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.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes and The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Most days now his loss is a part of her, an awkward weight she carries around, invisible to everyone else, subtly altering the way she moves through the day.

Jojo Moyes is a total guilty pleasure (I devoured Me Before You and After You) and The Girl You Left Behind did not disappoint. It's the story of a painting that begins its life in the home of the subject, Sophie, a French woman whose husband (the artist) has gone off to fight in World War One and ends it on the walls of a widow, Liv, in modern day London--a wedding gift from a dead husband. The painting passes through many hands in between, most notably the Kommandant of the German unit stationed in Sophie's town, whom Sophie befriends in an attempt to reconnect with her husband.

The story weaves back and forth between France and London, and while Moyes is known for her steamy romances, it reads more like historical fiction than it does trashy romance novel. One of thing Moyes does well is building ethical dilemmas and guiding her reader through both sides. It's always a little bit more obvious than it needs to be (she doesn't seem to trust her readers to do much inferring on their own), but the issues are always engaging. This novel includes two: Sophie's decision to befriend the German Kommandant in an attempt to gather information on her husband who has disappeared and Liv's quest to keep the painting that was once Sophie's; a firm who specializes in returning art stolen by Nazis to their original families is working to take the painting, Liv's last connection to her dead husband, and return it to a French family who clearly intends to sell it. The debates are not particularly artfully written, but they're thought provoking, and Moyes does a nice job of pacing things out for you--even if she does do all the thinking for you along the way.

Liv's grief is painted well, as is Sophie's despair. The novel does include some romance, but both women have depth and purpose on their own (which I feel like is often missing in portraits of grieving or romancing women).

Overall, The Girl You Left Behind is everything I've come to expect from Jojo Moyes: thoughtful and easy to read, engaging, and a little less fluffy than the others.

How fragile life was, how fragile they were.
Love.It was the beginning and end of everything, the foundation and the ceiling and the air in between. It didn’t matter that she was broken and ugly and sick. He loved her and she loved him, All her life she had waited -longed for - people to love her, but now she saw what she really mattered. She had known love, been blessed by it.
Krsitin Hannah's The Nightingale is another story of love, loss, and war in France. It follows two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle as they take on the German invasion, each in their own way. Vianne is a mother and wife, and her war is a small, private one. She works to protect her daughter, even after her husband leaves for the front and a series of Nazis is billetted in her home. Isabelle, more hardheaded and rebellious is fighting her war on a broader scale. She joins the resistance and becomes "The Nightingale," escorting British and American pilots out of occupied France and to safety.

Hannah's imagining of two female perspectives of war is beautifully written and captures two sides of the feminine experience: one active, one passive. It's not sugar coated; the violence, sacrifice, and fear of both sides are palpable, and the value and challenge of both becomes clear. The historical conflict and the tension between characters (especially between the two sisters) keeps the story from being too saccharine. The relations hips feel real and broken and fraught in ways that make the characters that much more believable (if not more likeable). The only disappointment on that front is Vianne and Isabelle's father, an angry drunk who has a not particularly believable 180 late in the book. I was enjoying his irascible dislikeableness and annoyed that Hannah chose to redeem him.

I loved this book, partly because I'm a sucker for WWII fiction, but partly because it's a beautifully written piece of historical fiction. Also (a small spoiler alert), my cousin was a member of the Resistance in France and died in Ravensbruck, the camp where Vianne ends up, so I especially enjoyed Hannah's recreation of the Resistance structure: their meetings, networks, and systems.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

'I know where you got all these disgusting ideas from.  You got them from Dougal Douglas.  Well, I'm glad he's gone and there won't be him at the wedding to worry about in case he starts showing off the lumps on his head or something.'

'I liked Dougal,' Humphrey said.

Here they were, kneeling at the altar.  The vicar was reading from the prayer book.  Dixie took a lacy handkerchief from her sleeve and gently patted her nose.  Humphrey noticed the whiff of scent which came from the handkerchief.

The vicar said to Humphrey, 'Wilt thou have this woman to be thy wedded wife?'

'No,' Humphrey said, 'to be quite frank I won't.'

They say there's only two stories: a fish out of water and a stranger comes to town.  Muriel Spark's The Ballad of Peckham Rye is a quintessential example of the second type.  It's all about what happens when the hermetic nature of a community is interrupted by an outsider, who, in this case is not only destabilizing, but outright destructive.

The stranger in this case is a Scotsman named Dougal Douglas, who is hired as an "Arts man" (whatever that means) at a textile manufacturer in the working-class London neighborhood of Peckham.  Dougal's task seems to be to improve the lives of the menial laborers at Meadows, Meade & Grimley, a job which he insists will require extensive research into the town, the factory, and its workers, but which consists mostly of not working.  When he does talk to his co-workers about work, it's usually to encourage them to take unasked-for days off.  Otherwise, he spends his time not showing up, befriending the locals, and working a subtle wedge into the many relationships which precede him in Peckham.  He gets a job at a rival company, and doesn't show up to that one, either.  Sometimes, he asks people to feel the lumps on his head, which he insists are the vestiges of two horns, sawed off his head at birth.

It's strange to think of Spark as subtle, but she's remarkably reticent when it comes to the deeper themes of her works.  Like Nabokov, half the time she seems to be playing games with the reader, baiting them into looking for deeper meanings that may not be there at all.  Unlike Nabokov, it's the sparseness of the novels and their bare-bones plots which can make such investigations futile; like looking for messages in spiderwebs.

But if there's something more profound going on in The Ballad of Peckham Rye than the mere joy of destruction, I think it's this: Dougal presents himself as a kind of Satan-figure, and his arrival in town really does end in disaster.  His friend Humphrey, who likes Dougal, answers "no" at the altar when he's about to marry Dixie, who doesn't.  His boss, Mr. Druce, commits a brutal murder out of jealousy toward Dougal.  But Dougal doesn't kill anyone; his worst sins, really, are skipping out on work, encouraging absenteeism, and ardent flirting.  In Dougal, Spark blurs the line between social and moral transgressions.  We laugh at the kind of banal corporate moralizing that we see in modern society all the time--I'm thinking of the boss in Office Space, droning on about cover sheets--but what if professionalism really were a bulwark between good and evil?  Or politeness?

The frightening thing about Dougal is that he seems to revel in the destruction he causes, then skips town.  He's not so different from Spark in that way, who clearly loves to be gruesome and doesn't care to linger on the repercussions.  I'd like to think that Spark, herself a Scottish transplant in London (and who, according to her biography, rather enjoyed stirring up trouble), saw the devilish Dougal as a representation of herself.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

I felt this: but felt it in the midst of a considerable and more immediate pain at seeing, in the circumstances of a sort of treachery, the well-loved room again.  To lose somebody is to lose not only their person but all those modes and manifestations into which their person has flowed outwards; so that in losing a beloved one may find so many things, pictures, poems, melodies, places lost too: Dante, Avignon, a song of Shakespeare's, the Cornish sea.  The room was Antonia.  It breathed the rich emphasis of her personality... It was a new and fierce pain to look on all this and see it as something mortal, indeed as something already perished, disintegrated, meaningless, and waiting to be taken away.

Martin Lynch-Gibbon has a good life: a wife, Antonia, he adores, and a mistress, Georgie... whom he also adores.  That is, until the day that his wife confesses that she is leaving him for her therapist, a mutual friend named Palmer Anderson.  She encourages Martin to be supportive: after all, they are all three of them friends, and they feel a duty to "look after" him and make sure that he is taken care of.  This development sends Martin into a psychological tailspin; not only robbed of his wife, but unable even to enjoy the cathartic release of anger or resentment.  At the margins of this story are Martin's aloof brother, Alexander, and Palmer's sister, a severe Jewish woman named Honor who encourages Martin to man up and demand that his wife return to him.

A Severed Head is a strange book.  Little happens beside conversation; it's very much in the mode of Edith Wharton or Henry James.  I'm beginning to think that some of the charm of Under the Net was that its protagonist was a middle-class writer, living not in an isolated manor house but a bustling, urban London; the well-to-do characters of this book and The Unicorn have less appeal. 

But it does, in a sense, have some of the wild energy that made Under the Net so good.  The plot really centers on a confusing domino-collapse of shifting allegiances: First, Martin falls in love with Honor, then walks in on Honor and Palmer (brother and sister!) in flagrante delicto.  Georgie accepts Alexander's proposal; Antonia leaves Palmer; Alexander dumps Georgia; Antonia declares that she's in love with Alexander--it's like a strange reality show, but with incest.  Presumably all this adds up to some interesting statement on the psyche, or on psychotherapy, or on human sexuality.  I'm not quite sure.  At the end, it seemed more silly to me than anything.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers

But then again, this home, this property, was evidence of the glory of the land, this country.  There was so much.  There was so much space, so much land, so much to spare.  It invited the weary and the homeless like herself, her worthy children.  She had the blurry thought that all the world's searching and persecuted could find a home up here.  Alaska's climate was warming, was it not?  It would soon be a forgiving place, with milder winters and uncountable millions of unpopulated acres, and so many empty homes like this, waiting to take in the desperate travelers of the world.  It was a wonderful thought, a numbing notion.

