Fiction

Bark

No one else does wry humorous stories full of punch the way Lorrie Moore does. In Bark, her newest collection, she examines modern life after divorce and the difficult art of parenting teens. In the opening story “Debarking” she describes the dating life of a newly divorced man, Ira Wilkins. He meets a zany pediatrician Zora at a dinner party, and they begin seeing each other. Unfortunately, this also involves contact with Zora’s teenage son—the zip-lock mouthed, Bruno. Does it give Ira the willies that Bruno and Zora have an uncomfortable habit of sitting close and touching? Yep.  Yet Ira plows on with a romance that is hardly reciprocated. His confidence is down so he allows Zora and Bruno to take advantage of him—he buys them meals, movie tickets, etc. They even take the rest of his birthday cake home after a lackluster celebration because Bruno needs it for his school lunch. This can’t end well and it doesn’t but what fun happens along the way.

More eerie is “The Juniper Tree” a kind of new age ghost story where three women share their talents: art, dance, song with their recently deceased friend who still haunts her house.  The first person narrator never made it to the hospital to see the friend, Robin Ross, and in fact came to this odd séance with no prepared gift. So on the spot, she sang a rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.”

The Flight of a Painting of a Little Yellow Bird

“Bad artists copy, good artists steal.” Toward the end of this novel, Hobie, the elderly painter of masterpiece copies, says this to Theo, his sorta-kinda adopted son. Is it ironic that Theo has stolen a famous painting, The Goldfinch? This long, convoluted, powerful novel tells the story of a young boy whose life was transformed at age 13 by this random act.

And a random bombing in the art galleries of New York’s Metropolitan Museum that killed his mother.  Theo’s mom had left him to buy a present in the museum store when the bombing happened. After the blast, Theo crawls amid bodies on the floor to find one older man alive. With some of his last breaths, the man points to the painting and says, “I beg of you.”  Theo interprets this as a plea to rescue it. The dying man Welty also gives the boy an elaborate ring and the name of a business in Manhattan: Hobart and Blackwell.  “Ring the green bell.”

Thus begins the travels/travails of Theo.  His dad, an alcoholic is alive, but in no shape to care for him. Ditto for his one surviving grandparent.

Someone

No one else writes with the lyric flow of Alice McDermott.  Or covers childhood and adolescence with so much immediacy as though it were happening right now.  When I surfaced for breaths while reading this novel, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t in a stuffy walk-up in Brooklyn listening  to children play ball and jump rope in the street.

The novel tells the story of Marie Commeford as a child, teen, young woman and as an older woman with grown children of her own.  Marie is the stubborn second child of Irish Catholics. Her brother Gabe is remarkably obedient and good, already in grade school, on a path for the priesthood, whereas Marie is rebellious, adventurous, and not one for rules.

Her dad takes her on walks to speakeasies and encourages her fiery temperament; her mother tries to discipline her and tamp down her rebellious spirit. Saturday mornings, she runs to her best friend Gerty’s house and buries herself in her mother’s lap, but Gerty’s kind mother dies in childbirth. This tragedy convinces Marie to refuse to learn how to cook. Gerty had learned and look what happened to her.

Still Life with Bread Crumbs

“Make it new!” Ezra Pound once said about writing and art. Quindlen’s seventh novel explores a New York City woman photographer doing just that by relocating temporarily to a small town upstate and taking entirely different kinds of photographs. Rebecca Winter has just turned sixty, gotten divorced, and her 20-something-year-old son hardly needs her anymore.

One of the first people she meets in this unnamed town is Jim Bates, a blond, pink-cheeked roofer, who blushes easily and is very kind. The first thing he helps her with is getting rid of her attic raccoon which he immediately shoots—saying it’s the only way to truly get rid of a coon because otherwise it will keep coming back.

Rebecca always fusses about money. Money only dribbles in from a famous photograph from decades ago, the one that gave this book its title.  Rebecca shot the picture after one of her ex’s myriad dinner parties that she always had to clean up after.

Life after Life

Oh my, what happens when a novel’s lead character dies on the fourth page? Alas, Dr. Fellowes never made it to Ursula’s birth (at least not this time around)—he was busy treating a man trampled by a bull.

This novel made many “best book” of the year lists. On a cold winter’s night in 1910, a baby girl was born to the Todd family, but alas poor Ursula was born blue. Then she is born again and the family cat, Queenie, smothers her (not necessarily on purpose.) She’s born again and drowns while swimming in the sea with her older sister Pamela.

But in between all the births and deaths, (her younger brother Teddy, has his own run-ins with nasty accidents and reincarnation), a lot happens to the Todd family. Hugh, the father, is a banker, and his wife Sylvie, a rather uninvolved mother. In a style and format all her own, Kate Atkinson has reimagined the historical novel.

Dorothy Day's Circle of Friends

I’ve read other books by Joan Silber, and I think she is a writer who deserves a bigger audience. If you’re a fan of historical novels, you will enjoy this book. It’s less a novel than a collection of interrelated stories centered on friends of Dorothy Day (or were related to her inner circle). She was a famous Catholic worker who fought hard for the poor.

The first story revolves on a group of young 20-somethings in Day’s New York circle about the time she was getting serious about Catholicism.  (She was an adult convert.)  In the title story, a young vivacious woman named Vera, loves her life surrounded by smart, interesting people, one of whom she marries. Silber captures the feel of New York City during this time, the freedom young adults experienced living together, going to political meetings, working their day jobs but also doing creative things on the side.

Vera is a sign painter until her employer insults her and then eventually fires her without cause.  Although in love with her husband, Joe, Vera is drawn to Day’s boyfriend, Forster, who is also the father of Day’s child. A chance meeting in a park brings Vera and Forster together when they discover the corpse of a poor man who froze to death on a bench.

Pages