Friday, July 3, 2020

An Interview with Smarty Pants podcast of The American Scholar

The Laughing Maid by Julius LeBlanc Stewart

For the last year and a half I've been hosting a podcast produced by The American Scholar magazine and it's called Read Me a Poem.  If you're interested,  you can check it out here.

AND... drum roll please.... I was recently interviewed by my sister podcast Smarty Pants at The American Scholar.  Here is the link to my interview.

Keep reading, keep listening and do stay in touch!

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Im moving!

This book blog is moving over to The Washington Independent Review of Books as a regular column.  I also continue to review books for them. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

on reading lara vapnyar's divide me by zero

"Lack of love wasn't only empty space. "

What's love MATH got to do with it?

According to Lara Vapnyar in Divide Me By Zero, math can teach us a lot about love.  "Like negative numbers [lack of love] had the ability to multiply and grow, "she writes.  So when Katya's mother dies, leaving a stack of flash cards intended as an outline for her new mathematical textbook, Katya uses them as a self help guide "to sort out the mess I made of my life."

Examining that mess makes for brilliant reading. Each chapter begins with a mathematical precept or formula.  Vapnyar sometimes breaks off along the way in brief asides to the reader.  She's funny, she's poignant but always she is honest.  Her observations are intelligent, fresh and full of life.

Not surprisingly, she gives us the same kind of messy vibrant life  in this book as in her last novel Still Here.  But more so.  This novel takes up some familiar material from that book and explores it from a different perspective.  Again we go from Moscow to New York and explore the immigrant experience - cultural disconnect,  with all its skills and credentials that no longer apply.  Katya and her family must start from zero in America.

"Remember how we couldn't decide if we should bring our down pillow with us,"  Katya's mother asks at one point.  She can’t speak English or find work for which she is qualified. Instead she sits on the sofa all day, with a cup of tea- a closed Russian book on her lap.  "I remembered.  Some people had told us to leave it, but others had insisted that they didn't have good down pillows in the US and they were worth their weight in gold.  Eventually, we decided to ship it. We were shipping tons of books anyway.  All the Russian classics all the math textbooks.  Spent a fortune on postage.  The pillow arrived safely but it turned out to be too big for the American pillow cases, and anyway, it was lumpy and fat and uncomfortable.  We stuffed it in the back of our closet in Brooklyn and it never saw the light of day again. 'I felt like that pillow,' my mother said."

When you divide a number by zero, it turns out that nothing actually happens.  But not all mysteries can be solved. Her mother tells her that, "certain things are simply beyond our grasp or understanding."

While exploring Russian immigrant life, Vapnyar writes about the mystery of love: lost love, rediscovered love, and love that has the power to destroy you from within. The first lost love we learn about is between Katya's parents (her father dies at sea).  Katya's relationship with her mother is thorny and problematic ever afterwards.  Then, at seventeen she falls into desperate and obsessive love with a teacher named B.  Later, we follow the arc of her marriage to Len, the rekindling of her love for B, and a brief affair with a Russian billionaire. 

I lived in Moscow around the time that Vapnyar writes about here, so some of her descriptions really took me back.   The sensibility was so different there, so deeply grounded in the life of the mind rather than the life of the body. When I read her description of the tiny apartment in St Petersburg, where she and Len spend two days when they first fall in love, it recalled the cramped apartment where my son Alex took lessons with a violinist from the Bolshoi Orchestra.

Vapnyar writes: "The bedroom was crowded by boxes of sheet music and various musical instruments in cases covered with sticky dust.  This gave me the strangest sensation - it was as if I had traveled into the middle of the music while being deaf.  I couldn't hear it, but I somehow felt surrounded by music.  To get to the bed we had to climb over the early works of Rachmaninoff and squeeze between two cellos and a double bass.  We lay on that bed, in the exhilarating agony of fruitless touching, because I was too scared to go all the way."

 She uses mathematical formulas to trace the arc of her marriage to Len, to calculate percentages.  She decides she lives in an Escher house, where all the floors work by themselves but don't fit on the same plane.  When she falls in love with B again (who also emigrates from Moscow) she feels as if a whole new room has been added "the room so vast it seemed to open up into another dimension."

