CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders (20 Books of Summer #17)

51QARZbRoHL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_My final book completed for 20 Books of Summer was a good one. I’ve been a fan of George Saunders for years, since I read his 2013 short story collection Tenth of December.  His first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, completely blew me away. His first short story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, had lingered on my Goodreads TBR list since 2014. I’m glad I finally read it – it’s so interesting to see how a favorite writer hones his skills over time.

This 1996 collection is made up of six short stories and one novella. They are a motley, twisted assortment of near-future/slightly dystopian settings in which affable but morally skewed men and women toil away at low-wage menial jobs and screw up over and over again. America is basically a disintegrating theme park, beset by racial strife, class warfare, and environmental degradation, but somehow Saunders injects just enough notes of dark humor and decency to keep the reader from flinging the book away in despair.

My favorite story and one I think ranks with the best stories I’ve read is “Offloading For Mrs. Schwartz.” A man grieving the death of his wife Elizabeth, beset by guilt over the fight they had right before she was killed, tries to atone for his sins, both actual and perceived. He owns a franchise of something called “personal interactive holography” – basically a space in which people can pay to experience an intense virtual reality of their choosing. He’s got just a few regular customers who either can’t afford to pay him or pick rather disturbing virtual realities. But his “regular job, penance, albatross” is visiting an old, bed-ridden widow on the bad side of town with one of his headset modules and letting her temporarily experience happiness, both remembered and made-up.

In the early days of my grief Father Luther told me to lose myself in service by contacting Elder Aid, Inc. I got Mrs. Ken Schwartz. Mrs. Ken Schwartz lives in Rockettown remembering Mr. Ken Schwartz and cursing him for staying so late at Menlo’s Ten Pin on nights when she forgets he’s been dead eighteen years. Mrs. Ken Schwartz likes me and my happy modules. Especially she likes Viennese Waltz. Boy does she. She’s bedridden and lonely and sometimes in her excitement bruises her arms on her headboard when the orchestra starts to play. 

One night when he stops back by the store to pick up a module for a school group visit the next day (“Hop Hop the Bunny Masters Fractions”) he walks in on a robbery. After he subdues his attacker he scans his brain with his console and finds out that he’s named Hank, a WWII veteran who saw horrible things at Iwo Jima and never was quite right after. But something goes wrong with the scan, and our narrator realizes that he’s lifting memories from Hank, taking them out of his brain and depositing them in the module. Hank leaves the store carefree now that the horrors of war (and the first twenty years of his life) are gone from his memory. Our narrator has a brainstorm – why not edit Hank’s memories to give the schoolkids an immersive history lesson on what it was like to live in the 1930’s and ’40’s?

I won’t spoil the rest of the story, but I’ll just say that this one moved me like no other in the collection. Here I recognized the Saunders I’d already read, who is one of the most compassionate and humane writers living today. He has a knack for making the reader care about some questionable, flawed characters and celebrating what is most central to the human experience – loving and being loved.

If you’ve never read Saunders before I wouldn’t start with this. While each story certainly has his trademark black humor and originality, they weren’t as moving or polished as the stories in Tenth of December. And he has mellowed with age, treating his characters just a bit more gently in the later collection. Some of the violence and language in a few of these stories were a bit hard to stomach. I feel like his later writing is more hopeful somehow, while these stories feel harder and more cynical. Still, it was a very good collection and worth borrowing from the library for “Offloading For Mrs. Schwartz” alone. However, I would recommend reading one story at a time and then setting the book down for a day in between so they don’t run together.

So that’s it for another 20 Books of Summer challenge. I’m proud of myself for managing to read and write about 17 books from my list. It’s a new personal record. I may not participate again next year, though – sticking to a set list, even one that I create, starts to rub the wrong way about half-way through. All the others books out there start looking ever so much more appealing. (Mood reader!) But I have loved being in such good company with my fellow 20 Books people, and am grateful to Cathy at 746 Books for organizing the event again.

