Without You, There Is No Us

Without YouSuki Kim was born in Seoul, South Korea, and moved with her family to the United States when she was 13. She traveled all over the world during her young adult years, but North Korea was an elusive source of fascination. She had family there, but no way to contact them or even to know if they were still alive. She first visited the country in 2002 as a journalist accompanying a pro Kim Jong-il group. But it wasn’t until 2011 that she got to spend an extended amount of time there as part of a team of missionaries allowed to come as teachers at a school for elite young North Korean men. This book is her memoir of those six months.

Because so much of what happens there is a mystery, it’s hard not to be fascinated by any glimpse we can get of life in North Korea. Because Kim spend such a long time in the country interacting with North Koreans who weren’t assigned simply to mind her, I was hoping to get a new perspective that was not available in Barbara Demick’s excellent Nothing to Envy.

What Kim offers is a look at the lives of those who are ostensibly well-served by the oppressive North Korean regime. These are the men who are given the opportunity to learn, instead of being forced to spend all their time in hard labor. What they will do with their learning is unclear—perhaps they are the minders and censors of tomorrow—but from Kim’s perspective, these were young men who wanted to know more about the outside world while taking great pride in the world they had. This tension between curiosity and self-satisfaction is perhaps the most interesting piece of the story for me. These men had so many questions and wanted to experience so much, but every time they realized something was possibly inferior about their country, they had to bend the facts into North Korea’s favor. Kim was sensitive to their plight, and her job required her to avoid open criticism of North Korea, but she sought ways where she could to open their eyes to what they were missing. Yet there’s always a barrier because neither she nor or her students can be wholly honest. (In fact, the students’ frequent dishonesty was a problem Kim referred to again and again.)

Although I appreciated getting this look at North Korean life, I sometimes thought this might be better as an article or even a series of articles. The first half of the book in particular felt repetitive. For the most part, Kim focuses on her students and her work. Once in a while she gets off track to share her feelings about her lover back in New York, and these bits always felt tangential to me. And I had reservations about her way of getting into the country and her attitude toward her fellow teachers. For all her colleagues knew, Kim was in the country because her love of Jesus compelled her to bring some light to North Korea, but Kim has no interest in her fellow missionaries’ faith. Whether the missionaries should have been there in the first place is open to debate as well, but Kim’s deception bothered me more than any scruples I might have about these sorts of mission efforts. I had a lot of reservations about this part of the story. I could go into more detail, but I’ll leave that aside because it’s not a major part of the narrative. It brought me up short every time the religious aspect came up.

Although I’m glad to have read this (mostly), this book is overall not nearly as impressive as Demick’s work, and I’d recommend Demick before this. (And I’d recommend this before the aggravating graphic memoir Pyongyang by Guy Delisle.)

E-galley received for review consideration via Netgalley.

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 6 Comments

The Home-Maker

home makerIn The Home-Maker, Dorothy Canfield Fisher presents the story of a family in which traditionally assigned roles are causing everyday suffering. Eva, the mother, feels suffocated: the circumscribed role of homemaker isn’t enough for her passionate spirit, invention, energy, and attention to detail. She’s constantly angry and dissatisfied, and the children walk on eggshells for fear of triggering her criticism. Lester, the father, is an accountant at the local department store. He hates his job, and does it so poorly as a result that he never gets the promotions or bonuses that would help bring his family out of poverty. The children are shy, repressed, and sickly, except the youngest, Stephen, whose tantrums are uncontrollable and mysterious.

When disaster strikes, however, and the family roles are turned upside-down, the Knapps find that joy has grown out of their misfortune. Eva takes a job in sales at the department store, and finds both scope for her talents and relief from the grind of housework. Lester, injured and forced to stay at home, finds a passionate paternal love for his children, and an enjoyment in cooking and darning socks. The children blossom and confide under the right loving guidance — especially Stephen, whose transformation into a loving child is particularly touching. The only question that remains is — will society allow this nontraditional arrangement to exist, humming along quietly? Or will it be smashed as soon as possible, because it’s a threat to the “natural order”?

