Monthly Archives: April 2011


Andre Dubus III’s memoir Townie is a harrowing read. It wasn’t quite on the same level of emotional intensity as Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir A Widow’s Story, but it, like Oates’s book, was both hard to put down and hard to shake off once I had put it down. It left me feeling somber and needing a little recovery time afterward. All of which I mean in a positive way — Townie was perhaps a bit too long (as was Oates’s book), but still, awfully good.

It tells the story of Dubus’s experiences growing up poor, first with his mother and his famous writer father, but soon enough with his mother alone, along with his three siblings. Even when the family was together, they never had much money, but his parents’ divorce turned a manageable situation into an extremely precarious one. His mother did her best to keep the family going, but money was always short — the family often went hungry — and the mother was either working or home exhausted and wasn’t able to keep tabs on what the children were doing. They moved frequently and usually lived in rough neighborhoods in decaying Massachusetts towns. These were former mill towns where vacant buildings were everywhere and unemployment was high.

Dubus was small and quickly became a target for bullies. Soon enough he was getting beaten up just about every day and lived in fear of running into the wrong people. Even his home wasn’t safe; knowing there were no adults around, local young people would hold afternoon parties in his living room. There was nothing he could do about it. His siblings tried to help him out by telling their mother about the beatings, but not much came of it.

This story of living in constant fear is one of the main threads of the book; eventually, after years of being bullied and doing nothing about it, Dubus decides he can’t take it anymore, and he begins to lift weights. He also learns how to box at a local gym. It takes a long time, but finally he learns that if he is the one who punches first, if he takes his opponent by surprise, he can win a fight. This is a breakthrough moment, a turn of events that lets him feel proud of himself, finally. But there is a downside: now that he has learned how to let his anger out, he isn’t sure he can control it. He becomes the guy who can defend innocent victims, but he is also the guy who starts fights and sends people to the hospital. Does he really want to be that way and are there better ways to handle his anger?

The other major thread running through the book is his relationship with his father. Dubus the father never fully abandoned his children; he sent money faithfully even though he never had much, and he took them out to dinner on Sundays and spent Wednesday evenings with his kids one at a time so they had a chance to see him on their own once a month. But still, there was so much he never knew about what his kids were going through, and poor as he was, his life was much more comfortable than his ex-wife’s. There are painful scenes where he tries to play catch with his son and learns that the son knows absolutely nothing about catching and throwing a ball or about baseball itself. How was he supposed to learn? Dubus never tells his father the truth about his life, out of shyness and shame. He mostly just felt uneasy around his father and was relieved to get away. As Dubus grows older, his relationship with his father becomes much closer, but he is still left with questions: how much should he tell his father? Would there be any point in hurting his father in that way?

Dubus’s story is riveting, both because of its inherent drama and because of the questions it raises about poverty, rage, and violence, and also about what it takes to leave a difficult childhood behind. Dubus writes extremely well: he conjures up the atmosphere of the mill towns he grew up in and evokes his feelings of hopelessness and fear so powerfully that you feel you are experiencing everything alongside him. I heard Dubus say in an interview that he had tried to write about his childhood in fiction but failed, and it was only in the memoir form that he found he could tell the story. In the book he writes about creating characters who were essentially himself, but the stories were never any good because he was trying too hard to make the reader sympathize with his fictionalized self. I don’t quite know what it was about the transition to nonfiction that made telling his story possible, but something clicked for him, and he has told the story wonderfully.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

AfterWord: Conjuring the Literary Dead

AfterWord: Conjuring the Literary Dead is one of the first books I requested from NetGalley because it’s a collection of essays about writers and books, and I love a good collection about writers and books. I was a little disappointed in it, though; I thought the book’s idea sounded promising, but either I was mistaken about that, or the execution didn’t live up to the possibilities. I think the problem may be that the essays were uneven and perhaps, generally speaking, a little too short. They didn’t dig into their subjects deeply enough and so left me feeling a little dissatisfied.

