Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Month of Italy

My sister-in-law gave me this book called A Month of Italy.  It's written by Chris Brady, who started the pyramid scheme called Life Leadership my brother and sister-in-law are currently enthralled of.  God bless 'em, they probably thought, "She likes Italy, here's a book on Italy, what could go wrong?" and under that good faith I did make a relative effort to read this damn thing and I was curious what kind of covert message hid inside that might make me want to throw aside all reason and join a goddamn pyramid scheme.  I was not able to read every word, finding the writing and sentiment offensive from literally the first page, but I honestly did make a valiant effort at skimming the damn thing.

Page one starts with a little slut-shaming for no good reason aside from it's probably good to put women in their place.  "One young lady, in the early bloom of her maturity and obviously intending to be sexy, is wearing a dress so tight old women shake their heads while young men find reasons to stop and turn."  Italian women (and men), according to Chris Brady, wear bathing suits entirely outside the realm of human decency, and to make sure, spends plenty of time looking at them. Basically he and his family go to Italy for a month, drive around in a small bus with their 4 or 5 children and generally make asses of themselves, gives a big speech at the end about how much the trip changed and restored him (unclear how) and how a bunch of people said "You should write a book about it" so he did.

As far as I can tell, Chris Brady, who claims to be some kind of leadership guru, makes most of his money writing shitting books which are pawned off on unsuspecting souls like my aforementioned bro and his wife. I'm truly curious about hearing what happens at this frequent "leadership" meeting they attend but they don't like to talk about it.  Possibly they pick up tips like the ones I found on Chris Brady's blog post entitled 6 Mistakes Public Speakers Make like "Being Boring" or "Being Nervous."  No joke. So, no "leadership" stuff in the book, no overt Christian stuff until the acknowledgements, just a bunch of crap about how the food is so good you can literally walk into any restaurant and it'll be good (not true) and how everyone should go to Italy for a month to really relax.  The tone-deaf persistence that not everyone can afford to go to Europe, much less spend a month there driving from resort to resort with 6 people is downright offensive, especially since this guy's business is preying on cash-poor people like my brother with the promise that they're going to be "leaders" one day.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Lulu in Marrakech

Lulu in Marrakech (2008) is by Diane Johnson, of Le Divorce fame.  I'm a fan of Le Divorce and bought a bunch of Johnson books one day which I've been slowly going through.  Lulu in Marrakech is about a young woman, an American spy, who goes to live with her boyfriend in Morocco at the behest of the CIA and await orders.  She's a low-level spy so mostly she's just supposed to keep her ear to the ground and listen for gossip.  Her British boyfriend owns a riad (a historic guesthouse) and they have many visitors from England and France.

Post 9/11, there's a lot of talk about charitable organizations that really fund terrorism, and a bit of drama re: a French Muslim teenager who is hiding in Morocco because her brother suspects she's no longer a virgin and threatened to kill her.  Lulu and her friends are naturally appalled, and do what they can to help her.

The spy-stuff felt purely extraneous - what I like about Johnson is how she explores different cultures, and she certainly does in this book - the food, the souk, the riad, the music, dance, etc.  Unfortunately Lulu is a bit of a boring character (despite being a spy in Marrakech????) and mostly moons around about her boyfriend and imagines how easy her life would be if she could just marry him and have babies, although Johnson doesn't give her a break for that.  "How easily I could be melted into wifehood, that time-honored refuge and slightly unchallenging calling - I even yearned for it deliciously. I could even stay in my job, could tell him about it."

There's a focus on the treatment of women in muslim culture, particularly the practice purdah, wearing the veil, and so-called "honor killings".

