Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Breaking and Entering, by Eileen Pollack

Louise is a school social worker, her husband Richard is a psychologist. Along with their five-year-old-daughter Molly, they live a happy and prosperous life in California. Then a patient of Richard's commits suicide and, on a camping trip designed to get away from his problems, he accidentally sets fire to a Colorado forest. Responding to this "avalanche of woes," Richard finds a job at a prison in Michigan, and the rest of the family moves along with him.

Far from the liberal bastions of northern California, the family is living in the heart of militia country in 1995. As their marriage falls apart, Richard, who is Jewish, finds himself learning to shoot guns in the company of what might be termed conservative wing-nuts, while Louise has found the town's small cadre of liberals, including the Unitarian minister, with whom she starts an affair. Pollack manages to convey a feeling of dread, and I was sure that the story's climax was going to involve a bloodbath of some kind. However, only a minor character and pet are sacrificed, and the book limps along to a

Pollack sums up the gist of her novel near the end, when she says ". . . America is a lot more countries than she thought it was. An even within those countries, there are other, smaller counties, some of which are so tiny and isolated they appear to be inhabited by only one or two citizens, although those few citizens are so heavily armed as to pose a threat to the larger countries that surround them." I won't argue with her point, but I think a better novel would have conveyed the idea more subtly and with greater depth.

Favorite passage:
A person never outgrows his younger self. He only accretes older selves around it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Jenniemae and James: A Memoir in Black and White, by Brooke Newman

I'm not overly fond of memoirs. Or of stories that feature African-American maids who "become part of the family" without acknowledging the families that those women could not be with because they were working to provide care for a white family. Since both of those descriptors fit this book, a sensible person might ask why I read it. And I am asking myself the same thing. I can only say I got it free at a Boulder Bookstore event a couple of years ago and it was the book that popped into my hand when I was looking for something to read over the weekend.

I don't recommend Jenniemae and James--it's not well written and the relationship the book purports to be about--between the author's brilliant but eccentric mathematician father and the African-American maid with an interest in numbers--is not depicted in a way that allows us to understand it in any depth. I feel sure the author achieved some therapeutic benefit from writing the book, but reading it is another story.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss

The History of Love is my second venture into the world of audiobooks. This turned out to be an interesting choice because the book has multiple narrators--each voiced by a different "actor." We first meet Leo Gursky, an elderly Polish Jew who fell in love with a girl named Alma when he was ten. He wrote a book (in Yiddish) for her--The History of Love--in which every female character is named Alma. He gave the book to a friend for safe-keeping during the war years, which turned out to be a bad idea--his friend, who immigrated to South America, published the book in Spanish under his own name (a fact that Leo discovers about midway through this book). Meanwhile, Leo moved to New York and tracked down Alma. To his surprise, he learns she had their son--but then married someone else. He follows his son's progress as a student and, eventually, as a writer, but the two do not meet.

The second narrator, Alma Singer, was named after the character in The History of Love. Her late father fell in love with the book and owned one of the few extant copies of the Spanish edition. His widow, Charlotte, is asked by a mysterious stranger to translate the Spanish version into English. Alma becomes interested in who this mystery man is--thinking that he might be a match for her lonely mother--and begins investigating both him and the book he and her parents all are fascinated with.

Alma and Leo are both lonely, though their loneliness plays itself out in ways shaped by their ages and life circumstances. Leo occasionally makes a nuisance of himself in Starbucks, Walgreens, and other local haunts because he does not want to die on a day when no one sees him; he tries his hand (so to speak) at nude modeling, and still writes and occasionally practices his trade of locksmithing. Alma compiles notebooks of information about surviving in the woods (her father liked to camp), plays matchmaker for her mother, becomes pen pals (and eventually real friends) with a Russian boy who lives in Brighton Beach, and watches out for her brother Bird, who believes he is a lamed vovnik (a holy man) and may even be the Messiah. He is building an ark for the family from scrap materials he scavenges around the city.

