November News/Month(s) of Books 2018

I last posted in early October, and even then I was two months behind in reporting on my book consumption. The days since have slipped through my fingers like water. I promise I have not been sitting around eating bon-bons (although I did go to London in October for eight wonderful days). What I have been doing is: writing and reading; getting my running program back on track (with a small blip or two); and preparing for the onslaught of the holidays, in the middle of which is scheduled son Jay’s wedding.

The latter two activities bore fruit in two essays. On November 28, Broad Street Review published my essay on coping with the pressure cooker that has been the holidays. Earlier in the fall, Humor Outcasts ran my essay on running in the rain. You can read them at these links: Overbooked for the Holidays and Have a Nice Trip

As for my reading…since the end of July I have read twelve books. (I took a little hiatus in October while I was traveling, resulting in my monthly average falling from four books a month to only three books a month. A slacker, I know.) In a ploy to get caught up, with the hope that come January I will be back on track, I am going to give quick summaries only of the books.

NOVELS

Julian Barnes, The Only Story (2018): Elegant, Barnes-ian prose and classic three-part dramatic structure, but ultimately it left me feeling sad.

Leah Franqui, America for Beginners (2018): Debut novel about three strangers brought together for a cross-country road-trip. She takes a little too long to get everyone into the same car, but it’s a sweet story in the vein of Anne Tyler. (Full disclosure: Leah is the daughter of one of my high school classmates and she went to school with my children. I’m starting to get jealous of all these youngsters I know getting published!)

Anne Tyler (herself), Clock Dance (2018): Much better than her last two — A Spool of Blue Thread and Vinegar Girl (part of the “Hogarth Shakespeare” project). I like settling in with an Anne Tyler. I know what I am going to get — but that may be faint praise.

Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last (2015): Saw Atwood at a Free Library of Philadelphia Author Event and found her to be highly entertaining. I somehow missed this sense of humor in the handful of Atwood books I had read previously. It is definitely in fine form in this satire of a young couple, crushed in the economic downturn, “volunteering” for a planned community that purports to have the solution to all economic and societal ills. The current of wry humor runs through the whole book. I loved it.

Gary Shteyngart, Lake Success (2018): Shteyngart was also very entertaining during his Free Library of Philadelphia appearance (though in ways quite distinct from Margaret Atwood) and a copy of this book came with the tickets. I read it first, and it was not my cup of tea. Described as “a penetrating exploration of the ultra-rich .1%, [it] follows a billionaire hedge-fund manager who flees New York by bus in search of simpler life.” Even though I saw what the humor was, I just couldn’t get over that the protagonist was a clueless jerk who should have had his mouth washed out with soap. Having said that, Jon read it after I did and really enjoyed it. (Female vs. male perspective when reading? That’s for a different discussion!)

Louise Penny, Kingdom of the Blind (2018): I am a fan of cozy village murder mysteries, especially when they come in a series and I get to know all the principals over the course of years and years. Louise Penny is the queen of producing cozy (Canadian) village murder mysteries (with high octane plots). This is #14 of the Armand Gamache stories and is right up there with her best. (I will note, however, that this is the first time that I guessed the crux of one of the major plot lines as soon as it was introduced.)

NON-FICTION

Adam Gopnik, The Table Comes First (2011): A classic Adam Gopnik book, combining erudite learning (in this case, the history of restaurants) and personal Gopnik lore (his love of cooking). Not everyone is a Gopnik fan, and I appreciate their reasons. Having said that, I am a long-time Gopnik fan whose appreciation of him was deepened last summer. By chance he and I were in the back of a church in Wellfleet on Cape Cod, awaiting the start of a Schubert concert. Recognizing him from various book jacket headshots, I screwed up my courage and went over to him. He was a delight. Personable, open and chatty. We had a short conversation about his books, the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival and our mutual affection for Cape Cod in general. Now I can hear his voice in my head when I read him.

Nell Stevens, Bleaker House (2017): Fun memoir, especially for English majors. Stevens, who already had a PhD in Victorian literature, was an MFA candidate who won a grant to go anywhere in the world to work on writing a novel. Of all places, she picked Bleaker Island in the Falklands, practically a wasteland. She fails to write her novel, but comes to realize, among many other things, that she really should be doing non-fiction. She now has two more non-fiction books out as well as credits in the New York Times. And she’s only 32…

The Best American Travel Essays 2011, Sloane Crossley, guest editor: I don’t usually buy the “best travel” collection, sticking to the plain old “Best American Essays” series. But a number of years ago I picked up this one because Sloane Crossley was the guest editor. Not surprisingly, each year’s collection tends to reflect the temperament of the guest editor. This edition was no different. I enjoyed almost every one of the picks that Crossley made, even the ones that weren’t overtly “humor pieces.”

Hope Jahren, Lab Girl (2016): Widely recognized as a leader among today’s geochemists and geobiologists, Hope Jahren has produced an extraordinary memoir that is also a science textbook. Her writing is lyrical as she intertwines her growth as a scientist with the growth of the very plants and trees she studies. Even in the 1990s, it was not easy to be “a girl” among men in her various scientific and academic communities, yet she surmounted every challenge. Her fierce determination and dedication to her calling are almost unfathomable to someone like me, an English major who has skipped around all over the place. But I couldn’t put the book down, it is such a compelling story. If you read only one book from this list of mine, read this book.

The other two books were the equivalent of junk food: Peter Mayle’s last book, My Twenty-Five Years in Provence, which must have been pulled together quickly just before his death and deserved better editing, and A Time of Love and Tartan, one of the five gazillion books that Alexander McCall Smith has pumped out from his writing desk in Edinburgh. The two really shouldn’t count, but they did keep me distracted through a very bumpy four hours on the second half of our flight home from London.

