Sunday, February 08, 2015

Caleb's Crossing

I listened to an audiobook of Geraldine Brooks's Caleb's Crossing (2011).  Listening to a book is so different than reading one that I would hesitate to say that I "read it".  I'm a big fan of Brooks since March, which is absolutely brilliant.  I actually wasn't crazy about the reader, Jennifer Ehle.  She's an actress and really put her heart into reading this, but it made for slow going and many time I was like, Ugh, I should just read this with my EYES because it was taking so long.  That's impatience for ya.

Like a dummy, I didn't realize that Caleb's Crossing is based on a true story until the moment I finished it.  I guess I should have realized, it being Brooks.  It's about a young girl who lives on an island - Martha's Vineyard, in the early 17th century.  Martha's Vineyard had a large native american population back then.  Some white settlers came and mostly had a harmonious relationship with them, although a lot of colonization was going on. Bethia Mayfield befriends a Wampanoag boy about her age, Caleb.  He is eventually educated by her father, who is teaching her brother too.  He stopped teaching her around age 9 because girls don't need no book learnin', but she managed to educate herself by cleaning nearby the lessons.

Imaged portrait of Caleb via
Bethia is fictional (I think?) but Caleb is based on an actual historical figure, Caleb Cheeshateaumuck, who is eventually accepted into Harvard College and the first Native American to graduate there.  Bethia allows herself to be indentured in Cambridge to support her horrible brother because she thinks  it's God's will.  Despite the fact that she is the greater scholar, her brother is acknowledged as her mental and personal superior, and he makes life fairly miserable for her.  She and her friend Caleb are socially inferior, being, respectively, a woman and a "savage" - both subject to the whims of the white, male population.  Bethany is an interesting character because she's very motivated to learn as much as she can, and she's frustrated by her place in society but she's also very loyal to the confines of her Puritan religion and, as such, does not rock the boat too much.  She accepts a certain amount of futility.

Anne Bradstreet is a oblique character in the book - she's the aunt of a student in Cambridge and Bethia is familiar with her work.  I love some of Bradstreet's poetry, and even almost got a line tattooed on my arm before I wimped out.  Turns out Bradstreet is a bit of a problematic figure, in terms of her feminism or not - being very much a product of her time, that's certainly understandable.  And that's why it's practically impossible to get a tattoo.

Ultimately I wish I'd read Caleb's Crossing with my eyes, parts really dragged for me but I think that was a matter of the audio.   As usual, Brooks's language is poetic and beautiful. She utilized archaic terms in Bethia's journal-like entries which really allowed me to feel immersed in this time period I'm not very familiar with.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Wallcreeper

Finally got around to reading The Wallcreeper, which showed up on a bunch of Best of 2014 lists.  It's by Nell Zink - a bit of a dark horse, ex-patriot living in Europe for the past 10 years.  Legend has it that she met Jonathan Franzen through some mutual bird-watching infatuation and he encouraged her to write this book.

It is small, 5"x7" and less than 200 pages.  I loved the feel of this little book in my hands - for some reason it gave me great pleasure, just the slightly difference size and that odd, odd cover art.  I stared at the book for some time before I cracked it open, enjoying the possibility of reading a great book.

Zink's voice is brilliant and hilarious - she zips around, handily tying together the seemingly disparate elements of marriage, sex, bird-watching, environmental activism and European travel.  The main character is Tiffany, married to Stephen, an ex-DJ, bird-watcher, and semi-scientist upon whom she financially depends.  Stephen says that birds' lives are all about "breeding and feeding" and Tiffany jokes that that's all she does too.  Tiffany works hard to cultivate the idea that she cannot or should not work.  "Women are ubiquitous, invasive - the same subspecies from the Palearctic to Oceania. Trash birds." However, she seems to gradually become as interested in birds as her husband, and in fact, they bring home a bird, called a wallcreeper, which they keep in their apartment until it begins to molt.  She also eventually becomes quite devoted to Stephen's environmental activism, taking it upon herself to commit an act of eco-terrorism.

a wallcreeper
Tiffany is pretty promiscuous and there is a LOT of sex in the book.  It's very funny and a bit naughty.  A wonderful review in the NY Times claims that the sex scenes are "so raunchy and obscene" there's nothing safe to quote.  I'm not sure that's true, but as I flip through the book, I can't find a good example.  (I like to follow the boss/mother-in-law rule on my blog.  Would it be ok if either of them read this?)

There are a few interviews with Zink online which show her to be a witty smartass, two very fine qualities. In one, she says, "I wanted to communicate vital topics in nature conservation to men and women in their thirties, the leaders of tomorrow, by wrapping them up in sophisticated language and conflicted sex. It worked for the first few pages. After that I had some personal setbacks and continued it as a tortured autobiography in impenetrable code."  I believe it is that reference toward autobiography that has led at least one critic to announce the advent of a new genre: the Autofiction (beware that link, there's a major spoiler).  That critic also ceremoniously declares the death of the Postmodern fiction, no less, which I find insanely premature. What he's calling Autofiction, or fiction greatly influenced by the author's own experience, has, of course, been written throughout the history of the novel, particularly if you believe, as I mostly do, that every piece of art is a self-portrait.  In the post-modern age, that is a very unpopular opinion, and most artists, especially authors of books, will go to great lengths to impress upon you that what they have written is purely fictional.  I mean, all I'm saying is that it's impossible to separate that thing which is you from work you have created.  I think there's too great an instinct to belittle work which is influenced by the author's experience, which I see as mostly a way to belittle work created by women (which is to say, that work created by men is generally seen as universal and work created by women is perceived as more personal).  I honestly hope that we're finally entering a post-James Frey world where it isn't considered non grata to be actually impacted by personal experience.
Anyway, if you like this sort of categorizing and getting into literature theory and whatnot (who doesn't? Amirite?) The Wallcreeper could be described as a K├╝nstlerroman, although the K├╝nst doesn't come into play until like, the last two pages.

Zink has a new book coming out in 2015 called Mislaid.  It also appears to feature "breeding" as a major theme, which generally I'm not a big fan of.  Too many authors don't know what to do with women characters except get them pregnant.  But, I think what Zink is doing, at least I hope, is looking deeper into this ability and expectation of producing offspring and finding a way to broaden the possibilities of creative output of women.  In any event, she's brilliant, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

My best reads of 2014

I have quite a few Top Five book lists in Newcity's "Best of" edition - Top 5 books published in
2014, top 5 books by Chicago writers, top 5 mysteries, YA books, short story collections and apocalyptic novels.  I love lists.  Also, how awesome is that cover?  It's by Chicago artist Jay Ryan - I bought one of the screen prints, it's so awesome.

My top 5 of 2014 were:
All the Birds, Singing, Evie Wyld 
Be Safe, I Love You, Cara Hoffman 
Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? Dave Eggers 
Little Failure, Gary Shteyngart 
The Secret Place, Tana French 

But there were a few more that weren't written in 2014 that I'd like to point out.  I read some fantastic stuff this year and am unfortunately woefully behind on writing about absolutely every book I read, which I regret.  (Note to self: in 2015, review ALL books and also uhm, write own book.) For me, it's the best way to remember what I've read and organize my thoughts.  All the links below go to my own reviews.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler, just blew my mind this year.  I recommended it to everyone I know and I couldn't stop thinking about it.  Probably my all time favorite read of 2014.

All the Birds, Singing.  Worth repeating.  Love, love, LOVED this book.

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - yes! Yes! Yes!

Also, Redeployment, by Phil Klay, made a HUGE impact on me.

I really enjoyed both of JK Rowling's new mystery books under her nom de plume, Robert Gilbraith.
Finally, one of my favorite authors, Dara Horn, has a wonderful little "Kindle Single" on called The Rescuer that I would consider a Must Read.  AND, it only costs 2 bucks.

I regret that I never got around to these books:
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
All the Light We Cannot See by By Anthony Doerr
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Death Comes to Pemberley

My Like/Hate relationship with PD James continues - I just can't seem to quit her, no matter how many stinkers I read.  I guess that's how committed I am to British Lady Mystery Writers.  So, how could I resist Death Comes to Pemberley, a story about a murder at Mr. Darcy's estate, post-Pride and Prejudice?  Also, James died at the age of 94 a few months ago so I guess I was feeling nostalgic.

