Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler – Furniture and Domestic Family Bliss

‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler    (2015) – 358 pages

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In ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’, Anne Tyler has the good sense to kill off one of her major characters just when we were getting monumentally sick of their perkiness.

I feel I’ve earned the right to crack wise about Anne Tyler, because I’ve read 19 out of 20 of her novels through the years since 1977.  Somehow I missed ‘Noah’s Compass’.  Despite my having a little fun at Anne Tyler’s expense, I find her novels insanely readable and often absurdly moving.

This novel is not Tyler’s best.   It probably will not make my end-of-year Top 10 list since I’ve already read two other books this year that are superior to ‘Blue Thread’.   It is too scattershot with scenes spanning four generations and seventy years.   There does not seem to be a unifying theme to the novel beyond domestic family bliss.

The novel begins with a promising plot line about a prodigal son. The son Denny is the black sheep of the Whitshank family in this novel.  It is obvious that Anne Tyler has not a clue what a real black sheep is.  A real black sheep could do a million and one terrible destructive things, but Tyler has him do none of that.  For Tyler, a black sheep would forget to defrost the hamburger for the family dinner or be angry for no good reason.  That is about the extent of human evil in this Tyler novel.

However whatever tension or drama this black sheep brings to the novel is dissipated as other stories and other generations are pursued instead.  If you want a real prodigal son novel, read ‘Home’ by Marilynne Robinson in which the son is an actual terrible human being.

Also there’s way too much about carpentry and home furnishings in ‘A Spool of Blue Thread.  I realize that furniture is her chosen metaphor for domestic family bliss and that she uses the production and care of furniture to show her characters’ admirable qualities, but still too much furniture over-decorates a room or a novel.

spool_of_thread_3188819aIn Anne Tyler, even the intentions of a twenty-six year old man who does it with a thirteen year-old girl are honorable. This man is not the black sheep but is the patriarch of the family.  This patriarch does build fine woodwork.

But ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ is still Anne Tyler.  Despite my criticisms above, you will be moved.  If you have never read Anne Tyler before, you will find this novel just about the greatest thing.

‘Lucky Alan’ by Jonathan Lethem

‘Lucky Alan’ by Jonathan Lethem, stories (2015) – 157 pages

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Jonathan Lethem in ‘Lucky Alan’, his latest collection of stories, proves to be the Rod Serling (Twilight Zone) of modern-day writers.  Most of these stories begin with a quite realistic setup until things take a surreal turn. But instead of being eerie, these stories take the reader on an exhilarating ride.  ‘Lucky Alan’ is a liberating collection that widens the possibilities of what short stories can be.

The first title story, ‘Lucky Alan’, captures the ambiance of Greenwich Village in New York.  Where else would you find legendary theatre director Sigismond Blondy going to watch old movies in decrepit theatres on weekday afternoons?  Then the story takes a weird and wild turn as Lethem’s stories are wont to do when we meet the director’s neighbor Alan Zwelish.

One of my favorite stories in the collection is ‘Traveler Home’  which is written in a short-hand  stream of consciousness that acknowledges the fact that we don’t think in full sentences  This is a story where our traveler finds a baby abandoned on a rural road during a snowy winter evening after first seeing seven wolves.  Lethem is good at creating a cold crystalline almost magical atmosphere.

Another fine story is the last story, ‘Pending Vegan’ about a father’s manic family trip to Sea World.

 “So here he was.  The first step, it seemed, involved flamingos.  After he had hustled his four-year-old twins through the turnstiles and past the souvenirs, the stuffed animal versions of the animals they had come to confront in fleshly actuality, his family followed the park’s contours and were met with the birds.  Their red-black cipher heads bobbed on pink, tight-feathered stalks, floating above the heads of a crowd of fresh entrants.”

 This writing captured Sea World very well for me. As you can see from the above, these stories vary immensely in locale and mood.

I was unable to fully appreciate two stories in this collection.  ‘The Back Pages’ is a frenetic slapstick story about a bunch of comic book characters stranded on a tropical island.  I suppose if I had read Marvel comics as a kid, I could have appreciated this story, but my childhood comic book interests were elsewhere.  ‘The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear’ is a story with blogging as its conceit, and probably was humorous at a certain point during the early days of blogging, but I failed to get the joke now. To another reader, these two stories may have been his or her favorites.

With such a wide-ranging group of stories there are bound to be one or two that do not appeal to a given reader.  However overall I found ‘Lucky Alan’ to be a strong vigorous imaginative group of stories.

‘Honeydew’ by Edith Pearlman – “All Cats are Gray at Night”

‘Honeydew’ by Edith Pearlman,  stories    (2015) –   275 pages

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In Edith Pearlman’s story ‘Hat Trick’ four single girls all aged nineteen sit on the porch talking about their ideal future mates.  After listening in for awhile, the mother of one of the girls interrupts.

 “Oh, my darling fools.  You dream about musical fellows, brainy guys, masterful ones, sophisticates.  Let me tell you something: all cats are gray at night.” 

 She has the girls write down the names of twelve decent fellows in town on little pieces of paper.  She puts the pieces of paper in a hat, and each girl draws one name.  That will be the guy each girl will marry, and the mother assures them they will be happy enough, because their marriage will be arranged by the best matchmaker of all, chance.

‘Hat Trick’ is one of the stories in ‘Honeydew’.  There are twenty stories in here, each as dense and warm and poignant as the next.  ‘Honeydew’ is not an easy read, but the density of these stories makes them rich and strange.  One of the qualities that give these stories a special aura is the unusual perspective that Pearlman brings to each.  One bit of advice to writers from Emily Dickinson was ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”  Edith Pearlman tells it slant.

These stories have great variety and some unusual locales.  Some are quite peculiar.  “Tenderfoot” is the finest story about a pedicure and exfoliation I’ve ever read.  A quirky weirdness permeates most of these stories, all for the better.

Pearlman brings an Old World charm to the stories that saves them from ever being run-of-the-mill.

The story ‘Puck’ is my personal favorite and perhaps Pearlman’s most typical story.  Rennie is the proprietor of the Forget Me Not antique store.  She is known for her discretion and restraint; her cardinal rule number one is to never ‘tell any customer anything whatsoever about any other customer’.  Thus her customers naturally confide in her.  I expect this is just the type of person Edith Pearlman herself is.

Ophelia arrives with this large statue, Puck, that she wants to sell to the store.  She mentions that Puck ‘watched over my love and me’.  Rennie realizes that this ‘love’ was not Ophelia’s husband who had died recently.  I won’t reveal any more details of the story, only that it has an appropriate conclusion.

Every story in ‘Honeydew’ is a winner as far as I’m concerned.  In  ‘The Golden Swan’, only Edith Pearlman could write a completely involving story about two single college age girls on a Caribbean Sea cruise that contains not even one shipboard romance.

In ‘Honeydew’ we have a collection of stories that is at least as good as the quotes on the back cover say it is.

‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ by Claudia Rankine – Getting Angry

‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ by Claudia Rankine, prose poem (2014) – 159 pages

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‘Citizen’ is a fierce meditation on being black in a predominantly white society like the United States.

“I feel more colored when thrown against a sharp white background.” – Zora Neale Hurston  

This prose poem is abrasive and disturbing for a white person to read.  It begins by showing examples of everyday unthinking racism perpetrated by even those enlightened white people who know better.  Good friends can cause deep hurt when it comes to race by saying the wrong thing.  There is even a medical term, “John Henryism – for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism”.

I wanted to say that some of us whites are trying to do better   Our attitudes are embedded in us from early childhood, and those cannot be easily or entirely corrected or eliminated.

And then we get women’s tennis star Serena Williams. Rankine gives us several scenes from Serena’s career.

“They (Venus and Serena Williams) win sometimes, they lose sometimes, they’ve been injured, they’ve been happy, they’ve been sad, ignored, booed mightily, they’ve been cheered, and through it all and evident to all were those people who are enraged they are there at all – graphite against a sharp white background.”

 We get re-enacted two of Serena’s most famous matches which had disputed calls.  At the 2004 US Open, Serena is defeated by Jennifer Capriati due to a series of bad line calls by the chair umpire.  Serena keeps her temper in check despite the bad calls.  Rankine is on somewhat precarious ground when equating bad line calls with racism, but in this case the chair umpire making the bad calls was excused from officiating any more matches.

In the 2009 US Women’s Open Serena is called for a foot fault at a critical moment in a match against Kim Clijsters, and she explodes.  Serena loses the match and is fined $82,500 and put on a two-year probationary period by the tennis officials for unsportsmanlike conduct.

images (6) However in 2012 Serena wins the only two gold medals that the United States would win in tennis at the Olympics and later would go on to win every match she played between the US Open and the year-end championship tournament.  Serena then is named the Women’s Tennis Association Player of the Year for 2012.

