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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review: 'The Wangs vs. the World'

The Wangs vs. the World
By Jade Chang
Literary fiction
October 2016
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0544734098

A man comes to America, makes a fortune, has three remarkable children and a second wife who has loved him since childhood, then loses his fortune. This is only the beginning of The Wangs vs. the World.

Jade Chang's novel is an odyssey for all of its characters. Charles Wang, upon losing his makeup fortune, has now decided he hates America. He now dreams of reclaiming his family's land in China, even though his family fled to Taiwan and he came to the States.

His oldest child, Saina, once was the toast of the New York artistic community. She and her fiance, Grayson, another luminary in that world, had it all. Then she put together a questionable third show that used the faces of Middle Eastern women killed in war, re-imaged into fashion photographs. Grayson slept with a beautiful blonde heiress and made a baby. Saina decamped to upstate New York, bought a farmhouse and fell for a sweet African American man who was adopted as a baby by a family of organic farmers.

Middle child Andrew is at a party university struggling to lose his virginity. He wants to fall in love first. The busty white girl he's with doesn't see things that way. Maybe he can make it as a comedian after all.

Youngest child Grace is at boarding school, whether she wants to be there or not, and is far more interested in her fashion blog and artistic selfies than anything academic.

Their stepmother, Barbra, was the child of cafeteria workers where Charles was at school in Taiwan. He was the one for her, the one most likely to be successful, but he went to America and never returned. His first wife died in a helicopter crash when Grace was a baby; Grace still has the photograph her father snapped of her mother just before she got on board. Barbra is usually just there in the background, neither beloved nor reviled. But she is steadily there, even if she is angry right now at their new financial circumstances.

Before Charles can go reclaim his Chinese land, he wants his family gathered. Having lost everything in sunny California, where he made a fortune manufacturing makeup instead of contacting the fertilizer manufacturers his father sent him to meet. There is a common ingredient -- urea -- which is itself a comment on the irony of financial greatness.

Charles's love and hate for America, what he thinks he did for it and what he thinks it did to him, form the reason for his overwhelming desire to reclaim his family and his ancestral land. At his deepest hate, he thinks:

America was a great deceptor. Land of Opportunity. Golden Mountain. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. But inside those pretty words, between the pretty coasts, was this: Miles and miles of narrow-minded know-nothings who wanted no more out of life than an excuse to cock their AK-47s and take arms against a sea of troubles. A Great Wall? Ha! This country could never build itself anything as epic as that. America wanted to think itself as a creator, but all it could do was destroy -- fortunes, families, lives. Even the railroads needed the Chinese to come and build them.

Charles and Barbra gather Andrew and Grace, then drive across America in the old car they still have (because he sold it to his old ama for $1 and then took it back after dropping her off with family).

On the road, what might turn into madcap zaniness episodes are instead looks at each individual in the family as they undertake their own inner journeys. Waiting for them in her refuge, Saina has her own emotional journey when her old lover and a former friend now looking to make her part of a big story of New York failures, appear.

In this meeting of family story, and the creation of art and wealth, observations such as ones Saina make are formed:

Your clubscapes don't really exists, she wanted to say. They're a bunch of things that are supposed to make a statement about another thing. Your collectors are buying a series of symbols because critics have conferred meaning upon them. It's the same thing as buying a piece of paper that the banks say represent a group of homeowners' individual promises to pay back their mortgages. Wasn't that abstraction the beautiful thing about what they did? ... The things we agree to call art are the shamanic totems of our time. We value them beyond all reason because we can't really understand them. They can mean everything or nothing, depending on what the people who look at them decide. ...
All I wanted, Saina thought, was to make someone feel something. Money can't do that. ... You can earn it, win it, lose it, save it, spend it, find it, but you can't sell it because you never really own it. On the other hand, you didn't have to possess a song or a sculpture for it to make you feel something -- you only had to experience it.

Chang has crafted a novel in which individuals and the group -- the family -- each have their story. And those stories work together. Each of them deals with love, whether they love too much or don't care enough. A novel in which love that characters feel -- whether it's for family, a person, a career, the land, a great country or a great idea -- is a novel worthy of time and attention. It doesn't have to be possessed to be experienced and appreciated. It's a novel in which a character decides that "loving too hard was the only option" and it rings true.

©2016 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Review: 'Hag-Seed'

By Margaret Atwood
Literary fiction
October 2016
ISBN: 978-080414291

Reading this novel the same week that we lost Leonard Cohen, I kept hearing his Anthem with that important point of wisdom: There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.

I found light in Margaret Atwood's retelling of The Tempest. Her latest novel, Hag-Seed, is part of the Hogarth series retelling Shakespeare. To be able to convey a long-held desire for revenge, competing desires and motives and, at the height of it all, forgiveness and letting go, both Shakespeare and Atwood are writing about larger-than-life characters who can serve as grand tools of catharsis.

Atwood's Prospero is Felix Phillips, artistic director of a theatrical troupe that has made a small town an artistic hub. He married late; his wife did not survive long past childbirth. His beloved daughter, named Miranda, died when she was three; her fever grew worse while Felix was at the theater. His productions grow ever more  avant garde. His upcoming production of The Tempest will be all over the map and of questionable taste, including a magician's cloak of animal pelts. But that's what art is all about, right?

Not to The Powers that Be. Especially when Felix's number two, Tony, has him escorted out before a single performance of the play where his Miranda can be the child who never died, but who grew up on the island and fell in love with a noble lad, spared from Caliban.

That was 12 years ago. In the interim, Felix found a little shack in the country, an island, if you will, where he pretends Miranda never died but is an Ariel-like sprite who no one sees but him.

What he wants above all else, even revenge, is the chance to stage The Tempest. To bring his play to life, for his daughter, for Miranda.

He unexpectedly gets that opportunity a few years after he takes on a part-time teaching job in a prison. He teaches Shakespeare and writing by staging plays, with the inmates acting, doing the stage work and writing about their characters. Felix takes the job under a stage name, Mr. Duke, even though the university professor who arranged his hiring knows who he is, and was.

Mr. Duke is a hit with the inmates. After the obvious plays for the men -- Julius Caesar, Richard III, that Scottish play -- and tracking the movements of his enemies, Felix is ready. It's time to stage The Tempest. For his enemies, for himself, for Miranda.

There is a grand caper-like quality to putting on this production. Will Felix and the men pull it off? He even has a real woman to play Miranda -- the very young actress he hired years ago for the production that didn't happen is taking part as a poised young woman. But between the caper aspects of the story, Atwood keeps the emotional aspect of the novel going as well. At one point Felix "has a split instant of seeing Prospero through the gaze of Miranda -- a petrified Miranda who's suddenly realized that her adored father is a full-blown maniac, and paranoid into the bargain." What will that moment of realization about the character and about himself do to Felix and what will happen?

Should we be rooting for him? Does it depend on who Prospero is? Atwood tackles this head-on with the men delving into the afterlives of their characters, with their raps to make the play more vibrant and real for them, with their questioning of Felix to make him justify his actions and interpretations.

His voice sounds fraudulent. Where is the authentic pitch, the true note? Why did he ever think he could play this impossible part? So many contradictions to Prospero! Entitled aristocrat, modest hermit? Wise old mage, revengeful old poop? Irritable and unreasonable, kindly and caring? Sadistic, forgiving? Too suspicious, too trusting? ... They cheated for centuries when presenting this play. They cut speeches, they edited sentences, trying to confine Prospero within their calculated perimeters. Trying to make him one thing or the other. Trying to make him fit.

Which is what we do not only through art and the way we view art.

In taking the play and the characters apart after their own production, the men come up with fascinating ideas that can provide even more catharsis than the play as they call out Prospero and give Ariel and Caliban their due. (It looks like Atwood had fun creating raps with biting lyrics the men perform instead of the traditional songs.) And they recognize that it's all right to change one's mind about revenge, that it's all right to change one's mind and forgive. It's a chance that is not given or taken lightly by the characters:

Is extreme goodness always weak? Can a person be good only in the absence of power? The Tempest asks us these questions.

And the answer? Doesn't it depend on one's character regardless of power? Or was Lord Acton right? Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? Prospero nearly fell victim to that hubris. But Ariel saved him. And they all were saved.

Because, as is also noted in the novel's chapters that deconstruct the play:

There is of course another kind of strength, which is the strength of goodness to resist evil; a strength that Shakespeare's audience would have understood well.

©2016 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Review: 'Today will be Different'

Today will be Different
By Maria Semple
Literary fiction
October 2016
Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 978-0316403436

Family letting you down, micro-aggressions, President John Tyler's progeny, letting the days slip by and whether you love someone enough to move to Spokane with them are among the ideas in Maria Semple's warm, funny and seriously good Today Will be Different.

In her second novel, following the brilliant Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, Semple again focuses on a Seattle mother of a precocious young child and an accomplished husband. Our heroine this time was behind a cult hit of an animated series years ago. She has had an advance for a book based on the characters but gotten nowhere. Eleanor has been spinning her wheels for years. Her morning mantra that "today will be different" and that she might, say, get dressed and go to yoga after taking her son to school shows how encapsulated her life has become.

Eleanor realizes she has first-world problems. Her husband is a successful surgeon prized by the Seahawks. In Seattle, this practically makes one royalty. (The scene in Costco of people swarming around 12th Man cupcakes decorated with blue and green frosting is repeated across the state. It's not just Seattle. It's not just Costco.) Their son attends a prized, private school. She takes personalized poetry lessons from an aspiring writer. Her worst nightmare is going to lunch with a woman she views as boring.

Through the course of a day that is at times over the top, filled with flashbacks and takes more twists and turns than a hiking trail in the North Cascades, Eleanor shows the reader why she has been spinning her wheels, how much it could cost her and what really matters to her.

One person who really matters to Eleanor is her sister, Ivy. After their mother died, Eleanor took care of Ivy while their father drank away the rest of his life. Her drawings of those times about the two Flood Girls are the foundation of the work she is trying to create now.

The strength of Semple's storytelling is that the following wisdom is not plunked in the middle of finding out what the current situation is with Eleanor and Ivy, but it resonates with this and what happens after the reader finds out what the current situation is:

"If you were raised by a drunk, you're above all the adult child of an alcoholic. It means you blame yourself for everything, you avoid reality, you can't trust people, you're deeply insecure and hungry to please."

This is what has made Eleanor tick. That this truth is not the sole basis of what happened makes the novel even stronger. Whether it's a spouse's evolving belief system, whether it's holding onto the past well past its sell-by date, or whether it's realizing that, like Dorothy, there's no place like home (even if it means moving home to Spokane or Scotland or even New York City), Today will be Different has a strong heart beating under the madcap antics of Eleanor on her wild ride of a day.

"Today there will be an ease about me." Eleanor starts her story promising this. By the end, we see that it may well come to be.

©2016 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission