Examining a Passage from The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch
The Goldfinch 

I posted earlier on the brilliant, beautiful novel The Goldfinch.  I had to do so in broad swaths, given how dense in character and plot the novel is, just to give you a taste of it. But now I want to go back and drill down on just one passage, to analyze what makes the writing—to me, at least—so marvelous. There are so many paragraphs I could choose, but I was particularly taken with the following description of how Hobie, the furniture restorer who takes in the young, homeless Theo, trains him in the art and craft of fine furniture repair.

As you read the passage, make a mental note of how you respond to it, and what you notice in particular (There will be a test . . .).

Auction houses all over the city called him, as well as private clients; he restored furniture for Sotheby’s, for Christie’s, for Tepper, for Doyle. After school, amidst the drowsy tick of the tall-case clocks, he taught me the pore and luster of different woods, their colors, the ripple and gloss of tiger maple and the frothed grain of burled walnut, their weights in my hand and even their different scents—”sometimes, when you’re not sure what you have, it’s easiest just to take a sniff”—spicy mahogany, dusty-smelling oak, black cherry with its characteristic tang and the flowery, amber-resin smell of rosewood. Saws and counter-sinks, rasps and rifflers, bent blades and spoon blades, braces and mitre-blocks. I learned about veneers and gilding, what a mortise and tenon was, the difference between ebonized wood and true ebony, between Newport and Connecticut and Philadelphia crest rails, how the blocky design and close-cropped top of one Chippendale bureau rendered it inferior to another bracket-foot of the same vintage with its fluted quarter columns and what he liked to call the “exalted” proportions of the drawer ratio.

Okay, Students! How did you respond to this passage? What was the first thing that struck you?  Did you like it, dislike it, love it, indifferent, irritated, what?

I wish we were sitting around a circle and I could hear your answers, which I’m sure will be much more interesting than mine!  And different.  You’ll just have to let me know.

Meanwhile, I’ll give you my take.

The first thing that strikes me is how much Donna Tartt knows about furniture restoration! She’s done her homework, boys and girls. She’s the smartest girl in the class. And it pays off. What authority this passage contains! It absolutely convinces us that the world she’s creating is real, solid, and authentic. We trust that she knows of which she speaks, so we can give ourselves over to the story completely. Surely she researched these esoteric details with someone extraordinarily versed in furniture restoration. Did she takes notes? No doubt. But I’ll wager the best note-taker in the world couldn’t transform mere research into this sterling passage of prose.

Beyond authority, what strikes me the most here is how sensitive and skillful she is in terms of language itself: words, the sounds they make, how they join together into sentences that create rhythm and meaning.  Most of all, her words awaken our senses. Here, words give us the deep pleasure that only our senses can provide. It’s quite a paradox. Most of the time in our so-called real lives, our senses are on pause, slumbering, acclimated to the quotidian. But when we read a passage like this, loaded with extraordinarily precise, sensory detail, our senses wake up and really pay attention, pulling our whole mind into the act. Continue reading “Examining a Passage from The Goldfinch”

The Goldfinch: A Brilliant, Beautiful Novel

The Goldfinch
The Goldfinch

A friend and I were talking about hyperbole in book blurbs and reviews the other day (I confess I don’t mind a little hyperbole concerning my books).  He told me about Rich Bass’s blurb on the back cover of Cold Mountain when it came out: “It seems possible to never want to read another book, so wonderful is this one.”

I’m not willing to go that far. But after Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, I suspect it will be a long time before I read another novel that is as brilliant and beautiful as this one.

The Goldfinch is huge in many ways. For starters, it’s long: 771 pages. So if you’re not up for the long haul, step aside

In addition, it’s “wordy.” Full of fulsome descriptions. If you like a clean, simple, cut-to-the-chase style, Finch is not for you.

If you’re not that interested in highly elaborate (but accessible) discussions of art, furniture restoration, what it feels like to be high or in love, to be terrorized, to be saved, to be lost, to be found, to be good, to be bad, to be human–go elsewhere.

But if you want to have a reading experience that may make you wonder if you’ll ever want to read another novel, I recommend The Goldfinch.

Why is it so great?  You’re entitled to ask.

Let me count the ways.

I give it the highest marks—over the top—for its brilliant characterization; its brilliant sense of place (Manhattan, Las Vegas, Amsterdam); its brilliant plot (quite Dickensian, with one damn thing right after another!); its brilliant description. Most of all the brilliant mind that conceived of and executed this book. How can one person know so much? Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. I can’t begin to capture its brilliance here (not being brilliant myself).  Let me just say that this was a book where I wished I could quote every line for you.  Ever single line of 771 pages, and you wouldn’t be disappointed by a single one.

Here’s what’s at the heart of this big book: a small painting, “the smallest in the exhibition, and the simplest: a yellow finch, against a plain, pale ground, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle.”goldfinch painting

Theo, the book’s extraordinary narrator, rescues this painting, a 17th century Dutch masterpiece, from the destruction caused by a terrorist bomb in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that kills his mother and nearly him when he’s thirteen. Follow this painting all through the novel. It will animate the highly suspenseful plot, but beyond that, it is the overarching vehicle for all this ambitious book takes on: love, loss, longing, obsession, friendship, and the power of art itself. In the process, The Goldfinch contains some of the most vividly detailed writing and richly drawn characters and relationships you’ll encounter in contemporary literature.

Let me introduce you to some of the memorable players:

There’s Andy, who becomes Theo’s best friend in grade school when they both skip ahead a grade because of high test scores: ” . . .poor Andy had always been a chronically picked-upon kid: scrawny, twitchy, lactose-intolerant, with skin so pale it was almost transparent, and a penchant for throwing out words like ‘noxious’ and ‘chthonic’ in casual conversation.”

There’s Boris, the irrepressible, survival-savyy Ukrainian waif who befriends Theo when they’re schoolboys in Las Vegas, and who reappears to play a crucial role in Theo’s adult life in New York. “Boris . . . Long-haired, narrow-chested, weedy and thin, he was Yul Brynner’s exact opposite in most respects and yet there was also an odd familial resemblance: they had the same sly, watchful quality, amused and a bit cruel, something Mongol or Tartar in the slant of the eyes.”

There’s Hobie, a loveable, dreamy, old-world, artisanal furniture restorer who takes in the lost Theo and nurtures him, teaches him, and loves him. “Though I [Theo] sometimes worked down in the basement with Hobie for six or seven hours at a time, barely a word spoken, I never felt lonely in the beam of his attention: that an adult not my mother could be so sympathetic and attuned, so fully there, astonished me.” Continue reading “The Goldfinch: A Brilliant, Beautiful Novel”

The Silent Wife: A Fascinating Novel Both Psychologically and Technically

The Silent Wife I first became interested in The Silent Wife in when I read an August 4th, 2013  piece in The New York Times. The article described how the novel—a “sleeper,” written by an “unknown” Toronto writer and released as a paperback original (as opposed to a hardcover, which signals the publisher intends to push the book)–had vaulted its way onto The New York Times best-seller list. The book received some crucial attention from a handful of reviewers, and caught on via word of mouth.

I read that the author, A.S. A. Harrison, had died of cancer at 65, a few weeks before The Silent Wife was published. She was aware that numerous other countries had bought publishing rights and she knew the book was getting wonderful endorsements from other authors. It is sad to think that she didn’t live to see her novel receive the acclaim that it has garnered. But I imagine she knew how good the book is. You can’t write a novel this accomplished without knowing it.

The Silent Wife has been compared to Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. It covers similar territory, a “dark, psychological thriller about a broken marriage,” as the Times described it.  Like Gone Girl, it’s told in alternating “Him” and “Her” chapters. I only got 100 pages into Gone Girl before I put it down. I saw Gillian Flynn speak at the Key West Literary Seminar this year (on “The Dark Side: Mysteries, Crime and the Literary Thriller”). She was very bright, and articulate in her defense of writing “bad women,” women who can be evil, mean, bad, or selfish–though honestly, plenty of other authors since time immemorial have plowed that ground. I found Gone Girl smart and well-written, but it just didn’t interest me. I wonder if it has something to do with age. Flynn is in her forties (and looks about thirty) and Harrison was 65, having worked on The Silent Wife for ten years. Or maybe my preference for SW had to do with GG being written in first person, and SW in third, with a knowing, authoritative narrative voice, which interested me technically (more on this in a moment).  For whatever reasons, I found The Silent Wife far more fascinating and accomplished, and more mature, than what I read of Gone Girl.

