Tag Archives: college professors

A Room of Our Own

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson (Doubleday; $28.95: 448 pages)

Veteran author Bill Bryson delights in skewering the arrogant rich in England and the United States, particularly the folks who lived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in this quirky survey book.   His litany of the vast number of servants, silverware and foodstuffs at meals makes this point.   The premise of the book is that an individual home is an excellent jumping off point to a wide variety of subjects.   Bryson happens to live in a former church rectory that was built in 1851.   While his home is not typical of most, it is clearly an excellent basis for an historical survey.   This is a loosely structured stroll through many centuries and cultures with Bryson as the tour guide.   He was born in the United States and educated here; however, his manner of speaking is clearly influenced by his long-time residence in England.

The notion of inventiveness and progress being a function of opportunity and dedication to an idea is a thread that runs through many chapters, each of which focuses on a particular room or area of his home.   The associations are reminiscent of the Public Broadcast System series, Connections, narrated by James Burke.   The tangents developed within each chapter tend to take the reader a bit far afield from the room being featured.   The basement, for example, correlates to the notion of a sturdy underpinning for the home which evolves into an explanation of the evolution of construction, culminating in the Eiffel Tower.   This is clearly a case of going from the mundane to the sublime in a matter of pages.

Conversely, the study, a room which might easily provide a scenario related to reading, education and leisure time, instead becomes the scene of mice and extermination.   The chapter is clearly the most disconcerting as it focuses on the vermin and critters with which we share our homes.   Bryson seems to delight in the mind-numbing and chilling statistics for mouse and rat populations of the past and present.   He concludes the chapter with the smallest living creatures in our homes and on our persons, namely insects and microbes.

Underlying the premise is a charming and unexpected feature.   Many of the chapters draw attention to the unsung heroes who were the real inventors as opposed to the persons who made vast sums of money and achieved fame.   Included for good measure are the names of men who almost got it right but for a twist or turn in their path have not even made it to footnote status in history.

At Home is worth the reader’s effort, but the author may remind the reader of an entertaining college professor who expects a fair amount of retention of his lecture points.   It is a safe choice for history buffs along with the reminder that the accuracy of any non-fiction book is subject to a point-in-time qualifier.   Some conclusions by the author appear to be made to the advantage of his effort to make clever connections.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.   At Home will be released by Doubleday on Tuesday, October 5, 2010.

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White Room

The Season of Second Chances by Diane Meier (Henry Holt & Co.; $25.00; 304 pages)

“…my house, my home, had become something deep and comforting to me, far beyond what I’d ever expected to find or feel in an unprofessional world, or a world outside of ideas, of letters and literature.”

“…most men tend to live one-dimensional lives…”

Have you ever watched one of those home improvement shows on a channel like HGTV where you patiently wait through the whole show for the big reveal at the end – and then the end is a disappointment?   That’s kind of the way I felt about reading this book, which I wanted to like more than I did.   There was just less here than I expected to find.

This is basically the story of a romance between an academic homeowner, Joy Harkness, and a handyman-carpenter by the name of Ted Hennessey.   Joy leaves the politics of Columbia University to teach in an innovative new program at Amherst College in Massachusetts.   She has plenty of money so she buys her first real home, which is a run-down Victorian.   Of course, it needs to be run-down in order for Teddy to enter the picture.

It was the character of Teddy Hennessey that just did not add up for me and made the read slower than it should have been.   When we first encounter Teddy, he’s the handyman who listens to The Who cassettes all day on his boom box.   That’s when he’s not reciting the poetry of Yeats, from memory no less.   Now, really, what are the chances of hiring a handyman like that?   Well, virtually none in the real world.   Highly improbable to say the least.

“I’ll always be her child!” he snarled.

Oh, but then we think that maybe Teddy’s a closet intellectual who is just dying for the chance to go to college, something that Joy can help him with, right?   No, it turns out that Teddy is afraid of going to school because then he’d have to leave his sainted mother who has him wrapped around her finger like a 9-year-old.   So we’re left with a man-child who is simply not likeable (at least I can’t think of any male I know who would feel any sympathy for him).   Why the once-married, yet independent, Joy is attracted to the wuss that is Teddy is a sheer mystery.

Since the romance between Teddy and Joy appears to be doomed – he, by the way, calls her “man” – Joy develops an attraction to her abode.   This is merely a comforting, if hardly an earth shattering, premise on which to build a novel…

“I turned and noticed, as I climbed up the steps to the porch, that my house looked warm and welcoming.   The rooms were lit, glowing from within; the colors they reflected were soft and inviting.   There was life in this house, and I was part of it.”

There was also a lot of crying in this book.   “Tears ran down my face and puddle around my nose before soaking the pillow.   I didn’t know why I was crying…”   “I’ve cried more this year than in the past twenty combined.”   “(I) cried until I didn’t think there could possibly be any liquid left in my body.”   I’m not sure why the otherwise solid – and growingly feminist – protagonist needs to experience such intense crying jags, another confusing factor.

One more confusing thing concerns a major scene in the book.   Joy’s married-but-separated friend Donna is savagely attacked by her former husband.   Donna’s ex uses a golf club to beat her nearly to death; pieces of her scalp are found on the club by the police.   Donna apparently has several broken bones in her face and is in critical condition.   She is rushed to the hospital for life-saving surgery and facial reconstruction.   A number of characters in this story act commendably, taking care of Donna’s children during the time that she’s away.   Eventually, Donna returns home on Valentine’s Day and the very thing the reader wants to know goes hauntingly unanswered – what does her face look like?   (It’s as if the character departs as a human but returns as a ghost.)

On the plus side, there’s some nice humor:  “I went into the dressing room and emerged from the curtain in outfit after outfit, like a puppet in a Punch and Judy show.”   But as for the ending of this story, it just seemed to me to run out of steam rather than conclude in a definitive (and logical) way.

Some will be attracted to this book because of its promise of a type of late-in-life feminism, or the notion that someone can, in a sense, partner with one’s surroundings.   Both are promising and positive notions but they did not eliminate a sense of hollowness.   Still Diane Meier has a nice, entertaining writing style; she’s a smoother version of Anna Quindlen.

“I had no story, or, at least, none that I could see.   But my vantage point was, perhaps, too close to the shore to see that I had, at last, begun to swim toward my own life.”

For the right reader, there may be lessons here that will assist in commencing a journey of self-examination and discovery; for that it is never, ever, too late.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Farther On

“Now the distance leads me farther on/ Though the reasons I once had are gone/ With my maps and my faith in the distance/ Moving farther on…”   Jackson Browne

Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey (Pantheon; 268 pages; $24.95)

Maggie Pouncey is bringing back language, slow and careful language.   It’s the type of language that began to disappear in the 1960’s.   The language that the daughter of a college president might have grown up hearing…

One gave the dog a sop, not a treat or bite; one woke not at dawn but at sparrow fart, and wore not party clothes but finery.   Now it was like speaking Yiddish, or some other dying language; soon there would be nobody around to talk to.

Perfect Reader is a story of a not-so-young 28-year-old woman who returns to her home town after her father’s death.   The town is Darwin, Massachusetts which daughter Flora Dempsey has returned to from, presumably, Boston.   Flora’s father was the president of Darwin College (as the author’s father was the president of Amherst College), and also a noted literary critic, professor and sometime poet.

Flora is a rootless person who has not yet decided what to do with her self, her life.   She’s disoriented coming back to the small college town built on “liberal well-meaningness”; it’s a town more than a bit reminiscent of Davis, California.   But then she felt no more at home working in the city.

Flora’s parents had been divorced many years before and she had made her best career out of avoiding her father.   Now the time for avoidance is gone.   She must handle his funeral arrangements, and everything her father owned – his home, his writings, and his books – has been left to her.   This is not the least of things, as Flora learns that her dad had a lover, a female instructor from the college.   The woman wants to be close to Flora, but Flora just wants to isolate, to have people leave her alone while she ponders her next steps.   In a strange way she envies her father’s escape from the people who trouble you:  “The dead left you alone, but it was the living who filled you up with loneliness.”

“Flora felt her life shrinking.   The smallness of the table provided a good metaphor.   No room for other people.   Soon her life would cease to be a table; it wouldn’t even be a cocktail table.   It would be a solitary chair, hard-backed and wooden…”

This likely sounds depressing but in the telling – a careful and precise telling – it is not.   The Boston Globe called it, “(An) exquisitely observed drama.”   This is because it comes down to the words, the language, which makes the reader feel like he or she has picked up a novel from the wrong decade, if not century.

It is, however, slow.   This is something that some readers will have a problem with but it is deliberately slow.   The author has said that, “so many of the books I love are slow.”   If and when this novel is made into a film, there will be no car chases, no gun battles, no slaps or loud confrontations.   It will be a moody movie that will be loved or hated.

I loved this very contemplative story set around a basic theme.   Does a child, even an adult child, grow up by escaping her past or embracing it?   Whose life is it and, presuming it’s your own, why do we pay such a high price for not fulfilling the expectations of others?

Although Flora’s father has passed (and Flora so hates that people will use any word in the English language but dead) she must nonetheless battle her mother’s expectations, and the fact that she fails to heed her mom’s advice.   In one prime scene, Flora’s mother suggests that she volunteer somewhere in order to provide “some structure” to her life.   “How wonderfully helpful, Mom.   How sage…” responds Flora who is tired and “regressing, moving backward, growing down.”

Yes, our protagonist Flora is not someone who everyone will like or relate to.   She’s brittle and angry and exhausted but, two years short of her third decade on this world, she’s reached the point of decision-making.   Who and what is she going to be in her life?

Perfect Reader is not for everyone.   For me, it was close to a perfect read.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   The book was purchased by the reviewer.

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The Season of Second Chances

The Season of Second Chances: A Novel by Diane Meier  (Henry Holt, $25.00, 285 pages)

When I finished The Season of Second Chances, I felt bereft.   The Season of Second Chances was a wonderful novel that I enjoyed reading.   I enjoyed it so much that I ripped through the book reading it too late into the night and finishing it in record speed during a busy work week.   After I finished it, I regretted only that it didn’t continue on as I loved the story and characters so much, it was hard to let them go.

The Season of Second Chances is a unique story that I really loved.   Joy Harkness is a middle-aged literature professor at Columbia University.   She loves and excels at her work, but doesn’t really feel connected to anyone.   When a professor she admires, Bernadette Lowell, offers her a chance to move to Amherst College in Massachusetts and be part of an innovative new curriculum in learning, Joy jumps at the chance.   She impetuously buys an old large, falling down Victorian house and quickly moves up from her small New York apartment.   I love the scene where she moves in and the house springs a giant leak.

Realizing that something needs to be done about the state of her house, Joy hires Teddy Hennessy to fix her house.   Teddy is a unique individual that knows the history and design of old houses.   He has an impeccable eye when it comes to interior design and works wonders with the house…  and with Joy.

Joy finds life changing for herself at Amherst and becomes involved with a great new group of friends.   She has a growth of personal relationships and self.   Through her time there, Joy really has a “coming-of-age” at mid-age.   She learns that to be a feminist, one does not need to give up everything that is feminine.

It is really hard to describe this novel as it was so unique and I do not want to give away the entire plot of the novel.   It was a great story and I really loved the style in which it was written.   Meier has beautiful prose throughout the novel.

Some of my favorite quotes were:

“What became apparent in my conversations with Teddy was my acceptance of a kind of snobbery I thought I’d avoided:  the notion that accessible writers and authors were hacks.”

I love this quote.   I think there is a lot of snobbery that exists, especially in academia about “accessible” writers.   It saddens me that a lot of great female authors from the past have been dismissed and have slipped into obscurity for just such reasons.   One example is Fannie Hurst.   I read a compilation of her short stories a few years ago and it was wonderful.   The stories gave a glimpse of working class girls’ lives in the 1920’s and 30’s.

“There is the family you’re born with, my dear – and then there is the family you choose.”

This quote is so true.   While you’ll never forget your birth family, I’ve found wherever you move you make a “family” of friends too that you can count on during times of trial.

There is also a great section about style, where two of the characters discuss that one doesn’t need to be afraid of style to be a feminist woman.   There are too many good quotes in this section just to pick out one!

I also loved that since Joy is a literature professor she talks about a lot of my favorite authors such as Edith Wharton and Willa Cather.   The discussions are like small diamonds throughout the text that I really enjoyed reading.

Overall, The Season of Second Chances is a wonderful novel with a great story, fantastic characters, and great prose.   I highly recommend it.

This review was written by Laura Gerold of Laura’s Reviews.   You can see more of her book reviews at: http://lauragerold.blogspot.com/ .   An Advance Review Copy was received from Interpersonal Frequency LLC.

 

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Having It All

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It: Stories by Maile Meloy (Riverhead Books, 232 pages, $15.00)

“Meloy’s stories are both bold and quiet.”   Angela Meyer

One can’t / have it / both ways / and both / ways is / the only / way I / want it.   – A. R.  Ammons

Both Ways… is a collection of eleven short stories written by Maile Meloy, the title taken from the one-sentence poem posted above.   Meloy is a writer with a style that’s so cool its chilling; at times she will remind the reader of Joan Didion.   And at least one of the stories here (“Liliana”) reads like something Didion might have written for The Twilight Zone.   In Liliana, a man in Los Angeles hears a knock on his door and opens it to find his grandmother.   Perhaps this does not sound so unusual, except for the fact that his grandmother died two months earlier.

The ten other stories are much more conventional and share a common theme.   These are stories of people who have settled into their lives as they are, but see the chance to escape and live an alternate existence.   These are people who are tempted by other people and other places.   Meloy sets this up so that some of the story subjects elect not to change their lives while others do.   Since each protagonist actually wants to have it both ways – retaining his/her current life while also having it change – not one of them finds true satisfaction…  The exception is the final story, where one man feels both “the threat of disorder and the steady, thrumming promise of having everything he wanted, all at once.”

This compilation of stories is thus brilliantly structured, placed in a very deliberate order like the songs on a classic record album.   As with a great recording, one is tempted to again listen to the songs (re-read the stories) to find the messages that were not obvious the first time through.   Part of Meloy’s intelligence is displayed by the manner in which she disguises things.   The first few tales are set in the remote state of Montana (far from L.A.) and the reader comes to think that maybe all of them will take place on that stage.   They do not.

Meloy also sets up situations that make you, the reader, think you know exactly what’s coming along before she fools you.   In one story (“Red from Green”), for example, we see that an older man and a young woman both possess – and practice with – loaded guns before he considers making an uninvited move on her.   Someone is going to get shot, right?   Well, no, but you will need to read that story to find out what does occur.

College literature professors are going to have a great time showing their students the hidden meanings and lessons buried in Meloy’s seemingly calm and quiet prose.   But you don’t need to pay tuition to enjoy these tales of yearning, wisdom and acceptance.   For the price of a trade paperback you can slide into a seat in Meloy’s classroom.   Take good notes!

Recommended.

A review copy was provided by the publisher (Riverhead/Penguin).

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It: Stories by Maile Meloy, author of Liars and Saints.   “Maile Meloy is a true and rare find.”   – Richard Ford

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