Wednesday, February 22, 2017

History of Wolves

Emily Fridlund's debut novel, History of Wolves (2017), is a lovely piece of writing - thoughtful and complex, weaving out the improbable death of a child while three people stand idly by.  Madeline is a 15 year old girl who lives with her parents in what is described as barely a shack in the woods, a former commune that her parents were a part of, until everyone scampered off.  Mattie and her family have little electricity, not to mention food, and no car. Mattie is responsible for getting herself to and from school and feeding herself and their ragtag dogs that wait for her every day, barking at the end of their leashes.  

When a new family moves in across the lake, Mattie introduces herself to the young mother and her 4 year old son as Linda and soon begins seeing them every day. She is grateful to be easily pulled in by the generous and friendly mother, Patra, who pays her an unheard of $10 per day for babysitting Paul.  It's slowly teased out that Patra and her husband are Christian Scientists, a meaningless phrase to Linda, who is oblivious to the failing health of Paul, only happy to have recreated herself as the protected nanny/babysitter of this relatively wealthy family.

Fridlund does some very interesting things with the timeline, providing the briefest of glimpses into Mattie's future and the effect her year with Paul's family had on her.  She remains desperately poor but also responsible for her own ailing parents.  There's a frustrating lack of guilt from Paul's parents and from Mattie and what emerged for me was a pattern of negligence that bred negligence.  Mostly overlooked and uncared-for by her parents, Mattie was unable to recognize that Paul was in desperate need of help.  Her own desperate state, unacknowledged, left her without the capacity to see another being in need.  

Mattie repeats to those interested enough to ask, that her interests lie in the "history of wolves" - a subject dismissed by her teachers as something girls are fascinated with and actually something she knows very little about herself.  But the image of wolves roving silently around the lake, making what one can only assume is their brutal existence, is a powerful one and easily applied to these two families that have separated themselves from the rest of society to live as they wish, with mostly disastrous consequence. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

We Love You, Charlie Freeman

One of my favorite books a few years back was We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler - so when I heard about  We Love You, Charlie Freeman, with a somewhat similar plot, I was chasing the idea of recreating that thrilling feeling of reading Beside Ourselves for the first time.  That is always a dumb idea, although I do it all the time.  I hope every dystopian novel I read will be as great as The Handmaid's Tale and every olive I eat will taste as good as those olives we bought in a market in Spain and ate in our beautiful apartment in Sevilla, overlooking a plaza with orange trees and a nice bottle of wine.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman, (2016) by Kaitlyn Greenidge, is about the Freemans, a black family who are chosen to live with a chimp at an institute outside Boston and teach him sign language.  Most of the story is told from the older daughter's perspective.  Charlotte is an oddity in their new town, being one of only a few black students, and lives in a huge institute with an animal and knows ASL.  The reason the family speaks sign language although none of them are deaf is slowly teased out.  The girls' mother forms an immediate bond with Charlie that they are never quite ever to match, despite the younger daughter's efforts.  Charlie attempts to dominate both children and diverts attention to himself as much as possible.  We learn that Charlie was taken from his own mother as a baby and never formed an attachment until he met the Freemans.

Charlotte's friend Aida introduces her to the racist history of the institute, which compared the chimps to a nearby black community, but Charlotte already knows that she's being observed just as much as Charlie by the scientists.  Greenridge also writes from the perspective of Ellen Jericho, a black school teacher from the early 20th century who became an object of the institute's early studies.  Ellen's story is heartbreaking - she's a clever, lonesome woman whose parents committed suicide.  She's part of a secret society, but always on the outskirts of that group and her community.

Another figure literally and figuratively hangs above the characters - Julia Toneybee-Leroy, who founded the institute and whose portrait hangs in the hall where the Freemans live.  Treated with deference by the scientists who repeat a clearly fabricated story about how Julia brought the first chimps to Massachusetts, and suspicion by the nearby black community, she's a nebulous influence until we do finally meet the elderly Ms. Toneybee-Leroy at a hilarious yet disturbing Thanksgiving dinner.  This privileged woman believes herself to be open-minded and open-hearted to both her chimps and the black community around her institute but of course treats them both with a motherly, condescending tone.  Toneybee-Leroy's ingrained racism is revealed wholesale in a letter she writes to "You, African-American people" that's meant to apologize but excuse herself from the painful experiments the institute inflicted on the black community it drew into its web.

To be honest, I was hoping for more storytelling around Charlie, but little text is devoted to his words -  that's simply not the story Greenidge is telling.  Just as there is no happy ending for man or beast in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, the misguided experiment of Charlie and the Freeman family ends with disastrous results.  Greenidge's debut novel is a powerful story about institutionalized racism in America told with insight and beautifully developed characters.  I look forward to following her career!

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Busman's Honeymoon

At the end of Dorothy Sayer's excellent and probably most famous book, Gaudy Night, Harriet Vane agrees to marry Lord Peter Wimsey - although the whole conversation is in Latin so you might miss it, as I did, until I looked up the rather obscure references online.  The next book, Busman's Holiday, (1937) has Harriet and Lord Peter getting married at the beginning and then swiftly retiring to the village where Harriet grew up. She always admired a house there, so, naturally, her fancy new husband bought it for her.  The first few chapters find the newlyweds mildly aghast that their country home has not been properly prepared as promised by the erstwhile previous owner.  There are many, many pages devoted to the cleaning of chimneys - although Harriet and Peter are so charming and in love it doesn't really matter.  After about a day, they discover the body of the previous owner is found in the cellar, leading to that curious phrase "Busman's holiday", which means to go on vacation and do the same thing that you do in your work-a-day life (like when Jessica Fletcher goes on vacation and
someone gets themselves killed and she has to solve the murder.)  There is, as you might expect, some assholery in the derivation, which is that when the bus driver goes on vacation, he has to take the bus to get there.

The mystery is a bit of a locked room, because all the doors to the house were locked from the inside when the Wimsey's arrived, so how could anyone have killed this guy?

There's a lot of talk about how to solve a murder - Wimsey maintains that you find the "How" and that leads to the "Who" and is less interested in motive than his new wife.  Harriet largely agrees, although she always comes back to the motive as a writer of mysteries herself:
  "If a thing could only have been done one way, and if only one person could have done it that way, then you've got your criminal, motive or no motive. there's How, When, Where, Why and Who - and when you've got How you've got Who. Thus spake Zarathustra."
  "I seem to have married my only intelligent reader. That's the way you construct it from the other end, of course. Artistically, it's absolutely right."  

this cover seriously
gives it all away
That sort of thing reads like fan service for the murder mystery reader and is, admittedly, enjoyable. Sayers includes quite a few of those expository moments for Peter and Harriet to reflect on their methods and the reader to geek out over her method.

Aside from the term "busman's holiday" I also learned about "banns", a Church of England requirement to announce intent to marry to the local vicar.  There's some anti-Semitic stuff about unattractive businessmen and their Jewish heritage that seems entirely out of context except for the year of publication.  And there's an interesting bit that briefly describes how Peter came to employ his remarkable valet, Bunter - the "Jeeves" of the operation.  They fought together in WWI and Peter offered him a job if they lived to survive the fox hole they were hiding in.  Peter was suffering from "shell-shock" and Bunter helped ease him out of it by knowing precisely what to do, as he always does.  If only we could all have our own Bunters.

What's most interesting, at least to me, is the negotiation of Peter and Harriet's married life.  Harriet turned down many proposals from Peter in the interest of her own independance - it's only when she trusts that he'll allow her to maintain her own personhood that she agrees to marry him.  When Peter suffers rather severe emotional distress upon uncovering the murder and consequently sending him to his death sentence, Harriet finds herself in the position of providing necessary "space" to Peter (although they didn't use that language in 1937).  Harriet feels like she has to wait for Peter to chose to come to her as a refuge, and when he inevitably does, it's a major triumph for her and the marriage.  It's kind of romantic, but also a bit odd  - but, then again, these are two oddball characters - both slightly older, neither naïve and each with a whole lot of murder baggage to carry around.

Busman's Honeymoon is Sayer's last book about Lord Peter and Harriet, with the apparent subtext that they leave the murder-solving business forever following Peter's mini-breakdown after the trial. The reader can imagine Peter and Harriet living out their rich lives without having to solve a murder everywhere they go like poor Mrs. Fletcher.

Monday, January 23, 2017

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Saturday I went to the Women’s March in Chicago, along with, at today’s count, at least 250,000 other people.  Earlier in the week I remember thinking, “Wow, they’re expecting 20,000 people, that’s amazing."

I was pretty nervous about going to the march because I was worried about getting harassed by the police, or, worse, arrested.  I don’t like big crowds and, yeah, my preferred way to spend Saturday morning is in my jammies, with coffee, talking on the phone to my sister.  But I went ready to fight - ready to be harassed and ready to harass.  What happened instead was thousands of women and men - the elderly and babies, racially diverse people, my trans sisters and brothers - filled the streets of downtown Chicago and then proceeded to take care of each other.  I’ve never heard so many excuse mes, thank yous, look out for that pothole, careful, watch your step.  I love your hat, I love your sign, I love your energy.  

We couldn’t hear the speakers, we couldn’t see the stage. Hell, we didn’t even know where the stage was, but the thick crowd of people around us, just east of the bridge on Jackson, cheered when a cheer wave came our way, joined in whenever someone started a chant, and, my favorite, sang along with two African American women who started singing Lean On Me. As we turned around and eventually moved into the loop, we happily followed them singing and pointing out potholes.  Pockets of protesters were out all day - we saw a group of students walking down Michigan Avenue around 3pm, shouting My Body, My Choice, although what really warmed my heart was the male voices in the crowd yelling HER Body, HER Choice.

For the first time since this horrible human being was elected, I felt more hope than fear.  I saw creativity and humor and love as powerful agents of change.  I saw women taking the word he used to brag about sexual assault and turn it into a strength. We’re going to get through this, we cannot fail.  

Thank you to all the people that made the day so great.
Thank you to my friends who travelled to DC.
Thank you, Chicago bike police, for being cool.
Thank you, dudes who support women’s rights.  
Thank you, Chicago, for restoring my faith in humanity.

image via

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Swing Time

I saw Zadie Smith speak, shortly after White Teeth came out, in front of a relatively small crowd in San Francisco.  We were both in our twenties then, she's one year younger than me, and I was full of jealousy and awe for what she had accomplished, and how sophisticated she was, and how beautiful.  Someone asked her what she was going to work on next and she said she wanted to write a book like a musical, where people break into song, inconceivably, as people do in musicals. I wonder if Swing Time is that book, but with singing replaced by dancing.

I remain in awe, many novels later, and I love how her books have become even more thoughtful and contemplative. Swing Time moves slowly, and I read it that way, over several weeks, allowing myself to enjoy her phrases.  As in a recently article by Smith in The Guardian, What Beyoncé Taught Me, it's impossible to read without stopping to look up YouTube videos of people dancing. The book is intensely beautiful, and I often stopped to think about what it would look like if I drew a sentence, or what the movie version would look like.

I suspect that the style, told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, is borrowed from some aspect of British literature, and, once again I curse my non-existent PhD in the same.  This perspective is distancing, and the reader feels closer to the narrator's best friend, Tracey, who's brilliant and talented and clever and mean.  She's Tracey's companion and dancing partner, the Ginger to Tracey's Fred Astaire, and they fall out as Tracey's star seems to rocket and she takes a more conventional turn, both of them more than a little jealous of the other's path.  The narrator works for a Madonna-like narcissistic mega-star later in life and her activities absorb the narrator's time and talents.  They make multiple trips to Africa, where the star funds a school for girls. Smith delves deeply into themes of racial identity in this area, where the black, British narrator of Jamaican descent is often considered white and American by her colleagues and friends there.

Our narrator considers herself a dancer and an actor (despite never really practicing those things beyond
her childhood) although not as good as Tracey, but she finally allows herself a little freedom near the end of the book.  At a drum circle at the school, everyone is dancing:
Eight drumming women later, even Mary-Beth had attempted a dance and it was my turn. I had a mother pulling each arm, dragging me up. Aimee had extemporized, Granger had historicized - mooonwalk, the robot, the running man - but I still had no ideas about dance, only instincts. I watched them for a minute, the two women, as they danced at me, teasing me, and I listened carefully to the multiple beats, and knew that what they were doing I, too, could do. I stood between them and matched them step for step. The kids went crazy. There were so many voices screaming at me I stopped being able to hear the drums, and the only way I could carry on was to respond to the movements of the women themselves, who never lost the beat, who heard it through everything. Five minutes later I was done and more tired than if I'd run six miles.
Like On Beauty, Smith ends Swing Time with deceptive simplicity, turning the final words in a book into, in fact, a world of possibilities - a beginning.

Monday, October 24, 2016


Margaret Atwood published Hag-Seed as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project along with some other writers like Jeannette Winterson who did an interpretation of The Winter's Tale and Gillian Flynn who is scheduled to do a Hamlet.  Atwood surely chose the most difficult play to reimagine - The Tempest, with it's sea disasters and magical island and all those mistaken identities.  I love a Shakespeare remix like nobody's business and, of course, Margaret Atwood is probably my favorite author, so I was pretty damn excited to see what she was going to do.

Felix is the artistic director for a Canadian theatre where he presents avant-garde productions of Shakespeare plays.  Right away he's ousted by his second in command, Tony.  Felix becomes something of a hermit and removes himself from society for a while, until he starts teaching Shakespeare to some prisoners at a local jail, under the name Mr Duke.  Sound familiar?  If it doesn't, you probably need to brush up on The Tempest.  I'm curious whether those who are not well-versed in the play would enjoy the book as much as one who isn't but my guess would be no.  Following the connections in part of the fun; wondering how she's possibly going to wrap it up, knowing the original ending, is like watching the master at work.  Anyway, it's a problem easily remedied, so, if you haven't read The Tempest before, give it a quick read before Hag-Seed and I think you'll find your experience improved.

Although Felix thinks things like "If anyone had told him then that he'd be doing Shakespeare with a pack of cons inside the slammer he'd have said they were hallucinating" he's actually a very good teacher with excellent critical thinking assignments for his players and a respectful attitude toward their strengths, with very little interest in their criminal backgrounds.

Shakespeare was famous for putting a "play within the play" and Atwood took that concept to the extreme.  At one point I think I counted five plays within the play but I did allow myself to get pretty meta - are we not all players upon the stage, etc.?  Hag-Seed is a joy to read and Atwood's joy in writing it is evident as well - she clearly knows the theatre very well.
Crises of confidence have been surmounted, grudges incurred, hurt feelings soothed. Felix has berated himself for his own lunacy in undertaking such a hopeless enterprise, then congratulated himself on his judgment. His spirits plunge, then soar, then plunge again.
  Normal life.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Trespasser, Tana French (no spoilers)

It was, of course, with unparallelled excitement that I started reading Tana French's latest mystery, The Trespasser.  I was so absorbed that, despite being on vacation in the very beautiful city of Lisbon, I was often thinking about getting back to my book.  Per French's conceit for the Dublin Murder Squad series, the main character is a secondary character from a previous book, although, in this case, someone we got to know pretty well in The Secret Place: Antoinette Conway.  She and her partner, Stephen Moran, are the newest detectives on the team and are working the worst shift, when a murder is thrown their way.  "...the real reason everyone hates night shift is that nothing good ever comes in. The high-profile murders with complex backstories and fascinating motives might happen at night, sometimes, but they don't get discovered til morning." It seems simple enough, even boring, but Conway and Moran keep pushing for answers, mostly because their colleague and their boss seem too interested in them closing the case quickly.

As the only woman and only person of color on the team, Conway is acutely aware of being treated differently by her squad.  Although they claim that they're treating her with the same teasing and pranking that any new member would receive, Conway feels attacked but doesn't directly confront the behavior. As a result, the reader is left wondering if she's merely paranoid (maybe that is how all new recruits are treated, for all I know) or if they really are ganging up on her.  She even doubts her extremely likeable partner, who is so eager to get along he mostly tells people just what they want to hear. Antoinette's voice is hard, and her attitude makes sense when explained: "I can't tell if this is batshit paranoia or the bleeding obvious slapping me in the face. Two years of watching my back, watching every step and every word, in fight mode all day every day: my instincts are fried to smoking wisps." She's desperate to avoid looking weak and letting anyone else have any power over her.  Asking for help is the hardest thing she ever does. French does an amazing job capturing the unique voices of her characters, but especially the complexity of the detectives - and they're all amazingly good at their jobs.  Despite Conway's intense distrust of nearly everyone, she puts that aside when interviewing witnesses or suspects. Like an actress, she and her colleagues use a library of well-rehearsed scripts to find the truth.

The murder victim in this case is a woman so bland and the case so seemingly-open-and-shut that Conway and Moran often wonder if they really should just close the case with the obvious perpetrator.  As a reader, you also get pulled into the idea that their theories are wildly off-target.

Without giving anything away, most of the characters of this book are trespassers in one way or another - Conway feels like an uninvited guest in her department, her estranged father has weaseled his way into her life and the suspects have inserted themselves into the life of the victim. As usual, French continues to be one of our best mystery writers and now I'll go back to watching the clock 'til her next book comes out.