Friday, August 28, 2009

Loving Frank-not new but still great

This book has been a bestseller and for good reason. Ms. Horan seems by some miraculous act of imagination to have recreated Mamah Birkford and--this is the book's weakness if there is one--to have deified her in the process. Mamh was a reluctant closet feminist in the beginning devoted to her family and she's crucified for her irresponsible affair with Frank Lloyd Wright.

A quiet bookish woman, a former teacher and librarian married because of her husband Edwin's determination, Mamah is glad to settle on a marriage she calls a quiet union of friends. This is a not unreasonable aspiration in an era when marriage was the primary career choice and motherhood the necessary vocation of women. Mamah goes from the meditative independent life of a working woman in her 30's to the chaotic selfless world of a wife and mother attending the incessant needs of two young children and a traditional husband. But here the frazzled housefrau's excuse for running off with her lover and deserting her family falls down.

She had help lots of it. Her older sister, Lizzie, a schoolteacher who paid for Mamah's education, comes to live with her. Her devoted husband hires a nanny/housekeeper and a cook. In fact, she was in the enviable position of being cherished by her husband, so she was free to attend lectures at the 19th century woman's club, where at the book's opening, she's running off to hear Frank Lloyd Wright, more than a casual acquaintance. They met when Edwin hired him to design a house and the attraction was as strong as their desire to keep their families intact--so they had separated until she invites him to visit after the lecture. The affair resumes.

But this is no high-brow bodice-ripper of an egomaniacal genius preying on a bored housewife. Loving Frank is the condition that brings Mamah to her senses, and she begins a journey to set herself free. But Ms.Horan shows that neither Frank or Mamah get away with anything. And her reconstruction of the emotional lives of these complex people feels true. It's even more remarkable that she wrote this book with almost no sources on Mamah, until by chance she happened on a few letters between Mamah and Ellen Keys, an influential Swedish feminist.

Mamah came to be Keys' translator in the U.S., but when she ran off with Frank, she left a series of unfinished writings-translations and novels. With Wright she gained the seriousness to discover who she might be. As much as her affair with Wright changed her perception of her abilities, it was Keys who enabled her to make a living, while pondering the rightness of a union where love was the overwhelming condition, not an excuse for a legal contract. Ellen Keys took Ibsen's Nora out of the dollhouse and into the frightening but ultimately satisfying world of self-sufficiency.

Horan shows these ideas as not just revolutionary for Mamah's time but our own. The idea of free love between equals as being the ideal environment to raise kids, is one largely unfulfilled, except maybe Sweden where marriage is not so common. Keys felt that raising kids in a loving environment was a woman's highest fulfillment, unlike US feminists who were focussed on the vote and jobs. Mamah meets Ellen at her lecture and she finds an outlet for her feelings. And when Frank leaves her in Germany to return home to Chicago and his wife, she feels less betrayal than understanding. She also feels horrific guilt about not being with her children but knows he will find no redemption going home. Besides the bitterness of their families, the press in the US was a relentless persecutor throughout their lives.

Alone, she learns Swedish in Germany so she can translate Keys. She teaches school and is impoverished, but earns a new depth of understanding. But she must always contend with the fact that when she closed the door on her two sleeping children, 3 and 9, and left them to join Frank. Never again will she be the central person in their life. This the crux of the case against this tarnished heroine. As a mother, I found it hard to believe, though most every mother I know fantasizes about being child-free now but few would pay Mamah's price. It took her years to realize she would never have them back.

As Frank builds their ultimate fulfillment, a house for Mamah called Talesin, Horan shows his shortcomings; the discrepancy between his high ideals and cavalier way he deals with money-the pay of his staff-and his disparagement of those whose talents contibuted to his success. He is a flawed genius and Mamah has to make him own up to the standards they both espouse and confront how he's so enraptured with himself, his myth, that he believes he's more deserving than others. When she moves out, he can only win her back with genuine reform.

