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!  


Friday, April 17, 2015

The Singing of the Dead

I visited a friend for the first time and spent a long time looking over her beautiful bookshelves, asking about authors she had collected and learning a bit more about her.  Bookshelves are the window to the soul, aren't they?

She loaned me The Singing of the Dead, by a mystery writer I'd never heard of before - Dana Stabenow.  This is the 11th book in the series and I definitely want to read more!  The lead character is Kate Shugak, an Aleut, a detective/contractor who lives in Alaska and recently lost her husband.  Kate is feisty and sad and doesn't put up with shit. She's hired by a political campaigner (another Alaskan native woman who's running for office) who is getting threatening letters.   Kate doesn't really care about the politics but she needs the money and they pay well.  

Alternately, the story of a prostitute in the very early 20th century, gold-rush days in Alaska is told.  She's murdered.  Kate learns about this woman and discovers her connection to the campaign.   I like Kate because she's so passionate - she gives a little speech about the limited opportunities for women in that period, without birth control, the right to vote, etc.  "Who cares what the founding mothers of our fair state did to get here, to stay here? What else was there to do for a woman back then? Wife, mother, maid, that was it. You were born, you got married, you had a bunch of kids first because there wasn't any way not to and second because the kids were your social security, and then you died, usually way too young, most of the time in childbirth. What did you do if you were a woman and you didn't want that?"

I learned a little bit about Alaskan history and perhaps a tiny bit about Alaskan natives (two subjects I knew very little about) so I really appreciated the Alaskan angle. I'm kind of surprised this hasn't been made into a TV series - I could totally see like a show like Wallander or The Killing out of this. 

Let me know if you've read any other Stabenow that you love!   


Monday, March 23, 2015

Dept. of Speculation

I sped through Jenny Offill's slender Dept. of Speculation quickly - I wish it had lasted longer, but it's 177 pages felt like a little treasure - one I'll surely return to many times.

The book felt utterly fresh and new, despite the timelessness of the story, the trajectory of youth, dating, marriage, children, near-divorce, etc.  Offill is very funny ("I found a book called Thriving Not Surviving in a box on the street. I stood there, flipping through it, unwilling to commit.") and insightful ("The undergrads get the suicide jokes, but the ones about divorce go right over their heads."). She does some really interesting things with POV - the book moves from first person to first person plural, then to third and then back to first person plural again (I think there might be a bit of second in there too).  Somehow she makes all these transitions very smooth - you might not even notice if you're not a POV Geek like I am.

Although Offill works through a number of interesting themes, one of the big ones that stuck out for me was the simple fact that maturity leads to greater understanding - sometimes it's devastating and sometimes it gives you the strength to make it through heartache.

I highly recommend this terrific little book - it was a real joy to read.