Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Best of 2014

I read a lot this year. Although the year got off to a somewhat slow start due to a crushingly huge work project and eye surgery that left my eyes too tired to read when I finally finished work for the day, work eventually slowed down (not an entirely good thing for someone who makes their living consulting) and reading picked up. I think I'm at 144 books for the year, including quite a few mysteries or other cruddy books that I didn't bother to write up on the blog, which leads me to another reflection. In reading Nick Hornby's Ten Years in the Tub, I was surprised to learn that the journal for which he reviews books, The Believer, does not publish negative reviews, instead focusing on "writers and books we like." Later in the year, I read Anne LaMott's Bird by Bird, in which she describes the ways in which negative reviews have affected her. I certainly do not want to crush anyone's spirit (I'm perhaps overstating here), so I have thought about only including books I liked on this blog. On the other hand, a word to the wise from someone whose taste is similar to your own can save a reader time and money. For that reason, I'm still reviewing both both books I like and those I don't, but I'd be interested in input if anyone cares to weigh in.

So that was a long introduction to this list, which definitely includes only books I like!

Best Novel 
Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill. This novel about marriage and a woman's undoing is unlike any other novel I have read.  Presented in a series of brief reflections, quotations, and anecdotes, the book is both harrowing and affirming. It's not for everyone, but it is wonderful.

Honorable Mention:  Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, by Chris Bohjalian; Amy Falls Down, by Jincy Willett; A Death in the Family, by James Agee; The Snow Queen, by Michael Cunningham

Best Short Stories
Nothing with Strings, by Bailey White. I just finished this collection by Southern writer Bailey White. While firmly set in the Southern story-telling tradition, the stories explore universal themes of aging and loss in humorous yet moving fashion.

Honorable Mention: Dirty Love, by Andre Dubus III

Best Nonfiction (Two Choices!)
The Warm of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. Wilkerson uses three cases studies to make this history of the later decades of the Great Migration as readable as any novel.

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast. I'm not sure how Chast manages to be funny while talking about some of the most grueling and difficult moments of life, but she does. You may be laughing and crying at the same time, but you'll definitely respond to this amazing book.

Honorable Mention: Ten Years in the Tub, by Nick Hornby; Sous Chef, by Michael Gibney

Best Mystery
Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty. I'm not sure the author would call Big Little Lies a mystery, but there are a suspicious death and an investigation; the reader doesn't know what happened; and it's a bitingly funny satire . . . so I say it deserves this "win."

Best Poetry
The Perpetual Commotion of the Heart, by Norma Gay Prewett. Prewett is a friend whose poetry captures beautifully the poignancy of motherhood, of growing up financially poor but rich in love and noise, of aging, of life. Her poems are moving without being sentimental.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson was born in 1951 and raised in Des Moines, Iowa. I was born in 1950 and raised on farms in northern Illinois. Thus, many of the observations about growing up in the 1950s that he makes in this humorous memoir of childhood ring true. I must admit, however, that I was better-behaved than Bryson not, for example, having ever missed school double-digit numbers of days because I simply didn't like to get up in the morning and my mother wasn't inclined to make me do so, discovered that peeing on Lincoln Logs bleached them white (yes, any number of his stories are somewhat gross), or indulged in epic tomfoolery at movie matinees.

While Bryson portrays himself as being chronically in trouble and hated by teachers, his father (a sports writer) as monumentally tight-fisted and obsessed with isometrics, and his mother (also a journalist) as incredibly ditzy, his childhood was happy, in part due to the simplicity of the 1950s. Often, when he reflects on what made the era a good time to grow up and what made his own childhood happy, he seems to resort to listing--data on what made life in the United States enviable in terms of its ease, words heard in the 50s but not used now, predictions about the technological future, foods they didn't eat in their family, nonfood items he had tasted. While at first I found the lists kind of endearing, I eventually grew tired of them. Luckily, their frequency did decline as the book progressed.

Although the book does present a loving portrayal of life in the 1950s, Bryson is not foolishly romantic and, to demonstrate that fact, he includes sections in which he analyzes some of the shortcomings of the decade, including McCarthyism, the arms race, and racism. He also bemoans the rise of consumerism and the homogenization of American towns and cities.

I generally enjoyed the book and occasionally laughed out loud. One section that troubled me covered Bryson's move from an all-white elementary school to a racially mixed junior high. In a five-paragraph section intended, I am  sure, to be funny, he describes white kids realizing they would never be on a sports team again and tiny black kids so tough they could beat up larger white bullies. He follows this with a paragraph and a half about how there was really very little difference between black and white kids and everybody got along. Somehow the five paragraphs intended to be funny were not, and the subsequent paragraph and a half on racial harmony were unconvincing.

On the other hand, I did like the brief excerpts from Des Moines newspaper stories and historic photos that began every chapter. They were funny and suggestive of the tenor of the times.

Favorite passage:
We didn't call it the kitchen in our house. We called it the Burns Unit.

. . . I knew more things in the first ten years of my life than I believe I have known at any time since. . .. I knew what the world looked like when viewed through a Jell-O lens. . . . I knew pain the way you know it when it is fresh and interesting--the pain, for example, of a toasted marshmallow in your mouth when its interior is roughly the temperature and consistency of magma. I knew exactly how clouds drifted on a July afternoon, what rain tasted like, how ladybugs preened and caterpillars rippled, what it felt like to sit inside a bush.

Nothing with Strings, by Bailey White

Thanksgiving is not usually a day on which I'm listening to the radio, so I was unaware that Bailey White stories have been a mainstay on All Things Considered's Thanksgiving broadcast. In fact, I knew little about Bailey White, other than that she is a Southern writer. So when I downloaded this audio book containing 13 of her Thanksgiving-day stories, I had no idea what to expect.

The stories certainly have a Southern flavor--eccentric characters, Southern expressions, and references to Southern cuisine, traditions, foliage, etc. pepper the stories. But they have little to do with Thanksgiving and tend to end with unexpected twists that are not necessarily of the "sweet down-home" variety (both of these facts apparently irked a number of readers who reviewed the collection on Amazon). Some also have a development that might be supernatural--but might not be; readers/listeners have to decide for themselves. An example: In the first story, "Meals-on-Wheels," morning glories have gotten into Ida's house and are growing across the walls. The Meals-on-Wheels "girl" urges them to cut them down at the window where they have entered the house. But Ida is less concerned about the morning glories than about the fact that she sometimes finds Richard Nixon in the kitchen cooking eggs when she gets up in the morning; she realizes this is unusual enough that she shouldn't tell anyone else about it for fear of ending up in the Shady Rest Nursing Home. Then a new Meals-on-Wheels girl starts delivering her food, and she changes Ida's life. She loves the morning glories, replaces the jello in the meals with home-baked cake, and takes Ida on a picnic. Finally, the old Meals-on-Wheels girl returns and tells Ida there was no new girl who replaced her. So who was the girl? Was it a supernatural visitor, a figment of Ida's slightly addled mind, or a real person unknown to the old Meals-on-Wheels girl? We have to decide for ourselves.

Like "Meals-on-Wheels," a number of the stories have to do with aging and dementia. Others have to do with loss in different forms--loss of a mother, of the free-wheeling lifestyle of one's youth, of the small-town traditions that disappear when "development" comes to a community. These themes are universal, and I found White's treatment of them well worth the time I invested in listening. Note that the audio version of the book is narrated by Lorna Raver rather than by White herself, another fact that annoyed some Amazon reviewers. While Raver's Southern accent seemed slightly exaggerated, I didn't mind her narration.

Recommended, with awareness that these are not feel-good holiday stories.

Favorite passage:
The Meals-on-Wheels girl said, "You couldn't pay me to eat an egg cooked by Richard Nixon." [Okay, it's not a particularly graceful sentence or beautiful sentiment, but it matches my feelings about Richard Nixon exactly.]

Behind them Lily sat on the porch floor, playing with the reflection of the Chautauqua building in her mind. When the breeze died down and the reflection in the lake grew clear and distinct, she could squint her eyes and make herself believe that the reflection was the building itself. This seemed to make anything possible, and she went on to imagine ladies in white lawn and gentlemen in bowler hats strolling in the lake yard, a drunken monkey on a red leash, a blue mule, and a mysterious stranger with a black mustache. Then a little breeze would stir up the ripples, the reflection would slur, and everything would shift back to real. her mind would clamp down again, and there would be the banjo player on that cold, cold night, nudging her down the walkway and saying, "How could have you have thought it was that important?"  [This, I think, gives a real sense of White's writing and attitude.]

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things is the story of Alma Whittaker, a woman born in 1800 into a wealthy Philadelphia family. Her father Henry rose from poverty in England to prominence in the United States by figuring out how to make money through trade in exotic plants. The family home has gardens and greenhouses rivaling those of long-established European botanical gardens.

Alma, whose homeliness and large size Gilbert emphasizes repeatedly, is exceptionally bright and begins gathering botanical knowledge and developing her skills with a microscope at an early age. But when her beautiful but distant adopted sister Prudence marries an abolitionist schoolteacher and the man Alma loved married her mentally unstable friend Retta, Alma retreats to decades of intensive study of moss (and masturbation in a closet). When her mother dies, she adds management of her father's business affairs to her tasks.

Then she encounters an exceptional botanical artist, Ambrose Pike, and the two instantly become close friends, but things do not work out as either had hoped. Following the death of her father, Alma embarks on a journey to Tahiti. She develops "Theory of Competitive Alteration" to explain how species evolve. When she makes her way to Europe, her uncle, the head of a Dutch botanical garden, urges her to publish her paper explicating the theory, but she does not, worried that it does not explain altruism in humans, as exemplified by Prudence. When Darwin publishes The Origin of the Species, she takes it as validation of her work.

