Archive for the ‘Novels’ Category
Caramelo is a multi-generational family saga that revolves around Celaya, a.k.a. Lala, the only daughter in a family of sons. Her childhood is spent in Mexico, Chicago, and Texas, transversing cultures, languages, and fragmented identities. She’s a bit of a tomboy: tough, funny, but a little unsure of herself all the same. It’s only in piecing together her family’s tumultuous history that she is able to situate herself and put roots to her own experiences. I loved the way that Cisneros incorporates both English and Spanish into her prose, the way she references real historical/political events (most apparent in the narrative of The Little Grandfather’s experience in the Mexican Army), and most of all I appreciated the in-text dialogue that Lala has with The Awful Grandmother, who keeps interrupting her narrative to question her framing of things, her omitting of certain details and her emphasis of others. This is a story about how stories get told, and why, as much as it is about a particular individual, family, and community of migrants. A wonderful, thoughtful, rambling novel, full of contradictory characters, intense infatuations, and unpredictable unravellings. Fantastic!
Oh, Rebecca. Rebecca is just as perfect as everyone who’s ever told you to read it has promised it would be. Mrs. de Winter is the paid companion of a rich, boring socialite when she meets Maxim on vacation in Italy. In him she finds romance as well as financial stability and a way out of her dead-end present. But when she comes to Maxim’s estate, Manderley, a new bride after a rushed marriage and a short honeymoon, she feels…unsettled. She is intimidated by the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who seems immediately to dislike her, and she is uncomfortable in her new role as lady of the house. She has big shoes to fill, she knows, for Maxim has been married before. And his previous wife was everything that the current Mrs. de Winter is not: confined and composed, a dark, classic beauty, the perfect hostess. In every corner of the unfamiliar house, the new Mrs. de Winter catches hints of Rebecca, and her lingering presence taunts her. Rebecca builds slowly, creepily, avoiding cliche and indulging in the most lovely descriptions, reveling in archetype. Read it on a rainy, snowy, or otherwise foreboding night.
The stories in Birds of a Lesser Paradise populated with women who are struggling with loss, family, and questions about personal evolution and “biological destiny”. They are animal hoarders, bird watchers, veterinarians or married to veterinarians, each working to define their relationships to nature through their relationships with other animals. Bergman uses animals both captive and wild to play around with what might be parallels to her characters’ subjectivity as women working toward and against bonds of domesticity and freedom. In “Housewifely Arts”, a woman takes her son on a search for a parrot capable of mimicking her dead mother’s voice, and in another favorite of mine, “The Artificial Heart”, a woman wonders about the moral implications of life-extending technology that keeps her father alive in a semi-apocalyptic world. Some of Bergman’s characters were repetitious, while others felt more satirical than real (I’m thinking of the anti-population growth activist/husband in “Yesterday’s Whales”). Regardless, each story in this collection arced gracefully and gave me something lasting and multi-layered to think about. I thoroughly enjoyed these stories and eagerly await future releases from Bergman!
Though a very different reading experience, The Snow Child in some way fits thematically with Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Craving a change of scenery following a terrible, personal tragedy, Mabel and Jack become early settlers of the Alaskan frontier. They fight against the cold, the brutality of the land and their surroundings, and growing emotional distance. One blistery night in the middle of winter, they build themselves a child out of snow, and shortly thereafter begin to see a young girl alone in the woods. Familiar with the Russian fairy tale, Mabel convinces herself that the child is theirs, that she was borne of hope and snow. But, however mysterious, the Snow Child does have a very real history of her own, and is as untamable and foreign as the Alaskan wilderness itself. The story is tense and moving, as the reader must come to wish for the best possible outcome for Jack and Mabel, yet can’t shake the worry that there isn’t something to the warnings inherent in that fairy tale, after all. This book was strange, entrancing, and masterfully told. A new favorite!
Unfortunately, Galore broke my winning streak. It had so much potential, too. An interesting departure…a pale man found alive in the belly of a whale beached upon the coast of newly settled Newfoundland, whose mute presence has inexplicable effects the people who find him…an intriguingly convoluted family tree and feud that survives multiple generations…and complex mythological undertones drawn from folklore and Methodism. While the idea behind this book was magnificent, and I was really looking forward to it, I found Crummey’s writing dry and his recounting of events tedious. I felt that the constant reference to the relationships between successive generations of the townspeople drew my attention away from what I found magical about the world he’d constructed. All the pieces were there; I wished he’d spent more time on plot, on playing around within the world he’d created, than reinforcing it’s boundaries and contents. I loved the dark mystery that pervaded the novel. I did not love the energy I had to expend on keeping names and eras in place and, personally, I would have liked the second half to have been more concise, with clearer intent. Oh, well.
