Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Courage and Resistance

What makes someone courageous? Is it a genetic instinct or a learned behavior? I often wonder how I would react to a significant threat or test of principles. Such questions are again on my mind after reading The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman. It is as the subtitle describes “A War Story” (non-fiction) set in Warsaw during the German occupation in World War II. The Warsaw Zoo under the direction of Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina was quite well regarded prior to the invasion of the Germans in 1939. But the Nazi ideal of genetic purity included animals as well as humans. So in due course all of the best animals from the Warsaw Zoo were removed for breeding experiments and many of the remainder shot. Many were killed or escaped during the bombings.

Though the Zabinskis were Christian, they had many Jewish friends and acquaintances confined to the Warsaw ghetto. They were able, over the next few years, to rescue over 300 people. Among other ruses, they used the “cover” of gathering garbage to feed the animals, including a fur farm on the property, as a means of communicating with the Polish underground resistance and providing meager supplies to the confined Jews. They were able to use many of the zoo’s cages and connecting passageways to hide those trying to escape. As the Zabinskis were wont to give their animals all human names, it only helped to confuse things they they gave their underground contacts animal names. It seems all the more remarkable that their activities remained undetected by the Germans as they had a very young school-age son. How easily and innocently he could have betrayed them. The risks to themselves were great but as Jan Zabinski is quoted as saying: “We did it because it was the right thing to do.” Yes, but not everyone did it.

Because Diane Ackerman is herself a naturalist, she brings an additional sensitivity to her writing about the animals and the zoo. The zookeeper's residence on the property sounds like a veritable Noah's Ark. That she has done a great deal of research is evident. By her choice she essentially ends the story in 1945 with only cursory mention of the Zabinskis’ lives until their deaths in the 1970s.

By coincidence, in The New York Times Magazine of December 28, 2008, there was a portrait of Irena Sendler who died in 2008. She was a Catholic Pole in her 30s who also smuggled Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto between 1941–1943 because, she said, “my heart told me to.” After she was captured by the Gestapo she managed to escape and spent some time as a “guest” of the Zabinskis at the zoo.

Ackerman describes some research by Malka Drucker and Gay Block on the personality traits of rescuers. “Rescuers tended to be decisive, fast-thinking, risk-taking, independent, adventurous, open-hearted, rebellious and unusually flexible – able to switch plans, abandon habits, or change ingrained routines at a moment’s notice. They tended to be non-conformists.” I imagine they felt as Jan did: “I only did my duty—if you can save somebody’s life, it’s your duty to try.”

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Southern Humor and Heartbreak

“Ellen Foster” was first published in 1987. It was Kaye Gibbons’ first novel for which she won critical acclaim and a special citation by the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. “Ellen Foster” is the story of Ellen, the narrator and heroine of this funny, engaging but heart wrenching novel.

Ellen is an eleven year old girl who had the bad luck of being born into a family with a “Big wind-up toy of a man” for a father and a mother whose “skin looked tired of holding in her weak self.” The story is one told with the stark honesty of an eleven year old. Ellen is not always sure what is happening to her but she knows that there is something very wrong with her life. The voice is so authentic that you are sure you are listening to an eleven year old child who lives somewhere in the south in a very bad situation. Ellen is wise for an eleven year old but when she is trying to figure out something she doesn’t understand you can’t help laughing out loud.

Unfortunately there is not a lot to laugh about in this story. It is a moving story of a child, abused and left to her own resources. But one thing Ellen has is resources. When both her sorry parents die she finds herself at the mercy of her relatives, who are mean, petty and abusive. How much can one child take? Ellen’s sense of humor makes reading this heart wrenching story so easy. You really care about this character and want her to not only survive but to be happy. It is fun watching just how Ellen achieves this end. With this end comes Ellen's understanding of racism and the role it plays in the life of a child.

The author did a wonderful job of disappearing into the voice of the young narrator, so believably that you never doubt Ellen’s reliability. The determination of Ellen to leave her past life behind and find one that meets her approval is a story told with humor, honesty, and spunk, by a character that you won’t easily forget.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Married Life

I'm back to Tolstoy's line again - “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way“. If you substitute 'marriage' for 'family' it might seem to apply just as well. Phillip Lopate's Two Marriages consists of two novellas about married couples who, other than their common setting of Brooklyn, could not be more different.

The first story, “The Stoic's Marriage”, is written as a series of journal entries made by Gordon, a pudgy forty-something bachelor who discovers love with the beautiful Rita, an attractive Filipino whom he meets when she becomes the home health aide to his dying mother. His early entries rhapsodize about Rita's perfection, but as the months roll on things become much more complicated. You've heard of the 'unreliable narrator'. I guess I would categorize Gordon as the clueless narrator. The reader figures out long before he does that Rita may not be all that she seems. But Gordon plugs on confidently, explaining his hilariously cockeyed theories as to why Rita's motives are pure. His relentless stoicism in the face of all his setbacks is amusing and heartwarming.

In the second story “Eleanor, or, The Second Marriage” we meet Eleanor and Frank (a play on the Roosevelts?) who seem to be the couple who have everything. They live in a large Brooklyn brownstone, hold satisfying jobs, and have a circle of interesting friends. This is the second marriage for both, and they pride themselves on having evolved into partners who can truly love and understand each other. The story takes place over the course of a July weekend during which they hold an impromptu dinner party for an assortment of friends and family. Eleanor prepares a “simple meal” involving individual Cornish game hens, a zucchini vegetable terrine, wild rice with scallions and cranberries, hors d'oeuvres, hot biscuits and sun-dried-tomato bread, mesclun salad, Greek olives, chutneys, cheeses and two desserts. It's hard not to hate her, isn't it? I'm hoping the desserts were store-bought.

By the time Monday morning dawns, it is clear that Eleanor and Frank are really not much better than Gordon in understanding the workings of a marriage. All their sophistication doesn't save them from its pitfalls; if Gordon asks too few questions, Frank asks too many. Lopate does a masterful job in these two disparate tales of showing the many and varied difficulties of married life.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A (Bad) Grammar Lesson

Years ago, decades in fact, in the first year of our book group we read Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. In the 25 years since, we have never discussed reading another of her books. Many of the more recent ones have been mysteries involving a cat. But she has been a prolific writer and when I saw a slim volume The Sand Castle in the library I decided to see how she had developed as an author – a bad choice but not for the reason that I would have expected.

On the surface this is the story of a day’s outing to the beach on the Chesapeake Bay in 1952. The travelers are two sisters (known affectionately as Juts and Wheezie, more formally as Julia and Louise), Juts’ 7-year old daughter Nickel and Wheezie’s 8-year-old grandson Leroy. Apparently the sisters and Nickel have appeared in some of Brown’s previous books. To describe Nickel as precocious is being too kind: she is a brat, repeatedly teasing and frightening her cousin, no doubt sensing his special vulnerability due to the recent death of his mother.

