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.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Quiet Can be Good: Stoner by John Williams

First off, let's get some things straight: this is not a novel about a Sean Penn-like character from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" smoking weed in the bathroom. Nor is the author a baton-toting movie-theme composer. A friend of mine at work told me about the book and suggested I read it. I'm glad I did.

I had never heard of this John Williams nor this novel, written in 1965 (his Augustus won the National Book Award--not that I'd heard of that either). But I was intrigued. The novel is quietly satiric about college life in a way that so few more modern, heavy-handed, slap-you-in-the-face-and-wink-at-all-the-in-jokes universitry novels aren't. I'm thinking of Jane Smiley's Moo, or Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, or Richard Russo's Straight Man. I haven't set foot on a college campus in a long time--except as a visitor and an alum--so references to the most current theories and fish-in-a-barrel easy targets are lost on me. Further, Williams's writing is so simple and clear yet his characters are haunting and poignant.

The title refers to William Stoner, the only son of Missouri farmers at the turn of the 20th century. We are told at the very beginning that Stoner was an unremarkable man, quickly forgotten by his peers and his students, and an accidental academic. Yet his life was marked by infrequent passion, first for his career, then for the women he marked as his love, and later for his daughter.One crucial decision becomes the defining moment of his life and, though stoic and silent until the end of his life, we see how it haunts him.

This is not a deep book, but it's more complex the more you peel away at the layers. Perhaps some characters are drawn too one-dimensionally, Stoner's wife is too evil and his one academic rival too predictably Richard III-like. But there are some unforgettable scenes and brilliant characters. Whe Stoner finds brief happiness in love, your heart swells for the man because he seems so pure and good and unrecognized. He would be the tall man in the corner at a party who no one would remember having seen or spoken to, but who we could now guess had a hidden depth that we would have never known. Stoner is a tragic figure and, amazingly enough, I've never read about someone so boring who was this interesting.

I've read a lot this summer, but this books stands out much like Stoner himself--unexpectedly and quietly good.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What Matters?

I finished reading Everything Matters by Ron Currie, Jr. last week but wanted to wait a bit before writing about the novel. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because the last pages are still echoing in my mind, like a bell vibrating long after being struck. Currie has a distinctive and distinctly modern voice and I recognize in his writing if not direct influences than certainly reminders of other writers I love: he is like a modern Vonnegut, but with less ironic detachment and more poignancy; he is less full of himself than John Irving but writes with the same grand, epic, message-delivery type of style; his portrait of small-town life is as gritty, gutsy, and funny as Richard Russo's stories of small New England towns. I have a feeling that this is a book I will remember for a long time.

The basic premise is that a child is born and, thanks to an all-knowing God-like voice that he hears throughout his life (written to us in the second-person), he learns the exact date that the earth will end via a collision with a comet. The title character, Junior (perhaps a stand-in for Currie, Jr.), lives a tortured, troubled life, a tragic existence dominated by the overwhelming shadow of death, of non-existence. He is sent home from school for drawing monstrous, violent pictures, then placed in a "special" class where he meets the love of his life, Amy. Amy's own life is a horror, too, with a violently abusive mother, but she and Junior find a connection that sustains them, until the day he finally gets up the courage to tell her about the voice he hears and what he has learned. How does knowing the ultimate end of everything change--or not change--the way you live your life?

Everything Matters is a strange book in many ways but haunting nonetheless, filled with damaged souls, from the physcially deformed (his father lost two fingers in Vietnam; crazy-ass Reggie Fox, the paraplegic; Rodney, Junior's mentally challenged older brother) to the psychically deformed (Junior's silent, alcoholic mother; Amy, Junior). Each person has their story and their pain; Currie makes each of their stories distinctive and different, but all filled with pain and longing. Everyone wants something different--happiness, peace, respect, love--and they don't know how to get it.

The "God" chapters (which are numbered, counting down to the end, with one final twist) sound the most like Vonnegut, fileld with wise humor and ironic detachment. The voice knows everything there is to know and seems to enjoy revealing the secrets that only it (or he...or she) can know due to its omniscience: the secret thoughts, desires, and memories of every being in the world. The book twists and turns, but Currie has a way of making the implausible, plausible.

