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Fall Reading 2014

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Fall Reading 2014
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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
Summer Reading 2013
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The Artist Project 2013
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A Toast to 2012
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Fall Reading 2012
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
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MIMC
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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Academy Awards Show 2012
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HIGHS 'N LOWS OF 2010
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Fall Reading 2010
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TOAE 2010
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The Shack
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The Artist Project 2010
Toronto Art Expo 2010
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Notables of '09
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How Fiction Works
Nov 24/09
Sex for Saints
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Housekeeping
Oct 22/09
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
Toronto Fringe 2009
Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
June 28/09
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Myriad Mysteries 2009
May 10/09
CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
April 14/09
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Toronto Art Expo '09
March 1/09
The Jesus Sayings
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Stand-outs of 2008
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
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Head to Head
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Notables of 2007
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Summer Mysteries '07
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Toronto Art Expo 2007
March 8/07
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Notables of 2006
Dec 27/06
December 11/06
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October 14/06
Sept 22/06
Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
Sept 6/06
August 12/06
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Me In Manhattan
May 2/06
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Me and the Jays
July 10/05
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About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
MOVIES
BOOKS
RE-READINGS
MYSTERIES/CRIME books
VIDEOS and DVDs
PLAYS
OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

This is just the start of our list of fall reading.

Reviewed here:

  • 10:04 (Novel)
  • Your Fathers, Where Are They And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? (Novel)
  •  Alan Bean Plus Four (Short Fiction)
  • Jack, July (Short Fiction)
  • Caught (Mystery)
  • Country Girl (Memoir)
  • The  Woman Upstairs (Novel)
  • The Glass Castle (Memoir)

10:04 (Novel) by Ben Lerner, 2014

I’ve been hearing a lot about this youngish American writer. He made his first impact on the literary scene as a poet. But then came his novel Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), about a young U.S. writer who happened to be in Madrid at the time of the 2004 bombings. That got a lot of attention.

In 10:04, his next novel, the first-person narrator is also a writer. He’s telling us about his life in Manhattan. He mooches around with his friends. He goes to art shows, visits old friends in hospital, helps a kid with some after-school tutoring. He has a girlfriend who doesn’t seem to mean a lot to him; his stronger relationship is with Alex, a woman who has been his pal for many years. The two of them go to see that famous video The Clock by Christian Marclay, which consists of fragments from other movies, each bit noting one moment of the time through twenty-four hours. For some reason, the 10:04 moment has special significance for our narrator, hence the title of the book.

The novel doesn’t have much plot in the obvious sense, but three issues provide a kind of on-going thrust. The first is that our narrator has just discovered that he has a dangerously dilated aortic root. Surgery might be necessary. Secondly, Alex has suggested that the two of them conceive a child by artificial insemination. She thinks our guy could provide good genes but it would be "bizarre" to have sex with him, given that they’ve been buddies all these years. Thirdly, the narrator has received a significant advance for an unwritten novel, coughed up by a publisher on the basis of a short story of his in The New Yorker. Now he’s under pressure to produce the novel. Our interest in how these issues might turn out keeps us reading through the somewhat desultory account of his nights and days.

But there’s something weirder about all this than the above description would suggest. Our narrator, the character who is telling us about himself, seems to be Ben Lerner, i.e. the Ben Lerner who happens to be the up-and-coming U.S. writer. In other words, Ben Lerner, the novelist, seems to be writing a novel in which Ben Lerner, as known to the world, is the narrator and main character. I’m not sure that the narrator in the novel ever gives us his name, but, in the interest of clarity here, I’ll refer to the character in the novel as "Ben" and the author as Mr. Lerner.

To emphasize the fact that we’re dealing – at least in part – with real life here, interspersed throughout the text are photos of people who are referred to in the narrative and who are well known: Christa McAuliffe and Michael J. Fox, for example. The overlap of reality and novel goes so far that the Ben character’s New Yorker story is reprinted here. And guess what? It’s the exact story (in so far as I remember it) that Mr. Lerner had published in The New Yorker on June 18, 2012. (I made some comments about it on the DD page dated Aug 26/12.) In the novel, we get the background to the publication of the piece in the New Yorker: how the writer’s agent sent it to the magazine’s editors, how they responded, how the writer baulked at their suggestions, how he later yielded. It gets a bit dizzying trying to figure out what actually happened and what is fiction. We can see, for example, that many details from the supposedly "real" life of the narrator of the novel, were teleported into the New Yorker short story. And yet, there’s one significant difference in the medical department. While the Ben in the novel has a dilated aorta, the guy in the short story is discovered to have a suspicious tumour in his nasal cavity.

Whether or not you get any special meaning from all this reality-illusion trickery, Mr. Lerner’s writing certainly takes you into the mind of a young guy and gives you the full feeling of what his life is like. Be warned, though, the writing can get complex at times; Ben’s thoughts aren’t always easy to follow.

Here he’s talking about whether or not to procreate:

What you need to do is harness the self-love you are hypostasizing as offspring, as the next generation of you, and let it branch out horizontally into the possibility of a transpersonal revolutionary subject in the present and co-construct a world in which moments can be something other than the elements of profit.

In this passage, he’s wondering if he should cook more often for friends:

...I was disturbed by the contradiction between my avowed political materialism and my inexperience with this brand of making, of poeisis, but I could dodge or dampen that contradiction via my hatred of Brooklyn’s boutique biopolitics, in which spending obscene sums and endless hours on stylized food preparation somehow enabled the conflation of self-care and political radicalism.

This is almost a parody of brainiac word-spinning. I’m not sure whether Mr. Lerner intends it as such. But many virtues of his writing deserve special mention. For instance, the way he’ll drop in key information almost parenthetically. That seems to run against the norms of good narrative technique but I find it very effective; it reflects the way our minds work, indeed, the way we often speak when we’re not watching ourselves too closely. He’ll be talking about a visit with his pal Alex and he’ll mention, as a tacked-on clause to a sentence about something else entirely, that her mother’s cancer is spreading.

In a similar way, Mr. Lerner will drop in comments about a subject that seems completely outside the context of the matter under consideration. In this respect, there’s his running joke with Alex in which he pretends to believe the theory that the U.S. moon landing of 1969 was fake. It’s a debate that they have to amuse themselves. But suddenly, in the midst of narrating something else entirely – a hospital visit, for example – he’ll drop in a single line like: "The real-time lunar communications lacked a sufficient delay." Again, this seems to break the expectations of conventional narration, but I see nothing wrong with it; in fact there’s a certain charm to the technique in that it gives you a more immediate feel of the narrator’s personality.

Also, Mr. Lerner has a gift for seeing how human nature shows itself in everyday oddities that most of us don’t notice:

  • lots of men, no matter how civilized and mature, tend to size up another guy on first meeting, with a view to deciding which of them would win in a fight;
  • when standing at urinals, many guys will make little adjustments of posture to give the impression that they have a great weight in their hands;
  • young kids laugh when confronted by tragedy, not out of meanness but because they’re nervous and disconcerted;
  • when thinking about old sci-fi movies, Ben says that nothing in the world "is as old as what was futuristic in the past."
  • about the smile he receives from a receptionist at a medical office, he says it was "the smile of a woman who sold expensive jewelry, as if I were shopping for an engagement ring; there was nothing medical about it."

Ultimately, the crucial question is whether or not Ben is going to produce the promised novel. He’s having trouble doing so. We begin to see that the novel that Ben is going to submit is the one that Mr. Lerner is writing now. I’m guessing that he isn’t the first novelist who has made a novel about a novelist’s struggle to produce a novel – whether or not that struggling novelist in the novel is the same as the one in real life. You can see why a novelist who’s having a problem – writer’s block, maybe? – would do this. It’s quite the high-wire game; it can be brilliant if it works.

Mr. Lerner almost pulls it off. The only place where his effort falls down is in a section, near the end of the book, when Ben moves to Marfa, Texas. He has accepted a fellowship that provides funding for him to live in a community of artists and work on his novel. Away from his friends and his activities in Manhattan, he becomes something of a hermit. Obsessed with the poems of Walt Whitman, he churns out some poetry meant to reflect his own situation in a somewhat Whitman-esque vein. (Ben’s efforts don’t amount to very good poetry, if you ask me.)

This period feels like the doldrums of the novel. Ben becomes too self-involved to sustain my interest. His navel-gazing was tolerable when he was involved with people back in New York but now it becomes boring. When some other creative types ask if he’d like to accompany them to a party, he tells us: "I said I’d tag along, which wasn’t an expression I ever used." To Ben, maybe there’s some tiny significance about his using an expression that wasn’t exactly characteristic of him but his pointing that out is just a little too self-regarding for me.

As that party’s winding down, he does happen to have a poignant encounter with a guy who’s suffering from a bad drug trip. That guy’s dazzling monologue is the one good result of Ben’s Texas sojourn. It’s a relief when he gets back to Manhattan and re-connects with his friends and his life there. While the book never completely recovers from the hiatus in the desert, it does bounce back to nearly full strength, with lots of insights into the on-going life of Ben Lerner, the character....or the author?

