his fame. The account of women's struggle for any sort of recognition and even for their jobs, when male workers became jealous of the women's success, is fascinating. The story of Clara's personal life is less engaging, but the book is worth reading, particularly for those interested in art and/or women's history.

The Hopefuls is the story of a young couple that brings their idealism and ambition to Washington, DC, when the husband gets a job in the nascent Obama administration. Wife Beth hates DC while husband Matt grows frustrated with his lack of upward mobility; he therefore jumps at the chance to run his friend Jimmy's campaign--for a minor office in Texas. Beth and Matt decamp for Texas with Jimmy and his wife Ashleigh, and their marriage suffers. I found the book interesting while focused on their life in Washington (although I was annoyed that the author referred to the Education Department as the DOE, which is the designation for the Department of Energy--I know it's a small thing, but if you're writing a book as a Washington insider, you should get these details right!) and soap opera-ish when they end up in Texas.

The Book of Unknown Americans focuses on the largely immigrant population of a rundown apartment building in Delaware. Two families are particularly important to the story--the Riveras, who have recently come from Mexico to seek treatment for their daughter Maribel, who sustained a brain injury in a fall, and the Toros, who fled Panama 15 years earlier, The Toros' son Mayor and Maribel form a friendship that is good for both of them but eventually causes a rift between the families. While tragedy strikes one family, there is still an optimistic tone--people care for and help each other and believe that good will eventually come to them. Even for a cynic such as myself, The Book of Unknown Americans is a rewarding read.

Slade House is, according to other reviews, a follow-up to David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, which I tried to read but could not get into. One does not need to have read that book, however, to follow the (soon predictable) pattern of Slade House. Every nine years, someone disappears into an alley in London, never to be seen again. A mother and son are followed by a police officer looking into their case, a young woman who is part of a paranormal investigatory team, that young woman's sister, etc, They have become prey of a pair of centuries-old twins who require fresh souls to renew themselves. The first couple of chapters are entertaining, but I quickly found the book predictable and rather tedious. Cloud Atlas this is not.

I am not a fan of Isabel Allende but downloaded the audio book of The Japanese Lover because it was available on a day when I couldn't find anything else--and a friend had told me she enjoyed the book. It's the story of Alma, an elderly doyen of San Francisco's upper crust who was sent to live with relatives in California when her parents began to see the path of Nazism in Poland; Ichimei, her lifelong friend and the son of the Japanese gardener for Alma's relatives; and Irina, a young immigrant from Moldova who suffered hideous abuse from her stepfather but has become a beloved care-giver at the idyllic retirement home to which Alma has decamped. Allende jumps around in time to give us these characters' backstories, but none of the characters come alive, even when terrible things happen to them--and a broad array of social ills befall them. Definitely my last Allende--and I mean it!

My son Kevin described Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell as "the greatest stand-alone work of fantasy of our time." I must take his word for this, as he is a voracious reader in this genre, while I am not. I did, however, find it an imaginative and complex work that held my interest for 32 hours! It is set in the early 1800s, when British magic was apparently dead. Theoretical magicians talked about and studied magic--but did not practice it. The one exception was Mr. Norrell, who not only could perform impressive magic but intended that he be the only magician in England. Enter Jonathan Strange, a much younger, more vibrant, and more sociable man who convinced Norrell to take him on as a student. I cannot possibly describe what happens in the book, but suffice it to say it is complicated, dark, and not always fast-reading (there are numerous footnotes!) or -moving. I enjoyed the book, but I am not sure what to make of it now that I am done . . . so I guess I can say it has me thinking, which is always a good thing.

In the past, I have liked Ann Patchett's books with more exotic settings and themes (Bel Canto, State of Wonder) better than her more domestic works. But I loved Commonwealth, which is the story of two families--the Keatings and the Cousins--whose lives become entangled as the result of Bert Cousins' decision to attend a christening at the Keatings simply to get away from his wife and children on a Sunday afternoon. Three of the four parents seem to be largely unscathed by the upheaval in the two families, but the six children are scarred, in ways large and small. And yet they persevere--and we come to admire and respect them. Patchett's work covers some of the same ground as the novels of Jonathan Franzen and is equal to, if not better than, those more-lauded books. Commonwealth is definitely recommended.


