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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Review: '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

Friday, February 13, 2015

Review: 'Lila"

By Marilynne Robinson
Literary fiction
October 2014
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374187613

To be able to write without pity but with understanding about people who are considered less than nothing by most of the world -- the strays, as they are called in this novel -- and to also write about grace, compassion, existence and love is a great gift to the kind of reader who still wants to reconcile all the things that go on in this world. Even if that reconciliation seems a fool's errand to many.

That's the kind of writer Marilynne Robinson is. Her latest novel, Lila, is set in Gilead, Iowa, as are her last two novels, and concerns itself with the same characters in those novels. This time, the focus is on the young wife of the Rev. John Ames. He is the old country preacher whose voice was first heard in the novel Gilead, in which he is writing down parts of his life and ideas for his young son.

Lila was carried away as a young child by Doll, a tough woman who saw no sense in letting her continue to exist neglected in a house filled with anger and fighting. There was only token resistance to their leaving, and Doll, with the help of an old woman whose house they found, nursed her from the brink of death.

She grows up as part of a loose band of drifters, migrant workers in the days before the Dust Bowl and the Depression, being a calf to Doll's cow. She feels Doll's love and sees Doll's scarred face unhidden. She sees the boundless energy and curiosity of another girl who is part of the group, the restlessness of the others, the love the leader has for his wife and the pride he has in doing what he can to take care of them all. Hard times and petty theft tear them apart.

The years are not kind to her. Even when Lila finds a place to settle for a spell, she is only existing and not looking forward to anything. She moves on when she is recognized or when Doll comes to her in a time of need after Doll sent Lila off on her own.

Lila was not looking for a place to stay when she ended up outside Gilead, sleeping in an abandoned shack, earning a little money, food and clothes by gardening and cleaning for others. Just as she was picked up off the porch one night by Doll, and again found by Doll on church steps after the others abandoned her, Lila is found when she goes into a church in Gilead to get out of the rain. The Rev. Ames sees her and their lives change.

The old man is as much on Lila's mind as she is on his, even though she doesn't open up to him and remains skittish. This continues after she suggests he marry her. Lila is lonely without thinking that she deserves company, afraid of people looking down on her or feeling sorry for her. As she notes:

When you're scalded, touch hurts, it makes no difference if it's kindly meant.

How do you believe someone loves you when the only loving kindness you've known came from someone who pushed you away and, at a time when you thought you could give them something back, denied knowing you as thoroughly as Peter denied knowing Jesus? How can you ever believe you belong somewhere or with someone?

Robinson uses both show and tell to demonstrate how someone like Lila, who doesn't know what a large and forgiving heart she has, could start to feel comfortable with the idea of being loved. The moment when Lila began to feel loved, to believe that she could be loved, is chronicled. But its significance is not immediately trumpeted to her. She doesn't have one of those big "Eureka!" moments that tells both the character and the reader that a big change has occurred.

The significance of the moment Lila knew her life had changed does not occur to her until later, when it becomes a settled part of who she is. The moment comes after she and the reverend have wrestled with the question of existence and the theology of baptism and life everlasting. The idea that the people she traveled with as a child, especially Doll, could be condemned to hell or to not being in heaven bothers Lila a great deal. And the same for the Rev. Ames. They are both kinder than that. (So is the Rev. Ames's dear friend Boughton, the Calvinist who loves to argue with him. Their love and worrying over each other is as strong a testament to brotherly love as any large act of great heroism.)

Lila also tries to improve herself by stealing a Bible from her future husband's church and copying sentences over and over. Then and later, during her pregnancy after they are married, she ponders Ezekiel and the claiming of someone as a living being to care for. It holds her attention in a way that Job does not. She already knows bad things happen to good people. It's the idea of belonging that she struggles with.

At the same time, Lila is a character who does care about other people. During one hellish sojourn, the idea of a baby that she can take and care for, and treat well, is the only thing that keeps her going. She wants to give that gift that Doll gave to her when she picked Lila up off the porch one night and just kept on going.

It's that giving nature that she displays in an event that mirrors an event in the novel Gilead, when she understands the problem of another stray human being who doesn't feel he belongs. In both cases, it's interesting to note that her husband mistakes her intent both times. He fears she has left because he fears so much that she will leave, that he doesn't have enough to offer her. Although she keeps telling him in this novel that she could pick up and take off any time, she doesn't realize she would do no such thing.

Lila's story is a parable of love without pity, of a prodigal who doesn't realize at first she has found home, of seeking to understand in which knowledge of hardscrabble living provides as much wisdom as years of studying books and of the enduring human compulsion to reach out to another and to care about being cared for. It is a fitting kind of story for someone like Robinson whose theology studies are as embedded into her fiction as is her knowledge of human nature.

It is the kind of fiction in which a person seeks to understand why we are the way we are, written within the framework of the way she has reconciled the world to something beyond. It is the kind of fiction that does not judge her characters, or real people, and is the stronger story for that level of human understanding.

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

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Review: 'How to be Both'

How to be Both
By Ali Smith
Literary fiction
December 2014
ISBN: 978-0375424106

A young girl on the cusp of womanhood, struggling to continue after the sudden loss of her mother, and a long-dead Renaissance painter known only to history through a letter demanding more pay, are the catalysts to consider what is and what was, what is art, what is underneath and what remains, in Ali Smith's How to be Both.

The novel, which was listed for the Man Booker Prize and won the Costa, was designed to not be linear, but to be layered. Some editions begin with Georgie, grieving for her talented, daring mother in present-day London. The other editions begin with the story of Francesco, child of a bricklayer whose mother also excelled at storytelling.

The last trip Georgie took with her mother and younger brother (while the always-distant dad stayed home for work) was to view Francesco's frescoes in Italy. Past and present, present and future, layers of what exists and what can be seen and what stays hidden are the essence of the novel. Georgie remembers events that once happened and has to keep changing the tense, from says to said, life to not life, from living to dead.

The word play, the tropes of tense, of layers, of hiding in plain sight or there being more just underneath the surface, serve to showcase "oh!" moments. Georgie, for example, is originally called George in the story but is a girl who identifies as a girl and does not like the fact she was named for a character in an old film (1966's Georgy Girl). Who another character is in other times and forms is a puzzle; although, like any well-designed painting that tells its story in allegory form, the clues are hiding in plain sight.

Although it is noted early in Georgie's section that "People like things not to be too meaningful", Smith knows better. Georgie becomes obsessed with a video of a young girl being used sexually and watches it over and over and over again. The girl, she decides, is everywhere, a representation of harm being done over and over again. To Georgie, watching it is paying tribute to the fact it has happened but, for someone who has not seen it, the act has not happened because that person doesn't know the act exists. It happens for the first time for that person when that person does see it.

In Italy with her mother, studying the frescoed walls that Francesco painted centuries earlier, it is noted the part of the work shows "how ordinary cruelty really is". The work was hidden for years under whitewash, meaning it did not exist for the people who knew about the room but did not know what was under the whitewash. That bothers George's younger brother enormously: "Could the room you were actually in get -- lost?"

Georgie does not want her mother to be forgotten because she is no longer there, just as the frescoes were forgotten because they were no longer seen. And the painter has been completely forgotten except for a letter in which more money is asked of the patron because of it is deserved (a letter which really does exist).

On that Italian trip, Georgie's mother sets these ideas into her head:
Do things just go away? her mother says. Do things that happened not exist, or stop existing, just because we can't see them happening in front of us? They do when they're over, George says. And what about the things we watch happening ... "

Well, what about them? Who sees them and how they see them and what the viewers bring to what they see to combine that knowledge with what is in front of them, well, it's never the same, is it?

What was there and what is there are part of something else Georgie's mother did: She was part of a group called the Subverts who delighted in subliminal and unexpected messages, such as "a box that would flash up on a politics page and it would have a picture in it or some stanzas of a poem, stuff like that".

Georgie's mother also tells her that "nothing's not connected" and therein lies the harsh truth and glorious beauty in Smith's novel. The struggle, as usual, is for us to take E.M. Forster's advice: "Only connect" even if it all seems a swirl at times and the way the pieces fall together doesn't seem at all clear.

Francesco's mother creates a different spin on the connections among all things. To her, anything created creates a ring, a ripple, just as a pebble dropped in water creates its rings. To that wife of a Renaissance bricklayer, the ring encompasses everything. And if everything is encompassed, it is contained together. It is connected.

And so it is in this novel. Whether one reads Georgie's story first or Francesco's, parts of the painter's story are prelude to Georgie's and parts of it reverberate in the present.

In the spirit of Smith's novel, it does not matter which part one reads first. Because they fit together.

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

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Review: 'Red Queen'

Red Queen
By Victoria Aveyard
YA fantasy
February 2015
ISBN: 978-0062310637

Mare Barrow is a pickpocket, trying to help her family make ends meet until she is conscripted into the army. She will join her older brothers to serve in an unending war that crippled their father. She is a Red, one of the poor who serve the Silvers, the rich and powerful who run their society.

One evening she runs into a stranger who she thinks is a servant to aristocrats. He is kind to her even though he caught her stealing from him. Then Mare is summoned to court to become a royal servant herself.

The Reds bleed red and have no special powers. The Silvers bleed silver and have various powers, including telekinesis and the ability to invade minds. During a tournament in which aristocratic Silver girls compete for the hands of the two royal princes, Mare and the entire arena discover she’s different.

The scheming queen quickly concocts a story about Mare’s supposed past and brings her into the court that is filled with intrigue. She’s to marry the queen’s son, the younger prince, even though she’s often drawn to his older half-brother. There’s also her guilt over the harm she caused her sister and a childhood friend who may now be lost.

Aveyard combines a dystopian setting with court intrigue, fantasy elements, a strong heroine determined to help her friends and family, and boys who seem to lie when they tell the truth. The world-building in the first quarter is a bit slow but once Mare arrives at court, it’s nonstop action with a broad range of characters. Each character's motivations are integral to what they do, and make for rich, deep, compelling stories. This is a debut novel that is a completely engaging work.

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

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Review: 'Almost Famous Women'

Almost Famous Women
By Megan Mayhew Bergman
Literary fiction short stories
January 2015
ISBN: 978-1476786568

Megan Mayhew Bergman's first book of short stories, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, was a highly regarded debut that looked at life from several angles. This time, in Almost Famous Women, she looks at women who have famous names, often because of famous relatives or because they are known for one thing.

Neither of these conditions is anything close to conveying the complete aspect of who or what a person is, however, and Bergman uses both what is known about the women and what may be true about them to create yet more examples of who gets to tell a story about themselves and who owns history. How the rest of the world views these women is an undercurrent throughout the stories, not explicit yet always just there, threatening to drag them under.

The sisters in Pretty, Grown-Together Children, the first story of the collection were called freaks, and appeared in Tod Browning's film of that name. Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins, lived from 1908 to 1969, and were vaudeville entertainers and grocery store clerks. Right there it's easy to see how any writer would want to wonder about their lives. How do conjoined twins handle the stage and the comedown of being grocery store clerks? How do they live? How do they manage the practical and the more elusive dreams? In reality, they died of the flu, Daisy first and Violet at least a day later.

This opening story sets the stage for the collection: How do women, whether sisters or always on their own, handle dreams when it looks like life doesn't want them to dare hope for full lives? What keeps anyone going? No woman needs to be a conjoined twin to dare hope for a full life.
Looking at the sisters, it's hard to imagine how anything about their lives could be the same as people not conjoined. But the story shows how every woman, every human being, is the same in the ability to dream of more and better, and both how we can fool ourselves and make at least part of a dream come true. It depends on what vantage point the story is being told from.

The Siege at Whale Cay is about M.B. Joe Carstairs and the first to deal with post-traumatic stress for a WWI ambulance driver, although the story does not initially focus on the war. It is instead a complex story about a rich lesbian who owns a small island off the Florida coast, who deliberately closes her eyes to the suffering of another woman on her island. In the role of the conscience of the story is her latest young lover, a young woman who was a mermaid in a tourist trap, now competing for her older lover's attention with a famous, reclusive, cold movie star.

More famous people feature in Norma Millay's Film Noir Period. It is about being the one who serves the famous person, the famous sister, the mother with talent, regardless of what you can or might be able to do. And what happens afterwards when that is all you have. A companion story, Who Killed Dolly Wilde, appears later in the collection. Both also are tied to both The Siege at Whale Cay and Romaine Remains, partly because one or more of the characters knew each other. There also is a connection in the theme of being caregivers to older women whose faded glory is more of a curse or a haunting to both the famous person and to the caregiver. Having once been famous certainly doesn't seem to be worth much.

