Thursday, October 30, 2014

Alena by Rachel Pastan

This book is a contemporary retelling of the classic Daphne DuMaurier book Rebecca. I read it because I love Rebecca, and because the author was coming to the Wisconsin Book Festival and I wanted to attend her reading. I also read it because I’m interested in modern retellings of classic novels. Pastan isn't the first to tackle Rebecca; a few years ago I read a book called Daphne, by Justine Picardie, which was a mashup of Rebecca and elements from duMaurier’s life.

The plots of Alena and Rebecca overlap considerably. Rebecca was written in the 1930’s and made into a popular movie starring Lawrence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. In that novel, a nameless young narrator tells of her marriage to a much older man, Max de Winter, and her life at his home, Manderley, where she lives in the shadow of his first wife, Rebecca, who died under mysterious circumstances. Life at Manderley is fraught with anxiety. The servants, especially the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, adored Rebecca and view the narrator’s arrival with suspicion and hostility. Her attempts to run Manderley are undermined, she is filled with self-doubt, and duMaurier cleverly ratchets ups the tension with each chapter. In a dramatic conclusion, the details of Rebecca’s death emerge and the reader discovers that all is not as it seemed.

In Alena, author Rachel Pastan moves the setting from Cornwall to Cape Cod, thereby retaining the windswept isolation of the original novel. She moves the action to the present day, and gives the unnamed narrator a career – she is now a museum curator, hired by Bernard Augustin, an art collector, to run his contemporary art museum after the mysterious death of the previous curator, Alena. Like Max deWinter, Bernard is alternatingly attentive and remote. The narrator is inexperienced and in over her head. Agnes, the museum’s administrator, stands in for Mrs. Danvers.

I loved the choices Pastan made when she transformed the book to a contemporary setting. It was essential to give the narrator a career, and making her a curator gives Pastan (who works in a museum) a chance to populate the background with contemporary artists both real and imagined. Bernard Augustin is gay; this enables him to have an emotionally intimate relationship with the narrator while removing the marriage element from the story. I didn’t find Agnes to be as menacing as Mrs. Danvers. In Alena she is more of a caricature, in her black dresses and red nail polish – a kind of Cruella De Vil of the art world. My perception of all the characters was of course colored by what I know about Rebecca, and Pastan relies on this to a certain extent, especially when it comes to conjuring up the late Alena.

But do you have to have read Rebecca to read this novel? Absolutely not. It stands alone perfectly. It works as a mystery, as a coming-of-age novel, and as a commentary on the world of contemporary art. Pastan writes elegant prose that honors duMaurier’s work but which also envelops the reader in atmosphere and art.

(Book 20, 2014)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Wisconsin Book Festival Recap

I love the book festival because I love all things bookish, and I love when people pay attention to books and writers. Here's my recap of the festival, which took place (mostly) this past weekend, October 16-19, in Madison, Wisconsin.

Curtis Sittenfeld, Susanna Daniel, Michelle Wildgen, and Mary Kay Zuravleff

“What topics do you find difficult or uncomfortable to write about?” That was the question posed to these four writers, and the topic of their panel discussion.

Sittenfeld is the popular author of several novels, including Prep, American Wife and Sisterland, all of which I've written about on this blog. I've yet to read books by the other three authors, but plan to do so soon (and have just checked Wildgen's novel Bread and Butter out of the library).

So what is the most difficult topic to write about? The obvious answer is sex, though none of these women seemed to express much discomfort with the subject, and Mary Kay Zuravleff read a very funny, sexy excerpt from her novel Man Alive. Apparently Curtis Sittenfeld gives her parents redacted versions of her novels, with the sex scenes excised, and only after it’s too late for them to offer editorial suggestions. The real answer seemed to be injury to or death of a child; all four writers expressed extreme reluctance to investigate that topic. As a reader, I generally avoid books about injured or dead children, so it just seems like a good marketing decision as well. Glad we got that settled.

Rachal Pastan

Pastan is the author of Alena, a modern retelling of the Daphne Du Maurier classic novel Rebecca. She is also a former Madisonian who used to write for Isthmus, Madison’s alternative weekly newspaper for which I also write, though we didn’t overlap there. I didn’t know this when I read the book (blog post coming soon). She read from Alena, and told a funny story about the origins of her idea to write this novel: A few years ago she took a new job where she replaced an employee who was extremely competent and much beloved by her staff. Pastan reported that every time she attempted something new, her coworkers would wistfully reminisce about how her predecessor had so expertly handled a similar situation. Readers of Rebecca will understand this reference, and Pastan exploits it beautifully in Alena.

