Nonfiction

What I’ve Been Reading

Time to take a breath! For the last month I’ve been thinking of all the reviews I want to write, because I’ve been reading some terrific books. Tomorrow! is always the day I’m finally going to write a post on this or that book. Today I realized I am so hopelessly behind that it’s never going to happen. Pretty much every book I’ve read this last month or so deserves its own post, but I suppose something is better than nothing, so here goes:

A Fine Balance CoverA Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry. This is such a sad and wonderful book. Mistry is a wonderful storyteller. A Fine Balance follows the lives of four characters: Dina Dalal, Ishvar Darji, Omprakash (Om) Darji, and Maneck Kohlah. The main part of the story takes place in Mumbai, India during The Emergency, a period from June 1975 to March 1977 when Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi suspended civil liberties and elections and established rule by decree.

Ishvar and Om are untouchables who travel from their village to Mumbai to find tailoring work. After struggling to find a job, they are hired by Dina, a widow with poor vision who has taken in piecework in order to remain independent. Dina, who is from a wealthy family, has also sublet her bedroom to a college student, Maneck, who is the only son of a former classmate. Maneck’s father is a merchant in the mountains of northern India. Their backgrounds could not be more diverse, but after much struggle and misunderstanding, they become a sort of family.

The Emergency and its direct effects on each of the characters frames much of what happens in the story, but the book never falls into the realm of political discussion. It also does not use The Emergency as a device for telling the story; instead, it’s an organic part of the plot. Even though Mistry is most certainly helping readers to understand the struggles that Indians of all backgrounds faced from post-independence in 1947 through The Emergency and to show India’s struggles as a country (religious intolerance, caste systems, poverty, and so forth), the characters’ personal stories remain the author’s primary concern. I bring this up because the style is so very different than what happens in a book like Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man, where the author has very deliberately taken something real in the form of Judaism and Kabbalah and used them as devices to tell a story in a very particular way. I essentially read these back-to-back, so it really got me thinking about what I enjoy in storytelling, and I realized that ultimately I prefer not to have the author on the page with me. When I read The Autograph Man, I was constantly aware that I was reading a very deliberately constructed narrative, which actually distanced me from the main character, Alex, and made me twice removed from the characters in Alex’s life. I think a constructed narrative can work in the first person, because the construction can belong to/be organic to the character, but in the third person, it can be difficult to tell whose story I’m reading: the author’s or the character’s.

All that is just to say, Mistry never gets in between the reader and the story, which might be easy for an author to do, especially when his audience might be one that is not familiar with Indian politics and history. He could have–how shall I say this?–pulled a Tolstoy and given the reader a lot of information about the history of what actually happened, but instead, he just lets the characters lead their lives, and that is more powerful than anything. So if you haven’t read this book, you really, really should.

Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity Third Edition/Expanded CoverZen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury. Obviously, this is a book about writing. Confession: I’ve never read a thing by Ray Bradbury, not even Fahrenheit 451, which is really the only book of his I knew at the outset. I didn’t realize he’d written Something Wicked This Way Comes, not to mention countless other novels, stories, and plays. So why pick it up? Well, it’s a book I see recommended over and over again for fiction writers. While I can’t say I learned anything hugely profound, what I liked about this book was Bradbury’s complete joy and excitement about writing. Most books about writing focus on the suffering, the difficulty of getting something on the page. Bradbury doesn’t deny the difficulty–or rather, I should say, he’s not unrealistic. Sometimes–much of the time–your writing will be bad. But only by working and writing badly will you ever write well. This isn’t so different from advice by Stephen King or Anne Lamott, but it’s certainly delivered more effusively. It reminded me of a quote from an interview with George Saunders that I read recently: “Fun is an aspect of fiction that often gets undersold…Fun is hard to talk about. It doesn’t ‘teach’ well. … All those literary things we learn about? Theme and character and all that? My experience is you can’t get there without fun.”

This book is quick to read and definitely worth picking up if you’re interested in any kind of  writing, I think. But even if you’re “just” a reader, Bradbury talks about reading–and watching television and movies–and holding on to what you love.

