Saturday, May 31, 2014

Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems, by Billy Collins

The first poem in this collection cannot help but draw the reader in; titled "Reader," it evokes so many aspects of our passion for books: "Looker, gazer, skimmer, skipper,/thumb-linking page turner, peruser,/you getting your print-fix for the day." "Reader" started the journey into Billy Collins' latest work on an exceptionally high note.

Many of the poems in the collection are about poetry and the work of the poet. Some of these poems are quite serious as in "The Trouble with Poetry," which includes the marvelous quatrain: "Poetry fills me with joy/and I rise like a feather in the wind./Poetry fills me with sorrow/and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge." But even when he is serious, Collins manages to be amusing. "The Trouble with Poetry" also includes these lines: "the trouble with poetry is/that it encourages the writing of more poetry," accompanied by a prediction that poets will keep on writing until "we have compared everything in the world/to everything else in the world." He writes about the topics people suggest he should write about; riffs on the predominance of the word death in the work of John Donne; and reflects on the biographies of authors included in a haiku collection.

Collins also writes about daily life--eating alone in a restaurant, a child's belief that making his mother a lanyard at camp is a fair trade for all she did in raising the child, burying the family cat, teenage girls' use of the phrase "Oh, My God!" Many of the poems are witty, some take an unexpected turn along the way, all are accessible to the average reader. If the poems don't pack the gut-punch that some poems do, the collection is nonetheless enjoyable.

I realized while reading this book how little I know about the various forms that poetry takes. I don't even know whether, for example, a poem that alternatives two- and three-line stanzas has a name and whether the poet sets out to write a poem in this form or it emerges as he/she works. Perhaps my next read needs to be a basic poetry textbook!

Favorite passages:
life's end just around another corner or two,
yet out the morning window
the thrust of a new blossom from that bush
whose colorful name I can never remember.
From "American Airlines #371"

Just because I'm dead now doesn't mean
I don't exist anymore.
All those eulogies and the obituary
in the corner of the newspaper
have made me feel more vibrant than ever.
From "All Eyes"

But why not honor the literal for a change,
let the rules speak for themselves,
and not get all periwinkle with allegory?
From "Friends in the Dark"

You are turning me
like someone turning a globe in her hand,
and yes, I have another side
lake a China no one,
not even me, has ever seen.
From "Orient"

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Age of Grief, by Jane Smiley

The Age of Grief is a collection that includes five short stories and the title novella, which is the star of the collection (and is placed last in the book). Dave and Dana are married dentists in practice together. They are in a difficult phase of their 30s,what Dave calls the age of grief, when you recognize "that the barriers between the circumstances of oneself and of the rest of the world have broken down" and you realize that you must drink from the "same cup of pain that every mortal drinks from."  They are working and raising three daughters together, the youngest of whom is in a phase in which only her father can make her happy. This phase creates tension in the family and exhausts Dave. Then Dave comes to believe that Dana is having an affair, and he loses it, doing nearly anything to stop Dana from confessing to him. At their weekend home, for example, he hides outside (in the winter!) all night to avoid a conversation. A flu bug that strikes the entire family forces Dave and Dana to decide what they are going to do about the "small container" that is their marriage.

A similarly bleak view of marriage is reflected in two of the five short stories. Both of these stories involve a couple and a third person whose expectations of friendship with the couple cannot be met. In "The Pleasure of Her Company," Florence is enamored with her new neighbors, feeling they have an ideal life; she soon learns that her perceptions couldn't be more wrong. The title character of "Lily" hopes her married friends can advise her on why she cannot find love; again, however, her visit with Kevin and Nancy reveals that they are not who the previous ten years of friendship had led her to believe. A third story, "Long Distance," involves a young man who has just ended a relationship with a Japanese woman in a way that has left him feeling small and insensitive. He is also spending the holidays with his two married brothers, and observing their family dynamics is disorienting--again, providing an outsider's view of marriage. The third-party observations of marriage give these stories an unusual perspective that differentiates them from "The Age of Grief," despite similar tones and themes.

The remaining two stories, while written in Smiley's deft style, seemed dated--although this collection was published in 2002, the individual pieces were written in the late 1970s and 1980s, when Smiley was the age of the characters in this book. Interestingly, I recently read a brief piece she had written about being 64 and am happy to report that her outlook about this phase of life is quite upbeat--it will be interesting to see whether her book coming out later this year reflects that view.

