Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot

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George Eliot’s last novel is an ambitious undertaking. We follow two people starting with the moment they first saw each other, in 1865 at a resort in Leubronn, a fictional town in Germany. As young Gwendolyn Harleth plays roulette, she is observed by Daniel Deronda. She perceives that while he is taken by her great beauty, he seems to be critical of her behavior. Spoiled and stubborn, she refuses to stop until she has gambled away the last bit of her winnings, trying to appear uncaring. The next day she is called home by a letter from her mother that they have lost all their money, but not before the necklace she has pawned after her losses is mysteriously returned to her.

From there we go back to learn how the self-centered Gwendolyn and the quiet Deronda reached this moment. Gwendolyn has had everything her own way up to this point, ruling over her social circle despite her lack of wealth, uncaring about others, and demanding to be entertained constantly. Just before her trip to Leubronn with family friends, she has refused an offer from Henleigh Grandcourt, a man whose wealth and position would seem to promise all her dreams would come true. However, she has learned that he has a family already, with his longtime mistress.

Deronda is the ward of Sir Humphrey Mallinger, Grandcourt’s uncle. Like most people, he believes he must be Sir Humphrey’s illegitimate son. A most generous and compassionate man, he misses a scholarship to Cambridge through helping his friend Hans Meyrick to win one. He also rescues Mirah, a young Jewish girl who was about to drown herself, and takes her to the Meyrick family for safekeeping. Through her he meets a mysterious Jewish visionary named Mordecai and becomes interested in learning more about the Jewish faith. This novel is the first to treats Jews sympathetically.

From there the two stories continue in tandem, only occasionally intersecting. While there is a great deal of narrative, common in novels of the period, the tale is enlivened by Eliot’s light touch with dialogue and by her penetrating, and sometimes satiric, insight. For instance, she says “it was evident that Gwendolyn was not a general favourite with her own sex; there were not beginnings of intimacy between her and other girls, and in conversation they rather noticed what she said than spoke to her in free exchange.”

I love what Mrs. Meyrick says of her son: “‘If I were to live till my Hans got old, I should still see the boy in him. A mother’s love, I often say, is like a tree that has got all the wood in it, from the very first it made.’”

Deronda’s story of growing interest in Judaism and what we would now call Zionism is less interesting. In his introduction to my copy, F.R. Leavis disagrees with Henry James that Eliot’s intellectual ability is the cause; Leavis admires her intelligence and intellectual powers. Rather, he blames the failure of this part of the book on Eliot’s persistence in endowing her protagonists with idealism. He calls this “immaturity” on Eliot’s part, and even describes Deronda as being a woman in his desire to make the world a better place.

I disagree. As Donald Maass points out, “Generally speaking, we choose company that is pleasant.” He goes on to ask writers “What kind of person are you asking your readers to spend four-hundred or so pages with?” In another post he suggests that “Positive emotions are harder to access and more difficult to use. Perhaps that’s because they relieve conflict rather than feeding it.” Yet we as readers treasure our encounters with these emotions. “‘Higher emotions’ are called that for a reason. They elevate and inspire us. Even just reading about them changes us, as Thomas Jefferson once wrote and which more recently has been scientifically demonstrated in studies of ‘moral elevation’ by Dr. Jonathan Haidt and others.”

The trick is to make the character interesting by adding internal conflicts and shadings. He or she cannot be all positive. Plus the character has to change. While Deronda has some internal conflicts over who his parents are and whether the woman he loves will also love him, these do not fundamentally change him and he never does or is tempted to do anything wrong. The only way he changes in the book is through his decision to immerse himself in Judaism. He is still his perfect self at the end. Mordecai too is entirely perfect and does not change.

The other reason why the Jewish part of the story drags is that so much of it is presented in long intellectual monologues by Mordecai, unbroken by action or emotion. Today we call this “info-dumping” and try to avoid it.

I don’t think the problem here is idealism, so much as it is the lack of shading in our idealistic characters and the misuse of dialogue to convey chunks of information. Still, there is much to admire in this book. I found myself, despite having read it before, hurrying to get to the end to find out what would happen to these two characters.

Have you read any of George Eliot’s novels? What did you think of them?

Open: An Autobiography, by Andre Agassi

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I always start my memoir classes by discussing what a memoir is. It covers a discreet portion of the author’s life, usually with a limited time frame, and is the author’s perception of the incidents described. Autobiography, on the other hand, is expected to be more objective and to cover the author’s entire life. Therefore, we might question this “autobiography” of someone who is only 39 the year it is published.

Yet Agassi is justified in calling this an autobiography. The frame of the book is his last match as a professional tennis player, at the U.S. Open. From there we go back to his childhood and follow him up to that moment in 2006, that last match. Since almost every moment of his life has been devoted to professional tennis, I think it’s fair to say that one life ended that day and another began. Also, the reworking of Agassi’s original material by another writer, the extensive fact-checking and multiple editorial rewrites provide some objectivity to what is a very personal account.

I love watching tennis, the intense one-on-one battles where the advantage shifts back and forth. The psychological battle interests me almost more than the physical one. A person has to stand out there alone under the unrelenting eyes of cameras and spectators, without teammates or coaches or even privacy to collect themselves. They have to summon the courage to keep playing when they are losing horribly, embarrassingly, and the composure to stay calm in the run-up to an unexpected win.

Reading this book just after Wimbledon gave me added insight into what is happening on the tennis court. Agassi speaks of the “magnetic force” that comes near the end of a match that can pull you over “the finish line” into the win and the equal force pushing you away.

More than that, he gives a close description of the shaping of a professional tennis player, something that starts in early childhood. Agassi’s father gave him a racket when he was three but even before that, according to his mother, “when I was still in the crib, my father hung a mobile of tennis balls above my head and encouraged me to slap at them with a ping-pong paddle he’d taped to my hand.” No wonder he grows up hating tennis and rebelling whenever he gets a chance. Given his seemingly adult-style career, I had to keep reminding myself as he described some of his shenanigans of how young he was.

In some ways, it’s an all-too-familiar story of a childhood stunted and deformed by a stage- or sport-parent who demands that the child’s every moment be devoted to practice. Yet Agassi’s unusual openness about his experiences, his emotions, his misjudgments and mistakes lift this book above the ordinary. The tone is well-calculated to avoid self-pity and show respect and even love for those who might be said to have harmed him.

It’s a compelling read. I was surprised by how well-written it is until I got to the acknowledgments at the end. Agassi credits J.R. Moehringer with transforming their taped interviews into this book, along with input from editors and first readers. He explains that though Moehringer refused to have his own name printed on the cover, Agassi wanted to ensure he got credit for his work. With that, I was no longer surprised. Moehringer is an amazing writer. I’ve written about his extraordinary memoir The Tender Bar.

I treasure the brief outline of Agassi’s second life at the end of the book, a life born of his desire to help disadvantaged children. If we are lucky, we find work that gives our lives meaning.

What sports biographies or autobiographies have you found illuminating?

Lady Susan, by Jane Austen

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I recently saw the film Love and Affection, which is not based on Austen’s novel of that name, but rather on her epistolary novel Lady Susan. The film seemed odd to me and a bit boring, aside from some very broad humor, so I immediately went home and read the novel for the first time.

As so often happens, I wish I’d read it before seeing the film. The story begins with the recently widowed Lady Susan and her daughter Frederica leaving Langford, where they had been visiting the Manwarings. Lady Susan sends Frederica off to school and goes on an extended visit to her brother, Charles, at Churchill. We learn rather quickly that Lady Susan not only has been receiving Lord Manwaring’s “attentions”, but has also detached the wealthy Sir James Martin from Miss Manwaring and persuaded him to propose to Frederica. Frederica, “born to be the torment of my life” as Lady Susan says, violently rejects the proposal.

So we have a fairly standard gothic plot of a heroine being forced into an unwelcome marriage, except here it is by her mother rather than the usual father/uncle/guardian. Also unusual is that Frederica is not the protagonist of the story; we only hear from her once in the novel.

In the film, Lady Susan is presented as being deliberately amoral, fully aware and proud of her ability to twist events and actions to pretend that she is the one behaving properly. She comes off as a proper villainess, like Madame de Merteuil in LaClos’s Dangerous Liaisons, published in 1782 and immediately translated into English and widely read.

Yet, in the novel, this wickedness is not so obvious. The most interesting justifications come in her letters to her friend, Alicia Johnson, with whom one would think she would be more open. Is Lady Susan deceiving herself as well as her friend when she presents herself as a martyr trying only to do what is best for everyone? I have certainly known individuals with an immense capacity for self-deception. And Lady Susan, as a widow with a grown daughter and no money, is in a vulnerable position in a world that offers no hope for survival in such a situation except relying on the kindness of friends and family.

In her biography of Jane Austen, Carol Shields says of this book:

The novel, never published during her lifetime, is her strangest and most unsettling literary offering and seems to have been unpopular with her family and friends. It is charmless. And very nearly pointless . . . [Lady Susan] shows not the slightest degree of shame or self-awareness as a reader might have expected by the novel’s end, and Jane Austen does not mete out to her what would be an appropriate punishment. It may be that Austen half admired her creation’s mixture of cunning and sexual bravura; Lady Susan was at least capable of exercising power—even though this force was chiefly directed at breaking up homes and managing her daughter’s misery.

Austen scholar Ellen Moody offers a different view:

The real problem in the novel is there are no good choices. . . There is a quiet desperation here, a disjunction between the stereotype she [Austen] found in her culture and what she wanted to say . . . My suggestion was it’s a radical inverted protest novel. Austen is getting away with protesting her own and other women’s situations through presenting a heroine all will detest.

I appreciate the ambiguity of the novel over the shallowness of the film. As Ellen Moody points out, “If you read Lady Susan as tongue-in-cheek, and . . . think that Lady Susan speaks ceaselessly as a conscious hypocrite and never believes a word she says about her emotions, she becomes a wild caricature. It seems improbable to me – you could not find any depth in the novel then.” Instead, you can “read Lady Susan’s letters as partly self-righteous, at times fooling herself (as people do), really half-believing herself a misunderstood person trying her best to survive and dealing with a society indifferent to her, and only facing up to her hypocrisy when forced to.”

Shields dates the novel from around 1795, but Moody makes a good case for it being set in 1804-5, including there a calendar of the events in Lady Susan.

Ellen Moody also has completed a close reading of Jane Austen’s letters, posted on her Reveries Under the Sign of Austen blog, which Austen fans might enjoy. It begins here.

Have you seen the film Love and Affection? What did you think of it?

Sweet Caress, by William Boyd

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Boyd is another author of many books who is new to me. This one sounded like something I’d love: the story of a fictional photographer, Amory Clay, living through the first three-quarters of the 20th century. A professional woman’s life, the events of the last century, a much-loved author (apparently) with multiple awards, rave reviews for this novel: what could go wrong?

Much, apparently. While the story had moments of interest, I found it hollow at the core. Not only was it not compelling, it was rather boring. I’ll get to the reasons for that in a bit.

The story is narrated by Amory in straight-forward past tense, occasionally interrupted by journal entries from 1977, the “present” of the story. Born in 1908, Amory has a charmed childhood. Boyd includes fun quirky details such as her earliest memory being of her father doing a handstand. However, her father returns from the Great War damaged in ways that are not visible. Meanwhile, a friend of the family, “Uncle” Greville, has given Amory a camera, setting her on the path to her eventual career.

The story follows her life through high points of the next decades, such as Berlin in the 1920s and New York in the 1930s. She becomes one of the first female war photographers in World War II and later in Vietnam. A successful career woman, she publishes books of her photos and works on magazines.

The book is sprinkled with photographs, found by the author at places like estate sales and included to enhance the illusion that Amory is a real person. However, they backfired for me because their quality was so poor. I could not accept them as favorite prints of an accomplished photographer.

I was interested in her career, but in fact, the story is much more concerned with her love life. That sigh you hear? That’s me. Maybe a giddy 20-year-old would be more obsessed with her affairs than her art and career, but across a woman’s entire lifetime? It felt like a male author’s fantasy of a woman’s preoccupations. I should have been warned by the title.

