Anton DiSclafani

Anton DiSclafani has written two novels so far. Both books have first person narrators who are rich and privileged white girls in the South in the mid-Twentieth century. The decadent settings are thoroughly described by characters who clearly love their homes, and whose strong ties to place anchor them.

 

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

The action of this novel begins when Thea Atwell arrives at the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, an elite, old-fashioned boarding school in the mountains of North Carolina, in 1930. She has been banished from her family for a mysterious offense. She genuinely loves horses and is an excellent rider; many scenes are devoted to her adventures on horseback. It’s a coming-of-age story, but much of the plot is about her ill-advised love affairs. Thea is not always admirable; she’s selfish and very immature, a child using her new sexuality as a toy to manipulate others, more out of ignorance and boredom than malice. She is driven to explore the power she discovers she has over men, as well as wracked with homesickness for Florida and guilt for her sins.

The After Party

Cece is 25 in 1957 Houston, a socialite and young mother. Her best friend Joan is wild and beautiful and secretive. She disappeared for a year when the girls were 18, and the secret of that time is a question Cece has been wondering about ever since. It’s a rare book about female friendship, its complications, enduring power, and the pain of its loss.

DiSclafani’s handling of the secret at the center of this book is somewhat more deft than in her first novel, and the plot depends less on her protagonist’s immaturity and rash decisions (partly because Cece is significantly older than Thea). I think it’s my favorite of the two.

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Hausfrau

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

I will remember this book for a long time. It’s a chilling tragedy about infidelity that seemed a little like an update of Anna Karenina. This Anna’s tragic flaw is passivity. The setting is Zurich, Switzerland, where Anna, an American has never felt at home. The close third person narration switched frequently between present and past, with other short scenes that made thematic statements or puns interspersed. There was a lot of wordplay, especially with Anna’s German lessons, and her appointments with a Jungian psychoanalyst. It was absolutely heartbreaking and hard to read at times. Very intense. I needed some recovery time from this one, and not just for the ending, for almost every time I had to put it down.

All Grown Up

All Grown Up by Jessi Attenberg

This novel reads like a bunch of linked short stories with the same narrator, Andrea Bern, a single graphic designer living in New York. Her voice is cynical and hip, but also vulnerable and searching. I was hooked by the first story, the only one told in second person, a claustrophobic meditation on artistic frustration and thwarted ambition. One organizing principle of the book seems to be that each chapter/story is about a different relationship or person in the protagonist’s life. Dysfunctional and doomed relationships, frustrated artistic ambitions, a family heartbroken by the impending death of her young niece. I didn’t relate much to the terrible romantic relationships, though they were fascinating to read about. I wish Attenberg had explored Andrea’s failure as an artist more. The thought of her terminally ill niece hangs ominously over it all, kept away because of her own fear of approaching this deep sadness. The ending is open to interpretation in a way that’s a little frustrating, but also hopeful and depressing at the same time. It’s a short, very engrossing and perceptive novel that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about.

Stoner

Stoner by John Williams

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This novel is set at the University of Missouri in the first half of the twentieth century. William Stoner is a farm boy who goes to the university, falls in love with literature, and stays there for the rest of his life as a professor. His life is pretty sad and pathetic in a lot of ways, and it seems like most of the story is meant to make readers feel sorry for him.

The plot is concerned with Stoner’s love life, and with his academic job and some crazy drama in his department. In both arenas, Stoner is a kind of righteous victim. He refuses to pass an undeserving grad student’s oral exam, and is targeted by the head of his department for the rest of his career (over twenty years). That part of the story is a caricature of the pettiness of academics. In his love life, he has a bad marriage and an affair with a younger woman, which is tragically broken up by his university enemies.

I had a problem with the character of Edith, his wife. I didn’t find her believable at all. She makes no sense as a character. Her choices, especially the choice to marry Stoner and to have a child, come from nowhere and are unexplainable by anything in the text. She’s frigid and vindictive, with no redeeming qualities at all. Their sex life I found especially incomprehensible. Due to extreme sexual repression, Edith is completely unresponsive in bed, to the extent that Stoner is probably a rapist. Since we are meant to empathize so totally with Stoner and find his adulterous affair incredibly romantic, it’s necessary to malign his wife and portray his marriage as essentially dead. But even so, Williams did a poor job creating this character.

