Monday, July 30, 2018

Anna Quindlan's Alternate Side

Alternate Side: A NovelAt first I didn't think that I would share my feelings about Ms. Quindlan's latest novel, "Alternate Sides," because I felt the same way as one of the characters in the story who opined that their problems were "first world" troubles. The lyrics to a song kept running through my mind. "Is that all there is?" But it's been a week since I finished this book and its still weighing heavy on my mind.

Anna Quindlan is an author who's always had her finger on the pulse, a chronicler of the zeitgeist. She won a Pulitzer for her musings on daily life in a New York Times column many years ago. But her milieu now may be unfamiliar to many readers, me included, and I almost allowed that to cloud my judgment.

The novel takes place in a small neighborhood of gloriously refinished brownstones in Manhattan. The owners are insular in that they've all known each other, superficially at any rate, for years. They meet annually for a holiday party. They nod and make small talk over their dogs' morning and nightly excursions, and they collude to hire the same nannies and handymen so that there won't be too many unknowns in the their homes or on their street. And, because this is Manhattan, scoring a permanent parking space in the too small empty lot is a sign that one has arrived.

Nora and Charlie are a long-married couple whose kids are away at college, who each have challenging work, and who have become ships passing in the night. Nora is a New Yorker born and bred and thrives on the city. Charlie, not so much. In fact, we gather that he's facing downsizing at the office, and is rattled and unhappy. The city is suddenly his enemy, until he lands a parking spot in the lot down the street.

Now he's part of the club, and the club is agitated by the Hispanic handyman who always seems to squeeze his van in with only an inch to spare, making it difficult for the Volvos and Mercedes to squeak out in the morning. Quindlan  subtly creates the tensions that will eventually explode in a horrific act of violence, exposing the cracks that have been slowly developing in the relationships between husband and wife, neighbor and neighbor.

This book, a love song to New York City, would lend itself well to discussion groups as it examines issues of white privilege, ick-inducing expressions of liberal guilt, the fault lines in feminism, and an adeptly handled "me too" moment. As more and more Americans take positions on alternate sides of the status quo, Anna Quindlan uniquely shows us the unintended consequences.

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Great Believers

The Great BelieversIf you believe that forgiveness is the ultimate act of love then Rebecca Makkai's remarkable new book, "The Great Believers," will feel deeply satisfying. This gorgeous novel takes readers back to the height of the AIDS epidemic in the '80's when paranoia was rampant and the so-called gay scourge tore families apart. It may be difficult for younger people to even remember what a horrible time that was. Some of us who are older probably read "And the Band Played On" by Randy Shilts and thought we knew everything there was to know. Makkai makes it personal.

The story begins in 1985 Chicago at a memorial service, the first of oh so many that will be held in the coming years, for Nico, a gay man who was the beating heart of his large group of friends, the first to fall ill. The only woman in attendance is Nico's beloved sister Fiona whose fate will be to bear witness to the suffering and death of too many young men.

Makkai fills her book with great characters, infuriating, caring, selfish, and ambitious, but the man we come to know intimately is Yale Tishman, na├»ve and trusting, yearning for a long-term relationship that includes a home with a picket fence, a pet, meals together at night in front of the TV. Instead, he has Charlie, a vain, life of the party, newspaper editor who preaches safe sex but doesn't practice it.

We toggle back and forth between late '80's Chicago as Yale pursues his career in art acquisition - a fascinating story in itself - and 2015 Paris. Fiona is the bridge. Fiona, a woman suffering from the trauma of losing everyone she's known and cared for. Is it possible that she's used up all the love she had to give? Unable to sustain her marriage, now estranged from her adult daughter, Fiona is on a mission to bridge the divide with her child and maybe even find a reservoir of compassion left for herself.

Throughout this poignant, heart breaking novel, Makkai reminds us of the history of the Act Up movement, the politics of the Reagan era, the slow move toward AIDS research before Hollywood got involved, and the fleeting hopes engendered when rumors surfaced of new drugs coming on the market. We witness the cruel reactions to the gay community of people who don't understand how the AIDS virus is spread, and we meet the unsung heroes, the nurses at the Cook County hospital, who cared so compassionately for these men in their final days.

Yes, the world has advanced considerably for the rights of the LGBTQ community over the past four decades but we cannot forget, Makkai reminds us. As with so many other civil rights issues we must remain constantly vigilant lest the ugly past resurface. "The Great Believers" is now number two on my 2018 favorites list.


Monday, July 9, 2018

The Overstory is a Remarkable Story

The Overstory: A NovelThe author Richard Powers has been nominated for just about every award the literary world has to offer, and if you've read any of his work, it's easy to understand why. He is a versatile writer, deep and complicated and difficult to put in a box. His novels reflect his eclectic background in science, music, philosophy, literature, and technology. "The Overstory" combines all of his interests to form a cohesive whole that is a stunning work of imaginative prowess.

Powers' story transpires over the entire twentieth century beginning with a Norwegian immigrant, Jorgen Hoel, who moves with his pregnant wife from Brooklyn to Iowa. In his pockets are several chestnut seeds which he plants on the family farm, setting in motion this tale of nine seemingly unrelated characters whose lives will intersect decades down the road in a profoundly unsettling way.

At the same time that these people's lives twine together, the roots of the chestnut will branch and intertwine with other trees' roots to form one of the earth's oldest symbiotic relationships. The premise that trees feel, communicate, and protect each other and the insects and animals with which they interact, is put forth by Dr. Patricia Westerford, a hearing and speech-impaired young woman whose adoring father taught her everything she knows about the natural world. College was just the icing on the cake.

Powers takes his time introducing us to each of his protagonists in turn. From their childhoods, some lonely and solitary, others warm and loving, we learn what makes them tick. From the Vietnam veteran who parachuted into a banyan tree that held him in its arms for safety, to the computer geek and animator who's paralyzed by a fall from a not so sympathetic oak, each has a detailed biography.

In the northwest a movement is burgeoning. From California to Oregon and Washington, environmentalists are converging on areas of old growth forest destined for destruction by developers with visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads. These people, whom we now know intimately, arrive alone and together from various parts of the country to perform acts of civil disobedience. They lie down across roads, handcuff themselves to heavy equipment, climb into evergreens centuries old to protect our living, breathing ancestors from the chainsaws.

Though non-violence is the rule of thumb, as so often happens during acts of quiet protest, the authorities react badly to calm. Tear gas, beatings, and imprisonment ratchet up the stakes and soon, in a horrific act or eco-terrorism, a woman is killed and everyone is on the run.

Richard Powers poses many questions worthy of discussion, questions that will really make you see the world of nature, and of trees in particular, in a very different way. What responsibility do we have, he wonders, to the natural world that sustains us and the generations before and after us? How insignificant we human beings are in the grand scheme of things! After all, the rings of a fallen tree represent millennia.

I can't say enough about this amazing, thought-provoking novel. I know that it will make my top ten for 2018.