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.