Saturday, October 14, 2017


Elmet was the dark horse of the Man Booker short list and after reading an intriguing review I found a copy at my library. Side note:  History of Wolves and Exit West were also nominated and I looooved both of those - although so was Lincoln in the Bardo and I swear to God I cannot get through that thing.  Although everyone else is going absolutely nuts over it so who am I to judge? 

"Elmet", it should be known, was the name of the wild country of northern England back in the 5th century and also the subject of an epic poem by Ted Hughes. (Favor a challenge? Read the Wikipedia page on Elmet. Sample sentence: "In the Tribal Hidage the extent of Elmet is described as 600 hides of land, an area slightly more than the total of the wapentakes of Barkston Ash and Skyrack." Whaaaaaaaaaaaa?)

Fiona Mozley is a young, British author and this is her first book. She writes lovingly of a small, odd family composed of "Daddy", Daniel, the narrator, and Cathy, his sister.  They're sort of like squatters and build a house on someone else's land and mostly live off the land, eating wild animals and trading with people in the nearby village.  Daddy occasionally engages in a fist fight for money.  Most of the book is allotted to the almost devotional descriptions of the home and the food eaten in the home.  The family's house build completely by them, covered in moss, evokes a feeling of deep contentment, even despite Daddy's occasional dark periods when Daniel and Cathy retreat to the outdoors to give him some space to expel his demons.  Interspersed throughout the book are very short passages that indicate Daniel is chasing a woman - one can only assume it is his sister - and it is unclear why or how this came about.  As Daniel runs, his narration becomes even more poetic - he is almost animalistic in his single-minded pursuit:
I see bovine silhouettes shift steadily across meadows, hulking their uneasy weight from trough to furrow, and elsewhere, I see the dusk settle on the fleeces of grazing ewes like sparks from flint to tinder. I watch the land glow and the sky burn. And I step through it with a judicious tread.
I pass from Elmet bereft.
Jesus Christ!  Right????  Although, to be honest, I personally do not like the otherwise over-all style of this book which is heavily stylized prose composed of short, Hemingway-esque sentences in the past tense.  It reminded me of Kazuo Isiguro's Never Let Me Go which I really, really hated.  But, he just won the goddamn Nobel Prize for literature, so what do I know? But, I mean, look at this:
We arrived home and Daddy went straight out into the woods with his tools. The shell of our house was sealed tight against the winter but the insides remained rough. Daddy was working on the lining and on the floors. Wood was the material he used as much as he could. It was right there in the copse. Trees of different ages and different kinds.
I mean, honestly.  However, unlike Isiguro's much lauded novel which goes absolutely nowhere, Mozley's book is building to this completely bonkers ending that I am still mildly in shock about several days later.  Also, it cannot be forgotten that what's she's doing is building upon a great literary tradition and drawing connections between people who occupied her country in the 5th century to the way we live today, bringing up important questions like what it means to inhabit a land... what is "home"... the role of collective history and memory, and what is it that composes our very society?

It's pretty much worth reading just for that insane ending, if you enjoy being tortured by literature and then literally shocked out of your senses and... who doesn't, amiright?

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Under the Harrow

Under the Harrow is Fylnn Berry's first novel and a winner of an Edgar Award this year.  It takes
place in England but Berry is an American.  You know I love my British Lady Mystery writers!

Early spoiler and possible trigger warning:  a dog dies.

Nora arrives at her sister's house to find her sister (and her dog) murdered.  She reels.  Actually, a good part of the book is Nora recovering from the shock of discovering the gruesome murder and the loss of her sister.  Nora isn't aware of anyone who would want to harm Rachel - however, her sister was the victim of an attack when she was younger by a stranger.  The police tell Nora that it's statistically unlikely that a woman would be the victim of two attacks by strangers in her lifetime - they look, of course, to old boyfriends and, eventually, to Nora herself.

As a narrator, Nora is a bit unreliable - she forgets things and, though the reader seems privy to her most solitary moments, something like the hotel manager coming to say the other guests are complaining that the noises (presumably her screaming and crying) are disturbing.

Unsurprisingly, Under the Harrow confronts misogyny and violence toward women.  Accusations are levied against Rachel for her behavior, the hour, her clothing in her first attack, and after her death Nora is cautioned to avoid talking to the press lest they expose "the worst parts of her" to the world. The team that was this sisterhood is not the sentimental fluff you might expect from a "sister novel" but a complex, deep relationship. It is fierce and devoted.

