Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain

Hadley Richardson was a 28-year-old St. Louis woman living with her married sister's family and facing a dreary future. Then, in 1920, she met the 20-year-old Ernest Hemingway at a party on a visit to Chicago, and her life changed forever (as newscasters and talk show hosts love to say).  Drawing on historical sources, Paula McLain tells their story--how, despite the damage his wartime experiences had done to his psyche, Hemingway charmed her, how they first pursued their relationship through letters but then rather quickly married.

Within a  year, they had moved to Paris so Hemingway could pursue his writing. He met the literary expat community in Paris and quickly became a favorite of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and others (eventually, he alienated most of the expat crowd). Hadley found herself consigned to the role of writer's wife and, while she resented the role--after all, she was a pianist and fancied herself a bit of an artist--was willing to do whatever she must to help her husband achieve the literary greatness they both felt was assured.

Of course, we know from the historical record, that things will not turn out well for their marriage, and Hadley's unplanned pregnancy,and the appearance of Pauline Pfeiffer (with heavy foreshadowing signaling the dire events to come) begin the spiral toward divorce.

Knowing what I did about Hemingway, I did not expect to like him as a character in this novel told from his wife's point of view--and I didn't. But what surprised me was that I found him a sad (if not pathetic) character. Suffering from what we would now call post-trauamatic stress disorder, he comes across as the kind of man who covers his insecurity with excessive macho behavior and competitiveness When Hadley packed all of his work into a suitcase and then left it in a train compartment, inviting its theft, I even felt sympathetic toward him! Certainly, the alcohol-washed and morally challenged expat community was not an ideal place for someone with his issues (any romantic notions I might have harbored about the literati in Paris were squelched by McLain's depiction).

Paula McLain has said that she was inspired by Hemingway's memoir of the Paris years, A Moveable Feast, to study and write about Hadley.  Unfortunately, her imagining of Hadley lacks the kind of psychological detail that I would expect in a fictionalized account. A straight-forward biography might have served us just as well--and might have been a better fit with McLain's rather pedestrian style (apologies to biographies with non-pedestrian styles).

Favorite passage:
There were some who said I should have fought harder or longer than I did for my marriage, but in the end fighting for a love that was already gone felt like trying to live in the ruins of a lost city.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Coming Home, by Lisa Scottoline

In the "Acknowledgments," Lisa Scottoline says she wanted to write the emotional truth about being a stepmother and ex-stepmother--in essence, to explore the question of what happens to the love stepmothers and stepchildren feel when the marriage that bound them no longer exists. An interesting question--but one that is not examined in any meaningful way in Coming Home. The stepmother and stepdaughters are both unbelievable and unsympathetic, and the mystery in which Scottoline embroils them is ridiculous.

Not recommended.

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Madeleine Hanna is on her way to graduation at Brown University, hung over and humiliated by her behavior the previous night and unsure of what she is going to do with her newly minted English degree. She is out-of-sync with the discipline in the early 1980s--she loves Regency and Victorian novels that focus on the interplay between success, marriage, and money. But her department colleagues are wrapped up in Derrida, semiotics, and the need to "stop thinking about books as being about things." Madeleine had planned to move to Cape Cod with her boyfriend Leonard, a philosophy and biology major she met in a Semiotics class. But they have broken up, and she is at loose ends.

Then, on her way to join the procession of graduates, Madeleine runs into a friend of Leonard's, who informs her he is in the psych ward of a local hospital. She rushes to the hospital to provide succor to Leonard, who it turns out is manic-depressive and had stopped taking his medication after the break-up. The two reunite and eventually do move to Cape Cod, where both struggle, albeit for different reasons.

Meanwhile, Mitchell Grammaticus, a friend of Madeleine's who harbors an unrequited love for her, is taking a post-graduation world tour, trying to determine whether his religious studies degree can be the basis for a religious vocation. Mitchell travels around Europe and India, volunteering with Mother Teresa while obsessing about his relationship with Madeleine.

While reading the first section of the book, I thought it was going to be about literary theory and academic infighting; while I am unfamiliar with many of the debates being examined, I was intrigued. But then The Marriage Plot turns into the story of what it is like to be or live with someone with bipolar disorder and a coming-of-age story--with Mitchell, Madeleine, and Leonard attempting different paths for entering adulthood. As such, it is interesting enough but not as novel as I expected a Eugenides novel to be (having read Middlesex).

Favorite passage:
Madeleine had a feeling that most semiotic theorists had been unpopular as children, often bullied or overlooked, and so had directed their lingering rage onto literature. They wanted to demote the author. They wanted a book, that hard-won transcendent thing, to be a text, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions. They wanted the reader to be the main thing. Because they were readers.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The First Warm Evening of the Year, by Jamie M. Saul

Geoffrey Tremont is a New York bachelor, who does voiceover work and has a comfortable three-year relationship with a lovely woman named Rita. Then he gets a letter asking if he will serve as executor of his old friend Laura's estate. He has not seen Laura for 20 years--since she moved to Paris to play in her new husband's jazz combo--and is shocked to learn she lived the last ten years of her life in her small upstate New York hometown, teaching music at the high school. When he gets to Shady Grove, he meets her childhood friend Marian, and is instantly attracted to her. But Marian, too, has spent a decade mourning her dead husband Buddy. She, too, is in a relationship that lacks passion. Geoffrey and Marian and Rita and Marian's boyfriend Eliot and Geoffrey's brother Alex (a psychiatrist) and Buddy's parents spend pages and pages talking about love and life and grief. And it's all quite dull!

Laura's ne'er-do-well brother Simon shows up, and, for a while, it seems that he might offer the twist the book needs to wake the reader back up.  But the entire Simon subplot amounts to little and is resolved in a totally ridiculous way.

Jamie Saul undoubtedly intended to stimulate readers to think about love, loss, and engaging with life. But I found The First Warm Evening of the Year to be essentially a romance novel from the male perspective.  Not feeling good about O Magazine's summer reading recommendations after this one!

Favorite passage:

"You're going to be hard to replace." Rita lifted my hand and held it against the front of her coat. "Oh well, what's the point of having a heart, if you're not going to use it?"

Friday, June 15, 2012

America, America, by Ethan Canin

As America, America opens, Corey Sifter--the middle-aged publisher of a small but independent daily newspaper serving three communities in upstate New York--is attending the funeral of a former U.S. Senator , Henry Bonwiller. Corey's reflections make clear that he had a history with Bonwiller, who, equally clearly, had suffered some kind of disgrace. Also at the funeral is Corey's teenage intern, Trieste Milbury, who is bright but perhaps naive.

As Corey begins to reflect on his relationship with the Senator, a picture of another bright but naive teenager begins to emerge--Corey, when he was 16 years old and just hired for the summer to work on the estate of  Liam Metarey. Metarey is a complex character, who feels guilt over his family's history and wealth, can repair or rebuild anything needed on his estate, loves his wife and three children, but also fancies himself a king-maker. It is 1971, and Metarey believes he can win the Democratic nomination and eventually the Presidency for Senator Bonwiller, a liberal lion of the Senate who opposes the War in Vietnam. Corey is drawn into events on the Metarey estate--he becomes romantically involved with one of the Metarey daughters and observes the high-level meetings and strategizing going on around him. Something about him draws Mr. Metarey's attention--perhaps simply his willingness to work hard--and the older man arranges for Corey to finish high school at an upscale boarding school. He returns most weekends to work at the estate.

As events unfold in late 1971 and early 1972, Senator Bonwiller's flaws become evident. Eventually, Corey is unwittingly drawn into a cover-up--but even years later, he's not sure exactly what responsibility Bonwiller and Metarey hold in the events they are concealing and who was "in on" the cover-up and who was deceived. 

The novel is told almost entirely from Corey's point of view. In the early sections, the narration ratchets back and forth between 1971-1972 and 2006, the time of the Senator's death. Although the 1971-1972 recollections at first just seem to be Corey's musings to himself, we later find out that some of them at least are actually him talking to Trieste, whose questions highlight where Corey is still managing to keep himself from knowing the truth. A third narrative thread--Corey's college years--begins; then a fourth--this one from the point of view of a young woman who becomes involved with the Senator during the campaign. 

The story is complex--I have not even mentioned some important characters and subplots (some of these fizzle out, while others, like the story of Corey's relationship with his father, add depth to the characters and themes). Like other political novels, America, America is about power, loyalty, vanity, money, and truth (and their opposites). But it is also--and for me primarily--about family. When Corey reflects on the larger-than-life events he experienced on the Metarey estate, he keeps coming back to Mr. Metarey's place within and goals for his family--filtered through Corey's own hopes and regrets as a son and a father. 

America, America is a bit slow-paced and some of the plot developments are foreshadowed a bit too strongly. But the writing is lovely (and beautifully read by Robertson Dean in the audio version) and the story both engaging and thought provoking. Definitely recommended.

Favorite passages:
"You know," he said, "you raise your kids the way you know. You take what your folks did, you try to add what you think of as your own corrections, things that hurt you, injustices, all that kind of thing. And you try to bring these blessed objects into the world so it doesn't do them any more harm than it has to, at least not too early anyway. And then one day you realize . . . they're not all that different from wild animals you could have just found out there in the woods."

