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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Review: 'Dept. of Speculation'

Dept. of Speculation
By Jenny Offill
Literary fiction
October 2014
Vintage Contemporaries
ISBN: 9978-0345806871
                                                                                                                                                  
Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation would probably be considered too twee or the stuff of fiction from The New Yorker for some readers. It's the story of a New York City marriage, of a wife, of her husband, of their child (none of them are ever named), and how they started out and how they carried on and what happpened when the husband was unfaithful. But it didn't read like the oft-told tale it appears to be from that description.

The whole novel is comprised of the short bits of wisdom, whimsy or sangfroid that one underlines or copies into a chapbook. And they make a finely woven, coherent, heartfelt story. It is a combination of technique and heart that works well.

From the snippets, it's clear to see the wife didn't do all the things she imagined she would. As a young woman, she planned to be an art monster, to be creative, to matter.


For years, I kept a Post-it note above my desk. WORK NOT LOVE! was what it said. It seemed a sturdier kind of happiness.

Now she teaches and tries to survive a colicky baby. Her husband, a Midwest transplant who is famously kind, makes soundscapes of the city. He is introduced to her by her friend, who she calls the philosopher and who is an adjunct professor and late night DJ. Offill deftly chronicles what it's like to be at home with a baby who has colic:

After you left for work, I would stare at the door as if it might open again.

My love for her seemed doomed, hopelessly unrequited. There should be songs for this, I thought, but if there were I didn't know them.

She was small enough then to still fall asleep on your chest. Sometimes I fed you dinner with a spoon so you wouldn't have to raise your arms and wake her.

Offill writes about different kinds of love with vivid, wistful remembrance in only three paragraphs. Some writers cannot do that in hundreds of pages. She has kept in only the important bits, but sometimes reveals them explicitly and other times obliquely. Taken together, they tell us about these characters without names and their hearts.

She also weaves in quotes and bits from other writers, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Wittgenstein, Buddhist philosophers and this:

Advice for wives circa 1896: (italics) The indiscriminate reading of novels is one of the most injurious habits to which a married woman can be subject. Besides the false views of human nature it will impart ... it produces an indifference to the performance of domestic duties, and contempt for ordinary realities.

The only cliched part of the story is that the husband is unfaithful. Up until the very end, it's not clear if they will stay together or part. But either way, the feeling of dread has been introduced. Whatever happens, this happened, and it cannot be erased.

The narrator is having a hard time holding it together. She wanted to be an artist, a writer, a monster who lived for art and art alone. Even if she had not fallen in love and had a family, it's easy to see that life probably would not have turned out exactly as she planned. It just doesn't work that way. But she deals with words, with art, every day as part of her real life.

There is, at the end, the inference that she may see this reality, this ability to live with other people who mean so much to her and the art that has been as much a reason to live as those she loves. That makes Dept. of Speculation as much a work of art as it does a faithful chronicle of what the small moments of family life are really like.

©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Monday, March 9, 2015

Review: 'Bone Gap'

Bone Gap
By Laura Ruby
YA fantasy
March 2015
Balzar + Bray
ISBN: 978-0062317605

Finn and Sean have been raising themselves in a rundown farmhouse on the outskirts of a small town in the middle of nowhere for years. Their father died long ago and their mother left with another man, nursing her broken and vagabond heart. Sean, the older brother, is one of those strong, silent, sturdy types who everyone relies on. Finn is seen as dreamy and not quite with it.

Their lives started to look up when Finn found Roza one morning in their barn. The young woman had been hurt and was more skittish than a wounded animal. But the boys gave her sanctuary, Sean tended to her physical wounds and the chance to pay them back with her cooking and gardening gave her a chance to begin healing.

One day she disappeared. Finn can’t describe the man she left with and people aren’t even sure if they can believe the scanty details he provides. But he’s not going to quit looking for her. Even Petey, the beekeeper’s daughter who is more comfortable with the hives than with people, except for Finn, isn’t sure what to think.

Laura Ruby takes this premise and these characters, going back and forth between viewpoints, time and place to create a stunning novel of devotion. She delves into the ways people look at each other, literally and figuratively. The characters are resilient and spend more time thinking about others instead of themselves. 

The novel works on so many levels. There is a realistic depiction of a very small town where everyone knows everything about everyone else. There is magic realism and a fable-like aspect to the story. There is a princess who has been spirited away but who works to rescue herself; she doesn't just sit there and wait for a hero. There is the kind of deep friendship that can lead to something more. There is overcoming hardship and heartache.

Bone Gap is thoughtful, entertaining and a tour de force of storytelling.

 ©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Sunday Sentence: All the Birds, Singing

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without further context or commentary:

It could have been the air, the wind. It could have been that out there in the dark, all of my sheep had turned to stare at me. Or that something pulled itself out of the sea and lumbered up the path towards me. But it wasn't. It was only the night like I'd seen it a thousand times before, alone.

-- Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing

Friday, March 6, 2015

Review: 'The First Bad Man'

The First Bad Man
By Miranda July
Literary fiction
January 2015
Scribner
ISBN: 978-1439172568

Cheryl Glickman may not know any of Barbara Pym's excellent women, but this protagonist of Miranda July's first novel is one of them. The middle-aged, never-married Cheryl lives on her own in a neatly appointed house that is no home, and works for a self-defense nonprofit organization that is as New Age and California as anything that is New Age and in California can be.

This is a woman who thinks she knows herself, but she's as much a stranger to her as everyone else in the world. (Well, all perhaps one, but more of that later.) After all, she's the kind of woman who "strolled through the parking garage and into the elevator, pressing twelve with a casual, fun-loving finger. The kind of finger that was up for anything."

In a manner both droll and deft, July lays out Cheryl's sterile life and work. The part where the nonprofit's founders talked her into staying home most of the time, and out of their hair, is magnificent. Cheryl is clueless that her employers don't want her around but keep paying her anyway:

Then he told me my managerial style was more effective from a distance, so my job was now work-from-home though I was welcome to come in one day for a week and for board meetings.

Perhaps that's because "Once Carl called me ginjo, which I thought meant 'sister' until he told me it's Japanese for a man, usually an elderly man who lives in isolation while he keeps the fire burning for the whole village". Or something like that.

Besides developing a housework system that involves doing no housework, Cheryl has two obsessions. One is a board member of the nonprofit who she thinks has been her great love in past lives. In this life, Phillip is a self-absorbed old man who occasionally texts or talks to her about his new obsession -- a much, much younger woman.

Her other obsession is a baby she met when she was a child. Cheryl thinks she had a conversation with this child, Kubelko Bondy, and that, appropriately enough for his last name, they bonded:

I watched him crying and waited for someone to come but no one came so I heaved him onto my small lap and rocked his chubby body. He calmed almost immediately. I kept my arms around him and he looked at me and I looked at him and he looked at me and I knew that he loved me more than his mother and father and that in some very real and permanent way he belonged to me. ...

Seconds later he sailed out into the night, my own dear boy. Never to be seen again.

Except I did see him again -- again and again. Sometimes he's a newborn, sometimes he's already toddling along. As I pulled out of my parking spot I got a better look at the baby in the car next to mine. Just some kid.

When not doing whatever it is she does for the nonprofit, listening to Phillip dither over his young woman or searching for her dear boy, she deals with her globus. She has trouble swallowing and is nearly as obsessed with spitting discreetly as she is with her other obsessions.

Then her employers dump their unemployed daughter, Clee, on her lap. Everyone -- really, everyone -- who puts this young woman up is delighted to see her leave. Clee, of course, upsets Cheryl's world.

The novel then takes a wild turn. Then it gets weird. Then something big happens. And then something even bigger happens. There were times I wasn't sure I could keep on reading about Cheryl's interior life and how it was affecting what was going on with her unwelcome houseguest, let alone how life with her unexpected houseguest was affecting her interior life. Cheryl is unreliable not because she sets out to deceive the reader, but because she is so clueless about herself and her world. But she's certainly far more open to experiencing life as it comes to her than the closed-up woman who thinks she has a finger that is up for anything.

And then there is one of the sweetest, best realized endings to a novel in some time. It was unexpected, satisfying and exactly right.

It's not often an author can turn the course of a novel and have it work. For a debut novelist to do this more than once and still have it all work is unexpected. Reading The First Bad Man is like watching a high-wire artist perform magic tricks while jumping through hoops of fire. And coming out at the other end with everything in place.

July has published short stories and is an accomplished actress and filmmaker. Even with all the evidence of a creative free spirit who knows narrative and character, and how well they can work together, this novel is still a remarkable work to behold.

©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Review: 'Euphoria'

Euphoria
By Lily King
Literary fiction
June 2014
Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 978-0802122551

It doesn't take big events or historical movements for individuals to feel they don't understand the rest of the human race. People are rather curious creatures, after all, prone to actions that seem counter-intuitive, endeavors that seem hopeless or cruel, emotions that appear more at home in left field than in the heart.

These things happen every day, from the normally cheerful person who one day scowls at everyone to the oddball actions drivers take on the road.

And they happen to all sorts of people. That's one of the graces of Lily King's Euphoria. It's a novel inspired by Margaret Mead, her second husband Reo Fortune and her future husband Gregory Bateson, all anthropologists who were involved in a love triangle and professional collaboration while researching in Papua New Guinea. These highly intelligent people who are trained to observe others do some of the damnedest things.

The characters in King's novel, which was short-listed for the National Book Award, resemble what is easily found via Google search about the real people. Reo Fortune, Mead's husband when the three met, appears jealous of his wife. He tried to discredit his wife's work after their divorce. Nell, like Mead, makes a name for herself writing her observations of the gender and sexual roles of women and children.

It's easy to see that the characters Bankson and Nell are going to fall for each other. And it's easy to see that Fen feels jealous and yet wants to keep an unsteady equilibrium going. The physical and emotional aspects of the novel are probably paramount to most readers. And boy, does King ever deliver. Despite the somewhat clumsy set-up to the romantic climax, the emotions are genuine and bittersweet is the prominent tone. That there is delicate storytelling following a narrative fascinated with graphic swapping of traditional Western culture sexual and gender roles is something unexpected and all the more powerful for it.

Nell describes the moment when an anthropologist gets the feeling that she is at the right place doing the right thing. What she says applies to a relationship between two people as well:

It's that moment two months in, when you think you've finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It's a delusion -- you've only been there eight weeks -- and it's followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It's the briefest, purest euphoria.

King's Nell and Fen, married anthropologists who run into Bankson, another professional in their fairly new field, don't have the same outcome as the real people.

It's their feelings, professional ideas and aspirations, and, by implication as the work of all literary writers is, the wider ramifications of what these things tell us about human beings, that are more important to King's work than rehashing of old scandalous acts.

In the respect of looking at individuals to reach a conclusion about a group, the work of a novelist and an anthropologist are similar. King noted this in an interview with Vogue. It's something I noted when first reading Barbara Pym; many of the characters in her novels are involved with anthropology or fascinated by anthropologists. They study each other and it's quite obvious many times that they belong to different tribes, just as Nell, Fen and Bankson belong to different tribes. Their professional work is an attempt to differentiate people and subsets of people into larger groupings.

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," wrote Joan Didion. We also tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world and, often, to try to bring order to it. Putting people into categories or tribes is one way to do that.

That word "tribes" in and of itself can provoke a squeamish reaction. Just who are any of us to be studying others as if they were inferior? In King's novel, Fen obviously regards the peoples he studies as inferior. Nell is the character who acts most like someone who believes in equality, and yet as a woman in 1930s Western culture she is not treated with equality. Early on, she says that "For me, other people are the point." She lives as she thinks.

As Nell writes in her journal:

Who are we and where are we going? Why are we, with all our 'progress,' so limited in understanding & sympathy & the ability to give each other real freedom? ...
 
I think above all else it is freedom I search for in my work, in these far-flung places, to find a group of people who give each other the room to be in whatever way they need to be. And maybe I will never find it all in one culture but maybe I can find parts of it in several cultures, maybe I can piece it together like a mosaic and unveil it to the world.

©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Friday, February 20, 2015

Review: 'Tunnel Vision'

Tunnel Vision
By Susan Adrian
YA science fiction
January 2015
St. Martin's Griffin
ISBN:  978-1250047922

Jacob thought his life was nondescript but all right. And it was, until the night the high school senior drank too much at a party and showed his friends his secret ability.

"Tunnel Vision" is what Jacob can do. If he holds an object belonging to someone else, he can "tunnel" his vision to where they are. His military father told him to always keep that ability a secret, but his dad died in a plane crash a couple years ago. Now a stranger is following him and he's worried about keeping his little sister and mom safe.

Who the stranger is and how anyone found out from the party about Jacob's ability are just the opening mysteries in Susan Adrian's fast-paced YA novel. Along the way, Jacob will have his loyalties and sense of trust tested, and will discover his family's secrets.

Jacob also knows other people's secrets when he holds their objects. Some of the cases he is obliged to take on by holding the objects are intense, and at least once lead him to questioning whether he's serving a higher purpose or adding to people's sorrows.

Adrian's novel not only is a page-turner, it also features strong characterizations of Jacob's family, including his grandfather, a reclusive Russian, and those Jacob is forced to work with. Tunnel Vision also kicks into high espionage gear, with the twists and turns one would expect. As with all great espionage stories, the themes of who to trust and why play a significant role here. Indeed, observant teens and other readers could have a field day making connections between Tunnel Vision and principles that underscore current events. Adrian has not written a sermon on the last, but her storytelling skills have folded in layers that make the most of story and theme.

At the end, it's evident there is more that could be told about Jacob, so more novels would be welcome. This is a young man on the cusp of coming into his own, and it bodes to be a journey well worth watching.


©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Review: 'Falling into Place'

Falling into Place
By Amy Zhang
YA contemporary realistic fiction
September 2014
Greenwillow Books
ISBN: 978-0062295040
                                                                                                                    
Liz Emerson doesn't care that she is beautiful, well-off, popular and has a boyfriend the other girls envy. The sham of how her life appears on the surface is brilliantly depicted in the debut novel by Amy Zhang, herself a teenager, in a nihilistic story of a girl who has had enough and is determined to kill herself.

Drinking, drug use, casual hooking up, debilitating bullying, Liz and her circle do it all. Liz and her boyfriend are cruel and unfaithful to each other. She does horrible things to her friends, who stand by her even though they carry the wounds of those things. There is one boy who still cares about Liz despite the horrible thing she did to him. Her mother is never around; she's trekking around the world for work since Liz's father died years ago and can afford to buy a very fancy car for her daughter to deliberately drive off the road.

There is no suspense that Liz will drive that car off the road. There is suspense in what happens afterward and parts of the story are not revealed until the very final pages.

It is a horribly sad world these teens live in. Their hope was killed in them long ago. Moments of happiness are depicted mainly because their absence is another way to show what a horribly sad world these teens live in.

Zhang keeps the story flowing with frequent time jumps and short bursts of story. There is the addition of a mystery narrator who occasionally comments on Liz's life ever since her father accidentally died in front of her when she was very young. It's a great touch because it is a way to show what Liz used to be like, as well as a way to look beyond the unrelenting depression of the teens' outlook.

The author is so good at building that depressing world that a moment when that black fog lifts feels shoehorned in. Except for that, however, Falling into Place shows Zhang's adept strength at characterization and storytelling. This should not be her only work of fiction, but should be only the beginning.

©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission