Monday, February 27, 2012

Commune Life

If you're old enough to remember an era of history does it make a novel about that time more interesting for you? Or do you just get annoyed because the author has gotten some details wrong? In the case of Lauren Groff's Arcadia it's neither for me. Although I remember the 60's and 70's, I have no idea if she got the details right because I have no idea what life was like if you joined a commune. But I admit I've always been curious.

The story is seen through the eyes of Bit (Ridley Sorrel Stone), child of commune members Abe and Hannah, who live in a bread truck in the sprawling commune Arcadia somewhere in upstate New York. In the book's four sections Groff shows us Bit at pivotal times in his life: at five, at fourteen, in his twenties and approaching fifty. The commune is not painted in idyllic tones, but in the early sections it's easy to see Bit's love of the beauty of nature, even as he struggles to understand the adults around him. His turbulent adolescence is mirrored in the turbulence and discord within the group itself. And as an adult he and other commune members struggle to fit into life outside Arcadia.

But Groff isn't just telling a story about the effects of commune life. She is ultimately telling a story about families, and she creates an array of complicated, flawed but believable characters. Her beautiful descriptions of nature combined with her sensitive portrayal of the evolution of a family made this an interesting read for me.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Unhappy Families

Did you know that there is something called the Anna Karenina principle? (What did we do before Wikipedia?). It derives from the famous Tolstoy line “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. In statistics this is translated to mean “there are any number of ways in which a dataset may violate the null hypothesis and only one in which all the assumptions are satisfied”. In ecology it is used to explain the fragility of ecosystems, since the failure of any one element can cause the entire system to fail.

And what does all this have to do with Leah Hager Cohen's The Grief of Others? Well, it is certainly about an unhappy family. Each member of the Ryrie family – parents Rickie and John, teenager Paul and his younger sister Biscuit - is unhappy for a different reason, and a shared tragedy serves to isolate them from each other even more. Perhaps in a happy family the members would mourn together a loss that has touched them all (the birth and rapid death of a severely damaged infant), but because there were already fissures in the relationships, each is pulled farther apart, and their lack of communication causes these fundamentally decent people to hurt each other.

Cohen takes time to unfold the complicated layers of each of her characters, so I found each one sympathetic even as I winced at their mistakes. The slow rebuilding of trust is unforced and powerful. Cohen tackles an extremely difficult subject and presents it honestly. I know this sounds depressing but I found this book moving and ultimately hopeful.

Friday, February 3, 2012


On a summer afternoon in suburban Melbourne, a group of friends and family gather with their assorted children for a barbecue. The host Hector is of Greek descent, his wife Aisha is Indian, and their guests are a mix that probably represents Australia in the 21st century – white, aborigine, Muslim, Jewish, gay, straight, wealthy and working class, young and old. Three-year-old Hugo has been behaving obnoxiously all afternoon, but his parents keep making excuses for him rather than correcting him. Finally, wielding a cricket bat, he vaguely threatens nine-year-old Rocco, whereupon Rocco's father Harry, Hector's cousin, slaps him.

That's the starting point for The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, and the reverberations from that slap ripple through the entire story. Tsiolkas divides his book into eight sections, each one exploring the inner life of one of the characters from the party. Some of the storylines directly follow the effect of the slap – Hugo's parents press charges, family and friends are forced to take sides in the dispute, friendships are threatened. Others explore more personal stories – marriage and infidelity, mid-life crisis, the bonds of friendship, adolescent coming-of-age and dealing with the loss of aging friends. Through them Tsiolkas examines racism, homophobia and class prejudice without ever preaching or sentimentalizing.

Every time I thought he was headed for a stereotype he swerved from it to give a realistic but sympathetic view of a character. I found some stories more compelling than others (maybe I've just read too many coming of age tales?), but Tsiolkas does an admirable job of keeping all eight threads woven together. Starting with a single shocking act he paints a nuanced picture of a network of complex relationships.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Spies...and More Spies

With the recent release of the new movie version of John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I thought that I would read the book instead. (I am no longer going to say "re-read" even if I remember that I read it previously because my memory of the details of the book will be virtually non-existent). I was immediately struck by the epigram attributed to the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes:

The version that I learned growing up started with:
Oh, well. Another one of life's mysteries. Maybe there's a dissertation here on changes in cultural norms.

Having now finished the book and while gathering my thoughts for this blog, I happened to open the latest issue of The Hoover Digest and there it was: "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier...Priest?", Donal O'Sullivan's article about "two treacherous clerics and the Communist infiltration of the Vatican." Yikes!!! The KGB had 2 agents, Pine and Sun, posing as theology and law students in Rome from 1956-1963. Their "mission" was " identify anti-Soviet elements, collect compromising information on Lithuanian priests living in Western Europe, and close down secret communication channels between the Vatican and its bishops behind the Iron Curtain." It doesn't get any stranger than this in Le Carre's fiction. You can read the full article here.

TTSS is 99.9% plot: minimal introspection, minimal description, no sex, no violence (what there is of both takes place out of sight). Much of the plot is told through flashbacks (which makes it a great book for a Kindle so that you can look up the previous references to a particular character or code name.) For this aging brain, the intricacies of the plot were best handled in a compressed time frame. That was just the right prescription for a weekend getaway without leaving home.