The other reason the book felt empty to me is that Amory herself is hollow. She lives through exciting and terrifying events without any emotion. In fact, there were only two brief moments in the entire story where I detected any tremor of feeling. Since Boyd is supposedly such an accomplished author, I have to assume this is deliberate.

Can anyone, male or female, be so cold as this woman? It may be reticence rather than coldness, but it still keeps the book from engaging the reader. After the first terrible event, she says, “I had what I now suppose was a form of nervous breakdown.” That’s not really enough to stir feeling in a reader. As Donald Maass—an incredible writer, agent and teacher—says: just telling the reader a character feels an emotion doesn’t make the reader feel it.

It’s a shame because the story is so promising and the prose, aside from its lack of emotion, well done. Dialogue is crisp; settings and characters economically and effectively described; action scenes tight.

In The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, Alice W. Flaherty differentiates between cognitive meaning and emotional meaning. Of the latter she says, “This noncongitive notion of meaning, a sense of emotional importance or ultimate goal, is independent of the more traditional semantic notion of meaning as definition or intellectual content.” She also calls them “temporal lobe meaning and limbic meaning”, suggesting that they are processed by different parts of the brain.

Perhaps Boyd meant this story to be cerebral rather than emotional. If that were so, though, surely it would be more productive to focus on something other than Amory’s love affairs: world events perhaps, or what it was like to be one of the first women in a male-dominated field, or even what it was like to have a career at a time when few women did. If the women’s suffrage movement or second-wave feminism were mentioned, I must have missed them.

If you’ve read this or other of Boyd’s books, please let me know in the comments what you thought of them.

What novel have you read that captures the entire span of a character’s life?

The Lake House, by Kate Morton

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Summer is here, and no vacation is complete without plenty of books to read. Ebooks made packing easy: just bring my Nook. This year, though, I’ve gone even lighter, reading books on my phone through the Nook and Kindle apps. Which books, though?

For long car trips (I seem to do a lot of these) I love audio books, but must select them carefully. Thrillers make me drive too fast; long-winded sentences or complicated concepts make me tune out because I can’t follow them while driving. And the actor matters as well. If the delivery is too monotone, my eyelids get heavy. I thought I’d chosen a great book for my last trip: one of my favorite authors. However, this particular novel was more of a psychological study; it would have been excellent reading (and I may come back to it) but too slow for a car trip.

If I’m flying I want a book that is absorbing but not too thought-provoking, since its purpose is to distract me from my surroundings and make the time go by quickly. For a recent flight I picked up this novel by Kate Morton, an author new to me, though this is her fifth novel.

It was perfect! I fell into the story and barely came up for air during the long day’s travel.

Sadie Swallow, a disgraced detective keeping her head down at her grandfather’s cottage in Cornwall, goes running and stumbles on a beautiful abandoned house. Fascinated by the house, she becomes riveted by the 70-year-old mystery of the disappearance of the small much-loved boy whose loss so broke his family that they could not bear to return.

The story goes back and forth in time to fill in her past and that of the elderly crime novelist who is the last remaining member of the family who lived there. This kind of time-shifting rarely works, but here Morton handles it brilliantly. Each chapter is a single time period and labeled up front, so there’s no confusion. What really makes it flow are the transitions within the text, the scene at the end of one chapter flowing seamlessly into the first scene of the next chapter; even if there is a huge time gap, the story feels continuous.

The crime novelist, Alice Edevane, older sister of the lost toddler, is easily the most intriguing character in the book. While very successful as a writer, Alice loathes publicity and is impatient with people who don’t meet her standards. Those standards emerge through her interactions with Peter, the man she hires as a personal assistant, and later with Sadie: on time for appointments, clever (in the British sense of intelligent and practical), and a quality I used to call clear through: open and honest, without social artifice—someone you can trust.

I loved spending time with Alice. And also with Sadie. As a very junior female detective she’s smart but a little too willing to go her own way, ignoring orders from above, thus getting on the wrong side of her superiors. She has a bit of a troubled background, hence being brought up by her grandparents, and is too driven by work to care for a houseplant much less a relationship.

In addition to enjoying the characters, I too fell for the house and for the life the family led there before their tragedy. Set in Cornwall and the London I’d just left how could I resist? The atmosphere reminded me a little of the first part of Atonement. I loved Sadie’s grandfather and his life as a widower, making pies for the fête, walking his two dogs. He’s at peace with himself and able to advise Sadie without seeming too good to be true.

Some cross-genre novels shortchange one or another of their genres. For example, The Girl on the Train was a good thriller, but disappointing as a mystery. Here, Morton manages to present a satisfying mystery in a historical novel that also tackles important issues in women’s lives.

There were a couple of things I thought too improbable and if editing the book would have advised Morton to change. But overall a most satisfying read. I’ll certainly take along one of her other novels on my next flight.

Can you recommend a good audio book for a car trip or one for a flight?

Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Gaskell

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A recent post by Ellen Moody about Gaskell’s novel North and South reminded me that I hadn’t read anything by this author besides her Life of Charlotte Brontë. I set out to remedy that gap starting with this, her first novel.

Little did I know how relevant to today’s political situation it would turn out to be. As Moody said, many of Gaskell’s books, including North and South and Mary Barton, share a “radical political vision.” The author embodies this vision through characters and plot but also sometimes steps back to give the big picture and further context. Instead of being preachy, though, the novel had me fully immersed and racing to finish it. It’s a bit sentimental at times, but Gaskell manages to keep it moving.

Set in Manchester in 1839, the story concerns two working class families: the Bartons and the Wilsons. John Barton, grieved by the loss of his wife and the terrible economic distress of the time, becomes involved in the trade union and Chartist movements. He rails against the gap between rich and poor, between mill owners and workers. When his closest friend, George Wilson, remarks that Barton never liked the “gentlefolks”, Barton responds:

“And what good have they ever done me that I should like them . . . If I am sick, do they come and nurse me? If my child lies dying (as poor Tom lay, with his white wan lips quivering, for want of better food than I could give him), does the rich man bring the wine or broth that might save his life? If I am out of work for weeks in the bad times, and winter comes, with black frost, and keen east wind, and there is no coal for the grate, and no clothes for the bed, and the thin bones are seen through the ragged clothes, does the rich man share his plenty with me, as he ought to do, if his religion wasn’t a humbug? . . . No, I tell you, it’s the poor, and the poor only, as does such things for the poor. Don’t think to come over me with th’ old tale, that the rich know nothing of the trials of the poor. I say, if they don’t know, they ought to know. We’re their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows; and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds . . .”

Both men fall on hard times as the mill cuts back on workers (but not on the mill owners’ lavish entertainments). John Barton and George Wilson end up relying on their children’s income. George’s hard-working son Jem has long loved John’s daughter Mary, but she has been walking out with Harry Carson, a mill owner’s son. She believes he intends to marry her, but of course he doesn’t plan on crossing that social boundary.

With food prices rising and jobs disappearing, families are starving. Gaskill’s descriptions of the suffering of the poor are shocking. As she explains in her Preface, she hopes through her story to convey the desperate situation of the working poor and their resentment of the mill owners, in the hope that those who can will be moved to help through legislation and private charity.

I recently visited the Foundling Museum in London to explore the history of the Foundling Hospital established in 1739 by Thomas Coram. He was horrified by the number of babies left to die on the street by families that could not afford to feed them. The institution provided food, clothing, shelter and education, helping the grown children to find jobs or enter the military. While the hospital closed in 1954, the charity continues today as Coram.

What moved me to tears were the loving notes left for the children by desperate mothers and the displays of tokens left with them: a string of beads, a ribbon, thimble or crudely etched medallion—something unique that a mother returning to claim a child could describe to identify her son or daughter. Few could afford to return, though.

Outside, behind the statue of Thomas Coram there is a little sculpture by Tracy Emin of a mitten on the iron fence, like the tokens inside. People have tied ribbons to the nearby fence spikes.

It is children who suffer the most from the great disparity between rich and poor. Gaskell’s genius is to show us that children on both sides suffer, though differently.

What novel have you read that addresses social problems along with the characters’ story?

