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 na├»ve 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.