Sunday, November 29, 2009

Define Happiness

“Too short to be a novel, too long to be a short story, the novella is generally unrecognized by academics and publishers.” Melville House Publishers is celebrating the novella by publishing many novellas that have never been published before. “The Happy Man”, written Hansjorg Schertenleib and translated from German by David Dollenmayer, is the first work of this well known Swiss writer that has been translated to English.

This short, amazing story is about an average man who just so happens to be a genuinely happy man. The hero of this story is This Studer (at first it is difficult to read sentences about a man named This). This is (see what I mean) a jazz musician, married to the love of his life and the father of a somewhat abrasive teenage girl. Both This’ wife and his daughter find his complacent nature irritating. But they both suffer from problems that This finds endearing.

The story takes place in Amsterdam where This has gone for a week to play in a club with a group formed by his old friend Henk. The story progresses as This and his wife explore Amsterdam. The author's descriptions of the streets, restaurants and people of Amsterdam are vivid. But the story itself meanders along as the reader waits to see what is going to happen to our “happy man”. In the hands of a less skilled writer this could be a dull story, but Hansjorg Schertenleib is a wonderful writer. His prose is lyrical and his dialogue is quirky and interesting. His hopeful man is a very intriguing character. But the best part of this story is the stunning, unexpected ending.

Mr. Schertenleib has written two collections of short stories, poetry and seven novels yet this is the only one translated to date. He has been living in Ireland for the last thirteen years so maybe we will see more of this very talented author’s work translated to English.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Year of the Rabbit

No, not the Chinese lunar calendar kind of year. I mean my own personal year with Rabbit Angstrom. It started in March when our book club, mindful of his recent death, decided to read John Updike's “Rabbit, Run”. I was intrigued by Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom, this impulsive, confused, horny everyman who seemed to be seeking something he couldn't define, and running from family, responsibility and himself.

So in April I read “Rabbit Redux” (The Next Chapter) and picked up Rabbit's story in the turbulent Sixties, where his odd alliance with a black revolutionary and a rich-girl drug addict produced a fractured, intense drama that matched the times. And in May I read “Rabbit Is Rich” (Rabbit Is Paunchy) where Rabbit, ten years removed from his Sixties self, was selling Toyotas and enjoying the middle class life of country clubs and golf games, but still struggling to connect to his alienated son, still driven by his libido and by his search for meaning. In September I read “Rabbit At Rest” (Rabbit Runs Down), where Rabbit, now in his fifties, facing his own mortality, tried to do what he had always done – run. You can probably guess how that turned out.

So I thought Rabbit and I were done. But then I discovered Licks of Love, a collection of Updike short stories published in 2000. The final story, a novella length piece entitled “Rabbit Remembered”, is the final chapter in the Rabbit saga. It's now 1999, and as the millennium approaches Rabbit's wife Janice and son Nelson are both still in Brewer, Pennsylvania. Rabbit is gone but his presence still lingers. And then it appears in the flesh in the person of Annabelle, Rabbit's daughter from his brief fling with Ruth in “Rabbit, Run”.

Updike shows us flashes of Rabbit – impulsive, patriotic, unapologetic, searching – in both his two offspring and his awkward grandson. And there are flashes of Updike's brilliance as well – his affection for small town life, his ability to weave the historical events of the era into the narrative, his honest portrayal of his flawed characters. But with Rabbit things were always messy and off balance, so I was a little disappointed in the tidy ending.

I've enjoyed my Year of the Rabbit. I don't know when I'll have another chance to follow a character and an author through forty years. Goodbye Rabbit; goodbye John Updike.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Trip to South America

If you had a blank map of South America, could you draw in Uruguay – with any accuracy? I certainly couldn’t. But I was prompted to look at a map while reading The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis. It is a novel set in Uruguay (with a small detour to Argentina) during the twentieth century. Most of the events occur in Montevideo: “Monte. Vide. Eu. I see a mountain, said a Portuguese man, among the first Europeans to sight this terrain from sea.” But he was wrong – no mountains, barely a hill, hence the “invisible” of the title.

The story follows the lives of three generations of women: Pajarita, a healer of mind and body with her plants; her daughter Eva, a poet; and Eva’s daughter, Salome. But equally as interesting is the way that De Robertis manages to weave in concurrent historical events including the Cuban revolution, the rise and fall of Juan and Evita Peron, Che Guevara, the docking of the wounded German warship Graf Spee during WW II, and most importantly the change in Uruguay in the 1960s to military rule. The resistance efforts of the Tupamaros are inspiring – and heartbreaking. The portrayal of the lives and conditions of political prisoners is memorable.

De Robertis knows of what she writes. Her parents were Uruguayan, although she herself was raised in Europe and the USA and now lives in Oakland, CA; and she has relatives in Uruguay with whom she spent time while preparing this book. There is a liberal sprinkling of Spanish words and the local culture: lots of smoking, music, drinking (what exactly is a mate?), food (empanadas – those I remember from a cooking class) as well as sexual abuse and poverty.

