A Tough Nut

Alina Bronksy The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (2011).

Europa Editions does it again! This novel tells the story of a Russian family’s adventures, narrated by Rosa, the unstoppable grandmother. Though Rosa is the worst kind of scheming, interfering matriarch, she’s also hysterical — her pointed criticisms and matter-of-fact approach to life planted a smirk on my face for almost the entire book. Here’s what she says about puberty, for example:

Dieter said it was normal. Aminat was approaching puberty. I found even the word “puberty” obscene. Dieter said it happened to every girl. I tried to remember what it had been like for Sulfia, or even for myself, and concluded that neither of us had gone through anything like this. First you were a child, then at some point you were an adult. There was no reason to get fat, ugly, or belligerent. (190)

Rosa begins her story when she hears she’s going to become a grandmother; she proceeds to use any means possible to prevent her lost, passive daughter, Sulfia, from having the fatherless child. No matter, Aminat is born and becomes the dearest thing in the world to Rosa who practically kidnaps her, since she sees Sulfia, an otherwise competent nurse, as a totally irresponsible mother. In part through Rosa’s meddling, Sulfia and Aminat have particularly unstable lives. Sulfia marries three times and the three women move from Russia to Germany in search of a better life, though it means they must live with a pedophile named Dieter who’s writing a book about Russian cuisine.

At her worst, Rosa exerts relentless control over her life and everyone in it. She sacrifices her family’s wishes to her own will and never understands that she is the source of their strife.  At her best, however, Rosa is an inspiration. She can do anything and what she doesn’t know how to do, she wants to master. After moving to Germany, she learns to drive with little help from the patronizing instructor. Rosa is one of the most resourceful characters that I can remember having ever encountered. She’s not embarrassed to get what she wants, even if she has to bribe people with chocolate. Though trained as a teacher, she’s happy to take a job as a cleaning lady and, if the mood strikes her, she can always get by on her good looks. She’s never alone for long, and when she is alone, she’s never lonely. 

I enjoyed this book immensely and its dark humor manages to disguise some of the story’s sadness. By the end, Rosa loses her husband and daughter, and becomes estranged from the rebellious and damaged Aminat, but she starts to learn one important trait she was missing all along: humility.

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Short Story Novels

E. L. Konigsburg The View from Saturday (1996).

Tom Rachman The Imperfectionists (2010).

While Konigsburg’s novel won the 1997 Newbery Medal and Rachman’s achieved NYT bestsellerdom, they both share a similar structure. Each book features character vignettes, linked together by an overarching story.

In The View from Saturday, a regional Academic Bowl competition provides the backdrop. Konigsburg tells a story about the  sixth-graders–Ethan, Julia, Nadia, and Noah–who make up the team from Epiphany, NY. They each gain some morsel of self-knowledge and experience which they bring to the team. They call themselves “the Souls” and have tea every Saturday at 4PM, as is proper. Together, they blossom and also help their paraplegic teacher, Mrs. Olinski, regain her confidence and sense of purpose. In between the students’ stories, Konigsburg fills in Mrs. Olinski’s history. A car accident killed her husband and injured her; not surprisingly, she finds it difficult to return to teaching. I found this adorable book the perfect thing to read on a Saturday afternoon. It shows the true meaning of friendship (and the importance of tea drinking).

The Imperfectionists tours the lives of reporters, editors, and readers of an English language daily based in Rome. Between each profile, Rachman provides the history of the paper. He skillfully paints realistic characters with emotionally complex stories: poignant, funny, sad. Also, to add to their three-dimensionality, the characters appear in each others’ vignettes, sometimes behaving in unexpected ways. Everyone involved with the newspaper is a little damaged, unstable, or desperate due to the endless news cycle and the uncertainty for the future of print publications in the digital age. It makes me want to write a book about all the characters at my own workplace, but, don’t worry, I won’t.

Still yet more books

A continuation of my post from last week.

