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Monday, September 29, 2014

Review: 'We are All Completely Beside Ourselves'

We are All Completely Beside Ourselves
By Karen Joy Fowler
Literary fiction
February 2014
Plume
ISBN: 978-0142180822 (paperback edition)

Not every book that makes it on the Man Booker Prize shortlist, let alone the longlist, is one that clearly deserves the extra attention. In this year, with the eligibility expanded to include American writers published in Great Britain, well, nearly anything might have been placed on the list as this year's panel of judges made its way through the new rules.

What I did not expect was that two American books would end up on the shortlist and that both would be books I feel richer for having read.

First up was the latest Joshua Ferris novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, a complex and delightful work. Karen Joy Fowler's We are All Completely Beside Ourselves is not a novel I expected to savor. The description felt like a high-concept gimmick: Girl is raised with a chimp for a sister and tells the story of her family. Oh puh-lease. There are animals. It's bound to be quirky. It will have to end badly.

Well, yes and no. And it was worth it.

Rosemary Cooke begins telling us about herself and her family in the middle of the tale, when she is a college student. The reader doesn't see anything about Fern, her sister, the chimpanzee, until nearly a quarter of the way into the book, although I don't consider this a spoiler as this tidbit is the book's main talking point.

What Fowler does here is brilliant for a person coming reluctantly to her book. Instead of the sister thing, I'm drawn into Rosemary's story of being a former non-stop talker who says hardly anything, getting caught up in a college cafeteria disturbance and getting hauled off to jail with a free-spirited girl who is bound to be all kinds of trouble. Rosemary used to have a brother and a sister, although both are gone, and she deliberately moved far away from her parents to go to college in the mid 90's.

But boy, is she quirky and self-deprecating and, except for not telling us right away about those siblings and family history, apparently quite determined to be open and honest. And this comes after a prologue about her and her sister when they were quite young, with their mother telling them a fairy tale about two sisters -- one who speaks in toads and snakes, while the other speaks in flowers and jewels. Oh! Which is which?

The whole thing appears to be one of those dysfunctional family stories, except with an exceptionally wry narrator. She's got to be the young whose words come out as diamonds and roses.

At the as-usual dysfunctional Thanksgiving table, Rosemary gives us several hints about how her family is particularly a mess. One grandmother doesn't think much of psychologists. They're the people like B.F. Skinner, experimenting on their own families, she says. The missing relatives are not referred to. Rosemary notes that if your brother loves you, "I say it counts for something."

When the revelation comes that Rosemary's sister Fern was a chimpanzee, it's not so much a gimmick as a lightbulb moment. Oh. If she was raised along with an baby from a different species since they were both a few months old, and that sibling was removed when she started school, no wonder she never felt like she fit in.

Fowler is brilliant at depicting both how Rosemary and Fern were wild children who adored and competed with each other for the attention and love of the rest of the family. The closeness is there. So also is the sense that Rosemary didn't think of herself as a freak during those early years and how trying to fit in with other human beings has been difficult because of those early years. After all, when one has learned how to act by being with a chimp and then is dumped in with a bunch of kindergartners, crawling over desks and varying notions of personal space that different species maintain can be challenging. So can being called a monkey girl.

Rosemary clearly does not feel sorry for herself, but she does miss Fern. It's nothing that her family discusses. Neither do her parents discuss her missing brother. He left as soon as he was old enough and after Fern was gone. He is on the run and doesn't contact them often. It's pretty easy to guess what his life mission is.

As we go back to a detailed narrative of Rosemary's childhood, both before and after Fern, and back to the present day, Fowler does more than play with the timestream. She also has Rosemary let the reader know about various theories of social and biological science, all of which play roles in the way Rosemary and her family members act and react.

There also is some reporting of various animal experiments, including real families that attempted to raise children and other primates together. Fowler does not spare the reader, but she also does not wallow in the horrific things people do to other animals. Everything she includes is true, from the drugging of spiders to see what kinds of webs they make, to the primate sanctuary at Central Washington University, which closed last year and the two remaining animals moved to a sanctuary in Canada.

The plight of test animals in labs and of children -- human and otherwise -- as they try to survive their upbringing are connected in the novel by the ways in which they are woven together. Parents experiment with ways to care for their children and children try to become their own persons. Rosemary uses Fern and Fern uses Rosemary. Animals of all species do not forget what is done to them.

