Monday, December 16, 2013

Someone by Alice Mcdermott

Ever since being stunned by the quiet elegance of Alice Munro’s writing, I have greatly admired what I call quiet writers—quiet in the sense that there is very little overt drama in their stories, no rich-famous people or earth-shattering events. Instead, the focus is on ordinary people who, when looked at carefully and with compassion, have quite extraordinary inner lives.  

In recent years Munro has been joined (or I have joined her) with other writers who write about ordinary people who become quite extraordinary when seen through the lens of a great story-teller. Elizabeth Strout is one such writer, and Alice McDermott another. Today I’m going to talk about McDermott’s newest novel, Someone. She could as well have titled it Anyone since she is so intent on describing the life of a woman others see as plain and quite uninteresting. 

Like all of McDermott’s novels, this is a story of Irish-American families living in east coast cities. We meet seven year old Marie, the lead character in this novel, sitting on a stoop in Brooklyn observing carefully, as she always does, the bustle of life going on around her. Describing herself, Marie says, “At seven, I was a shy child, and comical-looking, with a round flat face and black slits for eye, thick glasses, black bangs, a straight and serious mouth—a little girl cartoon.” From this beginning, the short novel hopscotches between descriptions of her early life as an awkward child to her old age senility, the agonizing birth of her first child, the early death of her much loved father, her loyal and devoted brother’s brief stint as a priest and the constancy of his love for Marie throughout their lives. The actual chronology of her life much less important than the stitched together frames McDermott describes for us. 

In her first foray into romance, Marie meets a man who breaks off with her as soon as he finds a woman more attractive and with better economic prospects. He says he is doing it to give his future children the best chance he can, “It’s the best-looking people that have the best chances.” Marie is not really surprised by his defection, but it is devastating nonetheless.  
I sat on the edge of the bed. I wanted to take my glasses off, fling them across the room. To tear the new hat from my head and fling it, too. Put my hands to my scalp and peel off the homely face. Unbutton the dress, unbuckle the belt, remove the frail slip. I wanted to reach behind my neck and unhook the flesh from the bone, open it along the zipper of spine, step out of my skin and fling it to the floor. Back shoulder stomach and breast. Trample it. Raise a fist to God for how He had shaped me in that first darkness: unlovely and unloved.
As their Brooklyn neighborhood decays and most who can flee to the suburbs, Marie remains to care for her mother who fears a move, and finally fears even to leave her apartment in their battered brownstone. She and her brother lean on one another as they care for their widowed mother, and the quiet love they share is touchingly described, though always understated. If there is a love-angle in this novel, it is the relationship between brother and sister.

Marie is all in all a dutiful child, her teenage rebellion mild compared to most; it takes the form of refusing her mother’s attempts to teach her how to cook. “Well, I don’t want to learn.” I said. “Once you learn to do it, you’ll be expected to do it,” and was amazed at the way my own words clarified for me what had been, until then, only a vague impulse to refuse. They looked at me over their knees, this gaggle of girls; a lifetime of hours in the kitchen bearing down on us all.” 

McDermott has an incredible talent with words, moving her readers quickly from the mundane (a sight or smell) to a rich memory and a complex life. Alice Munro is asked by a journalist why she writes stories; she replies that she wants to move people—that she wants her readers to be different people after finishing one of her stories. I am certainly moved my McDermott’s stories, and I would add that I feel I am a different person after reading one of her novels. Events in this novel (and in all of her stories) are often sad, as true to life stories often are, but I have to say I feel uplifted by her stories. I feel that I have been changed for the better by having read her. 

Rather than attempting to further describe her writing, let me end with a quote. Marie and Gabe, her brother, decide to walk together after Marie’s hurtful rejection by her boyfriend, much as her father had taken long walks with her to assuage some childhood grief. 
The air was a wall. The heat was a reminder of what I had glimpsed when my father was dying, but had, without plan or even intention, managed to forget: that the ordinary days were a veil, a swath of thin cloth that distorted the eye. Brushed aside, in moments such as these, all that was brittle and terrible and unchanging was made clear. My father would not return to earth, my eyes would not heal. I would never step out of my skin or marry Walter Hartnett in the pretty church. And since this was true for me, it was true, in its own way, for everyone. My brother and I greeted the people we knew walking by, neighborhood women, shopkeepers in doorways trying to catch a breeze. Each one of them, it seemed to me now that the veil was briefly parted, hollow-eyed with disappointment or failure or some solitary grief. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Eight Girls Taking Pictures by Whitney Otto

Good morning, as you readers know, we are very fortunate to have  many fine writers in the Northwest and in particular in Portland. Today I want to talk to you about one of these local authors, Whitney Otto, and her 2012 novel Eight Girls Taking Pictures. I was fortunate to have been given the chance to read most of this ambitious book in an early draft form and then to read it again in its published form. For the second reading I adopted a method of reading that had been suggested to me by a colleague and fellow-reader, Tony Wolk. He and I are both nearly fierce admirers of the Canadian writer, Alice Munro. When Munro came out with her last collection of stories, Dear Life, Tony and I both bought it immediately. Knowing of my love for her, Tony asked me if I had immediately gobbled it up, and I confessed that I had read it all over the course of a day or two. When I turned the same question on him, he answered that he was allowing himself only one story at a time, forcing himself to read some other book between each story. I recalled having treated certain desserts like that as a child, and rather regretted not having employed a similar delaying or drawing out strategy in my own reading. 

Thus, when I got my copy of Eight Girls,  I decided to read just one section about one photographer at a time. Besides wanting to savor the stories, I had also noticed in my quicker reading of the early draft, the lives and stories of the women had run together, and I wanted to keep them distinct. I’m glad I decided on this method if for no other reason than that it did prolong the treat. Since I have also heard Whitney talk about the writing of the book, I know that she did extensive reading of her own on many of the women photographers discussed as well as a lot of historical accounts of the times in which they lived. As she says in the “Author’s Note” at the end, “This book is a work of fiction inspired by several real women photographers whose lives and work have influenced my own.” While I appreciate the author’s cautionary warning, it is obvious that she knows so much about these women and that she loves them for the struggles they went through in order to do their art. I’m impressed not only by her understanding of the lives of the women but also by her incredible grasp of the historical events that shaped their lives and the course of events in the last century. While this book could not have been written without the imaginative skill of the author, neither would it have been the fascinating and comprehensive book it is without the extensive knowledge the author has of these historical figures.