The title comes from the magnificent structure that engages them all, although the children are restricted to hauling sand and water while the sisters act as architects and engineers. The sand castle comes complete with flags and a drawbridge, not like any that I ever built as a child.

Perhaps because the book is so short and because I hadn’t read any of the previous books in which these sisters appear, I just could not understand them – particularly Juts. On the one hand she has taught Nickel a refinement of manners almost unheard of today. Here is Nickel speaking: “ “Are you hungry?” I’d learned not to ask for food but to politely ask if the other person needed some.” On the other hand, not only does Juts smoke cigarettes herself, she introduces them to her daughter (“Gotta learn to do it” - remember Nickel is 7 years old) and has a vocabulary of swearing and cursing that is unrestrained in her daughter’s presence.

But none of that is the reason for my criticism. What really upsets me is the bad grammar: from a well-known author and a respected publisher Grove Press.

Here is Nickel again: “ “Well…” Mother fudged, since she didn’t want Leroy and I to know what a devil she was…” This was the first instance. When I got over the shock I tried to think of a reason that Brown would make such an obvious error. Perhaps, as this is Nickel speaking, she Nickel at age 7 might make this mistake, hence Brown wrote it this way.

But when it happened again, I was in despair. Here is Julia speaking: “ “I don’t know, kid. When you’re little—seven or eight is still little compared to Wheezie and I,” she said…”

Am I missing something here? I know that people make this grammatical mistake all the time but is that a reason to reinforce the error in print? An author of Brown’s stature would serve her readers better (and not have alienated this one) by writing the dialogue in a way to avoid the problem. So, that’s what I will remember about this book, not the lesson of a family coping with an early death or a child’s harsh introduction to the realities of the adult world.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Anna's Best Books for 2008

I was inspired by Charlotte’s list of Notable Books for 2008. It has been a challenging and exciting year as we created our blog and wrote our thoughts on the books we were reading each week. So it is fitting that we should pick our favorites and share that list with our readers. I choose three fiction and three non-fiction books I have read and blogged this year. My Three Fiction Choices are:

“Out Stealing Horses“-by Per Petterson This wonderful book makes every list, including The New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year, because it is a beautifully written, wonderful story about a man who has lived his life and is looking back to the last summer he spent with his father and wondering what really happened.

“The Story of Edgar Sawtelle”-by David Wroblewski This story about a boy who can’t speak and the incredible bond he has with the fictionalized breed of dogs that his family raises is a joy to read. Again the writing is so good and the story is gripping, with a haunting Shakespearean theme.

“The Things They Carried”- Tim O’Brien writes a fictionalized version of his tour in Vietnam. You feel as though you are right there with these young men who lived and died as they fought that endless, unpopular war.

My Non-Fiction Choices:

“The Year of Magical Thinking”- Joan Didion writes about the absorbing details of the year she lived after her husband suddenly died. Her candor and strength are a joy to encounter. It is an unforgettable personal journey.

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”-Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of the French “Elle”, suffered a massive stroke. He could only move his left eye lid yet he devised a way to write a stunningly beautiful story of the survival of the human spirit.

“The Things That Matter”- Edward Mendelson has written an exploration of how seven classic novels teach us about life. It is inspiring to read how he connects these wonderful classic novels to the stages of life we all encounter.

Happy New Year and Enjoy Reading in 2009!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Advice from Maureen

Maureen Corrigan is always giving me ideas. She's the book critic on NPR's “Fresh Air”, so if I happen to have a pencil handy when she's talking I will scribble down her suggestions and file them away. Later, when I'm searching for something to read, I'll pull out the list. But by that time I've lost all memory of why she recommended a book. Was it a beach read? A murder mystery? A gift suggestion? I have no idea. But I decided to try one anyway – The Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam. The cover said it was the winner of the Whitbread award, so I reasoned that it couldn't be too bad.

The book consists of a series of letters written by Eliza Peabody, an imaginative but isolated resident of posh Rathbone Road in South London, to her unseen neighbor Joan, whom she hardly knows. Initially these short notes seem to be the work of a patronizing busybody exhorting Joan to buck up. But by page five Joan has apparently fled and Eliza's letters become longer and longer as she describes her life spiraling out of control. Her husband has left her, she barely knows her neighbors, her only friend is a young man dying of AIDS in a hospice where she volunteers.

It soon becomes clear that Eliza is an unreliable narrator. Are the odd anecdotes, sometimes sad and sometimes hilarious, that she relates to the mysterious Joan in her long rambling letters really true? Or is Eliza losing her grip on reality? Gardam does a masterful job of describing the tipping point between sanity and madness where Eliza seems to be teetering. Slowly the roots of Eliza's unhappiness begin to emerge, and she changes from being eccentric, self-righteous and downright annoying into a sympathetic character, all without losing her quirky sense of humor.

I might quibble a little with the tidiness of the ending, but I did enjoy Maureen's choice.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Happy Birthday, Jane!

For a time, thanks to a gift from my friend Diane, I was a card-carrying member of the Northern California chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America. In additional to the national organization there are about 60 regional groups (including Northern California) almost all of whom have some sort of celebration of Jane Austen’s birthday – which happens to be today December 16th (in 1775)! Completely by coincidence I have just finished listening to an audio recording of Austen’s Mansfield Park. My listening time is almost all centered around my running time and these last few weeks have been delightful thanks to this recording. While there is a plot, the novel was much more interesting to me for the portrayal of English manners. And while the heroine is Fanny Price, I was more interested in Austen’s portrayal of some of the other characters namely Fanny’s two aunts Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris.

Lady Bertram, Mrs. Norris and Fanny’s mother, Mrs. Price, are sisters. Mrs. Price married for love but has ended up living in poverty, the mother of nine children with a drunken husband. Lady Bertram is married to the wealthy owner of Mansfield Park and Mrs. Norris is, at the time of the story, the widow of the former chaplain of Mansfield Park with reduced financial circumstances. The only resemblance between Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris is that each is completely self-absorbed. Austen’s descriptions of them are gems of character analysis and writing.

When Fanny is eight years old, Lady Bertram agrees to take Fanny in to be raised with her own four children. Fanny is treated as the poor relation (especially by Mrs. Norris) except by one of the sons, her cousin Edmund. Most of the novel occurs when Fanny is eighteen and is occasioned by the visit to Mansfield Park of Henry and Mary Crawford (brother and sister to the wife of the current chaplain of Mansfield Park) and Mr. Yates, a friend of the elder Bertram son. So we have 4 Bertram siblings, cousin Fanny and 3 friends, all single and of approximately the same age. I’m sure you can guess where the plot is going - although it takes several twists and turns.

