Saturday, April 25, 2015

Maisie Dobbs

So, you know I love a British mystery. I can't remember where I heard about Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs, but I think it was described as something like Downton Abbey with a detective which was enough to make me purchase the kindle book that moment.  Also Kindle has this thing where they sell you the audio book for a few dollars more.  So, I ended up listening to it.  

At first, it was great - what could be better than a British accent reading me to sleep every night?  But, it turns out I was falling asleep immediately, and not just because I'm bone tired from a long day making the proverbial donuts but because Maisie Dobbs is boring as hell.  

It is a lot like Downton Abbey in that Maisie starts out "downstairs" until her benevolent overlords recognize that she's really smart and pay for her to be taught by a tutor in addition to doing all her regular work.


Anyway, she gratefully takes the education, is pretty successful, for some reason joins the nursing squad for WWI on a whim and falls in love with this doctor.  Thus begins a long and chaste flashback to the war years and a lot of goopy, sentimental talk about "our boys" and sacrifices etc.  In the flashforward, you see that Maisie is alone, so obviously perfect doctor boyfriend died.


So, the mystery Maisie is trying to solve in the present has to do with this retreat that some guy has set up for wounded and disfigured soldiers, even though the war's been over for 10 years.  Maisie is very sympathetic to these people and the author goes to great pains to show what a sensitive soul she is to the veterans by never staring at their scars and recoiling in horror and whatnot.  Then she pulls back her hair and shows a friend that she's got a crazy awful scar on her head too, only her hair covers it up.  THEN! What happens but in the last few pages, she goes to a country hospital where perfect boyfriend's been all along?
And some shit about "tissue paper armour" that protected the memory of the past.  That's bullshit!  True Love doesn't care if you're in a wheelchair, speechless, with drool running down disfigured face! My God, at least go visit him once or twice in 10 years, Maisie!  


Friday, April 17, 2015

The Singing of the Dead

I visited a friend for the first time and spent a long time looking over her beautiful bookshelves, asking about authors she had collected and learning a bit more about her.  Bookshelves are the window to the soul, aren't they?

She loaned me The Singing of the Dead, by a mystery writer I'd never heard of before - Dana Stabenow.  This is the 11th book in the series and I definitely want to read more!  The lead character is Kate Shugak, an Aleut, a detective/contractor who lives in Alaska and recently lost her husband.  Kate is feisty and sad and doesn't put up with shit. She's hired by a political campaigner (another Alaskan native woman who's running for office) who is getting threatening letters.   Kate doesn't really care about the politics but she needs the money and they pay well.  

Alternately, the story of a prostitute in the very early 20th century, gold-rush days in Alaska is told.  She's murdered.  Kate learns about this woman and discovers her connection to the campaign.   I like Kate because she's so passionate - she gives a little speech about the limited opportunities for women in that period, without birth control, the right to vote, etc.  "Who cares what the founding mothers of our fair state did to get here, to stay here? What else was there to do for a woman back then? Wife, mother, maid, that was it. You were born, you got married, you had a bunch of kids first because there wasn't any way not to and second because the kids were your social security, and then you died, usually way too young, most of the time in childbirth. What did you do if you were a woman and you didn't want that?"

I learned a little bit about Alaskan history and perhaps a tiny bit about Alaskan natives (two subjects I knew very little about) so I really appreciated the Alaskan angle. I'm kind of surprised this hasn't been made into a TV series - I could totally see like a show like Wallander or The Killing out of this. 

Let me know if you've read any other Stabenow that you love!   


Monday, March 23, 2015

Dept. of Speculation

I sped through Jenny Offill's slender Dept. of Speculation quickly - I wish it had lasted longer, but it's 177 pages felt like a little treasure - one I'll surely return to many times.

The book felt utterly fresh and new, despite the timelessness of the story, the trajectory of youth, dating, marriage, children, near-divorce, etc.  Offill is very funny ("I found a book called Thriving Not Surviving in a box on the street. I stood there, flipping through it, unwilling to commit.") and insightful ("The undergrads get the suicide jokes, but the ones about divorce go right over their heads."). She does some really interesting things with POV - the book moves from first person to first person plural, then to third and then back to first person plural again (I think there might be a bit of second in there too).  Somehow she makes all these transitions very smooth - you might not even notice if you're not a POV Geek like I am.

Although Offill works through a number of interesting themes, one of the big ones that stuck out for me was the simple fact that maturity leads to greater understanding - sometimes it's devastating and sometimes it gives you the strength to make it through heartache.

I highly recommend this terrific little book - it was a real joy to read.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Parable of the Sower

I've been wanting to read more Octavia Butler ever since I picked up Fledgling in Seattle a few years ago.  For book club I recommended Parable of the Sower and everyone really loved it.  I didn't know much about it, except that it's apocalyptic and Butler is awesome so I didn't really care.  It was written in 1993 but takes place in 2024 after a series of disasters both environmental and medical.  The United States still exists, but there are very few working public services and basic necessities are very expensive.  Lauren, 18, lives on a compound with her family and some other families outside LA, but they are constantly under attack from people outside the walls.

Lauren's dad is a preacher, but she's been formulating her own religion and writing down how her belief system works.  She calls it Earthseed.  Apparently Butler meant to write a number of Earthseed books but died after the second one.  (Here's an interview with Butler on the subject.)  To tell the truth, the bits re: the religion were a bit much for my tastes.  Every chapter started with a poem or something from the book of Earthseed or whatever and halfway through I quit reading them.  They were so... earnest.

Eventually Lauren's compound is attacked and almost everyone is killed, so Lauren starts walking north (up the 101!) where things are rumored to be better.  Along the way she meets people and invited them to join her if they wish and tells them about her made-up religion and doesn't allow anyone to make fun of it.  Because it's reasonable and Lauren really has her shit together, many people are willing to join her.

Despite being so young, Lauren studied survivalism and is very savvy about negotiating the road and the journey.  You see her building a new community as she walks up the freeway - it's multicultural, diverse, spiritual and strong.

Oh yeah, Lauren is a "sharer", which means she can feel other people's emotions and pain.  This is largely a disadvantage in the dystopian future because if someone gets knocked in the head and she sees it, she feels like she's been clubbed in the head too.  It also makes her really enjoy sex because she feels her own pleasure and the pleasure of her partner.  Empowering sex was a big theme in Fledgling too.  Butler really had her finger on the pulse of popular fiction but brings such an intellectual spin to the stories.

If you have a Butler book to recommend, please let me know!

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.

Imagined 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.
self-portrait???
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 amazon.com 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!