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The Rogue and Other Portuguese Stories, by Julieta Almeida Rodrigues

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This is the second collection of stories from Rodrigues, but the first I’ve read. They are set in Portugal, but more than that, they aim to get at the essence of the Portuguese character. In her Foreword, Rodrigues states her intention to reveal aspects of Portuguese identity. She says, “Written from a sociological perspective, my narratives illuminate a wide range of topics in contemporary Portugal.”

That’s a big burden to put on a book. In some ways, the stories seem more like character portraits than stories, but more about that later.

True to the author’s intention, the stories feature a variety of situations: a woman in prison taking a yoga class, a young lawyer in his first job eager to please his boss, a fourteen-year-old girl writing a school composition on post-colonialism in Portugal. Some protagonists are professionals; some are down-on-their-luck aristocrats. There are prostitutes, abuse victims, battered women.

Even with this variety of voices, though, there is a curious constancy of tone, something calm and confident.

This comes partly from the prose—the syntax and word choice—but also from the plot structure. While most writers here in the U.S. are encouraged to start their stories in media res—in the middle of the action that sets the story’s events in motion—these stories usually start with a leisurely summary of background information on the protagonist or, in some cases, the setting. Even the title story, which begins with dialogue, is a woman telling the background information to a lawyer.

One of my writing partners is Portuguese, so I understand the different assumptions about structure. In Portugal, I’m told, it is expected that writers present the background and their evidence in measured and logical order before getting to the point, whether it’s a thesis statement or a plot goal. Instead of being frustrated or bored, I found these establishing shots comforting.

The other structural aspect that I noticed is where the stories end. Instead of ending with climax where the protagonist either succeeds or fails at his or her goal, each story ends at the beginning of a turning point, when the balance just begins to tip one way or the other. Expecting more complications, I was surprised each time. It felt as though we were just getting a glimpse into a slice of the protagonist’s life rather than a full story about them.

Still, I enjoyed the stories. And it’s good to be reminded that there are many ways to put a story together. As Paul Harding says, “. . . it’s nice to think that if you follow a prefabricated set of rules you’ll get a story or a poem or a novel out of it. But a huge part of being a writer is discovering your own intellectual and aesthetic autonomy, and how you best get the best words onto the page.”

What stories set in Portugal have you read?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Risk Pool, by Richard Russo

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Russo is one of my favorite writers. I’ve written about his first book, Mohawk. His second novel is also set in that fictional town and like the first is hilarious and true, full of flawed and damaged characters whom Russo treats with compassion even as he details their absurdities.

Ned Hall narrates the story for us. Although he uses the voice of an adult, he enters fully into the thoughts and feelings of his younger self. When he is six, Ned makes the mistake of telling people at school that his absent father was dead, thus bringing Sam Hall back into the lives of himself and his long-suffering mother. As a result, in addition to working at the phone company and raising a boy on her own, Jenny Hall has to suffer incursions that feel like raids by Sam, who manages to stay one step ahead of the local police and their restraining order. Then Sam kidnaps Ned. It’s just for an overnight fishing trip, but Jenny has no way of knowing that, and she is waiting for them with a gun.

Of course, my sympathies are with Ned’s mother, but this isn’t her story. It is Ned’s story of his tangled relationship with the father one of whose friends said “should have been issued with a warning label.” Like some New Englanders I’ve known, Sam manages to cobble together a ramshackle sort of life with seasonal jobs, unemployment, local bars, and the occasional girlfriend. His philosophy is that when things start to seem impossibly bad, something would “give”: a loan, a job, a lucky bet at the track.

Of course, what Ned really wants is for his father to love him. One of my favorite sections of the book is when Ned goes to live with his father for a few years; the culture shock is there but also the easy adaptability of a child. This coming-of-age story continues into Ned’s adulthood and beyond. Their curious relationship is epitomized by Sam’s usual “Well?”, expecting Ned to catch up on his own, without any parental guidance. Ned sees through his father, even at an early age noting the way Sam takes over a conversation about Jenny’s breakdown, and concluding “It will always be his story, about how he hadn’t believed it could be true.”

