Friday, July 09, 2010

American Stories

These two books don't actually have much in common. I just read them around the same time and had sharply differing reactions to them.

Although I had somewhat mixed feelings about the previous Geraldine Brooks novel I'd read, People of the Book, I was excited to read March. I have vivid memories of being in second grade, sitting on the swing during recess and reading Little Women. At the time Pizza Hut was doing some kind of reading promotion with elementary schools and if you read enough books you got free pizza, It was a giant hardcover copy of some 600 pages and when I was done I was rather proud of my accomplishment and got so many reading credits that I got a free personal pan pizza for that book alone. So it's a fond association. Also I like historical novels and think the history of the Civil War is interesting.

March has a lot going for it. It's well--if unremarkably--written and tidily constructed. There are no loose ends, no bits of story that go wandering drunkenly off. One feels that their reading experience is in the hands of a thoroughly competent novelist. In the end though, I felt like the connection to Little Women was tenuous, even gimmicky. There seemed little narrative reason for the protagonist to be Mr. March as opposed to some other man not featured in a classic novel. And although, by centering the story around an abolitionist during the Civil War Brooks takes as her subject what is arguably the most important war, the most important period of American history, the book feels small. Under a veneer of thoughtfulness, it's an safe, comfortable novel that doesn't challenge readers. Maybe if Marmee were a real person she wouldn't be as supportive and perfect as she seems in Little Women--it can't be! Abolitionists were well meaning but still blinded by white privilege and even racism--surely you jest!

One of the great joys of reading fiction is that the author can reveal something new and truthful to the reader through their work. Your world can suddenly expand in small but noticeable ways. You can learn something you never expected to. A book doesn't have to do that, of course, to be enjoyable. But I think that a novel that asks the reader to take it seriously--to devote time and thought to it--should. It ought to challenge its audience in some way.

The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart is a far messier book than March. But it has a delightful energy and sense of risk that made me want to forgive it all its flaws and just go along for the ride. Rather than feeling like the author is simply showing the reader things he or she already knows, M. Glenn Taylor introduces a story in which the elements are familiar but skewed in such a way as to make them feel new.

Like many ballads and folk tales, this one presents us with the story of its protagonist's life from birth to death (at a very advanced age). Divided into three sections--roughly speaking, youth, middle age, and old age--it begins more strongly than it ends and takes odd detours along the way. Trenchmouth Taggart is a larger than life figure, a sharp-shooting union man, a snake charmer, and a harmonica player, among many other things. At its best, the novel is a modern tall tale and feels quintessentially American. The story is one that couldn't take place anywhere else because it so clearly springs from the culture and landscape of its setting.

It makes sense then that the first and longest section, which embraces the oddness and distinctiveness of both the characters and the rural Appalachian setting, is the strongest. In middle age Trenchmouth becomes a bit Forrest Gump-ish, constantly encountering famous historical figures, and by the end of the book he slips into the cliche of an elderly man uncomfortable with the modern world. One can't help but wish that the focus had remained on these earlier years and people. But by that point the novel has earned so much good will (at least from me) that these flaws can be forgiven.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

All-Ashton at ABT (with bonus complaining about hockey)

Today was not a good day for Sabres fans (make sure the sound is on when you follow that link). I hate days like the trade deadline and the beginning of free agency because the Sabres never do anything exciting (unless one counts losing players as exciting). Which would only be partially bad except certain Sabres fans (not linked to here) then proceed to flip out about the lack of activity even though said dullness has been the GM's m.o. for years and is therefore entirely predictable. It makes me cranky.

On the other hand--and be prepared to admire this incredibly smooth transition--I did have a lovely evening at the ballet last night. I went to see American Ballet Theatre's beautiful All-Ashton program. Having never seen any of Ashton's work I was excited to go and was even more excited when the box office sold me a student ticket for a seat toward the front of the orchestra. So different from sitting in the Family Circle and watching the tiny dancers.

The first ballet--Birthday Offering--featured roles for seven female soloists and costumes gaudy enough that they might have been improved by watching from the Family Circle. But I loved how distinct each of the seven variations were and particularly liked Misty Copeland's, in which she repeatedly flicked her feet rapidly in front of and behind the knee as if knitting with her legs. And Stella Abrera and Eric Tamm looked wonderful both separately and together. They're two dancers I'd so like the opportunity to see more often.

I was much less sure of the partnership of Sascha Radetsky and Hee Seo in Thais Pas de Deux. The pas de deux achieves a delicate exoticism without veering as sharply into orientalism as other ballets do although the orange costumes don't help. Seo looked graceful and soft and otherwordly but her beautiful lines made Radetsky's look short in comparison and he couldn't match her air of mystery. I usually like him very much--I just think this role might not serve him well.

