Monthly Archives: June 2015

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

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And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters.

Louis and Addie are both getting on, in their 70s, Louis having lost his wife a year back, Addie a widow for some time. Both are lonely and could do with some company. While they have known each other for a long time, they have never been close. Acquaintances more than friends. Until Addie suggests that it would be a great help, given her trouble sleeping, if Louis would consent to sleep with her, not hide-the-salami sleep together, but sleep, and talk, in the same bed, overnight, companionship. Louis decides to give it a try.

Addie and Louis slowly begin to share their histories. The biddies of Holt, male and female, are taken aback, of course, at the presumed impropriety, as if, once elderly and alone, it was somehow sinful to still want to have a life. There are scenes in which they each are put on the spot and made to defend themselves to snickering locals about their arrangement. Feel free to cheer. Fueling his unhappiness with permanent rage about his childhood, Addie’s son, Gene, in particular, cannot tolerate his mother and Louis being together, projecting into it his fantasy that Louis is in the relationship to somehow swindle Addie out of her money. Problems ensue.

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Kent Haruf – 1943-2014

A consistent focus in Haruf’s novels is the unconventional family, whether of elderly brothers taking in a pregnant girl, or grandparents taking care of an eight-year old. Well, that may not be all that unconventional these days, but it still ain’t Ozzie and Harriet. In this one, Addie’s son, Gene, has his hands full with problems at home, so sends his son, Jamie, to stay with Addie for a stretch of summer. Addie, Louis and Jamie form a very close relationship. There are moving sequences of outings and bonding moments that exude love and comfort, a contrast to the difficult relationships experienced between closer blood relations and spouses. Another Haruf concern is loneliness, at all ages. It is not only the raison d’etre of Louis and Addie’s arrangement, but is considered in relation to their former marital relationships. The loneliness of others comes in for some attention as well. Connections from generation to generation are considered. There are causes and effects, but life carries on. Haruf said, in relation to Benediction
in the very next house, there is this 8-year-old girl who is the representative of hope and promise and youth and joy. And so what I am wanting people to feel is that the beginning and the ending in all of our lives are set side-by-side. They are not distinct from one another.

The same could very well be applied here, connecting the lives of folks at both ends of their mortality. Haruf had been hoping to get to the January 2015 premier of the Denver Center production of a theater version of his novel Benediction.

The cast is much reduced in Our Souls at Night relative to that of his prior novels. The focus is on the two main characters, with Jamie in a large supporting role, and remains there for the entirety. Of course their history brings in other players, but most remain off-stage or pop by for cameos. Addie and Louis tell their stories to each other each in bed at night. It is a simple and effective mechanism for looking at two lives, their effect on others and others’ effects on them. Haruf used spare language, this, then that. If his writing were a font, it would be sans serif. And he is a master of showing instead of telling. After a rage-inducing encounter, At home he went out to the garden and hoed for an hour, hard, almost violently…. After a difficult scene, Haruf does not tell us how Louis feels. There was a woman on the elevator, she looked at his face once and looked away.

His symbolism is also simple, and effective. The title refers not only to the time of day when Louis and Addie share their lives. It reminds us that time is short. A discussion about a nest of baby mice speaks to unpredictability.

In an interview Haruf did with John Moore for The Denver Center, he talks about his use of references to his own work in the novel:

Kent Haruf: … I will tell you there is a reference to the play Benediction in this new book. It’s something these two old people have a little comment about.

John Moore: That’s part of the fun of reading of your stories. Even in Benediction, which features all new characters, there are those small references that reward those people who have been with you from the beginning.

Kent Haruf: It does. And it was a chance for me to have a little fun. Exactly as you say, people who know these other stories will immediately recognize what I am talking about.

He sets his tale in Holt, Colorado, a place that will be familiar to readers of his earlier work. In another meta moment, his characters refer to the location in reference to seeing a play of a Kent Haruf story! (not Benediction) as a way of letting readers know about his usual locale

he took the physical details from Holt, the place names of the streets and what the country looks like and the location of things, but it’s not this town. And it’s not anybody in this town. All that’s made up.

