Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi

At the beginning of Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi, Grazia, an Indian-Italian woman returns to India after her mother dies. She uncovers a shocking family secret - she has a sister, who has been living in a group home in Pondicherry. Grazia is furious and confused by the decision her parents made to hide a sister from her, remembering how lonely she was a child, how she would have loved to have a sibling.  She removes her sister from the group home and moves to a small house on the sea (another secret her mother kept from her) and begins a new life as a caregiver for her disabled sister.  In some ways their life is idyllic - her sister loves sitting in the waves, they have wonderful dogs, she’s able to get away on the weekends, but, belied by that simple title and that charming cover art, their lives are equally difficult.  Her sister’s former school director alternately doesn’t trust Grazia and also requests money for improvements at the school, there’s unrest in the area due to wealth inequality, they are vulnerable as women living alone.  Doshi never romanticizes the setting or casts Gratzia as a saintly figure for caring for her disabled sister, she's a complex character full of doubts and occasional rage and her fair share of regrets.  Here's a bit that I loved:
I don't know what it is, about seeing groups of men together, but it unsettles me. The way they hold their bodies, the ownership of space. Nothing they offer, by way of their togetherness, engenders a sense of safety. It is all gnarl and hair and ballsack and matted heal. The world needs softness, not this.
Content warning: More than one dog dies in this book. 

Monday, February 17, 2020

A Discovery of Witches

I got a new job with a much longer commute, so naturally the first thing I did was get an Audible account.  First I listed to Olive Again, by Elizabeth Strout (12 hrs) - wonderful.  I love Olive dearly.  Then I listened to A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness (24 hrs).  I thought longer would be better but... it's not.  I was not crazy about A Discovery due to it having a VERY post-Twilight feeling in that there's a lot of gross smelling and explaining of smells going on (He smelled like cloves and summer nights sort of thing) and a weird old thousand-year-old vampire in no hurry to have sex.  But, at least, unlike Bella, Diana actually has a real personality and some skills and knowledge that make her attractive/interesting to the broody vampire/reader.  I kept thinking it would probably make a better movie than a book and, indeed, my colorist told me the tv series is really good.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Women Talking

I've been listening to a lot of books lately, but I read Women Talking with my eyes, and was an absolutely absorbing book that I practically finished in one sitting.  Although, at the beginning, I had to walk away from it several times, being quite overwhelmed with rage.  It's based on the true story of a Mennonite community where a number of the men were drugging and raping women and girls and blaming the attacks on the Devil and the women's wild imaginations.  In Toew's book, the men are in the far-away city bailing or being bailed out of jail.  The women remain at the remote community, trying to decide whether to do nothing, leave, or stay and fight.  They are heartbreakingly pragmatic about their situation, and behaving with what you might consider strange behavior for a group of women who have been systematically raped and then gaslighted UNLESS you knew that, HEY, everyone behaves differently after such a traumatic experience (also, watch Unbelievable).  Slowly, Toews releases details that will make you want to throw the book across the room, and yet it's an extremely tender book and even occasionally funny.

I was having trouble keeping track of the characters, although Toews helpfully defines their relationships at the beginning.  I scribbled down a family tree, as I often do.  What became startlingly clear with my little trees was that all the husbands and brothers were unnamed and unaccounted for - not just missing from the narrative, but blank spaces where they should be.  It also became fairly obvious that the harder and more cynical Loewen women have suffered generations of abuse at the hands of their husbands and fathers while the more optimistic Friesen are a bit more carefree and have the freedom to relax into female friendships and maternal care. 

What really struck me was how, despite having absolutely NO education, these women were bright, poetic, and thoughtful.  I can only assume that Toews, who herself lived in a Mennonite community, saw women such as these - resourceful, fierce, protective, and very bright.  There's a wonderful interview with her on NPR.

