Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Cricket on the Hearth, by Charles Dickens

Turns out I am quite a Dickens ignoramus. I had never heard of The Cricket on the Hearth until Audible offered a recorded version free for Christmas. Then I learned that it was one of Dickens's five Christmas novellas--never knew there were others besides A Christmas Carol.  It has a few passing resemblances to that better-known work: there's a character with a physical disability ("the blind girl"), poverty, a slightly magical element (the cricket of the title is a guardian angel of sorts), and a curmudgeon who is converted to cheerfulness. Overall, however, it's more of a romantic comedy, complete with a disguised lover and a mistaken assumption about who is in love with the young man pretending to be an old vagabond. I hate that kind of plot device meant to create suspense and comedy but only (for me) sparking irritation. I realize Shakespeare used such ploys often in his comedies, but I don't care . . . I remain unmoved.

The only part of the story that I found at all interesting was the dilemma faced by Caleb Plummer, an impoverished toymaker who loves his daughter Bertha  (the blind girl) so much that he paints their world and the people in it in glowing terms. To his horror, his prevarications cause her to fall in love with his boss, the mean-spirited Mr. Tackleton. He faces the dilemma of whether to allow her to pine for an unworthy man or to tell her the truth. Of course, everything is resolved pleasantly, in this conflict and the entire story.

The Cricket on the Hearth was evidently quite popular (and ergo profitable) at the time of its publication in 1845. It didn't work for me, but it and a Nick Hornby book I'm reading in which he goes into raptures about Dickens are making me think I ought to read some of the more substantial novels--I'm actually not sure if I've read anything other than Tale of Two Cities. Such a philistine!

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri

From this novel's opening pages, when brothers Udayan and Subhash are climbing a fence to play on the golf course abutting the lowland near their home, we know that the brothers love each other and that Udayan, though the younger, is the ringleader. As they grow up, Udayan becomes a radical, part of the communist movement in Indian in the late 1960s (if, like me, you knew nothing of this movement, you will learn something from this novel). The more conservative Subhash chooses a scholarly route, moving to Rhode Island to pursue his doctorate.

Udayan writes to Subhash, minimizing his involvement in the movement, which has actually escalated. He tells Subhash that he has married a young woman Gauri, shocking their parents--and Subhash--by not waiting for his parents to choose a bride. Then horrifying news arrives in Rhode Island--Udayan has been killed by the police. Subhash rushes home, where he find Gauri pregnant and his mother forcing her to live a very constricted widow's life. He decides to marry Gauri to save her from what looks like a dreadful future and give Udayan's daughter a father.

The central portion of the novel is about the little family created by Subhash, Gauri, and their daughter Bela--and a sad story it is. Gauri, haunted by her memories of Udayan (and, we learn later, of some of the movement activities in which they participated back in Calcutta), is unable to connect with either her husband or her daughter. Indeed, the descriptions of her parenting and the isolation of the three characters are painful.

Near the end, Lahiri takes Subhash back to India for a revelatory visit, lets Subhash find happiness, and gives Udayan the last chapter, the story of his death.

The Lowland is written in the third person, from the perspectives primarily of Subhash, Gauri, and Bela--Subhash and Udayan's mother gets a short section and Udayan the previously mentioned last chapter. The book is rather slow-paced and, perhaps because the characters are so reserved and isolated or perhaps because Lahiri keeps them so firmly in their heads in a way I can't really explain,  the reader feels at a distance from the action. We're studying them, not sharing their experience. It didn't keep me from admiring the book--I did--but it did keep me from empathizing with the characters (even Bela doesn't demand the sympathy she deserves).

The Lowland was, to me, a terribly sad book about how the effects of  anger, betrayal, guilt, and secrets only multiply as time passes. It's not likely to be my best book of 2013, but it is a good book.

Favorite passages:
Isolation offered its own form of companionship: the reliable silence of her rooms, the steadfast tranquility of the evenings. The promise that she would find things where she put them, that there would be no interruption, no surprise. It greeted her at the end of each day and lay still with her at night.

Writing down call numbers with short pencils, searching up and down aisles that would turn dark when the timers on the lights expired. She recalls, visually, certain passages in the books she'd read. Which side of the book, where on the page.  [This is from a section that is essentially a paean to old-school libraries--I loved it!]

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides is ostensibly about the suicides of the five Lisbon sisters (readers know early on that all five will die, so I'm not revealing any big surprises). To me, however, it is really about the obsession of the teenage boys who lived in the same Grosse Pointe, Michigan, neighborhood as the girls. The boys are the narrative voice of the novel, told in the rarely effective first person plural. The narrators make clear that they are looking back upon the suicides from middle age (at one point, readers are subjected to a rather detailed description of a testicular self-exam). Yet they still maintain the suitcases of evidence--97 pieces in all--that they began collecting soon after the youngest girl, Cecilia, successfully killed herself on her second attempt (in a particularly gruesome manner).

