Thursday, January 31, 2013

Open Heart, by Elie Wiesel

My last post began with a comment that also applies to Open Heart, although it is probably politically incorrect to say so about something written by a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize:  "If this author weren't so successful [perhaps eminent would be a better adjective here], this book would never have been published." Open Heart is a series of brief reflections (the entire book is only 79 pages and took about an hour to read) prompted by Wiesel's open heart surgery in summer 2011. He writes about his love for his wife and son, his guilt about not being with his parents and sister when they were murdered in the concentration camps, his writing, his faith, whether he has done enough in his life, whether he is ready to die. 

Perhaps I am just too cynical to appreciate this kind of book. I did admire the way that Weisel depicted how his mind wandered from thought to thought under stress and anesthesia, but I did not find the book inspiring; nor did I feel I gained the "timeless lessons about life" mentioned in President Obama's jacket blurb. 

Favorite passage:
. . . in my combat against hatred, which I wished to be unrelenting, did I in fact invest enough time, enough energy, in denouncing fanaticism in its various guises? Evidently not, since all of us who have fought the  battle must now admit defeat. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Kinsey and Me, by Sue Grafton

From time to time, I come across a book that makes me think, "If this author weren't so successful, this book would never have been published."   Kinsey and Me: Stories is one of those books, and I can't quite figure out why Sue Grafton would even want to publish it. One of the book's peculiarities is that it's two main sections--"Kinsey" and "Me"--have nothing to do with each other.

The Kinsey section features previously published short stories involving Grafton's signature character, Kinsey Millhone. Mystery short stories are essentially an exercise in the clever plot twist and, even though I read a lot of mysteries, mystery short stories get old quickly. I generally can tolerate a collection of them only when multiple authors have been asked to respond to a theme; seeing the range of responses can be amusing. However, just reading a series of short stories featuring Kinsey was not all that entertaining.

However, it is the Me section of the book that really raised questions. Why did Grafton choose to publish the stories in this section, which feature a character called Kit Blue, who is Sue Grafton's alter ego? Grafton wrote these "stories"--they are really more like ruminations on how having an alcoholic mother affects a daughter--in the ten years following her mother's death. The writing is inelegant, and the stories bounce from third to first to second person, with occasional use of such devices as addressing the reader directly and including a letter to give Kit's father a voice. Yet the stories have some emotional power; indeed, the pain and confusion are so palpable that reading the pieces is uncomfortable. If Grafton wanted to convey to others the multiple ways in which having an alcoholic mother scars someone, I can't help wondering why she didn't take these rough pieces as inspiration to write a more polished set of stories or even a novel. In the decades that have passed since the stories were written, Grafton has published 22 Millhone novels, so surely her writing style has advanced since she struggled with finding the voice in which to write about her own experience.

Not recommended.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Black Dahlia and White Rose: Stories, by Joyce Carol Oates

Alan Cheuse, NPR book reviewer (and author and professor), has dubbed Joyce Carol Oates's style as "every day gothic." This description is apt, especially for the self-consciously noir portion of Oates's large body of work. Black Dahlia and White Rose definitely falls into that category, as it is a collection of dark tales of people whose lives hold little that is hopeful or positive.

The book is organized into four sections. The first contains only the title story, in which Oates makes Marilyn Monroe the roommate of Elizabeth Short, the young woman dubbed the Black Dahlia after her sensational murder. The story takes the reader inside the two women's minds, as well as those of a sleazy photographer and a voyeuristic doctor.

All but one of the stories in the second section deal with parent-child relationships. I found these to be the most effective stories in the book--but effective in a way that makes them painful to read. In "I.D.," for example, a middle school girl who is having a variety of problems is pulled out of class and asked to identify a body as her mother.

What the stories in the third section have in common seems to be that the narrators become obsessed with observing someone or something else--the people in an apartment across a courtyard from a Rome hotel in one story, animals in the other. I found the two stories about animals (a sparrow and spotted hyenas) so bizarre as to be meaningless. The story about a married couple visiting "Roma" seems a more straightforward exploration of lost connections in a marriage of longstanding (which also is a theme in the hyena story).

The final section includes two stories about classes offered in prison settings. One features a man who repeatedly takes Introduction to Biology to understand "how is a person die." The second is told from the perspective of an older academic, who is teaching essay-writing with a younger colleague; while I have no idea if Oates has ever taught in prison, I found the character quite similar to the way in which Oates depicted herself in the memoir A Widow's Story, a similarity that quite honestly felt uncomfortable.

Although a couple of stories were engaging, I generally did not enjoy this collection. Furthermore, Oates's writing did not display the grace I've come to expect from her. In fact, I cannot stop myself from reproducing this truly horrid sentence: "She'd begun to perspire inside her clothes." Really? Where else would one perspire?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Possibility of You, by Pamela Redmond

The Possibility of You is intended to be a sweeping multi-generational saga of the 20th century.  In her "Author's Note," Redmond suggests that the book is about a number of interesting topics: immigration, how the Irish "became white," family history, polio epidemics, and more. Yet really the book is about unintended pregnancy and the decisions women must make when faced with an unintended pregnancy. Women of three different generations face these decisions during the story's three focal periods--1916, 1976 (one generation is skipped), and now.  The treatment is sentimental, the characters shallow, and the "surprises" totally expected. If I hadn't taken it to my son's for an evening of babysitting with sleeping grandchildren, I doubt I would have finished The Possibility of You.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens

Lately, I've been reading a lot of books about aging, illness, and death--and Mortality, a slim volume of essays written between Hitchens's being diagnosed with esophageal cancer and his death, is another in that line. The volume consists of an introduction by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, seven Hitchens essays, some rather random notes left by Hitchens, and an afterword by his widow Carol Blue.

While the introduction and afterword are so laudatory as to be rather dull (understandable given that they were written very shortly after the death of a loved one), the Hitchens essays are consistently interesting. From the opening paragraph of the first essay, in which he describes the day that first sent him to the hospital, the day on which he awoke "feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse," to the last essay, in which he details the horrible experience of having medical technicians try 12 times to insert a pick line, the book is unflinching in its depiction of the gruesomeness of having and being treated for a stage four cancer.

My favorite essay is the one in which Hitchens dismantles the adage "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger."  I have always thought this was completely untrue, but there's nothing like cancer, chemotherapy, and radiation to provide the convincing argument. As the quotes below illustrate, I also appreciated Hitchens's discourse on voice, prompted by a literal inability to speak at one point in his illness. And, for anyone wondering, cancer did not drive Hitchens to religion; he maintained his atheism even in the face of mortality.

Favorite passage:
All of the best recollections of wisdom and friendship, from Plato's Apologies to Socrates to Boswell's Life of Johnson resound with the spoken unscripted moments of interplay and reason and speculation. . . . For me, to remember friendship is to recall those conversations that it seemed a sin to break off, the ones that made sacrifice of the following day a trivial one.

In the medical literature, the vocal chord is a mere fold, a piece of gristle that strives to reach out and touch its twin, thus producing the possibility of sound effects. But I feel that there must be a deep relationship with the word chord, the resonant vibration that can stir memory, produce music, evoke love, bring tears, move crowns to pity and mobs to passion.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich

I started listening to Plague of Doves in early December--then I was out of town for a week and sick for two weeks and didn't get out to walk (which is when I listen to audio books). When I returned to the novel, I had a hard time remembering all the connections between the books multiple narrators and narrative threads. So, I am quite sure I have missed a lot. But here's the basic story:

The book opens with five members of a white family being killed in their home in Pluto, ND, near the Ojibwe reservation. A baby girl survives.  The author then begins the narration of Evelina Harp, a young Native American girl who is enamored with classmate Corwin Peace, whose family plans a large role in the history of Pluto and the reservation, and loves the stories of her grandfather Mooshum. From Mooshum, Eve hears the story of the murder and the subsequent hanging of a group of Native American men who discovered the crime scene; although Mooshum was with the group, his life was spared, a mystery that is solved near the end of the book. Judge Antone Coutts provides a second narrative point of view; as a descendant of one of Pluto's founders and the observer of wrongdoing in his courtroom, he recounts the very early history of the community, as well as stories about some notable crimes and his own love life. Marn Wolde, a local farm girl who falls for and runs off with the evangelist Billy Peace, is a third narrator. At the end of the book, a fourth narrator emerges to tell readers what happened to the baby girl who survived the family massacre.

Native American and Anglo families in Pluto and on the reservation are inextricably linked--through marriage,  through shared geography, and especially through their shared history. In particular Eve and Judge Coutts reveal the history of the community--in a chronologically disjointed manner--while telling their own engaging stories. As is always the case with Erdrich, the book is packed with details that add depth and raise questions. I must admit I wish I had read this book in print, so I could easily look back and forth to better understand the chronology and genealogy. Nonetheless, I found Erdrich's lyrical prose, complex and quirky characters, and nuanced look at the ties that bind people together rewarding. And the ending did surprise me without feeling gimmicky, another plus.

Favorite passages:
I saw that the loss of their land was lodged inside of them forever. This loss would enter me too. Over time, I came to know that the sorrow was a thing that each of them covered up according to their character. My old uncle through his passionate discipline. My mother through strict kindness and cleanly order. As for my grandfather, he used the patient art of ridicule.

If only they were not near death, this would be a very pleasant night.

When we are young, the words are scattered all around us. As they are assembled by experience, so also are we, sentence by sentence, until the story takes shape.

Old love, middle love, the kind of love that knows itself, that knows that nothing lasts, is a desperate shared wildness.

My work in the cemetery told me everyday what happens when you let an unsatisfactory present go on long enough. It becomes your entire history.

Friday, January 11, 2013

An Available Man, by Hilma Wolitzer

Edward Schuyler is a recently widowed middle school science teacher. Still grieving for his wife and adjusting to living alone, he is chagrined when he women start calling very soon--something his late wife Bee had predicted.

Edward moves beyond chagrin to horror when his stepchildren, with whom he is very close, place a personal ad for him in the New York Review of Books (the fact that they refer to him as "balding" contributes to his horror). Yet he calls to set up dates with a few of the 46 women who respond--the dates are not entirely successful, but they are entertaining. On his fourth dating attempt, he is shocked to find that the woman he meets at MoMA is actually his former fiancee, who left him at the altar more than 30 years earlier. While he is at first angry and sure that he wants nothing to do with her, she undertakes some mild stalking and they end up as a couple.

Wolitzer suggests that things will go badly with this renewed relationship--and they eventually do, though not nearly as badly as I thought they would. In fact, the end of the book fizzles, with Edward's life a little too neatly wrapped up and tied with a ribbon. Nonetheless, An Available Man is a fun read, especially for someone in Edward's age cohort (like me). If you're planning a winter vacation in tropical climes, this book would be a great beach read.

Side note: The old flame who seems like she is going to go "Fatal Attraction" on Edward is named Laurel Ann, which happens to be my name. When your name is relatively unusual, it's definitely an odd experience to read about a villain who shares that name!

Favorite passage:
He supposed that Sylvia was kind of attractive, especially from a distance, and even ageless in a way. But he wondered what she'd looked like before and why she'd chosen to expunge what must have been her recognizable self. A line from Yeats came into his head: But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, and loved the sorrows of your changing face. Probably it was Bee who'd read that to him in the first place, or perhaps it only reminded him of her, of the changes he would miss seeing.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe

You might expect a memoir about the two years an author's mother spent dying from pancreatic cancer to be a depressing tearjerker. Yet The End of Your Life Book Club is anything but--it's uplifting, funny, and full of good book recommendations. The responsibility for the tone of the book rests with the author, as well as with his mother, a truly remarkable woman. Mary Anne Schwalbe was a wife and mother of three, as well as an actress, director of admissions at Radcliffe and Harvard, a teacher and head of school, and a long-time leader in providing help to refugees--particularly women--around the world. Even during two years of grueling treatments for a cancer she knew was not curable, Mary Anne  continued a project she had started pre-diagnosis: building a library in Afghanistan.

The book covers Mary Anne's work, her treatment, and family dynamics, but at the book's core are son Will's recounting of the book discussions he and Mary Anne had during the two years of her illness. Many of these discussions took place while Mary Anne was receiving chemotherapy. Starting with Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety, their shared reading helped mother and son talk about a wide range of topics, from the personal to the philosophical. Mary Anne used the book club as an opportunity to get Will to read and talk about religion (she was a Christian, he is nonreligious), but they also read popular novels as varied as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and People of the Book. They also read short stories, poetry, biography.

I fear my description does not do The End of Your Life Book Club justice; it's definitely a worthwhile read, if only to expand your "want-to-read" list.

Favorite passages:
Reading isn't the opposite of doing; it's the opposite of dying.

For me, there's something about flying that isolates and intensifies sadness, the way a looking glass can magnify the sun until it grows unbearably hot and burns.

Mom taught me not to look away from the worst but to believe that we can all do better. She never wavered in her conviction that books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal, that reading all kinds of books, in whatever format you choose . . . is the grandest entertainment, and also is how you take part in the human conversation. Mom taught me that you can make a difference in the world and that books really do matter: they're how we know what we need to do in life, and how we tell others.

Monday, January 7, 2013

What Is Novel Conversations Reading?

Here are Novel Conversations' book selections for the next few months:

February: The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa
March: The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker
April: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain
May: The City and the City, by China Mieville
June: Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Brunt

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Dreams of Joy, by Lisa See

Dreams of Joy is the sequel to See's best-seller Shanghai Girls, which told the stories of sisters May and Pearl, who immigrated to Los Angeles in the 1930s to escape the Japanese invasion. May was pregnant when they left China, but the two agreed that the more serious sister Pearl would raise the little girl, Joy. At the end of Shanghai Girls, Joy learned that her mother was actually her aunt and vice versa. In addition, her activities in her first year at the University of Chicago had brought FBI and INS attention to her family, and her adoptive father Sam committed suicide to avoid having his illegal status discovered. Furious with her aunt and mother, guilty about Sam's suicide, and curious about her biological father (a well-known artist in China who was loved by both May and Pearl) and the new China, Joy takes off for Shanghai.

When she arrives, she rather easily locates her father, Z.G., but he has run afoul of the new government and is being sent to the rural areas to teach painting. Joy accompanies him to Green Dragon Village, where she is shocked by the conditions in which people lives but where she also falls in love with a young peasant Tao. When Z.G. is allowed to leave the countryside, the two go to Canton and then Peking, where Joy attends lavish parties and meets Mao.

Meanwhile, Pearl, Joy's adoptive mother, has traveled to Shanghai to try to retrieve her daughter. While waiting for Z.G. and Joy to return to Shanghai, she deals with officialdom, gets a job, and moves into her childhood home with other boarders. When Z.G. and Joy return to Shanghai, Pearl cannot convince Joy to return to the United States. In fact, Joy soon returns to Green Dragon Village (which has become part of a larger commune), where she impulsively marries Tao. Living in a shack with 10 other people, Joy is soon disillusioned with her marriage and rural life. When she becomes pregnant, however, she decides she must stay. Things rapidly get much worse, as the Great Leap Forward gets underway and famine sweeps across the countryside.  Joy is disillusioned with the new China and her marriage, but it takes extraordinary effort on her part and that of Pearl and Z.G. before she can escape.

As always, See has done extensive research, and at times the information about the consequences of misguided government policy is so dense and compelling that for me it overwhelmed the story about family, betrayal, and the consequences of individual and societal decisions. At the same time, that information makes Dreams of Joy worth reading.

Tomorrow, Novel Conversations will be discussing Dreams of Joy and skyping with Lisa See, which we are quite excited about. I will post some notes from that conversation in a day or two.

Favorite passage:
Those who have little to lose don't want to lose what little they have.