Friday, September 27, 2013

Paris Was the Place, by Susan Conley

Willow ("Willie") Pears is a 30-year-old American teacher living in Paris in 1989.  At the beginning of the book, Willie is just starting to work as a volunteer teacher at a center for girls who are seeking asylum in France. Her job is to teach them how to tell their stories movingly and convincingly when they have their court hearings. As she works with them, she becomes over-involved in one girl's case, and when Gita is denied asylum, Willie collaborates in her escape from the center. Not surprisingly, her services are no longer desired at the center and, to make matters worse, her boyfriend Macon, who also happens to be Gita's lawyer, is furious with her.

Meanwhile, Willie  is terribly concerned about her brother Luke's health (to the reader it is obvious that he has HIV/AIDS, but this is not revealed until midway through the book). She is also planning a trip to India, where she will research a poet about whom she is planning to write a book. She reconciles with Macon and he accompanies her on the trip, during which she suffers a miscarriage. When they return, Macon has become much sicker and within a short period of time dies.

A lot happens in this book, but the threads of the story aren't well integrated. The story of Willie's work with the immigrant girls could have been the foundation of an interesting novel, but once Gita runs away, that thread disappears until the very end of the book, replaced by Willie's trip to India and Luke's dying as the focus of the story. I found Macon and Willie's love story to be distracting and unbelievable, perhaps because Willie seems so unlovable. Everything that happens in the world is about her--Gita's story is not about Gita, it's about Willie; Luke's story is not about Luke, it's about Willie, and on and on. My distaste for the character was only strengthened by the fact that the audio book's narrator, Cassandra Campbell, gives her an annoying voice that becomes increasingly whiny as the book progresses. While the ending suggests Willie is having deep insights into how people continue in the face of great pain, I was unmoved.

I can't remember why I downloaded this book, and I wouldn't recommend anyone else do so.

Favorite passages:
. . . they can't stop guessing and talking about Stein's intentions, as if the author's intention was always everything,  and that a deeper subconscious muscle wasn't ever at work.

This is the thing about words: they fail, but you still have to use them.

She spends too much time in her head. There's more pain in there than a girl should have to live with.

[I did enjoy some of the author's language, but it did not balance out my issues with story construction and character.]

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel, by David Rakoff

David Rakoff, who died last year, shortly after finishing this book, was primarily an essayist. That fact makes this slim volume even more of an oddity to me. Why? Because the book is written in rhyming couplets. There is something about rhyming couplets that suggests lightness and humor--and many of Rakoff's lines are, in fact, quite funny, sometimes ribald--I mean, someone who rhymes pubic lice and paradise cannot be taken seriously, right?

Yet the story Rakoff weaves from couplet after couplet is quite serious, grappling with many of the  societal issues of the 20th century. The first segment introduces us to Margaret, a 13-year-old girl working in a Chicago meat-packing plant in the 1920s. When her mother's boyfriend molests her, the mother puts her on a train--in a freight car, no less--to the West coast. Although we know she survives, Margaret mostly disappears after we meet Clifford's family. They live in LA in the 1950s. Clifford's dad has had a stroke; while his mother complains, she works and cares for her husband, encouraging her son to develop his artistic talent. Once a year, her sister Sally and her daughter Helen visit. Clifford does not understand why Helen cannot see her own beauty, but with him, she feels freer than with anyone else.

Clifford grows up to draw a comic strip and enjoy the free-wheeling life of a gay man in San Francisco in the 1970s, until his friends start dying; he, too, eventually succumbs to AIDS. Helen is an office worker in New York; after a long-term affair with her boss ends and she completely loses it at a company Christmas party, she becomes the office oddball, a subject of derision.

Next we meet the three members of a romantic trial--Nathan, his best-friend Josh, and his girlfriend (but soon-to-be Josh's wife) Susan. Susan journeys from ambitious young professional, to nouveau riche matron, to religious emigre; with each change in her world view, she changes her name as well. By the 1990s,  she has left Josh to move to Israel, where she begins to feel another change coming on.

The stories are connected--Margaret makes a brief appearance in Clifford's story, as Clifford and Helen do in Josh, Susan, and Nathan's story. But the connections feel forced--just as the rhyming form does. While Rykoff's book has gotten a lot of positive reviews, I would not recommend it--unless you have a true love for anapestic tetrameter (okay, I admitted it, I got that term from the New Yorker review).

Favorite passage:
"For what seemed like hours, while always subjective
Was now so unknowable, flimsy, selective,
In thrall to the twists of his brain's involutions
The cranial mist and synaptic occlusions
He'd had to contend with since he'd had his stroke,
Like trying to sculpt something solid from smoke.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller

The Dog Stars is this year's One Book One Broomfield choice--and it is a dark one. A flu pandemic has wiped out most of the population, and drought has destroyed much of the environment. Hig and Bangley live at the Erie, Colorado, airport. Hig hunts, gardens, and patrols the perimeter of their unofficial territory in his Cessna. Bangley is the muscle, killing anyone who intrudes in their territory regardless of age, gender, physical state, or intention--in fact, he doesn't take the time to ascertain their intentions. One of his mottoes is "Never negotiate." While Hig is clearly the more humane of the two--he tends to a group of Mennonites who survived the pandemic only to come down with a deadly disorder carried in the blood--but he has killed his share of intruders as well.

When Hig is flying his plane, he uses his radio as if someone were going to answer--and one day, he picks up bits of a transmission from Grand Junction. For three years, he thinks about trying to fly to Grand Junction--although he knows such a mission might end up with him stranded on the Western Slope--but only after does his beloved dog Jasper dies does he feel compelled to try to make another human connection.

On his journey, Hig not only makes new alliances and runs into new dangers, he also realizes that he cares deeply about Bangley and begins to worry about how he is doing back in Erie without help. Without revealing specifics of any more plot developments than I've already mentioned, I would simply say that the book ends on what to me seems like an ambiguously positive note.

Throughout the book, the reader is inside Hig's head--and Heller beautifully conveys how he thinks--combining complete sentences and elegiac reflections with sentence fragments and single words in rapid-fire responses to events around him. Things don't always make sense--just as our own thoughts often do not.  Dystopian novels aren't really my thing--and this book is certainly darker and more violent than other One Book one Broomfield choices--but I did appreciate Heller's writing and hits creation of a complex character who commands our sympathy as we recoil from some of his actions.

A listing of one Book One Broomfield events is available at

Favorite passages:
. . . smell is always the smell itself and memory, too, don't know why.

There is a pain you can't think your way out of. You can't talk it away. If there were someone to talk to. You can walk. One foot the other foot. Breathe in breathe out. Drink from the stream. Piss. Eat the venison strips. Leave his venison in the trail for the coyotes the jays. And. You can't metabolize the loss. It is in the cells of your face, your chest, behind the eyes, in the twists of your guy. Muscle sinew bone. It is all of you.

How you refill. Lying there. Something like happiness, just like water, pure and clear pouring in. So good you don't even welcome it, it runs through you in a bright stream, as if it has been there all along.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sight Reading, by Daphne Kalotay

Sight Reading features a rather mundane plot. Would-be artist Hazel and composer/conductor Nicholas are married and have a little girl Jessie. Then Nicholas has an affair with a student at the Boston conservatory where he is on the faculty and leaves Hazel for Remy, a violinist. Ten years pass and Jessie, on the edge of the teen years, is causing concern for all three of her parents. Hazel is unable to sustain a relationship, convinced that the disorder that is causing her to lose pigmentation is driving men away. Remy has a brief affair with Nicholas's best friend Yoni. Ten years pass and Jessie is engaged, Hazel is happily remarried, and Remy and Nicholas are having problems individually and as a couple. Yoni dies.

Not only is the plot trite, the characters tend toward the disagreeable. Remy is perpetually dissatisfied but can't figure out why. Nicholas is completely unaware of any one else's feelings. And Hazel . . . Hazel is a self-pitying wimp. Twenty years after her divorce from Nicholas and some years into a happy marriage to Robert, she is upset when she learns Remy and Nicholas are having problems because if they break up, her pain and humiliation will have been for nothing. What? Could anything be more pathetic?

So, one might ask why I kept reading, and the answer is that I found the way Kalotay wrote about music and its creation to be both lovely and thought-provoking. If the novel had the complexity and resonance of the music she describes, it would have been much, much better!

Favorite passages:
Ideas [for musical compositions] presented themselves while he showered, while he dreamed, and he accepted them with gratitude, hearing melodies in the hiss of radiators and the dripping of faucets.

She took her violin from its case, tuned the strings, tightened her bow. Closing her eyes, she thought back to the opening bars. Her bow met the string, and soon she found herself among those mysteries she was still trying to understand, those questions still taking shape. Playing from memory always held this quality for her, as if inhabiting a nameless space whose light and shadows became gradually--with each playing--more clear to her. Already she sensed, this time, a leap forward in her comprehension, her playing no longer a matter of mere translation. The music had become a part of her, so that she felt, this time (though tears streaked her cheeks), its meaning.

She felt herself floating within time, the way she often did while playing, that suspension of time that is the peculiar alchemy of music. Just as Nicholas had said on that very first day, twenty years ago. Not just how fast or how slowly the music moves. It's about how fast and slow life moves.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell

The audio version of this brief book is prefaced by a lengthy interview with the author. The interview definitely influenced how I interpreted the rather unusual structure of the book because in it, Maxwell indicated that much in the story parallels his own life. Thus, when the book's narrator refers to the frame that he put around the imaginative part of the story as a memoir, I believe that it is indeed a memoir even though the book itself is classified as fiction.

But let me explain. So Long, See You Tomorrow opens with a murder in the small town of Lincoln, Illinois (where William Maxwell spent his early years). It then drops back a few years to describe the early life of the narrator, a dreamy unathletic boy (again, like Maxwell), whose mother dies when he is young (again, like Maxwell--okay, I'll stop now). The narrator's father remarries a perfectly lovely young woman who is kind and loving to her husband's sons, but the boy still feels alienated from his family, missing his mother and sensing that his father does not understand or truly love him. When his father sells their family home and starts building a new home, the narrator hangs out there after school, walking the beams with a boy named Cletus Smith whom he does not know well. They become friends of a sort, hanging out in a setting that can only be their playground for a limited time.

Then the murder occurs--Cletus's father shoots their neighbor Wilson, his former best friend, and then kills himself. Cletus disappears from the narrator's life until the narrator's family moves to Chicago some years later. One day he sees Cletus in the hall at his high school, but they do not acknowledge each other. This occurrence haunts the narrator (okay, sorry, I'm going to do it again--as an identical event disturbed Maxwell) and he decides to try to exorcise the memory by more fully imagining the story of the Smiths  and the Wilsons. The tale he creates is a terribly sad one of women marrying the wrong men, friendship betrayed, children forgotten or used as pawns, financial ruin, and even abuse and neglect of the family dog. While the story holds together as a tragic dissolving of all the bonds that keep a person functioning within society's boundaries, it hardly seems to be an imagining that would help the narrator (or William Maxwell) free himself from the guilt of cutting Cletus in the high school corridor. Perhaps that is the point--there can be no redemption for an unreasonable guilt and one's imagination simply cannot answer the questions that plague you when you do not know what ultimately happens to someone you wronged. My own take is perhaps not what Maxwell had in mind--that the narrator's guilt is not just unreasonable but an exaggeration of his own significance in the larger story of Cletus's life and thus his attempt to assuage that guilt would ultimately fail because it, too, was conceived in egotism.

At any rate, I did feel the purpose behind the structure was not entirely clear, which leads me to an interesting point. In the interview that opened the audio presentation, Maxwell said he thought it was the author's moral obligation not to leave the reader with unanswered questions. Hmmm. I don't feel the same way about unanswered questions, perhaps because the author cannot know what questions we as readers have. If Maxwell thinks he answered all the questions in this book, then I believe he is providing evidence for my point. Furthermore, unanswered questions often cause us to reflect most keenly on what the work means to us.

Another interesting comment that Maxwell made in the interview is that he begins each book with a metaphor, and the characters and story emerge from there and from his life experience.  (He several times uses a metaphor of a tree in explaining his life story to the interviewer.) In So Long, See Your Tomorrow, the central metaphor seems to be the two boys playing on the scaffolding and beams at the half-built house, building a friendship in the air as they play on the incomplete foundation their families have provided to protect them.

Favorite passage:
Whether they are a part of home or home is a part of them is not a question children are prepared to answer. Having taken away the dog, take away the kitchen, the smell of something good in the oven for dinner. Also the smell of wash day, of wool drying on the wooden rack, of ashes, of soup simmering on the stove. Take away the patient old horse, waiting by the pasture fence. Take away the chores that kept him busy from the time he got home from school until he sat down to supper. Take away the early morning mist, the sound of crows quarreling in the treetops. . . . Take all this away and what have you done to him. In the face of a deprivation so great, what is the use of asking him to go on being the boy he was?