Friday, October 29, 2010

Unexpected Slices

I always have trouble writing a blog about a book of short stories. Do I describe the ones I liked best? I don't want to give away too much. Part of what I liked best about the ten stories in Robin Black's “If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This” was that they seemed both familiar and unexpected at the same time.

For example, there's a story (“Harriet Elliot”) told by a fifth grade girl about a new girl in her class. But it's also about the narrator's own struggles to deal with her disintegrating family. We've all read these stories of childhood unhappiness, but this one approaches it from a different angle. And the all too familiar dynamic of a parent dealing with a teenager leaving the nest is viewed through the lens of a father's reluctant acceptance of a guide dog for his blind daughter (“The Guide”).

Black gives us views of familiar subjects – fidelity, loss, guilt, acceptance – approached in fresh and unexpected ways. Some stories work better than others (I thought the title story “If I Loved You” seemed labored), but I was moved and surprised by all ten.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Checking Back In

Guilty: I haven’t been blogging.

But I have been reading. I just didn’t seem to have the energy to get my thoughts together. But here are some of the books that I have read during this period and can recommend:

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell. This is a memoir about the friendship between two older women that ended all too abruptly with the death of one from cancer. That is not a spoiler. These two women have more than the usual bonds: Same profession, new puppies, recovered from addiction, complicated relationships with their fathers, and a love of an athletic pursuit. Most of us are not so lucky. But women readers especially will appreciate (and envy) their discovery of each other – without any of the sexual intimacy that seems to be presumed among two single women friends.

Searching for Tamsen Donner by Gabrielle Burton. Another memoir. For a book that I really liked, it took me over a month to read and I’m not sure why. Burton is married and has five daughters (just like Tamsen Donner). One summer Burton takes her family on a road trip to recreate the journey of the Donner party. This memoir is part journal of that trip, part history of the Donner party and part record of Burton’s struggles to balance her ambition as a writer and her sense of responsibility as a mother. The history of the Donner party is fascinating. I had always thought that the stories of cannibalism were just conjecture – not so. Tamsen Donner managed to write a few letters during the journey which have been preserved; but her journal was never found. Burton tries to reimagine the thoughts and feelings of Tamsen Donner.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. Fiction. If someone had told me that I could ever take an interest in professional race car driving, I would never have believed it. But for most readers, I think, that part of this book is just tangential. It’s more about the dog. The entire book is told from the dog’s point of view – which raises some interesting questions, such as: What does a dog see when the dog is in front of a television? There is a lot about race car driving and some good philosophy. “The car goes where the eyes go” works for both.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

An Irish Houseguest

In Deirdre Madden's Molly Fox's Birthday all the action of the novel takes place in a single day, the twenty-first of June, the birthday of an Irish actress named Molly Fox. I had to look it up to be sure, but I was right – this same construct is used in “Mrs. Dalloway”. Remember Clarissa preparing for and hosting her party in a single day? Anyway, back to Molly. The unnamed narrator is a successful playwright who has known Molly for twenty years – her first play launched her career and Molly's as well – and she is staying in Molly's home in Dublin while the actress is in New York.

The house is full of objects that remind her of Molly, and she reminisces about their long friendship, which expanded to include the narrator's college friend Andrew, now a well-known art historian. As the day progresses scraps of information are revealed about the disparate childhoods of the three friends, and we see the various ways that each of them has created an identity in response to early circumstances. All three have brothers who have in very different ways shaped their adult lives.  As one memory triggers another, the playwright narrator examines friendship – how well do we know our friends? But the examination
is also about identity – how do we present ourselves to the world, and how close is that to our true selves?  Can a playwright or an actress know a fictional character better than she knows her friend?

This is not a book for those who enjoy a plot-driven novel – not a lot happens, and much of the story is presented somewhat obliquely in little snatches of memory. But I was left with a lovely picture of Molly's charming Dublin home, and an interesting meditation on the meaning and the mystery of friendship.

And yes, once again I've revealed my affection for Irish writers. But this time she's from Northern Ireland so that must mean I'm expanding my horizons.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


After You've Gone - it's a title that comes to mean more and more as Jeffrey Lent's novel progresses.  In the early chapters it describes the life of college teacher Henry Dorn, whose happy marriage of over thirty years is abruptly ended when his beloved wife Olivia is killed in a car driven by their son Robert, who is perhaps under the influence of morphine and perhaps self-destructive.  

But it also describes Henry's early life in Nova Scotia, where, with the help of an understanding uncle, he flees the rigid and cold life his family has carved out for him in a fishing village in order to find a more satisfying life teaching college girls and raising a family in the Finger Lakes region of New York.  After he's gone he finds it difficult to visit the cold and resentful family he has left behind.

The later chapters describe Henry's departure from Elmira, New York to Amsterdam, where he hopes to reconnect with his Dutch roots and leave behind the sorrow that haunts him after his wife's death.  A shipboard romance with Lydia, a younger high-spirited and independent American woman, leads to a more serious relationship as the two settle into an idyllic summer romance in Amsterdam.  When she leaves him for Paris in order to contemplate their future, he is once more left behind to struggle with what it means to be alone and how to move forward into a new life, including a mid-life attempt to learn to play the cello.

Lent moves easily between these time periods as he pushes the story backwards and forward without jarring breaks.  His beautifully paints the portrait of a content and happy marriage that is anything but boring, and is masterful at describing the tender and painful bonds between parents and children.  He writes beautifully about a romance between two adults who struggle valiantly to overcome the baggage of their past lives.  And for me he kind of spoiled it with an unnecessarily melodramatic ending.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Forgetful Majority

I missed this essay when it first appeared in the September 19, 2010 issue of 'The New York Times Book Review'; but there were several Letters to the Editor about it in the October 3rd issue and that prompted me to look it up online. With the exception of fellow-blogger Charlotte who, I believe, remembers every book she has ever read, I urge everyone else to read "The Plot Escapes Me" by James Collins.

It speaks to me - and about me - more than anything I can remember reading. But that is the irony and the point of the essay. I remember very little of what I have read over the years or even last month. Does that make it a waste of time? Collins has some very interesting answers.

Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics, has a commentary on the article on his blog. He frames the question a little differently as you might expect: what is the opportunity cost of reading?

Conventional wisdom seems to suggest that book group discussions and writing down your thoughts about what you read (for example, in a blog!) should enhance retention. I can't really say that they do...but I'm not ready to give up on either.

You can read the Letters to the Editor about the essay here.