Category Archives: Fiction

Thinks by David Lodge (Viking, 2001)

ThinksThought about thought about the world–and the chemistry between men and women–are the themes of this 2001 novel, in Lodge’s inimitable, sly style. His novels are serious and funny at the same time–a unique combination–and often poke fun at academics. I’ve read and enjoyed several: Small World, Nice Work, Paradise News, and grabbed a paperback copy of Thinks at a used book sale.

Ralph Messenger, Director of the Center for Cognitive Science at the University of Gloucester, spends his days thinking about the nature of consciousness and his chances of adultery with the women on campus. Enter Helen Reed, recently widowed novelist and visiting professor in the Creative Writing program. Helen’s intrigued by Ralph’s field of study; Ralph enjoys their interesting conversations and hopes to get Helen in bed. Helen is interested but worries about the morality of sleeping with Ralph after his wife  befriends her.

As the book progresses, there are conversations about what consciousness is–for Ralph and his colleagues it’s a problem to be solved, which amuses Helen, who sees consciousness from the writer’s point of view, as the “stuff” of the novel. Helen’s conversations with Ralph spill over into her teaching and she gives her students an assignment to write an essay “What it’s Like to Be a Bat” in the style of a well-known modern author. The results are pretty hilarious. Helen also wonders what’s happened to the consciousness of her deceased husband, Martin.

Ralph is conducting an experiment whereby he tape records his thoughts and Helen keeps a diary, so the reader gets to experience the same events from very different points of view. The reader knows what they’re both thinking, but their individual thoughts, their “consciousnesses” if you will, are opaque to each other, which provides the engine for the plot . There’s lots of information about theories of consciousness; characters have great discussions about how we know what we know, but with Lodge’s usual light touch, he inserts this in the most entertaining way.

 

The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal

Exiles ReturnI discovered this lovely novel because I’m a big fan of The Hare with Amber Eyes, a memoir written by the author’s grandson, Edmund de Waal. (More about that book at the end of this post.) Elisabeth de Waal survived “interesting times” as the Chinese proverb would have it; that is, she and her family survived World War II, as so many Jews did not. She was born Elisabeth von Ephrussi, in 1899, daughter of one of the great banking houses of Europe, growing up in a fabulous palais on the Ringstrasse in Vienna. She studied philosophy, law, and economics, and corresponded with Rilke, to whom she sent her poems. The Exiles Return is one of several novels she wrote; it was never published in her lifetime.

The Exiles Return is about three people who come to Vienna from the United States in the early 1950s for very different reasons. Austria, like much of Europe, was a mess after the War and it was partitioned by the Allies, who occupied it until 1955. Kuno Adler is a medical researcher who hopes to reclaim his old job; Theophil Kanakis is a wealthy Greek who hopes to reclaim a life of partying and subversion; Resi is a young girl whose Austrian immigrant parents hope that she will recover from depression in a new environment. These three people give  us entree into different parts of society; there are complex layers of expectations, disappointments, and thinly veiled violence that operate on their lives.

The pleasure of this novel is in the complexity of the characters and de Waal’s refusal to make things simple. The publisher compares her writing to Irene Nemirovsky’s books about World War II in France, and there is something to that comparison, but for me, de Waal is the more engaging writer.

Back to The Hare with Amber Eyes: in one of the great family memoirs of recent years, Edmund de Waal combines memoir with art and history in the most compelling way. The hare of the title is a piece of netsuke that becomes a leitmotif in the story of the Ephrussi family, who started in Odessa as grain traders and became a banking family in Vienna and Paris that rivaled the Rothschilds. Because Edmund de Waal is a well-known ceramicist, the memoir is not  just about a piece of art, but in the poignant and exquisite way de Waal tells the story, the book itself becomes a work of art.

Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

Game of ThronesSo, I don’t normally read fantasy, but… I picked up a copy of this first book in the series A Song of Ice and Fire a few months ago when I was browsing in a bookstore and read the first few pages, just to see what all the fuss was about. I immediately bought the mass market edition, hooked by the clarity of Martin’s writing and the vivid setting. And those characters! They just jumped off the page. I took the book with me on a trip down to the British Virgin Islands last month (we should have stayed there all winter, not just 10 days) and read it obsessively.

So now I have the second book, A Clash of Kings, but I’m finding it hard to slot it in. I have a pile of library books, a bunch of books on my kindle, and some books on my nook, as well as a pile of unread books on my office bookshelves that I’m determined to read, but not just now. Starks and Lannisters await my return and I’m worried about Theon, up north at the Wall.

The Song of Madeline Miller

Last spring I listened to The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (read by Frazer Douglas) and was enchanted. Normally I delete the books I listen to once I’m done. I just can’t bear to let this one go. I know I’ll listen again. I’m a classics junkie–I studied Greek and Roman history, literature, and art in college and was one of those kids who thought the Greek and Roman myths were the best stories ever told. Miller’s retelling of the story of Achilles and Patroclus had me riveted from  beginning to end. When I had the chance last week to hear Miller speak at the Center for Fiction in NY not even Achilles’ scary goddess mother Thetis could have kept me from going. I had the chance to ask a question about how she managed to create such a frightening character as Thetis and also to tell her how much I enjoyed the book.

Miller retells the story from Patroclus’ point of view and in her hands it becomes a heartbreaking love story. Knowing  how it ends doesn’t at all detract from the beguiling pleasures of the trip. Miller takes the mythological and Homeric material and shapes it to her own ends. The way she gives personality and motivation to characters like Thetis, Chiron and Briseis, for example, only heightens the tension of her narrative.

At the Center for Fiction, Miller talked about the process of writing the novel, how she “set the moment of Patroclus’ death on my horizon and wrote toward it.” She spoke about some of the decisions she struggled with: whether to include the gods and how to end the novel after Patroclus’ death. She talked about how “generous” the Homeric material is, how much it gives a writer to work with and how she often returned to the Iliad for inspiration.

In the first chapter of The Song of Achilles, Patroclus, then a young boy, is sent off to a gathering of the Greek kings, where Helen is asked to choose a husband. One of the kings, as yet unidentified, begins to speak. Listening to it, I gasped in recognition: the speaker was Odysseus, there was no doubt. At that point I knew I was in for a great listening experience. Miller told me that she’s working on a novel about Odysseus; I’ll be watching for it.

Just a note about the audio version–it was wonderful. The reader, Frazer Douglas, creates voices and personalities for all the characters. His tour de force is Thetis, Achilles’ mother, a minor goddess. Even a minor goddess is terrifying to mortals, and Douglas had me scared each time the angry and vengeful Thetis appeared. I’m not quite sure how he did it, but I was truly frightened. At the Center for Fiction, Miller talked about the power of the gods, how encountering a god was never a good thing for a mortal  and how she tried to write that into Thetis’ character. After  her talk, I told her that I thought she’d be happy with the way Douglas portrayed Thetis.

National Reading Group Month

For the past several years I’ve chaired the reading committee that selects the titles for the Great Group Reads list that comes out in September in time for National Reading Group Month (October). There were 22 readers this year and we read like fiends all spring and summer. It was fun and exhausting at the same time and I really appreciate the readers’ their efforts. We put together a great list of books.

National Reading Group Month is sponsored by the Women’s National Book Association–the other WNBA–and to celebrate NRGM all the chapters around the country have author programs, highlighting the Great Group Reads books and other wonderful new books that will provoke lively discussions.

The New York WNBA chapter program is this Wednesday evening–October 17–at the Strand Book Store in their classy Rare Book Room and I’m moderating the panel of 5 authors. For me, this is the high that comes at the end of the hard work: the chance to talk to authors of novels and memoirs, to find out how they wrote those wonderful books, what they were thinking about when they wrote them, how they write, and maybe even why they write. If you’re in NYC, come to the Strand for the 7pm program–it’s only $10 and for that you’ll get a $10 Strand gift card–can it be possible that there’s a book you want to buy?

The authors on the panel are: Alix Kates Shulman whose current novel is Menage (Other Press), a wicked sendup of modern marriage. Shulman’s name ought to be familiar to you as the writer of the iconic feminist novel Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen. 
Elizabeth Nunez will be there too, author of Boundaries (Akashic Press), a lovely cross-cultural story of a woman coping with competing demands of family and career.
David Maine, author of An Age of Madness (Red Hen Press), a devastating psychological study of a woman doctor whose family life has gone horribly wrong. I was delighted that this title made it onto the Great Group Reads list.
I’m eager to meet Ben Ryder Howe and hear  more about his hilarious and heartfelt memoir My Korean Deli: Risking it all for a Convenience Store (Picador). I listened to this one and laughed out loud often. It’s more than just humorous–it’s a great New York story with lots of food for thought about who we are and the choices we make for the ones we love.
Marisa de los Santos will be there to talk about Falling Together (Wm. Morrow Paperbacks), a novel about three college friends who find that despite their close  friendship, they’ve been blind to some important truths.

So, come to the Strand if you can and say hello. There will be time to ask questions of the authors and talk to them after the program.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

This book was well-reviewed so I was looking forward to reading it. It’s really a young adult book.I’m sure the publisher was hoping for a bigger market. It’s told from the point of view of a 14-year old girl about her conflict with her 16 year old sister who’s jealous of the younger one’s relationship with their uncle Finn, an artist who died of AIDS. Each sister is jealous of the other, each one thinks the other is more talented, loved, etc until a crisis reveals…well, you get the idea. Not enough depth for me and I thought this was a story that’s been told (too) many times. The PW reviewer, while praising the book, wrote: “moral conflicts that resolve themselves too easily and characters nursing hearts of gold.” For me, that’s a good characterization.

Writing About the Past

Later this month I’ll have the pleasure of moderating a panel on historical fiction, a genre that seems to have taken over the fiction lists this year. The New York chapter of the Women’s National Book Association is sponsoring the event and I’m thrilled to be the moderator of a stellar panel. The evening is free to WNBA members–a good time to join–and $10 in advance if you’re not a member. It will be at the Wix Lounge, 10 W. 18th St, 2nd floor, from 6-8pm on April 26th. We’ve subtitled the evening An Enduring Genre in a Changing Landscape since it’s about both writing and publishing.