Here's a particular passage I related to - on losing her Yorkshire accent during college: I changed my voice the way I would have chewed off my leg to get out of a trap. Every time I heard my cool, even accent, I thought - I've left. I'm gone.

As mystery's go... it's one of those that's virtually impossible to solve yourself, but it's more about the journey that Nora takes to find justice for her sister.  Berry's a really fantastic writer and I love the way she puts her sentences together.  She crafted a great story here that had me skipping back pages to re-read the careful unravelling.  Really quite an amazing first book!

By the way, "under the harrow" is from a CS Lewis book, A Grief Observed.  Even if you don't know what it means, it's evocative.  Berry explains more in this interview.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Sing, Unburied, Sing

Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing is a painful but rewarding novel about a young boy, Jojo, and his family in Mississippi.  Jojo and his baby sister are being raised by his grandparents because his mother is a meth addict and his father is in jail for cooking meth.  His grandparents are loving, gentle people, but his grandmother is dying of cancer and things are falling apart.  Jojo's mother, Leonie, comes in and out of their lives - when she needs something. Her children are, at best, inconsequential to her, and at worst, active sources of resentment.

Leonie's parents practice what I believe is Santaria - her mother is very knowledgeable about herbs and was a midwife and both she and her husband make "gris-gris" bags - small pouches to protect against evil spirits.  The grandmother hears spirits and prays to some kind of sacred feminine.  Ward's goal is not to educate the reader on this religion - it's just part of the rich history of this couple, which makes it all the more agonizing that they have this gifted daughter who turns out to be a terrible mother and makes horrible choices.

Leonie drags her children a long journey to  retrieve her boyfriend from Parchman Prison - a place where her father and uncle also were incarcerated in the early 20th century.  I was horrified to find out this is a real place and is in fact, still an operating prison.  In case you're not aware of this place, for many years it operated as an extension of slavery well after slavery was outlawed in the United States, and black men and women were arrested for minor crimes and then forced to work long days under inhuman conditions.  Anyway, all kinds of crazy shit goes down during this trip, with Leonie desperately trying to use her kids as props in what she imagines will be the joyous reuniting with her boyfriend while entirely ignoring their physical and emotional needs.

What I haven't mentioned is that Leonie and her son also have the gift of sight - what we are to understand from the Grandmother as the ne plus ultra gift, the one that she herself does not have.  Leonie sees her brother, Given, who was killed by white men in his community, and Jojo sees his uncle Richie, who died in unknown circumstances in Parchman.  Both are overwhelmed by these visions and unsure how to deal with them, and neither mention these occurrences to anyone.  What these spirits, or unburied souls, come to exemplify is the literal embodiment of the destroyed black body in our terrible shared history.  Unable to escape this history, which for Leonie and Jojo lurks and the peripheral of their nearly every moment, they remain plagued by the history of violence and heartbreak that wracked their community.

Sing, Unburied, Sing (that title!) has rightly been nominated for the National Book Award and I think will continue to do very well. Ward's lyricism and tight control of these many and various complex themes is so impressive.  I hope you'll give this powerful book your attention.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

When Exit West by Mohsin Hamid was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, I knew I finally needed to pick up a copy.  What a wonderful book it is! Simple but thoughtful, post-modern but very approachable.  He makes big ideas, like what it means to travel through time and space, not like Doctor Who but just like humans living, so understandable, and he makes the immigrant experience, particularly the immigrant who escapes horror and harm, as thank god I have not, nevertheless relatable.

Hamid's characters, Nadia and Saeed, are living in a country that suddenly erupts into violence.  They live there as long as they can, but soon discover they need to leave to survive. They immigrate to a refugee camp, where things are in some ways better, some worse; and again, and again. There's a slight magical realism element to the way they travel which reminded me of elements of Salman Rushdie or Gabriel Garcia Marquez - they approach a door which becomes like a portal.  For a while, they're in a nebulous space, and then they emerge in a new land, sometimes sure of their destination, sometimes not. It's really the only fantastical element of the book and it's beautifully effective and an a spot-on way of capturing not just the immigrant experience but I think most air-travel experiences, honestly.

I came to love both Nadia and Saeed - both of whom continued to defy my expectations - the loving and gentle, religious Saeed who wishes his wife wouldn't wear a full-length black robe. Nadia tells Saeed she wears the gown “so men don’t fuck with me”. She smokes pot and likes living alone.

