Saturday, January 31, 2009

Trapped in Suburbia

Richard Yates wrote “Revolutionary Road” in 1961, the year it was nominated for the National Book Award. It has taken forty seven years for this novel to be made into a movie. When a movie comes out that is based on a novel I try to read the novel before I see the movie. It will often give me a better perspective on the movie. When Yates wrote this story which deals with the emptiness of life in suburbia he was one of the first to deal with this topic. Since then this theme has been addressed again and again by writers and filmmakers. Having said that, I would guess that Yates has done it as well as it can be done.

“Revolutionary Road” is the story of April and Frank Wheeler, a couple who met in New York City, married and find themselves living in suburban Connecticut in the classic New England house with two adorable children. Frank is caught in a dull job at Knox Business Machines where his father had worked before him and April is a stay at home mom. But April and Frank feel they are destined for a much greater life. Frank considers himself an intellectual and April had aspirations to be an actress. They just haven’t had a chance to find themselves. And they hate the idea that they have become the people they look down upon in suburbia.

They come up with the solution to their dilemma. They will move to Europe and find themselves. But life intervenes and the Wheelers find themselves in a swift and furious downward spiral. This is a sad and bleak story. Richard Yates is a very good writer but it is difficult to like his characters. They are superficial and self absorbed. The author deftly introduces the cast of characters who will propel this story. The chatty neighbors/friends, the real estate agent and her son, who is in a mental institution. They all play into the discontent that surrounds and torments the Wheelers. The author takes the reader into the minds of the characters and then he switches the voice to get different points of view. Richard Yates has a wonderful style in this novel, which is said to be his best work.

This is a story that is difficult to read because it is hard to watch people self destruct. But it is interesting to look back at a time in history and see that some things have changed in the almost fifty intervening years. People have choices today that these characters did not have. Sometimes it is good to be reminded of the progress we have made.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Walking with Jack

I never read Jack London when I was growing up. My impression was that books by authors like London, James Fenimore Cooper and Booth Tarkington were 'boy books'. Plus, I was not interested in books about animals (sorry all you Black Stallion fans). So it wasn't until my short story class read “To Build a Fire” that I was first exposed to London's writing. I decided to load the story onto my Ipod and listen as I walked, so I have some advice for you if you plan do the same.

First, know where you're going. I was walking on a familiar path so there was no chance I would get lost, but there's about 30 minutes of my walk that I simply can't recall. In my mind I was walking through Yukon wilderness with a man and a dog. Second, dress warmly. In the story the temperature is 75 below, so even though it was in the mid-50's in San Francisco I was certain that my fingers were getting frost-bitten. Third, slow down. If I had been reading this story I would no doubt have been racing ahead, skipping words or even paragraphs, to find out what happened. But since I was listening instead of reading, I kept walking faster, trying to hurry the man and dog along to the end of the tale. But the real pleasure comes from savoring London's stark prose, from allowing this thrilling story of man versus nature to unfold at its own elegant pace.

This story in its entirety is available at several online sites, including The World of Jack London. Or you could download it from iTunes and go for a walk.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Friends and Enemies

CAUTION: The book that I am going to recommend is an historical spy novel The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst. But my comments may be considered “spoilers” so unless you have already read this book or intend never to read it or have a short memory, you may want to return later.

The book is set in Warsaw in 1937, narrated by the French military attaché stationed there. The spies of the title are everywhere – and of many nationalities: French, Russian Jews, Poles, even Germans, all working against Hitler, trying to avoid another war. They had all lived through the previous war 20 years earlier. I guess I never really focused before on just how close in time WWII followed WWI. If the fictional characters are true, there were many people who recognized the evil of Hitler and who in their own ways took great risks and made sacrifices to try to stop his ascent. Some worked for ideological reasons, some for more pragmatic reasons (read: monetary greed) – but the cause was the same.

