Man-oh-Man, sometimes life goes from cruddy to unbearable. That is certainly the case for the three protagonists in "The Free," Willy Vlautin's fourth...moreMan-oh-Man, sometimes life goes from cruddy to unbearable. That is certainly the case for the three protagonists in "The Free," Willy Vlautin's fourth novel. Honestly, I hesitate to describe what this novel is about for fear you'll resist picking it up, which would be a shame, because you'd be missing out on crisp writing, complex situations and amazing, resilient characters who will touch your heart. In the opening pages, Leroy Kervin, an Iraq war vet whose "brain has been caved in by war," awakens in his dark room at a group home for disabled men. We learn that he lives simply, enjoying Cap'n Crunch cereal and the science fiction channel, and that he is susceptible to grand bouts of despair. This night is different. For the first time in seven years, since his vehicle struck a roadside bomb, his mind is clear. He can picture his girlfriend, he remembers the routine at the home — meals, showers, visitors, and he recalls his mother's continuous presence at his bedside. This moment of clarity is a mix of joyful potential and terrible fear. Leroy wonders if the recovery is permanent or merely a tease before he descends back into the "periods when his thoughts fell into nothing but frustration and violence," when it felt as if he was "drowning in mud." Lying awake, racked by sobs, Leroy decides to kill himself. Freddie McCall is the night orderly at the group home. He's awakened by the sound of Leroy's tragic attempt and calls the paramedics. Freddie carries his own burden of misery. A father of two whose wife has taken the children and left him for another man, Freddie is drowning, not in mud but in debt. His youngest child suffered from a congenital birth defect and the medical bills have brought the family to the brink of bankruptcy. At any moment he could lose his home. Pauline Hawkins is the intensive care nurse who tends to Leroy and the other rough cases on her floor. She provides competent and pragmatic care for her patients, offering solace and companionship (she calls everyone "buster") while keeping herself emotionally detached. Pauline too is drowning, in loneliness. She's overworked and stretched thin; "from a distance she had a pretty face. It was only close up that the lines around her eyes and lips and the scars from acne appeared. She looked tired." Pauline's patients aren't her only responsibilities. She also cares for her mentally ill father who is cruel, incapable and childlike. When a young girl with a heroin addiction and abscessed legs takes a bed on her ward, Pauline finds her heart softening and her worldview slightly shifts. The chapters in "The Free" alternate between these three. Leroy's sections are told through a mix of bizarre and violent dreams, science fiction and love letters to his girlfriend. Freddie, desperate and exhausted, makes a risky decision to try something new and illegal to earn quick money and potentially keep his home. Pauline is drawn into the life of her patient, Jo, the runaway, and valiantly attempts to make a difference in the girl's life. Vlautin, amidst all this sorrow and trouble, keeps his novel from sinking into despair. His sentences, like his characters, are hardworking. Crisp and clean, they neither wallow nor show off. When Pauline's father makes her breakfast one day he begins to weep. The details Vlautin chooses, the crackers, the coughing, the declaration, bring the scene to life in all its complexity:
"'I love you so much,' he said to her. He coughed again, poured her a cup of coffee, and tears streamed down his face. He dished out scrambled eggs onto a plate next to a half-dozen saltines and some chopped iceberg lettuce, and they sat down and ate."
Things go from bad to worse for Leroy, Pauline, and Freddie. Vlautin's characters, like us, struggle beneath burdens of health, finances and family. Yes, the problems in "The Free" are extreme, complicated by war, loneliness, mental health, and religious zealots. (See, I told you you wouldn't want to pick it up.) Leroy, Freddie and Pauline are the opposite of free. For these three we have to ask, what does freedom look like? For Leroy, freedom is release. For Freddie and Pauline, being free requires them to make peace with what life has delivered. The novel ties nothing up at the end. Life just keeps on dishing. Cars break down, people vanish and yet in this darkness there is light and hope. (less)
The narrator of Daniel Alarcón's "At Night We Walk in Circles" is an outsider obsessed with uncovering the story of Nelson, a naïve and somewhat snobb...moreThe narrator of Daniel Alarcón's "At Night We Walk in Circles" is an outsider obsessed with uncovering the story of Nelson, a naïve and somewhat snobbish young man whose unhappy fate propels the narrative. Love, identity, the borders between art and reality are all examined in this highly readable novel.
Growing up in an unnamed Latin American country emerging from the shadow of war, Nelson dreams of becoming an actor and playwright like his hero, Henry Nuñez. During wartime, Henry was the founder of Diciembre, a guerrilla theatre troupe that dissolved under charges of terrorism. When an opportunity arises for Nelson to join the revival tour of Henry's politically satirical play, "The Idiot President," Nelson eagerly signs on.
Never mind that the last time the play was performed it landed Henry in the monolithic prison menacingly called Collectors, where he languished for nearly a year. Henry, as he plans the ill-fated revival tour remains incredulous at his imprisonment, "He just couldn't understand why they were so upset - had they seen 'The Idiot President'? It wasn't even any good!"
Nelson, Henry and Patalarga, a bighearted alum of Diciembre, set off on an Andean tour that is as much about bringing theater to the people, about healing the country's past, as it is about personal revival. Henry is escaping the encroaching lonely tenor of his life, Nelson is embracing adventure and change after early disappointments, and Patalarga wants to visit the countryside of his birth. The trio travels through tiny mountain towns, performing in bars, in living rooms, in open fields and abandoned buildings. Nelson approaches his role with intense dedication and sincerity, immersing himself in the world of their play and the countryside, fully leaving behind his life — his girlfriend, Ixta, and his mother — in the city.
Alarcón's descriptions of the tour are vivid and lovely. In Sihaus, a mining town, when their performance in a bar fails to attract an audience, they begin to pack up. The bartender tells them to wait. He sends Nelson outside:
"Night had fallen: the sky was dark. Sihuas was set in a narrow slip of the valley, and Nelson saw nothing in the town's empty streets, but when he got to the corner and looked up, there they were, strings of tiny, bobbing lamplights, hundreds of them, rushing down the trails. They were gold miners, descending the mountains all at once. A half hour later, in a clamor of shouting and noise, they arrived and instantly, [the bar] was overrun."
The three actors find themselves squeezed out when a busload of prostitutes arrives and their makeshift stage disappears beneath the crush of men. This isn't the only time life encroaches upon art. When Henry reroutes their tour to visit the hometown of his cellmate/lover at Collectors, things fall apart for the trio. Suddenly Nelson finds himself playing the role of a dead man to assuage a senile old woman and her violent son. Here the novel asks us, how deep are we willing to go into imagined worlds in order to discover ourselves? Where does art begin and end?
Much of the suspense in the novel comes from the slow revelation of Nelson's downfall, as uncovered by the narrator. He conducts interviews with Henry, Patalarga, Ixta, Nelson's mother, and uses Nelson's journals as a source. Much like Nick Carraway in "The Great Gatsby," the narrator is a seeking bystander who understands there is something universal to be gleaned in Nelson's story. At one point he looks at a photo of Nelson and his brother shown to him by Nelson's mother,
"I had the strangest sensation, like double vision. For just an instant, I thought I saw myself standing just to the side of Francisco and Nelson, with another family — mine — and another set of siblings—my two sisters. An unlikely, but not impossible, coincidence. I stared at the image. I also grew up in this city. I was also once a brown-haired boy with thin legs and a bony chest. I also went to the zoo. We all did. It wasn't me hovering in the background of that old photograph, of course, but that's not the point. It could've been."
Things that could have been haunt Nelson and the narrator and this unnamed country — memories, loves, innocence, all are lost or transformed along his journey. War and its aftermath, drugs, prisons, and violence all play a part in the disillusionment. At one point Henry describes to Nelson what it was like in prison: "Every night in Collectors, friends paired off and walked in circles around the prison yard, commiserating, confessing, doing all they could to imagine they were somewhere else." The novel too, walks in circles, the actors travel away from the city and back again, love is lost than nearly reclaimed only to be lost again, identity is discovered and destroyed. (less)
The enigmatic women in Laura van den Berg’s strange and lovely new story collection, “The Isle of Youth,” yearn for secure, uncomplicated lives. Lucki...moreThe enigmatic women in Laura van den Berg’s strange and lovely new story collection, “The Isle of Youth,” yearn for secure, uncomplicated lives. Luckily for us, instead of clarity and predictability they end up with secrets and doubts. These characters — magician’s assistants, gumshoes, gangsters, twin sisters, abandoned wives and light-fingered daughters — all hope to understand the mysterious world, but they find it hard enough just to understand themselves.
The book (van den Berg’s second, after “What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us”) begins with honeymooners crash landing in Patagonia. As their plane plummets toward earth, the nameless wife imagines rescue workers relying on passports and toiletries to determine who they were. Everyone survives the crash, and the wife, suffering only a broken nose, wanders through the rest of the story guarding her tenderness, wondering about her husband and love, and the infectious nature of her doubt: “Afterward, we lay in bed for a long time without speaking; I would have liked to believe it was the blissful quiet that can follow a spectacular day, but it felt like a different kind of silence.” The enchanting external world of Patagonia, with its burrowing parrots, cascading waterfalls and moonlit sea, provides an excellent foil to her increasingly disenchanted experience. Near the end, a hotel fire breaks out and she now imagines losing the same passport and toiletries she once hoped would identify her, as she stands opaque and uncertain a safe distance from the fire.
All the women in this collection are uncertain observers, hyperaware yet unable to divine meaning until it’s too late. The sisters in “Opa-Locka” are ineffectual detectives snarled up in other people’s lives, causing needless complications. At their stakeouts they leave behind heaps of food wrappers, plastic cups, beer cans and NoDoz packets while discovering nothing. Ultimately they are dragged back into their criminal father’s mysterious past. In “Lessons,” about nefarious cousins who bumble their way through bank heists, a young woman fails to recognize the risks posed by her naïve little brother, an aspiring robot builder. When the inevitable occurs and she is forced to choose between her brother and the gang, she kicks his beloved robot and laments the “little choices that push her closer to something she’s not sure she wants.”
The magician’s daughter in “The Greatest Escape” knows exactly what she wants: to leave her mother’s third-rate act and head for Hollywood. But lack of money keeps her around, as do the opportunities to steal from audience members and the romantic lies her mother tells about the girl’s missing father. When the truth surfaces, she asks why her mother didn’t keep lying. “People have to be realistic about their options,” her mother replies, leaving the girl to wonder, wryly, how realistic it was to buy a fake guillotine.
Thankfully, the realistic doesn’t carry much cachet in these stories. Wonder and mystery are recurring motifs. The women here are one step ahead of disaster or one step behind it, and either way they are eager to discover what’s next. As one puts it, mourning her brother among the frozen cinders of the accident that killed him (and knowing that the secret she kept could have saved him): “I did not know certain things because I had chosen to turn away from the knowledge. In Antarctica, I decided that was the worst thing I’d ever done, that refusal.” Van den Berg, in this wonderful collection, never lets us turn away.(less)
One of the pleasures of reading is being lifted from your life and dropped into a new and bold world. Portland writer Cari Luna's debut novel, "The Re...moreOne of the pleasures of reading is being lifted from your life and dropped into a new and bold world. Portland writer Cari Luna's debut novel, "The Revolution of Every Day," an elegy to a disappeared New York, does not disappoint. During the late 1980s and early '90s, when crack was king, families fled Lower East Side neighborhoods for the safety of the suburbs, leaving behind dangerous streets and dilapidated buildings. Luna's novel tells the story of a colony of squatters, people priced out of the rental market, who stake claims on abandoned tenements in lower Manhattan. These urban pioneers drive out the crackheads and set about to convert Thirteen House and Cat House into safe and respectable homes. They forage the city for building materials and make repairs themselves. They dumpster-dive for food and cook large community meals. They run a bike shop from a storefront and teach neighborhood kids bicycle repair. In short, the squatters create a community. Yet all the while the wolf lurks — Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the City of New York want to reclaim the real estate. Eviction notices, courtroom drama, threats to the squatters' safety and a showdown with barricades and tear gas all occur in the name of gentrification and it makes for terrific reading. Along with these huge outside pressures, there are threats from within the community that include betrayal, lust, drug abuse, infertility, and violence. Yes, Luna uses a full arsenal of troubles to provide narrative thrust, to keep us turning the pages to discover not so much what happens, for history tells us that the City of New York wins, but how things go down. She also keeps readers interested by making us care about her ensemble of gritty characters: Amelia, a teen runaway who appeared in the squat seven years earlier, was taken in by Gerrit, one of the leaders, and nursed through heroin withdrawal. Steve and Anne, a tender and childless couple who struggle with Steve's philandering and Anne's commitment to the community, live downstairs. Cat, a downtown legend who garnered fame for merely knowing famous people, is now the reluctant leader of Cat House. Her history and bad habits continue to dog her. The pedestrian drama of Amelia's pregnancy, the question of paternity, which takes up too large a portion of the narrative, isn't nearly as interesting and fresh as the struggle between the squatters and the city. Additionally, the women in this novel allow their lives to be defined by outside influences, men and heroin. Amelia ultimately strikes out on her own but only because she's rejected by the man she thinks she loves. Cat stumbles back into her bad habits. Inertia and resignation relegate Anne to doormat status. Yes, all these action are plausible, but I yearned for one of the women to succeed on her own terms. In a novel about place and home and community, it makes sense that New York City would be a character that looms large. The skyline as seen from the Brooklyn Bridge is described as "the fanged, glorious mouth of God." Anne, thinking of Steve and the early days of her marriage says "his chest was as broad and as deep as the city's skyline." While these descriptions lean toward sentimental, there are plenty of lovely and clear-eyed passages. The book's most beautiful moments come when Luna describes the city she once called home. Walking over crack vials on the sidewalks is described as "crunchy like cutting a fresh path through old snow." Of the city in the rain she writes, "The cars glide along, their taillights stretched out behind them, staining the streets red. They are anonymous and remote, unconcerned animals." Her words are especially powerful and lovely when she eulogizes the once vibrant street life of lower Manhattan: "No more slow-smile leatherboys with unironic tattoos. No more bearded communist daddies with soft bellies and hard eyes. Good-bye to the forgotten guitar-genius with thin-armed jangling walk and his rock'n'roll banter in his claustrophobic top-floor studio. Good-bye to the aging actor with his whispered Buddhist chants, perched on a stool day after day in the caged basement vestibule of his subterranean St. Mark's castle. Good-bye to the miraculously middle aged junkie with her sweet nodding head and her needled arms. Money's pushing into the lower east side. All consuming consumer-class. Into the river, freaks and artists." Luna exposes us, with tenderness and eyes open wide, to the strange and vivid beauty of a time and place we may otherwise turn from. She provides us with a satisfying opportunity to explore a foreign world. (less)
I listened to this essay collection while I was cleaning, scouring, unpacking, cooking for my daughter who was moving into her first studio apartment...moreI listened to this essay collection while I was cleaning, scouring, unpacking, cooking for my daughter who was moving into her first studio apartment in Brooklyn. Meg Ryan was the narrator and her chipper voice was the perfect company for the day of joyful drudgery. I was so happy to be accomplishing so much for my girl, and it was hard effort. I loved the essays about Ms. Ephron's dog, Honey. (less)
A middle-aged widow, raising her teenaged daughter, living in an apartment in San Francisco, decides to move her aging mother in with them, to create...moreA middle-aged widow, raising her teenaged daughter, living in an apartment in San Francisco, decides to move her aging mother in with them, to create a loving close family in her mother's waning years. Oh, I forgot to mention, the woman, Katie Hafner the widow, was taken away from her mother's home at age 8 because her mother was a raging drunk and terribly unfit. Sounds like perfect fodder for a memoir, no?
"Mother, Daughter, Me" is an intimate, no holds barred portrayal of this far less than ideal experiment in multi-generational living. Hafner applies her gimlet vision to the relationships and responses, to the struggles and surprises. Everyone in this book exhibits bad behavior and also tries very hard to get it right this time around. All three women are highly likable and at times I was incredibly moved by their story. I listened to this memoir, read by Hafner (who did a bang up job!) and was, on several occasions brought to tears as my dog and I walked through our neighborhood.
There were also times when I was put off by a certain level of materialism. Hafner seems to measure love by whether or not she received the right birthday gift. In one long passage she describes the behavior of her boyfriend's parents, lovely people no doubt, who paid for their children's college educations and medical school tuition and who take each of their grandchildren, upon the age of 8, on the vacation of child's choice. Hafner describes these wonderful gifts as if they are a birth right we should all have received, and I find her un unrealistic attitude verging on bitter and hard to take.
Ultimately I enjoyed the book and respected Hafner's desire to make things work, her desire to stick with a project doomed from the outset, and I was grateful she decided to share her story with us. (less)
A new novel by Alice McDermott is an event. "Someone" is her first book in seven long years. When my advance copy arrived, I placed it on my coffee ta...moreA new novel by Alice McDermott is an event. "Someone" is her first book in seven long years. When my advance copy arrived, I placed it on my coffee table and lovingly glanced at it for a couple of days before I sat down with a cup of coffee and went inside. For that is what reading a novel by Alice McDermott does, it brings you inside a complex, beautiful and fully realized world. A world foreign from your own and yet, you find yourself thinking, again and again, yes I have felt that loneliness, I have felt that joy.
The world of "Someone" is 1930s Brooklyn, a middle class, Irish Catholic neighborhood where boisterous street stickball games are umpired by blind Billy Corrigan (he was "gassed in the war"), where girls gossip on front stoops, fathers emerge from the subway at day's end with the paper folded beneath their arms, and young women -- office workers -- stroll home in their spring coats, sunlight angles low down the street, soft and forgiving over everyone. It's a humble neighborhood of hollering, hosiery and haberdashery. It's Marie's neighborhood, the ordinary woman at the center of "Someone."
At the novel's start 7-year-old Marie, myopic with Coke bottle glasses, waits on the stoop for her father, the love of her life, to appear at the end of her block. A neighbor, Pegeen, a homely, lonely office girl, is confiding in Marie, telling her about fainting in the street, lifting her skirt to reveal to Marie the run in her stocking, batting her eyelashes as she speaks of the handsome man who came to her aid. A few pages later Marie is recalling being pregnant with her first child, fainting at a deli counter and the people who came to her aid. The fluid movement through time, the elegant recurrences, and there are many in this novel, are like stones dropped in a still pond with the reverberating circles reaching the very shore of Marie's life. You can only see the rings and patterns from a distance, thus the retrospectively telling, with the slight nods and seeds planted toward her future, creates a deep intimacy between the pages and the reader.
One moment we are focused on the grace and sweep of a receiving blanket wrapped around a newborn baby, and the next we see the similar drape of a blanket as a dying woman is carried outside her apartment building to prove to her that she is indeed home in Brooklyn, not back in Ireland. When Marie's best friend learns to cook soon after her mother dies, Marie refuses to learn to cook for fear of losing her own mother. Broken promises to women and to the church mirror one another. After a terrible heartbreak Marie and her brother Gabe take a long, scorching walk through Brooklyn to the park. Gabe tries to ease her pain.
"There's a lot of cruelty in the world." And then he waved his hat to indicate the paths through the park and all the people on them. "You'll be lucky if this is your worst taste of it."
Turning away from him, I leaned once more to examine the stinging blister beneath my stocking. I didn't believe him. Didn't believe there could be a worst taste of it. I didn't consider then that my brother, too, might have longed to step out of his skin. Might have carried in those days his own blasted vision of an impossible future.
A little later Marie asks Gabe who will love her.
The brim of his hat cast his eyes in shadow. Behind him, the park teemed with strangers. "Someone," he told me. "Someone will."
This long walk through her pain is ultimately healing for Marie, and has the added benefit of a serendipitous meeting. Yet, a few chapters later, Gabe's long lonely walk through the same neighborhood on a freezing day is devastating.
Landscapes change through a lifetime, Marie's Brooklyn certainly does. At the end of "Someone," Marie who has lost nearly all of her vision, is blind like Billy Corrigan calling the difficult stickball plays, she is not seeing with her eyes and yet she has knowledge from living deep and well. At one point, after eye surgery, she comments upon the "clean, lacy light." When her children nod impatiently she says, "Why do you think every mystery is just a trick of the light?" Marie is honoring the mystery of her complex life, the unavoidable heartache, the coincidences, the accidents, the many generous openhearted moments, the way time surges forward and then circles back around. "Someone" speaks truthfully and lyrically about this lovely thing ... life. (less)
"The Lowland," Jhumpa Lahiri's expansive and intimate new novel, explores the complex story of the Mitra family. Loyalty and betrayal, lies and forgiv...more"The Lowland," Jhumpa Lahiri's expansive and intimate new novel, explores the complex story of the Mitra family. Loyalty and betrayal, lies and forgiveness, filial responsibility and abandonment, the choices and sacrifices we make to find our way in the world are beautifully wrought in this novel.
Subhash and Udayan are inseparable brothers. The bright lights of their parents' lives, the boys grow up in Calcutta in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is not until they attend different universities that their paths begin to divide. Udayan, the more passionate and incendiary, is gradually drawn into the Naxalite Movement -- a militant communist organization that strives to ameliorate the desperate poverty of the peasant class through acts of extreme violence. Subhash, the dutiful and cautious older brother, chooses to leave Calcutta and continue his studies in the United States. As riots rage across India, Udayan disappears from his family home for days at a time, returning disheveled and exhausted without explanation. Subhash, now in Rhode Island, gazes at Vietnam war protests from afar for fear that he might be in some way implicated and sent back home.
The brothers' differences push them apart and ultimately bind them together. Early in the novel tragedy strikes and Udayan is killed. Subhash is drawn back to Calcutta to offer what comfort he can to his grieving parents and to Gauri, Udayan's love-match wife. While home Subhash learns that Gauri is newly pregnant and he witnesses how unsuited she is for the drudgery of her life as daughter-in-law to his strict mother.
"If the houseboy was out on an errand it was Gauri who served them tea, but she never joined them. After helping his mother with the morning chores she kept to her own room, on the second floor of the house. He noticed that his parents did not talk to her; that they scarcely acknowledged her presence when she came into view."
Subhash offers to marry Gauri and take her back to the United States, to raise her child as his own. This tangled triangle, Subhash, Gauri and Udayan, brings to life the tensions between the personal and the political, between alienation and assimilation, between family and individual.
Gauri is perhaps the most complicated of the trio. When she arrives in the Rhode Island, she gradually explores the chilly and foreign world. One day she buys something "called cream cheese, which came in a silver wrapping, looking like a bar of soap." What she finds inside is "dense, cold, slightly sour," which she ends up eating in chunks in the parking lot. She sits in on philosophy classes at an unnamed college, and, after a time, finds her hand shooting up, unable to hold back her ideas on Aristotle's rules of formal logic. The professor "replied as if Gauri were any legitimate member of the class."
Thus her path as an intellectual begins. She is a woman ahead of her time in both India and the United States, focusing on the rigors of her intellectual life over the demands of motherhood and family. Bela, her daughter, grows up burdened by her mother's emotional and physical absences. Lahiri gives us an unflinching view of the cost wrought by Gauri's actions, both for her family and for herself.
In a novel that spans 50 years, the nature of time must be elastic. Lahiri weaves together chronological time and memories, moving fluidly through the present and the past, through India and the United Sates, through multiple points of view. It is only with Bela that the swift passage of time does an injustice. Great swathes of her formative years rush by and thus Bela is less developed than any of the other characters. Sometimes her responses feel unearned.
Lahiri's writing is precise and restrained. She said in an interview in The Atlantic Monthly, "Even now in my own work, I just want to get it less -- get it plainer. When I rework things I try to get it as simple as I can." This desire to simplify is evident in the way she writes the violent acts and betrayals, the deep roots of sorrow. She avoids drama until the ending.
Everything happens offstage while Lahiri focuses our attention upon the delicate relationships between a husband and wife whose marriage is based upon a lie, between children and the parents who withhold the truth. She gives us the opportunity to learn who Udayan is, to witness his love for his brother, for his parents, for his wife. We come to understand his frustration at injustice before we witness the damage he inflicts through implication and violence. "The Lowland" recognizes that there are only imperfect answers in an unjust world. (less)
I’m not going to lie, I picked up Alice Hoffman’s new book, "Survival Lessons," with a mixture of hope and trepidation. Hope that her exploration of h...moreI’m not going to lie, I picked up Alice Hoffman’s new book, "Survival Lessons," with a mixture of hope and trepidation. Hope that her exploration of her breast cancer journey would resonate with me in the wake of my own recent breast cancer experience. Hope that she would put into words some of my own feelings, my fears, and I might feel known. Trepidation, or maybe flat-out fear, that the book would come to a bad end, or that I would somehow not be able to connect and would end up feeling more alone in my experience, rather than part of a community. The first thing I did was look for the author photo and was happy to see a robust and vibrant woman smiling back at me. Right away in the preface I felt connected to Hoffman as she describes, upon finding the lump in her breast, feeling that "these things didn’t happen to me." She goes on to say, "I was not someone who got cancer. In fact, I was the person who sat by bedsides, accompanied friends to doctor’s appointments." My reaction to my diagnosis was similar. Even with the incredible rates of breast cancer in the U.S., it is hard to believe it when it happens to you. Hoffman goes on to say, "I forgot that our lives are made up of equal parts sorrow and joy, at that it is impossible to have one without the other. This is what makes us human." According to the flap copy, "Survival Lessons" "provides a road map to reclaim your life from this day forward." Each short chapter offers an edict on how to live. Hoffman tells us to choose our friends, choose our heroes, to accept sorrow and to claim our past, which of course are all wonderful things to do in order to live a full life no matter what your struggle. In the chapter about friends, Hoffman talks about the ways in which people will surprise you and some heartbreakingly disappoint you. Some friends, she says, won’t be able to be by your side. "These people have their own history and traumas; they may not be able to deal with yours. They belong to the before." These words were a solace to me, as I did have important people in my life fall away. Hoffman talks about the gift of the people in the "after." "The ones who aren’t afraid of sorrow, who know we can’t avoid it. The best we can do is face it together." A book like this, a self-help-meditation-survivorship-guide, is a curious thing. It is an act of generosity by the writer, to offer a hand through a dark time, (and in this case, to donate all the proceeds to the Hoffman Breast Center at Mt. Auburn Hospital). It is also a responsibility. People come to the book seeking solace and hence, the potential to miss the mark is weightier. Where I felt the book failed me was in its very light touch. Hoffman's book, written 15 years post-breast cancer treatment, may be just too far removed to remember the gritty parts. I wanted a book that talked about waking up in the dark and re-remembering that you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer. I wanted a book that stared in the face of the drive to the hospital on the morning of your surgery, a book that did not look away from sutures and drains, and the biggest needles you’ve ever seen. A book that talked about the way you lose touch with time and your brain when you’re on post-operative pain medication. A book that dedicated space to the patients who spend their time in the chemotherapy infusion room completely alone. I wanted more ‘brave on the page,’ more truth and less shimmer. I do also recognize, that in a fragile state, for example facing a recent diagnosis, shimmer is all you can take. In the final chapter, Choose Love, Hoffman fears she will never get past this single experience. An acclaimed novelist, Hoffman fears that every character she writes henceforth will have cancer. Her oncologist assured her that "eventually it wouldn’t be the main character who had cancer, it would be the grandmother, then the best friend, then the distant cousin, the neighbor and finally the stranger down the block. Your sorrow will become smaller, like a star in the daylight you can’t even see. It’s there, shining, but there is also a vast expanse of blue sky." Those are the words we all want to hear about our particular sorrows. "Survival Lessons" is a beautiful object, slender and small, with lovely images, a brownie recipe and directions to knit a hat. It would be a wonderful thing to tuck into a basket along with a tureen of soup, a candle, a perfect rock, and list of movie recommendations for a friend going through treatment, or struggling through any life trauma.(less)
I want to invite Julia Sweeney to dinner. I of course loved her as "Pat" and I was bowled over by her dramatic monolog, "Letting Go of God," which was...moreI want to invite Julia Sweeney to dinner. I of course loved her as "Pat" and I was bowled over by her dramatic monolog, "Letting Go of God," which was smart and powerful. This memoir is much lighter, funny and dear. A great summer read with plenty of bursts of laughter. (less)
Conflict and thwarted desires are the steam engine of fiction. If we don't have a character wanting something they cannot have, be it love, community,...moreConflict and thwarted desires are the steam engine of fiction. If we don't have a character wanting something they cannot have, be it love, community, or a pair of shoes, then we have no forward thrust. Kurt Vonnegut famously said, "Make your characters want something right away even if it's only a glass of water."
