Wednesday, January 7, 2015

An Irish Portrait

It seems appropriate that I start the new year with an old favorite. I've always had a soft spot for Irish writers, and Colm Tóibín, whose Brooklyn was one of my favorites of 2009, has written another powerful book. Set in Enniscorthy, a town in southeastern Ireland, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Nora Webster tells the story of a middle-aged woman whose husband, a much beloved schoolteacher, has died of heart disease. Nora is struggling to deal with her loss, and to help her four children, especially her two young sons, come to terms with this new reality.

And honestly, not a whole lot happens. The book is the story of Nora's everday life. She sells a vacation cottage she can no longer afford, she goes back to work, she worries about her older son's stutter and his withdrawn attitude, she discovers a love for classical music and an interest in singing. There are no fireworks, no dramatic upheavals (although the events of Bloody Sunday are referenced), no shocking revelations. But that's what I love about Tóibín. His understated prose and matter-of-fact narrative carry a force that I can't explain. He revealed in an interview that he lost his own father at a young age, and that the stammering, angry son Donal is a version of himself. Maybe that's why his plain language seems to carry so much emotion.

Nora is no saint – at times she's not even very likable. Her evolution is gradual, but by the end of the novel she has squared her shoulders, faced her grief and moved forward into life. Tóibín has painted a subtle, honest portrait of a ordinary but complicated woman.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014 Favorites

It's time once again for me to pick my three favorite books of 2014, and once again I have had trouble narrowing down my list. But I have to go with the ones that really knocked my socks off, each for a very different reason.

The Son by Phillipp Meyer (Texas Saga), a multi- generational story that held me in its grip from the very first chapter, which ended with this foreboding line from the family patriarch: “The only problem was keeping your scalp attached.”

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast (The Graphic Truth), a graphic memoir that is hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (A Girl and a Boy), the haunting story of two young lives that cross amidst the chaos of war.

My books are already stacking up.  I'm looking forward to hours of great reading in 2015.  Happy New Year to all!

Friday, December 26, 2014

A Year-end Present to Yourself

Run, don't walk, to the nearest library, bookstore, computer or e-reader and get a copy of Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher.  Then set aside an afternoon or evening (it's a small book) for a joyride.  But be sure it is in a place where you will not be embarrassed to laugh out loud (really out loud, not just a smile) again...and again...and again on almost every page.

The structure of this novel is a series of LORs (letters of recommendation) written by a college English professor for his students, his faculty colleagues and a few fellow students from his graduate school days.  These are unlike any recommendation letters that you might imagine.  It makes me wonder what those letters are really like.

Julie Schumacher herself is a faculty member in the Department of English at the University of Minnesota and admits to writing "more letters of recommendation that she cares to recall."  Included in the letters are large doses of college politics, driven by the increasing tensions between the arts and sciences resulting from the pervasive budget constraints affecting most colleges these days.  But it is her arguments supporting the study of English and writing that will stay with you long after the laughter ends.

And if you are familiar with Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener then so much the better (but not necessary.)

I am desperate to talk with someone who has read this book.  If that is you, please leave a Comment below.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Family Bonds

I can't really blame Eileen Tumulty, the main character in Matthew Thomas's debut novel We Are Not Ourselves. Growing up in the 50's in a blue collar Queens apartment with alcoholic parents whose marriage is fragile, it's only natural that she is determined to do better. So when she meets Ed Leary - intelligent, serious, reliable, a talented scientist - he seems the perfect choice. She envisions a bright and prosperous future with a home in her version of Shangri-La – Bronxville. Perhaps she misses some early clues that his seriousness might be tinged with rigidity, or that his idealism might conflict with her ambitions. When reality finally sets in, her desperation to get out of Queens causes her to commit an act of betrayal.

But she has little time to enjoy her Bronxville fixer-upper with Ed and son Connell before she is hit with a stark truth. Her fifty-two-year-old husband has Alzheimer's disease. As anyone who has dealt with it knows, the course of this disease is relentless, and Thomas's description is unsparing (his own father died from it in 2002). Connell stumbles badly in his attempts to face his father's illness and his mother's need for his help, and Eileen is no saint, but Thomas makes them sympathetic even in their failings. I have to admire Eileen's grit and determination in the face of the crushing obstacles she must tackle.

Thomas paints on a small canvas – his characters lead ordinary lives in a circumscribed world (he reminds me of Alice McDermott, who was once his teacher). But his characters have a resonance beyond their own small stage, and the title, taken from King Lear, expresses this well.

We are not ourselves
When nature, being oppressed, commands the mind
To suffer with the body.