The lives of the eight woman span all of the 20th century, and the constant theme of the stories is the incredible struggle it was for them do their art in the context of the predominantly sexist climates of the times in which they grew up. The first six stories are based squarely on the lives and works of six real-life photographers: Imogene Cunningham, Madame Yevonda, Tina Moddotti, Lee Miller, Greta Stern and Ruth Orkin, and are presented in that order although the names of the women are changed. The last two stories are based on actual photographs, but the two characters are created by Whitney Otto. Most of the eight woman   had progressive fathers or partners who encouraged them to act on their talents and passion, but, nevertheless, trying to balance their lives as daughters, spouses, mothers and artists was more than simply daunting. Even had Whitney Otto not set out to write a feminist book, it would have been impossible to study the lives of these women and their attempts to be recognized in a male-dominated profession and world and not in the end create a distinctly feminist work. I find the book to be incredibly fair and kind to the men described and yet utterly honest in describing struggles that men with similar talents and passions would not have encountered.

The first story, that of Cymbeline Kelly, begins in 1917; she has agreed to marry her photographer husband because they have promised each other not to live like everyone else. Cymbeline occurs in the eighth story as well, although at a much later age. Their promise not to live like everyone else is soon tested by children arriving and trying to balance the lives of two already successful photographers. 

I don’t intend even to  provide  a sketch of each of the eight photographers; that will be accomplished much better by reading the book, but I do want to mention a couple of the stories that particularly caught my eye due to the author’s descriptions of and understanding of the political and economic issues underlying the stories.  One is  the story of Clara Agento which provides a rich account of the leftist politics of the time and Whitney Otto’s obvious fascination with the incredible congregation of artists and writers in Mexico City many of them there to escape political persecution in their own countries. Clara’s father’s leftist politics had acquainted her with political struggles all over the world long before her eventual travels to and imprisonment in Mexico. This section of the book reminds me of Barbara Kingsolver’s fascination with Mexico as a haven for liberal and leftist artists and intellectuals in her recent novel The Lacuna, although I would say that Otto spins out her account in a less heavy-handed manner and with more attention to the sexual and artistic liberation of the community that gathered there in addition to the political struggles.

The story of Charlotte Blum is fascinating on so many levels. It begins in March of 1927 in Berlin. The author tells us that the story begins simply from the fact that Imogen Cunningham spent a year in Dresden studying photochemistry, but that everything else in that story is spun from her imagination. Two of the characters in the story open a studio that specializes in advertising photography, and the reader is given a very plausible account  of what amounts to the origins of this whole field. While I have some understanding of the political events in Germany as the Brownshirts come to power and the systematic persecution of (among others) Gypsies, Jews and homosexuals begins, I had no idea that Berlin was a sort of counter-cultural mecca in many ways. 
One painter portrayed Berlin as the vortex of three groups: the veterans of the Great War, with their missing limbs and less visible war wounds, parked on the already crowded sidewalks; the capitalists, somehow surviving the cataclysmic cost of the war, and the consequent reparations; and the prostitutes, whom one could spend the better part of an afternoon categorizing before even addressing all the sexual appetites they satisfied.  
There was something for everyone: lesbian, gay, transvestite, transsexual, with every category of “characters” and amusements. Charlotte was reminded each morning as she observed people in late-night finery on their way home, looking a little worse for wear, that the current sex industry (both its economics and its scope) was a marker of a hallowed-out nation, something that seemed to move beyond human nature. 
That’s what it was to be young and in Berlin in those years between the wars.
Berlin made you like who you were when you were there, as if everything worth being a part of the world—all hose modern ideas about sex and art and women; all that possibility—was right there, in its dark beating heart. 
I underlined so many parts of his book, was caught by so many of the descriptions of the day to day lives and struggles of these women that trying to mention each would result in disjointed and confused muddle. Whitney Otto’s account is seamless and of a whole, but don’t take my word for it, get the book and read it yourself. 

One of the last stories, that of Miri Marx, captures the inner struggles of these women so desperate to pursue their art so intimately that the reader cannot but read it as autobiographical. The spirit of the story is captured well in one line: “Meeting one’s mate, Miri thought, was really a problem when one really liked traveling alone.” But Miri decides not only to travel with her man, David, but to marry an have children. 
And this was her paradox. She wanted to be in two places at once, to be two people at the same time. If she could split herself, one Miri would be happy spending all day with her toddling children with no thought about doing anything else. They would play with toys on the floor, or she would enthusiastically read to them. Nap when they napped. Eat when they ate. Her other self would be making movies with David. Or possibly taking pictures on her own, with no lingering regret about not having children, or not being home with the children.  
It was hard not to feel resentment that men weren’t forced ino these choices. Some days she felt that she would spend all her time trying to forget the life before children because she loved them too much to be reminded of the heat of Rome in the summer and a beautiful girl who turned heads as she walked down an Italian strada. 
I loved all of these stories, and it is obvious that the author loved and admired these women. It shines forth from every page. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal

Once in awhile you can choose a book for its title, and then find out that the book is even better than the title. Such is the case with Tom McNeal’s fascinating novel, To Be Sung Underwater.  The book was recommended to me by a reader friend along with a half dozen others, and it was the title that moved me to find and read this book first. I almost put the book aside after reading just a few pages when I realized that the lead character was a woman and the author a man. In my experience, male authors rarely do well with first-person narrative using the voice of a woman. This is one of those rare exceptions.

We are introduced to Judith, the lead character, when she is forty-four. She has, she supposes, a good marriage, a precocious and successful (if rather bratty) teenage daughter, and the job of her dreams as a film editor. And yet she feels oddly vacant and unfulfilled. She explains to her friend and co-worker, Lucy, how out of the blue a kind of swerve has occurred in her life. Not, I suppose, unlike the famous Epicurean swerve that Epicurus used to explain both how humans could have free will in an otherwise determined universe and also how the contra-causal swerve of a single atom had begun the formation of compounds and of the universe as we know it. “My life had utterly settled into itself and then this little…swerve occurred, or maybe I meant it to occur, maybe I’d actually plotted it out in one of those corners of your brain or heart you access only in dreams.”

Judith is renting a storage locker to store some old furniture which her husband, Malcom, thinks should be thrown out but that has great sentimental value for her. When asked to supply a name for the rental agreement, she suddenly and inexplicably decides to give a name that she has not thought of for years. The sudden out-of-the-blue giving of the name propels her back to a time when she was living with her father in Nebraska and met her first love, a boy name Willy, whom she has not seen for twenty-seven years. The reader is then taken on a journey with Judith that moves back and forth between that distant seventeen-year-old Judith and the present one.

Although billed as a love story, I see this novel more as an exploration of marriage and of the many ways marriages can go wrong, along with a gentle reminder of how it might also go right. Judith’s mother, Kathleen, has little good to say about her own marriage or about marriage in general. 
All marriages come with a pinhole leak, her mother once said. Marriages swallow love and excrete grief. Marriage is a house a woman can’t leave and a man merely visits. (Or, as a variant: Marriage is a house with a woman locked inside.)

One morning, sitting at the kitchen table—this was after Judith’s father had left them in Vermont to take a teaching position in Nebraska—her mother said to Judith, “Our marriage, like all marriages, was happy until it wasn’t.”
In many ways Judith has carefully arranged her life to counter her mother’s grim predictions, and she has done so successfully. She had a successful career, “a smart socially capable daughter, and a husband who loved her.” But she also has two secrets: one the lingering love for the boy Willy whom she left behind when she went off to college.
The other of Judith’s important secrets was her fear that she hadn’t properly inhabited her role as a mother. She knew she loved her daughter, but it was a love with a strange insulating distance built into it.
Once Judith’s parents begin to live separately, she finds herself attracted and repelled by each. While sympathetic to her mother and to her mother’s belief that her husband has simply abandoned them both, she is bothered by her mother’s attempts to befriend Judith’s young friends, “It’s like she wants to be my age.” And while her father is comfortable with the separation, admitting that he prefers to live apart, he refuses to take Judith’s side in her criticisms of Kathleen. “People separated from their spouse…they’re almost like stroke victims. They have to learn everything over again…I can tell you from personal experience that the way we get around at the beginning isn’t always pretty.”

Judith first visits her father in Nebraska simply on summer vacation, but then frustrations with school and with her mother lead her to request moving in with him for high school. It’s during this later, longer stay that she meets and falls in love with an older boy, a carpenter who is already out of school and living on his own in Rufus Sage, Nebraska. The story of their young love is beautiful and convincing on so many levels. He introduces her not only to sex and intimacy, but in important ways brings her to a new and different view of nature. Like her professor father, Judith is a reader, an intellectual, and assumes as a matter of course that she will go on to college and have a career. Willy is not a reader, and while he respects and admires Judith’s talents, he is happy and centered in his life as a carpenter. Small town life suits him well, and especially for his relatively young age, he is self-contained and comfortable with himself. 

I’m not about to reveal the twists and turns in their young love except to say that Willy is a lovely and loving young man. He seems to want Judith for just who she is; his love for her is genuine and whole. While their aspirations and dreams of the future do not neatly dovetail, this is a young man who (unlike most) is willing to follow Judith where her life takes her, and to adjust his own life to hers. 

As the so-called swerve has ripple effects on Judith’s life propelling her into first imagining and then to some extent living out an alternative life with Willy, this reader was sometimes taxed in his not quite willing suspension of disbelief. And yet, McNeal manages to create an almost believable story, and one that describes a love so much better and so much more wholesome than the possessive and narcissistic ones typical of Hollywood and pop novels. Willy is certainly the most honorable of the characters, and somehow some of his authenticity seems to rub off on others. 

I will leave you with a quote which I think sums up my appreciation of this book. The line is uttered by Kathleen, Judith’s mother, as she finds herself falling in love with Judith’s dad.
Sometimes I think of a cover of a book as a door to another world…but other times I think of it as an escape hatch from this one.’ And then she blinked and said, ‘I guess it’s the same thing.
I think you will be glad you opened this particular door.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Private Life by Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley, like all great writers, can look out at the world from one small private life and reveal a universe to the reader. In her recent 2010 novel, Private Life, she takes her readers on a slow and painfully meticulous journey from 1883 to 1942 as seen through the eyes of a clever but rather plain girl, Margaret, the third child in a family of five. Within the first few pages of the novel, we are informed that Margaret’s two older brothers are dead by the time Margaret is eight, and that her father, a doctor, commits suicide six months after the death of his oldest son. Margaret’s mother, Lavinia, says simply that his suicide had to do with melancholic propensities. Lavinia moves with her three remaining children, all daughters, back to her father’s farm, the practical thing to do, and tells Margaret, “because she was the oldest, that death was the most essential part of life, and that they must make the best of it. Margaret always remembered that.”

It is the subtitle of this excellent novel that gives away the theme: Private Life: Marriage can sometimes be the loneliest place. In a novel whose pace is slow enough to resemble a lived-life, Smiley tells us that Margaret’s younger sisters, Beatrice and Elizabeth, are successfully married off while Margaret, an old maid at twenty-three, is left behind. Margaret is not particularly troubled by her unmarried status, nor is she particularly keen on finding a man, although she is surprised that her feelings are hurt when she overhears her new brother-in-law describe her as forbidding. He continues:
But she never looks at a fellow, and if she makes a mistake and lets him catch her eye, she glares like fury. I don’t know anyone who can stand up to that sort of thing, at least in the beginning.  
And then you don’t know what she means half the time. I ask myself once a day, is she making a joke. The fellows can’t take that. It makes them feel thick…A fellow doesn’t want to feel as though a girl is running rings around him, at least not till her marries her.
And then when Margaret is twenty-seven, a brilliant scientist who has for mysterious reasons lost his university position and returned to the small town in Missouri where his mother still lives, takes an interest in her, and rather out of the blue proposes marriage. An astronomer who wonders about the universe but seems rather oblivious to the world around him, Andrew whisks Margaret off to an island off the coast of California where he has access to a small telescope, and there she begins her life as a married woman. Her mother’s parting words as she leaves Missouri, “You’ve always been a good girl, and now you’ve had a piece of luck, marrying at twenty-seven, but a wife only has to do as she’s told for the first year.”