As Teresa mentions in her 2011 review, Dorothy Canfield Fisher doesn’t think of this book as a women’s rights novel, but as a children’s rights novel. Fisher was the person who worked with Maria Montessori to bring the Montessori method to the United States, and she also worked tirelessly to help child refugees after the first World War. She saw the dictates of gender essentialism as something that harmed everyone — men, women, and especially the powerless children who had no say about who brought them up.

Interestingly, Fisher also takes a swipe at capitalism in this novel. Lester is considering his options:

Why, the fanatic feminists were right, after all. Under its greasy camouflage of chivalry, society is really based on a contempt for women’s work in the home. The only women who were paid, either in human respect or in money, were women who gave up their traditional job of creating harmony out of human relationships and did something really useful, bought or sold or created material objects…. Not only was it beneath the dignity of any able-bodied brave to try to show young human beings how to create rich, deep, happy lives without great material possessions, but it was subversive of the whole-hearted worship due to possessions. It was heresy.

She explores this in several directions, since Eva’s job at the department store and her ideas about fashion (a concept Lester finds stupid) are what help the family out of poverty and offer the children a chance at college. Institutions can be oppressive and you can still take advantage of them.

In this novel, Fisher gives examples of men who love working in business; women who used to work in business, have taken time off to care for young children, and are returning to business; women who adore their role as homemakers and whose children reflect their mother’s skill; men who flourish as homemakers; men who hate their jobs in business but who can’t escape; and women who pride themselves on their role as homemakers but who are clearly completely unfit for the task. Look, she says: every human being is different — each man, each woman, each child. Living together is hard enough, without making arbitrary rules. Try something new: try to be happy and healthy and affectionate, without worrying about tradition. See what happens.

I wouldn’t exactly call this book subtle. The message is straightforward, even didactic, and the eventual solution isn’t one that you’d exactly suggest as viable for many families. But the dilemma is depressingly relevant even now, with “Mommy wars” and lack of paternity leave and pressure to be a good provider. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel, and watched its ideas and development with interest — Fisher is now on my list of authors I’d like to have over for dinner!

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 12 Comments

Telegraph Avenue

telegraph avenueMichael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue is about a lot of things. It’s about a particular neighborhood — Brokeland, right on the line between Berkeley and Oakland, with all its ethnic and religious and economic and sexual and historical diversity, and everything that implies. It’s about two families, and the way they’ve worked together over the years: the husbands, Archy and Nat, running Brokeland Records, a place to sell used vinyl and a place to honor all that fabulous music, the blues, the jazz, the honky-tonk, sure, but perhaps even more a community resource, a place where people can lean on the counter and find out what’s happening in Brokeland. The wives, Gwen and Aviva, are the Berkeley Birth Partners, midwives catching babies at home with sure hands.

Maybe most of all, though, this book is about men. Don’t misunderstand me — Chabon doesn’t have any trouble writing fully-realized female characters, and in fact I found Gwen’s storyline the most interesting of the book. But from the very beginning of Telegraph Avenue, the focus is on the men: babies, adolescents, grown men, old men, past exploits, deadbeat dads, dead sons, new sons, grandsons. One of the most climactic moments of the book, when Gwen’s baby is born, is interrupted by her husband’s entry into the delivery room:

Then Archy walked into the room in a yachting cap. Stood there gawping at her. He looked a mess, creased, untucked, his hair misshapen. In the instant before his new son tumbled, bawling and purple, into mortality and history, Gwen’s heart was starred like a mirror by a stone. One day the feeling might come to resemble forgiveness, but for now it was only pity, for Archy, for his father and his sons, for all the men of whom he was the heir or the testator, from the Middle Passage, to the sleeper cars of the Union Pacific, to the seat of a fixie back-alleying down Telegraph Avenue in the middle of the night.

Yeah. Sounds realistic that that’s what you’d be thinking about when you’re giving birth.

