Overdue Books

5 classics I’ve never read, and what I’ve heard they’re about

 

  • The Iliad by Homer. Achilles and Agamemnon duke it out during the Trojan War, and blood-soaked hijinks ensue. This ancient Greek epic poem is written in dactylic hexameter, the symptoms of which include a red, scaly rash.
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Inscrutable social mores, lush country estates, and endless petticoats. The landed gentry are different from you and me. Except for their willingness to marry for money, apparently.
  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. A metaphor on the destructive nature of obsession, this novel chronicles Captain Ahab’s life-consuming search for the other other white meat. It’s like a trip to Sea World, only without the commemorative mug.
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. A gruesome crime and one man’s struggle to justify it. Is murder ever appropriate? Are killers redeemable through love and penance? Can a surname have too many syllables?
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. How the 1812 French invasion impacted — and ultimately reshaped — czarist Russia, as told through the lives of several prominent families. Wait. The French invaded somebody? I know, right?

[This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.]

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Mental Illness, the 2nd Amendment, and the Rest of Us.

When I first saw footage of WDBJ-TV reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward being gunned down on live television in 2015, I was horrified. Later in the day, when I read more about the shooter, a disgruntled former employee named Vester L. Flanagan II, I froze.

In 2000, Flanagan filed charges, later dropped, against another former employer, NBC affiliate WTWC in Tallahassee, claiming a bigoted, hostile work environment. He further claimed that a high-ranking WTWC executive once called him a “monkey.”

Two springs ago, during my first semester teaching at a major area university, a student made a startling, utterly false accusation against me.

He claimed I called him a monkey.

Quickly investigated and dismissed — this young man, an international student from West Africa, accused other instructors of using the exact same slur, and claimed the university and numerous classmates were conspiring against him — the matter would’ve been easy to shrug off but for two things. One, my student was mentally ill. And two, he was allowed to return to class.

After a series of erratic actions around campus — none violent, but several ominous — he was visited at his apartment by a county Crisis Intervention Team. They found sufficient reason to petition for emergency committal and had the student hospitalized in a psychiatric facility for three days. Seventy-two hours later, he was discharged.

Immediately afterward, he was required to meet with the university’s own mental-healthcare team so that it, too, could assess him. Until that meeting took place, he was officially banned from campus.

Here’s where I say that the university acted properly and did what it could to keep everyone safe without violating anyone’s rights. Of course, that’s the rub: Once it completed its assessment and determined that the student was a) delusional, but b) not a threat, the school was compelled to allow his return.

Knowing my anxiousness over the situation — this was my first time teaching, after all, and this student had made accusations not only against me, but also another student in my class — the university offered to post security outside my door in the days following his return to campus.

Again, though, he was allowed to be there. That meant security couldn’t prevent him from entering; they could merely (possibly) intervene if something happened once he was inside. To my mind, it was an absurd scenario.

“Maybe I should come with you today,” said my husband on the morning this student was set to return. “I could just sit in the back and make sure everything is okay.”

I was grateful, but not enthusiastic.

“You can’t,” I said, thinking of our four children. “Our kids need at least one parent.”

I wasn’t trying to be melodramatic, just rational. We’ve all seen the headlines and watched interviews with eyewitnesses. “It all happened so fast. He just pulled out a gun and started shooting.” It’s become such a common story that it’s no longer a story at all.

We can do better than this.

Wherever you stand on the gun-control issue, everyone seems to agree that “something” needs to be done about the mentally ill, whether it’s Vester Flanagan in Roanoke (it’s obvious he “was disturbed in some way,” said Franklin County Sheriff Bill Overton), James T. Hodgkinson taking aim at Congressman Steve Scalise and others, or my student, a tormented young man who’d written to me in an earlier email that “I am currently undergoing some ‘psychological trauma’ preventing me from operating effectively. As much as I tried, I have not been able to stabilize my mind for the past few days.”

Where are our policies for the people who fall somewhere between “unstable” and “poses no threat”? What do we do when a person is hearing voices, but those voices are declared benign? And when do we infringe on an individual’s right to return to a workplace or classroom in the name of others’ right not to be put in danger?

I don’t have the answers, only questions. Although I grew afraid of my troubled student — who abruptly returned to class one day, stood in the middle of the room looking at me with a briefcase in hand, and then left, never to return — I felt compassion for him, too. He was living with demons I cannot fathom.

Yet, had the worst happened, others would simply shake their heads at the senselessness of his actions and wonder why “something” couldn’t have been done.

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We’re All Damaged: A Novel

werealldamaged_334_499“Have you ever stopped and asked yourself, ‘What’s the worst possible place I could be right now?’ It’s 11:36 p.m. (central standard time), and that’s exactly where I am.”

