The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

Topeka SchoolI’ve been attending Book Expo at the Javits Center for years and may have mentioned in the past that I pick up far too many advance copies of books. I lug them home where I realize I’ll never read them all. I do hold on to most of them and read some, usually several years after their publication date. The latest one I read is The Topeka School by Ben Lerner, which came out in 2019. I’ve tried to read Lerner’s novels before, without much success. Now, since I enjoyed The Topeka School, I’ll have to go back and try them again. He’s a seriously good writer.

The novel is set in, of course, Topeka, Kansas and the “school” of the title refers to The Foundation, a well-respected psychiatric clinic. Adam Gordon, a high school senior, and his parents Jane and Jonathan, who both work at the clinic are the central focus. One other character, Darren Eberheart, a mentally disabled boy, haunts the plot and provides the climax.

The Topeka School is not plot-heavy nor is it told in a linear fashion. Instead, there are brilliant set pieces told from the point of view of each character, some in first person. In the opening chapter, Adam, a crack debater on his high school team attends a state championship event.  Lerner gives a visceral sense of what those events are like, down to the anxiety of the participants, their characteristic pencil-twirling tics, and the speed-talking obfuscation technique known as “the spread.”

The novel is set in the late 1990s, and through the lives of the Gordons Lerner takes on issues of authenticity, toxic masculinity, and psychoanalysis that are prescient to say the least. “The spread” becomes a metaphor–and predictor–for the sometimes meaningless, sometimes toxic chatter that has taken over our lives since the Clinton era. Jane Gordon, Adam’s mother, author of a best-selling feminist book, is harassed by “The Men,” as she calls them, who spew hatred at her by phone and in person. Adam and his friends tolerate the mentally disabled Darren, but there’s an undercurrent of nastiness in the way they treat him. Darren may be slow, but he’s not slow enough to misunderstand.

Garth Risk Hallberg, who reviewed the book for the New York Times, uses the term “analytic overdrive” to refer to the way that the characters examine every minute of their lives. Their lives have a feeling of feverish intensity like the debates that Adam attends. It’s a heady story: funny, tragic, and fierce.

The Abstainer by Ian McGuire

The AbstainerI’m always looking for absorbing thrillers, well-written and with something to say about the human condition.  I just finished a good one: The Abstainer by Ian McGuire, a thriller set mainly in Manchester, England in 1867. It’s a dark story, filled with the pain of the long war between the Irish and the British. Themes of loss, regret, and betrayal, combined with beautiful writing kept me turning pages. I read it in two sittings.

James O’Connor, a policeman from Dublin, is sent to Manchester to help uncover the plans of the violent Fenian Brotherhood.  Personally, it’s his last chance to redeem himself from the alcoholism that wrecked his Dublin career. The British have just hanged three Fenians; they know there will be reprisals. At the same time, the Irish-American Stephen Doyle arrives in Manchester to plan the Fenian Brotherhood’s act of revenge. Doyle served on the Union side in the American Civil War and is well acquainted with death; he’s a cold-hearted, arrogant loner. His first task is to ferret out the informers in the group, then he’ll take revenge for the hangings.

It’s a classic face-off between two driven, intensely motivated men. McGuire takes the reader deep inside O’Connell’s head. All his colleagues know about his ignominious reassignment from Dublin. What they aren’t aware of is that he’s still grieving for his dead wife and son. Doyle, the Irishman bent on retribution, is also struggling with demons; it’s his anger that makes him so dangerous. The story is like a chess game: there are moves and countermoves; some are successful, some are thwarted. O’Connor recruits his nephew to infiltrate the Fenians and then spends sleepless nights worrying about his safety.

The absorbing aspect of the novel is O’Connell’s desperate interior life, which is matched by the dismal Manchester weather, with sky “the color of wet mortar.” I was stopped many times by O’Connell’s trenchant ruminations. Here, he’s worried about the safety of his nephew:

“It occurs to him…that if his son, David, who had died, had lived instead, this is what fatherhood might have felt like: this constant irritating fear, this sense that a vital part of your life is being lived elsewhere, in secret, by someone you may love but can’t possible trust.”