Divergent (Divergent Trilogy #1) CoverDivergent, by Veronica Roth. I might be the last person in the book blogging world to have read this book, but I’m glad I did. If you haven’t read it yet and you enjoyed The Hunger Games trilogy, definitely pick this one up. I admit I didn’t like it quite as much as The Hunger Games–the love story is more central here, and Beatrice/Tris, the heroine, not quite as strong as Katniss–but it still has an interesting premise. Society has been divided into five factions: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. At the age of 16, children are tested to determine their aptitude for their particular group, and they can choose to join any faction–but choosing a new faction results in leaving behind one’s family forever. Candidates go through initiation, and those who are unsuccessful (or somehow otherwise break the rules of their faction) become one of the Factionless, who live outside the bounds of the city (dystopian, future Chicago) and do menial jobs to support themselves. Some people have no test results–they are Divergent, and they are also considered dangerous.

Unbeknownst to Beatrice/Tris, some of the factions are preparing a war to wipe out the other factions. This book ends with Tris’s discovery and the initial battle. It was a gripping, quick read, and I look forward to reading the next in the series, Insurgent.

American Salvage CoverAmerican Salvage, by Bonnie Jo Campbell. The short story collection American Salvage was a National Book Award finalist in 2009, and it’s so apparent why–these stories are terrific. Campbell is a natural storyteller in the vein of Flannery O’Connor. Given her material, I could see that some people might also want to compare her to Raymond Carver–certainly no insult.

These stories are about hard-working, small town people in upper Michigan. Most of them are poor, several are plagued by meth addictions that affect so many people in small towns. A family returns to their summer home to find it has been invaded by meth addicts. An overseer at a former construction yard realizes he is unable to arrest the natural course of things in life and marriage. A young girl who hasn’t spoken in over a year finds a way to let her shotgun speak for her. A man pines for an old girlfriend he saved from an abusive father, only to find that she considers him just another in a long line of abusers. A woman with a higher degree in agriculture tries to make a go of it as a farmer’s wife.

Campbell shares a sensibility with another one of my favorite authors, Kent Haruf. Her characters’ stories are tough, but they are also beautiful. Campbell allows her characters their dignity even in the worst circumstances, and her writing is seamless.

This collection got me thinking about how many people there are out there who don’t enjoy reading short stories. This is a collection I’d want to get in their hands to make them see what stories can be at their best. O’Connor and Munro and Carver are wonderful, but their reputations precede them and put a sort of pressure on the reader to enjoy them in a certain way. In reading this collection, readers place themselves in the hands of an able storyteller who also has the luck of being someone who has not yet become a name, someone to be imitated (although she most surely will be, because how could any writer help but want to write so well as Campbell does?). Highly recommended. I cannot wait to read her latest work, the novel Once Upon a River.

New Year, New Books (Part 2)

Please pardon my really super fabulous photography skills. Thank goodness I don’t have a food blog. I actually have thought about sharing some recipes here from time to time, but every picture I take of food…well, something happens, and let’s just say the photo never looks like anything anyone would want to eat. Ever.

As promised, in New Year, New Books (Part 1), I am sharing the “real” books I bought for Christmas. Even with the funky flash action I think you can kinda see all the titles. I am not ashamed to admit that Downton Abbey is completely responsible for my renewed interest in World War I, so I bought The Guns of August and The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 by Barbara Tuchman, as well as Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis. The Guns of August won a Pulitzer, so it must be brilliant. I expect good things.

Sort of by accident I ended up with two Civil War era reads. I have had Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln on my wishlist since President Obama was elected the first time around. America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation by David Goldfield was a very recent addition to my wishlist after I heard Nancy Pearl talk about it on NPR back in November 2012. (For the record, she also talked about Liz Moore’s Heft, which I also purchased.) Here in the South, the Civil War never dies, and after many states started petitions to secede after President Obama’s recent election (and to be fair, not just states here in the South), I was curious to read about this concept of “nation” at a time when people seem more divided than ever.

I guess you can see that lately I am going through some kind of history craze (oh lord don’t let it leave me now that I spent all my Christmas money). I bought Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created after hearing this interview on NPR’s Fresh Air.  Trust me: he’s so engaging, if you listen to the interview, you’ll want to buy the books, too!

Of course, I had to buy some more fiction (although who knows when I’ll get to it, with all those other huge tomes and the fact that I read about 30 words a day). Because I feel like practically the only person who has not read The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, I decided it was high time I got around to it. I know I added The Report by Jessica Francis Kane to my wishlist back in 2010 not long after I read Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch because I was interested in reading more novels about World War II. The two Charles Portis novels, Norwood and The Dog of the South I bought because I love True Grit so much, I am determined to read all his books. I bought only one short story collection, American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and has been on my list since it was published in 2009. And then, finally, I bought Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity, because I’ll never stop dreaming…although with all this reading to do, who has time to write?

*Just a little note: All these links are from Amazon, but I am in no way affiliated with them and I do not make any money should you choose to purchase one of these books because you know how cool I am and you probably want to read all the same books I read. I feel so much better for having said that.

The Story Behind the Story

Raymond CarverI recently read Carol Sklenicka’s biography Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life. The book is long and contains exhaustive detail about Carver’s life. I suppose it’s well researched, and it did well with the book critics, but having read it, I cannot help but wonder: How useful is it really to know so much about a writer’s life?

Carver is a legend to many, many students of writing. Outside that circle, or at least outside the circle of admirers of the short story, he seems to be less well known. I suppose he’s what they call “a writer’s writer.” That’s a phrase that’s always bothered me. It presumes, I don’t know, that writers are not also readers, or that readers have lower or different expectations of fiction than writers do. However, I guess it isn’t completely shocking. In general, one thing I’ve come to understand from blogging about books is how many people feel excluded by the short story, or think of it as something one reads for a literature survey, and not much more. I can understand this on some level. I am not a big reader of poetry. I do read it, and I even count some poets among my favorite authors (Philip Larkin, Rainer Maria Rilke), but I’m not (pardon the pun) well-versed in it, and to be quite frank I’m not overly interested in it.

Carver was a poet as well, something many people don’t know. In fact, he was much more prolific and near the end of his short life (he died from lung cancer at the age of 50) wrote more poetry than short stories. When it comes to his stories, he’s essentially known as the master of the “new” American realism and minimalism that was seen as a backlash to a lot of the more experimental writing going on in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Or at least that’s how he was known when I first started reading him, back in the early 1990s. The truth is, much of the work considered to be his “minimalist” masterpieces were in fact much longer works that were severely edited (almost to the point, in some cases, of being re-written) by Esquire and Knopf editor Gordon Lish.

Sklenicka  spends a good amount of time on the relationship between Carver and Lish, and rightly so. It’s the most interesting part of the book, and a worthwhile and interesting read for anyone who loves to read. Editors are often overlooked by readers, and we rarely consider that the book we love has not been shaped, quite often, by the author alone. While it’s true that most editors may not be as liberal with the red pen as Lish was (some of the manuscripts he sent back to Carver were so marked up as to be unreadable, so he would send a freshly–and drastically altered–typed draft along with it), they do have a hand in things. Sklenicka comes to the conclusion that Carver accepted Lish’s edits because he desperately wanted to be published–and in some cases because he agreed with the edits. The fact that Carver “restored” many of the stories Lish edited, though, pretty much says it all. Carver never said a negative thing publicly about Lish’s versions of the stories; instead, he made the claim that he was simply continuing to rewrite them and publish the versions he felt were better for having been revised.

The rest of the book is a very detailed account of Carver’s life, especially focusing on his early struggles to write and his relationship with his family, especially focusing on his relationship with his first wife, Maryann Carver. They lived much of those early years in poverty; they drank a lot, they fought a lot, and they seemed to have a symbiotic relationship based around a shared, single-minded purpose: that Carver succeed as a writer, even to the point of neglecting their own children. Carver makes no secret of his ambivalent feelings toward his offspring. When they were young especially, he saw them as nothing but a burdensome obstacle to be overcome. In later years, in terms of his relationship with his daughter (and his mother and Maryann), he found them to be financial burdens. This is all, as I said, part of a long and extremely detailed work that includes a great deal of information about Carver’s academic career, his friendships, and other influences. These parts of the book tend to drag: another drunken party, another fight, another move, and so on.

Curiosity brought me to this book. The strange thing is, although it was interesting, I can’t say that I’m glad that I read it. Part of me really would rather not know all the sordid details (and yes, quite a few of them are sordid) about Carver’s life. With the exception of coming away with a better understanding about the Carver/Lish relationship and its very direct relationship to the public presentation of Carver’s work, I could have gotten through the rest of my life without knowing most of the stuff I learned. My opinion of his work (which is favorable, although I wouldn’t necessarily count him as a favorite) hasn’t changed.

For Carver scholars, Sklenicka offers a wealth of material. For general fans of Carver’s work–that’s a tough one. With someone such as Dickens or James, we can fit them in to the context of history–and of literary history–much easier than we can writers who are more modern. As with most things, time brings perspective. Biography, even the most well-researched and well-meaning, can be tricky. Of course, that’s not to say I don’t like to read about authors I like, or that I don’t read interviews when they give them or like to know what they’re reading or even what their writing process is like or what the impulse was for their latest work. Given that, I’m not sure how I feel about the story behind the story. In this case, it feels like too much of a good thing, or maybe even too much of a bad one.

