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Tag Archives: Firefly

“Townie” by Andrew Dubus III

I came across this title on a “best of the year” list recently. I loved “House of Sand and Fog” written by Dubus years ago, and I’m always on the lookout for a memoir. “Townie” sounded interesting because of the relationship that Dubus III had with his father, Andre Dubus, the late short story writer.

Dubus III, his two brothers and sisters grew up primarily with their mother, living in blue collar neighborhoods in worn out Massachusetts cities of the 70s and 80s. Early on,  he sensed that he was basically a chicken who allowed others to push him (and his family) around. He hated that about himself. Their neighborhoods saw plenty of violence and crime. His mother worked hard and was away from the house a lot. He and his dad, by then a faculty member at a small college nearby, saw each other on weekends, and sometimes for dinners together during the week.

Eventually, Dubus III became someone who threw punches at others. Much of this book chronicles the various fights in which he engaged. Because of the extensive focus on fighting, I found this to be a book about another world. I’ve never thrown a punch, and never been punched. I’ve never been friends with people who did so. The fighting began to seem tiresome. I kept waiting for him to find another way to live. Eventually, he did.

At a certain point, things stabilize. Dubus III decides to be an educated person. He gets to know his father, spends time with him. His mother and her long-term boyfriend remain in his life. Dubus III has an epiphany, an experience where he writes, and it is rewarding in ways he hadn’t predicted.

But a certain anger remains about how alone and afraid he was as a child, and how much he missed. A couple of images that I’ll keep from this book include one where Dubus III, maybe 12 or so, plays catch with his dad, and his dad is baffled that he doesn’t know how to throw a baseball. He never taught his son, and apparently it hadn’t occurred to him that he might not know how. Nor did he recognize that his son lived in a place where children weren’t engaged in sports. Similarly, when the elder Dubus referred to the Red Sox, his son honestly didn’t know what he was talking about.

As an adult, once he established a strong bond with his father, Dubus III tries to find a time and a way to tell his father how awful it was for him, his brothers and sister. A couple of opportunities slip through his fingers, and maybe it isn’t as critical as he thought.

What stays is that sense of loss and fear, expressed most often as explosive physical anger.

Dubus III writes well–he conveys what was bad about his upbringing, but he’s also a fine observer of the time and place where he grew up. There was room for fun, room for friendship. That he was such a sensitive observer probably explains both the fighting and his talent for writing.

Many readers of literary fiction enjoy the story behind the stories of their favorite authors, and certainly I’ll recommend this to people who loved “House of Sand and Fog.” I’m having a hard time putting my finger on the other audiences for this book and its themes of anger, transformation, physical violence, courage, and art–somehow that list reminds me of Hemingway. There is a whole sense of adventure here underpinned by intelligence–and that suggests that a wide audience indeed.

The “Tiger’s Wife”

The Tiger’s Wife” by Tea Obreht has received plenty of acclaim and applause already.

I finished it between the holidays, and while I enjoyed reading it, I didn’t ever feel “book lust” for it. I’ve been reflecting on that.

The novel has three basic strands. One is of a contemporary doctor, Natalia, living in an unnamed Balkan country. She and a friend travel to another country to treat orphans of the recent war. Natalia’s grandfather recently died, and during her trip she explores the somewhat mysterious circumstances of his death. The other two strands are based on stories her grandfather told her, of a deathless man, and of woman who befriended a tiger that escaped the zoo during World War Two.

I know that I tend to become frustrated with stories told in strands. I usually find one strand compelling, while the others seem like distractions. This is how I felt with “The Tiger’s Wife.” I wanted to stay with Natalia. The other strands began to seem too big, too distracting. I didn’t sense the kind of completion that I craved. I kept waiting for the three strands to come together in a compelling way.

I didn’t dislike the book, in fact, I liked it. I just didn’t find it as wonderful as others have.

What I enjoyed particularly were Obreht’s way with words, and many of the images she creates. For instance, when she was a child, Natalia often walked with her grandfather to the zoo, where they spent time watching the tigers. The story opens with a scene where they witness the tiger turning on a zookeeper who has been careless. The contrast between the warm grandfather with Natalia, and the attacking tiger with the zookeeper, stayed with me through the novel. Who IS the tiger?

I’ll recommend this to my friends who enjoy literary novels, who enjoy elements of magical realism, or who have an interest in the Balkan countries. I’ll also recommend this as a title with immense book club potential.

Finally–“The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck

Over the holiday break, I read “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck. How had I lived so long without reading it?

I enjoyed it immensely, this story of a Chinese farmer in pre-revolutionary China.

The novel opens with the wedding day of Wang Lung. His bride is a slave in a rich household. She is all that a man of his small means can afford. O-Lan turns out to be a faithful and hardworking wife. Her dreams parallel those of Wang Lung, to have sons, to farm successfully, to acquire land and wealth.

The story is told from Wang Lung’s view. Although his fortunes rise and fall, he ends up on top, owning vast amounts of land. He has three sons. He takes on a beautiful second wife, a former prostitute.

When his life goes wrong or awry, he realizes that to return to an even keel, he must return to the land.

The novel closes with Wang Lung telling his sons that the land must remain with them…and their conspiratorial glance indicates their other intentions.

Hillary Spurling, in her biography of Pearl Buck, “Pearl Buck in China,” points to Buck’s profound respect for Chinese people, especially the rural peasants, as the foundation of this book’s success. Buck’s familiarity with Chinese speech is clear in the rhythm of the words. At the time of the writing, Buck’s willingness to talk about sexuality was startling–I barely noticed it.

I was struck by Wang Lung’s seeming disregard for O-Lan. Buck does so well with presenting his point of view about her, and about women and girls generally. I wanted to hate him for his point of view, but Buck places him in the context of his time and place. She led me to take a less judgmental view. I see that I got a clearer view through her telling than I would have from my own 21st century viewfinder.

Why does this book remain popular? I have talked to so many people who love this book, who have re-read it many times. I see its appeal in the simplicity of the telling, mixed with the rhythm of the language.

“So many books, so little time.” How DO we decide when to go back and pick up a book that we “should” have read long ago? I confess–there are remarkable holes in my reading history. I’d hate to even start a list of what I should have read, but haven’t. In this case, I feel a rewarding sense of having filled a gap. I enjoyed the story and I have a better sense of everyday Chinese people before the Revolution. And I appreciate my new familiarity with a book that in so many ways made literary history.

“Pearl Buck in China”

I came across “Pearl Buck in China” by Hilary Spurling listed in the New York Times “100 Notable” of the year for 2010. I confess–I haven’t read “The Good Earth.” Yet. After reading this biography, I intend to.

Spurling describes the evolution of Buck as a writer, spending ample time during Buck’s childhood as the daughter of missionaries in China at the turn of the 20th century, detailing the development of her thinking through her time in college and early return to China, describing the impact of Buck’s remarkable success with “The Good Earth” and landing at her final home just before she died in 1973. She tells the story in a readable way, keeping it moving, weaving in important information.

A theme that Spurlling develops here is that because Buck grew up in China, speaking the Chinese of common people and being surrounded by Chinese people, she was able (almost) to think like a Chinese person. That is, even though she was clearly an outsider, she had a sense for how Chinese people thought and reacted. Where other American writers couldn’t quite get past their shock over certain behaviors, Buck wasn’t shocked herself, and could portray the behaviors in ways that made sense to her audience. She fundamentally respected the people about whom she wrote.

Buck came to disagree vehemently with the approach of the missionary community in China.

Spurling addresses some issues that were very similar to some that arose in the library’s recent One Book One Lincoln panel discussion of medical missionary work in Africa and elsewhere. How DO outsiders learn to help? How do they learn to listen? How do they learn to respond in ways that make sense for the culture and situation?

When I reflect on what I will remember about this book, it is really WHO I will remember–Buck’s father, Absalom Sydenstricker, an American Presbyterian missionary to China. Spurling’s portrait of this man, his isolating persistence and righteous conviction, his seeming disregard for his family, and his ultimate separation from his work, show how Buck’s vision was shaped.

I will also remember that Buck chose her own way. She divorced her first husband to marry the second. She found a good place for her disable daughter when often disabled children were simply hidden. She lived fairly lavishly toward the end of her life.

I nearly returned this to the library without finishing it, because it was due. I’m glad that I took the time to finish it out–the final fourth of the book is especially interesting.

I’ll recommend this to people who read a lot, who have probably read “The Good Earth.” I’ll also recommend it to people who are generally interested in China, and in the issues that arise when people of very different cultures come together.

Tina Fey’s “Bossypants”

I was looking for a book that was entertaining and fast–“Bossypants” by Tina Fey was perfect on both counts. And really, I just like saying (and writing) “Bossypants.”

I haven’t watched “Saturday Night LIve” for years, and I don’t watch “30 Rock” so I wasn’t familiar with many of the people and events that Fey describes here. I know her because of her spot-on portrayals of Sarah Palin. Even so, I found this book interesting and amusing.

Fey tells her story fairly chronologically, including mostly the bits that are funny on their own or funny when she gets her hands on them. She plays fair, in that she laughs at herself plenty. This isn’t the place to go for who-what-when-where-why information. This is more a series of stories that might be shared over coffee or wine with a group of friends, stories that create connections whether they happened in Nebraska or New Jersey.

When she does turn a more serious eye on her life story, it’s often in situations where sexism arises, or where power is exploited, or when pressure about attractiveness becomes overpowering (or just silly). These observations keep her book from being more than just a romp.

Her rise in Chicago’s The Second City improvisation theater led her to submit material to “Saturday Night Live.” There she became a writer and appeared on the “Weekend Update” news parody. Her observations about those work environments are interesting partly for their celebrity tidbits. What comes before actually is also plenty of fun–her descriptions of working at the YMCA checkin window when she was just out of college.

Fey doesn’t take much of the celebrity life for granted, and so her observations of photo shoots, of being recognized, and of receiving both hate mail, stay fresh. It seems like she just can’t keep herself from being funny.

I’ll recommend this to plenty of people. In fact, it’s taking me a moment to think of which people wouldn’t like it. It’s clear going in that this is a funny book by a woman who’s made it big acting and writing in TV comedy. She hits her stride, and even while inspiring plenty of laughing out loud, reveals enough to show that success didn’t come all at once and that she recognizes that it could have gone much differently. But what’s funny (and not funny ha-ha) about humor is that some people can’t see the humor when someone else is doubling over in laughter. It’s not a sure thing. So this could be an adventure in reading for some, and in the interests of tasting from many pots, I’m recommending “Bossypants.”