Tag Archives: John Williams

European Traveling and Reading

We’ve been back from our European trip for over a week already, but I haven’t been up to writing until now. Partially this is because I’ve had a mild stomach bug that has left me feeling yucky and like I don’t want to spend any more time at a computer than is absolutely necessary for my work; partially it’s because I’ve just been a bit blue. Granted, it’s nice to be back where all the signs and announcements are in English and I don’t have to worry about making myself understood. Still, gloom over Brexit has combined with the usual letdown of coming back from an amazing vacation and resuming normal life to make this a ho-hum sort of week. Nonetheless, I want to get back into the rhythm of blogging and give a quick rundown of the books I read while I was away.

Tiny Lavin station, our base in southeastern Switzerland.

Tiny Lavin station, our base in southeastern Switzerland.

But first, some of the highlights of the trip:

  • the grand architecture of the center of Brussels; live jazz emanating from a side street café
  • cycling to the zoo in Freiburg with our friends and their kids
  • ascending into the mountains by cable car and then on foot to circle Switzerland’s Lake Oeschinensee
  • traipsing through meadows of Alpine flowers
  • exploring the Engadine Valley of southeast Switzerland, an off-the-beaten track, Romansh-speaking area where the stone buildings are covered in engravings, paintings and sayings
  • our one big splurge of the trip (Switzerland is ridiculously expensive; we had to live off of supermarket food): a Swiss dessert buffet followed by a horse carriage ride
  • spotting ibex and chamois at Oeschinensee and marmots in the Swiss National Park
  • miming “The Hills Are Alive” in fields near our accommodation in Austria (very close to where scenes from The Sound of Music were filmed)
  • the sun coming out for our afternoon in Salzburg
  • daily coffee and cake in Austrian coffeehouses
  • riding the underground and trams of Vienna’s public transport network
  • finding famous musicians’ graves in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof cemetery
  • discovering tasty vegan food at a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant in Vienna that makes its own noodles
  • going to Slovakia for the afternoon on a whim (its capital, Bratislava, is only 1 hour from Vienna by train – why not?!)

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We went to such a variety of places and had so many different experiences. Weather and language were hugely variable, too: it rained nine days in a row; some mornings in Switzerland I wore my winter coat and hat; in Bratislava it was 95 °F. Even in the ostensibly German-speaking countries of the trip, we found that greetings and farewells changed everywhere we went (doubly true in the Romansh-speaking Engadine). Most of the time we had no idea what shopkeepers were saying to us. Just smile and nod. It was more difficult at the farm where we stayed in Austria. Thanks to Google Translate, we had no idea that the owner spoke no English; her e-mails were all in unusual but serviceable English. We speak virtually no German, so fellow farm guests, including a Dutch couple, had to translate between us. (The rest of Europe puts us to shame with their knowledge of languages!)

A reading-themed display at the Rathaus in Basel, Switzerland.

A reading-themed art installation at the Rathaus in Basel, Switzerland.

Train travel was, for the most part, easy and stress-free. Especially enjoyable were the small lines through the Engadine, which include the highest regular-service station in Europe (Ospizia Bernina, where we found fresh snowfall). The little town where we stayed in an Airbnb cabin, Lavin, was a request stop on the line, meaning you always had to press a button to get the train to stop and then walk across the tracks (!) to board. Contrary to expectations, we found that nearly all of our European trains were running late. However, they were noticeably more comfortable than British trains, especially the German ones. Thanks to train rides of an hour or more on most days, I ended up getting a ton of reading done.


accidental touristOn the journey out I finished The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler. This is the first “classic” Tyler I’ve read, after her three most recent novels, and although I kept being plagued by odd feelings of ‘reverse déjà vu’, I really enjoyed it. This story of staid, reluctant traveler Macon Leary and how his life is turned upside down by a flighty dog trainer is all about the patterns of behavior we get stuck in. Tyler suggests that occasionally journeying into someone else’s unpredictable life might change ours for the good.

IMG_0294Diary of a Pilgrimage by Jerome K. Jerome was just what I expected: a very silly book about the travails of international travel. It’s much more about the luckless journey and the endurance of national stereotypes than it is about the Passion Play the travelers see once they get to Germany. It was amusing to see the ways in which some things have hardly changed in 125 years.

whole lifeA Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, a novella set in the Austrian Alps, is the story of Andreas Egger – at various times a farmer, a prisoner of war, and a tourist guide. Various things happen to him, most of them bad. I have trouble pinpointing why Stoner is a masterpiece whereas this is just kind of boring. There’s a great avalanche scene, though.

book that mattersThe Book that Matters Most by Ann Hood releases on August 9th. A new book club helps Ava cope with her divorce, her daughter Maggie’s rebelliousness, and tragic events from her past. Each month one club member picks the book that has mattered most to them in life. I thought the choices were all pretty clichéd and Ava was unrealistically passive. Although what happens to her in Paris is rather melodramatic, I most enjoyed Maggie’s sections.

kaminskiMe and Kaminski was my second novel from Daniel Kehlmann. Know-nothing art critic Sebastian Zöllner interviews reclusive artist Manuel Kaminski and then accompanies the older man on a road trip to find his lost sweetheart. Zöllner is an amusingly odious narrator, but I found the plot a bit thin. This is a rare case where I would argue the book needs to be 100 pages longer.

this is where you belongAbout midway through the trip I finished another I’d started earlier in the month, This Is Where You Belong by Melody Warnick. The average American moves 11.7 times in their life. I’m long past that already. The book collects an interesting set of ideas about how to feel at home wherever you are: things like learning the place on foot, shopping and eating locally, and getting to know your neighbors. I am bad about integrating into a new community every time we move, so I picked up some good tips. Warnick uses examples from all over (though mostly U.S. locations), but also makes it specific to her home of Blacksburg, Virginia.

very special year“A cabinet of fantasies, a source of knowledge, a collection of lore from past and present, a place to dream… A bookshop can be so many things.” In A Very Special Year by Thomas Montasser, Valerie takes over Ringelnatz & Co. bookshop when the owner, her Aunt Charlotte, disappears. She has the entrepreneurial skills to run a business and gradually develops a love of books, too. The title book is a magical tome with blank pages that reveal the reader’s destination when the time is right. Twee but enjoyable; a quick read.

eleven hoursEleven Hours by Pamela Erens is a taut thriller set during one woman’s experience of childbirth in New York City in 2004. Flashbacks to how the patient and her Caribbean nurse got where they are now add emotional depth. Another very quick read.

burning secretBurning Secret by Stefan Zweig is a psychologically astute novella in which a 12-year-old tries to interpret what’s happening between his mother and a fellow hotel guest, a baron he looks up to. For this naïve boy, many things come as a shock, including the threat of sex and the possibility of deception. This reminded me most of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. (On a hill above Salzburg we discovered a strange disembodied bust of Stefan Zweig, along with a plaque and a road sign.)

playing deadPlaying Dead by Elizabeth Greenwood (releases August 9th) was great fun. Thinking of the six-figure education debt weighing on her shoulders, she surveys various cases of people who faked their own death or simply tried to disappear. Death fraud/“pseudocide” is not as easy to get away with as you might think. Fake drownings are especially suspect. I found most ironic the case of a man who lived successfully for 20 years under an assumed name but was caught when police stopped him for having a license plate light out. I particularly liked the chapter in which Greenwood travels to the Philippines, a great place to fake your death, and comes back with a copy of her own death certificate.

miss janeMiss Jane by Brad Watson (releases July 12th) is a historical novel loosely based on the story of the author’s great-aunt. Born in Mississippi in 1915, she had malformed genitals, which led to lifelong incontinence. Jane is a wonderfully plucky protagonist, and her friendship with her doctor, Ed Thompson, is particularly touching. “You would not think someone so afflicted would or could be cheerful, not prone to melancholy or the miseries.” This reminded me most of What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins, an excellent novel about living a full life and finding romance in spite of disability.


I also left two novels unfinished (that’ll be for another post) and made progress in two other nonfiction titles. All in all, a great set of reading!

I’m supposed to be making my way through just the books we already own for the rest of the summer, but when I got back of course I couldn’t resist volunteering for a few new books available through Nudge and The Bookbag. Apart from a few blog reviews I’m bound to, my summer plan will be to give the occasional quick roundup of what I’ve read of late.

What have you been reading recently?

Paulette Bates Alden: An Underrated Author

I first came across Paulette Alden’s work last June, when she contacted me to ask if I’d like to review her new short story collection, Unforgettable. It’s a self-published book available through Kindle, and in all honesty, given my experience reviewing self-published material for Kirkus and Foreword, I wasn’t expecting much. What a pleasant surprise, then, to find that these were excellent, literary short stories with a strong voice and sense of place. Since then I have read two more Alden books: Crossing the Moon, her memoir of infertility, and Feeding the Eagles, her first short story collection, which shares a protagonist with Unforgettable. Here, in the order in which I have read them, are Alden’s published works:

 

Unforgettable

unforgettableNine linked stories focus on the life of Miriam Batson, a writer and adjunct professor at a Minnesota college. Now in her late forties, Miriam faces the challenge of caring for her aging mother. Indeed, the final five stories are inspired by Alden’s experience as a caregiver for her late mother, who suffered from dementia. Although it is intriguing to ponder just how autobiographical these stories might be, ultimately it makes little difference to a reader’s enjoyment. The close third-person perspective creates such intimate knowledge of the main character that one cannot help but feel sympathy for her professional and personal struggles.

The opening story, “The Student,” is among the strongest. Miriam learns that Brian, one of the students in her advanced short story class, has attempted suicide – in three different ways. Horror cedes to compassion as she realizes how he must have been suffering, even while keeping up a cheerful exterior in class. As she visits Brian in the hospital during his recovery, Miriam is taken aback by her feelings for him. Hesitant to borrow spiritual language, she still senses that she and Brian have a soul connection. At the same time, she realizes that no relationship is entirely one thing or another; their teacher-student dynamic may resemble a parent-child link, but sex keeps creeping in unexpectedly.

In “Sorrow,” told in the present tense, Miriam learns of the death of one of her black nannies and returns to South Carolina to pay her respects. Filled with memories of segregation, this story shares the social conscience of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. “Enormously Valuable” returns to the first story’s academic setting, with Miriam receiving notification that someone else – a less experienced man – has gotten the teaching job she applied for. She decides to take legal advice to determine whether this is a case of sex discrimination. This story tips over into melodrama slightly, but is still an affecting look at career disappointment. The themes of bureaucracy and petty infighting in a university English department recall John Williams’s Stoner.

“Swimming, Snow” was commissioned as the Minnesota Center for Book Arts’ 1993 Winter Book. Miriam slowly starts to heal after her father’s death, thanks to the therapeutic effects of activities like massage, classical music, and sex. This one is a perfect segue into the collection’s last five stories, which together reflect on Alden’s experiences as a caregiver during her mother’s final years with dementia.

The title story, the last in the collection, does indeed have a stand-alone feel, combining all the emotions of the previous four into the most shrewdly crafted of the tales, rich with symbolism. It opens with Miriam driving to a monastery for a writing retreat. Although it is April, it is snowing, and Nat King Cole’s song “Unforgettable” is on the radio. Ironically, that title is also the name given to her mother’s nursing home’s remodeling campaign. Miriam has been taking beginner’s Italian lessons; her bewilderment is an echo of her mother’s confusion about language. In addition, Easter is coming up the following week, and the symbology of death and restoration plays a significant role. Miriam can no longer deny that her mother will be dead soon, yet she feels that she will live on – perhaps even through Miriam’s work: “Writing is her religion, her resurrection. Long after her mother is gone, she will have this moment. Her mother will rise from the dead and live again in those words.”

Alden tenderly conveys the overwhelming difficulties and small joys of being the primary caregiver for a loved one with serious health problems. You do not have to share any of Miriam’s experiences to value her insight and admire her courage. I daresay every reader will find at least one aspect of these stories to be, as the title suggests, simply unforgettable.

My rating: 4 star rating


Crossing the Moon

Frank and tender, this is a wonderful memoir about women’s reproductive choices – or the way life sometimes takes those choices out of your hands. Alden was happily married, with a beloved cat named Cecil and her first short story collection coming out soon. At age 39, she still hadn’t thought all that much about motherhood, but suddenly decision time was on her. Despite her ambivalence (“I might never have a child, and the irony is not lost on me, that I’m not even sure I want one”), she went ahead with multiple rounds of infertility treatment, only conceding defeat and grieving her loss when she was 42.

All along she was resisting multiple voices: that of her Southern upbringing, which said all women were supposed to have children; that of feminism, which told her she wasn’t supposed to want what all women are supposed to have. There was also her own inner suspicion that the life she already had was the one she wanted. “From the very start, I had seen writing and motherhood as mutually exclusive.”

I found this a very touching story of learning to love the life you have. “It came to me that it really was a choice between two good things – having a child and not having a child. Our life without a child seemed good to me. I caught a glimpse that it was what was right for us, for the best.”

My rating: 5 star rating


feeding the eaglesFeeding the Eagles

Miriam Batson first appeared in this 1983 collection published by Graywolf Press. Of the 11 stories here, seven are in the third person and four in the first person. They dart back and forth in time: sometimes Miriam is married and back in South Carolina visiting her parents and sister; other times she’s a young graduate student on the way back to California. It was particularly interesting for me, having read Alden’s memoir, to trace the autobiographical roots of many of the stories. I even spotted a couple of lines taken word for word from life: “‘I’ll tell you what I think,’ [Miriam’s] mother says slowly. ‘I think people who don’t have children are the most selfish people in the world.’”

These stories are strong on symbolism and often have memorable endings. For instance, the title phrase seems odd but in context is a beautiful image of turning failure into a positive. Miriam and her husband Ted have gone out fishing from their Minnesota cabin. Ted throws a big fish back, hoping the hook injury wasn’t too deep, but a while later they see it floating on its side. They’re feeling a little guilty – until an eagle drops in and snatches the dead fish. “‘Now you don’t have to feel so bad,’ Ted says. ‘We’re feeding the eagles.’” Elsewhere, Miriam’s grandmother’s wig is a peculiar token of family inheritance, while a snake encountered at a campground is a reminder of excessive sensuality.

As in Unforgettable and Crossing the Moon, the overarching theme of the book is a woman’s identity and how this shifts through life. Miriam is a daughter, a wife, a grown sister, a writer. She is not a mother, a decision that defines her as much as any other. But even within these roles, time creeps in and changes things. With her elderly parents facing bankruptcy, Miriam realizes, “It occurred to me for the first time that maybe my father didn’t know what was going on.” That sense of a turning of the generations, of the child taking on the responsible parent guise, is undoubtedly true to life.

Another central theme is how places of safety and familiarity lose their capacity to reassure us. For Miriam/Alden, the South becomes increasingly foreign but still has a metaphorical hold on her. “Stretching out around us in every direction are the flat Midwestern plains, and it comes to me that I will not live my life as I have always imagined I would—without even thinking of it—in South Carolina.” All the same, as she drives to the old family cabin in South Carolina before it passes out of their hands for good, she thinks how “all of the roads of her life lead back to this one.”

On this reading the story that meant most to me was “At the Beach,” in which Miriam and her sister Linda take a rare vacation together and marvel at how their parents are aging. “Just so you take them in in their old age,” Miriam jokes, but beneath the quip lies deep concern. I could recognize my sister and myself – now separated by an ocean but not so much anymore by the eight years between us – in this sentence: “It seems we talk more now that we are older, now that we live so far apart and have so little time together.”

One thing I love about Alden’s books is how she seems to see life in discrete parts but also, looking back nostalgically, as a coherent narrative that leads logically and inevitably to the present. This makes for a gently bittersweet tone, but I come away sensing gratitude. As my favorite lines from Crossing the Moon have it, “who can say what is ‘best’? Maybe it’s possible to get to a place where what is best is simply what is.”

My rating: 4 star rating


answer to your questionThe Answer to Your Question

I haven’t read this one yet, but I have a copy on my e-reader and am saving it for a rainy day treat. On the surface it sounds completely different from anything else Alden has written. The blurb describes a page-turning thriller about a man who has been accused of murdering four women and his librarian mother’s quest to figure out whether he really did it and why. It won the Kindle Book Review Best Indie Book of 2013 in the suspense category. I feel sure that it will have the same psychological acuity as Alden’s other books.


Who are some of your favorite lesser-known authors? Share them in the comments below!