Wednesday, May 22, 2013

10 Books I Read 25 Years Ago--Hamilton, Chabon, Prose, Pym, White, and Others.

I keep a reading list and have done so since the mid 1980s. For many years, I would write up a short piece about each book, ranking the books I read for the month. This led to thematic reading, with say, a month of books about Asia, or perhaps New Jersey. Yes, I really did that once.

I'd never be able to do such a thing now--my reading is far more directed. It's hard enough for me to say, I'm going to read one book per month that I don't have to read for something. It just isn't going to happen.

These reviews are mostly pre-internet. What I would do in those days, in the heyday of my reviews, was send them out to lots of friends. At one point I had a subscription program. Really! For $5 I would send them monthly instead of clumps. At the time, I was also mailing out my weekly top 100 favorite songs list, so sending a list of books read wasn't a stretch.

What the heck, I thought. Why not do a blog post with some old reviews? Here are some from 1988, 25 years ago.

1. The Book of Ruth, by Jane Hamilton.
Whenever I take a trip to Chicago, I drive past mythical Honey Creek, Illinois. In it, Ruth has probably recovered and is woking back at the dry cleaners. Hamilton writes the story of a girl, stuck in a life she has no idea how to get out of, with charged emotion and a classic tragedy plot. Is she smart or retarded? Her "msart" son ditcher her for an Eastern college. Ruth's husband, a slow, lazy good for nothing, part time birdhouse builder, moves in with Mom and disaster seems imminent. This build up to tragedy reminded me of Mama Day, another Ticknor and Field title. Is there a name for this sub-genre? I cheered Ruth ona nd hoped against hope that she would escape her destiny. A., our office manager, disagreed. She couldn't figure out why Ruth couldn't leave and thought the whole bunch were jerks. A. explained that her response was partly due to have grown up with similar types in rural Wisconsin.

Note: Halfway through the review I started calling Ruth "Jane."

2. The Twenty-Seventh City, by Jonathan Franzen.
Jammu, native of Bombay, is appointed chief of the St. Louis police. Slowly strange things happen. The heir to the brewery fortune marries another Indian. Terrorists bomb the city but are quickly subdued. Property values start rising in the middle of the ghetto and dropping in the suburbs. Businesses that left the city of St. Louis for the suburbs now contemplate returning. A referendum comes up to remerge the city and county of St. Louis, spearheaded by Jammu. The advisory board is swayed, except for a lone holdout, Martin Probst, builder of the famous arch, and pillar of suburban steadfastness. His wife and daughter abandon him. What is going on? Is a conspiracy at work? In fact, yes. There are things that bother me about Franzen's novel--the conspiracy, the sinister portrayal of the Indians, the outrageous style, seemingly borrowed from The Bonfire of the Vanities. How could I ignore, however, Franzen's depicture of St. Louis's unique eccentricities. Add to that Franzen's mature and engaging style and the result is a disturbing and enjoyable read. It might rile the natives, however.

Note: I needed to cut out a few clumsy sentences and rework others.

 3. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Many people look to South American fiction for the mystic and magical, typified by Garcia Marquez's own One Hundred Years of Solititude. Here, the magic is in the writin, not the plot. It's about a man who carries a torch for his teenage sweetheart for well over fifty years. The asides are enchanting, whether about a bird lost in a tree or a visit to a prostitute. I guess people say this book is about the many aspects of love, and I must concur. There is also a lot of cholera around too, for those who are curious.

Note: Oh, good! It does indeed have a thematic similarity to How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, just as I thought.

4. Second Chances, by Alice Adams.
Adams's first novel since her breakout, Superior Women, returns to the sedateness of Northern California. The pace is a bit slower, less pushy and calculated, though certainly not gimmick-less. This time she chronicles a group of seniors--Dudley the writer, Sam the artist, Edward the poet, and Celesete the actress et al, who have been together for well over thirty years. Needless to say, they are not your average bunch--one character leaves wads of cash on he doormats illegal alien families. In addition to following their day-to-day lives, we learn of their pasts with flasbacks. Death turns up in several guises: a close call, a terminal illness, a sudden loss. Adams has successfully mastered the Northern California outlook with characters that are almost overwhelmingly aware and politically involved, yet very well off. Though it sometimes feels a bit forced, Second Chance is filled with characters often considered to old to get the spotlight in a popuar novel. Of course Adams holds a place in my heart as Rich Rewards was the first book I bought in a Schwartz Bookshop.

