What I Read in November and December

December 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

Paulina & Fran, Rachel B. Glaser. Heard the author read at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, and got the book signed there.

The title characters are art school students drawn into a tug of friendship, romance, fascination, sex, dismay, and manipulation. The personalities of Paulina and Fran are distinct but not perfect complements. Paulina is the dominant member of the pair—we might be tempted to call her an emotional bully if we weren’t rooting for her and Fran to grow into something more—while Fran is the more sensitive and (it is suggested) more talented artist. Paulina keeps sleeping with a boy she’s broken up with because “every house needs a house cat.” Fran “has this bedroom feeling to her … everywhere Fran went, she inhabited like her bedroom.”

Glaser fluidly shifts back and forth between characters, and she is ambitious and exact with her colorful metaphors, in part because she pins them with effect to the pair’s obsessions with fashion, image, surfaces, and exploitation. Paulina gets a design job at a Forever-21 type store; Fran paints houses upstate. A hair salon has “that plastic smell of vanity and fear. It was decorated with black-and-white photos of models.” Paulina’s fur coat “weighed on her like the next decade.” At a thrift store, “Every nightgown came with a few bad dreams.”

The book understands art school, particularly, as a milieu where people pose for one another, and are harshly judged for no other reason than the satisfaction of judgment. Paulina sleeps with a boy who “had a number of nervous tics, and looked like he animated dragons all day.” Sculpture majors “loved nothing more than taking up space.” There is a hostility expressed toward “Cooper Union graduates who’d spent their saved tuition money on designer sneakers and mopeds…The girls were dressed like new wave French philosophers.” The writing is not superficial, nor does it get lost in a melting psychological sea of abstraction.

Cassandra at the Wedding, Dorothy Baker. One of two novels by this Montana-born writer re-released by NYRB Classics, Cassandra at the Wedding was first published twenty-four years after the other one, Young Man With a Horn, which I read and enjoyed in 2013.

Cassandra has a relaxed vibe, remarkable for a book about a young woman’s neurosis. Cassandra is a Berkeley graduate student returning home to the family ranch for her twin sister’s sudden wedding. Their mother is deceased; their father, a retired professor of philosophy, seems happily disengaged; and their grandmother (on Cassandra’s late mother’s side) busies herself with projects relating to the wedding.

Apart from a section narrated by Judith, the bride-to-be, the story is Cassandra’s, and hers in an intelligent and dynamic mind to reside in. She arrives at the family home with her thesis unfinished and harboring a well-considered angst toward the nuptials. I found myself coming back to the book’s early scenes, when she was settling in and enjoying conversation with her father:

“Well, what’s he like?” I said.

My father didn’t ask whom I had in mind, but he didn’t answer the question either. He got philosophical instead and gave me a speech about how it’s not easy to say what anyone’s like, even among people you think you know well; and this hit me because, like most of papa’s propositions, it was infuriatingly true. Judith Edwards, for example, whom I once thought I knew like myself, like the back of my hand, as they say. What made her decide to try New York, alone, for a year, before we tried Paris, together? Who knows what anybody’s like?

I took an ice cube out of the bucket, closed my fist over it, and let it drip into the copper sink. This comes under the head of playing in the water, but papa apparently didn’t notice, and it had the effect of rallying my forces and not letting me give up.

“Playing in the water” takes on heavier meanings at other points in the book, between the pool in back of the family home to the bay under the bridge in San Francisco. Cassandra is coy about her personal life (she wakes up in her childhood room realizing she “was not going to be found in any of the three, or possible four, places [she] can wake up in in Berkeley”) but open about who and what she loves, and her interactions with Judith feel honest in the tension and overlap between the two sisters. There is struggle but also an aware irony in this family that is missing a mother (who died three years ago, “much too young but I’m not sure she thought so”), so when, midway through the book, Cassandra attempts to overdose on sleeping pills, it is a wrench to the heart not just of this nice family but the reader who has grown fond of her.

2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, Marie-Helene Bertino. Another book featuring characters whose lives intersect in remarkable ways. I read most of it on a plane to New Orleans. Some of the chapters are quite short, and in keeping them as such Bertino achieves an immediacy that suits the minute-by-minute narrative.

The main character is nine-year-old Madeline, and she is a bit of a cartoon—she smokes cigarettes and swears and scoffs at her classmates (“Your clinginess is embarrassing,” she tells a girl) and lives under the care of an elderly guardian. She is absent a deceased mother and her father is, for some reason, confined like a convalescent to his bedroom. Madeline’s dream is to sing jazz onstage, and so the plots rolls into motion when she learns about the existence of the establishment–a downtown Philadelphia jazz club–in the title. Madeline makes it her determination to find and infiltrate the Cat’s Pajamas in the hope she can sing there.

The other main character is Sarina, Madeline’s fifth-grade teacher, a recently divorced dreamer who has moved back with her family and been invited to a dinner party where an old boyfriend, Ben, is also said to be coming. There is also Jack, the owner of the Cat’s Pajamas, who is a little greasy, and his son Alex, who plays drums, and a subplot about a rare and expensive guitar called a Snakehead.

For a book with a bit of fluff to it, I liked the characters, particularly Sarina, who balances an urge to allow herself happiness with soberness of one who has lived through disappointment and the responsibility that she naturally assumes around children. The setting of snowy Philadelphia gives the book some life and grit, and the time-managed plot keeps things mostly clear of preciousness.

Light Years, James Salter. I am undeniably guilty of the crime of catching up on my debt to James Salter only after he has died. (I do that a lot; see also Mavis Gallant.) Light Years is the second Salter I’ve read, after A Sport and a Pastime, which was tenderly crafted and had the distraction of intervals of finely wrought sex. Light Years is about a marriage between two adults, Nedra and Viri, and its slow dissolution, and the people who fade in and out of their scene as it happens.

They are a couple who enjoy their pleasures, their social lives, their curiosities, dinners with friends and their flirtations. Salter’s tight sentences lighten the air in which the characters breathe. The way Nedra is written, I can see her graceful movements, the muscles in her arms, her involuntary scratches at her elbow. She has “a rich, naked laugh.” After an afternoon of picking tomatoes, she “looked like a woman who had once been rich.” A visiting client of Viri’s “recognized in her a woman who would not betray him.” There are affairs, sloppy ones, that end not in shocked outrage but futility. They divorce, the children grow up, and everything feels seamless: the way older daughter Franca (and younger Danny, but particularly Franca) makes appearances more and more sporadic, the way her sophistication catches up quickly to that of her mother.

Viri is an architect, and Salter inserts moments when his structure is allowed to crumble:

“Look at him, Papa, don’t you love him?”

The hen sat panicked within her arms, its small eyes blinking.

“Her,” Viri said.

“Do you want to know their names?” Franca asked.

He nodded vaguely.

“Papa?”

“Yes,” he said. “Where did you get them?”

“That’s Janet…”

“Janet.”

“Dorothy.”

“Yes.”

“And that one is Madame Nicolai.”

“That one…”

“She’s older than the others,” Franca explained. He sat on the step. Already there was a slight, bitter smell in the room. A bit of feather floated mysteriously down. Madame Nicolai was sitting as if dumped in a great, warm pile of feathers, brown, beige, becoming paler as it descended to soft tan.

“She is wiser,” he said.”

“Oh, she’s very wise.”

“A sage among hens. When do they begin to lay eggs?”

“Right away.”

“Aren’t they a little young?” He sat idly on the step watching their careful, measured movements, the jerk of their heads. “Well, if they don’t lay eggs, there are other things. Chicken Kiev…”

“Papa!”

“What?”

“You wouldn’t do that.”

“They’d understand.”

“No, they wouldn’t.”

“Madame Nicolai would understand,” he said.

She was standing now, apart from the others, looking at him. Her head was in profile, one unblinking eye black with an amber ring. “She’s a woman of the world,” he said. “Look at her bosom, look at the expression on her beak.”

“What expression?”

“She understands life,” he said. “He knows what it is to be a chicken.”

“Is she your favorite?”

He was trying to coax her to come to his half-closed hand.

“Papa?”

“I think so,” he murmured. “Yes. She is a hen among hens. A hen’s hen,” he said.

They were clinging to his arms in happiness and affection. He sat there. The chickens were clucking, making little soft sounds like water boiling. He continued to extol her—she had now turned cautiously away—this adulterer, this helpless man.

The Moviegoer, Walker Percy. A reread, one I decided to take on again because it is set in New Orleans and I took a vacation there at the end of November. It turns out that there isn’t a whole lot that is particular to that city, except for the names of streets and streetcars and descriptions like “the curlicues of iron on the Walgreen drugstore” and “the homosexuals and patio connoisseurs on Royal Street.”

A lot of people love The Moviegoer, and the narrator Binx Bolling feels like he has potential to do something fascinating—a bit young, naïve, a keen observer but perhaps too passive at this stage of his life. (Hence his fondness for going to movies.) He works as a bond trader but is regarded as an underachiever by his aunt, who wants him to go to medical school. He sleeps with his secretaries, and is in love with his childish-seeming cousin, Kate, who, it is suggested, suffers from mental illness.

It is not asking too much of the reader to be patient with the novel’s existential sensibilities, but it still feels, on second read, like it could use a few more bones in its skeleton. Of course, the lack of concrete decision and structure is the heart of Binx’s problem. Binx is a lost soul looking for a way, but unlike the French, who manage to make despair much more interesting, he doesn’t have an urgency to reduce perspective or repudiate the banal. He places currency in his sense of dream and wonder, and while this might make us root for him to find his moral purpose, it feels like a false journey to those of us who know that reality still waits around the corner.

