Spring is in full force! Time for a change? How about trying personal essays? For those of you who may have binged on the fabulous books of short stories that came out in the winter — books like George Saunders’ Tenth of December, Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, and Tessa Hadley’s Married Love – here are two books of essays that are, in their way, as vivid and engrossing as stories. Here, too, are a couple of delicious novels with highly unusual protagonists, not your typical fictional cast of characters. In one, a golem and a jinni. In the other, a sociopathic husband and father. He’s in love with his little daughter, but he doesn’t really know what to love someone really entails.
FOF award-winning author, Linda Wolfe, has a new book coming out in June! MY DAUGHTER/MYSELF is “a wrenching, highly personal account of her 38-year-old daughter’s out-of-the-blue, near-fatal stroke and miraculous recovery.” We can’t wait to read it!
Want to win a copy of Helene Wecker’s fabulous new book, The Golem and the Jinni? Tell us your favorite spring read of 2013! 2 FOFs will win.
PORTRAIT INSIDE MY HEAD by Phillip Lopate.
Free Press. 292 pages.
Essayist Phillip Lopate started his career as a poet but gave up poetry because he had, he tells us in his new collection, Portrait Inside My Head, “fallen in love with the personal essay and its possibilities. I found in the personal essay a wonderful plasticity, which combined the storytelling aspects of fiction with the lyrical, associative qualities of poetry.”
The new book contains Lopate’s musings on many matters — on movies, baseball, other writers, the public spaces we inhabit — but it is his essays on private matters like marriage, sex, parenthood, and what he calls “the nail pairings of daily life” that are the most like stories.
In “Tea at the Plaza,” Lopate and his wife take their four-year-old daughter, Lily, to tea at the Plaza Hotel’s former bastion of High Tea for high society women and their offspring, the now vanished Palm Court, because they long to give her “all the social graces and sophisticated experiences” that they feel they themselves were deprived of in their childhoods. They exclaim over the “fabulous high ceiling, the palm trees, the piano, the marble floor….the peach cobblers, the jams, the crustless cucumber sandwiches, the savories, the petits fours.” But as the essay unfolds, it becomes clear that the occasion is less thrilling to Lily than to her parents, and even becomes an occasion for piercing sobs and anguish. The essay ends, as a story might, with the narrator reflecting on how he and his daughter have made the “now-shared discovery that life was composed, at bottom, of loss, futility, and ineluctable sadness. There was nothing you could do about it but laugh.”
When she was an infant, that same daughter had a mysterious illness, one that required her to be hospitalized for almost a year. In a later essay, “The Lake of Suffering,” Lopate describes the anguish of having a child in mortal danger, and the ordeal of paying daily visits to the hospital, a place that “was like a spaceship: no gravity, no up or down, white, weightless. Lily finally got to come home when she was about a year old, but had periodic setbacks for years. She is over them now, has become, we learn, “for all intents and purposes, a healthy teenager. Which means she is snappish, moody, dictatorial, and self-absorbed” (though she also has a good sense of humor and the ability to “tolerate her parents reasonably well. “) Lily and her mother have let go of the horrors of the hospital year. But Lopate can’t. “Is it because it shook me to my very core?” he asks self-critically. Or, vaingloriously, “Is it because I am too proud of having survived that ordeal to stop dwelling on it?”
That’s typical Lopate. In each of his personal essays he learns or reveals something untoward about himself. In “The Countess’s Tutor,” he learns he is capable of cruelty. In “Brooklyn the Unknowable,” he confesses that although he has come to like living and raising his daughter in Brooklyn, the borough he vowed never to return to once he left for Manhattan in his college days, he “may never be whole [because] I have been both Manhattanite and Brooklynite.” He has identified with “the imperial contempt” of Manhattan and “the complacent inferiority complex” of Brooklyn, “sampled the champagne and the Ovaltine, and will forever be split.”
To the extent to which there is a consistent theme in this collection of essays, Lopate tells us, “it is the discovery of limitations, and learning to live with them. The recognition of one’s limits, painful as it may be, can have salutary side effects.” For the reader, a highly salutary side effect of the author’s discoveries of his limitations is enjoyment and admiration for his honesty.
All of Sonnenberg’s essays in She Matters concern friendship, what makes one work, another one fail, fair weather friends, foul weather friends, friends who’ve treated us shabbily, friends we ourselves may have treated shabbily, the reasons behind why women sometimes treasure their female friends more than their male partners. But this is not a book of advice. It’s a wandering down the lanes and byways of Sonnenberg’s experiences with her own friends.
In a previous, highly acclaimed book, Her Last Death, Sonnenberg wrote about her traumatic childhood. Her witty and cynical father, founder of the now defunct literary journal Grand Street and her narcissistic, alcoholic, and extremely manipulative mother divorced when she was young, and Sonnenberg was brought up by the mother. She was, Sonnenberg writes, “the dominant woman of my life, who pulled and pushed, evaporated and materialized, careened, undid things, brambled my intentions.” Living with such a mother made it hard for her, as a girl, to form friendships. She was either wary of other females, afraid they would abuse her in the ways her mother did, or so needy that she would fling herself into a relationship even when the object of her quest was alarmed by her intensity. In She Matters she explores how she slowly came to trust other women, and how important other women have become to her.
She first truly “learned” friendship, she tells us, when she herself became a mother and was introduced by a new acquaintance to that woman’s friendship circle of young mothers. Accepted into their midst, “I’d never had such friends,” Sonnenberg writes. “Women to count on, who counted on me.”
