Sunday, November 17, 2013

Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden

This fall I seem to be, unintentionally for the most part, reading a lot of the sorts of books where the first person narrator spends nearly the whole book alone rattling around an empty house lost in her thoughts and memories composing a novel that contains virtually no action and a lot of time in one character's head for better or for worse.  I have a great deal of real life book loving friends who would be bored to tears by such books.  As for me, I rather like them, as, it seems, do literary prize committees seeing as Molly Fox made the Orange Prize Shortlist in 2009 and Sanctuary Line (another recently read "thinky" book) got a long list nod for the Giller Prize in 2010.  Maybe it's because I spend rather a lot of time rattling around in my own head like said narrators so it's extra satisfying when their thoughts prove to be revelatory even if mine so often do not.

In Molly Fox's Birthday, the nameless narrator, a mostly successful playwright, is spending some time in the borrowed house of her friend, the famous stage actress Molly Fox, while she attempts to get a start on writing her next play.  Readers spend one day in the company of the playwright while she rattles around Molly's house casting about for inspiration for her new play and lost in her own thoughts of the past as she contemplates her relationships with Molly and an old college friend turned famed television art historian, Andrew Fforde.  The day in question, of course, is Molly's birthday, which also happens to be the longest day of the year, the Summer Solstice.  Obviously, there's not much action, most of which involves the narrator buying food, preparing food, and eating food while she contemplates her friends and the past during the heat of a beautiful summer day.
That night she was communicating something of her deepest self in a way that is only possible for her when she is on stage.  Is the self really such a fluid thing, something we invent as we go along, almost as a social reflex?  Perhaps it is instead the truest thing about us, and it is the revelation of it that is the problem; that so much social interchange is inherently false, and real communication can only be achieved in ways that seem strange and artificial.
Despite the lack of action, I was utterly taken in by the playwright's memories and musings. The narration seems tangential with the playwright first considering Molly and her ability to manifest a character in a play with her whole self then wandering to the playwright's past with Andrew whose serious studiousness she discovered late nights in the library at Trinity, and then her thoughts drift, as thoughts might, to a dinner she and Molly shared with the playwright's brother Tom, the priest, all told in a voice that is smart but never pretentious.   On it goes as thoughts do, meandering from one experience to the next until you find that you've been enveloped in a serious and unexpectedly focused contemplation of how identity is shaped by oneself, one's experience, and one's family and how truth and reality are often more accessible and tolerable in the fiction and artifice of plays (or books, I'm betting) than in the humdrum routines and conversations of our day to day lives.  Soon you'll realize you've been caught up in the story of an author who has an unusually keen perception of the bits and pieces of character that make up a person and an uncanny knack for putting them to the page and creating a focused theme that is compelling without being too serious or, dare we say, scholarly.   
"We were talking about her work and she said that there's a kind of truth that can only be expressed through artifice.  She said that what she wanted to convey to people through her work, more than anything else, was reality.  It was a question of showing something familiar but in a moment outside time; saying, 'Here's love, here's sorrow.  Do you recognise them?' I thought it was a good way of putting it."
I won't say I wasn't occasionally aware that the course of the narrator's reflection was subtly manipulating me toward the truths Madden was trying to illuminate with her story, but on the whole the playwright's meandering thoughts flowed in a surprisingly natural way with brief interruptions for the minutia of a day spent alone with the occasional happening that served as a natural redirect.  So taken in was I by the playwright's friends as magnified by her thoughts and the very true insights she seemed to easily arrive at through the course of the day that I hardly wanted it to end.  In Molly Fox's Birthday, Deirdre Madden manages to accomplish the rare feat of both telling us and showing us just how great a deal of truth there is to be found in fiction.  Highly recommended!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Loose Leafing: In Which I Love All the Things

Time:  5:35 p.m.  (And it's full dark!  The horror!)

Place:  Hunched over my desk (because my desk chair is the suck)

Eating: Low-fat string cheese (because the popcorn and candy at the movies wasn't quite enough).  But forget Sunday evening's sad string cheese and let's think back to yesterday evening when I went out with friends to a local fancy pantsy restaurant, Seasons on Main, where I splurged on a several course meal that included a perfectly done New York Strip steak and possibly the most delectable salted caramel cheesecake ever.  Extra points because it was such  a well-paced eating experience that I didn't even feel like I was going to pop by the end.  I could get into this fine dining stuff.  If my paycheck were bigger. 

Bored by:  How whenever I manage to write a blog post it's boring old book review (hence this imaginative post)

Watching:  Just came back from the movies where I wept my way through the end of About Time which I enjoyed absurdly much.  But don't you hate it when a movie makes you cry at the the theater?  Because you can't cry as much as you want to and you're embarrassed about crying as much as you did.  And I will watch it again sometime when I can cry as much as I very well desire. 

Reading:  For all my boredom with writing book reviews, I am really into reading books this year (said the book blogger, much to your shock, I'm sure).  I just finished and enjoyed Kristina Riggle's The Whole Golden World this week, and has since helpfully chosen Molly Fox's Birthday from shelf obscurity for my weekend reading, and despite the fact that it has no chapter breaks, which I usually find loathsome, I'm liking it very much.

