Sunday, October 27, 2013

March Was Made of Yarn, edited by Elmer Luke and David Karashima

Subtitled Reflections on the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown, March Was Made of Yarn is a collection of short pieces (mostly short stories) written in the aftermath of the 3/11/11 triple tragedy in Japan. The first story, "The Island of Eternal Life," by Yoko Tawada, is set circa 2021; Japan has been cut off from the rest of the world since 2015. Operating without electricity, the people have come to rely once again on wood-block printing; doctors work by the light of fireflies in their desperate efforts to find a cure for radiation sickness. The government has been privatized, leaving the people even less sure about its claims that no radiation is escaping from the abandoned nuclear power plants. It is a catastrophic vision of life after the triple tragedy.

Other stories are more "in the moment," focusing on what happened during and immediately after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. My favorite story, "The Charm," by Kiyoda Shigematsu, focuses on Machiko, who 40 years ago lived in a town nearly destroyed by the tsunami. The events of 3/11 leave her depressed; as others in Tokyo return to their normal lives, she struggles. Finally, she decides to visit the devastated town, not sure what she will do there but compelled to go nonetheless. What happens there reconnects her with her childhood, in touching ways. Much about this story reminded me of the way it felt to live 2000 miles from New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania in the months following 9/11.

Another story I liked a lot was "Lulu," by Shinji Ishii, in which ghostly women and a dog that may or may not be real, a ghost, or a figment of 32 children's shared imagination comfort children traumatized by the tsunami. While stories featuring ghosts don't generally appeal to me, this one was gentle, mysterious, and quite lovely.

Among the book's other pieces are an angry manga by Brother and Sister Nishioka ("Their so-called democracy is just a system of excuses for profit, an alibi for apathy"); Hiromi Kawakami's prize-winning story about a picnic with a bear, which the author has rewritten to be set in a forest contaminated with radioactive material; two lovely poems; and much more. A few stories gave me that "hunh?" feeling when I got to the end, but overall the authors have, as the editors put it, "seen through the thick haze of the moment to clarity."

Favorite passages

Words grown old from overuse
Come alive again with our pain
Grow deep with our sadness
As if backed by silence
They grow toward new meanings
(From the poem "Words," by Shuntaro Tanikawa)

I've come to feel, however, that hope isn't something that permeates the whole. Hope isn't born all at once, like buds erupting in spring; nor does it envelop the landscape like freshly fallen snow. . . .

I think that maybe hope is like one of those little eucalyptus leaves. You suddenly become aware of its existence and potential; you figure out what you need to do, and you set goals; you gather information and knowledge and, if necessary, capital; and then you take action. Whatever the scale of the project, the buds of hope at first seem tiny--insignificant and unreliable. There's no way to be sure that hey'll really  blossom. But once you make the first step forward, possibilities begin to take shape and show themselves. . . .

Buds of hope are definitely popping out, one by one.
(From the essay "Little Eucalyptus Leaves," by Ryu Murakami)

Thursday, October 24, 2013

After Her, by Joyce Maynard

Rachel and Patty are sisters, growing up in Marin County in the late 70s. They adore their police officer father, Anthony Toricelli, even though they rarely see him once their parents divorce. In actuality, they don't see their mother all that much either because she retreats to her bedroom as soon as she gets home from work. The girls are left mainly on their own, and they devise varied and creative ways of entertaining themselves, roaming the mountain behind their house, watching the Brady Bunch through the windows of their neighbors' houses, and acting out stories that Rachel writes. Patty loves basketball and dogs, while Rachel loves to write, believes she has the second sight, and worries about getting her period.

When a serial killer goes on a rampage on their mountain, their father's sudden fame as the lead detective on the case is initially a boon to Rachel's social life--the "cool" kids at her junior high are suddenly interested in the insider information she gets from her father (his good looks don't hurt either). When the killings continue and the police have no leads, however, their father's health and Rachel's popularity both suffer. Rachel becomes obsessed with the case, believing she is having visions of the crime scenes and deciding she can help her father catch the killer. The results cause public humiliation for Rachel, Patty, and their dad.

The book then jumps forward 30 years. Rachel is a mystery/thriller writer whose life has been shaped by the Sunset Strangler case. She still hopes to vindicate her family, and her efforts seem nearly as ill-considered as her strategies as a teenager.

While the book is ostensibly a mystery/thriller, at its core it is a coming-of-age story that beautifully depicts the relationship between the two sisters and their love for their father, as well as their dawning realization of his flaws.  The book is not perfect by any means--the girls' mother is not well drawn (she's depressed but she might as well be dead), the twists revealed when Rachel is an adult are not very surprising, and the ending is a bit too neat. Nonetheless, it's a book worth reading.

Favorite passage:
If she had the right dance partner, he said, a woman should be able to close her eyes and let him take her anywhere. But steer clear of a man with a limp hand. You want to feel strong pressure on your back, and his hand pressing against yours, as he led. It's fine if he smells your hair--you want a sensual man--but not his hand on your rear end. And if he doesn't walk you back to your table after the dance, he's danced his last with you.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

See Now Then, by Jamaica Kincaid

See Now Then has left me somewhat flummoxed. Written in a stream-of-consciousness and highly repetitive style, the book is a portrait of a family where hate is as prevalent as love. The family lives in a small town in Vermont, where Mrs. Sweet writes, gardens, knits, cooks, raises her children, and struggles to pay the bills while Mr. Sweet teaches, composes music, and thinks about beheading his son. While Mr. Sweet freely admits to hating his wife, she claims to love him--though her descriptions of him suggest there is little to love (e.g., he is small and reminds people of a rodent). Their children--the "young Heracles" and "beautiful Persephone," essentially always referred to in that way--are a source of additional conflict. Persephone, her father's favorite, is no more than a cypher. Although a bit better developed as a character, Heracles is essentially a stereotypical boy at various stages of male maturation.

In addition to probing what she sees as the closely linked familial emotions of love and hate, Kincaid is clearly playing with the idea of time and the blurring between past and present, but her treatment of this topic did not move me. (Sample passage:  "She was thinking of her now, knowing that it would most certainly become a Then even as it was a Now, for the present will be now then and the past os now then and the future will be a now then, and that the past and the present and the future has no permanent present tense, has no certainty in regard to right now."  Is that so?)

Kincaid includes many odd details, particularly details regarding where Mrs. Sweet bought various household items. Some of the details are repeated over and over  (I would love to see the results of a text search revealing the number of times Kincaid reminded us that the family lived in the Shirley Jackson house); I"m sure the author had some purpose in this repetition, but for me it served only as a trigger for tuning out.

I'm not sure if I would have liked this book better if I had read it in print, but I found Jamaica Kincaid's reading of the book strangely ill-suited to the content. I realize this is about my ingrained biases (many reader reviewers on Amazon and other sites disagree with me) and doesn't make any logical sense, given that Mrs. Sweet was Caribbean, but Kincaid's lilt seemed much too upbeat and calm for this story of family dysfunction.

 See Now Then was reviewed twice in the New York Times; one was a rave, the other a pan. So, while willing to concede that I may simply be too unsophisticated a reader to appreciate its post-modern greatness, I don't feel too bad saying I would not recommend this book.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Two More Mystery Deadends

The quest to find a good mystery continues . . . Compound Fractures, the final title in Stephen White's Alan Gregory series, is awful. I tried (not very hard) to think of a more polite description, but it's not possible. It is truly terrible. Don't read it!

