Friday, April 23, 2010

I had planned to review "A Gate at the Stairs" by Lorrie Moore this week, but one thing piled upon another, and since I'll be out of town for a week, I've decided to cheat a bit and refer readers to a brief essay that was recently brought to my attention by my sister. The author is no less than Virginia Woolf, and her message was so profound that I want to share it.

Apparently, Ms. Woolf was familiar with a syrupy Victorian poem entitled "The Angel In The House," which praised the ideal woman of that day: gentle, pure, and self-sacrificing to the extreme. The poem went down sideways with her, and I beg you to read her thoughts as she describes her efforts to "kill the angel in the house" in order to pursue the life of a writer. The essay bears a dry title,"Professions for Women," but trust me -- it's worth your time. Enjoy.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant

By the time you finish reading the first few pages of Sarah Dunant's recent historical novel (her third), you will be swept into the intricate microcosm of a 16th century convent in northern Italy. Night has fallen at Santa Catarina, and the usual hush that blankets the damp stone cells of the dormitory has been broken by the echo of frenzied screams emanating from a 16-year old girl who has been forced into the convent against her will. Young Sarafina is outraged at her involuntary internment, and her ragged wailing has begun to wear on the holy sisters, who depend upon a precious span of sleep before being routed from their slumber at 1 a.m. for the office of Matins. Something must be done, and Suara (Sister) Zoana, the resident apothecary mistress, decides to break her vow of nocturnal isolation; she slips down the long stone hall to dispense a dram of poppy syrup to Sarafina. The poor girl is so miserable and desperate that Suara Zoana breaks nighttime protocol and verbally comforts Sarafina as the drug takes effect. An empathetic bond forms that night which will alter the course of both their lives and the future of Santa Catarina.

Zoana herself was not a willing postulant when she entered the gates of Santa Catarina 16 years before as a recently orphaned young girl, and her involuntary marriage to Christ was not an unusual one. Even wealthy fathers could not always pay the exorbitant dowry rates required for multiple daughters during the 16th century, and Santa Catarina provided a respectable, lifelong warehouse for such girls at a fraction of the dowry cost. These daughters, along with handicapped, ugly, or otherwise unmarriageable women, frequently took their place beside the devout in the convent community with no hope of an alternative future.

Dunant explores the complex social and psychological implications of living in a permanently closed community of women. Although girls possessing an intelligent and strong-headed personality tended to resist assimilation the most, they were the very ones who often benefited from a cloistered society that relied upon them to write, manufacture goods, compose music, balance financial accounts, mix and dispense medicine, and participate in governing a community in the absence of men. The virginal holy sisters lived longer than their secular counterparts, who were subjected to sexual diseases, drunken advances, and serial pregnancies at the whim of their husbands, but they were also doomed to watch their youthful energy and desire slowly evaporate into withered old age without the benefit of children or the happier aspects of conjugal life.

Dunant has filled the book with historical information. The reader learns about Italian city state politics, the delicate dance between the convent and its main benefactors, the forces fueling the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the raucous rituals of Winter Carnival, and much, much more. Dunant's ability to draw the reader into history with specific sensory descriptions makes all of this "learning" delightfully painless. Nuns, giddy with the high spirits of Winter Carnival, toss a shower of dried rose petals over the convent wall onto a gathering of bawdy serenading boys, inciting a near riot (nuns gone wild!); one nun who happens to be the daughter of Santa Catarina's richest benefactor powders her face, lines her nun's habit with colorful, rich silks and tests just how far she can let her newest hairstyle escape her wimple before being chastised; local citizens are titillated when Santa Catarina's annual orchestral concert features wind instruments (the holy sisters grip their lips around the mouthpieces and blow -- shocking!).

The sensory richness of Sacred Hearts combines with a great story line (there's romance and suspense I haven't gotten into) and memorable, complex characters to make an outstanding work of historical fiction. One of my favorite narrators, Rosalyn Landor, is featured in the audio edition of this novel. Her rich, articulate voice pairs perfectly with the tone and mood of the book.

Friday, March 12, 2010

"Little Bee" and the Sting of Awareness

In the opening chapters of Chris Cleaves' gripping second novel, a well-to-do British couple are forced to decide whether or not to engage in the future of a young Nigerian immigrant they met in Africa two years previously under horrific circumstances. Alone, penniless, and lacking legal immigration papers through no fault of her own, Little Bee has traced Sarah and Andrew to their posh home in a London suburb using a plastic driver's license that Andrew dropped during their fatal encounter on a Nigerian beach.

