Thursday, July 31, 2014

Survival Lessons, by Alice Hoffman

The novelist Alice Hoffman was diagnosed with breast cancer more than a decade and a half ago. Having survived for an extended period, she wrote this slim volume (it can be read in less than an hour)  of what she "would have most wanted to hear" when she was newly diagnosed. Her words are positive, though they do not strike me as profound (I must qualify that comment with the acknowledgment that I have not yet faced a life-threatening illness and may simply not understand how much someone in that situation needs to hear this advice). Her chapter titles summarize her points and emphasize that, despite being ill, a patient has choices, as the word "choose" begins each title. Examples: choose your heroes, to enjoy your self, your friends, to plan for the future,  to love who you are, to accept sorrow, to dream. While this strikes me as a book that would not have published if the author weren't a well-known writer, if it in fact helps some folks with cancer or other illnesses, then more power to Alice Hoffman.

Favorite passages:
I wrote to remind myself that in the darkest hour the roses still bloom, the stars still come out at night. And to remind myself that, despite everything that was happening to me, there were still choices I could make.

My expectations of what I wanted in a man I learned from a dog: loyalty and kindness.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Half the Kingdom, by Lore Segal

Half the Kingdom revolves around a large Manhattan hospital where all the "over-62s" who come into the emergency room are developing dementia, in what doctors are calling "copycat Alzheimer's." Hospital personnel partner with the former head of a think tank, Joe Bernstine, and his staff (his motley crew of employees is helping him compile a compendium of end-of-the-world scenarios) to investigate what is happening. The older members of his staff pose as patients, while the younger ones take on the role of social workers. They encounter a number of unique older patients, all of whom could be regarded as mentally impaired--but who might just be focused on aspects of life (or death) that younger people cannot perceive. As the narration jumps from character to character, it becomes more and more difficult to tell who has dementia and who does not, but the hospital environment clearly contributes to mental and physical dislocation of the elderly and their families.

Half the Kingdom does not have a typical plot with a neat resolution. What it does have is humor and memorable characters (I will not soon forget Lucy, whose son convinces her she needs a cell phone, which she then uses to call everyone in her address book to read them one of her short short stories--and she is not a patient).  For someone who is an "over-62," it is also a discomfiting look at how our generation (and our parents') may fare in the medical establishment. I can certainly see that this book would not be everyone's cup of tea, but I enjoyed it.

Favorite passages:
She belonged to the class of children whose tone of voice is never less than nasty when speaking to parents who continue to respond with incorruptible courtesy.

"Interesting," Lucy said to Bethy who stood beside her, "the long beat between something happening and the world taking any notice."

Friday, July 25, 2014

On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-rae Lee

A few days ago, a friend commented, "I've had enough of dystopian novels." I feel somewhat the same, but I nonetheless decided to listen to Chang-rae Lee's new book, On Such a Full Sea, which departs from his usual realistic fiction (which I have enjoyed) to describe a world in which environmental disaster has transformed the landscape and its inhabitants. What was once the United States has been repopulated by colonizers from Asia who found "very little to encounter by way of an indigenous population" when they arrived. The society is divided into three strata--the "Charters," where the upper classes live; labor settlements, located on the sites of great American cities, where working class people create the products required by the charters; and the "Counties," unregulated rural areas where the poorest people scratch out a living however they can.

The novel's plot is fable-like;  it is not clear whether the residents of a labor settlement known as B-Mor, the first person plural narrator(s) of the book,  actually have knowledge of the events or are engaged in myth-making via oral storytelling. The protagonist is 16-year-old Fan, a diver in B-Mor whose older brother was, years ago, one of the lucky ones who got test scores high enough to justify promotion to the charters. One day, Fan's boyfriend Reg disappears, and she takes to the road to find him. She has "adventures" in the Counties before finding her way to a Charter, where she hopes to find her brother and gain his help in locating Reg. The account of her trials--and the trials in the Counties are matched by experiences in the Charters--are interspersed with the narrators' account of the history of B-Mor and the response to the two young people's leaving the settlement. For a time, it seems that the residents of B-Mor might rise up and demand change, but the activist response dies out rather quickly, resulting in no real reform. Taken together, the two threads reveal institutional problems in all levels of the society, as well as the enduring problems engendered by human nature, fundamentally unchanged by the new order.

I have mixed feelings about On Such a Full Sea.  The pace is rather slow, primarily because of the sections of the narrative in which the dimensions of the new culture (B.D. Wong's somewhat elegiac reading also contributes). Yet the exploration of human nature in a new milieu and the aspect of myth-making are interesting--and Lee's writing, as always, is admirable.

Favorite passages:
. . . for every moment, there is a companion moment that elides on to it, a secret span that deepens the original's stamp. We feel ever-obliged by everyday charges and tasks. They conscript us more and more. We find world enough in a frame. Until at last, we take our places at a wheel or wall or line, having somehow forgotten we can look up.