We’ll have 2 authors on the panel, an agent, editor, and reviewer. I’ll write more about the panelists later; here’s the link to information and registration for the evening which will give you the cast of characters and all the details.

Since I’ll be asking the questions, I’ve been thinking about historical fiction and what questions would spark good conversation among our panelists. I’m a firm believer that if you need something, ask the universe, and true to form, I’ve found food for thought about the topic almost every place I turn. For instance, in the past week I’ve been re-reading Amos Oz’s masterpiece A Tale of Love and Darkness. Oz’s descriptions of the way memories surface, persist, and mutate in his writing is breathtaking as is the re-creation of his childhood in pre-statehood Israel.

There are many wonderful passages in the book about reading and writing, but the one that grabbed me is “…that selfsame urge I had when I was small–the desire to grant a second chance to something that could never have one–is still one of the urges that gets me going today whenever I sit down to write a story.” Isn’t writing historical fiction providing a second chance for characters to take the stage? That goes on my list of questions to ask.

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

I listened to this lovely novel, read by the author. There’s usually a good reason why actors with trained voices read fiction, but Ondaatje, with his low, lightly accented voice, who often slurs or even mispronounces words, is a remarkable narrator for this very personal coming of age story. I can’t imagine that I could have enjoyed it more–or even as much–on the printed page.

The narrator and main character is named Michael and he shares some biographical details with Ondaatje, so it’s hard in a story that’s appears so personal, so psychologically true, not to believe that we’re reading something close to memoir. But we’re not; we’re reading literature written by a master hand.

The novel takes place for the most part on a ship, called the Oronsay. Eleven-year old Michael is traveling from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to England to join the mother he hasn’t seen in 5 years. On the ship he is seated at the cat’s table–the opposite of the captain’s table–and there he meets 2 other unaccompanied boys his age: Cassius and Ramadhin.  For 3 weeks, trying to fill up the long days, they study their fellow passengers and cause trouble on the ship, but in the process they learn who they are. They come of age and Michael, in particular, reaches that moment between childhood and emerging adulthood when, for the first time, he has a sense of who he is.

Ondaatje’s evocation of that voyage, geographical and psychological, is lyrical yet precise. What at first seems like a catalog of the boys’ mischief turns into a story of intrigue, crime, passion, betrayal, and sadness so haunting that it leaves the reader longing for more. Ondaatje gives us a glimpse into the future for most of the characters but leaves us with an ambiguous ending–and nostalgia for a journey we’ve only read about.

Agincourt

I was away for a few weeks, vacationing in Barcelona and Provence (pictures to come!), and of course I had to make the big decision about what to take along to read. A plane ride without a book is unthinkable. We were determined to travel with only carry-on bags, so that made the decision harder. I decided to bring my little MP3 player, which is always loaded up with audiobooks and podcasts.

I was already nearing the end of Bernard Cornwell’s Agincourt, so Nicholas Hook and his adventures at the famous battle kept me company for the flight to Barcelona. A week later, when we arrived in France, Agincourt turned out to have been an ideal reading choice. Our first stop, after picking up our rental car in Montpellier, was Aigues-Mortes, a remarkably well-preserved medieval walled and fortified city.

Although the setting of the Cornwell’s novel is the northwest of France and not the south coast, Aigues-Mortes is contemporaneous with the walled city of Harfleur, the location of one of the battles Cornwell so vividly describes. At Aigues-Mortes, I could “see” what Cornwell was describing, a further reminder that the more we know about where we travel, the more meaningful the trip.

I don’t usually read war stories, but Cornwell has such a sterling reputation as a historical novelist that I thought I’d give him a try. He doesn’t spare the reader the descriptions of bloody warfare, but the characters he creates are real and compelling, their lives woven seamlessly into the beautifully realized historical setting. It also didn’t hurt that the narrator–Charles Keating–was superb, creating distinct voices for each character that captured the essence of their personality. It was a tour de force of writing and narration. I’m hoping that Agincourt is the first in a new Cornwell series–as the characters rode off into the sunset at the end, I had a strong feeling that Cornwell had more in mind for them.

The Year We Left Home

I was having lunch with my cousin Jane last week and we were talking about the kinds of books we like to read and we both agreed that we don’t need closure in a novel, that in fact, we prefer ambiguous endings. Life goes on and there’s rarely closure and it’s satisfying to find those qualities in a novel. I think that’s why for me, reading mysteries is like eating candy (not a good habit). When you’re done reading (or chewing), the thrill is gone and you need another one to stoke your addiction.

My most recent favorite novel with an ambiguous ending is The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson, coming out in May. Thompson follows a Midwestern family for 30 years, particularly the children who come of age in the early 1970s. Thompson’s descriptions of people and situations are fabulous: a disliked brother-in-law is “an undigested lump” in the family. The chapters are like punchy short stories, filled with character, incident, and the economic and social changes that reverberated in the lives of farming families in the Midwest.

Nothing in these characters’ lives can be predicted, but everything feels just right. At the end, there’s sadness, redemption, and some new beginnings, leaving us with lives we recognize as our own.