Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Back Page Story

One of my favorite books, Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin, includes a story line about a newspaper, The Sun, and the characters' efforts to keep it ahead of its competition.  When I started listening to The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, I was fairly certain that I wasn't going to like it much because it is also the story of people working for a newspaper and in my biased mind, it couldn't possibly compare to Winter's Tale.  Then Rachman introduced a character named Hardy, where Helprin had a character named Hardesty, and I was even more on guard.  But it turns out that The Imperfectionists is a good book in its own right.

The Imperfectionists tells the history of its newspaper, "The Paper" through the stories of the private lives of people who work for it or love it.  The Paper was founded by Cyrus Ott, with the intention of creating an international English language newspaper, based in Rome.  We start with the story of Lloyd Burko, the Paris correspondent who refuses to use a computer in the first decade of the twenty-first century.  Lloyd is becoming less relevant by the day, and tries to reconnect with his kids in the hope of finding a lead on a new headline.  In each story, we learn the names of other characters, whose stories will be told later on.  I was a little confused when I started reading the story of Abbey Pinnola, because I hadn't heard her name before, and didn't know what to expect from her.  It quickly became clear though that I had heard of her, because her co-workers referred to her by a different name that was immediately familiar to me when it was mentioned.

My favorite character was Ornella de Monterecchi.  Ornella is The Paper's most dedicated reader, reading every word of The Paper every day.  The problem is that Ornella is not a speedy reader, and she works to try to understand everything that is written about, which further slows her down.  When we meet Ornella, in 2006, she is reading The Paper from April 23, 1994, and effectively living on that date.  She tries to talk to her maid, Marta, and her son, Dario, about "current events" that happened 12 years earlier.  Like the sports fan who DVRs a game he couldn't watch live, Ornella does everything that she can to avoid having the "next day's" news spoiled.  She has banned technology in her house, and has limited her circle of acquaintance to those who understand her strange hobby.

The Imperfectionists doesn't tie up as neatly as I would have liked.  There is a "where are they now" section at the end, which I really appreciated, but I would have liked to know more about Lloyd and his son, Jerome, especially.  It felt like we were left with an unsolved mystery in Paris.  Is Rich Snyder the guy on roller blades when Oliver Ott has his final meeting at the office?  I want to know!  This was a 269 page book, that left me wanting another hundred pages.  That must be a good thing, though - The Imperfectionists was a NYT Notable Book for 2010.

And that's book number 12 for the Off the Shelf Challenge.  3 more to go, and 6 months to finish them.

Next up on CD:  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Still Reading:  Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Rock Star on Campus

Once or twice a year, I get an email from the English Department of my Alma Mater.  These emails generally announce an alumni short story writing contest, or a change in the department, or something of that sort.  This past fall, however, I got an email that was so desperate that I could almost hear the begging.  Of course, it was well worded, and politically correct, but if I applied my "College Professor to Student Translator App" (which Apple has not yet offered to license from me) it would have said something like this:

"Are you f*cking kidding me?  We score Philip Levine to do a poetry reading, and you can't even postpone bar night to come see him?  Philip Levine is the biggest rock star to ever set foot on our campus, and if you want to pass your English classes this term, you had better get your *sses to Wilson Hall tonight at 7:00."

Hmmm.  From this I surmised that the English Department had gone to a lot of trouble to convince a world renowned poet to do a reading at the school, and that no one was going to attend.  At first, I was only happy that I already had my diploma and no longer had to worry about making appearances to please professors, but then I got a little embarrassed that I had never before heard of Philip Levine.

As it turns out, Philip Levine is quite a rock star.  He has won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer, both for poetry.  He was also the Poet Laureate for the United States from 2011-2012.   This means that he was likely still the reigning Poet Laureate at the time of the reading that no one planned to attend.  Despite the pleading email and my new found knowledge that Levine probably really was worth seeing, I skipped the reading, but put his Pulitzer winner, The Simple Truth on my TBR list.

The Simple Truth is just that.  It is straightforward, I suspect that it is highly autobiographical, and it is a really good book.  Most of the poems seem to be set in the 1960s, although the collection was published in 1994.  Many of the poems describe Levine's hometown, Detroit.

As long as I have been alive, optimists have been asserting that Detroit is set for a comeback, while the pessimists/realists have left the city and look back at it only from the other side of Eight Mile.  It was interesting to see the cracks in Detroit's surface that Levine saw forming in the early 1960s.  In "The Escape", Levine writes:

"To come to life in Detroit is to be manufactured
without the power of speech.  You clasp hands,
as I did, with a brother and step by step
begin the descent into hell or Hamtramck
and arrive, designed, numbered and tagged. . . "

My favorite line was in his poem, "My Mother with Purse the Summer They Murdered the Spanish Poet", where he is describing his mother looking into her purse instead of looking out the window:

"Had she looked up she would have seen the world she crossed
the world to find. . . . "

The Spanish poet he refers to in the title is Garcia Lorca, who was also referenced in Great House by Nicole Kraus, and The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano.  I'd love to read a good piece of historical fiction about Lorca, so if you know of one, please tell me where I can find it.

My favorite poem is Listen Carefully, where the speaker, who I assume is male, and may be Levine, describes his relationship with his sister, and scolds the reader for misinterpreting his meaning.

The Simple Truth deserved to win the Pulitzer.  It is the kind of book that could convince anyone that they like poetry.  It is understandable and easy to relate to.  I know that is not always the key to great poetry, but after reading more modern poets like Lisa Robertson, to me it was refreshing.  If you get a chance to see Philip Levine read, skip the bar night and go.  I have probably missed my last chance.  Levine is now 85 years old, and from what I can tell, he is living in California.  Maybe Detroit will still hold some allure, and call him home. 

By the way, I have also developed a "Father-in-law Translator App", which I use when my F-I-L comes to my house for Thanksgiving dinner and tells me how tired I look.  Using my app, I know that what he really means is  "The house looks great!  Wow!  You made a ton of food!  This was a lot of work!  You deserve to relax."  Or something like that.

Next Up:  Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn

Still Listening to:  The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Patrick at 5

Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn is the first of five novels in his "Patrick Melrose" series.  The novels were originally published separately, but now the first four of them are available in one volume, called The Patrick Melrose Novels

In Never Mind, Patrick is 5 years old, and his parents, David and Eleanor, are hosting a dinner party.  The story begins early in the day when the preparations for the dinner are being made, and the guests are dreading the event.  Eleanor's drinking makes her an unstable host, and the women who will be attending know that they can't count on her for conversation, much less to keep control of the evening. 

The men who will be attending, Victor and Nicholas, seem to feel a strange admiration for David, which their girlfriends, Anne and Bridget, can't understand.  To the women, David is manipulative and creepy.  To the men, he is in control and certain of his decisions.

David, for his part, finds reason to lament that even at the best clubs, one "can't boast about homosexual, paedophiliac incest with any confidence of a favourable reception", leading me to conclude that the women are right.

The dinner party is painfully awkward.  The story ends with each person thinking about how the evening went, with a mixture of relief that it is over, and self loathing.  Even David, who feels no regret and is proud of his "audacity" is troubled by nightmares.

It's hard for me to imagine the reception that Never Mind must have gotten when it was released in 1992.  As a stand alone novel, it is pretty heavy.  Apart from a deplorable scene between David and Patrick, the story would make a great play.  But as I read the book in 2012, I know that there is more, and that the story doesn't end with the novel.  My understanding is that the next novel, Bad News, also came out in 1992, so even those reading when Never Mind was first released may have known that a sequel was on the way.  I'm not sure that if I read Never Mind, and then  had to wait a few months for Bad News to come out, that I would have gone out of my way to find it.  Now we know that the last two books, Mother's Milk and At Last got great reviews, so the series is likely to be worth the read.

Next Up:  The Simple Truth by Philip Levine

Still Listening to:  The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Typical Lords

Last night The Typical Book Group met to discuss The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy.  I managed to finish the book about 2 hours before we met.  I thought that it was important to get through the book, because it was the kind of story where there were huge disclosures in the last chapters, and I might not want to finish it if I heard what was going to happen before I got to the end.  There were 7 of us there, and all but one of us had finished the book.  One person who was there, and a couple people who skipped the meeting, had read the book years earlier.  I guess that shouldn't be a surprise, since it came out in 1980. 

As you might recall, I was dreading reading this book.  I thought that it was going to be all about white pretty boys hazing the first black cadet coming to a military academy.  The author, Pat Conroy, graduated from the Citadel.  The Lords is set in Charleston, at "The Carolina Military Institute".   The Citadel's proper name is apparently "The Military College of South Carolina", and it is also located in Charleston.  To a great extent, the experience of Will McLean, the protagonist in The Lords, has got to be based on Conroy's own life.  Like Conroy, McLean is on the basketball team, and plays in the longest basketball game in the history of the Southern Conference in 1967.  That game was sort of a highlight, and my guess is that Conroy shared some of McLean's low times as well.

In The Lords,Will McLean is a Southern boy, whose father's last wish was that he attend "The Institute".  Will is really not an Institute type guy, but he manages to get through his difficult "plebe" year, as the first year is called.  In his senior year, The Institute admits its first African American student, and a colonel known as "The Bear" asks Will to look out for him.  While doing so, Will begins to question whether a rumored secret society, The Ten, actually exists.

One of the main reasons that Will makes it through his plebe year is the support of his roommates, Tradd, Mark, and Pig.  Tradd is a Charleston native, whose family welcomes Will as an adopted son.  Mark and Pig are from the North, and are big guys who are not afraid of a fight.  Together they form a bond of paisans, as Pig calls them, who would do anything for each other.

The Lords is sort of a guys' guy's book.  It has male bonding, homophobia, ritual, military life, sports scenes, foot fetishes, racism, hazing and fights.  But, it was a better book than I expected it to be, and there was a lot for The Typical Book Group to discuss.  Most of what we talked about would give away surprises though, so you'll have to check out my Spoilers page after you read The Lords to see more.

Next Up:  Each summer, the Typical Book Group picks a BFB (Big Fat Book) to read, and we skip meeting in July to give us the time to do it.  This year we picked Fall of Giants by Ken Follett.  We'll talk about it in August.  The Lords was 561 pages, making it a BFB as well.  Two in a row is pretty ambitious for us - we'll see how it goes!

Next Up on CD:  The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Still Reading:  Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Flowers with Sense

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld is the story of Daisy, who prefers to be called Kate.  Daisy/Kate, and her twin sister, Violet, have what they call "senses" and what you and I would call "ESP".  Kate has worked to live a normal life and leave her senses behind.  She married a scientist, had children of her own, and basically just tries to blend in.  Suddenly, Violet has a premonition that there is going to be a season of earthquakes affecting the St. Louis area, where they both live.

In the interest of helping the public prepare, Violet takes her prediction to the evening news.  This mortifies Kate, and she hopes that people won't realize that Violet is her sister.  But nevertheless, Kate takes the prediction seriously, and waits for the quakes to arrive.

Kate is an incredibly unlikeable character.  She had a miserable childhood, with a mom who was suffering from depression and rarely left her bed.  She was bullied in high school when people found out about her senses, and hopes to never see anyone from her old school.  But then she insists on repeating her parents' mistakes.  She wants to raise her kids in St. Louis even though she hated it there, she names her daughter after a flower despite hating her own flowery name, and she is so uncomfortable with herself that she tries to keep secrets from her husband, Jeremy.  Jeremy, in contrast to Kate, is a portrait of a perfect husband.  He is incredibly patient and understanding, even if he can't believe that ESP is real. 

To be fair, Kate's frenemy, Courtney, is even less likeable than Kate, but that doesn't do much to make Kate look better.  Courtney makes a choice that is appalling to me, and Kate uses that choice as a springboard to her own bad decisions.

Sisterland had a weird tension going on through the story with a lot of foreshadowing that ultimately went nowhere.  In a less talented author, I would have thought that maybe she just lost track of all of her hints and didn't follow through.  I have to think that Sittenfeld did this on purpose to try to give the reader the experience that Kate and Violet lived with, where they were never sure if their premonitions would come to fruition, and if visions did come to be, if it would happen in the form that the twins foresaw.

Ultimately, I was disappointed in Sisterland.  I loved Sittenfeld's earlier book, American Wife, and anxiously requested Sisterland on NetGalley as soon as I saw it.  I'll be interested to read the reviews on this one when Sisterland comes out on June 25.  What I can say, though, is that while I didn't love the book, I can't stop thinking about it.

Full disclosure:  I received a free electronic copy of Sisterland, and agreed to review it.  No promises were made, and no payments were received.