The Signature of All Things made many "best of 2013" lists, and there is much to admire in Gilbert's work. One can only imagine the extent of the research required to write knowledgeably about a range of botanical and broader scientific topics. Gilbert captures the tone of the 19th century in her writing style and conveys well the numerous challenges that a woman who wished to be a scientist faced in that era. Alma Whittaker, while fictional, must represent untold numbers of women who toiled unacknowledged in the scientific world. All of this notwithstanding, I found the book somewhat tedious--it's much too long and, at least for this reader, packed with too much botanical detail. While plant life and the scientific domain are well described (perhaps too well), the individual peoplein the story often act in inexplicable ways. Perhaps their motivations arise from a spiritual domain that I do not appreciate, but I found many decisions made by Alma and others unrealistic. Overall, I would recommend the book for people interested in botany or female scientists, but not for more casual readers. And I recognize most reviewers saw the book much more positively.

Favorite passages:
There is a level of grief so deep that it stops resembling grief at all. The pain become so severe that the body can no longer feel it. The grief cauterizes itself, scars over, prevents inflated feeling. Such numbness is a kind of mercy.

All I ever wanted was to know this world. I can say now, as I reach my end, that I know quite a bit more of it than I knew when I arrived. Moreover, my little bit of knowledge had been added to all the other accumulated knowledge of history--added to the great library, as it were. That is no small feat, sir. Anyone who can say such a thing has lived a fortunate life.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

Roz Chast is best known as a cartoonist and illustrator. With Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? she establishes herself as a gifted memoirist. She employs her characteristic cartooning style, handwritten text, photographs, and drawings to convey the pain and absurdity of the years preceding her parents' deaths.

Her parents were well into their 90s and still living in their apartment in Brooklyn when her mother Elizabeth fell off a ladder and was hospitalized for two weeks. Although Chast knew her father was suffering from dementia, the separation from his wife made the extent of the problem even more clear. Still, however, her parents refused to consider moving until her mother suffered another fall and her father got lost in the building while looking for help.

Chast moved her parents to an assisted living facility--The Place--near her home. She suffered the challenges of cleaning out their apartment and helping them settle into the new setting--and then watched first her father and then her mother die. Chast is incredibly forthright about the range of emotions she experienced during this process--forthrightness that can only help others going through similar experiences that they are not alone, nor are they crazy or evil!

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a remarkable book about the end of life as seen through the eyes of the caretaking child of the dying. Chast can make you laugh and cry simultaneously while stunning you with her painful and admirable honesty. Highly recommended.

Favorite passage:
I wish that, at the end of life, when things were truly "done," there was something to look forward to. Something more pleasure-oriented. Perhaps opium, or heroin. So you become addicted. So what? All-you-can-eat ice cream parlors for the extremely aged. Big art picture books and music. Extreme palliative care, for when you've had it with everything else.

After my father died, I noticed that all the things that had driven me bats about him--his chronic worrying, his incessant chitchat, his almost suspect inability to deal with anything mechanical--now seemed trivial. The only emotion that remained was one of deep affection and gratitude that he was my dad.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

This voluminous book was a surprise bestseller when it was published in 2011. A 500-page story ostensibly about baseball set in academia hardly seemed likely to become so popular. In fact, when Novel Conversations chose the book, I was not excited--and the first couple of times I tried to start The Art of Fielding, I just couldn't get into it. But some months later, I finally managed to get past the first chapter and am glad I did.

The Art of Fielding gets its title from a book by the legendary Cardinals shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez, full of numbered bits of wisdom applicable to baseball and life. Examples: 3. There are three stages. Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.  and 33. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone; the return to thoughtless being by a very few. Henry Skrimshander is obsessed with baseball and The Art of Fielding. Playing in a summer baseball tournament in Peoria, Henry is discovered by Mike Schwartz, a two-sport athlete (and unofficial athletic director) at Westish College. Mike recruits Henry to Westish; Henry is assigned to room with Owen Dunne, a fine student who also happens to be gay and a baseball player.

Late in Mike's senior year (Owen and Henry's junior year), all three suffer crises. Despite being an outstanding student, Mike has applied to five of the nation's top law schools and been rejected by all of them. He realizes he has spent the past three years developing Henry's baseball career and neglected his own future. He falls for Pella Affenlight, daughter of the college president, who has just gotten out of a bad marriage; that relationship, too, is fraught. Henry, who has not made an error in years and is getting calls from scouts and agents, makes a throwing error that injures Owen (who sits in the dugout reading during games) and triggers a crisis of confident. Owen, meanwhile, enters a relationship with college president Guert Affenlight, a circumstance that is more treacherous for Guert than for Owen but perhaps not well-considered for either.

The events of the spring semester are told from the perspectives of Mike, Henry, Pella, and Guert. Interestingly, Chad Harbach has described Owen as feeling like "the author of the book, or the presiding consciousness"--but, perhaps because he doesn't write from Owen's perspective, I didn't get that feeling. For me, Mike and Henry are the heart of the story--they both have worked hard but are in situations where they feel they have lost control of what is happening to them. The same might also be said of Guert and Pella, although Guert is certainly aware that getting involved with a student is a bad idea.

Certainly, the book could have been edited down a bit. For me, the descriptions of baseball plays and games got a bit tedious (and I'm a sports fan). For other readers, the many references to literature, reading, and literary analysis might seem a bit much (Affenlight is a Melville scholar, Mike is writing his senior thesis on Marcus Aurelius's Meditations). Nonetheless, the book has a strong core about how our lives are shaped by our own decisions, happenstance, relationships, and what and how we think about our lives and our art (whether baseball or writing). Despite wishing it were a little shorter, I recommend The Art of Fielding.

Favorite passages:
It was easy enough to write a sentence, but if you were going to create a work of art, the way Melville had, each sentence needed to fit perfectly with the one that preceded it, and the unwritten one that would follow. And each of those sentences needed to square with the ones on either side, so that three became five and five became seven, seven became nine, and whichever sentence he was writing became the slender fulcrum on which the whole precarious edifice depended.

For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we're alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.

Literature could turn you into an asshole; he'd learned that teaching grad-school seminars. It could teach you to treat real people the way you did characters, as instruments of your own intellectual pleasure, cadavers on which to practice your critical faculties.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Beautiful and Damned, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

. I don't think I've ever read such a devastating depiction of a social class to which the author belonged as The Beautiful and Damned. Fitzgerald's book features two characters similar to himself and his wife Zelda. Anthony Patch is a Harvard man who fancies himself a writer (though he seldom does much writing). Living in New York just prior to World War I, he meets the lovely Gloria from Kansas City, a woman apparently interested in little other than her own beauty. They marry and proceed to live a life of leisure, partying, arguing, and drinking while they wait for Anthony's grandfather to die and leave them his millions. When he dies, however, they learn they have been disinherited. As they wait for their lawsuit challenging the will to be resolved, Anthony and Gloria descend into alcoholism and near-poverty.

Anthony and Gloria are utterly worthless people, and their friends, while more successful, are hardly less despicable.  The leisured upper classes at the dawn of the Jazz Age are generally portrayed as glamorous and carefree, but Fitzgerald--who should certainly know--depicts them much differently. The result is a depressing novel only partially redeemed by Fitzgerald's talent.

Favorite passage:
I learned a little of beauty-- enough to know that it had nothing to do with truth. . .

. . . desire just cheats you. It's like a sunbeam skipping here and there about a room. It stops and gilds some inconsequential object, and we poor fools try to grasp it - but when we do the sunbeam moves on to something else, and you've got the inconsequential part, but the glitter that made you want it is gone.

Experience is not worth the getting. It's not a thing that happens pleasantly to a passive you--it's a wall that an active you runs up against.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dear Life, by Alice Munro

Even before she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Alice Munro was generally regarded as a master of the short story form. I have enjoyed several collections from earlier in her career. In fact, I enjoyed Dear Life while listening to it--but a couple of weeks have passed since I finished it, and I don't remember a lot about the 20 stories and four somewhat autobiographical pieces, other than their general sense of psychological and geographic isolation.

Two stories did stay with me. In "Amundsen," young Vivien travels to a rural area to teach children confined to a TB sanitarium. She is good at her job, engaging students in learning in a way not always sanctioned by the authorities. Then she becomes involved with Doctor Fox, a man with little charm but the ability to elevate her social standing. They become engaged but suffice it to say that things do not turn out well.

"Train" opens with Jackson, a veteran, returning from World War II. A short distance from his hometown, he jumps off the train and walks in the opposite direction. He comes upon a dilapidated farm run by a woman named Belle. He settles down there, living with Belle as brother and sister. Years later, when Belle becomes ill, he takes her to the city for treatment; in the process, she reveals secrets from her past that prompt Jackson to once again set off to reconstruct his life. Does the cycle repeat again? I leave that for you to find out.

As these brief synopses of two of the ten stories indicate, the stories have a melancholy tinge. Another common thread (to me at least) is how difficult it is to fathom the motivations of the characters--perhaps rereading would help resolve that difficulty, but I don't feel drawn enough to the stories to make the effort. Critics have noted that these later stories are not as long or as detailed and richly textured as Munro's earlier work, being more impressionistic. I think this may be a factor in my response.

Favorite passage:
Then there was silence, the air like ice. Brittle-looking birch trees with black marks on their white bark, and some kind of small untidy evergreens rolled up like sleepy bears. The frozen lake not level but mounded along the shore, as if the waves had turned to ice in the act of falling.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Us, by David Nicholls

Douglas Petersen, the protagonist of Us, is a scientist who is a bit of a know-it-all and prig, with a tin ear for relationships. He has been married for more than 20 years to Connie, a former artist;  as the book opens, Connie has announced that she wants to end their marriage now that "their work"--raising son Albie--is "done." Douglas is stunned by her announcement and by the fact that she thinks they should go forward with their plan to take their son on a continental tour before he heads off to college.