Her new group of friends gathered frequently, gossiping, exchanging child-rearing wisdom, and nursing their babies. “Men!” Sonnenberg thinks as she finds new warmth and solace with these women, “I could barely fathom their use, now that we’d made children. The men didn’t speak our minutiae, or pass hours gathered with toddlers and strangers’ babies….They did not gentle the kids’ stiffened legs as we did, lifting them from the carts. What else could be important? Today, I could say to my three friends, on the weariest, hopeless days, I fed my family. That is enough, they said back. That is so much.”
If you’ve ever been a mother, you may remember a feeling like this, though you may never have put it into words, as Sonnenberg does.
Similarly, if you’ve ever felt that the way we women sometimes talk to one another might shock a man, you’ll cotton to this, about how the author’s husband, arriving in the midst of a visit to Sonnenberg by two lesbian friends, is thrown for a loop by their language and intimate stories. The pair, Sonnenberg explains, “exalted sex as sacred and did it saying cunt and pussy, spilling mock secrets, letting raunch erupt.” Sonnenberg’s husband blushes, says, “Stop it!”, while the author longs to tell him, “It’s good…when women say the real everything, allow each other, wield dirty talk as part of living.”
The book, as it delves into Sonnenberg’s friendships with the women who comforted her when she lost her father, or who helped her become accustomed to living in a new part of the country, or made her understand herself better, is filled with little moments like this, moments you may have experienced in your own friendships with women.
Unfortunately, it’s the nature of the beast with a book like this that the author may come off at times as overly self-involved. Sonnenberg does, and it’s sometimes annoying, but it’s also clear that she’s well-equipped with wit, imagination, and the talent to make an essay read like almost like a short story.
THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI by Helene Wecker.
HarperCollins. 486 pages.
A golem, first mentioned in the Old Testament and subsequently entrenched in Jewish folklore, is a creature that resembles a human being, but is made of clay, and designed to obey its creator or a master. A jinni, in Syrian folktales, is a creature that lives on the edges of human perception, rather like a fairy, but on occasion can be caught, entrapped, and also be made to serve a master. Traditionally, these figures have no will of their own and can be put to evil or selfish purposes by those who control them.
Helene Wecker’s golem and jinni have no masters. The golem, a female one, was purchased in Poland by a man in need of a wife from a wizened student of the Kabbala, an ancient Jewish form of mysticism and magic. The prospective bridegroom requested an obedient wife, but also one endowed with intelligence and curiosity. The magician complied, the buyer packed up his golem in a trunk, and emigrated with the trunk to America aboard a steerage ship. He was planning to awaken and give orders to his clay spouse once they were in the new country. But unfortunately, he dies en route.
The jinni has been encased in a copper flask for many hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, by a desert dabbler in the dark arts. He is freed from his imprisonment, appearing vital, virile and handsome in human form, when a Syrian tinsmith is asked by a friend to repair a dented old flask, and begins tinkering with it. But the tinsmith cannot be the Jinni’s master. His master is the long-vanished magician who put him into the flask.
Rudderless, both golem and jinni are on their own in navigating the strange new world of lower Manhattan in the late 1890s in which they find themselves. Recreating that world is Wecker’s great achievement. Not since reading that cult classic, Jack Finney’s Time and Again, have I felt so transported back to old New York by a book, a trick as magical, in its literary way, as the creation of non-human beings. Wecker brings to life the tiny shops near the Bowery of what used to be called little Syria, the multitude of tenements and synagogues near East Broadway on the Lower East Side, the welter of languages spoken on the cheerless streets, and the ways in which people with a past of poverty are trying to grab hold of America’s promise of a future of wealth. In this teeming environment, the golem and the jinni must learn how to control their baser impulses, how to use their own free will, and how to love – in short, how to be human. The golem becomes a baker’s assistant, the jinni takes up the tinsmith’s craft, they make friends among their neighbors, eventually meet one another and – you guessed it — fall in love.
This all works, though alas, for me, the end of the book didn’t. Wecker abandons her hitherto graceful pace and carefully observed scenes to tie up her plot in a swirl of comic-book-like appearances and disappearances, now-you-see-ems, now-you-don’t surprises. But as the best magicians know, magic tricks are best not explained. Nevertheless, until the overwrought end, I thoroughly believed a golem and a jinni might have walked among my forebears on New York’s Lower East Side.
First-novelist Gaige was inspired by a notorious real-life episode to create her tale of Erik Schroder, an immigrant from East Germany raised in a shabby lower-class neighborhood in Boston, who as a teenager begins to call himself Eric Kennedy, and claim to be from a town “not far from Hyannisport.” You may remember the real-life episode. It was the story of the con artist Christian Gerhartsreiter who renamed himself Clark Rockefeller, fooled a number of people into investing big bucks with him, and kidnapped his daughter in a custody dispute with his estranged wife. Gaige’s Schroder will also kidnap his daughter, 6-year-old Meadow, when his wife, from whom he is recently separated, attempts to reduce his visitation rights.
It’s hard to like Schroder. He’s totally self-involved, and even as he gets his hands on his beloved daughter and flees up north with her you gradually sense something eerily irresponsible about him. When he takes the child swimming at Lake George, instead of joining her in the deep cold water, he stands on the shore chatting up a woman he’s met on the beach, letting the little girl wade so far out alone she’s in water up to her waist. When he and Meadow spend the night in a backwoods New England cabin, after he puts the child to bed he leaves without telling her he might go out, and has sex with a woman in the next-door cabin — only to have Meadow awaken, discover his absence and, panicked, go out into the night to try to find him. He even attempts to hide the little girl in the trunk of their car when he fears the police are pursuing him. How Schroder handles his presumed “love” for his daughter is so thoughtless and eccentric as to be monstrous. The author’s insight into the mind of the pathological Schroder is profound, and the book will haunt you long after you have put it down.