Taking Ivy Seriously

I fired up my Kindle to read this one because I enjoy Matthew David Brozik’s writing so much. He specializes in silliness for nerds, LOL humor for the crossword-puzzle set. If you read “Shouts & Murmurs” in the bathroom and totally get a kick out of those memes that go around with Downton Abbey episodes retold as Tweets, Brozik is your type of writer.

Taking Ivy Seriously lives up to his previous work. It imagines a world more or less like contemporary America, except where literature and words have very high stakes. So, basically, a world like the one I live in. Poetry is a bit illicit and politicians are caught messing around with words out of wedlock. It’s a tale of intrigue that centers around a teenaged girl and her manuscript of pedestrian poetry. Only Brozik could make that unbelievably funny.

I won’t spoil the plot for you, but I’ll say that one of the charms of this book is that Brozik always knows just how far to take the humor. It’s tongue-in-cheek—far more than most writers could get away with—but the whole time you get the sense that Brozik is laughing at himself for doing it.

If you or a nerd you love is looking for light, fun beach reading as a break from Elizabethan poetry and Bakhtin, this is the book you’re looking for. If you enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love, I can’t help you with that.

The End of the Jews

“The best writers, to Tristan’s mind, make him feel stupid and oafish by doing what he cannot,” Adam Mansbach writes in The End of the Jews (114). That’s what Mansbach’s writing does to me. He did it with Shackling Water and now again with The End of the Jews.

Mansbach is a writer’s writer. His work is strong and vital, and his words are pulsing. He gets at the heart of any matter with sentences so sharpened and white hot they sizzle as they make their mark. Every time I read him, the envy I feel quickly turns on it’s toes and becomes determination to become a better writer. There’s just no space for vague and insipid emotions like jealousy in Mansbach’s work. His characters are far more precise than that.

Take for example this description from the perspective of a young Jewish-American writer attending a party filled with WASPs during World War II: “To be colorful is a common appetite among these Mayflower types. They are so accustomed to fitting in that now they seek to stand out, and thus they strive for a bit of coarseness, act the way they guess the lower classes might. The lower classes, meanwhile, are busy trying to behave as it they’d shared a stateroom with these schlemiels on the way over from merry old England” (101).


Mansbach gets the voice right every time his third-person, limited narrative shifts. He ages Tristan’s voice perfectly when the narrative skips forward five decades, from a young, breakthrough writer to the grandfather of a young, breakthrough writer.

And then there’s the detail. Never too much, but just the right amount of movement to set the scene. During one emotional confrontation, a young Nina bursts into a room, interrupting her long-lost father at lunch with his co-worker. Mansbach sets the scene in one line: “’Can I help you?’ he inquires. The woman takes another bite” (143). Somehow, and I don’t know how, we know from that bite that this woman is the lover that has taken the place of Nina’s mother. All it takes is a bite of the sandwich.

I get published on a regular basis. Most days, I consider myself a pretty good writer and don’t feel the need to compete with other writers. Mansbach makes me want to be better, not to be as good as he is (I can’t be), but because he clearly works his ass off, and so should I. A writer is only as good as her next project, after all.

As Mansbach writes of the writer: “Here he was at work again, struggling his ass off, and past success, recent or distant, had no bearing on the matter” (249). Indeed.

The Peabody Sisters

            If you’re not an American Studies scholar, you’ve likely never heard of the Peabody sisters. Even if you are an American Studies scholar, there’s a good chance you just know of Sophia Peabody as the woman who married Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mary Peabody as the woman who became Horace Mann’s second wife. The Peabody Sisters, by Megan Marshall, seeks to change all that, discussing three women who were at the forefront of intellectual, religious, and educational movements.

            The sisters were born to a formerly prominent Massachusetts family after the family had already its fortune and sunk a few rungs in respectability. There had already been a scandal involving playwright Royall Tyler, the parlor was shabby, and the girls’ mother, Eliza, was running a school to try to make ends meet. Making ends meet would be a running theme throughout the girls’ lives while their father and brothers seemed to flub one commercial venture after another. Elizabeth was the first to open a school, although Mary would eventually be the more involved in educational reform.

            The Peabody sisters came of age in a time when women of brilliance were constrained by social norms. Elizabeth, especially, had difficulty finding outlets for her incredible intelligence, and so she became the intellectual helpmeet of an impressive array of men: Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mann, and Willian Ellery Channing, to name a few. Marshall offers ample evidence that Elizabeth Peabody most likely surpassed several of these men in intellectual capacity, but they rose to prominence while she was relegated to the role of female second-fiddle.

            Then there’s Sophia Peabody, who has so often been portrayed by historians as a neurasthenic invalid who Nathaniel Hawthorne saddled himself with. That she was a talented artist denied opportunities due to her sex never seems to be all that important. Marshall makes a strong case that Sophia Peabody’s medical problems probably had a biological basis in the medication she was given – both as a child and as an adult – in addition to the psychological forces at work on her artistic mind.

