Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 25

Memories











In Lessons, Roland Baines regards an abusive relationship from when he was 11 years old as the source of his many desires and failures. A piano teacher at his private boarding school pinches his inner thigh, hard, after he repeatedly makes a mistake during their music drills. He has fantasies about her, and she invites him to her home for lunch. Months later, Roland shows up at the cottage, and the two have intercourse. Memories of the strange teacher haunt him years later in this novel about parenting, abuse, ambition and lost potential. 

From the start, the novel analyzes how memories repeatedly shape our choices, serving as lessons in guiding one's life.    

As an adult, Roland determines that nobody escapes making their own self-made hell “at least one, in a lifetime.” She controls him: “He never had a choice. He didn’t want a choice.” 

Roland’s grades suffer and he leaves school early, avoiding the piano teacher and her attempts to trap him in marriage. That decision frees him in a way while also eliminating his chance to attend college. He decides he can be self-taught while earning an income by writing, teaching tennis and playing in piano bars. Roland travels and dates freely, and his twenties slip by. “He assured himself that he had his freedom and he was having fun. He could control his occasional anxieties about the aimlessness of his existence. But they swelled and finally broke through and could no longer be resisted. He was twenty-eight and not living a useful life…. Many people wasted their twenties or their whole lives in offices, on factory floors and in pubs…. So it had been worthwhile to be carefree, live hand to mouth and not be like everyone else. The very point of being young. Whenever he caught himself thinking or saying things like that, he knew it was himself he needed to convince.”

In West Germany, he studies German and befriends a family in East Berlin. The mother explains to him how children bind them to the communist system: “A bad step by the parents, a moment of unguarded criticism and the children might find the path to university or a decent career barred.”

Over the course of his life, friendships form and break over politics, whether Nazi cruelties or Brexit falsehoods and foolishness. 

A few years later Roland runs into his German teacher, Alissa, who yearns to be a writer, and they marry impulsively: “They decided they must have fallen in love from the start without recognizing the fact.” 

Both Roland and Alissa have jagged relations with their own parents. Her mother, Jane, traveled to Germany just after World War II, keeping a journal to write about the White Rose resistance. Her article is never published after Jane marries Heinrich, who had only a peripheral role in the movement. The general attitude about German citizens during that period – “Unless they took action no one could be exonerated, because every man is ‘guilty, guilty, guilty.’” Roland thinks of Heinrich having a good heart. “So when Heinrich spoke of national redemption by way of constructing a history of anti-Nazi sabotage, his prospective son-in-law did not say what he thought, nothing, not a score of White Rose movements, a million saboteurs… could redeem the industrialized savagery of the Third Reich and the tens of millions of citizens who knew and looked away.” 

Later, Alissa comments, “It’s so easy to forgive other people’s parents.” Of course, that is because troubling childhood memories do not intrude.

Roland confides in Alissa about the abusive piano teacher: “How driven he was, obsessed, and how it seemed an entire lifetime to him then. It took almost an hour to describe the affair, if that was what it was, and the school, the cottage, the two rivers. How strangely it ended. How it never crossed his mind that her behavior was depraved, despicable. Even for years afterwards. He had nothing to judge her by, no scale of values.” 

The couple has a son, Lawrence. His wife, Alissa, abruptly leaves Roland and her son, writing “I’ve been living the wrong life.” Roland is angry at first, investigated by the police for murder, but his emotions later transform into grieving and admiration. “Goethe, Schiller, Aristotle, Lao-Tzu. She understood how a close acquaintance with writers like these could extend and enrich a love of freedom.” 

Roland, listless and somewhat narcissistic, remains determined to give his child a secure home. He holds and comforts Lawrence after Alissa leaves while confronting their future: “Their pulses fell in and out of phase, but one day they would be always out. They would never be this close. He would know him less well, then even less. Others would know Lawrence better than he did, where he was, what he was doing and saying, growing closer to this friend, then this lover…. From his father, occasional visits, a sincere hug, catch up on work, family, some politics, then goodbye…. The long letting go could be the essence of parenthood and from here was impossible to conceive.”

Recognizing the power of childhood memories, Roland ponders the mysteries passing through the mind of the seven-month-old and experiences that may shape the rest of his life: “A shaded emptiness, a grey winter sky against which impressions – sounds, sights, touch – burst like fireworks in arcs and cones of primary colour, instantly forgotten, instantly replaced and forgotten again. Or a deep pool into which everything fell and disappeared but remained, irretrievably present, dark shapes in deep water, exercising their gravitational pull even eighty years later, on deathbeds, in last confessions, in final cries for lost love.” 

After a few years, Alissa publishes her first novel to great acclaim and Roland “saw the beauty of it. On a windy sunlit midweek morning she cleanly transformed her existence as she packed a small suitcase, and leaving her keys behind, walked out the front door, consumed by an ambition for which she was ready to suffer and make others suffer too.” Despite success or maybe because of it, Alissa refuses to connect with her son.

Meanwhile Roland drifts through what he calls “an unchosen life, in a succession of reactions to events. He had never made an important decision. Except to leave school. No, that too was a reaction.” He makes friends easily and views the world as “agreeably diffuse” while anticipating that “in the new millennium, only eleven years away, humankind would have reached a new level of maturity and happiness.” Of course, that period of mature happiness is brief because the world does not heed history.  

Father and son live comfortably with Roland’s best friend and her children for many years, and the end is bittersweet as Roland determines that life – or the ability to create enduring and influential memories – was “pouring away from him. Events of three weeks ago were already receding or lost completely in a haze. He had to make himself catch some of it, just a little, or it would have been hardly worth living through.”  He keeps journals, one for each passing year, and sorts through his many photos, selecting 100 that represent his life: “there was that essence everyone forgets when a love recedes into the past – how it was, how it felt and tasted to be together through the seconds, minutes, and days, before everything that was taken for granted was discarded then overwritten by the tale of how it all ended, and then by the shaming inadequacies of memory. Paradise or the inferno, no one remembers anything much. Affairs and marriages ended long ago come to resemble postcards from the past. … First to go… was the elusive self, precisely how you were yourself, how you appeared to others.” 

Consider the patterns of memories. How do memories of the well-adjusted, secure person balance one’s self versus others?  

Lawrence follows some of father’s drifting patterns, also marrying a German woman, albeit enjoying a happier relationship that include grandchildren for Roland. The older man flounders yet does not resent his famous wife, counted among Germany’s greatest living writers. If anything, he pities her. “She had no one, no family, no close friends. Time had degraded him too but by all conventional measures, he was the happier. No books though, no paintings, nothing invented that would survive him. Would he swap his family for her yard of books? He gazed at her now familiar face and shook his head for an answer.”

Publishers Weekly quotes McEwan's agent Georges Borschadt as saying, "Acts of creation are the only things that matter." 

But no, that is not the lesson of this novel. Everyday life, family, love, joys and experiences are all that matter, and old memories need not dictate our future, and new relationships can over-ride the pain. As McEwan concludes, “A shame to ruin a good tale by turning it into a lesson.” 

Intrusive memories can be tamed. 

Thursday, November 10

Battling the grotesque





















Most readers quickly and rightly reject novels that detail abuse of animals, children or other vulnerable populations. Reading about systemic poverty and lack of opportunity – the slow neglect and breakdown of human spirit – should be equally disturbing. The Rabbit Hutch alludes to first while detailing the humiliations and weariness associated with the second. 
The debut novel by Tess Gunty explores how individuals slide into disturbing behaviors, influenced by surroundings, circumstances and other people. The setting is a dilapidated apartment building known as the Rabbit Hutch in Vacca Vale, a dying Indiana industrial town. Most occupants resent and avoid their neighbors. These include a quiet middle-aged woman who moderates comments for online obituaries and four young adults recently aged out of the foster-care system. 

The characters are flawed, insecure in this desolate environment. A visitor from Hollywood, the depressed son of a child movie star, suggests that other people are "dangerous because they are contagions. They infect you with or without your consent; they lure you onto paths you wouldn't have chosen.... if you collide with someone, you must be prepared to reside inside their psychology indefinitely, and this is the burden of a lifetime." These characters, struggling to communicate and launch meaningful relationships, do collide rather than connect. 

The discomfort over an inability to find companionship is not limited to dying communities, and the visitor from Hollywood concedes that his own conversations with others are a mess as "he doesn't know how to have clean ones anymore." While in Vacca Vale, he wanders into a church and agrees after a priest asks if he is there for a confession. After describing his fears and worst behaviors, the man questions the priest’s assessment. The priest admits to weariness and advises the confession might be his last. Unleashing regret, the man mourns “rot at the center of the Catholic Church,” Rather than effect change, the priest felt infected. “Abuse should be condemned. Birth control should be encouraged…. These are easy things, obvious things, unavoidably right and good, and yet I’ve come to believe that they’re never going to happen within this decaying institution. I’m sick of following orders, meekly playing the game, waiting for the rules to change themselves.” 

His complaints target one institution, yet capture the dilemma of anyone trapped within systems, playing by questionable rules while ignoring massive, obvious problems. The priest counsels the visitor that no person can be all good or all bad. “You’re just a series of messy, contradicting behaviors, like everyone else. Those behaviors can become patterns, or instincts, and some are better than others. But as long as you’re alive, the jury’s out.” 

Progress depends on breaking old patterns, avoiding old mistakes. 
Blandine
St. Blandine

The apartment is the first for the foster children, three young men and a woman, Tiffany. She is intelligent, well-read, but she drops out of high school after a misguided affair. Despite or maybe because of her own history of hurt and neglect, she continues to study and learn, touting a library copy of She-Mystics: An Anthology and adopting the name of Blandine, a slave girl martyred for her Christian beliefs in the 2nd century. The teenager stands out as odd, fascinated less by religion and more by ethics, philosophy, and ancient saints who practiced self-abuse to achieve immortality and godliness. 

With a few exceptions, Blandine is wary of new relationships – "My whole life has educated me against investments whose rewards depend on the benevolence of others." And so she regards Hildegard, a mystic from the 12th century, as her only true friend, relying on quotes for guidance: “Even in a world that’s being shipwrecked, remain brave and strong” and “Humanity, take a good look at yourself. Inside, you have heaven and earth, and all of creation. You are a world – everything is hidden in you.”  

St. Hildegard von Bingen
















Blandine ponders how the mystics, despite their gender and solitude, left their mark on history and human thought. And while she does not believe in God and regards the mystics as selfish and individualistic, she wonders how a modern mystic might challenge climate change, systemic injustice, the “plundering growth imperative,” and other obvious challenges in Vacca Vale. 

Ambition mixes with fear, and Blandine admits to often being “attacked by an awareness of how impossible it is to learn and accomplish all that she needs to learn and accomplish before she dies.” She denies herself a high school scholarship, the chance to attend college, appropriate roommates all while searching for virtue in a community seeping with inequality, corruption, insecurity and depression. Reflecting on her own life, she concedes that "It all looks so - so grotesque." She longs to transform her community but lacks tools to intercede. 

Another neighbor – Joan, the editor of online obituaries – is fearful and lonely, witnessing the pain of Vacca Vale on a more personal scale. One day while walking, she observing the impulsive ease of strangers demonstrating care for a person who collapses on the street. She understands that “human tenderness was not to be mocked. It was the last real thing.” 

The disjointed plot is relayed with exquisite sentences. The theme is strong – people can transform, breaking habits and moving the many obstacles they have placed in their own way by practicing kindness. A brief and awkward encounter between Joan and Blandine in the book’s earliest pages isn't the last. The two women discover a shred of connection – thank to persistence, hope, empathy – hundreds of pages later.

Monday, October 24

Abandoned

 












The Foundling, set in 1927 at a state institution in Central Pennsylvania, is modeled after the real Laurelton State Village for Feeble-Minded Women of Childbearing Age, that operated between 1920 and 1998. The institution's purpose evolved over the decades, but the goal during the early years was eugenics – to prevent troubled and “feeble-minded” women from reproducing.

Soon after opening, Laurelton had a waiting list to care for women deemed insane by husbands or abandoned by families, women who had large numbers of children by multiple men, as well as women who relied on prostitution or careers deemed as unsuitable. The state Public Charities Association supervised Laurelton along with prisons, orphanages and other facilities that cared for the “dependent classes,” explains a brief history in the West End Quarterly. 

“Throughout the early twentieth century, researchers, social reformers, and politicians cast a wide net for classifying people as ‘feebleminded,’” explains Micalee Sullivan. “The term lacked clear standards or definitions of who constituted ‘feeble-minded’ in the reports of the government agencies, as well as the report of directors at the Laurelton State Village. During the planning stages of the institution, an article described an institution that would ‘provide several groups embraced under the terms "idiotic," "imbecile," or "feeble-minded.'" 

Sullivan argues the institution’s history is complex, providing care and vocational training for women while also restricting freedoms. 

Pennsylvania Heritage praises Laurelton’s first superintendent, Mary Moore Wolfe: “Wolfe rejected the established medical traditions of the early 20th century that argued ‘mental deficiencies’ caused people to commit crimes and warranted locking them up forever. She believed ‘the problem of mental deficiency is not primarily a medical problem’ but instead was ‘an educational, and to a lesser degree, a sociological problem.’ Determined to make Laurelton Village a place of rehabilitation and not permanent segregation, Wolfe developed academic, vocational and moral training programs for the women living there.”

Laurelton sewing class, 1920s

The novel is more critical about such institutions and the power of those who profit from society’s most vulnerable. Protagonist Mary Engle feels fortunate to land a job as a secretary at the facility lauded as “progressive,” run by elegant Dr. Agnes Vogel, psychiatrist and one-time suffragist. Mary, raised in a Catholic orphanage after her mother’s death, squashes memories of seeking favors while enduring sexual abuse by an uncle during occasional visits. The orphan, learning more about the case histories of inmates, could only muse, “There by the grace of God …”  

The facility, not religious, is touted as “modern” – emphasizing rigid controls, long hours of hard work as ground crews, factory workers, dairy maids or housekeepers. Unlike Laurelton, the fictional Nettleton is described as offering no education or treatment. For favored staff members, there is luxury housing and meals, as well as alcohol purchased under the guise of “medicinal treatments” during the era of Prohibition. Local and state authorities pay little notice to the facility that boasts of self-reliance, requiring no tax dollars, while offering local jobs and revenue for local businesses.

Mary – a skilled professional – works tirelessly for Dr. Vogel, and the older woman eventually trusts her like a daughter, a closeness that creates distance for the secretary with other staff members and entangles her in corrupt activities including transport and misuse of alcohol. Mary soon detects physical abuse, harsh punishments and insults, but trusts that Dr. Vogel acts in the best interests of inmates. Skepticism grows as she meets more people her age, including a nurse in the facility, a journalist who is curious about rumors of cruelty, and eventually an inmate and one-time friend who grew up in the same orphanage where Mary was raised. The secretary struggles to act on her empathy for Lillian, the inmate, understanding that admission to a previous relationship with an inmate would result in termination of employment. Lillian, like many other inmates, is hardly feeble-minded, but the records do not reflect her education and capabilities.  

For weeks, Mary, torn over job security and her admiration for Vogel, avoids Lillian and rationalizes that that the other woman resists, simply not understanding the difference between right and wrong. As an orphan herself, Mary fears imperfection in herself and others, failing to understand that any attempt to assess others as feeble-minded or flawed reflects arrogance.  

Mary begins dating Jake, a journalist who questions eugenics and notions that some human beings are not meant to start families or participate in society. Jake is Jewish and Vogel is anti-Semitic, and Mary initially takes offense at his candid critiques of her employer along with the judges and politicians who support the institution. Relying on arrogance herself, she tries to dismiss his concerns for inmates who are institutionalized until they can no longer bear children: “Why would I waste time worrying about his ill-informed ideas when I, at age eighteen, already knew more than he’d ever know about how power and justice really work in this world?”  

