Monday, March 31, 2014

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin

Is this genre-bending book a ghost story? (There are lots of ghosts.) Is it an investigation of a real historical mystery? (What happened aboard the brigantine Mary Celeste in 1872, and why was it found floating derelict near Gibraltar, its crew and captain missing, but with no signs of a struggle and all the cargo intact?) Further mixing fact with fiction, it’s also the story of Arthur Conan Doyle’s sensational account of the Mary Celeste that he wrote anonymously for a British literary journal, and a straight historical novel about a female journalist who investigates the Spiritualist movement in upstate New York (hence the ghosts). And I’m omitting a few other threads that wind their way through this intricately plotted, beautifully written novel.

Sometimes books like this, that lack a defined main character, can be difficult to connect with, and a reader can find herself trying to pin that role on someone specific. John Vernon, writing about this book in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, assigns that role to Phoebe Grant, the journalist, whom he says is “at the novel’s heart.” I disagree. Grant may be the intellectual center, but the woman at the heart of the book is Sarah Briggs, the wife of the Mary Celeste’s captain, whose story opens and closes the book. She may get less ink than Phoebe Grant but her bittersweet tale (and her links to many of the other characters) help bind everything together into a coherent whole. For Sarah Briggs is the sister of the Spiritualist medium (Violet Petra) that Phoebe Grant is investigating. Are the ghosts that Violet sees and talks with real? Phoebe thinks not. But maybe we disagree.

Confused yet? Don’t be. Martin is in complete control of all this material. She never loses her forward momentum, and never derails us with too much emphasis on one thing or another. It’s really brilliant and we all know how geekishly enthusiastic I get over complicated books that don’t disintegrate under their own weight. I don’t really understand why Valerie Martin isn’t more famous. Her book Property won the 2003 Orange Prize and her subsequent books have been positively reviewed, but I don’t see her name come up in the discussions where I’d expect to see it. Perhaps it’s because Martin never writes the same book twice--maybe it’s her versatility that makes her difficult to track.

(Book 5, 2013)

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Who can keep up with Neil Gaiman? He writes fiction (for adults and children), screenplays (for film and television), comics, and graphic novels. He seems to always be popping up here and there, speaking, teaching, blogging…the man is busy. I am not into everything he does, but I like some of what he does very much, so I try to look out for his new adult fiction, which has been scarce in the last few years. (I also love his episodes of Doctor Who.)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Gaiman’s return to adult magical realism. In this novel, a man looks back on events that occurred when he was 7 years old, when he comes, for a time, under the protection of the mysterious family who live down a dirt road not far from his house. When a sudden death unleashes an old elemental evil, the boy is caught up in the battle to subdue it, a battle waged by his friend Lettie Hempstock and her mother and grandmother, who look harmless, but whom we soon find out are practitioners of powerful ancient magic.

Like all good magical realists, Gaiman expertly mixes the mundane with the fantastic. Thus our 7-year-old is worried about his birthday party and loves his kitten, but he unquestionably accepts that Lettie’s grandmother can change past events with her needle and thread, and that Lettie keeps a jar of shadows dissolved in vinegar. For a time the malevolent force takes on the shape of something that terrifies all children: an evil nanny. Gaiman says that this book is partly about the ways in which children are wiser than adults--the boy can sense the nanny’s true nature right away, but his father cannot. Her powerful sexual hold on the father is rendered in a few quick, disturbing scenes that are brilliantly written. Adult readers can tell exactly what is going on, but the boy only knows that something is horribly amiss and he cannot understand why his father can't see it.

Gaiman has written about Lettie Hempstock’s family before, most recently in The Graveyard Book. I would love to see a whole novel about the Hempstock women, especially one that focused on the grandmother, who says she remembers the Big Bang. This is clever, original stuff and I wish that Gaiman would spread himself a bit less thinly so he could give me more of what I want.

(Book 4, 2013)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Hashtag Readwomen2014

I’ve been following this hashtag on Twitter for a few weeks now. It was started by Joanna Walsh, an author and illustrator, to call attention to inequities toward women authors, specifically that women authors are awarded fewer literary prizes, that they receive fewer critical reviews in mainstream literary publications, and that their books are frequently given feminine cover designs that turn off male readers, thus ghettoizing them into that dreaded category “women’s fiction” whether they belong there or not. The tag is proving to be pretty successful. Lots of people are using it and I've found links to interesting articles and events, blog posts, and book recommendations. I haven't seen as much U.S. activity (Walsh works in England) but perhaps it will catch on here too.

