Saturday, June 12, 2021

Secrets of HappinessSecrets of Happiness by Joan Silber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Who knew where happiness came from? Well, actually, there were theories. In the Buddhism my father sometimes followed you heard arguments on the vanity of grasping for happiness. Whatever you ran after and clung to was destined to slip out of your hands, melt like snow, dissolve into thin air. What could be more obvious? The truth of impermanence was somehow a cheering idea to my father...he believed in freedom, my father." p. 218

The book is divided into seven chapters each focused on one character in this tale of two Manhattan families and their extended lovers and friends, told in the first person each time. Occasionally, I would forget who my character was but always enjoyed reading about them. The tension is good, the writing is clear and competent, and I would race to continue each night enjoying the through line of Cambodia or Thailand or elsewhere in Asia visited by the characters.

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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Tender by Belinda McKeon

TenderTender by Belinda McKeon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

McKeon takes a line from James Salter’s Light Years as her epigraph: “You know, you only have one friend like that; there can’t be two.”

Tender is an absorbing at times irritating examination of an obsessive friendship among the young, of Irish history during the Nineties when homosexuality is finally legalized in Ireland, of urban university life versus the rural upbringing they share, of art and literature as the protagonist studies Hughes and Plath and writes art criticism, and finally the jealousy that undoes them. Catherine is eighteen when she meets aspiring photographer James in 1997. He is a year older, just back from working in Berlin. They bond like magic and talk daily. The author opens the book with a James Salter quote: “You know, you only have one friend like that; there can’t be two.”

The book is structured in interesting ways, starting out with much talking in the narrative as the two become close, moving into choppiness in Moonfoam and Silver when deeper relationships and sex intrude and tapering off to lots of poetry in Romance when the connection falters and fails. The final sections occur at a reunion fourteen years later.

My exasperation with Catherine in the beginning of the story was high, her youth, her naivete, her self-absorption but slowly the reader understands her intensity, her desperation not to lose James. By the time she loses herself in an ill-planned confrontation and forsakes the friendship, it is a much more empathetic eye gazing at young Catherine and absorbing her shock and horror at what happens around her. Fortunately, the author gives us a look at the two of them fourteen years hence to see how all turned out. There's humor, too, and beautiful sentences. And again very much along the periphery of this story of young people at Trinity College in Dublin are the weight and effect of the Troubles in Ireland.

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Sunday, February 7, 2021

Undocumented Americans

The Undocumented AmericansThe Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Portraits of the thousands of people who deliver our sustenance (waiters, delivery people, day laborers, farmworkers) and pay into the American Social Security System but realize nothing from it as they age and must keep working at bottom-rung wages. The author focused on people like her family (she's a DACA participant who graduated from Harvard), visiting key cities in the U.S. and giving voices to those who were not afraid to talk with her about their journey. The book is a well written and documented justification for her righteous anger. It is a slim, compelling volume which puts faces to headlines. Read it.

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Friday, February 5, 2021


MigrationsMigrations by Charlotte McConaghy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I stayed up all night reading Migrations by Australian Charlotte McConaghy.
An absorbing futurist tale of species extinction and the last Arctic terns chased by a hungry herring fishing boat. The crew and their boat end up scattered to Antarctica sought by authorities. Guided by a troubled but determined young woman who's tagged a couple of the birds and traces them on her laptop, we learn though flashbacks of her peripatetic background and sketchy history. The tale kept me up way too late and while not my usual fare, I was completely taken with the writing and the story.

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Thursday, February 4, 2021

The Waves

The WavesThe Waves by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This plot-less exploration of lifetime friendships and the fluidity of the characters from childhood to old age offers a deeply involving if difficult reading experience. Woolf's lyrical writing and colors, nature, animals, meals, made it worthwhile and it's best to let The Waves wash over the reader without trying too hard to parse meaning. Play-like, Woolf Virginia takes on identity, mortality, and friendship: in six characters who are perhaps one character based on the author. Bernard, the writer with his phrases, is our anchor, and Louis, is "stone-carved, sculpturesque; Neville, scissor-cutting, exact; Susan with eyes like lumps of crystal; Jinny dancing like a flame, febrile, hot, over dry earth; and Rhoda the nymph of the fountain always wet." The bonds and points of view shift in the soliloquies. There is no dialogue.
I think one of the most enjoyable reviews is Fionnuala's
I want to read more Woolf, this is said to be the most challenging of her books.