In Matt Bell's mythical debut novel, "In The House Upon The Dirt Between The Lake and The Woods" thwarted desires and conflicts run amok. The book is a long rumination on the tragedy of a marriage that is built upon desire for a child and what happens when that desire remains unfulfilled.
At the beginning of the novel, a newlywed couple (who remain nameless throughout) strike out to build a home in a vague, unpeopled land far from their populated native land. The homesteaders work to establish a life. The husband builds a home and furnishings. He traps their meals in the wood and fishes in the lake. The wife grows vegetables and with her beautiful voice sings into being their other belongings. They strive to raise a family in this mythic place, but pregnancy after pregnancy fails and the husband becomes child obsessed:
"The dirt's wettest season swelled, and then its hottest burst the world into bloom, and through those tumid months my wife swelled too, expanded in both belly and breast until the leaves fell -- and afterward came no more growth, only some stalling of the flesh gathering within her. Even before it was obvious that there would be no baby, even then my wife began to cry, to sing sadder songs that dimmed our already fuel-poor gas-lamps, or cracked cups and bowls behind cupboard doors.
"I angered that we would have to start again, and if my wife was not to birth some son then I wished only for that pregnancy's speedy end, so that she might not suffer overlong, so that another child might be put in this one's place."
If the first sentences of a novel are meant to teach you how to read the book, this opening paragraph sets a tone of curious formality. The language is stilted, fabulist, nearly biblical. Time is marked by the seasons, imagery is fecund with swelling, and bursting and tumidity. The inclusion of old-fashioned words like "overlong" seems to cue the reader that this fable is of great import.
Also, we are being told this story. Most of the action is summarized by the husband as if we are watching it unfold in another room rather than being plunked down in the midst. Dialogue is rare and buried within paragraphs so we don't exactly "hear" it in the same way we do conventionally written dialogue.
These choices, the stilted language, the dominance of summary over scene, the nameless characters, the rare opportunity to "hear" them speak, the feeling that we should glean a lesson from the pages, held me at bay from the characters. I should care deeply about a childless couple that goes to wild extremes to build a family. Somehow, I don't.
There are beautiful and lyric passages, in fact entire chapters, that sing, just as the wife sings things into being. When the husband's act of violence drives away his wife and boy (a foundling), the two descend into the earth. The wife sings into being a labyrinth of rooms, a "memory house," unearthing her story as she buries herself and her son further and further below the surface. Each room becomes a tribute to an emotion or action.
"And in this room: The number of times my wife hurt the foundling, even accidentally. A number so close to zero.
"And in this room: the number of times the foundling touched me without fear, counted up and counted through, each enumeration instanced, made distinct: Here was the foundling wiggling his tiny fingers in his crib."
At this moment we understand and feel the husband's yearning. For the intentional pain he caused his family has driven them away and driven him to this lonely quest to reunite.
Bell's writing is wildly original. The novel includes an angry bear, a mysterious, monstrous squid, an evil fetus, strange couplings and an army of zombie children. There are many battles, lots of ash and blood and viscera.
A blurb on the back of the book states that the Bell's "wild manipulation of form and genre makes the bulk of contemporary fiction feel bloodless and inert...." Well, bloodless in the concrete sense, to be certain, but inert or lifeless?
It is when connected to another human experience that I feel most alive, my very breathing changes when I am caught up in a character's pain or joy. "In The House Upon the Dirt Between The Lake and The Woods" didn't provide me with enough of those connected moments. (less)
While this is not my favorite Forster, I do love his novels. The examination of British prudishness...the desire to break free and the utter inability...moreWhile this is not my favorite Forster, I do love his novels. The examination of British prudishness...the desire to break free and the utter inability to leave behind the pressures of 'society' are always the pulse of his work. Here is a perfect example, from Philip, the prudish and yearning Englishman as he watches an Italian man enjoy his dinner. Disgust and desire in one paragraph!
"For the youth was hungry, and his lady filled his plate with spaghetti, and when those delicious slippery worms were flying down his throat, his face relaxed and became for a moment unconscious and calm. And Philip had seen that face before in Italy a hundred times--seen it and loved it, for it was not merely beautiful, but had the charm which is the rightful heritage of all who are born on that soil. But he did not want to see it opposite him at dinner. It was not the face of a gentleman."
A favorite line from the novel, "Women--I heard you say the other day--are never at ease till they tell their faults out loud."(less)
Nora Eldridge is full of good girl rage. For most of her life she has been a reliable and loving daughter, a trusted friend, a favorite third-grade te...moreNora Eldridge is full of good girl rage. For most of her life she has been a reliable and loving daughter, a trusted friend, a favorite third-grade teacher, and an on-again off-again artist. Dutiful has been her modus operandi. At the start of "The Woman Upstairs," Claire Messud's seething new novel, Nora is on the verge of a pedestrian midlife, having drinks with friends, thumbing through the Garnet Hill catalog, writing lesson plans, dabbling with her "shoebox art," fastidious, miniscule dioramas of artist's rooms. When a new student enrolls in her class, everything changes. The boy, Reza Shahid, along with his sophisticated and elegant parents, function as sirens in Nora's life, coaxing her suppressed dreams from the darkness and ultimately causing her rage to surge. "I had all this anger. Years of it, decades of it, my very body full of it, bloody with it." Nora's very being becomes combustible, Messud's language is tripwire tense, the plot is a highly charged psychological exploration. "I'm not crazy. Angry, yes; crazy, no," Nora says, and with this claim Messud invokes another famous literary woman upstairs, Bertha Mason, the first mistress of Thornfield Hall, from Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre." Messud is an intellectual writer; of course the link is intentional, as is her reference to Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," in which the narrator ultimately descends below ground to live in the glare of a thousand light bulbs. Reading the novel, one can't help but be reminded of a third invisible character, Henrik Ibsen's Nora Helmer, confined by her wifely role, who claims her identity when she leaves her husband, slamming the door behind her. Bertha, Ellison's nameless protagonist, and the two Noras are all suppressed, striving to be seen. Yet Nora Eldridge and her ilk -- the pleasant women we see in line at Starbucks, the bank teller, the neighbor down the hall, are neither in the attic nor the basement, nor trapped in a dollhouse; these "women upstairs" are invisible among us. They are the "Miss Nobody Nothing that everyone smiles at so cheerfully and immediately forgets."
The Shahids' arrival makes Nora want to be remembered. Each member of the family, Skandar, the Lebanese born intellectual who brings his family to Boston to pursue a fellowship at Harvard; Sirena, the Italian mother, an artist, who, in a nice reversal from Nora's unassuming, miniscule art, makes room-sized installations; and Reza, the lovely and sweet "child from a fairy tale," each awaken within Nora a suppressed desire. Artist, wife, mother are all roles Nora has failed to achieve, and with the Shahids in her life, Nora feels the vacancies. Sirena and Nora strike up a friendship and rent a studio space together. Nora begins constructing intricate rooms, Emily Dickinson's bedroom, a room at the asylum for the painter Alice Neel, and Edie Sedgwick's room in Andy Warhol's Factory. Within each box, "hidden somewhere, where you could barely see her or could not see her at all, there was a small gold figure that was Joy." Meanwhile, at the other end of the studio, Sirena builds a giant, ranging "Wonderland" with fractured mirrors and Astroturf, acres of blue cloth, and household detritus. Her work celebrates messiness and cacophony, while Nora's remains miniscule and mannered. Sirena envelops her, the two discuss art, Nora's opinions are valued, and their friendship flourishes. It is in the studio that Nora experiences her freest moments. To Nora, Sirena Shahid represents a true artist and for the first time, that role seems almost attainable. Skandar Shahid also infiltrates Nora's life. He visits the studio one night, after Sirena has gone, and examines Nora's pieces with extreme care and attention, validating her work. After baby-sitting the boy, Reza, on nights the couple goes out, Skandar walks her home and the two gradually extend their walks further into Boston and the night, talking of ethics and history. Finally, Reza welcomes her into the family in the way only children can, by asking to be read to, by asking her to lay beside him while he falls asleep, by loving her.
The web of the Shahid family is sticky. Nora is completely drawn in, loving them all and as time goes on, wanting to consume them. But this elegant and tight novel does not tip into the obsessive mayhem of "Fatal Attraction," or "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle." Like everything else about Nora, her ultimate betrayal by the Shahids -- and wow, it is a huge and heartbreaking betrayal -- evokes a controlled rage.
Messud's writing is as controlled as Nora's dioramas. Sentences are carefully constructed. Small moments reverberate. And, joy, though present, is hard to find, and nearly impossible to hold. (less)