I love Deborah Eisenberg and this collection did not disappoint me at all. The stories are witty, sharp, and each has something at stake for the charaI love Deborah Eisenberg and this collection did not disappoint me at all. The stories are witty, sharp, and each has something at stake for the characters. She is the master of great dialog. ...more
I thought the stories were very uneven in this edition of a favorite annual collection of mine. Charlie Baxter, Karen Russell, Laura Van Den Berg, T.CI thought the stories were very uneven in this edition of a favorite annual collection of mine. Charlie Baxter, Karen Russell, Laura Van Den Berg, T.C. Boyle and Ann Beattie all had wonderful stories. Peter Cameron's, "After the Flood" was beautiful and heartbreaking. For anyone who wants a lesson in careful unveiling of information in the story you're working on, read "After the Flood." ...more
In the author's note at the back of Kate Atkinson's incredibly moving new novel, "A God in Ruins," she tells us that she believes all novels aren't onIn the author's note at the back of Kate Atkinson's incredibly moving new novel, "A God in Ruins," she tells us that she believes all novels aren't only fiction, but are about fiction as well. She goes on to state that novels are about "the rich textural (and textual) interplay of plot, character, narrative, theme, and image."
I too believe that to be true, for yes, there is the fictive world of the novel, the "vivid and continuous" dream as described by John Gardner, that engages us readers, making us worry and laugh and feel, and, the novel is also artifice. It's an arduous series of inventions and choices made by the writer.
Kate Atkinson is interested in the malleability of those choices, she plays with time, with form and with permanence, allowing characters to be born and reborn, to live entire, full lives, only to have them disappear in a blip, leaving the reader delighted and blinking, what just happened?
It is no surprise that Atkinson lists plot before character, as the engine that drives the plot of "A God in Ruins" is World War II and the harrowing experiences of Teddy Todd, a wing commander, captain of a Halifax bomber, sent on dozens of night raids over Europe to drop bombs on Hitler's war machine. Atkinson's details of the raids are well-researched and vivid. We take off with Teddy and his crew, suck oxygen, bounce in the flak of enemy fire, and are blindsided by the violence of a thunderstorm, "touched everywhere by St. Elmo's fire, bright blue and unearthly -- an eerie luminescence that flared along the edges of the wings and even whirled around with the propellers, spinning off them and making strange feathery trails in the darkness."
The horrific beauty of war at times returns Teddy to Poetry (his capitalization) and at times fills him with anguish. A friend of Teddy's, a Jewish girl called Hannie who wore French perfume and emerald earrings, was said to be "still alive when she was shoveled into the ovens." After the war, Teddy refuses to buy German ovens, but he also recognizes the death he rained down on the women and children and old people, "the very ones that society's mores demanded he protect. At the twisted heart of every war were innocents."
If you've read Atkinson's terrific 2013 novel, "Life After Life," (and if you haven't you should!) you recognize Teddy as the younger brother of Ursula Todd, the heroine of that novel. While "Life After Life" kept us on the ground in London and Berlin during the blitz, "A God in Ruins," which Atkinson calls a companion novel, tells Teddy's story from the sky and from inside his marriage to his childhood sweetheart, Nancy. After the war, Teddy and Nancy move to the countryside and embark upon a reserved and loving marriage. Everything seems companionable until they have a daughter, Viola, who is perhaps the most compelling character in the novel. She is the second plot engine employed by Atkinson. She is humorously horrendous, spewing vitriol in equal measure at parents, partners and eventually her own children. Her scenes are lively, her selfishness shocking. She is a person who resents other people's pleasure, "as if it subtracted from the world rather than adding to it."
At her second-rate college she meets and marries a drug-addled aristocratic failure of a painter and bears two children, a son called Sun, and a daughter called Moon (later they become Sunny and Bertie). She neglects her children first in a squat, then on a commune, and finally relinquishes them to her despised father, loving Grandpa Ted. No one comes out unscarred from these experiences, particularly Sunny, who is sentenced to a hellish spell with his paternal grandparents that's Dickensian in its humor and disastrous consequences.
Atkinson chooses to abandon chronology in "A God in Ruins." Like a cat with a mouse, time is her plaything. She shifts back and forth between decades and sprinkles parenthetical clues of the future, glimpses of the characters' fates throughout. We read in one chapter about Teddy's 1925 childhood and then jump to 1980 and read of his grandchildren's wretched life. We see Teddy as a boy and as a grandpa in the span of a few pages. Malleable time also allows Atkinson to withhold vital information, creating mysteries. Why, for example, is Viola so angry, punishing her father so long into the future? When the secret is finally revealed it goes a little way to redeem her.
But "A God in Ruins" is not a novel of redemption; it's a novel about the long shadow war casts over generations. It's about what we lose and can never retrieve. Atkinson reflects that reality in a stunningly bold and playful about-face, which will leave you turning back the pages, wanting to live it again, mixing up past and present in a delightful bold manner. Yes, "A God in Ruins" is fiction, and it's about fiction. It's about the power of the imagination to sustain us. ...more
If we're lucky, life is long and mostly doesn't organize itself in traditional plot lines with conflict, climax and denouement. We make mistakes, we rIf we're lucky, life is long and mostly doesn't organize itself in traditional plot lines with conflict, climax and denouement. We make mistakes, we recover, and we err again. We suffer loves, loses, happy accidents, grave disappointments and continue to muddle on. So too with the Langdon family whose fates we gladly continue to follow in "Early Warning," the wonderful second installment of Jane Smiley's ambitious project, the Last Hundred Years trilogy.
In the first book, "Some Luck," we met Walter and Rosanna Langdon and their baby Frank. The year was 1920 and the Langdons had just purchased their Iowa farm. That novel spanned 33 years, witnessed births, marriages, deaths, drought, as well as major historical events: the Great Depression, World War II, and the start of the Cold War.
"Early Warning" picks up in 1953, at Walter's funeral and follows the family for another 33 years, through the third generation. The Langdons observe and participate in historic events — the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Kennedy and King assassinations, nefarious acts of the CIA, the mass suicide at Jonestown, and the rise of AIDS. Shifting social trends also buffet the family — attitudes toward childrearing, women's roles, psychiatry and mental health, gays, and even smoking. At one point a character says, "Nothing wrong with smoking." Then she continues, "A pack of cigarettes is a little treasure, is what I think."
We all know that doesn't bode well.
In fact, as the title suggests, "Early Warning" is tinged with vague and real dread. Not only the Cold War dread of nuclear annihilation, which keeps several characters awake at night and sends one on a particularly harrowing journey through psychotherapy, but dread of the draft, of cults, of AIDS, the worry over potential childhood accidents (in pools, on horses, in fast cars, and from hammer-wielding siblings), the risk of giving birth at home in a bathtub, as well as, for quite a few characters, the dread of Ronald Reagan ascending to the White House.
Yet what's most captivating about "Early Warning" is not the panoramic view of large-scale historical events, nor the shifting social zeitgeist of our country, they are mere background for the minutiae of the characters lives, their longings and disappointments. Smiley deftly shifts point of view, from toddler to grandmother, often in the same chapter. We intimately come to know all the Langdons and the high emotional stakes of their lives.
Claire enters her marriage full of hope only to discover her husband is cold and controlling. Frank, disappointed in his children, tries to toughen up his toddler twin boys by creating an obstacle course in the living room and goading them into stiff competition that permeates their lives. Henry, a closeted gay man, never speaks to his family about his sexuality. Joe struggles to keep his farm through grain embargoes and falling prices and worries for his son, who has chosen to make a life in Iowa. Lillian heads off to visit her golden son, who is failing out of college. She asks him if he is okay:
"She realized that this was a question he could not answer at least to her. If everything was not okay, than had she and Arthur failed? If everything was okay, would her concern push Tim into everything's not being okay?"
No surprise that the relationship between child and parent is paramount in this family saga. Children struggle to break away, to step into their own agency. Parents continue to guide and control, doing their best, second-guessing their actions. And all the while searching for a glimmer of themselves in their offspring, both as a way to understand the next generation and to forgive themselves for their parental failings.
Smiley poses large questions and offers powerful insights. Are human beings essentially good? Can we survive our childhood? Is it possible to feel gratitude and relief for our mediocre lives? She asks not only if love is enough, but for some of the family, she asks, is love even possible? Near the end, a father tells his grown daughter, "You must know that you don't love your children for being good or bad." He continues, saying, you love them, "Because they don't know what's coming and maybe you do."
Therein lies the heartbreak. All of it is coming — the striving and settling, the misunderstandings, the losses and the many joys. ...more
I'm sitting in the catbird seat. Late to the party, having never read anything by Luis Alberto Urrea before, I now have a trove of his novels, storiesI'm sitting in the catbird seat. Late to the party, having never read anything by Luis Alberto Urrea before, I now have a trove of his novels, stories, poetry and nonfiction to look forward to!
It wasn't love at first sight. His stark story, "Mountains Without Number," the first in his new collection, "The Water Museum," didn't seduce me. It's the story of a dying town near Idaho Falls, all the young people have wisely moved away and the remaining aged residents meet up at the diner each morning to reminisce about the fulgent past. But, hold the phone, the second story, "The Southside Raza Image Federation Corps of Discovery," grabbed me at the first paragraph:
"So this was New Year's Day. This was sunlight. Seventy-eight degrees. This was the sound of the barrio awakening from the party: doves mourning the passing of night, pigeons in the dead palm trees chuckling amid rattling fronds, the mockingbird doing car alarm and church bell iterations in Big Angel's olive trees in front of the house. Junior pulled the pillow over his head — it was those kids with their Big Wheels making all that noise."
Right away I know I'm in the hands of a trustworthy narrator, someone with keen and questioning vision who will bring to life this urban San Diego jungle with his muscular, lush language and varied sentences.
Junior is a closet reader who doesn't fit in with the immigrant community in which he grew up, nor with the white kids at the community college. A friend steals a canoe and when the two set off on an adventure, one says, "Louie and Clark, homes. Like, let's go discovering." They steer the canoe through a fetid slough polluted with runoff from a slaughterhouse, around upended shopping carts and a washing machine, they see people staring at them from the shore, "Gaunt, haunted faces. Silent Mexican men hiding from the border patrol." The story, like many in this collection, does not end happily for Junior and his friend.
Borders inform this collection as the stories navigate the tenuous connections between class, cultures, families and individuals. In "Amapola" a white teenager falls in love with a beautiful Mexican girl, much to the chagrin of her sinister, wealthy father who, when he smiles, looks like a "moray eel in a tank." What starts out as sweetly innocent takes a very dark and violent turn as the source of the family's wealth is revealed. In the laugh-out-loud story, "The Sous Chefs of Iogua," racial tensions between Latino and white community members in a small Iowa town are explored through language and food. When a Latina makes a generous and almost successful attempt at cooking a Thanksgiving meal but ruins it with a misunderstanding of mashed potatoes and gravy, an old farmer loses it and delivers a rant about food, and heritage and respect and tradition. He's frustrated and embarrassed by his outburst, by his emotions, for on a deeper level, this old man is grieving over the death of his wife, he, like all of us, wants to feel known. Juan, the man across the table speaks up. '"Yeah, Jefe," he finally said. "That's what Geronimo said.'"
The eponymous, "Welcome to the Water Museum," is a lovely, lyric, dystopian story about an arid future where school children are taken to a museum to hear recordings of rain and frogs, to feel a quick spritz of mist on their faces. They are so used to drought, the water mystifies and frightens them.
Loss reverberates throughout the collection. Two brief stories are studies in grief, "White Girl," and "Carnations." Though each only a few pages, their shadows loom large, intensifying the tone. In "Taped to the Sky," a man whose wife has left him takes his grief on the road. He steals his wife's Volvo and drives across the country seeking violence and love to feel alive, then self-medicating to numb his pain. "Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses," closes the collection with another grieving husband. Bobby, a white man, comes back to his wife's reservation to bury her. The community does not welcome him, for they blame her drinking, her unhappiness and her death on her departure from the reservation. But Bobby loved his wife and Urrea unflinchingly portrays his determination to grieve among those who will always see him as an outsider. Bobby stays in the uncomfortable borderland, and in the final paragraphs, an opportunity for communion arises, between Bobby and his brother-in-law, the two are connected in their loss, the two find a way to comfort one another through the universal language of pain.
Like Urrea, we care deeply for his characters. He writes with compassion and humor and with a nod to the creeping darkness within us all. ...more
Mary Rose MacKinnon, the putupon protagonist in Ann-Marie MacDonald's new novel "Adult Onset" decided to settle down. She married her girlfriend, Hil,Mary Rose MacKinnon, the putupon protagonist in Ann-Marie MacDonald's new novel "Adult Onset" decided to settle down. She married her girlfriend, Hil, put her career as a successful young adult novelist on hold, and chose to become a stay-at-home mother to her very young children, rambunctious Maggie and sensitive Matthew.
A week home alone, while Hil, a theater director, travels for work, proves to be anything but settling for Mary Rose. Her life is a constant chaotic deluge of grilled cheese sandwiches, lost rain boots, dirty laundry, and teeth brushing. At one point she laments that, yes, the world has changed, it "got better enough for her to be here now at her own kitchen table with her own child, legally married to the woman she loves, feeling like a trapped 1950s housewife."
Also jockeying for Mary Rose's attention, her dotty mother who may be exhibiting signs of dementia, her sweet and sleepy father (he takes many naps in this novel) and Daisy, the family pit bull, who, though on a downhill slide, has managed to permanently scare away the postman. It all proves to be too much for Mary Rose (Mister as she is called by her family), she experiences little joy during this week alone, in fact, the mind-numbing demands of home-keeping and childrearing threaten to unmake her. Exasperation, hilarity and darkness ensue.
It's a good thing that MacDonald -- an Orange Prize nominee and Oprah Book Club pick for her 1996 novel "Fall on Your Knees" -- writes beautiful lyric passages. Just when we (like Mary Rose) are exhausted by the quotidian drudgery of spilled juice and tantrums, she delivers moments of domestic bliss. Here Mary Rose has taken the children to the park and is pushing them in tandem on the swing set.
"She deliver tickles at unpredictable intervals, a squeeze at the knee, snap at the heel; they laugh and their breath bubbles up and out into the air, bits of them, their cosmic signature, the particular way in which a piece of the universe has passed through them and been changed forever just now, indelibly with every breath, propelling the message, we're here, we're here, we're here!
"Mary Rose pushes her sweet so-young children on the swings ... A woman pushes her children on the swings while her dog dances and barks. That woman is happy."
Such tender, fleeting moments make the hearts of parents with small children swell with gratitude and love. But Mary Rose isn't present in this moment. She sees herself from the outside, as that woman, because she's haunted by recollections of her own childhood.
Parenting often makes you look back upon your history, to criticize and/or appreciate your mother and father. In Mary Rose's case she's deeply troubled by the sudden return of phantom pains from a childhood bone injury, and by the vague and disturbing memories of abuse, which run a parallel narrative throughout "Adult Onset." When Mary Rose was Maggie's age, her mother was depressed and unavailable after a series of stillbirths, her father did his best but often looked away. Now, Mary Rose is filled with an inexplicable and uncontrollable rage (see the dent in the refrigerator?), which threatens to unravel her family.
MacDonald's prose is a heavy pour when it comes to foreshadowing. What is obvious to us readers early on takes a long time to come to pass on the page, and, like trying to have an adult conversation with a toddler in the room, it's frustrating. So too are Mary Rose's frequent, protracted three-ring telephone conversations with her loopy mother, in which intentions and meanings are forgotten midway through a sentence. Rather than endearing, the conversations end up leaving the reader feeling slightly crazed. Still, "Adult Onset" is a satisfying exploration of the (not often harmonic) convergence of past and present. Our natal families, despite our very best efforts, impact the families we make.
Family stories interest me deeply, for it is in our homes that we are our best and our worst selves, and yet, we mostly continue to love each other. Why then are so called domestic novels sometimes derided as the opposite of risk taking, or dismissed as unimportant? In a country where the political zeitgeist continually points to the erosion of family values as the root of moral decline, shouldn't good, complex novels about family and home life be lauded and widely read? Yes, MacDonald has unapologetically included beloved stuffed animals, casseroles and diapers in "Adult Onset," and yes, she also explores with great authority the trauma of coming out to conservative parents, marriage equality, dementia, adoption, post-partum depression, abuse, and forgiveness. What has been historically considered the terrain of women is not mutually exclusive of the "serious" novel. ...more
It's the sweltering summer of 1942, anxious and agitated Emma Washburn awaits the return of her beloved son to the Pines, the Washburn family's rusticIt's the sweltering summer of 1942, anxious and agitated Emma Washburn awaits the return of her beloved son to the Pines, the Washburn family's rustic resort in the Minnesota woods. For days she's been making preparations for Frankie's short visit home before he heads off to Air Force training camp and then on to World War II to serve as a bombardier flying sorties over France and Germany.
Emma isn't the only one awaiting Frankie's return. There is his distant and disappointed dad; the Ojibwe caretaker, Felix, who has served as Frankie's loving surrogate father; and Billy, also Ojibwe, Frankie's childhood friend who now fills a much more intimate place in Frankie's life. The impending visit is fraught, overshadowed by his father's detachment, the forbidden desire between Billy and Frankie, and the specter of war and loss.
Right away the Washburn reunion is threatened with disruption by the escape of a German prisoner from the POW camp across the river. Search parties travel up and down the river and into the woods. As soon as Frankie and his friends arrive, they join in. Frankie and Billy split from the group to search on their own. When a moment of illicit tenderness -- a kiss in the woods -- is witnessed by other searchers, shame triggers a rash and violent act of bravado that results in the death of a runaway Indian girl and the discovery of her sister, Prudence. Covered in blood, suffering shock, Prudence is carried away to the house where she remains mute, refusing to tell the family anything about her life. The Washburns and Felix are left with no choice but to take her in.
This accident is the still point at the center of the novel. Once the gun goes off, everything changes. Emma heads back to Chicago, losing interest in her beloved Pines. Frankie, burdened by grief and guilt, goes off to the war, but not before promising Prudence that he will come back some day and "make it right." Billy enlists in the army and is shipped out. Felix and Prudence, left behind at the Pines, with Emma sending $10 per month for her care and upkeep, limp along in their awkward forced family intimacy.
David Treuer's novel "Prudence" is as an intricate ensemble piece; exploring themes of loss, desire, race, war, and the secrets we keep, through the point of view of five beautifully realized characters -- Felix, Frankie, Emma, Billy and Prudy. The novel does not fall prey to its weighty concerns, neither preaching nor descending into sentimentality. In clear, uncluttered prose, Treuer guides us through 10 years, multiple voices and the very specific choices (many bad ... the joys in this book are few and far between) of his characters.
It is Prudy's story that is the most heartbreaking. Left behind in this tiny village, waiting for what she believes is true love, she endures the cold winters and her nearly regal loneliness with the aid of alcohol and men.
In a beautiful chapter set in a tiny bar on Christmas Eve in 1944, Treuer sets Prudy in action, and we, like the villagers, are mesmerized by her tight-fitting dress, her fluid movements on the dance floor and her amazing capacity for drink. The chapter is a tribute to the James Joyce short story, "The Dead." In fact, the opening sentence is nearly a direct quote, "Mary, the cripple, was literally run off her feet." Like Joyce's gorgeous story, this chapter focuses on a celebration, on politics, on the events of the war, and upon love and loss. At the close, in a beautiful homage to Joyce, Prudy is making her way home, alone in the snow. She is thinking of her dead sister and of Frankie, flying over of Europe.
"The snow glowed between the trees. The stars were out. It must be so cold and lonely up there. So very cold. But it was the same air. It was the same air up there as down here. Prudence closed her eyes and steadied herself. She saw Gracie's little grave behind the Pines, quite and quietly covered with snow. The same air that flowed over Gracie's grave flowed around up there, after all. Five miles up and five miles down. It made no difference. She felt her soul swoon a little. She recovered it and kept on walking."
Along with the intertwined stories of Prudy, Frankie and Billy, Treuer includes a subplot about “the Jew” who comes to visit the village in 1952. Though the story of the Jew does not intersect with the main characters, it is a rich vein that Treuer is right to follow. The Jew arrives, reminding us of other dispersed and destroyed families, of extreme cruelty, of incomprehensible loss, of another tribe at risk. PRUDENCE is a rich and deeply satisfying novel, which Treuer dedicates to “the unremembered,” a status that his characters will not achieve. ...more
I think Lena Dunham's HBO series, Girls, is brilliant and funny. Sometimes it is brutal for me to watch as I am the mother of a 22 year old daughter aI think Lena Dunham's HBO series, Girls, is brilliant and funny. Sometimes it is brutal for me to watch as I am the mother of a 22 year old daughter and the life choices, the sex, the struggles portrayed on the show make me want to bury my head. So, I picked up Ms. Dunaham's essays with high hopes. And, while I liked them, I did not love them. I think the reason I had difficulty with some of the essays was that she mistakes baring-it-all with authenticity. There should be some curating involved in getting the particular messiness of life on the page in a way that reveals universal truths. Her essay "Therapy and Me," was the strongest. ...more
I loved this novel and cannot wait to jump into the second in Ferrante's trilogy. The novel unfolds through much summary, the scenes are few and far bI loved this novel and cannot wait to jump into the second in Ferrante's trilogy. The novel unfolds through much summary, the scenes are few and far between. When Ferrante does step into scene and dialog, the writing actually shimmers we are so hungry for it. This novel explores deep friendships between women, including fierce love, humor, inspirations, jealousies, rivalries, and misunderstandings. It also explores the deep damage poverty wrecks on community, family and self. Beautiful writing. ...more
I was lucky to discuss this memoir with my friend, the writer, Jay Ponteri, and then interview Amy Jo Burns for the Late Night Library podcast. I willI was lucky to discuss this memoir with my friend, the writer, Jay Ponteri, and then interview Amy Jo Burns for the Late Night Library podcast. I will post a link as soon as it goes live. ...more