I don’t want this review to devolve into snark. I have read a lot of Chabon’s work (and I think you could say pretty generously that it’s all essentially about men, with the addition of some good women characters), and I’ve at least liked and sometimes loved every book. This book was good — sometimes weird, like the entire 11-page chapter that was all one sentence, supposed to imitate the flight of an escaped parrot, even though the parrot didn’t escape until halfway through the chapter — but good. The prose sometimes shaded toward the purple, but when you’re dealing with people who routinely wear leisure suits in the early part of the 21st century, and spend their money on basements full of vinyl records, a little grandiosity (or a little bomp and circumstance, as is the name of the funeral band for one of the characters) doesn’t go amiss.

I also enjoyed the way that Chabon doesn’t take easy outs. His characters may have a community store and they may be (sometimes reluctantly) fighting to keep it in the face of a large chain moving in, but it doesn’t make them saints. It doesn’t even make them right. Sometimes it makes them jerks. Some of his characters have  a terrible time apologizing, and while no one should always have to bow and scrape to get by — there are particular implications for women and people of color in that arrangement — it’s wrong for personal relationships. They don’t make decisions well, or sometimes they make them too easily, without all the facts. They don’t forgive. They’re human.

And that’s what makes Chabon worth reading. I still like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay best of all the novels of his I’ve read, but there’s not one I’d dissuade you from. His people are always people, even when he leans pretty heavily on masculine experience. He’s melancholy and funny, probing for ways to show you what people are like, whatever they are like. I recommend Telegraph Avenue for a few enjoyable hours learning more about that.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 9 Comments

The Fountain Overflows

fountain overflowsSo this week has inadvertently turned into book swap week. On Wednesday, Jenny reviewed Tooth and Claw, which I asked her to read this year, and today I’m reviewing one of her choices for me, The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West.

Jenny wrote a detailed and glowing review of The Fountain Overflows when she read it last year, so if you want to know what the book’s about, do go read her review. I’ll just content myself with a short summation and note a few of the things I found interesting about the book.

The Fountain Overflows is a family story, told from the point of view of Rose Aubrey, one of the twin middle daughters in a family of four children. Rose chronicles the various incidents that stand out from her childhood—evicting a poltergeist from a relative’s home, getting to know a murderer’s family, bewailing her untalented older sister’s burgeoning music career, comforting her mother and she deals with the fallout from her father’s latest irresponsible act. The narrative is episodic, but it doesn’t feel fragmented because Rose’s voice remains the same, with its coolness and maturity that manages still to maintain a child’s perspective.

One notion that comes up repeatedly is the way family shapes identity—and the way a person’s family of origin feels normal, even when it isn’t. Rose and the other Aubrey children know they’re unconventional, and they know their father is irresponsible, but their family is so much a part of who they are that having a different sort of life feels impossible. And their life isn’t so bad. They have their music and their books and the means to help neighbors in need. When they come in close contact with other families, families where there’s overt abuse or where the children are ignored, the children is those families likewise recognize some of the things that are wrong but also see their families as parts of themselves that they cannot break away from.

This idea of family as inseparable from self takes on a different light toward the end of the novel. One family member simply walks away, leaving a hole, but one that the family immediately builds a wall around and makes part of the landscape. Everyone was prepared for this to happen, sad as it is, there were signs that it was coming. It later becomes evident that another of the Aubreys has long wanted that seemingly impossible separation. Interestingly, though, she sought her way out using music, the very means most valued by the family. Her family showed her what not to be—and also what she could be.

