Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Good Grief, Eileen

Have you ever read a book that you couldn't put down but you couldn't recommend? I kind of feel that way about Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. It's not that I felt it was a waste of time (to obtain that miserable feeling, read “The Girl on the Train”). Maybe it's closer to the way I felt about “Gone Girl” – these people are all despicable but I can't stop reading. But Eileen isn't despicable, just depressing.

Eileen Dunlop, 23 year old resident of a small coastal Massachusetts town she calls X-ville, is planning to escape from it all – her alcoholic father, her dead-end job at a correctional facility for adolescent boys, her marginal existence – for a new life in New York. And since she narrates from a remove of fifty years, we know she made it. We even know as she begins the story – a week before Christmas – that by Christmas Day she will be gone. And I was certainly rooting for her. But as she piled on detail after detail about her life – her father's abusive insults, her disgust with her own body, her sad workplace crush on a prison guard– I couldn't imagine how she would gain the strength to succeed.  Every time I thought her self-esteem couldn't get any lower, it did.

But then the glamorous and mysterious Rebecca comes to work at the facility, and forms an instant bond with Eileen. Eileen sees her as an escape route, and in an unexpected and shocking way she is. But by that time I was exhausted. Did I really need to endure that much misery to get to a semi-happy ending?

I have to admire Moshfegh’s ability to make a character and story so compelling that I couldn't stop reading. And amazingly I did come to care about what happened to Eileen – as opposed to that stupid girl on the train. But be warned – it's the most disturbing Christmas story you'll ever read.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Best Friends

II resisted as long as I could. I had read about Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels, much admired by literary critics and other writers, but I'm always wary of translations, and did I really want to commit to reading all four? But I was intrigued by that fact that in this day when authors seem forced to relentlessly promote their works, the mysterious “Elena Ferrante” (her pen name) has managed to keep her identity a secret and do only the bare minimum of interviews (written only).

I've now finished the first – My Brilliant Friend, and am halfway through the second – The Story of a New Name, and there's no stopping me. The books follow the lives of two childhood friends, Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, beginning in postwar Naples, where there is little escape from grinding poverty and limited opportunity. Both girls are bright and ambitious, and they imagine exciting lives for themselves. Although Lila is the stronger, the more imaginative and determined of the two, her parents refuse to educate her past elementary school, so it is Elena, her “brilliant friend” who continues her education, while Lila marries young and seems locked into the life she had hoped to escape. And maybe she ultimately does?? I'm only on book two.

I wonder if part of the reason that Ferrante wants her privacy is that her works seems so autobiographical. Elena and Lila are such vivid characters, with a friendship and a rivalry that is fierce and complex, and all the neighbors (and there a lot of them – the index of characters at the beginning of the book is extremely helpful) are rendered so sharply that they are completely convincing. Was Ferrante taking notes all through her childhood? That's how it feels.

Elena and Lila are strong women, and they are angry, sometimes at each other, often at the world. I have to find out how it all ends.

Friday, July 10, 2015

A Year in the Life

Jane Smiley has undertaken a daunting task. In the course of three books she follows the lives of a Midwestern family for one hundred years. Some Luck starts in 1920 and follows an Iowa farming family, Walter and Rosanna Langdon and their five children, until 1953. Then Early Warning picks up the story of Walter and Rosanna's children and their offspring until 1986. The third book of the trilogy, “Golden Age”, will be released in the fall and will complete the one hundred year cycle.

Each chapter covers a single year, with the point of view switching from character to character. Smiley clearly understands farming, as some chapters deal with the intricacies of crop rotation, corn prices, chickens, pigs and the occasional sheep. But she also captures the growth of the characters (or lack thereof). Walter remains an uncomplaining and determined farmer, while Rosanna evolves from vivacious and beautiful young mother to a somewhat crotchety old woman who nonetheless learns to drive and widens her view of the world outside the farm.  The children grow from toddlers adults, choosing very different paths.

For the most part they scatter far from the farm, marrying and starting families. They occasionally brush up against historic events (Viet Nam, Jim Jones, the AIDS crisis). Smiley does an admirable job of fleshing out the growing cast of characters. And it does help that a family tree is included, since I had some trouble remembering who's child was who's.

But I had a couple of problems with the format. Jumping forward a year with each chapter means that there's no real narrative arc, just a series of unconnected events. And as the novel expands to include both children and grandchildren of Walter and Rosanna, there are a lot of storylines to follow.

Early Warning” ends with a surprise revelation, and there are many dangling plot threads that I'm interested in following, so I will definitely read the third book. But if you're only going to read one Jane Smiley book, be sure it's “A Thousand Acres” which I consider to be her masterpiece.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Reading For Pleasure

Of course I read for pleasure. It's not as if I have a paper to write or test to take. And thanks to the Kindle “Try a Sample” option, I can easily start reading and then reject a book without even buying it. But that doesn't mean that all books are equally pleasurable to read. Sometimes reading a book can be hard work, but the rewards are well worth the effort (I'm looking at you, Karl Ove Knausgård). At other times a book can be just good enough to keep me going, but in the end leaves me feeling as I sometimes do in a restaurant – the meal tasted fine but I expected something a little more satisfying (Sorry, Rachel Kushner). And then sometimes a book hits me just right, Whether it's because of my state of mind, or the weather, or the phase of the moon, I'll never know, but reading Willa Cather's The Professor's House was an effortless pleasure. 

Unlike many of Cather's works, this book is not about frontier life but university life. Professor Godfrey St. Peter teaches history at a mid-western college in the 1920's and is a successful academic author. But when his family moves to a new home, he finds himself unable to abandon the shabby attic study in his old house, where he does his writing. His reluctance mirrors his unwillingness to accept the more modern and materialistic life which his wife and married daughters have embraced. He reminisces about his favorite student, Tom Outland, a brilliant scientist who was engaged to his daughter and was killed in World War I.

In middle section of the book, titled “Tom Outland's Story”, Cather leaves the professor and his comfortable life behind to let Tom tell the first person story of his life before his arrival at the college. Most memorable is his description of his discovery of an ancient abandoned city of cliff-dwellers on a mesa in New Mexico. Here Cather's love of natural beauty is reflected in the beautiful prose she uses to describe the colors, smells, textures of this idlyllic spot.

In the final section Cather returns to the professor and his struggle to come to terms with the modern world, so far removed from the natural world of the desert that Tom revered, and with a family to whom he no longer feels connected. He finds no easy answers. I expected this story to feel somewhat dated, but Cather has created a universal depiction of a man out of step with the times. Thanks, Willa – it was a pleasure.  

Friday, April 24, 2015

Norwegian Angst

Surely Norway can't be as depressing as it's depicted by its fiction writers, can it? Karl Ove Knausgaard's "My Struggle" paints a bleak picture, Jo Nesbø's 'Nordic noir' crime novels are dark and brooding, Per Petterson’s "Out Stealing Horses" is full of melancholy and regret. But Petterson’s newest novel I Refuse is darker still. Just look at the book cover!

It opens in 2006 with a powerful scene of the chance meeting in early morning between Jim and Tommy on a bridge outside of Oslo, where Jim, shabbily dressed, is fishing and Tommy, in a sleek new Mercedes, is on his way to work. The two have not seen each other in over thirty years. Tommy comments obliquely about “the way things can turn out”, and then drives away.

From there the story jumps back in time to 1966 in the small town of Mørk, where the two boys share a friendship forged in part by their loneliness, isolation, lost parents, and, in Tommy's case, domestic violence. The narrative continues to shift back and forth in time between their adolescent years and the day of the bridge meeting. Some passages are told in the first person by Tommy, his sister Siri and Jim; others are told in third person, in a way that is impressionistic but not confusing. Gradually these fragments fill in the events that have shaped their lives, including one that has driven a wedge between them. In some ways they have moved in opposite directions, but both have been scarred by their pasts and share an inability to fully connect with life.

The prose is sometimes taut but sometimes rambles in long sentences (could these have been better translated?). The most powerful and unforgettable scenes occur as the two teenagers are both connected and tested by their friendship. On the other hand, it was distracting to feel as if I needed a map of the Oslo area to follow the detailed driving descriptions.

This is a sad and poignant story and you will have to judge for yourself whether hope remains at the end. But I warn's Norwegian.

Monday, March 30, 2015


Recently our Book Club read “Stoner”, a wonderful 1965 novel by John Williams which had gone out of print until its success in France led to its reissue in the United States. It reminded me that one of the books on my 'Hope to Get To' list had a similar history. I had read an article in the New Yorker about Australian writer Elizabeth Harrower, whose works had been out of print for many years until, in 2012, the Australian publishing house Text reissued them and persuaded her to publish her last novel, which she had withdrawn just before it was to be released in 1971. The article declared The Watch Tower to be her greatest novel, so I decided it was time to read another forgotten work.

Although the story is set in the Australia of the 1940's, I kept being reminded of novels from earlier times. Laura and Clare Vaizey are not orphans like Jane Eyre, but they might as well be. Their heartless mother yanks Laura out of her academic high school so that she can support the family, then abandons the girls completely to return to England. Laura sacrifices her own dreams and attempts to save her sister's future by marrying Felix Shaw, her boss at the factory where she works. Harrower describes him as “a swarthy nuggety man of forty-four who looked closer to fifty”. All I could think of was poor Dorothea stuck with boring, insensitive Casaubon in "Middlemarch".

But Felix turns out to be much worse than the pompous Casaubon; in fact, he proudly compares himself to Bluebeard. What follows is a harrowing psychological tale, as Clare attempts to escape the toxic household that Felix has created around Laura and herself. If you've ever wondered why a woman stays in an abusive marriage, this novel provides a vivid case study.

Harrower's language is precise and controlled, sometimes witty, always honest. The story was terrifying, but I couldn't look away.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Story Time

It's always nice to have someone read to you, especially when it's a writer you admire. The special treat of The New Yorker:Fiction podcast is that the reader, a New Yorker fiction writer, chooses a story that was published in the magazine and that he or she particularly admires. After the reading, the writer and fiction editor Deborah Treisman discuss the story and its author. Sometimes I know the author well; I may even remember having read the story. But at other times it's a revelation.

That's what happened in January when Joseph O'Neill, who wrote the wonderful novel Netherland, read Muriel Spark's short story “The Ormolu Clock”, originally published in the New Yorker in 1960. The story was terrific and O'Neill's admiration for her technique and her 'nastiness' made me enjoy it even more. Spark is best known for “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, but I wanted to try one of her less known works, so I settled on The Girls of Slender Means.

The 'girls' are living in London in the spring of 1945 in an Edwardian mansion called the May of Teck Club, which “exists for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means”. Somehow Spark manages to make this large cast of women of different ages, experience and ambitions into fully realized characters, as they were in 1945 and as they are when she revisits them many years later. In the early chapters the tone is light and droll, as when she describes one resident: “she lolled in the distinct attitude of being the only woman present who could afford to loll”. But she subtly weaves a darker thread into the story, and a tragedy ultimately colors many of their lives.

I'm not sure I liked this book as much as I liked the short story on the podcast, but may that's because I like being read to by an Irishman.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Household Help

At first it seems to be a story revealing the changes in society in post World War I London of 1922. Frances Wray and her mother, once part of a genteel family living in an elegant Edwardian home, are forced to dismiss their servants, do their own cooking and housework (actually Frances does it all – her mother can't even boil water), and rent out their upper floor to married couple Leonard and Lilian Barber, The Paying Guests of Sarah Waters's novel. The Barbers are roughly the same age as Frances, but from a lower social class. Lilian's flapperish style - kimonos, paper flowers, feathers, beads and tambourines – is a striking contrast to Frances's staid and sober demeanor, although it is gradually revealed that she too led a more bohemian life before her family's reversals forced her back home to her mother.

So would this book be a nuanced examination of the clash of social classes? Decidely not. What starts as character study turns into an action-filled, high tension page-turner which is at once dark, shocking and occasionally comic. I hate spoilers so I'll say no more. Sarah Waters tells a tale that feels totally authentic to its time period but bracingly contemporary.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

An Irish Portrait

It seems appropriate that I start the new year with an old favorite. I've always had a soft spot for Irish writers, and Colm Tóibín, whose Brooklyn was one of my favorites of 2009, has written another powerful book. Set in Enniscorthy, a town in southeastern Ireland, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Nora Webster tells the story of a middle-aged woman whose husband, a much beloved schoolteacher, has died of heart disease. Nora is struggling to deal with her loss, and to help her four children, especially her two young sons, come to terms with this new reality.

And honestly, not a whole lot happens. The book is the story of Nora's everday life. She sells a vacation cottage she can no longer afford, she goes back to work, she worries about her older son's stutter and his withdrawn attitude, she discovers a love for classical music and an interest in singing. There are no fireworks, no dramatic upheavals (although the events of Bloody Sunday are referenced), no shocking revelations. But that's what I love about Tóibín. His understated prose and matter-of-fact narrative carry a force that I can't explain. He revealed in an interview that he lost his own father at a young age, and that the stammering, angry son Donal is a version of himself. Maybe that's why his plain language seems to carry so much emotion.

Nora is no saint – at times she's not even very likable. Her evolution is gradual, but by the end of the novel she has squared her shoulders, faced her grief and moved forward into life. Tóibín has painted a subtle, honest portrait of a ordinary but complicated woman.