Monday, December 09, 2019

Every Thing You Are by Kerry Anne King

I want to talk to you this morning about a delightful book about a luthier (maker of violins and other stringed instruments), his granddaughter, and a cello with a soul.

When Braden Healy’s mother takes him to a violin shop to buy him a violin, a cello across the room beckons him, speaks to him, and so begins a love affair that will last a lifetime.

Ophelia MacPhee, Phee for short, is eighteen years old and has been working in her grandfather’s shop, MacPhee’s Fine Instruments, for many years when he calls her to his apartment to give her her birthday present. She expects, perhaps, her grandmother’s emerald ring or something related to the luthier business. Instead, her grandfather tells her he is giving her the business. With his attorney present as a witness, he induces Phee to sign a contract saying she will take over the business.
I Ophelia Florence MacPhee, being of sound mind and purpose, do hereby swear a sacred oath  to accept and discharge all obligations, tangible and intangible, related to the post of luthier.
Although uneasy about signing and wondering about the intangible obligations, she signs the document . Her grandfather explains he is dying of cancer and that necessitates the rush to have her sign.

The eccentric grandfather has, of course, sold many fine instruments over the years,  and in a few cases has insisted the purchaser enter into an agreement to play the instrument until his/her death, and then the instrument is to be returned to the luthier. ‘A forever home, you understand. A marriage. This cello is not a thing to be acquired and cast aside. And when you die and the bond is broken, your next of kin will bring the cello back to me. Here”

Braden Healey is only twelve when he enters into this bond, and while the luthier thinks him a bit young to enter into such a bond, he remarks only that the cello has spoken. “She is the boss of us, yes? Not the other way.”

If the bond is broken, there will be dire consequences.

And so the scene is set, Phee must keep her oath concerning this cello and a handful of other instruments sold under similar contracts. Unfortunately, many years later, when Branden is a successful cellist with a seat on the Seattle symphony, his hands are severely frostbitten as he attempts to save his brother-in-law who has fallen through a hole in the ice while ice-fishing.

When Braden can no longer play the cello, he sinks into a depression and into alcoholism.  On several occasions, Phee meets with Braden to exhort him to return to playing the cello. He laughs ruefully, displaying his hands which he can use for day to day things, but which can no long feel the strings of the cello.

The author is thinking of her character Braden (and others) when she opens her novel with this quote from Nietzsche, Without music, life would be a mistake.

Adding to the tragic life of Braden, his wife and son are killed in a car accident, and he returns to his home to try to salvage a relationship with his seventeen-year-old daughter. She is also a cellist, but gives it up after her mother and brother die. While both she and her father hear cello chords echoing in their lonely house, neither plays the lovely instrument as it languishes in its corner. It is every bit as important as a character in this novel as the others I have mentioned. Kerry manages to convince me that the cello does have a soul, its voice rising and falling as the events in the novel occur.

The granddaughter, Phee, was there the day that Braden signed the contract, entered into the oath, and when he returns home, she Is diligent in her attempts to get Braden to honor his contract. She believes in the curse her grandfather has put on Braden should he break his bond. Slowly, Phee falls in love with this boy-become –man, and their relationship adds a sweetness to the story, as does a budding relationship between Allie, Braden’s daughter, and Ethan, a boy who dates wild girls and rides a motorcycle.
Stars and boys like Ethan are great at a distance. Too close, and they’ll burn your wings and dump you into the sea., a lesson she learned both from the story of Icarus and watching the dramas of other girls who have dared to fly too close to the sun.
In addition to really interesting talk about music and fine instruments, this is a compelling story. I played Bach’s marvelous cello suites as I read it, and soon, like Braden and Allie and Phee, I began to hear cello chords throughout the day. Braden refuses to talk about the particulars of his brother-in-law’s death in the frozen lake, and this mystery adds one more layer to a really captivating tale.

Will Braden play again, and what will be the dire consequences if he does not? These and other questions await your reading of this splendid novel.

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

For almost all of my reading life, I have tended to prejudge pop novels and pop novelists. Certainly, that prejudice has saved me from reading many bad or so-so novels, but it has also led me to miss some real gems. Today,  I am going to say a few words about two 2019 novels. Although I don’t intend to reveal much of the storylines, I want at least to recommend these books. The first has been on the best seller lists for quite a long time. It is a novel about a house, The Dutch House, and the family who lived there in a period spanning five decades. I have shortchanged Patchett before; it took me several years to get around to reading (and reviewing) her fine novel, Bel Canto and almost as long to read The Magician’s Assistant.

