Adam Bede

Caveat: I discuss the ending of this book in this review, so if you haven’t read it, you might not want to read my entire review. Nutshell version: it’s fantastic and I recommend it.

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adam bedeHere’s an odd thing: while I was wrapped up in Adam Bede, three or four of my friends asked me what I was currently reading. When I told them, they gave me a look of surprise (one of them as close to aghast as a person gets about a 19th-century English novel) and said, “Haven’t you read that yet?”

Well, I have, actually. I read it in 10th grade, which in my school system was British literature, and I didn’t understand it well or like it much (though I won’t enumerate my painfully lame complaints for you), and besides that’s [mumbles, counts on fingers] 27 years ago now. Time for a re-read, surely?

This novel takes place right around the turn of the 19th century (that is, about 60 years before George Eliot was writing it) in a rural village called Hayslope. The plot mostly follows four characters: the young, extremely pretty and self-centered Hetty Sorrel, her unacknowledged suitor Adam Bede, the young squire Arthur Donnithorne (also unhappily smitten), and a fervent, virtuous, and gentle young Methodist lay preacher named Dinah Morris. This brief overview doesn’t give even a hint at the complexity of the novel and its many minor characters, or the deep relationships that tie the community together, or the humor underlying many of its scenes, but stay with me, okay?

Almost the first thing that struck me about Adam Bede (despite the title) was the primacy of the female characters. Several characters try to convince Dinah that she ought to move away from her home in Stonyfield, because she doesn’t have family there and could be more comfortable and happy in Hayslope. One or two characters try to intimate that her Methodist bonnet is unflattering. No one during the entire novel, so far as I can remember, tries to convince her that her vocation is invalid, tells her that her sermons are stupid or too emotional, or shows her a Bible verse that says women should be silent in church. Mrs. Poyser, Dinah’s aunt, is outspoken (particularly about men) to a degree that ought to be offensive or even impossible, but her husband is manifestly proud of her and of the way she runs their dairy. She speaks up even to someone who ought to be her “better” (the old squire Donnithorne), and never considers herself too unworthy to have a voice. Even Hetty may be young, vain, and foolish, but she’s not an idiot. In Eliot’s hands, no female character is a caricature, and every one has more resilience, strength, and wisdom than it first appears.

One of the most interesting things about the book is the intertwining of class, gender, and religion in the power relationships that form and re-form. (George Eliot: intersectional since 1859!) Adam Bede is older than Arthur Donnithorne; he taught Arthur what he knows about carpentry and cabinetmaking when Arthur was a child. Now, Arthur is offering Adam a good job on his estate, and Adam is properly grateful — no upsetter of the status quo, is Adam. When Arthur trifles with Hetty’s affections (and worse — the scene in which Arthur puts a pale pink neckerchief in the waste basket is heartbreaking), however, Adam has no second thoughts. Honor takes precedence over gratitude, old friendship, and social class. It’s the same with Dinah. She is perfectly content to sit quiet and unnoticed, and has no aspirations to be a gentlewoman. But when some soul needs her, she simply assumes that her calling is a password anywhere she wishes to go, barriers of class, gender, power, education, and religion notwithstanding. The scenes of actual education are interesting in this regard: grown men struggling to learn their alphabet or the basics of arithmetic. What arcane passwords are they learning, in the face of the established order?

As with the other novels I’ve read by Eliot (Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss), the prose in Adam Bede is glorious. She uses a rural dialect for characters like Adam and Mrs. Poyser, which slowed down my reading a bit, and I was glad to be slowed down when I got to passages like this first description of Dinah:

There was no keenness in the eyes; they seemed rather to be shedding love than making observations; they had the liquid look which tells that the mind is full of what it has to give out, rather than impressed by external objects. She stood with her left hand towards the descending sun, and leafy boughs screened her from its rays; but in this sober light the delicate colouring of her face seemed to gather a calm vividness, like flowers at evening. It was a small oval face, of a uniform transparent whiteness, with an egg-like line of cheek and chin, a full but firm mouth, a delicate nostril, and a low perpendicular brow, surmounted by a rising arch of parting between smooth locks of pale reddish hair. The hair was drawn straight back behind the ears, and covered, except for an inch or two above the brow, by a net Quaker cap. The eyebrows, of the same colour as the hair, were perfectly horizontal and firmly pencilled; the eyelashes, though no darker, were long and abundant—nothing was left blurred or unfinished. It was one of those faces that make one think of white flowers with light touches of colour on their pure petals. The eyes had no peculiar beauty, beyond that of expression; they looked so simple, so candid, so gravely loving, that no accusing scowl, no light sneer could help melting away before their glance.

