Iris Murdoch. The Sea, The Sea

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J.M.W. Turner, “Sunrise with Sea Monsters,” c. 1845

I was wary about reading Murdoch again after Under the Net, which I didn’t enjoy at all. This one had everything that I love in life and don’t often find united in a novel: elaborate planning for simple tasty lunches; the English seaside; ludicrous and highly improbable action (a sea monster? Can anything more awesome possibly show up in a heretofore realist novel?); and a lot of thought about how to be good and how to love.
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Katherine Mansfield. The Collected Stories & The Garden Party

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After reading The Garden Party in April 2009:
This will not be a terribly thoughtful review, just an expression of excitement. I don’t know how I got this far in my life without anybody telling me what a wonderful writer Katherine Mansfield was. She was a master of the modern short story. When I consider most of the 20C short story collections I’ve read, I think that Mansfield got there first, and did it better. And there was a terrible moment when I saw why Virginia Woolf felt so threatened by her, because, if I’d read the book with no cover or front matter, I’d have thought, Wow, Virginia’s in really good form here! I’d only have been puzzled by the references to New Zealand.
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Zadie Smith. On Beauty

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József Rippl-Rónai, “Kitchen Detail”

My first Zadie Smith, and fantastic. Smith nails her Forster. It is SO right. She totally understands that “only connect” doesn’t actually work as a motto or guiding principle for life. Life requires so much more than that, and Smith shows you the hows and whys, with such humor and pathos and BEAUTY. If you love Forster, this is a magnificent tribute. If you don’t love Forster, you will. Because it’s so fantastic, I’ll go ahead and say that I think her view of U.S. university employment is a bit off. And, she really skewers some of her characters in a way that makes me slightly uncomfortable, a Mavis Gallant kind of uncomfortable. But it’s such a wonderful book that you feel kind of grateful that there are errors, and places where she might lean a little too hard, because otherwise you might just go insane with pleasure.
Read: March 2014

Caryl Phillips. The Nature of Blood

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This was my first time reading Phillips, and I was amazed that nobody had recommended him to me before; I’ll be reading the rest of his books in short order. Phillips is careful to particularize the experiences of different people/s (both the individual and, more to the point, the group), yet his use of collage reveals surprising affinities between the stories. “Affinities” is the best word I can think of to describe that effect, and these affinities are the reason you should read the book. There is no true link or likeness between the stories of Othello and of Eva, the concentration camp survivor whose story also bears an affinity to the life of Anne Frank, but there are unexpected affinities that result from juxtaposition, word choice, and the other intervening stories. It’s a subtle, artful effect.
Read Oct. 2007

Patrick White. Voss

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Pimelea linifolia

I loved White’s The Tree of Man and am surprised it took me so long to get around to reading Voss, especially since it’s a kind of neo-Victorian novel about a naturalist with delusions of grandeur and the angry, abrasive woman who loves him—and I’m all over that kind of thing. White reproduces the Victorian novelists’ style, character study, and themes with a gift for description that is dizzying, the way that spending too much time with a micro- or telescope can be dizzying: the perspective is off; one sees too much too close; we see veins pulsing and receding under the skin while people think, and smell the ants moving in the dirt, and come to experience soiled gloves and dying mules and cloud shadows as expressions of will. Through the huge cast of of characters, whose skins—not just their minds—White sets out to inhabit, he asks good questions: how does a god become a man, when the people around him believe him to be a man trying to become godlike? Is apotheosis a solitary or communal effort? What is humiliation? How does a 20th-century novelist find ways to collapse boundaries between individual and community when he confines himself to writing in a Victorian style about Victorian characters? And, given those self-imposed constraints, how does he speak about class, gender, race, and religion? Wondrous stuff.

Read April 2009

David Shipler. The Working Poor: Invisible in America

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A manager at Barnes & Nobles told me that this was a great book because it shifted blame for the problems of the poor onto the poor, thus holding them accountable and providing room for personal responsibility. Hardly a compelling case for me! So for a long time, I didn’t read it. But now I have, and what the B&N guy said was a gross oversimplification and misreading. Rather, what Shipler does is link the formation and transmission of emotional and psychological problems to systemic problems, showing how they interplay to form patterns of poverty. I.e., growing up poor puts people at risk, while being white, coming from stable families, having good health, speaking English, and having role models are all things that can lessen risk, though even then it’s precarious. It’s not about personal responsibility: it’s about the formation of personal and political in each other. The writing and the stories are great. It’s such a good book that I wonder how some asshole like that B&N manager could come away from it with entirely the wrong conclusions.

Read Dec. 2007

John Cheever. The Stories of John Cheever

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Photo: Andre Zand-Vakili

We read Cheever not because we love stories about the suburbs, but because Cheever shows us that a wild imagination can’t be bound even by the suburbs. We enjoy the quality of observation, the dialogue, the air-tight construction (and what he teaches us about form both in every example and over the course of the collection), but we read him for those moments when his stories take wing to escape cliche, banality, and the mundane. The stories “Goodbye, My Brother,” “The Five Forty-Eight,” “The Country Husband,” and, famously, “The Swimmer” are purely astonishing. Even a fairly low-profile story will spring upon you with a a single perfect paragraph (“The Death of Justina” with its English muffin). There are gothic horror, a sudden, latent sensuality, and a tenderness for little children; there are collages and fantasies and ruptures that remind me of Barthelme; there is a whole world riding that commuter train.
Read May 2011