In her article about her initiative in the Guardian, Walsh offers this advice: examine your reading habits, and if you find an imbalance, try to correct it. (In my case this would result in my reading more books by men.) But really, I think the people who need to listen are not so much the reading public but the literary establishment. I think most avid readers will happily read books by women. But they aren’t the ones arranging for reviews or awarding the prizes. And  some people are missing the point. Just this morning I saw a tweet about the need to “equalize the gender imbalance in our collective reading habits.” Even the Guardian got it a bit wrong when they came up with a title for Walsh’s article; notice that it’s called “Will #readwomen2014 Change Our Sexist Reading Habits?” despite the fact that Walsh says nothing about sexist reading habits in her article and does talk a lot about sexist attitudes by publishers and editors. I also find it interesting that the Guardian published Walsh's article on the Women's Blog page, and not on their Books page. So this is an issue of interest only to women readers?

I want a more specific hashtag. Here are some ideas: #stopputtingpicturesofshoesonbookcovers #TLSshouldreviewmorebooksbywomen #givemoreprizestowomenauthors #takewomenwritersseriously #Nobelprizetoanotherwomannextyear #pinkbookcoverswontgiveyoucooties

I know, I KNOW, these are too long! But I think you get it.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

I am always on the lookout for books by (and about) funny women but they aren’t so easy to find. You’d be amazed at the junk that pops up in a search on Google or Amazon; aside from recent offerings by the heavy hitters like Helen Fielding, Tina Fey, and Ellen DeGeneres (all of which I’ve read), there’s not a lot to choose from. Pretty quickly your search starts turning up titles about how to laugh at your breast cancer. No thanks. But eventually I poked around enough to discover Caitlin Moran. She’s not nearly as widely known in the U.S. as she is in her native Britain, where she’s an award-winning columnist for The Times, but How to be a Woman was reviewed widely in the U.S. and sold well.

This book is scary funny and scary raw. Moran, it seems, will say anything, and in this book she tackles all sorts of issues: body image, pornography, feminism, fashion, childbirth, and especially poverty. She is fearless and relentless as she makes her points, in a way that is both shockingly direct and extremely funny. This book is not light humor. It’s social commentary delivered via shovel, in a voice that is loud, original, irreverent, and hilarious.

Moran grew up the oldest of 8 children in a three-bedroom council house (subsidized public housing) in a down-at-the-heels northern English city in the 1980’s. Despite this bleak beginning, she was winning writing awards by the time she was 13 and by 18 had landed a job as a reporter at a music magazine. Her childhood poverty informs all her commentary, especially when she takes on mainstream academic feminists and really anyone whose privilege gets her goat. Moran has also cultivated a larger-than-life public image in Britain and recently led a 24-hour boycott of Twitter in response to the anonymous threats of violence against outspoken women that are pervasive on that social network.

In case you like the idea of Moran’s work but aren’t very interested in how to be a woman, last year she released another collection called Moranthology which applies the same approach to more gender neutral political and pop culture topics. I just bought that one for my Kindle – sample chapters include I Do a Lot for Charity but I Would Never Mention It, and Downton Abbey Review 2: “SEX WILL BE HAD! SEX WILL BE HAD!" 

(Book 3, 2014)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble is a “writer of a certain age” (according to Fay Weldon, more of which later). She’s also a leading lady of British letters, author of 17 novels (most of which I’ve read), and she’s got some of those letters after her name (DBE) which mean that the Queen likes her. Her latest novel is The Pure Gold Baby, about an anthropologist called Jess who raises her mentally handicapped daughter Anna as a single mother in North London in the 1960’s and ‘70’s.

The story of Jess and Anna is related by Jess’s longtime neighbor Eleanor, a dispassionate observer of human nature and changing neighborhoods. Eleanor looks back on Jess and Anna’s life from such a distance that at times it isn’t clear whether she’s talking about Jess’s life or her own. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Sprinkled throughout the narrative are Eleanor/Jess’s observations about the state of the British National Health Service, as it relates to the changing attitudes towards care for the mentally challenged. These parts were a snoozer, though the rest of the story is classic Drabble, about how a woman can live a life of the mind amid the myriad restrictions placed on her by society; especially how a woman like Jess can do this alone, with a needy child. I didn’t love this book. Drabble has gone over this territory before and done it better. Yet even mediocre Drabble can still be lovely--her observations are acute and she has a gift for the wry understatement.

As I was thinking about what I wanted to say in this post, I happened upon an article by Fay Weldon, in the January 24, 2014 New York Times Sunday Book Review (Note: Fay Weldon also has letters after her name: CBE). In this article, Weldon (herself a writer of a certain age) talks about the reading public’s (and the publishing industry’s) lack of interest in the voices of women over age 50. Weldon doesn’t waste time bemoaning this but instead treats it as a given, and in the article she relates her conversation with a student in her writing class. 
…older women make up the bulk of the fiction market,” my student will protest. “How odd that they don’t want to read about themselves!” “They do,” I will answer. “But they like to identify with themselves when young and beautiful, when sexual power and adventures were for the taking and life was fun — not as they are now, with bulging hips and crepey necks.
Weldon says that literary agents will advise a writer to age an older (female) character down by 20 or 30 years. And indeed Drabble does this, by setting a lot of the action in The Pure Gold Baby when Jess was a young mother. And just as Weldon observes, I liked those parts better, and I was bored by the parts where Eleanor and Jess were older. Does that mean I am now a statistic? A reader who can be quantified by literary agents and publishers? That gives me pause but I also think it might be true.