Didn’t we just recently hear in the context of the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme and of the financial crisis generally that so many people were deceived because they wanted to be deceived? That is not a new idea. There it is on page 225: the Latin proverb Mundus vult decipi, ergo decepiatur. Translation: "The world desires to be deceived; therefore it is." (Attributed to Petronius) Once again we were not paying adequate attention to history - and there is a lot to be learned from reading fiction!

I am not widely read in spy novels but my sense is that much of the detail that is couched as fiction is actually fact. I can only hope that the historical details in this book are fiction because it would be far too depressing to think that the French had sufficient intelligence to have avoided their invasion and initial defeat by the Nazis. This strikes me as very similar to the intelligence situation (what we can know of it from the outside) leading up to our war in Iraq for which the intelligence may have been shaped to fit the desired outcome of those with responsibility.

If you want more, here is a list of spy novels that appears in the Jan. 30, 2009 issue of The Week:
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carre
The Queen of the South by Arturo Perez-Reverte
The Ghost by Robert Harris
The Magus by John Fowles
The Prisoner of Guantanamo by Dan Fesperman
A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


I recently overheard two women in a bookstore extolling the book Away by Amy Bloom, so of course I added it to my selections. Lillian Leyb is Russian Jew who escapes after the bloody slaughter of her family and arrives in New York's Lower East Side in 1924. It begins as a classic tale of immigrant experience as she toils in a sewing factory and catches the eye of the owners, both father and son. She becomes their mistress without either man knowing about the other one. In a sly and humorous way we see her struggle with her nightmares, learn English, observe carefully in order to try to understand these men and improve her opportunities. A Russian cousin joins her and informs her that her little daughter Sophie is alive and living with former neighbors in Russia. She immediately follows her heart and becomes determined to return to Siberia to reunite with Sophie. Traveling by train, with seven dollars, she is attacked and robbed and spends a very unusual period in Seattle with a prostitute who saves her life. Lillian becomes entangled in strange doings there, escapes and proceeds on foot, through the brutal lonely wilderness of Alaska en route to the Bering Strait as the only way to get to her destination. The people she meets, mostly men, provide moving characters, windows into human need, and a story that propels you forward. Lillian's will to survive, need to carefully observe in order to learn, to get to Sophie, all create a strong and compelling character. The novel is an artful blend of fiction and fantasy that seems like it could have certainly been at least partially based on a true account. The author states that it is a work of pure fiction. It's a short novel containing strong character development and an emotionally evocative story.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Master at Work

I just read another Post-9/11 novel. (Is it possible that all contemporary fiction published last year falls into that category?) I didn't purposely select a book in that genre. I was drawn to read John le Carré's latest novel A Most Wanted Man because... well, because it's John le Carré. He's the master. Nobody writes spy novels like he does - the twisting plots, the flawed heroes, the divided loyalties. You're off balance the whole time, trying to figure out who can be trusted. Nothing is ever black and white, and sometimes characters with the best intentions do the most damage.

The story takes place in Hamburg, so the Post-9/11 connection is apparent. Three of the 9/11 hijackers lived in Hamburg, including the mastermind Mohammed Atta. And if you think that US intelligence organizations missed some important clues in the months leading up to the event, apparently the fragmented German intelligence groups were even worse. So now they're stepping all over each other to try to make up for it And they're not the only ones. The Brits and the Americans are both eager to prove their talents in the war on terror. So when a 'most wanted man' surfaces in Hamburg all the agencies are scrambling to grab him.

I won't attempt to give you details of the plot, or even describe the characters. With John le Carré I find it best to just strap yourself in and go along for the ride. But as I approached the end of the book I was a nervous wreck. I had to keep reading to find out what happened to these people I had grown to like, but knowing Le Carré, I was pretty certain it wouldn't be a happily-ever-after ending for all of them. That's the mark of a great storyteller.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Reader

