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.

Friday, April 15, 2016

To Say Nothing of the Dog

I recently discovered Connie Willis and I am so in love with her.  I started with To Say Nothing of the Dog, a comic sci-fi novel - one of the funniest, smartest books I've ever read.  Ned is a(n) historian  who works in futuristic Oxford, where time-travel has been discovered and summarily relegated to historians, having been found unuseful for anything else.  Ned has been overworked by his employer, who has him frantically searching for a "Bishop's bird stump" which has caused him to experience "time lag". In search of a rest, he goes to the Victorian period, where presumably he'll be able to do nothing but relax in serene environs.  One of the side-effects of time-lag is "maudlin sentimentality".  To test him for the affliction, a nurse asks him to describe a card. "It appeared to be a postal card of Oxford. Seen from Headington Hill, her dear old dreaming spires and mossy stones, her hushed, elm-shaded quads where the last echoes of the Middle Ages can still be heard, murmuring of ancient learning and scholarly tradition, of--"

Before going to the Victorian period, a co-worker assigns an easy job for him, to return an item that mistakenly brought through the net and should be returned immediately to avoid space-time continuum anomalies.  Unfortunately, Ned is experiencing such an advanced case of time-lag that he doesn't hear the instructions properly.  Immediately upon arrival in the 19th century, he finds himself involved in rather complex and increasingly ridiculous machinations involving
his simple assignment.

I could go on about this book for the rest of the decade but what should really do is just read the book and trust me when I say it is more about history than sci-fi, and touches lovingly on Jeeves and Wooster, reverently on Sayer's Vane and Wimsey, and ever so gently on one of my favorite themes: quantum physics.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Between the World and Me

We read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coats for bookclub.  Coats won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction last year and was listed in just about every top 10 of 2015 list that mattered.  I suppose it's a type of epistolary non-fiction, as it's written as a letter to his teenage son.  He begins by recalling how his son cried after the policeman who murdered Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO went uncharged for any crime. "...I didn't hug you, and I didn't comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within that all of it."  Coats writes about his own childhood in Baltimore, and how much difficult it was for him to protect his own black body - the preoccupation he had to have every time he left the house, the knowledge of what areas were safe, how his own parents were incredibly strict with him.  "Black people love their children with a kind of obsession," he writes, "You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made."

As a white reader I really appreciate the perspective Coats brings to this topic - reading his first-hand account made the reality of so many people's lives more vivid for me. As a white reader, it would be all too easy to argue against what Coats is saying - for example, he talks about living in NY in the early 2000s and walking around with his baby in a stroller, and seeing white children on tricycles, "The galaxy belonged to them" he writes.  I'll admit I found myself wanting to argue, like so many white people do, *I* was never handed anything.  I *wish* I had the opportunity to ride my tricycle down a Manhattan street like I owned the place.  But, not only is that ignoring my huge privilege of growing up in a white body, it's completely missing the point of what he's saying.  So, while I'm really ashamed that I had the instinct to argue, I'll admit that I had it, because I think it's important to acknowledge just how ingrained these prejudices are.

Coats book is doesn't hold a lot of hope, but I think it's exposure will lead more people to come to a greater level of understanding.  The heartbreaking repetition of all of the deaths in the past few years - Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner, to name a few - that have lead to the Black Lives Matter movement give the book a sense of immediacy, although, as we all know, these needless deaths are nothing new.

Monday, January 18, 2016

May We Be Forgiven

I read A. M. Homes May We Be Forgiven at the insistence of my sister, who said it was her favorite book of last year.  It is an absolutely ca-razy book for the first 350 or so pages.  This guy Harold is having an affair with his sister-in-law.  He has a contentious relationship with his brother George, who is the head of a tv network and an asshole.  One day George comes home, finds Harold and his wife sleeping together in his bed, and picks up a lamp and slams it on her head.  George gets sent to mental institution instead of jail, being rich and white and having a team of lawyers.  Harold stays in their house, feeding the pets, and taking on increasing responsibility for George and Jane's children. 

One crazy thing after another happens, in what feels like maniacal farce.  It's quite funny, despite the violence, and occasionally tender, despite the fragile humanity of so many of the characters.  Ultimately Harold becomes not just the guardian of the children in name but in his heart and theirs.  Where they had a distant relationship with their parents, he creates a close one for all of them, until they have a very large extended family of relative strangers.  I was deeply drawn to that aspect because I firmly believe you create your own family - it takes care and investment - but I see it as an obligation to myself and my own little community to build a network of supporting and caring around us. 

Truthfully I thought the book was about 100 pages too long, although the last 100 serve as an extended opportunity to define the terms of this new family Harold is building.  It's almost too sweet an ending for what started with madcap plotting.  I was very interested in how Homes wrapped race into this story - essentially it's about a very wealthy, white, Jewish family in New York/New Jersey that are largely immune to answering for their crimes.  Harold's truly enamored with what he frequently refers to as "the other", for example, the Chinese family he has lunch with in Manhattan or... I hate to give too much away... some other characters of color in the book.  While the non-white characters at first feel like a sort of clumsy inclusion, most of them become part of Harold's created family.  "May we be forgiven" becomes an incantation for Harold, a plea for forgiveness for past wrongs, a promise to do better in the future.

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.