Monday, February 23, 2015

On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

I am more than willing to admit it when I don't "get it"--and I don't get what makes On the Road one of the great books of the 20th century. A largely autobiographical novel, On the Road recounts Sal Paradise's travels across the United States in the late 1940s. Sal takes the bus, hitchhikes, and drives repeatedly from New York to Denver and San Francisco and back (with side trips to a variety of other locations), often accompanied by friends, most notably the much loved eccentric Dean Moriarty. Sal and his friends are always searching for an elusive "it," which they seem to believe Dean holds the key to finding. But they never find or uncover anything of any depth; rather they reveal a self-centeredness that verges on the pathological. They overindulge in drugs and alcohol, take advantage of nearly every one they meet, and treat women and the children they have with those women with particular cavalierness (to be fair, Sal does not spawn any children and is less abusive of women than his friends). Sal's attitudes toward African Americans and Latinos are simultaneously romanticized, racist, and curiously unmoored from any understanding of history.

Kerouac dubbed his style"spontaneous prose" and saw it as inspired by jazz in its frenzied madness (this is his conception of jazz); in fact, the lives of his characters do have a frenzied madness that amounts to, in his own words, "senseless emptiness."

Favorite passage:
I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness.

The Silver Star, by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls has fans among the members of Novel Conversations, and we have read all of our books in the group (this is her third). By page 2, I was groaning to myself, "Oh, no, another tale of horrendous parenting." But oh, yes, it was.

Bean (Jean) and Liz are the adolescent daughters of a woman who dreams of making it as a singer/songwriter. They live in Lost Lake, California, and their mother often disappears for days to Los Angeles, auditioning and spending time with a new boyfriend that the girls eventually discover is a figment of their mother's imagination. When Bean confronts her, the mother takes off and doesn't come back. When, after two weeks, the "bandersnatches" (the girls' term for Child Protective Services) show up, they decide to head to Virginia, where their uncle still lives in the family home.

After a bus ride in which they have to ditch a pervy dude (but otherwise doesn't seem nearly as harrowing as such a ride would actually be; Donna Tartt provided what seemed to me a more authentic description of such a ride in The Goldfinch), they find their uncle living as a hermit/hoarder in a crumbling mansion. He takes them in, however, and they begin to explore the area. Jean meets her long-dead father's family and the two find jobs with a repulsive mill foreman named Jerry Maddox. From the moment Maddox appears on the scene, it is clear that bad things will happen . . . and they do.

The Silver Star is a quick read, Bean is an engaging narrator, and Liz's fondness for word play offers sporadic amusement. But the story is predictable (well, maybe not the redemptive power of emus) and Walls, in my view, has nothing new to say. If you haven't read her previous books, perhaps The Silver Star will seem fresh. For me, it was a thumbs down.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Outline, by Rachel Cusk

Outline is not a novel in the traditional sense of a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Nor does the narrator narrate; rather she listens the stories of others. Faye is a writer who is traveling from London to Athens to teach at a summer writing program. The stories she hears are those of the people she encounters over a few days--the man sitting next to her on the plane, with whom she goes sailing twice, each time having more of his story revealed; friends and friends of friends in Athens; other writers teaching in the program; and her students. Like the man on the plane, always referred to as "her neighbour," her students have the opportunity to speak twice--once when they introduce themselves to the class by telling about something they observed on the way to class (one student storms out after this exercise, enraged that Faye is not teaching them) and once when they share their first assignment--a story with an animal in it.

The stories tend toward the confessional; many feature failed relationships and divorces. One student describes how she came to abuse her children's dog; another writer reflects on having published only one well-received book of stories; a former music student experiences ineffable sadness as a familiar piece of music wafts through the air as she walks to the writing class. Faye comments on some of the stories (for example, she finds her neighbour's accounts of his three marriages so clearly one-sided that they lack any credibility); others she hears with no apparent response. While some reviewers have commented that Faye becomes three-dimensional as she listens to the stories of others, to me she remains a cipher. She does not, in fact, matter; what matters is story.

Outline is a novel without an overarching story--and yet it is all about story: The power of story, who tells it, who hears it, and what the telling means to both. While I have recently commented on books that might better have been read than listened to, the audio version of this book benefited by being read by Kate Reading. While some reviewers found the stories too similar in terms of voice or style, Reading gives them different colorations, making the story-tellers distinct.

Outline stimulates thought about what a novel is or can be. For a traditionalist, it may not be as satisfying as a book with the expected narrative arc, but it has its own rewards.

