Friday, May 29, 2009

Rabbit is Paunchy

I'm hooked on Rabbit. So when I finished John Updike's “Rabbit Redux” I immediately headed for Rabbit Is Rich (and thank you SFPL for your incredibly efficient book request system). As with the earlier Rabbit books, another ten years have passed in Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom's life. The year is 1979 and he is now half owner of his late father-in-law's Toyota dealership. Gas has reached the astounding price of one dollar per gallon, with gas lines at every station, so business is good for the fuel efficient Corollas, Coronas and Celicas that Rabbit sells. He and his wife Janice (yes, they're still together) have joined a new country club, where he plays golf and she plays tennis with their circle of newly middle class friends, and Rabbit seems more content and grounded than when we last saw him ten years ago in the turbulent 60's. He's reading Consumer Reports and investing in gold and silver.

But Rabbit is still Rabbit. His reach still exceeds his grasp, even though he's not reaching very far. He wants to make amends to Ruth, the woman he lived with for a time in “Rabbit, Run” when he was running from his marriage. He wants to have sex with his friend Webb's young wife (he's still the horndog). And when his son Nelson drops out of Kent State and returns home, he wants a better life for him than Nelson wants for himself. Harry can't seem to connect with Nelson. He thinks this is because Nelson is too much like Janice's side of the family, but in truth his son has the same impulse control problems his father has, and he has learned his father's wise-ass way of avoiding expressing his real feelings. Harry is jealous of Nelson's youth, attracted to his girlfriends, and frustrated that his son is not taking advantage of the opportunities that he never had. Rabbit is still twitchy.

Updike's prose is a pleasure to read. Whether he's describing a rundown country farm, a woman's body in a wet bathing suit, or the light filtered into a bedroom through a copper beech, he seems able to capture images that ring true. This book has wonderfully humorous moments, plenty of sex, and thoughtful reflections on aging and parenthood. I'm not done with you yet, Rabbit.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Book Club Humor

Not to be missed by any book club member is this selection by Ann Hodgman in the May 25 issue of the New Yorker.

And a much less prosaic contribution:
Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.
Groucho Marx
US comedian with Marx Brothers (1890 - 1977)
Feel free to Comment with additional contributions!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Crash of '72

No, this isn't about another financial meltdown - but an airplane crash: Miracle in the Andes. The story has been written about before, but this time (2006), the author Nando Parrado was one of the passengers. And even though we know obviously that he survives, his narrative is suspenseful and riveting (especially if you don't read the back cover first).

The Old Christians Rugby Club from Uruguay had chartered a plane to take them to play an exhibition game against a team in Chile. The team of young men (late teens, early twenties) was accompanied by friends, family and some team supporters. After takeoff, bad weather forced the plane to make an unscheduled stopover on the eastern side of the Andes. Without much improvement in the weather the next day, the pilots were persuaded to take to the air to cross the mountains to their destination in Chile - but they never made it. They crashed high in the Andes.

Some of the passengers died instantly, some over the next 2 and a half months as they struggled to survive in this harshest of climates. It is fascinating to watch as roles change, leaders emerge and fail, ingenious solutions are devised to life-threatening problems. I have a new appreciation for the game of rugby. I still think that it is a brutal game but the fact that so many were team members who had known each other for years probably accounted in no small part for their survival. The author, who was a member of the team, describes rugby as more of a team sport than soccer. They certainly needed to work together in this situation.

The author devotes many pages to his personal reflections at the time and his conversations at the time with other passengers about the role of God and death. As they were from Uruguay almost all of them had been raised as Catholics. This was definitely a test of faith and individuals responded in very different ways. All the larger issues were there and plenty of time for reflection: agency, fate, love, responsibility, sacrifice, ...

We also get a glimpse of how the survivors went on to live their lives after this ordeal with the most detail of course about the author's response. His father gave him some very good advice: "Don't let this be the most important thing that ever happens to you. Look forward." It took him a while to find his bearings. And it took several decades before he decided to tell his story of those 72 days on the mountain. He explains why he kept silent and why he decided to write.

I hope that I will never be tested in anything like this situation but there are some very important lessons that I have taken from this account.

Further details of the story can be found in the 1973 book Alive.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Loss and Redemption

Reading Ron Carlson’s novel “Five Skies” was one of those wonderful reading experiences that reminds me of why I love to read. It is a story of redemption. Three men meet on a ragged plateau in Idaho. They are there to build a large and spectacular project. For most of the story the reader isn’t quite sure what the project is. What the reader learns through Carlson’s meticulous prose is the incredible detail and work involved in digging holes for posts, paving a road and making a sumptuous sandwich. But as the men skillfully build, we learn that they are each running away from their lives. With sparse language and curt exchanges between the men we learn that Arthur Keyes, a huge, strong man, has run away from the guilt and sadness of his brother’s death. Darwin Gallegos, the foreman of the project, has deep seeded rage over the accidental death of his wife. And Ronnie Pannelli, a gangly nineteen year old is running from a life of petty crime.

Carlson uses the parallel of constructing the spectacular project with the building and repairing the lives of these men. One of the strengths of the Ron Carlson’s writing is the slow and skillful way he develops his characters. He also uses the wonderful devices of literature that make a story come alive, metaphors, foreshadowing and personification. His descriptions of the Western skies over this Idaho plateau are beautiful. His phrases such as, “in some ebony quadrant of the sky there were ghosted flashes of an electrical storm blooming like small stars……” are lyrical. The names of the places, the ranch called, “Rio Difficulto” and the town called “Mercy” all reflect the story Ron Carlson is so skillfully presenting to the reader.

The three men learn life lessons from the stark landscape of the Idaho plateau and the bizarre project they are building. With the slow, meticulous building of the “ramp to nowhere” the three men find ways to rebuild their broken lives. The ending is powerful and riveting. The reader of “Five Skies” finds a story of loss and redemption that is beautifully written and one that will bring up some thoughtful questions about life, and the environment. How we appreciate them and how sometimes we mistreat them.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Classic Short Story

Last winter I took a class on the short story. I have long been a fan of Eudora Welty, but somehow I had never read one her best known stories - “Why I Live at the P.O.”. Welty worked for the WPA as a publicity photographer in the 30's, and she has said the story was inspired by a woman she saw ironing in the back room of a small rural post office in Mississippi.

The story, set in China Grove, Mississippi, is told as a monologue by Sister, who has moved into the post office (“the next to smallest P.O in the state of Mississippi”) after quarreling with her family. The quarrel was prompted by the return home of her sister Stella-Rondo, whom Sister resents because she has stolen Sister's beau Mr. Whitaker by telling him that Sister was one-sided - “Bigger on one side that the other, which is a deliberate, calculated falsehood: I'm the same.” Sister could certainly be categorized as an unreliable narrator, but I don't think I've ever read a funnier one. The quarrel escalates as the various family members – Mama, Papa-Daddy, Uncle Rondo – fail to take her side and refuse to question Stella-Rondo about the “very peculiar-looking child” Shirley-T whom she has brought home with her and whom she claims is adopted. Stella-Rondo is twelve months younger than Sister, and as is often the case with siblings, she knows how to push her older sister's buttons. With her help Sister succeeds in hilariously infuriating all the family members.

Welty is known and beloved for her talent of infusing her stories with the authentic flavor of Mississippi. Sister, clearly the cook of the family, finds time to try “to stretch two chickens over five people” and make green-tomato pickles and watermelon rind preserves while she bickers. But I doubt that Sister will remain at the P.O. too long. She's far too curious to get to the bottom of her sister's reappearance, and it's clear that family spats are an essential source of entertainment in this China Grove household. Welty paints them all so vividly that I hated to leave them.

There's a wonderful reading of this story by Stockard Channing on PRI's Selected Shorts.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The most fascinating Catherine

Catherine the Great by Henri Troyat takes an already fascinating history and enlivens it with focus on all manner of intrigue, scheming, sex and more sex. This naturally kept me glued to the pages. The tale of how an obscure 14 year old German princess came to be betrothed to the Grand Duke Peter, heir of Empress Elizabeth of Russia, and plotted her way into power is mesmerizing. The loathsome, infantile half-wit Peter is so bizarre as to seem a fictional creation. The young princess doesn't let that deter her; instead she carefully endears herself to the Russian people and engineers a coup the moment Peter ascends the throne.

As the years go by, the book does highlight Catherine's personal life rather than giving a thorough account of historical context, but the reader gets a sense of what Russia was like at that time for both royalty and for serfs, who were merely property. Catherine did succeed in bringing her adopted country more into the European mainstream, and may have been the first royal who espoused (although did not practice) egalitarianism.

This spiced-up biography is an entertaining and informative read.

What's in a Bonnet?

There seem to be more and more websites these days that are using book give-aways to drive traffic to their sites: LibraryThing, BookBrowse, Book Trib to name a few. The books are distributed as the result of a lottery and some of the sites ask you to write a review in exchange for receiving the book. At some point I must have entered one because I received in the mail a free copy of The Easter Parade, a novel by Richard Yates (author of Revolutionary Road).

