Sunday, September 27, 2009

Dear Husband, by Joyce Carol Oates

Short stories are not my favorite literary form; too often, I find myself asking "What?" when I finish a story. But I decided to give Joyce Carol Oates' new collection a try.

Dear Husband, (there's actually a comma in the title) begins with a story ("Panic"), in which a woman acts to protect her child in a moment of perceived danger; her husband feels abandoned, insignificant in the face of her mother-love. While the story is a sad reflection on human nature, it is cheerful compared to the tales that follow. Families are wracked with pain, and lives unravel (with the protagonist quite often providing the initial tug that begins the unraveling). Abigail returns to her family home to help her sister Helen move their father into assisted living and ends up nearly killing him. Aimee, scarred in an accident caused by her older, mentally challenged sister Sallie Grace (but blamed for provoking the shove that sent her into the stove, upsetting the boiling pot of spaghetti), leaves the scissors where she knows her sister can find and use them against another family member. A poet suffers a breakdown while her lover meditates at a Zen retreat; as he decides to call her for the first time in six weeks, she kills herself and their child.

Three of the stories are epistolary. One consists of a series of letters from a prisoner to the author, beginning with admiring notes requesting an autograph and devolving into paranoid threats. Another is a letter from an Andrea Yates-type character to her husband, explaining why she has just killed their children.

Upbeat this collection is not; as I progressed through the book, I felt a growing sense of dread. Yet Oates writes beautifully and I found myself drawn into the fully imagined situations she creates. Certainly, the vision of human nature and family relationships she conveys in these stories would provide ample fodder for a book group discussion.

Favorite passage (for law-related educators everywhere):
Voy deer is a procedure like running a clumsy and unwieldy substance--rags, young tree limbs--through a grinder. So slow! So exasperating!

Favorite story title:
"Suicide by Fitness Center"

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Best American Essays of the Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates

This tome (well over 500 pages) materialized on my bookshelf after a visit from my younger son, who, having lived in small spaces for 10 years, often sheds belongings when he leaves. I've been slogging my way through it for a year (or is it two?).

The hardest-working-woman in the lit biz, Joyce Carol Oates, along with co-editor Robert Atwan, took on the ridiculous task of choosing the "best" essays from what must have been a nearly insurmountable supply of fine 20th-century essays. They chose 55, written by well-known novelists (e.g., Saul Bellow, John Updike, Alice Walker, Vladimir Nabokov, Eudora Welty, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain), poets (e.g., T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, Donald Hall, Adrienne Rich, Robert Frost), scientists/naturalists (e.g., Stephen Jay Gould. Rachel Carson, John Muir), and thinkers/essayists/provocateurs/humorists (e.g., Richard Rodriguez, Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan Sontag, W.E.B. DuBois, Henry Adams, James Thurber).

These writers' topics are highly varied. John Muir described a treacherous journey across an Alaskan glacier with a little dog named Stickeen. Jane Addams examined the attitudes of poor men and women through their reactions to an "urban legend" about a devil baby at Hull House. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of his own breakdown, while E.B. White recounted his return as an adult to the lake where his family rented a camp many years before. Annie Dillard described experiencing a total solar eclipse, while Gerald Early recalled watching an African-American woman win the Miss America Pageant.

Among my favorites:
  • Richard Wright on "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow"
  • Mary McCarthy's story of an encounter with an anti-Semitic Army man, home from World War II ("Artists in Uniform")
  • James Baldwin's reflections on his father's death (and his own life), in "Notes of a Native Son"
  • Tom Wolfe's "Putting Daddy On," in which he details an expeditin to the Lower East Side to help a friend "retrieve his son from the hemp-smoking flipniks."
  • Richard Rodriguez on the role of language in defining self, connecting with family, and being in the world ("Area: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood")
  • Gretel Ehrlich on "The Solace of Open Spaces"
Some of the essays are challenging. Gertrude Stein's "What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them" makes virtually no sense to me. And I can't help wondering why Susan Sontag thought it was worth her time to develop 58 numbered notes on the "camp" aesthetic.

Notable to me as an educator is how few of these essays resemble the form that we teach young people as the "essay." While we teach students to use a logical sequential form (thesis statement, supporting evidence, conclusion) with few, if any, personal references, a majority of these essays are personal narratives or reflections. While the essay form taught in schools may still have functions, it appears unlikely to get our young authors in any "best of" essay collections.

Favorite passages:
There are many wonderful passages in these essays. Here are just a couple:

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live." Joan Didion, "The White Album" (it's such a great sentence, she used it as the title for a collection of all her essays)

"Space has a spiritual equivalent and can heal what is divided and burdensome in us. . . .We Americans are great on fillers, as if what we have, what we are, is not enough. We have a cultural tendency toward denial, but, being affluent, we strangle ourselves with what we can buy. We have only to look at the houses we build to see how we build against space, the way we drink against pain and lonelienss. We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there." Gretel Ehrlich, "The Solace of Open Spaces"

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Key Lime Pie Murder, by Joanne Fluke

Key Lime Pie Murder falls into the odd subgenre of culinary mysteries. No, they don't have to do with what spices are used in a stew or what the unidentifiable meat is. They are mysteries in which a main character is a chef, food critic, caterer, innkeeper, or, as in the case of Joanne Fluke's series, a baker. Not only does the character solve the murder, she also provides recipes!

The heroine of Key Lime Pie Murder is the unbelievably sweet Hannah Swenson, co-owner of a small town cookie shop in Minnesota. Hannah has two boyfriends, two sisters, an obnoxious mother, and a penchant for finding dead bodies. When she finds the body of student teacher Willa Sunquist, she immediately sets out to investigate the case. It's hard to take this investigation seriously, given that her boyfriend, one sister's husband, and the other sister's boyfriend are all cops. Wouldn't someone stop Hannah before she nearly gets killed on the Tilt-a-Whirl at the Tri-County Fair? I think that's all you need to know about this book.

Favorite passage: None, but I might try the popovers recipe!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan

Nancy Horan's first novel tells the story of the love affair between renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney, one of Wright's client (with her husband) in Oak Park, IL. Their relationship was a headline-causing scandal when, in 1909, they left their families (both were married and had children) and moved to Europe.

The story is told from Mamah's perspective, and she was an interesting woman indeed. She had an advanced degree and had had a career before marrying her husband, whom it seems clear she had "settled" for. In Europe, she met and became the translator for Swedish philosopher and feminist Ellen Key. Mamah felt that Key's ideas about marriage and love justified the actions she and Wright had taken; yet she was upset by Key's assertion that the needs of children should be put ahead of those of their mothers. She believed that her relationship with Wright was the intellectual partnership she needed to survive.

After many trials (at one point, Wright returned to his family in Illinois, leaving Mamah nearly penniless in Europe), Mamah and Wright finally began living together at Taliesin, the magnificent home in Wisconsin that Wright designed for the two of them. At Taliesin, however, she began to be more aware of some of Wright's shortcomings--perhaps most notably the fact that, while he touted his vision of democratic architecture, he was personally an elitist whose success was often built on the backs of those who worked for him (and were not paid).

I always struggle with books that take real historical figures as characters. While the outline of the story is true, the authors sometimes take liberty with what we consider facts. And the private scenes, the individual thoughts and feelings are obviously fictionalized. Yet for me, it all starts to feel equally real. An example of how the author confounds this problem is Horan's use of excerpts from actual letters written by Mamah--along with documents that look like primary sources (diary excerpts) but are not. Does it matter that I start to believe it all? At the one reader/one book level, probably not. But if, as a culture, we cannot distinguish between fiction and history, maybe so.

This book is the October selection for our Novel Conversations book group, and I think it's a great book group selection. There's so much to talk about--how to read historical fiction, the characters of Frank and Mamah, the feminist ideas about marriage that Mamah felt justified her actions, the notion of democratic architecture, and on and on.

Favorite passage:
How often had she heard him say I'd rather be honestly arrogant than hypocritically humble? It took a superior attitude not to succumb to the rewards of joining the establishment.

Unfortunately, the attitude had become his persona; he believed it himself now. He had come to mistake his gift for the whole of his character.

Of interest:

You can see photos of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Oak Park, IL (including the Cheney house) at

T.C. Boyle, who lives in a FLW house in California, published a book (The Women) about Wright and his extramarital activities shortly after Loving Frank was published. According to Colleen, a member of Novel Conversations, Boyle's book gives an even picture of FLW than the Horan book.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Hello Goodbye, by Emily Chenoweth

Helen Hansen, a nice woman who works with juvenile delinquents, is dying of brain cancer. He husband Elliott decides to have a party at a resort in New Hampshire to celebrate their twentieth anniversary (and let their friends say tacit good-byes). Their daughter Abby, soon to be a college sophomore, makes the trip with them and has a dalliance with a waiter at the resort before hooking up with one of Helen's former delinquents.

It's a set-up for a moving story...or at least a tearjerker, but I found myself unaffected (maybe even bored) with the Hansen family and their friends. Maybe someone else who has read the book can explain why I should feel more.

