Friday, November 30, 2012

May We Be Forgiven, by A.M. Homes

May We Be Forgiven recounts a year in the life of Harold Silver, a man who admits at the outset that he has no emotional life.  The events of the turbulent year render a change in Harold, and who wouldn't be changed if: his brother George had a breakdown before (or after) causing a car accident that killed a couple and injured their son; he slept with his sister-in-law Jane; he witnessed George kill Jane when George found Harold and Jane in bed; he assumed guardianship of his 12-year-old nephew Nate and his 11-year-old niece   Ashley, whom he soon learned had been sexually abused by an administrator at her boarding school; started frequenting on-line sex sites and arranging noon assignations with randy women; got fired from his job teaching Nixon studies at a commuter college; got divorced; was followed home from the A&P by a young woman with whom he tried to strike up a meaningful relationship despite the fear that she might be a missing college student much in the news; became a foster parent to Ricardo, the child whose parents were killed in George's car accident; served as a dupe in a government sting designed to take down an Israeli gun dealer George had gone into business with at the bizarre nature-camp-cum-prison where he had been confined; through one of his "nooners," gained an acquaintance with Julie Nixon Eisenhower, who hired him to edit the long-lost fiction writings of Richard Nixon; took the children to South Africa for Nate's bar mitzvah; had the book he's been working on for 17 years destroyed in a thunderstorm.

And there's more . . . much more (the book is nearly 500 pages). Some of it is mordantly funny; Homes is at her sarcastic best when describing Harold's attempts to deal with institutions, from the mental hospital where George is confined to the justice system, child welfare system, assisted living facility where Harold's mother lives, temple, and university. Some of it borders on the surreal, some is creepy (I may be too old to appreciate Harold's sexual antics). Overall, I found it all to be a bit too much, which may have been Homes's intent, as the book is in part a critique of the excess of contemporary American life.

I (certified despiser of Nixon) did enjoy the elements of May We Be Forgiven that related to Harold's work on Nixon, whom he both loved and saw as the destroyer of the American Dream, another of Homes's themes. Harold's struggle to construct the authentic deeply flawed Nixon and to maintain his feeling for Nixon in the face of thorough understanding also represent his struggle to accept himself and the members of his family.

Finally, it must be said that May We Be Forgiven feels like it should be two books (which would also help with the "too much" aspect of the reading experience)--a sardonic look at contemporary American life and the death of the American dream and a warm-hearted story on the theme of "only connect." The ending of the book is disconcertingly smarmy, as Harold enjoys Thanksgiving in the bosom of the family he has managed to create from pieces left behind by others. Somehow, this redemptive ending just doesn't work.

Favorite passages:
In all families we have the official version, the tacitly agreed-upon narrative that we tell about who we are and where we come from.

Can I allow myself to know what I know and still love Nixon as deeply as I do? Can I accept how flawed, how unresolved he was, the enormous fissures in personality, in belief, in morality?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Little Century, by Anna Keesey

Eighteen-year-old Esther Chambers grew up in Chicago; when her mother dies, however, there is nothing to keep her in the city. She seeks refuge with her father's distant cousin Ferris Pickett, a cattleman in the high desert in Oregon.  But things are not as she expected at the ranch. First, Pick asks her to stake a claim (illegal as it turns out, since she is only 18 and one must be 21 to homestead) on a piece of land that includes an important water source he hopes to control. This means she must sleep alone in a small cabin on the claim for six months. Second, she quickly learns that the community of Century is sharply divided between cattlemen and sheepherders.

As Esther becomes engaged with the idea of working her claim, befriends several of Century's more eccentric residents, and enters "an understanding" with the morally ambiguous Pick, the range war escalates through a series of increasingly violent incidents. Meanwhile, despite her promise to Pick, Esther falls for a young sheepmen, putting her in a difficult situation. The climax is ultimately more of an anti-climax, as the community essentially falls apart. An epilogue-esque final chapter ties up some stories and leaves others unresolved.

I had read several positive reviews of Little Century and wanted to like it more than I did, but it often felt like a project in an MFA creative writing program  (and Keesey is a first-time author who graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop).  Keesey's attempts to be lyrical often become overwrought, and the occasional brief chapters written from the perspectives of other characters are a serious flaw in the book's narrative structure.

Favorite passage:
Even with the blots and cross-outs, she likes the look of her own writing. It is solid. She herself weighs more, having written it.

The buckaroos often sing, and she knows why. The unpeopled distance and the careless cold weigh upon a person, compressing the spirit into a chunk without movement. Any two notes sung together press back and make a space for the tiny soul to warm up and swirl about.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Farther Away, by Jonathan Franzen

I am not a Jonathan Franzen fan. Unlike most readers, I didn't care for his first Great American Novel, The Corrections (or the way he accepted Oprah's endorsement long enough to sell a lot of books and then began to feel suddenly squeamish about it). I disliked his first collection of essays, How to Be Alone, and haven't yet read his second Great American Novel, Freedom, despite a ringing endorsement from my son the literary scholar (I feel use that designation so often it should be in quotes or capitals). So I can't explain why I picked Farther Away off the shelf at the library or why, when I struggled to get through it (every essay involving Franzen's beloved birds stopped me for at least a week), I renewed it twice.

