Emily's Journal

Occasional Thoughts On Various Things

An Imaginary Warmth

“I stepped over to the bookcase and pulled down one of my favorite books: Birds of the World.  Each page showed a bird in its natural habitat–a puffin with its fat, gaudy beak, peering out of a burrow, a lyre-bird spreading its tail beneath a leafy tree–accompanied by a description.  Usually I read curled in the armchair beside the fire, conjuring an imaginary warmth from the cold embers, but today, not wanting to reveal my presence by turning on the light, I settled myself on the window-seat.  Pulling the heavy green curtain around me, I flew away into the pictures.” (4-5)

The Flight of Gemma Hardy, by Margot Livesey

 

Hi again.  It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I’ve written here, but let’s not linger on that, shall we?  I’ve got to tell you about a book I think you are going to love.  Full disclosure: I met Margot Livesey at a writers’ conference, where she read and critiqued the first few chapters of what would become my first novel, Commuters.  Later on she was kind enough to provide me with a beautiful quote for the book, which, whenever I see it on the cover, makes me do a little inward dance of gratitude.  As her many students and friends can attest, Margot is the epitome of a generous mentor–one who takes extra-special care in helping new writers come to their fullest potential.  She’s also one of the best writers working today, and I counted myself a fan long before I ever became lucky enough to consider her a friend and an inspiration.  If you don’t know her books yet, you have such a treat in front of you.

No better place to start than her new novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy.   Set in Iceland and Scotland in the 1950’s and 60’s, the novel tells the story of Gemma, an orphan trying to make her way through a tough world.  Her cold and abusive aunt sends her to a boarding school called Claypoole where Gemma, bookish and spunky, hopes to find companions and a good education.  But as a “work student” she is treated as little more than a servant, and struggles to escape cruelty and loneliness even as she makes her first real friend and finds a few teachers who nurture her intelligence.  After the school founders, as an au pair to a wealthy London businessman and his wild niece, Gemma confronts class differences, secrets, and a slowly-but-surely growing love for the most unlikely of men.  Gemma won’t settle down unless she knows who she is and where she comes from; in the last section of the novel she makes an incredible journey, without money or help, to the far reaches of Iceland.  It’s there that her past becomes revealed through people who remember her parents, and where she finds true friendship in those who take her in and help her learn what she really needs to know.

This was such a lovely reading experience for me.  You know that feeling when, during the day, at odd moments, you’ll be struck by this bubbling sense of happiness and anticipation?  For a moment you can’t figure out where it’s coming from.  And then you realize: yes, that novel!  The one you’re in the middle of; the one that’s waiting for you after you finish work and put the kids to bed; the one you’re simultaneously savoring and racing through.  I feel sure that Margot Livesey knows that particular pleasure too – as the quote above proves, she knows not just what reading is like, but what it means to “fly away” into a book.

Reading does save Gemma.  She needs an “imaginary warmth” to shelter her from cruelty, from the callous treatment she gets from her aunt, after her kind uncle dies, and at Claypoole–a British boarding school whose horribleness is wonderfully vivid.  (This is no Hogwarts, for sure.)  One thing I loved about Gemma is that she isn’t a saint.  She isn’t always grateful and kind.  She’s real–she mouths off when she can get away with it (and sometimes when she can’t), she doesn’t always take the high road, she makes big mistakes that hurt people.  She’s someone we can identify with, that is.

I want to highlight two of my favorite aspects of Gemma – which is an homage, by the way, to Jane Eyre.  There is a part in the novel where Gemma is homeless, friendless, and nearly penniless.  She gets stuck in a town with all of her money stolen, and no place to stay.  She escapes a creep who tries to fondle her; she is humiliated but asks around for a job, accepts handouts of food.  She hides in an empty church and spends the night huddled on a pew.  In the morning, she sneaks into the vestry to wash and drink some tea.  I won’t give away anything more, but these scenes are fascinating.  Livesey creates so much tension and drama through utterly believable details and plot turns.  All of Gemma’s resourcefulness and bravery come into play here, and I was utterly drawn in to her plight.

