Friday, December 19, 2014

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

Roz Chast is best known as a cartoonist and illustrator. With Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? she establishes herself as a gifted memoirist. She employs her characteristic cartooning style, handwritten text, photographs, and drawings to convey the pain and absurdity of the years preceding her parents' deaths.

Her parents were well into their 90s and still living in their apartment in Brooklyn when her mother Elizabeth fell off a ladder and was hospitalized for two weeks. Although Chast knew her father was suffering from dementia, the separation from his wife made the extent of the problem even more clear. Still, however, her parents refused to consider moving until her mother suffered another fall and her father got lost in the building while looking for help.

Chast moved her parents to an assisted living facility--The Place--near her home. She suffered the challenges of cleaning out their apartment and helping them settle into the new setting--and then watched first her father and then her mother die. Chast is incredibly forthright about the range of emotions she experienced during this process--forthrightness that can only help others going through similar experiences that they are not alone, nor are they crazy or evil!

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a remarkable book about the end of life as seen through the eyes of the caretaking child of the dying. Chast can make you laugh and cry simultaneously while stunning you with her painful and admirable honesty. Highly recommended.

Favorite passage:
I wish that, at the end of life, when things were truly "done," there was something to look forward to. Something more pleasure-oriented. Perhaps opium, or heroin. So you become addicted. So what? All-you-can-eat ice cream parlors for the extremely aged. Big art picture books and music. Extreme palliative care, for when you've had it with everything else.

After my father died, I noticed that all the things that had driven me bats about him--his chronic worrying, his incessant chitchat, his almost suspect inability to deal with anything mechanical--now seemed trivial. The only emotion that remained was one of deep affection and gratitude that he was my dad.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

This voluminous book was a surprise bestseller when it was published in 2011. A 500-page story ostensibly about baseball set in academia hardly seemed likely to become so popular. In fact, when Novel Conversations chose the book, I was not excited--and the first couple of times I tried to start The Art of Fielding, I just couldn't get into it. But some months later, I finally managed to get past the first chapter and am glad I did.

The Art of Fielding gets its title from a book by the legendary Cardinals shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez, full of numbered bits of wisdom applicable to baseball and life. Examples: 3. There are three stages. Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.  and 33. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone; the return to thoughtless being by a very few. Henry Skrimshander is obsessed with baseball and The Art of Fielding. Playing in a summer baseball tournament in Peoria, Henry is discovered by Mike Schwartz, a two-sport athlete (and unofficial athletic director) at Westish College. Mike recruits Henry to Westish; Henry is assigned to room with Owen Dunne, a fine student who also happens to be gay and a baseball player.

Late in Mike's senior year (Owen and Henry's junior year), all three suffer crises. Despite being an outstanding student, Mike has applied to five of the nation's top law schools and been rejected by all of them. He realizes he has spent the past three years developing Henry's baseball career and neglected his own future. He falls for Pella Affenlight, daughter of the college president, who has just gotten out of a bad marriage; that relationship, too, is fraught. Henry, who has not made an error in years and is getting calls from scouts and agents, makes a throwing error that injures Owen (who sits in the dugout reading during games) and triggers a crisis of confident. Owen, meanwhile, enters a relationship with college president Guert Affenlight, a circumstance that is more treacherous for Guert than for Owen but perhaps not well-considered for either.

The events of the spring semester are told from the perspectives of Mike, Henry, Pella, and Guert. Interestingly, Chad Harbach has described Owen as feeling like "the author of the book, or the presiding consciousness"--but, perhaps because he doesn't write from Owen's perspective, I didn't get that feeling. For me, Mike and Henry are the heart of the story--they both have worked hard but are in situations where they feel they have lost control of what is happening to them. The same might also be said of Guert and Pella, although Guert is certainly aware that getting involved with a student is a bad idea.

