Archive for December, 2015

Dirty Love / Andre Dubus III

I read Dirty Love at the same time I was working my way through Lorrie Moore’s Bark. (See review here). Both are short story collections and share common themes. But where Bark featured eight stories, Dirty Love has just four. The difference between them is that each of Moore’s stories is easily read in a single setting, while Dubus’ are novella length and require an extended perusal.

The stories in Dirty Love are linked, with characters in one story often turning up in the next. As the title indicates, love in these stories is “dirty,” but not in the sexual sense. Rather, the is focus on the need for love, how it often leaves one feeling helpless, affects the ego, and generates its fair share of insecurities. Portraying the minefields that relationships create throughout life, Dubus’ narratives beautifully capture the human experience of love’s darker sides.

All four stories make for compelling reading, but the two that stood out to me were Marla and Dirty Love. In the first, an overweight young woman finally finds a romantic partner, then realizes after moving in with him that he grates on her sensibilities. And yet she stays in the relationship, fearful that she might not find another. Dirty Love tells the story of a teenage girl fleeing both a compromising video of her that has been posted on the internet as well as an alcoholic father. She ends up with her widowed great uncle Francis, a man coping with his own approaching death. It is a powerful and moving story.

Dubus is a great storyteller and he backs it up with writing that sculpts fully formed characters. Compared to Moore’s creations, the people in Dubus’ stories struck me as more believable. While this might be explained simply by the difference in the stories’ lengths, I also think Dubus is the better writer. This is the first book I’ve read by him, but it certainly will not be the last.

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Bark / Lorrie Moore

Until just recently, Lorrie Moore was a professor at the University of Wisconsin. Because of her national success as a writer, during her tenure here in Madison, she generated plenty of local pride. Over the years, I’ve read a number of her books, both in novel and short story format. While I found them pleasant enough, I was not as impressed as the critics were.

Bark, her most recent collection of short stories was published in 2014. It was well received critically, which tempted me to give Moore another try. After reading one of the stories from this collection in a literary magazine, and enjoying it, I decided to give the entire book a try.

The collection itself is on the thin side, featuring eight stories. While I could not discern an overarching theme, all of them feature sharp social observations, irony, and personal tragedy, leavened with humor. Lorrie Moore is a great wordsmith and I took delight in her clever turns of phrase. But as in the earlier works, for me the stories in Bark lack the necessary ingredient needed to elevate them to true classic status. While engaging, they tended to blur together, and I found myself forgetting them soon after reading. The best story here just happens to be the one I’d previously read, Thank You For Having Me.

I’m being a bit harsh here. My guess is a good many readers will disagree with my comments. To the book’s credit, these stories are fully formed and engaging. Bark is certainly worth picking up, if only to appreciate Lorrie Moore’s clever wordplay and sympathetic characters.

Encounter

Parting the curtain of rhododendrons,
a shape materializes.
Has some neighborhood dog broken
loose overnight?
As if sensing the intensity of my stare,
supple shoulders tense.
And yet, those bottomless eyes betray
no hint of fear.
All that has been roused it seems is
confident curiosity.
Coming out of a crouch, stretched erect,
it relaxes into a yawn.
But even with glass and brick between,
I take a step back.
A primeval urge to escape has set my
heart to racing.
The dark cave of this kitchen pulls me
into its inky safety.
When I brave myself to step forward,
the coyote is gone.
Ensnared in the trap of my attention,
I find only empty air.

Delivering Doctor Amelia : The Story Of A Gifted Young Obstetrician’s Mistake And The Psychologist Who Helped Her / Dan Shapiro

When this book was published in 2003, Dan Shapiro was a psychologist who specialized in treating physicians. Delivering Doctor Amelia tells the story of one such clinician, Amelia Sorvino, a gifted obstetrician who finds herself in the grip of crippling self-doubt following a delivery that resulted in a poor outcome. Not only is she facing a malpractice suit, Amelia fears that she did make a mistake that caused the problem. As a result, she no longer feels capable of delivering other babies.

From the first session with Shapiro, Amelia seems to be holding back rather than opening up during her sessions. This leads to a growing suspicion on Shapiro’s part that he might be dealing with a suicidal patient. The book vividly documents the unfolding journey of self-discovery on the part of both patient and physician.

In his narrative, Shapiro introduces several other side stories. One is his earlier battle with Hodgkin’s disease, intertwined with the efforts with his wife to conceive a second child through in vitro fertilization. A third is his contrasting of Amelia’s case with another patient he has treated, a young girl scheduled to have a leg amputated because of a cancer diagnosis.

Shapiro does a good job of weaving these strands into the overall piece. My problem with the book centers on two issues. The first deals with Amelia herself; she did not seem believable to me as described by the author. I know Shapiro went out of his way to disguise her true identity; perhaps that led to my feeling that some essential piece of her was not captured on the page. The other issue centered on the fact that I learned more about Shapiro’s personality than I did Amelia’s.