The premise is that in each essay, a writer imagines a meeting with his or her favorite author, or perhaps an author he or she has written about or grappled with in some fashion. The various essayists tackle this task in different ways, some pretending that they have traveled back in time, some imagining they are meeting their subject in the present day or in some nebulous in-between space. In some cases, the authors know about things that have happened after their deaths, and in others they don’t.

Which, let me digress to say, is something I think about now and then: I remember somebody saying, or perhaps I read it, that the really sad thing about having to die is not knowing how things turn out. I agree with the feeling. I think about people who lived before the time of the novel and what it would be like not to know that a novel existed. Or not to know about Jane Austen or James Joyce or David Foster Wallace, or whoever. Who are the wonderful, amazing writers we won’t know about, and what genres will we not live to experience? Okay, best not to think about that too much…

Some of the essays in this collection are really charming — Cynthia Ozick on Henry James, Jay Parini on Robert Frost, Eugene Goodheart on Jane Austen, Francis King on Oscar Wilde, Jeffrey Meyers on Samuel Johnson. Others made me contemplate how difficult it is to create a convincing scene and realistic dialogue. There were some essayists who I presume were more academic types than fiction writers whose attempts at a kind of fiction writing were awkward. In a couple cases, I simply didn’t like the tone or the attitude expressed.

Mostly, though, I kept thinking about how none of this was real, how all of it was mere speculation. That’s what it’s supposed to be, of course, but it felt a little like reading a description of someone’s dream — an interesting dream, but not much more than that. If I’m going to read about an author’s life, I think I’d prefer either something more straightforwardly critical and argumentative, whether it’s a biography or a critical essay (no matter how imaginatively done) or a fully-realized novel along the lines of Colm Toibin’s The Master.

However, there are some essays I’m glad I read. Perhaps the best approach with this book is to read selectively, finding the essays about authors you find interesting and focusing on those. And for another view entirely, read Stefanie’s post on the book. The book did make me consider who I would write about if I had been a contributor to the collection: perhaps Virginia Woolf or Mary McCarthy. Oh no — it would be Laurence Sterne, definitely. But what in the world would I say to any of these people if I could meet them, even only in my imagination?


Filed under Books, Essays

The Tragedy of Arthur

Arthur Phillips’s new novel The Tragedy of Arthur was great fun. I’ve seen comparisons of this book to Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and the comparison works to a certain extent — they have a similar structure, both made up of a primary text and a commentary on that text — but it’s a rather unfortunate comparison for Phillips’s sake because who can compare to the great Nabokov? This book doesn’t have the insane brilliance of Pale Fire, but there’s a charm and wit to it that are appealing.

The text in Phillips’s case is a “newly discovered” long-lost Shakespeare play, printed in its entirety in the back of the book. The commentary takes the form of a memoir and fills up the first 250 or so pages. This commentary/memoir was supposed to be a standard critical introduction, but the guy who owns the manuscript, a character named Arthur Phillips, agreed to publish the introduction himself and decided to do it exactly as he wanted. It takes the unusual form of a long self-justification including his entire life story and an argument about the play’s authenticity. This question of authenticity is at the heart of the book, and it’s a particularly vexed question because the man who “discovered” the play, Arthur Phillips’s father, is a notorious con man who spent much of his adult life in jail for various forgeries (another book hovering in the background is William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, which is also about artistic forgeries and a difficult father/son relationship).

In this memoir of sorts — which describes a life at least superficially resembling the real Arthur Phillips’s life, both people having published the same novels and lived in at least some of the same places — Phillips tells the story of what it was like to grow up with a criminally unreliable father. This is a father who woke his two children up in the middle of the night, Arthur and his twin sister Dana, and dragged them around a field with strange, heavy machinery for hours and hours in order to convince people that aliens had left crop circles. Arthur grows up not knowing whether anything his father gives him — a signed baseball for example — is real or a forgery. As you can imagine, Arthur has some psychological issues to work out.

