the book that matters most by Ann Hood (which certainly reads better than The Little Paris Bookshop)

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Here we have another book from another book discussion group I’m in, but the book that matters most is far superior to The Little Paris Bookshop. While both of them speak to the love of literature, and Paris, the novel by Ann Hood lacks the gagging treacle effect that Nina George is so adept at creating. There are no platitudes here, just an interesting story which is well written.

The premise is that each member of Cate’s book club must choose a book that mattered most to them; each month one of the books from their list will be discussed. The titles listed brought back marvelous memories for me, from Anna Karenina (my personal favorite) to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I loved remembering each one and longed to reread it as one does with favorite books.

But, there is a secondary story here involving Ava and her daughter Maggie, who is supposed to be studying abroad. Instead, Maggie is in Paris involved with drugs, and all the wrong kinds of choices that accompany them. Ava has troubles of her own, as her husband of 20 years has just left her. To top it off, she is still struggling to cope with the death of her sister, and then subsequently her mother, when Ava was still a child.

Rather than sounding trite, or artificially crafted for the sake of telling a story, the novel’s issues seemed pertinent and real. I was fully engrossed in this book, connecting to the members of the book club as well as Ava’s trials with a less than cautious child.

Plus, my yearning to reread Anna Karenina grows with every passing day.

The books listed within:

  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Like Water for Chocolate
  • The Great Gatsby
  • Anna Karenina
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • To Kill A Mockingbird
  • The Lord of The Rings
  • The Golden Notebook
  • Dinner at The Homesick Restaurant
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  • Thr Leopard
  • Dr. Zhivago
  • The House of Mirth
  • Slaughterhouse-Five
  • As You Like It
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Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves (Man Booker long list)

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The irony in this tragic novel is as strong as the theme of electricity that runs through it. It takes place in Alabama, in the 1920s, vacillating between a farm and Kilby Prison.

Roscoe Martin has rewired electricity to power the struggling farm he and his wife have inherited from her father. He never wanted to be a farmer. He wants to work with electricity instead, and this little bit of power he has siphoned off produces incredible prosperity for their farm.

But when a worker from the electrical company is accidentally killed while inspecting the lines, Roscoe is immediately incarcerated. The brief respite of joy he has rekindled with his wife, Marie, is destroyed. She does not come to visit him in the prison but once, nor does she bring their son, Gerald.

Wilson, the man who worked for Marie’s father, is also imprisoned; he knew about the diversion of electrical power from the main lines of Alabama Power and was complicit by his silence.

How ironic it is that they are held in jail by guards who are less skilled then they are, or by wires containing the very electricity they sought in order to improve the status of the farm.

This is Kilby Prison. We exercise in a dusty yard. Around it, a high wall is strung with wire, and in that wire is electricity, enough electricity to kill George Haskin and anyone, more than they run through Yellow Mama (the electric chair). Listen. Electricity so strong you can hear it.

There are many ways to be imprisoned: by a jail cell, of course, but also by the fallout of choices gone wrong, dreams demolished, or isolation from those we love.

This novel showed how those unimprisoned can be just as guilty of crimes as those who are. How sad it made me for hope deferred, as well as for hope lost altogether.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (Man Booker long list)

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This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are free completely from terror, I realize I don’t know how others are. So much of life seems speculation.

I can’t tell you what a lovely morning this has been, sitting with my Lavazza and our lab, Humphrey, slowly absorbing every word on these pages; sometimes stopping to record a sentence in my Midori commonplace book. Like the one at the top of the post, or this one:

Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.

Strout’s writing has the gentleness and insight of true wisdom, so refreshing after feeling bashed over the head by The Sellout.

When Elizabeth Strout speaks of racial inequality, she writes sentences which tear my heart like this one:

How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong, and wrong like right.

She does not deny truth, nor, I believe, does she soften it. She simply presents it in an unassuming way, and leaves no part of life undiscussed; from poverty to childhood, illness to parenting, love to marriage, she had me quietly weeping in several places.

I love this book.

“Privacy is the Last Thing We Have.” I Am No One by Patrick Flanery

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Each word I put on paper I imagine may be the last I write in freedom.

I came across this quote a mere 22 pages into I Am No One, and immediately found myself identifiying with Jeremy O’Keefe, the History professor who said it. How often I have wondered if our freedom of speech will someday be taken away, as the world that I have known and trusted slowly turns upside down.

Jeremy is now teaching at NYU, after leaving Columbia and then Oxford. His life is in shambles, and throughout this book which is a testament he seems to be recording, we are never quite convinced of his sanity. Is he telling the truth, or is he paranoid? Could it be he is somehow being manipulated?

The novel begins with a missed appointment he thinks he has made with one of his students. She doesn’t appear, and when he arrives home to check his email he finds a note cancelling their meeting which he does not remember writing. While he was waiting for her at the cafe, he exchanges a few brief words with a young man who keeps appearing, apparently coincidentally, in Jeremy’s life.

Things worsen when unmarked cardboard boxes appear, addressed to him with no indication of who sent them, yet they contain hundreds of pages of private information: every URL he has ever visited, every phone number he has called, and files of photographs of his life.

To me, this is the most fascinating part of the novel. Do we know how visible we are in our every movement? Do we know who it is that is watching is, or worse, keeping track of our private lives?

To be human is to be watched, to be part of society, because we are social animals, but we do not expect that observation by community or government will extend into our private lives. Those of us who are rational believe that as long as we are not breaking any laws, there is no reason the government should be watching what we do inside our homes, within the confines of our private property, and yet this apparently rational belief has been demonstrated, time and again, by behavior of law enforcement and intelligence services, to be profoundly false.

I Am No One is a literary thriller with immediate implications to the lives we live today. Privacy, past relationships, technology and terror are all brought into sharp focus as Patrick Flanery examines their interplay with this book. It is a job well done, a thoroughly fascinating read, making me wonder if any of us have the courage  to make our private lives visible. Should we be required to do so.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: “…burn ’em to ashes, then burn the ashes.”

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For a Science Fiction book written 66 years ago, Fahrenheit 451 has an astonishing amount of relevance for today. The people do not have living rooms, they have TV parlors, where they are inundated with sound to such an extent that they cannot converse, or think, or imagine for themselves. Their ears are stopped up with tiny Seashells streaming constant noise; their eyes are blank, reflecting what lies behind them: emptiness.

This book reminds me of The Stepford Wives, where women were controlled by their husbands, only this time the people are controlled by the government. It is a government which lies, and covers up to hides its mistakes, all in order to save face just as Hillary Clinton still does today regarding Benghazi. People believe what they are told to believe because they are not able to think for themselves.

Guy Montag decides he will not burn books any longer. Instead, he turns liquid fire on Captain Beatty, and then manages to escape the Mechanical Hound which is set to seek and destroy him. He finds a ragged group of men around their own campfire, a fire from which surely a Phoenix will rise, for these men know that together they are stronger than individuals who can merely rage. They have taken it upon themselves to memorize the written word, from Thoreau’s Walden to the Magna Carta, the Constitution, and Ecclesiastes.

A warning comes from Granger, which we would do well to heed:

“And hold onto one thought: You’re not important. You’re not anything. Some day the load we’re carrying with us may help someone. But even when we had the books on hand, a long time ago, we didn’t use what we got out of them. We went right on insulting the dead. We went right on spitting in the graves of all the poor ones who died before us. We’re going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and the next month and the next year. And when they ask us what we’re doing, you can say, We’re remembering. That’s where we’ll win out in the long run. And some day we’ll remember so much that we’ll build the biggest goddam steamshovel in history and dig the biggest grave of all time and shove war in and cover it up. Come on now, we’re going to go build a mirror factory first and put out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take a long look in them.”

