Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Stewart O'Nan on F. Scott Fitzgerald


Have you ever noticed how often serendipity plays out in your life? I finished this new novel, "West of Sunset," by one of my favorite writers, Stewart O'Nan, last week, but I had decided not to write about it. Then I opened my paper this weekend and saw an obit that caught my eye. True confessions - I am fascinated with good obituary writing and read them obsessively. This one was about a remarkable 98-year-old woman named Frances Kroll Ring who featured heavily in O'Nan's book.   
You see, as a very young woman, Ms. Kroll found herself working as a personal assistant to the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, becoming the last link between him, his lover Sheila Graham, and his family, while he was frantically trying to outrun time and increasingly poor health to finish the novel that would become known as "The Last Tycoon," recently released under its intended title, "The Love of the Last Tycoon."
I don't normally think of Stewart O'Nan as a writer of historical fiction, nor do I usually read it. In fact, I believe that his finest works were the two Pittsburgh novels, "Wish You Were Here," and "Emily, Alone," whose subject matter, family, old age, friendships, and daily life, was so beautifully captured. Still, the story of Fitzgerald during his Hollywood years drew me in, if for no other reason than to bemoan the fact that a man of such potential lost his way so early on.
Anyone who's ever studied Gatsby must be aware of the story of Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. Their life was supposed to be golden, the Princeton grad and the southern belle, gallivanting through Europe with the Hemingways, dallying on the Riviera with the Murphys. But Zelda's mental illness reared its head early on and Scott's raging alcoholism left me wondering how he managed to write as much as he did in his short life.
By the time we meet him, west of Sunset, he is a down and out screenwriter desperately trying to stay off the sauce long enough to get a few film credits under his belt and maybe sell a short story or two on the side. He lives on the generosity of friends and advances from his agent in New York. Zelda has been institutionalized back east for years, the bills astronomical, and their daughter Scottie is ready to head to college.
The novel reads more like a biography, stuffed with so many verifiable facts that I even accepted the conversations as the whole truth and nothing but. From what I've read about fiction writers who try to work in Hollywood, the frustration and years of hard work that go into a script only to have it scotched at the last minute, O'Nan perfectly pinpointed what Fitzgerald was up against. His reputation at the time was not as one of America's most highly regarded writers but as an unreliable drunk and, unfortunately, he often lived up to that rep.
"West of Sunset" is a terribly sad story of wasted genius and an informative, if dry, addition to the reams of material written about Scott and Zelda. But if you want to discover where Stewart O'Nan's true talent lies, head to the library and check out the Pittsburgh novels that I mentioned earlier. And while you're at it, look at "The Odds," a novella about a couple on the verge of either a divorce or a 25th anniversary celebration. That one showcases his true genius. http://stewart-onan.com/


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Can Someone Help Me with "Language Arts?"

My head is spinning, Stephanie Kallos! I've just put down your latest novel "Language Arts," and I don't know what to think. I need a discussion group - quick! Beth Conrad? Andrea? Pat? You are the kinds of readers who could help me work through my feelings of enchantment one moment and visceral horror the next. I can only hope that the estimable Professor Elaine Newton will choose this for one of her next season's programs. http://artisnaples.org/education/lifelong-learning/critics-choice

One writer I know, when asked to write a blurb for this novel, said, "It was like yoga for my heart." I can't imagine a more perfect metaphor. Yoga can be a surprisingly strenuous workout one minute and then a path to deep peace and relaxation the next. Ms. Kallos has a gorgeous writing style that makes you sit up and say "whoa!" one minute, only to leave you sighing in peaceful contemplation the next.

So many of my friends have been teachers. This book is for you! The teachers in Kallos's story are wonderfully complicated, nuanced individuals, from one of the narrators, Charles Marlow, to his grammar school mentor, Mrs. Braxton (Brax the Axe), to the nun, Sister Georgia Maria Fiducia D'Amati. Like so many devoted teachers out there, these characters truly have no idea how much of an influence they've had on their charges.

Charles and his wife Alison are raising their son Cody whose life is severely limited by autism. Eventually the overwhelming stress of accepting their son's diagnosis, prognosis, and special needs, causes a deep rift in the marriage exacerbated by their disparate methods of dealing with Cody. At times I wanted to shake Alison and say, "listen to him, talk with him," when she appeared to be talking at Charles so often.

Communication, between those with and without verbal ability, is a major theme in this complex novel. It may even take more than one reading to arrive at a conclusion as to what actually happened. You'll need to read each chapter carefully to focus on who's doing the talking and which time period you're in but it will be well worth the effort when you witness the joy of people finally making connections.

Charles, now in his late '50's, reflects on his life in Mrs. Braxton's fourth grade classroom where he was the unlikely choice for teacher's pet because of his skills in the Palmer method of penmanship. He recalls his burgeoning friendship with Dana, an exceptional, loving child with learning disabilities for whom, in the prescient way of fate, Charles displays extraordinary patience and kindness, and we meet Alison, watch the courtship, and their early bliss with Cody as a precocious baby before he regressed into his illness.

If you've read Stephanie Kallos's exquisite debut novel "Broken for You," then you'll remember the experience of spending time with a thoughtful, gracious novelist, a writer who cares about her characters and their interaction with her readers. http://stephaniekallos.com/ In "Language Arts" you will meet an equally loveable group of people faced with unimaginable obstacles to the contentment we hope to get from life. How they handle these hurdles, learning to accept and forgive even when the transgressions seem unforgiveable, is a life-affirming reading experience.

Still, I'm not sure that I "got" it. Please, if you've read the book, let's talk.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Race, Identity, Nature, Nurture - Who Are We Anyway?

I have been following the news reports and opinions http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/06/16/how-fluid-is-racial-identity?ref=opinion
regarding the stunning outing of NAACP chapter head, Rachel Dolezal, as a white woman. Shock and awe or much ado about nothing? Like many, I qualify my remarks by saying that I'm sorry that she felt she had to lie in order to be accepted as black. However, I don't for one minute not understand why she identifies as black.

As I've so often written, no one knows what goes on in a family, what the dynamics are, what perceived hurts are internalized to later return in unorthodox behaviors. But there is no doubt that when Rachel was a highly susceptible teenager her parents chose to adopt not one, not two, but four young black children to raise alongside their white daughter Rachel. One can speculate that she spent a great deal of time with these kids, babysitting and helping her mother in all aspects of their care. In fact, she is raising one of them now along with her own  bi-racial child from her marriage to a black man.

I could go on and on but this situation is fodder for another post. However, I must say that I am very surprised (or am I?) that not one reporter has gone back to the quickly forgotten story of Jeb  Bush's IRS returns - government documents in which he checked off his race as Hispanic. Everyone tittered and said, "oh, what a lovely tribute to his wife." Jeb Bush may "identify" as Hispanic but he is not Hispanic. Again, much ado about nothing?

So, this all brings me to a book that I read about last month in "Library Journal" and picked up last week at the amazingly well-stocked Calvert County Public Library.

"My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me, A Black Woman
Discovers Her Family's Nazi Past" is a remarkable story
Product Detailsthat adds another complex angle to this ongoing
conversation about race and identity.

Jennifer Teege (http://www.jennifer-teege.com/) was well into her thirties, a married mother of two sons, when she happened upon a book sitting on a library shelf in Berlin which told the story of her mother and grandmother and their connection to Amon Goeth, a commandant at a Nazi death camp brought to cold, horrifying life by Ralph Fiennes in the film, Schindler's List.

Jennifer's dad was Nigerian, her mother German. Her mother gave her up for adoption and she was raised in a white family. Though she visited her mother now and then, their relationship was fraught and her adopted family decided it would be better if Jennifer no longer heard from her mother.

Teege, though, did not identify with either her father's or with her adopted family's culture. In fact, she moved to Israel where she spent years studying, eventually earning an advanced degree and becoming fluent in Hebrew. Imagine the turmoil she must have suffered when she discovered that her grandfather was a Nazi officer and that her beloved grandmother lived with him as his mistress at the compound overlooking the death camp.

As a child who had been abandoned and later adopted into another family, Jennifer already had identity issues and suffered from sporadic bouts of depression. Fortunately her husband was completely supportive of her desire to face her past, deal with the ramifications, and eventually come to the realization that the sins of the fathers aren't always visited upon the proverbial sons (or daughters either).

Ms. Teege's memoir is extremely honest and well written. Her decision to partner with journalist Nikola Sellmair was inspired. Their chapters alternate with Jennifer's exuding the emotional side of her fateful discovery and Nikola filling in the necessary historical background details.

What struck me as particularly poignant was how Jennifer isolated herself from her Israeli friends for so long before she could bring herself to tell them her story. After all, wasn't she the same woman that she was before? The same friend? The same employee? Ultimately isn't the important thing not simply our color or culture but the unadorned face that we show to the world in our everyday actions?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Lisa Genova's Best Novel Yet

Product Details

I remember reeling after finishing Lisa Genova's blockbuster, "Still Alice," feeling just so-so about "Left Neglected," and down right meh about "Love Anthony." But when I saw her latest novel just sitting there on the new book shelf crying out to me, I grabbed it up.  I will tell you, unequivocally, that it is her finest work so far.

On the outside chance that there are any readers out there who aren't yet familiar with Ms. Genova, she holds a Phd. from Harvard in neuroscience. You might think that this fact would put her in a good place to do an enormous amount of good while earning a terrific salary, but she seems to have found an even greater way to make a difference. By writing fiction about people with various misunderstood and feared neurological conditions, Ms. Genova shares her expert knowledge with masses of readers and somehow manages to take the sting out of diseases like Alzheimer's, Asperger's, and now the rare but deadly Huntington's.

"Inside the O'Briens," at times, feels to me as if it had been written by a different writer altogether. Genova is looser, more comfortable with her language yet tighter with her characterization. The O'Briens and their friends are so fully drawn, so true, that they command each page. This novel soars from the first sentence and is impossible to put down.

The O'Brien family is easy to relate to. Irish Catholic Bostonians, they live in the lower middle class section of Charlestown in a three floor row house converted into apartments. Joe, Rosie and Patrick, a grown son who can't afford to be on his own yet, share the first floor. The girls, Meghan who dances with the Boston Ballet and Katie, a yoga instructor, are up on the second floor, and Joe Jr. and his wife have the privacy of the third.

Sunday dinners are loud, boisterous free-for-alls with plenty of yelling when conversation turns to the Red Sox or politics. So when Joe begins throwing silverware, dropping cans, bottles, and vases, or spilling drinks, he gets away with calling it the stress of the job (he's a Boston city cop). Not until his best friend on the force asks him straight up if he's drinking or doing drugs does Joe realize that he needs help. After all, wasn't his own mom an alcoholic who wasted away in an institution for years?

The diagnosis of Huntington's disease is almost a relief until the full impact for his family sucker punches Joe. His entire sense of self is tied up in who he is as head of the family and as a police officer. The more Rosie learns online the more she realizes that the O'Brien family unit could unravel in the time it takes to say DNA testing.

With a 50/50 chance of inheriting the wayward gene of Huntington's, which Joe now understands he got from his unfairly maligned mother, each of the kids must decide whether to live in limbo or to learn their fate. Here is the gorgeous crux of this amazing novel. Genova goes deep into each one's disparate psyches as Joe's offspring struggle with their decisions, weigh their future possibilities and choices against the reality of now.

There is no known cure for Huntington's disease, no famous actors wearing lapel ribbons. It can surface at a relatively young age but, as it progresses and the patient loses the ability to control involuntary reflexes, he will be confined for an ungodly number of years. I appreciated that Genova wrote about a family of ordinary means, no second house to escape to when the symptoms become too obvious. The financial burden of an illness like this can be insurmountable for normal people.

If anyone is looking for a book to put forward to a discussion group, "Inside the O'Briens" would be a fantastic candidate. Moral dilemmas abound. Adults must decide if they're willing to stop the genetic bombshell from proliferating by refusing to have children. Themes of faith, prayer, hope, familial loyalty and love play out along with the more complicated issues of medical research money and where it should be applied for the greatest efficacy. There are currently "only" 37,000 people in the country with Huntington's disease, a far cry from the higher numbers for cancer and Alzheimer's. Still, if you are one of the 37,000 - well, you get it. To read more you can click here: 


To read the book, run to your nearest library or bookstore. I don't usually steer you wrong, do I?

Saturday, June 6, 2015

"Family Life" by Akhil Sharma

Family life is probably the most prominent subject of all great literature. We observe families from afar and think, "they look so happy, it looks so easy." Be assured, it is not. Families are terribly complex and reading about them is often heartbreaking, uplifting, terrifying or gratifying.

Family Life

You may feel all of these emotions and more if you take a look at Akhil Sharma's work. I had not heard of Mr. Sharma before, but thanks to a deep reader and friend in Florida, I finished this short but powerful book in just two days. Since then I have found scores of interviews, reviews, and biographical highlights about this Indian-American Princeton graduate. A lawyer and a teacher (Creative Writing at Rutgers), Sharma doesn't deny that he struggled for thirteen years - imagine - to perfect his second novel which is painfully autobiographical.

The story is of the Mishras who, like so many immigrant families, came to the United States hoping to improve their two sons' chances of achieving the American dream. It never ceases to amaze me how unselfish parents are when they arrive on these shores, strangers in a strange land, denying themselves so much for their kids, living in two rooms, working at jobs so far beneath their skill levels, trying to assimilate yet longing for the family and homes they left behind.

Eight-year-old Ajay, who narrates the Mishra's story, is a pure delight. He is smart, funny, wry, and honest, even when it's not to his advantage to be. He is the younger son, you see. His older brother Birju is the favored one. Birju swiftly adapts to his new life in New York, makes friends easily, excels at school, in fact does everything that his shy, bookish younger brother can't. Until the accident.

In an instant life will never be the same for the Mishras. Caring for Birju's devastating injuries will eventually bleed every ounce of energy and compassion from Ajay's parents, taking its toll from each in very different ways. At times we feel that Ajay is no more than collateral damage in the battle to keep Birju alive. And so he might have been if it wasn't for his resilient heart and his humorous sense of the absurd.

Because his parents minister to Birju 24/7 and he has no one else to talk to,  Ajay conducts hilarious interviews with God about Birju's illness. He makes deals and he breaks them, fearless as he castigates God for his bad behavior toward Birju. In school, where he's never fit in and suffers from bullying, he uses the story of Birju's injuries to attract friends, and he regales us readers with canny observations about the long procession of Indian "healers" who visit his house for months at a time, promising a miracle.

While there are funny moments in "Family Life," be warned this is a heartbreaking, gut wrenching novel made all the more so by knowing that it parallels Sharma's actuall life. It is also a paean to the endless capacity of a mother's love, to the bonds of family, and to the remarkable resilience of the human spirit.

 Mr. Sharma's publishers were apparently frantic, waiting years for the  long-promised second book after Pen/Hemingway winner "An Obedient Father." In an interview with "The Guardian" Sharma remarks that he would not release the manuscript until he felt that it was perfectly crafted and expressed precisely what he wanted to say. I can confidently tell you that he succeeded.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Language of Hoofbeats

Product Details

Whenever I'm looking for a respite from the deep, dark literature that is my forte, I turn to authors who made me feel good in the past. Do you remember the delightful book, "Pay it Forward," by Catherine Ryan Hyde that became a foundation ( http://www.payitforwardfoundation.org/ )and a film? Well, Amazon was offering some great deals on e-books for the kindle so I bought one of Hyde's newer novels, "The Language of Hoofbeats," hoping for a boost of endorphins. Though I had issues with parts of her book, it generally satisfied the "feel good" criteria.

Do you know, live with, or work with a person whom you might describe as having gotten up on the wrong side of the bed? You know, the one you can't speak with until noon for fear of reprisal or the one you finally eliminate from your roster of friends because he or she is just too much of a downer? Now just imagine if you knew someone who was BORN on the wrong side of the bed! Think about how difficult it would be to even live with oneself in that condition, let alone to maintain relationships.

Ms. Hyde brings two such characters together in this novel that touches on several difficult themes, grief, mental illness, foster parenting, and the incompetent family court system. Paula and Jackie Archer-Cummings are a married lesbian couple who complete their family by adopting or fostering emotionally troubled children, one of whom, fifteen-year-old Star, suffers from severe anger issues.

 They've recently relocated to central California where Paula, the bread-winner, will take over an established veterinary clinic. Their only neighbors, Vernon and Clementine (the other character who is always angry), have a horse, Comet, who appears to be suffering from neglect. Perfect, you might say. A vet in one house and a horse in need next door. But no, it's soon obvious that Clementine wants nothing to do with the new neighbors, and the more she avoids them, the more their lives intertwine.

In alternating chapters, short, conversational, and easily and quickly read, Jackie and Clem verbalize their inner angst as they each try to negotiate their new realities, Jackie's as a stay at home mom to three step kids, and Clem's as a lonely, soon to be divorced, sixty-something curmudgeon longing for connection but terrified to articulate it.

Against Clem's wishes yet seemingly powerless to stop it, the unmanageable Star sneaks out each night, letting herself into Comet's corral, to groom and minister and communicate with the lonely horse. One night, when she can't stand herself another minute, Star breaks open the corral and rides Comet out into the night and, in an instance, the relationship between Clem and her new neighbors rises to an entirely new level.

Catherine Ryan Hyde is, according to her website, an avid equestrian and it shows in her loving attention to the bond between Star and Comet. It's obvious that she fervently believes, as do I, in the power of a healing language between animals and humans.

Where the novel could use improvement is in the disappointingly one-dimensional characterization of the couple, Paula and Jackie. It's especially surprising since their children, Quinn, Mando, and Star, are so much more complex and fun to be with. A mild quibble to be sure for a great beach read that you can finish in a day and bookend with the more difficult stuff.