American Marriage

I just finished reading An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones. I can’t remember how I came across it—I ordered it from Book Outlet, but whether I browsed it and decided on it or it was recommended by one of the readers on Facebook’s “What Should I Read Next?” group, I don’t remember. The plot, which speaks to contemporary situations, intrigued me, and there is much to like about this book.

The basic story is this: Roy and Celestial meet, then meet again, and eventually fall in love or decide they have found the right partner, or whatever people do who decide to marry. Roy is in business but has greater aspirations, and Celestial is a fabric artist, specializing in making eerily lifelike baby dolls. They are married for about 18 months and are celebrating the anniversary of their first date when a crime is committed nearby and the victim identifies Roy as her rapist. Although Celestial knows it’s impossible (he was with her at the time, and neither was asleep), she is the only witness and is apparently less convincing to his jury than is the victim; Roy is sentenced to 12 years in prison.

For the first three years of Roy’s incarceration, Celestial stays true to Roy, although her sense of him, herself, and their marriage suffers as time goes on with little reinforcement as to its reality. She continues to pursue a dream first articulated by Roy to open a shop to sell her “poupées” (dolls), and allows her work to consume her as she feels increasingly alienated from her marriage.

André has been Celestial’s neighbor and best friend since they were small children. Although she has always regarded him as a friend, he has loved her since he met her. He was also friends with Roy, and is actually the one who introduced them and watched while they made a match of it; he has been Celestial’s constant companion since, never crossing the line, until Celestial’s doubt in the viability of hers and Roy’s relationship after several years apart gives him hope for something different. They eventually drift together almost as if it’s inevitable, and have begun to form a solid relationship when Roy’s lawyer’s efforts to appeal his case surprisingly pay off and Roy is released at the end of a five-year stint.

Roy knows that he and Celestial have been estranged; but he expects she has been faithful and hopes to rekindle or restart life with her now that his time in jail is over. Celestial, meanwhile, looks at the time they have been separated versus the time they were actually together, and sees it as something of an uncrossable gulf.

The book has several things to recommend it: The format is intriguing, with the narration of the first few chapters before Ray’s arrest alternating between Roy and Celestial. After the arrest, the alternating narration continues but becomes epistolary, contained in letters from the prison to Atlanta and back again. Shortly before Roy’s release, André steps in with first-person narrative, and the rest of the book is mostly from his and Roy’s alternating points of view. I found all of it absorbing.

The language in which the story is written is engaging, with an extended vocabulary and unusual, evocative phrasing by the protagonists in both their conversations and their descriptions that constantly catches the ear.

The premise itself is what drew me to the book: The knowledge of how easily and how often mistakenly a man of color is arrested in this country is an issue in the forefront of many people’s minds right now, so the opportunity to read a book about that actual event was appealing.

There are, however, also some things that are lacking about this book. The first, for me, is the pivotal incident—the misunderstanding that led to accusations that led to conviction and incarceration. I understand that the author’s purpose was more about focusing on the outcomes of the wrongful conviction and that the conviction was in some ways a foregone conclusion, given our society’s blind spots; but I would have liked a little more attention paid to the mechanics of how Roy ended up in prison than the five scant pages it is given. It was, ultimately, a he-said-she-said situation, and although it was unlikely to conclude differently, I would have appreciated seeing that drama enacted on the page instead of being nearly incidental to the story.

The second is the treatment of the characters. Interestingly, the secondary characters (Roy’s daddy, Big Roy and his biological father, Walter; his mother, Olive, and Celestial’s father, Franklin) were beautifully drawn and seemed like real people from the neighborhood. But there was a disconnection for me from Celestial, which I found particularly strange considering that the author is a woman. There was a lot of noise made by Roy in the attempt to keep Celestial; but she was such a reticent, inarticulate figure that I never got a sense of exactly what it was that made her tick. Even though I understood, by the end, what was happening and had a sense of why, the words are never actually said by Celestial, and I was, along with Roy, so frustrated by that. It came to the point, during the pivotal decisions about their marriage, where he was speaking for both of them, almost holding a conversation with himself by claiming to know what she was thinking and how she felt, and although he may have been intuitive enough to guess those things, I actually found it rather offensive that the author wouldn’t just put the words that needed saying into Celestial’s mouth. She ended up such a passive, helpless, weepy creature when she started out as the strong and independent one, and it left me unsatisfied, particularly because we get to find out the conclusion to everything through one of those “six months later” epilogues that I hold in such disregard.

Still, despite all this I see the value of this book in explaining the crippling disconnection of a whole segment of society from their roots, their relationships, and their continuing lives by the mechanism of wrongful imprisonment, and the struggle it must be to reconnect with any of those once the separation is over. The total disruption of lives is unforgivable. There is much here that is profound and moving, and Roy is not a character I will soon forget.

Character

I haven’t made a post for a while now, for several reasons: I’m still finishing off Charlie Higson’s dystopian series for teens (I’m reading The End and hoping that all my many questions are answered); I started teaching my Readers’ Advisory class at UCLA this past Tuesday and have spent some of my time preparing for that (mostly cleaning up my combination office/art studio so it’s fit to be seen in the background of Zoom); and I’ve been rather caught up in the political events of the day (unhealthy obsession with Facebook posts). But I should be at the end of The End soon, and on to my next read.

In the meantime, the combination of contemplating “appeals” for readers’ advisory and doing a massive clear-out, clean-up, and re-shelving of my entire library of fiction in my four bedroom bookshelves caused me to think about the nature of “character” as a dominating force in fiction.

To explain a bit for those who are not up on librarian lingo, appeals are what we call the various reasons why people enjoy what they read. Some people are motivated by adrenalin and want something fast-paced and exciting; others love beautiful language and want to be wooed by unusual or lyrical phrasing; and one particularly powerful appeal is that of “character.” The ability to identify with or, alternatively, loathe a character or set of characters in a book is one aspect that draws people to read more. The success of the belabored Harry Potter franchise is largely due to the desire to find out what happens next to the maturing Harry and his friends, and all of us can probably think of a book or five whose characters were what kept us coming back to its pages. A few recent books in which character dominated include Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, A Man Called Ove, and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. (A major clue as to whether the book is character-driven is if the main character’s name appears in the title. Witness Harry Potter and the….)

