Thursday, September 29, 2016

National Book Festival 2016

This past weekend was the 16th annual National Book Festival at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in downtown Washington, DC.  The theme was "A Grand Journey".

Festival program

The free festival totes are great, but I brought along my favorite bookish tote bag.
Starting at 10:00 am, bookish enthusiasts of all ages had 12 hours of author interviews, book signings, informational booths, and activities in which to partake.  It coincided with the grand opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and there was a definite presence of diversity in the Festival's lineup.  Top speakers/authors included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Salman Rushdie, Colson Whitehead, Margo Jefferson, Laila Lalami, Alvaro Enrigue, Jacqueline Woodson, James McBride, Edwidge Danticat, Kwame Alexander, Rep. John Lewis, Gene Luen Yang, and Shonda Rimes.

Hi Shonda!
There are so many authors at the National Book Festival that it can easily become overwhelming and exhausting to try and do/see everything you might want.  My priority, this year, was to get a few favorite books signed, which unfortunately meant that I was unable to be in the audience for most of the author presentations.  An author has an assigned signing time, and lines (especially for widely-known authors) can queue up 45 minutes or more in advance.  That means, for those of us who want a book signed, that we'll be doing a lot of standing.  We are a dedicated bunch.

The three authors in whose queues I was willing to stand were Marilynne Robinson, Kelly Link, and Colson Whitehead.  As someone who doesn't make a living in the book world, and therefore doesn't encounter authors with any regularity, it's thrilling to be in the same space as these folks whose writing is so important to me.  Marilynne Robinson signed my itty bitty Picador Modern Classics copy of Housekeeping, and she even remarked about how much she enjoys that edition!  Kelly Link was very personable and friendly, and we chatted about books, Twitter, and the importance of silliness.  Colson Whitehead, whose line was the longest of the three, was so generous even towards those of us near the end of the line.

In addition to signings and presentations, the basement of the Convention Center contains booths and pavilions where attendees can learn about other bookish goings-on, and a Book Sale section where the books for all scheduled authors can be purchased.  I saw on Twitter that Politics and Prose, who staffs the book sales area, had 75 booksellers working!  The Library of Congress Pavilion, built to resemble the Library's main reading room, had a robust schedule of speakers on different topics related to the Library of Congress's services.

The Washington Post had a booth, with information about the newspaper's activities and their mascot, Ned the News Hound:

One of the most interactive areas was called Pavilion of the States.  Representatives from library associations in each of the 50 states, as well as territories, offered information, handouts, and swag like posters, bookmarks, and pins.  Children were encouraged to pick up a free "Passport" which could be stamped at each of the state/territory booths.  The booths were organized by geographic region, which made it easy to navigate.

I had a great time at the National Book Festival, and am already getting excited for the 17th, announced to be taking place September 2, 2017.

Librorum annis

Monday, September 26, 2016

A Bookish Unboxing (un-enveloping) - The Persephone Diary for 2017

September is rounding the bend toward October, which means that soon there will be only three months left in the year.  While some people are drawn toward all things pumpkin spice, my thoughts move toward...stationery.  There's something about the crispness in the air, the renewal of the academic year, and the wearing of cosy duds that gets me into a reflective mood.  Autumn is the time of year that I write letters to people, instead of emails or social media posts.  It's also when I start looking for the next year's planner.

When Persephone Books announced that they would have a 2017 Diary available, I knew immediately that it would be the one for me.  As a burgeoning lover of their aesthetic, as well as their re-published literature, it was an easy decision to make!  Another tick in the Pros column was the discounted price, which was only available through the end of September.  I decided not to dilly-dally, and placed my order straight away.  Including shipping charges, the diary cost right around $25; I ordered mine straightaway.  One week later, I came home to this -

Ooooh look at the pristine, luxurious, dove grey cover!

Pulling out the diary, it looks exactly like one of Persephone's traditionally-published books.   The one obvious difference is that, here, a sewn-in, ribbon bookmark is included instead of a paper one that you would receive with the grey editions.  I expect to tote this planner around with me a great deal in 2017, so it's nice not to have to worry about losing the bookmark.

I do wonder why Persephone chose blue ribbon.  With the grey cover, white title card, and black/grey colophon, the blue seems terribly out of place.  A very small gripe, but there it is.  Now back to the positives!

The contents include the same high quality paper, the same thoughtfulness in the details, and the gorgeous endpapers from all 120 books that will be published by the end of 2016. Here are a few particular examples...

Someone at a Distance.  I do wish we had Bank Holidays like they do in the UK.  Le sigh.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.  A lovely bouquet is so fitting for Valentine's Day week.

In the final pages, you'll find endpapers for the three Persephone books that will be published later in 2016 - Every Good Deed and Other Stories, Long Live Great Bardfield, and Madame Solario.  I won't spoil them here, but rest assured that they on equal loveliness footing as the other 117 selections.  There are also a few pages set aside for notes and other scribblings.

The 2017 diary endpapers from the forthcoming Madame Solario

Whilst the Persephone Books 2017 diary is a bit weightier than other, more conventional options, I will absolutely carry it with me.  It is a gift to myself that I shall treasure throughout the year, even during those times when stationery isn't at the forefront of my thoughts.

Librorum annis

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Unusual Narratives - "Multiple Choice" by Alejandro Zambra

How do you approach a work of fiction that is structured like the Chilean college entrance exam?  When I first heard about the book Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra, I was intrigued because it seemed like such a bonkers premise.  How could someone tell a story through this kind of alternative/non-narrative form?  As soon as I was able to obtain a copy, I dove in to experience it for myself.

The text is divided into sections with titles that you might encounter on any standardized test.  Within each section are questions structured like those a student may come across on the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test, however the actual content serves a very different purpose.  To further the narrative trope, in the back of the text is an "answer sheet" with bubbles to fill in which correspond to the answer chosen for each question.

The questions themselves are the actual stories, but this isn't obvious at first.  When I began reading the first section "Excluded Term", I really did mark down my answer for each question, thinking that maybe there would be some narrative that would become clear from those answers.  However, I was unable to pinpoint any cohesive storyline that would satisfactorily connect all 24 questions/answers.  Therefore, I figured that this first part of the text was made up of 24 pieces of what I'll call nano-fiction.  Characterization and/or emotion are present, and the fact that the author can accomplish this with only a single word, followed by four multiple-choice answers, is proof of Zambra's talent.

 The author gradually expands his storytelling as the book goes along.  In the second section "Sentence Order", the reader must arrange the presented sentences into the "correct" order.  Depending on the arrangement, a unique narrative becomes evident for each of the 11 questions.  Because the questions/stories are a bit longer than in the previous section, and contain more detail, I would categorize this part of the book as micro-fiction.

The third section of the text is called "Sentence Completion", and presents 17 sentences/paragraphs in which the reader must choose the correct word(s) to complete the sentence(s).  While still being micro-fiction, this is the most interactive portion of the text so far because the reader has the power to completely change the narrative based on what word(s) are chosen.  This section truly gives the reader power to make the story her/his own.  More micro-fiction follows in the next part, "Sentence Elimination".  As the name suggests, the reader is allowed/encouraged to make the included 11 stories as she/he sees fit by removing portions based on options presented in the multiple-choice answers.

The final section of the book, "Reading Comprehension" presents the longest-form stories in the entire book.  They are each around 10 pages long, and are followed by seemingly critical thinking-type questions.  However, the way that the questions are phrased, as well as the wording of the multiple-choice answers, has snarky, darkly-lit humor.  These stories are, despite their brevity, heartrending and very clever.

The fact that the reader is necessarily involved in the telling of the stories is evidence that the author is welcoming of individual interpretation of the material.  This goes against the nature and purpose of a standardized test, which requires ever test-taker to identify the same correct answer to the same question.  Individuality vs. collectivism.  Critical thinking vs. rote memorization/cheating.  Not only is the author using flash fiction (nano/micro/etc.) to comment on the world around him, he is also utilizing the aptitude test format to comment on the idea that students have learned how to take the tests, not how to think.

It's quite difficult to categorize Multiple Choice, because it does not follow anything remotely resembling a traditional narrative.  Using the structure of a standardized test is a unique constraint, because it forces the author to be economical and precise with the words used.  Yet, it's not so contrived that the author's voice is lost.  There is a playful, sarcastic, devastatingly human soul in this pseudo-test.  Overall, a unique reading experience and a beautifully executed work.

Librorum annis

Monday, September 19, 2016

"Loving friend, the gift of one / Who, her own true faith, hath run"

So begins Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem To Flush My Dog.  It is from this work, as well as the poet's personal correspondence, that Virginia Woolf drew to create her canine biography Flush, first published in 1933.  I especially love this Persephone edition, with such beautiful swirling endpapers!

In the mid-1850's, the poet Elizabeth Barrett (not yet married to Robert Browning) was gifted a spaniel by her friend Mary Mitford.  Upon his arrival in London, Flush experiences difficulty adjusting to his new surroundings.  He wishes to run and sniff and explore, but is forcefully taught that he should be content to sit quietly unless called to do otherwise.  When he is taken for walks, he is led on a chain leash.  The methods in which Flush's innate, wild, spaniel ways are tamed, so that he will fit into London life, function as a metaphor for the ways that women were "trained" to behave as the dominant, patriarchal society deemed appropriate.

When Flush, at one point, is dognapped, Woolf uses the event as a way to illustrate the marked differences between English social classes.  Flush observes the dire squalor in which he now finds himself, and remarks upon the violent behaviors of his captors, who require a high ransom payment in exchange for his return.  With limited opportunities for them to be educated and earn a living, the community of people in the slums of St. Giles have turned to extortion in order to obtain money.  When Flush makes comparisons between the brutal slum and Elizabeth Barrett's comfortable upper-class home, you can see the author commenting on British poverty and classism.

When Elizabeth and her husband Robert move to Italy, Flush remarks on the canine societal differences between that country and England.  Most of all, he notices that all dogs are treated as equals; there are no hierarchies based on breed, lineage, or conformity to a standard of appearance and temperament.  That is, of course, allegorical to the author's understanding of English aristocracy as absurd, because it is based not on individual merit but rather the luck/misfortune of being born to a set of parents, whomever they happen to be.

On one level, Flush is a sweet, pseudo-biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's pet spaniel, creatively written but structured around factual information drawn from the poet's letters and other collected writings.  On another level, the book is a critique of then-modern English society.  The ways that Virginia Woolf writes Flush's interior monologues and observations, and - because Flush is inherently non-human - he is a continual foreigner in his world.  This canine naivete allows Woolf to comment on the socioeconomic and class divides that were so rigid and prevalent in England.

Librorum annis

Thursday, September 15, 2016

An Itty Bitty Book Haul

My workplace is in what could be accurately described as The Outskirts of the Middle of Nowhere.  Within walking distance is a supermarket, a few fast food restaurants, a kidney dialysis center, and a branch of the county's library system.  Quite a mixed bag of dearth, to say the least.  

The library is small, and unfortunately doesn't have a great selection of books or other enticements.  However, I make a lunchtime trek four times a year for the library's quarterly book sale.  Right inside the front doors, there are some shelves of books for sale, mostly classics of the Western Cannon, but the real goodies are at the far edge of the building, in what appears to previously have been a storage closet.  But with shelves, glorious shelves!  

