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.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

You Will Know Me

Megan Abbott is steadily establishing herself as the voice of authority re: teenage girls in contemporary literature.  She burst on to my scene in 2012 with Dare Me, about a group of cheerleaders and their coach, then The Fever, about a town where the girls are overcome by these mysterious seizures.  In the early aughts, she wrote hardboiled feminist pulpy noir that looks pretty interesting (let me know if you've read them and have a suggestion on where to start!)  

You Will Know Me is about another athlete, a 15 year-old gymnast and Olympic hopeful.  Like her other recent books, it's a bit of a mystery, although these three books defy traditional sorting into genres.  It's told from the perspective of Katie, the gymnast's mother, who tries hard to rise about the other mothers' "sports mom" coterie.  "The other parents always tried to do this. To drag her into their little circle, their gym drama, their coven rubbing their hands over their water bottles, fire burn and cauldron bubble." Katie and her husband have been devoting themselves to Devon's career since she was four years old - they're in debt and they have no free time because they're always driving her to either her expensive lessons or to meets across the country.

Reading this while the Rio Olympics were happening gave me a little extra insight into one of the themes of Abbott's book - the body of the devoted gymnast.  "Less than five feet tall, a hard, smooth shell of a body. Hipless, breastless still, but the way she's transformed her body in the last two years, thighs like trunks, shoulders and biceps straining her tank-top straps, staggered Katie."  I found myself so amazed to see how unusual Olympic athletes body's look - the triangles of swimmers' torsos, the dramatic profiles of the gymnasts: flat fronts, perky tushes, those legs...!  Their bodies are like objects of consumption over the course of the Olympics, all of us staring, staggered ourselves.

Like The Fever and Dare Me, You Will Know Me is a quick read and usually devoured in a sitting or two.  Abbott's recall of the pain of teenager-ness is spot-on. Her obsessive girls are so perfectly captured it carries me right back to my own tortured teenage years with embarrassing clarity.  I'm excited to see what she'll write next!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

According to the internets, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is The Greatest Spy Novel of All Time. Having gotten a bug in my bonnet to read my first (surely not, but I think so?) spy novel, I succumbed.  If it is the greatest spy novel of all time, all other spy novels are beyond terrible.  For one thing, there's hardly any spy stuff in it.  This dude just pretends to get himself fired from his British intelligence job so the Russians will pick him up and make him an informant.

It was written in 1963 so it's obviously a little dated. John le Carré  also wrote that horrible, incomprehensible Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so I probably should have known better.  Apparently the book had some cultural impact back in the sixties re: idealism and perceived moral values of Western espionage.  I suppose people coming off the high of moral superiority post-WWII must have met with some surprise that the shady actions of our government weren't born in the purest intentions.

Do you know there are hardly any spy books by ladies?  I ordered one by Stella Remington - At Risk - haven't started yet.  If anyone has any good recommendations, please let me know!

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Somehow I did not quite understand that JK Rowling did not actually write Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but merely "collaborated" with Jack Thorne.  That was disappointing, I'll admit.  Even though the new book/play is touted as "The Eighth Story. Nineteen Years Later" what we have is officially sanctioned fan fiction.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Plenty of literary critics love crowing about what a terrible author J.K. Rowling is - she was described as "artless" in a recent New Yorker, for example - I whole-heartedly disagree, I'm quite fond of Rowling's style and storytelling, and I'm a big fan of her work under the nom de plume Robert Gilbraith. While Thorne does an excellent job capturing the voice of beloved characters, I thought his stage direction was absurd ("And with that, time moves ever onwards - ALBUS's eyes become darker, his face grows more sallow. He's still an attractive boy, but he's trying not to admit it."), but then again, I am an utter classicist when it comes to stage direction.  His story is clumsy and way too long (for a play) and I honestly couldn't recommend reading it.  However, there were a few things I found very interesting:

Firstly, I really love that a play is doing this well - the book sold 2 million copies in 2 days, surely the first time that's ever happened for a play.  I love reading plays, but they do take some adjusting to, and I think it's great that children are embracing the medium.  Said my 10 year old friend, "At first I thought it would be really hard, but then I didn't even notice!" and then I said, "Shut your adorable face! No spoilers!"  What I found interesting as a reader was that all kinds of crazy stunts are going on on-stage - spells, people flying, multiple UNDERWATER scenes, all of which you can read on two levels:  1. I'm just reading a book and stuff happens. 2. I'm reading a play and I'm trying to imagine how this will be carried out on stage.