Favorite passage:
. . . there were certain notes that should not have ended, that should be eternal sounds in the universe.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Slices of Life: A Food Writer Cooks Through Many a Conundrum, by Leah Eskin

For ten years, Eskin has written a food column, "Home on the Range," for the Chicago Tribune. Slices of Life is a collection of those columns (each accompanied by a recipe) that, taken together, provide something of a memoir. Eskin cooks through life's ups and downs--raising children (which provides both highs and lows), moving, losing loved ones, buying furniture, trying new exercise programs, celebrating holidays . . . you get the picture.

The relationship of the columns to their companion recipes varies from close and logical to less clear and perhaps more metaphorical. To wit:  a discussion of the Jewish New Year is accompanied by a recipe for challah, a column on the crunch experienced on tax day is followed by a recipe for a snack called "snack crunch crunch," a column on her husband's penchant for huge eggplant-colored speakers is paired with a recipe for an eggplant dish, and a piece on compost precedes a recipe for "Savory Strawberry Smash." Occasionally, the text is actually about the dish for which directions are provided.

Slices of Life is a pleasant, well-written diversion. So far I've tried two of the recipes. One, "Night Tart," was very pretty but just okay in terms of taste. The other, "Mozzarella and Tomato Salad," was a delicious expansion of the flavors of a caprese.

Favorite passages:
We ate. Meals so good we remembered almost nothing. Like waking from a dream, all that remained was a feeling of sublime contentment and a whiff of creamed parsnips, roast duck, and lemon curd.  (I've had this exact experience!)

Once, the boy leaned into your pages, finding adventure, solace, and breakfast menu. Under his stare your shapes crisped into letters, your letters clumped into words, your words linked into stories. Your naughty wolves and pensive bears will accompany the boy forever. But the boy, he's already gone.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Identical, by Scott Turow

Paul and Cass Gianis are identical twins, but their lives diverged as young men, when Cass pled guilty to killing his girlfriend, the daughter of a prominent Greek American business man. When the novel opens, Paul is running for mayor of Turow's fictional Midwestern city and Cass is just getting out of prison after serving 25 years. The brother of the murdered girl is enraged that Cass is now free and obsessed with the idea that Paul was somehow involved in the murder. He starts a campaign to discredit the candidate, setting his investigators--Evon Miller and Tim Brodie--to work trying to answer lingering questions about what really happened on the night his sister died. Meanwhile Paul files a defamation suit.

Attorney Turow has a gift for describing court procedures in a way that is engaging and informative. In Identical, little time is spent on the actual court case. Most of the focus is on Evon and Tim's investigation, which includes considerable discussion of the genetic similarities and differences between identical twins. While the two investigators  are the most interesting and likable characters, they nonetheless engage in ethically questionable activities for their employer. Turow throws in his usual plot twists, some of which actually surprise, others (mostly those involving the twins) that are predictable.  A subplot involving the stalking of Evon by a former lover seems to serve little purpose.

All of these flaws kept Identical from being as engaging as some of Turow's earlier works, but it did succeed in distracting me from the home improvement project I am supposed to be working on.

Off Course, by Michelle Huneven

Cressida Harley is working on her dissertation in economics in 1981, but she is not making much progress, so she decides to retreat to her parents' cabin in the Sierras (a place she hated to go as a child because she missed socializing with her peers to spend isolated days in the mountains with her family). She falls almost immediately into an affair with the owner of the local lodge; when he is revealed to be a major Lothario, she quickly finds herself involved with a married carpenter, Quinn Morrow (whose only obviously charming characteristic is his deep voice).  Their relationship sends her "off course" for several years, as he repeatedly leaves and returns to his wife, breaking up with Cress but then sneaking back into her life. The dissertation sits in a box while Cress works as a waitress. Finally, she moves back to the LA area and constructs a different life for herself.

Off Course reminds me of a soap opera--there is lots of drama but ultimately little of significance  happens. Some reviewers have described it as a cautionary tale, but if women don't know that they can be distracted by inappropriate love affairs (well-sauced with alcohol), I doubt Cress's travails will be too educative.  The previous Huneven novel I had read--Blame--was an interesting exploration of guilt and its corrosive effects, so Off Course was a major disappointment.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, by David Foster Wallace

For some time, I had been feeling guilty/poorly read for not having ventured into the oeuvre of David Foster Wallace, the late author who was a darling of the literati. Because my son had told me that Infinite Jest, regarded by many as Wallace's masterpiecewas "bewildering" and "difficult to get through on the first try" but "genius," I decided to start with something easier: this charmingly titled collection of essays.

The collection is something of a hodgepodge: two essays primarily about tennis (and with, it seems to me, little broader to say); two essays that delve into literary theory, one directly and one through a discussion of the relationship between television and contemporary fiction; one very lengthy analysis of the work of David Lynch; and two pieces that report on American culture (and reveal much about Wallace's neuroses) through descriptions of the Illinois State Fair and a seven-day cruise in the Caribbean.

I am not really qualified to critique Wallace's comments on contemporary literature (though I can say that the essay on television is somewhat dated); however, I found myself somewhat less likely to take him seriously because of the ridiculous theory he propounded regarding rural Illinoisans' alienation from the natural environment because of the commodification of the land. Having grown up as a rural Illinoisan, I feel quite strongly that this is the richest of natural fertilizer. I must admit that I'm not sure whether he was making this argument seriously or in jest, but if it was intended to be humorous, I failed to see the humor. Wallace could be very funny, particularly when making fun of his own misadventures, such as when a nine-year-old girl destroyed him in a game of chess or he tried his hand at skeet shooting. On the other hand, he sometimes went over the top in his efforts to amuse; for example, he often repeated phrases for, I imagine, comic effect. Unfortunately, repeatedly referring to zinc oxide as ZnO is not amusing. Similarly, while he came up with a variety of interesting analogies and metaphors, some of these seem well over-the-top; for example, the process of boarding the cruise ship was variously compared to the scene in East Germany when the Berlin Wall came down, the fall of Saigon, and the transport of Jews to the death camps. Really?

Some of the essays are excessively long--particularly those on television, David Lynch (in all fairness, I have never seen any of Lynch's movies, so I have less than average interest in the topic), and the cruise ship. Footnoting was evidently a hallmark of Wallace's style and was used extensively in this book, but because I was listening to the audio version, I couldn't tell what was a footnote and what was text. This may account for some of what I perceived to be rambling and repetitiveness. I was also somewhat taken aback by Wallace's willingness to talk about how much he disliked particular people, including the actor Balthazar Getty and tennis player Andre Agassi. Honestly, I did not expect a major novelist to be so petty/snarky.

Overall, I was not terribly impressed with A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again. I'm still going to take on Infinite Jest, but my date with that massive novel got pushed back a little farther.

Favorite passage (maybe this isn't my favorite passage, but reading it after Wallace's suicide gives it a power that is actually slightly frightening--and it is not the only passage that seems to foreshadow his death):
I am now 33 years old, and it feels like much time has passed and is passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun, and then I have to live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I'm starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life's sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time. It is dreadful.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Rabbit, Run, by John Updike

Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom is a 26-year-old former high school basketball star, longing for his former glory and unhappy in his life. He demonstrates kitchen gadgets to support his drunken pregnant wife Janice and two-year-old son Nelson. One day, he simply decides to run away; his former basketball coach sets him up with a woman named Ruth and, within 24 hours, she has allowed him to move in with her, despite the thoughtless and offensive way he treats her. Although he has no contact with his family for two months, the pastor at his wife's church finds him a new job as a gardener and attempts to counsel him. When Janice gives birth to their daughter, he moves back home and takes a job in one of his father-in-law's used car lots. Tragedy soon strikes, and Rabbit once again is on the run as the book ends.

I may have been the only prodigious reader of my age cohort who had not read any of the Rabbit books--in fact, I knew almost nothing of what the books were about. Consequently, I was somewhat surprised to find the title character (and almost everyone else who populates the book for that matter) to be utterly repellent. Rabbit is so masterfully drawn that I frankly fear his mode of thinking is typical of many male brains (please tell me it isn't true). I hated Rabbit so thoroughly, I'm not sure I can read the remaining three titles in the quartet despite Updike's wonderful descriptive powers (and despite Julian Barnes's claim that together the four form the greatest post-war American novel; see I realize caring too much for the "likability" of characters is not the most mature of responses to literature, so I will try to push on!

Favorite passages:
They've not forgotten him; worse, they've never heard of him.

But it is just two lovers, holding hands and in a hurry to reach their car, their locked hands a starfish leaping through the dark.

He has a sensation of touching glass. He doesn't know if they are talking about nothing or making code for the deepest meanings.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore

As this novel opens, Berie, a curator of historical photographs, and her medical researcher husband Daniel are in Paris, trying to pretend that they are happily married. The novel then flashes back to Berie's childhood in a small town in upstate New York. Much of this narrative focuses on her best friend Sils, who is more sexually and socially advanced than Berie--the type of girl who seems like she will have a big life.  Then Berie gets caught stealing from the amusement park where the friends worked in the summer (she originally began her life of crime to get together the money for Sils to have an abortion), and her parents send her to Christian summer camp and then to boarding school. With distance, her relationship with Sils becomes less intense/comfortable, and Berie eventually moves away from their home town for college and work. At their tenth high school reunion, she is surprised that Sils, who has never left their home town, has become a rather boring (if not pathetic) adult. Ten years later, Berie reflects on what she has learned in life as another relationship--her marriage--comes apart.

