Saturday, May 28, 2011

Ape House, by Sara Gruen

Early in Sara Gruen's latest novel, reporter John Thigpen muses about his experience communicating with a group of six bononos (a species of apes), feeling that something "massive had shifted" in his view of the world. We then meet Dr. Isabel Duncan, who not only works with the bonono but clearly sees them as colleagues and family. These chapters raise the reader's expectations, suggesting that exploring the world of interspecies communication may be an experience that changes how you think about being human, about language.

But then all hell breaks loose--the lab where the bononos live is bombed and Isabel is severely hurt. John's wife Amanda moves to LA, leaving him in Philly, where an evil colleague steals his story. He quits his job and follows Amanda to LA, getting a job at a sleazy tabloid. Meanwhile, a reality show starring the bononos has become a sensation. Amanda and John both head to the small town in New Mexico where Ape House is filmed. Also flocking there are a variety of strange protestors, one of whom John comes to think may be his son, the product of a youthful and drunken sexual encounter. John joins ranks with several strippers who are staying in the room above his in the hotel, saves a meth-cooker and adopts his dog when the meth lab explodes, and . . . well, essentially the book becomes a romp.

Ape House is fun and, for someone who doesn't think a lot about communicating with animals, presents some interesting information about the bononos. It does not, however, fulfill that early promise of profoundly changing the reader's view of humanity or language.

Favorite passage (it's the epigraph, so Gruen didn't really write it, but it made me laugh out loud):

Give orange give me eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you. -- Nim Chimpsky, 1970s

Gimme gimme more, gimme more, gimme gimme more. -- Britney Spears, 2007

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Uncoupling, by Meg Woliter

Dory and Robby Lang are English teachers at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Stellar Plains, New Jersey, where their daughter Willa is a sophomore. The Langs, though married for more than 15 years, still have a rollicking sex life--until a cold wind carrying a spell wraps itself around Dory one night, effectively killing her interest in sex within minutes.

As the Lang's marriage suffers in the new no-sex regime (Robby tries various ridiculous strategies for reviving Dory's interest, including a sex-related board game, a shared candle-lit bath, and snuggling under a "Cumfy" two-person blanket/wrap), their daughter is discovering her sexuality with Eli, the son of the new drama teacher who lives down the street from the Langs.

Meanwhile, the drama teacher is preparing to stage Lysistrata at Elro High--Lysistrata is the Greek comedy in which the women stage a sex strike as an anti-war protest. The parallels between the play and the spell sweeping through the women of Stellar Plains start to seem more than coincidental--even Willa is eventually affected, breaking Eli's heart. Events reach a humorous climax at the performance of Lysistrata.

The Uncoupling is an amusing book--despite not being a fan of "magical realism," I enjoyed reading it. Unfortunately, however, while Wolitzer makes various pronouncements about sexuality, marriage, gender differences, and aging, none of them are enlightening. So read The Uncoupling for fun--but not to learn anything about relationships.

Favorite passage:
People like to warn you that by the time you reach the middle of your life, passion will begin to feel like a meal eaten long ago, which you remember with great tenderness. The bright points of silver. The butter in its oblong dish. The corpse of a chocolate cake. The leaning back on a chair at the end, slugged on the head and overcome.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Widow's Story, by Joyce Carol Oates

Last year, in reviewing Kay Redfield Jamison's book about her husband's death, I suggested that she might have been better off distilling the best of her book into an article, holding up the piece by Joyce Carol Oates that had recently appeared in The Atlantic as an exemplar. Sadly, I would now like to give the same advice to Oates herself, as her book A Widow's Story is less effective as a whole than were the parts previously read.

Oates and her husband Raymond Smith, editor of the Ontario Review, had been happily married for nearly 50 years when he died suddenly in February 2008. The book describes her response to his brief illness and death. Certainly, the time was hideously painful for her--she writes at length about the attraction of suicide--and one cannot but feel compassion for her as she struggles to sleep, to deal with the "widow's death duties," to survive this cataclysm in her life. The book describes a very harrowing four months in Oates's life.

While it is taken as a given that writing about one's life at some moment of terrible personal crisis is brave, I'm not sure it is always well-advised. Some of what emerges about Oates is not flattering. While in sections of the book (including, if memory serves, in parts reproduced in The Atlantic) she writes about how the support of friends was important to her, she also critiques friends in unattractive ways. While out to dinner with friends, she wonders why they must discuss Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama incessantly--really, what does she expect them to talk about? She says in other places that she does not want to talk on and on about Ray's death. So??? Her friends are there for her--perhaps she should give them a break. She refers to Joan Didion as a friend (without naming her), but is rather snide about Didion's book Year of Magical Thinking. Why would she call it narcissistic for Didion to write about her husband's death when she herself is writing a similar book? She refers several times--with irritation--to the frequent description of her as "prolific"--given the context, why does this matter to her or to readers?

The portrayal of her marriage is also somewhat troubling. While she talks of how happy they were, Ray had not read her fiction--they worked side by side in the evenings but did not talk about the novels she was writing. Indeed, she talks about her persona as Joyce Carol Oates as somehow extraneous to her life as Joyce Smith. For two people wrapped up in work and literature, this seems like a severe limitation on their intimacy. Neither had Ray told her much about his childhood, although she clearly recognized that it had marked him in ways she did not understand. What is perhaps most disturbing is that, when she finally makes herself read the notes and drafts for a novel he had set aside years ago, she shares information about his family and past that one can only surmise he wanted to remain private.

And, finally, I could not abide one of the "writerly" touches Oates inserted. At the end of many chapters were paragraphs, set in italics and referring to herself as "the Widow-to-Be" or "the Widow."

One thing that I tried not to let influence me was the fact that Oates remarried scarcely a year after Ray's death--but I fear I may not have been successful. While I do not begrudge her a second marriage, I wonder why this book seemed necessary, especially given her comments about Didion's book.

Favorite passage:

Being a writer is like being one of those riskily overbred pedigree dogs--a French bulldog, for instance--poorly suited for survival despite their very special attributes.

Being a writer is in defiance of Darwin's observation that the more highly specialized a species, the more likelihood of extinction.

Teaching--even the teaching of writing--is altogether different. Teaching is an act of communication, sympathy--a reaching-out--a wish to share knowledge, skills; a rapport with others, who are students, a way of allowing others into the solitariness of one's soul.

Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche--so Chaucer says of his young scholar in the Canterbury Tales. When teachers feel good about teaching, this is how we feel.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

You Are Free, by Denzy Senna

The female protagonists in Denzy Senna's new story collection, You Are Free, are struggling with questions of identity--questions that emerge from their racial backgrounds (nearly all are biracial) as well as their relationships. Many of the characters are adjusting to the transition from financially struggling single New York artist to solidly middle class married mother living in the West.

In the first story, "Admission," Cassie and her husband Duncan attend an interview at an exclusive preschool in LA as research for a play she is writing. But when their son is admitted to the school, Cassie is tempted to enroll him, even though they had already selected a preschool they could afford. Duncan, however, remains scornful of the overpriced "Institute," telling Cassie she sounds like a New Yorker cartoon. When Cassie tells the admissions officer that they have decided not to enroll Cody, the story takes a turn for the creepy, as the admissions officer then becomes something of a stalker, calling Cassie over and over to try to change her mind.

In "The Land of Beulah," Jackie has been dumped by her boyfriend because she is not black enough for him. She adopts a stray dog, which changes her life. She makes new friends at the dog park, stops attending to her own hygiene, and abuses the dog. Things seem to come to a head when she sees the ex-boyfriend with a white woman, but the dog escapes and the story ends with Jackie at the spa.

Another character, Lara, is confronted by a woman who thinks Lara is her birthmother. A "Triptych" of stories place three young women in identical situations--their mothers having just died of breast cancer and their abusive fathers presiding over a family meal. Rachel and her husband Hewitt--both biracial but often mistaken for an interracial couple--find themselves living in an apartment building populated by an oddly large number of interracial couples. Rachel and Hewitt have a baby, as do their neighbors Dave and Helga. Rachel finds Helga and her parenting ideas bizarre and is thus stunned when a number of people mistake her for Helga and when Hewitt starts to show some interest in the neighbor.

My descriptions of the stories don't do them justice--Senna has created three-dimensional characters struggling with who they are on several fronts. In addition, she has done it with insight, a touch of humor (while up with their baby, Rachel and Hewitt comment sarcastically on Nick at Nite's Huxtapalooza), and a soupcon of creepiness.

Favorite passages:
Livy recalled all the evenings she'd spent in her old life, bonding with her other single women friends. It was like some ancient ritual, the way they offered each other their tales of love lives gone wrong, men behaving badly, how they offered up their dissatisfaction and ambivalence like pieces of fruit at the feet of the Buddha.