Little Bee's reappearance shakes the couple to their core. They both assumed she was dead, and they've been feverishly attempting to banish "the incident" from their lives, pursuing hectic journalistic careers in hopes that what happened in Africa would stay in Africa. Andrew's post traumatic stress syndrome presents itself in the form of guilt, depression, and self-loathing. For him, Little Bee is a kind of retributive apparition he longs to scrub from his mental landscape. Sarah, however, made an intensely personal investment in Little Bee's welfare that day on the beach two years before, and her altruistic instincts pull her towards further acts of sacrifice for Little Bee even as she realizes that her career, mental health, and ability to mother her own young son may suffer in the bargain.

Sarah's desire to help Little Bee is understandable, for Little Bee is one of the most compelling fictional characters you'll have the fortune to meet this year. Chris Cleave narrates the bulk of the story in Little Bee's voice, and she is utterly charming. Wise beyond her years and yet appealingly naive in her fresh-eyed take on British culture, she exudes the kind of dignified goodness that tempts you to share time with her in hopes that her essential decency and resilience will somehow transfer to your own soul. You'll become as acutely invested in her well being as Sarah, and therein lies the rub. Just as Little Bee's reappearance forced Sarah and Andrew to realize that time and distance couldn't isolate them from the human tragedies that afflict Africa, reading the book Little Bee forces the reader to confront the brutal realities of Africa on a personal level. The death and suffering of thousands is so incomprehensible that the mind refuses to absorb it; the plight of a single sixteen year old Nigerian girl will break your heart.

Cleaves' novel is not unrelentingly dark. Little Bee has a droll sense of humor, and her playful observations about the contrast between African and British culture add light relief to the story. Cleave invites the reader to smile as Little Bee looks back upon her village's annual film festival, one glorious night each year in which the same film -- Top Gun -- was projected on a white sheet in the village square. Since the film was in English, the plot was a mystery to its viewers, but the villagers gazed in wonder at "The Man Who Had To Go Everywhere Very Fast," and spent hours afterward debating why getting everywhere quickly seemed to be so important to the young white boys in the picture. The mental image that Cleave creates in the reader's mind -- laughing villagers reveling in such a simple, repeated pleasure, beautiful in their happiness with so little -- sweeps the reader into caring about the future of these people, and that's simultaneously uplifting and devastating.

I highly recommend this book. I listened to the book on compact disc, and the narrator -- Anne Flosnik -- did an outstanding job. Her measured, elegant evocation of Little Bee's Nigerian-accented English, grammatically perfect and yet bearing the deep, rounded lilt of Africa, was stunning.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Academia, Clay Feet, and Potato Kugel

The opening chapter of Rebecca Goldstein's 36 Arguments For the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction finds Professor Cass Seltzer giddily contemplating his uncanny luck. His recent publication, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, couldn't have been timed more perfectly. His book wouldn't have made the slightest blip on the bestselling list ten years ago, but a current firestorm between crusaders of the religious right and their nemeses, the "new atheists," has catapulted his book and his career to unforeseen heights. Recent muscle-flexing by fundamentalists has awakened intellectuals from their slumbering complacency ("it's a tiresome proposition, having to take up the work of the Enlightenment all over again," but someone's got to do it.), and Cass's book is a prime weapon in their academic arsenal against "mass weapons of illogic."

As Cass lingers with his thoughts and gazes at the Charles River (he's recently been offered a professorship at Harvard), he reviews the 180 degree turn his religious views have taken during the course of his academic journey. Years ago, during the final semester of his pre-med undergraduate work at Frankfurter U, he impulsively signed up for a life-altering class entitled "The Manic, the Mantic, and the Mimetic," taught by the legendary Jonas Elijah Klapper. Rumors of Klapper's ability to transfix students with incantatory lectures about spirituality, delivered with unequaled emotional profundo, were not exaggerated, and Cass threw over his medical plans and joined Klapper's select group of starry-eyed acolytes.

Roz, Cass's girlfriend at the time, bought none of it. What kind of a pompous pedant would abandon Columbia University for Frankfurter U based on the offer of a one-man department ("The Department of Faith, Literature, and Values") and the absurd title of "Extreme Distinguished Professor?" How could Cass expect to succeed if none of Klapper's graduate students ever managed to actually wrestle a PhD out of him? She nicknamed Klapper "The Klap," howled at his secretive name change from Klepfish to Klapper, and refused to kowtow to his vanity.

Back then, however, Cass was thoroughly mesmerized, and Klapper latched on to him with zeal ("I sense the aura of election upon you") after discovering that Cass was a distant relative of the renowned Rebbe (rabbi and spiritual leader) of the Valdeners, a sect of Hasids living in a self-proclaimed shtetl near New York City. Klapper, a rapt student of arcane Hasidic and Kabbalist hermeneutics, used Cass to wrangle an audience with the Rebbe. Roz drove the two to Valden (to Klapper's irritation), and the ensuing visit altered the lives of all three visitors, the Rebbe's young son (a mathematical genius), and the possible future of the Valdeners themselves.

Goldstien's book is basically a classic academic send-up with a religious twist that is simultaneously biting and circumspect. Her exposition of Cass's gradual disillusionment with Klapper will have you rolling on the floor (suffice it to say that some pivotal points rest upon an oversized ethnic fur hat and the hidden numerical mysteries of potato kugel), but her razor wit is always aimed at Klapper, never the Rebbe or the Valdeners. It is clear that Goldstein is mind-bogglingly intelligent (I kept reviewing her photograph on the book flap, wondering who IS this woman?). It is also fairly clear that she rejects religious dogma. Her addition of a 52-page appendix presenting Cass's devastatingly cogent refutation of all 36 traditional arguments for the existence of God probably makes this a safe assumption (although ultimately, the reader cannot know whether this is Cass or Goldstein speaking). And yet, she softens the edges by making it clear that Cass, although confident in his book's anti-religious assertions, is nonetheless the gullible victim of a few secular illusions of his own (there's an entire romantic subplot that I've not mentioned). Similarly, her subplot of a profound choice that the Rebbe's son must ultimately make illustrates that the best path to meaning in life may not always be grounded upon a rational and public rejection of falsehoods.

I heartily recommend this book, although the goyim among us may be a bit nervous about laughing too loudly as we turn the pages. Although I would have chuckled at the foibles of my own Protestant faith tradition guilt-free, I kept wondering whether it was politically correct to enjoy Goldstein in the measured lampooning of her own faith background. In retrospect, I don't think she'd mind.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Frank Lloyd Wright: Enough About Me, Let's Talk About You . . . What Do YOU Think About Me?

T. Coraghessan Boyle's recent biographic novel, "The Women" (2009) examines the life of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright through the lens of Wright's tempestuous love affairs, which encompassed three wives and one mistress. The narrative is told in reverse chronological order, beginning with Wright's final wife, Olgivanna, and working backwards through Maude Miriam Noel (wife #2), Mamah Borthwick Cheney (mistress and presumptive love of his life), and ending with a section about his first wife, Catherine "Kitty" Tobin.

Boyle succeeds in conveying the unique personality of each woman with skill and conviction. Kitty, Wright's first wife, brought money, social connections, and six children to their union. She steadfastly resisted the urge to publicly vilify her husband after he left her. Dignified, morally impeccable, and intensely domestic, she defended Frank as a person and a father to the last, placing her children's welfare above all. Mamah, Frank's first mistress, was intelligent, romantically passionate, and tragically ahead of her time in terms of social attitudes about sex and gender equality. Her untimely death catapulted Frank into his third relationship, a rebound romance with Miriam, a flamboyant, drug-addicted femme fatale whose wild nature would cost Frank dearly when the marriage disintegrated (hell hath no fury . . . ). Frank's final wife, Olgivanna, was an aristocrat from Eastern Europe who nonetheless enjoyed physical labor, simple pleasures, and rural seclusion. She brought stability and a sense of peace, if not wild passion, to Frank's last years.

The most fascinating aspect of "The Women" may well revolve around the man, Frank Lloyd Wright, and how he managed to charm these women in the first place. The man who emerges from the book is deceptive, pompous, selfish, and incredibly self-absorbed. Boyle has stated that he admires Wright, but I can only assume he is alluding to Wright's professional accomplishments. Boyle paints the picture of a poppinjay who drives exotic cars he doesn't bother to pay for, promenades around in theatrical capes and hats, wears elevator shoes to disguise his true height, and nervously rearranges furniture for hours before dinner guests arrive at his door. He is enamored with Japanese culture and slavishly courts Japanese emissaries, greeting them at the local Wisconsin train station in a ridiculous pair of Asian pantaloons and an elongated jacket (when Miriam tries to join her husband in her own "costume," he informs her she looks absurd and makes her change clothes). He stubbornly resists paying his bills to local tradesmen and his own servants until he is absolutely forced to. He misappropriates construction advances to make personal purchases of Japanese wood block prints. He treats visiting architectural interns like day laborers, forcing them to mow the lawn and pluck chickens for dinner in return for the privilege of training with "The Master." The list goes on and on. During a court proceeding, he proclaims that he is "the greatest architect in the world," and when asked by the judge how he can make such a pronouncement, he replies that "he is under oath." What a guy.

Nonetheless, the women in Boyle's book flock to Wright like moths to the flame. They find his physical dynamism and psychological sense of command to be irresistible. They are swept away by his larger-than-life persona and creative vision. Although some of them detect Wright's clay feet earlier than others (at a fairly early stage in their relationship, Miriam stares at Wright's large cranium, which she initially worshiped as "leonine," and decides it's just a huge head), they're all initially captivated. Wright makes selfish demands upon each of them, and they all pay dearly for living life on his terms. He is conflicted about the public's reaction to his love life (wives 2 and 3 both lived with Frank prior to marriage). At times, he seeks to hide his indiscretion by passing off Miriam or Olgivana as his "housekeeper" (I'm sure they were thrilled at that); at other times he openly scoffs at convention, condemning it as a set of senseless rules for little people living little lives. He is conflicted about publicity. He loves the money and fame it brings him, but he's enraged when reporters show up at his doorstep with questions about his domestic arrangements. He is conflicted about love. He rushes into each relationship with a sense of urgent romantic inevitability, and leaves each relationship with a cool sense of detachment.

I ended up wondering whether Frank's charm with women would play in today's world. Would wives put up with him as long as he kept his misbehavior on the down low? Would young women be swept up by his international fame and eagerly throw themselves at his feet? Would the popular press alternatively praise and damn him? Catch up on your newspaper reading and decide for yourself.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Northern Gothic: "A Reliable Wife," by Robert Goolrick

Ralph Truitt is a wealthy man. He's the titan of his small northern Wisconsin town, the king of all he surveys, and he's decided to take a new wife after 20 years of self-inflicted solitude. Truitt's ill-fated choice of his first wife Emilia, a breathtaking Italian beauty of noble but impoverished descent, was driven by flames of youthful passion, and he's determined not to make the same mistake twice. His newspaper advertisement states: "Country Businessman Seeks Reliable Wife. Compelled by Practical, Not Romantic Reasons. Reply by Letter." His selection of Catherine Land from a bevy of applicants is based as much on the plain, simple face peering out from her photograph as on the chaste and practical nature of her written response.

Catherine's initial deception is obvious to Truitt from the moment she steps off the train: her plain clothes and severe hair can't conceal the fact that she is strikingly, painfully beautiful. Truitt's rage mounts as he takes Catherine's bags. He's still emotionally crippled by Amelia's deception two decades ago. Despite his obsessive efforts to afford his first wife every continental comfort and extravagance, including the replication of a palatial Italian villa filled with priceless art and furniture, Amelia engaged in an extended affair with her Italian piano teacher for years under Ralph's very nose. Eventually, she eloped with her Italian lover, leaving Ralph with a handicapped and soon-to-die daughter, a dark-eyed son of questionable parentage, and an empty palace that continues to mock him with its ornate folly.

Why would Catherine have enclosed the photo of another woman? Did she even write the letters she sent him? If not, who did, and what has happened to her? Is Catherine the orphaned daughter of missionary parents, as she claims, or is she an adventuress with an eye to his fortune? If she's the latter, how can he expect her to support him in his quest to find his prodigal "son" and heir Antonio, who ran away at the age of 14? All of these questions and more rage through Truitt's brain over the next few weeks, even as he realizes that the urges of his body are once again engaged in a conspiracy to betray him.

Dark religious themes and gothic suspense saturate Goolrick's page-turning tale. Cities are portrayed as early 20th century Gomorrahs, where gilded opera boxes and lacquered gambling tables conceal an underlying rot of diseased flesh and moral decay, but the stark winter white countryside of northern Wisconsin also carries its own stain beneath the snow. Husbands turn on their wives in senseless violence; entire families go seemingly insane; women wander into the snow and never return. The author is clear about the source of this rural madness: long winters and religion gone crazy.