I also wondered why the cover was filled with so many different comets. Is it related to the idea of the multiverse, which is in itself a very Vonnegutian idea, the idea that one self always exists at a particular moment and that multiple selves branch off from that moment—every moment—along with the butterfly effect-ian idea that you don't know how a small moment can change things, how one small action, no matter how small, has the power to alter the universe—you step on a bumble bee, one thing happens; you don't step on it, the bee lives on, affecting lives so far down the road, you wouldn't be able to connect the two events if you tried.

Big ideas, powerful ideas. Not new ideas, perhaps, but certainly worth pondering. In Currie's world (and our own), teetering with the spectre of nuclear annihalation, haunted by the images of towers falling, and entertained with cinematic visions of the end of the world, you wonder how anything can mean anything--does it really matter what you say or do or believe? But in the end, after you turn the last page of this deeply affecting, strange novel, you understand why everything matters, even when nothing should matter.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Memory & Loss

I just finished two books this week that made me think quite a bit about the dual (dueling?) problems of memory and loss. The two books are Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers and Myla Goldberg's The False Friend. In each of these suburban-set novels, the quiet peace of middle class life is upset by a tragedy some years ago. In Perrotta's book, it is (as the government calls it) "a Rapture-like phenomenon" that gobbled up thousands of people around the world in the blink of an eye; in Goldberg's novel, it is the abduction of a childhood friend some twenty years before. In each book, the main characters are trying to figure out what to make of their lives in the face of their losses, and how to deal with the memories they're left with. Do we remember people as better than they were? Worse? Can we trust the important details of our memories or are they like dreams, half invented, half experienced?

In The Leftovers, Perrotta deftly weaves not a moralistic tale about the ridiculousness of those who believe in the Rapture (which would have been an incredibly easy mark) but, rather, the effects of the event on a small town and its inhabitants. It's a much smaller canvas he's working with and one that has echoes of the years after 9/11. This is especially true because the people who've been whisked away were not necessarily the saved. They weren't even necessarily Christian. Like 9/11, the people who disappeared were random: the old, the young, of all faiths and backgrounds, and--most disturbingly to one of the local ministers in Mapleton--the good and the bad. The minister is so frustrated by the Lord's mistake in not taking him and the thousands of true-believers, he publishes a gossip-filled rag in which he attempts to reveal just how awful some of the disappeared were.

The novel focuses on one family in Mapleton who, ironically, didn't lose anyone: Kevin and Laurie and their two teen aged children, Tom and Jill. Each responds differently to the losses around them, Laurie and Tom joining cults, Jill and Kevin struggling for connection in the rippling wake of the grief and mourning around them. Townspeople gather in bars and all-night block parties and reminisce about the missing, conversations taking on a predictable ebb and flow--asking if someone remembered a particular name, the blank statement "he's gone", then the flood of associations and memories. With no particular enemy, no one to get mad at or go to war against, no rhyme or reason for the disappearances, the people who remain helplessly flail against what's left of their lives.

Even so, this is not a post-apocalyptic, end-of-the-world type of novel. It's about how life goes on. Softball games are played, people go to their jobs, the paper gets delivered, religious nuts still are everywhere (and the wickedness of the horny preachers is always revealed in the end). There's humor and connection among the sadness, and maybe even a bit of redemption.

The canvas for Goldberg's novel is even smaller: the memory of one woman, repentant and ashamed for something she did years ago. As the novel opens, Celia is haunted by the voice and image of a cruel and powerful childhood friend, Djuna. Her friend, the Queen Bee of a small group of 11 year old girls, disappeared one day, becoming a face on the back of a milk carton. Though everyone knows she got into a car with a stranger (the story she told to the police), Celia is tormented by the memory of Djuna falling into a hole. Her lie pointed the searchers in the wrong direction. Djuna was never found. Though this event forms the central fulcrum for the novel, the story really is more about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, what we remember, and how it affects us. Can we ever forgive ourselves for the supposed sins of our childhood?

It's not Djuna's disappearance that haunts the other characters in the novel. It's Celia and Djuna's cruelty to them that they cannot forget. A few of the characters had hoped and even prayed that the Queen Bee, who gave one girl a daily grade on her appearance, dress, and "presence", would disappear or die. Josie, an artist, baldly uses the painful images of her tormentors in her artwork; Leanne, a tortured and troubled child to begin with, left her identity behind; and Becky, smart and self-assured, turned to Chabad and the plentitude of children as a refuge. Celia's parents meanwhile, prefer to be blissfully unaware and disbelieving, an aging Ozzie and Harriet. They can no more believe that their daughter would lie than believe that Celia would do something to disturb their quiet afternoons (despite the slowly encroaching decrepitude of their neighborhood and their own house). Celia's brother Jeremy was the "bad" one, the one who almost overdosed as a teenager. Yet he redeemed himself in his parents' eyes because he was happily married and had a son, with another on the way. That fact, a slap in the face of Celia's long and unproductive relationship with her pothead boyfriend Huck, mingles with so many other unsatisfying aspects in Celia's life. As Huck observes toward the end of the book, she needs a whole lot of therapy.

In many ways, the novel leaves many questions open and unanswered: what did actually happen on the day Djuna disappeared? What really is the attraction between Huck and Celia? Is it really possible that the four remaining girls had not seen each other for twenty years, as they kept saying, having lived in the same small town through high school? But those are small questions, small nits to pick in an otherwise thought-provoking, troubling and personal book. For any of us with a slight bent towards regret and self-loathing, it's a disturbing book, although perhaps in the end it offers us some chance at redemption: maybe the past isn't as bad as we remember it. Maybe we weren't really horrible people, causing insult and injury to those around us. Or maybe we were worse than we thought.

One final question: why "false friend"? Who was it in the book who was false? Celia? Djuna? Huck? The title really is a nod to the reader to not trouble yourself with the mystery as to what really happened to Djuna, but to pay attention to those left behind, another group of sad "leftovers".

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Math as Metaphor for Life

Two recent novels I've read  have left me pondering about the beauty of math and mathematical concepts and how they could relate to human relationships: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa and The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano.

Ogawa's book was a community-wide selection at Brookline High School, suggested by my Swat classmate and Brookline High math teacher Bruce Mallory '83. We had been dicussing the movie "Memento", where the protagonist has lost his short-term memory. Much of the movie is told in multiple flashbacks, leaving the audience to put together what is happening on screen. Similarly, one of the main characters in Ogawa's novel, a brilliant math professor, has lost his short-term memory due to a traffic accident. He can remember things for 84 minutes and then his brain resets. He walks around with hundreds of notes pinned to his clothes, reminding him of who he is, what has happened to him, and who everyone else is in his small, necessarily circumscribed world. We see the action of the novel not through his eyes but through the eyes of his new housekeeper, a single mother struggling to raise her little boy (nicknamed "Root" by the Professor). The Professor, unable to remember anything from one day to the next, greets his housekeeper every morning by asking her what her birth date is or her phone number and then creating a kind of magic trick with the numbers, relating some amazing and intricate mathematical concept revealing a depth and a beauty in the numbers she gives him. It comes down to numbers and to relationships, like in the Professor's description of amicable numbers (two different numbers so related that the sum of the factors of each is equal to the other number, e.g. 220 and 284) or twin primes (prime numbers separated by only one number, e.g. 41 and 43). This is a small, quiet novel about math, baseball, memory and relationships.

Girodano's The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a different kind of book entirely. The two protagonists have each been damaged by a childhood trauma that has left them separate and apart. The world can be cruel and unforgiving, and each has been left with scars. The connection between Mattia and Alice is tenuous and unexplained but it is clear that they are drawn to each other, recognizing in the other the pain and the separateness that defines them: "Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough to really touch each other." Unlike Ogawa, Giordano's prose is bold, brash, and, at times, startling. I felt like he was trying to get a rise out of me, like in his characterization of one of the evil girls who torments Alice through her teenaged years, or in the physical manifestations and repercussions of Mattia's guilt. Even so, the writing is beautiful--it left me wondering about the translator--and I'd be eager to see what Girodano comes up with next (this is his first novel).

Those of you who know me know that math ain't my strong suit. But I love finding new ways to see beauty and elegance, and I can truly appreciate how math can be a vehicle or a lens with which to see and understand beauty in all its forms, especially in human relationships.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Why I Don't Like Memoirs...or why I love fiction

I'm not quite sure what it is about the memoir form that has never appealed to me. Perhaps it is the feeling that an author has a burning need to share the details of his or her of life and view of the world, which seems to me to be an egotistical, narcissistic activity. I can't recall reading a memoir I loved or even felt like I learned something from. I'm sure there are terrific examples of memoirs that I'm not aware of, but whenever I find myself reading one, I am so hyper-aware of the author's tendency to novelize his or her life, to have it fit nicely in form and arc and meaning into the shape of a novel, that I can't help but feel manipulated and lied to. I guess the recent unsurprising revelations about fictionalized (read: made up) memoirs have made me even more suspicious.

That said, I actually read three memoirs in recent months. The books are quite different from each other, but all fall into one or more of the traps or failings I mentioned above. The first book is Denial by Jessica Stern, chosen by my book group at work. Stern is a world-renowned expert on terrorism who had never really dealt with her own experience of terrorism: she had been raped as a teenager. The book is a local story, with Concord, Cambridge, and towns in central Massachusetts forming the backdrop for Stern's journey. What is it a journey of (or from)? I guess it's a journey to understand the meaning of why she is such a difficult, unfeeling person, and an attempt to understand her shattered, screwed-up family, especially her cold, unfeeling father. It was not a pleasant experience to read Denial and if you ask me about it, I will deny ever having read it.

I picked up the next memoir because I loved Alison Bechdel, the writer and illustrator of the comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For". Bechdel is funny, smart, and insightful, and she has always had a keen sense of people, politics and the world. Her first memoir (which--shh!!--I actually loved) was in graphic form and was based on her experiences with her father and the books she loved. It was brilliant. I was hoping for more of the same when I bought "Are You My Mother?", but was incredibly disappointed. It could have been titled "Are You My Therapist?" because she deals as much with the therapists she's had over the years as she deals with her relationship with her mother. In the end, however, I wondered why I was reading this and why I should care about her journey (there's that word again) of self-discovery. It felt self-indulgent and self-obsessed. Unlike her first book, I wasn't really that interested in how she got there (plus I couldn't keep her therapists straight).

The third memoir I've read recently was Jenny Lawson's Let's Pretend this Never Happened (again chosen by my work book group, but meant as an antidote to Denial). Lawson is a blogger who writes (among various things) about her husband, motherhood, her work, her OCD, her fears, her obsessions, her journey towards normality, her crazy Texas family, taxidermy, and anything else that pops into her strange and funny mind. The first third of this book is drop-dead funny but funny only takes you so far. After a while, I found myself wondering if any of the stuff she describes ever happened (the title is a funny reminder of that), the dead deer, the stuffed squirrel, the kitchen fires, the blurted faux pas, and on and on. There's no real structure to the book, as it feels like loosely-linked blog entries. She also has this meta, parenthetical voice (and footnotes) reminding us that she is there and she is aware of how we might be reading what she has written, kind of like she's given voice to her internal editor. I couldn't finish it.

Themes running through these works: self-obsession, the journey towards self-acceptance, not especially good writing, unlikeable narrators--people I'm pretty sure I wouldn't like to meet.

I'm not going to waste my breath (or my fingers) anymore. I'm done with memoirs for a while.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

What are you reading this summer?

Dear Fellow Bookies,

I have so many things I want to read this summer. What are you planning to read (other than Joseph Andrews, of course)? Some of the things I've read in the last couple of months are in the list below. Click on the Comments section below, then Post a Comment to tell me what you're reading and I'll add it to the list. If you don't see that option in the upper right, then you are not signed in. If you don't want to sign in or create a new account, just email me what you're reading and any comments you might have and I will post for you.


Here's a partial list of things that I have read recently:

Denial, Jessica Stern
Sacre Bleu, Christopher Moore
11-22-63, Stephen King
The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach
Defending Jacob, William Landay
The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Paolo Giordano
Runaway, stories by Alice Munro
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
Are You My Mother? Alison Bechdel
The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa
Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon
Zeitoun, Dave Eggers