Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Lorrie Moore

I finished A Gate at the Stairs on Friday and have been dying to write about it but I'm afraid that I succumbed to a summer cold and glumly spent Sunday and most of Monday in bed with a box of kleenex and a jar of Vicks. Without a doubt this is one of the finest novels I've read this year and I'm still trying to analyze why I've avoided Ms. Moore's books in the past. I guess I've always thought of Lorrie Moore as a preeminent short story writer and I generally steer clear of short stories.

I'm listening to an interview with Ms. Moore from Amazon and the questioner mentions how much humor there was in the book.


 She denies that she was trying to be funny but the fact remains that her characters are very observantly sarcastic and witty. Thank goodness for that or else the darkness would take you down to such a deep place that it would be difficult to crawl out of.

 I'm sorry that at the library we've already chosen our book discussion selections for the upcoming season as this would have been high on my list. It has everything one needs for an explosive talk: coming of age, generational conflicts, racial tensions, war and its consequences, marriage and its secrets and compromises. How, you might ask, does an author manage to concoct a storyline with so much depth in some 250 pages? That's the miracle of a great writer, isn't it?

Remember when you left the confines of your home and family for your first year away at college? Perhaps you went to a larger city and were on your own for the first time? For some, the freedom can be too much to handle, but for Tassie Keltjin, responsible, dependable mid-western gal, the transition was remarkably stress free. She reminded me of me forty years ago, what my dad would have called "bright-eyed and bushy-tailed," open to all new experiences, sitting in rapt attention in class, and completely naive to the baser natures of others.

So when Tassie applies for a part time job as nanny for Sarah and Ed, a white couple who are in the process of adopting a little girl of mixed race, Tassie ignores the uncomfortable signals that all is not as it should be between the happy parents. She wonders about the insouciance of Edward toward the entire process and the ability of the hard charging Sarah to go off to work at her gourmet restaurant each day leaving Tassie and  little Mary Emma, to fend for themselves.

Tassie falls deeper and deeper in love with Mary Emma even as she begins her first physical relationship with a mysterious young man, supposedly Brazilian, whom she meets in class. Reynaldo, Tassie and Mary Emma stroll the streets of Troy, the fictional, ostensibly liberal college town that is likely Madison, Wisconsin, and Tassie's eyes are opened to the scathing looks and blatant assumptions that are angled her way by those who see only an aimless white teen with a black child.

Moore absolutely pummels the self-satisfied, liberal elite through her description of the Wednesday night gathering at Sarah and Ed's home of the "Families of Mixed Race Children" self-help group. Is there a group for EVERYthing? While Tassie entertains all the children in an upstairs playroom the outrageous, controversial conversations from below filter up and into her subconsciousness, heightening her protective feelings toward these kids who seem to be pawns in a grownup game of oneupmanship.

To say much more about this novel would be to divulge too many of the stunners that hit one after another somewhere after the middle of the book. Just when I thought that I had cleverly discerned the significance of the title, Ms. Moore took her book in an entirely different direction. I tip my hat to this awe inspiring writer.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Family Album

I've always had a soft spot for author Penelope Lively as my review of her book Heat Wave, which knocked my socks off, was the first published review I ever had. Back when the library and the local newspaper had a good relationship, when the News-Press actually thought to publish more than local murders and rapes, several librarians were asked to write weekly book reviews and I was among them.

It was a heady experience, seeing my name in print for the first time, one that I'll never get over. I'll also never forget the power of that novel and how I marveled at Lively's ability to zero in relentlessly on the basest of our human emotions, Jealousy, with a capitol J, in a practically Shakespearean way.

Now, in her latest novel, she takes a vicious swipe at that most protected of all institutions, parenthood. A cursory look at the cover of the book could easily mislead a reader hoping for a light, easy read. This is a cutting, realistic look at a couple brought together by the commonality of an unplanned pregnancy but little else.

Charles is a bitingly sarcastic, unsympathetic character who hides from life and the ever increasing family (6 kids at last count) that he seems to take no responsibility for - ever heard of vasectomy Charles? He sequesters himself in his "library" writing books and living in the world of the mind. Nothing wrong with that but have the guts, please, to eschew parenthood. We aren't all cut out for it and Lively writes it as if she's lived it.

Meanwhile, we have Alison, Charles's wife, putting on her game face, polishing her reputation in the English village as the earth mother personified, but disrespected by her kids cause she's never read a book, flaunting her non-literary side deliberately in a passive-aggressive slap at her husband.

The family's story is told, alternately by all of the players, the children who couldn't wait to leave the stifling confines of the family abode, Allersmeade, and even by the eldest son Paul, who, because he was his mother's favorite? continued to half-heartedly search and fail and return to the nest again and again and again.

