Often I’m resistant to the bestseller bandwagon, even if the book fits my requirements otherwise (well-reviewed, award winner, etc.) Life of Pi fit into that category for me. Plus, it sounded a little self-consciously fable-y, another genre I have a slight allergy to. But this time my post-retirement campaign to see as many Oscar nominees as possible on the big screen led me to read the book at last. (Besides, two of my favorite Indian actors from The Namesake were in it, and Ang Lee was directing). So I read it in under 24 hours.
I’d been warned by the friend who loaned me her copy that for her, it started slow, and it did for me, too. But once Pi and Richard Parker were on the lifeboat, I was hooked. And within hours of closing the book for the last time, I was putting on my 3-D glasses for the movie experience, so I’m not able to separate the reading and the viewing experience very effectively in my mind. The movie stayed very true to the book, right down to the man-eating island populated by thousands of meerkats.
If you can’t stand another made for TV version of “The Christmas Carol”, if you go homicidal if you someone suggests watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” again, and if you change your Facebook timeline photo to the Grinch this time of year, you’re probably not in the market for some feel-good seasonal fictional fare. I’ve recently read a couple of excellent novels that might fit the bill.
The World without You by Joshua Henkin takes place during the anti-Christmas season, the 4th of July, and most of the characters are Jewish. If that’s still not Noel-averse enough for you, the main reason the Frankel family is gathering is for the memorial of their son Leo, a Daniel Pearl-like journalist who was killed a year earlier. The shock has also driven a wedge in the long marriage of the parents of the family, a sad fact that they plan to announce to their surviving children once everyone arrives. Bleak enough yet?
This isn’t a complete drama-fest, however; the characters are quirky enough to have some foibles, sometimes laughable ones. Noelle, for instance, who was a bit of a slutty slacker in high school, has now become an orthodox Jew, and won’t be seen anywhere without her headscarf. She may or may not have a hearing problem — it seemed to fade in and out as needed when she was a teenager. Now she’s feeding her family off paper plates, since even the extra set of dishes her parents have bought specifically so that she can keep kosher on her visit have become defiled, in her eyes at least, due to some minor infraction.
Her sister Clarissa, meanwhile, is in that special circle of hell inhabited by 39-year-old wives who decide suddenly that they must have a child. And the third sister, Lily, a lawyer, is permanently mad at everyone, on general principle. All the old sisterly resentments crop up. Here’s Clarissa, facing down the prospect of in vitro fertilization, and reliving her past accommodation of her sister’s flakiness:
Clarissa, meanwhile, remains silent. She’s doing the dishes again, the tendons in her forearms ballooning as she applies pressure to the steel wool. The water is as hot as she can tolerate, her hands turning pink as jellyfish. She’s thinking of their childhood, of the chorus that rang through their days. Go bring Noelle her knapsack, she forgot her homework. Go pick up Noelle from school, she lost her keys. Go take care of Noelle, she f*cked the wrong guy. And now Noelle is lecturing her on responsibility. “You’re right,” she says. “Nathaniel and I should have gotten here sooner.”
“Okay,” Noelle says. “That’s all I was saying.”
“Jesus, Noelle. Would you leave her the f*ck alone?”
Added to the Frankel family mix are the spouses of the children, including Thisbe, Leo’s widow, who’s wondering how and when to let the family know that she’s dating someone. When Noelle’s husband gets his feelings hurt and takes off for hours, Noelle is forced to be an adult, for her children and her siblings, as well as to honor Leo’s memory. I enjoyed this eccentric, sometimes frustrating family, and found the story’s resolution satisfying, and, while still realistic, much less bleak than the plot outline sounds.
I started reading via audiobook Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin back in September. Shriver is a favorite of mine — I’ve read and enjoyed So Much for That and, more recently, The New Republic. She’s often funny, but her humor is pitch black (the two books referenced above, for instance, center around degenerative disease, failing marriages, and terrorism, among other things), so when I heard that her earlier book We Need to Talk about Kevin had a Columbine style mass murderer at its center, I wasn’t surprised. I might have skipped it if I hadn’t seen the trailer for the movie, which looked very promising. The bleakness factor made it easier to handle in audio, on the treadmill, in small doses. While none of the characters are sympathetic, I was completely drawn in by the first paragraph, and wanted to continue, despite the dread of what was going to happen next. And I definitely wanted to see the movie once I finished the book.
If I’d doubted the relevance of this book for a minute, that was all over with the Newtown murders. I started to confuse the fictional teenager with the real one, and if anything, my need to finish it was even more urgent. While the weaponry and the age of the killer differ, there are a lot of parallels. Shriver has said in interviews that readers’ reactions to her story mostly fell into two groups: those who found the killer’s mother completely blameless — how could she have seen this coming? the kid was a bad seed! — and 100% at fault — of course he turned into a mass murderer! she was cold and incapable of loving him properly! She claims that this is what she intended. Another stark contrast is between Kevin’s parents: his mother believes he’s a disaster waiting to happen; his father believes he’s merely misunderstood. She makes all three of the basically unlikable characters completely believable. I have yet to watch the movie, but from the trailer it looks very true to the book:
I seem to be on a jag of novels with very bad parents as major characters.
First came the master manipulators: Caleb and Camille Fang of The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson, are performance artists who refer to their children, Annie and Buster, as Child A and Child B. They throw their children into their pieces almost as soon as they’re born, attempting to defeat the sentiment expressed by their teacher: “kids kill art”. They come close to killing their own kids, emotionally at least, by throwing them into situations that involve pulling the rug out from under them emotionally. Public humiliation doesn’t begin to describe what they suffer in the name of their parents’ Art. They wind up emotional basket cases: Buster so guarded that he trusts no one, including himself, and Annie so thoroughly angry that she humiliates herself rather than letting anyone else do it to her again. Caleb and Camille, meanwhile, feel betrayed by the simple fact that their progeny grow up and leave home — they apparently expected them to stay home and continue to participate in family projects indefinitely. In partial retaliation, they dream up the biggest project ever, one so extreme that Annie and Buster must make a major decision on their own on how to deal with it. They mystery of what Caleb and Camille are really up to, and the uncertainty of how Child A and Child B will deal, make the second half of this book an exciting ride, in addition to a disturbing one. The characters are unique and unforgettable. Nicole Kidman’s production company has bought the rights to the movie, and David Lindsay-Abaire (The Rabbit Hole) is going to write the screenplay.
The next pair of parents who should have considered contraception are in Alison Esapach’s The Adults. They produced Emily Vidal, an only child, in a wealthy Connecticut suburb. Witness to — and participant in — a variety of bad adult behavior (suicide, philandering, sexual abuse), Emily alternates between being a pawn and a would-be parent to her shattered mother. As she struggles to grow up, her childhood traumas continue to follow her around, even as far as Prague.
Emily was sympathetic in many ways, once I got over her snarkiness. Here’s an early example:
They arrived in bulk, in Black Tie Preferred, in one large clump behind our wooden fence, peering over each other’s shoulders and into our backyard like people at the zoo who wanted a better view of the animals.
My father’s fiftieth birthday party had just begun.
It’s true that I was expecting something. I was fourteen, my hair still sticky with lemon from the beach, my lips maroon and pulpy and full like a woman’s, red and smothered like “a giant wound,” my mother said earlier that day. She disapproved of the getup, of my yellow fit-and-flare dress that cradled my hips and pointed my breasts due north, but I didn’t care; I disapproved of this party, this whole at-home affair that would mark the last of its kind.
The women walked through the gate in black and blue and gray and brown pumps, the party already proving unsuccessful at the grass level. The men wore sharp dark ties like swords and said predictable things like, “Hello.”
but I found I spent a lot of the book wanting to shake her till her teeth rattled. I loved the writing, though, and found the story very affecting. All the characters seemed very real, but most of them behave badly, so if you need a lovable character to enjoy a book, this one may not be for you.
Seeing the movie preview prompted me to seek out this book and quickly read it before it leaves the Palm. The novel, based on a short story, is Hemmings’ first, and its characters grabbed me from the first page. A distracted, work-obsessed father, Matt King, is forced to take a much more hands-on role with his two daughters when his daredevil wife Elizabeth falls into a coma after a boating accident. I know, it sounds like an after-school special or a soap opera Friday afternoon cliffhanger, but in Hemmings’ hands the comatose wife is not just a dramatic plot device, especially since we know from the beginning of the book that she’s dying. Matt is slower to accept this fact, and is then faced with telling his daughters, as well as their many friends.
But his grief gets even more complicated when his oldest daughter tells him that Elizabeth has been cheating on him: now anger and betrayal are added to the mix. He vacillates between wanting to give his wife’s lover the opportunity to say goodbye, and his more visceral urge to tell the guy off. Further complications ensue when he discovers the lover’s involvement in a family land sale decision that he is solely responsible for.
Here, Matt and the girls scatter Elizabeth’s ashes from an outrigger canoe off Waikiki:
The girls paddle slowly, and Scottie stops and rests her paddle across the hull. Her back is hunched and she looks at her lap and I wonder if she’s crying. She turns, holding up her hand. “Mom’s under my nails,” she says.
I look, and yes, there she is.
Alex turns and Scottie shows Alex her fingers. Alex shakes her head and gives Scottie this look that seems to say, Get used to it. She’ll be there for the rest of your life. Shell be there on birthdays, at Christmastime, when you get your period, when you graduate, have sex, when you marry, have children, when you die. She’ll be there and she won’t be there.
For a novel about the premature death of a mother of two, there are as many funny moments as sad ones. And I was happy to discover that the movie nailed the “dramedy” vibe perfectly; it was very true to the book. George Clooney has impeccable comic timing, and covers the tragic side of Matt’s character just as well. The whole cast is excellent, and the author even has a brief cameo as Matt’s secretary.
It was announced at the New Yorker Festival a couple of days ago that HBO will do an adaptation of Franzen’s The Corrections. Franzen will adapt his novel into a series, and Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) and Scott Rudin (The Social Network, Revolutionary Road) are both to be involved. There are unconfirmed rumors that Anthony Hopkins will play the lead.
Here’s a video of Franzen discussing the project with New Yorker editor David Remnick:
Foer also has a new book out: Tree of Codes, which is a sort of intricate, mass-produced artist’s book. It defies description: you have to flip through the pages to see what he’s done. Not easily adaptable to the Kindle or any other e-format!
These aren’t short books. I’m just short on time to blog about them, and wanted to get something in before they fade completely from memory.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
This one took a while to take hold of me, but I did end up liking it, with a few reservations. The two main characters are Renee, a 54-year-old concierge of a Paris apartment building, and Paloma, a 12-year-old girl who lives there. What connects them is that both withhold their real selves from others. Renee, instead of revealing her love of classic literature and serious film, pretends to be everyone’s drab cliche of what a concierge is. She wills her real self to be invisible to the upper class tenants of her building, and she does a thorough job of it. She leaves on a television tuned to the sorts of shows she thinks a concierge would watch, but then retreats to the back of her apartment to read Tolstoy and Proust. Paloma has nothing but contempt for the adults around her, as well as for her sister. She lets no one know the emotional trouble she’s in.
I found both characters entertaining — except when they drifted into philosophical treatises along the lines of “what is art?” (Barbery is a professor of philosophy, which somewhat explains the detours, but doesn’t make them fit any better into the structure of the novel). Luckily, these tirades are neatly cordoned off into chapters; after a while, I started skimming. In the last half of the book, the plot gains momentum through the introduction of a new character who gives Renee a reason to let herself be seen. And Paloma meets Renee, which opens her as well. I’ve heard that there’s a movie in the works.
The Uncoupling, by Meg Wolitzer
Wolitzer (The Ten-Year Nap, The Position) strays into Alice Hoffman East Coast magical realism territory in her latest novel — only it’s New Jersey, not Massachusetts, and there’s a lot more humor involved. The story centers around Eleanor Roosevelt High School’s teachers and students, and the new drama teacher’s production of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata — you know, the one where the women of ancient Greece agree to go on a sex strike till the men end a war they’ve been fighting. The play is cast, rehearsals begin — and one by one, women all over town start losing interest in sex after feeling an icy wind blowing around them.
In the wrong hands, this could be silly. But the characters are so real that they threaten to walk right off the page; we feel sympathy for the newly unarousable women as well as for their rejected men. Along the way we’re alternately touched and amused: Wolitzer can portray a healthy marriage going suddenly off the rails as well as she can the eye-rolling impatience of their teenage daughter, who knows they have nothing of value to tell her.
I won’t reveal how it ends, but I found this a very satisfying read.
Bossypants, by Tina Fey
Prepare for frequent snorting on this one — Tina Fey is nearly as funny on the page as she is on the screen. From descriptions of her dark shin fur as an adolescent to a blow-by-blow commentary on her family’s dreary Christmas customs, Fey provides plenty of laughs, mostly at her own expense. Here’s the set up for the annual holiday trek:
Our annual pilgrimage from one set of in-laws to the other happens every December 26, or, as they call it in Canada: Boring Day.
We always plan to leave around seven in the morning and, like clockwork, we’re out the door by ten. After gassing up, deicing, and turning around for an unanticipated bowel movement, we glide onto glorious 80W by ten thirty. Sure, there are those trendy types who prefer 76/70 because “it’s more scenic” and “they have a McDonald’s,” but I think 80W has a certain ceci me deprime.
And here’s the classic Palin/Clinton sequence Fey did with Amy Poehler to open Saturday Night Liive, worth a repeat viewing. Fey says “Doing that sketch on live TV was a pure joy I had never before experienced as a performer.”