The forgotten of this country have a consistent history of turning on their champions, and I suppose the way working men and women have forsaken the very politicians who could help them most speaks of the primacy of emotion in politics. Perhaps the great decline of FDR's party, which  was beginning in Henry Bonwiller's time, didn't come about because Democrats favored a logical argument over a moral one, but simply because they clung to the idea that either one mattered at all.

Not only are our parents buried cryptically inside each of us, but that we are buried just as cryptically inside each of them and that we may look in either direction to see the secrets of our children and of ourselves.

I can only hope that they[his daughters], too, arrive at this same juncture. That they, too, come to see us for what we've always tried to do for them, even if it's not always what we've succeeded at. Maybe this is nothing but vanity, but I wonder how we've fared with them. I wonder which of our idle words have wounded them and which, years later and a thousand miles away, have buoyed them. Which of our hopes have lifted them over the daunting obstacles in their lives and which have pressed back against their own ideas of themselves. I think I know my children, know all three of them, yet I'm certain from my own childhood that, of course, I don't. 

Note: When you're transcribing from an audio book, it's impossible to guess how a passage might be punctuated, so apologies if these are butchered. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Stolen Prey, by John Sandford

I gave up posting about the too-numerous mysteries that I read unless I find something particularly interesting or heinous about a book. In this case, the subject of the latest title in the Prey series featuring Lucas Davenport happened to coincide with a startling little item I saw in Time. Stolen Prey features a variety of crimes that all end up revolving around money being laundered through a bank in Minneapolis by a Mexican drug cartel. The book's mix of mayhem and sleuthing is typical for a Davenport mystery, and I might have dismissed the whole money laundering scheme as a figment of Sandford's fertile imagination if I hadn't read this in Time:

97.4% = Portion of Colombian cocaine profits (about $300 billion) reaped by criminals and laundered by banks in first-world countries.

Yikes!!!  After recently reading half of Michael Lewis's The Big Short (I am too shallow to get through the whole thing), I am primed to have a negative response to almost everything I read about the financial industry, but this is ridiculous! Wasn't the PATRIOT Act supposed to stop money laundering? Guess we lost our Fourth Amendment rights for nothing  . . . again!  (Sorry--sometimes a good rant just comes bubbling up.)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

An Elevated View: Colorado Writers on Writing, edited by W. C. Jameson

As I was reading the essays in An Elevated View, I didn't think the pieces had much in common. That wasn't surprising, given that the editor had told the writers "not to feel bound or restricted by anything." Yet, as I sat down to write this review, I started to see patterns in how the essayists had responded to such questions as: Why do you write? What motivates you? How do you persevere? What are your joys? How and why are Colorado writers different from writers elsewhere?

One group of writers focused rather specifically on writing--Margaret Coel writing about the interactions among inspiration, research, and imagination; Kym O'Connell Todd and Mark Todd talking about writing as a team, Larry Meredith on the necessity of writing about interesting people doing interesting things; Mara Purl talking about evolving from a nonfiction to a fiction writer; Kathy Brandt on the agony of writing. The best of the essays in this category is Dan Mason's "Opening a Town," in which he ruminates on writing his verse novel Ludlow. In just a few pages, he manages to entertain the reader with a story, teach the reader about poetry, and challenges the reader to think about why "the ordinary is extraordinary."

A second group of writers emphasize the personal journey to a place (both literal and metaphorical) where their writing "worked"--Dan Guenther, a Vietnam vet, reflecting on how both he and Denis Johnson, who was not in Vietnam, find and share meaning through writing about the war; Mario Acevado on the writer's need to overcome obstacles ("Cowboy Up"); Susan Tweit on finding the landscape that allows you to do your best work. My favorite in this category is Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer's "From Pretty Pink Bows to Chicken Manure: Embracing Poetry as Practice." Trommer describes how her life transformed--not always with her consent--and how letting that transformation happen showed her the value of letting her life and her poetry "break open."

The third and smaller group of writers tell stories of spiritual journeys--Joe Stone, himself a shamanic priest, writes about "The Writer as Shaman" while Laurie Wagner Buyer, whose essays lends its title to the collection, writes about landscape, spirituality, illness, and writing.  The following sentence from Stone's essay encapsulates for me why I did not enjoy the articles in this group: "And the energy waves of possibility you generate by contemplating these words resonates into the world and brings us that much closer to the new reality of unitive consciousness." I either don't actually comprehend what they're talking about or I find it to be nonsense clothed in the word.

It is not a coincidence that both of the essays I particularly admired--Mason's and Trommer's--included extensive excerpts or examples of their work. Perhaps it is also not a coincidence that both are poets. Their essays were both substantively and stylistically rewarding. If you put your hands on this slim volume, I recommend reading these two essays and skimming the other entries to see if anything appeals to your particular taste.

Favorite passages:
From Dan Mason:
My own need for intimacy is implicated in what I write--a desire to be known or understood or simply touched. Writing is a regression to vulnerable states as well as an assertion of powers beyond ourselves.

