Someone by Alice McDermott

9780374281090_p0_v4_s260x420With a calm insistence, Alice McDermott penetrates the everyday life of an ordinary woman, and quietly connects her struggles and successes to our own in her novel Someone.  As McDermott unravels Marie’s life in Brooklyn with her parents and brother, the narrative follows a steady timeline, yet jumps to the future and back in a stream of life changing incidents that seem inconsequential until McDermott brings them all together in a beautiful mosaic.

The narrative can be disconcerting and hard to follow, at first.  Marie is telling the story as an old woman, but this is not immediately apparent.  Each chapter begins another incident in Marie’s life – not always in chronological order – the seven year old describing a funeral is followed by a pregnant Marie fainting in a deli, then her grown daughter taking her for cataract surgery, followed by the chapter flipping back to describe her first meeting with her husband.  At one point, I stopped to begin the book again, feeling lost and realizing I had missed some significance in the first reading – until I grasped the fragments of the examined life that McDermott was laying out.  As the narrator, Marie is a keen observer of life – from the opening when, as a seven-year old she notices Pegeen’s ripped stockings before she falls down the stairs, to admiring her sensitive brother’s quiet unease, long before he grows up to leave the priesthood.

McDermott offers joy and sympathy in this slim book, with insights into an ordinary life that is unique,  yet offers some comfort in the familiar.  Nothing remarkable happens to Marie, yet her life resonated with me, and I looked forward to each episode as McDermott quietly told her story.

Related Post: National Book Critics Circle Award

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10 Reasons I Liked Maurice Sendak

10 Reasons I liked Maurice Sendak:

  1. He was gruff and tough and reminded me of my short grandfather.
  2. He wrote honestly and never talked down to children.
  3. He was a natural talent, never taking a class in how to write or how to draw.
  4. He grew up in Brooklyn and lived in Connecticut.
  5. He stayed with his partner for 50 years.
  6. He loved dogs.
  7. He laughed when the librarians drew a diaper on his drawing of a naked baby.
  8. He scowled when they tried to ban his books.
  9. He reinvented himself in old age, designing scenery for operas.
  10. He inspired children; he inspired me.

1928-2012

I was hoping to see him return to the Colbert Report, but his endorsement (The sad thing is, I like it) of Colbert’s “I Am A Pole” book on his first visit will always be one of my favorite shows.

Luckily, he left behind lots of books with his signature style.

Related Post: Review of Bumble-ardy

The House on Fortune Street

Four lives intersect with secrets and betrayals in Margot Livesey’s The House on Fortune Street.  Each character has an affinity to a literary master – Keats, Dickens, Lewis Carroll, and Charlotte Bronte.   Their modern lives from London to Brooklyn, carry the weight of these authors’  flaws and the influence of their lives and work.

Livesey divides the book into four parts, with each character taking turns as the narrator: Abigail, the owner of the house and a young amoral actress and playwright whose childhood as a virtual orphan has trained her to fend for herself; Dara, Abigail’s friend from college days at St. Andrews, who taught her civility and loyalty; Cameron, Dara’s father who left when Dara was ten years old to protect her from his horrible secret; and Sean, the all-but-dissertation candidate at Oxford, who abandons his wife and his research on Keats to write a book on euthanasia when Abigail decides to charge him rent for living with her.

Sean quotes Keats and imagines parallels to his own life; Abigail’s early days mirror Dickens’s “boyslaughter” life – when part of his childhood was destroyed by the irresponsibility of his parents; Cameron, an avid photographer of young girls, sees himself in Lewis Carroll’s famous pictures of Alice; and Dara becomes a Jane Eyre, betrayed and vulnerable – but not as strong as Bronte’s literary heroine.

Each section ends with a cliffhanger, but the fortunes of all in the house come together in the end – tragically.  Not an uplifting tale, but Livesey’s language is witty and compelling and her literary allusions informative.  I found this author when I read her children’s book, The Flight of Gemma Harding, with lives similarly influenced by circumstances and just plain luck.

 

 

The Heights

A Hallmark Channel scenario with the fairy tale setting in Brooklyn Heights, a sweet conflict between man and woman – Peter Hedges’ The Heights starts with the promise of comfort and predictability.  Of course, more lurks beneath the surface.

Hedges alternates his chapters between the points of view of the two main characters, with some editorializing from an infatuated student. The perfect young couple consist of: Tim, a history teacher on sabbatical from a private academy, working on his dissertation and playing stay-at-home dad to two preschool boys – and Kate, the stereotypical beautiful young mother who can do it all – fry the bacon in the pan and make it too in a six figure dream job where she gives away money for needy causes.  Enter the mysterious and wealthy stranger – Anne Brody.

Hedges rescues the story from being a trite accounting of  a young couple with the usual family challenges and temptations by inserting wry humor and attention to the familiar trivial daily annoyances that can lead to crisis.  Even if you haven’t experienced the juggling of your sanity and identity while parenting – you will laugh at Hedges’s descriptions of play dates, and sigh at Kate’s guilt when her son asks for Daddy. When Tim’s father, a basketball coach, is forced into early retirement because of a sex scandal, the Paterno Penn State debacle was in the news,  and I was hit with the eerie specter of art imitating life.

“On your best day, you think you’re irreplaceable.  You think no one can do what you do better than you…But then one day you realize you were wrong.”

Hedges nudges popular culture with the plot twist that involves an “indecent proposal.” In this case, Woody Harrelson would be spending a wild night – “a unique once in a lifetime opportunity,” while Demi Moore is in Disney World with the kids.  Hedges maintains the suspense – will he accept Anne Brody’s proposition with the Pretty Woman twist to do everything except kiss?

The last chapters are at once hilarious and miserable – Kate at Disney World, overwhelmed by the attentions of her former lover (an actor determined to steal her from her husband), desperately looking for something real in the perfect world of costumed characters and building facades – even a little trash on the ground would help.  And Tim in an upscale boutique hideaway, playing with the light panel and testing the hotel room amenities, while waiting for his assignation with Amanda to start.

This book was the pick for one of my book clubs, or I would not have found it.  An easy read – the story is poignant and funny – with some moments of clarity, and ends on a realistic yet hopeful note.

Rules of Civility

When you see a car accident that you missed by minutes, or bump into someone because you decided to turn right instead of left, do you think fate? serendipity? Katey Kontent hops into the back seat of a car instead of the front, and her action changes the direction of her life in Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility.

Katey flashes back to her life as a twenty-five year old from Brooklyn trying for a career, a husband, a life, in New York City in the late 1930s, when she sees a picture of Tinker Grey in an art gallery thirty years later.  Back then, she was trying to reinvent her life as the daughter of immigrant Russians, when she and her boardinghouse roommate, Eve, from Indiana, meet handsome and wealthy Tinker Grey on New Year’s Eve.  Although the threesome pal around together, Katey defers to Eve in pursuit of the rich prospect; Tinker, however, seems drawn to Katey.  In a bizarre twist, a car accident injures Eve, and Tinker’s guilt drives him to compensate by focusing attention and money to care for her. As Eve slowly recovers but remains scarred, it’s clear that Katey is now the third wheel.

The title is based on the historical document transcribed by George Washington as his guide for behavior; the 110 rules of etiquette included recommendations for proper dress and public behavior, but also address moral and decency issues.  Tinker has a worn copy that at first seems whimsical but later provides Katey with the clues to who he really is, when she discovers his background and source of income.  Towles includes the listing in an Appendix; number 11o suggests the theme for the story:

110th –  Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.

Facing the possibility of a dull career in the secretarial pool, as Tinker and Eve abandon her to fly off to warmer climes or party with Tinker’s wealthy friends, Katey bravely quits her dull job, and finesses her way into Conde Nast.  Through Tinker’s connections, Katey continues to taste the good life, partying with Dickie and Bitsey and Wallace, New York’s wealthy elite, who live behind a social veneer that Katey eventually cracks open.  Of course, their lives are not what Katey supposes they are.  With the witty observations of a Dorothy Parker, Towles examines Katey’s climb to the executive suite and her new society friends in a carefree New York City as she tries to follow the rules.  And rules are everywhere…

“…be careful when choosing what you’re proud of…because the world has every intention of using it against you…”

“…right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss.”

More than an historical romance, Rules of Civility has the flavor of an old black and white movie. The scenes from New York City may remind you of Ginger Rogers and Rosalind Russell in smart outfits and sharp banter, in the time after the Depression and before World War II when “girls” left small towns to room at the Barbizon or boarding houses in Greenwich Village, and rich socialites gave parties and escaped to the Hamptons.

Life is – oh, so very civilized – but “it {doesn’t} come without a price.”