photo by Harrison's husband John Massey
photo by Harrison’s husband John Massey

Susan Angela Ann Harrison (she used initials to disguise her gender) had previously written a porn novel with the artist AA Bronson which was quickly banned when it was published in 1970.  Her 1974 book, Orgasms, was a series of interviews with women speaking frankly about their sexual climaxes. (In my commitment to researching an author thoroughly (wink), I tried to order Orgasms  but alas, it’s out of print.)  Harrison collaborated on two other non-fiction books, one about striptease, experimenting with it herself, and another involving case studies in psychotherapy titled Changing the Mind, Healing the Body. She also wrote Zodicat Speaks, a guide to feline astrology.  Her friend, the author Susan Swan, said of Harrison, “She deconstructed prettiness.  She wanted to be larger than life, and she was.”  Swan’s daughter, Samantha Haywood, a neophyte agent, took her on as a client in 2004.  For the next decade, Harrison’s work was repeatedly rejected. But she kept at it, telling herself to “write better, Susan,” and donning industrial earmuffs to keep out noise.

What’s not to love—and admire—about her!

I was captivated by The Silent Wife from the opening paragraphs.

It begins:

 It’s early September. Jodi Brett is in her kitchen, making dinner. Thanks to the open plan of the condo, she has an unobstructed view through the living room to its east-facing windows and beyond to a vista of lake and sky, cast by the evening light in a uniform blue.  A thinly drawn line of a darker hue, the horizon, appears very near at hand, almost touchable. She likes this delineating arc, the feeling it gives her of being encircled. The sense of containment is what she loves most about living here, in her aerie on the twenty-seventh floor.

Notice how we’re placed inside the point of view of the character, Jodi, but there is also a narrative voice that is beginning to describe her psychologically.  Certain words—”encircled,” “containment”—seem suggestive of more than the physical landscape.  There is a distance in the narration, created partly by the use of her full name, as opposed to just “Jodi is in her kitchen . . .”  We hear a voice that is not Jodi’s but the narrator’s, who is taking care to select the precise details to begin to build not only the external world but Jodi’s interior one. Continue reading “The Silent Wife: A Fascinating Novel Both Psychologically and Technically”

A Hologram for the King: a Terrific Novel by David Eggers

Hologram for the KingI read a terrific novel while I was on vacation: Dave Eggers’s Hologram for the King.  Since I bought the paperback in the Newark Airport, Terminal C, which is the coldest waiting area I’ve ever experienced,  it was good to read a book set in the blazing heat of Saudi Arabia.  It also made a great trip book; it’s written in short sections that zip right along, perfect for reading on the fly, so to speak.  Its considerable strengths lie in its deceptively simple, effective prose; its main character, Alan Clay, a modern day Willie Loman; and Egger’s brilliant use of King Abdullah’s future Economic City as the setting.

I wasn’t sure King Abdullah’s Economic City actually exists.

King Abdullah's Economic City
King Abdullah’s Economic City

Its depiction in the novel is so absurd and fantastical that I wondered if it was fantasy.  I googled it (remember when we used to say “researched”?) and learned that indeed, The Economic City is underway, estimated to cost $86 billion by the time it’s completed–perhaps–in 2020.  As entertaining as it is, Hologram is also a serious novel about the global economy and America’s slipping place in it, viewed through the downward spiral of one middle-management male.

Alan Clay is just about washed up: he can’t sell his house–no buyers; his marriage is a distant, dismal failure which nevertheless continues to haunt him; his daughter is about to drop out of college because he can’t pay her tuition; in short, he’s “virtually broke, nearly unemployed, the proprietor of a one-man consulting firm run out of his home office.” His tax return for the previous year (the book was published in 2012, and takes place in 2010) was $22,350, “an experience he hadn’t expected to have at his age” (54).

He has borrowed money from associates to build a prototype of a new bicycle he wants to manufacture in Boston. But the banks laugh him out the door over the idea of building anything in the U.S. anymore.  Everything is being outsourced, mainly to China.  Alan did quite well in manufacturing when Schwinn was the big name in bikes, owning the majority of the U.S. market for eighty years. Schwinn continued trying to make bikes in the U.S., hanging on in a hundred-year-old factory until the eighties.  Finally the company’s management, including Alan, made the decision to outsource manufacturing  to Asia, thus ruining Alan’s livelihood in the process:

You want your unit cost down, you manufacture in Asia, but pretty soon the suppliers don’t need you, do they? Teach a man to fish.  Now the Chinese know how to fish, and ninety-nine percent of all bicycles are made there, in one province.

As the novel opens, Alan has a chance to redeem himself and his finances: he’s been hired as a consultant by Reliant to go to Saudi Arabia to pitch a holographic teleconference system to King Abdullah for his Economic City, which is under construction along the coast of the Red Sea.  If Abdullah is impressed, he’ll award the IT contract for the entire city to Reliant, and Alan’s commission will fix him for life.

In case you have no idea what a holographic teleconference system is (which I did not) it allows for 3D teleconferencing.  When Alan and his team give their holographic presentation in Saudi Arabia, their man in London appears to be on the stage, interacting with the audience as if there in person. Think 3D Skype.  Who even needs face to face, body to body anymore!  (Me.)

Alan has to hire a driver to take him to King Abdullah’s Economic City when he oversleeps and is late for the first day of his assignment there.  Yousef, his young driver, fears his car may be wired to explode by a husband who thinks Yousef is screwing his wife–an inauspicious but typical scenario for our anti-hero.  They take off for the Economic City, with Alan telling lame jokes and Yousef playing Feetwood Mac on his ipod that “looked like it had been buried in the sand for centuries and then unearthed.”  Alan is shocked that Yousef has never even been to the Economic City, which is supposed to be the biggest thing anywhere near Jeddah. But Yousef tells him the project is already dead.  Alan is vaguely aware that there are detractors in Saudi and that Emaar, the global developer that built much of Dubai, is in trouble, but he insists that King Abdullah could build the whole city himself with his own money, and won’t let his legacy (and Alan’s future along with it) fail.

When they arrive, the “city” consists of three buildings: Continue reading “A Hologram for the King: a Terrific Novel by David Eggers”

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers: a Mixed Review

The Yellow Bird by Kevin Powers
The Yellow Bird by Kevin Powers

I’ve been putting off writing a review of The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers’ novel about the Iraq war.  It was a finalist for the National Book Awards, and one of the The New York Times Ten Best Books of 2012.   I feel conflicted about it.  In some ways it is a stunning book; and yet by the end I felt it was seriously flawed. I feel both guilty and insecure about my assessment.  I see on the dust jacket the high praise it has garnered from writers like Alice Sebold, Colm Toibin, Anthony Swofford, and Philip Caputo.  A novel on the Iraq war that is as ambitious and literary as this one should be touted, so why not just let it go at that?  Yet I can’t get over the feeling that there is something too—too what?  Too literary at times (can’t believe I’m saying that), too self-consciously ambitious, too straining for significance in a way that I think ultimately harms the book.  The war in Iraq was so horrible, such an infuriating and heartbreaking mistake, so costly to so many, that I understand Powers’ desire to capture that.  I can imagine how fiercely he wants us who were untouched by the war to get what it was like, what it meant, and the devastating damage it did to those who fought.  All that is in the book, often brilliantly.  So I’m surprised and troubled that I can’t give it the bowled-over endorsement I was expecting to.

The Yellow Birds is described on the dust jacket as “the story of two soldiers trying to stay alive.”  The narrator is a twenty-one year old private, Bartle, and the even younger soldier, Murphy, whom he befriends and takes on as a responsibility, promising Murphy’s mother that he’ll bring him safely home.  The setting is the city of Al Tafar, a hellhole battleground that is the martial equivalent of the myth of Sisyphus.  I have to say that the novel is truly an amazing rendition of the horror of the war, and what the rest of us can only dimly imagine as the nightmare existence of an American soldier there.

The novel is also stylistically interesting and sophisticated. Powers is a beautiful, powerful writer on the whole, with a visual artist’s eye for descriptions of the city, of light, of dying, of bodies.  Here’s how the book opens:

The war tried to kill us in the spring.  As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns.  We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers.  While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer.  When we pressed onward though exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark.  While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation.  It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.

When I read that passage, I was thrilled by the remarkable writing, poetry in prose.  Continue reading “The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers: a Mixed Review”

Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi


Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

I hardly ever listen to books on tape, which I regret and keep meaning to remedy.  However, knowing I had a four plus hour drive ahead of me to Madeline Island in Northern Wisconsin, I dashed into our small, neighborhood library the day before I was to leave to see if I could get a book on discs.  The pickings were very slim; I almost gave up.  But then I saw Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.  I remembered vaguely reading a review of it when it came out, which had interested me for reasons long lost to me, other than the fact that I had been to Varanasi.  I had an equally vague sense of Geoff Dyer as a writer I should check out.  I got the CD set and threw it in the back seat.

The next day I started listening, and Reader, for the next four hours going north, I was entertained to the hilt. I could have just kept driving, on up into Canada and straight through to Hudson Bay.  It was with great reluctance that I arrived at the Bayfield ferry and was forced to turn the engine off and leave the world of Dyer’s novel.  I had thought I was in Venice, which I’ve never been to, swept up as I was in the passionate, coke fueled, hot sex fling of two strangers who meet up for a few days at the Biennale, the major contemporary art event that takes place in Venice every two years. What was not to like!  All read in a British accent.  The main character is a Londoner named Jeff Atman, whose clever, quirky consciousness I found irresistible:  

A creature of deep habit, Atman was programmed, the moment he set foot on Marylebone High Street, to go to the Patisserie Valerie’s and order a black coffee with a side-order of hot milk and an almond croissant—even though he didn’t want either.  Normally he came here in the mornings but now, in the post-lunch doldrums, it was too late for coffee, too early for tea (it was that time of the day, in fact, when no one wanted anything) and far too late to read the paper—which he’d read extra thoroughly, hours earlier, as a way of putting off writing his stupid think piece.  Fortunately he had a book for company, Mary McCarthy’s Venice Observed.  He’d first read it four years ago, after getting back from the 1999 Biennale, and had started rereading it now—along with the other standard books on Venice—in preparation for the return trip. His almond croissant was the size and complexion of a small roast turkey and in the time it took to chomp through it he was able to read the entire section on Giorgione’s The Tempest.

Dyer is brilliant in capturing this aging, floundering, vulnerable journalist in the most energized, dynamic, funny-sad prose I’ve read (okay, heard) in a long time.  Atman is being sent to the Biennale to interview the wife of a famous artist, and hopefully bring back a drawing the artist made of her. While there he meets an American woman, Laura, whom he finds immensely desirable.  Laura isn’t developed as a character beyond her sex appeal, but I didn’t mind.  Getting to hang out in Venice and experience the Biennale through our jaded, endearing anti-hero’s eyes is entertaining and absorbing enough.  It was also refreshing, at least to me, to see the man be the one whose emotions cross the sex/love barrier, rather than the woman’s.

Here the lovers are about to part ways as Laura is readying to leave Venice, their short interlude in the romantic city over: Continue reading “Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi”

Colm Toibin’s BROOKLYN: the Self-effaced Writer


Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn

In my last post I commented that one reason I liked Carol Anshaw’s Carry the One so much was that I felt the writer’s sensibility permeated the novel.  There’s a unique personality behind the curtain, narrating and describing even as the third person point of view ranges among a number of characters.  The novel has what I think of as voice.  I’ve tackled the subject of voice in writing in an article in which I described it as “the external manifestation, in language, of the writer’s sensibility: how she sees the world; her values; what she is attracted to in terms of subject matter; her style as expressed through diction, syntax, tone. Her expression and essence as an artist and person, really.” 

So it was an interesting surprise to me that the next novel I read, Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín, seemed not to have voice.  It occurred to me that the writer was self-effaced, a term I have never heard of, so I made it up.  It is different from voice, in which the writer’s personality or sensibility shines through.  Here I forgot about the writer.  And yet I loved Brooklyn.  I loved it equally but differently from Carry the One.  I was reminded that while good writing may all be fruit, there are differences between apples and oranges.  As a writer I’m always interested in what kind of fruit a novel might be. 

Brooklyn is the story of a young woman, Eilis Lacey, who, unable to make a decent living in her small town in Ireland in the fifties, is offered the chance to move to America, to Brooklyn.  She’s sponsored by an Irish priest there who finds her work in a department store and arranges her lodging in a boarding house.  At first Eilis suffers intense homesickness for all she has left behind, especially her mother and her glamorous sister who has sacrificed so that Eilis might have a better chance in life.  Gradually she settles in to her new life, taking night classes in accounting to improve her employment possibilities, and finding love with Tony, who is Italian, a plumber, and loves the Dodgers almost as much as he loves Eilis. When her sister dies suddenly, Eilis returns to Ireland and her mother, and must decide which life to choose, home or Brooklyn with Tony. 

Synopsizing the plot, I realize that it sounds pretty mundane.  But Brooklyn is a remarkable book, one I can’t recommend highly enough. Reading it, I was conscious of how each sentence seemed to be laid down one after another like bricks–plain, solid, even. If that sounds laborious, heavy or tedious, then I am not conveying the skill with which the story unfolds.  Maybe I should say glass bricks, because the prose is so transparent that I felt I was seeing straight through to every important thing about Eilis’s life. By the time all the bricks are laid down, Tóibín has built a whole world as real as any you know. 

Continue reading “Colm Toibin’s BROOKLYN: the Self-effaced Writer”

Carol Anshaw’s CARRY THE ONE


Carry the One by Carol Anshaw

Carry the One is a wonderful novel. 

I’ve tried to think what made the book so compelling to me that I felt a sense of loss when I came to the end.  It also gave me a bad case of writer’s envy.  I really, seriously wish I had written Carry the One.  I want to write like Carol Anshaw.

The novel doesn’t have much of a plot, which I considered a strength. Its terms are different.  It starts when several of the characters as young adults are involved in a car accident in which a young girl is struck and killed.  This event weaves through their lives over the next twenty-five years, affecting them in different ways and to different degrees.  But the accident isn’t as dominant, belabored, or causative as one might expect in a novel.  The event, while tragic and formative, certainly, is treated as one part of the whole texture of the characters’ lives, not the main catalyst for everything that follows.  Their lives involve much more complexity and depth over time than just this one event.  It is, however, a bonding experience that they shared, which continues to reverberate through the years, providing a recurring motif. 

I found the characters in the novel more real than people I know, myself included.   Surely that is one thing we look for in books—to know others, not just superficially or guardedly, but in the round, three-dimensional, body, mind and soul.  That was one reason I felt almost grief when I finished the book, robbed when I couldn’t go right on with these people who had become so interesting and important to me.

Although the book has a lot of characters, just like life, there are three major players, three siblings whose lives we track over about twenty-five years.

Carmen is practical, tough, smart, politically active, divorced and remarried, and has a son, Gabe.   Carmen sees life with clear, unsentimental eyes, like the fact that her second husband, Rob, has considerable limitations, such as being non-confrontational and intransigent:

…Rob would continue to massage away every problem.  And Carmen would stay with him and accept this.  But inside, she had begun the process of losing her religion, the certainty of her own assessments.  Also, from here on she would always consider the marriage a small mistake.

But Carmen is also a realist.  She reflects later that someone “as fiendish on perfection as she… might need to make a few mistakes.  She would say he was a mistake that had turned out surprisingly well.”  Just like in real life, Carmen’s life…and marriage…are not simple or reducible.

Alice, oh Alice!  Alice is an artist, who over the course of several decades becomes recognized and successful.  She deals with the girl who was killed by painting her as if she has continued to move through time, getting older just like the survivors have.  Alice is a lesbian who has a mighty crush on Maude, who was also in the car along with Alice, her brother Nick, and his girlfriend Olivia, when they killed the girl on a dark country road following Carmen’s wedding. Alice’s fixation on Maude is highly erotic and terribly painful, as Maude comes and goes in Alice’s life.  In the meantime, Alice paints, tries to be with other lovers, and remains deeply intertwined with her siblings Nick and Carmen.  When Maude and Alice reunite after many years, “In spite of time and change, there was still some of the old Maude left.  She was still a teenage guy in bed.  Still a big reader, a big talker.  A huge supporter of Alice’s career…”  But they’re not able to sustain the relationship:

Alice tried to hang on to her role as the supplicant, shouldering the burden of keeping Maude interested.  She couldn’t admit, until the fourth or fifth occurrence, that she was experiencing short, slick patches when her interest slid off Maude.  And after that came a longish while during which Alice thought, well a little boredom sure, wasn’t that a part of being in something long term?

Anshaw knows well the feeling of a love obsession, the power of it, and the effects of time on it.  After so much passion for Maude over so many years, Alice is puzzled over the denouement of her feelings for her.  She asks her friend Jean if she is crazy, or maybe a terrible person.

“Maybe you’re just not in love with her anymore.  In spite of putting us all through holy hell over her.”

“But how could that be possible?”

“Never discount the power of time,” Jean said. “Time is always a player.”

Time is a major theme in Carry the One, and one I felt hungry for.  There’s something fascinating in watching lives over time, how people evolve, change and become themselves only more so. Anshaw captures the effects of time extremely well.  Continue reading “Carol Anshaw’s CARRY THE ONE”

Missing Lorrie Moore’s Writing: One of the Best

Lorrie Moore
Lorrie Moore

If you’re following this blog with any regularity, I’m sure you’re relieved that I’m off my JCO’s A Widow’s Story bender.  I’m “recovering.”  Like they say, one day at a time…

I just had a fun weekend in Madison, which I had never been to.  It is a cool, hip, funky, populist town where everyone looks cool, hip and funky.  On Williamson Street where we were staying, I saw a guy sweeping his sidewalk whose hair was pretty much like a large, flattened broom head sticking straight up on top of his skull, held upright by some spackling substance. Very cool, hip and funky.  Every restaurant listed which local farms its food was from, and every cafe had kombucha on the menu.  Though I am certainly cool, hip and funky, the only reason I even know what kombucha is is because two women in my yoga class, an acupuncturist and homeopathic doctor, make it.  I’ve never tasted it.  For those of you not cool, hip, and funky enough to know, kombucha is an effervescent fermented tea that’s supposed to be good for you.

Being in Madison made me remember Lorrie Moore’s novel, The Gate at the Stairs, which I didn’t find particularly successful as a novel.  I love her wonderful short stories but Gate seemed disjointed, as if she had cobbled together too many things that she couldn’t meld.  Her form might be the short story and not the novel, was what I thought.  The story itself, the plot, didn’t grab me.  And there was a scene towards the end in which Tassie Keltjim, the young university student who narrates the novel, climbs into a coffin with a dead person that caused me to go, Oh Come on!

But Madison made me think about Moore, who has taught at the U. of Wisconsin there for many years. Gate is set in a Madison-like mid-western university town call Troy, “the ‘Athens of the Midwest,’” a hilarious oxymoron in my opinion, pure Lorrie Moore.  When we strolled the campus I kept hoping I’d see her.  Not that I know her, but I thought I’d recognize her from photos or a from a couple of her readings.  It’s funny how that novel, which I hadn’t read since it came out in 2009, kept coming to mind, superimposing itself on my experience of Madison.  When we ate at a nice restaurant there, I heard a faint echo, as if dinner were being narrated by Moore.

One of the characters in The Gate at the Stairs, Sarah, owns just such a restaurant as we dined in.  Tassie, who will become the baby-sitter for Sarah and her husband’s adopted baby, comments on Sarah’s restaurant:

“Le Petit Moulin. I knew of it a little. It was one of those expensive restaurants downtown, every entrée freshly hairy with dill, every soup and dessert dripped upon as preciously as a Pollock, filets and cutlets sprinkled with lavender dust once owned by pixies…I knew Le Petit Moulin served things that sounded like instruments—timbales, quenelles—God only knew what they were…The lowest price for dinner was twenty-two dollars, the highest, forty-five. Forty-five! You could get an oil-and-water bra for that price!”

I had no idea what an oil and water bra was, so I Googled it. They are bras filled with oil and water, believe it or not.  Now I want one.

Tassie grew up in the country nearby, and seeing the landscape around Madison and some of the fresh-faced Wisconsin students on campus brought to mind this passage from the novel:

“I had come from Dellacrosse Central High, from a small farm on the old Perryville Road, to this university town of Troy, ‘the Athens of the Midwest,’ as if from a cave, like the priest-child of a Columbian tribe I’d read about in Cultural Anthropology, a boy made mystical by being kept in the dark for the bulk of his childhood and allowed only stories—no experience—of the outside world. Once brought out into light, he would be in a perpetual, holy condition of bedazzlement and wonder; no story would ever have been equal to the thing itself. And so it was with me. Nothing had really prepared me. Not the college piggy bank in the dining room, the savings bonds from my grandparents, or the used set of World Book encyclopedias with their beautiful color charts of international wheat production and photographs of presidential birthplaces. The flat green world of my parents’ hogless, horseless farm—its dullness, its flies, its quiet ripped open daily by the fumes and whining of machinery—twisted away and left me with a brilliant city life of books and films and witty friends. Someone had turned on the lights. Someone had led me out of the cave—of Perryville Road. My brain was on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir. Twice a week a young professor named Thad, dressed in jeans and a tie, stood before a lecture hall of stunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James’s masturbation of the comma. I was riveted. I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie.” Continue reading “Missing Lorrie Moore’s Writing: One of the Best”

In Which I Try to Figure Out How and Why I Choose Certain Books to Read

What to read next?

In my last post, I talked about how there are a million books out there to read (and listed some places to read reviews of them).  Then I got myself in trouble by saying I wanted to give more thought to how and why I choose certain books and that I would report back.  Now I feel obliged to report back, not that I think anyone is holding his or her breath.  Turns out I don’t know why I pick books, beyond certain X factors that seem to vary from book to book.  It’s usually a combination of things that reach a critical mass: maybe the subject matter or theme; maybe I’ve loved other books by the author; or maybe I’ve never heard of the writer and am curious; maybe the title; maybe a rave recommendation from a reader/friend; maybe a glowing review; maybe it’s a book by someone I know; maybe the number of times the book crosses my radar.  There are other more mysterious X factors, no doubt, such as something about the writer’s sensibility I am attracted to, picked up almost subliminally from somewhere, or something in myself that isn’t quite conscious.  When enough of these elements come together around a certain book, I decide to read it.  Nothing too mind-blowing there.

I should state my biases up front.  I mainly read literary fiction and memoir.  I’m not proud of this, it’s just a fact.  I admire people who read more widely than I do, but when I read a book it’s probably going to be a novel or memoir.  That’s because I’m trying to write fiction and memoir myself.  There’s a never ending fascination with how other people do it and the hope that some of how they do it well will rub off on me.  Anthony Doerr puts it this way: “Reading is everything to me as a writer.  It’s where I go when I get discouraged, when I forget why it is I wanted to be a writer in the first place.  And books are where I go when I want to be reminded of the mystery and magic of our shared language.”  I read books that are going to feed the writer in me.  I’m not interested in books that aren’t well written or literary, in the sense that some attention is paid to style and language.

Right now the book I’m reading is Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir, A Widow’s Story.  I picked it because I wanted to know about the experience of becoming a widow.  I know many people who have lost their partners.   I really can’t imagine what that is like.  This past June my cousin David Bates was killed suddenly by a falling tree (June 29th 2011 post), making his wife of  40 years an instant widow.  I have witnessed the excruciating sense of bewilderment, loss, grief, anger, and adjustment widowhood has thrust upon her.  I fear becoming a widow myself.  Reading about it is an attempt to gain some insight or perhaps preparation for what seems unimaginable, but which happens all the time.  It could happen to me.

I had read an excerpt of A Widow’s Story in The New Yorker, so was familiar with it.  At the time, I didn’t feel particularly interested in reading the whole book.  But I recently read Blue Nights by Joan Didion, about the death of her daughter and her own aging.  One of the themes I’m attracted to in books is loss.  Loss, death, aging…I’m a barrel of fun.  I read Didion because I wanted to know more about the experience of losing a child, another loss I can’t imagine.  I had read her memoir on widowhood, The Year of Magical Thinking, several years ago and reading her again somehow brought to mind Oates’ memoir.  I hadn’t read any autobiographical writing by JCO, so I was curious to see what that writing was like.  The New Yorker piece had seemed raw, unmitigated by the passage of time, as straightforward as its title.  I thought A Widow’s Story might bring me close in to the experience of widowhood and I was right.  I’m riveted by the book.  I’ll review it in a post here when I finish. Continue reading “In Which I Try to Figure Out How and Why I Choose Certain Books to Read”