But I could have chosen any passage, really: a description of a birthday feast for Arthur, a description of Hetty decking herself in her cheap finery to look pretty for a fair, a description of the July landscape. It’s all precise, detailed, beautiful, full of symbolism and small connections with the reader.

I think it would be easy to get lost in that skillful prose, that beautiful rural landscape, and forget that this book is a tragedy. Hetty’s terrible journey while extremely pregnant, to find the father of her child and find out what to do next, is horribly painful to read. The sequel, when she is seeking suicide but is too firmly alive to find the requisite despair, is worse; the finale of that journey, when she murders her child instead of herself (and is persecuted by the child’s cries, which can only be in her mind) is chilling unto the bone. The scene in the prison when Dinah brings back a mentally and emotionally traumatized woman to the land of the living through the power of love, is (in my view) the most moving of the novel, only marred by Arthur Donnithorne’s hero complex. No Arthur, you do not get to be the savior today.

I remember when I was in 10th grade, I didn’t understand the logistics of why Hetty disappeared. Now I do — her sentence was commuted — but I still think it is taking the easy way out. Either she should have died, or she should have come back to her community, so that everyone could face the pain and grief. “Out of sight, out of mind” for both transgressors is a little too simple.

But by saying that, I don’t want to take away from also saying that this was a wonderful novel, layered and beautiful and complex. The fact that I wanted there to be even more of it is a testimony to how good it was. I don’t know why I haven’t read all I can of Eliot by now (perhaps that’s what my friends were really asking me? I’m not sure.) But I will. Oh, I will.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 14 Comments

This isn’t the sort of thing that happens to someone like you

this-isnt-the-sortAs soon as I read Teresa’s review of Jon McGregor’s book of short stories, This isn’t the sort of thing that happens to someone like you, it was on my TBR list. This is exactly the kind of thing I love to read: short stories in which the author is doing something odd with the medium, playing with form, engaging the reader in interesting ways while still telling a real story. I don’t mind if it’s weird, or if I get to it around several corners; in fact I like it, and I think short stories are a particularly sustainable way to do weird things. Extra points for a little menace. Menace, to me, adds flavor.

The stories in this collection, as you might guess from the title, revolve around what is not: the unrevealed, the undone, the hidden. Many of the stories work so well because what is hidden from the narrator was open to me. In “Watching Over the Sheep,” for instance, the male protagonist has come to see his daughter in a school nativity play. I could see during the first paragraph that he’s trouble, and my conviction (even dread) grew through the rest of the story as I picked up one cue after another from his internal monologue. He, however, is blind to those cues — and when he thinks that “someone is going to be asked, in no uncertain terms, to explain,” I realized that no explanation will ever be enough. “Wave and Call,” the story Teresa described in her review, is like this: we understand the protagonist’s fate long before he does himself, and the story is both gripping and wrenching because of it.

Sometimes I knew less than the narrator did, carried along on the current of the story. Stories that played with form, like “What Happened to Mr. Davison,” a brisk mistakes-were-made speech given to a neighborhood society following a traumatic event, or “Supplementary Notes to the Testimony of Appellants B and E” (which consisted only of footnotes, and I had to imagine the text they were appended to) were like this. I had to work at creating a version of what happened, when everyone in the story already knew. What was the truth this person was trying to hide, or spin, or manage? How awful could it be?

Sometimes — in my favorite stories — the truth was equally hidden to me and to the people in the story, and we worked it out together. In “Wires,” a young woman who has just been in a car accident involving a rogue sugar beet has to determine her own real danger. In “Which Reminded Her, Later,” an American woman — a total stranger — comes to stay with a vicar and his wife for several months and actively refuses to make any sort of personal connection, including sharing her name. In “If It Keeps On Raining,” a man observes the river near his home and slowly, slowly reveals the pattern of his thoughts — it may sound dull, but for me it was the most interesting story of the entire collection.

This was a satisfying collection to read. The stories were all very different from each other, and all interesting. I enjoyed the entire thing, and found it well-written and well-balanced. I will say that I probably would have liked them even more if I hadn’t read George Saunders’s Tenth of December. Saunders writes in a similar vein, and plays with form like this, but his stories are even better: he digs deeper into the weirdness and wickedness of human behavior, and he finds, eventually, some form of hope. I’d recommend both collections to you. Do you know more authors who write like this? I could read this stuff all  day long.

Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 4 Comments

The Wee Free Men / A Hat Full of Sky

Wee Free MenJust a week after deciding she wanted to be a witch, nine-year-old Tiffany Aching had her first chance to test her powers when she spotted a group of six-inch-tall men being chased up the river by a green-haired creature with sharp teeth. Using her younger brother Wentworth as bait, she lured the creature into her path and knocked it out with a frying pan. Tiffany would have no such ridiculousness on her farm. And when her brother is later kidnapped by a fairy queen, Tiffany is determined to get him back, not because she likes the sticky little annoyance, but because he is hers and the queen has no right to take him.

Tiffany’s practical, no-nonsense attitude is one of the things that makes these books great fun. She’s willing to roll along with events, no matter how outrageous they seem, but when she decides something needs correcting, she won’t stop. Her adaptability enables her to get along with the Nac Mac Feegle, the thieving fairies who claim “Nae king! Nae quin! Nae laird! Nae master!” She doesn’t necessarily approve of their thieving, but she recognizes their sense of honor and sees that they know things that can be useful to her. She also teams up with a toad who may once have been human and Miss Perspicacia Tick, a witch who discovered Tiffany’s talents when looking for a witch on the inauspicious chalk lands where Tiffany lives.

The story in The Wee Free Men, Tiffany’s first adventure, is extremely loopy. What logic there is in the plot is hard to find and follow. This is largely because so much of it takes place in the land of dreams, but I admit that reading this on a family vacation, when I was prone to nap and easily distracted by family chatter and activity, probably didn’t help. Still, I enjoyed the book for its characters and for Pratchett’s comic voice. Tiffany won me over early on in this dialogue with a traveling teacher she consults for information about the green-haired creature in the river:

“Hello, little girl,” he said, which was only his first big mistake. “I’m sure you want to know all about hedgehogs, eh?”

“I did this one last summer,” said Tiffany.

The man looked closer, and his grin faded. “Oh, yes,” he said. “I remember. You asked all those … little questions.”

“I would like a question answered today,” said Tiffany.

“Provided it’s not the one about how you get baby hedgehogs,” said the man.

“No,” said Tiffany patiently. “It’s about zoology.”

“Zoology, eh? That’s a big word, isn’t it?”

“No, actually, it isn’t,” said Tiffany. “Patronizing is a big word. Zoology is really quite short.”

Hat Full of SkySo I liked that Tiffany is something of a smart ass, and even if I found the plot of The Wee Free Men nonsensical, I liked her enough to read the second book, A Hat Full of Sky. In this book, Tiffany goes away for witch training with Miss Level, a witch who uses her power to bring aid and comfort to her neighbors, usually through such mundane activities as visiting and bringing by some extra food. It hardly seems like witchcraft at all, but in the world of these novels, witchcraft is really about seeing what is really there and responding. Some witches focus on spells and mysticism, but the great Mistress Weatherwax assures Tiffany that such activities aren’t the point:

Mrs. Earwig tells her girls it’s about cosmic balances and stars and circles and colors and wands and … and toys, nothing but toys!” She sniffed. “Oh, I daresay they’re all very well as decoration, somethin’ nice to look at while you’re workin’, somethin’ for show, but the start and finish, the start and finish, is helpin’ people when life is on the edge. Even people you don’t like. Stars is easy, people is hard.”

Even though the witchcraft in these books is focused on practical help, there’s no lack of magic. Tiffany herself has learned, all on her own, a spell that uses her gift of seeing to allow her to see herself. But that spell carries a danger that Tiffany is entirely unaware of. In this case, the magic takes advantage of Tiffany’s own insecurities, turning her worst self against her best self. Her friends the Nac Mac Feegles see the danger coming, and they act to help Tiffany.

The storyline of A Hat Full of Sky is more coherent than in the previous book. It helps that the main conflict involves a typical human problem, with the magical elements being a metaphor for our own moral dilemmas brought to vivid life. There are some baggy bits, particularly those involving an unlikely relationship that developed in between the two books. This relationship takes on greater significance than seems likely, given the characters’ actions and attitudes in the first book. And Tiffany’s memories of her Granny Aching seem muddled to me. I think that’s a mystery meant to continue throughout the series, however, so the confusion is intentional.

Tiffany herself, along with the Nac Mac Feegles and other characters, is what makes these books worth reading. Even if the plot doesn’t always make sense to me (and this may be my own fault), the characters are such fun that I couldn’t help but enjoy myself while reading these books. I’ve been interested in reading Terry Pratchett for years but hesitant because the Discworld universe is so vast, but this series, while part of the Discworld series, stands well enough on its own.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 14 Comments

No One Is Here Except All of Us

no one is hereThis book by Ramona Ausubel opens on a tiny, isolated village in Romania in 1939. The citizens are about to learn of the doom that awaits them, but there are no warning signs:

One Friday evening, the sun hung heavy and waiting to drain, syrupy, into the wheat fields. Men walked home carrying evidence of the day — a scythe, a leather satchel full of needle-nose tools, a roll of receipts, a bag of cabbages, an empty lunch box. At the door, children like me had scrubbed cheeks that looked like juicy, pluckable fruit. “Shabbat shalom,” we children said to our fathers. “Good Sabbath,” the fathers said.

When a mysterious stranger arrives, bearing news of death and destruction coming their way, the town must decide what to do. Flee? Where? Hide? Impossible. The stranger’s advice (along with the 11-year-old narrator’s): start over. The Jews have always been a people of new beginnings: after Eden, after the flood, after Sodom, after Babylon, after the diaspora. Start again. Tomorrow will be the very first day of a new universe in which the people of this town are the only people on earth, new-created. They will accept a small, circumscribed universe, with none of the glory and none of the exotic animals, in return for being kept safe.

There are several false starts. The townspeople have never tried to create a new world before, and it’s not as easy as it sounds. There are joys and misunderstandings and some genuine heartbreak, and of course the old traditions find their way back in, some of the time. But the heart of the effort is in the storytelling: the old stories are all forgotten by necessity, and the new stories can be whatever they desire. We build a temple to the Lord in the barn, for humility. This is a new constellation, for mercy and justice.

Up to this point, I was feeling quite restive and uneasy about this book. I couldn’t settle down to it. It’s prettily written, with a lot of the list-y sort of prose that you can see in the excerpt above, and a kind of lovely dreamy tone to it — very much a storytelling voice. There was enough going on in the village to keep me interested and reading, too. But I really could not get behind a book that was going to give the message that you can shape your reality by the story you tell about it, if that meant you could escape the Holocaust by explaining that you had created your own universe. I mean, the stories we tell are crucial in many ways but they do not actually fend off the Gestapo.

But then, more than halfway through, things change for the village, and for the now-adult narrator, in ways they had feared and anticipated but couldn’t precisely have predicted. Their practice in storytelling, and more vitally in starting over, becomes a shield and a weapon through some of the most terrifying and heartbreaking experiences of their lives: they are allowed to listen to their own stories, and to trust, sacrifice, float, weep, and be exiled accordingly.

I don’t always give contemporary authors very much credit, I admit. But I should have given my friend Laura, who recommended this book to me, all the credit she deserves. This book turned out to be strong, intelligent about engaging its faith and its history, well written, and dead-on about the way we rely on our self-created universe when everything has gone wrong. People sometimes say that a work of art looks at a horror like the Holocaust “unflinchingly.” Well, this book flinches — it weeps — and it should. But it doesn’t distort or deflect. I’m glad I read it.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 4 Comments

Beasts

otherwiseBeasts is the second novel I read this summer in Otherwise, the omnibus collection of John Crowley’s three early works. It pictures our own near-future world, in which resources are scarce and politics have taken a drastic shift. One of these shifts, which gets at not just politics but involves a recent scientific accomplishment: the government has created human-animal hybrids, the most successful of which are lion-human hybrids called leos. Now the powerful Union for Social Engineering (USE) wants to study them, categorize them, eliminate them from the world’s accounting.

The novel draws together three thick, complex threads. First is from the point of view of Loren, who used to rear peregrine hawks before his funding ran out. He is given the education and training of a wild, intelligent young man named Sten and his cousin Mika, in order (he gradually discovers) to fit them for the constellations of government. The second describes Genesis Preserve, a community that has drawn itself apart from the violent world:

Utterly self-contained, it replaced what it used of Earth’s body exactly, borrowing and returning water and food by a nice reckoning. And yet the air was troubled by its mass; stuck up into the sea of air like an immense stirring-rod, it could raise and distort winds wildly. Once a year or so a vast pane of amber-tinted glass, faultily made, was sucked by wind from its place and went sailing out over the Preserve for hundreds of yards before it landed. When that happened, they went out and found it, every splinter, and melted it, and used it again.

This community sees itself as loving the earth, in harmony with it, hurting nothing. But when the crisis comes, their pristine isolation may have served to cut them off from the earth rather than letting them really know it.

The third thread is from the point of view of an indentured servant (essentially a slave, as her contract can be bought and sold) named Caddie, who is given over to serve a leo named Painter. At first, his nature, his goals, his personality (his animality?) are completely hidden from her because they are so other. These are not people in furry suits; Crowley does not sentimentalize or patronize. This is alien; this is animal. But as Caddie spends more time with him, forging her way deeper into the wilderness, she and the reader begin to understand better what Painter’s life and plans are all about.

The work of the novel is to weave these three threads together, warp and weft, man and animal, animal and man. The thrust of the novel — the place Crowley puts all the weight of his astonishing prose and the force of his ideas — is to convey the isness of the animal-human hybrids: the leo, the kingmaker Reynard, the dog Sweets. He writes from their point of view, consciousness and instinct, animality and personality mingled, and he also writes about the deep, intimate, troubling reactions they awake in humans. Meric, one of the men from Genesis Preserve, observes the leos bathing in the river and laughing in the sun:

Meric, estranged on the bank, felt dirty and evanescent, and yet privileged. He had wondered about the girl, how she could choose to be one of them when she so obviously couldn’t be; how she could deny so much of her own nature in order to live as they did. He saw now that she had done no such thing. She had only acceded to their presence, lived as nearly as she could at their direction and convenience, like a dog trying to please a beloved, contrary, wilful, godlike man, because whatever self-denial that took, whatever inconvenience, there was nothing else worth doing. Inconvenience and estrangement from her own kind were nothing compared to the privilege of hearing, of sharing, that laughter as elemental as the blackbird’s song or the taste of flesh.

Usually, when this type of question arises in a science-fiction novel, it is phrased, “What makes us human?” Clones, robots, mutants — who is a person? In this book, it’s aslant. What makes us human, yes. But what makes us animals, and is that equally sacred? What do we have the right to call monstrous? Can someone be a slave to an animal? Is that different from being a slave to a human being, and why? If we use animals as test subjects, can we use an animal-human hybrid, who has awareness and can talk to us and has a family? What if we classify him as having a low IQ and no loyalty to the scientific community who created him? Can we test him, then? What is education and training for, if it unfits us to be free?

Loren teaches Sten and Mika how to think about politics, how to know monster from man, how to identify an assassin, how to tame a hawk, but the cousins are as wild as hawks themselves, judging justice and mercy on their own terms. Sten, in a moment of rebellion against Loren’s teaching, sets the hawk free, knowing that once he has tasted the air, he will never return to a master’s hand. It’s only then that the three threads begin to converge: human politics, Genesis Preserve, the pride. This novel considers who will inherit the earth: the King of Beasts or the lords of creation. It’s a marvel.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 2 Comments

Elizabeth and Hazel

David Margolick’s book, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, revolves around the by-now iconic civil rights photograph of two fifteen-year-old girls:

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This photo, taken by journalist Will Counts, shows Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine African-American students who were denied entrance to Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. Behind her is Hazel Bryan Massery, in a crowd of other Little Rock citizens, shouting racial epithets at Elizabeth. Both those faces became representations of the South at that time: dignified perseverance and sorrow on the part of African-Americans; insane rage and hate on the part of white people.

elizabeth_and_hazelMargolick spends the book exploring what happened after the shutter clicked — after that moment in time became unfrozen. Teresa’s review of this book from 2011 does a wonderful job summing it up: Elizabeth’s experiences at Central High School were profoundly scarring, and led her to a life weighed down by depression, disability, poverty, and fear. Though she eventually found her voice, it took decades for her to begin to use it for her own, or anyone else’s, advocacy.

Hazel, on the other hand, began to think about the consequences of her actions almost immediately. In the light of the 1960s and 1970s, she rethought racial and gender privilege and was eager to take responsibility for her own actions. She even called Elizabeth in 1963 to apologize for her share in what happened at Central High, long before the ambient temperature of the South had cooled down for race relations. Later still, the two women became friends — what a moment of hope for Little Rock, especially during the Clinton years! — and then, more quietly, the friendship fell apart again in a haze of wariness and misunderstandings. What does this say about race in America?

It’s interesting, of course, to find out what happened to the subjects of an iconic moment. We know what happened to all the Iwo Jima flag-raisers, for instance, while we don’t know what happened to Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.” Margolick takes the significance of this particular photograph and, in my opinion, pushes it pretty hard. The history of the Little Rock Nine and their treatment at Central High is fascinating and important, and I also think it’s vital to know that it was not an inspiring and uplifting experience for all civil rights pioneers. Could most children have gone through constant harassment and isolation and violence, even for a year, without succumbing to it? I know that I couldn’t, and that’s with all my privilege and support network. I’d have liked to see Margolick expand his thoughts about the power structures at play: it wasn’t just Elizabeth’s depression that made her leave Knox College, for instance, but the fact that she was almost the only African-American student there. It wasn’t Elizabeth’s depression that caused her son’s “suicide by cop,” but a whole delicate interplay of poverty, welfare, mental health, gun control, and other matters that frequently pivot on race.

Later, though, when Margolick begins to analyze the friendship between the two women, the gears slip a bit. I understand why there was pressure for these two to meet and be friends. But what did they really have in common? Not upbringing, history, religion, education, or a circle of friends. If the only thing, culturally or in my background, that I had in common with another woman was a love of flowers, I doubt we would ever be close. Margolick puts the weight of the entire racial tension of the United States on the state of friendship of two women who were caught in the same photo at the same time. It’s far too much. They’ve gone from one iconic photo to another, and neither treats them as individuals.

