Thursday, June 5, 2008

Ayelet Waldman/LOVE AND OTHER IMPOSSIBLE PURSUITS

Only two years into her marriage, former New York corporate lawyer Emilia Greenleaf faces a number of debilitating challenges: the death of her day-old infant daughter, the dissolution of her parents' marriage, the ongoing hostility of her husband's ex-wife and 5-year-old son. Emilia has to fight off her deep depression and her own preconceived prejudices, come to terms with her marriage, and figure out how and why she got herself into a place she would never have imagined. Much of the book is set in and around Central Park, and so should be of interest to anyone who has lived in New York or is interested in geographical history.

Before I go on to review this book, I have to make two unequivocal statements: 1) I couldn't put it down, 2) I got very emotionally tied to the narrator and immediately sent the book along to one of my friends to read. So although I'm now going to say a slew of negative things about why I think this book needed more work before it went to press, I will still recommend it as a "good read" and I am very glad I read it. Let not anything I'm about to say discolor that.

Moving on. Certain aspects of this book drove me absolutely crazy. Most obviously, the epiphanic ending--this was sloppily done, in my opinion, and rather unnatural. Plot-wise, the ending is perfect; execution-wise, there was something to be desired.

Secondly, I don't care how precocious 5-year-old William is supposed to be--I couldn't buy his 5-year-old character at all. If she had toned back the content just a little this would have been fine, but she let it run away and it really compromises the reality of the whole story.

Third, I found the main character fundamentally unlikeable at the beginning, and I wish that Waldman had pursued the more difficult angle--that is, the adulterous relationship that ended up in the narrator's marriage to an older (previously married) man--instead of writing it off with the quick and, I felt, too easy brush stroke she uses.

All that said--and all these pieces, I frustratingly feel, could have been gracefully edited out with just a little fine-tuning--Waldman makes some heart-strung and very coherent points about the myths, realities, and complexities of love. The plot is a very well constructed play-out of a realistic but endlessly compelling set of human relationships. You get the feeling that these are flawed but well-meaning people, who are basically doing things you hope you wouldn't do in a similar circumstance, but you can see how it's all within the realm of possibility. My overall verdict is do read it; it is quick, absorbing, and enriching.

Alas, there were passages I wanted to quote here, but now I realize I gave my copy away yesterday. Stupid, stupid. But she does have some quotables.

David Mitchell/BLACK SWAN GREEN

I reviewed David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas on here a few months ago, and while impressed with the writing, I found it overall to be undisciplined and self-indulgent.

Some friends sent me this, his latest book, as a (late) Christmas present, and I've only just got round to reading it. It came highly recommended, and I felt that I was likely to be more receptive to it, since it is a rather more satisfyingly conventional 'novel' than its predecessor (which was only a short story anthology flimsily disguised as a 'novel').

Indeed I was. This is one of the very few books I've ever got through (laborious reader that I am) in only two or three sittings. It is one of the most effective memoirs of childhood I can recall for a long time, and it perhaps has particularly strong resonances for me - as for many British people of 'a certain age' - because it seems to be very much my childhood. The book is set in the fictitious village of Black Swan Green, in the rural border country between England and Wales on the edge of the Malvern Hills. OK, I am very slightly older than Mitchell's protagonist, Jason Taylor, and I grew up in a rather larger town in the next county - but this world is intimately familiar to me: I know all the places mentioned; I feel I 'know' most of the characters; I think I can identify the place upon which Black Swan Green is based.

The book, recounted in a vivid first person by Jason, as if he is recounting the events in a journal very shortly after they have happened, charts his 14th year, albeit in very episodic fashion - each of the thirteen chapters describing a key day or two in each of the months between his 13th and 14th birthdays. Although there is a strong and consistent narrative focus here in that we do empathise with Jason's difficulties and there are certain threads that run through the whole year (his struggle against an incipient stammer, his awkward friendship with the 'uncool' but smarter-than-he-looks and unerringly decent Dean Moran, his parents' disintegrating marriage), I did find this bittiness somewhat unsatisfying. As with Cloud Atlas, the book reeks of having started life as a collection of disparate writer's sketches on various childhood rites of passage: encounters with bullies, a visit to the speech therapist's, the 'cool' but satanic cousin who goads him into trying his first cigarette, initiation into a local gang, being grilled by the headmaster, parental arguments, summer holidays, first crush, first kiss. At least here, by weaving them into parts of the experience of a single child in a single year, Mitchell has managed to fashion them into a coherent whole - but still, for me, there's somehow something missing: a bigger story fails to emerge from all the smaller stories, engaging though they are.

