30 March 2013

By Blood (Ellen Ullman)

"Thought-provoking" gets trotted out in book reviews and blurbs with some regularity. Not so much around here, though--except for once, in my rave about The Master and Margarita--which isn't surprising, since I'm more a Feel All the Feels type of gal than a Novel of Ideas fan. But it's time to use it again in quite literal reference to Ellen Ullman's By Blood; because every time I try to formulate a sentence about this novel, I end up with two questions, an intellectual experience less frustrating than it is exciting. I really wish I'd read it for a book club, cause I wanna jaw about it like whoa.

In an attempt to keep this cogent (you know, spring-Saturday cogent), I'm sticking to musings on two themes/topics/motifs/whatevs: eavesdropping and inheritance. The former's what makes the book possible: a disgraced professor discovers his rented San Francisco office abuts a therapist's, and since one patient dislikes the white-noise generator, he can hear every word of her weekly sessions. An obsessive, depressive, only slightly hinged man, the professor quickly becomes obsessed with her story, sitting with lights off and bated breath as she relates the details of her life: she's a financial analyst, a non-political lesbian (which gets her a lot of guff in 1974), and--most fascinating to him, for reasons that gradually become clear--adopted.

This eavesdropping comes in layers: the patient's sessions, which eventually entail weeks of a tape recording she's made; the therapist's phone calls to her own counselor, struggling with counter-transference; conversations told at a remove. It's a nebulous narrative, the stacking up of different forms of hearsay, multiple tiers of truths. And it struck me, cataloging these indirect forms, that every novel is an act of eavesdropping, the reader listening in on only into the minds of characters but of authors. And I'd never thought of it quite that way.

While eavesdropping catalyzes the plot, inheritance and identity propel it forward. The patient, at first, deflects the therapist's desire to discuss her adopted status, insisting "I am not adopted! I have mysterious origins!" It's this initial reluctance that most endears her to the professor, for he would give much to escape his own origins, a legacy of madness and suicide. He believes the patient
should [revel] in the unknown possibilities of her future. Everyone has his own genetic fate written inside him--his own complement of mental predispositions, weaker organs waiting to fail, more or less likely routes upon which he will encounter death. But what good does it do to know it? Knowledge is not a relief. The burden is not lessened by the sense of its not being one's own fault, not a failure of will, of intent, of virtue. One is just as subject to this fate, the fate of this body, its Furies.
(I do adore this 19th-century-tinged prose.) But the therapist keeps pushing, and the patient finally confronts her brittle, cold adoptive mother, learning that she was brought as an infant from post-WWII Europe by a Catholic agency--she's shocked, as her father was virulently anti-Catholic, and further shaken when she discovers her birth mother was actually German--and Jewish. The patient's research skills fail at this point, and it's the professor who, unbeknownst to her, takes up the quest, sending her documents under an assumed name. He's determined to somehow show her that her ancestors do not define her, believing this to be the only way to slip free of his own. The therapist, too, is haunted by her parentage, as the daughter of an SS officer instrumental in rounding up the Jews of France. All three struggle between knowledge and fear, the void of the unknown (reinforced by both patient and professor remaining unnamed) and the terrible abyss of the real. And for the reader, it's captivating.

26 March 2013

A Map of Tulsa (Benjamin Lytal)

Lytal's lovely debut novel, A Map of Tulsa, reminds me yet again that, despite the chip on my shoulder regarding the genre's overstated prestige, I really love well-done, well-written, deeply-felt literary fiction, like, a lot. (Conversely, I find bad, or even mediocre, literary fiction much harder to take than, say, less-than-stellar fantasy, which I tend to enjoy despite its faults.)