Amazing how mathematical formulas can explain love. Take this, for instance: "One way to describe love according to the gospel of math is as a condition that causes a dimensional shift.  The emerging new world that contains love becomes so vast that it opens into an entire new dimension, dwarfing all the worlds that existed in your life before you fell in love."

Or this: "In the first happy period of our love... B and I must have written thousands of emails to each other.  Thousands - I am not exaggerating! But that doesn't mean the other areas of my life suffered.  This is the mathematical miracle of happy love: it can expand in part of your life to a crazy degree without diminishing the others.  I was writing and teaching better than ever; I had more energy for my kids, more patience for Len and more warmth for my mother."

Somehow, for all the losses in her love life, Katya emerges as strong, singular and accomplished - and sure - I feel she is more or less triumphant.  Yet you feel each heartache deeply, all the longing, sobbing and yearning that goes into this rich and fully realized life.  Vapnyar seems to suggest that none of these twists and turns can be helped, nor should they be avoided.  You can't order the heart around, reads a Russian proverb.  "The heart wants what the heart wants," she writes.  Adding cleverly that this "also implied that you had to obey the heart's orders."

#laravapnyar #dividemebyzero #vapnyardivideme

Friday, December 27, 2019

out walking the parapet: all my puny sorrows by miriam toews


When I was a young mother, living in Caracas Venezuela, my in-laws came to visit.  We had a penthouse apartment which overlooked the Avila mountains and a new baby daughter, four months old.  One afternoon, I realized we'd left the baby asleep by herself in the living room, and suddenly I panicked. "Where's the baby?" I asked.

"Oh, she's out walking the parapet,"  my father in law replied calmly.  It was funny at the time - highlighting the unreasonable anxieties that accompany new motherhood. And yet, when I think about it now, I realize that this daughter - now in her early thirties, has always been a person who is likely to be out walking parapets.  That is, she  has always taken risks and flies very high. She also suffers lows. In some ways, she seems overqualified for life: brilliant, insightful and possessing emotional and psychological depths that go beyond the rest of us. In many ways she is our beacon, our high end.  But yet her ability to gaze unrelentingly into the abyss from her tremulous parapets, also makes her prone to despair.

She reminds me a little bit of Elfrieda in Miriam Toew's heartbreaking novel All My Puny Sorrows. Not that my daughter is suicidal like Elfrieda, but that she isn't afraid to visit the depths of human sorrow.  Every silver lining must have its dark cloud.

But on the opposite end of the spectrum live the perennial optimists among us - those whose lightness of touch keeps them immune to despair and helps them survive the same darkest hours.   This kind of person is typified in Lottie, the mother of Elfrieda and Yoli in this novel.

 Maybe you fit in to one of these categories yourself, or you might know others who do.  The title All My Puny Sorrows comes from a Coleridge poem, which reads in part:

I too a SISTER had, an only Sister —
She lov’d me dearly, and I doted on her!
To her I pour’d forth all my puny sorrows,
(As a sick Patient in a Nurse’s arms)
And of the heart those hidden maladies
That shrink asham'd from even Friendship's eye.
O! I have woke at midnight, and have wept,
Because SHE WAS NOT!

Yes, this is a novel about sisters, as well as a novel about two kinds of people.  Yoli is the narrator and mostly she writes about her brilliant sister Elf. But she also writes about her mother Lottie - the optimist, the courageous and dauntless survivor.

Much of the material in this book comes from real life experience.  Like the Von Reisen family in her novel, Miriam Toews grew up in a Canadian Mennonite community, and like Yolandi, Toews lived through and beyond family suicides.  This novel will break your heart with its honesty, its humor, its bravery and intelligence,  even as it nourishes you with its fearlessness.  It takes you to the depths but doesn't leave you there.