Did everyone read that op-ed in the NYT by Brit Marling about women and storytelling?  She nailed it (although I think she left out a major element that, aside from limiting women to either beautifully murdered corpses or "Strong Female Lead", no matter what: that lady better be pregnant).  Marling writes, "the hero’s journey is centuries of narrative precedent written by men to mythologize men. Its pattern is inciting incident, rising tension, explosive climax and denouement...a male orgasm." Hole. Ee. Shit.  I don't know why I'd never thought of that, I mean, it's called a climax, for christ's sake.  So, that's made me more aware of non-linear stories lately, or those that don't follow the classic narrative structure.  (MINI SPOILER AHEAD) Toews certainly steers away from the "hero's journey" in Women Talking in that the climactic moments have all happened before the book begins (the rapes, the discovery, the attempt of some of the women to murder the men for their actions.) Women Talking is just that: women talking.  With the exception, we find out just at the end, of the narrator's distress.  Keeping minutes and recounting the story is the melancholy school teacher.  At the beginning of the book, he tells us that he was asked to keep notes by Ona, who sees him out walking in the fields.  At the very end, he allows that he was out walking with his gun, struggling with suicidal thoughts.  One of the women sees his distress and asks him to keep notes of their meeting, both giving him direction, a sense of belonging, and providing a way to place him under the watchful eye of herself and the women of the community.  "The purpose was for me to take them, the minutes. Life."

I'll leave you with these hilarious pictures of "women talking" I found when I google image searched the cover of the book.  Apparently "women talking" equals coffee cups, upturned hands, and more coffee cups.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Wow wow wow.  I keep my ear to the ground for good book recommendations - so when I was reading By the Book with The Phoebe Waller-Bridge and she casually mentioned Ghost Wall (2018) by Sarah Moss, I looked up the description.  "In the north of England, far from the intrusions of cities but not far from civilization, Silvie and her family are living as if they are ancient Britons, surviving by the tools and knowledge of the Iron Age."  That can only mean one thing, people:  Bog Bodies.  

One thing I have become completely obsessed with lately is Bog Bodies.  About a month ago I fell down a slippery rabbit hole of the Bredmose Woman, from 1400 BCE, who was found in Denmark, wonderfully preserved along with a charming cap created with a pre-knitting technique called "sprang".  This lead me to another pre-knitting and crocheting technique called Nålbinding, which I now want to learn how to do.  Nålbinding is made with a bone needle, which of course you can order on Amazon, but just as I was about to order one, I was like, "Am I really going to order a needle off fucking Amazon Prime to recreate an ancient Viking textile?  No. I. Am. Not.  I'm going to make my own damn bone needle."  So, I'm working on that.  Going to try to use the rib bone from our Thanksgiving roast.

I've been trying to get more in touch with my ancestry (mostly British, according to my DNA), and this quote from the blogger who got me excited about sprang and nålbinding really speaks to me.  "...objects are not just passively handed along, they have agency, extending the artist’s (or artisan’s) reach across distance and time.  People take action through the things they create, this way distributing their personhood.(Apparently she's summarizing Alfred Gell's theory of "distributed personhood.")   That also puts me in mind about what Goldie Goldbloom said when I asked her about a chapter in her latest book.  She said that we are the products of our family history and the memories of our ancestors.  This is exactly the sort of thing that's happening in Ghost Wall.  Silvie's father is very interested in the British Iron Age, and drags his wife and daughter around England, walking the entirety of Hadrian's Wall, lecturing about their ancestors.  For him, it's partly based on a racist pursuit of proving his own white ancestry.  "...they had their horses and swords as well, didn't they, put up quite a fight and after all send them packing in the end, there weren't dark faces in these parts for nigh on two millennia after that, were there?"  They've joined a professor and his students who are practicing immersive learning, and living something like Iron Age people for a few weeks - wearing handmade tunics, leather moccasins, foraging and eating over a fire. Silvie's dad's along because he's a talented outdoorsman.  He's also violent and abusive to his wife and daughter.  The other campers notice, but are slow or unable to react.  What's interesting in Ghost Wall is just what that blogger and Goldie Goldbloom said - what characteristics are deep in these people's psyches, tied to their ancestors?  This inheritance of violence and the inheritance of meekness are tragic gifts for Silvie's family.  Like a bog sacrifice, she and her mother bear abuse quietly.  

Ghost Wall is a quick read, excellent prose and truly heart-thumping story.  I'm excited to read more by Sarah Moss.  Thanks, Phoebe!