The second youngest girl, Lux, is a bit of a slut, and when one of the boys falls in love with her, he convinces her parents to let the four remaining sisters attend the homecoming dance with him and his friends. Unfortunately, Lux misses her curfew and, as punishment, the Lisbon parents (largely Mrs. Lisbon we are subtly led to believe) confine the girls to their home. Not only do they stop going to school, the family stops taking care of the house and lawn, stops receiving their usual grocery deliveries, essentially drops out of society--except that Mr. Lisbon continues teaching at the high school  until he is fired. The house starts to emit a strange odor (Eugenides seems to be big on describing aromas in great detail).

Meanwhile, the boys spend most of their time spying on, talking about, or scheming to make contact with the girls. Lux, they know, sneaks up to the rooftop to engage in sex with a seemingly unending supply of men and boys--not including any of our narrators. The boys believe they have finally achieved their goal of trysting with the girls on the very night when three of the sisters succeed in committing suicide (the last sister, like the first, requires two attempts). The resulting media frenzy irritates the boys no end because, though they admit they themselves really know nothing significant about the girls, the media reports are so blatantly wrong, the explanations of the suicides so off-base. The suicides, Dutch Elm disease, and the waning of the auto industry start the decline of their suburb--yet our narrators find themselves living on the same street as adults, continuing their investigations into the Lisbon family (they conduct extensive interviews), and keeping their evidence in their renovated tree house.

The Virgin Suicides should be a sad book, but I found myself unmoved. No character--including the narrators and the sisters--was well enough drawn to elicit understanding or sympathy. The girls were two-dimensional at best and, as a result, did not seem realistic and their deaths carried no apparent meaning. Because of the first person plural narration, the boys had no individual identities and, as a group, were pathetic. The message seems to be either that teenage boys lack the resources to create any kind of meaningful existence and/or that the suburbs are a place in which young people wither into either death or meaningless adulthood.

I know this novel was greeted with rave reviews when it was published back in the mid-1990s and created quite a little buzz around the author. I did not find it particularly entertaining or elucidating. If I had not already read Middlesex and The Marriage Plot, The Virgin Suicides might have dissuaded me from doing so. Luckily, I had read them--both have vastly better developed characters and more interesting stories to tell (in the case of Middlesex, extraordinarily more interesting).

Possibly of note: The Virgin Suicides seems to have inspired a book I read a few years ago, The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard, also a story told in the first person plural, in this instance by a group of boys obsessed with a girl who disappears.  Some aspects of that book I thought were better done than The Virgin Suicides, but the first person plural narration again doesn't work--in fact, it almost never works in my estimation.

Favorite passages:
Dr. Armonson stitched up her wrist wounds. Withen 5 minutes of the transfusion he declared her out of danger. Chucking her under the chin, he said, "What are you doing here, honey? Your not even old enough to know how bad life gets." And it was then Cecelia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note, and a useless one at that, because she was going to live: "Obviously, Doctor," she said, "you've never been a 13 year old girl."

In the end we had the pieces of the puzzle, but no matter how we put them together, gaps remained, oddly shaped emptinesses mapped by what surrounded them, like countries we couldn't name

Thursday, January 16, 2014

We Are Water, by Wally Lamb

The members of the Oh family--recently divorced parents Orion and Annie and adult children Andrew, Ariane, and Marissa--have secrets. Some of the secrets are shared--everyone but Orion knows that Annie flew into violent rages and abused Andrew when the children were young, and Ariane is open up relatively easily about being pregnant through artificial insemination. But others are not. Marissa was beaten up by an actor while prostituting herself in hopes of making profitable connections for her acting career. Orion, a student services psychologist at a university, was accused of sexual harassment after an awkward sexual encounter with an aggressive graduate student seeking a reference. Annie's secrets are the ones that have shaped their family--as a young girl, she was molested by a cousin; her teen and adult years were difficult and included a late-term miscarriage and a lesbian fling. So much is covered up that Orion has no insight into the angry feminist art that Annie creates from the cast-off materials she picks up on scavenging trips around first their Connecticut community and then New York City.

A successful artist, Annie is now set to marry her lover, Viveca. Viveca is a successful gallery owner who has helped build Annie's career.  The impending nuptials are creating stress for everyone in the family, especially Orion, who still loves Annie, and Andrew, an army lieutenant and conservative Christian. At first Andrew plans to skip the wedding, but eventually decides to support his mother despite his misgivings about same-sex marriage.

In the run-up to the wedding, the family's secrets start emerging, with events coming to a head on the day of the wedding. While many secrets are revealed, a new secret starts to eat away at two family members. In the very long denouement following the events of the wedding, these two must decide whether it is better to keep the secret or to handle the consequences that will come from revealing it. The ending is ambiguous, though Lamb seems to be wrapping up the family story as positively as is possible given all that has happened. (I know this sounds very vague, but I don't want to reveal too much.)

The story is told by multiple narrators; each family member--including the child-molesting cousin, one of the creepiest characters I've encountered lately--has their turn to provide perspective, as do two minor characters who introduce Josephus Jones, who floats around the edges of the story--J Jones, an African American outsider artist who lived in an out-building on the Oh family property before they bought it. Jones's death on the property haunts Annie, who is simultaneously inspired by the one piece of his work she has seen.

Since quibbles: Viveca suffers from not being given a narrative voice; she comes across as a selfish member of the privileged classes, not at all sympathetic--and most of the negative information about Viveca comes through her partner, Annie. It's hard to imagine why anyone would want to marry Viveca. I'm not convinced that the Jones character is necessary to the novel, which is quite lengthy. Furthermore, the first section of the book, which introduces the Jones character, sets up a mistaken perception concerning whose book it is. In my view, Orion's story is the heart of the book (interestingly, Lamb says he began writing with Orion and, in the audio version of the book, Lamb reads Orion's sections). The Jones section postpones the reader's introduction to both Orion and Annie, unnecessarily so in my view.

On the positive side, Orion and Annie are both well-drawn characters whose conflicts have disturbing consequences for their children. The character of Kent, the child-molester, is so realistic that it's hard to imagine how the author could write his story in the first person (Lamb did reveal that he had to take a shower at the end of every day when he was writing Kent). I thought the multiple narrators worked well, though focusing only on the family might have made for a tighter plot. Despite the "looseness," the plot did bring out the corrosive effects of secrets on a family, a theme with relevance to virtually every person/family.

Favorite passage:
Sometimes I wish I could believe in some bigger scheme of things, the way people of faith do. . . . Can't do it though. But even if I can't pray, can't express my gratitude to some higher power up there in the sky, it doesn't mean I'm not grateful because I am.

“We are like water, aren’t we? We can be fluid, flexible when we have to be. But strong and destructive, too.” And something else, I think to myself. Like water, we mostly follow the path of least resistance. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, edited by Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland, and Allan Burns

Haiku in English is intended as more than simply a collection; its editors also want it to tell the story of how English language haiku has developed, from Ezra Pound's initial forays into the genre to poets writing today. For those familiar with the traditional form--seventeen syllables arranged in three lines of 5-7-5, nature themes, a break of some type separating one line from the other two--some of the poems in the collection will be jarring. While I was prepared for subject matter that veered far from nature, the wildly varying forms threw me. Since when is one line a poem, much less a haiku?  (An example, by Jon Cone: the cloud-edge on the horizon deer head in the freezer    Really, I'm not making this up.)

Clearly, I am of the haiku old school. While I am now pretty confident I don't know what distinguishes a haiku from any other short-form/minimalistic poem and certainly am unqualified to critique the works included,  I nonetheless enjoyed many of the poems and learned a bit about the evolution of English language haiku from the editor's essay that concludes the book (the essay also has some tedious stretches when the author is a little too wrapped up in listing who published in what journals when).

Favorites (you will note they are all pretty close to the traditional form):

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
--Ezra Pound

In the falling snow
A laughing boy holds out his palms
Until they are white.
--Richard Wright

secluded highway--
in and out of my headlights
a John 3:16 sign
--Curtis Dunlap

September morning . . .
sunlight in the impressions
of three thousand names
--Alice Frampton

Friday, January 10, 2014

Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes

Levels of Life is a collection of three essays (or perhaps the first two might better be called stories--just the first of many questions about the book I can't resolve). The first section of the book, "The Sin of Height," begins with the following lines: "You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed." Because we know that the book is, at least partially, about the death of the author's beloved wife, we think these lines signal that what follows will be a metaphor for their lives together. But the metaphor is not easy to grasp, as this essay/story/whatever is an account of ballooning and the development of aerial photography in the late 19th century.

The second section of the book, "On the Level," is the story of a brief love affair between two of the ballooniacs, Colonel Fred Burnaby and the actress Sarah Bernhardt. Again, it seems that Barnes must intend this story metaphorically but, I find myself agreeing with Burnaby, who realizes "metaphor often confused him."

The final section of the book, "The Loss of Depth," is a heart-rending account of Barnes's grief following his wife's death. It is an unvarnished and beautifully written memoir of pain, anger, and love. Perhaps, at around 50 pages, it did not justify publication on its own. Yet, for this metaphorically challenged reader, this essay was not enhanced by the inclusion of the more fanciful pieces.

