Friday, February 27, 2009

On Deaf Ears

His name is Desmond Blake and he's a recently retired linguistics professor in an unnamed city in northern England. He's confined to the role of house-husband as his wife's career takes off. His only regular assignment is to visit his cantankerous, aging and failing father in his squalid little house in southeast London. He's feeling ineffectual in his marriage. And he's losing his hearing. It doesn't sound like a very exciting premise for a novel. But that's how David Lodge's Deaf Sentence starts.

Most of the book is written in first person as a series of Desmond's journal entries. He is a witty, self-deprecating narrator who honestly records the embarrassing and frustrating problems that his deafness causes. Among these are his accidental agreement to help an attractive graduate student with her research simply because he's embarrassed to admit that he hasn't heard what she asked him. Comic and not-so-comic consequences ensue.

Occasionally Lodge will announce a switch to third person to describe a scene (“I feel a fit of the third person coming on.”). The best of these was a description of Desmond at his wife's meticulously planned Boxing Day party. He has belatedly discovered that the batteries in both his hearing aids have died. In a stroke of sheer genius (fueled by several glasses of wine), he decides that the solution to his dilemma is to grab onto one word that he has heard (or misheard) a party guest say to him and then use it to launch into an extended monologue on a subject about which he can talk at length, giving the hapless guest no chance to respond. The resulting 'conversations' are hilarious. But hasn't this happened to you? And in most cases your 'lecturer' doesn't even have dead batteries as an excuse.

As the story progresses Desmond's tone becomes more serious as he reflects on marriage, aging, mortality. In the acknowledgements Lodge admits that Desmond's deafness and his Dad are taken from his own experience. This explains why the deafness mishaps seem so true, and also why the scenes with Desmond and his father are so poignant and touching even when they made me laugh. In the end I found this book funny, moving and honest.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Small Town Life

When I picked up Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, I didn’t realize:
a. that this author had also written Amy and Isabelle which we had read in our book group in 2000; and
b. that this is a group of short stories and not technically a novel.

It has a very interesting structure. Olive Kitteridge of the title lives in the small fictional Maine town of Crosby where as a working adult she has taught seventh grade math. In some of the stories (there are 13 in all), Olive is the main character and the story explores some aspect of her relationships with her husband and her son. In other stories, Olive has a supporting role to a main character who was a school colleague (for example, the school nurse). And in yet another story Olive may have only a mention as the seventh grade teacher of the now-grown student who is the focus of the story. But I think the individual stories would not work as well apart from their integration into the whole narrative. One thing you quickly notice about Olive is that she seems perpetually angry. The questions of course are “why?” and “at whom?”.

I can say with certainty that this is a collection of the saddest stories that I have ever read: dysfunctional families, loneliness, infidelity, grief, disappointment. Which isn’t a reason not to read – and enjoy – this book, but I would recommend taking it in small doses. The final story seems a little contrived, put there to leave the reader feeling somewhat hopeful and optimistic.

Why the sadness? Perhaps as Olive reflects “… in the presence of someone else’s sorrow, a tiny crack of light would somehow come through her own dark encasement.” The stories are also reminders that you can know someone for a long time…and yet not really know him or her much at all.

The writing is polished and evocative as you would expect from someone on the faculty of a university MFA program. Though a small Maine town could not be more different from the urban setting in which I live, I am left with much food for thought and reflection.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Poor Feckless Sam

I recently finished An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke. It was promoted as an absurd, hilarious, wacky and darkly comic novel. I can partially agree with the wacky and darkly comic description. Sam Pulsifer is sent to prison for accidentally burning down Emily Dickenson's house and killing the two people who were in the house, though he was unaware of their presence. He rebuilds his life after ten years in prison but has no contact with his parents and fails to reveal his past to the wife he meets in college while training to be a packaging scientist (an amusing profession cleverly described). He seems a passive, feckless soul, and when he discovers that the homes of other famous writers are going up in smoke, implicating him, he sets out in a clumsy and ill advised way to uncover the identity of that arsonist. His ineptitude can be both amusing and alarming to the reader. He is, I suppose, the fool in all of us, and much of this satire contains clever writing. However, Sam's sadly self-destructive and clueless ways after a time became annoying. His self-awareness seems to be undeveloped or hidden beneath layers of denial. He appears to have little sense of the consequences of his actions. Sam is not unlikable despite all of this. As the tale grows darker, and his life falls apart, you are saddened by the the disastrous impact of major secrets kept between father and mother, mother and son, husband and wife. The lack of information and understanding Sam has for his parents is astounding. The unraveling becomes hard to witness as he continues to make very poor choices.

This unusual novel manages at times to be both absurd and ultimately tragic. Perhaps my sense of humor is such that I could not fully appreciate the outrageous elements of absurdist humor. However, the author has written a truly original and inventive tale which might be just your cup of tea.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Road Trip

I don't get much chance to use the word picaresque, and it's a favorite of mine. So I'm pleased to say that Jim Harrison's The English Major is a picaresque novel. I picked this book because it was on the NYT 'Notable 100' list last year and it was an author I hadn't read. I was surprised to learn that Harrison has written more than twenty-five books of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, has won a Guggenheim and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Where have I been?

The premise of the story is spelled out simply in the first few pages. The first person narrator Cliff is a sixty year old Michigan cherry farmer whose wife has just divorced him after re-connecting with an old flame at their fortieth high school reunion. He's been compelled to sell the farm as part of the divorce settlement and his beloved dog has died. Ouch. So Cliff does what the classic red-blooded American male does – he goes on a road trip. He even takes along his childhood U.S. map puzzle, so he can toss out a puzzle piece each time he crosses a state line. And true to the genre, the road trip includes a fair amount of drinking, fishing, philosophizing and sex.

Harrison's Cliff is definitely a masculine 'tough-guy' voice, with more discussions of his male member than I really needed. But he is also very funny and often self-deprecating, and his years on the farm have made him a wonderful observer of the flora and fauna he sees on his trip. His encounters with ex-student Marybelle (he taught high school before taking over the farm) and with his son in San Francisco give him plenty of chances for humorous observations on the joys and dangers of sex and the curse of cellphones. His descriptions of good meals and bad coffee on the road are vivid and funny. And the trip does help him determine a way forward in his life. Given a decent reader, I think this would be a great book-on-tape for a long road trip. And it will give you a chance to impress your friends with the word picaresque.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Disappearing Names

Nathan Englander's first book, the short story collection “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges”, contained stories that reflected his Orthodox Jewish upbringing. So I was expecting that his first novel – The Ministry of Special Cases would continue in this vein. “Write about what you know” - isn't that the standard advice for young writers? And this novel's main characters are indeed Jewish. But the location is not contemporary New York but Buenos Aires in 1976 during Argentina's 'dirty war'. This is not a book that gives you a realistic documentary-style vision of this time and place. It's more like a fable. In a weird way it reminded me of the imaginary world that Michael Chabon created in “The Yiddish Policemen's Union ”.

The main character is Kaddish Poznan. He's the son of a whore, and was named by a rabbi after the Jewish prayer of mourning. And his profession, if you can call it that, reflects his outsider’s status . In the dead of night he chisels names off tombstones. These tombstones are in a Jewish cemetery, in a section where only the outcasts were buried – prostitutes, pimps, gangsters and other unsavory characters. The descendants of these long dead miscreants have moved up the social ladder and in order to protect their reputations they pay Kaddish to expunge their pasts. If they're short on cash his clients pay with services in kind, like the plastic surgeon who pays his bill by giving Kaddish and his wife Lillian nose jobs. There's plenty of dark humor like this early in the book, but then the 'dirty war' reaches the Poznans. Their son Pato is 'disappeared', and both parents try in different ways to find him. This leads them to the Ministry of Special Cases, a nightmarish government agency right out of Kafka or Orwell.

Englander is an impressive writer. He has a wonderful narrative voice, lyrical at times but never showy or sentimental. And his dark humor colors even the most harrowing scenes. Kaddish is a memorable character, struggling in his roles as father and husband, battling back against forces beyond his control. But I have to warn you – this story is beautifully told, but it is a sad, even heartbreaking, story.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Vicarious Venting

If you’ve ever had a frustrating experience as an airline passenger or would-be passenger and had thoughts about the airline too black to say out loud, this is the novel for you: Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles. Bennie Ford is a fictional passenger stranded at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago while on his way from New York City to his daughter’s wedding in California. Actually it’s a little more complicated than that. Bennie has been estranged from his daughter Speck since she was an infant and his daughter is marrying another woman. Ironically the last argument that Bennie and his wife Stella had was over his remark about walking his daughter down the aisle.

