Sunday, September 11, 2016

Tracks, by Louise Erdrich

First things first: this review isn't meant to stand alone. For a summary of the book and Chris's thoughts, please check out his fantastic review. It's been too long since I read Tracks for me to write anything really in-depth about it, but I wanted to mention a few thoughts here since I recommended it to Chris and it's a great book.

As Chris mentions, Native American authors just aren't a well-known segment, so reading Tracks, and Erdrich's other work, can be a bracing experience. It's one thing to hear about something like the Trail of Tears or the various ways the American government has gone about stealing native land; it's another entirely to read a cycle of novels that looks at the U.S. as entirely unsympathetic, and sees not just the commercial aspect, but also the religious aspect, of what happened to the Native Americans as tragic.

I'll get to the point: I've never read a book that wasn't flat out hostile to all religion that is as hostile toward Christianity, and especially Catholicism, as Tracks is. Or actually, I take that back--the closest analogue for me is Things Fall Apart, which was similarly bracing and hostile toward Christianity destroying an indigenous culture. However, Things Fall Apart is a little different in that the Christians that ultimately destroy the village are villainous. In Tracks, there's no such buffer--the nuns that appear in the story aren't evil. They even try to help. But their religion can really be nothing but hostile or impotent to the natives who've watched as Christians overrun everything they've ever known.

There's also just the general humanization of the various Native American characters that occurs as the story progresses. Nanapush initially reads as a cipher, maybe even a caricature; Fleur seems like The (Wo)man with No Name; Pauline, like your standard sheltered teenager. But as the story progresses, they all reveal vulnerabilities as they are acted on by forces outside their control, and are gradually revealed to be as human and fallible as anyone else.

I'm looking forward to reading The Bingo Palace, which is the next book in the cycle, and continues the story of Pauline and the various families introduced in Tracks. Hopefully that review will be a little better.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Tracks by Louise Erdrich

The Captain and then the lumber president, the Agent and at last many of our own, spoke long and hard about a cash agreement.  But nothing changed my mind.  I've seen too much go by--unturned grass below my feet, and overhead, the great white cranes flung south forever.  I know this.  Land is the only thing that lasts life to life.  Money burns like tinder, flows off like water.  And as for government promises, the wind is steadier.

The people of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in Dakota have been in the news lately for protesting the construction of a pipeline which they say endangers the source of their water in the Missouri River, as well as sacred burial grounds.  They have been attacked by private security workers, and set on by dogs.

Reading these stories made me think of Louise Erdrich's terrific novel Tracks, which is about the ways in which, in the early twentieth  century, white business and government interests managed to consolidate their hold on already-scarce Native lands.  The Ojibwe characters of the novel are constantly threatened with the loss of their homes, pressured in lean times to sell to government agents forever.  Old, protective spirits seem to have become powerless:

It was clear that Indians were not protected by the thing in the lake or by the other Manitous who lived in trees, the bush, or spirits of animals that were hunted so scarce they became discouraged and did not mate.  There would have to come a turning, a gathering, another door.

But these problems lurk mostly in the background, as a kind of constant threatening hum.  The main story centers around Fleur Pillager, a headstrong Ojibwe girl in the town of Argus, North Dakota.  Fleur is beautiful and mysterious, and menacingly independent.  She lives way out in the woods, and people speculate about her close relationship with the monster-spirit living at the bottom of the lake.

The novel has two narrators: Nanapush, an old and sly man who rescued Fleur from dying in the snow as a child, and Pauline, an outcast Ojibwe woman who gravitates toward blood-and-doom Catholicism.  Nanapush is witty, crass, and full of practical jokes; Pauline is joyless and too severe in her faith, even for the mother of her convent.  In them, Erdrich contrasts two ways of responding to the weakening of Native communities: Nanapush refuses to deal with the Agents, consoling himself with black humor; Pauline embraces the grim mythos of the white man's religion.