A man who has been poor all of his life suddenly comes into a lot of money, and one of the first things he does is buy a house he thinks to be the grandest he has ever seen. He buys if for his beloved wife, but she is uncomfortable in the house from the beginning and comes soon to hate it. Time and time again, she leaves the house and her two children Danny and Maeve, and  stays away for greater and greater lengths until finally she leaves for good. The two children are inseparable, only comfortable in the world when they are together. Maeve attempts to be the lost parent for her younger brother, after they are forced out of the home when their father dies and leaves his entire estate to his second wife. The characters of the two children are very well fleshed out by Patchett, although their father, Cyril Conroy, is more a shadow than a fully developed character. The one provision Cyril had included in his will for his son Danny was a fund to pay for his education including any graduate program he enters. Clever Maeve devises a plan to keep her brother in school for many years, until he receives a medical degree, thus keeping a least some of their father’s money from the merciless stepmother.  

I did not find this novel to be particularly important as a socio-political statement, but since the time span includes the Viet Nam war and the political turmoil in this country right up to the present, Patchett does provide some insights into the separation of rich and poor and a running commentary on political events. Still, the most important relationship described is that between sister and brother. The scenes between them are touching and very believable and explore what I would call a kind of emotional incest.

The second book, Alice Hoffman’s The World That We Knew, is a wonderfully researched book about World War II and the Holocaust. I have been somewhat put off by Hoffman’s inclusion of magic in her early hugely popular novels like Practical Magic and The Rules of Magic, and magic enters this novel as well, but in a way I found much less intrusive. 
In the world that we knew, Hanni Kohn saw what was before her. She would do whatever she must to save those she loved, whether it was right or wrong, permitted or forbidden. 
Hanni’s doctor husband has already been murdered in a riot outside his Jewish hospital when the reader is introduced to the surviving members of the family. Hanni knows she must do something to protect her beautiful 12 year old daughter from the Nazi regime, but how can she protect her? While Hanni is able to prevent a sexual assault on her daughter by a Nazi soldier, she does so only by killing the assailant, and knows that the consequences will be dire.  In a desperate move, Hanni takes her daughter, Lea, to a renowned rabbi pleading with him to help hide her daughter and to get her out of Germany. It is the rabbi’s daughter, Ettie, who steps in to save Lea, and she does so by creating a golem. “A golem…may look human, but it has no soul. It is pure and elemental and it has a single goal, to protect. Ettie explains that the incantations must be exactly right, and that if she makes a mistake, it will mean instant death to her. She finally agrees to create the golem in spite of the great risk, but only if Lea buys identification papers and a train ticket for Ettie’s little sister, so that she, too, can escape from Berlin.

The rest of the novel describes the journey of Lea and Ava (the golem) as they escape to France and then through a long series of events that will get them to a place where they can join the French resistance and fight the Nazi occupation.

It is very clear that this book was a labor of love for Alice Hoffman, and in my estimation the most serious of her many successful novels. The bibliography at the back of the book evidences just how through Hoffman’s research was in creating this novel. 

Lea and Ettie’s life paths are entwined from the moment Ettie creates Ava and begins the long journey towards the south of France. There are so many wonderful and believable characters created by Hoffman as Lea and Ava continue their escape and find ways to enter into the fray, and to help oher Jews to escape Nazi rule.

So two hugely popular novels that deserve to be read.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Don’t Skip Out On Me by Will Vlautin

I want to talk to you this morning about a book that simply fell in my lap, loaned me by a reader friend. The book, Don’t Skip Out On Me, by Willy Valautin is not one I would have picked up on my own. For one thing it is a book about a boxer, and I don’t care for boxing. It is also one that is written in simple, almost flat prose, and I tend to favor books by accomplished word-weavers, but this short little novel gabbed me and would not let go. I finished it in the Salt Lake City airport with tears streaming down my cheeks and surrounded by passengers waiting for a New York City flight. I was not ashamed of the tears; the author had somehow so transported me that I felt as if all those around me were also finishing the book and so would understand. 

Horace Hopper is a young man half Paiute, half Irish, whose Indian father abandoned him and whose very ill mother could not really take care of him. Lucky for Horace, he spends most of his young life on a sheep ranch owned by Mr. and Mrs. Reese who love him like a son and fully intend to leave the ranch to Horace. But Horace, ashamed of his mixed heritage decides he must prove himself in the world, and he decides the way to do that is to becoming champion of the world in his weight class. He has read (many times) a self-help book that challenges the reader to build his boat one brick at a time, and to devote everything to become a champion.

Although Horace is very close to the Reeses (whom he always addresses as Mr. and Mrs. Reese), he tells them he must leave the ranch in order to pursue his dream.  

While Mr. Reese pleads with him not to leave, and Horace is well aware that Mr. Reese will not be able to maintain his twelve hundred head ranch much longer without Horace, who has been his right hand man for many years, still he feels honor-bound to make it on his own. 

