Thursday, November 09, 2006

Full of Grace and Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons

I just finished reading Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons, by Lorna Landvik, and Full of Grace, by Dorothea Benton Frank, and it struck me how similar these two authors are. Both write novels about Baby Boomer-aged women who generally had one or two abusive parents, and who break away from their bad circumstances, bad husbands or bad families, and grow immesurably in a better environment, usually with the aid of good female friends, a great kid or a great guy. So far, I've read Landviks "Patty Janes House of Curl" and "Tall Pine Polka" in addition to Angry Housewives, and I am currently reading one of her recent efforts, "Oh My Stars," which has started out with the typical abused teenager striking out on her own to get away from a horrible home environment and an evil drunken father. Most of Landviks books take place in the northern Midwest, in Minnesota or Wisconsin, though she often introduces a character who is a native of the South. Landviks ability to create quirky characters is wonderful, though she tends to stereotype them a bit. (ie the "skinny rabble-rouser," and the "voluptuous sex pot"). But, with shows like "Desperate Housewives" soaring in popularity, I don't think that will keep Landvik from gathering more devotees to her soap-opera-esque works. I find them comforting to read, and there are times when, as a reader, I don't want to read something deep and challenging, just something character-driven and with a plot chunky enough to keep me going. The same can be said for Ms Benton Franks works, in that they are comforting, interesting and fun. Benton Franks characters are mainly from the South, however, with the occaisional foray into the murky waters of the East Coast. Franks works are similar to Landviks in that the main character always starts the book in a less-than-healthy situation and proceeds to move to North or South Carolina and get a better life, and usually a better man. Franks women are fiesty but feminine in the way that only a real Southern belle can be. Full of Grace was no exception in that the main character was fiesty and funny, but this time, the protagonist Grace was a New Jersey Italian American princess, complete with a father named Big Al who acted like everyones stereotype of a "goodfella" mobster, and a wimpy, gutless mother named Connie who was everyones servant and general whipping boy. The fact that the protagonist is supposed to be an inspirational and beloved character in Franks books made it all the harder for me to overlook the problems I had with Grace as the main character. She was spoiled, selfish, rude, whiny and became a puddle looking for a shoulder to cry on every time something bad happened to her. She just couldn't deal, which seemed uncharacteristic of a supposedly tough Joisey princess who runs expensive tours all over the world. Not until we are 2/3 of the way through the book does she finally attempt to help her poor overworked mother and rescue her from slavery. She doesn't even try to tell her father to quit being an abusive jerk. Apparently, because her mother had an affair early in their marriage, that's supposed to mean that she has to spend the rest of her life being treated like a dog by her husband and mother in law. Again, we are supposed to be somehow charmed by this nasty, rude and cruel mother in law, Graces grandmother, when in reality, anyone with an ounce of compassion for Connie would want to see "Nonna" chucked out an airlock or tossed from a 5th story window. Mean people suck, but not to Frank. She lauds them in this particular book. I did like the story line, and the plot was nicely paced. I found the ending to be a bit too much "Touched By An Angel," and too easy, but no one could accuse Frank of leaving her readers hanging or outraging them with a crappy ending. The same could be said of Landvik. She always leaves her readers satisfied that all is well with her characters. Oddly enough, Landviks characters in "Angry Housewives" live on Freesia Court, which sounds an awful lot like the "Desperate Housewives" Wisteria Lane. Perhaps the shows writers are fans of Landviks works. At any rate, I will continue to enjoy the works of both authors, and will also try to continue to develop friendships and a life that is as fulfilled and rich as these characters' always end up being.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

RIP, William Styron, a Great Writer

William Styron died today, and the world of literature is a lesser place without him. I read three of his books, Lie Down in Darkness, The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophies Choice, and though they weren't what you'd call easy reading, they were all brilliant works full of gorgeous prose and riveting, unforgettable characters. I hope they have a desk saved for Mr Styron in writers heaven, God bless him. Here;'s his obituary from the NY Times:
November 2, 2006
William Styron, Novelist, Dies at 81
William Styron, the novelist from the American South whose explorations of difficult historical and moral questions earned him a place among the leading literary figures of the post-World War II generation, died yesterday on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where he had a home. He was 81.
The cause was pneumonia, coming after many years of illness, his daughter Alexandra Styron said.
Mr. Styron’s early work, including “Lie Down in Darkness,” won him wide recognition as a distinctive voice of the South and an heir to William Faulkner. In subsequent fiction, like “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and “Sophie’s Choice,” he transcended his own immediate world and moved across historical and cultural lines.
Critics and readers alike ranked him among the best of the generation that succeeded Hemingway and Faulkner. His peers included James Jones, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer.
“I think for years to come his work will be seen for its unique power,” Mr. Mailer said of Mr. Styron in a telephone interview a few years ago. “No other American writer of my generation has had so omnipresent and exquisite a sense of the elegiac.”
For Mr. Styron, success came early. He was 26 when “Lie Down in Darkness,” his first novel, was published in 1951. It was a brooding, lyrical meditation on a young Southern girl’s suicide, as viewed during her funeral by members of her family and their friends. In the narrative, language plays as important a role as characterization, and the debt to Faulkner in general and “The Sound and the Fury” in particular was obvious. A majority of reviewers praised the novel for its power and melodiousness — although a few complained of its morbidity and its characters’ lack of moral stature — and the book established Mr. Styron as a writer to be watched.
Although elated by the response, Mr. Styron balked at being pigeonholed as an heir to Faulkner. “I don’t consider myself in the Southern school, whatever that is,” he told The Paris Review in the spring of 1953, during one of the earliest of that magazine’s celebrated Writers at Work interviews. “Only certain things in the book are particularly Southern.” The girl, Peyton, for instance, “didn’t have to come from Virginia,” he said. “She would have wound up jumping from a window no matter where she came from.”
Besides, he could have added, he had been reared in Newport News, Va., a city of the New South, whose leading industry was the shipyard where Mr. Styron’s father worked. And it was an area that Mr. Styron wanted to escape, with a rich history that he wanted to explore from afar.
To the North and Europe
So after moving North and writing “Lie Down in Darkness” in, and just outside, New York City, he traveled to Paris in 1952 and wrote a novella based on his experiences in the Marines. Published in 1953 in the first issue of the journal Discovery under the title “Long March,” it appeared as a Vintage paperback in 1955 as “The Long March.”
After a year in Italy, in 1954 he moved to Roxbury, Conn., and set about completing his second novel, “Set This House on Fire.” A technical advance over “Lie Down in Darkness,” this novel was richer in its storytelling and, full of the latest in Continental existentialism, distinctly not Southern.
It sold well. But still it remained a somewhat melodramatic portrait of a group of Americans in Italy, and while it was admired in France, it got largely negative reviews in the United States.
In 1960, Mr. Styron returned home in his imagination by undertaking a project he had contemplated since his youth: a fictional account of an actual violent rebellion led by the slave Nat Turner that occurred in 1831 not too far from where Mr. Styron grew up.
The timing of the book was superb, appearing in 1967 on the crest of the civil rights movement. Mr. Styron prepared for it by immersing himself in the literature of slavery.
The reaction to “The Confessions of Nat Turner” was at first enthusiastic. Reviewers were sympathetic to Mr. Styron’s right to inhabit his subject’s mind, to speak in a version of Nat Turner’s voice and to weave a fiction around the few facts known about the uprising. George Steiner, in The New Yorker, called the book “a fiction of complex relationship, of the relationship between a present-day white man of deep Southern roots and the Negro in today’s whirlwind.”
The book sold well all over the world. It won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the 1970 William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. But as the social turmoil of 1968 mounted, a negative reaction set in. Influential black readers in particular began to question the novel’s merits, and Hollywood, reacting to the furor, decided against making a movie version. In August, some of the angrier criticisms were published in “William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond,” a book edited by the African history scholar John Henrik Clarke.
Mr. Styron was accused of having misunderstood black language, religion and psychology, and of having produced a “whitened appropriation of our history.” In the furious debate that followed, several admirers of “Nat Turner” recanted, and the question was raised whether white people could even understand black history — a position that to some seemed racist in itself.
Embittered, Mr. Styron withdrew from the debate and gradually moved on to his next project, “Sophie’s Choice,” a novel about a fictional Polish Catholic woman, Sophie Zawistowska, who struggles to survive the aftermath of her wartime internment in Auschwitz.
Thorough Research
Once again Mr. Styron read extensively, beginning with Olga Lengyel’s memoir of her family’s internment in Auschwitz, “Five Chimneys,” which had haunted him for decades. Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” suggested the central plot development. After reading the memoirs of Rudolf Höss, the actual commandant of Auschwitz, Mr. Styron made him a character in the novel.
Working slowly and deliberately, Mr. Styron evolved a complex narrative voice in the novel, more Southern and garrulous than any he had used before. The voice ranged so widely that Mr. Styron was able all at once to answer the critics of “Nat Turner” and to document his extensive reading of Holocaust literature while distancing himself ironically from a youthful, somewhat callow version of himself in the book, a central character who somehow mixes up his revelation of Sophie’s tragedy with the comic rite of his own sexual initiation.
Once again, Mr. Styron achieved commercial success and won prizes. “Sophie’s Choice” rose to the top of The New York Times best-seller list, won the 1980 American Book Award for fiction and was made into a successful movie, starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, and an opera by the English composer Nicholas Maw. And once again, a Styron project aroused controversy.
The initial reviews were mixed. Some critics seemed to find the complexity of the narrative troubling. But in time, critics focused on two particular objections. One was that the Holocaust so surpassed moral comprehension that it could not be written about at all; the only appropriate response was silence. The other was that even though non-Jews had also been victims of the death camps, for Mr. Styron to write about one of them, a Polish Catholic, was to diminish the true horror of the event, whose primary purpose, these critics pointed out, was the destruction of European Jewry.
Mr. Styron stood his ground. To the criticism that the Holocaust was beyond art, he told an interviewer that however evil the Nazis were, they were neither demons nor extraterrestrials but ordinary men who committed monumental acts of barbarism. To the comment that he was wrong to write about a non-Jew, his response, in an Op-Ed essay in The Times, was that the Holocaust had transcended anti-Semitism, that “its ultimate depravity lay in the fact that it was anti-human,” he wrote. “Anti-life.”
William Clark Styron Jr. was born on June 11, 1925, in Newport News, the only child of William Clark Styron, a shipyard engineer with roots so deep in the Old South that his mother had owned two slaves as a child, and Pauline Margaret Abraham Styron, whose ancestors were Pennsylvanians.
Mr. Styron’s childhood was close to idyllic. Doted on by his family, an early reader fascinated with words, he made friends easily and happily explored the waterfront and environs of Newport News. In 1940, his father sent him off to Christchurch, a small Episcopal preparatory school in West Point, Va., for his last two years before college. He graduated in 1942.
World War II shaped his college career. Enrolling in the Marines’ reserve officer training program, he started at Davidson College, a conservative Christian school. But unhappy with the school’s strict religious and academic standards, he was transferred to Duke University by the Marines in June 1943.
Active duty followed in October 1944, and after nearly a year of hard training, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in late July 1945 and assigned to participate in the invasion of Japan. A month later, the atomic bomb attacks forced Japan’s surrender, and he was discharged in December, relieved yet frustrated by his lack of combat experience.
He returned to Duke in the fall, where he renewed his friendship with Prof. William Blackburn, who had become his writing mentor. Graduating in the spring of 1947, he came away disdaining academic criticism and determined to be a novelist.
He moved to New York City. “I just found intellectual life here more congenial,” he told an interviewer years later. After completing “Lie Down in Darkness,” he put in a second, three-month stint, in the Marines in the summer of 1951. When the novel won the Prix de Rome, which entailed a year’s expenses-paid residence at the American Academy in Rome, to begin in October 1952, he spent the preceding summer in Paris.
This interlude involved him in the founding of The Paris Review; made him lifelong friends among the expatriate literary set there, among them Peter Matthiessen, George Plimpton and Irwin Shaw; and gave him the time to write “The Long March.” The year in Italy provided him with the material for “Set This House on Fire,” and it was in Rome that he became reacquainted with Rose Burgunder, at the American Academy, after having been introduced to her the previous fall in Baltimore, her hometown.
They were married in Rome in May 1953. She survives him. Besides Alexandra Styron of Brooklyn, Mr. Styron is also survived by two other daughters, Susanna Styron of Nyack, N.Y., and Paola Styron of Sherman, Conn.; a son, Thomas, of New Haven; and eight grandchildren.
When the Styrons settled in their Connecticut farmhouse and began a family, his life became the ideal of any aspiring writer: productive yet relaxed, sociable yet protected. On the door frame outside his workroom, he tacked a piece of cardboard with a quotation from Flaubert written on it: “Be regular and orderly in your life, like a good bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
An Unusual Regimen
The precept seemed to work for him, but it was an unconventional routine he stuck to: sleep until noon; read and think in bed for another hour or so; lunch with Rose around 1:30; run errands, deal with the mail, listen to music, daydream and generally ease into work until 4. Then up to the workroom to write for four hours, perfecting each paragraph until 200 or 300 words are completed; have cocktails and dinner with the family and friends at 8 or 9; and stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning, drinking and reading and smoking and listening to music.
With Rose to guard the door, run the household, organize their busy social life and look after the children, Mr. Styron followed this routine over the next 30 years. He turned out his novels slowly, yet he found time not only for occasional short stories, novellas, a movie script and a play about his wartime scare with venereal disease, but also for essays, reviews and occasional pieces, the best of which he collected in “This Quiet Dust and Other Writings” (1982).
His life seemed to expand outside the door of his workroom as well. In 1966 he bought a house on harborfront property on Martha’s Vineyard, where the family regularly vacationed and where he began to live from May through October. His circle of friends grew over the years to include Lillian Hellman, Art Buchwald, Philip Roth, James Jones, James Baldwin, E. L. Doctorow, Candice Bergen, Carly Simon, John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Mike Wallace and even Norman Mailer, with whom he had feuded fiercely early in their acquaintanceship.
He traveled abroad frequently, especially to France, where he continued to be admired.
Yet if the aura of his life was golden, it was also bordered with dark shadows. At only 13, he suffered the trauma of his mother’s death, which, perhaps because of the time and place he lived in, he was never allowed to mourn properly. A predisposition to depression was evident in his family’s emotional history. For whatever reasons, suicide is a recurrent theme in his fiction. By his own admission, he drank heavily partly to ward off ghosts.
In the summer of 1985, when he turned 60, he suddenly found that alcohol no longer agreed with him. But giving it up brought on mood disorders for which he had to be medicated. These drugs in turn produced destructive side effects, and he was dragged into a deep, prolonged suicidal depression that did not lift until he was hospitalized from December through early February 1986.
He recovered and wrote a harrowing account of his experience, which began as a lecture and became the best-selling book “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness” (1990). Three years later he collected three stories previously published in Esquire magazine in a volume titled “A Tidewater Morning: Three Tales From Youth” (1993). Each treats the confrontation of mortality, and the title story deals with the death of his mother.
Depression continued to stalk him, and he was hospitalized several more times. In “Darkness Visible,” he concluded, referring to Dante: “For those who have dwelt in depression’s dark wood, and known its inexplicable agony, their return from the abyss is not unlike the ascent of the poet, trudging upward and upward out of hell’s black depths and at last emerging into what he saw as ‘the shining world.’ There, whoever has been restored to health has almost always been restored to the capacity for serenity and joy, and this may be indemnity enough for having endured the despair beyond despair.”