Alaska likes to call itself The Last Frontier.  The idea is that, while every inch of the mainland United States has been domesticated, Alaska remains wild, mostly unpeopled, unseen by human eyes.  That's reflected in the lack of literature about Alaska--its more likely to attract someone like Christopher McCandless, the subject of Into the Wild, than a novelist like Dave Eggers.  It's a place for applied philosophy, not navel-gazing.

Which made it hard to find a book to bring with me on my trip to Alaska two weeks ago.  As I've said on this blog many times, I love reading books that are set in the places where I'm traveling.  But Alaska, though you might expect its distance and its mystery to be inviting subjects, has very few novels.  So when Dave Eggers released his newest novel, Heroes of the Frontier, about a woman from suburban Ohio who escapes to Alaska in an RV with her two children, I did something I never do.  I bought a hardcover book at full price.

The protagonist of Heroes of the Frontier is Josie, a dentist escaping personal and professional tragedy in Ohio.  Her practice has been sued to oblivion by a woman who developed oral cancer, and she has grown to hate the father of her children, an "invertebrate" named Carl.  And--making her decision to run unnecessarily overdetermined--she feels intense guilt over encouraging a young patient to join the military, where he died.

In response, she sets out with her young children, Paul and Ana, to Alaska, where they rent an RV.  They follow, strangely enough, the basic route that my friends and I did: beginning in Anchorage, down the Kenai Peninsula to Seward, then the town of Homer, and finally up, up through the interior toward parts unknown.  And yet I found these places, at least according to my own experience, difficult to recognize in Eggers' novel.  Eggers wants to sell us on the cleansing possibilities of the wilderness, and the idea of frontier, but he has no real feeling for the physical beauty of the Kenai Peninsula, or the staggering visual difference between the mountainous peninsula and the flat, plain-like interior.  Eggers' prose is too domestic, more Ohio than Alaska, too prosaic to match the environment.  Furthermore, he's infinitely more interested in the people Josie and her children come across, even as he claims that the emptiness of the landscape is somehow transformative.

Heroes of the Frontier is in many ways an antiquated kind of book.  It believes uncynically in the possibility of a frontier, and in the Thoreau-like ability of nature to improve us as people.  At the novel's climax, Josie and her children become stranded in a lightning storm on top of a mountain, and find their mettle to survive challenged.  She has an epiphany: instead of escaping to Alaska to find noble, courageous people, she must try to create them in her children.  And despite his attempts to equivocate--the last chapter reads simply, "But then there is tomorrow"--there's no doubt in the sincerity of the faith that Eggers places in the frontier as a place untroubled by commercialism, domestication, and modernity.  It's The Call of the Wild, but for people.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

They were sitting down to breakfast when they saw Santiago Nasar enter, soaked in blood and carrying the roots of his entrails in his hands.  Poncho Lanao told me: "What I'll never forget was the terrible smell of shit."  But Argenida Lanao, the oldest daughter, said that Santiago Nasar walked with his usual good bearing, measuring his steps well, and that his Saracen face with its dashing ringlets was handsomer than ever.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Chronicle of a Death Foretold is sort of like the antithesis of a murder mystery.  When the book opens, the murder hasn't yet happened, but it will, and the perpetrators are already known: Pablo and Pedro Vicario are going to murder Santiago Nasar because of his dalliance with their sister, whose lack of virginity has ruined her wedding night.  It moves forward, not backward, like a mystery, and yet the outcome is never in doubt.

Pablo and Pedro don't want to murder Santiago, in fact, they go about town the morning after the wedding announcing their attentions to anyone who will listen in hopes that someone will stop them.  But a funny thing happens: they say they are going to kill Santiago so much and so often that their insistence takes on the character of fate, and instead of moving to stop the twins, the people of the small Colombian town where they live begin to think of Santiago as already dead.  There's not much magical realism in Chronicle of a Death Foretold--we find out that the knife goes into Santiago several times, coming out clean--but the mechanics of fate here become a kind of magic, cobbled out of the common interactions of human beings.

Are the twins really fated to kill Santiago?  Where does their volition end and destiny take over?  How does the memory of the narrator, trying to piece together the story of Santiago's death many years in the future, act as a kind of fate imposed upon the narrative of history?  Is, perhaps, memory a kind of fate?  These are the questions that make Chronicle, though short, a rich novel.

This is my first Marquez novel.  I never really have felt interested in One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera.  I think magical realism isn't really my thing.  But I did enjoy Chronicle, perhaps because the magical elements are muted, or perhaps because it is difficult to tell, in the brokenness of memory, what is magic and what is not.