Tulsa is the story of two trips the narrator, Jim Praley, takes to his title hometown after heading off to college in New York. The summer after his freshman year, he returns having
maybe [become] conceited about Tulsa, mentioning at just the right moments that I was raised Southern Baptist, had shot guns recreationally, had been a major Boy Scout--I may have agreed, when people smiled, and pretended that Tulsa was a minor classic, a western, a bastion of Republican moonshine and a hotbed, equally, of a kind of honky-tonk bonhomie.
(I know, what a gorgeous sentence, right? And pitched so perfectly for the character, nineteen and caught in that state between assumed sophistication and the childish drive to please. Because Tulsa isn't really like that at all, as Jim and the novel well know; it's just an easier narrative to tell.)

At a party, Jim meets and pursues Adrienne Booker, who's beautiful, rich, and complicated in the way that heroines tend to be in books written by men, though far less annoying than most of them end up being. (Yeah, Lytal's that good.) After an affair of idealistic intensity--instantly relatable, potently specific--Jim heads back to school, and loses touch with Adrienne, though she's always in the back of his mind, "used . . . like a kind of high C, to put my head into tune." Five years later, after learning Adrienne's been in a motorcycle accident, he impulsively flies back to Tulsa, with little sense of what, if anything, he's trying to recapture.

My favorite thing about this book is the setting; novels set in big cities and small towns run rampant, but it's extremely rare to read a book set in a mid-size city like Tulsa--or, of course, my hometown of Wichita, 133 miles away, with roughly the same population (400,000ish; Tulsa and Wichita are the 45th and 49th largest cities in the U.S.). While the experience of living in a place like this bears superficial similarities to the suburbs--the style of the houses, the lack of pedestrians--it's . . . just not, in ways that I'm no good at articulating but Lytal really, really is. He's clear-headed about Tulsa's limitations, but willing to stick up for it where warranted: "I didn't have to heart to tell Rod that decent-enough sushi was widely available in Tulsa.") I'm thrilled to have such a worthy reference document to hand readers asking what it was like to grow up where I did--and why I'm excited to go back.

25 March 2013

Lola and the Boy Next Door (Stephanie Perkins)

Do I even have to tell you how much I loved Stephanie Perkins's Lola and the Boy Next Door? After gushing about her first novel, Anna and the French Kiss, for 700 words? (And for many more to pretty much anyone who'll listen.) Ain't no sophomore slump here, let me assure you.

Lola (for Dolores) Nolan has just turned 17 and is pretty happy with her life: she lives in a gingerbread Victorian in San Francisco with her dads; she's got a hawt, 22-year-old rock star boyfriend, Max; and she's got big plans to go to her school's winter formal dressed as Marie Antoinette. Fashion plate's an understatement to describe Lola--she's a whole fashion tea service, part Claudia Kishi, part Weetzie Bat, wearer of wigs and vintage weirdness and seamstress extraordinaire. She is so cool, you guys. I wish I had been friends with her in high school, but I think I would've been too shy. Maybe I'd just have blurted "I LIKE YOUR SHOES" in the hall one day and run away?

But conflict arrives, as arrive it must in traditional narrative structure. While Lola's still dealing with her dads' disapproval of Max (being an adult myself, of course, I am squarely in their corner. He is Too Old For You, Young Lady), and the reappearance of her estranged biological mother, the Bell family moves back next door, having spent the past two years traveling for daughter Calliope's figure skating career. Lola's been dreading this day since they left, knowing it will bring Calliope's twin brother, Cricket, back into her life. (Oh, Cricket, tall, lanky, well-dressed, whip-smart, clockwork-thingummy-inventing Cricket. How do you manage to be hotter than √Čtienne St. Clair, hero of Anna, when I had previously believed such a thing impossible?) And she doesn't know what to do about Cricket. She's known him her whole life, and been half in love with him for most of it. And even though she tells herself she's happy with Max, she's spending more and more time chatting with Cricket through their bedroom windows . . .

