A Perfect Stranger, by Roxana Robinson

I enjoy short stories, especially at times like these when my attention is a bit fractured. Just now about all I can handle is a powerful short story that can pull me in, tumble me about and let me go, as changed as the person in the story.

This is the first I've read Robinson's work, which was recommended to me by my local indie bookstore. Unsure what to expect, I steeled myself for pranks and allusions and metafictional games. But no. These stories stand four-square, solid and traditional. With great deliberation they capture my attention.

Most of the stories start with a single, declarative sentence: “That summer we rented a house in France, with friends.” No tricks, no mischief, just a simple statement of fact, yet plunging me into the story. Then it continues to draw me in, enticing me with evocative description:

. . . it was a long farmhouse of golden stone, with a faded orange tile roof. In front of it was a flat stretch of pale gravel, shaded by wide trees. The swimming pool was shimmering turquoise, surrounded by high green hedges; along the garden paths were cypress trees—cool, dark sentinels against a light-filled landscape.

These two quotes are from “Assez”, perhaps my favorite story in the book. The situation is not unusual: a woman hoping to use a summer away to regain her husband's interest, sharing a house with a couple who are their closest friends, Nina and John. What makes it stand out is the way Robinson makes me care so deeply, so immediately about these four people as they do ordinary holiday things: touring Roman ruins, shopping in the village, going out to dinner.

She does it with the detail, the bit of dialogue or description that is fresh and startling, like Steven returning from shopping and proudly stating that he has become “‘a man known to the locals.'” He explains that when he was leaving the vegetable shop and thanked the woman at the counter, as he always did, she not only thanked him back, but added:

“‘à demain.'” Steven looked at us all. “‘Until tomorrow'! She expects me!”
“‘Now that is a real accomplishment,” Nina said generously.

and she offers him one of the olives he's just brought home. A small thing, but the exchange delightfully suggests the friendship between the couples, the trust that can allow a playful boast and equally lighthearted praise. Yet the darkness is there, and Robinson masterfully manages the pace of the story to keep us shifting between the dark and the light.

I have read and reread these stories, at first just enjoying them, and then studying them. I admire the pieces—the pacing, the description, the dialogue, the characterization—but admire even more the way they are put together, the balance perhaps a little different from one story to the next, one a little heavier on action, another on reflection. I also like the different narrative voices: some protagonists are male, some female, a child, a teen, a middle-aged suburbanite.

Although they used to be popular, today's market wisdom is that people don't like to read short stories any more. Do you agree?

World Within World, by Stephen Spender

This autobiography by the well-known British poet was completed in 1950, when he was 41. He meets the objection that he was too young to sum up his life by explaining that “events both public and private tended to make my pre-war life seem complete in itself”, the public event being the end of WWII. John Bayley, in his introduction calls the book “the best autobiography in English written in the twentieth century.”

I have not read widely enough to assess that claim, but it is certainly very fine. I like autobiographies and memoirs because I am always curious about other people's solutions to the problems of living. Admittedly I read these books, not just to learn something, but because they are written in a fascinating voice, such as Angela's Ashes, or tell a compelling story, such as The Glass Castle. However, judging by the books published and the best-seller lists, we also read to learn about the lives of celebrities or about historical events or famous people. Meeting those criteria as well, Spender knew literary celebrities like Auden and Virginia Woolf, earned fame himself as a poet and describes major historical events such as the Spanish Civil War and WWII.

However, the appeal of this book lies in his openness. Spender gives us simultaneously the story of his emotional, intellectual, political and poetic journeys during the years 1928-1939. He brings out the inner conflicts of his time, when Freud opened new ways of understanding ourselves while the Puritanical British society denied them. “As a child, even, I wanted to know someone who saw himself continually in relation to the immensity of time and the universe: who admitted to himself the isolation of his spiritual search and the wholeness of his physical nature.”

Spender pursues his goals first of trying to discover his real self and then to find a right relation to the world. He says: “My difficulty was to connect my interior world with any outward activity. At what point did my inner drama enter into relation with the life which surrounded me?” He is concerned with the relationship between our inner and outer lives, “the conflict between personal life and public causes”.

As a corollary, he addresses the issue of whether poets should avoid politics in their writing, as his friend Auden maintained, or if events of the time were of a magnitude that they could not be ignored. There are many wonderfully insightful critical assessments of the writers of his time, most of whom were his friends, along with anecdotes about them which illuminate them wonderfully, such as an account of one of Virginia Woolf's dinner parties. I most enjoyed reading about Berlin in the early 1930s, when he lived there with Isherwood and other friends.

I should explain that the book in is five parts. The first is a short section about childhood, intended to lay the groundwork for the rest of the book. The second part is about his time at Oxford where he became friends with Auden, Louis MacNeice and Isaiah Berlin, among others, and began his vocation as a poet. The third section is an account of his time in Weimar Germany after leaving Oxford, beautifully describing the sense of freedom, ferocious life, and creativity before moving into the darker forces which would result in Nazism. This section also includes his life in London when he became intimate with the Bloomsbury Group. The Spanish Civil War dominates the fourth section, and the final section is about London during WWII before tying the whole back to the themes discovered in childhood.

I've described these sections by outer events, but Spender presents them with his own emotional and creative responses and the cultural currents that run alongside and mesh with the political ones.

Then there are the short, vivid descriptions written out of his poetic sensibility. Serving as a fire fighter in London during the war, he describes standing in the middle of a fire, training his hose on the flames, as peaceful, “as though . . . standing in the centre of the pine forest at Sellin with a sound of crepitating pine needles and oozing gum, more finely etched than silence itself upon the burning copper wall of the day.” Or this description of visits to country houses of Bloomsbury friends such as Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Harold Nicolson and Victoria Sackville-West:

In my mind these houses in the south and south-west of England, belonging to people who knew one another and who maintained approximately the same standards of living well, talking well, and believing passionately in their own kind of individualism, were connected by drives along roads which often went between hedges. At night the head-lamps would project a hundred yards in front of us an image of what looked like a luminous grotto made of crystal leaves, coloured agate or jade. This moved always in front of us on the leaves and branches. Delight in a vision familiar yet mysterious of this kind was the object of much of their painting, writing and conversation, so that when we drove in the country at night, and I watched that moving brilliant core of light, I felt often that I was looking into the eyes of their sensibility.

I love this partly because it reminds me of my own drives through English hedge-bound roads, but also because of its insightful summary of the group of people who became my first models of what an ideal life would look like.

What memoirs or autobiographies have you loved?

Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon

Since we enjoyed Kavalier and Klay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union so much, my book club selected Telegraph Avenue for this month's read. Chabon's 2012 novel has gathered a lot of critical praise, but we struggled with it. Only one person besides me finished it, and most of the others couldn't make it past the first 50 pages.

Old friends Archy and Nat run a used record store—yes, records as in vinyl—called Brokeland Records on the title's street in North Oakland. Their struggle to keep the store going is dealt a serious blow when a former football star plans to open a megastore just down the street, with a large used record section. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva, work together as midwives. Eight months pregnant herself, Gwen has trouble keeping her temper as she wrangles doctors and babies and Archy and her own cumbersome body.

Julius, whom everyone calls Julie, is Nat and Aviva's 14-year-old son who has become friends with Titus, a boy his age who has arrived from Texas to stay with a distant relative. Further complicating matters is the appearance of Archy's father, Luther, a former star of blaxploitation films. He deserted his family long ago and has struggled with drugs and stints in jail, but now he's been clean for over a year and looking for a relationship with Archy.

I wish I'd had that summary before I started reading. We all found the beginning confusing and overwhelming. Even I was put off, and I'm a big fan of Chabon's writing. I thought too many characters were introduced without enough information to keep them straight or perhaps they were just not clearly presented. I didn't understand who they were or what their relationship to each other was; it took me forever to figure out that Luther was Archy's father. We spend a lot of time with one character who then disappears except for a single brief reference near the end. It was also unclear at the beginning who the main character is. Presumably it's Archy since the book starts with him, after a gorgeous brief paragraph about the (as yet unnamed) boys, Julie and Titus, but then Archy's gone before we have a chance to care about him.

I think the heart of the story is what it is to be a man. Archy stumbles through each of his roles: friend, business partner, husband, potential and unexpected father, community member, son. His failures mount as he seems unable to assert himself, to make a plan and carry it through. This section moved me: Gwen has not slept well, troubled “By thoughts of Archy and his furtive approach to grief. Holding his sadness close, as if it were a secret, the man always moving from one thing he couldn't talk about to the next, sneaking across the field of his emotions from foxhole to foxhole, head down.”

What I haven't captured is the immense exuberance of the text. Each sentence explodes with references and allusions and sneaky bits of fun. I enjoyed the verbal fireworks, but found the prose so demanding that I was not able to read more than a few pages at a time. By then, I felt pummeled and drained. Some members of my book club thought Chabon was just showing off and felt manipulated, but I can see how the style supports the story. I think the prose is a brilliant capture of today's environment with its rapid-fire demands on our attention, but it sure is exhausting. Section III, though? Even I thought that was just showing off. Quite remarkable, but unnecessary.

Chabon's references and allusions are great if you get them. I found myself snickering and laughing out loud as I read. One person started looking them up but soon quit. Several people felt that the ebullient prose distracted and distanced them, keeping them from delving into the story and caring about the characters. The character who interested me was Julie, so smart and self-possessed, so willing to give of himself.

