Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Bread and Butter by Michelle Wildgen

This book was long on description and short on plot. Author Michelle Wildgen has obviously spent years working in the food industry and her expertise shows. And this story, about a guy who opens his own restaurant, could probably provide a blueprint for anyone interested in doing the same. She describes in great detail the steps involved in developing a new dish, managing the waitstaff, and choosing the right d├ęcor. The problem is, I can’t imagine these processes are compelling to anyone outside of a narrow group of foodies and restaurant aficionados; I certainly struggled to maintain my interest and I like to cook and eat.

Wildgen hangs pages and pages of luscious descriptions of food onto the thinnest plot framework imaginable: a rivalry between the young restaurateur and his older brothers, who own a different restaurant. Dramatic tension centers around issues like whether or not the younger brother is stealing the older brothers’ pastry chef. I’m not trying to be flip here, but I really would have liked this book better if someone had murdered the pastry chef and hid his body in the walk-in amid all those vegetables Wildgen so lovingly describes.

(Book 24, 2014)

Friday, December 12, 2014

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation is the first book in The Southern Reach trilogy and tells the story of the 12th expedition to Area X. Area X is the (fictional) site of a mysterious ecological disaster, located somewhere in the southern U.S. It has been closed for over 30 years at the time this book opens, and access is restricted to occasional groups of scientists. The Southern Reach is the name of the quasi-governmental/military authority that controls Area X. Expeditions there are fraught with danger; several explorers have been lost, and those who return are physically or emotionally damaged. Do we think Expedition 12 will go any better? Well, with their story entitled Annihilation, what do you think?

There’s a lot to like here for fans of the TV show Lost, and those who like to read post-apocalyptic fiction. There’s a creepy monster, and some emotional baggage with the biologist, who has an interesting reason for going on this mission. There are double-crosses, and mysterious lights and noises, and a good old-fashioned shoot-out. While you could argue that VanderMeer is just checking off boxes on a list of sci-fi/horror tropes, he uses them in an interesting way, and I was entertained. I also applaud him for making the Expedition 12 scientists all female. It would have been so easy to make them all male, or to include one token female, but he made this interesting choice and I noticed.

Here’s my problem: why haven’t I read the two subsequent volumes of the trilogy: Authority and Acceptance? I finished this months ago, and put off writing about it until I could write about all three at once, but here I am, having not quite ever gotten round to the remaining two books. I think it’s because I feel a tiny bit manipulated, as if this whole thing smacks just a bit too much of clever marketing. Annihiliation is short, at 208 pages (though the two following books are longer). All three were released within 7 months of one another, so VanderMeer clearly had the sequels well in hand when the first was released. Why not wait and release them together as one long book? Why make me pay for three books instead of one?

Well, why did Peter Jackson carve The Hobbit up into three movies? Why did someone decide to release the Hunger Games and the Twilight trilogies as four movies? Let’s squeeze as much revenue out of these properties as we can, folks. VanderMeer sold the Annihilation movie rights for a “sizable” amount, according to the Deadline Hollywood website. Who wants to bet that the remaining two books will get nice deals, too, and Acceptance will be released as two films?  If these novels had been released as one book, could VanderMeer have only sold the rights once? (I am just asking and admit to knowing nothing about how these deals work.)

It’s the combination of all these factors (the on-trend post-apocalyptic theme, the trilogy, the movie rights) that has me feeling a little bit like a pawn in someone’s media marketing chess game. It’s nice to see an author making some money and I don’t begrudge VanderMeer his opportunity to do so. I know he’s been writing sci-fi for a while and has paid his dues. It just all seems so… calculating. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

I already feel marketed-to in so many areas of my life (what TV shows I watch, products I buy, websites I visit); I don't like it when the same feeling invades my reading. It even makes me worry that VanderMeer’s choice of female protagonists was somehow motivated by a reading survey that indicated that large numbers of female readers enjoy post-apocalyptic trilogies.

Look, I know I sound like @GuyinyourMFA, whose hilarious tweets poke fun at the idea that Literature (with a capital L) can only be written with great suffering and angst, and that marketing is anathema to Art. I don’t mean that. But clearly something in me is resisting the call to participate in VanderMeer’s cunning plan. If it is a cunning plan. Which I think it is.

(Newsflash! Just in time for the  holidays! Farrar Straus Giroux releases Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy, all in one volume. Could the timing be any better?)

(Book 23, 2014)

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani

To describe this book is to make it sound awful and off-putting. As Michiko Kakutani pointed out in the New York Times, it’s kind of a Young Adult/Historical Romance mashup. It’s also a coming-of-age novel with an (at times) unsympathetic teenage protagonist and features some disturbing sexual shenanigans between a boarding school headmaster and that teenager. Nevertheless this book is more than just what these descriptions imply, and it’s a very good read.

Thea Atwell has been sent, at age 15, to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, a year-round boarding school in North Carolina. In the 1930’s at the height of the Depression, the camp is a place where well-heeled southern girls ride horses, practice their social skills, and wait to get married. Thea’s parents have installed her at the school against her will, for some transgression that the author spends the rest of the novel slowly revealing, generating at times almost unbearable tension and anxiety.

Thea’s crime, of course, has to do with sex, and a boy. But it’s a lot more complicated than that: The boy in question is her cousin, and an act of violence has left this boy injured to an extent that isn’t fully revealed until quite late in the book. Thus DiSclafani neatly sidesteps the double standard issue of the boy’s culpability and possible consequences, while saddling Thea with some real guilt in addition to the feelings of shame imposed by her family and society for breaking the conduct codes of the time.

Thea is not always likeable, but she is very authentic. Her intelligence and sexual energy (and that of all the girls at the school) cannot be contained or managed in the way the adults in charge think it can and should be. The whole school simmers with hormones and repression. Readers can get kinda sweaty and uncomfortable reading this book, but will also be caught up in the drama.

Is this a Young Adult novel? I don’t think so. Adult readers will be very interested in DiSclafani’s portrayal of Thea’s parents and their motivations, and to the behaviors of all the adults. Despite the heat and the suspense, this is very much a character-driven story, one that moves beyond obvious emotions and easy answers.

(Book 22, 2014)

Friday, November 07, 2014

The Liar's Wife by Mary Gordon

The Liar’s Wife is a collection of four novellas by Mary Gordon. The novellas are thematically linked in that in each one someone revisits an important past relationship. Sometimes it’s by examining a memory, but in other cases the protagonist is faced with the actual person, as in the story “Simone Weil in New York,” where a young woman encounters her old teacher, Simone Weil, in Central Park.

In this story, Genevieve, the student, is a grown woman with a husband and a baby. As they become reacquainted, she finds Mlle. Weil’s anxieties and eccentricities disturbing, and as evidence of her instability, instead of awe-inspiring signs of her brilliance. Yet ultimately she is not surprised by her own change in perception. I identified with Genevieve’s experience of reexamining her impressions and drawing different conclusions. It’s a universal experience, no?

Two of the novellas feature real-life characters as well as fictional ones: Simone Weil and Thomas Mann, who appears in “Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana.” That story highlights Mann's speaking tour of the U.S. in the late 1930’s, where he tried to call attention to the horrors of Nazi Germany to a mostly uninterested U.S. public.

Incorporating a real person into a fictional world introduces a whole subtext that may or may not be accessible to the reader. Note the parallel titles of the two novellas. Would either of these stories have worked the same way if Gordon replaced Weil or Mann with fictional versions of their characters? I wonder. In truth, I preferred the two novellas that had only fictional characters, especially the title story, "The Liar’s Wife," about a woman who receives a midnight visit from her first husband, a man she hasn’t seen in many many years.

Mary Gordon is a Serious Writer. I’ve read most of her earlier novels but have found her more recent stuff harder to get into, as she has turned to nonfiction to explore her relationships with her family and with Catholicism. I was happy to have something new from her that was more like the older stuff I remember reading. But that reflects more on me as a reader than on Gordon as a writer.

(Book 21, 2014)

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)