Friday, May 30, 2008


In 2004 when the National Book Award finalists for fiction were announced there was much grumbling in the literary world. The finalists were all women, and none was widely read. The New York Times critic Edward Wyatt complained that Christine Schutt's first novel Florida had been read by only about 150 people. In an interview two weeks later with Deborah Solomon, Schutt set the number slightly higher - “at least 1,099 copies”. Schutt didn't win the award – it went to the equally obscure Lily Tuck for The News from Paraguay – but her novel found a wider audience and was even published in paperback.

The story is told in a fragmented, impressionistic way by the narrator Alice Fivey. Alice lives with her eccentric widowed mother until the age of ten, when her mother's increasingly unstable behavior causes her relatives to pack her off to “the San” in Florida. Alice is then shuttled between various wealthy relatives. The childless Uncle Billy and Aunt Frances take her in, but they are far more interested in their possessions than in their niece. She also lives with her bedridden grandmother who is unable to speak due to a stroke. Her one anchor is Arthur, the family retainer who offers Alice the valuable gift of his time and attention. Eventually the adult Alice reconnects with her mother, and attempts to sort out her childhood memories.

What separates Florida from the standard melodramatic tale of an orphaned and abandoned child is the beauty of Schutt's prose. The spare, elegant chapters often read like poems, When the ten year old Alice describes the scenes of her childhood, they have a muddled dream-like quality that rings true. The adult Alice's voice is more clear-eyed and more wry, but adult and child voices share the same lonely intensity. This short spare book is a tribute to the power of language and memory.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Faraway Fiction

Many of us are fascinated by putting ourselves into another time and place, imagining life in another context. In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, author Lisa See does just that, taking the reader and the characters into rural 19th century China.
Expressing herself in the language patterns and through the lens of attitudes of women of that time, the protagonist Snow Flower tells us of the life of a village woman from childhood into old age. While most of us in the West are familiar with the customs of foot binding and arranged marriages, the book includes unfamiliar ones such as secret writing among females and formal sworn sisterhoods. Some of this gives the impression of revisionist history, ancient Chinese life viewed by contemporary women looking for signs of incipient feminism. But the special writing language invented by women not permitted to become literate has recently been documented. The book has been so well researched that one has to conclude that it is accurate in other areas as well.
The prose, full of flowery metaphor, often seems formulaic as it speaks in the rhythms of old Chinese writings. And the author tells us too much rather than letting us interpret situations ourselves. Overall, this is an interesting read during which you'll learn more about that time, although as we say in Book Club, " it's not great literature".

A Natural Selection

For several years now I have considered reading Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle but have put it off thinking it would require an extra intellectual effort beyond what I was willing to invest in recreational reading. So when I came across The Darwin Conspiracy by John Darnton I thought from the descriptions on the book jacket that I might have found a good compromise: “…novel of gripping suspense and scientific conquest…page-turning historical mystery that brilliantly explores the intrigue behind Darwin and his theory of evolution.”

The author starts from Thomas Carlyle’s view that history is “…the distillation of rumor.” Apparently the actual historical record regarding Darwin and the development of his theory has some gaps and it is these gaps that the author has set out to fill in his novel.

There are actually three alternating and interwoven stories. One is the actual voyage of Darwin on the Beagle; a second is the correspondence and journals of Darwin’s daughter Lizzie from a later period in Darwin’s life; and the third is about a pair of modern-day researchers whose area of interest is Darwin.

The first story has just enough history and science to interest and inform but not overwhelm. Imagine my delight in finding that the second thread includes correspondence between Lizzie and her friend Mary Anne Evans (aka George Eliot) and a reference to Middlemarch! And the third has the predictable competitors turned lovers turned allies.

