Monday, August 12, 2019

The Silence of the Girls

Pat Barker tells the story of the Iliad mostly through the eyes of Briseis, who was a princess until the Greeks destroyed her city and gave her to Achilles as a slave.  Generally the story of Briseis and Achilles is portrayed as a love story, but Barker imagines the relationship quite differently, with Briseis feeling all the love a woman would feel for the person who had just killed her entire family and enslaved her, which is to say: not much.

Like Circe, Madeline Miller's wonderful novel about another minor female character in the Odyssey (and Galatea, and Livinia), the author tells the story from a feminist point of view, literally giving voice to a character who has just a handful of words in a book that is perhaps the first written account of toxic masculinity in western literature. 

Even though I knew what was going to happen, having seen Brad Pitt's ab-tactular rendition in Troy and, you know, other STUFF,  I could barely put The Silence of the Girls down.  What Barker does very well is move the focus to the women and help the reader imagine what it would be like to go from a life of freedom to one of enslavement.  "In later life, wherever I went, I always looked for the women of Troy who'd been scattered all over the Greek world. that skinny old woman with brown-spotted hands shuffling to answer her master's door, can that really be Queen Hecuba, who, as a young and beautiful girl, newly married, had led  the dancing in King Priam's hall? That that girl in the torn and shabby dress, hurrying to fetch water from the well, that that be one of Priam's daughters?"  The men fight in battles and either preserve their glory in conquest or perhaps in an honorable, brave death, but women suffer the consequences for the rest of their lives, a sorry footnote to the battle scenes.  But in these masterful retellings, the women not only become active participants in their own stories, but they also bear witness to the events.

The book reminded me of a performance of Trojan Women the IU theatre school did back in the 90s.  I was on the stage crew so I saw the show many times.  (What a season: Rough Crossing, Tom Stoppard, Trojan Women, Euripides, Hurleyburley, David Rabe, Uncle Vanya and Cabaret!) The actors created their own monologues that were interspersed throughout the show - it was all very 90's and felt like something special.  Anyway, I remember it fondly and also it wasn't too much work because all the sets were welded together and they didn't let the undergrads do that. 

image via
Silence of the Girls was shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction if that impresses you (it does me!)  Happy reading!

Stay and Fight

My review of Stay and Fight, by Madeline ffitch, on Newcity!

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

What a absolute pleasure it was to read Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.  It felt like one of those books that was written just for me, and I was very, very sad when it was over.  I think I couldn't read that book for the rest of my life.  The first chapter, for one thing, is as exquisit as any writing you'll ever read.  It could stand alone as a perfect short story.  But then, (mini-spoiler) the tone dramatically changes and the second chapter is ANOTHER amazing piece of story telling. Then the third, then the fourth.  Those first four chapters, I'm not kidding, you, I was in AWE.

It sort of has a JD Salinger quality, in that the family in the story is similar to the Glasses - each person is so interesting and Patchett writes about them with so much love and affection.  Even the ones who are dicking around become beloved.  The excitement I felt when Franny was staying with her older, famous, author boyfriend in the Hamptons and their guests are being awful and she's just dumped the lobsters in the sea and boyfriend's horrible daughter is about to arrive - I was on pins and needles.

And Teresa! 
He is fifteen and ten and five. He is an instant. He is flying back to her. He is hers again. She feels the weight of him in her chest as he comes into her arms. He is her son, her beloved child, and she takes him back.  

And Holly!  And Jeannette's husband!  I loved those people deeply. Can't wait to read more by Patchett.

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

Less was such an enjoyable read - I really loved every page, and I loved the way the story was structured with (Arthur) Less trying to outrun the marriage of his former boyfriend by traveling to all these different countries.  My favorite happened to be Germany, because Less suffers from a similar delusion as me - that he's very good at speaking a foreign language, although everyone responds to him with some amount of alarm of not understanding him.  There's even a line that perfectly encapsulates my own philosophy on speaking a foreign language.  "The key to speaking a new language,"she told them, "is to be bold instead of perfect."  That led to another bit that just slayed me:
He kisses--how do I explain it? Like someone in love. Like he has nothing to lose. Like someone who has just learned a foreign language and can only use the present tense and only the second person. Only now, only you. There are some men who have never been kissed like that. There are some men who discover, after Arthur Less, that they never will be again.

