man booker 2015: one expert’s flawed opinions

manbooker2015

Lo, these many years I have participated in the largely futile game of guessing the Man Booker winner. I’ve had successes and failures but mostly it’s a maddening exercise in literary addiction, tinged with galloping insanity. Nevertheless, I am always happy to offer an opinion totally devoid of actual research or, really, much effort at all.

I’m always happy to do the least I can do. ™

This year’s crop of Long-Longlisters is particularly compelling. From reading the synopses, there’s only one book I would not willingly pick up and read. That book is A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, reason being I have no interest in Bob Marley or Jamaica. Rave reviews aside, it simply doesn’t appeal.

As for the others, if you know me at all you’ll expect my ejecting Anne Tyler straightaway, sending her spinning into the atmosphere. Don’t care for Anne Tyler. Don’t feel she deserves a Booker. How did she make the list? Not for her Serious Literary Qualities. Rather, because she announced she’s hanging up her pen after this last novel. And she’s beloved, for some reason or other I haven’t been able to grasp. Nothing against her personally, mind. I’m charmed by the idea of the Reclusive Writer.  Unfortunately, to me her books have always been soporific, their droning sameness lulling me into a near-coma. Her quality maintains a steady pace, churning out novel after novel featuring characters whose quirks I’m supposed to find endearing. Supposed to. Plots are fine, nothing too upsetting or too simplistic. Very mid-line. But prize-worthy? Dear God no. Compare her with, say, Margaret Atwood and it will give you screaming fits.

Marilynne Robinson, however? Yes. Yes.

Laila Lalami: know of, haven’t read. Arundhati Roy, Tom McCarthy, Andrew O’Hagan: ditto ditto and ditto. Roy, McCarthy, O’Hagan: reputations quite high. Lalami, lesser but not to be discounted; up and coming. Her growing stature edges her up a notch or two.

Anna Smaill, Sunjeev Sahota, Chigozie Obioma: totally new to me. Can’t yet opine.

The Short List will consist of equal parts famous, peripheral and unknown. I expect Robinson, Lalami and James will be shoo-ins. From there, it’s anyone’s guess. Really, there’s no logic here, just personal tastes of the judges. I’ve learned it’s impossible to gauge the wildcard spots, save by blind luck.

Once things have been narrowed down, pay attention to the press. Read the book reviews, the jacket blurbs. Try and put your finger on what about each book stands out, how timely it is and how well-received the author has been. Add unicorns and pixie dust, sacrifice a virgin, poke a voodoo doll with pins and spit over your left shoulder: the answer will soon become muddled but you’ll have something for Instagram, so there’s that.

I’ve no doubt it will come down to Marilynne Robinson v. currently unknown contender. Why Marilynne Robinson?  Well, have you read her work? Her prose is mesmerizing, her plots languid, her characters deep and dark and complex. Just stunning. The buzz about her is correct; she is a genius. She deserves the award based on her collected body of work, plus Lila hit it out of the park. She’s a sure bet.

BUT… And it’s a big but, the judges become irritated when onlookers shout at them for being too predictable. That is the rub. Will the judges rule according to merit or will a wildcard overtake Robinson, just at the finish? Depends on the image they’d like to project of themselves, “they” being the judges.

That’s another thing, who are the judges?  Very Seriously Literary Judges will be more apt to choose by merit alone, regardless of convention. Young and Less Stolid Judges will veer toward the wildcard, the up and comer; they long to defy the literary canon. And I haven’t looked them up, for no other reason than I’m just plain lazy. Toddle off and form your own opinions. What am I, a machine?!

If Robinson is upset, justice will be served only if the winner is a writer whose innovation adds measurable depth and breadth to literature with a capital L. In this case, we’re to consider Robinson so much a given as to have already honored her with the virtual award, handing the actual title to THE OTHER. Translation: she gets screwed and not in a fun way.

This, loves, is how the Man Booker Prize works: when it doesn’t go madly off the rails, careening to and fro like a ping pong ball smashed by a body builder, that is. All my years of following its progress, added to experience having judged other literary awards, have taught me This Big Lesson. I am now imparting it to you, anointing the Next Great Generation of Man Booker Supposers.

When the Short List’s out we’ll see how the chips fall.

Then there will be two.

Marilynne Robinson and fill in the blank…

[curtain falls] [exeunt]

well, it’s like thiz…

I haven’t been here in so long I’ve actually forgotten how to post.

How to post.

How to post.

How to post.

I’ve been blogging for what, a decade? And I totally forgot the steps it takes to go from letterz to wordz to a coherent grouping of said letterz in order to form wordz.

Truth is, I’ve been really busy getting divorced, which is why I’ve not been forming wordz with letters talking about bookz and writerz and other crazy thingz. I’ve also apparently picked up some sort of letter impairment, in which I’ve confused zs and ss. Essesss. Zeeees.

Hard to write that without improperly using apostrophez. Suddenly, I’m almost identifying with people who don’t know how to punctuate correctly or who take the easy way out when the going gets tough.

But not quite. I still judge you by your grammar and punctuation. Spelling, too, because COME ON THERE’S SPELL CHECK.

It’s important to note I have been reading. It wasn’t so for a while but recently I’ve remembered how to do at least that with wordz. And though it doesn’t make much difference in the world, I will soon come back to talk about all the bookz I’ve been reading, which is actually a pretty fair number. Because, hell, I’m not working so what else do I have to do with myself right now? Drape myself over the sofa, personifying the word LANGUID, that’s what. And while that’s really pretty fun to do for dayz and hourz and weekz on end, my doctor tells me that, at some point, I should probably get off my azz.

So, yeah. Divorcing and moving and not working a paying job. Splitting belongingz and moneyz and all the fun thingz you do when you split up a marriage of 25 yearz. Then there’s also weeding my book collection by an astonishing amount, as my apartment is not a very big 3-bedroom house. It is a decent-sized 2-bedroom space. I’m not even sure the building codes allow for as much weight as my full collection of bookz would have required, plus, when your belongings reach a certain critical mass it’s like they own YOU, not the other way around.

balconyquesadilla

This iz my balcony and this was my lunch: spinach and pepper cheese quesadilla. It waz good.

And there you have it.

Watch this space.

No, THIS ONE! HERE! RIGHT HERE!

Must I do everything?

Sheesh.

How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman

howtobegoodwife

 

2015 is starting out to be My Year of the Creepy Thriller. That’s not a bad thing; it’s always been one of my very favorite genres. It’s choosing to read them one after the other that isn’t my usual habit. I’ve always paced them, saving some of the really good, guaranteed to spook me books as treats for when my reading is flagging. Maybe starting my year with the film adaptation of Gone Girl set my reading mood? I only know it was unplanned. I’m far too scattered in my reading to plan anything.

One of my favorite creepy thriller writers is Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, who unfortunately suffered a severe stroke in January of this year. Last I heard, not long after the announcement, she was in critical condition. I’ve heard no updates but it certainly didn’t sound reassuring. Writing as Ruth Rendell (her real name) her books were partially in the Chief Inspector Wexford mystery series and partially stand-alones. As Barbara Vine, she wrote thrillers (a separate genre, related to mystery) delving deeply into the minds of psychotic killers. In the thriller, the reader knows who the killer is, waiting to see how things unfold, how the person is caught or not, learning more about the depravity of the crime as the plot proceeds. And Barbara Vine is a master of the deep and dark, morbidly fanciful thriller. She’s in her own class.

Then there’s How to Be a Good Wife, a novel that’s somewhat muddled between thriller and mystery. In the beginning, the reader knows something is most definitely off. Marta and her husband, a long-married couple, with one grown son engaged to be married, live in an unidentified area of Scandinavia. Marta is deeply disturbed, her husband, to all appearances, a caring man who never loses patience with her. Outwardly, he could be perceived as saintly. He also makes her pop pills, to keep her hallucinations and nightmares at bay. What makes the reader suspicious is Marta’s own doubt, the fact she’s distrustful either of her husband or doctor – whom she doesn’t recall even seeing, ever – or both. Instead of taking the medication she pretends to, rolling the pills under her tongue, spitting them out when her husband’s out of sight. This shows a degree of sanity, a realization what she’s doing and why. Without the medication she’s still quite mentally unbalanced but at least she begins to remember things from her past, vague images that grow more sharp as the book progresses. This is why she stops, because she is starting to see something real, occasionally, in the kaleidoscopic unreality of her mental state on drugs. She’s seeing it and she recognizes its difference from pure hallucination.

The title of the book comes from the 1950s instructional book for wives, given to Marta by her mother in law, to assure she knows her place. It’s outrageously sexist but Marta takes it literally, making herself subservient to

Based on that, the book sounds great, doesn’t it? A disturbed woman beginning to wake up, recalling the source of her unstable mind, learning whom she can trust and whom she can’t. And her own husband is at the top of the suspect list.

According to a blurb on Amazon:

IN THE TRADITION OF EMMA DONOGHUE’S ROOM AND S.J. WATSON’S BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP, HOW TO BE A GOOD WIFE BY EMMA CHAPMAN IS A HAUNTING LITERARY DEBUT ABOUT A WOMAN WHO BEGINS HAVING VISIONS THAT MAKE HER QUESTION EVERYTHING SHE KNOWS.

This hits it right on the head: it’s a mix of the two novels. A perfect mix, as in, a bit too close. It’s true no one can patent an idea. It’s also true if a reader has read the two books mentioned it’s going to seem awfully familiar. Guess who has read these two books? Yup, this gal. It left me wondering what, exactly, her editor was thinking, accepting a book so closely related to two other very high profile books. I expect it was their popularity, the amount of money they raked in, that turned the publisher’s head. I don’t begrudge them the business; I am upset by the questionable ethics of publishing a book that’s been done before. Not just before but within the last few years.

Putting aside the doppleganger plot, the style Chapman chose is abstract, sometimes irritatingly so. I’m a patient reader, who loves dense prose, but only when it moves at a pace that isn’t glacial, or is so superb I don’t mind following at a slower pace. When it’s genius, I mean. At times I found Chapman’s writing too self-consciously obscure, too artsy for artsy’s sake, without advancing the plot. More concrete information wouldn’t have hurt the story line one bit – something, anything to give the reader something to grab onto, a chance in hell of finding a reference point. Instead, we’re made seasick by the constant inconsistency. Constant inconsistency: that’s an odd phrase for you. I’m leaving it, though, because it fits.

Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t swallow this book in a gulp. I read it in the course of a day, letting the house and all my other plans go straight to hell. Overlooking the occasionally  almost impenetrable prose, I had to know how it ended.

All in all: meh.

Adeline by Norah Vincent

adeline

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (April 7, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • $ 23.00

 

The degree of difficulty involved in writing Adeline must have been great. I can’t imagine how long Vincent spent reading bios about Woolf, her letters and diaries. I’m deeply impressed by the breadth of scholarship involved. In her notes, she cites her sources, which are extensive, if not complete. Then again, a complete bibliography of books about Woolf is a life’s worth of reading, much less time spent interpreting all the facts, forming them into a work of fiction. Or “faction,” maybe. Has anyone used that term to refer to fiction disguised as fact? Let’s say they haven’t and that I’m breaking new ground. No one else will care but I like the thought I’ve CREATED SOMETHING, unlikely as it is.

[I won’t tell if you won’t. And I’m pretty sure you don’t care either way.]

What Vincent has done in Adeline (The title is Virginia Woolf’s actual first name. She went by her middle name.) is take Woolf’s life, novel by novel, breaking it into acts as if in a play. Starting in 1925 with her inspiration for To the Lighthouse, triggered by time spent soaking in the bath (I really don’t know if this is accurate), the author expands the story to include what was going on in Woolf’s life, and within her circle of friends, at the time she was writing each book. Vincent pays much attention to Virginia’s relationship with her husband, Leonard Woolf, using his point of view to explore the mental illness she suffered – presumed to have been bipolar disorder or manic depression. In Virginia’s shoes I believe Leonard’s actions would have felt annoying. They show how much he cares but his occasional coddling, as depicted in this novel, would have driven me absolutely bonkers. Was he this protective? I never got the impression he was so overbearing. And was he so overly-dramatic? He dealt with this for a very long time. It’s not as if any of this was new to him. After a while, even the most unusual of situations will become “normal.”

He was always watchful, always on the lookout for her inevitable tumbles into depression. Knowing the signs her extreme downturns were returning, he needed to be certain she got what was considered appropriate care. Of course, what was considered appropriate then is far from modern-day treatment, using a combination of drugs to control the chemical imbalances in the brain. Anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds and anti-psychotics, regulated by a psychiatrist, are often used in a “cocktail” to keep the mood – and racing mind – on an even keel. Drugs, paired with talk therapy, can go a long way toward controlling bipolar disorder. For Woolf, taking away all stimulants was her “rest cure.” Because mania brought on her obsessive writing, she was kept away from it. Likewise, reading, very closely associated, needless to say. It must have been a living hell for her. No wonder she dreaded the inevitability of  it.

Bipolar disorder is thought to be a dormant condition in many, brought out by a triggering event. So, not everyone predisposed toward bipolar will exhibit symptoms. There are also two different forms: Bipolar I and Bipolar II. Not being a psychiatrist, going by what I know to be true, I think it’s more probably the latter that afflicted Virginia Woolf. Bipolar I is the almost solely depressive form. Manic stages are present but greatly muted, in comparison to Bipolar II. Mostly, Bipolar I is a deep funk, often tending toward suicidal impulse. Bipolar II, however, is the one most people identify as the “true” form, usually unaware it’s not the only possibility. People with this condition exhibit incredible highs, during which they are manically productive and feel indestructible, then fall very far into depression, often needing to be hospitalized to keep them from harming themselves.

In Woolf’s case, we can fairly safely presume the event which released her bipolar was the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her half brother, George Duckworth.  I wanted to slam the book down when Vincent wrote dialogue between Virginia and Leonard, in which Virginia so casually mentions the abuse. The way the two referred to it was wooden and unnatural, even taking into account Leonard was well aware of her past. It was a lazy shortcut device used to inform the reader of the horrors Virginia underwent.Trying to recall how Woolf referred to the events with Duckworth, I don’t remember her speaking of it casually. It’s a struggle to recall her talking about it at all, even in her diaries, and letters to her beloved sister Vanessa, much less while she’s watching Leonard weeding the garden. After that section I read with a very guarded disposition, no longer completely trusting the author. For the record, this wasn’t all that far into the book.

Beyond that, I have issues with Vincent’s stylistic choices, her tendency to stay too much within Virginia’s head. There’s too much potential for misinterpretation, for creating thoughts she never had, leading the reader to believe she was a far different person than she was in reality. I’ll admit, I tend to feel protective of Woolf, sensitive to how she’s portrayed. Already feeling distrustful certainly didn’t help.

It’s also an annoyance that the language used is so formal, the prose over-written. It would have been better pared down to minimalism, in my opinion. It would have made for a much better book without prose verging on, sometimes crossing into,”purple” territory. Never mind the high intellects found in the real-life players of this drama; it would have been perfectly excusable to skirt that, opting for s more simple style, focusing on the story and not so much overly flamboyant conversations. It needs less blow by blow, more showing and less telling. As written, it was difficult keeping focus. Every few paragraphs something would sound “off” to me, reminding me I’m reading a book and not immersed in the lives of the Bloomsbury Group. This is the opposite of what you want to find in a novel, any disconnection from what’s happening in the book. Novels should be as seamless as possible. It’s crucial the reader lose herself in the story, not wander off to think about shopping lists or what’s for dinner. Fiction is an alternate reality, with emphasis on the real. Even in the case of fantasy and science fiction, a story  needs to feel real, as in possible. If I’m reading a work of horror, I need to feel frightened. If it’s a dystopia, I should feel unnerved and worried, uncomfortable. I never lost myself in Adeline.

There may be a narrow readership for Adeline: those with a casual curiosity about Woolf who aren’t interested in more than a surface grasp of her life, as well as an introduction to the major figures in her peer group. What’s less fortunate is these readers may feel as though they’re doing a bit of wading to get to the meat of it, that the characters have personalities so big and overbearing it’s overwhelming. Using such a loud style does no favors to readers unfamiliar with Virginia Woolf. Rather, it’s off-putting.

There are so many nonfiction books out there about Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, if a reader wants to get a sketch of her life. Hermione Lee’s is definitive but too long for the casual reader. Instead, Nigel Nicholson’s short Penguin Lives edition, titled simply Virginia Woolf, would be my recommendation. Nigel Nicholson was the son of Virginia’s one-time lesbian lover, Vita Sackville-West and uses:

 

” … family archives and first-hand experience for his brisk, dutiful biography. For the young Nicolson, Woolf first appeared as a lively and amusing visitor. Not yet famous, to Nicolson she was like “a favourite aunt who brightened our simple lives with unexpected questions.”

– Publishers Weekly

 

woolfnicholson

 

Overall, the effort gets points for the idea but loses most of its value in the areas of stylistic choice and execution, which, well doesn’t leave it with much. Try as I did, I could not abide Adeline. Perhaps I’m too predisposed to finding fiction based on the life of Woolf to be irritating (it took two times for me to grow to love Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, not that I’m comparing the magnitude of two books). I cannot recommend the book.

 

[Free Review Copy: Amazon Vine program]

Baileys Prize: the update

Though I haven’t properly finished another Longlisted book, I have been working on a couple of them.

 

thebees

On my Kindle, I’m reading The Bees by Laline Paull. What’s charming about this book is its use of bees as characters: anthropomorphism, if you want to be picky about it. Paull gives us so much information about what goes on in bee colonies via a fictional story based on a deformed bee, a “Flora,” who wasn’t quite a sanitation bee but not one of the more elegant, lady-like bees, either. Not knowing exactly where to put her, the colony bounces her around a bit. The novel also addresses current theories as to why bees are diminishing so quickly, a theme addressed in rumors between the bees themselves, who speak of what’s been happening in hushed whispers. Something is causing birth defects but what?

I can’t see the book winning the prize but, as I’m finding from other reads on the list, I would recommend it to voracious readers such as myself, who’ll read anything that’s beautifully done. At first, I was a bit put off by the idea of bees as storytellers but, you know, they’re absolutely fascinating. I love watching bees in my garden and I don’t jump and scream when they come near me. I’m not an ass to them, so they’re not asses to me, either. We have a deal. I have no such deal with spiders, however. I see them, they die. No novel could change my mind on that.

Not even Charlotte’s Web

 

godstone

 

From my library stash, I’ve begun A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie.  This is the first of the Longlisters I’m finding dull. Honestly, I see nothing special in it whatsoever. Here’s Amazon’s declaration:

 

A God in Every Stone is a kaleidoscopic masterpiece of empire and rebellion by a storyteller of dizzying ambition and talent.

 

No. No, it isn’t. And I hope I’ve never written a sentence like that in my own reviewing. I won’t be finishing this novel. No time to spare for soporific reads.

So, here’s the list, updated. The books I’ve read, attempted or have refused to read (I’m so sorry, Anne Tyler)/can’t lay hands on are highlighted:

THE LONGLIST – 2015

Outline by Rachel Cusk (Faber)

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans (Doubleday) – US release July 28, 2015

Aren’t We Sisters? by Patricia Ferguson (Penguin)

I Am China by Xiaolu Guo (Chatto & Windus)

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey (Jonathan Cape)

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (Viking)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Picador)

The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman (Chatto & Windus)

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill (Quercus)

The Bees by Laline Paull (Fourth Estate)

The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips (Jonathan Cape)

The Walk Home by Rachel Sieffert (Virago) – ????

A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury)

How to Be Both by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

The Shore by Sara Taylor (William Heinemann) – US release May 26, 2015

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (Chatto & Windus)

The Offering by Grace McCleen (Sceptre) – ????

