Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

I loved To Kill a Mockingbird even when I "was forced" (not really) to read it in 6th grade (or maybe 7th?) and, to make a conservative guess, I'd say I've probably read it at least 10 times since then. Anyway, I was all kinds of excited about Go Set a Watchman coming out, despite the ethical implications of its publication. I will also immediately read the lost Salinger books if and when they ever come out.

There have been a lot of terrible reviews, which is really pretty ironic because apparently Harper Lee's hatred of the press kept her from further publishing ventures and some reviews have been vicious. Like this rather harsh tweet from Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker said the book was a "failure as a novel."
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/27/sweet-home-alabama?mbid=social_twitter
I'm not even sure 50 Shades of Grey was a "failure as a novel" despite being, you know, what it is.  

So, what's so terrible about this book? It has very little plot structure - basically, a 26 year old Scout returns to Maycomb, Alabama to find that her elderly father spouts racist nonsense about the NAACP and black people not being responsible enough to vote. The Onion summed it up nicely: "Atticus shocks readers as a white man who has become a conservative blowhard with age." Scout sits in the same courthouse where she watched her father defend Tom Robinson, only, now her father and erstwhile boyfriend sit idly by while a racist asshole eggs on the town's menfolk. Jean Louise is naturally distressed to find that her father hero is not the person she thought he was, and then the book becomes a series of conversations in which her boyfriend, uncle and father gently mansplain that their racism is necessary and beneficial.

"Look, honey. Have you ever considered that men, especially men, must conform to certain demands of the community they live in simply so they can be of service to it?" Scout's response to this is steady denial, but mostly heartbreak - that the town and people she held dear can hold opinions so different than her own. That's a sentiment that really hit home for me. It's not unusual for me to hear relatives I love saying stupid, racist things when I go home. It's not unusual for my small hometown to be in the news for some idiotic racist act. Those things hurt worse than the acts of casual racism they are, because I feel like I learned some of my core values there - compassion, respect, acceptance. Scout feelings mirror mine: "Everything I have ever taken for right and wrong these people have taught me - these same, these very people."

So while Go Set a Watchman isn't nearly the masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird is, it certainly doesn't fail as a novel - I think it fills a quite useful place as a novel in expressing this, yes, slightly juvenile idea that our heroes have flaws - and that discovering that can be part of growing older and growing wiser. I would have benefited from learning that when I was in 6th or 7th grade but I found it gratifying to read it now.




Saturday, July 25, 2015

In The Country of Ice Cream Star

In the Country of Ice Cream Star is one of the best books I've read this year! Even though it's like so many post-apocalyptic novels right now - a young girl in the not-so-distant future battles adversity, etc, it's terribly inventive and original. A plague has wracked the United States, killing a huge majority of people. Little pockets of people remain in this area called "Massa" - all the survivors are black. No one lives for more than 20 or so years. The entire book is written in a kind of patois invented by the author, Sandra Newman. It reads like this:
Fat luck been the story of this year. Snares ever struggling full, and every arrow find a turkey. Any a sleeper street we did maraud, that street did give food. We war like twenty guns, but no one injure. Sling our hammocks in the crowns of sycamores like secret birds, and rest there, chattering and smoking, noses to the stars. Children forgot the taste of hunger and the touch of fear.
The language is beautiful. Sometimes she gets around to explaining what words mean and sometimes you have to just figure it out - I LOVE that. It took me about three times longer to read this book than it normally would have for a book this size, but I loved every minute.

Ice Cream is a girl of about 16 who lives in the woods with a bunch of other children. Nearby live some "Christings", also a group of people that live in an old factory called Lowells, and an army of boys.

Ice Cream's people are called Sengles and they're known for being amusing liars and brave soldiers. "We flee like a dragonfly over water, we fight like 10 guns, and we be bell to see.  Other children go deranged and unpredictable for our love."   Her brother gets sick with the illness that causes people to die at a young age and she is trying to save him.  They find a white "Roo" who claims his people have access to a cure.