Another part that I thought about for a long time was this:
... As an areligious WASP, he had no idea what to do about death. Two thousand years of flaming Viking boats and Celtic rites and Irish wakes and Puritan worship and Unitarian hymns, and still he was left with nothing.
It is such an interesting fact how difficult it is to process a death. You'd think it would be more of our muscle memory after our long histories. 

Much to my surprise, I found myself reading a love story - I haven't really read one in such a long time, and it was an absolute delight.  Mini Spoiler - I loved how the third person narrator slowly revealed his own personality and became a mystery and then suddenly it became very obvious who he was. 

Thursday, May 30, 2019

The New Me

I ordered Halle Butler's The New Me before I even finished Jia Tolento's excellent review (Halle Butler’s “The New Me” Is an Office Novel for a Precarious Age) in the New Yorker.  Having just left my own toxic work environment.  A " late-capitalist nightmare"?  Sign me up!  Although, actually, don't.  Butler's novel is so bitingly caustic I had to put it aside for a few days, still feeling raw from my own experience.  So, read this when you're in a reasonably sane place, emotionally, because Millie, a millennial working "temp-to-perm" is not-so-slowly loosing her mind while trying to find permanent work, a loving companion ("really I would take anyone" she says), and, most wily of all: Happiness.

With only one horrible friend, a woman with "easily interpretable facial spasms", who clearly keeps Millie around to feel better about herself and a boring, low-paying temp job working for a woman eager to be the most dominant person in the room, there are no female heroes in this story (no male ones either).  The creeping ills of capitalism infest Millie's world.  "In the copy room, she bends down and brings out a small document shredder and pushes it toward me with her foot. She looks at me like I know what this means, like she's shown me the lord's chamber pot and I'm supposed to understand."

Butler's book definitely skewers capitalism, but I was left wondering whether or not this book is a satire.  (My working theory is that Americans have a hard time recognizing satire or maybe just me and like literally everyone I know?)  Eager to find out, I read a couple of interviews with Butler - while insightful, they did not answer my question, although, I'm not sure it matters that much.  Millie's experience is occasionally dreamlike and she frequently veers toward the Untrustworthy Narrator but what she experiences as a character is what many American workers go through on a daily basis: the indignities of low paying jobs and the soul-crushing experience of trying to make a life when you're exhausted at the end of the working day.

The New Me is not only a great addition to the annals of literature about "work" but also really captures the experience of some/many women struggling to find their way in life.  

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Milkman by Anna Burns

We were lucky enough to go to London a couple of months ago and one of the top items on my shopping list, aside from some sweet Harry Potter swag was a paperback copy of Milkman by Anna Burns - winner of the Man Booker (2018) and shortlisted for the Orange Prize (aka Women's Prize for Fiction) and a whole bunch of other awards.

The first chapter is (sh)amazing.  Nay, the first sentence is amazing, and almost (spoiler alert) spoils the whole book. "The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died."  The main character, who is never named

goes on to explain that this guy called the milkman was trying to insinuate himself in her life. "I didn't know whose milkman he was. He wasn't our milkman. I don't think he was anybody's. He didn't take milk orders. There was no milk about him. He didn't ever deliver milk. Also, he didn't drive a milk lorry." (That's page two.)

I'm spelling this out because this is one of those new fangled, old-fashioned books that isn't very plot driven.  Basically, that's the plot: the milkman tries to ingratiate himself, he's eventually shot and Somebody McSomebody sticks a gun in her breast.  And yet, it is 350 pages of beautiful English language about life in Northern Ireland during "The Troubles".  Occasionally it veers into the territory of how when women band together, they can accomplish amazing things (like momentarily put an end to street violence that overtakes a town or help a girl out in the 'Ladies)

and occasionally how women do awful things to each other, by creating and prolonging misery just to have a moment of power in their otherwise powerless lives.  Or they're so beat down by a paternalistic, patronizing community that they themselves maintain the very power structures that are detrimental to their lives and happiness.

Milkman was difficult to read, I ain't gunna lie. The chapters are like 50 pages long, there's a new paragraph only about every three pages, it was about a time that I don't know that much about, and, did I mention no one in the book is called by their name?  There's Maybe-boyfriend, the Milkman, of course, then the actual Milkman (who delivers milk), first sister, second sister, First-Brother-in-Law through Third, and the Wee Sisters, who are actually three very charming younger sisters, and many, many others.  Actually, the names are not a problem, I loved that aspect, and Burns is brilliant about how she helps the reader maintain the thread with this large family.  Despite the challenges, it was a really rewarding book to read, and my copy is now full of underlined, insightful phrases, things to look up, definitions of words I didn't know.