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (Virago)

After Before by Jemma Wayne (Legend Press)

The Life of a Banana by PP Wong (Legend Press) – US release May 1, 2015

 

AND THEN THERE WERE ELEVEN.

I am so kicking ass.

The Stella prize shortlist and my complete ignorance of Australian literature

The WHO prize?

Stellllllllllllllaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

God, I’m so sorry. I had to do it.

***

What is the Stella prize?

The Stella Prize is a major literary award celebrating Australian women’s writing.

The prize is named after one of Australia’s iconic female authors, Stella Maria ‘Miles’ Franklin, and was awarded for the first time in 2013. Both nonfiction and fiction books by Australian women are eligible for entry.

The Stella Prize seeks to:

  • recognise and celebrate Australian women writers’ contribution to literature
  • bring more readers to books by women and thus increase their sales
  • provide role models for schoolgirls and emerging female writers
  • reward one writer with a $50,000 prize – money that buys a writer some measure of financial independence and thus time, that most undervalued yet necessary commodity for women, to focus on their writing

The Stella Prize runs events and lectures at bookshops, festivals and universities around Australia. We also compile the annual Stella Count, tracking the number of books by men and women reviewed in our major newspapers and literary magazines, and have recently launched the Stella Prize Schools Program.

***

This is the first year I’ve heard of this award but how exciting I caught it before the Big Reveal. I planned to post on the Longlist but time didn’t allow. Before I knew it, my Twitter feed exploded with news of the Shortlist. Karma, my friends, dictates I step in here.

 

The Shortlist

stellashort

 

 

I urge you to visit the Stella Awards website and take a look. If the spirit moves, maybe grab one or six of these titles and give them a go.

The 2015 Stella Prize will be awarded in Melbourne on the evening of Tuesday 21 April. So you have a bit of time.

Oh, come on. One of them? Two?

I do not read enough world literature, myself. That’s why I’m encouraging you to step in and pick up some of my slack, so I feel better someone’s doing it. That, and I believe Australian literature gets short shrift, what with all the LOUD and FLASHY prizes such as the, ahem, Baileys and Booker and whatnot. Not that there’s a thing wrong with BIG or FLASHY literary awards. But wouldn’t you like to see Australia’s project get off the ground?

Yes. Yes, you would.

I can’t speak to the availability of any of these outside Australia, though a quick look through my library consortium’s catalog found Invisible History of the Human Race. Unfortunately, the weight of what is probably a brilliant work of NF is more than I can take on right now. A novel, perhaps, but DNA is heady stuff. I couldn’t give it the attention it no doubt deserves. Perhaps you can find some of these via Amazon US or UK, your local indie seller or via worldwide Interlibrary Loan. Hell, if you have a blog or write a column or whatever and can give good exposure, approach the publisher or Stella committee. They may be obliging, as they work to raise the visibility of this prize that’s still quite new.

Welcome to the fold, Australia! Best of luck to these six authors.

In Her Absence by Antonio Munoz Molina

inherabsence

  • Paperback: 134 pages
  • Publisher: Other Press; Softcover edition (July 17, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590512537
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590512531

 

With a husband who’s an average workaday bureaucrat, married to a beautiful wife longing to leave their provincial town for the excitement of life in the city, In Her Absence is  at first reminiscent of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. In place of the farmer’s daughter, Emma, anxious to marry the doctor she presumes will take her away to a more exciting life, Molina’s Blanca was raised in a wealthy family, never lifting a finger to support herself. She married Mario not because of his important job or big salary (he had neither), but his kind nature. He came upon her at the lowest point in her life, when, mourning the loss of the artist boyfriend who abandoned her in poverty, she was left drug and alcohol addicted. By the time she was strong and healthy again, she had grown to care for Mario. But did she love him or merely feel she owed him?

Blanca’s life has been filled with a passion for art and rubbing elbows with artists. She loves what’s new and cutting edge, whether it be painting or music or sculpting or writing. At the same time, Molina characterizes her as a devoted wife, in her own way. She loves cooking Mario gourmet meals and is always waiting for him when he comes in from work. Yet, she longs for more, dragging Mario into Madrid when he’s agreeable, when they can afford it on a bureaucrat’s salary. For his part, he understands nothing of art and could live without it very easily. But pleasing Blanca, his lovely and perfect wife, is his highest priority.What rubs him the wrong way are the male artists who make no attempt to hide their lustful thoughts about his beautiful wife. For her part, she doesn’t flirt outright but does fawn over them, which may look similar from a husband’s point of view.

Blanca’s no artist herself, there’s no “room of one’s own” she longs for. Instead, she’s absorbed by beauty. She is a caring wife but often she’s miles away, mentally:

“When she read a book, listened to music, or watched a movie, Blanca had a marvelous ability to sink deep in herself and disappear entirely from the external world. This absolute concentration was something Mario had learned not to interfere with, the proof of a sensibility that was a constant wonder to him but made him feel dull by comparison. Sometimes he felt intimately deserted, wanting to tell Blanca something or ask her a question but knowing it wasn’t worth trying, not because she’d pay no attention but because she literally was not there; she’d taken leave of her senses, as people used to say, in the most literal meaning of the words, taken leave of the reality that so often bored or disgusted her.”