As one might expect, the trip does not go well. Albie and Connie's extremely close relationship often excludes Douglas, who only makes matters worse with his anal devotion to scheduling and willingness to be embarrassed by his son's behavior. As they travel, Douglas is also mentally reliving his and Connie's meeting, courtship, and early years of marriage, including their first child's death in her first few hours of life. When Albie runs off and Connie decides to return home to the London suburbs, Douglas resolves to find Albie, bring him home, and win Connie back.

While this process does seem to provide Douglas with some new self-awareness, his behavior remains irritatingly unchanged. In fact, I found little to empathize with in any of the three main characters and, while some of Douglas's adventures were amusing, generally didn't care greatly for the book.

Favorite passage:
The percentage varies but some of the things I say make no sense to me at all.

Anyone who has attempted to clean away large quantities of spilt glitter will know it is a pernicious and vile substance, a kind of festive asbestos . . .

100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write, by Sara Ruhl

The title of this book and its subtitle, On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parade and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater (as well as a brief write-up I'd seen about the book), led me to believe this was going to be a humorous collection of short essays on lighthearted domestic topics. While the essays are short, humor is present, and one section does address some domestic topics, overall the book is a rather serious examination of writing, the theater, acting, and art. An example: One essay is titled "Don't send your characters to reform school," which sounds rather light--but the first sentence is "Sometimes I think that American dramaturgy is based not on Aristotle's Poetics but instead on The Pilgrim's Progress . . . that is to say, what has your character learned, how has she changed, what is her journey?" The essay is only four paragraphs but it examines a serious question about the relationship of the morality play to realism.

Among the other questions Ruhl (a playwright and MacArthur "genius" award winner--she's a smart one, no doubt!) explores in her brief essays are the importance of small powerful words, how the current obsession with subtext has robbed writers of the drama of the sentence, color-blind casting, whether play-writing is teachable (one of the longest essays in the book), and non-adverbial acting (an intriguing concept). She does write about her family but even these pieces are meant not merely to entertain but to elucidate. Even when she ruminates for only a paragraph, about, for example, her son's remarking that ballet is beautiful but he doesn't like it, the reader is challenged to think more deeply.

Although I got this book from the library, it's the kind of book that I can imagine picking up and rereading essays at random just to challenge myself to think about something not often on my mind. Definitely worth reading.

P.S. Due to a couple of busy weeks, I have gotten behind on my posting, so I'll likely be throwing up several posts tonight and tomorrow.

Favorite passages:
Small, forthright words, used in the service of condensing experience, might have an idea buried in them as large as the most expansive work that wears its intellectualism on its sleeve. The unshed tears of the deeply felt are akin to the unused large words in the service of a thought.

. . . a writer's special purview and intimate power is how a world follows a word.

Being dead is the most airtight defense of one's own aesthetic.  [Yes, she is both smart and funny.]

It [playwriting] is as teachable as any other art form, in which we are dependent on a shared history and on our teachers for a sense of form, inspiration, and example; but we are dependent on ourselves alone for our subject matter, our private discipline, our wild fancies, our dreams. The question of whether playwriting is teachable begets other questions, like: is devotion teachable? Is listening teachable? Is a love of art and a willingness to give your life over to art teachable? I believe that these things are teachable mostly by example, and in great silences.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What is Novel Conversations reading?

Here are the books Novel Conversations will be reading in the next several months:

January: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson
February: The Whistling Season, by Ivan Doig
March: The Silver Star, by Jeannette Walls
April: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

May: Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of Wings is the story of two women whose lives first became entwined when Sarah Grimke's mother "gifted" her with Hetty ("Handful") on Sarah's 12th birthday. Already able to see that slavery was wrong, Sarah, whose family was among the wealthy Charleston elite, attempted to emancipate  Hetty but was thwarted by her parents. She then decided to teach Hetty to read; those efforts, too, were cut short when another slave ratted on Hetty. Over the next 35 years, the two remained in a close relationship that resembled friendship and yet was tainted by their differing statuses.

Sarah, whose story Kidd has kept very close to the historical record of this abolitionist and women's rights activist, was not conventionally beautiful and suffered from a speech impediment. After nearly being conned into marriage by a golddigger, Sarah went North, where she found herself attracted to the Quaker faith. Although the Quakers had many forward-thinking ideas, they still believed women should spend their lives supporting the efforts of men, rather than being leaders themselves. When the Quaker widower Sarah loved proposed, she was unwilling to give up her dreams of becoming a Quaker minister in order to marry. Although she did not achieve that goal, she and her sister Angelina did travel the states to speak about slavery and women's rights, a highly unusual circumstance in the early 19th century.

Meanwhile, Hetty remained in the Grimke household in Charleston. Her mother was a gifted seamstress and taught Hetty the skills she would need to take over that job. Her mother also had a penchant for escaping from the house to rendevous with a lover, a free black man named Denmark Vesey. When Hetty's mother disappeared one day, Hetty investigated what happened and became involved first in Vesey's church and then, marginally, in his efforts to launch a slave rebellion in Charleston. But her involvement in these efforts was not without cost. She continues to dream of escaping from slavery, a dream her mother imbued in her when she was a very small child.

At the end of the story, Sarah and Hetty reunite for one last effort at freedom.

Kidd has said that writing Hetty, who is a fictional character, was much easier than writing Sarah because of the need to stick at least somewhat close to the historical record. I think I could occasionally sense that as a reader because the Sarah sections sometimes felt like Kidd was trying to convey a lot of facts, but there were also plenty of facts in Hetty's section--if not about her, then about Denmark Vesey, slave rebellions, and the treatment of slaves. In fact, I found The Invention of Wings very informative, both about the Grimke sisters, whom I had heard of but didn't have detailed knowledge of, and about urban slavery. I found the book less effective/engaging as a novel perhaps because the themes--slavery was a wretched institution, women of the era had to work extraordinarily hard and with great courage to "invent their wings"--really go without saying.

Two side notes. First, the digital version of the book includes Oprah Winfrey's notes, which were interesting as a window into Oprah but not that interesting in terms of explicating the book. Second, I was very grateful that Kidd used dialect sparingly and did not use it in representing Hetty's speech or thinking.

Favorite passages:
There's no pain on earth that doesn't crave a benevolent witness.

I never had heard this story. Listening to it was like watching myself sleep, clouds floating, mauma bent over me.

History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another's pain in the heart our own.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Songs without Words, by Ann Packer

Sarabeth and Liz grew up across the street from one another in Palo Alto. When Sarabeth's chronically depressed mother committed suicide while she was in high school and her father decided to relocate to the East coast, Liz's family invited Sarabeth to live with them during her senior year. This kindness cemented a lifelong habit of Liz taking care of Sarabeth.

Liz, after all, had only ever wanted to be a mother, and her relationship with Sarabeth seems an extension of that role. By the time they are 40 (or thereabouts), Liz is married and has two teenage children--Joe and Lauren. She spends her days doing yoga, crafting, and caring for her family and Sarabeth. Sarabeth is still reeling, a year after her breakup with a married man. Her house is falling apart even though she works part time as a stager for homes on the real estate market. She also designs and makes what are apparently very interesting lampshades, selling them through a lamp shop owned by a man on whom she has a bit of a crush. Her crush is not noticeably more mature than Lauren's infatuation with a high school classmate--and the similarities between the two don't end there. Both are struggling with depression--but Liz seems more aware of Sarabeth's struggles than her daughter's.

Then a crisis in Liz's family sends Sarabeth reeling and threatens their friendship. Everyone struggles to heal themselves and recalibrate their relations--and I won't reveal whether they are successful in that effort.

Songs without Words gets off to a very slow start and, even after the crisis strikes, the story continues at a rather glacial pace. Despite the fact that Liz's husband Brody and son Joe get to narrate sections of the book, along with the three female "leads," they don't have the depth of the female characters, and various "subplots" having to do with them seem just to fizzle out (e.g., something odd seems to be going on at Brody's work, but nothing ever really happens). The most interesting parts of the book are the examination of an unequal friendship that is nonetheless important to both friends and the depiction of thinking disordered by depression. Some people may find those features outweigh the weaknesses, while others feel the opposite; I'm still making up my mind.

Favorite passages:
In randomness there lay a secret order, or so it was sometimes nice to think. [Sarabeth]

She was one of those people who seemed to regard busyness as a contest you could win. [Liz]

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Best Friends, Occasional Enemies, by Lisa Scottoline and Francesca Serritella

Best Friends, Occasional Enemies is a collection of "humorous" essays (previously published as a weekly newspaper column) by the mother-daughter team of Lisa Scottoline and Francesca Serritella. Despite the title, the essays are only occasionally about the mother-daughter relationship (more often about Lisa and her mother than the Lisa-Francesca relationship, which appears to be quite consistently loving and supportive). Generally they are about everyday life and the humor and insights found therein. Unfortunately, I don't think I laughed once while listening to the audiobook; I'm not sure I even smiled. I suspect the essays might be slightly more amusing in print than read aloud (especially with Lisa's over-the-top narration; Francesca's narration is more low-key and therefore more enjoyable--and she evokes some emotion with her contributions).