Certainly, the book could have been edited down a bit. For me, the descriptions of baseball plays and games got a bit tedious (and I'm a sports fan). For other readers, the many references to literature, reading, and literary analysis might seem a bit much (Affenlight is a Melville scholar, Mike is writing his senior thesis on Marcus Aurelius's Meditations). Nonetheless, the book has a strong core about how our lives are shaped by our own decisions, happenstance, relationships, and what and how we think about our lives and our art (whether baseball or writing). Despite wishing it were a little shorter, I recommend The Art of Fielding.

Favorite passages:
It was easy enough to write a sentence, but if you were going to create a work of art, the way Melville had, each sentence needed to fit perfectly with the one that preceded it, and the unwritten one that would follow. And each of those sentences needed to square with the ones on either side, so that three became five and five became seven, seven became nine, and whichever sentence he was writing became the slender fulcrum on which the whole precarious edifice depended.

For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we're alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.

Literature could turn you into an asshole; he'd learned that teaching grad-school seminars. It could teach you to treat real people the way you did characters, as instruments of your own intellectual pleasure, cadavers on which to practice your critical faculties.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Beautiful and Damned, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

. I don't think I've ever read such a devastating depiction of a social class to which the author belonged as The Beautiful and Damned. Fitzgerald's book features two characters similar to himself and his wife Zelda. Anthony Patch is a Harvard man who fancies himself a writer (though he seldom does much writing). Living in New York just prior to World War I, he meets the lovely Gloria from Kansas City, a woman apparently interested in little other than her own beauty. They marry and proceed to live a life of leisure, partying, arguing, and drinking while they wait for Anthony's grandfather to die and leave them his millions. When he dies, however, they learn they have been disinherited. As they wait for their lawsuit challenging the will to be resolved, Anthony and Gloria descend into alcoholism and near-poverty.

Anthony and Gloria are utterly worthless people, and their friends, while more successful, are hardly less despicable.  The leisured upper classes at the dawn of the Jazz Age are generally portrayed as glamorous and carefree, but Fitzgerald--who should certainly know--depicts them much differently. The result is a depressing novel only partially redeemed by Fitzgerald's talent.

Favorite passage:
I learned a little of beauty-- enough to know that it had nothing to do with truth. . .

. . . desire just cheats you. It's like a sunbeam skipping here and there about a room. It stops and gilds some inconsequential object, and we poor fools try to grasp it - but when we do the sunbeam moves on to something else, and you've got the inconsequential part, but the glitter that made you want it is gone.

Experience is not worth the getting. It's not a thing that happens pleasantly to a passive you--it's a wall that an active you runs up against.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dear Life, by Alice Munro

Even before she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Alice Munro was generally regarded as a master of the short story form. I have enjoyed several collections from earlier in her career. In fact, I enjoyed Dear Life while listening to it--but a couple of weeks have passed since I finished it, and I don't remember a lot about the 20 stories and four somewhat autobiographical pieces, other than their general sense of psychological and geographic isolation.

Two stories did stay with me. In "Amundsen," young Vivien travels to a rural area to teach children confined to a TB sanitarium. She is good at her job, engaging students in learning in a way not always sanctioned by the authorities. Then she becomes involved with Doctor Fox, a man with little charm but the ability to elevate her social standing. They become engaged but suffice it to say that things do not turn out well.

"Train" opens with Jackson, a veteran, returning from World War II. A short distance from his hometown, he jumps off the train and walks in the opposite direction. He comes upon a dilapidated farm run by a woman named Belle. He settles down there, living with Belle as brother and sister. Years later, when Belle becomes ill, he takes her to the city for treatment; in the process, she reveals secrets from her past that prompt Jackson to once again set off to reconstruct his life. Does the cycle repeat again? I leave that for you to find out.

As these brief synopses of two of the ten stories indicate, the stories have a melancholy tinge. Another common thread (to me at least) is how difficult it is to fathom the motivations of the characters--perhaps rereading would help resolve that difficulty, but I don't feel drawn enough to the stories to make the effort. Critics have noted that these later stories are not as long or as detailed and richly textured as Munro's earlier work, being more impressionistic. I think this may be a factor in my response.

