Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

Andrew Sean Greer was born in November 1970, in Washington, D.C., the son of two scientists.  He studied writing at Brown University, and after years in New York working as a chauffeur, television extra and unsuccessful writer, he moved to Missoula, Montana, where he received a master of fine arts degree from the University of Montana.  He soon moved to Seattle, where he wrote for Nintendo and taught community college, then to San Francisco where he began to publish in magazines such as Esquire, The Paris Review, and The New Yorker before releasing a collection of his stories, How It Was for Me.  The New York Times Book Review praised it, commenting that "Greer's descriptive talents are immense."  His first novel, The Path of Minor Planets was a critical success.  I first encountered Greer on the publication of his second novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli.  His powers of description are a wonder to behold.  The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is his fourth novel and fifth book.

Greta Wells Lives in New York City in 1985.  In the late fall of that year, she suffers a mental breakdown, and he physician husband recommends Dr. Cerletti, who administers a series of 25 electro convulsive therapy procedures.  When she awakens from each session, she is still in her room, but the date has changed from 1985 to 1918, and after the next treatment from 1918 to 1941, then back to 1985. 

Although Greta refers to herself as a “time-traveler,” I think this is misleading.  Since each of the three time periods she visits has the same characters, relationships, and locations, something else must be afoot.  Greer grew up in a scientifically inclined family, so perhaps The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is an attempt to demonstrate the relatively new theory of the “multi-verse” construct of the universe. 

As I began the novel, interest and curiosity quickly took over.  Since the novel Max Tivoli is the story of a man born old, who tumbles back into his childhood, I prepared myself for a wild ride.  The next chapter perplexed me however.  The voice changed and the prose seemed formulaic.  But I plowed on, and gradually accustomed myself to Greer’s style in his latest novel.  I am glad I did. 

The novel grew on me, and became an interesting exploration of mistakes made and attempts to remedy those errors and alter the other two Greta’s lives into something which fir more closely their dreams.

Greer still has an impressive talent for description.  He writes, “I lay there for a long time trying to make sense of what I saw.  Sunlight and shadow.  Striped satin and lace.  A piece of fabric hanging over me, dappled by the sun and leaves, billowing slightly from the open window.  The sound of a steam whistle, and the clatter of hooves.  Striped satin and lace; it was quite beautiful, moving in slow waves above me, just as my mind had been moving in waves as I awoke: a canopy bed.  My eyes moved down to take in the rest of the room, which was lit with the same watery refracted light.  My breath began to quicken.  Because the bed I had fallen asleep in had no posters, no fabric.  And the room I saw before me was not my room (27-28).

Greta flits from one period to another trying to fix things without revealing exactly who she is.  Only her best friend, her Aunt Ruth, knew the truth and told 1985 Greta the plans and activities of the 1918 and the 1941 Greta.  Suddenly, I could not put it down!  And I bet you can’t either!  5 Stars

--Chiron, 5/25/14

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

I share a birthday with Orhan Pamuk born in Istanbul in 1952.  He grew up in a large family in a wealthy, westernized district of Turkey.  According to his official website, until the age of 22 he dreamed of becoming an artist.  He graduated from Robert College in Istanbul, and then studied architecture at Istanbul Technical but abandoned this course for a degree in journalism from Istanbul University.  He never worked as a journalist.  At the age of 23 Pamuk decided to become a novelist and retreated into his flat and began to write.  Orhan’s books have been translated into 46 languages, and he has won numerous literary awards in Turkey and Europe.  He was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the second youngest person to receive the award in its history.  Apart from three years teaching in New York, Orhan Pamuk has spent his entire life in the same streets and district of Istanbul.  He now lives in the building where he was raised.  Pamuk has been writing novels for 30 years and never had any other job except writing.

I always read at least one work by each year’s Nobel Laureate.  This habit has led me to discover many great writers—Saramago, Kurtesz, White, and a few others.  Snow by Orhan Pamuk is one complex novel – but don’t let that stop you!  Pamuk has told an intricate tale with lots of interesting characters.  The mystery narrator of the novel, reveals himself at the end, and that is a big surprise.  The story is absorbing, and the history and politics provide the reader with lots the twists and turns.

At first, I thought I might not get through Snow, but something kept pulling me along.  I began to build up speed, and, about a third of the way through, I was captivated.  I could barely put it down over the last 150 pages.  A description of another of his novels intrigued me, and like the multiplication of cats, one good book leads to a full shelf. 

For me, the beginning of a novel holds great importance.  The opening lines can bore, intrigue, cause laughter, or tears.  Pamuk intrigues when he writes of Ka an exiled poet, who returns to his home village: “The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus driver.  If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called the thing he felt inside him the silence of the snow.  //  He’d boarded the bus from Erzurum to Kars with only seconds to spare.  He’d just come into the station on a bus from Istanbul – a snowy, stormy, two-day journey – and was rushing up and down the dirty wet corridors with his bag in tow, looking for his connection, when someone told him the bus for Kars was leaving immediately” (3).  Pamuk mixes quiet introspection with the rush and hustle of the outside world.

I did notice a couple of missing pieces of the cultural puzzle which would have helped me appreciate the story more.  But the prose of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow is reward enough.  4½ stars.

--Chiron, 6/25/14

Stoner by John Williams

In a recent review, I mentioned my predilection for novels about books, book stores, and English Professors.  A day or so after writing the review, Stoner by John Williams came to my attention.  I had never heard of Williams or any of his works.  Scant information is available, and what I could find out remains largely undocumented.

Williams was born in northeast Texas in 1922.  His grandparents were poor farmers, and his first attempt at a junior college ended in failure after one year.  He joined the Army Air Corps during World War II, and while serving completed a draft of his first novel.  After discharge from the military, he moved to Colorado, and enrolled at the University of Denver.  He completed a BA in 1949 and an MA in 1950.  During this time, his first two books were published, a novel and a book of poetry.  He enrolled in the PhD program at the University of Missouri, which he completed in 1954.  He then returned to the University of Denver and became an assistant professor.  He remained in Denver until his retirement in 1985.  He died in 1994.  (Sources: various book reviews).

His third novel, Stoner, published in 1948, tells the tale of an English Professor at the University of Missouri.  William Stoner came from dirt poor farmers in Missouri.  His uneducated parents sent him to the University on the advice of a county agent, who suggested the young man could learn about modern agricultural techniques.  While a student, William lived with a cousin of his mothers, and helped work their farm.

During his first semester, he took agricultural classes and a survey of English Literature with the forbidding Archer Sloane.  He failed the class, but he was bitten with the mystery and beauty of literature.  He changed his major and completed a BA, then an MA and began teaching.  Then World War I interrupted the plans of many students and faculty who rushed off to fight for Democracy.  William did not enlist, but rather applied for and received a deferment.  He completed a PhD, and because of a shortage of faculty, was hired as an assistant professor.

Stoner is one of those rare novels which has such beauty, grace, and wisdom I was captivated from page one.  Williams writes, “Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers” (4).  Stoner switched to English Literature because it “troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done before” (10).  As time passed, Professor Sloane asked Stoner what he intended to do with his life.  Stoner did not have a clue.  “‘But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner? … Don’t you understand about yourself yet?  You’re going to be a teacher.’  ‘Are you sure?’  ‘I’m sure,’ Sloane said softly” (20).  I could easily quadruple the length of this review with many more passages marked and underlined as wonderful as this.

This intelligent, thoughtful novel tracks an event which alters Stoner forever.  The prose is filled with literary references, philosophical musings, along with a dash of bitters and some drops of sweetness.  I nearly read this book in a single sitting.  I found myself identifying with William Stoner on many levels.  In fact, I think I will take that rarest of steps and read it again … now!  A mere five point scale simply will not do.  8 stars.  

--Chiron, 5/17/14

--Chiron, 5/17/14

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush

Occasionally, a second or third read of an author I admire comes off as something of a disappointment. Norman Rush won the National Book Award in 1991 for his first novel, Mating.  This novel explores the idea and the practice of love, and is set in Botswana.  It tells the story of a young woman working on a thesis in anthropology.  She comes to a dead end in her research, but then falls in love with a mysterious man who claims to have established a utopian society in a remote corner of the Kalahari Desert.  I found the novel – which I read at the urging of a close friend – to be exciting, and strangely disturbing, while revealing much about the nature of love.  Rush is a slow writer, so I lost track of his second novel, Mortals, but I grabbed his latest work, Subtle Bodies. 

At first, I felt a slight disinterest in the characters – five friends from their years at NYU – four of whom reassemble for a funeral to memorialize their “leader.”  However, something else about the characters, what they thought of each other and themselves and what role each played in the friendship, captured my attention.

Ned receives the news of Douglas’ death while deeply immersed in organizing the antiwar marches trying to prevent the invasion of Iraq after 9/11.  He rushes off to the funeral while he and his wife, Nina, are trying to conceive.  Nina chases after him to take advantage of a propitious moment in their endeavor.  Elliot is a lawyer and a stockbroker who has advised Douglas and his wife, Iva.  Gruen and Joris round out the quintet.

Iva tries to dictate every detail of the memorial service, and, as to be expected, the four friends recoil in horror.  Joris wants to leave.  Rush writes, “Ned was having a particularly strong reaction to Joris leaving.  Partly it was selfish because he hadn’t finished the task of putting together what they had all been, with what they were now.  And the question was still there of whether their true interior selves – the subtle bodies inside – were still there and functioning despite what age and accident and force of circumstance may have done to hurt them.  He meant something like that  … that when they had become friends it had been a friendship established between subtle bodies, by which he meant the ingredients of what they were to be …” (198).

Nina is a feisty young woman, who adds a lot of spice and color to the story.  She watches a woman reading, and, as Rush explains, “[Nina] always wanted to know what people were reading.  I can’t help it, she thought” (6).  “[S]he couldn’t interrupt this person when she was reading.  Because reading was sacred” (7).  A person after my own heart! 

Alert: this is an adult novel with a couple of explicit scenes when Ned and Nina work on their “project.”  Nonetheless, it is a gripping story, and as I learned more and more about the characters, I became more and more interested in them.  For the slow start, however, I must give Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush 4-1/2 Stars.

--Chiron, 5/14/14

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

When it comes to literary fiction, I have four preferences: novels about books, novels set in bookstores, novels about English Professors, and novels from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.  The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin encompasses all these elements. 

According to her website, “Gabrielle Zevin’s writing career began at 14 years of age when an angry letter to her local newspaper about a Guns ‘n’ Roses concert resulted in a job as a music critic.  She has published several novels for adults and young people, and she has written about female soldiers in Iraq, mafia princesses in a retro-future New York City, teenage girls in the afterlife, talking dogs, amnesiacs, and the difficulties of loving one person over many years.  Her first novel, Elsewhere, has been translated into over 20 languages. She is also the screenwriter of the cult hit Conversations with Other Women.  Fikry is her eighth novel, published in April of 2014.

A.J. Fikry suffers from the devastation of losing his wife in a tragic car accident, and seems to be slowly spiraling into alcoholism.  He half-heartedly runs “Island Books,” where he emphasizes literary fiction, and refuses to carry books he doesn’t like – even if they are popular best sellers.  One day, Amelia Loman, the book rep from Knightley Press makes the first call of her new job to Island Books.  A.J. has ignored the emails, because he did not recognize the name, so Amelia’s visit comes as a surprise.  He treats her rudely, and she leaves discouraged, but not before leaving A.J. with a galley of an old novel, which she loves.  Shortly after her visit, three things happen which change the course of A.J.’s life: he regrets his rudeness to Amelia, his prized possession a first edition of the extremely rare book of poems by Edgar Allen Poe, Tamerlane  is stolen, and someone abandons a toddler in the store.  A.J. begins bonding with the child, and when the body of a young woman washes up on the shore a few days later, the police discover the baby, now named Maya, is her child.  A.J. adopts the child, and his interest in life and the bookstore are reinvigorated.

One of the things I love about this book is the easy conversational manner of the prose.  I felt as if I had begun an extended conversation about novels and writing.  A.J.’s personal preference in reading involves short stories, and each chapter begins with a brief note about a story he enjoys.  Why he does this becomes clear in the end.

Gabrielle Zevin and friend
Maya quickly develops a love of reading.  Zevin writes, “The first way Maya approaches a book is to smell it.  She strips the book of its jacket, then holds it up to her face and wraps the boards around her ears.  Books typically smell like Daddy’s soap, grass, the sea, the kitchen table, and cheese” (82).  I have been a book smeller for a long, long time.

Maya becomes a rebellious teen, but she loves her dad, and books, and writing.  Late in the novel, Maya and A.J. have a conversation.  He says, “‘Maya, there is only one word that matters […] We are what we love. […] We aren’t the things we collect, acquire, read.  We are, for as long as we are here, only love.  The things we loved.  The people we loved” (251).

Wise words, from a wise man.  The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, is a delightful read, thoroughly enjoyable, and a perfect book for a long Saturday afternoon.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 5/7/14