Category Archives: First Novels

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? 2-20-17 #IMWAYR

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It’s a beautiful, sunny day here in Massachusetts. It’s also Presidents’ Day, which is a holiday for me, so I’m looking forward to spending the day at home except for morning yoga class (my new exercise obsession) and a quick run to the supermarket this afternoon.

cover imageI’m currently reading Crosstalk by Connie Willis, and This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel (which I started when I couldn’t find my copy of Crosstalk.)

cover imageThey are favorite authors of mine, and I own both of these books. So I can read without worrying about the books expiring, which happened with the downloaded library audiobook I was listening to last week (The Hopefuls by Jennifer Close.)

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While I wait to come to the top of the list to get The Hopefuls again to listen to the second half of it, two more audiobook holds came through from the library, including The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly, which I’ve been waiting a long time for and hope to get to listen to before it expires!

I audiobook cover imagestarted The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson, narrated by Cassandra Campbell first, to see what it was like; I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about this debut novel set in a private high school in an upscale suburb of San Francisco.

At first I thought I might not listen to it all the way through because the school bullying described in detail from an eighth-grade girl’s perspective, at the start of the book, made me so sad and angry. When the perspective switched to a new high school teacher’s three years later, I decided I’d give it a few more chapters to see if I could stomach the subject matter. By the time the perspective switched back to a student’s again –about a third of the way in – I was hooked.

Game of Thrones character "Brace Yourself, the President memes are coming.

Happy Presidents’ Day! What are you reading this week?

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? (#IMWAYR) is a place to meet up and share what you have been, are and about to be reading over the week.  It’s a great post to organize yourself. It’s an opportunity to visit and comment, and er… add to that ever-growing TBR pile! So welcome in, everyone. This meme started with J Kaye’s Blog and then was taken up by Sheila from Book Journey. Sheila then passed it on to Kathryn at Book Date.

Surreal Comedy of Manners: Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

cover image of Two Serious LadiesImagine two women of independent means – one unmarried, one married – going through the motions, more or less, of belonging to conventional (bourgeois) society and doing what’s expected of them, until suddenly they stop. The surrealness of Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles (first published in 1943) comes from other people’s continuing to interact with them as if they were the same ladies they were before – a little eccentric, maybe, but basically normal upper-class ladies. Their old friends and the strange new acquaintances they make – separately, and independently of each other – are puzzled and intrigued  by them, but don’t seem able to acknowledge the changes they are going through in the process of trying to become their true selves.

It may be more accurate to say that Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield (as they are called throughout the book) are on a quest to behave – and be – the women they actually already are by ceasing to behave like the ladies that most of society (except for a few other odd ducks) is expecting them to be (and insists on seeing them as).

As the book opens, Miss Goering is already considered odd, and weirdly religious; she has few friends other than Mrs. Copperfield, but she does like to get invited to parties and be out among people. She and Mrs. Copperfield talk together at a party given by their mutual friend Anna, and that’s the last they see of each other until the very end of the short book.

Miss Goering is compelled to leave the party early with Arnold, whom she has just met, because he has asked her to come to his home:

“After leaving Anna’s party, Arnold walked awhile with Miss Goering and then hailed a cab. The road to his home led through many dark and deserted streets. Miss Goering was so nervous and hysterical about this that Arnold was alarmed.
‘I always think,’ said Miss Goering, ‘that the driver is only waiting for the passengers to become absorbed in conversation in order to shoot down some street, to an inaccessible and lonely place where he will either torture or murder them. I am certain that most people feel the same way about it that I do, but they have the good taste not to mention it.'”

Mrs. Copperfield, on the other hand, seems conventional and timid at first, not as neurotic and odd as Miss Goering, and doesn’t seem to stand out as being different, right at first. At Anna’s party, she tries to tell Miss Goering how extremely nervous she is about an upcoming trip to the tropics with her husband and then goes off to cry in a room by herself for a while.

We learn later that Miss Goering gives Mrs. Copperfield a gift before the Panama. trip. This gift of a manicure set from Miss Goering seems imbued with some special meaning, for Panama is where Mrs. Copperfield begins to act as she pleases instead of as she is expected to. This passage describes Mrs. Copperfield’s thoughts on her first worried night in the low-rent district of Panama City, before she embraces this new, loud, and colorful world:

“Mrs. Copperfield’s sole object in life was to be happy, although people who had observed her behavior over a period of years would have been surprised to discover that this was all.
She rose from her bed and pulled Miss Goering’s present, a manicuring set, from her grip. “Memory,” she whispered. “Memory of the things I have loved since I was a child. My husband is a man without memory.” She felt intense pain at the thought of this man whom she liked above all other people, this man for whom each thing he had not yet known was a joy. For her, all that which was not already an old dream was an outrage. She got back on her bed and fell sound asleep.”

