Wednesday, November 30, 2022

An Available Man--Book Review

 This morning I had to make an early run to the grocery store.  My cat was out of treats and I was close to out of ketchup. An absence of either could result in grouchy behavior.  At just about 8 am I walked into the store and at nearly the same time I saw a man leaving holding a takeaway coffee in his right hand.   To compete I guess with a Starbucks nearby, in the grocery there is a takeout coffee station.  The entrance and exit doors to the grocery are automatic. The doors opened for him and me concurrently. I had a great view of the guy banging into the close to completely opened door, spilling coffee from the tiny sucking opening on the lid and shouting as he burned his ungloved fingers.  It's possible that he anticipated the door would open more and he would have space, but it seemed to me that he just wasn't paying attention.  He rammed into the door. He burned his hand, he lost some coffee. As I walked past I heard him mutter "fucking door"    Hey Mack, I thought, the door is inanimate. You walked right into it. Don't blame the door.

I finished An Available Man by Hilma (not Meg) Wolitzer yesterday morning. I was looking for a good novel and had enjoyed another book by her a few years back.  It was an easy, fast read and in that respect what I wanted.  As a drawback the novel reminded me of advice that Bird by Bird author Anne Lamott offered about plot.  Lamott suggested that authors allow characters to develop the story and not to have a definite idea about where the story would go until the writer "listens" to the characters.  As I mentioned in an earlier review, I don't agree with this advice.  In An Available Man  Wolitzer seemed to me as if she took Lamott's advice and was not really sure where the book was going to go when she started. She had the general idea.  A man is widowed, is out there and available. The book is about what happens subsequently. In addition to the widowed, now available, husband, the author probably had other parts of the story in place: he had loved his wife; he had two stepchildren; the mother of the deceased was still alive; there was a dog; the main character was a teacher; the main character's romantic history had a big bump in it-but beyond these facts, it did not seem to me as if she had specifics or maybe even an idea of how it all was going to wind up.  As it turned out, it wound up fine; interesting story--I don't believe some aspects of it are likely and without spilling the story I can't go into what, but I don't buy some of the plot.  Still the story got tied up if in an unlikely way with an unlikely set of connections,  but it was tied up and, in general, a good read.

A message in the book resonated with me even though it is not that profound.  We are responsible for our own happiness. We can make decisions that will allow us to be happy or we can choose to block the paths to joy.  I'm not necessarily the greatest at following that advice, but at least I know that we have, myself and everyone else, choices.  One of the peripheral characters in the novel is a psychic and she relays this "you have a choice" advice to a character.  A key is not to take the predictably bumpy roads when, even without a gps, you can see that there are routes that are likely to be far more exciting, salubrious, and relatively obstacle free.  And it follows as a corollary that, unlike the guy I saw this morning who burned his hand, don't blame hot coffee on your fingers on the fucking door when you, yourself, walked into it.

Do I recommend the book? Yes, it is an easy, well written read.  Do I suggest you rush right out and get it, no.  It is not grab your neighbor and say you must read it good.   But on a rainy day when you are looking for something to read in an easy chair, you could do much worse. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Bird by Bird--A Review

These past six months I've been writing beyond blogs and textbooks.  Short stories, plays, essays. Some days have been more productive than others. Sometimes I write what seems brilliant to me, only to have it rejected by an editor who obviously does not have the wisdom to publish what is unequivocally brilliant.  In October I hit a bit of a wall in terms of motivation for writing.  The book Bird by Bird was highly recommended.  I read it. i second the recommendation.  

The author, Anne Lamott, is a successful writer who also--at least at the time when she wrote this book--taught writing classes. Bird by Bird is a collection of essays that each describes some message that she relays to her students.  In addition to the essays, there is an excellent introduction in the book that frames the essays. 

Some specific reactions.

There are parts of the book that have stuck with me in the ten days or so when I completed it--and I believe these will stay in my. head for the duration.  The most significant is the story that explains why the author titled the book as she did. The story: Her brother had procrastinated writing a paper in high school. The paper was about birds. At the 11th hour he was overwhelmed with the assignment. Lamott's father came over to the young man, put his arm around him, and said: Bird by Bird.  And that is a key thing in writing. Not that I always use the key, but the point is that when apparently overwhelmed, address the task (and the assorted factors that impede progress) bird by bird.  There are other parts that are valuable as well. So, one reason to read the book is that there are stick to you take-aways.

Second, she is funny. There are several parts that are very much laugh-out-funny.  Others that are good smile funny. Still others that are read the part to whoever is sitting in the living room funny or at least clever.

Third, she makes important points that are not wholly related to writing.  The Bird by Bird could be said to be one of them, but another is as significant to me.  In one essay she talks about how some of her students believe that once they publish they will feel better about themselves. Lamott contends that this sense of self worth if it is based on being published will not last. She relays a story of an Olympic coach who was working with bobsledders hoping to win a gold. The athletes felt that if they could medal, then they would feel great. The coach's comment went something like this--If you're not enough without the medal, you won't be enough with the medal.  As they say: in Spanish Es Verdad; in Hebrew, the Emmess; in English True Dat.

One part with which I will quibble. I don't agree with her essays about plot evolution and character development.And I believe she contradicts these recommendations in a subsequent chapter. Essentially, she writes that the act of writing will help you understand your own characters and that the plot will evolve if you listen to your characters. I don't buy that. In a subsequent essay she describes a book that was rejected by an editor and friend. When she railed against the decision, the editor/friend said that she needed to explain in writing what she had just expressed orally. Lamott then wrote out a chapter by chapter description of the book. That novel, according to her at the time of Bird by Bird, became her most successful. Personally I don't like novels that seem to be written with the author not knowing how the characters would evolve. Then the evolution seems fictional And too many times i read a book that ends as if the author had no clue how it would end and, after a spell decided, to stop and did not know how to conclude.

On balance however, Bird by Bird, is a very good read. Here I am in a hotel room having trouble sleeping. There are a dozen notions darting through my consciousness including several to dos. One to do was that I wanted to write this blog. Wrote it at 326 am. One down. Bird by Bird.


 

Friday, November 18, 2022

Death at the Fair-review

 Annually in October there is a book fair in Copley Square in Boston.  Because of COVID the fair did not take place, at least in real time, in 2020 and 2021. This year it was held and because it was a beautiful day the Fair was well attended and the atmosphere was festive.  

The Fair includes several concurrent sessions during which authors or reviewers or publishers speak on various subjects. I attended one session during which three book reviewers and the editor of a book review section opined on issues related to being a reviewer.  In a prior year I listened to three authors who had recently penned books on sports and social issues. When the panelists are authors there is typically a book selling/autographing session after the program.

In addition to the sessions, booths are set up in Copley Square itself--not far, in fact, from where the bombers took lives and limbs when trying to make some sort of irrational political point during the Boston Marathon in 2013.  At the booths, various publishers of magazines and books, display their wares. This year one booth was occupied by a group called The Mystery Writers of New England.  I visited it, as I visited most of the others.  A woman there told me she had written a series of historical novels featuring a young woman named Emily Cabot. I asked her about the first novel in the series. It was, Death at the Fair. I bought it and read it during the first week in November.

The plot is interesting.  A student, Emily Cabot, is visiting the 1893 Chicago fair.  Her mother and brother travel from Boston to attend, and some friends from the South also meet up with Emily to visit the Fair.  The friend from the South has brought along another friend, an acquaintance, to visit as well. Emily has been mentored and supported by a professor at the university.  (If you're interested in reading the book, you might want to skip to the next paragraph as some minor details of the plot are coming. I do think I leave enough out, so that a reader could enjoy the book even with this information. The minor details:)   At a gathering of all people identified, the professor is startled when he sees the acquaintance. Apparently, they had been sweethearts at one point. However, the woman married another man.  That man it turned out was a tyrant and virulent racist.  At one point he beat his wife, the acquaintance, and blamed the beating on a black servant. The servant was then lynched.   After the initial gathering, the racist husband joins the entourage.  Subsequently, he is murdered. That is the death at the Fair.  The professor is accused to be the killer because, it is alleged, he is jealous since the victim married the professor's former sweetheart. Emily is certain he did not do it, and attempts to learn the identity of the killer. 

This is an historical novel and several characters are real people--not the victim or Emily or professor--but others. At the Fair is Ida Wells and Ferdinand Barnett.  Students of history will probably recognize the name of Wells.  I'd heard of her, but could not have told anyone much about her contributions.  I can now. I did not know how she met her husband, Barnett, and who he was--and perhaps this reflects inappropriate ignorance--but now I know.  I'd read The Devil in White City which is also about the Chicago Fair. Now I know more about the Fair.  There are real Chicago politicians, miscreants and events in this novel.  One I'd heard of, others I'd not. So the book had some educational value.

However, it was not a gripping read. Some terrific sentences and paragraphs beautifully written, but overall, it could not hold my attention despite an interesting plot line.  Others who like historical fiction and writing that tries to capture the language of the late 1800s might feel differently.  I'll not read the other novels in the Emily Cabot series.  If anyone who reads this review does, I'd be interested in your perspective.



