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Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit

Orwell's RosesI’m a big fan of Rebecca Solnit’s writing about social issues (Call Them by Their True Names, Men Explain Things to Me, The Mother of All Questions) and when I read the reviews of Orwell’s Roses it sounded very different from those books. Was it really about the roses Orwell planted in his garden? As a person with a black thumb, did I want to read about gardening? But I know that for a writer like Solnit, almost anything can be a jumping-off point for insightful social commentary. The book does indeed start with the roses that Orwell planted in his garden in Wallington, England. Solnit spins off into Orwell’s life and political thought but always circles back to the meaning of roses, for Orwell and for all of us. You will be surprised and enlightened, as always, by her writing.

And then there’s Orwell’s own commitment to writing well. Solnit quotes him: “But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.” Solnit writes that the passage above “has long served me as a credo…Clarity, precision, accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness are aesthetic values to him, and pleasures.”

Solnit led me to one of Orwell’s essays about writing, “Politics and the English Language,” about obfuscation and fuzzy thinking. It’s a timeless piece that every writer should read.

I borrowed a library ebook of Orwell’s Roses but decided that a hard copy was necessary so that I could re-read some of the chapters, and think about the ideas without an expiration date hovering over my enjoyment of the book. It was well worth the price.

The Latecomer by Jean Hanff Korelitz

LatecomerA recent New Yorker cartoon shows a teenage girl shouting at her mother: “Nature or nurture, it’s all your fault!” Jean Hanff Korelitz’s new novel is about nature and nurture, how we chart our own way in the world despite our families, and many other subjects as well, but not in the way you might expect. The well-known Philip Larkin poem, “This be the Verse” is apropos. Readers of Korelitz’s last novel, The Plot, will remember how she skewered the writing trade. The satire was hilarious and the main character’s comeuppance at the end was delicious. The Latecomer is also filled with satire, but the novel is more character-driven. It’s about the Oppenheimer family–parents and three children who spiral away from each other in wider and wider arcs and a fourth child, who, well, let’s just say she changes the dynamics. Read it and find out.  

Two events set the novel in motion. The first is a car accident, the second is infertility. The accident saddles Salo Oppenheimer with a crushing burden of loss and guilt that his wife Johanna does her best to alleviate. Johanna, desperate for the liveliness of family to fill their large Brooklyn Heights house, decides to try in vitro fertilization. After many failures, three of four viable eggs are implanted in Johanna’s womb. The fourth one is frozen, just in case. All goes well this time, and Johanna and Salo are the parents of triplets Harrison, Lewyn, and Sally. But the triplets share only their gestation in Johanna’s womb; once they are aware of each other’s presence, intense disdain drives them apart. This is not a happy family. Johanna is devastated and Salo, unable to engage, retreats into his own world of art collecting and guilt. When the triplets go off to college, Johanna remembers her last (frozen) egg and decides to take one more chance at a happy family. Phoebe is the fourth Oppenheimer child, the eponymous latecomer. 

This is a difficult book to summarize; there’s lots of plot and intense character interaction. I haven’t mentioned the satire that permeates the story, skewering liberals and conservatives alike. Mormonism, hoarding, art collecting, chickens, Cornell, and progressive private schools all make significant appearances. New York City is summoned up in a most satisfying way. Many readers will recognize quotes and references to other books. In the middle, you’ll wonder where it’s all going, but Korelitz ties it up nicely. Will the Oppenheimers ever be content to be part of the same family? That’s what kept me turning the pages. 