I’m not sure what I expected when I picked up this book. I had read Jenny’s review when she first read it, but I hadn’t remembered much about it. I think I had the idea that her writing was more complex and experimental, and perhaps her other books are, but her writing here is straightforward. There’s a great deal going on under the surface—and once in a while you have to read between the lines to see things Rose doesn’t—but the style is not demanding. It’s the characters and the situation and life itself that create the complications of this book. But it’s also a perfectly enjoyable read when considered simply as a very well-written story of an unusual family making its way through the world. Which ideas to delve into and how deeply to dig are entirely up to the reader.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 11 Comments

Tooth and Claw

tooth and clawTeresa asked me to read Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw — essentially a Victorian novel in which all the characters are dragons — in this year’s book swap, after she read it herself in 2013. Her review of it sums it up so perfectly that I feel odd doing any sort of summary: go and read it, and come back for a few of my thoughts.

Walton mentions in her introduction that the book leans heavily on Trollope’s Framley Parsonage. Certainly, with both books entangled in several proposals, confessions, and questions of class, gender, and gentility, the comparison is easy to make: Trollope understood the dragons of his own society rather well, and so does Walton. Whether it’s arguing over an inheritance or arguing over who gets to eat the largest share of the dead father’s body, Victorian social mores are on display.

One example of the way Walton makes this work is with the clever device of virgin dragons’ scales coloring. While an attractive maiden dragon’s scales are a burnished gold, physical proximity of a suitor turns her scales a blushing bridal pink. A problem arises if an unwanted suitor, in an accidentally unchaperoned situation, barges into a maiden’s personal space and causes her to blush unwillingly (a rather mild metaphor for rape or other dishonor; a scarlet mark that cannot be hidden). This very misfortune befalls Penn’s sister Selendra. The family at first insists on a marriage to the buffoonish Blessed Frelt. A potion provided by a loyal servant restores Selendra’s maidenly coloration, but it is feared that she may never again be able to blush naturally. This becomes a pressing issue when Selendra is wooed by the boyishly irresponsible Sher, who, of course, stands to gain a considerable inheritance once he settles down. If Selandra can no longer blush, she cannot marry. Making the actions of the characters part of their biology, not part of their morality, makes the dilemmas much plainer.

This book is a delightful read. Walton’s world-building is clever — so clever, indeed, that I didn’t make some connections until the very end of the book. (How did I not understand what the Yarge were? Was I just not paying attention?) The religion, the infrastructure, the class structure, the law — all are presented as if to a dragonish audience, so we never get too much, and never quite enough. I still think the Small Change trilogy is the best thing I’ve read by Walton, but this was great entertainment. Book Swap wins again!

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 10 Comments

Texts From Jane Eyre

oh my god


this guy

this publisher guy

is asking me about my favorite canto in Childe Harold

that’s like asking someone to pick who’s hotter

his half-sister or his cousins

it’s literally impossible

texts from jane eyreMallory Ortberg’s Texts From Jane Eyre is the kind of book you want to race through in an hour, laughing hysterically, and then lend it to everyone you know. I counsel otherwise. My advice? Browse through it slowly (the laughing hysterically part is not optional). Read a few sections a day. Stash it on your nightstand and read it before bed. Read bits aloud to friends. And then buy several more copies as Christmas gifts, and watch yourself become extremely popular.

god I love you cathy

     i love you too

     i love you so much


     it hurts how much i love you

i love you so much

let’s break each other’s hearts

     oh my god let’s

     i love you so much i’m going to marry edgar

i love you so much i’m going to run away

     i love you so much i’m going to make myself sick


good that’s so much love

     i love you so much i’m going to get sick again

     just out of spite

     i’ll forget how to breathe

i’ll be your slave

     i’ll pinch your heart and hand it back to you dead

i’ll lie down with my soul already in its grave

     i’ll damn myself with your tears

i love you so much i’ll come back and marry your sister-in-law

 god yes

and i’ll bankroll your brother’s alcoholism

     i always hoped you would


This could be just a gimmick — ha ha, what if people had phones in the past! That would be crazy! But this book is not that. Texts From Jane Eyre is satire that has little to do with the actual method of delivery: it could just as easily be telegrams, or notes, or deleted scenes from these literary works. Mallory Ortberg’s jokes (originally a feature at The Toast) work because she knows the canon so well, and loves it. These texts are a vehicle to skewer subtexts: somewhere inside ourselves we all knew that Mr. Rochester would text IN ALL CAPS, or that Scarlett O’Hara should never be given a phone, or that Edgar Allan Poe would text at extremely inconvenient hours. In a larger sense, these texts take the big personalities of the Western canon — authors and characters — and translate them into the everyday: what would William Blake be like if you had to find a place to put yet another drawing of a flaying? Would you appreciate his genius so much then, huh? What if you were Jason’s second wife, after Medea, and Medea had your number?