As I have mentioned here several times, belonging to the Facebook group “What Should I Read Next?” is sometimes an exercise in patience, because most of the readers there have become caught up in the bestseller craze and all end up reading the same 12 books. So in the effort to find them—and you—other compelling reads, I thought I would spend a blog post examining some of my past favorites that are wholly about the character.

A compelling writer of character-driven works is the author Mary Renault, and although her entire oeuvre contains much to appreciate, there is not another that rivals The Persian Boy, her tale of a bed slave named Bagoas who was abducted, gelded, and sold as a courtesan to King Darius of Persia. When Alexander and his Macedonian army conquer the Persians, Bagoas finds himself in a rather untenable position and decides he will achieve safety only by ingratiating himself with the conqueror himself. Although Alexander is quick to see the appeal of this highly motivated slave, he is slow to take advantage of his utter dependency, and the courtship between the two of them is both touching and fiery.

The Persian Boy is actually the second in a series of three books Renault wrote about Alexander. The early years, when he rises from a beleaguered son of warring parents to become the master of all lands he surveys, are covered in Fire from Heaven, in which he experiences love and trust for the first time with his best friend and fellow warrior, Hephaistion. But that book is far more event-driven, whereas The Persian Boy, being narrated from the point of view of someone with whom Alexander had a solely personal connection, is limited in scope in terms of world events but much more specific about the relationships. It is, in fact, a love story, and I would regard it as one of the great ones, containing as it does not just attraction or romance but also loss and pain, desire and jealousy, joy, courage, and cowardice. It is an exceedingly intimate view of Alexander the man beside that of Alexander the great warrior, and is filtered through the emotions and psychology of a patient bystander.

At the beginning of the third book, Funeral Games, Alexander the Great lies dying, surrounded by his former generals, satraps, and wives, all competing like wolves for the prizes of power and land. Only the two loves of his life, Hephaistion and Bagoas, realize and truly mourn what has been lost. Funeral Games documents the disintegration of the mighty empire built in 20 years and brings Alexander’s saga from age 12 to 33 to its close.

There is a variability of voice in these tales that lets them be read as a series but also allows the reader to experience them as stand-alone novels. The first is told in the first person by Alexander; the second is the purview of Bagoas; and the third is written from a third-person observer stance. I discovered and read The Persian Boy first, only picking up the others afterwards, and felt no sense that anything was missing in that first reading. When people ask for an LGBTQ love story that goes beyond the contemporary meet-cute or the simultaneous struggle with coming out that invades so many of these stories, my thoughts immediately return to the yearning and transcendent happiness contained with the pages of Renault’s classic work.

Another protagonist with whom I have been in love since the first time I read the book is Shevek, the humble man and brilliant physicist at the heart of Ursula K. LeGuin’s book The Dispossessed. The book is a recounting of an existential thought experiment: The author posits what would happen to individuals in a social system that rewards conformity, although that social system in this case is based on a sort of group anarchy. Urras is a world much like our own, driven by commerce. Within its teeming millions is a group of individuals who wish to live their lives quite differently and, because Anarres, the moon of their planet, is suitable (though not ideal) for human life, they are allowed to colonize it. The two societies make a pact that neither will invade the other and, for more than 100 years, not one individual from either society has crossed the line between them except for shipments of supplies that arrive and leave the small port on Anarres.

A map I made to illustrate LeGuin’s masterpiece.

Shevek grows up in this ascetic society, a planned utopia where no one takes precedence over anyone else, where each is valued but all are expected to make their contribution to society in return for a place in it. He does his part, planting trees in the desert, drawing food service or waste management tasks for 10 days at a time, and through it all manages to find a great love, Takver, and have children; but while he goes through these tasks of daily life, his brain is operating on another plain—trying to understand temporal physics—that demands discussion, the exchange of ideas, and a close relationship with those on his mental level who are capable of understanding his brilliance. Ultimately, he makes the choice, despite the possibility of losing his home, his family, perhaps even his life, to go back to Urras to see what the scientists of that world have to offer him.

The fascinating part of the book is how the society on Anarres was originally founded as a profound act of nonconformity, and yet ends up suppressing originality and demanding obedience from a man chafing under its restrictions. LeGuin achieves her objective—the exploration of the concept of freedom—by letting the reader recognize the virtues of the system under which Shevek lives and
then realize how stifling it has become, without being either polemical or strident.

If it weren’t for the “stigma” of being categorized as science fiction, I believe this book would take its place amongst the most important of classic novels, and that Shevek would be a much more well-known protagonist in the reading world.

Some books you love for a protagonist, and some for an entire cast of characters. In the second category are the books by E. F. Benson that were latterly brought together in an Omnibus volume called Make Way for Lucia. There are six Mapp and Lucia novels in the series, and they must be read in order, for events take on importance in a specific sequence that must be appreciated.

At first glance, you might not think that a view into the social world of upper-middle class Edwardian village dwellers would be particularly compelling. But what you have to understand about the Mapp and Lucia books is the exaggerated degree of sheer triviality that guarantees a contrary fascination. Benson had a disdain for middle class people pretending to a rank to which they are not entitled, and his satires of these mushrooms trying to push their way into high society are brilliant and also funny as hell.

The books feature the feuding doyennes of Riseholme and Tilling, whose decidedly bourgeois residents get flustered in the presence of noble titles but king and queen it in the presence of everyone else. The main protagonists—or should we call them pugilists?—are Emmeline Lucas, designated “Lucia,” and Elizabeth Mapp. Though the stories begin with each of them ruling their respective roosts with total social supremacy in their separate villages, fate brings them together to hilarious effect. But the reader is not solely reliant on Lucia and Miss Mapp in these stories; Benson has created a whole cast of characters, including the dashing Georgie Pillson, aging bachelor, with his elbow-length cape and carefully trained piece of hair draped over his scalp; the drunken and slightly naughty Major Benjy; artist and naked sunbather Irene Coles; Mrs. Boucher with her daughters, Piggy and Goosie, in tow; and so many more. The tempests in the teapots that are the meat of these ’20s and ’30s comedies of manners are hilarious, witty, and slightly nasty. In other words, inspired. Auberon Waugh, eldest son of Evelyn, said,

“I might have gone to my grave
without ever knowing about
Lucia and Miss Mapp. It is not a risk
anyone should take lightly.”

It’s about time for me to read them for the third time.

I hope you have enjoyed this meander through some character-driven books, and that it will inspire you to look them up for yourself or to reflect on the characters that have come to life for you during your lifetime of reading. If any compelling ones occur to you, please share!

Guns and diversity

itendsWhile scrolling through the Los Angeles Public Library’s e-book offerings, I came across a young adult novel that had been hyped to me, and it was available so I checked it out and started reading. The book is This Is Where It Ends, by Marieke Nijkamp, and I was curious to see how it would explore the incendiary subject of school shootings.

One of the reasons that several people encouraged me to read this book is that it is written by a “We Need Diverse Books” member, and has two female lesbian protagonists (and one is also Latina), a prominent character who is Middle Eastern, and so on. But what I found was that this was more of a problem than an advantage, because the author gave their credentials as if she were cherry-picking specific examples of ethnicity and sexual identification to appear in her novel for the sake of that alone. I guess what I’m saying is, not only did their diversity make no significant difference to who they were in the context of the story, but it seemed to further accentuate “otherness.” She stereotyped them.

The basic plot of the book is that a boy, Tyler, who dropped out of school the year before, is scheduled to come back and try again, but instead, while the first student body assembly of the year is taking place in the auditorium with only a handful of students and a couple of teachers missing, he locks all the doors from the outside, enters through a stage door, and begins shooting people.

The story is told from four points of view, two of them in the auditorium and two of them outside trying to figure out what is happening and hoping to help their siblings and classmates to escape. There are also some other viewpoints represented via a few students’ texts to one another and one boy’s entries on his blog.

The narrative jumps back and forth between flashbacks and the present moment. The protagonists are all related in some way to the shooter—one is his sister, one is his ex-girlfriend, one is his sister’s girlfriend, and the last is that girlfriend’s brother. All have a history with Tyler, and each of these, as recounted, gives perspective on their interactions with him. You do gain some knowledge in this way about what may be some of Tyler’s issues, but because there is never any internal, first-person view given by Tyler, most of that is left unexplored, and this becomes a huge flaw. Tyler is largely painted as an evil guy, and since he isn’t allowed to speak for himself, we never find out the nuanced details that brought him to this place. I’m not an apologist—I realize that not every kid who is abused or friendless or bullied turns into a murderer. But this book had the opportunity to explore that, and instead Tyler is a smiling, vindictive, one-dimensional jerk with a gun. And the protagonists, despite the sharing of their back stories, are also one-dimensional to the point where the two female characters’ narratives sound so similar it’s easy to get confused about who is speaking.

The book initially confused me as to its power, because it is written on a breathless timetable in which minutes are literally counted down (one chapter being the action taking place between 10:00 and 10:06 a.m., etc.), and that gives the book a pace and a tension that builds on initial foreboding to boost the reader onto an emotional high. The countdown and the jumps between narrators keep you enthralled as you wait to see what’s happening inside the auditorium while you’re outside, and what’s happening outside when you’re inside. It took arriving at the end of the book and feeling strangely let down (and also emotionally manipulated) to make me realize that although the pacing pushed me to the end, once I got there I was devoid of answers, or even of much content. The book is so thoroughly focused on the events of 54 minutes that it fails to provide sufficient context to explain them.

The charitable interpretation of this book would be that the author was well intentioned but simply overwhelmed by the scope of the issue and therefore told it as best she could but without diving below the surface. This problem was accentuated by the time frame she set herself in the plot—I feel like the need to keep the tension at a certain pitch precluded her flashbacks from going into sufficient detail to satisfy. The less charitable would be that this topical subject was sensationalized for the sake of book sales.

hatelistMy recommendation would be that you read Jennifer Brown’s Hate List instead, a book that is successful at breaking down the barriers between victim and villain in its shooter, at explaining the survivor’s guilt of the people who knew him best, and in showcasing the dark thoughts that everyone has but most never act upon.

 

Light fare

In these very serious times, I’ve been doing some reading of not-so-serious books. I like to think of them as junk food, although I don’t want to seem like I am denigrating these books or the reading of them by me or anyone else. I’m just saying that, like the difference between eating a gourmet four-course dinner or grabbing some cookies to satisfy your sweet tooth, there is a difference, both in the writer’s skill and in the reader’s level of engagement. Even if you are eating cookies, you are getting some nutrition along with your treat,
whether it’s from oatmeal or nuts or dark chocolate. You just aren’t participating at the level of a good salade niçoise or some mushroom bourgignon! (In these self-isolating times, many of us are also participating to a greater degree in cooking and baking—
can you tell?)

Finfarran1Anyway, my latest foray into relationship fiction is a duo by Irish writer Felicity Hayes-McCoy that, predictably for me, have to do with books and librarianship. The Library at the Edge of the World (Finfarran Peninsula #1) is described by its publisher as “a warm, feel-good novel about the importance of finding a place where you belong, perfect for fans of Maeve Binchy.” I think that stretches its importance a bit; I would be inclined to call these “Binchy lite.” But it is a lovely look at a few key people and a bunch more peripheral ones in an interesting locale teetering between community and estrangement. It reminded me a bit more of Jenny Colgan’s books.

Hanna Casey works as the librarian in Lissbeg, one of the small towns along the Finfarran peninsula. Her family goes way back on Finfarran but, until a few years ago, Hanna had embraced a much more active, well-to-do, and interesting life in London with her lawyer husband, Malcolm, and her daughter, Jasmine. Then she was devastated to discover that her husband had been having a long-term relationship with a colleague at work, a woman who purported to be her good friend, and in her anger and hurt she decamped with Jazz back to Ireland, telling her husband she wanted nothing from him. A few years later she is beginning to regret that hasty decision, as living with her outspoken and idiosyncratic mother in a small cottage is definitely beginning to pall, particularly since their buffer, Jasmine, has finished school and is pursuing a career elsewhere.

