Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book Review: Bound by Antonya Nelson

I had been meaning to read Bound for several months, but it was always checked out at the library, or I was sidetracked by other titles for my book groups, etc.  This Memorial Day weekend, I finally had the book in my hands, and I read all 229 pages within one day (mostly outside at the park).

Bound is the first thing I've ever read by Antonya Nelson, who has written several well-reviewed novels and short story collections, including Talking In Bed.  I will definitely be reading more of this woman's work.

I had one major reservation going into Bound, from reading the book jacket and some online reviews.  Although the premise was intriguing, there seemed to be a lot of characters, and I wasn't sure how Nelson could do them all justice in the course of such a relatively small novel.  But justice is served, and this is one first-rate cast of characters.

The novel opens with a car crash and a dog's point of view, if you can imagine such a combination.  Misty and her dog Max have just plunged over a cliff in Colorado, and Misty is dead on impact.  The first chapter is told from Max's point of view, as she tries to decide between watching over her owner's body and taking off into the wild.  Eventually, the call of the wild proves too strong, and Max takes off, only to be found by Elise and her slacker boyfriend Lance.

We then move on to the heart of the story, set in Wichita, Kansas.  The primary characters are Oliver and Catherine Desplaines, a wealthy couple.  Oliver is 70, and Catherine is in her early 40s.  She is his third wife, and with each marriage, he has "traded up" for a younger woman.  Now, he is having an affair with a woman even younger than Catherine, referred to only as The Sweetheart.  Catherine is oblivious to his affair, busy as she is attending to her mother Grace, who is residing in a nursing home after suffering a stroke.  And into this setting comes a bombshell: Catherine has just been named the legal guardian of fifteen year old Cattie, the daughter of her best friend from high school who happened to be none other than Misty who was just killed in a car accident in far off Colorado!

Bound centers around this revelation, but there are so many offshoots and subplots that are given almost equal space and attention.  For instance, while Catherine learns of her new ward, alternating chapters focus on Cattie as she learns of her mother's death and runs away from her posh East Coast boarding school, renting a room at the home of a classmate's sister and becoming involved with the mysterious Randall, who is also renting space in the same building.  These scenes are a nice contrast to Oliver and Catherine's life in Wichita, and once again, dogs are involved.

As we go back and forth between Catherine the elder and Catherine/Cattie the younger, we are also treated to flashbacks via both characters.  Catherine's flashbacks revolve around her friendship with Misty during their high school days, while Cattie's center on her life with Misty in Texas.  Misty had a very rough childhood, and her friendship with the beautiful Catherine was a source of great pride to her.  The stories of their past are rendered vividly, and when Catherine journeys to Texas to meet Cattie and see the home of her deceased former friend, she realizes that Misty had turned her life around dramatically, improved her appearance, become a successful real estate agent and a terrific mother.  When Catherine sees what became of Misty's life, it's truly one of the most poignant passages in the book.

I've given you just the bare essentials of Bound's plot, but there's even more to feast on in this book!  When Misty and Catherine were having their teenage adventures, a serial killer named the BTK (Bind, torture, kill) was on the loose in Wichita, and now, all these years later, he has resurfaced!  If this seems a bit random at first, just let Nelson work her magic.  She connects the dots in a masterful fashion, and the linking of past to present is never less than smooth, whether it's young Misty to adult Misty or the BTK's first reign of terror with his latest taunting.  Nelson seems to be commenting on the strangeness of life and the various ways we are all connected, or "bound," by our pasts and presents.  It's a testament to her skills as a narrator that things like the BTK and the dog subplot never seem like random, senseless plot points, but manage instead to gel as part of the larger picture.

There are some great supporting characters in this book, including Oliver's cast of past wives and daughters, particularly Miriam, his surly daughter from his second marriage.  Miriam does not get a lot of air time in the book, but she emerges as a very vivid personality, and the scene in which she tells Oliver off as they journey to Texas to pick up a waylaid Cattie is one of the highlights of Bound (and had me laughing out loud for one of the few times in the book).  Grace Harding, Catherine's mother, is another great character, a former professor who has recently been rendered mute by a stroke.  Oliver never liked his mother-in-law, but when Catherine becomes sidelined by her new responsibilities, he starts making more of an effort.  The bond that grows between he and Grace is another emotional high point of the novel.

As you can see, there is a lot going on in Bound.  The plot is strong, the characters are very real, and the writing is superb.  Nelson's writing style at times bears a resemblance to John Updike's, especially the long, luxuriant sentences that say so much even when they say very little.  She is a great stylist, but it's all in the service of a plot that moves quite rapidly, and characters you will care about even if you can't always sympathize with them.  Catherine, in particular, emerges as an extremely real presence on the page, and I think you'll find it difficult not to like her.  Even Oliver, who is quite disgusting in his actions, is hard to dislike.  Nelson gets inside these characters' heads and develops them quickly but thoroughly, while never losing sight of her plot.

I give very high marks to Bound.  I won't quite put it at the level of Room or Swim Back To Me, two of the best books I've read this year (or any year).  That having been said, let me say that Room is a book that comes along very rarely in one's life, and Swim Back To Me is a collection of stories, so it's not really fair to compare it to this novel.  And let me also point out that I read Bound in 24 hours, which is the quickest I've read a novel in years.  Granted, it was a sunny day off, but still ... something to be said for that.

This is another book that will stay with me.  I've been thinking about it and talking about it quite a bit today.  I hope you'll give it a shot ... there's a lot to like, and a lot to ponder.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Sarton's Solitude

For years, I've been aware of May Sarton as an author of novels and poetry, but have never read anything by her.  Recent conversations with a library patron who is a Sarton fan steered me toward her journals, for which she is actually most known and acclaimed.  After doing a quick bit of research, I decided to read one of these journals, and I picked Journal of a Solitude, which was published in 1973.

Journal of a Solitude was written from September of 1971 to September of 1972, during a period in which Sarton was involved with a woman she refers to as X.  Interestingly, we hear almost nothing of their relationship, although as Sarton writes near the end of the book, everything she wrote in this journal was informed by what she was going through with X, even when she consciously chose to reveal very little about it.

During this period of time, May Sarton resided in rural New Hampshire, in a house called Nelson.  By the time of Journal of a Solitude, she had lived in Nelson for more than a decade and formed a very real, very special attachment to the house.  By the conclusion of the journal, she has made the decision to move to Maine in another year or two, to a huge house by the sea in York.  She would, of course, carry out this decision, spending the last two decades of her life in Maine, and writing more journals, including the well-known The House by the Sea.

Journal of a Solitude is one of those books I enjoy, in which an author talks frequently about other authors, as well as artists and composers who mean something to her or him.  In this journal, Sarton discusses, among others, Virginia Woolf, George Sarton (a scientist), Katherine Mansfield, Georgia O'Keefe, and Louis Armstrong.  She also quotes passages from Robert Frost, Carl Jung, and Flannery O'Connor.  I have always loved hearing what authors and musicians think of other authors and musicians, or learning about their idols and inspirations.  Sarton speaks of these people with reverence and respect, and she even knew some of them (like Virginia Woolf) to an extent.

At the heart of this journal is one woman's inward life, a life of solitude, as she calls it.  May Sarton was not really living in solitude.  Yes, she was a single woman of 59 at the time she wrote this book, but she had dozens of friends, wonderful neighbors, and speaking engagements at colleges, churches, and other venues that took her across the country.  Certainly, she was social and engaged.  However, she lived alone, and she relished her inner life.  She was an introvert by nature, someone who absolutely had to have time to herself, in which to reflect and process her life experiences.  She explains it best in this passage:

     "There is no doubt that solitude is a challenge and to maintain balance within it a precarious business.  But I must not forget that, for me, being with people or even with one beloved person for any length of time without solitude is even worse.  I lose my center.  I feel dispersed, scattered, in pieces.  I must have time alone in which to mull over any encounter, and to extract its juice, its essence, to understand what has really happened to me as a consequence of it."

What a great description of the way in which introverts must have alone time to process life!  I think anyone who is an introvert, who requires extended periods of time to him or herself, will relate very much to Sarton's writing in this journal.  And others, too, will benefit from her descriptions of the small pleasures in life, the private moments that can bring so much joy in and of themselves.

The natural world plays a huge role in this book.  Sarton was a gardener, a lover of plants and animals, and her descriptions of flowers, as well as the changing seasons in New England, are absolutely beautiful.  Her eye for detail in these matters was amazing.  For someone like myself, not very knowledgeable when it comes to flowers, these passages were eye-opening and informative.  On the other hand, as a resident of Maine, I could relate very much to her descriptions of the weather, particularly her frustration when the Spring of 1972 seemed to take so very long to get underway!

I read this book quickly, but I am sure it will stay with me always.  Sarton's writing is very real, because she was writing of her life.  Her introspection and self-exploration rings very true.  Her relishing of quiet moments, reflection, the artistic life, and simple pleasures is passionately conveyed and strikes a chord with this reader.  I hope people continue to discover her journals and to get something out of them for years to come.  For introverts, I highly recommend this book ... once you read it, you'll feel like you've met another kindred spirit.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Book Review: Swim Back To Me by Ann Packer

Swim Back To Me is the newest book by the award-winning author of The Dive From Clausen's Pier, and it includes one novella and five short stories.  If a better collection is released this year, I will be very surprised, because Packer has delivered something a cut above with this book.  The characters are vivid, the situations are real, the language is exquisite, and the emotion is captivating.  You'll be touched time and again as you weave your way through these tales of human connection, suffering, and self-realization.

The opening novella, "Walk For Mankind," gets the ball rolling.  A story of young love and its ensuing confusion, I read the 100 pages in one sitting, then closed the book with a lump in my throat. The story is told from the point of view of a middle aged man, Richard, who is reflecting on the autumn of his eighth grade year, when a new red headed girl named Sasha moved to town.  Richard is not reflecting for any particular reason other than to stroll down memory lane, but it's obvious that Sasha was his first love.  We soon confirm that fact, and Packer's rendering of those powerful feelings of first love in full bloom is brutally real.  Sasha and Richard start hanging out on a regular basis, and their friendship is strictly platonic.  We glimpse the dynamics of their respective families, who become entertaining supporting characters in their own right.  However, the main crux of the story begins when Sasha and Richard decide to do the Walk for Mankind, and set about collecting as many pledges as they can.  One evening, they head to the Recreation Association to collect signatures, but it's closed.  While kicking around the parking lot, they come across a bunch of older kids smoking pot by a fence.  One of these, Cal, is practically an adult, and Sasha soon becomes involved with him.  This is the catalyst that reveals Richard's feelings for her, and it's sad to watch his powerlessness as his first love becomes enamored with an older bad boy.  You'll have to read the novella to get the full effect, but you'll be glad you did.  The story takes place over the course of one year, but it tells of an emotional bond that would propel Richard throughout his life.

Although the opening novella is a hard act to follow, Packer manages to keep hitting home runs with the five stories that follow.  "Molten" is probably the most gut-wrenching, as a mother obsessively listens to CDs from her son's collection, and we soon learn that he was recently killed in a freak accident.  This is an inventive concept for a short story, and Packer goes all out with the musical analysis.  She uses lyrics from real songs (she chooses not to reveal song titles, although you can find them in the copyright credits at the beginning of the book, probably to reflect the fact that Kathryn would not necessarily know the names of the songs and artists in Ben's collection), and she describes the music in fine detail, allowing us to hear it as Kathryn hears it.  This is the only way she can find to feel close to her deceased Ben, and she becomes obsessed with listening.  One evening, when her husband skips a meeting and stays home, she becomes angry, feeling that he is denying her the alone time she has come to require.  Kathryn lets herself go, forgets to shower, ignores the dishes, and simply immerses herself in music until she takes deliberate action at the story's finale, which seems to offer her (and us) some semblance of peace.

The rest of the stories are equally strong, but I'm not going to describe all of them.  One involves a woman on her second marriage whose husband simply fails to come home one evening; another focuses on a dad preparing for the birth of his first child.  Each story is realistic, involving a situation that could happen to any of us.  Packer zeroes in on human emotions and makes her characters ring true within the course of concise twenty to thirty page stories.  Moments of humor are woven in to balance heartache and grief.

I'll close by including an excerpt from the story "Dwell Time" that shows Packer's graceful prose in action :

"It was a Monday, which meant tonight it was just the two of them and her girls - his kids were with their mother.  Laura was making enchiladas, a good compromise in the complicated culinary calculus of this family: simple enough that she wouldn't feel she was making nicer meals for her kids than for his, but also sure to please them, or at least Charlotte, who in all foods preferred things folded or rolled to things lying flat on a plate."

These stories are all beautiful, often painful, sometimes revelatory.  Together, they make up the best book I've read so far this year.