Illustration: © Joan Breckwoldt
"WHAT SHOULD I READ?" It's a question that anyone with even a modest presence in the book trade has heard more than once. I hear it from well-read friends who tend to want something other than genre novels, who crave characters that live identifiable lives. Some have a taste for historical novels or books set in countries other than ours, but they all want to be taken to a fully imagined place that they can see in their mind's eye. They usually agree with Emily Dickinson: "There is no frigate like a book."
I spent 2008-2009 as a fiction judge for the Los Angeles Times book prizes, my second tour of duty. I read or at least sampled 125 books each year. When the Los Angeles Review of Books asked which I might recommend that may have passed readers' notice, I settled on work by Jill Ciment and Jane Gardam.
Ciment's Heroic Measures was a runner up on the best fiction list for 2009. In it, Alex and Ruth Cohen, a New York couple in their seventies, live in a fifth floor walk-up in the East Village. They've been there forty-five years and the stairs seem to get higher and steeper as the years pile up. They're hoping to sell and buy something with an elevator. Alex is a painter of moderate but real reputation. Ruth is a retired schoolteacher who likes to re-read Chekhov stories. One of her favorites is "The Lady with the Dog." The Cohens, who have no children, dote on their aging dachshund, Dorothy.
The point of view shifts subtly among the three of them. Putting Dorothy's internal voice into the mix might sound a bit precious but Ciment has a light touch. I found myself curious about what each, even the dog, was thinking. At the peak of my interest, Ciment told me. It's an uncanny narrative skill.
Alex and Ruth are old lefties. Alex has acquired and decided to illuminate the pages of his FBI file, though not quite like a medieval manuscript or a book of hours. "In place of crosses and saints, martyrs and angels, [he would] paint A-bombs, Mousketeers, two-tone refrigerators, Khrushchev, and portraits of him and Ruth." Ciment, who teaches English at the University of Florida in Gainesville, is married to the artist Arnold Mensches, who is known for the collages he created out of his own FBI files. He's about thirty years older than Ciment, who had been his student.
Heroic Measures takes place over the weekend that the Cohens are to show their apartment to potential buyers. Dorothy, who (in dog years) is about the same age as her owners, has developed a paralysis. Also, a possible terrorist has left a jack-knifed truck with a possible bomb in the Holland Tunnel. The media goes nuts and the city all but shuts down. This, of course, will have consequences for the real estate market. Without other news to report, the journalists of New York are asking poll questions along the lines of "Do you think terrorists take drugs? 78% yes, 20% no, 2% not sure..."
Perhaps because Ciment produces rounded characters with a minimum of information, all of them-even Dorothy-feel surprisingly alive. I don't know what dog thoughts are like or if they're formed in anything resembling sentences, but Ciment makes Dorothy seem as if she learned how to think from Alex and Ruth. Dorothy's not crazy about the veterinary hospital she finds herself in and can't understand why she's been left there.
The Cohens have regular ethnic dinners wit...