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.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Sour Grapes

Count me among the avid fans of Edward St. Aubyn's semi-autobiographical series of Patrick Melrose novels (see my blog). These five books swing wildly from harrowing to hilarious on virtually every page. So when the fifth novel, “At Last”, was ignored by the Booker prize committee in 2011, perhaps St. Aubyn felt a twinge of annoyance, although he has steadfastly denied this.

But you know the old adage “Don't get mad, get even”? Well, clearly St. Aubyn knows it too. In his latest novel Lost for Words he imagines the Elysian prize, funded by a chemicals manufacturer, and proceeds to satirize everyone connected with it in any way. The judges, some of whom are identifiable to those tuned in to the London literary scene, for the most part don't bother to read the books and use their own idiosyncratic agendas to make their choices. The books themselves range from wot u starin at, a portrait of Scottish drug addicts written by an Edinburgh academic, to “The Palace Cookbook”, an actual cookbook mistakenly submitted as a postmodern novel. The character of Sam Black, who seems to be a stand-in for St. Aubyn himself, loses the prize but gets the girl.

St. Aubyn writes elegant prose and can be wickedly funny and insightful, but the plot meanders and it's all just a little too snarky for me. Better to stick with Patrick Melrose.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Graphic Truth

If you are a New Yorker reader you're familiar with Roz Chast, the cartoonist whose squiggly-lined drawings manage to make the mundane, the maudlin, or even the misanthropic events of everyday life seem unexpectedly funny. My favorites often involve parents and children, and the ways in which they can drive each other crazy. So I expected that her graphic memoir “Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant” would offer similar enjoyment. And it does. But this book is so much more than that.

Chast's parents George and Elizabeth are an eccentric, mismatched pair, essentially friendless, who have lived in a decidedly untrendy section of Brooklyn for over sixty years. Her father is gentle and kind, but also fearful of everything and ineffectual. Her mother is angry and critical. No surprise that Roz exited as soon as she could. But old age begins to take its toll on both of them, and Roz reluctantly accepts that she has to step in. What follows is the familiar litany of memory loss, emergency room visits, hospital stays, confusion, guilt, financial worries, resistance, anger. As grim as this sound, it is also very, very funny.

If you or anyone you know has dealt with the struggle of aging parents, you will find this story unerringly accurate and brutally candid. Chast does not paint herself as a saint. In fact, her drawings of her angry and frustrated self – bulgy-eyed, teeth-bared, hair crackling - are searing (and hilarious). But her humor and honesty make this a powerful and compelling story.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Girl and A Boy

Time for my beach read, and this year it is All The Light We Cannot See. It's a story about a girl and a boy. In August of 1944, in the waning days of World War II, the picturesque Breton town of Saint-Malo, occupied by the retreating German army, is being bombed by Allied forces. Alone on the top floor of a tall narrow house, a French sixteen-year-old blind girl named Marie-Laure LeBlanc fears for her life. Five blocks away eighteen-year-old German private Werner Pfennig, a radio specialist stationed in a grand old hotel, is assigned to intercept messages from Allied sympathizers and eliminate them. The two have never met.

Having set them so close together, author Anthony Doerr then jumps backward to 1934, to tell the parallel stories of their childhoods. Hers is the tale of a comfortable life in pre-war Paris near the Jardin des Plantes, with a loving father who teaches his daughter that her blindness is no handicap. His is the harsher existence of an orphan in a coal mining region outside Essen, but he is saved from a life in the mines or on the front lines by his extraordinary talent with radios. In brief chapters, Doerr cuts back and forth between Saint-Malo of 1944 and the paths each took from the start of the war to their current precarious state.

I know, I know. Blind girl, orphan boy, war, danger, love conquers all, sentimental and predictable. Not at all. This beautifully written book is many things – suspenseful, emotional, nuanced, heartbreaking, joyous – but it is resoundingly unsentimental. Yes there are a few coincidences, but none that disturb the flow of this haunting story. An added plus – short chapters! Beach, plane trip, waiting room, DMV line – this book is the perfect choice.