Thursday, July 12, 2018

Elizabeth Berg's The Story of Arthur Truluv: The Case for Intergenerations

I have certain reading friends whose book recommendations I jump on without question. They know (and love) books--and me. Recently, I got a short text recommending Elizabeth Berg's novel The Story of Arthur Truluv. I hadn't read anything by Berg in awhile, but I was just between books and reading for a road trip when I'd be reading and riding, not driving. It was short and sweet. Perfect.

Much of the story is set in a cemetery. The main character, whose name is actually Arthur Moses, visits the grave of his late wife Nola, carrying on conversations with her  and vividly imagining the lives of people buried around her. During his visits, he strikes up a friendship with Maddy, a high school outcast who sneaks out of school to spend her lunch hour in the cemetery. She lives with her father, who holds her at least partially responsible for her mother's death shortly after her birth and keeps her at an emotional distance. Maddy gives Arthur the nickname Arthur Truluv after witnessing his devotion to his late wife.

Another engaging character is Lucille, the next door neighbor who has tried to develop a relationship with Arthur, but who tends to annoy him. When she loses a second chance at love, she turns to Arthur and Maddy for surrogate family.

The turns of events that bring these three (and Arthur's aloof cat Gordon) together make for a genuine, heartwarming story. I've seen comparisons to Zindel's The Pigman and even to Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteredge. Unlike the protagonist of A Man Called Ove, Arthur is a lovable, sympathetic character from the beginning. His willingness to expand his home and his life to include others, despite the demands and life changes they bring, make him one of the favorite characters I've met on the pages of a book in a long while. Thanks, Jane, for the recommendation!

Monday, July 9, 2018

I don't know if I can ever write a student letter of recommendation with a straight face again. Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members has been on my to-read list a little while. Now it will be on my recommendation list--at least for my teaching colleagues. The epistolary novel consists solely of letters written by Jason Fitger, in the Engli_h Department (yes, the S is missing from the departmental sign, only one of the grievances he expresses about the department offices). A teacher of literature and creative writing, with three novels to his credit (all out of print), Fitger now seems to be writing primarily on behalf of students--former or current--or colleagues seeking job positions, admissions to writing seminars, scholarships, funding, promotions, and more.

The letters he writes should be a caution to anyone so desperate as to seek a recommendation from someone if unsure about the quality of the reference. Fitger adamantly refuses to complete online references that require box checking. (I'm going to borrow a page from him there. Who can honestly say if a student falls into the top 10% I've ever taught--over the course of 28 years?) He also points out grammar errors on the application site, giving gentle lecture on its and it's, and other misuses of apostrophes.

Woven through the letters, though, are Fitger's genuine attempts to help a promising student with a book in progress (a modern retelling of Bartleby the Scrivener set in a Nevada brothel). He tries to get the young man acceptance into the writing seminar program, a work-study with funding, anything that will help the increasingly desperate young writer.

The letters also reveal his ongoing often contentious relationship with his ex-wife and former lover (both on staff at Payne University, a name from which Fitger gets a lot of mileage.) The sacking and pillaging of the English Department (indeed, any of the departments not deemed prestigious) rings all too familiar now that STEM is king. Currently, Fitger and his English colleagues are living through construction in which hazmat suits might be advised, while he imagines gold leaf, hot tubs, and climbing walls being added to the economics department upstairs.

Schumacher manages to  develop Fitger fully into a character both clever and sympathetic, aware of his own foibles and the way others respond to him, while self-effacing enough to bury his own ego when trying to help those who deserve better a lifeline.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Old Filth: A Good Surprise off the Shelf

I don't know if there is a word similar to ambidextrous to describe one who navigates easily between eBooks, audiobooks, paperbacks, and hardbacks, but if there is, I an one. On a recent vacation, though, I knew I needed some paperbacks for beach reading, since sun and sand don't work well with screen reading. I scanned my bookshelves for titles I had put away for another day. All too often, my supply exceeds demand (or at least my ability to read them all) and some good books risk being lost. Maybe they are just waiting for the right time.

This time, I picked up Jane Gardem's novel Old Filth, a book that had been sent to me unsolicited. Subsequently, it was recommended by readers I trust. It ended up being such a great read. The title refers to an acronym coined by the protagonist: Failed In London Try Hong Kong.  A "raj orphan," Edward Feathers had been sent away from Malaysia by his father, who has shown no interest in the boy after the mother died from childbirth complications. He ends up first in Wales with a couple of female cousins, then private school and Cambridge, eventually becoming a very successful barrister. Only gradually does the narrative reveal some of the events of the past that continue to haunt him.

As the book opens, he is retired, his wife has just died suddenly, and he is wrestling with memories of childhood experiences. He ends up taking a road trip to find the cousins. In the narrative, Gardem  moves back and forth between the elderly Feathers and young Edward, with some poignant scenes at the home of his best schoolfriend, where he is treated like family until the war and illness disrupt their lives.

Old Filth--or young Feathers--evolves as an engaging, sympathetic, unforgettable character, a survivor. The author's description creates vivid settings which serve as anything but filler or fluff. The telling of the story provides enough dramatic irony to keep readers' wheels turning.

I may have to resume my junior reading habit--finding an author I like and then reading anything else she has written.


Friday, July 6, 2018

Love and Ruin: Another Mrs. Hemingway

In May, when Paula McLain appeared with Charles Frazier to be interviewed by Ann Patchett at Nashville Public Library's Salon @615, she said that after writing Paris Wife, the story of Hemingway's first wife Hadley, she hadn't planned to write about any of the other Hemingway women. In a dream though, she saw a woman she recognized from her earlier research as Martha Gellhorn, the fiercely independent journalist who became wife number three. The story would not let her go.

Taking available facts and imagining the missing lives of historical figures is nothing new for McLain. After Paris Wife, she wrote the novel Circling the Sun, based on the life of female aviator and adventurer Beryl Markham, a missing piece of the puzzle in Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa.

In this latest novel, McLain introduces readers to a young woman, an aspiring writer, who meets Hemingway, already famous, during a visit to Key West with her mother. When he heads to Spain to cover the civil war there, she gets a commission from Collier's to do the same. While there, his mentoring, almost fatherly attitude toward her transforms into a love affair.

The story follows them as they build a home together in Cuba and travel together--often with his sons--while waiting out his contentious divorce from second wife Pauline. Hemingway's patterns of serial marriage are no surprise to most readers familiar with the novelist, but Marty Gellhorn is something of a surprise. She stands out as the only wife who ever left Ernest. The story reveals their ups and downs, resulting in part from his drinking and from his resentment of her independent insistence in having a life and career of her own.

Marty has to deal with critics' refusal to take her writing at face value. Instead, they persist in comparing her writing to Hemingways' and focusing on their relationship, implying that he has opened doors for her. As he is basking in his best successes, she continues trying to find her own voice in her fiction while covering war in some of the most dangerous parts of the world.

Even though their divorce and his remarriage aren't news to anyone even remotely familiar with Hemingway, some may be surprised to learn in the afterword that Gellhorn continued to write, covering war zones into her eighties. McLain gets into the mind of a unique character, showing her as much more than a footnote to a bigger literary life.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Macbeth as Summer Reading: No, Not That One!

Having taught high school seniors for many years, I can't even count how many times I have read Shakespeare's great tragedy Macbeth. Far too many of the lines trip off my tongue from simple repeated exposure. Yet I never tired of it.  Like most of the Bard's plays, too, I find so many connections to current events, politics, popular culture.

Jo Nesbo, known for his dark Scandinavian thrillers has taken the story, the characters, plot, and even some of the lines, setting the story in the late 1990s in a Scottish town that has lost is main industry, resulting in a boom in crime and drug trafficking.  At odds with law enforcement are Hecate, a local drug lord who has created his own narcotic product known as "Brew," and his main competition Sweno, the head of a drug trafficking motorcycle gang.

Macbeth is the head of SWAT, working for police commissioner Duncan. His (common law) wife, known as Lady runs the most exclusive casino in town, the Inverness. Duff, his colleague is especially intent on stopping Sweno, giving the impression of ambition.

Nesbo builds the backstory, with Macbeth having met Duff after both boys landed in an orphanage after losing their parents. Banquo, an older policeman, had taken Macbeth into his own home, like a son, even before he and his wife have their own son Fleance.

Anyone familiar with Shakespeare's tragedy knows the basic plot, but will still find the way the story unwinds fascinating. It's worth noting that even when the play was new, the audience at the Globe knew the basic story before it even began, even though the playwright took liberties with the accounts in Hollinshed's Chronicles. Shakespeare's real talent was not so much plot as characterization and theme. Nesbo develops many of the same threads: meaning (or meaninglessness) of life, loyalty, ambition--and the ongoing question: Can people really change?

As I read, I realized that readers who don't know a thing about the play on which it was based can read this novel as the suspense thriller it is. The dramatic irony as one reads, anticipating but dreading the inevitable, creates a perfect summer reading experience.