Tuesday, September 5, 2017

"The War Between the Tates" by Alison Lurie

When I read pre-20th century novels, I enjoy learning about tea cups and carriages and primogeniture. With equal pleasure, I've just read a novel about a less distant time when people made coffee in a pot over a hot flame, abortions were illegal and everyone read their horoscope. Welcome to 1974 and "The War Between the Tates". It's about a family divorcing - the parents from  each other, the kids from the parents and the parents from the kids. (No, they are not the same thing.) It is a finely observed novel about the manner and mode of family. The mother misses the young incarnation of her teen kids whom she now despises and watches the woman she sees in the mirror grow more and more powerless each day. The father decides that he can take the kids in limited doses and that there's no good reason why he can't have a wife and a mistress.  The wife complains about the financial power and freedom that men have, but at the same time considers men who don't have money or who don't exploit that power as unworthy of her. The wife is more aware than Betty Draper is, but not by much. She is more discontent and more free, but still doesn't see that she is part of her own problem. (I wonder if I would have seen it had I read this in the seventies.) 
The plaint of the 40 year old, upper-middle class, American divorcee may seem pedestrian. But in the hands of the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Alison Lurie, this book becomes a folk song for the women who become wise well after the choices that define their lives have been made.
Some critics say that the description of the college setting and the discussion of social issues don't hold up well. I disagree. She is writing in the near aftermath of the 60's. With our 2017 ears we should listen to how a contemporaneous author heard it. The sounds of the the disconnect between the establishment's love of drink versus the youth's worship of pot, the fringe, the new age book stores and the call of California communes - it is all here.
Recommended for people who like "the way we live now" types of novels like "Freedom" or novels about the older female condition - like "Mrs. Dalloway", "Wife" or "Olive Kitteridge".


Monday, September 4, 2017

"Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin"

"Autobiography of Ben Franklin"

The best parts are his warm and nostalgic descriptions of walking up and into Philadelphia from the wharf area for the first time and buying bread at the Quaker meeting house. If you've been on those streets you can just imagine it! He was an old school opportunist - what we call an "entrepreneur" today. Fun to hear his rendition of the rather casual start of Univ of Pennsylvania. He does before finishing and didn't include much of his personal life. Truly would have been interesting to hear more about his fascinating life from him.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Holy Grail of Literature: A Popular & Literary Novel

Every time I read a book that is somewhat related to The Great Gatsby or Fitzgerald, I find something new and important. In this case in the A. Scott Berg biography of Max Perkins, Fitzgerald's editor, I discovered that after Fitzgerald's death they found a letter written to himself.

It read: " I want to write scenes that are frightening and inimitable. I don't want to be as intelligible to my contemporaries as [Hemingway] who, as Gertrude Stein said, is bound for the museums. I am far enough ahead to have some small immortality if I can keep well."

Wow. Perhaps this is why he never explained the novel and he never said it was a failure despite low sales. His book was not understood  by his contemporary audience  and now it appears that a part of him didn't exactly want it to be or at least knew it wouldn't be. It seems that he was trying to write about the meaning and direction of our culture even though we could not realize it at the time. In that way the book would become a classic. His desire for commercial success and longevity were in conflict. From that conflict came a novel that is known to ride the edge between popular and literary fiction.

This one little letter to himself says so much.

"Silk" by Alessandro Baricco

In about 79 full pages this international best seller is an historical novel about the silk trade in 19th C Japan and France, but is also an adventure novel and a love story and a fable and a prose poem. Some readers will feel fireworks and others (like me ) will feel but 1 or 2 wondrous "poofs". This is my "Ratatouille" book.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

2 Ladies in My Life

"2 Ladies in My Life"

One was pretty sure she'd seen her last race riot on some forgotten date in the '70's. The other thought she would never see a race riot in her lifetime.

One sat quietly by my side, wondering what her future will be. One wept quietly into my ear, wondering what her past meant.

Me? I forgot to cry. I forgot to scream.


I am undeterred untired unafraid unapologetic.

I fight.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

"The Nest" - This is Not a Criticism

"The Nest" sat atop the nation's best seller list for months. Just a few pages in I can see why. It opens with familiar if not fresh observations at a wedding that is in a setting that we wish we'd be familiar with and the writing is direct.
The first thing I noticed was the grammatical inconsistency ON THE FIRST PAGE!
This is not a criticism.
It is a reminder that perfection is the enemy of good.
And now I must go write.

(But the devilish angel on my shoulder whispers "What happens if you want more than good?")


"Mr Gwyn" by Alessandro Baricco

Plot: A novelist stops writing books to write portraits. (It's a spoiler to explain how he does that.) The main character unspools his built life and builds another; he leaves one deceptively precise job to start a unique project that also requires creative precision. Readers find this book engaging and affecting, but for a wide range of reasons.  I like the "you can create a new story for  yourself, but you are still the same person" angle. It defies review. 

This is a stylishly written book about a gossamer idea. I look forward to seeing how well he marries that style to content when I read his other well received novels that have more of a story.

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"The War Between the Tates" by Alison Lurie