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Watching You by Lisa Jewel (no Spoilers)

Lisa Jewel's 2018 Watching You is a fantastic murder mystery in a small British town.  The narrative

alternates between short police interviews that take place a short time in the future and the actual story as it plays out.  It's a bit difficult to describe without giving the whole plot away, but I will say that there was a kind of "twist" that truly surprised me and a zinger in the last sentence that was a real stunner!  It's kind of fun to get to literally the last sentence and...

The school head (I think like the principle?), Tom Fitzwilliam, as charmed almost every woman and girl in town, but occasionally he'll creep out the ladies with a "wolfish" glance that hints at some nefarious interiority.  Tom's son sits in his bedroom window spying on the neighbors and teenage girls, photographing everyone and tracking their movements in a notebook.  Neighbor Joey has a hot, cuddly husband but also a crush on Tom.

It's sort of the perfect mystery novel - keeps you guessing, easy to keep track of the characters - a very clever twist that had me flipping back to the beginning of the book the moment I collected myself at the end!  Highly recommend!

Nota Bene:  I've also read her The Girls in the Garden - and at least based on these two books, Jewel doesn't seem to obsess on the details of the destroyed female body for her novels, which all-too-many people do.  I appreciate not having to wade through what feels like obsessive, masturbatory glee in the violence acted upon women.  She's not ignoring violence against women, just not resorting to the objectification of women that you often find in mystery novels.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman

You know what's cool about Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman - she uses  To Kill A Mockingbird as an influence on the story.  Reminder: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee was published in July 2015, and Wilde Lake was published in May 2016.  According to Lippman, she had already started her novel before Lee's second book was "found", as it were.  I just LOVE a story that is revisited or reworked from a different point of view, so I really enjoyed this aspect of Wilde Lake.  Done well, it enhances both the new work and the old one, because it calls you back and maybe helps you look at it a different way.

To wit, Lu (Louisa) is the first female state's attorney of her county in Maryland, following in the footsteps of her well-respected father, Andrew Brant.  Her brother AJ is the sort of person everyone admires, star athlete, strong student, friend to everyone.  They have a devoted black housekeeper, a gay neighbor kid that inserts himself into their lives, and, when they were younger, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks accused their black friend of raping her.

The story straddles two time-lines - one of Lu and her brother as teenagers (Lu a bit younger and sort of tagging along with AJ's friends.  For the most part, her father helps keep the accusation of the rape secret, everyone agreeing that it was most likely perpetrated by her abusive father.  In the present-day, Lu is taking the lead on a case of a woman murdered in her condo, with no apparent motive.  It's a good mystery, and she connects the dots nicely. 

Although Go Set a Watchman wasn't very well received, I quite liked parts of it, particularly the "you can't go home again" (to put it mildly) aspect.  Just as Scout finds that her father and brother aren't the white shining heroes of her youth, Lu is also struggling with interacting with her father as an adult, recognizing that the man she and so many others idolized isn't perfect.  There's also a continuing theme of how "people thought then".  Lu and other characters are grappling with how the casual racism and misogyny of the past continues to impact people today, and what the statute of limitations is on those actions.

He was a man of a certain generation, a man of his time. We always want our heroes to be better than their times, to hold the enlightened views we have achieved one hundred, fifty, ten years later. We want Jefferson to free his slaves and not to father children with any of them. We want Lindbergh to keep his Nazi sympathies to himself. We want Bill Clinton to keep it in his pants. Martin Luther King Jr., too.  And that's just what we expect of the men.  The present is swollen with self-regard for itself, but soon enough the present becomes the past. The present, this day, this very moment we inhabit - it all will be held accountable for the things it didn't know, didn't understand.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

Brit Bennett's 2016 The Mothers was a wonderful read.  She creates a strong sense of place (southern
Cal, around San Diego and the military bases down there.  I visited that area this summer and it's really unique) and characters - Nadia and Aubrey are the type of girls you want to be best friends with.

In the beginning, Nadia and Luke, the minister's son, are secretly dating, and she gets pregnant.  She has an abortion and this connects them for a long time.  Nadia meets Aubrey, another motherless child in her town and church, and they become like sisters.  Nadia's mother died by suicide shortly after she was born, and Aubrey's mother failed to protect her from her abusive boyfriend, so she left.  These two black girls form a strong bond that surpasses Nadia going to college and law school in other cities.

