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This installment: (but first, don't forget my show this Thurs. at 7:30) two novels on CD—one full of deliciously nasty British wit, the next Japanese noir; a book and a movie—compare and contrast; another novel with British wit, this time skewering mad cows and beyond; fellow students whose lives diverge radically; tragic unrelated events and an attempt to understand them.

 

   The Stepmother’s Diary by Fay Weldon

 

Sappho’s mother is a therapist (you’d think she’d have a clue before naming her daughter for that pretty Greek island…). She watches Sappho’s marriage to Gavin, a less successful writer, get trashed through the machinations of his teenage daughter Isobel.  Sappho’s working on a novel in the form of a diary about her awful fall from grace, and we’re privy to that as well. Weldon is often sardonic, which makes her characters less sympathetic, but I’m willing to put up with it for her wit.  The actor does the voices well and this book on CD made for a diverting commute.

 

   After Dark by Haruki Murakami

 

A surrealistic, mysterious story set hour by hour at night.  We meet young Mari in a café, reading.  She’s deliberately missed the last train home and intends to stay in the region until they start up again. A trombonist who recognized her from a picnic long ago tries to chat her up. Not easy--she’s a cool, self-contained, taciturn unit. But he discovers she speaks Chinese and she’s called upon to interpret for a prostitute who’s been savagely beaten in a love hotel. He gradually learns that Mari’s exquisite sister Eri has fallen into a two month sleep (shades of Sleeping Beauty) and there may be sinister elements as play. By the end of the long, complicated night we get a sense that Mari and her sister will reconnect emotionally and the trombonist may end up in her life as well. I was especially interested in this early novel because I spotted seeds of the imagery that propels his amazing blockbuster, 1Q84. The narrator has a voice as clean as the prose but also could thicken it for rougher characters.

 

  Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (book)

                             Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (movie)

First I watched the DVD, and then I went back and reread the novel.  It’s always fun to see what elements a film director will use and how faithfully he’s conveyed the material. Set in the ‘50s, that bastion of prosperity and conformity.  April and Frank are stuck in the suburbs with two small children.  He’s miserable at his job and she gets a wild idea: they’ll move to Paris, she’ll work as a well-paid secretary and he’ll “find himself.” The plan barrels along until she gets pregnant, he’s offered a promotion, and the shackles of convention and underground self-hatred close around them again. A tragic ending. I found the film conveyed the essence of the novel very well, with willowy, cool Kate Winslet (married in real life to director Sam Mendes) contrasted with shorter, round faced Leonardo di Caprio.  One quibble: their two kids were less present in the movie than in the book, which made it seem more like a fable. Both book and movie powerful and sad.

 

 

   Idiopathy by Sam Byers

 

The title refers to a mad cow variant, in which bovines just stare into space endlessly (god forbid!).  Katherine is an efficient, mean, and unhappy facility manager.  Daniel, her ex, is a scientist creating artificial protein sources.  His new main squeeze is Angelica, as gooey sweet as her name. Nathan used to hang out with Daniel and Katherine but now he’s a self-destructive mess.  His mother has written an inspirational book about coping with said problem—a rich mine of satirical material. The setting: Norwich. The three are reunited briefly with predictably funky results. So much pretension and discomfort and wishing they were somewhere else. Broad, sometimes nasty British humor—I love it!

 

 

   A Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershow

 

Hugh and Ed meet at Harvard in the early 60s. Ed is Jewish, ambitious, but socially awkward.  Hugh comes from wealth but seems to spurn it.  He goes off to Africa to make documentary films while Ed uses a contact he makes through Hugh to ascend the corporate ladder.  They both love Helen, but after a rocky start she marries Hugh.  Their lives diverge radically but end up intersecting through their daughters’ friendship in boarding school.  No happily ever after (Hugh’s an alcoholic; Ed’s a crook) but there’s some redress and hints of possible long-deferred resolution. Especially interesting to follow each trajectory: Hugh trying to do good in third world countries while Ed pursues the mighty dollar and all the trappings.

 

   The Why of Things by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop

 

 Sophie, the Jacobs’ oldest daughter, commits suicide in Baltimore.  The family retreats to their summer home in New England but there another shadow awaits. A local young man, James, has driven his truck into their quarry lake and drowned. 16 year old Eve is obsessed by the mysterious event and tries to discover the why of it, as the rest of the family struggles with the why of Sophie’s death, and it feels as if the essence of the family has been gutted.  Mother Joan, a writer, can’t write.  Father Anders tries to guide acting-out Eve. Little Eloise finds dead animals to bury. Their long-standing vacation patterns and connection with the small town are both disrupted and reframed as the Jacobs and James’ mother try to understand what seems so senseless. True, the subject is very sad, but the book is full of life and at the end, we witness progress and reconciliation. Yes!

 

Back next Tuesday (Monday's a holiday)

 

 

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