“Delirio” by Laura Restrepo

Delirio.jpg

I decided to read this book because I wanted to practice my Spanish, read something that reminded me of my family’s culture and the culture I grew up with (the author being Colombian), and I had already read a book that I really enjoyed by this author (Isle of Passion, a novel based on a true story of a group of people who were forgotten in the island of Clipperton).

This book was about a couple, Augustina and Aguilar, and the mystery of what happened to his wife while he went on a business trip for four days. When he returned, he found his wife in a mentally deteriorated state. She exhibited absurd behavior like setting up pots of clean water throughout the house so as to cleanse their home or behavior like rejecting her husband. For the next few days, he embarks on the journey of trying to discover what happened to his wife. This question is what intrigued me to continue reading.

The story is told in such a way that you get little hints and glimpses of what could have happened to Augustina, which in turn causes you to draw all the possible scenarios. These little hints are given to us through different perspectives of characters and different periods of time. These perspectives/time frames do not directly discuss what happened to Augustina during those 4 days that Aguilar, her husband, was gone but rather, tell the stories of different people that in some way are related to Augustina. These details are all important to understanding Augustina’s history and why she may be where she is today.

What I loved the most about this book were the different details mentioned of things that are particular to Colombian culture such as ajiaco, a typical dish from Bogotà (the city where this story takes place), empanadas, or fruit stands on the sides of the road, etc. There were also different references to literature or music as some of the other characters are into art, which was also a treat for me.

Some parts were a little harsh for me to read through since it discusses strong sexual content/violence/strong language. However, each of these parts were important to understanding different characters or situations. At times, I’d simply skip or skim through if I understood the general idea of what was being said. But I suppose the details do add the effect that the author intended it to have upon the reader and unfortunately, these are the realities for some people’s lives.

Overall, it was a book that, surprisingly, I breezed through since I was dying to know what happened to Augustina and how all these details would come together. Although, I read this book in Spanish, there is also an English translation available. (It is called Delirium.)

Delirio
Author: Laura Restrepo
Spanish Publisher and Publication Date: Alfaguara, 2004
English Translation Publisher and Date: Vintage International, March 2008

Contributor: Nathalie Dorado-Fields is a stay at home mother who lives in Mount Vernon, Ohio.

“The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared” by Jonas Jonasson

The 100 year old Man.jpg

The title of this book points to what a laugh riot it will be and in that respect, it does not disappoint. Translated from Swedish to English, it tells the story of Allan Karlsson, a 100 year old man still in good health, who escapes from the nursing home, where he has been forced to live, on the morning of his 100th birthday — and from the party planned in his honor that day — and goes, literally, on the run. Along the way, he collects not just a suitcase full of cash but also a motley crew of a 70 year old petty thief, a highly educated hot-dog stand proprietor and his brother, a red-headed fiery-tempered woman with a dog and an elephant, the head of a gang of thugs, and a police chief. Eventually, the six of them — along with the dog and the elephant — manage to escape to Bali in Indonesia with the cash, where they live happily ever after.

Is this doesn’t sound hilarious enough, throw in the two accidental deaths of the thugs who had stolen the money in the first place, with one of them dying in the cold storage where he was locked up temporarily by Allan and his 70 year old cohort, and the second dying from being crushed by the redhead’s elephant when she (the elephant) inadvertently sat on him!

In addition to following Allan’s journey all the way from his solo escape from the nursing home to the collective escape of his group of six to Bali in the present — which is the year 2005 — the book also recounts the story of his life all the way from his birth in 1905 to how he eventually landed up in the nursing home. We get a good primer on world history in the course of this narration, because it turns out that Allan has participated in some of the key events of the 20th century — thanks to being an explosives expert — such as the Second World War in Europe, the development of the atom bomb in the US, the uprising in Iran, the Cold War between the US and USSR, the Korean War, and the political unrest in Indonesia. He has also not only met, but actually interacted with some of the most prominent historical figures of the last century including General Franco, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Stalin, Kim Jong II, Chairman Mao, and Charles de Gaulle.

Of course, most of this is downright unbelievable and therefore The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is not a book to be taken seriously, but it is very well written with intelligent, tongue-in-cheek, laugh-out loud humor that is not slapstick in the least. For some reason, we have plenty of comedy when it comes to TV and movies, but it is difficult to find books in this genre, so this book is a real find.

While you would not expect a book like this to have any life lessons, there is one sentence that captures the essence of Allan’s philosophy of life: “Things are what they are, and whatever will be, will be.” These were his mother’s words when he was a boy, and while it took some years for the message to seep his soul, once it was there, it was there forever and guided everything he did. I can’t imagine a more Zen-like summation of and approach to life!

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
Author: Jonas Jonasson
Publisher: Hachette Books
Publication Date: September 2012

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

The premise of this book is very intriguing – a young woman decides to go into hibernation for a year to get through a depressing and listless period of her life. She has plenty of money to bankroll this, thanks to her inheritance from her wealthy parents who died within six months of each other a few years ago. Rather than committing suicide, which would be a permanent end to life, she thinks of “checking out” for a year, hoping it will help with the general malaise she is feeling and rejuvenate her. This hibernation – a whole year of rest and relaxation — is accomplished with the help of a large number of drugs prescribed by a not-very-professional therapist the woman manages to find, who seems to have no issues prescribing increasingly stronger drugs for depression and insomnia that the woman tells her she is experiencing.

Not only is the plot of book so fascinating, it also draws you in right away. Narrated in first person, it is almost like reading a diary – it is brutally honest and describes the narrator’s thoughts and feelings in such vivid detail, we can almost feel like we are her. The first person account is so well maintained throughout the book that we never learn the narrator’s name. We do, however, learn a lot of other details about her – in addition to having a lot of money, she is smart with a degree in art history from Columbia, and she is outstandingly pretty without even trying, attracting a lot of attention from guys and envy from women. She lives in a fancy apartment in Manhattan, buys very expensive clothes, and occasionally dates. She has an on-again off-again relationship with a handsome and successful man working in Wall Street, and has one loyal friend who is always dropping in to check on her. After graduation, she lands a job in a prestigious art gallery reputed for discovering “eclectic” artists and hosting their cutting-edge, post-modernist work.

While all of these may seem to be more than enough for a very rewarding and satisfying life for most people, for our narrator, they are not. While there is no one particular event that triggers her wanting to “check out” and go into hibernation, it seems to be the culmination of years of not having many happy or joyful moments, and a childhood growing up with parents who really didn’t feel anything for each other. Sometimes, it is not just the presence of bad things that can lead to antipathy and depression; it can also very well be the absence of good things. And this seems to be what is afflicting our narrator.

While the first few chapters of the book continue to hold your interest as you learn more about the narrator, her background, her reasons for wanting to hibernate, and the process she follows – heavy doses of drugs which make her sleep most of the time, long periods of blackouts in which she does not know what she is doing or where she is going, a lot of TV watching, trips to the local coffee shop to pick up coffee and snacks, a lot of take-out for meals, monthly visits to the therapist and the pharmacy to refill prescriptions – it begins to get very repetitive after some time, and I found myself skipping a lot of the content towards the second half of the book. By this time, you also lose sympathy for the narrator as she shows herself to be quite a selfish, uncaring person, and is particularly mean to her one friend who continues to visit her. You simply stop caring about what happens to her.

The time period that the book is set in is an important part of the plot, although you don’t realize that in the beginning. The woman goes into hibernation in the summer of 2000, which means that when her “one year” ends, it is close to 9/11. Her friend was working in the World Trade Center when the planes hit, and she keep watching the recording of the event over and over as it seems like one of the women jumping off from one of the towers may have been her friend.

The book ends with this, and you can’t help but read it with a catch in your throat.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation
Author: Ottessa Moshfegh
Publisher: Penguin Press
Publication Date: July 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Clock Dance” by Anne Tyler

Clock Dance

Willa Drake—the protagonist of Anne Tyler’s latest novel, Clock Dance—is a self-defeating, self-effacing wimp.

Tyler divided Willa’s story into two parts. The first part consists of three situations in which Willa made self-defeating, shoot-yourself-in-the-foot, type choices.

When she is eleven years old, Willa rejects both her parents in a prolonged pre-teen pout. It’s easy to see why she rejects her mother: she’s a moody person who sometimes leaves her family to fend for themselves, and then returns pretending that nothing has happened. Willa’s anger at her mild-mannered, even-tempered father, is harder to fathom. She seems to deliberately take offense at something he says in an effort to comfort her while her mother is gone. The reader is left to wonder the real reason she gets angry and refuses his love. Is it because he is too passive to confront her mother? Because he goes along with the pretense that everything is fine? Or is it because he doesn’t take seriously Willa’s effort to fill the gap?

By the time she is 21, Willa is so far gone that when the passenger on one side of her in a jet airplane threatens her life with a gun, she doesn’t react in any way. She doesn’t scream; she doesn’t question the guy about what he wants; she doesn’t alert her boyfriend on the other side of her; she doesn’t alert the stewardess who comes by. Her will is paralyzed. When she later tells her boyfriend, he is incredulous and discounts her story.

She and her boyfriend, Derek Macintyre, are flying to visit her parents because Derek wants to marry her. Where Willa is weak, Derek is willful and assertive. Willa wants to wait until she has finished college, but he wants to marry in the summer coming up and move to California to start his career. His plans are more important to him than her plans, which he discounts. Toward the end of their week-end visit, he announces their engagement to her parents. Her mother says all the right things: she points out that he isn’t looking at Willa’s side of things and what Willa would have to give up for him. And she particularly notes that Derek had brushed off Willa’s story of being threatened on the airplane, because it shows how he disrespects her. Derek confronts her mother in a way that her father never could, and calmly tells her off. Instead of being strengthened by her mother’s support, Willa reacts against it, and against her own best interests, by giving into Derek.

After 20 years of predictable life with Derek—giving up college to raise two sons, being the sort of dependable mom she wishes her mother had been—Willa is suddenly left to her own devices when Derek is killed in an accident caused by his own road rage. She feels helpless and incompetent, which is the way he had always treated her. She begins to wonder about the purpose of life, or simply ‘why bother?’ She had always wanted to be so reliable that her sons could take her for granted, but now she finds that being taken for granted is not very satisfying. She still longs for someone to take care of her, and to boss her around.

The real story, Part II, starts when Willa is 61 years old, and it opens with a call to another life, an offer she can’t refuse. It takes the form of a phone call from someone who mistakenly assumes that Willa is the grandmother of an 8-year-old girl whose mother had been shot in the leg, in her neighborhood in Baltimore. She wants Willa to take care of the girl, Cheryl, while her mother, Denise, is in the hospital. Willa is now married to Peter, who is the same type as Derek, and is living the same arid retirement life in Arizona that she would have had with him. Uprooted from her world in California, Willa feels her life is meaningless and boring. When she hears of a child in need of a grandma, she can’t resist the temptation to play the role. Perhaps for the first time in her life, she spontaneously makes a major decision, without consulting Peter, and books her flight to Baltimore. Her bid for independence is somewhat muted by his decision to accompany her, condescendingly assuming she can’t handle the flight by herself.

Peter is fairly helpful, or at least non-interfering, but his attention is still on his own world, his business associates and golf buddies. Willa adapts to her role as grandmother, which includes adapting to a colorful cast of characters in the poor but respectable neighborhood where Cheryl and Denise live. She becomes so engrossed in her new life that she barely notices when Peter goes back to his world in Arizona. Meanwhile she is developing self-reliance—learning to drive a strange car around a strange town, learning to make decisions and choices on her own, learning to appreciate ‘everyday people,’ learning, for the first time, to enjoy the absence of a man to dominate her life. And the reader keeps thinking she ought to go back to her husband. Or should she?

My usual preference is for novels that are intellectually challenging, with a difficult vocabulary and complicated sentences, with big ideas and heavy drama. But sometimes I need a vacation from all that, and then I turn to Anne Tyler. Clock Dance is her 21st novel, and I have read about half of them. Her themes are positive and life-affirming, but her stories don’t reek of sentimentality and preachiness because her style is so spare and understated. It’s like Quaker wood furniture—functional but not fancy, well-crafted but plain. Tyler is generous with homely detail and engaging minor characters, but she is spare in her depiction of Willa’s inner life. By leaving a lot unsaid, she forces the reader to use their imagination.

For me, Anne Tyler is consistently good, but never great. But that’s okay. It’s like simple home cooking compared to gourmet meals—sometimes that’s just what I need.

Clock Dance
Author: Anne Tyler
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: July 2018

Contributor: Jan Looper Smith writes about her culture experiences for a blog called “In the Loop.”

“My Ex-Life” by Stephen McCauley

My Ex-Life

This was a fun, breezy book, a welcome change from the intense, heavy, and serious plotlines of most of the current crop of critically acclaimed novels that I have been reading lately. However, it was not escapist fiction by any means, which can be fun to read at times, but is neither memorable not uplifting. My Ex-Life was both.

The book tells the story of a gay man, David, who travels from San Francisco to the East Coast to help out his ex-wife, Julie, who he was briefly married to in his early twenties, and her seventeen year old daughter from a subsequent marriage, Mandy, whose father, Henry, is pushing her to “get her act together” and get into a good college. David is a college counselor, and when Mandy finds out that he was Julie’s first husband, she reaches out to him. She is going through the turmoil and angst typical of kids of that age, and it is compounded by the fact that her parents are going through a divorce. While this is not an emotional blow for Julie — she fell out of love with Henry a long time ago — it is problematic in a different way — she will lose the house that she jointly owns with Henry unless she buys out his share. She is running it as an Airbnb, and while she is not making a whole lot of money from it, she loves it.

David, too, is in somewhat of a crisis — his younger boyfriend has left him for another man, and the house that he was renting is going to be sold, so he will have to find another place to live. Therefore, when Mandy reaches out to him, ostensibly for help with her college applications, he actually travels to the small town near Boston called Beauport where Julie lives, to visit them and help Mandy in person. He ends up staying at the Airbnb and helping Julie with it, doing a lot of repairs and de-cluttering. Despite the breakup of their marriage all those years ago, David and Julie remain very fond of each other, and their deep mutual affection is rekindled by David’s extended visit. Not only is he working with Julie on trying to get the money to buy out Henry’s share so she can retain the house, the trip to Beauport has also allowed him to get away from his own problems in San Francisco. And, of course, there’s the challenge of helping Mandy, who has some other issues in addition to typical teenage rebellion and aimlessness.

With such an unconventional plotline, My Ex-Life was hard to put down, and it was made even more enjoyable by the quality of the writing, especially the humor. There were so many parts that were funny, especially earlier on in the book — David’s chance meeting with his ex-boyfriend at a party, Julie’s struggles with her pot addiction, Mandy’s summer job at a knick-knacks store in Beauport from which she is fired for not having an enthusiastic “cheery” attitude that could encourages sales, and the increasingly scathing feedback from the Airbnb consultant that Julie has hired to figure out how to improve business as she (the consultant) is taken on a tour of the house. All of the humor is extremely witty, and I appreciated that it was intelligent rather than slapstick.

