Monday, June 30, 2008
Sunday, June 29, 2008
The book is written in the style of a novel and it is a very engaging read. However, it is also a difficult read in the sense that it approaches each novel from an analytical standpoint. Mr. Mendelson is a renowned author and critic and this book is very academic and erudite. He treats each author with great respect and feels that these five authors have much to tell us about life. He expects us read each novel carefully and consider the wisdom generously given by each of these authors because they can help us to understand “the things that matter”.
This book would be a wonderful asset when reading each of these novels individually. I’m sure it will be used in many classrooms to teach these great novels. And, any discussion about each of these novels would be greatly enhanced by reading Mr. Mendelson’s chapter on that novel. This book reminds us why we love to read and why great novels matter and last!
Friday, June 27, 2008
Last Night at the Lobster is a small book that tells a small story. The Red Lobster restaurant located next to a somewhat shabby mall in suburban Connecticut is about to close. Despite the best efforts of manager Manny DeLeon, the restaurant has been under performing and corporate headquarters has decided to shut it down. It is five days before Christmas and Manny and his employees must serve one last lunch and dinner. Five of them, including Manny, have been offered jobs at the Olive Garden in the next town, but the rest will be laid off. So it's up to Manny to cajole his disgruntled crew to rise to the occasion one last time and serve their customers. He also is struggling to deal with the ex-girlfriend waitress he's still in love with, and the selection of a Christmas gift for his pregnant current girlfriend.
Author Stewart O'Nan has been called “the bard of the working class” and this book displays his empathy for the struggles of the restaurant crew, especially Manny. The story follows Manny's last day from the moment he pulls into the parking lot behind the restaurant to the moment he drives out of the mall in a snowstorm that night. His devotion to his job and to the restaurant itself is touching. We can sense his fondness for everything from the Frialators to the fiberglass marlin. And he is devoted to his family of employees as well. He tries to inspire them even as he senses their resentment of their jobs and maybe even of him. He wants to please his customers, even though there's no hope for return business. He knows how foolish he seems but he can't help himself. Just as he can't help his continued longing for his former girlfriend Jacquie. Even as a blizzard blows in and his employees walk out in the middle of their shifts, Manny refuses to close early and holds out hope for a few more customers.
O'Nan's descriptions of the ebb and flow of the restaurant life ring true. The hectic activity as food is prepared, tables are served, dishes are washed seems to occur in real-time. There's even some humor in the description of an oblivious mother and her obnoxious toddler. But his greatest talent is in his honest, sympathetic portrayal of a decent man struggling to do his job and to offer kindness to the people around him. I hope the people at the Olive Garden will appreciate him.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
What do these have in common:
- Male CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are as a group 3 inches taller than the average American male.
- Two-officer police cars provide no more safety to the officers than one-officer cars – and 2-officer teams are more likely to have complaints filed against them than an officer on his own.
- There are about 3,000 different meaningful facial expressions.
- There are really only 4 factors that are meaningful to an ER doctor in assessing a patient with chest pain for a heart attack.
- Since audition screens were introduced 30 years ago, the number of women in the top
Answer: These are all examples discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s book blink The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Gladwell is probably better known for his book The Tipping Point. If the latter can be said to have dealt with the external, then blink is about the internal – what Gladwell calls “thin-slicing” or the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience. It’s the “unconscious” part that makes this book so frightening.
Gladwell has set himself 3 tasks: to convince us that “decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately”; to help us determine when we can trust our instincts and when we should be wary of them; and thirdly, to convince us that “our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled.”
One of the most shocking and memorable examples to which Gladwell returns often is an actual war game staged by the Pentagon in August 2002 called Millennium Challenge ’02. It makes the subsequent events in
There are also explanations for the killing of Amadou Diallo and the beating of Rodney King that you probably didn’t read in the media of the time – at least I didn’t.
I was surprised by the ending of the book – it seemed so abrupt. I was still waiting for the “how to”. Gladwell convinced me that there are subtle forces at work altering, undermining and biasing my unconscious; but I am less confident about my ability to control those forces.
Monday, June 23, 2008
Sunday, June 22, 2008
“Out Stealing Horses” is the story of Trond, a sixty six year old Norwegian man who has left his life behind, after his wife dies, and has gone to live in a secluded cabin in the forests of Norway. Here he looks back on his life and tries to understand the succession of events that evolved over the last summer he spent with his father in a remote village during the German occupation of Norway. As we discussed the story we examined the incidents that happened to try to understand the clues the writer gives us. Was the kiss that Trond witnessed that summer between his friend Jon’s mother and Trond’s father a goodbye kiss? Why didn’t Trond’s father tell him about the resistance activities? When the letter came to Trond’s family from his father, saying goodbye, Why didn’t Trond tell his mother about his father’s affair with Jon‘s mother? Trond was stoic and reticent. But, Why didn’t Trond ever attempt to find his father? He seemed to shut down, yet he states, “I have been lucky.“ (in my life).
The phrase “Out Stealing Horses” was a double euphemism for the dangerous game Trond played with his friend Jon and for the dangerous resistance activities that his father and Jon’s mother were involved in during the German occupation. Tragedy visits Jon’s family that summer and precipitates the ruptures that fracture both families. Trond, his father and Jon all subsequently leave their families. But, many years later in the remote forest where Trond has settled he meets Lars, Jon’s brother. The two old men finally recognize each other but true to form they do not speak about the things that happened so long ago during that summer. Trond states, “I did not have the courage to ask the question. Did you take the place [with my father] that was rightfully mine”?
In the solitude of his life Trond has read “David Copperfield” and like David Copperfield he asks the question, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” And,this is the theme of the novel------Did Trond finally become the hero of his life?
Our book group really enjoyed this novel and had a very good discussion. Another blog on the beautiful imagery of this novel was written by Babbett. So much from one novel!
Friday, June 20, 2008
The only Nabokov I had ever read was Lolita. Then in the space of a week I encountered two of his short stories. The first was a previously unpublished short story called “Natasha” in the recent Summer Fiction issue of the New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2008/06/09/080609fi_fiction_nabokov). It was written in 1924. The second was the New Yorker podcast of “Symbols and Signs” read by writer Mary Gaitskill (http://www.newyorker.com/online/podcasts/fiction). This story, the first Nabokov story to appear in he New Yorker. was published in May of 1948. The podcast (“Sign Language” 6/2/08) is especially interesting because Gaitskill discusses Nabokov and why she admires his writing. Hearing this discussion helped me better appreciate “Natasha” as well.
“Symbols and Signs” begins as an older Russian émigré couple travel to visit their son. It is his birthday and he is mentally ill and confined in a sanitarium. The journey is difficult and when they arrive they are not permitted to see him since he has recently attempted suicide. They return home disheartened, and late that night the husband decides that they must bring the boy home to live with them. As they discuss this they are interrupted by telephone calls. The first two are wrong numbers. The story ends as the phone rings for the third time. The reader is left to wonder whether this call is another wrong number or the hospital calling about their son.
When Gaitskill discussed this story she talked about the fact that in a great short story there is a second, larger story hidden behind and sometimes bleeding through the first. In this case there are hints that the damaged son is not the only heartbreak the couple has endured. The ordinary objects in the apartment suggest that this family has escaped the Holocaust and lost much of their family. Is the son's madness connected to these traumatic events?
“Natasha”, written when Nabokov was a young man, is also about displaced Russian émigrés, Natasha and her ailing father Alexey. They live in a modest apartment in Berlin where the girl cares for her father. Their neighbor, the aptly named Baron Wolfe, is infatuated with Natasha and convinces her to leave her father briefly for an outing in the country. Natasha and Baron live in both the real world and their fantasy worlds. Baron's involves his imagined travels to exotic places while Natasha's concerns her ecstatic visions. Even the father has visions, although his are more dark - he mistakes a luminous clock dial for the muzzle of a rifle. The story ends with Natasha's final vision and its collision with reality.
I think the larger story is the way in which the human imagination distracts (or protects? or hides?) us from harsh reality. Is self deception, in the form of spirituality or just tall tales, a part of the human condition that we all share?
A new edition of "The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov" will be published later this year. I'm looking forward to it.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Why would an acclaimed author of award-winning novels (awards including the Man Booker prize) choose to write other works under a pen name? More specifically, why would John Banville, author of The Sea which won the prize in 2005, be writing crime novels under the name of Benjamin Black? The Sea is a beautifully written work that we read as a group in March 2007. So when I read a publication announcement for The Silver Swan by Black/Banville I thought it would be a great choice: good writing and a good whodunit. Disclaimer: I am not well- or widely-read in mysteries much less crime novels.
But I can say now with certainty that if I had read The Silver Swan first, I never would have been interested enough to invest more time with this author for The Sea. If I were Banville, I would write these 2 types under different names, also. Is that being a literary snob?
The Silver Swan, set in
I was disappointed in the writing and could have done without the detail of the pornographic photographs but I will remember that Isadora Duncan, the dancer, died from having her scarf caught in the back axle of a sports car and broke her neck.
If you have a favorite mystery/crime novel author to recommend, please leave a Comment and I’ll try again. Or maybe I will revisit the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries of Dorothy Sayers and see if they are as I remember them from thirty years ago.
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Friday, June 13, 2008
Amy Bloom's novel Away reminds me of the Odyssey. When the story opens in 1924 her main character Lillian Leyb has recently arrived in New York from Odessa, where her entire family was murdered in a pogrom. The early chapters tell the familiar story of a plucky young woman who uses her looks and her wits to improve her circumstances. She starts out as a seamstress in a successful Yiddish theater on the Lower East Side, but soon becomes the mistress to both the father who owns the operation and the son who is the handsome leading man. But the story, which is starting to sound like Sister Carrie, takes a sudden turn. Lillian begins an amazing journey that takes her across the United States and into the wilds of Alaska. Her harebrained plan is to travel across the Bering Strait and return to her native Russia. With maps sewn into pockets of her jacket and a will of iron she begins a journey that rivals Odysseus's struggle to reach Ithaca. Along the way, just as Odysseus encounters the Cyclops, Circe and the Sirens, Lillian endures many hardships and meets a host of unusual characters. She travels across the United States in the broom closet of a train with the help of some none too kindly porters. In the slums of Seattle she is rescued by an enterprising black prostitute named Gumdrop and becomes her unlikely lady's maid. As Lillian trudges through the forests of the Yukon Bloom gives us beautiful descriptions of the stark beauty of the remote landscape.
Bloom's descriptions of the kind and not-so-kind strangers Lillian meets on her journey are beautifully done. Even minor characters seem vividly real. Strangely, Lillian herself sometimes seems less accessible than the other characters. Her strength and her love for her daughter are obvious, but I often felt distanced from her emotional core. Maybe Bloom meant to represent the way Lillian was forced to shut down her emotions as a result of the horrible deaths of her family. Nonetheless, I admired and enjoyed this beautifully written story of Lillian's amazing odyssey and the power of her love.
Sunday, June 8, 2008
“Divisadero” begins in the 1970’s in the northern California town of Petaluma. Two mothers die in childbirth, and the father of one of the infant girls, Anna, takes home the other infant, Claire. A third child, a boy named Coop, who had lost his family in a tragedy, had been taken in by the father and the deceased mother to help on the farm. So formed this makeshift family until an act of unspeakable violence divides and separates them forever.
Anna and Coop each run to escape the violence. Coop to a dangerous life in the casinos of Nevada and Tahoe. Anna, eventually, to a life as a literary scholar that leads her to the south of France. Clair, the one left behind, becomes a legal assistant in San Francisco, who lives on Divisadero St. The title “Divisadero” means "distance, division and the street in San Francisco". All three definitions play a part in the intricate themes Ondaatje has woven together in this complicated story.
