TOMORROW: My Book World | Fiona Hill's Mr. Putin
Bailey, Blake. A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates. New York: Picador, 2003.
Tragedy is a horrendous thing for any human to endure, and yet we all do endure it to one extent or another: adverse childhood experiences, deaths, career failures, and more. The author of this exhaustive literary biography, Blake Bailey, does not employ the word lightly, neither in the title nor how he uses it throughout the book. Bailey’s subject, novelist Richard Yates, born in 1926, has about as tragic life as one can live, yet Yates uses it to formulate his fiction with a high degree of success, perhaps too well, to listen to some critics, many of whom are put off by his lack of “happy endings” or his “dim view” of humanity.
No matter what, Yates comes by his viewpoint honestly. In short, his parents’ divorce, not to mention he is raised by a mother who probably has a better opinion of herself than her real talents manifest themselves in her life. She believes herself to be an “artist,” and because of her opinion, her two children (Richard and sister Ruth) are always at the bottom of her priorities. On the other hand, she is a highly seductive person, among other things, encouraging her young son to sleep in her bed. On nights that she stays out late or all night, the boy child lies in bed, wondering where she is. And when she comes home and falls in next to him and vomits on his pillow, his rage is stoked in a way that remains with him his entire life.
“. . . he fixed on his round eyes and plump lips as physiognomic signs of weakness; more to the point, he thought they made him look feminine, ‘bubbly,’ and he had a lifelong horror of being perceived as homosexual” (39). Hm, I wonder why, with the mother thing he has going on.
Anyone wanting to get inside the head of one of the greatest American twentieth-century novelists must consider reading this book. It’s that great. My second-hand copy is marked with a “WITHDRAWN” stamp from the Mishawaka-Penn-Harris Public Library in Indiana. Guess it wasn’t much of a hit there.
NEXT FRIDAY: Michael Waldman's The Fight to Vote
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Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead. New York: Farrar, 2004.
Robinson writes this novel in a very different but masterful fashion from most contemporary novels. She undertakes to have a third-generation (at least) Protestant minister tell his family’s story to his very young son by way of a letter, reviving a long epistolary tradition in storytelling. It is the kind of novel that wends itself back and forth over the same geographical (from Iowa to Kansas, literally on foot) and temporal (several generations) territories. One must retain part of the information, at least, to make sense of it all; yet Robinson skillfully reminds readers of pertinent facts, and they can uncover more as they continue their journey through the book.
The elderly Rev. John Ames, who has married late in life, is fatally ill and thus wishes to share his life with his young son. Early on, he shares that in his life as a pastor he has written and filed away a large number of sermons:
“Your mother . . . was the one who actually called my attention to the number of boxes I have filled with my sermons and my prayers. Say, fifty sermons a year for forty-five years, not counting funerals and so on, of which there have been a great many. Two thousand two hundred and fifty. If they average thirty pages, that’s sixty-seven thousand five hundred pages . . . two hundred twenty-five books which puts me up there with Augustine and Calvin for quantity” (19).
One doesn’t know if the son is impressed because he hasn’t yet read this long epistle, but to the reader it seem be a daunting figure. Even most novelists do not produce that much material in a lifetime. So what occupies the thoughts of a trained minister? Family issues, certainly, and we learn of his older brother Edward who studies in Europe and returns an atheist. One problem with a liberal education is that one is taught to think for oneself and what Edward thinks does not please their father; in fact, he is quite hurt that Edward refuses to deliver the prayer at a meal but even more disappointed that his son will not be following in his footsteps.
Another major thread of the narrative has to do with a fellow pastor and friend, a man named Robert Boughton. (One is not sure if the first syllable is pronounced bough as in a tree’s bough, bow as in bow tie, or even buffton or booton.) Robert’s son, Jack, is a bit of a problem in a number of ways I shall not reveal, and because of them John Ames does not trust Jack. But as a matter of putting his faith in action, he finally steps up to help the troubled young man to grow and move on—his own father, Robert, not ever knowing of Jack’s troubled past. I, too, like Edward, am a former Christian, but I find the book explores the topic of spirituality in a manner that is respectful to all parties who may read the book, and that is a feat difficult to achieve.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Blake Bailey's Literary Biography of Author Richard Yates: A Tragic Honesty
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Lane, Byron. A Star Is Bored: A Novel. NY: Holt, 2020.
Twenty-eight-year-old Charlie leaves his night job writing news copy for a Los Angeles TV station to become “personal assistant” to actor and movie star, Kathi Kannon. When one learns that author Lane once served as Carrie Fisher’s PA, one wants to turn Kathi’s voice into Carrie’s, Gracie Gold’s (Kathy’s mother) into Debbie Reynolds. As with any competent fiction, however, Lane creates two great characters that only reflect that he once knew them both, not that he’s out to recreate them.
And this book is full of so many unforgettable voices. Begin with Kathi’s: off the bat she renames Charlie “Cockring.” From there, it’s only a short step to all the other outrageous things she says while he shops with her, travels with her, sees her in and out of hospitals for . . . well, read for yourself to find out what. Cockring’s head is full of voices: his father bellowing at him through the years by way of sentences in all caps: “WE ALL HAVE TO DO THINGS IN LIFE WE DON’T WANT TO DO!” (66); his own fears as he speaks to his inner Siri: “Hey, Siri, I want to impress. I want to be the best assistant. I want to rescue my failing grade” (77); the voice of Cockring’s Therapista; the voices of all the other PAs to Hollywood stars, all with their own nicknames, who collectively write what is known as The Assistant’s Bible, chock full of information every great PA should memorize.
Cockring realizes early: “I have to be: to accept life as it happens, to be still and rest in knowing the universe is friendly, that good things will come, that good things are already here, that ‘good things’ include tidying her house, getting her car serviced, sorting her pills, surrendering my needs to hers” (91).
At a certain point, however, Cockring will learn this lesson a bit too well, and, like all good young protagonists, will have a crisis of identity. How that turns out will have to be the reader’s adventure. I’m not spoiling it for anybody. For laughs and tears, for good feelings and bad, you must read this book.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | E. M. Forster's A Life to Come
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Fallada, Hans. Every Man Dies Alone. Translated by Michael Hofmann, with an afterword by Geoff Wilkes. New York: Melville, 2009 (1947).
This novel, originally published in German in 1947, is the fictionalized story of a true-life married couple who denounce the Nazi regime. The couple are solid followers of Hitler until their only son is killed in battle. They then turn their anger outward in a quiet manner by handwriting postcards of denunciation which they deposit all over the city of Berlin. They carry on for over two years, placing nearly 300 cards without notice. Yet their campaign is basically a failure because most people who find the cards turn them into the Gestapo so that they do not themselves wind up in trouble. Due to a bit of carelessness, the couple are caught and wind up in prison. Fallada deftly portrays their ending as fearful but brave souls who have no problem talking back to prison officials.
Fallada concludes the novel on a positive note by bringing back into view a boy who, because of his terrible home life, has begun a life of crime until he is adopted by a caring and loving couple who help to change his ways. Fallada’s writing is very nineteenth century by way of its omniscient point-of-view in which we know what every character is thinking. He is also quite skilled in creating a large number of characters, yet giving the reader periodic hints about who is whom, thus keeping the narrative moving. Finally, he, from time to time, repeats or skillfully echoes his title, Every Man Dies Alone, in ways that expand its obvious or concrete meaning. Fallada’s novel is a keen reminder that freedom requires sacrifice, that no matter what culture we live in, we must always be on guard against its being taken away from us, or worse yet, that we hand it over without question.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Reinaldo Arenas's Novel The Assault
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Harrison, Jim. The Summer He Didn’t Die. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2005.
These three novellas, each one striking for its individuality, are immensely satisfying. The longer-than-a-story-but-shorter-than-a-novel format seems to be perfect for each narrative. My favorite character in The Summer He Didn’t Die, the title novella, is Berry, a child who is born with alcohol fetal syndrome. She is mute but indicates by her actions, quick and sprite-like, how she shall act upon the world and its many rules. Most of the action is of her family (excepting her wayward mother) evading Michigan’s children’s protective agency and depositing their lives over the border in Canada so that Berry can live out her life in peace. Republican Wives, hilarious for its verisimilitude (uncannily written for a male writer), takes readers inside the minds of three different women, friends since childhood, who have been hoodwinked for the last time by a man (also a college acquaintance) with whom they have all had affairs (mostly at different times). Tracking tells the story of an author who outlines his literary career and personal life, from feckless yet ardent college boy to a grandpa, finally finished with world travel and content to be near his grown children and grandchildren. The collection is a great testament to the novella form in which it is just the right length to tell each one of these stories.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone
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Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.
