Funny Girl–Nick Hornby

I confess I have not read any of Hornby’s previous novels, but I have watched, several times, the movie adaptation of About a Boy, mostly because it starred Hugh Grant, but also because it has a story that speaks to me.

Funny Girl does not address contemporary life in the same way as About a Boy.  It’s set in post-war England where young Barbara, whose mother ran off when she was young, watches Lucille Ball and studies her comedy.  Blackpool does not offer many opportunities for a budding female comic, so Barbara packs up and heads to London, where she is stuck in a Cosmetics counter job until an agent finds her and sends her to an audition he believes will force her to give up acting and admit she is a model.  Instead she walks into the audition, charms the writers and the script is rewritten around her–and so Barbara (and Jim) is born, a series about an educated Londoner working at 10 Downing Street who meets a less educated northern girl in a department store and, against the odds, marries her.  The series is cutting edge, until someone else realizes its success and goes all the way to portray actual working-class families having working-class conversations.  Barbara (who takes the name Sophie even though she ends up playing a Barbara) sleeps with her costar, gets her own apartment, telephone, and television, and feels quite modern, but still not part of the crowd.  Her lack of education is a deficit, but her comedic intuition and honest character keep her in good standing regardless.

The series continues too long and ends in a separation, the first of its kind on British television.  The end of the series is the beginning of something better for Sophie, however, as she ditches her costar and admits to a slow-growing love that becomes the love of her life.

Hornby jumps from this moment to a reunion of the Barbara (and Jim) group at a BAFTA tribute as a chance to catch up with the group decades later and to show Sophie’s continuing desire to work, to make people laugh.

This was, for me, the most interesting part of the novel–a portrayal of elderly people as not just wanting to sit and think about the past, but wanting to keep making a present.  Seeing the women’s movement happen around Sophie was background and not revelatory.  Thinking about old age in a new way is the drive of our time as the boomers become the elderly.  Thinking about how widows move forward (given the statistics of life expectancy by sex) is a huge question.

Finished 8/29/15

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Dear Committee Members–Julie Schumacher

What academic doesn’t like a book about academics that skewers administration and, while gently poking fun at our inner curmudgeons, shows that beneath the crust is a heart of gold?  Julie Schumacher’s premise–to portray Jay Fitger entirely through letters of recommendation (LOR as he likes to call them)–is brilliant.  Fitger is a tenured creative writing professor at a midtier Midwestern college aptly named Payne, whose name he plays with relentlessly in closing his LORs.  He has authored a few novels, but the last was panned by critics and the first, a barely veiled autobiographical account of his escapades in his writing seminar, cost him friendships that still impact him as the book begins.  He writes letters for talented students seeking jobs far beneath them and he tells the addressees as much.  He writes letters for mediocre or poor students, and students he does not even know who caught him in the hall, and still manages to fill paragraphs.  He struggles with the online forms required by many applications and rails against them in writing hard copy letters that he triumphantly drops in the blue mailbox on the corner.  He uses educated vocabulary knowing the recipients likely will not know the words.  Through the book he advocates for his last graduate student (the grad writing program at Payne having been cut) as he seeks first a spot at the same seminar he attended, then increasingly desperate positions for the student that would allow him to eat, sleep under a roof, and finish his novel and his degree.  The first of these letters is bloated with superlative language and each successive letter is leaner, most honest, down to stark. Through these letters Schumacher takes us from seeking Jay as a pompous ass to someone who desperately cares for his students to the point of sacrificing his own pride and even more.

Jay writes letters to his ex-wife, who works on campus and places students, and to his ex-girlfriend, who is similarly placed to help students.  Each time he writes to advocate for a student, but he adds personal appeals.  His autobiographical writing got him in trouble with both and a ill-sent email “reply to all” when he meant to simple “reply” cost him his girlfriend.

This is the personal stuff.  The really fun stuff, if the above scenarios are not promising enough, is when he writes to his Department Chair, who is a Sociologist brought in by the administration because the English faculty could not choose a leader from their ranks, which, Fitger says, are primarily composed of adjunct faculty who are ineligible and full-time faculty who are either completely ill-suited or unwilling.  These letters are full of commentary on administration/faculty relations as well as the decision of administration to elevate certain faculty groups above others (the slow death of the humanities in higher ed).  And if those personalities are not fertile enough ground for humor, consider the renovation of the building in which the English faculty resides (beneath the Economics faculty) as the English faculty are forced to endure while the Economics faculty are shuttled off to somewhere safe and above the dust and inconvenience of the construction.