The Album Project

SongbookAs I may have mentioned 9,457 times on Twitter, I have been reading Nick Hornby’s Songbook (31 Songs to those of you outside of the U.S.). These essays are as much about each of the 31 songs he chooses to talk about as they are about everything else. Hornby is a die-hard fan of pop music (a category that for him includes the likes of everything from Bob Dylan and the Patti Smith Group to Nelly Furtado and Rod Stewart–I know some Dylan fans who will wholeheartedly disagree with that categorization), and he is unapologetic for the most part about his musical tastes. He does not like classical music, for example.

The best thing about Hornby is that he treats the music that he likes the same way he treats, say, the characters in his books. He approaches it with genuine interest and kind humor. Songs are never to be taken too seriously (well, okay, maybe sometimes), but one should also not laugh them off, no matter how “light” they seem to be. And songs give us a connection to the world and help us understand ourselves in ways that words alone cannot.  Here he is, writing about his autistic son Danny, and Danny’s relationship with music:

If it’s true that music does, as I’ve attempted to argue elsewhere, serve as a form of self-expression even to those of us who can express ourselves tolerably well in speech or in writing, how much more vital is it going to be for him, when he has so few other outlets? That’s why I love the relationship with music he has already, because it’s how I know he has something in him that he wants others to articulate. In fact, thinking about it now, it’s why I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there’s something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out.

As someone who deals with words for a living, I get this, and I would guess that a fair number of other bookish types also get it as well. Considering the question “If you were stranded on a desert island and had to choose between music or books, which would you choose?” I would pick music every time. A book tells one story, and while I am the type to re-read favorite books and rarely tire of them, I still believe music offers more. It’s like having a master key that unlocks a thousand stories we tell ourselves.

Think about a song you heard perhaps for the first time when you were a child, a song you still listen to today. That song encompasses every person you’ve ever been, every version of you, every time you’ve heard it. And I suppose one could argue the same is true when we re-read a favorite book each year: we bring our older, different selves to a book each time. But songs also contain possibilities. Madame Bovary will always be Madame Bovary (as long as the literary critics will let her rest). But I can listen to a song and make up my own story, a story perhaps not even connected to my present or my past. Maybe that’s the writer in me. I’m always making up soundtracks for things I haven’t written yet, or maybe never will.

The other day I decided that I would listen to all my albums in alphabetical order. I chose alphabetical specifically so I won’t tire of one particular artist. What I’d like to do is post thoughts about those albums here. I guess I’m knocking off Nick Hornby, sure, but reading this book has reminded me how important music is to me, how much it has shaped who I am. I have a lot of things I haven’t listened to in years; I generally rely on Pandora, and while I’ve discovered some new artists that way, I also have felt, reading this book, a bit of a gap. I may find, as Hornby does, that certain certain songs or albums no longer suit me, no longer represent the world the way they once did. But I am also hoping that other things open up, that I have a new or extended sense of appreciation. I am not a music scholar, and I don’t plan to write reviews. Just thoughts. That’s all.

Favorite Books of 2009

I was trying to put off listing my favorite books of 2009 until next week, but I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I am going to take the risk that the last few books wouldn’t have made it into this list anyway, and if they do turn out to be remarkable, then I’ll give them their due in 2010.

I was outside my comfort zone quite a bit this year. One thing I noticed is that I have only one short story collection on this list, and I only read three collections total, which is unusual for me, as they usually make up the bulk of my reading. I am sure if I had gotten my hands on a copy of Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness, it would be on this list.

I read some terrific books, and I read some books that I hoped would be terrific and were not: A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore’s latest novel, was a great disappointment. I see it making many “best of” lists, and I can’t help but wonder if no one wants to admit the empress is not wearing any clothes. The Nation seems to get it right in its assessment, though. I plan to read it again, because it’s still Lorrie Moore, after all. The other book I expected to wow me was Richard Price’s Lush Life, which was good but a bit like reading, say, a novelization of The Wire. This is actually high praise in a way, because The Wire is a terrific show. I suppose I just expected something else. So ultimately, that’s what did me in for both books: expectations.

I also re-read two wonderful books which if I were reading them for the first time most definitely would have made this list: Carol Shields’s The Stone Diaries and Don Kurtz’s South of the Big Four, which is a quiet, unassuming, and wonderful novel that never got its due.

