Thursday, July 30, 2015

Re Jane, by Patricia Park

Since I was never a big fan of Jane Eyre, it is perhaps surprising that I have in a fairly short span of time read two novels that are essentially retellings of that story. Half American and half Korean, Jane Re is an orphan who knows little about her parents, except that they disgraced her Korean family. Raised by her Korean aunt and uncle in Flushing, Jane is now a recent college graduate unable to find a job in finance. She is so anxious to get away from her uncle's oppressive household (not to mention his bodega Food, where she is expected to work until she finds a job), she signs on as an au pair in the Mazer-Farley household.

Beth Mazer is a college professor and not the most fun or flexible person around. She has prepared a voluminous "Primer" on the family and their practices that Jane must read in order not to make any mistakes in her care of Devin (like letting her have an Italian ice every day after school--gasp!). Beth takes Jane under her intellectual wing, assigning books for Jane to read and spending hours in her attic office (yes, the reference to the crazy wife is pretty obvious) lecturing Jane on feminist literary theories. Ed Farley is a high school teacher working on his dissertation, assigned one drawer in the refrigerator where he can keep the makings for sandwiches he makes for himself (and soon for Jane) every night after Beth and Devin are in bed.

The inevitable happens: Jane and Ed fall in love and Jane runs away to Korea where she learns the truth about her parents and almost marries a student in her English class. However, she eventually returns to New York, her best friend Nina, and Ed. To avoid spoiling the book, I won't reveal more.

Re Jane is essentially chick lit, but the cross-cultural aspect and the author's humor made it enjoyable nonetheless. The 9/11 element, on the other hand, seemed gratuitous. Still, a good beach read.

Favorite Passage:

I realized that was the internal logic of our family: Tear each other down before we step outside and face public humiliation.

Middlemarch, by George Eliot

I feel quite pleased with myself today as I finished listening to Middlemarch. Adding to my smugness is the fact that an old friend, a retired college English teacher, recently admitted she gave up on Middlemarch because there were too many characters (and the professor requiring the book died in the middle of the semester!). Making me feel slightly less self-satisfied is the fact that my son has been telling me to read the book for probably five years; I've had the book on my Kindle or iPad for that entire time and never read a word--only the availability of an audiobook got my going.

Middlemarch, set in the years from 1829-1832, does indeed have many characters and subplots, but four stories seem to have significance:

  • Dorothea Brooke, a bright young woman who chooses to marry an older clergyman because she believes him to be an intellectual whose work she can help with. When, on her wedding trip, she discovers that he has no interest in her help, she is crushed. However, she meets a young man on that same trip, Will Ladislaw, with whom she falls in love; her husband jealously writes in his will that she cannot inherit his property should she marry Will after the husband's death. 
  • Tertius Lydgate, a young doctor with dreams of advancing medicine. He marries the beautiful young Rosamund Vincy, but it is not a happy marriage. Nor does his practice go well; caught up in a scandal involving his wife's uncle, he eventually must leave Middlemarch to start over.
  • Mary Garth and Fred Vincy are a young couple who love each other; Fred, however, is a ne'er-do-well who seems destined to end up in the church, the apparent sinecure for young men of decent breeding but no wealth or particular talent. Mary, however, says she will not marry him if he enters the church, posing the question: What else can Fred do?
  • Nicholas Bulstrode, the afore-mentioned uncle of Rosamund and Fred, is the town banker. Although he puts forth a pious front, he has little empathy for others and has some serious bad behavior in his past. When a man from his past comes to Middlemarch, the resulting scandal has significant ripple effects.
Dorothea's story opens the book and when Eliot suddenly turns to another set of characters with little apparent relation to those who populate Dorothea's world, it is initially confusing--something like acclimating to a Robert Altman film. And, like one of those films, the stories of the diverse characters do eventually intertwine. These stories also reveal different facets of  Eliot's numerous themes; among the most significant of these are the restricted roles of women and the ways in which they respond to those restrictions, the nature of marriage, religion and its functions, the ways in which gossip and social class shape provincial life, and reform in various spheres.

The book is often quite funny, particularly when addressing the question of gender relations. To wit: "And, of course, men know best about everything, except what women know better" and "Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy." 

The third-person omniscient narrator also waxes philosophical with some regularity and many of these passages, which are in essence soliloquies from the author, are worthy of reflection (see Favorite Passages below for some truncated examples). While I could have done with fewer characters and even, perhaps, fewer chapters, I did find Middlemarch well worth the 25+ hours I invested in it (I listened to the Maureen O'Brien version at a slightly accelerated speed). 