My July Industry Requested Review is supposed to be The Lemon Orchard by Luanne Rice, and I planned to review My Education by Susan Choi in August.  Now that I've got them both in my hot little hands though, I may switch that order.  Both books will be available for giveaways, so stay tuned!

Next Up On Paper:  I'm going to read The Patrick Melrose Novels  by Edward St. Aubyn.  TPMN is a collection of four novels that St. Aubyn released separately between 1992 and 2006.  I am going to review them one at a time as I finish them, and hopefully still manage to get the full collection done, possibly including the 5th book that is not included in TPMN, by the end of the summer.

Still Listening to:  Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy.  OK fine.  I admit it.  I'm not hating this story, and I'm even liking it a little.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Elephant in the Room

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes is a very moving book.  Will starts off as a high powered partner in a London financial firm, with a beautiful girlfriend and all the money he could want.  Unfortunately, he is injured in a motorcycle accident, and becomes quadriplegic.  Will cannot align his new self, who can only move his neck, face and one hand, with his old self, who as he says, had a very big life.  Even though his parents are wealthy, and are able to provide him with a motorized wheelchair, a handi-capable annex to their house, and a medical caregiver, he is not sure that life is worth living. 

In desperation, Will's mother, Camilla, decides to hire another caregiver to stay with Will full time.  The qualifications for this role are a little sketchy, and Louisa, who has never worked in home health care before, is surprised to get the job.  Camilla seems to feel that it is more important that Will be with someone who is chatty and optimistic than with someone who actually knows what to do.  Louisa needs the job, and accepts it with great hesitation, because she knows that she is not qualified.

Will and Louisa get off to a bumpy start, with neither of them sure what to say to the other.  Slowly, they work out a routine, and become comfortable with each other.  But then Louisa notices the elephant in the room.

In this case, that elephant is named "physician assisted suicide."  Moyes does a great job of showing this issue from all of its sides, and yes, there are more than two.  When I was a new attorney, I was at the Oakland County Courthouse during the Jack Kevorkian (aka Dr. Death) murder trial.  Kevorkian felt that people who were not able to commit suicide on their own, due to a physical inability to do so, should still have the right to die on their own terms and by their own hand, if they wanted to.  He equipped a special van, which if I remember correctly, the media called "The Death Mobile".  He would allow people to kill themselves in the van, after he hooked them up to his suicide machine.  Michigan quickly took away Kevorkian's medical license, and passed a law against assisting another person in killing himself.  Kevorkian didn't stop, and soon was charged with murder.

When I got to the courthouse (probably to file some completely unrelated probate paperwork), there were hundreds of people in wheelchairs there, holding signs.  As I hurried past them, a couple of the signs began to catch my eye, and I realized that these people were there not to support Kevorkian, but to support the prosecutor.  They wanted people to know that while they were disabled, and may even "qualify" for Kevorkian's services, they had lives that were worth living.  The extremists among them may have even felt that if the court decided that what Kevorkian was doing was right, their lives might be in danger, with public pressure to end it all.

Every character in Me Before You has an opinion about physician assisted suicide, but as the story goes on, most of those opinions begin to change.  Louisa tries to show Will all of the opportunities for a full life that are available to him.  At the same time, Will tries to convince Louisa that there is more to life than their small town, and the limited  prospects available there.

I listened to Me Before You in audio form, and wondered why there were so many people in the cast.  There was one main reader, who did the voice of Louisa, but also did the voices of the other characters that Louisa came into contact with.  But then, several of the other characters had chapters of their own, and different actors did the voices in those chapters.  What I found strange, was that Will didn't have his own chapter after the accident, even though he, more than anyone else, fought to have his voice heard.  Obviously, this was deliberate.

As I mentioned last week, all of the reviews that I read about this book mentioned how much the reader cried.  One would think that the novel was sponsored by Kleenex.  Call me heartless, but while I liked the story, I didn't cry.  There was one point where I was just on the verge of tears in my daughter's school parking lot, but then my daughter jumped into the car, plugged in her ipod, and Taylor Swift took over the airwaves.  It's surprisingly hard to cry when listening to Taylor Swift sing about crying.

Next up on CD:  The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy.  DREADING this one.  Hopefully I'll be pleasantly surprised.

Still Reading:  Sisterland by Curtis Settenfeld

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