I'm going to get slightly spoiler-y below, so stop reading if you don't like surprises.

I got a mad, irrational crush on the NewKing Mamadou, just like Ice Cream. They say hateful things to each other and fight, then have sex in his tent on animal hides kind of like Brad Pitt in Troy? (Or so I imagine.) As king of the armies, Mamadou takes part in this ritual they've created with the Christings where they take one of their women to be a "simper" - basically a harem of women at the mercy of the army boys.  After the ritual turns into a violent abduction, Ice Cream is furious with her sometimes-boyfriend.  Although he doesn't rape the simpers, he gives his tacit agreement to the army boys who do.  Controlling women through rape is a persistent theme in the book and Ice Cream is ever-aware of this threat.

Eventually Ice Cream and the roo, Pasha, make their way to the City of Marias where Ice Cream is convinced to play the role of Maria and Pasha, her white Christ. This part is pretty complicated but really fascinating, especially in terms of race, religion, and policing of virginity.  Based loosely on the tenants of Christianity, it really helped me recognize, in a way I oddly haven't before, how dramatically practices of religion change over time.  Because lifespans are so short, and generations are basically flipping on fast-forward, things change really quickly.

Coincidentally, my friend told me how she was reading Laura Ingall's books to her kids and Laura described a typical Sunday in which they wouldn't so much as ride their horses to church because that was considered breaking the practice of the church so they walked the whole way. That was just a little over 100 years ago but today the only people not flipping on their electricity on the Sabbath are orthodox Jews.

There are a few interesting articles out there on the book worth checking out - also a bit spoiler-y, so wait until you're done reading if you want.

From the NYTimes: a surprisingly negative review that I nevertheless enjoyed reading because of a couple of hilarious zingers, like "It’s not revealing too much to report that the readers most likely to enjoy this novel are those who can tolerate nearly 600 pages of pidgin English and those who are nostalgic for the Cold War." and "At times, this can sound a bit like Jar Jar Binks narrating an audiobook of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road." I really totally disagree with that, but it's still pretty funny.

A great interview with Sandra Newman in the WSJ and and another interview that touches upon her decisions regarding race and her invented patois and also some charming bits about how much she loves the book (she naturally very proud) and also reveals... there's a SEQUEL coming!

Monday, June 15, 2015

A God in Ruins

Kate Atkinson has written a delightful "companion novel" to Life After Life (my review). The 2013 Costa Award winner (formerly the Whitbread Award) was a challenging read, at least until you figured out the rhythm of things.  In comparison, A God in Ruins is child's play - or, better said, it's Atkinson doing what she does best: a rich, gothic tale of a British family.  This story is told from Ursula's sweet brother's POV, and it only has one timeline.  

There are a few little jokes re: Ursula's restarts which are rather amusing, like her saying "Life and death are completely random, that much I have learned." Her brother, Teddy, is such a great character - loving and warm and very very British.  He was a fighter pilot in WWII, and married Nancy, who you may remember from Life After Life.  They have a daughter, Viola, who is a stark contrast to her parents.  She's kind of a hippy, lives unhappily on communes and raises two children, poorly.  She's always snidely insulting her father about organic produce, etc, which, of course, he is no stranger to him, but he didn't grow up calling the food they grew in their own garden "organic".

Many parts of the book are actually super-exciting, and I had quite a few edge-of-my-seat moments, as if I was watching a wild action movie.  Her descriptions of Teddy's flight battles, near misses and a crash or two are so exciting.  Even though I've never seen the inside of one of these planes and what sounds like an impossible number of people squeezed into little cubbies here and there, it was so vivid.

