‘You Think It, I’ll Say It’ by Curtis Sittenfeld – In Praise of Subtlety

 

‘You Think It, I’ll Say It’ by Curtis Sittenfeld (2018) – 223 pages

This collection of ten stories is my first Curtis Sittenfeld fiction. For a long time I thought Curtis Sittenfeld was a guy because back in the olden days ‘Curtis’ was a guy’s name.

Anyhow these stories won me over with their immediacy and their rueful insight. One of many things that Sittenfeld is good at as a writer is showing precisely how we evolve from first impressions of others to something closer to the truth. Our first impression of someone might be mean or nasty or it might be overly positive, but more evidence can cause us to revise our opinion. Nearly every one of these stories depicts our narrators having to make this kind of adjustment in their thinking. Ultimately these changes in our perceptions of others are what shape our own character. Thus these stories are profound without hitting us over our heads with their profundity.

These stories are not dramatic or tragic. They are not about momentous events. They are about the subtle changes in our attitudes and opinions of others as we go through each day. We all misread or make mistakes as we begin to size up another person or situation. New data or developments require us to alter our course. These stories capture these subtle or not-so-subtle revisions that we must necessarily make in regard to others. They are rueful yet light-hearted and pleasant to read. Although these are modern stories in the Here and Now, Curtis Sittenfeld belongs in the same category as classic writers like Jane Austen and Elizabeth Taylor who could make everyday interactions between people interesting and meaningful.

All of these stories take place in recent times but they may reflect on situations that have occurred in the past.

The collection title comes from the second story ‘The World Has Many Butterflies’. ‘You Think It, I’ll Say It’ is a party game for two where Julie says what Graham might be thinking about someone else at the party. It’s a catty game, but Julie misinterprets the signs to believe that she and Graham are on the same wavelength. Later when Graham breaks up with his wife, Julie finds out how wrong she was.

Curtis Sittenfeld has a clever offhand way of cutting to the chase and getting us readers inside these characters and situations quickly. It is very easy to like these stories.

 

Grade: A

 

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‘The Only Story’ by Julian Barnes – Paul is 19 and Susan is 49

 

‘The Only Story’ by Julian Barnes (2018) – 253 pages

”The Only Story’ is about a May-December romance, a quite unusual May-December romance. Here nineteen year-old Paul falls in love with forty-nine year-old Susan after they meet at a local tennis club and play tennis as a mixed doubles team. I have never encountered or heard about any romantic relationships where the woman is that much older than the man. This takes place in an upper class English neighborhood. Susan is married to nightmare husband Gordon. For Paul it is first love, and he falls hard. At nineteen, he is proud that his romance flies in the face of social respectability.

It was a matter of some pride to me that I seemed to have landed on exactly the relationship of which my parents would most disapprove.”

Later both Paul and Susan are kicked out of the tennis club.

The story is told from the point of view of Paul when he is many years older and is looking back on his younger days.

Part I is devoted to the early stages of the romance when Susan is still living with her husband. Paul spends most of his time at Susan’s house and inescapably meets her abusive violent husband Gordon. Gordon is the villain of this story. At the end of Part I Gordon slams a door into Susan’s face, breaking six of her teeth and cracking her jaw.

In Part II, after two years Paul and Susan move in together. It is only then that Paul discovers that Susan has an alcohol problem. There is no foreshadowing of this alcohol problem at all. Instead Susan is presented at the beginning of the novel as this wonderful person but about half way through she suddenly turns into an awful drunk whom Paul must take care of and protect her from herself. This does not seem fair to Susan, and I believe it is a mistake on Barnes’ part in not making her descent into alcoholism somewhat more gradual and more from her own point of view.

As usual with Julian Barnes, he waxes philosophical every few sentences in ‘The Only Story’. However since the plot and characters in ‘The Only Story’ are so lame, all this philosophizing seems unearned. After a while all this blathering on about Love and Life grew tiresome.

Part III is valedictory. In this part Barnes gives up on any pretense of plot or characters and thus is wide open for even more heavy-duty philosophizing. After ten years, Paul realizes he is wasting his life keeping track of the hopelessly drunk Susan and makes arrangements with her daughter to take over care of Susan.

‘The Only Story’ has a sad elegiac tone with many generalities about Love, made even sadder by such philosophical insights as the following:

That’s not a very kind thing to say.”

I don’t do kind, Paul, Truth isn’t very kind. You’ll find that out soon enough as life kicks in.”

