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.
5 down, 23 to go!
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?”
“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.