Though I am also considering whether my boredom with this book is a symptom of my increasing impatience with literary fiction in general. I am having difficulty summoning up interest in any of the new works by authors who have been my long-time favorites (Alice McDermott, Ann Patchett). I’ve been belligerently refusing to start The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (the latest must-read, according to everyone) and instead I’ve been flirting with nonfiction and obsessing over Battlestar Galactica (2003). We’ll see what develops.

(Book 2, 2014)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sisterland is a country inhabited by two people only: a set of twins, Daisy and Violet. As children, the Sisterland geography was their shared bedroom, but it was also the inside of their heads. Daisy and Violet are psychic twins with the ability to see other people’s secrets and destinies. This ability becomes Violet’s raison d’etre, and as an adult she makes her living as a medium, but it freaks Daisy out so much that she changes her name, renounces her skills, and anesthetizes herself in the role of suburban housewife. She tries to be everything that Vi is not: thin, heterosexual, almost invisible. Or as she thinks of it, “normal.”

In present day St. Louis, Daisy, now called Kate, is married to a sweet guy named Jeremy and has two small children. While they no longer live in Sisterland, Kate and Vi are still connected both psychically and emotionally. When Vi makes a public prediction that an earthquake is imminent, Kate is horrified and humiliated, and yet cannot prevent herself from getting drawn into the controversy.

Kate’s got other problems, too, including a long-simmering attraction to a stay-at-home dad from the neighborhood, a nursing baby and a needy toddler, the laundry, the grocery shopping, the bad wardrobe, and a father who develops angina while visiting a prostitute. This book exhausted me, and I’m not even mentioning the abortion subplot(s).* But life is like that – the clothes still need to be washed, even when your sister is generating widespread panic in the city where you live.

Sittenfeld tells a good story but I’m not in love with her writing style in this book. Her prose is sometimes inelegant and repetitive; why is that? But she also makes profound, elemental observations about families, fate, and destinies; here she just serves them up on paper plates rather than fine china. If you liked Prep (Sittenfeld’s first breakout book) you will probably like this, though it’s not nearly as good as American Wife, which is a more sophisticated and polished book in every way.

*Abortion subplots (or plots) are a rare thing indeed in 21st century fiction and television. I think writers avoid this most polarizing topic out of fear and I congratulate Sittenfeld for even attempting it. Two different pregnant women contemplate abortion; one chooses it and the other doesn't. I tried not to read any kind of moral judgment into the characters' choices, and I don't think Sittenfeld was ascribing any, but it's hard not to think about it.

(Book 1, 2014)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Jojo Moyes was in Madison a few months ago for the opening of the new Central Library. At that event she read from her latest book The Girl You Left Behind. I read that book in advance of her visit – here is my post about it. But most people who came to hear Moyes read that day were fans of her previous book, Me Before You, which was a big seller. Maybe you’ve already read it, but I hadn’t until now. I bought a copy of it at the library event and got around to reading it in late December.

Some reviewers try to pigeonhole Moyes as a romance writer. It’s true that both these books have elements of romance but neither really fits into that category, as they both lack the traditional happy ending that is mandatory for the romance genre. Instead Moyes cleverly combines elements of romance novels with more contemporary motifs to make a kind of hybrid novel that delivers both an emotionally satisfying read, and a story that incorporates some of the moral ambiguity that you see in literary fiction.

In Me Before You, Moyes delves into what it’s like to live with a serious disability – quadriplegia – and what it’s like to care about someone with this disability. Will Traynor is a former master of the universe who has been laid low by a traffic accident. He’s lost his high-powered job, his supermodel girlfriend, and his autonomy and is now confined to a motorized wheelchair under the care of a full time nurse and his parents. Lou, short on education but long on compassion, has been hired as his personal assistant. Lou has empathy to spare and it doesn’t take long for her to figure out what’s really going on. Will has made a perverse bargain with his mother – he’ll refrain from suicide attempts for six months, at the end of which she will take him to Switzerland to an assisted suicide center. Lou will keep him company during those six months, in essence holding him to his bargain.

As a reader I instinctively shared Lou’s revulsion at this deal and rooted for her efforts to convince Will to live. Their six months together is an exercise in opposites attract, class warfare, and last-ditch panic on Lou’s part. Will is, by turns lovable and monstrous to Lou, and Lou gives everything to Will. It’s deeply romantic, albeit futile, and a good cry is part of the deal.

Moyes is nothing if not prolific. Apparently she's got yet another book coming out in February called One Plus One. The other day she tweeted a link to a free download of the first chapter. I haven't tried downloading this yet, and I'm not sure how long the link will work, but here it is, if you want it.

(Book 36, 2013)