Next we get the scenarios for a number of ugly racist incidents that have occurred in recent years: James Craig Anderson (a forty-nine year old black man run over intentionally in Jackson, Mississippi by a bunch of white teenagers driving a pickup truck), Trayvon Martin, Mark Duggan in London.   The detailing of these incidents reminded me of a book I read nearly fifty years ago called ‘Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness’ by Robert E. Conot which chronicled the deaths of all 34 people killed during the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965.  That book had a profound effect on my attitudes toward race over the years.

In ‘Citizen’ Rankine seems particularly pessimistic and angry about the racist attitudes of whites and their likelihood of being changed.

But when I watch the Jimmy Fallon Tonight Show, I begin to think there is hope for blacks and whites together yet.

 

‘Funny Girl’ by Nick Hornby – “There are worse things to aim at than making people happy.”

‘Funny Girl’ by Nick Hornby   (2015) – 452 pages

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In ‘Funny Girl’ our heroine, Barbara Parker aka Sophie Straw, is a teenager in Blackpool in northern England who idolizes Lucille Ball whom our girl watches on TV in ‘I Love Lucy’ episodes.  It’s the Sixties, and she wants to become a female comedienne just like Lucy.  Our girl is very beautiful like early Lucy, and she wins a Blackpool beauty contest which doesn’t suit her at all.  She goes off to London in the hopes of someday doing comedy but meanwhile working at a cosmetics counter.

Things happen quickly, and soon she lands the lead role on a BBC situation comedy called ‘Barbara (and Jim)’.  We meet the diverse group of professionals who put on the show, and soon the show is a huge success.  Later much of the story concerns Barbara/Sophie finding a suitable mate.

The novel itself is a lot like a workplace situation comedy more like ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ than ‘I Love Lucy’. The plot centers around the small group of characters who put on the show including the stars, the director/producer, and the two writers.

‘Funny Girl’ is clever and cute, perhaps a little too clever and a little too cute with few rough edges. Barbara at the center of it faces no difficulties becoming a comedy star, and she is one automatically with the first episode of her first show.  It probably would have been more realistic if she had to struggle a bit to attain stardom.  Even Lucy had her struggles in Hollywood before she became a TV star.

But the focus of the novel is on the motley crew who make the show.  The show’s leading man Clive makes love to many women but adores only himself.  The two writers Tony and Bill had previously got arrested together for a homosexual encounter (The novel begins in 1964), but later Tony gets married to a woman while Bill becomes an outspoken advocate of gay rights with a promiscuous lifestyle.  Much of the humor of the novel comes from the talk between Tony and Bill who must come up with standard TV fare for each episode.  Then there is the producer/director Dennis who is the steady glue that holds the team together.

Like any good sit-com. ‘Funny Girl’ has its strong emotionally touching moments scattered amongst the humorous scenes.

I could see ‘Funny Girl’ doing well as a romantic comedy of a movie.  Nick Hornby has a sure hand for clever dialogue and humorous situations.  However I expect even a light novel to go deeper into its characters than ‘Funny Girl’ does.  Things stay relentlessly on the surface here.  We readers glide along on the humor and cuteness of the scenes and characters, but I doubt any of us will give the novel another thought after ending it.

However I do think light humor alone is a worthy goal, and ‘Funny Girl’ was fun while it lasted.

 

The Tempest by William Shakespeare

The Tempest’ by William Shakespeare   (1610)  – 124 pages

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Shakespeare wrote both tragedies and comedies.  If no one dies a violent death in a Shakespeare play, the play is considered a comedy.  In the tragedies the dead bodies pile up on the castle floors (see Hamlet, Macbeth, etc.)

No one is killed in ‘The Tempest’, so it is considered a comedy.  In fact the play is a powerful argument against violent revenge.

 “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.” 

 Prospero is the main character in ‘The Tempest’, but it is the good Gonzalo who sets the pace for the play’s spirit.  When Prospero’s brother Antonio tricked Prospero out of his Milan dukedom and banished him and his three year-old daughter Miranda to this island, it is the good Gonzalo who makes sure they are well provided for.  After Gonzalo’s fine example, the spirit of ‘The Tempest’ is kind moderation.

