Friday, May 28, 2010

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

You do not have to get very far into Alice Munro's latest collection of short stories to realize that there is no surfeit of happiness in the lives of her characters. Many have survived traumas or heartbreaks and are suffering from understandable depressions. In the collection's first story (and one of its most powerful), "Dimensions," Doree is working as a hotel maid, seeing a therapist and occasionally visiting her husband in the mental hospital where he has been confined since killing their three children. Doree is numb, but responding to another calamity witnessed on the bus traveling to the hospital re-awakens her.

"Deep-Holes" opens with a family on a picnic in a clearly dangerous land formation (the family was celebrating the geologist father's publication of an article about the very formation); when the two young boys run off to pee, the reader is certain one or both will fall in a crevasse. What you don't expect is that, while the child survives, that fall is only a foreshadowing of his complete falling away from the family as an adult.

The characters in these stories experience, observe, or cause pain, psychological and physical. In "Free Radicals," Nita is mourning the unexpected death of her husband and awaiting her own predicted death from cancer when a triple murderer talks his way into her house. The protagonist of "Face" was hated by his father because of the large port wine birthmark on his face, a birthmark that prompts a childhood friend to scar herself. "Child's Play" is the story of best camp friends Charlene and Marlene, who carry the guilt of one terrible action throughout their lives. Throughout the stories, we see characters struggling to deal with life's sadness and pain, a struggle they are often ill-equipped to handle (as are we all).

The title story is significantly different from the other stories in the collection, as it involves a real historical person (mathematician and novelist Sophia Kovalevsky) and is set in Europe in the 19th century rather than contemporary Canada. While it shares some themes with the other nine stories, it did not seem to fit the collection and I did not find it as compelling.

While short stories are not my favorite, Munro is a master, and the first nine stories draw you into their damaged worlds. Interestingly, the narrator of "Fiction" writes of a book, "How Are We to Live" is a collection of short stories. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book's authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on the gates of literature, rather than safely settled inside." While Munro might have heard such remarks in the early years of her career, after the success she has enjoyed--in terms of awards, rave reviews, and readership--I can only hope she is including this statement ironically and that she doesn't feel like she is just hanging on!

Favorite passages:

You think that would have changed things? The answer is of course, and for a while, and never.

"Always remember that when a man goes out of the room, he leaves everything in it behind," her friend Maria Mendelson has told her. "When a woman goes out she carries everything that happened in the room along with her."

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, by Rebecca Miller

Pippa Lee is the 50-something third wife of 80-year-old publishing powerhouse Herb Lee. Herb has decided to sell their apartment in Manhattan and their Sag Harbor house and move to a retirement community, where Pippa is a youngster compared to her neighbors. On the surface, Pippa seems to be a serene woman dedicated to taking care of her family, but problems become apparent when she starts walking, eating, smoking, and driving in her sleep.

After 63 pages of third-person narrative that is, frankly, a bit dull, Miller changes gears, allowing Pippa to narrate her own back story, her private lives--her childhood with a smothering and speed-addicted mother; her seduction of a teacher at the local private school; her escape to New York, where she lived with her aunt, whose lesbian lover drew Pippa into the world of S&M clubs; and drug-addled years with three male artists and another woman, with the two women rotating as "girlfriends" of the three men. When she meets Herb, he pulls her out of that morass, though his life has its own complications that end up scarring Pippa. Still, she feels that marrying Herb is her "last chance at goodness," and she throws herself into acting the part of the good wife. Eventually. she and Herb have twins--Ben and Grace, who elicit perhaps Pippa's first true feelings. But her relationship with Grace is troubled, continuing a pattern of mother-daughter challenges that is generations old.

In the final section of the book, Miller returns to the present and the third-person. Without giving away any surprises, much happens, much of it not stretching credulity. I'm not sure whether Miller is suggesting at the end that Pippa is on her way to becoming an authentic person for the first time, but I do not believe it. Although she's been through new traumas and shrugged off some old guilt, she is still hollow and her strategy for finding something to fill herself up echoes too closely the teenage flight to New York to convince me of any growth.

The writing in the book is competent, although occasionally too contrived. Pippa's story also feels contrived--she does not read as a real person, and by the end of the book I really didn't care what happened to her. The portions of the book I found most interesting had to do with parent-child relationships; had Miller done more with those relationships, I might have found the book more rewarding. But as it is...not recommended.

Favorite passage:
It was so lonely, knowing things about her children that they no longer remembered. Layers of experience eroded from their minds but petrified in her own.

Of interest:
Miller is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller and is married to actor Daniel Day-Lewis. (I didn't know either of these things until I had finished the book.)

Friday, May 21, 2010

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, by Kazuo Ishiguro

To me, the title of this book suggests romance and melancholy, and Ishiguro delivers, particularly on the melancholy. For example, in the book's opening story, "Crooner," the narrator Jan, who plays guitar in a restaurant band in Venice, looks up to see legendary singer Tony Gardner at a table in the piazza. Gardner was Jan's mother's favorite singer, and when the band takes a break, he approaches Gardner. The two talk, and Gardner engages him to help serenade his wife, Lindy, that evening. After they perform, Jan hears Lindy sobbing in the palazzo above and Tony tells him the surprising reason for her tears.

But the stories also deliver humor. In "Come Rain or Come Shine," for example, a man visiting college friends reflexively crumples the page of a diary when he reads insulting descriptions of himself. In a vain attempt to pretend that a dog caused the damage, he is on all fours shaking magazines from his teeth when the diary's owner returns. In "Nocturne," the collection's longest piece, a jazz saxophonist whose wife has left him is recovering from plastic surgery in a luxury hotel; his manager and his soon-to-be-ex-wife have convinced him his looks are holding him back. In the room next door is Lindy Gardner. Both are wrapped in bandages, and Lindy takes advantage of the anonymity to roam the hotel at night, occasionally indulging in thievery. Suffice it to say that the two engage in some skulduggery involving stuffing a statuette in a turkey.

Scenes and motifs, like the character of Lindy Gardner, reappear in the stories. The final story takes place in the same Venetian piazza as the first. Several characters stand or sit at windows. And, of course, music plays a role in each story. For the hapless narrator of "Come Rain or Come Shine," American standards--and the memory of a shared passion for them--provide sustenance. For the puffed-up singer-songwriter who narrates "Malvern Hills," his talent sets him apart from the everyday labors of his sister and her husband, as well as the unappreciative bands for whom he auditioned unsuccessfully in London. In "Cellists," the mere idea of being a cello virtuoso has given an American woman her identity.

As I seem to say fairly often in these reviews, if a reader has not read some of Ishiguro's other works, I would recommend starting with one of his novels (e.g., The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go). Nonetheless, I enjoyed Nocturnes; I particularly appreciated use of music as a unifying motif.

Favorite passage:
There aren't many like us, Tibor, and we recognize each other. The fact that I've not yet learned to play the cello doesn't really change anything. You have to understand, I am a virtuoso. But I'm one who's yet to be unwrapped.

. . . I was getting vaguely paranoid about running into any more of my former university friends. Wandering around Camden Town, or going through CDs I couldn't afford in West End megastores, I'd already had too many of them come up to me, asking how I was getting on since leaving the course to "seek fame and fortune." It's not that I was embarrassed to tell them what I'd been up to. It was just that--with a very few exceptions--none of them was capable of grasping what was or wasn't, for me at this particular point, a "successful" few months.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Friend of the Family, by Lauren Grodstein

This novel's first sentence makes clear that narrator Pete Dizinoff is in trouble: "These days, when people ask how I'm doing--some of them still ask, you'd be surprised--I shrug and say, as manfully as I can, 'Much better than you'd think.'" He's living above the garage, and his son Alec is not speaking to him. Once part of a thriving medical practice in an upscale Jersey suburb, Dr. Pete, as he enjoys being called, has been forced into a much more modest office above a restaurant in Bergen. He is awaiting the outcome of a malpractice suit, but the primary causes of his difficulty revolve around his son.

Alec is 20 and has dropped out of college, working instead on his art. When the eldest daughter of Pete and wife Elaine's best friends Joe and Iris (not incidentally, Pete has had a thing for Iris since college, before he introduced her to Joe) returns home and Alec shows immediate interest, Pete is appalled. Laura is 30 and has been hopping from place to place since she was released from the mental hospital where she was confined after she, as a 17-year-old, bashed in her infant's skull and threw her in a Dumpster. To Pete, she is a threat to the dreams he has for Alec--"a slut with a criminal record." He wants Alec to return to school, find a career he enjoys, get married, and provide Pete and Elaine with grandchildren.

The narrative jumps around in time, filling us in on Pete's life from childhood to the present in bits and pieces. Grodstein skewers both immigrant and suburban aspirations, while exploring the lengths to which a parent will go to protect a child--or to guard his own reputation from the embarrassment of having a child who is a failure or involved in a relationship that would raise eyebrows. Because Pete is not the nice guy with a strong sense of wrong and right that he would have us believe. He loves his wife, he says, but we know his feelings for Iris were (and are) always stronger and he also feels a strange attraction to Laura. He enjoys making the difficult diagnosis, he tells us, but he misses what is wrong with a young patient, even after Joe quickly matches her symptoms with Addison's disease. He describes his son as a level-headed young man and says he was shocked when Alec dropped out of school, but Pete himself filled out his son's college application and refused to get him therapy when his mother had cancer. Is it any wonder that Pete's attempts to control his son are destined for failure?

To Pete, the tragedy of his story is that Alec might go to Paris with Laura and never fulfill his father's dreams; to me, the tragedy is the extent of self-delusion that Pete practices, even after experience might have prompted an only-moderately reflective person to have an a-ha moment (see first quote below).

A Friend of the Family would be an excellent book group choice.

Favorite passage:
Other fathers, I know, they get over their sons--they experience some profound moment of disappointment, catch the kid whacking off in a bathroom, realize he's a shit to his mother, or just slowly lose the romance they once had with him; let it curdle the way all romances can. But that had never happened to me.

Suburbs, man. I don't care what anybody says. It's the only civilized way to live.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

As a child, I thought being a twin would be great--having another person who understood you because, in essence, they were you seemed like an incredible gift. After reading Her Fearful Symmetry, I have changed my mind. Niffenegger paints a picture of obsessively intertwined relationships between twins of two generations that is only made slightly more frightening by the ghostly elements she adds to the story.

As the book opens, Elspeth is dying in London with her younger lover Robert by her side. The two live in a block of flats next to historic Highgate Cemetery; Robert is working on a 1000+ page history of the cemetery (his thesis). Upstairs from Robert and Elspeth live Martin and Marijke; Martin suffers from OCD and Marijke is about to flee from the unbearable life he has created. Meanwhile, in Lake Forest, Illinois, Elspeth's estranged twin Edie is receiving letters from her sister that she is hiding from her husband Jack, who was once engaged to Elspeth. In the letters, Elspeth reveals that she is leaving her flat and belongings to Edie's twin daughters Valentina and Julia.

Valentina and Julia, when we first meet them in Lake Forest and later in London (Elspeth's will requires that they live in her flat for a year) seem to be rather fey and tremendously overinvolved with one another. They dress alike, sleep together, and are essentially layabouts because they want to be together all the time. Julia seems the stronger of the two--both in terms of personality and physical health, but as the story develops, it becomes clear that Julia is more dependent on their twinness. Her obsessiveness about doing everything with her sister may be the factor that leads to her friendship with Martin, to whom she decides to sneak medicine under the guise of vitamins. Meanwhile, Valentina, who has begun a relationship with Robert, is desperate to break free of her sister and "grow up." A bizarre escape plan is hatched between Valentina, Robert, and Elspeth's ghost. (Yes, it's a rather large plot point I haven't mentioned; Elspeth reemerges as a spirit confined to her flat very shortly after her death.)

I won't say more about the plot, in hopes that some readers will find it surprising. Unfortunately, I found most of the twists Niffenegger provides predictable, if not in every detail, at least in a general way. Despite this, Her Fearful Symmetry held my attention with its bleak and disturbing view of humanity and human relations (and echoes of Our Town). Still, I prefer the more positive view that runs through even the saddest parts of The Time Traveler's Wife, which also featured a more interesting structure and supernatural element. If you haven't read The Time Traveler's Wife, by all means make time for it before you move to Her Fearful Symmetry.

Favorite passage:
What's wrong with me? I feel positively fuckwitted. I think death has knocked fifty points off my IQ. I used to be able to reason. Now I just waft around making random experiments regarding the nature of existence. And wallowing in self-pity.

(As you can probably deduce, these are the thoughts of Elspeth in and on her ghostly state, but I think they describe aging pretty well, too.)

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Nothing Was the Same: A Memoir, by Kay Redfield Jamison

In An Unquiet Mind, Kay Redfield Jamison wrote about her struggles with bipolar disorder. As a psychologist, Jamison brought an unusual combination of personal experience and academic and clinical knowledge to that memoir, and the result was a compelling and enlightening work. In this second memoir, she takes on the experience of grieving her husband's death; while the book is sometimes moving, it falls short of the standard set in her earlier work.

The first quarter of the book, titled "Assured by Love," is a discussion of life with her husband Richard. Suffice it to say she loved him greatly and his support helped maintain her mental health. Perhaps no one can describe their love in a way that carries much impact for someone else, but I found this section of the book unnecessary. The letters she has reprinted on the book's flyleaves tell us more than the 50 pages of narrative.

The second section chronicles Richard's multiple illnesses and death. Richard and Kay were sustained by the love of friends and the caring work of fine physicians. While the story is very sad, I'm not sure what it tells us about life and death that hasn't been said many times before.

The last and strongest section is about Kay's grieving and gradual healing. Here, she compares depression and grief in a way that is interesting, insightful, and likely would be helpful to someone who suffers from depression and wonders how he/she will be able to handle grief. In describing the grieving process, the specific details are the most telling (the failure of music to console, the impact of the letter from the Medical Board of California saying they had heard Richard Wyatt might be deceased, the solace provided by poetry).

While I do not discount the magnitude of her emotional experience, I wonder if Jamison might have distilled the best of the last section of the book into a very fine article. The book itself, while it tells a moving story, doesn't have the power of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (or even Joyce Carol Oates's essay in the recent Atlantic supplement--she will have a book out on her widowhood in February 2011). And perhaps if she had refined the book into an essay, we would not have had to read at least a dozen times that she was writing a book about exuberance (I know, I'm being really mean, but it got annoying!).

Favorite passages:

It has been said that grief is a kind of madness. I disagree. There is a sanity to grief, to its just proportion of emotion to cause, that madness does not have. Grief, given to all, is a generative and human thing. . . . Grief, as it transpires, has its own territory.

We put our faith in things great and small. We assign to them meaning they may actually have, or meaning that we need for them to have in order to carry on. I go to Richard's grave with flowers in my arms that I will to last, with orange tulips in one hand and a hammer to break the ice in another . . . I find pleasure that there is beauty near Richard, even though it does not last. It is a small thing, but it matters. I do not want him to be forgotten, or to be alone.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornby

In Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby has returned to the world of obsessive music fans. As the book opens, Duncan and Annie are in Minneapolis taking pictures of a bar restroom where fans of the 1980s folk-rocker Tucker Crowe believe he had a transformative experience that caused him to drop out of the music scene and become a recluse. Duncan is one of a small group of self-styled Crowologists who tour significant sites in Crowe's life and post endless analysis about Crowe and his music on a website devoted to the musician. Annie is clearly less enamored with all things Crowe, but in 15 years with Duncan has learned to go along.

When Duncan and Annie return to their tired seaside town in England, things are about to change. Duncan receives an advance copy of a new version of Crowe's greatest album (Juliet) consisting of acoustic demos of the songs (Juliet, Naked). Heady with the power of being first to review the album, he posts a rave on the site. Annie, meanwhile, thinks the album is worthless and decides to post her own more critical review. That act puts a major crack in Annie and Duncan's relationship and draws the attention of Tucker Crowe himself. Since he stopped making music, Crowe has essentially been doing nothing except marrying, having children, and moving on; as he enters the story, his latest marriage has just broken up, but he is deeply involved in raising his youngest child Jackson, an endearingly neurotic six-year-old.

Much more happens as the narrative leads toward a meeting between Duncan and Tucker, but those events are best discovered as you read the book rather than as you read my review. Suffice it to say that Hornby injects humor in a wide array of situations and characters while also prompting some reflection on the meaning of authenticity in life and in art. After reading a few book lately in which the authors seemed to be trying very hard to be funny, I appreciated this book because Hornby finds the humor in life rather than simply adding quirks to try to provoke a laugh (although there are plenty of quirks--but somehow they feel more authentic than in other writers' work).

I thoroughly enjoyed Juliet, Naked.

Favorite passages:

And he [Tucker Crowe] was beginning to learn that some of his children always reintroduced themselves to him at some big watershed moment, either in their own lives or in the lives of their mothers, and that tended to weigh the visits down somewhat. He was trying to cut down on introspection, so he really didn't need to import it.

We're here for such a short amount of time. Why do we spend any of it building sand castles? She [Annie] would waste the next two hours, because she had to, and then she would never waste another second of however much time she had left to her. Unless somehow she ended up living with Duncan again, or doing this job for the rest of her working life, or watching EastEnders on a wet Sunday, or reading anything that wasn't King Lear, or painting her toenails, or taking more than a minute to choose something from a restaurant menu, or . . . It was hopeless, life, really. It was set up all wrong.

That was why she [Annie] wanted children too. The cliche had it that kids were the future, but that wasn't it: they were the unreflective, active present. They were not themselves nostalgic, because they couldn't be, and they retarded nostalgia in their parents.

Tucker liked to think that he was reasonably honest with himself; it was only other people he lied to.