Note: If you missed my show in Fairfax (My 100 Dresses and What's Underneath Them) I'm doing it one more time at the Bolinas Library tomorrow night, 8/4 at 7 pm.
This installment: an odd relationship grows between outsiders; a great old masterpiece on CD; a dance hall tragedy in 1929; a mother and daughter connect via Alzheimer’s; a satire with meditation as the target; and a novel of tangled relationships in Europe in the ‘40s.
Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love by Sarah Butler
Alice at 30 takes to traveling after she finally realizes her lover will never introduce her to his traditional Indian family. While in Mongolia, she learns her father is moribund and has just a few weeks with him in London before he dies. Her older sisters are bossy and judgmental. There’s a secret in the air, unresolved. She wants to flee again but agrees to get the family home ready for sale since she’s unencumbered. In alternate chapters we gradually get to know Daniel, who’s homeless, artistic, and broken-hearted from a long-ago affair. Chapters start with “ten things” lists from each, defining and succinct. He’s been searching for his lost love, comes across the obituary, there’s her name, and in time Alice and Daniel intersect. Butler leaves the question of whether she learns he’s her real father up in the air but it’s clear that their connection contains soul recognition and healing for both. A good take on being an outsider—neither she nor Daniel fit the mold.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
It took me 13 years to finally connect with this masterpiece, via a CD set. (Somehow when it first came out it didn’t speak to me and I gave up.) But I’m almost glad I waited because I had the rides of my life back and forth from Bolinas to Fairfax and beyond—way beyond: Brooklyn, Prague, Hollywood, Alaska, and the far reaches of wild imagination. Sammy and Josef are cousins who meet in 1939; Josef’s a desperate European immigrant. Both have creative genius and drive and together they eventually build dizzying careers in the field of superhero comics. There’s mysticism (the fabled Golem of Prague, for instance), magic, skewed romance, and tragedy as well as a great sweep of history through a very colorful lens. In the ear it’s a particular delight because the actor uses many accents to good effect.
The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell
In 1929 in a Missouri town a dance hall burned down, with many fatalities and lots of theories but no proof of how it happened. Alma is the maid whose beautiful, wild sister was one victim, and she’s doped out one theory but it challenges the town’s propriety and she’s essentially shunned. Eventually her grandson teases the story out of her, and it turns out to involve all manner of passions, grudges, prejudices, religious fervor and bad guys. Woodrell brings in the elements mosaic-fashion in short, sometimes mysterious chapters, which makes it especially intriguing.
The Alzheimer’s Years by Doris Ober
Ober and her mother Betty often clashed when she was growing up, but as Betty got older, Ober came to appreciate her wit, verve, and energy. But then there were lapses, which they tried to explain away until it was obvious Betty couldn’t manage on her own. They moved her from her Palo Alto assisted living studio to a facility closer to their West Marin home. Then came the complicated, fraught, sweet, crazy years of negotiating the broken field of love, concern, frustration, medical complexities, and caregiver arrangements until Betty died at 96. Funny, candid, heartbreaking and inspiring, as the subtitle implies: A Mother and Daughter Reunion. One shocking aspect is how long it took to arrive at her diagnosis—and this includes smart doctors.
Sex Is Forbidden by Tim Parks
I enjoyed Parks’ Teach Us to Sit Still about his experience with meditation. So here’s the fictional version, and what a yeasty environment a retreat center can be. Beth’s been at the Dasgupta Institute for 9 months, staying on as a Server after her 10-day session. She was a Bad Girl, now in flight from a tragedy she feels responsible for. It’s hard for her to hew to the strict dictates (see title for one example) but she yearns for peace. She comes across the journals of a guest (writing is also forbidden) and learns what he’s fleeing from. Diving into the mind of a meditator is vertiginous and we take many journeys down these rabbit holes which are often packed with resentments, disgust (the vegetarian diet leads to wholesale farting), and confusions. Satire for sure, but both she and the journaler (an author, as it turns out) emerge for the better.
The Two Hotels Francforts by David Leavitt
Julia and Pete, American expats, have the life she thought she wanted in a Paris apartment. But it’s 1940 and they have to leave, though she vowed she’d never go home again. In Lisbon, waiting for passage, they meet Edward and Iris and the foursome strike up a very complicated, surprising relationship. Edward moves on Pete, who never realized he had these proclivities. Julia mustn’t find out—she’s fragile. Iris colludes and it turns out that their marital bond is stronger than the men’s attraction. We know Julia is doomed from the start and discover her primal wound. Interesting contrast between the personal discomforts and struggles of those essentially well off (they’re getting out, after all) and those who are marooned and facing horrors to come.
Back 3rd week in August (vacation in the Trinity Alps!)