The place is Nebraska, and Andy Carter, the luckless protagonist in Matthew Norman’s terrific new novel, We’re All Damaged, isn’t thrilled to be back, especially since he’s been doing okay in the Big Apple. True, he’s a subpar bartender, his first blind date in forever stands him up, and his semi-feral cat, Jeter, can’t decide whether to sit in his lap or slash his Achilles.

But all things considered, Gotham beats the hell out of Omaha, the place where, a year earlier, Andy’s then-wife, Karen, announced she wanted a divorce during what he now thinks of as the Great Applebee’s Massacre.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Andy explains. “I’m not a snob. I don’t have a problem with Applebee’s per se. But I think we can all agree, as a civilized society, that lives shouldn’t change there.”

Yet, not only did his life change, but in the intervening months, everyone else’s has, too. His beloved grandpa is dying (hence Andy’s urgent trip home); his mother, Nancy — a local radio-talk-show host — is way too thin, blonde, and right-wing now that Fox News is courting her for the big leagues; his retired-accountant father spends an unreasonable amount of time picking off backyard squirrels with a paintball gun; and his successful older brother, Jim, is still kind of a dick.

Then there’s the Gestapo-like rent-a-cop who prowls Andy’s parents’ new McMansiony neighborhood in a golf cart, ruthlessly enforcing HOA violations; the Glitter Mafia, a group of activists who blanket Nancy’s lawn with sex dolls, dildos, and Teletubbies (the gay one) in hopes of getting her to dial down her vocal stance against same-sex marriage; and the fact that a buddy posted a clip of Andy puking at his best friend’s wedding, punching the groom’s father in the face, and then crashing a car.

On the bright side, BuzzFeed named the resulting “Worst Best Man…Ever!!!!” video the sixth-biggest wedding fail of all time, so Andy’s got that going for him.

All in all, things are proceeding about as he expected. But then Daisy shows up. As is wont to happen in breezy, playful novels — this is an observation, not a criticism — the quixotic, beddable deus ex fuckina swoops in, says and does all the right things to pull Andy at least partly out of his funk, and rattles the supporting cast just enough to keep things interesting.

But what’s Daisy’s connection to Andy’s grandfather? Why does she tell staffers at the hospice that she’s Andy’s sister? Who is she really?

Who cares? Matthew Norman has written a funny, likable novel with a funny, likable protagonist — someone you’ll root for even as you cringe at the things he does. (Let those among us who’ve never flung an ice-cream float at our ex’s house in the middle of the night cast the first stone.)

Surprisingly poignant in places, We’re All Damaged is a perfect summertime (or anytime) read: the story of a thirtysomething Everyman who never quite gives up on his better angels in spite of the universe conspiring to make him do otherwise.

“She kisses me on the cheek,” Andy recalls of saying goodbye to Daisy before heading back to New York. “‘Go home, Andy Carter,’ she says. ‘Shake it up. Start all over again. You’re ready.’”

Despite his dysfunctional family, spotty love life, and history of existential face-plants, he is.

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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Thomas Murphy: A Novel

thomasmurphy“The park is gray and I am blue, thinking about how long it takes to live a life, and what do you wind up with? Age. People say it’s unseemly to feel sorry for yourself, but I enjoy feeling sorry for myself. Who else would feel sorry for me?”

So ponders poet Thomas “Murph” Murphy in one of the countless rhetorical ramblings that populate Roger Rosenblatt’s disarming Thomas Murphy. The beauty of this novella-slash-character-study-slash-longform-philosophical-musing is that Murph doesn’t really care if you feel sorry for him; he cares that he can make you squirm.

But just a little.

See, under his crotchety exterior, Irish expat Murph is a good guy. Sure he’ll needle into your doubts about God, but then he’ll buy you a slug of Jameson’s to help wash the uncertainty down.

Murph’s own worldview is fairly certain: Life is a long series of struggles and suffering, but at least you get to die at the end. That’s what happened to his wife, Oona, and best friend, Greenberg, both gone in the space of a year.

With his intelligence and wit, Murph is similar to Louis, the circumspect widower in Kent Haruf’s wonderful final novel, Ours Souls at Night. Yet whereas Haruf’s Louis offers spare, resonant insights, Rosenblatt’s Murph glories in full-on Joycean reveries and reminiscences. (Both men would make excellent drinking buddies, but the smart money would be on Louis to get you home by curfew.)

Left with his beloved adult daughter and worthy foil, Máire, and her young son, William, 72-year-old Murph is facing a possible Alzheimer’s diagnosis, eviction from his rent-controlled apartment, and an existential choice of sorts: fling himself headlong into the world of dementia, or keep writing poems, walking in Central Park with his grandson, torturing his long-suffering neurologist, and competing in an endless pissing contest with life.

They’re all so appealing, why choose just one?

DEAR MURPH, writes his daughter in an exchange of notes about his increasingly erratic behavior:

It occurs to me — your brooding mind being what it is — that you may think I’m trying to lock you up in the loony bin. I’m not. You probably ought to be locked up in the loony bin, but that condition long preceded your recent shenanigans. I’m concerned that you’ll harm yourself. It’s that simple.
Your dutiful and loving daughter,
Máire

Dear Dutiful and Loving,
I’m sorry, but I never had a daughter, and I don’t know anyone named Máire. My friend Greenberg used to sing about a table down at Morey’s. Is that you? Or are you the old gray
mare, who ain’t what she used to be? Ah, but who is?

Dear Murph,
Go fuck yourself.

Dear Máire,
Oh! Now I remember you.

And so it goes. You’ll find no scorching plotlines in Thomas Murphy, no sampler-worthy feel-goodisms (except for maybe, “They say that Irishmen drink to forget we’re Irish. I say we drink to remember we’re Irish”), and no stunning denouements.

Instead, what you get is a genuinely funny, likeable protagonist who parries with the Fates, his neighbors, and his no-good landlord while wryly taking measure of the world both real and imagined around him. Murph knows mortality always wins in the end, but there’s no reason you can’t kick it in the balls before the buzzer.

“You never crash if you go full tilt. It takes a kind of courage…my ma’s and da’s courage…and Oona’s, when she was certain she was doomed…The courage to gun it, even though you’re predetermined to fail. Because between that certainty and the attempt to refute it is life, boyo — dreadful, gorgeous life.”

And nobody gets out alive.

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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“Louisa Meets Bear” by Lisa Gornick

louisaCall a book “chick lit,” and you aren’t exactly paying it a compliment. Which is why I’m a little worried Lisa Gornick’s fantastic new novel-in-stories, Louisa Meets Bear, might be saddled with that label. Not only are the author and one of the titular characters women, there’s also a female face on the cover.

It’s enough to give a serious reader a case of the vapors.

But this is a seriously engaging book — one filled with fleshed-out, dynamic characters who pass in and out of each other’s lives over the course of decades. Some — like main protagonists Louisa and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, nicknamed Bear — make frequent appearances. Others show up once or twice, but manage to leave an impression no matter how few pages they inhabit.

This is surely thanks in part to Gornick’s work as a clinical psychologist. The New York City-based writer has a gift for capturing disparate voices and moods, and threading them together into an intelligent, sometimes fraught tapestry.

The sheer size of the cast — including Eric, Marnie, Sam, Corinne, Lily, Ilana, Sarah, Charlotte, Richard, Lena, Cubby, Penny, and Mr. Pryzwawa, to name more than a few — would derail a lesser writer. Yet Gornick doesn’t just firmly hold the reins, she paints each character with unique strokes.

While there are a few big, dramatic events — the sudden death of a child; an enraged, knife-wielding teen lunging at her mother — in the book, these eventually fade into the chorus; brief, biting notes in a extended symphony.

It’s the daily stuff of life — the exasperation, the absurdity, the making of the rent — that occupies most of the characters, just as in the real world. Pivotal moments, recalled years later, soften into memories. They’re not the thing that shapes us; they’re among the things relentlessly smoothing or sharpening us into who we become.

So when Yale undergraduate Lizzy, pregnant after an illicit night with a professor’s husband, carries the baby to term and then gives it up, she is sad but not scarred.

When the baby, grown into a 15-year-old named Brianna, trips on the cracks in her world during a Venice vacation, there’s no clichéd denouement with her adoptive parents on the Grand Canal. Instead, there’s a nod to the imperfect love that somehow endures despite the many ways in which we confound and disappoint one another.

And when Louisa, lying in bed with Bear early on, ponders her bond both with him and another man, Andrew, she does it with the recognition that there’s no one way things must play out.

“I think we could be Hansel and Gretel huddled under a tree. I think I am the wicked witch and you are Hansel trapped in my garden. Bound in the lock of your arms, I think you are the wicked witch and I am Gretel caught in your cage.”

Readers will be caught, too, by Gornick’s evocative storytelling skills. While some chapters resonate less than others — I still don’t know what to make of the well-rendered though odd vignette about a lonesome widow and a blind surgeon — even these offer a master class in character development.

Her observations, as well, are as whip-smart as they are occasionally biting. Decades after their initial coming together, Louisa again considers her doomed link with Bear.

“I can see why you came to hate me — I was using you, using you to feel better about myself — and why you had to get away from me. Your love for me left you feeling degraded, and you dug me out of you…like a dog scratching out a tick.”

And that wound, like so many in this book stanched by the passing of years, still hurts. But it no longer bleeds.

This post originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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