Elinor Lipman Redux

And now we return to the subject of my newest comfort author, Elinor Lipman! Acquiring comfort authors as an adult can be difficult because there’s such a vast universe of books to read, and I have the internet as an endless recommendation machine, whereas young Jenny often checked out the same book from the library over and over again until it became as familiar as a teddy bear. But Elinor Lipman’s books were like a teddy bear right away, so I was very excited to see two — a new novel and a collection of essays — pop up on Netgalley earlier this year. Essays first!

Essays: I Can’t Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays

The essays in this book are divided into essays on family, essays on writing, essays from a column at the Boston Globe that Lipman wrote regularly, and essays about life since losing her husband. Of these, I enjoyed the writing ones probably the most. The ones about her family were affectionate and touching, particularly the essay about losing her husband to a “rare, untreatable, and fatal” form of dementia. Though the essay — like all of the essays in the collection — was short, Lipman said a lot about what it’s like to see someone you love fall victim to dementia.

Anyway her essays about writing were the ones I enjoyed most unreservedly. It’s fun to hear about the process creative artists go through to make their [whatever — novel, play, production, movie, etc]. Lipman talks about naming characters, about how finding the right name can make a previously fuzzy character snap into focus.

In any carton of manuscripts entered in a competition I am judging, the strong, young, sympathetic, attractive protagonists tend to be named Kate. Runner-up is Anne, Annie, Anna: old-fashioned yet modern, feminine yet strong. Kates and Annas can ride horses, drink, and change tires, but will still look beautiful in their understated wedding dresses, freckled shoulders gleaming at their beach nuptials.

Heeheehee. NB two of my favorite people in the universe are called Kate and Anna. But, see? How Elinor Lipman is charming and funny when writing about writing?

The Boston Globe columns were much my least favorite, so I won’t say as much about them. “May I Recommend”, Lipman notes, was the reason she was eased out of the column-writing rotation, and while that was probably a disproportionate response, and although I understood that Lipman meant to talk about parenthood being the right decision for her, I could see why people got annoyed:

What if we’d been the husband and wife in my cautionary tale, a true one, about a childless couple who stuck to their guns? They spearheaded a support group called Nonparents Anonymous and were quoted in the Boston Globe decades ago describing the freedom, the spontaneity, the money saved, the creativity nurtured, blah blah blah. Today I know through mutual friends that they are divorced. But not just divorced: divorced and furious. The ex-wife claims he ruined her life with his nonparental nonsense. He says it’s her own damn fault. She left town, postmenopausal, never to be heard from again. He’s single, eligible, and searching for a wife of childbearing age.

When I got to the end of the essay collection, I felt that these were not essays that needed to be collected. Some of them were quite good, but they were all magazine pieces, if that makes sense. They were designed to amuse you as you page through the New York Times or whatever; they weren’t meant to be read one after another. Or maybe I am just biased against reading tons of short things by one author all in one gulp; cf., I never read short story collections ever.

And now on to the book I enjoyed v.v. much, Lipman’s new novel, The View from Penthouse B.

Recent widow Gwen-Laura has moved in with her younger sister Margot following Margot’s very public, very scandalous divorce. Though they live in a penthouse Margot owns outright, they’re both struggling financially following the loss of their husbands to death and prison. To make ends meet, they take in a boarder called Anthony, who makes them cupcakes and gossips with them about their love lives and money-making potential. Margot’s ex gets out of prison and moves into the apartment downstairs from their penthouse, and Gwen contemplates starting a dating service for people who don’t necessarily want to have sex.

Of Lipman’s books, this is probably the one that’s the most like The Family Man, although The Family Man remains my favorite if only by virtue of being the first delightful Lipman surprise in my life. Anthony is a Thalia-like force in Gwen-Laura’s life, and Margot is the inevitable (I don’t mean that in a nasty way, I again emphasize that I love lovely Elinor Lipman) Elinor Lipman character who’s wacky and impractical and sort of annoying and flaky at times and sometimes the protagonists want them out of their lives but they are basically good-hearted.

Like The Family Man, The View from Penthouse B is about a group of people whose lives have room to get better, and do get better. They experience missteps and unhappiness along the way, and the futures they build for themselves are far from perfect. Although they have all been hurt by people they loved, they only improve their lots by being open to other people again. And because it is Elinor Lipman, that openness pays off in happiness dividends as the book goes on.

I basically have no complaints here. I want to reread some of Elinor Lipman’s backlist now. I shall read The Inn at Lake Devine because that one was especially lovely.

Note: I received these e-books from the publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The English, Jeremy Paxman

Before we get to my thoughts on this book (short version: not as enjoyable as Watching the English), let’s take a moment for a little segment I like to call PRAISE PLEASE.

I am tearing it up re: reading and disposing of my huge stacks of TBR books. It is my most successful reading project ever, and I only started it a couple of weeks ago. I have read half of two books and decided I never wanted to finish them. I have elected to discard two books that I feel would only piss me off anyway (Perelandra and That Hideous Strength). And I have read six of the books. So this project, which has run for about a fortnight as of this writing, has disposed of ten books already so far. (Update: Between the first draft of this post at the start of this week, and now, the end of the week, this number has been bumped up to twelve altogether.)

Praise please.

In Watching the English, a book about what the English are like, the author frequently referred to the much better-known (and, she implied, better full-stop) book on the same topic, Jeremy Paxman’s The English. I got it at a book sale for two dollars and have been intending to read it ever since. And now I have, and I think Watching the English is a better book. It as least more consonant with my own impressions of the English, and it doesn’t do that thing Jeremy Paxman is prone to where it makes enormous leaps from a specific instance of something to a huge generality. Paxman can be cheerfully self-satisfied in an arena that maybe he shouldn’t be so pleased about, and bitterly self-critical of another arena that maybe is not so bad — in both cases, it’s a problem of the qualities he highlights being not quite so unique to the British as he’s claiming.

For instance, this, about British people forming mobs at sporting events:

The problem is not exclusively English — Dutch and German fans have developed their own versions of the sickness in which puffy-faced young thugs proclaim their loyalty by kicking or stoning anyone who speaks a different language or wears different colours. But the truth is that the English gave the world soccer. They also gave it hooliganism.

Which, just, no they didn’t. They did not. The world had hooligans long before England came into the play. Still, though, I don’t know that much about international football matches and what fans from different countries have acted like, historically. I’d be willing to be convinced of this claim. I am amenable to many arguments that seem insane on first glance. But you have to prove it; you can’t just make a claim, quote some randos from history who also thought England was thuggish, and withdraw. You could do that for any quality in any country.

Or like this about racism:

Generally the English can be proud of their achievements in the field of race relations. Sudden, large-scale immigration was not something that was thought through, and, without wanting to minimize the real problems that can still face members of ethnic-minority communities, the tensions could have been a great deal worse.

Again, sure, maybe! But prove it to me. The Brixton riots? Those happened; why aren’t they a consideration? Is there census data showing the integration of England versus other countries? Anything would be less maddening than leaving it, as Paxman does, at “The country’s exuberant youth culture is largely colour-blind.”

It was particularly frustrating to me because Paxman is able to make a good case for his points, and he sometimes does it, but often not. I was in for believing what he said about the dominant narrative of Britain being this tiny underdog triumphing over impossible odds. That is a narrative. Britain likes that narrative. (I like that narrative too, it gets me teary-eyed.)

Well, never mind. I am sure you have paid no attention to any of these remarks because you are so VASTLY IMPRESSED with my book-cull reading project. That is fair, although I shall modestly acknowledge that I started with a bunch of the shorter books rather than leaping straight into the huge bulky ones. But you should feel free to praise me anyway.

Review: The Mapmaker’s War, Ronlyn Domingue

The Mapmaker’s War is hokey but not in the way I expected it to be. And it is a lot like Ronlyn Domingue’s first book, The Mercy of Thin Air, except with that book’s good qualities deployed in a much less awesome way. All in all I’m glad I didn’t get it for Mumsy for her birthday, because I think she will like A Tale for the Time Being much better.

The Mapmaker’s War‘s “magic bean” — a term I’ve stolen from Clare! — is that it’s written in the second person. An older version of the protagonist, Aoife, is writing as if to a younger version of herself, recalling the events of her life from some distance. Lucky in her youth to have been trained as a mapmaker, Aoife is out mapping different lands when she comes across a settlement that guards a dragon’s hoard and lives in utter, utter peace. Though Aoife tries to guard the secret of these people, their existence is discovered and her own kingdom decides to go to war with them. Aoife is cast out from her home and her children as a traitor, and she must find a way to live among the people whose existence she kiiiiiinda (but unwillingly) betrayed to her own warlike kingdom.

The virtue of The Mercy of Thin Air, a book I liked quite a bit when I read it a few years ago, was its evocation of everyday magic, the way the space between two regular people can be magical in itself. When Domingue’s writing waxed luminous about relationships, it felt reasonable and earned, because all the readers know about how lucky and amazing it can feel to find someone — romantic or friendly — who makes sense to you and to whom you make sense. In The Mapmaker’s War, Domingue is rhapsodizing about a culture of total peace and joy and cooperation, which not only doesn’t exist but franklycouldn’t exist; and it’s like pinging a tuning fork that resonates at a pitch humans can’t hear. It may have an exceptionally beautiful timbre, but I am not profiting by it.

So much of the book’s energy goes into evoking the magic of the frustratingly implausible utopia Aoife finds herself in, that not much space is left for fleshing out believable, interesting characters. There are some genuinely moving moments toward the end, when Aoife realizes that she gave up her two children without much fight, and that she lost by it something important and valuable. Overall, though, the characters felt cardboardy. None of them ever told another of them a joke. Aoife says she enjoyed certain characters’ company, and that they enjoyed hers, but it’s not clear why.

I was sad not to enjoy this book as much as I expected to, but it did make me want to reread The Mercy of Thin Air! Domingue has a unique and interesting voice as a writer, and The Mercy of Thin Air deserves a better review than I gave it when I read it for the first time a few years ago.

Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher through NetGalley.

Review: In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje; or, Talk to me about beautiful prose

Disliking a book I expected to dislike always produces a strange mix of feelings. On one hand, I like being right. On the other hand, I like liking things. I greatly prefer liking things to disliking them. Given the choice, I would elect to like Michael Ondaatje, but the fact is that I just did not. I don’t like it when people indent dialogue instead of punctuating it normally, for one thing. Just punctuate it normally! Why do you think God invented punctuation in the first place?

(My stance in favor of normal punctuation has been documented in this space before, so I won’t go on. Just know that I prefer normal punctuation in almost every case.)

Here are the reasons I read In the Skin of a Lion, in increasing order of importance:

  1. My friend the Enthusiast wanted to start a book discussion lunch thing with me and an extremely beautiful, intelligent coworker who I haven’t talked to very often. And the Enthusiast said she likes reading books with beautiful prose, and she suggested In the Skin of a Lion so I agreed.
  2. I did not know that it was about aqueducts.

This book is about aqueducts. So now you know. I recognize that I should have found this out before consenting to read it, but I didn’t. It’s about Canadian history, too, which I guess is fine, except that I don’t know anything about Canadian history except how the British threw the Cajuns out of Canada and that is how they came to live in Louisiana instead; but the point is that all these historical tidbits were wasted on me. The millionaire who disappears in the book, Ambrose Small, apparently was a real guy. That seems like it should be an interesting plotline, yet instead it is exceptionally dull.

Another point to consider is that if the point of you as a writer is beautiful prose (which Michael Ondaatje might not claim is the case, but the Enthusiast heavily implied that it was), you had better be Tom Stoppard or Vladimir Nabokov. I mean that the prose had better be so exceptionally dazzling that it’s like reading the book version of Salisbury Cathedral or the Grand Canyon, where it knocks you on your ass and you can’t even think of anything else. I am reading Ada, or Ardor at the moment, and I eventually stopped counting the number of sentences that were making me say, “Whoa. Whoa,” because I worried my Nook couldn’t support that many bookmarks.

Or, well, I guess the problem is that I have no brand loyalty to this brand of prose. I am not especially interested in prose a la Marilynne Robinson and Michael Ondaatje, or even a la Donna Tartt, who has written one of my favorite books of all time. Their prose is fine, sometimes very beautiful, but striking metaphors and melancholy descriptions are not a sufficient condition for engendering enjoyment in me. I like The Secret History because the story is gripping; I have thrice failed to get more than a third of the way into The Little Friend because the story does not engage me.

What makes me appreciate prose qua prose is verbal agility. And humor, especially. Like the author has noticed that the English language is equal parts beautiful and absurd, and they are getting a really enormous kick out of it. Salman Rushdie, Vladimir Nabokov, Tom Stoppard, Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible though not so much elsewhere — these are all writers whose prose is worthwhile on its own. A pure and scintillating pleasure.

Also, and I can’t emphasize this enough, In the Skin of a Lion is about aqueducts. AQUEDUCTS.

It’s about other things too. I know I know. It’s also about identity and other things. But it’s mainly about those things as they relate to aqueducts, and combined with the sort of prose it is, this feature of the book makes it positively unbearable to me. I just cannot abide with these brief staccato sentences about fires in kitchens and bridges falling over and whatnot. Pile on the clauses! Bring the periodic structure! That is the sort of prose that makes my heart sing. I am not a Caesar girl, I am a Cicero girl.

And you? Talk to me about beautiful prose. A talent writers should cultivate, or a distraction from good storytelling? Long gorgeous sentences with alliteration and chiasmus and zeugma and clauses clauses clauses, or is Ernest Hemingway the guy for you? Does poetical prose tend to seem affected to you or does it make your heart soar?

Review: The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson (a grumpy review)

What? You say this post showed up in your reader several weeks ago? I have no idea what you’re talking about.

My friend the Enthusiast refuses to join work book club because he says we read bad things. As proof of this he says “Devil in the White City was big like six years ago. And you’re just reading it now? Come on! You have to keep up with the times!” In fact the reason I didn’t read The Devil in the White City when it was big was that I was worried about that thing, that hype thing that happens where everyone loves a book really really hard so your expectations of it are sky-high and then you read it and you’re like, “…That’s it?”

(This is why all my comments on any post anyone writes these days about maybe wanting to give Patrick Ness a try are like, “OH YAY! But don’t expect too much. THE CHAOS WALKING BOOKS ARE SO GREAT but they aren’t that great, they are basically a big pile of reindeer poop OH MY GOD THEY ARE SO THOUGHT-PROVOKING AND MINDBLOWING except only a bit, really not anything to write home about.” Try it. Mention on a blog post that you’re going to try reading The Knife of Never Letting Go, and the above comment is what you will inevitably get from me.)

So The Devil in the White City is about two guys at the Chicago World’s Fair: Daniel Burnham the architect of it, and Dr. H. H. Holmes, a serial killer operative around the same time. The World’s Fair was very expensive and hard to build. Dr. Holmes killed many people, some of them during World’s Fair times. And he like baked them in an oven. (Ew.)

I thought I wasn’t going to like this because American history mostly bores me (sorry, America!), but it turns out I didn’t like it because I did not find it to be a very good book of history. When I was writing notes for this post, I wrote down “Devil AND the White City ha ha ha,” which was to remind me to make the very scathing remark that a more appropriate title would have been The Devil and the White City, because the White City parts about Burnham’s efforts to make the World’s Fair happen were only fairly tangentially related to the Devil parts about Dr. Holmes killing people. In the event, that…is not as scathing a remark as I would have liked. The two halves of the story are almost wholly unconnected! was the critical point I was trying to make. Both halves are interesting(ish), but there’s no real reason to put them in the same book. If I were in charge of the world, I’d have the author write a really good journal article about both.

Because another problem I had was how relentlessly padded with description the entire book was. Larson never just launches into the events of a given day. He always has to start with all (NB this is a made-up quote), “It was a warm October day as Daniel Burnham crossed the town square to meet with his investors. The sound of horse-drawn carriages on the cobbled Chicago streets almost drowned out the pounding of Burnham’s heart as his broadsheets and architectural plans flapped in the gentle fall breeze.” Blah blah damn dee blah. A teeny bit of this is okay, I guess, but it irritates me. Every time it happened — and it happened a lot — I’d be all, “Oh really. Really, Erik Larson. Did the horse hooves drown out the sound of his heart pounding? You were there to chat with him about this, were you, really?” (This was internal monologue, btw. I did not burst out into cranky soliloquoy on the subway.)

Then there was this other thing that Erik Larson kept doing that drove me crazy, which was this thing, GOD it was annoying, where he would be like, “Later that month, Olmstead fired a junior associate at his firm who had dared to suggest that regular architecture was more sexier to the populace than landscape architecture. The junior associate started his own architecture firm, which quickly grew to three times the size of Olmstead’s. Later he would say that being fired for his sexy-architecture opinions had launched his whole career. That junior associate was Frank Lloyd Wright.” And you basically can see Erik Larson in your head doing that gesture and sound effect to indicate that he has just dropped a bombshell on you, while his orchestra plays a dramatic dun dun DUNNNNNNN noise in the background. The example of this where he introduces the Ferris Wheel into the proceedings spanned more than one chapter. He refers to George Washington Gale Ferris of Ferris Wheels as “the young man from Illinois” like forty times before consenting to admit who the guy actually is. After time three, I wanted to gnaw off my fingers.

I don’t think I did fall victim to the hype thing, however. I never expected to like this book much. At best I mildly hoped not to hate it. Which I didn’t, I guess, but I found it boring and irritating. I don’t like American history, y’all! I don’t know what else to say. I don’t like reading about American history. Oo, except the Black Panthers, they were interesting. And also the Scopes trial. But nothing else.

Review: The Aspern Papers, Henry James

Me and Henry James have a quarrel. Our quarrel is that he called Oscar Wilde a fatuous fool and a tenth-rate cad, and when Oscar Wilde’s trials happened, he claimed to feel sorry for him but refused to sign a petition in support of shortening his jail sentence. Number one, those are really lame insults. Number two, it’s painfully obvious from the accounts of their encounters that Henry James was jealous of Oscar Wilde for being smarter and writing more successful plays and getting laid more often. Which is to say, more often than zero times. YEAH I WENT THERE HENRY JAMES.

(I know that was needlessly cruel but I had to. You can’t insult Oscar Wilde and expect me not to take it to a personal place.)

There are, therefore, a couple of possible reasons that I did not care for The Aspern Papers, and among the likeliest is the sense I have had, almost at once thereafter confirmed in Keepers of the Flame (about which more later), that Henry James believed Oscar Wilde was a bit overdone. And this sense has often led me to give Henry James a miss, even though Turn of the Screw sounds like just my kind of thing. I gave in and read The Aspern Papers as a companion to Keepers of the Flame, but I may have had an ulterior motive where I wanted to be able to say: “Eh. I read one of Henry James’s novellas. I didn’t care much about it.”

Soooo…yeah. I read this. I didn’t care that much about it.

The story is that the protagonist, who goes unnamed, takes lodgings with two women, one of whom was a former lover of writer Jeffrey Aspern. The old lady, Juliana Bordereau, has declined to share the massive cache of papers of Aspern’s that she currently holds. The protagonist hopes to ingratiate himself to her or to her niece, a timid spinster called Miss Tita, in order to gain access to the papers, and then presumably to acquire scholarly renown by publishing them and being the premiere Aspern scholar in all the land. And then party at unnamed protagonist’s house. And cocktail parties. And monuments to his Aspern scholar renown or whatever.

The Aspern Papers is an oddly tentative novel. The protagonist’s love of Aspern’s work, which should be the bedrock of the book, amirite, hardly seems real. It motivates everything he does — supposedly — but he doesn’t say much about what makes Aspern so great, or how he came to love him, or what gaps in knowledge he hopes to fill with these papers. Details like this would have given stakes to the way the story ends, or what goes on throughout it.

Oh, yeah, but another complaint I had was that nothing goes on throughout this entire story. For heaven’s sake. I thought the protagonist was going to have a bunch of engaging moral dilemmas, but James hardly dares to let him entertain an immoral thought. He has to be awfully awfully decent about everything. He doesn’t do any schemes to get the papers. The schemiest thing he ever does is to stop sending flowers to the women for a few days. To get their attention. That’s like his number one most schemy scheme. Great scheme, Henry James. I presume Pollyanna was your Chief Scheming Consultant on this book?

Hrmph. And do you know how old Henry James lived to be? He lived to be seventy-two m.f. years old. Seventy-two. If Oscar Wilde had lived to be seventy-two, we’d probably all be talking about how the early promise of The Importance of Being Earnest was truly fulfilled in [insert name of play(s) we’ll never read because Oscar Wilde died tragically young while much much lamer authors lived to be seventy-damn-two].

WHATEVER HENRY JAMES.

Review: Bunheads, Sophie Flack

So there are two books I’ve been trying to get at the library for a very long time without acknowledging to the world how much I wanted them because I feel guilty checking out kids’ books from my library because I always think of all the actual kids in the world who are being deprived of their books by my greed: Bunheads (this one here) and The Miseducation of Cameron Post, for which I am still waiting and which may never, ever, ever get in at the library ever. I read a glowing review of the latter on NPR, and the former I want because early exposure to Rumer Godden made me think that all books set in ballet schools are necessarily awesome.

(Y’all, Thursday’s Children is crazy good. You should go read it twice.)

Bunheads is a book about a girl called Hannah in the Manhattan Ballet School. She has been in the corps for a while now and is hoping to be promoted, but even as her career at the school has its ups and downs, she has begun to wonder whether it’s worth it. The cute musician on whom she is significantly crushing feels that she never has time for him, and she cannot deny the justice of this position. She sees other girls in the corps starving themselves and working out constantly to keep their bodies in perfect shape for the ballet.

I would say — I hope that The Miseducation of Cameron Post is better. All through Bunheads I kept thinking that I couldn’t believe I had spent so many library visits feeling weird and guilty as I browsed the YA shelves looking for this book — for this book. Totally not worth it. The point of the book is that Hannah, the protagonist, gradually realizes that she can’t continue doing ballet because it’s too soul-crushing. But the way she reaches this realization is never interesting or unexpected — it’s like, My cute guitarist boyfriend was angry at me for not calling for two weeks. Didn’t he understand that I had to dance? But suddenly I was wondering whether I was giving up too much for my career. It was all like that, very broad strokes, laid out for you in the tell-not-showiest manner imaginable.

On the positive side, I do love books about ballet schools, and Sophie Flack — herself a ballet dancer of many years — writes her school very effectively, particularly when she’s talking about the subtle and not-so-subtle pressures that are placed on the dancers to be thinner, fitter, more dedicated, every moment in every way. I also liked it that Hannah’s main rival at the school, who can be a smidge bitchy, is also Hannah’s closest friend at the school, and the person who she trusts the most. The parts of the book that go to creating the setting of professional ballet were still not incredibly well-written, but they were detailed and interesting.

Verdict: If you like ballet books and don’t mind a semi-boring plot and cardboardy characters, go for it! I shall not reread.