Classics
Breakfast at Tiffany's, by Truman Capote
Animal Farm, by George Orwell

I feel like I could not possibly have anything original to say about either of these novellas, both widely read and written about--but I'll give a couple of personal reactions nonetheless. Having never read or seen the film of Breakfast at Tiffany's, I was surprised to find Holly Golightly a rather crude character. While I enjoyed Capote's writing and the narration of Michael C. Hall, I was not taken with Holly or the story. I had, of course, read Animal Farm in high school, but I had forgotten how disturbingly violent it is. While the removal of the fear of Communism might suggest the book is no longer relevant, I find its depiction of human/animal nature as timely and accurate as ever.

Nonfiction
Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit
The Folded Click, by Heidi Julavits
In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Men Explain Things to Me begins with an anecdote that will resonate with virtually every woman who has ever had a conversation with a man. She is at a party and a man asks her what she does. She responds that she is a writer. He asks what she has written and she begins to describe her most recent book. He interrupts her to tell her about the "very important new book" on the same topic. After some minutes, Solnit's friend must interrupt the man to tell him he is describing Solnit's book, which, of course, he has not actually read--he has only read a review! This story introduces the title essay in the collection, which is a scathing look at the silencing of women. It is followed by an essay on violence against women that should be required reading for people of all genders. In another essay, Solnit recasts objections to the marriage equality movement as having less to do with same sex marriage than the thought that women might become equal within the marriage relationship; I'm not so sure about that assertion but it is interesting reading. Less interesting to me was her piece on Virginia Wolfe. I generally liked this slim volume, though I found Solnit to be a little overly self-referential, which may have been at least in part a result of the essays having been published individually first. Still, some editing might easily have eliminated repetitive references to what she included in earlier works.

When you have established a journal that eschews snarkiness and includes only positive reviews, as Heidi Julavits has, critiquing your work puts a reviewer in an uncomfortable situation, especially when looking at a work like The Folded Clock, which invites snarkiness. Why do I say it invites snarkiness? First some background. Julavits found her old diaries and hoped they would show she was destined to be a writer (she seems to be spend considerable time looking for signs), but instead finds them banal. She decides to keep a diary—although The Folded Clock is hardly an actual diary (even though every entry begins with “Today I”).  The entries are not provided in chronological order, bouncing around in a two-year period in which Julavits wrote the reflections or essays (rather than entries). While other reviewers have been enchanted, I found myself wondering if she was intending to be funny because the problems she obsesses about are so shallow. They are the definition of first world problems—her consternation when she turns up at her therapist’s and the therapist doesn’t answer the door, her fear of sharks, her jealousy of the doctor who invented the diet her husband is on to improve his health.  She lives in Maine and Manhattan, she swans around Europe, she very deliberately does not name drop—but she does mention knowing a lot of famous actors,theater people, writers, artists, etc. She uses men in her life to develop her sense of self. It's really quite annoying. And--in the theme of small errors that rankle--she refers to the Dewey Decimal system and then gives a call number in the Library of Congress classification system. Didn't anyone edit this thing? 

In Other Words is a memoir that Indian American author Jhumpa Lahiri wrote in Italian while living for three years in Italy. (It also includes two short stories written in Italian.) The English edition includes Italian on the verso, English on the recto--an arrangement that is not enlightening to most of us non-Italian-speaking Americans. Lahiri recounts her love affair with Italian, as well as her ruminations on why Italian calls to her more strongly than English or Bengali (her parents' native language) and the challenges and rewards of writing in a new language. I admire Lahiri's previous work and think it’s interesting that she is drawn to Italian and attributes it to not feeling truly at home in Bengali or English. Some of what she writes about writing is very interesting and beautifully stated. But much of the book feels like self-analysis; perhaps instead of writing a book, she might have crafted a very fine article and taken a trip to a therapist to talk about her many irritations and her angst.  (And, yes, I know I have descended into complete snarkiness here.)


Pick of the Litter: Commonwealth 


Favorite Passages 
A conversation involves a sort of collaboration and, often, an act of forgiveness. When I speak I can make mistakes, but I’m somehow able to make myself understood. On the page I am alone. The spoken language is a kind of antechamber with respect to the written, which has a stricter, more elusive logic.

Why do I write? To investigate the mystery of existence. To tolerate myself. To get closer to everything that is outside of me.

If I want to understand what moves me, what confuses me, what pains me—everything that makes me react, in short—I have to put it into words. Writing is my only way of absorbing and organizing life. Otherwise it would terrify me, it would upset me too much.

Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words

Every woman knows what I'm talking about. It's the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men's unsupported overconfidence.

Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me

Monday, August 22, 2016

Stop Me Before I Read Again!

The month isn't even over, and I've already read 19 books (although three were YA books and a bunch were quickly perused mysteries). Still, is it any wonder I'm behind on work?

Mysteries
Fifteenth Affair, by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
The Ex, by Alafair Burke
Never Tell, by Alafair Burke
Missing, Presumed, by Susie Steiner
I Let You Go, by Clare MacIntosh
The Perfect Ghost, by Linda Barnes
Blue Monday, by Nicci French

I'm getting to the point where I have nothing to say about 95 percent of the mysteries I read. Missing, Presumed was a cut above the others, providing an interesting character study of the mother of a missing woman and two police officers; the mystery, itself, however, is somewhat lame. These were okay as fluff (i.e., work avoidance), but nothing really exciting/challenging. And please note, mystery writers: A twist on its own does not save a book!

YA
Among the Brave, Among the Enemy, and Among the Free, by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Yes, I finally finished the Shadow Children series. The original concept (the government has made it illegal to have more than two children) was interesting, but the whole thing devolved pretty badly by the end. I can't actually believe my granddaughter (age 8 when she read it) understood all the plot machinations because I couldn't track what the heck was going on. So many better options out there (The Giver and its two sequels to name just one).

Fiction
Truly Madly Guilty, by Liane Moriarty
The Diving Pool, by Yoko Ogawa
Attachments, by Rainbow Rowell
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson
Dreamers of the Day, by Mary Doria Russell

Truly Madly Guilty is the story of three suburban couples who are, kind of, friends. Something bad happened the last time all three couples got together (and we know it's something about a child), and the event has changed the relationships within and between the couples. As with Moriarty's other books, there's lots of snarky humor, but it's harder to enjoy when there's death or injury of a child lurking in the background. If this had been my first Moriarty, I might have enjoyed it more, but as my fourth or fifth, it didn't feel very fresh.

If you have read Yoko Ogawa's charming The Housekeeper and the Professor, the three novellas in The Diving Pool will shock you as they are creepy and full of what I think of as Japanese literary alienation. The title story is about a teenage girl, Aya, whose parents run an orphanage, where she lives with the other children. She is somewhat obsessed with Jun, a boy about her age who is a champion diver; she also finds herself treating a toddler named Rie with exceptional cruelty. The second novella, Pregnancy Diary (a favorite of my son, the expert in Japanese literature), is a journal by the sister of a pregnant woman. Much of the diary focuses on the pregnant sister's diet, particularly her voracious eating of grapefruit jam made by the journal-keeper, who has read something that suggests the jam may be toxic. Dormitory is about a Tokyo woman whose husband has gotten a job in Sweden. She is contacted by a young cousin who is looking for a place to stay while attending school in Tokyo; she sets him up at the rooming house where she lived as a student--but it has gone downhill precipitously since and the reader immediately feels concern for her cousin. Ogawa has crafted a disturbing set of stories--but they do make you think and keep you reading.

Attachments sounded like a cute idea--a man whose job is to monitor employees' emails falls in love with a woman whose email exchanges with a friend often violate company policy. I guess maybe I should have known when I thought "cute" that the book would be pretty shallow, but for some reason I had hopes for the book, unjustified hopes as it turns out.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared mixes the adventures of the elderly protagonist, Allan Karlsson, following his escape from a senior citizens home in small-town Sweden, with his back story, which saw him involved in numerous key events of the 20th century, from the Spanish Civil War to the Manhattan Project; he was responsible for giving the Soviets the secret to nuclear weapons, spent years in a gulag, saved Winston Churchill from assassination, and much much more. The book made me think of a mash-up between Forrest Gump (his early life) and a Marx Brothers movie (his post-escape adventures with a motley crew of characters including an elephant, a gangster, and the owner of a hot dog stand). I found the book tedious before too many adventures had been completed.