His father’s legacy wasn’t all about forgery, however. The cons and forgeries had at their root — or at least this is how the father would explain it — a certain creativity and love of creating experiences of wonder. Thinking about the crop circle and the farmer who originally found it, Arthur writes,

My father didn’t want to make people stupider or mock stupidity or celebrate stupidity. When the farmer said, “The shape. The shape is so … beautiful, so …” and trailed off, my father was right there with him in spirit. I suspect that he wished, of all the participants in this whole enterprise, to be that farmer, to be fooled. My father had given him (and the world) this glimpse of something hidden. He was only dissatisfied to be the giver and not the recipient.

The father is also, along with Dana, thoroughly obsessed with Shakespeare. Arthur grew up with Shakespeare’s language forever in his ears. But this also is a complicated legacy. Arthur decides early on that he doesn’t like Shakespeare much, and while he correctly points out that this isn’t at all unusual, in his case it has at least something to do with the fact that Dana and their father bond over a love of the playwright and Arthur feels left out. He loves his sister dearly and feels he has some very weighty competition for her attention.

So, when his father bequeaths Arthur the lost Shakespeare play, Arthur has some serious thinking to do. Is it possible that this one time his father is telling the truth?

The memoir part of this book is a mix of a whole bunch of things — in addition to memoir, it’s also an anti-memoir, as Arthur complains about the genre every chance he gets, although it’s clear he needs the genre in order to make his point about his father and thus about the Shakespeare (?) play. It also contains a synopsis of the play, because that’s what an introduction is supposed to do, of course, and in that same spirit, it discusses the play’s themes and background. In addition to being all mixed up with the personal stories, however, this critical material is shaped in such a way as to further Arthur’s arguments about his father. It all ultimately revolves around Arthur himself — is the character Arthur in the play The Tragedy of Arthur supposed to be him? Was his father sending him a message?

Arthur writes notes for the play as well, and here it’s personal too: some of the notes speculate on where his father might have gotten his material from, if indeed he did write the play himself. In addition to Arthur’s notes, there are notes from a Shakespeare scholar, and these two voices contradict each other. In addition to everything else going on in this book, it’s also about the uncertainty of scholarship and the impossibility of finding a truly objective point of view. Arthur is obviously a biased reader — given the circumstances there is no way he could be anything else — but the scholar’s readings struck me as questionable as well. It’s clear that he wants the play to be authentic  and some of his justifications and explanations seemed just as unreliable as Arthur’s speculations.

As for the play itself, it’s not bad. Those who claim it’s authentic say that it’s clearly very early Shakespeare, which means readers should not expect greatness of the Hamlet level and that is most certainly not what you get. But for what it is — whatever that is — it’s entertaining, with some fine speeches, interesting action, and a little bit of humor.

This is a playful book — complete with author biographies and publication lists of both Arthur Phillips and Shakespeare, because Shakespeare deserves credit, of course! — and I love that spirit. Give me a highly literary, self-reflexive, self-aware book that’s good but doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I’m a happy reader.


Filed under Books, Fiction

On the Contrary

I enjoyed Mary McCarthy’s essay collection On the Contrary, although many of the pieces felt dated. But there’s a certain kind of datedness that’s interesting, particularly when the topic is literature. It’s fun reading about the literary scene as it existed for McCarthy in the 1950s — the authors she was paying attention to and the ones from previous generations whose reputations she was busy sorting out. She has a way of starting out with a ridiculous claim such as there are no characters in fiction anymore or nobody is writing real novels these days, and I get ready to dismiss the entire essay as absurd, but then she starts defining her terms and giving examples and building up her arguments, and before I know it, I am beginning to agree, at least a little.

Other essays in the book are about the political and social scene, including some essays on feminism; some of these struck me as both relevant to today (in that way some essays can make you think that things never change) and also as dated. The datedness comes from the way she drops references to people and events without explaining them, because of course her audience at the time didn’t need these things explained. This makes me think that McCarthy writes wonderfully well about topical subjects, because in spite of feeling as though I’m out of the loop and lacking the context to understand her references, the essays are quite entertaining and good. How often are topical essays interesting 50 or 60 years later? This book kept me engrossed the whole way through.

The best essays, though, are “Artists in Uniform,” which I wrote about here, and “Settling the Colonel’s Hash,” the title of which is truly awful, but which is a wonderful companion piece to “Artists.” “Settling the Colonel’s Hash” was inspired by responses she got to her the “Artists” essay, in particular, a letter from a school teacher wanting to know, among other things, “how closely do you want the symbols labeled?” Her students had spent a great deal of time discussing the story and while some of them insisted that it had no other meaning than the literal level, most students found it to be full of symbols.

Well, McCarthy didn’t answer this letter, except indirectly in the form of the essay itself, but she came down on the side of the students who read the piece on the literal level. There are symbols in the story, perhaps, but not the kind the students were looking for. The various shades of green she wore on the day described in “Artists in Uniform” were simply what she happened to be wearing that day, not an invention on her part meant to say something about fertility and growth. The contrasting greens she wore might possibly symbolize her desire to look like an artist, a little bohemian, but that’s where it ends. Similarly, the Colonel’s hash might say something about his desire to eat food considered properly manly, while McCarthy chose a more feminine sandwich.

This leads her into a discussion of various types of symbols, those that take the reader out of the text toward the world of archetypes and myths, and those that lead the reader back into the text:

In any account of reality, even a televised one, which comes closest to being a literal transcript or replay, some details are left out as irrelevant (though nothing is really irrelevant). The details that are not eliminated have to stand as symbols of the whole, like stenographic signs, and of course there is an art of selection, even in a newspaper account: the writer, if he has any ability, is looking for the revealing detail that will sum up the picture for the reader in a flash of recognition.

This is the interesting kind of symbol, she argues, the kind that merely is what it is — the shades of green McCarthy wore, the food she ate — while at the same time telegraphing, signaling something about her personality. In another example, there is the train in Anna Karenina:

The train is necessary to the plot of the novel, and I believe it is also symbolic, both of the iron forces of material progress that Tolstoy hated so and that played a part in Anna’s moral destruction, and also of those iron laws of necessity and consequence that govern human action when it remains on the sensual level.

One can read the whole novel, however, without being conscious that the train is a symbol; we do not have to “interpret” to feel that import of doom and loneliness in the train’s whistle …

The essay ultimately turns into an argument about how best to read, which does not involve the kind of symbol-hunting the unfortunate high school teacher encouraged her students to do:

The images of a novel or a story belong, as it were, to a family, very closely knit and inseparable from each other; the parent “idea” of a story or a novel generates events and images all bearing a strong family resemblance. And to understand a story or a novel, you must look for the parent “idea,” which is usually in plain view, if you read quite carefully and literally what the author says.

To illustrate this idea, she gives a close reading of her “Artists” essay, describing what her main point was and how the details of the story relate to that point. This is very satisfying, largely because “Artists” is such a great essay and it’s fun to hear McCarthy discuss the thoughts that went into it. It satisfies our curiosity about what the writer really meant and whether we “got it” or not.

And then she ends with this:

In any work that is truly creative, I believe, the writer cannot be omniscient in advance about the effects that he proposes to produce. The suspense in a novel is not only in the reader, but in the novelist himself, who is intensely curious too about what will happen to the hero…. Hence, I would say to the student of writing that outlines, patterns, arrangements of symbols may have a certain usefulness at the outset for some kinds of minds, but in the end they will have to be scrapped. If the story does not contradict the outline, overrun the pattern, break the symbols, like an insurrection against authority, it is surely a still birth. The natural symbolism of reality has more messages to communicate than the dry Morse code of the disengaged mind.

I’m not sure anything McCarthy says in this essay isn’t something I’ve heard elsewhere, but she says it all so well. There is something about the directness and forcefulness of her style that I love. Typical of McCarthy and the attitude that makes me love her is her statement that in “Artists in Uniform,” “I wanted to embarrass myself and, if possible, the reader too.” Any writer who sets out with that goal in mind is a writer I’m inclined to like.


Filed under Books, Essays

Ireland! And London!

I think I’m heading slowly toward a blogging break, just like I was last year at this time. Maybe it will become a yearly April/May/into the summer thing? I’m riding more, I’m busy at work, and I don’t want to give up reading time. So posting might slow around here a bit. This year things are complicated by the fact that I’m leaving for Ireland in the middle of May and won’t return until a week into June. I’ll have internet access while I’m gone, at least part of the time, but I’ll have to steal Hobgoblin’s laptop away from him if I want to get online, as I don’t see the point of hauling my own around. So, blogging break.

And yes, I’m very excited about Ireland and our week in London afterward. Our plans are slowing coming into place, such as they are. Fortunately, Hobgoblin and I travel in a similar way, which is to say, we don’t make detailed plans. We both like to show up some place and figure things out from there, if possible by throwing our things in the hotel and setting off on foot. This sometimes backfires (we’ve ended up walking into the wrong part of town before), but mostly it’s fun and a good way to get our bearings in a new place. We did buy some travel guides, but we haven’t opened them yet. The plane trip is a good time to read over travel guides, I think.

We will probably buy some theater tickets, but other than that, I can’t bear to make any decisions. My problem with planning, I think, is that it makes the time away feel limited and too short. I don’t want to know what I’m doing every day, or even what I’m going to do at all, because I want to keep the illusion that the vacation will be endless and we will have time for everything. So why plan? We’ll get to it all eventually.

I don’t think I’ve written about why we are going. Up until this point in our lives, Hobgoblin and I have not been able to/not been the type to take off to Europe for a vacation — and we still aren’t, really. We are taking this trip because Hobgoblin will be teaching a two-week course in old Irish literature (that’s all I know about it — something about myths and legends — it’s a class I need to take) for his university. I’m going along for the fun of it, and because it’s relatively cheap: Hobgoblin’s university will cover his airfare and also provide a cottage for us to live in. We figured since so much of the trip is already paid for (and he will be paid for the class itself), why not add on to the trip by going to London? One of the best parts of the whole thing is that we may be able to do the trip again in two years, when it will be his turn to teach in the program again. We’re thinking of going to Paris next time.

But back to this trip … the other thing I’m bad at when it comes to travel is reading books about the place I’m going to visit. Most respectable readers and book bloggers would probably have made up a list of books by Irish authors and books set in Ireland to read in the run-up to the trip and on the plane. But that just doesn’t appeal to me. I’m more likely to read Irish books after the trip, to remind me of the place I’ve just been. For right now, I prefer to keep the whole thing promisingly vague. Don’t tell me what I’m going to experience, other than that the landscape will be beautiful. People have told me that many times, and I was very glad to hear it.


Filed under Books, Life

Maisie Dobbs: A Lesson in Secrets

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series is the only series of mystery novels I’ve read in its entirety and that I make a point of keeping up with. I always enjoy them, although I don’t think they are top-notch novels. They are fun, but mostly I keep reading them because I want to find out what happens to the character, and I also find the process of reading through an entire series interesting. I like watching what happens to her over the years, the relationships that begin and end, the jobs that come and go, the ways her personality and experiences change. I like seeing just how much Winspear will develop her character over the course of one book and how she ends certain stories and begins new ones.

I also like seeing how Winspear deals with the changing historical context — the 1920s into the 1930s — and how that context shapes the mysteries Maisie attempts to solve. The earlier books focused on the lingering consequences of World War I, especially veterans suffering from war wounds, both physical and mental, that they couldn’t quite recover from. More recently, and especially in this latest book, Winspear is beginning to shift her focus onto the new conflict on its way, although World War I still plays an important role in the story. There is a heavy sense of foreboding in A Lesson in Secrets; the more perceptive characters are aware that the situation in Germany is looking more and more dangerous, and people are beginning to discuss Hitler and the Nazi party.

In A Lesson in Secrets, Maisie is approached by the British Secret Service. They want her to take on a job teaching philosophy at a college in Cambridge to keep an eye on possibly subversive activity there. The college was founded with the goal of promulgating peace by bringing students from many different countries together. As will be no surprise to mystery readers, it’s not too long before someone gets murdered, at which point Maisie has two jobs — her original undercover work and her efforts to solve the murder. Her detective work leads her in interesting directions — she learns about a man who wrote young adult books espousing pacificism that were so powerful that disillusioned soldiers in the trenches of World War I stopped fighting. She also investigates students and staff from the college who attend pro-Nazi rallies in London. Maisie is worried that the Secret Service is not taking these meetings seriously enough.

