Reading through the Dog Days

Nora Ephron at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and David Shankbone.

August began with BlogHer, and I lost a week of reading due to the confluence of conference-travel-sightseeing-playgoing in New York City. Thank goodness for novella-length books from several great writers – they saved the month yet again and got me through the dog days of reading.

Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of August’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I purchased the first two books reviewed here, borrowed the second two from my local library, and received the fifth as a free review copy from the publisher. The Brzezinski and Updike books are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.

SCORECARD

August

5 down, 14 to go!

REVIEWS

Knowing Your Value: Women, Money, and Getting What You’re Worth by Mika Brzezinski
Katie Couric recommended this book to me (me and 4,999 others, during her keynote at BlogHer ’12…but, c’mon, how often do you get to start a sentence like that?). It’s been an instructive and depressing read.

Depressing because women still earn less than men, even when they have the same skills and perform the same job at the same level. We’re still underrepresented in the boardroom, among CEOs and other leadership positions, and in technology and science careers where there is greater earning potential. Worse, research suggests that human resources professionals and MBA students, when presented with the exact same resume, consistently rank a job applicant as less experienced and skilled when a women’s name, instead of a man’s, appears at the top.

If this sounds overly familiar to you, it is. Researchers who study the world of work have described these biases since the middle of the last century.

What’s new here is that Brzezinski frames discussion of the gender wage gap, valuing your skills, and salary-negotiation tactics with her own story. It’s one that may come as a surprise to anyone who looks at television as a glamorous, high-paid industry.

Brzezinski is cohost of “Morning Joe,” an MSNBC anchor and author. Right off the bat, she tells you she’s made mistakes in her salary negotiations – and they’ve set back her earning potential over the long run of her career.

She describes being so grateful to have a job after a lengthy period of unemployment that she accepted what was offered and didn’t ask for what she needed to support her family. Doing so led her to a point where, while her morning show was exceeding all expectations in terms of ratings and pulling in plenty of ad dollars for MSNBC, she was struggling with an overdrawn checking account every month.

Brzezinski is clear that her problems stemmed from not understanding the value of her worth to the network. She gives vivid descriptions of several failed attempts to renegotiate her contract, where she went wrong and why.

“What makes a persuasive argument are solid facts and figures about what you’ve done and what other people, with the same skills and experience and accomplishments, are making for the same job,” she notes. “Let me say it again: You are not prepared unless you know the market value of your contributions.”

With the advent of the Internet, this information is no longer a deep, dark secret, and Brzezinski discusses how women can find out that information and put it to work in negotiating their worth.

Through interviews with experts, like Suze Orman, Jack Welch, White House advisor Valerie Jarrett, Tina Brown, Donald Trump, Nora Ephron, and others, she presents a variety of viewpoints on the current state of women in the workplace – they don’t all agree with each other, which is refreshing.

Brzezinski dares to address the uncomfortable topic of whether women support each other enough at work, offers some nuanced advice to women who want career and family, and explains the important difference between mentors and support networks.

“Encouraging women to take control of their own destinies is very much at the heart of this book,” she writes. And this book is a great place to start understanding the knowledge and behaviors required to steer your own ship.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
It’s probably a good thing we’re assigned books like this in high school.

Stability – via Henry Ford’s “principle of mass production at last applied to biology” – is the goal of the society Huxley satirizes. Leaving behind the sticky complications of love, marriage and “viviparous reproduction,” these Brave New clones remain forever youthful, productive at work, dedicated to consumerism, and continuously blissful, thanks to the Prozac-like soma.

Re-reading Huxley, it doesn’t surprise me that George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has had a stronger cultural influence. We’d read the two books back-to-back in my high school English class, and they’d stood, in my mind, as equals. Now, I don’t get what all the fuss was about.

Frankly, this doesn’t work as a novel. Even alongside the clumsy attempts at world-building that can be the hallmark of dystopias, this is clunky stuff.

There’s the tedious opening, done as a guided tour of the London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. Always a bad sign when an author doesn’t recognize that the inhabitants of his world already know this stuff and, if you design a world around mind control, you probably don’t show off your conditioning process to the people being oppressed.

There’s the heavy-handed quoting of Shakespeare (the title, my 15-year-old’s scrawl informs me, is lifted from “The Tempest,” wherein the word “brave” means “wondrous” as opposed to “courageous”) – except now I see that the whole Prospero-Miranda-Caliban reference (nor the “Romeo and Juliet” allusion that’s also thrown in) doesn’t translate.

There’s the choice to remain a distant, omniscient author, jumping around from one character’s head to the next. This device is perhaps necessary because the supposed protagonist, Bernard Marx, is such a weasel – hardly brave-courageous, he’s disloyal to his friends and serves only his ego. Even the author doesn’t introduce Bernard till Chapter 3, and then halfway through the book, he’s usurped as protagonist by the Savage, discovered among the Native American reservations, which have been crammed into the state of New Mexico, along with the few remaining practitioners of world religions.

The opening tour is bookended by a long argument between the Savage and World Controller Mustapha Mond (many of the characters are staggered with awkward mantles). Mustapha, one of the few allowed to read banned literature and study independently until he chose to give up the ability to think critically in favor of political power, acknowledges the trade-offs.

“…stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability,” he explains. “And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

Neither is the ending. (Spoiler alert!) Rather than a revolution, the subversives merely say their lines. Then, like Prospero, they’re banished to islands, where, along with others of their ilk, they’ll apparently form reading groups and have rap sessions, enjoying the intellectual freedoms they’d always desired.

It’s far from the frightening shore that Winston Smith washes up on, which ultimately for me is what makes Orwell’s the more powerful and lasting commentary.

Toward the End of Time by John Updike
I struggled with this book all summer, renewing it twice, and still wound up returning it to the library five days late. It’s not my favorite of Updike’s books, but still hard to put down because his writing is always so darn good.

I’d hoped to pair my review of this with The Age of Miracles; they share some striking similarities. Both take place in a near future, where life as we know it has been altered (by the slowing of the Earth’s rotation in Miracles; the devastation of the Sino-American War in Updike).

These are slight dystopias, though. Updike makes small attempts at building a post-apocalyptic world, where welders replace dollars, states replace the federal government, and every form of network – from communications to commerce – is broken down. Nevertheless, the Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe still arrive every morning like clockwork.

The clockwork of nature – “time that churns the seasons” – is what Updike seems most concerned with here. The beauty of the book is the way it captures all those small changes that denote the turning of one season into the next. Along the way, his protagonist, Ben, experiences similar upticks and spirals in mood and health.

Here is Ben in winter:

“I had looked down once again into the dismal basement of life, where in ill-lit corners spiders brainlessly entrap segmented insects, consume them bit by bit, leave a fuzzy egg sac, and die. All those leggy spider corpses, like collapsed gyroscopes, that we see dangling from cobwebs – did they perish of starvation, having spun a web in vain, or of old age, in the natural course of things, after years of drawing upon Medicare and Social Security?”

And admiring the barn swallows of late spring:

“It happened today: the air was suddenly full of careening baby birds. They fly swervingly up and down, on the edge of control, like children first on a bicycle…In a mere two weeks the helpless and hideous babies have been fed into feathers and wingpower enough to be launched, blue-backed and roseate-bellied, as darting, dipping predators in their own right.”

Perhaps the reader is meant to take time with this book. It was certainly a pleasure to be reading it over summer in New Hampshire, as Updike describes the steady march of flora and fauna that appears between June and August in nearby eastern Massachusetts. It made me wish he’d dropped the flimsy post-war premise; the glorious peek into his journal of a man in his waning months was more than enough.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron
I’d never read Ephron’s novel, a famously (if barely) fictionalized account of the demise of her equally famous marriage to Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein.

As I’ve mentioned, I admired Ephron’s essays as a journalism student. What I didn’t say was that I met her around that time and, as the saying goes, it’s way too soon to share that story. But, in recalling the opportunity – fledging journalist getting to see a favorite writer in person – it suddenly dawned on me that the fiasco that led to the implosion of the Ephron-Bernstein marriage was probably quite fresh and may have had something to do with her demeanor at the time. Which brought me to Heartburn.

If you’ve seen the movie or read the gossip columns, you’re familiar with the outlines of this novel. Rachel, writer of chatty cookbooks, marries famous journalist Mark, moves from cultural mecca Manhattan (where there are “six kinds of smoked salmon”) to the backwaters of D.C. They trade rat-a-tat-tat screwball comedy dialogue until she discovers him cheating while she’s pregnant with their second child. Pour in a bowl, mix with assorted erudite friends and shrinks, and watch as the farce rises.

If you’ve read any of Ephron’s essays, you quickly note that this is a novel in name only; it’s basically a journal of the break-up of her second marriage. But, her voice as an essayist is so strong, so funny and self-deprecating, you tend to go with it just to savor the way she makes a point.

Here is Rachel, for example, recounting the rationalization that enabled her to marry a man who’d already cheated on her while they were dating:

“I believed in change. I believed in metamorphosis. I believed in redemption. I believed in Mark. My marriage to him was as willful an act as I have ever committed; I married him against all the evidence. I married him believing that marriage doesn’t work, that love dies, that passion fades, and in so doing I became the kind of romantic only a cynic is truly capable of being. I see all that now. At the time, though, I saw nothing of the sort. I honestly believed that Mark had learned his lesson. Unfortunately, the lesson he learned wasn’t the one I had in mind: what he learned is that he could do anything, and in the end there was a chance I’d take him back.”

Mark manages to be just as persuasive in wooing her back to Washington a second time. A recipe for disaster, surely, but by this point, Rachel’s cynicism is fully baked.

Of her husband’s tearful entreaties to come home, she observes, “It’s true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive to and in touch with are their own.”

Through her fictional proxy, Ephron also manages this dig at Bernstein’s writing: “He’d write it in that dumb Hemingway style he always reserved for his slice-of-life columns.”

Ouch! Never anger a writer.

What it lacks as a true novel (genuine characters with depth), it makes up for in brain-confectionary. It’s perfect for a summer afternoon hammock break, full of Ephron’s trademark wit and storytelling.

Social Marketology: Improve Your Social Media Processes and Get Customers to Stay Forever by Ric Dragon
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher. My review, “Making Sense of Social Marketology,” can be found on the Social Media Club website.

Book Club News

NPR’s “I Will If You Will Book Club” is activating again and looking for suggestions about what to read next.

If you love book clubs, have been looking for a book club, or have always wondered what being in a book club entails, the IWIYW Book Club is a great, low-commitment place to start – especially when you have input into the reading material.

For those who want to understand the premise behind IWIYW, check out this post.

Want to suggest a book? Visit the NPR Monkey See blog, check out what others have recommended, and share your ideas in their comments section.

New Titles and Old Favorites

Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of July’s selections.

SCORECARD

July
4 down, 19 to go!

REVIEWS

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Walker’s first novel has been compared to The Lovely Bones, another elegy for a lost childhood.

One Saturday morning, just before soccer practice, 11-year-old Julia’s entire world is upended. At this age, everything feels like a catastrophe – from break-ups with BFFs and crushes on boys to parental betrayals – and she’ll have to go through those traumas, too, but on this day, Julia is just one of billions whose life on Earth changes, literally and irrevocably, by the slowing of the planet’s orbit.

Some of Julia’s friends turn to religion, other families stay on “real time,” rather than “clock time,” as the days gain minutes and then hours, stretching to 30 hours and beyond, followed by equally long, frosty nights. Birds, whales and even people succumb to “gravity sickness.”

There is some hoarding and looting, but mostly folks cling to ordinary life and hope things will go back to normal. This means Julia enters middle school on schedule and has to cope with everything that adolescence (the Age of Miracles of the title) brings with it, including loneliness.

“Maybe it had begun to happen before the slowing, but it was only afterward that I realized it: My friendships were disintegrating. Things were coming apart. It was a rough crossing, the one from childhood to the next life. And as with any other harsh journey, not everything survived.”

The one person who seems to understand her is Seth, the boy she has a crush on, but he’s experienced a personal catastrophe, which leaves him standoffish, serious and a bit morbid.

“We collected the neighborhood’s last blades of grass. We kept the final flowering of daisies, of marigolds, of honeysuckle. We pressed petals between the pages of dictionaries. We lined our shelves with relics from our time. Look here, we pictured saying someday, this one we called maple, this one magnolia, this aspen, this oak. On dark days, Seth drew maps of the constellations as if those bodies, too, might soon fall away.”

As you can see, there’s some beautiful writing in this novel. There are also some real clunkers, especially at the beginning:

“Bare of the glasses, his eyes always looked squinty to me, and too small.”

“I was glad to be sitting in a classroom full of kids who had none of them been at the bus stop.”

“At the appointed hour, my alarm clock exploded.” (It rang loudly.)

Basic science is discarded in favor of lyricism:

Describing the astronauts stranded on a space station because of the slowing: “They’d been away for ten months, the last humans left who had not yet experienced a day longer than twenty-four hours.” (Well, no. Space stations don’t simply float around in space, they orbit the earth, like satellites, yet none of these man-made heavenly bodies apparently is affected by the change in gravity from the slowing Earth. Nor are insects. Only birds.)

Later, when the Earth’s magnetic fields weaken and sunlight brings risk of radiation exposure, no one goes out during the day again. So it was odd to read that, weeks later, Julia spies Seth’s tan stomach.

Simple editing and scientific fact-checking would have gone a long way to making this book more accurate. The story also would have benefited from a bit more extrapolation: it moves along on the rather unbelievable premise that there is no panic, rioting, looting, or war as food supplies dwindle, huge swaths of territory grow arid and water dries up.

Ultimately, Julia, at far too young an age, becomes a lot like her octogenarian grandfather. The story sings when these two are together, each locked in a house of memento mori.

Crazy Salad by Nora Ephron
When Ephron passed away June 26, many news stories credited her as the ultimate Hollywood hyphenate: screenwriter-director. Growing up as one of four talented daughters of two screenwriters, this second career was probably inevitable. But, she started out as a journalist and essayist, and a darn good one, too.

After learning the news of her death, I immediately pulled this essay collection off my bookshelf and began re-reading. This is one of the books I cherished as a journalism student, learning about literary journalism and magazine writing.

More than a salad, this book is a smorgasbord of subjects that were buzzing around the zeitgeist of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. The fact that they were buzzing was thanks to Nora Ephron’s brilliant observations about Linda Lovelace, Dorothy Parker, breasts, Gloria Steinem, bake-offs, feminine hygiene, sex fantasies and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, to name a few.

It was quite funny to realize that Ephron gave Sally Allbright in “When Harry Met Sally…” her own sexual fantasy. And to read again about consciousness raising, encounter groups and The Rap (not a type of hip-hop, but a very formal-sounding way of describing “rapping,” also known as “letting it all hang out”). I was going to say this is what people did before reality TV, but ever ahead of her time, Ephron includes a discussion of the Louds, the family with “no selectivity index whatsoever” when it came to letting it all hang out in the spotlight.

Ephron is up front with her concern about reporters “getting really involved in what they were writing about.” But, one reason she was hired by Esquire and New York magazines was to represent what women were thinking, especially as the women’s movement took hold in the American psyche.

“I would still hate to be described as a participatory journalist,” she writes in one essay, “but I am a writer and I am a feminist, and the two seem to be constantly in conflict…ever since I became loosely involved with it, it has seemed to me one of the recurring ironies of this movement that there is no way to tell the truth about it without, in some small way, seeming to hurt it.”

Personally, I think Ephron’s honesty about some of the divisions in the women’s movement, between Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, for example, is what keeps this book relevant some 37 years after it was published.

She allows everyone their say and if sometimes people hang themselves out to dry, Ephron lets them do it in their own voices, on their own terms. And, with a sharp wit, she lets you know what she’s thinking about it all, too. (Like the brief fad among consciousness-raising groups for – this is as delicately as I can put it – bodily self-examination, about which Ephron sighs, “It is hard not to long for the days when an evening with the girls meant bridge.”)

She aims her wit at anti-feminists, as well, penning excellent pieces on the man who brought feminine-hygiene sprays to market, the porn industry that corrupted Linda Lovelace, and Bobby Riggs, among others.

According to Entertainment Weekly, which wrote a moving tribute on Ephron’s legacy, Crazy Salad is “tragically out of print and unavailable as an e-book.” Ephron died at 71, having written six essay collections, 13 screenplays, plays and the novel Heartburn. Her latest collections, 2006’s I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections, shared her thoughts on aging.

I’m sorry we won’t have Ephron’s insights and humor to get us through the crazy salad days ahead. But, gosh, it was delicious tucking in to this well-worn book again.

Blue Nights by Joan Didion
I had the opportunity to hear Didion speak at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hamshire, in late June, and combined Didion’s comments on writing with a few thoughts about her latest memoir in a previous post, “A Blue Night with Joan Didion.”

Navigating Social Media Legal Risks: Safeguarding Your Business by Robert McHale with Eric Garulay
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher. My review, “Unraveling the Mystery of Social Media Law,” can be found on the Social Media Club website.

Summertime and the Reading is Easy

Are You My Mother?

Beauty and complexity at play in Allison Bechdel’s latest graphic novel “Are You My Mother?”

My transition to the east coast can take a few days, especially when little critters like to winter in your summer home, so I panicked at losing reading time during the first week of the month. I grabbed Allison Bechdel’s graphic novel at my country bookstore, thinking it would be a quick read, spotted a new book by favorite writer, Anne Lamott, then picked up several John Updike novels at the library, and boom! I was off.

Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of June’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I bought all of these books except the Barnes and Updike novel, which I borrowed from my local library. Several are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.

SCORECARD

June
5 down, 23 to go!

REVIEWS

Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son by Anne Lamott and Sam Lamott
At first glance, I thought this was a sequel to Operating Instructions: Annie shares the foibles of raising a teenager. Then my jaw dropped as I re-read the subtitle: It’s not about Sam as a kid, it’s Sam’s kid!

I felt like I’d just read the journal of Sam’s first year of life a few months ago. How old could he be? Nineteen, it turns out.

Like Operating Instructions, Some Assembly deals with the all-too-human aspects of coping with the unexpected, the mistakes you make along the way, the anger, the exhaustion, the kindness of strangers, and the miracle that is a loving family and friends.

Lamott shares co-authorship with her son, writing the throughline of her grandson’s birth and first year in journal entries. Sam provides his perspective on new fatherhood via transcribed phone interviews and emails, as does his girlfriend, Amy, who is Jax’s mother.

What’s lovely about this generous shifting of authorship is that you get to see a beautiful circle being completed, from the baby we first met in Operating Instructions to the stroppy teen of Blue Shoe to the bewildered, but all-in dad here. Through these books, memoir and fiction, we’ve had the rare opportunity to watch a family be made, grow and be remade.

“I watched Sam and Jax gaze at each other while Jax sucked on the bottle,” Lamott writes. “To have mothered this young father fills me with visceral feelings of awe, joy, and dread. Love, fierce pride, a new power, and faint anxiety flitted across Sam’s face: you love your kids way too much to ever feel safe again. I could see in his love that this baby had broken his turtle shell, the way Sam broke mine.”

Nevertheless, the unplanned pregnancy meant that everything from Sam finishing art college to whether Sam and Amy would remain a couple and where Amy (and ultimately baby Jax) would live – the Bay Area or back in Chicago – was up in the air.

Hard for a control-junkie to handle. I won’t spoil how, or whether, these threads get tied up by book’s end. Reading Anne Lamott so often feels like receiving a gift, her brave, honest, wise observations reminding us to have faith no matter how crazy life becomes: “Since Jax’s birth, my ideas about what would be best for everyone usually got in the way. Life is already an obstacle course, and when you’re adding your own impediments (thinking they’re helping), you really crazy it up. You should not bring more items and hurdles to the obstacle course.”

Exactly. Bring this book instead.

Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama by Allison Bechdel
I hadn’t heard of Bechdel before seeing rave reviews for her latest graphic novel. I picked this up, thinking it would be a quick read. What I discovered, from its gorgeous presentation in hardcover to the complexity of Bechdel’s storytelling, stunned me.

Told in seven parts or chapters, Are You My Mother? places Bechdel’s relationship with her mother under a microscope, focusing on memories, analysis sessions, the views of major psychoanalysts on the parent-child relationship, Virginia Woolf and women writers, and the author’s present-day experiences with her mom. Pretty amazing territory for a comic.

Bechdel draws in black, grey, white and a maroon red. She uses this muted palette to perfect effect. Each chapter opens with a dream – vivid and powerfully emotional, these are drawn against a black background. As she delves into her own studies of analysis, the background is a pale maroon with frequent intrusions of white, as the character Allison highlights key points for us in the texts she’s reading. Memories are diffused with a soft grey, like Bechdel is shaking them free of cobwebs; flashbacks also feature sharp swaths of maroon.

Honest and thought-provoking, Bechdel takes this medium where few have, using it to investigate multiple points of view and points in time, complex theories of the mind, her childhood, her parents’ lives, and how women struggle (with their pasts and their family obligations) to become writers.

The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes
The 2011 Man Booker Prize winner is Barnes in full bloom, a masterfully compact showcase of prose, plotting and characters. The basic outline of schoolboy friendships and a youthful affair are quickly covered in part one; part two is where the nuances of those relationships, the harsh judgments of adolescence, the march of time, and the tricks of memory play out.

Don’t let the simple arc of part one dissuade you from going deeper, as Barnes does. This is a plot with more twists than a mystery like Gone Girl. Once you finish, you immediately want to re-read to place the truth in context.

One of the disarming aspects of this novel is that Barnes is so comfortable in his prose, it could be confused for a journal. But he’s clearly constructed a thoughtful narrator, looking back at an incident in his life and recognizing that there was more to it than he’d imagined.

His narrator, Tony Webster, observes, “The history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent. We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history – even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?”

What starts as a tragic take on the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, girl-goes-out-with-boy’s-more-popular-friend plot morphs again and again as Tony digs through uncomfortable truths.

“My younger self had come back to shock my older self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being,” he notes.

“I had underestimated, or rather miscalculated: time was telling not against them, it was telling against me.”

What’s happened to the characters, especially the girl and Tony’s more popular friend, is sad and haunting, but the writing never is. Tony may be clueless, as Veronica describes him, but it’s his commitment to bringing the truth to light – even one that shines harshly on himself – that makes his journey so enthralling.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Flynn’s latest mystery turns the standard boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl narrative on its head, as well. This is a page-turner, intriguingly plotted, though the writing is utilitarian, moving characters from A to B and back again. And it would be nice if Flynn, like so many other procedural writers who fail to research their subjects, understood forensics and technology a bit better before allowing major plot points to hinge on them.

Strangely enough, for a writer who once worked at a national media outlet (Entertainment Weekly magazine), Flynn’s prose is dullest during the frequent scenes of media hordes following the scent of a juicy story, when Amy, an unhappily married woman, goes missing and her husband, Nick, becomes the prime suspect.

Part One is all set-up; Part Two reveals a major plot turn that the characters struggle to come to terms with all the way through Part Three. It’s impossible to say more without spoiling the entire story. A perfect beach read.

Bech: A Book by John Updike
A few summers ago, I read my way through Updike’s Rabbit series, which, in a way, inaugurated this year’s reading challenge. This trilogy – and Henry Bech – may be less well-known than Rabbit Angstrom, but the stories perfectly encapsulate the eras in which they were written.

Who is Henry Bech? Bech, like Rabbit, spends a good deal of time pondering the world and his place in it (and borrowing from his hero, James Joyce, in the process):

“Who was he? A Jew, a modern man, a writer, a bachelor, a loner, a loss. A con artist in the days of academic modernism undergoing a Victorian shudder. A white monkey hung far out on a spindly heaventree of stars. A fleck of dust condemned to know it is a fleck of dust. A mouse in a furnace. A smothered scream.”

Updike started publishing short stories about Bech in the mid-1960s, and this book features a collection of them up through 1970. He clearly enjoyed conjuring this alter-ego – a writer crippled by writer’s block and, later, by existential crisis – and subjecting him to the politics, culture, whims and neuroses of the time.

“Am I blocked?” Bech asks his mistress.  “I’d just thought of myself as a slow typist.”
“What do you do, hit the space bar once a day?”
“Ouch.”
“I’m sorry, that did sound bitchy. But it makes me sad, to see someone of your beautiful gifts just stagnating.”
“Maybe I have a beautiful gift for stagnation.”

Bech is fairly active for a stagnating man: This first volume sees him traveling behind the Iron Curtain on a cultural exchange, summering off the Cape as the youthquake takes hold, gutted by a visit to the fecund South, and having a confused fling in Swinging London.

It’s just that he’s not writing novels, after a brilliant debut and two politely received follow-ups, any longer. And his lack of legacy is making him panic.

“What was that sentence from Ulysses? Bloom and Stephen emerging from the house to urinate, suddenly looking up – The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit. Bech felt a sadness, a terror, that he had not written it. Not ever.”

Thankfully, Updike is a prolific writer, so I have two more Bech books to look forward to this summer, and a final short story in The Complete Henry Bech. Can’t wait.

May Reading Challenge Update

Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going plus reviews of May’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I bought the first four books and received the last one free as a review copy from the publisher. Several are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.

SCORECARD

May
5 down, 28 to go!

REVIEWS

In-Flight Entertainment by Helen Simpson
Helen Simpson’s Four Bare Legs in a Bed was the book I begged friends visiting England to bring back for me. At the time, it was unavailable in the United States, but I’d just finished Getting a Life and had to have more.

Whether her protagonists are young lovers, eager to explore and abuse the workings of their hearts, newly marrieds, a young lawyer required to attend a whisky-soaked corporate dinner dedicated to quoting copious stanzas of Scottish poet Robert Burns, or parents helping kids navigate the treachery of divorce and homework, Simpson puts us squarely in their heads and reveals the subtle pitches of their emotions.

In her latest collection of 13 stories, the characters’ unease is frequently underscored by global warming, whether as political viewpoint or the cause of environmental devastation. The subject makes an appearance in the title story, “Ahead of the Pack” and “Geography Boy,” but especially in the chilling, post-apocalyptic “Diary of an Interesting Year,” which first appeared in The New Yorker.

In “In-flight Entertainment,” Simpson enacts a marvelous scene where two businessmen pick over the bones of the global warming debate, making idle conversation as they shuttle over the Atlantic, while a fellow first-class passenger succumbs to heart failure:

“There was a flurry across the aisle and Alan craned his neck to make out the doctor arming himself with some sort of wire machine. Whump, it went; whump, whump. Pause. Alan saw the old man’s hands fly up in the air and come down again.
‘What’s that?’ he asked the air stewardess with a jerk of his head. Her eyes were suspiciously watery despite her professional smile. She shook her head and moved away.
‘That’ll be the defibrillator,’ said Jeremy.
Alan realized she had failed to take his pudding order and wondered if he could call her back.”

Meanwhile, in “Geography Boy,” a young woman in love still doesn’t believe her boyfriend’s protest group will have any impact on global warming. Her apathy almost brings their relationship to an end.

“He lifted her again and whirled her in his arms until they were both dizzy. Breathing hard, exhilarated, they leaned into a mutual embrace, this time for balance as much as anything. Then they stood in the fathomless dark and stared saucer-eyed beyond the stratosphere into the night, as troupes of boisterous planets wheeled across the blackness all around them.”

There is whimsy here, as well. In “The Festival of the Immortals,” two old school friends run into each other at an authors’ fair featuring Jane Austen, “Rabbie” Burns (again!), Alexander Pope, and the Bronte sisters, along with a reluctant Shakespeare: “He’s supposed to be arriving by helicopter at four this afternoon, but it’s always touch-and-go with him…it’s impossible to pin him down.”

The collection ends with the lyrical “Charm for a Friend with a Lamp,” a beautiful meditation on helping a friend with a terminal illness:

“We’ll have a party there this Midsummer’s eve, up by the tomato plants and ranks of romaine lettuce, just the two of us. Let’s write it on our calendars now. I can’t spare you. You’re indispensible! We’ll have a party and pledge your health by moonlight on the one night of the year when plants consumed or planted have magical powers. There is a great deal of talk about the benefits of mistletoe extract and so on, but I’m not convinced. You can spend a lot of time and energy chasing magic potions, when you might be better occupied weaving your own spells over the future.”

Helen Simpson is that rare writer, dedicated to the difficult art of the short story, creating very real, funny, poignant and full lives in the space of a few pages. If you don’t know her work, this is the perfect place to start and discover why the Financial Times calls her “the best short story writer now working in English.”

Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer by Chris Salewizc
How do you write an objective biography of an artist you’ve idolized and befriended while still mourning his untimely death?

If you’re author and journalist Chris Salewicz and the friend is Joe Strummer, lead singer of the Clash and The Mescaleros, who died at 50, you turn over the microphone to the extraordinarily jam-packed band of friends, fellow musicians, film directors, actors, managers, music industry people, and family members, including Strummer’s Scottish clan.

Salewicz does a neat trick here. He captures the diverse observations of a man many found both inspiring and exasperating. You don’t achieve harmony when you blend all those voices, but you do reveal a genuine life, with all its achievements and disappointments, loves and larks.

“Joe was the personification of Carl Jung’s view that all great truths must end in paradox,” Salewicz writes.

That paradox, between flashes of brilliance and all too mundane lives, is what makes artists so fascinating. If they weren’t human, we probably wouldn’t be paying attention in the first place.

Friends knew Joe Strummer under many pseudonyms: Woody the Hippie, the Merry Prankster, the Pied Piper of Punk, and, through long, Armagideon Times of doubt and depression, Chief Thundercloud.

He was born John, like that other outspoken bandleader, whose life his so frequently mirrored. Both Lennon and Strummer knew tragedy from a young age (Strummer’s older brother, David, committed suicide when Joe was 16). Both were poor students and wound up in art college. Both found salvation in rock ‘n’ roll and formed and disbanded a number of groups before finding the right mix. (The Clash, like the Beatles, didn’t gel till they found their drummer.) Strummer, as with Lennon, was never afraid to attack the issues of the day through lyrics and the media. Both had tumultuous relationships with women until their second marriages. Each struggled through his own Wilderness Years after breaking up beloved bands and suffering the wrath of fans. Thankfully for music history, they found their voices again, producing inspired music before exiting the stage. They both died in December, far too young and left enduring legacies. (Strummerville: The Joe Strummer Foundation for New Music)

Whether you were a fan of punk or not, by any stretch of the imagination, Joe Strummer had an extraordinary life. He traveled throughout the Mideast, Africa and Mexico at a young age, the son of a diplomat. He was involved in social, political and musical movements of his time, starting with the squatters protests in 1970s England, out of which grew pub rock and his early band, the 101ers. He was the leading spokesman of punk rock. When he found that limiting, he pushed the Clash into the Rock Against Racism movement and was an early proponent of world music.

Late ‘70s Britain was an era of speaking in CAPITAL LETTERS. Politics dictated what certain bands recorded, said to the media, who their friends were (many of Strummer’s squatter-hippie friends didn’t hear from him for a decade after he embraced punk rock), how they dressed and combed their hair.

“I’d like to think the Clash were revolutionaries,” Strummer once joked with an interviewer, “but we loved a bit of posing as well. ‘Where’s the hair gel? We can’t start the revolution till someone finds the hair gel!’ We were revolutionaries on behalf of punk rock.”

Nevertheless, the Clash were one of the very few bands ever to stand up for fans. They let in kids who couldn’t afford concert tickets through the backdoors of venues and allowed them to crash on their hotel room floors at night. They fought a crippling battle with their record company (forcing them into more Draconian terms) in order to release the double-album “London Calling” and triple set “Sandinista!” at the one-disc price. They refused to play Japan until the audience was allowed to stand up and dance. And, when their eight-night appearance at Bonds nightclub in New York was over-sold, they played an additional 10 shows to honor the tickets fans had purchased.

The Clash played a different set list every concert because they wanted each one to be a unique experience for fans. And, anyone who saw the Clash live (I saw them four times, plus once as Clash Mark II, after Mick Jones exited the group) will attest, they gave 110 percent onstage, Strummer pouring his heart out, night after grueling night.

Salewicz does an excellent job of recreating the scene that fuelled, ruled and finally imploded the Clash just as they were reaching a larger audience.

As with Lennon – and John Lydon – family, friends, bandmates and critics found Strummer’s brutal honesty funny, refreshing and painful. But, it was impossible for the man himself to live up to.

Was it difficult being the wise man of punk and politics?, Salewicz asked Strummer after the Clash split: “Yes, it was,” Strummer replied. “Drove me nuts sometimes.”

With any artist’s biography, it all comes back to the art. Salewicz has the details and discographies down pat thanks to three years of interviews and research. He’s a fair critic of Strummer’s less inspired work and fills in gaps in the life of a man who needed to get off the radar in order to renew his artistry.

It was fascinating to learn that anti-hippie Joe found his way back to old friends and a more peaceful life via rave culture and the campfires of Glastonbury, an annual U.K. music festival. The gathering of the tribes around the campfire – musicians, artists, extended family, friends and fans – became a ritual for Strummer, one that his foundation continues to this day.

For those of us who were long-time fans, it was devastating to learn that the man who gave it all, heart and soul, to his fans, and who once said, “My heart is when I’m onstage,” lost his life to a congenital condition he wasn’t aware of. “A main artery that should have run around his heart went through it instead. He could have died suddenly at any point during his fifty years,” Salewicz observes.

There have been plenty of books about the Clash. What’s lovely about Salewicz’s story is that it shares that wonderful sense of symmetry Strummer’s life had – like Lennon, he was able to find love, happiness, peace and renewed musical brilliance in the last few years of his life.

(The Pop Matters website features excerpts from Redemption Song.)

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta
I thought this novel might be off to a good start when I spotted a line from the Clash’s “Garageland” as one of its epigraphs. Like A Visit from the Goon Squad, Dana Spiotta’s most recent work is being called a “rock ‘n’ roll novel” (by none other than Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth).

While it features a character, Nik, with a brief career in a critically acclaimed band, the book mainly is about Nik’s sister, Denise, and how the two of them shape the stories of their lives into narratives. Nik, no longer with the band, has conjured an almost-fictional career for himself, producing album after album of his own music, following the sounds in his head, rather than contemporary taste, designing the covers (each one a piece of a larger collage), and even writing the reviews and a purported history, called The Chronicles. Denise, meanwhile, is stuck in mundane reality, trying to help Nik meet rent and stay healthy and occasionally correcting the story in The Chronicles.

To tell this tale, Spiotta plays with point of view. We start, rather dully, with Denise and Nik’s unhappy family back in the ‘70s, in third person. The novel gets going when it switches to an apparent first person present. But, the rug gets pulled out when we discover, toward the end (and now back in third person), that Denise has been writing all this first person detail to figure out Nik, who has disappeared after years of ill health and depression.