“Disgusted” is the key word and a strong one. Cooking and cleaning and performing regular household work are jobs a person could understandably be bored with, but disgust is another level deeper. It’s much more visceral, far more angry, even hate-filled, indicating just how restless Blanca truly is. But for one yearning to make a life living in the midst of culture and the arts, forced into the role of housewife, disgust may fit. “How can I be here scrubbing his floors and ironing his clothes when I should rightfully be at exhibits and concerts?” The feeling agrees with her personality, however it makes it difficult not to see Blanca as a rather spoiled woman, too used to privilege. Despite how he tries to justify her behavior, convincing himself she loves him more than the excitement in the galleries and soirees of Madrid, even Mario’s all-consuming love can only go so far.

Mario’s position is that of breadwinner, Blanca uninterested in working to help bring money into the household. On the few occasions she does find work she quits shortly thereafter, justifying it with her complaints it was boring or she was unhappy. Mario’s patience was endless, though he’d give anything for her to work, then, a few years later, have a baby, completing the family. Her complete refusal to be a wife more than superficially brands her as a selfish woman, unappreciative of the husband many women would have loved to have, a man who adored her:

“Blanca would often say they led a life from which great experiences were absent. He conceded that she was right, but also thought, on his best days when he’d get home a few minutes before three after a workday devoid of annoyances, that for him there could be no greater experience than simply walking home along the same route as always in the knowledge that unlike all the other men he went by in the street – men in bars and talking about soccer with cigarettes in their mouths, men with hungering faces pivoting to watch a woman walk past – he alone had the privilege of desiring beyond all other women the precise woman he had married, and the absolute certainty that when he opened the door of his house, he would find her there.”

Molina doesn’t judge his characters. He’s much more even-handed, far too skilled. The author of thirteen novels, he’s won Spanish prizes twice, making him one of Spain’s greatest living writers. He knows precisely what he’s doing. It boils down to Blanca and her attitude toward her responsibilities in the marriage. It’s Blanca whose character is the heart of the book, the center around which Mario turns:

“Another man might have thought she was flighty, but for Mario Blanca’s endless sequence of new and different jobs and wildly disparate enthusiasms was proof of her vitality, her audacity, her innate rebelliousness, qualities he found particularly admirable because he was largely devoid of them.”

A bit tongue in cheek, a little hint to the reader Blanca knows what she has and isn’t inclined to let go of the man. Not that she’s all self-centered. She tells him, at one point, he rebuilt her when she’d come near dying, “as if you’d found a porcelain vase that was smashed into a thousand pieces and you had the skill and patience to reconstruct the whole thing, down to the tiniest shard.” A women lacking a moral compass wouldn’t have been so kind.

What to make of these two? That’s up to the reader.

Antonio Munoz Molina, aside from his excellent characterization skills, writes first class prose. The edition I read, the only English language edition I know of, was translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen. We’re always at the mercy of translators but I can attest to the beautiful writing. It’s a short book, at 134 pages, tightly written. It moves well and offers much food for thought. At times I’m not sure if the author’s being straight or playful; sometimes I have difficulty picking up on this sort of veiled humor, tending to take writers at their word too often.

I think readers should approach In Her Absence with a healthy dose of skepticism, reading between the lines. It’s a sneaky little novel, one I wouldn’t mind dissecting to see what’s inside and how Molina pulls things off. I’d most definitely read more of his work, if I come across it. If this novel is representative of his writing, I’m already a fan.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

stationeleven

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (September 9, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385353308
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385353304
  • $24.95

 

[Kirsten] Raymonde: … Look, I was eight. Nine, when we stopped walking. I can’t remember the year we spent on the road, and I think that means I can’t remember the worst of it. But my point is, doesn’t it seem to you that the people who have the hardest time in this – this current era, whatever you want to call it, the world after the Georgia flu – doesn’t it seem like the people who struggle the most with it are the people who remember the old world clearly?

Diallo: I hadn’t thought about it.

Raymonde: What I mean to say is, the more you remember, the more you’ve lost.

 

Summing up such a complex book in the space of a blog post, without notes and organized forethought, is daunting. But I have to push on and get my thoughts out before too much time passes, and I either don’t address it at all or forget too many details.

This is a complex tale with complex characters woven very tightly, though the full realization of their relationships comes about slowly, through the natural course of the story. Writers as accomplished as Joyce Carol Oates have admitted they have no idea how Mandel did this so seamlessly, appearing so effortless. Oates read  it through twice and couldn’t unravel how it was done and she is an artistic genius in her  own right. So, what does this make Emily St. John Mandel, creator of a work capable of baffling one of our greatest contemporary writers? An uber genius, or just a writer who managed a nearly impossible feat of artistry, either through the most intricate of planning, spinning gossamer threads into a cloth of unearthly beauty, or a series of unintended opportunities she chanced upon?

It’s impossible to imagine the author didn’t know what she was doing. A writer doesn’t just luck upon this degree of mastery. Or, if she does, I’m insanely jealous. And though it seems silly pronouncing a book to have reached artistic heights unrealized before, this book has achieved wondrous things. Yet, it’s not a book so complex readers should feel  intimidated reading it. This is not difficult or obscure writing. It can be read as the riveting story it holds, or it can be analyzed ad nauseum in a literature course. It works well on both levels.

The plot hinges on an American actor, Arthur Leander, who has a heart attack and dies in the beginning of the book, during a performance of King Lear. The character Kirsten Raymonde, from the above quote, is a little girl acting the part of one of Lear’s daughters, in a clever side-stage vignette at the beginning of the play. Kirsten survives the flu, of course, thanks to an older brother whose resourcefulness kept the two of them alive long enough for her to meet up with others, who took her in.. She grows into a strong young woman, proficient in the art of killing by way of throwing knives with deadly accuracy. From an innocent, if a bit bratty, child actor she matures into a woman capable of surviving in a post-apocalyptic world. As for Arthur, he leaves behind three ex-wives and one child, a son. It’s his first wife, Miranda, whose graphic artwork is the basis for the book’s title, artwork that will unite a few other characters, in just one of Mandel’s cleverly laid plans. And it all comes back around perfectly.

Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic novel; the premise is the world has been decimated by the “Georgia Flu” (as in former Soviet bloc, not the state of Georgia), a fast-moving deadly virus that kills within a couple of days. It hits the U.S. in California, through air travel and normal interaction between people, swiftly encompassing the country and the world before most people realize – or can bring themselves to believe – what is happening. The horrific part is this is precisely the sort of thing that could conceivably occur. Acts of terrorism will come but odds are, unless things go drastically wrong, it’s less possible carnage on the scale in Station Eleven would happen. Not impossible, because no one can claim to know the extent to which humans are capable of destroying each other,  but less likely. What gets under the reader’s skin is this could, and someday likely will, happen here.

The way Mandel handles the ensuing chaos, following the realization most of the world’s population will be wiped out, leaves much to the imagination. It is handled gently, in some respects. Instead of describing grotesque images of death and decaying corpses, much of it is laid out within the story and not overly graphic. For that I was grateful. She creates horror, just in a less obvious way, which really does require a great amount of skill. Along the same lines, the violence is occasionally front and center but often occurs off-stage, as it were. There is enough to make the novel feel real and immediate but not so much your stomach is turned. She inserts just enough of each.

Panic ensues: fleeing people try to get out of cities, clogging the roadways. People grab rations, looting stores. Inevitably,  things get to the point violence breaks out, as food and necessary rations become scarce or disappear. Shots ring out in cities; anarchy reigns. Odd groups of people come together. Religious cults form in reaction to the apocalyptic catastrophe. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who travel from town to town, dedicated to keeping the arts alive. Years crawl by, then decades, as civilization struggles to make sense of what happened and how to go forward.

Station Eleven‘s power lies not just in its structure or lyricism but also in its realism. I lost myself in the story, taking on feelings of visceral dread and hopelessness. I felt uncomfortable. The house quiet, the light fading, I tried to remind myself the world as we know it hadn’t ended but a part of me didn’t rebound so quickly. This being the 21st century, reassurance came via Twitter, all that scrolling mass of humanity reaching out to bring news headlines, links to cats behaving badly and really mundane statements about what’s for dinner. And it is silly it was the first place I turned, and this is an oddly connected disconnected world, but after reading Emily St. James Mandel’s book I found it all delightfully wonderful. It’s a weirdly, wildly wonderful world, the kind where we’re able to read amazing books and reach out to strangers and friends via social media.

Station Eleven makes you realize what we have, all that sustains us in the 21st century. In many ways we’re spoiled, having coming to rely on technology for so many things, and it’s not clear how we could survive a pandemic. Mandel presents one way in which human beings could get things back together, slowly. The road is long and difficult, but as long as we have people dedicated to preserving their area of expertise, sharing it with others, we’d have a chance. The novel ends on a promising note, not guaranteeing anything but giving the reader hope that, one day, the world will make it back.

 

 

It Was Me All Along: A Memoir by Andie Mitchell

meallalong

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Clarkson Potter (January 6, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0770433243
  • ISBN-13: 978-0770433246

 

Mitchell’s book is far from my average reading genre. The memoirs I choose are generally literary: about literary figures, memoirs about reading, travel memoirs or books written in a literary style. It Was Me All Along is none of these. Rather, what attracted me to this book was its subject matter: an introspective look at how our society predicates a woman’s value based on her looks and the unique perspective of one woman’s journey to find peace in her relationship with food, within her own body and mind.