It was also both funny and insightful to learn about David’s work as a college counselor and read some of the college essays that the students he was counseling were writing for their applications. Apparently, about 90% of essays begin with the mention of a grandparent or cancer and these rarely get read by admission directors, since they have so many to plow throw. In contrast, there is this one with an opening that is impossible to not continue reading:

Growing up, my father encouraged my brother and me to piss in the kitchen sink when my mother wasn’t home.”

Just that one line made reading this book so worth it!

My Ex-Life
Author: Stephen McCauley
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication Date: May 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“A Place for Us” by Fatima Farheen Mirza

A Place for Us

This book had almost too much hype surrounding it, as it was the first book to be published by Sarah Jessica Parker’s new imprint at Hogarth Publishing, called SJP. (She is best known as the lead actress from TV’s Sex and the City.) Apparently, it was hand-picked by her and she described herself as being “taken hostage by Fatima Mirza’s heartrending and timely story.” I was naturally excited when I was able to get a copy of the book to read — I expected it to be mind-blowing.

At the outset, I must say that it was not. It tells the story of a traditional Muslim family living in the San Francisco Bay area — although it would be more accurate to say that it is more of a narration of their lives rather than a “story” as such. The parents are extremely religious and follow all the Islamic rules and rituals. They have three children, all of whom were born in the US. You would expect some kind of conflict between the parents and the kids, some kind of culture clash, which is so much a part of the immigrant experience. However, for the family in A Place for Us, the two older children — who are girls — grow up following the religion and being obedient daughters, not out of fear of their parents but because they simply do not question their faith. While they do go on to achieve professional success — one becomes a doctor and the other a teacher – their lives are firmly rooted in Islam. They both wear the hijab and end up marry Muslims. About the only rebellious thing the elder daughter does is marry a Muslim boy from a different sect!

There is some drama, however, that comes from the youngest child, Amar, who does rebel – he smokes, drinks alcohol, and eventually gets into drugs, all of which are forbidden by Islam. Naturally, he clashes with his traditional parents and ends up leaving home. And oh, he also falls for a girl, but she is also a Muslim. That is the extent of his non-conformity. Amar never returns home, apart from a brief visit for his sister’s wedding. The book ends with the father looking back on his parenting with some regret and wishing that he had been less angry and more loving with his children, so that his son was not driven away.

This, really, was the extent of the plot of the book. Apart from Amar rebelling and leaving the house, nothing really happens. There is no other issue, no calamity as such. It made me wonder why I was even reading about this family, with its relative lack of problems. If all they had to worry about was one child not being sold on the religious beliefs of the family, they seemed to be very lucky. Even the fact that they were Muslims in an increasingly Islamaphobic world did not emerge as an issue. There was only a brief reference to 9/11 and its aftermath — Amar got into a fight at school and the two older girls stopped wearing the hijab for some time following their parents’ advice — but that was about it. A passing reference is made to the 2016 election towards the end of the book, but I imagine that most of the book must have been written before the current hostile political climate.

Given the lack of a real plot, what may have given the book credibility and led to its selection by Sarah Jessica Parker as the first book for her new imprint was that it was very well written and provided a lot of details about the lives of the individual members of the family. I could see how this could be a novelty to Western audiences, allowing them a glimpse into a totally different way of life and culture — how a Muslim family lives in the US, how the kids are brought up, what are the customs and rituals they follow, and so on. However, as someone from India who now lives in the US, none of these details were new to me or even especially interesting. It was as if anyone could just capture the mundane details of their life — how they were brought up, the little things they did, their relationships with their parents and their siblings, etc. — and it would be worthy of publication in a novel. I imagine that many of the details in A Place for Us come directly from the author’s own life and experiences, given that it is her first novel and most first novels tend to be very autobiographical.

I would put this book in the same category as Exit West, another book that was highly acclaimed by critics, but which I did not much care for. While I appreciate the fact that these young authors are getting a chance and feel happy for them, I wish critics and publishers were a little more discerning and found books with some real merit to them.

A Place for Us
Author: Fatima Farheen Mirza
Publisher: SJP for Hogarth
Publication Date: June 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird

Recalling her reaction to reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, my friend said, “When I finished it, I just wished that everyone could be like Atticus Finch, or at least try.” Indeed. If only everyone could be decent and virtuous through and through. If only everyone would treat others with respect, regardless of their place in society. If only everyone could retain their faith in humanity in the face of prejudice and ignorance, in the face of threats against himself and his family. If only every parent could be gentle and understanding while setting firm limits. If only every man who was a dead-eye shot could avoid using a gun except when it is necessary to defend the community from a clear-cut danger.

Harper Lee intended for readers to long for decency. Not only that, but she spelled out exactly what she thought ‘decency’ and ‘right living’ means on a wide range of issues from large to small: what is justice, what is honor, what is duty; what is sympathy, what is courtesy, what is tact; what does it mean to love one’s neighbor; how does a reckless child learn to be a responsible adult? She demonstrated her code through both the actions and the words of her characters.

Far from being the utilitarian and sentimental potboiler that I expected, To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece of fiction. Harper Lee unfolds her stories in such a homely and leisurely manner that you don’t realize you’re taking in a systematic moral treatise at the same time.

The literary device that enabled the author to reveal the setting, the plot, and the characters slowly, in tiny easily digestible units, was using the viewpoint of Atticus’s daughter, a precocious little girl, in her eighth and ninth years, called Scout. Lee didn’t attempt to create a childish voice, but she depicted events in the way that Scout experienced them.

In order to deal with themes of racism and justice, the major plot has to do with the trial of a handicapped black laborer, Tom Robinson, who is falsely accused of the rape of a white woman. Atticus Finch is assigned by the judge to defend Tom, and he makes a very convincing case for Tom’s innocence, while knowing that the jury would never take the word of a Negro over that of a white man. When a mob threatens to lynch Tom, Atticus is prepared to defend him without using a weapon, sticking by his principles at the risk of his own life.

The subplot concerns a reclusive neighbor, known by the children as Boo. When he was a young man, Boo, whose real name is Arthur Radley, got in trouble with the law while hanging out with a gang of ruffians. His parents’ response was to keep him hidden at home. After 15 years of isolation, Arthur casually stabbed his father in the leg as he passed by. It is evident that he needs some kind of help, but his father refuses to let him go to an asylum, so he ends up back at home, even more isolated. When his parents finally die, his older brother Nathan moves in and continues Boo’s confinement.

Scout and her brother Jem, who is about 4 years older, and their summertime friend Dill, who is 8-10 years old, make the mysterious Boo into a dangerous monster. Sometimes they are afraid to pass his house; other times, they try to provoke him to show himself. Although they manage to rile his brother Nathan—who takes a pot shot at them when they enter the Radley place late at night in an effort to leave Boo a friendly note—Boo sees their gesture as friendly play, as it was intended. He responds by leaving tiny keepsakes in a hole in an oak tree, but mean Nathan cuts off that form of contact by filling the hole with cement.

The way these two plots are intertwined is a marvel to behold.

The man who falsely accuses Tom Robinson of rape is a shiftless, no-account white man, named Bob Ewell, who lives on welfare with a ragged bunch of motherless children next to the dump—quite literally ‘poor white trash,’ but still higher in the social pecking order than the lowly Negroes. His eldest daughter, Mayella, age 19—friendless and isolated, like Boo—becomes attracted to Tom Robinson when he passes her house each day on the way to and from his job working as a laborer on a nearby farm. Although his left arm is damaged and hangs useless, he is young and strong. His only fault is sympathizing with Mayella’s situation. He sees that she totally lacks support from her father and the younger children in the family, and he instinctively comes to her aid when she asks him to help with some task. When she takes advantage of the situation to kiss him and hold him in her arms, she seals his doom. Her father observes the embrace through a window and totally freaks out. He enters the house raging, and when Tom quickly departs, he proceeds to whack Mayella about the head and neck, not stopping until she is on the floor. Then he covers up his violence by accusing Tom of rape, and Mayella goes along with this in order to hide her shame.

The courtroom scenes where Atticus reveals the Ewells’ squalid life and the flimsiness of their accusations through patient and respectful questioning are great set pieces of sustained drama. The children look on from the balcony among the black community, who are stunned that any white man would put so much of himself into defending a black man. The raucous white people on the floor are temporarily subdued by doubt and suspense. After unexpectedly long deliberations, the all white male jury finds Tom guilty and sentences him to death. The injustice of the verdict hits the children and the reader like an anvil falling to the floor.

Though Bob Ewell gets his way in court, he is humiliated by the experience, and he vows to get Atticus if it takes the rest of his life. Instead of going directly for the attorney, he attacks Scout and Jem on Halloween night. Scout is saved by the chicken wire in her ham costume and rolls comically out of danger, but Ewell succeeds in twisting Jem’s arm behind his back and is on the verge of delivering a fatal blow with a jack knife, when he is overpowered by Boo, who stabs him to death with a kitchen knife. It is unclear to the children who saved them: Jem passes out and Scout’s vision is impeded by her awkward costume. When Sheriff Tate arrives on the scene, he quickly figures out what has happened, but he chooses to cover up the truth—by saying Ewell fell on his own knife—because saving the children’s lives would make him a hero in the small town, and he figures Boo would hate being the center of attention—it would be a kind of punishment.

The issue of killing mockingbirds is mentioned early in the book, when Atticus gives Scout and Jem air rifles for Christmas. He tells them never to point a gun indoors, and never to shoot a mockingbird, because killing a mockingbird is sinful. A friendly neighbor explains why: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.” At the end, when Sheriff Tate decides to hide the truth about how Bob Ewell died, he explains: “To my way of thinkin’, Mr. Finch, taking the one man who’s done you and this town a great service an’ draggin’ him with his shy ways into the limelight—to me, that’s a sin.” Scout understands this. She says, “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” There’s a time for justice, and a time for mercy.

All this drama and high seriousness is interwoven with comical scenes, such as the hilarious Halloween pageant featuring children dressed as the agricultural products of the region. Or the meeting of the ladies’ Christian group that earnestly discusses the plight of some happy heathens, while freely engaging in un-Christian prejudice against members of their own community. Or Scout’s first day in school, when her teacher is reduced to tears by her own ineptitude and one of the younger Ewell children, who sasses her and walks out of school. Or Jem’s attempt to use a fishing pole to get a message to Boo in the middle of the night, and losing his pants in the process.

As appealing as this story is—full of homely detail, childish innocence, and colorful anecdotes—it is tempting to take it literally, but it is not a documentary, it is a story, a constructed piece of fiction. In fact it is a parable—a story with a moral. The characters have been idealized and simplified to illustrate certain principles.

I read this book because I wondered why it kept appearing on so many lists of best books and favorites. It appeals to our longing for basic human decency with subtle and refined artistry.

To Kill a Mockingbird
Author: Harper Lee
Publisher: J. B. Lippincott & Co.
Publication Date: July 1960

Contributor: Jan Looper writes a blog for armchair culture vultures.

“Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved” by Kate Bowler

Everything Happens for a Reason

Anyone who has ever asked the fundamental question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” would not be able to pass on this book without being intrigued by its title. It seems to be unequivocally saying that the platitude, “Everything happens for a reason,” that we hear so often being bandied about, especially addressed to people who are going through a tragedy, is a lie, plain and simple. For anyone who is not religious — who does not believe in a “grand scheme” for life, who does not believe in an afterlife, who finds the concept of “God” to be something that humans have fabricated to makes themselves feel that someone is in charge – for such a person, a book like this simply affirms what they already know. But for those who do believe that “everything happens for a reason,” this book is a must-read, especially because it is written by someone who was steeped in religion and knows exactly what that line of thinking is like.

The author of Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved is Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School, who was not only brought up as a Christian and still follows it, but has spent her professional life specializing in the study of something called the “prosperity gospel” in Christianity, which sees fortune – notably money, success, and good health – as a blessing from God and conversely, any misfortune as a sign of God’s disapproval. While it may seem amazing to other people that such a line of thinking even exists – despite all evidence to the contrary, with innumerable people, including babies and children, suffering everyday through no fault of their own – it does, with plenty of preachers teaching it and plenty of followers believing it. Despite being an academic, Bowler also experienced her own “prosperity gospel” or sorts when she was able to conceive and give birth to a baby after several setbacks, had a book published, and was cured of a crippling physical ailment that had temporarily made her unable to use her hands and arms. All of this, and with a loving husband to boot, she was flying high. How could she not see herself as blessed?

But then, it all suddenly came crashing down. She started having several abdominal pains, and it was diagnosed as stage 4 colon cancer. With a survival rate of only 10% and no “cure” as such, Bowler had just been handed a death sentence. While she didn’t know exactly how long she had to live, she knew that sooner rather than later, she would die, and her baby boy would have to grow up without her and her beloved husband would have to bring up their son on his own. This has made her look anew at not just the prosperity gospel, but at many of the common religious beliefs people hold and which several of them tried to comfort her with — not just “Everything happens for a reason,” but also things such as, “God needs an angel,” “You will be in heaven and can watch over your family,” and so on. She now sees these not just as harmless platitudes that can help to comfort some people when they are dying, but outright lies that can prevent people from accepting the inevitable in good grace.

So far, Bowler is still living with the cancer, with traditional treatments and some promising new immunotherapy ones that are continuing to keep her alive, a few months at a time. But she does not know when her time will run out. Hearing first-hand from someone who is looking at death right in the face is a searing experience, whether you are religious or not. The book is chock-full of insights that can only come once you are in that place of knowing your days are numbered. (Actually, everyone’s days are numbered, but it’s easy to forget this in the hum and bustle of our daily lives.) And even for those who are not faced with this calamity yet, she provides some sage advice on what NOT to say to people who are going through tough times as well as what to say or do to help. Reading the book is worth it just for this alone.

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved
Author: Kate Bowler
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: February 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces” by Michael Chabon

Pops

Even though Michael Chabon is a well-known author – he has written several novels and has also won the Pulitzer Prize for one of them – I had not read any of his books. What prompted me to pick up his latest book, Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, was a recent interview with him on NPR’s Fresh Air, in which he talked about the book. It sounded very interesting, and once I got a copy, I found that it was such a short book that I was able to read it in just a few days, which is usually impossible to do with nonfiction books unless they are so riveting that you just can’t put them down.

Pops is a collection of seven essays on fatherhood of which six have already been published in different magazines including GQ, Atlantic.com, and Details. It is not at all unusual for a famous author to repackage his or her articles, essays, or short stories into a book, which is what Chabon has done with Pops. However, what does make it atypical — and not in a good way — is how little new content it has. The book is essentially made by sandwiching the six already-published essays between an Introduction and a seventh essay at the end of the book. It seems almost too easy, especially when you think of the millions of wannabe writers slaving away for years to make their words see the light of day and are often disappointed when it never happens. Evidently, when you become a famous author, you can get away with simply collating some of your already published essays into a new book. But as they say, success builds on success. And who ever said that life was fair?

Getting back to the book itself, there were parts of Pops that I really liked – and these were the parts that Chabon also talked about in his Fresh Air interview, making me somewhat miffed that there wasn’t much else so gripping in the book that I had not already heard. As is obvious by its name, all the essays in the book are primarily about some of Chabon’s experiences as a father to his four children on a range of issues, including clothes, sports, behavior, and language. The final essay is about Chabon as a son himself, when he goes to visit his father who suddenly falls very ill. I would say that while none of these experiences were particularly insightful, it is Chabon’s skill as a writer that makes them interesting. In any case, parenting is something that most people who are parents themselves can usually relate to, and it is always interesting to hear about how other parents deal with different aspects of raising kids.

While I was overall somewhat disappointed by Pops — it seemed to cover too little ground to be a “full-fledged” book — there was one sentiment expressed in the book that was so profound that it simply blew my mind away and made the book a must-read. In the Introduction, Chabon describes how he was strongly advised against parenthood by a famous author when he was a young aspiring writer himself. He was told: “You can write great books. Or you can have kids. It’s up to you.” Chabon not only went on to have four children, but he also became a famous, award-winning author with fourteen books. Thus, while disregarding this (unsolicited) advice actually turned out to be a good thing for him, he obviously did not know it at that time and chose to have kids anyway. He explains why he made this choice in the last paragraph of the book’s Introduction:

“If I had followed the great man’s advice and never burdened myself with the gift of my children, or if I had never written any novels at all, in the long run the result would have been the same as the result will be for me here, having made the choice I made: I will die; and the world in its violence and serenity will roll on, through the endless indifference of space, and it will take only 100 of its circuits around the sun to turn the six of us, who loved each other, to dust, and consign to oblivion all but a scant few of the thousands upon thousands of novels and short stories written and published during our lifetimes. If none of my books turns out to be among that bright remnant because I allowed my children to steal my time, narrow my compass, and curtail my freedom, I’m all right with that. Once they’re written, my books, unlike my children, hold no wonder for me; no mystery resides in them. Unlike my children, my books are cruelly unforgiving of my weaknesses, failings, and flaws of character. Most of all, my books, unlike my children, do not love me back. Anyway, if, 100 years hence, those books lie moldering and forgotten, I’ll never know. That’s the problem, in the end, with putting all your chips on posterity: You never stick around long enough to enjoy it.”

To me, just reading this one paragraph made the book worthwhile – it’s the kind of wisdom that needs to be framed so that we can keep coming back to it. I may not care for Chabon’s novels, but his sentiments expressed in this one paragraph captures, for me, the crux of the human condition—death is evitable, our lives spans are but a blip in cosmic time, and is there any point striving for “eternal” fame when we won’t even be around to experience it?

Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces
Author: Michael Chabon
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: May 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“A Manual for Cleaning Women” by Lucia Berlin

A Manual for Cleaning Women

Lucia Berlin’s collection of short stories is simply superlative. The stories draw heavily on the author’s eventful life as an alcoholic, a teen single mother, a nurse in ER, and a cleaning lady. Reading the collection is a little like reading an autobiography with detailed insight into some portions of her life and an translucent curtain drawn over other portions. Each story is a beautiful little vignette, a little like a comic strip where character and movement and plot all come together with a few brushstrokes. Her writing is simple and spare, direct and searing, reminding me of Didion and Hemingway, packing a punch to the gut with little fanfare and no drama.

Lucia Berlin had an alcoholic mother, alcoholic uncle, abusive grandfather and a sister who died young, of cancer. She had four sons, the first born while she was a teenager, and she raised them on her own as she slid into alcoholism while working all manner of odd jobs. For some part of her childhood, she lived a life of wealth and privilege in Chile but was disowned by her family after her first pregnancy. These are facts I gleaned from the stories, but in a circuitous way because the stories meander to and fro over the years of her life. There are stories detailing incidents from years of her childhood interspersed with those talking about her nursing of her younger sister as she lies dying in Mexico, surrounded by children, ex-husbands and a lover.

Many of the stories are poignant – an alcoholic single mother gathering coins late at night to get a cup of alcohol, stumbling 45 mins one way to the liquor store that opens at dawn because her grown sons have hidden her car keys and wallet, then trudging back in time to get the laundry done so the younger boys have clean socks for school. Some are heart-wrenching – especially the memorable tale of a young Mexican immigrant with a husband in prison, a newborn son and absolutely no resources. Others are provocative, such as the tale of a mother finding a soulmate and lover in her son’s friend. There is plenty of humor, particularly of the darker sort.

This is not a book to miss. I was enthralled and uncharacteristically read it slowly so I could draw it out and savor each story, mull it over and digest it before I moved to the next. I have already bought a copy to give to a friend and will be passing my copy around to a few more friends.

A Manual for Cleaning Women
Author: Lucia Berlin
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: August 2015

Contributor: Seema Varma is an avid reader, sometime engineer.

“Brideshead Revisited” by Evelyn Waugh

Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited was one more foray into the world of classical literature that I embarked upon recently, sparked by Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. I had not read any books by Evelyn Waugh before, but had heard of him and of Brideshead Revisited, thanks to a recent movie adaptation. Since I haven’t seen the movie, I could enjoy the book unencumbered by the images of the movie characters superimposed over those in the book — which I find quite annoying and avoid as much as possible.

Brideshead Revisited is primarily an account of life in England in the first half of the 20th century narrated by a young man, Charles Ryder, starting with his days as a college student at Oxford where he meets and befriends a charismatic fellow student, Sebastian Flyte. The two soon become inseparable, not in any romantic sense as we would now assume, but simply as very close friends who spend a lot of time together. Sebastian comes from a very wealthy family and lives in a palatial mansion called Brideshead to which he frequently takes Charles whenever he visits. Charles meets and becomes close to all the members of Sebastian’s family, including his beautiful sister, Julia, whom he almost ends up marrying, but much later in the book.

Most of the early part of the story is devoted to Charles and Sebastian’s escapades as students in Oxford, their visits to Brideshead, their travels abroad, and their interactions with the different members of Sebastian’s family. It almost gets to the point where you are over halfway into the book and you are wondering if anything is actually to happen! But then it does. Sebastian rapidly descends into alcoholism from which he never really recovers, Julia gets married but eventually ends up getting a divorce, and Charles drops out of Oxford to become a successful architectural painter. He also gets married and has children, but realizes, after a chance meeting with Julia many years later, that it is her whom he really loves. He also ends up divorcing his wife, and he and Julia are all set to get married when Julia realizes that she cannot go through with the wedding after all because of religious reasons — she is a staunch Catholic while Charles is an agnostic.

For a book set in the 1940s, there are a surprising number of divorces and affairs, which was surprising to me. What I also found unique about Brideshead Revisited was the extended discussions about religion and the critical role it plays in the book — not in bringing the hero and heroine together as you would expect, but in actually breaking them up. This disagreement in religious views happens so often between couples in real life but is hardly ever captured in fiction, and what impressed me the most about Brideshead Revisited was how it made religion a pivotal aspect of the plot.

Apart from this, I cannot really say that Brideshead Revisited was exceptional in any way, and I can see why it did not become a top-tier must-read classic. Much of it seemed to me to be “much ado about nothing.” I was glad to have read it, but I did not find it particularly riveting.

Having failed to find any classics that come even remotely close to how enraptured I was by North and South, I am reverting back to contemporary fiction. Just as Brideshead Revisited was primarily a social commentary on life in the 1940s, I hope to be able to find books situated in modern times with plotlines and settings that I can at least relate to.

Brideshead Revisited
Author: Evelyn Waugh
Reprint Publisher and Date: Back Bay Books, December 2012
Original Publisher and Date: Chapman & Hall, 1945

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“You Deserve Nothing” by Alexander Maksik

You Deserve Nothing.jpg

In my new quest for campus novels to fill the void left in my heart from being away from college, I picked up Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing. In truth, I found it on a list of books similar to The Marriage Plot, which I last wrote about. In reality, it is nothing like The Marriage Plot.

The book is centered around three characters who share their perspectives in different chapters (the only part, really, similar to The Marriage Plot). Will is a 38-year-old English teacher at the International School of Paris, and Marie and Gilad are two of his students. This year, Will is teaching a senior seminar on existentialism, and it is those questions, about the existence of meaning in life or lack thereof, that also drive this novel. Thus, many of the class discussions that readers are privy to are also questions one might have after finishing You Deserve Nothing. The book begins simply—Will begins an affair with Marie. It is almost cliché—young, single English teacher, beautiful young woman, all set in the backdrop of the glittering city of Paris. I was almost disappointed after the first few chapters.

However, it becomes clear as one goes on that Maksik is less interested in the affair and more interested in existentialism. The class begins to read The Stranger by Albert Camus (one of my favorite novels!), and it becomes clear that that novel is a big influence on this one. In fact, Will and Gilad witness a random, cold-blooded murder on the Metro that is incredibly similar to one that Meursault witnesses in The Stranger.

Will, throughout the novel, never feels any guilt about the affair. This is interesting, because while we, as readers, might question the morality of it based on our own values, the focus of the novel is not on whether or not he did something wrong, but whether or not it does or should matter. This was very interesting to me, and aligns quite well with my personal, liberal philosophy about love and sex. Given this, as well as the focus on literature that I love, set in a city that I have always been fascinated with, You Deserve Nothing seemed like a book that I should love.

However, there was something lacking. I think that perhaps I do not find Maksik to be a particularly great writer. He tells a pretty common story in a style of writing that feels as though it has not yet matured. The characters’ perspectives all seem surface level, particularly Will’s. They do not contain a deeper level of thinking that, though might be extraneous from the immediate plot, might flesh out the characters into real human beings. This might be ok for Gilad and Marie, who are still teenagers and are not fully formed human beings, but for Will, it makes him seem particularly one dimensional and dull. I think it is difficult to ask a reader to read about a man who is engaged in questionable acts if he himself is not a dynamic character and thus becomes defined by those acts, not by his personality. The only reason that I was able to understand Will, or the concept behind his character, was because I had read The Stranger, and understood that he was something of a Meursault figure.

Certainly, You Deserve Nothing is an interesting read. Unfortunately, I think it is not much more. It falls short of the larger questions about existence it is trying to initiate. Furthermore, I’m not sure those questions are anything unique. I left the book thinking I could have been posed those same questions in a more interesting form had I been reading Camus or Sartre.

It is an age-old writers’ problem—wanting to write like your own literary idols, taking inspiration from them. Sometimes, combining this with ones’ own original style and ideas can make something unique. Unfortunately, Maksik didn’t have much of either.

You Deserve Nothing
Author: Alexander Maksik
Publisher: Europa Editions
Publication Date: August 2011

Contributor: Sarisha Kurup attends Bowdoin College in Maine.

“The Kind Worth Killing” by Peter Swanson

The Kind Worth Killing

Being an avid fan of the mystery/thriller genre of books, especially when interspersed with more literary fare, I recently picked up The Kind Worth Killing which was written about in this forum by another contributor. A few weeks ago, I had also read and written about Strangers on a Train, a 1950s novel which was made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock and which, according to the first write-up, had seemingly inspired this book. While I found The Kind Worth Killing a better read than Strangers on a Train, it does not come anywhere close to crime thrillers such as Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, despite the best efforts of the publisher to promote it as such.

The book starts with two strangers, Ted and Lily, meeting in an airport bar where they share some drinks. They are on the same flight and manage to sit next to each other and continue their conversation. Ted has just discovered that his wife is cheating on him and he jokingly remarks that he would like to kill her. Lily asks him why not, in all seriousness, and offers to help him. It is definitely an intriguing plot line which draws you in, and while the rest of the book does not quite live up to its initial intrigue, it is interesting enough to keep you going. Do they actually go through with killing Ted’s wife? Why is Lily encouraging Ted to do this and why is she offering to help? Has she killed before, given that she thinks that some people are “the kind worth killing?”

While Ted and Lily don’t actually switch murders in this book as the main characters do in Strangers on a Train, what the two books have in common is that there are no twists as such, making them more of thrillers than mysteries. What I did find especially remarkable about The Kind Worth Killing is that you are actually rooting for the murderer, given his/her compelling back story. And just when you think that he/she got away with it — and are almost happy about it — the last three lines of the book unexpectedly throw a wrench into it. Justice might be served at all.

While the opening of the book immediately drew me in and the end showed some creativity, the rest of the book was unfortunately a standard, run-off-the-mill potboiler, with crass generalizations and stereotypes — beautiful wife, rich husband, wife wants to kill the husband to get his insurance money, wife seduces a not-too-bright guy and encourages him to kill the husband, husband falls for another beautiful woman, detective investigating the case also falls for a beautiful woman, and so on. And of course, there is plenty of sex. The quality of the writing was also quite pedestrian and far from classy.

Overall, The Kind Worth Killing is the equivalent of a popcorn flick — entertaining, even somewhat thrilling, but eminently forgettable as soon as it is over.

The Kind Worth Killing
Author: Peter Swanson
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: February 2015

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot

Ever since I left college in May, I have been on the hunt for good campus novels. It’s interesting, because while at college I was worried that I had lost my appetite for fiction, but the moment I left, I was desperate for a book to help transport me back. In the process, I was reminded of one of the amazing things about literature—its ability to fill gaps for people, temporarily satisfy longing or escapism. Back at home in California and longing for my idyllic Maine campus, I stumbled upon Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot.

I had heard of Eugenides already because of his 2003 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Middlesex, but I had never read any of his work. He exists in the same generation of late 20th century novelists like Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, men who are now well known not just because of their novels, but for being writers, and for all being friends, something like the Lost Generation of the 1920s or the Beat Generation of the 1950s. I have always been enchanted by the idea of generations of writers, a kind of intelligentsia, and so I was excited to read Eugenides for that reason as well. The Marriage Plot, which followed Middlesex, received much less fanfare, but its plot was far more relatable to me, so it was my obvious starting point.

The novel follows three people in their early 20s—Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell, through their last year of Brown and the year afterward. Though the book takes on the narrative from all three perspectives, alternating in different chapters, the real protagonist is Madeleine, who serves as both of the men’s love interests. She is an English major who is writing her thesis about The Marriage Plot, a concept in Victorian novels. As such, Eugenides lets us into the conversations that take place in her literary theory class, which is perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the book that isn’t based around the narrative itself. Listening to characters argue about the theories of Derrida of Barthes was a delightfully thought-provoking and almost academic experience, something I missed since leaving college for the summer.

Her boyfriend, Leonard, suffers from a mental illness that slowly becomes the primary focus of the narrative. Apparently, he is based on David Foster Wallace, a writer whose story I became very interested in a few summers ago. Reading about a character based on him, written by a man who knew Foster Wallace, was illuminating, and very humanizing, given the gigantic stature Foster Wallace has in the literary canon. To his credit, Eugenides manages to write about Leonard’s illness with elegance and grace, never revealing or pitying too much, and without glossing over some of the more difficult aspects of such a disease. Leonard’s perspective is only provided once, but it is the most fascinating chapter in the book.

Mitchell, the final character, pines after Madeleine during college and in the year after. In an effort to get over her, he leaves to travel the world with his friend, but ultimately ends up volunteering for Mother Teresa in India. Mitchell is apparently based on Eugenides, who was also a Greek, a religious studies major, and also spent time volunteering in India. As Leonard and Mitchell often serve as foils for each other, one ostensibly gets a chance to see Eugenides compare himself to Foster Wallace in this way. The way Eugenides writes it, Mitchell is a very normal guy, and Leonard is more of a character, with a mythology that follows him around college, a specific way of dressing, an aura. It is not difficult to imagine that Eugenides might have felt that way about Foster Wallace, who was winning awards, being hailed a genius, and only became more discussed and mythologized himself after his 2008 suicide.