My son recently mentioned that he had read and enjoyed Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, which I had read and enjoyed some years ago. So I decided to try another of her books--but one of her historical novels rather than science fiction. Dreamers of the Day is about an Ohio woman, Agnes Shanklin, whose entire family dies in the swine flu epidemic following World War I; she decides to take the money she inherits and, free from the constraints placed on her by an overbearing (but now dead) mother, travel to the Middle East, where her sister and brother-in-law had served as missionaries. Upon her arrival, she meets a German intelligence officer, as well as Winston Churchill, Lawrence of Arabia, and others attending the Cairo Peace Conference that will divide up the Middle East. The plot seems completely unbelievable, the main character is annoying, and the fantastical element introduced at the end of the book just seems stupid. Not recommended.

Classics
The Europeans, by Henry James

Perhaps this short novel does not really qualify as a classic, since it seems to be one of Henry James' lesser works. It's a comedic story of a brother and sister who travel from Europe to visit their American cousins, who live in New England. At least one of the siblings is hoping to find a wealthy spouse. At the heart of the story are the difference between the Europeans, who are haughty and yet shallow (particularly the sister), and the Americans, who are more stolid and tradition-bound. The language of the book is notable, but the story is definitely thin.

Nonfiction
32 Yolks, by Eric Ripert
My Life on the Road, by Gloria Steinem
An Anthropologist on Mars, by Oliver Sacks

32 Yolks is the story of how Eric Ripert became a chef, starting from a difficult childhood and ending with his move to the United States. The most interesting thing about the book is how horribly chefs in Paris treated their employees--at least at the time when Ripert was training. The renowned chef Joel Robuchon (I have eaten at his restaurant in Tokyo) was a complete tyrant whose cooks lived in fear and suffered a variety of physical and mental ailments as a result. Truly horrifying.

In My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem reflects on why she feels more at home on the road than in one place and what she has learned from her travels speaking, organizing, and working for change. It's definitely interesting to see her perspective on such things as conversation circles versus online community-building (she doesn't see the latter as powerful) and the interplay between racism and sexism, which it sometimes seems like she gets right, sometimes wrong. She definitely provides plenty to chew on, even when you don't agree with her--and she zings a few well-known folks (Betty Friedan in particular) to feed our base love of gossip. I listened to the book and was surprised that I didn't care for Debra Winger's narration, most notably because she several times made Steinem sound like she was condescending to the reader. I'd stick with print--but I'd definitely read it. In fact, I might read it again myself.

More than 20 years ago, I read Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and talked about it so incessantly I must have annoyed everyone within earshot. I actually bought An Anthropologist on Mars shortly after it came out in 1995 but never got around to reading it. When Sacks wrote so movingly about his illness and impending death last year, I was reminded me of how much I respected his work and his humanity. So I picked up An Anthropologist on Mars and started reading--but it took me a long time to get through it. Somehow it didn't resonate as The Man . . . did years ago. I don't know if the particular case studies were less interesting--here he writes primarily about vision and autism (and I did enjoy the Temple Grandin case study, perhaps because I already knew her story and had read one of her books)--or I have changed. I still respect Sacks' intellectual curiosity and caring, but I found the heavily footnoted text a bit of a slog.


Pick of the litter:  My Life on the Road

Favorite passages:

…cruelty is one of fear’s most common by-products.

From 32 Yolks, by Eric Ripert

Soon there would be flowers, either at the site where a body was found or outside the house, from members of the public who wrote cards saying “You’re safe now” or “Rest in peace” or “Looking down from heaven.” They scare her, these tragedy tourists, as if they are hungry for catastrophe, a line from the inside of them to the inside of suffering, like a hook inside the cheek of a fish. Manon knows death, and she knows it is no rest or journey. “Do not go gently into that good night.”


From Missing, Presumed, by Susie Steiner

. . . the most reliable predictor of whether a country is violent within itself--or will use military violence against another country--is not poverty, natural resources, religion, or even degree of democracy; it's violence against females. It normalizes all other violence.