Even though Mohawk is in upstate New York, it and its denizens remind me so much of the milltowns I knew in Massachusetts that I kept forgetting where we were. It reminded me of Andre Dubus’s memoir Townie , both in its setting—in Dubus’s case Haverill, Massachusetts—and in the story’s focus on his relationship with his absent father. I also loved the way Sam’s friends, some of them stable but more of them disreputable, watch out for Ned and try to help him. This aspect of the book reminded me strongly of J. R. Moehringer’s memoir The Tender Bar. While Russo’s book is fiction, it has the strength and power of these memoirs. I admit to being a bit fascinated by these books about men and the way they are together when there are no women around. These stories depict a tenderness and a supportive web that are at odds with the stereotypes.

What coming-of-age story have you read that resonated with you?

Saints and Rascals . . . A Catholic Worker Memoir, by Geraldine DiNardo

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Aside from celebrity memoirs, most memoirs published these days are highly polished stories that read like novels. That is, they incorporate many of the elements of fiction, such as characterization, setting, story structure, and theme.

Especially the latter because it is usually only the exploration of a larger theme that a memoir by a non-celebrity can capture the interest of the reading public. Yet there are other reasons to explore memoirs. One is that these first-person narratives can take us into worlds foreign to us, enhancing our empathic abilities by allowing us to see life through someone else’s eyes.

Another reason is that memoirs can give a voice to those who have none. That was the mission that drove me to write my memoir of my time on welfare: I wanted to counter media stereotypes of welfare recipients by telling true stories of my experience and that of people I knew.

It’s also the reason why I value so highly this new memoir from Geraldine DiNardo, co-founder of the Mustard Seed, a Catholic Worker house in Worcester, Massachusetts.

After giving a brief history of the Mustard Seed and the Catholic Worker Movement in the Worcester area, DiNardo turns to the meat of the book: individual portraits of people who lived or worked at the house during DiNardo’s years there. Each portrait is brief, followed by a poem addressed to the person. Without shying away from their faults, DiNardo finds a way to celebrate each one and bring out some detail that makes the person come alive for the reader.

My favorite is Mrs. Elizabeth Fish Kennedy Fish, a name she chose for herself. An amazing seamstress, she made elaborate and beautiful outfits for herself and others by hand, all covered with words and phrases written in Magic Marker. Schizophrenic and sometimes combative, she was protected not just by the Mustard Seed people but by the whole neighborhood. In one instance she managed to get herself lost in a distant town, but had the phone number of the Pickle Barrel, a neighborhood restaurant. Employees left work to find and bring her home.

Many of the stories here are comic; all are in some way tragic. Indeed, all of us are damaged in some way; all of us have griefs and troubles. Many of DiNardo’s saints and rascals have passed away, most far too young. I saw that, too, when I went to look up people I’d known. Recently, a study was done to show life expectancy by neighborhood in Baltimore, where neighborhoods are closely tied to socio-economic status. It ranged from 67 in poorer neighborhoods to 81 in wealthier ones.

I first learned about the Catholic Worker Movement while I was living in Worcester in the 1970s (note: I knew of the Mustard Seed and met DiNardo, but was not closely associated with either—something that I now regret). Started by Dorothy Day in 1933 during the Depression with the assistance of Peter Maurin, the movement asked people to live according to the tenets of Jesus Christ. In practical terms this meant providing food, shelter, clothing and a welcome to those in need. In addition to Catholic Worker houses, a newspaper still published today, and Catholic Worker communities that are active in social justice, civil rights, and labor issues.

I was deeply moved by the idea that someone could actually live according to her principles. Dorothy Day is still the greatest of my heroes. Living as I did among the lesser-privileged citizens, I knew just how hard her work and that of had to be—no rose-tinted glasses about the needy for me. I’m not surprised that DiNardo eventually had to back off from the Mustard Seed; she’s still involved but not to the extent she had been.

I’m grateful to DiNardo for these portraits. I’ve always thought it a uniquely New England quality—though I expect I’m wrong—this stubborn going on when there doesn’t seem to be any hope, this scraping by somehow when you have nothing. I treasure it, as I do these stories. The book is free but contributions to the Mustard Seed are welcome (PO Box 2592, Worcester, MA 01613).

