This installment: an intense, fraught friendship between girls; the witty tale of an international newspaper; a delightful DVD about disability; a meaty, absurd novel from China; brilliant short stories from Sanders; and a memoir about almost fatally enmeshed twins.
Autobiography of Us by Aria Beth Sloss
From the beginning we sense there’s a surprise, as the narrator, Rebecca, alludes to “your father” though we don’t know whom she’s addressing. And we don’t find out until the end. Rebecca, nerdy and bookish, gets the attention of Alex, a glamorous newcomer, in school. What’s she doing with such a loser? Forming an intense friendship, that’s what. Alex, a performer with big ambitions, needs an audience. Pasadena in the ‘60s, quite conventional despite the growing foment of the times. The girls move on to college together and then there’s a long rift, but Rebecca always has Alex on her mind (and writes her letters she doesn’t send). Both have compromised lives, not what they envisioned though superficially successful. When Alex reconnects with her friend years later, it’s time for truth. A good story, well told.
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
Charming novelistic account of the birth and death of an international newspaper, started in Rome a half century ago Each chapter revolves around one of the participants: reporters, stringers, copy editors, publishers—the latter an eccentric family of millionaires. Lots of internal political jockeying and power struggles, domestic entanglements and inevitable disentanglements, all set in the delicious environs of Rome. Think I’d like to hear it on CD, since I read it in a tired, distracted state. (Note: I wrote this in June of 2010 when the book came out, recently plucked the CD from our shelves, and my unwitting wish was fulfilled. It works very well in the ear—lots of accents add color.)
Learning about coping with disability is a particular obsession of mine. A form of superstition, perhaps—if I experience it second-hand, that might save me from the real thing. And also I love tales of triumph over what might seem like impossible circumstances. Hence the pull of this wonderful DVD which shares Mark O’Brien’s wish for sexual experience , especially challenging because he can only move his head. Polio as a kid put him in an iron lung. Enter a sex therapist--clear, beautiful, tough and tender, who delivers fulfillment. Another extraordinary character is the young Catholic priest who becomes a friend as well as counselor after wrestling with considerations that go way beyond his usual pastoral duties. There’s also a beautiful, tender soundtrack which underscores the rich emotional material without milking it. And many opportunities for humor, too—Mark’s a crack up and absurdities abound. Highly recommended.
Pow! by Mo Yan
Meat plays a huge role in this Chinese opera buffa of a book. In the form of a long, crazy narrative to a quiet monk, a prospective novice tells of family woes—father decamps with Wild Auntie Mule, mother and son are reduced to hauling junk, fortunes turn, and the village becomes the primary meat-producing plant for the region. The young man comes up with a “meat cleansing” technique that introduces water into the animals before slaughter, and of course ups the sale weight. Meanwhile a feud fulminates, erupting into periodic vicious skirmishes, gross eating contests, and finally a mortar attack to end all attacks worthy of Dr. Strangelove. Yan is an acquired taste but I seem to have developed an appetite for his wild mix of alternating “eeuws” and “ahhs.”
Tenth of December by George Saunders
There’s no one quite like this nimble, eccentric satirist and this new collection of short stories delivers in spades. Example: “Escape from Spiderhead” (anthologized in a “Best” collection where I first encountered it) plays with the concept of ultimate drugs to deliver ecstatic experiences. It’s a clinical setting, though, with a darker level of experimentation and one subject, faced with a moral dilemma, rebels at great cost. Full of clever trademark names, and a kind of casual sci-fi atmosphere. But then the reader feels a deep pull of realization, the shock of the ending, and the magic of Saunders reveals itself. Bracing, sly, and profound—don’t miss it.
Her: a Memoir by Christa Parravani
Identical twins Christia and Cara were so enmeshed that when Cara died after a severe downward spiral, prompted in part by a rape, Christa almost joined her. But art saved her—that is, writing about the experience from their grim early days (single, poor mother) where they supported each other emotionally to good colleges (quite a feat), early marriages, and then all the bad stuff. Christa fruitlessly tried to save Cara, then took on her persona, and eventually pulled herself out to make a solid life and a good marriage. Whew! Gripping, well-written, and I’m always amazed at what people can go through and come out of strong and shining (which is why I’m drawn to books like these).
Back next Monday