Thursday, May 25, 2017

Feed, by Mira Grant

Many times reading Mira Grant's novel I thought about how eerily similar the tone was to our current political climate. It doesn't speak well for us that her story of a journalist covering a presidential candidate takes place well into zombie apocalypse.  The year is 2039 and zombies have roamed the earth since approx 2012 - our heroine, Georgia, has known no other reality.  Georgia and her brother, Shaun, are bloggers - more respected than the "traditional" journalists of the day because bloggers were quicker to catch on to the zombie outbreak and provide real tips for survival. They've been chosen (with their partner, Buffy) to follow the favored Republican presidential candidate. I'm curious why she wrote the candidate as a Republican, he doesn't seem to have any particular agenda - although some of his colleagues espouse the politics of the religious right and sorAt of extreme measures when it comes to land management and well... zombie management.  For example, some politicians want to burn and bleach the national parks to rid all infestation of animals (any animal over 40 pounds can carry and pass the virus.)

Grant, the nom de plume of Seanan McGuire, is obviously an epidemiology geek and, I suspect, something of a policy wonk and allows the space in Feed to really dive into the details of what her zombie universe looks like - how the virus developed, how society would change and what kind of laws would exist in such a world.  She goes deep into adaptions in technology to detect the virus, and architectural changes to coral and isolate.  If the idea of delving hard core into the inner workings of the CDC during a zombie apocalypse sounds fascinating to you, my friend, this is Your Book.  There are three books in the "Newsflesh" series.  I'll probably take a pass on the next two, but I was definitely entertained for a few hours with Feed.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Devil in a Blue Dress

Devil in a Blue Dress is the birthing of a detective.  Easy Rawlins accepts a job to find a woman because he needs the money, and finds that the steps he needs to follow to track her down come naturally to him.  It's a detektivlerroman - a word I possibly just made up, sure, but accurate.

I used to read a lot of Dashiell Hammett but finally got tired of the racism and called it quits. Raymond Chandler is also, basically, unreadable, being ridiculous.  As the attendant reader of the blog knows, my mysteries are British, and written by ladies.  But, I heard this great interview on NPR with Walter Mosley and knew I had to give it a try.

Although first published in 1990, Devil in a Blue Dress takes place in 1948 Los Angeles and Mosley perfectly captures the "hardboiled" style of early detective novels (minus the racism and misogyny!) His hero, Easy, grew up a sharecropper, then entered the army and fought in WWII.  He and his fellow black soldiers were relegated to office jobs well behind the front line ("I was trained how to kill men but white men weren't anxious to see a gun in my hands."); the white soldiers called them cowards so he volunteered for combat. After the war, he managed to buy a very small house, his prized place of security.  The love of domicile allowed him to take a dubious job for a shady white dude.

Actually, there is racism in Mosley's novel - Easy confronts it constantly. He's accosted and abused by the police twice, he talks about the need to walk slowly in the dark, so he won't be considered suspicious. White people he encounters call him "boy" and "son".  And, when he meets a very wealthy white man, he has a slightly different experience.
    "I mean, there I was, a Negro in a rich white man's office, talking to him like we were best friends - even closer. I could tell that he didn't have the fear or contempt that most white people showed when they dealt with me.
    It was a strange experience but I had seen it before. Mr Todd Carter was so rich that he didn't even consider me in human terms. He could tell me anything. I could have been a prized dog that he knelt to and hugged when he felt low.
    It was the worst kind of racism. The fact that he didn't even recognize our difference showed that he didn't care one damn about me."

It really is remarkable that this is Walter Mosley's first novel - it reads like it was penned by a seasoned mystery writer.  I'll be reading a lot more of his work!  What really slayed me while reading Devil in a Blue Dress was how Mosley was hitting all these high notes nearly 20 years ago in his first goddamn book - the things he addresses in this book are so topical today - institutionalized racism, police brutality, identity ... although, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that as a white reader, like many others, I've been blind to that rather obvious signals of pervasive racism that the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the forefront.  I'm sorry it's taken us so long to get here.

Friday, May 05, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale

I wish I could remember the first time I read The Handmaid's Tale (I remember how it made me feel, just not when it was). It must have been approximately 20 (!) years ago and, conservatively, I've read it at least 5-6 times.  It is My Favorite Book.  Margaret Atwood is My Favorite Author. And it is this book against which I judge all books.

It's recently come to my attention that not everyone KNOWS about The Handmaid's Tale book (WHAT) so, a brief synopsis: written by Canada's National Treasure, Margaret Atwood, who didn't include any details in this dystopian fiction that didn't have a historical precedent. The Handmaid's Tale is about a woman, Offred, living in Gilead in the former United States.  Handmaids are fertile woman who are impregnated for leaders of the Gilead community because a variety of causes have led to widespread infertility. 

I reread it last weekend because it's been a few years and also the show is on Hulu and also we're living in a dystopian nightmare and also why not.  Every time I read it I find something new, and, as I get older, the way I engage with it changes as well.  This time I noticed the repeated motif of eggs - how many eggs Offred eats, how she notices eggs, how she is a walking ovum, ready to be fertilized.  Atwood spends an incredible page and a half describing Offred's soft-boiled egg breakfast. They are words of singular beauty and elegance.

Earlier this year I saw this tweet that really made me laugh but is also true:
Offred isn't waging a revolution - she wants to survive and stay alive, so she's not sticking her neck out.  What's interesting in Offred's point of view that she knew what life was like before (similar to life now) and is experiencing the first wave of this new society.  The Aunts keep telling them "This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary."  I think one of the reasons people are so drawn to this book at this time in history is how quickly and quietly the citizens of the US rolled over and allowed the new regime to take over - first everyone was eager to allow for decreased freedoms in the wake of a terrorist account for the sake of "safety" (as we saw after 9/11) and then there came a point when protesters were simply killed - a terrifying tipping point of which the precipice feels ever closer.
image from the 2017 Women's March

There were hardly any notes in my 1986 hardback, signed (!!!!) edition (maybe 3rd?), but I tentatively put some in, in pencil, after explaining to M that it was my most prized possession and needed to be pulled in case of fire (my fiction books are obviously organized by last name.)

A Few Spoilers Below

One of my favorite parts of the book is the end, the "Historical Notes" which I didn't read for a few days after finishing the book the first time because I thought they were just the sort of boring notes that are sometimes included at the end of a book.  While the entirety of the preceding pages is from Offred's POV, suddenly the language and tone changes abruptly to some time in the future (the year 2195, actually) at a keynote session at a conference in Nunavit (Northern Canada) where is is revealed there are "Gilead" and "Caucasian" studies, those concepts being, presumably, inexistent by that time.  The speaker discusses the difficulty in authenticating the narrative (contained on a series of cassette tapes, in a bit of charming anachronism), and with what feels like agonizing academic distance, considering what we've just gone through with Offred, discusses the possible fates that awaited her, if indeed the tapes were truly authentic.

What jumped out at me this reading was how the male speaker, presumably of Inuit heritage (his name is Professor James Darcy Pieixoto), in the year 2195 (for fucksake), is still subtly undermining the female experience.  For example, he says that the title is a pun, "... having to do with the archaic vulgar signification of the word tail, that being, to some extent, the bone, as it were, of contention, that phase of Gileadean society of which our saga treats."  Similarly, he refers to "The Underground Femaleroad" as "The Underground Frailroad."  What Atwood does, again and again, is remind the reader there is no safe place. Inuit academics several hundred years in the future are not benevolent truth-tellers, they are just slightly sympathetic historians who crack dumb jokes. All women are not victims in this story - some women are the horrible propagators of terror and state-sponsored rape.

Throughout Offred's entire awful experience, her most violent reaction is to the sight of Aunt Lydia.  Not learning about her mother's death, not watching a child taken straight from a women's vagina to another woman, not seeing people hanging in the streets or the nauseating "Salvaging" in which the handmaids are forced to share complicity with netted punishment.  "I've begun to shiver. Hatred fills my mouth like spit."  That's what the sight of Aunt Lydia does to her.  I think it's the active cruelty of Aunt Lydia to the handmaids, specifically as a woman to other women, that causes this visceral reaction in Offred.  Cruelty of women towards women is a not uncommon theme in Atwood's books, and it serves a cold reminder that, unfortunately, some women don't support their sisters they way they should.  The side-effects of a paternalist society, say I - although I'm not entirely sure Atwood would agree with me.  For a long time, Atwood was reticent to call herself or the book "feminist" (although I think she's finally come around on that) and she certainly doesn't like to refer to the book as "science fiction" but rather "speculative fiction."  Fair enough, she's 77 years old and she's written one of the greatest books of the 20th century.  She can do what she wants. 

Monday, April 24, 2017


Cara Hoffman's new novel, Running, is set in Athens, Greece and the main characters are "runners" - itinerant people who board trains and try to convince hapless travellers to follow them back to shitty hotels.  In exchange, they get a place to sleep and a few dollars to keep them high or drunk.  It's a rough life for Bridley, an American girl, who made her way to Europe and holds only the high aspiration of sleeping inside at night.  Focused only on the necessities, she doesn't have the luxury of kindness or thoughtfulness. "People think they need things. Money or respect or clean sheets. But they don't. You can wash your hair and brush your teeth with hand soap. You can sleep outside. You can eat whatever's there."

Bridley has been living by her wits for most of her life, abandoned by her parents at 11 and half-raised by a "prepper" uncle, so being semi-homeless in Athens is neither a shock nor much of an adjustment.  She falls in with two British boy/men and shares a room with a half-blasted out wall with a romantic view of the far-away Acropolis. The threesome is sharp, mean and terribly bright - their squat is full of pilfered books and their expressions of true intelligence shock those who get close enough to observe it.  The seeming contradiction of a homeless teenager with brains doesn't compute - much like the brilliant John McLamore from the S-Town podcast takes a minute to process - how could that hillbilly also be a genius?  

Much like Hoffman's So Much Pretty (2013) and Be Safe, I Love You (2014), she moves forward and back in the narrative, teasing out a mystery about what happened in the late eighties in Athens to one of the British boy's current life in present-day New York, where he's an award-winning poet and a visiting artist at a college, unable to adjust to living in a lovely apartment, more at home sleeping on a bench in the park.

Running has many layers, in the title alone - and more I fear I missed.  It's a fine and strong addition to Hoffman's small oeuvre and probably will benefit from multiple readings.  Hoffman has a delicate hand at pulling in current events (violence toward women, PSD in soldiers, terrorism) and the universal and applying them to the individual.  I love her work.  

Sunday, March 12, 2017

All About Emily

The Rockettes made the news around the inauguration because, the story goes, they were told they would perform for Trump and lose their jobs if they refused.  Management denied that story and said they were free to perform or not as they chose. Ah, those were simpler and more amusing times when it was fun to at least laugh about how no one wanted to perform for or be a part of the inauguration "festivities" - before we realized that the Tangerine-tinted Trash Can Fire was going to do a lot more damage than we even thought possible.

Anyway, around that time, Connie Willis wrote a blog post about the Rockettes and how they have long stood up for what they thought was right.  In 2011, Willis wrote a novella called All About Emily featuring the Rockettes and she always does her research.   It took me a little while to get my hands on a copy and it's a fun, quick read about a robot (an "artificial") who wants to be a Rockette after seeing a performance at Radio City Music Hall.  She befriends an older actress who is happy to help her as long as Emily is going after her job.  The artificial manufacturers are conducting a campaign to convince the public that the robots are not going to take any desired jobs away, which is a bit of a problem when a perpetually young, perfect robot that doesn't eat or need health insurance wants one of the most coveted dancing jobs in America.

There's a bit of an All About Eve angle going on and there are some funny bits about the not-so-distant future, like Shiloh Jolie-Pitt and Justin Bieber Jr doing a play together on Broadway and Twilight The Musical.  Per usual Willis's future might have a dramatic new technology but otherwise life remains recognizable. Sweet ending, great little read if you can find it.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Idiot

I've been following Elif Batuman on twitter lately - she's very funny (I mean,@BananaKarenina, come on...) and has been a staff writer for the New Yorker and she's beautiful and obvi I am burning with jealousy. Many a day do I regret my lack of PhD in literature, or even a BA, for that matter (Elif's is from Stanford), but never have I felt it's sting so strongly as while reading The Idiot, which appears to be strongly influenced by various Russian authors but most importantly Dostoyevsky -  who I have never read, to my great shame. He also wrote a book called The Idiot in the 19th century which I can't help but suspect was an influence (even the wikipedia page is TLDR for me).

In this rather remarkable novel, the main character is Selin, who seems to be unabashedly based on the author, at least in that she is from New Jersey with Turkish parents and went to Harvard in the mid-nineties.  There are those that will turn up their nose at fiction or art with obvious links to their own biographies but I am not one of those people, I love it - for me, the personal connection makes it more... personal - there's so much heart in stories like this.