Friday, October 28, 2022

Lucy By The Sea--A Review

 I have read all the novels Elizabeth Strout has written. I've read them all because the first one I read, Olive Kitteridge, is a special book. If you've watched the tv series and not read the book, I suggest you take it out of your local library.  It is very very good.

Lucy By The Sea is Strout's fourth book about Lucy Barton. I liked the first one, My Name is Lucy Barton. This one, I write at the risk of being pilloried by Strout devotees, is not a very good book.  I've a number of reasons.

The first is, well, enough already with Lucy.  We know about her mother, her marriages, her upbringing, her siblings--there is very little that is new here.  This novel takes place during the pandemic. William, an ex husband and father of her two daughters, scoops Lucy up out of New York and drives her to Maine. Lucy is not a COVID denier, but she is not as concerned--at least initially-as William is about the dangers of the virus.  Nevertheless she travels with him to Maine and they live in a home near the coast.  They take separate bedrooms and try, like many of us did, to deal with the hours after the world closed up. Some of her observations are akin to those I, and I imagine most readers had during the pandemic. I'll not divulge plot details--such as they are.   Four books about Lucy--there's not enough more to discuss.

The book is also not engagingly written. Lucy Barton, the character, is supposedly a successful author who has been on television discussing her books, and been on book tours. She is also the narrator of this novel.  A popular author should be able to write better. Lucy often speaks like a child--like perhaps a senior who has been addled by some illness or severe emotional turbulence.  I typically like books with short sections, but here there are just too many of them. It is as if the book is written in three or four paragraph bites. Sometimes there is just a space between sections, sometimes some marker indicating more of a content break.  If Lucy Barton wrote for a living like Lucy Barton narrates the novel, I don't think she would have published many novels.

I will not, as mentioned previously, divulge much about the story line.  However, I don't find the issues she and William face and how they evolve, especially profound.  Their relationship with the daughters; William's relationship with an ex wife; Lucy's dreaming about a dead husband--well okay, but nothing especially novel about this novel's plot line.

Finally, there are characters in this book from other Strout books--not just the Lucy books.  Olive Kitteridge shows up, one of the Burgess boys from the novel The Burgess Boys. Isabelle from Amy and Isabelle.  Olive has such a small role--just referenced by another character--that it is not essential to remember the details of her life.  But the Burgess boy has a major part and there are allusions to his siblings and the story in that other novel. I only vaguely remember the other book and understanding Burgess in this book requires--for full appreciation--remembering Burgess from the other book.  I feel similarly about Isabelle. She does not have as big a part as Burgess. But there is a section when Isabelle recalls an incident that is not insignificant to this novel, but you would have to remember the other book to get it.  And I barely do.  If you haven't read the others I am not sure the reference to what Isabelle recalls would have much significance.

As I look through the Amazon reviews of the book, my take on the novel is in the minority.  Many like the book a lot. So, you may enjoy the novel. i didn't. Not the kind of book I carried along so that if I had a spare moment I could get lost in the story. It was a slog. And only 288 pages.  My recommendation to the author is to find another character to write about and jettison the Barton writing style.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Bad Sex--Review

Lately I have been attempting to publish pieces in varied literary magazines. One thing that recurred when reading the submission rules for these publications is that a blog post counts as a publication. That is, if one has published an artcle/opinion piece in a blog, and the magazine requires that any submission has not been published elsewhere--the existence of the blog post technically disqualifies the submission. Therefore, I have not been writing here.

However, I will begin again to post book reviews at least--unless I believe that I might want to publish the review elsewhere.

I've been reading, as is my wont.  It was family lore, and true, that when I was a kid my mother had to harass me to get me to read.  As long as she was alive she would marvel that I had become a reader since it had been pulling teeth to get me to read when I was a child. Lately, I've gone on an Ann Patchett tear. I've read now nearly all of her books and her two essay collections. (One of her lesser known books is called Taft and it is terrific. I inhaled it one week this past spring).  

But I am not writing about Taft or Ann Patchett with this blog entry.  I am writing about a book called Bad Sex written by Nona Willis-Aronowitz.  I should have known about her famous mother, but did not.  Ellen Willis, I learned, was a feminist in the early days of the 60s feminist movement.  Her daughter penned the book Bad Sex.

This, to me, was a startling book. Of course I was born during the Truman administration, and the author was born during Reagan.  I have more in common--in terms of generation--with her mother than with the author.  It will be interesting to learn how the author's contemporaries feel about the book.

My thoughts.

I did my share of frolicking when I was a young 'un. However compared to Ms. Aronowitz I was a monk. If she is the norm, I am in another world in terms of slow dancing.

Second, if this book had been written by a man he would have been pilloried mercilessly.  She discusses her affairs in detail. She does not boast so much as describe, but if a man were to describe the sundry activities that the author enjoyed, he would be dubbed a capricious and inconsiderate satyr.  

I liked her openness about sex because it,  implicitly and sometimes explicitly, criticizes the puritanical and counterproductive repressive attitudes about intimate activities that bring people joy and are, I'll opine, salubrious. 

She presented historical context in many of the chapters and I found that informative. I did not know much about Emma Goldman and knew nothing of the author's mother.  The author's discussion of the origins of the free love movement was unfamiliar to me and, I suppose, was left out of my high school history books.

Her discussion of the tension between polyamorous activity and jealousy was important to include. The part about how Goldman and Willis and Aronowitz herself had trouble reconciling their politics regarding non monogamy with how hurt they felt when their lovers took on other lovers--even when the dalliances had the partners' consent--made sense to me. 

If the book had as a goal moving the mainstream, forget it.  I thought about my parents reading the book and hurling it against the wall. And many of my contemporaries would be outraged at her, so what attitude about multiple lovers and "boning" (her word used often) this fellow or that. It can liberate those inclined to explore whether monogamy is a healthy social construct--but my guess is that 75% of the people in this establishment where I am typing the blog, would dismiss the book before the first twenty pages were up. And I live in one of the bluest of the blue states. 

My take away is that the politics of challenging the status quo in terms of sexual attitudes is important to consider and yet these politics run into a wall of natural human responses when people fear that their partners might leave them for more excitement or more whatever with another. 

While the book is called Bad Sex, there is a good deal of good or at least pleasurable sex described. 

Do I recommend the book? It was a slog at times. The book is 288 pages but I thought I had seen it was 281. When I got to 281 and there was more I was disappointed.  But if the author is anything like what is the prevailing norm of those born in the 80s, it exposed me to a culture and a set of attitudes far different to those of my generation.

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Oblada

I was at the McCartney concert on Tuesday night.  Donna had scored two tickets from a friend of hers who had mistakenly bought the tickets for a day when she would be out of town.  So there we were with about thirty thousand others in Fenway Park going back in time.

I rarely have gone to concerts since my college years.  When I have, it has been in small venues.   For birthday gifts I saw Joan Baez about twenty years ago, and Judy Collins about ten years later. Both were in spaces that held fewer than 500 people.  Friends invited us to hear the The Manhattan Project a short time before COVID and that too was in a small venue.

Watching McCartney in Fenway Park was something else entirely. Some observations

  • We were seated in very good baseball seats. Behind home plate several rows up.  He was on a stage set deep into center field.  You could not see him. If you matched up the blown up image on the screen, and then glanced at the stage you could maybe make out which of the performers was McCartney, but otherwise it was like watching a movie of a performer.
  • He's still got it.  The man will be 80 in nine days, and when he sang songs with which I'm familiar, he sounded to me like the same guy on the records.
  • I had not been to Fenway Park since before COVID.  We drove in, parked near Northeastern, and walked to the venue. Since it had been a while I was not quite sure when we got to a particular junction which way to go.  Then I saw a cluster of gray and bald headed people ahead of us, and I knew we were on the right route.  
  • We were seated next to people who had bought the tickets in part to celebrate the man's 80th birthday.  He was not an outlier.  Lots of folks collecting social security for years in the stands.  A majority.  There were some young 'uns, but the crowd acted like the Ed Sullivan audience in 1964--just sixty years later.
  • I typically don't like to sing or hear others sing along with the crooner.  It did not bother me on Tuesday particularly when he sang Beatle songs.  And if it bothered me, it was tough luck because everyone was banging out the lyrics.  Some attendees were getting up and dancing spontaneously at some junctures.
  • The place was jammed--any worries about COVID in that group were not apparent. We brought masks, but mine remained in my pocket. Donna wore hers but only for short intervals. Maybe there was one percent of the audience wearing them.
  • The promoters told us that the show would start at 630. It really didn't. Some piped in music with pictures of the Beatles and McCartney were displayed for an hour.  When he came on at about 730, he did not stop for two hours, before we left, and from what I understand continued for about 40 minutes afterwards. The guy is pushing 80, looked on screen like he was fifty, and performed as if he had the energy of a young man.
  • He gave a number of shout outs to George and John. And the crowd responded energetically to these references.
  • The people to our left went to get food and drink before the show started. The guy came back with two cans of beer while his wife was buying food.  He leaned over to me, showed me the two cans of a nothing special beer, and said "Twenty Three bucks."
  • McCartney said he knew that the audience wanted to hear Beatle songs but he interspersed some new ones and Wing numbers as well. They, the non Beatle songs, did not get the same kind of response.  Band on the Run and Live and Let Die were appreciated.  However, it was I've Just Seen a Face, Something, Obladi Oblada, Lady Madonna, and the other Beatle numbers that revved up the crowd the most.