Horace is convinced that Mexican boxers are the best and toughest in the world, so when he leaves the Nevada ranch and travels to Tucson, He changes his appearance and his name. He becomes Hector Hildago , and tries to learn Spanish and tries to like Mexican food (though it is too spicy for him).

Hector manages to find a trainer who will train him for a price, and he soon gets a golden gloves fight. Mr. Reese has offered to drive Horace/Hector to Arizona, but the boy says “That there were certain times when you had to do things alone.

Mrs. Reese asks her husband why Horace needs to be a boxer.
I’m just not sure, he whispered. I’ve thought about it over and over and I’m just not sure. But remember, he’s young, and a lot of young men want to prove themselves.
It turns out that Hector is an incredibly hard hitter, but not really a boxer, so from his very first fight, he takes a lot of punishment. Diego, his trainer tells him: “You hit as hard as any kid I’ve seen in a long long time. You walk into punches but man oh man do you have power.”  While he wins his early bouts, he is very badly beaten in almost every one. While the descriptions of the fights are grisly, they are well done and soon the reader becomes used to the fact that in almost every fight Hector’s nose is broken, and eventually it will just not stop bleeding. In addition, his retina is detached in one fight, and a doctor tells him he should not fight again, and that if he does, he risks losing sight in one or both eyes.

While I have concentrated so far on Horace’s life as a fighter, I think the book is really about honor. In his dealing with women, with managers, and with poor folks he simply meets on the street, Horace is utterly honorable. He gives away his money simply because he sees others that need it more. Mr. Reese has taught him that the important thing in life is to be honorable and truthful, and Horace is both almost to a fault. 

On the book cover, one critic says, “No one anywhere writes as beautifully about people whose stories stay close to the dirt. Willy Vlautin is a secular—and thus real and profoundly useful—saint.”

And yes, the simplicity, the simple elegance of Vlautin’s prose carries this story along. I intend to read all that he has written. 

When it becomes obvious that Horace will not become champion of the world, and really can’t fight anymore, he knows he can go back to the Reeses and the ranch; he knows they want him to come home, and in most ways he wants to go home.
When  he got back to his room each evening he crawled into bed paralyzed with anxiety and shame. Why did he have to tell Mr. Reese everything? Why couldn’t he have just kept to himself that he wanted to be Mexican and wanted to be a world champion boxer? The nights crawled by. Hours seemed like days. He would get lost in thoughts of Mr. and Mrs. Reese, the ranch, and the horses and dogs, and when he did his stomach would give out and he would feel like he was falling. He wanted more than anything to go back to them, to the comfort of them, but always something inside forded him not to.
Will Hector Delgado revert to Horace Hopper, and will Mr. Reese finally find him and take him home. The answer to this question will require you to read the book. It is a wonderful little book and you will be glad you read it. I feel I really learned something about honor and truthfulness. 

Monday, August 26, 2019

Other Men’s Daughters by Richard Stern

I am surprised that I somehow missed Richard Stern’s 1973 novel, Other Men’s Daughters. Stern is a writer of great power and an almost unbelievable master of vocabulary. Like John William’s novel, Stoner, this is in many ways a quiet novel, and again as in William’s novel there is an undercurrent of probably unintentional sexism that runs through it, though I think both Williams and Stern would have denied ithis.

The lead character is almost always referred to as Dr. Merriwether; he is a professor of physiology at Harvard. Married to a very clever woman, Sarah, who has given up her own academic career in order to take care of the professor and their three children.
Until the day of Merriwether’s departure from the house—a month after his divorce—the Merriwether family looked like an ideally tranquil one. Parents and children frequently gathered in the parlor reading in  their favorite roosts.
A rather staid and somber man, he would have thought himself the least likely of men to fall in love with a younger woman. 
When he teaches the  Introductory Physiology course, he begins one lecture, “Today, ladies and gentleman, we will talk about love. That is to say, the distension of the venous sinuses under signals passed through the third and fourth sacral segments of the spinal cord along the internal pudendal nerve to the ischio cavernous, and, as well, the propulsive waves of contraction in the smooth muscle layers of the vas deferens, in seminal vesicles, the prostate and the striated muscles of the perineum which lead to the ejection of the semen. 
But, unlikely as it seems to Merriwether, he becomes quite interested in a young ‘summerer’ (students not officially admitted to Harvard, but there to take summer courses). Dr. Merriwether spends five mornings a week in the lab with his research work, but he also moonlights as a part-time doctor nine hours week, and it is in that capacity that he first meets Cynthia Ryder who comes to him to get a prescription for the pill.
Dr. Merriwther’s life was surrounded if not filled with woman. A distant, formal husband, a loving distant father of two daughters. As for woman lab assistants and graduate students, he was seldom aware of them except as amiable auxiliaries. Many such women felt their position depended on masculine style, which had meant brusqueness, cropped hair, white smocks, low shoes, little or no make-up. Fine with him. No woman was so despised here as the occasional student who strutted her secondary sexual characteristics…Though the women’s movement had begun to touch the biology labs, it went slowly, perhaps because there was a greater awareness of the complex spectrum of sexuality, the hundred components of sexual differentia.
Merriwether sees  Cynthia a couple of other times on campus, but even when he exchanges a good-bye kiss with her after one such encounter, he is able to preserve his sense of decorum and distance.   “Weeks later, she said, “I was so surprised. ...Still he was kissing in part for her sake (for therapy, for a common humanity). So he could still feel himself Man of Principle, Man of Year, Doctor of Confused Patient, Professor to Easily Enchanted Student.”