Don’t take this book at one sitting. Small doses increase the delight. But you’re going to like this: the better you know the books, the funnier the texts are. And then you’re going to want to lend it out. Resist! Get a second copy — the minute you lend it out, you’ll want to go back and read it again, and again, and what was that part about Jane Eyre…?

I hope you’re packed for India already

     I’m not going to India with you, St. John

That’s not what these TWO TICKETS TO INDIA say


I received a copy of this book for review consideration from Henry Holt.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | Tagged | 14 Comments

The King Must Die

King Must DieYou’ve probably heard the story. Fourteen young Athenians, seven boys and seven girls, are sent to Crete as tributes to King Minos. There they will be placed in a labyrinth with the fearsome Minotaur, the half-human half-bull son of Queen Pasiphae. Lost in the labyrinth, these tributes faced certain death. Until Theseus.

The handsome Theseus, son of the king of Athens, volunteers as tribute. When he reaches Crete, he wins the heart of Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, and she gives him a thread to guide him out of the labyrinth after he achieves his plan of killing the Minotaur.

Mary Renault takes the known history of Crete, where there was a labyrinthine palace, to build an alternate version of the story, where Theseus is a bull-dancer and the Minotaur the bullish heir to the throne. But it takes a while to get to that story. The book begins with Theseus’s own beginnings, when, as a child, he learns of the dread responsibility of a king to be ready to die for his people. In Troizen, where he grew up, that responsibility was at one time taken literally, with the king offering himself for sacrifice just a few years after being crowned—the number of years varied by region. By the time Theseus was born, the custom in Troizen had changed, and kings were allowed to live longer, until they themselves decided it was time to die. But the burden of readiness remains, as Theseus’s grandfather explains:

It is not the sacrifice, whether it comes in youth or age, or the god remits it; it is not the bloodletting that calls down power. It is the consenting, Theseus. The readiness is all. It washes heart and mind from things of no account, and leaves them open to the god.

As a son of a king, Theseus also takes on this burden as his moira, “the finished shape of [his] fate, the line drawn round it.” And the first half of the book shows him growing into that moira as he leaves Troizen, becomes a king in Eleusis, and finally meets his own father in Athens. This portion of the book, while interesting on reflection, moves slowly and was hard for me to get a grip on. Knowing what comes later, I’m able to see some important themes develop along with the character of Theseus. There’s a lot here about how cultures shift and grow and how painful that can be, and the gender politics are worthy of some serious consideration. Theseus’s kingship in Eleusis could be read as anti-woman, with Theseus building up the spirits of the beaten-down men in this matriarchal kingdom. But his care for his people is paramount at every turn, and so his triumph felt correct. However, the events on Naxos at the end of the novel make me wonder if we’re supposed to see women’s rule as inherently destructive.

Where the book really takes off is when Theseus decides to go to Crete. Here, he accepts his moira, getting guidance directly from Poseidon. Watching how Renault twists the myth into something that feels more real is good fun. There are a few moments that felt  thrown in to make the story closer to the myth—the Minotaur’s actual end is one of these. But the story as a whole felt like it could have been the original in a centuries-long game of telephone that brought us the myth we have today.

Renault erases many of the fantastical elements from the story, but she doesn’t strip away all things supernatural. Theseus seeks guidance from Poseidon at several points in the story, and he believes he receives an answer. And because he’s our first-person narrator, we’re given no reason to believe otherwise. We’re also given nothing other than his belief as evidence. Theseus also appears to have the ability to sense earthquakes, believed to be the gift of the gods. I was glad to see these elements in the story, because it made the story seem more realistic than a post-Enlightenment version of ancient Greece where only the verifiable is true.