When it becomes clear to Bennie that he is not going to get to California in time for either the rehearsal dinner or the ceremony, he starts the letter of the title to American Airlines demanding a refund of his airfare. He finishes the letter at the end of the book 180 pages later. Nothing and no one escape his rage and attack…politically incorrect but very funny. And lest you think it is all and only pop culture there are many classical and literary references. (Note to self: re-read Dante's Purgatorio).

Bennie is by profession a translator. The author has used an interesting literary device of having Bennie tell the story of the novel that he is translating intermittently with his own life story. Two stories: that may be the formula for many successful books.

Many demons are lurking beneath the surface humor and Bennie has had his share of struggles. But the last few pages, in which Bennie reconnects by phone with his former wife (the mother of the bride) and is, finally, back aloft on his way to LAX, are some of the most life affirming that I have read in a long time.

Monday, February 9, 2009

John Updike Remembered on NPR

John Updike, the often celebrated, gifted and prolific writer, died on January 27th 2009. Curiously, I was downloading an audio book version of the Witches of Eastwick on the night he died. On the January 28th episode of Fresh Air on NPR, excerpts from three interviews with Terry Gross were played in remembrance of the man and his work.  He was an eloquent, honest speaker (despite an earlier struggle with stuttering), a strikingly thoughtful man, and often very funny as well as insightful.

During the course of three conversations, he discussed writing and how issues in his life informed his work, how his ideas came to him and took shape, his response to criticism, etc.  He was a gracious and most interesting interview subject.  If you missed it, go to Fresh Air.Com, NPR.Com or I Tunes and download the FreshAir episode from January 28, 2009.  A wonderful series of interviews to contemplate.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Fathers and Sons

The Book Shop in West Portal in San Francisco is a readers book store. The
books are carefully put out on large tables to easily browse and read. I am always impressed by the choice of books I find. Many are the titles we have read in book club or ones we have blogged. I love to slowly browse and read the backs and covers of the books until I find the one that appeals to me. I had never heard of Paul Harding or his novel “Tinkers” but I liked the blurbs on the back. Interestingly the copy I purchased was autographed, so Mr. Harding must have visited the Book Shop. I was elated to find “Tinkers” to be a special and amazingly good book.

“Tinkers” is Paul Harding’s first novel. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a teacher of creative writing at Harvard. “Tinkers” is the story of George Washington Crosby. We find him as he lays dying in the living room of the house he built. The story is a series of hallucinations that emerge as George slowly loses consciousness with the world and people around him. He begins to relive his childhood in the rural West Cove, Maine. He remembers his father, Howard, a tinker who drove a wagon over the countryside, filled with household goods, to sell to the people living in the remote woods. George tells the story of a kind, humble father who suffered from epileptic fits, a father who disappeared from George’s life when he was young. The beauty of this story lies in the thoughts of these two men. The author brings the reader into the hearts of these men and shows us that even though they were separated there remained a strong connection. George was a teacher but in his retirement he repaired and tinkered with antique clocks. Paul Harding delves masterfully into the workings of a clock and the skill of "horology", the study of measuring time or making clocks. He also describes the mystery of an epileptic seizure with wonderful, clear, insightful language. The story moves from George and Howard to Howard’s father, a minister, who was strangely removed from Howard's life when he was a boy. The author goes into the minds of these three men, who did not or hardly knew each other, to illustrate the mystery of existence and connection.

Paul Harding’s prose is beautiful whether he is describing some wonderful force of nature or the sadness of a young boy. His sentences can go on for a full page and demand the reader’s full concentration but the effort is rewarded with an intricate story and a beautifully written novel.

Let’s hope Paul Harding has other stories to tell us with his amazing prose and skillful narrative.

Happy Birthday!

It hardly seems possible that the Living To Read blog is one year old today!

During these past 12 months there have been 162 posts.
To our readers, thank you for being so faithful. There are so many book blogs in cyberspace.
To our bloggers Anna, Babbette, Charlotte, Dorothea, and Emma (A, B, C, D, E…how did that happen!), thank you for making it happen.