It’s writing like this that kept me reading despite the brutal story. The murderous hatred between the Irish and the British was no fiction; in the next century it would only get worse.

Clive James: Poetry and Unreliable Memoirs

Unreliable memoirsOn Sunday mornings, my Israeli friend Pnina emails me the “Bookmarks” newsletter from the Guardian. It’s a lively roundup of new books and literary essays. Sometimes I just need to skim it and sometimes I find real treasure.

The treasure I found on Sunday was a piece by Clive James, who died in 2019. James was a well-loved (Australian-born) British literary and cultural critic. I discovered him for myself about fifteen years ago when I was putting together my book on memoirs. I found his first memoir, called Unreliable Memoirs and I loved it from the first page. Here’s what I wrote about it:

James pens a hilarious account of growing up in Sydney, Australia, in the 1940s and 1950s, son of a widowed mother who despaired of ever seeing her son make something of himself. His childhood was filled with mischief and over-the-top exploits at school and in the neighborhood, all of which hid his frantic adolescent need for acceptance and sexual conquest. A laugh out loud coming-of-age story with a strong sense of place and time.

 James went on to disprove his mother’s bleak view of his future by becoming a prolific author of literary criticism, poetry, memoir, and novels. He was a popular TV reviewer on the BBC, where his deadpan humor endeared him to listeners. It’s still in print to purchase but maybe your library has a copy of Unreliable Memoirs tucked away on a dusty autobiography shelf or you can find a secondhand copy; I highly recommend it. 

The Guardian article is an excerpt from James’s last book, Fire of Joy, about his lifelong love of poetry, which began with compulsory memorization of poems in elementary school. James didn’t find it difficult or unpleasant to memorize poems; he comments that “it was a fantastic combination of Parnassus and a maximum-security prison.” He goes on to write about the nature of poetry’s appeal and includes some of his favorite poems. His frank opinions, leavened with humor, make the excerpt a joy to read.

About poetry he writes, “With a poem the most important thing is the way it sounds when you say it. At that rate even the most elementary nursery rhyme has it all over the kind of overstuffed epic that needs 10 pages of notes for every page of text, and reduces all who read it to paralysed slumber–or even worse, to a bogus admiration.” (Is that why I’m such a fan of the “Jabberwocky?”) 

There are links at the bottom of the Guardian article to other articles about James, all of which sound wonderful. 

As best I can tell, Fire of Joy has not yet been published in the U.S., so the excerpt in the Guardian will have to suffice for now. I’ll keep an eye out for publication here. 

 

Some books I’ve read lately but haven’t posted about

Anthony Powell Dancing

I don’t post about every book I read. I don’t like to blog about books that I don’t like all that much since I don’t want to waste your time. (I know, we all have different tastes.) Sometimes I read a book because I’m following a particular interest of mine and I don’t expect others to have the same enthusiasm. Right now I’m reading a biography in that category: Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time by Hilary Spurling. Powell is one of my favorite British novelists; he’s often called the British Proust. He wrote a 12-volume work called A Dance to the Music of Time that I read years ago and loved. It’s very much a roman à clef so I’m enjoying reading about Powell’s friends and family members who served as models. For me, reading this biography is like eating a very rich dessert. Not only is Powell’s life fascinating but Spurling’s writing is wonderful.

Since I don’t expect lots of other people to share this enthusiasm, I thought I would briefly list some of the books I’ve enjoyed recently that are of more general interest.

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Actress by Anne Enright. This novel, about the relationship between a young girl and her famous actress mother, circles around and back through their lives. It requires–and rewards–your attention for it’s understanding of the blessings and curses of fame. Some of the chapters are remarkable set pieces and there is some great material about writing at the end. Enright is a tough, unsentimental author who gets right to the heart of emotions.

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Monogamy by Sue Miller. It’s been a while since Miller had a new book out. She’s an excellent writer of domestic fiction, quiet novels that surprise the reader with insight. This one’s about a woman married to a charismatic bookseller. He dies suddenly and she has to cope with sadness and secrets.

