Friday, July 22, 2022

Coming of Age: Girls on a Mission (and one boy)

I recently read two books that reminded me of each other, and of a classic that has been fading in my memory, so now I'm rereading it. All are about young people doing more than coming of age; they are on a mission.

First, I recently read Lauren Groff's latest novel, Matrix. I had no idea what it would be about and was pleasantly surprised to find it set in Medieval France. Her other books I have read, Fates and Furies, Arcadia (my favorite), and the short-story collection Florida, are set in the contemporary United States. I was thoroughly captivated by this beautifully imagined life of Marie de France, first known female poet of France, and her love for Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Marie, homely bastard child of rape, but educated and partly noble, is exiled from Eleanor's court to an English abbey. There, she grows into her wit and wile, becoming Abbess, and creating her own miniature queendom inspired by stunning hallucinatory (and sensual) visions of women in power. This novel reminds me of Hilary Mantel's amazing trilogy on Cromwell that won two Booker prizes, because of the way we get to know this ambitious character in a thoroughly researched historical setting, but this time with no male characters to speak of.

 

She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan, was even more impressive in its own way. The story opens on a father and two children in a drought in medieval China. The father gives his last fresh food to a fortuneteller, and learns that his son has a great destiny. The girl's destiny, of course, is nothing. However, after the father is killed, the son gives up on life, and the audacious clever daughter says to herself, why should I not take over my brother's destiny? And so she does: she becomes the son. She goes to the local monastery, presents herself as her brother Zhu Chongba, and through persistence becomes its leader's right hand "man." When a eunuch general in service to the Mongols burns the monastery down, Zhu has found her foil: both are excluded from the realm of men, yet have found their own paths to power. It's a fascinating exploration of the conflict between fate and desire, and speculation on women in forbidden roles.

This second novel reminded me strongly of The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer,  by Neal Stephenson. The place is also China, but several centuries after the Mongol invasion. The greatest similarity is a stolen fate. An engineer has been commissioned to create an interactive book that will train his patron's daughter to be subversive: to find a novel way to succeed in a conformist society. The engineer, of course, wants a copy for his own daughter, and goes to great lengths to create one illegally -- only to have it stolen by a street criminal, who gives it to his little sister. In this way, Nell unwittingly steals another child's destiny and will fulfill it in a most unexpected way. This Stephenson classic is not just a coming of age story, but a vision of a whole society molded by nanotechnology and the MC, or matter compiler -- basically, ubiquitous 3D printers that make manufacturing and shipping obsolete. It's breathtaking to go back to this book written in 1995 and see how far Stephenson was looking into our future, as he always does.



And if you want to round out your reading with a young man on a mission, I recommend How to Find Your Way in the Dark, by Derek B. Miller. Young Sheldon's mom and aunt die in a tragic movie house fire, in the years leading up to World War II. After the funeral, Sheldon's father's truck is run off the road and the father is killed, leaving Sheldon an orphan obsessed with revenge. He goes to live with the cousins who lost their mother in the cinema fire, and begins to seek out his father's killer. When he and his friend spend a summer in the Catskills, working as bell boys, he unexpectedly gets his chance. It's part boys' adventure, part chilling detective work.  



Monday, June 27, 2022

Emily St. John Mandel's Reading List

 At the end of Emily Mandel's Sea of Tranquility, she lists these eleven books (including her own Station Eleven, must be a favorite number) that influenced her and that she recommends. I thought I'd share the list and my reactions.



1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I loved it, I have taught it, you may have watched it, now we're living it. If you haven't read it, you must. There's a reason it tops the list. 

2. To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey. I loved it. In 1885, a US Army Colonel is sent to explore Alaska, while his wife reluctantly stays home, discovering birds and photography. You'll recognize the Pacific Northwest setting shared in Sea of Tranquility. 

3. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I loved it. Speculative, post-apocalyptic tale about the role of culture in civilization.

4. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. An amazing love story about an involuntary time traveler and his love, and their intersections at random times in their lives. 

5. Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. Wonderful Chinese-influenced sci-fi short stories. The title story, about first contact with extraterrestrials who do not think linearly, was adapted to the film Arrival.

6. Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. Like Sea of Tranquility, this incredible novel intertwines parallel stories in the past, present, and future, about the power of story. 

7. Dune by Frank Herbert. I read this a long time ago; I found it interesting, but not enough to read the whole saga. 

8. Crystal Eaters by Shane Jones. The only one on this list I have not read yet. I'm on a wait list.

9. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Grim post-apocalyptic speculation.

10. The Opposite House by Helen Oyeyemi. I tried to read this, and found it very confusing and not very engaging. However, I loved her collection of short stories, What is Not Yours is Not Yours. From my Goodreads review, a "mix of really original stuff, fables and fairy tales with a modern twist. Think Margaret Atwood meets David Mitchell."

11. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. I'm a big fan of Ann Patchett, but this one is not one of my favorites. It's about an Amazon tribe that seems to have mastered fertility. But I can highly recommend Bel Canto and The Magician's Assistant. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Bringing characters alive: Penelope Lively

I've been on a Penelope Lively kick lately. I first discovered her on my mission to read all the Booker Prize winners in 2018. Her Moon Tiger won for its beautiful depiction of romance and nostalgia set in World War II. Her books that I've been reading lately take place for the most part in more recent times. 

The Photograph is the story of a man who discovers, after his wife's death, a photograph of her holding hands with another man. Whom he knew. During their marriage. So Glyn sets out on the warpath to unearth everything he can about Kath. The unexpected discoveries end up overturning more than his own understanding of his departed wife. It's great writing, with varied and believable characters, and unforeseen consequences, of course. 


If you like The Photograph, you might love, as I did, Consequences, which in a similar way explores the consequences of a chance meeting, this time reverberating throughout generations. What I love about Consequences is how it touches on so many varieties of romantic relationship: marriage for love; marriage for friendship; an employer-employee affair; a gay couple; and so on. The narrative begins in the thirties, brings us to the present day, then loops back to the beginning in a most satisfying way. 

Family Album, on the other hand, focuses on, as the title indicates, family relationships -- and secrets. Alison and Charles live in a lovely home where they have raised six children, with the help of au pair Ingrid. The children, adults now, return home for various occasions, comparing notes and uncovering a hidden truth about one of them. It's a delicate exploration of the complexity of familial roles and relationships. 

Finally, How It All Began follows in the steps of The Photograph and Consequences: how does one chance act, in this case a mugging, have a butterfly effect on many lives? After the attack, Charlotte must recuperate from her broken hip with daughter Rose. This disruption has consequences for Rose, her employer, her employer's niece, and the student Charlotte starts tutoring during her convalescence. It's a beautiful story, wistful at times, about possibilities glimpsed, seized or left behind. 

In all, Lively writes stories that dig into relationships, focusing on how people react to and grow from drama, rather than the drama itself. 





Thursday, February 17, 2022

A Triptych: Women and Art

I recently read three books in a row, not exactly on purpose, about women and art. 

I'll start with the most popular and my least favorite: A Piece of the World, by Christina Kline Baker, author of Orphan Train. This is the fictionalized story of the life of Christina Olson, from the iconic painting "Christina's World," including her relationship with the man who painted her, Andrew Wyeth. The novel provides a slice of life in rural Maine, from Christina's parents' time through World War II and approaching our day. We gain insight into what it meant to be disabled then and there; I learned that Wyeth had his own disability, a limp caused by a hip defect. It is a well-written book, but the reason it was my least favorite of these three is that the jumping around in time is disorienting. By now, every reader of modern popular fiction is used to narration that shuttles back and forth between now and the past. But this book's chapters could plop you down anywhere from 1899 to 1980, and I couldn't sense any rhyme or reason behind the frequent shake-ups. Those who loved Orphan Train, be prepared for something quite different but engrossing in its own way.

Next, I highly recommend The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith. This is a narrative that more skillfully weaves together various stories and time periods; each one is so distinct that I had no trouble keeping up. Sara de Vos is a fictional painter who lived and worked in the Netherlands in the 1600s. The other main characters are a New Yorker who has inherited a de Vos painting, and the young woman who is hired to forge it. The way these two modern characters come together and discover more about the elusive artist echoes the painter's own evolution, through hard times to finding love. I was reminded a bit of The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, in the way that characters present different facets of themselves to others. It is as much about artifice as art, fascinating and well written. 


Finally, my favorite of the three was The Age of Light, by Whitney Scharer. This novel is based on the true story of Lee Miller, an American fashion model who moved to Paris to reinvent herself as an artist. She becomes apprentice, and later lover, to the famed Surrealist photographer Man Ray. Together, they influence a modern art movement. Later, Miller documents World War II. It's a compelling book about the difficulty of being a female artist in a man's world, with lots of titillating glimpses into Paris of the 1920s and 30s. 




 



Saturday, January 8, 2022

The Bookshop of Yesterday's Cliches

The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson (2018)


The more I think about it, the more disgruntled I am that I finished this book instead of setting it aside, as I was tempted to do one-third of the way through. It is a mish-mash of chick lit cliches, well done, but still.

Big cliche 1. A death brings Our Heroine back home from the Big City. Granted, home is LA, an even bigger city than Philadelphia, where she teaches history. But the go-home-for-a-funeral-to-rediscover-yourself bit has been done to death (pun intended).

Big cliche 2. That death sends her on a scavenger hunt to uncover a Big Secret. Uncle Billy left our heroine a book store, so he uses books to send her clues to a Big Secret in her Past. Cute. Too cute. Any normal person would just write a letter.

Big cliche 3. The bookstore is going under! Let's throw a party to save it! I am so very tired of the "let's save our neighborhood business with a party" trope. It's just an excuse to bring all the characters together at the end.

Big cliche 4. Your Past is Not What You Think! I'll stop there, because spoilers, but really? If you read enough chick lit, you won't believe anyone's version of their past.

Anyway, like I said, it is well written. And there are lots of literary references. But if you have a cliche-detector AT ALL, you may be disappointed.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Three More Short Takes on the Short List

 See my reviews of the other 3 Booker Prize short-list nominees here.

The question raised for me this year, and every year, really, is what type of book should win this prize? The nominees tend to highlight important international stories: the end of South African apartheid (The Promise); the Sri Lankan civil war (A Passage North); a miscarriage of British justice against a colonial immigrant (The Fortune Men); climate change (Bewilderment). Great Circle and No One is Talking About This highlight the more personal problems encountered by women in a man’s world -- though that certainly counts as an important international story, as well, just not as circumscribed. The question remains, is the winner the book that tells the best story, or that addresses the most important problem? I would favor the best story, and therefore to me, Great Circle should have won over The Promise, though all six nominees were of course excellent. 


My favorite this year: Great Circle, by Maggie Shipstead.

Great Circle is a great story about women and flight. Marian is obsessed with flight from early days. Her father died in shipwreck, a captain who didn’t go down with the ship but saved his babies instead, while mother took advantage of the disaster to disappear. Marian and her twin brother are raised by a professorial uncle in the country, where she learns to drive and repair cars, and becomes a delivery driver for a Prohibition-era smuggler. She yearns to fly, and gets her wish when she catches the eye of the area’s top smuggler. Their relationship keeps her grounded, though, so she eventually frees herself. Then follow years of self-sufficiency in Alaska until World War II, when she is recruited to a women’s auxiliary flying force, delivering planes so pilots can do the more important work of fighting. It is here that she discovers love, and a goal: to complete a great circle, flying around the globe from pole to pole.


Interspersed with Marian’s story is that of Hadley, a young actress with a tumultuous career who will be playing Marian in a film of the pilot’s life. Hadley’s story shows that even in the twenty-first century, women still face the frustrating limitations of living in a man’s world. 


I love this book because it is made up of stories of women who subvert the male agenda for their own personal desire. These two very human women, and the characters around them, live out their interesting lives not always aware of how their fierce independence sets them apart: they are just being themselves. This soaring book provides a panoramic view of several decades of American history, with side jaunts into wilderness tracking, the art world, airplane maintenance, and going incognito by changing gender. As thrilling to read as watching a young woman in an open cockpit turn her biplane in loop-de-loops.


The Fortune Men, by Nadifa Mohamed

Mahmood Mattan was a Somali immigrant in Cardiff in the early 50s, convicted and hanged for a murder he did not commit. This novel is based on the true story of the first execution that the British justice system later overturned as wrongful. Mahmood’s story reminds me of Marian’s in some ways: the youngest of several brothers, he found the only way to see the world was to leave home as a merchant marine. He sails away from hot, dry Somaliland to the cold and damp British Isles, where he falls in love with a Welsh woman who bears him three boys. It’s hard for Black men to find work, so Mahmood turns to gambling and shoplifting. But he did not wield the razor that killed the Jewish shopkeeper. 


It’s a sad, sad tale, even sadder knowing it’s true. The author has not tried to make Mahmood into an unrealistic hero. He moves through the various phases of grief in reaction to the charge and conviction, staying a long time in denial, then becoming more religious, then hoping to find the actual murderer. At times I was reminded of the fatalistic futility of Camus’ The Stranger, set in about the same time period. 


Mohamed imagines the lives of our hero, the victim, and their families with compassion. I am glad to have learned of this landmark case, even though it broke my heart.


A Passage North, by Anuk Arudpragasam

This is another book that reminded me of The Stranger. Krishan learns that Rani, a woman who used to take care of his aging grandmother, has died. Rani was traumatized by the death of her two sons during Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war, and found some measure of healing by taking care of an old woman far from the scenes of carnage. Krishan travels north to that former battleground for the funeral, and the novel is mostly his reminiscences during the long voyage: about Rani and his grandmother; about the war, which he avoided by studying in India; and about a brief romance he had with an activist for women’s and workers’ rights. Krishan recounts every moment of the funeral ceremony, including a long walk in dry heat to the cremation grounds. 


The book is full of slow, meditative passages on love and the approach of death. It’s only my second glimpse into this small country’s bloody past; my first was Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost. It’s a philosophical reflection on the constant struggle between the urgency to create a better world, and the necessity of just getting by.  


Sunday, October 17, 2021

Short Takes on the Short List, 2021

 I've read three of the six on the Booker short list for 2021, and here's what I think: 

1. Patricia Lockwood, No One is Talking About This. The first half is about the kind of fifteen minutes of fame that the Internet makes possible. The second half is about the eternal (or perhaps soon to be solved?) problem of a problem pregnancy. It's an interesting book, but I think it will have a short shelf life, due to the ephemerality of part one. Does that make it more or less likely to win? Should the prize be awarded to a book that captures the time, or will outlive the time? 4 stars.

2. The Promise by Damon Galgut. Another South African saga (the winners' list is peppered with them) about the transition from white to black power, and the guilt, or lack thereof, that whites take on. A seamless marvel of stream of consciousness. 5 stars.

3. Richard Powers' Bewilderment. Another tour de force from Powers. Like The Echo Maker, this one marries the environmental themes of his masterpiece The Overstory with the curiosity about the human mind at the center of Generosity and Galatea 2.0. It's a beautiful book about a year in the life of a single father trying to help his neuro-atypical son, who is worried about the world. 5 stars.