With the publication of W Is for Wasted, Sue Grafton is obviously nearing the end of her Kinsey Millhone series--and I feel like she's getting ready for that. Two of Kinsey's ex-boyfriends make brief appearances, suggesting there may be a showdown for her affections in X, Y, or Z. In addition, Kinsey for the first time encounters members of her father's family (orphaned at five, she met her mother's family several titles ago). It all feels like the beginning of a long wrap-up. The mystery itself isn't a bad one, but it isn't a great one either. One problem is that it hinges on a rather huge coincidence; another is that it develops very slowly (both of these books are longer than they need to be). Still, better than quite a few mysteries I've read lately.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis

I read The Screwtape Letters when I was a teenager and remember thinking it was a great book. So, even though I am not religious (and it's a book aimed primarily, I would say, at Christians), I decided to reread it.

The Screwtape Letters is a brief novel, written as a series of letters from Screwtape, a devil who is relatively high in the hierarchy of hell, to his nephew Wormwood, an apprentice demon who has been assigned the task of winning the soul of a young man referred to as "The Patient." Screwtape's letters are filled with advice about how to tempt The Patient away from God based close observation of human psychology and morality. Wormwood is not a quick study, however, and he even has the effrontery to report to a higher authority some remarks of Screwtape's that might be considered heretical. Screwtape's tone becomes increasingly irritated as Wormwood misses opportunity after opportunity to draw The Patient to the dark side; his closing to every letter, "Your affectionate uncle," sounds more and more ironic. Finally, he gleefully informs his nephew that he is looking forward to feasting on Wormwood's soul, the price Wormwood will pay for his utter failure as a demon.

I enjoyed The Screwtape Letters this time around, although probably not as much as I did back in 1968 (by the end, I was thinking it was becoming slightly tedious). Lewis's insights are relevant, I think, to anyone who wants to be a good person, whether Christian or not, and the way in which he has conveyed his moral guidance is both clever and entertaining. Interestingly, Lewis found writing as Screwtape--he called it "demonic ventroliquism"--unpleasant and vowed not to write any more letters after completing the book; he did, however, write an after-dinner speech by Screwtape, in which Lewis critiqued education in the 1950s.

Favorite passages
Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them.

The present is the point at which time touches eternity. . . . Thought about the future inflames hope and fear.  

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.), by Delia Ephron

"Losing Nora," the first essay in Delia Ephron's new collection, is a gem. Ephron describes her relationship with her beloved--but often difficult--older sister Nora, Nora's illness, and her own grief in the wake of her sister's death. Her forthrightness is stunning and gives the essay a depth that it would not have had had she glossed over the challenges of her relationship with her sister. When, for example,  she feels annoyed at the memorial service because two people quote lines they attribute to Nora ("that was my line"), it's both funny and heartbreaking.

A number of the other essays are more focused on everyday life--her dog, the frustrations of dealing with online ordering and with banks, the correlation between weather and her hair's behavior, and having her domain name hijacked by someone in Japan. Sometimes, an essay that starts out being about one topic takes a turn and ends up somewhere else completely; her paean to New York City's bakeries becomes a reflection on whether we can "have it all" and what "it all" might mean.

The last two essays return to her family. In "Why I Can't Write About My Mother," she looks at the contradictions that were her mother--a talented book-loving writer who had a career when most women didn't, but was also an alcoholic with a gift for withholding what her daughters needed. "Collaboration" returns to her relationship with Nora, describing the joy and challenges of working together to co-author a number of films and their final project, the Broadway play, Love, Loss and What I Wore, which they liked to call The Vagina Monologues without the vaginas.

It is probably obvious that the three essays about family resonated most with me, but the entire Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.)  collection is well worth reading.

Favorite passage

Nora thanked me by sending me roses--two dozen gorgeous plump peach roses in full bloom--the sister in the hospital sending flowers to the one who was not.

I have thought a lot about this. More than anything, I think about this.

There are things a person does that you could talk about forever. They are the key. They reveal character, they unlock secrets. I think Nora's sending me flowers was that.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Where Are All the Good Mysteries?

I've read a number of mysteries lately that I haven't written about on the blog because they just weren't good, but after the last disappointment, I decided to grant myself a rant. Why are the mysteries I'm reading so bad? Or can you only read mysteries for so long before nothing can please you (and I have been reading them for a long time)?

