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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The worst story opening ever written?

This passage (I believe submitted to Francine Prose at a summer writing workshop) is possibly the worst story opening ever written: "Mornings came early at Auschwitz, but Marcus didn't mind - Marcus loved mornings!" Well, in some weird way it's a great opening, as, ever since I heard it, I've wondered what the second sentence could possibly be. But seriously if you can't see what's wrong with this opening you shouldn't be reading this blog (or writing stories); you could write a whole book about what's wrong with that opening, which I won't do (let sleeping dogs lie ... ), but in a way H.G. Adler's The Journey is that book. I posted on The Journey yesterday, noting that it was a very difficult book, and today I have to bow out and admit, too difficult for me. As any reader of this blog knows, I do not shy away from challenging fiction and I am no great fan of saccharine, palliative, fiction, nor do I demand happy endings and upbeat humor. Adler's novel is a historical piece about the expulsion of Jews from Nazi occupied lands and transported to camps, and it's written (in German, first published 1962 in England, translated into English about 4 years ago; Adler died in England in 1988) in a bizarre mix of third and second person narration, with the scenes of the deportation and camp arrival (as far as I got - about 25 percent into the novel) told in a mix of vivid detail, the German obsession with order and record-keeping, horror kept within bounds (the deported or many of them at least maintain a weird faith that this deportation is only temporary, a necessary inconvenience; that the soldiers will certainly help them and the Nazis will take good care of the possessions they'd left behind), and sometimes obscurities and clouded vision, so that we as readers experience the disorientation of the journey much as the deported did. That said, what the novel lacks is any sense of character portrayal of development; we somewhat follow the members of the Lustig family, but none is distinctive in any way and the fade in and out of the narrative. There's a reason, sadly, why Adler's fiction is read only rarely, at least compared with the great Holocaust literature of Levi, Wiesel, et al., and I believe it's because their fiction is character-based: we need a person we can see, recognize, and understand to somehow guide us through this horror and devastation. I'm not saying that we need a morning-loving Marcus, but we need some principle - a protagonist or narrator - to give a human proportion and perspective to the mass of otherwise impenetrable material.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A difficult novel and an incredible journey

H.G. Adler's novel The Journey (published in German in 1962 and in English a couple of years ago) is a difficult novel in every sense of the word. The book consists of two chapters (I think), one of about 4 pages in length and the next about 280 pp without a break! I started with the initial chapter and to be honest I thought maybe this hadn't been translated at all, that I was reading the German. I could barely understand the abstractions - but gathered that he was making some kind of grand comparisons among the metaphor of a journey, an actual journey, the journey of the course of a novel, and the journey of the course of a life. OK. The main part of the book is more clear but even more difficult in other ways. The eponymous journey is apparently the journey of a Jewish family from a fictional (?) town in Germany or maybe Czechoslovakia, a bourgeois family, the father's a physician, Dr. Lustig (means "happy," ha!), rounded up by the Nazis, assembled with the other Jews, and sent off toward a camp. So the subject matter itself is difficult - and I can understand how some, perhaps many, readers would feel there's nothing more to say in literature about the Holocaust - but I believe, from the first 30 pp or so, that this novel presents the Holocaust in a new, different, perhaps more dramatic light: the events are described as through a fog, it's not always clear who's talking, it's hard to discern when the Nazis are sincere and when dissembling, we know little or nothing about the back story of any of the characters, there is no introspection and no narrative guidance - in other words, we feel that we, the readers, are being hurtled along with the characters on this journey through darkness toward death. Not sure if Adler can sustain this, or if I can persevere through the course of the entire novel, but the beginning is impressive.

Monday, December 29, 2014

A Shakespearean comic ending to a satiric novel

I guess I'm a little envious that the UK has such a lively literary scene that a top writer could publish a satire of the Booker Prize award ceremony and the book could actually become a hit. No such satire imaginable in the U.S. where hardly one of a thousand readers - let alone the millions of nonreaders - has any interest in literary prizes. The humor would totally fall flat here - so what's Edward St. Aubyn's complaint, really? That awards are driven by commerce and politics, both personal and national? Instead of carping about the Booker prize, which he has never won (though he's been a "short list" finalist), he should be grateful that readers in his country care a whit about such things. That said, St. Aubyn's Lost for Words is a romp, easy to read, full of many passages so funny as to be nearly Pythonesque, and though in the end it's a slight piece aimed at a sitting-duck target, it's worth a quick read - or maybe even a careful read: savor the wit of the best passages, the excerpts from the nominated books, the bloviating of the French pseudo-intellectual, excepts from one of the jurors's spy novel and forget about the flimsy plot. There are few if any characters in Lost for Words that we actually like or are meant to like or even sympathize with (similar to his Patrick Melrose novels), but he does has a soft, humane touch in the end: boy gets girl, the right book wins the prize, the crazy assassination plot fizzles away, a comic ending in the Shakespearean sense, most but not all of the characters reconciled to one another and to society, with a few fools getting what they deserve and a few sorrowful sorts left isolated in the wings.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Three reasons to read St. Aubyn's Lost for Words

Edward St. Aubyn will never be mistaken for Nick Hornby but I have to say that it's looking just a little like he's heading toward a sweet, boy-gets-girl conclusion to his very funny, satirical novel, Lost for Words. For that matter, ever his bitter Patrick Melrose novels concluded on an somewhat upbeat note, with PM hoping to be a better husband and father - though I think few readers believe he would maintain that attitude beyond the scope of the novels, to the extent that characters live (on) in our imaginations. In any event, though St. Aubyn is cynical about all of the characters in the novel and contemptuous of the whole Brit-lit scene and in particular of the awards business (this novel is a satire of the process of awarding the Man Booker Prize, exposing the politics and outright corruption in the awards process - guess St. Aubyn will never win an M-B unless they want to award him one just to prove they're not corrupt, biased, and petty). The most sympathetic character is a debut writer named Sam who held off on his more experimental novel and published a more expected and conventional bildungs roman that got him onto the Booker short list (St. Aubyn calls the prize something else, but Lost for Words is obviously about the Man Booker); Sam has a huge romantic crush on Katherine, a femme fatale whose novel fell out of consideration because her publisher - who's also screwing her - sent the wrong ms into the nominee pool. Katherines is I think meant to be a sympathetic character but she does make obvious St. Aubyn's difficulty with women characters: she's meant, I think to be seen as sexually independent, adventuresome, and liberated - but in fact she comes off as a sexual slut or slave, screwing one guy after another and never feeling good about herself. Granted, none of the characters are exactly real or "rounded" - all are types, and most of them very funny types at that - but Katherine is not meant to be funny or made fun of, yet I think St. Aubyn misses the mark w/ her: she comes off as sad and empty, and perhaps as a male fantasy of the ever-available intellectual beauty. That aside, the novel - nearing the end now - is still great fun to read, with the interpolated passages from the nominated novels prize-winning satires in themselves, the blathering of the French "intellectual" Didier is hysterical and impenetrable, and the central plot mechanism - the accidental nomination of an Indian cookbook which somehow makes the shortlist despite author's protests that the book is a collection of family recipes and not a novel - is quite crazy and witty.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Why St. Aubyn will never win a Man Booker Award

I read all 5 volumes of Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels and, though in the end I was disappointed by the darkness and cynicism of the main characters, I have to admit that something drew me to these novels and kept me reading, and that "something" was St. Aubyn's incredibly sardonic wit and savage social satire. Yesterday I started and read halfway through his most recent novel, Lost for Words, and I'm finding the same qualities, for better or worse, maybe even heightened. The novel is a satire of the literary=awards game, obviously aimed at the British Man Booker Prize but applicable to just about any literary award or even publishing or academic post. First thought may be: who cares, other than St. Aubyn and a couple of hundred fellow writers? But he does make the satire so sharp and funny that even those with no stake in the game will be amused, up to a point. He skewers the members of the committee and their aspirations and pretensions (particularly funny is his portrait of Penny, a dreadfully awful spy novelist who's published because of her various connections) and the books under consideration for awards - a Scottish novel fully of obscenities, nearly impenetrable dialect, drug abuse, bar fights - can anyone see Jas Keman here? or the author Trainspotting?; a ludicrous novel about Shakespeare's friendship with Ben Jonson - and some various literary aspirants, notably a spoiled, narcissistic Indian man who believes his self-published novel will win the award. You can see the conclusion to this novel coming from a mile away, but it's still hilarious reading page by page and really juicy literary gossip, I imagine, esp for British writers who will have the keys to the roman on clef. Obviously St. Aubyn is bitter than he's never won - amazing how in the minute world of British lit everybody thinks he, or she, deserves this award eventually - and usually wins, and usually for one of their weaker novels, poetic justice - and now will have this novel a salve for his wounds: he can console himself when they pass him over by imagining they have black-listed him, and maybe they have. St. Aubyn seems bitter and angry about everything and everyone, and though I enjoy reading him, up to a point, I feel sorry for him and hope that he finds joy and happiness somewhere in his life because there's certainly none in his work.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Serious themes, promising premise, but a novel that never gets off the ground

OK so let's just leave it at that: Aharon Appelfeld by all accounts is or was or has been an excellent novelist but his novel from last year, Suddenly, Love, is not a great way to enter into his work. My misfortune. Reading through this short novel you can immediately and easily see that Appelfeld has a beautiful prose style, simple and clear and based on precisely observed details. You can also see that he takes on serious and significant themes, with a particular interest in the history of the Jews in the 20th century, and, though I know little about his life, it would appear that he draws on personal experience and memories as well as research to develop his fiction. In this novel, as noted in previous posts, a 70-year-old retired man pursues his lifelong passion, trying to write something that will endure and that meets his own extremely high critical expectations. He has spent many years writing and then obliterating what he's written; now, in his late life - -about half-way through the book he received a fatal diagnosis - his work at last begins to come alive, as he writes about his grandparents, devout Jewish peasants in the Ukraine at the turn of the century (Appelfeld is also from this community, and it may well be that thee passages are his own autobiographical or family-history sketches). In the latter half of the novel he reads these passages to his caretaker, Irena, who over time has come to live with him and share his bed - although Appelfeld is quaintly discrete on the issue of the sexual relations. The man, Ernst, says he will make Irena his heir and that he want her to publish his work but under a shared byline (in fact, giving her his surname, though they never marry). All that's very strange and shows up one of the serious weaknesses of the novel: Irena is just a sketch, opaque, unchanging - she is clearly devoted to Ernst, but what kind of life is this for a young woman? And is he really doing her any favors by making her his heir? - seems he's setting her up for a lifetime of litigation. The book really loses is way in the 2nd half, as we get more and more passages of Ernst's writing and less of Appelfeld's narration; essentially, once he starts writing, nothing else happens in the novel: Irena listens, she expresses her devotion, Ernst kisses her hand, then we move on to the next passage. The sudden love proffered in the title never emerges, just a slavish adoration and the gratitude of an old, dying man. If Ernst's writing contained a startling revelation or realization that changes his, and her, life, that would be something, but they don't - they're just well-written sketches of a life and time gone by, and yes I get it that it's taken him a lifetime to realize their beauty and importance, to find his "theme," but Appelfeld fails to give this novel the shape and dimension that it seemed to promise and that we rightfully expect.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Which Appelfeld novel should one read first?

Aharon Appelfeld's novel Suddenly, Love edges ever closer toward its inevitable conclusion: the 70ish retiree struggling with  his memories and his maladies and trying to write a memoir and his caretaker, a 30-something relatively uneducated woman completely devoted to him, will at last discover tht they are in love - only too late, as the man (Ernst) has now been diagnosed cancer. But maybe I'm wrong? I was wrong about one thing: I thought that Ernst was probably not a very good writer - he spends hours a day in his retirement struggling to perfect a manuscript, has submitted work to publishers and agents and found nothing but rejection other than from a publisher who is no doubt a vanity press. But finally he has some passages he's proud of and he shares them with Irena (and us), and they're actually quite good - in fact, for better or worse, written in a clean and direct style based on observational detail that is very much like Appelfeld's. For better in that Appelfeld is a fine writer and he may be creating Ernst as an alter ago; for worse in that the interpolated passages do not stand out against the prose in the rest of the novel - one would think they should be of a different order or style. In any event, as Ernst opens up more to Irena we learn that in his youth he was in the REd Army, fighting both the Nazi aggression and also fighting against the Jews (often, as w/ Ernst against their fellow Jews), whom they saw as exploiters of the poor. So now, settled in retirement in Israel, he bears a great burden of guilt - and yet, his memoir itself does not touch on this guilt; it's memories of his grandparents and their devout rural household. Is his attempt to re-create and memorialize this past, which he spurned as a young adult, his method of atonement? This novel is surprisingly and disturbingly static, and that's because so little is made of the relationship between Ernst and Irena; it does not change or evolve over the course of the novel (so far), and she's pretty much a glass of water: She's recently orphaned and, in contrast w/ Ernst, was devoted to her parents, Holocaust survivors (although she knows little about their history) and has visions of speaking with theirs spirits. She also has many dreams about Ernst, in some of which he takes her in his arms. Dreams are a really flimsy narrative device - fewer is better, and they should be poignant and revealing. There's nothing exactly wrong with this novel, but it feels a little undernourished, touching on important themes but not probing them. Appelfeld is already in his 80s, so I'm not sure how many more novels he has yet to come, but I suspect this was not the best way to enter into Appelfeld's work. I'm open to suggestions on another one to try.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Will an Israeli writer ever again win a Nobel Prize?

Aharon Appelfeld is one whose name keeps coming up, along w/ A.B. Yehoshua, as potential Nobel winners, thought I doubt the award will ever again go to an Israeli writer; I'd never read any of his novels, and started yesterday on the brief novel Suddenly, Love, based on a strong review I'd read probably a year ago. Perhaps this isn't the best starting point for readers new to Appelfeld, though, I gather from what I know of his other books, that it's typical in that it's about contemporary Israelis still living in the shadow of the Holocaust. It's a very stark book, to put it mildly: half-way through, and it appears there will be only two characters in the entire novel, Ernst, a retired Israeli businessman who is recovery from surgery (back surgery?) and devotes his time to writing. He's not a published writer and, one suspects, not a very good writer, either, but he's trying through his writing, as many do, to make sense of the course of his life, which has been tormented: in youth he left his Rumanian family and took up with Stalinist-Communists an activist and even a terrorist in the cause. Precisely what brought him to Israel is unclear at this point, but he is in some ways using his writing to restore the broken connection with his parents and his childhood. The other character, Irena, is a 30-something orphaned caretaker, trained as a nurse and now working full time for Ernst. She is not an intellectual, and is in some ways - unlike him - a devout Jew. She also has a longing for her parents, whom she dreams about often, and a devotion to Ernst, with whom she's obviously enamored. He, too, is very attracted to her but cannot or will not express these feelings directly. They are both suffering in their loneliness, both victims in a sense of the great social upheavals of their youth. And you can't help but think that the title gives too much away, that they will in some way eventually find salvation or peace in some kind of expressed love for each other.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The meaning of Nuruddin Farah's story in current New Yorker