Just as Mamah was influenced by Wright to seek her higher self, Horan makes a case that Wright's architecture was also influenced by Mamah. He never resides in Chicago again and he and Mamah finally achieve the life they want, out of convention, when she and her visiting children die in a tragic fire set by a madman. You may know this, but it's still a shocker, as is this novel of ideas dressed in an affair about two intellectuals perhaps better suited to our time.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Much has been said about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrons and all of it has been unequivocably positive for it's just skirting "precious" charm and reconstruction of a place and a time at a nostalgic distance from our own.
The book IS charming, the characters not just likable but admirable people of low pretension and large old-fashioned virtues. Now why this book makes me a bit uncomfortable. Everyone is basically good, even the German occupiers of bucolic Guernsey. Christian, the long-gone father of the orphaned little girl in the book, is a noble German, worthy of respect as a person. And the girl's mother, the mythic Mary McKenna, is a brave individualist. On the spot, she makes up the story about the neighbors meeting for the book society, when they were really having a festive dinner of contraband pig.

Later for helping a Polish slave laborer, she ends up in a concentration camp, where she is killed because she will not bow to her torturers. Because Mary is exceptional, she makes her own rules--it is okay for her to have a romance with an invader--for in fact being a collaborator because she can evaluate individuals and he is good. There is evil, but an individualist can be unconventional-rebel against authority, though she may pay an awful price. In this book it's cheerily states that almost everyone on Guernsey, especially young women, wanted silk stockings, food for their families, whatever they could get from the invaders. Yet, at the same time, the books condemns the turncoasts who turn in McKenna for helping the starved Polish slave boy. They go too far in opportunism by turning in a neighbor. It's simple, people are people, you like the good, whatever side they're on and condemn the bad.

But perhaps I quibble with this sweet book in letters. It well creates the flighty and wise British writer who becomes so fascinated after corresponding with people in Guernsey that she goes there to write a book about how they experienced the War. The strong but silent pig farmer, who wins her heart over the flashy American publisher, becomes not just the triumph of true love but the inevitable victory of common sense. She fits right in with the locals and it makes her happy to do so, including adopting Mary's daughter and marrying the farmer.

Postwar Britain is a place reclaiming values and in the wholesome country people of Guernsey have suffered but the traditional ways are preserved. Their natural way of life is a balm to the war ravaged urban soul of our heroine. Her publisher, an understanding dedicated man, who happens to be gay, and his sister living in Scotland are her main correspondents besides the locals of Guernsey--an eccentric herbalist, the mysterious and quiet farmer, island aristocracy represented by an older woman of exceptional understanding and other members of the Society.
As our heroine, that rarity, an intellectual woman just short of being a bluestocking, gets to know the members of the Society, she more than solves the mystery of how Guernsey fared during the war. She learns that simple country character suits her better than the pretentious milieu of literary London personifed by her other suitor, the charismatic and acquisitive American publisher. But we the reader have seen this story before. What's underneath it is more questionable--We are to reconcile that though survival and self-interest understandably come first in extreme circumstances, idealism and self-sacrifice for what's right, are the rule. It may be asking too much of this chocolate truffle of a book, to ask for less cheery and easily resolved human conflict. Recommended for light fun reading with a happy ending, especially with sweets.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

LIT, A Memoir by Mary Karr

I had never read Mary Karr before, though I'd heard The Liars' Club was good, because I'm not fond of memoirs or confessional writing generally unless the person had an amazing life.. When I found out LIT was about how Karr became a drunk and fought her way to recovery, I figured on giving the galley away. The whole 12 step thing has always seemed a tragic joke to me but then I heard Karr talk at Book Expo about the excruciating business of soul baring and why she had to do it--to set the record straight for her son. And she was funny talking about her pretensions as a poet newly married to another writer, an Ivy League blue-blood and about to start her own family. She congratulated herself on having escaped her mother's galloping insanity and triumphed over her soul destroying, hard scrabble childhood in Texas. Ahead of her was a life of love and achievement. But then, life brought her to her knees in more ways than one--she could have died and she had to learn to pray to survive. Karr's self-respect was not easily earned and the pride of a self-made intellectual meant she never let herself off easily or at all. Curious, I read this book and found myself rooting for things to work out for her, as they proceeded to go to hell.

