The Apology - Eve Ensler
This is a book unlike any other. Certainly, there are books with dead narrators (The Lovely Bones, which - full disclosure - I never read). But this is not a novel, though it is the length of a prototypical novella. This is probably one of the greatest exercises in empathy attempted in the literary realm. This Apology has nothing to do with Socrates but rather, is a memoir by the author's father, looking back on his life from a kind of nether realm (purgatory or hell, I can't recall) and trying to redeem himself by acknowledging his atrocious behavior on earth.
As it opens, Ensler gives a remarkably empathetic portrait of her father as a young man, and the insecurities and failures and seeming mediocrity that he grappled with as he met her mother and eventually became a relatively rich and powerful ice cream company executive. Eve is then born, and he dotes on her and then realizes that he actually loves her more than her mother--because part of her is made from him. Then there's a turn and it's extremely difficult to read the next twenty pages or so as she recounts the years of sexual abuse he inflicted upon her, roughly between the ages of 5 and 10. As deeply disturbing as these pages are, Ensler acknowledges that they still could have been even worse.
When she realizes what is actually happening, she resists and he feels betrayed. The next turn is that he spends the rest of his life hating her and subjecting her to every other form of abuse imaginable, because he is afraid of what she knows he did. It becomes extremely bizarre and surreal when, for example, both she and her father end up outside for a smoke after the ceremony for her graduation from Smith College, where she has just delivered the commencement address as valedictorian. He makes some kind of backhanded compliment or slight. It's not a stretch to say that he hopes she would die.
He has now been dead for more than 30 years and it took Ensler that long to come to grips with the legacy of pain left in his wake. The book ends on an uncertain note. I can't recall exactly--as I read this months ago and it's back at the library--but there is a certain ambivalent hopefulness that comes through. There is no absolution or forgiveness, but there is closure, and Ensler, in her own way, transmutes her memory of him into something less incomprehensible and monstrous. In this anti-ur-text, at least, she allows him to attempt to be a [slightly] better person than he was in his life.
A Gentleman in Moscow - Amor Towles
This is not long form because I don't have the text in front of me, and also because I don't know what I want to say about it. The writing is impeccable. Sometimes I was bored and sometimes I was enthralled. There is a cute cast of characters. I've heard that an adaptation is being developed as a limited series. I'm sure it will be fascinating. The time is ripe for depictions of fascist regimes.
One thing I wanted to mention: a menacing atmosphere pervades this story, and yet the cataclysms are almost innocent and cute. Such as Osip (?), who calls the Count into a special dinner for the two of them, and then conscripts him into teaching him English, and later enjoying American cinema--particularly The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca--together. The ending is great and there are a lot of aphorisms or epigrams or bits of old-fashioned and timeless wisdom to charm the reader into believing they are reading a novel by an early 20th century European master (i.e. Mann or Nabokov - for this reader at least). If I am ever lucky enough to get to visit Moscow, a visit to the Metropol Hotel will now be necessity due to this book. It should have been a corporate sponsor.
The Long Accomplishment - Rick Moody
Along the continuum of books by Rick Moody reviewed on Flying Houses, this is better than both. At first I was going to say it's better than Purple America but not as good as Garden State. Then I remembered that I recently re-read Garden State and did not find it nearly as affecting as before. Perhaps Purple America would move me more now as a mid 30s person rather than a mid 20s person.
This book is a memoir basically about Moody's 2014. (Note: at a certain point Moody has to ask his father for money, and he refers to him as a banker----did he found Moody's ratings??? No but it's one of those names you could be born with where your profession would be an afterthought.) It might as well be called "Moody's Law," but hopefully he used up enough bad luck in that one year to last a lifetime. And actually the bad luck may have come from his possession of a Charles Manson autograph.
This is basically a straight narrative and there's nothing much to say about it that wouldn't function as a spoiler, except to say that he has a kid, he gets divorced, he gets remarried, a lot of people die or precipitously decline, he writes a weird book, and he and his wife try very hard to have another kid (amongst other calamities). It's beautifully written and nearly every sentence is suffused with pain of one sort or another. There is also mordant wit and sometimes obsessive detail. There is a lot to love about it and the only criticism I can make is that sometimes it feels a little too precious with itemized details. Better that than vagaries, of course, but those are the only times I felt bogged down as a reader. It is pretty hard to write compelling creative nonfiction, let alone give any meaning to the realities of existence. Yet Moody has accomplished this, and while a fair amount of it may seem mundane or "basic," the chapter on Odyssey Works (one-person-audience plays) is worth the price of admission alone.