Thursday, July 11


Julia Lambert relishes what seems like a perfect life at the start of Cost, the novel by Roxana Robinson. A college professor, landscape painter and mother, she strives to observe and appreciate details in everyday routine: “The extraordinary loveliness of the world, how it was infinite and generous in its reach, how it could be soft and glistening, tangled and dense, velvety and bright.” That beautiful life spirals out of control and the novel's pointed insights and exquisite writing offer a model for any writer hoping to analyze family dynamics.

The book takes on the character of a holiday get-together, a family of grown adults who have not seen one another in a while and must overcome the distances that have developed. There are competing interests among two sets of spouses and two brothers with multiple and abrupt points of view, lending a sense of urgency as the family endures a roller coaster of emotions and questions revolving around guilt, shame, longing and lost trust. Robinson has a knack for suddenly, casually dropping eye-opening details from the past with a sentence or two.

Another son brings his brother's addiction to Julia's attention while she entertaining her parents at her cabin in Maine. Before hearing about Jack's addiction, her chief worry is the cognitive deficiencies of her neurosurgeon father and once-competent mother and how “they were starting to seem like strangers.” Both parents have a glimmer of awareness and Katherine, the mother, reflects on her losses:  “The small hard, bright facts, like nails that should connect it to the rest of her life, were missing. The place where her memory had been was gone, blurrily erased, like a window grayed by mist. … This was happening gradually, as though pieces of her mind were breaking off and floating away, like ice in a river.”  Still, Katherine is intent on keeping her condition to herself while mourning the loss of self, thinking about “how few new things she would do, how many things she would never do again…. Her world had narrowed.”

Despite her dementia, Kathrine senses the family's divides - between her daughter and ex-husband, between her two daughters and two grandsons. She mourns the loss of a close connection with Julia and wonders why her two daughters do not get along. She had once hoped that her daughters' disdain for each other were a phase and might end, but the attitudes were entrenched. “Hostility in the family seemed like such a waste. But she’d learned years ago that she could do nothing to fix this.” She appreciates time with Julia despite the inevitable flaws. “One thing you learned as a parent was humility.” 

Julia’s beautiful life falls apart that summer, exposing cracks. Initially in denial about the severity of Jack's problems, she insists that the entire family must confront her son at the Maine cabin, hoping that a family intervention might bring Jack to his senses. She also reaches out to Wendell, her ex-husband who has since remarried – both had affairs before their divorce – and a sister whom she rarely sees. She relies on the older brother, Steven, to deliver Jack to the cabin while shoving aside any interest or discussion about that son's work as an environmental activist and plans to apply to law school. Julia keeps talking about “we,” noting “Once we start, I guess we can’t stop it” and Steven realizes he has lost all agency for the endeavor: “he understood they had become partners.” He cares about his mother, gently confiding his concerns about Jack and divulging his own history with drugs, a problem quietly conquered without the support or knowledge of the family. 

Julia strives to be loving and supporting but sees her life was separate. “When your children were small, you tried to conceal your doubts and fears, your pettiness and failures. You tried to be what they needed – strong and certain, pure and loving. Of course they learned quite soon who you were – weak, uncertain, impatient, ungenerous. There was nothing of your character they did not know. Though there were parts of your life you kept to yourself…. There were secrets that should die with people.” 

Two family members, both the elderly mother and the addicted son, have a tenuous grasp on reality. Katherine, while pleasant, is confused and refuses to admit her challenges. “It felt precarious but exciting to carry on like this, to engage, ask questions. She felt as though she were flying, out in the wind, tied to something below by a thread. There was a continuous risk that she’d be found out, the air currents might suddenly tip her to the earth.”  She feels sly, moving through what is a slippery sense of time and space: “The thing was not to pause. It was like walking a tightrope: never think about falling, never stop moving.” 

She panics about losing memory. “Who were you if you had no past? If you existed nowhere but in this room, right now?” 

Katherine’s husband, Edward, as a retired neurologist recognizes that the outcome for those diagnosed with either heroin addiction or dementia is bleak. He grieves his wife’s decline as she repeatedly expresses newfound shock after being reminded about Jack’s addiction.  “He felt as though a blazing mirror had been held up to him. It was as though his entire life was being reassessed by someone else. He was powerless to control it, forced to observe it.” 

He also finds himself grieving that he never took the time to understood his wife, her needs and dreams. “The ideas was a kind of shock, that there might be another, alternate view of their life together. He’d always seen himself as the center of things, moving across the landscape of their life like a roiling storm center on a weather map.” Belatedly, he finds himself wondering if Katherine “might have been at the center of another system, possibly just as strong, just as roiling, but invisible on his map.” He concludes, “Getting older, it was impossible to see things the way you’d always seen them before.” Once renowned in his field, Edward feels rudderless, “Which is what age did to you, it stripped you of what you’d had, of your presence in the world.” 

The family is not close and all members distrust attempts for closeness. Growing up, Julia and her sister, Harriet, were discouraged from showing feelings, and the latter questions why society values close family ties. “What if your family happened to be made up of people with whom you had little in common, whose company you didn’t enjoy? Why wasn’t your family equally to blame, for not being close to you?” Both sisters tend to blame their father, Edward, and Julia assesses him. “He let nothing go by. He had to correct the world.” 

The intervention leads to a stint in rehab and eventual failure. Wendell's fury grows with futile attempts to convince Jack to listen and acknowledge the seriousness of his problem. “The way he acts, not looking at us, not talking to us, not admitting what he’s done, as though he’s too cool to deal – he acts contemptuous of us. … He devalues himself, the whole enterprise of having him and raising him – he acts as though it was all worthless. He doesn’t care about any of it…. He’s contemptuous of everything we’ve ever done as parents.” 

The struggle overwhelms the family and Julia slowly realizes that her life will never be simple or content again. “The unbearable pathos of objects. It was so strange that they all looked just as they had yesterday, though everything around them had been caught up in violent change. It was like a neutron bomb: a huge detonation, shattering all the humans but leaving the objects intact.”

Jack’s trouble rapidly spins out of control during the novel, at great cost for Julia. By the end, Julia wonders if she shares her father’s domineering presence. The sisters regularly accuse him of not being generous but in the end, he alone extends generosity that can only partially cover the economic costs that Jack's addiction delivers to Julia.  

Stripped of denial, Julia accepts the circumstances of Jack’s life and her own role with resignation.  “She believed in nothing so simplistic or logical as a natural moral system, no abstract code meeting out judgment. She didn’t think this was a punishment for adultery, nor for poor mothering, nor for her many sins, accruing over the years to a sum that required, by some terrible accounting, the unthinkable payment.”  Beauty no longer distracts her or gives her solace and instead, “Humility lay over everything like a gray mist.” 

She tries not to blame herself, but then, “of course her fault. She was his mother.” 

Tuesday, June 25

The power of being alone


Those corruptly enjoying power strive to craft rules to control a population’s behavior and very thoughts. Rigid rules in a small community aim to reinforce that power, ensuring hypocrisy, deceit and guilt. 

In The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne bears a child out of wedlock while her husband is away, and she refuses to divulge the father’s identity. The Puritan community gives her a short prison sentence and orders her to display a scarlet A on her chest indefinitely. The intention is to remind the community Hester's adultery, misery and shame with every passing day: “giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of women’s frailty and sinful passion. Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast… as the figure, the body, the reality of sin.”  

Hester crafts the large letter herself almost as a mark of pride: “On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore….” 

Those in power who fail to exercise self-control are often the most desperate in clinging to rigid rules, and this is the case with the infant’s father, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. “In no state of society would he have been what is called a man of liberal views; it would always be essential to his peace to feel the pressure of a faith about him, supporting, while it confined him within its iron framework.” 

Dimmesdale is tempted by true freedom yet fears the consequences of community-wide freedom and resists confessing his son. “Not the less, however, though with a tremulous enjoyment did he feel the occasional relief of looking at the universe through the medium of another kind of intellect than those with which he habitually held converse. It was as if a window were thrown open, admitting a freer atmosphere into the close and stifled study, where his life was wasting itself away…. But the air was too fresh and chill to be long breathed with comfort.”  In a community in a constant state of vigilance and scrutiny, transparency and truth become weapons for both those who support the rules and those who resist.  

Age, gender, institutions contribute to the chains of power in Hawthorne’s novel, as noted by Dimmesdale. “The good old man addressed him wit the paternal affection and patriarchal privilege, which his venerable age, his upright and holy character, and his station in the Church, entitled him to use, and, conjoined wit this, the deep, almost worshipping respect, which the minister’s professional and private claims alike demanded. Never was there a more beautiful example of how the majesty of age an wisdom may comport with the obeisance and respect enjoined upon it, as from a lower social rank and inferior order of endowment towards higher.” 

