The Common Good

Book Reviews: Four for the Summer

THE RED HOUSE by Mark Haddon

I read Mark Haddon's first novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, while flying somewhere. Usually plane trips make me sleepy. That time I was transfixed, improbably gripped by his first-person account of an autistic boy's attempt to learn who killed the neighbor's poodle.

A couple of years later, I eagerly took Haddon's second novel, A Spot of Bother, off the library's new-books shelf. Meh. Maybe my expectations were  too high. It's not bad, for a dysfunctional-family novel, but I didn't breathlessly tell my friends about it.

A few weeks ago I read a review of his third novel, The Red House, and put it on hold. It was published June 12, I got it June 15 (I adore the Wheaton Public Library), it was due yesterday, and I finished it last night. It wouldn't have kept me awake on a long flight, but it's oddly brilliant.

I once read a definition of a literary novel as one where the characters, after thinking a great deal, are just as miserable at the end as they were at the beginning. The Red House is definitely a literary novel. The situation: a brother and a sister in their late 40s, having ignored each other for years, meet for a two-family vacation near Hay-on-Wye not long after their mother's funeral. Here is the cast of characters, with their problems:

Richard, the brother. A physician who is facing a lawsuit. Shocked by revelations about his second wife. Doesn't much like her daughter.

Louisa, his wife. Unhappy first marriage. A past she'd rather forget. A daughter she doesn't know what to do with.

Melissa, their daughter, age 16.The meanest of mean girls, facing serious trouble back home for something she shouldn't have done. Realizes she has no real friends.

Angela, the sister. Not fond of either her brother or her husband. Resentful about being left to care for her aging mother. Afraid she will turn out just like her. Grieving the loss of an infant 18 years ago.

Dominic, her husband. Loser who, unbeknownst to Angela, is cheating on her with a woman he isn't sure he likes.

Alex, their son, age 17. Who knows what his problems will be after he relaxes his grip on his, um, total obsession with sex?

Daisy, their daughter, age 16. In-your-face religious, which annoys her family. I won't tell you about her other problem, one of the more interesting parts of the book.

Benjy, their son, age 8. Lives mostly in his imagination. Biggest problem: he has to hang out with the rest of this crew.

Put these eight in one vacation home in a remote part of Herefordshire and see what happens. Adopt the stance of omniscient narrator and tell their stories through stream-of-consciousness narration with lots of sentence fragments. Make it a big tricky, sometimes, for the reader to know who's talking, and see if we care what happens.

Well, eventually I did care, even though my usual lazy taste runs toward more straightforward novels. Haddon is a good writer. He may be a genius. But so far his legacy still depends on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

PS - For a thorough, knowledgeable, funny, and curmudgeonly review of this novel, read Tom Shone, "Under One Roof," in the July 8 New York Times.

DRIFT by Rachel Maddow

This is not a book review. It is a plug. If you are an American, you should read Drift.

At first glance, Drift did not call my name.Its subtitle, The Unmooring of American Military Power, sounded wonky (by the U.S. definition): more than I wanted to know about a topic that didn't grab me. I picked up the book anyway, and by page 2, I was hooked. Maddow leaped nimbly over my highest bar for a nonfiction writer: she got me to care about a topic that previously left me indifferent.

That's fine for a left-coast liberal like LaVonne, some of my friends may be thinking, but I don't read people who have an eponymous show on MSNBC. Hey, we all have the right to our own prejudices, but consider these perhaps surprising facts:

  • Maddow begins by deploring government spending gone awry

  • She frequently appeals to the framers of the Constitution

  • She believes the executive branch has entirely too much power

  • She finds fault with decisions made by Johnson, Clinton, and Obama as well as by Reagan, Bush, and Bush (and plenty of other people of both parties)

Maddow's point? That our founding fathers intended to make waging war difficult.

That is why they authorized Congress, not the President, to declare war: warmongering is just too attractive to Presidents Who Would Be Kings. And that is why, when our American forbears did go to war, they used (mostly) citizen soldiers, not a professional standing military force--men who had to leave their fields, factories, and offices when they put on their uniforms, and who were more than happy to return to them just as soon as the fighting was finished. But since the 1960s, the power to declare war has shifted - unconstitutionally - from the legislative to the executive branch, and waging war has shifted from citizen soldiers to private corporations, and war has gone from being rare to being the dull background of everyday life — a thriving industry, in fact.

Drift answered a question that's been troubling me for years. In books or films set during World War II, the whole nation seems to be involved. Sons, husbands, and lovers leave for the front. Women take over factory jobs and grow victory gardens. Everybody drives less, makes do without coffee and butter, and buys war bonds. Families gather around huge radios to listen to news about the war. Victories inspire ticker-tape parades and dancing in the streets. Born three years after that war ended, I've lived through lots of wars, and they didn't feel a bit like those tales of sacrifice and heroism, loss and jubilation. Have I been seeing World War II through a haze of nostalgia? Or has something fundamentally changed?

Something has definitely changed, says Maddow, who is not only a TV presenter but also a Rhodes Scholar with an Oxford DPhil in political science. There has been no conspiracy, but there has been a lot of secrecy. With good or at least pragmatic intentions, our leaders have put us in a situation that could have unimaginably tragic consequences — and one of these days probably will, unless we inform ourselves and act to restore our founding fathers' vision.

Drift has been heavily discussed elsewhere: Google it and enjoy the reviews. Or just get yourself a copy. Still want to know more? Here, let Maddow explain

THE BEGINNER'S GOODBYE by Anne Tyler

Dorothy keeps popping up unexpectedly. Aaron, her husband, first sees her at the house the oak tree fell on. She then starts joining him at random times and places: in the grocery store check-out line, in the street near his office, in Belvedere Square. One day she appears just outside his office window, by the trash cans.

The odd thing is, Dorothy has been dead for nearly a year.

Aaron is neither romantic nor religious. He's the dutiful, unimaginative editor at the family-owned vanity press, publishers of a Beginner's series — "something on the order of the Dummies books, but without the cheerleader tone of voice," thin books to get you started:

Anything is manageable if it's divided into small enough increments, was the theory; even life's most complicaSted lessons. Not The Beginner's Cookbook but The Beginner's Soups.... Not The Beginner's Child Care but The Beginner's Colicky Baby.

But how can Aaron apply this wisdom to grieving? How can he begin to say goodbye to Dorothy, his wife of ten years?

The Beginner's Goodbye includes everything you'd expect in an Anne Tyler novel (it's her 19th): Lovable, socially awkward characters. Family ties that sometimes bind. Writing that is at once accessible and literary, comic and profound. Baltimore.

It's not as rich as Tyler's magnificent Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, but then a Beginner's guide is just meant to get you started. This one could start a lot of conversations, not only about grief but also about communication in marriage, and how we sabotage our own happiness, and whether marriage partners can ever really know one another.

SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED: A JOURNAL OF MY SON'S FIRST SON by Anne Lamott with Sam Lamott

My 9-month-old grandson is indubitably the cutest, sweetest, smartest, most amazing baby in the whole world. These traits must run in our family: the same adjectives could be (and often are) applied to my three other grandchildren, now extraordinary teenagers. Here, let me show you pictures ...

Well, at least Anne Lamott didn't include photos in this sequel to her 1993 best-seller, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year. Apart from that unaccountable omission, Some Assembly Required is a pure outpouring of grandmotherly fervor, adoration, obsession, and — in Lamott's inimitable (but often parroted) style — neurosis. I first learned of this book in an airport bookstore, en route to see my most recent prodigious grandbaby. How could I resist?

Lamott, who became a single parent in 1989, was startled to learn that her son, Sam, was going to become a parent in 2009, shortly before his 20th birthday. Sam's partner, Amy, was a year older. They were not sure if they were going to stay together.

If you are an Anne Lamott fan, you are no doubt eager to know what happens to this precarious young family. If you have yet to get acquainted with Ms. Lamott's simultaneously self-absorbed and self-deprecating nonfiction, however, don't start here. Opt rather for Operating Instructions or Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, fine essay-memoirsthat lay the necessary groundwork for appreciating Lamott's singular foibles and quirks.

I especially liked two things about Some Assembly Required. First, in an extended aside (pages 126 to 160), Lamott describes her trip to India. It has little to do with baby Jax, but I love the way she depicts how it feels for a relatively privileged introverted Californian (I identify) to plunge into the very different world of Delhi:

People were going about their day: Brahmans, vendors, beggars, rickshaw drivers, schoolchildren in eentsy-beentsy buses. Some people were waking up under blankets: families who lived on the streets in this soft fever dream, with temporary homes built against low walls and fences. A kitchen materializes when the mother produces two bricks and some dung and someone has found pieces of coal or wood from packing crates; they have a rice pot and a minimal amount of grains to cook. In the market stalls were great vats of milk boiling, and clay pots in which yogurt would be made, from warm milk and yesterday's curds. Everywhere, people were doing their daily puja, their offering of flowers, fruit, devotions: in their stalls, on their blankets, in their rickshaws, in their fleeting homes on the street.

The second thing I really liked about the book struck me at first as annoying. Throughout the entire year, Lamott is on a constant cycle of trying to control the lives of Sam, Amy, and Jax; complaining to her friends when things don't go her way; getting told that this isn't about her; and eventually feeling all contrite and wise. But then I realized that she is describing the fundamental task of grandparents and, indeed, of all of us of grandparent age. Unless we're the Queen of England, the time comes when we have to let go and turn the running of the world over to the next generation.

It isn't easy. It takes a lot of practice and plenty of forgiveness on both sides. And even if we think we've left the stage and are now in the audience wildly applauding the current crop of actors, our kids may not see it that way. Here's some of Lamott's wisdom, in a chastened moment:

It is the most difficult Zen practice to leave people to their destiny, even though it's painful--just loving them, and breathing with them, and distracting them in a sweet way, and laughing with them.
    Whose life was I living? I was living Annie's life (and maybe a bit of the dogs'). And it was complex enough. I had enough to wrestle, wrangle, and settle back into, with this one life of mine. Besides, I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that if something was not my problem, I probably did not have the solution.
     There are no words for how much I hate, resent, and resist this.

The fact that Anne's son Sam contributed a great deal to this book tells me she must be doing a good-enough job of letting go. And anyway, Jax is about to turn three. I suspect he has been asserting his own generational rights for at least a year now.

LaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust and at The Neff Review, where these reviews originally appeared.

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