Maybe because of the way she writes - first person past-tense, she reminds me a bit of Austen or a Brontë - the story moves slowly and traditionally and has a very comforting rhythm I like.  The front of my copy reads "A sweet confection of a novel." which, to me, is kind of insulting, but that is fairly accurate - not too deep but certainly not moronic, it is a nice confection of a novel.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Secret Chord

Geraldine Brooks's latest book, The Secret Chord, is about none other than King David, from the Bible.  Yeah, this David:
Side note for Art Talk: What's your favorite David sculpture?  Most people are going to say Michelangelo, right?  But, don't forget about this bonkers sculpture by Bernini, which is possibly the sexiest sculpture ever?
But, if I'm being honest, I have to say my favorite is Donatello's David, which is beautiful, a triumph, a homo-erotic masterpiece if one ever existed, and hilarious.  I mean: That hat!
Donatello wins everything

It's been a long time since I studied King David (like, back in Vacation Bible School from my Lutheran youth) I ended up reading this book pretty much side-by-side with the chapters about David in the Bible (1st and 2nd Corinthians and 1st and 2nd Samuel, mainly) to remind myself what was authentic.  Brooks does not stray far from the original scripture, filling in, as she does in her marvelous way, the details of the story.

David's an slightly unusual story - there's little-to-no evidence today that he actually existed, however, even Brooks stipulates that it's unlikely he's merely metaphorical because he's such a flawed character. In the Bible, God loves him, which is why he goes from being a lowly shepherd boy to king of Israel.  In many sects of Christianity he's seen as a kind of parallel to Jesus Christ, being from Bethlehem, becoming a king from a low position, and loved by God etc.

The story is mainly told from the perspective of Nathan, the seer (who also was meant to have originally told 1st and 2nd Chronicles).  Nathan worked for David, because he had a vision (after David and his men killed his family) that David would eventually be king.  Nathan's visions are legit and David keeps him as a kind of advisor.  Nathan interviews people in David's life in order to write his biography.

One of the first people Nathan talks to his David's brother, who talks about how David slayed the famous giant, Goliath.  Just luck, according to him, but the way he tells the story is extraordinary:
David slings another stone, and Goliath can feel  the breeze as it passes. He dodges out of the way of it, and he's in all that armor, so he stumbles, and everyone laughs at him - his own and ours both. David's the only one not laughing. He's in some kind of a state, trumpeting away... ' this very day the Name will deliver you into my hands'- and more of that style of thing- it just poured out of him- the kind of high-blown words your kind comes out with: 'All the Earth shall know there is a God in Israel...' Not the kind of thing you expect out of the mouth of a shepherd boy.
Things really get crazy in the story of David when he takes Batsheva as a wife.  Brooks has a wonderful way of flipping traditionally male stories into the story of the women supposedly standing on the sidelines (March, for which she won the Pulitzer, is a great example, of course).  I had a great hope that any page the POV was going to switch to Batsheva or some other woman, but that doesn't happen.  The story of Batsheva (Brooks uses the Hebrew spelling for names/places) goes like this: Batsheva's is the wife of Uriah - David's general. While he's at some war, she's taking a bath on her roof, David sees her and sends for her, she gets pregnant.  David sends for Uriah and tries to get him to go home and have sex with her real quick, but for various reasons he won't.  So, David sends Uriah back to war with a note for another soldier that says, send Uriah out on the front lines, and don't help him.  Naturally, he gets killed, and David marries Batsheva.  Somehow throughout history, Batsheva has come to stand for a sort of wanton, beautiful femme fatale.  In Brook's hands, Batsheva explains that she was on her roof trying to find some privacy when guards came from the king to collect her, what choice does she have but to go.  Roofs, by the way, are historically the only place where women in closely monitored cultures could enjoy relative freedom & fresh air.
Jan Massys 1562
There are, by the way, a lot of hilarious painting of poor Batsheva taking a bath while creeper David looks on from a distant window.

After the Batsheva incident, David's family life really goes to shit with his many wives and many children.  Nathan makes some predictions that David's kids are going to be nothing but trouble. One of his sons rapes his half-sister, Tamar.  Then another brother kills the rapist.  Then eventually that brother tries to overthrow his father and probably has sex with all of David's concubines up on his roof.  Meanwhile David's like, "Boys. What are you gunna do?"

So, a book that sends me to secondary sources, trolling Google images and figuring out Hebraic names and places?  What could be better?  Told with Brooks signature insight and beautiful prose, The Secret Chord is a fascinating read that tells an ancient story in an extremely accessible way.

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."
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


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.