If all of this sounds incredibly complex and quirky, consider that I haven't mentioned the third point of view--that of Zvi Litvinoff, the friend who stole Leo's book, and his wife Rosa. Nor have I mentioned that Krauss includes many of the chapters from that book--which appears to be a collection of varied vignettes, some telling almost mythic stories, others sounding like anthropological explorations of the languages of love, others providing straightforward narratives from the early life of Leo and his Alma. As the book progresses, you wonder if Leo and young Alma will somehow cross paths and whether either will find the antidote to their loneliness.

When Bird enters the picture as the fourth narrator, I was actually somewhat irritated. I did not want a fourth narrator--nor did I appreciate the comedic aspects of his misinterpretation of almost every piece of evidence he comes across. This misinterpretation proves to be key to the climactic event that draws the threads of the story together. While that event is satisfying, I would have preferred that Krauss find a way to make it happen without cluttering up the book with a fourth point of view. Given the skill with which she balanced the strands of the story up to that point, she is more than capable.

My reservations about the set-up to the ending notwithstanding, I recommend this book. Krauss has created a complex and intricate work about two deeply human characters at very different moments in their lives--yet experiencing the same loneliness and need to be seen.

Favorite passages:

The book is beautifully written--but I can't figure out how to bookmark the audio files and since I'm mostly listening while walking, can't take notes. Consequently, I can only remember the last lines of the book, which did bring tears to my eyes. They are from Leo's obituary--written by himself as a young man.

He was a great writer. He fell in love. It was his life.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Nobodies Album, by Carolyn Parkhurst

I found The Nobodies Album on the Mystery shelf at the library, but that classification doesn't really capture what is most interesting about this book. Yes, there is a mystery--narrator Octavia Frost, a bestselling author, sees her son's name on the news crawl in Times Square as she sits in a cab on her way to deliver her latest manuscript to her editor. Milo, a rock star, has been arrested for the murder of his live-in girlfriend. Despite a four-year estrangement from her son, Octavia decides to fly to California to see if she can help. But the mystery is not very interesting (I knew as soon as Octavia met the person who would ultimately prove to be guilty that that person was the culprit--and I'm not especially good at ferreting out "whodunit"), and it's not Parkhurst's main focus.

The mystery and the opportunity to reconcile with Milo are essentially context for Octavia's reflections on her life and on writing. When Milo was nine, his father and sister died in an accident for which Octavia blamed him (at least in part). How she dealt with their deaths, how she mothered Milo in the aftermath of their deaths, and how her emotions and experiences were and were not reflected in her writing are the real subject matter of the book. The manuscript Octavia was about to deliver when she saw the news about her son was a collection of new endings to her seven previously published books, a concept she felt was "nothing short of revolutionary." The new and old endings of several of the books are included in The Nobodies Album, and how Parkhurst uses them to give us insight and raise questions about Octavia and about writing fiction is interesting.

Like the mystery plot, the ending of the book feels contrived. Nonetheless, I enjoyed both the unusual way in which Parkhurst put this novel together and her exploration of ideas about writing and living.

Favorite passages:
For all the energy I've spent in my writing life considering the taxonomy of human pain, for all the times I've told students that the key to creating a sympathetic and three-dimensional character is compassion, I turned out to be spectacularly unsympathetic when it actually mattered. My grief was proprietary. I wanted it all to myself.

Of the many gifts parents receive from their children, this is one of the best: the way they give us a new way of seeing, even after they've lost the thread of it themselves.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Kid, by Sapphire

The Kid is a sequel to Sapphire's 1996 novel Push, which became the movie Precious. If you have read that book or seen the movie, you probably can guess that this account of what happens to Precious's son Abdul after her death is not a pretty story. In fact, it is, at times, so dark that it is extremely difficult to get through.

As the book opens, nine-year-old son Abdul is staying with his mom's friend Rita and preparing for her funeral. The nine-year-old Abdul is delightful--Precious has obviously done a good job caring for him, exposing him to books, art, museums, and more. He doesn't completely understand the finality of what has happened; nor does he understand the things being said at her funeral--his mother had AIDS? she didn't learn to read until she was 16? These things are news to Abdul.