These are three resilient women (none of the men in their lives comes off very well). Each generation faced very different challenges but each succeeding generation found strength from the one(s) before. “...roots are essential. We begin long before we’re born.” I am glad that I had an opportunity to spend some time with them.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Living2Read Roundtable - Episode 2

Once again we are planning a Roundtable, where we encourage our readers to participate in a discussion about a book. We've all had the experience of reading a book and then wanting to share thoughts with others. Here's your chance to broaden your understanding and increase your enjoyment of a book by giving your opinion, asking questions, and listening to the thoughts of other readers.

Our next Roundtable will be the week of January 8th through 14th. Our selection is The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth. Written in 1932, the book is a family drama set against the backdrop of the Austro-Hungarian Empire just before World War I. The New York Times describes it as “epic . . . brilliantly achieved . . . the portrait of an empty age, an age of gold braid and glitter.”

So start reading, and let's talk in January.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Victims of War

Janice Y.K. Lee’s first novel, “The Piano Teacher” takes place in Hong Kong during and after the 1941 Japanese invasion. The story begins in 1952 as Claire Pendelton, newly married, has arrived in Hong Kong with her British husband who has just been posted at the Department of Water Service. Claire decides to take a job as a piano teacher to the daughter of a wealthy, socially connected Chinese couple, Melody and Victor Chen. At the Chen’s Claire becomes acquainted with a fellow Brit, Will Truesdale, who is employed as the Chen’s chauffer.

Claire knew when she married Martin that she was not in love with him but it seemed like the right thing to do. The affair between Claire and Will takes on a life of its own as the story goes back in time to 1941. Will Truesdale had just arrived in Hong Kong. The British expatriates were seduced by Hong Kong, the parties, the life style, the overall lack of boundaries. Will fell in love with Trudy Liang, the beautiful daughter of a Portuguese mother and a wealthy Chinese businessman. Trudy was captivating, charming, and totally in charge. But six months after Will met Trudy, the Japanese invaded Hong Kong.

The author brings to life the tremendous turmoil that took over the residents of Hong Kong in 1941. The Japanese forced the privileged Brits and Americans into internment camps. The Chinese residents were forced to find ways to survive. And Trudy Liang was above all, a survivor.

The story flips from 1952 to 1941 as Claire attempts to understand the reticence and sadness behind the enigmatic Will Truesdale. What happened to the characters who lived in Hong Kong as the Japanese invaded is an intriguing story of war, love and betrayal. What happened to Claire Pendelton as she unravels this story is life transforming.

Janice Y.K. Lee has written a compelling first novel. Her writing is sparse and riveting. The story brings a time and place in history to life. The author, who was raised in Hong Kong, uses this intriguing story to show how deeply scarred the inhabitants of Hong Kong, both native and expatriate, were by the Japanese invasion.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Enough of a Good Thing

When I first read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (see my blog of November 19, 2008), I thought that I was ahead of the curve. It wasn’t quite so well known at that time. But when The Girl Who Played with Fire came out this summer, I had to wait several months to get a copy from my local library.

I’m not sure it was worth the wait. It has the expected healthy doses of body piercings, sex, beatings, motorcycle chases, and an outsized human “freak”. You do find out more about the personal family background of our Girl heroine Lisbeth Salender (no wonder she is so reserved around people).

But I didn’t really “learn” anything this time. The journalist Mikael Blomkvist’s involvement starts out with a planned expose of sex trafficking but we never really get the details of the trade. This book is pure plot: no character development (unless you count the unacknowledged developing romance between Salender and Mikael Blomkvist), no beautiful language, no thoughtful reflections or philosophy, no history. With all of the wonderful books out there to read and because I am a slow reader, the only reason that I can justify (to myself) reading a thriller is that it comes with something else. There’s a little bit of the art and strategy of boxing; some mathematics in the introductions to the Parts of the book. There is some behind-the-scenes duplicity by the Swedish government with regard to a Russian defector. Maybe that is based on fact or intended to be a cautionary tale. But none of these, alone or in combination, is enough to satisfy my requirement.

But that is just me. If you are at a time and place in which to lose yourself in a book for that purpose alone, then this is a good choice. The author does try to fill the reader in on some of the details of the prior book, but I would highly recommend reading them in order (Tattoo first, then Fire). There will be a third, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, but I am content to wait.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Summer Vacation

Summer Vacation – what an evocative phrase. We all have memories from our childhood and adolescence of that long stretch of days that opened up before us on the last day of school. I always thought that the light in my grade school classroom looked different on that final day – more golden. And if, like me, you grew up in a city, and your summer vacation included an escape to the beach, you probably remember the pleasure of that simpler, lazier existence.