While I'm in a quibbling mood, there are some further foibles in this book which rubbed me up the wrong way. I find Mitchell is better at creating a narrative persona than in delineating the supporting characters; his teachers, in particular, all sound suspiciously the same. Even the narrative persona here doesn't completely convince: the attempt to write the entire novel in a schoolboy vernacular gets a little wearing (the compulsive - and occasionally confusing, difficult to read - contraction of every single are and had to 're and 'd, for example, becomes a rather irritating quirk, as does the continual reliance on epic and ace as the only two adjectives of strong approbation); but, on the other hand, Jason Taylor, sensitive child and closet poet, often lapses into moments of sophistication you can't imagine him having attained until years later.

There are other stylistic quirks that become cloying, too. Why must the smell of everything be described? Why must so many of the metaphors and similes be raided from the pop culture frame of reference of a young British boy from the 1980s, with everything being compared to chocolate bars or popular toys and games of the time? (Oh yes, I see, it's to help sustain the narrative voice! But would a real child overdo it this much? Would a real child do it at all?) Why must we have so much inventive onomatopoeia? Why must we be continually fascinated with shafts of light falling through cracks in doors and curtains ('slices', 'slivers', 'tunnels')? Why must we arbitrarily - and irrelevantly - reintroduce characters from one of Mitchell's earlier books (Eva van Crommelynck and Robert Frobisher from Cloud Atlas)? It seems at times as if Mitchell is simultaneously both crashingly unaware of his too-common literary tics and obtrusively self-aware of his own artifice ('Look at me, look at me - aren't I clever?'). His editor needs to give him a good wallop upside the head with a piece of wet fish.

My greatest misgiving concerns the accumulation of so many period references in the book. No doubt this satisfies the nostalgic leanings of a significant proportion of the book's readership, but it also threatens to render the story inaccessible, uninviting to readers who are not British (or who don't remember the early 80s, or who didn't grow up in that social class). As with so many features of Mitchell's writing here, I feel it is severely overdone, gratuitous. Even for those of us who are almost perfectly in the target nostalgia-market, this welter of 80s detail is apt to start us carping, doubting: didn't that TV show first appear much earlier? was anyone still listening to that album then? wasn't that candy bar only introduced a year or two later? (There is certainly at least one point where Mitchell is 'wrong': the word yomp, Royal Marines' slang for a cross-country forced march, only became nationally current after the Falklands War in the early summer of 1982, but Jason Taylor uses it early on in the book. Of course, this might be explained by supposing that the Taylor character is composing his narrative a year or two later, and was not concerned as to when this word had entered his vocabulary.) A credit at the end of the book suggests that Mitchell was relying on Andrew Collins's non-fiction memoir of the 80s Where Did It All Go Right? rather than on his own memory for much of this contemporary detail anyway. I would have been happier with a little less of it.

I have quibbled perhaps more than I should. This is a charming book, engaging and quite easy to read, and much of the writing is simply gorgeous. It is particularly compelling in describing the tactics of school bullies and in explaining the mechanism of Jason's stammer (he imagines a gremlin, 'Hangman', who seizes his tongue when it senses an anxiety about an approaching 'problem word'). Everyone, I think, will find much that they recognise from their own childhood here. Unfortunately, I feel that the whole is rather less than the sum of the parts.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Sloane Crosley/I WAS TOLD THERE'D BE CAKE

A collection of humorous essays on a variety of topics by a 28-year-old surviver of the publishing industry. Topics range from surviving summer camp to being forced to be maid of honor for someone you knew in high school.

