Book Review: By Blood by Ellen Ullman

I’ve read a bunch of really excellent books lately (including Wild by Cheryl Strayed and We the Animals by Justin Torres), but one that I cannot stop thinking about is By Blood by Ellen Ullman.  This is one CRAZY book.  Completely insane.

By Blood takes place in San Francisco in the 1970s. The narrator, unnamed throughout the book, is a professor who is on leave from his university for reasons he does not clearly explain, but we learn they have something to do with immoral conduct involving a student. The professor rents an office in a large building as a place to get some work done, but soon finds himself distracted by the noises emanating from the office next door.  That office is occupied by Dr. Dora Schlussel, a therapist, and most of the time the narrator can only hear garbled voices muffled by the whirring of a white noise machine.  Soon, the narrator discovers that one patient prefers the white noise machine off, allowing the narrator to listen to the patient’s entire counseling session.

The narrator becomes obsessed with the life of this particular patient, who we know only as “The Patient,” a woman who is struggling with her identity.  The woman is a consummate outsider — she is a woman in the financial industry, she is a lesbian (and within that community, she finds she does not relate well to more political lesbians), and she is adopted.  The narrator listens intently as the Patient decides whether to pursue more information about the circumstances of her birth.

There is something intriguing and, of course, voyeuristic about listening in on a counseling session.  We learn a person’s deepest secrets and various weaknesses.  Things are said that would never be repeated in everyday conversation. Of course, there is something comforting in confirming that other people harbor problems and vulnerabilities, much like ourselves.  As a reader and writer myself, I am always thinking about how other people think, what motivates my characters, and the pretense of By Blood is having that rare and secret window into another person’s internal monologue.  What a revelation!

And yet, we know it is fundamentally indecent and immoral to eavesdrop, and completely horrible for our narrator to do this in during someone’s counseling session, when the Patient is most open and vulnerable.  A normal person would have informed Dr. Schlussel that he could hear through the walls, or at the least, cleared his throat or made some noise so she would have been made aware that someone was there.  Further, a stable person would not have developed an obsession with The Patient and her life story. But our narrator is far from a normal person.  Although we don’t know exactly the nature of the narrator’s demons, we know his family is rife with mental illness and suicides, and he has visited many psychologists himself.  He alludes to stalking people and having desires to hurt or kill them.  In short, he is one scary dude.

If the narrator represents the worst of our natures, the damaged psyche who would repeatedly indulge in that guilty pleasure of eavesdropping, as a reader I’m quite glad he did it, because the Patient’s story is utterly fascinating.  Over the weeks of fifty minute hours, we learn that the Patient was born soon after World War II in a displaced person’s camp.  Raised as a WASP, the Patient learns she was born Jewish.  As if this is not shocking enough, at every turn the Patient uncovers more information about the circumstances about her conception, birth and complicated adoption that is enough to send even the most stable person into a complete tailspin.  The patient learns much of this information with the help of our eavesdropping narrator, who has taken it upon himself to research the patient’s origins and forward her information about what he has learned under the guise of a clerk working for a adoption agency.

The narrator’s insertion of himself into the patient’s life is the beginning of the end of his eavesdropping sessions.  We read on, knowing that the Patient will eventually learn that the “clerk” sending her information does not actually exist, and steeling ourselves for that moment when the narrator is discovered.  I thought it was rather deft of the author to build suspense in this way.  And yet, despite this quasi-sympathy for the damaged narrator, I also felt anxious that the narrator would do something to harm the Patient.  He discovers so many details of her life, and becomes so obsessed with her, that it would be easy for him to harm her psychologically or even physically.

However, the book ends abruptly.  We’ve learned a lot about the Patient but many questions about her background remained unanswered, which is so unsatisfying.  We also don’t learn what happens to our crazy narrator, and if he faces any consequences for his various sins.  Although the author leaves us hanging, I love the complicated questions she raises throughout this unique book.  How much do our biological origins determine our selves?  What unseen forces are meddling in our lives? How much does a therapist’s personal issues affect their advice to us? Most intriguing, though, and most discomforting, is that Ullman gets us to grapple a bit with our darker sides. We know the narrator is repulsive, but we can’t stop reading/listening in, like he does.  What does this say about ourselves?

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Book Review: This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman

So, I haven’t written a review in a while, I know. Let’s just say that having two kids has really kicked my ass over the past year. But now the baby is almost 1, so it’s time to be semi-productive again. However, let’s face it, I can’t luxuriate over my book reviews like I used to.  I loved writing long reviews, ruminating about my posts for days, and editing somewhat thoroughly.  As much as I’d like, I can’t do that anymore. Thus, my new self-imposed rule is that I cannot spend more than one hour on any book review, and that includes editing.

That said, I won’t waste any more time, and will launch right into my review of This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman. This cautionary tale revolves around the Bergamot family, recent Manhattan transplants who are fortunate enough to send their two kids to what appears to be a thinly veiled version of Horace Mann. Their “beautiful life” comes screeching to a halt when their teenaged son, Jake, receives an explicit video from a female classmate, which he then forwards on to a friend.  Of course, the video goes viral. Liz and Richard, Jake’s parents, scramble to protect their son, who faces harsh punishment academically and socially, while privately dealing with their own mixed feelings on the horrific situation.

The explicit video situation sends chills up my spine, as I am sure it does for most parents. Technology in the hands of young stupid kids is scary.  But that’s a no-brainer. It’s the setting of this story that really makes it juicy.  The Manhattan private school universe is a crazy beast, an upper-crust world that I don’t completely understand myself (and yet the esteemed “Hill Schools” of the Bronx, as attended by Jake and his classmates, lie practically in my backyard).  The evocative part of This Beautiful Life is really how the New York City elite decide to handle such a messy affair. This was, frankly, disturbing. Lawyers were brought in immediately. The boys involved were suspended but then returned to school in short order, as if not to ruin their future careers as investment bankers. Criminal charges were threatened, but never taken seriously.  The girl who created the video was whisked off to her various vacation homes around the world to ride out the scandal.  Money was thrown at the problem to make it go away, and mostly, it did. Yet for most students, this neat conclusion would not an option. How would a viral sex video made by one student, and distributed by other students, be handled in a middle class school, or in a poor one?  I’d guess it would be quite different.

As I read the book, I began to wonder who the author wanted the reader to sympathize with.  Maybe we were supposed to feel bad for Liz and Jake, the poor lost souls? I still don’t know.  Liz and Richard, the parents, are odious (and yet you get the feeling they are two of the more down to earth parents at Jake’s school).  Both seem really unconnected to their kids.  Richard is ultimately more concerned about how Jake’s actions will affect his career than how Jake himself will fare. Liz, too, seems more concerned with dealing with the social fallout from the other Manhattan mothers and relies on her small vices (internet addiction, pot) to get through the days.  Moreover, Liz and Richard almost completely ignore their younger daughter, Coco, and are in denial that she is, in fact, a bona fide brat and not the “free spirit” they consider her.

Although I was horrified by how the scandal played out in this very insulated, cushy domain, I don’t claim to know the right way to handle such a terrible affair.  As a feminist, I’m angered that the boys got off easily. And yet, as the mother of sons, I’m sure I’d do whatever it took to protect them if they found themselves in a similar situation (without the ample resources of the Bergamots). Still, I cannot imagine I wouldn’t be furious with my sons if they were involved in such an affair, and this emotion seemed to be lacking altogether in Liz and Richard.

However, I did feel that the novel redeemed itself at the end. Liz seems to rouse herself from her trance and tells her husband:  “It’s just that this beautiful life….I can’t manage it. You worked so hard to build it, but I can’t manage it. And I don’t want it.” And I think this is the right answer, if only she had reached it earlier. We learn that, following this revelation, Liz and Richard separate, but not divorce, and Liz moves to Ann Arbor and restarts her career as a professor. Young Coco appears to have survived the ordeal; but Jake continues to suffer.  He flunks out of Princeton, develops substance abuse issues, and generally flails about. Interestingly, in the book’s final chapter we also learn that Daisy, the star of the explicit video, has done just fine.  The video behind her, she now has an internship at Goldman Sachs, secured for her by her dad.  I have to wonder whether, by ending the book with Daisy rather than the Bergamots, Schulman is saying that the Bergamots suffered the most and the longest in this scandal because they are the most at fault; or because they were not enough of the privileged world they sought to enter.

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Links of Interest 9/15/2011

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Day of Remembrance

This was not the first erasure on the site.  Before the towers had gone up, there had been a bustling network of little streets traversing this part of town.  Robinson Street, Laurens Street, College Place:  all of them had been obliterated in the 1960s to make way for the World Trade Center buildings, and all were forgotten now.  Gone, too, was the old Washington Market, the active piers, the fishwives, the Christian Syrian enclave that was established here in the late 1800s.  The Syrians, the Lebanese, and other people from the Levant had been pushed across the river to Brooklyn, where they’d set down roots on Atlantic Avenue and in Brooklyn Heights.  And, before that?  What Lenape paths lay buried beneath the rubble?  The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased, rewritten.  There had been communities here before Columbus ever set sail, before Verrazano anchored his ships in the narrows, or the black Portugese slave trader Esteban Gomez sailed up the Hudson; human beings had lived here, built homes, and quarreled with their neighbors long before the Dutch ever saw a business opportunity in the rich furs and timber of the island and its calm bay.  Generations rushed through the eye of the needle, and I, one of the still legible crowd, entered the subway.  I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories.

from Open City by Teju Cole

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Links of Interest 8/18/11

  • A new (to me) favorite tumblr:
  • It’s interesting to see the books that a notable author (in this case, Jennifer Egan) counts as her influences
  • Ah yes, our illustrious bookshelves have been similarly encroached upon by “classics” such as Once Upon a Potty [at Fathermucker]
  • Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project lists some of her favorite Young Adult books.  I’m not always crazy about YA (I’m looking to leave those teenaged years behind me) but this list appeals to me — it seems truly “classic” and not new agey-angsty-Biebery-vampirey.
  • I love this essay by Maile Meloy, Reading and Its Rewards. I, too, was an indiscriminate reader as a child, and I rode my bike anywhere I wanted to go.

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Motherhood and the Long Read

I feel a bit lowbrow and pedestrian writing about this struggle, but what the hell, I can’t be the only mom out there that feels this way.  Here’s the dilemma: now that I have children, I find myself struggling to read long books.  I consider a book long if it is over 500 pages (and longish if it is over 300 pages).  Before I had kids, I absolutely loved the challenge of reading a long book.  It started many years ago, when, as a preteen, I made my way through Gone With the Wind.  My very favorite long books are Middlemarch and Bleak House.  I have not read the epitome of long books, War and Peace, but I certainly intend to someday.

Now, with a three-year old and an infant, finding time to read anything, long or short, is a challenge.  Conquering a long book seems impossible most days.  Making my way through Middlemarch would probably take up the rest of my reading time for 2011.  (Hell, I consider The Cat in the Hat a “long” book most days, and if you haven’t read it multiple times a day to a kid, don’t try to tell me it isn’t!)  And yet, when I turn to books that I know will be easier for me, I often find I’m making a mistake.  Shamefully, I will admit that soon after my second son was born I read the book Sweet Valley Confidential.  It was completely awful.  But it was short, mindless fluff, and was all I could really handle during those long sleepless nights with a newborn.  Still, I felt a bit dumber for having read it (and it left me wondering how much I had rotted my brain with the numerous volumes of Sweet Valley High I read as a tween).

(N.B. All this is not to say that long books=good quality and short books=bad quality; obviously the contrapositive can be true, but in many if not most cases, I believe it is easier to work though a short book versus a long book based on the amount of time one must devote to finishing it.)

So, once we emerged from the difficult fourth trimester, I decided it was time to tackle something a little more complex than Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield’s banal travails.  I had long wanted to read Sophie’s Choice by William Styron.  I was curious what it had to say about motherhood (knowing in advance of Sophie’s gut-wrenching “choice” ).  When I picked it up from the library, though, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to read it.  It is 599 pages, and surely I didn’t have the stamina to complete it.  Moreover, it isn’t fluff in the least.  It is intense and meandering, and requires some fortitude to plow through Stingo’s rambling monologue.  So Sophie’s Choice sat unread on the table while I instead read The Weird Sisters.

Eventually, though, I was out of other reading material and Sophie was sitting there waiting for me.  I picked it up and read the first chapter, and found myself completely mesmerized.  This book was different.  It was a book ostensibly about Sophie, but here in the first chapter we don’t hear much about Sophie at all.  We meet the narrator, the young Southerner known only as Stingo, trying to make it as a writer in postwar New York City.  I was pleasantly confounded.  I liked Stingo, since he wanted to write and also because he proved constitutionally unfit to work in an office environment (I feel the same way about myself most days).  But what did he have to do with Sophie? And what would this twenty-two year old bundle of hormones have to say about motherhood (my point in reading the book)?

It turns out that Sophie’s Choice didn’t have much to say about motherhood at all.  We don’t realize that Sophie was a mother until about halfway through the book, and we discover that she had not one, but two children until about three-quarters of the way though.  Despite this, I kept reading.  It turned out that Sophie’s Choice is about plenty of other interesting things.  Of course, it is a Holocaust novel, but it is hardly only that.  It is a true New York story, set in postwar Manhattan and Brooklyn, and I can never resist a good story about my own city.  It’s also a coming of age story for Stingo, to be sure.  If anything, this book is about Stingo, not Sophie.  In fact, Stingo really purloined Sophie’s story and annexed it to his own (though this fraught discussion would require another entire entry, at least).  The book examines Stingo’s development as a writer, his identity as a Southerner in New York City, and his sexual awakening.  Moreover, the novel depicts the devastating impact of mental illness (post traumatic stress syndrome for Sophie, as a Holocaust survivor, and schizophrenia for Sophie’s lover, the volatile Nathan Landau).

Reading on, and finding the book to be a treasure trove of interesting threads and themes, I made myself reading assignments so I could finish the book by its due date.  Is this inexcusably lame, to assign oneself reading as if in a college literature course?  Oh well.  I needed to impose some structure in order manage the book (and, frankly, convince myself that reading a 599 page book could be done, if slowly and in small chunks).  My assignments required reading about 60 pages a day.  Of course, life intervened, and I missed my self-imposed deadline (I renewed the book), but eventually — and only a few days off “deadline” –I did finish it.

I’m quite pleased I was able to finish Sophie’s Choice, even if it is on the “short” side of “long” at only 599 pages. Will I be reading War and Peace next?  Well, no.  I think I’ll wait on that one.  But I’m not going to shy away from a long read, and miss a valuable book, just because I’m scared of a thick tome.


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Links of Interest 7/27/11

  • Flavorwire lists 10 unconventional bookstores around the world, open for your browsing pleasure.  They all certainly have more character than your local Barnes & Noble.  My favorite is the Montague Book Mill.
  • Interesting list:  Famous For the Wrong Book?  Makes me want to give Heller a second chance.  And I agree on Ishiguro — Never Let Me Go seemed far inferior to The Remains of the Day (though The Unconsoled is supposedly better than both?  I haven’t read it, maybe I should check it out.).
  • Tony Perottet posits that writers belong behind bars — if only to increase their productivity.  There are certainly many days as a mother, with all the hurrying around and loads of laundry and children clinging to you constantly, that solitary confinement [temporarily] sounds like a wonderful idea.
  • The long list for the 2011 Man Booker Prize.  Eek, I haven’t read any of these books yet!
  • A short story by Jennifer Egan, in list form.
  • Minimalist posters for favorite children’s stories.  Amazing how these posters really distill the essence of each story into one simple but striking image.  My favorite is for Alice in Wonderland.
  • Interesting piece at Salon on whether novelists should also serve as book critics.  The article speaks a bit to the concerns I mentioned in an earlier post, where I did not love the books I reviewed, but hesitated to say so.
  • Gretchen Rubin, the author The Happiness Project (one of my favorite books of 2010), lists seven books that changed the way she sees the world.  Some of the books seem pretty specific to her own growth as a writer, but some sound fairly interesting.  Regardless, since she is a professed bookworm, I am always interested to see what Rubin has to say about books and reading.
  • So you thought your boyfriend was so hip and profound because his favorite book is On The Road?  Think again! [The Hairpin]
  • And an antidote to the above books preferred by the secretly jerky — a spreadsheet of the books read by the brainy TV bookworm Rory Gilmore, who has pretty decent reading taste.

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