The "Mothers" of the title are actually the collective elder mothers of the church, who operate as something like a Greek chorus in the book.  Bennett writes them from first person plural, like an omniscient narrator, but with some sass.
We would've told her that all together, we got centuries on her. If we laid all our lives toes to heel, we were born before the Depression, the Civil War, even America itself. In all that living, we have known men. Oh girl, we have known littlebit love. That littlebit of honest left in an empty jar that traps the sweetness in your mouth long enough to mask you hunger. We have run tongues over teeth to savor that last littlebit as long as we could, and in all our living, nothing has starved us more.

The end of the book was exquisite.  The Mothers move from the position as distant narrators to active participants in the story as they casually share their observances about Nadia and Luke and Luke's parents, causing membership in the church to flag and eventually the church fails, the paster and his wife no longer pillars of their community.  And this last paragraph!  I die.
We see the span of her life unspooling in colorful threads and we chase it, wrapping it around our hands as more tumbles out. She's her mother's age now. Double her age. Our age. You're our mother. We're climbing inside of you.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson

Oh, how I loved Jeannette Winterson's Frankissstein (and the gorge cover art, which helps makes sense of those extra esses!) Winterson, who's such a genius at mixing contemporary language and thought while telling an "old" tale, brilliantly merges the stories of Mary and Percy Shelley, Byron and Co., as they famously shared a house in Italy in 1816 and Mary began writing the novel Frankenstein, with a contemporary (perhaps in the not-to-distant future) cast of characters that resemble (/are?) that group.  Ry Shelley is a doctor researching the effect of robots on humans' health. Ry is transgendered and confuses many of the other characters by not presenting as a binary figure, but they are firmly and happily secure in their non-binary body.  I don't want to reveal the other names because I think they're rather clever and will leave that to the reader to discover.  Anyway, Ry meets with various people involved in robotics, hilariously, a man who creates sex-bots and thinks they're the wave of the future (and makes a pretty good case for it, tbh). 

Winterson conjures all sorts of fascinating themes in her book including where (and if) the nature of the soul resides in the body and the created body (ie Frankenstein's monster, sex-bots, and characters in books); creativity and computation; the mind and the computer as a holder of knowledge; and the ownership of creation - you know, like a lot of the stuff that makes us human.

Joy of joys, I also convinced husband to read this book which was a particular coup for moi, filling me with a pride unparalleled since he started using the term "toxic masculinity" with some regularity.  I personally loved the bits re: the nineteenth century while husband naturally enjoyed the 21st.  Percy and Byron are lauded as these brilliant British master poets and meanwhile there's this trickling little side story that goes, Oh, did you know Mary Shelley wrote one of the most enduring stories in the English language and, oh yeah, she was only 19?  But what Winterson draws out is her enduring humanity, mourning the loss of her children while trying to maintain a semblance of a home while her husband flits around renting homes in broke-down mansions in remote locations.  Mary's frustrations build to a culminating excoriation of the male poet:
 "His lordship upholds the law when it suits him. So do they all. Revolutionaries and radicals until it touches on property - and that includes women and children. Till it comes to whatever hurts them personally. Whatever checks their stride. God! Their infidelities, their indifference, their insensitivity. Great God! The insensitivity of poets. [...] 
How many 'great artists? How many dead/mad/disused/forgotten/blames and fallen women?"  
As startling and electrifying as Mary's rage is, Ry's experience as a trans person - amidst their careful academic exploration is an event of shocking violence that the reader learns has happened multiple times before and they quietly deal with, knowing from past experience that notifying the police will not help.  The sudden violence was a visceral reminder of how unsafe life can be for trans people - it comes without warning or reason.  The disruption I felt as a reader was merely a glimpse of what it must be like to experience that as a person, and I thank Winterson for showing me a bit of what that might feel like. 

So many wonderful things wrapped into this relatively small book, not least of all how reading and writing are such amicable contributors to our human experience.  Frankissstein is really a must-read for book lovers.