Spring Book Reviews: Part 3 of 3

"The eyes are not windows. There are nerve impulses, but no one reads them, counts them, translates them, and ruminates about them. Hunt for as long as you want, there's nobody home. The world is contained within you, and you're not there."--Daniel Kehlmann

DIFFICULT WOMEN: A Memoir of Three by David Plante

Where to begin? Maybe by saying this is not the book I thought I special ordered? I found a scrap of an envelope with the title and nothing else thinking it was going to be similar to Megan Mayhew Bergman’s “Almost Famous Women”? (Which I loved!!) Obviously, I read a review, or someone recommended it. Anyway, it’s a sad book. Sad because the author seems like the kid in grade school who hangs out with bullies just to breathe the air of the self-imposed powerful. The “difficult” women he writes about are horrible to him—questioning his talents as a writer and using his youth and admiration for entertainment and to further their own work. Plante is easy company because these women are lonely and Plante, I believe, genuinely admires them—although it’s hard to understand why at times. 

Readers criticized Plante’s memoir when it was first published in 1983 as an “ambush” on the writer Jean Rhys (“Wild Sargasso Sea”), Sonia Orwell (only married to George for like a nanosecond), and Germain Greer (“The Female Eunuch”). What a varied bunch. Whether the author meant the memoir as an act of retribution is examined in the forward. 

Favorite line(s): In my bed, I couldn’t sleep, and I lay wondering why. I knew I felt guilt towards, not all women, but difficult women and I felt guilt because, somewhere in my life which I could not recall, I had done something, perhaps simply said something, which was wrong, which had hurt them, and the only reaction possible for them to what I had done or said was to be difficult. I had made them difficult. Yet they gave me something, these women, or at least promised me something, for which I wanted to be close to them. They could justify me in my body and soul. 


Note: I loaned this book out and didn’t have it with me for the covers shot. Same with the Plante memoir. McDermott’s “The Ninth Hour” wasn’t returned to me in time to read it for the spring stack. Another season!!  

A book club selection by the One Brainers for April, "A Gentleman in Moscow" is a big book requiring big thoughts about a big country going through big changes. Beginning in the 1920s and ending in the 1950s, Towles gives us the story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov who, after writing a poem deemed subversive to “the cause,” is under house arrest at the Metropol, a hotel similar to the Plaza in New York City, and situated across the street from the Kremlin. It reads like a Russian novel. There are secret rooms, political motives, lost characters, and traditions adhered to by some and abandoned by others. Half our Brainers loved it. The other half, not so much. It requires steady reading. Not a novel to pick up for a few chapters and abandon for a week. But if you hang on until the last third, you will be duly rewarded with a story not easily forgotten.

Favorite line(s): But do you think the achievements of the Americans—envied the world over—came without a cost? Just ask their African brothers. And do you think the engineers who designed their illustrious skyscrapers or built their highways hesitated for one moment to level the lovely little neighborhoods that stood in their way? I guarantee you, Alexander, they laid the dynamite and pushed the plungers themselves. As I’ve said to you before, we and the Americans will lead the rest of this century because we are the only nations who have learned to brush the past aside instead of bowing before it. But where they have done so in service of their beloved individualism, we are attempting to do so in service of the common good.

And this one: For years now, with a bit of a smile, the Count had remarked that this or that was behind him—like his days of poetry or travel or romance. But in so doing, he had never really believed it. In his heart of hearts, he had imagined that even if unattended to, these aspects of his life were lingering somewhere on the periphery, waiting to be recalled. But looking at the bottle in his hand, the Count was struck by the realization that, in fact, it was all behind him. Because the Bolsheviks, who were so intent upon recasting the future from a mold of their own making, would not rest until every last vestige of his Russia had been uprooted, shattered, or erased.

FEEL FREE: Essays by Zadie Smith

I spent most of the last two months dipping in and out of "Feel Free," Smith’s collection of essays written during the eight years of the Obama administration. In the introduction, Smith writes that “all (essays) have is their freedom,” and hers seem to wander around and through subjects she finds interesting. From Brexit and climate change to Jay Z and Billie Holiday, Smith writes like an eager student not afraid of learning something new and giving herself permission to change her mind along the way. Her thought process unfolds like a peony. Here is a rambling paragraph about trying to find the Boboli Gardens in Florence: “But many people set out from a Florence hotel with the hope of getting to a particular place—few ever get there. You step into a narrow alleyway, carina della citta in hand, walk confidently past the gelato place, struggle through the crowd at the mouth of the Ponte Vecchio, take a left and find yourself in some godforsaken shady vicolo near a children’s hospital, where the temperature is in the hundreds, and someone keeps trying to sell you a rip-off Prada handbag. You look up pleadingly at the little putti babies. You take a right, a left, another right—here is the Duomo again. But you have already seen the Duomo. In Florence, wherever you try to get to, you end up at the Duomo, which seems to be constantly changing its location.” The book is divided into sections: In the World; In the Audience; In the Gallery; On the Bookshelf; and Feel Free. There’s something for everyone. Seriously.

Favorite line(s): But I didn’t come to love Joni Mitchell by knowing anything more about her, or understanding what an open-tuned guitar is, or even by sitting down and forcing myself to listen and re-listen to her songs. I hated Joni Mitchell—and then I loved her. Her voice did nothing for me—until the day it undid me completely. And I wonder whether it is because I am such a perfect fool about music that the paradigm shift in my ability to listen to Joni Mitchell became possible. Maybe a certain kind of ignorance was the condition. Into the pure nothingness of my non-knowledge, something sublime (an event?) beyond (beneath?) consciousness was able to occur.” 


The first time I read Salinger’s "Franny and Zooey" might have been in high school? I loved "Catcher in the Rye" and then jumped into all of Salinger’s other works. Rereading "Franny and Zooey," I was struck by how nonsensical some of it seemed when Salinger seemed so refreshingly contemporary to my younger reader self. Maybe because I’m older and less enamored with theatrics, but the two characters exhausted me. Franny with her angry phase and crisis of spirit. Zooey with his rants about his older brothers and Franny’s nervous breakdown. Their mother even gets her fair share of space to complain between cigarettes. The story, set in NYC in the mid-1950s, feels nostalgic. And maybe the story, at its core, is about looking back and feeling stuck with the pain of loss in the present? I don’t usually like reading a book more than once since there are so many to read and so little time. Plus, the joy of the first read never quite lives up to the second. Sadly, that was the case with "Franny and Zooey."

Favorite line(s): “On top of everything else,” he said immediately, “we’ve got ‘Wise Child’ complexes. We’ve never really got off the goddam air. Not one us. We don’t talk, we hold forth. We don’t converse, we expound. At least I do. The minute I’m in a room with somebody who has the usual number of ears, I either turn into a goddam seer or a human hatpin. The Prince of Bores.”

If there was a theme to the last of the spring reads it is rumination. "Compulsively focusing on one's own negative thoughts." The summer stack of reads is growing. Lots of light beach reads to come. 

Robin Gaines