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Thursday, March 20, 2014

A new author!

Don't you love it when you discover a new author that you think you could have a long and fruitful relationship with? It happened to me, having just finished Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (#12).

I had never even heard of Atkinson, until this book came out last year and got glowing reviews all over the place, which I thankfully read. The concept sounded interesting, or perhaps irritating: the main character, Ursula Todd, is born in 1910 to a middle-class British family. Sounds straightforward, no? Not at all. The book moves forward in time, then re-starts, over and over, imagining alternative lives -- and deaths -- for Ursula. In one, she strangles on the umbilical cord, and never survives her own birth. In others, she is killed by falls, diseases, war, and other grisly methods. In one, she even meets Hitler.

Although I feared it would be an off-putting gimmick, the technique works, and the story is deeply engrossing. Atkinson has an incredible eye for detail, and I don't think I've ever read a book that so clearly conveys what it would have been like to live in London through the Blitz. Ursula's lives are occasionally extraordinary, but mostly quite ordinary, and somehow the author manages to weave them together in a way that feels completely satisfying, plausible, and deeply moving.

So now I get to read other works by Atkinson, including her Jackson Brodie detective series. Yeah!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The fabulous famille Glass: #11

Way back in high school (way, way back), I read everything J.D. Salinger wrote. He was one of the literary heroes of my youth, one of the writers that every adolescent who wanted to be considered literate, or arty, or cool, read, along with Herman Hesse and Kurt Vonnegut. They were the triumverate, the ones we read and talked about and re-read and idolized. Then there were the lesser writers (lesser in the sense that they weren't mandated reading, more on the recommended list): Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac, John Barth, Joseph Heller, Robert Heinlein... And for some of us, there were our particular extra-cool favorites, like Fitzgerald and Capote (two of mine). There was tremendous flexibility here, some of the smart lit-kids read Pynchon (the really smart lit-kids), some read Philip K. Dick, some read Dunleavy.

But everyone (everyone who wanted to be a writer or an artist, which was an awful lot of us in the late sixties/early seventies) read Salinger. He spoke to us. He spoke for us.

It's been an awful long lot of years since I picked up a book by J.D. Salinger, and I was worried that time had not done right by one of my youthful heroes. Would the angst wear well? Would all that caviling about phonies and authenticity seem dated? Worse, would it feel silly?

I am so happy to report that Franny and Zooey (a short story and a novella, first publisher in the New Yorker in 1955 and 1957) wear as well as a Mary Quant mini, maybe better. The two youngest members of the uber-smart, articulate, precocious Glass family, Franny and her older brother Zooey are the best of literary company. In her story, Franny is on a weekend date with her college boyfriend, and falling apart internally as she suffers through his self-aggrandizing stories of his collegiate success. In his story, which is set soon after Franny's ends, and narrated by their absent older brother Buddy (my teenage hero), Zooey is dealing with his mother and sister, the one distraught over the existential and emotional breakdown of the other.

Much of the writing is in dialog, and Salinger expresses so much character through the way each member of the Glass family speaks, and how they relate to each other. I was very afraid that all the stuff about inauthenticity, and phonies, and the religious discussions would seem juvenile. But it didn't, it felt real and rich and I was so happy to realize that I loved being in the company of the fascinating family Glass -- so happy, in fact, that I went out and bought 9 Stories and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction. So there is more Glass-erie coming our way.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Catch up

Been away for a couple of weeks and been reading, but not reporting. Need a quick catching up session, so here it is.

#6 Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Abraham Lincoln, on meeting Mrs. Stowe, is supposed to have said, "So you're the little lady who started this great war." You can certainly see why the pen is mightier than the sword. I wanted to fight the Civil War all over again after reading this book. I set out to read it for the sake of filling in the gaps in my knowledge. I mean, we've all heard of Little Eva and Eliza and Topsy and Uncle Tom. But I wanted to know how and why they got to be so much a part of our collective consciousness. And now I do. The book was as preachy as I expected it to be, and far more compelling a read. I cried more than once, chuckled occasionally, and was completely captivated by the story. 12 Years a Slave, eat your heart out. I can see why that book was thoroughly eclipsed by this one.

#7 The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. Read it for my book group and loved it. So bleak! So despairing! So dark! It reminded me, in its blisteringly desolate view of humanity and its place in the godless universe, of The Stranger, another favorite. I just have a soft spot for those absurdist, existentialist writers, I guess. They make for such compelling reading. The story of a young married couple, Port and Kit, who take a misbegotten trip to the North African desert, the book takes a strange turn about midway through, when Port dies and Kit goes off into an acid-trip-like journey through the desert and into a strange sexual landscape. It's all weird, and all wonderfully written.

#8 Little Failure by Gary Schteyngart. His memoir. Born Igor in St. Petersburg when it was still Leningrad, he came to the US at age 7, lived in Queens with his mismatched, unhappy, and overly attentive parents, attended Yeshiva, then Oberlin. It's wonderfully funny, and caustic, and loving.

#9 Straight Man by Richard Russo. Although I usually love Richard Russo's books, I can't say I liked this one much. So I won't. In the first sentence, the narrator, an English professor at a small college in Pennsylvania, tells us that he was an exasperating child and is an exasperating man. I would add that he is an exasperating narrator. His jokey, take-nothing-seriously (including his marriage, career, and children) tone, got on my nerves. Not my favorite by him.

#10 The Reef by Edith Wharton. This was, way back when, the first Edith Wharton book I ever read, and I remember loving it so much that I went on to read everything Mrs. Wharton ever wrote. But I had since completely forgotten what this book was about, except that it had something to do with a governess. So it was time for a re-reading. Unfortunately, the passage of years had not treated this book well, at least in the eyes of this reader. Considered her most "Jamesian" work, it reminded me of everything I don't like about the later works of Mr. James. The characters are overly opaque, the writing is oblique and veiled, and I found myself uninterested and uninvolved. I'll stick to other Wharton for future re-reads.

I've read ten books and it's week 10. 2014: So far so good!