“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” –C.S. Lewis

LilaI kept thinking of this quote by C. S. Lewis as I read Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel, Lila. The title character has hardly had any opportunities in her life to love, and the idea of it terrifies her. She cannot figure out how to receive love from the man who becomes her husband and she cannot figure out how to receive it from God. She’s intrigued by both forms of love, and once in a while she lets those loves in, but she holds them loosely, prepared to drop them and move on at any minute.

As a child, Lila knew love only through the woman named Doll who snatched her from her neglectful family’s porch when she was just a toddler and carried her along through all her wanderings in 1920s America. Doll joins up with a group of other drifters, and they all form a sort of family, but Lila’s primary source and object of love remains Doll. When Lila arrives in the town of Gilead, Iowa, Doll is gone from her life, and she is totally alone. She seems to prefer it that way.

Yet for reason she herself doesn’t understand, Lila is drawn to a church and to that church’s preacher, John Ames, who many readers will already know as the narrator of Gilead. Their conversations baffle and fascinate them both—as does their decision to get married. Lila, or at least part of Lila, almost immediately regrets their decision:

She thought, I could tell him I don’t want to be no preacher’s wife. It’s only the truth. I don’t want to live in some town where people know about me and think I’m like an orphan left on the church steps, waiting for somebody to show some kindness, so they taken me in. I don’t want to marry some silvery old man everybody thinks is God. I got St. Louis behind me, and tansy tea, and pretending I’m pretty. Wearing high-heel shoes. Wasn’t no good at that life, but I did try. I got shame like a habit, the only thing I feel except when I’m alone.

Ames never presses Lila. He’s quietly, consistently present to her, but he doesn’t urge her to marry him; he merely makes it clear that he’d like it. And something inside Lila—the part of her that stole his sweater so she could have something that was his—knows she’d like it too. She just doesn’t seem sure that she’s able to accept that love. It’s not just a matter of being embarrassed at her background, although that’s part of it. The real reason for her reticence is harder to pin down, and a lot of the book involves Lila’s effort to understand herself. She looks back over her past and mulls over her present and tries to decide who she will be.

No matter what Lila says and does, John Ames remains constant in his care and concern and love for her. It’s clear that Ames doesn’t just love her as a pastor loves a parishioner; he genuinely enjoys her and the many ways she surprises him. He does sometimes want to pastor her. She notices how eager he is to guide her through the biblical book of Ezekiel, which she decided to read entirely on her own. In some respects, I think their quiet, sometimes reticent love is meant to echo the kind of love God has for humanity. It’s the kind of love that doesn’t cease, even when we back away. Yet Ames doesn’t quite understand Lila; he doesn’t know how unsettled she remains even after their marriage and her pregnancy. Love never stops being scary for her. (Maybe God’s love also never stops being scary.)

The book is written in the third person, but it’s Lila’s mind we’re inside. Those who have read Robinson’s other novels, with their long, complex sentences and sophisticated vocabulary, will find a different voice in Lila. Her sentences are short, her words simple. But that doesn’t mean her thoughts aren’t deep. She wonders over the Bible, considers the nature of love, worries over her the meaning of suffering, and ponders the mystery of existence:

How could it be that none of it mattered? It was most of what happened. But if it did matter, how could the world go on the way it did when there were so many people living the same and worse? Poor was nothing, tired and hungry were nothing. But people only trying to get by, and no respect for them at all, even the wind soiling them. No matter how proud and hard there were, the wind making their faces run with tears. That was existence, and why didn’t it roar and wrench itself apart like the storm it must be, if so much existence is all that bitterness and fear? Even now, thinking of the man who called himself her husband, what if he turned away from her? It would be nothing. What if the child was no child? There would be an evening and a morning.

Marilynne Robinson is one of my favorite writers, possibly America’s greatest living writer. The people in her novels never fail to touch me. I read this book while grieving over the recent and sudden death of my cat, and although there’s nothing in this book that directly relates to my particular pain, I found myself caught up in Lila’s pain and fear and in her choice to press forward, letting each day bring the feelings that it will as she tries to figure out whether and how to give and receive love and how to mourn the loves we lost. These are choices we all have to make, even if our particular circumstances differ. Marilynne Robinson, through her characters, offers wise counsel in difficult times.

Posted in Fiction | 16 Comments

Beijing Bastard

beijing bastardVal Wang’s parents came to the United States from China when they were young adults with a spirit of adventure. Still, they wanted to give their daughter a sense of her heritage, so they sent her to Chinese school, taught her traditions, and made her learn martial arts. Val hated every minute of it, and rebelled, feeling the constant weight of her parents’ disapproval (and possibly her ancestors’ as well.) Yet she was drawn to China, just not her parents’ version of it, and a terrible documentary called “Beijing Bastards” seemed to sum up that yearning, displaying the lives of hooligans who lived to drink, sleep, and swear. Finally, the most rebellious thing she could imagine to do was to reverse her parents’ original, dangerous journey: after college, she headed to Beijing, with vague dreams of being a documentary filmmaker.

The subtitle of this memoir is “Into the Wilds of a Changing China,” but in fact, Val Wang is far too self-absorbed for the majority of the book to show us almost anything about China, except around the edges. It’s more like into the wilds of an entitled Westerner. When she arrives in Beijing, at first she lives with her aunt and uncle (Bomu and Bobo.) She finds their house rules inordinately oppressive, and disobeys every chance she gets. This makes her sound less punk and rebellious than just plain sulky and ungrateful:

“Where have you been?” Bobo demanded….

“I ate with people from work.”

“You should have called.”

“I know.”

“You let two old people worry about you.”


“We told your Nainai we would take good care of you in Beijing,” he said.

Taking care of me. I knew what that meant. Keeping me close to home for the opportunity to scrutinize and then mock me.

Since Val takes her own cultural potshots every possible chance she gets, this does not evoke much sympathy from me, even if there were evidence it was true. She complains about Chinese squat toilets, about her lack of privacy, about Chinese table manners, about the lack of fluoride in the water that turns her teeth black (but then she complains about the men’s bad teeth, which apparently makes them, but not her, undateable), about how “superior” everyone acts, about crowding in line, about the demolished buildings everywhere, about how much trouble she has getting a decent haircut. Maybe it’s supposed to sound wry and sophisticated, but to me it just sounds overprivileged, whiny, and Western, with almost no signposting along the way to alert us that she knows better. What about great food? What about something fascinating or beautiful? What about the nature of friendship or family when it’s not a conspiracy or a fraud or an inconvenience?

Val takes a few jobs here and there as a journalist, sometimes even borrowing video equipment from a friend so she can make a stab at creating a documentary of her own. But she doesn’t know what she wants to say or do, and again, she’s absorbed in the end result — fame, fortune, awards — and not in telling a story that may unfold in some unexpected way. The most painful of these episodes is when she comes in contact with the Zhang family, who has been involved in Peking Opera for generations. The family is only too willing to talk to her, but not in the way she desires: they want to present information, make a case, rather than simply live their lives without acknowledging the camera. Rather than live into the long process (perhaps years) of getting to know the family and earn their trust, or accepting that performativity is part of the lives of many post-dictatorship societies, Val becomes angry that they won’t perform “naturally” to her expectations, and, after a few weeks, gives up. The family tries to contact her several times, and again when the elderly grandfather dies (a repository for huge amounts of information about the Peking Opera), but she doesn’t call back.

It’s not that there’s no movement forward in this book. Val does mature a bit, and her relationship with her parents in particular has substantive growth, particularly when she sees their lives as young adults in the light of her own journey. There is also a very interesting and informative theme about housing throughout the entire book. In a country (and city — Val rarely travels) with so many people, the housing crisis is acute. Part of the issue is image. The old courtyard houses are beautiful and classic, but sometimes they’re decrepit and sometimes they’re shared by ten families. If they’ve been preserved, sometimes they’re owned by one person with an American passport. How does that look to the outside world? Whole neighborhoods are demolished in the course of this book, and new apartment buildings spring up, preparing for the Olympic Games. How do you secure what you need for your family? When rules about “family” have been radically changed, how do you know it’s yours? How do you protect yourself from corruption, or foreigners, or danger? This was interesting stuff, and wove naturally through the memoir.

I chose Beijing Bastard because I wanted to learn more about contemporary China. I’ve read quite a bit of history (even recent history), but I don’t know much about what it’s like there now. I wish I’d been able to see that through Val’s eyes, and not (mostly) her own navel.

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

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction, Travel/ Exploration | Tagged | 8 Comments

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