Tag Archives: literature

Clothes Make the Man

Proust’s Overcoat by Lorenza Foschini, Translated by Eric Karpeles (Ecco; $19.99; 144 pages)

“A rare and wonderfully written book.”   Michael Ondaatje

“Proust had also been measured for an overcoat in plaid with a bright purple lining.   He said he was going to leave it in the cloakroom…”   William C. Carter (Proust: A Life)

A confession is in order here at the beginning of the review.   I have never read the writings of Marcel Proust.   The only sense I have of him comes from the charming line drawing made by his friend Jean Cocteau.   The drawing is indicative of the clique of quirky artists who lived in France at the end of the 19th century.   It is the drawing and collage-like cover of Lorenza Foschini’s petite volume that drew me to this book.  

Don’t let the size of the book influence a purchase decision.   This is not a casual account of the artifacts of a world-famous writer’s life.   Rather, Proust’s Overcoat reveals the power of the collecting urge that can take hold of a person.  

Jacques Guerin was the collector whose passion for everything Proust led him to stalk the belongings that remained after Proust’s death.   Guerin’s perfume business afforded him the funds necessary to purchase the desk, bed, pictures and, of course, the iconic overcoat.   The surviving Proust family members and a junk dealer named Werner made these and many other acquisitions into sequential victories that were celebrated by Guerin over the course of many years.

Just as a curator arranges the items of the museum’s collection into a catalogue, author Foschini has done the same with the written and pictorial history of the items from Marcel Proust’s life.   The way in which his surviving family members treated the belongings revealed the mixed feelings they felt for him.   Isn’t that always the way with families?

Highly recommended.   A knowledge of literature or museums is not a prerequisite for enjoying this book.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from 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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Win a Second Chance!

“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 late into the night…”   Laura Gerold, Laura’s Reviews

“As in an old house, you will encounter all manner of surprises on Joy’s journey and, I promise, they will keep you reading far too late in the evening to be sensible…”   Katherine Lanpher, author of Leap Days: Chronicles of a Midlife Move

Just yesterday, we posted a review of The Season of Second Chances: A Novel by Diane Meier.   Now, thanks to Interpersonal Frequency LLC, we have a copy of Second Chances to give away!   In case you haven’t yet read the review we posted, here is the official synopsis of this novel:

Joy Harkness had built a career and a safe life in New York City.   When offered a position at Amherst College, she impulsively leaves the city.   A tumbledown Victorian house proves an unlikely choice; nevertheless, it becomes the home that changes Joy forever.   As the restoration begins to take shape, so does her outlook on life.   Amid the half-wanted attention of the campus’ single, middle-aged men and the legitimate dramas of her community, Joy learns that second chances are waiting to be discovered within us all.

This book has a retail value of $25.00.   In order to enter this giveaway, all you need to do is post a comment here – with your name and an e-mail address – or send an e-mail to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second entry, and speaking of second chances, tell us where you live now and where you would live if money was no object.  

Munchy the cat will serve as the contest administrator and will pick a winner.   You must live in the continental United States to enter this contest, and if your name is selected by Munchy, you must supply a residential mailing address.   The winner’s book will not be mailed to a P.O. box or to a business-related address.

You have until midnight PST on Sunday, October 3, 2010 to submit your entry or entries.   This is it for the contest rules.   Good luck and good reading!   

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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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Potato Peel Pie

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

What a delicious read!   I love books with quirky characters and whimsical settings.   This book certainly has those.   Yet it has much, much more.   The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a story about human cruelty, hardship, tragedy, triumph against cruelty, and most of all community, love and hope.   The characters are not only quirky, but breathe life into every page of the book.  

I want to spend the day with Guernsey’s herbalist-witch, Isola.   I want to go birdwatching and beach combing with Kit and Amelia.   I would like to sit and help Juliet interview the Guernsey Islanders as she tries to understand what it was like to live for five years through the Second World War under German occupation.

