Monday, December 19, 2011

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

Some of my reader friends who have read or heard a number of my reviews tease me by saying that apparently I’ve never met I book I didn’t like. It’s true that I almost never review books that I think are bad; the truth is that I almost never even bother to finish books that I don’t like. Why take the time to read and review bad books when there are so many excellent ones out there. Well over thirty years ago when I was living with a reader who had a hard time not finishing a book once she had started it (as if she owed something to the book), I decided instead to codify my practice of letting books fall from my hands unless they gripped and informed me. Whether ten pages in, half way through, or even four hundred pages into a monster five hundred page novel, I loved the feeling of letting them float free and beginning something else. Better to waste four hundred pages of reading time than five hundred! No sense compounding the wasting of time.

I’m making an exception today, because the novel, A Reliable Wife, has been a national bestseller for sometime, and as a favor to readers, I want to warn them away from it. It’s billed as “a thrilling, juicy read,” “suspenseful,” “intoxicating,” “[a] glittering, poisoned ice cube of a tale.” Well, I have to admit that there is some suspense involved, and it is certainly a poisoned tale, but it is not a good one in any sense of the word. The characters, all of them, are utterly unbelievable, and some of the events described so preposterous that one wonders how or why an author would include them. Try to imagine a rich and successful man who, upon finding that his mail-order bride is trying to poison him, simply allows the slow poisoning to continue, knowing he is dying, but out of some sort of perverse love or loyalty, he turns his body over to the nursing care of his slayer. Or try to picture this same couple, living together and in some distorted way loving each other, witnessing a death that is horrible (if deserved), but then speaking not a word to each other for days. Eating together, living together, but absolutely mute in each other’s presence.

I often criticize male writers for what I see as a failure to create real women characters, but I would have to say that in this novel, Catherine Lane, the mail-order bride, is the most believable of all the characters, and one with whom the reader can occasionally sympathize. But to say she is the most believable of the characters is not to say much. The most unbelievable character is the incredibly wealthy Ralph Truitt who owns most of the town and affects the economic livelihood not only of those townspeople who work for him but of virtually all of them. For reasons I won’t even try to explain, this man who could choose between many women, either local or from a city or country of his choice, places an ad in a Chicago newspaper looking for a reliable wife, and what do you know, a beautiful and apparently innocent women answers his ad. Not, at least for this reader, a very believable beginning, and yet I was able (for a time) to suspend disbelief. But this was only the first of a series of events that would tax the credulity of most serious readers.

As mysteries go, this one does keep the reader turning pages, but mostly because almost all of the important information is withheld from him—hidden cards in the hands off a conniving author who tricks the reader by withholding information and then springing it on him as a magician would pull rabbits from a hat. Good mysteries manage to drop clues, allow the reader to make inferences and to help in the solving of the mystery. Not Goolrick; he keeps the facts close to his vest, and uses them every hundred pages or so to pounce on the reader with some new outrageous revelation.

So, if this is a bad book, why has it gotten so much press and sold so many copies? Well, it is filled to the brim with steamy (unbelievable) sex. There is a beautiful woman in distress, never mind that she brings the distress on herself. There are many twists and turns, illegitimate children, near-incestuous love affairs, European-style palaces built in an icebound Midwestern town. And lets face it, many people read precisely because the story is so extraordinary, so unlike lived-life.

I have to question my own motives in finishing the book at all. NPR’s Morning Edition called the book engrossing and addictive, and I suppose it is addictive. Even when I was angriest with the book and the author, I wanted to find out what would happen. NPR also says the book “Will leave you both chilled and satisfied.” It left me cold and profoundly unsatisfied.

Incidentally, it’s not quite true that I never give books negative reviews. I thought that the apparently forever bestseller, The Help, was exploitative and unconvincing, and that in many ways it whitewashed the very racism it was allegedly exposing. Minrose Gwin wrote a far better novel, The Queen of Palmyra, about the same time period, and I suspect it failed to be a bestseller precisely because it was so much truer—so much less glitter and without a happy ending. It will not be made into a movie as The Help was, but that says more about general movie-going audiences than it does about the quality of the books.

I also reviewed one of the many Harry Potter novels, partly because the religious right was so up in arms about the witchcraft element of those entertaining if rather shallow books. I noted that compared to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter was rather pale both in content and writing expertise. So my record is not pure; I have met books I don’t like, or don’t like much. I simply refuse to finish them, and it would seem unfair to review a book I had not even bothered to finish.

And now I intend to return to my regular ways and review almost only books that I think are really good, and why not, there are so many of them.

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Monday, November 21, 2011

The Little Bride by Anna Solomon

Some works of fiction leave the reader marveling over the imaginative powers of the author; such is the case with Anna Solomon’s debut novel, The Little Bride. We are introduced to the lead-character, Minna Losk, when she is sixteen and living in Odessa as a servant girl, but about to travel to America as a mail-order bride to an orthodox Jewish man more than twice her age. The time period is the tail end of the 19th century, and Minna hopes to escape not only the pogroms targeting Russian Jews but also the daily drudgery of physical labor involved in providing everything for a once wealthy Jewish woman whose wealth and health had deteriorated long before Minna at eleven years of age began to care for her.

While it is obvious that Solomon did a lot of research about the homesteading of Jews in the American west as well as of mail-order brides sent from Russia and other European cities to homesteading Jews, I am still stunned by her incredible imagination in creating and describing the journey of young Minna from Odessa to a sod house in South Dakota. The reader is introduced to Minna as she is undergoing a physical exam that has been mandated by her to-be rigorously orthodox husband. Shy and almost totally ignorant of sexual matters, she is subjected to a physical inspection by a Jewish doctor and his female assistant that Minna is later to describe as being inspected like a horse. Stripped and prodded and questioned in a cold, dark room, subjected to indignities that she had not even imagined, before finally receiving the stamp of approval: “’Unremarkable,’ said the doctor, and the hands closed Minna’s legs.”

From the dismal descriptions of a Jewish ghetto in Odessa where the inhabitants live in near constant fear of the next night-time raid by Russian soldiers, the reader travels with Minna across the Atlantic, steerage class, when nearly all the desperately poor emigrants are sea sick from the first day to the last, many dying before they reach the promised land. Minna sees New York for a day, sees Chicago from the windows of a train, and still dreams that a wealthy and handsome husband awaits her at the end of her journey. Instead, from boat to train, train to wagon and a trip though grasslands seemingly as vast as the ocean she just crossed until she arrives finally not at the fine house she had hoped for, but a rough sod house dug out of a hill in the flat sea of grass—dirt walls and floors, two step-sons, one of whom is older than Minna, and Max, her ultra orthodox husband who knows almost nothing about farming but who intends to create the new Jerusalam.
The men washed themselves in the same bucket she used to wash the dishes. The outhouse was made of crates, and stood only a few feet from the cave. There was little, within a few days, that Minna didn’t know of their habits and smells and noises. And yet no one had asked where she was born, or whether she had siblings or parents or any family at all, or what she had done with her life up until now.
I have to admit that this is a book I could not wait to finish, not because of curiosity about how it would end or wanting to read more of Minna’s bravery and endurance, but because of how utterly real and convincing Solomon’s descriptions are. While I admired the author’s incredible talents and Minna’s courage, I wanted to escape from the world that was being described to me. Like Minna, I wanted to be free, to breathe, to live.

Although raised as a Jew, Minna’s father was not orthodox, not really even a believer, so it comes as a series of shocks to Minna to see what is expected of her, what is expected of wives and woman even here in this new country. She does recall once as a child trying to follow her father into the men’s section of the synagogue, recalls the shame of being hauled out by the elbow and led to the dingy, lace-curtained women’s room in the back.
Minna cried until the woman next to her grabbed her hand, and leaned down to explain, in a friendly hush: “The man’s body? Contains his mind. The woman’s? Only a body. We are body bodies. Yes? Understand?”  
Minna had not understood. But she remembered. And over the years she’d seen how her body became a body body. Each swell of flesh, each darkening, each sudden hair that appeared full blown, like a black moth from a chrysalis, made her more powerful and doomed. This was what made Max shake, she knew. To him, Minna was dangerous simply because she was she, and he was he.
Of course, I’m not going to tell you how this story ends, nor even try to describe the incredibly harsh winter Minna suffers through during her first year in the sod house—the cold, the hunger, the isolation from the world. Solomon describes everything with an eye to detail that makes this read like memoir. Remarkably, Minna does not hate these men whom she has been thrown together with, and she certainly understands them better than they understand her. One commentator described this as a love story, and while I think that is the height of hyperbole, Solomon does create a character who sees so much more than her own misery. Speaking of that horrendous, seemingly everlasting winter.
A calm fell over her limbs. She wondered if this was prayer. If prayer was nothing more than a giving in, like sickness—if you weren’t required to believe, only to stop struggling. The exercise grew familiar. The boys grew hair on their faces. And though Samuel’s was a full beard, and Jacob’s a layer of fuzz like a playactor might draw on, the hair made them look alike, and like Max, and Minna gave in to their merging, their repetition, as she gave in to the repetition of hunger. She knew that she loved them, the beards, the bodies, the men themselves. She saw them out of the corners of her eyes, she brushed them as she passed. They were furniture. You could love anyone, she thought, if you needed to. And in a curious way, not in spite of her need but because of it, because she was hungry and trapped, she felt safe.
I don’t think I have to add that this is not a happy book, perhaps not one to read on a dark winter’s night. But it is nevertheless a wonderful book, and I think we can expect great things from this writer.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein

If you ever look closely at the rational arguments for the existence of some god or other, I think you will find that only those who already believe on grounds quite other than reason or argument tend to be impressed by the arguments. The arguments, sometimes called proofs, are afterthoughts given to buoy up beliefs and to give them a patina of rationality. Rebecca Goldstein, who got her PhD. in philosophy from Princeton, is well aware of the above, but she also realizes how the lived life of religion, what some have called the phenomenology of religion, is far more important than rational arguments for or against the existence of a God. To put it another way, the psychology of religious belief is far more important and interesting than the logic of religious belief.

In her highly amusing and clever novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, Goldstein has a lot to tell us about what has been dubbed evangelical atheism, Hasidic Judaism, some of the many absurdities of academic life, the current state of analytic philosophy, the split between reason and emotion, and much, much more.

Goldstein’s main character, Cass Seltzer, is a professor of psychology in a small eastern college which, like so many small colleges and state universities, suffers from what some have called the ‘little Princeton syndrome’. In its attempt to achieve the elevated status of a Princeton or Harvard or Yale, the mythical Frankfurter University lures big name academicians with promises of light workloads, generous salaries, lush offices and other perks. Jonas Elijah Klapper, as pompous and didactic as his name suggests, is one such academician hired by Frankfurter. Klapper’s encyclopedic memory and his love affair with himself have catapulted him to fame. The novel jumps back and forth between the mature and newly famous Cass Seltzer who has just written a book, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, and the much younger Cass who, while struggling along as a premed student, finds himself bowled over by the excitement and breadth of the history of ideas, and more particularly by the compendious mind of the already famous Jonas Elijah Klapper. He changes his major and his university in order to sit at the feet of the intellectual giant.

The other central characters in the book are Cass’s early girlfriend, Rozlyn Margolis, who resurfaces in his life after he has become famous, and Lucinda Mandelbaum, “known in her world as ‘the Goddess of Game Theory.’ Lucinda is, pure and simple, a wondrous creature, with adoration her due and Cass’s avocation.” The beautiful and mathematically talented Lucinda, while trying to leverage more money and more privileges from Princeton by threatening to accept a monetarily huge offer from little Frankfurter, finds herself outmaneuvered and ends up, much to her dismay, in the psychology department of Frankfurter with the newly famous Cass.

While the novel suffers to some extent by overblown, one-dimensional characters, none of whom is quite believable, the underlying themes in psychology of religion, and insights into academic wars currently raging between computer driven number worship and an older humanistic view of the history of ideas, make up for the stylistic weaknesses of the book. It is no mistake that the title of Cass’s book, The Varieties of Religious Illusion is so close to William James’ famous, The Varieties of Religious Experience and Sigmund Freud’s essay "The Future of an Illusion". Although James was all in all unimpressed with the so-called proofs for the existence of God, he was very interested in what might be called the religious temperament and religious experience. Cass is adored by many undergraduates as well as intellectuals sympathetic to what has been dubbed evangelical atheism, but he, himself, is not really an ardent atheist, nor is he immune to the attractions of religious life. I think we can say the same for Goldstein. Her dismantling of the 36 arguments in an appendix to the novel is both insightful and amusing, and quite clearly she does not think reason can take us far towards religious belief. But that hardly ends the matter for her, since she sees clearly that logic has so little to do with religious belief or religious lives.

One central character whom I have not yet mentioned is a brilliant young Jewish boy, son of an Hasidic Rabbi and heir to the leadership of an isolated Hasidic community. His name is Azarya, and at the age of six he exhibits a mathematical genius that astounds Roz and Cass. It is quite obvious that Goldstein, who is herself gifted with a wonderful analytic and mathematical mind, is intrigued by mathematical and musical geniuses who seem almost to be born with their prodigious talents. Certain that his tremendous mathematical talents will wither and die if he remains in the isolated community of New Walden, when Azarya is sixteen Roz and Cass find a way to hook him up with a famous mathematician at Columbia who is equally impressed with his intellectual promise. But as Azarya himself sees, while it is necessary for him to leave New Walden if he is to prosper as a mathematician, it is impossible for him to leave his people and his role as future leader and Rabbi. And while it is in some sense impossible for him to remain in New Walden (he is not himself a believer in God), it is necessary—as a debt to his loved father and his loved community. An unresolvable paradox, impossible and yet necessary, necessary and yet impossible.

I read this book with a colleague of mine, and we found ourselves wondering why Azarya and New Walden were brought into the novel at all, since it seemed almost an appendage to the main storyline. But in retrospect, I think that Azarya characterizes a split in Goldstein herself, and a living proof that the logic of religious belief has so little to do with the lived life of religion or with the psychology of religion. No doubt Goldstein uses Azarya and New Walden to talk about the dangerous intellectual narrowness of fundamentalist religious beliefs and communities, but also to bring up the psychological benefits of religious community. Whatever she believes about the existence of God or the powers of reason to establish God’s existence, she is culturally Jewish (as are her main characters)—to leave behind the beliefs is not to leave behind the culture.

I have not said much yet about the bombastic Jonas Elijah Klapper or the very funny and irreverent Rozlyn Margolis, but both play very significant roles in the novel. Roz calls the allegedly great man simply The Klapp, and tries to warn Cass early on that his near worship of Klapper will lead to nothing good. We in academia have met many Jonas Elijah Klappers, and while it is easy to laugh at him and his pretensions, Goldstein also gives him some great lines and uses him as a mouthpiece for her own humorous asides about the Academy.

This is not a great novel, but it is often very funny and it contains much of importance about religious experience and warns against a too quick rejection of all that is so-called ‘spiritual’. There is a wonderful mind at work in this novel, not Jonas Elijah Klapper’s, but Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s, and it is well worth the read.

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Monday, September 26, 2011

The Sisters From Hardscrabble Bay by Beverly Jensen

Good morning, I want to talk to you this morning about a wonderful little collection of stories by a woman who died years before they were published. Thanks to the perseverance of her husband and the endorsement of a number of well-known writers, the stories were finally published in 2010 under the title, The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay.

Beverly Jensen was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2002 and died in 2003. She told her husband, Jay Silverman, that she felt she had been given writing talents but had not used them. In fact, over a period of sixteen years, between her part time office job and the raising of her two daughters, she had written a number of stories about her mother, Idella, and her aunt Avis. She had written them for herself, but after her diagnosis, she made copies for her two teenaged children and her three sisters.

With the help of Elizabeth Strout, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Russo and finally Stephen King, Jay Silverman managed to get the stories published. This little book is as much a tribute to his love and dedication as it is a celebration of Jensen’s story-telling talents.

The stories begin in 1916, when Idella is eight and Avis almost six. The setting is New Brunswick, Canada on a tiny farm on impossibly rocky soil near the sea. Their father had built it with help from his brother. “He put it on the high cliff overlooking the bay that pounded and raged beneath them. Mother had wanted it there…All the houses were slanted and gray and sparse-looking, sticking up out of the flat land like rotten teeth.”

The two girls share the little house and farm with their parents and one older brother, Dalton, their father insisting that he literally has to push the potatoes up out of the ground, and that the rocks multiply over night no matter how much time he spends clearing them. Already a hardscrabble life, when their mother dies after giving birth to yet another child, the two little girls are left to cook and clean for their father and older brother, the new baby sent off to live with relatives.

The two older girls get some respite from the almost impossibly hard life on the farm when they are eventually sent to live on another relative’s New England farm, a time during which they are able to attend school. But when they are still only eleven and thirteen, a hunting accident leaves their father bedridden for many months, and the girls have to return to New Brunswick.
Home. Back to the house and barn on top of the cliff overlooking the Bay Chaleur. What few trees there were about the house were all leaned over and bent from the cold, constant pressures of the winds that blew off the water. That’s how the people got, Idella thought, from living up there their whole lives—bent over and gnarled and hard, rooted in one place. The wind worked on people the same as it did on trees. It howled and bit, especially in winter, and scraped away at you. There was nothing to do but buckle over and try to get where you were going, which was never very far—to the barn or the field or the buggy to New Bandon, two miles down the road.
In spite of the hard lives, the light and laughter that shine through these stories as the two sisters travel back and forth between Canada and New England is enchanting. Tough girls who have learned from their own father and the men they grow up around just how mean and dangerous men can be, they nevertheless manage to carve out lives for themselves and to tame the men whom they allow to join them on their journeys.

I can only imagine how many times Beverly Jensen listened to her mother, Idella, telling stories about her beautiful sister Avis and the wild times they had. Each retelling planting some new seed in her daughter’s mind, providing some delicious new detail about the lives of these sisters welded together by struggle, but also by daring and a thirst for more life, for a different life.

While the men are hard working, hard drinking, and difficult to live with, the portraits   painted by Jensen and derived from her mother’s stories are also forgiving and compassionate. The girls’ father sends them off to New England not because he wants to be free of them, but because he realizes that life without their mother is impossibly hard; the love he shows for his lost wife is luminescent. And he calls them back home only because he is bedridden and cannot keep the house and farm going without them. He sees the fear he inspires in his own daughters, but simply cannot be other than he is.
These days he knew that the sound of his boots was a different thing. There was some poor French girl on hand to hear them. Or Idella and Avis, poor mutts, in there trying to scrape something together for his supper. He scared them all. He couldn’t help himself. It was seeing them scurry around the table trying to put food out, afraid to look at him for fear he’d light into them, that brought it on—the temper, the hurt, the anger at the goddamned world that had taken Emma away and left him alone. It wasn’t them he’d be mad at. But it was them that got the brunt.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking of the hardscrabble lives these girls led, but what I came away with as a reader was the joy they shared, the strength they manifested and expected of themselves and of each other. These stories of ordinary people carving out lives in what can only be called dire circumstances are uplifting and somehow serve as social-political commentary as certainly as if they had been written as manifestos. I recommend them to you wholeheartedly. If you like Elizabeth Strout and Alice Munro, you will like Beverly Jensen.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Love Child by Sheila Kohler

Try to imagine yourself at seventeen, madly in love with a boy not much older than you, but knowing that because he is Jewish, and you the daughter of a not wealthy but nevertheless haughty, authoritarian father, you will never be able to openly date or marry your boy. The time is 1925, the place South Africa, and the young woman with the rather odd name of Bill is poised to grasp her freedom and elope. This is the setting for Sheila Kohler’s lovely but sad novel Love Child.

The reader is first introduced to Bill thirty years later when she is a very rich widow, living alone with her trusted servant and looking back over her life. The novel then jumps back and forth between Bill’s life in 1925, 1935, and the present, 1956. The elopement with her young man Isaac ends sadly and abruptly. She has made the mistake of seeking temporary shelter and a witness to their marriage by driving with Isaac to Johannesburg where her three much loved aunts live. Certain that the aunts will understand her deep love for Isaac and help the young couple in whatever ways they can, she discovers instead that their first allegiance is to Bill’s father, their brother; without Bill’s knowledge, her parents are summoned, and when they arrive, they quickly scare off the young man with threats of calling in the law. The marriage is annulled, and Bill is quite literally left prisoner with the three aunts. The one night consummation of their marriage leaves Bill not only an unwilling prisoner but also pregnant. The three aunts have been left the house in which they live and a very modest inheritance on the condition that they never marry, and now the aunts find themselves the unwilling captors of their renegade niece.
She gathered she was a source of embarrassment, a perpetual reminder of what they had forgone. She only added a burden to their already strained circumstances, not only the risk of scandal and shame but also, quite simply, another mouth to feed. The aunts came to regard her, she understood, as a daily affront to all they considered sacred: honor, dignity, and pride, to their upright and cloistered way of life. She was nothing but trouble, trouble brought on them by her thoughtlessness, her lack of control, a weakness of will, her moral deficiency.
Bill is held prisoner until she has her girl-child, and then without her realizing quite what is happening, the infant is whisked away the very night she is born and sold to a woman who runs an illegal adoption service. But Bill learns the details of this transaction thirty years later, and only then begins a search for her baby, her love-child.

Kohler is such a skillful storyteller that most readers will, I think, be captivated by the story and only slowly come to see that this is really a book about the subordination of women. Over time, Bill comes to see that her now hated aunts are as much victims of male ownership as Bill and her sisters are, and ten years later, when Bill takes the job of companion to a rich woman who is rather mysteriously ill and incapacitated, she comes to understand that it is not only poor women who are owned and controlled by men. Helen, the woman whom she is hired to look after, is the beautiful wife of a jealous and controlling husband. It takes Bill months to come to realize that Helen sees Bill not as a needed companion, but as a jailer and spy. The husband calls Bill to his study and entrusts her with the keys to house, the larder, the liquor cabinet, not because his wife is too frail to oversee her house and servants, but because he needs to control her in every way. Helen, despondent to the point of being suicidal, must not be allowed to drink alcohol, must not venture out on her own. What Bill first sees as protective love for his fragile wife, she learns soon enough to see as suffocating control.
“What’s the point of it all?” Helen asked at last. She said her whole body ached as if she had the flu. “If you knew what it was like to wake each morning and find yourself there with the same dull ache,” she said despairingly. She went on talking of the absurdity of her life, the pointlessness of her existence, with all these servants, who did everything for her. She said nothing appealed to her. What purpose would it serve: It all seemed senseless.
Bill comes to hate her role as jailer, and decides as far as possible to give Helen her freedom. But she understands all too well that she must be discreet in her granting of freedom, that she will simply be replaced by a new keeper if the husband is made aware of the conspiracy of the women in his house. Not only Bill, but her sisters, her brother, her entire family have become dependent on the money that Bill brings in from her job as companion.

As she comes to trust Bill more and more, Helen reveals how she was wooed and won by her rich husband, Mark. Helen has a son from a previous marriage; her husband died suddenly leaving her with a small boy “and a mountain of debt.” Although she had been a musical prodigy as a child, she was not talented enough to be a concert pianist. She had written some, even published, but is not even skilled enough as a typist to get a secretarial job. Mark rescues her, takes care of her son (though insisting that the son be sent off to boarding school), but the price is high.
He insisted on her being present whenever he needed her. She was never free to live her own life. She had to attend all his business dinners, his endless trips, to go to bed and to rise when he did…He insisted on sex at odd moments and in odd places…He would rip at her clothes, and thrust himself into her from behind like a wild beast…Afterward, she would get into the bath and scrub at her skin until it was pink, to get rid of his smell, his lingering presence, her shame.
Over time, Mark draws Bill into a kind of ménage a trois; she stays both because she and her family have become dependent on her income, and because she understands that she can help Helen only if she remains in her position. Eventually, as Mark comes to desire Bill more and more, demanding more and more liberties with her, they work out an odd and distorted agreement. Bill’s brother has counseled her to use Mark’s need and lust as leverage, to give him what he wants only in return for a stiff price. Although Helen remains in the house, she and her son still provided for, she grants Mark a divorce so that he can marry Bill and legitimize their relationship.

Bill also gives Mark what Helen could not—two sons who will carry on his name. When he, too, dies rather young and unexpectedly, Bill is left a very rich woman. Loveless but wealthy, her two sons away at school and distant from her both in interests and temperament, Bill is consumed by memories of that early and hopeless love for Isaac and of the love-child who was snatched from her.
Bill thinks again with sorrow of the important role of all the women in her life: the three maiden aunts, Gladys, her sisters, her mother, and Helen, of the secrets they have hidden, the silences they have kept, the lies they have told.
If you want to discover how she finally takes her revenge on her husband, her father, all the power-hungry men in her life, you’ll have to read the book.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell

It always feels a bit like magic to be swept away by a new author, caught up in the lives of fictional characters so thoroughly that they seem in many ways more real than the folks one is dealing with everyday. Maggie O’Farrell is a writer of extraordinary gifts, and although her 2010 novel, The Hand That First Held Mine, is the first book of hers that I’ve read, I intend to read everything she has written or will write. Indeed, I am now almost finished with an earlier novel of hers, and as impressed as I was with the book I’m discussing today.

This is really two very separate stories of women who live about a half century apart. We meet Alexandra Sinclair in the mid 1950s when she is twenty-one and just as her life is about to change forever along with her name. She is discovered by Innes Kent, thirty-four, an art collector and editor of a small art magazine, as she lies reading in her backyard in a small town in England. The oldest of several children, she feels constricted, claustrophobic, and somehow in limbo as she waits for her real life to begin. Turning her gaze from the overcrowded house she has grown up in, “She keeps only the sea in her sights. She has had a creeping fear of late that what she wants most—for her life to begin, to take on some meaning, to turn from blurred monochrome into glorious technicolour—may pass her by. That she might not recognize it if it comes her way, may fail to grasp for it.”

Within moments of this thought, Innes stumbles onto her; his car has broken down on a country lane, and while seeking help—a garage or at least a telephone—he spies the beautiful Alexandra. And although their conversation is soon interrupted by her suspicious mother, before he leaves the small town, Innes manages to slip her a note with his London phone number on it and a suggestion for a new name. Not Sandra, the shortened form of her given name adopted by her family although hated by her, but Lexie, a name more in keeping with the bright and energetic journalist and lover of Innes that she is about to become.

Next on stage, fifty years or so later, we meet Elina Vilkuna, a talented young artist who has nearly died just four days earlier while giving birth to a son via Cesarean section. After these two introductions, the novel jumps back and forth between the two women and the men in their lives. While the reader has some inkling that the two lives will in some way intersect eventually, part of the intrigue of the novel is trying to unravel the mystery that connects the two women. Both women are bright, both think primarily of their careers, their quests for meaning, and both find men (on the whole) to be a distraction from those quests rather than a fulfillment.

One thing that unites the women is that both find themselves pregnant without having chosen that course, and both find themselves not only unprepared for motherhood, but overwhelmed by it. Ted, the father of Elina’s son, is also thunderstruck by the birth of his son, but not so much by the burdens of fatherhood as by strange, unbidden memories that begin to surface—memories that seem to have nothing to do with the story of his life as presented by his parents, and indeed, some of which seem even to contradict that story. Elina finds herself dealing not only with her own weakened condition and a new baby, but with a psychologically fragile and oddly distant mate.

This novel is enchanting in so many ways; the language is rich and painterly. The descriptions of London life in the 50s and early 60s, and especially of the painters who congregated there, are fascinating. But while there are many threads in the novel, for me it is primarily the intensity of the two female lead characters and their reactions to motherhood that leave a lasting impression.

No doubt parenting profoundly alters the lives of both female and male parents, but I find that I can scarcely even imagine what it must be like for women, especially for women who never see motherhood as even a goal, let alone the goal, of their lives. O’Farrells descriptions of the early days of mothering are frightening, sometimes horrific, but also spellbinding. She talks about the special form of blinding love that some mothers have for their offspring so clearly that even I, an old and quite ignorant man, can grasp something of its ineffable significance. When Ted’s father asks Elina about how she is finding the whole baby thing, she wonders how to reply.
‘Well’ She considers what to say. Should she mention the nights spent awake, the number of times she must wash her hands in a day, the endless drying and folding of tiny clothes, nappies, wipes, the scar tissue across her abdomen, crooked and leering, the utter loneliness of it all, the hours she spends kneeling on the floor, a rattle or a bell or a fabric block in her hands, that she sometimes gets the urge to stop older women in the street and say, how did you do it, how did you live through it? Or she could mention that she had been unprepared for this fierce spring in her, this feeling that isn’t covered by the word ‘love’, which is far too small for it, that sometimes she thinks she might faint with the urgency of her feeling for him, that sometimes she misses him desperately even when he is right there, that it’s like a form of madness, of possession, that often she has to creep into the room when he has fallen asleep just to look at him, to check, to whisper to him. But instead, she says, ‘Fine. Good, thanks’
Lexie and Elina, both passionate about what they do, both quite content being childless, and yet both metamorphosed by motherhood. I love both characters, wish that I could know them. I have not mentioned, of course, the mystery that unties them, nor do I intend to. Suffice it to say that it is not an artificial hook to keep the reader interested. The mystery and its solution are integral to the story and to its worth. I hope you will read the book and solve the mystery for yourself.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa

Most of you who are avid readers will already have read one of the many novels by the Nobel Prize winning Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa. For some reason, I had not been introduced to him until picking up a copy of his 2006 novel The Bad Girl. The ethicist and novelist Iris Murdoch reminds us again and again that egoistic selfishness is only one of many ways of being morally blind. As she shows us in novel after novel, anger, resentment, grief, infatuation, hatred, lust, all can return the gaze to the self in ways that make attention to others, which she sees as the essence of morality, impossible. I have to admit that for the first hundred pages or so of The Bad Girl, I saw this novel as simply another example of how so-called love (really obsessive infatuation) can lead one away from the social-political world and into self-absorption. And this is one very plausible interpretation/explanation of the entire novel. However, I think a careful reading shows clearly that the author, if not his lead character, has a keen eye on the political and social turmoil not only of his native country Peru, but of all of South America and ultimately of Europe and the world from the 1960s to the present.

The story-line is deceptively simple: Ricardo Somocurcio, a young Peruvian boy, falls in love with Lily, a mischievous, full-of-life Peruvian girl who appears in his life one summer with a story about coming from a wealthy family in Chile—the first of many stories and made-up backgrounds that she is to tell him over a lifetime. Ricardo has a rather simple ambition, which is to go to Paris to be educated, and then to live out his life there in what to him is the most glamorous and wonderful city in the world. He does not desire great wealth, or power, or even erudition; he simply wants to be a Parisian. From the first, Lily finds this an impoverished ambition; she wants to be rich, very rich, and to live in a style that only the rich can live.

This is the summer of 1950, and Ricardo is fifteen. Soon enough, the summer is over, and the lie about the wealthy Chilean background is uncovered; Lily and her sister are nothing but very poor Peruvians from a small, insignificant village. They soon disappear from the larger city Ricardo lives in and are forgotten by all but Ricardo:
I keep her in my memory, and evoke her again and again at times, and hear her mischievous laugh and see the mocking glance of her eyes the color of dark honey, and watch her swaying like a reed to the rhythms of the mambo.
Ricardo realizes his dream of moving to Paris, and because of a relatively easy command of languages, becomes an interpreter for UNESCO. In Paris he meets again one of the many incarnations of Lily, this time as Comrade Arlette, a freedom fighter who has been awarded a kind of scholarship to go to Cuba and receive guerilla training. Ricardo finds out quickly that Lily has had no conversion to political awareness, but has simply used the scholarship process as a way of escaping Peru and poverty. Because of passport and identity problems, she ends up having to remain with the other scholarship recipients and actually leaves for Cuba despite begging Ricardo to find a way to rescue her. And thus begins a series of perhaps incredible coincidences that bring Lily back into his life again and again over the next forty years, each time with a different name and very different economic circumstances, usually as wife or mistress to a rich and powerful man who has fallen for her flamboyant charms.

He knows her as Madame Arnoux, when she is married to a semi-wealthy Parisian, who himself stole her away from a Cuban military officer. And again as Mrs. Richardson, the wife of an even wealthier British businessman. And later still in Japan as the mistress of a rich and powerful Japanese man, Fukuda.

However, what is really interesting about this novel (quite apart from Ricardo’s obsession with the many Lilies), is the commentary Llosa gives of political and social life in Paris of the 60s, London of the 70s, and of world events from the 50s through the turn of the century as seen through the eyes of a Peruvian. Very little is said of the United States, partly because it seems such a politically backward and unenlightened country—increasingly powerful economically, but so conservative politically that it only adds to the economic woes of South Americans and of poor, disenfranchised people around the world. It is certainly not seen as the beacon of democracy and freedom.

I am no doubt betraying my own political myopia when I confess that I felt a great let-down in the 70s with the dissolution of the so-called new-left in this country and the abandonment of the high hopes for significant cultural and economic revolution that occurred as the Viet Nam war ended. Writers like Doris Lessing, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (and many others) revealed to me the much larger and longer struggles against economic oppression that had been going on all through the 20th century, continuing on into this one. Llosa’s novel again reminds me of a bigger picture and the need for continued struggle.

The hero of this novel is almost the same age as I, and he witnessed the same world events. While his eye is trained particularly to Peru and the nearly constant political upheavals that have occurred there since the 50s, by moving his hero to Paris and then having him work as a translator in London, Russia, and Japan, Llosa enables us to get beyond a narrow American-eye-view of both culture and politics. I find that not only refreshing, but also more hopeful and less pessimistic. Ricardo sees the declining influence of the Soviet inspired Communist Party in France, but also birth of “a left more modern than the French Communist Party.” In London in the second half of the 60s, he saw “the emergence of homosexuals from the closet, gay pride campaigns, as well as a total rejection of the bourgeois establishment, in the name not of the socialist revolution, to which the hippies were indifferent, but of a hedonistic and anarchic pacifism, tamed by a love for nature and animals and a disavowal of traditional morality.” He sees the rise of structuralism “in the style of Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, and then the deconstructionists like Gilles Deluze and Jacques Derrida, with their arrogant, esoteric rhetoric, isolated in cabals of devotees and removed from the general pubic, whose cultural life, as a consequence of this development, became increasingly banal.”

Yes, this is a simple, even a demented, love story, but it is also a long look at fifty years of cultural and political struggle. Lily, the bad girl, repeatedly refers to Ricardo as ‘the good boy,’ both because of his stubborn loyalty and his refusal to sacrifice his life to the pursuit of riches and power. And while Ricardo is neither a political hero nor a champion of the good, he does give us readers a broad view and in-the-end hopeful view of the world.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Hungry For The World by Kim Barnes

By the time I was thirteen…I would have come to understand that it was Eve who desired the fruit and its store of hidden knowledge, Eve who had damned us all from the Garden. Years away from that child sleeping in her mother’s arms, I would enter into my young woman’s life knowing these two things: by my gender I was cursed, and my mind would destroy me.

This we learn from Kim Barnes near the very beginning of her chilling memoir, Hungry for the World. Those of us who have escaped from fundamentalist upbringings immediately recognize a kindred spirit in this often heart-wrenching account, and cheer mightily as she tears herself free of the Pentecostal church and the well-meaning but authoritarian father who see’s himself as God’s appointed caretaker of his wife and children, especially his female children.
As a woman, she must compensate for the flaw of her gender by extreme modesty. Her hair was her glory and could not be shorn. For a woman to don pants shocked the male’s superior station. Her arms must be covered, her shoulders, her knees—any part of her that might entice, intrigue, attract, cause another to sin. Silence was her virtue.
For most of her young life, Kim is a dutiful daughter. She admires her nature-loving father and wants both to please him and to be like him. But one of his exhortations to her is to use her mind, to question and think for herself, and this seems to contradict the unflagging obedience that is demanded of her. She describes herself as being “ravenous for words.”
Words were jewels to be turned and examined for every facet, every refraction of light. The only absolutes were the legalities of my faith—the rules for behavior and salvation—and my father’s authority, his word that could not be questioned.
I wonder now if my father may have foreseen that the analytical skills with which he engendered me might someday lead me away from the beliefs he himself embraced. For even as he insisted that I think for myself, he cautioned me against thinking too much. To think was to know, but the desire to know more than had been granted was blasphemy.
Believing as her church told her that she was one of the chosen few and that “God would return to gather His chosen ones home…Dancing was a sin, as were smoking, drinking, rock and roll, swimming with the opposite sex,” she endeavored to make herself pure, to conquer the hunger for life that led her to books and to impure thoughts. After an early outbreak of will and disobedience led to her being sent away, banished for a summer to the home of a preacher who would try to save her from herself, she is reborn to her faith.
I remember how I lay on the floor of my narrow room and cried, then prayed. I felt the weight that was all my sins and worries and cares press me down, then fall away. It happens just this way: one moment, the horrid drunkenness of a life not right, of a soul bloated by neglect and transgression; the next, a feeling of lightness and sharp cleansing. Simply by letting go of my will, my stubborn refusal to submit, I’d been unbound, reborn to the Kingdom of God.
But her rebirth does not last; tempted by a boy in her church to touch in forbidden ways, she soon finds that she has not only alienated her father, but has simply been delivered into the hands of another boy-man who insists that he must determine her boundaries; she learns also that men are dangerous if they become angry. The lesson comes home yet again, “Above all, I must, for the length of my woman’s life, give myself over to the direction of another.

Although a bright student with what seems to be a promising future in college and beyond, when she refuses absolute obedience to her father, she has to leave his home shortly after graduating high school.

Up to this point in her account of her young life, I was simply enthralled, by her skill as a writer, by her courage in going her own way, thinking for herself and rejecting the absurd and narrow dictates of her church and her father. I could hardly wait to finish her memoir and to encourage others to read it. But although she manages to leave both church and father, she remains so self-absorbed in her own struggle for identity that she appears not to notice the political world around her or the ways in which her struggles are a part of much larger struggles against economic oppression, sexism, and racism. She finds men who allow her to be like them, to hunt with them, drink with them, indulge in sexual desire, but she realizes almost nothing about the larger world that the reader supposes she hungered for.

In fact, she finally falls for an older man, David, who is very much like her father in wanting her total submission to his will; and again she decides that somehow her freedom, her identity, is to be found via submission to his kinky sexual appetites.  She seems really to have learned very little from her break from religious fundamentalism. David is not only an avid hunter, he is cruel. He kills animals that he cannot eat, including an owl that he so wants to posses that he shoots it, has it stuffed, and puts it on his mantel as a show of his power. Together they shoot songbirds out of the sky; “I followed David’s lead, blowing the early monarchs and lacewings into velvet tatters. I remember being made uneasy by such casual cruelty, but I dared not protest. Just as when I’d watched John sight in the starlings and inky ravens, I knew that any emotional response on my part would compromise the place I held in the company of men.”

David wants her to submit to his will completely. If he needs her to give herself to other men (showing them the prize that belongs to him), she is to do it. She is not to question what he does when not with her, whom he sleeps with. And for almost all of the remainder of the memoir, we read of how she adjusts to the needs of the men in her life.

There is finally a hint of genuine consciousness towards the end of the book, a dawning realization that her struggle is like the struggle of others.
I lay on my bed, surrounded by my guns, my marksmanship medals, my karate certificates, library books piled high on the nightstand, at the bottom a copy of Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room. I did not yet know how this book would give me my first true taste of political awareness, how it would make me see my struggle in larger terms, give me membership in a common sisterhood.
She does go back to school, does become the writer who produces this memoir, but while I admire her skills as a writer, I remain skeptical of her wisdom and her understanding of political realities. For this reader, she is still the girl who wants to please her father and the cruel men in her life, even if that means taking on the very characteristics that forced her rebellion. Perhaps we will see how her escape and salvation play out in a subsequent memoir.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

I want to talk to you this morning about an exquisitely simple and beautiful little book by the Norwegian author Per Petterson entitled Out Stealing Horses. On the surface, the story is about a sixty-seven year old man who decides to drastically simplify his life by moving to a rustic cabin in a small Norwegian town away from the city life he has known for most of his life. The reader friend who recommended this book to me called it a “quiet” novel, and I can’t think of a more apt description for this story of love between a father and his son. The pace is as quiet and slow as the life of the man, Trond Sander, but beneath the solitude and quiet of the approaching winter lies the tumult of his inner life where past, present, and anticipated future tumble and flow and boil like the river at the doorstep of another cabin—one that he inhabited fifty plus years earlier with his father. His mind moves between the two towns and two times with confusing rapidity. As the great author, Penelope Lively, who is obsessed by what it means to live in time says of the inner life,  “it is all happening at once.” Just so for Trond, everything is happening at once as his present and past merge into a winter-white silence.

When I first began reading this book, the prose seemed so simple as to be almost wooden—no contractions, no obvious idioms. I supposed at first that the super-simplicity of the prose had to do with the translator’s attempts to be absolutely faithful in her translation. Indeed, I actually started the book a couple of times and put it down, spoiled by the wonderfully rich and complex writing of the modern women writers I have been reading. But fortunately I picked it up again when I had time to really let myself flow into the scenes described, and I was simply enchanted.

While city life has been the norm for Trond, he always remembers what it was like to live in a small town very near water. Although his family lived in Oslo, his father had somehow managed to procure a small cabin for the summers on a river that separated Norway from Sweden, and when Trond was fifteen, he and his father had left his mother and sister in Oslo to spend the summer together at the cabin. Although he cannot know this at the time, this will be his last summer at the cabin and also the last time he will ever see his father—unleashing one of the little mysteries that dogs him throughout his life. Perhaps it is the lost father that he hopes somehow to find when he decides all those years later to buy a rustic cabin on a lake, perhaps it is only the simplicity and quietness of life that he longs to recapture, but at any rate he feels compelled to make the move.
All my life I have longed to be alone in a place like this. Even when everything was going well, as it often did. I can say that much. That it often did. I have been lucky. But even then, for instance in the middle of an embrace and someone whispering words in my ear I wanted to hear, I could suddenly get a longing to be in a place where there was only silence. Years might go by and I did not think about it, but that does not mean that I did not long to be there. And now I am here, and it is almost exactly as I had imagined it.
In that long ago summer, besides the coveted time with his father whom he loves and for whom he has the deepest respect, Trond also begins a friendship with a local boy who is adventurous, even reckless, and who brings out of Trond courage that he never thought he had.
What he had taught me was to be reckless, taught me that if I let myself go, did not slow myself down by thinking too much beforehand I could achieve many things I would never have dreamt possible.
With this boy, Jon, Trond goes out to steal horses, though in fact they never intend really to steal them, but only to ride them within the fenced confines of their forest pasture. It is merely to satisfy their lust for adventure that they call this enterprise stealing horses.

As Trond begins to prepare for the long winter at his run-down cabin, memories from this long past summer crowd in on him, in many ways more real than the mundane events of his everyday life. Jon disappeared from his life that summer even before his father did, engendering another of the little mysteries that recur again and again in his adult meanderings.

Eventually, the reader discovers that the simple life of this man and his dog, a man who intentionally isolates himself, refusing even to get a phone or to inform his now adult daughters of his whereabouts, is full of little mysteries. Even the cabin of his memories, the one on the river dividing Norway and Sweden, was no accidental find made by his father. Instead, the cabin and his father played a part in the resistance to the German occupation of Norway, though Trond comes to learn of this piecemeal and with next to no help from his father. And he learns more a shadow of the events than the events themselves.

What I have not really mentioned yet is the love between father and son, and the immense respect that flows both ways in that relationship. In order to witness that love and its profound impact on the boy, one must read the book. It is not a vocal love, nor does it manifest itself in grand gestures. Instead, it is in day to day interactions between the two, the freedom that the father extends to the boy, the refusal to reprimand or to overtly criticize, and the insistence on teaching by example, that allows the reader to see the glowing love. So intense is this early training (although even that word connotes too much control) that throughout his life when Trond is confronted with a difficult task, he closes his eyes and approaches the problem as he imagines his father would have—slowly, patiently, methodically.
What I do, which I have never let anyone know, is I close my eyes every time I have to do something practical apart from the daily chores everyone has, and then I picture how my father would have done it or how he actually did do it while I was watching him, and then I copy that until I fall into the proper rhythm, and the task reveals itself and grows visible, and that’s what I have done for as long as I can remember, as if the secret lies in how the body behaves towards the task at hand, in a certain balance when you start, like hitting the board in a long jump and the early calculation of how much you need, or how little, and the mechanism that is always there in every kind of job; first one thing and then the other, in a context that is buried in each piece of work, in fact as if what you are going to do already exists in its finished form, and what the body has to do when it starts to move is to draw aside the veil so it all can be read by the person observing. And the person observing is me, and the man I am watching, his movements and skills, is a man of barely forty, as my father was when I saw him for the last time when I was fifteen, and he vanished from my life forever.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy

I want to talk to you about another collection of short fiction by a young and very talented writer by the name of Maile Meloy. This collection has the intriguing title: Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It. Most of the short story writers I have been reading in the past few months write about city life and the economic and emotional problems of young folks trying to carve out meaningful lives in the harsh times they find themselves in. This collection, too, is about young people here and now, but almost all the stories occur in rural settings in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and other western states. The writing is sparse and deceptively simple—a kind of realism I don’t expect from young writers. Indeed, as I began reading her stories the first writer who came to mind was Hemingway, although I think the emotional intelligence of Meloy’s writing far surpasses that of Hemingway. The writing, itself, is subdued, the pathos emerging from the events described rather than the language used.

The very sparseness of the writing and the patience of the writer in developing the plots make it difficult to get a flavor of the stories by quoting passages, so I will simply have to briefly describe a couple of the stories trying to capture enough of their allure to get you to pick up the book and read it. The first story, “Travis, B”, is about a young man who contracted polio as a child and is left with a hip that does not work quite right, seeming to destine him to a life of little physical activity. However, his response is not one of protecting his vulnerable body, but instead of riding and breaking horses from a young age. “… he broke his right kneecap, his right foot, and his left femur before he was eighteen ... From then on, he walked as though he were turning to himself to ask a question.”

After leaving home he takes a series of jobs bailing hay, feeding animals through harsh winters, and simply surviving. To escape the utter isolation of his winter job, he goes into the nearest town, and simply following a group of people he sees walking into a school, he finds himself in a classroom where the teacher, Beth Travis, has been hired to teach adults about school law. What follows is a kind of love story, though with no grand conclusion, no wedding bells, no happy-ever-after. And yet there is something about the naivete and earnestness of Chet, the young man, as he attempts to woe the attorney that is both charming and sad.

In another story, “Lovely Rita,” a young man named Steve takes a job at a nuclear power plant that is hated both by the town-folk and by the workers in the plant. Although unable to admit his attraction to Rita, a girl he and his friend Acey meet at a local bar patronized by the plant workers, he manages to set his friend up with the girl. Even after a freakish accident at the plant leaves Acey dead, Steve is unable to confess to Rita his attraction, but he does discover that Rita wants to find the father who abandoned her as a youngster, and unable to think of a way to get enough money to hire a private investigator, she decides to raffle herself off to the plant workers—five dollars a ticket, the winner getting lovely Rita for the night. Seeing Steve as her only friend, she enlists him to sell the tickets to the workers at the plant. Like the first story described, this one ends pretty much as it started—Steve’s love for Rita undeclared. But again the loneliness and emptiness of the characters emerges so clearly via the flat, unsentimental prose.

In another story, “Two Step,” Alice, the wife of a doctor at the local hospital, invites a woman doctor, Naomi, who works at the same hospital to her home for morning coffee. In fact, what she wants to discuss is her conviction that her husband is having an affair with someone at the hospital. Alice, herself, wooed the doctor away from a previous wife, convinced his already having both a wife and a child was a technicality given that they were soul-mates who were simply meant to be together.
“The whole soul mate idea,” Alice said bitterly, “is really most useful when you’re stealing someone’s husband. It’s not so good when someone might be stealing yours.” She paused, looking out the window. “If I knew who it was, I would get down on my hands and knees and I would beg her to go away, just go away and leave my family alone.”
Of course, the twists and turns in the story have to do with just who the other woman is, and I’m not about to tell. But as in the other stories, the simplicity and near flatness of the prose contrasts so incredibly with the pathos of the story.

As for the intriguing book title, Meloy opens the volume with a poem by A.R Ammons:
One can’t
have it

both ways
and both

ways is
the only

way I
want it.
For most of the sad characters in this collection, they do not get it both ways, nor any way at all.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans

On the front flap of Danielle Evans debut book of stories, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, it says that she “explores the nonwhite experience in contemporary America with honesty, wisdom, and humor.” She certainly does that, and she seems equally at ease whether speaking in the street dialect of a fifteen-year-old girl in New York, the polished academic English of a young biracial woman attending Columbia, or the agonized voice of an African-American soldier trying to live with the memories of his time spent in worn-torn Iraq. While I agree that her stories are honest and wise and sometimes funny, they are also chilling, precisely because she does tell the truth—about race, about class, about culture. What better day to celebrate telling the truth than Martin Luther King Junior Day; I’m certain he would be proud of Danielle Evans.

Often when talking about short fiction, it is difficult to find passages in a single story that somehow communicate the substance of the whole; not so with Evan’s remarkable book. I think simply quoting a few passages from the first story, “Virgins,” will both make most readers want more, and also warn that this is not a book meant simply to entertain. Erica and Jasmine are two fifteen year-old girls looking for a little excitement by sneaking off to go clubbing in Manhattan. Armed with phony IDs, they make it into a club, not really looking for men or sex or trouble, but just the thrill of getting in and saying afterwards that they had been there.
There were a whole lot of men we were supposed to stay away from according to my mother: rap stars, NBA players, white men. We didn’t really know any of those kinds of people. We only knew boys like Michael who freestyled a little but mostly not well, who played ball violently like someone’s life was at stake, or else too pretty, flexing for the girls every time they made a decent shot, because even they knew they would never make the NBA, and we were all they were gonna get out of a good game. The only white men we knew were teachers and cops, and no one had to tell us to try and stay away from them, when that was all we did in the first place, but my mother was always worried about something she didn’t need to be.
Of course, along with the phony IDs, they also had to make up phony stories about who they were and what they did—sometimes claiming to be college students, sometimes store clerks or waitresses or photographers. “It was easy to be somebody else when no one cared who you were in the first place.” Making the mistake of leaving the club with older men and going to an after party in the Bronx, she and Jasmine find themselves surrounded by much older guys in an elevator headed for an eighth floor apartment. “I kept waiting for the thing that would stop us, and then I thought, Nothing will stop this but me. So I ran, out of the elevator and down the stairs and out the front door and down to the bodega on the corner.” Saved for the moment, she calls a boy her age whom she can trust, begging for a ride home, and he manages to talk his brother into driving him into the city to pick her up. Unable to go home without being caught in the lie told to cover up her nightclub adventure, she talks her friend into letting her stay at his house. Alone finally on the couch offered and thinking of what might be happening to her friend Jasmine, the older brother reappears and puts an arm around her.
You know, you’re too pretty for me to leave you on the couch like that,” he said, pulling me toward him. I didn’t know that, but I did understand then that there was no such thing as safe, only safer; that this, if it didn’t happen now, would happen later but not better. I was safer than Jasmine right now, safer than I might have been. He kissed me, hard, like he was trying to get to the last drop of something, and I kissed him back, harder, like I wanted to get it all back. The noise in my head stopped and I didn’t have to think about anything but where to put all the pieces of my body next.
Afterwards I was embarrassed because he was embarrassed, and I knew I couldn’t stay there….
No such thing as safe, not for Erica, not for Jasmine, not for any of the girls in these stories. The matter-of-fact acceptance of their fates is as startling as the events that occur.

At least for this reader, Evans is equally convincing when speaking with the voice of an African-American man back from Iraq on some sort of medical leave and trying to sort out his life, to understand where he has been and where he might hope to go from here. Georgie, the young man, seeks out his old girlfriend, Lanae, who is now living with one of his old boyfriends; Lanae has a young daughter whose father is neither Georgie nor the current boyfriend, and a string of circumstances lead to Georgie’s taking on the role of baby-sitter for the girl, Esther. Nightmares, memories, flashbacks of his time in Iraq crowd in on him, and his mother worries that his babysitting Esther will bring back bad memories of dead children he had seen in Iraq. “The truth was Esther was the opposite of a reminder. In his old life, his job had been to knock on strangers’ doors in the middle of the night, hold them at gunpoint, and convince them to trust him….Two sisters were sitting in the dark, huddled on the floor with their parents, when Georgie’s unit pushed through the door. Pretty girls, big black eyes and sleepy baby-doll faces.”

Can you imagine what it would have been like to return to the house a few days later to discover the entire family, father, mother, and both girls dead—their throats slit. Perhaps the victims of fellow soldiers, but more likely killed precisely because they had been seen talking to the Americans, talking to Georgie and his cohorts? Any wonder that Georgie is having a hard time finding his way, a hard time understanding what he and his country are responsible for?

No wonder that in another story, “The King of a Vast Empire,” a young woman who is obsessed with the news, addicted to bad news, finds herself unable to keep quiet even when making love.
The worst of the news she thought was appropriate to share in the middle of sex, and when I say worst I mean: dismembered child soldiers, bomb victims burned beyond recognition, elderly women beaten and raped…
Without bothering to put her clothes on, she’d proceeded to explain to me, not for the first time, that really, all pleasure was perverse, that it was perverse to enjoy anything in such an awful world, that any moment of happiness was selfish when infinite horror was always happening somewhere else.
I hope I have not concentrated too much on the dark side of these stories. Many of them are also funny and sweet. I started them one day and finished them the next; the book was hard to put down. One commentator tells us that Evans is telling us “what it’s like to grow up fast in a slow changing country.” And if growing up fast sometimes evokes wonderful humor, it also can seize up the heart.