Tag: Maurice Sendak

Doorstopper(s) of the Month: Julia Glass (& Umberto Eco)

The Whole World Over by Julia Glass (2006)

When I plucked this from the sidewalk clearance area of my favorite U.S. bookstore, all I knew about it was that it featured a chef and was set in New York City and New Mexico. Those facts were enough to get me interested, and my first taste of Julia Glass’s fiction did not disappoint. I started reading it in the States at the very end of December and finished it in the middle of this month, gobbling up the last 250 pages or so all in one weekend.

Charlotte “Greenie” Duquette is happy enough with her life: a successful bakery in Greenwich Village, her psychiatrist husband Alan, and their young son George. But one February 29th – that anomalous day when anything might happen – she gets a call from the office of the governor of New Mexico, who tasted her famous coconut cake (sandwiched with lemon curd and glazed in brown sugar) at her friend Walter’s tavern and wants her to audition for a job as his personal chef at the governor’s mansion in Santa Fe. It’s just the right offer to shake up her stagnating career and marriage.

One thing you can count on from a doorstopper, from Dickens onward, is that most of the many characters will be connected (“a collection of invisibly layered lives” is how Glass puts it). So: Walter’s lover is one of Alan’s patients; Fenno, the owner of a local bookstore, befriends both Alan and Saga, a possibly homeless young woman with brain damage who volunteers in animal rescue – along with Walter’s dog-walker, who’s dating his nephew; and so on. The title refers to how migrating birds circumnavigate the globe but always find their way home, and the same is true of these characters: no matter how far they stray – even as Greenie and Alan separately reopen past romances – the City always pulls them back.

My only real complaint about the novel is that it’s almost overstuffed: with great characters and their backstories, enticing subplots, and elements that seemed custom-made to appeal to me – baking, a restaurant, brain injury, the relatively recent history of the AIDS crisis, a secondhand bookstore, rescue dogs and cats, and much more. I especially loved the descriptions of multi-course meals and baking projects. Glass spins warm, effortless prose reminiscent of what I’ve read by Louise Miller and Carolyn Parkhurst. I will certainly read her first, best-known book, Three Junes, which won the National Book Award. I was also delighted to recall that I have her latest on my Kindle: A House Among the Trees, based on the life of Maurice Sendak.

All told, this was quite the bargain entertainment at 95 cents! Two small warnings: 1) if you haven’t read Three Junes, try not to learn too much about it – Glass likes to use recurring characters, and even a brief blurb (like what’s on the final page of my paperback; luckily, I didn’t come across it until the end) includes a spoiler about one character. 2) Glass is deliberately coy about when her book is set, and it’s important to not know for as long as possible. So don’t glance at the Library of Congress catalog record, which gives it away.

My rating:

 

I started Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1983) with the best intentions of keeping up with Annabel’s buddy read. The first 50–100 pages really flew by and drew me into the mystery of a medieval abbey where monks keep getting murdered in hideous ways. I loved the Sherlockian shrewdness and tenacity of Brother William; the dutiful recording of his sidekick, narrator Adso of Melk; and the intertextual references to Borges’s idea of a library as a labyrinth. But at some point the historical and theological asides and the untranslated snippets of other languages (mostly Latin) began to defeat me, and I ended up just skimming most of the book. I’d recommend this if you liked Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind, or if you fancy an astronomically more intelligent version of The Da Vinci Code.

A favorite passage: “Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means”

My rating:

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The Violet Hour by Katie Roiphe

I don’t believe that you can learn how to die, or gain wisdom, or prepare, and the work I have done on this book has, if anything, confirmed that suspicion, but I do think you can look at a death and be less afraid.

violet hourThe subtitle – “Great Writers at the End” – gives you a hint of what to expect from this erudite, elegiac work of literary biography. In a larger sense, it is about coming to terms with the fear of death, one of the last enduring Western phobias.

Roiphe was a sickly, morbid child. After a serious, extended case of something like pneumonia, she had half a lung removed, and her chosen reading was books about Armenian genocide. Although she was convinced she was going to die at 12, it was only a blip; her next significant encounter with death was her father’s cardiac arrest at age 82. Once again, she was utterly unprepared. In investigating six great authors’ deaths, Roiphe is not so much looking for sage tour guides to the underworld as asking how one faces and narrates death.

Katie Roiphe (from her Goodreads page)
Katie Roiphe (from her Goodreads page)

To start with I was skeptical about Roiphe’s set of chosen writers. Between Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter there’s no class or racial diversity, and the gender balance is poor. Yet as I read on I set these quibbles aside. There are literally hundreds, maybe thousands of subjects Roiphe could have chosen, so in a sense the particular authors discussed here are arbitrary. She’s eschewed more obvious candidates like Christopher Hitchens, probably because he wrote enough about his own impending mortality himself. The criteria were probably as plain as this: an author who meant something to Roiphe, left a lot of documentary evidence, preferably had some living descendants and colleagues to interview, and whose death was drawn out enough that s/he had time to wrestle with the thought of it in writing.

Starting each chapter with the vigil at an author’s deathbed in a hospital room or at home, Roiphe skips back and forth in time to pinpoint where illness and death cropped up in that author’s life and work. For Susan Sontag, dying at New York’s Sloan Kettering in 2004, it was her third bout with cancer. A final extreme intervention, a bone marrow transplant at Seattle, had recently failed. Still Sontag shirked the notion of death, refusing even to talk about it. Work was how she had always transcended the specter of death – by writing books like Illness as Metaphor and inserting scenes of false death into her fiction – and now it was all that kept her going. Perhaps, Roiphe theorizes, there was a kind of solipsism at the heart of Sontag’s denial of death: she just could not believe that anything would continue existing without her. Well before her first experience of cancer in the 1970s, she wrote in a notebook: “Too abstract: death. Too concrete: me.”

Susan_Sontag,_Cimetière_du_Montparnasse
Susan Sontag’s grave at the Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris. (By Wikimedia Commons / Mu (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons.)

One might expect Freud to have been more disciplined about the business of dying, what with his theory of Thanatos (the death drive) and his frequently professed acceptance. However, as Roiphe emphasizes, it is one thing to say you accept death, and quite another thing to actually accept it. In Freud’s case, his refusal to give up cigars despite painful throat cancer and 33 oral surgeries flew in the face of his otherwise rational methods. Cigars were his only vice, he shrugged. Is a cigar just a cigar, or are there overt sexual connotations? For Updike, sex was like Freud’s cigars: sensual evidence that life goes on. Adultery, a frequent theme in his fiction, was perhaps an unconscious strategy for ‘cheating’ death. It was only after his diagnosis with lung cancer that death replaced sex as the central obsession of his work. His last book, like his first, would be poetry: Endpoint, one last valiant effort before death.

Freud with one of his beloved cigars, 1922. Max Halberstadt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Freud with one of his beloved cigars, 1922. Max Halberstadt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
I found the Updike chapter the most absorbing, even though I’ve never read any of his work. (Like Joyce Carol Oates, he was so darn prolific I have no idea where to start.) Prior familiarity with the author in question is neither here nor there, though: you learn everything you need to know from Roiphe’s biographical treatment, and thematic threads are strong enough to lead from one to another. Self-destructive behavior, compartmentalizing life, turning to work or sex to ward off depression, ignoring signs of mortality like serious illness and others’ deaths – we all employ hypocritical strategies, and these authors are no different. Even Thomas’s “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” resistant as it might sound, was actually delivered in a lulling tone of resignation when he read it aloud, Roiphe reveals.

Each chapter is its own microcosm. The author herself only appears in the prologue and epilogue; in between, although she obviously interviewed survivors (and Salter, who died before he could read the finished book), she edits herself out so we can be right there with the subject. There’s no distance at all. That sense of intimacy is clearest in the chapter-heading photographs of the authors’ (posthumously?) empty studies. These are haunting images. Look at Sendak’s desk covered in paints and drawings, slippers carefully waiting underneath; a cardigan on the back of the chair – there’s such a sense of life. The life continues in the work.

None of these authors got death perfectly right. Several of them fought it right to the end; several of them veered towards faith despite a lifelong antipathy to religion; several of them were ultimately taken aback by the simple realization that they, too, were mortal. Roiphe discovers no magic formula for how a writer should do death. Despite their contradictory approaches, though, all her subjects had the same destination:

here’s what I learned from the deaths in this book: You work. You don’t work. You resist. You don’t resist. You exert the consummate control. You surrender. You deny. You accept. You pray. You don’t pray. You read. You work. You take as many painkillers as you can. You refuse painkillers. You rage against death. You run headlong toward it.

In the end the deaths are the same. They all die. The world releases them.

This would be an ideal book for fans of Olivia Laing (see my review of The Lonely City) or Julian Barnes’s Nothing to Be Frightened of. What Roiphe observes of Sendak’s habit of drawing the dead and dying could equally be applied to The Violet Hour: it’s about seeing the beauty in what terrifies you. One of my top few nonfiction reads of 2016 so far.

With thanks to Grace Vincent of Virago for sending a review copy. The Violet Hour releases today in the UK; it was published on March 8th in the States by The Dial Press.

My rating: 5 star rating