Benediction

9780307959881_p0_v2_s260x420-1With gentleness and respect, Kent Haruf’s Benediction examines ordinary lives in the small town of Holt in Eastern Colorado. Although this is the third book in his trilogy, following Plainsong and Evensong, this story stands on its own. Steeped in sadness with its focus on terminally ill Dad Lewis, Benediction offers insights not only into the examination of life as it ends but also into the perception of its effects on others.

With simplistic language reminiscent of Hemingway and a homespun quality bordering on Garrison Keillor or Thornton Wilder, Haruf methodically records the thoughts and language of his characters. As Dad physically deteriorates, life in the little town goes on; the characters revolve around him but simultaneously keep spinning in their own orbits: Dad’s forbearing wife, Mary; his daughter, Lorraine; his long-lost homosexual son, Frank; the salesmen at his hardware store; the firebrand minister and his family; the grandmother next door, caring for her recently orphaned granddaughter; and two towns women – two good souls among some not so tolerant. Each has fears, concerns, inner demons – revealed through Haruf’s subtle interactions – yet, through Dad, their best selves come to the fore, for him and for each other. Conflicts are not always resolved, as in real life, but life goes on – the “precious ordinary.” The death of Dad comes, but the characters and their inner battles live on – maybe for another book.

Although Kurt Haruf’s Benediction is a beautifully written testament to ordinary people, it is a difficult book to read – especially if you have a parent or loved one who recently died. Knowing the sad focus of the book kept me from reading the story for a while, even after I had downloaded it on my Kindle for a recent trip. Eventually, after reading reviews and one particular reviewer who returned to read one of Haruf’s other books in the trilogy, I decided to try. After the first 100 pages, I was hooked on the language and invested in the characters. The terminally ill father was actually a subplot – one of many on the journey of life. Haruf’s last pages, describing the death scene, however, are honest and thoughtful – but no less easy to read. Have your box of tissues nearby.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

9781250028655_p0_v4_s260x420Say the name Zelda and clearly, the reference is to the legendary wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In Theresa Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Zelda tells the story in her own voice – at times, reading like an illicit look into her private diary.

The highs and lows of this Jazz Age marriage have been chronicled in fiction, movies, biographies – some accusing Zelda of destroying her husband’s career, others pointing to Scott as the alcoholic womanizer who drove her insane. Fowler is on Zelda’s side.

Her fictionalized version of this dysfunctional yet brilliant pair includes relationships with a star cast of writers and artists of that era – Thornton Wilder, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and, of course, Hemingway. Fowler uses the strange love/hate friendship of Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald as a turning point in her novel, and creates an explanation for Hemingway’s intense dislike of Zelda with Zelda’s sexual rejection of Hemingway – plausible but only fictional.

The first half of the book seemed to last forever and I found it hard to concentrate on the Southern Belle drivel, as Zelda grows from a 17-year-old Scarlett to a bobbed flapper, partying in Europe. After Hemingway enters, the pace improves, racing to the inevitable ending. To be fair, my lackadaisical attention may have been due to my dizzying ear infection, the small print on my iPhone – or maybe the disappointing use of language.

The Jazz Age with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda continues to be romanticized – a new movie version of Gatsby with Leo DiCaprio is being released, and the New Yorker recently published a Fitzgerald short story rejected over 75 years ago. Fowler’s rendition highlights Zelda’s accomplishments as a painter, would-be ballerina, and as a writer, who was actually plagiarized by her husband. Although fiction, the story certainly justifies the PBS conclusion that

“As an icon of the Jazz Age, she struggled against her traditional southern upbringing and its societal constraints to create a new, independent identity…”

If you don’t know the story of this famous pair, Z is an easy entry into their lives and worth the read, but lower your expectations if you are expecting Fitzgerald’s prose. Although Fitzgerald never wrote a roman à clef, characters from some of his work – The Beautiful and the Damned; Tender is the Night – reflect his life with Zelda. The New York Times reviewer Penelope Green calls his language “precise and a delight.” Maybe that’s what was missing in Fowler’s interpretation.

The Ides of March

The fifteenth of March wasn’t always prefaced with Beware. “Until 44 B.C., the Ides of March were best known as a springtime frolic, an occasion fit for serious drinking, like so many others on the Roman calendar.  A celebration of the ancient goddess of ends and beginnings, the Ides amounted to a sort of raucous, reeling New Year’s.  Bands of revelers picnicked into the night along the banks of the Tiber, where they camped in makeshift huts under a full moon. It was a festival often indelibly recalled nine months later.

In 44 the day dawned overcast; toward the end of the cloudy morning,  Caesar set off by litter for the Senate, to finalize arrangements for his absence. The young and distinguished Publius Cornelius Dolabella hoped to be named consul in his place, as did Mark Antony…”

…from page 124 of Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra

And March 15th was changed forever…

For Thornton Wilder’s historic fiction of this famous day, check out the review for The Ides of March

For the review on Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra: A Life, check here