Hamid also introduces other characters in short vignettes. To me these small asides don't serve much purpose aside from offering hope and showing love in a world that seems overwhelmed with hate.  In one rather remarkable two-page "run-on sentence" a young woman rides a train to stand in a human chain to protect migrants from a militant mob.
... it wasn't until she boarded the train and found herself surrounded by men who looked like her brother and her cousins and her father and her uncles, except that they were angry, they were furious, and they were staring at her and at her badges with undisguised hostility, and the rancor of perceived betrayal, and they started to shout at her, and push her, that she left fear, a basic, animal fear, terror, and thought that anything could happen, and then the next station came and she shoved through and off the train, and she worried they might seize her, and stop her, and hurt her, but they didn't, and she made it off, and she stood there after the train had departed, and she was trembling, and she thought for a while, and then she gathered her courage, and she began to walk...
My god! I mean! Could you just!

"We are all migrants through time." Hamid writes this simple sentence near the end of the book, where by then it lands with a thud in your heart, having come by then to think about travelling in a slightly different way. But, it really sunk in for me, the lucky person who's never had to flee her home, during this time where there word "migrant" is loaded with so much controversy.  And it really made me think about how moving forward through time, as most of us experience it, we emulate the migrant experience, sometimes leaving people behind that we love, changing our own goals and aspirations and sometimes modifying what's most important to us.

It was a lovely, lovely book and I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The Power

In Naomi Alderman's new novel, The Power, young women find they can shoot lightning out of their
fingers.  I had only to read a similar summary before scurrying to Amazon UK to order a copy (it releases in the US in October).  Teen girls get the ability first, and they are able to pass it to older women by showing them how to unlock it in themselves.  Very quickly men everywhere start to panic, desperate to reverse or retard the ability in women, but girls become more and more powerful and the power imbalance begins to shift from men to women.

What's interesting in The Power is that women don't become the benevolent leaders many people (including myself) imagine we would be, but rather take on most of the poor qualities men in power possess.  The women and girls use their power to control men, some torturing men for pleasure, many becoming sexual predators.  It's not unusual for the female characters to be overwhelmingly distracted at the inappropriate moments by desire for men's bodies.  They co-opt history and religion to stake their claim to leadership.
On the morning shows, they bring in experts on human biology and prehistoric images. This carved image found in Honduras, dating back more than six thousand years, doesn't that look like a woman with lightning coming from her hands to you, Professor? Well, of course, these carvings often represent mythical and symbolic behaviours. But it could be historical, that is, could represent something that actually happened. It could, maybe. Did you know, in the oldest text, that the God of the Israelites had a sister, Anath, a teenage girl? Did you know that she was the warrior, that she was invincible, that she spoke with the lightning, that in the oldest texts, she killed her own father and took his place? She liked to bathe her feet in the blood of her enemies.
Some Spoilers

So, the book quickly changes from the initial "girl power" excitement to a handful of women who will do anything to have total control and end up, well, tearing society apart.  Although the book was a real page-turner, it caused me a fair amount of internal anguish because I truly believe that women would be fundamentally better leaders than men. Admittedly, the more I thought hey, #notallwomen, the more a teensy little bit of me thought, "OK, maybe there is something there."  A little something.

Unquestionably, Alderman is an Atwood fan - they actually published a zombie novella together on Wattpad a few years ago called The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, and Atwood blurbed The Power with a groan-worthy "Electrifying!"  Alderman bookends her novel in a trés-Atwood style, fashioning the text as a history submitted to his publisher by Neil Adam Armon (pay close attention to those letters). The publisher, a women, is hilariously patronizing while Neil's obsequious grovelling is painfully familiar.  Throughout the book are illustrations that, at least to me, didn't make sense until the very end.  These game-like elements in the book signal Alderman's other specialty - she's the creator of a very popular app called Zombies, Run! which motivates runners to move because (you guessed it) zombies are chasing them.

The Power has already won The Bailey's Womens Prize for Fiction and I have a feeling will find considerable popularity in the US.  At this moment in history, it's feels like a bit of an odd argument to be making, and undoubtedly this novel is making a strong statement about power and what people (regardless of gender) will do to get it and what they'll do to keep it.  Perhaps when she was writing it under Theresa May, with Clinton running for president and expected to win (it was published in 2016) it was a conversation Alderman wanted more people to confront in the existing zeitgeist. Now, with the bleak politics and masculine posturing between two idiots like Trump and Kim Jong Un making nuclear war seem unbearably possible, I wish more than ever we had more women in power.