We’ve come a long way. There is new content on the blog every day.
- 3 to 4 new posts every week
- Subscribe by e-mail
- A new vocabulary word every day
- 5 new links to other book posts every day
- Links to author interviews
- Links to book-related podcasts
- Link to the complete 25 year reading history of our book group on our wikispace
- A catalogue of all of our past blogs
- Custom t-shirts

We would love to hear from you:
- Did you have a favorite post?
- Based on a post, did you read the book described? Did you agree or disagree? Did you feel disappointed, misled, grateful for the lead…?
- Do you have suggestions for how to make the blog better?

We’re looking forward to another great year of All Things Reading. We hope that you will be sharing it with us and that you will share the blog to your friends and fellow readers.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Life Underground

It's always interesting to read a book about which you know absolutely nothing. So when I received His Illegal Self by Peter Carey as a gift I carefully avoided reading the synopsis on the book flap and the blurb on the back cover. I didn't even look at the About The Author text on the back flap, and I'm really glad I didn't. Had I looked I would have discovered that Peter Carey also wrote “Oscar and Lucinda”, definitely not one of my favorite reads. I've forgotten most of that story, but the image of Oscar transporting that damn glass cathedral through the jungle as he doses laudanum is one I wish I could forget.

But this book tells a very different kind of story. If you're old enough to remember the radical student groups of the late sixties (think SDS, Weathermen), you may be intrigued by Carey's premise. It's 1972, and a seven year old boy named Che Selkirk, the child of two radicals now living underground, is being raised by his grandmother, a Park Avenue matron. Not surprisingly she has changed his name to Jay. But very early in the book his life takes a sharp turn as he is pulled back into the world of his parents. A great deal happens very quickly at the beginning of the story, and to describe it would be to deprive you of what for me was an enjoyable part of reading it – the exhilaration of seeing the unexpected events unfold.

The story is narrated primarily from Che's point of view, even though it's written in the third person. But occasionally Carey has to backtrack to fill in missing pieces that Che doesn't know. That's a little jarring, and the story definitely has a fragmented feeling. The latter part of the book is set in a hippie commune in Queensland Australia, and Carey's descriptions both of the natural world and of the weird dynamics of commune life are vivid and convincing. Occasionally Carey's Che sound more Australian than American, and at times his observations are too adult for a seven year old, but I thought he did an admirable job of telling the story from a child's perspective.

So my advice is this – if you're going to read this book don't read any reviews – it's better to be surprised. And if you have read this book I'd love to hear your opinion of the meaning of the last paragraph.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Best Friend

Jack London’s Call of the Wild (COTW) is the perfect counterpart to David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle if only because its 86 pages are a welcome reprieve from the 562 pages of Wroblewski’s book. Although the latter had only 3 chapters from the point of view of the dog Almondine, COTW is all Buck. Buck is a cross between a St Bernard (his father) and shepherd (his mother). Though the first 4 years of his life were spent in the comfort of the Santa Clara Valley in California, Buck finds himself as part of a dogsled team in the Yukon in the gold rush days of the 1890s. The story takes us through a succession of 5 owners. They run the gamut from bad to good. As Buck learns to adapt to his new surroundings, we see him exercise the imagination so sought by the Sawtelle breeders.

As Charlotte described in her review of London’s story “To Build a Fire”, his language is so vivid that you feel that you are right there. You feel the frenzy of the miners and the personalities of the dogs. To write with such feeling about Buck and his fellow dogs, London must have had some very special canines in his own life. Maybe it was the dogs he encountered during the year that he spent prospecting for gold in the Klondike during the gold rush. When an author is writing from personal experience there seems to be a special quality, an immediacy to the writing that no amount of research can duplicate.

As an aside, I listened to COTW on a free recording that I downloaded from but I also have a printed copy. I went to the hard copy to check something only to discover that the recorded version had omitted the last two pages – pages which bring a significant closure to the story. Another example I guess of “you get what you pay for.” Like many of London’s other works, COTW was first published in sequential issues of The Saturday Evening Post which left the text open to editors’ space and formatting constraints which were not present in the subsequent book publication. Nevertheless I am sorry for the recording lapse.

We in the San Francisco Bay Area are fortunate to be close to Jack London State Historic Park where London is buried and a museum chronicles his life and adventures. I’m tempted to pay a return visit.