But these shocks are minor compared to those to come. The day after the funeral, a social worker delivers him to a foster home, where another child beats him so severely on his very first day that he has to be hospitalized with a concussion. Yet he is returned to the home, where he spends several months being sexually and physically abused before another hospital stint ends up with his transfer to a Catholic orphanage/boys school.

Sapphire then jumps ahead four years; Abdul is 13, has been sexually abused by the priests who run the school, and has become an abuser himself, sneaking through the dormitory at night molesting younger or weaker boys. Yet he is getting a good education and, by stumbling into an African dance class at the rec center, has discovered a love for dance. When he is accused of rape by a younger boy, he is kicked out of school and sent to live with his great-grandmother, whom he refers to as "Slavery Days." He spends only long enough there to be subjected to her deeply disturbing life story. He runs away--despite being very bright, he will never return to school. Instead, he moves in with dance teacher Roman, trading sex for a place to live and dance lessons.

Again, we jump ahead four years. Abdul has left Roman and is part of an avant garde dance troupe. While he is doing well in some ways, he is still full of rage--a rage that we learn has been expressed in various violent ways. He is struggling to learn how to relate to women; the first woman with whom he is involved, a fellow dancer who calls herself My Lai, has a story of abuse that is, in its own way, as harrowing as his own.

From his days at the orphanage on, Abdul has difficulty distinguishing between dreams and reality. And Sapphire never gives the reader any extra clues that will help us determine what is real and what is not. We are thoroughly inside Abdul's head--and it's a profoundly disturbing place to be. When, in the book's final section, Abdul is institutionalized, drugged, and subjected to electroshock therapy, neither he nor we understand what has happened.

Sapphire once again reveals how we, as a society, fail children and what the devastating consequences are: a child full of promise and hope transmutes into a deeply troubled, scarred (metaphorically and physically), and angry young man who has damaged himself and others. it's a tragic and deeply disturbing story.

Favorite passage:
All kinda people in here today dressed in bright-colored tights, leotards, and sweats, some got on African clothes. On one side of the room like trees growing up from the floor are four shiny drums sitting in front of four empty chairs. A big guy, taller than me, in a long white African robe, sits down behind the biggest drum. Then three more dudes sit down behind the other drums. They go BAP! BAP! Tee dee dee BAP BAP! Another guy picks up a flute and starts to blow. It's so beautiful it hurts, feels like someone just kicked me in the balls! . . . Something stops screaming in my head. In one fucking second I know my life, it's this sound.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni, by Nikki Giovanni

I feel unqualified to comment on poetry--perhaps because I can still remember the moment in tenth-grade English when Mrs. Stotmeister opened the poetry unit by saying, "You either love poetry or you're an idiot. Miss Richards, do you love poetry, or are you an idiot?" I was smart enough to realize lying about my love of poetry would be a mistake, but proud enough to be unwilling to say I was an idiot. . . I think I stuttered out an "I don't know."

At any rate, though unqualified, I have just finished a collection from the first 25 years of Nikki Giovanni's work as a poet (1968-1993 or thereabouts). The earliest of the poems reflect the anger and pain of the time in which they were written (titles include "The Detroit Conference of Unity and Art," "Black Separatism," and "The Great Pax Whitie"). Giovanni also published a moving poem about Angela Davis as a broadside. But the ripped post-it notes marking poems that I liked don't really start littering the book until we reach the work from her fourth collection, My House, where the poems become more accessible (at least for an older white woman with pitiful poetry-reading skills). Giovanni is still political (a wonderful poem entitled "We" says "we were seeing the revolution screeeeeeeeeeeing/to a halt/trying to find a clever way/to be empty), but she also writes about love, home, and gender relations. I was especially moved by a poem "The Life I Led," in which she reflects on flabby upper arms, varicose veins, menopause, and sagging breasts but concludes: "i hope i die/warmed/by the life that i tried/to live". In another poem, titled "Crutches," she talks about the many crutches that people use to hide their fears and weaknesses, again ending the poem with a wonderful stanza: "emotional falls always are/the wrost/and there are no crutches/to swing back on". While she focuses particularly on the lives and relationships of black women, her words resonate beyond racial boundaries.