Random Notes: The history of Middlemarch is interesting--it started out as two books, one about Dorothea and one about Lydgate. The two eventually were woven into one book that was published in eight parts published over the course of  a year. Published in 1872, the book was a historical novel, a fact often neglected or ignored. 

Favorite passages (too many to note--just a couple samples):
We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, "Oh, nothing!" Pride helps; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our hurts--not to hurt others.

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

The wit of a family is usually best received among strangers.


Monday, July 20, 2015

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris

Paul O'Rourke is a dentist; he lives in Manhattan, loves the Boston Red Sox but resents the new fans who came to the team after their World Series victory in 2004, and is always searching for something that could be "everything." Damaged by his bipolar father's suicide, he longs to be part of a large close-knit family, like those of his one-time girlfriends (one family was Catholic, the other Jewish) but cannot commit to a relationship. He is an atheist prone to "Hitchensian rants" and treats the women who work for him horribly. In short, he's a sad human being.

Then Paul discovers that someone has created a website for his dental practice; his bio on the website includes strange quotations from a source called the Cantaveticles, apparently a sacred text of unknown origin. Soon, someone is posting comments under Dr. O'Rourke's name on a wide variety of websites. The posts claim O'Rourke is a descendent of the Ulms, ancient enemies of the Jews. Paul spends a great deal of his time on his "me machine" (smartphone) trying to figure out who has appropriated his online identity; eventually, he is drawn into a group of people who believe themselves to be descendents of the Ulms and who make a religion of doubt.

The book is an odd combination of funny (sometimes laugh-out-loud funny) and dull. I had read that the book was about identity theft, a topic I find interesting, but that is not how I would characterize it, which may have affected my response. I admit that whatever point Ferris is trying to make eludes me. For that reason and because the tedious parts of the novel (pretty much anything about the Ulms and religion, real or faux) outweighed the humor for me, I would not recommend To Rise Again at a Decent Hour.

Favorite passage

Baseball is the slow creation of something beautiful. it is the almost boringly paced accumulation of what seems slight or incidental into an opera of bracing suspense. . . . it's the drowsy metamorphosis of the dull into the indescribable.  [Somehow I suspect Ferris thinks this would also describe his novel, but the metamorphosis never quite happened for me.]

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun is set in Nigeria/Biafra in the 1960s. The story of the ill-fated attempt to create an Igbo nation in southeastern Nigeria is told through the perspective of three characters. Ugwu is a village boy who is brought to the city of Nsukka to serve as the houseboy in the home of an academic, Odenigbo, who supports Biafran independence. The beautiful Olanna is from an elite Igbo family; having just returned from receiving her master's degree at a British university, she leaves her family in Lagos to live with Odenigbo, her lover. Richard is a British expatriate, who has come to Nigeria to study local art and write, becomes the lover of Olanna's twin sister Kainene; Kainene too has recently returned from graduate school in London, but she chooses to work in her father's business, which gives her a very different life from her twin.

The novel is historical/political--for American such as myself who remember the events in Nigeria/Biafra mainly as a black-and-white photograph of a starving African child, it's a worthwhile education in the events that transpired in that part of Africa--the conflicts among the Nigerians, the role of Great Britain, the United States, and other nations. The violence, hunger, and fear of the war years are shockingly, sometimes horrifyingly conveyed. But the book is about more than war--it's also about relationships, particularly Olanna and Kainene's relationship, but also each sister's relationship with their parents and their men and Ugwu's relationships with Olanna, Odenigbo, their daughter, and various young women in whom he becomes interested.

I found the first section of the book, narrated by Ugwu, to be somewhat slow going. When I got to the next section, narrated by Olanna, I thought that perhaps the author should have started with Olanna, who seemed to bring the book alive--but the reasons for beginning with Ugwu became clearer with time. Overall, I thought the book was definitely worth reading, although sometimes difficult to endure.

Favorite passages:

This was love. A string of coincidences that gathered significance and became miracles.

Richard exhaled. It was like somebody sprinkling pepper on his wound: Thousands of Biafrans were dead, and this man wanted to know if there was anything new about one dead white man. Richard would write about this, the rule of Western journalism: One hundred dead black people equal to one dead white person.

Hyacinth Girls, by Lauren Frankel

Hyacinth Girls is an exploration of adolescent friendships and bullying. Rebecca is 13-year-old Callie's guardian--her late mother's best friend (and a cousin of her late father). Rebecca is shocked when Callie's school reports that Callie was the perpetrator in a bullying incident. In fact, she refuses to believe it. But the truth of what is going on with Callie is complicated--and very frightening, as subsequent events reveal.

