Saturday, March 28, 2020

Reading Kevin Wilson – Something to See Here

Kevin Wilson has written five books, of which I have read three recently.

The Family Fang (2011)
Nothing to See Here (2019)
Perfect Little World (2017)

My first exposure to Kevin Wilson was The Family Fang, which tells of a very strange family, indeed. Mom and dad are performance artists, and their kids are the stars of the show. Their “pieces” usually include putting the kids into really awkward, sometimes dangerous, situations and seeing how unwitting bystanders react. As you can imagine, these kids grow up with a lot of baggage. 

Annie (known in her parents’ work as “Child A”) uses her childhood training to become a successful actress. Buster (“Child B”) turns his weird childhood into writing. When both adult children encounter a low point in their careers, they return home – and soon after, mom and dad go missing.
Are they really dead, as the police believe? Or is this just another one of their stunts? Annie and Buster partner up to find out. I basically read this whole book with wide eyes and dropped jaw, waiting to see what would happen next. I doubt you’ll see the final resolution coming, so just wait for it.

Nothing to See Here is not exactly a sequel but more like a spin-off of The Family Fang. Remember how Annie Fang channeled her childhood suffering into an acting career? Nothing to See Here is the story of one of the films she stars in. 

Lillian is an overachiever turned loser. Despite her impoverished childhood, she earns a scholarship to a fancy boarding school, where she meets Madison, the ultimate rich daddy’s girl. When Madison is caught with cocaine, Madison’s daddy offers Lillian’s mom a lot of money for Lillian to take the fall. Lillian is kicked out, and that’s pretty much the end of her ambitions.

And now Madison’s in trouble again. Her rich senator husband’s ex-wife has died, leaving him in charge of his two children by that first marriage. Who catch fire. Yes, you read that right: the senator’s children catch fire. It doesn’t hurt them, but boy, is it inconvenient. So Madison calls on Lillian to come take care of these two little firebrands – and keep them out of sight – while their senator daddy is being vetted for Secretary of State.

The greatest strength of The Family Fang and Nothing to See Here is the outrageous premise, and the growth that comes out of these horrible situations. However, they also both share some really weak characters. In both novels, the parents (Mr. and Mrs. Fang, Madison and her senator hubby) are two-dimensional bad guys. I just hated them all, because they had no redeeming qualities and showed no growth.

Perfect Little World, however, I found to be a lot more complex. It does have a two-dimensional bad guy, but she plays a much smaller role. Perfect Little World also begins with another outrageous premise to do with parenting: a social scientist and a wealthy businesswoman team up to create a utopian commune for raising children cooperatively. Single mom Izzy joins up. She’s the analog to Lillian in Nothing to See Here: a weird young woman thrust into taking care of weird children in a weird situation, and pulling it off. Perhaps due to the larger cast – the other parents and their children – this novel is more nuanced. We see the inevitable adult drama (and cheating) that would occur in such an experiment. We see kids forming unexpected alliances. Though some of the characters simply never get developed, I see the interactions between them as more realistic and relatable.  

Three Modern Takes on Slavery

The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Underground Airlines, Ben Winters
Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

Some really interesting takes on slavery have come out recently.

Of these three novels, The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates is probably getting the most press, thanks to Oprah’s Book Club. I first heard it described as science-fiction, but as a big sci-fi fan myself, I would classify it as fantasy. Hiram is a slave, whose mother has been sold away by his father and master. Hiram’s “task” is to mind his white half-brother, Hiram’s opposite in every way: slothful, disrespectful, but heir to the estate. One late night, Hiram is driving his brother home, and their carriage goes off a bridge. The heir drowns, but Hiram somehow survives. Hiram’s miraculous survival brings him to the attention of the Underground.

It turns out Hiram has inherited an unusual ability, Conducting, by which the conductor (such as Harriet Tubman) uses memory to build a bridge across distances, and lead slaves away from “the Task.” That is the part that qualifies this book as fantasy, rather than science fiction, which would have a somewhat more rigorous explanation for this magical power.
Genre nitpicking aside, it’s a compelling read. Hiram is a realistic character, a young man who makes mistakes of passion, and learns from those around him, particularly women. The heartbreak of slavery and the shakiness of freedom are portrayed in vivid colors. I have not read any of Coates’ other books, but I understand this is his first foray into fiction. Bravo!

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead has also gotten a lot of press. Its format is closer to a picaresque (think Gulliver’s Travels or Candide), a series of vignettes that answer the question “what if?” in different ways. What if former slaves were “allowed” to live and work in relative freedom – provided they agreed to be sterilized? What if all-white communities thrived by using lynchings as theater? et cetera. The surreal element to this book is the existence of a literal underground railroad, tunnels and tracks leading to the different regions Whitehead describes. As long as you can suspend disbelief about this implausible infrastructure, it’s another interesting read, but personally my least favorite of these three.

Finally, Ben Winters is probably the least known to the general public, but my favorite of the three, because of his amazing speculative fiction. His Last Policeman series is a thrilling trilogy about social collapse pending the arrival of a killer asteroid. Golden State is even further out there, a twist on the ideas of Minority Report.

Underground Airlines is impressive on at least two levels. First, Winters constructs a plausible alternate reality in which the Civil War did not happen, and four states continue to allow and encourage slavery in the twenty-first century. Now, of course, the slaves work in giant prison-like factory complexes, rather than on plantations. The most impressive part of this alternate reality, to me, was the careful thought that Winters put into the economic and diplomatic aspects of this cowardly new world: who would ally with the southern states? Who would sell them their cars? And in the north, where would people import their slave-free cotton and cigarettes from? The details are dropped casually but expand one’s view of the consequences of slavery on the global economy.

Second, the novel’s plot stands alone as a strong mystery thriller. An investigator has been hired to track down a runaway slave. The twist is that the investigator himself is a failed runaway, coerced into serving his own trackers. The pursuit is heightened therefore by the pursuer’s inner conflict, and the many twists and turns it takes will keep you reading to the end.   

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Reading in the Time of Corona

Reading in the Time of Corona

(My apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez for mangling his title. By the way, I went to my local library’s online catalog to check out Love in the Time of Cholera, after seeing it referenced in American Dirt. There was a waitlist for this book, which is not exactly a new release. Is it really that popular, still? Or are other readers interested for the same reason I am?)

So, COVID-19 is upon us. I am a teacher, and while I’m currently on spring break, 
I’ll be teaching remotely when it’s over, via a teleconference app called Zoom. I’ve 
got a green sheet hanging behind my desk to act as a green screen, so I can show background pictures from all over France. 

But our online teaching day will end at 2, and my evening activities are canceled: yoga class, dog training, therapy, etc. What to do but read? I already read about 100 books a year, but I expect my number to be even higher this year. Here’s a picture of my to-read shelf from the beginning of the voluntary self-isolation period.

I was really excited about reading Queen of America, by Luis Alberto Urrea, the sequel to his heartbreaking novel, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, about a young woman who becomes a saint to the oppressed people of Mexico, in the late 1800s. I am typically more likely to cry at a movie than a book, but I shed tears at least twice during that first novel. However, having just completed American Dirt with my new book club, I am unwilling to take on another book about Mexican suffering at this time. I know, first world problems. I am truly grateful I am only reading about it, not living it.

So my first pick off the shelf will be Generosity, by Richard Powers, author of the life-changing book The Overstory. If you haven't read The Overstory, just read it. It's about trees and people, and how the way we treat trees is killing our environment -- which will kill us. After reading The Overstory, I read his novel about AI (artificial intelligence), Galatea 2.2, which was just not as compelling for me. I hope Generosity is more like The Overstory.

That’s it for now. Let me know what you’re looking forward to reading in the comments!

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Booker Book-Ends, 2019

Even though the committee expressly made a rule forbidding this the last time it happened, it has happened again: two books shared the Booker Prize this year.

Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo

This book is a symphony, or a patchwork quilt, or an epic poem, or a kaleidoscope, of the many different lives and identities of black British women. There are lesbians and straight women, cisgender and transgender, women who embrace their African ancestry and women who try to pass. They are bankers, artists, housewives, and students of life, and they are all interconnected. An eye-opener for this white woman, a reminder of how different and yet how alike we all are.

This was the pithy review I posted on Goodreads. My views on The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood, are somewhat more conflicted, and require a longer post. 

The Handmaid's Tale is a classic of speculative fiction, a must-read, a book I have taught to high-schoolers. It's not just a chillingly plausible story about how a right-wing religious group takes over the government and steals women's rights to do or own anything, down to their names. It's also a carefully constructed dystopian world in the not-too-distant future, that has inspired a hit TV show (which I can't watch, because it will necessarily deviate from the book, and that will just annoy me). On top of all that, it's full of clever word play, and includes two characters who play Scrabble. 

So I was very excited when I heard that Atwood had finally written a sequel, and was happy to return to the world of Gilead -- as a reading visitor, of course, not a resident {shudder}. We learn what happened to Baby Nicole, the child that was taken from protagonist Offred. And we meet other young women in Gilead who would be about her age, and through them, we learn much more about the educational system (what little there is) for girls in Gilead. Most are married off, of course, but some become missionaries, and some of the smarter ones join the Aunts.

Speaking of Aunts, the biggest shocker, I think, is what we learn about Aunt Lydia (SPOILER ALERT!!! - skip this paragraph if you don't want to know.) Aunt Lydia is actually a subversive, destroying the system from within, sending out spies disguised as missionaries. This is the part of the book that I'm conflicted about: Lydia was just a mean old bitch in the first book. Reframing her as a "good guy" is a big pill to swallow, and I'm afraid it might just be a bit too facile.

On the whole, this book suffers from the problems many sequels do: the excitement of the first book is in the world-building and the conflict between character and society; here, in book two, those are a bit stale. I am grateful for the sequel, but not convinced it's worthy of book one. 

So if you loved The Handmaid's Tale and want more of Atwood's frighteningly plausible speculative fiction, I would highly recommend the MaddAddam series, starting with Oryx and Crake