 Has there ever been a more charming, beguiling and exasperating character than Elfrieda Von Reisen? She's beautiful and a brilliant pianist who feels like she has a glass piano inside her which might break any moment.  Yoli her younger sister is a mess by comparison.  She has two children by two different men and is raising them alone and she's also struggling to make ends meet by writing a series of rodeo books. She has none of the glamor, money or security of her sister who has a wonderful husband at her side. Nic is not only emotionally intelligent but he has interests of his own and dotes on Elf. 

 So why does Elf want to end her life?

"Did Elf have a terminal illness?" Yoli wonders early in the novel.  "Was she cursed genetically from day one to want to die? was every seemingly happy moment from her past, every smile, every heartfelt hug and laugh and exuberant fist pump and triumph just a temporary detour from her innate longing for release and oblivion?"  

There isn't an answer.  Except that Elf feels things too deeply.  She wants to end her life because she cannot bear it.  Early in the book, she cant bring herself to celebrate Christmas with the family. Instead she stays in the bathroom banging her head against the wall while Yoli "wanted to see her weird eyes flash happiness while she told hilarious stories using the occasional French or Italian word ... I wanted to sit next to her and feel the heart she radiated the energy of a fearless leader, a girl who moved easily in the world, my older sister. "

One of the men in Yoli's life - who is also a musician and more in love with Elf than with Yoli - is not surprised to hear about Elf's suffering. Once he heard her  play in Prague.  And "when I listened to her play I felt I should not be there in the same room with her. There were hundreds of people but nobody left - it was a private pain," he says. " By private I mean to say unknowable.  Only the music knew and it held secrets so that her playing was a puzzle, a whisper, and people afterwards stood in the bar and drank and said nothing because they were complicit." 

I should also mention that this novel is wickedly funny.  The survivors!  The desperation!  The craziness of life  with all its puny setbacks comes across as exuberant and brave. For instance, at one point, while his wife Elf is in the ICU after a suicide attempt, Nic notices that his eyes seem always to be running clear liquid.

"You're crying Nic," Yoli tells him.  "That's what they call crying. But all the time, he asks.  I'm not even conscious of it then.  It's a new kind of crying I said for new times."

And then there's Lottie,  Elf and Yoli's amazing mother, an online Scrabble player who survives it all - who makes friends with everybody, who keeps on going no matter what - reading murder mysteries, following sports, ever the eternal optimist.  She has survived her husband's suicide, and her niece's suicide, and when her sister Tina is in the cardio unit after suffering a heart attack and  her daughter Elf is in the ICU  she remarks, "Everyone will survive eventually."

But let's be clear: it's not as though Elf is incapable of helping others to survive.  She helps Yoli survive a heartbreak early in the novel by sending her letters - a quote from a Paul Valery poem one word per letter "so that it took me months to figure out. Breath, dream, silence, invincible, calm, you will triumph."

And how about the way she chases off a sanctimonious Mennonite priest who visits her in the psych ward by doing a striptease to a Philip Larkin poem!

In the end this novel is a plea for understanding human nature. We have survival instincts,  but some of us also have instincts to end it all.  And if you love somebody who pleads with you to help them end their life, what are you supposed to do? Do you help them do it, or do you fight them  and become their enemy?

At one point Toews quotes Goethe:  "Suicide is an event of human nature which, whatever may be said and done with respect to it, demands the sympathy of every man , and in every epoch must be discussed anew."

Above all, in order to survive something we have to know what it is we are surviving. I've found this an interesting question to ask myself.  What am I surviving?

All My Puny Sorrows is a deeply compassionate, exuberant, funny and heartbreaking book about sisterhood, family and the difficult task of survival.

#miriamtoews #mypunysorrows #bookclubreadsisters

Saturday, December 7, 2019

winesburg ohio - characters of a bygone community - VIDEO

William Faulkner called Sherwood Anderson "the father of my whole generation of writers." So why have I had Winesburg Ohio by Sherwood Anderson on my shelf for years and never been drawn to it?  I always felt I should read it.  It was highly recommended by Alan Cheuse when I did my MFA in Fiction at George Mason University.   Now, thanks to our Classic Book Discussion group I've finally read it,  and now I can see what they were going on about.  Because this is a book which excites you, not just as a reader but also as a writer.  As a writer you are blown away by the economy, the skill and the angle into the stories and you  can't wait to try and imitate them, have a go at the same technique.  Easier said than done for sure.

