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.