And lastly, I want to mention how special the novel’s friendships and alliances are.  It’s such a rare and essential part of life, these non-romantic relationships – they’re how we spend most of our days, who we rejoice with, how we make it through all kinds of suffering.  But it seems to me that all too infrequently do writers spend time on what a friendship is, what it feels like, how it’s formed (under likely and unlikely circumstances), how it changes, and the ways it can be dented and repaired.  Gemma isn’t just lucky in friends, I thought as I read, she is rewarded with them.  No matter how scary or bare her situation is, she manages to cultivate connections through wit and kindness.  In her journey Gemma forms several of these friendships, and for me this was one of the novel’s true and great achievements.

 

Double down

Tessa Hadley’s sneaky-good new novel, The London Train, pulls a double bait-and-switch.  Perhaps a nicer way of phrasing would be to say one’s readerly expectations are built up and then dismantled, and that this happens twice–once with startling suddenness, and once with slow, subtle ingenuity.

I went out to buy this novel because the week before I read it I came across two truly great short stories by Hadley, one in the current issue of Granta (on the F word–no, not that one) and one in the New Yorker.  The very doubleness of the stories alone would have made me take notice of Hadley (whose earlier novel “The Master Bedroom” I remember liking very much), but these stories were so good, and so different from one another, that I made a specific trip to my indie just to pick up The London Train.

The novel begins by telling the story of Paul, a London-area poetry critic in the middle of three crises: his oldest daughter’s unexpected pregnancy, his mother’s death, and a possibly faltering (second) marriage.  Paul finds his daughter Pia living with a Polish man and his sister, in a sketchy council flat, yeah check me out with the Brit lingo!, but his first vehemently bourgeois concerns fade away in a new and surprising appreciation for the unconventional way the trio lives.  Paul returns again and again to see Pia, who doesn’t particularly want to see him, and falls in with Marek, her older street-wise boyfriend.  An argument with his wife springs Paul from his comfortable suburban life into Pia’s crash-pad, where he lingers in a strange malaise, tugged beyond the boundaries of what is expected of him.  Vague threats–Marek’s not-quite-legal work, Pia’s shiftiness–surface and submerge.  Paul is a man in-between.  We don’t like him that much, but we want to know what happens to him, and his daughter.  And his marriage.

And then his story ends.

A new section of the novel begins, titled “Only Children.”  Now we are in Cora’s story, and we’ve moved forward several years.  Cora is a thirty-something librarian who is desperately unhappy in the wake of her disintegrated marriage to Robert, a government official.  She struggles to move on with a life that now seems empty because of what occurred after a chance meeting on the train between London and Cardiff years ago.  And now we begin to understand the connection between the two halves of the book…it was Paul whom Cora met on the train, Paul with whom she had an affair and fell deeply in love, Paul who went back to his wife and broke her heart.  In Paul’s section, there are only a few mentions of “a woman” he was once involved with–despite obvious pain from his wife, it seems that from both her and Paul’s perspective, this entanglement is in the past.

The key concept is perspective. Because we begin to understand that for Cora the affair with Paul, although ended several years before, is still alive and churning in her present-day life.  She longs for him; she is stricken when she comes across his voice on the radio or an essay he’s published.  She’s ended her marriage over this, but why now is she stuck–unable to move forward in life, unable to go back?  The metaphor of the London train is perfect: Cora shuttles back and forth between the present and the past, searching inside herself for meaning.

Two other strengths of the novel:

The importance of reading and books and ideas to the characters.  With his eccentric friend Gerald, Paul takes long walks and discusses topics like “the old model of human time as a succession of declining ages”; at a dinner party an argument erupts over history as progress or “the history of loss.”  Cora’s favorite novel is Henry James’ The Golden Bowl; her love of reading is what forms a connection between herself and Paul and what brings solace when she is alone.  These characters understand life through the written word; we do also.

The undercurrent of politics as a strange force in everyday life.  Cora’s husband, Robert, is implicated in the death of an Iranian writer at an immigration detention center; guilt and questions of who is responsible for the fire that claimed his life are part of what divide Cora and Robert–and what seem to be a potential way for them to come together.  Similarly, Paul has his own notions of society challenged by his surprising friendship with Marek.  These threads are subtle and intriguing; Hadley allows politics in the novel to remain unclarified, unfinished, utterly realistic in its shifting presence.

