Rainy Day Reads – Dark and Difficult Tales

Although the stories are difficult to read, each leaves the reader with an understanding and some sympathy for the characters’ circumstances, and possibly a sense of shadenfraude.

514KmtX+MGL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_  Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Hamid focuses on the lives of two immigrants, Saeed and Nadia, whose country is bombarded by war and terror.  Saeed, the son of a university professor, works at an ad agency and lives with his family. Nadia lives alone, rides a motorcycle,  and wears a full black robe, not for religious deference but to discourage men’s interest in her.  Opposites attract; they meet in a college class on product branding and fall in love.

As the city becomes overrun with refugees and the terror escalates, many yearn to escape.  Hamid graphically documents what is it like to live in a war zone and the desperate lives of those who are collateral damage.

The novel veers into magical realism when Hamid creates mysterious doors opening to other places.  Unlike the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicle of Narnia, these portals lead to actual places – in this case, first to the island of Mykonos, then to the outskirts of London, and finally to San Francisco.  As  Saeed and Nadia escape through each set of doors, they find themselves among other refugees and subsist poorly.  Their lives are difficult, facing constant fear and roadblocks.  Hamid electrifies the refugee crisis as he melds the political and personal, and disconcertedly jumps between scenes of bombing and drones to starry skies and dreams of a future.

The novel ends with hope, but also emphasizes how experiences have affected the couple – even magical doors take a toll.   The story is difficult to read, not just for the misery and struggle but also for its truthful timeliness.

8f097af436887d7ef6a7422ab1e6e846-w204@1x  Stream System by Gerald Murnane

When I read Mark Binelli’s interview of Gerald Murnane in the Sunday New York Times – Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town? my curiosity led me to Binelli’s recommendation for a place to start reading the author – his collection of short fiction, Stream System.

An obscure Australian writer, Murnane lives in a poor ramshackle space outside of Melbourne and would seem more eccentric than brilliant.  He prides himself on writing only what he knows within his small sphere – no travel and little patience with people.  His stories are set near Melbourne, are in part autobiographical, and focus on perceptions.  The canon of his work is extensive and his writing reflects a strange simplicity reminiscent of Hemingway.  The first story in his collection – “When the Mice Failed to Arrive” – jumps from introspection to problem-solving and left me not with a yearning for more but with a general unease.  You can read it – here – and decide for yourself.

180319154736-the-child-in-time-cumberbatch-exlarge-169  The Child in Time by Ian McEwan

McEwan’s stories are always compelling but with sad endings.  Although I have read many of McEwan’s books (Atonement, On Chesil Beach, Sweet Tooth, Nutshell) I had not read this earlier work – The Child in Time.  More for the actor Benedict Cumberbatch than for the story, I watched the PBS Masterpiece production.

The story shows Stephen, an author of children’s books, and his wife, as they deal with the kidnapping of their three-year-old daughter Kate.  A sense of magic as well as despair pervades their grief as Stephen has glimpses of his daughter after her abduction.  The ending offers a sense of hope but their overwhelming pain persists. The drama was compelling and worth seeing.  The story will stay with me, but I doubt I will read the book – enough.



Sweet Tooth

Ian McEwan offers an unexpected bonus for bibliophiles in his latest book – Sweet Tooth. To embellish the main action of the beautiful young British spy, Serena Frome, whose reading taste ranges from Jane Austen to Jacqueline Susann, McEwan includes short stories seemingly unconnected to the main plot; each could stand alone while subtly revealing the underpinnings of the main character.

Reluctantly majoring in mathematics at Cambridge, Serena nurtures her love of novels and writes for an undergraduate newsletter. A middle-aged undercover agent, posing as a history professor, becomes her lover and recruits Serena into the British internal intelligence service after graduation – not a position of glamour or prestige for a woman in the 1970s. Her literary bent is noticed at the agency and she is promoted from file clerk to spy. Her first assignment is monitoring a fiction writer, Tom Haley, with an inclination to anti-communism. As preparation, Serena reads Tom’s short stories – clever extras provided by McEwan.

Of course, she falls in love with her target, and, you may now refer back to the book’s opening paragraph…

“My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost 40 years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn’t return safely. Within 18 months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.”

The spy story is secondary to the author’s opinionated rambling, but the historical data, references to authors, and the intrigue of the deception may keep you reading.  Much of the rumination involves Serena’s interaction with her love interests: Tom, her suborned writer; Tony, her mentor and duplicitous double agent; Max, her elusive supervisor.  As Serena’s affair with Tom gains momentum, the possibility of her being discovered as an undercover agent increases.

If you remember the surprising conclusion to McEwan’s Atonement, the ending to  Sweet Tooth will be a disappointment in comparison.  The final deceit is uneventful, with universal betrayal as the theme.  I had the same feeling when On Chesil Beach ended  – regret; I may take a break from McEwan’s anticlimactic thrills for a while.

The Stranger’s Child

Robert Frost once noted – “…my poems – I should suppose everybody’s poems – are all set to trip the reader…”  The meaning of poetry may depend more on the reader than the writer.  Allan Hollinghurst uses that construct to create a family saga about a poet in The Stranger’s Child.