Throughout the telling of the family's story there is an undercurrent of something just this side of sinister that permeates the atmosphere and readers will likely guess at its source before Ms. Lively tells us the facts straight out. That's ok. It still works. In every family there are these underlying secrets and odd whisperings that the children are left to their own devices to decipher. If we could all do it as well as these kids, we might end up ok. It's when we don't speak out that we're in trouble.

I know, this may not sound like an appetizing novel but do give Penelope Lively a try. Trust me, she has the literary skills to dissect the nuance of family life, lay it out like a corpse on the table, and then tidy it all up and tuck it away until you ask, "so, is she saying it's all worth it?"

That brings me to the irony that I just happened to be reading this book while on my vacation that began with a family wedding in Ohio, probably the last of three in the past three years, as my brother and sister-in-law are the only ones who had the courage to raise a family - no easy task in this day and age so kudos to them!

I've often thought of my family as perfect fodder for a novel, regaling friends at work with our oft-told stories of typical family dysfunction. Now that my sister, brother and I are middle-aged - am I being kind with that description? - I find that each time we get together we are more and more prone to treat each other as equals - friends on the road to the next adventure - my "baby" brother having retired and me wishing I could afford to (don't ever get divorced, it'll do you in financially), my sister seeming to have found her niche, the three of us, hopefully, letting go of childhood resentments and misconceptions (think Smothers Brothers' "mom always loved you best!")

OK, no more philosophising on family - I've got an early morning flight and dinner waiting.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Back from the White House

I know, I know, I keep promising to talk about books but we just got back from our 9am appt. at the White House and I can tell you I'm very disappointed in my president! He didn't even come downstairs from the residence to say hello.
 Now, I'll grant you, he was pretty busy writing up his words of dismissal for the General from Hell, and if he (McChrystal) hadn't gotten the boot after that outrageous article in Rolling Stone yesterday, I'd have cut my Obama loose. Sure wish I could have been in the rose garden to hear it but our appt. was so early this morning - hey, I'm on vacation and a 5:30 alarm to get up and into the city was disconcerting to say the least - at least I can say "we were there when..."

My impressions of the part of the White House that visitors can see is mixed. I cried when I stood on the Roman Forum but I didn't get the same feeling when I saw Abigail Adams's samovar. What's wrong with me? The rooms are very cold (physically and emotionally) so one needs to remind oneself as one walks through, who actually strode these halls over the past 150 years.

Much was made of the paintings that Dolley Madison supposedly saved, single handedly, when the original White House burned down. Don did not remember that but I assured him that we had learned this in elementary school. Of course, I'm sure it was never mentioned that Dolley herself could never had lifted these gaudy, heavy paintings off the wall without the aid of the slaves who likely did her bidding, but that's another story.

Lunch at Politics and Prose, a purchase of a book or two...how is it that librarians are drawn to bookstores like flies to honey? I could get anything I saw in there for free when I get back to work Saturday but, no, I had to purchase a book to touch and chat up the sales clerks about ALA which begins here in Friday. And then, of course, there was the t-shirt Don had to get me and pretty soon we were trying to get out of DC at rush hour. Ouch!

So, for sure, tomorrow, I'll talk books. Began Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs yesterday and am reading like mad because my Sony will delete it when my two weeks are up. May I say, this woman is an amazing wordsmith and I'm derelict in not having read her previously. I swoon at her abilities and wonder in abject amazement where the words come from that can be so perfect that you say, "of course!" that's exactly how I'd describe that - but, you didn't, she did. Oh how I envy those with a facility for words!

Relaxing on the deck, wine in hand, sailboats galore out on the Bay and Lebanese food for dinner. Two more days of vacation but who's counting? Yours truly!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Unfinished Business

In my posting yesterday I forgot to mention a few people that I had promised to give "face time" to in my blog. Often when I/we travel or eat out we tend to have a conversation with whomever is taking care of us. I am a tad more reluctant than Don is to strike up a conversation because truly - I'm rather shy though no one believes me on this. He will just begin asking such probing questions and manages to elicit fascinating facts about people who might to some just be invisible.

I am always reminded of my early years in Southwest Florida when I was going to real estate school and working part time cleaning condos in Naples. Anyone who knows me well knows that I actually love housework. Weird, I get it but there it is! Especially when that housework is in someone else's gorgeous home. So I didn't feel put upon that I had to clean these fabulous high rises on the gulf coast to get by. That is, until I realized that I was invisible to these people.

Then I resented the dismissive way in which I and my co-workers were treated, thinking to myself, who do you think you are? You're no better than I am! I have a college degree and may one day be the person who will unload this monstrosity for you and make that big commission! Little did I realize how soul deadening the world of cut throat real estate marketing could be - but that's another story.

The lesson was that I will now "see" people - think Avatar. I will not be waited on at the grocery without trying to read the name tag, call the person by name, and yes, ask a few questions. So it was that we had the pleasure of being waited on Friday night in NYC by Caitlin Hackett. Sweet, self confident, delightful, brave, poised she  self effacingly mentioned that if we googled her name - is that really a verb now? - we would get tons of hits. She said she was "kind of famous." She was not exaggerating. Follow this link to her website and take a look at the graphic work that she does.

The art work is phenomenal - she specializes in monsters - but it's the bio that really excited me. If our young people are thinking this deeply about the world and our relationship to it maybe there is hope even as the oil spill bears down on us.

I also promised the owners of our bed and breakfast in Egremont that I would pop over to TripAdvisor, which I use all the time and which has never steered my wrong, to talk about their lovely inn:

Once again, by chatting up the young man who showed us to our room and got us situated, we discovered Michael, a college student majoring in film - sound editing in particular - who was just such a delight and seemed perfectly happy to be home from school for the summer, helping out the family in their venture.

There can't possibly be a lovelier way to vacation than in a B and B. If we can, that is always our preference. But, as a person who values her privacy quite jealously, I can't imagine a more difficult business to operate! One's life is never one's own. Thirty years and even Claudia, the innkeeper, seemed appalled that she'd been there so long. We were glad she was - the hot chocolate chip cookies in the afternoon didn't hurt.

OK, I promise to get back to books tomorrow (if we don't go to Annapolis for the day). Penelope Lively's Family Album coming up. Just trying to finish it before the stingy 2 week checkout from the library's download e-book catalog.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bright Lights, Big City

Here's what I'm seeing as I write...blue waters of the Chesapeake Bay - you'd never know it's so polluted, to the eye it is the loveliest sight in the world. It's Sunday so sailboats abound. Ducks, gulls and kids share the water with crab pots.

What I'm smelling is the scent of charcoal heating up in preparation for someone's afternoon cookout. What I hear? Nothing but the sounds of water coming from the fountain next door as it splashes over rocks in a bold attempt to compete with the other sound of the bay lapping at the jetty about 20 feet from my swing. Thank you Don.

Now, compare this to 48 hours ago. New York City in all it's raw, dirty, smelly noisy glory, and the contest is well, for me at least, no contest. Every few years I get a real jones for a  city fix. Normally I can do that through a conference or two but as you all know, the money for that has dried up, so Don and I left the tranquility of a short family visit in the Berkshires to trip the light fantastic.

Taking the train from Stamford was exactly the way to go. 50 minutes and we were smack dab in the middle of Grand Central where, frankly, I could have spent half the day just sampling the food. It reminded me of the big food hall at Harrods or the food market in Barcelona. Every wonderful smell in the world clamoring for top billing! Oh, the bakeries to die for.....the fresh fish and Indian cuisine.....and the languages.
A joy to the ear.

The hop on, hop off bus was the perfect way to take it all in (thanks for the idea Kathleen) and we sure managed to do a lot in two days. We are now experts on King Tut though still wondering how it is that the creators of the exhibit have yet to mention out loud that TuT and his ancestors were likely of African lineage.

Then, up close and personal with Viola Davis, who stole the show, and Denzel who Don complained was just Denzel. He had trouble separating the actor from his role as Troy Maxson. I could see his point but still felt that Troy worked for Denzel as so many of his roles involve men who are seething with rage under the surface and it rolled off of him.

Fences was powerful, sad, funny and illuminating and will lead me to learn as much as I can about August Wilson and his background as a man and as a playright.

The Guggenheim never ceases to inspire though the photography exhibit left something to be desired. Some steps around Central Park, a trip through Harlem and past the Apollo, a long walk down Lexington Ave. and a stop at a delightful restaurant with a concept that might have even kept me in the business! One meal - take it or leave it. Steak and pommes frites.

 A half bottle of wine and double salads for Don who is still averse to red meat, a wonderful conversation with our very interesting waitress - an art student from Pratt who designs monsters - and we were back on the train.

I promised I'd share her website but the battery is dying so I'll tell you more tomorrow along with thoughts on the book I've been reading which corresponds nicely to the family affair that brought us north in the first place.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

On Major Pettigrew

Once again I am left to shake my head in sheer amazement at the fully accomplished novels that emanate from first time writers. How do they do it? What a joy it must be to work as an editor, plowing through thousands of manuscripts and happening upon a gem like this one from Helen Simonson. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is one of those deceptively simple novels that may not be fully considered as "literature," yet is chock full of the kind of homespun insights and truths that are the result of a life fully lived.

I was reminded of one of my favorite characters, Alexander McCall Smith's sensible, sensitive Mma Ramotswe, owner of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, when I met Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the local shopkeeper, widow  and dispenser of witticisms whose quiet beauty entices the buttoned up Major Pettigrew who, when we meet him, is still mourning the loss of his wife and now the sudden death of his brother Bertie.

Set in a small town in Sussex, England, peopled by the kinds of characters one finds in any village that time seems to have forgotten, this novel could have devolved into an exploration of stereotypes, but Simonson's witty dialogue - think Oscar Wilde - raises this comedy of manners above the norm. The major has never been one to admit to the loneliness he feels as he buries brother Bertie and regrets not having been closer to his only sibling. His son Roger is an effete, social climbing snob whose desire for money and status leaves the major cold. 

The only person he seems to be able to talk with is Mrs.Ali, whose love of books and knowledge of literature come as a surprise to the major, who has the good grace to feel ashamed of himself for having pigeon-holed the shop proprietress as a woman of a lower status in a town that still relies heavily on pedigree.

The action in the village revolves around the daily lives of the women who plot to snare the major, seen as a "great catch" because of his family home and longstanding place in the community, into a marriage of convenience. Roger, visiting the country with an American fiance, ( Simonson is very funny in her creation of Sandy, the typical over-the-top American in the eyes of the Brits ), thinks his 68 year old dad should be auditioning nursing homes and is eyeballing the manse for himself. Meanwhile, the annual themed ball has the townspeople in a flurry of activity and the major raises eyebrows by inviting Mrs. Ali, a Pakistani, to accompany him.

Helen Simonson astutely observes the foibles of her characters without making harsh judgments. She allows them to slowly realize the errors of their ingrained prejudices, helping them to evolve each at their own pace. There is a certain satisfaction in reading a book like this where people like the disagreeable Roger get their  comeuppance (what a funny, old-fashioned word) and a sense of enlightenment as we readers recognize our own little faults that lead to misunderstandings and lost opportunities for connections. A delightful read altogether.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Writing as Catharsis

Each year that I live in Florida I find that, rather than adjusting to the heat, I have a more and more difficult time with its enervating effects. Adjusting my walking schedule to early mornings rather than evening is one way to deal with it and listening to my books as I make my rounds of the neighborhood gets my brain firing on overdrive.
This morning I began Roger Rosenblatt's Making Toast; A Family Story and already my mind is full of musings on the nature of death, religion, fate and grief. Because I have never given birth, I often feel that I'm at an emotional disadvantage in even attempting to understand the bond between a mother and her child. That said, I still cannot fathom a deeper loss than  parents outliving their son or daughter.

Rosenblatt, a writer, teacher and humanist, of whom I was not aware until recently (to my shame) has written a small, deeply personal account of the aftermath of his daughter Amy's sudden death at the age of 38. Amy and her husband Harris Solomon were both doctors and devoted parents to three young children when she collapsed at home.
Mr. Rosenblatt tries to make sense, if any can be made, of the heart anomaly that took his daughter's life. He examines how human beings handle the stages of grief so differently, his wife Ginny wanting to understand every detail of the birth defect that caused Amy's heart to stop, he not caring why, just cursedly, understandably, angry at Fate.

While their son-in-law Harris compartmentalizes his anguish as a way to continue to function as a surgeon and father to three little ones, Roger and Ginny move from their home in Quogue into the Solomon household to help raise their grand kids, a move of unparalleled unselfishness which we are witnessing more and more often as, for various reason, grandparents are taking over the responsibilities of their grand kids. Do I admire them? More than I can express! Could I do it? Honestly, I don't believe so.

Refreshingly irreligious, the Rosenblatts refuse to rail away at God or any other higher power and eschew those who would offer platitudes and assurances that Amy is "in a better place." In fact, the man who speaks at her memorial service counters that her place is here on earth in the loving arms of her husband, raising her kids and doing her work. I love it.

As I continue to get to know the Rosenblatts I am reminded of my stepmother Edith who, among those who didn't take the time to know her well, was considered something of a cold, withholding woman. On the contrary, I grew to see her as a woman who, having outlived two husbands and two of her four daughters, carried within a grief so profound that it couldn't help but affect her personality to a great degree. Often, like Mr. Rosenblatt does with his grand kids, she preferred to just sit companionably with me and read for hours. I never felt closer to her than at those times.

Making Toast is a beautiful, small but mighty book that will make you think about and miss those you have loved. And isn't that really the best way we can honor them?

Barbara Hoffert has trusted me with a new novel by Paul Auster and I have 9 days to read and review it so you won't be hearing from me for a while. Just to give you an idea though - I burned through the first 100 pages last night in no time! Didn't even nod off!

 I'm also getting ready for a vacation and have lost patience with a couple of books including the very well-received The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I guess it was a tad too sweet for me. I'm also cutting loose Zadie Smith's book of essays for being too erudite. I love her novels and thought On Beauty was outstanding, but this collection reads like a group of master's theses.