Other complex family novels that I’ve enjoyed: 

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

and, for those of you who need an absorbing thousand-page novel, one of my all-time favorites, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

 

Dirt Creek by Hayley Scrivenor

Dirt CreekI’m sure you’ve all read–or read reviews of–those novels where a young girl goes missing. It’s become a sub-genre of domestic fiction and coming-of-age novels. When I read a good review of such a book I sigh. Do I have to read this one? Well, yes, I did have to read the brand-new Dirt Creek because it’s set in Australia. For me, Australian noir has replaced Scandinavian noir. Trust me on this. It’s a long way from the bitter cold and long nights of Nordic mysteries to the sun-parched, drought-ridden, cheerless towns of the outback, but it’s a trip you need to take. I’ve appended, at the bottom of this post, a few other titles I’ve enjoyed in recent years. I’ve been to Australia and it seemed like a cheery place, full of those funny greetings (G’day mate!) and strange animals, but hey, what does a tourist know about the dark corners?

There are the familiar tropes in Dirt Creek: a popular twelve-year-old girl goes missing; her friends and their families have secrets they keep from the authorities; a policewoman with her own issues is sent from the big city to solve the crime. Scrivenor’s success with these familiar plot devices comes from the characters she creates and the narrative structure. Esther, the girl who goes missing, is more than just a good friend to Ronnie and Lewis, outsiders in their school. She’s the one who makes them feel safe and understood. Their parents and extended families are a mess. Their town, called Durton–dubbed “Dirt Town” by the teens–lives up to its name.

Each chapter focuses on a different character, building a picture of the town along with relationships and motivations. One of the characters speaks in the first person and there are chapters in the third person as well, kind of a chorus of the town’s children, whose voices reflect, look back, and create tension. Here’s an example from one of the third-person sections: “We understood, even then, that bad things happened. And we understood that sometimes people made them happen, sometimes those people were close to us, or even ourselves.”

But more than that, Scrivenor locates emotions in the bodies of her characters, describing exactly how events made them feel: the stone lodged in the stomach, the sensation of choking, the claustrophobia in the lungs. We know that Esther won’t come back, but it’s the way each person is bound up in the story that makes it so compelling.

Other Australian noir that I’ve read and enjoyed:

The Dry by Jane Harper. Flatiron Books, 2017. (now a movie) This was the first book in the detective Aaron Falk series.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper. Flatiron Books, 2018. Second book in the Aaron Falk series. (The third in the series, Exiles, is coming out in January, 2023.)

Scrublands by Chris Hammer. Atria Books, 2019.

Breath by Tim Winton. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008.

Paperbark Shoe by Goldie Goldblum. Picador, 2011.

Economy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood by Fatima Shaik

Economy HallIn pre-pandemic times, I used to meet occasionally in the evenings with several women at the cafe French Roast in Greenwich Village. A glass (or two) of wine, maybe a salad or tartine, and good conversation. It’s not so easy these days to meet people in a casual way and I miss those gatherings. One of the women at those French Roast gatherings was Fatima Shaik, the author of Economy Hall. I’ve been remiss in not writing sooner about this book, since I had the pleasure of interviewing Shaik for the Women’s National Book Association several months ago. She used to tell us about the years she spent doing research for a history book about New Orleans and how she had become immersed in the story. I knew I’d read it once it was published.

Economy Hall is indeed an immersive book and I understand why Shaik spent all those years uncovering the history of the group. It was a vibrant organization in the Treme district that served as a social club; a support network; an educational and charitable organization; and a way for the Creole community to display its learning and unique style. Many of the founding members came from Haiti, where they had been involved in uprisings. They spoke several languages, appreciated music and literature, and enjoyed good food. New Orleans didn’t want these rebellious Blacks, but they came anyway and created a vibrant free Black community. It’s quite a story, from Economy Hall’s founding, in the 1830s, to the 1950s when it had a second life as a popular venue for jazz. Detailed minutes–which Shaik’s father wisely rescued from the trash–provided a wealth of information but also difficult choices about how to present the material.

