Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sex and Love in Paris

I'm reading about Paris in preparation for a trip, so when I found a little surprise in a used bookstore, I couldn't resist. John Baxter is an Australian writer who has written a number of biographies of actors and directors and film. He spent time as a screenwriter and teacher in the U.S., then moved to France where he married a French woman and has been living there for roughly 15 years. His book, We'll Always Have Paris is aptly subtitled Sex and Love in the City of Light. This small book is a very clever and funny at times, providing an audacious exploration into French culture, with particular emphasis on the sexual practices of the French. He takes you to small bookstores, cafes and brothels where Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dali, Edward VII, Dietrich and others held court and pursued their appetites. He is a very witty and literate writer who uses frequent references to famous artists, authors, and movie scenes which spice up his tales. Not your typical tourbook, and not a character driven novel either, but a spicy combination of short tales of contemporary encounters and historical reports that provide surprises along the way. Though not a "substantial" or "serious" work, he provides some humorous diversion for the curious who may be interested in an usual memoir of life abroad in the City of Light.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

No Memories

Yoko Ogawa is a Japanese author of more than 20 novels and works of non-fiction. Her second novel to be translated in English is “The Housekeeper and the Professor”, translated by Stephen Snyder. This is one of those special novels that is original in its plot and written with understated prose that can mesmerize the reader.

A single mother of a ten year old boy who works as a housekeeper is sent by her employer to work for a disabled professor of Mathematics. The professor had suffered a brain injury in a car accident that left him with only 80 minutes of short term memory and he can not remember anything that happened after 1975. He spends his days doing intricate math formulas which he enters into contests. He pins notes to the suit he wears everyday to remind him of what he needs to remember from day to day.

The story, narrated by the housekeeper, revolves around the poignant relationship that develops between the housekeeper, her son and the professor. The professor insists that the boy come to his house everyday after school and nick names him “Root“ because the boy’s head reminded him of the square root sign. But the housekeeper and her son must reintroduce themselves each day to the professor. Despite his memory problems the professor has retained his overwhelming love for numbers and elegant equations. He draws the housekeeper and her son into his beloved world of mathematics by teaching them how to solve equations. And the three discover their common love of baseball. The professor loves the averages and statistics that define the sport and both Root and the Professor love the national team, the “Tigers”.

This unique story is about memory, mathematics, baseball and love. There is an underlying theme throughout the novel asking whether one can truly love without memory. Yoko Ogawa is a writer who knows how to engage a reader with humor and clear, straight forward prose that calms and lures the reader into her world. Whether you are a lover of math or baseball doesn’t matter, Yoko Ogawa has woven these subjects into a beautifully touching story.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Dickens Revisited

Are you ever in the mood to read something Dickensian? Hannah Tinti's The Good Thief has all the ingredients. For starters, the main character is a 12-year-old orphan boy with a missing left hand, named Ren because those were the initials found sewn into the collar of his nightshirt when he was left at Saint Anthony's Orphanage as an infant. His best friends are two orphan twins with the wonderful names of Brom and Ichy. When Ren is adopted by the mysterious Benjamin Nab, he is thrown into a world that seems to be the New England equivalent of the Victorian London of Oliver Twist, with Benjamin as his Fagin.

Every chapter brings new adventures, new revelations and new scrapes for Ren. And what a cast Tinti has imagined. When was the last time you read a novel that had both a dwarf and a giant as important characters? As Ren and Benjamin travel through New England, getting into and out of trouble, they encounter grave robbers, hired killers, kind souls, evil blackguards...and a mousetrap factory. And of course, as in all good orphan stories, Ren is trying to find his real parents and to learn why they abandoned him.

Tinti's style, unlike Dickens, is quite straightforward and matter of fact. As a result you find yourself accepting without question the unusual events. Dwarf coming down a chimney? Sure, I've got no problem with that. Grave robbers find a live one? Makes perfect sense.

There are certain books I categorize as 'stop-missers'. This refers to my commuting days, when, engrossed in a particularly compelling book, I would miss my stop. "The Good Thief" definitely belongs in this category.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Another Updike

The late, prolific John Updike wrote The Witches of Eastwick in 1984. Though not considered one of his best works, I elected to listen to as a Random House Audio CD series, effectively read by Kate Redding. In this mid-career novel, Updike deals with adultery, active libidos, and the nuances of daily life in a small town where secrets and disatisfaction frequently dwell barely below the surface. His three female characters, all divorced or widowed, come together to drink, cast spells and compare adulteries, having slept with a variety of men, often the same ones. Their witchcraft talents and extracurricular activities are hardly a secret in this small community. Alexandra is an earth mother who makes small erotic statues sold in local stores, as she tends to her garden, her children, her body. Jane is an intense and often angry woman who tackles the cello with an urgency and intensity consistent with the way she lives her life. Sukie is a warm, very sociable woman who seems a bit naive in her fascination with everyone in town, somewhat sanctioned by her job as a society columnist for the local newspaper. Evidently Updike is not known for his sympathetic portrayals of women, who are often either jealous, vindictive, naive or they are the sex objects causing these emotions in the other women in his novels. All of the above occurs around a newly widowed younger woman in town as they find themselves vying for the attentions of Daryl Van Horne, a loud, sexually hungry, brassy (yes, devilish) New Yorker with a secretive past and unknown source of wealth.

This is not a great Updike novel, but his masterful prose is again in evidence. It's never plot heavy, and his prose is often beautiful. His insights are sharp and perceptive. He sometimes meanders as he interrupts a scene to lovingly describe the characters' thoughts or their physical surroundings. You have to pay attention sometimes not to lose the point of a conversation. However, you are rewarded for your effort with a deeper understanding of the characters. And this small Rhode Island town of Eastwick is so vividly described that you feel you could walk through the streets and know the surroundings by sight, much as you remember towns from your youth.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Nowhere To Hide

The prolific American writer John Updike died of cancer at the age of 77, in January of this year. Our book club had not read any of Updike’s works so we decided to read his well known “Rabbit Run”, the first novel in a series of four stories about the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom.

“Rabbit Run” begins with Harry joining a group of boys playing basketball in an alley. Harry is a young man trapped in a marriage to the girl friend he impregnated three years ago. Harry was the golden boy in high school, a record holding basketball star who was famous throughout the county. But eight years later he finds himself in a depressed town, demonstrating a kitchen gadget called the MagiPeel Peeler in five and dime stores. When his somewhat drunk wife asks him to pick up their son from grandma’s and a bring her pack of cigarettes, Rabbit impulsively leaves town and drives toward Philadelphia listening to song after song on the radio and envisioning his new life.

And so begins the saga of Rabbit running. He doesn’t get very far and is annoyed with a farmer who tells him, “The only way to get somewhere, you know, is to figure out where you’re going before you go there.” This is something Rabbit cannot understand. Harry acts on impulse, wherever it leads, he will go. He returns to town but not to home. He seeks the advice of his basketball coach, a disgraced womanizer, and finds himself in the bed of a local whore. This works for awhile until he gets the call that his wife is giving birth to their second child and he runs to her side.

Updike’s Rabbit is a man who seduces people by his charm and then leaves them. No one has ever told Harry “to grow up”. Yet Harry is overwhelmed by a sense of spiritual emptiness. He tells the minister who is trying to help him, “I do feel that somewhere behind all this (he gestures toward the scenery) there’s something that wants me to find it.”

The story reaches a climax when Harry returns to Janice and makes a feeble effort to rekindle the marriage. For the first time we hear Janice’s voice. But he can’t stay. Again he runs. The shocking tragedy that occurs when Harry leaves is something for which neither Janice nor Harry will accept blame.

John Updike created a character in Harry Angstrom that has become a literary icon. Updike wrote a series of sequels which followed Harry throughout his life, “Rabbit Redux“(1971), “Rabbit is Rich” (1981) and “Rabbit at Rest” (1990). Updike won the Pulitzer Prize for “Rabbit Redux” and “Rabbit is Rich”. John Updike has been praised for writing beautiful prose. His sentences are charged with emotion but always controlled. He was able to capture a decade, the 50’s, with detailed descriptions of a time and place and present a character that you both loved and hated at the same time. It is possible that John Updike may find greater fame posthumously as readers revisit these amazing stories.

There's an interesting discussion of "Rabbit Run" on the Slate Audio Book Club. You might want to listen online or download it. http://odeo.com/episodes/24129596-Slate-s-Audio-Book-Club-Rabbit-Run-by-John-Updike

Friday, March 20, 2009

Summer Darkness

“On July 5, 1996, my daughter was struck mad”. That is the first sentence of Michael Greenberg's harrowing memoir Hurry Down Sunshine. Greenberg's book chronicles the psychotic break of his fifteen-year-old daughter Sally. He is unsparing in his description of Sally's breakdown and hospitalization, and also of the strains it puts on his relationship with his current wife and his ex-wife, who is Sally's mother, as well as on his own mother and his older son.

Father and daughter are unusually close, so her descent into madness is devastating for Greenberg. Her mania is so extreme that she needs hospitalization and powerful psychotropic drugs to control it. Her family grasps for other explanations. Did she take LSD or Ecstasy? Is it just a teenage phase she's going through? But they all eventually have to come to grips with the reality of her manic depression and its treatment. As any parent would, Greenberg relentlessly and guiltily examines his past for ways he may have contributed to her illness. One day, in effort to understand how Sally feels, he even takes a dose of her meds. He describes how he feels ”as if I have been relegated to a bit part in the drama of my own existence and, moreover, I have missed my cue to step onstage”.

I think that losing a child to mental illness must be a worst nightmare for many parents. All of a sudden the traits that you found quirky or charming or creative become just aspects of the psychosis. Greenberg, a freelance writer by profession, must have taken notes as the events unfolded, because his descriptions are so detailed and crisp. His prose manages to be both unsentimental and heartbreaking. This book is a tough read, not because the writing is unclear but because the story of Sally's 'summer of madness' is so hard to bear. But I recommend it to anyone who wants understand the impact of mental illness on both patient and family.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Tribal Codes and Customs

Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for "The Age of Innocence", is one of my favorite authors. She had the rare ability to tell a story with amazing prose, detailed character development and descriptions that brought a time and place, long gone, to vivid life. In 1924, she wrote four short novels in a collection called "Old New York". The stories are set in New York City in the last four decades of the 19th century. The stories deal with Edith Wharton’s well known themes of infidelity, illegitimacy, jealousy, the plight of women in the 19th century, and the rules and decorum of society in New York in the 1800’s.

The first story "False Dawn :The 'Forties", is the sad tale of a young man who is sent by his domineering father on the customary year of travel to enter manhood. His father gives him an honored task to undertake on his travels and all the money he needs to accomplish the task. The young man discovers himself as he travels and uses his new found confidence to accomplish the task with creativity and courage. But when he returns to New York he learns that the world he comes from has no room for creativity and free thinking.

The best known story of the collection is "The Old Maid: The 'Fifties". It is vintage Wharton. A young woman of tenuous social standing has an illegitimate daughter. Her cousin, who has married well, convinces the distraught young woman to let her raise the child. What happens as this mother watches her child grow up and become entangled in the social mores and decorum of old New York is told in the wonderful, intimate and singular style of Edith Wharton who herself was raised on Fifth Ave. in New York in the late 19th century.

"The Spark: The 'Sixties", is the story told by a young man who emulates an older man in his social set. He is not certain what it is about him that he finds so interesting. As the story unfolds we find that the older gentleman was a soldier wounded in the civil war. While recuperating in a hospital in Washington a man came to visit him. It was this chance encounter with a famous man that helped form Mr. Delane’s character and gave him a special aura that set him above the other men in that social set in New York in the 1860’s.

The last story and possibly the most interesting is "New Year’s Day: The 'Seventies". A fire breaks out in the famed Fifth Ave. Hotel. Across the street the esteemed Parrett family are celebrating New Year’s Day. As the large family gathers at the windows to watch the fire they observe a young married woman of their social set hastily leaving the hotel with a man not her husband. The story that follows is one that grips the reader as they learn why Lizzie Hazeldean was in that hotel on that day with Henry Prest. Edith Wharton understood the plight of woman in society in this time in history. She gives her woman characters choices and often the determination and strength to live with those choices.

Edith Wharton was a masterful observer of the customs and codes of New York society in the late 1800’s. I really enjoyed revisiting Edith Wharton with her unique talent to tell a great story.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Phryne Fisher Mysteries

I recently downloaded an audiobook, Murder in Montparnasse, assuming that it would be set in Paris. Although that was misleading, I discovered Kerry Greenwood's mystery series and it was a happy accident indeed. Phryne (pronouned "Fry-Knee") Fisher is a still beautiful, very elegant Parisian woman with a past. She was an ambulance driver during the war, made a poor choice in love, and has settled in Australia. She is surrounded by some colorful Aussie's but she brings the sophistication of Paris with her. She surrounds herself with family members and staff who rely on her, and the man who reappears, unwanted, from her past. As she conducts a love affair with an elegant Chinese man and somewhat scandalizes the place, a series of deaths begin to occur, pointing to her past.

It's never necessary to reveal the plot of a good mystery. Elegantly read by Stephanie Daniel, what makes this mystery a pleasure is Phryne. It was just great fun to spend time such a steely and independent character. I'm looking forward to more adventures with this capable, very classy heroine.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Bird and a Bug

In one of the early years of our book group in the 1980’s we had a list of recommended books that included Machine Dreams by Jayne Anne Phillips. But we never selected it to read as a group nor did I read it myself. Then earlier this year there seemed to be a lot of press for Phillips’ new novel Lark and Termite . It was time to become acquainted with this author.

As has been mentioned in a previous blog, many of the best stories are in fact two stories. This new novel alternates between events at the beginning of the Korean War in Korea in 1950 from the perspective of a Corporal Robert Leavitt; and life in West Virginia in 1959 as it unfolds for Nonie, her niece Lark and her nephew Termite. Lark and Termite are half-siblings, the children of Nonie’s sister Lola. At the time of the novel, Lark is 17 and Termite is 9. The connection is that Leavitt is Termite’s father (but not Lark’s). The author presents it in a way that is not at all as confusing as I have made it sound.

Each of these four main characters tells a part of the story, and sometimes the same part, from his or her own perspective. This is especially challenging as Termite is severely handicapped - he cannot walk, can barely make some intelligible sounds, and has very limited vision if any. The chapters in his voice have a different cadence but are certainly the work of a creative and sensitive author. It makes you wonder just how much he may perceive (he seems to be especially sensitive to sounds) and if he is frustrated in trying to communicate it. It is a good reminder that lack of perception does not necessarily follow from lack of ability to communicate. Lark’s complete devotion to her half-brother and her selflessness in taking care of him are both heart-warming and heart-breaking.

There is much to satisfy in this novel: history (the incidents at No Gun Ri); just a little magical realism (the new wheel chair); mystery (who is Lark’s father, why are the children being raised by their aunt); and Mother Nature (a devastating flood).

You can find links to author interviews and podcast readings at Phillips' website.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Nom de Plume

Why does an author change his identity? John Banville, Booker Prize winning author of “The Sea” and other works of serious literature, assumed the pen name of Benjamin Black to write the crime novel Christine Falls. His protagonist is a pathologist named Quirke (I don't think his first name is ever mentioned), a hard-drinking, brooding bear of a man who works in a Dublin hospital morgue in the 1950's. A morgue? That's a great setting for a crime novel. And sure enough the story begins when, long after midnight, an inebriated Quirke encounters his adoptive brother Mal altering the file on a recently arrived corpse named Christine Falls. This event launches Quirke into the unaccustomed role of detective as he attempts to discover the truth about the girl's death. But his investigations reveal secrets not just about the corpse but about his own past as well.

Setting the story in the 50's allows Black to explore the atmosphere of guilt and sexual repression of that era, the male domination of women as well as the power and influence of the Catholic Church. He does a great job of creating a gloomy noir mood in Dublin, where it seems to always be rainy or foggy. And when the scene switches to a millionaire's mansion outside of Boston, it feels a lot like “Citizen Kane”. The characters are not exactly three dimensional, but then that's not really the point in mystery novels. The plot has more than enough twists to keep you turning the pages, and Quirke is very appealing as the flawed hero.

I had some trouble accepting the plausibility of the conspiracy that Quirke eventually uncovers. Could they really have pulled this off, even in the 50's? But Black's prose is a pleasure to read. He's already written two more Quirke mysteries, so if you like this one there's more to enjoy. Banville clearly seems to relish writing in this genre.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Scotland to Greenwich Village

"Three Junes" was Julia Glass’ first novel, written in 2002 and winner of the National Book Award for Fiction. At first I resisted the book because, for some reason, I didn’t think I wanted to read a book about three women named June. But “Three Junes” is not about three women named June. The novel is divided into three short stories that take place in the month of June in 1989,1995 and 1999. Each story stands on its own but is connected to the others. The opening story, “Collies” was first written as a novella. The novel is the story of a Scottish family that takes place over a decade and the family characters reappear in each story.

The story begins as Paul McLeod, the patriarch of the family, travels to Greece to find himself after his wife of thirty years has died. In the third person narrative we relive the past with Paul as he attempts to understand his complicated marriage and surprisingly finds a new life that he never would have imagined. Julia Glass writes with subtle humor as she describes, through Paul’s eyes, the absurdities of a tour of middle aged travelers led by a feckless, young, self absorbed tour guide on the make.

The second story takes us to Scotland and the McLeod family home, Tealing. Paul has died and his three grown sons have come to bury their father. This reunion is narrated by Fenno, the eldest son, who has moved to New York City. Fenno is a wonderful voice as he takes us back and forth from his structured, expatriate life as a gay bookstore owner in Greenwich Village to a series of family and personal revelations, at Tealing, that threaten to unravel his life. The characters in this section are the most interesting and developed as the story travels back and forth from New York to Scotland.

The final story takes place in a summer home on Long Island where Fenno meets Fern, a young woman who his father became infatuated with on his tour of Greece. This story brings the book to a satisfying conclusion.

“Three Junes” is a story of love in all its different and complicated forms. It is essentially about the love that exists between a husband and wife, between parents and children, between lovers, and poignantly between animals and their owners. In her first novel Julia Glass has shown a talent for developing strong characters, putting them in exciting places and writing a compelling story.