Like the lyrics in the song: life goes on, la la how the life goes on.  He brought a lot of the past back for me.  The apt name of his concert tour is Get Back.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Adjustable

If I were to leave Boston, one thing about the area I would miss is the number and diversity of libraries in the area.  I am a library person. Some people hang out in bars--and I do that occasionally.  But if I have a few hours, and nothing major on the agenda, I will pack up a briefcase or knapsack, and park myself in a library.  

The Minuteman library network in eastern Massachusetts is remarkable.  Boston, like most large cities, is surrounded by one suburb after another.  Each of these communities has its own library. The Minuteman Library Network consists of forty two libraries.  There are about ten of these in my orbit and each one has a distinctive feel.  Waltham, the closest to me,  attracts children who are mesmerized by the spacious kid's area. Weston, next closest, has a sitting room with puzzles that makes you feel like you're in a very rich person's den. Newton's has three floors of stacked shelves and nearly any dvd you seek to play.  I've been to more than a half dozen others in the network.

In addition, the Boston area is home to many university libraries.  There is a collective called the Boston Library Consortium and twenty two libraries are part of it.  If you work at, or are a student in, any one of the universities in the consortium, you can obtain a card and use any library in the consortium.  Harvard is, of course, too snooty to be a member.  However, Boston College, Brandeis, Northeastern, Boston University, Tufts, and Bentley University, are among the member institutions.

I live adjacent to Brandeis and have used their library several times. About two miles from where I live is Bentley University.  I had not gone to Bentley's library since the late 1980s, for no reason other than there were many other choices.  But sometime in mid May I went to it for the first time in decades. And it is there that, during my fourth visit earlier this week, that I saw something I had never seen in all my library jaunts. Very cool.

When I walked into Bentley's library that day in mid May, I was taken aback.  It had, of course, gone through renovations in the thirty plus years since my last visit.  What they'd done, however, was transformative: all modern furniture, big tables to settle in to spread out and write, walls of current periodicals, a museum exhibit, engaging resource center, and thematic displays of books here and there--Boston related; abolition related, whatever is current related.  They'd modernized the entire space.

On Monday the 6th, for about the fourth time since my first visit, I parked myself in what I have come to think of as my spot up on the third floor. I was researching something and read that the library had a book I wanted to review with an HD call number. I traveled to the second floor where the HD Reference section is, but the HD regular books were not in the vicinity. I asked the librarian and she told me that the regular HD books were on the first floor. "Just go down the stairs" she said, "and you will walk right into them."

That I did. I walked down the stairs and saw in front of me rows of shelved books with letter pairs on the wall of each row indicating which row had which books.  The rows, however, were all jammed together, as if someone was cleaning and needed to push the rows together to get to what needed vacuuming.  

I saw where my book would be, but the slimmest person could not get through the opening between the rows to look for it.  A stick of gum, could barely get through the gap.  It seemed odd to me that the rows would be so pushed together. What good are the books if you can't get to them?  I was about to go back and ask the librarian how/when the books could be accessed, when I noticed something at the end of each row. There was a tiny computer screen with an arrow attached.  I pressed the screen at the end of one row, and the row opened so that patrons, regardless of girth, could get through and scan for their books.  Just to make sure, I pressed the button on other rows, and they opened right up as well.

This seemed so cool to me. What a clever way to conserve space. 

Later I thought of the adjustable rows metaphorically.  What if we could depress a button when encountering some closed relationship and the previously blocked relationship could open up.  Having a year long feud with your sibling and can't get through to her-?-press a button and miraculously there is a way to get in there and work through it. Haven't spoken to your spouse about an issue because it tends to trigger an avalanche of accusations, press a button and you can ease right in there to talk without setting the world on fire.  Your erstwhile best friend was, somehow, offended by something you once did and has tightened up such that any greeting is met with a terse response. Just press the button, get right in there and hug letting tears of joy flow to your knees.  We'd be well served to consider the possibility that blocked relationships can be reopened with maybe even a tiny touch that, somehow, opens up people who naturally would love to embrace.