Favorite passage:
He [Elliott] was very proud of her [Abby, his daughter], and that was easier than liking her sometimes. Obviously he loved her; that was a given. But liking ebbed and flowed--she could be impossible--and even his love had conditions. Helen would have thought Abby perfect no matter what she did, but Elliott felt he loved Abby more when she was achieving something. He thought this was a parent's duty. Because what else was the point of life? . . . Also, when Abby was achieving something, she was less of the disconcerting female that adolescene had made her--self-conscious, defensive, moody--and more something he could understand.

Yikes--that captures a certain kind of parent who scares me.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

Arnold "Junior" Spirit has a voice you will not soon forget. He's a bright, brave, and very funny freshman in high school who writes--and draws (the art was done by Ellen Forney)--about the highs and lows of his life on the Spokane Indian Reservation, the problems caused by being "born with water on the brain," and what it is like to be the only Indian student at a small-town high school near the reservation.

There are a lot of lows in the year chronicled in the book--several people close to Arnold die, he loses his best friend, he gets beaten up...repeatedly. But good things happen too--he makes several new friends including another boy who loves to learn and a cute girl who goes to the prom with him and he becomes a star on the high school basketball team. He also comes to accept that he will live his life in a way different from his family members who have stayed in poverty on the reservation.

Author Sherman Alexie is equally scathing in describing racism in the white community Arnold enters to get a better education and the problems of the reservation, especially alcoholism. He also takes on the shortcomings of parents both Anglo and Native American.

Despite being written for a young adult audience, the book offers plenty for an adult reader to think about and enjoy. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian makes me look forward to the time when I can talk about books like this with my granddaughter Meleah.

Favorite passage:
When I was a baby, I'd crawl under my bed and snuggle into a corner to sleep. I just felt warm and safe leaning into two walls at the same time.
When I was eight, nine, and ten, I slept in my bedroom closet with the door closed. I only stopped doing that because my big sister, Mary, told me that I was just trying to find my way back into my mother's womb.
That ruined the whole closet thing.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Finding Beauty in a Broken World, by Terry Tempest Williams

I am fairly certain that Terry Tempest Williams and I are members of the same species. But her mind works so differently from mine that, when I read her work, I feel like I must be part of an inferior subspecies. Williams can focus on one topic in great detail; a large portion of this book is devoted to prairie dogs and the ecosystem they anchor. But she also makes connections that I would never see--the prairie dogs, a course she takes in the art of mosaic, her family's business, her brother's death, and her participation in a project to rebuild Rwanda after the genocide (this section of the book makes clear that she not only thinks differently, she acts differently--all in all, she's a better person than I). She finds patterns in seemingly disparate subjects and events and encourages us to think differently about those patterns.

Her recognition of patterns may explain her gift for metaphor. In this book, the central metaphor is the mosaic, which "celebrates brokenness and the beauty of being brought together." Finding Beauty in a Broken World, she says "becomes more than the art of assemblage. It is the work of daring contemplation that inspires action." The image of the mosaic helps tie together the apparently unrelated topics she deals with in the book.

As the quotes in the previous paragraph suggest, Williams uses language beautifully. With some of the books I have reviewed so far in this blog, I have had to search for a favorite passage. This book has numerous hot pink Post-its adorning its pages, marking particularly effective and affecting passages. While the prose is often lyrical (at times, I was moved by the beauty of the words without fully understanding what Williams was trying to convey), the book is also informative, at times to the ponit of information-overload. While I recognize (or at least suspect) that the piling on of details is a piece of carrying the metaphor of the mosaic into the creation of the book, her detailed descriptions are not always a joy to read. I did find myself skimming over some of her notes on the prairie dog colony and her examination of prairie dog mummies. The section on Rwanda might have benefited from some tightening, too (the editor in me pretty much always wants to cut!).

These criticisms notwithstanding, I recommend the book. For a book group that has difficulty focusing on writing (rather than plot or characterization), this might be a good challenge, since style and content are in some ways one. Certainly there is much to talk about and admire in Williams' work.

Favorite passage:
The evidence of life is preserved through stories. Find the storis. Tell the stories. Theorder of animals is the organization of narratives. Natural histories create a patterned landscape and a mosaic of nuanced minds.

Isn't that lovely (even though I'm not sure what the last sentence means)?

Other favorite passage:
The masterminds of all genocides count on our complicity. They plan, calculate, and execute their intent, trusting in our refusal to acknowledge what they are doing. And in the case of America, instead of inervention, our government debated for months whether the mass killings in Rwanda fulfilled the definition of genocide. The manipulation of extinction is done most efficently through bureaucracies.

And still one more favorite passage (I could go on and on):
But every day, I watch women walking the steep, winding roads of Rwanda carrying their burdens on their heads so they can continue to feed their children. Even under the most severe circumstances, we adjust and find our way. it is more than survival; it is how we ground our dignity and purpose in the mundane occurrences of a day.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Opposite of Love, by Julie Buxbaum

My sister-in-law Kathy recommended The Opposite of Love, the first novel by Julie Buxbaum. Buxbaum drew on her experience as an attorney with a New York litigation firm in creating her protagonist, attorney Emily Haxby. Emily uses an ironic attitude to mask her serious problems--but her close friends and Buxbaum's readers see through the mask early on.

What are her problems? Her mother died when Emily was a teenager. Her father, the lieutenant governor of Connecticut, avoids engaging with Emily and his own father (Grandpa Jack) because he's "busy running Connecticut," his excuse for never showing up when needed. Grandpa Jack is dying. Emily has broken up with her boyfriend Andrew, whom she loved, because he was about to propose. She drinks too much. And, at work, she is assigned to a morally repugnant case under the supervision of a partner who sexually harasses her (in a fairly outlandish series of scenes). When she quits her job and Andrew rebuffs her efforts to reconnect, Emily sinks into a deep depression. Her friend Jess, a good therapist, and her grandfather's friend Ruth help pull her out of the depression, find her a new job, and give her the insight and courage to move forward. (Ruth, a retired judge, is one of the book's best characters, wise, funny, and--above all--caring.)

I enjoyed the book, but still have some quibbles. Foremost among them: The book's Prologue sets up the story as one that Emily is recording for her unborn child. I rarely find this kind of device effective (although I have read--I think in Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer--that many writers use this device because it helps them find the voice in which the story should be told). In this case, it struck me as ineffective and perhaps even counterproductive--ineffective because the book really doesn't seem to me to have the tone you would use in writing to your unborn child (even if you were a thirty-something smart alec) and counterproductive because it signals that the book is going to end happily, removing the possibility that the book might, in fact, be a tragedy.

Favorite passage:
This is a place where, for just a little while, the lack of noise is soothing, expected. I walk under the canopy of trees again and out through the front drive. I pass the stone wall. I tape it lightly with my fingertips. And then I walk out of the Putnam Cemetery and leave the silent and the lost behind, once and for all.

(Okay, maybe my favorite passage is when Emily says she won't shake hands with people at work because of what might be on their hands...but it's too gross for my G-rated blog.)

Friday, September 4, 2009

Made in the U.S.A., by Billie Letts

I enjoyed Billie Letts' Oprah-fueled bestseller Where the Heart Is. Since I describe Where the Heart Is as "the book where the girl gives birth at Wal-Mart," I groaned when this book's opening scene was set in, you guessed it, Wal-Mart. It wasn't my last groan.

Made in the U.S.A. is the story of fifteen-year-old Lutie and her brother Fate, who is 11. When their guardian (their no-goodnik father's former girlfriend) Floy dies in the checkout line at Wal-Mart, they hit the road to Vegas. The road trip is told in a somewhat comical style, although there are also hints that bad things are going to befall the pair (e.g., they pick up a crazy hitchhiker who threatens them with strangulation and stabbing). When they get to Vegas, they learn their father died in jail--on the same day that Floy died, no less. The two are forced to live in their car. While Fate spends his days at the library or picking up golf balls for resale, Lutie shoplifts, gets a tattoo, works two jobs, is raped at one of them, learns to use cocaine at the other, decides to make some quick cash in the porn industry, and finally is beaten to within an inch of her life. Although the two have a "guardian angel" who leaves them food and poorly spelled notes with tips for the homeless, this angel (AKA Juan Vargas, a disabled former Cirque du Soleil aerialist) doesn't actively intervene until Lutie's attackers have nearly killed her. He then swoops in, gets Lutie sewed up, and takes the kids to his grandmother's house in Oklahoma, where the story becomes one of the value of having a tribe. This tribe just happens to be a multi-generational circus family and, oh, did I mention that Lutie was a top gymnast before she was kicked off the team back in Spearfish, South Dakota? You can see the ending coming, I'm sure.

This book is a quick read, which is a good thing, because you wouldn't want to spend much time on it.

Favorite passage: None.

Of interest:
Letts' son Tracy Letts won a Pulitzer and a Tony for his play, August: Osage County. A touring company featuring Estelle Parsons recently staged the play at the DCPA; Parsons, who is over 80, was wonderful as the wacky addicted matriarch of a totally dysfunctional family.