Category Archives: books

Mini Book Reviews – July ’19

“The Sellout,” by Paul Beatty, is set in contemporary California. The main character, ‘the sellout,’ is a farmer and the son of a social scientist — a social scientist who ran BF Skinner-like experiments on him while growing up. Though critical of his father, the protagonist ends up setting up his own social experiments — primarily by re-introducing segregation into the unique and isolated section of LA where he lives (or the specter of it, anyway). Also he allows a friend of his father’s to become his slave (at his father’s friend’s weird insistence). Both sound and are improbable, but work within the context of the story. The ‘experiments’ become vehicles for the novel’s convoluted and challenging commentary on race.

It’s a wacky novel that sometimes made me laugh out loud, but I’ll admit to missing a lot of the references. Given that and how little I know about satire or black literature, I encourage you to read Kevin Young’s review for the New York Times, here.

Side Note One: You might be familiar with Kevin Young. He’s an award winning poet who PBS interviewed for the series, “The Great American Read.” I heard him read at an event in Concord, Mass. a few years back).

“Less” features a man in the downward spiral of mid-life crisis. Arthur Less is a mid-tier novelist concocting excuses to be out of the country to justify not attending his former lover’s wedding. To achieve his dodge, he takes up every half-assed international award ceremony and teaching gig that comes his way.

Much of the story tells of his travels and on a pragmatic level, we can relate to the realism and comedy of fretting about currency, passports and transport to and from airports. Interactions with his international hosts also provide comedic relief — particularly in Germany where Less, who considers himself competent in the language, fails miserably to communicate properly. Through the narrator we get to be privy to his botches.

Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that the book takes a surprise turn and ends up being, quite simply, a love story. I didn’t figure out who the narrator was until nearly the end. Also an interesting surprise.

Good read.

Side Note: This novel won the Pulitzer Prize, which I learned during an exchange between characters in this novel, is pronounced PULL-it-zer (and not PYULE-it-zer).

“Lake Success” features a NYC hedge fund manager who is also on the run. His astronomical financial success may or may not have been partially predicated on insider trading, so in addition to fleeing a life cratered with disappointment by a severely autistic son, he’s on the run from a subpoena. He buys himself a bus ticket south in the vain quest to hook up with his college lover in Texas. For reasons not entirely clear, he tosses his cell phone and credit cards into the trash early on, making a man formerly accustomed to serving $33,000/bottle Japanese whiskey so reliant on limited cash that he has to deny himself hot dogs at bus stations en route. Hardly the Kerouac-like trek he hoped for.

The combination of delusion and desperation make his journey read more like an exercise in understanding homelessness and destitution than an intelligent man’s quest for reform or meaning. A classic unreliable narrator. His attempts to relate to people across racial and economic divides come across as well-meaning but ultimately self-serving and trite.

The protagonist’s self-destructive choices weren’t the only cringe worthy aspects of this unlikeable character. Seeing people through his lens of the .1 % was really harsh as well. He takes pride, for instance, in having married a beautiful and well-credentialed woman whom he takes off the job market. Lots in here about what the hedge fund wife should or shouldn’t be, with variations for wives three and four. Ugh! The difference in status and wealth evidenced in his apartment building alone, reveals his world view — floor three, for instance, being occupied by the ‘merely affluent’ while the top floors are reserved for the really wealthy, like himself and Robert Murdoch.

The redemption comes, after many more ups and downs, and is particularly hard won.

A more complete run down of the plot and author can be found in the New York Times review: here.

Side Note One: One of the most interesting features of the novel is that it takes place in the run up to Trump’s election and describes the brutal aftermath as well, a story line that was simultaneously re-traumatizing and comforting somehow. It said: we really have been through something awful and it isn’t over yet.

Side Note Two: In my experience when meeting an autistic child, even without much knowledge or training, one can often guess which parent the disorder comes from. I’m not sure our character ever figures out that it’s him, but we do — his over-the-top studious way of teaching himself how to be friendly by practicing small talk in the mirror while at Princeton was one sign, the other was his weird attachment to a collection of beloved watches.

 

Editing cloth and prose

The base. Pieced. Bottom left sea green patch bugs me and presents itself as a problem to be solved.

What if I go back to my hybrid method of quilting? I used to combine piecing and appliqué in a somewhat slapdash way that embarrasses me a little now. It sent me into a purist phase — everything must be pieced! What if I now consider some of those “nice” purely pieced quilts as unfinished — or at least, as potential canvases?