I described her as having two jobs, but really, of course, she has three, which is the thing that drove me a little crazy about this book. In addition to her complicated detective work (there is another subplot about a missing friend, although she is not in charge of that investigation), she is becoming a teacher for the first time. I just could not believe that anybody could take up teaching quite as easily and naturally as Maisie does, all the while spending most of her time on her investigations. She has no worries or angst about what goes on in the classroom; she carries around a stack of papers, but doesn’t seem to spend much time reading them; and we don’t learn much about how and when she prepares for class. And this after being out of an academic environment for many years. Oh, and she gets the job very, very easily, although that may have been because of connections and the Secret Service pulling strings. But she only needs to spend a week or two preparing for her interview and her new classes, apparently having forgotten absolutely nothing of the curriculum from her Cambridge years.

This touches on something that has bothered me about Maisie before — she is just too perfect. Yes, she has flaws, but they feel fake — not really flaws, just struggles that come out of her poor childhood and her World War I nursing experiences. She would feel more human to me if she did stupid things occasionally, or if she forgot something important, or if her amazing intuitive powers failed her now and then.

But still, I enjoy reading these books, and they always give me things to think about, even, sometimes, if it’s thoughts about what didn’t work.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda

It’s been a while since I finished The Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda, published by Open Letter Books, so details of individual stories are a little hazy, but overall, the collection impressed me. The stories are full of drama and passion, not at all like the quiet stories with small epiphanies that you find so often in American short fiction. I like quiet stories as well, but it was a nice change to have more action, more bright, vibrant characters and overpowering emotions.

Rodoreda is a Catalan writer who died in 1983; these stories come from three collections published in 1958, 1978, and one that (as far as I can tell) was collected after her death. These stories are published in chronological order, and become more experimental toward the end, moving toward a more impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness style. I was less taken with these stories than with the more realistic ones, but it was interesting to see her moving in new directions and experimenting with new styles.

Most of the stories are short; there are 30 stories in 255 pages, and some of them are only two or three pages long. Rodoreda captures a wonderful depth of emotion and life in such a short space. For example in the story “Ice Cream,” only a little over two pages long, a man and woman get engaged while eating ice cream but have entirely different responses to their engagement, responses that foreshadow years of unhappiness. The man cannot bear to be parted from his lover:

It was always the same: As the moment of parting approached, it seemed as if a bucket of sadness was being poured over him, and he would hardly utter a word during the time they had left together.

While she, on the other hand, feels trapped:

She spread her fingers to look at [the ring], stretched her arm out, and turned her hand from side to side. With secret regret she thought about her hand only a moment before, without a ring, nimble and free. Her eyes welled up.

There are many similar moments in these stories, moments when people can’t communicate their emotions or feel trapped by them. In one of my favorite stories, “Carnival,” a young man and woman meet unexpectedly on the street when she asks him, previously a stranger, for directions to the taxi stand. When they can’t find a taxi, they decide to walk. They are both in costume for the carnival, and there is a feeling of possibility and excitement in the air. They walk for hours as though they are in another, magical world. But the illusion of other-worldliness is destroyed when it begins to rain, they become exhausted, and are accosted by a man demanding money from them. The young man describes his disappointment with the night:

I wanted to make this evening … I don’t know how to explain … a night like this! I wanted a memory, something I could cling to, keep for the future. Because I will never take any trips, or write poetry. And it’s not true that I study. I used to, now I work. I have a younger brother and I’m head of the household. So, now you know it all. You also know what a bad impression I’ve made. I’ve made a fool of myself.

For her part, she is filled with sadness at his disappointment, but also wishes he would just disappear — his intensity is almost too much for her to take. Both of them are overwhelmed by the journey — a journey through the city but also a journey into their own hearts.

There is a wide range of situations, characters, and perspectives in these stories, but each one has an intensity to it that makes for exciting reading. I enjoyed these stories very much and am curious what her novel-length fiction is like.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Short stories