I began to see that, for some, religion was just a form of politics you couldn't criticize.

From My Life on the Road, by Gloria Steinm

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Hot Weather and Mostly Lukewarm Reading

The ridiculous heat may have affected my brain--or at least I'm going to use that as my excuse for a mini mystery binge this month. But I did manage one (short) classic and a couple of prize-winners. 

Mysteries
Extreme Prey, by John Sandford
The Good Neighbor, A. J. Banner
She's Not There, by Joy Fielding
212, by Alafair Burke
The Theory of Death, by Faye Kellerman
Wilde Lake, by Laura Lippman

The Sandford, Burke, and Kellerman books are installments in long-running series--none terrible, none really good. The Good Neighbor is something I got free on Amazon when I was a Prime member--and I got what I paid for. 

She's Not There is the story of a child kidnapping similar to the Madeleine McCann--a toddler daughter is snatched from a hotel room when her parents are having dinner in the restaurant downstairs. More than a decade later, the parents marriage has collapsed, they are still hounded by the press (especially on anniversaries), neither gets alone well with their other (older) daughter, and both are haunted by guilt--although the father, perhaps stereotypically, has found it easier to move on. When a girl calls to say she thinks she is their daughter, it causes even more strife, but eventually leads to a disturbing resolution of the crime. Okay but wouldn't recommend (and I'm getting tired of a mini-trend involving mothers being blamed when their children go missing).

Laura Lippman has written some very good mysteries--both in her Tess Monaghan series and in her stand-alone books. Wilde Lake is a stand-alone that focuses on Lu Brant, newly elected state's attorney in Howard County, Maryland. Her first case in office is a murder case that eventually leads Lu back to a series of terrible events during her older brother's senior year of high school (when her father was the state's attorney). Subplots involve new developments in the case that made her father beloved in the community and revelations about her mother's death. The themes of the book are important: the expectations we have of our heroes and the stories we create to cover the pain of our histories. But somehow the book doesn't quite work--too many coincidences, a dual narration (Lu as a child and Lu today) that isn't consistent, and an obnoxious protagonist. Not one of Lippmann's best.


Young Adult
The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate

The granddaughter gave me this Newbery-award-winning book for my birthday because she enjoyed it--and I can see why. The story is narrated by a gorilla named Ivan, who has lived for 27 years in a small glass enclosure in a mall. When his friend and fellow captive Stella the elephant becomes ill and is clearly dying, their owner brings in a baby Ruby to replace her. Before she dies, Stella asks Ivan to get Ruby to a zoo. He uses his artistic talent and his friendship with the daughter of the custodian at the mall to bring public attention to the animals' plight. It's a sweet story and is written in single-sentence paragraphs that somehow made me believe that might be how a gorilla used language. Kids who like animals will love this book.


Fiction
They Don't Mean to But They Do, by Cathleen Schine
This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, by Heidi Durrow
Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson
A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, by Ramonda Ausubel

They May Not Mean to But They Do is a funny but sad story about aging parents and their adult children's attempts to control them. As the novel opens, 86-year-old Joy is still working while caring for her husband, who suffers from dementia. Then her husband dies, she loses her job, a boyfriend from her past turns up, and her children, Molly and Daniel, start trying to control her (while being unable to control elements of their own lives). All of the characters are well-intentioned, and all of them make lots of mistakes. A depiction of Joy's apartment as seriously cluttered with mail and other papers Joy cannot deal with reminded me so vividly of my own nearly 92-year-old mother's dining table and desk (if you're reading this, Mom, sorry) that I came close to simultaneously laughing and crying. Definitely worth reading.

This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! has a similar theme. Harriet is an older woman whose husband recently died, after suffering with Alzheimer's. She learns he bought two tickets for an Alaskan cruise before he died, and she decides to go on the trip. Things don't go well and her estranged daughter decides to join her to rein her in. It turns out the daughter and her brother are trying to manipulate the mother for their own benefit; at the same time, Harriet is learning some disturbing things about her late husband. Chapters telling the story in the present are interspersed with "This Is Your Life" type narration describing, in second person (as on the old game show), various periods in Harriet's early life. I think the author intends the book to be funny, but mostly it just made me feel sad for Harriet. Schine's book is much better! 

Author Heidi Durrow is the daughter of a Danish woman and an African American man--as is the heroine of her novel, young Rachel. Rachel has recently begun living with her paternal grandmother and aunt in a black neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. She feels like she doesn't belong and her classmates are happy to reinforce that feeling. As she tries to cope with her new circumstances, she is also grieving for her mother, brother, and sister and recovering from injuries she sustained in the event that killed them: a fall from the roof of the apartment building where they were living in Chicago. She also wonders why she has not heard from her serviceman father, still stationed somewhere overseas. As Rachel comes of age, her back story is filled in through sections narrated by her mother, her mother's supervisor at her job in Chicago, and the neighbor boy who saw her brother fall past his window. Rachel will break your heart and make you think; as the mother of biracial children, I may be somewhat more interested in Rachel's story than the average reader, but everyone should certainly care because multiracial children are, in my opinion, the future. Recommended. 

A couple of years ago, I undertook a project to read Pulitzer and National Book Award winners. I'm doing it slowly--in part because there are a lot of them and in part because some of them just don't appeal. Tree of Smoke, the story of CIA operatives and collaborators during the Vietnam War, was one of those. And, in this case (unlike The Road, which I resisted but ended up admiring), my trepidation was well-founded. I don't think it's an overstatement to say I hated this book. Similarly, I disliked A Confederacy of Dunces, frequently referred to as a modern-day Don Quixote. Although I haven't read Don Quixote (I probably should), this is only true if Don Quixote was a narcissistic, idiotic, and abusive fool, as is Ignatius Reilly, the protagonist of Dunces. Definitely not worth the time.

In Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, we meet Edgar and Fern. They both grew up in wealthy families with parents who weren't warm--Fern's family was old money, Edgar's nouveau riche. As college students, they decided they didn't care about money--yet by the time they have been married for over a decade and have three children, they seem to be enjoying the life of leisure Fern's parents' money has given them. Then they learn the money is gone. Fern assumes Edgar will go to work in his father's steel company--but Edgar, who fancies himself a novelist, does not want to. Both essentially melt down and run away (without telling each other), leaving their three children at home with no supervision. Although I thoroughly disliked Fern and Edgar, I enjoyed the depiction of their hypocrisy and their meltdown--until Ausubel gave them a dose of sudden-onset maturity. Despite the letdown of the happy ending (I know--it's a weird reaction), I'd recommend the book. 

Classics
The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka

This classic novella is the story of hard-working traveling salesman Gregor Samsa, who has the financial responsibility for his parents and his younger sister--but wakes up one morning as a horrible vermin. No one seems to wonder how or why this happened, they just try to construct a new way of living with a family member who is no longer human and without their income source. Gregor's sister assumes the task of taking care of him, but gradually she, too, tires of the task and begins to talk of killing Gregor. The parents wish they could move to another apartment, but they feel tied to their current quarters by Gregor's presence. While Gregor deals with his transformation dispassionately, he does begin to feel responsible for the problems his family faces. 

I read the novella as representing the dehumanizing and alienating effect of both family and work. It also poses ethical questions about how we treat others, even when their outer presentation becomes repulsive. Definitely strange, definitely worth a read. 

Nonfiction
Not for Bread Alone, edited by Daniel Halpern 

This book is a collection of highly variable pieces about food, from authors as wide-ranging as Alice Waters, Wendell Berry, M.F.K. Fisher, Michael Dorris, Colette, and many more. The topics are equally wide-ranging. My favorite was a Paul Schmidt essay about the meaning of oysters in Anna Karenina. Overall, however, there were more essays I found boring than ones I liked.

Pick of the Litter:  The Girl Who Fell from the Sky and Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty 

Favorite Passages:
It's easy to smile just to make other people feel better. But when a person fakes happy, it has edges. Regular people may not see, but the people who count, they can see edges and lines where your smile ends and the real you, the sadness (me) or the anger (Grandma) begins.
     From The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

There are some things that can't be righted. . . . It's good to name them.
     From Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty


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.