This installment: a novel set in the ‘50s; an old favorite on CD; Palin on journalism in a novel; a wonderfully grim French DVD; wacky yet moving novel about rehab; and magical short stories.
Is This Tomorrow? by Caroline Leavitt
I came of age in the ‘50s but am always shocked when a novel takes me back to those repressive, conservative times. (How far we’ve come, and thank God for it!)Ava Lark doesn’t fit into her suburban neighborhood; she’s poor, sexy, divorced, a single mother, and a Jew to boot. Her 12 year old son, Lewis, finds his only friends in siblings Rose and Jimmy, across the street. Their mother, Dot, is widowed and Catholic (much more acceptable but still…). Jimmy vanishes, no clues, Dot and Rose move away, and it’s misery all around. A complex web of relationship underlie all three; Jimmy was love with Ava, Rose in love with Lewis, and Lewis yearned for his absent father. Through the years the characters live out their lonely destinies and when they finally reconnect, truths are revealed, both shocking and somewhat healing. Very moving.
Still Alice by Lisa Genova
Another old favorite I revisited on CD. Here’s what I wrote about the book in 2009: Alice is a professor at Harvard. So’s her husband. She’s 50. A hole in her brain appears where a word should be: lexicon, ironically. (Her field is linguistics.) She gets lost two blocks from home. No, it’s not a symptom of menopause but early onset Alzheimers. She tries to cover for a while, then can’t. Her daughter Lydia is pursuing acting rather than academics—a disappointment. Things get very tense at home, no surprise. And her world shrinks radically after she has to stop working; it’s tedious, messy, and her husband is increasingly resentful. Their summer house feels like a stranger’s. For a while she can still read, but only plays. Her husband takes a job in NYC but she kind of manages back in Cambridge with full-time care and her daughters and now twin grandchildren (in vitro fetuses which were screened and the two free of the gene were implanted). Though much remains elusive, she can still connect with the babies and Lydia’s work, amazingly. Still Alice, indeed. Very moving. And it works just fine in the ear as on the page.
The Truth by Michael Palin
In addition to being a brilliant comic (oh those Pythons), Palin is fine novelist. Here the subject of the title goes head to head with journalism, that murky field that many assume presents “the facts.” Keith has just produced a white-washed “history” of an oil company so he welcomes the opportunity to write the definitive biography of an elusive environmental hero whom he has to track down with a detective’s skill. Guess what: there’s an agenda behind the commission and again Keith is plastered against the wall of economic necessity versus conscience. Fascinating denouement that had me cheering for comeuppance.
Many friends wouldn’t touch this DVD with a 10 foot pole: too depressing. But I gobbled it up. What does love look like when you’re old, French, respectable, repressed, and the wife is struck down with a debilitating stroke? Not pretty. At first incomprehension, then grim, frustrating caretaking. The grotesque “dance” of supporting her faltering steps or hauling her off the toilet. The feeding, until she turns her head away in fury. The nightmarishly chipper, insensitive aide. The daughter who wants to put her mother in an institution. Finally it’s just the couple sunk into desuetude and despair until her husband commits the final , shocking act of “love.” Incredible actors (Trenignant, Riva, Huppert), luminous cinematography, and an unflinching look at one version of the end.
Tumbledown by Robert Boswell
I fell in love with the extremely eccentric, dysfunctional characters who populate Onyx Springs, a rehab facility inland in San Diego. This includes both sides of the fence: staff and clients. Jimmy seems to have it all together, a counselor on the way up. But why did he buy that crass macmansion and the uncomfortable Porsche Boxter? And until his fiancée Lolly shows up, why is he dallying with Lise, whom he doesn’t recognize from his past life? His childhood friend Billy, down on his luck, gets a room and a job with him and that seems golden too, until it isn’t. And oh the Onyx denizens, among them young, handsome, schizophrenic Mick; young, beautiful, retarded Karly (are they really engaged?); and misanthropic Vex who can fix anything but has some (ahem) anger management issues. The shadow of Pook, Jimmy’s older brother, who committed suicide and made amazing outsider art, hangs over everything. One of those multiple endings that only happen in fiction (unless you believe in multiple universes). Wacky and moving—a tasty combo if you have a taste for the grotesque.
The Color Master: Stories by Aimee Bender
These combine the fantastic and the seemingly quotidian in surprising ways. The title story is pure, timeless fantasy, a variation on the fairy tale that demands sun, moon dresses and rock shoes. Often the narrators are teenagers, with their flat, cynical delivery, perfect pitch. Apples, tigers, lemonade are all springboards for amazing tales. Highly recommended.
Back next Monday.