Hollinghurst’s long detailed story starts in Britain before  the first World War and continues to present day.  The language and thematic undercurrents reminded me of studying the British novel of manners as an undergraduate – appreciating the references to Evelyn Waugh but also cringing at the slow-paced unraveling.  Hollinghurst beautifully sets the scene with an aristocratic young man, Cecil, visiting his schoolmate’s family home at Two Acres – a comfortable but not wealthy estate.  Cecil and George are secret lovers – quietly revealed through a dinner and subsequent scene in a hammock, but, it seems, no one in the family knows or suspects – including George’s younger sister Daphne.  Cecil nurtures the young girl’s crush and leaves a poem in her journal.

Later, when Cecil dies in the war, his poem becomes famous – much like Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier.”  Only after the narrative jumps to modern times with a biographer investigating Cecil’s life, is the truth of the poem – written to George, not Daphne –  revealed.   The reader will find clues throughout, but Hollinghurst neatly wraps up the drama in the last chapter – revisiting Daphne’s marriages and dalliances, and, finally, Cecil’s bisexuality.

The book is a slow read – overdone with allusions, literary references, and pithy characters with a proper veneer.  It’s easy to get lost in the language and lose track of the real story; if you are looking for a strong plot with a satisfying resolution – you will not find it here.   The theme is reminiscent of a McEwan novel – though much longer – nothing is as it seems, and in the end, people will believe what they will – no matter what the evidence.

Hollinghurst has been compared to Henry James, with a “stylistic antiquarian style,” or maybe a poet writing in prose.  James Wood offers a thorough analysis and his thoughts on both the author and his books in The New Yorker.

Read Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” – here

Bibliotherapy – Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

A book can always do something for a psyche – calm it down, cheer it up, instill some missing romance, provide an adventure, travel to an unknown destination – most of the time.  The secret to getting lost in a book may be the story, the writing, or the topic, but more likely it’s the reader’s inclination and willingness to give up the present and fall into another world – for better or worse.

When the real world becomes unbearable, and reading a book becomes preferable to doing anything else, no one worries; it’s acceptable to go off in a quiet corner to read and block out the surrounding world.

 Nina Sankowitch looked to books to help her cope with  the death of her sister.  Jan Hoffman of the New York Times describes Sankovitch’s plan to read a book a day as grief therapy, chronicled in Sankovitch’s book, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair. 

“I was looking to books for more than just escape and pleasure.”

She read Toni Morrison, Leo Tolstoy, Ian McEwan, Edith Wharton, and more.  Some books she found:

Stacks of books beckon – sometimes reading can just make you feel better.

The Last Summer of the World

Frame a scene between your thumb and forefingers – a lens focusing and condensing the picture.  Emily Mitchell effectively does just that by zooming in on the life of photographer Edward Steichen in her first novel – The Last Summer of the World.  Although Steichen became an icon before his death at 93, an innovator in color photography and an artist awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Mitchell focuses on his early years – during a short but important window that influenced his later work and life.

Rodin by Steichen

With a talent for photography and art at a young age, Steichen found his mentors in Auguste Rodin and Alfred Stieglitz before becoming a first lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps in World War I.  Mitchell stays true to Edward Steichen’s life story, as he marries his first wife, philanders, and finds his niche in the world of art.  Mitchell provides a disclaimer in her “historical note,” but I still looked for more background information on the real Steichen – interested to know how much was fabricated and how much was real.  The dialogue is fiction, but believable and even possible; the relationships and events are real.

The story starts by vacillating between Edward’s daring exploits, as an espionage photographer – taking aerial pictures of enemy sites, while manning a machine gun from the tail of a plane – to his struggle with his married life and artistic career.  Mitchell has Edward mourning a dead comrade in one scene, and then sleeping with Isadora Duncan in another.

His first wife, Clara, a talented pianist who gives it all up, torn between wanting to be the dutiful wife and mother at the expense of her career – cracks under the strain of seeing her husband’s star soar as hers falls…”{she} apparently cannot have both love and time.”

Throughout the narrative, the upcoming divorce looms – with Edward claiming he has done nothing wrong, and Clara feeling betrayed by his alleged sleeping with her best friend.  Mitchell, cleverly keeps you guessing about who is telling the truth – even when the third-party, Marion, makes appearances in and out of the war scenes.  Later in the novel, she flips back and forth from Clara’s point of view and experiences to Marion’s.  Both suffered from loving a great artist, whose great love was his art.  The real Clara did sue Marion Beckett, charging that she had destroyed her marriage to Steichen.

The heart of the story is Edward’s talent and the mystery behind his perception which produces such amazing pictures – some described in detail. Steichen was famous for blurring his images, attributed to his early work as a painter.

With a little of Ian McEwan’s style of storytelling, Mitchell combines historic events with real information and intrigue to tell a story that is hard to put down.  Her facts are always woven into personal triumph and tragedy; I learned about Steichen, his early life and art, but I also had a great time anticipating how he would manage to rationalize his next adventure – in the name of art, freedom, and love.

Mitchell’s story ends with Steichen burning all his original paintings – this really happened in 1923, after he returned to France from serving in the war.

“I’m burning my paintings…to be free of them…it would be better to get rid of them, start again…”

And he does start again with photography, and goes on to fight in another war and marry again and again – but that’s another story.

Related Articles:

Time – Looking Back on Edward Steichen

Biography – Edward Steichen