And now, I am off to a wedding…

A Month of Books: July 2018

Books Read:

The Italian Teacher (2018) – Tom Rachman
Comedy in a Minor Key (1947) – Hans Keilson
Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books (2016) – Ursula Le Guin
Upstream: Selected Essays (2016) – Mary Oliver

My two favorite books in July also happened to be two “slender volumes”—Keilson’s novel Comedy in a Minor Key and Oliver’s essay collection “Upstream.” Even though the two together added up to barely 300 pages, they each held me rapt in their words far longer than did the other two books.

The Keilson novel sat on my “To Read” shelf in our living room for years. I first learned of him when Francine Prose profiled him for the New York Times in 2010. Keilson, a Jewish German/Dutch novelist and physician, had been in the Dutch Resistance during WWII and set many of his works in the war years. He celebrated his 100th birthday in 2009, and in 2010 two of his most well known (in Europe) novels, Comedy in a Minor Key (1947) and The Death of the Adversary (1959), came out in English. I chose Comedy over Death for my shelf. Keilson died in 2011, and the book continued to sit on the shelf. I don’t know what prompted me to pick it up this summer. It’s not exactly a beach read. But I am very glad that I did. An ordinary young Dutch couple, Wim, a bookkeeper in a factory, and Marie, a housewife, have been hiding a Jew, Nico, during the last days of the Nazi occupation. Nico dies of pneumonia while with them, and they are faced with having to dispose of his body. Of course, there is nothing “ordinary” about this at all, as the perilous task could expose them. Keilson’s quiet, elegant story-telling makes the extraordinary courage and compassion of the couple, and others in their community who are also part of the Resistance with them, both more real and more miraculous than any melodramatic rendition could have done.

In five sections, Mary Oliver’s Upstream offers essays on nature, literature, and Cape Cod. They span her life, from her childhood in a suburb of Cleveland through her nearly 50 years of living in Provincetown. (She only recently relocated to Florida.) The middle section’s studies of Emerson, Poe, Whitman and Wordsworth were a little too close to literary criticism for me, bringing back memories of graduate school. I sped through those. But every one of the essays in the other four sections was a delight to read. Oliver is, of course, a poet. And her word choice is so finely tuned, the detail so precise, that you see what she is seeing and feel what she is feeling, whether it is delight or discovery or, very rarely, despair. Here is her description of turtles in egg-laying season:

They come, lumbering, from the many ponds. They dare the dangers of path, dogs, the highway, the accumulating heat that their bodies cannot regulate, or the equally stunning, always possible cold.

     Take one. She has reached the edge of the road, now she slogs up the impossible hill. When she slides back she rests for a while, then trundles forward again. Emerging wet from the glittering caves of the pond, she travels in a coat of glass and dust. (p. 51)

And you don’t have to be a woodsman or “outdoorsy” person to enjoy reading these essays. (I went camping in the Adirondacks once, and once was enough.) Read the essays for the pleasure of witnessing a master at work.

On the surface, the content of Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter resembles Lorrie Moore’s See What Can Be Done. (See Month of Books April/May.) The sections are:

Talks, Essays, Occasional Pieces
Book Intros and Notes on Writers
Book Reviews

Just the kind of stuff I love to read. In spite of the similarity, though, I could not warm to the Le Guin material in the same way I warmed to Moore’s. Le Guin’s use of language enlightened but (at least for me) didn’t entertain, so I was reading on only one level. And she was often pretty grumpy, whether about the dire state of the publishing industry, clutched in the paws of giant corporations (inarguable), or about her unhappiness that science fiction (about which I know nothing) is always treated as a second-tier genre. The not trivial number of negative reviews she chose to include surprised me. In particular, she was a bit rough on Margaret Atwood. I couldn’t help feeling that in those reviews lurked some underlying envy that Atwood’s dystopian novels were treated as mainstream. (In Le Guin’s judgment,  the novels of Atwood and Jan Morris should be categorized as Sci-Fi.) On the positive side, I wholeheartedly agreed with her on several of her conclusions: not a fan of Wallace Stegner, big fan of Kent Haruf and  José Saramago. The best part of the book was in the last 15 pages: a 1994 journal of a week at a women writers’ retreat north of Seattle. In these pages I saw Le Guin the writer rather than the critic, and I liked her very much. She captured the evolution of her initial unease about even attending the retreat into her deep appreciation for the natural setting, the friendships that developed and, ultimately, the writing that grew out of her stay: “all the beauty, the sunlight, the rabbits, the deer, the walks, the good fellowship of the younger women, the sweet deep silence of the nights, and the waking to see the treetops through the tulip window of the loft in the first light—all that was gravy.” Her descriptions of “all that” were the meat of the piece for me.

I won’t spend much time on Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher. I had very much enjoyed his 2010 novel The Imperfectionists, but this one disappointed. The basic tale is the classic one of a son, overshadowed by a famous father (in this case, a renowned painter), who dwells in that shadow his whole life, never reaching any heights in anything that he chooses to do, including becoming a painter himself. The interesting story embedded in the chronicle of the son’s life is that the son, as an adult, actually copies his father’s paintings and fraudulently sells them. But even that episode peters out. Olga Grushin in a New York Times review reacted to this section with, “I, for one, found it highly ambiguous and not a little horrifying. Yet so apparent are Rachman’s humanity and intelligence throughout that this ambiguity must be fully intended.” I don’t share her assumption that the ambiguity was intended. The book felt as though he had written quickly and just had to wind things up. I’m not sure Rachman even took the time to let an editor go over it before publication. Surely an editor would have objected to the sentence construction of a character “deploring himself” and to Rachman’s sloppy overuse of adverbs, e.g., “Grinningly, Pinch waves this away.” That one would have had such an easy fix!

(So speaks the former English teacher…)

A Month of Books: June 2018

Books Read:

In This House of Brede (1969) – Rumer Godden

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital (1994) – Lorrie Moore

Warlight (2018) – Michael Ondaatje                                                      

I Wrote This Book Because I Love You (2018) – Tim Kreider (essays)

In June, a friend recommended Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, and a long dormant memory cell lit up. I had read The River when I was in 8th or 9th grade. Although I couldn’t remember the story, I did remember the pleasure in reading it, an exotic author taking me to India, a land of lush greens and brilliant colors.

Well, a quick search on Rumer Godden revealed that she was Margaret Rumer Godden, and while she was living in India as an expat she ran “Peggy’s School of Dance.” So much for exotic author. But she was a prolific British writer who received the OBE, so I carried on with the book, which depicted a world that could not have been farther from the India of The River. The quick Wikipedia synopsis is “Philippa Talbot, a highly successful professional woman, leaves her comfortable life among the London elite to join a cloistered Benedictine community of contemplative nuns.” Frankly, the book was more of a chronicle than a novel, setting out details of liturgical life and relating high and low moments for the order, without much of an engaging narrative arc. I couldn’t generate a lively interest in a closed order in an abbey near an English country town. I couldn’t keep track of the various nuns and their titles. And I couldn’t shake a sense of claustrophobia while I read. Having said that, the first chapter, describing Philippa’s preparations for leaving the outside world and the people who loved her, and the last chapter, describing Philippa’s departure for a new community even farther removed from Worcestershire are so exquisite that reading the whole book was almost worth it. It was a reverse Wizard of Oz. The first and last chapters are written in Technicolor, while the main story is all grey tones

The other two novels are works by a new favorite writer and an old favorite writer.

In Moore’s second novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, narrator Berie Carr, vacationing in Paris with her husband, reflects back on the summer she was 15, when she and her best friend Sils worked at Storyland in Horsehearts, their small town in upstate New York. Moore captures the desultory pace of a small town in the summer of 1972, the close friendships teenage girls develop, the uncertain sexual ground the girls walk, and the reckless paths that they can choose without thinking. When Sils gets into trouble, Berie crosses a line in order to help her and is caught. The summer is shattered, with Berie effectively banished from Horsehearts. Berie goes on to private school and college, to a career as a photographic curator and marriage to a physician—surely what ought to be considered a successful escape from a small town. Yet none of these later stages brings Berie any joy, and her marriage is tense.  For Berie, that small-town time, not only with her best friend but also with other girls in her class, shimmers golden, as is captured in a beautiful elegy to her high school’s Girls Choir. While it might not sound like the jolliest story, this slim volume is a gem and a joy to read. Moore’s humor and humanity shine through her elegant prose.

I loved The English Patient. I read it slowly, savoring the writing as well the romance of the story. When the movie came out, I refused to see it—in spite of its illustrious cast. I didn’t want the movie on the screen to disturb the movie in my head. I liked Warlight, which came out a couple months ago, but it is no English Patient. I have to confess, I may have read it too fast to really take it all in. Set in London and in the nearby counties, the novel is a mystery story. Why do the parents of 14-year-old Nathaniel and 16-year-old Rachel take off during the last days of World War II and leave them in the care of a disreputable cast of characters? Nathaniel narrates from a vantage point of 14 years later, so it is also a bit of a coming of age novel. The first section focuses on the immediate year or so after his parents disappear, with later sections going back and forth between those teen years and his perspective as an adult. He does eventually unravel the mystery and, without giving too much away, it turns out that the mother is more hero than villain. Yet Nathaniel always remains detached from her story. And I remained detached from Nathaniel, just wanting to get to the solution of the mystery. Even then the facts resist clarity, and perhaps that was Ondaatje’s goal: to tell a tale only partially visible through “warlight”— the dim, foggy light of a London night during the blitz when black-out curtains were drawn. One could only see events cloaked in mist. They could never be discerned clearly.

I fell for Tim Kreider on August 4, 2014, the day I read his essay “A Man and His Cat” in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times. The essay opens with, “I lived with the same cat for 19 years — by far the longest relationship of my adult life. Under common law, this cat was my wife.” The essay touches on how people over-invest in their pets, the money we over-spend on pets, the pathological syndrome of over-attachment to an inappropriate object. Mostly it’s about how Tim Kreider loves his cat. Not how much he loves his cat, but funny, self-effacing examples of how he loves his cat. I immediately Googled him and found he had published a collection of essays in 2012, We Learn Nothing. Amazon Prime delivered it two days later, and I had gobbled it up by the next afternoon. The essays were wide-ranging – personal stories, comic sketches, astute observations — with the same funny, self-effacing, voice, but sometimes with a touch of pleasant snark and often with salty language that must have been held in check for the NYT. I added the book to my “saved” essay collections that I keep within an arm’s length of my writing desk.

When his next collection, I Wrote This Book Because I Love You, came out earlier this year, I gobbled that one up, too. In each essay, Kreider limns an affectionate, often loopy, occasionally learned look at an episode in which a different dearly loved woman — ex-girlfriend, close friend (sometimes with benefits), confidant, counselor, co-conspirator — has a starring role. The cast includes an actress and an artist, a schoolteacher and a sex worker, a child development researcher and a pastor of a Brooklyn church, his mother… and his cat (in a revised version of the NYT piece). For an epigraph, Kreider quotes Fred (“Mister”) Rogers: “One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self.” While Kreider may be a self-professed failure at making romantic commitment, he excels at giving this best gift, the gift of his honest self. He has given this to the women and to the readers. He can be “hilarious and profound,” witty and wry. He is sentimental without being sappy, and he wears his heart on his sleeve as often as he holds his head in his hands in reaction his own faults and fancies. Reading the essays made me wish that I could be one of Tim Kreider’s friends.

 

 

A Month (or two) of Books: April/May 2018

Books Read, Fiction:

Foreign Affairs (1984) – Alison Lurie

A Summons to Memphis (1986) – Peter Taylor

The Monsters of Templeton (2008) – Lauren Groff                                                      

A Long Way from Home (2017) – Peter Carey

Every Shiny Thing (2018) – Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison

Books Read, Non-Fiction:

Look Alive Out There: Essays (2018) ­­– Sloane Crosley

Autumn (2017) ­­– Karl Ove Knausgaard

See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism, and Commentary (2018) – Lorrie Moore

I started this Month of Books installment on June 13. In a ’40s movie (or even in this year’s Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water”) pages flying off a wall calendar would represent my extended delay. What was taking me so long? I had eight books to cover. I started with snapshots of the novels, only to find myself mired down, starting over and then reluctant to open up the Word document at all. The fact is, the only novel I enjoyed was Every Shiny Thing. Full disclosure: Laurie Morrison, one of the co-authors of this middle-grade novel set in Philadelphia, is the daughter of a dear friend, and my copy was an autographed gift. I am not biased, however, when I say it was the only one of the five that I couldn’t put down. I really wanted to find out how the two middle school girls at a Quaker private school got through the predicaments they faced. The writing does not talk down, the voices of the two narrators are distinctive and genuine, and I recommend it as an example of the best kind of age-targeted novels out there today.

In contrast to the other four novels, all three of the non-fiction collections were noteworthy.

Look Alive out There is Sloane Crosley’s third essay collection. Her first collection came out in 2008, promptly became a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and was optioned for an HBO series. I was a fan of hers even before then as she originated the “Townies” column in the New York Times, and has since written for every publication a humor essayist would want to write for. And her 40th birthday is still weeks away! She writes of dealing with noisy neighbors, ascending a volcano, having an older relative who was a porn star, catching cabs in New York City. Her observations of the world around her can be laugh-out-loud funny, darkly mordant, gently snarky, and, in this third volume, poignant – sometimes all in the same essay. I am wildly jealous of Sloane Crosley. I want to be the Sloane Crosley of her mother’s generation.

Lorrie Moore is probably best known for her short story collections, in particular Birds of America (1998), which was a New York Times bestseller and won several awards. I first came to her through her novel A Gate at the Stairs (2009). Two scenes in that novel are so harrowing that I still have bad dreams about them. When she appeared on the Author Events schedule at the Free Library of Philadelphia I signed up, to see what she was like in person. Turns out she was terrific, completely engaging and entertaining, with a sly, dry sense of humor. She read an excerpt from her non-fiction collection See What Can Be Done, a recounting of her spur of the moment wedding. Her timing and intonation were pitch perfect. (Not all authors read their own works well.) And her handling of the Q&A was generous. Luckily, I had bought a copy of the book before the talk started, so I stood in (the long) line to get her autograph – not because I wanted the autograph, but because I wanted to ask this charming, lovely woman how she had written those two scenes that haunt me. When I asked her, she sat back, thought a moment, then said she didn’t know how she did it, that she procrastinated and kept writing around them. Not a complete answer, but I got the sense it was as hard for her to write the two scenes as it was for me to read them. I then started reading the new book in the car on the way home. (Jon was driving.) It is also terrific, completely engaging and entertaining. A chronological sampling of her non-fiction writing from 1983 to 2017, the bulk of the pieces in the collection are book reviews she has written for the New York Review of Books. But Moore’s book reviews are really broad-ranging essays. She also includes profiles and a handful of traditional personal essays. Each piece was a delight to read. Her reviews range from Nora Ephron to John Updike, Alice Munro to Richard Ford. She also covers television series and movies. Her range of knowledge is awe-inspiring, and her agility with the English language and metaphor so potent that you always know exactly what she means and then some. For example, when talking about the television series True Detective (a show I never watched, but now wish I had) she praises the originality of the program, noting that key elements are “in perfect sync with one another.” The setting, the cinematography, and the acting are “all threaded on the same needle” by the director. She is also a champion of the novel form: “We don’t always know what intimate life consists of until novels tell us.” And she is wary of academic film theory, “often written in a prose with the forensic caress of an appliance warranty.” She is fun to read (if a little too fond of adverbs). She also happens to be part of another one of my spooky coincidences. I learned that Lorrie Moore was a student of Alison Lurie’s at Cornell, and a generation later Moore was a mentor to Lauren Groff. I had no clue of this inter-generational connection when I chose my novels for this set of reading.

I recommend the Crosley and Moore collections without reservation. In fact, I strongly encourage you to have both handy to dip into whenever you want a treat. The third essay collection, Autumn, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, is another matter.

To quote Wikipedia, “Karl Ove Knausgård is a Norwegian author, known for six autobiographical novels, titled My Struggle.” I had read enough about these novels to know that I wasn’t interested in reading them. However, about a year ago I enjoyed his essay on chewing gum in the Sunday New York Times Magazine‘s “Recommendations” column and noted that it was adapted from an essay in Autumn. I also learned that Autumn was the first of four collections of essays, gathered by season, written as letters to his then unborn daughter. This premise appealed to me, so I bought the book. The essays are short sketches of things encountered in his every day life. Some are beautiful renderings of unlikely subjects (Petrol); some are silly (Bed); some are surprisingly fun (Telephones) and charming (Toilet Bowls, “the swans of the bath chamber”). Some I could do without (Piss, Vomit), and some I just couldn’t follow at all (Silence). The bigger concern for me, however, is what I always struggle with when reading something in translation. What am I really reading? How much of the nuances of Norwegian am I missing, or conversely, how much of some of the charm is actually due to the work of the translator, in this case Ingvild Burkey? And what’s with the weird punctuation? Was that also an attempt to capture something about the flow of Norwegian prose, or was it just that Penguin didn’t want to let a copy editor near the book?

In any event, I cannot in good conscience recommend Autumn without reservation. Yet I am glad that I read it, and I have bought both Winter and Spring. I’ll keep you posted.

 

 

 

April/May News

Once again, “work-for-hire” assignments took up the bulk of my writing time during April and May. On the creative side, I posted only one lone piece on the Humor Outcasts website: my argument with Virginia Woolf over the nature of moths. You can find it by clicking on this title: Death to the Moth.

I did keep reading and will be sharing my thoughts on those books, short and long, in an upcoming “Month(s) of Books.” For now, though, some examples of uncanny connections and a question about coincidence.

  • One of the books that I read was the 2008 debut novel by Lauren Groff (of Fates and Furies fame). The setting is Groff’s hometown of Cooperstown, NY, given the alias Templeton in the book. One of the major characters is the editor of Templeton’s newspaper, the Freeman’s Journal. A week after I finished the book, I read an article in The Writer written by “Libby Cudmore, who is the current managing editor of the Freeman’s Journal in Coopertown, NY.”
  • Two weeks ago an essay promoted in “Literary Hub,” a digest of “The Best of the Literary Internet,” caught my eye. It was written by a Tom McAllister, who had taught a non-fiction workshop in the very first Philadelphia Writer’s Conference I attended. (I hadn’t thought he was a very good teacher, but he continues to get books and articles published and I continue to read them, in an annoyed kind of way.) The link took me to McAllister’s lament that none of his friends or family ever buy his books. The publishing site was “The Millions.” I had never heard of it. Two mornings later, in New Sentences, my favorite column in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Sam Anderson featured a sentence written by Lydia Kiesling…”the editor of the website The Millions.”
  • Several months ago when I was doing a Times crossword puzzle, I could not get the clue “those involved with forensics.” Crime labs didn’t fit. Coroners didn’t fit. Auditors didn’t fit. The following morning I was astonished to see that the answer was “debaters.” Debaters? What do debaters have to do with forensics? Well, those with better vocabularies than mine apparently know. In particular, David Sedaris knows. The very next day I read a piece about Sedaris in which, among other things, he shared that he likes to write speeches for high school debate teams “when they are practicing forensics,” or argumentative skills.

I have many more examples. I’ve been keeping a file. Is there some scientific explanation for these types of colliding occurrences? Is it some brain activity, like the explanation for déjà vu? Is it just a weirdly high rate of coincidences? Am I reading too much into it? Or am I just reading too much, period?

And now for something completely different…

I have to share an item from the May 2018 issue of the AARP Bulletin, page 12. It is extracted from an article distinguishing spurious health fads from genuine health fixes. Below is a clip, verbatim, describing one of the genuine fixes:

Fecal Transplant Donor stool with healthy bacteria inserted into a patient’s colon to alter the flora and treat ailments such as lupus and diabetes. “People have pooh-poohed this idea for years,” Ligresti said.

A sly piece of AARP humor, or just a tone deaf editor?

 

 

A Month of Books: March 2018

Books Read:

Miller’s Valley (2016) – Anna Quindlen

The Essex Serpent (2016) – Sarah Perry

Heroes of the Frontier (2016) – Dave Eggers                                                      

Keeping On Keeping On (2016) – Alan Bennett (collection of prose pieces)

(I’ve only just now noticed that all of my March books were published in 2016. Purely coincidental. I did not go on a nostalgic pre- Nov. 8, 2016, binge.)

Miller’s Valley is Quindlen’s eighth (of nine) novels and the fourth one that I have read. I read them because I am a big fan of her essays. (I wanted to grow up to be a columnist like Anna Quindlen or Fran Lebowitz, both of whom I started reading at the beginning of their careers in the late ’70s. Of course, we are all around the same age, but that hasn’t changed my aspirations.) I haven’t become a big fan of Quindlen’s novels. I can appreciate that they are well-written and well-constructed, but that’s it. Miller’s Valley did not change my impression.

And I am a big fan of Dave Eggers the person. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was great. He does good things with his publishing house McSweeney’s and with 826 National, his network of seven tutoring centers around the country. I met him a couple months ago at the Free Library of Philadelphia, where he was promoting The Monk of Mocha, his latest non-fiction book. I bought a copy and in it he wrote a lovely inscription to my daughter, who has volunteered at the Boston center of 826. However, I find his novels uneven: I liked A Hologram for the King (2012), but gave up on The Circle (2013). Heroes of the Frontier was just frustrating. In this book, described in a New York Times review as a “picaresque adventure and spiritual coming-of-age,” the “heroes” are Josie and her two young children and the frontier is Alaska. Running away from the mess that is her life in the lower 48, Josie has packed her kids into a rattle-trap RV and they go on one ill-conceived adventure after another. I get the “picaresque” because of the adventures without a real plot. But “coming of age” requires some narrative arc, and I detected none. She lacks judgment at the beginning of the novel and lacks judgment at the end, and she consistently puts her children at risk. I mostly just wanted to strangle her.

Now to the books I did like…!

