House of Breath, by William Goyen

Robert suggested this book to me, and I'm glad he did or I never would have found it. Published in 1949, this first novel explores the hold memory has on us, those earliest memories, of childhood's dark cellars and magical woods, of the family that looms like a race of giants. Snippets of memory repeat and repeat, creating our own personal mythology.

These are the memories of Boy Ganchion, called up on a dark night in strange city. Walking in rain turning to snow, he falls into his past, into his childhood in an large old house in Charity, Texas, filled with family: Swimma, Malley, Berryben, Folner, Christy, Granny Ganchion. He gives them to us, allowing some of them to tell their own stories, in their own voices, of the war between the yearning to go out into the world and the pull of the voices calling them to come home, of the loneliness and despair of sitting in a rocking chair doing the calling.

Goyen's descriptions are compelling. “Christy was big and had dark wrong blood and a glistening beard, the bones in his russet Indian cheeks were thick and arched high and they curved round the deep eye cavities where two great silver eyes shaped like bird's eggs were set in deep—half-closed eyes furred round by grilled lashes that laced together and locked over his eyes.” Christy, the hunter, ventures into the woods and returns garlanded with small birds, speckled with their blood. Isolated with a deaf mother, “He had just talked so long into deafness that he came to judge the whole world deaf, and so he no longer said anything much . . . It was what he didn't say that said what he said.”

The unusual style of Goyen's prose captures the confusion as one memory calls up another, while the voice echoes like a preacher repeating ancient phrases. Folner, who had to leave Charity to indulge his love of spangles and tap shoes, comes home in a cheap coffin. “At your funeral there was a feeling of doom in the Grace Methodist Church, and I sat among my kin feeling dry and throttled in the throat and thought we were all doomed—who are these, who am I, what are we laying away, what splendid, glittering, sinful part of us are we burying like a treasure in the earth?”

The place is a character, too, and Goyen brings alive the creaking house with shelves of old preserves in the cellar, the fields around it full of bitterweed, and the bird-crowded woods. He gives us the town of Charity, the tiny Bijou Theatre, and the City Hotel that burned. “You had this little river, Charity, that scalloped round your hem like a taffeta ruffle. It glided through your bottomlands (that could be seen from the gallery of the house) winking with minnows and riverflies and waterbugs. It was ornamented with big, drowsy snap-turtles sitting like figurines on rocks; had little jeweled perch in it and thick purple catfish shining in it and sliding cottonmouth watermoccasins.”

This river acted as “a kind of Beulah Land for everybody: people gathered at you, gathering at water like creatures. You were known to be treacherous after rains and in your deep places, where it was quietest, were dread suckholes sometimes marked by the warning of a whirlpool, but not always.”

I had to adjust to reading this memory-packed stream-of-consciousness style, so the first few chapters went slowly. I felt that, like Boy, I was struggling to sort out and make sense of the overwhelming rush of memory. However, a semblance of structure emerged, and the power of the prose grew on me. The last few chapters are simply magnificent, culminating in a celebration of what it means to be alive in the world, carrying our own particular past.

Twilight of the Superheroes, by Deborah Eisenberg

Another of my book clubs reads two short stories each month. Reading “Another, Better Otto” by Eisenberg, a new author for me, was one of the most satisfying reading experiences I've ever had. Immediately I hustled to the library and laid my hands on this collection, which includes that story along with five others, and sat down to savor them. Eisenberg's tales stretch out to give us a complex world with characters who tantalise the reader with their many facets. I am going to discuss the story I read for book club, but the other stories rise to the same level.

As we meet him, Otto is agonising over spending Thanksgiving with his family, meaning his siblings and their spouses and children. He and his partner, sweet and gentle William, have successfully avoided familial holiday gatherings for years. He's not sure how he got trapped this time by his somewhat bossy sister, Corinne. Otto congratulates himself for having freed himself from his family. But has he? He and William visit his other sister, Sharon, to pass on the invitation. He loves this damaged girl whose brilliant mind somehow slipped, but it is William who thinks to bring flowers.

Smudged as Sharon's brain has become, it is Otto's mind that we follow down dark and sometimes tortured paths. “Humans were born,” he thinks, “they lived. They glued themselves together in little clumps, and then they died . . Let the organisms chat. Let them talk. Their voices were as empty as the tinkling of a player piano.”

One member of my group suggested that the story shows the evolution of the modern family. What is the role of family today, when women can be both breadwinners and chief nurturers? Protection, perhaps, or mutual support. I have long said that it is the family we choose that matters, not necessarily the one we're born into.

Yet, as Otto says, “they had been one another's environs as children . . . there had been no other beings close by, no other beings through whom they could probe or illumine the mystifying chasms and absences and yearnings within themselves.” He goes on to acknowledge that “one did have an impulse to acknowledge one's antecedents, now and again.” I remember my aunt on her deathbed laying aside her lifelong quarrel with my mother, saying that my mother was the only person she wanted to see because she was the only one who remembered the things she did.

Even more mysterious is what ties two people together over the decades of our changing, growing selves. At first it's hard to see why William tolerates irascible Otto. Even here, Eisenberg delicately treads the edges of the bond between Otto and William.

Otto's need for connection to William is obvious even as he berates him for his addiction to pop psychology platitudes, but as one person in my group suggested, perhaps that grows out of or relates to his need to connect to himself. Not to be outdone in the platitude department, yet somehow touching what matters, another person said that love is the answer.

How does Eisenberg do it? There is the particular voice of each narrator, the net of images and references unique to each story, the subtlety of language. Most of all, she brings intelligence and much thought to ideas that matter, giving them a depth and complexity I see only too rarely. I have added Eisenberg to that pantheon of authors whose every book I intend to read.

A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

The first couple of pages of this novel made me chuckle and look forward to a great read. However, round about page 50 I debated about giving up on the tedious plot. At page 100, terminally bored, I put the book down. I picked it up again a few days later only because it was my book club's pick for the month.

I've learned that if a book's cover trumpets that it is a National Bestseller and has pages of ecstatic rave reviews just inside, I won't like it. Blame the raised expectations that keep me from giving a mediocre book the benefit of the doubt or the feeling that I've been tricked by a bait-and-switch. As one member of my book club said, what does it say about the state of today's fiction that such a poorly executed novel could be nominated for so many prizes? But read on, because we may both be wrong.

It begins as Tassie, a college student in Troy, New York, is looking for a job that will start at the beginning of January term. Coming from the small town of Dellacrosse, Troy seems dazzlingly cosmopolitan to her, and there are funny snippets of her appreciation its glories—Chinese food! a man wearing jeans and a tie!—and mocking recollections of her hometown's charms. She eventually lands a job as a babysitter for a couple who don't yet have a baby.

The plot meanders around as she goes home for Christmas, returns, goes on scouting expeditions with her employer, Sarah, and sometimes Sarah's creepy husband, Edward, to check out prospective babies for adoption. Eventually, a baby is acquired as a foster child while the adoption proceeds. Other than the baby, none of the characters is particularly likeable. Tassie is—so I am informed—like many young people today (though none of the many I know): sad, discouraged, drifting through life, substituting humor for thought and impulse for decision. The title is explained early and often.

Although a couple of people in my book club liked the book, others shared my two main concerns: plot and character. The plot is all over the place, wandering off in different directions and getting bogged down in lengthy scenes that add nothing to the story. People pop up at the beginning and then disappear until the end. The climaxes seem tacked on to provide drama. As for the characters, they start out rather two-dimensional with a quirk or two pasted on, and then do not develop in the course of the story. A couple of them get sadder.

One person suggested that perhaps these seeming flaws were deliberate on the part of the author. Since the book is from Tassie's point of view, it is only too likely that she experiences the world as chaotic and unstructured and people as cardboard with amusing quirks. It's an interesting idea. If true, well, it takes a lot of courage to write such a poorly crafted novel. Perhaps the idea was that the humor would make up for the lack of narrative structure and character development. It certainly is very funny. Moore also employs amazingly original yet apt metaphors.

Perhaps the most interesting comment from my book club was from a person who compared Sarah and Edward to the characters in The Great Gatsby. As Fitzgerald famously said, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…” I would say this is true of all the characters, not just Sarah and Edward. Perhaps, then, it is appropriate for the book to be carelessly crafted. Perhaps it is indeed deliberate.

Baffled by how such a book could have garnered so many awards and ovations, I broke from my usual practice of waiting to read reviews until I had completed this blog post. The critics universally seemed to praise it as an extraordinary book, even as some noted the problems I've mentioned. Readers were less forgiving, awarding many one-star reviews. Most of the four- and five-star reviews started out by saying the reader was a huge fan of Lorrie Moore. Maybe what is at work here is something like what used to happen in figure skating when a champion put in a poor performance in the finals and the judges still gave him or her a 6, based more on the entire career than that performance.

What do you think? Do you find reviews helpful? Do you find a significant difference between reviews by critics and by readers?

Virgin Soil, by Ivan Turgenev

I attended a book club this week who read my memoir, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother. The attendees were mostly lawyers or law students, and we had a lively and wide-ranging discussion. I especially enjoyed hearing people's personal stories; as always there was a mix of people who had been in the system themselves at some point (even if just getting food stamps) and people whose eyes were opened to a world foreign to them.

One question that stumped me, though, came when we were discussing the chapter on the Welfare Rights Organization that so changed the system in the 1960s and 1970s, making it more consistent and fair. We agreed that with all the cuts in eligibility and services, the time was ripe for a new wave of activism to support those in poverty, both on public assistance and the working poor so dramatically brought to the limelight by Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed. Why, I was asked, isn't this happening? Where is the outrage? Where are the activists?

I don't know what happened to all of the energy of the 1960s and 1970s activism. Maybe we just got older, busy with jobs and children. Maybe our early successes made us complacent. I do know that, contrary to the media stereotype, nearly everyone I know has remained true to those ideals of peace and freedom, of fairness and equal rights. Recently the Occupy Movement has given me a glimmer of hope that the long sleep is finally ending.

Virgin Soil, Turgenev's last novel, is about the Populist movement in Russia a hundred years before my experiences, in the late 1860s and 1870s. These idealistic revolutionaries want to awaken the slumbering people and help them take back their country from the ruling classes. The story focuses on Alexey Nezhdanov, a young student in St. Petersburg, who wants to devote his life to the cause, condemning as elitist the poetry he cannot keep himself from writing.

So much of this is familiar! Nezhdanov and his friends go among the poor, hoping to blend in and teach them to expect more, with the result you would expect. There's paranoia about possible infiltrators and dissension over which leaders to trust. Some advocate a violent uprising while others work within their own small sphere to create change. Some show common sense while others seem more concerned with self-aggrandizement. There are witting and unwitting betrayals. Nezhdanov falls in love with a young woman from a good family who shares his ideals and commitment to the cause.

The most interesting characters to me were two of his friends, minor characters whose loyalty is tested, and the aristocrat for whom he works, whose charming duplicity drives much of the action. This dramatic story helps me understand what happened to the movements of my youth, the disillusion and disarray they fell into. In these troubled times, with many people suddenly furloughed from work without a paycheck and others still bearing the brunt of losing most of their savings in the banking fiasco, perhaps the awakening has begun. What do you think it will take to create a new movement for change?