All the layers, all the characters and all the complicated relationships between them, all the moving back and forth in time, all the memories, all the scientific information -- they work together in a powerfully moving story of what it means to grow up in a family and what it means to love.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sunday Sentence: Karen Joy Fowler

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

When I run the world, librarians will be exempt from tragedy. Even their smaller sorrows will last only for as long as you can take out a book.

-- Karen Joy Fowler, We are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Review: 'To Dwell in Darkness'

To Dwell in Darkness
By Deborah Crombie
Crime fiction
September 2014
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0062271600

When a mystery series has survived until its 16th book, it might be expected that it could be showing its age. Not in the case of the Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James mysteries by Deborah Crombie. To Dwell in Darkness is as engaging as any book in this series has been and, just as importantly, moves the characters to a place where a reader wonders what will happen next and how they will respond to whatever they are up against.

Kincaid and Gemma have gone from colleagues to friends to lovers to a married couple. Their family has grown to include Kincaid's son from an earlier marriage, who is now 14, her little son Toby and a foster daughter who they are looking to adopt. Both coppers loved their jobs. Kincaid at Scotland Yard has always been the model of a calm policeman who looks at the people he comes across in the murder investigations assigned to him. People have always mattered. Gemma James has grown from a single mother trying to make ends meet, doing well at a job she loves while insisting on putting her son first, into an even stronger police investigator and juggler of duties.

But now Kincaid has been reassigned from his beloved Scotland Yard and away from his trusted sergeant to another station. He's not sure of his new team any more than they are sure of him, including at least one highly wound woman who should have had a promotion to his job. Kincaid knows there's something going on behind the scenes, but exactly what and who is behind it remain as murky as ever. His wife also has a new assignment, but it's a plummy job, and her trusted number two, Melody Talbot. Kincaid wonders if this was done in part to keep him quiet.

In the midst of these musings and maneuverings, Melody is on the scene when a man bursts into flames and falls at St. Pancras station. The site is part of Kincaid's new posting in Camden, and he is confronted by an anti-terrorist officer who wants to make sure he isn't losing any turf in case this is more than the usual crime. People close to the continuing characters are affected by the incident, complicating their feelings about the investigation as well as their schedules.

Drawn into the investigation are a motley group of protestors who want London's historical buildings, including St. Pancras, preserved from exploitation by developers. They are camping out in the flat of their leader, which is located in a pricey building. Figuring out who these people are will go a long way toward solving who the person was that died in that fiery crash and why that person died.

What none of them realize is that part of solving what happened could led to what Kincaid and Gemma hold most dear -- their family. There also is the possibility that someone involved in this case may be involved in what has taken Kincaid away from Scotland Yard.

Nefarious doings by higher-ups and shadowy conspiracies can become tedious and drag down a series. But so far, Crombie has displayed a light touch with this part of the ongoing story. The unraveling of a crime and the ongoing stories of her continuing characters remain more important. That made To Dwell in Darkness a gripping novel that will leave readers more than willing to read the next one.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Monday, September 22, 2014

Review: 'Fire Shut Up in My Bones'

Fire Shut Up in My Bones
By Charles Blow
Memoir
September 2014
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0544228047

The youngest of five boys in an extended family where one was rarely alone, where great effort was put into using the gifts of the land to feed everyone, where men and women rarely stayed married to each other but had bonds that didn't break, and where dignity and respect shone, Charles Blow remembers those days of his boyhood and young adulthood and brings them vividly to life in his memoir.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones recounts Blow's journey from a hardscrabble family held together by strong-willed women to the beginning of his career as a respected New York Times commentator. His story from child to man has some foundational points that show why he is respected today.

Poverty is there, but it is a story of how family members individually and working together did the best they could and, in some cases, surmounted it. His mother is an inspiration in showing that she didn't give up, not even with a brood of children and an absent husband. She made it back to school and became a teacher and an educational leader. And didn't give up on her children.

Her drive and determination are not sugar-coated, but told simply. So are the tales of how the family was fed, whether through growing their food or taking advantage of a highway wreck involving a load of cattle, much in the way cargo from shipwrecks is saved by coastal dwellers. They all must deal with Jim Crow racism as well, which is strongly interwoven into the generational poverty.

Another foundational point is Blow's search for knowing himself, including his sexuality. He was abused as a child and it both scared him and scarred him. As with many abuse victims, he thought he had done something wrong, especially as the abuser was someone he initially admired. Part of his recovery process includes a search through his spirituality, told in plain, heart-searching fashion.

Blow does his readers the service of not glossing over any of his own missteps, including things he did that he is not proud of as a fraternity leader during his college days. The harm done in hazing to both abuser and victim is not connected with his physical abuse, but the way he has to work through both hazing and sexual abuse demonstrates that if a person continues to question, they can find answers.

This memoir is a stirring account of how one child became a man, carrying on the respect he learned from his strong family members while seeing ways he could leave the hurtful acts behind.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted by permission

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: 'History of the Rain'

History of the Rain
By Niall Williams
Literary fiction
May 2014
Bloomsbury USA
ISBN: 978-1620406472

When the world looks like it is trying even harder this week than last to fall apart, looking for solace to be able to go back out there and do one's best is now called self-care. I call it reading. And I found another novel that provided comfort.

History of the Rain by Niall Williams is on the Man Booker longlist this year. It's the story of young Ruth, confined to her bed upstairs, trying to find her father in the books he left. It's the story of their family, going back generations on both sides, and the story of how the Irish in one small village view themselves. It's also the story of salmon and the river and how one thing always leads to another.

But more than anything, History of the Rain is a story of how love of words and poetry and reading and writing are the stuff of life itself, of our hopes and dreams and loves and sorrows.

Now, all that may sound like a downer to some of you. Channeling Ruth, I can almost see some of you rolling your eyes and clicking your tongues. Hang on though.

Introducing her father and her story, Ruth writes:

The longer my father lived in this world the more he knew there was another to come. ... he imagined that there must be a finer one where God corrected His mistakes and men and women lived in the second draft of Creation and did not know despair. My father bore a burden of impossible ambition. He wanted all things to be better than they were ...

And:

We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who may only live now in the telling.

And in the telling they live on, because, after all:

We have mixed metaphors and outlandish similes for breakfast.

She's a narrator who is old-fashioned in that I didn't have to wonder whether I could trust her or wonder whether she knew what she was talking about. Ruth is honest about herself and her memories. She also knows she misses the mark not only of her father's family Impossible Standard that controls their lives, but also the mark of what normal people not bound by an Impossible Standard know to do. As someone who also read "so many nineteenth-century novels before the age of fifteen that I became exactly too clever by half", I know it's not an Impossible Standard, but an Impossibly Strong Sense of Yearning, that can control the likes of Ruth. Among others.

Williams gives Ruth a wistful, hopeful voice, with just the right dollops of deprecation. She conveys how her father's grandfather and father grappled with the knowledge of the Impossible Standard and how, just when it appeared they were doomed to a lifetime of failure and disappointment, they found where they belonged. So did Ruth's father. He belonged with her mother.

The story of how Ruth's parents met is sweet and tinged with the realism that while things may not be great in Ireland, there is the chance for people to enjoy moments in life, look back and say it was grand.

Grand is the childhood Ruth has with her twin brother. He's the runner, the first-born, the one who never stops. He shines. She's the one who notices things. Their closeness is disrupted at school when they are forced into separate classes and he goes off with the boys. And here is where the tone of Williams's storytelling shines in that Ruth misses her brother, misses the days when they were closer to each other than anyone, but she doesn't resent her brother when he changes. She notes what other kids are cruel and how -- oh, she knows exactly how they are cruel and how they find their prey, and then continues on with what she loves.

And that's mostly words. Whether it's legend, community gossip, those 19th century novels or poetry, it's the words that make Ruth's writing down of her family's story sing:


We're a race of elsewhere people. That's what makes us the best saints and the best poets and the best musicians and the world's worse bankers.

And Ruth comes from people who stay near the river:

Beside the river there are two things you never forget, that the moment you look at a river that moment has already passed, and that everything is on its way somewhere else.

Through Ruth, Williams expresses the kind of witty commentary that only those who love books as their friends can do, whether it's Great Expectations, Stevenson (who is called RLS throughout the novel as one would nickname a friend), Melville, Middlemarch, dear Jane of course, Flannery and Dickens and oh where would we be without Yeats. And the physical qualities of books are lovingly noted as well:
 
 ... the book bulges, basically the smell of complex humanity, sort of sweat and salt and endeavour. Like all the fat orange Penguins, it gets fatter with reading, which it should, because in a way the more you read it the bigger your own experience of the world gets, the fatter your soul. Try it, you'll see.

