Sunday, April 27, 2014

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

Dept. of Speculation is the story of a woman who meets a man, falls in love, has a baby, struggles to find her way as a writer, nearly falls apart when her husband has an affair, and moves from Brooklyn to rural Pennsylvania. But that facile description of a rather mundane "plot" misrepresents the book entirely, as it is unlike any other novel I've read. It is presented in a series of brief reflections, quotations, and anecdotes told from the perspective of the woman. A Lebanese proverb, an Einstein or Simone Weil quote, an anecdote about Carl Sagan's divorce, and a description of notes the woman writes on the papers of her students are interspersed with descriptions of her family life, the bedbug infestation in their apartment, her love for her daughter, and her own insecurities.

Until the revelation of her husband's affair, the reflections are written in the first person. Then, when she learns her husband has betrayed her, the narration switches to the third person ("the wife"); this change, combined with a clear downward spiraling in the woman's mental state, makes the second half of the book rather harrowing--and yet, it is also something of a tribute to marriage and married love.

Offill has taken an array of seemingly unrelated material and woven it into an engaging book--one that actually makes me want to read it again to see whether the diverse pieces reveal more with a second perusal. If you prefer a novel with a traditional narrative structure, Dept. of Speculation is probably not for you, but if you like a little experimentation, then I highly recommend it.

Favorite passages
The Buddhists say there are 121 states of consciousness. Of these, only three involve misery or suffering. Most of us spend our time moving back and forth between these three.

He is ten years younger than we are, alert to any sign of compromise or dead-ending within us. "You are not allowed to compare your imagined accomplishments to our actual ones," someone says after the boy who is pure of heart leaves.

The only love that feels like love is the doomed kind. (Fun fact.)

The adultery book says to say affirmations of some sort each day, about yourself or your marriage. The wife doesn't like the ones that are suggested, so she makes up her own.
Nerves of Steel
No favors for fuckers

(Hmmm. I have chosen some rather dark quotes--but really, the book is not as downbeat as these quotes might suggest.)

Friday, April 25, 2014

Bread and Butter, by Michelle Wildgen

Leo and Britt are brothers who own and operate a restaurant, Winesap, in their home town outside Philadelphia. They are surprised when their younger brother Harry, who has been something of a nomad, returns home to open his own restaurant. He tries to convince Leo and Britt to invest in his restaurant, but only one does. The two older brothers both start romances that seem to have the potential to be serious, while Harry struggles getting reading to open and then running his new restaurant. Meanwhile, the three try to figure out the dynamics of their triangular sibling relationship while gaining some meager insights into their own psyches.

That's the plot of Bread and Butter, with descriptions of dishes and insider information on the running of restaurants, from hiring and keeping staff to maintaining focus on the menu to which equipment to buy and which to rent, thrown in.  The food/restaurant information kept me reading, but if you're not interested in that kind of thing, Bread and Butter is pretty thin gruel (sorry, couldn't help myself).

Favorite passage
It was a great dish, actually, but he was disappointed by the presentation of it. You saw this from cooks everywhere: they thought it gave them street cred to serve you a dish as a challenge. It tasted good, but people dined out for pleasure, for coddling, and they paid for the privilege, so why not give it to them?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Still Life with Bread Crumbs, by Anna Quindlen

Rebecca Winter is--or, perhaps more accurately, was--a successful photographer. Her Kitchen Counter series of photographs, particularly the image Still Life with Bread Crumbs, made her famous and wealthy in her 30s. Her success did not sit well with her professor husband (who seems able only to stay married to any woman for 10 years), and Rebecca moved out, bought her own apartment on Central Park, and raised their son Ben on her own. While she had other professional successes, by the time Ben has grown up and she has hit the age of 60, however, her work has fallen out of style, and she is struggling financially. In order to meet her expenses, including paying for her mother's assisted living facility, she rents out her Manhattan apartment and moves to a run-down cottage upstate.

Life in the country is unnerving, but Rebecca makes several friends, including Jim Bates, the roofer who helps her get an invading raccoon out of her attic. Jim also sets her up with a weekend job helping him track and document various bird species. She is appalled by the fact that she accepts the $200/day stipend offered--and that it makes a difference in the financial problems that provide the background noise in her head. She adopts a stray dog and begins photographing him and selling the photographs in her friend Sara's tea room. While her agent is infuriated that Rebecca is selling work without her assistance, and at a very low price, this income also helps Rebecca meet her obligations.  She also discovers a series of small "altars" in the woods--crosses displayed with such personal items as a card, a photograph, a trophy, and a yearbook. These, too, she photographs, quickly realizing this may be some of the best work of her career. The new directions her work is taking cause her to reflect on the extent to which her earlier work was largely unconscious. The Kitchen Counter series came about in a moment of rage at her husband, and other work was equally unplanned.

Jim becomes an important part of Rebecca's new life (what I think of as a July-October romance), but then he "disappears" and Rebecca does not know why. This is where I found the plot becoming somewhat unbelievable  Sara is perhaps the most talkative woman in all of New York and it is not possible that she would not have mentioned the precipitating event to Rebecca (there is a conversation in which she starts to talk about it and then stops--but this did not convince me). A series of unlikely events ensues, including the discovery of an antique desk worth hundreds of thousands and the killing off of an inconvenient husband who must be disposed of before everyone important to Rebecca can have a happy future.

In Still Life with Bread Crumbs, Anna Quindlen has created a situation that I think many single women fear--the loss of financial stability (after all, even Oprah has said she is afraid she'll end up as a bag lady). She has also created an interesting sometimes frustrating central character, whose early weeks in the cabin are classic "roughing it" stories. I appreciated the examination of Rebecca's life as an artist, albeit one who seems to have gone through much of her career in something of a haze. While the happy wrapping up of the story makes for a pleasant ending, it's a bit too neat, not to mention infeasible. I enjoyed the book, but I felt slightly letdown at the end.

Favorite passages:
Talking about art requires artists to sound purposeful and sure of themselves, but she'd never felt that way. . . . Once Rebecca had read an essay in which a feminist theorist posited that the word still was obviously a way of suggesting how empty the existence of the average America woman was, that the bread crumbs were an allusion to Hansel and Gretel, leaving a trail so someone could find you, rescue you, keep you from being eaten alive.  Rebecca had been amazed at how much could be divined from a photograph she had snapped unthinkingly in a haze of fatigue overlaid with unacknowledged anger. . .

As with many marriages, hers was based on essential misconceptions.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

Julie Jacobsen is an awkward suburban teenager, attending an arts summer camp on scholarship, when she meets and embraced by a group of five Manhattanites who seem to her the pinnacle of sophistication. The group calls themselves "The Interestings" and includes Cathy (a dancer), Jonah (a talented musician who is the son of a famous folksinger), Ethan (a gifted animator), and brother and sister Goodman and Ash Wolf. The group even gives Julie a new nickname--Jules--that she embraces as more fitting than her pedestrian given name. Ethan tries to start a romantic relationship with Jules; while she likes him, she feels no romantic interest in him.

Once summer camp is over, Jules maintains her friendship with the group, traveling into the city most weekends to hang out with "The Interestings" and assiduously keeping them from visiting her modest suburban home. Events that I won't reveal force Cathy and Goodman from the group, but the other four Interestings remain friends into middle age. Ash and Ethan marry and Ethan becomes fabulously successful with his animated television series for adults; Ash becomes a somewhat successful feminist producer/director, though it seems likely that the opportunities that come her way are due to Ethan's prominence. Jonah, who has been damaged by abuse suffered at the hands of a musician friend of his mother's, gives up music, briefly joins the Moonies, and then becomes a designer of assistive devices for disabled people (while Jonah's story is less central than those of Jules, Ash, and Ethan, he may be the most sympathetic and compelling character in the book).

Jules, who hoped to become a comic actress, eventually realizes her talent is limited; she marries a lovely (but not "special") man named Dennis, has a daughter, and becomes a therapist. Despite her achievements, she is envious not only of Ash and Ethan's lifestyle and wealth but their ability to sustain the artistic dreams of their youth. She is blind to problems or frustrations in their lives (their son Mo is on the autism spectrum and Ethan questions his ability to love Mo--a pretty serious challenge), as well as to Ethan's enduring love for her. Her envy is corrosive, preventing her from fully inhabiting or appreciating her own life.

I probably would not have read The Interestings if Novel Conversations hadn't chosen it. It relies on a plot device (following what happens to a group of childhood friends as they enter adulthood) I generally find ineffective, and books on privileged Northeasterners aren't my favorites. However, I very much liked the book and its exploration of how we judge our own and others' success.

In 2012, Meg Wolitzer published an essay in The New York Times, questioning why books by women that deal with family issues do not receive as much acclaim as similarly themed books by men (e.g., the highly regarded The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen). It's an interesting piece ( and, having read all three books, I would regard The Interestings as the equal of the Eugenides and Franzen titles. Definitely a topic worth considering.

Favorite passages
You didn't always need to be the dazzler, the firecracker, the one who cracked everyone up, or made everyone want to sleep with you, or be the one who wrote and starred in the play that got the standing ovation. You could cease to be obsessed with the idea of being interesting.

. . . he's infuriated that his e-reader allows him to only know the percentage of a book he's read, nto the number of pages. This, he thinks, is 92 percent stupid.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum

Since pretty much everyone in the world has seen the Wizard of Oz, I am not going to summarize the plot, except to say that the book struck me as considerably more violent than the film (although it has been a long time since I saw the film and I could be wrong)--the tin man certainly does a lot of damage with that ax!

For years, various writers have speculated about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz being an allegory for populism and monetary policy in the 1890s. I am sorry to say I am way too literal to get that. For me, the story is about relying on yourself and your friends rather than the powerful--hmmm, maybe that is populism.

I listened to the book and, although Anne Hathaway occasionally got a little too dramatic, I generally enjoyed her narration.

Favorite passage:
Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don't you think?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Magician's Assistant, by Ann Patchett

"Parsifal is dead. That is the end of the story." Those are the opening lines of Ann Patchett's The Magician's Assistant--but, quite obviously, that is not the end of the story, as his widow Sabine believes. Rather, it is the beginning of at least two entirely new stories--Parsifal's real, previously hidden story and Sabine's future.

Parsifal was a magician (and the owner of two successful rug shops in Los Angeles, where he actually earned his living). Parsifal married his assistant Sabine after the love of his life Phan, a techie wunderkind from Vietnam, died of AIDS. Sabine had long loved Parsifal, while always knowing he was gay. While Parsifal also had AIDS, he died suddenly of an aneurysm, leaving Sabine so depressed she is barely able to get out of her bed in their lovely home. Phan haunts her dreams with reports from the afterlife.

Then Sabine learns that the background Parsifal had created for himself--a rich orphan from Connecticut--was entirely false. Instead, he was from rural Nebraska, where his mother, two sisters, and nephews still live. Soon, his mother Dot Fetters and his sister Bertie visit Sabine in LA; Sabine is shocked to learn more about the childhood of Guy Fetters, Parsifal's original name. Bertie and Dot invite Sabine to visit Nebraska, and she surprises herself by agreeing. She arrives in the midst of a Nebraska blizzard--the winterscape providing a physical representation of how she views her beloved's childhood. As she learns more about Guy's family and grows to care for them as flawed but lovable individuals, however, she again must readjust her thinking.

The Magician's Assistant is an entertaining look at the intersection of family and place but much of the plot seems unrealistic to me--why would a talented and beautiful woman continue to love a gay man for 20+ years? Why would Parsifal's family not have tried to contact him when they knew he was a magician (they saw him on the Tonight show) and he sent them money periodically? I have other questions, but asking them might ruin the read for some. I also found the ending abrupt and unsatisfying. So it's a mixed review for me.

Favorite passages:
She imagined her loneliness taking the shape of boxes and boxes of other people's possessions, a terminal moraine that would keep all she had lost in front of her.

There was never any point in taking someone else's comfort away, even if it was comfort from another time, but Sabine did not agree with Dot's assessment of the view. Things were better in other places. People had different lives. Many suffered less. Many were happier. Sabine knew without question that Parsifal must have come to this spot. What he saw was not a life that was the same in all directions.

This time of year everyone was late anyway, cars didn't start or they slid off driveways and lodged in snowbanks. Winter was nothing but a long excuse for tardiness.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Dirty Love, by Andre Dubus III

Dirty Love is a collection of four loosely connected stories/novellas that explore love, loneliness, and the multiple ways in which people manage to screw up their relationships. Manage is an especially appropriate word to apply to the first story, "Listen Carefully, As Our Options Have Changed," in which Mark Welch sets a private detective to following his wife Laura. When the detective videotapes her having sex with another man, Mark confronts her and ends up living in the "mother-in-law" apartment with his mother. Banished from his home, he plots responses in which he will apply his  skills as a project manager to the wreck his marriage has become. Those skills prove to be remarkably ineffective, and Mark seems to be careening ever closer to a violent confrontation.

"Marla" is the story of a chubby bank teller, who shares her apartment with a cat. When one of her customers, Dennis, asks her out to dinner, she begins to hope that her life will come to resemble that of her happily coupled friends. Marla and Dennis move in together, but the experience is not what Marla expected.

In "Bartender," Robert believes he is a poet, but he makes his living as a bartender. Something of a playboy, Robert meets and marries Althea, primarily because her eyes on the night they met reminded him of a phrase that had pleased him that morning when he thought of it: "eyes of black hope." Althea soon becomes pregnant, and Robert believes a new live has started . . . . but he can't quite keep himself from sleeping with one of the waitresses at the bar.

The final story, "Dirty Love," is particularly poignant. It features Devon, an 18-year-old whose reputation has been ruined by "friends" who have posted a picture of her performing oral sex online. Her father has turned away from her, and she is now living with her elderly great-uncle Frances, a lovely man who knows Devon is troubled but doesn't know the details of what happened. Frances, a retired teacher, is trying to prepare Devon to take the GED. Meanwhile, Devon tries to lose herself in music and online encounters.

Dirty Love is a bleak portrayal of human relationships (and humans for that matter), but there's something about Dubus's prose that keeps you reading despite being in the slough of despondence.

Favorite passage:
She  began to cry, and it was as if she were falling backwards into a dark hole, for how could she have forgotten she was a dull, round woman who'd been a dull, round girl, lucky enough now to have found anyone at all? That for all Dennis was not, for all that she didn't feel for him, he was better than a lifetime of nobody.