Renault’s elaborate prose rewards slow reading, even though as the plot developed I had to remind myself to slow down so I could catch everything. This is historical fiction in the style of Dorothy Dunnett, so I expect I’ll be reading more. There’s another book about Theseus, so that may be my next, although I welcome other recommendations. Given that my favorite part of this book was the riff on the story I already knew, I wonder how I’ll like her books on pieces of history I’m less familiar with.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 17 Comments

How To Breathe Underwater

how to breatheThis collection of stories by Julie Orringer sounds as if it’s going to be miserable. Here we have girls — mostly teenage girls, some younger — going through a familiar collection of life’s cruelties, fears, and humiliations: displacement, addiction, illness, grief, loneliness, guilt. Yet somehow the book isn’t menacing or terrible. In these stories there are bright flecks, moments of victory and recognition and reconciliation, that make the collection beautiful rather than unrelievedly grim. (Not that literature can’t be both, but that’s a conversation for another day.)

The worst and most unsettling thing in Orringer’s world is when the adults abandon responsibility. Ill or absent mothers snake through these stories, as in “Pilgrims,” when Ben and Ella’s parents take them to some sort of hippie commune for Thanksgiving in the hope that Ella’s mother will find healing from cancer and chemotherapy. The story would balance on a fine edge between humor and tragedy, except that the children see no humor in the strangeness of their circumstances. In “Care,” Tessa is taking care of her six-year-old niece Olivia during a day out in San Francisco. The slow deterioration of the day — Tessa’s own need for a caretaker, the absence of a real authority figure even over the child, let alone larger issues like the environment — allow us into a kind of angry compassion.

Orringer’s realism refuses to duck away from the girls’ circumstances: no plot point is ever stretched beyond its snapping point, and characters are left to breathe in ambiguity. In my favorite story, “Stars of Motown Shining Bright,” a stereotypical situation that pits two girls against each other is wrenched onto a new track by what might be an act of violence, or what might be an act of pure friendship. I expected “Note to Sixth-Grade Self” to be admonitory, a “don’t go into the haunted house” sort of thing. Instead, it was a description.

When you arrive at the entrance to Uptown Square, with its marble arches and potted palms, you will pretend to see Cara and Patricia inside. You will kiss your mother and watch her drive away. Then you will stand beside the potted palms and wait for Patricia and Cara. You will take off your broken glasses and put them in your pocket, and adjust the hem of your shirt. You will wait there for ten minutes, fifteen, twenty. When you run inside to use the bathroom you will hurry your way through, afraid that you’re keeping them waiting, but when you go outside again they will still not be there.

Stop this. They are not coming.

Do this, because that really was your life then; do that, because you actually did it, and now you are who you are today. It was far more poignant than any mere advice could have been.

I picked this book up because I read about it in Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, and I’m so glad I read it. There are no smooth ways across here, but there is growth and learning, and the occasional spark of real understanding and love. These are good stories, definitely recommended.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 1 Comment

Plausible Prejudices

plausible prejudicesJoseph Epstein is an essayist, short story writer, and editor who worked for years at The American Scholar and is a long-time contributor to The New Criterion, Hudson Review, and Commentary. He’s written biographies, as well as books on gossip, friendship, snobbery, and divorce, but I was most interested in his familiar essays on literature — book reviews, really, with a few other essays assessing the state of literary criticism at the moment.

Plausible Prejudices was published in 1985, and (as Epstein frankly admits in his introduction) is almost entirely negative. “My case is that literature is going through a very bad patch at present — that there is something second-rate about it, especially in America, though not here alone,” he says. Norman Mailer, John Irving, Philip Roth, Ann Beattie, Cynthia Ozick, Bernard Malamud, and John Updike all come under his subtle knife, or, as George Washington might have it, his little hatchet. He also considers older writers (these, generally, with a wry but more approving eye): Willa Cather, John Dos Passos, A.J. Liebling, Edmund Wilson. A few essays on language round out the book.