Anderson tells us in the opening pages, that "in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as truth."  But, he continues, "The moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque, and the truth he embraced became a falsehood."

It is the false premises and resultant shortcomings and private tragedies that draw you into the inner world of each character.  Characters may sometimes appear in more than one story. In one they might be  the main character, only to pop up in the background of another story. For example, Dr Reefy, the main character in "Paper Pills"  writes fragments of thoughts on scraps of paper,  then balls them up in his pockets.  He appears again in "Death" the story I recorded above. They make up the fabric of an entire community, which is chiefly united in George Willard, the local newspaper reporter. 

Helen White runs through several of the stories. She's the banker's daughter and numerous young men are in love with or want to be in love with her.  Then there is Alice Hindman who after a brief love affair with Ned Currie, becomes obsessed with him to no avail, and eventually winds up "trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg."

There are many local crack-pots - Ebenezer Crowley and his weird son Elmer, Wash Williams who is so dirty even the whites of his eyes look soiled, and Mook the halfwit who when surprised will sometimes exclaim, "Well well, I'll be washed and ironed and starched!"

There's a lot about temptation in these stories- and private sexual or romantic attachments.  Reverend Curtis Hartman is tempted by the vision of Kate Swift the school teacher, as she lies on her bed reading and smoking.  He realizes later that she is a new "and more beautiful fervor of the Spirit.  That God "has appeared to me in the person of Kate Swift... an instrument of God, bearing the message of truth."  Kate appears in another story where she teaches the boy George Willard in school and urges him not to be  "a mere peddler of words.  The thing to learn is what people are thinking about not what they say."

 As I read,  I found that some of the stories blended together - and others utterly eluded me.  But I always felt myself excited by the brisk pacing, the way the truths these people lived by however flimsy - pulled each story forward, by the extraordinary economy, impetus and beauty of Anderson's language and by the rhythm of the sentences.  I got a full sense of a completely bygone world - by the preoccupations of a town based on agriculture, just at the outset of industrialization - a post civil war America and what it must actually have been like to live during these times.

I was reminded of Hemingway - because of the economy of language. But also of Alice Munro because the center of each story often seems elusive and because of that, all the more haunting.

Monday, November 25, 2019

toppled statues of ourselves - on reading john banville's the sea

What if being yourself means being a less interesting, less moral, less ethical and less sympathetic person than you'd prefer to be.  What if it means drastically lowering your standards and expectations? What if being you means being someone you don't particularly like or respect?

These questions aren't posed directly in John Banville's award winning novel The Sea but they are implicit and, for me, quite depressing.  There was maybe one, and one character only in this novel who was likeable.  The rest were bitter, pretentious, greedy or just plain cruel.  No wonder the protagonist Max Morden admits towards the end of the book that, "from earliest days I wanted to be someone else.  I was always a distinct no-one, one whose fiercest wish was to be an indistinct someone." He says that this is why he was drawn to Anna, the wife whose death he is mourning throughout the novel.

What, I wondered, could be an indistinct someone?  I guess he must mean a fuzzy, fabricated personality -one who appears to be better than they are, one who bears no scrutiny. Anna,  Max explains "was the fairground mirror in which all my distortions would be made straight."  Now that's a terrifying insight.

Max Morden is a middle aged art historian who allows everyone to imagine he is writing a great book on Pierre Bonnard.  In fact he's only finished one chapter, and none of his remaining notes add up to anything original.  Now that his wife has died he has decided to recover from grief by revisiting the deep past. So he takes a room in a holiday town where he used to go as a child - a room in the same house that was rented by the Grace family, who left an indelible impression on the young Max.  It was in this house that he first experienced sexual desire, "a rapturous lovesick grief" and in this town where he first encountered death- a tragedy from which he has never recovered, and which isn't explained til the end of the book.

Returning to this town which has changed very little in the intervening years, Max feels he has "at last arrived at the destination to where, all along, without knowing it I had been bound, and where I must stay, it being for now the only possible place, the only possible refuge for me."

But why is this a refuge? Why, on the heels of his wife's death must he relive such painful episodes from his childhood?  Could it be because childhood was the last time he was authentic, or felt anything deeply?

The past, and what the past means, and how a child's imagination allows him to invent or imagine a promising future - is central to the novel.  Banville writes about Max picturing his future self - "not so much anticipating the future as nostalgic for it, since what in my imaginings was to come was in reality already gone.  Was it actually the future I was looking forward to or something beyond the future?"

During his wife's illness, the past provides refuge - memories of their early courtship - because once she has received her terminal diagnosis they can no longer be honest with each other.   Leaving the doctor's office with bad news "we walked out into the day as if we were stepping on to a new planet, one where no one lived but us."

On the sentence level The Sea is  truly masterful. From the very first pages I was fully immersed in a world of childhood seaside holidays. Take this description of Max's first encounter with Myles Grace.  "A boy of my age was draped on the green gate, his arms hanging limply down from the top bar, propelling himself with one foot slowly back and forth in a quarter circle over the gravel...As I walked slowly past, and indeed I may even have paused, or faltered, rather, he stuck the toe of his plimsoll into the gravel to stop the swinging gate and looked at me with an expression of hostile enquiry.  It was the way we all looked at each other, we children, on first encounter..."   Several paragraphs later,  Banville seems to read my mind. "Plimsoll," he writes.  "Now there's a word one does not hear any more, or rarely, very rarely."

my cozy place to read

I've made this little book nook in my library/bedroom,  and last Sunday I sat reading The Sea and looking out of the window, with my greyhounds sleeping at my side.  It was a little slice of heaven, so why did I come out at the end of it feeling unsettled?

It's because the process of reading this novel was an act of unmasking. The protagonist, who from the beginning of the novel you trust and sympathize with, became a person capable of gratuitous cruelty, one without much depth or emotional intelligence. A person with no real present.  A person who was not living in the present.  It is the past for him which "beats inside me like a second heart."

And what a past it was.  The Grace family with whom he'd been so enthralled turn out to be quite unpleasant people.  Max's first sexual feelings are for Mrs Grace who for some unknown reason "was at once a wraith of my imagination and a woman of unavoidable flesh and blood, of fibre, and musk and milk."

Then there are the twins who are his own age - Chloe and her brother Myles "like two magnets but turned the wrong way, pulling and pushing."  The twins enjoy hurting each other.  Chloe is a nasty, cruel and capricious person and being in a room with Myles, we are told, "was like being in a room which someone had just violently left."

Finally, by the end of the novel when everything has unraveled, the past is revealed as not so much a refuge as a distraction from the miserable and intolerable present and the still more bleak looking future.

Am I glad I read this book? Well, I will say this.  I'm impressed with Banville's ability to craft beautiful sentences.  But the whole of this book, for me at least, did not add up to the sum of its parts.

#banvillethesea #theseanovel

Monday, November 18, 2019

character is fate in the mayor of casterbridge

An impetuous, headstrong man doubles down on his worst decisions.  By the time he regrets it,  it's much too late, so he makes up for his mistakes out of obligation. And so his life becomes a form of penance.

This is in essence the arc of Michael Henchard, the protagonist of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge.  Henchard is fated and flawed but somehow  he's still sympathetic.  Maybe it's because we recognize his behavior - or might have met someone like him.   His forceful personality leads you to believe he is capable of greatness.  But instead he's a spectacular failure.  Why?  Because "the momentum of his character knew no patience."  What a brilliant  description of character is that!

The novel begins with a famously shocking scene: Henchard selling his young wife Susan (and their baby daughter) at a country fair.  He's drunk, of course -so it all starts off with a provocative drunken observation that men should be allowed to sell their wives when they tire of them.  But the joke gets carried too far and somebody steps forward. Susan accepts the man's offer and then disappears, along with their baby daughter Elizabeth Jane.

After this, Hardy wastes no time getting into the heart of the story.  Fast forward in Chapter 2, fifteen odd years later to the return of Susan and her grown daughter Elizabeth Jane, making their way to Casterbridge, where they discover that Henchard has moved up in the world and now become mayor.

Yes, suspension of disbelief is most definitely required. But one of the things that makes this novel so fascinating is the way in which Hardy switches up conditions and circumstances, playing them out with different results, depending on the characters.  Both Susan and Henchard's former mistress Lucetta pursue Henchard to Casterbridge, for example, and both try their luck at  holding him to his obligations, with different results.

Henchard subsequently wrongs one woman in order to honor the other. Then his employee, friend and rival Donald Farfrae does precisely the same sort of thing with Elizabeth Jane and Lucetta.

You sense a kind of fever building up - in the episode with a loose bull they encounter on a walk, for instance. Hardy suggests here that it doesn't matter who the man or woman happen to be in a given encounter. What matters is the high emotion at play,  which inclines the relationship to become sexually or romantically charged.

Impulse plays a major role in many of the plot twists.  Hechard sells his wife on impulse. Henchard and Farfrae become business associates on impulse. And Elizabeth Jane becomes engaged in Lucetta's household, also purely on impulse.

Meanwhile although Farfrae's temperament is the exact opposite of Henchard's, he experiences exactly the same kinds of opportunities and setbacks. Farfrae shows himself to be more admirable because of his morality and even temper. Thus he ends up trumping Henchard, inhabiting his home, marrying his mistress, winning the love of Elizabeth Jane and achieving professional success, while Henchard falls into emotional and financial ruin.

You find yourself wondering if Henchard will ever do the right thing and get rewarded for it.  The answer is - no, he never will.  He tries to do the right thing often enough, but since he does it out of obligation - he's never rewarded for his efforts. His life becomes a kind of penance for his impulsive and rash behavior.

The roles of the women in this novel are also fascinating.  For a start, look at Susan Henchard (Newson).  She's supposedly simple and naive, admitting that "foolishly I believed there was something solomn and binding in the bargain" when she was sold to Newson.  But is she really so simple?  After all she's clever enough to leave Newson when it seems prudent, and then to disguise the true identity of her daughter in order to protect her.  She also writes anonymous letters in an attempt to match make her daughter and Farfrae.

Elizabeth Jane in contrast to Henchard is circumspect and restrained - and in spite of her strong feelings for Farfrae she "corks up the turmoil of her feeling with grand control."  She is loving to Henchard when he least deserves it and always carries herself with dignity.  She reflects at one point that "What she had desired had not been granted her and that what had been granted her she had not desired."

To take it a step further, Elizabeth Jane loses Farfrae because she doesn't declare her love.  Lucetta's experience is precisely the opposite.  She declares her love for Henchard, makes a fool of herself,  and not only loses him as a result,  but ultimately loses everything else as well.  She's guilty only of wanting to control her fate. Her mistake is to have been too open with her feelings.

There's so much to admire and enjoy in this novel.  And let's not forget the wonderful local characters - which rival Shakespeare's rude mechanicals and village personalities.  Who can forget the  ghastly Furmity woman, Jopp or Abel Whittle  and his trousers - and the Peter's Finger pub where all the lowlifes hang out and plot the terrible "skimmity ride."   Village life and the life of Casterbridge  and the history buried in its hillsides is indelibly linked to the life of the town.

"Casterbridge announced old Rome in every street alley and precinct," Hardy writes.  "It looked Roman bespoke the art of Rome, concealed dead men of Rome. It was impossible to dig more than a foot or two deep about the town fields and gardens without coming upon some tall soldier or other of the Empire, who had lain there in his silent unobtrusive rest for a space of fifteen hundred years He was mostly found lying on his side, in an oval scoop of chalk..."

A place like this seems worlds away  -  centuries removed from our lives today. But yet the psychology of the characters couldn't feel more pertinent, more vivid or more fresh.
#mayorofcasterbridge #michaelhenchard #thomashardy