Due to the release today of the Academy Award nominations, we all know that the movie The Reader, based on the 1999 book by Bernhard Schlink has been nominated in both Best Movie and Best Acting categories. I recall the book as a compelling, uncomfortable story with complex characters, and it has stayed with me since that 1999 reading experience. The movie very effectively captures the essential story and the nuances of the characters, with superb performances by the cast. We know it is the tale of the sexual and emotional relationship an adolescent German boy has at the end of WWII with Hannah, a woman with a disturbing past. She is tried several years after their affair, for war crimes she committed as a Nazi prison guard, which rocks the foundations of the young man's life. An interesting sidebar to the story is her obsession about being read to, and the selection of books he reads aloud to her is most interesting and varied. The books used in the movie included The Odyssey, War and Peace, the works of Rilke, and a book by Anton Chekov, written late in his life, called The Lady and the Dog. It is the story of two married people who begin what they anticipate to be a casual liaison and they are repeatedly drawn to each other in more serious ways. It is the one book from which portions are read aloud several times in the movie, an interesting directorial choice in terms of pertinent and pointed content. It is well worth your time to see the movie, to read the book, and to consider the Chekov story as well.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Better Late Than Never

If you were a teacher in the 60s you undoubtedly had (and may still have, as I do) copies of John Holt’s How Children Fail and How Children Learn. But you probably do not have a copy of his book Never Too Late My Musical Life Story unless you, like me, decided to learn to play a bowed musical instrument as an adult.

Holt, who had no instrumental musical education as a child, decided to learn to play the cello at age 40. But not insignificantly, I think, he had taught himself to be a fairly accomplished jazz whistler while in high school and was a member for his senior year of the Exeter Glee Club. Before he embarked on an instrument he had quite knowledge and liking for swing bands and a collection of their 78 rpm records. So I would say that he had been musical for some time before he became a musician. And in fact Holt started by playing the guitar and then later the flute before tackling the cello.

While I had some piano lessons as a child, I never reached any significant level of accomplishment. I decided at age 50 to learn the cello (vague visions of duets with my spouse while he played the piano). I struggled for a while, gave it up and have, just a year ago, decided to try again. Learning a bowed string instrument at any age is very painful both physically to your hands and to the ear – yours and those within hearing distance. One of the reasons I keep at it is new research about the stimulation of the brain that comes through tactile sensations in the fingertips.

A fascinating part of the book is a discussion of whether there really is such a thing as being tone deaf. Holt says that unless one is unable to hear a difference in tones (an inability that is manifested in a monotone voice), then anyone else can be taught fairly easily to sing in tune. Another of the many indignities of childhood is being told not to sing with the group. Holt tells of teaching a young boy who “couldn’t carry a tune” who then went on to some singing success. Why don't more music teachers know this? Maybe they do now.

While this book is framed around the cello, it has much broader lessons. It really is about teaching yourself how to learn. As Holt says, “Part of the art of learning any difficult act…is knowing both how to teach yourself and how best to use the teaching of others…” It’s about imagining and dreaming of doing something new and difficult; of facing down our fears whether it be of performance or otherwise; of looking ahead not just at past mistakes.

It’s time to go practice.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Changing India

“The White Tiger”, Aravind Adiga’s first novel, won the 2008 Man Booker Prize. The story begins as a letter to a Chinese premier, Wen Jiabio, who is coming to visit Bangalore, India, the present home of the protagonist, Balram Halwai. Balram proceeds to tell the Premier his life story through a series of emails written over a period of seven nights. Mr. Adiga has created a narrator with an incredibly new and exciting voice. Balram is a naïve, witty, charming but suspect narrator. Balram, the self proclaimed White Tiger, tells the Premier he is a successful “entrepreneur”, a self made man, living in Bangalore. The letters tell the amazing tale of a poor boy from a village in the “Darkness” who decides to better himself by becoming a driver to a family of rich landlords. How he accomplishes this feat is told with charming, sarcastic wit.

Early in the story we find that Balram decides he must murder his employer to escape the prison of poverty that surrounds the people of his caste. The novel is Balram’s self serving, self-analysis of all the events that lead him to murder his employer. On the one hand we sympathize with Balram and all the people who are the servants of the wealthy class in India. But the reader can’t help but feel, as this strange tale unfolds, that they are in the presence of a sociopath.