Many of these references and allusions are embedded in the imagery—metaphors and similes—which pack every sentence. Some are brilliant. Others you just have to go with and not try to analyse. I found that I was kind of surfing, letting myself be carried along; that was the best way to handle the confusion, chaos, and conflicting demands of the text.

And by doing that, I was responding exactly the same way Archy responds to the chaos of his life. Brilliant!

I'm glad I stuck with this book, but I don't think my book club is likely to read another Chabon novel. That's a shame because he's such an amazing writer.

What is your book club reading?

Best books I read in 2013

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2013. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. Human Chain, by Seamus Heaney

I was saddened to learn of Heaney's death this week at what seems to me now the young age of 74. In his honor I salvaged this 2010 collection of his poetry from the depths of my to-be-read pile. In these poems he brings together and shares tesserae from all of his ages—climbing with Jim Hawkins into the ship's rigging, buying a used copy of the Aeneid, being carried on a stretcher, hearing funeral bells toll. Heaney fashions the final mosaics, examining the questions that absorb us at the end: what is the use of a life, my father's life, my own?

2. Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov

Rereading this remarkable memoir has been even more delightful than the first time. And more awe-inspiring. From the poetic beauty of his sentences to the intricate structure of the book, Nabokov's consummate writing skills are on display.

3. Twilight of the Superheroes, by Deborah Eisenberg

Stumbling across Eisenberg's short story “Another, Better Otto” resulted in 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.

4. Prospero's Daughter, by Elizabeth Nunez

As the title declares, this novel retells the story of The Tempest. Set in 1961 on Trinidad and the small island of Chacachacare off its coast, Prospero's Daughter portrays the intersection of a handful of lives as England's empire withdraws. This story is enthralling, keeping me up nights to finish it. Nunez's descriptions are gorgeous. Like its precursor, this is a story about power, the power of knowledge, the power of love, the power of courage, the power of integrity. It brilliantly brings out the relationship of power to class and race buried in Shakespeare's play.

5. Authenticity, by Deirdre Madden

Finding a new favorite author is a lovely bit of serendipity. Set in Dublin, this story revolves around two artists and is about art: the joys and costs of pursuing your gift and the consequences of ignoring it. It is simply a good story well-told, a rare and remarkable accomplishment. This Irish author has published several novels, and I will be trying to get my hands on every one of them.

6. Nothing Gold Can Stay, by Ron Rash

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of stories set in North Carolina. The various accents of the readers enhanced the verisimilitude of the characters and their environment. What makes these stories so powerful is the way he goes deeply into the characters. While the plots often take surprising turns, you won't find slick tricks here, just good, strong story-telling. The folks who populate them are so thoroughly imagined and so carefully presented that I feel I know each and every one of them.

7. The Crime of Julian Wells, by Thomas H. Cook

Philip Anders, a middle-aged literary critic, is shocked by the death of his best friend, the successful writer Julian Wells, at the home Julian shared with his sister in Montauk on Long Island. Though the two have known each other since childhood, Philip cannot imagine why Julian would commit suicide. To answer that question, Philip begins retracing Julian's footsteps, trying to learn where things went sideways. The writing is masterly; the pacing magnificent. I love an intelligent read like this, one that challenges my preconceptions and delivers a satisfying conclusion.

8. The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje

A young boy—only eleven—is sent alone by ship from Colombo to London where he will join the mother he hasn't seen in four or five years. For his meals he is seated at the Cat's Table, the one farthest away from the Captain's Table and clearly reserved for the least important passengers. This is a story that you can read lightly, chuckling over the boys' adventures and mourning their frayed innocence, or you can pay closer attention. The book is dense, as one person in my book club said, with motifs and themes that all tie together. Ondaatje's books always reward close attention. This one, too, is a masterpiece worth reading and rereading. It is a Boy's Own adventure of knives and dogs and mischief, and at the same time a coming-of-age story. Memories are dismantled and reused; the mysterious motives and knotted hearts of adults are unwound; and the secret scars of childhood laid bare.

9. House of Breath, by William Goyen

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. 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.

10. Collected Poems, by Hope Mirrlees

Born in 1887, Mirrlees was a poet, novelist, and translator who is best known for her fantasy novel, Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), and an influential modernist poem, “Paris” (1920). “Paris” chronicles a day's trek through that city, starting in the underground, wandering the streets, and finishing up at dawn in her room on the hotel's top floor. Her fragmentary, stream of consciousness style was new to British poetry when Hogarth Press published “Paris”. She acknowledged the influence of Jean Cocteau's poem _Le Cap de Bonne-Espérance”, and her poem became a bridge between French experimental poets and British writers. Her erudite references and use of footnotes are believed to have influenced her close friend, T.S. Eliot, in “The Wasteland” which he began the following year. I recommend this rediscovered masterpiece. Take your time with it.

What were the best books you read in 2013?