Her story is honest. She doesn’t gloss over how she wound up eating herself to almost 300 lbs., doesn’t make excuses for herself or her behavior. She shares how food filled gaping voids in her life, how the mouth-feel of a cupcake or succulent hamburger obsessed her, how her whole life revolved around her next meal while in the midst of the current one. From her description of her early life, it’s not surprising food became her mainstay. Her father, while often a kind man and loving father, was also an alcoholic, her parents prone to frequent – often violent – arguments. As he fell into an increasingly dark abyss, he began disappearing for longer and longer periods of time. Safety and stability missing from her life, all she knew she could rely upon was food. It became her only constant, one which never failed to fill the emptiness created by loss.

It’s easy to empathize with Andie Mitchell. Her story is easily followed and the descriptions of her life experiences clear and chronological. Despite her tendency toward self-conscious, overwritten prose, the self help genre is forgiving. It doesn’t matter so much how cringe-worthy some of her metaphor-laden writing is, what matters is the  information is imparted. Mitchell’s certainly good at expressing how it felt to be so large, how it hurt being teased and shunned and what about food was so appealing. Her journey is outlined well and flows easily.  When she ultimately begins to turn her life around, she tells us about her exercise routine, how she struggled past exercise addiction to a more liveable, comfortable relationship with burning calories. Most impressively, she reveals how she overcame her food addictions.

Ultimately, once she’s come into herself her relationships shift. She begins to discover who she is, what she loves, and where she’d like to go in life. After struggling so long with her body and mind, finally it comes down to what makes her happy. Ironically, food is still central. Her life-long love of baking, influenced by her mother’s own skill in the kitchen, lead her to food blogging. Now that she’s learned so much about enjoying controlled eating, she shares her insights with others, some of whom fight the same battle she’s already won.

It’s inspirational reading one person’s fight against odds heavily stacked against her. Losing and keeping off weight is usually a fruitless struggle, as backed up by statistics. Reading Andie Mitchell’s story it suddenly feels a little less hopeless. Following her advice opens new avenues to try, learning to enjoy food without guilt attached. Not only that, learning to love yourself for what, and who, you are.

While not a stylistically impressive book, this is nonetheless an effort with noble intent. There’s much truth here to be discovered.

 andiemitchellThe lovely author, herself.

Harper Lee and the rights of an author

I could argue either way on the “should Lee’s “lost” novel be published or shouldn’t it” question. As a greedy reader, addicted to the literature of my native South, a big part of me wants desperately to get my grubby hands on the new novel coming out this July. However, as Harper Lee is still alive and kicking, as well as reportedly mostly blind and deaf, a pang of conscience grips me. Is the publication of Go Set a Watchman her own decision or is she being manipulated in her aged and vulnerable state? Her current lawyer (following the death of her sister Alice at age 100, Lee’s former attorney and fierce protector) insists Miss Lee is both aware and pleased her first manuscript has been found and will be published this summer. Yet, the timing – so soon after Alice’s death at the end of last year – could hardly be more suspect. With her sister out of the way, her life is in the hands of people who may or may not have a personal stake in the guaranteed millions of dollars of revenue. Go Set a Watchman is set to explode.

Harper Lee retired from public life decades ago, expressing her firm dislike of speaking about To Kill a Mockingbird – with very few exceptions. With her sister acting as buffer, Miss Lee has lead the life of a recluse. She’s had no interest in interviewing or any sort of public discourse on her work. So, why the reversal? Why would she go against a lifetime contention TKAM was to be her one and only work and she had nothing more to say?

This latest case is one in a long string of similar questionable situations concerning posthumous publication of an author’s works. Writers such as: Kafka, Salinger, Jane Austen, Willa Cather, et. al., left express instructions certain pieces, and/or letters, never see the light of day. These authors were dead and buried before publishers grabbed the manuscripts and ran with them but it still feels borderline uncomfortable. Never mind the writers will never know their writings were published.

Unlike the authors listed above, Harper Lee is still on this earthly plane, for how long no one can know. How crippled she is by dementia isn’t clear and could easily be masked by those in control of her estate. In a way, she may as well be dead if her mental capacities aren’t clear enough to realize what’s going on around her, how her previous instructions are being honored or not. Which brings up the question, is there no limit to which an artist’s work belongs to the world at large?

I’m not saying there’s an answer. I know I’ll buy and read the book and any opinions I express won’t influence anyone one way or the other. It’s purely theoretical, this question of morality. It continues to gnaw at me but it’s certainly not the only instance in which I’m conflicted. If it were up to me, Cassandra would have gone against Jane Austen’s wishes, publishing all her letters. Kafka and Salinger’s works would have been published as they have been and the partial manuscript David Foster Wallace left behind would be available to eager readers. I am not the paragon of morality and I don’t claim to be.

Yet, I have to ask the questions. I need to mull them over, even as I’m racing through “forbidden” books never intended for public consumption. Does the material belong to me? Strictly speaking, I believe the answer is no. Should I be in possession of it? Perhaps not but that doesn’t stop me. Do I feel I’ve taken the moral high-ground? Not really.

What does this make me and what does this make readers like me? Let the repercussions fall where they may; I am a fallible human but an honest one. Karma, it’s over to you, for better or worse.

 

gosetawatchman