How does a writer decide when the research is done, when there’s enough information to tell the story? Which of the thousands of details and anecdotes are needed to invigorate the tale? And from whose point of view should the story be told? Shaik decided to let one of the members of Economy Hall tell the history: Ludger Boguille, an early member with ties to Haiti. For many years Boguille was the recording secretary, taking minutes of the meetings–in French–in a beautiful, almost calligraphic hand. Focusing on an individual was a great choice to bring the reader right into the life of the Society: the friendships, the fabulous social events, the feuds among members, and the painful striving for recognition by the white community.

It’s a great story, well told and I highly recommend it!

What I’ve been reading (and not reading)

I have to confess I’ve been in a reading slump. I start a book and then wonder if it’s worth my time. I close it and go on to another and then have the same experience. I just closed Emma Straub’s new book, This Time Tomorrow after reading about sixty pages. Sigh; I’ve liked her other books very much, especially All Adults Here and Modern Lovers. This one was too slight for me right now. A friend gave me The Midnight Library by Matt Haig and I closed that one too. 

Crossing McCarthySo what has caught my attention? My older son recommended The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy. I hadn’t read any of McCarthy’s books before, tried The Road, but was put off by the incredible bleakness. The Crossing is also bleak, but it’s very haunting. I felt literally sucked into the story, grim though it was. The plot is minimal, the dialogue cryptic, so the reader needs to concentrate to get the juice out of what’s going on. The characters’ motivations are opaque: never stated, only felt. It’s about two brothers, Billy and Boyd Parham, and the trips they make from New Mexico to Mexico in the 1930s. I won’t say more; it’s quite an experience to read it. My son says it’s the best of the three books in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and he’s pretty reliable about literature, but I may still pick up the other ones. 

Colony MageeI also enjoyed The Colony by Audrey Magee. The characters and setting are unusual and the author tackles some interesting issues of cultural appropriation in a novel way. It takes a while for the story to warm up. Mr. Lloyd, an artist, comes to an isolated island off the coast of Ireland to spend the summer painting the beautiful cliffs. He’s channeling Gauguin, hoping to go off in a new more naturalistic direction that will catch the London buyers. His wife, a gallerist, won’t sell his works anymore or share his bed. The local folks have agreed to rent him a cabin and provide food. Lloyd is joined by a French linguist, Mr. Masson, who is surprised and annoyed to find the artist there. Masson is studying the Gaelic language on the island and is worried that speaking English to Lloyd will corrupt the islanders’ language. Two cranky, disappointed men face off in this short novel of ideas. The islanders are more appealing, especially the teenage James, who may be a better artist than Lloyd. 

Little Children by Tom Perrotta

Little ChildrenLast month I was listening to one book and reading another and since they were both about families and adultery it was a little head-banging to go back and forth. One was Monica Ali’s new book Love Marriage and the other was Tom Perrotta’s 2004 novel Little Children. I read Love Marriage on my e-reader and listened to Little Children (read by a terrific narrator). I enjoyed both but wanted to write about Little Children. I’d never read anything by Tom Perrotta and Little Children is often listed as his best novel, so I figured I’d start with that. It’s hilarious and I’m now a Perrotta fan.  His writing reminds me of Carl Hiaasen–dark humor with social commentary–but in Perrotta’s writing there’s more character development and the plotting has more depth.

The story is about two unhappy, suburban, thirty-ish couples and the neighbors who orbit around them. Handsome jock Todd, a stay-at-home dad, is ostensibly studying for the bar exam (which he’s already failed twice) but instead of spending his evenings studying in the library, he’s watching the local skateboarding teens or playing football with a team of local cops. Todd has no intention of studying for the exam but can’t tell that to his hard-working wife who’s already exasperated by his lack of ambition.

Todd takes his son to the playground every day but the local mothers won’t talk to him; they call him the “Prom King” and keep their distance. A dad at the playground breaks all their social norms. Sarah, tired of the playground moms’ rigid attitudes, and ready for an adventure, approaches Todd to chat him up and scandalize the other moms. What ensues, as any reader could guess, is an affair that shakes up their lives. Meanwhile, Sarah’s husband, Richard, has his own sordid secret life. And Larry, one of Todd’s football buddies, is on the warpath about a convicted pedophile who’s just moved back to the neighborhood.

