Week 22: Noah’s Compass, by Anne Tyler (2009: Knopf, 277 pages)

I began to get the gentle emails about a week ago. “I couldn’t help but noticing,” a reader said, “that I haven’t seen your blog lately …” And: “Is 52 Views moribund? Or has WordPress dumped me?” And the most excruciating: “It really is OK if you don’t do your blog,” wrote a friend. “But … are you OK?”

I have nothing dramatic to tell. (Lord knows I wish I did.) I could blame the lack of childcare we’ve had lately. Or The Tour of California, the viewing of which occupied a fair amount of time. Or watching the Giro d’Italia. Or the 350-mile bike ride I did last month in four days. Or the finale of “24.” Or the purchase of my new bike, replacing my 7-year-old Trek. Or, or, or.

The truth of the matter is I very well may become one of these people, but boy, I hope not. Maybe this blog will be re-titled “40 Views.” Suffice to say that I am back, and I hope for back for good in a weekly basis, but the Tour de France is starting soon so I’m not entirely hopeful. (Also, thank you, everyone, for checking in – this is definitely my Sally Field moment.)

Onwards! I read Noah’s Compass a few weeks ago, and truth be told, I’d taken it on my bike trip more than a month ago, fully intending to breeze through it. I didn’t even crack the spine. Part of it is the cover, and part of it is there is just no surprise left with Tyler. Don’t get me wrong: I still consider myself a die-hard Anne Tyler fan; in graduate school, my friends and I parsed that Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece “Breathing Lessons,” trying to figure out how she managed to describe in exquisite detail the intricacies of a decades-old marriage in a single day. She is the master of domestic description, encapsulating a character in a single sentence, simply by the clothes he wears or the verbal tics he has. She is usually funny and heartbreaking all at once, with her suburban Baltimoreans struggling through their family crises; usually, there is no cataclysmic denouement, and if there is, it gets turned into a movie.

If you like Anne Tyler, you don’t mind the same characters turning up again and again — the ditzy but well-meaning housewife, the cranky, intelligent father figure/husband, the smart-mouthed but warm-hearted children. If you don’t like her, you probably stopped reading her a long time ago and you should stop reading this blog now and tune in next week. The gift, or the problem, depending upon which side of the fence you’re on, of the Anne Tyler novel is that you know exactly what you’re getting. Lovers may say her consistency is admirable, expert, insightful. Haters might say she is the McDonald’s of literary fiction. By now you know I usually lie in the former camp, but even I was really disappointed by this latest novel, which goes absolutely nowhere and is god-awfully depressing.

Liam Pennywell is a sixty-one-year-old school teacher who has recently been fired. He takes this sacking as an opportunity to clean out what little he has left of his life, and moves into a sad little bachelor apartment with as little furniture and mementos as he can. A veteran of two failed marriages, he is the Anne Tyler character who accepts his fate in life without much questioning, much to the anger and chagrin of his three adult daughters. The first night he moves in, he is bopped on the head by an intruder and ends up in the hospital, slightly worse for wear but more to the point, completely unclear as to what has happened to him. He remembers everything up to the assault, but not the assault itself.

Lest you think Tyler has suddenly morphed into Richard Price, I am here to assure you that no, she has not. I wish she had, because Noah’s Compass would have been a lot more interesting and insightful if she’d delved into the reasons of the assault, and possibly the life of the assailant. But no, the burglary is simply a hook on which to hang all her Tyler-isms on the nature of relationships and fate.

In fact, as the novel wears on, the burglary/assault really means nothing at all. Liam, for reasons that are unclear apart from perhaps his sheer lack of anything better to do, becomes obsessed with finding his memory of the night in question. In trying to understand his amnesia, he meets Eunice, a stock Tyler character: the zany female whose natural — some would say base — intentions are meant to shake the male from his suburban slumber. Eunice is a minder for an elderly wealthy gentleman afflicted with Alzheimer’s; her job is to function as a human datebook, an “external hard drive,” prodding him quietly with names and dates and comments so he may appear as a functioning senior citizen. Liam decides she may be the one to help him with his amnesia, and thus embarks on a relationship that seems doomed from the outset (unless this is The Accidental Tourist II, which it certainly is not).

Tyler is an exceptional writer, no doubt about it; her descriptions of people and familial relationships are so spot on it’s scary. As in most Tyler novels, the people in the periphery are the ones with the real insights; in this case, when Liam’s daughters lay into him for all his character flaws, you know they speak the truth. They describe him as emotionless, out-of-touch, with a pathological fear of confrontation. He, in turn, says his divorce was due to his being “not forthcoming,” and is puzzled why his daughters are “always mad about something.”

The problem with Noah’s Compass is that nobody really changes. Liam is no wiser at the conclusion about his failed marriages than he was at the beginning. His daughters seem no less fed up. His love interest fades away, another victim of Liam’s inability to connect. It is all very depressing and opaque, and if Tyler hadn’t imparted such a positive, hopeful message in her previous novel, Digging to America (about adoption, blood ties and loyalty) then I really would throw in the towel on her.

Readers, please don’t throw in the towel on “52 Views.” (Look at the subtitle: it reads “an attempt.” An attempt!) I may not be precisely on track, but I’m optimistic that June will be a much more fruitful month.

Published in: Uncategorized on June 6, 2010 at 9:15 pm  Comments (4)  
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Week 21: The Bradshaw Variations, by Rachel Cusk (2009: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 234 pages

This week’s book presented a number of challenges for me. First of all, it is short, so it should have been no problem to read and write about. (I am currently about two books behind in my quest to read a book a week.) Second, it was written by Rachel Cusk, whom I thought I loved. Third, it has some kind of narrative structure that I can’t figure out; each of the thirty-two chapters is written from the point of view of a different character, sometimes moving the plot forward, and sometimes just musing, in a Mrs. Dalloway-esque fashion. I’m fully convinced there’s an intelligent motive at work here — I would expect nothing less of Rachel Cusk — but I must be a simpleton because I certainly don’t get it.