Nuruddin Farah's story, The Beginning of the Affair (a nod to Graham Greene there?), in current New Yorker is puzzling and provocative; Farah is a Somali writer who's published a # of novels about the warfare and the warlord culture in his native land - he now lives in the U.S., I think, and I believe he writes in English. This story is set in S. Africa and tells  of a 60-something retired professor who now is in business running a pan-African restaurant - he's the money behind the restaurant and a staff of Africans of course run the show - and who becomes completely enamored of a 20-something African man who patronizes the restaurant. The prof pursues the young man, spends a lot of time in the nearby shop where he works, pretending innocent friendliness he learns the young man's life story - apparently a refugee from Somalia where his father is a powerful and wealthy and cruel warlord - now living in near-abject poverty. The prof arranges to have the restaurant staff give his crush excellent takeout meals for free - provoking of course bitter resentment. He eventually invites the young man to live in his spacious house, provides him with clothing, medical care; they sit and watch TV together, holding hands - and it takes a year-and-a-half before he cuddles up next to the guy in bed; the young man resists a sexual encounter - not now, he says - but the fall asleep in an embrace, end of story. And it's a troubling story - a story of well-meaning, perhaps even benevolent, exploitation: a much older, more powerful man takes a suffering younger man under his wing and provides him with wealth and comfort and stability, in return for his affections. It's never clear whether the young man is gay, but it's suggested that he's not - making the story in that way even crueler than if the relationship had been to the slightest degree consensual. On one level, it's a story about an exploitative relationship between two adults - but of course there are broader echoes and themes: it's also a story about the exploitation of one race by another, of the 3rd world by the 1st world, of the native population by the colonial invaders - and made all the more complex by the young man's family background, his father known to be among the most brutal exploiters of his own nation and his own people.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Why no Updike books were in the Top Ten I've Read

Maybe you were surprised - I was surprised, myself - that no book by one of my most-revered authors, John Updike, appeared on the list of Top Ten Books I Read Over the Past Five Years, and there was one reason only: I actually had not read any books by Updike over the past five years. I think his final story collection, My Father's Tears, came out a little more than five years ago and, since then, I've read # of his stories as I've poked around in old anthologies and some Updike collections I had around, notably Museums and Women, and I've posted on those stories but not on any collection as a whole. I've now just about finished reading his posthumous collection Olinger Stories, all of which have appeared in earlier collections from the 50s and 60s but brought together here to form a loose narrative about U's youth in Pennsylvania. I'm sure it would have made the top ten list had I read it a month or two ago. Aside from the beauty of the writing story by story, line by line in fact, the stories taken together capture in a rough sense the coming of age of an intelligent young man born and raised in a small, somewhat backward, very conservative town. The earlier stories in the collection (arranged chronologically by age of narrator or protagonist, not by date of composition) are about the child's or young man's early infatuations and romances and struggle with parents for independence and freedom, and about his chafing intelligence and artistic sensibility. In the later stories, the protagonist is a young adult who comes home to Olinger for various reasons: one on college break, between classes and a planned trip to his girlfriend's family in Chicago; in the Rothlike titled The Persistence of Desire, he's relatively newly wed, comes back to family home for a visit and for an appointment with a local ENT doc, where in the waiting room he meets his high-school crush, and his feelings for her well up and overwhelm him - we see how easily he will throw over his wife for an immediate pleasure, as well as, by glimpses, her weak and sorrowful marriage, and his remorse about their abrupt and cruel break-up years back (probably also depicted in the story Flight). If this is a U. self-portrait, its unflattering and unflinching, as we see him as a bit of a hypochondriac and narcissist, discussing his eye troubles with the abrupt doctor, the top tier of intellectualism in this backwater - he has a tic in his left eye, which we, and the doctor, sense has something to do with his conflicted desires and unpromising, too-young marriage: he's extremely needy and insecure, behind his bluster and pride. But, yes, desire is persistent, and the need to be loved, or at least appreciated, is eternal and continual, and can lead, or draw, people into strange, unforeseen troubles.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Life and art: Updike's semiautobiogrpahical Olinger Stories

Really enjoying looking back and reading John Updike's Olinger Stories. Thought Updike never wrote a formal memoir or autobio (he did collect a series of autobiographic essays under the title Self-Consciousness), the arc of his work over time gives us a sense of his life that in many ways is more true, deep, and insightful than any "self-conscious" attempt to tell his own life story. These stories from the 1950s and early 60s tell of his childhood in Shillington, aka Olinger, Pennsylvania, and we see the familiar tropes emerge: the father hard at work and underpaid in the high school; the mother over-educated and unappreciated, an aspiring artist herself who puts too much faith in and burden on her only child; the grandparents int he background, lost in a world that has moved away from the agrarian, lifted them up to prosperity, then crashed them into poverty in the Depression; the son himself, the brightest among his schoolmates, on a course to leave Olinger behind, yet drawn back to it all the time, witty and sarcastic, using his wit to be accepted by the in crowd, wealthier, more graceful, more athletic, both shy and blundering in his relationships with girls and, later, young women. Two key narrative themes emerge in two of the great stories: In Pigeon Feathers, U depicts the move from the small house in town to the much more rustic and crude farmhouse outside of town, the family having to move in with the grandparents because of the hard times, where the teenage son develops various phobias and death obsessions and finally, on murder and flock of invasive pigeons, develops a faith in a god who creates both natural beauty and death. In Flight, U depicts the epic battle between son and mother, as he falls in love with a girl whom she sees as not good enough for him, worried that his falling for her will tie him to Olinger when she wants him to take "flight" and find the life and fame that eluded her. The collection includes U's first published story, by his account, Guests from Philadelphia, and it's actually one of his weaker stories, teenage son stops by a neighbor's house to ask for a lift to liquor store to buy a wine for expected guests - following some teasing by the father about how successful he is without an education and the poverty of the boy's family despite father's education, the father, as we learn in the last words of the story, buys a very expensive bottle of wine - kind a cheap, "catchy" ending trick that Updike would never, to my knowledge, resort to again.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

TheTop Ten (Contemporary) Books (I Read) Over the Past Five Years

Noting that my list yesterday of the Top Ten Books (I Read) Over the Past Five Years (i.e., since the first posting on Elliot's Reading), marking the 5th anniversary of this blog, was heavily weighted (8 to 2) toward classic fiction, it was suggested to me by a fellow reader (with whom I live) that I come up with the list of the Top Ten Contemporary Books (I Read) Over the Past Five Years. So, I will add eight contemporary (as in, living, or lived in the 21st century) authors to those already on the Top Ten list -

Alice Munro, Selected Stories 1968-1994
WilliamTrevor, Selected Stories -

to come up with The Top Ten Contemporary Books (I Read) Over the Past Five Years:

Charles Baxter, Gryphon (stories)

Ann Beattie, The New Yorker Stories

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Volumes 1 and 2

Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus; and Nemesis (his first and last books)

George Saunders, Tenth of December (stories)

William Sebald, Austerlitz

Eudora Welty, Collected Stories

And who should "replace" Munro and Trevor on the Top Ten (Classic) Books (I Read) Over the Past Five Years? I would have to add Homer's The Odyssey (Mitchell translation) and Franz Kafka, Selected Stories (Modern Library edition).


Friday, December 19, 2014

Elliotsreading Fifth Anniversary: The Top Ten Books (I've Read) Over the Past Five Years

Today marks the 5th anniversary of this blog, elliotsreading; as I noted when I began this enterprise, I've decided to post a daily reflection on what I'm reading for a couple of reasons: to make myself a better and more attentive reader (of literature) and to share ideas and thoughts with family, friends, and others who for one reason or another may stumble upon this blog. Thanks for your attention and comments! I believe I have not missed a day over these five years, though there may have been one or two days when the posting was delayed because I was traveling "off the grid." I recognition of this five-year anniversary, I've looked back and come up with the list of the best books I've read over the past five years. Unsurprisingly, most of these books are classics rather than contemporaries.

Elliotsreading Fifth Anniversary: The Top Ten Books (I've Read) Over the Past Five Years:

Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes (Edith Grossman translation)

Dubliners, by James Joyce 

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert (Lydia Davis translation)

Middlemarch, by George Eliot.

Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

Selected Stories, by William Trevor

Selected Stories, 1968-1994, by Alice Munro

Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov (Pevear-Volokhonsky translation)

Swann's Way, by Marcel Proust (Lydia Davis translation)

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy (Pevear-Volokhonsky translation)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The meaning of the Updike story You'll Never Know, Dear ...

Enjoying the very beautiful posthumous Everyman edition of the long-out-of-print Olinger Stories, by John Updike; though obviously all of these stories have appeared in various other Updike collections, this was I think the only one to draw together his pre-1964 stories based on his youth in his hometown of Shillington. They are not the "connected stories" novel that has become such a staple of writing programs over the past 25 years or so - as U notes in his smart, of course, intro, they were not written in sequence nor meant to be taken literally as a memoir - the protag's name changes and there are inconsistencies of detail. They are stories on a theme, however, and the them overall is his "search for lost time," his attempt through art to recollect his childhood and his hometown, which, though he could not have known this in 1964, would provide him with a lifetime of material. U makes a significant observation in the intro, which is that in writing these stories and bring his past into the present through art, he has also lost touch with the past - the act of recollection is also the act of letting go. I do not mean to compare myself with Updike in any significant way, but I have found this to be exactly true for me as well. Many of my friends remark on my excellent memory for past events, but I have found that once I write about past events in stories or longer fiction, the memory fades and is no longer accessible - or maybe no longer needed. I wonder if other writers find this to be true. Read the first 2 stories - I know I've read all of the stories in the collection before - over a long period of time. The first, You'll Never Know Dear, How Much I Love You (a lyric from You Are My Sunshine) is one of his greats: a 10-year-old boy cadges 50 cents from his father and goes off to the local fair, watches some women sing the song of the title and feels an unexplainable, to him, yearning for them - sensing the sexuality in the air around him, a world dominated by adults, he's just pint-sized and, surprisingly, alone. Then he loses him money nickle by nickle at a numbered spinning wheel. In a sense, the story is about two view of God and fate: the Christian god who offers us his love and his light (Sunshine, the title of the story) and the cold God of fate and destiny, a spinning wheel that may lead to fortune or failure. (The debt to Joyce's Araby is also apparent.) 2nd story touches on a universal theme of adolescence: new girl comes into school, everyone teases her because she's different; the narrator, bit of a nerd and outsider, leads the way in teasing, thinking this will make him acceptable to the "in" crowd; eventually he realizes that he is in love w/ the girl. As he begins to "court" her, and she rebuffs, he realizes that she has emerged as the "queen" of the class, and he's the last to know. Of course, had he been nice to her from the outset, his fate would be different. Two great stories, in a handsome edition that uses 2 New Yorker covers from the era for covers front and back.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

As the death toll gets higher: Hold the Dark

First off I have to say that William Giraldi's writing is excellent throughout his novel Hold the Dark: he is excellent at capturing every aspect of his dark and cold setting, a village in the Alaskan interior in mid-winter, and he shows his chops by also depicting desert battle scenes in the Iraq War, where one of the characters is in service. His dialogue, too, is very powerful, in particular a long scene in which the police chief negotiates with a murder suspect to try to get him to leave his house peaceably and turn himself - the entire chapter (I think) told in stark dialogue that could serve as a script for powerful short play or dramatic exercise for acting students. Descriptions of the rugged and disfigured, often grotesque, characters in the far North very powerful as well. That said, this novel is just far too gruesome for me: by my rough count 23 killed in the first 140 pages, not counting those uncounted killed in the Iraq battle scenes. Whew. At some point we pass beyond the boundary of murder mystery, thriller, or even horror fiction and verge on the bizarre and obsessed. And with all that killing there is, at least at this point, 2/3 through the novel, no explanation for the massacres. There are hints of some kind of Alaskan Indian curse put upon the inhabitants of the village - a vagrant who shows up bearing a wolf mask and warning a pregnant woman that her child must never be born, an old Indian woman who makes dire predictions about the fate of various characters - but this seems a flimsy base on which to build such a murderous superstructure. Though I'm not sure the ends can ever fully justify or even explain the means, for those who can take it this is a very well written and extremely dark thriller. But for me no resolution could undo the damage of all the barbarity and carnage.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Giraldi's mix of literary fiction, thriller, horror story - that ought to pique your interest

Great reviews and blurbs (OK, we all know not to trust blurbs but still ... ) for William Giraldi Hold the Night have led me to start reading this novel, which looks like it's going to be a highly literary thriller with a touch of horror as well. Nothing wrong with that - I'm intrigued. Starts off excellent, with a very vivid description of the setting, a remote Alaskan inland village where roving packs of wolves have killed three village children. The protagonist, named (Russel?) Core, is a 60-year-old writer-naturalist who has written about wolves and actually hunted and shot a wolf who'd killed a person in Yellowstone. A woman in the Alaskan town who's son has been killed writes to Core and asks him to come to the village to help - seems preposterous on the surface, but he agrees to come, in large part because somewhat estranged daughter lives and teaches in Anchorage. He has great sympathy for the wolves, even killer wolves, understanding that they're just doing what their species will do when driven by starvation; he deeply regrets killing the wolf he shot, and tells the woman so. She still wants his help, however, and he goes off on a long trek, finds the wolves, and scares them off with a shot from his rifle. And then the novel starts to get really weird (spoilers here, though they all occur in the first 50 pp. or so): when he gets back to the woman's small house he finds she's abandoned the home and he finds her dead child in the cellar. Belief is she killed him - but then why would she summon him to help, and why leave - leaving the evidence of her guilt behind? Even weirder, her husband, a soldier in what seems to be Iraq, comes home wounded but physically OK and learns about the killing and his wife's flight - and then he embarks on a brutal shooting spree of his own. I don't like that it's implied that war veterans returning are likely to create carnage (though we may learn more about his psyche later in the novel), and I'm finding the body count pretty gruesome, but Giraldi definitely has piqued my curiosity and interest (can he hold it?). This novel is as dark as they come. As noted at the outset, his account of the cold desolation of the Alaskan interior in winter is exceptional.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The meaning of McEwan's The Childern Act

Great book-group discussion last night of Ian McEwan's The Children Act in which we put various pieces together to come up w/ a "reading" of the novel on which we all concurred: the central figure, Fiona, the family court judge, early on notes that her professional has become too specialized and removed from the children in whose best interest they are expected to act or rule; she laments that they get their info about the children from assigned social workers, and she wishes she could go back to "the old days" when judges took the time to meet the children. So that's what she does in the Jehovah's Witness case that comes before her - with disastrous results. First, she meets the 17-year-old Adam and in my view flirts with him, singing an accompaniment to his violin, and very longing and passionate love lament. Then, she lets her meeting w/ him severely influence her ruling in the case: she rules he should received the unwanted blood transfusion in part because he's an intelligent and charming, sensitive young man with a whole life ahead of him. And (I noted) what if he were a dolt? crude? mean? Would her decision have been any different? It shouldn't - law, not her personal feelings for the young man, should guide the judge. Afterwards, when he sends her a pleading letter (which she doesn't answer) and then begins to stalk her, she behaves terribly inappropriately again: What she should have done is tell him he needs help, get him in touch with a social worker or caseworker, but not hand him a roll of bills and send him off into the night with a kiss on the lips, no less! She risks her entire career w/ that action, and well should she. Why does she come off the rails like this? Because her husband is in the process of leaving her for a much younger woman (this does not, finally, happen) causing her to confront her aging, her loneliness, her brittle personality. She finds in the young man someone who seems drawn to her, even sexually attracted, and she falls for that, for him. We didn't quite reach concurrence on the ending of the novel, w/ JRo feeling that it was too inconclusive whereas I for one like the open-endedness, reminding me of some great short fiction most notably The Dead (Joyce), which I see as the inspiration for the image of the young man, now dead, and the beautiful song by which she remembers him.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A key element in first chapter of The Children Act, which slipped by me

Re-reading parts of Ian McEwan's The Children Act in anticipation of book group this evening and was struck by some material that sneaked by me in the first chapter; as we meet Fiona, the main character, she ponders all that's wrong in the judicial system in England (though she doesn't touch on what I think is the biggest problem, absence of jury trial sin criminal matters), and she reflects on the "old days" when judges in family court would actually take the time to get to know the children whose fate they were asked to decide. Now, she laments, it's all done by social workers who present their reports to the judge. She goes along with that system in most of her cases - the orthodox Jewish daughters fought over by their estranged parents; the child stolen away from his mother and brought to Morocco - odd how so many of her cases center on issues of faith and conflict? - but in the central case of the novel, the JW teenager, Adam, who along with his parents refuses a blood transfusion on religious grounds - she breaks with tradition and visits him in [the] hospital [bit of Britishism there], accompanied by a social worker - and of course that's the great and tragic undoing of the novel. By getting know the kid, or at least thinking that she does, she perhaps screws up her legal decision - not going by law but by her feelings - and screws the child up as well. It doesn't necessarily mean that McEwan is saying all should be entrusted to their "siloe'd" specialties, but there does seem to be an arrogance in Fiona's actions, as sense that she can do others' jobs better than they can, that she's the godlike expert in all things. Yes, she's entrusted w/ godlike powers - the religious theme again - but perhaps not w/ godlike capacity or ability, despite her multiple talents. She's certainly no "people person," witness her near estrangement from her albeit narcisstic husband, Jack.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The 5 most disappointing books (I read) in 2014

And now for my most regretful post, the 5 most disappointing books (I read) during the year. These are not necessarily "bad" novels - who would willingly read a bad novel, anyway - but books that in my reading did not live up to the high expectations and hopes with which I enter into every time I engage w/ a work of fiction - whether based on pre-pub hype, seemingly smart and disinterested reviews, word of mouth, or, most often, my own positive experiences reading previous works by the author. Here they are, the disppointers:

The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald.

She's one of those Anglo writers whose name keeps coming up, interesting life story - as chronicled in recent much-reviewed bio, the usual slew of nominations and prizes, and I think I even read and enjoyed her Booker winning novel, Offshore, many years ago. But the book always mentioned was (I think) her last, The Blue Flower, and James Wood in a NYer article called it an undisputed classic. I for one dispute that. The characters were opaque, the writing obscure, the pace glacial, and I just could never get up that much interest in the life story of a German Romantic poet who, in this novel, seemed like a moody and disturbed kid and not like a writer in chrysalis.

The Confidence Man, by Herman Melville.

A grad student's delight, no doubt, with its many obscurities and inconsistencies. Reading it as a grad student myself many years ago I saw it as a prefiguring of much then-contemporary literature: the Beats, Burroughs and his cut-up texts, Pynchon, et al. Re-reading it, or trying to, it seemed to me like mysterious puzzle not worth solving, a Rubik's cube of a book. You can see why Melville's writing career moved deeper into obscurity through his life, and it's great that his reputation is so high today and that he left us one fabulous novella that would be his last major published work (albeit posthumously), Billy Budd: Foretopman.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I usually concur with Kakatani but not on this one: I loved Tartt's The Secret History and have been waiting 20 years for her to rise to that level again, but this book, albeit lauded and rewarded with solid readership, went nowhere for me after the bone-in-the-throat opening, had way, way too much narration (rule # 1, show don't tell), and the plot made no sense on even cursory examination - and yes I know that Dickens et al filled their works with crazy coincidences and the like, but this work is meant to seem realistic at least on some level and just didn't: Example, narrator's foster family wants to keep him from news of the terrorist attack that killed his mother so they cancel their subscription to the NYT. Tha's a way to keep a contemporary high-school kid from learning about the major news event in his city!!

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Felt bad about this one - she's an RIer, after all - and also amazed: what a falling off was there! Here previous work is well regarded by all for her exquisite style and deft sense of characterization, but what happened here? The writing was flat and pedestrian throughout, the plot was creaky and labored, the behavior of the central character hard if not impossible to credit or believe on any level. Felt like a work she'd been working on for some time and finished out of obligation. Glad it's behind her and hoping for return to form; BTW, rare unanimity of our book group on this one, which surprised all of us.

The Patrick Melrose Novels, by Edward St..Aubyn

I know it's a little crazy to call this one of the disappointers in that I did read all 5 volumes (admittedly, they're short and I read I think 2 1/2 on a long plane flight), but after a terrific and sorrowful first volume in which we feel horror and pity at the abuse this poor child suffers and the lack of sympathy and interest from any of the adults in his life - where does this series of novels go? While we understand that PM could be ruined for life by the abuse, four volumes spent with an unlikable, self-pitying character and his drug-addiction and infidelity is pretty nearly unbearable, despite the caustic humor and the skewering of social class structure still extant in Britain.

Friday, December 12, 2014

New Yorker story starts quite well but then - I haven't a clue

Another relatively new writer - I had not read her before, anyway - in current New Yorker, with story with the funny allusive title Savage Breast, by Elizabeth McKenzie, starts off like a Lorrie Moore story, kind of, 20-something single woman comes home after hard week at office, ditching a gathering of friends, wanting nothing more than to crash at her lonely apt. - the first line has the Moore-ish slightly off-kilter slanginess: It was a good day, to a point. I love that "to a point" - not "up to a point" and not "to a degree." In any case, she enters the apartment and it seems almost as if she's mugged: a furry hand against the wall, sudden blackness, and then - we're in a completely different story, a Kafkaesque metamorphosis, but reverse Kafka actually as she doesn't change - everything around her does. She's been transported back to her childhood home and family, but instead of her family members the family is of some unknown furry beast. They recognize her and accept her, and she's filled with childhood yearnings and regrets, as the beasts give her a supportive love and affection she'd never had from her real family, who are either gone of more or less out of her "present" life. As with so many stories (and novels), however, McKenzie does not go anywhere with this startling premise, as the story proceeds rather like a dream: the beasts have to leave town suddenly, they all get on a bus, go out to a desert, start digging holes, begin to die off - I don't know what this is about, to be honest. Is she after some kind of apocryphal allegory? An environmental riff about the death of species? I just haven't a clue. At the end, the narrator, watching the beast die off, is full of longing and regret (about what we don't know - about her unfulfilled life and loss of connection?) and she utters a plaintive cry, something like, Oh, history - a possible glancing reference to Melville's Oh Bartleby, Oh humanity?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