Seem like a pretty thin plot? That's one of my problems with the book. Another is the fact that despite being in her head, we don't really understand the adult Berie very well--but Moore must want us to or she wouldn't have set the "stuck-in-Paris-with-a-husband-you-don't-love-anymore" frame around the coming-of-age story. The book really seems like primarily an excuse for Moore to show off her writing chops--and they are impressive, but not impressive enough for me to recommend this book.

Favorite passage:
My childhood had no narrative; it was all just a combination of air and no air: waiting for life to happen, the body to get big, the mind to grow fearless. There were no stories, no ideas, not really, not yet. Just things unearthed from elsewhere and propped up later to help the mind get around. At the time, however, it was liquid, like a song--nothing much. It was just a space with some people in it.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Someone Else's Love Story, by Joshilyn Jackson

William Ashe and Shandi Pierce are both ripe for change when they are caught up in a convenience store robbery gone wrong. For William, a studly geneticist on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum, it is the one-year anniversary of the day his wife and daughter were in a fatal car accident. Shandi, a single mother whose three-year-old son Natty was (she claims) a virgin birth, is moving from her mother's home in rural Georgia to her father's "spare" condo in Atlanta so Natty can attend a preschool better suited to his quick mind. When the two find themselves hostages of an incompetent robber, William shields Natty from harm and eventually brings the robber down. Shandi immediately decides William is her destiny and begins showing up at his house, with Natty, as he convalesces. Neither Shandi's BFF Walcott nor William's confidant Paula are keen about this development.

Along with her decision that William is meant for her, Shandi also decides that she has to give up the myth of the virgin birth and find Natty's father, a frat boy who managed to impregnate her without successful intercourse. William is the obvious choice to help with this process, and it takes him very little time, with the assistance of Paula, a divorce lawyer who represents women only, to identify the culprit. Oddly, William is able to identify through DNA analysis that Natty's biological father also is on the autism spectrum. Shandi confronts the father, with somewhat offputting results, at least for this reader.

The book has a number of twists and surprises--some are genuinely surprising, some not. Several are highly improbable. Jackson brings humor to the story without using behavior caused by William's disorder as a punch line; I appreciated this (especially after reading The Rosie Project).  Less successful for me was her weaving of religious themes into the story: William's wife had wanted to be a nun early in her life and her faith had created some conflicts in their relationship; Shandi's parents seem to have divorced primarily because they were of different faiths; both Shandi and William have experiences that may or may not have religious significance. Unfortunately--and perhaps because I just am not a religious person--none of this caused me to think more deeply about faith. Ultimately, Someone Else's Love Story is mostly a rom-com with a twist of Southern humor that is marred by a somewhat troubling treatment of sexual assault and (for me) religious references that don't really go anywhere.

Monday, May 5, 2014

And the Dark Sacred Night, by Julia Glass

Kit Noonan is a 40-year-old art history professor and father of twins, whose passivity is driving his wife Sandra crazy. She posits that his underlying problem is not knowing who his father is--his mother Daphne has always refused to answer any questions about his paternity. Perhaps more to get him out of the house than to solve this particular puzzle, she sends him on a road trip to discover his father's identity. Aided by his first stepfather Jasper, who lives up a mountain, runs sled dogs, and helps run a ski resort, Kit is able to track down his paternal grandmother Lucinda and learn that his father Malachy Burns met and impregnated his mother at music camp in high school (their coupling was something of an "accident," as Malachy was gay); Malachy became the music critic for the New York Times. He died in the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s (and in Glass's novel Three Junes--several characters here are "crossovers from that earlier book).

Glass uses multiple narrators--Kit, Jasper, Daphne, Lucinda, and Malachy's friend Fenno--which gives diverse perspectives but also results in the characters being fairly thinly drawn. Daphne never really comes to life at all, and even Kit seems a least partially constructed of cardboard. A number of the minor characters seem interesting but far from fully realized. Nonetheless, I appreciate Glass's exploration of a theme that recurs in all of her work--the ways in which we build families from people related by blood and those we collect throughout our lives and how feeling grounded in those families helps us become fully ourselves. As always, her writing is graceful and descriptive, carrying the reader over any gaps in characterization or plot.

Favorite passages:
His body has begun to look distinctly male in its dialogue with the ground.

The past is like the night: dark but sacred. It's the time when most of us sleep, so we think of the day as the time we really live, the only time that matters, because the stuff we do by day somehow makes us who we are. We feel the same way about the present. We say, let bygones be bygones . . . But there is no day without night, no wakefulness without sleep, no present without past. They are constantly somersaulting over each other.