Saturday, September 2, 2017

"My Profanity Has an Aesthetic"

"My profanity has an aesthetic," from Sherman Alexie's excellent memoir, may be my favorite line of the year. I actually read several memoirs that I found interesting in August, plus some very good fiction and a couple of books recommended by my granddaughter.


Bone Box, by Faye Kellerman
Bury the Lead, by David Rosenfelt
Do Not Become Alarmed, by Maile Malloy
Her Every Fear, by Peter Swanson

Bone Box is the most interesting book in the series since Faye Kellerman moved Peter and Rina Decker to New York. Not great--but readable.

I hadn't read any of David Rosenfelt's books about attorney Andy Carpenter before, but somehow I did not enjoy the combination of goofy humor and mutilated bodies. Maybe I'm losing my sense of humor in my old age, but I won't be reading any more of the series.

Do Not Become Alarmed should perhaps not be in the mysteries section, as a number of reviews have treated it as serious fiction. However, I could not take the story of three families on vacation in Nicaragua seriously. The actions of the parents (particularly the mothers) seem unrealistic--I'm not saying that it's impossible for parents and children to become separated, it just seems unlikely to happen as described here. Nor do the experiences of the children after they drift down river and become separated from their mothers seem believable to me. A disappointment.

If your every fear revolves around the plethora of creepy men in the world, then don't read Her Every Fear because you'll never sleep again. The protagonist, Englishwoman Kate, has survived an attack by a crazed ex-boyfriend and is now venturing back into the world by trading apartments for six months with her cousin Corbin, a Bostonian. Corbin's life, it turns out, is ground zero for problematic men--Peter Swanson makes the situation seem unendurable. Men . . .

Mrs. Fletcher, by Tom Perrotta
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
Standard Deviation, by Katherine Heiny
The Wide Circumference of Love, by Marita Golden
Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

Tom Perrotta has a gift for creating characters who seem average but have some dark or bizarre secret--and he puts it to good use in Mrs. Fletcher, whose title character seems like a typical suburban divorcee, overmothering her only child as he heads off to college. But, in her newly empty nest, she becomes addicted to Internet porn and becomes involved in a potentially inappropriate relationship with an employee at the senior center she directs. Meanwhile her son is struggling at college, both academically and socially. The story kept me interested and ended with a twist that really did surprise. Recommended.

I hadn't read Jane Eyre since my teen years and I was surprised at how much I had forgotten--pretty much everything before Jane arrived at Thornfield Hall. I actually enjoyed that part of this classic novel, but once she got to Thornfield, despite Jane's alleged proto-feminist character, I found the novel's gothic turn less than compelling. I guess I understand why it's a classic, but there won't ever be a third reading for me.

Standard Deviation is an interesting book. The main character is middle-aged Graham, who finds himself wondering why he divorced his first wife Elspeth, so much better suited to his nature, to marry Audra, a younger, irrepressible, and seemingly shallow woman. And yet, Audra is also the dedicated mother of a challenging son on the spectrum, a role she handles admirably. It's an interesting and entertaining look at what makes marriage work, what constitutes a "good" person, and more. Occasionally, the characters are annoying, but overall I enjoyed the book.

My sister recommended The Wide Circumference of Love, an exploration of a successful African American couple's experience with the husband Gregory's Alzheimer's disease. Although I found the writing a bit stilted, I thought it was a good exploration of the effects of this terrible disease on wife Diane and the couple's two adult children, Lauren and Sean. I also enjoyed the character of the milliner who sets her sights on Gregory when Diane moves him to a memory care facility--she knows what she wants and she gets it, creating an even more painful situation for Diane.

Barkskins . . .  what to say about this book that made many "best of" lists in 2016? It's an epic--Proulx traces two families, both descended from indentured French immigrants to North America, from the late 18th century to the 21st century. Her goal seems to be political--to demonstrate the short-sighted use of the continent's forests, primarily by white settlers. Fine--I salute the research Proulx must have done to gain the encyclopedic knowledge of the forest over centuries. But I found the book boring and choppy--just as you might get interested in a character's story, Proulx jumped to another person, location, and (sometimes) time. Sadly, not recommended.

Young Adult

Big Bad Detective Agency, by Bruce Hale
Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl

These two books were both recommended by my granddaughter, and they were both amusing animal tales. Big Bad Detective Agency is similar to the fractured fairy tales that have been written for younger readers--it was silly fun, but I hope Hale doesn't plan to make it a series; I don't think the conceits he uses could stand up to repetition. Roald Dahl, of course, is a master, and Fantastic Mr. Fox is great fun.


The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank
You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, by Sherman Alexie
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay
The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying, by Nina Riggs

I can't believe I had never read Anne Frank's diary, but I hadn't. What I found so refreshing about it was not her bravery or optimism in the face of dire circumstances, but the fact that she was really just a girl, exploring her emerging sexuality, struggling with living in close quarters with people who were annoying her (particularly her mother), and questioning what her future might hold. Obviously a classic.

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, Sherman Alexie's recent memoir, comprised of an equal number of poems and prose pieces, is filled with grief, rage, and humor. There are sections of the book that are painful to read--when, for example, he compares the treatment meted out to Indian children by his second-grade teacher to the torture practiced at Abu Ghraib or when he mourns the fact that his mother, believing English would be his most powerful tool, did not teach him their native language, which he regrets and yet acknowledges was his mother's way of protecting him and his siblings from a grave responsibility.  He argues convincingly for a museum of the Native American genocide, pointing out how fond Americans are of Holocaust museums and memorials while not acknowledging our own sings. Alexie's mother quilted, and the book feels like a quilt, put together of many pieces, sometimes repeating ("Great pain is repetitive. Grief is repetitive"). Alexie's work isn't for everyone, but I loved this book.

Also filled with pain is Hunger, by Roxane Gay. If you aren't familiar with Gay's work, she is a brilliant writer of fiction and essays who is also a very large woman--both tall and obese. She was gang-raped as a child and ate to create a shell that would protect her, make her safe. I think most women can understand this, even if they do not share Gay's experience. What was eye-opening to me, probably because I had never stopped to think about it, was the all-encompassing pain that her body has caused her--pain that is physical and emotional/psychological. She describes humiliating situations that most people cannot even imagine. Reading the book is emotionally exhausting--I several times wished it was shorter--but I feel the better for having read it.

And, to round out the painful memoir trifecta, we have The Bright Hour, the surprisingly joyful story of Nina Riggs's diagnosis with terminal cancer when she was in her late 30s and the mother of two young children. The great-great-great granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Riggs brings the writings of the transcendentalist--and Montaigne, her favorite philosopher--to bear on her dilemma: how to live well when one will not live long. Of course, The Bright Hour is sad, but it's also quite lovely.

Pick of the Litter: You Don't Have to Say You Love Me

Favorite Passages:

It took me a long time, but I prefer “victim” to “survivor” now. I don’t want to diminish the gravity of what happened. I don’t want to pretend I’m on some triumphant, uplifting journey. I don’t want to pretend that everything is okay. I’m living with what happened, moving forward without forgetting, moving forward without pretending I am unscarred.

 --Roxane Gay, Hunger

My profanity has an aesthetic.

This is who I am. This is who I have always been. I am in pain. I am always in pain. But I always find my way to the story. And I always find my way home.

--Sherman Alexie, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me (and I could have picked many other passages)