. . . the funny thing about a life is how eventually it will adhere to certain routines of mind, those tracks or grooves laid down in special pressure or heat.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Upcoming Reading

Here is what Novel Conversations is reading for the rest of 2014: 

August:   The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, by Fannie Flagg
September:   Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
October:  Chief Left Hand and Blood Memory, by Margaret Coel (One Book, One Broomfield selections)
November:  Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, by Cheryl Strayed
December:  The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd

Monday, July 21, 2014

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott shares the lessons about writing (and the corollaries about life) that she has conveyed to students in her writing classes. She provides tips and a number of exercises that writers can use to make the process of writing marginally less painful. Her core tips include giving oneself small writing assignments to complete as a way of getting started; acknowledging that your first drafts will be shitty but keeping at them (the larger message: give up on perfectionism); focusing on a small "picture frame" to get the hang of describing details (e.g., the contents of your school lunch); letting characters and plot develop like a polaroid, rather than expecting to know everything before you start writing; finding partners to work and share with. One of the most interesting exercises she suggests is writing to someone--writing a letter that explains some part of your life, or writing a story to the author of a work that moved you, for example. Throughout, Lamott deemphasizes the importance of publication and stresses writing as a means of self-realization, of filling the emptiness within, of taking part in an art that reflects some of the finest aspects of human nature.

While I can imagine the practical writing advice being useful (I am myself a writer, but, perhaps because of the type of writing I do--primarily K-12 social studies curriculum--I don't find writing the same arduous process that Lamott and others experience--but I also don't think about myself as being a creative writer), I suspect that the part of the book that has made it popular is Lamott's encouragement of writing as almost a form of therapy. Indeed, some of these pieces actually made me want to write a novel, not something I've aspired to over the years.

On the other hand, there are aspects of the book that annoy me. While Lamott can be both inspirational and funny, I sometimes felt that she was trying too hard to amuse--often by catastrophizing things in her life (perhaps she actually feels thing as intensely as she suggests, but it felt inauthentic to me).  In addition, as a nonreligious writer, I felt Lamott at times did exactly what she advised others not to do--spiritualizing her hysteria. I am willing to claim these annoyances as my problems rather than Lamott's, but I don't think I'll pick up another of her books.

Favorite passages:
I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up.

. . . for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.

Metaphors are a great language tool, because they explain the unknown in terms of the known. But they only work if they resonate in the heart of the writer.  [This is one of the best definitions of metaphor that I have seen.]

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion, by Fannie Flagg

In The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion, Fannie Flagg weds her trademark quirky Southern characters (intended to be humorous) with a dose of history about the role of women pilots in World War II. I found the history interesting and the contemporary story set in Alabama painfully stereotyped and not a bit funny. Not recommended.

The Arsonist, by Sue Miller

Frankie Rowley has lived in Africa for 15 years, providing food aid and engaging in a series of unfulfilling relationships. As The Arsonist opens, she is on her way to visit her retired parents in Pomeroy, NH, and contemplating not returning to Africa. Her parents have now moved permanently into their summer home, and Frankie thinks some time there will help her figure out what to do with the rest of her life.  On her first night home, jet-lagged, she sets out on a walk, smells smoke, and sees a car careening down the mountain road. That fire is the first in a string, all of which are targeted at the homes of summer residents, whom the permanent residents both need and despise. The string of arsons exacerbate the tensions between the two groups, a process Miller describes quite tellingly. Frankie meanwhile cannot help comparing the class differences in New Hampshire with the more extreme situations she encountered in Africa.

Frankie's parents, Alfie and Sylvia, have decided to become year-round residents of Pomeroy, but that plan is thrown into jeopardy by Alfie's deepening dementia and their fear over the fires. Sylvia must also deal with the fact that events have put an entirely different face on her unhappy marriage (Frankie is stunned when Sylvia openly confesses she does not love Alfie--and may never have done so).

Frankie begins a romance with Bud, the editor of the local newspaper, for whom the arsons and the related investigation have become a major story. Bud was once a high-flying political journalist in Washington, but decided a few years ago, following his second divorce, that he wanted a different kind of life. He bought the small-town paper and methodically and respectfully worked his way into the community in a way summer residents would never contemplate. As their romance deepens, Bud tries to convince Frankie that she, too, could build a meaningful life in Pomeroy.

While Frankie is the first character we meet and the other two narrators--Bud and Sylvia--are introduced through their relationships with her, to me she is the least interesting of the three. Sylvia's trials as Alfie's caregiver (all the while wishing she could be free of him) are compelling reading, and Bud's essential goodness provides moral ballast to the story. I enjoyed the ending's mix of ambiguity and resolution, although I note that other reader-reviewers have found it unsatisfying. Although this is not my favorite Sue Miller, her elegant writing and the exploration of the themes of home, family, and class make the book a worthwhile read.

Favorite passages:
Class has no relevance to our lives. . . . Your father is an intellectual.

I'm up for it now, he said, the weekly pace and making what you can of what's around you. . . . Try having a home. I've been floating along on top of that notion for a long time.