But as I said before, what knocks me out is The London Train’s gradual unfurling deepening, from a novel about these particular people, Paul and Cora, into a novel about how we perceive and experience life itself.  Hadley’s great success in this book is that her characters’ innermost thoughts are as important to the story as the outer events that form the plot of their lives.  What Hadley seems to be saying, most persuasively, is that life occurs on the private inside as much as it is lived among other people.  Life is at its most meaningful on an everyday commuter train, whether in a first meeting between lovers or while alone, staring out the window, in quiet revelation.

“Once, Cora had believed that living built a cumulative bank of memories, thickening and deepening as time when on, shoring you against emptiness.  She had used to treasure up relics from every phase of her life as it passed, as if they were holy.  Now that seemed to her a falsely consoling model of experience.  The present was always paramount, in a way that thrust you forward: empty, but also free.  Whatever stories you told over to yourself and others, you were in truth exposed and naked in the present, a prow cleaving new waters; your past was insubstantial behind, it fell away, it grew into desuetude, its forms grew obsolete.  The problem was, you were always still alive, until the end.  You had to do something.”

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

Hello again, imaginary internet friends.  Long time no see.  I took a somewhat unplanned break from this blog, in an effort to power through a full draft of my second novel.  Now I’m back, and happy to rejoin the conversation about books and reading.  I’m even more happy to focus on Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, The Uncoupling, which I loved.  (And doesn’t it have a kick-ass title?)

Meg Wolitzer is a treasure.  If you haven’t read her before, you are in for such a treat.  She writes about big “topics”–gender politics, social class, fame–by tracking the minute details of people living everyday lives.  Her characters are so warm and funny and smart.  Their foibles are believable and they often achieve, in offbeat ways and staggeringly well-written scenes, surprising moments of grace.  Also, Meg Wolitzer is funny.  Sly, catch-you-offguard, generous funny.

The Uncoupling is a perfect place to start, if you haven’t read any of her novels yet.  (Then go straight to the bookstore for The Ten-Year Nap, The Wife, and The Position.  See what I mean about good titles?)  In her latest, a mysterious spell comes over all the women in the small town of Stellar Plains, New Jersey.  As soon as the local high school’s new drama teacher begins to cast “Lysistrata” one by one women and girls begin to stop enjoying sex, and then to stop having sex, with husbands and partners and boyfriends.  Affected by the magic and suddenly disaffected in bed are: Dory Lang and her husband Robby, their daughter Willa, her friend Marissa, and other assorted teachers and students within the close-knit community of Stellar Plains.  Some couples blow up immediately, others disintegrate painfully, and a few try sad and desperate measures to keep close (sexy board games, a Snuggly-type blanket).  But the unwilling sex strike leads to unexpected and possibly positive consequences – the rise of political awareness in an unaware student; a rethinking of sex by teens in their fraught worlds; buried fault lines in marriages finally cracking open.

There are many aspects of The Uncoupling that I admired, particularly Wolitzer’s deft ability to hover over her characters–in the same way the novel’s spell does?–swooping swiftly in and out of several people’s stories.  And her ability to paint sex and longing from the perspective of different generations.  But what I wanted to mention here was a true surprise for me.  I loved how she wrote about kids and the internet!  This is maybe the first time I’ve felt like an author made real use out of the social network phenomenon, portraying it in rich language, demonstrating through action how teenagers make a space for themselves apart from parents, society, pressure.  Yes, the internet can be bad, and the parents and teachers dutifully grumble about the screen-obsessed generation (“Well, it’s the end of civilization,” one character quips.  “And we all need to band together.”)

But Farrest–Wolitzer’s clever, unique version of the kids’ popular game/network–is rendered as a magical space, where interaction is liberated and imaginative.  Willa, shy and sensitive, is a purple ninja.  Her boyfriend is a centaur.  Marissa, a soaring hawk.  The teenagers of Stellar Plains escape the monotony of homework, the stress of adolescence, and the madness of their sex-strained parents in the lush computer green of Farrest.  Or perhaps they actively recreate these experiences online, in a way that allows for the banal (what r u up 2?) as well as the meaningful (Willa and her boyfriend touch, for the first time, in Farrest–“his handsome centaur head bumping against the neck of her shrouded ninja.”)  To me, the depiction of what the online world offers teenagers is a shining achievement in The Uncoupling.  Here are Willa and Eli, after one of their first, tentative, awkward “dates” (IRL):

“They walked in silence back to Tam o’ Shanter, entered their separate homes, said cursory hellos to parents–‘Hey,’ Willa said, uninflected, not waiting for them to reply–then she and Eli met up again on Farrest.  Though other creatures were in their midst, it seemed as if no one paid Eli and Willa much attention, and so they were able to be alone together.  A hawk flew overhead; this was Marissa Clayborn.  She often took the form of this graceful, commanding flying animal, and Willa looked up and watched her circle and dip.  Luckily, Marissa didn’t seem to want to come in for a landing.”

I think I was most delighted with this aspect of an excellent novel.  Isn’t it nice to know that writers as good as Wolitzer are less than cowed by the force of all the screens storming our society (and the publishing world), instead using their transformative art to make meaning out of what perplexes us?

Mona Simpson’s Hollywood

I’m getting slightly embarrassed about all the raves I post here.  I truly didn’t understand how deeply I fall in love with so many books until I started keeping this intermittent reading journal.  And I swear I’m not juicing up these pieces just to make for a better read.  Honestly, I’ve loved like crazy every book that I’ve sung the praises of here.  (One mitigating factor is that I sometimes avoid recording here the truly bad [if I make it through those, that is], the disappointments, or the serious aversions, given the weird public nature of the internet and the small world of writers, etc. . .)  But anyway, I come once again to praise.

Mona Simpson’s My Hollywood is a novel I began with misgivings.  I didn’t want mommy lit or playground drama lit, didn’t want a 369-page white-lady guilt trip about, you know, how awkward it is to have a non-American nanny you can’t relate to, had a suspicion that the book would end up with the yuckily reassuring “nannies are people too,” or an ending where the white professional mom would learn some deep soulful truths about Life from the non-white Islander woman she pays $15/hr to watch her kid.

Also, I once started but never made it through Anywhere But Here.

But I was on vacation, I wanted a big smart long novel, and I thought at best it could be diverting.  And then I grew so attached to the characters in My Hollywood and to Mona Simpson’s elliptical, unique short-sentence style, that I forgot about my assumptions and doubts and just went ahead to love all of this heart-aching, quietly dazzling novel.

The story, in brief: Claire is a white American composer who has a baby, William, whom she loves but has no clue how to take care of.  Her husband Paul is wrapped up in a burgeoning TV writing career, and Claire is desperate to regain the steady clarity of her working life amid the whiplash insanity of new-motherhood.  She hires Lola, a fifty-something Filipina woman, as a nanny.  This proves a huge stroke of luck and unplanned genius on Claire’s part (and on Simpson’s), because Lola is a hard worker who cares about her job and adores her “Williamo.”  Lola is also–as we find out–an unforgettable storyteller with a rich and nuanced and dead-on perspective about class and money and family and heartbreak.  The story alternates chapters in first-person between Claire and Lola.  I will admit to being surprised that it was Lola’s chapters that would captivate me–despite my own similarities with Claire–although the interplay between the two women’s inner experiences is what gives this novel its true heart.  We learn about what Lola has given up, in the Phillipines–namely, raising her own children–in order to provide for her family.  We go deep into the nanny community and the people who hire them; we drift through Hollywood parties where the entertainment industry hierarchy plays out against a background of undocumented workers who observe closely every foible, sexual slip, and moment of generosity.

As I describe it, it sounds so boringly “Upstairs, Downstairs” and I suppose there is a sense that we know much about these conflicts already.  But maybe I can’t convey how non-cliched this novel is, how committed and brave and clear-eyed.  It’s so much more than “nannies are people too” – it’s a book that does what I live for in novels: slips you unknowingly inside other people’s minds and worlds.  Plus, Mona Simpson does a pretty radical time thing in My Hollywood.  She doesn’t get content with “a year in the life of”…she stays with the story, letting us see how Claire and Lola change after their working relationship ends.  She fearlessly pulls this story past where conventional wisdom might argue it should end, and in doing so she has us consider Claire and Lola outside the strictures of the mom/nanny relationship.  What can these two women be to one another, stripped of those roles?  Without giving too much away, I have to tell you that in a novel where marriages end and love affairs commence, it is Claire and Lola’s bond–torn, unending, unspoken, fraught, singular–that stays with me.  It is beautiful, what Mona Simpson has done here.

Two moments, of dozens and dozens I could choose.

Claire, inner monologue, on viewing a sexy smart man who attracts her in a way her nice good-guy husband can’t: “I was already talking myself out of him.  I’d once thought I’d end up with a guy like Jeff.  But I was thirty-three by the time I got married, old enough to know I wanted to make music.  The difference was huge, a deformity that had its cost.  Once, music had been enough for my whole happiness.  (I’d named my tap concerto Rapture.)  But then I’d begun to want a life.  Mistake.  Now I had one and was no good at it.  So I won’t get that, I thought, watching Jeff, thinking of bells, their linger.”  (p. 27-28)

Lola, thinking about what she might add to “the book of Ruth,” a grassroots document that a network of nannies have contributed to over decades, offering each other support, wisdom, and tips on survival: “I think what I can write.  I have some advice about silence.  If you are smart, when something happens, if the baby takes his first step or says the first word, the first of Williamo was ‘light,’ second ‘French,’ third ‘fries,’ you keep in your private journal so you will have the true date but do not tell.  You wait and that evening or the next they will call you shrieking, Lola, Lola come here!

Amazing

This is from the novel Blame, by Michelle Huneven:

“At Bertin, Patsy had been in with petty, unmalicious felons–drug users, wallet-filching prostitutes, check kiters–but in Malibu she lived with killers, assaulters, armed robbers, anyone who’d done good time and had fewer than two years left to serve.  Every other woman, it seemed, had stabbed or shot or poisoned some man, although Antonia confided that she was in for killing her mom.

Your mother?

A doozy, huh?  said Antonia.  I was thirteen.

She’d come to Malibu from the California Youth Authority a year ago.  The mix is better here, she told Patsy, not like the CYA, where it’s all gangs and the guards have at the girls and you gotta put out to get anything.  Here, it’s all weedin’ to freedom.  I could’ve got out at twenty-one if I’d shown remorse, but the situation was more complicated than that.”

This is a novel that floored me.  It’s the story of Patsy MacLemoore, a history professor in Southern California with a desperate addiction to alcohol.  One night she drives home in a blackout and kills two people, a mother and a child.  After waking up in jail to find out what she has done, we’re told: “That life, she thought, that beautiful life is over.”  All this happens by page 25, so that what we get in Blame is the story of Patsy’s new life, the one she must fashion from fragments after everything she has known disappears: her freedom, her social standing in society, her job, her home.

What emerges is a tough, beautiful portrait of someone facing up to her own guilt and what it means to make amends… and not just the AA version of that word (although Patsy’s return to sobriety through AA is a major part of the book), but also the more complicated, shifting, throughout-your-life kind.

There is so much I loved in this novel, it’s hard to know where to start.  I think it profoundly affected me.  It takes place over years and years (at least twenty), so that Huneven doesn’t just give us the “sensational” aspects of Patsy’s life, her crime and prison stint, but gives just as much narrative weight to what kind of life she makes–her decisions, struggles, joys–once she is out.  There are these incredibly moving, unconventional relationships that show life in all of its weirdness and beauty and coincidence: Patsy and Gloria, her prison sponsor; Patsy and Gilles, the young AIDS-afflicted lover of her ex-boyfriend; Patsy and Mark Parnham, the man whose wife and daughter were killed in that drunken accident that changed everything forever.

Perhaps there were, at times, too many competing plot angles that in retrospect didn’t quite need to be in this novel.  I’m thinking of the long-past history of Cal Sharp, a charismatic figure Patsy meets in AA.  We learn a lot about his wives and girlfriends and these strands didn’t do much for me.

But the wrenching story of Patsy’s life will stay with me for a long, long time.  In Patsy, Michelle Huneven has made literary magic; she’s given us a character who is at once remarkable (for having gone through what she does) and utterly, beautifully ordinary (she falls in love, she cooks, she grades papers).  I’m in awe.

Wonderfully Bad Marie

I’ve been reading so much recently I hardly know where to start.  I have a stack of books to write about–several wonderful novels, but I just have to go in reverse order and begin with Bad Marie, a short and stellar new novel by Marcy Dermansky (who is lovely in person, I’m happy to report!)

What can I say about this whip-smart, sexy, funny book?  Other than to tell you to go get it immediately?  I honestly can’t remember enjoying a novel more.  I read it in about three sittings, two of them on the beach while my kids cavorted around me.  Bad Marie tells the story of Marie–an ex-con Manhattan nanny who absconds to Paris with her employer’s husband and child.  You follow Marie for about a week as she tears through hideous life mistakes, and relishes every moment.  I was both chilled and riveted by the outrageous Marie, and captivated by her smart and hilarious voice that Marcy Dermansky’s skill renders for us.  A lovely touch is the book’s repeated emphasis on food–luscious French food, baguettes and chocolate and cheese and wine–and that seemed spot-on to me, because my experience of reading the novel itself was similar to eating something rich and sinful.

Marie thinks about her soon-to-be lover: “Marie loved to say his name in her head.  Benoit Doinel.  Benoit Doinel.  Benoit Doinel.  It tasted good in her mouth, like chocolate.  Like chocolate dipped in whiskey.”

I couldn’t say it better about Bad Marie.  This novel is artisan chocolate dipped in top-drawer whiskey.

So virtuous

I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction recently, which is unusual for me.  And I have noticed that a clear sign I am truly engaged and enjoying one of these books is that I want to read more about whatever its subject is, after I finish.  (This is opposed to my common reaction, which is to shut the covers with a snap, feeling relieved and virtuous.  All righty then, I think.  No need for more information about that.  Ever!)

But here’s what happened both during and after I read The Possessed by Elif Batuman.  I actually found myself mulling the idea of reading Eugene Onegin. Pushkin.  In June!

The Possessed is a super-smart, super-funny collection of essays about Batuman’s grad school travails in the world of comp lit, Russian novels, and related research sojourns to places like Samarkand.  I know.  It’s hard to make this book sound as appealing as it truly is (although the Roz Chast cover of the paperback drew me in right away).  But the combination of Batuman’s nimble narration and her geeking out over the varieties of love poems in Old Uzbek–well, it’s just amazing.  I think unfortunately I’m not the most unbiased reader to recommend this book, because I know a little something about grad-school nerdishness, and I’m a sucker for stories about the lovable freaks who populate that world.

(In a typical scene, Batuman and her classmate Matej–a charismatic figure who will play an important role later on in the book–are sitting outside the library, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.  They are working on a collaborative project on Isaac Babel.  “We settled on a general angle right away, but when it came to details, we didn’t see eye to eye on anything.  For nearly an hour we argued about a single sentence in ‘The Tachenka Theory’…When it started to rain, Matej and I decided to go into the library to look up the Russian original of the sentence we disagreed about [. . .]”   I just love that.  So pitch-perfect, such a pure example of the level of obsessiveness literature-crazed students can rise to.)

Batuman isn’t afraid to show off her close-reading chops, but she integrates her vivid insights so smoothly, they slide into the narrative before you are aware that what you’re reading is actually a nuanced, historically contextualized interpretation of Babel’s “My First Goose.”  Or Eugene Onegin.  Or The Language of Birds, by an Uzbek poet named Alisher Navoi.  Usually, after some particularly smarty-pants move, she will instantly downshift into self-deprecation–but this is charming, and one of the real pleasures of this book is how the story of Elif the student interweaves with the works of literature she, and now her readers, are learning about.

Nor does she shy away from straight shooting when necessary.  At the beginning of the book, in the Babel chapter, is an indelible section on Babel’s arrest by the secret police, his show trial, and what was discovered later to be his death by execution.  I will never forget Batuman on Babel’s “mug shot”–the photographs taken when he was arrested.  And how she focuses on the single chilling detail of his bare face, stripped of glasses, bruised under one eye.  Batuman writes, “The absence of glasses is unspeakably violent.”  I thought this was such an amazing comment; I went to the internet to see the photographs for myself.  Her reading of this historical text, the photograph, demonstrates the best and highest aim of critical theory.  It’s not about making clever comments.  It’s about noticing what is essential.

If I hadn’t read this book I would have missed out on so many things–funny stories about Uzbekistan, for sure, but also truly humane insights as above.

Surprised

It’s so good to be surprised by a moment in a novel.

For the first third of the way through Anne Lamott’s new novel, Imperfect Birds, I was disengaged.  I feel guilty writing this, because I can imagine it might strike at the heart of someone who struggles to create fiction, but I enjoy Lamott’s essays and nonfiction so much more than I do her novels.  But I’ll read anything she writes – her voice is so openhearted and smart and loving.

Anyway, I was turned off by the cloying nature of her setting and characters – so much northern California our-community stuff, so many wise-hearted (Christian) friends who act and speak all too perfectly.  Sadly, they don’t make for captivating reading, all these random peace rallies and church functions the characters just happen to attend amid their daily lives. . .

The heart of the novel is the struggle between Rosie, a teenager who is sinking deep into drug troubles, and her parents, Elizabeth and James.  And I was captivated, sort of sickened, by the true-feeling desperate nature of that drama.  So many back-and-forths, so many broken promises and new boundaries and parenting dilemmas.  I admire this novel’s unflinching fidelity to the unique details, to what makes Rosie’s story (and her parents) singular, even though its broad outlines conform to so many “addiction narratives.”  Rosie herself even reflects on this, how one and another of her friends have suffered overdoses and overbearing parents and the various rehab treatments.  It’s a sign of a good novel, that you can care so much about one character’s life, how she experiences it, when on the outside her story can seem like nothing special.

How any life is “nothing special.”  Until it’s looked at deeply from the inside.

I found that I was caught up more and more in Imperfect Birds, while still mildly disliking some minor aspects of the book.  Then I came to the part where Rosie–spoiler alert–is on her forced wilderness rehab camping trip.  The instructors have shown the sullen teenage kids how to light a fire, but they’ve mostly scoffed at this, as at everything.  But it’s do or die time, because if Rosie doesn’t light her own campfire she will get dangerously cold and seriously hungry.  And so, broken down and angry and humiliated, she tries.  For real.  Okay, I thought.  Basically, it’s a metaphor for her recovery.

But then I read the scene, and surprised myself by bursting into tears.

“She shook the sweat off her brow, stretched her aching neck, and prepared for one final strike.  She smashed the steel down against the rock, and a spark began to glow on the char cloth, nestled in the nest on the ground.  She dropped everything and bend down to fold her nest in half, like an open-faced sandwich of spark and smoke and grass.  She continued to blow on it, barely exhaling at first, then breathing softly like a mother blowing on her child’s poison oak, and she did not stop until the spark and smoke and tinder bundle turned into flames.”

Solo / Solar

Sorry, folks!  It’s been a while since I wrote.  What happens is that some reading is just for me, not for the blog, you know?  (No, not *that* kind of reading.)  I’m still cogitating on how to approach this reading journal.  For so long, and essentially, still, reading is to me a private activity.  That this is so is maybe strange, considering how much time I’ve put into programs and situations where talking about / writing about books is the main event.  But even then, in grad school and when I’ve worked in publishing, I always reserved some reading that was just for me.  Books I held close, enjoyed on my own, and didn’t feel any need to recommend or discuss or read about.  I guess that’s still the situation – so here I’ll be discussing some, but not all, of what I’ve read.

We still cool?

Okay, so getting to it.  I didn’t think Ian McEwan’s Solar was at all as bad as would seem from Walter Kirn’s takedown review in today’s Sunday NYT Book Review.  No, I didn’t love this novel, but I love McEwan (recent McEwan, not those early super-scary ones!) and was excited to read this book.  It’s about global warming, and a miserable man named Michael Beard–he’s a once-important Nobel laureate who is coasting the rest of his life away on past laurels, empty honorarium positions, and as much free liquor as he can guzzle.  Through a pretty shocking plot twist, Beard ends up excited once again by science; he steals another man’s research and sets forth to save the planet by creating the prototype of a photovoltaic panel that will replicate photosynthesis, and create energy out of heating water.  At least, I think that’s the plan.  I’m not explaining it nearly as well as McEwan integrates the science into this novel, but if you want a master class in how to interweave scientific ideas into fiction, this is your book.

The writing in this book is impeccable.  Makes sense that the epigraph is from Rabbit is Rich, because often I had the same sensation as I do when reading Updike, that I can go anywhere this author wants to take me, carried on the sheer perfection of the sentences.  But as Kirn points out, maybe that’s not enough.  And it’s true that I often wondered, in Solar, what the story was.  Is it Beard’s downfall, which we can see coming a mile away?  (Not that that makes it less pleasurable to discover the hows and whens.)  Is it global warming itself, which is given several intriguing perspectives–from the deniers to the activists to the very real and understandable character who claims that she just can’t stand to think about it at all: if she does, that will be all she thinks about.  My sense is that one of the underlying ideas about this book is that we–the humans who fucked up our planet and are desperate to right things–are deeply flawed, though touchingly hopeful, as we bumble through trying to find a new source of energy.  How can we root for the ridiculous, messed-up, dangerous Michael Beard?  But then again, he’s got an idea that just might work, so. . . how can we not?

