“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.

“The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky” by Jana Casale

The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky

The title of this book is so intriguing that it would be difficult to come upon it without picking it up to least see what it was about. And for someone like me who has not read Noam Chomsky but always felt I should, it was something I could immediately identify with. The book is a debut novel by a young writer, which further appealed to me — there is always the hope of discovering a fresh voice amidst the vast numbers of books that get published these days. I was happy to find that my hope, in this case, was not belied — Jana Casale does indeed have a writing style that I found refreshing and eminently readable.

The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky traces the life of a woman, Leda, all the way from being a college student to a grandparent, ending with her death. The narrative is entirely in the form of vignettes — detailed descriptions of different days along the timeline of her life, with the earlier stages chronicled much more frequently than the later ones. I use the word “narrative” rather than “story” or “plot” because there isn’t one as such. There are no dramatic moments, no twists and turns in Leda’s life, no overwhelming decisions she makes that determine the course of her life. While this may not seem exciting or book-worthy, it is exactly how most people live — you could take the life of any average person and it could be written about in a book, similar to how Leda’s life has been chronicled in this book.  In fact, reading it is just like reading Leda’s diary, had she maintained one. Also, given how similar Leda’s early life is to the author’s — Leda wants to be an author and moves to San Francisco with her husband — the book seems to very autobiographical.

So what is it that makes this book worth reading, given than it is not capturing anything particularly newsworthy about anyone particularly remarkable? I would have to say that it is precisely this real-life narration of a person’s life that makes it unique, and completely relatable. Each vignette is extremely well-written — simple and straightforward, without any literary gimmicks of the kind that are so common in contemporary literature. It is also extremely candid, with frank observations about every single thing that human beings experience in their lives. Nothing is off the table, even bodily functions, which are usually considered too gross to be written about in fiction. The first half of the book, which captures Leda’s innermost thoughts and feelings of insecurity and loneliness as a young woman, her self-consciousness, the intensity of her emotions at the beginning stages of a serious relationship, and her desperation to get married and settle down, are especially well done and have an authenticity to them that seems all too real, reinforcing the pathos of the human condition.

And by the way, the unusual — and very catchy — title of the novel refers to a book by Noam Chomsky that Leda had bought as a college student, inspired by a cute guy reading a Noam Chomsky book that she sees at a coffee shop and who she hopes will hit on her. While that does not happen, she also does not ever get down to reading the Noam Chomsky book that she had brought, and it is eventually discarded by her daughter when she is going through her mother’s things after her death. It seems be an apt metaphor for life — that it rarely goes according to plan.

The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky
Author: Jana Casale
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: April 2018

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

“The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” by Anne Brontë

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.jpg

Having recently rediscovered my love for Victorian classics (courtesy Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South), I turned to one I hadn’t yet read – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë. She is, I think, the least known of the Bronte sisters – Charlotte Brontë has become immortalized in our literary canon with Jane Eyre and so has Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. After finishing the book, I can see why. While the writing is as good – all the Brontë sisters were undeniably talented writers – I did not find the The Tenant of Wildfell Hall the kind of book I would necessarily want to again read, unlike Jane Eyre, for example, which I have re-read multiple times and find it as enthralling each time as the first time I read it.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is primarily the story of a young woman, Helen Huntington, and her journey – from being wooed as a young girl by a dashing, charming man whom she falls madly in love with and marries, to the gradual descent of the marriage into a loveless nightmare because of her husband’s predilection for alcohol and dissoluteness. Her only consolation is her son, born shortly after her marriage, but whom she eventually becomes desperate to remove from the corrupting influence of his father. So she does what was almost unimaginable in those days – she runs away. With the help of her brother, she becomes a tenant in a house he owns in a distant location, Wildfell Hall, and assumes a false name and the guise of being a widow. Being young and beautiful, she naturally arouses the interest and gossip of the families in the neighborhood, as well as the ardent love of a local landowner, Gilbert Markham. While the story does come to a happy conclusion at the end of the book, most of it describes the trials and tribulations faced by Helen and the degenerate behavior of her husband — to the point at which you just wanted to say, “Enough, already! Just leave him!”

Even though I did not find The Tenant of Wildfell Hall the kind of book I would love to read multiple times, it is definitely a good book and I am glad to have read it. For those who enjoy Victorian classics, it is one more on the rather limited list we have of these books. In addition to their literary merits, they allow us to know what it was like to live in those times, and therefore also serve as important historical records. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is especially a important reminder that while many of us have very romantic notions of what it was like to live in Victorian times, it was far from being hunky-dory, especially for women, the vast majority of whom were not so lucky to have devoted husbands with whom they could “live happily ever after.” Apparently, Charlotte Brontë tried to block the publication of this book because it was so scandalous at that time, with its account of a marriage gone sour, the dissipation of a man to alcohol, and a woman escaping from an untenable situation. We are fortunate to live in an age when it’s even hard to comprehend how a woman could be forced to stay in a marriage that was as abusive as Helen Huntington’s in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Not only this, the book was initially published under a male pseudonym, Acton Bell. It is bound to make any feminist’s hackles rise!

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Author: Anne Brontë
Original Publisher and Date: Thomas Cautley Newby (June 1848)
Reprint Publisher and Date: Oxford University Press (May 2008)

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

“Call Me by Your Name” by André Aciman

Call Me By Your Name

It was only after I had seen the movie “Call Me by Your Name”—which was nominated for four Oscars at this year’s Academy Awards and won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay—did I realize that it was based on a book. The movie was excellent, but the book was not very well known prior to the movie. It would be fair to say that it had not really made a “splash” in literary circles, which was somewhat unusual as most movie adaptations are made of books that are highly acclaimed. I typically do not like to watch the movie adaptation of a book before reading it first, but in this case, I wanted to find out more about the book that had inspired such a beautiful movie.

Call Me by Your Name is what is commonly referred to as a “coming-of-age” story of an adolescent going from youth to adulthood. The adolescent here is a 17-year-old American-Italian boy named Elio, the setting is Italy, and the time period is in the 1980s. While the story is being narrated by Elio twenty years later, it is almost entirely an account of the one summer when a visitor, Oliver, comes to stay in Elio’s house. Elio’s father is a professor, and every summer, he takes in a doctoral student as a house guest for six weeks as an apprentice of sorts, who helps him with some academic work while simultaneously engaged in some academic activity of his own. In the case of Oliver, he is working on a manuscript for a book, and a summer in the beautiful Italian countryside seems like the perfect place to do it in.

Not every “coming-of-age” story is about love and sex, but this one is. And what makes it especially distinctive is that both Elio and Oliver are male. Elio feels an overpowering attraction towards Oliver from the minute he sees him, and Oliver eventually reciprocates after holding out for a few weeks. The book chronicles their intense and passionate relationship over that summer, and while this is not one of those “happily ever after” love stories, it represents the most meaningful relationship of their lives for both Elio and Oliver, as they realize when they get a chance to meet years later.

While the movie adaptation of Call Me by Your Name was referred to as a “gay” love story, I found it interesting that neither the word “gay” nor the word “homosexual” are ever mentioned in the book. Of course, social norms were a lot less liberal in the mid-80s, and while Elio often feels “shame,” especially after sex, he never ever feels that it is wrong to experience the overwhelming love he feels for Oliver. The story is told entirely in the form of an internal monologue in Elio’s head, making us experience the depth of his emotions in all of their complexity. The fact that these are no different from the teenage angst experienced by a “heterosexual” adolescent points to the universality of human emotions. Not everyone may be able to identify with the attraction Elio feels for another man, but we can all identify with the intense, overpowering, and often tortured emotions that typically accompany the throes of first love.

Call Me by Your Name
Author: André Aciman
Original Publisher and Date: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (January 2007)
Reprint Publisher and Date: Picador Media Tie-in edition (October 2017)

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

“Strangers on a Train” by Patricia Highsmith

Strangers on a Train

I was alerted to this book by the recent write-up of The Kind Worth Killing, which was seemingly inspired by Strangers on a Train. While I had not read any books by Patricia Highsmith before, I have seen other movies based on her novels including The Talented Mr. Ripley and Carol, both of which were very good. Strangers on a Train was her first novel and it was made into a movie by none other than Alfred Hitchcock shortly after it was published in 1950. The book, therefore, came with an impressive back story and I was prepared to be wowed, especially given that I enjoy thrillers in general.

The plot line of Strangers on a Train is very intriguing. Two men, Guy and Bruno, meet on a train, they both have someone in their lives they’re unhappy with, but instead of “sucking it up” as most people do, one of the men, Bruno, floats the idea of getting rid of their respective nemeses by doing exchange murders — he would kill Guy’s ex-wife and Guy, in turn, would kill his father. Like most people, Guy shies away from Bruno when he proposes this plan and is very happy to see the last of him when the train journey ends. Or so he thinks. Bruno actually goes ahead with killing Guy’s ex-wife, and subsequently keeps up the pressure on Guy to carry out the exchange murder — kill his father. Ultimately, Guy caves in and does it, but his life subsequently becomes a living hell, plagued by guilt and Bruno’s continued presence in his life. Because it turns out that Bruno is a psychopath and cannot leave Guy alone, despite the fact that Guy ultimately succumbed to his pressure and killed his father.

Strangers on a Train is really a psychological thriller, and it does a great job in capturing Guy’s perspective, starting from his chance meeting with Bruno on a train, his desire to get away after Bruno proposes his bizarre “exchange murder” idea, his consternation at the murder of his ex-wife and his horror at the growing realization that Bruno might be responsible, his dread once Bruno starts stalking him, the constant pressure from Bruno that makes him eventually kill Bruno’s father, and living in constantly torment and dread after the murder. In contrast, we don’t get inside Bruno’s mind that much and cannot really understand why he does what he does.

I found Strangers on a Train an enjoyable read in parts, but not particularly gripping. The premise of the story was more interesting than its execution — it was not very well developed, and the end was especially disappointing. The writing style was also quite pedestrian, which didn’t help to redeem the book. Overall, it seems like the kind of book which could be made into a good movie by a talented director, rather than a book that can be enjoyed in and of itself.

Strangers on a Train
Author: Patricia Highsmith
Original Publisher and Date: Harper & Brothers, 1950
Reprint Publisher and Date: W. W. Norton & Company Norilana Books Norilana Books, August 2001

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