divisadero.jpgI finished Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero a little while ago; I guess the reason I’ve been slow in writing the review is that I’m ambivalent. When I first started it I was thinking I’d stumbled upon one of those rarities – a book I was going to remember for years to come. It begins with the story of Anna, a teen living with her father, adopted sister and a farm-hand named Coop, on a barren patch of ranch land in central California. The dynamics of the family are a curiosity. When Anna’s mother was in the hospital giving birth they came across the orphaned baby Claire, whom they adopted and brought home with their own baby. Coop came to them as another orphan, a boy rescued from a farm where he was an abused farm-hand. When we enter the story the taciturn Coop is just a few years older than the 16-year-old girls. He is not quite a member of the family but the girls dote on him, especially Anna. When Anna and Coop form a sexual relationship, they encounter the wrath of Anna’s usually emotionally distant father — he nearly beats Coop to death. This is the precipia event scatters the family in different directions.

So far so good. The characters are fascinating, and we want to know what becomes of them. We follow Coop as he becomes a first class ‘cardsharp’, (I always thought it was cardshark – literature saves me from my ignorance yet again), Claire adopts a lonely career in SF and Anna launches a scholarly investigation into a French writer by living in his home in France. It is the latter plotline that leads to my ambivalence. Anna begins researching the life of Lucien, and soon Lucien’s story has insidiously taken over the plot. Well, I shouldn’t use the word insidious, because this is an equally good story. But what of Coop? What of Clarie? What of the love between Anna and Coop? I felt bereft when I realized that the author would not be returning to the characters who originally drew me in.

I don’t think I’m overstating to say that it is a sin to pique someone’s curiosity and then leave them no recourse for satisfying it. And yet I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book. It’s a great story – er… stories.


Uncommonly good

uncommon.jpgI’ve just finished The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. It took forever to get my hands on it — Multnomah County owns 12 copies but there were many people waiting. It took only a couple of hours to read, but what a pleasure. The premise is that the Queen, in wrangling her incorrigible corgis, discovers that the local library’s book mobile makes a regular stop by the kitchens at Windsor Palace. Stepping in to apologize for the ruckus, she thinks it only polite to borrow a book.

“She had still not solved her problem, knowing that if she left without a book it would seem to Mr Hutchings that the library was somehow lacking. Then on a shelf of rather worn-looking volumes she saw a name she remembered. ‘Ivy Compton-Burnett! I can read that.’ She took the book out and gave it to Mr Hutchings to stamp.

‘What a treat!’ she hugged it unconvincingly before opening it. ‘Oh. The last time it was taken out was in 1989.’

‘She’s not a popular author, ma’am.’

‘Why, I wonder? I made her a dame.’

Mr Hutchings refrained from saying that this wasn’t necessarily the road to the public’s heart. ”

queen.jpgAnd so begins a love affair with books that will change forever her sense of duty and her relations with the politicians, servants and celebrities that people her life.

Bennett is a charming writer and there were many laugh out loud moments. And through it all he confirms what all librarians know: if only people would read, they would be better, smarter, more sensitive and wiser, though not necessarily more content. The Queen begins by turning her focus inward, but more and more finds her perception of things going on around her is sharpened by her reading. This leads to a stunning denouement, about which I will say no more.

Bennett is also the author of The Clothes they Stood Up In and of the screenplay The History Boys, a movie I can heartily recommend.

The Hearts of Horses

hearts.jpgWhen was the last time you read a book that kept you up late, though you knew you should get to sleep? The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss was such a book for me. Martha Lessen is a sturdy girl with a love for horses. In 1917, when many of the men in Eastern Oregon have gone to war and ranch hands are in demand, Martha sets out to find work breaking horses. But her method is not to ‘break’ them so much as gentle them. She makes an instant impression, standing, as she does, at 5’11” and given to dressing in “old-fashioned cowboy trappings…the fringed batwing chaps…and her showy big platter of a hat much stained along the high crown and the rolled edge of the brim.” She is first hired to work on George Bliss’s ranch. He is so taken with Martha that he introduces her to other locals. Soon she is engaged in a “circle ride”, training the horses by riding them one ranch over, stabling them there and taking the next one on to the next ranch. As the taciturn Martha gets to know the neighbors, she comes to understand who she can trust and who she should avoid. The book is peopled with feisty old-maid sisters who run their own spread, a young German couple suffering discrimination because of the rhetoric driven by WW1 propaganda, a widower who takes in injured animals, a ranch hand who beats horses. Martha begins as an outsider, drifting in and out of the lives and stories people along the way; and, at some point, as you know will happen, she is drawn into their lives and away from her comfortable perch as an observer from the saddle.

caprice.jpgMartha is a wonderful character, shy and damaged by her abusive childhood, but sure of her own self and the way she wants to be in the world. This book reminded me of Caprice by the poet George Bowering. That story is more tongue-in-cheek; a school marm turned vigilante sets out to avenge her brother’s death. She saddles up and chases the perpetrators across the west, circa 1890’s. And then that reminds me of one of my favorite femi-westerns of all time, True Grit, the story of a young girl who sets on out on horseback to find her father. She pairs up with the rapscallion Rooster Cogburn, played by John Wayne in the movie. But I digress. The point is that there are far too few of these stories of the wild west that depict the heroism of women.grit.jpg

There are some hard scenes in this book, including one where a wife watches helplessly as her husband suffers a terrible death from cancer. And there are the classic themes of the Western – the land as an Eden that is slowly being corrupted by the encroachment of man and the yearning for an earlier, more innocent world. I sensed that the author had done her research and had accurately portrayed early 20th cenutry life in Oregon. But finally I can hardly offer higher praise than my mother-in-law did when she finished it. She hugged it to her breast, saying, “now that was a good book.”

run.jpgI read a lot of books and, to tell you the truth, not many of them stick with me. Sometimes I can’t even remember the ones I enjoyed. But there are a few that I remember for years. I might not remember the story-line, but I can conjure up the place where I read the book and how I felt at the time. For instance, I remember reading Robert Hellenga’s The Sixteen Pleasures on a porch overlooking the Pacific; the sun was glittering off the ocean and the pages were reflecting the sun into my face. I was sitting in an adirondack chair, drinking a glass of wine. I remember thinking how much I loved the book, the language, the place where it was set. All I can tell you is that the story was about a young woman, a book conservator, who went to Florence after a great flood in the 1960s in order to save books. But I still remember the process of reading it.

Ann Patchett’s Run is another such book. It’s the story of a family suffering through the loss of a mother; and it is the story of connections with family and strangers and what gives those relationships meaning. Bernard Doyle is a politician, a former mayor of Boston, an intellectual, a musician, but first and foremost, a father. His life is defined by his sons: the troubled Sullivan, his first son with his beloved wife Bernadette; and Tip and Teddy, African American boys adopted after Bernadette discovered she could bear no more children. Apparently Bernadette was the heart of the family. She dies when Tip and Teddy are young, leaving Doyle to raise the family alone. Doyle has complicated feelings for his sons; he has given up on Sullivan who has had trouble with the law and drugs, and inadvertantly ended his father’s polictical career in a scandalous accident. Doyle’s hopes are now pinned on the younger boys. Hoping to ignite their desire to serve, he coerces them into going to a Jesse Jackson lecture. Tip is resentful. He wants to spend all his time pursuing his passion – icthyology – the study of fish. Teddy is compliant, though late. He has been visiting his revered uncle Sullivan, a priest. As all three file out of the lecture and into a Boston snowstorm, Tip turns to confront his father, to tell him that he will no longer give up his study time to indulge his father’s love of politics. Wrapped up in the moment, he fails to see the oncoming SUV. From nearby, a woman, a stranger, pushes Tip out of the way and is hit herself.

The woman is Tennesee; unbeknownst to the Doyle family, she has been stalking them. Tip and Teddy are her biological sons. She and her daughter, Kenya, have spent their lives on the periphery of the boys’ world. 11 year-old Kenya amuses herself by making up stories about her brothers’ lives. The two families live no more than 10 minutes walk from each other but they are separated by opportunity, money, education, class and race. When the Doyles take Kenya in after her mother’s accident, they must comtemplate the wide chasm created by wealth and privlege.

Ann Patchett’s writing is smooth. There are times when a reader struggles through the construct of sentences to get to an author’s meaning, and when the reader is very aware of the process of reading – I think I’ve given a good example of that here! Patchett’s writing is so clean that one is hardly aware of the words on the page – the story seems almost to seep into the brain through osmosis. The characters are vivid and engaging. As Tennesee and Kenya spy on the boys, you get the sense that, as a reader, you too are stalking these people, looking in on their intimate lives.

I think I’ll probably remember reading about snowy Boston while lying on my couch, trying to keep warm under a huddle of blankets, for years to come.

Up From Orchard Street

My partner and I visited New York City in the spring, to celebrate his 40th birthday. We stayed in a ‘bed and coffee’ in Alphabet city. Apparently this was a prettyorchard.jpg rough area not that long ago, but has undergone a – is it revitalization, renewal, or gentrification? – I’m not sure. It was great to be in an area of the city where you could actually imagine yourself living, rather than the more touristed Manhattan destinations. We visited the Lower Eastside Tenement Museum and heard about the masses of immigrants who lived cheek by jowl in these tiny apartments. Often this was their first experience of America – straight from the docks into and dingy, crowded room in a tenement. I can’t really explain why I find this little part of history so fascinating, but ever since the visit I have been reading about the lower eastside.

A subject heading search with “lower east side” and fiction lead me to Eleanor Widmer’s book Up From Orchard Street. This is the story of a Jewish family, living in the tenements in the 20’s and 30’s. Bubby is the matriarch of the story. She’s really the only adult who has any sense, so she acts as a parent to her grandchildren, while her son and his wife, Jack and Lil, carry on like a couple of kids in love. Jack and Lil make a spotty living in the fashion industry. They are fond of fine clothes and spend their evenings dressing up like a couple of swells and going to the theatre to spend money they don’t have. Bubby runs a restaurant out of the tiny living room. Her food is famous, but increasingly, she has to compete with the shiny new delicatessans moving into the neighborhood. The story is told from the perspective of Elka, the ugly duckling, and the brightest member of the family. She’s a reader and writer, and learns her craft recounting the stories of her childhood.

This is an autobiographical novel. Either that fact, or the fine writing makes you feel like you know what it would have been like to live on Orchard Street.

The Dog Ate My Homework

Well I really did mean to post recently, but I forgot my password. It’s not really fair to blame it on the dog though – for one thing, I don’t have one, though I’ve been a vicarious dog owner for a long time. That’s why I enjoyed The New Yorkers, by Cathleen Schine so much. It starts with a tale of true love, unconditional love – the kind that can only take place between a dog and his or her human companion. The dog in question is a ragged around the edges pitbull, and the owner a single woman named Jody on the downward slope to 40. What I loved about this book was that the language was so pleasant to read. Here’s a description of Beatrice’s entry into Jody’s life:

newyorkers.jpg“Naturally, she had gotten herself a dog. She originally set out to get a cat, thinking that as she seemed to be moving headlong into eccentric spinsterhood, she should begin collecting some of its accoutrements. But when she arrived at the ASPCA, she saw an elderly dog, an oversize pit bull mix so white it was almost pink, a female, who wagged her tail with such stately pessimism that Jody took the huge beast home. She named the dog Beatrice, though she had sworn not to give her new pet a person’s name, thinking it faddish and particularly pathetic for a childless woman. But the dog seemed to her to deserve a real name. Beatrice was not a youngster. The ASPCA had picked her up wandering the streets of the Bronx. Half starved and covered with ticks, she had obviously survived a harsh and difficult existence. Beatrice was a name with inherent dignity. Jody felt the old dog deserved that.

Fattened up and well groomed now, Beatrice was a noble-looking animal with enigmatic blue eyes that constantly sought out Jody’s with measured determination. She moved slowly, and though she was not playful, she was amiable and particularly loved strangers, throwing her great weight at them in a joyful greeting, unaware, presumably, that such a welcome might not always be, in fact, welcome. She trusted everyone, which was a testament to her gentle nature, as no one until now had ever earned her trust. But Beatrice seemed to be above the failures of the world, and they far beneath her. She had seen a lot, she seemed to be saying, and so nothing surprised her, nothing frightened her, nothing fazed her. She was lucky to be alive, and she seemed to know it.”

Man, that’s an awfully long quote to put on a blog, but it was hard to show restraint. After reading that passage I was instantly in love with Beatrice, and so happy that Jody found her at the pound.

The other aspect of the book that’s so engaging is the portrayal of New York City. I was in NYC in the spring and it captured my imagination, so much so that I’ve been looking for books set there, as you will see when I get around to posting again. What would it be like to live in a New York brownstone, and get to know your neighbors through chance encounters with their dogs? Anyway, you could think of this as a series of romantic stories tied together by dogs – what’s not to love?

lapham.jpgSometimes it gets to be all a bit too much – I just started reading The Archivist’s Story, which takes place in Russia in the nightmarish years after the revolution. So far it promises to be a good read, but not – let’s face it – summer candy. This reminded me of a book that was a pleasure to read. Lapham Rising by Roger Rosenblatt is the story of a curmudgeonly recluse who lives on a small island – so far so good. But here’s the conflict – an ostentatious mulit-millionaire purchases the land directly across from Harry’s house and sets about building an atrocious mcMansion. Every day Harry awakes to a cacophony of bulldozers, hammers and the like. To make matters worse, his talking dog Hector is of no comfort. While Harry leans toward liberalism (as long as it doesn’t require him to talk to anyone) Hector is a scolding evangalist and would certainly be a Republican if he could vote. Thwarted on all sides, Harry launches a ‘Mousetrap'(tm)-like plan to bring the millionaire to his knees and show his dog a thing or to about living by one’s principles. This was a laugh-out-loud book for me, which is a rarity. There’s nothing better than a ‘stickin’ it to the man’ story even if the man just thinks he’s been bitten by a mosquito.

Readers might be familiar with Rosenblatt from his New Yorker writings and commentaries on PBS.