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Neshama's Choices for 5th week in September

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This installment: CD version of an old favorite; interlocking stories set in WWII (the theme just keeps coming up…); a prison bio I read before it became a hot new TV series; the best book of the year, in my opinion; a memoir of widowhood; and a novelistic send-up of the publishing industry.

 

   The Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy O’Toole

 

I remembered this book from way back as one of the stellar reading experiences of my life, so when the CD version fell into my hands, I knew I was in for a fabulous ride (literally, since I listened to it on my commute).  Oh that Ignatius, one of the world’s greatest tragicomic characters.  He’s bigger than life, sententious, idealistic, self-absorbed, and a magnet for calamity.  He lives with his poor put-upon mother who tipples and eventually runs out of patience with him.  The setting is another bigger-than-life character: New Orleans.  Ignatius gets a job at Levy Pants, a foundering firm, and decides to free the factory workers with a “Crusade for Moorish Dignity.”  When that fails spectacularly he launches other hare-brained schemes with equally chaotic results.  The actor does all the voices with gusto:  Ignantius’ booming “Oh My God!, epicene lispers, and black Jones’ repeated  cries of “oo-wee” and “whoah! Like crazy music to my ears.  Highly recommended.

 

   The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

 

Another book placed in WWII in England with interlocking stories.  Actually a tangled chain of them and the grand literary trick of starting in one year, backing up 3, backing up 3 again which finally reveals why everyone’s got their knickers in a twist, as it were. We start in ’47 with a couple, Helen and Julia, at odds. An eccentric isolated woman, K, lives above Mr. Monday.  He’s a retired prison warden and a Christian Scientist who does vigils for the afflicted every evening (hence the book’s title.) His lodger, who calls him uncle and tucks him into bed every night, is a haunted young man, Duncan.  Duncan’s sister Viv, who works in a matchmaking bureau with Helen, is dating a married cad, Reggie. Everyone’s struggling with ill-fitting relationships, loneliness, and/or dark secrets.  Rich and sad.

 

   Orange is the New Black by Piper Kermin

 

Cute, sweet, middle class, blond, a graduate of Smith.  What’s she doing in the Pen? Misspent early adulthood with a high-living lover, Nora, who led her into in the drug smuggling trade. Piper extricated herself, or so she thought, and took up with Larry, a good guy.  Ten years later it all comes down and off she goes for 13 months to the Danbury Correctional Facility.  She’s determined to get through it intact, which means learning an insane new culture fast and keeping a low profile.  She has a fabulous support system, including a steady stream of books.  What a crash course and in the process she makes some really good friends among her fellow prisoners.  Also she sees close up how totally broken the system is. We get jailhouse recipes including cheesecake, craft projects, craftiness, meltdowns—what a gamut. Her tone remains pretty perky throughout, but reflection, regret, and anger creep in too, appropriately.

 

   Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon

   Far From the Tree (CD version)

I think I've been waiting for this book my entire life. It covers almost everything that fascinates, puzzles, and concerns me about the human condition. Subtitled: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity--sounds pretty straightforward. But what parents, what children, and what incredible challenges: autism, schizophrenia, deafness, dwarves, transgender, children of rape, children who commit crimes. How can they cope, how do they feel, what might be positive about such dire circumstances? The book is full of paradoxes, like parents who say their lives are deeply enriched by their very damaged children. Many moral tangles, many heartbreaking tales. Solomon weaves stories and science and philosophy seamlessly. We hear his story, too--a gay man who finally makes peace with his family, and starts one of his own. 700 plus pages, plus 260 of notes, index and bibliography. I raced through it but had the chance to savor on CD (many CDs) and loved the author’s delivery in which emotion broke through his reserve,e subtly but palpably.

 

 

   Epilogue by Anne Roiphe

 

Roiphe's husband of 4 decades died suddenly. There she was, almost 70, an esteemed writer in her own right but lost without him out in the world. He was a psychotherapist and a very good stepfather. Her daughters put an ad in The New York Review of Books and with curiosity mixed with reluctance, she tried out some dates. For the most part they were busts, but one went quite a distance via email and phone until she realized they were essentially incompatible. By the end she recognizes that perhaps she'd be better off alone, and after the grief lifted somewhat, not so bad off after all. New York setting, graceful and candid writing.

 

 

    Love is a Canoe by Ben Shrank

 

What a peculiar book! At first it almost turned my stomach with the homilies of Peter, author of Marriage is a Canoe, a beloved, oft-reprinted description of his grandparents’ ideal relationship and the lessons therein. Norman Rockwell, Mitch Albom—you get the drift.  But then we learn that to beef up an anniversary reissuing, ambitious publishing hopeful Stella suggests a contest: an afternoon with Peter himself for the winning couple with a canoe ride thrown in.  Emily writes the only possible entry (the other entries are too anguished or grotesque). Things are a bit strained between her and her charming but increasingly distant spouse. The denouement is a predictable, entertaining mess.  Good send up of the publishing industry, and of course we discover that Emily’s  “canoe,” despite its shiny appearance, was too flimsy for the long ride anyway.

Back next Monday

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Posted by: Neshama

Neshama works at the Fairfax Library.

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