Photos from the Friends of the Library website 

It's always an adventure pouring over the assortment of books you'll find.  Sometimes, you might even find a serendipitous gem.  Earlier this year, right after I returned from holiday in New Orleans, I found a cookbook of Cajun and Creole cuisine for $2!  I've never managed to leave one of these book sales empty handed, and my most recent visit was no exception.  Four books for $4?  Yes, please!

Was I in the mood for some red books?  It would seem that I was.  Iris Murdoch, Jamaica Kincaid, and Philip K. Dick are all authors of whom I've heard, but have never read, so I'm very excited to get to them.  I read Wild a few years ago, from a library, so I'm quite pleased to have my own copy.  Under the Net follows Jack Donaghue as he struggles to become a writer amidst the distractions of London and the various shenanigans he gets into.  A Small Place is a long-form essay critiquing the post-colonial society and politics on the Caribbean island of Antigua.  Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle lays out an alternate modern world, one where the Axis Powers won WW2.  It was recently made into a series from Amazon Studios, so if I enjoy the text I might consider checking out the adaptation.   

Librorum annis

Monday, September 12, 2016

My Summer of Ferrante

Whenever there's a book that gets tons and tons of attention (often before it's even available in a bookshop), I tend to avoid it.  Not forever, mind you, but long enough that some of the excitement has waned.  I've found that, when everyone is talking about a book, it can be difficult to have your own thoughts and opinions about it.  I also prefer to know only the very basics about a plot, if anything at all, before I read a book.  The chance that some important point will be revealed, before I want to know about it, is very high.  Too much of a risk.

A perfect example of a big, buzzy book (books, in this case) is Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet.  In the US, Europa Editions published the entire series, translated by Ann Goldstein, on the following schedule:
  1. My Brilliant Friend, 2012
  2. The Story of a New Name, 2013
  3. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, 2014
  4. The Story of the Lost Child, 2015
I first became aware of these novels, and their popularity, between the release of the third and fourth books.  There was so much talk about how feminist the series was, how it was such a perfect portrayal of female friendship, unlike anything else. The most devoted of her readers were so much so that they were given their own disease - Ferrante Fever.  The more I heard in favor of these books, the longer I knew it would be before I decided to read them.

It was late spring of this year that I finally decided that enough time had elapsed, and the buzz had settled.  After all, it was four years since the first book was published here, and one year since the last one.  So I took the plunge, and decided that 2016 would be my Summer of Ferrante.

Book 1: My Brilliant Friend

I began the first book, My Brilliant Friend, on July 26.  The beginning of the book had an index of the major characters, organized by family.  Usually, this kind of thing gives me anxiety, because there are so many people to keep straight - nine families with 47 total names.  Yikes!  Instead of allowing myself to feel like I had to memorize the names for some kind of future test, I decided to dive in.

My Brilliant Friend initially introduces the reader to the character of Elena Greco, alternately referred to as Lenuccia or Lenu.  She is in her later years, living in Turin, and her lifelong best friend Lila's son is calling her.  Lila has gone missing, and he wonders if she knows where Lila might be.  Elena has no idea where Lila is, tells him as much, and then sets about writing a detailed account of her and Lila's 50-year friendship.  The four novels in the "Neapolitan Quartet" are this account in total.  The first installment begins when Elena and Lila, residing in a particularly poor neighborhood in Naples, are in first grade, not long after the end of WW2, and follows until they're in their mid-teens.  

I was quickly reminded that reading translated literature can be tricky, especially when it comes to deciphering local idioms that have been carried over more or less directly into the other language.  I was immediately confronted with this in My Brilliant Friend.  There were many words and phrases that must be common in Italian, but are much less so in English, or not used in the same way or with the same connotations.  One thing I quickly realized was that the writing style in this novel could never be described as "lyrical" or "poetic".  The narrative is very prosaic, and the sentences - paragraphs - chapters moved along in sparse fits and spurts.

As is often the case when I read works in translation, I found it helpful not to fight against the words on the page.  Even if their use sometimes seems foreign or out of character, just go along with the translator and trust that it will all be okay.  Once I relaxed into the translation, I couldn't put the book down!  I was so enthralled with the depiction of the girls, their families, and the neighborhood intricacies and brutalities that I didn't want to put the book down.  I ended up reading all 331 pages in two days, finishing on July 28.

Book 2: The Story of a New Name

I had an unexpected problem finding the second Neapolitan Novel.  Although I really liked the first one, I wasn't sure that I would love The Story of a New Name, so I resolved to borrow it from a library in my area.  The first two (public libraries in my county and the neighboring one) - which usually have a fantastic selection of books - neither one had a copy in their catalog.  The third system, private and much smaller, with a pretty dismal collection, had an available copy.  Oh happy day!  It may have taken a week to be delivered to my local branch, but eventually it made its way to me.  I began reading it on August 8th.

Continuing where My Brilliant Friend left off, the reader continues to follow Elena Greco as she records the remembrances of her friendship with Lila. In this installment, they age from their late teens through mid-twenties. There is so much life that happens, and the drama in which the girls live their lives can be almost overwhelming. They alternate back and forth between prosperity and devastation throughout the novel.  There are lavish beach vacations, affairs, current (mid-1960's Italy) political discourse, neighborhood gossip, and much more. The violence and influence of the local mafia family is never far away from the daily goings on in their Naples neighborhood.  Throughout these twists and turns in their early adult lives, Lila and Elena are defining for themselves who they are and who they want to be. They are similar in many ways yet so different, and the paths they choose both bind them together and force them apart.

Ferrante/Goldstein does a masterful job of describing the everyday lives of academics and non-academics in ways that are generous and honest. I really felt like I know the characters and how their circumstances have impacted their perspectives and life choices. As was the case with the previous novel, the writing style is a bit disjointed and oddly-phrased at times. However, as was the case with My Brilliant Friend, I devoured The Story of a New Name.  I finished all 471 pages by August 10th.

Book 3: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

I had a much easier time acquiring a copy of the third Neapolitan Novel, and began reading it on August 28th.  Continuing directly from The Story of a New Name, the setting of this book shifts back and forth between Naples and Florence.  Taking place in the late 1960's through the 1970's, the girls age from their late twenties into their thirties.  Lila gets involved in the changing political climate of Naples, especially organized labor. There are instances of intense violence between the fascists, communists, organized crime henchmen, and other active political groups who clash about how best to regulate and accommodate the working class. As Lila becomes involved physically in the revolution, Elena participates in a more academic and literary capacity.

I have to admit that this was my least favorite of the quartet, mainly because, in this book more so than in the previous two, Lila and Elena's friendship is quite strained. For most of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, they don't communicate at all. The conflict between them is just like what can happen between any friends who don't live close and lose some of the intimacy they once shared. There are jealousies and misunderstandings on both sides, and their fortunes seem to wax and wane on opposite frequencies.  Again, as soon as I started reading this book, I had difficulty doing anything else.  I finished the 418 pages by August 30th.  

Book 4: The Story of the Lost Child

As summer wound down, I reached the last of the Neapolitan Quartet, The Story of the Lost Child.  I started reading on September 3rd, and finished the last of the 473 pages on September 9th. 
The Story of the Lost Child picks up right where the penultimate novel left off. We continue to follow friends Lila and Elena as they, the city of Naples, and the country of Italy grow and change from the late 1960's/early 1970's through to the mid-2000's. The girls, now women and mothers, age from their mid-thirties through to their sixties.  There is so much action, romance, political intrigue, violence, and tragedy within this installment that it made my head spin.

It's difficult to describe much of the plot, because what happens in this book has been influenced by events and conversations that came before. What the author does masterfully, in this novel and throughout the entire Neapolitan Quartet, is to explore the development and modernization of Naples through the lives of Lila and Elena. Elena continues her career as a writer, and has to juggle it with being a wife and primary caretaker for her children. At different times she lives in Naples, Florence, and Turin. She also takes advantage of opportunities to travel abroad, thereby interacting with many different people with different social, political, cultural, and economic ideas. Lila, however, remains exclusively in Naples and bears witness to the corruption, violence, and poverty that continues to oppress the residents of the neighborhood. She also struggles with motherhood and maintaining her own identity.

Most of the characters are involved in major Italian political movements of the time. There are Fascists, Communists, Christian Democrats, and many other groups. In addition to political shifts, there is the introduction and proliferation of technology in Naples, especially computers. As the title would suggest, there is a child who becomes lost from her family.  This tragedy sets a certain trajectory in motion that has wide-reaching effects for all of the characters.

Remembering that the entire Neapolitan Quartet is essentially one long work being written by Elena, in her later years, to explore and revisit her lifelong friendship with Lila, it makes sense that the final installment would be the most dramatic and fast-paced. Those events are the most recent, and therefore the most easily remembered. Also, the main characters are now in their middle-to-late adulthood, so the complexities of life are more familiar and ingrained in daily life.

Immigration is a topic that comes up only in near the end of the story. One of the things Elena notices on her return trips to Naples is the influx of non-Europeans into the city, and especially her neighborhood. Instead of improving the situation, it seems to her that the neighborhood is incorporating these migrants into its already violent ways of life.

The novel ends where My Brilliant Friend began, which makes for a pleasingly circular narrative throughout the Neapolitan Quartet. There is an epilogue that reintroduces some symbolism from the first novel, which in my opinion gave a satisfying ending to this saga.

And so...

Did I enjoy reading almost 1,700 pages about the coming-of-age of Elena, Lila, and Naples?  Absolutely!   Although there were some challenges with the language, I found the stories to be completely engrossing.

Do I have Ferrante Fever?  No.  The novels were wonderful, but certainly not the best books I've ever read.

Would I re-read the Neapolitan Novels?  Yes, but only in the heat of summertime.  Because southern Italy has a strong Mediterranean climate, and therefore lots of hot weather, it wouldn't feel proper to read the books during any other season.  I also expect that, as is the case with most books that I re-read, I would find more to appreciate the second time around with Elena and Lila.

Was all the buzz about these books merited?  No and yes.  There is a blurb on the cover of The Story of a New Name that compares Elena Ferrante to Jane Austen.  I'm not sure I'd come around to the same comparison.  Ferrante certainly has a lot to say about the social, cultural, and political landscape of Naples in specific and Italy in general, but I don't think her points were expressed as sharply and clearly as Jane Austen's were.  I can certainly see why people hold the Neapolitan Quartet up as a bastion of feminist writing.  I cannot think of any other works of literature whose focus is the long term relationship between two women.  The exploration of the Elena, Lila, and the other women characters' responses to the norms of what was expected of them in their sphere was refreshing and empowering, and at times disheartening.  The narrative gives a nuanced voice to the chorus of women from poor, working class neighborhoods whose stories are rarely, if ever, told.

And about those book covers

The vast majority of criticism about these four books revolves around the images on the Europa Editions covers.  They feature pastel colors and beaches, with all of the subjects turned away from the camera.  Images such as these are closely associated with women-focused genre fiction, which is typically assumed to be of lesser literary merit and quality than other forms of writing.  The Atlantic published an article about the covers here, which explores the discrepancy between Ferrante's covers and her content.  Suffice it to say that the images were chosen intentionally, and are perhaps not as dire as you might first think.

Librorum annis

Friday, September 9, 2016

Book Review - Housekeeping

Written in 1980, Housekeeping is Marilynne Robinson's first novel.  I absolutely love and adore her Gilead Trilogy, and you can truly see kernels of those three novels here.  This is a brief (less than 250 pages), atmospheric novel that envelops you in its quiet, dreamlike, and poetic prose, like a hand-crocheted, infinitely soft blanket.

The narrator of this novel is Ruthie, but we are first introduced to her grandparents and the town of Fingerbone, Idaho.  The town is a character in the novel, and the most beautiful and haunting descriptions are of the landscape and the large lake within its borders. 

Her grandmother was born and raised in Fingerbone, and her grandfather came to town with the railroad industry.  In fact, the railroad bridge that transverses the lake plays a major role in two events which bookend the novel.  It is her grandfather, an amateur painter/carpenter, who builds the family home, on a fruit orchard and near the lake.  They have three daughters: Molly, Helen and Sylvie, before Ruthie's grandfather passes away suddenly.

The three daughters go away from Fingerbone on separate paths, but it is Helen first who returns home with her two young children, Lucille and Ruthie.  When an event takes place involving Helen, the grandchildren are brought up and looked after by a succession of female relatives in the house of their grandfather.  The final relative to arrive is their itinerant Sylvie, who is less of a mother-figure and more of a shadow in the house.  She allows Lucille and Ruthie to skip school, to stay out all night, and mostly leaves them to feed and conduct themselves as they see fit.  Sylvie herself demonstrates highly unusual behaviors compared to the rest of the townsfolk of Fingerbone - repeatedly stealing a neighbor's rowboat; collecting newspapers, tin cans, and other ephemera in piles around the house; sitting quietly in complete darkness; obsessively watching the trains pass over the lake.  She prefers her own company to that of anyone else in Fingerbone, so she has no friends.

As the girls grow up, Lucille begins to challenge Sylvie's lifestyle and distance herself from Ruthie and Sylvie.  In one episode, Lucille convinces Ruthie to go with her to meet some girls from their school.  When Lucille abandons her for the other girls, Ruthie has the following observation – 

Lucille eventually goes so far as to completely move out of their family’s house in order to live with a maiden teacher, Miss Royce.  Sylvie's eccentricities amplify, and eventually draw Fingerbone's attention in unwanted ways.  There is a confrontation that takes place near the end of the book, and leads to a decision that changes the lives of everyone in Fingerbone forever.

The ethereal way with which Marilynne Robinson describes the surrounds of Fingerbone imbues them with a quiet, palpable power.  In this way, her writing is reminiscent of Emerson and Thoreau.  Their transcendentalism proposed that the existence and grace of a Supreme Being is evident throughout the natural world.  This grace permeates all of Fingerbone, from the way the sunlight passes through curtains, to the ways that the townspeople move to assist one of their own who they see as being in need. 

Taking the notion further, one could find shadings of Biblical characters in some of Fingerbone’s residents.  Ruthie’s grandfather is a kind of Creator/Adam/Noah-like figure who arrives in Fingerbone from a primitive former life.  His house, which is one of the few that escapes the regular flooding that happens in the nearby lake, could be seen as a kind of ark.  His plantings of fruit and flower thrive and are seemingly bountiful year after year. 

It is interesting to note that the overwhelming majority of characters throughout Housekeeping are female.  The patriarchy is practically nonexistent in this novel.  The only men who factor into the plot in any meaningful way are Ruthie and Lucille’s grandfather and the sheriff of Fingerbone.  Combined, their appearances amount to a few pages of text at most.  The men of the novel’s women die, leave, or are left.  The women in Ruthie’s family make their own lives.  They rely on each other, or themselves, for survival.  It is the trials, the trivialities, the unusual commonness of their lives that is the focus of the novel.  Giving priority to this “everydayness” is quite revolutionary in a work of fiction, and the author uses it to beautiful effect. 

A major theme in Housekeeping is quietness.  There are many descriptions of how silent Fingerbone becomes at night, or during the winter when snow is falling deep.  After Ruthie’s grandfather dies, there is no discussion or mention of him again by her grandmother or any of the other women.  When Ruthie’s mother and her two sisters move away, their presence is missed and tolerated stoically.  When Lucille decides to move in with her teacher, Sylvie and Ruthie never discuss the arrangement, except to rationalize why not to notify the sheriff of her absence.  They both quietly accept it without further concern or consideration.  When Sylvie begins to forgo tidying the house, allowing rubbish to collect all over and the windows to break, Ruthie never confronts her about it.  She notices, accepts, and says nothing.  For the women in this family, it’s as if by keeping silent on the misfortunes and hurt, those negative emotions can pose no threat to the peace of the present.  However, by the ways that the characters’ relationships devolve, it seems that perhaps this quiet approach isn’t entirely successful.

Another prominent theme is the struggle between living life according to your ethics, desires, and rules, versus conforming to the norms of others.  Ruthie feels a certain similarity to her aunt Sylvie.  They don’t put much importance on clothes or personal appearance trends.  While Sylvie is described as buying the girls cheap, impractical clothing and accessories, she does so not because they match a fashionable style, but because she appreciates their brief fancifulness.  Lucille, on the other hand, develops a sense that her personal identity is closely tied to her being accepted by her peers.  She begins to spend more and more time styling her hair, collaborating with her classmates on fabrics and patterns to make their own clothes, and worrying about trying to fit in.  She encourages Ruthie to join in her endeavors, but with no success.  Because Lucille cannot reconcile her ambitions with the lifestyle of her aunt and, assumedly to her, her sister, she removes herself from their home and their life completely.  Ruthie represents a comfort and acceptance of herself as she is in that moment, while Lucille wants to constantly improve, adapt, and accommodate.

While each generation of women in Ruthie’s family “take up housekeeping” in some way they, as women, are not necessarily free to define for themselves what housekeeping looks like.  Ruthie’s grandmother starched fabrics, baked cookies, made jams.  Sylvie’s desire to breach the divide between nature and the home, to let grace permeate both mutually, causes her to allow windows to break without repair and leave doors open.  Things from the woods and the lake gradually make their way inside.  Her technique of keeping house is very reminiscent of Thoreau’s exploration of the same in his book Walden.  Sylvie’s philosophy goes against what was expected of a female at the time in Fingerbone. 

Through the author’s treatment of women as the focus, the story is a response to the patriarchal prominence in American literature.  Women are capable of self-sufficiency, of deep thought, and deep appreciation of nature and the world around them.  The house they keep is not just a physical structure, but that of their own selves and souls.  

In the face of our increasingly busy, disconnected, modern world it would serve us well not to forget the simple, quiet pleasures of nature and the world around us.

Librorum annis

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Book Review - The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales

Storytelling is one of the ancient arts of humankind, fairy tales being only one form of storytelling.  Most fairy tales began as oral traditions, passed down verbally from generation to generation, connecting the youngest members of a group to past generations.  In Kirsty Logan's book The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales, we are treated to an array of original stories as well as retellings of classic, well-known fairy tales.  What struck me most about this collection was its depth and breadth of emotion and diversity.  Incorporating these concepts continues the storytelling tradition, while making these tales more relevant to a new generation.

Emotion runs as a vein through most of the stories in this collection, but I was particularly struck by "Feeding" and "Origami".  The characters in these stories are heavily affected by loss: Of a child, of missing a partner who cannot be nearby.  This loss is manifested in different ways, each poignant and heartbreaking. 

In "Feeding", Shelly and Peter leave their modern, coastal Australian life and move to the arid, sparse Outback.  The nearest town is 200km away.  They find the adjustment very difficult, especially struggling to grow anything - food, flower, family.  There is very little rain, which makes the land infertile.  I found the infertility of the land to be a metaphor for Shelly's own infertility.  I inferred that Shelly and Peter were once going to be parents, but a tragic event (miscarriage/stillbirth) took their child from them.  They were so distraught that they retreated from their lives.  Shelly suffers physically,  psychologically, and emotionally from the tragedy.  She spends all day, and most of the night, obsessively planting and tending to seeds, but without success. Peter tries to be supportive, loving, and understanding.  He repeatedly paints a spare bedroom, which the couple refer to as "everything except the nursery".  The color of paint is a pale yellow, and Peter remarks that the color would "work for a boy or a girl".  When rains finally come, and Shelly's garden blooms in vibrancy, it's as though Shelly has herself bloomed back into life from out of her depression.

A different kind of loss is felt in "Origami".  Rebecca misses her partner, Sean, who works out at sea on an oil rig.  Because of the distance, he often works away for weeks at a time.  He calls weekly, but is only able to talk briefly each time.  To help assuage her loneliness, Rebecca takes to collecting paper ephemera and folding them to make a life-sized model of a human.  A train ticket becomes a tongue, a newspaper is folded to make intestines.  The intensity and focus of the paper folding project keeps her mind occupied so that she isn't completely overwhelmed by her longing for her partner.

Diversity isn't something that makes much of an appearance in fairy tales, especially in the sterilized, Disney universe.  Therefore, it was refreshing to read stories about so many diverse, complicated characters.  In "Una and Coll Are Not Friends", two schoolchildren forge a bond over their magical realist deformities.  Una has antlers growing from her head, and Coll has an animal tail.  They are each considered to be distracting by students and teachers, and are regularly removed from the classrooms.  The beautiful thing about Una and Coll is that, despite their unusual features, they are fully realized humans.  Their antlers/tail are a part of them, but to them do not define who they are.  In giving the characters these traits, the author is commenting on society's treatment of those who don't conform to the physical norms of society.

In "Witch", Emmy and the female narrator are teenage lovers who enjoy drinking alcohol and challenging each other to adventures.  Emmy dares the narrator to enter the woods, where the witch Baba Yaga is fabled to live.  At first she wanders around confidently, then gets disoriented.  While trying to find her way back, she first has an awkward encounter with another couple in the woods, then stumbles upon the cabin of Baba Yaga, a 1970's "concrete hut, long abandoned, covered in 'Danger of Death' signs".  Instead of being the mythological witch from the fairy tales, the narrator discovers that Baba Yaga is a bookish hippy who was evicted from her apartment, was left by her girlfriend, and found the cabin after a self-destructive episode of drinking in the forest.  She prefers the isolation of the woods, and chooses it over modern life. 

There are 20 tales in this collection, and there was only one that I didn't love.  "Momma Grows a Diamond" is the story of the daughter of a brothel madame in New Orleans in the early twentieth century.  We get glimpses of the daughter as she grows and matures from age 10 to 13, and eventually joins in the family business.  I really enjoyed the story, except for one detail - the city.  The only ways that the reader knows it's set in New Orleans are the mentions of beignets and a single reference to Lake Ponchatrain.  I felt let down that there weren't descriptions of the sultry heat, the Mississippi River, the romantically decaying architecture, and the other vital aspects of that beautiful and atmospheric city.  I know that it's a small matter, and it doesn't affect the plot of the story, but I just couldn't help noticing.  If you removed the few New Orleans references, this story could really have taken place anywhere.

Overall, I was vastly impressed with The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales.  The author creates or reimagines stories that confront our humanity and encourage us to look at our world in new ways.  She uses emotion and diversity to great effect, and may have created a new collection of tales to share with generations to come.

Librorum annis

Thursday, September 1, 2016

August 2016 Reading Wrap Up

August was a pretty stellar reading month for me.  I read 12 works in total, although only 11 are pictured below (Lucy Knisley's Something New was already returned to the library).  There was a bit of a mixture of forms this month - novels, short stories, personal essays, a graphic novel, and a play. 

The books I read were:
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 & 2 by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany (library)
  • Human Acts by Han Kang (advanced reader copy - published in the USA 1/2017)
  • The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante 
  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
  • August Folly by Angela Thirkell
  • Good Evening Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes by Mollie Panter-Downes
  • Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman
  • Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris
  • Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  • Something New by Lucy Knisley

"And what did you think of them?" you might ask.  Well, in the future I'll post a review about each book as I finish it, but since this a nascent blog, I'll share my thoughts in a bit more detail.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 & 2 (Scholastic)

This book (play? script? dramatization?) has gotten so much attention and spawned such divisive reactions among the Harry Potter faithful!  I tend to lean on the side of appreciating it for the form that it was, with all the trappings that tag along, but not altogether loving it as a standalone work.  I would certainly not turn down tickets to the production, if they were to present themselves.  Alas, that is not likely to happen.

Human Acts (Hogarth)

This work is a perfect example of something that is brief yet powerful.  Han Kang, with the assistance of translator Deborah Smith, weaves a hauntingly beautiful, historical fiction tale of the Gwangju Uprising in South Korea in 1980.  While there is an Introduction that gives some context to the uprising and the South Korean government's violently brutal response to it, it is the stories of the characters that give it life, breath, and substance. An interconnected narrative of person, time, and location make up the structure of Human Acts, but it is the spirit that lives within that narrative that makes the story so powerful.

The Story of a New Name & Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Europa Editions)

These are the second ("New Name") and third ("Leave and Stay") books in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels quartet.  Continuing where the first novel, My Brilliant Friend, left off, we follow best friends Lila and Elena as they age from their late teens into their early thirties.  There are marriages, separations, births, violence, reconciliations, failures, estrangements, celebration, modernization, successes, and misunderstandings.  Really, it's about life in all of its messiness and joy.

August Folly (Virago)

This was my first experience with Thirkell, and I have to admit that August Folly was my least favorite novel that I read in August.  It's sweet, non-violent, full of small-town drama, and entirely asexual.  In fact, "twee" is a sublimely perfect adjective to describe this story of a small, English village full of kooky and endearing characters.  

There are many interconnected storylines, and a large cast of characters, which makes it somewhat challenging to keep track of who is who. In fact, there are so many infatuations, jealousies, romances, misunderstandings, and stodgy British discourses that it may make your head spin. Some of the subplots felt like they were pulled straight from Pride and Prejudice, including a stand-in for Mr. Collins, called Mr. Moxon.

I am a devout lover of the TV show "Gilmore Girls", and I couldn't help but find similarities between Stars Hollow and Thirkell's village of Worsted.  In both, everyone knows each other and their lives and business, sometimes to an embarrassing extent.  When Stars Hollow hosted the Festival of Living Pictures, it was a dead ringer for Worsted's production of Hippolytus.

Each of the characters has their own follies, and finding out how they are (or are not) resolved is a delight. There are no weighty, worldly subjects brought to bare here. No particularly deep philosophical questions are brought up or answered. Yet, the story is quite enjoyable.

Good Evening Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes (Persephone Books)

This collection of short stories gives readers a sense of everyday life in England during WW2 - how older men, children, wives, mistresses, and others who remained on the Home Front dealt with the fear, loss, and inconveniences of war. All of the 21 stories, in some way, comment on how members of different classes viewed the now-changing structure of English society. 

Whether it's about members of the upper-classes providing shelter to London evacuees during the blitz, household servants who admonish the lack of adherence to pre-war decorum, wives who feel guilt for not minding that their husbands are away at war, frustrated veterans who are too old to participate in this war, or women who have to call their boyfriends' wives covertly in order to get updates on his safety - the author masterfully evokes emotions and insights from the reader. The writing is beautiful and well-crafted. 

While not non-fiction, The Wartime Stories feels authentic and based completely in reality. All you need is a time machine to go back and meet Mr. Craven, the ladies of the local Women's Voluntary Services League, or the housemaid Dossie.  

And let's have a minute to admire the gorgeous endpapers!  From Persephone -
"‘Coupons’, 1941, shows women’s clothes against a repeat of '66', the number of clothes coupons allowed a year during the war, with the number needed per item."

Ex Libris (FSG)

Ex Libris is a celebration of Anne Fadiman's love of books, the written word, and all things literary. And her love is infectious. This collection of 18 hilarious, personal essays cover topics such as combining personal libraries with your partner, proofreading everything everywhere, sexism in the literary/publishing industry, unexpected books you find on another person's bookshelf, book snobbery, and an exploration of the continuum on which different people care for their books. 

My favorite essay, titled "Nothing New Under the Sun", looks at originality and plagiarism in writing throughout the ages. As someone who teaches undergraduate courses, and therefore reads a lot of assignments, I care deeply that authors give credit for ideas when they are not their own. So does Anne Fadiman, who takes great (and humorous) pains to not plagiarize "anything" by incorporating 38 footnotes into her 5-page essay. Footnotes range from the title of her essay (from a Bible verse), to an anecdote about a recipe cooked by an editor (not eaten by the author, but told to her by a friend, so the friend gets a footnote), to conversations that the author had with her husband (the husband gets a footnote). In her aggressive thoroughness, Anne pokes fun at the writing and publishing industry and the frequency with which words, phrases, and more have been plagiarized throughout time immemorial.

Holidays on Ice (Hachette)

David Sedaris is one of my favorite humor writers.  He is gleefully self-deprecating, and unafraid to share embarrassing stories about his friends and family.  This collection of personal essays and short stories focus specifically on holiday gatherings and activities - Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.  The most well-known of these essays, "Santaland Diaries", recounts episodes from the author's real-life stint working as Crumpet the Elf in a department store's North Pole.  Listen to a reading of the essay on Public Radio here.  Other stories feature neighbors who try to competitively out-decorate and out-charity each other, tardy trick-or-treaters, and the hazards of explaining the concept of the Easter Bunny to a foreign culture.

Glaciers (Tin House)

In Glaciers, the reader follows one day in the life of Isabel, a young woman living in the Pacific Northwest, who works as a damaged books librarian in a local library. We follow her as she wakes up, goes to work, interacts with coworkers, eats her meals, goes shopping for vintage clothes, and attends a literary party. These events are not particularly sensational, but take on new meaning when given context from flashbacks of her past: Growing up in Alaska, experiencing the divorce of her parents, moving to the Pacific Northwest, and cultivating a love of vintage and "forgotten" treasures.

Isabel's most significant relationship to date is with her high school best gay friend Leo, with whom she feels she can share anything. She doesn't have a particularly wide group of friends, and she often prefers the company of her cat to other people. She's almost like a glacier, a hard-packed individual floating in isolation. She secretly pines for one of her coworkers, nicknamed Spoke, and after she finds out a pivotal piece of information about him she has to decide whether or not to act on her feelings, once and for all.

I found this novel to be a delightful, emotionally-charged, and full of beautiful prose. I loved Isabel, and was enchanted with the ways in which the author reveals more of her personality and her past. I was rooting for her throughout, and I really wished that the story was longer, so that I could spend more time with her.

The Underground Railroad (Doubleday Books)

This is an incredible book, pulling no punches about the harshness of life for a dark-skinned person in mid-19th century America. There are moments of joy and comfort, but they are infinitesimal compared to the brutality and overwhelming suffering. Yet, amongst all of the darkness there is a sliver of hope.

After particularly brutal encounters with her Georgia cotton plantation master Terrance Randall, 16 year-old slave Cora agrees to leave the only life she has ever known (with no small peril to herself if caught) and follow fellow slave Caesar away to the Underground Railroad station. For those unfamiliar with the historical Underground Railroad in the USA, read more here.  Only, in this world, it is a literal railroad - a network of tracks and tunnels built under the Earth. There are stations with platforms, and steam trains driven by actual conductors. 

At each station stop, Cora sees a different part of the United States, and symbolically how the nation might be realized as a response to slavery - both sinister and respectable. She bears witness to eugenics, white supremacy, total destruction of the natural environment, police states, and non-consensual medical testing. Even the locations that seem utopian are in actuality just enclaves surrounded by communities who are openly hostile toward dark-skinned people.

Throughout her journey, Cora is constantly pursued by bounty-hunter Ridgeway and his crew, who are notorious for using the most brutal of tactics (any means necessary) to uncover a runaway slave and return "it" (his term) to the master. Because he was unable to locate Cora's mother after her escape, he is maniacally obsessed with finding and returning Cora.

I found the writing to be lyrically beautiful, despite the horrific brutality of the story being told. There were many times where I was so upset that I had to put the book down and walk away. I was often overcome with sadness and anxiety for Cora and her plight. She represents what most slaves could never dream of, let alone experience - the hope of freedom from bondage and equal standing in society. In many ways, this hope is still not realized in America today.

Homegoing (Knopf

Homegoing explores the long-term saga of a family tree that stems from a Ghanian woman named Maame. The story really begins with her two children, unknowing half-sisters named Effia and Esi. Through their lineage, the reader experiences the cultural, political, economic, and other changes in both Ghana and America from the 1700's through the 2000's. 

Each chapter follows a different family member in a subsequent generation, alternating between Effia and Esi's sides of the family tree. The chapters are relatively short, and as a result they feel more like vignettes of the characters' lives. Because Yaa Gyasi's writing is so captivating and engrossing, I was left wanting after every chapter. More than once she would use the phrase "and then 10 years went by" (or something similar) and I really, really wanted to know what happened in those 10 years! The writing is that good! This is really a side-criticism, I suppose, because I fully realize that the book I want would be thousands of pages long, or would expand to be an entire series of books. I would read the crap out of that series, however.

Although the writing is very good, the storytelling itself suffers in the later third of the book. As the generations move closer to modern day, it felt more and more like the author had a checklist of major historical and cultural events that she wanted the characters to experiences. As a result, the story itself felt forced at times. There was some redemption from this in the final chapter(s), but overall the first 2/3 of the book were much stronger from a storytelling and character development perspective.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Homegoing, and the story it tells is heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time. I look forward to reading any future works from Yaa Gyasi.

Something New (First and Second)

 Lucy Knisley's graphic memoir focuses on her engagement to fiance John and their wedding planning process. Throughout, they strive to maintain a sense of authenticity and individuality, in opposition to a wedding industry that favors cookie-cutter conservativeness. The illustrations are beautiful, and the author even includes reproductions of photographs from throughout her engagement and wedding. There is an honesty throughout the story that transcends even the marriage process. It's a beautiful love letter to loving relationships in all their forms.

I look forward to what reading the month of September holds in store!   Until next time.

Librorum annis