In the works from a collection that she published in 1983, Those Who Ride the Night Winds, Giovanni adopts a style that I do not even have the vocabulary to describe. Here are a few lines from a poem entitled "Lorraine Hansbery: An Emotional View," just to give you a sense of the work she was doing in the early 80s:

It's intriguing to me that "bookmaker" is a gambling . . . an
underworld . . . term somehow associated with that which is
both illegal . . . and dirty . . . Bookmakers . . .who . . . and those who
play with them . . . are dreams . . . are betting on a break . . .

These are not my favorite poems, but it is interesting to consider why a poet who has been practicing her art with great success for more than a decade would choose to work with a new form.

I'm not sure there can be a poetry collection in which you would love every poem (unless you selected the poems yourself), but The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni rewards the reader with many provocative ideas and lovely images.

Favorite passages:

i would not reject
my strength
though its source
is not choice
but responsibility
(From "Boxes")

the sweet soft essence
of possibility
never quite maturing
(From "Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day")

a poem is pure energy
horizontally contained
between the mind
of the poet and the era of the reader
(From "Poetry")

i always liked house cleaning
even as a child
i dug straightening
the cabinets
posting new paper on
the shelves
washing the refrigerator
inside out
and unfortunately this habit
has carried over and i find
i must remove you
from my life

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Gun Games, by Faye Kellerman

This latest entry in Faye Kellerman's Rina Lazarus/Peter Decker long-running mystery series takes a turn for the weird. A major focus is a romance between Rina and Peter's 15-year-old foster son Gabe and a 13-year-old Jewish Persian girl. Not only does Kellerman spend many pages on this relationship, including reproducing long text exchanges between the two, she also details the sexual side of their romance (and I do mean details). For a series centered on two deeply religious people, which has never had a strong sexual theme, this seemed bizarre and, given the age of the couple, somewhat creepy.

The mystery that Peter and his colleagues investigate involves two suicides at an expensive private school and is not compelling. And, for the second time recently, Kellerman makes an error related to the law/Constitution. This time, she refers to the First Amendment protecting students from having their lockers searched at school--please! Somebody needs to catch this stuff.

Not recommended.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein

The narrator of The Art of Racing in the Rain is the philosophical Enzo, a mixed breed dog who lives with race car driver Denny. Based on a TV documentary about Mongolia, Enzo believes he will come back as a human in his next life, so he prepares during his current incarnation by observing Denny and the other humans he encounters--and watching lots of television.

Enzo is there when Denny falls in love with Eve and the two get married and have a daughter, Zoe. Denny's attempts to build a racing career cause some stress in the marriage, as does Eve's refusal to see a doctor for the fierce headaches she experiences. Eventually, a crisis takes her to the emergency room, and she learns she has a brain tumor. It is clear that only bad things will come from this diagnosis--and many do, providing a series of horrendous challenges for Denny and Enzo to overcome.

The Art of Racing in the Rain was the One Book One Denver selection last year, so I had some hope that it might be a good read, despite the fact that my friend Suzy had disliked it so much she hadn't finished it. Alas, I found this book ridiculous. I could not suspend my disbelief and accept the voice of Enzo the dog (even if you can allow yourself to believe in a philosophical, television-watching dog, some parts of the portrayal do not make sense; for example, Enzo might have watched a lot of shows in the Law and Order franchise, but without being able to read [and he's admitted he can't read], how would he know that Trial by Jury was "much maligned"? There's no indication that Denny discusses television criticism. I know I'm nitpicking, but if you want us to believe an unbelievable narrator, you have to construct that narrator carefully).

Even worse, however, are the third-rate philosophical musings built around the lore of driving/racing (e.g., "That which you manifest is before you.") They're on a par with the kind of smarmy life lessons conveyed in the novels of Mitch Albom or in Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist. Yes, I know millions of people love Albom, Coehlo, and Stein--but I am not one of them.

Favorite passage: None