Late in the story, Denise’s daughter attempts to become a third participant in this point-of-view mish-mash, hoping to film a documentary about Nik. Luckily, this thread is dropped before it adds to the narrative confusion.

There are awkward constructions, as well. For example, a man brushes past Denise on a crowded New York City street, and he evokes her father, who hasn’t been an important part of this story since the opening chapter, in large part because he died when she and Nik were very young: “I felt the memory of my father on my body, the way you feel a breeze or the heat of the sun. He did not feel – and so was not – entirely lost to me.”

Three problems with these lines: 1) Denise consistently tells us throughout the story that she has no memories of her father. 2) The first sentence is about memory and not at all about anything darker that might be going on between Denise and her father, but it’s so poorly constructed that it has to be read at least twice for the reader to be sure of what’s going on. 3) The clause set off by dashes in the second sentence makes the reader lose the meaning again. “He did not feel” because he’s dead? “And so was not” alive? Oh, the reader realizes, when she arrives at the end, Spiotta really means to have Denise say, “I felt like my father was not entirely lost to me.”

The narrative grinds to a halt for five brief chapters about various topics in the news that Denise fixates on, as well as another sidebar that takes Denise to a devout New York community, somewhat like the Amish, called Stone Arabia, where a woman’s daughter has been abducted and is presumed murdered. Presumably, despite the entirely different circumstances, Spiotta sees some relation between the mother’s loss and Denise’s, but the scene of Denise, coming all the way from California to accost the mother in an effort to learn something is just plain embarrassing and unrealistic.

This many distractions for the reader are too much for a short novel (235 pages in hardcover) to withstand. There are any number of enticing chords that could have been struck and orchestrated into a melodic whole. Sadly, we’re left with an incoherent cacophony. This one hardly rates a 4, and you can’t dance to it.

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida
Vida is one of the promising pack of young women writers, like Nicole Krauss, who’ve avoided the clever-cleverness of their husbands’ prose (Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer) and forged new ground. This is her second novel and fourth book, and it takes the reader above the Arctic Circle on a daughter’s journey to discover her true origins.

Along the way, we learn how Clarissa’s mother abandoned the family and returned to the wilderness of northern Finland, where she’d lived in her 20s and which was the setting for a pivotal, devastating experience in Olivia’s life. The plot is tied up with the history of the Sami, the indigenous people of this region, who still herd reindeer across the vast tundra.

Northern Lights is a compact tale. It finishes after 226 pages of tightly drawn scenes. Every sentence is Subject-Verb-Object. Every sentence is terse. “I unbuckled my belt. My head pulsed.” The brain grows a bit cranky, wanting to bust out of this construction and learn more about this alien landscape and the fascinating people who have managed to survive almost impossible conditions for generations.

This is the entirety of Chapter 10, when Clarissa deserts her boyfriend to journey across Finland and Finmark:

“I left our apartment at six a.m., passing Pankaj sleeping on the couch, his right foot extended on the coffee table. No one knew I was going anywhere. Disappearing is nothing. I learned this from my mother.”

These kinds of statements are meant to seem like they reveal character, but really they don’t. Disappearing means nothing because the author chooses to tell us nothing. It’s a fear too many callow writers have – the idea that revealing emotions is somehow too sentimental, too corny, too much the hallmark of genres like romance – that Literature should be more reserved. It made me yearn for the fearlessness of a John Updike, whose sentences are like an electric jolt to the head and heart. His perfectly captured moments (“…spangled his insides with fear”) tell you more about a father’s emotions than some authors accomplish with a chapter’s worth of words.

Perhaps trusting yourself with emotions comes as writers age. Vida already is a master plot-maker, and I can see her going to those deeper places, even as the novel progresses:

“…and on some nights in bed, in that moment before sleep erased the day, I would picture the way the sky in Lapland looked the morning I left, how the train had sped south beneath a sky that was brighter than it had been in weeks. It had pulsed with reds and oranges, as though hiding a beating heart.”

Lines like that make me look forward to hearing more from this writer.

The B2B Social Media Book: Become a Marketing Superstar by Generating Leads with Blogging, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, E-Mail, and More by Kipp Bodnar and Jeffrey L. Cohen
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher. You can read my review, “B2B Social Media Marketing Is All about the Benjamins, Not Buzz,” on the Social Media Club website.

Writing that inspired me:

“Ignore Alien Orders”
~ sticker on Joe Strummer’s guitar

Reading Lessons

I’d been happily wending my way through books week after week as part of a personal year-long reading challenge, when April arrived and brought a few surprises along with its traditional showers.

April was National Poetry Month, and to celebrate and fill in a (gawping) hole in my experience, I read an entire book of poetry. This was also the first time in a very long time (at least since college) that I devoured a book in one sitting (actually, I’m lying – I was prone).

Nothing wrong with either of these events except that I was so curious about the collection of Mick Imlah poems and so thrilled to read Jeanette Winterson’s memoir after hearing her talk about how reading led to her life as a writer that, the moment these two books arrived in the mail, I set aside my “assigned” weekly reading and plunged headfirst into my new acquisitions. And it took a while before I could get back into the frame of mind to pick up The Stolen Child again – this was the book I’d stolen time from to devote to the others.

It occurred to me that I own quite a few books with tongues hanging out of their pages, some marked a quarter of the way through, some half. The reason is that I lost steam, or my mood changed, or I developed fervor for a different book and just had to read it now, as I did with Imlah and Winterson.

It also struck me that while “assigned reading” – reading one book until it’s done, then picking up the next selection in an orderly fashion – seems almost too structured for free time or pleasure, there’s still value in the discipline. Up until April, it certainly kept me on track for this goal I’m hoping to achieve. I didn’t blow it, but I could’ve, and I recognize how I’ve fallen off course with other books before. So, just for this year, I’m going to try to read sequentially instead of the anything-that-strikes-my-fancy and everything-at-once approaches I usually take, and see where it gets me.

How about you? Do you organize your pleasure reading in any way?

Standard disclosure: I bought the first four books and received the last one as a free review copy from the publisher. Several are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.

SCORECARD

April
5 down, 33 to go!

REVIEWS

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
This is the book I finished in one go. It arrived during a rare rainstorm in Los Angeles, the perfect evening to curl up with a great book while the heat radiated through a cozy room and the rain pitter-pattered on the roof.

If you’ve seen a review of Winterson’s memoir or read her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, you’re familiar with the outline of this story: Winterson was an infant when she was adopted by an evangelist couple. They lived hardscrabble in northern England, spent summers proselytizing, no books but the Bible allowed in the house.

I, too, was adopted within weeks of birth and about a year after Winterson was. Obviously, I grew up with a love of books – fully aided and abetted by my adoptive parents, who adored reading – and so this story was enthralling in its own sad and scary way.

Winterson had at least three coming-out episodes with her mother, a woman with no joy in her life, who took her religion far more literally than Winterson’s father appeared to. The first battle was over young Jeanette’s love of books and reading, the second was caused by her break with the church, and the third, which created a final, unrecoverable rift, over her mother’s refusal to accept Winterson’s love for other women.

She left home at 16, lived out of her car, and, despite years of struggle at school, became an autodidact, reading her way through the library’s fiction section from A – Z.

“I had no one to help me, but the T.S. Eliot helped me,” Winterson writes. “A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.”

The memoir examines these early years, up to Winterson’s arrival at Oxford, with an unexpected fair-mindedness. There is then an intermission of 25 years – a wise choice to skip the details, well-travelled by book reviews and profiles, of Winterson’s successful career as an author – with the story picking up again as she suffers a dark night of the soul.

Part of recovery involves searching for her birth mother; the book describes how frustratingly difficult and bureaucratic the effort is, despite the loosening of Britain’s privacy laws regarding adoption records.

I won’t spoil the ending for you. This is a sharply observed life, told with powerful economy (coming in at 230 pages) and language that has the ability both to stagger and uplift. Much of the memoir focuses on the ability of books to nourish one’s strength (or soul, as Mrs. Winterson might have it), create us, help us define our beliefs and values, and make us whole again when those beliefs are shaken.

I’m lucky enough to live within the listening area of public radio station KCRW, which beams Michael Silverblatt’s “Bookworm” to the world. He recently interviewed Winterson about Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, and it was pure magic to listen to both of them talk about the transcendent nature of reading. (This is a 30-minute program.)

A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight
Straight has a remarkable facility for character voice. Through Moinette, 12 at the time the novel opens, she evokes the lives and experiences of slaves working the sugarcane plantations around New Orleans in the early 19th century.

The novel follows Moinette’s journey from Azure, where she was born to an enslaved mother and white father, to the troubled family that owns the de la Rosiere plantation, and, later, as she is sold to a young lawyer, Msieu Antoine, who has his own reasons for needing a beautiful young slave in his house. Moinette is only 18, and mother to a son by her former owner. She has been torn away from her fiercely protective mother, Tretite the cook, and all the other older women who looked after her and loses her son because Msieu Antoine cannot afford to buy them both.

“And now I was eighteen and had already collected memory people. Is that how the balance shifted for the rest of life, as Tretite has once tried to explain to me? She said you grew older and lived inside your memory, the things you saw and tasted and smelled in the past. My son hadn’t remembered me at all this time. Not until I said my name.”

This is Straight’s sixth novel and it weaves together historical fact (like the laws established by the Code Noir and the harsher treatment of both slaves and free people of color when Louisiana became an American territory) and wonderfully realized details of daily life, such as the way Spanish moss is boiled and dried to use as mattress stuffing and the ingredients that go into the laundry soaps that Moinette’s mother uses.

With the grace of a poet, Straight keeps the reader with Moinette through all the pain and suffering, the small acts of kindness and the fragility of existence along the rough edges of bayou.

Collected Poems by Mick Imlah
“His early death was an incalculable loss to poetry,” writes Alan Hollinghurst in the introduction to this collection, and one is left with an unexpected frisson, a curious combination of thrill and mourning after reading Imlah.

Hollinghurst, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of my favorite writers, and he dedicates his latest, The Stranger’s Child, (the plot of which revolves around a charismatic young poet, gone before his time) to Imlah. This led me to a remembrance by Hollinghurst in the English press and the desire to read at least one of the two books published during Imlah’s lifetime. It took a while, as neither Birthmarks nor The Lost Leader seem to be available in print. Selected Poems gathers examples from both with several unpublished poems.

I struggled with many of the later poems about Scotland, where Imlah makes detailed (and obscure, for the uninitiated reader) reference to ancient kings and battles. But elsewhere Imlah’s turns of phrase – “too burgled to speak,” “his eyes pin-clear, pleading” – helped me press on.

As Hollinghurst notes, “What dazzles and thrills throughout the thirty-year span of Imlah’s work is his inventiveness, the sense of a mind pondering and producing at any turn something wholly unexpected…”

You’ll encounter an evolutionist in his bathtub, short verses describing the counties of England, alcoholism compared to a birthmark, Quasimodo, Alfred Lord Tennyson, all those Scottish ballads, and two late poems for his children. Not your typical stuff of poetry, but all imaginatively handled, some in rhyme, others that read almost like newspaper reports or essays (with footnotes!).

Imlah was the poet I decided to read during National Poetry Month, and it’s a good thing because he’s put me in the mood for a quest (perhaps it was all those Scottish legends) for more, more, more.

The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue
While myths and certain aspects of science fiction intrigue me, fairy stories haven’t been a draw. So I approached this with trepidation and found a unique story that tackles the subject without being cloying or cutesy.

Donohue keeps the myths of stolen children part of the mystery – are the bands of changelings in the woods innocent fairies or hobgoblins and devils? Are the abducted children better off with the supernatural powers of changelings while a hobgoblin assumes human form and their rightful place in a family? Donohue explores all of these ideas, alternating chapters from the point of view of Henry Day, the stolen child, whom the changelings rename Aniday, and the sprite (a century-old abductee himself) who takes Henry’s place, finally allowed to grow to human adulthood, marry and have his own family.

The book is filled with longing and doubt on both sides, as the decades pass and the city spreads into the countryside, encroaching upon the woods, threatening the cyclical life of the changelings forever.

There are some fairly big slip-ups in the plot – a major discovery that happens twice, a big revelation that once out of the bag doesn’t make any sense, the changelings’ powers appear and disappear at the author’s convenience – and Donohue tends to tell us what characters are feeling rather than show us. The alternating-chapter structure means that the fairy story in the woods drags along with repetitive scenes in order to accommodate all the years it takes new-Henry to grow up. And the reader never really senses why Aniday, especially in the days and weeks after he’s first taken, remains with his captors rather than giving in to his homesickness.

However, Donohue does a good job of creating his own mythology of changelings and stolen children and there’s a good deal of tension between new-Henry and his parents, with the reader curious to find out just how much the Days know and whether or when they’ll act on their suspicions.

Optimize: How to Attract and Engage More Customers by Integrating SEO, Social Media, and Content Marketing by Lee Odden
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher. My review, “SEO: It’s All about the Customer,” can be found on the Social Media Club website.

Listening that inspired me this week:

NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour” podcast features a lovely discussion about books and reading challenges.

Poem a Day

To spread the joy of poetry, the Academy of American Poets is offering a Poem a Day during April, National Poetry Month.

I haven’t attempted to post anything about this month because I don’t really read much (if any) poetry. My uncles and grandparents all learned poems by rote at school, but enforced memorization didn’t diminish their love of the verse. And it meant they had at their recall meaningful and touching phrases for every occasion or toast.

I’m embarrassed to say that the only poetry I know by heart are a few lines of Kathy Acker’s:

Blood and guts in high school,
This is all I know:
Parents, teachers, boyfriends,
All have got to go.

Why these lines (where so many others failed to catch hold)? I haven’t a clue. Like many of my generation, I tended to see song lyrics as my poetry and often got baffled when attempting to decipher poems in English class.

That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate poetry because I consider the art of honing the language to its descriptive essence to be the ultimate skill and success as a writer. It comes as no surprise that brilliant writers, like Shakespeare and Updike, wrote poems on a regular basis.

Recognizing a bit of a deficit in my writerly education, I unearthed my old Introduction to Poetry textbook from high school; reading it is one of my goals for this year. I’ve also downloaded the Poem a Day app to my phone and included a book of poems by the late Mick Imlah on my April reading list. Who knows where all this might lead?

In the meantime, you can celebrate National Poetry Month by subscribing to receive your Poem a Day via email, RSS or iPhone app or find the daily poem on the Poets.org website.

What about you? Have you always loved poetry? Found it confusing? Who are your favorite poets and what are your favorite verses?

Writing that inspired me this week:

But if, one night
As you stroll the verandah
Observing with wonder
The place of the white
Stars in the universe,
Brilliant, and clear,
Sipping your whisky
And pissed with fear

You happen to hear
Over the tinkle
Of ice and Schubert
A sawing – a drilling –
The bellow and trump
Of a vast pain –
Pity the hulks!
Play it again!

~ Mick Imlah, from “Tusking” in his Selected Poems

It’s National Library Week!

Friends of the blog know I’m a library geek, so it should come as no surprise that I’m thrilled to be recognizing National Library Week, which takes place April 8 – 14.

This is National Library Week’s 54th year, and the theme is “You belong @ your library.” Whether you’re as passionate about libraries as I am or haven’t set foot in your local since books went digital, this week offers a great excuse to visit and rediscover all the resources available there. (See calendar of activities below.) You’ll be amazed!

“The strength of libraries has always been the diversity of their collections and commitment to serving all people,” notes the American Library Association in its press release about National Library Week.

“Today’s libraries help level the playing field by making both print and digital information affordable, available and accessible to all people. Libraries provide cultural heritage and genealogical collections, materials in print and electronic formats, job-seeking resources, English as second language and citizenship classes, and many other creative and resourceful programs.”

Here’s what’ll be happening at many libraries across the country this week:

Tuesday, April 10 – National Library Workers Day
You may want to refrain from hugging your local librarian (unless you know her or him very well), but today is all about recognizing the valuable contributions made by your local library workers. In fact, at the NLWD website, there’s a lovely feature called Submit a Star, where you can honor your hometown librarians!

Wednesday, April 11 – National Bookmobile Day
Bookmobiles have meant the difference between literacy and illiteracy, enrichment and stagnation, in many far-flung communities where residents don’t live near or can’t access the library. Honor the efforts of these dedicated library volunteers today.

For more on bookmobiles, check out this NPR story, “The Final Chapter for a Trusty Bookmobile,” about a Vermont community’s efforts to keep the reading rolling.

Drop Everything and Read DayThursday, April 12 – National Drop Everything and Read Day and Support Teen Literature Day
How cool is it that there’s a day dedicated to putting aside everything else and encouraging families to read together in hopes that they’ll make it a regular habit? DEAR Day is sponsored by the National Education Association, the PTA and the Association for Library Service to Children, among many others.

The Young Adult Library Services Association is sponsoring events to promote teen literacy today, Support Teen Literature Day, and throughout the year. Find out how you can participate on the YALSA website.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“I followed her into the library. The pale light from our chamber below dissipated in the room, but I could still make out – my heart leapt at the sight – row after row, shelf above shelf, floor to ceiling, a city of books. Speck turned to me and asked, ‘Now, what shall we read first?’”
~ The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue

A Long Reading List for a Short Month

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto, Rock 'n' Roll by Tom StoppardHere’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going plus reviews of February’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I own the Stoppard play; borrowed Yoshimoto, Shin and Eaves from my local library; received Power Questions from the author for review; and received The Social Media Strategist from the publisher for review. Several are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.