I learned much about the hardships of life under occupation and about Guernsey Island.   Previously, I knew what a Guernsey cow looked like, and that it was a “Channel” Island, but I had no idea how close it is to France, nor of its occupation during WW II.   Guernsey is a tiny piece of England that’s off the coast of Normandy (France).

This book is truly, utterly brilliant.   As you may have guessed, the characters are gorgeous, three dimensional friends by the end, and the story has intrigue, romance and loss as you follow the correspondence of Juliet Ashton – an English writer – who is randomly contacted by one of the Guernsey Islanders who’s come to own an old copy of a book that she once owned.   The narrative is told through the ensuing correspondence between Juliet, her friends Sophie and Sidney, and various members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

The Guernsey Islanders befriend Juliet and slowly reveal how the Society helped them to survive the hardships of war and occupation.   Juliet becomes fascinated with the Society and their efforts to survive and, as a consequence, comes to be deeply involved in their lives.

The sense of community that one gets from reading this book is overwhelming.

The surprising “Englishness” of the book given that the author and her niece (who finished the book after the author’s death) are American needs to be remarked upon.   This book is so well written, so thoroughly researched and lovingly crafted, I was convinced the author was English or had spent a great deal of time in England.   I was, thus, amazed to learn that the writers are Americans.

This is a beautiful, almost ethnographic work of fiction that I won’t hesitate to recommend to others.   It’s a feel good book;  I didn’t want it to end.   As good as chocolate!

This review was written by Amanda.   You can see more of her reviews at http://desertbookchick.com/ .

 

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Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s well-known novel Mrs. Dalloway is without a doubt a classic of English literature.   However, it has many characteristics not commonly associated with classics.   It doesn’t take ages to read.   It doesn’t distract the reader with superfluous distractions.   Most importantly, as the book is read, one is irrevocably and achingly aware and understanding of the plights of a woman, out to buy the flowers herself.

This is exactly what the book is about, or its plot at least.   Mrs. Dalloway, an upper-class London socialite goes out to buy some flowers for her big ball that evening.   On the way, she thinks about her life.   About the things that already happened, as well as the things that might happen in the future.   She remembers her old love, who she rejected simply because his passion brought out the worst in her.   She thinks about her husband, her dull, reliable husband, who she feels grounds and protects her from her true self, the unimaginable horror she feels is lurking within.   And finally, she is forced to think about a man just back from the war, a man she doesn’t even know, but who seems to be able to open her eyes with a selfish, yet heroic act of despair.

The tortured soul of Virginia Woolf provides great source for the seemingly flawless, yet sadly disturbed title character.   The stream of consciousness form of the book makes all these seemingly random scenes (yet, is anything in life truly random?) flow through the reader’s mind like a dream.   However, this dream does not tell of fairies and magical places.   It deals with the reality and such things as wars and the effect they have on individuals, as well as on the collective consciousness, the choices one has to make in life, the difference between life and death, and the lengths one is willing to go just to find a piece of mind.

RATING:   5/5

This review was written and originally published by Nikola.   You can see more reviews at Nikola’s Book Blog, http://cunninghamfan.blogspot.com/ .

 

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Man on Spikes

Spring training has begun, which also means that the corresponding flooding is about to occur:  flooding of the market with baseball books, that is.   Though greats like Roger Angell (The Summer Game), Roger Kahn (The Boys of Summer), and Thomas Boswell (Why Time Begins on Opening Day) have chronicled the hold that baseball has on the American psyche with some of the finest writing this country has ever seen, it is not uncommon for critics to dismiss most baseball writing as something less than literature – classics such as Marc Harris’ Bang the Drum Slowly or W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, notwithstanding.

If a younger generation of readers is unfamiliar with the names mentioned above, they are probably even less familiar with a man by the name of Eliot Asinof, who penned the book Man on Spikes.   In this book, Asinof, who is most noted for Eight Men Out, an account of the infamous Black Sox scandal in the 1919 World Series, tells the story of Mike Kutner through the eyes of the people he encounters on his journey through the minor leagues – a journey interrupted by World War II.

Set in the 1930s, Mike’s love of the game is met with resentment from his coalminer father, who would rather see Mike contribute to the family income than play baseball.   Now that Babe Ruth has burst on the scene, Mike’s street-smarts, fielding prowess, and knowledge of the game are underappreciated, and the scout who signs Mike faces ridicule.   Along the way, the reader encounters – among myriad other characters – a ruthless minor league manager and a black player trying to crack the color barrier.

First published in 1955, Man on Spikes had been out of print until it was finally reissued in 1998.   The new edition features a forward by Marvin Miller, the former Executive Director of the Major League Player’s Association, and a preface by Asinof, who reveals that Mike’s story is based on that of his old childhood friend.

When the urge hits this spring, instead of picking up the latest picture book of minor league ballparks or some insightful account of what was going through your favorite team’s manager’s mind in the seventh inning of a game from last season’s pennant race, go back in time and acquaint yourself with the story of Mike Kutner.   No baseball fan could possibly regret it.

This review was written by Dave Moyer, author of the novel Life and Life Only.   Reprinted courtesy of the New York Journal of Books and Mr. Moyer..  

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American Tune

Independence Day

Independence Day: A Novel by Richard Ford (Vintage, $16.00, 464 pages)

“A sad fact, of course, about adult life is that you see the very things you’ll never adapt to on the horizon.”

“I’m the man who counsels abandonment of those precious things you remember but can no longer make hopeful use of.”

The genre of the suburban angst novel was likely created by John Updike’s 1960 novel Rabbit Run.   That was the story of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, a superb athlete and high school basketball star who finds that his life has peaked at the age of 26.   Angstrom’s solution was basically to run away from the obligations of adulthood and family.

Updike has certainly received a great deal of praise as one of the best American writers; although to me each of the three books in the Rabbit trilogy came off as flat and tired.   Updike’s genius may lie in the fact that this was precisely what he intended.

Richard Ford

Move ahead to the year 1995 and second-time author Richard Ford (The Sportswriter) moves the category along by leaps and bounds with the release of Independence Day.   Come the new year, this novel will be 20 years old but it reads as if it was written just last month.   Frank Bascombe, a divorced former newspaper sportswriter, is living in his ex-wife’s house attempting to get by as a realtor.   This at a time when there’s a significant (early 90’s) recession, rapidly falling real estate values and high unemployment levels.   Employment down, building down, rents low, cost to buy high:   “… dug in for the long night that becomes winter.”   Sound familiar?

Bascombe has decided that the best times in his life have – like his former spouse – left him behind.   “Why should you only get what you want?   Life’s never like that.”   So Bascombe simply resolves to get through, to keep living, during his self-titled Existence Period.

At first the reader – not knowing any better – accepts Frank Bascombe as a depressed 53-year-old man who thinks things like, “When you’re young, your opponent is the future. When you’re not young, your opponent’s the past and everything done in it…”.   But eventually we realize that Frank’s actually an optimist – “It’s my experience that when you don’t think you’re making progress that you’re probably making plenty.”

As we read this 451-page novel, we see that Bascombe is making progress in pushing the re-start button on his life.   He’s not a bad person, really, it’s just that he has his own way of looking at things – one of the small points on which his ex-wife and his troublesome girlfriend can agree on.   Like a writer, he looks at things and sees something different from real actual life.   “You might never have been quite as happy as you like to believe you were.”

Bascombe is often let down, unfortunately, by the other people in his life, like one of his post-divorce female partners:   “… she had very little facility for actually thinking about me and never in the time we knew each other asked me five questions about my children or my life before I met her.”   Yet we somehow sense that Frank will be blessed with the victory of what Bob Dylan called “simple survival.”

How good, exactly, is this piece of American literature?   In 1995, The New York Times included it in the year-end list of best books.   As 1996 began, Ford was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Independence Day.   This Frank Bascombe novel (like John Updike’s Rabbit books) was part of a trilogy, but don’t worry about what came before or after.

Independence Day was Ford’s singular masterpiece, his van Gogh, his Sunflowers painting.   Or The Starry Night.

This is essential reading.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Independence Day 3

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