This is not the typical librarian pictured in this kind of feel-good fiction: Hanna wanted to be an archivist, dealing with great works of art in the rarefied atmosphere of a city museum or gallery, and somewhat resents the “depths” to which she has fallen as a small-town public librarian. She is in her early 50s, yet acts like some of the crotchety old-school librarians we all dreaded in our youth, who shushed us or kicked us out of the library for every tiny noise infraction and weren’t interested in providing such heretical innovations as computer classes or toddler story times.

Hanna’s saving grace is that she has come, gradually over the years, to believe in the power of reading, and spends two days a week driving a bookmobile to the far-flung tiny farming communities that populate most of the peninsula, developing a feel for what books to bring the many characters she encounters.

She has recently rediscovered a legacy left to her by her aunt, a piece of property that she couldn’t imagine being of any use to her while she was raising her daughter and decorating her beautiful home in London; but it has suddenly occurred to her that it might be an “out” to her nigh-intolerable living situation, and she thinks if she is careful with her money and can also get a loan, she can renovate Maggie’s old cottage and live in splendid isolation on the bluffs above the sea.

Then, plans by the bureaucrats of Finfarran come to light, which will polarize the peninsula by centralizing services in a grand new center located in the most populous town, thus cutting off all the small businesses and tourist attractions everywhere else, and also closing Hanna’s library. Hanna wakes up from her dazed existence and suddenly discovers within herself the will to fight for what she wants, and seeks allies to preserve a lifestyle she didn’t realize she had come to love.

I enjoyed this story quite a bit. I liked getting a look at rural life in the Irish countryside; the quirky characters were well developed and fun; and the story line was a good message about inclusiveness and community being more important than short-sighted financial success. The ending was a little pat, but played nicely off of Hanna’s former aspirations as an archivist.

The sequel, Summer at the Garden Café, was good, but not quite up to the first one. It furthered some of the relationships established in that book, it gave some interesting insight into the relative who left Hanna her house, and it moved some pieces around on the chessboard between London and Ireland. Basically, it was pleasant and innocuous, connecting here and there with real emotions when it details the situation of Hanna’s daughter, Jasmine.

There is a third book, The Mistletoe Matchmaker, which pulls in a different family mentioned peripherally in the first books, and sets up a romance for the Canadian granddaughter visiting her Irish family. I placed a hold on the e-book at the library, and will eventually report on the last of the trilogy. (If it is the last…)

 

Little Fire

I just finished reading Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng. I have had the e-book on reserve at the library for two months, because I saw that there was going to be a television show based on it on Hulu, and I always like to read the book first. But there were so many people trying to do likewise that although I reserved it in March, I didn’t get the book until May 1st, and in the meantime I couldn’t resist watching the show.

I’m going to say something that I’m not sure I have ever said in my history of reading: I liked the show better. Much better. I expected to enjoy it, given that it stars Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, both of whom I admire and respect as actors and also as producers. But the changes they made to the script that differed from the book made the story come alive in a way that it just didn’t on the page.

LittleFiresmatches

Elena Richardson is a “legacy” citizen of Shaker Heights, Ohio. Her ancestors were among the people who dictated the layout, rules, and boundaries of what kind of town it would be, and despite an initial passion in her teens to make a name for herself as a journalist, Elena settled instead into the comfortable and expected lifestyle of an upper-class wife and mother by marrying a lawyer, having four children in five years, and working part-time as a reporter for the small daily newspaper.

Mia Warren is an itinerant artist, a single mother with a teenage daughter, who has spent the past 15 years moving from town to town as whim, art, or necessity bade her. She has come to Shaker Heights partly for the sake of her daughter, who yearns for a more settled lifestyle; Mia has heard good things about the educational system and thinks that perhaps they could stay for a while, maybe until Pearl graduates from high school. Mia and Pearl rent a duplex from Elena Richardson, and from this point the lives of the members of the two families become increasingly tangled, first by the children and later by the adults.

A story within the story, a custody battle over an abandoned Chinese baby, becomes at least partially the issue that tears the families (and to a certain extent the community) apart, but it’s only a catalyst for what’s really happening, which is all focused on the issue of motherhood: what it is and isn’t, what it should be, the despair in the face of the lack of it, and the kinds of love that exist between mothers and children.

The thing is, it’s a good book. The characterizations are interesting and thorough, the issues are targeted, there is a lot of nuance, and Ng has a beautiful command of language that ups this into literary territory. It is not a fast-paced, easy-to-read thriller with a suburban setting—it’s a deliberate piece of fiction focused on middle-class ethics that requires the reader’s attention to detail. But I titled this review “Little Fire” on purpose, because in comparison to the TV show, the passion is lacking.

Some might say that I’m showing my preference for soap opera over real content, but I don’t believe that is the case. The TV show, by specifying that Mia and Pearl are black, opens up a whole different atmosphere and theme not present in the extremely low-key and nonspecific text, and makes racism a huge topic of the story. When questioned about this change, Celeste Ng said that when she was writing she didn’t feel capable of adequately portraying black experience, since it wasn’t hers; but the effect of what she did instead, which was to leave you constantly wondering exactly what the differences were that came between these families, watered things down for me.

The relationships themselves are much more intense, because more personal, in the show than in the book, particularly that of Mia with her photographer mentor, of Elena and Pearl, of Mia and Izzy, and in the subplot involving Bebe, the natural mother of the abandoned infant, May Ling / Mirabelle. The argument could be made that the characters of Elena and Mia are more polarized and therefore more stereotypical in the show; but this decision also allows for three or four of the best moments on TV, as white privilege is skewered in a way I have seldom seen, and a few sharp lines decimate attitudes that have taken centuries to build. There is a lot of “calling out” in the show, but in the context of the story it doesn’t feel like a history lesson, it feels like some sharp, intelligent people seeing through some lazy, careless, unaware ones. And no, it’s not all about race by a long shot—there are so many other forms of privilege that are exposed here.

