Friday, March 25, 2011

How To Ask

I'm going to start with a warning to all readers who enjoy books with admirable, virtuous main characters – this is not the book for you. The characters in Sam Lipsyte's The Ask are not easy to like. 

The book describes the crisis-riddled life of Milo Burke, a wannabe artist who works in the development office of a second-rate New York university which has aspirations to attain the prestige that only big donations can bring. And Milo's failure at 'the ask' (getting a big donor to cough up the dough) has gotten him fired. In addition Milo is getting little attention from his wife and little respect from his pre-school son Bernie.

Enter Purdy Stuart, Milo's college friend who has gone on to financial success and marriage to a super model. Purdy dangles a major 'give' with the condition that Milo be brought back to handle the negotiations. But Purdy's motives are complicated. He wants Milo to track his illegitimate son Don, an embittered Gulf war vet who threatens to disrupt Purdy's life.

That's the extent of the plot, but it doesn't begin to describe the roller coaster ride that reading this book provides. Milo is cynical, frustrated, inclined to rant and often vulgar, but he has redeeming qualities His love for his son threads through the story, and instead of being oblivious to the mistakes he is making, he is clear-eyed and amusingly self aware.

Lipsyte's prose is funny on every page, and yet he somehow captures Milo's decency and his pain. “The Ask” is witty and vulgar and cynical and honest, all at the same time.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Friends For Life

The cover of “The Girls from Ames: A story of Women & a Forty-Year Friendship” shows a group a smiling attractive teen aged girls. Jeffrey Zaslow (who is the coauthor of “The Last Lecture”) is the author telling the story of eleven girls from the town of Ames, Iowa who were born in 1963 and have maintained a unique friendship that has spanned forty years. The girls met at different times in the small city that is home to Iowa State University. Some were friends from infancy because their parents were friends, some met in grammar school but by middle school almost all of the eleven were friends. By the time they reached Ames High School they were an established group (clique) of eleven girls.

The book begins as they are meeting for one of their many reunions over the years. Using pictures taken over the years, and memories, their stories take shape. In the beginning of the book it was difficult to keep track of who was who. But in the front of the book there are pictures taken of the girls, one was a grade school photo in the second or third grade and one which appears to be a high school yearbook portrait. I would flip back and forth from the story to the pictures to figure out exactly who was speaking. By the end of the book I had become very familiar with these women.

The book is a part sociology, with many cultural references during that time frame and part biography, as each girl tells her story. It is a microcosm of American culture, “white, middle class females from the mid West during the years 1963 to the present”.

Their stories, especially in the early years, are funny and charming; keggers in the cornfields of Iowa, husking corn in the summer, proms and sleepovers. Over the forty years of friendship the girls have lived through the deaths of their parents, the strange death of one of them, marriages, children, divorce, cancer and coping with Alzheimer’s. There is joy and great sadness in their stories. But mostly this is a story of friendship and how these women rely on one another and have nurtured this bond for over forty years. This story, as a whole and each individual story, showed how important female friendships can be and how friendships can not only shape and sustain us but keep us sane and healthy!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Loss and Memory

I started reading Nicole Krauss's Great House directly after finishing Jonathan Franzen's “Freedom” (blogged here). The contrast was jarring. In some ways the two books are quite similar, since both are about relationships – husbands and wives, parents and children. And neither follows a linear time line, instead jumping forward and backward, telling the story in fragments. But in Franzen's book the characters are all connected to each other, while in “Great House” there are four distinct groups of characters and storylines which initially seem unrelated. At first I thought I was reading short stories, but gradually threads begin to connect, most notably a large desk which figures in three of the four plot lines.

Franzen lards his story with the details of everyday life. If you remember Joey's retrieval of his wedding ring you'll know what I'm talking about. But Krauss's characters, although they exist in real places (Manhattan, Jerusalem. London) at real times, seem almost like characters in fables, sometimes acting in a way that seems dreamlike.

I started taking notes about each story, because I felt that clues were being dropped that would help me solve the mystery that would tie everything up neatly at the end. But Krauss is much too good a writer to go for an obvious tidy ending, and although some threads did weave together, others did not - or did I miss something? But themes did emerge that united the stories – the power and the burden of memory, the crushing pain of loss, the difficulty in truly knowing another human being, even a loved one.

I missed the humor that lightened the dark story Krauss told in her previous book, “The History of Love” - this one is unrelentingly serious. But its haunting images are powerful and hard to forget.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Another View Of An American Dream

I also read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, the same book that fellow blogger Anna blogged last week in An American Dream (in fact, I borrowed her copy), but I had a very different reaction to it. Instead of being put off by Walter and Patty Berglund, I found them compelling.

The beginning of the book, where the Berglund family in suburban St. Paul is observed by an omniscient and somewhat snarky narrator, did make me wonder if I would enjoy this voice for 500 pages. But quickly the narrative switches to Patty's third-person autobiography “Mistakes Were Made” (what a great title!), written at the suggestion of her therapist, where she reveals her back story and the inner conflicts that make her so much more complex than she appeared to the snarky observer. Patty's story exposes the powerful triangle that dominates the remainder of the book – herself, her husband Walter, and Walter's best friend rock musician Richard Katz, who looks like Moammar Gadhafi (or choose the spelling of your choice).

Or maybe it's a rectangle, with the fourth side being the Berglund's teenage son Joey who confounds his earnest liberal parents, especially his doting mother, by moving next door to live with his adoring girlfriend, whose ditsy single mother and her chainsaw-wielding, beer-drinking boyfriend are the bane of Patty's existence. And without being patronizing, Franzen makes this all very funny.

But that's just Act One. Franzen follows all these characters forward to 2004, where each of them is following a path which seems to lead to freedom, set against the backdrop of the Iraq war. The narrative shifts from one character to another, each time interrupting the story just as something momentous is about to happen. This is not a minimalist novel; it's a sprawling, juicy, tumultuous story, and as the perspective switched so did my sympathies. I can complain that the social commentary got a little preachy and self-important, but I have to admire how all the characters are complex, conflicted, seeking what they think they want and then retreating from it. And did I mention that Franzen's prose was insightful and a joy to read?

So there you have it – one book; two perspectives. Your tolerance for dysfunctional families and general snarkiness will probably effect your impressions of this book.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Boy Named Sue

There are several things to take away from a reading of The Typist by Michael Knight.

One is another reminder, if one is needed, that trying to predict the defining influences in a child's life is a risky business. When our narrator Francis Vancleave "Van" was a child growing up in Alabama in the early years of World War II, his mother, who had been a secretary before she married, would type papers for students at the nearby college to earn extra money. With the typewriter set up on the kitchen table after dinner, it was a natural that she would teach her son to type. No Tiger Mother drama here: he was a willing student. What neither of them anticipated was that when Van enlisted in the military, his typing was considered a "special talent" and he was assigned to the military secretarial pool of General Douglas MacArthur, thereby probably saving his life at the very least. And that assignment sets up the rest of the story in Japan.

Another take-away is admiration for the imagination of a writer. Part of the back story to this novel, as described by Knight in the book's Acknowledgments, is that Knight attended a writer's conference in Florida in 2007 where he met a man who was in fact a typist in MacArthur's command, serving as an enlisted man in Tokyo during the American occupation of Japan after the war. Knight is able to take the life of an ordinary enlisted typist and use it to give us an expanded view into this moment of history - and a very interesting view it is. I am inspired to want to read more about MacArthur himself...and isn't that one mark of a successful story?

And finally, MacArthur named his only child, a son, Arthur. Yes, it was also the name of the boy's grandfather but why perpetuate it? I'm sure it was character building (not unlike "A Boy Named Sue").

Sunday, March 6, 2011

An American Dream

Jonathan Frazen has become a very well known writer. His first novel “Corrections” was published just prior to Sept. 11th, 2001 and has become the beacon of authentic “American Humanism”. His next novel took nine years to write and was highly anticipated. That novel,“Freedom”, is a story that speaks to personal liberty and how we (the American public) can find our own paths to “freedom”. Jonathan Franzen tell us that since most of us begin life as part of a “family”, it is there that we will hone our skills for finding freedom.

Jonathan Frazen's novel “Freedom” is about a Midwestern family, the Berglunds. The story begins in the up and coming (or newly gentrified) St. Paul neighborhood, called Ramsey Hill. Patty Berglund is our story’s protagonist. She was a college basketball star and now is married to the very “worthy”, do good lawyer, Walter and they have two "great" kids. How Patty and Walter got together should have been the red flag. This marriage was in for trouble from the get go. We follow Patty and Walter through their travails and those of their children, especially their strangely precocious son, Joey. Patty and Walter (but mostly Patty) continually clash with neighbors, college roommates, friends and family members. Frazen's characters are very well developed. You may not like these characters but you get to know them very well.

What these characters are all seeking is their personal freedom and the way Jonathan Franzan takes them to freedom is through everyday realism. This can be tricky for a reader. Jonathan Frazen is a very good writer, that is to say he knows his craft. But for me, the tedium of living through 562 pages of Walter and Patty Berglund’s life unraveling so they could find freedom was too much!

However, I know that this novel was very well received and acclaimed. For many “Freedom” epitomized middle class America struggling in the aftermath of 9/11 searching for a path to “freedom”. The novel explores life and a family in all its messiness, its emotions, its conflicts and its ability to forgive. He is making a broad statement on the status of the well being of this country. Some people think he has written the great American novel for this century.

This was not an easy book for me to read. Jonathan Frazen escapes me. I think he is too wordy. He put every cliché and nuance of this decade into this story. Too much was attempted. (Where was his editor??) But I am glad I read it. It may (or may not) prove to be the one of the important novels of the century.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

One of the Originals

I have often heard Raymond Chandler described as one of the "founding fathers" of the modern detective story with particular reference to his book The Big Sleep. I have recently finished listening to an audio recording. What a delight! And what a difference from some of the more current examples of the genre. TBS was originally published in 1939 and introduced Philip Marlowe, private investigator. The language is spare in the extreme but effective nonetheless. You know times are different when a PI can work in Los Angeles for $25 a day plus expenses. And what a cast of idiosyncratic unsavory characters - with a few exceptions including Marlowe. Lots of murder and mayhem.

Marlowe has his own ethics and code of professional conduct that, as often as not, involves operating outside the law. I have to say I was surprised by the way he resolves the fates of the guilty. But I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent in his company.

Apparently, the book has been made into a movie - twice. Once starring Humphrey Bogart and once, much later and with substantial changes, starring Robert Mitchum.. If I had to choose, I would go with Bogey. He and Marlowe seem tailor-made for each other.

Here is a review of that 1946 film.