20 August 2017

2 BY 1: Fictions by Mary Gordon

I should say five fictions, because THE LIAR’S WIFE, published in 2014, is a collection of four novellas, and THERE YOUR HEART LIES, a novel, and together are latest of the sophisticated writings of Mary Gordon. She’s been at it since 1978 with a stunning debut novel entitled FINAL PAYMENTS and since then has devoted her sharp observations to the nature of human nature. One theme prevails: the defining influence of the people and places that form our personal narratives.

In THE LIAR’S WIFE, Gordon presents four scenarios of people in transition. An elderly woman confronted after many years with her errant first husband. An émigré of World War I held hostage to her crippled brother and misguided memories of her mentor, Simone Weil. A young man chosen to introduce Thomas Mann at a school lecture only to discover late in life he was chosen not for his talent but because he represented the underclass. And, the idealistic broken-hearted novice art historian discovering herself in, yes, Italy. In all, Gordon beautifully captures all that ails us, and heals us, and the space between.

“Where had they learned it, all of them, this way of talking, this exaggeration, this leaping from branch to branch like frantic monkeys, not knowing if any branch would hold or, if it broke, what the damage might be?”

Novellas are the bridge between short stories and the long form. Rumor has it, the novella was Henry James’ favorite form, although he recognized their limitations. They are as character-driven as a shorter story, and usually constrained to time and place, but allow the writer the richness of descriptive prose and literary technique that makes reading a novel such a pleasure. For the reader, it's an especially fine form if you would rather not commit to reading a longer book, and, in this case, the pleasure of four fully evolved stories to fulfill the fiction imperative.

I must share with you the words of Thomas Mann, which Gordon weaves so well into the spirit of the novella, and which resonate today. “For the position of the spirit has changed upon the Earth in a peculiar way. Civilization is in retreat. A period of lawlessness and anarchy reigns over the outward life of the people. Yes, we know once more what is good and what is evil. Evil has been revealed to us in such crassness and meanness that our eyes have been opened to the dignity and the simple beauty of the good.”

Gordon also often folds into her fiction the blending of religion and destiny, and has written extensively on Catholicism. She is both critic and adherent. In THERE THE HEART LIES, she weaves the history of the church’s role in the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent hold of fascism. The protagonist, a schoolgirl when the novel opens and alternately a 92 year-old tending to her ethereal granddaughter, was one of the “Lincoln Brigade” – Americans who fought for freedom in Spain in the 1930s. The novel starts a bit slow, and in familiar territory, with young Marion resisting her fervently religious family, and follows her through remarkable travels and the revelation of a period in which she too, like her brother before her, is tortured by the very people she expects to show loving kindness. In the process, her granddaughter, a girl whose primary goal in life is to make things prettier, learns something of the harsher realities of her family history.

“What is it about Amelia that makes Marian believe she can only be understood indirectly, using phrases that start with “like or “as”? Similes. Similitudes. The direct view is not the true one, only a series of connections to other things helps her to understand her granddaughter better, she likes to think, than anyone else. This understanding, she believes, must be the truest form of love.”


I am second to none in my admiration for Gordon [my favorites are LOVE OF MY YOUTH and SPENDING] but I confess she once too often got a bit pedantic in the novel, and peppered the history with one too many clichés of Spanish culture. Nonetheless, the novel is a good read and contains the lovely language and sharp commentary on humanity that makes Gordon so good. The novellas even better. 

19 June 2017

EXIT WEST

Mohsin Hamid
I'm a little late on this one. The buzz began the moment the novel was published and for good reason. Mohsin Hamid is an international best-selling author of immense talent and I am a huge fan of his THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST. He has a way of talking about middle eastern culture with the ease of familiarity, but also in a way that evokes the most intense and revealing elements of lifestyle and tradition.