Catching Up pt. 3: A Natural History of the Senses, The Housemaid, North and South, The Book of the City of Ladies, Epileptic
In A Natural History of the Senses, Ackerman draws from a number of sources and memories in a meandering rumination about the senses through which we understand the world and interpret our own human experience. It is particularly hard to communicate the specificity of different physical sensations, but Ackerman writes about smells, touch, and the like so effectively that these mercurial interpretations manifest concretely and jump straight off the page, making the reading experience, well, sensual. The book is filled with interesting trivia, such as that smell was likely the first sense developed in the primordial oceans by the earliest living organisms, and I enjoyed the recounting she did of an interview with a professional “nose”, or perfume mixologist. Clearly I was most won over by the chapter on smell, as it sticks most strongly in my memory. However, I became increasingly annoyed with Ackerman and her frequent, bizarrely specific and lengthy descriptors. They often distracted from her main point and felt unfocused, a feeling intensified by the book’s format of short, thematically arranged but otherwise non-sequitor chapters. Also, while not generally opposed to heavy reliance on anecdote, hers felt obnoxiously self-referential and pompous. So, while the subject matter was fascinating, I didn’t really get along with Ackerman very well and will likely avoid her other writing.
One day, an older woman labeled a “witch” and disowned by her grown children finds a dead infant abandoned behind her hut in rural Ghana. Word spreads quickly through her village and suddenly everyone is arguing about who is to blame, with men vilifying the imagined neglectful mother and the women bemoaning the sad arrogance of undependable men. But as the true story of what happened is told through the perspectives of a number of women, it becomes clear that this child’s death is not the fault of one or another sex, but a society in which exploitation is quickly becoming a dominant means of attaining wealth. It begins when a young housemaid travels from her village to Accra to work for a wealthy older woman whose deceased husband’s family believes that her money rightfully belongs to them. The housemaid gets caught up in a plot of inheritance to win back the money for the husband’s family, but does not realize that her employer, though happy and confident in her independence, is not free of the sexual demands of the businessmen who remain in a class above her and so is not easy to manipulate. Nor does she understand that her own family’s motives may not be good for her, personally. The final telling of what happens to her baby is tragic but it is the fault of no individual: instead, it is the result of greed and an caustic individualism. A very worthy novella that counts toward Kinna’s Africa Challenge.
I’d been wanting to read North and South forever, but passed up the North and South read-a-long because it overlapped with my trip to Kenya and then promptly forgot about it. Even though I coincidentally ended up reading it at the same time as the read-a-long, I guess it’s still good that I wasn’t signed up because I didn’t have regular internet access nor the time to participate in the discussions, but anyway. I had huge expectations for this book, and while I enjoyed it, it fell just a little flat for me. It’s hard not to compare Gaskell to her contemporaries: not as much nuance as Austen, not as righteous as Dickens, less detailed than both. Perhaps such comparisons are unfair, but some combination of Austen and Dickens is what I thought I was going to get. Margaret, who moves from an idyllic country village to a busy, crowded industrial town, falls in love with the rugged Mr. Thornton (about whom I agree with Iris is a much more worthy love interest than most of Austen’s suitors ). There, she befriends some of the working poor that she’d previously been so judgmental about, and sides with them in a strike against factory-owner Thornton. Thornton, a proud, self-made man, learns through Margaret to sympathize with those less successful than he in “working their way up” while Margaret reconciles herself to the reality that the country isn’t exactly paradise for the poor, either. Culture clash, class, and the industrial boom frame this troubled love story, and I appreciate how direct Gaskell was in dealing with such themes. However, there was a bit too much compromise and neatness in the way it all wrapped up for my taste. Still liked it, though, so will try more of Gaskell.
This was (ahem) the FIRST book listed for The Year of Feminist Classics challenge* and yes, I only got to it last month. This book was written by Christine de Pizan, the only (?) professional female writer in late fourteenth century Europe. It is impressive not only that she was able to support her family with her writing at this time, but that she was able to do so while unequivocally challenging the most common anti-woman sentiments of her day. Here, she imagines a scenario in which Reason, Rectitude, and Justice come to her aid embodied as three strong and lovely women to help her construct a city of positive history and mythology in which she will collect and house all the world’s most virtuous ladies. They do so first by debunking myths such as that women are natural liars, that they lack conviction and are emotionally weak, that they are selfish and are intellectually inferior to men. Much as Mary Wollstonecraft would do almost four hundred years later in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, de Pizan argues that it is the way in which society brings girls up differently from boys that makes these stereotypes appear true and universal, but that given an equal education, girls would show as much aptitude as boys and in the same subjects (she does, however, fall very short of actually advocating for this). While her argumentation rested on reworking mythology, and this is not an acceptable form of debate nowadays, it was then–and since I was unfamiliar with so many of the stories, I kind of got a kick out of ‘em despite the fact that it became very, very tedious reading. All the stuff about being a good, chaste wife etc. was irritating to my modern sensibilities, too, but I get that then she was reacting against the fact that women were only thought to be about their bodies, rooted in materiality with no spiritual or mental inner lives and value. I wouldn’t call this book relevant for feminists today, but I still enjoyed it as a feminist for the times when de Pizan utilized her stinging sense of humor and because it really made me consider context. It’s interesting to see that some ideas which are completely regressive and sexist now were once a step AWAY from an oppression that we still know, but in a completely different transformative phase. Of course, not all reactions against oppression are “progressive”, nor can that word be applied evenly across cultures and eras, which raises a lot of important questions about what constitutes progress in any given situation.
Epileptic is the deeply troubling autobiographical story by David B., formerly Pierre-Francois Beauchard, whose life has largely been shaped by his brother’s epilepsy and his family’s never-ending search for a cure. Epilepsy was little understood in 1960′s France when Jean-Christophe had his first seizure, and one of the most horrific aspects to this family history is how cruelly Jean-Christophe was treated by children and adults alike, alienating him, his siblings, and his parents from the community as punishment for exposing them to the symptoms of his illness. Their parents move Pierre-Francois, Jean-Christophe, and their sister in and out of various new-agey macrobiotic communes, inspiring hope in an unrelenting succession of mystical mentors and spiritual healers who are ultimately as lost as they are. While his parents experience increasing guilt after every failure to “fix” their eldest son and his sister becomes despondent with depression, David B. pours himself into his illustrations, picturing epic uphill battles that signify his struggle against his brother’s sickness. His thick, bold-lined drawings are appropriately claustrophobic and disconcerting, adding a fantastical element to this tragedy. David B. is always honest, refusing to leave out the ugliest bits of his history and the resentment he sometimes felt toward his brother, whose disease he could never measure up to. Dark and moving; beautiful work and intensely raw.
*I think it’s time I admitted to myself and everyone else that I’m not going to catch up on The Feminists Classics challenge this fall like I wanted to. In fact, there’s only a few books from this year’s selection that I haven’t read, but even excluding re-reads, it just isn’t going to happen. Truth be told, I’ve been dealing with the aftermath of a Very Bad Thing that happened earlier this month in the life of myself and my friends and have had difficulty concentrating on books, so I know that if I don’t allow myself to read at whim I won’t be doing much reading at all, and I don’t want that. Sincerest apologies for committing to it and then only reading one book and not participating in any of the conversations**…hopefully I will get to all the others at a later date, as they all remain interesting to me. I still plan to host the last read when the time comes, but all reading projects and such will otherwise be put on hold or ignored.
A few months ago, I was suffering one of the worst reading slumps ever. I wasn’t in the mood for anything I usually like…so I decided to try something I don’t normally read at all, thinking maybe a big change in reading material might give me some sort of jolt. Though I’ve never gotten into sci-fi lit, it’s one of my favorite movie/TV genres (is that weird?)…so I decided to give the literature another go.
I picked up Neuromancer because I’d heard it was a “classic” of the cyberpunk genre and I’d just re-watched Hackers, which I guess had whetted my appetite. Neuromancer, the first in a trilogy, centers Case, a retired console-cowboy-turned-junkie who is coerced by the ring leader of some sketchy shadow organization to train for one last big trip through the net where he is to steal data from one of the most powerful, secretive companies in the world. But he begins to receive mixed messages from people both present and non-corporeal, leading him to question the real identity and motives of the consciousness from which he is taking orders. His misadventures take him through the black markets of biotechnological reconstruction, military cover-ups, and grisly neon-lit alley murders. With the help of a highly skilled but antagonistic team, Case and his crew break codes no one has before, but once they gain access to the most prized information in the matrix, what is it they find? And how will they make it out?
Gibson uses all kinds of tough, sleek sounding slang that builds tension and makes one feel they’re traveling quickly along invisible wire. As it was published fifteen years before The Matrix came out, it’s clear that Gibson was ahead of the game, and it’s cool to return to a text that obviously inspired so many similarly themed stories even before computers were everyday, at-home-technology. As our experience with technology has only become more complicated, nuanced, and constant, the questions Gibson raises about identity and artificial intelligence are only that much more interesting.
However, my experience with Neuromancer was completely middling. While the plot was fun, there was really no character development and the dialogue was horrendous. It was stilted and cliche, as was the character Molly, Case’s co-conspirator and sometimes lover, who was the only real female character in the book and also the most absurd. She was completely flat, hypersexualized, and seemed to have little life purpose but to be present for Case. She was like an ass-kicking Lara Croft type woman but with less story-background and relegated to the role of girlfriend/side-kick*, which was just kind of eye-rollingly hard to take seriously.
I think there’s still a chance out there for me and cyperpunk/sci-fi lit, or what have you, but if we ever truly hit it off it will be through an author who cares at least as much about character as plot and style. At least, if anything, reading Gibson did restore my craving for more of whatever it is I usually like to read!
*Actually I have a total soft spot for Lara Croft, but that’s really neither here nor there.
Unrelated side notes: I feel really terrible about the fact that I have so far COMPLETELY failed to participate in A Year of Feminist Classics this year. Also, I’m leaving for Kenya tomorrow (!) and have similarly failed to complete my prepared reading list of Kenyan authors and histories. I have also pre-written 0 updates for while I’m out of the country and am like 15 posts behind what I’m currently reading. Siiiiiiiiiiiiiigghhhh!!!!
Fail, fail, fail! BUT I AM NOT GIVING UP. I will do my best to get back on track when I return home later this month, so please bear with me :/ I know you are all very nice and don’t really mind at all anyway and there’s no pressure and for that I thank you. But still!
…and so begins another LONG overdue review of a book read months ago :/
I began So Far From God after Eva of A Striped Armchair recommended it to me while discussing the Read and Resist Tucson challenge that Melissa of The Feminist Texican started early this year in protest of Arizona’s ethnic studies bans (yes, this was on the banned books list). She referred to it as something like a pleasant surprise which, happily, I found it to be as well!
So Far From God takes place in a small town in my home state, New Mexico, though the world that Sofi and her four enigmatic daughters inhabits evokes experience I was never privy to as an (atheist, Jewish) Anglo. Theirs is an existence steeped in local and ancestral lore, Catholicism, and magical realism on the most mundane of days. But it is also one that is routinely challenged by industrial development and modernist appeals to progress.
Despite Sofi’s best attempts at raising her daughters safely through adulthood, all four come to untimely, tragic ends. La Loca, so-called because her childhood death and subsequent return from the world of spirits left her mind wandering somewhere between the realms of life and death, falls prey to epileptic fits and terminal illness. Caridad, once beautiful and reckless, is ravaged by la Malogra, a wild, invisible monster. She then trains to become a curandera (healer) and falls in love with another woman on the holy march to Chimayo, where she begins to make a name for herself that travels far and wide throughout the religious community, but leaves her vulnerable. Fe, the most conventional of the sisters, wants only to work and maintain a comfortable household with her new husband, but falls ill after being exposed to toxic chemicals at the factory that employs her. Esperanza, the oldest, achieves her dream of leaving New Mexico by becoming a reporter and flying overseas to cover conflict in the Middle East…but never returns.
None of these devastating ends comes as a surprise. Instead, they are regularly foreshadowed in the exaggerated way of upcoming soap opera events. What’s surprising is the way in which Castillo manages an easy, light-hearted tone throughout such sad happenings and keeps the reader hopeful that somehow, things aren’t all as bad as they seem. That hope finds place in the girls’ mother, Sofi, who is repeatedly devastated by the loss of her daughters, but who is not left destitute by them. In fact, she seems to swallow all their strengths as they depart her world, and she becomes a courageous, capable community organizer who works with friends, family, and strangers around her to change what isn’t right, adapting to a world in flux when necessary and holding steadfast to tried and true traditions when possible.
Castillo is a joy to read. Spanish and English flow together in a way that feels natural even to readers who know little-to-no Spanish at all. Her characters are interesting and strange but knowable, her narrative is creatively spun, and she plays carefully but easily with a number of cultures and ideas. A pleasant surprise, indeed.
Under the Net is a delightful, breezy novel starring Jake Donaghue, a little-known writer who gets by on translation work. When he and his friend Finn are kicked out of the apartment they’d been crashing rent-free, he seeks out his blues-singing ex-girlfriend Anna Quentin in a fit of homeless desperation. So begins a strange series of adventures by which Jake becomes reacquainted with Anna, her movie star sister Sadie, and his old mild-mannered friend Hugo whose philosophical nature he once adored and whom he believes he has regretfully, irrevocably wronged.
