Saturday, October 20, 2007

After This, by Alice McDermott

After This is a beautifully written book. It begins and ends in a church, and takes us from the marriage of Mary, a 30-year-old woman, through the birth and growth to adulthood of the four children she has with her husband John. The working-class family lives on Long Island during the middle-to-late decades of the twentieth century, riding out the storms of change in the culture, their lives, and in their church.

Although religion is a big part of their lives, I wouldn't call this a "religious" book. Rather, McDermott shows how the church and the family's beliefs affect - or do not affect - how they live. Mary in particular takes her church's teachings to heart, lighting candles during the two wars she experiences, attending mass regularly, insisting that the children attend Catholic school. We watch, too, as John lies in bed with a slipped disk, thinking of how his life might end, how it might not be as he had imagined, in bed, tended by a priest, but may be as unexpected as falling down dead in the street.

We see segments of each family member's life in vivid color, with light sketches in between phases. Thus we are treated to details of a dinner conversation or a night with a lover and then we may not hear much of that person until he or she is much older. Yet it works. I didn't feel cheated. Many of the moments are deeply moving by themselves, the more so because the moment is not over-labored.

I couldn't help comparing this book to a couple I read recently by Anne Tyler, both of which covered much of the same era in our history. Tyler's books seem, to me, more mocking, more like throwing a veil between the writer and the subjects, while After This is more intimate and touching.

And what is "after this"? From early on I suspected it was "after life". What then? After all that Mary and her family has done and gone through, what then?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Collected Stories, by Amy Hempel

This book is Amy Hempel’s life work. Of course there is the odd story here and there that did not get in here but essentially this is it. In 404 pages she tells her own story in the form of short fiction, 49 stories in all. Most are shorter than most short fiction, one consisting of just one sentence and another just one page.

In this way, and in the language itself, these stories are much like poetry. All of them distill moments and thoughts economically, making much out of few words. Character is sketched in a phrase, and that’s all that is needed. Because of this depth it may take longer to read these seemingly simple stories than you might expect.

The elements also repeat themselves in a way similar to the film “32 short films about Glenn Gould”. We read about the lover of an artist, an artist who perhaps has many lovers. We hear about time in an institution. We read about dogs and cemeteries. Not once but many times, slid in between lines or used as the whole, layers or whole pies. I am sure that these elements come from Hempel’s real life, although the incidents probably did not happen to her exactly as written. In their way, skewed or direct, they tell us about this writer and the way she sees. It’s a beautifully-written book, full of images and feelings.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Bastard on the Couch, edited by Daniel Jones

I bought this book because of the subtitle: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom. I used to read Details magazine for just this thing: men explaining themselves. I don’t think I’ve gotten as much from reading this book as I did from those Details articles, though, and I am not sure why.

The writers in The Bastard on the Couch and those who pen articles for Details have a similar profile: they are generally upwardly mobile, intelligent and intellectual (else why writers?), tend to be thirty-something or forty-something (with a few exceptions), and they are concerned with women. It’s probably the profile of the generation that’s running this world.

There are 27 essays, divided into four sections (parentheses are mine): Hunting and gathering (could be called “the early years”), Can’t be trusted with simple tasks (could be called “housework?”), Bicycles for fish (could be called “making a home”), and All I need (“being without”). As I look over the titles now I can see why they were divided this way, but as I read the book I felt that many can be boiled down to one thing: whining about fairness.

Most of the whining goes this way: I’m a modern man, I want everything to be fair, and so we split everything equally, and this is the thanks I get.

Worst of the whiners lot: The Dog in Me, by Kevin Canty. Kevin goes on endlessly about what the dog in him wants or thinks or does. He holds forth on the subject of how to split the work and the roles in his household and he can’t seem to get past a yearning for “simpler times”, when men were men and…well, you know how that goes.

He says “…we find ourselves scrambling to adapt to new ideas of equality and democracy, to find new roles that seem to make sense….In reason and equality we will proceed together into a new, bright future.” And then: “…But the dog in my can’t help noticing that I’m still paying for everything. The dog in me wonders if this isn’t just a way to make me take care of half of your business while I’m still taking care of all mine”.

In other words, he is using that “dog in me” shtick as a cutesy excuse for justifying his unrelenting and unchanging view of the world. I’ll be damned if I’ll make a real effort to grasp this “equality” thing.

Many of the essays are about that subject: equality. And most portray it the same way: as if men are getting the short end. As if in this new world everything should be split exactly down the middle, no matter how little sense it may make in a particular situation (like pregnancy). Their take on feminism: they tried really hard (look at the subtitle) and tried some more but there’s something wrong with it. It didn’t work the way I wanted so I’m going to do what I want. Or at least think what I want and be resentful about what I’m not getting.

Let’s look at another dog one: The Dog’s Life, by Thomas Lynch. Thomas wails about how he is constantly told that he “just doesn’t get it”. He shrugs and tries for the good-humored aw shucks approach but it fails because of the bitterness. He’s right, they’re wrong, says the subtext, and they just don’t get it.

I don’t doubt that many men have experienced unfairness in their dealings with the “modern women” in their lives. I have boatloads of understanding reserved for men who have been victimized (I really do). Here’s what gets me about the whiners: they generalize. They assume they represent all men and that the women they’ve known are like all women.

In I Am Man, Hear Me Bleat, Fred Leebron distills the basic conflict:

For better or worse, we’re expected to embrace our feminine side and domesticity, to express our feelings, to take care of our children when our wives are working, to do the housework, to cook, to be endlessly patient while our kids scribble on our upholstery and puke over our shoulders. And so we try to do these things, but what husband hasn’t stood in the doorway of the typical scene of domestic tranquility (kids and wife sitting shoulder to shoulder on the carpet, playing “tea” or building with Legos) and wondered – just how the hell do I fit into all this?

When our first child was born, a nurse took me aside. “Don’t try to copy your wife when you handle your child,” she advised. “It will only confuse the baby. Be yourself.”

But I thought this was the era of gender neutrality. I thought we were supposed to pain the girl’s room avocado and the boy’s room mango and give girls trucks and boys dolls. Now, after all that, I’m supposed to figure out how to appropriately manifest my masculinity yet again?

Fred generalized and simplified and therefore did not grasp that so-called “gender neutrality” does not mean we don’t celebrate our honest differences. We are all individuals. More than anything, this is what the women’s movement (which, contrary to most of the opinions in this book, is not over) is really about. Not putting people in boxes and making assumptions about their qualities and abilities based on sex.

In the generalization category, one essay stands out: Why Men Lie (and Always Will), by Vince Passaro. I do not doubt that in Vince’s circle the reasons the men give for lying may seem appropriate responses to female questioning. I’m suspecting, though, based on many men I know and on my own nature, that there are a great many men who would find these reasons just plain ridiculous. It’s a cute essay but don’t look here for insight into most of mankind.

Lest it appear that I am taking too harsh a turn here, I’ll point out that there are some good and even excellent essays in the bunch.

Ward and June R Us, by Rob Spillman, offers a simple, ingenious solution to the fair splitting of household tasks for those who have the flexibility that Rob and his wife have. Father of the Year, by Trey Ellis, is a genuinely affecting story of a man dealing with the loss of the love he thought he had forever. Quarantined Behind Concrete and Steel, by Benjamin LaGuer, speaks eloquently from behind prison walls. She Didn’t Want a S.N.A.G.; She Wanted Me, by Elwood Reid, lets us into the mind of a bouncer with aspirations and the ability to match is “more sensitive” male friends.

Read the book. Sometimes the insights are not on the page; they are what’s left out.