"The Loss of Depth" is well worth reading--and some less literal or savvier readers may find it enhanced by "The Sin of Height" and "On the Level."

Favorite passages:
Grief reconfigures time, its length, its texture, its function: one day means no more than the next, so why have they been picked out and given separate names? It also reconfigures space. You have entered a new geography, mapped by a new cartography.

This is what those who haven't crossed the tropic of grief do not understand: the fact that someone is dead may may mean that they are not alive, but doesn't mean that they do not exist.

Pain shows that you have not forgotten; pain enhances the flavour of memory; pain is a proof of love.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Trends, Fads, or Coincidences?

Have you ever noticed that you read a book about a certain type of character (a Filipino attorney with a slacker boyfriend, say) and then suddenly--without planning to do so--you're reading another book about a Filipino attorney.  Or you're suddenly reading books about terrible mothers, or books set early in the AIDS epidemic, or books about middle-aged women changing their lives, or books set in remote California coastal locations. Is there a sudden spate of such books or do you find them because somehow that's what you need to be reading? Is it a trend, a fad (like Amish or knitting books), a coincidence, or . . . ?

The latest "trend" I've run into (it's a small trend--just two books) is the series mystery that suddenly involves its character, firmly rooted somewhere in the United States, in a case with complicated international threads. Critical Mass by Sara Paretsky and Storm Front by John Sandford both fit this mold. In Critical Mass, V.I. Warshawsky is looking for a missing college-age boy and finds herself learning about physics and class relations in Austria prior to World War II, migration of scientists to the United States following the war (even Nazi scientists), librarianship, cut-throat high-tech businesses, meth labs, and completely unethical and violent Homeland Security agents. It's rather a ridiculous story, but it's fairly entertaining and explores some interesting issues/topics.

Storm Front is even more ridiculous. In it, Virgil Flowers, assisted by two Israeli officials posing as the same person (I said it was ridiculous), is pursuing a Lutheran minister who has stolen an artifact from an archeological dig in Israel. The inscription on the stele has the potential to change the history and the future of the Middle East. Meanwhile, potential buyers from Hezbollah, Turkey, Texas, and reality TV are also buzzing around Mankato in search of the stele. Like Paretsky, Sandford brings in government agents, although this group is less thuggish but more secretive. As usual, Virgil is hitting the sack with a local woman, in this case a felon herself. It's bad enough that the case makes little sense; the surprise ending makes it even more annoying.

So--Critical Mass a lukewarm thumbs-up, Storm Front a thumbs-down, and the trend of international intrigue in series thumbs-down until someone does it better!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Sealed Letter, by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue based The Sealed Letter on a real divorce case in 19th-century London, and the information the novel presents about the early British feminists and the grossly sexist marriage and divorce laws is all that is interesting about the book. The story centers on two characters--the unmarried Emily "Fido" Faithfull, who owns a printing company and is an active participate in the Reform Firm, a group of women seeking to change gender dynamics in Britain and (2) Emily's beloved friend Helen Codrington, who has just returned from Malta, where her Admiral husband Henry was stationed. After a seven-year break, the two women rekindle their relationship; although Emily is delighted at first (she is clearly in love with Helen), Helen's behavior soon begins to cause concern. Helen is cavorting with another Navy man, sometimes using Emily's house as a trysting spot. When Henry becomes aware of Helen's faithlessness, he files for divorce, a rare (but becoming less rare) action in the mid-1860s. Soon, Emily is drawn into the case, much to the chagrin of her fellow reformers. The sealed letter of the title is a letter that Henry supposedly wrote (the reader knows it is a fake, written during the divorce trial) to document his concerns about the possible nature of Emily and Helen's relationship in the years before he was stationed at Malta. The "twists" at the end of the book come as no surprise to readers with even a soupcon of perception.

The subject matter could be the basis for a fascinating novel, but The Sealed Letter is tedious. Too much of the action is conveyed through dialogue, which is by turns stiff, couched in arcane vocabulary, and anachronistic. The characters are one-dimensional and unlikeable. While I was reading (the times I wasn't falling asleep three pages in), I had the random thought that Donoghue's book was like a Jane Austen novel set 50 years later--but without the wit, intelligence, and basic goodness of her central characters and Austen's careful writing. Donoghue, too,  is commenting on social class and gender relations, but she just doesn't do it very well.

For those who have read Donoghue's Room, The Sealed Letter bears no resemblance to that contemporary novel, other than that both have female characters trapped by men. If this hadn't been our Novel Conversations book for January, I wouldn't have gotten past the first couple chapters (and, I must admit, I did resort to skimming).

So not recommended.

Favorite passage:
Strange how a few years can reduce humiliation to an anecdote.