Perhaps Margaret should have listened more carefully to this advice, and also to the veiled implications. It turns out that Andrew is an odd man, socially inept and naïve, “day after day, year after year, he thought only of the universe, which he could not see.”

While Andrew obsesses over his view of the universe and stews in resentment as an alternative view, that of Einstein, comes to prominence, Margaret becomes his audience, his assistant, his typist, eventually his driver. After a miscarriage and then the death within weeks of an infant son, Andrew gives up on both sex and the idea of children and devotes himself with renewed passion to describing his view of the universe. Of course, he expects Margaret to assist him in the writing of his masterpiece and his battle with the fools who fail to understand his brilliance. Andrew’s reaction to the short life and death of their infant son, Alexander, confirms for Margaret in a new way his utter self-absorption. And as she continues to type his manuscript and ferry him around to speaking engagements, she also begins to be aware of the reaction of others to her husband’s work. And then reading a newspaper article in responding to Andrew’s theories, she comes to a new, not quite startling realization.
As she read Mr. Malisoff’s words, she knew what had motivated him to write—Andrew’s blustering, grandiose claims, his circular reasoning. She knew that as well as if God himself had whispered in her ear. Just then, she saw Andrew as the world saw him, and she did it all at once, as if he had turned into a brick and fallen into her lap—who he was that solid and permanent for her—he was a fool.
Much like Kate Chopin’s lead character in The Awakening and so many other women who are faced with the prison of an unhappy marriage, Margaret has now to live with her comprehension. Smiley’s brilliance is in describing in considerable detail the day-to-day struggle of living with a man who is “Opinionated and energetic, loud and forbidding.” Margaret does not walk into the sea, nor does she suddenly throw off the shackles of a loveless marriage, but she does in small ways begin to assert her inner self. And she realizes more and more that she is in an arranged marriage, as certainly as if their had been a bride-price and signing of documents between man and man. 
And of course there was no help for it, except recalling bits of conversations she had overheard from time to time about marriage. That’s what knitting groups and sewing groups were for wasn’t it? Commiserating about marriage. But through the years no one had said what she now thought, which was that marriage was relentless and terrifying, and no wonder that when her father died her mother had risen from her bed and gone to work.
There is no happy ending to this book, no dramatic escape into a new world. And yet Margaret does persevere. Coming to understand how she came to be married to this strange obsessed man, how his mother and her mother conspired together to do what they thought best for their offspring, constitutes a kind of freedom. And as she did in A Thousand Acres and so many books since then, Smiley shows us not only the ways in which marriage has been (and still is) a prison for many women, but how strength and endurance can win small victories and point to a new horizon. I find myself uplifted and enlightened by the quiet life of Margaret and rejoicing in her small joys, and stunned once again by the brilliance of Jane Smiley.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Life of Objects by Susanna Moore

Coming of age stories almost always interest me, no matter the country or the period of time. The Life of Objects, by Susanna Moore, is an extraordinary coming of age novel about an Irish girl, Beatrice, who wants nothing more than to escape her cruel and restrictive mother and her Irish village. She is seventeen when her story starts, but in most ways a very young seventeen due to her mother’s tight, cold rein on her life. A Protestant girl in a mostly Catholic town and not allowed to associate with any Catholics, her single outlet (both emotionally and intellectually) is the Church of Ireland cleric, Mr. Knox, who keeps a small school and who has a passion for birds. There being no lending library in Ballycarra, it is through the books loaned her by Mr. Knox that she learns of the larger world.
Mr. Knox liked to say that novels help to show us that the world is a place of strangeness, ruled by chance, which makes it difficult to maintain our certainties. I had no certainties other than my desire to leave Ballycarra.
And leave she does through a series of happenstances she could not have foreseen. She says of her mother:  “her disappointments had rendered her bitter and unkind. My father and I were in constant dread of her. I lived in a chaos of desire and disappointment.” Her mother takes her out of school at fifteen, thinking that Mr. Knox is filling her head with ideas that would do her no good in the world of haberdashery, and installs her in the small shop owned by the family. She is not allowed to read in the shop, “lest it appear that I gave myself airs,” and so, using materials stolen from the shop, she teaches herself to crochet, and then to make lace. Eventually, her father not only secretly provides her with thread, but begins to display pieces of lace she has made in the shop; the fine lacework is seen by a wealthy woman, who gives her two books of lace patterns, and this in turn leads to an encounter with a foreign woman, Countess Hartenfels, and finally an invitation to escort the Countess to Berlin where Beatrice will live as a lace-maker in the house of a wealthy family, the Metzenburgs. 

What I have not yet mentioned is that this move, so thrilling for the young Beatrice, occurs in 1938, just as Germany has launched its aggressive campaign across Europe. Felix Metzenberg, besides being a wealthy collector of art, has been a politically influential force in Germany who served in the Great War, and whose memory of that time makes him extremely skeptical of the Nazi party and its campaign. Having refused a foreign ambassadorship position in the new regime, he is looked at with suspicion, and soon decides to leave Berlin and take his treasures to a country home where he will be less scrutinized. Although he offers to pay Beatrice’s passage back to Ireland, and warns her that he may not be able to protect her in the uncertain future, she elects to remain with the family.

I’ve told this much of the story, which the reader gets in the first thirty pages or so, simply to set up the dangers and moral dilemmas that face the family as the war continues and enlarges. While the Metzenburgs oppose the tactics and ambitions of Hitler and the Nazi party from the beginning, they obviously have to do so with great care. All during the war, they harbor Jews and others who are perceived as enemies of the regime, and return to a kind of feudalism with regards to the villagers who come to depend on them for produce, employment, and various forms of protection from the authorities. 

What I found particularly fascinating about this book was the view of it from inside Germany and through the eyes of a family whose sympathies lie with the allied forces of Europe and who rejoice at the bombing of Berlin even when the bombs are being dropped on them. 

Not only the rich and powerful in Germany, but even many of the poor villagers still close their eyes to the rumors of the murder of Jewish prisoners, and at least pretend that “the humiliation and misery inflicted on the country were in part the fault of the Jews, who had forgotten their place…” Felix argues against such views, both with the villagers and his rich friends. 
Felix said that he once believed that humanism had been founded on the shared need to know. It had grown more and more apparent to him, however, that the opposite was true—we were united by our shared need not to know. ‘By the time that we understand what is happening,’ he said, ‘we are already complicit.'
In spite of the fact that I was born in 1941, the year America finally entered the war, I continue to be astounded by my own ignorance of the immensity of loss, the unbearable hardship of so many from so many countries. My view of Pearl Harbor was that of a few Japanese planes somehow reaching Hawaii to sink a few ships, not of the nearly four hundred planes that flew in three waves to sink eighteen ships and leave three thousand dead. And although I have read about the firebombing of Dresden, I had no idea that in March of 1945 a thousand B-17 bombers destroyed the center of Berlin. 

Perhaps reading novels is a lazy way of learning history, but I am so grateful to novelists like Moore who do such meticulous research and then so skillfully put into real flesh and blood stories about the suffering and bravery of millions of Europeans, Russians, and yes, Germans. 

As the tide begins to turn and Germany begins to lose the war on many fronts, the lives of the Metzenburgs and the villagers become even more difficult, and unfortunately, even with the surrender of Germany and the advancing armies of Russia and America, the lives of Germans who had resisted the Nazi’s and at least covertly aided the allies do not magically become better. Whether it is German soldiers looting and ravaging the land as they retreat, or the victorious Russians doing about the same as they occupy, the lives of rural farmers and thousands upon thousands of refugees fleeing first one way, and then the other continue to spiral out of control. This is a searingly sad story, but told through the compassionate eyes of Beatrice, there is something beautiful and profound about it. I leave you with her words:
During the war, we had scavenged at night and slept in the day. Children had not gone to school. Animals had not foaled. Thre’d been no appointments to keep or to cancel, no market days, weddings, or funerals, and no cars, buses, trains, or horses to get us there, had there been someplace to go. There’d been no telephones, electricity, petrol. No medicine. No money and no food. 

We had survived, but we were different people.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Swimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone

Try to imagine a steel mill that takes up 2,500 acres of land, three miles of factory fence behind which are acres of decaying buildings and smokestacks, most of them ruined or partly ruined—a place that once employed 20,000 people, but in 2001 is reduced to a skeleton of its former self, with only one of its four giant towers still belching toxic clouds of bluish fluorescences, named simply A-Fo 4; A-Fo 1,2, and 3 now mostly just piles of rusting metal.
 …the posthumous carcasses of the three blast furnaces that hadn’t yet been dismantled, and, down there at the far end, the coke oven where men shoveled coal by hand, by arm, as if it were still the nineteenth century. 

There was no sky. There was an aviary: the purple flames of the furnaces; the swinging arms of the cranes; the tons of metal slung from the hooks beneath the hoisting tackle. The endless rows of sheds, workshops, bunkers. A self-sufficient obsession. The smokestacks, both active and extinct. Overhead, the constant crackling of flames: purple, red, black. The arms of hammerhead cranes  swinging around, yellow, green, tons of metal whirling like birds, yellow clouds of carbon smoke, black at the mouths of the smokestacks. It’s called continuous integrated steel production.
This is the setting for Silvia Avallone’s best selling Italian novel, Swimming to Elba, although the meaning of her one-word Italian title is simply STEEL. I have to admit that I picked it up simply to see what a best-selling Italian novel would consist of, totally unprepared for the powerful social-political statement I was about to encounter. 

On the face of it, this is a simple novel about two inseparable teenage girls, thirteen, almost fourteen—both beautiful, and both convinced that “the world arrives when you are fourteen.” Anna is dark and brave and intelligent, Francesca blond and incredibly beautiful, both are admired and envied not only by their peers, but by the hungry adult steel mill workers and their already old at thirty or forty wives.
An expert eye would have immediately sensed that this kind of beauty lasts for only a moment in the course of a lifetime. But in that crowd there were no expert eyes.
The two girls live in a factory town at the edge of the sea in one of a set of huge concrete barracks that had been constructed forty years earlier by public housing authority when government was in the hands of Christian Democrats and Italian Communists. 
…the public housing authority had built the giant barracks lining the beaches for the workers at the steel mills. Even metalworkers, according to the views of the local Communist administration, had the right to an apartment with a view. A view of the sea, not a view of the factory.
While much of this novel is aimed at revealing the sad lives of the women and girls who are the abused girlfriends and wives of the metalworkers, it is clear that Avalonne is also fascinated by and sympathetic towards the boys and men who live and work inside of the mills—a world that no one outside can really understand. Certainly, she is critical of the rich bosses who profit from the blood and lives of the men who work in the bowels of the factory, owners who would never deign to dirty themselves in the nearly inconceivable conditions inside, and who are willing to shutdown, downsize, and outsource at the whims of world market economies. But her fascination with the entire process of making steel and with the history of the industry is much more complex than her mistrust of an economic system that exploits the workers. 
Twenty-eight hundred degrees Fahrenheit is the melting point of steel alloy. Steel doesn’t exist in nature, it’s not an elementary substance. It’s a secretion of thousands of human hands, electric meters, mechanical arms, and every so often the skin of a cat that’s tumbled into the molten alloy. 
Although there is a large cast of characters in the book, it is the stories of Francesca and Anna, and of their two families, that provide the main focus. Anna’s mother, Sandra, is socially and politically informed, active in communist party politics, and eager for her daughter to get an education and escape the cycle of poverty and abuse of most of the women around her. Sandra is disappointed that her son, Alessio, has already given up on any life outside the mill, and is destined to a life of running one of the huge cranes that move the metal in various of its incarnations. Her husband has escaped the factory, but only by turning to criminal activities in the hopes of providing a better life for his wife and children. Francesca’s father, Enrico, a giant of a man, who left the poor life of rural farming to make his fortune in the mills, spends his time worrying about his too-beautiful daughter, and flying into rages that lead to beatings of his long-abused wife, Rosa, and of Francesca. “Just an ordinary man who had left the country with a rucksack on his shoulders to come to the city.”

As the two girls grow up, they dream someday of crossing the water to Elba, the rich sister city and tourist destination that seems to hold the answers to their dreams. Francesca, who loves Anna not simply as a sister, but secretly as a would-be lover, is contemptuous of and nauseated by the attentions she receives from the boys and grown men who constantly undress her with their eyes; she hopes that her beauty will both provide an escape from her present life and win her Anna’s love. Anna understands that her beauty, alone, will not save her. She sees the strength of her mother, and at least on some level takes in the message that only education and coming to understand the social realities can help her to a better life.

This is a powerful book. While it may have become a best seller at least partly because of the titillation of peeking into the lives of two beautiful girls who are on the cusp of women-hood, its ultimate appeal rests on the lucidity of Avalonne’s understanding of the world around her. There is so much of interest in this book that my comments have, at best, merely scratched the surface. Let me close with a quote from the book that summarizes Avallone’s own questions about her characters and the industrial city in which she was raised.
What does it mean to grow up in a complex of four big tenements shedding sections of balconies and chunks of asbestos into a courtyard where little kids play alongside older kids dealing drugs and old people who reek of decay? What kind of vision do you get of the world in a place where it’s normal not to go anywhere on vacation, not to go to the movies, not to know anything about the world, to never read the newspaper, to never read a book, and that’s just how life is? The two of them, in this place, sought each other out, chose each other.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

I’ve often wondered what it must be like for a writer to suddenly, unexpectedly, have a book explode into a best-seller and prize winner. Wonderful, no doubt, for the moment, but what about when s/he returns to the hard work of writing another book? We know in retrospect that it had a paralyzing effect on J.D. Salinger when Catcher in the Rye zoomed to fame, and the success of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man seems also to have had a similar effect on his subsequent writing. Elizabeth Strout cannot have expected her little book, Olive Kitteridge, to become a best seller, let alone win a Pulitzer, but her success has not led to anxious inactivity. Her 2013 novel, The Burgess Boys, is a wonderful book told in the same straight-forward and simple way as her earlier works. 

Most of the novel is set in a small town in Maine, Shirley Falls, and is about people who live quite ordinary lives. Like the great short story writer, Alice Munro, Strout seems intent on showing her readers that what appear from the outside to be quite ordinary lives are, viewed from inside, and through the eyes of a compassionate and wise story-teller, quite extraordinary. 

As the title tells us, the story revolves around two boys-become-men, Jim and Bob, the Burgess boys. Jim has become both rich and famous, first as a small-town prosecuting attorney, then as a defense attorney who takes on the case of a famous rock star accused of murder, and finally as a member of a prestigious New York law firm that specializes, in Jim’s words, in white-collar crime. Bob, the younger brother, is a legal aid attorney who lives in the shadow of Jim’s fame, idolizing his older brother, but verbally and emotionally abused and belittled by him. Of the three Burgess children, only Bob’s twin sister, Susan, has remained in Shirley Falls, and it is a thoughtless and silly act of her high-school aged son, Zach, that brings the Burgess boys back to Maine and to a confrontation with a tragic accident from their past that left them fatherless and mired in guilt.

To me, what shines forth in this novel is Strout’s compassion and moral insight, not only in her understanding of the Burgess children and the past that unites them, but her understanding of how small towns in America have suffered from economic downturns and the flight of young people from such towns to the big cities. Add to this flight a rather sudden influx of displaced people from a different culture, and the story begins to take shape.

The displaced people in this case are Somalis, driven out of their own country by wars, and then escaped from camps that are as or more dangerous than the country they have fled, and finally to this (and other) small American towns where they huddle together for safety. The reader can hear Strout wondering about how odd and frightening it must be for people who, for the most part, don’t speak the language, whose dress and diet and lifestyle are radically different than those of the people they are quite suddenly thrown into daily contact with. Difficult, certainly for the immigrants, but difficult also for the townspeople who find these strangers in their midst, who both desire and shun assimilation. 

The silly and senseless act that forces a kind of showdown in this little Maine town is Zach’s prank of throwing a frozen pig’s head into the makeshift Mosque the Somali’s use for community prayer. Zach is so ignorant of the ways and culture of the Somalis that have flooded his little town that he doesn’t even understand significance for them of the pig’s head. Why did he choose a pig’s head? Because, he explains to his attorney uncles, there were no cow or sheep heads at the slaughterhouse where his friend works and from which he stole the head. He had meant at first to use the head in a Halloween prank, but various complications have led to an alternative act that, quite apart from his intentions, have sinister implications and draw national, even international scrutiny and serious charges of a hate-crime.

Although the plot could have been treated in sensational ways, and in other hands, the novel could have been layered with mystery and violence, I was not surprised that Strout reins in the sensationalism. She is what I call a quiet writer, concerned less with outward action and mystery than in the internal monologues of her characters. And she talks not only through the Burgess boys; she also gives us inside views from Helen, Jim’s wife, from Pam, Bob’s ex-wife, Susan, the little sister, and for brief snatches even the inner lives of some of the Somali characters. Like Olive Kitteridge, which is really a series of short stories that are tied together by an appearance of Olive in each story, this novel, too, reads like a series of stories. And it seems that each story could have been a novel in its own right. 

The violence in the story is really limited to the verbal attacks and abusive language of Jim, usually directed towards his adoring younger brother, or his abandoned little sister, or his unfortunate and naïve nephew. It is obvious that Strout has known men like Jim, and even her treatment of him is, in the end, compassionate; she wants her reader to understand his excesses, and provides mitigating if not exculpating circumstances for his temper flairs. 

Although this novel has already gotten a lot of press and has been named one of the best books of the year by prestigious journals, I can’t say that I would rank it with her Pulitzer winner, Olive Kitteridge. She seems intent on finding and showing some level of development for each of her characters, some form of enlightenment or redemption. For me, this results in a kind of sentimental summing up, a packaging in the end that is a bit too neat, too sweet. That said, I am certainly glad to have read it, and I eagerly await any other offerings she has for us. She is a superb story-teller and a deeply insightful social commentator. There is a goodness and sincerity that literally shines through her work, and there are few who can match her word-weaving skills.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Look At Me by Jennifer Egan

To what extent is image tied to identity? Would others see me as the same person were my image to change markedly? Would I? These are a few of the questions Jennifer Egan asks in her complex and ambitious novel, Look At Me. Chances are if you’ve heard of Egan, it is because of her 2011 Pulitzer winning novel, A Visit from the Good Squad; today I want to talk about her earlier 2002 novel Look At Me, which I see as even richer and more philosophically interesting than her prize winner, though both are superb. 