So, for 2015: thirty-nine books, twenty-one by women. Six were re-reads. Thirteen were nonfiction. I read six books by Joan Didion, two by Salter. Among the new books I read, I particularly loved Christy Crutchfield’s How to Catch a Coyote, for its clever arrangement of characters in a nonlinear narrative against a consistent and tangible setting, as well as Cassandra at the Wedding and Light Years and Didion’s Play It as It Lays, a razor-sliced portrait of 1960s Hollywood that manages to feel current and alive. Perhaps it spoke to me because I was less than a year removed from my mother’s death, but Liz Scheid’s The Shape of Blue caught me pleasantly by surprise for its earthiness as the author responds to tragedy and loss with thoughtful questions of order.

But the best book I read, in terms of the power of its storytelling, was Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life. There was a sense, as I was reading, that I was amidst something both grand and modern, and that its characters were inhabiting the shaky, insecure, and clattering world I knew. It gets right the terror of loneliness, the loom of cities, the scatteredness of the twenty-first century landscape and the need to create one’s own reality within it. It carries forward the echo of war horror and lets it resound in the ear while landlords clomp around overhead. Few novels identify the breakdown between the interior and exterior so well.

As the year winds down, I have piles of new books around my office that I don’t know when I’ll get to read. I am seven months behind on my New Yorkers. It’s the kind of obligation that can make reading feel suffocating rather than enlightening. And while I published two stories this year and started a few essays (finishing and submitting one, still pending), I feel like I have been working on the same things for a long time, and have yet to really leap forward as a writer. I need to stop gazing at my shoes and plow through. Consider that my resolution.

Happy Golden Days 

December 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

  
I caught a cold over Christmas, and as a consequence my voice has dropped an octave and taken on a syrupy, Clooneyesque lustre that I’ll miss once the NyQuil and Sudafed have done their work.

My wife joked about getting me a hatchet for Christmas, and though she went another route it was hard not to notice that, on the whole, my haul this year had a bit of a masculine tilt, a little noirish, a little cool. We’re expecting our first big snowstorm on Tuesday, after a stretch of disarmingly mild weather, and I forward to warming my soul with these.

Angel from Down Under

December 17, 2015 § Leave a comment

AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE - ima copy

To this New Englander, New Zealand feels like the bottom of the world, about as far away a place as one can go. So when I recently watched An Angel at My Table, Jane Campion’s 1990 biopic about the writer Janet Frame (1924-2004), I tried to keep my eyes open to the landscape and other revealing aspects of location. There are rolling green hills and scenes with sheep bopping into the frame, and elementary school classrooms with New Zealand flags hanging. There are trains passing over horizons. Frame’s father worked for the railroad, though with six children the family did not have a lot of money.

At two hours and forty-five minutes, the film covers aspects of Frame’s early life in patient detail. Janet is the shy observer, overshadowed by three domineering sisters. The girls must share a bed. She practices such poor hygiene that a school nurse scolds her for having filthy ears. Her older brother suffers from epileptic seizures. In adolescence, she develops a taste for sweets, so much that she and her sister steal prized chocolates from a landlady. Her teeth go to rot.

There are slight moments when the artist with the sensitivity for language emerges (upon which the cleaning of her ears almost works as a metaphor), as when she resists her sister’s suggestion to change a word in a poem for school, one that eventually gets published. Frame’s life has parallels to that of Sylvia Plath, or more accurately, the character of Esther in The Bell Jar: In a rural community with few literary heroes, a dreamy girl who demonstrates creative talent and moments of social anxiety gets recommended by her teachers to the observation of a shrink, psychiatry being a young and perhaps oft-misapplied science at the time. She is hospitalized for schizophrenia and subjected to shock treatments. A lobotomy is scheduled, and it is cancelled only when her first collection of stories wins a major literary award.

Then the film lightens as Frame is given a chance to enjoy success. She develops mentorships at a writers’ colony, then has an affair with a married history professor who dabbles in poetry but is terrible at it; he reads it to her in bed, and for the first time in her life she must hold herself back from saying anything.

Frame’s books aren’t easy to find here in the States, apart from Amazon. She wrote an autobiography in three volumes, the material for which Campion mined for An Angel at My Table. Many critics seem to label Frame a writer of magical realism, particularly for her final novel, The Carpathains (1988). Frame’s popularity among New Zealand writers might be matched only by Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923), for whom Frame’s mother worked as a housemaid (a fact never broached in the film) and who died the year before Frame was born.

Unspeakable

December 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

I always thought it was ironic that so many Americans learned about the death of John Lennon from Howard Cosell, one of the most notorious scene-stealers in broadcast history, late on a Monday night during the fourth quarter of a sleepy football game in Miami.

Where Am I?

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