It was over. She knew, sitting on the slim modern sofa in her Brooklyn walk-up, that it was over, this romance with herself. A love affair was ending. And she felt a new affection for her solitary life, the same affection that sometimes arises for the person you are about to leave.

They talked about milestones and nursing difficulties and those last ten pounds they couldn't lose and peanut allergies and diaper rashes, and yet beneath the pedestrian chatter Livy felt overtaken with love of a religious magnitude for all of them,. She felt the duaghter-self, young and vain, dying, and the mother-self, huge and sad, rising up in its wake, linking her to nothing less than history.

(All of these passages are from the story "The Care of the Self," which, despite the fact that I didn't mention it above, must have been one of my favorites!)

Saturday, May 7, 2011

My Hollywood, by Mona Simpson

My Hollywood is a story of mothers and nannies but it's no The Nanny Diaries. Narrated by Claire, a composer, and Lola, a Filipina nanny who cares for Claire's son Will, Mona Simpson's book is a serious (though sometimes humorous) look at the interrelationships among nannies, their employers, and the children they care for.

Claire is married to Paul, a writer for a sitcom who is never home at their rented Santa Monica house. Claire, who not only needs time to write in her upstairs studio but also questions her own parenting skills, hires Lola as a live-in caregiver for Will. Both Claire and Will grow to depend on Lola's calm competence; Lola, in turn, loves Will dearly. Meanwhile, Lola is sending money home to the Philippines, where her husband and five grown children live; she came to LA to work because the family needed money for her youngest daughter's medical school tuition.

At the urging of her friend Helen Grant (whose husband is more successful than Paul), Claire attends a parenting class to increase Will's chances of getting into the desired preschool. When Will has trouble making and keeping friends at the preschool, the counselor suggests that Lola is the problem, and Claire and Paul "chop" (fire) Lola. Lola then gets a job caring for baby Laura, whose single mother Judith is, like Paul, never home. Laura has some problems due to oxygen deprivation at birth. Lola quickly grows to love Laura and takes her to her many appointments with therapists, does exercises with her, and essentially wills her to full health by the time Laura is 5--just as Judith acquires a live-in boyfriend who wants Lola to do his ironing. This time, when Lola is "chopped," she returns to the Philippines, but she quickly realizes that she is more at home with other people's children in LA than at home.

This synopsis does not do justice to the complexity of the two characters Simpson has created nor the insight she provides into their thoughts and feelings (the two do not seem typical, although their situations seem emblematic of what many women face in our class-conscious country). On the other hand, a confusion of other mothers, children, and nannies clutter the story; although the accumulation of caregiver-comings and goings, divorces, illnesses, and loneliness adds weight, the story would have been sharper with some judicious editing. Still worth reading.

Favorite passages:
Maybe there was an essential agreement at the bottom of every marriage. I supposed it was time I read the fine print of my own.

Helen had gone to a two-day gingerbread workshop. Her house alluded to children, but if a real child had worked on it, it couldn't have looked like this. it would have been smeared with frosting, lopsided, the roof laden with candy. No, this wasn't authentic or even useful. Only beautiful. What her life now allowed her to make.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Light of Evening, by Edna O'Brien

I had so little to say about The Light of Evening that I waited to write about it until after we discussed it in our book group, hoping my friends would have some good insights I could share (with attribution, of course). Unfortunately, we all felt pretty much the same about the book--it was disjointed and confusing (to no evident purpose), the characters were less than engaging, the writing was rather pedestrian, and the treatment of mother-daughter relations was neither moving nor enlightening.

The story: Dilly is an older Irish woman heading to the hospital with an undiagnosed health problem. She dearly hopes that her daughter Eleanora will come to visit her. Her first night in the hospital, a cruel nurse gives her a sedative that causes her to freak out and then to dream about her trip to the United States 50 years ago (a vivid description of steerage) and her time working in Brooklyn, where she fell in love and had her heart broken. She returned to Ireland, married a hard-drinking and abusive farmer, and had a son and daughter. Her son cares only about inheriting the farm, her daughter eloped and then became a writer--writing books that have turned her home town against her. Her daughter makes a brief visit to her hospital room, leaving behind her diary when she dashes out to yet another affair. Dilly reads the diary and is shocked--but still determines to return home and change her will so her daughter will inherit.

The letters O'Brien intersperses through the text--letters from Dilly's mother to Dilly and then from Dilly to Eleanora--are marvelous examples of motherly guilt-mongering, but when she devotes an entire section to letters at the end of the book, their effectiveness is sapped.

Not recommended.