Hans Keilson Comedy in a Minor Key (1947, translation 2010)

Source: The Atlantic

In this short, quiet novel set in WWII, Marie and Wim, a Dutch couple, hide Nico, a Jewish perfume salesman in their upstairs bedroom. Nico gets sick and dies in their care, so they call the doctor to help them decide what to do with the body. Wim and doctor lay the body under a park bench where it will be found easily. However, when Marie and Wim realize that they might be identified through the laundry tag on the dead man’s clothes, they themselves must go into hiding for a time.

This book provides a meditation on the importance small things assume in high-stakes situations. Simple carelessness could result in death, but Keilson dwells more on the side effects, such as absurdity and irony:  forgetting a laundry tag means you have to go to a safe house? you save a man from a horrible death only to have him die another kind of death? Keilson also looks at the awkwardness caused by the hiding arrangements. It takes time for the couple and Nico to feel at ease with each other; there’s a polite fussiness at first. I kept thinking about how strange is it that Nico must rely on total strangers to protect and feed him. After Nico’s death, Marie finds his hidden pack of American cigarettes. Wim would have loved these cigarrettes, but Nico hides them because he has no “secret — what a horrific piece of theater — from them, the ones who were keeping him as a secret” (96). Indeed, this book probably would be a good piece of absurdist theater.

Lionel Casson Libraries of the Ancient World (2001)

Whenever I have trouble writing about something, I make a list. Now, technically I haven’t finished reading this book, but I’ve read enough to compile five take-aways.

1. Never take alphabetizing for granted. We have Zenodotus, the first head of the library of Alexandria, to thank for it.

2. Scholarship has to start somewhere. While we’ll never know who baked the first loaf of bread or brewed the first batch of beer, we can trace to Alexandria the dawn of scholarship with the earliest authoritative texts, commentaries, glossaries, and grammars.

3. Alexandria and Pergamum as rivals. As quoted by Casson, Pliny wrote that the Ptolemies stopped exporting papyrus to Pergamum to cut down its competition as another intellectual center. Subsequently, Pergamum became a major producer of parchment, which, during late antiquity,  overtook papyrus as the writing material of choice.

4. Security has always been an issue for libraries. Even in the earliest libraries of the Near East, tablets carried warnings against their destruction or theft.

“He who breaks this tablet or puts it in water or rubs it until you cannot recognize it [and] cannot make it be understood, may Ashur, Sin, Shamash, Adad and Ishtar, Bel, Nergal, Ishtar of Nineveh, Ishtar of Arbela, Ishtar of Bit Kidmurri, the gods of heaven and earth and the gods of Assyria, may all these curse him with a curse which cannot be relieved, terrible and merciless, as long as he lives, may they let his name, his seed, be carried from the land, may they put his flesh in a dog’s mouth!” (14)

5. Print on demand is a return to the past. Though booksellers in the ancient world probably kept some scrolls with works by popular authors on hand for immediate sale, they also provided copying services.

Source: Wikipedia
J. R. Ackerley We Think the World of You (1960)

I have told many people about this funny, unusual book where disagreements over the care of a dog provide the conflict. It reminded me, painfully so, of all the difficulties of having a pet, especially for anyone who works, and the resentment animals can cause in families when too much attention is devoted to the pet (in this book, that resentment and jealousy also goes the other way).

Source: Flickr

Frank and Johnny were lovers. Frank, the narrator, has money, a good government job, but increasingly less access to Johnny, who’s married, has a fourth kid on the way, and now is in jail for “housebreaking.” Frank thinks the world of Johnny’s wife (i.e. he hates her), but he genuinely likes Millie, Johnny’s mother. Frank helps out Millie with a little money each month, because she and her husband Tom are taking care of Evie, Johnny’s dog, and one of Johnny’s kids. However, the more Frank visits Millie, the more convinced he becomes that Evie doesn’t get out enough and isn’t well socialized. Millie and Tom see Frank’s concerns as a criticism of their class. Furthermore, as Frank’s obsession over Evie’s care intensifies, Johnny’s family pushes him farther and farther away, despite Frank’s status as benefactor. Frank thinks they’re all conspiring against him, but finally he does get his wish and Evie is his. However, by that point, Evie is all he has left.

More than one book

I’ve tried and I just can’t write about one book (or exhibit or movie) at a time. For my own notes and for the benefit (or to the detriment) of whoever else, I am providing updates on my recent reading in two posts. First, a note that watching the entire run of Battlestar Galatica caused me to fall dreadfully behind in my usual reading regimen, but I’m catching up. In future, I shall try to keep up with writing 1 post per 1 book.

Meg Woltizer The Uncoupling (2011).

As a lapsed classicist, I do at least try to keep up with modern fiction that adapts or riffs on ancient literature. The Uncoupling is a whimsical tale (kind of like Miss Hargreaves, now that I think of it) about a small town whose women come under a spell of sexlessness when the high school puts on Lysistrata. Really, this book has nothing to do with Aristophanes, but it does provide an interesting look at the role of sex and desire in relationships (here, the book deals only with heterosexual couples). Ultimately, the women’s libidos are restored and all the couples are stronger, more loving, and happier after many reflective and painful nights spent in separate bedrooms. I get the sense that this book is the product of two interests: one to critique and satirize suburban life, the other to create a kind of laboratory to explore what might happen to different couples, each with their own histories and issues, when plagued by one partner’s disinterest in sex. Though not at all what I was expecting, this was a fun book.

David Mitchell The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010)

Set in isolationist Japan during the early 1800s, Thousand Autumns follows Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch clerk working for the government trading company. I can describe him only in the most positive, heroic terms: he’s honest, kind, smart, disciplined, and educated. Of all the Dutch traders living on Dejima (the island where the white men must stay, as no foreigners, unless specifically invited, are welcome on the mainland), Jacob is the only one who speaks Japanese. Of course, he learns the language not only because he has a talent for such things, but also because he falls in love with Orito, a Japanese midwife, who is studying with the Dutch doctor Marinus. Woven around this sweet and culturally complicated love story are other plots:  there’s a corrupt and cruel Abbott, who sends Orito to a convent to cover her dead father’s debts, and there’s history in the making — the English appear on the horizon and do their very best to usurp the Dutch.

I had only two difficulties, both due to my own limitations. First, each part of the book makes a giant leap through space, and sometimes time, into another character’s existence. I find leaps like that very disorienting; it was kind of like I had to get interested in an entirely new book each time. However, Mitchell excels at quickly sketching out a character, so in just a few pages you have a good sense of who the character is and his experience, even if you don’t know yet how he’ll fit into the story. Second, Mitchell has some kind of sick attraction to medical writing. He loves vivid, nauseating descriptions of difficult medical maneuvers, which will make you get on your knees and thank the heavens for being alive in the 21st century. All in all, though, this was a gem (i.e. a richly detailed historical novel with a non-trashy love story and true political intrigue), and I might just have to read some of Mitchell’s earlier novels.

J. Courtney Sullvian Maine (2011).

I requested this book from the library months ago. It was on all the best beach reads list and here it shows up when it gets dark at teatime. The novel centers around four women, all recognizable character types, in an Irish-Catholic family (all “her”s refer to Alice):

  • Alice, the callous, old-fashioned matriarch,
  • Kathleen, her daughter, a new agey recovering alcoholic,
  • Ann Marie, her daughter-in-law, the prim martyr, and
  • Maggie, her granddaughter, who has professional success, but personal chaos.

Sullivan does an exemplary job creating realistic and detailed back stories for each character and establishing the family’s collective experiences. I got a kick out of seeing the disconnect between each woman’s self-image and the others’ feelings about her. However, this wasn’t just a book about how crazy families are or how they can learn to get along again — yes, it has those things — but it’s also a very funny book. Initially, each chapter involves only one woman at a time, but when they all converge on the shared summer cottage in Maine, true hilarity of near farcical proportions ensues. Also, Sullivan tells some good jokes. Irish Alzheimer’s? That’s when you forget everything except your grudges.

Wild Ride or Nightmare

Elaine Dundy The Dud Avocado (1958).

Despite being billed as a funny romp, I am taking a decidedly humorless approach to The Dud Avocado. College-age American, Sally Jay Gorce, goes to Paris for two years, entirely bank-rolled by her Uncle Roger. Sally Jay has always craved freedom and now she has it, so she drinks, finds an Italian diplomat and later a painter to keep her warm, gallivants with other wandering youth, and does some acting. She has little luck with love or sex and her passport is stolen. Exhausted physically and emotionally, she leaves Paris to return to the US and decides to become a librarian (a nightmare which she decides to embrace). Rescuing her from a hum-drum life comes Max, a Hungarian photographer, whom she met in France. He’s successful and a snappy dresser (i.e. he wears suits made out of pool table cloth), so they decide to marry and honeymoon in Japan. The end.

I checked out this book, because after reading The Well of Loneliness and while slowly reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, I wanted to hear another woman’s story about life in Paris during a different time (here, the 1950s). The only thing that carried me through this book was the strength of Sally Jay’s voice. She’s witty, intelligent, and a little crazy. She knows she’s a mess, but that doesn’t stop her determination to keep on chugging toward the next adventure. I liked Sally Jay, but I didn’t enjoy the characters who inhabit her chaotic life:  obnoxious pseudo-intellectuals and artists, couples riding roller-coaster relationships, and selfish posers (truly, hell is other people). It was a bit too much like high school. I think my 15 year old self would have enjoyed this book a lot more, when the thought of little responsibility and the complete freedom to make mistakes might have seemed more exciting to me. I don’t begrudge Sally Jay’s good times; it’s just that she never ends up having that much fun.

I also disliked the ending. Marrying off Sally Jay seemed just a little too convenient and easy. And though I’m a happily married woman, who married young, the feminist in me hates that Sally Jay uses marriage as a way out of her boring life without her ever really coming into her own. Sally Jay has a refreshingly modern voice, but she lives in a not quite modern world.

Couple on Bridge by Eduoard Boubet

Poet Rawk

Patti Smith Just Kids (2010).

I came to this memoir without knowing much about poet/musician Patti Smith or artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Turns out, I have encountered their art before, but not often enough or at a time for me to have made any connection between work and artist. I’d heard good reviews of Just Kids and I was interested in the story’s setting, 1960s-70s New York City. By the end, I found three major reasons for enjoying this quiet, loving, matter of fact memoir, which chronicles Patti and Robert’s life together.

Note: Usually I write about books in the present tense, but as all these events happened in the past, I sometimes use the past tense, other times the present.

Patti Smith, Herself

She is one funny, fearless, resourceful lady. When she came to New York, she was mostly homeless for a time and after working at different bookstores, she eventually finds steady work at Scribner’s and makes enough to support herself and Robert. Supplemental income comes from Robert’s odd jobs (e.g. Christmas display designer, hustling), Patti’s occasional shoplifting sprints, and her unbelievable knack for finding rare books at low prices, which she then resells. Robert sets his sights on becoming one of the rich and famous, but Patti doesn’t always fit in with the movers and shakers. In one of my favorite moments in the book, she attends a “fancy dress ball hosted by Fernando Sanchez, the great Spanish designer” as a “tennis player in mourning” wearing all black with white Keds.  And did I mention that her and Robert’s favorite diner meal is grilled cheese with tomato on rye with a chocolate malt? That just makes me so happy.

Art and Artists

Patti and Robert had a rare relationship that defied labels. They were lovers, siblings, artist and muse, never strangers. From the moment they met, they had a connection. Their friendship solidifies during their second encounter, when Patti finds Robert tripping on acid in Tompkins Square Park and they spend the rest of the night together looking at art books at his place. They inspired each other as their work evolved organically and unexpectedly. Patti’s transformation from poet to rock star is a wonderful story of a woman discovering new talents and honing her skills. Robert pushes Patti to start performing and she, in turn, prods him to take up photography so that he can create his own images for his collages. Until they found lovers to support them as full-time artists, Patti and Robert survived through an unbelievable amount of determination and commitment to their work. If networking is the key to a successful career, it’s no surprise that Patti and Robert’s move to the Hotel Chelsea marked a major turning point in their lives.

Encounters with Famous People

Some major figures in New York’s art scene flit through the memoir. Patti’s a few years younger than the hippies, but she meets Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and worships Brian Jones and Bob Dylan. More interesting are Patti’s encounters with the previous generation. She and Robert hang out with Harry Smith, who compiled the 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music. He’s a kind of quirky uncle figure who smokes up with Robert and frequently joins Patti and Robert for lunch at the diner. At a nearby cafeteria, Allen Ginsberg mistakes Patti for a boy and buys her a sandwich. When she divines the situation, she asks whether he wants it back. He laughs and says, no, she can still keep it. Patti’s friends include Beat writers Gregory Corso and William Burroughs, but for lovers she looks to contemporaries, writer/actor Sam Shephard and Allen Lanier of the Blue Oyster Cult.

This memoir has many facets–the art scene, the stories of the artists’ lives and work–but, at heart, it’s a love story. There are so many ways to love; Patti and Robert show us one.

Are you there God? It’s me, Stephen Gordon.

Radclyffe Hall The Well of Loneliness (1928).

When my mom cleaned out her library of unwanted items recently, she set aside a crumbling copy of The Well of Loneliness for me. This melodramatic novel explicitly confronts the difficulties lesbians have in finding acceptance in society and pleads to the reader and to God to give homosexuals “the right to [their] existence!” (506).

Warning: the synopsis below contains spoilers.

Book cover collage from "Paris Was A Woman"

Hall’s story centers on the life of Stephen Gordon. The Gordans expected a boy and never stop calling their child Stephen after she is born. Stephen’s affectionate father knows she is not like other girls, pities her fate, and tries to protect her from the world. He allows her to hunt and fence, and to have a happy childhood, generally, since he understands that she may never find complete happiness. Conversely, Stephen’s mother never understands or loves her child. After her husband’s death, Mrs. Gordon discovers that her daughter is an “invert” in the worst possible way: while Stephen is having an affair with a married woman. Mrs. Gordon banishes Stephen from the family’s luxurious country estate and Stephen moves to Paris where she pursues her writing career.

At the start of WWI, Stephen volunteers as an ambulance driver in France, where she meets Mary, a young woman who comes to depend on Stephen for sustenance (literal and figurative). However, even in open-minded Paris, Stephen and Mary find themselves at odds with society, so they confine their social circle to a group of misfit, desperate artists. For jarring contrast, Hall juxtaposes Stephen and Mary’s uncomfortable evening at a bar where the oppressed come to forget their wasted lives, spent in exile from their straight families and friends, with the joyous, uncomplicated wedding of Stephen’s servant. Again and again, the novel emphasizes that had Stephen’s friends been straight or had the world accepted their “inversion”, they would have a chance at success and happiness.

When Stephen’s friend Martin contacts her after a long estrangement, Stephen discovers that Mary isn’t cut out for the exhausting struggle of deflecting endless “persecution and insult” (492). In a moment of heartbreaking martyrdom, Stephen decides that the only thing she can offer Mary is freedom from their relationship, so she pretends to have an affair. Shocked and hurt, Mary leaves Stephen for Martin.

It’s easy to have a whitewashed view of the past, so I felt surprised by how openly this book deals with sexuality and sex. Much of the novel focuses on Stephen’s quest to define who she is and to understand how she should relate to others–with whom she can be open and from whom she needs to conceal her true self. Repeatedly, she calls on God not to foresake his creations and she scorns “normal” people, who sin yet look on her with disgust. Hall’s agenda comes through loud and clear with her moralistic writing and descriptions of Stephen’s inner thoughts and outrages. Again, I was surprised by Hall’s progressive arguments (in 1928!) that homosexuality is natural and that homosexuals deserve the rights of heterosexuals.  (Stephen repeatedly struggles with the realization that she cannot provide for her lover as a husband would since, although she is independently wealthy, marriage and children are totally out of the question.) As much as Hall seems before her time, I felt a bit depressed that she raised these issues so early and yet progress toward equality and acceptance has been slow. My own experience can’t answer this, but I’m curious about how this story resonates with today’s LGBT youth. Someday, I hope this novel serves simply as a historical artifact.