Monday, September 24, 2018

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

If you have not yet read Colm Toibin, you are in for a treat. Not long ago, I reviewed his magnificent novel, Brooklyn, and today I want to talk to you about another stunning novel, Nora Webster. This is a novel that closely describes the inner mind of a woman, Nora, who, widowed in her late forties, is sole responsible for her home and her four children, only two of whom still live at home.

In my experience as a reader, I rarely find male authors who create believable women characters. Toibin goes much further; he describes in great detail and in first person narrative the stream of consciousness of a woman struggling to recreate herself as an independent woman. Nora is an intensely private person, but given the small Irish town in which she lives, it is difficult to maintain even a modicum of privacy since everyone wants and expects to know other’s business.
“You must be fed up of them. Will they never stop coming?” Tom O’Connor, her neighbor, stood at her front door and looked at her, waiting for a response.
Nora replies that they mean well. 
“Night after night,” he said. “I don’t know how you put up with it.”
She wondered if she could get back into the house without having to answer him again. He was using a tone with her, a tone he would never have tried before. He was speaking as though he had some authority over her.
And her neighbor is not the only person who speaks to her in this new way. She finds she must return to a job she never liked, and work for a man who seems to assume this paternal tone is quite justified. 
Once more she noted the hectoring tone, as though she were a child, unable to make proper decisions. She had tried since the funeral to ignore this tone, or to tolerate it. She had tried to understand that it was shorthand for kindness.
And further:
In future, once the boys went to bed, she might have the house to herself more often. She would learn to spend these hours. In the peace of these winter evenings, she would work out how she was going to live.
And what a fine job of it she does. She takes her family, including the two older girls who are out of the family home, on an inexpensive caravan holiday, and slowly her children come to see the inner strength Nora has, and that they can rely on her. Of course, the process is slow and often so lonely and painful, but she begins to find the joyful person she once was as she goes through the motions of working and dealing with others. The hardest part is knowing what to say to friends, how to socialize, when in the past she had left most of that to Maurice, her much more talkative and social husband. 
At the moment the only topic she could discuss was herself. And everyone, she felt, had heard enough about a her. They believed it was time that she stop brooding and think of other things. But here were no other things. There was only what had happened. It was as though she lived underwater and had given up the struggle to swim towards air. It would be too much. Being released into the world of others seemed impossible; it was something she did not even want. How could she explain this to anyone who sought to know how she was or asked if she was getting over what had happened?
The profundity of this novel is not due to some sudden existential moment, some cosmic insight. Instead it is in the detailed description of how Nora copes and how she literally creates herself. After years of not being musical, she returns to singing, and that is an important step for her in becoming. She finds a singing teacher who urges her to sing in a choir. The teacher, Laurie, comments:
“You know I sang for Nadia Boulanager,” Laurie continued, “and one thing she said was that singing is not something you do, it is something you live. Wasn’t that wise?”
And while Nora does not know how to respond to this at the time, she does come to live her singing, and that along with the growing strength she feels in helping her children and making a home for them allow her to emerge as a self-made person.

I will not provide more of the meticulous description Toibin uses to describe this coming to fruition of a strong and independent woman, but I hope you will pick up the novel yourself and marvel at both Nora and Toibin. The novel is a rather long one, and there is little dramatic action or crescendo, but I found the book lovely and deeply insightful. I recommend it to you along with his other finely crafted books.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Border Crossing by Pat Barker

I want to talk to you this morning about a frighteningly good book by Pat Barker, entitled Border Crossing. Many of you readers will know Barker for her trilogy Regeneration, the third of which The Ghost Road, won the Booker prize in 1995. In the first book of the Trilogy, Regeneration, Barker describes what was then called shellshock, but would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder, and the near barbaric ways in which it was treated in World War I. As one commentator puts it, “Pat Barker understands the dynamics of psychic trauma and shutdown as well as any writer living…In Border Crossing Barker brings post-traumatic stress disorder from the literal to the domestic battlefield.”

I will not tell you much of the story, since it is the story, itself, which is so frightening and insightful. A therapist, Tom Seymour is walking and quietly arguing with his wife as he sees a young man jump into the icy Tyne river. He jumps into the river to save the young man without realizing that Danny, the boy he is saving, is the same boy who was convicted of murdering an old woman when he was ten years old, convicted in adult court largely on the basis of Tom’s psychological assessment of him and his ability to understand what he has done. Due to the notoriety of the crime, when Danny is released from prison, he is given a new identity. Tom’s marriage is dissolving as the story begins, and the two main strands of the novel have to do with Tom’s ‘treatment’ of the young man and  the struggle he and his wife Lauren are going through as their marriage unravels.  

Tom is in the process of writing a book on children with “conduct disorder”
It was too easily assumed that such children simply lacked conscience. Of course, a minority did… Many of the children, and most of the adolescents he talked to, were preoccupied—no, obsessed—with issues of loyalty, betrayal, justice, rights (theirs), courage, reputation, shame. Theirs was a warrior morality, primitive and exacting.
In spite of overwhelming forensic evidence that Danny did commit the murder of which he is accused, he claims to have no memory of it, and even after being released from prison, still maintains his innocence. The discussions between Tom and Danny, not really therapy sessions, but more like discussions about morality between adults are wonderfully complex. Barker is able to lay out the inner working of the mind in such incredible rich detail.

I think I will not reveal more of the plot of this short but intense novel, but instead remark that while Barker will, I think, be remembered primarily as a war novelist, her themes are actually much more diverse than that. Her novels about poor Irish women raising their children usually with no help from their men make it clear that she writes from intimate experience. Her early novels, Union Street and Blow Your House Down are every bit as profound and revelatory as Regeneration, though they did not get the critical acclaim deserved.  

Having been mired in contemporary mysteries and romances for a bit too long, it was exciting and refreshing to discover this Barker that I had not read. I recommend all of her books to you and think her one of the most important novelists of the last fifty years. 

Monday, July 09, 2018

The Glitch by Elisabeth Cohen

I’m going to talk to you today about a book that so irritated me as I was reading it that I almost stopped several times, and I did put it aside for for a couple of days while I read another book. It is a 2018 novel by Elizabeth Cohen, The Glitch, and upon completion I think it one of the funniest books I’ve read all year. 

Shelly Stone is the CEO of a very successful company called Conch, and I can say that she is one of the least likable characters I have ever met. The conch is a very small device that fits just behind the ear, and is in fact a high power computer that can do a multitude of tasks. Shelly says of herself that stress is the airstream in which she flies. She has a husband and two children, but they are laughably incidental to her real life, which is work. In an early passage of the book where Shelly is with Rafa, her husband, in a restaurant, a rose in a vase has the audacity to sag to one side. She tries to adjust it, but it doesn’t work. “I tried to pretend it didn’t bother me,…But I could tell he knew it annoyed my; that’s one of the problems of marriage, the ability to read the truth off each other’s faces. It obviates all the effort you make to hide how you really feel”.

Shelly is only happy when she is at work, but she takes the entire search for happiness to be misguided.
Rafael is a bit pleasure driven…Pleasure doesn’t hold the same pleasure for me. I get bored and irritable. It takes so long, an appetizer’s enough for me to feel like I’ve had the experience at the restaurant, and lying down for five minutes is  enough of a nap, and I like to schedule sex for when we’re changing our clothes anyway. Then I need to get back to work…pleasure is not something I have much time for, the pointlessness of it, the inefficiency and excess.
While in Barcelona to give an inspirational speech to a group of successful women, her conch seems to exhibit a glitch. For one thing, it identifies a young woman who is approaching her as Shelly Stone, and this initiates a wonderfully absurd sequence of events as she tries to determine if the young woman is, in fact, a younger version of herself. Another client in told by his conch to jump off a cliff, and he does as told. Just as they are about to launch a new model, they have to try to deal with this glitch. That part of the story is complicated and in most ways tangential to the main theme of the novel, which I take to be the incredibly high price women have to pay to enter into the highest power positions in corporations. But while that is (I believe) the serious undercurrent of the novel, it is the wildly funny descriptions of the monomania of Shelly that kept this reader’s interest. Rather than trying to paraphrase some of these sections, I think I will quote some passages that will do a better job of conveying the humor.

An interviewer asks Shelly, “Wow, so you get up at 3:30 every morning?
It’s true, you have to be disciplined to lead this kind of life. Discipline is so important. I’m a grateful hostage to my routines and my checklists. But the truth is, and I’m going to give it to you straight, that when anxiety is ripping is ripping our insides to pieces, it is actually a lot easier to get out of bed than to lie there wanting to die. I can’t sleep—it’s not that I don’t want to. But I need the time, so it all works out. Anxiety has replaced caffeine for me…I’m always; asking myself, how can I fit in a little more work: What else can go, so there’s more time to work? Just because it’s 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. our time doesn’t mean things aren’t really rocking in the Malay production facility, so I check in with some of our vendors and retailers. Making that time count allows me to squeeze in a shower, because it’s important to take time for yourself. While I’m in the shower I brainstorm solutions to work problems. Then I get out. I have towels I get from a special place in London, extra soaky. I have a system for drying myself in a quarter of the time.
What’s your secret to balancing it all? 
If I had to laser in on my most key pieces of advice, I would say surround yourself with good help, pick a good spouse (which is basically the same thing), offload everything that is not core, and don’t lose minutes. 
Shelly thinks of herself as a good and capable mother, but reading some of her parenting ideas will surely convince readers otherwise. 
Every day I feel such pride and purpose as I walk into Conch. If I’m not at work, I’m thinking about work, so it’s satisfying when my mind and surroundings sync.
Shelly’s Q score, which measures likability, tops out in the single digits. But she wonders why she is not more likable; she likes herself. “Still, a more likable CEO might help Conch at the margins, and I felt I had in me the potential, even obligation, to become an averagely likable person."

The reader discovers that Shelly was struck by lightning as a teenager, and while suffering through a long and painful recovery, she reckons that the strike made her into the successful overachiever she need to be to run a large corporation. 
I happen to love Mondays—they are my most productive day and my favorite (thank God it’s Monday, I always think when I wake up). It’s not that I dread the weekends per se; I love them differently, like a second child. On Saturday mornings, I feel, despite my efforts, a little down at the prospect of temporarily unplugging, and although I never really do, entirely, there’s something depressing about pinging out emails and knowing it could be an hour or more before anyone replies. The workweek at Conch is joy, so it’s a nice feeling to have as much of it as possible still to come. 
From reading the acknowledgement at the end of the book, it’s obvious Cohen has done her homework re women in high power positions and the toll it takes, and I have to admit once I realized that she is intentionally caricaturing life of a successful CEO, I found the humor of the book more compelling. Shelly says she prioritizes Conch and her children, and wonders if, perhaps, she should have prioritized her marriage more. But "How many things can be the priority? Really just one at a time". ‘Priority’ is not a word that can legitimately be pluralized. And Rafa understands, or I thought he did. He has his own work. Of all of them—Conch, Cullen, kids, Rafa—he needs me the least.

You will have to read the book to discover more about the glitch and about the juggling act of Shelly.