Review: Old School by Tobias Wolff

11464Blurb:

At one prestigious American public school, the boys like to emphasise their democratic ideals – the only acknowledged snobbery is literary snobbery. Once a term, a big name from the literary world visits and a contest takes place. The boys have to submit a piece of writing and the winner receives a private audience with the visitor. But then it is announced that Hemingway, the boys’ hero, is coming to the school. The competition intensifies, and the morals the school and the boys pride themselves on – honour, loyalty and friendship – are crumbling under the strain. Only time will tell who will win and what it will cost them.

Review:

Rarely is literature so literary. To fully appreciate Tobias Wolff’s prep school bildungsroman Old School, you must have some degree of familiarity with Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway. But this moving and brilliantly written novel can also be appreciated—though only halfway appreciated, I’d argue—by someone who wiled away his English classes drawing spirals on his notebook, because its ideas are so universal. Here Wolff interrogates one of my favorite questions: Who are we? The story we tell the world about ourselves or the story the world tells about us?

Any teenager but especially any outcasted teenager such as this protagonist, a Seattle scholarship student in an East Coast prep school, spends nearly every minute of his life creating his life. Before attaining the halls of high school, a teen’s identity is created by his parents. Suddenly liberated around 13, 14, 15, a teenager decides for the first time who he will be. Oftentimes, Wolff astutely notes, the person he chooses is the wrong choice, which ironically only makes the teenager work harder and harder to embody this choice.

Old School’s plot revolves around a literary competition where renowned writers visit the boarding school campus for a reading and then share a private audience with a boy whose story he read and selected as “the best.” The collegial yet fierce relationships these boys share are strained with the visit of every new writer. And even though these boys’ attempts at not only creative expression but also self-creation may be farce and lie and fiction, you sorta see that by making up false stories, the boys find themselves moving closer to the truth. Kinda how like any bookworm, far from being holed up in escapist fantasies, is on the verge of something realer than most people will ever find.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

46165Blurb:

This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s romantic and witty first novel, was written when the author was only twenty-three years old. This semiautobiographical story of the handsome, indulged, and idealistic Princeton student Amory Blaine received critical raves and catapulted Fitzgerald to instant fame. Now, readers can enjoy the newly edited, authorized version of this early classic of the Jazz Age, based on Fitzgerald’s original manuscript. In this definitive text, This Side of Paradise captures the rhythms and romance of Fitzgerald’s youth and offers a poignant portrait of the “Lost Generation.”

Review:

The literary landscape is overpopulated with insufferable egotists, often of the white male semi-autobiographical variety, but what separates the sympathetic from the antipathetic?

This Side of Paradise is F. Scott Fitzgerald playing in his usual time period with his usual beautiful words. In the booming era leading up to and following the Great War, men were being lost and found. A lucky guess on the stock market made you a millionaire and gave you a name, but battles in Europe led to a battered generation of men questioning where they were going and if it was anywhere good. Amory Blaine spends the entirety of This Side of Paradise as one of the lost until he miraculously finds himself at the end.

This joyous climax did not evoke any triumphant readerly emotions here, however, because Amory Blaine is the most hateful, undeserving character I’ve ever met. And sure, perhaps his character is a window into the minds of the Lost Generation, but if people were/are thinking like this, then I don’t want to know about it. Amory meanders through life, striving towards something indefinable, which is to say striving towards nothing. His privileged childhood and adolescence lead him to Princeton and into the arms of many delightful debutantes whose chief qualities are soft lips and the proclivity to use said lips even before a marriage proposal. Amory’s striving often looks more like stomping. In climbing upwards, he crushes these women and various other members of the underclass (in other words, anyone who didn’t spend his sixteenth and seventeenth years “prepping” in Connecticut, New York, or Massachusetts), an ascent which again, isn’t upwards, but nowards, since he has no destination except superiority.

These are legitimate words uttered by/about Amory:

Oh it isn’t that I mind the glittering caste system. I like having a bunch of hot cats on top, but gosh, I’ve got to be one of them…But I hate to get anywhere by working for it.

Amory usually liked men individually, yet feared them in crowds unless the crowd was around him.

He took a sombre satisfaction in thinking that perhaps all along she had been nothing except what he had read into her ; that this was her high point, that no one else would ever make her think.

And say all you will about unlikeable narrators—I’m certainly an ardent defender as seen here—but something about Fitzgerald’s depiction of Amory rings false. I didn’t know if I should pity him or sympathize with him, so I ended up being disgusted by him. Amory, like personages from The Great Gatsby, is a careless man. But his thoughtfulness is supposed to make him a redeemable man as well, so that we cheer when he reaches epiphanous clarity riding along the New Jersey highway in the novel’s final pages.

Yet I couldn’t cheer for Amory, I couldn’t like Amory, I couldn’t even tolerate reading his various anodyne thoughts. Insipidness is still insipidness, even if it dresses well, prepped at St. Regis, studied at Princeton, and finds itself described by the magic words of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

2 stars out of 5

Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

870775Blurb:

Eva never really wanted to be a mother – and certainly not the mother of the unlovable boy who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and a much-adored teacher who tried to befriend him, all two days before his sixteenth birthday. Now, two years later, it is time for her to come to terms with marriage, career, family, parenthood, and Kevin’s horrific rampage in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her estranged husband, Franklin. Uneasy with the sacrifices and social demotion of motherhood from the start, Eva fears that her alarming dislike for her own son may be responsible for driving him so nihilistically off the rails.

Review:

Today is an era of impermanence. The clothes we buy can be returned to the store with a receipt. The stories we hear on the radio enter our ears and disappear into the ether. The grudges we hold are thrown away with a mere “Sorry.” But I suppose there is one thing we can’t take back, for which there can be no redos or second thoughts. For women at least, a child is forever.

That’s where protagonist Eva finds herself after the birth of Kevin, her ambivalently desired son. From the moment he refuses to nurse from her breast, she wants to give him back. But she recognizes, of course, that this is impossible and would brand her as “evil” by most of the population.

The entire book is composed of retrospective epistles written in the aftermath of a school shooting committed by teenage Kevin. But it mostly grapples around the tense relationship between mother and son, asking, “Is Kevin difficult to love just because Kevin is difficult to love? Or is Kevin difficult to love because his mother doesn’t love him enough/properly/unconditionally/etc?”

Unconditional love has always scared me a little bit. Why should anyone deserve such power? I remember asking an ex-boyfriend question after question, “If I did this slightly horrible thing, would you stay with me? And if I did this slightly more horrible thing, would you still be with me? Okay, and what about if I did this truly truly awful unforgiveable thing? What about then?” He hated this “game” but I loved it. I wanted to know where the line in the sand was drawn. And maybe Kevin and Eva’s entire relationship is the attempt to draw a line in the sand, all the way up to killing several kids in a high school.

So mothers can’t get a redo for a child, and I guess most would also argue that another everlasting thing is murder. Death is forever, and the trigger puller is forever. Except what Shriver excellently shows here is the mania surrounding these mass shootings. His mother is not forgiven for her alleged maternal lapses; Kevin, however, is forgiven by his captivated audience. The reasons for Kevin’s massacre remain opaque. But it’s something about the desire to write his own story, to become an actor. Stricken by affluenza, he wants more and he wants the unknown.

We readers are complicit in consuming this story. But Shriver writes so well, choosing the perfect anecdotes to highlight Kevin’s developing killer psyche, that it’s impossible not to. We Need To Talk About Kevin tells you what will happen from the get-go. Yet it is still so complicated and defies simple understanding. And somehow this story about a mother hating her son, a son hating his mother, and this same son hating the world and thus destroying it is one of the greatest tales of forgiveness that I’ve ever read.

5 stars out of 5

Review: Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

16099180Blurb:

From an early age, Kate and her identical twin sister, Violet, knew that they were unlike everyone else. Kate and Vi were born with peculiar “senses”—innate psychic abilities concerning future events and other people’s secrets. Though Vi embraced her visions, Kate did her best to hide them.

Now, years later, their different paths have led them both back to their hometown of St. Louis. Vi has pursued an eccentric career as a psychic medium, while Kate, a devoted wife and mother, has settled down in the suburbs to raise her two young children. But when a minor earthquake hits in the middle of the night, the normal life Kate has always wished for begins to shift. After Vi goes on television to share a premonition that another, more devastating earthquake will soon hit the St. Louis area, Kate is mortified. Equally troubling, however, is her fear that Vi may be right. As the date of the predicted earthquake quickly approaches, Kate is forced to reconcile her fraught relationship with her sister and to face truths about herself she’s long tried to deny.

Funny, haunting, and thought-provoking, Sisterland is a beautifully written novel of the obligation we have toward others, and the responsibility we take for ourselves. With her deep empathy, keen wisdom, and unerring talent for finding the extraordinary moments in our everyday lives, Curtis Sittenfeld is one of the most exceptional voices in literary fiction today.

Review:

It was with trepidation that I started Sisterland, the sole remaining unread Curtis Sittenfeld novel in my repertoire. The blurb promised identical twin sisters gifted in ESP, one of whom predicts a catastrophic earthquake in St. Louis, a scientifically and thus narratively improbable event that nevertheless serves as the story’s catalyst. For those unfamiliar with her work, Sittenfeld plays with extreme hyperrealism, observations so mundane that many readers deem her “boring” or statements so starkly true that readers find it “uncomfortable.” Sisterlandtherefore seemed like a wild gamble, the mysticism of the psychic main characters incompatible with her mechanical truthiness.

I was wrong. Sisterland is just as honest as her previous work, even as the ridiculous omen of the upcoming earthquake looms over the text. Here Sittenfeld dissects family relationships. She does so calmly, slowly, with lots of anesthetic. The result being an acutely painful awakening at the novel’s end when all the careful sutures she’s sewn come undone.

I adore when a writer challenges herself by creating a narrative obstacle that she can’t simply detour around or abracadabra away: she must go straight through it, even if us dullheaded readers can’t possibly see how she can. The earthquake, which has the possibility to fail entirely (if it happens, she’s supporting the existence of ESP in an otherwise realistic novel; if it doesn’t, she’s essentially inflated a massive balloon of anticipation for the readers and popped it with no ado) is wonderfully resolved—in a way that’s completely surprising but also makes you go “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Kate, the harried mother protagonist who has turned away from psychicness, is believable and sympathetic in her mistakes. She’s another one of those Sittenfeld characters that reminds us that people are messy and complex, and that it’s not easy to live sometimes but it’s so lovely to. The story alternates chapters: one in the past, one in the present leading up to the earthquake. This retrospective narration is particularly inspired in a story obsessed with seeing the future. By the end of the novel, we see that hindsight, not foresight, guides us onward. While we can hope for a future, we can know only the past.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan

290897Blurb:

Set against the translucent beauty of France in summer, Bonjour Tristesse is a bittersweet tale narrated by Cécile, a seventeen-year-old girl on the brink of womanhood, whose meddling in her father’s love life leads to tragic consequences.

Freed from boarding school, Cécile lives in unchecked enjoyment with her youngish, widowed father — an affectionate rogue, dissolute and promiscuous. Having accepted the constantly changing women in his life, Cécile pursues a sexual conquest of her own with a “tall and almost beautiful” law student. Then, a new woman appears in her father’s life. Feeling threatened but empowered, Cécile sets in motion a devastating plan that claims a surprising victim.

Deceptively simple in structure, Bonjour Tristesse is a complex and beautifully composed portrait of casual amorality and a young woman’s desperate attempt to understand and control the world around her.

Review:

I was lying in the sand, taking a handful of it in my hand, letting it flow from my fingers in a soft, yellowy stream. I was thinking that it was flowing away like time, which was a simple idea and that it was pleasant to have simple ideas. It was summer.

A rich, liberated young French girl lives in a villa on the Riviera for the summer with her lothario father and his woman of the moment. Her days are spent sunbathing, swimming, walking in the countryside, visiting fashionable somebodies in trendy bars, eating, drinking and drinking, wanting love, not understanding love, but most of all and always, not thinking. Her days are full of not thinking. That is to say Cécile’s days are not full at all. So when the arrival of Anne, a cold but brilliant Parisian, usurps her father’s attentions, pulling him away from pert 20-somethings and into the halls of potential matrimony, Cécile begins to plot.

The halcyon summer days on the Mediterranean, full of nothing and everything at the same time, represent Cécile’s fading childhood. At 17 she will soon become a person, and eventually a person will want to think, and eventually these thoughts, if unwieldy and untested, will destroy. And afterwards, there will no longer be a villa on the Mediterranean, or there might be, but it will be filled with tristesse, that is, sadness.

Cécile boils up a plan worthy of a third Parent Trap movie to separate her father from Anne. But at the very beginning of her machinations, she already regrets them. The relationship dynamics here are rich and confusing. There’s definitely an Oedipus complex happening here: Cécile’s father dates women not much older than her, and Cécile idolizes him, takes his advice on love as gospel, aspires to love like him…maybe because she’s in love with him? Her competitor to this crown is, of course, Anne, whom she simultaneously admires beyond belief, indeed hopes to imitate and learn from, and wants to annihilate.

There are plenty of subtly romantic moments between all the characters, the most stirring of which a mere caress of Cécile’s face by Anne on the patio. The story devolves like a match of tug-of-war that will inevitably be lost. Cécile is on the cusp of liberty and meaningfulness and thought, on the verge of adulthood. She pushes herself forward and pulls herself backward, but she will definitely fall into the future, she will definitely hurt herself there, and she definitely cannot go back.

In Bonjour Tristesse she says hello to the loss of innocence but in this short, sharp little novella, also leaves a beautiful remembrance of losing it.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Review: Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda

47780Blurb:
Prize-winning author Anna Gavalda has galvanized the literary world with an exquisite genius for storytelling. Here, in her epic new novel of intimate lives-and filled with the “humanity and wit” (Marie Claire) that has made it a bestselling sensation in France-Gavalda explores the twists of fate that connect four people in Paris. Comprised of a starving artist, her shy, aristocratic neighbor, his obnoxious but talented roommate, and a neglected grandmother, this curious, damaged quartet may be hopeless apart, but together, they may just be able to face the world.
Review:
Anna Gavalda has a wonderfully infuriating way of writing like so…
Making your eyes flitter down the page.
Making your heart bat harder with each revelation.
Until she concludes a thought.
Like this.
With oh-so-much meaning.

Her writing is more alive than most, an especially impressive feat since I’ve read her work in French, not English, and I lose myself and die a thousand readerly deaths much more often when reading in French. But her words flow inevitably forward. If, as many authors have proclaimed, the goal of a writer is to get the reader to read the next sentence, and the next, and the next, Anna Gavalda is nothing short of a genius. Myself and others may be tempted to label this short, direct style as cutesy and simplistic, but it’s gosh darn compelling, if we’re being frank.

Less compelling, however, is the story behind the words. We have a nearly plotless novel here; all that happens is outlined in the blurb, apparent from the initial chapters, and fated by the gods of storytelling. Nothing much occurs and what does occur does not surprise. The four characters–a ragtag team beaten by the world who will find happiness in their shared ruins and slowly rebuild each other–are terrific sketches, but what they do is nowhere near as passionate as Gavalda’s prose. I’ve only previously read Gavalda’s slam-dunk short story collection, I Wish Someone Were Waiting For Me Somewhere, which hides this weakness of hers. Petite novelettes are perfect for her character-centric writing; this novel of nearly 600 pages was vast and vacant, the winds of disinterest blew through its empty and tired intrigues.

And yet.
That writing.
Heavy on punctuation, on labelling feelings, on fragmenting thoughts.
It pulled me through.

(I’ll stop now.)

But this pathetic attempt at imitation shows how much her words tumbled and scattered in my brain. Gavalda might not tell the stories that I want to read, but she tells them in the way I want to read them.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Review: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

22725443Blurb:

Anna Benz, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband Bruno and their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich. Though she leads a comfortable, well-appointed life, Anna is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with the emotionally unavailable Bruno or even with her own thoughts and feelings, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs she enters into with an ease that surprises even her. Tensions escalate, and her lies start to spin out of control. Having crossed a moral threshold, Anna will discover where a woman goes when there’s no going back.

Review:

I propose a new rule for the 21st century, for this bright new era where mental illness is less stigmatized and your grandmother has a therapist, your 6th grade teacher has a therapist, even your 5 year-old neighbor has a therapist: can we please never ever discuss what your therapist tells you? Can the patient and wise words of your psychoanalyst live in the space between her mouth and your eager, desperate brain?

Listening to someone talk about therapy is the new listening to someone talk about her dreams. So much utter nonsense that I just can’t be bothered by. Pity that the character who has second-billing to Anna Benz, a Swiss and second millenium Madame Bovary, is Doktor Messerli, her therapist. Doktor Messerli has developed her entire methodology from Freud and Jung, which means to say everything she says is a load of abstract navelgazing with no real purchase on her patient’s inner life. Unfortunately this novel, which records the rapidly unraveling affairs of lonely, passive Anna, is positively graffited with short psychoanalyst asides:

The face one wears as an adult is a mask that’s cut to fit in her youth. Every mask becomes a death mask when you can no longer put it on or take it off at will. When you mistake the persona you project for your living soul. When you can no more distinguish between the two.

I hate thinking so much about thinking. It makes my pulse gallop. Psychoanalysis of this sort (and it truly does occur and recur every few pages throughout the book) is a web from which you cannot escape. This constant analysis of Anna’s character by Doktor Messerli (who is, of course, nothing more than an authorial stand-in, a god in the sky to push the story, and more particularly, the story’s “themes” along) is professional and sanitized and incomprehensible, which renders any readerly attempt of analyzing Anna’s character cloudy. I spent most of this book stuck in a web of outdated Jungian aphorisms, leading me to groan, “Save me from all this thought so that I can actuallythink!”My mother, daughter of a German father and an American mother, often yelled when my father and us children demanded some domestic task of her, “I’m not your Hausfrau!” Anna lacks my mother’s vivacious ability to act, to exclaim, to deny, leading her to become a Hausfrau. Like Anna Kareninabefore her, Anna’s femininity translates to passivity, and her passivity translates to doom. Anna can’t speak Swiss German, despite living in Zürich for 9 years. Culturally removed, she can’t make friends. Without a bank account of her own, she can’t leave her husband. Quite basically, she lacks a vocabulary—linguistic and psychological—to get what she wants, even todecide what she wants. Anna simply can’t. And she knows it:

I am beholden to my own peculiar irony: to survive I self-destruct.

Anna’s passionate about her misery. But at a certain point even her misery becomes too much. She can no longer passively accept life; she must live. Observing these consequences is where the novel excels.

Choppy, meandering, spliced with unnecessary asides on Swiss German grammar and silly scientificating about the properties of fire, and, of course, plenty of falsely opaque psychoanalyses,Hausfrau is flawed and frustrating. But it’s believable, crushingly so, and incredible to realize that an American woman living in Switzerland in the 2000s may not be so different from Anna Karenina and the 19th century Russian ballrooms she called home and prison.

3.5 out of 5 stars