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Spying on the South: Travels with Frederick Law Olmsted in a Fractured Land by Tony Horwitz. Olmsted, the great parks designer, spent time in the South before the Civil War to learn more about slavery and Southern culture. Horwitz travels in Olmsted’s footsteps; his story is s doozy, full of wit and surprises. If you haven’t encountered Horwitz before, this is travel writing at its best.

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The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. Winner of the National Book Award, this lovely novel traces the relationship between a young Indian woman, orphaned and living with her cantankerous grandfather, and her tutor, a young man caught up in the political turmoil of the Nepalese independence movement. (There’s much more going on here than that simple statement.)

The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey

Livesey’s latest novel, just published, opens when three teenage siblings–Matthew, Zoe, and Duncan Lang–see an injured boy in a field and call for help. A simple beginning. But for these three close-knit teens, who have lived a relatively uneventful suburban life, the event is a marker that rocks their sense of right and wrong and sends them off in different directions.

When the police are unable to find the man who beat Karel and left him in the field, Matthew Lang, the eldest, searches for the culprit on his own; he needs the certainty of answers. He allies himself with Karel’s older brother, Tomas, a dodgy character. For Zoe, the middle sibling, 16 years old, the incident is a turning point. It brings her into contact with inexplicable evil, the world expands and deepens, and she makes some sexual choices, for better or for worse.

It’s different for Duncan, the youngest, at 14. Duncan is adopted–his mother was a young Turkish woman–and Duncan looks different from the rest of the family. There’s no doubt that he’s well-loved, but he’s an outsider. It’s not just his looks, but his talent as an artist and an empath that sets him apart from everyone else. Duncan is preternaturally sensitive; his heightened awareness of color and form extends to emotions. He’s often able to read situations that escape the others. In the aftermath of the incident, he begins to dream of his biological mother, his “first mother.” He adopts a dog, Lily, who senses moods and emanates answers to unspoken questions.

Each of the children makes contact with Karel; they have unanswered questions that they hope the enigmatic boy in the field can answer. Karel becomes a touchstone for their changing feelings but he can’t give them any help.

I hope I haven’t given away too much. There’s not much more plot; it’s a coming of age story for the three Lang siblings so it’s all about character. The novel reminded me of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and Penelope Lively’s How it All Began, both books that cast a spell over the reader. They’re all hard to forget.

An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn

An OdysseyThis unusual memoir takes place on three levels, each one enriching the others. The first concerns the class on The Odyssey that Mendelsohn teaches at Bard College. Second is Mendelsohn’s fraught but loving relationship with his often cantankerous elderly father. The third is the cruise they both take tracing the voyage of Odysseus. And, really, there’s a fourth overarching level, which is Mendelsohn’s love of the classics and the life it has given him. You don’t have to re-read The Odyssey to enjoy this memoir; Mendelsohn provides what you need to know along the way. But beware, you may want to turn to The Odyssey after the last page.

The memoir starts off with the elder Mendelsohn’s request to sit in on his son’s Odyssey seminar at Bard. It’s a long trip each week by car or train but he doesn’t miss a class. He promises to remain an observer, but soon interjects his own comments and questions, which reflect his life experience. A classics student might scoff at some of his ideas, for example that Odysseus wasn’t a hero because he betrayed his wife on his long journey home,  but doesn’t a great story invite us to reflect on our own lives and values? The students–sophomores not scholars–often find Daddy’s opinions chime with their own and some great discussions ensue. We also get a glimpse into the way that Mendelsohn fils teaches, how he encourages his students to understand the traditional critical interpretations of the story but allows them to bring their own sensibilities to it.

Mendelsohn’s relationship to his father is the second level There’s family history here, not always comforting for the son, who often felt intimidated by his father while growing up. I was impressed by his forbearance when his father was cranky and his pleasure when his father was charming. The Odyssey, of course, is all about fathers and sons. The first four books are about Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, who goes in search of his father. It’s an educational trip, so to speak, as is the time Daniel Mendelsohn spends with his father in this memoir. Lots of lessons to be learned, and epiphanies to be experienced.

The cruise around the Aegean sea is the next level, tracing Odysseus’ voyage as closely as possible. It starts at Troy, now identified as modern-day Canakkale in Turkey. Daddy finds the site unimpressive, no tower and fortifications remain to give it grandeur. But the cruise is a success, the sites interesting and lovely.

The fourth level is how Mendelsohn’s love of the classics holds the story together and holds the reader enthralled. He writes about the pleasures of handling the texts he used in college.  (I took courses in college in Greek and Roman history, literature, and art and I’m always a little jealous of anyone who continued on that academic path. I also refuse to part with those college texts.) Mendelsohn’s use of Homer’s tropes and symbols in the memoir are delightful if you know the poem. The structure, too, recalls the epic. These are lightly worn aspects of the memoir and it can be appreciated in many ways, whether you remember much from The Odyssey or not.

N.B. There are many editions and translations of The Odyssey. Years ago I read the older Robert Fagles translation. You might want to try the recent translation by Emily Wilson.

More Books About England in World War I

Great War Modern MemoryWe’ve passed through the centennial years for World War I but I keep re-reading novels and memoirs about that time period. Many years ago I read the classic work by Paul Fussell The Great War and Modern Memory, about how the war was interpreted through literature. It’s one of the themes I keep returning to in my reading. Here are some of my favorites.

Pat Barker is unsurpassed at recreating the wartime experience in fiction. In her Regeneration trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road), she writes about the psychological wounds suffered by returning soldiers, first known as shell-shock. They were frightened and embarrassed by their sometimes bizarre symptoms, and felt guilty about leaving the battlefield. Others wondered if insanity was the only sane response to such a brutal war. Their psychiatrists struggled to find ways to treat this hitherto unrecognized form of mental trauma, trying a range of treatments. Barker uses historical characters such as poet Siegfried Sassoon and psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers to illustrate the anguish of the men and their physicians who suffered through this period. Her fictional characters, such as the tormented soldier Billy Prior, are complex and hard to forget. There are no easy answers here; Barker catalogs the grim and relentless progress of the war and its effect on the participants. Her writing is extraordinary. Ghost Road, the third in the series, received the Booker Prize in 1995.

Barker also wrote about young artists caught up in the war’s beginning, worried about the changes the war will bring to their lives and careers. In her novel Life Class, art students from London’s prestigious Slade Art School live in the shadow of the impending war. Working-class Paul Tarrant is caught up in love affairs and uncertain that he has real talent; Elinor Brooke wants no part of the war and champions art as an antidote; Kit Neville is determined to use his war experiences to further his artistic career. Historical figures, such as Augustus John and Lady Ottoline Morrell, add color and depth to the setting. When Tarrant volunteers for the Belgian Red Cross, ferrying the wounded off the battlefield at Ypres, Barker takes us into the maelstrom and into the heart of an artist encountering tragedy. Life Class is the first book of a trilogy that follows these artists as the war affects and refines their life and art.

Memoirs and novels of the war capture the experience of participants and those who stayed behind. Vera Brittain’s autobiography, Testament of Youth, long a classic in England, is a riveting account of one young woman’s war experience, what she calls “the smashing up of my own youth by the War.” In 1914, at the end of her first year at Oxford, she was engaged to a soldier.  Compelled to assist the war effort, she volunteered as a nurse and served at hospitals in Malta and in France, where she experienced firsthand the devastation of the trench warfare at the Western Front. She lost her fiancé, her brother and her innocence as well. Brittain’s account of how the war affected an entire generation is heartfelt and absorbing. An excellent movie was made from this memoir, but reading the book is a much more intense experience.

Doris Lessing’s unusual, moving novel-and-memoir, Alfred & Emily, is a re-imagining of the lives of her parents as if World War I never happened. In fact, their lives were irrevocably scarred by the war—her father lost a leg and coped with the restrictions of a primitive artificial prosthetic and the emotional scars of trench warfare. Her mother was a nurse in London’s famous Royal Free Hospital, tending to the wounded and shell-shocked soldiers, their cries of “oh, Nurse, the pain” permeating her dreams for the rest of her life. In the first, fictional part, Lessing obliterates the war from English history, and using what she knows of her parents’ families, friends, and early histories, imagines the paths their lives might have taken. In the second part, she tells the real story of their adult lives on a farm in Southern Rhodesia, allowing the reader to see the raw material that inspired her fictional portraits and the way World War I was never far from the surface of their lives. It’s a child’s “what-if” literary game played by one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.  Sadly, for an entire generation and their children, the war’s effects were all too real.

Anne Perry’s mystery, No Graves as Yet, the first in a series, opens on the idyllic playing fields at Cambridge University, on June 28, 1914, the day that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Bosnia Herzegovina. Chaplain and faculty member Joseph Reavley is watching his students playing cricket when his brother Matthew arrives with the devastating news that their parents have been killed in a car accident. Matthew reveals that their father, a former Member of Parliament, was carrying documentary evidence of a conspiracy “to ruin England and everything that we stand for.” As the diplomatic tensions in Europe ripple out from Serbia to Germany and Russia, the two brothers race to uncover the conspiracy. In the ensuing weeks, a student is murdered and arguments about the likelihood of war divide students and faculty into opposing camps. Perry nicely balances Cambridge life, with its ageless, comfortable rituals and routines for the privileged classes against the threatened war and conspiracy that would turn that world upside down.

Romance of American Communism by Vivian Gornick

Romance CommunismVivian Gornick is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. She is the author of an iconic feminist memoir, Fierce Attachments, which I’ve read many times. Her books of essays on the writing life are wonderful. She’s so intense; her soul is on the page with you, for better or for worse. Romance of American Communism, published in 1977, was re-issued this year. Everything Gornick writes creates a literary tempest and this book is no exception, in 1977 and now. Gornick interviewed people who were members of the Communist Party in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Her goal was to find out how they became communists, what their experience of life in the movement was like, why they left, and how they view that part of their life now.

Years ago I read several books about the Communist Party in America, both fiction and nonfiction, most notably  Diana Trilling’s memoir The Beginning of the JourneyPhilip Roth’s novel I Married a Communist, and The God That Failed. My constant question was why people were drawn to an authoritarian organization that was directed from Moscow and repeatedly betrayed the trust of its members. Diana Trilling’s memoir came close to giving me an answer, but I needed to know more, so when I saw the re-issue of Romance, I decided to read it, or at least start it. I couldn’t put it down. 

In 1977 the book was panned as “overwritten,” and Gornick herself, in a new introduction, says as much. There are too many nouns and adjectives and lots of intrusive descriptive material about the weatherworn but still striking faces of her interviewees. Her psychological analyses of people’s lives is also a bit much. You can ignore all of that or just appreciate that it’s Gornick’s passionate style. The voices of the former communists are the real thing, filled with the emotion of commitment to a movement and ideology that they believed would change the world for the better. They believed that change was just around the corner. Remember, this was the 1930s; something had to change and communism offered a complete worldview. It was a vision of equality.  Party members joined an all-encompassing battle; it gave their lives purpose. 

Over and over again, these former communists tell Gornick how they were searching for meaning in their lives. They regale her with stories about the sense of community and the sense of mission, the belief that capitalism was the source of inequality and oppression. Group experiences are very powerful; we know from our own experiences just how formative and memorable they can be. You commit wholeheartedly to something you believe in and everyone around you feels the same way. Suddenly you can’t understand other people who aren’t part of that worldview: they lack access to what you know is true. They’re lost and misguided. Your social life becomes limited to the people who believe as you do; the ideology becomes the focus of your life.