Seven years pass and the community continues to ostracize Hester and her daughter. The free-spirited, observant child, Pearl, plays alone, Hester is free to think as she pleases and Hawthorne comments, “It is remarkable, that persons who speculate the most boldly often conform with the most perfect quietude to the external regulations of society.” 

Hester quietly makes herself useful for the community, and as a grudging respect eventually replaces the condemnation, Hester’s dogged embrace of the letter A becomes a sore point. The townspeople resent being forced to make explanations to newcomers and their own young children. Hester is increasingly urged to discard the letter, but she embraces her status and isolation: “The world’s law is no law for her mind…. In her lonesome cottage, by the sea-shore, thoughts visited her, such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England; shadowy guests, that would have been as perilous as demons to their entertainer could they have been seen so much as knocking at her door.”  

Because the two spend so much time, Pearl is largely free of the town's rigid influences. Hester both fears and loves Pearl as she strives to educate the child on her own. Still, she worries about the girl's wild nature and her future, prompting Hester to wonder: “in bitterness of heart, whether it were for ill or good that the poor little creature had been born at all. Indeed, the same dark question often rose into her mind with reference to the whole race of womanhood. Was existence worth accepting even to the happiest among them?” 

The scarlet letter does not fulfill the intentions of those who would punish and shame Hester.   

Image courtesy of  

Sunday, May 12

Never-ending enigma


A Princess Diana impersonator with a sister who could be a twin, a precocious child raised in foster care, a cryptocurrency firm with organized crime connections all in Las Vegas – what could go wrong? 

Chris Bohjalian's The Princess of Las Vegas is a fast-paced mystery about a successful Princess Diana impersonator in a second-rate casino who is estranged from her sister after trauma with a stepfather followed by their mother’s death. Regardless of the hard feelings, the younger sister moves to Las Vegas with her precocious and newly adopted teenager, lured by a high-paying position with her boyfriend's crypto company. Meanwhile, the two brothers who own and operate the Buckingham Palace Casino are found dead in the space of a few days, suicides from all appearances, except that that the reader is witness to the first murder with the novel's early pages. 

Diana is popular among those who recall where they were on August 31, 1997, and the fictional Chrissy Dowling is a Las Vegas legend who relies on Adderall and Valium to get through two shows per night and days spent in a poolside cabana. She is intensely proud of her work, constantly researching the royal family and tweaking the show. She hopes that her tribute show touches “a chord of orphic remembrance,” reminding “us who we once were and, sometimes, where we once were emotionally and literally.” 

Still, the suicides followed by the death of Chrissy's love interest has her and other casino staff worried about losing their jobs. 

A lot of luck comes into play in the story – but in Las Vegas, that makes perfect sense. Often, we don't recognize the luck waiting before us.  “None of us, even when we are breathing our last, understand fully the role that chance will have played in our lives, the ways that what we supposed was good luck prevented us from experiencing better luck, or the way that a small misfortune saved us from a far worse one.” 

Princess Diana, a quiet, gentle and beautiful woman adored by the world but resented by her family, was an enigma and the contradictions of her life will continue to remain an inspiration for novelists for years to come. Consider Royal Escape, in which a princess yearns to flee the royal trap where security provides no protection at all. 

Bohjalian delivers a story with modern twists that dig deep into the mysteries of human nature and family angst.

Tuesday, April 16

'Til death... and beyond

Baumgartner by Paul Auster is about the final years an elderly philosophy professor and the poignant love story with his poet wife. S.T. Baumgartner reveres Anna, a woman for whom even the most ordinary words were “imbued with some mesmerizing, transcendent quality.” That quality emerged “not just in her voice but in her power to transform the most ordinary movements of the body into acts of sublime self-expression and grace, the eloquence of her fingers as she turned the pages of a book, for example….” 

Anna died a decade earlier, at age 58 after being struck by a rogue wave at Cape Cod. Baumgartner struggles with life alone, trying to form new relationships even while thoughts of Anna linger.

At one point he dreams of receiving a phone call: “Such is the power of the imagination, he tells himself. Or, quite simply, the power of dreams. In the same way that a person can be transformed by the imaginary events recounted in a work of fiction.”  He concedes that “he has never not been in contact with Anna since the day she drowned, and if he has now conjured up an alternative world in which she knows that he is thinking about her, can feel him thinking about her, can think about him thinking about her, who is to say there isn’t some truth to it?”

Baumgartner wonders if he has found religion, “Or what passes for religion in a man who has none and believes in nothing but the obligation to ask good questions about what it means to be alive, even if he knows he will never be able to answer them.” 

The couple did not have children and Baumgartner has no regrets, understanding that family members do not automatically connect. He reflects on his own family history and his father’s unhappiness about running a family dress shop, starting at age 22 when illness would have otherwise forced the grandfather to sell. The father bid farewell to his dreams of studying history or law and becoming an activist. He left night school and a library job to support his mother and four siblings whom he did not respect – “there was no right choice or wrong choice, only two right choices that both would have come out wrong in the end.” The decision to stay with the store was “an honorable one, even a noble one, but if you began to feel that your self-sacrifice has been wasted on a family of morons and mooching chiselers, your choice will inevitably turn into a source of resentment, and, as the years go on, inflict serious damage on your soil.” 

Anna's spirit lives on through her writing. Soon after Anna’s death, her husband compiles her finest poems and arranges publication of a collection. And he continues to read her other unpublished poems, essays and short stories. 

Years after that publication, a colleague of Anna and Baumgartner reaches out to introduce a doctoral student who wishes to research Anna’s work for her dissertation. Baumgartner anxiously rearranges his plans and remodels a place for the student to stay. He recalls Anna's last dash into the waves and worries about the young woman's long drive during the winter months.

But he remains quiet, supporting a spirited and determined student, still connecting with Anna during the last few years of his life. 

Friday, April 12



Reading is a solitary activity that offers a sure guide to navigating society and our many relationships. 

In The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, Queen Elizabeth, while chasing after her corgis, discovers a mobile library in a courtyard where she meets the librarian and the sole patron, a member of her kitchen staff. She welcomes a book suggestion from the young servant, Norman, and takes a liking to him while anticipating pushback from senior staff about her decision to read a book. “Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people…. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself.” Indeed, the senior advisors assure that they can brief her on any subject, but the Queen bristles: “briefing is not reading. In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point… Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.” 

Elizabeth promotes Norman to assist her in procuring books and regrets not reading more in her early years: “for the first time in her life she felt there was a good deal she had missed.” She describes herself as an opsimath, “one who learns only late in life.” Reading absorbs her, instigating new thinking and ideas. She loses enthusiasm for routines and duties – “what the Queen had not expected was the degree to which it drained her of enthusiasm for anything else.” 

Of course, palace staff terminate Norman, suggesting the queen has lost interest and arrange to fund his  college education. The staff then deceive the queen by explaining that Norman resigned to pursue his studies. While happy for him, Elizabeth sadly reflects how “sudden absences and abrupt departures had always been a feature of her life…. ‘We mustn’t worry Her Majesty’ was a guiding principle for all her servants.”

As the queen reads more, she shows a more human side. She finds herself caring more about other people. While reading Henry James, she retorts “Oh, do get on” to the book, and her maid apologizes and the Queen is compelled to explain. “Previously she wouldn’t have cared what the maid thought or that she might have hurt her feelings, only now she did and … she wondered why.” More highly placed staff – many who are poorly read themselves – fret that the Queen is not herself, with some even assuming dementia. 

Relishing the revelations found in books, the Queen tries to share her enthusiasm and recommendations. The prime minister’s special advisor complains to her chief of staff: “your employer has been giving my employer a hard time …. Lending him books to read.” Rather than be direct, the Queen’s advisor arranges for her books to be misplaced during an overseas trip. 

Staff machinations backfire as the Queen’s interest turns to keeping a notebook and taking more control of her life, no longer content to simply read: “A reader was next door to being a spectator, whereas when she was writing she was doing, and doing was her duty.”

At one point she jots a note to herself, “You don’t put our life into your books. You find it there.” 

The novella is sweet and light, celebrating literacy with an ending reminiscent of Royal Escape, published just nine months before The Uncommon Reader in January 2008. The protagonists, the Princess of Wales in the first novel and Queen Elizabeth in the second, reach the same conclusion about the trap that ensnares the British royal family. 

Sunday, March 17

Game of chance


Pachinko by Min Jin Lee covers a Korean woman’s life from 1932 through 1989, how she endures poverty and class discrimination after the death of her father at age 13, Japanese occupation, World War II, the Korean War and life as a marginalized citizen in Japan. The first line of this beautiful  book notes, “history has failed us, but no matter.” A century of occupation, war, ethnic hatred uprooted and divided Korean families. Though gambling was illegal in Japan, Pachinko is hybrid pinball-slot game that offers recreation, dreams of fast earnings, and refuge from loveless homes. Like a game, Sunja’s survival hinges luck, timing and the ability to quickly adapt.

Sunja’s mother gets by renting cramped spaces in her small home to local workers and travelers, and the daughter helps with cooking and cleaning. While at the market, Sunja catches the eye of Hansu, a Korean mob boss with connections in Japan. “Hansu did not believe in nationalism, religion, or even love, but he trusted in education. Above all, he believed that a man must learn constantly.” 

After Sunja becomes pregnant. Hansu won't leave his wife but offers support. Instead, Sunja accepts a proposal from one of her mother’s roomers, Isak, an intelligent and sickly pastor traveling to Japan to stay with his brother and work as a missionary. Skepticism runs high about such missionary work, and one character notes, “the whole religion thing was a racket for overeducated men who didn’t want to do real work.” 

Both Korean and Japanese societies have rigid expectations for marriage. Sunja’s mother is criticized for marrying a man with a cleft lip. The roomers criticize Sunja for marrying a man with tuberculosis. Isak’s supervisor questions his motivation for marrying a woman pregnant with another man’s child. The older pastor warns that coincidences cannot be mistaken for the will of God. “It’s dangerous to think that everything is a sign from God. Perhaps God is always talking to us, but we don’t know how to listen.” 

Koreans in Japan cannot become citizens or enjoy full rights. Minorities of any category are expected to be perfect role models: “One bad Korean ruins it for thousands of others. And one bad Christian hurts tens of thousands of Christians everywhere.”

Chance is a theme throughout the book, and the most successful characters take risks to progress. With the cusp of World War II, Sunja and her sister-in-law risk the wrath of their husbands by selling candy in the market by the train station to pay off the debts associated with Isak's travel from Korea. 

Sunja’s has two sons who are opposites – Noah, son of the mob boss, is a brilliant student who assimilates into Japanese culture while Mozasu, son of the intellectual preacher – struggles in school and eventually takes a job at one of Hansu’s pachinko parlors. “Every morning, Mozasu and his men tinkered with the machines to fix the outcomes – there could only be a few winners and a lot of losers. And yet we played on, because we had hope that we might be the lucky ones. How could you get angry at the ones who wanted to be in the game?”

Japanese society largely disdains pachinko and the Koreans who often run the parlors. Despite the discrimination, Japanese and Korean characters fall in love, including Mozasu and Etsuko. Etsuko’s daughter struggles with addiction and disappoints her family, and Etsuko realized that she had “not taught her children to hope, to believe in the perhaps-absurd possibility that they might win. Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.” 

Discrimination divides the family. Noa, the oldest son, is devastated to learn that he's the son of a gangster. The young man abruptly ends his studies, stops speaking with his family, moves to another town, and passes as a Japanese man to secure work: “Noa realized that this was what he wanted mot of all: to be seen as human.”

With Hansu’s help, Sanju finds Noa years later and has one last meeting before his death. Decades later, she can still feel holding the child’s hand. “The people you loved, they were always there with you, she had learned…. At those moments, it was good to be alone to hold on to him.” 

Life and games of chance are about the dreams and hopes associated with winning and losing. As an elderly grandmother, Sunja reflects on her life and determines it was good. Time and time again, it's reconfirmed for Sunja that what others think about her do not matter.  “Beyond the dailiness, there had been moments of shimmering beauty and some glory, too, even in this ajumma’s life. Even if no one knew, it was true.”

When it comes to assessing a life, only one judgment matters. 

Wednesday, March 6

A cure for many woes


Longstanding friendships are the cure to many woes. Friends share confidences, memories and strategies. They listen, scheme and solve problems together. They comfort and shape each other.  

The short story "Inconspicuous" is about two elderly neighbors who renew a close friendship after years of estrangement. Both have come to realize that good friendships are a treasure as "Society writes older women off as invisible and disposable." One friend, a retired librarian comes to the rescue after the other woman falls prey to a guardian scheme and a scam artist who "befriended the vulnerable, isolating them and destroying hope, committing murder in slow motion."

A good friendship reminds one to feel free and whole again, and perhaps even young. The original version included multiple excerpts from poems by Robert Frost. Those were cut for the final version of the story, but some of the imagery remains. 

We make ourselves a place apart
  Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone really find us out.

"Revelation" by Robert Frost 

Read "Inconspicuous" in the Saturday Evening Post.  Painting of "Two Friends" by Ferdo Vesel, courtesy of Slovenia National Gallery of Art.