Note: there was a time when I didn't begin every sentence with a conjunction. So excited to read the forthcoming biography of Adams by former Milwaukeean Carol Sklenica!

5. The Beautiful Room is Empty, by Edmund White.
This continuation of A Boy's Own Story starts with White's college days and contunues until the Stonewall Rebellion. He happens to be there when it happens, but that happens to the best of us. Though this is a novel and not a memoir, most agree tha tit is thinly disguised. Some of White's other work, like Caracole, is a bit dry, but this is not. It's wonderfully written and moving, yet funny and spirited.

Note: I read Caracole?

6. Real Estate, by Jane DeLynn.
Like a fly on the wall, DeLynn follows around a group of New Yorkers immersed in the search for a terrific apartment. Unfortunately my experiences concur--this is real life in the Big Apple. The action focuses on a separated couple that is now two couples, and the narrative detours are what make this book work. DeLynn will cover the musings of one of the character's acquaintances or their travel agent or even their dog, and then leave you there, returning back to the main narrative. It works, somehow.

Note: I still think about how much I liked this book, but never reread it.

7. Women and Children First, by Francine Prose.
How do you find the glittering jewel of a book, the one you want to read again and again and hold in your arms, even when you are not reading it? Sometimes reviews and sometimes recommendations lead you to it, but mostly it just calls to you.Last year I read Prose's Bigfoot Dreams about a tabloid reporter whose stories seem to be coming true. It was well-written but the situation became a bit strained by the end of the novel. Prose's talent with fascinating situations are more suited to the short story genre. "Tibetan Time" focuses on a bus trip to a Buddhist temple, while "Other Lives" tells of a mother and son being tested for their ESP ability. In "Electricity", a woman must deal with her father becoming a born-again Jew. Prose's characters are terrific--intelligent and competent, yet still confused by the perplexities of life. The writing is equally on target. Just start reading "Everyone Had a Lobster" if you don't believe me.

Note: I now know how to spell "terrific" but I makemore spelling errors than ever.

8.The Book and the Brotherhood, by Iris Murdoch.
A group of ex-Oxfordites meet again at a wild party. It turns out they have continued to fund a radical's efforts to write a book which will revolutionize society, a book many years in the making. Now the stakes have changed--their politics have moved to the right, and the radical, an unbalanced genius, has run off not once but twice with the spouse of one of the group. One has to get past he morass of character development. I'll admit I was confused for the first fifty pages. I love the way the pace is so different from Murdoch's last, The Good Apprentice, which started out with a bang, after which followed a slow unraveling of the repurcussions of violence. This time the shocking event happens at the end, and the entire book slowly builds to this climax of unforeseen tragedy, clearly destined, surprising, and yet inevitable.

Note: I seemed to love this, but never again read an Iris Murdoch book. What's that about?

9. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon.
I must convince people that this is not the next Bret Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney. Yes this is a coming-of-age novel, but the hero, Art Bechstein, is becoming an adult, not an adolescent. Yes, it's set in one of my all time favorite, never-visited cities and the places seem to be so genuine that I am planning to tour with this book as one of my guidebooks. Is the story autobiographical? The characters --his motorcycle pal, his bisexual buddy, his sweet but strange girlfriend, and his gangster father, are far from stereotype, and yet they are so far out they are believeable (with the possible exception of Dad, who I reads like a total fabrication). Chabon has a love affair going on with language and those he sometimes gets a little wordy for my taste, general his turns of phrase give me much pleasure.

Note: I bought a signed hardcover at the long-gone Squirrel Hill Bookshop, when I finally visited Pittsburgh. The cover pictured at left is for the new ebook.

10. Civil to Strangers and Other Writings, by Barbara Pym.
Three novels, some short stories, and a radio talk constitute what should be the last of Pym's published work. The title novel is Pym at her most traditional; a married woman is thought to be having an affair with a mytserious Hungarian. Still, it's the spy thriller, So Very Secret, that is the real winner here. To see an excellent women with sensible shoes caught in the web of any plot, let alone a World War II intrigue, is enough to keep any remote Pym-ophile in stitches.

Note: We're planning a Barbara Pym 101st birthday celebration for January 2, 2014. Want to help? Let me know.

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