Sunday, September 30, 2012

Barbara the book grouch (The Middlesteins) followed by falling in book love again (Cloud Atlas)

 End of September Sunday Salon (Sunday Salon is a Facebook group for book bloggers)

I am Barbara, the book grouch.  The parade rainer. I have just read another book I know others will like, maybe even love, and I don’t. I would have tossed it except it is an advance copy kindly lent to me by a librarian friend.
The Middlesteins is a middle-brow sitcom about middle class Jews in middle America (suburban Chicago).  Both the book and the family revolve around Edie and Edie revolves around food and fat. 
            So much so Edie’s family fears that she’s eating herself to death. Edie learned this behavior as a spoiled, pudgy toddler – who always wanted to be carried. Now an obese grandmother, she spends her time cruising the fast food chains where she doesn’t even have to leave her car to eat. To underscore all this her life events-- and the chapter headings – are often marked/ labeled in pounds.
Those within her universe include her not-so-devoted husband, Richard. He’s had enough of Edie and leaves her sending the rest of the family spinning into panic as they pick up responsibility while he begins dating again.
No one’s very good at dealing with Edie and they all have lives and issues of their own. Daughter Robin is also dating and drinks too much and son Benny smokes pot every night and has a wife who directs his life. That’s  Rachelle, part princess, part perfectionist,  she tries to solve Edie’s problem with a plan.  She becomes the food police patrolling Edie’s habits and enforcing good food on her two twins, Emily and Josh, who are busy preparing for their b’nai mitzvah.
            To complete the characters in this universe add a bunch of relatively indistinct friends, so indistinct they even narrate a chapter in first person plural (how cloyingly clever.)  And finally mid way through the book we get  some Chinese food to spice it up – as well as the waitress and her father, the owner and chef at Edie’s new favorite place to eat.
            I fought the book until nearly the last page tackling page after page with groans and thoughts such as: some will call this timely; I call it a tedious. I get that it’s about the decaying middle class and an American landscape overtaken by strip malls and fast food, but even that could be interesting. Description: bland; insights shallow i.e.:  a character understands why Edie eats: “Because food is a wonderful place to hide.”
The writing is about as tired and unappetizing as a day-old Happy meal.
Some will find this funny.  I find it flat. At one point a character “tries to muster up a joke about Jews and food. Jews and funerals, Jew and Jews, but nothing was funny.” That about sums up the book for me.

 I don’t like being a book grouch. Sometimes I think I’m just in a bad mood.  Particularly when I read the glowing cover blurbs:"A truly original American novel, at once topical and universally timeless. 
Or: "This Smorgasbord of a book about food, family, love, sex, and loss is like the Jewish The Corrections, yet menchier and with a heart -- and it's hilarious. "I admire and read Jonathan Franzen's works even if I don't necessarily "like" them.
  Even  Franzen praised this book. He’s quoted on the advanced copy’s cover: “The Middlesteins” had me from its very first pages, but it wasn’t until it’s final pages that I fully appreciated the range of Attenberg’s sympathy and the artistry of her storytelling. (Barbara the book grouch also admits to finally softening towards the end and particularly on the final page, just not enough that she shifted her overall displeasure with what she considered the book’s artlessness.) The last book I read that annoyed me as much was also positively blurbed by Franzen. Guess I should learn:  Avoid books Franzen promotes.
            We have different tastes.

And then …..
I am walking on air. My head’s in the clouds.  I feel my heart beat. I have fallen in book love again.
With Cloud Atlas. With David Mitchell. With rich language. With layered interconnected stories.  With genius. I will blog about this book in the coming weeks.
        Where was I when this book came out? 2004. A year when I did not have the time to give this book the attention it needs. It’s not an easy read, but for me, it's full of rewards.  A long slow read, with lots of rereading.
Well, I may be late to the book party, but I’m just in time for the movie. Coming to Imax in late October. Tom Hanks. Halle Berry. Can’t wait.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Little Stranger: Final Thoughts -- Readalong at EstellaSociety

 The Little Stranger: Final thoughts for Readalong at

           Creep. When it’s a verb it moves slowly and often overtakes one by surprise. When it’s a noun, he -- she or it -- gives you the willies.
The Little Stranger is a creep who/that creeps up on the reader.
         In my reading of Sarah Waters’ book, the Little Stranger is Faraday – although for much of the read I could be convinced otherwise. I thought that perhaps it was a figment of each character’s greatest desire. Now I know it’s both. The figments detach and take on a life of their own but, someone, as Caroline said, is at the root of it. She suspects her brother Rod at the time.
 It's Farady.
What’s marvelous about this revelation is that Waters keeps it from both reader and characters alike so long, and so artfully. Faraday, himself, never seems to get it as evidenced by the last sentence (which finally also reveals the identity of the ghost to the reader).
But back to the beginning.
As a 10-year old Faraday is  a little stranger who visits the Hundreds on Empire Day with his mother. He is so taken with the house and takes a piece of it – a small acorn from the molding. “It was simply that, in admiring the house, I wanted to possess a piece of it—or rather, as if the admiration itself, which I suspect a more ordinary child would not have felt, entitled me to it. It was like a man, I suppose, wanting a lock of hair from the head of a girl he had suddenly and blindingly become enamored of.”
As a 40-year old he returns to treat a young servant, Betty, who is faking illness because she is afraid of the large, creaky house. At this point, I would agree with Caroline Ayers that the house is nothing to be afraid of  ---- yet.
      Faraday slowly insinuates himself into the household, first by attaching electrodes to Rod’s leg--- how creepy is that and how reminiscent of old-fashioned doctors, who were also called leeches (as in Hawthorne’ Scarlet Letter chapter “The Leech and His Patient”). This is the beginning of the similarity to Chillingworth for me (with a shade of Dr. Frankenstein tossed in).
While early Gothic novels featured perverted priests; the modern-day equivalent is the doctor.  
How nice Faraday is. How safe he seems. How concerned he is.  How understanding. As a doctor, he’s in the position to listen to all the patient’s concerns—the most intimate of one’s emotional, physical, spiritual and even supernatural complaints and to cater to them, dismiss them and exploit them. He knows the weaknesses of each member of the family.
      Faraday is not so enamored of the family as he is of the house; the house, which is as another reader has said, is a character in the book. It’s the house Faraday wants to possess – and so the house becomes “possessed” by him.
The explanation of how such possession comes late in the book in two parts. First Caroline tells Faraday of two books of her father’s she has found. Interestingly she first thought they were “medical textbooks.” But Phantasms of the Living and The Night Side of Nature don’t describe physical but rather supernatural disturbances. These disturbances closely parallel what has been happening in the house.  (P 372).
The books describe poltergeists. “They are not ghosts. They are parts of a person… Unconscious parts, so strong or so troubled they can take on a life of their own.  The book says that when they’re unhappy or troubled, or they want something badly – Sometimes they don’t even know it’s happening. Something … breaks away from them.  … Suppose it’s Roddie…. “Well if this book is right, then someone’s at the root of it.”
Faraday is the catalyst. He sets off each member of the household. First, the poltergeist gets rid of the dog – when he bites a “little stranger,” the wrong little stranger, but nevertheless an uninvited small guest.
            Rod is afraid of fire – having been burned in the war and he is frustrated with balancing the books and running the manor. His undoing is a response to that.
Next up Mrs. Ayres—who loved her first child Sarah, and lost her at a young age.  The piece of her that haunts her is the child calling her to join her in death.
Finally, the plain spinster Caroline, who is humiliated once when the gathering at which she is presented to a potential suitor, Mrs. Baker-Hyde’s brother, Mr. Morley, turns into disaster. (Curiously, this nearly doesn’t happen. The delay of the Baker-Hydes’ departure only happens because Faraday asks a question.) Her desire for marriage – and escape from The Hundreds takes up the final third of the book as Faraday courts her. And oh what a creepy suitor he turns out to be.
When does no mean no? He repeatedly convinces himself that Caroline’s no’s are only said because she is tired or not in her right mind. Increasingly we see him try to change her mind and that it's the house he wants, not her.
Faraday’s colleague Seely completes the explanation of how poltergeists work. He uses a family example:  “But suppose the stress of my uncle’s injury, combined with the bond between him and my father—suppose all of that somehow released some sort of … psychic force. The force simple took the shape that would best get my father’s attention.’ He goes on to apply it to the Ayerses.
“Is it so surprising with things for that family so bleak? The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners. Let’s call it a – a germ. And let’s say conditions prove right for that germ to develop --- to grow, like a child in the womb. What would this little stranger grow into? A sort of shadow-self perhaps: A Caliban a Mr. Hyde. A creature motivated by all the nasty impulses and hunger the conscious mind had hoped to keep hidden away: things like envy, and malice and frustration…. Caroline suspects her brother….”
Faraday considers this theory for a bit – but looks to Caroline as the catalyst, before dismissing the irrational with the rational explanations he so often prefers.
As it turns out the character most full of nasty impulses like envy, malice and frustration is Faraday.
As his courtship of Caroline  -- and the motivation behind it – to takeover the Hundreds -- becomes increasingly frustrated, those impulses become clearer to the reader, and he becomes increasingly unhinged.
When Caroline leaps –or is pushed – from the stair landing, he is asleep in his car dreaming – and who knows where is unconscious is – he describes an out of body dream: “And in the slumber I seemed to leaved the car, and to press on to Hundreds; I saw myself doing it with all the hectic, unnatural clarity with which I’d been recalling the dash to the hospital a little while before. I saw myself cross the silvered landscape and pass like smoke through the Hundreds gate.”(p484)
During Betty’s testimony in court, Betty hearing Miss Caroline call out the word ‘You” “as if she had seen someone she knew, but as if she was afraid or them and then describes seeing Miss Caroline fall. During this testimony, Faraday grows so ashen; a colleague asks if he is all right.  Betty goes on to describe her ghost theory saying, “The ghost hadn’t wanted her in the house, but it hadn’t wanted her to go either. I was a spiteful ghost and and wanted the house all for its own.”(P494-5) 
Betty has described Faraday perfectly.
And then of course there’s the book’s final sentence.  Faraday tells us if Hundreds Hall is haunted, he doesn’t see the ghost. When he looks in the window pane, the only face he sees is his own. He does not recognize the possibility that he may be the poltergeist; this reader however, begs to differ with his vision.

Final  final thoughts:  All I have touched on here is an answer to who is the stranger and how the poltergeist works. I was fascinated to read in the acknowledgments that Waters lists works of nonfiction she is indebted to and includes Phantasms of the Living (1886) and The Night Side of London (1848), among other books about poltergeists. I like it that these are real books.
 The other aspect of this book that I admire is the larger theme of one age overtaking another and the diminishment of grander times, grand families, grand estates.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Oh brave new world that has such bloggers in it

     I don't wanna write reviews anymore. Either positive or negative. 
  I want to write about reading.  
No one is paying me to do this.
I have written both old-school "professional" reviews and "amateur" reactions to books (and plays): I was a paid staff member of a small newspaper; I now have a blog.
  When I was paid by someone else, I wrote my opinion in a manner that presented me as a representative of that paper. I kept a lot of "I" stuff out and focused primarily on the way the work worked. I wrote a lot about structure of the book or play and how elements interacted. I tried to keep the focus on the work and not me -- that meant not saying something clever or showing off at the expense of the piece. I used language appropriate to my audience; we were a "family" newspaper in a sophisticated town. 
  I could assign staff or freelancers to write about books I didn't have the time or interest to review myself. I had the same kind of expectations for them. I had to write about the plays I went to --- whether that reaction was "positive" or "negative"  or so bland I didn't want to care, and I tried to explain my reaction. Often I was more interested in who might be the audience for a book or play, even if I was only marginally part of that audience. My job was to have an opinion, even when I didn't feel like having one. My "voice" was not less authentic, but  subdued, my language more composed than what I admire in so many blogs, particularly by young bloggers.  I was edited.
       Blogging is freeing because my reaction can be quirky and personal --  I can go into parts of my life and how the book reflects this life. I can drift and wander. I can be random. I can disclose "spoilers." I don't have to waste my time  on books I don't want to spend time thinking  or writing about. I can choose to target my reactions for others who have read the book rather than only those who might. I can write long.
  I can do whatever I want. 
  Other bloggers can too. If they want to complain or even whine about a book, they have that right. If they want to write snarky insults or sycophantic praise, they can. If some just want to summarize, list, quote or rate, that's okay too -- it's just not very interesting for me, and I will likely scan such blogs.  What I want to do is explore.
This is a brave new world. I leave stodgy newspaper-style reviews behind to curl and yellow in their old-fashioned expectations. The problem for me, of course, is that I am so used to my old style, I have difficulty reinventing myself in the new.  But I'm trying. 
I am less interested in positive or negative reactions than I am in questions such as what does it feel like to read this book?  Why am I reading this book?   What does it remind me of? How does this book work, or not? Or what question does this book ask me, and how is it answered?
        I like the democracy of blogging, the inventiveness.  I know there are many out there who view bloggers as a "market" or worse, as marketeers, and would like to exploit and corral the community.  Frontiers have always attracted both opportunists and adventurers. The more formulaic blogging gets, the less interesting it will be. So I celebrate the diversity, the good, the bad, the boring and the playfulness of blogging.
There's more than one way to react to a book -- readalongs, lists, comments, memes, challenges. The Estella Society has even created a "playground" for readers ( Yeah Andi and Heather!
      Bloggers are making it up as they go along.
      They are forming and reforming a community of readers. 
      The review is dead! Long live talking about, writing about, reacting to reading!

Note: I started this blog as a comment in reaction to Florinda's post today about authentic voices being priceless on her blog Then I found myself going on and on, so I made a post out of it. Florinda, whose blog I admire, was writing about Book Blogger Appreciation Week. This is my small offer of appreciation.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

My first read-along: The Little Stranger, first half at the Estella Society

  The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters Chapters 1-8
My first read-along at the Estella Society. The Little Stranger. I’m only mildly creeped out.  I can read this at night.  I can read this by day.  I can read this in bits. I can read this any way.   But, I think I should read it faster to get the full creep effect. Just me.
What’s really creeping up on me is how much of a leech Dr. Faraday is. He reminds me a bit of Chillingsworth in The Scarlet Letter,  (Favorite books alert) only more obsequious, less self-aware. Could anybody be less self-aware than Faraday? And then that self-disclosure in the last chapter – pathetic.

 I love Caroline telling him she thinks he must hate himself.  And Rod telling him to
get out – that he is nobody.   After such betrayal. What about patient-doctor privilege?

 Mostly I’m waiting to figure out how the title comes into play and I’m not sure I like that.  Is the “little stranger” Faraday? Or the bratty little visitor that Gyp bit?  Or the dead first child?  Or something quite apart?  Should so much suggestion depend on interplay with a title? What if the book were called “The Hundreds.” How would it be different? Maybe the title will come into play in the last half. I hope so.
Maybe the little stranger  -- title and all-- will creep up on me.
And I too will be thoroughly infected.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Reading to the Rain

Sunday Salon: Labor Day Weekend

            Rain.  Rain. Don’t go away. Indoor reading for today.
As long as it doesn’t last all week, I’m grateful for rain. I planted some Swiss chard and kale for my late fall/winter garden this morning so the seeds can soak this afternoon while I read. I’ve joined my first read along at the Estella Society and have begun The Little Stranger. I’m not holding back.  I may zip through it in the next few days. I haven’t read a good Gothic in a long time, was not even aware of Sarah Waters, the author. So I have already found one joy in a readalong – discovering a new writer.
What other books are on my floor?
·      I started Quiet, the non-fiction book by Susan Cain about introverts, which is subtitled “The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” While I find this book reassuring – I am normal, after all, I am so much more drawn to fiction, than non. Or most non.
A few years ago, I went through a spell of reading a lot of what I call lay neuroscience and psychology, and I guess I am trying to revive that interest a bit, but I keep putting books aside mid-way through and turning back to mystery and literary fiction.  I’m not sure why.
·      The Middlesteins – lent to me by a librarian friend
·      Cloud Atlas.
·      Work related books
Sunday Salon is a group on Facebook