Despite the overload of pathos, there are some lovely passages, and Stoner finds his own life worthwhile, which is kind of affirming and optimistic.

Obedience

Obedience by Will Lavender

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This thriller is about a college Logic class given a kind of forensic assignment that turns out to be more than just a game. They are told to solve a crime and find a missing person who is supposed to be murdered at the end of the term. The author attended my alma mater, and I could recognize it clearly as the inspiration for the setting, which was kind of cool for me. The book is a mind-fuck, as you’re constantly wondering what is real and what is only a story. I’d call it the undergraduate version of The Magus, which is much longer, more intense, and complex (but maybe more sexist).

Reading the Election

Sometimes when an issue is preoccupying me, I see it everywhere. Almost everything I’ve read in the past month or two, I’ve read in light of the election. I’m looking for explanations, solutions, and sometimes just escape. Here are some books that feel especially relevant right now.

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Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 by Charles Murray

This book describes how Americans have isolated themselves from each other, based mostly on class and politics. He focuses a lot on coastal elites who live in a few “super ZIPs,” ZIP codes populated by the wealthy, many of whom also attended the same schools and work in the same industries, and who have a disproportionate influence on national policy and culture. His analysis seems extra important as a way of understanding the difference between urban and rural voters and what it would take to overcome these differences. Murray is pretty conservative, so some of the points he uses his data to make are definitely determined by his ideology. It’s also just interesting to think about the cultural touchstones that make up these different American subcultures. Here is a quiz you can take to see if you live in a bubble or not.  I scored 45, which puts me pretty solidly in the middle of the middle.

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Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha Nussbaum

This book makes a passionate argument for why broad education in the liberal arts widens our perspectives in ways that seem needed today more than ever. Putting aside the intrinsic values of the arts and humanities for improving individuals’ lives, she focuses on how the widespread study of literature, history, and philosophy creates a population capable of sustaining democratic institutions. The lack of this kind of education is probably why we are in the situation we’re in. I found a further explanation for our current predicament in her examination of child psychology, especially her discussion of the narcissism of children and their shame in their essential helplessness. Nussbaum’s prescription is for critical thinking taught by Socratic pedagogy, and lessons on empathy and compassion toward those who are different or far away, using the arts and play. In this way, we can overcome narrow us/them thinking, learn to identify with others, and become educated for global citizenship.

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The Taming of the Queen by Phillipa Gregory

This historical novel is told from the point of view of Katherine Parr, the sixth and last queen of King Henry VIII. The parallels with Trump should be obvious here. The narcissism, the womanizing, the tantrums, the physical grossness. Henry’s policies are incoherent because he changes his mind so frequently, and purposely plays his advisers off each other. Katherine lives in fear as she watches Henry’s behavior toward her change and fall into the pattern of the way he acted toward Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard before he had them beheaded.

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The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

This book is told from the point of view of several immigrants from Central America. The main narrative is about a romance between high school age kids, one of whom is mentally handicapped because of a severe brain injury. It’s touching to see how the close-knit community of immigrants helps each other adjust and survive, and heartbreaking to watch them struggle with the language barrier and with bullying and intimidation. I wonder how much more uncertain and scary the characters’ lives would have been if it were set in 2017. Novels help us to empathize with people who are different from us and to see them as three-dimensional and fully human. If there were one book that I could make every Trump voter read, this just might be it.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

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This funny, voice-driven novel is a mystery buried in an imploding family wrapped in a ranting email. The main narrator is 15-year-old Bee, a precocious, sassy girl whose mom, Bernadette Fox, disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Bernadette is brilliant but incredibly eccentric, an architect who had won a MacArthur grant, but who stopped practicing when her daughter was born. Her unexpressed creativity turns inward, making her anxious and self-destructive. I really found the obsessive way she worked, her creative self-immolation and her journey back to the art she loved, fascinating, inspiring, and hopeful. The setting is Seattle, where the culture of software companies and progressive private schools provide plenty of fodder for jokes and ridiculous situations. There are also interesting questions about the burdens and obligations of contributing to a community and being neighbors. This book features the best, most introspective and unexpected villain about-face I can recall. I really had fun reading this one.