Mary Gordon

I’ve loved Mary Gordon’s books since I first started reading them in the 1980’s. Her 1998 novel Spending remains one of my favorite books of all time. (Here’s a link to a New York Times review of Spending by another of my favorite writers, Hilary Mantel.) In preparation for her talk at the book festival I read her newest book, The Liar’s Wife, which is a collection of four novellas (blog post also coming soon). Gordon chose to read a selection from the novella I liked least in the collection, and the questions after her reading centered around that, which disappointed me. I also felt like the crowd wasn’t as familiar with her work (especially her early work) as I was, and I was frustrated by the lack of depth in the questions. Gordon, too, seemed a little bored, and hurried, though she gave me a nice smile when she signed my book. Maybe book festivals aren’t really her thing.

Jordan Ellenberg

He went on about math. So does his book; here’s my review/profile at Isthmus. Ellenberg participated in a popular event called Nerd Nite Madison, where nerds get together in a bar and talk nerd stuff while drinking. This month's Nerd Nite was tied in to both the book festival and the Wisconsin Science Festival and was held not in a bar but at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery on the UW-Madison campus (though drinking still featured heavily; I might have had a beer).

Ann Garvin

I reviewed Garvin’s book The Dog Year for Isthmus back in July. It’s a delightful book, and she’s a delightful person: funny and entertaining. The Dog Year is kind of like that, too, a good comfort read, about someone who has some trouble but gets back up on her feet. Garvin’s message is, no one is perfect, but everyone can benefit from some perspective and the help of good friends. Garvin read from The Dog Year, and talked about her experiences as a nurse and health educator, and how they influenced the plot and tone of The Dog Year. Interestingly, she revealed that she used to do stand-up comedy, and her delivery at the book festival reflected this: well-paced, and sprinkled with one-liners. Not all writers are ideal book festival speakers (see above, Mary Gordon), but does that matter? Of all the speakers I heard this weekend, Garvin’s talk was the most fun, though her book is probably the least well known.

Stuff I Missed…

I'm sorry to have missed Anthony Doerr (All the Light We Cannot See) who apparently got a huge crowd, and Caitlin Doughty (Smoke Gets in Your Eyes); she is quite the thing right now. I also wish I could have seen Deborah Crombie, whose mystery series I used to read but haven’t kept up with. The Central Library was hopping all weekend with great choices, and there was something for everyone, including poetry, memoir, children's literature, and art books. I had a quick chat with festival organizer Conor Moran, who told me that this year’s festival far outstripped previous years in both attendance and book sales, which is great news for the festival and for the Madison Public Library Foundation.

All photos courtesy Shanna Wolf/S. Photography. Used with permission.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit

Historical fiction comes in two basic flavors: the kind that teaches you about history as you read it (e.g., The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, 1008 pages about building a 12th century cathedral), and the kind that is more opaque, where the history, while important, is not so spelled out. I like both kinds, but I often get more of a kick out of the second type, especially when the historical details intrigue me enough to go off and read more on my own, later.

The Wives of Los Alamos is definitely in the second category. In spare prose, author TaraShea Nesbit tells the story of the community of scientists and their families who lived and worked in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the 1940’s, where the scientists developed the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Most of the scientists were civilian men, formerly university professors, many of them with families and children. The U.S. government moved them to New Mexico where they worked for years under top secret conditions. Their families were kept in the dark about the nature of their work, and everyone’s contact with family members and friends from outside the community was strictly monitored. In some cases, where a scientist was well known within the field, names were changed as well. The restricted nature of their lives meant that the women, especially, formed close bonds with one another as they attempted to create a semblance of normal life in the isolated desert community.

Nesbit reinforces the women’s closeness by writing this novel in third person plural, which I thought would bother me, but which didn’t. The wives speak as a group, about their children, the landscape, and the difficulties of being cut off from extended family. They reveal both the petty (whose government- issue house has a coveted bathtub) and the frightening aspects of their lives (what, exactly, are their husbands working on? Something very dangerous.).

Real historical figures inhabit this novel (Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr) but their influence is minimal. It’s not the kind of historical novel where you play “guess who this character is?” It’s more diffuse than that, because of the third person narrative voice and also because it’s mostly about the wives, whose names we don’t know anyway. After I finished reading it I read the Wikipedia articles about the Manhattan Project. On her website, Nesbit recommends another book, The Girls of Atomic City, by Denise Kiernan, which is nonfiction, about the women who worked in the secret Oak Ridge, Tennessee uranium separating plant. Now I want to read that, too.