I know I say this fairly often, but this feels like a book that wouldn't have been published if one of the authors weren't already well known (Scottoline has written approximately 20 popular legal mysteries). The essays don't really have anything significant to offer and, since they're not funny either . . . well, let's just say: Not recommended.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Death in the Family, by James Agee

Fairly often when I read a classic--and I admit to the fault being entirely my own--I think, "Wow, literary styles have changed" or, still worse, "Hunh" or even "Hunh?" But then there are those times when I read a classic and think, "This book is truly timeless." That was the case with A Death in the Family, by James Agee.

The book begins with a prologue, "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," which describes an evening's events in a Knoxville neighborhood, as seen through the eyes of a young boy. That boy is Rufus Follet, whose father Jay is killed driving home from a visit to his ailing father. Jay was a loving and much-loved father and husband, although he and his wife Mary, a devout Catholic, had experienced serious differences about Jay's drinking and disdain for religion. The book presents events leading up to Jay's death and responses to his death through the eyes of numerous characters--Jay, his hard-drinking and feckless brother, Mary, her nonbelieving father (who immediately gives his daughter a pep talk about having gumption), her pious aunt Hannah, and most particularly Rufus. The responses of the adults are believable and wrenching--the scene in which Mary and Hannah are waiting for Mary's brother Andrew to return from the crash site--they do not know if Jay is dead or merely injured--is excruciating (religion, while called upon frequently, provides little comfort). But it is the way in which Agee describes Rufus's observations and responses as well as the way others respond to him that is truly heartbreaking.

That A Death in the Family is autobiographical makes it all the more powerful. Agee's father died when Agee was a young boy and thus the reader knows at a fundamental level that he gets Rufus's experience right. Agee uses language beautifully--in many places the text is poetic even while describing terrible pain and that language helps the reader comprehend the characters' pain.

Interestingly, Agee died before the book was completed; his literary executor, David McDowell, put the book together skillfully enough for it to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1957. Fifty years later, however, a scholar named Michael Lofaro released a new version of the book, reconstructed based on years of research and differing significantly from the original edition--organized differently and including new material.  Chapters from Rufus's perspective that are presented as "flashbacks" in the McDowell version are evidently presented in chronological order. Having read the McDowell version, it's hard to imagine the book in another form, but I liked the novel enough and am curious enough that I may read the more recent version as well.

Highly recommended.

Favorite passages:
By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hope of their taking away.  [Rufus]

How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. So far, so much between, you can never go home again. You can go home, it's good to go home, but you never really get all the way home again in your life. And what's it all for? All I tried to be, all I ever wanted and went away for, what's it all for?

Just one way, you do get back home. You have a boy or a girl of your own and now and then you remember, and you know how they feel, and it's almost the same as if you were your own self again, as young as you could remember. [Jay]

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Snow Queen, by Michael Cunningham

The Snow Queen occurs in three "acts": the first takes place on the eve of the 2004 election, the second on New Year's Eve 2006, the third shortly before the 2008 election. In the first, Barrett Meeks, whose latest lover has just broken up with him via text, is trudging home through Central Park when he sees a strange aqua light in the sky. Not only is the light unusual in appearance, he is positive that the light was "looking back down at him." He tells no one about the light, but does begin stopping by a Catholic church on his way to work each day, simply sitting in the back pews for a few minutes. Barrett lives with his brother Tyler, a bartender in his early 40s, still struggling to become a musician, and Tyler's soon-to-be wife Beth, who is terminally ill. Tyler is trying to write a song for his wedding to Beth, a song that he has incredibly high expectations for (see Favorite passages below); feeling unable to approach his expectations, he turns to cocaine for inspiration.

In act two, Beth, who started to go into remission in November 2004 (was the light a miraculous manifestation of some kind?), and Tyler are hosting a New Year's Eve party, which includes Beth's friend Liz, who is also Barrett's boss at a small boutique in Brooklyn, her much lover Andrew (on whom Barrett has had a crush for two years), and three other random friends. Under the influence of cocaine stolen from Tyler's stash, Barrett tells Andrew and Liz about the light he saw over a year earlier. An argument between Tyler and Beth starts over whether, if they moved to a better apartment, Barrett would move with them--but the underlying issues seem much deeper, having to do with the displacement that occurs when someone is dying . . . and then they don't.

I want to say less about the details of act three so others can discover them for themselves--but I will report that the lives of Barrett, Tyler, Beth, and Liz all change significantly and that I did enjoy Tyler's despair that a McCain/Palin administration was inevitable (a despair I shared at the time).

I admire The Snow Queen a great deal although I admit to not understanding the ending. Within a relatively brief novel, Cunningham explores multiple themes--what it means to be successful, to fight for success, or to accept failure; the sources of inspiration for art and the struggle when one's talent does not live up to what one feels inspired to create (and the role of drugs in the process of creation); accepting death, caretaking the one who is dying--and how not dying affects both the patient and the caretaker; brotherhood; and, perhaps underlying them all, the search for meaning. Onto these themes, he layers allusions to fairy tales, mythology, Madame Bovary, and the Bible. And all of this is accomplished in utterly beautiful prose.

I have minor quibbles--Beth and Liz are somewhat flat in comparison to Barrett and Tyler and Barrett's search for spiritual fulfillment seems to fizzle without explanation--but these are insignificant when compared to what I did like about the book.

Favorite passages:
The melody should have . . . a shimmering honesty, it should be egoless, no Hey, I can really play this guitar, do you get that? because the song is an unvarnished love-shout, an implorement tinged with . . . anger? Something like anger, but the anger of a philosopher, the anger of a poet, an anger directed at the transience of the world, at its heartbreaking beauty that collides constantly with our awareness of the fact that everything gets taken away; that we're being shown marvels but reminded, always, that they don't belong to us, they're sultan's treasures, we're lucky (we're expected to feel lucky) to have been invited to see them at all.  

The carpenter can't, of course, make furniture like that [furniture that embodies the power of one's father and the graciousness of one's mother], but he can imagine it, and as time goes by he lives with growing unease in the region between what he can create and what he can envision.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist of the Floating World is narrated by the artist, Masuji Ono. According to his own recollections, he was a noted artist both before and during World War II. His son and wife were killed in the war, but his two daughters survived. Now, a few years after the war's end, his reputation may be causing difficulties for his daughter Noriko. The first set of negotiations to arrange a marriage for her broke down; Masuji claims it is because the prospective groom's parents realized he was not worthy of Noriko, but his older daughter Sasuke suggests it might have been due to his activities during the war.

As a young artist, Ono broke away from his mentor, who specialized in romanticized depictions of the pleasure quarter and who taught his students European techniques. Ono returned to more traditional Japanese forms, applying them to nationalistic content. He became a member of a committee that ferreted out the unpatriotic; in that role, he informed on one of his own former students, who was imprisoned and tortured. Throughout the war, he created visual propaganda for the government.

In postwar Japan, however, propagandists for imperial Japan are not regarded positively, especially among the young. The defeat in the war and the need to embrace democracy to placate the Americans combine to tarnish the reputation of people like Ono. An acquaintance who wrote nationalistic songs has recently committed suicide. Ono is aware of the way in which people regard him. During a dinner with a second family considering marrying their son to Noriko, Ono undertakes a rambling discourse on the mistakes he made in his career; his family members and the prospective in-laws are disconcerted by this performance, but the marriage does take place. A year later, Ono's daughters seem determined to ignore the topic of their father's career as they make their way in an increasingly Westernized Japan.

Masuji Ono is a classic unreliable narrator. After long descriptions of conversations, he often asserts that he may not be remembering what was said correctly. In fact, the words he has attributed to someone else, he says, sound a lot like something he would say. It's impossible to tell how well-regarded or influential he truly was or how much he actually regrets his support for Japanese imperialism. His story does, however, draw the reader into consideration of the role of the arts in war, how culture and relationships change among the defeated, and how individuals cope with regrets as they age and the world changes.

I listened to this book and did not find narrator David Case's overly posh British accent an aid to attention/understanding. In fact, I think I may have to read the book in print in order to fully appreciate Ishiguro's work. The book's themes are worth more careful consideration.

Favorite passage:
There is certainly a satisfaction and dignity to be gained in coming to terms with the mistakes one has made in the course of one's life.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Breathing Lessons, by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler has always had a gift for creating quirky characters, deeply flawed but somehow endearing. Through these characters, she explores family life--what is gained and lost in the process of giving oneself to parents, siblings, husbands/wives, children and grandchildren.

While Breathing Lessons--the title refers to the instructions given to modern pregnant women (the book was written in the late 1980s), lessons that earlier generations would have found ridiculous--features a long-married couple struggling with the limitations on their lives. Ira Moran gave up his dream of becoming a doctor to take over the family frame shop so he could support his father and two sisters, one who is developmentally disabled, the other agoraphobic. His wife Maggie disappointed her parents by taking a job at a nursing home after high school and deciding that she would rather work there than go to college; 30 years later, she is still there. Their son is a divorced ne'er-do-well with a daughter he never sees; their daughter is about to leave home for college.

Unfortunately, I found Maggie--the central character--to lack the endearing quality of other Tyler heroines. She is a meddler who does not learn from the havoc she has wreaked, particularly in her son's life; she has no common sense, managing, for example, to cause three minor accidents in the one day in which the book takes place (with numerous flashbacks); she behaves inappropriately (really, who would think it was a good idea to have sex in her best friend's bedroom just minutes after the memorial service for the friend's late husband?); she is judgmental--people who wear shrimp pink are cheap, for example. One can only feel sympathy for Ira, their son Jessie, and his ex-wife Fiona. Their daughter Daisy is the least developed character--but one cheers for her to escape her mother's influence--which it appears she is on her way to doing.

