26 May 2018

The Symmetry in Asymmetry

Just months before the great writer Philip Roth passed away, a young woman penned a fascinating first novel that featured an elder writer with a surprising and definite resemblance to Roth. Turns out, he was the model for the character and he did have an affair, years ago, with the much younger woman, as depicted in the novel. As if, since Roth stopped publishing five years ago, he had to be present in fiction in another way and it works. In a recent interview, Roth said, "she got me." And what a wonderful me he was, in this novel as in life. 
Agent-turned novelist Lisa Halliday
            In the first part of three-part novel ASYMMETRY, author Lisa Halliday describes the tale of a junior editor having an affair with the revered older east coast writer, and takes place in Manhattan and Long Island, Roth's habitats, at the onset of the first Iraq war. The anxiety of the twin towers hovers over the city.
            It was cool for June; a steam rose from the water as though a river of magma flowed only a fathom below. Rustling trees cast trembling shadows on the basin, whose layers had chipped away over the years to leave swirls of old grays, greens, and aquamarines, like an antique sea chart. Beneath the surface, Alice’s hands, still coming together and swiveling apart, began to look less like instruments of propulsion than like confused magnets, or hands trying to find their way out of a dark room. But still, she swam.
           The unlikely affair between the older Jewish westside writer,  and the young quirky Irish east sider is surprisingly and delightfully funny in parts, as I'm told Roth was. Despite the sensuality, and the May-December romance, there is something decidedly sweet between them, as if a last glimpse of innocence in a world gone crazy. 
The great Philip Roth
The affair plays out predictably, and in Part three, the novel returns to the writer in later years in a stunning fictional interview in which he is asked to define the decades of his life through music. Roth fans know he is nearly as devoted to classical music as his writing, and the interview seems spot on. One of the characters in Part two is an exceptional pianist, one of the few slim threads of connection between parts. Asymmetry not disconnection.
            Our mother’s tendency to mythologize our childhoods would have you believe that Sami, who had never touched a musical instrument before, sat down at that piano for the first time and was rolling out bagatelles by sundown. I don’t think it was quite like this. A more accurate version surely begins with a fact that has long confounded my parents, and me to a degree as well, and that is that my brother did not like living in America. Almost from the beginning he complained of missing his Baghdadi friends and pointedly lagged behind in school, although he was no less clever than his classmates and had spoken English as well as Arabic since he was three.
            The filling in this novelistic sandwich is an entirely new set of characters - hyphenated Americans and Brits and Muslims – in the nearly McCarthy-esque days during the gulf war as Saddam Hussein is overthrown. The voice is completely different, the story line geo-political, and only a subtle hint in Part one [which I nearly missed] suggests the young woman’s interest in this culture and in writing her own novel. 
            The most profound asymmetry is in the relationships, between cultures, religions and educational status and, in some ways, also reflects the assimilation of the Jewish writer into the mainstream, in contrast to the perpetual turmoil in the middle east.
            Or not. This novel is as much about interpretation and the perception we bring to the reading. The middle part may be jarring, and seems so far from the story line it’s hard to make sense of it, at first, but take your time with it. I prefer only to review books I recommend, and this one gave me pause, but if you’re interested in post-modern literature with superlative characterization and excellent writing, despite its asymmetrical nature, or perhaps because of it, there is much to commend the writing and the pleasure of being in Roth's presence, as close as we can get now other than reading his own words, which I intend to continue to do often. 

05 May 2018

The Search for Identity

David Plante

So much has been written, and said, of late, about the search for cultural identity. And, right now, the preponderance of refugees from Africa and the Middle East attests to the constancy of human migration and to our biblical propensity to be tribal. 

I’ve just read two slim compelling novels featuring female protagonists approaching the quandary of otherness on totally different paths.  

David Plante, an accomplished British-American writer with a French-Canadian family tree, is not well known but prolific in both fiction and biography. I heartily recommend THE FAMILY, his best-known work and a National Book Award finalist.

Now he presents AMERICAN STRANGER [published in January by HarperCollins] but this stranger is not new to our shores. Nancy grew up in an affluent Jewish household in Manhattan but knows little of her parents’ German history, other than they escaped during WWII. They never speak of it, she never asks, and this disconnect to parents is also central to the story. As she comes of age, aimless and enlightened, she seeks herself in relationships with three different men. [Think searching for love in all the wrong places.} The most elusive of the three is an equally troubled young man searching for himself in spirituality and nonconformity. His searching is particularly moving to Nancy, and his memory haunts her. Plante reminds us we are grounded not only in our roots, but in the worlds we create for ourselves. While there are a few plot moments I found implausible, it’s a beautifully written work of fiction with a unique set of characters.

“Anyway. Yvon knew he couldn’t blame Ma for what she was, because she couldn’t help herself, she didn’t have the will. You see, Ma was, well, a kind of innocent, it was beyond her all that made her helpless, and, I’ll tell you, I loved her for her helplessness. And, here’s something else I’ll tell you, I loved my brother Yvon for his helplessness, that made him, too, a kind of innocent. He tried and he tried, but, after all, Yvon didn’t have much will. And those are the innocent people.”

Yuri Herrera
Pair this with SIGNS PRECEDING THE END OF THE WORLD by Yuri Herrera, who some call Mexico’s greatest novelist. [I might argue on behalf of Carlos Fuentes, although I am so pleased to discover Herrera.] Published in 2009 in paperback from the British publisher, Other Stories, and translated by Lisa Dillman, the novel [more a novella] constructs the journey of Makina, a Mexican girl in search of her brother who previously crossed the border to America. 

A proud, feisty character, Makina makes the crossing under the auspices of a seemingly benign coyote, who uses her as a messenger. She carries one unknown messenger to a stranger, and a message from her parents for her brother. Once her first mission is accomplished, she finds herself in the labyrinth that is immigrant existence in border communities and her brother seems to have vanished without a trace. Undaunted, she sets out to deliver the message.

There are homegrown and they are anglo and both things with rabid intensity: with restrained fervor they can be the meekest and at the same time the most querulous of citizens, albeit grumbling under their breath. Their gestures and tastes reveal both ancient memory and the wonderment of a new people. And then they speak. They speak an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable; a hinge pivoting between two like but distant souls, and then two more, and then two more ,never exactly the same ones; something that serves as a link.

Both books will remind you there are no others, only disparate worlds. Happy reading. 

10 April 2018

Short Takes: One Page per Day

Eduardo Galeano 1940 - 2015
Eduardo Galeano is one of Latin America's many distinguished writers. Sadly, too few are translated into English. Thankfully, I recently discover his last gem, published in 2017, a collection of short takes with his classic voice urging advocacy for the environment and indigenous people. Read just one per day, as each small take speaks volumes and will ground your presence.

HUNTER OF STORIES. 250 pages. One small story or contemplation per page. Most have to do with the destruction of the natural world, one of his constant themes., and with indigenous cultures and their prescience, and foreboding, for the future.

Some as small as one line. All pack an amazing punch. Consider "We Were Walking Forests."

Every day the world loses a forest, murdered while only a fe centuries old and still growing. Barren deserts and uniform plantations spread far and wide., burying the world of green. Only a few people have been wise enough to keep up the language of plants that allows them to communicate with the fortress of the oak and the melancholies of the willows.

And "Let's Go Out."
At the end of the nineteenth century, many residents of Montevideo spent their Sundays on a favorite outing:an excursion to the jail and the insane asylum. Contemplating prisoners and lunatics, the visitors felt certifiably free and sane. 

Read one, takes a moment or two, and then you will find it stays with you through the day, perhaps longer, as Galeano takes us back to another time, the time we've let pass and in looking back, we might long for another time, or, perhaps, we might better consider the future.

And then I discovered SALT. Poetry by Nayyirah Waheed, who writes of more personal longings. The eons-old passions and fears fitted to modern life. Again, short takes, one per page, sometimes one line, often Zen. She posts them on Instagram as well and I never fail to stop what I'm doing to think about what she has said. Might be a bit too existential for the masses,, but she has such a lovely way with words. Always in lower case, beyond an homage to ee Cummings, perhaps she means to say, don't take yourself quite so seriously, we are all one.

Again, one per day. Morning is a good time, to leave time to consider her words. Better than meds or vitamins. And she often writes of the natural world. Galeano would approve.

sometimes the night wakes in the
middle of me.
and i can do nothing
become the moon.

the ocean 
can calm itself
so can you.
are both
salt water

SALT is only available at Amazon.com.

Happy reading.

11 March 2018

More than A Room of her Own

by Cherise Wolas

Cherise Wolas
A first novel, an accomplished debut by an accomplished woman – lawyer, film producer and now, novelist, in the footsteps of Ann Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver and Sue Miller. A beautifully crafted, literary page-turner about the challenges of personal evolution.

It’s not exactly a new tale, rather a new twist, in fact a series of twists, told in a pitch perfect voice. A young woman achieves early fame as a writer and determines to devote her life to her craft. No children, no distractions. Seems simple enough.

I was not looking for love. Love was more than simply inconvenient; its consumptive nature always a threat to serious women… I wanted no such conversion, no vulnerability to needless distraction.

Of course, Joan falls in love. She believes she has found the partner who shares her goals and respects her resolve to devote herself to the writing life. Nevertheless, she finds herself a mother, betrayed by the husband she thought shared her dreams. He has dreams of his own.

Before she knows it, her writing life is shuttered. On hold, temporarily, she convinces herself. She pours herself into the son who seems her mirror image – an avid sophisticated reader and writer. And then a second son: difficult, precocious, on an entirely different path she does not believe she can share. In secret, she writes. Decades pass before she completes what she believes will be the masterpiece her readers, and the critics, expect.

At this point, nearly half way through a 530-page novel, I began to wonder if the story would disintegrate into a seventies-style feminist manifesto. Not that such manifestos are irrelevant, but must be handled delicately to avoid cliché. Instead, Wolas turns the novel into nearly Shakespearean drama. Sort of A.S. Byatt meets Indira Ghandhi. A shocking turn of events sends Joan to an entirely new place and direction.

Oh, did I mention the stories within the story? Wolas has created a body of work for Joan, and others – stories, the first pages of novels, video blogs. Masterfully done. 

She thinks it likely they may never see him again, that in order to move on he will need to forget he once had a hand in creating a world he didn’t want. She thinks destiny will always win out over second-best, that it’s an impossible burden on those left behind.

Joan lands in India, where, it seems, introspection always encounters truth. Again, there might have been a cliché in this, but Wolas handles the navigation so realistically, we go with her all the way. We cheer for her and feel for her and the story evolves organically.

Will Joan continue writing and fulfill her promise? The novel has much to do with destiny. Sort of a mythological contemplation of how lives play out despite our best intentions. It’s a very good yarn, especially for those who have not had what Virginia Woolf famously called a room of our own. The creative personas within us subjugated by obligation. Writer or artist or not, every mother will relate to the losses experienced in favor of parenting, for better and for worse. 

Wolas has been compared to Carson McCullers and Truman Capote, even Joan Didion. High praise indeed. Let’s hope she stays the course in her writing. A powerful new voice here. I can't wait to see what she does next. 

10 February 2018

Tragedy & Comedy in Israel

by David Grossman

Don't be put off by the title! This remarkable novel sat on my pile for nearly a year, even though I am a great fan of the prolific, award-winning Israeli writer, David Grossman, only because the title did not appeal. And the story line - one night’s stand-up performance, seemed off-putting. Talk about judging a book by its cover, and, as is usually the case, a huge mistake. 

The star of the novel, a comedian well passed his prime, has set out on this night to try to make things right for himself. Trapped in a memory that has haunted him and which, even at this late stage of life, seems unresolvable. Perhaps unforgivable. 

He has arranged a performance in a club in an outpost in Israel, the finale for a diminished career, and he has enlisted the support of a childhood friend, now a revered, recently retired, District Court Judge, whom he asks to come to this performance to serve as witness. But to what? And the judge himself, mourning his wife, has come to question his own existence in the larger world.

I knew all this time that he wouldn’t let me get out of here easily. That the whole business, the invitation and the ridiculous request, was a trap, his private revenge, a trap I walked into like an idiot.

David Grossman knows how to weave a compelling story. What you might call a tour-de-force in less than two hundred pages. If you haven’t yet read “To the End of the Land,” start there. A masterpiece, featuring one of the most poignant heroines in modern fiction. However, the two novels are so completely different in style and content, you would never suspect they were written by the same author.

HORSE…  reveals a difficult, deeply bonded, and also dysfunctional relationship with the comic’s parents, a relationship that is tested one week at a summer military youth camp. This is the place where the comic and the judge once crossed paths and where tragedy struck – the defining moment of the comic’s life and, surprisingly, in a far different way, also for the judge. 

In addition to the judge In the audience the night of the standup, there are the usual hecklers who demand humor not pathos, members of the crowd encouraging the comic to examine the lifelong reverberation of that summer, and a few who seem to have an interest in the comic’s personal reparation.

Here’s the thing: within the despair and anger, the horrors of a moment that forever alters a life, there is incredible humor. Laugh out loud humor. In a lengthy monologue [honestly, how does this literary novelist master comic timing so well?] peppered with flashback and psychological and emotional contemplation, within the humor and strain, the questioning of an entire existence, the judge comes to realize he is there for a larger purpose, and the audience is treated to an extraordinary all-nighter in comedy theater, until, in truth, the last man is standing.