I know the above summary doesn’t sound particularly funny, but Perrotta takes all these folks with their obsessions and opinions and mixes them into a wicked comedy without losing sight of their humanity. There’s a scene in the local church with Larry and the pedophile that is so hilarious you won’t be able to forget it. Some characters get their just desserts, some learn hard lessons, and some get away unscathed.

Memoirs and Fiction–What’s the Connection?

I’m giving a zoom talk the evening of April 13, 2022 on the way that memoir writers use novelistic techniques to make their memoirs, well, memorable. If you’re just reading this today, you can sign up here. I don’t know yet if the program will be recorded to be available later, but if it is, I will let you know.

Here’s a list that includes some of the memoirs I’ll talk about; they’re all great memoirs and I’m hoping you’ve read some of them! Many of them are older titles, but I love ’em. The cookbook is filled with great anecdotes as well as great recipes. I’ve cited the original hardcover editions but many are available in paperback.

More on this subject in forthcoming posts!

Beckerman, Ilene. Love, Loss, and What I Wore. Algonquin Books, 1995. 

Bruder, Jessica. Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. W.W. Norton, 2017. 

Conroy, Pat. My Losing Season.  Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2002.

Conway, Jill, Ker. The Road From Coorain. Knopf, 1989.

Dubner, Stephen. Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son’s Return to His Jewish Family. William Morrow, 1998. 

Fuller, Alexandra. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.  Random House, 2001.

Giobbi, Ed. Italian Family Cooking. Random House, 1971.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Wait Till Next Year.  Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Gornick, Vivian. Fierce Attachments: A Memoir.  Reprint. Beacon Press, 1997. 

Hoffman, Eva. Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language.  E.P. Dutton, 1989.

Karr, Mary. The Liar’s Club.  Viking Press, 1995.

Painter, Nell. Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over. Counterpoint, 2018. 

Remen, Rachel Naomi. Kitchen Table Wisdom. Riverhead, 1996. 

Smarsh, Sara. Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. Scribner, 2018.

Noah, Trevor. Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood. One World, 2016. 

Umrigar, Thrity. First Darling of the Morning. Harper Perennial, 2008

Wolff, Tobias. This Boy’s Life.  Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989.

Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body

Your Inner FishI’ve always wondered just how fish developed into land creatures, or, put another way, how humans developed from fish. Yes, I know it took millions of years, but what were the intermediate steps? That’s the subject of Your Inner Fish. Paleontologist Neil Shubin takes a fascinating, complex subject and makes it accessible to non-science folks, like me. By studying the fossil record, embryonic development, and DNA, scientists have developed a model of how this could have happened. To cut to the chase, the basic structural features of embryos are similar; it’s the messages encoded in our DNA that make the difference in what we become. Your Inner Fish is one of those books that will change the way you look at fish, amphibians, and mammals (including humans). A trip to the zoo will be a different experience: you’ll see animals in a new way, more like us.

Early in his career, Shubin started looking for fossils of fish. With very little funding, he first worked with a group of scientists in Pennsylvania in places where roads had been cut through mountains, exposing layers of rock.  No glamour there, but he was hooked. The fossils he found showed how fish developed the features that allowed them to survive on land. Take, for instance, necks! A neck is not so important if you’re living in the water, where you can easily swivel your entire body about, but on land, the ability to turn your head is crucial to survival. Shubin found fossils with various stages of neck development. Over the course of many expeditions, he uncovered fossils that were in intermediate stages of development for other parts of our bodies. Shubin’s enthusiasm and persistence and his stories of working collaboratively with colleagues are delightful and very enlightening.

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

CrossroadsThe title of Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel is very apt–all the characters are at crossroads in their lives and every chapter ends with another messy situation so the reader is repeatedly reminded of the title. In some cases, a character is literally at a crossing in the road at the end of a chapter. The story is told by five members of the Hildebrandt family, and it’s set in the early 1970s in a suburb of Chicago.

The Hildebrandts are a hot mess. The father, Russ, is the assistant minister in a local congregation. By a vote of the teens he was kicked out of Crossroads, the touchy-feely teen group run by a charismatic student minister. Ah, the 70s. Russ is out of touch and the teens find him a little creepy. (This includes two of his own kids.) He’s devastated, questioning his calling and his parental skills. He feels much better after he begins an affair with a parishioner. Wife Marion, a brilliantly written character, has a gritty back story that she’s kept secret from everyone, but like many big secrets, it’s the black cloud over her life. She lives in fear for her soul.

The children have their own travails. They form alliances, betray confidences, try out risky behavior and generally behave like teenagers trying to navigate to adulthood. But this is not just a domestic novel about suburban angst. It’s a momentous novel about religious faith and what we owe the people in our lives. Every Hildebrandt, except maybe the eight-year old, pines for goodness but misses the boat. They yearn for their faith to show them the road, for the right to live selfishly without guilt, for guidance in making life-changing decisions. So much delicious angst is contained in these pages, so much schadenfreude, such an overstuffed novel.

I enjoyed it immensely! Lots to think about and a good winter read.

A few books I’ve been reading

I can’t always write a full review of every book I read, although I’d like to! So here are some short reviews of the books I’ve enjoyed lately.

The Publishers Weekly starred and boxed review of Valentine Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore caught my eye and I was able to get an e-book right away. Valentine is a very accomplished debut novel told in several voices about a teenage girl in the west Texas oil country town of Odessa. Gloria had the bad judgment to go off in a truck one evening with an oil worker; he rapes and beats her. She drags herself through the scrub to a nearby house where a woman with a young daughter finds her, too terrified to speak. The aftermath of this horrific event is told in the voices of several women and teenagers in the town. Each of these women, in Wetmore’s prose, is a fully developed, complex character. We ache for them and the choices they’ve made or had forced upon them, living in this brutal and desolate part of Texas where the degradation begins with the effects of the oil industry on the land and proceeds into the lives of everyone in the area. Yes, this subject is painful but the writing is so wonderful, so precise and insightful, that it is worth the pain. 

Morningside HeightsThe highly anticipated new novel by Joshua Henkin, Morningside Heights, was finally published this spring after several delays. I found the cover–a picture of an empty suit–disturbing, but I’m sure that was the intent. I enjoyed it, but didn’t love it. Pru Steiner, a graduate student at Columbia University, falls in love with her rock-star Shakespeare professor Spence Robin. They marry and Spence continues to top the rankings of teachers and turn out books and papers. They have a daughter, Sarah, and Pru puts her own career on hold. They live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan near Columbia and there’s lots of atmosphere and context about the neighborhood. They take in Spence’s teenage son Arlo from his first brief marriage and that changes the family dynamic in positive and not-so-positive ways. As time goes on, Spence begins to decline mentally and is no longer able to teach; Pru becomes his caregiver. That’s a rather dry recital of the plot, but Henkin has lots to say, in an understated way, about the choices we make in our lives. Arlo is an especially interesting character, but I have to say that I wasn’t overwhelmed. If you’ve read and enjoyed Henkin’s previous novels, go for it.

Nearly Normal FamilyI read A Nearly Normal Family by Swedish author M.T. Edvardsson in two days, a psychological thriller about a family whose teenage daughter is accused of murder. Stella has always been a difficult child with a terrible temper and a lack of impulse control, but could she murder someone? The story is told in three parts; first by the father, then by Stella, and last by her mother. Unreliable narrators and complicated family relationships move the story forward. The novel poses the question: how far would you go to keep your child out of jail whether she’s guilty or innocent? Would you know if she was guilty? Would it matter?