How can a people respond in the face of near-extinction?  I thought Nanapush's response to powerlessness was very profound:

Power dies, power goes under and gutters out, ungraspable. It is momentary, quick of flight and liable to deceive. As soon as you rely on the possession it is gone. Forget that it ever existed, and it returns. I never made the mistake of thinking that I owned my own strength, that was my secret. And so I never was alone in my failures. I was never to blame entirely when all was lost, when my desperate cures had no effect on the suffering of those I loved. For who can blame a man waiting, the doors open, the windows open, food offered, arms stretched wide? Who can blame him if the visitor does not arrive?

What would the Standing Rock Sioux say about that, I wonder?  Perhaps they have more power than the Native Americans of the early 20th century did: the federal government just recently declared that they would halt production on the pipeline, at least temporarily.  But in many ways Native Americans remain impoverished and marginalized, and will probably remain so for a very long time.  That's true in literature, too: how many Native American authors can you name?  (Along with Erdrich, I can only think of one: Sherman Alexie.)  It's not quite fair to ask Erdrich to shoulder the burden of being the literary representation of Native American life in the United States, but you could do far worse than Tracks, which is funny, accomplished, and frequently beautiful.

Brent read this, too.  Maybe he'll write a review about it?

A Kiss Before Dying, by Ira Levin

I was looking for something fast and fun to read when I stumbled across Ira Levin's A Kiss Before Dying. I knew him primarily from Rosemary's Baby (which, full disclosure I've never seen or read, but c'mon--Rosemary's Baby) and Stepford Wives, and was somehow unaware he'd done any crime writing.

A Kiss Before Dying has a really interesting structure that makes it work. There are several viewpoint characters, and a sequence of deaths that are about as unexpected as anything I've read. There's a lot of fun 70s atmosphere and some nice hard-boiled dialog, and the writing is very clean--it doesn't knock you out of your seat, but read some bad crime fiction and you see what a neat trick it is.

The plot, well, I don't really want to talk about it much, because even naming all the characters is probably a spoiler of sorts. It's murder mystery that takes place on a college campus, and involves three sisters and their rich dad, and a murderous schemer who wants to get his hands on the money. There's a mid-book twist that brings to mind Psycho, in a positive way, and the killer, whose identity isn't revealed until near the end of the book--a neat trick, since he pops up throughout--isn't exactly charming, but he's so pragmatic that it's hard to really hate him.

It also has a rather nasty little ending, and keeps moving clear through. So if this super-vague review makes it sound interesting, check it out. It's a quick read and a lot of fun, even if it does have a lot less Satan than his best known work.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Headmaster's Wife, by Thomas Christopher Greene

Here we are again. I haven't written a review since sometime in 2015. I didn't even make a top 10 list last year, although I did read 50 books, and now I'm writing about a book I didn't even like that much--but it's good to be writing something.

So, this book, The Headmaster's Wife. I'd never heard of it, and I bought it for my Kindle based on a jacket blurb that compared it to Lolita, but with some sort of twist. Now, you might say that buying a book you've never heard of because it's compared to one of the greatest works of literature of the 20th century is some pretty hopeful thinking. You'd be right. But I can't say that it wasn't accurate to some extent.

The book opens with the protagonist, Arthur Winthrop, disrobing in the park, and the book is framed by his interrogation by the police. No time is wasted getting to the meat of the story though--Arthur flashes back to his time as headmaster of a prestigious school and his torrid affair with his student, Betsy.

The first part of the novel really does feel like an extended riff on Lolita, as Arthur moves from distant longing, to bribery, to eventual blackmail and sexual extortion. Arthur narrates this section, and it's genuinely uncomfortable to see his manipulation and naked need for this seventeen year old girl, and the way he goes about getting what he wants. His pursuit culminates in blackmailing Betsy to go with him for a weekend in Chicago, telling her that he'll stop her boyfriend's explusion--one caused by liquor Arthur himself planted--and then, after their torrid getaway, reneging and expelling Arthur anyway. In the background of all this skullduggary is Arthur's wife, Elizabeth, who puts the pieces together as their marriage dissolves.