Celeste Ng is a producer on the series, but she is one of many, and the show is obviously the child of Witherspoon and Washington. I wonder, given that she has no writing credit on any of the episodes, whether she went along with the changes reluctantly or was enthusiastic about the expansion of her work into some new realms. The book is thoughtful, well written, descriptive, expressive, and worthy of your attention; but the show is something more.
Whoever’s vision held sway, the Hulu production is a masterful accomplishment as the melding of written and visual arts by some talented, insightful women.

 

2nd chance romance

I have to admit that I don’t know how I ended up with this book. I ordered a bunch from bookoutlet.com (you have to spend $35 to get free shipping, and since the books are mostly between $3.50 and $6 apiece, that’s quite a few books), and this was in the box. I’m sure something about the description appealed to me (probably the “second chance” aspect of the love story), or I liked the beautifully painted gouache cover, or maybe I was subconsciously influenced by the fact that the word “girl” was in the title? Ha! No. Or maybe I decided I needed to read more romance, since that is a weak spot in my readers’ advisory repertoire.

thegirlheAnyway, I just finished The Girl He Used to Know, by Tracey Garvis Graves. I have never heard of her, but she is apparently a fairly popular romance writer, although her name does not percolate to the top of the heap in the same way as do those of some of the other authors with whom her writing has been compared. This is where labeling gets a little sticky, because I can’t decide whether this belongs properly in the full-on romance category or should be shunted over to what I call “relationship fiction,” which is where the feel-good romances with more substantive stories, such as some of those by JoJo Moyes or Liane Moriarty, end up.

The thing that made this book memorable is that the protagonist, Annika, is not neurotypical. She is on the autism spectrum, although that fact isn’t clearly dealt with until midway through the book. Rather, she is initially represented as “weird”—fragile, difficult, obsessional, a misfit.

Because the book takes place in two time frames, 10 years apart, and begins from the latter time frame, the Annika we meet up front is calm, poised, fairly self-aware, and well established in her life as a librarian in Chicago. We rapidly realize that she has had issues in her past because of her regular consultations with her therapist on how best to handle certain events in her life, but she doesn’t seem so different from a lot of people. My first reaction to her was that perhaps there were incidents of abuse in her past, and this is what has caused her social ineptitude.

Then we meet the Annika of 10 years ago, who panics after a week at college, refuses to leave her room, and calls her parents to come get her. The Annika who looks at people’s noses because she can’t look them in the eye, who wears baggy clothes because they are comfortable and also don’t draw attention, who spends all her time with books and animals and has no friends, and we start to get the idea that there is a real difference between this girl and a simple introvert or someone who has been scarred by just one past incident.

The book is told from two perspectives as well as from two time-frames—it’s co-narrated by Annika and by Jonathan, her first real boyfriend in college and the man whose heart she apparently broke. Near the beginning of the novel, the two run into each other in the grocery store and discover that Jonathan moved back to Chicago after his divorce a couple of years back, and that they don’t live too far apart. Annika makes it obvious that she is interested in rekindling things, but Jonathan is more cautious after how thoroughly she let him down 10 years before. And from this point, the chapters flash back and forth between narrators and between past and present to give us an idea of both the personalities and the relationship, and how they have changed and not changed.

I found that the best bits of the novel were the unintentional faux-pas moments caused by Annika’s skewed socio-emotional IQ. She is literal, she is blunt, she is confused by the necessity to do such things as read faces and moods, adapt to the “games” played by most people, or be social when she is feeling anything but. There were a few exchanges in the book that I loved: At the library she has a co-worker who has been on the job three months longer than she has, and uses that as an opportunity to patronize Annika and question her use of her time. When Jonathan arrives at the library to pick Annika up for a date, the colleague steps up and introduces herself as “Annika’s superior,” and without taking a beat, Annika says to Jonathan, “She is not my superior, I don’t report to her. Where are we going for dinner?”

Sadly, I didn’t feel like Annika’s true plight in life was sufficiently exposed. There were moments that showed what traps a beautiful girl with no social cues is likely to encounter, as when a boy who purported to like her has invited her to his dorm room to make out while three of his friends watch. Her roommate Janice rescues her from this situation (and from others), but it didn’t feel like the incident registered at all with Annika. Likewise, when Annika innocently details for Jonathan her blow-up with another boyfriend, who takes her to her favorite restaurant and ends up publicly berating her because she’s so beautiful but “then you have to open your mouth,” Jonathan immediately grasps the full import of the moment, but Annika is simply happy to be back at a restaurant she always liked. These were telling scenes, but there weren’t enough of them, or of the smaller moments in life when autism comes up against the ignorance and/or bad behavior of so-called “regular” people.

I also found the character and personality of Jonathan rather bland. It was refreshing how he found Annika’s directness and naiveté endearing rather than irritating or off-putting, but Graves perhaps paints him as too much of a saint, without some of the more natural reactions to circumstances that the majority of people would have. I thought back to Graeme Simsion’s book, The Rosie Project, and the much more down-to-earth interaction between the precise, literal Don Tillman and the woman who finds him completely frustrating and yet engaging in his innocence and bewilderment about the social norms that escape him.

Despite some character deficits, however, I was completely into the relationship between these two…until the final events of the story. I’m not going to reveal them here, but my reaction was horrified exasperation with the author for using an outside drama to give her a conclusion instead of finding her own. For about 90 percent of this book, I would have given it at least 3.5 stars, but the ending dropped it down to 2.5! So I don’t know whether to recommend it for its merits as a refreshing look at the differently abled, or pan it for its clichéd ending. You will have to decide for yourself.

 

All about books

I accidentally found another book about books! It was also about a lot of other stuff, some credible, some fantastic, and most of it a little over the top. It is All About Evie, by Cathy Lamb.

I said, after my months-long dedication to Kate Atkinson’s convoluted mysteries interspersed with the literary but somewhat bleak novels of Jane Harper, that I wanted something fluffy; but fluff overwhelmed everything else in my first choice of 2020, and my second was a promising but ultimately disappointing one. This book definitely brought the fluff, along with some magical realism, but in this case it was fluff with which I closely identify, so the reading was a much more pleasurable experience.