I just might cry.

 

 

Grade: C+

 

The Juniper Tree’ by Barbara Comyns – The Not-So-Wicked Step-Mother

‘The Juniper Tree’ by Barbara Comyns (1985) – 177 pages

‘The Juniper Tree’ is based on a gruesome fairy tale of the same name by the Brothers Grimm. Here is a short cartoon video of the Brothers Grimm ‘The Juniper Tree’ fairy tale. Lines from the fairy tale serve as the foreword to the novel.

 

My mother she killed me
My father, he ate me
My sister little Marlinchen
Gathered together my bones
Tied them in a silken handkerchief,
Laid them beneath the juniper tree,
Kywitt, kywitt,                                            what a beautiful bird I am.

 

 

 

Don’t worry, although in some ways the Barbara Comyns version is faithful to the fairy tale, her novel is not at all gruesome. Instead it is subtly disquieting, plausible, and sometimes unsettling. The stepmother Bella Winter in her novel is a quite likeable English woman whose greatest pleasure is dealing in antiques. Bella has a facial scar caused by a car accident her former boyfriend had. Bella also has her own little mixed race daughter Marline resulting from a one-night stand after she broke up with her boyfriend. Through her work for an antique store she meets and befriends the upper class couple Gertrude and Bernard Forbes who live on an estate which has the juniper tree.

That is the opening framework of the novel, and I won’t give away any further plot information so I don’t spoil it for you. I found this odd novel an enjoyable read as I have also found two other novels by Barbara Comyns. In all three novels her heroines keep up a good front and carry on despite troubling circumstances. It is our audacious heroine Bella who makes ‘The Juniper Tree’ a captivating read. Bella’s positive insight into her situation drives the novel.

One thing that seems a constant in her novels is that the men never come off as acting that well in them. They tend to be insufferable in one way or another. That is certainly true of the two main men in ‘The Juniper Tree’.

Comyns’ ‘The Juniper Tree’ was published in 1985 after an eighteen year hiatus in her writing career. Perhaps it was that Virago began to republish her earlier novels that caused this resurgence. She went on to publish two more novels before she died in 1992.

This novel is a strange mixture of fairy tale starkness and modern social realism, but Comyns pulls it off with élan. In all of her work the freshness of her approach and her simplicity in tackling bizarre or horrific events is impressive.

 

Grade: A

‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers – The Trees of Life

 

‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers   (2018) – 502 pages

 

Trees play a bigger role in our lives than most people realize.  We take them for granted and allow lumber companies to cut down forests of thousand year old trees just so they can make a nice profit. The original forest in the eastern part of the United States is long gone, and in the west it is being rapidly depleted.

 “A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things.  It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it.”   

Demand for wood products continues to rise and old-growth forests are often the main source of much desired hardwoods.  Since 1600, 90% of the virgin forests that once covered much of the lower 48 states have been cleared away. Most of the remaining old-growth forests in the lower 48 states and Alaska are on public lands. In the Pacific Northwest about 80% of this forestland is slated for logging.  Elsewhere the widespread destruction of the original Amazon rainforest as well as other old forests is causing rapid global warming.

“This is not our world with trees in it.  It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.” 

Of all the modern writers, only Richard Powers could turn this appreciation of trees into a more than readable novel.  Only Richard Powers could make this compendium of stories about trees entirely fascinating.  His prose is always refreshing, fascinating in its intelligence, and exhilarating in its seeming magical ability to make unlikely connections between natural phenomena and our man-made lives.

‘The Overstory’ is mainly about a small group of people who come together in order to save old forests from the loggers.  First we get the early biographies of each of these persons, what caused them to love trees in the first place.

“There’s a Chinese saying: ‘When is the best time to plant a tree?’ ‘Twenty years ago.’”  

They wind up in the Pacific Northwest.  First they attempt to disrupt the loggers’ activity by sitting in trees that are designated to be cut. Thus the protesters will stay in a tree for weeks or months at a time while the loggers, especially the logging company owners, get more and more angry.  Protecting these trees is a hopeless cause for these tree protestors as the police are on the side of the loggers and arrest the tree protesters when they can.  Just because a cause is lost doesn’t make it wrong.  Later the tree protesters resort to more desperate means.

