Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Alias Grace

Alias Grace has been sitting on my shelf for a long time.  Even though I looooove Margaret Atwood, I was never able to get into it.  Also The Blind Assassin.  But, taste in books comes and goes, or so I've noticed, so, after a run of particularly great reads, I decided to give it another go.

It was like Margaret Atwood had just published another book, just for me.  I don't know what happened to me before, but I was absolutely mesmerized this time around.  It's based on the true story of convicted murderer (or, murderess, how shocking!) and Canadian, Grace Marks.  I did some research about her in advance, which I would recommend if you're going to read this book - only because so much of what Atwood includes is based on primary source materials.  You can, for example, read the confession and the trial notes online.

The story is told partly from Grace's point of view - she is in prison and asked to talk to a doctor, Simon Jordan (a fictionalized character) who is studying her case for criminal behavior.  This is in the late 19th century, when mysticism and seances and things like phrenology are actually considered fairly scientific, and the Freudian-style of the young doctor Jordan are considered slightly unusual.  Grace confesses not to have a memory of the murders she's alleged to have been involved with, but it's not entirely clear how trustworthy she is as a narrator.

I thought Alias Grace had a lot in common with The Handmaid's Tale, my benchmark of greatness for all books.  Grace is a lot like the handmaid, who is essentially jailed as well - restricted movements, at the mercy of those considered her betters.  Not surprisingly, there's a huge feminist aspect to this story - for example, much is made over the peculiarity of this female murderer.  What's interesting is that her inner monologue is steady, rational and completely reasonable.  Atwood even frames the story into sections titled with antique quilt patterns - Broken Dishes, Lady of the Lake, Tree of Paradise.  What could be more coded-female, or more perfectly rational? In comparison, the doctor's inner monologue becomes more and more shocking.  He casually fantasizes of injuring or doing violence to people he meets.  He has passing fancies of sexually humiliating practically every woman he meets, and yet he remains a pillar of society.

What's really quite amazing is how Atwood writes the entire book in the style of the late 19th century - no doubt about it, she is truly one of the greatest writers this world has ever known.  She writes:
They were feeble and ignorant creatures, although rich, and most of them could not light a fire if their toes were freezing off, because they didn't know how, and it was a wonder they could blow their own noses or wipe their own backsides, they were by their nature as useless as a prick on a priest - if you'll excuse me, Sir, but that was how she put it - and if they were to lose all their money tomorrow and be thrown out on the streets, they would not even be able to make a living by honest whoring, as they would not know which part was to go in where, and they would end up getting - I won't say the word - in the ear; and most of them did not know their own arse from a hole in the ground. And she said something else about the women, which was so coarse I will not repeat is, Sir, but it made us laugh very much.

Grace is manhandled daily by a couple of prison guards who describe at great length their intentions.  The descriptions are so filthy and so extenuated it's almost funny, and it kind of made me smile to imagine Atwood thinking of all the horrible, ridiculous, awful things these men could say.  Oh ho, says the one, that's what I like, a little high spirits in a woman, a little fire, they say it comes with the redness of the hair.  But is it red where is most counts, says the other, a fire in a treetop is no use at all, it must be a fireplace to cast enough heat, in a little cookstove, you know why God made women with skirts, it's so they can be pulled up over their heads and tied at the top, that way you don't get so much noise out of them, I hate a screeching slut, women should be born without mouths on them, the only thing of use in them is below the waist.

It's been about 30 years since Grace was accused of murder, when she was only a girl of 16.  Atwood explores the impact of imprisonment and the notion of forgiveness.  How can Grace pay for the crimes she may or may not have been party to? Through time, suffering, personal growth?  Near the end, Grace says, "It is not the culprits who need to be forgiven; rather it is the victims, because they are the ones who cause all the trouble. If they were only less weak and careless, and more foresightful, and if they would keep from blundering in difficulties, think of all the sorrow in the world that would be spared."  That odd statement is a good example of the kind of mystery that surrounds Grace until the end.  The wisdom she has was earned quietly observing the outside world through the bars of a prison.   "The way I understand things, the Bible may have been thought out by God, but it was written down by men.  And like everything men write down, such as the newspapers, they got the main story right but some of the details wrong."

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

I just finished this AMAZING book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler, who recently was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award. I read somewhere that it was Ruth Ozeki's favorite book from 2013 so that was just about good enough for me. Ozeki recommended not learning anything about it, although I must admit I scanned the summary on Amazon to make sure it wasn't about genocide in Rwanda or something. No offense to Rwandans, but, I mean, you have to prepare yourself mentally for those things. Genocide. God, I'm an idiot.

Anyway, after reading it, I agree, it is best to not learn anything about it, so, as I often encourage my small (but devoted?) readership, Please, stop reading now! Come back later after you've finished. Take Ruth Ozeki's and my word for it!

Alright, spoilers ahead.... Fowler does some interesting things with the narrative, like starting in the middle, then swinging back to the beginning and then wrapping back to the end again. But it's all driven by the main character's sort of inability to express parts of her life she's not ready to confront yet. So, when she begins (in the middle) she talked about being in college in the 90s, which I really loved because I went to college in the 90s. Fowler frequently drops a lot of cultural/scene setting elements, like a reminder that Hale-Bopp was gliding through, Dolly had just been cloned, Charles and Diana had just divorced...

Side note: When I was in college studying Art History at Indiana University, my professor showed a slide of the Bayeux Tapestry, which features a bunch of medieval folks pointing up into the sky with dopey looks on their faces, just like we were doing at night with our comet. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.  I believe the Bayeux Tapestry features Haley's Comet, not Hale-Bopp.  But, whatever.  
I love that comet
So, anyway, the main character, Rosemary, mentions how her sister "disappeared" and her brother ran off many years ago, and she misses them and thinks about them, but in her family, they don't talk about their absence.  Eventually she says that her sister is actually a chimpanzee whom she was raised with as part of a psychology experiment.  Her dad's a psych prof at Indiana University.  Where I went to college!  So, part of this book takes place in Bloomington, Indiana, a place near and dear to my heart.  And, if Bloomington, Indiana appears in a book, I'm pretty much guaranteed to love that book.  Like... The Stone Diaries, for example, which is one of my Favorite Books of All Time.   

Fowler touches on a lot of themes in this book - including memory, language, solipsism, scientific study, what it is to be human or animal - but what's never really questioned by Rosemary is her relationship to this chimpanzee.  She's her sister, plain and simple, and their separation makes her feel like a person who's been ripped apart from her twin.  The image of a mirror, and the mirror test, comes up again and again:

"... some species, like chimps and elephants and dolphins, recognize themselves in the mirror and others, like dogs and pigeons, gorillas and human babies, don't."

Her brother also disappears - he becomes an animal rights activist - considered a terrorist by the government.  He says, "We need a sort of reverse mirror test. Some way to identiy those species smart enough to see themselves when they look at someone else. Bonus points for how far out the chain you can go. Double bonus for those who get all the way to insects."  He's accused of organizing a attack on SeaWorld (this is pre-Blackfish, by the way.  If you've seen it, you'll want to organize an attack on SeaWorld too.)  "I expect the allegations are true, although an 'attack on SeaWorld' might mean a bomb, or it might mean graffiti and glitter and a cream pie in the face. The government doesn't always seem to distinguish between the two."

I'm not surprised this was a favorite by Ozeki because it had a lot of similarities to her work - literature that expands the reader's mind in a glory of language.  How we treat and live with animals is obviously a big theme in the book, and a relationship that I'm still thinking about, a week after finishing it.  The way Fowler writes about the consciousness of animals forces you to consider the way you treat all animals - not just the ones that kind of look like us, like chimps and apes, or the ones we live comfortably with, like dogs and cats, but all animals - with bonus points for insects.  

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Be Safe, I Love You

Here's my review of Cara Hoffman's new book: Be Safe, I Love You about a female Iraqi war vet who comes home with PTSD.

I am crazy about Hoffman's So Much Pretty which you really must add to your to-read pile if you haven't read it yet.