Batuman's writing style is almost shockingly simple, she follows a Subject_Verb_Predicate structure that I really do suspect is meant to read like a translation of a Russian novel (here again I regret my lack of formal study in literature or I'd state that a little more firmly) as well as a book written for a beginning reader of a second language.  For example, "Ivan carried my suitcase back up the stairs to Peter's grandmother's apartment. Cheryl was sitting under the piano. Andrea was teaching everyone how to say please and you're welcome in Hungarian."  When she occasionally breaks the mold, it's unexpected and often sublimely beautiful:  A plastic-lined canal was full of fat sleek orange carp, with gauzy fins and plaintive round mouths opening and closing. They wanted, and wanted.

It is infinitely quotable (my copy is full of highlights) and full of themes like how language and thought are connected, the many types of languages we engage with (spoken, mathematical, computer, sign, etc), nationality and identity, and it's also a bit of a historical novel about college-life in the 90s.  As that is also when I went to college, Batuman's spot-on descriptions of the posters we all had hanging on our walls, early and awkward interactions on email, the Cranberries, frickin' NETSCAPE... I just howled a million times to remember it all.  ("Dance songs turned out to consist of one sentence repeated over and over. For example, 'I miss you, like the deserts miss the rain.'")

At almost 500 pages, something worth noting is that... not much happens.  Selin has a crush on a boy with a girlfriend who gives her just enough attention to keep her hanging on, she has interactions with  weird roommates, she goes to class and thinks about language, and she goes to Europe for the summer to teach English in Hungarian villages but really to be close to the guy.  Also, there are two parts, no chapters, and barely a double space to break up the flow of words (at least in my proof provided by the publisher).  It's a modern story in a rather old-fashioned package (see also: that wikipedia page I couldn't get through), at least the kind we don't see very often in contemporary fiction.  However, in one rather stunning paragraph, we see Batuman spell it all out for us:
Hungary felt increasingly like reading War and Peace: new characters came up every five minutes, with their unusual names and distinctive locutions, and you had to pay attention to them for a time, even though you might never see them again for the whole rest of the book. I would rather have talked to Ivan, the love interest, but somehow I didn't get to decide. And yet in the next moment it seemed to me that these superabundant personages weren't irrelevant at all, but the opposite, and that when Ivan had told me to make friends with the other kids, he had been telling me something important about the world, about the way to live, about how the fateful character in your life wasn't the one who buried you, but the one who led you out to more people.
You might call this a Bildungsroman (I've even seen this particular book called an anti-Bildungsroman, but I disagree with that) and it seems to fit the bill nicely enough.  There's an interesting interview in Vulture where Batuman discusses this unplotted aspect of the book.  To me it's quite interesting because in terms of our modern expectations re: storytelling, yes, it is sort of

"boring" but if you're able to adjust and appreciate the literary qualities, it's a true gift of a novel.

Il Will

Ill Will is a new mystery by Dan Chaon.  Actually, it's less a mystery and more a story about memory and a weird time in American history.  In the mid-1980s, a moral panic surged across the US that Satanic rituals were occurring regularly in small communities - most of the stories involved children being killed or drinking their blood and/or sexual abuses.  I remember, as a child myself at that time, thinking that if the amount of alleged abuse were actually happening, someone I knew would surely be affected, and I didn't know of anyone.  Simultaneously, I also wondered if I had repressed memories, and beloved family friends actually put on hoods at night and sought to kidnap me and cut out my liver for a backyard bonfire.  So, thanks, Chaon, for taking me back so completely to this bizarre time in my childhood when religious nuts in my small Christian community spent a lot of time freaking out kids with hand-wringing about a bunch of nonsense.

Ill Will's main character, Dustin, a psychologist whose career launched (and quickly sunk) in the study of "Satanic Ritual Abuse" was seemingly a victim of the phenomenon himself.  His parents and aunt and Uncle when killed when he was a child and his adopted brother, Rusty, was jailed for the murder.  Dustin testistfied at the trial that Rusty was involved in Satanic rituals.  Dustin later marries and has several children who don't know about his past, but when a friend of his son goes missing, Dustin sort of gets involved in trying to figure out what happened.  Meanwhile, Rusty's been released from prison and has contacted one of his nephews.  Rusty seems to be a well-meaning man, lonely and good intentioned, however ill-equipped he may be to deal with life and human interactions in any  responsible way, having spent most of his life in jail.

For me what was lacking was a woman's voice - there were a few short bits with Dustin's female cousins whose parents were killed as well - they were the characters I was most interested in.

To tell the truth, I found the end of Ill Will very unsatisfying.  Things wrap up in a quick and sort of disassociated way.  I did enjoy the analysis of memory and memory recovery, as well as the sort of clinical view of this out of control urban legend that so many people believed in.

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.