There are a lot of themes that run through this book but one of the major ones is that people who live in war zones are traumatized.  It sounds simple, but, unfortunately, think of what a huge population of this earth lives in violent communities.  Not only is it hard/impossible to invest in society/arts/humanity as a whole, but the trauma to the individual is a heavy burden that's nearly impossible to overcome.  Maybe-boyfriend says, "It's that you don't seem alive anymore. I look at your face and it's as if your sense organs are disappearing or as if they've already disappeared so that no one gets to connect with you."  Or, as Jonathan Van Ness might say it:

SO!  Where does all this leave us?  A challenging book, not plot driven, let's face it: a very depressing look at a violent place in time that destroyed so many lives (did I mention parts are quite funny?)  I really think this book probably isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, but it was a journey I'm glad I took.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Eternal Life by Dara Horn

Dara Horn's latest is yet another amazing novel that once again has come out a bit under the radar, much to my surprise.  She's too good to be under the radar!  Eternal Life bears a significant comparison with Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, in which the main character comes to life again after every death she experiences.  Unlike the Atkinson character, however, Rachel was born 2000 years ago in Jerusalem.  Horn's descriptions of 1st century Jerusalem and the life of her young Jewish heroine are rich and exciting, combining what's got to be a ridiculous amount of research and a fertile imagination. 

In the present time, Rachel deals with contemporary issues like figuring out how to die and be reborn when a digital signature might follow her.  This becomes especially difficult after her granddaughter takes a sample of her DNA without permission.  But some patterns are all too familiar.  A group of ill-informed protestors gather outside her business in New Jersey, an innocuous event to most of her family but a frightful reminder for Rachel. "She could hardly think of a time when it hadn't started this way, with people yelling outside her store."  Rachel has seen it all - the only thing that really surprises her is when a male lover helps out with the housework. 

Like her previous novel, The Guide for the Perplexed, Horn impeccably mixes the seemingly incongruous worlds of slightly futuristic (though plausible) technology with ancient Judaism and makes it look easy. Of course, the hyper-computing of today, with its general goal of collecting data, is not too dissimilar to the goals of Rachel's scribe father, capturing the written word of religious figures of the day.

I love the intellectual challenge Horn's books offer - this book is funny, and sad, and smart.  It's a real treat for the imagination, and as I also do when I read her work, I learned a lot. 

The Optimist's Daughter

Faulkner House.  Image via
When I was in New Orleans last month, I took myself to a couple of bookstores in the French Quarter.  I love visiting bookstores on vacation, they really seem to stick in my mind.  One was Arcadian books, a frickin' tangle of books that felt like an avalanche was going to fall on me at any moment (which is not to say that I didn't love it) and the other was Faulkner House Books, in the same house where William Faulkner lived (both bookstores are near the cathedral). It is small and extremely civilized, it has the size of a fabulous private library, and for a few precious moments I had it to myself until a small crowd of maybe four people came in, making it almost unbearable.  However, I did overhear an amazing exchange between customer and proprietor that went something like this:

"I'm trying to remember the name of an author..."
"Hum me a few bars," she said. How charming is that?
"Well, he's a young man..."
"Black or white?"
and she gestured at a book on the shelf behind her...
"That's him!" 

I picked up a Eudora Welty, looking for something southern and New Orleans-related - The Optimist's Daughter, something I'd never heard of, but was pleasantly surprised to see had won the Pulitzer.  It's a quiet, short (180 pages) book about a woman, Lauren who has returned to her home just outside New Orleans while her dad has surgery. She's been living in Chicago after attending the Art Institute (hey, just like me!).  Her dad has married a young woman, maybe the same age or younger than Lauren, who's not as sophisticated or respected as Lauren's deceased mother. Her dad dies unexpectedly, and Lauren goes through the funeral and goes home, The End.  I could really relate to the hospital and funeral scenes, in which people say and do stupid things, but Lauren just suffers through.  Actually, Welty gives few details about Lauren's interiority and I was really struck by how little access I had to the main character's interior voice and thoughts. Lately I've mostly been reading contemporary literature and it was a real change to experience something written 40 years ago.  I've read most of the Pulitzer Prize winning fiction books since the 90s and I was really quite surprised that this ostensibly simple narrative tale won in 1973.  It's amazing how literature tastes have changed in the last half century.  But, actually, it wasn't a simple story, after some reflection. As Lauren floats through encounters with her hometown community, they prattle on around her and she says very little. What made it fun as a reader was to imagine how Lauren might have felt about the absurd things people were saying because she was too polite or tired to respond.  It's with a deft and delicate hand that Welty wrote this little novel, a real pleasure to read. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Dystopian Novels: Women's Edition