Death Comes to Pemberley starts out great, with lots of hilarious little jokes about Pride and Prejudice like, "If this were fiction, could even the most brilliant novelist contrive to make credible so short a period in which pride had been subdued and prejudice overcome?"  She's obviously very well versed in Austen and easily captures the flow of her language and tone.  It's also very obviously an homage to an artist she loves well - surely the best form of flattery she could offer to connect herself to this other great British Lady Novelist - despite falling pretty flat.  Anyway, that cad, Wickham, who ran off with Lizzie's sister, whatsherface, is driving up to Pemberley in order to take the sister to a ball at the Darcy's, unannounced, because sister and Wickham are not welcome at Pemberley because they're assholes.  A friend of Wickham's is in the carriage and he leaps out and runs into the woods for some reason and is killed.  Everyone thinks Wickham did it except for Darcy and company.  There's also a bunch of business re: a ghost that supposedly wanders around the woods.

One of the things this novel really lacks is a detective.  At first I thought Lizzie would fill the role, but no one really does, and it sort of becomes a 19th century courtroom drama.  It has the kind of ending where the killer is literally someone you haven't met "in person" throughout the whole book, which I do not like.  There's also a BBC two part miniseries that was on TV recently, patiently waiting in my DVR queue for me to finish the book - it is also largely unwatchable, despite featuring dreamy Matthew Rhys (from The Americans) and Anna Maxwell Martin (from The Bletchley Circle) as Darcy and Elizabeth, and Clara Oswald (Dr. Who) as good old whatshername.  There's hardly any kissing.

There are dozens of Pride and Prejudice sequels.  I've read only Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and, of course Bridget Jones, and Austenland.  I've heard good things about Longbourn, which takes place "downstairs", with the servants as main characters.  Let me know if you have one to recommend!

Sunday, November 23, 2014


I really thought Fever was going to blow up this summer, but while it seems to have a respectful following online, I haven't heard that much buzz about it in real life.  It's by Megan Abbott, of Dare Me, which also gets great reviews - I haven't read it yet.  Anyway, I thought it was fantastic, and while I think it's doing well, it's obviously not reaching like, Hunger Games proportions.

Speaking of, I just saw Mockingjay Pt 1 last night and it was, as my friend duly noted, "the Empire Strikes Back of the series" This morning I looked up what comes after a trilogy and apparently it's a ... tetrology?  I think we'd all better learn that word as Hollywood continues to capitalize on trilogies that could stretch out in a movie.  Also, in a further digression about words that sound suspicious, I took this test at work called a "strength finder" and one of my "strengths" is "Intellection".  Which I looked up immediately because I thought it was made up.  It means an exercise of the intellect.  In other words, I think I'm smart, and I may or may not be.  Also useful.

Anyway.  Fever (btw, that COVER, amirite?):  It's actually been ages since I read it, but here's what I remember:  some girls at this school are having these seizures - it starts with one girl, and then slowly spreads.  And the community and the parents get caught up in this idea that there's some environmental or, you guessed it, vaccination factor that's effecting the girls. But the lead character, Deenie, has a sinking feeling it has to do with having sex.  The repercussions of sex weigh heavily throughout the book, and in fact it begins with this conversation between girls (that sounds like it's about sex but actually isn't, but: clever, right?):
      "The first time, you can't believe how much it hurts."Deenie's legs were shaking, but she tries to hide it, pushing her knees together, her hand hot on her thigh.    Six other girls are waiting. A few have done it before, but most are like Deenie.    "I heard you might want to throw up even," one says. "I knew a girl who passed out. They had to stop in the middle."   "It just kind of burns," says another. "You're sore for a few days. I heard by the third time, you don't even feel it."
Fever is something of a mystery, and as you read, you might suspect that the unsolved seizures are related to the very mystery of girls - which, for me, both hit home and was also unacceptable.  Abbott's story is at once a fairy tale and yet 100% possible.  She really ingeniously taps into the sometimes seemingly inexplicable behaviors of girls and their parents - how both might be searching for answers in an irrational world.

Like the best YA, Fever spans genres, raises questions for all ages and would be appealing to a wide audience.  Like Tana French's latest, Secret Place, it's an intriguing and accurate representation of the lives of teenage girls.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Oh, what a great book The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is!  If you thought fun vampire books were SO OVER, think again!

I read some reviews when this book came out over the summer that said how great it was, but I was like, "Vampires? Nothankyou."  But, this is no Twilight, and it's no Stackhouse either.  In Holly Black's YA novel, vampires have been discovered in the human world and relegated to "Coldtowns" - ghetto-ized parts of big cities where vampires and humans are kept behind walls - a self-sustaining and self-governed area that sustains itself on webcasts and black markets.  They're dangerous and perceived as glamourous - some humans want to go there and become immortals, but are more likely to end up dead.

Tana wakes up the morning after a "Sundown party" in which all of her friends have been killed and her ex-boyfriend is "cold" - he's been bitten by a vampire and will turn into a vampire himself if he drinks human blood.  Tana saves her ex-boyfriend and a mysterious vampire named Gavriel.  Gavriel's an old vampire, and he falls in love with Tana because she saves him - the first person to ever help him.  He's dangerous and gorgeous and old-fashioned, hence, he's smokin' hot and irresistible to Tana, but, thank god there's more to their relationship than mere attraction (ahem Edward and Bella!) Black also inserts a little covert Marxism into her story.  Tana reflects on "a bunch of professors talking about monsters" on tv, "The monster is bigger than human. It represents abundance - overabundance, the white-haired man had said, pushing his glasses up higher on his nose. It has lots of eyes, extra arms, too many teeth. Everything about it is to many and too much."  I happened across this great article in the NY Times while reading the book: Dreamboat Vampires and Zombie Capitalists that helped me understand Black's not just shitting around here, I suspect she could talk some deep theory with the best.

But, whether you love Lacan or just a good old fashioned teen romance (with vampires!), this book doesn't disappoint. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a terrific read that's full of excitement, surprises and steamy kissing.

Saturday, November 08, 2014


Redeployment, by Phil Klay, was shortlisted for the 2014 National Book Award - they haven't announced the winners yet.  After reading a glowing review, I grabbed a copy from the library and, I have to tell you, it was one of the most stunning books I've read this year.

It's a group of short stories about the war in Iraq, with each story told from the perspective different figures in the military.  Klay was a Marine (who earned an MFA from Hunter College after his service) and brings a sense of immediacy to each story making the conflict all the more real for someone like me, for whom the war is really just sort of an abstract reality.  Reading books like Redeployment and the breathtaking Be Safe, I Love You, by Cara Hoffman, provide a way for me to make the war more real and better understand the daily reality for soldiers.  It was interesting, having read those two books this year, the dramatic difference between gender roles presented in each author's book.  Hoffman's story is about a female veteran with PTSD - her story is fairly universal, however she certainly had a unique story as a woman at war.  Klay's book is definitely male-focused.  There are very few instances of women characters in his stories, and their appearances are full of meaning.  Treated mostly by his male characters as mere concepts or receptacle, Klay's integration of women comes as a shock - helping the reader realize what a male-dominated arena most soldiers live in.  In one story, for example, a woman makes a short appearance, first smelled by the narrator.

That sort of thing would normally infuriate me if it wasn't so obvious that Klay's treatment of women in his stories was so thoughtful and specific.  In "Psychological Operations", a returned soldier in college wants to unload his stories on a female classmate.  A she struggles to avoid being his emotional receptacle, he pointedly ignores her, undeterred in his new mission of relief.  Finally she gives in and listens, as if choosing to paying the price for his service - allowing herself to be the vessel he's looking for.

For me, one of the more powerful stories was "Frago", a story full of military lingo and acronyms that I could barely understand.  It further exemplified how soldiers lives are so different from civilians - so much that they have their own language.  It must be so difficult for a soldier to simply talk to someone without a military background.  "I'm across from PFC Dyer, and he's not eating much. I'm next to some Navy O4 from the BOS, and he's chowing down. when he sees we aren't exactly FOBbits, he starts talking.  I don't tell him what we're here for, I just say a little about our COP and how it's good to eat something that's not an MRE or the Iraqis' red shit and rice."

I feel fairly confident that Redeployment will earn a spot next to The Things They Carried and Catch 22 in the annals of war literature.  It will be exciting to see what Klay writes next - I would love to see a long-form novel from him.

Here's a last quote from the book which I think beautifully summarizes this incredible group of short stories:
He would have gathered all the personal effects and prepared the body for transport. Then it would have gone by air to TQ. And as it was unloaded off the bird, the Marines would have stood silent and still, just as we had in Fallujah. And they would have put it on a C-130 to Kuwait. And they would have stood silent and still in Kuwait. And they would have stood silent and still in Germany, and silent and still at Dover Air Force Base. Everywhere it went, Marines and sailors and soldiers and airmen would have stood at attention as it traveled to the family of the fallen, where the silence, the stillness, would end.