You may have noticed above that this novel is over 500 pages long.  I have no problem with long novels that are fully engaged, but ‘The Overstory’ seemed scattered, diffuse, and unfocused at times to me. We readers could have done without a few of the eight characters or couples that are the main protagonists, especially those who are not directly related to the main plot. There is one couple, Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly, who could have been entirely omitted, and it would have made the novel better.  There is also the video game designer Neelay Mehta who really didn’t add anything to the story for me.  If the author had concentrated on a few less characters, he could have given those few more depth and thus made them more interesting.  Only one character, Patricia Westerford, was fully developed and therefore fascinating to me. It seemed like Powers was more interested in the trees than the people who populate this story.

As a polemic for the importance of trees for human life and for all life on Earth, ‘The Overstory’ is excellent; as a fiction not quite so much.

 

Grade:   B   

 

‘The House of Broken Angels’ by Luis Alberto Urrea – The Entire Family One Last Time

 

‘The House of Broken Angels’ by Luis Alberto Urrea  (2018) – 326 pages

‘The House of Broken Angels’ is an affectionate humorous portrait of an extended Mexican-American family in San Diego. This family narrative is brimming with life. As the family gathers for the last birthday party of old man Big Angel, his nearly hundred year-old mother dies, so first there is a Latino funeral.

“Love and sorrow wafted across the chapel like perfume.  So did the perfume.” 

We get colorful descriptions via Big Angel of all the shoestring relatives that show up for the funeral.  Nearly everyone has a nickname :  Big Angel, Little Angel, Mama America, and El Pato.  Like any occasion when we have not seen many of our relatives for a long time, we think back on these people and what they were like when they and we were young.

Those who became successful are there, and the ne’er-do-wells are there also, trying and usually failing to look solemn and impressive.  Of course each one at the funeral has their own view of who the ne’er-do-wells actually are.  Some of the younger members of the family are there also.

“Lots of the youngsters were in the New American Pose:  heads bowed, hands at mid chest, looking like monks at prayer, texting their asses off on their smartphones.” 

At a funeral, one’s thoughts take a serious turn.

“Death. What a ridiculous practical joke.  Every old person gets the punch line that the kids are too blind to see.  All the striving, lusting, dreaming, suffering, working, hoping, yearning, mourning suddenly revealed itself to be an accelerating countdown to nightfall.” 

We remember those who have already departed. But mostly Big Angel recalls all these family members who he is probably seeing for the last time with gentle loving humor. Even the priest is not exempted from the hilarity.

The priest was revved up like some Elysian dragster, about to pull religious wheelies all the way down the track.  They were in for it now with no way to get out.

“She gave you nearly one hundred years of motherly sacrifice! Good mother, good grandmother, good Catholic, good neighbor! The line of mourners should be out the door! Shame. Shame. Shame.”

Well, he wasn’t wrong. 

After the funeral, the family goes ahead the next day with the birthday celebration for Big Angel who realizes the end is near for him also.  Although the family has lived in the United States for a long time and a lot of water has gone over the dam since they left Mexico, they are still proud of their Mexican background.

“We’re pretty much Americans now, right?  I mean, this is a post-immigration family.  By what, almost fifty years?”

“Yeesus.”

  “I’m still Mexican,” Little Angel said. “Mexican-American?  But let’s face it, I don’t live in, what, Sinaloa.”  

From my experience through the years from childhood on with my own extended family, I can say that Luis Alberto Urrea gets it right in a humorous yet loving way.

 

Grade:   A     

 

‘A Girl in Exile’ by Ismail Kadare – Requiem for Linda B.

 

‘A Girl in Exile’ by Ismail Kadare   (2009) – 185 pages    Translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson

I was surprised to find that this is the fourth novel by Ismail Kadare that I have reviewed here at Tony’s Book World.  That fact alone does indicate the high esteem in which I hold Ismail Kadare as a writer of modern fiction.

Kadare spent much of his childhood and many years thereafter living in his home country of Albania then ruled by the Communist totalitarian regime of Enver Hoxha.  This life in a brutal repressive regime has been the main subject of Kadare’s fiction especially since 1991 when the Communist government in Albania collapsed.  ‘A Girl in Exile’ is another Kadare novel which deals with this terrible time in Albanian history.

The narrator in ‘A Girl in Exile’ is a writer – a playwright – much like Kadare himself.  Like Kadare, this playwright achieved great success at an early age and is held in watchful respect by the Communist Party.  However the Party does monitor his plays before allowing them to be performed, and that is one of the possible reasons the playwright thinks that he may have been called in to be interviewed by two members of the Party.  The other possible reason he thinks he may have been called in to be questioned is for a fight in which he has hit his latest girlfriend.

