Everything I Never Told You is an enigma. Hailed by critics and readers, it is Ng's (pronounced Ing) debut novel about a dysfunctional, interracial faEverything I Never Told You is an enigma. Hailed by critics and readers, it is Ng's (pronounced Ing) debut novel about a dysfunctional, interracial family living in a small Midwestern town in the 1960's and 70's. We learn in the first sentence that Lydia-the middle child-is dead. Enough said. The rest of it is a muddled attempt at tracing the origins of her unfortunate situation.
We learn that her Chinese-American father, a Harvard-educated historian, is a neglectful parent who can't make peanut butter sandwiches or find acceptance and that her ambitious, frustrated mother is an unfit parent and a terrible daughter. Their three children all suffer as a consequence, but only Lydia is so divorced from reality that she foolishly jumps into a lake without being able to swim.
If you care about feminism, read Erica Jong. If you're interested in the experience of Chinese-Americans, read Amy Tan. If you find family dysfunction fascinating, read almost anything, fromJane Austen through Jonathan Franzen. If your book club picks this, stay home with a cold. ...more
**spoiler alert** Atticus Finch is idolized by millions of readers all over the world. Skeptics* have sometimes argued that he was also a projection,**spoiler alert** Atticus Finch is idolized by millions of readers all over the world. Skeptics* have sometimes argued that he was also a projection, stemming from our tortured collective consciousness about race in America. For many, his character, which was reportedly based on Harper Lee's father, is a paragon of virtue, good sense and moral certitude. When he pulled Scout on to his lap to explain the complexities and contradictions of life to her, we shared her sense of comfort. If you were fortunate enough to have positive parental figures, he was an affirmation; if not, he became a substitute: a surrogate father-figure who was beyond reproach. In a nation about to embark on an experiment with Civil Rights, he was a reassuring presence and a calming influence.
Unless you've been on a spaceship to Pluto, you've probably heard that the Atticus we meet in Go Set a Watchman has a dark side. Without going into details - I have a "spoiler" tendency - suffice to say that the literary world has been pushed from his lap, and has landed with a thud, on a cold, concrete floor. Loss of innocence is always painful. Jean Louise** Scout's grown-up incantation, handles it with the usual blend of horror, outrage and confusion. She is eventually, and literally, slapped into reality, but in her fury, she hurls insults at anyone and everyone...which creates lots of excitement. She also reflects on her childhood and realizes that whatever her father has become, he is also the primary source of her own enlightened point of view. If you are reluctant to accept a more nuanced version of the Atticus you've admired all these years, you should probably skip reading this. But if you're curious about the evolution of a modern classic or you're looking for answers to the ongoing debate over the Confederacy, and its place in the history of America, this makes for a compelling and provocative reading experience. 3.5/5
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is not recommended. I have no idea who its target audience was. Mark Twain was wildly popular in Great BriA Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is not recommended. I have no idea who its target audience was. Mark Twain was wildly popular in Great Britain when it was published in the late Nineteenth Century, but the English found little to celebrate here...with good reason. His heavy-handed treatment of the Arthurian legend is a misguided effort to contrast American ingenuity and Protestant sectarianism with British traditions in matters relating to governance, social class and state-sanctioned religion. Contemporary critics were quick to point out that movements toward republicanism and religious freedom had done little to ameliorate the plight of the typical factory worker on either side of the Atlantic.
Alice Hoffman used to write literary fiction: The Drowning Season, Turtle Moon She would occasionally dabble in the black arts: Practical Magic, but iAlice Hoffman used to write literary fiction: The Drowning Season, Turtle Moon She would occasionally dabble in the black arts: Practical Magic, but it seemed to be a quirky part of a more substantial whole; it added color and charm to characters who were grounded in the reality of contemporary American life. I tried, unsuccessfully, to read The Dovekeepers and would have abandoned this too if it hadn't been a book club selection. I read it quickly and with some resentment, because to do so, I had to set aside Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. Hoffman has many admirers, but I'm proud to say that most of the members of my book club found this one lacking. It is a peculiar hybrid about an implausible infatuation between an abused water nymph and an anti-social photographer. Hoffman bookends their personal struggles between two historical disasters from 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in lower Manhattan, and the burning of Dreamland on Coney Island.
She's at her best when she's realistically describing the horrors of these events, but the melodrama surrounding her protagonists is unconvincing and sometimes ridiculous. The water nymph has an abusive father whose villainous behavior belongs in the world of Grand Opera. Verdi would have had a blast writing wrenching duets for him and his hapless daughter. Her suitor, the people-hating photographer, adopts a wolf to keep his pit bull company. He's also an amateur detective, yet he fails to question a ruse set for him by his beloved's father, who forges a letter to him renouncing her love. It's a wonder the father had time to write anything, given his dastardly predilection for drunkenness, sexual perversion and the exploitation of the sideshow freaks in his seedy museum. Is it uncharitable to wonder if Ms Hoffman is hoping to cash-in on the popularity of books about vampires and zombies? Here she introduces a genuine wolf man. Not only is he a sexual powerhouse, but he also has an affinity for gothic literature. If only Verdi had lived to compose the score. ...more
June is busting out all over...for MEEEEEEEE! (Theater buffs should get the allusions.) First came Father's Day, then another birthday, both in the saJune is busting out all over...for MEEEEEEEE! (Theater buffs should get the allusions.) First came Father's Day, then another birthday, both in the same week. I decided that this book would be my special present to myself. I've been smitten by all things Broadway since my mother took me to see Mary Martin and Robert Preston in a long-forgotten musical, I Do! I Do!, which is about a married couple who celebrate their love by singing to each other in bed. The most memorable song is titled "Our Cup Runneth Over." It may sound corny, but I was watching Nellie Forbush AND The Music Man...I'd done my homework.
Eddie Shapiro, another theater "enthusiast" has done something miraculous. He has compiled in-depth interviews with twenty-one Broadway babes-he calls them dames. What they share, besides at least one Tony and many subsequent nominations, is a career-defining commitment to THE THEATER. I've only scratched the surface, but he's confirmed many of my preconceived prejudices: Carol Channing is hilarious, Angela Lansbury is gracious, Betty Buckley is a conflicted genius, and Patti LuPone is a world-class BITCH! I also discovered Debra Monk. They all have fascinating stories...and a few scores to settle. They've overcome disappointments, but triumphed in ways that make their performances soar. Many have found work in films and TV, but their stage work is what matters most... to them, and to their devoted fans. To echo Martin and Preston: MY cup runneth over...with love! ...more
**spoiler alert** Teddy Todd is a character from Kate Atkinson's earlier novel Life After Life. He is the beloved baby brother, and favorite son at Fo**spoiler alert** Teddy Todd is a character from Kate Atkinson's earlier novel Life After Life. He is the beloved baby brother, and favorite son at Fox Corner, the Todd family home in the London suburbs. He grows up to be a bomber pilot in World War II and is either killed on a risky mission toward the end of the war or goes on to live a long life as a husband, father and grandfather. Atkinson considers both scenarios, but this novel focuses on the latter. She calls this a companion piece to Life After Life, which is about Ursula, Teddy's older sister, and her multiple lives. I fell in love with all the Todds, so I approached this with high expectations.
Whereas, Life After Life is about life's possibilities, this is fundamentally about making the best of the vicissitudes of the ordinary and the opportunity for transcendence if we can learn to embrace our mundane experiences. Teddy "had been reconciled to death during the war and then suddenly the war was over and there was a next day and a next day and a next day. Part of him never adjusted to having a future." If he was powerless to shape his future, he was determined to live his life with integrity and "he resolved that he would try always to be kind. It was the best he could do. It was all that he could do. And it might be love, after all."
The title comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams.” Flight is a recurring metaphor. When Teddy and Ursula attend a performance of Beethoven's Ninth in war-torn London, "Teddy resolved to simply feel the music and stopped searching for words to describe it, and by the time the fourth movement came around and Roy Henderson, the baritone, began to sing ( O Freude! ), the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up. In her seat beside him, Ursula was almost quivering with the power of emotion, like a coiled spring, a bird ready to rise from the ground at any moment. Towards the end of the final movement, when the magnificence of the Choral becomes almost unbearable, Teddy had the odd sensation that he might actually have to hold on to his sister to prevent her rising into the air and taking flight."
Passages like this suggest to me that Atkinson has been touched by the divine. If she never wrote another word, this novel should assure her place in the pantheon of World Literature.
Crew is a sport which depends on collective cooperation and team synchronicity. To excel in a rowing competition, the team members must first surrendeCrew is a sport which depends on collective cooperation and team synchronicity. To excel in a rowing competition, the team members must first surrender their individuality, focusing solely on the movements of the person in front and the emanations from their coxswain. In 1936, the U.S. Olympic team, against overwhelming odds, won the gold medal in Berlin, beating the Italians, literally by a split second. The unlikely story of these athletes from The University of Washington and their rise from obscurity to Olympic gold is told with passion and compassion by an extraordinary author, Daniel James Brown, who could teach a thing or two about sentence construction and storytelling to another, less worthy, but infinitely more famous, Dan Brown. DJB immerses us in the esoteric world of collegiate rowing in the 1930's. To great dramatic effect, he builds his story around two unlikely antagonists, Joe Rantz, a hard-luck farm kid from the sticks, and the most nefarious villain of the 20th Century, Adolf Hitler.
Joe's journey, from Dickensian boyhood to international acclaim, grounds this tale of endurance, redemption and humility. Contrasting Joe's all-American decency with the menacing machinations of Hitler's war effort is a tricky business. Brown could have surrendered to sentimentality, but he delivers a more complicated message by highlighting how Hitler's propaganda machine used the games in Berlin to successfully dupe the international community into believing his pretensions to peace. Jewish groups, who had lobbied for Olympic boycotts, and French and British politicians, who feared a militarized Germany, were dismissed as alarmists, and the world moved on after the medals were awarded. Brown imbues his rowers with the temperament and tenacity needed to defeat the Nazis and he does so with grace and conviction. This is riveting reading as a chronicle of a long-forgotten moment in the history of Olympic competition, but also, as a cautionary tale about the nature of competition and its inherent potential for the purposes of propaganda. ...more
This book isn't for everyone: especially if you're a big fan of Silas Marner (I'm not) or resent modern retellings of classics (I do). So why was I soThis book isn't for everyone: especially if you're a big fan of Silas Marner (I'm not) or resent modern retellings of classics (I do). So why was I so taken with this fairy tale of a desperate curmudgeon whose miserable life is redeemed by a foundling left in his book shop in a resort village on an island near Cape Cod? Each chapter begins with a brief note written by the curmudgeon, AJ, to Maya, the foundling, about a famous short story that is somehow connected to the plot as it enfolds, a literary preview of something significant which is about to happen in their lives. The authors range from Mark Twain to Roald Dahl and, although the titles were familiar to me, I don't recall having read any of them, so I have no idea how effective this is toward enriching the reading experience.
According to my wife, who was decidedly less enchanted by it than me, none of this matters, because it is such a blatant rip-off of Silas Marner. I just like books about books and if they're set in tiny seaside villages, filled with book-loving citizens (even the town police department has a book club) that's an extra bonus. It should be avoided by anyone who objects to the notion that reading should be a force for anchoring communities or for promoting personal development and social harmony. And by people who refuse to read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society because of its awful title. For the rest of us, this is a charming respite from the world of earthquakes, police misconduct, and the Republican candidates for President. HRC, on the other hand, would hardily approve, especially if she still believes what she wrote in It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us...more
In this engaging and scholarly biography of Jane Austen, Paula Byrne successfully dispels many of the myths swirling around her subject. According to In this engaging and scholarly biography of Jane Austen, Paula Byrne successfully dispels many of the myths swirling around her subject. According to Byrne, Miss Austen was a well-traveled, urbane sophisticate who demonstrated a vibrant interest, not just in literature - both classical and contemporary - but in politics, theology and the theater. Byrne identifies objects and relationships that were familiar to Austen and uses them to illuminate important aspects of Austen's personal life and connects them to her plots and the characters in her fiction. As she writes in her prologue:
Small things in Jane Austen’s world do not only evoke distant places. They can also be the bearers of big emotions. The intense emotions associated with love and death are often refracted through objects. Letters and tokens are of great importance in the novels: focus upon an object is often a signal to the reader that this is a key sequence in the emotional unfolding of the narrative. This biography is an attempt to write Austen’s life according to the same principle.
Byrne draws on her vast knowledge of Austen's prose and her correspondence. While her conclusions are speculative, they are rarely without corroboration. I particularly liked her analysis of Mansfield Park where she argues persuasively about its Abolitionist subtext, and her extensive discussions of the scribblings from the Vellum Notebooks, which provide a window into Austen's earliest literary efforts. The fact that Austen took the time and effort to transcribe them indicates her confidence in her potential for eventual fame. Byne has uncovered a never-before-seen drawing of Austen; she compares it to images of her closest relatives to establish its veracity. It is in sharp contrast to the famous, idealized Victorian portrait commissioned by her descendants, just as this biography counters the sanitized version of her life that they also promulgated.
I'm not a big fan of murder mysteries so I'm probably not the best person to judge this British import that the publishing world is calling the next GI'm not a big fan of murder mysteries so I'm probably not the best person to judge this British import that the publishing world is calling the next Gone Girl.There are similarities - lots of sociological sniping from Millennials struggling with matrimony, parenting and financial security and a wife who goes missing - but this is more about one woman's struggles with alcohol abuse. A more apt title might be The Girl Falls off the Wagon. Having a hard-drinking detective is nothing new, but suffering blackouts from excessive drinking is definitely a deterrent to solving a mystery. This is well-written but predictable, mostly because there aren't enough characters to allow for any confusion about who did it. By the time the protagonist has sobered up enough to solve the murder, the rest of us have already figured it out. The only mystery here is whether or not she'll be able to stay on the wagon....more
Jeannette Walls has achieved many things in her life. Unless you've read this absorbing memoir of her childhood, it is impossible to appreciate how reJeannette Walls has achieved many things in her life. Unless you've read this absorbing memoir of her childhood, it is impossible to appreciate how remarkable her accomplishments have been. She is the second daughter of parents who were mentally unstable. Her mother came from a comfortable, upper middle class background in Arizona, but she appeared to have bipolar disorder. Her father grew up in poverty in a small, mining town in the Appalachians, the brilliant and, probably, sexually-abused son of alcoholic parents. At first, it seemed that her charismatic parents were simply practicing a parenting style based on benign neglect, but as her story enfolds - and engulfs us - we realize that there wasn't anything benign about her upbringing.
Her mother's futile artistic pursuits left her little time - and zero interest - for nurturing her kids. Her father's drinking and dreaming deprived them of basic necessities like food and shelter. At first they lived a nomadic lifestyle, sometimes camping-out in the open, and having to "skedaddle" whenever they were threatened by the establishment. As a couple, they demonstrated a peculiar sense of pride, as they struggled to uphold non-traditional values, without ever assuming the basic responsibilities of parenting. When they had any money, it was squandered on art supplies or booze. After a brief respite in Phoenix, living off an inheritance, they all ended-up back in West Virginia, hoping for economic assistance from the Walls. While this provided some permanence and allowed the kids to enroll in school, the grinding poverty, and increasingly bizarre behavior of both parents, motivated all the kids to flee to New York City. It didn't take long for their parents to follow them. The kids mostly achieved some measure of success, while their parents became street people, before "squatting" in an abandoned building.
This harrowing tale of neglect and deprivation is told in a straightforward, unsentimental way. Ms Walls finds both humor and affirmation in unlikely places. This may explain her continued compassion for her unfortunate parents. For her it seems that the kindred ties that bind were also the wings that set her free. If for no other reason, read this to marvel at the resilience and adaptability of these exceptional people as they demonstrate the power of unconditional love....more
The Harvest Gypsies, a thin volume of advocacy journalism, combines the prose of John Steinbeck, the newspaper man, with the haunting realism of DorotThe Harvest Gypsies, a thin volume of advocacy journalism, combines the prose of John Steinbeck, the newspaper man, with the haunting realism of Dorothea's Lange's photojournalism. Their shared subject is the wave of migrant workers who flooded California during the mid-1930's from the Dust Bowl states. Steinbeck went on to write The Grapes of Wrath, citing these articles as his inspiration; Dorothea Lange's famous photo, Migrant Mother, became the defining image of dignity under duress during the Great Depression.
Steinbeck's style of writing in these articles lacks the poetry he achieves in his fiction, but his message of condemnation for the status quo is unequivocal. He depicts and deplores the exploitation of farm workers practiced throughout California - providing historical and socioeconomic context - and argues for federal intervention to protect the workers and preserve democratic principles. It is a wonderful companion piece to both The Grapes of Wrath and Mary Coin, a fictionalized version of Lange's life and work....more
Three books, all read in my adolescence, had a profound effect on my development and my attitudes about American life. The first was To Kill a MockingThree books, all read in my adolescence, had a profound effect on my development and my attitudes about American life. The first was To Kill a Mockingbird, which was my guide through the Civil Rights Movenent in the 1960's. The second was The Catcher in the Rye, which reassured me that adolescent angst was universal and probably not terminal. Then I read this: the heartbreaking story of a family of Oklahoma farmers, the Joads, who are driven off their land by a combination of bad luck and the unfettered greed of bankers, to drift precariously into the world of migrant workers in far-away California at the height of the Great Depression. Having had the good fortune to have been born into the Baby Boomer generation in comfortable, post-war suburbia, its cautionary message about the ravages of unchecked capitalism on the destitute seemed almost quaint and totally foreign-a relic from the distant past. But Steinbeck's powerful story lit a flame in me and a deep distrust for the ranting of free market zealots. I read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged at about the same time, but it is Steinbeck's view that stayed with me and shaped my politics as an adult.
Steinbeck's novel is structured with jounalistic chapters interspersed between the chapters describing the human tragedy engulfing the Joads. He does a masterful job of explaining the adverse impact of the mechanization of agriculture on farm workers. Much of his prose is powerful and persuasive. The dialogue spoken by his fully-realized characters is always solid in its realism and it often soars with the cadence of Walt Whitman's best poetry. Ma Joad is at the center of the family and of this story. She is an archetype of the pioneer woman, whose fortitude and faith-in-family, serves to protect and sustain them in increasingly awful situations. She depends on her ex-convict son, Tom, for support and between them they manage to make the best of unremitting squalor, hunger, neglect, exploitation and brutality. There are numerous references to Scripture, but having been raised a Roman Catholic, most of them went over my head. As an atheist, though, I took pleasure in the way Steinbeck skewers the false piety and hypocrisy of those preaching against victimless or unavoidable sins, while they ignore more serious sins against Humanity.
It would be nice to feel the same since of distance that I felt a half-century ago, but the cumulative effects of our misguided economic policies, led by Tea Party tax revolts and crony capitalism, make it seem as relevant today as it was in the 1930's. The exploitation of migrant workers persists; TC Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain and John Irving's The Cider House Rules are both set in contemporary times. As our tattered representative democracy descends further into oligarchy, it infuriates me that it remains on lists of banned books in America. Thankfully, it is translated into nearly every language; it should be read by everyone!
"It was the first light my poor eyes ever knew. Recalling it, I sometimes wonder if all the faith and all the fancy, all the fear, the speculation, al
"It was the first light my poor eyes ever knew. Recalling it, I sometimes wonder if all the faith and all the fancy, all the fear, the speculation, all the wild imaginings that go into the study of heaven and hell, don’t shortchange, after all, that other, earlier uncertainty: the darkness before the slow coming to awareness of the first light." Alice McDermott
Alice McDermott is a minimalist. Her specialty is capturing the poetry of everyday life. In Someone she masterfully demonstrates the writing advice Jane Austin famously gave to her niece: "Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on, and I hope you will do a great deal more, and make full use of them while they are so very favourably arranged."
Here, "three or four families" are neighbors living on the same block and their "country village" is an unnamed, working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. Marie, the protagonist and first person narrator, struggles with poor eyesight, social anxiety and parental loss, but she evolves into a caring and confident mother, a devoted spouse and a intuitive life support for her ailing older brother. Marie's life may seem ordinary, but in the hands of a gifted writer like McDermott, there is divinity in the commonplace. I was touched repeatedly by the small miracles that make up a life well-lived. Marie is more fortunate than many, because she discovers at an early age that seeing things clearly is impossible unless you learn to see with all your senses. McDermott, the minimalist, paints her images with the light, deft touch of an expert water colorist. She seems confident that her audience will fill in the blanks with the details from their own experience.
I am not a fan of Dave Eggers. A Hologram for the King was the first novel I read by him and I found it dull and unconvincing. Then Zeitoun was choseI am not a fan of Dave Eggers. A Hologram for the King was the first novel I read by him and I found it dull and unconvincing. Then Zeitoun was chosen by my goodreads group, Read Between the Wines, as its nonfiction selection for November. I downed a bottle, or two, and staggered on board, thinking I'd give Eggers another chance with something that was based on truth. As my buzz diminished, I found myself swept back in time to that dreadful weekend in August, 2005 when the world watched in horror as New Orleans drowned, not once, but twice: first from the torrential rains of Katrina, then from the stunning ineptitude of FEMA, the federal emergency management agency. Meeting the Zeitoun family, sharing in their daily activities, caring about them as individuals and as symbols for struggling Muslims in post-9/11 America, made me re-evaluate my misgivings about Eggers and I fell hook, line and sinker for this harrowing and heroic tale of courage, community and kinship.
I felt as though I was drowing myself as the family reluctantly separated on the day before the hurricane hit. I was reassured as the evacuees landed safely in nearby Baton Rouge and fascinated as Zeitoun struggled with the exigencies of surviving the storm and its horrific aftermath. When he took to his canoe, to explore his ravaged city and to give assistance to his neighbors, I marveled at his composure and his competence. After his heartbreaking betrayal by FEMA, I was outraged and appalled. I silently applauded Eggers for his masterful storytelling, and as I wiped away my tears, I reactivated my long dormant pleasure of bashing George W. Bush for his long reign of error. I felt reassured that Zeitoun and his family had survived the worst and were once again thriving in a rebuilt New Orleans with their strong kindred bonds to sustain them. Then I googled Zeitoun. I advise you to do the same before you succumb to the charms of a snake oil salesman named Eggers. My only solace is that I can go back to hating him. ...more
I got the sneaky feeling that I was present at something at which I would rather not be present. It made me think of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Of OpraI got the sneaky feeling that I was present at something at which I would rather not be present. It made me think of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Of Oprah Winfrey.
These lines from The Dinner perfectly encapsulate my feelings toward this unappetizing bestseller from the Netherlands. Herman Koch is a well-known writer of fiction in his native country, but this is his first work to have gone global. I feel as joyful about this as I do about the spread of Ebola. Too much attention is paid to these manipulative and misogynist potboilers, which are neither entertaining nor enlightening. I'm not a fan of Noir fiction, but I can be seduced if the characters are complex and the plot is suspenseful. I figured this thing out at midpoint, yet I had to remain at the table for an interminable meal which, by comparison, would have made a fundraising dinner for Hillary, 2016 seem provocative. Even a brief discussion about grappa failed to ignite my passion. Its structure is both an homage to the play The God of Carnage and an indigestible rant against the nouveau cuisine of the late twentieth century. In any case, I'd rather be forced to watch reruns of Oprah Winfrey's old TV show, then to read anything else by this Koch. ...more
There are things we can’t undo, but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service toThere are things we can’t undo, but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service to life.