I agree with some of Margolick’s conclusions about race in America. I think that sometimes, some white people have gotten bored with the push for equal rights, and would like to see some gratitude for all the hard work and good faith they’ve put in, not realizing how very far that attitude has to go to attain any version of equality. It’s the same with this book. As important as the topic is, if we believe both Elizabeth and Hazel are unique human beings, equal to each other and to all of the rest of us, how can we expect their friendship to mean anything more than our own friendships, which come and go, like our lives and our love?

Posted in Biography, History, Nonfiction | 11 Comments

Bad Feminist

Bad FeministIn the essay, “Bad Feminist: Take Two,” Roxane Gay writes

I am failing as a woman. I am failing as a feminist. To freely accept the feminist label would not be fair to good feminists. If I am, indeed, a feminist, I am a rather bad one. I am a mess of contradictions. There are many ways in which I am doing feminism wrong, at least according to the way my perceptions of feminism have been warped by being a woman.

She then goes on to catalog some of her areas of wrongdoing: despite having a good job, she wants to be taken care of; she listens to “thuggish rap” with misogynistic lyrics, she loves pink, she shaves her legs, she knows nothing about cars, she loves the excess of weddings—and so on.

Is there a feminist in the world who could not generate such a list of ways we’re supposedly doing it wrong? I doubt it. The image some have of feminism is indeed limiting, which is perhaps why so many women still feel a need to say, “I’m not feminist, but” before making some feminist statement. Gay is not shunning the label of feminist in this collection. Not at all. What she is doing is acknowledging that she is an individual woman with her own opinions and the right to be treated with dignity and respect. That, all on its own, makes her a good feminist. Even if she sometimes wants to sing along to “Blurred Lines.”

I’d read several of Gay’s essays online before getting the e-galley of this collection. In fact, this collection includes two of her essays that I’d found particularly memorable—“The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion” (about trigger warnings) and “The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help.” Gay’s essays frequently explore some aspect of contemporary culture through a black, feminist lens. In a direct and thoughtful voice, she considers such subjects as sexual violence, racial profiling, and gay rights. Her topics come from the day’s headlines, best-seller lists, and TV ratings charts—whatever is a subject of conversation.

One of the things I like about Gay’s writing is that she’s able to be both passionate and measured. It’s a difficult thing to do—and both aspects of her voice are equally important. She’s often angry about subjects to which the only proper response is anger. How else should we react when women are treated as objects to be groped without any consideration of consent? In “Blurred Lines, Indeed,” an essay about misogyny in popular music, Gay writes, “It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away.” But Gay reserves that level of fury for the most deserving targets. This collection is not all indignation all the time. When she writes about how Orange Is the New Black falls short in its depiction of black woman, her tone is one of disappointment and frustration that the bar is so low.

Although I liked the collection overall, not all the essays are hits. I think Gay is at her best when she chooses just one or two targets to focus on. Essays like “Not Here to Make Friends” and “How We All Lose” that tried to tackle multiple works on a similar theme ended up seeming overly long and rambling. In both cases, her excellent main points got lost in lots of plot summary.

I should also note that some may find it better to read the essays one or two at a time, rather than all at once, as I ended up doing. After reading Kim’s review, I decided to slow my reading pace down because the first chunk of essays that I read were leaving me exhausted. But as I read on, the essays got shorter (or seemed shorter because they were more focused), and I was able to pick up my pace without finding the reading tedious. In fact, I ended up having trouble putting it down. (Interestingly, Kim seemed to like the earlier essays better than the later ones, but she attributes that to reading them all at once.) As someone who’s admired Gay’s writing for years, I was glad to get a chance to read more.

E-galley received for review consideration via Edelweiss.

Posted in Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | 20 Comments

Mr. Mercedes

mr mercedesIf you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you’ll know that Teresa and I are not just Stephen King fans, we’re mild-to-moderate King evangelists. He’s a genuinely good writer, and he writes a variety of things that aren’t horror at all, so we generally feel we can lure you in, even if you’re not interested in reading about Gruesome Killings From Beyond. (Though if you are, I can make recommendations there, too.)

I was very pleased to see that King was coming out with a new novel this summer, Mr. Mercedes. His last couple of books, Doctor Sleep and 11/22/63, were absolutely firing on all cylinders, top-of-his-game King — the first in particular about struggling with addiction, a worthy successor to The Shining, and the other about the consequences, dilemmas, urgencies and poignancies of time travel. With King on this kind of a roll, I was really looking forward to the new one.

Mr. Mercedes, as it turns out, is a solid thriller with nothing supernatural about it. As the book opens, someone runs a grey Mercedes into a crowd of people waiting for a job fair to open. All that solid German engineering does its work, and the attack kills eight people and injures dozens more. The killer escapes, leaving not a trace of DNA behind, and the main police officer on the case, Bill Hodges, retires with his medals before they have a single break in the case.

It turns out, though, that the killer is planning something far bigger and far worse. He reaches out to Hodges through the internet, unable to avoid drawing attention to himself and his perfect crime, and there ensues a suspenseful race: will Hodges (and a highly-unlikely assortment of helpers) get the killer before he carries out his plan?

I’d place this novel in the middle of the pack for King. We’re not talking about the quality of his more recent books; this is no Doctor Sleep and it’s certainly no The Shining. (But, thank goodness, it’s also no Christine.) It’s so radically unlikely that Hodges would not have handed over this case to current police and police resources, I kept tripping over it in my mind. King gave a lame reason for it, but he just never made it plausible for me. I was also a bit suspicious about the killer’s initial letter to Hodges. He was highly intelligent, and the reason for the letter seemed unlike his usual M.O., so it felt a bit like a McGuffin. There’s also some pretty weak characterization for all but the two main antagonists, Hodges and the killer (the killer is especially great.) Since characterization and dialogue are normally King’s strengths, I was disappointed.

On the other hand, the plot points are great. Hodges’ police work is realistic and interesting, and the corresponding work of the killer is fascinating and scary. Each little escalation on both sides is grip-the-book-harder suspenseful, if not always what you might consider prudent. If I couldn’t get behind most of the characters, I could definitely get behind two of them, and the way the hunt for the killer progressed. The final scenes of confrontation are worth staying up late to finish, but they also have a touch of satire about them that is pure King.

Middle-of-the-pack King is still worth reading, in my view, and I enjoyed the book, which I ripped through in about a day and a half. Don’t go in expecting a masterpiece, but do go in expecting to have fun.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction, Mysteries | 13 Comments

Ounce Dice Trice

ounce dice triceI don’t normally review the children’s books I read (of which, since I have children, there is a bounteous plenty), but sometimes I come across one that is such a delight, I feel the need to share it with as many people as possible. This summer, we were given Alastair Reid’s book Ounce Dice Trice, with illustrations by Ben Shahn. It’s a book about words — well, not really even about words, the way The Phantom Tollbooth is about words, but a book of words, just rolling around in them and making yourself dizzy with the way they sound and what they mean. Old words, obsolete words, beautiful words, odd words, funny words, words that read the same backward and forward — they all make their way in here, and as I read the book aloud, I laughed out of sheer pleasure.

The book starts by arranging words into lists (DROWS, for instance, read the wrong way round: MULP, ANANAB, ROTSAC, OOBAGUB, OTAMOT, REZAGRATS, NOSAM, GUBDEB, WOLLEY.) Then comes a section on names, which I believe is my favorite section of the book:

It is most important to be a good namer, since it falls to all of us at some time or other to name anything from a canary to a castle, and since names generally have to last a long time. Here are some possible names for possible things, to give you some ideas.

He gives names for elephants (Wilbur, Ormond, Bendigo, Bruce, McGraw, Robertson, Wendell Tubb, Duff, and Deuteronomy, and if I ever need to name an elephant you had better believe it will be Wendell Tubb.) Names for whales (Hugh, Blodge, Barnaby, Hamish, Chumley, Murdo, Cham, Okum, Sump.) Names for houses and places (Hugg House, Broadmeadows, Windygates, Hopeshaws, Smidgin’s Nob, Long Stilt Lane, The Bobbins, Deersden, Smithereens, Old Hullabaloo, Drumjargon, The Shivers.) Names for cats, insects, nitwits, the fingers, twins (including twin kittens, squirrels, elephants, peculiar twins, and fat twins.)

He gives new ways to count to ten (ounce, dice, trice, of course, but also instant, distant, tryst, catalyst, quest, sycamore, sophomore, oculist, novelist, dentist.) There’s a whole section on mad-sounding words that I thought he’d invented but discovered he hadn’t, that lead carefully one to another and back in a circle to the first. And there are a few extra pages on curiosities, like firkydoodle and mumbudget and King’s X.

