Friday, April 30, 2010

I Couldn't Resist

When choosing a book I often like to try an author I've never read, just to expand my own personal literary vocabulary. But sometimes I can't help returning to an old favorite, especially when I feel as if I have some unfinished business with a character. It's why I had to keep following Harry Angstrom in the “Rabbit” series until he was six feet under.

This time the character was Sir Edward Feathers, the “Old Filth” of Jane Gardam's book by that name (see my blog The Raj Orphan). More precisely it was Edward's wife Betty who intrigued me. Early in the book, planting tulip bulbs in her Dorset garden, she drops a pearl necklace into one of the holes. Minutes later she dies. The book continues with Edward's reminiscences about the marriage. But I was left with the feeling that there was more to Betty than Edward knew. So I couldn't resist reading The Man in the Wooden Hat, which tells the story of the same marriage from Betty's point of view.

Betty, like Edward, is an orphaned British child of the Far East. Born in Tientsin, she grew up in an Japanese internment camp where her parents died, and later worked at Bletchley Park, site of secret British code breaking activities during WWII. And one thing that Betty and Edward have in common is their secrets. They keep things from each other, and throughout the novel Gardam reveals glimpses of their secret selves, hidden under their proper English reserve.

Betty's most powerful secret is the passion she feels for her husband's bitter rival, a man she met only an hour after accepting Edward's marriage proposal. This passion chases her through fifty years of marriage. Edward is seemingly ignorant of his wife's yearnings, but he has his secrets as well.

Gardam presents a witty, poignant, subtle picture of a marriage where loyalty and affection are balanced against desire. In the end, secrets are revealed that make the visions of the marriage presented in these two separate books merge into a larger whole.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

From the Mouths of Babes

Children often accuse their parents of trying to live their (the children's) lives for them. In ways that they never would have wished, Roger and Ginny Rosenblatt almost do start to live the life of their daughter Amy. Amy dies unexpectedly at age 38 leaving her husband with their 3 young children, ages, 7, 5 and 14 months. Immediately, Roger and Ginny leave their home on Long Island and move in with their 3 grandchildren and son-in-law indefinitely.

You may recognize the name Roger Rosenblatt. He is a prolific and gifted writer and was a contributor for many years on the "McNeil/Lehrer News Hour". In Making Toast, he chronicles many of the events of that first year following Amy's death and reflects on his own struggle to come to terms with this tragedy. Without any experience in this area, I was amazed at the openness with which father and grandparents talked with the children about their mother and her death. Would you expect this from a five-year-old: "In April, we celebrated Amy's birthday. When we blew out the candles, Harris [the father] asked Sammy [age 5] what he thought Mommy would wish for. 'To be alive,' Sammy said."?

Rosenblatt gives a loving vibrant portrait of a talented and high-spirited daughter. He acknowledges that he came to know more of the details of her life from her friends and colleagues after her death than he probably ever would have known had she been living.

No one can replace their mother, but these three children have the good fortune to have as close to perfect substitutes as one could wish for them in their grandparents. And these loving grandparents also have the good fortune to have these three grandchildren to temper the grief that comes from the death of a child at any age.

Read an excerpt from the book and listen to Rosenblatt read here

Friday, April 23, 2010


Should I read this book? I often have trouble deciding that. In this case, the arguments in favor included that fact that the author was the 2008 Nobel Prize winner Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. On the other hand, I'd never heard of him. Not really surprising - I've never heard of several of the recent Literature prize winners: Herta Müller, Elfriede Jelinek, Imre Kertész, just to name a few. The Nobel Committee has been accused of becoming too Eurocentric and increasingly esoteric.

Also, I'm always hesitant to read a novel in translation because you are at the mercy of the translator. Am I really experiencing the prose as the author intended it, or is the translation too literal or badly mangled? But the book had been recommended to me so I forged ahead.

Wandering Star tells the coming of age story of two young girls. The first is Esther, a secular Jewish girl who is forced to leave her French mountain village in the waning days of World War II in order to escape the Germans. Eventually she and her mother reach the newly established state of Israel. The second is Nejma, an orphaned Palestinian girl, who is displaced by the partitioning of her country. The girls encounter each other for only one brief moment on a road, as Esther and her fellow refugees are moving toward Jerusalem, and Nejma is moving away from it.

The story Le Clézio tells has nothing to do with politics. He describes in simple prose these two 'wandering stars', young women searching for peace and acceptance in the midst of war and profound human misery. The book's dedication - “To the captured children” - expresses his empathy for both his characters.   In the midst of fear and deprivation each is still able to appreciate the beauties of nature and each remains open to love and human kindness.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Too Close to Home

I have lived in the Bay Area long enough to have experienced an earthquake – as have most of my friends. But I don’t know anyone who has been trapped by one. What would that feel like?

One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is a fictional account of 9 people trapped by an earthquake in the Indian Consulate in San Francisco. The 9 include employees and would-be travelers, Indians and non-Indians, “…like a mini UN summit in here” as one of them thinks. Sprinkled throughout are references to well-known places like Van Ness Ave giving it an all-too-familiar feel. Although no mention is made of its location, the actual Indian consulate in San Francisco is located in just 2 blocks from where I lived for 16 years – and lived at the time of the 1989 earthquake: definitely a vulnerable earthquake area.

After the quake, no rescue efforts seem to be forthcoming, the water is rising and the smell of gas is getting stronger. In an effort to stave off the rising hysteria and ill-tempers, Uma, one of the trapped and a student currently reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (a nice touch by the author), suggests that “We can each tell an important story from our lives.” That sets up the structure of the rest of the novel as each person tells about one amazing thing in his or her life. The stories are by turns hopeful, sad, poignant and in some cases unresolved. If I were reading it again, I would take notes because 9 is too many for me to hold in memory. I also think on second reading I would take more time to reflect on the individual experiences.

This book reminded me in some ways of Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto only this time the hostage-taker is Mother Nature. We’ve certainly had earthquakes in the headlines of late including ones in Haiti and China. The next time that I read of rescue attempts I will have a completely different feel for the experience of the survivors and for what it might have been like in the aftermath for those waiting successfully or otherwise to be rescued.

Read an excerpt from Chapter 1 and check out her website.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Misguided Parent

“A Friend of the Family” is Lauren Grodstein’s second novel. Ms. Grodstein grew up in New Jersey’s Bergen County, and has set this novel in the fictitious upscale town of Round Hill. The story opens as the narrator, Dr. Pete Dizinoff, tells us that he is living in the studio apartment that he and his wife built for their only son after he dropped out of Hampshire College.

Pete is waiting for the result of a malpractice lawsuit that will determine whether or not he will be allowed to practice medicine. But that is not the reason Pete is sleeping in the studio, banished from the comfortable home he and his wife have lived in for twenty five years. As the story evolves Pete tells us how he ended up estranged from his wife and son, not on speaking terms with his oldest and dearest friend and no longer the owner of a lucrative medical practice.

With interesting flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks, we learn Pete's history and the culture of Round Hill. This is a suburban town inhabited by families striving to give their kids "everything we didn't have”. Pete’s son, Alec, had the audacity to fail out of a college that “doesn’t even give grades". And what did Pete and his wife do? They built him an art studio over the garage.

Pete is just waiting for Alec to return to school. But Alec just cannot accommodate his father. When the daughter of Pete’s best friend returns to Round Hill, after a banishment ten years ago, the trouble begins. Everyone, except Pete, seems ready to forgive and forget what happened ten years ago. When his son becomes interested in this woman, Pete goes crazy.

The last fifty pages of this novel are gripping. The novel moved in a plodding way as Pete, carefully and humorously, explained what happened. But then we realize that Pete is a totally unreliable narrator. The climax is shocking and sad as we come to understand that Pete is a delusional parent whose self-deception has led him dangerously astray.

This is a very good story about people who are driven by what they deem is status and are unable to remember who they are or where they came from. Lauren Grodstein knows her material well and has captured a place and time with amazing clarity and perception.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Country Life

I knew Michael Frayn's work as a playwright, but until I stumbled on Headlong I didn't know he was also a novelist. I have seen two of his plays – “Noises Off” and “Copenhagen” - and they couldn't be more different. The first is an hilarious slapstick comedy about the performance of a dreadful play, viewed from both in front of and behind the curtain.. The second is a serious play based around an event that occurred in Copenhagen in 1941, a meeting between the renowned physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. So which would the novel be like – the slapstick farce or the serious history-based study? The answer is that it is both.

The novel's narrator, philosophy professor Martin Clay, has arrived for an extended stay at his country house, accompanied by his wife and baby daughter. His goal is to complete a book he is writing about “the impact of nominalism on Netherlandish art in the fifteenth century”. But Martin is easily distracted, and when country neighbor Tony Churt invites them for dinner at his estate, he accepts. Here's Frayn's succinct description of Tony's rundown mansion: “The Churts' tasteful avoidance of ostentation verges on the garish”.

The real motive for the dinner invitation soon emerges – Tony has several paintings that he wants Martin to help him evaluate and sell on the sly, including one that he has been using to block up a fireplace. Martin suspects that the sooty painting is a Bruegel, but instead of telling Tony, he devises an elaborate scheme in which he will help Tony sell the other paintings and keep the maybe-Bruegel for himself. Martin's powers of rationalization are astounding (...”he owns it no more than I do. No one can own a work of art.”) and what follows is an amazing mixture of Frayn's dual talents for comedy and erudition. On the one hand, I learned more about the art, religion and history of the Netherlands in the sixteenth century than I ever thought possible. But the comedy of errors involving a country house, paintings, dogs, mud, a vicar, a flirtatious wife, an angry brother and a beat-up Land Rover is as funny and farcical as “Noises Off”.

In the end the book is funny and sad, a serious examination of human pride and greed, a detective story where the clues keep shifting, and a delicious comedy of country life.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Being Different

Lucy Grealy was an award-winning poet and a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Her close friend and roommate at both Sarah Lawrence College and Iowa was Ann Patchett, author of “Bel Canto”. Lucy Grealy’s memoir “Autobiography of a Face” was published in 1994. Lucy Grealy died in New York City at the age of 39.

When she was nine years old Lucy Grealy collided, in the playground, with another girl hitting their faces into each other. The pain Lucy felt went from a tooth ache, to a fractured jaw, to a dental cyst. The final diagnosis was “Ewing’s sarcoma”, a potentially terminal cancer. Lucy Grealy tells a story of strength and suffering. She endured almost three years of radiation and chemotherapy, driving with her mother from a suburb to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City five days a week for treatments. What this child endured is difficult to comprehend. When she cried her mother told her to be strong. But she couldn’t figure out how to do that.

She finally returned to school with a third of her jaw removed. The cruelty of children faced with someone who is different is hard to understand. Lucy Grealy states, “It was the pain from that, from feeling ugly, that I always viewed as the great tragedy of my life. The fact that I had cancer seemed minor in comparison.”

She went on to endure over thirty reconstructive procedures on her face before she came to terms with the fact that she was finally whole. The journey was a painful one for Lucy Grealy but one she was able to write about with eloquence and wit. She suffered with huge physical pain, the constant pain of being different and an overall feeling of loneliness and being unlovable. She went on to be a successful poet and writer. This memoir is one that will be very hard to forget. It leaves the reader with feelings of overall sadness that our society has so much difficultly accepting someone, even a child, who looks “different”.

The memoir has a wonderful Afterward by Ann Patchett that gives the reader some insight into the adult Lucy Grealy. Lucy Grealy’s memoir is a great story about finding one's true self when faced with insurmountable adversity.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Under One Roof

I've enjoyed Antonya Nelson's short stories in the New Yorker for a number of years but I'd never read any of her novels. Sometimes a great short story writer disappoints me as a novelist (Alice Munro and Eudora Welty come to mind), so I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up Living To Tell.

The book covers a year in the life of the Mabie family of Wichita, Kansas and it opens with a powerful scene. Thirty-three year old Winston Mabie is returning home after five years in prison for manslaughter, the result of a drunk driving accident in which he killed his grandmother. He returns to a large rambling house where his parents and two adult sisters live. His older sister Emily is a recently divorced mother of two young children, and younger sister Mona is an underemployed depressive with bad taste in men. The father, a retired history professor, is secretly grieving over the imminent death of his teaching colleague and best friend Betty, and Mrs. Mabie is losing both her vision and her connection to the rest of her family. The plot also includes a crazy uncle, a pregnant teenager, and a kidnapped dog. Can you say dysfunctional?

But Nelson is a witty and insightful writer, and although her characters may sound less than likable, she is fond of them all and gives each some space to reveal their better selves. There were moments when I felt that I was reading a set piece which had been dropped into novel (kind of like an embedded short story?), but she presents a funny, unsentimental but heartfelt view of an American family.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Time to Revolt

Being 51 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List, and lately in the number 1 spot, is in itself a strong recommendation. The book with this recommendation, “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, is a very good read and a book that is difficult to put down.

The story takes place in Jackson Mississippi in 1962 (not that long ago!). Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan has just graduated from Ole Miss with a degree in English. But to the consternation of her mother, Skeeter has no engagement ring or even a boyfriend. Skeeter has other ideas for her future. She wants to be a writer and she answers an ad for an editing job at the “The Ladies Home Journal“. The senior editor writes back to tell Skeeter she needs some experience, and if she wants to write, “Write about what disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else”.

What Skeeter wants to write about is, what it is like to work as a black maid in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. The story that follows is a page turning, gripping novel about the racial divide in this country. Skeeter’s friends, her bridge partners, and fellow members of the Junior League are all young married women. They employ black women to clean their houses, cook their meals and raise their children. But they are racists who won’t allow their maids to use the toilets in their houses.

One by one, Skeeter gets 10 black women to agree to tell their story. The heart and soul of “The Help” are two black maids, Aibileen who has raised 17 white babies and lost her own son, and her best friend Minny, who loses job after job because she talks back when she is insulted. Their stories are heartbreaking as they share the narration with Skeeter.

Kathryn Stockett has written a moving story using the black vernacular of the 1960’s, the cultural mores of the south and fleeting glimpses of the historical politics of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. This is a story of strong, brave women pitted against vain, racist, mean women. Discovering whether these women can secretly write and publish a book telling their sad, brave, outrageous stories and live to enjoy it, is well worth the effort and the reason this book has been on the best seller list for 51 weeks!