Thursday, November 3, 2011

Home, Again

I usually write something about returning home after a summer on the boat and traveling but never got around to it this year. All hell broke loose upon our return, having to do some landscaping after another typical brutal hot Florida summer finally killed some of our original plantings, and, then (after committing to the landscaping), finding a leak around the eaves of the roof which revealed the roof underlayment was decaying (thanks, again, Florida!). While we could patch and fix for the next couple of years, ultimately the roof will need replacement. It would be only a matter of time before water encroaches the living space. So, now that new plantings are in around the house, we are starting a new roof. Bad planning.

In the process of getting four different estimates I've become an expert in roofing, underlayments, attachment methods, and tiles. Metal roofs are the vogue now in Florida, but I think they are ugly on some homes, including ours which has a Mediterranean look. So we are going with a Spanish "S" concrete title and 3M's Polyset roofing system. While the expense is substantial, the new roof will be beautiful and with hurricane protection to 150 mph.

So between landscaping, roofing estimates, the round of obligatory medical appointments, and volunteering to be the pianist during visitors' hours at a West Palm Beach rehab center, it's been a busy period. Nonetheless, there is always time for some good literature and in that regard here are two I finished at the end of the days and while waiting for appointments.

Ethan Canin's Carry Me Across the Water, is a gem, beautifully crafted with multiple converging story lines. The child of a Jewish immigrant makes his way to America with his mother, leaving behind his father who stubbornly stays, not believing what was coming, when the Nazis finally prevail in the 1930's.. His mother ultimately settles in Brooklyn, remarries the devout Hank Kleinman, from whom our protagonist August Kleinman derives his surname.

But the novel begins with Augie in his 78th year, a widower and father of three children, a man who pursued the American Dream through hard work, taking chances, and surviving WWII, the latter playing significantly in the novel. When Augie was a soldier he came across a Japanese soldier in a cave on one of the Japanese islands who has his own story, one that August becomes part of at the end. Meanwhile, after the war, August Kleinman becomes wealthy (a prevailing theme in Canin's work -- the juxtaposition of rags and riches).

Canin skillfully navigates multiple time lines, effortlessly leading the reader back and forth from Kleinman's childhood, to his long marriage to Ginger, often talking to her internally as he steers himself through those narrow cave passages when he was a GI, to his building a successful brewery in Pittsburg, and finally his declining years as he tries to make sense of his relationship to his middle child, Jimmy. During a visit with Jimmy and his wife and grandchild, he makes plans to go to Japan to find closure, for himself and for the family of the Japanese soldier. In the process, he is reconciling himself to his own mortality ("And the end is getting nearer. I know that. Don't think I can't feel it. But I don't give up. That's just Augie Kleinman. I always thought I had a secret that when the end came I would be ready for it -- that the grave would be a relief. But it turns out it's not that way.")

As with all fine pieces of literature, the characters are real, and their conflicts familiar. It is the way of life and Canin captures it poignantly.

In an earlier posting on America America by Canin, I said, "sometimes I felt I was reading a novel that was indeed designed by a teacher, but a VERY good one" (Canin teaches at the University of Iowa's writer's workshop)." Carry Me Across The Water is another example of a carefully executed piece of literature, a novella in length but packing meaning and emotion at every turn of the page.

I landed on this novel after more hilarity from the pen of Jonathan Tropper, enjoying his How to Talk to a Widower, cut out of the same mold of the others I've read by him, Everything Changes, This is Where I Leave You, and The Book of Joe. How many times can an author pretty much cover the same ground, the searching-thirty-something male adrift in a sea of Jewish family foibles and suburban females, married and unmarried and divorced or soon to be divorced, sexual predators at times. Here our protagonist is now Doug Parker who becomes a local newspaper celebrity writing a column about his status as a widower and his twin sister Claire's designs for him to snap out of his long-standing grief. Meanwhile he has to negotiate his younger sister's impending marriage, his father's erratic behavior from his stroke, a child from his deceased wife's first marriage, and his mother's matchmaking, not to mention the women who stalk him and, finally, the woman with whom he finally falls in love again.

In spite of Tropper covering well worn territory, he never seems to let it go stale and his humor never fails: "My parents may behave like they were abandoned in Greenwich and raised by WASPs, but when it comes to preparing meals, we are once again the chosen people." OR "I would come and sit on the lawn beside her grave and make halting attempts at one-sided conversation, but I just couldn't make myself believe there was anyone listening, and even if I could, talking to the grave never made any sense to me. If there's an afterlife, and they can hear you, shouldn't they be able to hear you from anywhere? What's the theory here, that talking to the dead requires range, like a cell phone, and if you go too far the call gets dropped?"

Besides the humor, there is Tropper the astute observer of human nature and of the suburban scene, reminiscent of Updike and Cheever in some ways: "...moving out to New Radford [the suburban setting someplace in Westchester] had meant becoming friendly with a different sort of man than my younger, drunker, wilder single friends back in Manhattan.....[They] were all husbands and fathers either on the cusp or already descending into the tide pool of middle age. These men were all adrift in an alien landscape of mortgages and second mortgages, marriages and second marriages, children, child support, affairs, alimony, tuition, tutors, and an endless barrage of social functions. And all of their living had to be squeezed into those few hours on the weekends when they weren't working their asses off to pay for the whole mess. I'd always assumed that the people who lived in those fancy houses in the suburbs were financially better off then I was, and only once I'd joined them did I come to understand that it's all just a much more sophisticated and elaborate way of being broke."

Furthermore, Tropper always finds a way to tug at your heart, and although he treads familiar ground, I say, bring it on.

So, our roof odyssey has begun, the ripping and banging reminding me of a giant dental procedure, and while I've made some progress with my reading list, the stack of books grows. The pictures below track the first couple days progress on the roof. If only I could read that quickly!