Monday Match-Up: Astonish Me & Frances and Bernard

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The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.
William Butler Yeats

On one level, Maggie Shipstead’s new novel, Astonish Me, is about professional ballet. It’s a fascinating glimpse into an unfamiliar world. Beginning in 1973, the story follows Joan Joyce, a member of the corps de ballet in a New York dance company, and her relationship with the company’s star, Arslan Rusakov, whom she has helped defect from the Soviet Union. Joan, unlike her roommate Elaine, never succeeds as a soloist and ends up marrying her childhood sweetheart and teaching ballet. She does, however, raise a son who becomes a tremendously talented dancer.

The story is interesting in its own right, with plenty of surprises, but what intrigued me most was the examination of the artistic life. Artists — whether they are dancers, or writers, or painters — are always striving for perfection. In a BookPage interview, Maggie Shipstead said:

But I think there’s a common experience among writers and dancers (and probably most artists) of what it’s like to spend all your time trying to do something that’s extremely difficult, something that requires a massive amount of practice and dedication and might give you a rush of satisfaction one day and then leave you feeling utterly defeated the next. It’s a precarious way to live.

Often, artists are forced to come to terms with their limitations — particularly in ballet, because of the extreme physical requirements. When Joan, who knows she will never achieve real success, becomes pregnant and retires from ballet, she feels she has escaped:  “For the first time she can remember, she is not afraid of failing, and the relief feels like joy”. She always has the lingering feeling, however, that the artist’s path is somehow superior to hers — a feeling that is shared by those close to her.

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Maggie Shipstead visits Lake Forest — August 2013

Her husband, Jacob, boasts to strangers about being married to a former  ballet dancer. Her art is an essential part of her, and he is saddened that she has given up on it: “For as long as he has known Joan, since they were almost children, she has lived a double life, as a dancer and as a civilian, and her retirement means that she has been reduced in some essential way.”  He thinks that Joan and their son, Harry, see him as  “uncool” and his job as an educator is “mundane”:

Sometimes he has an urge to remind them that he is the only one with a college degree, let alone a doctorate, that he knows things they don’t, but he resists. He doesn’t want to talk himself into thinking less of his family.

The novel explores the connection between artistic success and self-absorption. Arslan, probably the most fascinating character, is a narcissist. Harry is disdainful of dancers he views as less talented than he. Jacob wonders if egotism and art are inextricably linked: “Ballet, like other pursuits that require immense determination and reward showmanship, seems to foster hubris. But maybe all art fosters hubris.”

Joan lives vicariously through Harry and his friend, Chloe, who becomes Joan’s protegé: “She had not expected to find much in teaching besides a little extra income, something to do, and a way to keep fit. She had not anticipated that she might be able to recreate, even improve, her young self through the body of another.”

Astonish Me is an impressive novel — but even more so in light of the fact that it is very different from Maggie Shipstead’s first novel, Seating Arrangements. Seating Arrangements (which I enjoyed immensely) is a rather dark comedy of manners that takes place over a single wedding weekend on a Massachusetts island. It’s completely different in subject matter, scope, and tone from Astonish Me. Maggie explains that her work is not autobiographical: “The WASPy world of Seating Arrangements interested me but wasn’t any more my world than ballet is. I hope I always try to push myself. I think I would be bored if I didn’t. Because my two novels are so different, though, it’s difficult to compare them. ”

9780547858241_hres 2Frances and Bernard is Carlene Bauer’s debut novel but not her first book. Not That Kind of Girl is a memoir of growing up as an evangelical Christian. (I haven’t read it — although having read Frances and Bernard, my curiosity is piqued.) The novel is loosely based on letters between poet Robert Lowell and novelist and short story writer Flannery O’Connor. In an interview with Intelligent Life (the online culture magazine of The Economist), Bauer describes Frances and Bernard as a follow-up to her memoir: “God makes another appearance. As do two writers, one male, the other female, who have a lifelong friendship that might be love.” Frances and Bernard is an epistolary novel — some of the letters are between the two protagonists, and some of them are written by these two characters to others.

Like Astonish Me, Frances and Bernard is concerned with the relationship of the artist to the larger world.  Frances is determined never to marry, believing that she cannot be both a wife and a writer. After a visit to Frances’s family, Bernard writes to his best friend, Ted:

I saw also that Frances is perfectly suited to family life, that she swims about her people like a fish in their waters . . . she knows this about herself, that she could easily spend her days cooking, cleaning, and corralling children, that she could quite easily be charmed into a life in which she gave order to other lives, not words, and I think this is why she is so strict with herself on the point of marriage. She does not know anyone who has written and mothered, so she thinks it is impossible . . . But she needs to be in control, and she has chosen to be in control of the people in her stories.

Frances and Bernard meet at an artists’ colony in the late 1950s, and soon begin writing to each other. Their correspondence is both intellectual and spiritual; Frances is a lifelong Catholic and Bernard has recently converted to Catholicism. Bernard writes, “Let’s not ever talk of work in these letters. When I see you again I want to talk to you about work, but I am envisioning our correspondence as a spiritual dialogue”. The spiritual dialogue continues throughout the novel, even after Bernard suffers the first of many manic episodes and loses his faith.

A review in the New York Times comments that Bauer doesn’t accurately capture the voices of Lowell and O’Connor: “What Bauer doesn’t always get right is the sound of these writers . . . O’Connor and Lowell happen to be among the most unmistakable stylists of the past century”. I think this is a slightly unfair criticism, since the novel never claims to be a biographical novel about those two authors. It is simply inspired by their lives.  I thought the writing was lovely, and the voices of the letter writers were distinctive and authentic. The review does note that:

What Bauer gets right is the shifting balance of literary ambition and emotional need, Yeats’s old choice between perfection of the life or of the work. “This is why I won’t marry,” Frances reflects. “I am not built for self-abnegation.” She clings to her ancestral faith like a life preserver, all the while wondering whether, as she puts it, “I cheated myself out of what might have made me happy.”

How should we live? That is the question that all the best fiction asks, and that’s the question that both Astonish Me and Frances and Bernard ask. What do we owe to the people we love? How do we know what we are meant to do with our lives? How important is it that we make the most of our talents?

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10 Books to Read After the Holidays

IMG_1716Winter has definitely arrived in Chicago — it’s 15 degrees (without the wind chill) and snow is on the ground. There is nothing more appealing than curling up on a comfortable couch with a good book — and possibly a blanket and a cup of hot tea. A roaring fire would be nice too, but we are having a problem with our fireplace. The chimney doesn’t seem to be drawing properly; every time we light a fire, the house gets very smoky. So I’ve just called our local chimney cleaning service, called  (I am not kidding) Ashwipe Chimney Sweeps. Anyway, I’m not going to be able to squeeze in much reading time over the next couple of weeks. There are Christmas presents to buy and wrap, meals to plan and cook, parties to attend, kids coming home on vacation. The bookstore would probably like it if I showed up and worked. And did I mention that my daughter is getting married three days after Christmas?

One of the best things about working in a bookstore is the endless supply of ARCs (advance readers’ copies) that we have piled in our basement. I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but we actually keep them in the bathroom. The store isn’t very big, and that’s really the only place they fit. I also have a backlog of electronic ARCs on my IPad. I have ARCs for books that will come out in June — no sense reading those now, because chances are I won’t remember the books very well by the time they’re published. So I try to read books that are either just published or soon to be published. Sometimes something comes along that has to be read immediately, because it’s so compelling — it might be a book that a friend or colleague absolutely loved, or one that called my name and displaced the others on my stack. Then I forget all about publication dates and read what I want.

I have a pile of books I’m looking forward to reading in January and February. (Nine of them will be published during those months, and one — Book of Ages — is already out.) Any bets on how many I end up reading?

Nancy Horan's Loving Frank is one of my favorite works of biographical fiction. Her second novel is about another passionate love affair (Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny).

Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank is one of my favorite works of biographical fiction. Her second novel is about another passionate love affair (Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny).

Second novel by Chicago author Brigid Pasulka -- her first one was set in Poland; this one takes place in Italy.

Second novel by a wonderful Chicago author, Brigid Pasulka — her first one was set in Poland; this one takes place in Italy.

Debut novel by a Wisconsin author -- several colleagues have read this small-town story and loved it.

Debut novel by a Wisconsin author — several colleagues recently read this small-town story and loved it.

Book of Ages was a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction. I'm looking forward to reading about Jane Frankliln -- Benjamin Franklin's youngest sister and a brilliant person in her own right. (Also, a mother of 12!)

Book of Ages was a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction. I’m looking forward to reading about Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister — a brilliant writer and commentator in her own right, and the mother of 12.

