Saturday, September 25, 2010

Last Night in Twisted River, by John Irving

I finished reading Last Night in Twisted River while traveling and, not wanting to lug it home, I took it downstairs the next morning to see if anyone else in my group wanted it. "What's it like?" one woman asked. "Very John Irving-ish," I answered--and immediately got two replies: "No thanks, I find him irritating" and "I'll take it--I love him."

While I doubt that Michiko Kakutani probably wouldn't use a phrase like "John Irving-ish," it is descriptive. Last Night in Twisted River has New England settings, a central father-son relationship, oddball characters and plot twists that strain credulity, vaguely incestuous sex, tragic and tragicomic events, multiple bears, wrestling, etc. etc.

The central characters are cook Dominic Baciagulpo and his son Daniel, who will become a famous writer with many career experiences paralleling those of John Irving. The plot is involved (and related in nonlinear fashion) but suffice it to say that the two go on the lam after Daniel accidentally kills a woman who is having sex with his father. As years pass, and the dynamic switches from the father protecting the son to the son protecting the father, Irving explores a number of themes, perhaps most notably how people make a life in a "world of accidents" and how a writer's life experiences inform his work. The latter is especially interesting, since Daniel is irritated by the degree to which people believe his work is autobiographical--yet on the surface (and Irving, after all, provides that surface), the works do appear to be highly autobiographical. And, indeed, a central trope is that Daniel is writing this book as his ninth novel, and the first to appear under his real name.

I enjoyed reading the book and found Dominic, Daniel, and their friend, the wildman Ketchum, to be well-drawn characters. However, the women were less well-realized, and many aspects of the plot were bizarre enough to approach the surreal. I'm sure the latter is part of Irving's exploration of his themes, but for a literalist like me, it detracts from the meaning I can draw from the book. Worth reading if you like a dose of "John Irving-ishness" every so often--but if you haven't already done so, read The World According to Garp and A Widow for One Year first.

Favorite passage:

Since I gave the book away, I can't go back and find passages I liked--sorry!

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver writes political novels; in The Lacuna, she takes up the question of the relationship between politics and art and how two neighboring countries--the United States and Mexico--see the relationship differently. She addresses that issue by looking at one character with ties to both countries at a critical time in history.

The main character of The Lacuna is Harrison Shepherd, who is 12 years old as the book opens in 1929. His Mexican mother has recently left his American civil servant father to follow a Mexican oil man back to her native country. They are living in an area so isolated that no school is available for Harrison and he writes in a journal and practices holding his breath to pass the time. The latter skill comes in handy when he discovers a "lacuna" in the wall that he can swim through at high tide to a lovely jungle grotto. This lacuna becomes the first of several empty spaces or gaps that attract Harrison's attention throughout his life.

After his mother leaves the oil man (to follow another man to Mexico City), Harrison has an unfortunate school experience and is eventually shipped back to his father in Washington, DC. Though it is hard to believe anyone could be a worse parent than Harrison's mother, his father tries, immediately delivering him to a military academy. Harrison makes only one friend (who is also his first real romantic interest) at the academy, and the two boys have various adventures around Washington, including being gassed during the government quashing of the Bonus Army protests.

Soon, Harrison is back in Mexico, expelled from the academy and working first as a plaster mixer and then as a cook for leftist artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. When Lev Trotsky is looking for somewhere to hide from Stalin, the Riveras offer him safe harbor, and Harrison also works for Trotsky, first as a cook and then as a secretary. Despite the best efforts to protect Trotsky, he is first attacked and then murdered--both crimes that Harrison observes and is greatly affected by.

As World War II opens, Kahlo tells Harrison it will be safer for him to return to the United States, and she arranges for him to be in charge of transporting a collection of her paintings to New York for an exhibition. This leads to wartime work protecting American art treasures (he is ineligible for military service because of his homosexuality). He settles in Asheville, North Carolina, where he eventually becomes the best-selling author of two novels set in ancient Mexico. With his history, however, it is inevitable that he will come to the attention of HUAC. The latter part of the book is devoted to the investigation and its effects on Harrison and his devoted secretary Violet Brown. While the outcome seems inevitable, Kingsolver does a good job of detailing how these "investigations" worked.

Kingsolver tells the story through Shepherd's journals, his letters, news articles (real and fake), and archivist notes from Violet Brown, who we learn edited Harrison's journals for publication. Gay Davidson Zielski, a friend of mine who teaches college English, was just remarking on Facebook that contemporary authors seem to have abandoned "straight narration from one point of view" for "narrative tricks." While I agree with her, in this case, the "tricks" mostly work--though fewer news articles and Violet Brown insertions might have pared a few of the book's many pages without sacrificing insight.

