Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Often people reach a point in their adult lives when they get down to blaming their parents for everything they are and are not. Some of these feelings are well-founded and some are bunk. Many of these slights and hurts get sorted out, placed in perspective, accepted, forgiven. Some do not. Jeanette Winterson certainly has the right to lay blame for days.  

Given up for adoption at birth, Winterson is adopted by Pentecostal fundamenalists in 1960's Manchester. Her new father was a passive shadow. The woman whom she refers to alternately as her mother and as Mrs. Winterson is an absolute monster, a woman whose deep religious zealotry causes her to say and do the most hurtful things. She believes she is righteous and justified in her actions and opinions when, in truth, her life is small and deeply shrouded in ignorance.

The title is a quote from Mrs. Winterson when Jeanette told her mother she was gay and she was leaving. Her response and it's absolutism was striking to me. In Mrs. Winterson's world, there was no gray; only black and white, good and evil. Fuck you.  

Jeanette was a fighter. If she was locked out for the night, as she was quite frequently, before going to school she'd drink the two bottles of milk that were delivered each morning and leave them on the porch as an act of defiance. Ultimately, she left at 16 and made a life for herself with little more than smarts, determination and pluck. She became a graduate of Oxford and a prize-winning novelist

Having been shown so little love, much of the memoir has Jeanette trying to understand love as both a concept and an action. Is love finite? How does one love? How can one be loved or so unloved? She manages to answer some of these questions through her work and relationships while others elude her. She does search for her biological mother and even that leaves her a bit cold. However, the questions she raises are among the most intriguing, thought-provoking portions of the book. Because most of us are never faced with the horrible Mrs. Winterson and the attendant damage she wreaked, because we ARE loved, because we DO love, we don't have to consider these questions but it certainly made me think hard on the answers. 

Jeanette Winterson's memoir is an odd bird much like I imagine Jeanette to be. However, it is a striking work of such immense honesty that it made me hurt for her and root for her. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Eve In Hollywood by Amor Towles

Like millions of readers, I loved, loved, loved 2011's
bestseller, The Rules of Civility. First-time author Amor Towles burst onto the scene, fully-formed, and the book was a huge success. It was a fine story with great characters told extremely well.  
(You can read my full post about it here: http://goo.gl/iMj18Y).

In the book, there is a point where one of the main characters, the spirited Evelyn Ross, leaves Manhattan for Chicago only to turn up in Hollywood. When next we meet her, she offers little about her time out West. With Eve in Hollywood, now we know.

Towles said he felt no need to write any more about Katey and Tinker but "it was Eve who was pestering" him. These six stories evoke Eve's exploits from her train trip on the Golden State Limited to the movie set of Gone With The Wind and the people she meets along the way. I was especially taken with the aging actor she meets in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel.  Best of all, I was more than happy to slip into the warm, comforting bath that is Towles' luxurious almost musical prose, sparkling sense of setting and rich detail. It is a slim volume but most worthy. 

If there is one problem with the book, it has nothing to do with the writing or the story. Thus far, Penguin has chosen to make it available as an e-book only release.  Now the esteemed publisher was kind enough to allow me access to the book via NetGalley and I thank them heartily. However, this was a first for me as I don't read books on my computer, my phone or a reader. The experience was okay since the story was so terrific but I want a copy of this book in BOOK form. Maybe they think it's a tough sell at less than 100 pages long but I'm sure some lovely cover art on paper over board and a heavy-bonded paper could bulk the thing up and make a handsome little volume. There are readers who would be all too happy to purchase several copies to give to friends, myself included. It's a great gift. There's money to be made. There is an established audience. How about it Penguin? Fourth quarter is almost here. 

Friday, August 02, 2013

NW by Zadie Smith

I prefer the British cover to the American.
Before leaving for a recent trip to England and France, I pulled this book from the glorious pile thinking "I should read a real London book" since I was going to be there. It has been years since I'd read Zadie Smith though I loved her debut, White Teeth, and she often turns up in the pages of the New Yorker so I don't feel as though I'd completely lost touch with her. In fact, pieces of this book appeared there as short stories. What I had forgotten is just how tremendously talented a writer she is and NW brought that back to me in spades. 

Told through the eyes of four characters who grew up or live on a council estate in Willesden, a mostly lower-class area of northwest London, we are privy to the past and present and how life changes you. 

The bulk of the book, some told in flashback and some in the here-and-now, is from the perspective of childhood friends Leah and Keisha. They grow up together, they grow apart, they stop growing and yet they still know each other better than anyone else. Leah is, by everyone else's account, stuck in a rut but I just think she doesn't wish to move forward. Keisha is a complete success but can't seem to find much meaning to it all or much happiness. Left alone, they'd likely stay put and slog through, especially Leah. Keisha, however, changes course and causes what may be her downfall or her chance at a new life. The other characters, the tragic Felix and the criminal Nathan make important appearances and round out the book. (re-reading this graph, it sounds like mediocre jacket copy but I don't wish to give away too much)

Smith succeeds in so many ways in the telling. She utilizes a style early in the book that is a melange of dialogue, stream of consciousness, inner voice, and outer influences that at first is hard to follow. I kept waiting for a rhythm that never came but I think that is the author's intent, as though it's a fizzy drink that's she's shaking.  Later, she uses short numbered passages to move the book briskly forward. It is without a doubt an ambitious novel but she manages to make the varied styles work and does so without it looking like she's showing off. 

Ultimately, sense of place is what the Keisha and Leila are clinging to even though they are both attracted and repelled by where they grew up. There is great longing for home and yet a knowledge that getting out isn't the end of the story. 

I've lived where I do more than half my life and longer here than where I grew up but if someone asks "Where's home?", far more often than not I'll answer "western Pennsylvania". (However, when visiting western PA and it's time "go home", I mean Cincy.) Now that I have no family left there, I visit less and less often but I still consider it home. A town I always knew I'd leave, a town I don't always recognize when I return, is still in my bones.  Sometimes my dreams still take place there.

You don't forget the bad stuff--the provincialism and small-mindedness, the slights and hurts inflicted by friends and family and fuckheads whom you've mostly forgotten. The scars almost make you wistful for a time when you were smaller and safer and secure when in fact you may have been none of these. Home is where you're not and Zadie Smith completely captures that feeling.