The book reviews are the best part of the collection. Epstein is wonderfully well-read, always equipped with the perfectly barbed quotation with which to sting his subject. He is marvelously readable: his language is sharp, elegant, and breezy without being flippant. I laughed often (especially at those barbs), and I was impressed by his wide-ranging knowledge of his subjects’ work. (In “Why John Irving Is So Popular,” he seems to have read all five of Irving’s novels to date, and in “Mailer Hits Bottom” he seems to have read all eight of Mailer’s novels, plus a good chunk of his journalism. Such self-sacrifice is beyond the pale for most of us.) His observations are, for the most part, also deadly accurate. Again in “Why John Irving Is So Popular,” Epstein points out the repetitive theme of mutilations and amputations in Irving’s novels. “There arises the question, to adapt a phrase of Henry James’s,” he says, “of the disfigurement in the carpet.” All this work is to support Epstein’s lively undergirding sense of the purpose of literature. According to him, wrong-headed praise of bad literature, or insufficient praise of good literature, means that things have gone wrong in a larger sense: he means with his criticism to uphold “a yes to life, a yes to literature, a yes to the necessity of holding writers up to the highest standard, a yes to the act of writing itself.”

Epstein blames the “bad patch” in American letters on the political agenda of the university. Once the university began studying contemporary novels, he says, and setting up black studies programs and women’s studies programs and so forth, things went sharply downhill.

Years before the intervention of contemporary writing in the university — or has it been the other way round: the intervention of the university in contemporary writing? — nothing was conceded to a writer because she was a woman or he was a Jew or she was a black or he was a homosexual. There was something called the Republic of Letters, and this republic took no census. It included only people who were serious about writing. There was also a fairly simple division of writers, or at any rate only one that mattered: good writers and bad.

Epstein goes on to conclude that when a university uses contemporary literature in the classroom, or does research on those authors, it judges them to be as good, or greater than, classic authors, which means that “Virginia Woolf would be a greater writer than Tolstoy, which, as Virginia Woolf herself would have told you, is scarcely so.”

It is depressing to see a sharp thinker like Epstein wield this sort of rhetoric. He must certainly know that for centuries — indeed, millennia — this Republic of Letters had a gate that was strait and narrow, and only those thought worthy of education were allowed in at all, to begin their work of being serious about writing, or of being good or bad. Women? Dogs on their hind legs, I’m afraid. Africans? Slaves? Native Americans? You must be joking. I suppose at least it keeps the squabbles down, about the right-of-way: of course you need not concede anything to women, if there are no women in your Republic.

I also wonder about the language of competition inherent in Epstein’s theory. If we consider contemporary authors, either in or outside of the classroom, why does that mean we automatically think they are “better than Tolstoy”? If we study Tolstoy, but we also study Shakespeare, Gilgamesh, Austen, the Iliad, and Toni Morrison, are we automatically judging Morrison to be the best because she’s the most recent? Or what? Why is it a competition? When I teach literature, I look at each work for what it offers: themes, prose, historical context, subtlety, beauty, representation of a body of literature or a school of thought. I wonder what it might teach my students and how it might spark conversation. I want them to learn to think, and to make their own judgments, and I want many kinds of voices to enter into that education. If diverse and contemporary voices necessarily make for a worse patch in literature, how long must we wait to find out whether they’re worthy to speak?

Other parts of his writing ring equally false. His essay on Willa Cather, for instance, with its heavy-handed insistence that there’s absolutely no videotaped proof she was a lesbian, begs its own question: if he thinks her orientation couldn’t possibly shed light on her work, why is he writing the essay? In another piece, on euphemisms for sex, he quotes at length what I thought was a very clean passage, with nothing really more explicit in it than “the tottered senses’ outgiving of astonishment,” and then says that the passage is “extremely repulsive — enough to put a virile man off his sexual feed for quite a spell, enough to drive a refined woman into a nunnery.” Um. What?