The story shifts from northern California to southern France where Anna is researching the life of 20th century poet, Lucien Segura. The life of Lucien Segura becomes the focus of the second half of the book. To the reader it is not clear how the second half of the book is related to the first. But there are many parallels between the realistic, dramatic first half and the poetic, romantic story of Lucien Segura that involves gypsies and the drama and sadness of World War I. The characters in the second story, set in rural France, faintly remind the reader of the relationship of the three children growing up in rural California. All of the characters are looking for a sense of healing and shelter.
Michael Ondaatje has written several books of poetry and the second part of “Divisadero” echoes his poetic genius. “Divisadero” is a book that would easily warrant a second reading to fully appreciate the subtlety of Ondaatje’s writing and the parallels between the two stories. “Divisadero” is a story that will entice readers who enjoy a well told, well written, intricate story with unforgettable characters.
Friday, June 6, 2008
We all have authors who really resonate for us, and others whom we just don't get. It's not a matter of literary talent; it's just a matter of personal taste. I know I should like Louise Erdrich – she's certainly a talented and respected author – but for some reason her writing doesn't grab me. I used to enjoy reading Annie Proulx, but after reading her two latest New Yorker short stories all I can say is – get that woman some Prozac, she is way too bleak and depressing, even for someone like me who enjoys the darker stuff.
On the other hand we all have authors who just seem to speak our language, and we have a soft spot for them. For me Richard Ford falls into that category. The main character of his latest book The Lay of the Land is Frank Bascombe. Frank first appeared in The Sportswriter, recently divorced and mourning the death of his oldest child. In Independence Day Frank, who had switched from writing to real estate in suburban New Jersey, attempted to reconnect with his teenage son on a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame over a Fourth of July weekend. In The Lay of the Land Frank is still selling real estate, but he has left suburban Haddam and moved to the Jersey shore. He is now in his fifties, dealing with prostate cancer, and mourning the loss of his second wife who has left him to return to her first husband. The story takes place around Thanksgiving, as Frank attempts to gather his two grown children and his first wife for a holiday dinner at his beach home. The year is 2000, so the background music is the contested presidential election. Frank's appeal for me is ordinariness and his honesty. He recognizes his own failures and, although he sometimes spends too long ruminating about his philosophy of life and the rigors of middle age, his earnest attempts to know his children better are touching but not sentimental. Ford has a great ear for dialogue and a wicked sense of humor. His description of Frank's barroom brawl in Revolutionary War roadhouse tavern is vivid and hilarious. Frank is not an heroic character, but I have grown to admire his solid, reliable sincerity.
So who is the author you can't help loving or can't love?
PS There's a great podcast of Richard Ford reading a John Cheever short story. Look for New Yorker:Fiction on iTunes - “The Reunion” May 3, 2007
Monday, June 2, 2008
Sunday, June 1, 2008
The stories follow on overall plan, beginning with four stories about childhood, narrated by children. They progress in order to adolescence, maturity, public life and end with a story called “The Dead”. “The Dead” has also been classified as a novella and was adapted as a film, directed by John Huston. It was my favorite story because the characters were more fully developed and the story had a universal theme. Gabriel Conroy is attending a boisterous family party when he realizes that his wife has a secret that has haunted her throughout their marriage. All of the stories in “Dubliners” center on a moment when the main character has what Joyce feels is an epiphany. The characters arrive at a time of self-awareness. Something happens in the story that makes a difference in their lives. All of the stories have a bleakness about them. Alcohol and frustration play important roles in many of these stories.
“Eveline”, another story I especially liked, is from the late adolescence group. A young woman falls in love with a sailor and plots to escape her life in Dublin against the wishes of her father. Joyce writes as a neutral observer describing in simplistic language what the protagonist is doing. James Joyce had a gift of writing simple, realistic prose. His dialogue is short and to the point. His descriptions of the characters and events are beautifully written, although some of the words and phrases are unfamiliar to contemporary readers. The characters in Joyce’s “Dubliners” are often sad or lost, but the writing compels the reader on, to find out what will happen to them.
James Joyce is a legend, acclaimed by many as one of the world’s great writers. Although, reading the “Dubliners” is not an uplifting experience, it is well worth the time to experience writing that has survived over a hundred years and is still being read in literature classes, and by many for the simple pleasure of reading good literature.