For me, the length of the book, the inevitability of the outcome with HUAC, and the unsurprising surprise ending resulted in the last sections fizzling out. But the book's flaws do not negate Kingsolver's accomplishment in exploring the nexus between art, politics, and the artist's life.

Of interest:
A feature in the paperback edition of the book is a brief Kingsolver essay about how important titling books is to her--the title for her is "the key that allows entry into every part of the house." The fact that Harrison's editor always insists on retitling his books is a nice inside joke.

Favorite passages:
Delight appears to be his natural state. Does a man become a revolutionary out of the belief he's entitled to joy rather than submission?

We sat on the ledge looking down on the tourists in the plaza, pitying those little ants because they were not up here, and if they ever meant to be, they would have to pay the price. And there is the full sum of it, senseless ambition reduced to its rudiments. Civilizations are built on that, and a water hole.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Where I Live, by Maxine Kumin

Where I Live is a collection of poems written between 1990-2010, and many of the poems are indeed about Kumin's farm in New Hampshire. But others are about political issues, from the U.S. government's approach to fighting terror, to animal abuse and environmental problems. Still others focus on poets, from Wordsworth and Coleridge to Marianne Moore and Stanley Kunitz. Age and death also emerge as themes.

Whatever she is writing about, Kumin makes the poems accessible to the ordinary reader, a fact I (the average reader) appreciate greatly. Her poems reflect her humor, her love of nature and animals, her connections to people, her grief over her husband's death, and her passion about the world and how we, as people, live in it. The emotions reflected in the poems are wide-ranging. A poem like "The Taste of Apple," about the death of one of Kumin's horses, is terribly sad while "Which One" is one of numerous angry works--in this case Kumin excoriates people who throw away animals.

If you don't normally read poetry, but you love nature and/or animals, this book would be a great place to start the poetic journey!

Favorite passages:
From "Winter's Tale"
. . . life was bleak and sweet and you

made marmalade.

From "Extraordinary Rendition"
. . .
Extraordinary how the sun comes up
with its rendition of daybreak,
staining the sky with indifference.

From "Death, Etc."
. . . We try to live gracefully
and at peace with our imagined deaths but in truth we go for-

stumbling, afraid of the dark,
of the cold, and of the great overwhelming
loneliness of being last.

Shadow Tag, by Louise Erdrich

Although the main characters in Louise Erdrich's new novel, Shadow Tag, are Native Americans, the book bears little resemblance to her earlier novels. In Shadow Tag, her focus is narrow and intense--on one family over a period of just a few months--and the story is relentlessly realistic (i.e., there is none of the magical realism that marks many of her works). The result is a harrowing story of a marriage hurtling toward what the reader knows is going to be a bad ending.

Irene America is the mother of three, a historian unable to finish either of the dissertations she has started, an alcoholic, and the muse for her artist husband Gil. Gil has painted dozens of nudes of Irene, often depicting her in degrading situations that he claims represent the treatment of Native Americans. These paintings have made him a moderate success in the art world, but at home he is abusive; the family dogs must often intervene to stop him from hurting the children or Irene. As the novel opens, Gil is desperate to hold onto his marriage and is reading Irene's diaries (and occasionally following her or enlisting friends to do so) because he is convinced she is having an affair. Irene, desperate to leave the marriage but afraid to do so because Gil has threatened to take the children away from her, has started keeping two journals--one for Gil's consumption and one authentic reflection of her thoughts. Entries from the journals make up part of the novel's text, along with narratives from the perspectives of Gil, Irene, their daughter Riel, and an omniscient narrator (whose identity is revealed at the end of the book).

Through Gil and Irene's individual reflections, as well as the arguments in which they engage, Erdrich discusses art and inspiration, kitsch, the effects of being raised with or without an attachment to native culture, and various other topics. But the core concern is why two people who no longer love each other and by staying together only hurt each other--and their children-- still cannot find a way to disengage. Given Erdrich's personal story, one wonders how much of the terrifying psychological warfare is based on experience. Much of the book is heart-rending, in particular the descriptions of how the children try to cope with the chaos in their home.

There is no point in the novel where the reader believes the ending can be happy--it's only a question of how bad it will be, and it's very bad. Yet I couldn't put the book down and will remember it for a long time.

Favorite passage:
To have meaning, history must consist of both occurrence and narrative. If she never told, if he never told, if the two of them never talked about it, there was no narrative. So the act,though it had occurred, was meaningless. It did not count as infidelity. It did not count at all.

