The Keep by Jennifer Egan

Only Maria Semple’s recommendation could get me to try reading Pulitzer Prize 9781400079742_p0_v1_s260x420winner Jennifer Egan again – this time one of her earlier books, The Keep. Mixing elements of the Gothic romance, ghost mystery, fantasy, and thriller, The Keep was more satisfying than A Visit From the Goon Squad, which I have yet to finish. Egan manages to connect two unlikely plot lines with two cousins in a European castle and two prisoners in a creative writing class – while simultaneously commenting on dependence on electronics and the paranoia motivated by inner demons.

The story opens with Danny traveling to his wealthy cousin Howard’s castle in an obscure location in Eastern Europe that is “off the grid.” Not being able to communicate with the outside world becomes an underlying theme that resolves itself in the last chapter, but the message is clear – cell phones and their counterparts have removed the ability to think imaginatively and to participate in the present. Egan dated Steve Jobs for a while – a possible influence?

Howard’s castle is under major renovation with crew chief Mick, Howard’s childhood friend from reform school and now on parole under Howard’s supervision. Danny, happy to escape his miserable life, accepts the one-way ticket but worries that Howard may be planning revenge for Danny’s cruel and almost fatal prank when they were boys. An aging baroness, who has locked herself in the keep, the castle’s fortified tower, provides the catalyst for their confrontation.

If you blink, you will miss the insertion in the first chapter that creates the grounding for the main plot line that follows. Ray, a prisoner, is writing a story about a man who finds an amazing castle, with a keep. Egan periodically interrupts Danny’s adventures with insertions of Ray’s life in prison, adding an attractive creative writing teacher who gets a crush on Ray and a prison roommate who thinks he has invented a “radio” that taps into the wavelengths of dead conversations. So, the story within the story – one feeding the other.

Despite Egan’s underlying message that everyone is in danger of becoming a prisoner of their own making, the plot is riveting and kept me reading to finish the book in one sitting. The book ends – but then ends again – with an added chapter that has the creative writing teacher finding the real castle in the real world. Possibly it does exist somewhere, or maybe Egan only wishes it does.

Have you read the book?

Canada by Richard Ford

Richard Ford’s Canada unravels like a long spaghetti Western.  Narrated by Dell Parsons, now a retired math teacher,  recalling the turning point in his life – when his parents robbed a bank when he was fifteen years old, the geography of Canada does not appear until the second half of the book.  By then, clearly, the plot is secondary.

As Dell describes the details of his mismatched parents and the strangeness of his twin sister, their lives after Dell’s father retires from the Air Force take on a surreal simplicity.  No one is satisfied: his mother yearns for a better life, preferably with another husband in another place; his father, the Alabama hustler, is always looking for easy street; his sister, Berner, in the throes of adolescent hormones, closes herself off.  Ford concentrates on the minutia of their lives, so that you readily “accept and understand” them.  Knowing the bank robbery has happened and the parents have been sent to jail – in the first page – you are still compelled to know more.

To avoid the juvenile authorities, Dell’s mother has arranged for her friend Mildred to drive the children to Saskatchewan, Canada to live with Mildred’s brother, Arthur Remlinger.  Berner runs away,  but Dell escapes to Canada;  the second half of the book creates a seemingly unrelated story to the first half with Dell trying to adjust to a new hard life, while trying to forget his old one.  Eventually, Arthur, a fugitive himself, involves Dell in a bigger crime than bank robbery.

Ford ends the narrative by reuniting Dell,  a sixty-five year old Canadian math teacher, with his dying sister, startlingly contrasting the effect of their childhood trauma on their lives.

You’ll need time and patience for this book.  Ford’s astute observations coined in tight phrases kept me reading to the anticlimactic ending:

“…life changing events can seem not what they are.”

“Your life’s going be a lot of exciting ways before you’re dead. So just pay attention to the present.”

“Canada had everything America ever had, but no one was mad about it.”

“…you have a better chance in life – of surviving it – if you tolerate loss well; manage not to be a cynic through it all…to connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good, even if admittedly good is often not simple to find…”

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake

Memoirs are not my favorite genre and the last time I read Anna Quindlen, she scared me away with the desolation of her novel,  Every Last One, but a good friend suggested that I read Quindlen’s memoir – Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.

Not willing to wait out the long library reserve list, I escaped to a Barnes and Noble to nurse a double espresso while reading the red covered book with a flap that boasted “You wouldn’t believe how cheaply I can do a kitchen renovation” – sounded promising.
So, Anna became my morning coffee companion.

As she chatted about friends, school, religion, and children, I realized we have a lot in common. I squirted coffee out my nose laughing at her wanting to lick the brownie bowl without sharing with her small children. (One of my first published pieces was about licking the cake batter bowl.) Although I admired her handstands and one-arm pushups, she did not inspire me to do the same, but her admonition to “drive out fear” is advice worth keeping. When was the last time you did not try something because you were afraid of the outcome?

After a while, I took Anna home with me and discovered her mother had made her pepper-onion-egg sandwiches just as mine had for me. I listened intently as her life changed when her mother became ill when Anna was 19, and suddenly realized the significance of her theme of loss in most of her novels.

Quindlen’s memories have a universality that will resonate with anyone who appreciates “the examined life,” but I made an unexpected connection – just as my friend suggested I would. As for that kitchen renovation, she took the words right out of my mouth…

A safety net of small white lies can be the bedrock of a successful marriage.

Book Review: Every Last One