“The White Tiger” is a remarkable story, written with compelling prose, about the present social inequalities of the classes in India. It has been compared to Richard Wright’s “Native Son”, which took place in Chicago in the 1940’s. “The White Tiger” is a grim look at the class system of India and may have a great social impact on the new developing India.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


REPLAY by Ken Grimwood is a fascinating look at someone who has the chance to live his life over again, and over again. Each time he faces the question of what he will do differently, knowing the mistakes he's made before. This isn't a "Groundhog Day", as it raises serious questions of what really is important, and why we even bother, since we die anyway in the end. In each of his lives, the protagonist Jeff Winston makes different choices based on what he's learned before, striving to finally get it right. We never know what really is right anyway.
This book, winner of the 1988 World Fantasy Award for best novel, moves the reader quickly along with the plot, all the while provoking substantial reflection. I will remember it for a long time.

Friday, January 16, 2009

New York Thrills

I had seen author Colin Harrison described as an 'atmospheric' writer whose novels were dark thrillers full of violence and suspense, often set in New York. He sounded kind of like Richard Price, whose “Lush Life” I had liked so much (Neighborhood Crime), and a little like Raymond Chandler, so I decided to read his latest – The Finder. I didn't have to wait long for the violence. By page 4 you know that something bad is going to happen and by page 10 it has - a really gruesome murder of two innocent victims. Not everyone's cup of tea. But I like gritty crime stories; “The Wire” was one of my favorite TV shows. So I waded in.

Harrison hurls you into a series of New York worlds that have little in common. There's the 'rainmaking' corporate executive at a drug company wooing investors, an aging hedge fund billionaire with a trophy wife and a prostate problem, a young Chinese entrepreneur who manipulates the global markets using stolen information, a twisted Brooklyn 'waste management' thug who's right out of the Sopranos. Of course there's also a damsel in distress and a handsome young hero who is haunted by a mysterious past. Their paths all cross, and bad things happen.

If I'd had time to think about it, I'm sure I would have realized how implausible some of the plot twists were. But I didn't have time, because Harrison had his pedal to the metal the entire time. He whips from one tense situation to the next, and all I could do was hang on for dear life. Occasionally I thought that hero Ray Grant had a few too many McGyver-like tricks up his sleeve, and the descriptions of the global market manipulations sometimes bogged down the action, but I'm nit-picking. It's a well-told thriller – try it for your next long plane trip.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

For Women Only

If there is such a thing as a “woman’s book", then Our Kind by Kate Walbert is certainly it. By which I mean only that it will be of interest only to women readers – no reflection on the quality of the writing or the seriousness of the subject. The book is described as “a novel in stories.” What makes that different from a collection of short stories about the same characters is, I suppose, that these stories have to be read in order. Even then it is difficult to know always who is speaking and in what time frame. But that is getting too far ahead.

These are stories about a group of women who have known each other for decades, starting as newlyweds in the 1950s, through their days at the suburban country club, of child-bearing and child-rearing, of divorces, and now as they start to face the ends of their lives and reflect back. For any reader whose own experience overlaps to any degree in time and place with these women, there are so many “madeleine” moments in this book. The author is able to evoke in the reader a flood of emotion and recognition at just the mere mention or briefest description of a long-forgotten object or ritual of the period. I marvel that an author who, from the book jacket photo and description, is much too young to have experienced any of it, is nevertheless able to have captured the feeling so accurately for me.

One of my favorite scenes is in the story “Sick Chicks” when the women are visiting one of their own, Judy, in the hospice. “Before her diagnosis she had been our healthiest, eating six almonds each morning at breakfast, chewing Tums, cutting articles from the Harvard Women’s Health Watch…Now she smokes filterless menthols.” Do I see myself in that portrait? Absolutely, especially the part about the filterless menthols when “there are no more precautions to take.”

Though not without their regrets, these are strong feisty women. The divorced among them have a “come as you were” party wearing their wedding dresses. The proximity of the hostess’s swimming pool has a predictable – and hilarious – result.

Each has her own story to tell. And for all the time that they have known each other they are still learning each other’s stories - as are we. Perhaps our own friends, our kind, have stories yet to tell us, too.

Friday, January 9, 2009

A New Category?

What exactly is 'Post-9/11 fiction'? I've seen this term used to describe several recent books, including “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer and “Falling Man” by Don DeLillo. Does it mean that the characters experienced 9/11 themselves, or that they were affected by it, or that the author's point of view was influenced by it?

Joseph O'Neill's book Netherland also falls into this category. The title refers to the country where Hans Van den Broek, a Dutch banker living in New York, was born and raised. But it also seems to refer to his state of mind. He lives in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, where his family relocated after 9/11 made their Lower Manhattan loft uninhabitable. And in this unsettled atmosphere his marriage begins to unravel: “We were trying to understand...whether we were in a preapocalyptic situation, like the European Jews in the '30s or the last citizens of Pompeii, or whether our situation was merely near-apocalyptic, like that of the cold war inhabitants of New York, London, Washington and, for that matter, Moscow." His English wife Rachel returns with their son to London, and Hans is left alone with the odd cast of characters who inhabit the hotel. He seems to drift along in a kind of nether world, uninterested in his job, unsure about the future of his marriage. The only activity that engages him is the cricket he plays each weekend with a team of immigrants. By chance he encounters a charming and mysterious Trinidadian named Chuck Ramkissoon. Chuck introduces Hans to New York as seen through the eyes of an immigrant, where the American Dream involves building a world class cricket field on an abandoned airfield in Brooklyn.

“Netherland” has been compared to “The Great Gatsby”. Like Jay Gatsby, Chuck is a mysterious outsider attempting to succeed in America. Like Gatsby his efforts cost him his life. Unlike in Gatsby, we learn this fact in the very first pages of the book rather than the last, as Hans, now reunited with his wife in London, looks back on his time in New York. I loved O'Neill's writing style, fragmented and almost dream-like but also frank and unsparing. It seemed to reflect Van den Broek's state of mind. And his descriptions of the cricket games, which Hans experiences with an intensity unmatched in the rest of his life, actually made me want to watch one.

O'Neill's book seems to fit my understanding of 'Post-9/11 fiction'. It deals peripherally with the events of that day, but more importantly it presents characters whose ways of thinking and acting have been changed by those events.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Two Headmasters

You would think that if a living author had published over 60 books (fiction, non-fiction and short-story collections) that I would have read at least one of them. Not so if the author in question is Louis Auchincloss. I chose his (fiction) novel The Headmaster’s Dilemma because I thought that it would be interesting to compare it with John McPhee’s The Headmaster, a (non-fiction) biography of Frank Boyden, the legendary headmaster of Deerfield Academy for 66 years. But a discussion of this latter book will have to wait for another blog.

The Headmaster’s Dilemma is set in a New England boarding school with a relatively new, fairly young headmaster brought in to "modernize" the school. I found the book deeply unsettling – on one level because of the nature of the incident between two students that the headmaster must resolve; but more particularly in trying to understand the actions of the headmaster in dealing with the aftermath. The author has set it up so that the headmaster, the Chair of the Board of Trustees, and the father of one of the students involved were themselves classmates at the same academy and in some respects they are still playing out some of their own old issues from that period. The headmaster has to balance the issues of truth (can it even be found in this situation?); the impact that disclosure might have on the students’ futures, the school’s reputation, his own reputation and future prospects; and, not least, justice. It is a dilemma.

This book is all plot. There was nothing, in my view, exceptional about the writing – unless you include the literary references scattered throughout the text. For the informed reader these may bring a smile; for others, perhaps a “Huh?” Here are two examples: can you identify them?
“He would be Sydney Carton and Rosina the guillotine!”
“His favorite motto was Oscar Wilde’s famous advice on how to deal with temptation…”
What do you think of this as a literary device? Is it playing fair with the reader?

I would have preferred a less convenient resolution so that there could have been a more in-depth exploration of the issues and the choices. That said, this book should definitely be required reading for any parent sending a child off to boarding school.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Psychological Suspense

The mystery/suspense thriller is not my genre of choice. I am always amazed at how many mysteries appear on the best seller lists. I picked up “In The Woods”, Tana French’s first novel and was intrigued with the book’s description on the back cover. I think I was surprised when I began to read the novel and saw that it was indeed a mystery, with detectives, evidence, a murder, and suspects. Tana French, who now lives in Ireland, won the Edgar Award for best first novel by an American author.

The story is set in a suburb of Dublin, Ireland called Knocknaree. Rob Ryan is a detective with a female partner, Cassie Maddox. Rob is the narrator of this story and at times it is difficult to match the hard line male detective with the Rob’s voice. This problem could be that it is Ms. French’s first novel. But the story itself is very intriguing.

Rob’s full name is Adam Robert Ryan. When he was twelve years old he went into the woods behind his home with his two best friends. The children could not be found for hours. When the police finally found Adam, he was alone, gripping a tree in terror with his shoes filled with blood. He had absolutely no memory of what happened to his friends. They were never found.

Twenty years later Adam is now Rob Ryan and a detective in the Garda in Dublin. He and his partner are assigned to solve the case of a child’s murder in the same woods where Adam/Rob lost his friends. But the woods are now the site of an archaeological dig. No one but Cassie knows of Rob’s connection to the woods.

This is a psychological thriller and very well written. The characters are fully developed and the reader is pulled into Rob’s pain, torment and dysfunction as he tries to connect and solve the two crimes. There is the element of romance that is complicated and sad. The family of the victim is strange and the diggers at the site are not all what they seem to be.

Tana French’s writing is captivating. The humor and psychological details she disperses keep the reader very interested. The ending is good although not necessarily what you would expect. I would definitely read Ms. French’s next novel even if it is a “mystery”.

Friday, January 2, 2009

School Days

Philip Roth – without doubt he is one of the most important writers in American literary history. But in recent years his books have seemed to reflect his own concerns about growing old. His main characters were often aging men morbidly reflecting on their prostates, their waning libidos and their own mortality. Did I really want to read another one? So I was surprised to find that in his latest book Indignation Roth had created a main character who was still an adolescent - Marcus Messner, a nineteen-year-old college boy. Marcus is attempting to escape his over-protective father, a Newark kosher butcher, by going to the fictional Winesburg College in rural Ohio. The time is 1951, and Marcus, the narrator of the book, has a few simple goals. He wants to get A's and become the valedictorian, he wants to lose his virginity, and he wants to avoid being drafted into the Korean War. But he is unprepared for the traditions that cling to college life in a Midwestern school. And he is confounded by the attention of the beautiful but troubled Olivia Hutton. The harder Marcus tries to do everything right the more things turn out wrong. The indignation Marcus feels towards much of what happens to him at Winesburg is justified. If this were the 70's he might have led a campus revolt. But this is the 50's, not the 70's, and being right doesn't save him from self-destruction.

Roth also attended college in the early 50's, and his descriptions of this period seem fresh and true, even down to Marcus's wardrobe. Remember white bucks? Roth's school was Bucknell in central Pennsylvania. Like the fictional Winesburg it was founded by Baptists, and I wonder if the obligatory weekly chapel attendance that so irked Marcus was part of Roth's college experience as well.

The early scenes of Marcus dealing with his parents and with customers in the butcher store are very funny – it almost reminds me of the Portnoy family. And his descriptions of Marcus's sexual encounters with Olivia are full of classic Roth sexual humor. But if Roth hasn't lost his sense of humor he also hasn't lost his anger and his sense of outrage. The reader knows early on in the book that things will in fact turn out terribly wrong for Marcus, but we don't know how he gets there. Roth lets the story spiral inexorably downward. It's a powerful fable about the arbitrariness of fate.