Honeydew by Edith Pearlman

9780316297226_p0_v2_s260x420The short stories in Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew are zingers.  When motivation to read a full novel is lacking, the compact pleasure of a well-constructed short tale delivers me from my inertia.

The setting for the first short story in Honeydew, “Tenderfoot,” is Paige’s pedicure parlor.  Bobby, a college instructor who lives across the street, befriends his neighbor but secretly spies on Paige and her clients from his upstairs window.  His torment revolves around a car accident and his “failure to act.”  The pedicurist becomes his confessor, but the mutual resolve of the story neatly ties them together while leaving the reader with a thoughtful problem.

After reading Laura Van Den Berg’s review in the New York Times – Edith Pearlman’s HoneydewI skipped to the two stories she had noted: “Honeydew” and “Castle 4.”

“In the title story, the headmistress of Caldicott Academy finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. Her lover, the father of her child, also happens to be the (married) father of a student who is mired in the dark wilderness of anorexia. The affair tumbles ahead; the headmistress suspects she will be forced to resign once her pregnancy is revealed; the starving student studies the stomachs of ants…” 

…“Castle 4” illuminates the intersecting fates of the characters — an anesthesiologist and his doomed patient among them — connected to a hospital that “was named Memorial Hospital but was soon referred to as the Castle…”

I’ve deferred the other stories for a while, when I need something short to get me going.

Now, I want to read a novel.

 

Can You Ever Really Know an Author?

With J. K. Rowling’s latest contribution to crime fiction – The Silkworm – headlining the New York Times Book Review, Adam Kirsch’s essay in “Bookends” in the same section – When We Read Fiction, How Relevant is the Author’s Biography?  questions whether knowing the author’s life (and previous work) affects our reception of new work – is it

 “a mere distraction from what really matters, the work?”

Although he does not cite Rowling, focusing instead on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, the one with a life clearly available for scrutiny, the other not so much, my expectations of a new book by J.K. Rowling are probably higher because of Harry Potter.  And, like Rick Nelson, who faced a jeering audience when he failed to perform their old favorite songs, Rowling’s foray into adult crime has left me wanting to return to wizards and magic. To be fair, I have only read the first in the detective series, and maybe the second is better.

IMG_0348Shakespeare, on the other hand, will always be a favorite, and I agree with Kirsch:

…the unknowability of Shakespeare  is a key ingredient in his greatness… {he} stays one step ahead of  us, always knowing more about life and human nature than we do…”

Soon I will be getting reacquainted with the Bard at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City through Twelfth Nigh, Measure for Measure, and Comedy of Errors, and I know my high expectations will be met.  Jane Austen will be there too in an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.  Maybe we can all have tea together.

 

 

I Liked the Book, But Do We Have to Talk About It?

Reading is personal, but anyone who has read that one fabulous book has a yearning to proselytize the story and convince everyone else that it is by far the best book ever written.  It helps if the reader is preaching to an audience who has not yet read the book.

Book clubs can be the place to confirm the wonder of the book,  if everyone agrees,  but most times, no one does. After listening to a dissection of the book’s plot, character, setting – the dedicated reader may even lose the original fervor for the book.   Author Francine Prose offered her thoughts on reading a book for a book club in an an interview with Jessica Murphy for The Atlantic…

“ … book clubs have had both a positive and negative effect. On the one hand, they do get people reading and talking about reading. But on the other hand, when you’re reading for a book club, the whole time you’re thinking, I have to have an opinion and I’m going to have to defend it to these people. The whole notion of being swept away by a book pretty much goes out the window.”

imagesBut what happens if no one likes the book under discussion?  and you happen to be the author?  In this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, author Kevin Baker recalls his experience when he inadvertently spied on a book club discussion of his book in I Read You Loud and Clear.  Listening to readers critique his book “Dreamland,” he reluctantly kept his identity as the author of the book secret, when he realized that no one really liked his story. He became “Tom Sawyer attending his own funeral.”

When friends ask me about my own writing, I usually defer, change the subject, get a coughing fit…

It’s hard to hear what readers think of your writing, especially when they misunderstand or really don’t like what you wrote.  Most writers are too thin-skinned to want or invite criticism of their work in person; those scathing written reviews can always be dismissed by spilling a cup of coffee on them.  I laughed at the last line of Baker’s essay when the author said the book club still tore him apart when they realized he had written the book.  Everyone’s a critic – yet another reason many writers try to stay incognito – it’s easier on our fragile egos.


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Notable Books of 2013

The New York Times has produced its list of “Notable Books of 2013,” and I have  read and reviewed:

  •  All That Is
  • The Dinner
  • The Goldfinch
  • Life After Life
  • Longbourn
  • The Lowland
  • We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
  • The Woman Upstairs

Others are on my to-read list:

  • The Luminaries
  • The Son
  • Someone
  • Doctor Sleep

The rest I think I’ll skip – how about you?

Check the complete New York Times Notable Book List for 2013 – here

Willa Cather

001-WillaCather

Willa Cather was never an attraction for me – her strange name, her stories of pioneer immigrants, her “O Pioneer,” a belabored required reading in high school – but  Jennifer Schuessler piqued my interest in the author in her review of a new publication of Cather’s letters for the New York Times Book Review – O Revelations! Letters, Once Banned, Flesh Out Willa Cather. Like Jane Austen, Cather was reluctant to reveal her private life through her letters,

” Cather was believed to have destroyed most of her letters and sternly ordered that her surviving correspondence never be published or quoted from…’  {yet the editors promised that} these lively, illuminating letters will do nothing to damage her reputation…{and instead reveal her as} “a complicated, funny, brilliant, flinty, sensitive, sometimes confounding human being.”

9760395755145-tBefore reading her letters, I decided to read the book that promised to reveal Cather’s own story of leaving Virginia as a young girl to live in Nebraska – My Antonia. Cather tells the story as Jim Holland, now a successful East Coast lawyer with an unsuccessful personal life, as he remembers his youth on the prairie.   His reminiscences center on a beautiful immigrant girl as they both arrive in Nebraska in the late nineteenth century – he at ten years old to live with his grandparents on the farm, after the death of his parents; Antonia at fourteen to struggle through a new way of life with her immigrant family, far from Bohemia where her father played the violin.

Antonia’s experiences reflect the struggles of immigrants trying to learn the language and a new way of life, as they also try to preserve their own traditions – some in conflict with their new world.  Antonia is a strong character, and her life is the lynchpin for the many stories that Cather weaves, subtly revealing how those pioneers coped in an unforgiving and hard existence.   Following Antonia as she grows into a woman, cheering her as she defies expectations, worrying over her as she falls back into farm life from her foray into the big city,  make for a good story, especially as she satisfyingly circles back to her beginnings.

Cather sprinkles the slow narrative with romance, violence, tenderness, and tragic diversions – Jim’s killing of the rattlesnake, the suspicious death of Antonia’s father, the dancing in the town of Black Hawk.  But if you skip over Cather’s descriptions of the land, you will miss the best part of the book and the genuine insights…

“Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me.  Their backs were polished vermillion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened, I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge.  At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.  When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.”

Willa Cather would not have approved of my reading her fictional first person narrative  – My Antonia –  in paperback; she fought hard with her publisher to keep her book from an adaptation that would “cheapen” it.  Cather commissioned illustrations from Bohemian artist W.T. Benda for the first edition of My Ántonia, but the publisher did not include the images because of the cost; they are in my paperback version.  Having slipped Cather’s paperback into my carry-on, I had added satisfaction recently, as I was one of only a few on the plane who could continue reading as others around me powered down their electronics.

Reading this old classic was refreshing – a good story – hard to find sometimes.  Now, I look forward to reading Cather’s letters and cannot help thinking their publication is a good thing, despite her reservations.  After all, it may inspire others – as it did me – to find her fiction again.