EvieEvie lives on one of the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest, in a remodeled carriage house painted in my color schemes, stuffed with toppling towers of books and surrounded by a rose garden. She has many animal friends—the list includes dogs, cats, goats, sheep, horses, and alpacas—who live with her and keep her company. She has a bookstore in town, where she lectures people on expanding their minds by reading out of their chosen genre, and serves delectable pies and cakes and interesting kinds of tea while conducting book clubs for diverse demographics. She has a mother and several aunts who live nearby and who give her love and quirky advice and don’t smother her too much. In essence, it sounds like my idyllic lifestyle.

She also (here comes the magical realism) has premonitions. Some are good, some are horrifying. Some she can do something about, others she can’t fix no matter how hard she tries, and some she doesn’t want to alter because sometimes karma should be a bitch.

Cathy Lamb has definitely bought into the idea that the first line is everything in hooking her readers’ attention: Hers in this book is, “I knew she was going to be hit by a white truck.” (In the next book of hers that I decided to read, it is “I left my wedding dress hanging in a tree somewhere in North Dakota.”) In this way she introduces Evie’s premonitions. Evie sees a future for someone—you could rather refer to them as precipitating events—and feels compelled to act on her knowledge, and yet what do you do? Walk up to someone and say “Excuse me, please be late for work today so that scaffolding doesn’t fall on you and kill you”? Try that and see what happens. In Evie’s case, it taught her to be secretive, made her overly anxious most of the time (obsessively watching her surroundings for signs to determine when the premonition will manifest), and occasionally led to criminal acts such as locking her favorite librarian in her home so she wouldn’t get hit by a train, or risky behaviors like climbing up to the peak of a two-story house to fix some shingles so that her elderly neighbor wouldn’t try to do it himself and break both legs in the fall.

These premonitions are why Evie has buried herself in a small town, in a small bookstore, with mostly animals as friends—a lower incidence of premonitions than would hit her in the overcrowded press of the big city. These precautions have not eliminated her problems, but have certainly reduced them to be almost manageable.

Evie has only ever had one premonition about herself, and it’s about her death, in a car accident, when she meets another woman driver on a one-lane road on the edge of a cliff; but she never sees the ending. She feels like someone dies, but doesn’t know if it’s her or the other woman, and she has an odd feeling that she knows the other woman, although she’s never seen her before.

This leads us to an alternate narrator in the story, a pregnant teenager locked up for murder in Portland, Oregon in 1975, whose sole defense in her trial is that she “saw” her boyfriend’s father trying to kill her boyfriend, and the vision led her to a pre-emptive strike to prevent that act.

This alternate narrator also lets in a big dose of reality to this so-far quirky and not-so-serious story. The book turns out to have a darker vein of truth about misogyny and abuse of women and children, which is both powerfully handled and disconcerting as a contrast to the extremely lighthearted nature of most of the rest of the narrative. Setting these incidents against the backdrop of Evie’s aunts, who construct and wear fantastical hats on all occasions and do nude yoga on the beach, is sort of like when renowned magical realism author Alice Hoffman abruptly transitioned from 1995’s Practical Magic, with its witchy tequila-drinking women who could fly, to 1997’s Here on Earth, a tale of a twisted adolescent love that returns to poison the adults who participated in it. But Alice kept those in separate books. Lamb does not.

It didn’t make me dislike the book, exactly; but it did pull me up and make me wonder whether it was wise to try to pack it all into one volume.

There are some wonderful scenes, on both sides of the narrative. One that was a favorite was when a goth teenager came into the bookstore looking for yet another vampire novel, and Evie lost her patience and insisted that the girl read a memoir.

I pointed to the seats by the windows. “Sit. Open the book. Read it.”
“I have to meet my mother soon.”
“Text her. Tell her to come here when she’s done doing whatever. You have got to expand your closed mind and read about other people in this world who don’t bite necks and have long teeth.”

The other I particularly enjoyed was when the temporary police chief, who has decided that Evie should date him despite her patent dislike of him, attempts to intimidate her and gets owned by the townspeople, who all gather around him in the street to comment loudly and unflatteringly about his particular style of bullying and ask if he can’t get a date any other way. Both are wonderfully written; I just had trouble shoe-horning them into the same narrative.

I liked All About Evie well enough to try another, so I am on to Julia’s Chocolates (the one in which the wedding dress is abandoned in a tree in the first sentence). I’ll let you know my conclusions soon…

 

Big Library Read

From November 4th through November 18th, the e-book and audio book platform OverDrive, which supports digital formats in most library systems, sponsored what they called the Big Library Read. For this reading initiative, OverDrive selected a book and provided unlimited copies to all library customers to download for free, with no wait-list.

One thing I believe OverDrive is hoping to do with these kinds of initiatives is to get library users accustomed to the idea that if they check out a digital book, it returns itself to the library at the end of the lending period, so there are no late fees. Another incentive I have personally found appealing since I no longer work full-time and find myself increasingly reluctant to leave the house is that if you finish the book you are reading at bed-time and haven’t got another book lined up ready to go, you can hop on your library’s website at 2:00 in the morning, if need be, find an e-book you want to read, and 60 seconds later (unless it’s wait-listed) it’s on your Kindle or other device, ready to go. Even Amazon Prime can’t beat that.

notdyingThe book OverDrive selected for November’s Big Library Read was I’m Not Dying with You Tonight, by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal. The book looked intriguing to me, with its theme of race relations—I am always looking for new books with teen appeal to include in my Young Adult Literature class as examples of inclusivity and the outing of privilege. I liked the idea that the book was written from two separate perspectives, one black girl and one white, by two authors with diverse experiences dictated partially by race.

The book begins with newcomer Campbell reluctantly agreeing, under pressure from a teacher, to work the concessions stand at the Friday night football game. The teacher presents it idealistically as a chance to get to know others at the high school to which Cameron has just transferred—both the kids with whom she will work the stand, and the ones who come to buy—but Campbell has her doubts. She was sent to this school when her mom moved overseas for a job, leaving her to live with her dad, and it’s a different experience for her—the school is in a predominantly black neighborhood, whereas her last school had only a handful of black students. Since Campbell hardly knows anyone, the teacher assures her father—who is leaving that night to go out of town for the weekend—that she will drop Campbell at home after they wrap things up at the stand.

Unfortunately, things at this concession stand are neither planned out nor conducted in the same efficient way to which Campbell was accustomed at her old school, where she worked with a bunch of her friends. She is stuck with a couple of people who are patently not interested in being there (or helping), and the burden of the labor falls on her. As the line lengthens at the window and the increasingly desperate Campbell falls further behind, the people waiting begin to verbally abuse her.

Enter Lena. Campbell has seen Lena around school, but they know each other only well enough to say hi. Lena’s initial reaction to the milling crowd around the concessions stand is to tell Campbell to get her butt in gear, but she soon realizes that what’s going on isn’t Campbell’s fault. Then an altercation breaks out between a couple of people standing in line, and what begins as a minor food fight abruptly escalates. Lena jumps inside the stand with Campbell, and they decide to just ride things out in there…until shots are fired. Lena’s cell phone is dead, and Campbell’s is in her backpack in a classroom far from where they are, so they can’t call for help. This is the set-up for a night of escalating violence and chaos in which Lena and Campbell have to rely on and trust one another to get themselves out of this mess, which has turned into a town-wide race riot.

I liked this book, but…it felt like something was lacking. It will be a winner for sure with teen book clubs (and maybe some adult ones too), because there are so many things to discuss—the precon-ceptions, the white and black perspectives, the differing attitudes, the connectedness (or lack of) to the community, the whole boyfriend thing (to what lengths will I go to keep my man), etc. But I almost felt like it was written specifically with this purpose in mind—to provide lots of fodder for a discussion group—and not simply as a novel.

There’s no real story arc; it’s more of a slice of life-type thing, with documentation of two girls’ experiences of the same events over the course of one night. It’s intense and fast-paced, and keeps you reading, and it’s not bad…but I think I would have appreciated it a lot more had there been more development, more interplay between the girls, maybe even some continuity beyond this one night. There wasn’t enough “there” there. People have been citing this as the natural follow-up book to The Hate U Give, but while it focuses on some of the same issues, has great characterizations, and raises lots of questions, it’s not a STORY the way that book was, and that’s disappointing. While I wouldn’t turn you away from it, if you want a more comprehensive treatment of these issues I’d say to read The Hate U Give, On the Come Up, How It Went Down, or Lies We Tell Ourselves instead.

 

The Testaments

The Handmaid’s Tale is everything you would expect from the dystopian genre. It is at once spare and low-key and at the same time terrifying. It is a beautifully written piece of literature, sufficient to itself, leaving the reader with ambiguity about the fate of the individual characters but with a satisfyingly clear picture of the narrow and punitive theocratic world it depicts.

I was, therefore, quite ambivalent about a sequel, especially one coming out 30 years later and after the equally dynamic and engaging (although horrifying) visual depiction of the Hulu television series.

The publishers amped up anticipation for this book by making some promises:

“In this brilliant sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, acclaimed author Margaret Atwood answers the questions that have tantalized readers for decades. When the van door slammed on Offred’s future at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, readers had no way of telling what lay ahead for her—freedom, prison or death. With The Testaments, the wait is over.”

testamentsFor the most part, I would say that these promises are not kept. Offred is not present in this book, except for some oblique references by people who don’t know her. Neither the beginnings nor the ending of Gilead are sufficiently detailed as to give the reader significant new insights into the rise and fall of this so-called religious obscenity of a government, although the theme of fascism—and the fact that it’s the low-level enablers who keep the system going, and not necessarily those at the top—is well documented. Apart from acknowledging that there is a resistance, and noting some of the actions of individual members, there is no cohesive picture of how it began, who is in it or runs it, or how they operate, beyond a few specific examples that still leave you wondering about the organization as a whole. If you have watched the television show, then you are unsurprised by the venality and corruption of the leaders of the republic, and even if you have not, if you are an astute reader with an imagination, you could easily extrapolate.

As far as the objective quality of the book and the story, I was disappointed to some extent. This book doesn’t speak with the same voice, take the same tone, or carry the same weight as the original. It reads more like a mainstream, action-driven novel, highly accessible, and thus may appeal to more readers. But it also suffers from something I doubt Atwood anticipated: The fact that two of the three narrators are young girls gives it a quality of immaturity that makes the book occasionally come off like a well written Young Adult novel. You can’t fault the writer for this, since the truth of Gilead is that they raise ’em “right” and push them into their roles as women while they are still barely nubile girls, so that there is less chance of self-awareness or rebellion. But the result for the narrative is that the girls occasionally present as typical whiney teenagers, which sometimes doesn’t seem right for the context. Furthermore, because one girl’s point of view is from the comparatively privileged space of a Commander’s daughter while the other’s is as an outsider raised in Canada, neither the narrative nor the sense of the plight of the women so ill-used by the hierarchy—the Handmaids, the Marthas, the Jezebels—is nearly as dramatic. Despite some sacrifices, the girls are more focused on self-interest and their personal lives than on the big picture of bringing down the government.

The saving grace of the novel is the third narrator, the nefarious Aunt Lydia who has become so prominent a figure in the Hulu series. Most of the material written from her perspective does give the promised insights into the underpinnings and back-door deals of the corrupt government underlying Gilead’s sanctity, and the two-faced, manipulative, passive-aggressive way she goes about achieving her objectives is positively Machiavellian, as is the long game she is playing. Her portion of the novel is truly a delight, but can’t quite carry the rest. I also disliked the ending.

My reaction, upon turning the last page, was to feel a little flat. I subconsciously expected lyrically written prose with a subtle plot, some substantial heroines, and a more revealing take on the Republic of Gilead. Instead, I discovered a fairly straightforward, occasionally witty thriller that gave me a bit more information, and added somewhat to social commentary. Perhaps that will be enough, or even preferable, for some readers. You will have to judge for yourself.

Fresh look: old books

In the realm of science fiction writing, it mostly seems like the guys get all the love, so for this foray into older reads, I’m going to focus on some interesting and talented women writers, those who specifically address the interaction between humans and “aliens,” or between races of people, with a psychological, cultural, religious, and/or philosophical bent. The fact that these books, some of them decades old, are also completely relevant to many of our current circumstances is the mark of a good speculative fiction writer…

sparrowFirst up are two books by Mary Doria RussellThe Sparrow, and Children of God. Russell has a background as a paleoanthropologist, and she makes excellent use of it in this two-book tale of humans’ first contact with an extra-terrestrial civilization. The action in the first book jumps back and forth between 2016, when an expedition is being put together in response to the discovery of extraterrestrial life (obviously a 2016 more advanced than our own!), and 2059, when the leader of that expedition, a charismatic Catholic priest and linguist who is its sole survivor, is being examined by the Vatican in search of an explanation for how first contact could have gone so horribly wrong. In the second book, Father Emilio Sandoz is forced to return with a second expedition to discover all the ways in which the impact of the first mission has shifted the cultures of the dominant and submissive races on the planet. Russell writes a good story, but also explores sociological, spiritual, and scientific aspects of the situation she has postulated, resulting in a compelling read.

Ursula K. LeGuin is one of my favorite authors ever. She wrote the entire spectrum from fantasy to hardcore science fiction, but all from a philosophical, sociological, and anthropological viewpoint that makes them particularly fascinating answers to “what if?” (Her father was an anthropologist and her mother was a writer.)

earthseaOn the fantasy end of the spectrum are the Earthsea books, which started out as a trilogy (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore), but then got added to with a book of short stories (Tales from Earthsea) and two more sequels (Tehanu and The Other Wind). I point that out because while the original trilogy is completely satisfying, you wouldn’t want to miss the other two books; and the short stories add depth to the world she created, a world that is deceptively simple but that contains timeless and sophisticated themes.

dispoAmong Le Guin’s many other books, my favorites are The Dispossessed—about a group of utopians who left their planet’s surface 100 years ago to settle on the moon so they could pursue their chosen lifestyle, and what happens when a physicist on the moon decides that he will break the forbidden silence between the two planets—and The Left Hand of Darkness—about a planet that is being considered by an Envoy (a person who travels to new civilizations to check them out) for membership in a vast intergalactic association. The sentient species on this planet is both male and female, and can switch genders, depending on various environmental and emotional factors, so that one person can be both a mother and a father in the course of their lives. The Envoy is the only person on the entire planet who is one-gendered, and it’s a strange experience for him, needless to say. LeGuin was always “fashion forward” in terms of the themes of her books, so for her to explore gender issues so thoroughly before the rest of us took notice is no surprise.

Next on my list is Sheri S. Tepper, who had a varied career as an executive director of Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood in Colorado, a guest ranch owner in Santa Fe and, later in life, a prolific science fiction author.

famtreeMy favorite is The Family Tree. Police officer Dora Henry is looking into the murders of three geneticists who were working on a secret project. But while she is conducting her investigation, bizarre things start to occur: Plants start taking over the city, and dictating where people can and can’t drive by blocking the roads with trees. The weirdest part is that Dora can somehow communicate with the plants. Dora comes to realize (through an agency that I can’t reveal because it’s such a spoiler) that there is the potential for a civilization-ending catastrophe that she may be a key figure in averting. This is such a quirky and entertaining read, not to mention environmentally relevant for all of us in this particular moment.

Tepper has her own entry in the “alien contact” trope, and it’s a good one. It’s called The Fresco, and it starts out with a hilarious sequence in which Benita Alvarez-Shipton, the abused wife of an alcoholic loser, runs into two aliens in a remote wooded area of the New Mexico mountains, and they designate her, despite her protests that she’s “not anybody,” to take their message to her leader. So she hops on a plane to Washington, D.C. and tries to explain it all to her congressman. She thinks that’s an end to her involvement, but the aliens have more in mind for her to do. The book is a vehicle for cultural, political, and religious issues, and Tepper does, to be fair, have a particular agenda. But since I mostly agreed with her agenda, I enjoyed the book! You might, too. It’s wickedly humorous, as well.

snowAnother great sci fi writer is Joan D. Vinge. Her epic series is contained in three volumes: The Snow Queen, World’s End, and The Summer Queen, which are about a backwards little planet called Tiamat that happens to be a key transition point at the core of a galaxy, and the so-called primitives whose quaint society is maintained without change by the powers-that-be on other planets, simply to keep the transition point open for their trade ships, none of which stop at this planet. Every 150 years the “star-gate” closes, and then the primitives reign, but this time there are political moves being made to maintain the status quo. The theme of exploitation of a native people to maintain use of their natural resources lifts this trilogy beyond simple fantasy.

5thA classic book about what can happen when natural resources are treated with respect and what will happen when they are not is The Fifth Sacred Thing, by ecofeminist and permaculture teacher Starhawk. A group of spiritually and politically enlightened old women start a radical movement in the streets of San Francisco designed to result in a utopia in which water runs freely, everyone has enough to eat, and perfect equality is more than just a goal. By contrast, Los Angeles has adhered to the old ways, in which the people in power are privileged and everyone else is starving. What happens when these two cultures clash, the one an advocate of nonviolent resistance, the other a society with drug-reliant soldiers enslaved and trained to destroy? Walking to Mercury and City of Refuge are the sequels.

irustanFinally, although I’ve mentioned it here before, I’d like to remind readers of a particular book by Louise Marley, The Terrorists of Irustan. The book is set on a planet that was settled by humans long ago, but where the Second Book of the Prophet reigns, where men maintain their dominant male culture and women are not seen outside the home without being wrapped head to foot in veils. The only women who maintain a tiny portion of independence are those who are trained as medicants, the poor excuse for doctors on this planet. (The men find the profession of medicine distasteful.) These women treat the colonists injured in the rhodium mines, and also minister to any others who are sick and injured. One such medicant, Zahra IbSada, makes a controversial personal decision in the course of her duties that will have unexpectedly wide ramifications for the women
on her world.

This concludes our tour of some powerful speculative fiction writers and their tantalizing works. I hope you will consider them when you are in the mood to be entertained but also want something of substance to occupy your mind.