Favorite passages:
The story of improvement, to the extent that it has commandeered our deepest sense of reality, it has even infected the novel, though perhaps now the novel is infecting us back again so that we expect of our lives what we have come to expect of our books. But this sense of life as a progression is something I want no more of.

The polarization of man and woman was a structure, a form. She had only felt it once it was gone and it almost seemed as though the collapse of that structure, that equipoise, was responsible for the extremity that followed it.

Yet if people were silent that had happened to them, was something not being betrayed, even if only the version of themselves that had experienced them? It was never said of history, for instance, that it shouldn't be talked about. On the contrary, in terms of history, silence was forgetting and it was the thing people feared most of all when it was their own history that was at risk of being forgotten.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days, by Ian Frazier

As an infrequent reader of the New Yorker, I was unfamiliar with Ian Frazier's Cursing Mommy columns and the conceit behind both them and this book: the Cursing Mommy (who remains nameless) is writing a column (or a bloh) via which she reflects on life, offers both new age and folksy wisdom liberally sprinkled with the sayings of her Grandma Pat, and conveying tips on DIY projects, crafts, and cooking. On a nearly daily basis, however, something goes awry and she becomes enraged, spewing the curses for which she is known.

At first this is funny--and Frazier effectively satirizes a number of cultural developments--book groups (the Cursing Mommy's book group specializes in books about the Bush administration, whose members often come into considerable abuse when Cursing Mommy loses her cool), the overmedication of children (one of Cursing Mommy's sons sets fires and engages in other behavior that might suggest a future as a serial killer), health insurance companies that cover nothing but continually raise premiums, Nigerian Internet scams, schools that require parents to provide labor or school improvement projects, etc.

The formula got old fast, however--it would probably be better read in small bursts (like weekly or monthly, in a magazine) than as a "novel." In addition, a few things just weren't funny--most notably, a stalker played for laughs. I couldn't help wondering if that was related to the author's being male, something that caused me some niggling concern throughout. I would also hypothesize that the book might be funnier in print than in the audio version, which is how I "read" it. The actress Cynthia Nixon is the narrator and she really lets it rip when Cursing Mommy starts to curse. It's not the cussing per se; I myself have been known to use profanity--I was even held responsible when my then-two-year-old grandson used inappropriate language at preschool. However, having someone scream foul language when you are reading for pleasure is, in fact, not very pleasurable.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Summer, by Edith Wharton

Charity Royall is a young (late teens) woman who lives with her guardian in a small New England town. When Charity was a baby, Mr. Royall and his late wife rescued Charity from an extremely tenuous situation on The Mountain, where people live in abject poverty. Nonetheless, Mr. Royall now wants to marry Charity, a prospect that horrifies her because he is old, drinks to excess, and is generally repulsive to her. Despite Mr. Royall's having essentially raised Charity, they have little in common except a desire to live their lives on a bigger stage than that provided by North Dormer.

Charity works in the town library hoping to save money to fund her escape. One day, a New York architect, Lucius Harney, comes into the library looking for information about old houses in the area. Lucius stimulates an array of new fantasies for Charity--and, despite his greater education and higher social status, the two become lovers (the actual sex is scarcely hinted at) and, as one might expect from a Wharton book, Charity suffers some negative consequences as a result of violating the social norms of the era.

While many refer to Summer as Wharton's most erotic book, one must remember that that is a relative statement. Charity certainly experiences a sexual awakening, but the description of her relationship with Lucius is hardly titillating. I came late to Wharton's work and I admire her elegant prose, but Lily Bart, the complex and self-destructive heroine of House of Mirth, ruined me for a character like Charity, who is defined primarily by naivete and willful ignorance and self-deception.

Favorite passage:
For an instant the old impulse of flight swept through her; but it was only the lift of a broken wing.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine

Aaliya Saleh is a 75-year-old Beiruti, retired from her job in a book store but still pursuing her true work--translating classic literary works into Arabic. Each year she translates one book and then boxes it up and puts it in the "maid's room" of her apartment.

Literature provides Aaliya's only company. She is divorced and estranged from her family; her one friend, Hannah, committed suicide decades earlier and the lover she sees most to miss, a young Palestinian, was exiled years ago. She refers to the other three women who live in her apartment building as the "witches."

Not much actually happens in An Unnecessary Woman: the action takes place mostly in Aaliya's memory, as she recalls various unhappinesses of her past. Nearly every memory evokes a literary allusion--or several--and it is these memories of beauty that sustain Aaliya through the upheaval that characterizes Beirut in the last decades of the 20th century. Despite her longstanding isolation, Aaliya is finding herself unusually emotional, and the book ends with a crisis that seems like it may bring a shift in her way of living (but we cannot be sure).

I enjoyed the beginning of this book and the humor that Alameddine employs like a weapon against politicians and authors alike (Aaliya would not wish her mother's screaming "on anyone, not Benjamin Netanyahu, not even Ian McEwan"). As the book progressed, however (and it is not even 300 pages), I became somewhat tired of Aaliya's philosophizing, quoting, and alluding to novels (many of which, in my ignorance, I have not read). The extremely well-read reader might find the book more enjoyable, but I don't think the average book-lover would find it entirely rewarding.

Favorite passages:
Bluster and hubris, that what he was, what he is, but that's what makes him more dangerous in some ways. Think Bush--that indecent amalgam of banality and perdition.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I did not care for Donna Tartt's much-praised The Secret History and could not even get through her second novel, The Little Friend. Consequently, I did not rush to read The Goldfinch. In fact, I didn't plan to. But then last summer, my friend Nina was raving about the book and, since she's smart and a former English teacher, I thought I'd give it a go. Seven months later, I finally finished the rather massive novel and, with apologies to Nina, the Pulitzer committee, and most of the rest of the world, my response is a vehement "meh."

The Goldfinch is essentially a coming-of-age novel that begins with an event that might easily derail any 13-year-old--the death of the protagonist's mother in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum. At the time of the bombing Theo Decker was in a different room of the museum; knocked unconscious, he awakens and finds another survivor--an old man who seems to be dying. Inexplicably, the man gives him a ring and tells him to steal a nearby painting, "The Goldfinch," and Theo does so.  Through the chaotic years to come, Theo never mentions his possession of the masterpiece to anyone.

And there is no question that his life is chaotic. Immediately after his mother's death, he goes to live with a wealthy friend's family, but this situation is temporary and he soon decamps to Las Vegas with his ne'er-do-well father and his girlfriend Xandra. The two have little interest in the boy and he and his friend Boris spend the next few years drunk, high, and engaged in petty crime. After another trauma, Theo returns to New York, living with an accepting antique restorer named James Hobart, a friend of the old man who told Theo to steal the painting.  As Theo enters adulthood, his ethical standards remain about what they were when he and Boris were living the feral life in Vegas.

Eventually, the painting becomes the centerpiece of a misadventure that takes Theo to Amsterdam and ultimately causes him to resolve to change his life. The book ends with Theo musing philosophically about art being the only thing that lasts.

Very little in The Goldfinch beyond Theo's early teenage problems and the bombing at the museum feels at all believable. The longer the book went on, the more far-fetched it became. Combined with a cast of rather despicable characters (Hobie and a few other more minor characters are excepted from this condemnation), dialogue that sometimes did not fit the characters mouthing it, and writing that often felt trite, this implausibility gave me little to love in The Goldfinch. The  philosophical discourse at the end is written with grace and passion but seems to belong in another book.

Favorite passage:
. . . between "reality" on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there's a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.

When She Woke, by Hillary Jordan

When Hannah Payne (note the name's similarity to Hester Prynne) woke, she is in prison and her skin is a bright red--she has been "chromed," the punishment for crimes in the not-to-distant future in which this dystopic novel is set. Wrong-doers serve only brief prison sentences, but they must remain chromed for years--and their color reflects the severity of their crimes. Red is the most serious, denoting murder. Hannah's "murder" was of her unborn child, born from her affair with married pastor Aidan Dale.

Reverend Dale has just become the Secretary of Faith--yes, the wall between church and state has come down, largely due to a pandemic involving a sexually transmitted disease. Most of the country is devoted to conservative Christianity. The effects of climate change have also made life difficult for most Americans.

When Hannah gets out of prison, as a Red she faces serious problems, including a vigilante group that kills Chromes (and of which her brother-in-law is a member). Soon she and a friend are on the run to Canada, helped by an underground organization called the Novembrists.

The concept of chroming is interesting, as are other details of the society into which the United States has devolved. The allusions to The Scarlet Letter are a bit ham-handed but on their own do not compromise the book (there are evidently references to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale as well, but I have never read that book so the references went right past me). The plot, however, is a mess--Hannah careens from crisis to crisis, accumulating experiences that make little sense (particularly the brief lesbian affair). Hillary Jordan is clearly a political novelist, and my views are pretty well aligned with her liberal positions. Unfortunately, she is not as adept a writer as, say, Barbara Kingsolver, and When She Woke's potential is largely unrealized.

Favorite passage:
She'd crossed into a place where truth, even if it was brutal, was all she had to offer

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

Lila is a prequel to Marilynne Robinson's much-lauded novel Gilead, which I, sadly, found tedious. Indeed, I struggled to finish that book and quickly forgot virtually all of the philosophical/religious discussions that comprised its heart. For readers of Gilead with better memories, Lila was the wife of John Ames, the pastor who was the central character in that novel.

In this novel, we learn about Lila's early years. The book opens with the child Lila sitting outside a house in the cold. A woman named Doll comes along and takes her, becoming her de facto mother. While Doll clearly cares for Lila, the childhood she provides is difficult to say the least. The two live with a band of migrant farmworkers in the Midwest, who camp outside towns and pick up whatever work they can. They do spend one year in a town so Lila can attend school, where she shines but Doll's fears of being found by Lila's original family drive them away. When the Depression makes it difficult to find work, things fall apart and Lila ends up on her own. For awhile she is able to eke out a living, but then she reconnects with Doll, with disastrous effects. After some time in a St. Louis whorehouse, Lila hitches a ride to Iowa, ending up near Gilead. There, she meets the much older John Ames, and the two feel an attraction made up of a complex of yearnings. They marry and have a baby, the boy Robby to whom the letter in Gilead is written.

Those are the events of the story, but the real action takes place primarily inside Lila's head. She is lonely and yet Doll taught her that being alone is the only way to survive, a philosophy Lila struggles to reconcile with the Christian world view of her husband. She wants to stay in Gilead, to embrace family life and turn away from loneliness--and yet she also wants to leave, to assert her ability to make her way through the world on her way, to escape from her shame.

Lila is a complex and sympathetic character and considering her emotional distress and the decisions that spring from her years of profound loneliness is a worthwhile endeavor, since the experiences of her childhood are not that far from many children's lives today.

Favorite passages:
It felt very good to have him walking beside her. Good like rest and quiet, like something you could live without but you needed anyway. That you had to learn how to miss, and then you'd never stop missing it.

It was that feeling that she had had walking along beside him that put the notion in her mind. It comes from being alone too much. Things matter that wouldn’t if you had a regular life

She had told herself more than once not to call it loneliness, since it wasn’t any different from one year to the next, it was just how her body felt, like hungry or tired, except it was always there, always the same.

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

I have tried to read Beloved numerous times over the years, but have always gotten bogged down very early on. So I decided to listen to it and feel a sense of triumph for getting to the end of what is a challenging work.

Beloved is the story of Sethe, a formerly enslaved African American woman living in the Cincinnati area in the 1870s. Sethe and her husband Halle had a plan to escape slavery but, when the night came to flee, Halle had disappeared. Sethe sent her three children ahead to her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs (whose freedom had been purchased by  Halle) and waited for Halle to return. When he did not reappear and no one knew what had happened to him (or was not willing to tell him), she left on her own. She gave birth to her fourth child en route, but eventually made it to Baby Suggs's house at 124 Bluestone Road.

By the time we meet Sethe 17 years later, she and the baby she gave birth to while fleeing, her daughter Denver, are alone in the house except for the ghost of a baby, presumably the baby of the daughter who died as a toddler. Baby Suggs has also died, and Sethe's two sons have taken off. Then Paul D, a man Sethe knew when they were both enslaved in Kentucky, arrives; he and Sethe become lovers and he manages to scare the ghost away from 124. Paul convinces Denver to leave the house, something she rarely does, and happier days seem to be ahead. But then a young woman named Beloved turns up at the house. Denver immediately believes Beloved is her sister returned from the dead and treasures her presence. That presence is not entirely benevolent, however, as Beloved manages to drive Paul away and seems to be slowly sucking the life out of Sethe.

Morrison intersperses the Ohio story with Sethe's "rememories" of life as a slave, providing context for what is happening following the Civil War. About halfway through the book, a devastating revelation changes the reader's understanding of the events of Sethe's life and the ways in which the black and white communities respond to her. As the dynamic in the household continues to deteriorate, the book builds to an ending that reveals much about the resilience of community and family.

I can't say that I loved Beloved, but I think it is a worthwhile struggle, both as a reading experience and as an important milestone in African American literature. The themes Morrison explores--the trauma of slavery and its long-term effects, the customs and values of the free African American community, the ways in which mothers and children see sacrifice--are crucial to American history, and the uniquely African American voice she creates(without resorting to dialect) is an amazing achievement. I should also note that the audio version of the book was read by Morrison herself; while many listeners have critiqued her reading as dull and monotonic, I enjoyed it (and, of course, I dislike what I call overacting in audio books, so a low-key delivery works for me).

Favorite passage:
Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.

She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. If they could not see it, they would not have it.

, , , there was no accounting for the way that simple joy could shake you.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train is sure to be compared to Gone Girl--it, like Gillian Flynn's work, is a dark thriller featuring troubled/flawed characters, multiple narrators telling their stories asynchronously, and a plethora of red herrings.

Rachel Watson is the titular girl on the train. Looking out the window as she commutes from the suburbs to London every day, she has constructed an idyllic life for a couple she often sees from the train, a couple who happens to live just a few doors down from Rachel's ex-husband Tom and his new wife Anna. Then one day she sees the woman she has been watching--Rachel calls her Jess but we soon learn her name is actually Megan--kissing a man who is not her husband Jason (actual name: Scott). Rachel,  an alcoholic who drinks to the point of blacking out and makes many bad decisions, decides to go to Jess/Jason's house the next day and confront Jess.

The morning after this outing, Rachel remembers nothing of what happened--but she has a head injury and senses that something very bad occurred. Then she sees a news story with a picture of the woman she recognizes as Jess, saying that Megan is missing. Rachel insinuates herself into the investigation, which eventually leads in an unexpected direction. I won't say more because I don't want to ruin the suspense.

I found The Girl on the Train entertaining, although I thought there were perhaps too many red herrings. Hawkins does a good job of making the three women--all of whom narrate sections of the book--quite distinct (I can imagine discussions of what actress should play each in the sure-to-happen movie); the men, unfortunately, are less well-developed. While all the characters are flawed (when the most sympathetic character is a therapist who sleeps with a patient, you know this is true), they are not as repulsive as the characters in Gone Girl. I guess that's not exactly an endorsement, but it does allow you to feel less dirty when you finish the book. I recommend the book for fans of the dark; for those who like their mysteries a bit more light-hearted, stay away!

The Whistling Season, by Ivan Doig

I was out of town most of the week and have a lot of posting to catch up on. First, the Novel Conversations book for February, The Whistling Season, by Ivan Doig. Set in rural Montana in the early 1900s and 1957, The Whistling Season is narrated by Paul, the oldest son of the Milliron family. The long-serving Superintendent of Public Instruction for Montana, the Paul of 1957 faces the spectre of telling the state's rural educators that all of the one-room schoolhouses in Montana are being closed for budgetary/efficiency reasons. On the way to the meeting at which he will make this announcement, Paul decides to take a side trip to the town where he grew up, Marias Coulee. There, he indulges his recollections of a memorable year in his youth. These recollections provide the bulk of the story.

In 1909, Paul's widowed father Oliver sees an ad in the local weekly advertising a housekeeper who "can't cook but doesn't bite." Laughing, he can't resist responding. Soon Oliver, Paul, and the younger sons--Damon and Toby--are waiting for Rose Llewelyn's arrival. When she steps off the train, she brings along a surprise, her brother Morris, who seems to be something of a dandy, as well as a fount of information--perhaps not the ideal Montana homesteader. Soon, however, Morris's knowledge comes in handy, as the schoolteacher elopes with a tent preacher; Morris steps into take her place, and the students respond, even the rather dull eighth-graders.

Doig paints a lovely picture of the Milliron family and the challenging but beautiful environment in which they live. Not everything that happens to them is positive: the boys face bullies, Toby is injured when a horse steps on his foot, their dryland farm needs rain desperately. Yet their lives are full of love and connection--and the one-room school where Morris reigns is central to those connections.

Doig's writing is evocative--he often refers in interviews to "the poetry under the prose"--and captures a way of life that is no more. I found the ending unsatisfying, however--it felt like Doig got to a certain point, said to himself, "Well, I better end this," and threw in a couple of not particularly twists to try to satisfy the reader. I also didn't see the point of the 1957 frame he put around the primary story; perhaps he thought it provided more opportunity to provide reflections on the value of local schools to rural communities, but that point was well-made without the adult Paul's voice. Despite these quibbles, I enjoyed The Whistling Season and would recommend it, particularly for those nostalgic about rural American life.  

Favorite passages:
. . . childhood is the one story that stands by itself in every soul.

My books already threatened to take over my part of the room and keep on going . . . whatever cargoes of words I could lay my hands on I gave safe harbor.

The circumference of love depends on the angle you see it from . . .