April 5, 2017 – Notes
In attendance: Liz Clarke, Vivian Krone, Janice Loschiavo, Lois Pagnozzi, Meta Pitrelli, Sharon Rome, Barbara Santillo, Tina Segali, Marilyn Sinisi
Absent: Cathy Quinn, Joan Swenson. Emeritus: Donna Sabetta, Jeri Stangl.
The group welcomed back snowbirds Vivian and Meta while expressing regret that Cathy wasn’t able to make the meeting. All hoped that Cathy would be feeling better soon. Marilyn related how her office move was going, and talked about an upcoming trip to Kansas. Tina introduced the book club’s new blog/website, available at www.friendswhoreadsite.webpress.com. (It may take a moment or two to download, so be patient.) She invited members to:
- Decide if they want to keep that title (Friends Who Read), which was chosen rather randomly, or come up with another. The change can be made easily.
- Write something for the site. Janice and/or Barbara can write something on the genesis of the book club; we can add features such as each person’s 5 favorite books we’ve read; there is a “sidebar” where we can list members’ recommendations. The possibilities are limitless.
- Decide if they would like additional features.
Book & Author: The Tender Bar, by J.R. Moehringer
Notes and Comments:
- Barbara opened the discussion by asking Lois if she yearned to be a member of the bar. Lois’ responded with an adamant NO, and spoke of her father’s retreating on Friday and Saturday nights to the Black Horse Tavern near her home. Liz spoke of the Irish custom of the men hanging out in the pubs. But in the case of JR, the bar was a substitute for his absentee father.
- Vivian mentioned Tedesco’s in West New York, which was a meeting place for many of the men in town. A real neighborhood bar and restaurant, Tedesco’s was a place where people wanted to hang out. Vivian added that there is this type of community gathering place in Florida as well.
- JR’s grandfather didn’t step into this role at all. Additionally, he was mean to his wife and generally foul-mouthed and bad-tempered. On the positive side, he did accept people into his home.
- Vivian mentioned that JR, though his father wasn’t in the picture, was fortunate to have had mentors along the way. Everyone loved Bill and Bud, who nurtured JR’s love of learning and helped him do well in college.
- Sharon pointed out that JR was a survivor, someone who plugged along, always somehow finding people who lent him a hand and showed him kindness.
- Answering the question of who influenced JR the most, Meta responded that surely his mother was his greatest influence. Her one goal was for him to be happy and find his own success.
- In the last paragraph of the book (p. 416), JR writes: “Finally, my mother. Though a private woman, she answered hundreds of my questions with honesty and astonishing recall. She let me write about some of her toughest days, and shared with me her decades’ worth of family diaries, photos, cassettes and letters, without which this book might not have been possible. Above all, when the way was lost, she was my beacon, calling me back to the words, the simple words. It has been my great fortune in writing this book, as in entering this world, to have had her as my primary source.” What a tribute!
- The bar for JR represented family, community, camaraderie. He happened into it, since he had nowhere else to go. Though JR was lucky, he was also tough, and showed a fundamental strength of character.
- The issue of drinking and culture was discussed at length. Marilyn related that Matt’s father had a bar; Barbara’s father tended bar, as did Tina and Liz’s dad. Lois recounted a wedding where, due to Gene’s intake of too many martinis, she had to drive home and couldn’t figure out how to get on the NJ Turnpike. Many of the habitués of the Tender Bar were sorry characters, often drunk or broke or both.
- What impact did the priest on the train have on JR? Sharon pointed out that the priest liked to drink, too.
- Is JR’s story characteristic of a young man’s journey, like Gatsby’s?
- Perhaps the story suffered from too many characters mentioned at the bar.
- The homage to Sinatra seemed a bit predictable, though Jonathan Schwartz claimed that Sinatra music is the background music of our lives.
The book was given a rating of 3.5.
Before leaving, Lois presented all with lovely little bags of Easter chocolate to celebrate the holiday. Some ate the goodies on the way home… Thank you, Lois!
Next Meeting: Wednesday, May 3, beginning at 5:00 p.m., at Marilyn’s house in Paramus. Vivian volunteered to bring a salad with vegetables; Janice, fruit; Meta, cake; Barbara, lottery tickets; Lois and Tina, wine.
Next Book: selected by Lois, American Pastoral, by Philip Roth. The June book, selected by Meta, is Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf. Reviews of both books follow. Cathy will choose the July book.
Submitted by Tina Segali, April 7, 2017
From the NY Times, Review of American Pastoral
Who would have thought Nathan Zuckerman would fall in love with normality, with the all-American life? With the old idea of the melting pot as order and progress, a pacified history in which resentment and misunderstanding fade away across the generations? With Thanksgiving as a form of ethnic truce, where the Jews and the Irish hang out together as if no one had ever crucified anyone? This is, after all, the garrulous, manic hero of five Philip Roth novels, and the subtle fictional critic of Mr. Roth’s autobiography, ”The Facts.” His alter id, as you might say, the man whose business is to get out of control and give offense. ”I am your permission,” Zuckerman tells Mr. Roth in that book, reproving him for lapsing into the tame decencies of the uninvented life, ”your indiscretion, the key to disclosure.” ”The distortion called fidelity is not your metier,” Zuckerman insists. And Mr. Roth himself says he is pleased to have escaped the constrictions of the Jamesian tact and elegance he once admired, liberating his talent for what he calls ”extremist fiction.”