The Essex Serpent is the second novel by British author Sarah Perry, but the first to be published in the U.S. Set at the very end of the 19th century, the story entwines two plots: (1) the growing hysteria among the populace of a small village on England’s eastern coast that a mythical murdering sea creature has returned as divine punishment on the village for some unknown corporate transgression and (2) the consequences of independence for a wealthy recently widowed London woman (Cora), an excellent amateur naturalist who relocates to the village with her son in her quest to find a scientific answer to the serpent mystery and in the process strikes up a close friendship with the village vicar. Perry is an elegant and engaging writer with a nice wit who can capture a moment with wry lines such as, her “father,…whose tenants liked him contemptuously,…had gone out of business” or, upon Cora having uttered an empty pleasantry, she and a cripple “both examined this statement for logic, and finding none let it pass.” She also uses the word “livid” in its 19th century meaning (to describe a discoloration of the skin, not an emotional state) so that it would be contemporary with the time of the novel’s setting. That was pretty impressive. (I taught Wuthering Heights for a number of years in my schoolmarm days, and the word “livid” shows up all over the place in that book.)

Perry’s novel is a classic late Victorian novel, with Gothic overtones and several subplots, and is a fun read (if a little long). But Perry also brings a 21st-century sensibility to her portrait of the complicated relationship between the highly intelligent country pastor and the highly intelligent – and willful – woman not his wife. Perry examines friendship, irrational fear, and the literal and figurative serpent in our midst. No fairy tale ending here, but also no moralizing punishment meted out, as it might have been if written more than hundred years ago. It was a refreshing study of how passionate yet compassionate people manage to work things out. Since 2014, Sarah Perry has won or been short- and long-listed for more than a dozen awards in Britain for her two novels. I look forward to her next book.

As for the Alan Bennett collection, to be truthful, I am still reading it, have been reading it for a couple months, and expect to be reading it for another couple months as it is 700 pages long. It is a delight. Bennett has been one of England’s most charming men of letters and comic writers since “Beyond the Fringe” in the 1960s. He’s probably best known as a dramatist (“The History Boys,” “Lady in the Van”). He is also a wonderful diarist and his diaries from 2005 to 2015 make up the bulk of this collection. (I am up to 2011.) To read his diaries is to live vicariously an idyllic life (at least for an English major and Anglophile). He and his partner Rupert divide their time between their home in London and their home in Yorkshire. They plan outings to village churches far off the M roads. They have tea with their friend Debo (the Duchess of Devonshire to us). Bennett spends his “working” days at a writing desk in Gloucester Crescent or backstage with actors we’ve come to know from watching four decades of Masterpiece Theatre. He writes with gentle, yet sardonic, humor and a clear-eyed assessment of what has been lost as he ages and as Britain stumbles into the 21st century. If you’ve never read any Alan Bennett, you might not want to start with a 700-page tome. Try The Lady in the Van (non-fiction) or The Uncommon Reader (fiction). If you do know Bennett’s work, this collection is a treasure.

March News

Since my last “News” bulletin, only one creative piece has managed to escape from my computer. It was a remembrance of things past as I approached an interesting milestone: receiving my Medicare card. (No madeleines were involved.) The piece was posted on Humor Outcasts: Crushing It.

I wish I had more to report  for March, although I wasn’t completely idle. I wrote a half dozen biographical profiles that will be of interest to Princeton alumni when they vote this spring for alumni trustees to the University’s board. The profiles do not have entertainment value. Instead, I am going to use this space to share my admiration for Sarah Ruhl, the American playwright who, among many other things, was nominated for a Tony Award and was a finalist for a Pulitzer for her play “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play).” She is also on the faculty at Yale School of Drama and is a wonderful essayist. In 2014, she published 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write. The subtitle is “On umbrellas and sword fights, parades and dogs, fire alarms, children and theater,” and that’s only a partial list of topics. The essays (in addition to being envy-enducing) are engaging, entertaining, and in many instances  enlightening.  Essay #13 is “The drama of the sentence,” a meditation on the power of individual sentences, on the importance of how “word follows word,” transcending just the telling of a story. (Sam Anderson in his “New Sentences” column in the “New York Times Magazine” also focuses on the power of a single sentence.)

Below are two sentences that I’ve saved as examples of the power a careful arrangement of word following word can have:

“What was odd about Auntie Andy, I realised, was that her shyness had been blasted out of her by whatever had happened, the way an explosion can leave people deaf afterwards.” (From Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl.)

“Lynwood was malevolent, truculent, and brittle, and it seemed as if one were always in midsentence with him, as if the subject had been lost but the verb was firing like a crazed piston so that one might perceive the action but not the context.” (From Kenneth A. McClane’s essay “Sparrow Needy” in The Best American Essays 2017.)

A Month of Books: February 2018

[Yes, I know. I am about three weeks late on my compilation of books read in February. That’s what four nor’easters and a trip to Boston will do to one. At least, though, I am posting it before we are into April!]

Month of Books: February 2018

Books Read:

The Past (2016) – Tessa Hadley

Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) – George Saunders

The 50 Funniest American Writers According to Andy Borowitz (2011) an anthology

Disquiet, Please! More Humor Writing from the New Yorker (2008) an anthology

 

The two novels in February could not have been more different from each other. The Past was Hadley’s seventh novel with echoes not only of her earlier novels (see January’s Month of Books) but also of other novels I’ve been reading by British women, right down to setting the story in another deteriorating old house in Cornwall populated by family members in contention! While in this one the narrative switched back and forth between the present and the past as it related the stories of the family members, Hadley still focused on what one critic called “crystallizing the atmosphere of ordinary life” – once more, not exactly a rave review, hinting at stasis

In contrast, Saunders’ novel was in constant motion, teeming with everything but the ordinary.

First, I have to confess that I was not one of those who rushed to buy this book. (My copy is the paperback edition.) I had never been a fan of Saunders’ short stories and read a couple only because a dear friend suggested that I should. Second, I was very annoyed that Lincoln in the Bardo won the Man Booker Prize. I am allergic to change. I still hadn’t gotten over being peeved that the prize is no longer just the Booker. Then they went and opened it up to writers outside of the British Commonwealth! If you are going to have a national kind of prize, then keep it national. We have our National Book Award, they should have the Booker. Somehow it feels diluted, less special. (“They’ll give that award to anyone now. Even an American!” Sniff.)

I also have to confess my intellectual failings (once again) and admit that I didn’t know what “bardo” meant. In addition, I managed to hear the title as Lincoln at the Bardo, which made it sound as though Lincoln was frequenting some sleazy dive. My brain created a mash-up vision of a bar where all the waitresses looked like Bridget Bardot. Then I looked up the definition: “a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.” That made me equally uncomfortable. I feared the book might be some serious version of “Lincoln vs. the Zombies,” and I thought that would be a terrible thing to read.

Nonetheless, I started the book, though remained skeptical for the first 12 pages or so. Since I hadn’t paid close attention to the reviews, I didn’t know the basic premise, which is: Lincoln in such grief at the death of his son Willie that he visits the mausoleum where Willie’s body has been taken following the funeral. A cast of characters who are themselves in the bardo, between their earthly lives and whatever was next, witnesses this extraordinary event. Not having this context, I  found the first exchange between the two lead characters in the bardo, Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III, puzzling. What’s a “sick-box”? Several (short) chapters followed that were nothing more than quotes from various primary sources who were at the White House at a gala event the night Willie died and various historians who have written about the same. This seemed to me a pretty easy way to write a book: just create pages of quotes from other people!

But I soon was caught up in the extraordinary interplay that Saunders created to allow us (1) to see multiple human perspectives ( often contradicting each other) on a real event and (2) to experience a community of not quite ghosts whose time on earth took place in different eras and whose own witnessing of Lincoln’s grief brings out their compassion and their best (and in some instances worst) selves.

Politics and pathos. Factions spar in the White House at the beginning of the Civil War while the depth of Lincoln’s loss is described by those around him (the living and the dead). Humor and humanity. The characters’ “dead” bodies make visible the characters’ traits in life: one character always enjoyed observing all around him so in the bardo he has multiple eyes to take in everything, while another was somewhat randy in life so in the bardo has to maneuver with a hugely outsized member.

I don’t want to say much more, as part of my delight in this book was my own dawning of appreciation for what Saunders was accomplishing, and I don’t want to spoil it for you. He has woven an intricate tapestry of history, stitched through with a fantastical shadow world, suspended beyond the grave but right there beside the president. Full of wonders and great heart, the book ultimately demonstrates that when spirits, no matter how different, work together, a miracle can happen. I savored every minute of reading it.

The two humor anthologies were fun incidental reading. Not surprisingly, some pieces appeared in both collections. Though a fan of Andy Borowitz, I was disappointed with some of his choices. The pieces in the New Yorker collection were all terrific. What was surprising was how some of the older pieces in the Borowitz could have been written today. I recommend Mark Twain’s “The Presidential Candidate.” Read it on Google Docs for free.

A Month of Books: January 2018

Books Read:

Winter (2017) – Ali Smith

Everything Will Be All Right (2003) – Tessa Hadley

Clever Girl (2014) – Tessa Hadley

What She Ate (2017) – Laura Shapiro

This Is the Place: Women Writing about Home(2017) – Margot Kahn and Kelly                       McMasters, editors

My Mistake (2013) – Daniel Menaker

———

No, I did not spend the month of January lounging on the couch, reading by the fire. The essay collections What She Ate and This Is the Place were begun in December, and I didn’t get around to finishing them until into January. Two airplane flights in mid January gave me five to six hours with nothing to do but read. Don’t be envious (or possibly judgmental) about my knocking off six books. It probably won’t happen again.

I am going to focus on the three novels by two British authors. The best of the three is Winter by Ali Smith. I sheepishly admit that I had never heard of her until just this past October. While doing the tourist thing at the Notting Hill Book Shop in London, I saw the magic words “Man Booker Prize” on a paperback with a pretty cover picture of a country lane. So for completely superficial reasons I bought Autumn by Ali Smith – and it turned out to be an extraordinary novel. Since I didn’t read it in January, I’ll save it to talk about in a future month when I might be a little lax in my reading. But it was so good, I immediately started researching (that is to say, Googling) Ali Smith to see if she had written other books I could read. Turns out she is a Scottish writer who has been producing award-winning short story collections, plays and novels for twenty years! Autumn was the fourth(!)of her nine novels to get short-listed for the Booker. How had I missed this writer? (It also turns out that what I was calling a “pretty cover” was a photo of a David Hockney oil titled “Early November Tunnel.” The whole experience was a bit of a comeuppance.)

Putting aside my artistic cluelessness for now… When Autumn was published in 2016, Smith announced that it was the first of a quartet of novels she was working on. On January 17, I was walking around the Books & Books bookstore in Key West (where I was taking a writing workshop) and I spied Winter on a display table. I began reading it on the flight home. Winter is also a gem, and maybe more accessible than Autumn. The premise sounds like a British novel set piece: dysfunctional family members end up together at a rambling house in Cornwall for the Christmas holidays. But Smith moves around the pieces of this novel in a wholly original way. The elderly mother (Sophia), who lives in the house chats with a disembodied head that has appeared; the London-based neglectful son (Art) picks up a young woman from the street and pays her to impersonate his girlfriend who was to visit his mother with him but who has dumped him instead; the mother’s estranged sister (Iris), who has been an environmental activist dating back to the ’60’s, shows up (as does a busload of birders). Smith takes real delight in upending expectations, pushing limits of reality, and allowing her characters to emerge into fully rounded and cherished figures through dialogue and deeds – never telling you what you should be thinking when. She does all this through an extraordinary facility with language and a love of wordplay and comic scene-setting that is a joy to read.