In other words, I had mixed feelings about these essays. I enjoyed reading them and thought Epstein’s analysis was clear-minded, worth reading, and eminently fair. His writing is a pleasure: elegant, funny, wise. His insistence, however, on checking everyone’s credentials at the gate of the Republic of Letters begins to seem officious. Is this the purpose of literary criticism? Is this the “yes to life” he proclaims at the beginning of the book? Give me leave to question it.

Posted in Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | 23 Comments

The Blackhouse

black houseOn the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s outer Hebrides, the abandoned blackhouses are useful for private trysts, but the 16-year-olds we meet in the prologue of this novel by Peter May don’t find the kind of privacy they seek when they enter the blackhouse by the shore. Instead, they find a body, hanging by the neck and eviscerated. Detective Inspector Fin Macleod, formerly of Lewis, is called in to assist in the case, which is similar to a murder he investigated in Edinburgh. Fin hasn’t been back to Lewis for 17 years, and he doesn’t want to go now. But he also doesn’t want to be at home anymore, trying to cope with the recent loss of his son.

On arriving in Lewis, the memories Fin has kept at bay for years keep coming back. He sees old friends and old enemies—the victim, in fact, was a bully from his school days. The book’s chapters alternate between the present-day story, told in third-person, and Fin’s first-person recollections of his childhood in the small village on the island. He remembers the victim, Angel Macritchie, well enough to know that plenty of people might want to see him dead, and as we see more of Fin’s memories, we understand why.

For most of the book, the crime story borders on dull. The suspects are, well, the usual ones—various people with grudges, a rabble-rousing outsider, and a priest with a dark past. (Because of course the priest has a dark past. Is there a fictional priest that doesn’t?)  Even Fin doesn’t seem that interested in the crime; he, like the reader, keeps getting distracted by his past, where the mysteries are far more mysterious. It’s lucky, then, that all that baggage from the past is connected with the mystery; otherwise, we’d get nowhere.

Fin has spent most of his adult life putting his past behind him, and he’s slow to reveal all the things that happened that have kept him away. We get hints of some misunderstandings, perhaps a tragedy or three. Much of the mystery centers on the annual guga hunt, when a group of men journey to a small island to kill young seabirds. The chapters that describe this tradition are harrowing, but fascinating. That would be true even without the dramatic events in Fin’s life that relate to his one firsthand experience collecting guga.

This is a book about the past coming back, but I couldn’t quite accept just how stuck in the past many of the characters seemed. The problem wasn’t just people following old traditions or never leaving home; it was the way the characters’ personalities and patterns of interaction seemed so thoroughly engrained, beginning from the characters’ very first day of school. It was almost as if the whole place and its people just froze in time, hardly growing or changing at all. I grew up in a rural area, so I know how that can happen, but this seemed too extreme. I think, though, some of the problem may have been Fin’s perspective, because even in the third-person sections, we see little beyond what Fin sees. Late in the book, when Fin finally talks to someone who considered the murder victim a friend, we get the idea that maybe not everyone is so locked in their old roles as Fin imagines.

The resolution to the mystery also helps explain why some of the characters seemed particularly bound by time, and it resolves much of my unease about a few much-too-coincidental developments. The ending leaned a little too hard on its shocking twist for my tastes, but I’m impatient with supposedly shocking twists. I’d almost rather know who the killer is from the outset and then work out the how and why as I go.

Still, even with these gripes, I found this plenty entertaining. It’s the first in a trilogy but feels complete on its own. Will I read more? Perhaps. I enjoyed it enough to feel that my time wasn’t wasted, but one of the challenges of being a reader is knowing that for every basically OK book I read, I’m using time that I could spend with something I’d love. So … we’ll see.

I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration via Netgalley.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | Tagged | 14 Comments