Power corrupts, including onlookers who may benefit the least. As Albert Einstein noted, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” As an orphan herself, Mary is timid and naïve, trying to rationalize the cruel inequities. At times, the book is too optimistic, offering minimal tension and obstacles in what had to be a treacherous workplace.


Mary and Jake manage to rescue Lillian, but Vogel and her political backers move on to more prominent positions, never investigated or condemned for forcing hundreds of young women to work as unpaid laborers, preventing them from pursuit of any type of normal life. Many women won their freedom only with menopause, and if they were lucky, families and friends helped keep past lives a secret.  Women raised in in rural Pennsylvania during the early 20th century feared and whispered about such places. Orphans, homeless, scorned wives understood they could be locked away for the best of years of their lives. And during the Depression, many families simply could not afford to assist or speak out. A century of change exposes the nightmarish conditions, regardless of good intentions, and readers can only wonder how citizens a century from now might assess today's under-funded schools, homeless shelters, prisons or immigrant camps. 

Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime, noted Aristotle. 

The real institution of Laurelton took on many forms over the years, finally closing its doors in 1998. The empty buildings and more than 265 acres were sold for $1 million in 2021. 

Photos courtesy of Pennsylvania Heritage and Architectural Afterlife.


Saturday, May 28

The luckiest


A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles was a gift from a treasured friend, and finishing the novel was like saying farewell to another friend. At first, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov may seem like a wealthy dandy, but time and time again proves himself to be a calming force – charming and deliberate, observant and generous, optimistic and kind, all the while under house arrest at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow from 1922 to 1954. Rostov, fond of Russia, left London to face charges by the new government. The offense? A short poem that Russian authorities have deemed as a dangerous “call to action.” If Rostov leaves the hotel, he will be shot on sight.

The punishment requires moving from his luxurious suite, surrounded by his possessions, to a tiny room in an upper floor of the hotel. Forced to downsize, Rostov mourns until he realizes that no possession can match the value of a strong friendship and he suddenly marvels at how people find it easier to say farewell to friends than possessions. “For eventually we come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends. We carry them from places to place, often at considerable expense and inconvenience; we dust and polish their surfaces and reprimand children for playing too roughly in their vicinity – all the while, allowing memories to invest them with greater and greater importance.” The count then concedes that “a thing is just a thing,” examining his belongings one last time before “expunge[ing] them from his heartache forever.” 

The book is poignant for those shut in during the pandemic, those who abhor consumerism, and those near the end of life, when memories outnumber plans and dreams for the future. Rostov, well read and philosophical, is determined to live life as a man of purpose, and an optimistic one at that. He considers prisoners from literature who relied on hash marks to mark their days, noting how a year in prison could be mourned or celebrated. “For after all, if attentiveness should be measured in minutes and discipline measured in hours, then indomitability must be measured in years. Or if philosophical investigations are not to your taste, then let us simply agree that the wise man celebrates what he can." The trapped man may be imperfect, but he inspires because he never stops striving for improvement and is always open to friendship. 

Reduced status and cutbacks for the Metropol, representing the decline in Moscow's cosmopolitan culture, do not trouble the count. Upon entering the Piazza at Christmastime, he is momentarily disappointed at finding the room ungarlanded, the balustrades unstrung with lights, a single musician replacing the orchestra, and most of the tables unfilled, but then his optimism kicks in: “But then, as every child knows, the drumbeat of the season must sound from within.” 

The man is advisor, confidant and friend to all, finding reason to chat with everyone, staff and guests, including journalists, visiting dignitaries, and even Nina, a precocious pre-teen who purloined a passkey for the entire hotel, thus expanding their range for exploration and entertainment. Her brief visits over the years give him opportunity to watch her develop as a patriot. 

The hotel is a welcoming cocoon in treacherous and volatile post-revolutionary Russia with shifting regulations, heightened mistrust and vague communications. Take “comrade,” increasingly popular as a Russian greeting: “A word of semantic efficiency, comrade could be used a as greeting or a word of parting. As a congratulations, or a caution. As a call to action, or a remonstrance.” Mishka, poet and dissident, is the long-time friend who actually wrote the poem that landed Rostov in detention. He visits Rostov occasionally, mourning the demise of Russian culture, traditions and honesty: “Our churches, known the world over for their idiosyncratic beauty, for their brightly colored spires and improbable cupolas, we raze one by one. We topple the statues of old heroes and strip their names form the streets, as if they had been figments of our imagination. Our poets we either silence, or wait patiently for them to silence themselves.” 

Rostov, a long-time Metropol client who understands the meaning of impeccable service and traditions, eventually signs on as waiter at the Boyarsky, the hotel’s restaurant, teaming up with the chef and maître d’ in organizing events, tables and meals. He is skilled at sensing despondency and subterfuge, falsehoods and exaggeration, but resists giving up on others easily. “By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration - and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.” 


A former Army colonel – Osip – seeks a better understanding of the West and turns to Rostov, with his reputation for being well traveled and cultured, for tutoring. The lessons are subversive, relying on materials like Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and the film Casablanca. Osip, viewing the US and Russia in competition, is fascinated: “we an Americans will lead the rest of this century because we are the only nations who have learned to brush the past aside instead of bowing before it. But where they have done so in service of their beloved individualism, we are attempting to do so in service of the common good.”   

The early 1930s are unkind to free-thinking Russians. Nina, a married woman with a young child, returns to the Metropol to request that Rostov watch her daughter while she visits the imprisoned father in Siberia. Rostov complies, not realizing the favor is not short-term. Hotel staff and friends come to his aid, and the seamstress assures Rostov that he is up to the challenge: “If you are ever in doubt, just remember that unlike adults, children want to be happy…. they still have the ability to take the greatest pleasure in the simplest things.” 

Responsible for a child, he immediately discovers the joys of answering unending questions, and teaching by example, including stories from his own childhood and family home of Idlehour. One of those stories is about a clock that only rings twice a day, because Rostov’s father believed that no one should “attend too closely to the clock.” Thus, “if a man woke no later than six, engaged in a light repast, and then applied himself without interruption, by the hour of noon he should have accomplished a full day’s labor.” The noon bell signaled the end of work and time for “wise liberty”: “he should walk among the willows, read a timeless text, converse with a friend beneath the pergola, or reflect before the fire – engaging in those endeavors that have no appointed hour, and that dictate their own beginnings and ends.” And after a day lived well, there was no need to hear the second chime. One should be soundly asleep and to otherwise hear it “was most definitely a remonstrance” about laying awake and wasting valuable time. 

Rostov recognizes life in the hotel limits aspirations for his young charge, Sofia. When she regrets that the memories of her parents fade with time, the count advises, “no matter how much time passes, those we have loved never slip away from us entirely.”  He wants her to explore her talents and the vast unknown, and the count resolves “it is hardly our purpose at this stage to log a new portfolio of lasting memories. Rather we should be dedicating ourselves to ensuring that they taste freely of experience.” 

Long hours alone at the hotel allow Sofia to become a skilled concert pianist, providing the opportunity to travel to Paris for a concert, under the stern watch of party chaperones. Rostov prepares for them both to leave the Metropol, albeit with separate destinations, relying on a network of friends abroad and a stash of gold hidden away in the desk he kept over the years. When Sofia departs, he offers two pieces of parental advice: “The first was that if one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them; and the second was Montaigne’s maxim that the surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness.” He admits that he will be both sad in her absence and joyful at every thought of her new adventures.  

Shortly before he leaves, Mishka witnesses Rostov’s wide group of friends at the Metropol and their kindness. “Who would have imagined,” the friend observes, ‘when you were sentenced to life in the Metropol all those years ago, that you had just become the luckiest man in all of Russia.” 

With the right frame of mind, the simple wanting of happiness, anyone can be as lucky as Count Rostov.