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!