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. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

We Love You, Charlie Freeman

One of my favorite books a few years back was We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler - so when I heard about  We Love You, Charlie Freeman, with a somewhat similar plot, I was chasing the idea of recreating that thrilling feeling of reading Beside Ourselves for the first time.  That is always a dumb idea, although I do it all the time.  I hope every dystopian novel I read will be as great as The Handmaid's Tale and every olive I eat will taste as good as those olives we bought in a market in Spain and ate in our beautiful apartment in Sevilla, overlooking a plaza with orange trees and a nice bottle of wine.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman, (2016) by Kaitlyn Greenidge, is about the Freemans, a black family who are chosen to live with a chimp at an institute outside Boston and teach him sign language.  Most of the story is told from the older daughter's perspective.  Charlotte is an oddity in their new town, being one of only a few black students, and lives in a huge institute with an animal and knows ASL.  The reason the family speaks sign language although none of them are deaf is slowly teased out.  The girls' mother forms an immediate bond with Charlie that they are never quite ever to match, despite the younger daughter's efforts.  Charlie attempts to dominate both children and diverts attention to himself as much as possible.  We learn that Charlie was taken from his own mother as a baby and never formed an attachment until he met the Freemans.

Charlotte's friend Aida introduces her to the racist history of the institute, which compared the chimps to a nearby black community, but Charlotte already knows that she's being observed just as much as Charlie by the scientists.  Greenridge also writes from the perspective of Ellen Jericho, a black school teacher from the early 20th century who became an object of the institute's early studies.  Ellen's story is heartbreaking - she's a clever, lonesome woman whose parents committed suicide.  She's part of a secret society, but always on the outskirts of that group and her community.

Another figure literally and figuratively hangs above the characters - Julia Toneybee-Leroy, who founded the institute and whose portrait hangs in the hall where the Freemans live.  Treated with deference by the scientists who repeat a clearly fabricated story about how Julia brought the first chimps to Massachusetts, and suspicion by the nearby black community, she's a nebulous influence until we do finally meet the elderly Ms. Toneybee-Leroy at a hilarious yet disturbing Thanksgiving dinner.  This privileged woman believes herself to be open-minded and open-hearted to both her chimps and the black community around her institute but of course treats them both with a motherly, condescending tone.  Toneybee-Leroy's ingrained racism is revealed wholesale in a letter she writes to "You, African-American people" that's meant to apologize but excuse herself from the painful experiments the institute inflicted on the black community it drew into its web.

To be honest, I was hoping for more storytelling around Charlie, but little text is devoted to his words -  that's simply not the story Greenidge is telling.  Just as there is no happy ending for man or beast in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, the misguided experiment of Charlie and the Freeman family ends with disastrous results.  Greenidge's debut novel is a powerful story about institutionalized racism in America told with insight and beautifully developed characters.  I look forward to following her career!

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Busman's Honeymoon

At the end of Dorothy Sayer's excellent and probably most famous book, Gaudy Night, Harriet Vane agrees to marry Lord Peter Wimsey - although the whole conversation is in Latin so you might miss it, as I did, until I looked up the rather obscure references online.  The next book, Busman's Holiday, (1937) has Harriet and Lord Peter getting married at the beginning and then swiftly retiring to the village where Harriet grew up. She always admired a house there, so, naturally, her fancy new husband bought it for her.  The first few chapters find the newlyweds mildly aghast that their country home has not been properly prepared as promised by the erstwhile previous owner.  There are many, many pages devoted to the cleaning of chimneys - although Harriet and Peter are so charming and in love it doesn't really matter.  After about a day, they discover the body of the previous owner is found in the cellar, leading to that curious phrase "Busman's holiday", which means to go on vacation and do the same thing that you do in your work-a-day life (like when Jessica Fletcher goes on vacation and
someone gets themselves killed and she has to solve the murder.)  There is, as you might expect, some assholery in the derivation, which is that when the bus driver goes on vacation, he has to take the bus to get there.

The mystery is a bit of a locked room, because all the doors to the house were locked from the inside when the Wimsey's arrived, so how could anyone have killed this guy?

There's a lot of talk about how to solve a murder - Wimsey maintains that you find the "How" and that leads to the "Who" and is less interested in motive than his new wife.  Harriet largely agrees, although she always comes back to the motive as a writer of mysteries herself:
  "If a thing could only have been done one way, and if only one person could have done it that way, then you've got your criminal, motive or no motive. there's How, When, Where, Why and Who - and when you've got How you've got Who. Thus spake Zarathustra."
  "I seem to have married my only intelligent reader. That's the way you construct it from the other end, of course. Artistically, it's absolutely right."  

this cover seriously
gives it all away
That sort of thing reads like fan service for the murder mystery reader and is, admittedly, enjoyable. Sayers includes quite a few of those expository moments for Peter and Harriet to reflect on their methods and the reader to geek out over her method.

Aside from the term "busman's holiday" I also learned about "banns", a Church of England requirement to announce intent to marry to the local vicar.  There's some anti-Semitic stuff about unattractive businessmen and their Jewish heritage that seems entirely out of context except for the year of publication.  And there's an interesting bit that briefly describes how Peter came to employ his remarkable valet, Bunter - the "Jeeves" of the operation.  They fought together in WWI and Peter offered him a job if they lived to survive the fox hole they were hiding in.  Peter was suffering from "shell-shock" and Bunter helped ease him out of it by knowing precisely what to do, as he always does.  If only we could all have our own Bunters.

What's most interesting, at least to me, is the negotiation of Peter and Harriet's married life.  Harriet turned down many proposals from Peter in the interest of her own independance - it's only when she trusts that he'll allow her to maintain her own personhood that she agrees to marry him.  When Peter suffers rather severe emotional distress upon uncovering the murder and consequently sending him to his death sentence, Harriet finds herself in the position of providing necessary "space" to Peter (although they didn't use that language in 1937).  Harriet feels like she has to wait for Peter to chose to come to her as a refuge, and when he inevitably does, it's a major triumph for her and the marriage.  It's kind of romantic, but also a bit odd  - but, then again, these are two oddball characters - both slightly older, neither naïve and each with a whole lot of murder baggage to carry around.

Busman's Honeymoon is Sayer's last book about Lord Peter and Harriet, with the apparent subtext that they leave the murder-solving business forever following Peter's mini-breakdown after the trial. The reader can imagine Peter and Harriet living out their rich lives without having to solve a murder everywhere they go like poor Mrs. Fletcher.

Monday, January 23, 2017

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Saturday I went to the Women’s March in Chicago, along with, at today’s count, at least 250,000 other people.  Earlier in the week I remember thinking, “Wow, they’re expecting 20,000 people, that’s amazing."

I was pretty nervous about going to the march because I was worried about getting harassed by the police, or, worse, arrested.  I don’t like big crowds and, yeah, my preferred way to spend Saturday morning is in my jammies, with coffee, talking on the phone to my sister.  But I went ready to fight - ready to be harassed and ready to harass.  What happened instead was thousands of women and men - the elderly and babies, racially diverse people, my trans sisters and brothers - filled the streets of downtown Chicago and then proceeded to take care of each other.  I’ve never heard so many excuse mes, thank yous, look out for that pothole, careful, watch your step.  I love your hat, I love your sign, I love your energy.  

We couldn’t hear the speakers, we couldn’t see the stage. Hell, we didn’t even know where the stage was, but the thick crowd of people around us, just east of the bridge on Jackson, cheered when a cheer wave came our way, joined in whenever someone started a chant, and, my favorite, sang along with two African American women who started singing Lean On Me. As we turned around and eventually moved into the loop, we happily followed them singing and pointing out potholes.  Pockets of protesters were out all day - we saw a group of students walking down Michigan Avenue around 3pm, shouting My Body, My Choice, although what really warmed my heart was the male voices in the crowd yelling HER Body, HER Choice.

For the first time since this horrible human being was elected, I felt more hope than fear.  I saw creativity and humor and love as powerful agents of change.  I saw women taking the word he used to brag about sexual assault and turn it into a strength. We’re going to get through this, we cannot fail.  

Thank you to all the people that made the day so great.
Thank you to my friends who travelled to DC.
Thank you, Chicago bike police, for being cool.
Thank you, dudes who support women’s rights.  
Thank you, Chicago, for restoring my faith in humanity.

image via