Saturday, December 29, 2012

State of Wonder. by Ann Patchett

Ah, to have another novel with the same sense of wonder as Bel Canto! And even named "State of Wonder" to boot.

Dr. Marina Singh, employed by a pharmaceutical company, follows fellow scientist Anders Eckman into the Amazon at the behest of her boss (and lover), Mr. Fox. Mr. Fox had received a letter from a field scientist, Dr. Swenson, saying that Eckman, who had come to urge her to provide more frequent reports of her progress, had gotten a fever and died there. Swenson's work is part of an effort to develop a fertility drug for the pharmaceutical company.

There are complications. Not least of them is the fact that Swenson is notoriously difficult to find and to persuade. She wants to do things her way and not be hurried or harassed. She has a young couple set up in her "town" apartment whose main job is to divert those who are interested in meeting with Swenson.

Marina was chosen in large part because she was a student of Swenson's years ago. Supposedly she knows how to get through to her. Marina is not so sure but allows herself to be persuaded to go. The main reason she decides to go is that Eckman's wife wants to be absolutely certain that her husband is dead. She wants Marina to find proof. She prefers to believe that he is still alive until she is given that proof.

The first many days in the little town are spent trying to connect to Dr. Swenson. When she is finally successful she follows the good doctor into the Amazon, on her boat. There she is soon absorbed by Swenson's work and by meeting and learning about the natives.

Marina's character is caring and giving, and also very human. It is easy to relate to her and to want the most for her and even to want her affair with "Mr. Fox" to go well in spite of the large difference in their ages (Fox is many years older.) There is a warmth and kindness not only in Marina but in many of the other characters as well, even, to some extent, the unyielding Dr. Swenson. Is it this that attracted me to this book? Yes, but there is more. There is the way Marina faces her life in the Amazon, how she makes her decisions, what she actually does, that is just delightful, although that word may not seem appropriate at times. As in Bel Canto, there is unexpected pleasure throughout. What more could you want?

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. by Alice Munro

Short stories by a master. This collection features stories about man-woman relationships, as the title suggests. Some of the stories have unexpected and delightful endings. All of them are rich with detail and humanity. 

The Grandmothers. By Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing used to be one of my favorite writers. Perhaps she still is, with reservations. Over time I found some of her work to be heavily imbued with her political positions, and they were positions I did not especially like. Perhaps if I were on the same track I would have liked them more.

In this case, just one of the stories - The Reason For It - reeks of a kind of moral position. It is the story of a civilization from long ago, where education and work become of little interest to the primary leader and over time to the citizens. Little by little the fabric of the community becomes frayed and there is nobody to care, except "the old ones", including the last of "the twelve".

I can't disagree that a lack of intelligence and learning and a lack of appreciation for work is going to send a community down the tubes. The story does seem heavy-handed, though.

I rather liked the title story - the Grandmothers - in spite of the subject matter, which I admit is a little out there. There is a nice sense of the characters and an emotional charge that's hard to forget. I liked the other two stories as well, perhaps most especially A Love Child. In his youth, a WWII soldier is sent to India to keep the peace (not where he would prefer to be given that the actual war was elsewhere). He is a bit naive in the world of love, and when he falls for a young married Englishwoman there, he believes it is forever. Over the years he cannot get her or her son (clearly his son) out of his mind. Twice he travels to India to find his lover and his son, the second time with his understanding wife. With this kind of single-minded focus, though, can this man ever find peace?

Friday, December 28, 2012

Reading Lolita in Tehran. By Azar Nafisi

There was a faded receipt left in the book, a few pages from the beginning. I couldn't read it all, but read this much: it was purchased new from a shop in San Francisco on August 16, 2004. The buyer paid $12.08 for it. Somehow the book found its way from SF to Jackson, New Jersey and eventually to me. It may be that I am the first to have actually read it.

I read about this book in various places when it first came out. It got good reviews yet I wasn't at all sure that I wanted to read it, although right now I am not sure why not. But when I had the chance to check it out I took it. Obviously it was not high on my list or I would have read it before now.

 The author is a professor of English literature, originally from Iran. She left with her family for the U.S. when she was 13 and returned thirteen years later. She arrived at a tumultuous time in Iran, during the time that Iran was changed to the Islamic Republic of Iran, and led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, hard-line religious fundamentalist.

While Nafisi was teaching at the University of Tehran, the laws gradually tightened around the populace, especially the women. While men were permitted to have more than one wife, including several "temporary" wives, women were required to be covered whenever in public, be accompanied by a male relative in many places, and whenever a couple had a child and then split up, the child automatically was given to the male.Women could not wear makeup or allow their hair to be seen.

And that was the least of it. There were arrests, imprisonment, and executions every day. A woman could be arrested for being too attractive, and what awaited her in prison can be imagined. One way that Nafisi found to deal with the restrictions was through English literature, possibly her greatest love. She taught classes on the great English writers, including Nabokov, Bellow, Austen, and others. She tried to reach her students through fiction, conveying how a fictional story can make you think and even break down prejudices and preconceptions.

Her students were not used to frank discussion and offering their own opinions.Some of them were "revolutionaries", dedicated to the current regime and distrustful of the characters in fiction, especially where morals were concerned. Nafisi refused to bow to the preferences of this type student by blacking out words like "sex", that might offend them. She insisted that fiction must be taken for what it is, and for where it comes from, and cannot be modified to suit one's religious beliefs. It became increasingly more difficult to teach during these times, with interruptions, bombings, students leaving for demonstrations or to join the army, and eventually Nafisi left the university.

Some years later, in 1995, she quietly formed a small class that met in her home, comprised of only women who were specifically invited to attend. These were young women who had showed a real interest (even passion) in literature and a mind capable of getting something from it. These weekly meetings became more than a class; they also revealed much about the students as well as about Nafisi herself. It was here that they discussed Nabokov's Lolita, among other masterworks. And related them to present-day Iran and the lives of women there. Nafisi is compelled to teach. She used this book as a means to reach us as well, to demonstrate what it means to discuss a work of literature. Thus we find out how she read Lolita, and Austen, and others.

Her view of Lolita is that it is the story of a dreadful pedophile who uses and destroys a 12-year-old girl. She feels for the girl, and not at all for Humbert Humbert. Her views are so damning that I was disturbed by them. I read Lolita several years ago and thought it was amazing. I had not expected to like the story of a middle-aged man with a 12-year-old girl. I was amazed that I developed sympathy for Humbert, even while I could not condone what he was doing. I also felt that Lolita was not a simple victim, but a strong character in her own right. That, of course, does not make it right that Humbert should have taken advantage of her. Still, to me, it makes the story remarkable in a different way from how Nafisi saw it. After reading her treatise on the subject I thought maybe I should read it again, but I didn't look forward to it (I rarely reread even my favorite books). My decision was to order a copy of the audio book. I will be able to listen to it while out and about and think while driving.

An interesting and rather odd part of this tale is the part of "the magician". Nafisi refers to this man this way, not because he performs typical tricks, but because he has a gift for helping others with their lives. Not a therapist but an insightful man who gives of himself while never wanting anything in return. Somehow Nafisi learns of him and during a bleak time in her life she calls him up and asks to see him. Thus forms a bond, at least on her side. The magician always is polite and kind. Offers a rare treat - chocolates - and tea, and listens. Makes comments. Helps her to see herself differently, and ultimately helps her develop "a plan". This is the type person I suspect most of us would dearly love to have in our lives: someone who just listens to us, knows us, understands us. There is nothing we want more than to be understood. Did he really exist? Nafisi poses the question later, but of course we aren't meant to take it seriously.

The story gives us an inside view of Iran during those difficult years (not that today life is a picnic there, but it is improving in some ways), into the effect of forced religious law (often having the effect of driving people away from their beliefs rather than the contrary), into the intimate lives of young muslim women, not allowed to express love except for their country's leader. The story also gives us insight into serious reading, really dissecting and thinking about great literature. I expect it would be a pleasure to be in classes like these, for those of us who value well-written words. It's a valuable book for these reasons. But I didn't love it. I couldn't get close to Nafisi. I felt she was pouring it on at times, telling rather than showing, and even making excuses for her lack of action during the revolutionary times. More than once, though, she points out that "we are responsible" for putting these people in office. But I wonder. How much power does one really have in a situation where dissent can lead to death? For whatever reason I did not warm to her. I also was confused by her way of jumping back and forth in time. Near the end she refers to the several years the group met at her house, yet it was only two years. I had to track down the dates to put it together. In spite of my misgivings I still came away with a new way of seeing, and that is what makes a good book.

Man Crazy. by Joyce Carol Oates

I have read many books by Joyce Carol Oates. She may be the first contemporary writer that I have accorded a special position in my mind. That's because she can create characters and situations that touch me, that I can recognize, identify. Characters whose lives sometimes make me cry. I don't usually leave a book behind if it was written by her.