Two other things that will stay with me from Solar.  Thank you for these, Ian McEwan.

* Beard’s “Unwitting Thief” experience on the train, with a bag of crisps.  And the social scientist who infuriates him by making the experience into nothing but a cultural archetype.  Funny, thought-provoking, and it seems somehow to link up with the environmental crisis . . . as Beard says, “I’m sorry to disappoint you, […] but my experience belongs to me, not the collective bloody unconscious.”  (But does it?!)

* This observation, so perfectly placed in Beard’s worldview, so painfully clear-eyed and true beyond that.  Page 228-229:

“And now that he had entered upon the final active stages of his life, he was beginning to understand that, barring accidents, life did not change.  He had been deluded.  He had always assumed that a time would come in adulthood, a kind of plateau, when he would have learned all the tricks of managing, of simply being.  All mail and emails answered, all papers in order, books alphabetically on the shelves, clothes and shoes in good repair in the wardrobes, and all his stuff where he could find it, with the past, including its letters and photographs, sorted into boxes and files, the private life settled and serene, accommodation and finances likewise.  In all these years this settlement, the calm plateau, had never appeared, and yet he had continued to assume, without reflecting on the matter, that it was just around the next turn, when he would exert himself and reach it, that moment when his life became clear and his mind free, when his grown-up existence could properly begin.”

Well, I wanted to

like Don DeLillo’s new novel, Point Omega.  I really did.  But I had a sneaking suspicion I wouldn’t, based on two things: the cheesy, cheesy, CHEESY title and the fact that it’s only 117 pages long.  To be that short, it’s gotta be good, really good.  But too often I find that the whole short novel/novella thing portends A Very Important Book and rarely follows through.  (What’s up with our Great American Novelists doing the Very Important Short Novel thing recently?  Philip Roth, I’m looking at you.)

The plot is made up of three apparently unconnected (but wait!  possibly connected!) parts: a creepy unnamed man obsessing about the Douglas Gordon installation, 24 Hour Psycho; a filmmaker visiting an intellectual/war architect in the desert — said war conceptualizer’s crashes the party and then inconveniently disappears; back to 24 Hour Psycho, where creepy unnamed man chats up an unlucky woman who may or may not be the daughter who disappears.

Here’s the thing about writing about art: it’s tough.  So many of us want to do it, because as artists we are inspired by other art forms.  But if you describe the other piece of art super-well, as DeLillo does here, it tends to overpower your own novel.  We get engaged by 24 Hour Psycho, not the novel surrounding it.  And here, I found it a little bit shoe-horned into the story line anyway.  I came away thinking that I would rather see this installation than read Point Omega.

And the lack of humor. . . ye Gods.  It’s really hard to call a novel POINT OMEGA and not display any sense that you are in on the joke there.  I mean, it’s a term straight out of Battlestar Galactica!!   Here’s a conversation between Finley, the filmmaker, and Elster, the war orchestrator:

” ‘Consciousness accumulates.  It begins to reflect upon itself.  Something about this feels almost mathematical to me.  There’s almost some law of mathematics or physics that we haven’t quite hit upon, where the mind transcends all direction inward.  The omega point,’ he said.  ‘Whatever the intended meaning of this term, if it has a meaning, if it’s not a case of language that’s struggling toward some idea outside our experience.’

‘What idea?’

‘What idea.  Paroxysm.  Either a sublime transformation of mind and soul or some worldly convulsion.  We want it to happen.’

‘You think we want it to happen.’

‘We want it to happen.  Some paroxysm.'”

It felt to me like the emotional heart of this story was in the true horror of real human loss coming home to Elster, in the form of his daughter disappearing.  But DeLillo is unwilling to let us experience this emotional situation–he covers it over with the kind of paroxysm-inducing dialogue above.  Is the point that men like Elster would rather linger lovingly over the word “paroxysm” than be capable of demonstrating real feeling when a loved one is lost?  That language is useless when it comes to real suffering?

Hmmm.  I’m trying to make it work, but no dice.  This might call for a re-reading of Great Jones Street, White Noise, or any one of the several other DeLillo novels that I love.