It was as the cover promised " entertaining fast-paced read." But the question lingers: did Darwin really appropriate his theory of natural selection from someone else as the book describes?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Quirky Place in Brooklyn

Paul Auster’s novel “The Brooklyn Follies” was our book club’s choice for the month of May. Paul Auster was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1947 and has written many novels. He has a great following, almost in the sense of a cult following. He is best known for his three experimental detective stories. Although most of his novels have a sense of bleakness, “The Brooklyn Follies” has been acclaimed as his most uplifting novel.

Most of the readers in our group liked the zany cast of characters. Nathan Glass, the hero-protagonist, has come to Brooklyn to die and to write “The Book Of Human Folly” which will “set down in the simplest, clearest language possible an account of every blunder, every pratfall, every embarrassment, (etc., etc.), (he) has committed in his long, checkered career as a man”. But, what happens to Nathan is that he becomes totally involved in the lives of the people he meets in this wonderful, quirky neighborhood. Nathan finds his long lost nephew, Tom, who is working for Harry Brightman, the charismatic, wildly eccentric owner of a thriving neighborhood bookstore. Through Tom and Harry, Nathan meets the other rather colorful characters in the story, including the Perfect Beautiful Mother aka P.B.M. and a long lost great niece who refuses to talk. There are several intriquing, amusing subplots in the story, one which involves a forgery, another which revolves around a sperm bank.

The author uses a different technique in “The Brooklyn Follies”. He cedes the story control to Nathan, who is a bad writer. Nathan’s writing is plagued with cliches and contrived or pedestrian language. But, the author has a reason for this switch. He needs Nathan to speak with a truly honest voice, deluding himself and keeping things moving along in a haphazard sort of way. The story moves along to a grand finale, so to speak, a happy ending for a happy man. Although, we were not sure why, on the last page, Auster injected the reference to Sept.11,2001, except that it was the last time people were able to be genuinely carefree and happy. It was simply a more frivolous time.

Most readers really enjoyed the book, although some thought it was just too contrived, with the perfect happy ending. The critics have called it Paul Auster’s warmest, most exuberant novel, a tribute to the glories of ordinary human life.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Family Matters

When Australian writer Christina Stead's novel The Man Who Loved Children was first published in 1940 it sold poorly and was soon out of print. Yet when Time published its critics list of 100 Best Novels (1923 to Present) in 2005, Stead's book made the list. What changed? The book gained popularity in literary circles and was reissued in 1965. The book hadn't changed but the world had. The concept of a dysfunctional family was certainly more acknowledged. And believe me, the Pollits are a dysfunctional family.

When we first see the family in 1936 in their large rundown house in Georgetown Sam and Henny's marriage is already in shambles. Sam is a mid-level bureaucrat at the Department of Interior and he is the children-loving man of the title. He regards himself as a sort of Super Dad, who directs his six children in household projects, lectures them on his theories of society, and chatters to them in his unique (and incredibly annoying) babytalk language. But the title is ironic. Sam is himself a narcissistic child and wants his children to serve only as his adoring fan club. Henny comes from a wealthy Baltimore family and has married beneath her. She is disappointed, angry and bitter, and though she is sometimes capable of being maternal, she is often cold and dismissive. The parents no longer communicate directly with each other, although they fight constantly and viciously. The oldest child Louisa, Sam's teenage daughter by a first wife who died young, receives more than her fair share of verbal abuse from both. But her clear-eyed view of the family drama was my anchor as I waded through this almost operatic story of a family's disintegration– all 527 pages.

So why read it? It's not for the fainthearted and you probably need to like train wrecks. But Stead is an amazing writer. Her prose reads like a modern novel even though it's over 60 years old. She has vivid descriptions of the chaotic ramshackle houses and gardens that are almost photographic in their details. It's no surprise that one of the cover blurbs is from Jonathan Franzen, author of his own dysfunctional family saga The Corrections (“This crazy, gorgeous family novel is one of the great literary achievements of the twentieth century”). Like Franzen's, Stead's novel is somewhat autobiographical, with Louie (Louisa), the aspiring artist, representing the author. That may explain how she is able to give such an accurate portrayal of the view of the family dynamic through the eyes of each of the six children caught in its maelstrom. This is the only kind of family they know and they are each molded by it in a different way. The Pollits are irritating, terrifying and unforgettable.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

St. Randy of Pittsburgh

Was it a true story or just another one of those urban legends: a young beloved college professor had been given a diagnosis of terminal cancer and had decided to give one last lecture to his students? It turns out to be true – and in one of the better uses of free online video sharing a recording of the lecture is available for anyone to watch. But before I could do that I picked up a copy of the book The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch thinking it would be a transcript of the lecture. That turned out not to be the case – but well worth reading in its own right.

The beloved college professor in question is Randy Pausch and he did give a final lecture at Carnegie Mellon in the Fall of 2007. The book fills in some of the background of his life, career and diagnosis as well as his decision to give this last lecture. Subsequent to giving the lecture Pausch had a series of 53 cell phone conversations with the book’s co-author, Jeffrey Zaslow, while riding his bike around the neighborhood as part of getting the required exercise. The book captures the essence of those conversations.

I have no reason not to believe that everything in the book is true; but if only a small fraction of it were so, this is a truly remarkable man. His students and colleagues have been given a very special gift in their associations with him. What to say about the loss to his 3 young children? But with this book he has left them (and us) a valuable testament and guide.

The actual recording of the lecture is available at Pausch’s website. There are several versions: I recommend watching the version on RealPlayer that is 1 hour and 44 minutes as it includes an introduction and some very special recognitions of Pausch after the speech. I also recommend that if possible you read the book first and then watch the lecture. I was especially gratified to learn of his special interest in getting young girls interested in math and science particularly computer science.

Pausch is now beyond the original 3 – 6 months that he was given to live but there is no reason to hope that he has escaped his sentence. And he continues to live and die in plain sight through his blog – also available through his website. What an inspiring example of how to live one’s life!

Update: Randy Pausch died in July 2008

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Words of Wisdom

“What Now?” is a wonderful essay by Ann Patchett the author of “Bel Canto” and other great stories. The essay/book is based on the commencement address that Ann Patchett gave at her alma mater, Sarah Lawrence, in 2006. Ann Patchett has given many graduation speeches but for this particular commencement speech she had fortuitously run into her former writing teacher and showed him her original speech. He told her to start over again. He told her to talk about herself and the struggles she encountered on the road to finding herself and her voice. The resulting speech was a great success and ended up in the hands of an editor who thought it would make a very good book. The book “What Now?” is the original speech and a little more.

Ann Patchett tells the story of how she became an award winning author. That story takes many interesting twists and turns. And at each twist and turn the inevitable question was “What Now?” Ms. Patchett writes that the question, “What Now?” stands for the journey as well as the destination. And, the journey is so much more than the destination. She reminds us that the journey can offer unknown possibilities and joys. The question can appear at any time in life although it is so ominous at the time of graduation. When Ann Patchett gave the book to her 86 year old mother-in-law, she read it and wanted copies for all her friends. She told Ann that “We’re going through a real period of What Now? ourselves. At our age we’re all wondering what’s going to happen next. The question is always there. It’s just that you hear it a little louder.”

This book would be a great present for any recent graduate. But, it is also a reminder for everyone that we are all capable of growing and changing at any age with that small question--------What now?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Picking a Green Apple

Before leaving on a trip I always visit my favorite neighborhood bookstore Green Apple Books ( . What are my book selection criteria? First of all, for the most practical of reasons, it has to be a paperback and it can't be too big. I also read the hand-written recommendations from employees posted in front of some books. I'm always interested in reading an author I haven't read before, and I often enjoy books written by poets (Reading In the Dark by Seamus Deane is a favorite). The book Little Beauties by Kim Addonizio passed all those tests – and I found a used copy for five bucks!