Well, of course Holt is fictitious but Haruf is making sure readers do not assign the place entirely to a single real location. I guess he wanted to clear that up before he left us.

as a writer, I want to be thought of as somebody who had a very small talent but worked as best he could at using that talent. I want to think that I have written as close to the bone as I could. By that I mean that I was trying to get down to the fundamental, irreducible structure of life, and of our lives with one another. – from the Denver Center interview

I would disagree about the dimensions of his talent, but there is no question that Kent Haruf has offered the readers a world-view that may be bare bones in its form, but which is glorious in its realization.

Our Souls at Night, his sixth novel, is the last book we will ever have from Kent Haruf. It is hopeful without being saccharine. Sharing love as darkness approaches may be one of love’s highest forms, offering no short term trade for a probably unrealistic long-term promise. It makes the sharing sweeter, in a way. I got the sense, without digging into specifics, that one thing Haruf was doing here was stopping off at some favorite spots in Holt for a final goodbye. Holt will remain available for generations of readers. Haruf passed away in November, 2014 at the age of 71. He will be missed.

Review posted – 6/26/15
Publication date – 5/16/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Here is the complete Denver Center interview

In an interview with Robert Birnbaum for the Identity Theory site,

In the Reader’s Guide of Random House’s page for the book, Haruf talks about how he worked:

The idea for the book has been floating around in my mind for quite a while. Now that I know I have, you know—a limited time—it was important to me to try to make good use of that time. So I went out there every day. Typically, I have always had a story pretty well plotted out before I start writing. This time I knew generally where the story was going, but I didn’t know very many of the details. So as it happened, I went out every day trusting myself to be able to add to the story each day. So I essentially wrote a new short chapter of the book every day. I’ve never had that experience before. I don’t want to get too fancy about it, but it was like something else was working to help me get this done. Call it a muse or spiritual guidance, I don’t know. All I know is that the trust I had in being able to write every day was helpful.”

There is more info to be had on Haruf from wikipedia and Barnes and Noble

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Love May Fail by Matthew Quick

book cover Matthew Quick deals in damage control, from the very nervous Pat Peoples in Silver Linings Playbook to the probably autistic Bartholomew Neil in The Good Luck of Right Now, to a crate of bruised produce in his latest novel, Love May Fail. Portia Kane made a bad choice when she was younger, going for what glittered instead of substance, in her case her writerly yearnings. After confronting her cheating pornographer hubby, Ken (not a doll) in flagrante with another chicklet half her age, Portia manages not to fire her Colt 45, but, instead, heads back home, leaving her terminally damaged marriage in Florida. This being a Matthew Quick novel, home is his usual literary stomping ground, the Philadelphia area, Oaklyn, NJ specifically, which happens to be the town where Quick grew up. Portia moves in with mom who lives with some damage of her own. She is an agoraphobic hoarder with, I am sure, a rainbow of maladies identifiable in the DSM. Will taking care of mom, who, though her belfry is overstuffed, exudes unconditional love for her daughter, help Portia heal herself and get back on her true path?

About that path. Through a chance encounter with a nun, Portia finds a goal for herself. In high school, she had been one of the fortunates who got what her inspirational English teacher, Mister Vernon, had to offer. He had opened her up to creativity, writing and literature. But after suffering a large personal trauma, Vernon has shut himself away in a remote location. Portia makes it her mission to save Mister Vernon, and return him to his calling.

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Matthew Quick

Quick has had a bit of exposure to people with trouble. In his 2013 interview with GoodReads, we learn that he had spent a year trying to help teenagers diagnosed with autism. He had other MH involvement too:

…I worked in neuro health lockdown unit as well, primarily with people who had suffered traumatic brain injuries. We always noticed when we’d get new staff, we’d watch ‘em the first day, and if they laughed on the first day, not at the people we were working with, but at the absurdity of the situation of our day-to-day. If they laughed in a good friendly way, we knew they’d be back the next day. And a lot of times if they didn’t laugh, a lot of times they wouldn’t come back again. They would just quit, after one day.

He looks a lot at existential issues in Love May Fail. Mister Vernon has a dog named Albert Camus, with whom he discusses the absurdity of life. Crazy things happen. There is an appreciation for the need of humor even, or maybe particularly, in dark times and circumstances. He has also spent some time at the front of a classroom, and this informs the novel as well.

Q populates his tales with appropriately quirky characters. The mom does not, IMHO, get enough screen time, but is interesting, in a coot-ish sort of way. Portia reconnects with an old friend from school, someone with a history of drug use. The friend’s five-year-old does Van Halen tribute performances at a local bar. Portia also encounters a saintly nun, a crusty mother superior, a good man who had always had been smitten with her, and a very irascible and troubled former teacher. Saving Mister Vernon will be a challenge. But with the support Portia builds around her, can she break through and get it done?

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Clearwater vision – from sofc.org

There are events that might be seen as miraculous in Love May Fail. Q refers to a supposed Virgin Mary sighting on the side of an office building in Clearwater. This was a real event, in which people flocked to the place to see and maybe pray to a manifestation of the Virgin. It probably wouldn’t be the strangest thing to have happened in Florida. Maybe she was looking for a condo. Deitific manipulations are applied to make sure that this or that person shows up in a particular place at a certain time. A weepily sad demise recalls the angel Clarence, from It’s a Wonderful Life. And the five-year-old’s stage performance is probably miraculous as well, although in a different way.

The journey of the story is Portia trying to resurrect her old teacher’s career, but also to let herself be born into a better, truer life. I suppose there is a point being made here about divine intervention bringing people together, with the expected nods to personal responsibility and making the most of the opportunities that come ones way, however those link-ups might have been arranged. But, while allowing for the vagaries of free choice, it does seem that there is a pretty powerful director to the events that take place in Love May Fail. Deus ex machina, sans the ex machina piece. Hey, the guy is allowed. It is his story. But it seemed to me that there was too much very specific divine intervention to sustain a willing suspension of disbelief.

Love May Fail is an interesting, engaging story with a typical cast of Q-characters. I performed the mandatory eye-rolls when I felt the divine intervention lines had been crossed, but I still enjoyed the book. Love May Fail is not Quick’s best work, and it is not so engaging as his prior effort, The Good Luck of Right Now, but still, it’s a Matthew Quick novel, so you can expect a positive outlook, likeable characters and a huge, warm heart. You could do worse for a beach outing or a flight. And if you are flying, be sure to pay attention to that nun seated next to you.

You should be warned, however. Do not read this in a public place, unless you are ok with the world seeing you go all wet-face. If you do not blubber on reading a particular scene near the very end of this book, I will officially revoke your Member of the Human Race card. I’m just sayin’.

Review posted – 6/19/15

Publication date – 6/16/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Film rights have been optioned by Sony

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

There is a lot of interesting material about Quick in this interview with Dr Jo Anne White . Q talks about coping with depression, working with autistic teens, the importance of laughter, and there is a nice segment in which he talks about teaching. The interview was done around the time his last novel was released, but is still relevant.

Here is the interview Quick did with Goodreads in May, 2013

This vid shows folks gathering at the Virgin Mary appearance in Clearwater, Florida

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Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

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After a hiatus of several centuries since it was actively practiced, magic is back in early 19th century England. Susanna Clarke has created an alternate, magical history, in which England had once been divided between north and south, and a temporal and a fairy kingdom. Stuffy intellectuals satisfy themselves with studying the writings of the past, forming debating societies. But in 1807 a person emerges who dares to actually practice magic.

Mr Norrell is an arrogant fellow, convinced not only that he is the only decent practical magician in England, but that it would be best if he were the only one allowed to practice at all. He proceeds to play politics to sustain, increase and legitimize his monopoly. The emergence of a second practical magician presents a challenge, solved in the short term by taking on Jonathan Strange as a student.

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Eddie Marsden as Mr Norrell – from AMC networks

Both magicians want to use their talent for the good of their country, and perform amusing and not so amusing spells on the French enemy. Ultimately they are faced with the growing emergence of a real, powerful, underlying magical realm. It intrudes on their lives and forces them to confront darkness while trying to master the unsuspected reality.

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Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange

The book has a wonderful pretext, and the tale is told in a straight style, with more than a few touches of humor. It offers a look at how the new use the machinery of government to create a sinecure, how a need to impress can lead to corruption. It is fun to read, but does take quite a long time, and has sections in which it drags. It should probably have been shorter by a hundred or two hundred pages.

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Marc Warren as “The Gentleman”

Meanderings are many. In short, or long, it was enjoyable, and is recommended, but not to the highest degree. Several award committees disagreed, holding it in significantly higher esteem. JS&MN was not only long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, it was short-listed for several other awards and won, among others, the World Fantasy award for best novel, the British Book Award for best newcomer of the Year, and the Hugo Award.

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Susanna Clarke – from Minnesota public radio

The TV adaptation was shown beginning (in the USA anyway) in June 2015

Review posted – 10/29/2008

Updated and Reposted – 6/19/15

Publication date – 9/30/2004

=============================EXTRA STUFF

I found no personal site for Clarke, nor, FB nor Twitter. Bloomsbury has put up a Facebook page for the book

A particularly nifty site organizes people, placesl et al, from the book. If you get heavily into the book, this is a must-have resource

A nice, soft article on the author visiting the production set

A 2004 interview with Clarke on the SF site

A 2005 interview on Bookslut

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The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora

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As they approach the gate Bethany thinks of the town, small and safe, awaiting their return. It is cloistered, claustrophobically familiar, but maybe—and her mother’s trembling hands return to her—mired with its own dark disturbances. It is its own kind of restive campground, in a way, its properties penciled upon common land, impinging on one another despite the fences meant to hold them apart. Huddled in that encampment are each of their families, steely cohorts within the greater clan.

Old Cranbury, CT is an older, well established suburb. In the historical part of town some of its homes date from the 18th century, and still carry the names of the families who built them. Residents of those particular homes take pride in preserving their piece of history, some of them maybe a bit too much. OC is a lovely place, a mostly middle and upper-middle-class suburb. Good schools, trimmed lawns. Unlike Chester’s Mill, Wayward Pines, Royston Vasey, or the Village, you can leave if you choose, but you will want to stick around at least long enough to get through the baker’s dozen stories about the local residents in The Wonder Garden.

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Lauren Acampora

There are plenty of weeds in Lauren Acampara’s linked-stories collection, but not the stories. The tales are flower-show ready. I imagine we have all read, seen or heard groups of tales about a particular town, or location. Our Town, Spoon River (yes, yes, I know, poems, not stories), Olive Kitteridge. Now, think hard. Were any of them yuck-fests? Didn’t think so. Ditto here. It is true that most of these stories show a less than lovely side of life in Old Cranbury. The sins are far from original. Disappointment permeates. But there are rays of sunshine as well. Change is possible, at least for some. Hopes may be dashed, but not all of them, and that there are plenty to go around gives one hope that in their imagined lives, some of these folks might live to see their dreams come true. Most of the characters are just trying to make the best of their circumstances.

It would not be a portrait of a town if the residents were not watering at least a garden-full of secrets.

she becomes aware of the hidden, parallel world beneath the mundane. Just beneath the surface of every defunct moment—finding a spot in the supermarket parking lot, waiting at a stoplight—lurks another moment, sexual, adulterous, waiting to be chosen. It shimmers faintly, a phosphorescent arc of lighter fluid ready to catch fire, detectable only to those attuned to it. She parks the car and watches the men and women going in and out through automatic the doors. Which of them are alight, secretly smoldering?

Unfaithfulness is to be expected. Some marriages are strained, while others, surprisingly, appear to be strengthened by big changes. How about wanting to violate all medical ethics to perform a very strange and intimate act? Maybe show the world the face of a concerned citizen but indulge in a bit of pointed vandalism? There is plenty of imposturing going on here. Maybe parenthood is not for everyone, including some parents? Maybe nurture fears that go well beyond the understandable? A sense of the past permeates as well. There is enough moral ambiguity through the thirteen to spark book group debates aplenty.

Unlike Olive Kitteridge, there is no single character serving as a trellis on which the stories can be strung like vines. But there is considerable back and forth. Characters are woven into and out of stories like threads in a tapestry. The author likes to introduce characters in one story and offer us their names elsewhere. Acampora admits that she inserted some of the connective tissue later on in the writing process, says the links “presented themselves” to her. It is the town itself that is the organizing structure. But there are some elements that repeat. Gardens appear in many of the stories, serving diverse purposes. Another element that struck me was the characterization of the houses of OC as particularly organic.

He intends to keep the bones of the house strong and its organs clean for decades to come, even as the skeletons of newer houses rise and fall around it.

These machines are the pumping heart of the house; everything else is frivolous and disposable in comparison.

The house is gigantic, encrusted with a dark carapace, as if diseased.

The exposed oak beams are strong as ribs along the ceiling of the first floor and the central chimney and hearth—spine and heart of the house—exude the smell of ancient smoke.

And there are more like these. On one level, one might even wonder, in a darker vein, whether people inhabit the town or if the town inhabits them. The homes, as might be expected, often reflect the lives of those who live within.

The language of the book is at times lyrical and compelling, more effectively so for the pedestrian circumstances in which it shines:

John meets the woman’s eyes again, the crystalline irises with nothing in them but confidence in the universe. He feels nearly dead in comparison, more exhausted by the moment, as if he were being depleted by her presence. It seems that there is a lack of air in this place, that the windows have been sealed shut for decades, since the long-ago children were last measured. A slow moment elapses. In the space of this pause, John feels the breath of the past, the cumulative exhalation of the house and its lost inhabitants. They seem to gather in the basement’s webbed corners, fuzzed with dust and dead skin. It strikes him that this is a last capsule of memory, that when it is swept and painted, the raw floor carpeted and windows unstuck, no trace of life will remain. The history of the house will persist only in the memories of its former residents, those far-flung stewards of dwindling, inexact images.

The characters that populate Acampara’s thirteen tales are quite well realized, particularly so, considering the short form involved. The Wonder Garden is a powerful, beautifully written work of fiction. I am sure the horticultural society will approve.

Review posted – 6/12/15

Publication date – 5/5/2015

I received this volume from GR’s First reads program – thanks guys
It was first recommended to me by my good, much younger, GR pal – Elyse. I am in your debt.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

The Wonder Garden found its origin in The Umbrella Bird story. Acampora completed a novel, from the perspective of the wife, Madeleine, but thought it was just not good enough. The Umbrella Bird in this collection is the primary remaining nugget from that project. Some of the supporting cast from the novel show up in the collection as well.

Acampora grew up in Darien, the inspiration for The Stepford Wives, so knows her suburban towns. In visiting Darien as an adult, she found that the houses seemed almost like characters.

Here is an audio interview from The Avid Reader. Beware, though. The sound quality is poor, as the host’s volume is way higher than the author’s so you will have to keep turning the volume way up and way down to keep from being knocked out of your seat.

The author in an exchange with Lily King on B&N

Here is one complete story from the collection, The Umbrella Bird

The Wonder Garden was an Amazon Book of the Month selection for May, 2015

=======================================THE STORIES

Ground Fault – John Duffy is a building inspector with a perceptive eye, and a willingness to let life’s disappointments affect his work. He could probably do with a bit of self-inspection.

Afterglow – Harold, a wealthy corporate raider, wants to be a part of his wife’s brain surgery in an unusual, and very intimate way

The Umbrella Bird – David is fed up with his corporate nine-to-five. Fixated on building a tree house for his expected child, he finds a very different muse, and his life goes in a brand new direction.

The Wonder Garden – Rosalie is a very involved, mother hen of a parent, with children in several grades of the local school. She sits on boards, hosts an exchange student, but there might be a serpent in her garden.

Swarm – Martin, a tenured professor at a state university, is offered the chance of a lifetime to create an art project that would make up for the decades in which he had had to put his art aside. But what might the cost be for realizing this dream?

Visa – Camille is a single mother who has found an amazing guy. They plan a wondrous vacation together. Can he possibly be for real?

The Virginals – Roger and Cheryl Foster live in an 18th century house. They are heavy into the Revolutionary War period, trying to live as much like those earlier Americans as possible. But the new owners of the period house across the way do not seem quite so enthusiastic. What’s a good neighbor to do?

Floortime – Career woman Suzanne Crawford is the single mother of a boy who appears to be on the autism spectrum. This would present a challenge to most parents, but if one’s maternal instincts are on the low end, the problem looms larger.

Sentry – when her neighbor’s child is left unattended for a prolonged time, Helen Tanner invites her in, to hang out a while, then a while longer, then…

Elevations – Mark and Harris own an antiques shop. They share a lovely home. But they may want different things out of life.

Aether – Some young people from OC are at a music festival when something goes terribly wrong.

Moon Roof – Lois Hatfield, on her way to a party thrown by her husband’s boss, gets caught at an intersection and cannot decide when to go.

Wampum – uneasy at a party thrown by the local one-percenters, Michael succumbs to a bit of paranoia, with dangerous results.

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