A poet is more than throbbing wound. A poet is also a drummer on the road, trying to open up a town.

From Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer:
Letting go has been the theme of most of my recent poems. It's as if the poems are proofs for me as I try to learn these new geometries of family and place. I'm trying to learn what all treasure hunters know: clues are everywhere. I just need to be willing to notice, to see beneath the tarnish of expectation

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Rapture, by Liz Jensen

Gabrielle Fox is an art therapist who works with disturbed teenagers. As the book opens, she is beginning a temporary appointment in a small town outside London, having just spent two years rehabbing after an accident that left her both emotionally and physically (she is in a wheelchair) damaged. She is depressed by her own situation and by the rantings of environmental extremists who predict that humans are about to become obsolete.

One of the challenges of Gabrielle's new job is working with Bethany Krall, a teenager who brutally murdered her mother. Her father, an evangelical minister (one of many who became popular in the Faith Wave that followed the collapse of the global economy), wants nothing to do with Bethany. Gabrielle soon learns that electro-convulsive therapy has had a marked effect on Bethany--she has become more communicative, but she is also convinced that she can predict major natural disasters around the world. And soon, Gabrielle starts to believe she might be right. Gabrielle enlists the help of physicist Frazer Melville; the two, who become romantically involved, lean toward a scientific explanation of Bethany's predictions, while others--including Bethany's previous therapist--believe the answer can be found in religion.

As the story unfolds, we learn more about Bethany's family, Gabrielle's accident and the resulting problems she faces, degradation of the environment, drilling for methane gas, and the notion of The Rapture. While there are moments in the book when you think things might work out, the climax is apocalyptic. Jensen leaves us with questions about what happened and what might happen next, but there's little reason to think anything good could occur.

I listened to this book read by India Fisher, who has a bit of a tendency to sound angry and/or overwrought--which is probably appropriate to the emotional tenor of the book but was nonetheless somewhat exhausting. Perhaps that's how you normally feel when you read apocalyptic fiction--it's not really my genre and The Rapture won't start me binging on end of the world fiction. The one thing I do admire about Jensen's book is the way she depicts Gabrielle's feelings about her disability and the way it changes her interactions with people.

Favorite passage:
But weirdness is relative in the territory occupied by the mentally deranged.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending is an exploration of memory--how we construct it, how we revise it, and how it affects the way we view ourselves and our lives. The narrator is Tony Webster, a divorced and retired arts administrator who claims to be "not very interested in my schooldays." And yet those schooldays come to dominate his thinking when he receives a surprising letter from a solicitor--he has received a small bequest, 500 pounds and the diary of his long-dead friend Adrian. The bequest was made by the mother of his first serious girlfriend, a woman he met only once decades previously.

This strange event causes him to reflect on his days in the sixth form (final years of secondary school), when he and his friends Alex and Colin befriended the new boy at school, Adrian Finn. Adrian seems to be more intelligent and more philosophical than the three buddies, and they not only invite him into their circle, they admire him greatly. But their friendship withers as they enter life after school. Adrian goes off to Cambridge, while Tony heads to a less prestigious university. There, he falls for Veronica Ford, a secretive girl with whom he seems to have little in common. He introduces her to his friends and she takes him home for a weekend--neither event is very successful, but the weekend with her family sticks in his mind as being one of the most uncomfortable of his life. When Tony and Veronica break up, Tony receives a letter from Adrian saying that he is now dating Veronica. Tony responds first with a postcard indicating a blase response, second with a poison pen letter cursing Adrian and Veronica. Less than a year later, news of Adrian's suicide reaches Tony.

Tony seems to admire the philosophical rationale that Adrian built for his suicide, but he claims to have forgotten all about the events involving Veronica and Adrian as he built his rather average life--working, getting married, having a daughter, getting divorced, becoming a grandfather, and retiring. But when the bequest brings the events of so many years ago to the fore, he becomes somewhat obsessed with what the diary might reveal and how its revelations might change his memories. But Veronica has the diary and won't part with it. His campaign to wrest the diary from her reveals some of Veronica's secrets and does indeed change his view of the past--whether it changes how he sees himself is an open question as the brief novel ends.

Julian Barnes won the 2011 Mann Booker award for The Sense of an Ending and, perhaps particularly for readers my age, it offers a siren's call to consider the past we have created for ourselves.

Favorite passages:
We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn't it? But if we can't understand time, can't grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history--even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?

Who was it said that memory is what we thought we'd forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn't act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it's not convenient--it's not useful--to believe this; it doesn't help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.

. . . why should we expect age to mellow us? If it isn't life's business to reward merit, why should it be life's business to give us warm, comfortable feelings towards its end? What possible evolutionary purpose could nostalgia serve?