Books: Recent reads in dark times

by anneMoore on April 4, 2017

I’m still in a funk over our elected leader and his mendacious staff. Fiction, even dark difficult fiction, provides an escape. Here’s where I’ve been:

In the Midwest, two men heedlessly press on to their deaths. One is a right-to-life activist set on eliminating abortion providers. The other is a doctor who provides abortions for women in areas where there may be only one such clinic. Both are certain of their calling.

This is the engine of A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates. It’s a long, troubling read. Oates takes us deeply into the families of the two men. The activist is a failed preacher with a drug-addled wife and teenage children. The doctor is an urban sophisticate dragging his educated wife and brainy children to rural Michigan so he can be of service to women.

I admire Oates’ storytelling: we are at the murder, we are in prison, we are at the botched death penalty procedure. The families left behind — how they come apart and come together — is the balance of the book. A magnificent read.

Also in the Midwest, a Cleveland psychiatrist mourning his wife learns that his foster brother has been released from prison, wrongly convicted of murdering four adult family members. Among the doctor’s patients: a former police detective obsessed with a pattern in unexplained drownings. At home, the psychiatrist’s teenage son has ditched his first year of college for heroin.

These are the triangles in Dan Chaon’s Ill Will, a creepy tale of repressed memory and unraveled professionalism. It wasn’t til the last page that I figured it all out. Bravo, Mr. Chaon. (If you haven’t, please read his Await Your Reply, one of my all time favorites.)

Ah! New York City in the the late Forties. Kafka Was the Rage is a memoir from Anatole Broyard, who went on to write for The New York Times.

Fresh from the war, Broyard leaves his parents’ Brooklyn home at the invitation of a siren who lives in Greenwich Village. His every decision is supported by his parents because “he’s a veteran.” He opens a bookstore, takes classes at the New School, hangs out with artists and musicians. It’s a gentle grungy time.

His love affair with Sheri is the funniest, dearest part of this memoir: he doesn’t understand her or her art. She plays him mercilessly, bringing home suitors who try to persuade him to give her up or telling him that her heart is weak, so she must be carried up stairs.

This is a thoughtful look back at time and place that planted the seeds for the cultural and sexual revolution of the Sixties.

Barbara Comyns is a 20th century English author getting a fresh look thanks to reissues by the New York Review of Books and other publishers. Comyns writes clearly and beautifully about the horrors of family life. (I am forever haunted by her Our Spoons Came from Woolworths). In The Vet’s Daughter, teenage Alice is left motherless to her cruel father, a veterinarian whose work spills into their suburban London home: a rug is made from a skinned Great Dane, on the mantle is the skull of a double jawed monkey, a parrot flies about freely. The smell of chloroform pervades.

Life without mother becomes increasingly fraught; coping with violence and another death, Alice finds herself able to levitate. I’d like to say this ends well, but this is a Barbara Comyns book. Brace yourself.

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