My favorite “discoveries” this year were Sarah Waters and Megan Abbott, both of whom appear on my list. I had a friend recommend Waters to me years ago, and as I was reading Fingersmith, I continually smote my forehead. Why hadn’t I listened to my friend? Megan Abbott I found quite by accident, but I am happy that I did. I have books by both these authors sitting on my TBR pile for January.

If I could pick one book from the list that I believe everyone should read, it would be Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, the only non-fiction book on the list. It reads like the most gripping of novels, but the fact that everything in it is true–well, it’s harrowing, but necessary. Put aside any prejudice or discomfort you may have, and read this book with open eyes and an open heart. LeBlanc’s unsentimental compassion is amazing.

And so, finally, here are my favorite books I read in 2009:

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell, by Susanna Clark
Delicate Edible Birds, by Lauren Groff
The Manual of Detection, by Jedediah Berry
Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
The Accidental, by Ali Smith
Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters
The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
The Likeness, by Tana French
Queenpin, by Megan Abbott

What were your favorites in 2009?

Click here to see my favorite books of the decade.

TSS: What I’ve Been Reading

sunsalon1I thought I might try to pick this up again. Hopefully one or two people are still dropping by, but no matter. I missed writing here, so I might as well give it a go. I can’t believe it’s been six months. The main thing that kept me away: I got a job! Very good for the bank account, not as good for the reading. Oh well. I’m hoping I can get back up to speed by writing reviews and so on…

I pretty much dropped the ball on all my challenges. Perhaps I am too whimsical to follow a plan. Even though I’ve managed some of the books on my lists, mostly I’ve just drifted hither and yon, reading what I want when I want.

But I have been reading. Looky here:

May
Nick Hornby – The Polysyllabic Spree (completed)
Laura Lippman – Life Sentences (completed)
Ali Smith – The Accidental (completed)*
Mark Bittman – Food Matters (completed)
Charles Baxter – The Soul Thief (completed)
Elizabeth Strout – Olive Kitteredge (completed)**
Zoe Heller – The Believers (completed)
Richard Yates – The Easter Parade (completed)
Sarah Waters – Fingersmith (completed)**

June
Elizabeth Strout – Amy and Isabelle (completed)
Andrea Barrett – Servants of the Map (completed)
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (completed)
Marcus Zusak – The Book Thief (completed)

July
Andrew Taylor – Bleeding Heart Square (completed)
Julie Powell – Julie and Julia (1/2 completed)
Laurie R. King – The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (completed)**

August
Lewis Wallant – The Tenants of Moonbloom (1/2 completed)
Tana French – The Likeness (completed)*
Sarah Waters – The Little Stranger (completed)
Colum McCann – Let the Great World Spin (completed)
Don Kurtz – South of the Big Four (re-read; completed)

September
Lorrie Moore – The Gate at the Stairs (completed)
Robert Goolrick – A Reliable Wife (completed)*
Eric Weiner – The Geography of Bliss (completed)

I hope to review at least a few of these for you, but I’ll give you the quick rundown.

Favorites
Hands down, Fingersmith was my favorite of all the books I’ve read since May. Pretty much everybody has reviewed this book so I won’t bother–I’ll just say I loved it and leave it at that. Although I very much enjoyed The Little Stranger, it just didn’t have the spark that Fingersmith had. I have The Night Watch on my TBR pile. I think Sarah Waters is an author everyone should read.

Other favorites? Tana French’s The Likeness was another great read, and as some reviews have noted very much in the vein of one of my favorite books, The Secret History. I like the questions of identity, group as identity, and what, really, makes a family. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s wholly entertaining and absorbing. I also loved The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, more than I expected to, even. I expected more of a mystery, but it was truly a coming-of-age story, I think. I look forward to reading another book in that series. Olive Kitteredge was amazing, as was The Accidental. I also very much enjoyed Let the Great World Spin, which I got from Library Thing. And finally, A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick, was another great read. I’ll try to post reviews for some of these, just to share more thoughts.

Disappointments
In a nutshell, the biggest disappointments for me were The Soul Thief, by Charles Baxter, and The Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore. That last one pains me especially, because Lorrie Moore is one of my favorite writers. I hope to post a review to explain more in depth why I was disappointed, and I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on that one.

Right now I’m reading The Poisonwood Bible, and after that I’ll move on to Three Cups of Tea and The Hunger Games. And who knows, maybe I’ll still make it through one of those challenges. The year isn’t over yet!

Happy Sunday!

Sunday Salon: Author Biographies

sunsalon1This past week, writer Maud Newton reviewed Brad Gooch’s new Flannery O’Connor biography on NPR. In her review, she questions whether knowing too much about an author’s life can affect how we feel about the work:

“Reading about a favorite writer is risky. No matter how diligently the reader tries to compartmentalize, disappointing revelations threaten to infect the very books that inspired curiosity about an author in the first place.”

Literary critics have long debated the merits of bringing the life of an author to bear on his or her published work. The school of New Criticism believes nothing but the text matters–anything outside it is redundant at best, and a dangerous influence on reading at worst. Historical critics seek context; textual critics believe every revision of the manuscript bears clues to the work’s meaning; deconstructionists can relate any word to any thing in an endless loop, thereby making any written text a sort of linguistic roller coaster that constantly loops back upon itself.

For scholarship’s sake, I believe understanding an author’s personal history is necessary, but as a fan, I’m not sure. Even though I do like to read them, I wonder if sometimes literary biographies can do writers more harm than good, especially in our current culture of information overload. Sometimes I wish that we could go back to the days of old Hollywood, for example, when movie stars’ private lives and secrets were not all over every tabloid, gossip show (also known as “the nightly news”), and Web site. I’m thinking here very specifically about the new John Cheever biography, which deals in part with Cheever’s struggle with his sexual orientation through the last decade of his life. Frankly, I care very little about such things one way or the other. If I enjoy the work (and with Cheever, I do), then nothing will change that. What draws me in is the writer’s vision of the world, and how he or she came to write at all, in the first place. I suppose what concerns me about some biographies is simply the question of motive. Why is it necessary for people to know certain very personal things, and who says so? Is it possible that in our tabloid culture, publishers or authors of some of these biographies are simply dishing the dirt to keep authors relevant? Is it possible they believe that some scandal, some secret, will heighten people’s interest?

And what of David Foster Wallace and his recent suicide? I suppose any author who commits suicide–or perhaps I should say, the work of any author who commits suicide–faces a serious dilemma: how will the suicide affect the work, and our interpretation of it? For years and years, Plath scholars wanted people to believe that Plath operated under the thumb of Ted Hughes. Feminist critics especially made her a sort of patron saint of subjugation, when all the evidence shows this was most likely not true. Plath was cracked before she met Hughes, and the worst possibility was simply that Hughes was attracted to that brokenness, as she was attracted to his arrogance. I’ve not yet read anything by David Foster Wallace, but I’ve read several of the essays published since his suicide, and I will carry them with me when I get around to reading his work. I suppose the best way to put this is to say, I won’t be alone with his texts. His ghost will attend each reading, in a way it might not have otherwise.

So how about you? Are you attracted to the biographies of your favorite authors, or do you think the work is enough? Has biographical information kept you from (or driven you to) reading certain authors? If you know a great deal about an author before reading his or her work, does that affect your reading?

Happy Sunday, all!

Liar, liar, pants on fire!

1984_timesI found this fun Times Online post about the World Book Day’s survey on the top ten books people have lied about reading. They are:

1. 1984 - George Orwell (Read it!)

2. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy (Read but never finished.)

3. Ulysses - James Joyce (Read the first page. That was enough. Decided my one James book would be Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man.)

4. The Bible (Most of it. Catholic school.)

5. Madam Bovary – Gustave Flaubert (Read it!)

6. A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking (Never read it. I suspect many people lie about this one at cocktail parties.)

7. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie (On the TBR list. No Rushdie under my belt at this point.)

8. In Remembrance of Things Past – Marcel Proust (Did I read this? I can’t remember.)

9. Dreams of My Father – Barack Obama (Haven’t read it, but would like to.)

10. The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins (Ditto #9.)

As for myself, while I’ve never actually lied about having read a book, I admit that sometimes when people hear I have two degrees in English, they tend to assume I’ve read things I haven’t (like, say, all of Dickens or Austen or James), and I don’t always correct them. Or sometimes I’ll say I’ve read something, but I never actually finished it–which is not exactly a lie, right? Nobody ever asks, “Hey, did you finish War and Peace?”  

How about you? Have you ever lied about having read a book? Which ones, and why? ‘Fess up!

*image from timesonline.com

World Citizen Challenge: Falling Leaves

 

fallingleavesFor my first book in the World Citizen challenge, I selected the memoir Falling Leaves: The True Story of An Unwanted Chinese Daughter, by Adeline Yen Mah. Someone gave this book to me eight or nine years ago, quite oddly in response to the fact that I was then reading (and enjoying) Memoirs of A Geisha. She told me that Falling Leaves was “better.” I assumed for a long time that Falling Leaves must be about a Chinese concubine. Now that I’ve read both books, I’m more puzzled than ever by her strange pronouncement, as the books could not be more different. 

Where Memoirs of A Geisha is a fictional account of a Japanese geisha, Falling Leaves is the true story of a Chinese woman’s struggle to overcome years of neglect and abuse by her family, set against the Communist uprising in China. Adeline Yen Mah was born in 1937 in the city of Tianjin, during the Sino-Japanese War, as the youngest of five children that included Lydia, the eldest and only sister, as well as three brothers: Gregory, Edward and James. Her mother died of infection two weeks after Adeline’s birth. Around a year later, Adeline’s father remarried, choosing as his bride a seventeen year-old French-Chinese woman whom the children were instructed to call Niang, one of the Chinese terms for mother. Adeline’s father and Niang quickly had children of their own, a son, Franklin, and a daughter, Susan, bringing the number of children in the household to seven. Completing the extended family were her father’s father, Adeline’s Ye Ye (Grandfather), and her father’s sister, her Aunt Baba.

Adeline’s story reads like a cross between Shakespeare and the grisliest of fairy tales. Even without the Communist revolution in the background, this would be a heart-wrenching and complicated tale of the inexplicable hurt family members can inflict on one another. Niang, Adeline’s stepmother, is jealous, controlling, and manipulative on such an astounding scale, one almost wonders if these tales haven’t somehow fused with fiction in the writer’s memory. If she were only looking back to recount her childhood, I would believe that was possible, but, sadly, the manipulation and control Niang exerted carried all the way through the book and Adeline’s life, until Niang’s death in 1994.

Throughout her childhood, Adeline suffers abuse from every member of her family except her Ye Ye, her Aunt Baba, and her youngest half-sister, Susan. Her Aunt Baba does everything she can to encourage Adeline to do well in school, knowing that it’s her only way out:

“She made me believe I was brilliant. Her pride in my small achievements was truly inspirational. She filed each report diligently in a safe-deposit box and wore the key around her neck, as if my grades were so many priceless jewels impossible to replace. When things were bad, she consoled us by taking them out and looking at them. ‘See this one? First grade and all of six years old and getting As in everything already. My! My!’ Then ‘I’m certain nobody going to university could have a more perfect record.’ or ‘We’ll be the most successful banker yet, just like your grand Aunt, and we’ll work together in our own bank.’”

Adeline is eventually sent to England to study, to follow her father’s plan for her to become a doctor. Eventually she comes to live in America, in California, with an abusive husband. She sets up an anesthesiology practice and has a son, eventually divorcing her first husband and marrying her second husband, to whom she is still married. With all she accomplishes, and even after having her own family, she continues to struggle to gain love and acceptance from her father, Niang, and her siblings–something that simply never happens.

Most of the discussion around China’s political situation occurs as a backdrop to what’s happening in her family. While her father and Niang manage to escape to Hong Kong, her eldest sister and her Aunt Baba remain trapped in Communist China. Most of the rest of her family ends up in Hong Kong, America, or Canada, like so many Chinese who escaped Communist rule. One of the most interesting chapters deals primarily with what happened to her Aunt Baba during the years she spent in Shanghai under Communist rule:

“…Aunt Baba was made to move into a single room at a neighbor’s house immediately behind her garden. Meanwhile, many other families moved into her house which was designated off-limits to her. Her abnk account was frozen and mail from Father not delivered. She was allotted fifteen yuan per month by the government for living expenses and instructed to wear a piece of black cloth on her chest with the characters hei liu lei (six black categories) clearly labeled. She was now a despised ‘black’. The blacks were the capitalist , landlord, rightist, rich peasant, counter-revolutionary and criminal element. They were given the most menial jobs and were invariably the last to be served in food lines and other queues, especially when there were shortages. Some were left to suffer and even die while lying on hospital floors waiting for medical attention.

All schools were closed. Buses and trains were crammed with Red Guards who traveled for free all over China. Mail was not delivered and private telephones were disconnected. Buddhist temples and Christian churches were destroyed. Books were burnt. Many city dwellers were sent off to the countryside ‘to reform their thoughts through hard labor and learn from the peasants’.

After many years and as China begins to open during the 1980s, Adeline recovers the family home in Shanghai and reinstates her Aunt. 