Mitchell’s internal dilemmas about religion, similar to Madeleine’s class discussions about literary theory, provide interesting concepts and ideas for readers to think about that are a bit removed from the plot. I loved that aspect of the book, as it made me think about my own beliefs in these two areas. Furthermore, we get to see him travel through multiple countries—Paris, Greece, India—and so are given something of an honest, accurate description of the excitement, but also struggle, of traveling when young and broke. It is nice to read about a European tour where someone is counting their money down to the last dollar, and is not necessarily having an amazing experience every moment of the day.

As the book progresses, Mitchell and Leonard become more and more fleshed out, dynamic characters. However, I think the flaw of the book, and the reason it did not do as well as Middlesex, is that Madeleine, who is at first a fascinating protagonist, becomes flatter, more and more defined by her relationship to Leonard than by her own interests, both academic and personal. Perhaps this is part of sharing a life with an ill person, but I was left wondering why I had even found her an interesting person in the beginning of the book.

On the whole, however, I loved The Marriage Plot. I knew I wanted it to last, so I tried to read it slowly, but on my plane ride from California to New York, I devoured its second half in a matter of hours. The narrative is quick, framed with flashbacks that keep it interesting, and the characters all bare their thoughts in a way that is relatable and illuminating to one’s own experiences. There were different points in the narrative in which I felt most like each one of the characters.

That, I think, is another power of literature—to remind readers that people have far more in common than they might know from surface level interactions. Often the way people think, the way people experience things, might be similar. I related to Mitchell’s abstractions of people that he created in his own head, Leonard’s concern about the glorification of family in popular culture and that disconnect with his own family, and with Madeleine’s fear of broken people. None of these characters are really similar to me on a surface level, but nevertheless, I would end their chapters suddenly feeling as if they and I might understand each other quite well.

Especially for young people, in college or just out of it, The Marriage Plot is an interesting meditation on what it means to become an adult, to craft a life out of a collection of amorphous experience. Its plot is not incredibly new or cutting-edge, but there is something nice about reading a familiar story—two guys wanting the same girl—when it is written by a writer as talented and thoughtful as Eugenides.

The Marriage Plot
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition
Publication Date: September 2012

Contributor: Sarisha Kurup attends Bowdoin College in Maine.

“Three Lives” by Gertrude Stein

Three Lives.jpg

Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives is a literary masterpiece that everyone admires, and no one reads. Of those who do read it, few understand it. The reason is that it is innovative on many levels, and innovations have the big drawback of being shocking and disorienting. The most shocking aspect is that the novel depicts women of the servant class with respect. The innermost lives of women who are generally overlooked and undervalued are studied with care and sympathy. The humble are raised up. In addition, Stein shows how being in service constricts their opportunity to develop a sense of self, and their lack of self-hood makes their lives futile.

The true subject of the novel is selfhood or authenticity; it’s about free will and self-awareness. The three lives represent three unsuccessful stages of development of self-awareness, not culminating in fulfillment. Stein embodies these stages in fully-drawn characters, and then immerses these protagonists in detailed renderings of their social scene, peopled by vivid minor characters.

The first story is called The Good Anna. Anna represents the perfect servant, according to certain parts of the German-American community who adhered to old world traditions in the early 1900s. She devotes herself to service, both in her job and in her private life. She lives by an elaborate set of rules and strives to control everything around her. Anna’s life story is told through her relationships with others. We learn the complete life histories of her dogs, and we meet the under-servants that she scolds constantly, but her principal relationships are with her employers. First there’s Miss Mary Wadsmith, “a large, fair, helpless woman, burdened by the care of her brother’s two children.” She manages that household for several years, until the girl gets married. Then Anna goes to work for Dr. Shonjen, a jovial bachelor doctor. When he gets married to a social-climbing woman, Anna goes to work for Miss Mathilda. This was the happiest period in Anna’s life:

With Miss Mathilda Anna did it all. The clothes, the house, the hats, what she should wear and when and what was always best for her to do. There was nothing Miss Mathilda would not let Anna manage, and only be too glad if she would do.

Anna’s only family is a half-brother, a wealthy fat baker, and his sharp-tongued wife. Anna does her duty, as she sees it, by their family, but she doesn’t really care about them, nor they about her. The romance in Anna’s life is Mrs. Lehntman, a widow who supports her two children by working as a midwife. Anna is entirely “subdued by her magnetic sympathetic charm.” Romance, Stein explains, is the ideal in one’s life. The way this plays out is that Anna helps Mrs. Lehntman in all her endeavors—especially tending to poor young girls who are pregnant and alone. The two remain friends for many years, though Anna disapproves of some of her friends’ actions and gradually gains a more realistic attitude toward her. Anna’s other friends are all needy and dependent. She spends all her spare income helping people who are sick, who have bad luck, who are too ignorant to care for themselves, who long to follow their dreams. She makes no effort to plan for her own future or to care for her own health.

Anna complains constantly about the failure of the people in her life to meet her high standards of behavior, but generally she finds both success and contentment in her work as a servant. But service is the only way of relating to people that she understands, and it is the basic rule of her life. When she comes to a point in her life when she can no longer work as a servant, she opens a boarding house, and basically works herself to death in the service of the poor young men who live with her. All of Anna’s employers and friends urge her to take better care of herself, but Anna is not really aware of herself. That is the problem: no sense of selfhood.

The third story is called The Gentle Lena. Lena represents a person who is totally lacking in self-determination; she is a good girl, meaning a good maid who does as she is told without complaining. Her passivity causes her to be pushed about; her lack of will or self-assertion condemns her to a short, unhappy life, ending in gray and miserable dissolution. Stein represents Lena’s sweet and gentle nature in a lovely passage:

Lena’s german voice when she knocked and called the family in the morning was as awakening, as soothing, and as appealing, as a delicate soft breeze in midday, summer. She stood in the hallway every morning a long time in her unexpectant and unsuffering german patience calling to the young ones to get up. She would call and wait a long time and then call again, always even, gentle, patient, while the young ones fell back often into that precious, tense, last bit of sleeping that gives a strength of joyous vigor in the young, over them that have come to the readiness of middle age, in their awakening.

When we first meet her, Lena’s life is an easy routine of housework and childcare, with an “unexacting mistress,” and she is fairly content. But Lena totally lacks will or self-determination:

Lena always saved her wages, for she never thought to spend them, and she always went to her aunt’s house for her Sundays because she did not know that she could do anything different.

Several times, the author describes her with this phrase: “She was always sort of dreamy and not there.” Her downfall starts when her bossy aunt succeeds in marrying her to an unaware gay man named Herman who appears to be as bland and obedient as she is, despite the fact that neither wants to marry. Herman is a tailor. He works for his father and lives with his parents in the house next door. Though the family is prosperous, they are stingy with money and lax in their grooming.

Lena began soon with it to look careless and a little dirty, and to be more lifeless with it, and nobody ever noticed much what Lena wanted, and she never really knew herself what she needed.

The worst part of living with Herman’s parents is that his mother harangues Lena constantly for not having their same stingy ways. Lena has no reassuring contact with old friends, who might come to her defense. Always dreamy, she becomes ever more absent and dull. When she gets pregnant, she is paralyzed with fear and sickness. The only way Lena gets any relief is through the help of an old cook who intervenes on her behalf and starts a process that leads to Lena and Herman getting a separate house after the child is born. But neither having her own place nor motherhood is enough to lift her out of her despair.

This did not seem to make much change now for Lena. She was just the same as when she was waiting with her baby. She just dragged around and was careless with her clothes and all lifeless, and she acted always and lived on just as if she had no feeling. She always did everything regular with the work, the way she always had had to do it, but she never got back any spirit in her.