There have been some absolutely amazing novels published recently reflecting the fear of the current political and social climate continuing and the potential disastrous effect it could (continue to) have on the lives of women. Louise Erdrich's Future Home of the Living God (2018) is my favorite - it begins with a road trip by an adopted daughter to visit her birth mother, an Ojibwe woman who lives on a nearby reservation.  Cedar's adoptive mother and father are anxious as she leaves because there is a "a new kind of virus. Maybe bacteria. From the permafrost. Use hand sanitizer."  Cedar is pregnant, and ostensibly visits her birth mother to ask about inheritable diseases.  What Erdrich teases out in those first few pages about a possible virus eventually becomes an excuse to police women's bodies. Within the larger global drama she's created exists a beautiful story about the love this family has for each other.  And within that narrative is the protective instinct Cedar has for her developing child, with not-so-subtle allusions to a newborn Christ. Which had me thinking, isn't it a natural reaction to consider that the child you bear might be the savior of the world? Listen, I get very *eyeroll* over pregnancy stories, but Future Home of the Living God had me ALL IN.  I've only read two of Erdrich's books but she's quickly becoming My Favorite Author Of All Time.  

Last year I saw Margaret Atwood speak and she hyped The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh (and also, coincidentally, hinted at a big announcement to come which ended up being The Handmaid's Tale: Part Deux, which I now realize was painfully obvious). I wanted that book so bad I ordered a British copy.  Three girls live with their mother and father on an island and women visit to experience the water cure, administered by their parents.  The girls are under the impression that the outside world is a lawless, dangerous place for women and therefore they've created this extreme but safe oasis for them. The parent's solution, and how it further breeds mistrust between women, was a striking example of how isolation isn't the answer to the world's problems. (Hello, Mike Pence.) 

Christina Dalcher's Vox is perhaps the most infuriating (in a good way?) of the recent batch of dystopian novels.  In it, all women, even young girls, are required to wear a bracelet that provides an increasingly painful electric shock every time they speak over 100 words in 24 hours.  What really struck me was how the main character's daughter never came near her 100 words and easily adapted to this new paradigm, simply by the socialization of those around her.  It made me bristle to remember every time that I had been told that I talk too much, that I was better seen and not heard, that I was too loud, to forceful, and every argument I've ever heard that women aren't suited for certain positions and roles due to nature or religious conventions.  (Reminder:  It is commonly perceived that women speak much more than men - we don't.) . So, if you like being filled with RIGHTEOUS and FURIOUS ANGER, you should definitely read Vox (seriously, you really should.)

Cross Her Heart

Sarah Pinborough’s Cross Her Heart is so full of twists and turns it got me thinking about the modern novel, post-Gone Girl, and the role of the Unexpected Twist. First, it dawned on me that the “twist” actually existed BEFORE Gone Girl, it just wasn’t called a “twist.”  I mean, wouldn’t a nineteenth century reader be absolutely shocked to discover that, just as Jane was about to marry Mr. Rochester, she finds out his WIFE is living in the attic of the damn house she’s been living in.  THEN, when she hears his voice one night, goes back to Thornfield mansion to find the damn place burned down, Rochester’s wife lept off the fucking ROOF and he’s blind and only has one functional hand.  That’s ALMOST as nuts as Amy framing her boring husband for her own murder, then double-framing her ex-boyfriend instead, and then getting herself pregnant with some sperm she hid in the freezer JUST IN CASE this whole scheme went to shit.

Secondly, I am getting tired of books with crazy twists, although I almost always have to doff my hat to those that do it well, as Pinborough does.  I like reading mysteries, and it often it feels like mysteries are written in a formulaic way, with twists, with “girl” in the title, and ladies being raped and murdered on the page for reading pleasure (concerning all these conceits - see this whole crazy story re: AJ Finn and The Woman in the Window).

Anyway, to summarize Cross Her Heart would be too difficult without giving much away, aside from saying that it’s a captivating read, and I had a good time apprising M for a few days at the multiple twists and turns it made (namely re: some missing girls on vacation in Thailand and a concerned journalist.)