I laughed aloud so many times that my husband asked “is it really that funny?”  Yes, it is.

This is a book to be devoured quickly and to savor.  And, if recent new stories are to be believed, and sarcasm is, indeed, good for you, it can be counted as health food.

Finished 8/25/15

The Book of Speculation–Erika Swyler (Audio Book)

Every once in awhile a book comes along that sucks you in and swallows you so completely that, when it’s over, you feel bereft.  The Book of Speculation is one of those books.  Simon receives a book, a very old handwritten book with drawings, from an old bookseller that he does not know.  He lives on the coast on the Long Island Sound in the house left to him by his parents, which is crumbling into the ocean.  When he is not fighting rising water levels and erosion and the entropy of all houses, he is a reference librarian in his small town and oversees the small whaling archive.  Until he is downsized due to budget cuts.  This downsizing coincides with his receiving the strange book from the strange bookseller and the return of his sister, Enola, who has been off reading Tarot cards with the circus.  That is not as weird as it sounds because their mother was a mermaid with a circus and she handed down a set of tarot cards to Enola that had been owned by her mother and her mother’s mother.  Simon and Enola are orphans because, although their mother was a mermaid and could hold her breath for ten minutes, she drowned herself on July 24 when Enola was small and Simon was seven.  Their father died of a stroke some years after and Simon was left to raise his sister, who rebelled and left as soon as she was able.

Enola is in trouble and Simon begins to think her trouble is explained by the book, which recounts the story of an 18th-century carnival and contains the names of his grandmother and great-grandmother, both of whom drowned themselves on July 24.  Simon uses his librarian resources to research the names and events in the book and explores curses and how to break them.

Swyler tells the story alternating between the present and the 18th-century carnival and all of her characters are fascinating.  Simon cannot leave his parent’s crumbling home despite the fact that it is overwhelming him.  Enola brings home a boyfriend, Doyle, who conducts electric current and has a popular act in the circus.  Simon’s neighbor, Frank, is a carpenter who wants to help Simon with the house and whose daughter, Alice, has been the silent love of Simon’s life and his co-worker at the library–only recently she has become his actualized love.  The carnival owner, Peabody, takes in a mute boy who is named Amos by the fortune teller Madame Ritzkova.  He finds a beautiful young woman who runs out of the woods, Evangeline, and becomes the show’s mermaid and Simon’s ancestor.

As Simon fights to solve the puzzle of the drowned women of his family before July 24 to save his sister, Swyler lets us wonder if instead he needs to save himself, obsessed, unemployed, and likely seriously depressed.  Swyler’s debut is a book-loving historian mystery-lover’s dream.

Finished 8/24/15

Dept. Of Speculation–Jenny Offill (Audio Book)

When this book first began, I was not sure if I like it.  It was all over the place and weird.  I rechecked the summary.  The wife narrates almost stream-of-consciousness thoughts as she progresses through infertility, motherhood, professional struggles, and infidelity.  She quotes philosophers.  She says things most of us have thought at some time.  She seems a little mean and vindictive.  I became frustrated with her, frankly.  Infidelity is awful, but there are worse things in life.  Disease, pain, death, unending grief resulting from death.  Infidelity because your love no longer loves you.

But I loved “the wife’s” voice.  I missed her when the book ended.  I need to find more Jenny Offill.

Finished 8/21/15

The Nightingale–Kristin Hannah (Audio Book)

This summer we witnessed the 75th anniversary of France’s surrender to Germany early in WWII. This novel was perfectly timed to help me imagine the lives of the French people who had to live with their government’s decision.  Vianne and Isabelle lost their mother between the wars, after their father had been damaged by his time in the trenches.  He was unable to parent them and Vianne proved unable to fill her mother’s shoes for her younger sister.  Isabelle repeatedly rebelled and her rebellious streak continues when her father sends her to the rural village of Carriveau to live with her sister and niece, particularly when the German troops march into town.  Before long, Isabelle is back in Paris helping downed pilots escape across the Pyrenees to the British consulate.  Vianne finds herself challenged by the German’s policies towards the Jews, one of whom is her best friend.  Vianne has to decide where she will draw her moral line and saving Jewish children pulls at her heart.  Both sisters become heroines and, as the war wears on, their suffering increases as one is captured and the other is abused by a sadistic German officer.

The novel has its share of women’s lit drama, but as the story wore on, it pushed me to think of how I would respond in a similar situation.  It also made me angry with those in our culture who mock the French as cowards.  My only complaint was a story line with the first occupying German officer that was left incomplete.  I will forever wonder what happened there.

Finished 8/15

Ex Utero–Laurie Foos

The premise of this book intrigued me.  A thirty-one-year old woman visits the mall to buy red high heels and loses her uterus.  It gets goofier from there. Her husband, once he realizes she is without a uterus, is unable to maintain an erection and takes to sitting on the floor naked and drawing outlines of his flaccid penis.  She draws what she thinks her uterus looks like and posts placards in the mall and around town. When she is in the mall seeking her womb, her hand is run over by a woman pushing a stroller and the stroller track becomes a talisman that she rubs regularly.   She becomes the poster child of a women’s group.  She appears on a talk show with a white-haired male host.  During that appearance, another woman’s vagina seals itself.  That woman’s boyfriend, a carpenter, tries to drill, literally, his way into her vagina and takes to beating his erection with a hammer.  The two women take off together Thelma and Louise style.  Everyone seems to eat scrambled eggs.  Fertility is an undercurrent–the strollers, the impotence, the men whose erections strain their zippers with the public discourse about uteri (which spell check just now taught me is the plural of uterus).

I would love to say I understood the book, that I closed the cover and sighed, “Yes, I get that.”  I did not.  It was fun and I think Foos had fun thinking about the way we take our uteri for granted, our fertility for granted, what it means to our identities as women and men.  Maybe because I have recently chosen to relinquish my fertility ahead of biological necessity I watched as an outsider thinking how interesting the rituals of these natives.  The women who began bleeding and could not stop, who suddenly saw her own affinity with her dog who bled while in heat and licked at herself to hide the evidence–this woman interested me because of the multitude of cultural taboos around bleeding and menstruation, but her story is fairly brief and wrapped up almost as an after thought.  I wonder how Foos would have written this story were she forty-something rather than twenty-something.

Finished 8/22/15

Thomas Cromwell–Tracy Borman (Audible)

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the BBC adaptation of which aired in the US this year, has made Thomas Cromwell an object of popular interest again.  In fact, Borman’s website reports that the paperback version of the work was released the day after episode one of BBC’s Wolf Hall aired and the book shot to #4 on the NYT Bestseller List.  Hitting this audience seems to have been Borman’s goal.

A brilliant rags to riches story, with all of the emotional power of a medieval morality tale as the executioner takes three blows to sever Cromwell’s head from his body, Cromwell should fascinate American audiences.  Born the son of a tradesman (of many trades in his attempt to make a living), Cromwell left home to serve many masters on the continent and proved himself an apt student of politics and business.  Loyal to his masters and brutal to his enemies, Cromwell served both Wolsey and Henry VIII and oversaw the executions of many, including Anne Boleyn and Thomas More.  Borman’s Cromwell is, above all, rational.  He is also loyal and takes care for the poor, particularly widows.

Borman’s biography does not make new claims.  In fact, at times, Borman repeats old saws that bear greater scrutiny, such as Anne Boleyn’s sixth finger.  Borman includes an epilogue that discusses the subsequent historical interpretations of Cromwell, which fell heavily along religious lines.

One of the difficulties of an audio book is that any critical apparatus is not visible (or, usually, read).  Borman is an PhD and former professor of history and has written other works (and has forthcoming works) on the Tudor period.  She seems to have been early on the alt-ac track, having worked for historic preservation organizations.  Although at times repetitive, Borman retells Cromwell’s story coherently and with significant reference to primary sources, even if she does not always put those sources and/or their authors in context.

Finished 8/1/15