Herman’s sense of self is awakened by his strong desire to be a father, and the pair have two more children. Herman takes over the care of the children, while Lena becomes more and more lifeless. Lena’s fourth baby is still-born, and she dies giving birth as well. Except for the ‘good german cook,’ no one cares. In fact, now Herman can raise his family without having to worry about her.

These two stories serve as book-ends or supports for the central story, Melanctha. Melanctha is a seeker. She says she wants to know the world, but what she is really looking for is unconditional love, expressed as unbridled passion. When you dig down into the depths of this story, you learn that she was unloved in childhood, both by her pale, ineffective mother and her absent brute of a black father. A psychologist might say that she never learned to love herself because her parents didn’t show her much love. Early in childhood, she developed a cheery and helpful personality that hid her emotions and prevented her from making authentic contact with people. No one can ever love her enough to make up for her parents’ neglect.

While Stein makes women from German culture represent suffocating tradition, she reaches into the African-American community to create a character on a quest. Her father is black, but her mother is described as a pale yellow colored woman. Stein makes much of the fact that Melanctha is half-white. Her personality combines the stereotypical attributes of the two races: smart and articulate like white people; passionate and wild like black people, all this according to the stereotypes of the time.

When we first meet Melanctha she is in high school and just beginning to explore the world of men. When she gets out of school, she doesn’t seek employment. Just how she gets by is not explained, except to say that occasionally she does a little sewing for people. She spends more and more time hanging about with men; while she might not be hooking, she might be receiving various favors from admirers that help her get by. None of this is stated. Her circumstances are not important to the story. The story that Stein wanted to tell was about her inner life.

After a lot of romantic and sexual adventure, described in very vague terms, Melanctha rises to the point of engaging in a romantic relationship with a serious and virtuous doctor from the black community. The development, culmination, and decline of their romance is rendered with greater intimacy than any other fictional romance I know: we see exactly what Melanctha and the doctor think of each other at each stage of the process. From the beginning, they argue about authenticity. Doctor Jeff is a thinker, and has a lot of ideas about virtuous living that he likes to expound. Melanctha accuses him of ignoring his own principles; she says his behavior is not so virtuous as he likes to think. On the other hand, Doctor Jeff doesn’t quite trust Melanctha; she always seems to be holding something back.

Despite these initial misgivings, the two are attracted to each other. Melanctha grows to like Doctor Jeff’s warm and generous ways. Jeff is attracted by her beauty and her ability to articulate her thoughts, and he is charmed by the sympathetic way Melanctha listens to his incessant ruminations. Melanctha begins to hope he can make her feel secure. Their earliest conversations seem to be very authentic, each one expressing their truth sincerely. Stein allows them months of blissful wandering in nature and enjoyment of each other’s company.

But there is a fly in the ointment, and that is the original question of authenticity. At the peak of their bliss, Melanctha does something, just some random gesture, that reminds Jeff of her other life, her life with other men, the world she doesn’t talk about while she is listening to him so demurely. And in fact, Melanctha is not quite satisfied with Jeff either; she still thinks he is out of touch with his emotions; she secretly thinks he is sort of a wimp, but she has been submissive because she wants to please him. Stein depicts every step in the unwinding of their relationship. In the course of their arguments, they seem to cover every aspect of the search for authenticity that any psychologist ever identified, though they use everyday language, and are not sure themselves just what they are talking about.

Doctor Jeff drives himself crazy with too much thinking, but eventually he figures out that he was right all along. He rejects Melanctha’s claim that he is hypocritical and inadequate; he rejects her neediness that manipulates him into expressing more than he feels; he rejects her inability to talk about her past life. He sees that some place along the way, she quit talking to him sincerely like an equal, and started putting on an act in order to bind him to her. Slowly and painfully, Doctor Jeff backs away, and resumes his quiet, virtuous life.

Melanctha, on the other hand, is unable to learn from the experience. She doesn’t quite achieve a level of self-awareness that would enable her to learn from her mistakes; she is all instinct, driven by unquenchable psychological needs. Generously, Stein allows her to meet the man of her dreams and to have the perfect all-encompassing romance, for awhile; but the man is a gambler, and when his luck runs out, his love fades as well. Players only love you when they’re playing.

The strongest character in Melanctha’s life is Rose Johnson. Rose is described as careless, negligent, and selfish, but she is completely authentic: she always knows what she wants, she always has an idea of how to behave to get what she wants, she always has faith in herself. Melanctha becomes more attached to Rose than to any of the men in her life, and will demean herself with any sort of service in order to be with her. But even Rose eventually rejects her. She too becomes concerned about Melanctha’s other life, her secret interactions with unspecified men. She hates that Melanctha’s self-defeating behavior patterns. She gets sick of her simpering submissiveness, hiding a wild and promiscuous personality. She totally disdains Melanctha’s whimpering threats to end her own life.

Stein handles the rest of Melanctha’s life in summary fashion. She gets very sick, with consumption or something; she gets well after long treatment. She takes an actual job as a servant, and attempts to live a quiet regular life, but her health is compromised, and she dies young. Sad story.

An aspect of the novel that sounds harsh to the modern ear is Stein’s use of stereotypes in building her African-American characters, including the use of the word ‘nigger.’ However, you notice that she uses positive as well as negative character types, and she makes each character rise above type into eccentricity and particular traits. Moreover, her German characters are all stereotypes as well. All the characters conform to some known type, but the way they talk and the details of their lives are highly individualized and convincing.

On top of innovations in subject, theme, and structure, Gertrude Stein invented her own writing style, an elusive style that sometimes serves as a barrier because people reject its lack of conformity. The most obvious feature is repetition—repetition of descriptive phrases, sentences and whole paragraphs. Characters may be described with the same phrase in one situation after another, but each time that phrase relates to new phrases. She treats phrases like shapes that can be repeated in different parts of the picture. Whole anecdotes might be told in the beginning and repeated at the end of a story. For instance, Melanctha’s story opens with an event in a friend’s life: Rose Johnson has a hard time with her baby. That anecdote is repeated toward the end of Melanctha’s story, after we learn a lot about Rose and Melanctha.

This aspect of Stein’s style has been compared to Cubist painting, because it looks at a subject from different angles, and builds up a picture from layers. Repetition of phrases, sentences, and paragraphs also makes it sound like music; repetition is like the chorus in a song. These stories sound a little like long ballads.

For the critics of Stein’s time—who were steeped in the stilted prose of the 19th century and enthralled by the elaborate sentences of Marcel Proust and James Joyce—the ordinary, everyday quality of Stein’s language and sentence structure must have seemed primitive. Stein’s vocabulary is about 6th grade level, maybe lower, the type of words used by the servant class. The most complex psychological concepts are alluded to vaguely by everyday words, vernacular speech for German maids and women in the lower levels of the black community.

Stein also minimized punctuation: no colons or semi-colons, only commas allowed, and only when really necessary. Similarly, no capitol letters: she refers to ‘german’ girls. More remarkable, Stein doesn’t use subordinate conjunctions, like ‘although’ or ‘since’, to show relationships between facts or ideas. She tends to string simple sentences together with ‘and,’ piling up details one at a time. Nor does she use a lot of modifying prepositional phrases, such as ‘despite her reluctance…’ The result is, the novel can be read very rapidly; it sounds like ordinary conversation. Stein’s style is so fluid that she moves in and out of the thoughts of various characters without the reader noticing the changes from one to another. If you let down your resistance, the novel sounds like a long sad song cycle.

Three Lives is a hard book to put down. It sort of seeps into your soul. The only answer is to go on to Stein’s next major work, The Making of Americans, as I plan to do.

Three Lives
Author: Gertrude Stein
First published 1909

Contributor: Jan Looper writes a blog for armchair culture vultures.