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The Bird’s Nest by Shirley Jackson (20 Books of Summer #16/Classics Club #7)

The Bird’s Nest is the Shirley Jackson’s third novel, published in 1954, and it is just as quirky and oddball as you might expect if you’ve ever read her before. It’s the fifth one I’ve read by her so far and it is my least favorite, but still it is more thought-provoking and entertaining than many novels published today. Jackson has a way of describing human relationships and the human mind that is deliciously off-kilter and insightful. In this tale of a young woman’s deepening mental illness Jackson explores what it means to download (1)be human and how trauma can affect the mind.

Elizabeth Richmond had a corner of an office on the third floor; it was the section of the museum closest , as it were, to the surface, that section where correspondence with the large world outside was carried on freely, where least shelter was offered to cringing scholarly souls. At Elizabeth’s desk on the highest floor of the building, in the most western corner of the office, she sat daily answering letters offering the museum collections of pressed flowers, or old sea-chests brought back from Cathay. It is not proven that Elizabeth’s person equilibrium was set off balance by the slant of the office floor, nor could it be proven that if was Elizabeth who pushed the building off its foundations, but it is undeniable that the began to slip at about the same time.

Living with her aunt Morgen and working in a hum-drum job at a museum, Elizabeth starts experiencing perplexing and frightening symptoms, like losing gaps of time and horrendous headaches and backaches. She also starts receiving threatening notes at the museum. Her aunt takes her to a doctor, who recommends a psychiatrist, Dr. Wright. Dr. Wright suggests hypnosis to try and get at the root of the problem, as “Miss R” (the doctor’s initial name for Elizabeth) insists there’s nothing wrong with her. When he puts her under hypnosis for the first time, Dr. Wright sees something that leaves him shaken:

…I wonder, though, how I ever thought her handsome. Because she was not, I saw, at all handsome, and as I watched her in horror, the smile upon her soft lips coarsened, and became sensual and gross, her eyelids fluttered in an attempt to open, her hands twisted together violently, and she laughed, evilly and roughly, throwing her head back and shouting, and I, seeing a devil’s mask where a moment before I had seen Miss R.’s soft face, thought only, it cannot be Miss R.; this is not she.

Little by little the hypnosis starts revealing that Elizabeth’s personality has split into four distinct personas: Elizabeth, Betsy, Beth, and Bess. There is a hinted trauma in Elizabeth’s past involving her mother, which Dr. Wright thinks is perhaps the origin of her mental illness. One section of the book is narrated by Betsy, who is the most lively and interesting personality. She takes off for New York City trying to find her mother. This was one of my favorite parts of the book because I had no clue where the story was going, and Betsy experiencing total freedom and control of the other personalities was entertaining, like a naive child out in the world for the first time.

I won’t spoil any more of the plot but I’ll just mention that Dr. Wright himself occupies a large share of the book, and he’s really not the most interesting character. He likes to hear himself talk and Jackson gives him too much of the book’s real estate. He’s not malevolent but instead self-important and irritating. Betsy aptly calls him “Dr. Wrong.”

If you’ve never read Jackson before I wouldn’t start with this one. It could use a bit of editing and Jackson honed her craft as she wrote more, becoming better at characterization and narrative drive. However, if you are already a Jackson fan and want to read everything she’s written, you will probably enjoy this, if for nothing else than to see the ways in which her skills developed over time. It is a strange exploration of identity and I liked it.

Elizabeth spoke very slowly, feeling her way. “What he’s going to have when he’s through is a new Elizabeth Richmond, with her mind. She will think and eat and hear and walk and take baths. Not me. I’ll maybe be a part of her, but I won’t know it – she will.”

“I don’t get it,” said Morgen.

“Well,” said Elizabeth, “when she does all the thinking and knowing, won’t I be… dead?”

“Oh, now, look,” said Morgen, and then sat helplessly, facing the definition of annihilation.

(This is the 16th book from my 20 Books of Summer list and the 7th book from my Classics Club list. I know that today – Labor Day in the U.S. – marks the official end to 20 Books of Summer, but I have one more review to post. Expect my thoughts on George Saunders’s short story collection CivilWarLand in Decline sometime later this week.)