Romaine Brooks in Romaine Remains, is an paranoid, angry old woman, as is Oscar's niece Dolly. Romaine's younger male nurse realizes when reading letters she will not touch "there is vitality in the world, and he does not have it, he has never even tasted it in his mouth. He has never lived the way he wants to live, never felt in control, or able to express his desire for people and things. For men in new leather shoes drinking wine at the hotel bar, or the boys standing outside the less reputable discotecas smoking cigarettes. He has never been explicitly himself." The talented woman is the one without power, the one who is used. Mario the nurse doesn't seem to recognize how alike he and Romaine are, just at different times of their lives.

Dolly isn't doing well in her later years either. Like Joe Carstairs, she was a WWI ambulance driver and it still hurts her. Dolly once was popular because of her uncle and her resemblance to him, but now is a drug addict who no one wants around except the childhood friend who still tries to believe in her. It's a story about unfulfilled lives and how war cripples inside as well as outside, and about how caring doesn't always involve the same tasks.

Care-taking at the other end of life's spectrum is the story of a nun in The Autobiography of Allegra Byron. A nun whose own child died years ago finds herself loving the cast-off child of the poet. This story is about learning how to give up what was never yours to begin with, but loving any way, which can be a caregiver's burden.

The child of another famous writer, the daughter of James Joyce, notes a burden on the other side of fame in Expression Theory. In this moody, dank tone poem about creating dance, she says: "I have no native tongue, L. says. What do you expect?" Good question. What should be expected of the child of someone who did so much with language? Or an even better question, why should that child be burdened with expectations?

For some, childhood expectations and that stage in a girl-child's life when crushes come easily can sometimes lead to life changes. A girl at just that stage, crushing on a minister, agrees to go see Butterfly McQueen. The Butterfly McQueen, who is as famous for being an atheist as she once was for a few lines in a big movie that is a central part of the myth of the state where she lives. The 80-year-old atheist turns away the girl sent to evangelize at her door, but opens the child's eyes and mind to wondering and questioning. Unvarnished truth is important to her.

The girl, now a woman studying medicine and conducting her first autopsy in class, remembers:

"My mother's was the first dead body I knew, the first one I touched. ... She wanted a wig and the mortician's makeup for the casket. I didn't pass along her wishes. Does it matter what we do when consciousness has passed? I was the one who had to look at her, and I wanted the real her, even if the real her was hairless and wasted."

Her conclusion is one of those earth-stopping moments in reading. It's a simple statement that is all the more profound for it, and the wisdom of it can be questioned and admired at the same time:

"What I hope, I guess, is that the right kind of callus will form around my heart."

This sort of fearlessness, a type of defiance at what sentimental society demands of its women, is at the heart of a story about Beryl Markham. The title, A High-Grade Bitch Sits Down for Lunch, uses the name Hemingway gave her (which I see as a honor he did not intend to convey). For Markham, living on her own in Africa, channeling that defiance is essential to survival. "She'd always been a cruel person, she knew that, and today it was in her favor."

There is cruelty in the last story in the collection, too, mostly from men, white men, fascinated and disgusted by the women of color in a band traveling through the Jim Crow south. In Hell-Driving Women, that callus around their hearts from the Butterfly McQueen story allows some of them to protect their hearts, not cut them off completely.

The women in these stories would never pass for Harriet Nelson. This leads to wondering whether that's society saying women must not be "normal" to strive to be famous or to stand out, or that if they are not "normal" wives and mothers, can they hope to be anything except freaks? This is something that is not explicit in the stories, however, but is more the kind of thinking that Bergman's stories allow.

The women, according to the way the world usually regards them and treats them, are supposed to be grateful to be in supportive, secondary roles, and to fade away quietly when someone else deems it is time for them to do so.
The moments of happiness are fleeting, but those moments show that living in the moment is the way to find joy. Holding on to it is bittersweet at best. Defiantly going to one's fate is more of a victory than giving in quietly. Loving living is the best revenge.
©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission