Thursday, January 08, 2015

2014 Year End Wrap-up

I read several really good books this year. In no particular order I want to mention these as among the best:

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Alena by Rachel Pastan

One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Wake by Anna Hope

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin

Last year I wrote a long excuse about how much my television watching was interfering with my reading. I won’t bother you again with that line of thinking, but I will say that the situation was much the same this year. I read even fewer books but watched a lot of good TV.

In an effort to get my reading back up close to earlier levels, I signed up for the Goodreads 2015 challenge and promised to read 35 books in 2015. I plan to reach that goal by listening to more audiobooks. I had forgotten how much I like them for when I’m doing housework; they keep me going when I’m tempted to sneak off and watch some TV. I am almost finished listening to Broken Harbor by Tana French and my kitchen hasn’t been this clean in a long time.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

An Americanah is a Nigerian person who has lived abroad and has adopted American habits. Americanah, by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, tells the story of Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who moves to the U.S. to attend college, and Obinze, Ifemelu’s friend who stays behind in Nigeria.

When Americanah opens, Ifemelu has been in the U.S. for more than ten years. She has made a career as a social critic: She writes a popular blog, gives lectures, and leads university seminars on race relations in America, as seen through the lens of a black African person. But she is restless and wants to return to Nigeria. Obinze, too, is emotionally adrift; after a brief stint living illegally in London, he has become a successful businessman in Lagos, but something is missing from his life.

The book moves back and forth between the past and the present as we watch Ifemelu and Obinze grow up together and fall in love, spend their years apart, then gradually become reunited upon Ifemelu’s return to Nigeria. Contrasts abound in this book: Life in Nigeria vs. life in the U.S. Ifemelu’s success in the U.S. vs. Obinze’s troubles in London. And most interesting of all, the experience of being a black African in the U.S. vs. the experience of being an African American.

Ifemelu provides a unique perspective on this last issue, especially. Her blog is called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. Author Adichie sprinkles Ifemelu’s blog posts throughout the novel. It’s a clever device that lets us learn from Ifemelu without feeling like the book is too didactic. Ifemelu’s voice is strong, and her warmth and humor belie her sometimes pointed indictments of white privilege. It was interesting to read this book now. As conversations about race swirl around me I keep wanting to respond “So Ifemelu says…” before remembering that she is just a character in a novel.

Sometimes a book is so good that you stay up all night reading because you can’t put it down. The corollary to this is a book that is so good that you ration it out in tiny bites so that it lasts as long as possible. Americanah falls into the second category; I started reading this in September and made it last three months. Even now I’m sorry that it’s over.

(Book 25, 2014)

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)