While the novel is generally noted for its satire, there are some serious reflections. Toward the end of the book, when Sir Thomas Bertram is disappointed by the actions of several of his children, he reflects on his failure as a parent in the children’s education and wonders if he is to blame – a passage to resonate with many parents in any time and place and financial circumstances.

Having enjoyed this book so much, I think it is time to renew my membership.

Download a free audio recording of Mansfield Park

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Charlotte's Notable Books of 2008

The year is coming to an end, and Best Books of 2008 lists are appearing in many publications. So I decided to create one of my own, choosing my favorites from among the 38 books I have blogged this year. I tried to limit my list to three, but I found it hard to whittle down my choices. So I compromised with a top three and three more honorable mentions. In no particular order, here are my top three:

Last Night at the Red Lobster by Stewart O'Nan
(Closing Time) – because its sympathetic portrayal of a day in the life of restaurant manager Manny DeLeon is a touching ode to the working man.

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris (Office Life) – because Ferris perfectly captured the zen of office life with humor and honesty, and did it all while writing in first person plural.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon (God's Frozen People)– because I was blown away by Chabon's ability to create an entire alternate universe.

The runners-up are also terrific:

Lush Life by Richard Price (Neighborhood Crime) – because I love cop stories and Price's dialogue is fantastic.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (Transplants) - because each story is a little jewel.

Time Will Darken It by Will Maxwell – (Revisiting an Old Friend) - because Maxwell's prose is so beautiful.

Happy New Year - read a good book in 2009!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Mister Pip

New Zealander Lloyd Jones has written a superb and unusual tale for any book lover's consideration. Winner of the 2007 Commonwealth Prize, Mister Pip is a story narrated by Matilda, a 13 year old girl living in a small village on an island in New Guinea during a brutal civil war in the 1990's. Helicopters hover, power goes out, teachers have fled, and both government and rebel troops of boys surround the village. Only one white man, Mr. Watt's, remains, becoming their teacher with dreams of making the classroom a "place of light". Mr. Watt's has an abiding love for Dickens and one particular book, Great Expectations. He reads to the children to provide an escape from their dreary days, to set their minds free, to encourage them to allow their imaginations to flourish. The children are enthralled by the story, especially the character Pip. When the rebels mistakenly assume that Mr. Watt's, identified as Pip, is a spy, the tale darkens and devastating events occur. "Just as Great Expectations changes Matilda, instilling in her a moral code, so the environment in which it is read changes the book." Faced with a crisis, Mr. Watt's must spin a tale that combines elements from Pip's life, his own, and that of the beleaguered islanders. Despite the heartache and horror that are contained in the story, there is considerable charm, humor and power in this book.

Jones writes in a lyrical way and has a wonderful ear for the earthy aspects of village life. Some people are "silly as bats" and "argue like roosters". He mentions characters with big bums. Despite devastating events in the story, the author makes it clear that he has great faith in literature and it's power to effect change and offer solace. That's what contributes much to create a memorable book. This book stands alone quite well but I think it would be an ideal book to read along with Great Expectations, to form the basis of a stimulating discussion.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Finding the Past

“The Clothes on Their Backs” by English author Linda Grant was short listed for the 2008 Man Booker Prize. The heroine of this involved story that spans over sixty years is Vivien Kovacs. Vivien is the daughter of Hungarian Jewish refugees who escaped from Hungary before the war and found themselves in London. The ladies of the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service found the Kovacs a flat in the staid Benson Court where they, almost literally, hid for fifty years. Vivien’s father was a master craftsman in the backroom of a gold and diamond jeweler, and her mother rarely left the flat. They never mentioned to Vivien that they were Jewish.

As a lonely, only child Vivienne “floated through time and space…. Until I was ten I was completely unaware that I had a relative”. The doorbell rang one day and a voice on the other side of the door claimed to be Vivien’s father’s brother. But Vivien’s father angrily cried. “Go away or I will call the police”. With that introduction Vivien had an infamous, evil uncle.

Vivien finally escapes her life at Benson Court by going to college where she meets and falls in love with the quintessential tall, blond, English boy. The residents at Benson Court send Vivien and her new husband off on a honeymoon to the French Riviera where her beloved Alexander dies on the second night of the honeymoon as the result of a ghastly accident. Vivien returned to London and Benson Court and fought depression as she wandered the streets of London. One day she finds herself in Regent Park sitting next to her uncle "The Face of Evil". Her uncle is a criminal who used woman to make his fortune and then became a notorious slum landlord who landed in jail. Vivien and her uncle form a bond as she agrees help him write his memoirs. He tells the story of his wonderful childhood with Vivien’s father and their parents in Hungary, of how Vivien’s father and mother left and he stayed to be imprisoned and tortured. He gave Vivien a past, which her parents had denied her. Sandor Kovaks' story is sad, funny and dramatic, and probably the best part of the book.

Linda Grant has written a story with many layers and diverse characters. The main theme of this story is that things and people are not always what they seem to be, and it sometimes takes strange twists of fate to reveal what the truth is. The plot and the writing make for a very enjoyable, although sometimes convoluted, novel.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Revisiting an Old Friend

It's easy to get caught up in reading the hottest new authors and forget about old favorites. Recently as I surfed the web I found a reading group whose favorite book was William Maxwell's Time Will Darken It. Our group read and enjoyed two Maxwell books in the late 90's, but I had completely forgotten about him. It was time to revisit an old favorite.

The book's epigraph is a quote from “Artists on Art”, a book about landscape painting technique. It advises artists to add enough white to their paint mixture to produce a bright tint: “it must not be dark; on the contrary, it must be rather on the light side because time will darken it...”. And at first Maxwell's novel seems to be a bright charming landscape painting of the Midwest in 1912. Lawyer Austin King, his wife Martha and daughter Abbey live in Drapersville, Illinois in an innocent time when people still traveled by horse and buggy, had iceboxes on their back porches, and dropped in for visits without calling first.

When the Potter family, relatives of Austin's from Mississippi, arrive for a self-invited visit Martha is dismayed and Austin is sheepish, but it does not seem that this minor inconvenience could disturb the tranquility of the household. But slowly the presence of these visitors begins to take its toll. Austin, trying to please everyone, unable to express his feelings to his wife and unwilling to recognize the ulterior motives of his relatives, begins to lose all that he holds dear. His attempted kindness towards the Potter's daughter Nora, who harbors a burning crush on the older man, succeeds in harming them both. Again and again characters fail to understand each other, with unfortunate results.

Maxwell's prose is spare and elegant. The picture he paints of Elm Street and its residents is precisely and lovingly rendered. Behind the lace curtains he shows us the yearnings of characters trapped in the prim landscape of Drapersville. Maxwell's pace is measured; his story moves slowly in a way that seems to correspond to the time in which it takes place, a time not far into the twentieth century. He takes time to let you experience the changing of the seasons, the ebb and flow of small town life. But his plot can suddenly turn a corner and surprise you as well.