Jake is unreliable and irresponsible, perhaps, but completely lovable. He impulsively follows his renewed feelings for Anna all over London and Paris and, in one of the funniest parts of the book, enlists the help of his friend Finn to kidnap a rich bookie’s acting dog to exchange for a stolen typescript at the center of a malicious plot between Sadie and the bookie-turned film investor.
The changing relationships in this novel remind me of the Robertson Davies novels that comprise the Deptford Trilogy, which is high praise coming from me. It’s the mysterious, undefinable and lasting pull that develops between friends, lovers, even enemies, that gives each relationship meaning, and each person meaning in relation to others. It’s as though Jake is searching, throughout the novel, to figure out where he belongs in terms of all these people who have meant something to him…but massive miscommunications and crossed love-lines make the answers to his question that much more elusive. I love how deeply Jake feels friendship; his romanticism is non-threatening and alluring.
This book was fun, lively, and light. I enjoyed it fully, and will be reading Murdoch again soon!
The Famished Road is narrated by Azaro, an abiku spirit child who, according to traditional Yoruba belief, struggles to be born, maintains a close connection to the world of spirits, and is continuously tempted to return to the peaceful, blissful kingdom of the afterlife. Azaro occupies a special plane between life and death, and it is from this unique vantage point that he witnesses the increasing destitution and political violence that overtakes the unnamed West-African city in which he lives.
The book is long, dense and fantastical. I consider myself a fan of magical realism, though I haven’t read any in a very long time. In this case, there were times when that element here was too much for me and it took me a while to become comfortable with the rhythm of the narrative. Once I did, though, I was completely hooked. This story is truly epic. It’s not only about one community or any particular power dispute, but the history of Africa as a whole and it’s continuous attempts at rebirth.
The characters read like vehicles for ideas, which serves the larger purpose of the novel but was a bit distancing for me. I was fascinated by Madame Koto, proprietress of the neighborhood bar who has a mysterious interest in Azaro, and the local photographer, whose work enables visual communication with the rest of the world. But as this is not a character-driven novel, I never felt I learned enough about them. His hardworking parents, and his mania-driven father, especially, made even less sense to me as people.
What I found incredible about this novel, though, was the way in which Okri was able to represent a worldview in which spiritual and material realities exist simultaneously and co-dependently. Historical and political patterns look entirely different from this perspective, as does an imagined future for Africa. The Famished Road was not always an easy read, but it was incredibly thought-provoking and I’m glad I pushed through the difficult parts. This is an ambitious novel of big ideas, and it won’t soon be forgotten.
I picked this one up on a whim after having LOVED Ragtime, a novel by the same author set in the first decades of the twentieth century in New York City and featuring real-life characters like Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, and J.P. Morgan. While The Waterworks isn’t as littered with famous figure cameos, doesn’t have the same comedic undertone, and takes place in the late eighteen-hundreds, Doctorow’s detailed historic rendering of the city was just as evocative and satisfying as in Ragtime. He really seems to know the city up and down, from the lowest rat-infested layer of abandoned underground tunnels to the very tippy-top of the Empire State building, and horizontally through centuries’ worth of time, too. All the gritty details of life in late nineteenth century New York City–the festering odors of life in the tenements, the outright corruption of the Tweed Ring, and the haughty aloofness of the aristocrats–are all brought vividly to life here.
It was too bad, then, that the rest of the book just wasn’t very good. It’s a detective story narrated by Mr. McIlvaine, the owner of a newspaper, who becomes concerned when his favorite, obdurate young freelance journalist, Martin, stops showing up for assignments. He starts digging around on his own and, in talking with Martin’s friends and family, finds that Martin had been acting in an increasingly strange manner following the death of his powerfully influential father Augustus Pemberton a few years earlier. Recently, it seems, Martin had been convinced that his father was still alive, and that he’d seen him in a passing omnibus one wintry night. What follows is the careful unveiling of a sinister and widespread conspiracy. The first major clue is a child’s skeleton found curled up in the otherwise empty dug-up coffin of Augustus Pemberton.
I was really into the first few chapters of the book, but it didn’t take long to figure out, at least roughly, what was behind the mysterious re-appearance of Augustus Pemberton. The resolution of the mystery was both predictable and entirely far-fetched; a bad two things to be at once. It was a pretty ridiculous ending, actually, and there wasn’t enough encouragement throughout the text to warrant such a suspension of reason. And there wasn’t a twist. Given the very direct, linear nature of the mystery’s revelations, I was kind of expecting one, so that was kind of a let down on top of what was already a too-obvious commentary on the fragile existence of a wholly unequal society cannibalizing itself in pursuit of never-ending progress. If The Waterworks was a movie, it might make for an okay late-night rainy mid-week viewing, but it’s not.
Just stick with Ragtime.