Maggie is certainly a well-drawn character, but I really was sick of her by the time the book ended. Surprising to me that this is one of Tyler's more decorated books, having won the Pulitzer. I would not recommend it.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

Fiona Maye is a respected judge who handles family law cases in the London High Court. As the book opens, her husband of 35 years has just announced that he is planning to sleep with a young woman named Melanie (Fiona cannot help making a connection between the woman's name and the similarly titled fatal skin cancer). Jack does not want a divorce; he just wants to have passionate sex--and he and Fiona have not slept together for seven weeks and a day.

Those seven weeks correspond to the time that has passed since Fiona had to hand down a decision in a difficult case involving conjoined twins: doctors argued for surgery that would save one twin but mean certain death for the other, the parents did not want surgery, even though both children would die without it. Fiona authorized the surgery, but the case spawned death threats and nightmares that had oppressed Fiona for weeks.

The very night that Jack announces his adulterous intentions, Fiona learns of another life-and-death case she will have to decide. Adam, a 17-year-old Jehovah's Witness, needs a transfusion for his leukemia therapies to work, but he and his parents are opposed on religious grounds. Fiona decides to meet Adam before she makes a decision, and their meeting begins an entanglement that will have serious ramifications Fiona must cope with as she also tries to put her marriage back together.

The intertwining stories of marriage, religion, and parenting (Jack and Fiona are childless) are perhaps not as complex as the story lines in other McEwan works, but there is plenty of moral ambiguity, not to mention sociological and psychological dilemmas, to ponder. Perhaps even more importantly, there is McEwan's lovely prose. He combines sentence fragments and short statements with amazingly complex sentences--often featuring lists, appositives, and piled-on descriptors--in a way that allows the reader to understand the shattered thoughts of a woman in crisis as well as the complex ideas she grapples with as a highly intelligent woman of the law.

Definitely recommended.

Favorite passages:
Lately, he was looking taller, easier in his movements. While his back was turned to her she had a cold premonition of rejection, of the humiliation of being left for a young woman, of being left behind, useless and alone. She wondered if she should simply go along with anything he wanted, then rejected the thought.

It was her impression, though the facts did not bear it out, that in the late summer of 2012, marital or partner breakdown and distress in Great Britain swelled like a freak spring tide, sweeping away entire households, scattering possessions and hopeful dreams, drowning those without a powerful instinct for survival. Loving promises were denied or rewritten, once easy companions became artful combatants crouching behind counsel, oblivious to the costs. Once neglected domestic items were bitterly fought for, once easy trust was replaced by carefully worded "arrangements." In the minds of the principals, the history of the marriage was redrafted to have been always doomed, love was recast as delusion.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Blood Memory and Chief Left Hand, by Margaret Coel

I stopped writing about all the mysteries I read a couple of years ago, but I planned to write about Blood Memory because it, along with the nonfiction title Chief Left Hand, was the One Book One Broomfield selection for 2014. However, I have been unable to make myself plod through Chief Left Hand, which is full of information but not very engagingly written. So, I decided to just post this summary of the Novel Conversations group's discussion (which I missed due to illness), provided by group member Colleen:

We rated the books an overall "C." Most did not like the main character because of her drinking, and felt the nonfiction book was a bit tedious and repetitive. We did enjoy the scenes of the Denver neighborhoods and the rich family from Cherry Creek and learned a lot about the Native American tribe and the history of Sand Creek. We all agreed that this was not Margaret Coel's best effort. 

Saturday is the author event at the Broomfield Auditorium. I'll add a comment on this entry after I hear what the author has to say.

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Fork in the Road, edited by James Oseland

A Fork in the Road is a collection of essays by chefs, food writers, and novelists reflecting on moments of "transformation through food." Like most collections, the book contains some essays that moved me and some that left me cold. The strongest essays are those in which the author is writing about more than food--about family, culture, finding oneself. One of my favorite's was Josh Ozersky's "A Melancholic's Guide to Eating in Paris," in which he describes his trip to the French capital with his deeply depressed father, with whom he "spoke the secret language of food as a proxy for everything else." The role of food in defining family is also the subject of "The Importance of Chicken Livers," by Beth Kracklauer, which begins with a wonderful sentence: "We all enter our families in the middle of the action, and each of us is left to piee together our own story-in-progress as best we can." Perhaps family is my preferred theme, as I also loved "A Wedding Feast," in which Tom Carson explores gender, culture, and family as he describes the wedding of Indian in-laws. David Kamp lovingly descritbes "Stolen Apples, Yankee Pot Roast, and a Cabin by the Lake." Other pieces were similarly compelling.

Less successful, for me, were essays that focused too narrowly on the food--a barbeque travelogue of Georgia,  a description of restaurant-hopping in Paris, or even details of the food served along the Amazon. A few essays delved into the world of disgusting foods in a way that disgusted but also fascinated--"They Eat Maggots, Don't They?" and "Fish Heads" to name two.

The collection is uneven but worth dipping into.

Favorite passages:
In that humble stew, beyond the pleasures of taste, there was so much else to savour. Its essence held so many of the things it takes to make a good life--resourcefulness, pride and care, a connectedness to nature, and the pleasures of a meal shared togeher around the table--most of the means to transform a life of raw poverty and grinding hardship. Anna Langbein in "The Right Side of the Fall Line"

. . . when something is made with care, you appreciate it with equal care; how food can be a way for people who aren't otherwise especially demonstrative to express themselves.  Beth Kracklauer in "The Importance of Chicken Livers"

Not least because it was far from her only skill, Maggie made a life bereft of cooking's pleasures seem forlorn. Even more than the outcomes, I was smitten by how she went about it: the alternating rhythms of patience and dispatch, the trick bag of adaptable techniques, the logistics of a complicated mise en place. I'd just never understood how simply, nihilism-defyingly happy you could make other people by cooking well.  Tom Carson in "A Wedding Feast"

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed

I have studiously avoided Wild since it became the book du jour when Oprah picked it for her re-imagined book club. I knew the back story--when the author was 22, her mother died and Strayed fell apart.  Her siblings and stepfather weren't available to her in the way that she needed them, she cheated on her husband and set their marriage on the road to divorce, and she dabbled with drugs. She decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone to heal herself. Being over-judgmental, although I sympathized with Strayed, I also thought she sounded like a bit of a dope.

But then Novel Conversations chose to read Wild, so I jumped in.  And, quite honestly, I continued to think that Strayed was a bit of a dope. Although she believed she was preparing for the trek by haunting REI, she didn't take training hikes and she had never lifted her pack until she was ready to start the hike. Really??  Who would do that?

On the other hand, she is a good writer. She describes the physical experience of hiking 1,000 miles in agonizing detail and the physical setting with counterbalancing beauty. She doesn't flinch when she lays out her many mistakes, and she fearlessly explores her psychological issues. All of this I appreciated, though I never did truly understand how the hike helped her heal the wounds of her childhood and loss of her mother. I get that it was an amazing achievement that gave her a new sense of her own competence, and maybe that was all that was needed. But she hints at something else without describing it in a way I can grasp.

Favorite passages:
It hadn't occurred to me that my mother would die. Until she was dying, the thought had never entered my mind. She was monolithic and insurmountable, the keeper of my life. She would grow old and still work in the garden. This image was fixed in my mind, like one of the stories from her childhood that I'd made her explain so intricately that I remembered it as if it were mine. She would be old and beautiful like the black-and-white photo of Georgia O'Keeffe I'd once sent her.

Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control . . .

I opened the book and paged through it, leaning forward so I could see the words by the firelight. I read a line or two from a dozen or so of the poems, each of them so familiar they gave me a strange sort of comfort. I'd chanted those lines silently through the days while I hiked. Often, I didn't know exactly what they meant, yet there was another way in which I knew their meaning entirely, as if it were all before me and yet out of my grasp, their meaning like a fish just beneath the surface of the water that I tried to catch with my bare hands--so close and present and belonging to me--until I reached for it and it flashed away.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

My Antonia, by Willa Cather

Jim Burden and Antonia Shimerda meet as children on a train traveling from the east coast to Black Hawk, Nebraska, in the early 20th century. Jim has been orphaned and is on his way to live with his grandparents. Antonia, her parents, and siblings are Bohemian immigrants hoping to build a life on the prairie. Jim and Antonia become friends immediately, as Jim takes on the task of teaching her English, and it is through Jim's eyes that we see the Shimerdas' struggles and Antonia's resilient nature. Mr. Shimerda, a musician, cannot cope with his inability to protect his family from the hardships of their first winter on the Great Plains and commits suicide. Antonia works side by side with her brother to scratch a living from the family's farmstead. Later, she hires out in town, working first for Jim's grandparents and then for the horrible Cutters (two of the Cutters' hired girls have had to leave town because of pregnancies resulting from Mr. Wick Cutter's abuse).

Jim goes to school while Antonia works, but their friendship remains steadfast. Jim also gets to know many of Antonia's friends--immigrant girls from Norway, Sweden, Austria, and other European homelands. Even when Jim heads off to the university at Lincoln and then to Harvard, he keeps up with several of the girls, who let him know what has happened to Antonia--her life has not been easy. Jim becomes an attorney based in New York; he occasionally sees two of the other "hired girls" who have become successful businesswomen in San Francisco. After decades, they convince him to stop and visit Antonia. He finds her greatly aged--most of her teeth are gone--and still working hard, the mother of 11 children; her children speak Bohemian at home, learning English only when they go to school. But he also still finds her remarkable--her enjoyment of life, her love for her children, the way in which she has told the stories of her childhood adventures with Jim to her children. That shared experience, Jim realizes, has shaped them both.