Members married other Party members, were assigned by the Party to work in factories as union organizers, and some went underground for years on Party orders. Dissent from any part of the Party program meant expulsion and isolation. The show trials in the late 1930s, the non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in 1939, and the HUAC investigations in the early 1950s were all tests of loyalty. Some members dropped off at each of those points. For many, 1956, when Khrushchev revealed the extent of Stalin’s murderous crimes was the end, and the Party in the U.S. was fatally weakened.

Romance of American Communism is a look back at a time when people were searching for solutions to serious social ills. There’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that it was re-issued now. Communism is long discredited, but the intensity of feelings in the strident opinions and controversies that currently divide us is a reminder of those days when the Party held so many in thrall.

 

Gone So Long by Andre Dubus III

Gone So LongThe characters in Andre Dubus’ novel, Gone So Long, can’t find their equilibrium. They can’t sit still, they can’t forgive themselves for what they’ve done or who they are; they can’t calm down. It’s not hard to understand why. In a moment of rage, Daniel Ahearn murdered his wife in the presence of their three-year old daughter, Susan. Although Susan can’t remember the incident, it upends her life: her father goes to prison and Susan is brought up by her grandmother in rural Florida, far away from her childhood home. She believes her parents were killed in a car crash. It isn’t until she’s a teenager that she learns the true story.

When the novel opens, it’s forty years after the murder and Daniel has been out of prison for twenty-five years. He’s living in a trailer supporting himself by re-caning chairs, a skill he learned in prison. His life is minimalist, claustrophobic, and he’s dying of cancer. Susan is forty-three, married, a writer with a college teaching job, but there’s no joy in her life. She suffers from depression and can’t reciprocate her kind husband’s love. Her grandmother still rages about the loss of her daughter.

Daniel wants to see Susan before he dies and locates her on the Internet. He packs up his truck and unbeknownst to Susan, heads down the coast to find her. The reader knows that his hopes of explaining his life to his daughter are delusional. Susan has ambivalent feelings about seeing her father but his crime occupies large portions of her waking mind and she begins to write about it, hoping for some clarity and peace. Her grandmother rages on; there’s no hope of forgiveness from her.

As Daniel heads down to Florida and Susan continues writing her memoir, Dubus builds up the tension by filling in the background to the story. The Kirkus reviewer wrote that “Dubus puts this pot on a very slow boil, continuing to fill in the backstory as he inches his characters toward their climactic meeting.” Just so. I had to stop reading periodically to slow it down even more. What would happen when they met? One of the characters has a gun and wants to use it. I remember years ago reading Dubus’s novel House of Sand and Fog and experiencing the same emotion, needing to take breaks from the sadness and fear.

Ahearn could be a hard character to like, but in Dubus’s hands, while he’s not exactly empathetic, we get that he’s flawed and vulnerable. In parallel to Susan’s memoir is the long letter Ahearn writes to her, hoping to win a place in her life. How is that going to work out? It’s Dubus’s character-driven, evocative writing, filled with bottled-up emotion that keeps us on the hook.

 

 

 

The Kindness of Strangers

Kindness of StrangersA few weeks ago I posted a review of The Sun and Her Stars, Donna Rifkind’s bio of the remarkable Salka Viertel. I turned next to Viertel’s own memoir, The Kindness of Strangers. While the narrative covers some of the same anecdotes and events of Viertel’s life, it was a pleasure to read her own words and excerpts from the letters between Viertel and her husband Berthold as well as the extended portion about her childhood and acting career in Germany and Austria. There’s more emotion in her own telling, and that was a treat.

Towards the end of the memoir, I was struck by Viertel’s comment, “…it occurs to me that as the years went by, my life ceased to be solely my own. It became like the estuary of a big river into which other streams flowed. I could not influence their course but I was affected by it.” Her husband, siblings, and children were scattered around the world; the  writers, artists, and actors she befriended were always coming and going; and her precarious financial state kept her on the move. Many of our lives are like that. We juggle friendships and love relationships from different times and places, appreciating the memories and connections we’ve made, watching as the trajectories of their lives spin towards us and away. As we get older, these connections take on more emotional weight, more poignancy. There’s sadness but also the richness of memories, and that’s what Viertel captures in her memoir.