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In My Life

Must You Go?  My Life with Harold Pinter by Antonia Fraser (Nan A. Talese; $28.95; 336 pages)

Lady Antonia Fraser has produced a memoir that is a loving and memorable tribute to the late Nobel prize-winning playwright, screenwriter and poet, Harold Pinter.   Fraser happened to meet Pinter while he was married to his first wife.   They spent many hours talking until Pinter indicated that it would be wise for him to return to his home.   This was when Fraser, who was also married, asked him, “Must you go?”   Pinter stayed and this, for all practical purposes, was the beginning of the 33-year-period that they spent together – first as an unofficial couple and then as married partners.

The reader never doubts the accuracy of the events recounted in this memoir, as it was based on Fraser’s daily diary entries (most of which were read by Pinter).   Fraser admits that married life was not without conflict, although they made it a rule to never go to bed angry…  Sometimes this meant going to sleep just before daybreak.   And Fraser admits to never quite knowing or understanding the genius that her husband embodied.   At one point a Washington Post reporter asked her a somewhat absurd question, “What is Harold Pinter like about the house, all those pauses and enigmatic statements, I’ve always wondered?”   Fraser’s response was, “Keep wondering.”

“Living with Harold the writer was a rewarding experience since he behaved exactly like artists behave in books but seldom do in real life.”

Pinter was to find true happiness with Fraser, the love of his life but it may well have affected his creativity.   His initial marriage resulted in several successful plays that revolved around, in Pinter’s words, “unhappy frozen married relationships.”   As he was to admit to Antonia, “Happiness is not dramatic.”   But Pinter was to find a new outlet for his energies and his intellect, and this was in taking positions on the world’s political issues.   He was, in a sense, like John Lennon who took strong positions on war and peace even though he knew it alienated many.   Lennon was to say that this was just the way he was.   Fraser writes of Pinter that, “…he took for granted what we might euphemistically call his outspokenness and could not quite see why other people sometimes objected.”

Pinter was to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at a time, late in his life, when he was too ill to attend the award ceremony.   But he took an ambulance to a television studio in London where he videotaped his acceptance speech.   It seemed that the discontented Prodigal Son had finally been called home.

“Harold and I now love each other more than ever, now and forever.”

If the first two-thirds of Must You Go? chronicles the adventurous life of a man of letters, than the last third documents the struggle of a man who fought cancer and survived it in his seventies, only to eventually lose the good fight.   This last third is a tale of bravery and self-pride and triumph.   Pinter was to leave this mortal coil but only when his body had completely failed him – he never lost his mind nor his heart.   Pinter died on Christmas Eve of 2008.   His life justified the line in one of his favorite poems by Philip Larkin, “What will survive of us is love.”

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Must You Go? was released by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday on November 2, 2010.

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Hello Goodbye

Antonia Fraser is known in England as Lady Antonia Fraser, her father having been an Earl.   Her forthcoming book Must You Go? – My Life with Harold Pinter will be released in the U.S. on November 2, 2010 by Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday.   Fraser’s memoir centers on her 33-year love affair with, and marriage to, the celebrated playwright and poet Harold Pinter.  

We’ll have a review up by the release date of Must You Go? but, in the interim, it’s worth noting that this memoir is getting fantastic write-ups on the other side of the pond.   Here’s a small sampling.

“Writing with exemplary clarity and courage…  Fraser keeps her gaze steady and her heart open.”   – The Independent

“The book is intimate without being confessional, and on certain subjects (Fraser) prefers to say nothing.   But she’s not so discreet as to be dull, and there’s a lot of humour.”   – Blake Morrison, The Guardian

“It may lack sensational revelations but Antonia Fraser’s memoir of married life with Pinter is eccentric and hilarious.”   – Rachel Cooke, The Observer

“It is neither autobiography nor biography but a love story, romantic, poignant and very funny, illuminating her husband’s character and creativity.”   The Times

“This book works, just as it appears their lives (together) worked, as the most touching and enduring of love stories…  The ending is… almost unbearably moving.   The whole of this lovely book fills you with a gratitude that happenstance can, once in a while, not screw up and find the right girl for the right boy.”   – Dominic Dromgoole, Financial Times

“It’s enormously enjoyable to read…  because this is a book that’s intimate without being confessional, and that’s a very unusual thing today.   At the end of it you feel you’ve had an insight into a great romance…  She’s really pulled off something of enormous subtlety.”   Tina Brown, The Daily Beast

“This book – full of funny and tender things – satisfies on more than one level.   It is an intimate account of the life and habits of a major artist; it is a pencil sketch of British high society in the second half of the 20th century; and it is, more than either of these things, and much more unusually, a wonderfully full description of the deep pleasures and comforts of married love.”   – The Spectator

“The final third of Must You Go? is dominated by Pinter’s ill-health, his award of the Nobel prize, and his courageous struggle still to speak out on the issues that concerned him.   In many ways they are the best part of the book.”   – Robert Harris, The Sunday Times

Interested?   Lady Antonia Fraser will appear at the Los Angeles Public Library (630 W. 5th Street) at 7:00 p.m. on November 8, 2010; and at the San Francisco City Arts & Lectures Herbst Theatre (401 Van Ness Avenue) on November 9, 2010 at 8:00 p.m.

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Guilty of the Crime

The False Friend: A Novel by Myla Goldberg (Doubleday; 272 pages; $25.95)

There’s a saying that has been going around for years in the fields of entertainment and sports, “When the legend conflicts with the truth, always choose the legend.”   The distinction between the public story and actual events is what preoccupies Celia, the female protagonist of The False Friend.   Celia, an Illinois State Auditor, lives in Chicago but she’s returned to her small hometown in the formerly forested wilds of New York State to make a confession.   It seems that twenty years earlier Celia and her best friend Djuna and three other girls walked into a dense forest; only four of them walked out.   Djuna was never seen again.

The official story of Djuna’s disappearance is that she was picked up by a man driving a car – a man who stopped on the road by the edge of the forest and convinced her to get into the car.   That man was her killer.   This is the public story that the four girls told to the police and to their parents.   It was never questioned.   But Celia was the girl walking closest to Djuna on that fateful day and she’s now willing to disclose what factually happened…  Or, what she believes in her mind’s eye actually happened.

Celia has a somewhat naive faith in the premise that once she tells her version of the truth everything will be made better.   She also thinks that her former classmates will readily accept her version of the truth.   She’s seeking absolution and is excited that it’s about to be granted to her belatedly.   But the funny thing is that once she meets with the other girls (those willing to communicate with her), they don’t buy into her story.   Each one is absolutely certain that she saw Djuna being lured into the stranger’s automobile.

Author Myla Goldberg does a fascinating job of translating what is essentially a small story into a larger one about our roles and responsibilities in society.   If all of those around us wish to accept one version of events, of facts, what right do we have to say they’re wrong?   Sometimes there’s far more comfort to be had in the public story, the legend, than in simpler frail human events.

When reading this novel, each reader will come to think of certain events in his/her own childhood.   We may be sure that things happened a certain way on a certain date, only to find that our family members are wedded to an entirely different version.   Telling those around you that they’re wrong only makes them feel uncomfortable, if not angry.   (Thus, we all have sometimes accepted the group’s story instead of our own.)

Goldberg has created a fascinating and extremely engaging novel in Friend.   Her calm, deliberate style will call to mind Catherine Flynn (The News Where You Are) or Anne Tyler (Noah’s Compass).   The uncertainty over an event that happened decades earlier is also a bit similar in storyline to Lisa Unger’s recent novel Fragile.

Goldberg’s talented prose will cause the reader to read and re-read several lines such as these:

“The school building itself was utterly unchanged…  The opposite edge of the walk displayed a gray boulder the size of a crouching child.   On it were carved the words JENSENVILLE HIGH, Gift of 1993…  The rock reminded Celia of a marker designating the future resting place of herself and her former classmates, all of them to be interred beneath in eternal, obligatory return.”   (Whew)

At the conclusion of The False Friend, Celia must make a critical choice – Will she continue to dispute the perceived history of a local tragedy or will she come to side with the community’s accepted version of events?   You will need to read this intelligently told tale to find out what decision she makes.   You will then wonder if you would have made the same choice.

Well recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The False Friend will be released by Doubleday on Tuesday, October 5, 2010.

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No Icing on This Cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: A Novel by Aimee Bender (Doubleday, $25.95)

“I wondered what he knew about the family; what he didn’t know.   What family he lived in.   My mind wandered around.”

This novel begins with a charming and unique premise.   A young girl, Rose Edelstein, finds that by eating food prepared by others she can taste (experience) the moods and feelings of the preparers.   This has particular relevance when it comes to her mother’s sadness, but later her guilt.   Her mother is having an affair, the knowledge of which Rose wishes she did not possess.

“The guilt in the beef had been like a vector pointing in one direction…  I hated it; the whole thing was like reading her diary against my will.   Many kids, it seemed, would find out that their parents were flawed, messed-up people later in life…  I didn’t appreciate getting to know it all so strong and early.”

This discomfort on the part of our protagonist also affects the reader; at least, it affected this reader.   Rose has been given a power she does not want and it makes  her life messy and unpleasant.   At one point, early in the story, she is hospitalized after raving about wanting to get rid of her mouth.   If she didn’t have her mouth in her face, she wouldn’t have to eat and wouldn’t have to feel what others are feeling.

“Over the course of several packed days, I’d tasted my mother’s affairs and had (a) conversation with my father…  I was not feeling good about any of it…”

Rose has a boring attorney father, a brother who isolates and who is soon departing for college, and an unhappy mother who regularly disappears for a couple of hours of errands – which is when she meets her lover.   She lives in a household of people who hardly communicate; people who regularly ask questions of each other that go unanswered.   This also applies to others in Rose’s life.   For example, she asks her Spanish teacher, “How was your weekend?” before her instructor turns away and walks off to roam the aisles of the junior high school classroom.

Aimee Bender’s writing style is clipped; words often appear to be missing from sentences, from paragraphs, from pages.   Maybe the words are missing because, in this imaginary world, humans simply don’t understand each other – relatives or strangers – and therefore, are not competent about talking, listening, responding.   Perhaps the oddest of all things is that this story is not set in an isolated small town (Mayberry, if you will).   No, it is set in an earlier day Los Angeles, where mega communication was already the order of the day.

There must be an intended message buried somewhere in this 292-page novel that I missed.   After its charming opening pages, Lemon Cake seemed to immediately bog down.   It read more like a novella or an overly extended short story than a true novel.

Perhaps I just don’t have the taste for this recipe.   Lemon Cake left me feeling empty and sad and confused and hungry for something with some heft.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Bits and Pieces

The Language of Secrets by Dianne Dixon

Tracing our steps from the beginning / Until they vanished into the air / Trying to understand how our lives had led us there   Jackson Browne

It was Jackson Browne who said of the past, the things we remember seem so distant and so small.   The past – and its impact on the present – is the theme of The Language of Secrets by Dianne Dixon.   This is the story of Justin Fisher, a man who grew up outside of Los Angeles, the son of Robert and Caroline Fisher.   But somehow he thinks that this was just a part of his life.   He begins to remember growing up as “T.J.” with a red-haired mother, living in the snow of the east coast, perhaps in Boston.   “…the information was presenting itself to him in erratic bursts.   In bits and pieces.   Out of nowhere.”

In this tale by a Hollywood screenwriter turned author, Justin’s search for his past is painful.   It is a past filled with family secrets and a great deal of anger.   He is just one of the characters who have both pleasant and painful memories of home and relations.   “Home is the place in which you were rooted by your beginnings…  It marked and branded you.   And if it was a broken, desolate place it would leave you hungry and dangerous, and punished, for the rest of your life.”

The Language of Secrets repeatedly deals with the tension between remembering one’s childhood home as a place of sanctity and safety, and as a place to escape from.   “Mom, I don’t need a house.   I’ve got a condo.   I’m head of publicity for a major movie studio.   I’ve got a kick-ass life that I love.   I have no interest in getting married and settling down…  (This house was) a nice place to grow up in.   But that’s the whole point of being a kid and then becoming an adult.   You grow up.   You move on.”

So says one of Justin’s sisters to his mother.   But usually in a family at least one of the siblings must lead the life chosen by his or her parents.   In this story, it is Justin’s father who winds up living a second-hand version of his own father’s insurance salesman’s life.   Disastrous consequences follow for everyone.

Clearly, Dixon has devised a fascinating set-up for a novel.   There’s love here, but also – as previously mentioned – a lot of anger and rage.   Rage that comes from seeking independence, even as a fully grown adult:  “I have a rich father-in-law who treats me and my wife and child like we’re a wholly owned subsidiary.”

Dixon’s strength is in getting the reader to want to follow along with a not-so-pleasant tale, wanting to turn the page, and the next, with a bit of trepidation as to what’s ahead.   In Language, life is not what it seems to be.   This is demonstrated by jumbled memories of jumbled events.   (Haven’t we all been corrected by family members about when and where something in our past occurred?   And don’t we, nevertheless, continue to believe in our own version of events?)

The difficulty with reading Language is that events seem to happen in strange order, in non-chronological fashion, even when the author identifies the time and place.   The reader might be tempted to make a chart of the events in the story, and may find that they just can’t chart out in sequence.   Perhaps this is Dixon’s way of reminding us that life remains anchored in confusion, and fog.

The great revelation perhaps never did come.   Virginia Woolf

Language is such a complicated story that in the end there’s no great revelation.   This reader would love to see a follow-up from Dixon that is a bit simpler and told in chronological order.   Still, The Language of Secrets serves as an indication that a very promising new writer has arrived on the scene.

Recommended.

“A sense of desperation rose in Caroline…  She had unwittingly written her life into a language of secrets, into an indecipherable code riddled with questions.”

An advance review copy was provided by Doubleday.   The Language of Secrets will be released on Tuesday, March 23, 2010.

This review is dedicated to the memory of Roberta Lou Rallojay Benson.

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