What I came to like about this book is the compassion you feel for Mary because she has so little for herself. Trying to make ends meet on scarce money meant poverty was already a way of life before she got pregnant. Yet Mary soldiers on, doing her teaching jobs, writing her poetry, up all night with her baby, not to mention constant visits to the hospital with his illnesses. Then, struggling to hold it together, her mother gives her a beer--to relax. Mary's mother, herself in recovery, passes on the "drinking curse." What motivates Karr's drinking is not the need to escape but to anesthesize overwhelming emotions--from her past and her present. Trying to keep it under control, for the sake of her kid, marriage, and job, leads her to endless beers and whatever else she can drink and hide. Soon she can't function without drinking. She thinks she must do it to be there for her son, to be the loving encouraging wife to a husband working multiple jobs. She even worries about being a decent daughter to the mother she knows always has let her down. Soon knows this self-deception can't be denied.

Whether it's the drinking as cause or symptom, she can't escape that her life is in meltdown. She's no longer the always alert mother. Her marriage is about estrangement and she fears discovery. Karr manages to publish one book of poems and gets a prestigious grant, but soon finds she can't write anymore. When she goes to a marriage counselor with her husband, she's touched that he says she isn't an alcoholic. His denial means he has a faith in her that she knows is misplaced. She descends further and the facts of her marginal existence come to a head one night, after she's honored at a dinner and her car spins out of control. Mary's astonished she's alive and realizes that she can't leave her son without a mother. She comes to terms with the fact she is an alcoholic and learns that with her family history of emotional instability, she will die if she continues.

But before she can change herself, she has to come to terms with history, she thought she had overcome--her mother, the monster she grew up with and now felt she was turning into. Her mother the talented artist, was also a self-absorbed drunk who almost shot both her daughters.
Yet the monster she grew up with is now a straw-dog, an old lady who means well but still can't deliver on her promises. When she asks her mother, who is supported by both daughters and constantly double dips her expenses, "What she brings to the party," Her mother answers, "Well I'm fun?" And that for Mary is the doppleganger of her own hyper-responsibility, that she and her sister have taken on in their lives.

In this extraordinary book, Mary is heroic in her outsize struggle to overcome her illness. She goes into rehab to get sober, then once sober loses her mind and has to go into a mental ward. She must entirely lose herself to become a grounded person. It's a poet's journey to the underworld and you enjoy her escorts, her wise rehab coach Jone the Bone, the gallows humor of Deb, a beauty with a model's polish, paralyzed on one side of her body, and others who help her through layers of self-deception. Ultimately, she comes out of herself enough to connect to with what's strange and numinous. As unbeliever, she accepts that abstract force might be called God among other names. This connection of faith keeps her sober, when intellect fails. Karr's journey is that of an ironic mystic. She reads Thomas Merton, but you think Dylan Thomas, and hope that unlike his tragic end, Karr will keep her spiritual connection. I found this book unexpectedly profound.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Magicians by Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman's Magicians (published by Viking in August) is a truly inspired book. The author of Codex has constructed a highly believable alternative world of magic and sorcery. We see it through the eyes of Quentin Coldwater, a brilliant, though a bit neurotic, high achieving, nerd from Brooklyn. He finds himself in a familiar situation, competing for an opening in a highly selective institution of higher learning, except he's never heard of it before, doesn't know how he got there, and people disappear from the crowded exam room. Quentin, a sensitive bookish young man, is miserable enough in his personal life and sufficiently intrigued to accept his admission way off the Ivy League track. And the work is challenging, tedious and fascinating, as he learns to transform into animals and travel between dimensions of time. Just as difficult are his peers, the incredibly talented and personally reticent Alice, Penny, aggressive with his mohawk and street creed, and the enigmatic and debauched Eliot.

They and other students are the core of this college student's "coming of age." As Quentin struggles to develop his magical abilities to deal with his workload, he also discovers what it's like, as a loner, to be accepted by a group of gifted equals. Together they experiment with sex, booze and magical excess. But he also experiences the disillusionment of learning that sorcery and magic can't rescue you, that it doesn't change your world. Love and work prove as complicated and muddled, and as emotionally painful, as they can be in ordinary reality. After graduation and an aimless dissipated period in New York City, the friends hit on an essential discovery. They can go to Filory, a place in treasured fantasy novels that turns out to be real. Yet the Filory they visit is not the benign destination of children. It's an adult world of irrational cruelty and the misuse of extraordinary power. They must deal with their own darkness, betrayal of love and themselves, in the adventure of their lifetimes.

This is a very adult book that teens may also like because the characters are insecure yet have sparks of genius. It's a smart. knowing look at adolescents--self-conscious, ironically recognizing their shortcomings, yet admirable in their desire to become their best. And in the process, as Quentin navigates the tricky passage to adulthood, he questions the relevance of his ambitions. In the end, an older Quenton suffers disillusionment with himself, the chagrin of his own idiocy, and goes beyond that to accept his own eccentric place in the world.

Magicians is not Harry Potter or Fowles' Magus though it's akin to both with some "animal house" tossed in. It's also a distant American relation to CS Lewis or EB White. But ultimately this is an outrageously original book, a page turner that's thoughtful, very funny, and emotionally satisfying. I hope Tim Burton directs the movie. Recommended--Magicians is an amazing read.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


Like a Jane Austen novel you really want to read, says the flap copy quote for this NY Times bestseller by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame Smith. That would be a fine anti-intellectual sentiment but for those of us who, pardon me, actually liked dipping into a long-vanished world of manners and nuances, precious in the good sense of the word as rare and valuable. The zombies are a cheap distraction and a trivializing of Jane Austen's world. Except there is, I think, something more clever going on here besides a clever take-off precious in the pejorative sense. You get the idea that the zombies somehow represent the dark repressed underside of British culture--the savage cannibalisitc force of empire underneath this formal society.

It's a strange virus. One bite turns a living person dead and then they develop a lust for munching brains but can be fooled into attacking a cauliflower. Very funny also to see an Elizabeth and Darcy who are trained martial arts warriors--Elizabeth vowed to defend the crown until death or her wedding. But it's going a bit far, at least for this fan of the unadulterated P&P to have her eat the beating heart of a vanquished ninja foe, kind of pushes the barbaric British aristocracy thing. But then that is the point of this sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle often clever parody or homage--who knows?

I like that even Jane, the most saint-like Bennett sister, could be a victim of the zombi flu and that Liz's best friend Charlotte does succumb. Seems the enemy is ultimately them in this alternative classic. The dawning awareness is when Lizzie and Jane are dispatching zombies and see a sight they had never seen, a zombie infant and mother. Since they weren't being attacked they show mercy to the gruesome pair. Though later Darcy and Liz can't resist dispatching a group who haven't done anything to them, but that's the joy of new love, fighting together.

And that is essentially the heart of Jane's book, still intact, the comedy of manners leading to love's declaration and Liz awakening from antipathy to cherishing Darcy. The difference, grafted on, is the zombie flu hanging over England. Even the powerful martial arts skills of Lady Catherine and serum that slows down the flu's transformation, can't really save England. When Liz bests her in a fab duel, she doesn't spare her life from mercy--her nature is to savage--but a calculation to retain Darcy's love. What could be more Jane Austen? Caution on this recommendation.