(Book 19, 2014)

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

The Silkworm is J. K. Rowling’s second mystery novel written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, and featuring the curmudgeonly detective Cormoran Strike and his clever assistant Robin Ellacott. Strike is hired to find Owen Quine, a missing novelist, and find him he does. Quine is dead--murdered, it turns out, by a grisly method described in his latest (and not yet released) book. The initial list of suspects includes anyone who may have read the manuscript, and this list contains more folks than you might imagine: family members, his agent, his publisher and the office staff, fellow authors, lawyers, etc., many of whom had good reasons to hate Quine, whose capacity to offend was outmatched only by his ego.

Who knew there was so much vitriol in the staid world of publishing? Rowling apparently knows. As her characters offer observations on the state of modern literature, book marketing, and fame, it’s hard not to interpret them through this lens. The world that Rowling/Galbraith describes is a hotbed of jealousy, spitefulness, incompetence, greed, and decades-old grudges, all of which seethe under a thin veneer of respectability.

While it’s interesting that Rowling brings all this publishing world angst to the novel’s backstory, the real question I’m thinking about is, what makes this book better than the hundreds of other mysteries out there? Or more precisely, why did I like this book (and the first one in the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling) better than many other mysteries I’ve read? Here are my reasons, in no particular order:

1. Rowling hews to some classic mystery character tropes (an outsider detective and a clever assistant who have some unresolved sexual tension between them) but her skill and experience as a writer elevate them beyond the cliche. Hence Strike and Robin are well-developed, sympathetic characters--Strike is not very good looking or overly macho, and he makes mistakes. Robin is smart and self-motivated, but still learning. She and Strike treat each other like colleagues, despite whatever might be simmering underneath.

2. The crime, while gruesome, is not titillating or exploitative. I’m really tired of mysteries that include sexual violence, and The Silkworm is blessedly free of that.

3. The book is just not as dark as a lot of current mysteries. Strike, despite his difficulties, remains essentially a hopeful man, and if he has a self-destructive streak, he’s working hard to get it under control. While the publishing industry takes some shots, Rowling avoids the tendency of a lot of modern mystery writers to engage in broad (and usually negative) social commentary. The death of Owen Quine is not viewed as a symptom of some larger social ill and we are not called upon to draw any such conclusions. (That said, this is certainly not a "cozy mystery" where all unpleasantness happens off screen and recipes are interspersed through. Not that there's anything wrong with those.)

Almost everyone I know is reading Robert Galbraith’s books. The library waiting list for The Silkworm has over 400 people on it, and a few hundred more are still waiting for The Cuckoo’s Calling. For some reason this fact brings me a lot of pleasure.

(Book 18, 2014)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Abundance by Amit Majmudar

This book held my interest while I was reading it, but the more I thought about it, the less I liked it.

It’s about an Indian family in the U.S. The matriarch is dying. Her relationships with her adult children are tenuous, conflicted. It’s old country vs. new country; she is still rooted in India while her children and grandchildren are firmly American. The conflicts play out in food, in approaches to childrearing, and in expectations of attention. The daughter, Mala, a doctor, is an anorexic control freak. The son Ronak works in finance--his most successful relationship is with his iPhone. No one can meet anyone else’s minimal expectations, let alone make anyone else happy.

For a while the mother and daughter attempt to use cooking as a means to connect to one another, as the mother teachers her daughter the family recipes. But even that doesn't really work. While the mother revels in the creativity of cooking, of using food to express love, to evoke memories, and to create sensory experience, Mala treats the whole activity like a science experiment, reducing each recipe to a series of unconnected ingredients and precise measurements, completely missing the point. And her eating disorder provides further subtext throughout the activity--Mala restricts herself to tiny portions of what they make together (insert interpretation of food=love symbolism here). It was all just sad. Is that what the author intended?

I never know what to say about books that are well written but unpleasant. Or, for that matter, how to recommend them. Do you want to read a book about some miserable people who really don't get one another and can't connect at all? Here you go.   

(Book 17, 2014)


Saturday, September 06, 2014

One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

I’ve come to regard books by Jojo Moyes as little treasures, to be indulged in when I need a special treat. When I get a new one I hang on to it for a while before reading it, enjoying the anticipation. (The same is true for J. K. Rowling’s mysteries that she writes under the pen name Robert Galbraith; I'm reading The Silkworm now.) My only problem is that neither writer is cranking out books fast enough to satisfy me. Maybe I could stick them both into a parallel universe where there are more hours in a day, enabling them to produce more books, faster. I’ll have to get right on that.