One great chapter in All the Light We Cannot See

As noted previously Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See feels like two novels, told in alternating chapters, and tied together by some clever plot twists and unlikely coincidences. As also noted, I am impressed by the technical challenges and by Doerr's artistic skill in the blind-girl novel - some of his accounts of her perceptions of the world, through touch and smell, are very unusual and precise - but I'm more drawn to the teenage Nazi soldier narrative as the central character, Werner, is more compelling and more active. That said, deep into the novel, at last Marie_Laure begins to do something, as, inspired by the household servant, she begins to take part in a resistance movement, smuggling coded messages to her great-uncle who broadcasts the messages from his clandestine radio transmitter. The Werner section, however, still holds me more - a particularly strong and odd chapter involves his visit to the home of his closest friend at the cadet school, Frederick, (the title of the chapter) who was beaten nearly to death by other cadets in the program; Werner visits F. in his Berlin apartment and finds him severely brain-damaged; the mother is cool and indifferent as ever, and the unspoken horror behind this chapter is that the family has now moved into the more spacious 5th-floor flat "vacated" by the Jewish tenant whom we'd glimpsed in passing in an earlier chapter. Doerr does a great job, just as he builds our sympathy for these characters, darkening the frame and letting us know the horror and cruelty on which their wealth and privilege is based.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

One novel with two plots: All the Light We Cannot See

As noted previously there are two story lines told in, for the most part, alternating chapters (with various jumps back and forth in time, to make this novel really challenging) in Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. The Marie-Laure story line is the more original and technically impressive: she's a blind girl, seems to be a preteen, who with her father escapes from Paris ahead of the Nazi occupation and hides out during the war in the coastal town of Saint-Malo, which itself becomes occupied by Nazi troops - her father (who is holding a world-famous diamond) gets called back to Paris and disappears from her life, so she's alone in this new city under siege. Doerr's great accomplishment is to give us so much of her world without reliance on visual description: he enables us to "see" the world as a curious and intrepid blind child might: a walk on the beach, for example, told through sound and touch (the soles of her feet). That said, this strand of the plot feels slack: halfway through the book and Marie-Laure is a very passive character, things happen to her but she hasn't done much: her story would not be enough to carry this long novel on its own. The alternating plot is of an Austrian Nazi soldier, Werner Pfenning (?), who is, at the latest time point so far in the novel (1944) trapped in the rubble of a building in Saint-Malo that the allied forces have bombed. I have to say that the Werner chapters, though somewhat more familiar and conventional (aside from the extensive information about early radio technology - Doerr is the inveterate researcher and show-off in some regards), does hold my interest much more as well as they are dramatic and show the change and growth of a character: a young orphaned boy interested in radios recruited to a Nazi boot camp where he excels but becomes gradually aware of the barbarity of his teachers and of the Nazi officers and of his fellow cadets. Doerr has made me sympathize, to a degree, w/ a Nazi soldier: he's trapped like so many others, literally and figuratively. I don't want to feel this sympathy, I feel manipulated by this, but there you have it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Anthony Doerr, the great researcher

Hats off to Anthony Doerr as the most diligent of researchers among contemporary novelists. Just looking at the subject matter that he has to master - or at least pillage for vocabulary words - in All the Light We Cannot See - is a head-spinner: early radio manufacture, gemology and mineralogy, WWII from both Allied and Axis sides, locks and puzzles, medical aspects of blindness, probably more as well but that's a start - and his research generally serves him well and gives his novel a feeling of assurance, confidence, and exotic arcana - even if sometimes, as in the walk down the corridor of the museum of natural history, in Paris, when it feels as if Doerr has stopped the plot and is just showing off. That aside, and also setting aside some grand coincidences (just so happens that the radio broadcasts Werner listened to as a child emanated from the very town where he is holed up during the war) this remains a strong book driven by its sense of place and of history rather than by character. The scenes in which young Werner is in what's essentially a Nazi boot camp are especially powerful: the boys ordered to chase and attack the weakest among them, for example. I'm about 200 pp in and not sure how he will sustain the narrative for 500 - esp as he seems to have begun the novel with dramatic climax (Saint-Malo under seige and the two protagonists, Marie-Laure and Werner, whose stories unfold in alternating chapters both alone in the city under allied air attack).

Monday, December 8, 2014

Two challenges Anthony Doerr set for himself in All the Light We Cannot See

I've go to say: the exodus from Paris in advance of the Nazi occupation is a great extended scene in Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See - yes, it's a moment in history that we've seen before, notably recently in the unearthed Suite Francaise (blanked on the title for a moment) for example, but Doerr presents himself with a seemingly intractable challenge: telling the story from the point of view of a blind girl, so we get the exodus not as a set of visual scenes but largely as sounds, odor, interior perception. He carries on with the same tour de force when the girl, Marie, and her locksmith father arrive in the coastal town of Saint Malo, just in time for the Nazi occupation of that walled city. So far - about 25 percent through the novel - it remains a series of alteranting very short chapters, building up to Marie alone in the 6th floor of a building in Saint Malo during the allied air attack and an Austrian soldier, Werner, in the basement of a building under attack. The Werner chapters pose another challenge for Doerr: how to make a young man who becomes a Nazi soldier attractive and sympathetic. He does about as good a job as one could hope: we see how Werner and his sister, orphaned after their father died in a coal mine pushed beyond capacity to supply the war effort, live in terrible poverty; while his sister, secretly listening to French broadcasts, comes to understand the horrible truths about the Nazi party, Werner is recruited to a special training school and sees this - rightly - as his one chance to escape poverty and assignment at age 15 or so to work in the mines. He's not an ideologue - just a kid trying to make the best of things - but I am still kind of uneasy reading about the Nazi soldier as a good guy, at least so far. Yes, Doerr is willing to break with convention; he's a writer who's constantly trying new themes, new settings - perhaps to his disadvantage, as it's hard for critics and readers to see a persistent theme or style in his work. I would say his great strength is description and atmospherics, and his weakness is character: the two main characters in this novel, at least so far, are vehicles that carry the narrative and descriptive weight, but they don't feel like people, or even like "characters" in a novel in that they are very passive: things happen to them but they don't act, or even interact with others.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The 10 Best Books (I read) in 2014

It seems half the time I'm grousing or griping about whatever I'm reading not meeting my hopes and expectations or not living up, in the end, to the early promise of the first chapters that no doubt caught the attention of an agent or editor and earned a publishing contract. So it's reassuring to take a moment, as I do each December, to look back on all that I've read and to share with those few who read these posts a look-back at the -

10 best books I read in 2014.

At Night We Walk in Circles, by Daniel Alarcon
Complex and powerful novel about political and literary radicals in a Latin American country much like Chile; Alarcon is an American author, writing in English, but his style deeply influenced by Latin American authors - and for the betters. One of the few recent novels both politically engaged and powerful as a narrative as well.

The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride
I usually don't care for historical fiction, but this account of John Brown and his raid on Harper's Ferry read more like a strong, iconoclastic narrative that illuminates the life of the powerful leading character - not  like rehashed chronology of events. Strong as both fiction and as a reminder of a strange and troubling time in American history.

The Guermantes Way, by Marcel Proust, translated by Mark Trehane
What would a year be without re-reading at least one Proust volume, especially in the new set of translations? TGW not for everyone, but for those who care re-reading brings even deeper pleasure. In this volume Marcel begins to understand the rot and hypocrisy at the base of the Parisian aristocratic society that he so yearns to enter.

The Hamlet, by William Faulkner
By no means his best-known novel and probably not his best, either, but worth reading for the wry humor and of course for the introduction of the loathsome Snopes family.

My Struggle, Volumes 1 and 2, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Translated by Don Bartlett
First two volumes of the 6-volume series by contemporary Norwegian writer; has come in for lots of criticism as navel-gazing, self-centered, trivial - couldn't be more wrong. It's the deepest exploration of consciousness in literature since Proust, and at various times moving, frightening, hilarious, sorrowful. Will definitely read vol 3 next year and the rest when they come out in English. 

Nathanael Hawthorne Selected Stories
The only story collection on this year's list (though a nod as well to collections by Malamud, Singer, and Turgenev), but the Hawthorne collection is a notch above; he's too easy to write off in that he was antique even in his day - but the strangeness of such gems as Young Goodman Brown and The Minister's Black Veil make these stories vital still.

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
Sometimes called the best American novel of the last half of the 20th century. Maybe - but in any case it's still a fantastic read, an incredible narrator, and, though a little tendentious in the last chapters, entirely memorable for the account of his early life (the battle royale, the expulsion from an all-black Southern college, the arrival in NYC and attempts to find work, the betrayal of those whom he trusted, and the haunting final moments).

The Natives of Hemso, by August Strindberg.  Translated by Arvid Paulson
This one sat my my shelf for many years but was inspired by this year's travels to read it at last and was very moved and surprised - a terrific account of the people on a remote island and their struggles against rising economic forces that are threatening their way of life. More than a century old but feels very contemporary and entirely accessible.

The Odyssey, by Homer. Translated by Stephen Mitchell
A really clear and dramatic translation of this classic that everyone thinks they know - but probably you don't. The heart of the epic is of course the journey of Odysseus, but there's a lot more as well - and of course it establishes one of the major tropes of world literature, the journey home and the arrival of a stranger in town, for which also see ... 

Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy
Melodramatic, over-written by today's measure, but still completely engaging and sorrowful, tragic.

Yes, I noticed that it's all male authors on this year's list; I didn't want or intend that, but these are the books that stayed with me and meant the most to me in my year's reading. And yes I realize that, once again, the list is dominated by classic rather than contemporary works. There's a reason, though, why some books are classics and still in print and why most contemporary novels will not outlive the year. I always encourage readers to widen their spectrum and include many classic works on the reading list - and don't be afraid to re-read either!

Comments always welcome - and - coming within the week: The 5 most disappointing books I read (or tried to read) in 2014.






Saturday, December 6, 2014

Blind on blind: All the Light We Cannot See

Alternative between two points of view - a teenage a blind teenage Parisian girl, Marie, who is huddled in her room in the French coastal town of Saint Malo as the allied forces bomb the occupied city in the weeks after D-Day and an Austrian solider, Verner, in Saint Malo who retreats to a basement bomb shelter and monitors the battle by his radio - where will Anthony Doerr possibly go with this material? It's a very long (+500 pp) novel and I'm only about 50 pages in but wondering if he can sustain this heightened and precious narrative: is it some kind of love story, will the two characters come together somehow? - after an introduction to the two in 1944 during the bombing raid he umps back about 10 years and we see, in alternate very short chapters, the Austrian as a young man and his early fascination with radios and Marie as a young girl losing her eyesight as her father, who works at the science museum in Paris, carefully preparing her to get by in the city using her other senses. This section also provides Doerr with multiple opportunities to describe the arcana in the museum - feels like somewhat familiar territory, as many writers for some reason are fascinated with the topical and technical details of French museum collections: this part somehow reminds me of Kurzweil and of Susskind - and the details are all well and good so long as they serve a narrative purpose and are not just flourishes and writerly curlicues. So much promising writing in first 50 pages but I wonder how and if Doerr can develop this story. To do so, he has to make these characters "real," that is, give them some kind of inner life: they feel so far too authorial, vehicles for Doerr to showcase his skills and obscure interests. Another challenge will be the extent to which he can build any sympathy whatsoever for an Axis soldier: I realize there were plenty of young men drafted into military service who probably didn't abide by the Nazi ideology, but at least show us some interior struggle he's going through in serving the Nazi war machine. Otherwise, screw him.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Strong story by an author widely published but unknown to me -Tim Parks

Tim Parks is a name I keep seeing around - and it's no wonder, as the NYer, where his story Reverend appears this week, notes in his bio that he's published something like 14 novels - so how come I can't place him at all? How do some of these guys publish so much and fly under the radar, so to speak? No major awards, no breakout book, no single work to define a style or establish a working ground? I honestly would have guessed his a writer from the NW, and maybe I'm confusing him w/ someone else - Tim Robbins? Tom McGuane - In any event, his story this week is set entirely in England, so maybe he's British (British publishers, it seems, are far more loyal or patient than American to their writers, and will go w/ someone for a dozen or more books w/out a single breakout). Parks's story is very subtle and sorrowful, about a late 50s man, recently divorced, whose mother has just died at 90 after 30 years of widowhood, and because of some comments his mother makes seeking assurance about the death 30 years back of her husband/his father, he begins to reflect on the life of his father - a reverend in, I guess, the Church of England, who was a distant and domineering presence in the family, and the son who's the center of this story survived by being the good son - while the rebellious older son and the under-achieving sister bore the brunt of the father's pent-up rage, he quietly got by through meekness and compromise, personality traits that now he thinks may have  led to his divorce and late-life solitude. Much of the family drama eluded him; the story recounts one scene during a time when the father flirted w/ the charismatic movement and tried to exorcise the older son - a scene that the protagonist hears through closed doors, mysterious. There a very beautiful closing image of father and son swimming in the cold sea - but the son swimming away from the father, maybe a little overdone but nicely symbolic of their troubled relationship. The mystery of the story is the father's outbursts at the mother during the time he was dying of brain cancer, when he calls her a whore. This is what the mother seeks reassurance about near her own death: it was just his illness speaking, right? But in raising this matter she adds a very troubling note to the story; are there depths and darknesses to their seemingly upright and placid relationship that nobody - certainly not the surviving son - knows about or can comprehend? It's kind of a horrifying thought - to be cursed and damned by someone on his deathbed, and part of the mood of this story comes from the sense that this scene, just faintly described, may have troubled or even tortured her for 30 years. It's a wound that the son cannot salve - and that pushes him to try to recollect and reconstruct what he can of his own difficult relationship with the demanding father. The religious overtones are apparent: his attempt to understand his father is analogous to supplication before a distant - a dead? - god.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Final thoughts on Let Me Be Frank with You

As you might expect from its title, Death of Others (a play on The Lives of Others?), the 4th and final story in Richard Ford's Let Me Be Frank with You collection is dark and morbid: the narrator, Frank Bascombe, hears from another man in town, a long-ago friend, who's dying of cancer and wants very badly to see Frank; Frank goes on a death-bed visit, during which long lost friend Eddie makes a death-bed confession, which I won't reveal - but will say that it bears no import to us as readers as we know so little about the characters and circumstances involved - and in fact even Frank isn't particularly stirred by the confession. That said: This story is another example of Ford's technique - these stories (and the other Bascombe novels) are not about plot but about the unfolding of the consciousness of the likable, shrewd, observant, and reflective narrator. In a bit of humor in this story, Frank references (to friend Eddie) that he's been reading Naipaul in his recorded readings for the blind, and Eddie remarks that there's "not much going on" in the novel - a bit of Ford laughing at himself I think. Not much going on on the surface, but a lot going on at other levels. In this story as in the others in this collection, race is a key issue: black characters (a hospice nurse and an oil-delivery guy) play secondary but subsidiary roles in the story, and we sense that a theme Ford is continually working Frank's effort - in the age of Obama - to be post-racial, and the difficulty that entails, as his conversations with black people are imbued with self-consciousness. Religion is also a theme throughout the book, particularly in this last story, taking place on xmas eve, the church bells ringing, and an unpleasant encounter with an odious minister who also came to visit the dying man. Frank talks about his views on life quite a bit, and in this final story he espouses a philosophy of solitude - he has time for only a very few friends and family members and believes he will be better off w/ very few friends in his life. I think this is an absurd belief - and I suspect Ford, who by all indications has many friends, believes so as well - this is one of his ways, as an author, of separating himself from his most important fictional character: they are not one and the same, much as authors create and love their characters and often use characters to express their own views and beliefs. Yes, characters express the author's observations - how else would they attain these perceptions other than from the author? - but not necessarily the author's opinions. (I do believe Frank B. speaks for Ford when it comes to electoral politics, and some of the richest passages in this book involve his loathing of the Tea Party conservatives and his contemptuous disdain for the smug Romney-Ryan crowd.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Must narrators be "likable"?

Seen some discussion recently in NYTBR re whether characters in fiction, narrators in particular, need to be "likable" - obviously, either they don't or else it may depend on your definition of "likable" - the Underground Man isn't necessarily a guy you'd want to pal around with but there is something winning about his pathetic intensity and curious obsessions - whereas a whining, self-pitying narrator is hard to take, in life and in literature. Probably the greatest strength of Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe series is the extreme likability of Bascombe - despite his flaws and foibles, he seems like a guy any reader would want to know and count as a friend. Paraphrasing what my friend AF once said about Rabbit Angstrom: It's as if an Everyman could lead a rich and deep interior life. Or, to put it another way, as if an Everyman could express in words his rich and deep interior life. Of course Bascombe is not an everyman like Rabbit; he shares some of the traits of his creator (created in his image?), in fact before his career in realty he was a journalist and novelist - so his facility with language comes honestly. But his combination of insight, with, self-deprecation, honesty, linguistic dexterity makes him very appealing to many readers - me included - and his conventional, middle-class manners and mores make him more universally recognizable: He's quite different in that regard from the persona Ford would have created had he written a memoir. Ford is a peripatetic, childless, monogamous writer-intellectual, whereas Frank is a real-estate agent (now retired) in central suburban NJ, who volunteers his time reading for the blind and greeting returning soldiers: this distance between self and other gives Ford a great deal of space in which to create a character, and in which to invite readers. All that said, the latest book - Let Me Be Frank with You (terrible title aside; why not call it something like Aftermath, as all four sections are about the NJ shore post Hurricane Sandy?) - feels a little undercooked. The first three sections, or stories, at least, each involve Franks' meeting w/ someone in much worse straits than he's in - but nothing much comes from any of these three meetings, and Frank doesn't do a hell of a lot other than listen and rue. Each story seems as if it was an attempt to get a novel going that just hit a dead end. I have to say I enjoyed reading each and will read the fourth tonight or tomorrow, but I don't feel that the whole collection, so far, adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Exes and Whys: Some conditions in Richard Ford's stories

About half-way through the 3rd story - The New Normal - in Richard Ford's collection let Me Be Frank with You; I've noticed, oddly, that Frank Bascombe's wife plays virtually no role in the book so far, which is kind of surprising because the first 3 Frank Bascombe novels were, if my memory serves (it doesn't always, as Ford himself might parenthetically remark) very much about his relationships with his spouse - spouse to be - ex spouse - 2nd spouse. Also I'm amused that there are no phone conversations (so far) in these stories, and that FB whimsically remarks that he doesn't use the phone much any more: Phone conversations have been, in the other novels, a key narrative device Ford uses, tying his peripatetic narrator to people he's left behind. Frank seems to have grown beyond the need for phone contact - he doesn't get around so much anymore either, as a retired 68-year-old civic volunteer - but hasn't evolved yet into the world of text messaging and social media. Give him time. Anyway, this 3rd story is ostensibly about FB's first wife, Ann, who is now in senior housing right in the same prosperous central Jersey town as Frank, and in early stages of Parkinson's; Frank visits her occasionally, and the occasion of this story is his bringing her an orthopedic pillow. As happens in Ford narratives, not all that much happens - halfway through the story, Frank has ruminated on a # of topics and filled us in on the back story of his marriage to Ann and the whereabouts of their children, but the actual meeting of the two has not taken place yet. All I can think is that his current wife, Sally, is an astonishing trusting and tolerant woman: even if she professes to wonder what Frank could ever have seen in Ann, she must one would think be a bit puzzled and troubled by his sudden solicitude and his commitment to visiting ex-wife every other week or so. (Frank also had no concerns, in the 2nd story in the collection, about inviting a woman whom he didn't know into the house w/ him while Sally was out at the gym or something - a lot of guys would wonder how they could explain that situation when wife returned home.) So these are mature and settled adults - but there also seems to be a flame burning slowly at the base of this story, and this collection, and if the fuse catches these carefully assembled relationships could explode - or take off.

Monday, December 1, 2014

In the eyes of others: 2nd story in Let Me Be Frank with You

The second section, or story, in Richard Ford's Let Me Be Frank with You, "Everything Could be Much Worse" (I think) involves only 2 characters, at least speaking characters: Frank Bascombe comes homes, mid-December, snow falling lightly, from his volunteer work recorded readings for the blind (Naipaul's Enigma of Arrival, great book and odd choice), to find a very well-dressed and attractive 50ish black woman at his doorstep asking if she can come inside the house. He invites her in, and she asks to look around - he lets her do so. His behavior seems a little odd, but he is very aware that he is super-conscious of not appearing to the this woman, Ms. Pine, to be racist or suspicious of her because she's black - well, we as readers feel the same way, we want to believe she's harmless or benevolent - but maybe she's not? Who would invite any stranger in - black or white - to have a look around the house while we sit in the kitchen sipping coffee? As in all of the Bascombe novels and stories, Frank is very self-analytic throughout, very aware of the tenuous ground he's on - trying to be neighborly, friendly - but suspicious of his own motives and behaviors as he tries so hard not to be suspicious of hers (which he should be - btw, Bascombe's narrative is full of parenthetical observations and qualifications, like this one). As it happens, Ms. Pine is visiting the house because she lived there as a child and (spoiler), as she reveals toward the end of the story, her father killed her mother, brother, and himself in the house while she was at school. Well, good story line - but quite preposterous, as how can we believe that Frank, a realtor no less, would be unaware of the history of this suburban house he owns and inhabits? In any event, it's worth noting that there's a 3rd presence in this story: the Tea Party right-wing, "never surrender," across-the-street neighbor of whom Frank remains hyper-aware: his coddling of this odd visitor is in a sense his demonstration of his good intentions to the neighbor who seems to be warily observing the encounter from behind his blinds, like a hunter. In the broader sense, Ford seems to be getting at the way in which so many of our social encounters, perhaps particularly involving race and politics, are a form of play-acting for others to observe. How others see us is as important to us as how we see ourselves - in fact, to a degree, how others see us informs and determines how we see our selves.