Atkinson does not present the Allied soldiers as the sainted figures they are often portrayed as.  Teddy questions the indiscriminate bombing they do and grapples with what he's done in a way his few of his fellow surviving soldiers are willing to do years after the war.  "By the end of the war there was nothing about men and women that surprised him. Nothing about anything really. The whole edifice of civilization turned out to be constructed from an unstable mix of quicksand and imagination."

Here are some vocabulary words I looked up which I write here for your amusement and my own edification.  Will I remember them better now?  Who knows?  Below I will write some spoilers so read on at your own risk!

sobriquet - a nickname
entente - a friendly understanding
LMF - low moral fiber, acronym used during WWII
cauled - a type of cap
coup de foudre - an unexpected event. Literally, a bolt of lightening
tenebrous - dark, shadowy
braw - Scottish slang - good or fine. Derived from "brave"
widdershins - Scottish, in a direction contrary to the sun's course, considered unlucky
cadging - British - to ask for or obtain
au fait - having a detailed knowledge of something
pulchritudinous - I always think this word is the opposite of what it really means: beauty
spivvy - British - a man who makes a living by disreputable dealings
sprog - British, child
Far Breton


I have to say, the end of A God in Ruins hit me kind of like the end of Mad Men.  I was like GODDAMNIT! and SHE DID IT! and I was furious and exhilarated all at once.  As the walls fell down around Teddy and the horrible things Viola had done righted themselves and whole characters simply vanished all I could do was read in amazed, slack-jawed awe as Atkinson pulled on a string and unravelled the whole thing. What a fucking genius, honestly. In the author's note, Atkinson writes "I like to think of A God in Ruins as one of Ursula's lives, an unwritten one. This sounds like novelist trickery, as indeed it perhaps is, but there's nothing wrong with a bit of trickery."  She goes into a little bit of a lecture about the label of fiction and people's reactions to "new" styles:  "Personally I think that all novels are not only fiction but they are about fiction too. (Not, I don't think, as post-modernly self-referential as it sounds.) I get tired of hearing that a new novel is 'experimental' or it 'reinvents the form,' as if Laurence Sterne or Gertrude Stein or indeed James Joyce never wrote a word."  Later she writes "If this is a refutation of modernism or post-modernism or whatever has superseded post-modernism, then so be it."  Her defence of the style of her book feels pointed, and I'm not sure if I missed out on some literary spat or she just doesn't like being labeled.  I like what she says about all novels being fiction, and I think what she means by "they are about fiction" has something to do with creativity and creation itself. If anyone has any other thoughts, please share them!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Mislaid

I was a big fan of Nell Zink's runaway success, The Wallcreeper (my review).  I paid cold cash for a hard cover book (something I haven't done for ages) to read Mislaid right away.  It was ok.  Not great.  But also brilliant.

First I should say I think Nell Zink is such an interesting character, and I doubt I'm the only one who secretly wishes she and I could have an intense email relationship like she supposedly still has with J. Franzen whereby she tells me fantastic books I should read and somehow, I guess, she thinks I'm pretty interesting too.  And then we make jokes about how bourgeois it is to be written up in the New Yorker. (But, really, you should read the article.)

Mislaid has a lot of brilliant lines.  One thing Zink certainly excels at is effortlessly weaving in lots of Big Themes - in this case: race, higher education, wealth, The South, destiny, queer identity, expressions of knowledge and like, a million other things.  Look, I'm mildly embarrassed that I actually know very little about lit theory (I got a useless art history degree instead of a useless lit degree) so I'm merely pretty sure about this... but I think that Mislaid is mostly, if not completely, satirical.  As such, everything was wry and distant and I never felt too invested in any characters since I was seeing everything through a smirk.

A few months ago I made a hairbrained guess about what I thought this book would be about after reading the synopsis and was way off.  In Mislaid, Peggy marries Lee (both are gay) and they have 2 children.  For really no good reason, Peggy runs off with the daughter and lives with her in utter squalor for about a dozen years as two black people (They are both white. And natural blondes.)  Many absurd things happen and then the most absurd thing happens and then, ta da: everything pretty much works out ok. I suppose I might be grouchy about it if I didn't absolutely guffaw through the last 100 pages. Zink flings so many zingers there's nary a soul or institution that walks away unzung.