In EXIT WEST, Hamid sustains that intensity and the narrative prose is elegant. This novel is not high plot, don't expect that sort of page turner, and little mystery; rather the journey of two refugees, among many others, who find their way through metaphorical doorways from place to place and struggle to struggle, holding on to each other for dear life.

The sense of desperation is palpable although never deliberate. We feel what they feel, the mark of a skilled writer. And to feel the desperation of the millions of refugees and displaced persons in other parts of the globe is essential to maintain a connection to the harsh reality of the modern world. What happens to other human beings reflects on us all, and that perhaps is the primary message in the novel.

Saed for his part wished he could do something for Nadia, could protect her from what would come, even if he understood, at some level, that to love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you.

Despite their profound connection, these lovers are disparate personalities. Their love affair defies the culture and, had they not chosen to run away together when their city is decimated by war, they might never have lasted long. He prays, she does not. He longs for family, she detaches. He holds to tradition, she seeks modernity. Together, however, they are one unit, and, just as Colson Whitehead created a railroad journey for slaves seeking freedom, Hamid has created a series of doors - one never knows what might be on the other side, what new danger or deprivation might exist - but the primal urge to keep moving, to seek a better life, is preeminent, and drives these characters toward their future.

To flee forever is beyond the capacity of most: at some point even a hunted animal will stop, exhausted, and await its fate, if only for a while. 

This is a short, propulsive read, and important for those who wish to think and feel beyond their comfort zone. Sit back and immerse yourself in the lovely language even as your heart aches for the too many who have few comforts, if any at all, and for all those for whom there is no exit to the west.

28 May 2017

Two Masters: Whitehead & Saunders

Two novels, two distinctly different writers, and two very different subjects, yet both get to the most profound human truths and both tell fantastically imaginative tales. Good bookends for philosophical readers and book groups who enjoy a challenge.

If you haven’t read this multiple award winning novel, read THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead. You’ve all heard of it I’m sure, compliments of Oprah, and stellar reviews, and you likely know that Whitehead transforms the allegorical railroad into a real railway line that transports slaves to freedom. Each stop along the way presents new challenges and sub-cultures and the ever-present question of who can you trust? A remarkable leap the reader accepts because Whitehead makes it work. 

I went back to his first novel, THE INTUITIONIST, equally inventive, about elevator repair mechanics who intuit danger, and like the latest, is built around a black female protagonist facing both discrimination and distrust.

Cora faces the horrors of enslavement from childhood to jaded adult. Once she decides to seek freedom, and is caught up in a killing in the process, she is pursued throughout the book by a most evil slave-hunter, determined to maintain his reputation and bring Cora and friends back to face punishment. The narrative tension is intense from start to finish as we take this heroine’s journey with her, with increasingly greater terrors and uncertainty at every turn. A page-turner and another brilliant, disturbing evocation of America’s history of racism. The novel will dovetail nicely with George Saunders, because the time period is roughly the same, and both underscore historical turmoil, although the two novels could not be more different in style.

George Saunders has proven again and again to be a creative and masterful short story writer. With his first novel, LINCOLN AT THE BARDO, he proves himself to be a master of the long form as well. Meet President Lincoln, mourning the death of his young son, Willie, who himself is in a transitional state, encountering eclectic ephemeral lives moving through the spiritual transition known in Buddhism as the Bardo. These spirits serve in effect as a chorus, reflecting past, present and future, as they come and go. Some are hilarious, others macabre, some beyond understanding. 

The Tibetans suggest several Bardos, physical or meditative. Lincoln himself goes through a series of transitions in life and presidency, mirroring the movement of his son and fellow spirits. They all reflect the devastation of a civil war that weighs heavily on this president. I warn you, do not read this novel when tired, as the myriad of voices will be impossible to follow, and I also promise that if you hang in through the early series of reflections that don’t seem to make sense, suddenly they will, and the novel takes off. 

Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times called Bardo a “weird folk art diorama of a cemetery come to life.” I think of it as a cross between the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and Thoreau. This novel will win, and deserve, many awards, and while it takes time and concentration to wade through, can be compared to reading Dostoyevsky or studying a painting by Picasso: perspectives vary, they contradict and enhance, and force the reader into existential questioning that is the essence of the philosophical. Truly, nothing like this has been written before or is likely to be written again. 

Both in hardcover or e-reader, and the Saunders audio edition features many actors, worth a listen. 


29 April 2017

Where are you Philip Roth? We need you.

Warning: This is not a book review. Not anything new, that is. I am writing about Philip Roth because I miss him.
Philip Roth

I've been reading Philip's fiction for something like thirty years. A couple of years ago he announced his retirement, and this, after publishing small works of fiction almost annually the last decade. Like going cold turkey for an addict. Perhaps he had published too many in his later years, hit and miss, seemed to me. Every other one worthy of my affection, the others not. Sort of like that great desert you've had at a cafe some time ago and when you go back, it's just not the same. Many things are not the same on the second round. Then again, might be just perfect the next time, as Roth has been. Even when I don't like the subject matter or character, or tire of his obsession with aging men who do not age gracefully, I love his words. His sentences. His pacing. And I'm still rather angry he has yet to win the Nobel, which he deserves, and which, by virtue of his disappearance, might prove permanently elusive.

I met him, sort of, a few years ago, at an upper westside restaurant in Manhattan, one of those charmingly narrow, dimly lit Italian bistros where Chianti is abundant. I was with two girlfriends, seated at the far back facing the front, when I saw him enter. I knew him immediately. Tall and narrow and otherwise easily missed until you see his penetrating eyes and still-handsome sculptured face. He walked toward me and for a moment, our eyes met and I imagine he saw the recognition in mine. I suspect he wanted me to acknowledge him, despite his reclusive reputation. He paused a moment, then turned and hung his trench coat on a coat rack in the corner and took his seat at a table along the side wall, facing out. One of my friends asked me who he was and when I told her, she said, "The way you looked at him, you would have thought he was Paul McCartney!" Well, in a writer's world, he is. On the way out, I passed his table, where he was, I kid you not, like out of a press release, reading the New Yorker, with a carafe of red wine and a half-eaten dish of what seemed veal, predictably carnivorous, and he looked up at me with a guileless expression on his face, as if to suggest that if I sat down with him I might have been welcome. Of course I did not, and I still wish I had.

It was not the first time I almost met him. I was fortunate to be invited to the National Book Awards Foundation dinner some years back the night Philip received the lifetime achievement award. His speech was riveting and inspiring and he looked especially distinguished in a tuxedo. My friend and I were among the first to leave, and I found myself waiting for our car steps away from Philip, and again, he looked at me, again with no smile, albeit warmly, and again, I did not seize the moment to speak to him because I do not gush, even over a favorite writer. What would I say? Your dark spirit moves me? Your stories make me laugh and cry and think about everything a little differently? School girl stuff. #missedopportunities

Roth surfaced briefly in emails to the New Yorker in January in response to a resurgence of interest in his prescient novel, The Plot Against America, in which a celebrity fascist [Lindburgh] ends up President. He said, "It isn't Trump as a character, a human type - the real-estate type, the callow and callous killer capitalist - that outstrips the imagination, it is Trump as President of the United States."

Oh yeah.

I came across another blog-homage to Philip posted in 2015 on the Library of America site by essayist and historian Amitiva Kumar, in which he focuses on Roth's fictional uncertainties, which must, of course, reflect his own, and make him all the more endearing. He said, "I like Roth for his monumental dumbness. His lack of understanding of the mystery that is his life - this also explains why he sometimes seems to be writing the same book again and again - is interesting because it is paired with a particularly male, even arrogant, set of certainties. The struggle for understanding is examined with great frankness."

I couldn't agree more, nor could I argue better, why Philip has been essential reading for so long, and continues to be in these painfully uncertain times filled with self-important people with misguided certainties. Another reason why I miss his voice. Come back to us, Philip. We need you.

If you haven't read Philip Roth, or even if you have, I highly recommend the trilogy that begins with American Pastoral [and make sure to skip the film, terrible translation] and/or The Plot Against America. Just no one like him.

20 April 2017

History Repeats

Seems the tribal nature of humanity repeats. Over and over again.
Exclusions. Persecutions. America First.
We've seen it all before, we've suffered for it. On and on. We don't seem to learn, we forget, we repeat the sins of our past.
So, as always, we turn to literature to remind us. To educate and touch our hearts. Too many genocides in our history. We must not forget. We must do better. And to do better, the best we can do, besides consider our connection to humanity one day at a time, is to read the best of us on what ails us. Begin with Philip Roth, he is the best of the best, but these five are an impressive list.
I've read all but the latest of these: David Grossman. A great writer. I look forward to adding this to the canon.
Consider these novels of anti-semitism [which translate to anti-everything] compliments of Signature.
http://www.signature-reads.com/2017/04/5-novels-illuminate-problems-dangers-anti-semitism/?cdi=4810F1AF19CA0897E0534FD66B0A39D1&ref=PRH24BB520913

13 April 2017

40 Rooms

I've just read this lovely novel and remember the review by Alexandra Fuller that says it all. So, rather than attempt to restate, I'll reprint her February 2016 New York Times review here. Let me say only that while the subject matter has been done many times - women allowing life to get in their way or to take them down a different path - the unique structure of this novel, the poetry, the captivating characterization, make this worth the read. I also recommend her earlier novel, The Dream Life of Sukanhov. A writer to watch. Enjoy.

Olga Grushin
The structure of Olga Grushin’s original new novel, “Forty Rooms,” is ingeniously simple. Over several decades, we follow the Russian-born narrator ­— an aspiring poet turned American housewife — into the 40 rooms that represent the topography of a privileged, middle-class woman’s life. We are taken from the “stuffy and bright” Moscow apartment bathroom — the first place to “emerge from the haze of nonbeing” when the protagonist is not yet 5 — to the suburban America entrance hall from which she will finally depart. And along the way, we come of age with the person whom we know, tellingly, only as Mrs. Caldwell. Or perhaps I should say, we come of ages with Mrs. Caldwell, because as any woman in her fifth decade or beyond can attest, most of us come of age in many stages: as daughter, as wife, as mother, as . . . you get the idea. It is a mark of the author’s skill that, while sweeping us along in Mrs. Caldwell’s particular narrative, Grushin indirectly challenges the reader to reflect on her own history; to come up with the labels that contribute to her own identity — writer, sister, for example — and to name the rooms in which she has come to her own realizations.
But, as we learn toward the end of the book, the number 40 has other significances too. It is not just the number of rooms in the life of a more or less contemporary, bourgeois woman; it is also a canonically significant number. “It’s always 40,” the ghost of Mrs. Caldwell’s dead mother tells her now late-middle-aged daughter. “Forty is God’s number for testing the human spirit. It’s the limit of man’s endurance, beyond which you are supposed to learn something true. Oh, you know what I mean — Noah’s 40 days and nights of rain, Moses’ 40 days in the desert, Jesus’ 40 days of fasting and temptation. Forty of anything is long enough to be a trial, but it’s man-size, too. In the Bible, 40 years make a span of one generation. Forty weeks make a baby.”
In this passage — as in countless others throughout the novel — there is enough material to warrant hours of contemplation. Starting with the fact that all of the biblical examples given to Mrs. Caldwell by her mother’s ghost are men. And what’s with “the limit of man’s endurance”? What about the limit of woman’s endurance, especially given this is a novel about a woman? And is the mostly submissive — if emotionally and physically challenging — act of gestating a baby truly a test of a woman’s endurance and spirit? Is that the beginning and end of the measure of her fortitude? And even as these knotty questions arise, others bubble to the surface. What about non-Christian women? What about lesbians? What about women of color? What about non-mothers? What about contemporary young women who will be dealing not only with changing gender norms, but also a changed climate? And what about women without rooms — the poor, refugees, prisoners and the homeless — for whom knowing 40 rooms in a single lifetime is an unthinkable luxury?
The reader’s impulse to grapple with the text, to wrestle it down and to raise objections or to attempt to identify her own place in the context of the story, is a sign not of weakness, but of Grushin’s genius. This is a text that rewards rereading and demands engagement. There is no redemption story to relax into here, and no easy answers. But even as there is much to question, and much with which to argue, there is also plenty of opportunity for empathy, and that is no mean achievement. Grushin isn’t dealing with a supposedly grand life; she is dealing with the mostly unspoken, sometimes desperate, bickering minutiae of a fairly ordinary life. Perhaps we are not supposed to admire Mrs. Caldwell as much as to identify with her, to see the ambitious young woman inside the thickening flesh of the middle-aged, middle-class matron, and to recognize the compromises and broken dreams therein.
Ultimately, it is the heartbreak at the sometimes barely glimpsed edges of these compromises and broken dreams that provides the novel’s dramatic tension. “Now, as always, you have a choice,” a supernatural godlike figure tells the young woman who is yet to become Mrs. Caldwell, near the novel’s beginning. (The fantastical are frequent visitors in this book, lending it a sort of chilly Eastern bloc magic realism.) “You can spend your days baking cookies for your offspring, or — as ever through the ages — you can become a madwoman, a nomad, a warrior, a saint. But if you do decide to follow the way of the few, you must remember this: Whenever you come to a fork in the road, always choose the harder path, otherwise the path of least resistance will be chosen for you.”
The unspoken suggestion here is that to break the bounds of middle-class expectation will be the harder path, but can we blame each other and ourselves for not choosing to be Mary Wollstonecraft, Gertrude Bell, Joan of Arc or Mother Teresa? When we tell our daughters they can be anything, are we really instructing them to take the harder path? This novel reminds us that to pursue her dreams, a woman is working against the establishment, not with it. To the young women into whose hands I will most certainly be putting Grushin’s novel, I would say this: You can’t do it all, but together we can create a world in which we might be able to do more. Because if we don’t keep working for greater gender equality, it’s not in the best interests of the current power brokers to stop us from continuing to spend more than a fair share of our lives ­elbow-deep in soapsuds whether we choose to or not.
“An average woman — or at least an average married woman with children, which, for all she knew, no longer signified an average woman; to rephrase, then, a woman average for most of human history — almost certainly devoted more of her time to the pursuit of laundering than to the pursuit of love; yet for all the thousands and thousands of poems written about love, only a handful had ever been written about laundry.” So muses Mrs. Caldwell some years after her marriage has turned, if not loveless, at least dreary, and she has long given up the nearly mad fantasy of taking off to Paris with a lover or becoming a published poet.
And yet, by the novel’s conclusion, Mrs. Caldwell has come to peace with the ­pieces of her life — or has she? Or maybe there is no lasting peace, just moments of acceptance. “I used to wonder,” she says. “Does it happen to others as well — do their lives change bit by bit, a new table here, a new baby there, until one day they wake up and look around and recognize nothing of their past in their present? But I grew into it. Learned to count my blessings. Learned to appreciate the small things. In fact, the older I get, the more I suspect that what we mistake for small things are really the things that matter.” I don’t think this is Grushin’s final answer, I think it is one of her sly challenges. Is it the small things? Or is this what a woman is forced to believe in order to stave off the madness of realizing the possibilities of which she has been robbed?

09 April 2017

PostScript re: TIES

Blogspot is behaving badly. For those of you who were unable to read the emailed post on TIES by Domenico Starnone, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri, please go directly to randykraftwriter.blogspot.com and read on site. I apologize on behalf of Google, aka Alphabet, and will work with Blogger to avoid future error. Or, skip the blog and go directly to the book. Cheers.