I liked pretty much ALL THE THINGS in this book (Oh, Anna and √Čtienne are in this one too!!! Hip hip!!!!), but one favorite aspect that bears mentioning: I love that Lola makes bad decisions, and that there are consequences, and that she has to take steps to fix things--with her parents, with Cricket, with Max, with her best friend, with herself. It's so honest, and important, and not didactic at all, and I'm just in awe at Perkins's skill with emotional characterization. Cannot wait for her third novel, Isla and the Happily Ever After, publishing in September--I could get an ARC before then, most likely, but this is a lady who deserves my hard-earned ducats for sure. And yours.

20 March 2013

Look! Up in the sky!

Been trying to read more superhero comics this year--in this, I am ably aided by my husband, who's got a bit of a comics habit. It hasn't all been successful; for instance, I finally read The Dark Knight Returns, and all I could think was, "Man, that Batman is one dour SOB." And I continue to be really, really bad at evaluating the art in all but the most superficial of ways (tho the hubs, a comics artist himself, helps with that too. We're a great team!). Still and all, it smacks of genre snobbery on my part to not write about my comics reads. Thus, thoughts on four different Superman titles.

First up, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (Alan Moore/Curt Swan). I'm gonna admit, I read this a year ago, so I had to reskim. This one came out in 1986, a response to the Crisis on Infinite Earths series, which rebooted 50 years of sprawling continuity. (I say this like I've read it. I mean, it's on the shelf in the other room . . . but I figure my audience is mostly non-initiates like myself, so apologies if this reads like DC For Total F-Bombing Idiots for some of you.) Anyway, with the character being reinvented, they had a chance to write a "last" Superman story, and even without my having much of a handle on the Silver Age cast, it's pretty satisfying. Even though Moore does kill off most everybody--but I think that's just his deal, right? The trade I read also has a Superman & Swamp Thing story that I confess to not remembering at all, and "For the Man Who Has Everything," a fantastic story addressing the central tragedy of Superman's existence: he has outlived his entire species and his very planet. (I saw a version of this on an episode of Justice League Unlimited, which show is the source of most of my DC-universe knowledge. Also sometimes Nathan Fillion does voices!)

My two favorites, Superman and Captain Marvel, meet for the first time in Superman/Shazam: First Thunder (Judd Winick/Joshua Middleton). This one's slight, but inoffensive, delivering exactly what it says on the tin: DC's two most charming, aw-shucks superheroes teaming up. The Man of Steel and the Big Red Cheese!! Loved Marvel's fanboying at getting to fight alongside Superman, and the latter's marching right down to the Rock of Eternity and asking Shazam "What is wrong with you!? He's a child!" A valid point, Supes. Oh, and there's a parallel meeting between Dr. Sivana and Lex Luthor--rife with mutual loathing--that made me smile. Not a huge fan of the way Middleton renders the title duo's faces, though--weirdly round, with a childish effect.

All Star Superman (Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely--two Scots!) is top-notch. I looooved that Quitely took the time to make Clark Kent physically different from Superman--the latter is confident in his body, the former hunched and apologetic. And the story is appropriately epic, beginning with Supes flying INTO THE SUN. The two hardest things about the character are his immense power and his unambiguous morality, but Morrison realizes that these are also the BEST and COOLEST things about him.

And then there's Red Son (Mark Millar/Dave Johnson), a delightful what-if wherein baby Kal-El crashes to Earth not in small-town Kansas, but on a collective farm in the Ukraine. He grows up to become "the Champion of the common worker who fights a never-ending battle for Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact." As befits alternate history, it's packed with cameos--Russian Batman in an earflap hat!!!!--and giddy, gleeful fun. Probably my favorite of the bunch.

19 March 2013

Body (Asa Nonami) and Revenge (Yoko Ogawa)

'Twas pure alphabetical serendipity that threw two short-story collections by Japanese women together on my TBR shelf: Body, by Asa Nonami (Now You're One of Us), and Revenge, the latest translated Yoko Ogawa (The Housekeeper and the Professor). They've much in common besides that, so this is kinda a "If you loved X you'll love Y" sort of review. But, you know, chattier than an Amazon algorithm. (Should the "customers who bought this" box ever start using words like"awesomesauce," I am doomed.)

The first thing I'm tempted to talk about I'm not even sure is a thing, though? It's prose style: Nonami and Ogawa seem to share a deadpan and economical approach to language that's sleek and effective . . . as I say this, though, I realize that's how I'd describe most of the Japanese literature in translation I've read, so I've no idea whether it's intentional, or whether it's the nature of the language itself, about which I am wholly ignorant. I have to say, though, I really like it. My vote for best image from either book is Nonami, discussing head blows in boxing, saying the brain "sits like a block of tofu in water".

The other big commonality is darkness, man. These ladies can walk the edge of straight-up horror like nobody's business, and their characters inhabit distorted and menacing spaces, sometimes literally, like the title institution in Ogawa's story "Welcome to the Museum of Torture." Here, the curator has two criteria for inclusion: one, the artifact must have been used on a human being, and two, "I don't exhibit an object unless I have the desire to use it." Yet this same man, in a later story (the eleven in Revenge are obliquely connected), soothes a dying tiger to its regal rest, "melted together into a single being." In Nonami's five tales, each protagonist fixates on some component of their physicality and attempts to control it. So a twentysomething man obsessed with his spreading bald spot, in "Whorl," takes an experimental drug and ends up losing his girlfriend; a daughter's wish for plastic surgery on her bellybutton (which, who knew it could be the wrong shape? but apparently it's a common modification in Japan) leads her mother to reconstruct her own face and body.

Finally, my favorites! Nonami's "Buttocks," about a teenage girl nudged into bulimia by a dormmate's offhand remark, is absolutely chilling, the kind of story you won't stop thinking about. And Ogawa's "Sewing for the Heart," about a bag-maker tasked with designing a carrying case for a woman's external heart, is a tiny masterpiece.

Oh! And these are both paperback originals--$27.95 for the set. Not bad!

04 March 2013

Falling to Earth (Kate Southwood)

Kate Southwood's debut novel, Falling to Earth, takes place during and after the deadliest tornado in U.S. history, which killed 695 people across three states on March 18, 1925. Even being from Tornado Alley, I hadn't heard of this one--go look at that Wikipedia article, it's staggering.

Falling to Earth is set in the fictional town of Marah, Illinois, where every family but one suffers a catastrophic loss: home, livelihood, spouse, child, all of the above. But the Graves family--Paul, Mae, Paul's mother Lavinia, and three children--are unscathed. Ruby, Ellis and Little Homer are home with chicken pox and hence escape the destruction of the school, full of students sheltering from the rain; with their mother and grandmother, they take shelter in the cellar Paul dug, emerging to discover their home still standing, merely covered with mud and dust like everything else in town. Paul himself somehow manages to hold onto a telegraph pole along the street outside his lumberyard, which also comes through unharmed, and the next day is burdened with the grim task of making coffins for 200 dead. (Note to non-Midwesterners: this is all entirely plausible. Tornadoes are weird, yo; they skip and lift and skitter, sometimes leaving a building untouched between two piles of rubble.)

At first, the stricken inhabitants of Marah view the Graves as a miracle, one good thing amongst all the horror. But as time goes on, they begin to see them as an affront, especially as they buy the lumber to rebuild from Paul's business. Why should he benefit from their misfortune? Resentment leads to contempt. The children are bullied at school; Mae withdraws further and further; Paul, stubbornly believing in the good hearts of his neighbors, meets their scowls with equanimity, waiting for it all to blow over until it's too late.

This is a beautiful, sad literary novel, which I say as someone for whom "sad literary novel" is a really hard sell. Southwood's prose is stark yet deeply felt, and her story reminds me of nothing so much as Thomas Hardy--where it's good people's own goodness that leads inevitably to tragedy.
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