Favorite passage:
Then there was silence, the air like ice. Brittle-looking birch trees with black marks on their white bark, and some kind of small untidy evergreens rolled up like sleepy bears. The frozen lake not level but mounded along the shore, as if the waves had turned to ice in the act of falling.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Us, by David Nicholls

Douglas Petersen, the protagonist of Us, is a scientist who is a bit of a know-it-all and prig, with a tin ear for relationships. He has been married for more than 20 years to Connie, a former artist;  as the book opens, Connie has announced that she wants to end their marriage now that "their work"--raising son Albie--is "done." Douglas is stunned by her announcement and by the fact that she thinks they should go forward with their plan to take their son on a continental tour before he heads off to college.

As one might expect, the trip does not go well. Albie and Connie's extremely close relationship often excludes Douglas, who only makes matters worse with his anal devotion to scheduling and willingness to be embarrassed by his son's behavior. As they travel, Douglas is also mentally reliving his and Connie's meeting, courtship, and early years of marriage, including their first child's death in her first few hours of life. When Albie runs off and Connie decides to return home to the London suburbs, Douglas resolves to find Albie, bring him home, and win Connie back.

While this process does seem to provide Douglas with some new self-awareness, his behavior remains irritatingly unchanged. In fact, I found little to empathize with in any of the three main characters and, while some of Douglas's adventures were amusing, generally didn't care greatly for the book.

Favorite passage:
The percentage varies but some of the things I say make no sense to me at all.

Anyone who has attempted to clean away large quantities of spilt glitter will know it is a pernicious and vile substance, a kind of festive asbestos . . .

100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write, by Sara Ruhl

The title of this book and its subtitle, On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parade and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater (as well as a brief write-up I'd seen about the book), led me to believe this was going to be a humorous collection of short essays on lighthearted domestic topics. While the essays are short, humor is present, and one section does address some domestic topics, overall the book is a rather serious examination of writing, the theater, acting, and art. An example: One essay is titled "Don't send your characters to reform school," which sounds rather light--but the first sentence is "Sometimes I think that American dramaturgy is based not on Aristotle's Poetics but instead on The Pilgrim's Progress . . . that is to say, what has your character learned, how has she changed, what is her journey?" The essay is only four paragraphs but it examines a serious question about the relationship of the morality play to realism.

Among the other questions Ruhl (a playwright and MacArthur "genius" award winner--she's a smart one, no doubt!) explores in her brief essays are the importance of small powerful words, how the current obsession with subtext has robbed writers of the drama of the sentence, color-blind casting, whether play-writing is teachable (one of the longest essays in the book), and non-adverbial acting (an intriguing concept). She does write about her family but even these pieces are meant not merely to entertain but to elucidate. Even when she ruminates for only a paragraph, about, for example, her son's remarking that ballet is beautiful but he doesn't like it, the reader is challenged to think more deeply.

Although I got this book from the library, it's the kind of book that I can imagine picking up and rereading essays at random just to challenge myself to think about something not often on my mind. Definitely worth reading.

P.S. Due to a couple of busy weeks, I have gotten behind on my posting, so I'll likely be throwing up several posts tonight and tomorrow.

Favorite passages:
Small, forthright words, used in the service of condensing experience, might have an idea buried in them as large as the most expansive work that wears its intellectualism on its sleeve. The unshed tears of the deeply felt are akin to the unused large words in the service of a thought.

. . . a writer's special purview and intimate power is how a world follows a word.

Being dead is the most airtight defense of one's own aesthetic.  [Yes, she is both smart and funny.]

It [playwriting] is as teachable as any other art form, in which we are dependent on a shared history and on our teachers for a sense of form, inspiration, and example; but we are dependent on ourselves alone for our subject matter, our private discipline, our wild fancies, our dreams. The question of whether playwriting is teachable begets other questions, like: is devotion teachable? Is listening teachable? Is a love of art and a willingness to give your life over to art teachable? I believe that these things are teachable mostly by example, and in great silences.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What is Novel Conversations reading?

Here are the books Novel Conversations will be reading in the next several months:

January: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson
February: The Whistling Season, by Ivan Doig
March: The Silver Star, by Jeannette Walls
April: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

May: Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty