Why poetry? Learning to get it, with an assist from Jane Hirshfield

HSFC_2019_11_05-E6My November 5 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I suck at poetry. I’m just no good at appreciating it. And I’ve always felt that’s a shameful character defect, especially for a voracious reader such as myself. So I recently set out on a self-designed poetry appreciation course. Naturally, I started with books to tell me how to fix the problem. And there are some excellent ones.

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Bernadine Evaristo: Girl, Woman, Other

I had never heard of Bernadine Evaristo until I learned she shared the Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood.  Boy am I glad I took notice.

41081373._SY475_Evaristo’s new novel Girl, Woman, Other is a multi-voiced work, featuring twelve loosely and tightly connected Black British women—from Amma, a lesbian playwright whose story opens the book and who serves as the nucleus to the other voices, to a 93-year-old woman living on a farm in Northern England. There’s also a jaded public school teacher, an investment banker, a house cleaner, and a non-binary social influencer.

All of the characters have authentic voices, all of their stories have wider societal and cultural resonance. It’s a searing portrait of contemporary Britain as well as the legacy of Britain’s colonial history in Africa and the Caribbean.

Most of you know me as liking fairly traditional, linear narrative. But the structure of this book, moving quickly from one character to another in a style that falls somewhere between prose and poetry, totally worked for me. I was able to move seamlessly between the stories and follow the natural cadence of the novel.

At times I got a bit lost as to the connections between the women, but I generally picked up the thread again. And in a way it didn’t matter. What did matter is all these women ARE connected by virtue of being something of “the other” in British society—certainly in race but also in sexuality, education, and class.

I’m finding myself drawn to these stories lately, to immigrants and people who are marginalized by race, poverty, physical differences, lack of education, etc. I guess it’s the times. Stories of privileged people feel slight and frivolous.

So do read Bernadine Evaristo’s new book. It’ll take you somewhere else, to a place I feel it’s really important for all of us to go.

It’s OK to be an armchair traveler as long as you’re reading the right books

HSFC_2019_10_22-E6My October 22 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

To some, armchair traveler is a derogatory phrase leveled at someone who learns about a place indirectly through books, movies and/or television without ever leaving home. Not me. I love being transported to a new world from the comfort of my couch, especially via beautifully crafted prose.

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Ann Patchett: The Dutch House

It seems there isn’t much we can count on these days. I write this as PG&E has turned off the power in my neighborhood but not just down the street. Don’t even get me started.

DutchHouse-165x249One thing we can rely on is that Ann Patchett is a consistently great writer. Her latest novel, The Dutch House, is a rich multi-layered family story complete with a wicked stepmother who turns out not to be a stereotype. Imagine that.

The novel centers on a lavish mansion in suburban Philadelphia, the Dutch House of the title. It’s purchased by Cyril Connolly at the end of WWII, enabling him to build a real estate empire and bring his family from poverty to extreme wealth.

For reasons that become clear as the novel unfolds, Cyril’s wife Elna is uncomfortable enough with everything the house signifies that she abandons her husband and two children.

The Dutch House centers on the children, Danny and Maeve, and their life in the decades after their mother’s departure and father’s remarriage. Patchett makes the house a symbol of home and everything that implies for Danny and Maeve. And just like the stepmother, she treats that theme in a way that feels fresh and revelatory.

She also creates a marvelous maternal, independent character in Maeve, and chooses to tell the story from Danny’s point of view so we get the benefit of seeing her from a distance. The strength of the sibling bond is beautifully rendered here.

In a conversation with Mary Laura Philpott, who writes a column for Parnassus Books—Patchett’s bookstore in Nashville, and, yes, she started a vital independent bookstore as if being a celebrated novelist wasn’t enough—Patchett says the inspiration for The Dutch House came from Zadie Smith, who told her the character of the mother in Swing Time was autobiographical because the mother in the book was the mother she didn’t want to be. Andrea, the horrific stepmother in The Dutch House, says Patchett, is the stepmother she doesn’t want to be.

So there you have it. A great story, a wonderful read, perceptively-drawn characters acting in a manner that tells us something about the human condition. Ann Patchett makes it look easy.

Is Litquake too much? Not for this book lover

SFC_2019-10-08-p28My October 8 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

For Jack, the moment when he knew the long hours, the money woes, the countless details were all worthwhile came during the 2008 tribute to Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Tom Waits was onstage improvising music to “Coney Island of the Mind.” Marcus Shelby was playing bass. “It’s all downhill from here,” he thought.

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Pascal Mercier: Night Train to Lisbon

The decision about what books to take on a trip just as important to me as what goes in the suitcase. Actually, it’s more important. To find myself stranded in a train station or airport with nothing good to read would be far worse than having the wrong pair of shoes (and honestly, I always have the wrong pair of shoes anyway).

I did a lot of thinking about what books to take on my recent trip to Portugal. I looked at the best-known Portuguese writers, poet Fernando Pessoa and novelist Jose Saramago, and just couldn’t go that route; Pessoa felt too intellectual/esoteric, Saramago just too damn depressing. I know there’s lots more to these writers than that short dismissal but I’m just telling you how I felt.

NightTrainSo I packed a copy of Night Train to Lisbon in my carry-on. The author, Pascal Mercier, is Swiss rather than Portuguese, but it takes place largely in Lisbon, and the Portuguese language and character are a big part of the story, so it seemed fitting.

And I carried the real book, not the Kindle version. I stopped reading on Kindle years ago, preferring paper in my hands for all kinds of reasons. To my mind it’s totally worth the extra luggage weight.

It was a wonderful choice. The novel’s main character, Raimund Gregorious, is stuck in a buttoned-down joyless rut teaching classics at the same Swiss lycée he attended as a student. A chance encounter with a Portuguese woman and a mysterious book of philosophical observations cause him to abruptly flee his well-established life and, quite impulsively, head to Portugal.

The book that so intrigues him is by Amadeus Prado, an enigmatic, brilliant doctor and philosopher who left a huge imprint on everyone who knew him and who, ultimately, came into conflict with the brutal Salazar regime. Gregorious spends much of the novel tracking down those who knew Prado—his sister, a priest, a childhood friend, a lover—attempting to get at the heart of his philosophy and solve the mystery of his life.

Great portions of Night Train are devoted to quoting the book of Prado’s that falls into Gregorious’s hands, and I admit I cheated a little bit, skimming some of those passages. While they’re erudite and thought-provoking, I was more interested in Gregorious’s own journey. The idea of a man who has followed the same routine for years suddenly opening his life and opening to the possibility of change is fascinating.

Among its many themes, Night Train considers the safety of routine, the fear of intimacy, the nature of risk, the hypocrisy of religion, and the art of self-delusion—it questions our very understanding of identity.

I could definitely go back and re-read this book, as I’m certain I missed big important chunks essential to Prado’s thought process and conclusions about life. But when I closed the last page, I was very satisfied. And since I finished on the train from Porto to Lisbon (sadly, during the broad daylight or it would have been too perfect), I Ieft it on the train for another traveler to discover. Seemed like the right thing to do.

Javier Marías: Berta Isla

You have to give time and attention to Javier Marías’s novels. His books are complex and the characters talk and reflect a great deal. They’re an acquired taste.

To my mind, they’re worth the occasional heavy lifting. If you want to understand the legacy of Franco and how he shaped Spain, Marías is your man. Also he knows better than almost anyone how to parse the complexity of marriage (a subject, admittedly, I’ve never mastered).

My first of many visits to Spain was in 1968, when Franco was still in power. I lived for a summer in San Sebastian where the Basque separatists were very much underground … even open expression of their language was forbidden.

Today, in retrospect, I understand the iron grip Franco had on the country and the unspeakable crimes that were committed in his name. I’ve also come to understand the horrible legacy of the 1976 pacto de olvidio (pact of forgetting), wherein the Fascists agreed to cede power on the condition that no one be held accountable for crimes committed during the Civil War and dictatorship.

I first encountered Marías when my book club read A Heart So White, a novel that centers on a translator and the mystery of his father’s marriage. Then I read Thus Bad Begins, a novel about a young man who works as an assistant to a film director, his employer’s dysfunctional marriage and his possibly criminal friend and associate.

BertaIsla-550x745His new novel, Berta Isla, tells the story of Tomas Nevinson, a brilliant young man with an uncanny facility for flawlessly speaking multiple languages who, against his will, is conscripted into the British Secret Service. He and his wife, the title character, meet in the 60s, both convinced they are destined for each other. This conviction is sorely tested during the course of the novel as Nevinson’s work requires him to live multiple other lives, fraught with constant danger. Berta is kept in the dark about the nature of her husband’s work and must suffer his long absences.

The novel’s background is the major social and political upheavals from the 60s to the near present: the Falklands War (about which I’d almost entirely forgotten), the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Berta Isla is herself highly intelligent, literary (there are allusions to Elliot, Melville, Shakespeare, Dumas), and reflective. And that’s a good thing because the novel spends a lot of time on her inner world. The chapter where her child’s life is threatened by an IRA operative is one of the most chilling I’ve read in a long time.

Berta Isla is an unusual suspense novel, sort of a slow thriller. It’s a book about secrecy, suspicion, deception, loyalty, trust, and, ultimately, about marriage and the limits on ever completely knowing another person. It’s also about national character, Spain’s and Britain’s, and what shaped each.

Yes, it’s a bit rambling and discursive but somehow it works. You just have to have an appetite for that sort of thing.

A book lover comes clean: I have never read ‘Infinite Jest.’ Or ‘War and Peace’

SFChron_2019_08_27_Page28sMy August 27 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I’m coming clean. Here are books I’ve lied about reading: “War and Peace.” “Gravity’s Rainbow.” “Infinite Jest.” And that’s just for starters. Had my book club not shamed me into reading “Ulysses” and “Swann’s Way” I would have lied about those too.

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