Something that struck me about both Zink's books is how slender and yet all-encompassing they are.  She's concise in her acerbic wit but doesn't spare words either. After a page-long description of the local dump (compared to Dante's Inferno, natch), she writes: "Mayonnaise is an irresponsible splurge when you don't have a fridge, but there are small sizes available, especially in places where people live hand to mouth and 'large economy size' is regarded as a long-term investment that would tie up needed capital."

I can't wait to read her next book.  Since she supposedly wrote both these books in a matter of weeks it might not be long.

Monday, May 11, 2015

French Milk

French Milk, by Lucy Knisley (pronounced "nigh-zlee") is, on the surface, a charmant little graphic novel about a girl's month-long trip to Paris with her mother.  It's biographical - she turns 22 in the story, and I believe she published it at age 22 as well.  She's almost preternaturally into food and writes lovingly about baguettes and cheeses and wines.  At 22, I was most interested in any pizza that was free.  I ate cheese out of a box.

Her drawing style was quite similar to Jeffrey Brown, who I like quite a bit.  (Oh, it looks like they both went to the School of the Art Institute at the same time...)  The book is interspersed with what appear to be (surely?) purposefully terrible photographs.  To tell the truth, although I found the book charming and the drawings were adorable and I liked all the food bits, Lucy comes off as a super-privileged kid who does way more complaining about her life than you'd think someone who was lucky enough to spend a month in Paris should.  While I admire her honesty and sort of bravery to put her whole self out there, it really lacks a maturity that only comes with, well, age.  Of course, the reverse is true as well: it sort of perfectly encapsulates the sort of self-absorbed, woe-is-me attitude of the privileged 20-year old.  It's sort of like the first season of Girls - really strikes a chord with a lot of women, but lacks diversity and wallows in narcissism. Nothing illustrates her youth better than the inspiration for the title - she loves the milk in France and guzzles it like a toddler. As I read French Milk, I wondered how she felt about it now.  And look what I found in a recent comic:


It looks like her style has changed quite a bit, and, just as I suspected, she appears slightly mortified by her work from 7 years previous.  If I had anything in print from when I was 22, I can tell you I would Simply. Die.  It would be embarrassing beyond measure, so, in the end, I really admire Knisley for having the courage to put herself on the page.  It looks like she's written quite a few more graphic novels and I look forward to reading more and seeing how her art and her perspective have changed.  


Thursday, April 30, 2015

How to Build a Girl

One of the things I loved about Caitlin Moran's How to Build a Girl is that it's a real journey. Joanna makes a bunch of stupid decisions and most of the time acts like a total idiot, but in the true spirit of a bildungsroman, she's allowing herself the freedom to experiment, and, importantly: start over. The real beauty is that Joanna's journey allows the reader to see the full range of possibilities for any young girl (or boy, I suppose) and lands in this very open-arms feeling toward experimentation in life.

While Joanna could never really be described as a role model (quitting school, lots of v. casual sex, drugs, etc) she's a child of wild imagination, determination and reinvention - what amazing qualities to find in any character, much less a real-life person.
All my life, I've thought that if I couldn't say anything boys found interesting, I might as well shut up. But now I realize there was that whole other, invisible half of the world--girls--that I could speak to instead. A while other half equally silent and frustrated, just waiting to be given the smallest starting signal - the tiniest starter culture- and they would explode into words, and song, and action, and relieved, euphoric cries of "Me too! I feel this too!"
The story of Joanna is quite similar to Moran's own bio - a young woman from Wolverhampton grows up in a "council house" (that's like subsidized housing in the UK, I guess) and becomes a successful rock critic as a teenager. Moran goes to some pains to illustrate that this is a work of fiction, which I merely note because I'm obsessed with art that borrows heavily from the artist's life, and I also have the radical idea that we shouldn't label book types. (Alphabetical by Last, à tute!) See my review of The Wallcreeper for more of my V. Important Thoughts on this subject.