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (Classics Club #5)

I scarcely know how to describe that room. It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s room. I did not really stay there very long – we met before the spring began and I left there during the summer – but it still seems to me that I spent a lifetime there. Life in that room seemed to be occurring underwater, as I say, and it is certain that I underwent a sea change there.

81IceqICE0LI’ve been putting off writing this review for weeks now because I feel intimidated, almost unqualified to write about this book. It was a five-star read for me, one that I feel like I could pick up again just a few weeks later and read all over again, losing myself in the quality of the lush prose and the haunting ideas and emotions. Giovanni’s Room is stunning, and even though I have only now read two of Baldwin’s books (this and The Fire Next Time) I have to put him among my favorite authors. I must read everything else he’s written. Published in 1956, this is a story of a man at war with himself, his inner turmoil spilling over and also scarring anyone who comes close enough to care about him.

David is a young white man in Paris in the 1950s, staying at a rented country house outside the city, reflecting on his life and recent events as the novel begins. He is melancholy and alone – his fiancée Hella has left him to return to America and someone named Giovanni (we don’t initially know his significance in David’s life) is “about to perish, sometime between this night and this morning, on the guillotine.”  He then recounts a long-buried sensual experience as a teenager with a male friend named Joey and the reader knows this is someone who is afraid to truly acknowledge his sexuality.

We had our arms around each other. It was like holding in my hand some rare, exhausted, nearly doomed bird which I had miraculously happened to find. I was very frightened; I am sure he was frightened too, and we shut our eyes. To remember it so clearly, so painfully tonight tells me that I have never for an instant truly forgotten it. 

Later on in the first chapter David says, “I had decided to allow no room in the universe for something which shamed and frightened me.”

And this sets the stage for the main action of the novel, where we find that David, broke817TxalnT7L and having proposed to Hella, waiting for her answer, (she has gone to Spain to travel and think about it) meets a young Italian waiter named Giovanni. He has been spending much of his time with people who were, “as Parisians put it, of le milieu, and while this milieu was certainly anxious enough to claim me, I was intent on proving, to them and to myself, that I was not of their company.” These older, wealthier gay men don’t seem to mind David’s condescension and continue to lend him money. The new waiter at the local bar causes a sensation among the regular patrons, but it is David who he ends up chatting with in sparkling and lightly flirtatious conversation, a fact which doesn’t escape the notice of everyone there. Jacques, one of the older men who seems much wiser than David in the ways of the heart, pointedly tells him, “Confusion is a luxury which only the very very young  can possibly afford and you are not that young anymore.”

I don’t want to go further and spoil anything else because this is a novel which deserves the designation “classic” and one that is so readable that modern readers will find a treasure trove of beautiful, philosophical lines to relish. As David and Giovanni become closer and Hella finally reenters the picture David is forced to make some hard choices about the path his life is going to take. No one is left unscathed by the outcome. As the reader already knows from the third page that Giovanni has done something that has caused him to be sentenced to death, it will come as no surprise that this novel is a sad one. Hella’s heartache when David finally opens up is also terribly moving. But as an exploration of the human heart and a man wrestling with his own shame this novel is a must-read.

(This book is also the 13th book from my 20 Books of Summer list.)

More Five Sentence Reviews: The Radium Girls, Ongoingness, and The Janus Stone

I hope everyone is having a good week so far. It’s August! It’s hot. I just saw the new Mission Impossible movie yesterday and it’s terrific! Non-stop action. I’m currently reading books 16 and 17 from my 20 Books of Summer list, taking my time especially with George Saunders’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline because it’s dark. Very good, but dark. And, in this current political hellscape,  I can only deal with so much dark at once. Plus I’m still trying to savor short story collections rather than blazing through them quickly. But I’ve got a stack of overdue reviews, so here is another batch of Five Sentence Reviews.