This one differs from many of her others in that it is surprisingly short. The chapters are short and announced with full-page separators, making the number of words total even smaller than you'd think from hefting the book. She is capable of creating whole worlds full of intimate detail, thus drawing me in and captivating me. I can't say that about this one, although it does contain some elements of the others that have held my attention longer.

As most of her novels are, this one is set in upper New York state, and involves a young girl, then woman, whose origins are less than ideal. Oates herself grew up in a family of few means. Even if she did not herself experience the same kinds of pressures her characters do, she was undoubtedly close to those who did. The young woman in this story is naturally beautiful, similar to her striking mother, but she works hard to destroy that beauty.

Why? I think it all begins with her father. Something of a larger-than-life character, Ingrid Boone's father flits in and out of Ingrid's life, appearing out of the blue and then disappearing just as fast. A veteran of the Vietnam War, he learned how to pilot a plane and how to kill, and he uses both skills back in the "civilized" world. As a young girl Ingrid adores her father and can't understand why he keeps leaving her. Eventually it becomes clear and Ingrid's eyes are no longer clouded by her love. Yet there is always something there.

Ingrid's mother brings other men into their lives as a way of helping to stabilize their household. Usually she cares for them but we are not fooled into thinking she loves them unconditionally. Her presence represents a threat to married women in the different small towns where they live, and then move from. She has few women friends, many men.

As Ingrid grows and becomes more attractive, she becomes obsessed with friends. She takes to counting her friends in her mind, even as she suspects that none are true friends, that they talk behind her back. She finds popularity of different kinds, yet is always suspicious. An intelligent girl, she is nonetheless careless about her homework and thus is valued only by one teacher. This one sees the promise in Ingrid's poetry. When Ingrid wins a prize for one of her poems, she does not think the poem worth it, and when she is chosen to read it in front of the school the idea frightens her into committing a strange act. Poetry has not given her a way out.

Meanwhile, she digs at her face. Pimples, blackheads, mosquito bites, imagined or real. Her fingers cannot keep from seeking them out and digging, until her face is a moon surface. Yet it comes and goes: sometimes she looks like any other teen plagued with acne.

In this state she meets Enoch Skaggs, the leader of a strange cult of often-murderous followers who will do anything for him. Skaggs has three "wives" already when he takes on Ingrid as a lesser lover, to be loaned to other men from time to time. In spite of the dirty, unsanitary, often cruel conditions, Ingrid is drawn to Enoch like, as they say, a moth to the flame. She accepts his cruel treatment, the abuses and uses of others, until a time comes when she is thrown into the basement of the house where they all live, and left there with little food or other attention for many days, as punishment for some action of hers.

By then heavily into drugs, she has few resources. But she has some. Perhaps from memories of good times with her father, even perhaps memories of some small affection from her mother. Somehow, in spite of the hands she was dealt she has something inside her that wants to live. 

Blindness. by Jose Saramago

A remarkable book in several ways.

One by one, the citizens of an unknown country (or perhaps the world) are struck blind, with a "white blindness". The first to go blind is at a stoplight when it happens. A stranger takes him home in his car, where he waits for his wife. The following day he goes to see an opthamologist, who can find nothing physically wrong with his eyes. He calls a fellow eye doctor to consult, and promises to do further tests.

But the tests never take place. The doctor is struck blind. One by one, the persons in the waiting room go blind. The doctor notifies the board of health of what appears to be a kind of epidemic, and the government takes swift action. Those who are blind are rounded up, as well as those who have been exposed to the blind, and brought to a former mental hospital, quarantined. The two groups are separated, but whenever one of the exposed persons goes blind he or she is sent over to the blind wards.

All does not go well. Soldiers guard the hospital and threaten to shoot anyone who gets too close. They bring food three times a day, but refuse to provide any medical assistance for those who may need it. The hospital quickly descends to a kind of chaos, with only one person able to see it: the doctor's wife, who joined him in the van, saying she had just then gone blind. For some reason, she retains her sight, but does not tell others, except her husband, at first.

More people are dropped off at the hospital, the soldiers become more fearful, violence breaks out. Conditions are terrible and food deliveries sporadic. Worse, one of the wards gets hold of a gun and makes demands of the other wards in exchange for the little food that does come.

Eventually a small gang leaves the hospital, led by the doctor's wife. They encounter a sea of blindness everywhere. Nothing is working, everyone is blind. The country has completely fallen apart.

How the group manages is a gripping part of this story. In that sense I was on pins and needles.

Yet this is in no way a suspense story. It isn't even written in a normal way. The author writes run-on sentences, with little punctuation beyond commas. Sometimes it is difficult to determine who is speaking. Yet after a while this style seemed to fit the subject. The persons in the book are never identified by name. More than once they point out that names are not necessary for the blind (I never quite understood this). They are identified by certain attributes: "the doctor's wife", "the girl with the dark glasses", "the boy with the squint", and so on. If this book had been written in a standard way, I can imagine it would have been tedious and not as effective.

It's an allegory, which is why I did not fret too much at the obvious questions: why no medical supplies, why quarantine, why this or that. It isn't meant to be super-realistic (although references to bodily functions lend it gritty realism that is inescapable). These could be any people anywhere. Suddenly blind. In this story we see the best and the worst in human nature.

Interestingly, the author followed up with a book called "Seeing", that begins, at least, with the same core characters. hmmmm.... 

Cheever: A Life. By Blake Bailey

I have read many of Cheever's short stories and I may have read a book or two as well - but am not sure about that. His stories are usually engaging and sometimes brilliant, but I did form the opinion that he was a misogynist. In his stories he always seems to be creating unsympathetic women, and men who are caught in their webs. I was curious about his own life. And it all became clear here. He did have problems with women. He also had severe long-term problems with alcohol. He appeared to have been self-absorbed, selfish, often thoughtless. Yet many thought of him as kind and fun to be around as well.

He was hard-working but had trouble keeping the wolves from the door. Selling short stories, of course, is rarely if ever as lucrative as selling a novel. Thus he worked hard on the few books that he did write. It took him many years for the first one, and every one was very difficult for him. He excelled at writing the short stories but not so much at the novels. Some writers are just made to create the little jewels, which honestly would be enough in this case.

One theme that was in much of his work, if not always immediately apparent, was his frustration with his sexual orientation. He was bisexual but did not admit it, and even when having sex with another man he would not admit how many such affairs he'd had over the years. I suspect that he told the same lies to himself, to be fair. Learning about this part of him illuminates a great deal that may have seemed incomprehensible in his work. Certainly I am just as much an admirer as I was before. I never hold a writer's flaws or predilections against him.

I do hope that this biography is bringing a whole new set of readers to Cheever. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski

I had no idea what this would be about when I got it. I thought it would be about a photographer in the 1800s who specialized in photographs of Native Americans. I don't know why I thought the name was Sawtelle- I think the name I really meant was Curtis. In any case, I thought this would be an account of this photographer, nonfiction.

Not so. It is a lengthy first novel, finely crafted, about a boy and his family in northern Wisconsin. I may have missed references to the time frame. My guess is it takes place in the 1950s or 1960s, maybe 1970s.

Edgar Sawtelle was born without a voice. He could hear but could not speak. Doctors could not determine the cause or a solution, so he learned sign language. Over time, he modified sign language to include his own idiosyncratic signs, which his mother and father, Trudy and Gar, learned easily.  The family business is the breeding of dogs - a special breed - "Sawtelle dogs". When Edgar's grandfather began breeding, he did not care about pedigree. Instead, when he saw a dog with characteristics that he found special, he would acquire the dog to breed with his stock. He did this over the years, hoping to impart special qualities to his dogs.

Another aspect that set the dogs apart from traditional breeders is that the Sawtelles realized that too many dogs are "ruined" by incapable owners in their first year. So they did an unusual thing: they did not sell puppies. Instead, they sold fully trained young dogs, trained to their exacting specifications.

Edgar loves the dogs and loves working with him. One special dog, Almondine, was there when Edgar was born and became almost his other half. They did everything together.

The small family is doing reasonably well when Gar's brother Claude shows up out of the blue. He had been in prison and Gar lets him stay for a while. The two have conflicts, however, and in time Claude is invited to leave. He moves into the small town nearby and does odd jobs.

Then Edgar and Trudy's lives are turned upside down. Edgar is there when his father has some kind of seizure and falls to the floor. Edgar is unable to use the telephone, although he tries. He even damages it in the process of trying to make himself heard. Gar dies before anyone can get to him.

Trudy and Edgar are then in a precarious position. It is difficult to manage the home and business between the two of them, and harder still when Trudy becomes very ill and has to stay in bed. During this time Claude offers some help, and gradually works his way into the family. Edgar, however, never accepts him. In fact, after a time he has a memory of seeing something that makes him wonder about Claude. It is here when the story takes on more than a hint of Hamlet. Complete with ghosts.

