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)

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Wake by Anna Hope

Wake tells several stories at once, some very personal, and some public. Set in England in the years immediately following World War I, it follows several characters whose worlds intersect, and uses a real-life event as an anchoring device to bring the stories together.

Running throughout Wake is an account of the 1920 state funeral of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey in London. Author Anna Hope follows the anonymous soldier’s body from its exhumation from an unmarked grave in France, to its burial alongside kings on November 11, 1920. Hope’s report is well researched and well told. As we know, the British excel at pageantry and they pulled out all the stops for this event, providing the poor unknown soldier with a battleship escort on the journey from France, and a Field Marshall’s funeral, complete with a 19 gun salute.

Intertwined with this narrative are several fictional stories of women who could be the wives, mothers, or sisters of the unknown warrior, and the men who escaped that fate, but whose lives were nevertheless ruined by their experiences in the war. Their tales are dark and brutal and the women, especially, rail against the futility of their losses. The funeral of the unknown warrior was in part designed to help British citizens start to heal; this book shows how impossible that process was for many people, and how little the men in charge understood that. This book is extremely sad, but it's beautifully written and very moving. Don't be put off by the topic--Hope's characters are compelling and I love how she mixed the fiction with the nonfiction.

I’ve read a lot of Second World War fiction, but not as much about the First World War. A lot of World War II fiction focuses on the victims of the war—on those oppressed by the Nazis or on the civilians who were collateral damage. But it seems to me like World War I fiction often focuses more on the soldiers themselves. Wake joins books like My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, by Louisa Young, the Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker, and even the Ian Rutledge mysteries by Charles Todd in identifying the soldiers themselves as primary victims. Wake especially continues this approach.

(Book 14, 2014)

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Dog Year by Ann Garvin

I had the pleasure of reviewing this for Isthmus. The article is here. Enjoy!

(Book 13, 2014)

Friday, July 11, 2014

Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World by Anne Jamison

I read this book because I'm interested in fanfiction as a literary trend. I was hoping for a coherent discussion of why fanfiction is so derided while at the same time it is increasing in popularity. I wanted to read about the gender issues surrounding fanfiction – the fact that it is mostly written by and read by women. And I wanted to read about the porous boundaries between fanfiction and mainstream fiction like Longbourn, which is a new original novel that uses characters and settings from Pride and Prejudice (but which no reviewer described as fanfiction, despite its obvious connections).

But I didn’t get any of that in this book. Instead, I got a scholarly history of fanfiction and a snapshot of the current state of the art, especially the role of fanfiction within the larger world of fandom. An English professor at the University of Utah, author Anne Jamison has read and written fanfiction for years, as have most of the book’s other contributors (of which there are several). Her enthusiasm for her topic, however, in some ways prevents her from delivering me the answers I wanted; Jamison and the other authors are too close to the subject to give it an objective analysis and they consider the appeal (and the legitimacy) of fanfiction to be self-evident. Jamison does not address the gender issues, and swiftly dismisses the idea that writing fanfiction is “playing in someone else’s sandbox.” She says that writing is writing. I tend to agree.

But nevertheless, I enjoyed this book, albeit slowly. I’d love to recommend it to other fanfiction readers but unfortunately I can barely find anyone I know who will admit to reading it. Part of me wants to write a spirited defense of fanfiction here, and address those issues that Jamison didn’t. Another part of me thinks it’s not worth my time. Either you are open-minded about it or you aren’t. I have read fanfiction written by anonymous amateurs that moved me to tears, and award winning literary novels that bored me to tears. Remember, there are no reading police. If you think reading new stories about Harry and Ron sounds like it could be fun, well so do hundreds of thousands of other people. Why not join them?

(Book 12, 2014)

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Outlander and American Gods: Books to TV

I was really thrilled to read the news that Starz (the U.S. premium cable network) is developing a show based on the Neil Gaiman book American Gods. I loved that book and think it will make a great series. It melds mythology, fantasy, and social criticism to great effect--here’s my blog post about it.

Apparently the project has been kicking around for a while, with HBO working on it at one point before handing it off to Starz. I admit to being pretty vague on how these deals transpire, and I don’t really care how they get done, as long as someone good is in charge and we eventually get to see a show. As of yet I could find no dates for when it might air.

Starz is also developing a miniseries based on Outlander, the series of books by Diana Gabaldon. These genre-bending books are set (mostly) in the 18th century, first in Scotland and later in the U.S., and they combine an epic romance and time travel with traditional historical fiction. Back before I had this blog I read the first four books in the series (Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, and Drums of Autumn) but then lost steam. The eighth book just came out and the show premiers in August, 2014. Here's a link to the Starz website where you can watch a couple of trailers and see photos of the actors and locations.

Author Gabaldon is closely involved in the show’s production, and the showrunner is Ron Moore, who produced the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. I have really high hopes for this series. Moore knows how to make immersive television and he’s a feminist, which I find reassuring, given that these books (especially the earlier ones) can be troublesome in the way they deal with domestic violence and rape. Let’s hope he can steer clear of some of the issues that have plagued the Game of Thrones TV adaptation.

Both Outlander and American Gods have huge installed fan bases, so the pressure is on to do these well. I know some Outlander fans who are very nervous and not sure if they will even watch. Interestingly, a trailer on the Starz website addresses this concern head on, with both Moore and Catriona Balfe (Claire) promising not to screw it up.

As for myself, I have been really satisfied with recent book-to-TV adaptations (Game of Thrones and Case Histories come to mind as successful adaptions of books that I loved), and I really enjoyed the Starz version of The White Queen that I watched last year. I love good stories no matter how they are delivered: via books, television, plays, or movies, so I’m just happy to get more of them.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Longbourn is a down-at-the-heels understaffed house in 19th century England, where you are more likely to get pigshit on your shoes than to meet a nobleman. The fact that Longbourn is the home of the Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice is hardly mentioned, and the few Bennet family members who do appear in the book do so peripherally and mostly unsympathetically. Instead, this book focuses on the Longbourn servants, especially Sarah the housemaid, and James, the footman.

Usually I avoid the Jane Austen extended universe: the sequels and prequels, the mashups, the secret diaries, the mysteries, and the modern-day retelllings. But I was interested in Longbourn because it focused on the servants, and not on the traditional cast of P&P. It also was clearly NOT a romance. I like my historical fiction with some grit and it sounded like this book had it.

An orphan taken in by the Bennet family housekeeper, Sarah works grueling hours in harsh circumstances. Baker makes sure we know about Sarah’s painful chilblains, her ill-fitting boots, and what time she gets up to lay the fires every day. Baker also introduces the rest of the servants, who, like all good literary characters, have secrets and agendas of their own. Both Sarah and James dream of better lives but the societal and economic restrictions they face limit their choices. James has also spent time in the army and Baker revisits his years fighting in Spain, a section of the book I read with increasing horror but which ultimately adds to the novel’s depth.

I loved the way Baker was able to use some of the plot elements from Pride and Prejudice to her own different effect. P&P readers will remember that Longbourn is entailed; it can only be inherited by a male relative, Mr. Collins, a distant cousin of the Bennet girls. This uncertainty, far from being confined to the Bennet family, drives action in the servants’ hall as well, as the housekeeper worries that the new heir will want to replace the existing staff with all new people, as would be his right. Her very real fears that she and her elderly husband could be cast adrift, just as they are too old to find new positions, keep her awake at night and scrambling to impress Mr. Collins when he visits Longbourn. I enjoyed revisiting these familiar situations from a different angle, but readers who don’t remember every detail of P&P will have no trouble getting the point.

Let’s talk about repurposing these characters and plot elements some more, shall we? Is Longbourn fanfiction? If not, why not? Coincidentally, I’ve recently been reading Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World, by Ann Jamison. Next week I’ll write a blog post about that, and how it relates to Longbourn.

I’m also moderately interested in a batch of new additions to the Austen extended universe—The Austen Project. HarperCollins has commissioned six bestselling contemporary authors to write modern retellings of Austen’s six full-length novels. What attracts me to this project is the authors themselves. I skipped the first release, Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, but I’m planning to read Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, whose crime writing is just so fierce, and I’m also interested in Curtis Sittenfeld’s take on Pride and Prejudice, which comes out this fall. The literary press has been lukewarm about The Austen Project. I especially can’t figure out this review from the Guardian,  where Robert McCrum seems to be saying that McDermid did a good job with Northanger Abbey, despite the thanklessness of the task. McCrum says that publishers should focus on finding the next Jane Austen or Val McDermid instead of selling re-treads (his words). On one hand I agree with him, but as a fan of (some) fanfiction, I am starting to see the other side—that the reading public’s desire to continue to engage with these characters and stories challenges publishers to meet this need.

(Book 11, 2014)