Riel went back into her room and pulled her comforter back over her head. She thought of Mahtotohpa's tragic loyalty and came to a conclusion. In the event of a disaster, she would have to take charge. She would have to find a way to save her family. What she had read convinced her again that anything could happen. All through history, this was proven--the worst imaginable things really did come true.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender

If lemon cake had an emotional content, what do you think it would be? For Rose Edelstein, it is sadness. Lemon cake is the first food that she bit into, at eight years of age, and tasted the emotions of the person who made the cake: her mother, who baked hollowness into the cake. A few years later, a roast beef dinner tells Rose that her mother is having an affair. This special skill makes eating difficult for Rose, who must focus on the more mundane--identifying where the ingredients came from (she can identify eggs down to the county) or the factory in which they were assembled--in order to eat without extreme emotional distress.

But Rose is hardly the only one in her family with a problem. Her father cannot enter hospitals--even when his wife is giving birth or someone he loves is ill. Her grandmother is gradually emptying her house by sending everything to Rose and her family--including broken furniture, half-used packages of food, and other oddities. Rose's mother, as the emptiness and affair mentioned above might suggest, is unhappy and overly focused on Rose's brother Joseph. And Joseph--well, in order not to reveal what would best come as a surprise, let's just say Joseph has serious issues and only one friend. That friend, George, shows Rose kindness and acceptance not available from her family; as a result, she adores him.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is definitely odd--as a reader who struggles with "magical realism," I never know quite what to make of the kinds of things that happen in this book. Yet it held my interest, even at it's strangest moments.

Favorite passage:

My soup arrived. Crusted with cheese, golden at the edges. The waiter placed it carefully in front of me, and I broke through the top layer with my spoon and filled it with warm oniony broth, catching bits of soaked bread. The smell took over the table, a warmingness. And because circumstances rarely match, and one afternoon can be a patchwork of both joy and horror, the taste of the soup washed through me. Warm, kind, focused, whole. It was easily, without question, the best soup I had ever had, made by a chef who found true refuge in cooking. I sank into it.

Holly Blues, by Susan Wittig Albert

One of the adages popular with writing teachers is "show, don't tell." Mystery writers are especially prone to telling, especially when it comes to the denouement--the various plot twists have to be untangled somehow and the easiest way is to have someone explain everything. Unfortunately, the latest title in Susan Wittig Albert's China Bayles series is all about telling. The actual "real-time" story occurs over only a few days and none of the crimes dealt with actually occur in Pecan Springs. Instead, China and her investigator husband Mike McQuaid (who gets a few chapters of his own) find themselves looking at one ten-year-old crime and two others that occurred in other towns. How do they find out about these crimes? Mike goes into a diner and happens upon a cop, who tells him all about one of the crimes, while China gathers stories at a quilt shop near where one of the murders occurred. Talk, talk, talk, tell, tell, tell. Not much of a mystery this time around.

Favorite passage: None

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Abraham Lincoln, by George McGovern

George McGovern was the first person I voted for for President. He did not do well (a penchant for third-party candidates--Eugene McCarthy in 1976 and John Anderson in 1980--and another bad year for democrats in 1984 meant I was more than 20 years into my voting career before I voted for anyone who carried more than one state).

Nonetheless, I was reminded of some of the reasons I admired Senator McGovern when I heard him speak at the Illinois state law-related education conference last fall. Despite being well into his eighties, he is still working tirelessly to make the world a better place--and he's doing it in collaboration with an old colleague and rival, Senator Bob Dole. The two are working on a project to make a free school lunch available to every child in the world. Despite serving in the wartime military, suffering political defeats, and losing a child to alcoholism, he is an optimist who still believes in democracy and people's capacity to rise to its demands. And he's a scholar--holding a PhD in history and government from Northwestern.

All these traits--plus his enduring admiration for Abraham Lincoln--make him a natural choice to write the bio of Lincoln for "The American Presidents" series. The volume is slim, but reminds us of the magnitude of Lincoln's achievements (though McGovern does, with apparent pain, take Lincoln to task for his suspension of constitutional rights during the Civil War). Having spent some time last year examining primary source documents in preparing teaching tools for a collection of Lincolniana at the Library of Congress and writing a lesson on Lincoln to mark the bicentennial of his birth, I still got new insight into Lincoln's leadership by reading McGovern's synthesis of his presidency. For young people especially, this title would provide an excellent introduction to one of our greatest presidents.

Favorite passage:
In Lincoln we see the essence of leadership. He inspired a people and an army by steady, measured resolve. He mobilized and energized the nation by appealing to the best and highest of ideals; that is, he convinced the nation that "a more perfect Union"--a Union of justice and freedom--was worth fighting for.