However the real reason he has been called in is neither his new play nor his fight with his new girlfriend.  Instead the officials are curious about another girl, Linda B., who has never met the playwright but who has one of his books which he had personally signed.  During the Communist years, certain families were forced into internal exile within Albania itself for the “crime” of being middle class.  These people who were victims of internal exile were forced to live in some remote town and were not allowed to travel within the country, especially not to the biggest Albanian city of Tirana where the playwright lives.

The playwright’s new girlfriend is a college age student who is a friend of Linda B.  He has taken up with this new young girl while his longtime paramour is away. This young girlfriend takes the book he signed to Linda B.   As I mentioned before, the playwright is worried that the authorities may have found out about his fight with this new girlfriend in which he hit her.  This playwright is no saint.  The Communist authorities allow this playwright to get away with much more than other Albanian people because of his world-renowned stature as a writer.  Linda B. worships him from afar because of his writing.  Linda B. has fallen in love with the playwright although she has never met him. Linda B. will do anything to get to Tirana to meet the playwright, even fake cancer.

So there are two themes in ‘A Girl in Exile’, the brutality of the Communist officials in imposing these internal exiles on their own Albanian people and the adulation by even the Communist authorities and everyone else of a major literary star.

I found the worship of this playwright by this college age girl Linda B. who never met him rather unbelievable and also hard to take.  Somehow I felt like all of this adulation for this playwright has gone straight to his head.

.

Grade :   B   

 

‘Happiness’ by Aminatta Forna – Tracking the London Foxes

 

‘Happiness’ by Aminatta Forna   (2018) – 312 pages

I was very much anticipating reading ‘Happiness’ by Aminatta Forna after reading her excellent previous novel ‘The Hired Man’, and now after finishing ‘Happiness’ I can say that it has even exceeded those high expectations.  ‘Happiness’ is my favorite novel that I have read so far this year.

I defy anyone to read the first eight pages and not continue reading ‘Happiness’.  They are that good.  These pages about a wolf hunter in Massachusetts in 1834 are only peripherally related to the rest of the story, but they do set the stage.

The main story takes place in today’s London, especially on the streets of London, where the two main characters literally collide when they first meet each other.  The two characters, Jean and Attila, are both middle-aged; both have been married before but are single now.

The woman Jean is from Massachusetts but she is currently living by herself in London studying urban foxes.  Now that England has banned fox hunting, many foxes have taken to living on the streets of London, surviving to some extent on the food waste that is thrown away. Her passion for these urban foxes keeps Jean searching for them on the streets, and we get a street-level view of the city.  She has a network of volunteers to help her track the foxes.

The man Attila is a renowned psychiatrist from Accra, Ghana who aside from his regular work must also deal with immigration crises that arise for other Africans living in London. When a young Ghanaian woman gets swept up in an immigration crackdown, her young son goes missing.  By this time Jean and Attila are beginning their friendship, and Jean employs her network of fox watchers to help find the boy.

The gradual emerging of a close relationship between Jean and Attila is the centerpiece of this novel.  Its theme can perhaps be best stated by the following lines:

 “The reckless open their arms & topple into love, as do dreamers who fly in their dreams without fear or danger. Those who know that all love must end in loss do not fall but rather cross slowly from the not knowing into the knowing.”

Aminatta Forna writes her story in a clear, direct, and straightforward manner without resorting to any flamboyant language or tricks.  By capturing more than just what is happening on the surface, she achieves a depth that is missing from many novels.  She delves into several subtle subjects such as the starkness of nature and humans’ natural resilience to tragedy.

“What if by labeling our patients damaged from the outset, we not only condemn them to a self-fulfilling prophecy, but have overlooked a finding of equal importance? That the emotional vulnerability of trauma is oftentimes transformed into strength.  What if we were to have revealed to us that misfortune can lend life quality? Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger, yes. What if I told you that there are times when whatever does not kill me can make me more, not less, than the person I was before?”

Also Forna takes up a not new idea that is similar to one that has been intriguing me lately, hers being that we humans, like those urban foxes, are just as much a part of nature.

In my review of ‘The Hired Man’, I compared the writing of Aminatta Forna to that of Kazuo Ishiguro, and I still believe that comparison holds.

The best fiction excites and exhilarates us up to a place we have never been before, and ‘Happiness’ definitely did that for me.

 

Grade:   A+ 

 

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