The book is told from both Rebecca and Callie's perspectives. Rebecca recounts events in the present, as she ruminates on her friendship with Callie's mother and everything that led up to her death and that of Callie's father. All of the family relationships seem tenuous/troubled, and Callie has a typical teenager's disdain for her guardian. Callie's story is told through a journal of her interactions with the girl she was accused of bullying; as they gradually reveal the "truth," the reader's sense of impending doom grows ever denser.

Hyacinth Girls reminded me of Reconstructing Amelia, as both have a similar theme--the world of teenage girls is terrifying and parents have no idea what is going on with their children. While there may be truth in those statements, reading stories designed to convey them isn't at all fun for the grandmother of an 8-year-old girl (and, perhaps because I'm in education, not really news either). The unlikeability of the characters and the somewhat leaden writing also contributed to my decision not to recommend this book.

The Morning I Was Born: A Month in Poems, by Meg Hutchinson

A month or so ago, I was lucky enough to go to a workshop conducted by Meg Hutchinson, as well as a concert at which she shared several of her poems. At the workshop, she told the story of her mother, the daughter of a famous editor, who always felt too intimidated by the luminaries she had met as a child to try her hand at writing poetry; then one day, she simply decided to write a poem before she went to work. She has now followed that practice for over a decade. In April (National Poetry Month), she sends Meg and others daily exercises to encourage them to write poems. This book consists of poems written one April.

Many of the poems are about Meg's experiences in nature, describing, for example, the woods at night: "You do not know the woods/Til you've wandered them at night/I go there at dusk/So my eyes will adjust to the slowly dying light." She also writes about her experiences with bipolar disorder; these are some of the most moving poems in the collection. One, "Window," ends with the lines "This is the day I saw/The window I'd been stuck behind for years/Had no walls."

While many of the poems are quite serious, others are whimsical or funny. "Theory of What Stars Are" posits that the sky is a blue sheet with small holes cut in it; "Google" is essentially a conversation with the search engine, chastising it for not understanding the quietness of happiness (Google gives her an ad that offers to teach her, a gifted vocalist, how to "REALLY sing"; "The Final Assignment" is a very funny collection of imaginary reviews of Meg's poetry (a psychiatrist writes, "It is not clear whether she is more pleased with her madness or her sanity, but I'm beginning to think the two are inseparable."

The Morning I Was Born is a good collection--and it makes me want to write poems with Meg's mom next April.

Favorite passage/poem:

Three Things

Surviving takes three things:

The willingness to die
The ability to sing
And joy at becoming part of everything again.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Happy All the Time, by Laurie Colwin

Happy All the Time is the story of best friends and cousins Guido and Vincent, who meet and fall in love with two different but equally challenging women, Holly and Misty. Are they happy all the time? No, they sometimes make themselves and each other miserable, as people in love will do, but underlying these moments is, indeed, a deep content. That's pretty much the book.

I saw this book recommended for summer reading in a magazine--and it's an upbeat novel with interesting characters (New Yorkers all)--good beach reading. When I Googled the book, I came across several glowing reviews and paeans to the late author, who died quite young (48). I don't quite get the devotion to the book, but it is pleasant and occasionally amusing.

Favorite passage:
He realized that he had gotten used to Jane, in the way you get used to constant shooting pains.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, by Jonathan Evison

Benjamin Benjamin has reached an extremely low point in his life--he is unemployed, has lost his family, lives in a crappy apartment, has only one friend . . . you get the picture. After completing a course on the Fundamentals of Caregiving, held in the basement of the Abundant Life Foursquare Church, he gets a job as caregiver for a young man with muscular dystrophy. Trev's life is obviously not without its challenges, including the fact that he has no relationship with his father, who left after Trev was diagnosed and has been trying to work his way back into his son's life pretty much ever since. After an accident leaves Trev's dad seriously injured, Ben eventually talks Trev's mother into letting the two of them go on a road trip from Washington to Utah to visit. Along the way, the two have various adventures, meet eccentric but lovable (mostly) characters, and gain insights into how they can make their lives more rewarding/happier.

The novel is funny, but the reader recognizes early on that Ben's problems started with a tragedy and, although exactly what the tragedy was is revealed slowly, we know enough to feel an impending sense of doom. For me, just knowing that the details were coming and they were going to be bad made it pretty much impossible to enjoy the lighthearted parts of the story. So, overall, I wouldn't recommend The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving--and I say that knowing that I gave a positive review to another book that mingled humor and tragedy (Big Little Lies).  I guess I can laugh at adult tragedies, but those involving children . . . not so much.