One of the facilitators that we have had over the years at our book group meetings said to pay particular attention to the opening line of a novel. It makes sense: presumably the author has spent much time to craft this line as his or her best shot at drawing the reader in to the story. That said there are only a few novels whose first lines would be considered truly memorable. (Charlotte reminded us of one of them in her blog of Phillip Lopate’s Two Marriages).

The opening line of this novel pretty much says it all: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.” The sisters Sarah and Emily were 9 and 5 respectively in 1930 when their parents divorced. There followed a succession of moves with their mother Pookie to different towns and residences throughout New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. (This part including the divorce of his parents seems to have been autobiographical). Emily is our narrator. Though not as physically attractive as her older sister, she is the more intelligent and introspective of the two. As a very broad generalization Sarah takes the role of suburban housewife with a home on Long Island, the three children, a short-lived attempt at writing...while Emily is the single career girl living in the city. Neither life is as it might appear to an outsider or indeed to the other sister.

We follow the sisters for forty years until on the last page Emily says: “I’m almost fifty years old and I’ve never understood anything in my whole life.” Don’t we all have moments like that? To Yates’ great credit when I finished the book I felt almost as emotionally drained by her journey as she was.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Food for Comfort

Kim Sunee has written a memoir of her exciting, sad and complicated life. She tells the story of being abandoned in a Korean marketplace when she was about three years old. She was too young to remember very much, but old enough to have haunting memories. A young American couple stationed in Korea adopted her and brought her home to New Orleans. They later adopted another Korean girl. Kim and her sister grew up in a city (as Kim remembers) with no other Asian children. Kim tells of a childhood of feeling displaced. But the real story began when Kim left New Orleans for college in Florida. From Florida Kim followed a Swedish boyfriend to live in Sweden where she began a life of searching for a feeling of self, and belonging.

“Trail of Crumbs” is a sad story of a young woman who is searching for a past and love. But the most amazing and surprising part of the book is Kim Sunee’s incredible talent as a cook. At the end of many chapters are recipes and throughout the book Kim describes in mouth watering detail the amazing meals she prepared and cooked.

When her relationship with her Swedish boyfriend ended Kim met Olivier Baussen, the French millionaire who founded “L’Occitane” and “Oliviers & Co”, two worldwide companies visible in most every city in the world. The life Kim led in her twenties is one that was defined by world travel, beautiful homes, beautiful clothes and entertaining and cooking for large gatherings at the drop of a hat. The details of the feasts she prepared and the beautiful surroundings in Provence, are a pleasure to read. But Kim Sunee could only be really happy when she was cooking. She was plagued with a "constant need for departure".

What is difficult to read is the story of a young woman who floated through life taking what she could but never knowing what she wanted. She often comes across as an unreliable narrator as she relates how everyone in her life somehow fell short, never giving her what she needed. She seemed to have a talent for hurting the people who have loved and helped her the most. She consistently related the praise of her talents that others lavished on her. But all the amazing things that happened to her, as she traveled the world, all happened before she was thirty. Her story is one that resounds with the comfort one finds in food and cooking. Her recipes that relate to specific places in the book and her descriptions of the food presentations are delightful. This is definitely an interesting, entertaining memoir written by a young woman who has an intriguing story to tell.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Coming of Age

The Coming of Age novel is a genre with which we're probably all familiar. I think immediately of books like “Great Expectations”, “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Huckleberry Finn”, books in which the main character, a child or young adult, experiences adventures, conflicts or revelations which profoundly affect his passage into adulthood. Sometimes these experiences occur within the confines of the family itself, but other times outside events intrude on the child's life. In Hisham Matar's debut novel In The Country of Men, set in Libya in 1979, nine-year-old Suleiman, the first person narrator, understands nothing of the politics of Muammar Gaddafi's totalitarian regime. But he sees its effects on the lives of his parents and friends,

Matar is very effective in portraying the workings of a nine-year-old mind. Suleiman is confused and angry, stung by the lies his parents tell him, frightened by political interrogations he sees on television, uncertain where his loyalties should lie. As a result he commits a series of betrayals. It would certainly have been more dramatic, even cinematic, for him to commit a single dramatic betrayal and then be wracked with the guilt for the rest of the book. Matar's choice is much more nuanced and poignant. Suleiman is ashamed of his actions in the moment, uncertain of his motives, but then seems to file them away as he is forced to tackle yet another confusing and frightening event.

I also admired Matar's portrait of Suleiman's mother Najwa as seen through nine-year-old eyes. Although the boy is confused by the effect the 'medicine' his mother drinks has on her, his description gives us a vivid picture of a woman struggling with her anger at being forced into an arranged marriage and her terror that her husband's political activities will threaten her family.

And throughout the book Matar contrasts the blinding white light of the Libyan sun with the stifling darkness inside Suleiman's home as its frightened inhabitants pull their curtains closed.

This book is a poetic and powerful indictment of the corrosive and permanent effect of public violence and terror on the life of a child.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Competing Histories

It might make for a more informed reading experience if you brush up on your 20th century Irish history before reading the novel The Sacred Scripture by Sebastian Barry. But even if you know nothing about blue shirts or the battle for a Free State, I think you will feel rewarded for the investment of your time with this story. (Isn’t that a commentary on our 21st century lives that we think of time in terms of investment and reward?)

Due to its decrepit physical condition from years of neglect, Roscommon Mental Hospital is scheduled for demolition to be replaced by a modern Asylum that, it is hoped, will function as its name indicates. But there will not be room in the new facility for all of the current residents. Dr. Grene, the senior psychiatrist, must determine who among the patients (perhaps more honestly inmates) require continuing care and who can now be”free.” He understands quite well that in earlier times people were admitted to facilities such as Roscommon for various reasons some of which had nothing to do with their mental states (pregnancy out of wedlock, sibling rivalry, etc). He is particularly perplexed by the case of Roseanne McNulty who is believed to be about 100 years old (Dr Grene is 65) and who has been at the facility for an undetermined period of time but at least longer than the 30 years that Dr Grene has been there. There is very little documentation of her history and Dr Grene is wary of confronting her directly about her past. He must satisfy himself whether Roseanne’s original confinement was justified for mental reasons in which case she will move to the new facility – or otherwise in which case she can be released (after so long? at her age? with no relatives? where?) He keeps a journal of the progress of his investigation. Unaware of the impending change, Roseanne has decided that she would like to make a written record of her life but only for herself so she keeps her pages hidden under the floorboards of her room.

So we follow these two alternating narrators and their secret scriptures. They seem to be describing two different lives for the same person. But of course they converge; just how is the substance of the book.

Besides writing novels, Sebastian Barry is a poet and a playwright. Certainly his skill as a poet is reflected in some beautiful, lyrical and thought-provoking passages on the natures of history, memory, and age. Were I more knowledgeable about dramatic structure and timing I would probably see that reflected in this work also. His portrayal of the Catholic clergy and its stranglehold over the Irish population is particularly effective and enraging.

After you have read the book you may wish to read an article in The Guardian by Barry describing how he came to write this book or a review with more detailed analysis.

Friday, May 8, 2009

China Revealed

Some books need to be read in big gulps. Others must be read in small doses. The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up by Liao Yiwu definitely fits into the small dose category . Why? Because Liao's stories, oral histories he compiled between 1993 and 2006, are so powerful that I needed time to absorb them.

Liao's life is itself a powerful story. Born in 1958, the year Mao began the Great Leap Forward, he nearly died in the famine that resulted from this disastrous campaign. His father, a schoolteacher, was denounced as a counterrevolutionary during the Cultural Revolution, and his mother, caught selling a government coupon on the black market in order to buy food, was paraded as a common criminal in front of thousands of people in his community. Liao became a popular poet during the 80's, despite that fact that his poems obliquely criticized Mao and the Communist regime. But after he wrote the long poem “Massacre” to condemn the Tiananmen Square killings he was imprisoned for four years, during which time he was frequently tortured and he twice attempted suicide. Following his release he was reduced to the life of a street musician.

In prison he had begun interviewing his fellow inmates, and he continued these interviews with the people he encountered in his life in the streets. The book consists of twenty-seven of these conversations with the “bottom rung”. Some of the stories, like “The Professional Mourner”, ”The Corpse Walker”, and “The Public Restroom Manager”, are fascinating because they explore aspects of Chinese life not seen by most westerners. In some stories Liao is clearly sympathetic, as in the heartbreaking “The Tiananmen Father” where he interviews a father whose son was killed. In others, like “The Former Red Guard”, where his subject clearly relishes his “pure and innocent” memories of beating his teachers, Liao is clearly repulsed. But for me the most striking part of these stories is how often the story's subjects have endured terrible ordeals – starvation, public humiliation, imprisonment, torture - often for no reason other than their profession or the fact that they owned land, and yet they tell their stories with dignity and stoic resignation.

It's easy to see why the Chinese government has tried to suppress these stories. They reveal the ugly underbelly of the Communist Party's success stories, which in reality killed millions of people and caused tremendous human suffering. Liao Yiwu's courage to speak the truth is awe-inspiring.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

For the Reader's Toolkit

I have been so disappointed in the last two books that I have read that I don't want to spend any more time thinking about them - even the time to write a blog post. So I am going to alert you to a new tool that I discovered that may help you answer the perennial question: "What should I read next?"

What happens when you combine artificial intelligence with social networking (don't stop reading - I promise that you won't have to participate in any network)? The result is Among its features are Gnod's Suggestions: if you type in the names of three authors that you like, it will suggest the name of another author that you might like. If you don't like that suggestion or haven't heard of that author you can continue to cycle through additional suggestions. I couldn't find on the website any explicit explanation of the algorithm or engine that is used to generate the suggestions but I can imagine that it is based on other readers' input.

You can also select the Map of Literature. After you type in one author's name, it will generate a wordle-type map of authors including yours. The closer the names are in the map, the greater the likelihood that you will like both of them.

I guess the better strategy would be to try the Map of Literature first with an author that you have read and see if you agree with the choices presented as neighbors in the map. If that gives you confidence in the engine, then you could try Gnod's Suggestions.

There is also a discussion forum but that requires joining Flork and I promised no networking required. Gnooks is just one child of the "mother" site: which seems to have the same functionality for music and movies.

Let us know how it works for you and if you find it helpful.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Parent's Worst Nightmare

Stewart O’Nan has written twelve works of fiction. I read his wonderful novel “Last Night at the Lobster” (previously blogged by Charlotte) and wanted to read more of his fiction. His latest novel “Songs for the Missing” is an absorbing, simple story that quietly reveals the raw edges of human emotions.

Kim Larsen is an eighteen year old girl, a little on the wild side, who has just graduated from high school in a small town in Ohio. She has a job at the local Conoco mini-mart. She has a best friend and a boy friend and they are all looking forward to leaving Kingsville and going off to college. It all seems very ordinary. One afternoon Kim meets her friends to hang out at the river before her afternoon shift. She leaves her friends but she never makes it to work. The next morning Kim’s parents find that her bed has not been slept in.

And so begins the story of a parent's worst nightmare. A child has vanished. In this case the child is eighteen so the police are slow to name it a kidnapping. Stewart O’Nan has written a story about loss and the way the people closest to Kim deal with this loss. Kim’s father is a real estate agent who drives his car up and down the interstate looking for his daughter. Kim’s mother is a nurse who goes to the media and the internet to find her child. But the soul of the story rests with Kim’s fifteen year old sister, Lindsay. The author touches the depth of loss through Lindsay. She becomes remote. She can’t deal with her parents and all that is happening around her. She is devastated but she cannot express her feelings. She wants to be left alone, not noticed. Each character in the story is listening to a different “song” as they try to find Kim.

Stewart O’Nan has written a slow paced story that artfully presents the sorrow of loss and mixes it with the elation of hope. He accomplishes this feat by switching the voice from character to character letting the reader hear the viewpoint of each one as they struggle to understand what the loss means to them.

What happened to Kim is only one of the reasons to read this insightful, suspenseful and well written novel.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Advice from Maureen Part II

Maureen let me down this time. Once again I had turned to my scribbled list of book recommendations by NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan. I had enjoyed her “Queen of the Tambourine” suggestion, the story of a quirky London's housewife emotional journey. So I decided to try Lady of the Snakes by Rachel Pastan, another Maureen pick.

Jane Levitsky is Russian literature scholar, whose area of study is a fictitious nineteenth century novelist named Grigory Karkov. But her research has drawn her even more towards Karkov's long-suffering wife Masha, whose diaries she is studying. At first the story unfolds as a literary detective story, as Jane attempts to discover whether Karkov may have used his wife's writings in his novels, and whether she committed suicide. But then there are domestic complications. As Jane pursues her path to academic success, she neglects her sweet, kind husband Billy and her adorable two year old daughter Maisie. And we all know that when a woman chooses her career over her family, bad things happen to her. So of course they do. When Jane takes a quick trip to Chicago to continue her research, she reconnects with a mentor who was a rising academic star, only to discover that her friend has abandoned her career to devote herself to her husband and three children. Feeling guilty, Jane? And there's the Karkov scholar Otto Sigelman, an angry and malevolent old man who deceives and betrays Jane. He seems to represent what happens to those who choose academic stardom at all costs. Then Jane neglects to charge her cell phone, so she misses a call from Billy telling her that Maisie has been rushed to the hospital. Ouch! Bad mother! And of course husband Billy eventually tires of playing second fiddle to a dead Russian so he seeks comfort elsewhere. Can this marriage be saved?

Pastan does a good job with the literary mystery side of the story, creating a believable voice for Masha in her diary entries. But the domestic drama was just too formulaic for my tastes.