I have trouble not picking up a new book in a series I've been reading for years--even if the past few titles in the series have been less than stellar. And all four books from long-running series that I read during this period were pretty terrible--The Twelfth of Never, by James Patterson (I've already given up on the Alex Cross series and the Women's Murder Club needs to go as well),  Beast by Faye Kellerman (completely implausible and poorly proofread), The Whole Enchilada by Diane Mott Davidson (a series that has become utterly ridiculous), and Bones of the Lost by Kathy Reichs (just dull, with Ryan making only a cameo appearance). These series have clearly jumped the shark.

The problem lies not just with series mysteries, however. I also read two stand-alone mysteries that failed to thrill. If You Were Here, by Alafar Burke, features a muddled plot filled with ethically challenged characters who act in inexplicable ways. Even more disappointing was A Dangerous Fiction, by Barbara Rogan, whose fiction I have enjoyed in the past. Rogan provides an insider's look into the world of literary agents, which is interesting, and the more serious aspects of the story--the unpacking of the protagonist's memories, which she has shaped to make her marriage to a renowned author, dead now three years, the glittering foundation of her life--could serve as the foundation of an interesting novel. The mystery, however, feels unimportant (with apologies to the two murdered characters), and the tacked-on romance is both unbelievable and superfluous.

Plotting is really everything in mysteries--and if the plotting is unbelievable or confused or completely illogical, fuggedaboutit. Well-developed characters are a nice bonus--but they can't save a poor plot. Perhaps Faye Kellerman's work illustrates this best--Rina Lazarus and Peter Decker are not only three-dimensional characters, they're characters we would like to know. But, as the last several titles in the series demonstrate, two great characters are not enough. I almost get the feeling that series authors think they need to make the stories more and more extreme to keep readers interested--but I think that assumption is wrong. Mystery readers like a plot that is clever but makes sense . . . so just give it to us!

Favorite passage (yes, I had one!)

That's always the way of it: bereavement outlasts its ceremonies.
From A Dangerous Fiction

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Tinkers, by Paul Harding

This Pulitzer Prize-winning and brief novel is an unusual work. It is written in self-consciously poetic language, does not have a conventional plot, and opens by telling the reader that the protagonist--the elderly George Washington Crosby--is eight days from death. George is hallucinating and, as his mind roams, he remembers his childhood as the eldest child of a tinker--a man who drove a mule-powered wagon around rural New England selling various household necessities and fixing things for a penny or two. George's father Howard has seizures, which, in the 1920s, were seen as a sign of mental illness. When Howard becomes aware that his wife is planning to have him institutionalized, he leaves the family, breaking George's heart but leaving him a legacy of tinkering. After his retirement from teaching, George develops a passion for fixing and collecting old clocks.

The book becomes confusing when Harding switches to Howard's perspective. Are these memories, too, part of George's hallucination?  Or is Harding simply providing back story? And why are a few passages in first person, rather than the third person employed in most of the book? Howard's story does help the reader understand why he left his family without even confronting his wife about her plans--his own mother institutionalized his father, a Methodist minister, when his dementia reached the point that he told his parishioners that the devil might not be so bad.

Interspersed throughout the book are quoted passages from an old book about clocks, accentuating Harding's focus on time and its meaning. This device was not particularly effective when listening to the audio book--I wondered if it might be more effective in print. In fact, I wondered if there were typographical or layout clues in the print edition that might have alleviated my confusion about the shifting perspectives--the narrator, Christian Rummel, did little to make those shifts clear.

In perusing other reader reviews of the novel, I discovered that people seemed to either love or hate the book, with the poetic language being a key factor for both factions. I don't feel that strongly about the book either way. Many passages were quite lovely; on the other hand, the prose occasionally felt somewhat pretentious, and my confusion about the point of view interfered with my ability to enjoy the author's reflections on life, love, death, family, time, nature, and every damn thing.

Favorite passage:
. . . be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusions in your soul mean that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of this world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon.