The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger was the very first book that Jenny and I reviewed together here on Shelf Love (and the first book by Sarah Waters that I’d ever read). We both loved it, and with the movie coming out this year, we thought that now would be a good time to revisit it.

The book is set in late 1940s England. Our narrator, Dr. Faraday is a doctor from a modest family background who is called to check in on an ailing servant of the wealthy Ayres family, owners of Hundreds Hall. Faraday knew Hundreds Hall in his childhood, as his mother was a servant there, and he’s shocked to see what terrible condition the house is in. Over the next months, he becomes embroiled in the lives of the Ayres family, offering medical treatment to help Roderick with his war injury and giving advice and a listening ear to Mrs. Ayres and daughter Caroline. It soon becomes evident that there’s more going wrong at Hundreds that the family’s reduced financial circumstances. Roderick believes that there’s some sort of curse on the house or on him. Ringing bells, fire, and mysterious writing on the wall keep the family off balance — and worse.

Because our second reading of the book was colored by our knowledge of the ending, our reflections our discussion will contain spoilers. If you don’t want to be spoiled, read the book for yourself! Our previous discussion includes our theory about the source of the hauntings, so you may want to read that as well if the book left you puzzled.

Teresa: This is a fantastic period haunted house story, with lots of creepy moments and an extremely unsettling conclusion. I loved it when I first read it, and it’s just as good the second time around. Knowing what was coming made all those early moments of unease even more potent. Faraday’s fascination with the house, which seemed a little much in my first reading, was downright sinister this time.

Jenny: I always love re-reading, and I think this book is particularly rich and rewarding a second time around. I was prepared to think that there was never anything really supernatural going on — just a physical “stranger” — but that’s not what I thought at all. I found it very otherworldly and eerie even though I had a culprit in mind. All that pent-up and unacknowledged rage and class resentment! And I completely agree with you about Faraday’s obsession with the house. On a first reading, it seems it’s the family that’s being destroyed. On a second reading, it becomes clear that the target of malice is the house itself.

Teresa: The house is both a target and a desired object, though, don’t you think? After all, the book begins with an act of destruction that is also a theft. The desire to possess and to destroy end up being the same thing.

What I find fascinating is the question of how conscious Faraday is of what he is doing — not just the supernatural aspects of it, but also how he wheedles his way into the family. He describes himself as always wanting to be helpful and eventually as being in love, but on reflection, none of it seems real. More than anything else, he wants in. But how well does he understand that about himself?

Jenny: Yes, I agree — and that leads me to think that Faraday might not be capable of possessing without destroying, something that’s especially ironic since he’s meant to be a healer. (The most vivid images of him as a doctor are very clinical and gruesome: with the electrical machine on Rod, and on the table stitching up the little girl’s face.) The house and the family die off bit by bit, like a leper or an amputee.

I like your question about his self-awareness. He seems aware of some of his own issues: for instance, he names his moments of “dark dislike” of the family at least three times, and his discomfort — even humiliation — at the party where the real trouble begins. But I don’t think he’s aware of his desperation to be in, or his desire for the house, or the way the family is just a means to that end.

Even though this is a post-World War II book, I think of it as a post World War I book in a lot of its themes: the class issues, the treatment of shell shock, the Servant Problem, the burden of the land and the house. What do you think of the poltergeist as the manifestation of some of that national anger as well as Faraday’s personal grievance?

Teresa: There’s certainly more going on than just Faraday’s personal grievance. Everyone seems ready for the era of grand houses on massive estates to come to an end. We see that in the construction of council housing on the edges of the diminishing estate. It’s interesting that the people who live there want a wall so they can’t see Hundreds; resentment may play into that. Even the Ayres family doesn’t have much interest in maintaining Hundreds, and they clearly all resent the house to varying degrees. (If it were possible to fight a poltergeist and keep it out, the Ayres family wouldn’t have the will to do it.)

But it seems to me that Faraday is the one who can’t let go. He wants things to change so that he can be part of —  even in control of — the household that once held so much power over the community, including his own mother. The only way to for him to get in is to collapse the social order that kept him out, but it’s the social order that allowed homes like Hundreds to exist. He can’t have it both ways.

Jenny: And that’s what makes this whole book so complex. This is a book about a poltergeist — it absolutely is — and it’s as scary as that implies. But it’s also about the rage and resentment and entrapment and malice that cause a poltergeist. It’s class warfare, made bitterly personal, and brought into the bones and air of an old and beautiful home.

I think, on second reading, that this is absolutely a work of genius. There’s so much here: glances, touches, things unsaid, tiny horrors (references to Rebecca.) Sarah Waters, long may you write.

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Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 12 Comments

Last Friends

Old Filth by Jane Gardam is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and a pretty remarkable surprise given that it’s a book about an old sad white Englishman who isn’t particularly nice to his wife. The follow-up, The Man in a Wooden Hat, which focuses more on the wife was a pretty good book, but not nearly a good as the previous one. Betty Feathers just doesn’t come to life to the same degree as her husband Edward, and the book spends little time on her life beyond her relationships with her husband and her lover, Terence Veneering. But I was still interested enough in these characters to want more, so I read the final book in the trilogy, Last Friends.

This book focuses on three characters. The main point of interest is that we get some of the personal history of Veneering, the love of Betty’s life and Edward’s professional and personal rival (and, much to everyone’s surprise, companion and neighbor in old age). He was the son of a Russian acrobat and survived the war by a stroke of luck and instinct that kept him away from two deadly situations. His life has been full of lucky chances that put him in the right place to find patrons who saw his talent and helped him get an education that led to his successful career.

The other two characters are the “last friends” — those who remain after Betty, Edward, and Terrance are dead. Dulcie lives in the same town where the principal trio spent their final years. And Frederick Fiscal-Smith was a former colleague of Edward and Terrance. These two characters, who were in the Feathers’ wedding, meet again at Edward’s funeral. They weren’t close in the past, but they connect (a bit) in the present, I suppose as the last of a dying generation.

While Old Filth felt like a thorough examination of a life, this book feels like little more than a collection of fragments. Some of those fragments are revealing of the tenuous connections between people and difficulty of really understanding others. And it’s possible that Gardam is tying to get at something about how, when people die, even the stories about them amount to little more than wisps of the truth. No one left really knew Edward, certainly not as well as readers of the previous books do. As new people take over the Feathers and Veneering homes, we see that time marches on. Kind of a depressing thought.

The book, however, isn’t wholly dark. There are some funny moments, especially as Dulcie tries to be kind to Frederick, despite not liking him very much. But on the whole, this book really didn’t amount to much for me. Gardam’s writing is good, but the fragmentary quality of this book, especially in comparison with the depth of Old Filth, kept me from caring all that much about the characters. Too bad that a series that started off so strong fell off so much by the end.

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Alas, Poor Lady

This novel by Rachel Ferguson opens in 1936 at a town bazaar. At the event is a group of elderly men and women, formerly of the upper classes, but now in need and receiving assistance. Among those women is a Miss Scrimgeour, who came into the assistance program with nothing at all. How could this happen? The book tells the story.

The Scrimgeour family was a large one, with seven daughters and — finally — a son. The hope of that final son was, of course, the reason for the many daughters. It’s evident right from the start that to be a woman in this time in this family is a pretty rotten business. For example, as Charlotte Scrimgeour is struggling through yet another birth, the men in her life are quick to mansplain the pain away:

The act of birth was holy, the vicar always assured her, while the doctor, these days, seldom had need to remind her that pain was not to be taken seriously — like colic, for instance — when it was caused by having babies, because birth was a natural function. And men were always right. They knew. Their verdict was more final always than that of a woman.

Charlotte has so internalized these ideas that she doesn’t bother to tell her oldest daughter anything much about marriage and motherhood, so when Gertrude has her own husband and baby, she feels unprepared and betrayed.

The younger daughters are betrayed in other ways. Time, love, and resources are showered on the family’s one son, while the girls must quietly wait for whatever small opportunities come their way. They all come out and have seasons of dances and possible courtship, but only three manage to find husbands. One chooses to join a convent (and this seems almost like an act of both foresight and desperation), and three others remain spinsters.

The Scrimgeour parents give no serious thought to the fate of these three girls. As they grow older and cast about for some purpose — teaching children, starting a business, taking a job — the very idea is treated as preposterous. When Mary, the bookish and sensible daughter, offers to take over the education of Grace, the youngest, because the governess doesn’t seem to be doing a good job, her father sees no good reason to break from the ordinary way of doing things because, he says, “I can’t imagine that any little girl is going to make a tragedy out of insufficient lessons.”

Because Ferguson opened the novel with a glimpse of the future, we know that Captain Scrimgeour is wrong and that at least one of these girls will end up in poverty, and so it’s with a sense of dread that we watch the events unfold. Bad financial decisions, sudden deaths, and sheer irresponsibility leave the daughters without enough to live on. As roles reverse, and the daughters must take over the care of their elderly nurse and mother, it’s obvious that they’re digging a hole that will only get deeper.

The Scrimgeours were born to wealth that they then lost, and I suppose some would scoff at them, especially when they complain about things like estate taxes. But these daughters, especially Mary and Grace, are put in their position by forces almost entirely outside their control, given their time and the way they were raised. It is interesting to see that their nieces are better able to think ahead and plan for themselves. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean they have great wealth, they are able to scrape by when times are tight. If they had different temperaments, they might have been able to fight harder to get some sort of job before things went completely south, but to say that survival must depend on a fighting temperament, especially in a time when women were taught to be anything but, seems unfair. And Mary and Grace show tremendous grit when they have to. (Queenie is a different story, and truly an irritating, but probably realistic, character for her lack of understanding of the situation.)

One question that this book raises deals with the responsibility of caring for the destitute. The Scrimgeour girls are left as they are partly because their mother couldn’t say no to a charitable appeal. Although she wasn’t much interested in helping with a fund for poor gentlewomen because she felt it was their own fault they’d come down in society. Among the next generations, the sisters and nieces who do have money (varying degrees of it) are willing to help their less fortunate sisters, but they also resent having to do it because it seems the need will never end, and they have their own needs to look out for. So it’s complicated. I was furious at the callousness of some of the sisters, yet I could understand their position, especially if they were just hanging on.

The book, overall, also shows what a grind poverty can be. Every decision requires calculation. Going to visit a family member at Christmas will mean free food for several days, but there’s the cost of transportation to consider. And the presents will need to be nicer if they’ll be opened in front of you. However, being able to buy a present at all, even a cheap one, feels like a gift. When living in one room with limited food and no entertainment, the daily newspaper becomes a treasured luxury to savor, reading even the political sections that would normally be a bore. Charitable donations tend to include hats but not stockings, so the ladies at employment agencies looking for work might look nice up top, but not down below. It’s a lot, and Ferguson captures it in grueling detail.

There’s more that I could say about this book. I thought it was an utterly absorbing scream at the world for better treatment and care for those who are left behind, for seeing the problems that are so often invisible. Although the book is specifically about Edwardian women, so much about the invisibility of poverty and the work of living while poor are still relevant. And the end of the book is both lovely and sad.

This is another excellent book from Persephone. I’m always impressed at how so many of these pretty little grey books tell such hard stories.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 5 Comments

Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant

When I first saw the trailer for the movie Victoria and Abdul last year, I’ll admit that I rolled my eyes a little. It looked too cutesy, and perhaps too guilty of romanticizing British colonialism. But when I heard that there was a book about the true story behind the movie, I was intrigued.

Shrabani Basu’s book about Abdul Karim and his work as “Munshi” (teacher or clerk) to Queen Victoria is a straightforward account of a relationship that was central to the final years of the queen’s life. Karim came to Britain in 1887, one of a pair of Indian servants presented to the queen as part of her Golden Jubilee celebration. It didn’t take long for them to form a friendship, with Karim preparing curries for the queen, telling her stories of India, and teaching her Urdu. His status rose once the queen realized that he hadn’t been brought up in service, and he spent time with her daily, as advisor and teacher.

It’s probably no surprise that the queen’s household viewed Karim with suspicion. Part of the problem was, no doubt, their racism. But Karim’s own countrymen also complained of Karim’s influence, likely because they were jealous of his status. The fact that Karim was Muslim also created complications, as he was suspected of urging the queen to take the Muslims’ side in their conflict with the Hindus in India.

To tell the story, Basu draws heavily on letters and diary entries by the queen, Karim, members of the royal household, and government officials. These documents show clearly how strong the queen’s affection for Karim was and how ardently she worked on his behalf, whether that meant making sure he would have some land on her death and ensuring that he was given respect within the household. In general, Basu relies more on these documents than on her own speculation, although there are moments when she describes incidents and emotions that could not actually be known.

The reliance on actual documents and lack of speculation is both a strength and a weakness. I always appreciate the use of primary sources, and the excerpts Basu uses are well-chosen and build her case well. But sometimes it seems a little too straightforward. There are allusions, for instance, to Karim’s ambition, that are never strongly pursued, even though the bare outline of the story makes his ambition clear. Yet the focus is always on the mutual affection between the queen and her munshi. From the documentation, that affection seems genuine, but Basu shows little interest in other angles on the relationship, seemingly dismissing them as rooted in racism and jealousy—both of which are most definitely present. I would have appreciated more context on matters like the conflict between Muslims and Hindus and why the queen’s household would be so rattled by Karim’s possible advocacy for the Muslims.

Overall, though, this was a good straightforward, accounting of a little-known story. It’s not very long, and it takes both its principal subjects seriously without attempting to draw big, grand conclusions about colonialism and race and the British empire. It just tells a story of two people forming a relationship under unusual circumstances.

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The Outsider

outsiderDoes anyone remember that in 2002, Stephen King announced his retirement? Let’s just pause to think about that for a second. Even if you assume that From a Buick 8 and the Dark Tower books were already in the pipeline at that point and don’t count them, he’s written 17 books since that time. Seventeen! I mean, dude barely even slowed his roll. And several of those books are as good as anything he’s done. Glad he didn’t take retirement seriously, is I guess what I’m saying.

The Outsider starts with the fuel of nightmares — and I mean non-supernatural nightmares, the kind of thing you could feel nervous about even if the worst thing you watch is CSI or Law and Order. A child has been murdered in Flint City, in the worst, most horrible, most brutal possible way, and the police know who did it: Terry Maitland, a well-known and beloved Little League coach. And when I say they know, they know: they have fingerprints everywhere, DNA, semen samples, footprints, tire prints, eyewitnesses who saw him put the kid in the Econoline van, the works. It is an absolutely slam-dunk case. So they make a huge public arrest at the ball park, in front of all Terry’s family, friends, and the kids he coaches. But then… it turns out that Terry has a totally iron-clad alibi. Not only was he out of town at the time of the murder, he was with colleagues the entire time, and he was even captured on video. He had to have done it. But he could not have done it.

Ralph Anderson, the detective on the case, is that satisfying thing, a good cop. He regrets the mistake of arresting Terry so publicly, and he understands that there’s something weird going on. When Terry’s lawyer wants to bring in outside help in the form of Holly Gibney (an excellent character from King’s earlier Mr. Mercedes series), he agrees. But when she suggests that the something weird is actually what she calls an “outsider,” someone who can take on the likeness, DNA, and even memories of another person in order to kill children, he comes to a screeching halt. “That’s like believing in Santa Claus,” he says. (Funny kind of Santa Claus your parents told you about, my dude.)

This is one of Stephen King’s scariest books he’s recently written. It’s scary on both the non-supernatural level (what if you were accused of a slam-dunk crime you didn’t commit? How quickly would your town turn into a mob?) and the supernatural level (shape-shifting child-killing boogeyman, uuuuggggh.) The action is nonstop. There are several unexpected twists. The characters are terrific and engaging.

One thing I appreciated about this novel is that it plays with the Portuguese/ Latin American legend of El Cuco, which is essentially a boogeyman who eats children, and with las luchadoras, heroines who hunt him down. King doesn’t try to appropriate these myths. He knows he’s an outsider to them, and he signposts that in the book. But his deep interest and appreciation (and fear!) make this a really interesting novel. I liked having some culture in there that was small-town, which King does well, but not Maine.

A big theme of the novel is skepticism. As I said, Ralph Anderson simply isn’t willing to believe that there’s a supernatural explanation for what’s been going on in Flint City. He thinks there simply has to be a rational explanation for it, because the rational is all there is. Holly Gibney has had certain experiences that incline her to be a little more open, and she knows that beings like the Outsider get away with literal murder because people won’t believe what’s going on in front of their eyes. (It’s all a little bit X-Files, but since I love the X-Files, that’s not a bad thing.) Holly asks Ralph — and by extension asks us — if it were a question of life and death, would you believe something like this?

In any case, I definitely recommend this book if this is the sort of thing you enjoy. It was fast-paced, exciting, fun to read, and satisfying. Hail to the non-retired retiree.

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Daughters of the North/The Carhullan Army

A woman, who now goes by the name Sister, once lived in the town of Rith in northern England, but she escaped with a rucksack full of supplies and a working gun. Her goal was to find the Carhullan, a community of women who lived outside the government’s purview. Environmental catastrophe had led the government to impose strict regulations on everyone, especially women. People were moved into cities, where they were assigned often-pointless jobs, and women were forced to get IUDs so they won’t get pregnant. Sister’s husband doesn’t seem to mind so much, but Sister has had enough. And so she leaves.

At Carhullan, Sister finds a different kind of life, although it is no less regimented than that in Risk. In some respects, it is more regimented. Still, it is a chosen life, and that makes a lot of difference. As time passes, however the community comes to reconsider its relationship with the outside world and the Authority that governs it. How long will they be left to themselves? How can they defend their world? When is the right time to act? And how?

In this 2007 novel, Sarah Hall explores questions that I imagine are on a lot of people’s minds today. At what point are the most radical options—the ones totally outside our comfort zones—the best choice, the most moral choice? And how can a community make those choices together? What if those choices affect others outside the community? And how do we balance our own freedom with the needs of the wider world?

These questions aren’t considered in long, philosophical discussions, although the women of Carhullan discuss and debate every action. The fact that this is a community of women changes some of the power dynamics, but it doesn’t remove them. It’s more that, without men, all of these women are able to exercise their full power, for good or for ill. The group’s leader, Jackie, is as unsettlingly inspiring as any male leader I’ve encountered in a story of this type. I admired her and was repelled by her all at once.

And what these women go through in the name of resistance is unsettling. They live a harsh life, in almost every respect. Yes, they have camaraderie, and they have choice (up to a point), but nothing is easy. And when they begin planning for their next steps, life gets even harder. Freedom comes with a cost, and not just a physical one, but perhaps also a moral one.

I found this book extremely disturbing, but in a good way. I liked that it doesn’t flinch at the difficulties, and I appreciated that there is nuance in the presentation. At the end of the book, we’re left to wonder whether Jackie’s plan was the right one. I don’t know what I think, and I’m sure to be pondering the question for some time.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 6 Comments

Thus Bad Begins

thus bad beginsI was at the library a couple of weeks ago and ran across this book — and a few others — by Javier Marías. “Spain’s premier novelist,” it said, and I discovered that he’s written about seventeen novels, only one of which (Your Face Tomorrow) I’d ever heard of. So I picked this one off the shelf, described on the book jacket as a literary thriller, and dove in — after all, if it was wonderful, I’d have sixteen more!

The book portrays what I’d kind of like to describe as the opposite of a love triangle. A hate triangle? A contempt triangle? The narrator is a young man, Juan de Vere, working as an assistant for Eduardo Muriel, a Spanish film director. His work often brings him into Muriel’s home, and he discovers that Muriel treats his wife, Beatriz Noguera, with contempt and cruelty, verbally abusing her and rejecting her timid offers of reconciliation. Juan doesn’t have any idea why the couple has split with so much vitriol on Muriel’s part, and finds himself sympathizing with Beatriz — and attracted to her, despite the shocking twenty-year age difference. (Eyeroll.)

Then, Muriel asks Juan to investigate something for him. He’s heard that one of his closest friends, a doctor Van Vechten, might have done something really awful, and he wants Juan to find out if it’s true. But he won’t tell Juan any details. Was it something horrible under the Franco regime (whose shadow is over the entire novel)? Was it something personal against Muriel? Was it something about Beatriz? What? All Muriel will say is that it was something vile, something very low, and that he wants to know the truth of the matter. So Juan, his curiosity sparked, begins to poke around, and long-buried history and relationships begin to rise out of the ashes.

I really, really did not like this book at all. For one thing, it was far too long — over 500 pages — and so much of it was just bloviating on about nothing. There were long, long paragraphs full of platitudes and supposedly-deep thoughts that I found almost insanely irritating. The title comes from Shakespeare, and it was readily apparent that the author thought he was incredibly clever for quoting Shakespeare; that reference must have come up about twenty times. Hello, we get it, it’s Hamlet, ghosts arising from the past, thank you, please move on. And the repetition didn’t stop there! There were many, many other phrases and pieces of the book that circled around and around and really could have been cut. The parts about the Franco regime could have been interesting — how does a country deal with a dictatorship after the dictatorship is gone? — but they honestly just drowned in all the terrible bits.

For another thing, Beatriz is only an object in this book. I kept waiting and waiting for her to become an actual character, and she never does. This was simply infuriating. Muriel makes a big deal about how fat she has become, and the narrator earnestly assures us that no! She’s not fat at all! She’s actually very firm and ripe and attractive! Oh my GOD shut up — and that’s not even the worst of it, which I won’t get into so you don’t have to share my pain. She never has her own voice or point of view, unlike all the millions of men in the novel, and then of course the only recourse for her is to kill herself because how else can she express herself? There is so much male gaze in this book that it was like those sheets of googly eye stickers. Ugh.

You’re probably wondering why I finished the book. So am I! I suppose I was wondering what Van Vechten did that was so terrible (by the end, it was an anticlimax, or at least not really a surprise.) I guess I can cross the other sixteen books off my list, huh?

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Version Control

version controlThis is a book of science fiction unlike pretty much any other I’ve read. The science fiction piece revolves around a causality violation device (it’s not a time machine!) and about the consequences of using it or not using it, but the book isn’t really about that. Like all the best science fiction, this book is about people: it’s about what makes us human instead of collections of data points, it’s about loss and grief, about friendship and love, about tragedy and addiction, about race and gender, about ideas and machines and science and what it means to go through the long and sometimes very tedious work of combining them. It’s a long book, and I loved the entire thing, in this best of all possible worlds.

The novel begins by tracing the relationship of Philip Steiner, a physicist working on the causality violation device, and his wife, Rebecca Wright, who has a part-time job working for Lovability, an online matchmaking service. The couple is recovering from a terrible tragedy, and Rebecca (who has recently stopped drinking) has an uneasy feeling that the world is wrong, somehow; that nothing is quite what it should be.

The whole first part of the book could feel like set-up if you were waiting for a big science-action-thriller-y plot. I didn’t find it slow or frustrating, however, since I was completely caught up in reading about these people. They live in a world that’s just slightly in our future: self-driving cars are the norm; the President can appear on our screens any time he likes, thanks to advanced AI; department stores can take your metrics and send you home with a custom-fitted garment (supposedly, anyway.) But the conveniences and fads haven’t taken away any of the insecurity, the sorrow, the need to connect, or the need to make sense of a world that often seems upside-down. We still have to do that ourselves.

The people in this book talk a lot. They have conversations about big ideas: science, God, time travel, what it means to be a human being, ambition, grief, love, race. I’ve read a couple of reviews that seem to think this isn’t realistic. I guess it depends on your friends, because I do this all the time? I mean, I also have conversations about TV and what I’m going to have for dinner and what my kids are up to lately and how I don’t understand jazz, but big-idea conversations don’t seem unrealistic to me at all. I usually have three or four a day. I loved this about this book; it gave meat to the bones and let me understand the characters. I didn’t think it was ever heavy-handed or a way to let the author monologue — it just felt like part of the weave of the novel. It made me purely happy to read it.

When big events finally happen in the novel, part of the pleasure is seeing what changes and what doesn’t change. Is it a second chance? Is it really? Are we actually living in the best of all possible worlds? If we weren’t, would we know? The science — the long process of trial and failure and trial again — is a way of being in the world that can eventually lead us to acts we never thought possible.

I thought this was an absolutely wonderful novel: engaging, fascinating, full of new, bright ideas as a riverbed is of stones. I wanted even more of it when I was finished. I am thoroughly looking forward to seeing more from this author.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 7 Comments

Norma

When Norma’s mother, Anita, dies by falling in front of a Metro train, Norma is left with a mystery. Did she slip? Did she jump? Was she pushed? And why? And who is the mysterious man who turned up at the funeral?

Meanwhile, Marion and Alvar, owners of the hair salon where she worked are in a panic. Anita had connections that allowed her to provide the salon with a constant supply of high-quality “Ukranian” hair to use for extensions, and the customers loved it. How will they get by without it?

Marion and Alvar, by the way, are the children of Helena, Anita’s closest friend. Helena has been hospitalized for mental illness for many years, and Anita was a frequent visitor.

Also, Norma has magic hair.

So there’s a lot going on in this novel by Sofi Oksansen, translated from the Finnish by Owen F. Witesman. And all of these threads hold some interest. But the book as a whole didn’t come together for me.

As for what I liked, I really loved Norma’s hair. It grows rapidly, reacts to others’ moods, and enables Norma to sense whether others are telling the truth. It’s described well and creates a near-constant source of tension in the book, as Norma tries to hide what her hair can do, a fact that needs to be secret not just because it makes her odd, but also because it could make her a commodity.

And the idea of women as commodities turns out to be a important piece of the story, as Norma digs into her mother’s last days and uncovers an underground surrogacy network. The hair market, it turns out, is an avenue into places where there are vulnerable women whose bodies can be used for others, whether they’re willing or not. It’s a dark piece of the story, and all of that ties in thematically. And I enjoyed when Norma is reading her mother’s journals and piecing it all together.

The problem is that it never does quite come together. The connections between the hair salon and the surrogates becomes pretty muddy, and the whole storyline involving Marion and Alvar, each with their own motives, trying to navigate that network is never as interesting as that of Norma trying to uncover her mother’s secrets. (It probably didn’t help that there’s a Marion and a Margit, and a Lambert and a a Lassi, and an Alvar and an Alla and an Elli and an Eva. It’s a petty complaint, but all these similar names added to my confusion and frustration.)

I was interested enough to read the book through to the end, partially in hopes that it would come together more fully in the end. It does come together, but I didn’t find it especially satisfying, especially in that Norma makes a choice that seems to come our of nowhere and sends her story in a whole new direction that never gets a chance to play itself out.

I’ve heard good things about Okansen’s earlier novel, Purge, so I may give it a try someday. Anyone read it?

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The Cooking Gene

Subtitled “A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South,” this book by Michael Twitty is part memoir and part history in which Twitty traces his own genetic heritage through food. Born in Washington, DC, Twitty shunned the greens and cornbread of his childhood home in favor of fast food, but as he got older, he became interested in his culinary heritage and learned to cook not just the food of his childhood but the food of his ancestors, using their methods.

I wanted to read this because I grew up in the rural South, and so my own food heritage owes a debt to the ingenuity of the cooks brought in chains from Africa. I wanted to learn more about them so that I could give credit where credit is due. These cooks brought their skills to America, adapted them to the ingredients found here as well as those imported from Africa, and created their own cuisine, sometimes drawing on techniques used by the Native people who cooked here for centuries before them. Besides greens and cornbread, there was rice, barbecue, sweet potatoes, peanuts, persimmons, and bream. As they were brought further inland and further south, they continued adapting their skills to new environments, creating cuisine to serve inside the plantation home (sometimes, like James Hemings of Monticello, drawing on European training) and to their own families as they were able. There’s no single story of Southern cuisine, as the enslaved cooks used what they had, and what they had varied by place and time. But Twitty is able to trace some of the common threads and see how certain foods made their way through the South. He doesn’t dig very deeply into techniques and flavors; this is more of a chronicle of influences, as cooks and their cuisines move through the continent.

Twitty also explores his own genetic history, getting tested by multiple companies to see whether and how well his genes match up with family lore. In doing so, he learns more about where in Africa his family came from and confirms that he has white ancestors as well as black. He visits grave sites and plantation homes and grapples with what his particular story means and how it fits with the larger story of history. I was interested to see that he claims not just his Asante and Igbo roots, but also his Irish ones, although his perspective on each differs, of course. He’s clear-eyed about where he comes from and approaches his story with curiosity but not without judgment where it is warranted. See, for example, his recent blog post about his white confederate ancestor, whose home he visits in this book.

The book is packed with information, and at times I found it rather too dense and not always easy to follow. The links between sections and the book’s internal logic weren’t always clear, especially early on when it seems to meander from subject to subject. The mix of memoir and informational text didn’t always work for me, although I could appreciate why Twitty wanted to take this approach. Food is a highly personal thing, and Twitty uses food to understand his history, so it’s natural that his history will become part of the book. However, I felt like there were a lot of gaps in Twitty’s story that make the memoir portions feel incomplete. For example, I never really got a handle on when and how he started studying culinary history. I would have liked more on that and less on the genetic testing—the genetic piece of his story is important, but there was more detail than I wanted.

Still, I was glad to have read this book, and I’m very glad that it exists and is getting so much attention. It’s essential that we learn more about the people who built our country and whose histories have been too easily erased.

Posted in Food, History, Nonfiction | 3 Comments