Just as I lol'd and hell yeah'd through How To Be a Woman, so too did I alternately lol and nod in sage agreement with Moran's spot-on assessment of girls' growing up in the 90s. Another theme, near and dear to my heart, is the role of the critic. Joanna finds it more fun to eviscerate the bands she reviews, until she realizes that her "bile-filled persona" makes working-class kids like herself feel ashamed of the thing they love. "I started writing about music because I loved it. I started off wanting to be part of something - to be joyous. To make friends. Instead I've just, bafflingly, pretended to be a massive arsehole instead." I've had a similar trajectory in writing book reviews - long ago I found it easier and more amusing to write what I thought was a devastating review - but for the last few years I've tried hard to write about the positives, even of books I hate. It's harder and it's not as fun, but I'm not spewing infective into the world. I love reading, and the idea of other people finding what they want to read. I never want to stand in the way of that.

I am also not ashamed to admit I learned some new words (and not just for my special lady area! In one glorious page she referred to her "wedge", "fnuh" and "toilet-parts") Here are a few I picked up:
Frangible
ontic
ignominy
Hebridean
Blag
loo roll*
Moran writes, "So what do you do when you build yourself-only to realize you built yourself with the wrong things? You rip it up and start again. That is the work of your teenage years - to build up and tear down and build up again, over and over, endlessly, like speeded-up film of cities during boom times and wars." Even though she specifies that it's the work of "your teenage years" I'm not so lucky to be finished yet. But this book gives me confidence to keep working on that girl.


*Meanings
Frangible: Fragile
ontic: of or relating to entities and the facts about them
ignominypublic shame or disgrace
Hebridean: people from some islands off Scotland
Blag: To obtain something by dubious means - I wish I knew the derivation...
loo roll: Toilet paper! Isn't that the best?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Maisie Dobbs

So, you know I love a British mystery. I can't remember where I heard about Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs, but I think it was described as something like Downton Abbey with a detective which was enough to make me purchase the kindle book that moment.  Also Kindle has this thing where they sell you the audio book for a few dollars more.  So, I ended up listening to it.  

At first, it was great - what could be better than a British accent reading me to sleep every night?  But, it turns out I was falling asleep immediately, and not just because I'm bone tired from a long day making the proverbial donuts but because Maisie Dobbs is boring as hell.  

It is a lot like Downton Abbey in that Maisie starts out "downstairs" until her benevolent overlords recognize that she's really smart and pay for her to be taught by a tutor in addition to doing all her regular work.


Anyway, she gratefully takes the education, is pretty successful, for some reason joins the nursing squad for WWI on a whim and falls in love with this doctor.  Thus begins a long and chaste flashback to the war years and a lot of goopy, sentimental talk about "our boys" and sacrifices etc.  In the flashforward, you see that Maisie is alone, so obviously perfect doctor boyfriend died.


So, the mystery Maisie is trying to solve in the present has to do with this retreat that some guy has set up for wounded and disfigured soldiers, even though the war's been over for 10 years.  Maisie is very sympathetic to these people and the author goes to great pains to show what a sensitive soul she is to the veterans by never staring at their scars and recoiling in horror and whatnot.  Then she pulls back her hair and shows a friend that she's got a crazy awful scar on her head too, only her hair covers it up.  THEN! What happens but in the last few pages, she goes to a country hospital where perfect boyfriend's been all along?
And some shit about "tissue paper armour" that protected the memory of the past.  That's bullshit!  True Love doesn't care if you're in a wheelchair, speechless, with drool running down disfigured face! My God, at least go visit him once or twice in 10 years, Maisie!