Favorite passage:
I know I've lost my mind. But I'm not concerned, because it's the first thing I've lost in a long time that actually feels good.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

As Good As Dead, by Elizabeth Evans

As this novel opens, English professor Charlotte is surprised by a visit from her one-time friend and roommate when the two were students in the Iowa Writers Workshop, Esme. Both have lived in Tucson for years, and Esme never responded when Charlotte sent her a postcard announcing that she and her husband Will were coming to the University of Arizona to teach. Charlotte is a successful novelist, but her personality is such that she still obsesses over her betrayal of Esme and Will back in Iowa City. When Esme appears on her doorstep, Charlotte cannot help but agree to have dinner with Esme and her creepy husband Jeremy, also a one-time Iowa student.

The visit and disastrous dinner (Esme has ulterior motives) cause Charlotte to relive the semester at Iowa during which she and Esme shared an apartment and Esme dominated her life. Ultimately, she must tell Will the secret she has hidden for 20 years.

From this book and others I've read set at Iowa, the famous Writers Workshop seems to be a toxic place. For an insecure person like Charlotte, who is from a small town in Iowa and a family that is skeptical of writing as a career (in contrast, Esme is from a wealthy family in Evanston and attended an Ivy), the Workshop serves to reinforce all her self-doubt. Esme is patently a hideous bitch--as just one example, when the Atlantic accepts one of Charlotte's stories, Esme and Jeremy tell her it was probably a prank call--who does that? Only someone with Charlotte's self-esteem issues could fail to see Esme's manipulations and cruelties--and, as a result, find herself striking back in a way that goes against her own principles. By the end of the book, she has made some progress in pulling herself into a long-delayed adulthood, but for me it came too late.

One review I read mentioned that the reader was cheering for Charlotte throughout the novel. I wasn't so much cheering for her as wishing I could smack her. Although As Good As Dead is well-written, I found the characters so irritating that I wouldn't recommend the book.

Favorite passage:
Unfortunately, I did not understand that viewing yourself as a victim could make you, poor little you, liable to do damage to others; that victimhood itself was often sustained by self-inflicted wounds.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway

My sister recommended this book to me after seeing my post on The Skeleton Road. Based on the true story of a cellist who played Albinoni's Adagio in a Sarajevo square each afternoon for 22 straight days during the civil war of the 1990s; he played to honor 22 friends and neighbors killed by a shell exploding in the market as the cellist practiced the Adagio in his nearby flat.

The cellist--his bravery and his music--have a profound effect on the three characters whose perspectives shape this brief novel. Kenan is a young man who must travel every few days to the brewery to get water for his family and his neighbor. Dragan is an older man, a baker, who sent his family to safety in Western Europe in the early days of the war, but Sarajevo is his home and he feels he cannot leave. He travels daily to the bakery, but despairs for his city. Arrow is a young woman recruited from her college's sharpshooting team to be a sniper for Bosnian Defense Forces who were trying to protect the city from the siege by Bosnian Serbs. Arrow has worked out a deal with her "handler" that she will choose her own targets (she will only target snipers/soldiers, never civilians). Then her handler asks her to protect the cellist from a sniper sent into the city by the opposition.

As Kenan, Dragan, and Arrow go about their perilous daily activities, they reflect on the possibility that their city will never recover, that they may be as responsible for its death as the snipers in the hills surrounding the city, that humans are, in fact, incapable of humanity. Yet the cellist and the Adagio suggest there may yet be hope, that the diverse beauty of Sarajevo may somehow survive.

The book has generated some controversy, including a claim that Galloway unfairly stole the story of the actual cellist, Vedran Smailovic (, and that he repeats the propaganda that unfairly vilifies the Bosnian Serbs ( The first complaint is understandable--most people would probably be irritated by seeing themselves turned into fiction--but that's what artists, including writers do. The second complaint I'm unqualified to evaluate, but from a rather uninformed point of view, I think Galloway is nearly as critical of the Bosnian military as the Serbs (by the way, I don't think he ever uses the word Serbs)--I read the book as a condemnation of war and hatred rather than of any particular group. But perhaps I am hopelessly naive.

At any rate, I found the book's depictions of the effects of war on "average" people and the redeeming power of music moving and well worth reading.

Favorite passages:
There are no grand moments where a person does or does not perform the act that defines their humanity. There are only moments that appear, briefly, to be this way.

Arrow let the slow pulse of the vibrating strings flood into her. She felt the lament raise a lump in her throat, fought back tears. She inhaled sharp and fast. Her eyes watered, and the notes ascended the scale. . . . The music demanded that she remember this, that she know to a certainty that the world still held the capacity for goodness. The notes were proof of that.

Because civilization isn't a thing that you build and then there it is, you have it forever. It needs to be built constantly, recreated daily. It vanishes far more quickly than he ever would have thought possible. And if he wishes to live, he must do what he can to prevent the world he wants to live in from fading away. As long as there's war, life is a preventative measure.