Sometimes when I’m flummoxed by a book, I’ll trawl the web in search of reviews. Some may call this cheating, and they may well be right. It certainly feels like cheating, this searching for the key to unlock the narrative, much in the way using Clif Notes doesn’t feel all that virtuous. Still, it seems that most reviewers were just as confused as I. There is a budding pianist in the book, and I suspect the title is trying to indicate there’s a musical allusion being made here. A quick check on Wikipedia confirmed as much: “In music, variation is a formal technique where material is repeated in an altered form. The changes may involve harmony, melody, counterpoint, rhythm, timbre, orchestration or any combination of these.” Well, perhaps I cracked the code, but it isn’t particularly illuminating. Nor is a further Wikipedia definition: “Variation forms can be written as ‘free-standing’ pieces for solo instruments or ensembles, or can constitute a movement of a larger piece.”

What’s more, it feels reductive to explain away a narrative through the use of a single gimmick. Perhaps more to the point, The Bradshaw Variations is a total bummer. This is Cusk’s seventh novel, and I haven’t read a lot of her work, but The Country Life was comic, fresh, intelligent and just plain idiosyncratic in a delightful way. A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother was a truthful — some would say harsh — meditation on what it means to succumb your entire life to a squirming seven pound being. It was bracingly honest, not particularly funny but illuminating in a way that memoirs should be, giving words and images to fuzzy feelings and fleeting emotions. The Bradshaw Variations lies in the latter camp, centering on the alienation between husband and wife, between parent and child, and as you may have guessed, there’s not one person in this novel that you would want to go out and have a beer with.

The hub of this novel are the three grown male children of the Bradshaw family, and the lives and spouses they have chosen, living in suburban England. Howard is the inventive business man, who lives a topsy-turvy existence with his whining would-be artist wife and their three children. Their household is the happiest, which is not saying much, since Claudia spends most of her time complaining how she is not allowed to work in her studio because of all the demands of wifedom and motherhood. Leo is the youngest, and there isn’t much to say about him except that he’s married to a drunk, has clear-eyed, knowing and miserable children, and seems to have no job. His main contribution to the novel is that he buys a coat, over which he frets and frets. The middle son, Thomas, is a recent stay-at-home dad, married to Tonie, an English Department head, and Cusk spends most of her narrative energy on these two and their complicated relationship with each other and to their 8-year-old daughter.

Around the periphery hover other characters: a Polish lodger who lives with Thomas and Tonie, the elder Bradshaws parents, the in-laws, and even the 8-year-old is given a chapter to herself. I will agree with other reviewers on one very strong point: Cusk fully inhabits each of these characters and their musings about life, love, art and happiness (or the lack there of), and it is stunning to see that she can actually pull this off. She is a brilliant writer, very dark and mordant, and her style of writing — while often convoluted in its points — is fully confident and insightful. Still, every person in this novel is achingly sad, and disturbed by their life choices. Tonie, newly launched into the world of employment from her prison of motherhood, is a cold, detached academic, who loves her freedom but feels equally stifled by the confines of academia and arrogant men in the workplace. Thomas is distracted, unfulfilled and lonely; he tries to learn to play the piano but feels woefully inadequate. Alexa worries about her mother and father (and rightly so), and is confused by their mixed signals.

And then, there are plot points and descriptions which are so singularly horrific or disgusting, I’m really not sure what Cusk was getting at. A newly acquired dog vomits and then proceeds to eat its own vomit while it pees around the house. (The dog later meets a horrible end.) Newborn babies in a hospital are described as grubs, squirming and mewling, sucking at the breast. After a marital indiscretion, Tonie is punished by confronting the mortality of her own child. (After, she never goes back to work.) What is this all about?

In one scene, Thomas describes to his Polish lodger the plot of a melancholy book he is reading, about a man who kills his wife for playing the piano. “ ‘The man blames it on the music,’ he continues. ‘He says that under the influence of music, people feel things that are not their true feelings. They think they understand something when in fact they don’t understand it at all. It’s sort of an illusion, like love.’

The lodger stares at him, and comments “ ‘That is a bad book,’ ” to which Thomas agrees. “ ‘You should read happy books,’ says Olga. ‘Why make life more difficult?’ ”

That just about says it all, doesn’t it? Thomas, facing the prospect of a lifelong medical condition with his daughter, glumly asks if Olga reads happy books.

“ ‘I read magazines,’ Olga says.”

Published in: Uncategorized on May 3, 2010 at 12:41 pm  Comments (2)  

Week 20: Just Kids, by Patti Smith (2010: Ecco/HarperCollins, 283 pages)

“You do know you’re a week behind, yes?” my husband gently prodded earlier this week.

What is this season called spring? The time of rebirth and renewal has somehow morphed into a time when everything is nonstop, back-to-back, busybusybusy; schedules are packed, chock-a-block, and every waking hour is accounted for. Everyone I know seems to be having this experience. April is the new September, May the new December. More than once a week, I mutter to myself, “I want to move to a desert island.”

Excuses, excuses.

So it is with some relief that I read this week’s book, “Just Kids,” a memoir by musician/poet Patti Smith about her relationship with the controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. It recalls an era when time was slowed by the absence of technology; it paints a portrait of ‘70s New York City where the Chelsea Hotel, CBGB and Max’s Kansas City reigned supreme, when artists, musicians, writers, celebrities and social x-rays rubbed their bony elbows together in their race to the top. Or to the bottom, as Patti would say, since many of these luminaries (Janis Joplin, Hendrix, Tinkerbelle, Edie Sedgwick, the Warhol Factory crowd) would not make it: “Taken down, the stardom they so desired just out of reach, tarnished stars falling from the sky.”

