Thursday, September 8, 2016

Living in a Fictional World: Themes of the Past Year in my Reading

One of the realizations that I've come to recently is that I spend almost as much time in the fictional world as I spend in the real world. That's kinda scary, isn't it? Between reading regular ol' books, my Kindle, and audiobooks I spend a good 2-3 hours of my waking hours each day reading and thinking (I think I spend the rest of my time cooking, eating, and thinking about food). OK, that's when I'm not working at one thing or another. This might be a little bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but there is some small bit of truth in it. 

And I've come to wonder if I am trying to escape the present larger reality of our world (with a capital R), or the reality of my soon-to-be-totally-empty-nest life, or if somehow the fictional world is just a lot easier to understand. I don't know.

Of the books I've read in the last year or so, I think I could probably characterize them into several broad groups: Straight Fiction; Humorous or Humorously-toned Fiction; Satire; Dystopia; and Non-Fiction.

Those straight fictional worlds exist in the world as I know it and are not meant to be a wink-wink comment on the absurdity of life. These books range from Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (which I finally got to read during our trip to Israel in February—that was a strange juxtaposition) to Sue Miller's The Lake Shore Limited, Adam Haslett's Imagine Me Gone, and recent stunners like The Nix (Nathan Hill) and Swing Time (Zadie Smith).

(The example of Swing Time reminds me of a tangential theme in my reading in the last year—that of the difficulties of race and class and our understanding of those topics. I read a lot of books this year that explored those dimensions in the fictional universe—Whitehead, Saunders, McBride, Beatty, and Hamid among others)

Those books I thought of as Humorously-Toned featured a narrative voice that often stood off to the side, winking at the reader, sending us a message that s/he was dealing with real world issues but with an ironic distance that, as a reader, beckoned me to join in with them.  Some of the books in this vein that I read this year included: Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple, A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, and Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen.

But when "this old world" kept getting me down, I retreated to the rooftop to read my satire. It was definitely here that I felt the most...unburdened. Satire was my sweet spot. There was the utter levity and ridiculousness of David Duchovny's Holy Cow; David Grossman's ironically- and other-worldly-set A Horse Walks into a Bar; Paul Beatty's masterfully-funny The Sellout; and the absolute tours-de-force of Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad) and George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo). What these books all had in common was that they existed in alternate universes, realities similar to but different from the world as we commonly know it. Whether told from the perspective of cows (!), ego-obsessed, twisted, damaged, and dying Israelis (Grossman), Lincoln and many other contemporaneous ghosts (Saunders), escaped slaves in alternate realities along stops on a very real underground railroad (Whitehead), or a world where the lines of the map are literally redrawn (Beatty), all of these authors approached their characters and the situations they were describing with biting wit and a mirror so strange but so true. This was definitely where I lived this year—in the satiric world. Feel free to analyze at will.

Similarly, I roamed freely among several dystopian worlds this year, including Sinclair Lewis's alternate reality of a demagogue-in-chief (I read both the book and the play, perhaps with an eye to produce the latter someday) in It Can't Happen Here—perhaps a phrase many of us spoke more than a few times in the last eight months or so, and Philip K. Dick's dated but scary The Man in the High Castle.

In many ways, my non-fiction reading reflected what I was reading in fiction, too, leaving me with much head-shaking and many a sad smile. Maureen Dowd's collection of essays The Year of Voting Dangerously: The Derangement of American Politics was a mirror back on the past year in politics in the US; Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock was an incredible look at a Trump-like film-flam artist, a real-life success story who made millions off of monkey testicles (honest). I read William Safire's Scandalmonger to learn more about the scandal highlighted in Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton and came away with an appreciation of the complexity of the political world and the downright mean and nasty side of manipulation and truth-distorting that comes about when warring interests do battle in the public arena.

Is reading an escape? For me it is. But it is also a microscope, or maybe a pair of reading glasses. There's so much fuzziness out there, so much I don't understand. I use books and my forays into the fictional world as a way of sharpening what I see and what I am thinking about. Yes, to some extent, that means I am reading to only confirm my opinions. Perhaps I need to broaden what I read, learn to challenge those opinions and worldviews. But then again, everyday life does that, with every ridiculous tweet and attempt at manipulating reality. Truth is under attack. What better way to combat that than to retreat into fiction?

Summer Reading, 2016

As a reader, there have been times when I've hit low, dry stretches of fiction, where it seems like every book I pick up seems banal, tired, predictable, empty. Then there are times when themes grab me, and I find myself chasing down rabbit holes of meaning, symbols, and parallels. Or an author's poetry and metaphors move me to tears and deep thoughts and feelings. This summer has really been a good stretch for me. I've picked up some really great books in the last ten weeks or so, chased some MacGuffins of my own, and had some incredible realizations. 

Here's a rundown of some of the books I read in the summer of 2016:

The Circle, Dave Eggers
I'm not a huge Eggers fan. I didn't love A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, his first work. Nor did I love Zeitoun. In both cases, the author was so front and center, intruding so clearly, that I felt uncomfortable, like sitting in an obstructed view seat at Fenway. Moreover, both teetered on the tricky edge between fiction and fact. Eggers' stance was never clear to me in either book and I gladly put him away and found other things to occupy me. But a few months ago a friend recommended The Circle to me and I thought I'd give Eggers another try. The synopsis sounded simple and intriguing,  and posed some of the same questions I've been asking myself about the ubiquitous power and saturation of Google, Facebook and Amazon. Young Mae Holland gets a job with the Circle, an all-encompassing, data-gobbling internet giant. Within weeks, she becomes a full-fledged Kool-aid-drinking acolyte, spouting such pearls as "secrets are lies", and "sharing is caring" (the sharing of all of your information, that is), and "privacy is theft". Along with major politicians seeking full accountability, Mae accedes to the gentle pressure of The Wise Men and wears a camera to broadcast and narrate her life, all in the name of "transparency" and "closing the Circle". Yes, it feeds into the views of those who worry about privacy issues, data-mining, identity theft and the intrusion of Google/Facebook/Amazon et al into all of our lives, but I think these are all questions and issues that we need to confront head-on, maybe not before it's too late—I'm not ready for a dystopia yet—but we all need to think about what kind of world we want. In the end, the plot spins towards its ultimate and predictable end, with no surprises or real insights. But the strength of the novel really rests in the questions it poses, not in any answers.

Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead
Other than Zone One, Whitehead's zombie novel, I've read all of Whitehead's fiction. He has an incredibly unique voice, from the strange and other-worldly The Intuitionist, to the hard and scrappy John Henry Days, and even the under-appreciated Apex Hides the Hurt, a comic novel that actually still haunts me in some ways. I picked up Sag Harbor about the same time that I learned about Whitehead's newest novel, The Underground Railroad. I don't know why I hadn't read Sag Harbor. In so many ways, it was a perfect end-of-summer read. Its frank nostalgia calls to mind those late summer evenings when you realize that time has past, that school is calling, that childhood is in the rearview mirror. I don't doubt that this may be part memoir—it has that feel—but it just doesn't matter. It is a beautiful, funny, evocative portrait of a teenaged summer in a beach community. Warm beer, barbecue, endless hours of idleness and dreams, secret longings, bad music, hard-to-shed labels and nicknames, first jobs, first concerts and first kisses. That the novel takes place in an African-American community is not so much an integral element as a marker; this novel is as broadly American as can be. And yet the themes of displacement, of incongruity, of outsiderness are there and deeply moving. 

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra
The Star of Love and Techno, Anthony Marra
I'll bundle these two breathtaking works together based on the fact that they cover the same geography, both physical and emotional. Marra writes about Chechnya both before and after Communist rule.  He is brilliant—funny, ironic, poignant, serious. What are the costs of war, of the dissolution of a nation and of communities? What and how do we trust our neighbors, our families? Marra asks big questions and paints with a very broad brush. Both of these works are moving and essential reading for the modern world. My favorite scene, of old people swimming in an industrially-polluted and aptly-named lake, has really stayed with me:

  In July 1990, when the warmest month in Kirovsk’s fifty-three-year history coincided with the collapsing of Soviet authority, the elderly began swimming in Lake Mercury. In the mornings they gathered on the gravelly banks with their gray hair bunched beneath fur hats and they stripped to their undergarments. When they raised their hands, their triceps sagged from the bone.
   One man gazing at the waters patted his potbelly tenderly. Maybe he’d spent the last fifty years wondering if it could be deployed as a flotation device, and now, finally, would find the answer. There’s nothing quite like the sight of two dozen half-naked octogenarians. We enter the stage of life as dolls and exit as gargoyles.
   “Why are you swimming here?” I asked one of the women. She stood  beside a rusted sign that warned off swimmers. She was no taller than me—which is not to say I was short, just short for a biped. Her hazel eyes held my fuzzy reflection. Her generation had journeyed  through hell so we could grow up in purgatory. She glanced to the rusted sign. It depicted a grapefruit-headed man made of forty-five-degree angles falling into the open jaws of a shark.
   Perhaps before she was arrested and condemned to Kirovsk, she had grown up by a lake where her father had taught her to float by keeping his hand beneath her arched spine so she knew she wouldn’t  sink, that he would be there, until one day she lay on the calm surface, her back parabolic, her arms crucified on the water, her brown hair sieving algae, and she flitted her father a look and he raised his hands as if her glance was a loaded gun, and for a second she floundered, terrified she would sink to the lake bottom without him to hold her, but she stilled her arms, gulped the air, she was doing it, all by herself, she was floating. Perhaps she wanted to tell me that if she had outlived Stalin, the Berlin Wall, and the Soviet Empire, a little dirty water wouldn’t kill her.
    Instead, she glared at the sign. “I’ve fried scarier fish with just a sliver of butter.”
    She joined the other grandmothers. Clad in nothing but discolored undergarments, they hobbled to the gravel bank. All around, smoke blabbered endlessly from the smelter stacks. A woman with a noose of scar tissue carried her wooden cane right into the water. The others followed, and all together, they waded in. After a half-century drought, they remember how to swim. A husband and wife backstroked across the lake, water glistening toward shoulders, legs splashing in unison. A rope, lashed around their waists, tied them together, in case one began to sink. A one-legged man paddled with slow thrusts of his arms. Both real and phantom legs were weightless in the water below. A man with a mustache as wide as his waistline,  whom all the world had nicknamed Walrus, took his first tentative strokes, marveling at the cool rush against his skin, the freedom of movement, and began weeping right there in the water for the countless times he had given up hope, the countless times he had prayed for death in the mines, in the prison camp, and now, now gratitude cracked him open, and he thanked God for ignoring his prayers, for letting him live long enough to learn to swim.
    And in the middle of the lake the woman I’d spoken with floated on her back, eyes closed, as if nothing in her many years had ever gone wrong.

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
How could I not read this important book right now? Part letter to his son, part memoir, part plea to reason, Coates asks us to deeply examine the roots of racism and the meaning of the senseless violence against the black body in our nation. It's a deeply disturbing book, frightening, accurate, a call to action and to personal examination. 

The Surrendered, Chang-rae Lee
Lee's latest book represents a little bit of a departure for him. Although much of the action takes place in Korea, and one of the main characters is Korean-American, the book does not really revolve around issues particular to that culture or subculture. Instead, what he presents are a couple of raw character studies—violent, rough, disconcerting. Born into the horrors of the aftermath of WWII, June Han grows up angry, rebellious, and cruel in an orphanage during the Korean War. She survives, somehow, and lands in America, and thrives as an antiques dealer. The novel begins and ends with her search for her missing son, who himself is displaced and haunted. The other main character is Hector, an American soldier who is also at a loss for where to go and who to be. Both characters have lost parents, friends, lovers, and themselves in their search for identity and meaning. In addition, both June and Hector are haunted by their love of one woman, Sylvie Tanner, the wife of the minister who ran the orphanage where June was raised and where Hector worked as a handyman. 

Bucky F***ing Dent, David Duchovny
I picked this up in a great independent bookstore in Lenox, MA and was totally surprised by this book. Yes, I picked it up because I'm a Sox fan, as well as a baseball fan in the larger sense, and also because I've always been amused by that adjective associated with the light-hitting Yankee shortstop. But the humor of the book, and even the strangeness of the main character's worldview, pulled me in. Duchovny actually is a writer, much to my surprise. Ted is a struggling (but mostly stoned) writer who makes barely enough to eat as a peanut vendor at Yankee Stadium. The pennant race of '78 reunites him with his dying father, a sharp-tongued former ad man and die-hard Sox fan. To keep his spirits up, Ted plots with his dad's cronies in the neighborhood to keep the illusion that the Sox are ahead of the Yankees in the race. Deeply touching and very funny, this novel brought to mind much about my relationship with my own father. In addition, Duchovny got me interested in researching Eddie Bernays, the self-proclaimed father of public relations and the nephew of Sigmund Freud.

A Fraction of the Whole, Steve Toltz
This gets my vote for the weirdest, wackiest book I read this summer. It's long. It's funny. It's strange. It has elements of John Irving, John Kennedy Toole, even Thomas Pynchon. The story is about two brothers, Jasper and Martin Dean, and on the surface it's a coming of age story—lots of here's where that came from and why your father is the way he is kind of moments. But it's also about crime, about small towns, about the futility of life, about choices, anger, resentment, revenge, fame.

Playing for Pizza, John Grisham
I read this at the suggestion of a sports-loving friend of mine who knew I'd just been in Italy. It's a light and imperfect read, and is classically Grisham. Characters and situations are unremarkable and unlikely, the writing is flat and uneven. A big D for me.

The Lost Time Accidents, John Wray
Another strange book about brothers. Ambitious and sprawling,  The Lost Time Accidents covers a lot of time...or not much at all. Filled with bizarre characters and spanning the globe, the story examines time and the way we experience it based on the lives and loves of two men, Kaspar and Waldemar Tolliver. The novel deals with time, Einstein, madness, evil, death camps, fate, Nazism, L. Ron Hubbard, science fiction. 

The Arsonist, Sue Miller
I hadn't read anything by Miller for a long time before picking this up for our book group. To me, the story is about choices we make in our lives—set against the backdrop of a series of fires set in a summer vacation community in the mountains of New Hampshire. A burned-out (pun intended) Frankie returns from doing aid work in Africa, emotionally scarred and dead from empty, failed relationships and work she now sees as futile. She falls for the town's local newspaper editor, himself a refugee from relationships and unfulfilling work (he's burned his bridges and landed here). But love isn't at the center of the story, to me. It's about caring for aging parents (Frankie's father is fading into Alzheimer's) as much as it's about a community dealing with issues of class—all of the homes that are being burned belong to summer-only residents. Some of the sharpest scenes in the book occur between the "flatlanders" and the full-time residents (and "flatlands" calls to mind those who can only see in 2D, in Flatland, missing the depth and dimension), as between Frankie's mother and her former boyfriend of 60 years before, or between her and the hired help. Although the book did not receive very good reviews, perhaps due to its unsettled and unsatisfying ending (if you're looking for things to tie up nicely), I think Miller calls into question some very important issues about how we treat each other and think about issues of class and privilege. Frankie can choose where she wants to be and what she wants to do in this world and others—those full-time residents and the people she left (abandoned, to her guilt-ridden mind) in Africa, cannot leave. From a Washington Post review: 

(Miller is) interested in the friction between modest folks who maintain the town and “chatty, self-assured summer people” who expect it to remain an accommodating setting for their leisure. The fires force everyone to consider “who owned the town and who merely used it.” Advised to put locks on the doors, one offended visitor says, “This is not why we come here.” Miller adds, “There was something threatening in this tonally, inflectively, as if to say, If you can’t manage this better, we won’t come here anymore.

And later, in the same review:

An older character in town who serves as a kind of sage offers a counterintuitive explanation for the fires — and the resentment that may be fueling them: “That expectation that we’ll all get along — that didn’t use to matter so much,” he says. “Because there was no such expectation. There was no social mixing. . . . We knew our place.” In other words, our pretense of egalitarianism is destined to aggravate tensions between groups that live very different lives.

The Good Lord Bird, James McBride

The Nix,  Nathan Hill

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

Friday, May 6, 2016

What I'm Reading and Thinking about Now

Friends, I haven't posted anything in a long time. I'm too embarrassed to look up when my last post was. That doesn't mean I haven't been reading. In fact, I would say I'm reading more now than at almost any time in my life. That I can read dead-tree books, books on my Kindle, and listen to books in the car makes my life a constant flow of fiction. No, I don't read much non-fiction, unless you count the newspaper (but I won't go there about the possible fiction of journalism). I'm a story boy. I love a good story, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I love plot only.

Take the case of the books I am currently reading: John Wray's The Lost Time Accidents is a meandering, asynchronous journey through time and space, following the fate and fortunes of two brothers and their descendants, including one who is stuck in time, perched in an armchair on a particular day at a very particular time, unable to move but able to think and talk, as he tells his story to his absent lover, Mrs. Haven. It'd be totally antithetical to the point of the novel to get too hung up on the plot aspects of the story. It's all about time and meaning, cycles and spirals. Curiously, I am listening to this book—I wonder what it would be like to actually be reading it...

On my Kindle, I am reading another Jess Walter book, after finishing Citizen Vince last week. I really enjoy his writing. His characters are vivid, savvy, complicated souls in a constant search for identity and meaning. Citizen Vince uses the backdrop of the election of 1980 to explore a man's attempts at re-definition as a result of being in the witness protection program. However implausible the story is and the details of the program, I really enjoyed the humor and the characters. Interestingly, Vince shows up in The Financial Lives of Poets. I don't remember which was published first, but Vince appears briefly in the background as Marty, which had been Vince's real name, along with his wife and teenaged son. Fun to think that it's the same world.

But this is in a different place, if not a different world, a world filled with lost dreams and broken promises (in fact, it just occurred to me that this world isn't that different fromErnest Cline's Ready Player One). Matt's destroyed his simple middle-class life by going too far out on the broken and dying limb of journalism, and jumping off to pursue a ridiculous dream: a website devoted to financial advice, offered in poetry. The poems that appear throughout are depressing indictments of the plain and simple life—marriage, suburbia, parenthood—and offer comic and dark commentary to Matt's life as it spirals down the toilet. Going to lose the house? Why not try selling weed? Suspicious of your wife's late-night typing? Log into her Facebook account and see evidence of her cheating with her old boyfriend. Funny, sad, bittersweet...but as yet, offering no redemption. I don't see a way out of it all for Matt or for his family. We'll see.

I'm also reading Nathan Englander's novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, which I've wanted to read for a while and which I picked up after reading his spectacular collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. And I'm still dipping into Dickens' David Copperfield. I wish I could finish DC all at once, but I'm enjoying the slow dips and the steady returns after weeks away.

For my Swarthmore book group, we read Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping. I've read the book three times now and I'm still amazed at the quality of the writing, the idiosyncratic voice I hear in her words. I can't tell if it's that I don't know enough about the New Testament or whether it's her frontier/pioneer/western orientation that makes her writing so unfamiliar and sometimes impenetrable for mer. But I still love her writing in this novel. Though many members of my group disagreed with me, I see it as a novel about conformity and about society much more than it's about madness or survival. Ruthie struggles so much to understand. She wished she could be like her sister Lucille, but she knows she's not. She'll never fit in and doesn't seem to even want to, while it's Lucille's goal to be like every else, to have what everybody seems to have—a stable family life, the right clothes, an adherence to tradition and commonality. Ruthie isn't like that and that's revealed even before the ever-roaming Sylvie shows up. Sylvie provides her with a model for how she can be happy while not necessarily being attached to anyone or anything. I don't think Sylvie's necessarily crazy—she just doesn't buy into everything that everyone else does. I like that about her and about Ruthie, too.

For my other book group we read Chris Cleave's Gold, a book I both hated and admired. It's a book about a friendship in very extreme circumstances, and one that not many people have ever experienced. Of course it's a fantasy, set against the upcoming 2012 Olympics in London. Two bike racers—three best friends, two women and the man one of them marries—are all set to compete in the trials for the Games. The best part of the book are the fanatical scenes of their daughter, 8 years old and undergoing cancer treatment. The only way she's able to survive is to picture the cancer as the Dark Force and her battle against his star cruisers and various armed soldiers.

So...I'm still reading, still thinking, still looking for themes and ties between all the works I'm consuming. More another time.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Reading and Read, 2016

What I'm Reading Now
The Senator's Wife, Sue Miller
Ill Will, Dan Chaon
All the Names, Jose Saramago
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

Recently Read
The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, Thomas Mullen
The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga
The Lake Shore Limited, Sue Miller
Holy Cow, David Duchovny
Swing Time, Zadie Smith
A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, Norman Maclean
Today Will Be Different, Maria Semple
A Horse Walks Into a Bar, David Grossman
The Sellout, Paul Beatty
Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders
The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam, Brock Brock
Scandalmonger, William Safire
A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman
Imagine Me Gone, Adam Haslett,
It Can't Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis,
A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles
You Remind Me of Me, Dan Chaon
The Year of Voting Dangerously: The Derangement of American Politics, Maureen Dowd
The Nix, Nathan Hill
The Good Lord Bird, James McBride
The Little Red Chairs, Edna O'Brien
Razor Girl, Carl Hiaasen
The Last Days of Night, Graham Moore
The Financial Lives of Poets, Jess Walter
The Lost Time Accidents, John Wray
Gold, Chris Cleave
Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
Citizen Vince, Jess Walter
The Buried Giant, Kazoo Ishiguro
A Fan's Notes, Frederick Exley
Exley, Brock Clarke
The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Salman Rushdie
Welcome to Braggsville, Geronimo T. Johnson
To the End of the Land, David Grossman
A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson
White Teeth, Zadie Smith
Skippy Dies, Paul Murray
This is How You Leave Here, Junot Diaz
Suspended Sentences, Patrick Modiano
So Long, see You Tomorrow, William Maxwell
Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad
Mr. Bridge, Even Connell
Robinson Crusoe, Dafoe
Gulliver's Travels, Swift
Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng
The Changeling, Kenzaburo Oe
Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant, Roz Chast
The Strange Library, Murakami
The Immortal Life of Henriette Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
The Children Act, Ian McEwan
Orfeo, Richard Powers
The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem
The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem
After Dark, Haruki Murakami
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami
Sputnik Sweetheart, Haruki Murakami
The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker
I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki
Marcelo in the Real World, Francisco Stork
Looking for Alaska, John Green
Paper Towns, John Green

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Latest Out-of-School Reads

I can't help it. Once the school year starts, I feel this urge to pick up some required reading. It helps to belong to a book group or two (or three) and to have some deadlines. Gotta finish the book before class, ya know? I've read a few things lately, mostly unconnected to anything. Two of the four were for book groups, including my Swat Book Group. Here we go:

1) At some point in high school, I had an English teacher who identified me as a reader and a smartass as well. I hated Mr. Wilkins' class on Theater of the Absurd. We read Ionesco, Beckett, Genet. None of it made sense to me (duh) and, at the time, I was struggling to make sense of the world. I didn't find the plays funny or even interesting. Just frustrating. I don't remember exactly how it happened, but Mr. Wilkins set me up in an independent study of 18th century literature. I read Samuel Richardson (Clarissa and Pamela), Henry Fielding (Tom Jones), and even the Marquis de Sade (Justine--I was quite surprised that my Quaker school's library actually even owned a copy of it). Well, that did the trick. There was something about the epistolary and the picaresque that piqued my interest. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for novels from that era, even taking a course in the rise of the novel in college that dealt with those and similar works.

So I wasn't too upset when my Swat Book Group decided to read Joseph Andrews by Fielding this summer. The novel is much less successful as a novel than Tom Jones. It doesn't feel as carefully planned out as that later novel, as if much of the writing and the action is accidental and even besides the point. In fact, my copy of the book also contains Fielding's great (though short) satire of Richardson, which he called Shamela. In it, Fielding lampoons Richardson's virtuous heroine who perpetually is staving off rape and seduction at every turn, as well as her ridiculous letters. Fielding's heroine knows what she's doing, trading sex for marriage, position, and money. In some ways, Joseph Andrews is more of the same. But instead of a female hero, Fielding turns things on their head by creating a male hero who faces the same moral depravity. Mrs. Booby wants him (in the worst way) and Joseph has to fend off her advances and those of other women, in order to remain pure and committed to his true love, Fanny. Best of all, Joseph is the brother of Richardson's Pamela, who makes an appearance in the novel towards the end.

But the real star of the novel (perhaps even to Fielding's surprise) is the highly moral Parson Abraham Adams, a poor country minister who has befriended Joseph from his younger days. Once Joseph and he are on the road (because heroes always have to travel to have adventures...think Don Quixote and many others), the novel turns to digression after digression and stories within stories. They're all delightful, of course, but don't move the plot forward. They're about humor, moral instruction, satire, social observation, and everything but character development or plot. That's not what Fielding's about. Is that his feeling or am I reading with 21st century eyes too much? Have all the novels that have been written since the 1750's trained me to read for plot and character in a particular way?

Maybe so. What I do know is that I wouldn't have picked Joseph Andrews up (or the next book) if it hadn't been something I was reading for this book group.

2) While I was reading Joseph Andrews and Shamela, I came across a mention of a book by Charlotte Lennox called The Female Quixote, written around the same time as Fielding's novel. The title intrigued me so I picked up a copy. What a delightful surprise! The premise of the novel is that the heroine, who has been closed off from society her whole life, has based her vision of the world on what she reads in "romantic novels". Just as Cervantes' Quixote or Twain's Tom Sawyer see knights and adventures and quests at every turn, Lennox's Arabella thinks all unfamiliar men have plots to rape or seduce her, that every phrase or conversation has hidden meanings for her to decode. The only history that exists for her is that which "happened" in the novels she reads. Instead of kings and queens and wars, she constantly refers to situations from her novels as guides for her behavior. Her "adventures" are in her head. Basically, she's psychotic and cannot tell the difference between reality and her reality. It was great good fun to read at the same time as Fielding.

3) Another recent read that I stumbled upon (I forget how...I can flit from thing to thing sometimes) is the 1932 novel Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. I don't know what made me pick it up but I'm glad I did. It's a delightful stranger-in-a-strange-land type novel. The over-educated, smart and sassy Flora Poste, recently orphaned, descends upon inbred relatives she's never met before at Cold Comfort Farm. What a curious, strange bunch they are--think the Clampetts but in rural England, only stranger. In a world full of insanity, superstition, and tightly-clenched traditions, Flora brings reason, humor, and forthright good sense. She's so British in so many ways and could only be played by Maggie Smith (although someone told me recently that they did make a film of this--here, which I have not seen). Not a complicated novel, no hidden agenda, but enjoyable all the same.

4) Last, for the book group we have at work we selected Vanessa Diffenbaugh's The Language of Flowers. An inelegant first novel in so many ways, it had the feeling of a work crafted by a marketing department. With simplistic language, carefully-crafted themes, and some clearly planted "hooks", Diffenbaugh seems to be aiming for the Oprah-esque circuit of talk shows to uncover the evils of the foster child system in the US. A worthy objective, I'm sure, but why write a novel? Especially when the supposed "hook" is the Victorian "language of flowers", used by lovers in the 1800's to wordlessly and safely communicate their feelings to others. Victoria (get it? huh?) is a former foster child, convinced of her unloveability and that she cannot love others. She is homeless but--what luck!--finds a job at a florist's where she creates the perfect bouquets for lovers and other assorted folks, gaining money, popularity, respect, and, yes, even love to boot. The more distance I have from this book, the more I dislike it. I think the thing that bugged me the most is that the novel has at least two different covers (even though it was released this year): one for young adults (with a picture of a pretty teenaged girl, hair dangling in her face on the cover, with quotes from "Marie Claire" and "Heat"), and one for--who?--young women? with quotes from "People" and "Us".

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

My Beach Reading

When you think of beach reading, you think of guilty pleasures. Big fat books with fast-moving plots, mindless easy junk food for the soul. Or not. We were away at the Cape last week, enjoying the peaceful serenity, lazy long lunches and late dinners, beautiful weather, cool sand and warm water. Mini-golf, salt water taffy, bike rides (and even a Segway tour!), and fried clam strips. It was a great week. It doesn't come as a  well-needed break anymore. After years and years of producing summer shows and utter craziness over six or seven weeks, I would plop down in my beach chair and heave a well-earned sigh of relief and relaxation. No, this summer was tinged more with the bittersweet, the knowledge that these are the last days of something that will be ending soon. Maybe not next year, but our Cape memories are dwindling away.

The Cape also means reading. This year, for the first time that I can really recall, the five of us sat on the beach and read. Yes, we've done that before, but not often at the same time. One memorable summer five years ago, I spent four or five hours reading aloud the final 100 pages or so of the last Harry Potter, while the girls and Robin dug in the sand. Boy, was I hoarse after that. But this summer was different. Becca and Maisie were reading their books for school (Grapes of Wrath and Yellow Raft on Blue Water for Becca, and The Good Food Revolution for Maisie); Sarah was reading  Everything Matters (my suggestion), The Language of Flowers, and Black Boy, White School (her school's all-school book, written by Brian Walker, an English teacher at CSW); Robin was reading a book about Kaddish for her Muslim/Jewish book group and a book for our book group about flyfishing (!); and I was reading as much as I possibly could (titles below).

Before the rest of the family joined us at the house, Maisie and I spent an evening in Chatham. While she was scoping out the ice cream choices, I browsed around Yellow Umbrella Books, a terrific little used books store. With an amazing amount of restraint, I picked just two titles: Murakami's Kafka on the Shore, a book I'm excited and scared to read, and Jane Hamilton's Laura Rider's Masterpiece. I've read other books by Hamilton but hadn't heard about this one. With good reason. It's not a terrible book--and it does qualify as beach reading (I read it in a day)--but it's not fully-realized either. The plot revolves around three characters: Laura and Charlie Rider, owners of a nursery in rural Wisconsin, and Jenna Faroli, a popular, populist NPR radio host. Laura idolizes Jenna and, when Jenna moves to town (to be halfway between her work in Chicago and her husband's job in Milwaukee), she plots to get to know her. Laura is willful, manipulative, and crafty. And deep within her soul is the urge and vision that she will become a romance writer someday. Laura uses her hunk-of-clay husband to get close to Jenna by impersonating him in emails to her idol, hoping that a friendship will bloom. What Laura didn't realize is that lust and sex would also ensue.

Parts of Laura Rider's Masterpiece are brilliant and funny--Jenna's co-workers at the radio station, Jenna's final interview with Laura--but too much of the novel is weakly and wearily imagined: Hamilton's cynical and cruel take on young, inexperienced writers comes off as mean. It's not funny, really. It's like shooting fish in a barrel, as they say. And yet if she hadn't fallen into the trap of trying to be funny, the book and its characters has potential: Laura and Charlie are in a love-less marriage--why is he so content to let her manipulate him? what are the subtle ways he tries to undermine her authority at the nursery? what's really going on in their marriage?

In short, this was a classic if ultimately unsatisfying beach read.

Next on my list was finishing up a book I'd been slogging through all summer, Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question. Winner of the Booker Prize in 2010, The Finkler Question is not a short, playful beach read. It's thoughtful, deep, funny, and strange. Three friends, two of whom are recent widowers, engage and toy with questions about identity, Judaism, Zionism, and love. Julian Treslove (there's no shortage of ironic wordplay and proper names in this novel) is loveless and unattached, mired in a job he hates: impersonating celebrities at parties. To make matters worse, he's been mugged by a woman who shouts something at him which sounds anti-Semitic. But how can that be? Treslove isn't Jewish. But he discovers that he wants to be Jewish, he needs to be Jewish. He and his Jewish friends, Libor and Finkler, argue and discuss what that means in the modern world and Treslove does all he can to become "a Finkler": a Jewish man. Can you change your identity, your beliefs, the very rituals and foundations which guide your life, like trading in an old car for a new one?

I don't do it often but I allowed myself to put this book down. I'm not sure if I will come back to it or not. Maybe it was because The Finkler Question did not feel like a beach read to me; maybe it was because it was too much work. The novel is essentially plotless, or, at least, the major plot points aren't really important to the novel. It's more of a discussion in many ways, a multi-facted exploration of modern Judaism and identity in the modern world. Jacobson is funny, sarcastic, and pointed in his commentary. But it wasn't a novel I enjoyed reading. I'm not sure if I would have enjoyed it more (or less) if I hadn't been Jewish....It felt like a dead horse to me and I was tired of beating on it/reading it, so...I stopped reading.

And what did I pick up instead? The joy of the summer for me: Glen David Gold's Sunnyside. Like his Carter Beats the Devil from a few years ago, Gold takes a historical figure and plants us firmly in that era. This time, it's Charlie Chaplin, World War I, and the beginning of the dominance of film as an important, global cultural medium. Chaplin comes across as a narcissistic egomaniac, dazed, confused, unsure of himself and his vision, tortured by doubt and unhappiness, a pharoah of film shouting crazy, impossible instructions to underlings, then changing his mind and tossing it all out the window. Yet, he's brilliant, too. How close is Gold's portrayal of Chaplin to the truth? Who cares. This Chaplin is a great character and the chapters from his point of view sparkle.

The other chapters are wonderful, too, but for a very different reason: it wasn't until I was a third of the way through the book that I understood what Gold was doing. The characters in the Chaplin-less sections seemed two-dimensional at first: the lovesick girl, the handsome hero, the hapless soldier, the smart dog, the wily thief. But then, I began to understand that what he was drawing for us was the background, the depth behind characters and settings that could have been part of one of Chaplin's (or Pickford's or Max Sennett's) movies. From little comic scenes of a soldier trying to start an airplane or a policeman stopping a thief, to moments of pathos and deep emotion, these scenes are filled with living people.

Yes, Chaplin and Pickford, and Fairbanks are here, but so are real people, and real despair, even if on the surface their stories seem flat, predictable, stock. There's Lee (of various first names and last names), the handsome, starstruck teen who longs to be in movies; Hugo Black, the wealthy idiot, stuck transporting canisters of film everywhere, even in war-time; Ironside, the war-hero, larger than life; and Rebecca Golud, a curious figure who, along with her family, appear everywhere in the novel in a variety of guises and uniforms. In fact, in a recurring theme in the novel, or at least a mirror of its beginning where mass mysteria happens across the country on a particular date in 1916 because Chaplin is spotted in hundreds of locations simultaneously, Rebecca appears and reappears, the linchpin of the plot, a knowing smile on her face. She knows more than we know. You almost get the feeling that she is a puppeteer, pulling the strings behind all of the action.

And, in fact, there is order there, even when everything seems so pointless--war, movies, love. My favorite quote, at the very end of the novel, comes from a minister at Chaplin's wife's new church, one devoted to humor and laughter:

"The minister explained that the question on his mind was this:
was life basically random, and were our agile human brains,
trained in analogy and connecting dots, always making
constellations out of chaos? Or was there a deeper meaning,
and was it when we were in touch with the divine that we
allowed ourselves to see it? Every moment of belief was
actually about choosing belief, and that was what he called
faith. Perhaps, one moment in the future, every person in this
room would again have some kind of faith. Amen."

An interesting contrast to a quote from a story I read earlier this year about connecting the dots...

The book is also about the art of storytelling in film, something I don't think I ever really thought that much about. What was there before film? How did people tell stories? How was storytelling on film different from the stage? I remember reading something about how Mary Pickford's ambition in life was to be a Broadway actress. After her early success in film, she went back to the stage, and then tried to translate the stage to film, literally. She made a silent movie of a theatrical production, filmed in its entirety, even the titles. It was long, boring, and unsuccessful. Chaplin stayed with film and worked to create a vocabulary of film, a set of expectations about plot, character, development, rhythm, and humor (although Gold points to Pickford's innate sense of these things and how that influenced Chaplin).

Sunnyside was a perfect beach read for me: funny, thoughtful, and engaging. I have a feeling that Gold's writing will echo for me for a long time to come. I don't think I will ever look at silent movies in the same way again.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Fun, Bitter and Slim, but Not Worth the Booker

Among my peers, I fear I am alone in never having read anything by Ian McEwan. When I mentioend this recently to another reading friend, she was horrified. I told her that I was reading Amsterdam, the book McEwan had won the Booker Prize for, and she was only a little mollified. In some circle, McEwan's Booker for Amsterdam is called the "Consolation Booker" for all of the other years he should have won but didn't.

All that aside, Amsterdam, a slight novel of about 160 pages, is absorbing, funny, and sharp. The story revolves around four middle-aged men, each of them former lovers of the saintly and sexy Molly Lane, who meet at her funeral. There's Vernon Halliday, the editor of a dying newspaper, intent on keeping it afloat by dipping into sensationalism; Clive Linley the once-famous composer; Julian Garmony, the right-wing Foreign Secretary almost certainly headed towards political super-stardom; and poor bitter George, Molly's husband, who had to put up with all of her affairs. Each man's bitterness is overshadowed by his narcissistic sense of self-importance.

I found the novel sharply funny, if not terribly deep. I particularly enjoyed McEwan's portrayal of the modern newsroom, awash with all of the tensions of dying print media and the public's obsessions with the latest scandal, as well as common, everyday office politics. Less interesting to me was the tortured, pathetic composer's attempts at findign the right setting and the right melody for his Millenial Symphony, due to premiere in Amsterdam, the scene of the novel's denouement.

At times, I felt like we were supposed to see this as a morality play--were Halliday's motives less base and selfish than Linley's, and did their actions (and inaction) have something to do with the ultimate success of Garmony? But there just wasn't the moral weight to make me feel like this were true--these weren't life and death situations. They were mere moral manipulations colored by selfish desires and aspirations. In the end, I couldn't have been happier with the fates of Halliday and Linley--each deserved what he got. But that doesn't necessarily make a great or important novel. I couldn't help feeling while I was reading this slim novel that McEwan was playing with us; the novel felt like a little diversion and not a fully-realized, larger-than-life piece. It's satire, social commentary. He's a good writer, I don't doubt that. But it hardly seems like this was worth the Booker Prize.