Secondly, plays are meant to be performed, and reading a play is always secondary to watching a play.  This play looks like it would be pretty amazing to see, assuming they pull off half the effects.  Apparently it is selling out in its current West-End production at the Palace Theatre in London, and GET THIS:  You buy a ticket for two shows - Part 1 starts at 2pm and is 2 hrs and 40 mins long.  Then you leave, then you come back for Part II, a 7:30 show, which is 2 hrs and 35 mins long!  I am agog.  I mean, that is some Philip-Glass-marathon asses-in-seats shit there and I did not know the contemporary theater-goer had it in him, much less, presumably: Children?  I'm not sure I have it in me, and I love both theatre and Harry Potter.  BTW, prices are between 30-140 pounds. That's $38-180USD.  Actually, the dollar doing very well against the pound right now thanks to Brexit and worldwide financial collapse so... book your tickets?

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

The Girls

Emma Cline's first novel, The Girls, is the kind of book that you can't put down. It's also the kind of book, if you're me, that fills you with jealous rage that the author earned an increasingly rare 2 mil book deal with Random House at the tender age of...wait for it... 25.

The Girls swings easily between the present, where Evie is a reclusive woman who moves anonymously from place to place, serving as a caregiver when she can, and her 14 year-old self, growing up outside San Francisco.  Evie is staying at a friend's cottage when the friend's son shows up unexpectedly with his girlfriend. "She was in the cult," he says to the girl.  The younger Evie is ignored by her parents, her life an expectant kind of waiting.  "All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you - the boys had spend that time becoming themselves."  Evie meets a girl, Suzanne, whose seeming confidence attracts her, and when Suzanne's friends invite Evie to join them, she is happy to follow.

At "The Ranch", Evie meets Russell, and is drawn into the world that they have created, what seems to Evie like the pinnacle of 1960s peace and togetherness: people living free and happy. Evie wants Suzanne's approval ∴ Suzanne wants Russell's approval ∴ Evie wants Russel's approval. Evie is as unformed as a teenage girl can be, easily malleable by everyone around her.  "I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself. Feelings seemed completely unreliable, like faulty gibberish scraped from a Ouija board."

Cline's book has the astounding insightfulness of Being A Girl similar to the mood and tone of The Virgin Suicides. Like Eugenides, she captures the tragedy of American girlhood and its potential dire consequences.  "The Ranch" and Russell, are, of course, Charles Manson and his decrepit squat.  After finishing The Girls, not knowing much about the Manson murders, I fell down an internet rabbit hole about the women who murdered Sharon Tate and others in 1969, and how close Cline's story is to the actual events.  Side note: one of Manson's "girls" died in prison at the age of 61, and two others, near 70, are California's oldest female inmates. I read too much about the murders, to be honest, articles for and against their parole, including a sort-of serial from John Waters, and remain unsure how I feel about the women's incarceration.

Cline draws the reader into the mystery of what Evie's role in the murders was.  While her involvement slowly unravels, the older and wiser Evie is observing again, with no small amount of dread, the feeling of the transient, drug-fueled experience of her friend's son and his girlfriend.  She sees in the girlfriend the too-willing desire to please her jackass boyfriend, how she puts off too easily her own needs and desires for whatever interests him.  Their uneasy connection, in parallel with the '69 story, seems fraught with potential violence.

I thought the book was incredibly written and it really made me think about so many things  - although, one of the things it made me question was the sensationalism of this type of crime and my own place as a consumer of its gory details.  Cline's book doesn't dwell on the details (thankfully!) but draws a clear picture of how easily young women can be manipulated - that's what's most frightening about The Girls.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Into the Forest

After I saw a trailer for Into the Forest and saw it was based on the "best selling novel" by Jean Hegland, I picked up a copy, always eager to read 1996's post-apocalyptic fiction.  In Into the Forest, you never really learn what event has caused the electricity to go out and all forms of government and communication to cease.  Nell and Eva, who live 30 miles from the nearest town in Northern California and were home-schooled, were already pretty separated from the rest of humanity when the lights are on, but when the power goes out, even their small connections are lost.

At first the sisters and their father subsist on the supplies they were able to build up from town and can from their garden, and as they run out of gas they enter a kind of fugue state of inertia and confusion, waiting for things to return to normal, waiting to be rescued.   

The girls are sort of living like the people in the really wonderful TV show, Last Man on Earth, where everyone is trying to desperately hold on to the society they knew before - maintaining homes, and standing around kitchen islands as if their refrigerators are still cold. Part of what makes that show so funny - going to the grocery and walking the aisles with a cart, or going to a bar to play pool, like everything is normal - is that we probably would do exactly that, as long as we could.

As it becomes evident that no rescue is coming, the girls slowly come to the realization that they've got to learn to fend for themselves.  The forest, on whose edge their house sits, was their childhood playground, but also dangerous - every time they went out, their mother would tell them not to eat anything.  It takes about a year for the girls to discover how much food and medicine is available in the forest. Hegland does a good job of drawing the reader into that realization, or perhaps I'm also so focused on sustenance coming from a store, that I also didn't consider all the food that could be had from the forest, and much better than the old canned vegetables the girls are eating.  For example, the girls tear apart tea bags to eek out a cup of tea every night, and when the tea runs out, they drink hot water.  It takes them so long to think of brewing the herbs in the forest into their tea.  It reminded me of this Louis CK joke where God is chastising man about working, and Man's like, "I need to buy food" and God's like, "There's food EVERYWHERE."

Into the Forest becomes really interesting when it dawns on the girls that whether or not the power comes back on, and it probably won't, the hopes and dreams they had then are no longer relevant to their lives - they become new-born when they enter the forest.

For the most part, I was really captivated by this book, I found a lot of similarities between it and The Parable of the Sower, another Northern Cal fave. I saw it compared to The Handmaid's Tale in a few places but it is not in any way similar to that great classic, aside from the post-apocalypse, whatever it was.  I wasn't crazy about (mini-spoiler) the fact that it ends with a baby, which is boring as hell and apparently the only way anyone knows how to end a story these days).  And, in order to avoid more spoilers, I'll simply mention that some weird-ass, *trigger warning stuff* happens that almost made me put the book down for good.

"What an act of faith and luck it is to pluck and taste  a little green leaf. With Eva standing beside me and our mother's warnings buzzing in my brain, I felt as though I were re-creating the history of humankind as I bent, picked a leaf, brushed a delicate coating of dust from it's surface, and took a nibble, so tentatively I think I expected it to burn my lips. But it had a cool, delicate, clean taste. It tasted sour and green, like chlorophyll, pickles, the evening air. It was a little tough, almost like lettuce that's bolted - but fresher, more alive."

Monday, April 18, 2016

Doomsday Book

I was actually hesitant to read another Connie Willis book after To Say Nothing Of the Dog, because I loved it so much and didn't want to be disappointed.  How could another book live up to the sheer genius of that comic novel that made me LOL on practically every page, look up countless references about the Victorian period, start seriously studying bird stumps and sit down and have a serious think about Schrodinger's Cat?

So with no small amount of trepidation, I started Doomsday Book (1993).  Immediately: I'm hooked - why have I never heard of this author before now?  In Doomsday, a young historian, Kivrin, uses the "net" to go to the Middle Ages.  It's her life's goal to go there, and she's studied middle English, learned how to milk a cow, ride a horse, and dirtied her nails sufficiently to fit in.  Her tutor, Mr Dunworthy (also in To Say Nothing of the Dog, although this book takes place before that) is very reluctant to see her go because the Middle Ages are a 10 (very dangerous), especially for a young woman travelling alone.  Before she leaves she's given inoculations against illnesses of the time, and has a translater implanted (similar to the babel fish in Hitchhikers).  However, when she arrives in the middle ages, she immediately becomes very ill and also can't communicate with the "contemps".

One of the things I love about Willis's books is that the science is really simple - there are just a few terms the reader will need to grasp: the net, slippage, the drop, the fix.  Of course, it's deceptively simple. For example, the theory of Schrödinger's Cat plays heavily in this book - people love repeating that Schrödinger intended the thought experiment as a joke.  The cat-bit, yes, that's meant to be ridiculous, but superposition is not.

Meanwhile, back in the mid-twenty-first century, the lab tech who ran the drop also becomes seriously ill, and moments before he keels over and starts a pandemic in contemporary Oxford, he mumbles that something's very wrong.  Dunworthy wants to bring Kivrin back immediately but can't because of the convergence of academic politics, the pandemic, and the Christmas holiday.

In the 14th century, Kivrin is taken in by a family, nursed to health, and tried to find the location of the drop so she can return safely.  Doomsday flips between the treatment of illnesses in both centuries, and the misconceptions about the middle ages that flummox and delight Kivrin.

Doomsday becomes a nail-biting mystery about illness identification, a reflection on superposition, a real joy for anyone interested in language, and even an apt comparison to the crucifixion and the place of religion in our lives.