"I felt leap up that old impulse, which has moved me all my life, to be thrown up and down on the roar of other people's voices, singing the same song; to be tossed up and down on the roar of almost senseless merriment, sentiment, triumph, desire."

"Some people go to priests, others to poetry; I to my friends, I to my own heart, I to seek among phrases and fragments something unbroken--I to whom there is not beauty enough in moon or tree; to whom the touch of one person with another is all, yet who cannot grasp even that, who am so imperfect, so weak, so unspeakably lonely. There I sat."

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Saturday, January 30, 2021

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult TimesWintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times is not my usual fare according to its categorization as new age/self-improvement but the writing was skillful and lovely enough to disregard preconceptions. And as a summer person I balked at snow and ice, the frigid settings of Iceland and the Arctic, but I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the Sami and their reindeer, the adaptable hard-working Finns and the Polar Bear Clubbers. The story of her husband's burst appendix resonated with personal experience (my husband's appendix burst on a camping trip) and her exploration of her own illness, pulling her unhappy child our of school and the captivating incident of losing and regaining her voice held my attention. Wolves, bees as one organism, friendly robins and kids books carried me along with the narrator. The best quote: "They say that we should dance like no one is watching. I think that applies to reading, too" which she says of her familiar loose, exploratory reading during nights of insomnia, "a chapter here, a segment there." And best of all, February 1st marks the Gaelic festival of Imbolc or St. Brigid's Day when we dust away our cobwebs to welcome spring hovering just over there. My snowbells are up, the tulips leaves visible.

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Friday, January 22, 2021

The Bloater

The BloaterThe Bloater by Rosemary Tonks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a lark! So glad to have snagged a copy of this book from Interlibrary Loan and listened to the Backlist Podcast. Min is a classic female character in this delightful confection of the Sixties as she copes with her opera singer admirer called The Bloater ("this huge, tame, exotic man" "I personally can smell him from the kitchen...I do see that he is large and washing takes time") lusts after a coworker named Billy, gossips with friends and an inciteful neighbor ("he has property, knows everything, and occasionally tells me near-truths about myself.") She pretty much ignores her husband, George. She suffers from gout and is absorbed by her clothing, her home d├ęcor and her cleaner, occasionally her job in electronic music, but mostly is concerned with her love life. When her husband complains, "I am bewildered, and my ego falls down off her plinth." Fun to read. A closing salvo from Min: "I'm able to put up with the present only by attaching it to the future."

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Sunday, January 10, 2021

Homeland ElegiesHomeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 stars. My response to this book was mixed--the writing is smart and skilled and the personal relationships between father and son and male friendships held my interest, but the lengthy discourses on politics and why his Black friend votes Republican. religion, economics, market timing, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Robert Bork, the 45th president, Islamaphobia post September 11th, all dragged in verbosity. One of his more prescient observations: "Trump had just felt the national mood, and his particular genius was a need for attention so craven, so unrelenting, he was willing to don any and every shade of our moment's ugliness, consequences be damned." I've seen and appreciated Akhtar's short, one-act punchy action-filled plays including the Pulitzer-winner, Disgraced. I wanted more of that in the novel, but the author wanted to expound.

Many questions answered in this review:

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Friday, January 1, 2021

What Are You Going Through?

What Are You Going ThroughWhat Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, "What are you going through?”

― Simone Weil

The first half of the book deals mostly with the narrator's attendance at a lecture on the inevitable end of the world and then an amalgam of anecdotes as she meets people who tell her of their suffering. This section moved slowly. The latter half of the book is her attendance on a friend with terminal cancer who is intent on euthanasia and I responded more to this section, in fact laughed out loud at some of its incongruities like the flood, or:
"Flaubert: To think is to suffer.
Aristotle: To perceive is to suffer.
Hitchcock: Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.
Sylvester the Cat: Sufferin' succotash."
The philosophical topics are meaty and many on the decimation of earth, illness, death, friendship and animals' role in our lives. Some consider it a companion piece to The Friend as it deals with similar topics of friendship and aging.
There's not much plot nor even characterization, but I enjoyed the literary references, the quotidian activities caring for each other, the author's telling how to sit with a terminal friend as the earth too is dying.

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