Tuesday, February 23, 2010

And then there's William Trevor

When it comes to literature out of Ireland, famed and underrated author William Trevor, is more to my liking. I used to read his books all the time until they just struck me as too melancholy. However, with his latest, Love and Summer, I decided to jump back in. How can you resist a title like that? Yes, it's still melancholy but the mood Trevor creates is almost other worldly.
Where Toibin's novel seemed peopled with caricatures, Trevor's introduces three dimensional men and women motivated by understandable longings and desires. Everyone in the little town of Rathmoye has lost someone dear and the longing among these folks for love and connection is palpable.

At the heart of the novel is Ellie Dillahan, a young woman sent directly from the convent to the employ of a morose farmer whose family died in a tragic accident. After several years as employer/employee, the farmer asks Ellie to marry him and, knowing no other life, she agrees and is considered fortunate. It's not until a dashing young photographer rides into the village on his bicycle, showing inordinate interest in Ellie, that she realizes what's been missing from her life - a grand passion. A social neophyte, Ellie misconstrues Florian Kilderry's interest, a temporary flirtation to distract from the feelings of failure he has as he sells his family's home, his legacy. She never understands, and perhaps neither does he, the deep feelings he's always harbored for a cousin who lived with him during happier times.

Meanwhile, the townspeople take note of the chats between Florian and Ellie, rumors begin a groundswell and Ellie finds an anonymous and unlikely supporter in the owner of the local inn, Ms. Connulty, whose own youthful indiscretion in love and the tragic result, make her cheer Ellie's happiness. But can Ellie embrace her passion if it means destroying a man whose kindness and care has sustained her from the orphanage to adulthood?

William Trevor's gentle heart is evident in every page of this spare novel. His love and care for his characters makes us love and care for them too. Can we ask more from a book?

Monday, February 22, 2010

When Irish Eyes are Smiling....

Colm Toibin's Brooklyn was billed as one of the top novels of 2009. I had the book checked out forever but just never seemed to be in the mood for it. Finally, after worrying that the library police would come after me, I returned it unread and downloaded the audio instead. Now, what I'm wondering is, did he make a mistake in the title? This novel is really about Ireland and, to tell you the truth, that's usually a deal breaker for me. My Irish/English background has never seemed to fit comfortably. I've never yearned for a trip across the pond to connect with the old sod. Italy? Spain? Hot climates, hot foods. That's more my style.

Still, I wanted to understand what all the Toibin hoopla was about so I proceeded to read about the young Irish woman, Eilish Lacey, who was sent, through the intervention of a parish priest in Brooklyn (they're always behind the scenes, aren't they?) all alone across the sea to New York City. The reasoning for this huge undertaking was not really made clear at the beginning of the story. There's no family in New York and Eilish has never been one to put herself out particularly or show any great aptitude for experimentation and change. Her older sister, Rosemary, was the social butterfly who engineered Eilish's trip and her mother and brothers seemed to just go along.

Amazingly though, after a small bout of homesickness, Eilish throws herself into her work on the sales floor of a clothing store, goes to college in the evening to pursue a bookeeping degree, volunteers at Father Flood's parish hall dinners and dances and appears to be acclimating beautifully. It's not until Eilish meets Tony and begins a relationship with the handsome young Italian, putting herself at the mercy of gossiping biddies, that one wonders just where the author is going with this novel. Eilish is very inexperienced and Tony is very persistant, pushing for marriage and a family before she has an inkling of who she is herself.

I'm afraid that I just found this novel rather bland and truly, I love books about nothing, when the writing is exquisite and the characters are profoundly interesting (for example William Trevor's Love and Summer, which I'm just finishing up) but I just wasn't feeling it here. Toibin threw in some red herrings that would have added spice to the novel and made it more realistic but he didn't capitalize on them.
One such interesting aside was the response of the staff at Fortini's store when they were forced to wait on black women from the neighborhood who had never been allowed in before.
Another was the implication of a lesbian obsession with Eilish by her supervisor at Fortini's, a woman who took Eilish under her wing to help her buy a bathing suit for her weekend outings with Tony on Coney Island.

But the elephant in the middle of the room is Ireland itself and all it represents; the repressed lives of the small town denizens, the way Eilish's brother and mother try to guilt her into a return to the life they sent her  from, and the power of the priests to influence life altering decisions. It made me squeamish. Too close for comfort? Maybe. A book with untapped potential? Yes.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Shakespeare Lives in Philipp Meyer

When asked those silly hypothetical questions like, "if you were stranded on a deserted island and you could only have one book with you, what would it be?" well, I've always figured on The Complete Works of Shakespeare. There would be something for every mood and you'd likely discover a new idea with each reading. Personally, I'm especially drawn to the tragedies which is probably why American Rust was on my radar long before I actually got to sit down and read it. Book group alert!! This would make a doozy of a discussion.