Each character in the story bears a blot of carnal guilt on his/her psyche that threatens to consume everything, and in each case, this blot had its beginning with sexual desire. As a young man, Truitt wrestled desperately against his natural sexual impulses due to the admonitions of his mother, a puritanical monster who once demonstrated the agony of hell to her young son by repeatedly thrusting a needle deep under his fingernail. All of the main characters have indulged in perceived sexual iniquities, and their response to this guilt is one of the more compelling aspects of Goolrick's novel. Some decide to punish themselves with self denial, spiritual flagellation, and stoic fatalism. Others punish themselves by perversely embracing and accelerating their iniquities to the point of physical endangerment. In both cases, a thinly repressed death wish is at work.

Can the root of all this guilt -- attraction between a man and a woman -- ever be the catalyst for healing and self-forgiveness? If the world is full of pitfalls and temptations, how can you sort out which attraction is a call to grace? In the face of human failure, does it make sense to surrender to nihilism, or is there reason to hope? Goolrick's book examines deep psychological issues of guilt and forgiveness while also producing a suspense-filled gothic narrative that engages the reader from start to finish.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

"The Signal:" Ron Carlson Charms a Reluctant Reader

Sometimes a key element in a novel -- the main character, the setting, etc. -- can be so inherently appealing to a particular reader that the book's success is guaranteed before the author earns it page by page. If an author's topic and the reader's interests coalesce, it's not that difficult for the story to capture the reader's approval and simply coast forward on a wave of good will.

This being the case, I must applaud the skill with which Ron Carlson drew me in to his most recent novel, The Signal, against my natural inclinations. Before proceeding further, I need to list two of my prejudices: 1. I am not a backwoods camper, and I never will be. I enjoy an afternoon hike in the mountains as much as the next person, but I'll never willingly subject myself to freezing overnight temperatures, dismal hygiene, and the icky prospect of pooping in the woods, no matter how many s'mores are offered in the bargain. 2. I generally do not enjoy books with protagonists who would dislike me if they met me. Life is full of enough challenges. Why should I invite imagined disdain from fictional characters?

Carlson's most recent novel is a "man's man of a book" (not my original phrase -- almost every reviewer makes this observation) that captures the raw power and sweeping beauty of one of the last expanses of Western wilderness -- the remote, mountainous backcountry of Wyoming -- and ties that power and beauty directly to the emotional landscape and interpersonal chemistry of the novel's two main characters, Mack and Vonnie. Vonnie, a high school girl from Chapel Hill, meets Mack during a dude ranch trip to Wyoming. Mack, the ranch owner's son, personifies the Western wilderness mystique that Vonnie craves like a drug, and their mutual love of the wilderness and each other leads to an on-again off-again relationship that eventually culminates in marriage.

Things happen. Mack's parents die, bills mount up, poverty begins to nip at the heels of the young couple, and even their yearly romantic forays into the far backcountry can't save them from the effects of Mack's wounded pride, the grind of failure, and the introduction of methamphetamine to the locals. A jail term ensues for Mack, Vonnie leaves town, and Mack's last hope is based on Vonnie's promise to go on one more backpacking trip with him into the Wyoming wilderness upon his release from jail. The bulk of Carlson's novel is the tale of their ill-fated 6-day camping trip, the beauty and the evil they encounter, and the ways in which broken relationships can and can't be mended.

Carlson's spare and beautiful prose, together with his tight control of the novel's mounting suspense, pulled me in to a book that I had no business liking. I would never be attracted to Mack or Vonnie in real life, and I'm sure the feeling would be mutual. One evening of beers and cheese fries at the local tavern with those two and they'd give me up as a lost cause ("What a stiff little snit. Was she actually wearing makeup base?"). Nevertheless, Carlson's clear, spare language drew me into the purity of their mutual attraction with conviction. He made me experience and understand the basis of their love for each other in spite of the fact that I couldn't be more different that either one of them. Similarly, his sensory descriptions of Mack and Vonnie's camping experience -- the toothsome delight of a day-old doughnut when you're ravished with hunger, the throat-warming jolt of boiled coffee on a frosty morning, the feel of a cool breeze on sweat-drenched denim when a backpack is taken off -- had the ability to tempt a non-naturechild like me to speculate that Mack and Vonnie might indeed be on to something.

If you like stories filled with remote wilderness, survivalist suspense, and characters that radiate self-reliance and a love of rugged simplicity, you'll enjoy this book. If you don't, there's a reasonable chance you'll still enjoy this book, and that says a lot about Ron Carlson's skill as a writer.

Note: Carlson's interjection of a subplot involving a lost transponder (thus, "The Signal") felt a bit forced, but I still consider the book to be one of his best.