There are so many characters in this novel, each narrator of his or her story, that it’s almost difficult to pick a lead character. And yet certainly it is the model, Charlotte Swenson, who is the pivot point. The reader meets Charlotte shortly after she has been involved in a horrific auto accident, one in which she is pulled from the burning wreck by a good Samaritan, and then quite literally put back together. Her broken arm, leg, and ribs almost incidental to the reconstructive work on her face whose crushed bones are reassembled with eighty titanium screws and then another surgery a year later to fine-tune her broken face.

For reasons the reader will learn as s/he reads the book, the accident occurs close to Charlotte’s hometown of Rockford Illinois, where much of the subsequent action occurs, although Charlotte returns as quickly as she can to her New York apartment and hopefully to her life as a model. Apparently, the reconstructive surgery is remarkably successful in that she is still a beautiful woman, but she soon discovers that she is literally unrecognizable to the circle of models and agents whom she has lived amongst for well over a decade. 
…I’d postponed…reckoning with the world for the simple reason that I still didn’t know what I looked like. I’d spent as long as an hour staring through the ring of chalky light around my bathroom mirror; I’d held up old pictures of myself beside my reflection and tried to compare them. But my sole discovery was that in addition to not knowing what I looked like now, I had never known. The old pictures were no help; like all good pictures, they hid the truth. I had never kept a bad one—this was one of my cardinal rules, photographically speaking. One: never let someone take your picture until you’re ready, or the result will almost certainly be awful. Two: never keep bad pictures of yourself for any reason, sentimental or otherwise. Bad pictures reveal you in exactly the light you wish never to be seen, and not only will they be found, if you keep them, but invariably by the single person in the world you least want to see you that way.
The question of identity, of how we see ourselves and how we are seen by others, is crucial in this tale not only for Charlotte, the model, where image is everything, but for all of the other main characters as well. Moose, the older brother of Charlotte’s childhood friend Ellen, metamorphoses from an easygoing, dashing and sought after athlete in high school into a morose and enigmatic professor understood by none, and shunned by most because of his startling and unpredictable behavior. He wanders his hometown of Rockford seeing the future by studying the past of this one-time industrial hub reduced now to a kind of ghost of its former self. Muttering the phrase, “We are what we see,” and fascinated by the invention of clear glass in the 1300s, he searches for someone to whom he can pass on his insights, his foresight, his scorching epiphanies. “For Moose had sensed that a terrible reversal was in progress, a technological disaster whereby the genius of the Industrial Revolution would be turned on people themselves, whereby human beings would be assembled from parts just as guns and boots and bicycles had been once.”

Moose thinks perhaps his niece, Charlotte, almost certainly named after his sister’s childhood friend, is a candidate for carrying on his nearly unbearable prophesies. But it turns out that the sixteen year old Charlotte is attempting to find her own identity by starting up a sexual relationship with a much older man who is himself a shadowy figure whose identity is less certain, more plastic, than either of the Charlottes, or, for that matter, than anyone else he encounters. 

Add to the list of identity casualties an alcoholic private detective, cut loose from his past by events he refuses to disclose, and the cast of characters is almost complete.  Egan mixes in one more, a reporter who wants to interview Charlotte not because of an interest in fashion, but as an instance of a person whose appearance has changed drastically. 
I’m interested in the relationship between interior and exterior, how the world’s perception of women affect our perceptions of ourselves. A model whose appearance has changed drastically is a perfect vehicle, I think, for examining the relationship among image, perception and identity, because a model’s position as a purely physical object—a media object, if you will—is in a sense just a more exaggerated version of everyone’s position in a visually based, media-driven culture, and so watching a model renegotiate a drastic change in her image could prove a perfect lens…
What is personal identity? What is the truth, about the past, about the future, about ourselves? And who is discover and untangle it? 

There is so much in this book that I cannot in a short space even begin to lay out the issues, the mysteries, the questions. And to add a final element to the tangle, there is a character named simply Z who is adept in languages, changes identities as easily as changing a coat, and who remains always in the shadows. He has come to this country from somewhere, no one knows quite where, searching for the conspirators and for the plan of subjugation that allow America to rule the world. Finally in America, “standing in their midst, {he} felt the peculiar dizzying pleasure of hating a thing so purely you’ll do anything to destroy it, anything, a pleasure that was indistinguishable from the wish to be destroyed himself. Consumed.” 

A mystery, a tragedy, and in some remarkable ways a comedy as well—this is an excellent novel written in language that is as sharp-edged and contemporary as the world she describes. It is a fine example of my favorite sort of fiction, stories about us, here, now.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Sometimes a book can be hilariously funny, bitingly critical of contemporary society and businesses, and wholly unpredictable. Maria Semple’s 2012 novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, is all of these things and more. I have to admit that I picked up the book because of its cover, and because I was looking for something humorous. The first time I started reading it, I put it down quite quickly when I discovered that it consisted mostly of letters, memos, directives to employees and all manner of communications without, apparently, a central narrator or a plausible theme. I don’t usually care for novels that consist primarily of letters between the main characters. However, once I gave the book a chance and read into it fifty pages or so, I couldn’t put it down.

Turns out there is a central narrator; she is a middle school student named Bee Branch, and her mother, Bernadette, is a celebrated architect who no longer designs houses, or anything else for that matter. Her father, Elgie, is a computer whiz who has already built a computer company and sold it to Microsoft for a very handsome profit; he is also famous for a TED talk (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) and a member of a very elite team at Microsoft working on a hush-hush project that requires almost all of his time.

Bee is an only child who has already survived a number of heart surgeries as an infant and young child; she is a bristlingly bright girl who has achieved perfect grades in middle school and has requested as her reward a family trip to Antartica. Her parents have told her she could have anything she wanted if she graduated from middle school with straight As, and extraordinary youngster that she is, she has requested the trip to Antarctica. Unfortunately, her mother Bernadette is not only agoraphobic but also given to extreme seasickness, and her father finds it difficult to take a day off of work, let alone the weeks, even months, that the trip will require. And thus the plot thickens.