The novel, which is poet Addonizio's first, revolves around three main characters, and the chapters alternately reflect their perspectives. The first is Diana, a thirtysomething under-employed OCD sufferer whose husband has just left her. The second is Jamie, a pregnant seventeen year old who is ambivalent about what she wants for herself and for her child. And then there's Stella, Jamie's unborn child. Yes, that's right – every third chapter is narrated by this baby-to-be. She's easily the most stable of the three.

There are parts of this novel I admired. Addonizio seems to have a great understanding of what goes on in the head of an OCD sufferer. Diana's early chapters each begin with one of her Rules (“ Rule # 27:Wash any bedding that touches the floor”), and it's poignant to see how she struggles to escape the crippling effects of her ailment. Addonizio also does a good job of portraying the way damaged people are capable of helping other damaged people, But using an unborn/newborn to move the story along – doesn't that seem like cheating? And she resolves all the conflicts using a character who is a way too perfect and extremely attractive MALE. The ending ties up every loose end into a perfect bow, and I was left feeling that Addonizio could have done more with these complex characters. A good beach read (242 pages, large print, interesting cover) but a little disappointing.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

History AND Geography Lessons

For most of us names like Pearl Harbor, Normandy, Hiroshima are familiar in their history and geography in connection with World War II. But if you had asked me about Malaya I would have drawn a blank on both. For anyone who wishes to know more about this place an answer can be found in Tan Twan Eng’s new novel The Gift of Rain which was nominated for the most recent Man Booker Prize.

Anything beyond the barest description can give away too much. I’m sorry that I knew as much about the book as I did before I read it. Try to avoid reading the book jacket. The story is set on the island of Penang off the coast of Malaya – the same island where the author was born. So you can understand why the descriptions of weather, flora, architecture, cultural divisions, etc. have such richness in their detail and feel so authentic.

The narrator Philip Hutton was born in the 1920’s and lived his entire life in Penang. He was the child of a British father and a Chinese mother. Toward the end of his life he is persuaded to tell the story of his role on the island during World War II – hence the book. The title comes from his visit to a soothsayer who says that he was born with the gift of rain. As we know, rain can be a blessing or a curse depending on the circumstances. An individual’s actions can be interpreted in different ways depending on the vantage point. In addition to the embedded history and geography lessons there is also a fascinating introduction to the martial art of aikido.

It’s been a long time since I have stayed up past my bedtime to follow a storyline but I did just that on three successive nights. Now that I have finished the book, it will be many more nights and days that I reflect on the moral dilemmas presented to the characters, the different response each of them chose and their reasons for doing so. I’m not sure what choices I would have made. And isn’t that one of the reasons that we read: to examine the challenges of others that we may come to know and strengthen ourselves?

Monday, May 12, 2008

A Spiritual Guide to the Present

I decided to read the "The Power Of Now" by Eckhart Tolle because it has been acclaimed to be a rare book from a rare author. Eckhart Tolle tells us in his introduction that he has “little use for the past and rarely thinks about it” but he had a strange realization one night as he struggled with thoughts of suicide. He had a strange and stunning realization that there was a difference between the “I” and the “self”. He had a moment of intense fear and then he found himself in a state of bliss and peace that has never left him.

He became a teacher and the book itself originated from his work with seminars, meditation classes and counseling sessions. The format of the book is questions formulated from the questions of his many students and the answers he has written. The language is clear, straightforward, and easy to read. The ideas, however, are challenging. Eckhart Tolle continually refers to a “timeless state of intense conscious presence in the NOW” which will eventually lead the reader to the beginnings of enlightenment. But, in order to be in the NOW one must forget the past and ignore the future. He also writes about our attachment to the pain in our past and ways to find a pain-free identity by living in the present.

Throughout the book the author quotes the teachings of Advaita, Buddhism, Zen and Jesus to show the reader that there is only one spiritual teaching, however it comes in many forms. He emphasizes that in order to make the journey into the power of NOW we have to leave our analytical mind and our ego behind. It is definitely a new way of thinking. Tolle presents a different and challenging path that may lead to a peaceful existence. Another interesting question that has arisen through this process is, “Can this greater consciousness actually lead to a significant slowing down of the aging of the physical body?”