            Marshall beautifully walks the line between excellent research and sensible analysis. The book is quite readable and engaging, yet she never reaches beyond fact to make the narrative more compelling, as was the case in The Tin Ticket. I felt convinced because all of Marshall’s analysis was well-grounded in her research and fully documented. This book does much to fill out the picture of American Romanticism with some of the most important women who have been shunted to the sidelines of history. It’s long, very long, but I didn’t begrudge Marshall the months of nighttime reading it took because it was incredibly well-written and interesting.

            I put down the Steve Jobs biography to read this book. It was a far, far better use of my time.

Caleb’s Crossing

This is going to be a much shorter review than Geraldine Brooks’s Caleb’s Crossing deserves because I’m short on time.

I like good historical fiction but find much of the genre to be overwrought, inaccurate, or unconvincing. Not so with Caleb’s Crossing, which held beautifully to the rather challenging voice and POV Brooks saddled herself with. It’s hard to write from the female point of view about the early days of Massachusetts because so few women could write, let alone find the time to record their views. Brooks fills in with historically credible imagination where the documents leave off, telling the story of the conversion of Martha’s Vineyard’s indigenous population from the standpoint of Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of one of the island’s settlers.

Talk about two populations underrepresented in the historical annals.

See How We Almost Fly

            “I don’t read contemporary poetry.” That’s what I told Alison Luterman at a recent conference, right before I asked her if I could have a copy of the poem she had just read to the group. That poem spoke to me, and so I decided to get a copy of one of her books, See How We Almost Fly.

            I don’t read contemporary poetry because contemporary poets are self-absorbed and impressed with their own post-somethingism. Alison Luterman is neither. Instead, she does what a poet should do – she tells a complete feeling and a complete story in a tiny block of space. Her words do not dance across the page, nor do they stomp. Instead, they press themselves into place, each with its own deliberate space in time.

            Her poems are about small things that are huge: the death of a friend, a word in a poetry class in women’s prison, women with bags of rice. Luterman makes those deeply personal moments ours, so that even as we see the specifics of the incident, we can burrow within and find the moment a part of our own lives.

            I read one poem before bed every night for almost two months. Now I’m faced with a decision: get a new book of her poetry or start over. I guess I now read contemporary poetry.

Are You My Mother?

            Oh, Alison Bechdel, why do you do this to me? You publish these books that look like comic books, which sets the mind at easy and then you sock me with a text that requires considerably more concentration than I needed to read Ulysses. And, really, did you have to title this latest Are You My Mother? I read that title and I think of the bird hopping around in a kid’s book.

            Well, this ain’t no kid’s book.

            Are You My Mother? is a companion book to Bechdel’s graphic memoir about her father’s closeted life and suicide, Fun Home. I found that first book challenging and intriguing, well worth the effort. This latest knocked me on my ass. In a good way.

            Somewhere about a third of the way through Are You My Mother?, while trying to keep track of the various therapists and partners that act as signposts for the different time periods Bechdel threads through the book, I thought to myself, “I’m just going to have to read this again when I’m done.” As someone once told me, “You never read Ulysses for the first time.”

            Bechdel weaves psychoanalytic theory and history, Adrienne Rich, and Virginia Woolf in with what appears at first glance to be a rambling through time. In fact, Bechdel doesn’t ramble but tightly controls the twists and turns of the text as she explores her relationship with her mother and her own psyche. She leaves the reader subtle visual clues to help guide readers on their way through the speeding train of a labyrinth that is this book.  

            Bechdel is a bit like graphic writing’s answer to Woody Allen, were he smarter, funnier, and far less annoying. And also not married to his stepdaughter. And a lesbian. So, really not like Woody Allen at all, except for the lots-of-therapy bit.

            At any rate, go read Are You My Mother? But not at the beach. Read something lighter and easier there, like Joyce.

From Our House

            “What I wanted more than anything was for him to acknowledge his part in the mistakes we had made. Not once, after all the times he had whipped me, after all the screaming, cursing fights, had he told me he was sorry. Always, I was the one who eventually apologized for my behavior” (155).  So Lee Martin writes about his father here in his memoir From Our House. The book is an honest yet oddly gentle uncovering of a childhood marked by violence and anger.

            Martin’s father lost both his hands in a farming accident when Lee was a young child. “I know that all our lives began to curve and change that day in the cornfield when the shucking box on the picker clogged, and my father tried to clear it without first shutting off the tractor,” Martin exlains (1). Martin’s father’s stumps were fitted with metal hooks as prosthetics, and he continued to do all the farm work.

            Martin posits that his father became angry after the accident, and at moments through the book, he supplies another image of his father – the happy, loving man he imagines he might have been before. Perhaps young Martin needed that imaginary father to cling to in the moments when he heard the belt coming off, but it’s also part of Martin’s ability to avoid casting his father as villain. His mother is the saint in the story, no doubt – a patient, religious woman who spends a lot of time seeing the best in the husband and son who fight all the time. Yet, his father is not the devil, not in the way Martin tells the story.