Now on to Tessa Hadley. She writes what might be thought of as traditional, family-driven novels. Both of these books follow women living through the cultural changes in England from c. 1950 to c. 201O. Everything Will Be All Right follows four generations of women in the same family; Clever Girl follows one woman through the same time span. I confess that I inadvertently did the second book a disservice. Hadley wrote the books more than a decade apart, publishing four other novels in between. If I had had that ten-year break between them, I might have written, “Hadley returns to familiar themes.” Instead my reaction was, “This again?” I found myself just pushing along to get to the end. In addition, Meg Wolitzer, reviewing Clever Girl in the New York Times Book Review, wrote, “A story that doesn’t overreach…told in prose that isn’t ornate yet is startingly exact.” Damning with faint praise?

To shift gears, I did get a surprising history lesson by reading all three novels. In each, one of the main characters plays an active part in the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. Starting in 1981 and going until 2000, nineteen years, women chained themselves to fences, camped out, and marched at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire to protest the British government’s decision to use it as a site for nuclear missiles. While the protest didn’t stop the government from going ahead with its plans (surprise), an article in the Guardian gives it credit for changing “the nature of protest,” with that kind of protest apparently having some success in recently saving a British village from fracking.

Once again I am astonished and abashed at my ignorance. I do not recall ever hearing about the Greenham Common protests, and I was 28 years old when it started and 47 when it ended. How did I miss this obviously seminal moment for the advancement of women in England that surely should have been spotlighted as a primary example of “I am woman, hear me roar”?

Finally, Dan Menaker, author of the memoir My Mistake, was the leader of the writing workshop I took down in Key West. Read it for the inside scoop on days at the New Yorker, from William Shawn to Tina Brown. Dan is a character.

A Month of Books: An Introduction

My kids know me very well. While this means they show no mercy in mocking and mimicking me, it also means they give me presents that are always perfect.

They both had me pegged early: wine and books. When Jay took a Middle School trip to France, he was somehow able to bring me a bottle of white wine from Provence. I was so moved that at 13 he knew just what to get for me, I decided not to ask any questions. (For example: Where was Madame when you were off buying wine?? How did you get this in and out of airports??) Almost 20 years later, the bottle is still intact down in the basement refrigerator. I didn’t wanted to consume it, as then it would be gone. (It did occur to me, many years too late, that I should have consumed the wine and conserved the bottle, thus having my wine and drinking it, too.) This past Christmas, Jay and Erica gave me a case of Brouilly from Louis La Tour — my favorite that, of course, cannot be found in Pennsylvania State Stores. It is, however, accessible to Brooklyn dwellers.

This year Annie gave me note cards, cleverly packed into what looks like a truncated drawer from an old library card catalog. The note cards themselves on one side are replicas of actual old cards, handwritten with penciled notes. The first one is A335 Alcott, Louise May, 1832-1888, Little Women. I want to keep them all intact to show off to my library-loving friends of a certain age who will appreciate Annie’s excellent insight into her mother’s psyche. (However, I’ve also asked Annie to get me another set to use for actually writing notes. I learned my lesson about figuring out how to have my gifts both ways.)

A couple years ago Annie gave me Nick Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books, a collection of the monthly columns that Hornby (About a Boy) wrote for Believer magazine. Each column was headed by two lists: “Books Bought” and “Books Read.” Then followed 1500 to 2000 words of Hornby reacting to, riffing off of, and sometimes ranting about books and the world of books. He rarely touched on all that he read and regularly wandered off on tangents with only the thinnest thread of connection to his starting point. And it all was “hilarious, insightful, and infectious,” to crib from the back cover.

As I made my way through the book, I kept thinking, what a great job! I wish someone would hire me to write about all the books I read in a chatty sort of way! Yet, strangely, no one has asked me.

I have written legitimate book reviews, but here’s the problem: When I am reading a book I like, I read fast. I want to take the whole book in. I don’t want to break up the experience by stopping to take notes. When I get to the end of a book, no matter how much I liked it, I don’t want to have to go back and recreate all those notes I should have taken on character development, use of language, narrative arc, etc., if I had wanted to write a formal book review. I am both too lazy and too eager to get to the next book in my stack of “waiting to be read.” Books pile up that I had intended to review, but never do.

So, since no one is stepping forward to ask me to write a monthly ramble around my reading, I’ve decided I’ll just do it myself on this blog. I will use Hornby’s column as a (loose) model. While we do have some similarities – we both buy more books than we can ever read – the differences are somewhat more noticeable. At the top of my “column” I will list only the books that I have read in the month under examination. I definitely will not go on for 1500 to 2000 words. (I’ll stick closer to 750 or so words.) I will be unlikely to make knowing remarks about an author’s life to rival Hornby’s since often the authors he was reading were also his friends. (But if I happen to know some interesting tidbit, I promise to share it.) And don’t count on my being hilarious, insightful and infectious like Hornby’s work, though I do hope every column will be fun to read.

I plan to publish my look back at a month of reading on the first Sunday following the end of a month. The title of the post will always be “A Month of Books: [month and year]. The first one will be this Sunday, so will read “A Month of Books: January 2018.”

Finally, I do want to make clear, if it hasn’t been clear already, that I won’t be writing traditional book reviews. I am aiming more for entertainment than enlightenment. I will understand if this way of “chatting” about books is not your cup of tea. If that’s the case, when you see that “Month of Books” post show up in your email, go ahead and delete. (I won’t know anyway!) If you do enjoy hearing about the books and you would like some further discussion, please comment!