When there is another accident and the vet dies in their barn, Edgar takes off with three of the dogs. He manages to make his way through the northwoods without being spotted, existing on very little at first but eventually finding a way to feed both himself and the dogs. It is then that the small group has an emergency that results in their meeting Henry, a lone man who lives in a remote cabin, and a tentative friendship develops.

And finally, a dramatic finish worthy of Hamlet, very suspenseful in the last pages.

The story caught my attention but I never fully embraced Edgar. I know that part of my difficulty is with the breeding. I am very opposed to the breeding of dogs. Any breeder has to destroy animals that do not come out right. There are many missteps in deliberate genetic manipulations. It's not simple science. I am also disturbed by the belief that purebred dogs are superior to "mutts". I have never known this to be true in real life. But that's, of course, for another dissertation. The point here is that this large aspect of the story disturbed me. It was hard for me to ignore it, to separate my personal ethics from the story.

The training was another aspect that at times made me suspicious. The author consulted training books ad infinitem and I am sure that much of what he writes is what many trainers do. I just did not like all that I read. But I feel that this is an area of evolving practice, and here in 2012 I learn about types of training that probably did not exist at the time of this novel. What is clear is that the dogs matter to the family, that they are special, that they are loved.

I was enough attached to Edgar to want better for him, to want his suspicions to be verified to others. I wanted more than a tragic ending, frankly, after getting to know him and his dogs for so many pages.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson

I put off reading this because of the title. I had it on my list because it has received honors from several places. But the title made me think of...stealing horses....and I did not like the idea. I thought maybe it would be cowboyish, that horses would come in for some ill treatment.

 But the title doesn't mean what it says. It has more than one meaning in the book, but neither has to do with actual stealing of horses. Trond Sander, 67, has chosen to live the rest of his life alone, in a remote cabin in snowy Norway. He'd had his city life and family but now he just wants to be alone with his thoughts. And his dog. His thoughts bring back memories of his youth, in particular the most significant events of that youth, the time his father left him.

The young Trond, 15, is on vacation with his father for the summer. The two travel by train a long way to a cabin in the country, near the border with Sweden. His father had acquired the cabin long ago, initially a mystery to Trond because the family's finances had never been great. But he loves being there, working side by side with his father on the cabin, on other tasks, and just being there by himself. He becomes friends with a neighbor boy and the two do everything together, until one day Trond says something that triggers a response in the other boy, making him suddenly remote.

It isn't long before he discovers what caused his friend to go quiet. But although Trond had nothing to do with the tragedy, he has still lost a friend. It is only later that pieces start to come together, glued by what a friend of his father's tells him. The story is both simplified and made more complex. And now, in his later yet still fit years, Trond has chosen to live with nature. But it doesn't end there. He meets his nearest neighbor by chance and discovers that he actually knows him from those many years ago. In a way, the circle closes.

 Elegantly and simply written, a story of love and loss. Isn't that what life is?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Most Dangerous Thing, by Laura Lippman

Lippman takes "thrillers" in a different direction. I don't know if it's even fair to describe this book as a member of any genre, really.

A group of five young people find each other. There are two girls and three boys, the three boys all brothers and the two girls friends. They do a lot of exploring together, and one day happen upon a shack far from anywhere, and learn that an old black man lives there. They make his acquaintance and visit him from time to time. He lives on handouts and they manage to slip food from their homes to bring to him.

One day it all changes. One of the girls, Gwen, gets together with one of the brothers, Sean, and the group breaks apart. The two take to the shed from time to time to make out, when "Chicken George" - their name for the old black man - is not there. One evening the youngest boy, Gordon, is not home for supper on time and fathers head out to look for him. They come upon Gordon and Mickey (the other girl) running from the shack, and Chicken George lying on the ground. They tell the adults that George had molested Gordon and they knocked him down.

This much we learn fairly early on.

This much the group carries around with it, as do the fathers involved. We, the readers, know there is something more, but what it is we do not know. Gordon was always a fuck-up, from an early age. He becomes an alcoholic and ultimately kills himself, and this is when it really begins. But it's not really a rerun of "The Big Chill". Chapter by chapter we get to know the different friends a bit more and we get to know little bits more about their time together and apart. And in the end we do learn the secret. I won't tell.

 I had some trouble liking the characters, got a bit impatient at times, but kept reading and as the book started closing in it started to grab me. I had trouble putting it down and kept thinking about it when I was not reading it. It's really more an exploration of character than of a particular event. We can't trust Lippman to bring us out safely, which is one of the intriguing things about her.