Have you read a memoir that introduced you to a world new to you?

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The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

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I didn’t want to read this 2012 runaway bestseller simply because of the title. I have had it with grown women being referred to as girls. No one would refer to a 32-year-old man as a boy. The misogyny makes me want to spit.

However, a book discussion group I’m in selected it, so I gave in. In short, it was a fast read about a bunch of extremely unpleasant people. The voice of the initial first-person narrator, Rachel, felt genuine and well-written. The voices of the other two women narrating the story equally well-written, aside from not seeming different from Rachel’s. There was plenty of suspense from one page to the next, though the solution seemed clear early on, but little else to recommend it. However, as writers, we can always learn something from a book.

Rachel rides the commuter train back and forth to a job she pretends she hasn’t been fired from. Morning and evening, she gazes at her former home where Tom now lives with Anna, the woman he left Rachel for, and their baby. She also speculates about the loving couple a few doors down, making up names and stories for them. She also drinks. A lot.

Her excessive drinking has cost her not only her job and marriage, but made her fat and ugly, at least according to her account of what people say to her. More misogyny, anyone?

From the train, she witnesses a disturbing incident at the neighboring couple’s home, and soon after learns that the woman, whose real name is Megan, has disappeared. In between binges, blackouts and drunken, begging calls to Tom, Rachel decides to help with the investigation. In different chapters and a separate timeline, Megan tells us about events prior to her disappearance, lounging at home months after her gallery closed, feeling sorry for herself. Our third narrator is Anna, smug and arrogant in her marriage, while complaining about Rachel constantly barging in and the incessant trains passing behind the house. She misses the excitement of being a mistress rather than a wife; she misses clubbing and nights out.

What these three thoroughly unpleasant women have in common is that they are bored women living privileged lives yet finding endless complaints to fuel their self-pity. Rachel could set aside her multiple gin and tonics or bottles of wine and get another job. A job would be even easier for Megan; all she has to do is get out of the chair. Anna could find social groups and volunteer activities like other stay-at-home moms. Instead they just whine. The men aren’t much better. They all behave badly, and stereotypically so: abusing the women in different ways.

So what makes this novel so popular? I am somewhat mystified. The theme of work versus marriage and children, which could make it resonate for young women, seems falsely set up to me. Everyone behaves badly at home. We only see Rachel at work, and then only an embarrassing memory. One person in my group suggested that Rachel displayed elements of Bridget Jones and so attracted that audience.

I kept feeling that I was immersed in the 1950s—women stuck at home with or wanting babies while under their husband’s thumb—yet I understand that I’m old enough to have been through several increasingly complex waves of dealing with these issues and that each young generation of women has to address them all over again. I also understand that feminism in the UK is on a different timeline from the US. Still, I didn’t think the story treated these issues with subtlety or awareness of all the social history packed into them.

One reason for its popularity could be that it combines genres. It’s been called a literary thriller, a literary mystery, and a psychological thriller. Also, for those looking for a classic hook, it’s a Hitchcock mashup, combining elements of Rear Window, Stranger on a Train, and a third I won’t mention so as not to spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t read it.

Yet, mystery fans will find it very thin, with the red herrings barely mentioned before being casually ruled out and the ending well-telegraphed. The two detectives are barely mentioned and have almost no role in the book. Fans of literary fiction will also find it thin. Rachel is the only one whose inner life is developed, though her character is given plenty of layers and her inner monologue very well-written. More development of the other characters, better tying up of loose ends, and a few subplots would have made for a richer story.

I think it is too shallow to qualify as literary fiction. Outside of the three women the characters are not developed and, while there are plenty of layers to Rachel’s story that are reflected in Anna and Megan’s, there are no subplots involving the other characters.

I guess it’s the thriller aspect. Hawkins does a good job of adding microtension to each page. This keeps the reader engaged and the suspense ramped up, even when you know what’s going to happen. I liked the cover, too. With a blurred background fronted by large juddering text, it grabs your attention and conveys the essense of the story.

Is there a wildly popular bestseller that either thrilled or disappointed you? Why?