Revisiting William Maxwell reminded me once again of his wonderful talent for exploring the simple, sad moments we all experience in life.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Birds of a Feather

It has always seemed to me that people who are interested in birds and bird-watching are not just "interested" but "passionate", more so than other people with other interests. So I picked up Joyce Hinnefeld's novel In Hovering Flight in hopes of getting a better insight and understanding into this passion. The principal characters are Addie, a bird artist; her husband Tom, a college professor of ornithology; and their daughter Scarlet, named as you can guess for the Scarlet Tanager. They live in southeastern Pennsylvania. Hinnefeld is a college professor (of writing) in Bethlehem, PA (write what you know).

Addie met Tom when she was a college student in the spring of her senior year in his Biology of the Birds class. This gives the author the context for introducing samples of field journals, anecdotes about John James Audubon, descriptions of the local habitat, some poetry about birds and even "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." (Can someone please explain to me what that means?) The class also introduces Cora and Lou (Louise) who will be Addie's life-long friends. Although Addie's life isn't that long. She dies in her late fifties in the first chapter surrounded by her husband, daughter and these two friends.

The narrative voice alternates among each of the three family members; and the events jump back and forth in time from the college days to the time of Addie's death. Along the way Addie becomes quite radicalized by the destruction that she sees to her beloved birds and their habitat from environmental pollution. How would you feel as a teenager (Scarlet) if your mother (Addie) were being taken off to jail or had to go into hiding as a result of her protest activities? It's not surprising that for a period in high school Scarlet leaves home. But she moves in with the family of her mother's good friend Cora.

And this brings me to the aspect of the book that in the end captured my interest more than the birds. Scarlet knows that Addie, Cora and Lou have remained friends since college but she has never really understood all of the forces that bind them together. As the events of their shared history are brought to light, I was reminded again of how fortunate we are if we have (women) friends of long standing.

Now I think that I will call the local chapter of the Audubon Society to learn more.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Steel Magnolias

Our book club has made it a point (over the past twenty five years) to read the Pulitzer Prize winning novels and we have really enjoyed just about all of them. Looking for something to read, I went over the list of the Pulitzer winning novels. One that I hadn’t read, although my book club had, was “The Optimist’s Daughter” by Eudora Welty. Ms. Welty, known for her stories of life in the south, won the award for this novel in 1973.

“The Optimist’s Daughter” is the story of Laurel McKelva, the only child of Judge McKelva and Miss Becky McKelva. The story opens as Laurel arrives in New Orleans from her busy life in Chicago. Her beloved father is undergoing a risky operation for a slipped retina. As she awaits news of her father’s operation she is joined by Fay, Judge McKelva’s second wife. Laurel’s mother died ten years ago and the Judge’s second wife is a few years younger than Laurel. Laurel is the quiet, patrician widow, mourning the death of her navel officer husband who died in World War II. Fay is a southern redneck who found the way out of her downtrodden life by marrying the Judge. When the Judge inevitably dies in hospital, the conflict between Fay and Laurel is palpable.

The story is separated into three parts, the hospital in New Orleans, the funeral in Mount Salus, Mississippi, the town founded by the McKelvas, and the family home where Laurel grew up, in Mount Salus. The story is a battle of values between Laurel and Fay. The author goes back in time to Laurel’s childhood vacations at the mountaintop house of her mother’s family in West Virginia. The descriptions of this rural world are extraordinary. Then she brings Fay’s down home family from Texas to the Judge’s funeral. We meet all the wonderful characters that make up Mount Salus society. The author then asks the reader to look at both sides and weigh the values of materialism and energy against privilege and culture.

The dramatic battle comes to a head in the final scenes of the book as Laurel and Fay have final words. Laurel has to come to terms with the losses in her life, her husband, her mother and her father. The house Laurel grew up in and loves will go to Fay, but Laurel has the memories and all it has meant to the McKelvas over the years.

Eudora Welty has written a wonderful book, some say it is her best work. The true joy of this story is the beautiful prose and how she uses it to develop these strong characters who linger in your mind long after the book is finished. There is a reason these wonderful books win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction each year and we are the lucky ones who get to read them.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Alchemy and History

What are the odds? Dorothea's last blog was about a book called The Alchemist and my blog also deals with alchemy. And I admit it – I know practically nothing about alchemy. Changing lead into gold, the philosopher's stone - that's the extent of my knowledge. So I was intrigued by the premise of Rebecca Stott's mystery novel Ghostwalk. A Cambridge historian named Elizabeth Vogelsang dies mysteriously just as she is completing a book about Sir Isaac Newton's involvement with alchemy at Trinity College, Cambridge in the seventeenth century. This involvement is historically accurate. Although many biographers minimize this aspect of Newton's career, he wrote extensively on the subject. Vogelsang's son Cameron, a successful research scientist, persuades Lydia Brooke, a freelance writer and his former lover, to complete his mother's work.

Lydia soon realizes that the unfinished book explored the possibility that Newton was involved in a series of five murders at Cambridge. At the same time she becomes aware of a series of ritual murders of animals attibuted to a radical animal rights group opposed to animal experimentation. She rekindles her affair with Cameron, but becomes increasingly disturbed as unexplainable phenomena begin to occur in Elizabeth's riverside studio where she is working. Is there a connection between the seventeenth century murders and the current violence?

And here's where it all breaks down for me. I've written before about my unwillingness to suspend disbelief unless there's a very good reason. To truly enjoy and become engrossed in this book, you need to accept the possibility that spirits from the seventeenth century are communicating with the present, perhaps even influencing events. I kept hoping that at the end it would turn out that the strange visions could be explained by a carbon monoxide leak in the studio or an hallucinogen slipped into Lydia's tea. No such luck. I know, I's fiction. It's just a question of personal taste.

Stott does a terrific job explaining the influence of alchemy on seventeenth century scientists, and her description of Cambridge, both in Newton's time and today, are vivid. She weaves together the romance of Lydia with the inconveniently married Cameron and the mysterious murders of both the past and the present. It's an entertaining read, but I'd recommend only to those who are prepared to believe in ghosts.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Adult Fairy Tales - Part 1

When a book has been on the NY Times Paperback Trade Fiction Best Seller List for 60 weeks, it must be saying something to a lot of people. I decided to see what it would say to me. The book is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

On the surface it is the story of a shepherd boy who journeys from Andalusia, Spain to the pyramids of Egypt in search of treasure. The plot is pushed along by dreams, magic, omens, talking deserts and winds, and romance. There is some religion for everyone: references to the Koran, the Gospel of St. Luke, Joseph from the Old Testament and, of course, alchemy.

It isn't clear until the end whether the treasure will be monetary or spiritual. The journey is framed in terms of a search for one's Personal Legend and the Principle of Favorability. When you set out to accomplish what you have always wanted, there are forces in the universe that will conspire to make it happen.

There is a little bit too much talk in the book of the Soul of the Universe for my taste but it's a short read with some worthwhile motivational messages that need repeating (for me) from time to time.

"It's the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting."

"What's the world's greatest lie?...It's this: that at a certain point in our lives we lose control of what's happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That's the world's greatest lie."

This book has been a publishing phenomenon. Since it first appeared in 1988, it has been translated into 61 languages, 65 million copies in 150 countries. It has to be the message not the medium.

While reading this book I was reminded of another adult fairy tale that I'll read and talk about next week.
Read Paulo Coelho's blog

Friday, November 21, 2008

Campaign Finale

The election is finally over, and no matter who your candidate was you will have to agree that history has been made. I have been somewhat of a political junkie for the past few months, reading blogs and watching news channels, but I'm relieved to be able now to take a deep breath and let go of my obsession. I found a good finale to this chapter of my life in the November 17th issue of The New Yorker. This issue, with its stirring cover picture of the Lincoln Memorial, contains several excellent articles about the campaign. Ryan Lizza's “Battle Plans” analyzes Obama's campaign strategy and David Grann's “The Fall” is a fascinating look at the choices John McCain made in his run for the presidency. I was touched by Roger Angell's reminiscence about a black Harvard college classmate born too soon to have the opportunities that Obama's generation did.

But I was especially interested in David Remnick's thoughtful piece “The Joshua Generation”. The title refers to a line in a speech Barack Obama made at the funeral of Rosa Parks in March of 2007 in Selma, Alabama. He had just recently announced his candidacy, and the church was full of older civil-rights leaders who had walked in voting rights marches before he was born. Obama refers to them respectfully as the “Moses generation” and characterizes himself as a member of the “Joshua generation”. “I'm here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants,” he said.

Remnick uses this moment as the starting point for his thoughtful study of the role of race in the shaping of the candidate and his campaign. Much of his information about Obama's early life comes from his two autobiographies (“Dreams from My Father” and “The Audacity of Hope”), but Remnick also talked to many of his friends and associates both inside and outside the campaign itself. What emerges is the portrait of a man shaped both by his unique identity as the child of a mixed race couple living in Hawaii and by his calm temperament. Oddly, the fact that he often felt like an outsider in both black and white worlds seemed to make him able to relate to both groups. Remnick discusses the early times in the campaign, when many blacks were reluctant to support a candidate who seemed to have little chance of beating Clinton and who was perhaps “not black enough”, and how the Obama team changed that dynamic by his early primary victories. Remnick spoke to many African-American figures – Colin Powell, Al Sharpton, Charlayne Hunter-Gault – about their own experiences and how they have shaped their opinions of the Obama candidacy. In the end he concludes that Obama's success came from his ability to lead the Joshua generation of his race – he had “simultaneously celebrated identity and pushed it into the background”.

To view this issue online go to The New Yorker website at It's easy and free to become a digital subscriber.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

No More Lost Weekends

I've got to stop reading like this! When I first started training to run a marathon I had to do a lot of miles on a treadmill. I quickly figured out that it would be a lot less boring if I were listening to an audio book which I started to do. And then I figured out that the best kind of book for that situation (at least for me) was a mystery book. I had to pay close attention so that I wouldn't miss any details or plot twists thereby distracting myself from any pain or boredom. The "unintended consequence" was that I actually started to look forward to my workouts on the treadmill to continue with the story. But for any one session I was always limited by what my lungs and legs would withstand.

So when we started this blog I thought that I would continue to read some mysteries. But without the imposed physical limitations of the treadmill I find myself lost for days at a time with these books. The latest culprit was The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson: 465 pages in less than 48 hours. This has to stop! There's laundry to do, cooking, bills to pay,...

This would make a great episode of "Cold Case". Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist recently convicted of libel, is hired by a wealthy industrialist to look again into the still-unsolved mystery of the disappearance of his beloved granddaughter forty years earlier. The girl of the book's title is the assistant that Blomkvist hires in his search. The book is set in Sweden, the author's home country, and was originally written in Swedish. The translation has kept many original Swedish words and place names, which can take some getting used to. It's not so hard to figure out in context that "tunnelbana" is the Swedish metro system or that the Konsum store is the equivalent of our Safeway, but there were many other words that I just passed over. There are four generations of the subject family involved and fortunately the author has included a diagram of the family tree. If all of that sounds negative, it isn't meant to be. This is a great read if you want to be distracted and have the time - or the self-discipline to take it in pieces. It has left me wondering why I even bother with the firewall on my computer.

This was the author's first novel. Unfortunately he died of a heart attack at age 50 just after submitting the manuscripts for this and two other novels.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Escaping Dysfunction

Jeannette Walls was, until recently, a writer for What many people did not know, until Jeannette Walls wrote “The Glass Castle”, a memoir of her childhood, was that Ms. Walls came from a nomadic, dysfunctional family. Her parents Rex and Rose Mary Walls were eccentric and shiftless, at best. Rex was a brilliant, charming man who could not hold a job because he had “a little bit of a drinking situation”. Rose Mary, a self proclaimed “excitement addict”, declared that “cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever”. And paint she did, while her four children had to fend for themselves. When three old Jeannette was attempting to cook hotdogs, her tutu like dress caught fire and she was so severely burned that she spent six weeks in the hospital and received skin grafts.

As the family moved, like nomads, through the southwest desert, Rex Wall promised his children that he would build them the “glass castle” the he had carefully designed and drafted. But as we read about these hapless children, the antics of the parents become infuriating. When Jeannette falls out of the backseat of one of their dilapidated cars the parents don’t even notice or respond to the screams of the other children. Jeannette had to sit on the side of the road, bruised and bloodied, until her parents realized she was missing. The family lands in Arizona in a house that Rose Mary’s mother owns, but when dad loses yet another job and the family is out of money or ideas they decide to return to Rex’s home town. It is the depressed and depressing town of Welch, West Virginia. We quickly understand why Rex never wanted to return. His family is unbelievably dysfunctional and weird. Jeannette and her family lived in a house with no bathroom, no heat and a roof that leaked. But, wherever the Walls children landed, they went to school and they thrived. Returning to Welch leads Rex Walls to drink himself to oblivion. Jeannette and her siblings learned how to survive and made plans to escape.

“The Glass Castle” is a story that proves that children are resilient and that regardless of the circumstances, children love their parents. At times it is very difficult to read about these people who should never have been parents, yet Jeannette Walls is able to write this story with a deep feeling of affection and understanding of her parents. Perhaps she is able to do so because what little they did give to her and her siblings, it was enough to give them the determination to break away from the poverty and dysfunction, and build a future for themselves.