How much fun to defy the lines of the seams and extend patterning in a spirit of play?

And, as always, how about adding more houses? The pinned one on the left, believe it or not, is a “discovered” house, fussy cut from a rayon blouse. The green house to the right was made by simply topping a vertical rectangle with a roof.

There are so many more pictures of Italy to share but they already feel like old news. But I will be sharing more, if you don’t mind… along with a half dozen mini book reviews. They’re piling up! Turning into homework (ugh!)

One Assisi insight (not profound at all but hear me out): when you’re not walking the dog, cleaning the house, watching two MSNBC news programs a day, cooking dinner most nights, and tending a demanding mentally and physically ill sibling, a charge whose hours of attention are preceded by dread and followed by a period of demoralized recovery — there are a lot of hours in the day! In Italy, I had soooo much time! Time to wander the streets. Time to drink Caffè machiatto at the bar with the old men. Time to light candles for my sister all over the city. Time to read and write and quilt.

(My street — San Rufino Ave).

I am watching how I vacuum and scrub and now garden (yes!) to avoid the page.

It’s a process. And I miss my sister more here than I did there, particularly (and ironically because it was a place of ongoing tension), whenever the phone rings. It rings and I think: it will never again be her.

But you’ll be happy to know that of the 200+ chapters in my manuscript (Blood and Indigo), all but a handful have received a hard edit. One of the best things I did in Italy at the advice of fellow-writing-resident– the supremely lovely, warm, insightful and generous Argentinian writer, Elena Bossi — was to chop a lot of dull descriptions of interior crap and replace them with dialogue. What a good piece of advice that was!

Maybe that was one of the reasons I was so taken with the statute of David at the Cathedral of San Rufino — the dynamism of his raised arm, about to strike! I deleted two entire chapters while I was at it. Highlight, click! Highlight, click!

And what a pleasure to come home to a world exploding with the extravagance of spring.

Mercy and reflection

In one of my sister’s closets, I found two bundles of letters, postmarks dating back to the early 80’s. There were: Easter cards from Sharon, all manner of holiday cards from Dot, a couple of letters from my father in his distinctive engineer’s script, lots of postcards from my brother as he traveled Europe as a young man. Many, many letters from me.

It was the letters from my mother that undid me — forced me to box it all up and stow them for another day. Maybe another year. Maybe never.

What a hearty correspondent my mother had been! Did I, too, receive so many missives over the years? Probably. But I don’t really remember and unlike my sister, I didn’t hang onto them.

There were letters from Provence full of exclamation points (“perfect tomatoes! perfect green herbs! perfect bean cassoulet!”), letters from Florida full of encouragement, letters acknowledging weight loss (more encouragement), letters enclosing checks, letters of explanation post-misunderstanding, letters of apology.

“My dear sweet Valentine, Noreen… ”

The letters reminded me how distorted and corrosive my sister’s narrative about my mother has been, never elastic or truthful enough to include the good, the positive, the well-meaning.

One letter came on the heels of some disastrous trip to Washington. Why had they gone? Was it an art-related treat offered by my mother, some attempt to connect?

Oh god, the paragraphs about my sister’s explosive response to some fairly innocent remark read like a summation of my last nine years. “I’m sorry for what I said, but I didn’t think it was THAT heinous…”

And then, my mother scribed these stunning words: “You give me too much power and offer up too little mercy.”

Here’s Gauthier’s “Mercy Now,” which has been one of my anthems of grief.

The letters reminded me that at one time, my sister seemed poised for normalcy. Just one more infusion of cash, one more sorting of twisted emotion, one more round of diet supports, a car, a business, and she’d be fine, right?

Retroactively applying new understandings, it’s been clear that disorder showed up at every stage. How harmed she was by ignorance about mental illness! And how effectively her chaos was camouflaged by the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. A rebellious phase, nothing more, surely?

As I rejiggered history, I lost sight of the younger, better version of my sister. Sorting her things has brought it back. Her flashes of brilliance, her capacity for understanding literature, her iconoclastic spirituality, her intuitive and stunning art. I remember that there was a time when I felt eclipsed not just by her shadow but by her strengths, too.

Family legend has it that my sister spoke in full paragraphs by the age of two, while my speech was so garbled only my mother could understand me until after the age of three. There was my sister’s nearly perfect score on the verbal SAT. Her voracious reading and gigantic vocabulary.

My sister read the LOTR every spring for years. As much as I loved Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, too (another of her favorites), I could barely get through the trilogy once and anyway, who’d want to read “The Two Towers” a second time? She devoured sweeping historical novels — Leon Uris, for instance (she may have read “Exodus” three times) and Michener (have you seen how long “The Source” is?) She adored the romances of Mary Stewart and the mysteries of James Lee Burke. Bindings gave way, covers taped and worn. I brought “This Rough Magic” to the nursing home, but it stayed in the drawer. She was going.

A lot to unpack here, but for now, not the letters.

Have you saved any correspondence from over the years? If so, why and do you ever look at it? I have the letters that K and I exchanged early on, which are precious but clearly not for the boys’ eyes.

In closing, let me leave you with the idea of things undone. A friend reminded me that in the Tibetan tradition, survivors attempt to tie up loose ends for the deceased over a period of 48 days. What, has my sister left undone? And if the better question is, what didn’t she leave undone, is such a pursuit futile?

What will I leave undone? And you?

 

 

 

 

The Ninth Hour, McDermott — micro review

Last year I read a murder mystery called “The 9th Hour,” and was puzzled when I kept hearing praise for it. Well, the praise was intended for Alice McDermott’s book, “The Ninth Hour.” My mother-in-law recently lent me this novel, McDermott’s eighth, and it is indeed praiseworthy.

Maybe not the best book to read while helping a gravely ill sibling with her toileting, but not at all worthy of Finn’s unenthused response, above. It takes place in the Irish Catholic world of Brooklyn in the early part of the last century (which happens to be where and when both my parents’ lives began). It’s about love, survival, the judgment of religion, and caregiving.

The stellar contribution the nuns made to the community stood at odds with their notions of damnation, notions that I grew up with and found weird even as a child. Why, for instance, are people who commit suicide precluded from grace?

At the age of eight, even if I didn’t know why, I was suspicious of the story about a woman who was anointed a saint after being raped in a cornfield. Really? And didn’t Father Chamberlain have a lot of nerve hollering at a church full of second graders that we were all “on the road to hell”? Seriously, he was a prick. I wouldn’t have used that word then, but I most emphatically do now.

Of course, none of this stopped me from wanting to be a nun back then (though to be honest, I think that had more to do with my pretty, gilt-edged missal and crystal rosary beads than anything else). All of this has fallen away but I still say my Hail Mary’s leaving and landing on the tarmac in a jet.

The daughter of our main character is practically raised by the nuns when her widowed mother goes to work as a laundress in a nearby convent. So it comes as no surprise when she thinks that she should follow the religious path. However, things are not so straightforward.

Much of the story explores her coming of age between two bookends — the surprising adaptations her mother made to widowhood and the ordered life of the sisters.

The nuns’ brisk and efficient approach to shit-stained linens and invalids is to be admired. Burdened by the dirty sheets of my sister that week, I actually read a few of these scenes wistfully. If only…

One take away from the novel is that while many social agencies have stepped into the void left by the withdrawal of the nuns’ services, no one has really taken their place.

This is disjointed and for that, I apologize. But here is a very good review in The Guardian: McDermott’s The Ninth Hour: the heartlessness and consolation of Catholicism.

Recent reading: An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

Jones revealed in an interview that the idea for the characters in her fourth novel, “An American Marriage,” came to her from a conversation she overhead in a mall. She already had her theme, informed in part by a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute (Cambridge, Mass.), studying the prison pipeline and racial injustice, but not her characters.

And then she overheard a woman saying, “Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years!”

Roy replies, “What’re you talking about? This wouldn’t’ve happened to you in the first place.”

“When I see two people arguing and they both seem to have a legitimate point, then I know I have a novel because for me a novel cannot have a clear person who’s right or wrong.” 

“An American Marriage” tells the story of a newlywed couple with everything to look forward to — him as a businessman, her as an art doll-maker — until the unthinkable occurs. The husband, Roy, is wrongly accused of rape. Incarcerated. What happens during the period of his imprisonment and the time immediately after his release comprise the story. The author puts before us the damning, personal consequences of racial injustice. A virulent and widespread social problem up close. She shows two people wrestling with fidelity to the IDEA of marriage, if not to marriage itself, as they try to weather an untimely and grossly unfair separation.

“To black Americans, mass incarceration is an ongoing threat, like hurricanes on the coast and earthquakes or fires in California. Prison can swoop in and snatch up the men in our families at any time.”

from interview with Oprah

This book makes a statement in its very title. It’s not, “An African American Marriage,” but “An American Marriage.” As it should be! It’s refreshing to read a narrative so wholly focused on black characters. No white saviors. No black characters served up as ancillary to the aims of white people. It’s notable that the sole white character here is a life-wrecking accuser.

To celebrate the exclusivity of black characters might seem a bit remedial. But when you consider that “Green Book” just won an Oscar or that during the Cohen hearings last week, Rep. Meadows used a black woman as a prop (and then teared up in outrage when another representative called him on it), it seems not so small a point.

A fast and compelling read. I see why Oprah chose it for her Book Club.

NY Times review

Just to continue a moment on another issue the book puts before us: the use someone else’s pain as the basis for artwork. The doll making character’s career doesn’t really take off until she starts using her imprisoned husband as inspiration. It was interesting to consider the problem of appropriation stripped of the complication of race. Artist-character and her subject are both black, and still we ask: Is it okay to parlay another’s pain into artwork, especially if the subject objects? And if such a use makes one successful, how should we evaluate that success?

(for the question about black pain and white creators, see, critique of Dana Schutz painting ‘Open Casket’ of Emmet Till at the Whitney Biennial in 2017 and The White Card, a play by Claudia Rankine (blogged after seeing the play here). Also, check out “Still Processing: ‘Confederate,’ ‘Detroit’ and Who Owns Stories about Blackness” podcast, featuring Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham).

 

 

 

 

Third week is book week

Don’t mind me. I’m trying to figure out how to organize content. A little. I’ve read some really great books since Christmas and want to force my hand here, so I’m dedicating this week (mostly) to books.

First up: Educated by Tara Westover. This award-winning memoir is a page turner. An inspiration. Like “Hillbilly Elegy,” it’s a tale about the elevating and redemptive powers of education. While JD Vance overcame neglect, poverty, and a community riddled by addiction, Westover overcame the damaging isolation of a survivalist childhood, physical and emotional abuse, and her father’s severe mental illness. I agree with the NY Times review that stated, “‘Educated’ makes Vance’s tale seem tame by comparison.”

A Mormon with eyes on the Rapture, Westover’s father did construction and ran a scrap yard in the hills of Idaho. Probably bi-polar, his mania was fueled by panic about being ready for the end of the world. His frenetic pace created a wanton disregard for the basic safety of his off-spring. Limbs nearly severed. Rebar thrown like lethal spears. Avoidable explosions. The hair-raising mishaps in the scrap yard were truly horrifying.

Tara was not even home schooled. Like her siblings, she worked in the yard or in the kitchen. Thank god Westover aced the ACTs in her late teens or one wonders how she would have fared.

To begin her exit from the family, Westover had to start at the very beginning: obtaining a birth certificate. Her mother didn’t even know the exact month of her birth. A day or two on either side, okay — but forgetting the month? It’s staggering.

One brother escaped and reappears periodically. Encourages his sister. Another brother torments her with both emotional taunting and physical abuse. The classic cycles: battering followed by contrition; shaming followed by gifts. Another reader I know speculated that there was sexual abuse as well. As soon as she said so, it seemed correct. But Westover doesn’t mention it and in a way, it doesn’t matter.

The mother says nothing. Complicit.

Eventually (no surprise), the father is badly wounded. Meanwhile, the midwife mother has generated enough support for her herbal products to be running a small empire by book’s end.

Westover’s education takes up much of the latter part of the book.

Recommend. Starts out with a literary voice and loses that early on, but still a worthy read. Edifying.

Good pairing: JD Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy.”

Frightening current parallels: Mike Pompeo and John Bolton (secretary of state and national security advisor, respectively) are both End Times guys, leading two shrewd political commentators* to suggest that this administration is turning even the future into a commodity, one that most of us don’t deserve and can’t afford. A planet with huge reductions in population would leave more resources for the elite, now wouldn’t it? Denials of climate change, mere ruses. Nuclear war, a means to an end.

Sound like fundamentalism? Sorry to say that while speculation underpins this view, there is also compelling and chilling evidence for it.

 PS I make no attempt to provide a thorough review of books and since I’m not being paid to do this, I feel entitled to my idiosyncratic approach. Plenty of official reviews are easily available online.