These essays are short and fun--I laughed out loud on the subway several times. They're pretty straightforward in terms of subject matter (what it's like to be a lapsed Jew, what it's like to try to make an early career in publishing, what it's like to be persecuted for vegetarianism) but are often cleverly worded. I would recommend this as a fun, quick read. Alas, because it's an essay collection I don't find myself having much more coherent to say about it. My favorite essay was probably the first one, about the ponies.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Ethan Canin/AMERICA, AMERICA

Thanks to The Early Reviewer Program at LibraryThing, I was lucky enough to get an advance reader's edition of America America, by Ethan Canin. The book will be on sale June 24th.

Corey Sifter is the editor of a small newspaper in upstate New York and the story opens with the funeral of a former US Senator. The story alternates between the present and the period around 1971 when Nixon was in office and the country was torn apart by the Vietnam War.

At sixteen, Corey is hired to work on the grounds of the elegant Metarey estate. Liam Metarey is the son of a Scottish immigrant, who came to America and made his fortune in mining, steel and logging. The town of Saline, New York was built by the Metarey empire and practically every working class family, including Corey’s respects and looks up to Liam Metarey. Liam Metarey, his wife, two daughters and his son are fond of Corey and start inviting him to family activities. He begins spending most of his time with the Metareys. Liam Metarey becomes a benefactor to Corey and pays for him to attend an expensive boarding school. Later, Metarey funds most of Corey's college tuition.

As Corey becomes more educated and sophisticated, he grows away from his working class parents. They want the best for him, so they support his choices, despite their unspoken pain at losing him. Not long after starting preparatory school, Corey begins working for Liam Metarey and spends the better part of every weekend at the estate. Metarey has taken on the role of campaign manager for Senator Henry Bonwiller’s bid for the Presidency in the 1972 election. Bonwiller is a liberal Democrat that the local townspeople consider to be “the best friend a working man’s ever had.”

Corey is exposed to, but isn’t quite savvy enough to understand the machinations of old school politics and back room deal making. Metarey involves Corey peripherally in the cover up of a scandal, although Corey isn’t able to piece the entire story together until many years later.

The primaries get interesting after Senator Edmund Muskie weeps on national television, and it looks as if Senator Bonwiller has a good chance to secure the nomination and the Presidency. The descriptions of power struggle between all of the Democratic candidates in this story and the hints at pre-Watergate subterfuge from the Nixon campaign made me think quite a bit about our politics today.

“The forgotten of this country have a consistent history of turning on their champions, and I suppose the way working men and women have forsaken the very politicians who could help them most speaks of the primacy of emotion in politics. Perhaps the great decline of FDR’s party, which was beginning in Henry Bonwiller’s time, didn’t come about because Democrats favored a logical argument over a moral one, but simply because they clung to the idea that either one mattered at all.”

The story climaxes when a number of individual plot threads and tragedies converge and in the present day, Corey is able to see the truth of what happened through his own journalistic lens and gain clarity and perspective about his relationships with his children and his parents.

“It doesn’t take many years of fatherhood to think you finally understand your own parents, and I’ve long since arrived at that point with mine. And like most everyone else, I’ve grown more grateful for the things they gave me and more respectful of what must have been admirable courage as they watched me go – in my case, to a life utterly different from their own. And as I’ve watched our own girls move away now, too – first to sleepovers, then to summer camps, then to college and boyfriends, then to jobs and husbands – as I’ve watched them one by one walk their own ways, I can only hope that they too arrive at this same juncture, that they too come to see us for what we’ve always tried to do for them, even if it’s not always what we’ve succeeded at. Maybe this is nothing but vanity. But I wonder how we’ve fared with them. I wonder which of our idle words have wounded them and which, years later and a thousand miles away, have buoyed them; which of our hopes have lifted them over the daunting obstacles in their lives and which have pressed back against their own ideas of themselves. I think I know my children, know all three of them, yet I’m certain from my own childhood that of course I don’t.”

Ethan Canin is a masterful narrative stylist. Once I started reading, I tore through the book, unable to put it down and I find myself still thinking about it. Themes of loyalty and love, power and morality, and parents and children all contribute to a satisfying, well written story.