Jeannette Walls has written a very good memoir with wonderful details, humor and pathos. It is a story that will leave you with the good feeling that people can overcome adversity and when they do, you can’t help wanting to cheer for them.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Young at Heart

I love reading fiction, but I'd like it to seem like fact. I've never been a fan of science fiction, I can only take magical realism in small doses, and I'm willing to suspend disbelief only if there's a really good reason for doing so. So why did I choose a book with the patently impossible premise that a person can be born looking like an old man and then age backwards towards infancy? That's the proposition Andrew Sean Greer asked me to accept in The Confessions of Max Tivoli. I was reluctant, because it seemed like such a gimmick. How could I stay interested in a character who couldn't possibly exist in real life? Wouldn't it be like reading a Superman comic book? But I had enjoyed his novel The Story of a Marriage very much (see my earlier blog) so I decided to give it a try.

Greer's opening sentence is “We are each the love of someone's life”. That is the beginning of the confession that Max Tivoli, an eleven year old boy sitting in a sandbox, is scribbling in his notebook on April 25, 1930. In the very first paragraph Max outlines the story he is about to tell: “There is a dead body to explain. A woman three times loved. A friend betrayed. And a boy long sought for”. And although Max looks to the world like a child, he is almost sixty years old. A pretty intriguing first page. Plus, Greer has again set his novel in San Francisco, this time at the turn of the century, so we are given some fascinating descriptions of how the city looked in Victorian times. And of course no San Francisco novel about this era would be complete without using the violent appearance of Mother Nature to move the plot along.

This is not the first novel I've read where a character felt trapped in the wrong body (remember Middlesex?), but imagine feeling the first adolescent stirrings of love and attraction when you look like a man over fifty. Poor Max longs for the lovely young Alice while her mother assumes his intentions are toward her. As time passes and Max grows physically younger as Alice grows older, their paths cross and recross. Greer sometimes has to strain to make his characters meet again, and they occasionally seem more of the modern era then they should. But he succeeds in creating a character who is much more than a freak of nature. The novel really is about love, and by the end I was much more aware of Max's humanity, with all its flaws, than his deformity.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Going Home

It was Robert Frost who said: "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." So it is in Marilynne Robinson's newest novel, Home. Robert Boughton, a Presbyterian minister, and his wife had eight children: 4 girls (Faith, Hope, Grace and Glory) and 4 boys (Luke, Dan, Jack and Teddy). (What do you notice?) There is now an extended family: six of the children are married, adding six in-laws, with twenty-two children. Six of them are married, with six more in-laws, and five grandchildren. At the beginning of the novel, the senior Mrs. Boughton is deceased and the retired Reverend Boughton has been living alone in the family home in Gilead, Iowa.

Then, Glory, the youngest, at age 38 returns home to live. She had moved away and been a high school English teacher for 13 years. The unhappy termination of a long-term romantic relationship brings her home. Once at home she takes over the housekeeping and care for her increasingly frail father and they begin to settle into their routine. Until Jack returns - Jack, the Prodigal Son. Jack had been missing for 20 years. No one knew if he were alive. He hadn't even come to his mother's funeral. He had been the typical ne'er-do-well child, at times a truant and a thief, and finally himself a father who abandons the unwed mother and child and leaves Gilead. For all that, as in the parable, Jack is the dearest to his father of them all, the one who is missed at all of the family gatherings and who is welcomed home by the Reverend with undisguised and unbounded joy. Even Glory, despite her initial hurt and resentment, is glad to have him back. As a child, she too had always sought unsuccessfully for the approval of her older brother.

Robinson by turns explores the relationship between each pair of these three principal characters. Each is complicated. Watching as Glory and Jack reveal themselves to each other, their hopes and heartaches, is especially moving. Their father's struggle with his love and his fear of losing this son is wrenching. The portrait of life in their small rural town in 1956 is beautifully drawn. I will be thinking about this book for a long time: What is sin? What is grace? What is home?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Boredom and Desperation in NYC

Don DeLillo is the author of the award winning “White Noise” and the recent best seller “Underworld”. Because I have often come across his name as one of our best contemporary writers I was interested in reading something he had written. I came across the short novel “Players” which was published in 1977. It was somewhat disconcerting to read this novel set in New York City in the 1970s. Pammy and Lyle Wynant are an attractive, affluent couple living in Manhattan who seem to have the perfect urban life. But Lyle and Pammy are besieged by boredom. Pammy “…hated her life. It was a minor thing though. A small bother.” Pammy works for the Grief Management Council, in the World Trade Center. From the height of her offices,"...she could detect the sweltering intensity (below), a slow roiling force. It moved up into the air, souls of the living.” In 2008 it is rather strange to read about the World Trade Center and souls of the living. Even stranger is the fact that Lyle works at the New York Stock Exchange, sees a man killed on the “floor”, and becomes involved with the terrorist group that is responsible for the man’s death.

Mr. DeLillo portrays his protagonists as zombies. Characters that do not feel. When Lyle gets involved with the terrorists by way of the “hot” secretary, Rosemary Moore, it feels surreal. He is going through the motions to feel something, to be part of something. Pammy leaves New York with their close friends, Jack and Ethan, a homosexual couple. When Pammy and Jack have sex on a secluded beach in Maine, it is so Pammy can feel something. When Jack kills himself, Pammy is again lost. After all that happens Lyle and Pammy remain “players” who are indifferent to the world around them, unable to feel.

Don DeLillo is a writer who is precise, witty and intelligent. His sentences and descriptions are stark. You easily understand that Don DeLillo can see a group, a generation, a type, and nail it in a few sentences. It is not surprising that this author has gone on to write award winning novels that have created a very large, faithful following.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Lab Life

If there was one area of study that never interested me when I was in college it was science. I took the absolute minimum (Chemistry 101) and muddled through it. I could never understand how my Lab Rat friends in their white coats could enjoy spending hours peering into microscopes. On the other hand, I love stories that give me a peek into a world I know nothing about. So would I enjoy a novel that took place in a research laboratory? I've enjoyed Allegra Goodman's short stories, so I decided to give it a try.

Intuition takes place in the fictional Philpott Institute in Cambridge in the mid 80's. We are quickly introduced to the large cast of characters – the post doc researchers struggling to make the discovery that will lead to a breakthrough in cancer treatment, and the lab directors Sandy and Marion, whose disparate personalities mesh to form solid leadership for the group. Sandy is a publicity-loving oncologist who wants the money and prestige that a new discovery will bring, and Marion is the meticulous PhD perfectionist who loves science for its own sake. When Cliff, a hardworking but somewhat unreliable researcher, claims that his virus R-7 is shrinking tumors in mice, the repercussions are felt by everyone at Philpott. And when his ex-girlfriend and fellow researcher Robin casts doubt on the accuracy of his results, the plot is set in motion. What follows is a page-turner of a story that sets the characters spinning in different directions.