This book presents many questions and many thought provoking answers. I found it a book that must be reread more than once to fully process and understand the concepts. Hearing Mr. Tolle speak or taking a seminar from him would be a wonderful experience and a way to better understand the teachings of this “unusual modern mystic”.

Robert Bly

Robert Bly, first poet laureate of Minnesota, founder of the Iron Man movement, longtime antiwar spokesman during Vietnam and currently, the Iraq War, has an amazing breadth of interests and talents.  I know of him because he lived for many years on a farm in Minnesota near by cabin. He later gained fame in California for his Iron Man workshops as men sought personal growth and reconciliation with distant fathers during the fading years of the human potential movement.  In addition to writing poetry, essays, books, he leads workshops in European Fairytales and other storytelling events.  Born in Norway, he has done extensive translations, including Peer Gynt for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

His softer depictions of memories growing up on a farm, the harsh life, the visual images (again rich imagery) is captured so well in a favorite book I review each summer,  Morning Poems published by Harper Collins. To find out more about him, read some of his poems and essays on his website  To hear a poem on the Writer's Almanac (NPR) free podcasts, go to  the March 18, 2008  entry.
Bly is appearing with several poets at the Marin Poetry  Festival in San Rafael, at Dominican College, Sunday May 18th 7:30 p.m.  For full details go to bookclub4evr and look at our What's New section.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Identity Theft

If you could examine the list of all of the books that we have read in our book group over the last 25 years you would notice that there are very few multiple books by the same author. That is not to say that there are none (there are: Philip Roth, Nadine Gordimer, Kazuo Ishiguro); and I’m not sure how that came about but it might be an unarticulated premise that one of the functions of the book group is simply to introduce us to an author through one specific work and then leave it to each member to pursue her interest in that author’s other works should she have such an interest. There are so many authors – and so many good ones.

So it is that we as a group read The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter in 2005 and I was prompted by the recollection of writing that well-deserved its nomination for the National Book Award to read his most recent book The Soul Thief. The book in its broadest outline is the story of the relationship between 2 graduate students Nathaniel Mason and Jerome Coolberg while in school in Buffalo, New York in the 1970’s and their meeting again 30 years later. When Jerome initiates contact with Nathaniel after 30 years I found myself desperately wanting to warn Nathaniel away from accepting the contact and at the same time wanting to follow through to see the outcome. Nathaniel never could resist Jerome. The scene at Niagara Falls during their school days still gives me chills. The relationship between Nathaniel and his sister is especially touching.

What I particularly noticed about the writing of this book is the author’s use of simile and metaphor. There were times when I actually stopped to count the number on a page. Some of them so perfectly capture the moment and the image that you almost gasp at their brilliance and the mind behind them. The book itself is short; some of the chapters are less than one page. It is the kind of book that you want to start reading again as soon as you have read the last page. And having read it once you can pick it up and read just a short section at random for the beauty of the writing. Of course, nothing’s perfect – you may find the ending a little contrived but it was not enough to spoil the overall experience for me. I am still wondering how someone could still be keeping a lover’s farewell letter unopened in a drawer after more than thirty years. Could you?

