‘The Emerald Light in the Air’ by Donald Antrim – Folks on the Frightening Comic Edge

‘The Emerald Light in the Air’ by Donald Antrim    stories   (2014) – 158 pages

 

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I knew a man in another city who owned and ran a new car dealership.  The business was quite successful, and he and his family lived a comfortable, well-to-do life.  However each spring in late April or early May, he would become terribly depressed and disconsolate.  Since it happened nearly every year, he could recognize the symptoms and would check himself into a mental facility/rest home for several weeks to deal with the problem.  After the stay he would be fit and ready to take up his position again.

Like this car dealer, the New York men and women in Donald Antrim’s stories are hyper aware of their mental problems.  They will willingly check themselves into mental hospitals as needed.  They take the anti-depressants or anti-psychosis pills as the doctor prescribes.  If anything, they will take more of the medication than recommended.  Unlike the above seemingly serene car dealer, they struggle frantically and humorously to get by in a modern world that is none too kind to them.

“What was the use in telling her how bleak he felt when people found him funny?”

 Contrast this awareness of mental illness with the way things are for most people, especially men, in the United States.  First for the average man, any hint or recognition of mental problems will cost him his standing in the community and/or even his livelihood.  Thus he must keep a tight lid on his mental state.   There is no recognition until the problem occasionally explodes into a monstrous violent act.

All of the stories in ‘The Emerald Light in the Air’ were first published in the New Yorker.  Antrim writes the kind of stories that are edgy, antic, and hilarious at the same time.  They somehow fit neatly into the pages of the New Yorker.

All of the stories sparkle here, and I will not get into the details. except the one story ‘The Actor Prepares’ is about a wild and risqué production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ that you won’t forget.

Donald Antrim deals with realistic situations in these stories which usually take place in New York, but his people are usually on the dark comic edge between sanity and insanity.   They rely on their pills and their drinks to keep them happy, but the pills and drinks don’t always work.  Most of the main characters in his stories started life in the South but somehow wound up in New York like Antrim himself.    They do these grandiose acts to show the world and their girlfriends that they are fine only to wind up seeming more foolish and suspect than before.

What sets Donald Antrim apart from many other writers of stories is the peculiarity of his world.  No one else could have written these stories with the same antic yet despairing vision.

 

‘The Children Act’ by Ian McEwan – Another Day in Family Court

‘The Children Act’ by Ian McEwan   (2014) – 221 pages

 

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“I apologize for being so obvious, but every time I watch the curtain come down on even a halfway decent production of a Shakespeare play I feel a little sorrowful I will never know the man, or any man of such warm intelligence.” – Ian McEwan

 “You can spin stories out of the ways people understand and misunderstand each other.” – Ian McEwan

Fiona May in ‘The Children Act’ is a judge in the Family Division of the High Court in London.  Every workday she must decide complex emotional cases of divorce and custody of children, of terrible disagreements between two parents, and arguments about children’s medical treatment.  She has devoted her life to the law.  She is 59 years old, married, childless.

At the beginning of ‘The Children Act’, her husband Jack announces that since they haven’t made love for ‘seven weeks and a day’ he is leaving to embark on ‘one big passionate affair’ with a younger woman.  Fiona is most concerned that night about writing her decision for tomorrow morning’s custody case, but she does get the locks changed on their apartment so Jack can’t get back in the apartment without asking her.

“A professional life spent above the affray, advising, then judging, loftily commenting in private on the viciousness and absurdity of divorcing couples, and now she was down there with the rest, swimming with the desolate tide.”

There is one legal case that is the focal point of ‘The Children Act’.  A seventeen year old boy, Adam Henry, has leukemia, and his parents refuse to allow life-saving blood transfusions due to their religion as Jehovah’s Witnesses.    Adam himself goes along with his parents’ wishes even though this could result in his quick and early death.  Judge May must decide whether or not to override the boy and his parents’ refusal.   In order to make the right decision Fiona May decides she must visit the boy at the hospital.

“Adam’s unworldliness made him endearing, but vulnerable.  She was touched by his delicacy, by the way he stared fiercely at his sheet of paper, perhaps trying to hear in advance his poem through her ears.”

 I have been reading Ian McEwan since from the beginning of his fiction writing career.  I still have a special fondness for his early macabre disturbing novels and stories such as ‘The Cement Garden’ and ‘The Comfort of Strangers’, and have much enjoyed and admired his later works including ‘Atonement’ and ‘On Chesil Beach’.

In the new novel ‘The Children Act’,  judge Fiona May is a strong intelligent female protagonist.  Mc Ewan has pulled off that difficult feat for a man of writing from a female point of view.  Fiona May rings true as an exceedingly wise professional woman who must decide on critical issues and still deal with a wandering husband.

There are some nice musical touches with Fiona May singing to accompany Adam on the violin in the hospital and she harmonizing in the Christmas concert.

Perhaps I wished for a more interesting exciting court case for her to be involved in and rule on.  These instances of people refusing medical treatment for religious reasons were momentous new stories about a dozen or so years ago, but now they seem somewhat mundane and ordinary.

Despite its unexpected end, ‘The Children Act’ seemed a little too schematic and contrived.  It did not have the strong impact for me of Ian McEwan’s best work of which there is much.

Back to School – Fourteen Excellent School Novels

 

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Countless academic satires as well as tons of other novels which take place in school or on campus have been written. The following are all ones I have read and have found enjoyable and/or moving.

‘Election’ by Tom Perrota (1998) – Here is a novel about high school politics wherein a history teacher decides to get involved in a school election much to his detriment. Given the circumstances and the manipulative overly ambitious girl Tracy Flick, who can blame him?

‘This Side of Paradise’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920) – This is Fitzgerald’s first novel written when he was only twenty-three years old, and I like it better than ‘The Great Gatsby’. It is a thinly disguised version of Fitzgerald’s college days at Princeton turned into fiction.
“They slipped briskly into an intimacy from which they never recovered.”
“I’m a slave to my emotions, to my likes, to my hatred of boredom, to most of my desires.”

‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark (1961) – What would a list of school novels be without Miss Jean Brodie at her prime?
“Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.”
“It is impossible to persuade a man who does not disagree, but smiles.”

‘The Sweet Hereafter’ by Russell Banks (1991) – This is probably the saddest novel on the list, because it begins with a school bus crash that kills fourteen of a small town’s children and cripples several others. Not only does it tell what happens in the town’s schools afterwards, but also it explores the entire town’s reactions through the points of view of four different townspeople.

‘The Groves of Academe’ by Mary McCarthy (1951) – There have been many satires of academic campus life, and this novel is one of the sharpest.
‘To be disesteemed by people you don’t have much respect for is not the worst fate.’ – Mary McCarthy, New Yorker

IllTakeYouThere‘I’ll Take You There’ by Joyce Carol Oates (2002) – I consider this one of the prolific lady’s best. It takes place in the 1960s with a girl being asked to join a popular sorority, then getting kicked out and falling for a troubled but brilliant grad student in one of her classes.
“The individual who’d been myself the previous year… had become a stranger.”

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‘Pnin’ by Vladimir Nabokov (1957) – ‘Pnin’ is an academic comedy about Professor Pnin who is supposedly based on Nabokov’s time teaching at Cornell University in New York. The novel has been described as ‘heartbreakingly funny’.

‘Caleb’s Crossing’ by Geraldine Brooks (2011) – The school scenes here are particularly memorable. The Pilgrim boy is an indifferent student more interested in other things. The Indian boy is the far superior inquisitive student and will go on to Harvard. All is seen through the eyes of the sister of the Pilgrim boy.

‘Lucky Jim’ by Kingsley Amis (1954) – Some novelists hit the jackpot on their first novel and will never again attain that success. That’s Kingsley Amis. This would go on my list as one of the funniest novels ever.
“If you can’t annoy somebody, there is little point in writing.‘

‘The History Man’ by Malcolm Bradbury (1975) – a dark and scathing satire about the absurdities and contradictions of campus politics and life. This is the novel that killed sociology as an academic discipline.

“Marriage is the most advanced form of warfare in the modern world.”

