Friday, January 27, 2017

A Little Life Could Have Been, Well, Littler

Product Details
I have finally finished Hanya Yanagihara's bold, disturbing, gorgeous, novel, a behemoth (814 pages) sorely in need of a better editor. Yes, it's astonishing. The language is stunning. It received multiple accolades, including finalist nods by the Man Booker and National Book Award committees, but it was the wrong book for me to tackle during this time of malaise to which I admitted in a previous post. The thing is, I have a lecture to attend in a couple of weeks and this book is to be the subject. I am nothing if not prepared.

There is so much to love about this amazing book, written by a woman, about the deep and abiding friendships of men. This doesn't seem to be a subject that's tackled in literature nearly as often as women's relationships are. Willem, JB, Malcolm, and Jude bonded during their college years, forming their own small community of struggling artists, actors, and strivers. Gay, straight, bi-sexual, these men bring others into their circle, nurturing each other over decades of escalating successes that none thought he would ever achieve.

Vicariously we live the lives of the 1% through JB's rise as a renowned painter/photographer, Malcolm's success as an architect, Willem's acclaim as an oft-feted actor, and Jude's unusual turn from underpaid intern in the New York state attorney general's office to lethal litigator. These men live in unique Manhattan apartments, build get-a-ways in upstate New York, own pied-a-terres in London and Paris and Rome. And yet each has difficulty in finding his own true self separate from the group.

The novel mainly focuses on the relationship between Willem and Jude, a deep trust building slowly over time into a mature partnership. It becomes obvious early on that Jude has many secrets and that he has been appallingly, psychologically and physically damaged by someone in his past. Jude is in a continuous state of pain that is as much existential as it is real. Hanagihara doles out insights into Jude's childhood in chapters that are very difficult to read.

You must be prepared for the worst kind of abuse administered externally and by Jude upon himself. Be prepared to learn more about the act of self-loathing that is cutting than you ever would want to know. Only Willem can keep Jude's nightmares at bay and even when their life together seems to be leveling out into some semblance of normalcy, Jude is often just at the edge of psychosis.

I would not want to discourage you from reading this book. There are many delightful secondary characters that you'll enjoy getting to know. Jude's trusted physician Andrew and his adopted parents Harold and Julia stand out. While there is too much repetition of Jude's cutting episodes, there is also the insightful examination of a forty year love affair between two successful, caring, devoted men, which I think may be an eye-opener for many readers. Yes, this novel took me to ever lower depths but, truly, it was worth it.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Replacing Class with Crass; Thoughts on Inauguration Day

I must apologize to those of you who read my blog for great book recommendations. For the past two months I have been suffering from a deep malaise and this overwhelming feeling of being out of touch with the universe has deeply affected my ability to write. In fact, it has stifled my usual joie de vivre causing me to hunker down in my home, avoiding social situations and wondering what I can do to push through it.

Yesterday, determined not to watch the inauguration of Donald Trump, I arranged to meet a dear friend for lunch. On the way to and from the restaurant though I felt compelled to listen to my local NPR station to see if, just maybe, there was an outside chance that Trump would rise to the occasion and allay my doubts and fears for the future of my country. Remember when Hillary said, "when someone shows you who they are, believe it?" I should have listened.

The rhetoric of the Trump inauguration speech was darker, more jingoistic, and more threatening to our allies around the world and to those of us at home who dissent, than even I would have believed. I had to get off the road and send text messages to my friend Don and my sister Cynthia, people I knew would understand my outrage.

Never in my voting lifetime has a president come into office inheriting such a well-oiled machine. If he does nothing at all, we could roll along swimmingly with the lowest unemployment rate and the lowest crime rate in eight years. What universe is this man living in? It's "1984" revisited. How have we come to this? From the pure class, the soaring speeches, the nuanced, thoughtful editorials, the compassion and heart of a Barack Obama to an avowed non-reader, ignorant of history (think of the original meaning of America first), a crass, vocabulary challenged, tweeter-in-chief.

Claiming to speak for the forgotten people of the heartland, he signed his first bill last night, one that rescinds a ruling by President Obama that would lower interest rates on FHA housing loans - loans specifically designed for first time, low income buyers. The savings? One quarter of a percent!

And then there are the cabinet choices, the two most disturbing being Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, a man whose history with the minority community is an abomination, and Betsy DeVos for Education, because we all know that teachers are overpaid, underworked, and should do more testing to justify their phenomenal salaries. NOT!

But this morning I was gifted with a miracle. Don and I turned on the computer and watched the live action at the Women's March on Washington and around the world as gloriously beautiful nasty women from all walks of life, a rainbow coalition of Black, Latina, Asian, and White, gathered in peaceful protest. I knew it would be, to use a Trump adjective, huge. But I was awed by the way it made me feel, the way my heart, Don's heart, lifted. Our lethargy and despair ameliorated by witnessing this pink sea of humanity vowing to be watchdogs, to keep our country on track, to refuse to let evil win. I now know that we have not been alone. I now have the audacity to hope.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Avid Reader

Product Details

Could there be a better title with which to begin the new year? After all, if you are reading this then the epithet belongs to you. If you give this memoir a go, keep a pad and pencil handy as you'll be writing down book suggestions throughout.

Robert Gottlieb is a joy to spend time with. He's unassuming about his position in the hierarchy of literary editing and publishing and yet he can't help but marvel at his own good fortune at being able to work with all the bright lights of 20th century authorship. What more could an English major ask for?

It's difficult to believe that Gottlieb is now in his eighties. From whence does the energy come you might ask? Traveling the world, sitting on the boards of the New York City Ballet and then the Miami Ballet, and maintaining loving, nurturing relationships with friends all over the globe, he has remarkable stamina. I was exhausted just reading about it.

Luck and opportunity found him in the right place at the right time when he landed his first job at Simon and Schuster. His qualifications for the position of editor? Avid reader. Gottlieb had the chance to work with Joseph Heller, coming up with the name "Catch-22," (as opposed to "Catch-11"), and became life-long friends with Toni Morrison. He was the first to tell the single mother of two that she could comfortably quit her day job as an editor at Random House.

He moved on to the venerable Knopf, editing several celebrity memoirs including those of Bill Clinton, Lauren Bacall, and Jessica Mitford ("The American Way of Death"). He never betrays his clients' confidences but generously praises their work ethic and impressively shares his own. This is a man who reads just about 24/7, eschewing Manhattan's social gigs, awards ceremonies, and evenings out. He prefers his wife Maria's home cooking and having friends in. Nora Ephron actually lived with them for a while (as did many others) after her high profile divorce from Carl Bernstein.

Book lovers can't help but fall in love with a fellow book lover. Gottlieb is effusive in his praise of literature, a voracious reader, and a brilliant craftsman. He'll fight his authors to the death over the placement of a comma or semicolon but forty years later they are still friends. His passion for music, the ballet, and literature shine through on every page. This book, which landed on the 2016 notables list for the New York Times, will fascinate readers, voyeurs, and those interested in the inner workings of the publishing industry.