Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Woman of Substance

Elizabeth Stout has won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for her latest novel “Olive Kitteridge”. This book has been referred to as a novel in stories. There are thirteen chapters (she’s not superstitious!) each with its own title. The story brings to life the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine with all the quirkiness and charm of a small New England town. The tie that binds this novel together is the main character, a middle aged seventh grade math teacher, whose name is Olive Kitteridge. Olive is a force to be reckoned with. She has become a large woman in middle age, who has little patience for the changes that that have taken over her home town or the people that inhabit it. Her husband, her son and most people find Olive to be a difficult person. Her son states it clearly, “You can make people feel terrible”. Olive appears in all the stories, sometimes as the main character, a few times as a fleeting presence.

In the first chapter we meet Henry Kitteridge, Olive’s husband who is then the town’s Pharmacist. Henry is the opposite of Olive. He is quiet, reflective and remembered by everyone as kind. But as the stories progress we see another side of Olive. She is blunt and impatient but she is also incredibly empathetic. When she meets a young women who is blatantly anorexic, she cries. When she encounters a former student who wants to kill himself, she shares her past with him to let him know he isn’t alone in his sadness and depression. In one of the most startling chapters, “Tulips”, Olive goes to visit a woman who has shut herself away in her home because of a tragedy. Olive sympathetically reaches out to the woman but what she finds is someone who has lost her mind.

The joy of reading this story comes as the author weaves these complex characters together. All of the characters embody someone you know. Each character, whether you like them or not, is a strong force in this novel. But the most wonderful character is Olive herself as you watch her develop into a woman who understands where she came from and how she must change to be the person she wants to be. This “novel in stories” is a wonderful, compelling book that brings character development to a new level.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The People of Muddy River

I hadn't intended to read another book about China so soon. I felt like I was still digesting “The Corpse Walkers”, which had many powerful and disturbing stories about the “bottom rung” of Chinese society (see China Revealed). But I heard an interesting radio interview with author Yiyun Li, so I decided to tackle her first novel, “The Vagrants”. Li was born in Beijing in 1972, and did not come to the United States until 1996, after completing a college education and stint in the army. (Because Beijing University had been a hotbed during the Tienanmen Square uprising in 1989, all of its graduates were required to serve in the army after graduation). She had read Hemingway and Fitzgerald while in college, but she came to the US for graduate studies in Immunology. Luckily, her program was at University of Iowa, famous for its Writers Program, and after taking her first writing class to improve her written English, she switched her major and became a writer.

The Vagrants” is set in 1979 in Muddy River, a fictional town of 80,000 which Li says resembles her husband's hometown. The Cultural Revolution has ended, but the people of the town are still suffering its effects and struggling to survive. On the day the story opens a counter-revolutionary is to be executed. Gu Shan was a zealous Red Guard member who had been imprisoned ten years earlier when she wrote of her doubts about the revolution to a boyfriend who betrayed her. The townspeople have been let out of their jobs and schools to wave banners as they attend a festive 'denunciation ceremony'. Li then follows the lives of some of Muddy River's residents. These include Kai, an attractive, successful radio announcer who attended first grade with Gu Shan but seems to have made all the right choices in both her professional and personal life. But the two women are more alike than they seem. Kai's life contrasts with many of the less fortunate residents: Gu Shan's grieving parents, an innocent seven-year-old boy and his dog, a crippled young girl whose parents despise her, a spoiled and stupid young man who makes one bad decision after another, and several other characters, as their lives intertwine in the days following the execution.

I suppose this description could make it sound as if this book is simply a series of linked short stories instead of a novel (see Louise Erdrich). But that is definitely not the case. These characters are beautifully interwoven as their stories unfold. Their lives are full of suffering and sadness. They live in a totalitarian state that sanctions brutality and injustice. Some accept their fates stoically; some lash out with terrible violence. Although her first language is Chinese, Yiyun Li writes her fiction in English, because she says that is the language through which her characters speak to her. She has created a haunting and compelling story.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Even though I wasn’t especially enamored of the first book that I read by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville), when I saw his newest novel The Lemur on the library shelf I thought that it would be fitting to have the whole collection (3) of his Black works on our blog. For a refresher see blogs of 06.18.08 (Dorothea) and 03.06.09 (Charlotte).