In 1959, a Baptist minister, his wife, and his four daughters, leave their Bethlehem, Georgia home for a year of service to the Congo in Africa. The mother, Orleanna, opens the novel with a long lens; we learn right away she will lose one of her daughters, and so we read on patiently to see how such an event will unfold. Of course, we sort of forget, and we’re shocked when the youngest, Ruth May, is killed by a poisonous snake much later in the story after we have come, like her mother, to love her.
This expansive novel is divided into seven books, always a sign of what will be a sprawling narrative. Each book opens with a chapter narrated by Orleanna, the frazzled mother who dares not rile the ire of her preacher husband. The remaining chapters of each book are narrated alternatively by each one of the daughters: Rachel, a light-haired blonde, probably born about 1945, who has visions of high fashion and easy living in her life—having not much use for her father’s strict evangelical life; the twins, Leah and Adah, one a healthy adherent of her father’s ways (for a while), the latter injured before birth and who limps yet has a brain equal to her twin sister’s. The former will eventually marry a Congo native; Adah will return to Atlanta and become a doctor. Before her demise, Ruth May, the youngest, is a sprite, a child with her own language, her own worldview, a darting derring-do that will eventually serve to take her life.
Each chapter then widens our view of their village in the Congo as it survives an historical upheaval: one popular but revolutionary leader being killed within three months of his election, and the return to office of a corrupt man who will conspire with the West (mostly America) to spend thirty-five years amassing great wealth while his countrymen and women survive (or don’t) lives of poverty. One additional character, Mother Nature, or her evil sister, makes life at the least difficult, at the most, a disaster of magnificent proportions. In what feels like the climax, a giant wave of ants marauds their Congolese village, and its inhabitants must survive by, among other things, climbing trees until the rampage has passed. When this family returns to their house and accompanying buildings, they find only bones left where their chickens once roosted. The house is spotless, as if cleaned by a squad of maids. At this point, Oleanna gathers her three remaining children and abandons her husband. Now this is not as easy as it sounds. She has always served Nathan and his god with blind faithfulness, but now she sees that he is not well (think heart of darkness) and must save her remaining three daughters. Only she is not even able to do that. Rachel marries a South African man of questionable character (and three more men in serial monogamy). Leah marries her native. Adah returns to Georgia with her mother. It is a family broken in so many ways it takes an entire book to portray how. Oh, and the title? The poisonwood tree is an apt name because of the substance it oozes; its bible an apt metaphor for the despoliation of one family. A stunning, timeless read.
NEXT TIME: My Book World | Jim Harrison's The Summer He Didn't Die
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Murata, Sayaka. Convenience Store Woman. Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori. New York: Grove, 2018.
A compact book at 163 small pages, this novel is a more substantive read than one would think at first. The simple language that the narrator Keiko uses may lull the reader into thinking this will be a simple story. In a way, it is. This young Japanese woman who works in a convenient store shifts to a flashback about her childhood. There she reveals her odd personality, a certain problem with affect, in which she would like to cook and eat a beautiful little blue bird that has died, much to the horror of her mother. Then in primary school, when no teacher appears to break up a fight at recess, Keiko takes it upon herself to hit one of the boys on the skull with a spade. At that point, after getting into trouble, Keiko decides to become a little rule follower, making her, upon high school graduation, a perfect candidate for convenience store worker.
Keiko is unusually attuned to the store’s needs, both at the macro and micro levels—responding to the store’s needs the way a mother might respond to her children. Remaining single, without much apparent interest in sex, Keiko works part-time and sustains a secularly ascetic existence until she’s thirty-six. Then she meets a man, creating the novel’s conflict, and I won’t reveal the ending because it’s pretty odd and yet satisfying. I do have a question for the author. Keiko is often more skilled in managing the store than her male, mostly younger managers (eight of them in eighteen years). Why does her demonstrated competency (all her colleagues acknowledge her abilities) ever put her in a position to become a manager herself? Is this author Murata’s point, a comment on Japanese culture? Or is she more concerned with portraying people who happen not to fit the mold of ordinary citizens and how society treats such people?
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Tobias Wolff's Novel Old School
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Vreeland, Susan. Girl in Hyacinth Blue. New York: Penguin, 1999.
In contemporary times, a Philadelphia professor calls a colleague (who is an art scholar) into his locked study to reveal what he claims is an original work of the Dutch artist, Vermeer. The colleague argues against such a claim, but the man insists. He is in a bind because his father has confessed that he himself stole it from a Jewish home while he was working for the Nazis in WWII, but he cannot reveal such indicting provenance. Each succeeding chapter takes the reader farther back in history (à la the film The Red Violin) to reveal previous owners, right up to, the reader must assume, Vermeer himself. All owners are fascinated by the painting and yet must depend on its sale to save themselves or their family from financial disaster. The author explores the value of art. Is it entirely intrinsic, or is it monetary, or is it a bit of both? Vreeland manages to explore this unique idea in a poetic manner which is both compressed, yet expansive, a valuable topic for discussion. The novel is a timeless read, and I’m glad a friend recommended it to me long ago and that I finally took the time to read it.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Alison Smith's Name All the Animals
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Egan, Jennifer. Look at Me. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
I read Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad in 2012 to study how nonlinear plots work and enjoyed it very much. This earlier book, her second novel, is a bit more traditional although she does some very interesting things like presenting the main character’s chapters by way of first person but the rest of the chapters in third person; she also cuts, rotating quickly from one character’s point of view (omnisciently) to the next in one of the final chapters, to sustain suspense and perhaps coalesce their views into one. It would seem that the basic plot is that one Charlotte Swenson, a beautiful young fashion model is involved in a car accident, and the surgeon who puts her face back together does so (and I find this hard to believe) with eighty titanium screws just beneath the skin. Her face is still beautiful, but it is no longer her face. People don’t recognize her. She is invisible.
But Charlotte is not without curiosity, a certain inventiveness, to keep her life interesting after losing her livelihood (her booker can no longer get her any modeling jobs)—including a festive sex life. By her own recognizance she can identify what she calls the shadow self of almost any person with whom she comes in contact. Later in the novel, she encounters a man who will now direct a television special about her accident and recovery, in which she plays herself. Even though outwardly he is somewhat fit and sophisticated, she limns his shadow self as an insecure fat kid, the one lurking just beneath the surface of his life, his skin. Though Charlotte’s character is flawed, she leads us to believe she is an astute judge of character, and we tend to believe her.
As with any fine novel, there is a lot going on here. Egan weaves together the story that Charlotte and two other characters are destined to tell, along with a cast of supporting characters, who, in themselves, are fascinating: for one, Z, a young Middle Eastern would-be terrorist who seems to adapt to America quite well; also, a recently recovered alcoholic detective; a mysterious teacher who is seduced by a young female pupil (one of the three main characters) and has also come from some distant or foreign background (one almost thinks that he and Z could be one, but no, ‘tis not true). Jennifer Egan is one of those novelists who meticulously create plot, who meticulously create believable characters to carry it out, all in the service of larger literary themes which are also captured by a title as apt as Look at Me.
By the way, this is an “Advance Reading Copy” that claims it is “Not for Sale.” However, I paid twelve dollars for it at a used book store, and I wuz robbed. I can now see at least one good reason publishers do not want readers to see this sort of copy sold. It had (I always mark them) a variety of twenty-one typos, averaging more than one per chapter. And those are just the ones I caught.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Debbie Cenziper's Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America
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Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale.
With a new introduction by the author.
New York: Anchor, 2017.
I suppose I always felt this book, originally published in 1986, was a woman’s book—chick lit—but after viewing the MGM/Hulu production of Atwood’s novel, I believe I was wrong. A dystopian world in which women are nothing more than baby makers and terribly devalued if they cannot deliver is not a world any of us want to live in. Such a world is also one in which all human beings are devalued, consigned to rigid gender and social roles. Atwood herself may articulate the novel’s greatest value in her new introduction:
“But there’s a literary form I haven’t mentioned yet: the literature of witness. Offred records her story as best she can; then she hides it, trusting that it may be discovered later, by someone who is free to understand it and share it. This is an act of hope: every recorded story implies a future reader. Robinson Crusoe keeps a journal. So did Samuel Pepys, in which he chronicled the Great Fire of London. So did many who lived during the Black Death, although their accounts often stop abruptly. So did Roméo Dallaire, who chronicled both the Rwandan genocide and the world’s indifference to it. So did Anne Frank, hidden in her secret annex” (xviii).
