Kamouraska – Anne Hébert

I am generally not into the whole “trapped, sad wife in olden times” genre. Edith Wharton is the only writer who has managed to make that story palatable for me, and it’s on the strength of her writing and the fact that her female characters are generally decent people or very entertainingly terrible people (see Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country, one of my favorite books of all time).

But Kamouraska was everything that I wished those books were. It is translated from the French, but even with the language barrier Hébert’s voice as a writer comes through. She writes Elisabeth’s story in fits and starts, seamlessly transitioning between scenes from her idyllic childhood, her disastrous marriage to an alcoholic squire, her passionate affair with an American doctor and their plot to murder her husband, and her current quiet life as a wife and mother.

It seems like these types of books often either one of two ways: 1) the woman and her lover end up together happily ever after, or 2) one of them dies or commits suicide. Kamouraska ends with neither, and provides no real closure. It’s another example of how it is such a refreshing entry in the genre.

The Doorman – Reinaldo Arenas

I love magical realism. I discovered Borges and Calvino in college and fell in love with them. I saw Arenas’ book on a list of magical realism novels somewhere and looked for it for ages, and I was so excited when I found it at a used bookstore.

This book was so disappointing. The thing that makes Borges and Calvino and Murakami and other fantastic magical realism authors so good is that their “magic” does not feel magical for the sake of being magical. It follows some kind of logic, however twisted, and it propels the story, and it feels like it could be something that actually happens, even though it’s impossible. Arenas’ book felt magical for the sake of being magical. The first half of the book dedicates brief chapters to each of the wacky tenants of a ritzy New York apartment building and – here’s the kooky twist – their animals, who include an orangutan, stuffed dogs, and a group of dancing chihuahuas. The second half of the book connects the doorman to the animals who, it turns out, can talk and need his help plotting an escape.

It all becomes kind of exhausting, trying to keep track of which animal has which weird power and how the tenants interact with each other and what the doorman has to do with any of this, and it’s just not worth the trouble.

The Sound of the Mountain – Yasunari Kawabata

This was my fourth Kawabata book – the other three were Thousand CranesSnow Country, and House of the Sleeping Beauties. As a writer, he snuck up on me. I enjoyed Thousand Cranes, but I didn’t necessarily intend to read a lot of his work. Over the years I’ve purchased his books when I see them at used bookstores, and I’ve ended up reading one every winter. His writing is perfect for winter. It is quiet and understated and simple. Many of his stories take place in winter, and those that take place over longer periods often include descriptive passages about the seasons.

The Sound of the Mountain is the longest book of his that I’ve read, and it felt like the most complete in terms of the depth of its characters and its story. At its most basic level, it is a story about a dysfunctional family and its quiet elderly patriarch, but it’s much more than that. It’s about the sorrow of getting older, the agony of determining your legacy, and the realization that you cannot be responsible for the choices of others.

The World of Apples – John Cheever

John Cheever died a few years before I was born. Prior to his death, he was extremely well-regarded, particularly as a short story writer. His collected stories volume was a bestseller, as was his novel Falconer. But since his death, Cheever has basically disappeared from the literary map. According to this 2009 New York Times article, this is because 1) he was deemed a “New York” writer whose work wasn’t accessible outside of the tri-state and was too similar to Updike and Yates, and 2) his personal life became gossip fodder following his death (Cheever was an alcoholic who struggled with his attraction to men and entered into an extremely unhappy marriage with a woman instead).

This is really unfortunate, because Cheever wrote luminous, engaging short stories. In The World of Apples, the vast majority of the stories involve 1) long-suffering men in/from the suburbs of New York or the Northeast, 2) harping wives, and/or 3) escaping to somewhere physically (Europe, Russia) or mentally (a made-up lover in “The Chimera”). #1 and #2 often lead to #3.

This combination could be trite and boring, especially for someone (like me) who is not a man stuck in ’50s suburban hell, but to Cheever’s credit, his stories transcend their very specific time and place. Cheever writes about people who are stuck and are trying to get unstuck. They are stuck for many reasons, but mostly family and societal norms. Often times, their attempts fail. In fact, several of the stories in this collection include at least one person’s death.

But for Cheever, it’s the people and their attempts that are what matter – the well digger who flees an obsessed housewife only to get into international trouble in “Artemis, The Honest Well Digger”; the husband who tries to make sense of his wife’s nonsensical anger in “The Geometry of Love”; everyone in the Cabot family but the steely mother in “The Jewels of the Cabots,” the best story in the collection. Cheever’s characters are realists who don’t believe in romantic illusion, unless they absolutely need it to get by. In “The Jewels of the Cabots,” the narrator describes hearing an American woman violently berating her lover in a courtyard in Rome. In the midst of her screaming, beautiful Roman bells begin to ring. The narrator notes the ringing, but gets right back to the irate, profane woman:

I smile at [the sound of the bells] although it has no bearing on my life, my faith, my true harmony, nothing like the revelations in the voice across the court. Why would I sooner describe church bells and flocks of swallows?

After a few stories, the reader realizes that no one in this collection is getting a happy ending, but it doesn’t much matter. In their own misguided, frustrated ways, they are trying, as Cheever himself did, to be what others what them to be, and maybe find their own peace of mind in the process. This humanity is what makes Cheever so great.