This is a book drunk on the English language (so much so that I am seldom perfectly sober…) and children, at least my children, love it as much as I did. I have in general had very very good luck with the New York Review Children’s Collection (see my review of Wolf Story, which we’re currently rereading to great effect.) Ounce Dice Trice is another huge hit, and I know all you book lovers, lovers of language, dizzied with words, would find it wonderful too.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Nonfiction | 11 Comments

The Deep

TheDeepI’ve now read almost all of John Crowley’s novels, all but Four Freedoms, as well as his collection of short fiction, Novelties and Souvenirs. I think he’s a truly great writer. He is purely original — none of his books like another, or like anything else I’ve read, even those in the Aegypt tetralogy, which are obviously linked. His prose is astonishingly beautiful, soft and rich, a woven tapestry of smoke and heather and gold and water rather than a sharp, cutting crystal. I’ve never read one of his novels I didn’t think stood head and shoulders above its kind, and sometimes they have been so meaningful to me that they were difficult to blog about. If I had just a modicum less decorum, I’d probably follow him around the country in one o’ they Ford vans.

This summer, I read Otherwise, which is a collection of Crowley’s first three novels, written in the 1970s. The first one in the collection is The Deep, which is quite a short novel at 166 pages long, though it is so packed with ideas, images, philosophy, and action that I didn’t notice its length until just now. It describes a sort of late-medieval world — kings and queens who have been locked in war for generations, horses, artisans, priestly orders, Endwives who care for the wounded and dead after battles — that rests on a flat disc, supported by a pillar that goes down into the Deep. The sun and moon and stars orbit the disc, and there are murmurs of Leviathan, who may swim below.

The politics of the world are (intentionally, I think) confusing. One side is Red and the other is Black, like a card game, though there are also hints of chess, which equally has kings and queens and knights. The names alone make it difficult to keep track of what’s happening: the list of principal characters for the Reds reads,

Red Senlin

Red Senlin’s Son (later King)

Sennred, Red Senlin’s younger son

Redhand

Old Redhand, his father

Younger Redhand, his brother

Caredd, his wife

Mother Caredd

Fauconred

and there’s also a Learned Redhand, but he’s part of the Grays, who are a sort of priestly society which dispenses justice and wisdom to the warring factions. The Blacks are named similarly. (And guess how many of these characters are alive at the end of the novel.)

There’s a description, early on, of Gray scholars doing some sort of archaeological work, using delicate brushes to uncover a painted picture on the floor of their cloister.

Crowned men with red tears running from their eyes held hands as children’s cutouts do, but each twisted in a different attitude, of joy or pain he couldn’t tell, for of course they all smiled with teeth. Behind and around them, gripping them like lovers, were black figures, obscure, demons or ghosts. Each crown had burning within it a fire, and the grinning black things tore tongue and organs from this king and with them fed the fire burning in the crown of that one, tore that one’s body to feed the fire burning in this one’s crown, and so on around, demon and king, like a tortured circle dance.

And of course this is the truth: this world has a war to establish a king and then another war to prove legitimacy of the king, who dies in war, so another war must follow.

Into this terrible circle dance comes a Visitor, who is not of this disc world. There’s been an accident to the ship he arrived in, so he doesn’t know who he is or what the purpose of his visit may be, and while he waits to heal and discover the truth about himself, he observes the world around him. He’s a watcher, a recorder, a secretary — but by asking leaders to explain their motivations and actions, he makes them thoughtful and uneasy. He himself grows to understand and even love the people he knows, and when he leaves them to find the end of the world and ask Leviathan what he was made for, he changes the pattern of the dance.

I finished this novel profoundly confused. I hadn’t had an easy time keeping track of the characters, and the fusion of the medieval world and the futuristic Visitor (and the particular vision of God offered by Leviathan, all in one conversation at the end) seemed odd and lumpy to me. As usual, the prose is stunning, and the book is the only thing like it I’ve ever read or heard of. But I didn’t feel satisfied.

Then, as I was looking for reviews that might enlighten me, I found something online that said that Crowley had been inspired by the Wars of the Roses. All of a sudden, everything lit up in my mind. This book, of course, is not some sort of allegory of that terrible war of politics and battle and assassination, where you can make a one-to-one match of all of the characters. But the Red and the Black translate to the Red and the White roses of York and Lancaster. The names are all Henry, Richard, Edward/Edmund, and Margaret (unless you are Perkin Warbeck, Lambert Simnel, or John of Gaunt, but let’s not go there), difficult to keep track of. Strong kings, queens, knights, pretenders, locked in war for generations. And then the dance changes, and suddenly we’re in the house of Tudor, not Plantagenet.

With a new way to think about it, and something to compare it to, The Deep shifted in my mind from an odd, confusing piece to something far more weirdly realistic. Cut the Wars of the Roses out of time and place, put it on a disc, and how would it appear? What if we had asked some great entity to allow us to go back to a simpler time? Would we simply repeat our errors, not realizing that “simple” and “human nature” don’t go together? Once again, I found myself full of admiration for Crowley’s work, even so early in his career.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 4 Comments