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.