I can't really discuss the second half of the book without substantial spoilers, so be warned: MAJOR SPOILERS.

The first half ends with Arthur confronting Betsy, suffocating her to death, and throwing her body in the river. So it would seem there's nowhere else for the story to go--but clever readers might have noticed the linguistic connection between the names Betsy and Elizabeth, and the fact that the titular wife has hardly appeared, and so we start the second half with a major, potentially novel-ruining twist: that the entire first half of the novel has been Arthur's way of dealing with his wife leaving him. Betsy is Elizabeth is Betsy.

The second half of the novel follows Elizabeth from the time she meets Arthur until she finally decides to end their slowly rotting relationship. The parallels in the second half are interestingly ambiguous and it's not entirely clear why Arthur cast his wife as a seducer-cum-victim. Characters recur in different roles and contexts, and there's a somewhat interesting story to be put together, dealing with themes of love and, especially, loss.

Unfortunately, the second half has to deal with two significant issues, which it navigates with mixed success. The first is that I couldn't help but feel a little cheated after the effectively disturbing first half of the book. Finding out it was all, basically, a dream, was disappointing and started the second half out on a bad foot. But more importantly, Elizabeth is never as compelling a character as Arthur or even the enigmatic Betsy. Her story is naturally less propulsive, since wer can be fairly certain we know how it ends--most men don't cope with a marriage that's getting better by fantasizing about killing their wife.

Still, I'm hesitant to ding The Headmaster's Wife too badly. The writing is often very beautiful and the first half of the book flies by. It reads like an airport novel in the best way, and Thomas' unique methods of writing about such well-trodden themes is admirable. It never quite comes together, but I think I could still recommend it with those caveats.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions. Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions, sometimes over weeks, sometimes over decades. 
I had to read Swtich over the summer for grad school and was not inclined to enjoy myself. Books written by business school professors about how to Business School your way through life are not my favorite genre, and this one wasn't really an exception to that rule.

The Heath brothers have come up with a metaphor which they stretch so that it applies to basically every change related success story ever. The basic gist is that every person has an Elephant, a Rider, and a Path. The Elephant is your emotional, gut reaction, deeply held beliefs side, the Rider your intellectual, analytical side, and the Path is the change you want to make (or that your supervisor wants you to make). In order to make any kind of significant change, you must motivate the Elephant (appeal to emotion), appeal to the Rider (convince using facts and data), and shape the Path (make the change process as seamless and uncomplicated as possible). Since that is basically all the aspects of how to convince people to do things, the book is fairly convincing, but I found it frustratingly simplistic.

One thing the Heath brothers do well is give examples. They tell lots and lots of one off anecdotes (some incredibly impressive, others fairly shrug worthy) about people making big changes in their businesses, communities, and personal lives, using some aspect of their Elephant/Rider/Path metaphor. None of these people were aware they were using the Switch ideology; most of them were just good leaders who understood how people work, but they did illustrate each aspect of the metaphor nicely.

My primary frustration with the book came when it touched on educational examples. I'm in grad school for educational leadership, so those examples were the only ones directly related to my field, and also the only ones I knew enough about to raise an eyebrow. In one, a struggling student is constantly getting suspended and kicked out of class until a kindly guidance counselor is able to figure out what it is he likes about the only class he's doing well in and gets all his teachers on board and the kid's life and behavior are changed forever. This was an illustration of the "bright spot" strategy which the book describes as tackling problems by looking at where things are working instead of where they aren't. A good idea in theory, but the example was so overly simplified (and such a stereotype of the guidance counselor/teacher dynamic) that it put my teeth on edge.

