Short Stories & Essays: 2 Reviews

Calypso     David Sedaris     (2018)

Sedaris Calypso.jpg

Any book of essays and stories by David Sedaris is guaranteed to elicit out-loud guffaws from me as I burn through the pages. Calypso is no exception, even though several of the pieces in this collection center on the 2013 suicide of Sedaris’s sister Tiffany. Sedaris depicts himself, his four surviving siblings, and his elderly father as truly grieved by the loss of Tiffany. But they carry on, recalling their decades of interactions with Tiffany in raw spurts that are sometimes amusing and sometimes downright sad. “Memory aside, the negative just makes for a better story . . . Happiness is harder to put into words. It’s also harder to source, much more mysterious than anger or sorrow, which come to me promptly, whenever I summon them, and remain long after I’ve begged them to leave.” (91-92)

Over the years, Sedaris has lived in several cities in the United States and in France. He currently resides with his long-term boyfriend, the visual artist Hugh Hamrick, in a renovated sixteenth-century house in the south of England. Incidents set in this home and in the surrounding countryside display Sedaris’s acute sense of cultural nuance. If you’ve never read Sedaris before, be warned that he’s an inveterate trash collector—as in self-appointed roadside litter gleaner—who describes vividly the sordid garbage that he picks up. He’s also a prolific writer, whose other books are reviewed in my overview of his work.

Cockfosters     Helen Simpson     (2015)  

Simpson 2.jpg

Reviewers of this book of short stories set in contemporary England have pointed to the theme of aging and the observations of characters, middle-aged and beyond, who have a trove of wisdom as well as a sense of losing a grasp on life. This is certainly one theme, but another theme, trenchantly pursued, is women’s role in society and in the home. Each story is named for a place that figures either directly or tangentially in the action. In the title story, two old friends travel by train to Cockfosters station, the end of the line, to retrieve a pair of eyeglasses that one of them has left behind. Each stop along the way brings up discussion of evolving British culture. In the story “Arizona,” a woman receiving an acupuncture treatment has a wide-ranging conversation with her acupuncturist, including a comparison of menopause to the state of Arizona. Most of the stories are brief and pointed; Simpson is especially adept with hyperbolic satire, as in “Erewhon” and “Moscow.” 

Only one story, “Berlin,” left me flat. In it, a husband and wife are reluctant audience members for a multi-day performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Apparently, the two are sorting out whether they want to stay together, but there is little discussion of their troubles. Instead, readers  get interminable descriptions of the opera action. If I was supposed to match this action to the couple’s experiences, I missed the boat. I may have been hampered here by my utter contempt for Wagnerian opera.  

Meet an Iranian Poet

Song of a Captive Bird     Jazmin Darznik     (2018)

Darznik.jpg

If you’ve never heard of the Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967), get ready to be introduced to the startling voice of a woman who writes viscerally about the emotions of repression, alienation, and love. In Song of a Captive Bird, Iranian-American writer Jazmin Darznik has fictionalized the life of Forugh Farrokhzad, who is known primarily as “Forugh.” Inserted throughout Darznik’s prose text are excerpts from English translations of Forugh’s poetry, which provide a taste of her style and illuminate the events of the novel.

Song of a Captive Bird gave me insights into a culture that I knew very little about. The Persian literature of Iran goes back at least two and a half millennia, with a strong tradition of love poetry, and Forugh steeped herself in this literature as she wrote her own poems. Here, in first-person narrative, novelist Darznik imagines Forugh’s struggles with writing candidly, as a woman, about sexuality in mid-twentieth-century Iran:

“Mine was a country where they said a woman’s nature is riddled with sin, where they claimed that women’s voices had the power to drive men to lust and distract them from matters of both heaven and earth. Yet, when I leafed through magazines and opened volumes of poetry, I found that men has always described their love and their lovers with utter frankness and freedom. For thousands of years men had compared their beloveds to whatever they pleased, voiced all manner of amorous petitions and pleas, and described all the states to which love delivered them. And people read this poetry with complete equanimity. No one screamed out in protest. No one cried, ‘Oh God, the foundations of morality have been shaken!’" (170)

Reviewers of Forugh’s poetry sometimes compare her to Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), who was her contemporary, though there is no evidence that the two knew of each other’s work. I see similarities, in that both expressed women’s emotions in a raw style that was often criticized during their lives as unwomanly or otherwise inappropriate.

Readers should be cautious not to accept as fact all the incidents in this novelized version of Forugh’s life. As Darznik explains in her “Author’s Note” at the end of the book, she extrapolated, because biographical information about Forugh is sparse. In the novel, Forugh characterizes herself as a difficult girl-child in a highly patriarchal society: “My willfulness was my mother’s torment. An Iranian daughter is taught to be quiet and meek, but from earliest childhood I was stubborn, noisy, and brash. A good Iranian daughter should be pious, modest, and tidy; I was impulsive, argumentative, and messy. I thought of myself as no less than my brothers, with wit and daring to match theirs.” (367) Darznik’s portrayal of Forugh continues her brashness and daring into adulthood, as she publishes what is viewed as scandalously explicit verse under her own name and as she takes on lovers. Forugh specifically defies and undermines the strong cultural emphasis on female virginity.

Darznik’s casting of the novel in first-person narrative lends an immediacy and also creates tension for the reader: Does the story extend through Forugh’s entire life? If so, how will Forugh explain her own death?  I found the last 75 pages (out of 401 pages) of Song of a Captive Bird to be weaker than the rest of the book, with many years of Forugh’s life skipped over and with the cause of Forugh’s death left ambiguous. But these critiques do not significantly diminish the power of the story.

From a twenty-first-century standpoint, we know what was going to happen in Iran after Forugh’s death. In the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Pahlavi dynasty of monarchs was overthrown, and an Islamic regime under Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. Many Iranians who could afford to leave the country emigrated, including Jazmin Darznik’s own family. In the two suitcases that her family was able to take with them when they fled, Darznik’s mother brought a slim volume of Forugh’s poetry. This act speaks to the influence of Forugh.

Near the end of Song of a Captive Bird, Darznik puts into Forugh’s mouth a prophetic statement, lamenting Iran’s adherence to patriarchal traditions and its reliance on its vast oil reserves:  “I feared an age that had lost its heart, and I was terrified at the thought of so many crippled hands. Our traditions were our pacifiers, and we sang ourselves to sleep with the lullaby of a once-great civilization and culture. Ours was the land of poetry, flowers, and nightingales—and poets searching for rhymes in history’s junkyards. The lottery was our faith and greed our fortune.” (373-4)

Bonus Post: A Woman in the Chem Lab

Chemistry     Weike Wang     (2017)

Wang.jpg

Don’t let this book fool you. The simple declarative sentences and frequent thematic tangents might lead you to believe that it’s the work of an unsophisticated novelist. Not so. Weike Wang makes her readers think hard about the role of immigrants in American society, about the difficulties that women (of any race) face in choosing careers in the sciences, and about the tensions between the personal and the professional in the lives of talented people.

No one in Chemistry except the narrator’s boyfriend, Eric, is given a name, which emphasizes the universality of this tale. The first-person narrator is a young woman who should be heading into her final year of a doctoral program in chemistry at a prestigious university—never named but presumably Harvard. She’s Chinese American, brought to the United States as a young child and raised by parents who would make Amy Chua of Tiger Mother fame seem tame. Boyfriend Eric is a paragon, a white guy who has had spectacular success in pursuing science degrees and who is just embarking on what will undoubtedly be a rewarding academic career. He wants to marry the narrator, but she demurs, worried about forfeiting her intellectual capacity. Added to this tension is a side plot about the narrator’s best friend, a physician in New York, who talks to the narrator frequently on the phone. On the edges of the novel are also students whom the narrator tutors in math and science topics.

Readers glimpse about two years of the narrator’s life, as she gets counseling to help with her decisions, eats a great deal of carryout pizza, drinks too much wine, and muses about scientific topics ranging from the details of electrical circuitry to the discovery of radium. Should she plow on with the doctorate even though the highly competitive lab work no longer gives her any joy? Should she marry Eric, a man very well suited to her personality and intelligence, even though he can never fully understand her family’s culture and language? If she doesn’t pursue chemistry, what should she do with her life? And if she moves to the Midwest to follow Eric, should she take her comical, untrainable dog with her?

The narrator touches on these questions, wanders off, and then circles back to them. Chemistry doesn’t give readers all the answers, but that’s it’s charm. And Weike Wang is an author to watch.

New York Noir, Plus

Manhattan Beach     Jennifer Egan     (2017)

Egan.jpg

Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2010 collection of linked short stories, A Visit from the Goon Squad. The form of her fiction before 2017 was unconventional, so critics seem shocked that Egan was capable of producing, with the publication of Manhattan Beach, a traditional historical novel, especially since such novels are not fashionable at the moment. I had never read anything else by Egan, so I approached Manhattan Beach as a seasoned reviewer of multitudes of historical novels, and it’s a good one.

The setting is New York City, first in the depths of the Great Depression and then in the midst of World War II. Keep your finger on the front or back endpapers of Manhattan Beach so that you can refer to the map of the Brooklyn Naval Yard as it existed during World War II. This may help you locate and picture the scenes of the novel that take place there.

The plot? I hesitate to reveal much, since one of the pleasures of this novel is the intricacy of the entangled story lines, which the reader unravels with every turn of the page. The central character is Anna Kerrigan, whom we first meet as a child in 1934, when she accompanies her down-at-the-heels father, Eddie, on a visit to a mobster’s home, which overlooks Manhattan Beach. Both this locale and the title of the book point to the prominence of bodies of water as recurrent images in Egan’s writing. The mobster is Dexter Styles, whose back story we’ll learn. We’ll follow Eddie, too, as well as Anna’s severely disabled younger sister, Lydia. The characters in Manhattan Beach have to confront organized crime, Wall Street bankers, Park Avenue doctors, and Nazi submarines. It ain’t dull!

The main line of interest, however, is Anna, who reaches the age of 19 during World War II and is able, like many women of the period, to secure war-related employment at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. She hates the tedium of taking quality control measurements of small parts and escapes on her lunchtimes to the piers that jut out into the East River. Gazing at the water, she sees a diver in a bulky canvas suit slipping below the surface, and she has an epiphany. “Jealousy and longing spasmed through her. . . she felt a seismic rearrangement within herself. It was clear to her now she had always wanted to be a diver, to walk along the bottom of the sea. But this certainty was fraught with worry that she would be denied.” (62-3) Anna single-mindedly and aggressively pursues her quest to become a diver, repairing the underwater portions of vessels heading out to war. Although Rosie-the-Riveter was welcomed in factories that turned out bombers, Anna-the-Diver has a tougher time convincing the male authorities at the ship yard to connect her to an air hose and let her clamber down the ladder into the depths.  

As Egan has explained in several author profiles (and as her acknowledgements at the end of the novel reveal), she exhaustively researched all the arcane detail in Manhattan Beach, learning not only about diving but also about the New York waterfront,  nightclubs, Irish Americans, gangsters, and merchant marine ships. At times, Egan seems so anxious to assure her readers of the historical authenticity of her novel that she piles on the data, listing, for instance, too many product brand names or too many seafaring terms. This is a small complaint, as is my sense that some turns of plot are clichéd and that the denouement of Manhattan Beach is somewhat abrupt. Still, I was left with the feeling that I’d like to know more about the later lives of the characters, and that’s always a sign that the novelist has done a very good job of constructing those characters.

Manhattan Beach has been touted as one of the great novels of the decade. I wouldn’t go that far in my praise, but I did find it very well-crafted and solidly entertaining. Check it out! And for more New York mystery/adventure, read my reviews of Brendan Mathews's The World of Tomorrow and of Colin Harrison's You Belong to Me.

Koreans in Japan

Pachinko     Min Jin Lee     (2017)

“Pachinko” is a popular Japanese slot-machine game. You may wonder, until well past the halfway point of this novel’s 485 pages, what pachinko has to do with a saga about four generations of a Korean family in the twentieth century. Have patience.

First you have to be well steeped in the story of Sunja, a poor teenager who is seduced by Hansu, an older Korean gangster, in her village in what is now South Korea. By chance, Isak, a Korean Christian minister, passes through the village. He rescues Sunja from the ignominy of an unwed pregnancy by marrying her and taking her to Japan, where he will work as a missionary. The year is 1933.

Historical events of the turbulent twentieth century constantly buffet Sunja, Isak, and their extended family and friends in Japan, where the bulk of the story plays out. Japan’s expansionist wars of the 1930s and 1940s fuel nativist sentiments in the Japanese  populace. Korean immigrants, who are “zainichi” (foreign residents), are relegated to the most menial jobs and are paid less than Japanese for the same work. Korean children born in Japan do not become citizens—they’re essentially countryless. As one character pronounces: “’This country [Japan] isn’t going to change. Koreans like me can’t leave. Where we gonna go? But the Koreans back home aren’t changing, either. In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastards, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am.’“ (383)

Once Korea is partitioned into North and South in 1948, the situation gets even murkier: “After the [Korean] peninsula was divided, the Koreans in Japan ended up choosing sides, often more than once, affecting their residency status. It was still hard for a Korean to become a Japanese citizen, and there were many who considered such a thing shameful—for a Korean to try to become a citizen of its former oppressor.” (441)

A few ethnic Koreans living in Japan figure out that they can become entrepreneurs in the pachinko business, and a well-run pachinko parlor can turn a nice profit. Proceeds from pachinko parlors, plus help from that gangster Hansu, pave the bumpy road out of poverty for some characters in the novel. Other characters hide their Korean ethnicity, dressing like the Japanese, learning to speak Japanese without an accent, taking a Japanese spouse. This subterfuge is possible because the physical characteristics of Japanese people and Korean people are often very similar.

The straightforward, direct sentence style in Pachinko suits the themes of the novel, and the Korean and Japanese words in the text give the flavor of the setting without weighing down the narrative. I caught the simple ones, like “kimchi” (the Korean dish of fermented cabbage and radish) and “hanko” (a hand stamp of one’s name, used throughout East Asia). The meanings of other words were obvious from their context, but I had to look up a few as I read.

It would have been easy for novelist Lee to paint the Japanese as always the bad guys and the Koreans as always the good guys, but she does not adopt this dichotomy. Although she lays out the Japanese discrimination against Koreans clearly, her long list of characters includes both Koreans and Japanese who are deceitful and honest, talented and mediocre, wise and foolish, lazy and hardworking, compassionate and heartless, selfish and generous, prejudiced and open-minded. She pulls into her story subplots that touch on issues such as the status of minority Christians in Japan and the evolving attitude toward the place of women in the family and in the workplace over the course of the twentieth century. 

Above all, though, this is a universal story about the immigrant experience—about taking a job that’s far beneath your skill level because you don’t know the language, about being segregated into a slum area, about being subject to complicated rules that you don’t understand, about living constantly with fear. Immigrants enter a game of chance, stacked against them, much like pachinko players.

In her Acknowledgements, Lee tells us that it took her nearly thirty years to write this impressive novel. It was well worth the time.

Love at Harvard

The Idiot     Elif Batuman     (2017)

Throughout the 423 pages of this novel, the first-person narrator, Selin, readily admits the many things that she does not know. “I didn’t know what email was until I got to college” is her first sentence, and in the following pages we find that she doesn’t know what a psychedelic poster might be, that she doesn’t know about the wars between the Ottoman Turks and the Hungarians (despite being Turkish American), that she doesn’t know what neural networking is. At age eighteen, Selin has never played squash and never had sex. When the topic of Italian films comes up, she says, “I didn’t know anything about Fellini; my mental image was of a human-sized cat.” (45)

Selin constantly juxtaposes funny lines and hilarious scenes with expression of her serious confusion about becoming a writer, which she accepts as her fate, and about falling in love, which she hasn’t expected. She’s a freshman at Harvard in the fall of 1995, just like the novelist Elif Batuman, and she skewers all of Harvard’s pretentiousness in a most delightful way, while still putting on display the intelligence of her fellow students. Despite her protestations of ignorance on many fronts, Selin is a deep thinker, probing existential questions that only a very bright adolescent would consider.

At the same time, Selin is a naïve and introverted teenager, searching for hidden meaning in her class assignments, her email exchanges with her crush, and her discussions with friends in the cafeteria. It’s not that she feels inadequate for the challenges of a Harvard education—she’s well-read and quick with analysis. But she can spot the gaps in her knowledge.

Author Batuman went on after graduating from Harvard to earn a PhD in Russian literature, so it’s not accidental that she calls her novel The Idiot. Dostoevsky’s 1869 novel of the same title stars Prince Myshkin, who is such a good and decent fellow that he’s deemed stupid by the self-aggrandizing, worldly people around him.

Dostoevsky’s novel ends in tragedy. It’s hard to say how Batuman’s novel ends, and that’s not because I’m avoiding spoilers. I’m a reader who clings to plot structure in novels, so the lack of a strong plot in Batuman’s novel bothered me as I read. But I kept reading because the dialogue is so enjoyable and the depiction of a young woman on the edge of adulthood is so perceptive.

Here is Selin, discovering that men have the advantage in life: “I was overcome by the sudden sense of Ivan’s freedom. I realized for the first time that if you were a guy, if you were some tall guy who looked like Ivan, you could pretty much stop to look at anything you wanted, whenever you felt like it. And because I was walking with him now, for just this moment, I had a special dispensation, I could look at whatever he was looking at, too.” (177)

Batuman’s The Idiot takes us through an entire year in the life of Selin, from her September arrival at Harvard through the following August, when she returns to the United States from Hungary, where she taught English for the summer. At the end, I was left wondering what the second academic year of college would hold for Selin, but I was happy to have shared her account of that first illuminating year.

Women of the American Century

Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth        Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer     (2015)

In 2014, I watched all fourteen episodes of Ken Burns’s PBS series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, which focused on the lives of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Eleanor Roosevelt. I learned a great deal about the history of the United States, including the background to such significant events as the building of the Panama Canal, the establishment of the National Parks, the passage of New Deal legislation, and the American involvement in World War II. But even more captivating was the insight into the personal lives of these three towering public figures.

More family secrets are revealed in Hissing Cousins, a dual biography of Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) and Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1884-1980). Alice, the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt (TR), lived in the White House in her youth (1901-1909) and became the celebrated “Princess Alice.” Eleanor was TR’s niece, who married her distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and herself moved into the White House as First Lady during his presidency (1933-1945).

Although Alice and Eleanor played together as children and saw each other socially throughout their lives, they differed radically in their political beliefs and in their personalities. Alice was a Republican, flamboyant, sharp-tongued, and dedicated to influencing the course of history through back-door methods. Eleanor was a Democrat, introverted and slower to speak, but she was a reliable sounding board for FDR on many issues, and she found a strong public voice in advocating for civil rights nationally and human rights internationally.

Quoting letters, diaries, and other biographies, authors Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer have put together a highly readable story of the two women, who were constantly in the media limelight. I knew quite a bit about Eleanor’s life, but I had not heard of Alice, who was a superstar of the tabloids and newsreels throughout much of her long life. Hissing Cousins cleverly interweaves the stories of two women who helped shape American politics and policies in the first half of the twentieth century, albeit with vastly differing approaches.

Alice and Eleanor both endured tremendous sadness in their family lives. Alice’s mother died shortly after giving birth to her. Both of Eleanor’s parents died when she was a child—her father as a result of alcoholism. Alcoholism afflicted many members of both families, and battlefield deaths in both World War I and World War II took the lives of brothers and cousins. Both Alice and Eleanor had philandering husbands.

Peyser and Dwyer tell their story in lively style, though they veer into cattiness occasionally. For example, in describing the difficult life of Alice’s brother Kermit, they write, “By the late 1930s, Kermit’s shipping business, his marriage, and even his morning meals were on the rocks.” When Alice’s step-mother died in 1948, they write that “the loss of the only mother she had ever known was real, even for a woman who believed that mourning was about as useful as voting for a Democrat.” Such comments do perk up the text—and are in keeping with Alice’s often cutting comments in her letters, newspaper columns, and autobiography—but they’re still in bad taste.

That small quibble aside, Hissing Cousins is a good addition to the history of the American Century. The authors try not to take sides or to pit the two women against each other, though I do sense some bias of affection toward Eleanor. Alice and Eleanor are presented as flawed but brilliant women who made their marks in the halls of power.  

 

 

Manhattan 1952/2016

The Dollhouse     Fiona Davis     (2016)

By chance, I’ve been reading and reviewing a number of novels set in New York City lately. If you’re weary of fictional trips to Manhattan, you may want to skip to another blog post. If you’re up for one more saunter down those fabled sidewalks, here we go.

In The Dollhouse, Fiona Davis jumps back and forth between the years 1952 and 2016 to draw fictional portraits of women who live in the same building in New York City, separated by sixty-four years. The building, depicted on the book’s cover, is real. The Barbizon Hotel for Women, built on the Upper East Side in 1927, was home to generations of young females pursuing careers as editors, models, and secretaries. After the hotel was converted to condos in 2005, one floor was set aside as rent-controlled apartments for long-time residents, and this is where 1952 meets 2016.

Darby McLaughlin is the main 1952 character, fresh out of high school and freshly arrived at the Barbizon from Defiance, Ohio, to attend the famed Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School, with tuition paid by her deceased father’s life insurance proceeds. The innocent and awkward Darby gets caught up in a plot of sex, drugs, and bebop, centering around a sleazy jazz club.

Rose Lewin is the main 2016 character, a former local television news star in her mid-thirties, now working for an Internet news startup. At the beginning of the novel, the sophisticated and savvy Rose is living in her boyfriend’s condo in the Barbizon. She’s soon facing both personal and professional crises, as she decides to research and write about the octogenarian women in the Barbizon, who came of age in a distant, almost mythical, era.

The narrative of The Dollhouse is slow to accelerate. I looked forward to the 2016 chapters as I cringed my way through the 1952 chapters, in which Darby is ridiculed and deceived by her hallmates at the Barbizon. The pace picks up when the modern-day Rose becomes obsessed with the events of 1952 and unlayers a key mystery, using reportorial tactics that she knows are unethical.

Darby and Rose are convincing characters, as are several of the supporting cast. The descriptions of Rose’s boorish young boss, Tyler, are trenchant. In one meeting with Rose, “he held a pen under his nose as if it were a mustache, curled up his lip to support it without any hands.” Tyler performs this maneuver while making misogynist comments about Rose’s writing project. Less successful is the depiction of Jason Wolf, a potential love interest for Rose. Jason appears in the story too fortuitously and is too much of a hunk.

Sylvia Plath keeps popping up in The Dollhouse, too. She actually lived at the Barbizon during the summer of 1953 when she was an intern in New York City, and she refers to the hotel in The Bell Jar. This association becomes a running joke in The Dollhouse, as Rose assures one interviewee after another that she is not writing another story about Plath.

The Barbizon itself has a central role in The Dollhouse, titled for the name that young men in New York presumably gave the building back in the day. It’s possible that Fiona Davis chose her title also as an echo of Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, the controversial 1879 drama about the place of women in the home and in society. Davis wades in to the continuing controversy. Is Rose too dependent on the approval of the men in her life? Does Darby make too many sacrifices for the men (and women) in hers? Are teenaged girls always a little crazy? Can their fathers rescue them with (a) kindness or (b) tough love? Are 2016 women different from 1952 women in substance or only in terminology? And is their place in American society really much different?