 

Your Fathers, Where Are They And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? (Novel) by Dave Eggers, 2014

Your best approach with this book is to avoid the jacket blurbs and all other descriptions and to simply jump right in. Coming to the book unprepared, you’ll respond more viscerally to the oddness of the situation it portrays.

Since you’re reading this review, however, you probably want to know a bit more.

Here we have Thomas, a guy who has kidnapped certain people and brought them to an abandoned military base. He keeps each captive chained in a separate building from the others. Each chapter consists of his interview with one of the captives. Thomas has some huge beefs about the way things have turned out for him and for the world and he figures that each captive has some serious explaining to do. In some cases, they’re people he has known personally; in other cases, they’re representatives of the system that has screwed him.

It’s all dialogue. There’s no narration. This book, then, won’t give you the rewards that come from the story-telling in a conventional novel. Mind you, we do get some backstory as the conversations give some idea of what Thomas’ life has been like and what has brought him to this desperation. And Mr. Eggers actually manages to build considerable suspense into the final confrontations. Much of that has to do with our discovery of Thomas’ romantic delusions and our concern about what they might lead to.

In this and other respects, the book becomes a rich character study. While Thomas might seem like a brute – he is violent and he’s done some bad things – he does show flashes of wit and intelligence, notably in the way he pounces on his captives’ use of trendy words and clichs. His observations on society are worth noting. Regarding one outrage that’s bugging him, he asks, unarguably: "Does that not indicate to you that we have work to do? That as a people we have improving to do?" Here’s what he has to say regarding a hospital’s bureaucratic bungling around the death of his friend:

The things we all have, love and hate and passion, and the need to eat and yell and screw, these are things every human has. But there’s this new mutation, this ability to stand between a human being and some small measure of justice and blame it on some regulation.

Ultimately, he makes this plea for himself:

...I just want to get something I want. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten any significant thing I wanted. You have no idea how weird it is to envision things and have them come to nothing. No vision has ever come true, no promise has ever been kept.

That could be taken as self-pitying narcissism. For me, it was the touching truth from the heart of one of the world’s classic losers.

But it’s not as if Mr. Eggers directs all our sympathy towards Thomas. His captives are given very good chances to explain their positions and justify their motives. One of the main themes that emerges is that life is much more complicated than the version in Thomas’ head. An excellent scene, in this respect, is the one with Thomas’ former grade school teacher. Thomas is very angry because he feels that this teacher was a pedofile (although he’s not sure if the teacher ever molested him). The teacher explains that, yes, he did have pedofiliac fantasies and he did some inappropriate things with his students (inviting them to sleep over at his house, for instance). For that reason, he resigned from teaching. But he never molested any of the students. When that isn’t good enough to clear him in the eyes of Thomas, the teacher asks him: did you ever think of raping any of the women you brought back to your apartment? if so, does that make you a rapist?

In other words, Thomas’ black-and-white categorizations of things simply won’t work in reality. Not to deny the problems that plague this guy and the world at large, but his attempt to vent his anger on what seem to be obvious targets cannot lead to solutions. In this way, I think Mr. Eggers has a lot of valuable input about the complexity of the issues facing us today. My first encounter with him was through his heartbreaking work of staggering genius titled A Hearbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It told about his raising his young brother after their parents died suddenly and prematurely. Some of his other writing hasn’t pleased me so much but I was thoroughly engrossed in his What is the What, a novelization of the true story of Valentino Achak Deng, who escaped as a child, from war-torn South Sudan. These days, Mr. Eggers is becoming well known as an activist who’s doing a lot of good promoting community issues. It’s not often you can say that sort of thing about someone who has stature comparable to his in the literary community. He’s a guy worth paying attention to.

 

New Yorker Notables

Alan Bean Plus Four (Short Fiction) by Tom Hanks; The New Yorker, Oct 27/14

Who knew that Tom Hanks was a humourist? Here he gives us a wacky account of a backyard DIY attempt to launch a moon landing. What makes the piece especially delicious is his use of colloquial, breezy language that contrasts beautifully with the hubris of the project. For instance, when he’s talking about purchasing one piece of equipment cobbled together by some amateur inventor, he says: "He died in his sleep just before his ninety-fourth birthday, and his (fourth) wife/widow agreed to sell me the capsule for a hundred bucks, provided I got it out of the garage by the weekend." Some of the comments sneak in gentle satire about contemporary ways on earth. The view from outer space, he says, was "worthy of IMAX." About the sighting of the moon from the rickety spacecraft, the narrator says: "Wow. Gorgeous in a way that strained any use of the word, a rugged place that produced oohs and awe." For those readers who are well aware of his movie career (and who isn’t? ), Mr. Hanks gives a wink towards "Apollo 13."

 

Jack, July (Short Fiction) by Victor Lodato; The New Yorker, September 22/14

This was one of those short stories that I almost abandoned after the first couple of paragraphs. Too much laborious description. Hard to get your bearings. Something about a guy struggling down the street in the hot sun. Stream-of-consciousness, almost. Too many bizarre details. Overwritten, perhaps.

But it was worth persevering – for me, the reader, if not for that guy on the street. He’s a crystal meth addict staggering around town, trying to connect with someone, anyone. He visits an old girlfriend and his mother. He tries to get into a restaurant to use the washroom. He tries to avoid the cops. This summary makes it all sound sordid and repellent but you begin to really understand the guy as you get into his mind. A look into a past tragedy gives you some idea why his life has gone south. The vivid language and the wit help you to see what might have been salvaged from this wreck of a human being. What’s most touching of all is the humble way he accepts kindness from a source that he would never have chosen if he could have found help anywhere else.

 

Caught (Mystery) by Harlan Coben, 2010

As an occasional reader of mysteries, I’m finding that Harlan Coben is one of the most reliable authors in the genre. This novel confirms that impression. It starts with a guy who is caught showing up at an assignation for sex with an under-age girl. He seems to be a good guy who wants to help troubled teens. Now it appears that he has been set up in a sting operation. A tv reporter whose cameras caught him in the compromising situation had intended to use this footage of him on her program. When a teen girl – who might have had contact with the guy – goes missing, the reporter decides to figure out what’s happening. That, as you might expect, leads her into some very treacherous terrain, with multiple complications and machinations.

To give you some idea of Mr. Coben’s writing flair, here’s what he says about a certain character: "He crossed the room in a way that might be modestly described as ‘theatrical,’ but it was more like something Liberace might have done if Liberace had the courage to be really flamboyant." The relationship between the tv reporter and her teenage son strikes me as very real: chippy but affectionate and loyal. Mr. Coben has a way of showing how people can arrive at forgiveness, without the writing’s turning sentimental.

When it comes to realism, though, I found that there was too much similarity in the tragedies in the backgrounds of two characters. Also on the objectionable side of the ledger, a couple of examples of rap "lyrics" were revolting and I found that characters had a tendency to say "My bad" too often, by way of apology. One problem was niggling away in the back of my mind throughout the reading but it’s difficult to talk about it without revealing too much. Let’s just say that, early on, one of the most likeable characters was removed from the scene. In the end, Mr. Coben assuaged my concern on that point in a way that was far-out but not entirely implausible.

 

Country Girl (Memoir) by Edna O’Brien, 2012

If you care about English fiction in the 20th century, then you care about Edna O’Brien. It follows, then, that when Ms. O’Brien decides, late in life, to jot down a few memories in a book, you’re going to delve into it eagerly.

There’s a lovely rambling quality to these reminiscences. Ms. O’Brien doesn’t stick to chronological order. She goes wherever her memories take her and she inserts delicious morsels whenever they come to mind. Honest, candid and self-deprecating, not to say "confessional," the book offers poetic evocations without ever straying too far from the facts. Perhaps because of the slightly conversational tone, you get the occasional hint of an Irish lilt to the voice, something that I’ve never noticed in Ms. O’Brien’s fiction. For instance, she speaks of some sheep that "scurried off away from us..."

Given Ms. O’Brien’s talents as a writer of exquisite fiction, you might know that she’d do a bang-up job of re-creating a childhood in rural County Clare, Ireland: a grand old, dilapidated house, a mother who was strict and over-protective, a father who was loving but often violently drunk, a moody hired hand who looked after the animals. Ms. O’Brien takes us from that scene to the boarding school where a beautiful young nun suddenly became the love of her life and just as suddenly withdrew from her. Then there are the 1950s in Dublin as a young working woman, enjoying the exhilaration of freedom from supervision, learning about life, having fun with girl friends, trying her hand at a bit of newspaper reporting, and having her first, fumbling sexual experiences with men.

Ms. O’Brien was in her early twenties when she was taken up by Ernest Gbler, a playwright and novelist whose marriage had ended. He was apparently entranced by her girlish charm and beauty, seeing himself as her mentor and guide into the adult world. Despite her parents’ desperate protests – in an attempt to wrest her away from him they rented a plane and flew to the island where the lovers were secluded – she stayed with him. They were married and settled down in England; they soon had two sons.

When it comes to detailing the breakdown of this marriage, Ms. O’Brien’s great gifts as a novelist come most markedly into play. The man turned insanely jealous as his young wife began to attract attention as a writer. On the basis of some writing she’d done, a publisher had given her a small advance to write a novel. Ms. O’Brien followed through with Country Girls, which turned out to be something of an international sensation. Mind you, it was denounced back in Ireland for reflecting the sexual liberty of the 1960s. The clergy thundered, there were calls for the book to be burned in her family’s village and her mother was deeply ashamed of her daughter’s bringing such disgrace on the family.

As her career gathered momentum, Ms. O’Brien’s husband, still considering himself her guardian, insisted that she hand over all royalty cheques to him. When she received a cheque for movie rights for her novel, she refused to accede to his demands. A storm broke over the marriage, leading to its very acrimonious dissolution and a bitter fight over custody of the two children. After the split, she was so poor, at one point, that she took her two sons into a restaurant and asked if the three of them could share one dinner. The answer? No.

Ms. O’Brien’s subsequent life in London as a single mom (she got custody of the boys) sounds like a continuous round of parties. Famous people were always dropping in. Her kids woke up one night to find Paul McCartney sitting on one of their beds, singing to them. Guys like Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett and Marlon Brando were coming to call. When you look at the photos of Ms. O’Brien from the time, it’s not surprising that so many men would be drawn towards this great beauty, especially when you consider that she was talented and witty.

When telling about love affairs, later, in mid-life, Ms. O’Brien conveys the yearning, the happiness, the bright days and yet the inevitable undertow of loss and ultimate loneliness – all characteristics of her memorable fiction. During those years, she often travelled to the US to teach courses and give talks. She thus became chummy with several well-known Americans. I can’t think of anyone else who was a close friend of Jacqueline Onassis in her final years and who has talked about what she was like then. Ms. O’Brien, without breaching confidentiality, gives a few glimpses into the private life of this woman who was seen by so many as an icon on public view. Ms. O’Brien says that her last letter from Jacquie, written on "notepaper the colour of dark blue hyacinth" as Jacquie was dying, was full of hope, thoughts of spring and plans of things to come.

Many other famous names crop up. Al Pacino was a guest at a dinner she gave in a restaurant. Guests at a birthday party given for her included Robert Downey Jr., Brenda Blethen, Philip Roth, Jake La Motta, and Kim Cattrall. She once got a fleeting kiss from Jude Law. If this all sounds a bit like name-dropping, that’s forgiveable. After all, her life was full of such people. She had risen virtually as high as you can go in the literary pantheon. Not that such accomplishment guaranteed happiness or staved off despair. We hear of her well-planned suicide attempt in a hotel in Singapore, a project that was thwarted in mid-process by a faxed letter from one of her sons that was slipped under the door of her hotel room.

I can’t end these appreciative remarks about Ms. O’Brien’s memoir, without mentioning an odd thing about her writing. She often raises your curiosity about a subject but doesn’t satisfy it. For instance, in the fierce battle over custody of her children, she makes the point that all the cards were stacked against her. She was barely able to come up with any arguments in her favour. And yet, she was awarded custody. We’re left wondering how that happened. When she allowed one of her sons to take the lead role in a movie, she received a call from her ex saying that he was taking her to court because she had "broken the law concerning the stipulations of custody." How so? Her explanation of the end of one love affair is vague and inchoate. It seems to have something to do with her finding herself in financial straits but why that should impact on the relationship is not clear.

Then there are several passages where you’d think an editor would demand more clarity on details. She’s talking about how her sons used to chase rats on the river behind the house: "Metal hooks on the back wall served as a stepladder, and with their friends... [some names are given here]... they would clamber each evening to delve into the river for loot." What wall? Are they sneaking out of the house at night? Or is she talking about a wall on the bank of the river? Her first letter to her mother after her elopement, begins: "It was a green silk dress pleated, the little pleats gliding into one another, and there was a matching jacket with it, part of your trousseau." Why is she describing this dress? What does it have to do with anything? At an academic gathering after a talk of hers, everybody is saying her talk was "outstanding," but a student asks why she has been so unforgiving of her mother in her fiction, "...and lo, the glass of red wine literally floated out of my hand and I no longer felt outstanding." How did the wine float? Did she throw it at him? Did she faint and did it fall to the floor? During a scriptwriting stint for John Huston in Puerto Vallarta, she says her wardrobe was scant because "I had been relieved of all my possessions..." By whom? Why?

I wonder if these lacunae in Ms. O’Brien’s writing are due to the fact that she’s primarily a fiction writer, not a journalist. Journalists are taught never to raise a question in the mind of a reader that isn’t answered. Perhaps a novelist and, and what’s more, an older woman who’s trolling through her memories, can tell just what she feels like telling and can let the rest fall by the wayside. Fair enough. But those questions are still going to be working away in the backs of her readers’ minds. Maybe the message is that life is a mystery and we shouldn’t be looking for answers to everything.

 

The Woman Upstairs (Novel) by Claire Messud, 2013

This novel was greeted by lots of media fuss when it appeared. Some might say that could be because the author is the wife of James Wood, one of America’s most distinguished literary critics. Here at Dilettante’s Diary, we try to put such skeptical thoughts aside, in order to judge a work entirely on its own merits.

And this one has plenty.

It’s about Nora Eldridge, a single woman of forty-two, who teaches grade three, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She thinks that the world, in so far as it would take any notice of her, would see her as the anonymous "woman upstairs": the nice, law-abiding person who goes about her life quietly, not causing any problems, not offending anybody, someone about whom there’s nothing outstanding or distinctive. In this sense, the book reminds me of the novels of Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner, except that it’s neither as comical as Ms Pym’s writing nor as bleak as Ms Brookner’s. And, of course, you’d never hear those writers’ characters expressing the 21st-century kind of thoughts that come from Ms. Messud’s Nora.

Here’s how Nora describes the type of the Woman Upstairs:

We keep it together. You don’t make a mess and you don’t make mistakes and you don’t call people weeping at four in the morning. You don’t reveal secrets it would be unseemly for you to have. You turn forty and you laugh about it, and make jokes about needing martinis and how forty is the new thirty, and you don’t say aloud and nobody else says aloud what all of you are thinking, which is "Well, I guess she’s never going to have kids now!"

Lest we feel sorry about Nora’s being unattached, she lets us know that she once had a lover who was very nice and who was keen to marry her. Trouble was, Nora found him just a bit too nice, i.e. boring. And she's not a total druge. She did once have aspirations of being an artist, although any accomplishment in that realm seems a pretty remote dream now.

As often happens in these novels about quiet, lonely women, along comes something that upsets Nora’s tranquil existence. A new family appears on the horizon. The dad is Lebanese and is a visiting professor at Harvard. The mom, an Italian, is an artist on the verge of international recognition. The son is a charming, well-mannered boy who becomes a student in Nora’s class. Her friendship with the Shahid family begins when the mom comes to school to discuss an incident of bullying inflicted on the son. A bond is formed between the mom and Nora, with the result that they start sharing a studio where they work on their art. It looks as though maybe Nora’s ambitions are going to come to something after all.

Probably the best thing about this book is the way it conveys the interior life of Nora. Ms Messud establishes the intimate, confidential tone so well that it doesn’t seem at all inappropriate when Nora occasionally address the reader directly: "...you know, don’t you, that when I got to the studio and opened the door and called out her name in a cheery singsong, there was no reply."

Here we have Nora discovering a kind of dissatisfaction in telling a friend about the new friends she’s made:

"I felt as though three-dimensional people and events were becoming two-dimensional in the telling, and as though they were smaller as well as flatter, that they were just less for being spoken. What was missing was the intense emotion that I felt, which, like water or youth itself, buoyed these small insignificant encounters into all that they meant to me."

And this is Nora wondering about her friendship with the Shahid family:

What did I bring to them? Who was I to them, neither glamorous nor obviously brilliant nor important in the world? And yet, all three of them looked to me for something, even if none of us could tell what it was. Each of them wanted something, and their wanting made me believe that I was capable. Not that I was an extraordinary woman, exactly, but only not exactly that. Something quite like that.

Nora also has some keen insights into the physical side of things: "There is, I came to realize, what the mind wants and what the body wants. The mind can excite the body, but its desires can also be false; whereas the body, the animal, wants what it wants." And on the same subject:

It was longing – "longing" is a better word than "desire"; it carries its quality of reaching but not attaining, of yearning, of a physical pull that is intense and yet melancholy, always already a little sorrowful, self-knowing, in some wise passionate and in some measure resigned. Desire suggests a burning, fervid, unreflective, something that wants, above all, satisfaction.

Not all Nora’s observations are self-centred. In the following, she’s thinking about an elderly aunt, whose name is Cecily Mallon, but whom everybody refers to as "Aunt Baby":

I can imagine, now, what it cost her, to be our Aunt Baby, an over-aged infant to the last, instead of the grown-up named Cecily Mallon that she might have become. Knowing my own life and how little of what most matters in it is seen on the outside, how remotely my own outline resembles my reflection, I’m sorry to think that the real Aunt Baby is now lost forever.

In the course of these ruminations, Ms Messud manages to convey a virtual treatise on friendship, what it means, and what letting go of it means. She also shows, in flashbacks from Nora’s recent past, how a warm connection can develop between a young woman and her mother who’s dying. In the sections on art, she gets into some mental acrobatics about how the viewer can become the one who is viewed. But I did tend to feel, in the steady stream of ideas coming at me: this woman does go on a bit, doesn’t she! A place where that occurred for me was in the discussion of Nora’s artistic efforts. She’s constructing tiny miniatures of rooms which have a certain significance for women in our culture. Some of the women thus honoured will be the writers Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf, the artist Alice Neel, and Edie Sedgwick, one of Andy Warhol’s clan. But I found the discussions rather abstract and not as engaging as the author apparently meant them to be. Maybe the problem is just that a certain kind of male reader – myself, for instance – just can’t fully appreciate how much such artwork would mean to a woman.

Could it also be for sexist reasons that I recoiled from one character in the novel? Nora has a lesbian friend who looks to me pretty much like a clich of the down-to-earth, motherly type who is always dispensing jolly words of wisdom. But there’s also a man in this novel – the father of the Lebanese family – who dishes out some knowing advice. I don’t think my reasons for recoiling from him could have anything to do with sexism. The problem is that I resist a character whom a novelist presents as an  all-knowing therapist because I don’t think there is any such thing in real life.

The bigger problem, though, is with the members of the family who are supposed to give such a jolt to Nora’s life. Lately, I’ve been finding that novels that depend on the charismatic effect on others of one or several persons often don’t come off very well, at least not for me. For instance, there are Harvard Square by Andr Aciman, and Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. (Reviewed on DD pages dated Feb 11/14 and May 10/09 respectively.) The one case in which the enigmatic object of the narrator’s gaze comes off the page well is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In other cases, it doesn’t do to have the narrator keep telling you what an intriguing character this person was; you have to feel it. If you don’t, the novel doesn’t have the impact it was meant to have.

Unfortunately, this is what happens for me in The Woman Upstairs, in spite of all that there is to like and admire in the novel. Since I never felt the thrill of the Shahid family, I wasn’t particularly moved by the excitement they brought to Nora’s life, nor by the turmoil they left in their wake.

 

The Glass Castle (Memoir) by Jeannette Walls, 2005

This was one of those instances where a review of an author’s most recent book made favourable mention of an earlier one. In her comments on Jeannette Walls’ latest book, Globe and Mail columnist Leah McLaren mentioned that The Glass Castle, Ms Walls earlier one, achieved great success, including 261 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Ms. McLaren also noted that the book is now in development as a film starring Jennifer Lawrence.

I’m happy to say that, as rarely happens, this is a book that’s worth the hype. Not only did Jeannette Walls have a terrific story to tell, she told it with superb skill and literary mastery.

First the story.

Jeannette was the second child in a family of four: an older sister, Lori, a brother, Brian, who was about a year younger than Jeannette, and a little sister, Maureen, who came along when Jeannette was about four. To say that their parents were unconventional would be like saying Michael Jackson was a bit narcissistic. These parents didn’t give a hoot about what people thought of the way they lived and raised their kids.

The handsome dad, although cursed with what their mother called "a little bit of a drinking situation," was a brilliant guy who was an expert on math and physics and electricity. But he could never settle down in any employment or occupation. He’d get a decent job but, after a few months, he’d quit because of fights with the management. Or he’d claim that there was a conspiracy afoot to undermine him. Meanwhile, he’d be working on some ingenious invention that was going to make his family rich. One of these contraptions was a gizmo called the Prospector that, once it got going, would supply the family with an endless supply of nuggets of gold. Until that came about, they were constantly on the move, often fleeing in the middle of the night because they couldn’t pay the rent on their home or because the dad was in trouble with the law over some minor infraction.

Meanwhile, the mom, a very beautiful woman, was obsessively devoted to her painting. She always seemed to believe that an artistic breakthrough, leading to financial success, was imminent. She felt that other people worried too much about raising kids. You need hardship to toughen you up as a kid, she believed. That’s why she never fussed over kids when they cried. A Catholic by upbringing, she saw the Ten Commandments, her daughter says, as the "Ten Suggestions." In other words, there were always good reasons for not following the rules. She didn’t believe in dressing the kids up for church; God wouldn’t care what they wore. She was always putting a positive spin on things. One time, the dad, in a fit of rage, threw the family’s cat out the car window as they were high-tailing it from one town to another. The mom responded to the kids’ protests with a pep talk along the lines that the cat would have a much better life now, that feral cats had a lot more fun than house cats did.

You might say the same about this wild family. The mom’s denial of the hard facts of the family’s life worked a sort of magic for the kids. They did see their lives as loads of fun. The dad would take them out at night to sleep in the open fields, where he’d teach them astronomy and geology. His promises to build them a glass castle one day seemed so real that Jeannette and her brother would start digging foundations for it whenever they landed someplace new. Usually, those places where they ended up were in tiny, remote locations. One time they lived in a former railroad station in some one-horse town. Occasionally, the kids might get a hint that there was a dark side to the life they were living. Violent altercations between the parents, for example. But after their knock-down-drag-out fights, the two would fall laughing into each others arms and the fun would go on. Occasionally, if things got really tight, the mom could be persuaded to fall back on the teaching certificate she had acquired and would take up a job in a local school. But the kids would have to get her dressed and out the door on time every morning, not to mention organizing her lessons.

The book teems with so many outrageous incidents, from the comical to the ghastly, that it’s impossible to give a clear picture, here, of how chaotic that life was. But why, you might ask, would anyone want to read about such a childhood, the recounting of which would cause any sensible person to feel tremendous misgivings at the thought of what those children endured? Because Ms Walls’ irrepressible spirit comes through so strongly, that’s why. She’s not a complainer or a whiner. Although the Globe’s Ms McLaren referred to the book as a "childhood-misery memoir," the strongest mood that comes through is resilience. Ms Walls is clear-eyed about all that was wrong with her upbringing but she never loses sight of the main thing: her parents, maddening as they were, loved their kids and managed to convey to them a tremendous zest for life. At one point, the family had bought a house that amounted to not much more than a dilapidated shack in an insalubrious part of town. When an official from the local child welfare office, alerted by suspicious neighbours, came to inquire about the family’s circumstances, young Jeannette sent him packing with her insistence that the Walls family was doing just fine, thank you, and didn’t need busybodies poking their noses into the family’s affairs.

As they became teens, the kids began to see – perhaps inevitably – that their lives didn’t need to be so difficult. One of those discovery moments had to do with Lori’s eyesight. The nurses at school had said that she required glasses. Nonsense, said her mom. Glasses were for weaklings; the way to make your eyes stronger was to go without glasses. It was only when the nurses refused to let the girl attend school without glasses that the mom yielded. Lori was now amazed to discover that it was possible to see the individual leaves on the trees as you were walking down the street.

As the kids’ awareness of their deprivations became more acute, they began to draw away from their parents and to plan, each in their own ways, their escapes to a better life. One of the remarkable things about this process of cutting the family ties is the way in which the children supported each other. That was entirely consistent with their relationships in earlier years; I was particularly touched by the bonding between Jeannette and her brother, Brian. In the siblings’ struggles to break free of their parents, though, there were heartaches and calamity. Even as adults who had gained their independence, the siblings were still trying to deal with their frustrating, bewildering and stubborn – but loveable – parents.

Now the writing.

It’s perfect. Other than that, there isn’t much to say. Although there’s a lot to get through, the book races along with the enthusiasm of a kid who can’t wait to tell you the next bit. There’s never an extraneous word or a phrase that trips you up. Without recourse to literary flourishes of any kind, Ms Walls simply tells the story in straight-forward, unadorned prose that, while never quite losing the child’s tone of voice, conveys the craziness vividly and with immediacy. Almost any passage could be given as an example, but here’s the section where the dad is dangling the mom out the second-storey window of the former train station where the family is living:

Mom was swinging back and forth. Her yellow cotton dress had gotten bunched up around her waist, and the crowd could see her white underwear. They were sort of old and baggy, and I was afraid they might fall off altogether. Some of the grown-ups called out, worried that Mom might fall, but one group of kids thought Mom looked like a chimpanzee swinging from a tree, and they began making monkey noises and scratching their armpits and laughing. Brian’s face turned dark and his fists clenched up. I felt like punching them, too, but I pulled Brian back.

 

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