Yet here is Zuckerman attending a class reunion of veterans from Weequahic High in Newark, checking out the prostates and remarriages and high-powered jobs and the dead fathers; having dinner in New York with a former star athlete from the same school, a nice guy called Seymour Levov, alias the Swede, and wondering at the fellow’s sheer likable ordinariness. ”Swede Levov’s life, for all I knew, had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore just great, right in the American grain.” The little clause (”for all I knew”) gives the game away. Of course Zuckerman is wrong about this — there wouldn’t be a novel here if he weren’t, let alone a Philip Roth novel. ”I was wrong,” Zuckerman says handsomely. ”Never more mistaken about anyone in my life.” But what’s interesting about the book is that Zuckerman could have thought, even for an instant, that he was right; and that we can’t, in the end, know how right or wrong he is, since he is making everything up, dreaming ”a realistic chronicle,” as he says, quoting the old Johnny Mercer song (”Dream when the day is through”), and taking off into history as he imagines it. It’s true that the imagining is grounded in the most meticulous reconstructions of old times and places — the Levov family glove factory, the spreading acres of west New Jersey, a Miss America competition in Atlantic City, the beat-up neighborhoods of what used to be the city of Newark — and it gets easier and easier to forget that Zuckerman’s industry and imagination are providing all this. He gives us plenty of clues, though, before he vanishes for good on page 89, off into fiction, in the middle of a dance with an old schoolmate named Joy Helpern. ”You get them wrong before you meet them,” Zuckerman says of ”people” in general, ”while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again.” How could the writer of fiction be exempt from this contagion? Zuckerman/Roth would reply that there is no exemption; only the need, whether you’re a novelist or not, to keep imagining other people, and the hope that guesses may give life to the dead and the fallen and the lost.
Zuckerman attributes his attachment to the romance of ordinariness to a cancer scare of his own, but he offers a subtler diagnosis in ”The Facts.” ”The whole point about your fiction (and in America, not only yours),” he tells Mr. Roth, ”is that the imagination is always in transit between the good boy and the bad boy — that’s the tension that leads to revelation.” Swede Levov is the good boy for whom life is just great — except that he’s not. He is the good boy whose life turns to disaster — as if that’s what good boys were for, and only the bad boys go free. Or he is the good boy whom Zuckerman can imagine and mourn for only in this way.
Swede is alive when the story opens, dead soon after. Zuckerman picks up a few details of his life at the reunion, notably from Swede’s ferocious brother, a bullying cardiac surgeon in Miami. The rest is his dreamed chronicle. In and out of Zuckerman’s mind the story hinges on Swede’s 16-year-old daughter, Merry, an only, pampered child, who has fallen in with a section of the Weathermen and blown up a rural post office, killing a doctor who happened to be mailing his bills. The time is 1968. Merry goes into hiding, is raped and becomes destitute, gets involved in further bombings in Oregon, winds up back in Newark, stick-thin, filthy, a veil over her face, having become a Jain, dedicated to such extremes of nonviolence that she can scarcely bring herself to eat because of the murder of plant life involved. The novel stages an encounter between Swede and his derelict-looking daughter, and the scene manages to be both shocking and discreet.
But the novel revolves not so much around this scene as around what Merry has done, the deaths she has caused, and the absurd, irresistible question of how this respectable Jewish athlete and his Irish, former-Miss-New-Jersey wife could have given birth to this once angry, now dislocated, apparently reasoning, weirdly unthinking girl. The question can’t be answered, of course, but causalities keep shaping themselves in the mind. Is it because the parents are so respectable, so decent and so liberal, as much against the war in Vietnam as their daughter, that the girl has to turn out this way? Is there an American allegory here, immigrant generations rising to prosperity only to fall into violence and despair? Or have the parents done everything they can and should have, and is it Merry the changeling who reminds us that the inexplicable exists? ”And what is wrong with their life?” the novel ends. ”What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?”
This is an answer to Zuckerman’s own merciless portrait of the (female) intellectual who laughs with delight at the sight of historical disorder, ”enjoying enormously the assailability, the frailty, the enfeeblement of supposedly robust things.” But the answer itself still seeks to moralize the wreck of a world, as if Zuckerman had never heard of Job, as if the Levovs’ virtue ought really, after all, to have been a protection for them, rather than an invitation to damage.
”American Pastoral” is a little slow — as befits its crumbling subject, but unmistakably slow all the same — and I must say I miss Zuckerman’s manic energies. But the mixture of rage and elegy in the book is remarkable, and you have only to pause over the prose to feel how beautifully it is elaborated, to see that Mr. Roth didn’t entirely abandon Henry James after all. A sentence beginning ”Only after strudel and coffee,” for instance, lasts almost a full page and evokes a whole shaky generation, without once losing its rhythm or its comic and melancholy logic, until it arrives, with a flick of the conjuror’s hand, at a revelation none of us can have been waiting for.
Because both novels are hefty and self-consciously American, trying to rethink national history, because both deal in painstaking and slightly mind-numbing realism, because both begin in New Jersey and end in hell, ”American Pastoral” invites comparison with John Updike’s ”In the Beauty of the Lilies.” The chief difference is that Mr. Updike’s novel ends in a secular apocalypse, the last act in the story of the death of a Christian God, while Mr. Roth’s ends in the imagination of ruin, the death of a Jew’s dream of ordinariness. The difference is not extreme, although both stories are.
Review of Our Souls at Night, from the NY Times:
Kent Haruf, who died in November at the age of 71, was best known for his justly praised novel “Plainsong” (1999). Haruf set all of his books in the fictional small town of Holt, Colo., integrating his bare-bones descriptions of the high plains so strikingly and crucially into his plots that setting is generally the first thing people mention about his work. But this emphasis can make Haruf sound parochial. In fact, his great subject was the struggle of decency against small-mindedness, and his rare gift was to make sheer decency a moving subject.
“Our Souls at Night,” his final novel, opens with an evening visit that Addie Moore pays to her longtime neighbor, Louis Waters. Both are widowed — Addie is 70, Louis about the same — and Addie makes the surprising proposal that they begin sleeping together, without sex, just to talk in the dark and provide the sleep-easing comfort of physical company. They don’t know each other all that well, but Addie has decided to ask at once for what she really wants. It’s an odd premise, but we get to watch these two, night by night, pass through phases of awkwardness, intimacy and alliance.
The town soon gossips, and Louis’s daughter complains, but why should they care? They narrate their pasts to each other — the death of a child, a serious affair. The first complication is the arrival of Addie’s 6-year-old grandson, sent while his parents work out a separation. Louis proves adept at tending to the shaken boy and even gets him a dog from the pound. Scenes of Louis watching over the child — during cookouts, town parades, trips into the backcountry — balance charm and a nicely spring-loaded tension.
As the town assumes Addie and Louis are already having sex, the reader is left to wonder: Will they ever? When they have to spend the night apart from each other’s embrace, we get this lovely bit of flirting (Haruf omits quotation marks):
“Sometimes you’re a pretty nice man.
“I suppose we’re going to have to stay like this, divided all night.
“I’ll think good thoughts across to you.
“Don’t make them too racy. It might disturb my rest.
“You never know.”
The scene in which these two finally do approach the great, uncertain experiment of intercourse has good moments, but suffers from sparse dialogue. No one wants to accuse a writer like Haruf of underwriting — it would be like complaining that Rothko didn’t use enough colors — but the unsaid might have been hinted at by access to characters’ thoughts. He uses both characters’ points of view throughout, but very temperately, respecting their privacy. The result is a kind of politeness that was absent from “Plainsong,” where (for instance) in one haunting scene two preteen boys peek through the window of an abandoned house as a high school girl is persuaded by her boyfriend to have sex with his friend.
Physical life is always before us in Haruf’s fiction. In “Eventide,” a rancher is battered by a bull; in “Benediction,” the main character faces a slow death by cancer. “Our Souls at Night” does not avoid this candor, but it goes lighter on its subjects; in the scenes between Addie and Louis I was sometimes reminded of the famous difficulty of writing about good people.Arcades
But enough about sex. The chief opposition this couple faces comes less from their own physical limits — they can cope, with good humor — than from the interference around them. A spoilsport, motivated by fear and greed, has his say. Addie has been adamant about not caring what the town thinks; early on, there’s a nicely wry moment in which the two of them have lunch at the town cafe, sitting at a central table and flaunting their alleged torrid romance. But an intensifying pressure later threatens what is closest to her.
Back story is crucial in the progress of this novel, and takes up a high percentage of pages. The recollections are most touching when the characters regret what they didn’t get right, as when Addie remembers the aftermath of her husband’s death and its effect on their son, Gene:
“But even now I can see it all clearly and feel that kind of otherworldliness, the sense of moving in a dream and making decisions that you didn’t know you had to make, or if you were sure of what you were saying. Gene was terribly upset by it. . . . It would have been better if we could have helped each other but that didn’t happen. I don’t think I tried too hard myself.”
Haruf’s plots tend to turn on gruff characters evincing tenderness, so a moment like this, when they fail to do so, becomes especially poignant.
In this last book, Haruf, a very loved author, seems occasionally to speak to his longtime audience directly, as when Louis offers a wry opinion of the real-life Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ theatrical productions of Haruf’s books: “He took the physical details from Holt . . . but it’s not this town. All that’s made up.”
This is a playful detail in a book that saves its saddest parts for the end. “Our Souls at Night” has less grit than “Eventide,” with its Dickensian views of the lives of the poor, or “Plainsong,” where favorite characters draw relentless spite; its tone is milder and more melancholy. But the novel runs, like his others, on the dogged insistence that simple elements carry depth, and readers will find much to be grateful for.