Cather's writing style is straightforward and, except when describing the landscape, rather straightforward and plain. She has a remarkable sense of place and its effects on not only how one lives but how one thinks and feels. For young people who read this book today (I'm not sure if it's still a common assignment in high school), I would imagine the struggles of the immigrant families seem remarkably difficult to comfortable suburban students but may echo familiarly for today's immigrant children. One thing I don't understand is why Cather framed the book as Jim's recollections delivered to another friend from his youth whom he accidentally met on a train across Iowa. I understand the parallelism of the train journey, but overall this device seemed superfluous.

I did not love My Antonia, but I'm glad I read it, particularly for the spare yet often lovely language.

Favorite passages:
There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share--black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.

I have sometimes thought that his bursts of imaginative talk were fatal to his poetic gift. He squandered too much in the heat of personal communication.

Winter lies too long in country towns; hangs on until it is stale and shabby, old and sullen.

I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Hello Kitty Must Die, by Angela S. Choi

I got this book as part of a BOGO offer from Audible, which may make me hesitant to fall for future BOGO deals. The first chapter, in which protagonist Fiona Yu takes her virginity with a dildo heavily smeared with Lidocaine, is about the most cringe-worthy piece of writing I've ever encountered. Fiona is a 28-year-old corporate lawyer who still lives with her parents--the low rent and the excellent mom-cooked meals balance out her parents' efforts to fix her up with a "nice Chinese boy." While one might sympathize with the conflict Fiona faces between Chinese tradition and 21st-century American culture, she is not a sympathetic character. Her screen saver is a slide show of serial killers and she wears high heels at all times because she enjoys the pain they cause. When she reunites with childhood friend Sean (now a plastic surgeon specializing in hymen replacement), her interest in serial killers becomes more than hypothetical. Ugh. DO NOT READ!!!

(Obviously, I've been a bit behind in my posting--I didn't actually read three books today.)

Amy Falls Down, by Jincy Willett

I have remarked before about the odd way in which themes suddenly and unintentionally emerge in my reading. Amy Falls Down is my third recent book about writing and authors--and it is by far my favorite.

Amy Gallup is a 60ish author who has not published a book for 60 years. She lives in San Diego and teaches on-line writing classes. She used to teach face-to-face workshops, but then one of her students started killing others in the workshop, and she gave those classes up; in fact, she seems to have little contact with other people.

One night she goes falls in her yard, knocking herself out on the birdbath. The next morning, somewhat balmy from the blow to the head, she is interviewed for an article in the local newspaper and she comes across so bizarrely in the story that it goes viral. People suddenly want her to be on their radio shows or make an appearance at their event. Although she initially resists, her recently reemergent agent Maxine convinces her to assent to a few appearances, and soon her sense of humor and no-nonsense approach have made her a sensation. Her new-found celebrity gives Amy a chance to rail against writers' conferences, agents, the literary publicity machine, and more.

At the same time, however, Amy has also begun to leave her house more often to engage with real people. She begins teaching a hand-picked group of aspiring writers whom her friend Carla has gathered around her in a "writer's retreat" that does not resemble any description you've ever read of MacDowell or Yaddo. She cannot enter a more active social life without thinking about the life she and her beloved husband Max, a gay friend she married so he could avoid the draft, shared . . . and about the betrayal she discovered after Max's death from AIDS. Perhaps most remarkably, Amy also begins to write again.

Amy's adventures as a media celebrity allow Willett to satirize the memoir fad, chick lit, endless conversations about the writer's process, writer's colonies, anti-intellectual talk show hosts, agents, drunken male authors, YouTube trailers for books, blogs (Amy has a blog titled "Go Away," on which the list of her own books is buried six levels down), and countless other aspects of the literary world and popular culture. At the same time, however, Willett defends the work of the writer as valuable and difficult, pays tribute to agents, and provides glimpses into one writer's process (Amy writes down unusual/intriguing phrases she hears in conversation, which she then uses as titles for stories that may have nothing to do with the context in which she heard the phrase).

Amy Falls Down takes place almost entirely in Amy's head, and it is a very entertaining place to be. Willett creates a unique voice and gives that voice some wonderful ideas, sentences, and phrases to express; I will not soon forget the term "irony klaxon" or the description of a hotel lobby as "aggressively rectangular." I was sad when this funny and yet somehow touching book ended.

Favorite passages:
Fiction, when it's done right, does in the daylight what dreams do at night; we leave the confines of our own experiences and go to common ground, where for a time we are not alone.

Loitering with Intent, by Muriel Spark

Fleur Talbot is an aspiring novelist, living in post-war London (specifically in 1949-50). She's writing her first novel, Warrender Chase (which she refers to endlessly in the novel), but must find a job to support herself. She finds a job as secretary to Quentin Oliver, who runs the Autobiographical Association. Fleur is assigned the task of typing up the memoirs of the association's members, and she quickly decides the memoirs are too dull and begins to embellish them.

Here is where things get sticky. The memoirs and Warrender Chase begin to resemble each other--but it is unclear which is the source, which the copy, and who is responsible for the "plagiarism," if that is what it is. Certainly, Quentin and the members of the Association (with Quentin's urging) accuse her of libel and plagiarism. Then some of the fictional events Fleur wrote about actually happen, causing even greater confusion (at least for this reader). Fleur becomes convinced that Quentin Oliver is plotting against her, as well as his mother--the (perhaps) demented Edwina--and the eccentric members of the association. Fleur is forced out of her job, loses her publishing contract, and finds that all the copies of her novel have been destroyed or stolen.

The story is narrated by Fleur from a distance of some years; she has become a successful novelist and is reflecting on the months in which she completed her beloved Warrender Chase, so we know the events of 1949-1950 did not deter her. Fleur is perhaps the ultimate unreliable narrator; I also found her to be an obnoxious one. I enjoyed Fleur's ruminations on writing, although not her obsessive regard for her own work, Warrender Chase (I feel every paragraph of this review should reference the title, since Spark mentioned it so often in the novel). Of the book she says, "All day long when I was busy . . . I had my unfinished novel personified almost as a secret companion and accomplice following me like a shadow wherever I went, whatever I did." That may be quite lovely for a novelist, but it doesn't make the novelist that interesting as a character (at least to me).

Loitering with Intent (what a wonderful title) was short-listed for the Booker and reviewed glowingly; one review I saw even called it "perfect." From another review, I learned that the book is chock full of literary allusions I simply didn't get. I am more aligned with the reviewer for the Christian Science Monitor, who called it a novel to "amuse, baffle." I was from time to time amused and quite often baffled. But, I will not, as several reviewers noted they had done, read it over and over--I shudder at the thought.

Favorite passage:
I see no reason to keep silent about my enjoyment of the sound of my own voice as I work. (maybe not my favorite passage but perhaps indicative of why I found Fleur obnoxious)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith

The Silkworm is the second Cormoran Strike mystery novel by Robert Galbraith (AKA J.K. Rowling). In this new adventure, private detective Strike and his assistant Robin investigate the disappearance and subsequent death of author Owen Quine. Hired by Quine's wife Leonora (with little hope of remuneration), Strike is drawn into the intrigues of London publishing--which are more twisted and violent than one might suspect. When Leonora is arrested for murdering her husband, the pressure on Strike picks up, just as his amputated leg is bothering him and his ex-fiancee is marrying someone else. Meanwhile, Robin's fiance continues to object to her career choice. Nonetheless, they solve the case when the police can or will not.

The Silkworm is not as enjoyable as the first book in the series, The Cuckoo's Calling. The crime is outlandish (and grisly) and the police incompetent. Strike's commitment to Leonora, who is neither sympathetic nor paying, seems unlikely; while this commitment might make one admire him, his willingness to sleep with a young woman in whom he has no interest simply to get information from her undercuts any such admiration. And the Moonlighting-style sexual tension between Robin and Cormoran isn't very compelling.

If there's a third Cormoran Strike novel, I'm not sure I'll read it. I'm actually struggling with the question of why I continue to read series mysteries when they are so unsatisfying--but at least most of them are quick reads. At 455 pages, that can't be said of The Silkworm.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson

Jun Do, the protagonist of Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son, grows up in an orphanage, a shameful heritage in North Korea. Despite being (or thinking he is--one cannot be sure) the son of the institution's director, Jun Do is not spared the hard labor that the orphans must do. And, when he reaches maturity, he is forced into low-level jobs: he is a tunnel fighter and is then "promoted" to being first a kidnapper who snatches Japanese people and takes them back to North Korea and then a "listener" who accompanies a fishing boat to listen to enemy (i.e., U.S.) radio transmissions. When things go bad on the boat, Jun Do is forced to endure a shark attack so that a false story of heroism can be constructed to cover up what really happened. As the hero, Jun Do is taken on a secret mission to the United States; this mission, too, goes poorly. Much is grim (and surreal) in this first section of the book, told entirely in the third person from Jun Do's perspective, but things get much worse, as Jun Do has been sent to a prison camp at the end of this section.

In the second part of the book, Jun Do is being interrogated. He has not been assigned to the "torture first" team but to a group that claims to be writing biographies of North Korean citizens, using subtler forms of coercion until greater force is required. This section of the book has three narrators. Jun Do, who tells of his time in the prison camp, as well as his escape and subsequent impersonation of the powerful Commander Ga, whose wife (a famous actress Sun Moon) and children have disappeared. Kim Jong-Il emerges as a character in Jun Do's story. The second narrator is the interrogator who is attempting to write the biography of Jun Do/Commander Ga; his first-person narration provides not only a description of his work and why he thinks it is important, but a description of his own severely circumscribed life. The final narrator is the voice of the loudspeaker, heard everywhere in North Korea; in the hands of propagandists, Jun Do and Sun Moon's story becomes a serialized fable.

While Kim Jong-Il is rendered as a comical figure, the lives of North Korean people are certainly not funny; indeed, the continual betrayals and cruelties that the government visits on its people make reading difficult. Yet Jun Do develops into a compelling character--as does his interrogator--and their intertwined fates keep you reading.

Johnson relied on information from defectors, scholarship on North Korea, and a brief and highly managed visit to the country. Obviously, however, he relied on his prodigious imagination. Thus, one cannot really assess the degree to which his depiction resembles reality, a fact that troubles me somewhat. I am quite sure that, in time, Johnson's descriptions will become reality in my mind. This may not be fair to the real North Korea, but it is a tribute to the author's construction of a grotesque but memorable world.

Favorite passage:
The hallway was lined with photographs of the Senator's family, always smiling. To move toward the kitchen was like going back in time: the graduation photos becoming sports photos, and then there were scouting clubs, pigtails, birthday parties. And finally there were pictures of babies.   Was this what a family was? How it grew? Straight as the children's teeth. Sure, there was an arm in a sling, and over time, the grandparents disappeared from the photos. The occasions changed, as did the dogs. But this was a family, start to finish, without wars or famines or political prisons. Without a stranger coming to town to drown your daughter.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Divorce Papers, by Susan Rieger

Budding criminal defense attorney Sophie Diehl has no interest in divorce law but, mostly by happenstance, gets roped into handling the divorce of Mia Durkheim, the daughter of an important client at Sophie's firm. Through what the author calls "epistolary 2.0"--a mix of letters, memos (and numerous attachments), and emails--we see not only the details of the process of divorcing but also the machinations of a law firm's operations as well as how both Sophie and Mia mature over the course of a year. And we laugh a lot while doing so--Rieger has given both Sophie and Mia a sharp wit.

Although I don't see the need to write a lot about the book, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks to my friend Colleen for recommending it.

. . . you may be thinking like a lawyer, but you're writing like a self-indulgent alternative-newspaper feature writer.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland

Lena is the last transcriptionist at the New York Record, a newspaper clearly modeled on The New York Times, where the author had that same job for several years. Lena, a grad school dropout, spends her days alone in a room, transcribing tapes of reporters' interviews as well as stories that have been phoned in to the paper. The one reporter who treats her like a human being calls her by the wrong name. She lives in what is essentially a women's hostel--no men are allowed in the women's rooms, but they are able to check out a key to Gramercy Park, where they can spend a quite hour (if they are late getting the key back, the "housemother" chastises them severely). She hasn't dated for years and relies on literary quotations as conversation. She seems totally disengaged from "real life."

On the bus one day, Lena has a brief encounter with a blind woman. When she reads in the paper that the woman, a court reporter, has been killed after climbing into the lions' cage at the zoo, she becomes obsessed with learning more about the woman, Arlene. Chasing down information about the woman, she uses many of the somewhat questionable reporting tricks that she has witnessed journalists on the paper use--yet the process and the similarities between her life and Arlene's begin to draw Lena out of her isolation.

The Transcriptionist has an almost dreamlike quality--or perhaps it is that Lena inhabits her life as though it were a dream. Some aspects of the work environment at The Record are surreal--the paper buys survival masks for employees in lieu of a holiday party, Lena gains admittance to the room in which an elderly man sorts through obituaries by singing lines from "Now the Day Is Over." Yet Lena's gradual steps toward reclaiming her life are moving, and I recommend this book.

Favorite passage:
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Light Women's Literature

Recently, I've been listening to audiobooks checked out from the Front Range Online Library, whose selection of available titles isn't always great. As a result, I've listened to several novels that I'd call light women's literature; I'd call it that to avoid the name "chick lit," which I know many authors and probably some readers find offensive. However, when you've read these books, you recognize that there is indeed a genre in which women's stories are told in a humorous or light-hearted fashion, even when the stories involve such serious issues as drug addiction, hoarding, bigamy, widowhood, and raising children under difficult circumstances. While relationships with family and friends are common to the books, so, quite often, is the search for a mate.

Examples: Family Pictures, by Jane Green, is the story of two women who discover--in a totally implausible way--that they are married to the same man, who has disappeared and ruined both of them financially. His first wife Maggie is an obnoxious social climber who pays little attention to her children; the second wife Sylvie seems more genuine and kind, but her daughter is anorexic. The women, again implausibly, become friends and help each other carve out new lives. Maggie is so transformed and Sylvia becomes successful in business so easily that the reader loses any sense that the story is real.

Objects of My Affection, by Jill Smolinski, has a more interesting premise. Lucy has sold everything to pay for drug rehab for her teenage son Ash. Dumped by her boyfriend and sharing a room with her best friend's toddler, Lucy jumps at a job helping a famous artist, a hoarder, organize her belongings. Unfortunately, Lucy is an idiot who is continually manipulated by her son and seems incapable of making good decisions. Only when she reunites with her old boyfriend does she find the ability to stand up to her son, which trivializes the difficulty of dealing with a child's addiction.

Bridget Jones: Mad about the Boy, by Helen Fielding (godmother of chick lit), is the worst of the three. Heroine Bridget is now 50 and has been tragically widowed (Mark Darcy was killed by an IED in Darfur); she has two young children, Billy and Mabel, that she is raising alone, with the help of the cast of friends well-known from the earlier books. Unfortunately, Bridget does not seem to have matured one whit--she continues to obsess about men and her weight. She now documents not only her weight and alcohol, tobacco, and food intake, she also writes in her diary about her twitter followers, texts received from potential admirers, and the like.  She cannot seem to get to school to pick up her children on time or to organize their homework. How does she emerge from this mess? She finds a man (and the reader can predict early on which man it will be)!! Ugh.

These three thumbnails highlight another deficit of light women's literature--many of the protagonists are annoying characters--not evil, but silly, incompetent, and/or so less than wise than it seems almost criminal.  I don't mind light reading--after all, I read dozens of mysteries. But unbelievable and/or predictable plots that trivialize serious issues and feature unsympathetic characters sap the enjoyment one might get from reading these books.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, by Chris Bohjalian

Emily Shepherd is a normal high-schooler--she loves poetry, especially that of Emily Dickinson (did you know that much of the work of Dickinson can be sung to the theme of Gilligan's Island?); her teachers chide her for underachieving; she occasionally gets into a modest amount of trouble; she worries about her parents' drinking. Then Reactor One at the Cape Abenaki Nuclear Power Plant in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom melts down; not only are her parents killed, but she soon realizes that her father, an engineer at the plant, is being blamed for the disaster. Afraid that the blame will extend to her, she takes off from the school where she and her classmates have been transported.

Over the next nine months, she lives the hard life of the streets. She stays for a time at a shelter, but when one of the other residents figures out who she is, she takes off. Next she lands at the apartment of an Iraq War vet who sells drugs and runs Emily and other girls as prostitutes; from Andrea, another girl in the apartment, she learns the fine art of cutting herself. When Andrea heads for Boston, Emily leaves the apartment and sleeps essentially on the street. Then she meets nine-year-old Cameron, on the run from an abusive foster family, and decides to take him under her wing. The two spend the Vermont winter in the library by day and in an igloo made of garbage bags by night. The connection with Cameron gives Emily a new human connection to keep her from suicide, but things are hardly rosy for the two.

Bohjalian has always had a gift for creating multidimensional and believable female characters, and Emily Shepherd is all of that and more. She is a combination of self-awareness and teenage insecurity. She recognizes that she is making bad decisions, but she cannot stop herself from making them. Given the opportunity to care for Cameron, she rises to meet the challenge, though the best mothering of a 15-year-old living on the street is certainly flawed. While some of Emily's responses seem extreme, the circumstances in which she finds herself are also extreme.

The title Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is taken from a direction given to children in Newtown, Connecticut, when they had to walk through the halls of their school past the bodies of their dead classmates. Emily recognizes that the words can be inspirational or dreadful, depending on the context--for her, they carry special weight because, once Cameron is lost to her, she believes she has no one's hand to hold. That pain makes the book ineffably sad, yet it also demonstrates the strength of the human spirit. I didn't care for the past couple Bohjalian books I read (or tried to read), but I definitely recommend Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.

Favorite passages:
But for most of the world--for most of Vermont--the Cape Abenaki meltdown is just another bit of old news. Tsunamis. School shootings. Syria. We watch it, we read about it, and then we move on. As a species, we're either very resilient or super callous. I don't know which.

The poetry of a nuclear disaster is weirdly beautiful. There is alliteration: rads and roentgens and rems. To a scientist, those are just units of measurement. To a poet? Lions and tigers and bears. Oh, my.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

After the Quake, by Haruki Murakami

All the short stories in After the Quake are set in the month following the devastating Kobe earthquake in 1995. None of the stories involve people directly affected by the disaster; rather, the characters are among the many indirectly impacted--by watching too much news coverage, having nightmares, hoping an enemy was killed in the quake, or reexamining how they want to live their lives.

My favorite of the stories was "honey pie." The story opens with a man Junpei telling his friend's daughter Sala a story about a bear. The friend, Sayoko, has called Junpei in the middle of the night because Sala has awakened in a panic due to an earthquake-related nightmare; Junpei is the only person who can soothe her. The story then flashes back to the college friendship of Junpei, Sayoko, and Takatsuki. Takatsuki is a more aggressive personality than Junpei and he strikes up a romantic relationship with Sayoko (Junpei is also in love with her, but is too tentative to make a move). Sayoko and Takatsuki eventually marry, have Sala, and divorce--but the three remain friends. Takatsuki encourages Junpei to take his relationship with Sayoko to the next level, but Junpei still hesitates. Only after the earthquake does he decide to ask Sayoko to marry him; he also decides that he wants to write stories different from those he has previously written, focusing more on people who are hopeful.