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore. 51GLNSdDDqL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Young American women considered themselves lucky to have jobs painting illuminated watch and clock dials in the 1910’s-1930’s. They licked the brushes, dipped them in radium-mixed paint, and painted, over and over again all day. When they started falling ill, the companies who employed them disavowed any responsibility. I’m so glad the stories of these brave women (who fought back against the companies despite grave illness and horrific injury) are finally being told. But important as that is, I felt like the narrative was disjointed and repetitive – and also very sad. (3 Stars.)

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso. A 95-page memoir and exploration of the keeping and letting go of a meticulous daily diary, full of meditations on identity, motherhood, the passage of 81aIlYK3KLLtime, memory. I marked many passages, especially once Manguso became pregnant and had a child. I related to so much of what she wrote. “Before I was a mother, I thought I was asking, How, then, can I survive forgetting so much? Then I came to understand that the forgotten moments are the price of continued participation in life, a force indifferent to time.” (3 Stars.)

The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths (Ruth Galloway mystery #2.) I barely took any notes on this one, I read it so quickly. This mystery series is the perfect mix of realistic and cozy – not too gruesome for me to handle, but not too precious or 51+aKyKRIeL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_cutesy to be believable either. In this one forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is called to investigate a child’s bones found at the demolition site of a former Catholic children’s home and, before that, a private residence. Someone is trying to frighten her off the case, of course, and she continues to work with the attractive (and married) DCI Harry Nelson. Their bond continues to be complicated, and I am really enjoying this series. (4 Stars.)

So how has your August in books been so far? Still going with 20 Books of Summer? Have you read any of these, and if so, what did you think?

(These three books are numbers 10, 11, and 12 from my 20 Books of Summer list.)

Classics Club Spin Result and 20 Books of Summer Check-In

So the big Classics Club spin number is… drumroll… number 9! Which means I’ll be reading Beryl Markham’s 1942 memoir West With the Night. Here’s a summary I found on Amazon:81yAt9aNOEL

Beryl Markham’s West with the Night is a true classic, a book that deserves the same acclaim and readership as the work of her contemporaries Ernest Hemingway, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and Isak Dinesen.
If the first responsibility of a memoirist is to lead a life worth writing about, Markham succeeded beyond all measure. Born Beryl Clutterbuck in the middle of England, she and her father moved to Kenya when she was a girl, and she grew up with a zebra for a pet; horses for friends; baboons, lions, and gazelles for neighbors. She made money by scouting elephants from a tiny plane. And she would spend most of the rest of her life in East Africa as an adventurer, a racehorse trainer, and an aviatrix―she became the first person to fly nonstop from Europe to America, the first woman to fly solo east to west across the Atlantic. Hers was indisputably a life full of adventure and beauty.
And then there is the writing. When Hemingway read Markham’s book, he wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins: “She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer . . . [She] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers . . . It is really a bloody wonderful book.”

I decided I wanted to read her memoir after I read Megan Mayhew Bergman’s short story about her in Almost Famous Women called “A High-Grade Bitch Sits Down For Lunch.” If you haven’t read that collection, by the way, please do so, it’s awesome!

In other news, I thought I’d take stock of my 20 Books of Summer experience so far. I’ve read fifteen of the twenty so far – YAY! It’s a new personal record for the three summers I’ve attempted this challenge. I consider it a total success at this point, even if I don’t read any others. I’m in the middle of George Saunders’s short story collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and I definitely will read my July Book Group book (we meet week after next to discuss, and I like to wait as close as possible to the discussion to read the book so it’s nice and fresh in my mind.) It’s The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, a graphic memoir about the author’s experience escaping Vietnam in the 1970s and trying to adapt to their new life in America. So that is at least 17/20.51UDKhEnEXL

I’ve only reviewed nine of the 15 I’ve read, so I’m quite a bit behind. I just can’t seem to make myself sit down and do these reviews in a timely fashion. I’m not sure what’s up with that. And the longer they go, the less I want to do it. I see some more five-sentence reviews in my near future! But I will do a full post on Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin because it was BRILLIANT and also a Classics Club pick  -which is also true for Shirley Jackson’s The Bird’s Nest (good but not brilliant.)

How are you doing with 20 Books of Summer? If you’re a member of The Classics Club are you happy with your book number 9? Have you read any of the books I’ve mentioned above?

 

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (Classics Club #4)

She wanted to ask her if she had seen the advertisement. She did not know why she wanted to ask her this, but she wanted to. How stupid not to be able to speak to her. She looked so kind. She looked so unhappy. Why couldn’t two unhappy people refresh each other on their way through this dusty business of life by a little talk – real, natural talk, about what they felt, what they would have liked, what they still tried to hope? And she could not help thinking that Mrs. Arbuthnot, too, was reading that very same advertisement. Her eyes were on the very part of the paper. Was she, too, picturing what it would be like, – the colour, the fragrance, the light, the soft lapping pf the seam among little hot rocks? Colour, fragrance, light, sea; instead of Shaftesbury Avenue, and the wet omnibuses, and the fish department at Shoolbread’s, and the Tube to Hampstead, and dinner, tomorrow the same and the day after the same, and always the same…

9780143107736I thoroughly enjoyed my fourth read for The Classics Club, Elizabeth von Arnim’s 1922 novel The Enchanted April. I read it back in June so forgive me if my impressions are a bit foggy. But I want to write a little bit about it before any more time passes.

Lotty Wilkins, Rose Arbuthnot, Mrs. Fisher, and Lady Caroline Dester are strangers to one another when Lotty first sees the advertisement in the paper while at her ladies’ club on a dreary day:

To those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let Furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.

Lotty and Rose go to church together and belong to the same club, and when Lotty sees Rose reading the same page of the newspaper and staring dreamily into the distance, she seizes the moment to ask if she’d like to go in together on renting the castle. After persuading husbands and putting their own advertisement in the paper for two more ladies (the young and beautiful Lady Caroline Dester and the elderly widow Mrs. Fisher) to join them and share the rent, they make their way to Italy.

What I loved about the book was that each lady underwent a transformation of sorts – they all had things they wanted to escape from back in England, or maybe things they weren’t even aware they were escaping from until they actually left. Feeling underappreciated and overworked, awkward and painful emotional distance between a wife and a husband, feeling unloved, or being loved and desired for the wrong reasons… each woman gained clarity and insight through distance and fresh surroundings. Old wounds were healed, new friendships were cemented, and the beauty of Italy was the catalyst for everything.ae60b4438cb7eaa661c82c38e568b553-w204@1x

She stared. Such beauty; and she there to see it. Such beauty; and she alive to feel it. Her face was bathed in light. Lovely scents came up to the window and caressed her. A tiny breeze gently lifted her hair. Far out in the bay a cluster of almost motionless fishing boats hovered like a flock of white birds on the tranquil sea. How beautiful, how beautiful. Not to have died before this… to have been allowed to see, breathe, feel this… She stared, lips parted. Happy? Poor, ordinary, everyday word. But what could one say, how could one describe it? It was as though she could hardly stay inside herself, it was as though she were too small to hold so much of joy, it was as though she were washed through with light. 

What a delight! There is a freshness and a sense of humor to the writing that makes this classic novel feel much more modern. This is my first book by von Arnim and I am curious about the rest of her works. I can definitely see myself reading this one again when I want a comfort read. I watched the movie (1991) and it was a faithful adaptation – solid performances, beautiful scenery, makes for a pleasant evening’s entertainment. But if you need a breath of fresh air in your reading life and want to take a trip to Italy, I highly recommend reading The Enchanted April.

(This is the 4th book reviewed from my Classics Club list and the 9th book reviewed from my 20 Books of Summer list.)

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, edited by Jesmyn Ward

The Fire This Time is brilliant. Read it. The end.

Oookay, so I can’t really stop there. It was my book group’s read for June, and we all were impressed by it. Let me tell you about it.