However, I've finally made it through the collection and, while I don't recommend reading it cover to cover, I do like Franzen a little better having read it. The first essay, actually the 2011 commencement address that Franzen gave at Kenyon College (interestingly, also the site where Franzen's friend David Foster Wallace gave a renowned address several years earlier), began to shift my view, as Franzen argues for getting out into the world and connecting with people or animals and perhaps even loving them: "engagement with something you love compels you to face up to who you really are."

In most of the other essays, Franzen deals with what he loves--birds, the works of particular writers, David Foster Wallace (whose death Franzen continues to grieve), his parents, his brother. My favorite piece, "I Just Called to Say I Love You," begins as a rant against people talking on cellphones, particularly people saying "I Love You" on cellphones, but morphs into a reflection on 9/11 and on his parents' differing ways of loving. The piece that gave me the most to chew on was a lecture Franzen gave "On Autobiographical Fiction." The question of to what extent fiction is autobiographical comes up often in our book group discussions, and Franzen gives a nuanced response that all fiction readers should consider. Part of his response is the challenging idea that, with each subsequent book an author writes, "you have to become a different person to write the next book. The person you are already wrote the best book you could. There's no way to move forward without changing yourself."  If that is indeed how Franzen approaches his work, then I have to proffer my respect.

So, my recommendation is to dip in and out of the collection, choosing the pieces that speak to you (who, knows? Perhaps you'll enjoy "Interview with New York State" and understand "Our Relations: A Brief History") and don't try to slog through the rest.

Favorite passages:
Between me and the place where my dad is now--i.e., dead--nothing but silence can be transmitted. Nobody has more privacy than the dead.

People who like to be in control of things can have a hard time with intimacy. Intimacy is anarchic and mutual and definitionally incompatible with control.

Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self's own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with their struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera

The Unbearable Lightness of Being signals in the first chapter that it is a philosophical novel--it begins with the narrator ruminating on the "myth of eternal return" and the contrasting concepts of lightness and weight. The narrator periodically reinserts himself throughout the novel, making clear that the characters are fictional creations being moved through the "plot" to make a point about the effects of communism or the difficulty of identifying which side of such pairs as lightness and weight, happiness and sorrow is the positive side. He also riffs on such matters as kitsch and what the act of defecation shows about God.

The primary characters in the story are Tomas and Tereza, a married Czech couple living through the Prague Spring, the Soviet invasion of 1968, and the aftermath of these events. Tomas is a skilled surgeon, who meets Tereza by accident (he is filling in for his ill boss at a conference and dines in the restaurant where she is working as a waitress). They marry, but this does not change the fact that Tomas is an unrepentant womanizer. After the Soviet takeover, Tomas is targeted because of an article he wrote in a paper run by intellectuals. Officials put pressure on him to repudiate the article, but he recognizes that his career is ruined whether he stands by his article or repudiates it. He gives up medicine and becomes first a window washer and then a worker on a commune. Tereza becomes a successful photographer, but she too loses her job and returns to waitressing. Terrible dreams haunt Tereza, and her husband's infidelity tortures her. Only her dog Karenin brings her any real joy. Shortly after the dog's death from cancer, Tereza and Tomas die in a truck accident.

Throughout the book, occasional sections are devoted to the artist Sabina, one of Tomas's many mistresses, and a lover she takes after emigrating to Geneva, Franz. When she breaks up with Franz, he quickly finds a new woman (one of his university students), but he holds Sabina in almost religiously high regard--he judges his actions by how she might evaluate them. When he joins a protest in Southeast Asia, he is accidentally killed, ending an essentially meaningless life in a meaningless way. After moving to the United States, Sabina dies, too, but I don't even remember how.

Of course, all characters in novels are fictive, but when the author acknowledges that they are merely stick figures designed to make his point or provide a backdrop for his musings, my interest in them diminishes. Yes, Kundera is making points about communism, about love, about reality--whatever. I'd rather read an essay explicating those points than this novel (acknowledging that  perhaps I am just hopelessly shallow).

Favorite passage--None really

Monday, November 5, 2012

Accelerated, by Bronwen Hruska

As Accelerated opens, Sean Benning is suffering through a parent social for the exclusive Manhattan private school his eight-year-old son Toby attends (Toby's tuition is paid by his in-laws). Sean's wife left him four months ago and has barely been heard from since; as a newly single parent, he is picking up numerous tasks related to The Bradley School that his wife previously fulfilled. And he's not enjoying it . . . despite the blow-job he receives in the bathroom at the social. The depiction of the school milieu makes the reader believe Accelerated is a satire of life among the New York elite.

But soon, author Hruska makes a sharp turn toward the serious. The school is pressuring Sean to put Toby on ADD medication--and Sean eventually capitulates. Then Toby collapses in gym class and Sean sets out on a mission--aided by Toby's attractive new teacher with whom Sean conveniently starts a romance--to prove that the school is endangering students by using a variety of nefarious tactics to force their parents to medicate their children. A meeting with a concerned psychiatrist provides the vehicle for a long explanation of the history of ADD/ADHD drugs and their dangers. Powerful alums of Bradley make life difficult for Sean, but he and his new love eventually triumph.

Hruska is well-intentioned, but the book didn't work for me once it turned serious--everything about the Bradley plot is rather obvious, and Sean's sexual exploits and mad runs around Manhattan (he seems to take off running whenever he gets upset or worried) are tedious.  Readers who are vitally interested in the subject of ADD/ADHD drugs may appreciate Accelerated, but I did not.

Favorite passage: None