Goodman's descriptions of the inner workings of a research lab, which I feared would be dry and clinical, were fascinating. And the exposure of the politics that are inevitably mixed with pure science was fascinating. But what was even more intriguing was her description of how a seed of doubt, once planted, is fed by the complex motives and loyalties of all the characters. Each action and reaction seems logical in itself, but they lead out of the lab and into NIH and even the halls of Congress. Though almost all the main characters are scientists, they are plagued with the universal emotions of jealousy, self-doubt, pride. Goodman doesn't give us heroes or villains, so my sympathies kept switching as events unfolded. Do I accept Cliff's intuition which led to his discovery, or is Robin's intuition correct that he manipulated his results? Like a good thriller, it kept me curious all the way to the end. So don't be put off by the clinical setting – this book will keep you interested even if you've always hated science.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Good News

This week I discovered a new book…and a new recipe…and they had a surprising similarity. The book was When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson and the recipe was Mashed Potatoes and Turnips with Roasted Pear Puree (Bon Appetit Nov 2004). How could they be similar?

Let’s start with the recipe. There are three main ingredients and each one is handled separately first before being combined with the others. The potatoes are peeled, boiled and mashed. The turnips are peeled, boiled and pureed. The pears are peeled, baked, caramelized and blended. Only then are the 3 ingredients combined – and, by the way, it’s delicious.

The book proceeds in much the same fashion. In separate chapters we are introduced to Dr. Joanna Hunter, Jackson Brodie, Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe and finally to Reggie Chase, the “chef” through whose agency all of the others will come together.

At first I found it very confusing but once the connections and narrative momentum started, it was hard to put the book down. If this novel had a sub-title it would have to be: “Just because a terrible thing happened to you once didn’t mean it couldn’t happen again.” Mayhem and tragedy abound. But so do love and affection.

The novel should please readers who like a good whodunit (but be forewarned: not all of the loose ends are neatly tied up). And it will provide much pleasure and many “Aha” moments to those of a more literary bent as it is filled with quotations, lines of poetry, Latin references, famous titles, Scripture, movie allusions and nursery-rhymes – few of which are identified as such. There is something for everyone. I could only laugh when I came to the section: “There were ten in the bed…And the little one said, ‘Roll over, roll over.’” And wish my language skills were better for “Nada y Pues Nada.”

I haven’t said anything about the plot. There is enough to satisfy: murder, mistaken identity, coincidence, and unexpected twists. Although by some reports Atkinson has said that this is the last of three Jackson Brodie thrillers (after Case Histories and One Good Turn), we can always hope that she will change her mind.

Friday, October 31, 2008


When you buy a used book you hold an object with a history you will never know. How many people have held and read this book before you, and what was going on in their lives as they read it? I asked myself those questions when I opened a used copy of The All of It by Jeannette Haien. Here's the inscription I found on the inside cover: “Hannilie – This is a quince of a book – one of a kind like Isak Dinesen's. I hope the hurting has stopped & that you can savour this timeout. Pick”. Wow! First of all, what kind of names are Hannilie and Pick? How can a book be like a quince? And was Hannilie hurting because Pick had just dumped her (euphemistically known as a “timeout”), or was she taking time off from work to recover from foot surgery and her loyal friend Pick was providing her with reading material? And did she in fact “savour” this book?

Well... she might have. This slim volume (145 pages) is really a long short story. And 'story' is definitely the right word for it, since the bulk of the book is the story that widow Enda Dennehy tells Father Declan as they sit by the body of her late husband Kevin in the remote village of Roonatellin on the western coast of Ireland, where the couple has lived for over 50 years. Except that Kevin is not her husband. He has revealed this secret to the priest on his deathbed, but it is left to Enda to tell “the all of it” as they sit through a long afternoon waiting for mourners to arrive. Bracketing Enda's story is another one that at first seems unrelated. Father Declan is attempting to catch a fish. It's a cold rainy day, the midges are biting, and the priest is using every lure in his arsenal to try to land a salmon. His reverie as he fishes leads us into Enda and Kevin's story, and near the book's end we are returned to the priest on the riverbank. He struggles to balance his sympathy for Enda with his need to condemn her sin.

Haien's style is subtle and elegant. She asks hard questions about what it means to lead a moral life, and about what compromises life can impose. There is also much humor in the book, and beautiful descriptions of rugged coast of County Mayo. I don't know what “hurting' Hannilie was hoping to escape, but I think this book has the subtle power to distract her from pains, whether physical or emotional.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Through the Eyes of a Child

If I could remember the source that directed me to this book, I would definitely go back for more. Call It Sleep by Henry Roth is an extraordinary book on many levels. Roth came to the US in 1909 when he was three and lived in the slums on the Lower East Side. He attended City College of New York and published this novel in 1934. But that was a time when books were hard to sell and, despite critical acclaim, the book virtually disappeared. For reasons that I didn't explore, the paperback version was published in 1964 and sold millions of copies. It was the first paperback ever to be reviewed on the front page of the NY Times Book Review.

No surprise: the narrative is set in 1907 - 1909 on the Lower East Side. For 441 pages, we follow the fortunes and misfortunes of Albert and Genya Schearl and their son David. They are recently arrived Jewish immigrants. Albert is angry and brutal; Genya mild and loving. You wonder how they came to be wed - a secret revealed toward the end of the book. The narrator is 7-year-old David. Roth has done a masterful job of taking the reader inside David's head to view the world in all its terror, magic and mystery as seen by a young boy. Many passages read like a stream of consciousness moving, leaping in half completed phrases from one thought to another. If you have been the parent of a boy this age, you will know just how accurate this is. More than once I found myself smiling with recognition.

It's a wonder that any child survives the cruelties of his fellows and even of adults. In his efforts to fit in to his new country and to find friends, David has been hurt and disappointed so many times that his mantra becomes: don't trust, don't trust, don't trust. His only solace is from his mother (and hers from him).

I should pause here to say that one of the significant features of this book is the way in which Roth succeeds in portraying the many language variations in this population. Imagine trying to write the sounds of broken English with a New York accent. It is really quite funny - and fun - to decode the meaning. It is almost like translating a foreign language. And then, when David goes to Hebrew school, there really is a foreign language. A knowledge of Hebrew and Yiddish would definitely add another level of enjoyment to reading this book but there is more than enough to satisfy the non-Jewish reader. As David is introduced to some of the biblical stories, we see him struggle to understand the concept of God and angels. For any adult working with young children it is a caution to keep in mind how literally a child hears and interprets what we say. For a sensitive child with an over-active imagination, there can be dangerous consequences. For David, it came with the story of Isaiah. In seeking his own religious experience, in trying to find the "light", David risks great physical harm. Roth's language and technique in this episode are quite literally poetic.