Here’s the premise of the story: “I’m here to tell you, everybody has secrets, mostly guilty ones.” John Glass is a retired journalist. He has been hired for $1 million by his father-in-law to write the latter’s biography with “all the facts.” As Mr. Mullholland was an undercover CIA agent, one can expect that there may be some very interesting facts. Glass in turn hires a researcher to assist him, a young man who in physical appearance and mannerisms reminds Glass of a lemur (we’ll come back to this).

The research opens the proverbial Pandora’s Box with unintended, unanticipated, disastrous consequences. It’s hard to say too much without spoiling the story. In the end this reader was left with just as many questions as answers: Why did the father-in-law really commission this book? What will John Glass do with the secrets he has uncovered? What will happen with his own secret?

I found out after finishing the book that it was originally published as a serial in the New York Times Sunday Magazine beginning in January 2008. It would be interesting to know which came first: the writing or the decision to publish it as a serial. I would guess the latter as the serialization requires a certain pacing all its own. This may also explain why Black moves the setting from Dublin to New York and abandons the pathologist Quirke from the first two novels for the journalist Glass albeit Glass is still an Irishman.

And it’s a mystery to me why Glass (and Black) refer to the lemur as a rodent when in fact the lemur is a primate. Is this intentional? Is there a message there…or merely bad editing? I did enjoy this book – very good for a plane ride – but I still prefer John Banville to Benjamin Black.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Revolution and Freedom

Dalia Sofer was ten years old when she and her family escaped from Iran into Turkey with the help of smugglers. The family eventually emigrated to New York and began a new life. Two years before they fled Iran Sofer’s father had been imprisoned and accused of being a Zionist spy. Dalia Sofer’s first novel was her way of understanding the horrific experience her father and many other Iranian citizens had suffered in prison. She relied on her memories, dialogs with her father and reading numerous accounts written by other Iranian prisoners. The result of this immense effort is a beautifully written novel that spans one year from September 1981 to September 1982 portraying a Jewish, Iranian family in Tehran shortly after the revolution.

Issac Amin an Iranian Jewish, gem dealer is arrested one afternoon as he was leaving his office to have lunch with his wife. He is accused of being a spy for Israel because of his frequent business trips there. The novel is written with alternating chapters narrated by each of the Amin family members. Isaac is arrested, imprisoned and tortured . During this time he finds that he is in the “care” of one guard and Isaac eventually learns he can rely on this man. Isaac’s wife, Farnaz, is left to deal with their home, their children and trying to find out where her husband has been taken. Both Isaac and Farnaz find themselves contemplating their life, their relationship and what they have become in life. Their son, Parviz, is in New York studying architecture. Having been the son of wealthy parents he now finds himself with not enough money to pay his rent or feed himself. Even the nine year old daughter, Shirin finds herself lost. She attempts to help her father by stealing files from a friend’s home whose father works for the revolutionaries.

Sofer deftly illustrates the ironies that define the lives of this family. Under the Shah’s regime they experienced privilege and wealth but that is essentially the reason Isaac has been imprisoned. Isaac was a non practicing Jew but he is accused of being a Zionist spy. Farnaz defined herself by her material possessions, all of which must eventually be left behind. Parviz falls in love with the daughter of an Hassidic Jew in New York but he is deemed unworthy of her because he is not a truly religious Jew.

Dalia Sofer has written a descriptive, moving novel that beautifully illustrates how each member of the Amin family arrives at new understanding of what is most important to them, to their family and to their survival. The author has taken her family’s amazing, terrifying history and created a story that explains to the world what happened to many Iranians in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution. For the Amin family it was a treacherous journey on many levels. Let’s hope Dalia Sofer continues to tell the world of the journey her family and fellow Iranians have taken as they live out their tumultuous history.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Flight to Paris

If you're a reader who needs to like and admire the main characters in the novels you choose, I recommend that you skip Beat by Amy Boaz. On the other hand, if you're prepared to suspend your disapproval in order to follow the story of flawed, unlikeable but undeniably interesting characters you might enjoy it.