In One Plus One, Jess is a single mother who is just barely getting by, working as a cleaner and barmaid in a resort community in southern England. She lives in a crappy apartment in public housing, her kids are being bullied at school, and her ex-husband hasn’t sent her a penny in years. In the face of these problems, Jess remains unrelentingly cheerful, buoying everyone along through creative budgeting, hard work, and unflagging optimism.

On the other side of town, where the rich folks have their beach houses, we find software entrepreneur Ed Nicholls, who is hiding out from, well, from everyone. Under investigation for insider trading, Ed is dodging phone calls from his ex-wife, his ex-business partner, his lawyer, and his sister, and sinking further and further into self pity.

Jess cleans Ed’s house, and she waits on him at the bar. She finds him arrogant and rude; he barely registers her existence. But through a series of events too complicated to get into here, Ed ends up driving Jess and her kids to Scotland so that Jess’s daughter Tanzie can compete in a math competition. It’s Jess’s last desperate attempt to get Tanzie, a math whiz, out of the local school and into a safer place where her skills can be nurtured. It’s this road trip (complete with a huge flatulent dog) that takes up the lion’s share of the book, and where of course, Jess and Ed fall in love.

Nothing in this book is as simple as it sounds here though. Moyes can sketch out a character in a few telling lines, and provide unexpected richness and depth to simple situations. She’s really a great writer and this book works on a lot of different levels: as a love story, a modern family drama, and an investigation of entrenched class differences in modern Britain.

The trickiest thing she does is to make Ed sympathetic. He transitions from a clueless self-absorbed whiner into a man who takes responsibility for his poor decisions and moves forward with insight and compassion. My favorite part of the book is where Ed dismisses £50 as “nothing” and Tanzie schools him on all the things that her family can buy with that amount of nothing (the school lunches, bus fare, and other expenses that Jess sweats every day). A lazier novelist would have been content to make Ed the knight in shining armor who rescues Jess from poverty. In this book the person who really gets rescued is Ed.

(Book 16, 2014)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

This is a big sprawling book that reads like classic literature. In fact, maybe someday it will be classic literature. Elizabeth Gilbert has written an old-fashioned historical novel that has more in common with works by Rebecca Stott (Ghostwalk) and Andrea Barrett (The Voyage of the Narwhal) than it does with Gilbert’s most famous work to date, her memoir Eat, Pray, Love.

The title refers to German mystic Jakob Bohme’s belief that every object in the natural world contains some hidden meaning, put there by God to help people make sense of the universe. And indeed, this book’s protagonist Alma Whittaker, is searching for meaning. But she’s not waiting to hear it from God; she’s going to try to figure it out for herself. Alma has very little time for God and a lot of time for scientific analysis, specifically botany. And human nature. And world exploration. All of which she engages in over the course of her long life.

Alma is the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia botanist and plant collector Henry Whittaker, who makes his fortune developing a method for manufacturing quinine, and whose story takes up the first quarter of the book. Henry and his Dutch wife have unorthodox ideas about women’s education (the book is set in the late 18th and early-mid 19th centuries) and they train Alma to manage their vast pharmaceutical empire, botanical collections, and gardens.

Considered physically unattractive (tall, big-boned, with unmanageable hair), Alma eschews traditional women’s pursuits and spends her time at her parents’ sides learning both business and science. She devotes years to studying various plants before happily settling on mosses (bryology) and becomes the world’s leading expert in this field. (Note: historians tell us that botany was actually rife with women scientists in the 19th century as it required little more than a notebook, pencil, magnifying glass, and long walks in the woods, all of which were more available to women than, say, a laboratory filled with chemicals or a surgery for dissecting things.)

Tragic events, including a failed love affair and her father’s death, upend Alma and force her to step outside her tiny moss world and embark on her quest for meaning in the universe. This section of the book (especially the long middle section about her voyage to Tahiti) reminded me of those books by Victorian women travel writers like Isabella Bird, who stoically endured shockingly harsh conditions aboard 19th century sailing vessels and lived rough among the natives. Alma’s journey echoes her father’s earlier explorations, but while he was singled-mindedly focused on plants, Alma remains open to discoveries about all aspects of the world and about herself. And it’s while she’s in Tahiti that she hits upon her own theory of the signature of all things, the pursuit of which takes up the final part of the book.

What a great novel! Carefully researched, ranging among a huge variety of historical and scientific topics, and intensely personal, this book is unique and delightful.

(Book 15, 2014)