The Art of Falling by Kathryn Craft

A Sense of Space

In the author’s notes at the rear of Kathryn Craft’s poignant and elegantly written, The Art of Falling, Ms. Craft explains that one of the reasons it might have taken her eight years to write her novel is that “Penelope and I were sharing our journey of healing.”

The Art of Falling

And indeed, it is a journey that we can all now share.

Space plays a vital role in this superb book, with its subtle echoes of the movie, Black Swan.  Fourteen stories of space separates the main character, Penelope Sparrow, from the street below her as she falls; space is what fills the dance halls where she takes flight before and after her fall; and, space between people is what is diminished as the love and friendship grows between Penelope and the young woman whose illness teaches Penelope about unconditional love and acceptance.

 A Sense of Growth

Through caring about–and for–a sickly Angela, Penelope grows into a person very different from the one who previously thought of life’s accomplishments in terms of body weight and audience reaction.  Through caring for Angela, Penelope also learns to love the mother who had stood by her through every turn, even when Penelope turned away from her.

Missing Pieces

So beautifully crafted was this story, and so painstakingly developed were the characters, it is hard to find many holes.  The one thing that nagged at me, though, throughout the entire story, sometimes to the point of distraction, was how anyone could survive a fall such as the one that Penelope experienced.  The author touches on the very believability of this in the end pages, both in an “A Reading Group Guide” and “A Conversation with the Author.”  Some will have no problems with this story of “miraculous survival,” while others will.

Overall

In the end, I was willing to suspend my disbelief that Penelope could have survived her fall, because of so many other redeeming qualities in this book.  The mother-daughter relationship alone taught me something new about my relationship with my son.  The multi-hued ways in which the author used the word, “falling” was another pay-off.  And the inside peek into the rarefied world of dance was yet one more dividend The Art of Falling paid in return for my trust as a reader.  Overall, I’m grateful for the time I gave, and for what I received in return, from The Art of Falling.

 

Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn

Lost for Words

A Sense of Place

No doubt about it, the setting for acclaimed British author Edward St. Aubyn’s delightful, witty work, Lost for Words, could be none other than England.  Quintessential England, at that, with men named Tobias and Malcolm, and ladies named Penny Feathers.

Throw in a uniquely British-sounding book contest–the Elysian Prize for Literature, sponsored by the patrician-sounding Elysian Group–and you might feel ready to jump right on a double-decker bus with a Union Jack pinned smartly to your lapel.

 A Sense of the Absurd, Charmingly Served

For those who enjoy a good dose of acerbic wit, this novel will supply a smorgasborg of it!  At every turn, the novel turns convention and snobbery on its pointed nose.

Why, take your pick! A short-listed cookbook of generations-old Indian recipes, The Palace Cookbook, heralded as a brilliant piece of fiction (though it is neither brilliant nor fiction), after a prestigious publishing house mistakenly submits the Indian cookbook instead of the much-anticipated novel of our tragic heroine?

An Indian manservant commissioned by his employer’s “Indian grandee” nephew (whose own novel was overlooked while his aunt’s Indian cookbook is celebrated) to murder one of the judges in revenge?  An elevator that malfunctions and traps the esteemed Malcolm Craig, Chair of the Elysian Prize committee,  mere moments and just steps from the podium where he is to deliver the Elysian prize?

Missing Pieces

Katherine Burns.   Emotionally vacant, sexually vociferous though never sated.   Why, Katherine, why?  I would have liked to have known more about the life events that contributed to her desperate hunt for men who seemingly could never fill that reservoir of sadness she forever sought to fill with them.

How fitting that her novel–the one that one of her lovers seemingly had a hand in (accidentally?) failing to deliver to the Elysian committee by the deadline– was titled, Consequences.

Overall

Overall, Lost for Words, is a winner.  If there were an Elysian prize for the work of fiction with the most echoes of that most prized master of wit, Oscar Wilde, then this surely would take top honors, if not top prize.

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

The Days of Abandonment

A Sense of Newness, Yet a Sense of Having Been There Before

There are some books that stay with us–like the aftertaste of a favorite Indian dish–long after the waiter has taken the last plate away.

Elena Ferrante’s masterpiece, The Days of Abandonment,  translated elegantly from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, continues to have just such a profound impact on my days, long after I finished savoring her magical words.

Indeed, there are some books that say things in such a way that it’s as if one is hearing for the very first time things one has heard many times before.  And when the things those books are saying are the very things that one has been trying to say as beautifully as the author has, one feels at  home, one feels an amazing sense of peace.  A sense of peace born of the thought, “I am not alone.”

 A Sense of Loss

The Days of Abandonment tells the story of Olga’s excruciating journey from betrayed wife to liberated sojourner, with microscopic scrutiny of one particularly painful, gut-wrenching day, and with an overflowing of empathy that makes understandable, if not rational, the absurd things an abandoned wife and mother might do.

Missing Pieces

If I were forced at pain of injury to conjure something I found missing in The Days of Abandonment, it would be only that I did not know enough of why Mario left Olga for Gina, other than the obvious:  youth and availability.  Of course, to venture deeper into Mario’s reasoning, in the hands of such an extraordinarily skilled author as Elena Ferrante, would be to unearth enough material for a book all its own.