Frances, an unhappily married woman from suburban New York, has abandoned her husband and toddler son and fled to Paris with her seven-year-old daughter Cathy. She is fleeing the disastrous ending of her love affair with Joseph, a New-Agey, self important older man who translates Sanskrit love poems and teaches at the hilariously named Diamondcutter Institute of Unformed Conceptions in Boulder, Colorado. In flashbacks we learn that Frances, whose marriage is in such disarray that her husband Harry sleeps in a shed he has built in their yard, met Joseph at a wedding reception and was immediately smitten. Blithely ignoring the fact that Joseph was already living with a woman, the formidable Arlene Manhunter, a famous Beat poet and founder of the Institute, she began a frantic love affair with him, flying cross country to spend passionate weekends on the mountain trails and in the Boulder Quality Inn. And as the flashbacks unfold we learn that Arlene is not a woman to be trifled with.

But now Frances is in Paris, trying to entertain her daughter, sort out her life, earn enough money to afford increasingly shabby hotel rooms, and deal with a mysterious man who seems to be following her. Told in the first person, the prose is sometimes dreamlike and poetic as Frances looks back on the events that have brought her to Paris. But there is also an undercurrent of suspense, since the final events in the affair are revealed slowly and obliquely. Frances is not great at accepting responsibility or recognizing her own faults. Fortunately she has a seven-year-old daughter who is good at dragging her into reality, and Boaz's mother/daughter dialogues seem fresh and true. Even though I was sometimes annoyed by Frances' self-justifying explanations for her behavior, I was engrossed in the story (great descriptions of Paris) and impressed with Boaz's ability to weave the past and present together in a compelling narrative.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Adventures of Reading

Reading short stories has always been an adventure for me. I’m never quite sure what I will encounter. Some of the best examples of this genre are found in Houghton Miflin’s yearly publication called “The Best American Short Stories”. Each year Houghton Miflin chooses a well known author to be the “guest editor”. A Houghton Miflin editor in charge gives the guest editor about a hundred and fifty stories chosen from recent magazine publications and the guest editor chooses twenty stories that he feels are the “best” to be published in this year’s volume.

The “Best American Short Stories - 2008” was edited by Salmon Rushdie the acclaimed author of “Midnight’s Children”, “The Moor’s Last Sigh” and many other fiction and nonfiction works. I was very impressed by the richness, diversity and strength of this collection. Many of the stories have a strong element of surprise and/or suspense, which caused me hold my breath as I turned the pages. And most of them are truly imaginative. Some of the authors are well known, such as Alice Munroe, Tobias Wolfe and T.C. Boyle but for some it is their first published work. The common thread in this selection of stories is originality and surprise.

One of my favorites is a story by the famed short story writer, Alice Munroe, called “Child’s Play”. It is about two pre adolescent girls at a Christian summer camp in Canada. It is told as a flashback as one of the women is near death and the other is a world traveled, published author. The story pulls you in with straight forward, chatty prose and then stuns you with an ending that is frightening and hard to believe. Another strange and haunting story is Katie Chase’s “Man and Wife”, a story about an arranged marriage between a nine year old girl and a grown man, told by the child as she is contemplating her future. The strange part about the story is that it all seems so normal but you know it is not.

A story I particularly liked is Nicole Krauss’ “From the Desk of Daniel Varsky”. It is about an American poet who inherits a desk from a Chilean writer and somehow the life and fate of the writer living in Chile becomes part of the poet’s life in New York. It is a moving story that leaves you to wonder what real or imaginary effect the desk had on the protagonist.

I could go on and on about these wonderful stories but do yourself a great favor and read them, or give the volume, as a gift, to someone who loves to read. They will really enjoy it and probably want to discuss the stories at length.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Summer Reading

Whether it's a book or a play or a restaurant, it's always nice to get a personal recommendation. So when a friend urged me to try The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, describing it as a great summer read, I decided to check it out, despite the misgivings I often have about reading translations.

The book is set in Barcelona in 1945, shortly after the end of the Spanish Civil War. In the first chapter ten-year-old Daniel Sempere is taken by his father, a widowed bookshop owner, to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a labyrinthine place where, as the proprietor explains, “books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader's hands”. Isn't that a great concept? Daniel is permitted to select one book, which he chooses mainly because he likes the binding. His choice is “The Shadow of the Wind” by Julián Carax, an obscure Spanish writer who was mysteriously killed in 1936. Julian becomes obsessed with finding out more about Carax, especially when he discovers that for years a mysterious figure, who calls himself by the name of a character in “The Shadow of the Wind” and whose face is horribly disfigured by burns, has been methodically burning all copies of Carax's books.

What follows is a sprawling, rambling story that stretches backward, as Daniel learns about Julián's childhood in pre-war Barcelona and his creative years in Paris, and forward into the 50's as Daniel grows to adulthood and belatedly realizes that his own life is inextricably linked to the mystery of Julián Carax. The plot twists and turns as Carax's childhood friends all play important roles in his fate. Like all good escapist literature, the story is laden with romance, betrayal, terror, heartbreak, humor. There's a deliciously evil villain, several beautiful women, and a loyal but comical sidekick who accompanies Daniel in his search through the narrow, winding streets of Barcelona. The writing is ...I guess I'd call it florid. Is that the translator's doing, or does Zafón just get a little carried away with his metaphors? Never mind – it's still a fun escape, and a tribute to the joy of books and reading.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Well Written Book

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.
Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”
Oscar Wilde from The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Well, I’ve had enough of the latter recently (books I didn’t blog) and vowed not to read another book unless it were on a list. Not too particular about which list…just some list. So I found a list and it included The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. That worked: I had it on my bookshelf (actually a school assignment for one of my children) and it is short…AND it is well-written.

It’s one of those books that can be read on several levels. It can be a coming-of-age story read by 7th graders or it can be the experience of an inner-city immigrant minority. In a sequence of very short chapters (each chapter is only 1 or 2 pages, maybe 3 at the most), Cisneros manages to include it all: racism, sexism, community, family, classism. One of the more powerful chapters is “Four Skinny Trees”. These are the four little elm trees planted by the city by the curb in front of the house. Because of the layout, the chapter takes two pages but it is actually only 20 lines. But in those few sentences we have alienation (nature vs. city), strength (roots and ethnic background), mutual dependence (if one weakens, they all do) and persistence. Such good writing.

Our narrator is Esperanza. Her mother tells her: “I could’ve been somebody, you know?”. Are these not the saddest words? And then, “Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You want to know why I quit school? Because I didn’t have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains.” And so does Esperanza. And she has a dream - to have her own house. Not like the sad red house on Mango Street with the crumbling bricks and swollen front door of which she is ashamed but “… a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.” Where do those dreams come from? Somehow you know that Esperanza will realize her dream. Would that we all could.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

An Irish Lament

Alice McDermott had written two critically acclaimed novels when she wrote “At Weddings and Wakes”. In this novel she again returns to her roots. Alice McDermott was born in Brooklyn, New York and grew up on Long Island. “At Weddings and Wakes” is the story of three generations of an Irish Catholic Family. The story is told through the eyes of the youngest members of the family.
Lucy Daily is the third sister in the Towne family and the only one who is married. Twice a week, in the summer, she dresses up her three children in their Sunday best and travels by bus and train from suburban Long Island to the gloomy apartment in Brooklyn where she grew up. Here they will visit all day with Lucy’s three sisters and her stepmother, Momma. It is here, during these long hot summer days, that the children learn of the world of sadness and disappointment that haunts their mother and her sisters. The children love their aunts but are confused by Veronica who stays in her dark room and only comes out to have “cocktails” and Agnes who works in the city and seems to know everything. The one they feel most comfortable with is May, the ex-nun who tries to make everyone happy. May has to make everyone happy because Momma seems to make everyone very unhappy.

Momma came to America to join her older sister who was married to Jake Towne and expecting her fourth child. Her sister died in childbirth leaving Jake with four young children. Momma married Jake and became pregnant with a son. But Jake died before the son was born. Momma never got over her sad life and never let the girls forget it for a minute.

There is a moment of happiness when May finds love late in life. Everyone rises above Momma’s cynicism and the Towne family celebrates May’s happiness with an big Irish wedding bringing together family, friends and neighbors. But the celebrating is short lived, and within days the children find themselves grieving for a lost member of their family.

Alice McDermott uses the memories and the perceptions of “the children” to describe this strange, tormented family. Her prose is fluid and carries the reader through the long, drawn out summer afternoons. She gives us her penetrating insights into each character and tells a story that could be the story of all families as they deal with loss, sadness, and death.

Alice McDermott is a great storyteller who transforms an ordinary story about an ordinary family into a universal, haunting experience and a very good read.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Completely Pointless and Beautiful

That's Tim Winton's description of surfing in his new novel Breath. I hadn't intended to read another coming-of-age novel so soon but I happened to see Winton's book on the New Fiction shelf at the library and remembered enjoying his “Cloudstreet” long ago. Winton is an Australian, and the main story, told in flashback, takes place in the small town of Sawyer in western Australia in the late 60's. Eleven year old Bruce Pike (“Pikelet”) and his twelve year old friend Ivan Loon (“Loonie”) have little in common, but they share a love of adventure in the forests and rivers of Sawyer. One favorite pastime is diving to the bottom of the river and holding their breath as long as possible. (“We scared people, pushing each other harder and further until often as not we scared ourselves”.), This is the first and most obvious reference to the title, but the notion of breath plays out in more dangerous ways as the story progresses.

The ocean is only a short distance from their mill town, but Pikelet's parents are afraid of it and Loonie's father, who owns a bar, is oblivious to it. But the ocean is a seductive presence for the adventurous boys, especially when they discover surfing. And even more seductive is Sando, a veteran international surfer who lives by the ocean and surfs with a grace and passion that the boys admire. They become his acolytes. Initially he is their teacher and guru, but gradually he begins to push them to surf in riskier and riskier situations. At the same time his wife Eva makes it clear that she can barely tolerate their presence.

I loved Winton's spare but lyrical descriptions of the exciting, harrowing thrills of surfing, as well as its beauty. It's easy to see why the lonely boys were so quickly addicted to it. But what happens when a boy is seduced by the attentions of powerful adults? When he is convinced that taking risks is the key to becoming extraordinary? That's the question Winton tackles. The two boys discover different answers, but both are powerfully and permanently affected by their childhood experiences.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Novel for Our TIme

Louise, Winifred and Olivia are cousins in Ellen Gilchrist's novel A Dangerous Age. The period of the novel is 2001 - 2005 and during that time each of these women marries an American soldier as the Iraq war rages on.

The novel is relatively short which constrains the development of any one of the characters, much less three women, but by far the most interesting of the three is Olivia, the editor of the (fictional) newspaper in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As limited as it is, the glimpse that we get of the life of a newspaper editor is revealing. Olivia struggles to balance the demands of her conscience, the politics of her readers and the interests of her advertisers. When Lynndie England is sentenced for her role in Abu Ghraib, Olivia writes an editorial that should have appeared in every real paper in this country. I don't remember reading anything like it - it is very powerful.

Olivia is also part Cherokee Indian. This gives Gilchrist the opportunity to include descriptions of certain Cherokee rituals around birth, marriage and death. They make so much sense and are quite moving. You have to ask yourself: have we really made any progress with our so-called advanced urban societies? Maybe simpler would be better.

I have to admit that I wasn't very enthusiastic about the book for the first few chapters which deal with Louise. But a woman whose mantra is "Without change, something sleeps inside us and seldom awakens," is not without some appeal. And how can you not like a book with chapter headings like "The Dazzling Return of the Real Earth in Spring When New Leaves are Enough to Drive a Man to Wonder and Small Birds are Learning to Fly."?

To my knowledge ( and some limited research) there has not yet been any significant amount of Iraq war fiction. If you know of any, let us know in the Comments. This book is a view of the war not from the battlefields but from the homefronts of the wives and families "left behind" as it were. If you don't have a family member in the military, this book is a window into an unfamiliar world. And it is a celebration of an extended family of women who draw closer to each other as they find love and loss.

Every time I rearrange my bookshelves I come across my unread copy of Gilchrist's first book In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, a collection of stories published in 1981. Between then and now - 27 years - Gilchrist has published an additional 20 books. I want to go back and read that first work. Has her writing style changed in any way that I can recognize? Was she always so accomplished a writer?