20 September 2020
26 August 2020
|Maggie O'Farrell |
Irish born - lives in London
Maggie O'Farrell, an accomplished and wonderful writer, steps into a new league with this wholly original readable stunning work of fiction. Can you tell I think it's divine?
The tragic but surprisingly heartwarming tale recounts the largely imagined early life of Shakespeare, his enigmatic wife, Agnes, also known as Anne, and the death of their eleven year-old son, Hamnet. The inspiration for what many consider the bard’s greatest play, Hamlet, written four years after the boy’s death. And what a character the young Hamnet is: as ephemeral and existential as his namesake.
Hamnet’s mind, however, is in another place. For a long time, he could hear his mother and his sisters, his aunt and his grandmother. He was aware of them, around him, giving him medicines, speaking to him, touching his skin. Now, though, they have receded. He is elsewhere, in a landscape he doesn’t recognize. It is its cool here, and quiet. He is alone. Snow is falling, softly irrevocably, on and on. It piles up on the ground around him, covering paths and steps and rocks; it weighs down the branches of trees, it transforms everything into whiteness, blankness, stasis. The silence, the cool, the altered silver light of it is something more than soothing to him.
So little is known about Shakespeare’s early life so O’Farrell has woven what is known with what she has exquisitely invented. Once again, in this fiction, the telling is what matters most: mesmerizing prose, nearly Elizabethan poetry, but not, and not couplets, with stunning detail, for the landscape, the scope, and, at the heart of this tale, the grief of losing a child.
So she cannot bear their gaze, cannot meet their eyes. She doesn’t want their sympathy and their prayers and their murmured words. She hates the way people part to let them past and then, behind them, regroup, erasing their passage, as if it were nothing, as if it never were. She wishes to scratch the ground, perhaps with a hoe, to score the streets behind her, so that there will forever be a mark, for it always to be known that this way Hamlet came. He was here.
The story is as much about Agnes, a shaman, loving wife and mother, as it is about William. We meet their families. We inhabit the village life of late 16th century into the 17th, on to Stratford and London. You will see and hear and scent these worlds and feel nearly every heartbeat of every one of the many compelling characters.
Captivating from page one to the last powerful scenes in London at the playhouse where Shakespeare made his mark.
The crowd around her, she cannot help but notice, is entirely still. No one speaks. No one moves. Everyone is entirely focused on these actors and what they are saying. Gone is the jostling, whimpering, brawling, pie-chewing mass and in its place a silent, awed congregation. It is as if a magician or sorcerer has waved his staff over the place and turned them all to stone.
My call for the Booker prize. A phenomenally elegant work of fiction. Happy reading.
27 July 2020
When it comes to the writer Philip Roth, there are two camps: those who dismiss him as a sex-obsessed east coast Jewish highbrow, and those who revere his prose and insights. I am a member of the latter. I’ve long admired his exceptional talent, also his profound understanding of the dark side of humanity, and I appreciate his intention to reflect on political and sexual power, and the hypocrisy they breed, which is the common thread in his fiction.
He would have had the seat at the head of my fantasy dinner party table, based on what I’ve learned about him over the years, through tributes and through his words, and never more so having read this beautifully crafted memoir of late life friendship with writer/professor Benjamin Taylor.
The memoir is a reflection on Roth as a man more than writer, and these resonate with his writings. Lots of anecdotes. For example, he lived on the upper west side of Manhattan most of his life [as well as a country home in CT] and was frequently recognized. In fact, a street-seller displayed only Roth books for years in front of Zabar’s [the famous upper west side market] many of them signed. Taylor recounts his resistance to personal notoriety: “At dinner one night in an. Indian restaurant on Broadway, the actor Richard Thomas, spruce in a white beard, said to Philip, ‘You’re the writer whose meant the most to me.’… Some variant of the encounter occurred when we went to any public place … ‘Let’s have dinner on the East Side,’ Philip would occasionally say. ‘Nobody knows me over there.’ Prompt refutation came in a favorite eatery on Third when a woman at the bar beckoned to me with a long forefinger. ‘Young man, is that Philip Roth you’re with?’ I nodded. She passed me her card. ‘Tell him I’ve got a classic six on Park and am available.’”
I missed my chance to chat with the great man not once but twice. Roughly twenty years ago, I too was in an uptown restaurant with friends when I saw him enter and walk toward a coat rack next to our table. Our eyes locked for a moment and I’m sure he feared I would intrude on his solitude, which I respected. On the way out, he looked up at me from his New Yorker magazine as I passed. He didn’t smile, but again, our eyes locked, and I wanted so much to sit down and engage him in conversation, but I refrained. A friend I was with who didn’t recognize him asked me who he was, and when I told her she said, ‘My Lord, the way you looked at him, he might have been Paul McCartney.’ To me, he was.
A couple of years later, I was lucky enough to attend the National Book Awards with a good friend who invited me because Roth was receiving a lifetime achievement award. His speech was mesmerizing. On the way out [he was one of the first to leave and Taylor confirms a shyness among strangers] he was waiting for his car to pull up, and we ours, and again, our eyes met, and this time I smiled and said congratulations, and he nodded appreciably. I so wish I had known him and in this memoir, which is a charming and touching tribute, I feel I know him better.
For a man who has been called, like his contemporaries and friends Updike and Bellow, a misogynist, there were many women, friends and ex-lovers, at his bedside as he lay dying, and many more women singing his praises when he passed. [I recommend the New Yorker Radio Hour podcast tribute.] He was an exacting and determined human being, not easy to live with, as he was the first to admit, and opinionated on a wide array of subjects. However he also had a great sense of humor, tended to pontificate in a Socratic way, and relied on music, as well as friendship, for sustenance, particularly during the many years illness and pain.
He was the sort of writer and thinker who pondered the imponderable. However he had no use for religion and no patience for platitude. Taylor tells this story about strolling with Philip and musing on religion after passing the Atheists booth at Columbus Center. "‘Religions are the refuge of the weak-minded. I’d dispense with all the art, music and even poetry they’ve engendered if we could finally be free of them.’ ‘The B-minor Mass? The Sistine ceiling? George Herbert’s poems?’A dog walker comes past with eight or ten doggies of all sizes and shapes. ‘You see that?’ he says. Perfect concord among the breeds. The border collies admire the Heinz fifty-sevens. The Newfoundlands would make love to the dachshunds if they could. And why? Because dogs are wise enough to have no religion.’”
Roth never won the Nobel Prize, which still pains his fans, and apparently saddened him. However his body of work, numerous awards and many admirers, are high honors. And, he was a loving friend - this memoir may be more meaningful than the literary analysis and biography[s] still to come, most notably his approved biographer, Blake Bailey’s, whose bio will publish early next year.
RIP Philip Roth and thank you Benjamin Taylor for sharing your story.
Available now in hardcover and for your favorite e-reader. Happy reading.
12 June 2020
It is rare to discover a page-turning plot told in mesmerizing language, and featuring a cast of haunting true-to-life characters. And, although set in west Texas in the 70s, relevant to all that ails us, still.
This is VALENTINE, remarkably a first novel by a gifted writer.
From page one, you will not believe the power of the prose – colorful descriptions of a landscape that make you feel the dry brush against your skin and the scent of oil in your nose. And, a cast of characters who pop off the page. Honestly, this book is powerful.
The set up reminded me of another terrific novel, published last year: DISAPPEARING EARTH, by Julie Philips. Both begin with a horrific event, in this case a violent assault against an adolescent Mexican girl, and spend the rest of the novel revealing the reverberations through the lives of the women residents. In this book, all the women, and children, live on one street, and they watch out for each other and/or judge each other – unwed mothers, widows, women who give up and leave, daughters tending to fathers or longing for mothers, and one woman who stands up for the raped girl, all struggling to overcome misogyny and racism and make sense of their lives, and their futures.
Ginny will remember pushing her daughter’s fine brown hair out of her eyes, the smell of oatmeal and Ivory soap, the chocolate on her chin from the Valentine’s candy she’s been eating all morning, and the shine on her cheeks from the suntain lotion Ginny swiped across her face before they left the house. Ginny’s hand trembles and she thinks, Take her. Make it work somehow. But Debra Ann scoots away, saying, Quit it. Because to her, this is still like any other Sunday morning and her mother might be nagging her about any of the usual things. To her, even Ginny’s tears have become old hat.
The Viet Nam war hovers over the story, contributing to the layers of fear and instability that permeate this town, maybe many during those years, including broken war veterans who suffer and/or implode, usually at the expense of their women and children.
When they get home, all their problems will still be there. They will still be a young man and a young woman with the worst war of their lives just a few years behind them, with worries and fears and a little girl to feed and love. They will fight over money and sex, and whose turn it is to mow the yard, wash the dishes, pay the bills. In a few years, Corrine will threaten to tear it all down when she falls in love with the social studies teacher, and a few years after that, Potter will do something similar. And each time they will grit their teeth and wait to love each other again, and when they do, it will be a wonder.
Wetmore’s ability to see into the heart of her characters and reflect so profoundly on the human condition, and what ails us all, reminds me of Marilyn Robinson, one of the modern masters [and one of Wetmore’s teachers at Iowa Writers Workshop.] She often comments on what will come after we leave the story, making the few months of the novel seem like she has visited a generation and beyond.
26 April 2020
|The great Colum McCann|
01 April 2020
|Anthologies are a great way to go|
|Some of my very favorite collections|
Although we have too much time on our hands, our attention spans are justifiably under assault, so I recommend short stories. There are a zillion of them in print and online and in a matter of minutes, maybe a half an hour, you might ground yourself in what truly matters.
12 March 2020