This is the opening sentence in Flora, Gail Godwin's unsettling gem of a novel about memory and remorse. The narrator, seventy year old Helen, is remembering the summer of 1945, which she spent quarantined with her mother's cousin, Flora. Helen is turning eleven on August 7. Motherless since she was three, she was being raised by her father, an alcoholic and his mother, her beloved Nonie, née Honora. Nonie's death while shopping for a new hat for Easter, leaves Helen not only bereft but without a caretaker when her father deploys to Oak Ridge, TN for a top-secret government job. She barely knows Flora, who arrives from Alabama on the heels of an outbreak of polio in the community. Isolated on the side of a mountain in a ramshackle abode that had once housed "recoverers" which was Nonie's label for TB patients and alcoholics, Helen learns that Flora and her grandmother had been regular correspondents since her mother's funeral. Flora has kept all of Nonie's letters, using them as her guide for living. Helen desperately wants to see those letters. She reads a few of them surreptitiously, causing her to revise her impressions of her grandmother and to rethink their relationship. Eventually, she gets the letters, but the events surrounding their acquisition are tragic.
Flora is described by one character as simple-hearted and from Helen's perspective she seems simple-minded as well. Godwin manages to create compelling and complex portraits of all her characters-both dead and alive-but there is very little action. Their only other human contacts are a weekly housekeeper, who believes in ghosts, an appealing delivery man with a troubled past and the pastor from Helen's church. The story unfolds slowly, but the tension is there from the beginning. Critics have compared it to The Turn of the Screw and Atonement. There are even some parallels to The Magic Mountain. It is a beautifully-constructed study of the peril and pangs of early adolescence and adulthood during turbulent times. It is fitting that their private tragedy occurs the day after the annihilation at Hiroshima because the world Godwin artfully evokes here is gone forever...except in the realm of memory. ...more
“We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it is not worth it. So we fight the long defeat.”
Paul Far“We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it is not worth it. So we fight the long defeat.”
Paul Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World
Reading Tracy Kidder's engrossing portrait of Dr. Paul Farmer, a doctor and anthropologist, I came to understand that the above words weren't meant to be pessimistic or sentimental, they were simply a way of explaining the resolve which animates his extraordinary efforts on behalf of his patients. A brief glance at the titles of a few of Dr. Farmer's books gives you a sense of his worldview - and his penchant for pithy alliteration - AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame; Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues; Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor; Haiti After the Earthquake.This is a man who believes with all his heart that the "idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world" and that "a social justice approach should be central to medicine and utilized to be central to public health....the well should take care of the sick."
Kidder spent a great deal of time with Farmer. He accompanied him on hospital rounds in Boston, Siberia and, particularly in Haiti, Farmer's home-of-choice, partly because it was - and is - so neglected and needy - which included day-long hikes across rugged terrain on house calls to assess living conditions as part of a patient's treatment plan. They shared grueling transcontinental flights for a brief meeting on behalf of Partners in Health, a global health organization founded by Farmer and Kidder came to an understanding of Farmer which goes far beyond admiration. There is a great deal to savor in his ode to this marvel of medicine "who would cure the world." His prose is provocatively persuasive: “I think Farmer taps into a universal anxiety and also into a fundamental place in some troubled consciences, into what he calls "ambivalence," the often unacknowledged uneasiness that some of the fortunate feel about their place in the world, the thing he once told me he designed his life to avoid.” One of the many ironies is that Farmer's own childhood was anything but privileged. His family lived for years in a converted bus or on a boat captained by an unconventional father who knew almost nothing about maritime navigation. Reading about this heroic man may not change your life, but, at the very least, it may lead you to reconsider many myths about the origins of poverty, and its devastating consequences when it comes to basic health care access....more
Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls. Joseph Campbell
Jonathan Lethem is able to deftly capitalize on the setFollow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls. Joseph Campbell
Jonathan Lethem is able to deftly capitalize on the settings he employs in his novels by making the neighborhoods he chooses come vividly to life. Not only do they help to define his characters, they sometimes serve as external metaphors for their internal struggles. Rose, the central character, and matriarch of a nuclear family that is perpetually on the brink of annihilation, lives most of her adult life in a leafy enclave in Queens, New York called Sunnyside Gardens. This was America's first successful experiment with garden-city design, established to provide affordable working-class housing - an urban utopia - and was so successful that it influenced all urban planning that followed; a green oasis 15 minutes from Midtown Manhattan, it even has a Bliss Street as one of its main thoroughfares. Rose is a dissident in all aspects of her life. She is an atheist, a Jew, an adulterer, an abandoned wife, a ferocious mother and a life-long crusader for causes - particularly Communism and Civil Rights - which place her at odds with mainstream America. Lethem chronicles the wreckage which ensues, for her biological daughter, Miriam, a Greenwich Village hippie, and her "adopted" son, Cicero - a brilliant, bitter and self-loathing academic, as Rose follows HER bliss in ways which are sometimes heroic, but more often divisive and self-destructive. That he is able to tell their stories with humor and compassion is testimony to his skills as a writer. He brilliantly concludes this family saga of lost opportunities with an incendiary encounter between Rose's grandson, Sergius, an apolitical pacifist, and a uptight agent from Homeland Security in the same airport in Portland, Maine where Mohamed Etta's journey began on September 10, 2001. When I finished reading Motherless Brooklyn, Lethem's breakout novel, I craved a sequel because I found its central character, Lionel Essrog, a detective with Tourette's Syndrome, and its setting, pre-gentrification Brooklyn, so compelling. Although the characters' names have changed and this one is set in other neighborhoods, in other boroughs, I finally got my wish. ...more
I started watching the TV dramatization of Wolf Hall, the often told, but perennially fresh, tale of King Henry VIII and his harem of queens, told frI started watching the TV dramatization of Wolf Hall, the often told, but perennially fresh, tale of King Henry VIII and his harem of queens, told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, a brilliant strategist who was born a commoner. He understood that his influence and survival depended on an elasticity of conscience. He was the embodiment of moral relativism. At the same time I started to read, Half of a Yellow Sun, by this Nigerian author. It tells the story of the Biafran War for independence from the perspective of the twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene and their servants and consorts. Although they were born of privilege, they were members of the persecuted Igbo tribe. They chose to remain in the newly-formed nation of Biafra, despite powerful international support for the Nigerian government and strong odds against victory for the rebels.
As I read, I couldn't help but contrast Cromwell's wily machinations to the self-sacrifice of these heroic twins. Cromwell craved power, but he was fully aware of the fatal consequences of failure. The twins committed themselves to a just cause, but were unable to envision the inevitability of its demise. Their struggles are told with compelling conviction by Adichie, but I found myself questioning their choices, even as I applauded their bravery. Coward that I am, I would have fled to London, as their parents did, and taken up cricket or gardening, yet I'm grateful to her for writing a masterful novel of war and remembrance. It is a fitting tribute to the millions who perished, especially to the powerless, who were victims of both their circumstances and the hubris of their leaders.
I came across this novel because it was listed as part of a blog post on Facebook, 20 Moments that Changed History: A Reading List. This is how it wasI came across this novel because it was listed as part of a blog post on Facebook, 20 Moments that Changed History: A Reading List. This is how it was described: "The parallel story of colonized South Africa of 150 years ago and post-apartheid South Africa...this is a book that you will devour because it's so well written, and yet it will stay with you." Published in 2000, I suspect that the author, Zakes Mda, hoped to illuminate problems facing contemporary South Africa by revisiting an extraordinary historical event, the cattle-killing crisis of 1856-57. In response to a virulent cattle disease, it was prophesied that the entire cattle population must be slaughtered before a renewed era of prosperity would occur. According to Mda, British imperialists exploited this tragedy - and the subsequent famine - to impair tribal power and to seize land from the natives. He neatly links the colonial experience to the modern, polarizing impact of development in this back-water paradise on the east coast of South Africa. He raises intriguing questions about tourism in a developing country and the contradictions of spirituality and faith. He envisions a model for development that is based on cooperative ownership, environmental sustainability, and historical accuracy. Despite some stilted dialogue, he writes with flair and assurance, although I found the African names and words, which he kindly translates, to be a hindrance to my full appreciation. Jumping back and forth between modernity and colonial times reminded me of the experience of watching television as a kid back in the 1950's. Even when the reception was good, once the set warmed up, the picture would begin to drift. You had a few options: you could reach around to the back of the TV to fiddle with the controls; you could wait patiently for the picture to come back into focus, sometimes seizing the disruption as an opportunity to pop some more corn; or you might even give up entirely and pick up a book. When such interference is part of the book, your options are more limited. If you aren't as linguistically inept as I am - or as unfocused - you might find these factors less challenging. ...more
We've all heard someone say that pictures don't lie -- which has always been a distortion of the truth. The earliest photographers learned how to maniWe've all heard someone say that pictures don't lie -- which has always been a distortion of the truth. The earliest photographers learned how to manipulate an image to convey various messages. Pictures can be cropped, colored, or airbrushed to hide or highlight elements of the "truth" and the viewer's perception often depends on factors that go far beyond the factual circumstances of the subject matter. When Dorothea Lange snapped some pictures of a migrant family stranded on the roadside in 1936, she knew she had stumbled onto something significant. She forwarded them to a newspaper in San Francisco the next day and the rest is history.
The most striking image, a stoic, dignified mother, surrounded by her children, with her gaze averted from the camera, has become the iconic picture of America in the Depression. It is also the inspiration for this intermittently riveting, historical novel by Marisa Silver. She weaves their stories -the photographer and her subject - into a powerful tapestry of female empowerment as the Roaring 20's first fizzled...then popped, leaving behind a residue of destitution and despair. Her third character, a contemporary social historian, aptly named Walker Dodge, from a wealthy family of citrus growers, is struggling to connect to his children as he seeks answers about his family's past following his father's death.
Silver's prose is luminous, especially when she's telling Mary's hardscrabble tale of survival. Her Dorothea character, Vera Dare, comes off less vividly, perhaps because her circumstances were less dire so her accomplishments seem comparatively diminished. Walker's modern tale of parenting and divorce isn't nearly as compelling, but he shows endearing qualities as a college professor who is committed to getting his students to observe analytically. The opening chapter, which describes Walker's return to his hometown, is a masterful evocation of the cyclical nature of time and its impact on memory. This thread connects all three characters but, like the overreaches of the 1920's, it is not substantial enough to mitigate the inherent imbalance of their lives or of their stories.
When I was a kid, growing up on the outskirts of a small city in central NY, I used to gravitate to movies that were set in Gotham. One of my favoriteWhen I was a kid, growing up on the outskirts of a small city in central NY, I used to gravitate to movies that were set in Gotham. One of my favorites was My Sister Eileen which centers on the Sherwood sisters from Ohio, who are out to stake claim to their careers from their basement apartment in the Greenwich Village section of New York City. Older, sensible Ruth aspires to be a writer, while beautiful - and temperamental - Eileen dreams of success on the stage. A variety of oddball characters bring color and humor to their lives. Austen's Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, bear a striking resemblance to them, except that they require husbands rather than employment. Marianne is at the center of the story which is mostly told from Elinor's perspective. Poor Marianne suffers from a fickle, flawed suitor and a life threatening illness, while Elinor neglects her own romantic interests to minister to the needs of her sister.
Like the Sherwood sisters, they are surrounded by a large cast of characters, who either enrich or complicate their journey toward matrimony. For them these secondary characters add texture, color and comic relief, but for us they also detract from the narrative precision that marks Austen's later novels. It's fascinating to see her experiment with earlier versions of some of her most memorable creations: the wickedly foolish Mrs. Ferrars morphs into Lady Catherine from Pride and Prejudice, her daughter, selfish Fanny Dashwood, is a prototype for Anne Elliot's nasty sisters in Persuasion and Colonel Brandon is a dead-ringer for Emma's Mr. Knightley. Willoughby, Marianne's fickle suitor, is not just duplicitous like Wickham and Henry Crawford, he is also an impregnator who defends himself with these words: "I cannot leave you to suppose that...because she was injured she was irreproachable, and because I was a libertine, SHE must be a saint."
Wow! That's a racy thought for Miss Jane to entertain. She backs away from it in her later works. Lydia Bennet may, or may not, have been sexually seduced by Wickham, but he is forced to marry her in any event and Maria Bertram of Mansfield Park, is an adulterer, not an unprotected maiden. Consider this, and Austen's novella, Lady Susan, which is about a reprobate home wrecker, and you might well wonder what she would have written about the nature of female sexual behavior, if it could have passed muster with her publishers and her reading public.
If you've seen the excellent 1995 Hollywood film adaptation, you have gone a long way toward experiencing the joys and tribulations of Sense and Sensibility. Emma Thompson, the actress and screenwriter, successfully captured its essence and made some sensible changes which brought needed focus to the plot. But without reading it, you'd be missing an opportunity to savor the subtleties of Austen's prose as she worked to perfect one of the greatest voices in English literature. ...more
Claire Roth's life isn't going well. Although she's a talented painter, she hasn't been a good judge of character in affairs of either business or romClaire Roth's life isn't going well. Although she's a talented painter, she hasn't been a good judge of character in affairs of either business or romance. A few years back, she had helped her lover, a successful but blocked artist, to meet a deadline by painting what was to become a masterpiece in his name. When their relationship soured, she attempted to expose him only to find herself shunned by the art world. Forced to support herself as a painter of OTC (over the couch) reproductions, she agrees to forge a Degas for an influential agent in return for much needed cash and the opportunity to mount a show in his gallery. When their scheme unravels, she exchanges her brushes for a detective kit, in order to locate the original painting which no one had ever suspected was missing. Although it may sound complicated, Shapiro succeeds in making it seem both plausible and compelling.
With her doctorate in sociology, she does an excellent job of presenting the contemporary world of art. Her characters, especially Claire, seem authentic without being stereotypic. She is less successful at conjuring the voice of Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose art collection constitutes the museum named for her. We meet her through a series of imaginary letters to a favorite niece. The letters serve to substantiate the plot, but anyone who's read novels by Edith Wharton or Henry James might find fault with their style and form. Shapiro also does a tremendous job of instructing us in the craft of forgery, but her greatest accomplishment is in demonstrating the extent to which artifice drives our assumptions about the value of creativity and talent. She shrewdly links the attributes of forgers - ambition, greed, talent and hubris - to the high stakes world of art collecting, drawing parallels between the famous and the infamous. Consider this sobering thought: experts estimate that as much as half of the art sold on the international market is fake. Maybe I'll invest in a professional basketball team instead.
"Ms. Tartt has made Fabritius's bird the MacGuffin at the center of her glorious, Dickensian novel, a novel that pulls together all her remarkable sto"Ms. Tartt has made Fabritius's bird the MacGuffin at the center of her glorious, Dickensian novel, a novel that pulls together all her remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole and reminds the reader of the immersive, stay-up-all-night pleasures of reading." writes Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. But according to The New Yorker's James Wood "the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter." Although critical responses are mixed, readers are united by the notion that their rapture has not been misplaced. Count me among them. I was looking for something absorbing to while away the weekend after Thanksgiving. This had been lurking on my kindle for months so I decided to see what all the fuss was about for myself. Thus began my four day infatuation with Theo Decker, an Upper East Side, adolescent preppie, after an explosion at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC shatters his world. The Flemish masterpiece, The Goldfinch, provides an anchor for him as he negotiates through the treacherous waters of parental loss and betrayal, guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction and a series of reversals of luck.
Theo is bright and intuitive, and he is more fortunate than most in the friends he selects. The Balfours, a socially-prominent family, shelter him from the indignities of the social welfare establishment immediately after the tragedy and watch wistfully as his n'er-do-well father reappears to steal his inheritance before carting him off to a housing development in the desert on the outskirts of Las Vegas. There he meets Boris, a Ukrainian grifter-in-training, and the two of them, each neglected and abused, forge a life-long bond of friendship as they develop serious substance-abuse habits. Eventually Theo finds his way back to New York where another kind acquaintance, Hobie, offers him support and trains him to become an antique dealer in the rarefied world of Manhattan's super-rich. There are obvious Dickensian influences, but Tartt also evokes the voices of Thoreau, Dostoevsky, two Toms, Mann and Wolfe, even Proust, as she spins her tale of loss and redemption. She offers up a sumptuous buffet of sights and insights, without tethering her characters closely to any particular time: iPods and iPhones are clues that suggest that the action is occurring mostly in the 21st Century. Without their inclusion, this could have been happening at any time within the last fifty years. She is shameless about dropping names of luxury brands of clothing and accoutrements. Without the nifty search mechanism on the kindle app for iPad, I would have been at a serious disadvantage, yet it reaffirmed my sense of pride for drifting along merrily in a status-free cluelessness. I was mildly disturbed by a too abrupt ending -- it seemed tacked on and out-of-place -- but after my total surrender to its perfect pacing of plot and powerful, persuasive prose in the preceding 750 pages, I am not about to quibble.