Starting:  To explore using Good Reads.  I know I'm so late to the party, and judging from my experience so far, I'll always be a LibraryThing girl at heart, but I'm open to trying new things.  I think this is me should you want to befriend me.  Also, I'm finding the whole thing mildly perplexing and somewhat disorganized, so if you wanted to give me some tips and tricks and assorted supercool things to be done with Good Reads (that I'm probably missing) in the comments, please do, so I can stop feeling like a super-moron. You could also easily dissuade me from using it at all, if you're more that sort of person. ;-)

Promoting: The Literary Fiction Giveaway Blog Hop at Leeswammes' Blog.  I'm a total literary fiction nut, so I'm always excited to see what everyone's giving away and enter a few, too.  Someday, if I ever stop being a somewhat suckish blogger, I'm going to join up and give something away because I love it so much and I ought to give back even though I find giveaways to be a distasteful amount of work.  So much the more love I have for all you lit fiction bloggers who are giving away cool stuff!

Joining:  Agh, this week I joined the gym.  Okay, well not quite, but I purchased a half price 6 month membership voucher for the purpose of joining the gym.  My health insurance is supposed to reimburse me $100 toward it which will make it a mere $35 out of my own pocket which is just about the top of the range of money I would consider spending on a gym membership what with how I'm not a hundred percent sure I'll actually um, go, and get fit and all that.  Now that I've bought it, I'm rather a bit terrified about the whole endeavor what with how I've never joined a gym and am uncertain about working out in the presence of hordes of people.  Plus, I'll probably injure myself within the first few days.  *paces nervously*

Surpassing:  My total books read last year (already)!  You will be more impressed by this if I don't tell you the paltry amount of books I read last year.  Otherwise, you'll slap a pitying look on your face, shake your virtual head, and pat me on my virtual head in the patronizing way of someone who surpassed my total books read last year in, um....February.  Not that you'd ever really do that, but I fear you'd be sorely tempted if I were to divulge such information.

Dreading: The coming work week.  Last week was one of those weeks that I would have danced/skipped/shouted for joy my way down the hall by the end of my shift on Friday evening....if I only would have had a shred of energy left for such behavior.  Instead, I forgot where I parked my car, got off the shuttle bus two stops early, was vaguely humiliated, and walked the other mile or so to my car in the dark in a howling wind.  Yeah, can't wait to get back to work again.

And, I think that's all I have to say on the subject of this week. 

What are you up to this fine Sunday? 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman by Minka Pradelski

Young Tsippy Silberberg is more than a little surprised when her aunt in Tel Aviv passes away and leaves her an inheritance.  When she arrives to claim it, she's even more puzzled that it consists of an incomplete fish service in a suitcase.  As she sits in her beach-side hotel room trying to puzzle out the meaning of having silverware to serve something she refuses to even eat, her journey gets even stranger with a knock on the door.  Behind that knock is Mrs. Bella Kugelman, a Holocaust survivor like Tsippy's parents, who is determined to keep her hometown in Poland alive through stories that she insists on telling to Tsippy and anyone else who will listen.  Much to her surprise, it's this odd and persistent woman and her stories that will help Tsippy unearth the meaning behind her aunt's bizarre bequest.

To get to the heart of things, Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman is kind of a weird book.  Tsippy is a bizarre narrator prone to flights of fancy and impulsiveness that hardly make sense.  Her bizarre diet centers on frozen vegetables for reasons that aren't entirely clear.  The whole premise of an aged survivor materializing in her hotel room every day to tell stories of the old country regardless of whether Tsippy wants to hear them or not requires a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief.  It's easy to see why Mrs. Kugelman is probably not a book that everyone is going to like.  That said, I liked it quite a lot indeed.

Despite her oddities, Tsippy is an interesting character who has grown up in the shadow of her parents' silence over the terrible events of the Holocaust they survived.  Her bizarre eating habits seemed to be grounded in a desperate need to get her emotionally repressed parents to say anything even if it was just to scold her for her increasingly bizarre behavior.  I came to terms with odd Tsippy Silberberg as the story's primary narrator, but what I really loved were the stories Mrs. Kugelman came to tell Tsippy.  Determined to keep her Polish town of Bedzin and its denizens alive long after the Holocaust destroyed it, Mrs. Kugelman is happy to tell anyone who will listen the stories of her childhood and the many characters that populated it.  Her stories both satisfy Tsippy's hunger for some sense of her past and draw readers into the lives of mischievous kids, extremely religious adults, lovers, scam artists, businessmen, bakers and grocers and porters who populate an above-average small town that stood on the precipice of its own destruction and never knew.

Mrs. Kugelman's stories call to mind the sort of small-time legends that populate any town or even any one family, and Pradelski's choice to focus on the life of the town in its glory days before the horrors of the Holocaust came calling is a refreshing departure.  Minka Pradelski is a sociologist who has spent considerable time exploring the psychological effects of the Holocaust on survivors, and her depiction of the very willful disconnect Tsippy's guilt-ridden father has made between the painful past and the promising future he hopes for his daughter definitely seems to spring from that knowledge.  However, as Tsippy and Mrs. Kugelman's tale shows us, it might just be that the very stories survivors avoid are the ones that stand to heal a new generation.  Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman is unexpectedly touching novel that shows the value of knowing our past even as we plunge into the uncertain future, and one that I would highly recommend if you don't mind reading a book that's just a bit outside the box.

(Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for my honest review).