Overall

Overall, this book beautifully tells the story of countless women in countless cultures.  It tells the story of my mother–or at least I believe it does.  (If she were here, and I thought she would be willing to answer, I might ask her if Olga’s story isn’t hers as well.)

And if Olga were here, I would thank her for having the courage to tell her story.  So powerful is this story, that it is hard to believe that Olga lives only between the book covers.  In reality, she lives everywhere there are women who’ve suffered the singular, yet universally-shared pain of betrayal.

Thank you, Elena Ferrante, for telling our stories with such courage and grace.

 

Every day, a day of Thanks-giving!

It is a beautiful day in Houston, Texas.  This, the last Sunday of November 2014.  This, the grand finale to the Thanksgiving Day celebration that means so much to so many, and for so many different reasons.

Those reasons, for me, include gratitude for a life that has given me my beautiful son, yet taken from me at too young an age, my beautiful mother.   A life that has given me a brilliant father, yet taken from that very father the strength and resilience necessary to continue to overcome life’s myriad hurdles.  A life that has given me a sharp mind and amazing resourcefulness, yet taken from me the constancy early in my life that perhaps would have ensured more constancy later in my life.

As this Thanksgiving weekend comes to a close, I am above all thankful for a life that through pain and love has given me the ability to find countless things to be thankful for, each and every day.

 

WRECKED, a novel by Tricia Fields

A Sense of Place

If your taste tends toward books that transport you to another geographic location, then you’ll really like Wrecked, a novel by Tricia Fields, that is set in the desolate, though beautifully rugged west Texas desert.  Boulders and vistas and gorgeous, multi-hued sunsets create a stark backdrop to this fast-paced detective novel.  (With words, Ms. Fields has captured the desert beauty that is captured in the photos on her website:  http://www.triciafields.com/)

A Sense of Time

If you enjoy books that keep you rooted in the present, and that embed reference to modern-day technological norms in communication, then you’ll really like Wrecked, in which the protagonist, Josie Gray, police chief in small, tight-knit Artemis, TX, uploads videos of her kidnapped boyfriend that have been sent to her by a ruthless Mexican cartel seeking the return of a very, very large sum of laundered drug money.

Missing Pieces

Alas, not all is picture-perfect on the wide-open vistas in Ms. Fields’ novel.  There are a few missing pieces.  The largest is perhaps the one created by Chief Gray’s beleaguered boyfriend, who is being held in exchange for the return of the stolen, laundered funds.  We learn early on, in painstaking detail, of his truly excruciating ordeal at the bottom of an abandoned well, only to lose sight of him for far too many pages.  Then, after he reappears in a safe house on the other side of the border, we lose sight of him for far too long, again.  He is being kept hostage and out of sight–both literally and figuratively.

Overall

Overall, Wrecked was at its very best when it was letting Ms. Fields display her clear familiarity with law enforcement:  the dust jacket indicates that her husband is a state trooper in Indiana.  Her ease with police vernacular informs much of the fast-paced, believable parts of the novel.

For a quick journey to another space in present time, Wrecked fills the bill.

 

Happy Day After Day After Father’s Day, Edmund

Handsome

Handsome.  Charismatic.  Charming.

Dad @ 19These are three of the words that  I remember adults using to describe Edmund when I was young.  As in, “Oh, your father is so talented and charming.”  Or, “I always thought your father was one of the most handsome men I’d met.”

I recall accepting compliments directed toward Edmund’s appearance with an odd mixture of pride, and uncertainty.  Proud that grown-ups found my father handsome, and uncertain as to what I was to do with that information.

Now, with the advantage of both time, and distance, I can take an objective look at Edmund, and declare, that, yes, he was indeed, a “very handsome man.”

Adventurous

Edmund was also adventurous.  Not so much in the physical, mountain-climbing way, but in the “damn the torpedoes” attitude, the we-only-live-once kind of way.

He had suffered severely from polio when he was young, and one of his legs bore testament to that struggle, so his exploits were of necessity more intellectual, more existential, than physical.

Edmund was adventurous in his love life, and in his writing.  So, too, he was wildly adventurous, some might say recklessly so, in his artistic endeavors.

I would place creating larger-than-life-size nude sculptures of his lovers, and exhibiting those sculptures at Laguna’s Sawdust Festival, on a par with sky-diving or mountain climbing, even if the consequences weren’t as potentially fatal.  But, maybe that’s just me.

I would also place his experience with meeting a woman, entering into a contractual living arrangement with her, and writing a book about that arrangement up there with adventurous acts of vulnerability, like say, undressing in front of strangers.  But again, maybe that’s just me.

Smart

Edmund was, perhaps above all else, smart.  In some of my fondest memories of him, I see him tinkering, experimenting, creating.  A chemist by education, he was an alchemist of sorts, and was light years ahead of others in his experimentation with fiber optics.

He was able to combine his curiosity, intellect, and command of writing to make even annual reports and user manuals at once authoritative–and entertaining.

