Saturday, March 27, 2010

Breathe, Eyes, Memory

Breathe, Eyes, Memory is by Haitian author, Edwidge Danticat, 1998. I first learned about Danticat on the New Yorker Fiction podcast. Danticat read a story by Junot Diaz, and later, Diaz read one of her stories. Diaz spoke so highly of Danticat that his recommendation was enough for me.

Breathe, Eyes, Memory is a book about a young girl, Sophie, who lives with her aunt in Haiti. Her mother lives in New York and soon sends for her. She lives with her mother for a little while, and then there's a quick fast forward when Sophie returns to Haiti with her own daughter to deal with some family issues. (I don't think I'm ruining it for you.)

Danticat weaves in some big themes: diaspora, the abuse cycle, sexuality, family, matriarchy. Her description of life in Haiti is both beautiful and sometimes a bit shocking. Sophie's mother begins what she calls "testing" her in an attempt to verify her virginity. Sophie realizes this is a pervasive practice in her culture and comes up with a fairly drastic way to make it stop. She hates the practice and suffers psychological repercussions, as did her mother, and as did her mother.
Haitian men, they insist that their women are virgins and have their ten fingers.

According to Tante Antie, each finger had a purpose. It was the way she had been taught to prepare herself to become a woman. Mothering. Boiling. Loving. Baking. Nursing. Frying. Healing. Washing. Ironing. Scrubbing. It wasn't her fualth, she said. Her ten fingers had been anmed for her even before she was born. Sometimes, she even wished she had six fingers on each hand so she could have two left for herself.
Something that surprised me is that Danticat's writing is extremely simple. Aside from the somewhat frequent multilingual text, I was generally not wow-ed by her writing, although I appreciate how extremely accessible it was, and think this would be a really excellent book for young women. I remember Diaz saying that the way she writes is actually a rather complex accomplishment for a writer, I'm not sure I get that, but I really respect his opinion. The last two pages, I will say, were absolutely beautifully written, and I suspect the simplicity of the language for the majority of the book made those last few pages all the more spectacular.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Franny and Zooey

After JD Salinger died, I got that old familiar craving to read The Catcher in the Rye (for the __ time?) and, horror, it was not on my shelf. But there was Franny and Zooey, which I haven't read for quite a while. Dave Eggers wrote a lovely bit in the New Yorker re: the influence of JD Salinger, which almost goes without saying for a person like Eggers, forgoodnesssakes. These parts struck me:
I read “The Catcher in the Rye” the average number of times for a young person my age—which is to say, every few years between when I was sixteen and twenty-six or so.
Hey, meeee tooooo!!!!
His is still my favorite dialogue, the dialogue that rings truest, that’s at once very naturalistic and musical; it’s really remarkable how difficult it is to do what he does between quotation marks.

I think what's really interesting about his dialogue is, take for example, our Holden Caulfield - his language is pretty dated, but it remains so immensely readable! But, that sentence really made me want to go back and read Salinger with a more critical eye.

After he died I read that Salinger became a Buddhist as well as a semi-reclusive, so it was with only a small amount of surprise to rediscover (me and my memory!) Franny (the first of two short stories in the slender 1961 book) is about a young woman practicing Buddhist-style mediation with a Christian prayer. What I found remarkable about the story, as I read it again, was what brilliant control Salinger had over the narrative structure (and yes, that delicious dialogue) and in no more than 44 pages we learn so much about the characters. Zooey continues the arch and further examines (I don't think I'm ruining it for you...) the act of the repetition of the Jesus Prayer and delves even further into the marvelous Glass family. I found the both stories near-transcendent, they were so beautifully crafted and told.

And what really struck me, as I re-read these stories, was how much Salinger and one of my other favorite childhood books, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg inspired me for a life of arts, literature, and, dare I say it? Sophistication and education (me and Wes Anderson, right?) And to live in NY, which A Certain Husband continues to resist...

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Unnatural Causes

Now I can't seem to resist picking up a P.D. James book when I see one, despite the fact that she and I have a tumultuous relationship. But, I'm beginning to think that if I feel like reading a decent British mystery, she's my gal. I think.

Unnatural Causes features Adam Dalgliesh, her steadfast detective, who, Murder She Wrote-style, goes on what he thinks will be a relaxing vacation to visit his aunt when a murder changes his plans. The suspects are the denizens of aunt's tiny sea-side village and for some reason they all start behaving like suspects right away, spilling the beans about their alibis to anyone who will listen.

I thought it was a decent little mystery that kept me guessing - by coincidence I happened to watch Murder on the Orient Express, by another acknowledged queen of mystery-writing and thus went through several They ALL Did It! moments.
James is a clever writer and a good one. Here's a passage that made me laugh and also sent me to the dictionary (I LOVE being sent to the dictionary, don't you?):
...The exclusion of women means that some of the best crime writers are unrepresented but this worries no one; the Committee take the view that their presence would hardly compensate for the expense of putting in a second set of lavoratories. The plumbing at the Cadaver has, in fact, remained virtually unaltered since the Club moved to Tavistock Square in 1900 but it is a canard that the baths were originally purchased by George Joseph Smith.

I was all, canard? Isn't that a duck?

James's 1967 book is a bit dated with an oogy reference or two to "colored people" and some 1960's pre-PC references to a "cripple". Blech.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Lonely Werewolf Girl

Lonely Werewolf Girl was published in the UK in 2007, and somehow escaped my notice until fairly recently. Needless to say, it was quickly rectified. It's written by Martin Millar, who's supposedly agoraphobic (what a coincidence!) and the book is self-published, which is pretty cool considering its success.

Lonely Werewolf Girl is categorized as a YA book and, in fact, I picked it up in the YA section of my fave Chicago book store, Women and Children First. I'm not sure it's exactly a book for teenagers or kids. Then I started thinking about how someone recently called me an "adult" and I got sort of surprised. So, I started thinking, "Am I not a young... adult?" Is it possible that all this time YA books are literally meant for Young Adults like me, dopey ladies in their 30s?

As you might suspect, Lonely Werewolf Girl is about this girl (14 yrs old), who's a werewolf (born one). She's not only lonely, a bit of rogue, but she's bulimic, suicidal, nearly illiterate, drug-addicted, and a cutter. Lonely werewolf girl isn't really the main character, even though most of the story circles around her. The most relate-able characters are a couple of humans who get involved in the plots and schemes of all these werewolves and folks from different dimensions and whatnot. The non-humans are mostly unpleasant and have bad personalities, not being bound by the social norms that most of us humans ascribe to (which is fodder for someone else's web post).

The book draws inevitable comparisons to Twilight, which I am powerless to avoid. Like Twilight, one of the main characters has an extremely unpleasant personality who makes you wonder, "Am I seriously supposed to feel SYMPATHETIC toward this girl????" And it's about a bunch of nonsense creatures that walk around in the modern world talking on their cell phones and having star-crossed love and being ridiculously moody. About 20 pages in, I thought, if this is some more uptight, sexless Twilight bullshit, I'm OUT. And then:
Gawain was the most handsome of werewolves, and he had once been her lover. On her fourteenth birthday she'd crept into his bed at Castle MacRinnalch and after that they were never out of each other's company. They had a year of insane joy before he was banished. Kalix yearned to see him again, but she knew he was never coming back.

OK, then. Unlike the Twilight series, it's very funny, it's progressive (pro-cross-dressing!), and, unlike Twilight, it isn't written so badly you curse the author for destroying the English language for you.

At 558 pages, I thought it was a bit long, although, I really enjoyed reading it and when I was stressed out at work I daydreamed about laying on a beach reading this book all day. I also think the author doesn't write women very well - it was as if he thought to himself, "Hmmm... what are girls into? Clothes, and shopping! And big, clunky shoes!" So. There's that. But.

Guess what? There's a sequel coming soon.