Yes! That's it!

The secret of writing also is provided, and it's basically this: Sit in the chair. Also, know that writing is a sickness. And the only cure is to write.

Williams writes of the love of the river, the love of the words and the love of parents for their children and of children for their parents. The version he gives Ruth of Joan Didion's famous "we tell ourselves stories in order to live" is this:

We tell stories. We tell stories to pass the time, to leave the world for a while, or go more deeply into it. We tell stories to heal the pain of living.

And Williams also tells the story of Ruth and her family to tell of how they loved each other.

In these days, that is powerful solace.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprint with permission

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Review: ' Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage'

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
By Haruku Murakami
Literary fiction
August 2014
Knopf
ISBN: 978-0385352109

Haruki Murakami is one of the world's best-known and best-loved authors. After reading his latest novel,  Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, one of the reasons why this could be is because his work often explores a character who is not known by many and loved, or even highly regarded, by fewer still.

It's not that the characters are unlovable, let alone monsters, but that they are quiet, unassuming, seeking ways to avoid calling attention to themselves. But within those quiet characters are loudly beating hearts. And the world is filled with people like this.

Tsukuru, whose name means "grey" spelled one way and "someone who makes things" when spelled another way, once was part of a tightly knit group of friends. He and the four others went through high school together as if they were one, like points on a star that stay in balance. The two girls and two other boys in the group all have names that mean colors. Tsukuru feels thrilled that they include him. When it's time for university, Tsukuru is the only one who lives their city. He and his friends fall into their old routine whenever he's home on holidays. Until one visit, when all of them refuse to see him or talk to him. No one will tell him why.

Returning to university, Tsukuru wishes he could die. He feels dead inside. It's months before he climbs out of his sorrow, goes on to earn his engineering degree and remains in Tokyo. His job is something he likes, engineering changes to railway stations to improve them or accommodate changes. It's not exciting but it is useful.

He had one good friend at college who told him a strange story passed on from his father and who, later that same night, is part of a strange dream Tsukuru has involving the two girls. It's either a dream or, considering this is a Murakami novel, a slip into another dimension in which people meet when they are separated in space and time. It's something that's occurred in other Murakami novels, such as Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84 and After Dark. The encounters often lead people to a feeling of closeness or, in this case, to another level of something Tsukuru had not felt or acknowledged how he felt about the girls. It disturbs him, and disturbs him even more when his college friend suddenly becomes part of the scenario.

The story that his friend tells him fits within the overall narrative the way a fairy tale or legend is told, in the dark hours of the night when the story takes on a greater emphasis than it would have if told in daylight. His friend's father ends up as a handyman at a remote mountain resort, pleased to pass the time fixing things and enjoying the scenery. A jazz pianist comes to the resort and eventually recounts a strange story, insinuating that the sack he carries and carefully puts on top of the piano before he ever plays is a burden. It is a burden that can be passed on to another and which involves death. He insinuates that the handyman could voluntarily become the new carrier of the burden. And then the pianist is gone the next day.

It is pure Murakami that he throws in a bit of magical realism to reinforce the idea that it exists in this world, even though it is not visible to many. This idea comes into play later in the book, when Tsukuru speaks to someone he has not seen in years. Both of them have the sense that, even though they were not at a location where someone else encountered danger, they were somehow there and somehow responsible.

In his late 30s, the unattached Tsukuru meets a woman who may be the one for him. It's a quiet relationship. Before it gets deeper, she warns Tsukuru that he hasn't gotten over his past. He needs to resolve the hurt that he suffered when his friends cut him off.

The rest of the novel is paced as one expects in a Murakami work - unhurried, prose matter-of-fact, revelations expressed as quietly as commonplace greetings. There is a melancholy that pervades the acceptance of growing old, of realizing that one may have found one's place in life and that the past cannot be the present or become the future.

But there also is the sense that the more a person can believe in the truth of something, the more alive that person feels:

We truly believed in something back then, and we knew we were the kind of people capable of believing in something -- with all our hearts. And that kind of hope will never simply vanish.

It is this kind of realization that helps Tsukuru decide the value of his lifelong journey, and the next step he wants to take. It also helps him realize that he has to allow others the same privilege and await their decision. While 1Q84 was the kind of story in which young hearts seek each other, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is the kind of story in which young hearts mature but do not give up their search.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted by permission