Because of Elgie’s position at Microsoft, the family has had to move from their home in California to Seattle; Bernadette has not only had to move from a home she is famous for having designed, but has been forced to move to a city she despises—a city she sees as full of ridiculously overzealous moms, overly polite drivers, and much too close to Idaho (not to mention Canada). The combination has brought her nearly to a nervous breakdown, and she has had to hire a virtual assistant in India to help her plan the trip to Antarctica and to deal with even the basic tasks of day to day living. 

After some bitter (and very funny) fights with neighbors and moms from her daughter’s school, and some serious problems that crop up with the alleged virtual assistant in India, Elgie thinks it appropriate to have his wife committed involuntarily to a mental institution, at which time Bernadette simply disappears. Hence the title, Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, “What’s most important is for you to understand it’s not your fault.” You’ll notice that wasn’t even the question. When I press him, he says the second annoying thing, “The truth is complicated. There’s no way one person can ever know everything about another person.”  

Mom disappears into thin air two days before Christmas without telling me? Of course it’s complicated. Just because it’s complicated, just because you think you can’t ever know everything about another person, it doesn’t mean you can’t try.
It doesn’t mean I can’t try.
Don’t suppose that I’m giving away too much about this delightful book; what I’ve quoted above occurs on the first page, so the reader knows immediately that Bernadette will disappear, the only question is when, and what leads up to it. 

Bernadette calls the overzealous moms “gnats,” and she treats them with offhand contempt that she does not even try to hide from her daughter. Nor does she hide her opinion of the private school her daughter attends and its unceasing efforts to attract what a fundraiser calls “Mercedes Parents.” The fundraiser urges the parents to emancipate themselves from “Subaru Parent mentality”, and to aim at the $200K+ parents whose children are about to enter kindergarten. 

Besides the quite hilarious barbs directed towards snobby private schools, Semple also has plenty to say about Microsoft and the elitist mentality of its think-tank employees. If their work is not their purpose-in-life, their mission, they don’t last long.

Without telling you more about the twists and turns in the plot, I will mention Bee and her dad make it to Antarctica, which provides the reader some astute commentary on the very expensive guided tours and the companies that arrange them. 

All in all, the novel is full of surprises, totally unpredictable from page to page, and hilarious throughout. Semple is a wonderful writer. The brilliant, dyspeptic Bernadette and her  equally bright and candid daughter keep the reader both laughing and thinking! I’m not sure I could articulate what I learned from reading this novel, but I know that I enjoyed it, and I think you will too.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Me and Mr. Booker by Cory Taylor

The best way to introduce the author Cory Taylor is to let her lead character speak to us:
Everything I am about to tell you happened because I was waiting for it, or something like it. I didn’t know what exactly, but I had some idea. This was a while ago, after I decided that a girl is just a woman with no experience. I know what Mr. Booker would say on the topic of experience. He would say what you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts.
First of all there was the question of age. I was sixteen when I first met Mr. Booker, which can be young or old depending on the person. In my case it was old. I started to feel old when I was about ten, which was about the same time as my parents decided they had wasted their chances in life. I knew this because they told anyone who would listen, and this included me. I think disappointment was something I inherited from them both, along with their wavy hair and their table manners. In particular I think it was Victor who taught me at a young age how to lower my expectations.
These are the opening words of Martha, both the hero and the victim in Cory Taylor’s brilliant debut novel. The ‘debut novel’ label may mislead, for while this is her first novel, she is an accomplished screenwriter and author of short fiction, which manifests itself in the liquid smoothness of her first novel.  Her writing is so seamless that the reader forgets there is a writer behind the young narrator. From the first page to the last, I assumed I was listening to Martha, a sixteen year old Australian girl struggling to find her way in the hazy transition from childhood to being an adult. Martha is wise far beyond her years, yes, but also a hurt and searching child forced into the world of not simply witnessing, but counseling and adjudicating the ongoing wars between her parents.

One reviewer said this book was darkly comic, and while it certainly is comic, I see little or no darkness in it. A struggle yes; an uncommonly difficult coming of age, yes. It is hard enough just to be a successful child of  (more or less) separated  parents, but to be thrust into the role of counselor to her mother, and forced somehow to stand guard between her mother and Victor, her father, and sometimes between Victor and her younger brother—too much. She never calls him father, only Victor. Refusing even in name to deny essential separation.

She might have turned to Eddie, her younger brother at least as ally, someone to talk to about the craziness of their father, but “It was like he thought talking was kind of wasted effort that he didn’t see the need for because it didn’t lead anywhere.”

In fact, she turns to Mr. Booker, a stylish Englishmen and his beautiful wife, Mr. and Mrs. Booker. They need her as much (or more) than she needs them. Although they live in a fog of alcohol and frustrated dreams themselves. 

I’m not going to stress the sexual parts of this novel except to say that they are more comic than titillating. Although reviewers can’t help themselves from comparing the book to Lolita, and as perhaps a Lolita’s-eye-view of it all, it’s a silly comparison. The important and redeeming character in the book is Martha, who manages to escape not only from the sad, drunk Mr. Booker and his sad, lonely and isolated wife, but from Victor and even from her well meaning but ineffectual mother. Running to Sydney, perhaps with the help of one of her mother’s best friends, she regrets leaving her mother alone, and still not quite rid of Victor despite years of living more or less apart.  

Her mother wants to accompany her to Sydney, but Martha replies that she can manage on her own.  
She didn’t argue. She must have wanted to but I think she was scared that if she made it hard for me to get away from my father I would hold it against her for the rest of my life. My mother didn’t believe in confrontation. It wasn’t that she was weak, it was just that she didn’t see the point of it. She liked to tell me there were forces all around us that we couldn’t even see, and it was a question not so much of trusting them, but of accepting how helpless we were in the face of their power. Even so it must have been hard for her to watch me go; she probably thought she was losing me the same way she’s lost Eddie.
What counts most in this novel is not the sex, not even the tumult of the lives of the main characters, but the voice of the lead character. I, perhaps still naïve reader of fiction that I am, hear it as Cory Taylor’s voice. Looking back, yes, and with the wisdom that looking back affords, but expressing it always in the voice of that girl, of Martha. A strong and mostly lucid voice.

I read this book in a day or two because, cliché or not, I could not put it down. I loved it—the writing, the wit, the wisdom.