And, he was a storyteller with an encyclopedic command of current events.   Wherever Edmund was, there was sure to be a world map nearby.

And so it is

Twenty years’ of Father’s Days have passed since Edmund died.  Twenty years since I last had the opportunity to send him a card, to call him, to tell him that I love him.

To be sure, we had our rough patches.  Our very rough patches.  I’d like to think, though,  that I never missed a Father’s Day opportunity to thank him for being my father.

Just in case I did miss a year or two, I’m taking this opportunity to express that gratitude, to thank him for the many gifts and talents he gave me.  Thank you, Edmund, from the bottom of my heart.

 

“Fading Gigolo,” Fading Gracefully

Expectations

I admit, I went into this John Turturro-Woody Allen movie with a high level of anticipation based solely on the fact that Woody Allen was going to be playing a leading role.   For answers as to why this fact was central to my level of expectation, take a look at “A Woody Allen Kind of NYC.”

Expectations Met . . .

Yes, to the extent that Woody Allen was tortured with anxiety, that his face and hand movements singularly broadcast his unique discomfort, and that he invited us, the audience, to agonize with him the way only he can do, Fading Gigolo was all that I hoped it would be.

And to the extent that it not only captured scenes of my beloved Manhattan and Brooklyn, but actually placed the film’s events in believable context within those familiar spots–and didn’t just gratuitously throw the neighborhoods into the mix–it exceeded my expectations.

. . . and Unmet

And yet.  And yet, I found it as implausible that John Turturro would acquiesce to Woody Allen’s scheme, and sell himself for sex, as the idea that Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara would pay significant sums (or any sums, for that matter) for such sex.

Even more, the theme emanating from timidly beautiful Vanessa Paradis’ widowed Orthodox Jewish mother-of-many, while laying the groundwork for a movie all its own, never was able, for me, to weave itself into the central theme of John Turturro’s turn as a gigolo.

And so . . .

In the end, I left the theatre feeling as if I had received exactly what I had bargained for:  a sentimental visit to my New York story, and a nod to the man who continues to tell it–whether as actor or as director–like no one else can.

A Woody Allen Kind of NYC

Note:  This post began as a review of Fading Gigolo, the 2013 John Turturro movie, featuring Woody Allen as a character that perhaps only Woody Allen can play.  It evolved into a send-up of sorts for the NYC that perhaps lives only in Woody Allen’s movies.

Manhattan-Love

In the mid-1990s, I lived on Manhattan’s East 55th Street.

Down the block from my apartment building, there was a lounge, Michael’s Pub, where  I’d heard that Woody Allen played clarinet.

Many evenings, I would slow my pace as I walked past the pub entrance on my harried way home from the stifling subway station, hoping that I might chance a glance upon the  famed Annie Hall director.

I’d stare at the pub door, relishing the thought that the man whose films evoked the NYC I dreamed of, had mere moments before walked through it.

Even then . . .

Negative news had emerged in the early 90s about Woody Allen.  The photos of Mia’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn.  The dysfunctional households.  The nasty break-up with Mia Farrow, and of course, the charges that flew back and forth, from one to the other, skimming the Central Park tree tops that separated their two homes.

Even so, I found myself still drawn to this complex man’s films. I know I was not alone.  It was as if there was a sort of disconnect between Woody Allen, the man who romanced the adopted daughter of his long-time girlfriend, and Woody Allen, the director, the maker of movies and the weaver of dreams.

 A Woody Allen Kind of NYC

After all, his movies held the promise of a New York City that had, for all my seasons spent there, still eluded me.  His was a city of scotch and existential sophistication, of chance meetings in wood-paneled bookstores with like-minded people who thought deep thoughts together in brilliant bursts of harmony.

To this day, I’m not sure if that New York City has really ever existed beyond Woody Allen’s movies—and my imagination.

 

Of lunchboxes and possiblities

The Lunchbox, the movie

A few weeks ago, I not so much saw the new movie from writer and director, Ritesh Batra, The Lunchbox, as I did inhale it. It was that good.  That sumptuous.

Savoring the aroma

Amid the glorious colors and the cacopohony of steel against steel in the trainyards of Mumbai, one of the most gratifying aspects of the movie was to watch an Indian office worker, whom one might imagine would be jaded by the temptations of Indian cooking, take in the aroma of ageless spices, and close his eyes as he savored each pungent taste.

That is what I do, a world and a culture away.  I close my eyes, inhale the pungent, exotic aroma, and savor each bite of Indian food.

Take me away

Food thoughtfully-cooked, in general, transports me.  It takes me to another place–both gastronomically and geographically speaking.  For that brief instant, I am in Mumbai. I am in Cairo. I am wherever the taste I am tasting was first tasted.

A new day of new possibilities

Today, as the fiery snap of coriander punctures my taste buds and the subtle scents of curry waft through my nose, I am embodying those who’ve tasted the same taste as I am, millions of times before me. And, for that brief moment in time, I am again transported to a world of possibilities. A world of endless lunchboxes and endless possibilities.

"Your life sounds like a book," she said.