SCORECARD

February
6 down, 42 to go!

REVIEWS

Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard
Rock ‘n’ roll music’s power to make you think and, contrarily, lose all self-control and follow the beat makes it an apt metaphor in Stoppard’s 2006 play.

Taking its characters from 1968 to 1990, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” is full of contrasts: head against heart, politics and poetry, Marxism or pragmatism, the bourgeois safety of Cambridge versus Prague after the Soviet tanks roll in.

These are ideas Stoppard has visited before, most effectively in “The Real Thing,” where the subject of love was set to a soundtrack of Herman’s Hermits and Big Head Todd. Here it’s the Plastic People of the Universe, ex-Pink Floyd guitarist Syd Barrett, John Lennon, and the Beach Boys, with the Rolling Stones closing out the set.

The play, which is dedicated to the late poet, playwright and Czech president Vaclav Havel, opens just before the iconic Summer of ’68 in Cambridge, England, where Max, the academic Marxist, rules the roost and, presumably, a classroom of eager acolytes. Strangely, it’s Max’s wife Eleanor and, later, his lover Lenka, who are the only ones actually seen teaching various students.

Jan is a Czech exchange student, the all-too-real (for Max) embodiment of what it means to live under Communism. Max and Jan have an antagonistic intellectual relationship after the Prague Spring is crushed.

Max’s intellectualizing of Communism (with a capital “C”) causes no end of sorrow for those around him, especially his wife, who is dying of cancer, and Jan, who is about to return home to face who knows what.

“I speak as one who’s kicked in the guts by nine-tenths of anything you can tell me about Soviet Russia,” Max justifies. When Jan asks why he’s remained in the Party, Max says, “Because of the tenth, because they made the revolution and no one else.”

JAN: Dubcek is a Communist.

MAX: No – I’m a Communist, I’d be a Communist with Russian tanks parked in King’s Parade, you mummy’s boy.

Of course, it’s the reality that Max never has to face tanks in King’s Parade that makes him so angry at the accommodations he feels others are making.

The characters move swiftly through the years, demarcated by musical interludes from the aforementioned bands. There is a chronology of events, both historical and musical, related to the themes in the play, but this is placed at the back of the book (one hopes it was clearly in view in the theater program), and I sorely wished I’d read this first, even though it gives short shrift to such a vast swath of history.

I’m a big fan of Stoppard, however, what doesn’t work here is Max’s puzzling position in relation to Czechoslovakia, from before the Prague Spring all the way up to the Velvet Revolution. There’s no sense of why an entire state hierarchy would be remotely interested in an academic Marxist living in England, so one of the major plot points adds up to nothing. Also, the sharp cuts between settings and years made it hard to settle on the characters, who they are, what they’re feeling, how they’re changing – or not, in Max’s case. This confusion is practically a given when reading the book rather than seeing the play performed, but the brevity given to each era doesn’t help.

The play closes in Prague after Havel has been elected; the Rolling Stones have jetted in to perform.

“These are new times,” says Jan as the lights go down and Keith Richards cranks out an old familiar chord.

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto
This novella (185 pages in hardback) benefits from Yoshimoto’s deft yet plain prose. You’re quickly caught up in the lives of Chihiro, who’s just lost her mother, and Nakajima, a med school student who leads a life of permanent mourning.

They are two young people living in vast Tokyo, far from home and family, who recognize each other as kindred spirits and begin a tenuous relationship. Tenuous because Nakajima is holding back a big secret about what happened to him as a child. These events – and how his family treated him in their aftermath – scarred him irrevocably, fraying his tether to the world of human relationships.

The book suffers from jacket copy, which reviewers have echoed, that links Nakajima’s mysterious past with the Aum Shinrikyo gas attack on Tokyo’s subways. I don’t feel this is an effective analogy, and it provides a bit more tension than perhaps the book deserves.

For a short book, there are passages in The Lake that feel like they drag on too long or are repeated, especially in the early section about the death of Chihiro’s mother. And, as close as the reader feels to these characters, there are odd moments where one is drawn up short by comments, like Chihiro’s, that “physical sensations like smells and exhaustion don’t figure into our memories.” This seems plain wrong, smell being one of the strongest creators and triggers of memories; and, in the novella, Chihiro by this point has already recounted several times how vividly she recalls the smells – and her exhaustion – in her mother’s hospital room.

It’s possible the trouble is in the translation, since the prose overall is so effective at pulling you into the story.

In less than 200 pages, Yoshimoto gets us through the difficult early phase of a relationship that has more obstacles than most and deals with the unusual nature of Nakajima’s past. It’s fascinating to compare this book with Haruki Murakami’s massive door-stopper 1Q84, which covers almost exactly the same territory in a frustrating and unnecessarily lengthy form. It’s no surprise that The Lake made the Man Asian Literary Prize short list when 1Q84 did not.

Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others by Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas
NOTE: A free review copy of this book was provided to me by the authors.

My favorite editor and generous colleague Ariel Thomas frequently sat quietly in meetings, listening intently, then if people were struggling, she’d ask the most attuned, insightful questions to help the agenda get back on track. She used this same technique in editing: she didn’t strike out my words, she underlined and asked questions. She approached everybody with a deep respect for their ability to figure things out for themselves, and she understood that the rewards were greater for everyone when that happened. That is the premise for this book, Power Questions, by two leaders in the worlds of business and philanthropy.

They share 35 experiences, from their work with leaders and in their personal lives, and show how asking insightful questions took these situations to a deeper, more effective level, changed working relationships and family dynamics in positive ways, and created greater opportunities for working together.

If you’re wondering, How can a question do all that?, well, that’s a great question. The book is organized into 35 short chapters featuring real-life examples of questions that redefined problems, challenged assumptions, reminded people of what’s really important – like mission and values, and motivated people to dig deeper and discover more.

Each chapter ends with a guide for using the question in the right situations so that people will be receptive to it. There are also alternate versions of each question and suggestions for follow-up questions.

The final section expands on this format with 293 additional questions and the contexts they are most appropriate for, such as understanding a person’s aspirations and goals, getting feedback about a professional relationship, understanding other people’s agendas, mentoring, resolving crises or complaints, and improving meetings, to name just a few.

Video of Andrew Sobel author of Power Questions

Andrew Sobel, co-author with Jerold Panas of “Power Questions.”

Sobel and Panas avoid clichés and don’t throw softballs. They’re working with presidents and CEOs and board chairs with millions of dollars on the line, after all. Yet this book offers relevant tools for anyone at any stage of their career or life. It’s perfect for managers hoping to motivate staff, parents who want to help children make life decisions, job-seekers who aim to turn standard interviews into wider-ranging discussions, salespeople and consultants who desire long-lasting relationships with their clients.

It’s especially helpful, in the field of business books, that Power Questions is well-written, quick to absorb, and presents practical advice for putting questions into action. This is one to keep by your desk, dog-ear your favorite sections, and return to often for perspective.

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin
By chance I happened to read two selections from the Man Asian Literary Prize short list this month, and the quiet, haunting power of this novel took me by surprise. Even more surprising is the fact that this is one of Kyung-sook Shin’s only books to be translated into English, when she’s won so many literary prizes in Asia and is apparently one of South Korea’s more famous authors.

After Please Look After Mom, I’d read anything I could find by this writer. Behind the book’s somewhat maudlin title is a semi-autobiographical story that unfolds as each character reacts to the shock of their mother’s disappearance in Seoul subway station and then, by turns, recall their life back in the countryside, where she farmed and fed and cared for them through frightening poverty and fought to give them better lives. Only in missing her do the characters recognize their mother as a person, how hard she worked to make them what they are, how they disappointed her, and how often they overlooked her sacrifices, even when it came to her own health.

“…Mom would cook and bring out the food and wash the dishes and clean and hang damp dishrags to dry. Mom took care of fixing the gate and the roof and the porch. Instead of helping her do the work that she did nonstop, even you thought of it as natural, and took it for granted that this was her job. Sometimes, as your brother pointed out, you thought of her life as disappointing – even though Mom, despite never having been well off, tried so hard to give you the best of everything, even though it was Mom who patted your back soothingly when you were lonely.”

There is despair in this book, certainly, and mystery, but such overwhelming beauty in the weaving together of the stories of the eldest son, eldest daughter, husband, and other voices to create a memorable portrait of a Mom who ironically only becomes fully present to her family after she’s vanished.

Wanderlust: A Love Affair with Five Continents by Elisabeth Eaves
Eaves’ travel memoir ignited that desire for new cultures and perspectives that’s always just below the surface. At the same time, I hope I never have a travel companion like her. As a memoirist, Eaves shirks her duty, cagily leaving out details that might make her look bad, while, on the travel-writing side, she’s simplistic and reductive when it comes to exploring the yearning for adventure and other cultures, relying heavily on the quotes of other, better writers to do the deep thinking.