That Patti Smith made it as artist, poet, musician and writer is no surprise after reading this memoir. She is, as the ad goes, the real thing. Coming from New Jersey to New York City in 1968, she knew absolutely nothing about the dangers of the metropolis or the burgeoning crazy time filled with drugs and rock ‘n roll: she simply went to be an artist. Harboring a love of the romantic poet Arthur Rimbaud, she goes to the big city to “be free,” and find work outside of a factory. Sleeping in the park, in doorways, on friends’ couches, on strangers’ floors, she had a beguiling innocence which floods these pages. She is fearless, but also full of love and generosity for others, feeling no envy or sense of vindication that she is “one of the handful of survivors.” “I would rather have seen them all succeed, catch the brass ring,” she writes of all her artistic contemporaries, and not just Mapplethorpe.

This is an amazing memoir, not only of this bizarre era, but also of a relationship so pure and innocent that it is utterly heartbreaking. Smith met Mapplethorpe in her first month of arrival to New York, by simple chance. He was beautiful, with golden curls and a beguiling smile, and she was, well, Patti Smith: thin, androgynous-looking, intense and whip smart. He called her Soakie because of her propensity to cry at the drop of a hat; she called him Blue or Robert, even though he had been known as Bob before that. They were joined at the hip, and made a vow to take care of one another, to nurture each other’s artistic vision, and always, always love each other. That he was gay was almost a minor blip in their connection (they would remain sexually intimate for years, even after he’d “declared” himself) – so intense was their bond. She was a muse, he was an artist, and in time they would switch roles, but always their work (i.e., art) remained the most important aspect of their lives.

If ever you have felt cheated by not being able to experience the New York that once was, then read this book. This was the Seventies, the time when The Chelsea Hotel (where Smith and Mapplethorpe would live for years in a single room) was “an energetic desperate haven for scores of gifted hustling children from every rung of the ladder,” Smith writes. “Guitar bums and stoned-out beauties in Victorian dresses. Junkie poets, playwrights, broke-down filmmakers, and French actors. Everybody passing through here is somebody, if nobody in the outside world.” Smith would labor for days on her drawings and poetry; Mapplethorpe hadn’t yet moved to photography, but would focus on installations, sculptures and jewelry-making. She was inspired by Bob Dylan, he would obsess about the fame and cult of Warhol and his Factory. “Nobody sees as we do, Patti,” he would tell her daily.

It may be true. Their artistic inspiration seems so divorced from the cynicism, branding and one-upmanship now prevalent it’s almost quaint. She meets Gregory Corso, and is encouraged to hold poetry readings of her work. Sam Shepard writes a play with her, becomes her lover, and emboldens her to act. Heading into rock ‘n roll (or rather backing into it, after seeing Jim Morrison perform and feeling “both kinship and contempt for him”), she forms her band with the idea that will encompass poetry, performance art and simple artistic expression. She worries that “music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands, we feared it floundering in a mire of spectacle, finance and vapid technical complexity.” The year was 1974.

Patti and Robert would remain spiritually joined at the hip. She would become entangled with William S. Burroughs, Allen Lanier of Blue Oyster Cult, Janis Joplin, Todd Rundgren. He would find a benefactor and a lover, and embark on a controversial and extremely successful career in photography, blurring art and pornography. They would weave in and out of each other’s life, sometimes falling out of touch after 1980, but remarkably generous with one another, never dabbling in schadenfreude. In 1978, they were walking down Eighth Street and her single “Because the Night” was blasting from every storefront. The single reached number 13 on the Top 40 chart, “fulfilling Robert’s dream that I would one day have a hit record.” He was “unabashedly proud of my success. What he wanted for himself, he wanted for us both.” He said to her in a tone “he only used for me — a bemused scolding — admiration without envy, our brother-sister language. ‘Patti,’ he drawled, ‘you got famous before me.’ ”

The title is a perfect reminder of a time of innocence for Smith and Mapplethorpe, two individuals intent on living their lives “free,” unencumbered by society’s expectations or values. Patti would make more albums, publish more poetry, and marry Fred Sonic Smith, a noted musician, with whom she would have two children and move to Michigan. Mapplethorpe would enjoy enormous success, with retrospectives at all the major museums in New York and around the world — the former altar boy succeeding in a realm that no one could have foreseen. When Mapplethorpe dies painfully of AIDS in 1989, that time of innocence is gone, but the bond between them remained: muse and artist, indelibly scratched on each other’s soul.

This is a book about pure love.

Published in: on April 23, 2010 at 9:02 pm  Comments (1)  
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Week 19: All the Sad Young Literary Men, by Keith Gessen (2008: Viking, 242 pages)

My wise mother-in-law (Radcliffe, ’49), once said: “Going to Harvard gives you an inferiority complex for four years, and a superiority complex for the rest of your life.” I thought about this a lot as I read this week’s novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, about three Harvard graduates (possibly more) and their, well, sad young literary lives.

I have resisted this book for quite a while, because frankly, I (Brown, ’87) didn’t like the cover, even though I bought it in hardcover when it first came out, thinking my husband (Harvard, ’86) might enjoy it. The problem is that now having finished the novel, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you anything absolutely definitive about it. My husband has the same issue, but he read it a long time ago. I don’t have any such excuses, apart from thinking this should be a collection of interconnected short stories, and not a novel. Funny, huh, given last week’s kvetch? The main characters share a few girlfriends, and have a similarly dark take on the world, but they don’t interact at college. They also have a decidedly politically liberal bent, and two are interested in Russian history and one is not. Other than that, I’m not sure why they are thrown together in novel format, as the book jumps around from character to character, and from first person to third person. Actually, I’m not even sure the first person is the same first person who pops up later in the narrative. (Harvard readers: insert snide comment here about Brown graduates.)

