belindaMaria Edgeworth is perhaps best known to readers today as one of the authors who influenced Jane Austen. Belinda is mentioned in Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and fans of Pride and Prejudice may well recognize a bit of Elizabeth Bennett in Edgeworth’s earlier heroine’s response to an unsuitable proposal of marriage. In this case, Belinda is refusing the hand of Sir Philip Baddely, and Baddely demands an explanation:

“My objections,” said Belinda, cannot be obviated, and therefore it would be useless to state them.”

“Nay, pray, ma’am, do me the favour—I only ask for information sake—is it to Sir Philip Baddely’s fortune, 15,000l a year, you object, or to his family, or to his person?—Oh, curse it!” said he, changing his tone. “you’re only quizzing me to see how I should look—damn me, you did it too well, you little coquet.”

Belinda again assured him that she was entirely in earnest, and that she was incapable of the sort of coquetry which he ascribed to her.

Belinda Portman is indeed no coquette, although she lives with a fashionable lady known for her flirtatious ways. Having agreed to take Belinda in to expose her to society (and potential husbands), Lady Delacour proves to be both friend and foe to Belinda, one day trusting her with her most closely held secret and another day becoming convinced that Belinda intends to steal her own husband away.

Some readers will consider Lady Delacour the more fascinating of the novel’s leading ladies. She’s certainly led a more exciting life—she was even in a duel! But her scandalous behavior has done her no long-term good. An injury incurred from the duel has affected her health, her husband is a drunk who she rarely sees, and she is estranged from her daughter. Lady Delacour has fun, but it’s all that she has.

Belinda, on the other hand, is a quiet woman, strongly attached to her principles without preaching about them. She attends parties with Lady Delacour, sometimes even participating in a quiet way with Lady Delacour’s mischief, but she sees her participation as an act of kindness and affection toward Lady Delacour, rather than a source of pleasure for herself. And as the novel goes on, she looks for ways to bring about a more permanent state of happiness for the Delacours than what they find through dancing and drinking.

One of Belinda’s central beliefs is that she herself will only marry for love. Money is not enough, nor is respectability. She is open about this principle, but less open about where her affections lie. In part, that’s because it’s not clear whether the object of her love is worthy—and he has his own misgivings about her. The misunderstandings among the characters do get tedious after a while. Still, I was pleased with how Edgeworth cleverly holds back on revealing the secrets of two of Belinda’s most appealing suitors, to the point that I wasn’t sure who Belinda would choose in the end.

I might have enjoyed Belinda a little more if it had been a little shorter—fewer misunderstandings to resolve—but I still found it worth reading. And the final pages, in which Edgeworth shows that she’s fully aware of just how silly her story became, made me laugh. This book was a lot of fun, and I’m glad to have read it.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 17 Comments

As We Are Now

As We Are NowAt the end of this short novel by May Sarton, I knew a few things about Caroline Spencer’s time at the Twin Elms rest home. I knew that Caro was miserable there. I knew the care she and other residents received was substandard. But the details of her poor care? Those are fuzzy.

Caro, a 76-year-old retired schoolteacher,  reveals right at the start that she might not be the most reliable narrator:

I am forcing myself to get everything clear in my mind by writing it down so I know where I am at. There is no reality now except what I can sustain inside me. My memory is failing. I have to hang onto every scrap of information I have to keep my sanity, and it is for that purpose that I am keeping a journal. Then if I forget things later, I can always go back and read them here.

In this journal, Caro documents the rough treatment she and other residents receive at Twin Elms, which she calls “a concentration camp for the old.” She has no privacy, few options for entertainment, and hardly anyone to talk to. The food is terrible and the rooms dirty. Her letters are read by the staff before they’re sent, and she wonders whether some that sent to her are withheld. She knows some of her visitors have been turned away.

Even though Caroline admits her mind is failing, the kind of abuse she documents seems so tragically likely that it’s easy to believe her. And when some kind visitors intervene, we receive substantiation that the care is poor. And yet…

Caroline Spencer is a snobby woman, left in the company and care of people she believes are beneath her. She was brought there partly because her snobbery made her sister-in-law miserable. If the only reality she has is in her own mind, how real are the reflections in her journal?

I admit that I am the sort of reader who sees unreliable narrators everywhere. It was not until nearly the end of this book that I really started to doubt Caro’s account. One little contradiction, an accusation that is clearly false, and her whole story was cast into doubt. But should it have been? Would getting one detail wrong, forgetting one fact, make the whole story false? Of course not. But it does show how faulty memory is and how easy it could be to take advantage of someone whose mind is going.

Regardless of which details in Caro’s account are true, her story reveals just how much impact small cruelties—and small kindnesses—can have on a vulnerable person. Rough handling while having your hair washed can feel like torture, not just because it’s painful but because of the indignity of not being able to do it yourself. And a gentle touch and a flower on a breakfast tray become sources of great comfort, so much so that the person who makes these small gestures can become a shining beacon of hope.

This story plays on so many fears about aging and what it’s like to lose control of your body and mind. Caro is a victim of so many forces, and there’s no good way to fight back. She has moments of triumph against all her enemies, but there’s no way for her to achieve a lasting victory, at least not one that would look like victory to most people. But Caro is a woman who fights, and that’s just what she does. Her way may not be sane, but when you’re in her mind, seeing what she sees and feeling what she feels, it makes sense. It feels like a victory.

This the first novel by May Sarton that I’ve read (recommended to me by Thomas), and I loved it. I have her final novel The Education of Harriet Hatfield on my shelf already. (Harriet Hatfield is the name of the cruel caregiver in this novel. Is it the same woman? The plots don’t seem connected, based on the description.) I’m sure I’ll read more and welcome suggestions!

Posted in Fiction | 12 Comments

The Deliverance

DeliveranceI wish I could remember where I heard of this book. I suspect that I saw a blog post or article somewhere about its author, Ellen Glasgow, and decided to try this book because of its subtitle, “A Romance of the Virginia Tobacco Fields.” I grew up in the Virginia tobacco fields, and I can’t recall any books written about them. The tobacco fields figure prominently in this 1904 novel, set just after the Civil War. It’s a time of great change in Virginia, as the old economic system, built on slavery, has been dismantled.

The novel focuses on the change of fortune experienced by the Blake family who owned Blake Manor for 200 years, but lost it to their former overseer, Bill Fletcher. The rumor is that Fletcher had been cheating the family for years, amassing the money that enabled him to buy the estate when the Blakes fell on hard times. In a complete reversal, the Blakes live in the former Fletcher home, where Christopher Blake plots revenge against the Fletchers.

Revenge plots are tough for me to take sometimes. It’s too common for them to be all about the satisfaction of seeing bad people get what they deserve, even through nefarious means. A good revenge plot needs to show some awareness of the evil behind the impulse to take revenge. It’s clear almost from the start the Christopher doesn’t have the mettle for revenge. In a comic sequence of events, he even ends up saving the lives of both Fletcher children. He can’t help himself when he sees someone in distress. But these failures don’t set him off his course. He still wants to see Bill Fletcher suffer, and so he looks for his weak point, his son, Will.

Bill Fletcher wants his son to grow up to be a great, educated man, to rise above his class and usher the Fletchers into a new status. But Will is bored with schoolwork and easily drawn by Christopher into secret hunting trips and to his first taste of alcohol. Those early adventures ruin him for the kind of life his father has in mind, and Christopher is always there to help him escape. Christopher acts without consideration for Will’s best interest, wanting only to see his father suffer from the rejection, and so Will continues to spiral downward.

Meanwhile, others in Christopher’s family are trying to avoid their own downward spiral. In one ridiculous plot thread, the family manages to keep their aging and blind mother both literally and figuratively in the dark about the abolition of slavery and their move out of the manor. This deception goes on for more than 15 years! It’s so audacious that I have to respect it even though I can scarcely believe it. The family also longs to see the youngest daughter, Lila, advantageously married. The eldest daughter, Cynthia, has thrown herself into doing the housework so that Lila can remain the pristine southern lady she would have been a generation before. Lila, however, has her own ideas about how things should be.

One of the things I appreciated about this book is how accepting many of the characters are about change and how the best, most admirable characters aren’t bogged down by nostalgia. The novel is not exactly condemnatory about the South’s past as a world built on slavery, but it doesn’t come across as a story that wishes for that past to return. The characters who thrive are those who see their circumstances clearly and are able to forge a new path for themselves, maybe even crossing boundaries that the old system would have kept in place.

The novel concerns itself primarily with the white people of the region, and Glasgow allows readers to get some small sense of the layers of social classes among whites of the time, often using dialect to indicate class. But her depiction of the black characters, mostly people formerly enslaved by the Blake family, is of its time, which is to say it’s not great. They exist mostly on the fringes of the story, as servants or plot devices. Plus, their dialect is nearly incomprehensible—I had to read a lot of it out loud to get a handle on it. Mostly, though, the novel just isn’t interested in their story.

I think the story’s real concerns are about how to make progress, both as a society and as individuals. Focusing on the wrongs and injustices—especially those you can’t correct—will do no good. It’s better to endure and hope. Late in the novel, Maria Fletcher, daughter of Bill reflects on her suffering:

“I went down into hell,” she said passionately, “and I came out—clean. I saw evil such as I had never heard of; I went close to it, I even touched it, but I always kept my soul very far away, and I was like a person in a dream. The more I saw of sin and ugliness the more I dreamed of peace and beauty. I builded me my own refuge, I fed on my own strength day and night—“

Maria’s way is the one the book ultimately endorses. The way of resentment and revenge leads only to misery. Looking for beauty is the way forward. Perhaps because Maria dreamed so much of peace, she was better able to enjoy—and even create—peace when the opportunity arose.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 4 Comments

A Fatal Grace

fatal graceI mentioned right around Thanksgiving that I’d read the first in Louise Penny’s series of mysteries about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, and the village of Three Pines in Quebec. That it took me only two months to read the next one (and not two years — sorry, Angela Thirkell) is practically a miracle. Still, I’m both glad and sorry. Glad, because A Fatal Grace was a terrific, satisfying mystery, well-written and well-constructed, human and compassionate. And sorry, because now I have only eight left to read in the series.

CC de Poitiers is a bitter, venomous woman. She makes life hell for everyone around her: her weak, ineffectual husband Richard, her miserable teenaged daughter Crie, her self-loathing lover Saul. Perhaps you wouldn’t peg such a person to be the head of a self-help empire? Meet the concept of Li Bien, which CC invented: a sort of insipid yoga-karma-color-balance idea she plans to spin into books, home goods, and studios across Quebec. Until, of course, she is murdered: electrocuted during the most exciting moment of an annual curling match at Three Pines. Enter, of course, the Chief Inspector.

One of the great pleasures of a series is that you get to meet characters more than once and watch the way they grow. Three Pines is small, and it could feel absurd to have more than one murder there. Instead, Penny creates characters who are complex, deep, and rich. After meeting the cast twice now, I still don’t feel I know their stories completely, and I feel they will continue to develop. This means that anything could take place in this village: friendship, marriage, working relationships, adultery, parent-child relationships, gossip, loneliness, mercy, resentment, joy. Murder is just one possible outcome.

One thing I think is interesting about this series so far is that it doesn’t pose Gamache as perfect. Certainly he is, and deserves to be, the hero rather than the anti-hero: he’s intelligent, gentle, compassionate, and observant. He’s also whatever the opposite of “gritty” is (smooth?), with his love for his wife, his appreciation for good food and wine, and his good working relationships. There is, however, a recurring notion that he is not immune to mistakes. He can misjudge others’ motives; he is sometimes impulsive; he can give a second or third chance where none is really warranted. What keeps him solidly in hero territory is that he always admits his lapses in judgment, looks for help, and tries again. This is so rare (in real life as in fiction) that it is a bit like observing someone from another planet, but it’s incredibly endearing.

This novel was slightly less compelling than Penny’s first, possibly because the victim was an outsider to Three Pines and someone no one really liked, unlike the victim in the first novel. But it was still amazingly good. I am eagerly looking forward to reading The Cruelest Month, and increasing my acquaintance with this excellent series.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 2 Comments

Tenth of December

Tenth of DecemberOne of the things I’ve come to appreciate about short stories is the way they give authors room to play with an idea without having to fully flesh it out or offer a full-fledged plot. Sometimes just a glimpse of an idea and how it might play out is enough. A lot of the stories in Diane Cook’s Man v Nature are like that. Short stories also offer a playground for form. Authors can work in voices and formats that might be tedious in a novel but are fun for a few pages. Jon McGregor does this kind of thing extremely well in This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You.

George Saunders’s short stories in Tenth of December also demonstrate the potential for the form as a sandbox to mess around in. What if we could develop drugs that control all our feelings? What would happen if people could buy immigrants for decoration? What’s really going on in that person’s head? The stories, several of which Jenny describes and quotes from in her review, are set in a world much like our own. Some are set a bit in the future, with new technologies presenting variations on present-day anxieties. Many are set in his protagonists’ heads, where we see how their worries and delusions push them or action or leave them paralyzed.

Often, Saunders plays with language, presenting the inner monologue of a teenager or the fragmentary diary of a middle-class dad trying to keep his family happy. In two of the stories, people take drugs to enhance their language, and you can see it kick in and wear off as they tell their stories. This is particularly hilarious when the drug to help a man employed as a knight in an amusement park improvise the appropriate patter is still in his system as he has an altercation with his employer:

Security, being then summoned by Don Murray, didst arrive and, making much of the Opportunity, had Good Sport of me, delivering me many harsh Blows to my Head & Body. And Wrested me from that Place, and Shoved me into the Street, kicking much Dirt upon my Person, and rip’d my Time card to Bits before mine Eyes, and sent it fluttering Aloft, amidst much cruel Laughter at my Expense, especially viz. my Feathered Hat, one Feather of which they had Sore Bent.

In a story about a veteran returned from war, the statements “Thank you for your service” becomes a darkly comic refrain. Ideas like these would be too much for a full novel, but for stories they’re perfect. I wouldn’t want to miss out on this kind of cleverness just because it doesn’t fill a novel. Saunders knows just how to use the form to his advantage, and I recommend this collection to anyone who wants to see how its done—and who doesn’t mind more than a little weirdness.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction, Short Stories/Essays, Speculative Fiction | 8 Comments

From Heaven Lake

from heaven lakeVikram Seth is one of my favorite authors. I’ve read all of his novels, even the one written in verse (and am looking forward to A Suitable Girl, coming out in 2016, ya-hey!) I’ve read his biography of his great-aunt and -uncle, Two Lives, and I’ve read some (not enough) of his poetry, including his translation of Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu, Three Chinese Poets.  From Heaven Lake is still a different genre, and one of my favorites: a travelogue. In 1981, Seth was a 29-year-old student at Nanjing University. China was just on the cusp of relaxing some of its rules towards foreign visitors, but at that point Seth still needed police permission for travel even to major cities, let alone his real and more sensitive goal: Lhasa, in Tibet.

Seth is originally traveling with a conducted tour of students like himself, but he tires of it quickly. “I do not think that I will be able to tolerate the limitations of group travel much longer,” he says. “I have already committed myself at Turfan, but at Urumqi I will simply refuse to be shown the sights. Seeing fewer monuments will not distress me.”

Instead, Seth makes an effort to get the coveted Tibet exit stamp in his travel visa, so he can make a circuitous route through China, Tibet, and Nepal and back to his home in India overland. The way he succeeds in getting that exit stamp (singing Hindi movie songs in the public square, to the total delight of the people of Turfan) is as unique, as charming, as interesting, and as adventurous as the rest of this book.

Once Seth leaves his group, his impatience disappears. He finds everything interesting, from the (literally) breathtaking landscape in the high mountains, to the people who help him, to the customs surrounding hitchhiking, to the folk songs and nursery rhymes he’s never heard in other languages. (At this point, he relates a long dream he had, about a 26-week intensive program of study for beginners in Chinese, where each week would represent a year in a Chinese person’s life. So the first week, students would be wheeled around in prams, babbling and gurgling, and eventually be taught to use chopsticks and recite to Party dignitaries. I howled.)

When the truck he’s riding with is repeatedly stuck owing to flooding, Seth doesn’t complain, even though he’s wet and freezing and suffering from altitude sickness. Instead, he talks with the good-natured driver, Sui, and looks for more information about his surroundings. He eats everything he’s offered; he gives and accepts small gifts like cigarettes and bread; he remarks over and over again on the basic kindness he sees everywhere.

Eventually, Seth reaches his destination, Lhasa, and from there back to his home in New Delhi. Along the way, Chinese officials examine his paperwork (an Indian national… who is a Stanford exchange student… from Nanjing University…?) Some are officious, and some are so kind that they bring tears to Seth’s eyes. In this travelogue, we hear his thoughts on economics, politics, and religion — but most of all, we hear about the poetry of the world: beauty, history, food, the wealth of being a human being. The legacy of policy is people.

This memoir is thirty years old, but it feels as fresh as the day it was written. I couldn’t recommend it more highly, and if you’ve never read anything by Vikram Seth, this is a lovely place to start. He is a person delighted with the work of being a person.