Eaves’ desire to travel seems entirely borne of the interests of a high school boyfriend, one of many men she falls too quickly for and abandons for no reason that she’s capable of or willing to describe, leaving the reader baffled.

She’s very young at the start of these journeys – to Spain, Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, England and France to name but a few locales – and still at that stage of life when one believes character is something that comes to you and not the other way around:

“Putting myself in new situations, I thought, would act as a purifying fire, charring away all the dross and leaving some essential self. Philosophers and travel writers down the ages have explored the question…I wanted that clarity. Without my own culture, would there still be something left? Or would I burn away to nothing?”

The book, with its exotic locations, could appeal to the adventurer in anyone, although there’s an awful lot of chapters spent angst-ing over “Who am I?” (when the answer is fairly obvious to the reader after all the author’s blunt talk about sex and needing to remove herself from just about every relationship she embarks upon). Once we were on the remote 60-mile-long Kokoda Trail in Papau New Guinea, and one of her fellow travelers, James, has a recurrence of malaria, and we spend the next few days and pages of the story following her trials and tribulations of getting out of the jungle and back to civilization, with descriptions of grassy air strips and dusty truck beds and how it feels to sit on her boyfriend’s lap, while losing sight entirely of James and what happens to him, I was out. This goes beyond self-centeredness, and it’s plain bad storytelling to boot.

As the customs stamps in Eaves’ passport pile up, along with the men she encounters, lo and behold, she discovers she’s jaded. Her comrades-in-khakis, with their Balinese silver bracelets and their Maori bone carvings, spend their nights drinking and engaging in one-upmanship – who’s gone to the remotest region? where was the scuzziest hostel? what dangers were they clever enough to escape? “We thought we were iconoclasts at the far edge of the world, but here we were in uniform, like members of any clique.”

At the end of the saga, she finds herself with a free ride in Paris – at the behest of a State Department boyfriend – and the chance to make a life as a writer there. But, traveling through Italy on holiday, she considers the ease of European travel a bore: “You go out into the world a sponge, and everything blows you away – the first palm tree, the first laundry line strung over desert-yellow dust. Now, though, I’ve absorbed too much. I know that Florence won’t have any impact. Zip.”

It’s a sad place to fetch up, especially for a writer, with no curiosity left for the world around you and what you might discover out there. This book has been billed as the anti-Eat Pray Love, but it’s very much of a piece with Elizabeth Gilbert’s self-involved memoir. If you’re looking for some thrilling, absorbing, intellectually stimulating travel writing, check out The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s Italian Days, the Durrell brothers, In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson, and just about anything by Mark Twain.

The Social Media Strategist: Build a Successful Program from the Inside Out by Christopher Barger
NOTE: A free review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.

My review, “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit Gets Social,” can be found on the Social Media Club website.

So Many Books, So Little Time

The first four books of 2012.

I committed to reading (approximately) a book a week in 2012. Here’s how it’s going plus capsule reviews of my January selections.

Standard disclosure: I bought all four of these books. Each is included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.

SCOREBOARD

January
4 down, 48 to go!

REVIEWS

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
Dividing the last century into distinct moments in time, Hollinghurst’s fifth novel, like its characters, revolves around magnetic poet Cecil Valance (a fictional substitute for, depending on your favorite era, Byron, James Dean or Jim Morrison), doomed to die young/stay pretty, leaving plenty of tantalizing unanswered questions. Like the later plays of Tom Stoppard, The Stranger’s Child explores the idea that there are limits to what we can understand, remember or capture of the past.

Hollinghurst’s prose, as always, is delicious. On the back book jacket, The Observer recommends Hollinghurst as “a great English stylist in full maturity.” If you followed the Man Booker Prize flap last year, you may recall that a number of writers who’d made the long list, Hollinghurst among them, were dismissed with snippy comments about “fustiness” and readability. Don’t let that nonsense spoil a tremendously enjoyable read for you. Only someone who hasn’t read this book might think that because – gasp! – part of the story takes place in the past. Or because, long an admirer of Henry James, Hollinghurst has been compared (favorably) with the master novelist, especially in his Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty. Perhaps this year’s judges felt Hollinghurst already had received his due, and it was someone else’s time in the spotlight. Of the books I’ve read from the short list, only Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers comes close to Hollinghurst’s brilliance.

Yes, this is Hollinghurst in “full maturity” – prose burning with life and celebration and aching beauty.

I Think I Love You by Allison Pearson
Pearson, who writes with poignancy and humor about women’s lives, often gets relegated to the “chick lit” category. Her first book was the excellent I Don’t Know How She Does It, about the difficulties of juggling career, motherhood and marriage. Here she extends a kindly hand to our younger selves in a novel drawn from her own teen obsession with David Cassidy. Told with great insight in alternating chapters by Petra, starstruck Welsh teenager and dedicated reader of The Essential David Cassidy fan magazine, and Bill, a wannabe rock journalist and sole staff of TEDC fanzine, mortified and fascinated by his role feeding the teen dream machine, ghostwriting David Cassidy love messages to “The Partridge Family” star’s credulous young admirers.

You needn’t have been a “David girl” to enjoy, empathize (I was a Jack Wild fan who occasionally tuned in to “The Partridge Family”) or find perspective in this tribute. Obsession, as any fan of Nabokov will tell you, is the perfect subject for compelling literature. This novel takes an unexpected, but helpful turn mid-way when the plot moves from the 1970s to modern times, so that fandom can be explored from a more mature distance, making puppy love just one of the awkward, painful and joyous paths our hearts take through life.

P.S. For those who were or are David fans, the afterword includes Pearson’s 2004 Daily Telegraph interview with the real David Cassidy.

Ablutions by Patrick deWitt
As noted above, I found deWitt’s latest, The Sisters Brothers, to be a brilliant surprise. When you discover an author with an original voice, you tend to seek out his other writings. DeWitt’s author bio says he’s been employed as “a laborer, a clerk, a dishwasher, and a bartender.” It’s this last career that Ablutions studies. Set in a down-on-its-luck Sunset Strip bar, the novel observes the patrons and their desperate attempts to gain a toehold on the Hollywood ladder. “Semi-successful Hollywood actor-writer” Lancer returns to gloat once he’s had a taste of the good life, and tells the barkeep why he won’t be back: “I have dreams, you know? Big dreams. And none of them were going to come true in a place like this.”

Told in second person through a haze of drugs and Irish whiskey, still Ablutions rarely reminds you of that other second-person first novel, Bright Lights, Big City. DeWitt channels an earlier generation of American writers – he sees with fresh eyes even when his characters have felt too much abuse from the world – and you sense he’d be perfectly at ease penning his tales alongside Twain, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. For instance, observing the Grand Canyon, the narrator of Ablutions notes: “You were not prepared to feel anything other than pedestrian amusement, and it weakens you in your spine and legs. Clutching your stomach through your shirt you say to yourself, There is too much of the earth missing here, and I just don’t want to know about it.” This is a writer whose books I’m looking forward to relishing for decades to come.

Equator by Miguel Sousa Tavares
I love how books find their way to you and you to them. Friends’ parents were visiting from Brazil over the holidays, and we got to talking about all manner of things, from the Portuguese language to the history of Brazil to books. My friend’s father, who recommended Equator for its look at Portugal’s late colonial period, noted that in the Portuguese language, meaning is not as black-and-white as it is in English. It makes translation and understanding a little harder to pin down.

That is handy to keep in mind when reading Equator. The novel follows a young aristocrat, Luis Bernardo, selected by the king to put his liberal ideas of colonialism into practice as the new governor of Portugal’s tiny West African equatorial outpost São Tomé and Príncipe. Immediately upon setting foot on the islands, his dogmatism crumples along with his dignitary’s uniform: “His shirt stuck to his skin and his cream alpaca Savile Row suit had lost the discreet elegance and intended allure. He was exhausted, made drowsy by the intoxicating smell of greenery that made the atmosphere even heavier and more humid.”

The impenetrable jungle and stifling heat are but two of Bernardo’s challenges. He must learn the islands’ complex social and cultural mores, make peace with his own staff, convince the islands’ plantation owners to end their system of importing slave labor from Angola in order to prevent the British from boycotting São Tomé’s lucrative cocoa exports, and prevent a violent workers’ rebellion. For a start.

Perhaps the quote that opens the novel sums up Bernardo’s situation best. It tries to pin down the definition of the word equator, noting: “Possibly a contraction of the expression in old Portuguese, ‘e-cum-a-dor,’ that is, ‘it brings pain.’”

The novel is a fascinating read, rich in historical, cultural and atmospheric details of both early 20th century Portugal and the islands.