That's the feeling Colson Whitehead captures in his novel Sag Harbor. Sag Harbor is first of all a real place – a small community in the Hamptons, populated in summer mainly by the families of African American professionals who own vacation homes there, many of them built or purchased by their grandparents' generation in the 1930's and 40's. But for Whitehead's fifteen year old hero Benji Cooper, Sag Harbor is also a state of mind, an escape from the world of his elite, mostly white, Manhattan prep school to a place where he hopes to reinvent himself as a cooler, more confident version of his old self. His parents visit only on occasional weekends, so Benji, his brother Reggie and their pals have plenty of space to experiment with cool handshakes, new haircuts and BB guns.

Was Whitehead taking notes when he was fifteen? His characters seem seem so true in every detail, and the humor bubbles up on every page. He's not attempting to describe a 'special summer' where some traumatic event causes a boy to become a man. Instead he gets inside of Benji's head as he wryly observes life in Sag Harbor, and attempts to figure out who he's going to be, who he wants to be. It's funny and touching with a just a hint of melancholy.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Perfect Timing

It’s a week before I am scheduled to run a marathon and I am nervous, jittery, and sluggish. There is an article in the NY Times reviving the controversy that slower runners (undefined but I definitely include myself in that category) who take walk breaks (also me) are not really true marathoners and are messing up the sport for the other fast runners. My training partner has the flu. I’m still battling a nagging hamstring injury. Why did my physical therapist mention scar tissue at my last visit? My work office is closed this week so I don’t have that as a distraction – more time for self doubt. When I started training, the race was 24 weeks away. How did it get to be 6 days, 5 days…? I’M NOT READY! I CAN’T DO THIS!

But then something guided my hand to a recent addition on my bookshelf: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. McDougall is a journalist, also a runner, also plagued with recurring injuries. In his search to answer the question “Why does my foot hurt?”, McDougall learns about and then goes in search of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyons. The Tarahumara are legendary for their ability to run long distances (hundreds of miles) seemingly effortlessly in just sandals. Not only that, they are supremely healthy and happy.

McDougall is a wonderfully entertaining writer. He gives us a crash course in the evolution of Homo erectus – how and when – and proceeds to describe each feature of our anatomy that supports the argument that we are designed to run. He takes us on a persistence hunt in which African Bushmen actually capture a kudu by outlasting the animal in a foot chase. And with all of this background, he is setting us up for the climax: a 50-mile foot race between some of the Tarahumara, a few of the fastest ultra distance runners from the US, and McDougal himself. Each of the other American runners comes with an amazing story – as you would expect of people who run 100+ miles for fun in the extremes of temperature and terrain. Each has his and her own reason for joining the race. For McDougall, it’s “Just beat the course…No one else. Just the course.” When he limps in last, taking more than twice as long as the fastest finishers, the others are there to congratulate him. When he demurs about being “amazingly slow”, the second place finisher tells him, “I’ve been there, man. I’ve been there a lot. It takes more guts than going fast.”

That’s what I needed to hear. Now I’m ready for the race. After all, I was born for this.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Living2Read Roundtable: On a scale of 1 to ...

“A decent novel can entertain you.
A good novel can make you feel stuff.
A great novel can change your life.”
Brad Bollenbach

Where does this novel (The Secret River by Kate Grenville) fit?

There are many ways to judge a novel.
- Did it expand your emotional repertoire?
- Did it deepen your self-understanding?
- Did any character change your perception of the world?

That’s a lot of heavy lifting for “made-up words.”

How well do you think the author succeeded with this book?

This is the fourth and last blog in this Roundtable series. You can find the others on Nov. 2, Nov. 3 and Nov. 4. We hope that you have enjoyed the conversation. If you have any suggestions for books that you would like to discuss in this forum, please let us know. Watch for an announcement of the next Roundtable.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Living2Read Roundtable: The Language

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

What did you think of the author's use of local speech patterns...not exactly a dialect but the grammar of the less educated, I guess? Did you find it distracting or authentic? Some of the terms I never did figure out and just kept on reading. But I did have to smile when I finally realized that "baccy" meant tobacco.

Did you notice the author's convention of writing all direct conversation in italics rather than in the conventional quotation marks?

I was especially moved by the author's descriptions of the physical landscape, the weather, the skies, the sea, the dawns and sunsets. Those things haven't changed in 200 years and no doubt the author's having grown up in Sydney and returning there after living a few years in Europe gave her ample opportunity for observation. Actually I was disappointed that the narrative changed before William and Sal had their first winter on the river. After such vivid descriptions of the hot summer months, I was looking forward to reading about winter. I'm sure it would have been just as extreme and vivid.

Is there a passage of special beauty or effectiveness that you marked in your reading?

This is the third in a series of 4 blogs in this Roundtable. You can find the others on Nov. 2, Nov. 3 and Nov. 5.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Living2Read Roundtable: The Characters

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

With which character did you feel more empathy or sympathy: William or Sal?

Did that feeling change during the course of the story?

I thought the author was even-handed in her portrayal of the strengths and weaknesses of both William and Sal. Each had a certain measure of selfishness but also moments of compromise (how else can a marriage be sustained?). Sal's resilience and inventiveness in dealing with the poverty of her life as a young married woman in England, the squalor of their initial accommodations in Sydney and starting life on the river were remarkable. I kept trying to see myself in the same situations. For Sal's sake I was insulted by William's continued surprise at his wife's farsightedness.

Both William and Sal were changed by their experience in this foreign land. One of the final incidents (p. 331) is quite telling. Sal reminds William "I thought you was wonderful when I was a little thing...Because you spit such a long way!" And he replies: "I ain't lost the art, Sal,...Only in this dry place a man needs all his spit for himself." And that, to me, sums up William: it became all about himself. And as usually happens, that does not make for a truly happy life.

This is the second in a series of 4 blogs in this Roundtable. You can find the others on Nov. 2, Nov 4 and Nov. 5.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Living2Read Roundtable: The Secret River

Well, it’s finally here: the first Living2Read Roundtable. Welcome!

Our hope is that those of us who have read the book can engage with each other in an exchange of thoughts and opinions about the book. If you are a member of a book group, you know that discussion of the author’s themes, intentions and characters in a novel can provide a broader context for analyzing current real-world issues. Respectful disagreement is a good thing – and welcome. As we experiment with a format for these Roundtables, it may have the feel of a work in progress – it is. But in time a solution will emerge. For this week, we will pose a question each day to start the discussion. Feel free to pose questions of your own about the book. To the point…

For this first Roundtable we have chosen The Secret River by Kate Grenville. It is the story of the early settlement of the area around Sydney, New South Wales (now known as Australia) by non-Aborigines as personified by William and Sal Thornhill. Perhaps the curriculum in other countries of the former British Commonwealth is more detailed than in the US but my own knowledge was only that this area was used as a penal colony for English convicts. I never thought to inquire what that might actually mean for the persons sent there. One test that I would make for any historical fiction is whether it inspires the reader to want to know more about the “facts”. By that measure I would judge this book an unqualified success. I would like to read more of the actual history of that time and place. If anyone can make a recommendation for further reading on that topic, please do so.

After Sagitty’s place is attacked and burned, Thornhill takes the dying Sagitty to the hospital in nearby Windsor. Instead of returning right away to Sal and the children, Thornhill goes to the local bar. With its repeated retellings, the story of the attack grows in its atrocities. Fear, prejudice and a desire for revenge drive the other men into a frenzy and Thornhill must decide whether to join in their murderous scheme. Could he have made a different choice? Do you think that he felt remorse for the choice that he did make? Was Sal somehow complicit in William’s choice by not challenging his version of what had occurred?

This is the first in a series of 4 blogs in this Roundtable. You can find the others on Nov. 3, Nov 4 and Nov. 5.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Makeshift Family

Anna Quindlen was a Newsweek columnist who won the Pulitzer Prize for her column “Public & Private” for the NY Times. She left the Times to write books. She has written four books, both fiction and non fiction, since she left her life as a columnist. Her novel “Blessings” was published in 2002.

“Blessings” takes place in the small town of Mount Mason, just outside of New York City. Blessings is the name of the estate owned by Lydia Blessing and her family for over sixty years. The story begins as a teenage couple quietly drive up the long driveway to the main house at Blessings. The boy gets out of the car and puts a box on the steps. But he is in such a hurry he leaves the box on the steps of the garage apartment and not the main house.

The next morning Skip Cuddy, who has recently begun to work for Lydia Blessings, finds a baby, wrapped in a flannel shirt in a cardboard box, as he leaves his apartment. For reasons unknown to him Skip decides to keep the baby. But he can’t let anyone know.

The readers are pulled into a story about a young man, without parents, who found himself in prison for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and a old woman who has led a privileged but lonely life. The story goes from the present, as Skip struggles with his life as the father of a newborn, to the past, as Lydia Blessing is haunted by the secrets she and her family have lived with over the last sixty years.

Lydia Blessing decides to help Skip to care for this child but a betrayal occurs and things drastically change. Anna Quindlen is a master at creating characters that you really care about. Her writing is so clear and descriptive that the reader can’t help but be moved to tears of empathy as this young man struggles to be a good father to this baby he found on his doorstep. And Lydia Blessing finds a part of herself that she thought was gone forever. But Anna Quindlen is never maudlin. She has that innate skill that makes a reader feel that the characters are real and what they do makes a difference.

This is a story about self discovery and family, whatever that family looks like in the end.