            Instead, Martin allows himself to portray his father as a whole human being. He does this by refusing to let himself off the hook. Just as he always apologized to his father as a young person, in the text he shoulders a good hunk of the responsibility for their tumultuous relationship. On the one hand, I have a hard time seeing him assign blame to his younger self for reacting as he did to a father who exerted such cruel power over him. But on the other hand, there’s something incredibly evolved about a person who can say It’s not just the other person’s fault. He writes it not to be a martyr, but rather with sadness that he and his father could never have a good relationship, due to the forces life exerted on them.

            I met Lee Martin a few months ago and took a seminar from him at a conference. He was a remarkable, gifted teacher, and he rejuvenated my work. I got the sense then that I was in the presence of a strong, thoughtful, and unusual person. Reading his memoir, I realize how right I was.

22 Britannia Road

It’s hard to imagine simply losing your spouse and child, but that’s what happened to Janusz, a Polish soldier in World War II.  Now, six years later, he is living in London and has located Silvana and seven-year-old Aurek, who lived out the war in the forests of Poland. That’s the premise for Amanda Hodgkinson’s strong debut novel, 22 Britannia Road.

The confusion of war meant that Janusz was not long with his unit and Silvana couldn’t remain in their apartment. After the war, there must have been many people in this kind of predicament – married, no longer in their country, and unsure of whether their families were alive or dead. The premise itself is fascinating – Hodgkinson conveys the real feeling of “families torn apart” – but the way it plays out is what makes this novel so compelling.

Written in third person and alternating between the characters, 22 Britannia Road shows everyone to be fallible, yet makes each character sympathetic in his or her own way. Tragedy comes not from a single person’s fault, but rather from a set of people, bumping up against one another in difficult circumstances, each making completely understandable mistakes.

In a text with such pared-down, direct prose, readers nonetheless get a full sense of the characters in all their human complexity. My favorite relationship is Aurek and Janusz as they try to build a father-son relationship here in this strange new land. Aurek hasn’t even been in civilization for most of his life, and now he has to go to school and relate to this guy Silvana tells him is his father. Hodgkinson handles their relationship with just the right touch, avoiding sentimentality or heavy-handedness. As in the rest of the book, she sketches in the outlines and shadows, and somehow we see all the colors.

The plot resolves in a satisfying yet far from pat way. I really liked this one, and I walked away with the sense that this is how a novel ought to be written.

Whimsy & Soda

P.G. Wodehouse’s writing is, in a way, a parody in itself. All that “What ho, Jeeves?” and “Very good, sir.” Wodehouse carefully controls his characters and language; the humor comes from us outside watching Bertie Wooster, a man who never really knows the joke is on him. Wodehouse’s humor never spills over the edge, it’s never campy.

So, how do you parody a parody ? How do you pay tribute to (and gently poke fun at) Wodehouse without taking it too far? The same way you brush an alligator’s teeth.

Very, very carefully.

Matthew David Brozik’s new e-book, Whimsy & Soda, does just that. Brozik gingerly plucks up Wodehouse’s characters and pops them down into new, kind of surreal situations. What would happen if Wooster turned into a budgerigar overnight? How would Jeeves handle it? And that’s just the first story. Wait till you get to Bruce Wayne.

What makes Whimsy & Soda such a fantastic parody is that Brozik manages to stay completely true to the characters, no matter how bizarre the situation. He has a perfect handle on their voices and personalities that can only possibly come from a devotion to Wodehouse. The situations he comes up with for the characters can only come from a brilliant and probably somewhat disturbed mind.

Brozik’s humor is as tightly controlled as Wodehouse’s. He, too, never slips over the edge and never breaks from Wodehouse’s voice, except in the one twist of the situation he sticks the characters into.

It’s a great book for a Wodehouse fan. I had actually never read Wodehouse before this, but since I’m rapidly becoming a Brozik fan and I love a good parody, I invested the time in a Wodehouse book before coming to Whimsy & Soda. It was time well spent, because a good parody is hard to find.

Cutting for Stone

Did you ever go on a road trip with an eight year old and an eleven year old during which the older sibling decides a trip from Pennsylvania to South Carolina is the perfect time to teach her little brother the lyrics to “This is the Song That Never Ends”?

That’s kind of what reading Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone feels like.

I don’t mind 670 page books.  I did write a chapter of my dissertation on Henry James, after all, and another on Sister Carrie.  I’ve read Ulysses like the rest of you.  I’ve even read The Making of Americans, a thousand pages of Gertrude Stein, which is what I imagine dropping acid feels like.  No, I’m OK with really long books. 

And I’m OK plot-driven books. I’m no snob; it can be all about the plot and the characters.  I don’t need fancy themes and artistic motifs.  What I’m not so good with are 670 plot-driven pages in which I never really care all that much about the characters.  That would be Cutting for Stone

It’s not that the plot wasn’t interesting; it’s just that the plot didn’t deserve 670 pages.  A strong writer could have accomplished a lot more with the plot in, say, 283 pages, and maybe made me give a crap about the characters in the process.

With the kids and work and strawberry season, I only get 20 or so minutes a night for book reading, so it took me over a month to get through this book.  That’s over a month of reading time I’ll never get back.

On the bright side, I borrowed it from a friend I’m seeing tomorrow, so as of tomorrow, it’ll be out of my life once and for all.