Cynthia, like his wife Sarah, is a bright and able student in her own right, and she continues with her academic work even as their affair continues and becomes more consuming for them both. Eventually, Merriwether feels obliged to confess his affair to his wife, though only after a magazine article has called attention to their union.
She was being destroyed, this life could not go on, she was not a mat, she was not a maid, she was not going to clear up his mess, she was finished. She didn’t need Kate Millett and Germaine Greer for strength. 
While he continues to live in the marriage house, the husband and wife occupy different floors, and Merriwetrher finds himself quite confused that Sarah wants him gone. The roughly two thirds of the novel that describes their slow break-up is often quite humorous as well as painful.  About half way through the book, I noticed that almost every time Merriwether speaks of his wife, Sarah, he mentions her plumpness, her fat face, her shortness, although he always sees this as simple description, no harm intended. As he recalls his past happiness, his contentment. “Sublimity. What was anything else in life next to it? He owed that to her. Fine little stump of a wife…round back, square flanks—no hourglass there…

A few times, early in my reading, I thought Stern might be aware of the sexist tone to the writing, thought perhaps he was making fun of himself and his own character, but upon completion, it seems clear to me that Merriwether is simply mouthing the views of his time, including views that women are not really capable of scientific discovery or discipline. 

Phillip Roth writes a glowing introduction to the book, and  I’m not surprised that Roth seems to deeply admire Stern as well as his narrator, Dr. Merriwether.  I agree with Roth that the science asides and even some of what might be called philosophy of literature that are to be found in the novel are interesting and well thought out.  Still, in the end, this is a novel of how easily men take advantage of younger women and/or women in subordinate positions, and then convince themselves that they have done nothing wrong. Merriwether is so much more typical than he pretends to be. When I read Stoner, I found myself wanting to hear the story from the wife’s perspective.  And in this novel, too, I would have been interested to get Sarah’s or Cynthia’s take on the events rather than the rather monotone and self-righteous view of Dr. Merriwether. 

This is an intriguing book that is so well written. I will leave it up to you readers to decide if it is satire or simply a novel expressing attitudes of the time.

Monday, August 05, 2019

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume

He is running, running running.

And it’s like no kind of running he’s ever done before. He’s the surge that burst the dam and he’s pouring down the hillslope.
This time, there’ no chance to sniff and scavenge and scoff. There are no steel bars to end his lap, no chain to jerk at the limit of its extension, no bellowing to trick and bully him back.

This time, he’s further than he’s ever seen before, past every marker along the horizon line, every hump and spork he learned by heart. He is running, running, running.

And there’s no course or current to deter him.

He is One Eye now.

He is on his way

Lucky for the dog, One Eye, that he is adopted by a man as lonely and abandoned as he is. Selected from a bunch of creatures MISTREATED, ABANDONED, ABUSED. When the kennel keeper grabs him by the scruff and leads him to the man. “You are leaning low, nearly dragging your body along the aground, as though carrying a great lump of fear.”

The dog is a terrier, and although the reader never discovers just where he came from or how he was abused, it is suggested that he went down a hole after a badger, losing his eye in the ensuing battle.  

The man is living in his father’s house and has no memory of a mother. His father is dead, but the son remains in the house, which he says is as close to a mother as he has ever known. He is 57, too old to start over and too young to give up. The village in which he lives sees him as ugly and retarded, and his father keeps him away from school and pretty much away from all of society, more or less embarrassed by his awkward, ugly son. 

But the man and dog carve out a life, and very soon, the man cannot imagine life without One Eye. He watches the dog amazed by his nose, amazed that he can be hypnotized by smell. “I wish I’d been born with your capacity for wonder.”

The story of their interdependence is a sad but lovely one. We learn that as a boy, with almost no help from his father, he learned to read. And then when in his forties, because the father is too crippled with gout to drive, he teaches the man how to drive. While he is frightened by most people, he loves to read; despite the villagers misconception, he is not retarded. 

This is a debut novel for Sara Baume, and she finds ingenious ways to have the dog’s voice ‘heard’ by the readers. He talks to the dog, and then tells us how the dog responds. He reads to the dog, and listens carefully for One Eye’s commentary. Turns out that One Eye has a moral take on the world as well as a rational one. Like Iris Murdoch, Baume allows the dog to speak, and the reader learns so much from the interchange between the two.

Unfortunately, just as many in the village see the man as menacing, they come to see the dog as a menace as well. Not entirely undeserved, since he viciously latches on to two other dogs, one small and terrified by the jaws of the terrier, and the other a handsome collie, with a rich owner,  who is bitten on the snout by One Eye. 

Knowing that animal control will soon come to his house and take the dog away, and unable to imagine going back to his utterly lonely life prior to One Eye, the two take off and travel the backroads and small villages of Ireland, living in the car or beside it, and surviving as they can from day to day and town to town.

Shortly before deciding that they need to run, the man takes stock of his perhaps rash decision to adopt the dog.
I should never have adopted you. You bring trouble and then just when I think trouble has passed, you bring trouble again. Caring for you is like keeping a nettle in a pretty porcelain flower pot, watering its roots and pruning its vicious needles no matter how cruelly it stings my skin, until I’m pink and puffy all over yet still worrying the old welts back to life. 

And now I think how I was my father’s nettle. His big lump of an embarrassing son...A son fit only to be kept indoors, away from people and from light. Where there’s nothing to sting but himself.
I know that most of what I have described seems just too sad, but in fact, there is much joy and loveliness in this insightful little novel.
I wonder have we grown to resemble one another, as we’re supposed to. On the outside, we are still as black and gnarled as nature made us. But on the inside, I fell different somehow. I feel animalized. Now there’s wildness inside me that kicked off with you.
Man rescues dog, and dog rescues man. This is a wonderful love story, and one that you will be glad you read.

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Things We Don’t Say by Ella Carey

Those of you readers who have read earlier works of Ella Carey know that she has had a lifelong love-affair with France (as is manifest in Paris Time Capsule and The House by the Lake).  In her 2018 novel, The Things We Don’t Say, the action switches back and forth between London and a country farm house in Provence. As Carey is quick to acknowledge, this novel was inspired by the Bloomsbury group, and although she insists that all characters are spun from her imagination, in her acknowledgements she says,
“I have long been intrigued by the artist Vanessa Bell and her beautiful relationship with her fellow artist, Duncan Grant.” In the novel, Emma Temple’s story has as its background this intrigue Carey had with Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, and other writers and artists in the Bloomsbury group.

Emma is an artist who establishes a kind of sanctuary in Provence for the unconventional bohemian young artists who she makes into her family. It is 1913. She lives there with her husband, Oscar, who is really more like a brother or companion than a husband, and among the other guests is a famous painter by the name of Patrick and his lover Rupert. It is really the deep love between Patrick and Emma that is central to the story, although he is homosexual and she is not.

The second strand of the story is told by Emma’s granddaughter, Laura, who is studying violin at the Royal College of Music. Thus the reader is taken back and forth between London in l1980 and Provence in the years leading up to and including World War I and beyond. While Patrick and Emma are not sexual lovers, there love is profound, and Patrick spends years painting a portrait of Emma though he has refused in the past to do portraits of anyone he knows. The painting is his tribute to their love. 

Patrick becomes a famous artist and his works are a huge commercial success. For that reason, the paining Ella has is of great value by the time Laura enters the story. Indeed, his work is so famous that Ella is able to secure a loan using it as collateral—a loan large enough to support Laura’s expensive education at the the Royal Academy. Just as art and color are everything to Emma, music is everything to Laura and intensifies the bonds between her and her grandmother.

Alas, a well-respected art critic who is considered an expert on Patrick’s paintings, publishes and article in the Times claiming that the Emma portrait is not his work. All the rest of the novel is occupied with this issue. At first Ewan, the art critic, refuses to divulge to Laura how he knows the painting is not genuine, although he insists that he is absolutely certain that it is not. 

While the story of the painting and of the threat to Laura’s music education is the thread that weaves together the lives of Ella and Laura, what I found to be the overarching significance of the novel was the descriptions of how the so-called bohemians lived their lives in a world that did not at all share their values. Not unlike the young people in the 6os and 70s, Ella’s ‘family’ believes in free love, is open to homosexuality and to all races, and they are also by and large pacifists in a world just about to be engulfed in a world war. 

Because Ella knows all too well how parents can smother the dreams of their children by refusing to support their endeavors, she empathizes completely with Laura when Laura’s parents refuse to support her musical endeavors. Emma’s father had likewise refused to support her love of art, and it is only his early death that allows her to continue with her painting. 
Color was what inspired her, drawing her away from the coldness of her home life. Her childhood walks with her siblings and their nanny in Kensington Gardens every afternoon had started it, and she’d embraced getting out of the dark and stuffy house close to the park. Her delicate senses became assaulted and captivated, drawn in by the blowsy, rain-soaked greens and the whites of meadow flowers, the deep reds and brilliant oranges of spring tulips, the fresh air, the blossoms and blue sky and birds. She’s wanted to capture it, bottle it as soon as she returned home, so it didn’t get lost. Nature seemed the opposite of rules, so that was what she drew and painted early on. 
She’d learned to put men off by seeming distant. She preferred, by far, to be thought cold and aloof than to get caught in any way, having to spend the rest of her life stuck as the wife in a repressive Victorian-style household. 
Painting is her refuge and what gives her life meaning and direction. Her older brother Frederick gathers around himself a group of Oxford intellectuals, and when he dies at a very young age, it is she who becomes the keeper of the group, providing a gathering place for the bohemian misfits. 

Emma’s only romantic love is for Patrick and when her friends scold her for not living with a man who desires her. Since she can choose anyone, why not choose someone who can love her fully. Her reply to Rupert, Patrick’s lover, when he puts a move on her and suggests a menage a trois:
Love chooses us, just as birth chooses us, just as death chooses us. These things are entirely random…I am unable to sleep with anyone without an emotional connection to them.
She continues:
You are being irrational. You just told me that Patrick loves me. And as for the way I choose to live—is there something wrong with a woman wanting to live life on her own terms? I acknowledge that love is beyond our control, that so much in the world is random, but I insist on the dignity of being able to run the aspects of my own life that I can run myself. And that includes saying no to love affairs that will ultimately go nowhere. 
Much like those of us who really came of age in the 60s, Ella’s self-made family decides that sexual jealousy is irrational, and therefore is to be rejected. Since cool rationality should be the guide in life, whatever is irrational can simply be denied or ignored. Didn’t work out quite that way for us or for Ella’s circle; still I find their arguments cogent, and I believe we often give up way too much in our lives (including significant relationships) in the name of monogamy and sexual fidelity. 

Is the famous painting a fraud, and will Laura have to give up her music? These and other plot questions you will have to answer by reading the book.

Monday, May 27, 2019

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

I’ve been waiting for years for a new book from Jhumpa Lahiri, but somehow missed her latest novel, The Lowland, published in 2013. Like her other three books, this is a masterful piece of writing—lyrical and lovely, but telling a very somber story. 

Two brothers Subhash and Udayan are just fifteen months apart, and their bond is incredibly strong. Although Subhash is the older of the two, Udayan is the more daring and much more likely to lead them into mischief. Subhash “…was uncertain whether he was more frustrated by Udayan’s daring, or with himself for a his lack of it…But he had no sense of himself without Udayan. From his earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there.”

Both brothers do well in school and have real talents for math and science. But their primary interest is in politics, and especially in the communist parties that battle with one another over whom to follow, and which has the truer line.

 Much of the lowland they live in is covered with water during great parts of the year.
The English started clearing the waterlogged jungle, laying down streets. In 1770, beyond the southern limits of Calcutta, they established a suburb whose first population was more European than Indian. A place where spotted deer roamed, and kingfishers darted across the horizon.
Both brothers are admitted to college and plan to attend graduate school once they graduate. But as it turns out, only Subhash goes on to graduate school in America. Udayan loses interest in continued academic training, and remains behind in India becoming more and more involved in revolutionary politics. The novel jumps back and forth between Rhode Island and India, and as in her earlier collection of short stories, Lahiri describes in great detail the difficulties in straddling countries and cultures. Neither brother is married, though both expect that eventually their parents will arrange marriages. Udayan begins to see the sister of a student friend, and when she, Gauri, becomes pregnant, they marry and move into his parent’s house—a house they keep enlarging so it will accommodate their sons’ wives and eventual grandchildren. 

Without telling too much more of the story (which Lahiri spins out slowly and patiently), Udayan is eventually killed by the police, and Subhash returns briefly to India. Although Gauri is allowed to stay in the home of her in-laws, they ignore her once Udayan is killed. Subhash wants to get to know his sister-in-law, but his parents discourage any real contact. He buys a shawl for his mother and decides to get on for Gauri as well. 
He gave his mother the shawl he’d bought for her. Then he showed her the one for Gauri.
I’d like to give her this. 
You should  know better, she said. Stop trying to befriend her.
You’ve taken away her colored clothes, the fish and meat from her plate.
These are our customs, his mother said.
Eventually, Subhash decides he needs to get Gauri out of the hostile environment of his home, and the only way he can do that is to marry her. Gauri is a brilliant student, and although she cares for little once her husband is dead, she still has a powerful urge to learn, and she consents to go back to America as Subhash’s wife and they decide they will simply treat the baby she is carrying as their own. No decision is made as to when, or even if, the child will be told the truth.

The remainder of the novel is primarily the story of Gauri, Subhash, and their daughter Bella, whom Subhash adores and from whom Bella get most of her nurturing. Subhash takes Bella for a visit to India, but Gauri remains behind committed to her studies and to teaching philosophy courses. For many and complicated reasons, Gauri decides that her husband and daughter are better off without her, and she takes a teaching job across the country in California.

While the description of family life, of what counts as love, what counts as loyalty and what betrayal is the crowning achievement of the novel, there is so much that Lahiri tells the reader about India, its past, its many wars and political unrest. As the author notes, very little of this history gets covered in American press, and most of us know very little about the complexity of the country. That is certainly true of this reader.

I found this to be a beautiful novel, full of heartache for sure, but also full of love and commitment. The relationship between Bella and Subhash is wonderfully described, as are the reasons that Gauri leaves them. 

I will remember this book for a long time, and it also led me to two even newer works of hers—a non-fiction autobiographical book, In Other Words which she wrote in Italian, and refused to translate into English, though she allowed a friend to do it. And a very small book (really an essay) entitled The Clothing of Books, which is really a book about dust jacket designs for hardback books and cover designs for paperbacks  and how little control authors have over such things.

I believe Lahiri to be one of the finest authors alive, and I recommend all of her work to you.

Monday, April 08, 2019

When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

It’s nice sometimes to read a book just for the delight of it; When God Was a Rabbit is full of delight as well as some wonderful observations on life. I’m sure a lot of you will remember Judy Blume’s wonderful little novel: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.  Winman’s novel is in that lofty company. 

It’s a book about a young girl, Elly, and her brother who is five years older than she. Oh, and about a rabbit she is given and without any intention of sacrilege, she names God. Elly often gets into trouble at church, questioning things she should not. When she asks her mother if God loves everyone, “’Of course he does,’ my mother replied.” But her mother is alarmed by the question, and questions further.
‘Do you want to talk about anything?’ she asked quietly, reaching for my hand. (She had started to read a book on child psychology from America. It encouraged us to talk about our feelings. It made us want to clam up.) 
‘Nope,’ I said again through a small mouth. 
It had been a simple misunderstanding. All I had suggested was that Jesus Christ had been a mistake, that was all; an unplanned pregnancy.
‘Unplanned indeed!’ screamed the vicar. ‘And where did you get such blasphemous filth, you ungodly child?' 
‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘just an idea’
When told that God does not love those who question his divine plan, she stops attending church. Elly’s father, a religious skeptic, encourages Elly’ rebellion against religion. “’You don’t have to go to Sunday school or church for God to love you ‘Or for anyone to love you. You know that, don’t you?’ 
‘You’ll understand that as you get older,’ he added. But I couldn’t wait that long. I’d already resolved that if this God couldn’t love me, then it was clear I’d have to find another one that could.
After befriending an 80 year old man in her neighborhood, she decides she’d like to be Jewish. She and her best friend, Jenny Penny, and her brother form an hilarious threesome as they skip through their youths. When her father wins a football pool and is suddenly a rich man, his life changes little except that he buys a new Mercedes with tinted windows. When Elly’s mother insists that the car is not them, says she won’t ride in it and then insists that either the car goes or she does, and she does.

I read this book several weeks ago, and one problem with putting off reviews is that by the time I got to this one, I had forgotten much of the story. Instead of simply going through my underlinings and notes, I started the book over, and was as delighted by it on second reading as on the first. This caused me to recall that whenever I used novels in my classes, I always reread each novel as my students were reading it for the first time, wanting not simply to refresh my memory, but to share in the emotional impact of the books which I could not do simply by writing a description. 

Winman was an actress before she became a writer, and it is obvious in the script quality of her dialogue. 
There was no great epiphany, no precise moment when I swapped the spoken word for the written word. I had been acting for twenty-three years and had always written, but mainly in script form, as most actors do.
Fortunate for us readers that she decided to write fiction, and fortunate too that her debut novel was this coming of age tale. While simply a lovely frolic for the most part, there are also darker passages when Elly describes the very different home-life of her best friend Jenny Penny. The simplicity of the writing  makes believable that it is the story of a young girl, but it also allows for a really lovely naivete, a refreshing and revealing innocence. Elly tell us that she divides her life into two parts, the first before she met Jenny Penny, and the rest after that friendship began to blossom. 
She featured not at all during this [early] period and I realize she was the colour that was missing. She clasped the years either side of this waiting and held them up as beacons, and when she arrived in class that dull January morning it was as if she herself was the New Year; the thing that offered me the promise of beyond. But only I could see that. Others, bound by convention, found her at best laughable, and at worst someone to mock. She was of another world; different. But by then, secretly, so was I. She was my missing piece; my compliment in play.
Elly could have been describing herself here rather than Penny, and for this reader, she opens up a new and refreshing world.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Girl In The River by Patricia Kullberg

It is with great pleasure that I talk with you this morning about a splendid novel by a good friend and fellow Old Mole, Patricia Kullberg. I’m not sure how this novel slipped by me in 2015, but it did. While at lunch with another Portland feminist and leftist, Johanna Brenner, in the course of our conversation Johanna asked, “Have you read Patsy’s novel?” No, I was ashamed to say, I had not, and could not really recall it ever being mentioned to me. The novel is Girl in the River, and besides being a rich historical novel about Portland and about the work of one particular Portland woman, it is a wonderfully told story.

