Recommended Reading: Frances and Bernard, by Carlene Bauer

Letter-writing

As I’ve mentioned before, I love a good epistolary novel, and here’s one, slender and new, that I hope you’ll love too.

It’s no secret that Carlene Bauer takes as her models for her correspondents Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell; in fact, several reviewers have complained that those (real) voices have not been satisfactorily mimicked, or that Ms. Bauer ought to have worked with material of her own devising.

I confess that I am unmoved by both these objections. It may be heretical to say it, as someone who attended BU and sat in the Lowell room from time to time, but confessional is not my favored poetic brand, and I have been derelict in my scholarly duty to thoroughly read O’Connor (though what I have read is sublime). And why shouldn’t writers dip into the past or borrow historical figures, in whole or in part, as they tell their own stories? [That said, I think the voices of the wholly imagined characters — Claire and Ted — come through very strongly.]

So. I loved this book for its earnest but unwearisome approach to matters of faith, writing, love, and family, which, as you might suppose, are all connected. But humor, so often lost in conversations about weighty subjects (an understatement, I know), is wry and sly and happening all the time in this novel. Here’s my favorite zinger: “The Beats are really nothing more than a troop of malevolent Boy Scouts trying to earn badges for cultural arson” (14).

[Sidebar: I will be stealing one of Frances’s lines for my Christmas/Hannukah cards this year: “Love and joy come to you, and to your wassail too” (9). I know it’s too early to be thinking about Christmas, and yet: look at me go!]

I loved the way Frances and Bernard proceed almost immediately into matters of import, which I’ve found can happen when one starts a correspondence with someone not well known and not likely to be seen again, even if that’s something one would like. As I read the novel, I thought about my own treasured friendships, and resolved to write more letters.

[I’m rather terrible at keeping up with correspondence, though; do you have any tips for becoming a reliable letter-writer?]

Recommended Reading: The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex didn’t land on my radar until graduate school, when I devoured the novel in two days, reading on the T, in line at the pharmacy, in the kitchen. I stayed up late. I cried. And then I read it again.

So it was with eager fingers that I turned the first pages of The Virgin Suicides (1993), the first of Mr. Eugenides’s three published novels.

I wasn’t disappointed.

It’s very, very different from Middlesex; it doesn’t share the sweeping scope of family, history, and geography. Instead, the focus on the girls feels almost claustrophobic; the reader is hemmed in, drawn to the inevitable, macabre conclusion the book’s title suggests.

I’d never seen this style of narration before: first person plural, never broken. The middle-aged men who look back on the Lisbon sisters and their own younger selves act as archaeologists, excavating and archiving objects and memories in an attempt to come to terms with the tragedy in their hometown. Because the narrators are just as bewildered as the reader, the novel sidesteps the available easy answers, the laying of blame.

And it’s Eugenides. The writing is breathtakingly beautiful.

Recommended Reading: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon

My copy of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh includes an interview with Michael Chabon, in which he talks about the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Philip Roth on this, Mr. Chabon’s first published novel. While I haven’t read enough Roth to comment on the connection (truly, one of his novels was quite enough for me, though you may, if you choose, think me a Philistine), The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, without being at all similar in plot or setting, did indeed seem caught up in the summer-long wave of events that is The Great Gatsby; the last page of the novel, especially, savored strongly of the green light.

Art Bechstein, the narrator, spends his first post-collegiate summer in Pittsburgh looking for adventures and answers with a new, wildly interesting set of friends.

That’s not a great summary, but really, how do you summarize a novel? I’ve always found it tremendously difficult, and the stress that results from worrying about what to leave out and what to highlight makes me thirst for a tall gin and tonic.

But I digress.

This is my third Chabon novel. I very much enjoyed Wonder Boys, which I like to read in conjunction with Straight Man, by Richard Russo, my number-one contemporary lit-fic squeeze, and I recommend Mr. Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to just about everyone. It was the first-year summer reading at Ohio State (Go Bucks!) when I was a freshman (lo these many years ago), and it was an awesome pick.

Reading a first novel after reading those polished, longer pieces was delightful; I saw later characters germinating, saw the beginnings of Mr. Chabon’s wit and breadth of view. It wasn’t jarring (the way that reading The Comedy of Errors after reading King Lear is almost terrifying), but rather gave me a chance to appreciate the author’s mature prose in light of his youthful exuberance, without denigrating either.

A few other stray thoughts: I’m a sucker for kind but clear-eyed descriptions of north-easternly cities that aren’t New York (hailing as I do from Cleveland by way of Buffalo), and Mr. Chabon’s Pittsburgh is a character in this novel. The first-person narration works, and the slight departure from it in the penultimate chapter made me sit up and take notice of what was happening, without fanfare or fireworks.

It’s a fine bildungsroman with charm and verve, and it comes highly recommended.

By the way, I hear there’s a film version, and that you shouldn’t see it.

Recommended Reading: Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt

One of the things everyone tells you in high school that you completely forget until it’s ten years later: read now, because you’ll never have this much time again.

While I’d love to read a book a day, like writer Jeff Ryan over at Slate, it’s just not going to happen with an active toddler, especially since, unlike Mr. Ryan, I loathe books on tape. The voices are never quite right, the spoken word is painfully slow, and it’s terribly difficult to, say, speed-read through the first sixty-odd, interminably green pages of Fellowship of the Ring.

So I’m hoping to get thirty books under my belt this year, and I started with Carol Rifka Brunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m Home. I know, I know: I should read one of the hundred-plus books on my shelves that I haven’t read yet, but when I read the description of this debut novel, I just couldn’t resist. Plus I needed to get to twenty-five bucks on my Amazon order to get free shipping.

It was worth it. Lovely writing, an engaging and memorable narrator, and a real sense of time and place. Highly recommended.