In "ufo in kushiro,"  a woman spends five days watching earthquake coverage nonstop and then leaves her husband because he is essentially hollow. He decides to take a vacation and agrees to carry a mysterious package to Hokkaido for a colleague. In Hokkaido he meets two women; he tries to sleep with one but is impotent, an event that causes him to begin questioning whether he is indeed an empty man.  In "landscape with flatiron," a young woman and older man whose family lives in Kobe--he does not bother to check on them, however--build bonfires on the beach and talk. At the end of the story, they seem to be waiting to die, how we're not sure. "super-frog saves tokyo" has magical elements that are common in Murakami's work. In this case, a gigantic frog approaches a bank loan officer for help fighting a worm that will cause an earthquake that will destroy Tokyo.

I really don't know what to make of After the Quake as a collection. Murakami's stories offer an indictment of Japanese people as living rather empty lives lacking in meaning; while "honey pie" suggests that an event like the Kobe earthquake may shake people into action, "landscape with flatiron" offers a less positive perspective. And I really have no idea what a couple of the stories mean.

During the spring semester, I facilitated an online book group that focused on a collection of material written in response to the 3/11/2011 disasters in Japan. The stories in that book, titled March Was Made of Yarn (see my review at http://novelconversations.blogspot.com/search?q=march+was+made+of+yarn), dealt much more directly with the impact of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown; although some had fantastical elements, they had a greater impact on me than Murakami's! I should note that After the Quake was reviewed very positively and is often mentioned as an important title in the "literature of disaster"; for me, however, the collection did not work.

Favorite passage:
The short story is on the way out. Like the slide rule.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Removers, by Andrew Meredith

The Removers takes its title from the decade that author Meredith spent working in the funeral business--first driving a hearse to pick-up bodies of people who have died and driving them to the funeral home, and then working in the cremation business. Only a small, but bizarrely interesting, portion of the book is about this work. Instead, most of the book is a memoir of Meredith's dysfunctional family (his father was fired from a university teaching position for inappropriate relations with students and his parents lived together without talking for the next 10 years) and his own inability to commit to anything--a relationship, a career path, his education. This material is unfortunately rather mundane.

Those who have followed my blog know I'm not generally a big fan of memoirs and often think the author should have written an article rather than stretching the material into a book--that criticism fits Meredith's book. Furthermore, the book feels like Meredith wrote narratives for different periods of his life and then cut them up and shoveled the pieces together in a seemingly random order. I'm sure the order makes sense to Meredith, but it didn't help me derive any particular meaning from his reflections.

Not recommended.

Favorite passage:
The thing I discovered in my late approach to growing up is the peace in realizing there is nothing special in the traumas that form us. (And perhaps that's why fewer people should write memoirs!)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, by Ayana Mathis

Hattie and August Shepherd are teen-aged newlyweds when they migrate from Georgia to Philadelphia in the 1920s. Their first children, twins Philadelphia and Jubilee, die after Hattie has nursed them for ten days, using both Southern folk cures and the doctor's advice. The description of their illness and death is heartbreaking and it should perhaps not be surprising when we gradually realize that Hattie has been irreparably broken, unable to show affection to the nine children who come along later.

We learn of the mother Hattie became--though somehow we can't hate her for it--through the individual stories of her children. Floyd is a 20-something musician touring the South in 1948, covering his attraction to men by sleeping with every woman who is willing. In 1950, teenager Six, who was badly burned in a home accident, is sent South with a Bible after he beat another boy nearly to death; Six sometimes feels the spirit in a way that allows him to touch others with his preaching, but he doesn't genuinely feel a calling and also becomes a womanizer. Ruthie, born in 1951, is the child of Hattie's lover Richard. When August, who has repeatedly cheated on Hattie, learns that Ruthie is not his child, Hattie and August fight and she takes Ruthie and leaves with Richard. Because Richard almost immediately breaks his promise to stop gambling (he has lied to her about how he makes his living), she returns home, chastened.

Ella was born in 1954, at a time when August and Hattie were having severe financial problems; ultimately, Hattie decides to give Ella to her childless sister Pearl, who still lives in Georgia. When Pearl arrives, Hattie tries to change her mind, but ultimately sustains yet another scar when Ella leaves with Pearl. Alice and Billups were close as children, sharing a secret that is not made entirely clear to the reader (perhaps Billups was sexually abused). Alice marries a successful doctor, but her wealth does not bring her happiness; her husband wants children, but she secretly takes birth control pills (it is now 1968). She continues to try to control Billups with their childhood intimacy and freaks out when she finds out he is dating her maid.

Franklin is in Viet Nam in 1969, drinking, using drugs, and wishing his wife (who has just revealed they have a daughter) would take him back--even though he knows he is her ruination. Bell's story takes us to 1975; terribly ill, she has been abandoned by her boyfriend and has decided to die. Ten years ago, she slept with her mother's old lover Richard, and she and her mother have not spoken since. When a friend tells Hattie that Bell is ill, however, Hattie takes her to the hospital and perches in a chair outside the isolation room day and night, waiting for her daughter to recover.

Cassie, mother of ten-year-old Sala, is mentally ill. Convinced that Hattie and August are trying to poison her and hearing voices raging in her head, she throws herself from a moving car. While she survives with minor injuries, her parents realize they must have her committed, leaving Sala in their care. When Sala goes to the altar in church to give her life to Jesus, Hattie stops her, believing that religion is no solution to the difficulties her family has faced.

Clearly, the pain and trauma that the family has undergone is unremitting--yet something about the raw power of the story keeps you reading. While Mathis is clearly writing about the challenges faced by African Americans both in the South and the North to which they migrated, individual decisions also play a key role in the tribulations the family members face. And, though the ending is by no means Pollyannish, somehow, it is possible to feel a small bit of optimism for Sala. Hattie has reflected on her shortcomings as a mother and perhaps she will provide a kinder, gentler brand of mothering to her already damaged granddaughter. Despite her many failings, Hattie is still a character who exudes a certain strength that makes her impossible to hate--even when she might deserve it.

Except for Floyd, Six, and Richard, the men in the book are largely caricatures, which is a shortcoming. It can also be difficult to figure out the order of the children, with the skipping from child to child and year to year--but this is probably not all that important.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a harrowing read but one I recommend for the stout of heart.

Favorite passage:
The lives they would have had are unoccupied, that is to say, the people they would have loved, the houses they might have owned, jobs they would have had, were all left untenanted. Not a day went by that Hattie did not feel their absence in the world, the empty space where her children's lives should have been.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride

Henry Shackleford is a young slave boy living in Kansas, when John Brown enters the tavern where Henry's father works. In the ensuing set-to, Henry's father is killed and Brown mistakes Henry for a girl, declares her free, and sweeps her up to join his ragtag army as something of a good luck charm. Henry is afraid to admit he is a boy (although some people he meets along the way figure that out) and travels with Brown for several years, dressed as a girl and responding to Henrietta (or Onion, his nickname). Onion's adventures rival those of Gulliver--he takes part in raids that end up with the beheading of pro-slavery Kansans, spends months in a Missouri brothel, acting as servant to a beautiful black prostitute; travels to the Northeast and Canada on a fund-raising trip with Brown, meeting Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass along the way;  and is sent ahead to Harper's Ferry to "hive the bees"--recruit slaves and free blacks to take part in the planned attack. All the while, Onion struggles with his identity as a young black man involuntarily freed from slavery and living as a girl. This struggle takes place in the shadow of a man so certain of his identity as the liberator of the slaves that he risks his own life and that of his sons for the cause. Brown is portrayed as a mad man for God and the cause, and McBride's depiction helps the reader understand how delusion and passion mingled in the man.

The Good Lord Bird won the National Book Award for 2013, so it was obviously well-received on some fronts, with many reviewers lauding it for its humorous treatment of a serious subject.  As I think I've said before, I fear that I am losing my sense of humor with age, as the book simply wasn't very funny to me.  I did appreciate the depiction of Brown's complexity, at once admirable and pitiable and respected McBride's attempt to explore issues of racial and gender identity through the character of Onion. On the other hand, I had some quibbles with the writing in the book. Foreshadowing--which, given the historical nature of many of the events, was generally unnecessary--was heavy-handed (there was a point at which I thought if I ever read the phrase "I never saw him/her again," I would scream). Some of the slang terms used seemed out of place for the time (e.g., something was a "hot mess," people "sucked up" to those in authority)--an odd error considering that McBride must have done tons of research for the book. I also did not understand why McBride put the book in an awkward frame: an elderly man died and, in his effects were found interviews he did with Henry Shackleford; the narrative is presented as the contents of the interviews. Through the introduction we do learn that Henry lived at least part of his adult life as a woman, so perhaps that is the purpose, but since we never return to the later years of his life, it seemed like a waste.

The most serious reservation I have about the book is its presentation of Frederick Douglass as a hard-drinking, womanizing (or perhaps more accurately child-molesting) coward. Undoubtedly, Douglass had his flaws, but this characterization goes well beyond what is documentable (at least as far as I know) and, as an admirer of Douglass's better self, I resented it. It concerns me that people who read this book and don't know much about Douglass may go away with a negative view of this important figure in U.S. history--which is one of the hesitations I have about historic fiction in general. When it is vividly written, it can become more real than reality.

Favorite passages:
This is what happens when a boy becomes a man; you get stupider.  (Okay, there were some funny bits.)

It occurred to me then that you is everything you are in this life at every moment. And that includes loving somebody. If you can't be your own self, how can you love somebody? How can you be free?