‘The Getting of Wisdom’ by Henry Handel Richardson (1910) – It is one of the few classic coming-of-age stories depicting a girl becoming a woman as she attends a girls’ school.
“The most sensitive, the most delicate of instruments is the mind of a little child.”

‘Wonder Boys’ by Michael Chabon (1995) – The hilarious blocked novelist Grady Tripp is also a professor, but the main reason I’m including it here is because the New York Times review by Michiko Kaukitani contains a sentence that is perfectly suited for all of us book bloggers: “It is a beguiling novel, a novel that for all its faults is never less than a pleasure to read.” This is the perfect line in order to hedge one’s bet about a novel. It is also accurate. ‘Wonder Boys’ is a modern classic.

‘Staggerford’ by Jon Hassler (1977) – This book humorously pins down school life in a small Minnesota town through the eyes of a teacher. Jon Hassler is a Minnesota writer who died in 2008. He is too good to be forgotten. Hassler has been described as a Minnesota Flannery O’Connor. The several novels of his that I have read, including Staggerford, have all been excellent.

lucky‘A Good School’ by Richard Yates (1978) – The story of a boy in the shabby second-rate Connecticut boys’ boarding school Dorset Academy in the 1940s much like the one Richard Yates attended himself. This is a strong novel by one of the best, if not the best, late twentieth century writers.

 

I have left out so many school novels starting with ‘Small World: An Academic Romance’ by David Lodge, ‘A Separate Peace’ by John Knowles, and ‘Galatea 2.2′ by Richard Powers.

What are your favorite school or college novels?  I would like to hear about them.

‘Wise Children’ by Angela Carter – A Show Biz Story

‘Wise Children’ by Angela Carter (1991) – 234 pages

 

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Here is a novel about the dance act the Lucky Chances who are identical twin sisters Dora and Nora Chance.  The sisters are part of the Royal Family of the British Theatre although unacknowledged by their father.

 “We are his natural daughters, as they say, as if only unmarried couples do it the way nature intended.  His never-by-him recognized daughters, with whom, by a bizarre coincidence, he shares a birthday.”

 Yes, it is William Shakespeare’s birthday and their actor father’s birthday and Dora and Nora’s birthday all on the same day, April 26.  This is highly apropos since Shakespeare is surely the guiding light of ‘Wise Children’.  Many of the scenes take place on stage with either members of the family acting or Dora and Nora dancing.

This is a jolly old London novel filled with risqué humor with a bawdy detour to Hollywood.  It covers over 100 years of the theatre stopping in at the sisters’ act in the London dance halls of the 1920s and then at a memorable Hollywood movie production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (‘The Dream’) in the 1930s.

Much of the action centers on Dora and Nora’s famed actor father Melchior Hazard, him with “that selfsame knicker-shifting smile”.  The final scene in the book takes place at his hundredth birthday party as Dora reminisces about their lives in show business.

‘Wise Children’ was Angela Carter’s last novel.  She died at the age of fifty one a year after it was published in 1991.  I read one of her books a few years later and wasn’t much taken with it.  However after seeing all the acclaim that Angela Carter has received since then, I decided it was time to read ‘Wise Children’.

‘Wise Children’ is a witty lively read that keeps moving and is quite funny in pinning down this show business family.   It gives you a good feel for what these old London dance halls must have been like, and we are entertained by Dora and Nora’s cheerfully ribald antics.  We watch as the dance halls go from music revues in the 1920s to sleazy topless shows in the late 1940s.

The Hollywood scenes capture the early days of motion picture sound and the whole idea of highly respected London Shakespearean actors going to Hollywood to get some quick cash and then becoming enamored by the latest Hollywood starlet.  And thus the outraged ex-wife back in London.  How many times has that situation happened?

 

’10:04’ by Ben Lerner – A Novel About Writing a Novel

’10:04’ by Ben Lerner    (2014) – 241 pages

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The technical term for ’10:04’ by Ben Lerner is that it is a lame metafiction. According to Dictionary.com, Meta-fiction is “fiction that discusses, describes, or analyzes a work of fiction or the conventions of fiction.”  Or, more simply, metafiction is a fiction that deals with writing fiction.

The word MetaFiction sounds like one of those pretentious modern terms, but the first great metafiction novel goes all the way back to ‘Don Quixote’ by Cervantes in the early seventeenth century.  In ‘Don Quixote’, Don Quixote’s friend advises him how to make his story look like other tales of chivalry, and thus the first great metafiction was born.  I love the games that Cervantes plays with his knight Don Quixote and his trusted squire Sancho Panza.

A more recent example of a metafiction that I admire is ‘Dublinesque’ by Enrique Vila-Matas in which he and some of his author friends go to Dublin to celebrate Bloomsday.  ‘Dublinesque’ is one of the most charming novels ever written.  Another great work of metafiction is ‘Pale Fire’ by Vladimir Nabokov which dazzles us with its hunor and depth.

However I do not find all metafiction so entertaining.  For example, this year I found ‘My Struggle – Book I’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard to be mundane and essentially humorless, a long slog.

But I’m here today to review ’10:04’.  The novel is about Ben Lerner writing a novel which happens to be ’10:04’.

 “I was there at the age of thirty three because a doctor had discovered incidentally an entirely asymptomatic and potentially aneurismal dilation of my aortic root that required close monitoring and probable surgical intervention and the most common explanation of such a condition at such an age is Marfan, a genetic disorder of the connective tissue that typically produces the long-limbed and flexible.” 

 Please take the above sentence, because I don’t want it.  Lerner may be making some sly comment on medical lingo.  He also may be using these words to obtain precision.   However I found this sentence and the many other sentences like this in the novel off-putting.

There’s a lot of medical jargon in the book. I was not delighted by the several pages devoted to the author’s wisdom tooth extraction.  Nor did all the other pages devoted to the author’s various medical procedures do anything for me. Then there is the sperm donation scene.  That shtick is a stale old comedy routine.

The danger for Ben Lerner is that he may come across as an insufferable hypochondriac and not very funny.  When he talks about his book, he talks about the huge advance the publishers will be paying him.  Contrast that with the sparkling insights expressed by the various writers in ‘Dublinesque’.   Instead of “a nice crossing of reality and fiction” which is probably what the author intended, many of the scenes are distinctly unpleasant.

The novel begins and ends with a bad storm in New York City.  The New York presented here is pretty much the standard issue New York with no original thoughts or insights regarding the city.  The way Lerner talks about the storms sounds like an extension of his hypochondria.

’10:04’ is somewhat of a diffuse hodgepodge with a story thrown in here and a poem thrown in there.  The only character that comes across distinctly is the Author himself, and I found the Author somewhat repellent.

 

 

Vera Caspary and ‘Laura’

‘Laura’ by Vera Caspary   (1943) – 194 pages

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Vera Caspary was a strong independent woman who had a highly successful career as a novelist and screen writer.  She wrote eighteen novels and ten screenplays.    In her autobiography ‘The Secrets of Grown-Ups’, she wrote:

“This has been the century of the woman, and I know myself to have been a part of the revolution.  In another generation, perhaps the next, equality will be taken for granted.  Those who come after us may find it easier to assert independence, but will miss the grand adventure of having been born in this century of change.”

 It was fairly easy for her to get into the screenwriting business in the 1930s, because the studios paid next to nothing for writers in those days.  She had her fights with Hollywood directors and producers, but she hung in there.  In the 1950s she was gray listed by Hollywood for her political views, but she continued on with her productive writing career.  In her seventies, Caspary taught writing workshops to prisoners in the New York Women’s House of Detention.

In her autobiography, she sums up her life as follows:

 “Everything good in my life has come through work: variety and fun, beautiful homes, travel, good friends, interesting acquaintances, the fun of flirtations and affairs, and best of all the profound love that made me a full woman.” 

 The novel ‘Laura’ is her most famous work by far, but I suspect there are other novels among her writings that would be well worthy of attention.

Perhaps the best way to describe the novel ‘Laura’ would be to call it a psychological mystery thriller.  Whereas the classic movie ‘Laura’ is usually classified as a film-noir, the novel is more astute and better reflects Caspary’s views on the relations between men and women.  Although Caspary had her battles with director Otto Preminger in the portrayal of Laura, she praised the film warmly in her autobiography for its nuanced direction.

In ‘Laura’, Caspary uses a technique of multiple narrators first used by Wilkie Collins in ‘The Woman in White’  The three main narrators are the aesthete columnist Waldo Lydecker, the policeman Mark McPherson, and the advertising executive Laura Hunt herself.   The other main character is Shelby Carpenter, Laura’s fiancé.

Laura Hunt is highly successful in the advertising business, and she makes her choices on her own despite the spurious manipulations of the men around her.  As Vera Caspary also started out in advertisement writing during her early days, it is a good bet she based Laura Hunt on herself.

laura-otto-preminger (12)I found ‘Laura’ to be a good read with a lot of twists and turns that make the story fun.  It also contains many subtle and clear-eyed insights into the relations between men and women.  Caspary’s depiction of the policeman Mark McPherson is particularly interesting as he is shown not to be the hard-boiled detective type at all, but rather someone who spent 14 months reading books and thinking about the world while recovering from a bullet wound. With his literary enthusiasms and sensitivity and straightforward manner, Mark McPherson proves himself to be someone worthy of Laura Hunt’s interest and attention.

“I’m not nearly as interested in writing about crime as I am in the actions of normal people under high tension.”  – Vera Caspary

 The more I study the life, writing, and views of Vera Caspary, the more I am intrigued by this extraordinary woman.

 

‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr – Child-Like Wonder

‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr  (2014) – 530 pages

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‘All the Light’ has become quite a phenomenon which probably has not been commented on enough.  Who would have expected to see Anthony Doerr on the best seller lists?, but there he is.  Currently the Minneapolis Public Library has a list of 648 people waiting to check out this novel.  It is not often that you have a highly literary writer score such a success.

Now that I’ve read ‘All the Light’ I am ready to analyze this book’s success.  First I want to give you a fine example of the style of the writing.

“What mazes there are in this world, The branches of trees, the filigree of roots, the matrix of crystals, the streets her father re-created in his models . . . None more complicated than the human brain.”

 This exhilarating observation is from the blind French girl Marie-Laure who is one of the two main characters in the novel.  We meet up with Marie-Laure in the year 1934 at the age of six when she suddenly goes blind.  Her father, the master locksmith at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, builds intricate models of the streets near their home that Marie-Laure can use to find her way around the neighborhood.

The other main character is a German boy, Werner Pfennig, who is about the same age as Marie-Laure.  He develops an interest in radios at an early age due to a scientific broadcast from France hosted by Marie-Laure’s grandfather. His acuity with electronics earns him a scholarship to an elite Nazi school.

Anthony Doerr explains large parts of the surrounding world through these two young intelligent characters.  There is a child-like wonder to the writing which describes the natural miracles around us in short breathtakingly beautiful sentences.  The writing here is exquisite. We even see the severe brutality of the Nazis through the eyes of the child Werner.

        Saint-Malo

Saint-Malo

In 1940, the Germans invade France (thanks to an assist from the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson?), so Marie-Laure and her father flee to the walled seaside city of Saint-Malo.  It is here that Marie-Laure finally meets Werner in 1944 as the Allies land in France and are ready to re-take Saint-Malo.

To what do we attribute the success of ‘All the Light’?  As I’ve said before, the writing about nature is most stunning.  The whole approach of the style and the plot has a child-like clearness.  The plain story has the feel of a folk tale passed down from generation to generation.  Plausibility is not a major consideration.  Credibility is sacrificed for enchantment.

But man or woman cannot live on enchantment alone.  While reading ‘All the Light’, I longed for some world-weary cynicism like you would get from Graham Greene.  Yes, the world is wondrous and a miracle, but there is also a lot of bad stuff in this world starting with the Nazi point of view.  I longed for some dirty realism while reading ‘All the Light’.  I wanted a more complex adult view of things.

Still it is nice to see that a literary novel and Anthony Doerr are making the best seller lists.

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