You know how, in great movies and literature, you absolutely feel that characters are on a tragic runaway train and no matter how much you try to send them vibes that say "no, don't do that, please don't," in your heart you simply understand that there's no changing their fate? Philipp Meyer has that sense of inevitability down pat. Knowing that the outcome would be dire I kept turning the pages while a pit formed in my stomach. I'm amazed that this is a debut novel.

Set in the so-called "rust belt" of Pennsylvania (it could be almost anywhere USA right now), another failing town where the middle class has been pushed to the brink by the sagging economy and the fall of the once great steel industry, this novel examines the proscribed lives of those who stayed behind and the guilt of one who escaped.  The English family is down to Isaac, a lonely, brainy kid, a misfit living in the shadow of his vivacious sister for whom the family sacrificed so that she could go to Yale, marry well and move up and out, and Isaac's dad, whose confinement to a wheelchair after an industrial accident isn't as disabling as his mental state since the suicide of his wife.

Isaac pairs up with Billy Poe, an unlikely companion, a high school jock who failed to follow up on the sports scholarships when he had the chance, and is now living with his mother in a trailer home outside of town, not even making enough money to fix up the junk car parked outside. The two guys make a half baked plan to jump a train and ride the rails to California, coasting for a while on the four grand that Isaac stole from his dad. They're barely out of town before the neophytes run into a group of derelicts whose intentions they sorely misjudge and before the night is over someone is dead, the boys are on the run and each decision they make from there on out compounds their troubles.

This book is full of wonderfully complex characters who have moments of glory and selflessness tempered by the flawed actions of human beings. Billy Poe's mother, Grace, is one such person. A woman alone, trying to raise her son, realizing that by keeping him near she has ruined him yet unable to let him go. Ironically, she gains self respect by working for a battered woman's shelter while, at the same time, allowing an abusive ex to keep returning, even as she eschews to chance for a loving relationship with the chief of police who has covered for Billy time and again.

It take some guts to read this novel. It's hard and dark and real. Meyer's descriptions of prison life can't help but give rise to questions about why the U.S. has more incarcerated people than any other country in the world. What has happened to the middle class? What can we do about the disappearing small towns of our childhoods? How can we save the Isaacs and Billys and Lees and Graces of this world? You'll find no answers here.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Maryellen, Elizabeth Berg and Me!

Oh, I never cease to amaze myself - the hubris we have - it's amazing. Ever since Maryellen got us tickets to go over to the Sanibel library to hear Elizabeth Berg speak, we 've been asking ourselves, "will she remember us? Will she remember the reading festival? Will she come back cause she had so much fun the first time?" Well folks, the answers are a definate no, a definate no and a maybe. The humiliation!
Ms. Berg's book The Pull of the Moon got me through the 50th year with aplomb. I was sure she had written that novel just for me. As did millions of other readers I suppose. That's the joy of her writing, after all, it feels like she's speaking just to you. She makes it look so simple but, of course, we know that it isn't. Every novel she writes seems like it was written about someone you know.
When she presents a talk, as she did the other night, you're convinced that she's looking right a you and you alone. She was funny, sexy, a little off color, gracious, modest but not ashamed to be pleased by her own success. She's a woman you'd like to go out and have a few wines with.

Imagine our surprise when we hung around the library afterwards waiting to reintroduce ourselves to her and she honestly said she didn't remember us. What courage! She could have faked it but no, she didn't remember me picking her up at the airport 7 or 8 years ago - I know, you're stunned. She didn't remember Maryellen up on stage introducing her to the 300 and some people who came to see her, even though Maryellen brought the photo as evidence. She didn't remember Sue Grafton telling her she should get a face lift or Kelly Lange spilling a glass of red wine down the ample white clad chest of our then library director.

Does it matter? Not a whit. Does it take us down to size? Well, a bit. The good news is, she loves to get email from fans and it sounded as if she responds to everyone. Will I continue to read her? Of course.
Back we'll go next month to hear Elizabeth Strout with whom Ms. Berg is friends. The good news? We've never met her!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Isherwood/Firth and Don't Ask, Don't Tell

 Admiral Mullen's speech this week before Congress in which he expressed some obviously deeply considered and heartfelt thoughts regarding the hypocritical and wrong-headed thinking behind the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Law, was simply amazing. I was blown away by the sincerity and eloquence of the Admiral's speech and the basic simplicity of the admonition to just do the right thing and repeal this law. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue but a human rights one and it cries out for a resolution.

How can one be true to his country and to his fellow men if he or she can't even be true to himself? How can a gay or lesbian person fully concentrate on their military duties if they have to be concerned about being outed and court martialed? It's a travesty that so many willing young people, often with enviable language skills that could be utilized heavily in the bid to win over hearts and minds in the Middle East, should be barred from or kicked out of service because of their sexual preference. In the United States of America in 2010? It boggles the mind.

Which brings me to A Single Man, the film adaptation of a Christopher Isherwood short story, that I saw this past week. I've been a film buff for as long as I can remember, well probably since my mother took me to see The King and I, or was it when dad took me to Bridge on the River Kwai? There are performances that are hilarious and others that make you cry and there are movies that are mind blowing with their special effects or political statement, but Colin Firth's depiction of the barely closeted professor George, mourning the accidental death of his lover and best friend of 16 years, is simply on another level entirely. The concept of not being able to acknowledge who you are comes home quickly in the scene where George is advised of his lover's death by a phone call from a well-meaning relative who tells him that he would not be welcome at the funeral which is only for "family."

I tried to imagine how difficult this role would be. The camera work is relentlessly close, every pore and hair follicle, every twitch of the eye, every movement of the mouth is so close, so personal and yet, we don't for some reason feel that we're invading George's space but rather sharing his grief with him. Colin Firth is a love and always does a perfectly fine job in whatever role he's given which is maybe why this outstandingly nuanced and sensitive  portrayal seems all the more admirable for the gamble and the stretch.

I can't imagine that any other Oscar nominated performance could hold a candle to Mr. Firth's George Falconer but I've seen how these judges think. It might not be politic to give a Best Actor award to a Brit over an American and then they may not want to put the spotlight on a gay character two years in a row. Still, what a fitting preamble to the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, if the Oscar could go to a single man whose anguish and grief had to go unacknowledged in order to keep other people comfortable.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Nobel or not, I'm finished with Pamuk

Call me a philistine, I'm sorry. I know that I have a good brain, though rustier than it used to be certainly, but, I have listened to 10 out of 17 discs from The Museum of Innocence and, though many reviews do admit that the novel lags in the middle and that one should hang in there, I have to admit, I just can't walk that far! I try with all my heart to get my three miles in per day but listening to this disheartening and depressing novel makes the walk seem like forever.

Don't get me wrong, the language is exquisite, truly, and I love learning about the social milieu of Turkey and I'm not immune to the anguish of an obsessive love affair, though long in the past, thank goodness, but.......I've long wanted to read Orhan Pamuk. In fact, I had considered one of his novels for a book discussion. From all I had read about his latest novel, I thought it might be assessible and interesting. The story of a Turkish man, Kemal, (or maybe Mr. Pamuk), with all the money and prestige that one could humanly desire, with the world by the tail including a lovely fiancee of a good family with whom he has what outsiders would see as an ideal relationship until, one fateful day, they walk by a shop where Sibel admires a handbag in the window. In the spirit of love, Kemal returns to the store to purchase said handbag and surprise his love, when he recognizes and agonizes over the beauty of the shopgirl, a distant cousin of dubious reputation, named Fusun. He purchases the purse which ends up being a fake, obviously of significance but of what exactly?

The inevitable happens and Kemal and Fusun begin a love affair which readers understand at once will lead to nothing but disaster. It's just that the disaster takes so long to resolve itself! One learns throughout the novel of the not so dated mores which admonish that a single woman who has lost her virginity is a ruined piece of goods. Kemal then is anguished that he has spoiled his cousin for anyone else and yet, because of their social distance and his impending marriage, he cannot have her, or does not have the courage, to claim her for himself. The book is actually a narrated tour of Kemal's museum of items that remind him of time spent with Fusun. Each item she ever touched, down to a matchbook or a glass, is dated and itemized as Kemal dreams of the ideal love which has been lost to him forever.

But, was it truly love? That's the question I kept asking myself as I listened to this novel play out. Is the author fooling himself? Does possession equal love? Will he ever move on and make a life for himself? Three quarters of the way through this novel, I just no longer cared. I saw a selfish man incapable of  thinking of anyone but himself. If anyone out there reading this has plugged away and found the light at the end of the tunnel I'd love to hear from you. I'm more than willing to admit I'm wrong. I may go back to the museum some day to see, but right now I have so many books waiting for my time that I just can't proceed. I worry that I'm too fussy and that no one will want to read my reviews anymore. I worry that Barbara Hoffert at Library Journal will give up on me. I worry that my taste has gone South, but shouldn't reading be a pleasure even when it hurts?