I marked a lot of passages throughout the book, but since I can’t quote them all here, I will sum up by saying that the characters in the book are strange and puzzling, for the most part, and their behavior seems to exist in a different moral universe. Censure and disapproval are mentioned from random onlookers, but there is none forthcoming from the author, who seems to be observing what everyone does and commenting on it, without forming judgments.

The edition I read has an introduction by Claire Messud which says that the author was the wife of Paul Bowles who started out as a composer before turning to writing and achieving greater success as a writer than she did. This was a marriage of friendship, for both were gay, as (it is strongly implied) the Copperfields were in Two Serious Ladies, which was the author’s only published novel. An alcoholic, the author suffered a stroke at age 40 that left her unable to write and she died in her 50s.

I read Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles for a January Read-Along with Dolce Bellezza and other book bloggers. Visit Dolce Bellezza’s discussion post for more about Two Serious Ladies.

Given the introduction from Claire Messud, Two Serious Ladies might appeal to readers of The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, and also any readers who want to become familiar with female writers from a previous generation, when women were overlooked by literary critics even more than they are today.

Youthful Accident or Racial Incident: Upper West Side Story by Susan Pashman

cover imageIn Upper West Side Story, a first novel by philosophy professor and former attorney Susan Pashman, two families in Manhattan are pitted against each other after a tragic accident (possibly a crime) goes from the personal to the political.

The case of two eighth-grade boys – best friends, one white and one black, both in the gifted class and on the chess team – just horsing around or maybe not? – while returning a weekend class trip to Washington, D.C. is nothing like a recent incident of the three black students who opened fire on workers in a Brooklyn school cafeteria, thinks Bettina, who narrates most of the story. Max, the white eighth-grader who becomes a public figure overnight is her son.

Bettina’s a political liberal – an academic – who prides herself on raising her two children – Max and his younger sister Nellie – to be comfortable in a racially diverse, urban environment. Bettina’s husband, Stephen – a city planner enmeshed in local politics – can see clearly how Max and Max’s best friend Cyrus are being used as pawns in the game of racial politics played by the mayor, the district attorney, and most of all the most vocal local activist on racial issues – City Council member Marcus Hake, an African-American fighting for social justice and against racial inequality under the law.

Here’s an excerpt from Upper West Side Story to give you an idea of it:

I stood up to face Stephen, a lump swelling in my throat. “It is simple,” I cried. “I can’t stand all this conniving and second-guessing when the truth is perfectly obvious. It’s always some stupid game with you politicians. But they can’t play games with our son, Stephen. That’s just not going to happen!”

I tore down the hall to our bedroom and stared out at the city. Down every street, behind every window, lives were being ruined – choked by greed, poisoned by ambition, obliterated by self-interest. The city stared back at me, a professor of political theory, a stalwart campaigner for a more just world.

“Sweetheart,” Stephen said gently He stood in the doorway to our room. “I know this could be a bit hard on Max, but it’ll be worse if we try to head it off. Hake will get the press revved up and they’ll mix this in with the cafeteria case even if the D.A. does nothing. It’s better to let them investigate and find nothing. If we get in his way, Hake will blow things up as he always does.

“The mayor’s obviously desperate for a bone to throw to him. The D.A., I’m sure just wants to keep up the office’s image as tough on crimes against kids. She won’t be as eager as the mayor is to yield to Hake. It’s a game, as you said, but I think we have to let it run its course.”

“I won’t have our son made a scapegoat! I won’t let those games get anywhere near him. We owe Max some peace!”

I turned back to the window. I felt a tear start down my cheek and brushed it aside. “They have to leave us in peace, Stephen. You and me, but most of all Max.”

Author Susan Pashman has clearly thought a lot about race, especially in terms of schools and parenting. In January, she started a Kids & Race blog where she posts on these issues. Writing a nuanced novel about a family in crisis allows her to delve more deeply into the complexity of reality vs. theory and imagine what’s happening out of the public eye when an event that you’re used to reading about in the news hits home.

Harvard Square Editions is a publishing house formed by and for Harvard University alumni to publish literary fiction with a social or environmental message. The message in Upper West Side Story that racial politics don’t tell the whole story occasionally overpowers the fiction, but the multilayered story of family, city, and the law, told in the voices of Bettina and Max is moving, and the clash of Bettina’s academic theories and liberal ideals with her maternal desire to protect and defend her son is realistic and thought-provoking.

Upper West Side Story
Pashman, Susan
Harvard Square Editions
May 28, 2015
276 pp.
$22.95, softcover

DIsclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for review. (I’m not part of the blog tour going on now, but check out it out for a chance to win one of 15 copies of Upper West Side Story.)