F. Scott Fitzgerald called Tom and Daisy Buchanan "careless people". This book tells the surprising story behind The Great Gatsby.

F. Scott Fitzgerald called Tom and Daisy Buchanan “careless people”. This book tells the surprising true story behind The Great Gatsby.

Darker than The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Perfect is about a young boy whose view of the world is shattered.

I’m told that Perfect is darker than The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. It’s about a young boy whose view of the world is suddenly shattered.

Five  World War I Gold Star mothers travel to Europe to say final goodbyes to their sons.

Five World War I Gold Star mothers travel to Europe to say final goodbyes to their sons.

Diane Johnson explores her Midwestern roots in this memoir -- and she'll literally be returning to the Midwest as well; she visits Lake Forest in late January.

Diane Johnson explores her Midwestern roots in this memoir — and she’ll literally be returning to the Midwest as well; she visits Lake Forest in late January.

I adored Maggie Shipstead's first novel, Seating Arrangements. Her new novel is about the world of professional ballet.

I adored Maggie Shipstead’s first novel, Seating Arrangements. Her new novel is about the world of professional ballet.

A ghost story set in Vermont -- right up my alley. Chris Bohjalian liked it and I'm betting I will too.

A ghost story set in Vermont — right up my alley. Chris Bohjalian liked it and I’m betting I will too.

Unlikable Characters — Why I Love Them

As a writer,  I subscribe to Chekhov’s world view — “It’s not my job to tell you that horse thieves are bad people — it’s my job to tell you what this horse thief is like.”  Claire Messud

We all have favorite characters in literature — but often, those aren’t the most likable or admirable characters. They’re usually the most interesting ones.  Jay Gatsby is complicated and fascinating, but would you want to have dinner with him? (Although you might want to go to one of his parties.) Holden Caulfield would probably be annoying. And who wants a friend as conniving and disingenuous as Scarlett O’Hara?

In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Claire Messud (The Emperor’s Children, The Woman Upstairs) took issue with the idea that characters should be likable. When asked, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora (the protagonist of The Woman Upstairs), would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim,” Messud answers, “What kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert . .  Hamlet . . . Raskolnikov . . .Antigone. . . If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a friend for me?’ but “Is this character alive?’ “.

A couple of weeks ago, our store hosted a luncheon for Maggie Shipstead in honor of the paperback release of her wonderful comedy of manners, Seating Arrangements. Maggie mentioned that she had participated via Skype in book group discussions of her novel and that a common criticism was that the characters weren’t likable. Seating Arrangements takes place over a single weekend, on an island very much like Nantucket, as a family of New England WASPs gathers for a wedding. Not everyone in the novel behaves well — in fact, most of the characters behave rather badly. Winn, the father of the bride, lusts after one of the bridesmaids and is obsessed with joining a golf club that won’t admit him. No, I don’t want him at my next party. A lesser writer would have portrayed Winn as a stereotypical upper-class jerk, but Shipstead makes him come marvelously alive.

The runaway hit of summer 2012 was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn — and it’s still selling so well in hardcover that it hasn’t been released in paperback yet. Now there’s a book with unlikable characters! Even Nick, the supposed “good guy” in the book, is not really a sympathetic character.  Amy is the “horse thief” in the book and certainly Flynn tells us what this horse thief is like. Is that why Gone Girl has been so popular? Or is it the intricate plot with twist after twist — and that controversial ending?

coverFor me, The Dinner, by Herman Koch, was this year’s Gone Girl. (Actually, the Wall Street Journal calls it the “European Gone Girl“, but I thought of it first, I promise.) The entire novel unfolds over the course of a dinner at a fashionable restaurant in Amsterdam. Two couples meet to discuss a problem with their teenage sons. We gradually learn that the boys have committed a crime. But what is it? Who among the four parents is culpable? Not one of the characters in this book is someone you’d like at your dinner table. In her review of this book for the New York Times, Claire Messud says, “North American readers care inordinately that fictional characters be likable. This premise is strange, given that few real people are thoroughly nice and those few aren’t interesting.  Surely what actually matters is that characters clear this vital hurdle: that they be interesting.” The characters in The Dinner clear that hurdle . . . how about a book group meeting over dinner to discuss them and their motivations?

For more on likable/unlikable characters in literature, check out this link to Page-Turner,  the New Yorker’s book blog: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/05/would-you-want-to-be-friends-with-humbert-humbert-a-forum-on-likeability.html.