All that said, there is a lot to enjoy about this book, which reminded me very much of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, in its humor, tone, and the protagonists’ struggles between narcissism and intense self-loathing. Right out of college, “they worried about history and themselves. They read and listened and argued. What would happen to them? Were they good enough, strong enough, smart enough? … Would they tell the truth despite all consequences?” In the beginning, we meet Keith, who strangely has the same name as the author. After running into Lauren, “the vice-president’s daughter,” on the streets of Manhattan, he has a long flashback to his college years when Lauren had dated his roommate, Ferdinand. Ferdinand “was the first in a series of disappointments at that bitter place,” although an interest in a girl prompts Keith to realize “what a nice place college was, I suddenly realized, even Harvard, if you let it be.” It was 1998, “the impeachment had passed but not without the special prosecutor’s special little book, and the President for the next two years was as good as a lame duck, I thought. It was up to Lauren’s father now.” He begins a liberal blog; it was the “time of online love affairs and paper billionaires — a space of some sort had opened up in the universe, a distortion — and with my belief in my own moral purity, and in the destiny of Lauren’s father, I stepped right into it.” His email in-box is crammed with offers.

Nice description of the time, but why not just call a spade a spade and say “Gore,” or “Karenna” or “Salon.com”? In case you missed the point, there are little photographs in this section of the book of Clinton and Gore, Lewinsky, and Abraham Lincoln. I particularly don’t understand these illustrations, as they don’t show up in any other part of the novel. (Yes, maybe if I’d gone to Harvard, then … ) (There are other stereotypical characters in the novel too, including a Brown semiotics major who writes a sex column after college. Now that is just going a little too far.)

Back to the novel. Another protagonist, Sam, is introduced, whose goal is to write the great Zionist novel. “He needed to disentangle the mess of confusion, misinformation, tribal emotionalism, and political opportunism that characterized the Jewish-American attitude toward Israel. But first, he had to check his email.” Sam has an almost typically American liberal response to the occupied territories, believing them to be wrong, but unsure how Israel should proceed without appearing weak, an opinion his outraged Israeli girlfriend decidedly does not share. Despite his vague sympathy with the Palestinians, “every time it appeared the international community was beginning to lose patience with the interminable occupation of the West Bank, with the hopelessly stupid Israeli attempts at creating peace by waging war, with the tanks and the settlements and the prevarication, these folks went out into the streets and cheered the murder of people no less innocent than themselves. No, thought Sam, you really had to hand it to the Palestinians. In their ability to fuck up a late lead they were truly the equals of the Boston Red Sox.”

Unable to finish the great American Zionist novel, Sam retreats into obsessively  checking “his Google.” Once a respected liberal essayist out of Harvard, Sam is dismayed that his Google hits are dwindling day after day. A call he puts into Google ends with the sneering advice: “Maybe, if you don’t mind me saying, you need to do something notable. Write something. Start a blog.” Thus begins the most interesting part of the novel, as this Jewish-American young man’s obsession with a country he has never been to leads him to one of the occupied territories in the West Bank, Jenin. Finally, after an encounter with an Israeli tank, Sam sees what he had suspected all along: “The Palestinians were idiots. But the Israelis — well, the Israelis were fuckers.”

All the Sad Young Literary Men has much going for it: wit, intelligence, humor, and irony. But if you don’t mind me saying, it has a little too much going on. Nineteenth and twentieth-century Russian history. Israeli arrogance. Relationships gone sour. Disappointing mentors, unobtainable women and immature graduate students. I could probably write a blog about it that would be almost as long as the novel itself, and still not make all the cultural connections to which Mr. Gessen has hinted and pointed. It’s almost as if a Brown semiotics major wrote it, for heaven’s sake!

Now you must excuse me: I have a sex column to write.

Published in: on April 12, 2010 at 12:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Week 18: Where the God of Love Hangs Out, by Amy Bloom (2010: Random House, 200 pages)

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know I am a close reader of those frothy, shockingly un-ironic pull-quotes from other authors that appear sometimes on the back of the book, or in last week’s case, right on the cover. They tell me a lot. Kathryn Stockett was in the throes of ecstasy about The Postmistress – which should have clued me in. This week, there is no such warning, but buried in the inside cover is a suspiciously hyperbolic opinion: “Amy Bloom gets more meaning into individual sentences than most authors manage in whole books,” weighs in The New Yorker. I wouldn’t have been able to handle another disappointment like last week, so I’m happy to report that this is actually true.

Where the God of Love Hangs Out is Amy Bloom’s latest collection of short stories (a great title, I thought, but then I could never remember it), and it is a wonder to read. Divided into four parts, two of the sections contain a series of interconnected stories, and the others are stand-alone. (Actually, aren’t all short stories supposed to be stand-alones? Isn’t that what differentiates this from a novel? Anyway, more on that later.) The first section, about a two couples whose close friendship becomes so close that they divorce and one couple re-forms, is more than a ‘70s tale of wife-swapping and open marriage. In Bloom’s world, spouses divorce, partners die, women face old age alone and adult children hover helplessly on the periphery. And all is told with razor-sharp wit and insights, and intelligent asides.

But though the themes that Bloom centers on are life-changing — divorce, death, abandonment — the stories are really about love and its disappointments. When Clare loses the friendship of Isabel after she, Clare, has paired off with Isabel’s husband, she finds herself mourning the loss of her best friend with almost as much as force as her love for William. “She knew Isabel’s taste in linens, in kitchens, in moisturizer and makeup and movies. There was not a single place on earth that you could put Clare that she couldn’t point out to you what would suit Isabel and what would not.”

And yet, these are people that feel unbearably strong emotions and only tippy-toe around them in conversation. They love with force and passion, and affectionately indulge in name-calling behind their partner’s back. “Privately, Isabel and Clare call William The Last Emperor and there have been times when Isabel has called Clare to say, ‘L.E. is driving me mad. Why don’t you and Charles come up before I put glass in his cereal?’ ” In turn, “in private conversations, the men call Clare ‘The Cactus.’ ”

In my favorite of the stand-alone stories, “Permafrost,” a social worker is ruminating over her care of an thirteen-year-old girl who is hospitalized with flesh-eating bacteria. In a series of letters to her, she thinks about her own father and the interest they shared in the stories of polar expeditions and survival: Edward Shackleton, the S.S. Endeavor … “they were just so phenomenally brave. They lived on dog meat and willow tea … they ate deerskin ties off their tents and then they cut up their tents to make footgear, so they could go out and look for rescue ships.” These men were heroes to daughter and father, although now she realizes that a certain crazy irresponsibility was what made them alluring to her steadfast father. “These people made terrible mistakes and the best and the worst of them just shrugged and said that it was no one’s fault at all, just the nature of life, just the inevitable outcome of what they had undertaken, but it wasn’t true. They had something missing. They left things behind that other, more reasonable men would have known to bring.” In Bloom’s world, mistakes are made because people are human, but the consequences are borne by everyone, usually in stark relief.

If I have one quibble, it is that the four stories connected to another couple, Lionel and Julia, are so full of lovers and ex-lovers and different people and family members who drift in and out, and told in two different voices, that it is quite hard to follow. If it were a novel I might have the time to get used to each character, but the short story format is this way for a reason. Perhaps I’m just in the early throes of Alzheimer’s and can’t hang on to more than one idea or character at a time, but it made me question whether the interconnected short story collection is such a good idea.

On the other hand, after last week, it was such a relief to be in the hands of a master craftswoman. This collection of short stories is so nimbly told, so full of telling details that illuminate and uplift what could be depressing characters and themes, that I almost cried with joy. But I will come back to this: no matter how great the writer, what is it about collections of short stories that make them ultimately unfulfilling? I walk away from this book in awe, but it is a short-lived fix, nothing like the revealing power of a novel, or the gift of truth from a forceful memoir. By the end of Where the God of Love Hangs Out, I really longed to read a book that made me feel homesick for the protagonist. There was just not enough time to really engage with this book, strictly because of its format.

This is probably not true of Amy Bloom, but I will conclude with a slightly cynical observation. I can’t help feeling that this popular trend of the interconnected short story collection is a cop-out from writing a fully realized, completely well-thought out novel that bears some responsibility to tie up the loose ends. I was once told that people don’t buy short story collections, and they’re thought to be losers in the marketplace by editors, so perhaps I’m completely off-base here.

Your thoughts?


Published in: on April 5, 2010 at 8:20 pm  Comments (4)  
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Week 17: The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake (2010: Amy Einhorn/Putnam, 326 pages)

Probably the question I’m asked most about this blog is: “How do you choose the books?” I wish I could say there was a magic formula, but the answer is just how you might expect: I read some reviews, I think about what’s going on in the world, I look at my past reading list, and sometimes it’s even more prosaic than that. Sometimes it’s just, “oh, I read this book and you should read it, Courtney – you’d like it.”

Then there’s this week’s pick, which came to my attention simply by a friend telling me they’d gone to college with the author, Sarah Blake. And that it was “supposed to be good.” So I picked it up in the bookstore, looked at it closely and ignored all the warning signs. The effusive, near orgasmic pull-quotes from other authors (“This is a superb book!” gushes Andre Dubus III; “Beautiful, thought-provoking!” exclaims Kathryn Stockett). The ominous copy on the inside dustcover: “Those who carry the truth sometimes bear a terrible weight …” And, probably the worst offense, the cover art: a photograph of dried lavender rose laid on top of an old letter; clear pandering to those middle-aged women like myself, trawling the bookstores in search of good “literary fiction.” (Yes, you can judge a book by its cover.) I steeled myself, and thought about what my friend Ann said one time, speaking of The Help – a similar book with social issue buttons and tear-jerky moments: “I have to remind myself that just because everybody likes a book doesn’t mean it’s a bad book.”

I have since forgotten which friend recommended The Postmistress, which is a good thing since I spent a lot of time wanting to throw it across the room. Here’s the premise: it’s 1940. “Leggy blond” Frankie Bard is an American war correspondent who smokes her Lucky Strikes with defiance. She is determined to get to the bottom on the gathering storm in Europe. She’s heard some rumors involving refugees, Jews, trains being full, exit visas being denied. She contrives a way to get to London, where her boss, Edward Murrow (groan) directs her to get to Berlin then Lisbon, and interview these so-called refugees herself. She takes an old-fashioned version of a dictaphone (which doesn’t really exist in 1940, by the author’s own admission, but never mind) and gets these people on tape: name, where they’re from, where they’re trying to get to. You see, Frankie needs to do this because people in America are not paying attention. Not paying attention! Attention must be paid! Get that, reader? If you didn’t the first hundred times the phrase is used, maybe you will the next hundred times.

Meanwhile, in a sleepy little Cape Cod town called Franklin, the middle-aged spinster of a postmaster Iris James is sorting the mail. (For most of the novel, she is referred to as a postmaster -  I’m sure Ms. Blake has a reason to suddenly switch gears and call her the postmistress in the last quarter of the book but I have no idea why.) Order, reason, clarity are her mottoes. Everything in its place. The war belongs over there, we are over here. The doctor’s wife, Emma Fitch wanders in. She is the third of the triumvirate of women around which this novel is centered – again, I have no idea why, as she is a boring, opaque character who whines about being left by her do-gooder husband when he feels the need to contribute to the war effort by going to London to provide medical assistance. (Oddly, the doctor meets Frankie Bard in a bomb shelter. What a strange coincidence.) She hasn’t heard from him in many weeks. Where are his letters? Does Iris James know? (Hmmm … in the beginning pages, an older Frankie Bard had been reminiscing about her war years, and poses a question at a modern dinner party: “What would you think of a postmistress who chose not to deliver the mail?” “Don’t tell me any more,” a woman had cried in delight, shining and laughing between the candles. “I’m hooked already!” Gee, you people need to get out a little more.)

Back to 1940s Europe. Frankie boards the trains, and duly gets her radio report. But she doesn’t have the story, all she has are these disembodied voices, these refugees, the middle of the story but not the beginning or the end. She knows Murrow wouldn’t like this, nor Paley (groan again). But despite the fact that Frankie being a leggy radio gal who takes no guff from any of the old boys, she is changed by her experience. She limps back to America, and finds her way to the sleepy Cape Cod town, where she bears a secret that must be told. In the feature film, Nicole Kidman will hopefully agree to take the role of Frankie, but some say that it will be Nicole Ritchie’s real breakout role in film.

You see, cynicism begets cynicism. The problem with The Postmistress, among many things, is that it is so obviously written with “movie” in mind that I couldn’t possibly take any of it seriously. It is my personal pet peeve when fiction plays around with real people and what’s more, nurtures historical inaccuracies (e.g., the war posters papering London of “Keep Calm And Carry On” – a simple Google search will tell you this now-ubiquitous slogan was never used publicly). And – the dictaphone? And – the windows in the Underground station? Windows … in a subway station?

Let’s just overlook all those minor discrepancies. What is intensely irritating about this novel are the stock characters, the trite theme, and the schoolmarmish tsk-tsk tone. At its best, The Postmistress is an ABC-TV Movie of the Week, dressed as literary fiction. At its worst, it is a Harlequin romance. You don’t think so? Take a peek:

Her back was flat up against the rough brick of the pub wall and she opened her eyes to watch him kiss her again, and when he did, she kissed him, hard. Over the ridge of his shoulder, people passed in the dark, passed in the street, and as he lifted her up and she sunk down on him, she moaned out loud … but it was dark and it was deep and we returned to the cave and the fire and the glint of life in each other’s eyes, never mind the sigh escaping, the unmistakable oh oh oh — it was all right, we were only human.

Ugh.

The Postmistress is going to be wildly popular, no matter what I write, so I don’t feel badly if I steer my few loyal readers away from it. And, while I hate to admit it, the train journey section is fairly gripping, but it is unfortunately offset by sections like the above and the silly, silly goings-on in the tiny Cape Cod town.

Read at your peril.

Published in: on March 29, 2010 at 2:37 pm  Comments (4)  
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Week 16: The Water Giver, by Joan Ryan (2009: Simon & Schuster, 260 pages)

As regular readers of this blog well know, I’ve spent some time up at UCSF recently when my three-year-old had a teeny-tiny outpatient procedure: a tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy. The surgery went fine, the recovery was at times very trying, and the sleep deprivation we parents experienced was like Abu Ghraib. But it’s almost three weeks later now, and the experience is becoming a hazy memory, as our daughter returns to school and no longer snores like a truck driver who’d been boozing it up all night.

Nevertheless, as any parent will tell you, almost any surgical procedure your kid has never feels teeny-tiny at the time. However, after reading the memoir The Water Giver — about a mother’s experience when her teenager suffers a devastating brain injury — I feel like the luckiest mom on earth. Written by Bay Area sports journalist Joan Ryan, the book details not only the three months her teenage son spent in the hospital after a skateboard accident, but more to the point, the affect it had on her as a mother. And while the science/medical/hospital part is interesting, it is the ruminations on motherhood that grabbed me a bit more. Yes, yes, as if we need another book about motherhood … but this one is seen through the lens of a devastating incident, and it got me thinking a lot about seeing and judging others, particularly mothers.

Why does one read about a book about a horrible accident? And the subsequent decisons? If you’re like me, you read about it because you’re slightly neurotic, and feel deep down that if you study these things — disasters, acts of violence, craven behavior, things out of your control — then you’ll know what to do if it happens to you. Of course, this is ludicrous.  But this memoir invites judgement and analysis, and moreover, it’s detailed, fast-moving, clearly narrated and at times, a real page-turner.

Sixteen-year-old Ryan Tompkins was a pretty normal kid: friendly, active, social, and also highly unpredictable. Diagnosed with ADHD at a young age, the parents of this only child were often at their wits’ end trying to control his erratic behavior and school performance. Often cheerful and affectionate, he could fly into a rage and throw a coffee mug against a wall, or push a school desk over, or tear up homework, only to feel guilty and embarrassed afterwards. The next day, “he would be the greatest kid in the world.”

Coming from a strict Irish-American working class background, the journalist Joan flip-flopped between reading and researching everything she could on the topic of ADHD, and coming down hard on Ryan with punishments and recriminations. Her experience of motherhood was wracked with guilt: for not looking like one of the Stepford Wife Marin moms, for not being organized enough to bake cookies for school events, for erupting into anger and judgment when Ryan misbehaved. Summed up, Joan’s motherhood was “still more about me. I was still raising the child I expected, not the child I had.”

When helmet-less Ryan falls off his homemade skateboard and suffers a critical head injury, Joan reacts with curious aplomb. In the hours after the accident, she keeps waiting to take him home from Marin General (despite her the fact that her son is in the ICU), and she is calm in the face of medical chaos, almost “glowing.” She and her husband maintain a vigil at the hospital while her son goes through several operations, but it takes weeks until she can finally grasp that Ryan may not fully recover from this seemingly innocuous fall. Put into a deep coma to prevent further injury from his swelling brain, there is a question if Ryan will ever wake up, or walk, or talk, or think. Friends and family are silently appalled: “I talked as if Ryan were in for a tonsillectomy,” she writes, and later her friends tell her what is obvious – that Joan was in serious denial about her son’s accident and outcome. To Joan the answer is a little more complicated: everything else in life (bill-paying, answering emails, etc.) was put on hold, and “perhaps for the first time ever I as giving myself over to being wholly and completely Ryan’s mother.”

Is it sad that a horrendous accident had to occur to turn her into a kind, loving, and very patient mother? Perhaps, but there for the grace of God go I, is what I say. Like most people my age, I’ve been witness in recent years to some accidents and disasters and crises — friends with cancer, couples who’ve divorced, an acquaintance paralyzed from a bike accident, a family dealing with a serious head injury. If there is one adage that consistently emerges, it is that you just never know how you will react until it happens to you. So, when I read The Water Giver and I start feeling, why on earth did they stay at a community hospital and not move him to UCSF, I have to remember that I have no idea what I would actually do.

The Water Giver ends on a very upbeat, and slightly false-sounding note: Ryan comes home, he is grateful for being alive, and he is for the most part back to his old self, with his ADHD just intensely magnified. Except: he’s not. He’s on dozens of drugs, he has terrible, inconsistent rages, and at least from this reader’s point of view, it seems inconceivable that he would ever go off to college on his own or be trusted to remember where his house or car keys are. Joan, meanwhile, says the accident has given her redemption, by allowing herself to let go of control, to be accepting and realize what she can and cannot fix. “Is it selfish to be thankful for something so horrible?”

To which I counter: Who am I to judge?

Published in: on March 20, 2010 at 9:53 pm  Comments (3)  
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Week 15: The Blue Horse, by Rick Bass (2009: Narrative Library, 50 pages)

I know what you’re thinking. I know this looks like a tremendous cop-out. Does a novella qualify as a book, you might well ask? Or: when is a novella a short novel, and not a long short story? I admit that last week, when I was foraging for a book that I could actually finish during this rather trying time, the length of this slim volume is what attracted me. My friend Carol, who is a wonderful writer in her own right, suggested it and I leapt at the chance. I should have known Carol would not steer me to a book simply because of length — in calmer times Carol has also offered up the The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt — so I knew number of pages is not a real consideration for her when selecting a book.

Luckily for me, The Blue Horse is a profound, and very poignant read. (By the way, you can only get this on Amazon, as it is published by Narrative Library,  part of Narrative Magazine.) Rick Bass is one of those writers that I think I have read before, but when I look at his (prolific) work, I don’t think I have. (I may be mixing him up with Rick Moody.) He writes many essays having to do with Montana, wildlife and environmentalism, and I have probably discounted him in the past because I have no interest in fishing nor hunting, subjects which haunt his short stories, novellas and novels (so I am told).

But The Blue Horse is a book about loss, so hunting seems a good hook upon which to hang his narrative. The story is about two old friends, Robert and Jack, who take an annual pheasant hunting excursion, this year to the wilds of Montana in mid-October. Robert, a former painter, has been married for nearly two decades, and for vague reasons he and his wife Jennifer seem to be nearing the end of their union. Jack, on the other hand, is newly married, and in the throes of newlywed bliss, “still wandering about in such a state of wonder and disbelief at his good fortune that almost anyone could see it radiating from him.” With these polar-opposite emotions heavy in each man’s heart,  they set upon the countryside with their dogs for a two-day forage for pheasants.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m no hunter, but after reading descriptions of the central Montana landscape, I can start to see the allure. Does this not sound like a fairyland? “The leaves on the chokecherry bushes were blood crimson, and the giant cottonwoods along the river burned a deep and luminous yellow. Snowberries hung like pearls at the ends of their bushes’ branches, and the twisted trunks of the younger cottonwoods were as black as licorice, black as the exposed river bottom soil in the community garden, just turned fallow, outside the schoolyard.”

Robert and Jack have chosen an expanse of land this year that belongs to a religious sect (“Jack had been unclear as to the nature of the co-op’s zeal — were they Mennonite? Amish? Mormon? Hutterite?”), and the story of their interactions with the leader of the sect, one Henry Bone (with “pale blue eyes,” of course — don’t they all have pale blue eyes?) and his over-eager wife Claire and their hundreds of children are eerie, and wonderfully mysterious. Bass is a master storyteller of the show-don’t-tell variety, and to read his work is to feel comfortably in awe of a writer who knows exactly what he is doing. The sect’s main focus, at least from the outsider’s point-of-view, is “the industry of labor — farming, gardening … animal husbandry — and, strange as it seemed to Jack, interested too — vitally, almost fiercely — in the industry of money.” The price to hunt on their land, however, “seemed about fifty years out of date.” They could have charged ten times that amount, and “it was as if, in dropping out of the world, they had lost the ability to measure the value of the thing.”

Claire, the wife, is intent on showing the two outsiders all the food they have stockpiled, from huge animal carcasses that they smoke and store to all the jam and jellies and fruits and vegetables that they canned, stored in huge cellar like vaults. Is it for the end of the world? For a nuclear bomb attack? For a government incursion that cuts them off entirely? It’s not clear, and Robert and Jack’s discomfiture mirrors the reader’s. She is a strange, oddly amusing character, and her entrance in the story underlines the sense of unreality amidst this very real, hardscrabble land, where men are men and women are … mysteries.

Have you ever experienced a time when you are out of your place, out of your comfort zone, and it is all clicking and it is all wonderful, almost other-worldly? Perhaps it is when you are running on the trails in the first days of spring, or cycling up a huge mountain listening to your heart and your breathing, or hiking somewhere in a foreign country, or simply gazing at a landscape, the journey to which was hard and relentless? This is the world that Bass inhabits:

“In Robert and Jack’s lives there was no other tradition as deeply etched as hunting, nor one in which all the sense were felt as sharply.

Each of the men had hunted long enough that it no longer mattered to them as much as it once had whether or not they shot well, or whether or not they found birds. What they loved most was watching their dogs work, and, increasingly, the men loved the landscape they hunted, especially in autumn. They loved not just the shape and beautiful colors and cool temperatures and dense odors of autumn, the geese honking close overhead and the north winds blowing, but also, perhaps most of all, the incredible loneliness that seemed to loom over everything in October, and especially over the high prairie.”

I won’t spoil the mystery of what the title refers to, but it loops back to the sad, beautiful loneliness that Bass so expertly describes.

I’m dedicating this week’s post to Sarah Verdone: 1964 – 2010. Rest in peace, finally.

Published in: on March 14, 2010 at 9:08 pm  Comments (2)  
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Week 14: Hiccup

It just about kills me to write this post, but it seems the title of this blog may have to be “51 Views” after this week. Yes, I failed. In fact, I was going to title this week “Week 14: Abject Failure,” but my husband gently suggested “Hiccup.”

Yes, life has intervened this week, and not only did I not finish a book, I barely started one. The novel is “All the Sad Young Literary Men,” by Keith Gessen. (And no, I did not choose it because it matched my mood.) Regarding this goal of reading fifty-two books in a year: I’m thinking I’ll double up some week when I have oodles of time and am just bursting with creative energy, maybe in the run-up to Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Not that you asked, but what could possibly have deterred me from my goal? Actually, a pretty good reason: my three-year-old had a tonsillectomy/adenoidectomy (coyly referred to as “a T&A procedure” by those in the know), with ear tubes, this week. Here she is in the recovery room, wearily watching Dora, having no idea what’s in store for her once the anesthesia wears off.

The surgery was OK — if you feel that having your toddler under general anesthesia for almost two hours is OK — but the recovery has been slightly brutal. Maybe if we were a little younger we could withstand the sleep deprivation better, but my husband and I have never been great in that department. Our daughter, meanwhile, probably feels that she was sold this surgery on false premises (tons of ice cream! Delicious popsicles! Unlimited TV watching!) when in truth she’s in so much pain she’s not interested in popsicles or ice cream — only TV, and then only when Mommy is sitting right next to her doing absolutely nothing else. No computer, no books, and certainly not even looking at the two other children to see how they’re faring during this crappy time.

Meanwhile, I received a cheerful email reminding me that the deadline for the catalogue of our preschool’s spring auction is this week. Oh, yes … I guess I did volunteer to help write the catalogue describing over two hundred items. Ladies Beer Hike anyone? How about a Sterling Silver Lariat Necklace Garnished with Pearls and Peridot? Better start jogging that part of my brain that turns out the pithy turn-of-phrase. Note to self: next time, do not agree to hearty spring volunteer jobs in early November.

Still, I have this goal: 52 books in 52 weeks. I’m going to do it – I am nothing if not dogged. (Please send all recommendations of poetry collections my way.) See you next week, if we make it!

Published in: on March 8, 2010 at 12:34 pm  Comments (6)  

Week 13: The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry (2009: Penguin, 300 pages)

I’ll be honest: this week’s book just about killed me. Not because it’s a bad book, but really, folks: It’s the Winter Olympics! (Or rather, was.) I am not one for the figure skating, and Lindsey Vonn definitely tries my patience, but what cooler sport is there (apart from pro-cycling) than biathlon? If you haven’t seen it, get yourself on that NBC website and have a look. It’s already on my to-do list for 2011 to register for the Northstar-At-Tahoe “Introduction to Biathlon” Clinic next February. I’ve never held a gun in my life, and the last time I was on skis was perhaps 15 years ago, but I don’t care: I am obsessed.

Back to this week’s “lyrical,” “luminous” novel of “startling beauty.” Here’s a thought. When pull-quotes feature those kinds of adjectives as the selling point, I feel I’m in trouble. It’s not that The Secret Scripture is not lyrical, nor luminous, nor full of startling beauty – it’s all of those things, but I am hard-pressed to say a whole lot more about it.  Sebastian Barry is an extremely well-respected Anglo-Irish writer, having churned out a few good novels and many plays in his time, and this book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The language is gorgeous, the setting (Co. Sligo, Ireland) magical, the time period interesting. It also tackles the Civil War in early 20th century Ireland from the conservative point of view, a side not often heard, at least in my limited readings of Irish independence. (For a very truncated account of this convoluted time period in Ireland, click here.)

The story is of Roseanne Clear, a woman of 100 years, who lives in Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, where she has spent the last sixty years or so. The hospital is about to be demolished, and it is up to the head psychiatrist, Dr. Grene, to figure out who is sane enough to be let out into the outside world. Roseanne’s history is muddled: no one can quite remember why she first came, and the files on many of the elder patients have been either destroyed or lost. Dr. Grene begins to research her case, and the novel is a back-and-forth between his notes to himself about Roseanne, and “Roseanne’s Testimony of Herself,” sheafs of paper she writes to herself about her secret history, and stores under the floorboards.

Naturally, there are vast discrepancies between Roseanne’s account, and the historical “facts” that Dr. Grene uncovers. This Rashomon-style narrative is a little trying to this reader, who feels at this point that we could dispense of this literary gimmick for a few decades and we’d all be a little better off. The novel begins very slowly indeed, and after one hundred pages or so, I felt the plot needed to take off or I’d be shelving this book with a poor excuse for a blog. But take off it does: Roseanne is a young, beautiful Presbyterian living in Catholic Ireland after the Troubles of the 1920s, and her enemy is a misogynistic, power-mad priest whom she unfortunately crosses. After marrying one of the town’s Catholic golden boys, she is fingered as a nymphomaniac, and sent to live in exile in an iron hut on the edge of town, where she slowly goes mad. (Or not.)

I love Irish history, and studied it in college, but I don’t think I’ve ever read any fiction dealing with the rise of the Blueshirts, which this novel touches on. Ireland’s neutral position in the Second World War, combined with a minority flirting with the rise of Fascism in Spain, has always been a bit of a sore spot for Irish historians. It’s a conflicted and shameful past, for a country that has had its fair share of conflict in the past 800 years. (Let’s not even get into the role of the Church, as yet another horrific chapter was revealed last November.)

So, would I recommend The Secret Scripture? Roseanne is a wonderful character, full of complexities and mendacities, but Dr. Grene is dull as dishwater, and I couldn’t care less about his meanderings about his dead wife. However, there’s a plot twist at the end which was both absurd and interesting — I could hear my Anglo-Irish friend Magda groan across the Atlantic — and if I were feeling charitable, I might say that it made it worth it. But the twist was a little silly, and the novel kept me from watching some of the Winter Olympics, so I’m one big Party of No on this one.

Published in: on February 28, 2010 at 9:32 pm  Comments (3)  
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