Saturday, July 4, 2015

As Good As Dead, by Elizabeth Evans

As this novel opens, English professor Charlotte is surprised by a visit from her one-time friend and roommate when the two were students in the Iowa Writers Workshop, Esme. Both have lived in Tucson for years, and Esme never responded when Charlotte sent her a postcard announcing that she and her husband Will were coming to the University of Arizona to teach. Charlotte is a successful novelist, but her personality is such that she still obsesses over her betrayal of Esme and Will back in Iowa City. When Esme appears on her doorstep, Charlotte cannot help but agree to have dinner with Esme and her creepy husband Jeremy, also a one-time Iowa student.

The visit and disastrous dinner (Esme has ulterior motives) cause Charlotte to relive the semester at Iowa during which she and Esme shared an apartment and Esme dominated her life. Ultimately, she must tell Will the secret she has hidden for 20 years.

From this book and others I've read set at Iowa, the famous Writers Workshop seems to be a toxic place. For an insecure person like Charlotte, who is from a small town in Iowa and a family that is skeptical of writing as a career (in contrast, Esme is from a wealthy family in Evanston and attended an Ivy), the Workshop serves to reinforce all her self-doubt. Esme is patently a hideous bitch--as just one example, when the Atlantic accepts one of Charlotte's stories, Esme and Jeremy tell her it was probably a prank call--who does that? Only someone with Charlotte's self-esteem issues could fail to see Esme's manipulations and cruelties--and, as a result, find herself striking back in a way that goes against her own principles. By the end of the book, she has made some progress in pulling herself into a long-delayed adulthood, but for me it came too late.

One review I read mentioned that the reader was cheering for Charlotte throughout the novel. I wasn't so much cheering for her as wishing I could smack her. Although As Good As Dead is well-written, I found the characters so irritating that I wouldn't recommend the book.

Favorite passage:
Unfortunately, I did not understand that viewing yourself as a victim could make you, poor little you, liable to do damage to others; that victimhood itself was often sustained by self-inflicted wounds.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway

My sister recommended this book to me after seeing my post on The Skeleton Road. Based on the true story of a cellist who played Albinoni's Adagio in a Sarajevo square each afternoon for 22 straight days during the civil war of the 1990s; he played to honor 22 friends and neighbors killed by a shell exploding in the market as the cellist practiced the Adagio in his nearby flat.

The cellist--his bravery and his music--have a profound effect on the three characters whose perspectives shape this brief novel. Kenan is a young man who must travel every few days to the brewery to get water for his family and his neighbor. Dragan is an older man, a baker, who sent his family to safety in Western Europe in the early days of the war, but Sarajevo is his home and he feels he cannot leave. He travels daily to the bakery, but despairs for his city. Arrow is a young woman recruited from her college's sharpshooting team to be a sniper for Bosnian Defense Forces who were trying to protect the city from the siege by Bosnian Serbs. Arrow has worked out a deal with her "handler" that she will choose her own targets (she will only target snipers/soldiers, never civilians). Then her handler asks her to protect the cellist from a sniper sent into the city by the opposition.

As Kenan, Dragan, and Arrow go about their perilous daily activities, they reflect on the possibility that their city will never recover, that they may be as responsible for its death as the snipers in the hills surrounding the city, that humans are, in fact, incapable of humanity. Yet the cellist and the Adagio suggest there may yet be hope, that the diverse beauty of Sarajevo may somehow survive.

The book has generated some controversy, including a claim that Galloway unfairly stole the story of the actual cellist, Vedran Smailovic (, and that he repeats the propaganda that unfairly vilifies the Bosnian Serbs ( The first complaint is understandable--most people would probably be irritated by seeing themselves turned into fiction--but that's what artists, including writers do. The second complaint I'm unqualified to evaluate, but from a rather uninformed point of view, I think Galloway is nearly as critical of the Bosnian military as the Serbs (by the way, I don't think he ever uses the word Serbs)--I read the book as a condemnation of war and hatred rather than of any particular group. But perhaps I am hopelessly naive.

At any rate, I found the book's depictions of the effects of war on "average" people and the redeeming power of music moving and well worth reading.

Favorite passages:
There are no grand moments where a person does or does not perform the act that defines their humanity. There are only moments that appear, briefly, to be this way.

Arrow let the slow pulse of the vibrating strings flood into her. She felt the lament raise a lump in her throat, fought back tears. She inhaled sharp and fast. Her eyes watered, and the notes ascended the scale. . . . The music demanded that she remember this, that she know to a certainty that the world still held the capacity for goodness. The notes were proof of that.

Because civilization isn't a thing that you build and then there it is, you have it forever. It needs to be built constantly, recreated daily. It vanishes far more quickly than he ever would have thought possible. And if he wishes to live, he must do what he can to prevent the world he wants to live in from fading away. As long as there's war, life is a preventative measure.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Skeleton Road, by Val McDermid

I continue to read more mysteries than are good for me, but I don't generally write them on for this blog because there's just so little to say about them. However, I thought I would at least mention this new title from Val McDermid because it is not only a double mystery (who killed the person whose skeleton was found on the roof of an abandoned building in Edinburgh and who is the vigilante killing Balkan war criminals?), it is also a bit of a history lesson about the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. Although I was, of course, a full-fledged newspaper-reading adult in the 90s, it's surprising how little I knew about the conflicts--The Skeleton Road does begin to fill in some gaps and makes me want to learn more. The book has a complex structure with three main perspectives--that of the police woman Karen Pirie, a bungling lawyer detailed to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and scholar Maggie Blake, who lived in Dubrovnik during the siege and was the lover of a prominent Croatian general. In addition, excerpts from a memoir Maggie has started writing are also interspersed throughout, adding more information about the war.

The Skeleton Road is not the greatest mystery, but it's relatively entertaining while being educational as well. Readers should be warned that the ending is as dark as one might expect in a mystery about war and war criminals.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx

When The Shipping News was first published in the early 1990s, many of friends were raving about it and I tried to read it several times . . . but I just couldn't get through it. I recently decided to try listening to it and, to my surprise, enjoyed it.

The Shipping News is set primarily in the small town of Killick-Claw, Newfoundland, where protagonist Quoyle (who brings the word schlub to mind) retreats with his two young daughters after his marriage to the tarty Petal ends in abandonment and death.  Along with Quoyle's aunt Agnes Ham, a yacht upholsterer mourning the death of her long-time companion (Quoyle is not aware that this companion was a woman), they hope to live in the family's ancestral home; unfortunately, it needs serious rehabbing and is unsuitable for habitation in the winter months. Nonetheless, Quoyle gets a job at the local paper, Aunt (as she is generally referred to in the book) sets up her business, and the girls, Bunny and Sunshine, generally settle in to their new life.

The characters that populate Killick-Claw, especially the other members of the newspaper's staff (the paper specializes in photos of car wrecks, sexual abuse stories, and the shipping news of the title; when Quoyle suggests that boat wrecks might be as interesting to readers as car wrecks, it's a major innovation), are eccentric in a way that seems to be particular to Newfoundland; they are reminiscent of the characters in many Southern writers' work, but with their own local peculiarities. Most of the characters have suffered significant losses in their lives--death is truly ever-present in a fishing village. Yet, as the narrative progresses, Quoyle and his girls seem to grow within the close-knit community that takes them in, and the ending leaves the reader feeling optimistic about the human condition.

I'm not sure what kept me from succeeding when I first tried to read it; perhaps the slow-paced and rather bleak beginning simply bogged me down at a time in my life that wasn't the happiest. Whatever the reason, I recommend the book now for its strong evocation of place, its characters, and its theme of enduring in the face of loss.

Favorite passages:
One of the tragedies of real life is that there is no background music.

For if Jack Buggit could escape from the pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat's blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, and that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Vanity Fair, by William MakepeaceThackeray

Vanity Fair is one of the many classics I did not manage to read in my first 65 years. Unfortunately, it's not one of the classics that, when I finally read it, I thought, "Why didn't I read this sooner?" Instead, my main reaction was, "Why did Thackeray think this book needed to be 800 pages?"

Vanity Fair begins with two young women leaving school in early 19th-century England. Amelia Sedley is the daughter of a well-to-do businessman; she is preparing to marry the young man she has been engaged to for years. Becky Sharp is from a much sketchier background, and she is bound for a job as governess with the wealthy Crawley family. The two represent what seem to be the categories of people into which Thackeray divides the English: Amelia represents the good but simple-minded while Becky represents those out for the main chance (although she is actually considerably smarter than most of the people in this group, as depicted by Thackeray).

Over the course of 20+ years, both women enter into marriages that cause disruptions in their husbands' families; but Amelia is devoted to her husband while Becky seems to despise hers. Both have sons, but Amelia is besotted with her son while Becky barely shows any interest in hers.Thackeray details their stories--with very little apparent sympathy for either--and those of a substantial number of other of the wealthy British. The satire is at first amusing, but it becomes quite tedious no more than half way into the book.

I know from reading a Jane Smiley review of Vanity Fair that it is not "possible to understand Vanity Fair without acknowledging Thackeray's extensive familiarity with French literature." So perhaps my boredom is caused by my nonexistent familiarity with French literature. Nonetheless, I am thinking of proposing a page limit for all satirical novels--say, 300-350, less if possible.

Favorite passages:
I think I could be a good woman if I had 5000 a year.

If a man's character is to be abused, say what you will, there's nobody like a relative to do the business.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Citizen, by Claudia Rankine

Reading Claudia Rankine's Citizen the same week that the news and social media were full of the mass murder at the historic AME Church in Charleston, SC, was actually painful. While the SC attack demonstrated the most horrific racism we can imagine, Rankine forces our attention to the more mundane aspects of prejudice--the thoughtless remark, the refusal to sit next to an African American on the bus, the easy judgments about prominent African Americans who, for one moment, lose their equanimity. She also talks about a number of the recent police killings of African Americans, but for me, most devastating was the reminder of the manifestations of deeply engrained racism that African Americans must confront every single day. As a major Serena Williams fan, I also appreciated Rankine's insights into why Serena reacted as she did when a referee made an indefensible call at the U.S. Open in 2009--I had never understood how the usually composed Williams completely lost her cool--but Rankine's explanation--that Serena had reached a point of utter exhaustion with the weight of a lifetime of bad calls and unfriendly crowd--has the ring of truth.

 The form of the book is unusual.  It is not exactly poetry--and yet it is definitely poetic. One of the jacket blurbers called her writing prose poetry, which is a form I've never quite understood--but it seems like a good description here. Meditations was another word that came to mind. The sections about police killings are written as scripts for Situation videos, which she produces with a colleagues (search YouTube to find examples).

Citizen is a slim but powerful volume that I recommend  highly.

Favorite passages:
When you arrive in your driveway and turn off the car, you remain behind the wheel another ten minutes. You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level and want time to function as a power wash. Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists the medical term--John Henryism--for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure.

The world is wrong. You can't put the past behind you. It's buried in you; it's turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you.

because white men can't
police their imagination
black men are dying

That time and that time and that time the outside blistered the inside of you, words outmaneuvered years, had you in a chokehold, every part roughed up, the eyes dripping. That's the bruise the ice in the heart was meant to ice.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, by Simon Garfield

When I told a friend I was reading a book about fonts, she responded that I must be hard up. But I found this book entertaining. As someone who chooses type for various projects with very little knowledge of the suitability of specific fonts for specific purposes, I found Garfield's discussion interesting (I still doubt it will really improve my selections--and to improve that I changed the font for this entry to Trebuchet). I also was fascinated by the controversies that font changes can cause, particularly when a company changes its signature type--evidently Ikea's switch from Futura to Verdana created a huge fontroversy (how did I not know?). I also loved the language used to describe fonts--"structural but sensual," "open and human," "irreverent and naive,"  "a nicely rounded semi-formal humanist font," "slightly space-age, rooted and implacable."  And who would have thought that, to type aficionados, "Done well, an '&' is not so much a character as a creature, an animal from the deep"? Really? Really. Just My Type is a look into a topic and a subculture most of us are unaware of and, as such, is sometimes fascinating . . . but also occasionally a bit tedious. 

Favorite passage:
. . .  the book typographer's job was building a window between the reader inside a room and that landscape which is the author's words. He may put up a stained glass window of marvelous beauty, but a failure as a window; that is, he may use some rich superb type like Text Gothic that is something to be looked at, not through.