Thus when Prospero and his helper Ariel use magic to create a tempest that shipwrecks the vessel of the King of Naples Alonso and Prospero’s brother Antonio, they make sure no one is injured or killed.   Still there are devilish plots in the works.  Antonio and Alonso’s son Sebastian want to steal Alonso’s throne by killing Sebastian’s older brother Prince Ferdinand.   Prospero’s slave Caliban plots to kill Prospero.

Meanwhile the shipwrecked Prince Ferdinand falls immediately in love with the now almost fifteen year-old Miranda and she with him.  The play does not say whether their love is part of Prospero’s magic or just strong mutual attraction.   After only about three hours, their marriage is assured.

the-tempest-billington-007‘The Tempest’ was the last play that William Shakespeare wrote by himself.  By 1610, colonialism was well under way in England’s colonies, and ‘The Tempest’ was Shakespeare’s first and only play that addresses colonialism.

Caliban is the black slave of Prospero, and Shakespeare did not portray him in a positive light.  Caliban is described as ‘hag-born’, a ‘demi-devil’, a ‘poor credulous monster’ who ‘didst seek to violate the honour of my child (Miranda)’.  Later Caliban seeks to regain the island for himself by murdering Prospero.  Yet Caliban is eloquent in his words describing the island:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,

Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

          Caliban

 In this portrayal of Caliban, the question arises if these are Shakespeare’s own opinions or the opinions of the characters he is portraying on stage.  Thus Caliban could have been seen as a monster in the eyes of Prospero but not necessarily by Shakespeare.   Of course plenty of white Christians are portrayed negatively in Shakespeare including Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Gertrude and Claudius in Hamlet, and Antonio here in ‘The Tempest’.  Perhaps it is a form of implicit racism to never portray a black person in a negative or evil light.

‘Outline’ by Rachel Cusk

‘Outline’ by Rachel Cusk    (2014) – 249 pages

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After a certain age, each of our lives can be told as a collection of stories.  We may not know the full truth of all these stories, and our view of them may be limited or one-sided, but the stories together make up who we are.

There are two chapters in ‘Outline’ where our main character Faye is teaching a writing class in Athens, Greece.  She asks each of the students to tell her something that they had noticed on their way to class.  Each student has their own story some of which go on for several pages.  We get each student’s story until there is only one student left who has said nothing.  This woman says to the teacher as the class breaks up that she doesn’t know who the teacher is, but “I’ll tell you one thing, you’re a lousy teacher.”

The rest of ‘Outline’ is much like the students’ chapters with various people Faye meets up with in Greece relating their life experiences and lessons learned or not learned from them.  This is a philosophical novel and also an unconventional one.  Faye herself has not much of a story here.  She is constantly listening to other people.  This novel consists almost entirely of conversations in restaurants, on airplane flights, on boats, and in classrooms.

Perhaps the dialogue is not realistic in that usually when we talk, especially to strangers, there is a lot of back and forth.  In ‘Outline’ one person relating an incident may go on for several pages.  The conversations are like long monologues with short interruptions.

Rachel Cusk has expressed her dissatisfaction with the traditional forms of fiction before, calling them “fake and embarrassing”:

“Once you have suffered sufficiently, the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.”

 In ‘Outline’ Cusk is attempting something new and different.  Instead of an omniscient all-knowing voice, she has the people in the novel tell their own stories through conversations. This new way of storytelling might have been disorienting except that Rachel Cusk is such a graceful and intelligent writer that it all seems quite natural.

Each sentence in ‘Outline’ feels like it was polished and crafted to achieve the maximum perceptivity and precision.  Here are two examples :

“He began to ask me questions, as though he had learned to remind himself to do so, and I wondered what or who had taught him that lesson, which many people never learn.”  

“I replied that I wasn’t sure it was possible, in marriage, to know what you actually were, or indeed to separate what you were from what you had become through the other person.” 

41orC4b88kL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Some readers may prefer a little less measured approach, but I found the sentences to be a strong positive making the novel a joy to read at the sentence level.  Rachel Cush has a distinctive style of writing, and I find that a huge plus for any novelist.

As I’ve mentioned before, ‘Outline’ was short-listed for the Goldsmiths Prize.  I believe that both the actual winner, ‘How to Be Both’ by Ali Smith, and ‘Outline’ would have been worthy winners.

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