Maybe, Frankie thought, home--what felt like home--was just a way of being in the world that felt Alfie-like to him, like being the person he'd been before the changes that were slowly turning him into someone else began. Maybe by home he meant the time when he felt whole, when he felt like himself. The time--and perhaps one of the places--where the world seemed to recognize him in some deep way, seemed to say, Come in, we've been expecting you. Exactly you.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

China Dolls, by Lisa See

Grace, Helen, and Ruby meet on a San Francisco street in fall 1938. Grace's family was the only Chinese American family in a small Midwestern town, where she was ostracized by other young people and abused by her father. A gifted dancer, she has fled to the West Coast in hopes of becoming a star, but she has no idea where to look for work, other than at the World's Fair, where she was turned away. Ruby is a Japanese American girl who has just returned to the mainland from Hawaii; she is presenting herself as Chinese because of the outrage against the Japanese. Helen is a member of a wealthy Chinatown family, expected to live in her family compound and act in a way that will bring no shame to the family.

The three form a friendship and apply for and win jobs at a new nightclub called Forbidden City; the nightclub is to feature all Chinese acts. This starts a ten-year period in which the three friends work together, sometimes live together, fight, make up, and persevere. Helen, who has secrets that only gradually come out, has a child as the result of a one-night stand. Ruby's true heritage is discovered, and she spends 18 months in an internment camp. Grace experiences ups and downs in her love life and career, eventually being forced onto the "Chop Suey Circuit," touring from club to club in small towns with other "Oriental" entertainers, including dancers, singers, magicians, and novelty acts.

In 2012, Lisa See was gracious enough to spend time skyping with Novel Conversations when we read her previous novel, Dreams of Joy.  She was a delight, and we were all impressed with her passion for telling the "hidden" stories of women and girls, especially Chinese and Chinese American women and girls. Unfortunately, China Dolls does a better job of conveying the history than of engaging the reader in the characters' stories. If you read China Dolls, you will learn a lot about the experiences of Asian American entertainers in the 1930s and 1940s and the discrimination they faced, as well as the successes they achieved, the expectations of traditional Chinese families, and more. Whether you will care about what happens to the three rather self-centered protagonists is another matter.

Favorite passage:
There is only one perfect child in the world and every mother has him.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini

As And the Mountains Echoed opens, a father is telling his two children a bedtime story about a father who must sacrifice one child for the sake of the rest of the family. The next day, the father and two children begin a trek from their village, named Shadbagh, to Kabul, ostensibly because an uncle has found work for the father. But why would the father be taking his young daughter Pari (her brother Abdullah insisted on going along)? As it turns out, the daughter is being sold to a wealthy urban couple who cannot have children.

From this traumatic separation, the story branches backward and forward, from narrator to narrator, and from place to place, encompassing not only Shadbagh and Kabul, but Paris, the Greek isle of Tinos, and California as well. The children’s stepmother Parwana tells a chilling story of being the unattractive twin unable to capture Saboor’s attention because her sister is so much more beautiful and reacting in a way that damages her sister physically and herself emotionally.  Their uncle Nabi, who arranged Pari’s sale, leaves a letter describing the couple who became her adopted parents (and for whom he worked); when the husband had a stroke, the wife decamped with Pari to Paris, where the letter eventually finds Pari  years after her mother’s death. Brothers who lived in the village emigrated to the United States, where both experienced success; on a return visit to Afghanistan years later (with the goal of regaining family property), they encounter a badly injured child, whom one vows to help and the other actually does. In California, the two eat at an Afghan restaurant run by Abdullah and his wife, who now have a daughter named Pari. Abdullah and Pari’s half-brother Iqbal returns to Shadbagh from a refugee camp but is brutally treated by a drug lord who has taken over the region. Meanwhile, in California, the second generation Pari is caring for her father, who suffers from dementia.

This description may sound confusing—and I am only suggesting the complexity, rather than truly representing it; occasionally it takes a while to figure out who exactly is narrating a section and what their relationship is to the central story. While some of the relationships are tangential, each narrator adds to the novel’s depth and furthers, in some way, Hosseini’s exploration of his themes of family, what it means to love/give care, and how people come to understand who they are as members of families and cultures, within the geographic region that spawned the culture or outside of it, in the diaspora.

And The Mountains Echoed is by far my favorite of Hosseini’s three novels. Although, like its predecessors, it provides insights into horrors the Afghan people have faced over the past decades, the narrative is less violent and more hopeful in its portrayal of people whose love for family (however defined) sustains them.  Although I had trouble “getting into” the book, it started to pick up around page 50 and I greatly enjoyed the rest.

Favorite passages:
Abdullah could not picture that Father had once swung on a swing. He could not imagine that Father had once been a boy, like him. A boy. Carefree, light on his feet. Running headlong into the open fields with his playmates. Father, whose hands were scarred, whose face was crosshatched with deep lines of weariness. Father, who might as well have been born with shovel in hand and mud under his nails.

It was in the tender, slightly panicky way he spoke these words that I knew my father was a wounded person, that his love for me was as true, vast, and permanent as the sky, and that it would always bear down upon me. It was the kind of love that, sooner or later, cornered you into a choice: either you tore free  or you stayed and withstood its rigor even as it squeezed you into something smaller than yourself.

[Interestingly, the first quote is Abdullah thinking about his father Saboor, the second Pari thinking about her father Abdullah.]