Overall, Switch articulates some interesting truths about human behavior and offers a few helpful, concrete strategies. That being said, the basis for the whole book is something that I would hope most basically competent people have figured out about humanity by their late 20's, and it didn't seem to make any groundbreaking claims that haven't been articulated before.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

But these were days of self-fulfillment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble. Somewhere, surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that an sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.

This. Book. I just loved this book. Hanya Yanagihara, who wrote The People in the Trees (which was very different, and almost as hauntingly excellent), chronicles the lives of four college friends as they move through college and adulthood. We follow them through the ups and downs of their (improbably successful) careers and (improbably unsuccessful) relationships and watch as they move in and out of each other's lives.

Yanagihara expertly lends depth and nuance to each of the four men, but her focus is on Jude, the most broken of the group. Just as each of the character's professional lives seems unbelievably impressive, Jude's life before he came to college is shockingly grim. The violence and abuse unleashed upon him is so brutal that was sometimes impossible for me to read. Yanagihara spreads the story out across the entire novel; you know his past is dark, but she unspools the saga over the entire span, so you don't have to wade through the despair all at once. That being said, the descriptions of Jude's past (and even some of the descriptions of the troubled parts of his adult life) are some of the more graphic and gruesome I have ever read. I'm not sure that these moments of extreme violence added much to the novel; they certainly were shocking--to the point of being physically affecting--but Yanagihara could have built a similarly fraught character with a few fewer unfathomable acts of cruelty.

That being said, one of the more beautiful parts of the book is the support system that Jude slowly and unwittingly builds up around himself as an adult. His friends, teachers and mentors form a foundation that Jude never wants to rely on, but slowly comes to realizes he has. He is not particularly good at using it, but it's existence--the pure and transparent love that all of these people feel for him--is enough to counter some of the gut wrenching aspects of his past (for the reader if not for Jude).

Yanagihara writes beautifully about adult friendship, especially abiding, lifelong relationships. I was struck by how accurately she hit on the things that I appreciate most about my longtime friendships with the people who have known me since long before I became the person I am now. In one passage, told from the point of view of Willem, now a famous actor, she writes:
"But to Jude, he wasn't an actor; he was his friend, and that identify supplanted everything else. It was a role he had inhabited for so long that it had become, indelibly, who he was. To Jude, he was no more primarily an actor than Jude was primarily a lawyer--it was never the first or second or third way that either of them would describe the other. It was Jude who remembered who he had been before he had made a life pretending to be other people: someone with a brother, someone with parents, someone to whom everyone seemed so impressive and beguiling [...] He wanted to be reminded of who he was; he wanted to be around someone for whom his career would never be the most interesting thing about him." 
There are many sweeping descriptions like this one, many of which burrowed its way into my consciousness to the point where I found myself rolling them over in the back of mind as I've spent time with friends in the last few weeks. One of my other favorites came from a scene where she describes a long, mundane phone conversation about small, day to day nuances: "It had seemed to him the ideal expression of an adult relationship, to have someone with whom you could discuss the mechanics of a shared existence."

This book is hard to read. It's long and gruesome and there aren't as many moments of redemption as I've gotten used to in my summer of reading fluff, but it's totally worth the effort. It's beautifully written (even in its more violent moments), and taught me more about my own relationships than a book has in a long time.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Book of Salt by Monique Truong

Time for me had always been measured in terms of the rising sun, its setting sister, and the dependable cycle of the moon. But at sea, I learned that time can also be measured in terms of water, in terms of the distance traveled while drifting on it. When measured in this way, nearer and farther are the path of time's movement, not continuously forward along a fast straight line. When measured in this way, time loops and curlicues, and at any given moment it can spiral me away and then bring me rushing home again.
Monique Truong's The Book of Salt is the story of Binh, a chef who travels from Vietnam to Paris where he becomes Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas' cook. It's told from Binh's perspective and weaves between his life in Vietnam, his time at sea, and his new life in France. The writing vacillates between gorgeous and overwrought; some sentences are perfect, but others are so packed with adjectives and adverbs that they trigger some serious eye rolls.

One of the central sadnesses of the books is Binh's intense loneliness. He is a servant in a home where he barely speaks the language, alone in a city that rushes around him in yet another language, and he's gay at a time where there don't even seem to be words to describe such a thing. Several passages in the book are directed at other people-- his mother (who has died), his lover (who has left)--and they make his isolation that much more palpable.

I was a little disappointed that Stein didn't feature more prominently. I'm fascinated with her, and every time she appears in a novel, it's always as a secondary caricature of herself. This book was no exception; Stein is dictatorial, aloof, and uninterested in the goings on in the kitchen. There are little windows into her life: She writes in illegible longhand and Toklas spends hours typing up her work; before a return to the States Stein agonizes over whether honeydew and oysters will be available before her speaking engagements, and Toklas writes to each hotel in turn to reassure her that they will. Their relationship, even though it appears only in small vignettes is touching and left me wanting more.

I enjoyed this one less than I thought I would. It had many of the pieces I usually love: Paris, food, lilting prose, but they didn't quite fit together for me. Maybe with some editing from Stein it would have held up a little better.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Our windows were open, and the radio had been playing continuously--not one but two Billy Joel songs had come on during our drive--and the air was dense with the humidity of a midwestern summer, weather that even then made me homesick, though it was hard to say for what. Maybe my homesickness was a form of prescience because when I look back, it's the circumstances of this very car ride that I recognize as irretrievable: the experience of driving nowhere in particular with my sister, both of seventeen years old, the open windows causing our hair to blow wildly; that feeling of being unencumbered; that confidence that our futures would unfold the way we wanted them to and our real lives were just beginning.

Sisterhood is hard to write about in a way that doesn't seem trite, and while Sittenfeld's Sisterhood isn't trite, it doesn't quite work. Vi and Kate are identical twins who grow up with a depressed, reclusive mother (whose fibromyalgia is probably the most convincingly described aspect of the book), and a somewhat oblivious father. The scenes from their childhood are touching and sad; my favorite/least favorite vignette is when they take on cooking dinner for the family as elementary schoolers. Their mother doesn't emerge from her room in time to start dinner, so they do it for her, and when the family sits down to eat, they all act as though their mother has prepared the meal. Somehow this becomes the norm and continues until they leave for college. There are a lot of these quietly isolating moments which initially bring the twins closer together, but eventually cause them to drift apart.

The central tension of the book, however, is that the twins have what they call "senses"--visions of the future. Kate actively rejects her powers in college after they mark her as too different to be cool in high school, and Vi embraces hers, becoming a psychic. At the start of the book, after an unusual earthquake strikes the St Louis area, Vi becomes famous when she claims on television that another earthquake--a big one--is coming. The description of their adult lives and their adult relationship with each other unfolds from this revelation; Kate struggles to decide how much faith to have in her sister's prediction while navigating her life as a suburban housewife (an identity she seems to have taken on because it is as "normal" as possible and as different from her sister as imaginable).

The book switches between the twins in high school and college and the twins today, focusing mostly on Kate. The descriptions of them as teenagers and young adults were much more compelling than the ones that follow them into adulthood. The characteristics that made them interesting high schoolers make them pretty boring adults, and Kate, who is supposed to be sympathetic, comes off as even more self involved and self absorbed than her sister (who comes off as very self involved). Beyond the issues of their "senses" (which I found annoying at best), their relationship was one dimensional and not nearly as interesting as it could be. Some of the other relationships in the book are a little bit more interesting, but I vaguely disliked almost all the characters which made it hard to care.

Overall, I was unimpressed by this one. There is some drama towards the end that kept me reading, but overall the story wasn't great and the characters were unimpressive.



Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

After that, the book will fade, the way all books fade in your mind. But I hope you will remember this:A man walking fast down a dark lonely street. Quick steps and hard breathing, all wonder and need. A bell above a door and the tinkle it makes. A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.
Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore was the perfect summer puzzler. It's part mystery (Da Vinci Code style except actually readable), part love letter to books, part critique of Silicon Valley.

Clay Jannon, our protagonist, has just lost his programming job and is adrift on the San Francisco job searching seas when he stumbles upon Mr. Penumbra's bookstore. He is hired to cover the night shift, and the more he learns about his employer and the store, the deeper he goes down the rabbit hole. Mr. Penumbra's regular clients never purchase books (they borrow and return large, cryptic volumes from the back of the store instead), and rather than making sales, Clay's job is to meticulously track the comings and goings of the clientele. Eventually, it becomes clear that the regulars are part of a secret society of sorts, working to solve an encoded puzzle, and Clay gets in on the action. He recruits his Silicon Valley cohort (programmers, billionaires, the usual...) to help, and antics ensue.

Neither Clay nor any of the other characters is particularly nuanced or interesting, but the puzzle is fun, and the members of Penumbra's entourage are endearingly odd. I was a little annoyed by the pervasiveness of start up culture and the looming spectre of Google; I have enough of both in real life and don't want them in my novels, but Sloan puts them down effectively enough to make it manageable. Also, as a result of their presence, there are a few descriptions of coding and programming that were enjoyable to read and vaguely (very vaguely) improved my knowledge of what coding actually is. Expanding horizons!

Overall, a quick, fun read with a twist of an ending.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

She had watched life, since she came to London, with a sort of despair--motivated and busy always, always progressing: even people pausing on bridges seem to pause with a purpose; no bird seemed to pursue a quite aimless flight.  The spring of the works seemed unfound only by her: she could not doubt people knew what they were doing--everywhere she met alert cognisant eyes.  She could not believe there was not a plan of the whole set-up in every head but her own.  Accordingly, so anxious was her research that every look, every movement, every object had a quite political seriousness for her: nothing was not weighed down by significance.

Portia, sixteen, comes from quite a checkered history: Her father impregnated her mother, with whom he was having an affair, and was summarily exiled from what he had considered a happy marriage.  In fact, he always taught Portia that the home which he had to leave was a kind of cozy family paradise.  After her father's death, Portia and her mother live in a series of French hotels for years, until her mother dies, and Portia finds herself returned to that mythic, paradisaical home, to live with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna.

This situation, of course, is a recipe for disappointment.  The title says as much: The Death of the Heart is a novel about the disillusionment of young idealism.  Portia takes up with Eddie, a young "bounder" (as the kids say, in 1938) who is tempestuous, selfish, and unreliable.  The adults in Portia's life know that Eddie is no good, but Bowen asks us to find something valuable in Portia's unwavering love for Eddie, which is strong and noble compared to the dissipated, conflicted love that Thomas and Anna have for each other, or their parents did.  The Death of the Heart is a novel about what the reality of the world does to young people; it starts, like an episode of Gossip Girl, when Anna illicitly reads Portia's diary.

A scrap of praise on the back of my copy insists that Bowen is "the link that connects Virginia Woolf with Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark."  To my disappointment, there's very little of any of those three authors in The Death of the Heart.  It's much closer to those writers who came before Woolf and Modernism, like Henry James and Edith Wharton, whose subject was the human psyche as it appears when filtered through the strictures of social mores.  When Bowen has something profound or incisive to say, she launches into a kind of authorial lecturing:  "We really have no absent friends," she says.  "The friend becomes a traitor by breaking, however unwillingly or sadly, out of our own zone: a hard judgement is passed on him, for all the pleas of the heart."  An insightful thought, but sort of Victorian in its style and certitude.

The Death of the Heart appears on Time's 100 Books of the 20th Century List, which has been a great source of discoveries for me in the past.  Though I enjoyed it, I'm not sure this one quite deserved the honor.