Indeed. A novel in which almost half of the chapters are entitled “Night”—and are alternated with ones like “Jezebel’s” and “Salvaging”—readers should be duly warned that we, too, could descend into a world of moral darkness, that we should take heed from this, our literature of witness.
NEXT TIME: My Journey of States-20 Florida
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St. Aubyn, Edward. Patrick Melrose. New
York: Picador, 2015.
I more often read a novel before viewing a film version, but less often do I read the novel after tuning into something like, say, Showtime’s “five-part limited series,” of the same title. It is one of those series which may have been equal to the book, or books, because Patrick Melrose is a compendium of St. Aubyn’s five novels about the same character, and it unfolds almost as luxuriously as the book.
Patrick Melrose may be one of the best contemporary novels to come to grips with the life of a drug addict. But more important, I believe St. Aubyn traces the aspect of abuse within a family over several generations, and how, unaddressed, it can devastate a family—wealthy or not. Substance abuse is merely a symptom of the deeper problems buried in the Melrose family history.
Patrick Melrose, born in 1960, approximately the same time as his creator, experiences physical abuse when his father perpetrates sodomy on him at an early age—repeatedly over several years. But then there is also the emotional abuse, when Patrick’s father, David, swears Patrick to secrecy or he will be “very severely punished” (79). (In the film, he says he will snap him like a twig.)
Patrick’s mother? Well, her abuse of him manifests itself as ignorance—blissful, willful ignorance of how David is treating their son. She, too, has suffered abuse as a child and at the hands of her husband, and they, without even trying, do their best to destroy Patrick’s life. What is most remarkable about this novel is that St. Aubyn manages to limn the skeletal remains of the several generations of this family without any shortcuts or platitudes. On the next to the last pages of the book, Patrick has earned the profound conclusions at which he arrives:
“He imagined himself as the little boy he had been at that time, shattered and mad at heart, but with a ferocious, heroic persona, which had eventually stopped his father’s abuses with a single determined refusal. He knew that if he was going to understand the chaos that was invading him, he would have to renounce the protection of that fragile hero, just as he had to renounce the illusion of his mother’s protection by acknowledging that his parents had been collaborators as well as antagonists” (855-6).
My God, in a nutshell, the entire novel portrays the unraveling of this moneyed British family, their accumulated abuses and how they lead to “drug and alcohol abuse” by Patrick, his chosen method of coping. Cause and effect, folks. Cause and effect.
I have only a couple of observations which might manifest themselves as criticisms: In spite of St. Aubyn’s lyrical and commanding prose, sustained over nearly nine hundred pages, I was often distracted. First, he participates in what American workshoppers call head-hopping, that is, employing the third-person omniscient point of view, not commonly used since the nineteenth century. Yet, I must probably applaud him because he manages to employ it with great skill, and, in a novel of this breadth, it is amusing and strategically important for the reader to know exactly what each character is thinking at any given time.
And two, the author uses, repeatedly, speech attributions which seem inappropriate or awkward. What do I mean? Any speech attribution, to my way of thinking, ought to be a synonym for the word “said,” or “spoke”: “declared,” “replied,” or similar verbs. Not so here: “The daughter is impossible,” grinned Laura (408). “Grin” is not a synonym for “said,” and it gives the sentence an amateurish patina. I wonder: Is this an acceptable practice in the writing of fiction within the United Kingdom? I should hope not. Another scathing example: “You may well ask,” scowled Nicholas (704). Seriously? How is “scowling” like “speaking?” This questionable practice is rife throughout the novel, marring what is otherwise impeccable prose, and could have been nipped in the bud by a good editor. Please help me to understand, Mr. St. Aubyn. Why would you do this to your book?
NEXT TIME: Final Installment of Defeating A Fib At Last
Richard Jespers is a writer living in Lubbock, Texas, USA.
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