I was drawn to Carol Shields' Jane Austin: A Life because I admire Shields' work as a novelist and because I am in the clutches of a severe attack ofI was drawn to Carol Shields' Jane Austin: A Life because I admire Shields' work as a novelist and because I am in the clutches of a severe attack of Austenitis. It hits me annually, sometimes accompanied by a far less pleasurable bout of gout. Thankfully the gout went away, but the Austen fever lingers. Shields' title is a marvel of simplicity, as is her impressionistic biographical sketch. She confesses that there is scant evidence to draw from so she wisely chooses to focus on an analyses of a few of the novels in the context of major events in her subject's brief life. If you've read other Austen biographies you may want to skip this. But if you are looking for a fluid synopsis of both her life and her work, this is practically perfect. Shields is first and foremost an admiring reader. She credits more extensive biographies as her source material, and highlights crucial snippets from Austen's correspondence, mostly from letters she penned to her elder sister, Cassandra.
According to Shields, their intimacy had its drawbacks. She suggests that the family conspired to keep the spinster aunts apart as much as possible. Cassandra clearly influenced her younger sister in crucial ways, in life and in death. She even destroyed letters she found incriminating after Jane died, possibly from breast cancer, at forty-one. Incriminating to whom we can only guess. Shields pays particular attention to Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. She dislikes Lady Susan but thought the unfinished Sandition had great potential for expanding Austen's subject matter.
I've always thought that Mrs. Bennet gets a bum rap and that Mr. Bennet is viewed more positively than he deserves. So does Shields. She points out that Mrs. Bennet had legitimate concerns about her daughters' prospects and that her husband made things worse by ridiculing her and them. She also stands up for the much maligned Fanny Price. Despite Austen's assertion that no one but she would care for Emma Woodhouse, both Shields and I adore her. What really sold this for me was Shields' belief that Jane Austen,
laboring over her brilliant fictions, creates again and again a vision of refuge furnished with love, acceptance, and security, an image she herself would be able to call a home of her own.
That's an enticing prospect for anyone, even a gouty old guy like me. ...more
Back in the halcyon days of the 1950's American kids basically raised themselves. Once you demonstrated that you could cross the street without gettinBack in the halcyon days of the 1950's American kids basically raised themselves. Once you demonstrated that you could cross the street without getting run over you were basically on your own until night fall. Yesterday's benign neglect has morphed into more modern trends like tiger moms and helicopter parents but savvy kids still manage to put things over on their folks. The two teenage sisters at the center of Tell the Wolves I'm Home don't have to try very hard because they're being raised by wolves, or more precisely, partners in an accounting firm who relinquish all parental responsibility once tax season begins. They are left to fend for themselves even though they are also coping with their mother's brother's recent death from AIDS. Without any parental guidance, both sisters engage in risky behavior as they struggle with long dormant feelings of jealousy, guilt, blame and forgiveness
June, the younger sister, was her uncles's favorite and the story is told from her perspective. She is one of a long line of adolescents in literature, from Jo March to Holden Caulfield, who actively resists the pressures of maturity. Her uncle's death, and the elaborate scheme he concocted to help her grieve, force her to cope with issues far greater than typical teenage angst. Her family dysfunction is an evocative stand-in for the misinformation and social hysteria that AIDS engendered back in the 1980's. Carol Rifka Brunt has recreated the brooding atmosphere of NYC and its northern suburbs in the waning days of the Reagan presidency, making it seem both hauntingly familiar yet, thankfully, far removed. ...more
Dirty linen might seem like a unsavory topic in a novel set in Regency England, but when the linen belongs to the Bennet family from Jane Austen's PriDirty linen might seem like a unsavory topic in a novel set in Regency England, but when the linen belongs to the Bennet family from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice it makes for good reading. Jo Baker's Longbourn is told from the perspective of the downstairs staff: two house maids, the housekeeper, her butler husband, and a mysterious, newly-hired footman. By modern standards this might seem like a excessive number of servants, but in Nineteenth Century England, five menstruating daughters, not to mention a gaggle of Gardner cousins foisted on the Bennet's for weeks at a time, produce a mountain of laundry for the two beleaguered maids. One day a week is dedicated to it and even the family pitches in: they eat a cold buffet because the maids aren't available to serve in the dining room. The servants sell their labor for the security of a warm bed - sometimes only a pallet on the floor - and regular meals and they enact their revenge in startling ways. When Mr. Hill, the butler, discovers a bit of food stuck to the tines of a fork, he gives it some spit and a shine on his vest before placing on the table. These servants depend on each other for kindness and understanding - even sex -although that shared comfort doesn't preclude an occasional boink with one of their "betters." The airing of the family's metaphorical dirty laundry is front and center in this alternate reality. Baker envisions a plausible back story for the Bennet family - a kind of foreshadowing for Lydia's hushed-up fall from grace and a rationale for the troubled Bennet marriage. She basks in the ironic implications of Mr. Bennet's efforts to save his licentious daughter's reputation while remaining indifferent to the needs of his illegitimate offspring. All of Austen's characters look less attractive when they're viewed through the eyes of their servants. To them Lizzy is known more for her soiled petticoats (all those muddy walks!) than her sparkling wit, and Mrs. Bennet isn't just a hysterical blabber mouth, she is also addicted to narcotics for the treatment of her infamous nerves. Two notable exceptions are sycophantic cousin Collins, and Mary, the pedantic middle sister. Here they are portrayed sympathetically which made me reconsider the delight I took in Austen's satirical skewering.
Critics have often chastised Austen for ignoring the turbulence of her times. Baker fills that void by bringing the Napoleonic Wars vividly to life. The flogging of a soldier isn't just a juicy bit of gossip to be chewed on by the gentry. In Baker's hands it becomes a powerful symbol for the hardships and injustices endured by the serving class, whose survival depends on the whim of those they serve. We can thank her for imagining fully realized lives for them, and for sharing her vision without detracting from the magic of Austen's masterpiece. Add a star if you are very familiar with Pride and Prejudice and are not afraid to think outside the box....more