The second pas de deux of the evening was the Awakening from Ashton's Sleeping Beauty which I don't think works particularly well as a stand-alone piece. Although maybe it would with a more charismatic pair of dancers. Particularly problematic for me was that Paloma Herrera seemed so much the stronger of the two. Cory Stearns seemed almost superfluous when partnering her; it felt as though she could do all the same things with no help at all. Maybe if he had been more authoritative it would have helped. I feel as though my lack of knowledge when it comes to dance really hurts me at times like this. I don't know if my problem is the choreographers or the dancers and I don't know if my problem is something technical or if it's just that I'm watching dancers that don't quite do it for me for whatever reason. Well, it's something that I imagine I'll understand better the more I see.

Even if I hadn't enjoyed the first three ballets of the evening though, it would have been more than worth it to see The Dream. I particularly appreciated the clarity of the storytelling and the way that the dancing constantly moved the story forward. Maybe it's the result of having no background in dance but the utter frivolity of so many story ballets can drive me crazy. I sit there wondering why I'm watching a variation in a particular place or what purpose some bit serves other than obstructing the story or if it was really quite necessary for the dancers to do that move again. Then again, maybe it's just that a lot of these ballets are very silly indeed. But with Ashton's take on The Midsummer Night's Dream there was none of that. The dancing--coupled with the lovely set and costumes--served to create characters and atmosphere with very little that felt like excess. And such dancing from all involved (I saw the cast with Herman Cornejo as Puck and David Hallberg and Gillian Murphy as Oberon and Titania respectively)! I felt fortunate to be sitting in the theater, watching people who are capable of creating something so beautiful and funny and charming.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Having fried myself at the beach over the weekend (and I thought I was being so good about sunscreen too) I've spent all my non-working hours this week lying in bed trying not to move too much. So I've mostly been doing a lot of puttering around on the internet at night reading things.

Like Laura Miller's article on the growth of self-publishing and the fun of slush piles, which brought back cringe-worthy memories of reading for a literary agency:
People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is. Civilians who kvetch about the bad writing of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer or any other hugely popular but critically disdained novelist can talk as much trash as they want about the supposedly low standards of traditional publishing. They haven't seen the vast majority of what didn't get published -- and believe me, if you have, it's enough to make your blood run cold, thinking about that stuff being introduced into the general population.

Everybody acknowledges that there have to be a few gems out in the slush pile -- one manuscript in 10,000, say -- buried under all the dreck. The problem lies in finding it. A diamond encased in a mountain of solid granite may be truly valuable, but at a certain point the cost of extracting it exceeds the value of the jewel.
I can't say reading through all those submissions is something I miss.

And today I also read the latest installment in Tobi Tobias's series of ballet diaries (all of which have been such a treat). In this case she's writing primarily about the retirement of two dancers--Philip Neal and Albert Evans--I have seen perform but not often enough to have formed any particularly strong impressions of them. Still, the best dance writing, much like great writing about the visual arts, seems to me to be an act of transformation--turning something that is visual into words on a page while still capturing something of its essence. Reading Tobias's post about the qualities of these particular dancers recalled to me the times I have seen them more clearly than would otherwise have been possible. Then again, perhaps that's a trick of the memory.

The most fun reading I've been doing, however, is ESPN's Off the Ball blog. Since I don't get to watch most of the games--although it appears that a large number of people at work are streaming the games at their desks so maybe I really can watch and just hadn't realized it until now--this is proving a nice supplement to live updates.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon

I was out last night at a rooftop bar, which served to remind me of just how much I love the indoor smoking ban. I got home sometime after 3 am with hair that smelled of smoke and a sore throat. And now, in the mid-afternoon, I've washed my hair twice and am drinking tea with more than a little honey in an attempt to ease my sore throat while watching Germany take the Australians to school in a thoroughly entertaining manner. (As a side note, these guys are amazing. How is it even possible to be in such good shape?) We're having the perfect gray and rainy weather for a lazy Sunday here in New York though, which makes me feel far less guilty than I otherwise would about sitting around in my pajamas.

Happily, when I was reading Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon a couple weeks ago, New York was having positively summery weather. And while I, alas, read it in all the usual places--my home, the subway, on a plane ride home from Buffalo--it would make the most delightful of beach reads. It's warm and lightly satirical and ends, as a great comic novel ought, not entirely predictably but happily.

If the makes it sound like a shallow novel, it's unintentional. The story has two strands: an upcoming election that pits the old guard of cacao planters against a modernizing newcomer from Rio and a love story that revolves around the titular Gabriela and Nacib, bar owner and friend to all. Amado concerns himself with a number of serious topics--the position of women in society, the formation of culture and society, class--while skillfully avoiding didacticism. In fact, such self-importance is cheerful sent up throughout the novel. In one of the most entertaining sequences a self-important poet comes to town to give a lecture that all the book's important characters attend.
Tonico broke the silence:
"Do you know the title of the lecture?"
"No, what is it?"
"Tears and Longing."
"Good title," said Ribeirinho, "We'll be bored to tears and longing to go home."
It's a feeling that Amado's readers (and anyone else who has attended their fair share of lectures) is surely familiar with. And a reminder to be grateful for books like this one, the first goal of which is to entertain.

As much as I enjoyed the book though, Gabriela herself, the object of everyone's desire, full of charm and childish whims, resolutely herself in the face of those who would try to change her, struck me more as a plot construct than a character. She exists, it seems, to illuminate the character of those around her and, at times, to provide a catalyst for events. I found myself entertained by, but not terribly involved in, the romantic thread of the novel and not particularly concerned with what happened to Gabriela. Fortunately, the pleasure I took from reading about the political machinations and the healthy dose of comic relief Amado provided in the form of spinsters and philanderers and lovestruck scholars among others more than compensated for that.

It's a thoroughly winning book. The sort that demands little of the reader and yet pays you back richly for your time and attention and reminds you just what a pleasurable experience reading can be.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Nancy Drew and the Mystery of the Ghostwriters

You know those books that sit on your shelf for ages, patiently waiting for you to summon up the motivation to actually start reading them? This was totally one of those books for me. My grandfather gave it to me, oh, three or four years ago and I was somewhat interested, sure, but not interested enough to actually read the thing. Maybe it's because the Nancy Drew books don't really hold any special place in my heart. I read them, of course, like pretty much every little girl. In fact, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase was the first chapter book I read on my own (my father read me Nancy Drew and the Old Clock). But I can't say I remember any of them particularly well or that I've thought of them much in the years since reading them. I was fonder of the Boxcar Children series and the Black Stallion books.

Even without any particular nostalgia though, I did find the idea of reading about the creation of a character who is, in many ways, the most important heroine in American literature interesting. So finally, after years of guiltily avoiding Melanie Rehak's Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her I finally buckled down and read it. It turns out that, for me at least, it was one of those perfectly fine books that you're not sorry to have read but also are not particularly happy to have read.

Girl Sleuth is a dual biography of two women: Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and Mildred Wirt Benson. Adams was the daughter of Edward Stratemeyer, who founded a syndicate that produced series books for boys and girls using ghost writers who were provided with outlines and who created Nancy Drew. After her father's death she--along with her sister--put together the outlines for and edited the Nancy Drew books and eventually, years later, she took over writing the Nancy Drew books. Benson was the hired hand who wrote most of the early Nancy Drews.

Dual biographies are a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, a writer can illuminate her characters through their relationship to one another. On the other hand, you often wind up with a hero and a villain . . . or at least with one character who comes off as far more likable than the other. In this case, I was far fonder of Benson. Both women were pioneers of a sort, striking out into male-dominated fields and finding personal success outside the home at a time when married women were not expected to work. But Benson was the more modern of the two and comes off as being largely responsible for Nancy's can-do attitude and independence. Adams's Nancy is more feminine and lacking in rough edges which, as a modern reader, feels like a step backward. And Adams, toward the end of her life, takes credit for things she wasn't responsible for in a way that makes it seem like her grip on reality wasn't entirely firm. Again and again I found myself far happier to be spending time with Benson than Adams.

What's more, while Rehak clearly loves the Nancy Drew books and she does an excellent job of depicting their cultural importance--although perhaps not for the current generation?--in the end I'm not sure if her book made me appreciate the series more or less. It brings into high relief just how studied and commercial a creation Nancy Drew is for all her good points. And while that's not surprising, I might have preferred to leave the wizard(s) behind the curtain.

Monday, June 07, 2010


1. am New York and I are totally on the same page about the World Cup:I may not know who the favorites are. I'm pretty sure I don't understand all the rules. But I'll certainly be watching.

2. In order to make some extra money I've been working for the US Census--which, if it were a permanent job would drive me to alcoholism in no time flat--and that means that I now how to deal with the management office of the apartment complex where I live. Which is staffed by some of the most unpleasant people I have ever encountered in a professional capacity. So in preparation for having to get information from them tomorrow I am baking them some of the most fabulous cookies in the world. Not thanks to my baking skills--the recipe is just that good. I dislike the people in management so much that I'm having a tough time coming to grips with giving them cookies though, so this had better inspire them to be nice to me.