Since I knew Patricia had been a physician and Medical Director for Multnomah County Health Department, I expected her novel to be well researched and historically significant, what I did not quite expect was how totally captivating her story would be and how convincing and well fleshed out her characters are. Her main characters are Mabelline (a.k.a. Mae Rose), Mae’s dear friend Trudy, and Dr. Ruth Barnett. Although Patricia hastens to tell the reader that her characters are fictitious and the story a product of her imagination, there can be no doubt that Dr. Barnett is modeled on a real woman—a woman who helped hundreds of women terminate their pregnancies. For many years, Dr. Barnett maintained her clinic under a “longstanding arrangement between the legal establishment and the abortionists.. So long as no woman died, the law looked the other way…And no patient of Ruth Barnett’s had ever died. She was the best. Everyone knew it, from the mayor to the street sweeper.”

Mae comes to know Dr. Barnett because she and Trudy are very sought after prostitutes who are very much a part of the high society of Portland, and Dr. Barnett is also a well known part of that ‘high society’. Mae’s mother ran a boarding house in a small town in Portland, and Mae is her do-everything helper; she helps in the kitchen, cleans the rooms and looks after her hard-working mother. When Mae’s mother, Lilly, dies quite young and unexpectedly, “a man with a pressed shirt and clean nails showed up at the Rose Home for Mill Hands and Lumberjacks. He’d come to take possession not of Mae, but of her home. He was from the bank and had papers to prove they owned it.” For a time she turns to a man she already knows for help;  “She went to live with Mr. Goshorn and his six striplings.” Fortunately for Mae she is able to extricate herself fairly quickly from that slave-like situation, and soon finds herself on the streets of Portland with no money and no real means of employment. She is soon arrested for vagrancy (the catch-all charge used to incarcerate the poor and jobless.” She finds herself in Rocky Butte jail without bail or any likelihood of freedom. Already an avid reader, she is hopeful when she hears that:
Rocky Butte had a library. Mae, picturing the colossal, wood-paneled room of the library downtowns with stacks and stacks of books, had been excited until she surveyed what the jail had—five copies of the Holy Bible; two guides to reading it; several manuals on household crafts, half of which Mae could have written herself; a couple dozen novels like Little Little Women and Pollyanna; and several issues each of Dime Detective and Screen Book, dog-eared and torn up.
Without giving up too much of the story, suffice it to say that Mae is eventually rescued by a woman named Trudy who admits to Mae that she is a prostitute and counsels her to avoid pimps at all costs, and suggests that Mae go into business with her (under the protection of a Madam). “…Mae decided maybe she didn’t mind the big bucks and being her own boss, the fun and the glamor. She liked being admired. She didn’t give a hoot about being loved. Not by a man.”

Mae and Trudy have quite a good life together and genuinely love each other, though Trudy always seems to want more from Mae than she can honestly give.

The descriptions Patricia Kullberg gives of Portland street life and the web of political and police corruption shine with authenticity, and she often quotes or paraphrases from news stories of the time, adding to the veracity of her story.

Eventually, Mae wants out of prostitution, and she manages to talk Dr. Barnett into taking her on as an assistant. Certainly a big step down in income and in the luxuries of her daily life, but for the first time she has work that is deeply meaningful to her, and works for a woman she genuinely admires.

This is a rich and wonderful story; once I started it, I read it up in two days and felt in its thrall for many weeks after. I don’t think I have done justice to the complexity of this tale nor the relationships that Mae has with both men and women. I will close by quoting from the epilogue:
Ruth Barnett continued to perform abortions after she was arrested and her clinic shut down in 1951. She never turned a blind eye to a woman in trouble. She was repeatedly arrested and hauled into court, but did not exhaust her legal appeals until 1967. At the age of seventy-eight and suffering from malignant melanoma, she became the oldest woman ever sent to prison in Oregon. She was paroled five months later and died in 1969, less than four years before the landmark decision, Roe vs. Wade.
Writing this book was obviously a labor of love for Patricia, and it has been a labor of love for me to read it. We can only hope she writes more fiction to go along with her many nonfiction articles and collaborations.

I have been talking about Patricia Kullberg’s novel, Girl in the River.