This book was difficult to read on many levels, but definitely worth the time. Much of Adeline’s life, even with the few privileges she’s accorded, seems so bleak, her pain unyielding. She wants so badly to be accepted by her horrible family that at times I wished I could reach through to her on the page and shake her and tell her to stop. Of course, the times and the vast cultural differences made relinquishing such a goal impossible for her. And although what she covers of the political activity in China is mostly a backdrop to her own story, it helped me to understand the difficulty and made me wish I knew more. At this moment in our country, we believe we are facing such difficulties, but they are not one-tenth of what the Chinese suffered under war with the Japanese and the rule of the Communists. It seems worthwhile to know more about that great nation and its history. As Adeline’s Aunt Baba tells her: 

“ ‘The way I see it, the nineteenth century was the British century. The twentieth century is an American century. I predict that the twenty-first century will be a Chinese century. The pendulum of history will swing from the ying ashes brought by the Cultural Revolution to the yang phoenix rising from the ashes.’”

I’d like to pass this book along. If you’re interested, let me know in the comments, and I’ll draw a name on Saturday, March 7.

*image from powells.com

The Sweet Smell of Success

In Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, Dana Thomas devotes an entire chapter to perfume. Next to handbags, perfume is the most successfully mass-marketed item for many luxury brands, bringing in around $15 billion a year. None of this is a surprise to people who read perfume blogs, or who’ve read Chandler Burr or any other of a handful of writers writing about perfume today. We know all too well how large the market is, how prolific the releases are each year. Businesses of all sorts have launched perfumes (Coach), and it’s de rigueur now for every designer with a collection to also have a fragrance (Stella, Narciso Rodriguez). Even the most obscure celebrities (Eau de Gary Coleman, anyone?) are launching fragrances, while decent department store brands are cannibalizing their own lines by launching flanker after flanker (Pleasures Most Super Intense Pleasure EVER).

Thomas begins briefly with a visit to La Petit Campadieu, the French flower farm that produces the Centifolia roses that go into Chanel No. 5. She offers a brief history of perfume, explains the differences in concentration between parfum/extract, eau de parfum, eau de cologne, and eau de toilette, and gives a short biography of Chanel and the development of No. 5. She interviews Jacques Polge and Jean Claude Ellena, talks about the large conglomerates and cosmetic companies that develop perfumes for designers, discusses briefly Givaudan and IFF and synthetics versus “naturals.”

In the context of the book–when I was reading along and absorbed by the overall idea of mass-market luxury (oxymoron, anyone?)–this all seemed fine. She spends a great deal of time on Chanel No. 5, but that’s understandable: it’s been a symbol of luxury for generations. But when I re-read the chapter in the context of reviewing it here, I saw her treatment as a bit generic, and I thought I’d point out some other areas I wish Thomas had addressed:

  • First, she never talks about the importance of Estee Lauder in conjunction with the rise of an American fragrance market. After all, was it not Estee Lauder who was one of the first to market a perfume (okay, perfumed bath oil), Youth Dew, as something women should buy for themselves? Talk about the creation of a market! Through the 1950s and 1960s, French perfume may have continued as a “luxury” item, but ultimately the opening of the market would force them to compete.
  • Second, she goes on at great length about Chanel, but she never once mentions Chance, which was a great mainstream hit for them. She only gives the briefest mentions to Coco and Coco Mademoiselle, two other mainstream market big hitters. I think this is important because it does show how a luxury brand can do mainstream well, and without resorting to flankers and trends. She also says nothing about the Rue Cambon series.
  • Third, she talks with Jean Claude Ellena, primarily about the creation of Un Jardin Sur Le Nil, but she never mentions the Hermessences, which are not mass-marketed and are available only in Hermes boutiques, nor do they discuss Ellena’s own perfumery, The Different Company. I found this strange, because I think it’s interesting to have a nose working for a “mainstream” luxury brand who clearly sees the need for niche.
  • Fourth, she never talks about any niche (luxury) perfume houses, such as L’Artisan, Serge Lutens, Frederic Malle, or JAR–all of which could easily change our idea of luxury (or already have), displacing the traditional brands. What sort of new standard are they setting? How will the traditional houses compete? In the end, will they pander to the masses, or go back to being exclusive?

If you read this book, I’d love to hear your thoughts. The book overall is a great platform for discussion, and I recommend it thoroughly. And speaking of niche, visit me tomorrow. I’ll be sampling Bond No. 9 Brooklyn.

*image from amazon.com