3. I'm moving in a couple months and while I'm only going to another area of the city, I'm trying to use it as an opportunity to get rid of things I don't want. It turns out that I'm quite good at getting rid of clothing and very bad at getting rid of books. Even books that I bought for 50 cents because I liked the covers and am never, ever going to read. I think that I'm going to need my sometime roommate to go through them with me and remind me that it really is a good idea to pass on books that I didn't even remember I owned in the first place.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

My Dream of You

At times, My Dream of You resembles nothing so much as Philip Larkin's "This Be the Verse" born again as a novel and dolloped with sentimentality. If only the protagonist's parents had been sufficiently warm and involved in the lives of their children there might be no story at all.

Kathleen de Burca is a single, middle-aged Irish expatriate who has organized her life in response to the pain of her youth. She has no real home, few friends. A travel writer, she has shut herself off from the world even as she visits far-flung locales, writing invariably cheerful and witty missives from places that are often anything but. Then her closest friend dies suddenly and this new heartbreak, coupled with the encroachments of age, seems to shake something loose in Kathleen. In short order, she leaves her job and the basement flat she's lived in for decades and heads back to Ireland to research a book.

O'Faolain interweaves the story of Kathleen's return to Ireland with that of the book she begins to write while there--an account of an affair between an Irish servant and the wife of an English landlord during the potato famine--to mostly good effect. What Kathleen wants to find in the events of the past is the kind of idealized passion she has always sought and felt was so absent in her life. History, though, is never so convenient and the story grows steadily more complicated.

I feel like in order to really enjoy this novel (and I find this is often the case with books written in the first person) I would have needed to care about the main character. But I couldn't quite manage to do so. It's not that Kathleen, intelligent and honest although only intermittently capable of self-examination, not unkind though thoughtless and selfish, is somehow beyond the pale. She's not a character who ought to repulse one's sympathy. And yet I found it impossible to summon up much in the way of fellow-feeling. For me, her pain was too often rendered in shorthand: Her father was absent and dictatorial. Her mother, always pregnant, weak, and ill, had little to offer. And this, in the world of the novel, explains everything about Kathleen.

Reading My Dream of You, I began to think that perhaps my experiences, age, and preoccupations are simply too far from hers. These gaps, however, are all things that novelists can overcome; the opportunity to step outside oneself is one of the great joys of reading. I think the problem is that, for Nuala O'Faolain, it seems like the most natural thing in the world that Kathleen would end up the way she does. There's no need to interrogate the subject. So it isn't until the end of the novel that O'Faolain actually made me understand the source of Kathleen's anger and pain. The historical background the author provides is focused on the potato famine--which I actually knew quite a bit about already--and not the Ireland of the mid-20th century which I know virtually nothing about. And that's fine. I'm sure many other readers didn't need more information. But it made me feel that I, a generation or two younger, from a different country and economic background, wasn't the audience for the novel.

Which is a shame, because there was a lot about the book that I liked, starting with writing that is decidedly unfussy and yet vivid, particularly in its evocations of setting and descriptions of nature:

I knew this Atlantic where it broke on western coasts, all the way down to the curve of the earth. I could picture ten or twelve places I’d been where this same ocean met land, from a sturdy village among artichoke fields in Brittany, to the baking sand dunes of Namibia. I’d watched the fog roll in from it every day when I was writing a piece about golf courses in Portugal. I’d lived a few feet from it in a run-down tourist camp on a beach in Senegal, where the crabs clacked around the legs of my bed all night. But I had never before been on the west coast of an Atlantic island, at the turn of spring into earliest summer—never before seen such a wide slope of small fields, their grass patched with the brown of weeds and rushes, fields of a muted and glowing green that lulled the eye, that then was shocked by the huge vista of the turbulent, turquoise sea beyond.

Kathleen sounds like a real person and, more than that, like a travel writer. Observant and occasionally prosaic, she has a knack for picking out a few small details that create a picture. Even if you don't like her, she's a solid, believable character. And as her protagonist changes, coming to terms with both her present and past, O'Faolain explores relationships between women in a way that is genuinely touching, if secondary to the story. The other lives Kathleen could have lived are right there in front of her in the form of her sister-in-law, an elderly librarian helping her with research, and the daughter of an innkeeper, among others.

But if you don't care much about her emotional journey the story begins to feel a bit leaden and repetitive. There's simply not all that much going on and Kathleen spends a lot of time spinning her wheels. Eventually the reader, too, feels stuck in neutral.