These caveats aside, Delivering Doctor Amelia is the type of medical story that will most likely appeal to a wide audience. Its prose is easily understood by the layperson and the puzzle of Amelia is an interesting one. More importantly though, the topic addressed here is an important one. As the author shows, physicians suffer from high rates of mental health issues due to the stresses they face on the job. Finding a way to insure they succeed in their profession is a benefit to us all.

Prayer

How can you rashly profess otherwise;
is it predicated
solely on faith and the comfort of belief;
are folded hands
required to make the utterance real?
What about the time
you snapped to attention, choking on
food improperly chewed;
woke terrified and suddenly mortal in
the oppressive dark;
received a callback for further tests after
a doctor’s visit;
saw a child dash into the road to retrieve
an errant ball;
stood beneath the night sky’s immensity,
lonesome and forlorn.
Tell me, if not, what exactly is a prayer?

We Are Not Ourselves / Matthew Thomas

Some reviews have called this book the greatest Alzheimer’s novel yet. I disagree. A good portion of this book does deal with a husband with early onset Alzheimer’s, but Thomas is trying here to achieve something broader, delivering an ambitious storyline that spans three generations. He methodically presents the life story of Eileen Tumulty and her family, sometimes in numbing detail.

The novel follows Eileen, born in 1941 in Queens, New York, for more than six decades. The reader is introduced to her hard drinking Irish parents, then to Ed Leary, the scientist/teacher she marries, and ultimately to their only child, Connell. The story focuses on the small joys and sorrows of daily life and always the resiliency needed when faced with heartbreak. Eileen and Ed’s marriage is not perfect, but it is a solid one.

Initially, I was bothered by the story’s abrupt transitions from one event to another, as a year or two went by in the meanwhile. There seemed to be no theme indicating where the story was leading, or why. And then when it became obvious that Ed was developing Alzheimer’s in his early fifties, I feared his disease would be the overwhelming focus from then on out. Fortunately, while important to the story, this does not become its black hole. Throughout, Thomas continues to show Eileen’s dogged pursuit of a simple middle class existence.

Surprisingly, the story is told from the perspectives of Eileen and Connell, but Ed is not given the opportunity to speak for himself. I found that an interesting choice on the author’s part. Still, by taking time to dwell on the mundane details of this family’s life, all three characters are easy to identify with.

I had mixed feelings while reading We Are Not Ourselves. There were stretches where I wanted something more exciting to happen to enliven the proceedings. At the same time, I appreciated Thomas taking time to create such an exhaustive life history. True, some of it could have been pruned back without sacrificing the story’s impact. Yet, few writers today even attempt to create something on this broad of a scale, and that’s a shame. For a debut novel, Thomas has penned a challenging work that ultimately pays dividends for anyone who invests in reading its 656 pages.

The Orphan Master’s Son / Adam Johnson

What a daring, ingenious novel. Johnson has the nerve to set his second novel in a country so cut off from the rest of the world that it might as well be on another planet. That country is North Korea. While it is impossible to know if he is providing a true picture of the country, his story has the aura of authenticity from beginning to end.

Park Jun Do is the book’s protagonist. His father was the master of Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. His mother, a singer, disappeared when he was a baby­—stolen by government agents looking for beautiful women to send to Pyongyang, the country’s capital and center of power. Recognized early on for his intelligence, Jun Do is groomed for government service and taught to speak English.

The book is divided into two sections. In part one, Jun Do is enlisted to kidnap Japanese citizens, serves as a signal operator stationed on a fishing boat, and is finally assigned to a diplomatic mission being sent to the United States. When that mission fails, upon his return, he is arrested and sent to a prison mine that few emerge alive from once they enter.

Part two provides a sudden shift, and a surreal one. Jun Do has assumed another man’s identity. Now he is Commander Ga, a North Korean hero and a rival of Kim Jong II (the Dear Leader), North Korea’s dictator. He has also become the “replacement husband” to Ga’s wife, a famous actress, Sun Moon. While it sounds convoluted, Johnson masterfully makes it all understandable.

The story is mostly told as a third person account, but in the second half of the book the author also uses a propaganda story, broadcast into all homes, to advance the plot, as well as a first person account by an interrogator of Commander Ga/Jun Do. For those who like thrillers, this book provides plenty of that as well.

Themes of The Orphan Master’s Son include the influence of propaganda on the populace, the place of personal identity in a repressive regime, and the corrupting effects of power among government officials. While these are dark themes, there is love, humor, and the redeeming quality of self-sacrifice as well. It is no exaggeration to say this book is a classic. It is a terrific novel.