Sunday, May 4, 2008

New Yorker Podcasts-Lorrie Moore

One of the joys of podcasts is the availability of good literature for listening, from books to short stories that sample the writing skills of numerous authors.  The New Yorker has a free  monthly Fiction Podcast, easy to subscribe to under "free" podcasts.  A recent short story, read and discussed by Louise Erdrich, was Dance in America by Lorrie Moore. Moore is a contemporary midwestern writer whose work Erdrich enjoys and respects. Erdrich became taken with Moore's writing after reading her novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? and quickly became aware of Moore's short story repertoire as well.  Dance in America, published in Birds of America: Stories by Lorrie Moore, tells of a dance teacher who moves to Philadelphia to teach children's dance classes. She encounters an old friend there, whose son is terminally ill and her relationship with the child and the way the family converses and copes informs her  characters. The sometimes absurd conversations within the family as a way of coping, are surprising.  The story reveals Moore's  humor, kindness and her depth as well as her sense of the absurd. Not to be dismissed as "chick lit" her writing is often about contemporary woman's issues with sharp observations noted, yet kindness and humor characterize her dealings with absurd or contradictory characters.  She writes with economy, quickly getting to the heart of her story, sometimes omitting preliminaries, yet every detail works toward the end of the story.  I'm delighted to anticipate  reading more works by this  thoughtful, humorous, highly observant writer who is cast as a "true original" by Erdrich. 

The Last Story from a Great Storyteller

John Cheever’s name has appeared on the many lists of “One Hundred Books to Read” or Pulitzer Prize winning authors to read, but I had never read any thing he had written. From 1943 to 1982 he wrote short stories, novels, and television scripts and has been called the “Chekhov of the suburbs”. But the John Cheever story most of us will remember is “The Swimmer”. It is hard to forget the strangely forlorn Burt Lancaster, in his swimming trunks, as he swims his way home from one swimming pool to another, only to find his own home empty and locked, in the 1968 film set in an upscale Connecticut suburb.

John Cheever‘s “Oh What A Paradise It Seems,” published in 1982, has been called the last great work of a master storyteller. It is the story of Lemuel Sears “an old man but not yet infirmed.” Sears lives in New York City but he likes to ice skate on Beasley’s Pond in the small town of Janice where his daughter lives. When the ice melts Sears discovers that his beloved pond is being used as a dump. Sears decides to investigate this tragedy. What follows is a incredibly well written, amusing story. John Cheever knew how to write a beautiful sentence and was able to express so much in a few words. He is very witty and his anecdote about the celebrated prophetess Lemuel encounters in Eastern Europe was great fantasy. The story twists and turns between life in Janice and his life in New York City where he is carrying on a love affair with the beautiful, real estate agent, Renee. It is an interesting, funny story well worth the read. Cheever’s style is unique but his characters seem to be dated or caricatures. “Oh What A Paradise It Seems” has been called a fable and Cheever may have been ahead of his time. Discovering a scheme to pollute the environment for greed is one that has been revealed more than once in the last twenty five years.

“The Stories of John Cheever” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978. Cheever died in 1982 at the age of 70 and although "Oh What A Paradise It Seems" was the last book he wrote, there were letters, journals and a book of stories published posthumously.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Revisiting an Author

Like Anna I decided to read an earlier work by an author I enjoyed. This time it is Jeffrey Eugenides, who wrote Middlesex in 2003. His first novel was The Virgin Suicides. With the word suicide in the title, it's not surprising that one occurs on the first page. But it did surprise me. Here's the astounding first sentence of the book: “On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope”. Mary is in fact the fifth of the Lisbon sisters to take her own life.

I wrote in an earlier blog (Office Life) of how unusual it seemed to have a novel written in the first person plural. The Virgin Suicides uses this technique as well. In this case the “we” are the neighborhood boys, now in their 30's, who as teenagers feverishly observed the beautiful Lisbon girls – mysterious and unattainable – and collected shards of evidence (a fading photo, pair of high-tops, old cosmetics) which they now try to piece together in hopes of an explanation. Eugenides does a wonderful job of expressing the adolescent confusion the boys felt – and still feel – about the girls. The events have clearly continued to affect their lives and their relationships with women. As a reader, we know only what the boys know, so the girls are an enigma for us as well. I found that frustrating, but very powerful. I think the unexpected death of someone we know always leaves us trying to piece together an explanation. The ending of the book beautifully expresses these feelings of guilt, longing and grief that we all experience as we try to deal with an inexplicable death.

Sofia Coppola directed a film version of the Virgin Suicides which I haven't seen. It's hard to imagine how this novel could be translated, but maybe I'll take a look.