71aOha7tq9LIt’s an essay and poetry anthology edited by the amazing Jesmyn Ward, author of Salvage the Bones, Men We Reaped, and most recently, the National Book Award-winner Sing, Unburied, Sing (which I haven’t yet read.) In her introduction, after trying to process the unjustified killing of Trayvon Martin and seeking wisdom from James Baldwin’s classic The Fire Next Time, she writes,

It was then that I wanted to call on some of the great thinkers and extraordinary voices of my generation to help me puzzle this out. I knew that a black boy who lives in the hilly deserts of California, who likes to get high with his friends on the weekend and who freezes in a prickly sweat whenever he sees blue lights in his rearview, would need a book like this. A book that would reckon with the fire of rage and despair and fierce, protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America. A book that would gather new voices in one place, in a lasting, physical form, and provide a forum for those writers to dissent, to call to account, to witness, to reckon. A book that a girl in rural Missouri could pick up at her local library and, while reading, encounter a voice that hushed her fears. In the pages she would find a wise aunt, a more present mother, who saw her terror and despair threading their fingers through her hair, and would comfort her. We want to tell her this: You matter. I love you. Please don’t forget it.

Writers I have read before like Carol Anderson (White Rage,) Kiese Laymon (Long Division,) and Claudia Rankine (Citizen: An American Lyric) contribute essays while poets Natasha Tretheway and Clint Smith offer moving poems. I was introduced to quite a few writers I’d never read before, like Garnette Cadogan, who wrote what might be my favorite essay of the bunch, “Black and Blue.” In it Cadogan contrasts his experiences walking all over his Kingston, Jamaica home as a teenager to his experiences walking in New Orleans and New York City as an adult. As a college student in New Orleans, university staff told him to restrict his walking to certain touristy, “safe” areas of town. He scoffed, thinking, come on, I’ve already been through every rough neighborhood of Kingston, these New Orleans criminals have nothing on them.

What no one had told me was that I was the one who would be considered a threat.

He describes incidents with white pedestrians and police, detailing how he would formulate the outfits he wore to appear as non-threatening and scholarly as possible.

Light-colored oxford shirt. V-neck sweater. Khaki pants. Chukkas. Sweatshirt of t-shirt with my university insignia…The sidewalk was  a minefield, and every hesitation and self-censored compensation reduced my dignity. Despite my best efforts, the streets never felt comfortably safe. Even a simple salutation was suspect.

His adoptive aunt persuades him to move to New York City, and he dreams of following in the footsteps of writers who had “wandered that  great city before me.” He spent the first few months exploring with friends and lovers, but it wasn’t long before “reality reminded me I wasn’t invulnerable, especially when I walked alone.” When running to dinner one night, a white man turned and punched him in the ribs, assuming he was a criminal, then blamed him for the assault because he ran up behind him. Another night he was jogging to the subway because he was late to meet a friend, and suddenly a police officer has pointed his gun at him and orders him against the police car. More cops surround him, each badgering him about why he was running, where was he going, where was he coming from. He couldn’t answer them all at once, trying to be calm and explain that he’d just left one group of friends to meet another, they could go find the friends down the street, look at his phone and see the texts. It turned out that a black man had stabbed someone earlier a few blocks away and they were looking for him. When a police captain puts his hand on Cadogan’s back and feels no sweat, he tells them to let him go because, “If he was running for a long time he would have been sweating.” The captain offers Cadogan a ride to the subway station, and when thanked for his help, the captain said, “It’s because you were polite that we let you go. If you were acting up it would have been different.”

I returned to the old rules I’d set for myself in New Orleans, with elaboration. No running, especially at night; no sudden movements; no hoodies; no objects – especially shiny ones – in hand; no waiting for friends on a street corner, lest I be mistaken for a drug dealer; no standing near a corner on the cell phone (same reason.)

This collection of essays and poems blew my mind. Sometimes I begin to think I am aware of my privilege and then I read more and more and I am shaken by all that I don’t know, all that I can’t truly know, because of the color of my skin. I am profoundly grateful that this anthology exists and that reading books like this enables me to question the status quo, empathize, and learn.

(This is book 8 of my 20 Books of Summer challenge.)