I can’t imagine a better time to look in the mirror than right now.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

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“The problem, dear professor, is that you wanted someone who could be made intelligent but still be kept in a cage and displayed when necessary to reap the honors you seek. The hitch is that I’m a person.”

I last read this in high school. I haven’t read it since for the sorrow it still brings to the pit of my stomach. Charlie Gordon is so realistically created, so humble and gentle, that he reminds me of all of the students I went to school with, and all the students I’ve taught since then, who have special needs. How easy it is for some to forget that a person lies within, especially when the doctors want accolades for their skills and the mothers want everything to be all right.

What Charlie wanted more than anything was to be smart. His teacher, Alice Kinnian, saw that trait in him at the Beekman school he attended and nominated him for an experimental surgery such as the little white mouse, Algernon, had. The problem is that no one took into account the emotional and psychological side effects of messing about with intelligence. No one bothered to look past the hopes of a successful surgery into what might happen if it failed.

Which, of course, it does.

I think of the irony in this book, that Charlie’s mother was so caught up in the appearance of perfection that she could not accept him as he was. She sent him away to a home rather than loving him in hers, and when he visits her in a brief period of intellectual strength, she is the one who is feeble minded. Who we are, our frailty and imperfection, catches up with each one of us.

Daniel Keyes reminds us, through the powerful voice of Charlie, that intellect is nothing in and of itself. “Don’t misunderstand me,” I said. “Intelligence is one of the greatest human gifts. But all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love. This is something else I’ve discovered for myself very recently. I present it to you as a hypothesis: Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to mental and moral breakdown, to neurosis, and possibly even psychosis. And I say that the mind absorbed in and involved in itself as a self-centered end, to the exclusion of human relationships, can only lead to violence and pain.”

This is what makes the book so exquisite, the truths wrapped up within a mentally retarded man who has a bigger heart than anyone else around him.

An Introduction to The Poser by Jacob Rubin (And Give-away)

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Accented with vaudevillian flair, The Poser is set in an imaginary country that resembles America of the 1950s and 1960s. A small eastern seaside town is where we meet Giovanni Bernini–a man who possesses the uncanny gift to instantly mimic anyone he meets. As he describes it, “No one disguise is perfect. There is in every person, no matter how graceful, a scam, a thread curling out of them…When pulled by the right hands, it will unravel the person entire.” Honed by his theatrical mother at a young age, his talent eventually takes him from his hometown to the nightclubs of the City and eventually the sound stages of Fantasma Falls, the glamorous, west coast city similar to Hollywood. As Giovanni’s fame grows, he encounters a cast of provocative characters–including an exuberant manager, a mysterious chanteuse, an enigmatic psychoanalyst, and a deaf obsessive compulsive–and becomes increasingly trapped inside many personas. When his bizarre talent comes to define him Giovanni is forced to assume the one identity he has never been able to master: his own. ~Viking Press

Continue reading “An Introduction to The Poser by Jacob Rubin (And Give-away)”

The Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Dept. of Speculation

When I started reading this book, I thought she was neurotic. Now I understand that she is just blatantly honest, this mother, this wife, who tells us her story in bits and snippets as though we were reading her journal. Or, her mind.

They may seem disconnected, these stream of consciousness thoughts, but they are interwoven with quotes from poets and scientists, reporters and explorers, priests and Zen masters, to reveal a disconcerting vulnerability. I found my attention captured by this woman who begins by telling us the love she feels for her newly born daughter:

“The baby’s eye were dark, almost black, and when I nursed her in the middle of the night, she’d stare at me with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she’d washed up on.”

and:

“My love for her seemed doomed, hopelessly unrequited. There should be songs for this, I thought, but if there were I didn’t know them.”

But then she segues into marriage, into the abyss of an affair she discovers her husband is having.

“There is a story about a prisoner at Alcatraz who spent his nights in solitary confinement dropping a button on the floor then trying to find it again in the dark. Each night, in this manner, he passed the hours until dawn. I do not have a button. In all other respects, my nights are the same.”

and:

But my agent has a theory. She says every marriage is jerry-rigged. Even the ones that look reasonable from the outside are held together inside with chewing gum and wire and string.

So now this woman at the playground is telling me about how her husband rifles through her purse for receipts. If he finds one for the wrong kind of ATM, he posts it on the refrigerator, highlighted in red. She shrugs. “he can’t help it.”

What exactly am I waiting for her to say? That she married a fool? That her house is built on ashes? And here I am, the lucky one for once. Such blinding good fortune to have married him.

The wives have requirements too, of course. What they require is this: Unswerving obedience. Loyalty unto death. My husband sits in our kitchen and hand-sews a book. I hope that when it goes through the post office no machine will touch it.

and:

She remembers the first night she knew she loved him, the way the fear came rushing in. She laid her head on his chest and listened to his heart. One day this too will stop, she thought. The no, no, no of it. Why would you ruin my best thing?

and:

They used to send each other letters. The return address was always the same: Dept. of Speculation.

and:

The only love that feels like love is the doomed kind. (Fun fact).

and:

What Rilke said: I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.

They whisper-fight, now. They hash out their issues in the Little Theater of Hurt Feelings. There seems to be no solution.

There are two women who are furious at him. To make one happy, he must take the subway across town and arrive on her doorstep. To make the other happy, he must wear for some infinitely long period of time a hair shirt woven out of her own hair.

Her writing is segmented enough to be fascinating, connected enough to be brilliant.

But, if it was me? The minute my love wants someone else, he is free to go. I would never, ever, make a place for him to stay, let alone demand it.

 

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

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There’s something about Anne Tyler’s books which is like sitting down to Sunday dinner. They are warm, and comforting, and resonant of home even if the home doesn’t exactly resemble one’s own. Within the pages I quickly become lost into the mood she spins: often quirky, often mellow, always tender. The significance of the plot begins to melt away as I absorb the characters’ lives and wonder how it is that they seem to express exactly what I feel.

We may remember The Accidental Tourist. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Back When We Were Grownups. Or, my personal favorite, Breathing Lessons, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. So with eager anticipation I read A Spool of Blue Thread, published just two days ago on February 10, 2015.

The novel opens with Denny, a young man in whom I could easily envision my brother. Or, my son. He hangs up the phone after delivering astonishing news, leaving his parent wondering yet again where this trouble might lead, and just when it is, exactly, that they might hear from him again. The whole first part is dedicated to the actions of unreliable Denny, unwilling-to-answer-for-anything Denny, and I am half assuaged that there is another person who brought to his parents the discomfort my own son has sometimes created for me. Even if this person is fictional.

Then abruptly, we open Part 2 to read the history of Denny’s paternal grandparents. We learn the background story of the Whitshank family, how they brought themselves up through sheer determination and hard work from the Depression to owning the home that Denny’s grandfather longed for from the moment he set his eyes on it.

And all along the way, I am entranced by Abby, Denny’s mother. She is so loving, so warm, so outgoing, that she thinks nothing of inviting the “orphans” to dinner; those who are lonely, or newly arrived to America, or somehow struggling to find their way. This drives her children crazy. They don’t understand her, they are embarrassed by her, and all the time I’m thinking, “I wish that was that generous of spirit, in action not just word.”

I am connected to these characters. I feel I could be one of Abby and Red’s children, fumbling around with Stem, Jeannie, Amanda and Denny as they go to the family beach vacation, or sit around the dinner table reminiscing over their childhood, or wondering what to do as their parents’ fragility becomes an issue that must be resolved. Abby is forgetful, like there’s a hitch in time she explains. Red is hard of hearing, misunderstanding conversations or staying out of them altogether. When Stem, the eldest, and his wife and children move in to take care of the aging couple, no one is more surprised than I, that Denny comes too, demanding why he wasn’t asked first to be the care-taker.

For ultimately, family is family. The thread that ties us together cannot be broken. It may be fragile. It may be thin. But it comes from a spool that represents history, a specific history of events and imperfect love that is the foundation of every family.

Thank you to Random House for this novel which I read in only a few days, a novel that is beautiful to its very last page, written as only Anne Tyler could do.

 

To Rise Again At A Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

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I had to read this book when I saw that it was one of the contenders for the Man Booker Prize, by an American author no less.

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The first thing I did to this library book upon opening it, however, was to correct the epigraph in pencil.

Do not tell me, Mr. Joshua Ferris, that you expect readers to believe a verse in Job, of the Old Testament, says merely, “Ha, ha.” It smacks of atheism.

But, wait. That is exactly what you are addressing, with a plethora of other issues, in your fascinating book about a dentist named Paul O’Rourke in specific, and our American culture in general.

At first, I found Paul terribly funny:

Ignoring the poignancy of everyone’s limited allotment of good mornings, I would not say good morning. Or I would in all innocence forget about our numbered opportunities to say good morning, that horrifying circumscription, and simply fail to say it. Or, I would say good morning sparingly, begrudgingly, injudiciously, or tyrannically…What was so good about it anyway, the too-often predictable, so-called new morning? It was usually preceded by a long struggle for a short drowse that so many people call night. That was never sufficiently ceremonial to call for fresh greetings.

But, by page 200 or so of this sharp wit, one tires of such groaning. One realizes that there is very little that will appease Paul’s  humour. His days consist of attending to his patients, wishing that his ex-girlfriend, Connie, would still love him, and lamenting his life. Not to mention the lives of those around him.

I was not going to spend my Friday night being gawked at. My Thursday nights never caused me any troubles. It was always my Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights that caused me troubles. On those nights, I was reduced to eating and drinking. The city (Manhattan) had almost nothing else to offer, and if this great city had almost nothing else to offer, imagine what it was like in lesser cities, or the suburbs, or the small rural towns where so many people are clerks and farmers, and you will understand, finally, why this country has become a nation of fat alcoholics and the nurses and therapists who tend to them.

Paul makes astute observations on those around him, specifically how people (including himself) are obsessed with their “me-machines”, constantly checking them for emails, texts, updates, or even to Google a certain topic. Here is a passage of the very clever dialogue he writes in a conversation with his hygienist:

…she’d say, “Oh, for goodness’ sake. Put the phone away once you enter the street and take a look around you. Why must you always be reading your phone?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “If you know it is merely a distraction from the many things you don’t want to think about, why let yourself be a slave to it?” I’d tell,  her, she’d say, “That is the most blasphemous thing I have ever heard. A little technology could never take the place of the Almighty. We are talking about the Almighty, for heaven’s sake. Mobile phones or no mobiles phones, we still have the primal need to pray, do you we not?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “Sending and receiving email and texts are not a new form of prayer. Do you not understand that that little machine, by taking your attention away from God and the world He created, is only increasing your despair?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “I don’t give a fig for the world it’s created. It will never rival God’s.

And now we come to the heart of the book, for ultimately this is a book about faith. Or, about being Jewish. Or, about not having any faith at all.

When Paul discovers an unknown source has put up a web site in his name, and is delivering emails to his box, he is most disconcerted. They are very personal, and they are very insightful about who he is as a person.

I know it must be uncomfortable for someone to pop up out of nowhere and diagnose your troubles with pinpoint accuracy. I don’t think you’re an animal in a cage-far from it. You’re the full measure of a man, thoroughly contemporary, at odds with the America dream of upward mobility and its empty material success, and in search of real meaning for your life. I should know, Paul, I was there once, too. In fact, you might even say that you and I are one and the same.

The rest of the novel takes us through Paul’s effort to discover the source of these emails, and in so doing examines the role of the believer. It is a powerful book, which has given me much to think about. If this is truly how the majority of Americans think, we have become a lost nation.

I don’t know how To Rise Again At A Decent Hour will fare in the Man Booker competition, but I think the original, creative writing of Joshua Ferris deserves to have brought it to the short list so far.