For all its length, this is a book that can make the hours of a long flight fly by (no pun intended). And in the Afterword, there is a very interesting discussion of the difference between bilingualism and diglossia! Although Roth published other works much later in his life, this is his masterpiece. I am so glad that I found this book.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Killing Mom Was Easy

Alice Sebold’s first novel “Lovely Bones” is the story of the rape and murder of a young girl narrated by the girl herself from the grave. This novel was very well received and although I liked the novel, most people and critics really loved this book. Her second novel “Almost Moon” deals with a topic as difficult as "Lovely Bones". Alice Sebold has a knack of drawing you into her stories from the very first page. “Almost Moon” begins with the sentence, “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.”

The story takes place over 24 hours, as Helen Knightly, the narrator and divorced mother of two grown daughters, begins by relating how this gruesome act of murdering her mother came to be. From there, she begins to reflect on her strange life and how it brought her to kill her mother. It is an interesting, if not sometimes incoherent story. Poor Helen grew up in a house with a mother who never left the house without blankets or towels over her head and that didn’t happen unless absolutely necessary, and a father who adored his wife, spent time in a psychiatric facility and ultimately killed himself in front of his wife. Growing up Helen glibly referred to her mother as “crazy”. But, when Helen had to confront a group of angry neighbors, alone, for something unspeakable that her mother had done she found refuge with the kindly neighbor, Mr. Forest. He gave the sixteen year old Helen a drink and told her, “You know, Helen, your mother is mentally ill”. It was the first time Helen could put a real name on what was wrong with her family.

What Helen did after she murdered her mother becomes somewhat bizarre. She puts her mother in the freezer, calls her ex-husband in California who immediately comes to her rescue after many years of separation, and has sex with her best friend’s son. Helen is on a roll, and we’re not sure where she is going with all this. There is definitely an element of suspense in this story as we wonder whether Helen will get away with this strange murder. The story itself is Helen looking back on her life and trying to justify what she did. But as the events unfold and the reader comes to the end of the story the only thing that emerges as true is that Helen killed her mentally ill mother because the Helen we have come to know is as mentally ill as her mother. After reading Alice Sebold’s two novels I have come to the conclusion that Ms. Sebold is clearly dealing with some demons of her own.

Remembering Adolescence

Lorrie Moore is a writer recommended by Louise Erdrich, and this summer I read her book, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? The title alone made it worth reading and this short novel has both fans and critics. Berie Car, in the midst of a failing marriage, remembers her best friend Sils, and their last summer together in a small Adirondack tourist town. Life was thrilling, ordinary, sweet and bitter, all experienced in a "bleakly funny state of suspended collapse." As an awkward, skinny, yearning 15 year old, she rejects her family, and idolizes Sils, who is sassy, prettier, and sexually precocious. Berie recalls Sils in a series of flashbacks. They work together in an amusement park, Berie as a cashier, Sils as Cinderella. They are irreverent, wild, curious and rebellious, stealing in to a local bar, sneaking cigarettes. When Sils becomes pregnant, Berie develops a plan to fund the inevitable abortion. But she is caught filching money at the amusement park and is shipped off to a summer camp. We then fast-forward abruptly to her adult life in a failing marriage, and this brief part seems disconnected and unrelated to Berie's adolescent feelings and perceptions.

Moore's writing, and the clarity of Berie's memories, from cottage cheese for breakfast, to the emotional details of Berie's experience of lost innocence is the writer's strength. She uses droll wordplay humorously at times and also evokes genuine sadness. It's a bitter, often funny hymn to lost adolescence and a poignant tale. Moore skillfully illuminates an awareness of how life's significant events can often prove disappointingly anticlimactic. I thought about her memories and perceptions of these events for a long time after reading this book, remembering my own adolescence. As a result, I look forward to reading more of Lorrie Moore's books.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Amongst the Irish

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”' As we all know, that's the first line of Anna Karenina. But I wonder...did Tolstoy know any Irish families? The Irish seem produce a very specific type of dysfunctional family. It's not hard to find a common threads of misery in families described by Frank McCourt, Roddy Doyle, Edna O'Brien and even Irish-American Eugene O'Neill. Here are the broad strokes: the father is an angry embittered bully; the wives and daughters are cowering doormats; the sons either escape to England or are crushed by the weight of their father's cruelty.

So why did I decide to read an Irish author? That's the other side of the coin – the Irish are wonderful writers. Their contribution to world literature is disproportionate to their small island's population. Joyce, Beckett, Wilde, Shaw – the list is long and distinguished. But I had never heard of John McGahern until a friend recommended him. Like many of his predecessors McGahern had his problems with his native country. His book The Dark was banned there because of its frank depiction of sex and of abuse by the clergy, and as a result he lost his teaching position.

McGahern's best known book, which was nominated for the Booker prize in 1990 (Possession by A.S. Byatt won), is Amongst Women. The tyrant father is widower Michael Moran, who fought heroically for the IRA during the Irish War for Independence, and seems to have been nursing a grudge ever since (“Anything easy and pleasant aroused deep suspicion”).. He has retreated to his small farm of Great Meadow in rural Ireland near Sligo, where he raises his five children, disgusted with the “crowd of small-minded gangsters “ who now run the country. As the story opens the eldest son Luke has already left for England to escape his father's brutality, and the remaining four survive by learning to read his moods and keep their heads down - “all they had ever been able to do in the face of violence was to bend to it.”

Moran marries again, to the much younger Rose, and she provides a buffer between the children and their father's anger, even as she endures his malevolence without complaint. I mean, the woman is a saint. We follow the lives of the remaining four children as they leave home and make their own lives in London and Dublin. The youngest son challenges his father's power and thus escapes his domination. But the three daughters retain a fierce tribal loyalty to their father. They make frequent return visits to Great Meadow, sometimes trailing boyfriends, spouses and children who all fall short in Moran's estimation. What draws them back? The beauty of the rural landscape certainly appeals to them. But more than that, their isolated childhood under the sway of a bullying father seems to have created among them a sort of secret society even more powerful than their Catholicism. The father is eventually overwhelmed and diminished by the sheer persistence of his daughters' devotion.

Catholic readers will no doubt recognize that the title refers not just to the females in the household but to the words of Hail Mary, recited nightly as part of the mandatory Rosary that Moran leads. His women are complex – strong and weak, stubborn and bending – always drawn to a man they love and fear. McGahern has created a fierce angry patriarch – an Irish King Lear whose kingdom is his obstinant spirit. Even as I gritted my teeth with annoyance at this pig-headed jerk, I admired McGahern's ability to create a living, breathing universe with his spare prose.