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction, Travel/ Exploration | 1 Comment

The Family From One End Street

familyMy husband and I take turns reading aloud to our kids (now ages 9 and 7) in the evenings. One of us will choose a book and read through it chapter by chapter, while the other does the dishes; when that book is finished, the other parent gets to choose a book, and the first parent does the dishes for a while. I just finished The Hobbit — it had been years since I’d read it myself — and now it’s Dave’s turn.

Dave didn’t read much when he was a kid. No one really guided his reading or showed him things he might like. So — in a reversal of our usual roles — he is usually the one to choose recently-published books and series (like Tony DiTerlizzi’s Wondla books and Lemony Snicket), whereas I am usually the one to choose classics: Oz and The Hundred Dresses and the Little House and The Wind in the Willows and Narnia.

Sometimes, though, I get to do something that feels both new and old. A couple of years ago, when I reviewed The Wild Angel by E.C. Spykman (read it!), biblioglobal recommended The Family From One End Street (1939) by Eve Garnett. I’d never heard of it, but I love good family stories, so I put it on my list.

The Ruggles family live at No. 1 One End Street in Otwell-on-the-Ouse. Their mother is a Washerwoman and their father is a Dustman, and there are seven children.

The neighbours pitied Jo and Rosie for having such a large family, and called it “Victorian”; but the Dustman and his wife were proud of their numerous girls and boys, all-growing-up-fine-and-strong-one-behind-the-other-like-steps-in-a-ladder-and-able-to-wear-each-others-clothes-right-down-to-the-baby, so that really it was only two sets, girl and boy, summer and winter, Mrs. Ruggles had to buy, except Boots.

The book is a wonderful, crammed-full, meandering affair, exactly like the prose you just read. Each chapter follows the adventure of one of the children (if adventure it can really be called; it’s more like day-in-the-life, but life is very full in a large family at One End Street.) Lily Rose tries to help her mother with the ironing, but the iron is too hot, and the artificial-silk petticoat shrinks to doll’s size. The calamity is enormous: how will they pay to replace it? But in this, as in every other chapter, disaster is averted, and Lily Rose goes home with nothing worse than her mother’s scolding and a slice of cake. And so it goes: Kate takes a scholarship but loses her school hat, and demonstrates intelligence and resourcefulness getting another; the twins James and John have day-long adventures for a secret society; the whole family has a Day Out to London. Every moment is both suspenseful and gloriously ordinary.

I have a colleague who is writing an article about the representation of poverty in children’s books. This is a perfect example. This family is living on the very edge of respectability, keeping everyone fed and clothed. Sixpences matter dreadfully. When Kate gets her scholarship, and it pays for tuition but not the uniform, it’s clear she won’t be able to go to school at all, because she’s required to have things like a tennis-racket and shoe bags. But there’s no misery here. Frustration, sometimes; longing for a trip to see family, certainly; sharp reminders of necessity, in almost every chapter. Mr. Ruggles has dreams of finding as much as five pounds in the trash he picks up! But the tone of this book overall is from a child’s point of view: there’s much more interest in adventure and exploration than in the ordinary world of getting enough to eat. Garnett’s skill is that we see a little of both in this book.

There’s at least one more book about the Ruggles that I’ll pursue finding. Does anyone know anything else about Eve Garnett?

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Classics, Fiction | 13 Comments

January Essays: The Deal Me in Challenge

ArtofthePersonalEssayAs I mentioned earlier this month, I decided to make my way through The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate, by participating in the Deal Me in Challenge. I’ve assigned each essayist in the book a playing card, and I’ll draw a card each week and read the pieces by that essayist that are in the collection. My plan is to write a few sentences on each essay and update monthly. If I stay on track, by the end of the year, I’ll have read the entire book.

Here’s what I read this month:

Joseph Addison: “Nicolini and the Lions”

In this essay, Joseph Addison sets out to determine the truth of the rumors about the lion that appeared with Signor Nicolini in the opera Hydaspes. Apparently, people thought real lions were used—or at least that the fight in the opera was real. On the surface, Addison treats the question seriously, yet the tone of the piece and his specific observations about the “lions” show audiences’ problem “does not seem to be the want of good taste, but of common sense.

I find it hard to imagine that this was a serious dispute, but perhaps in 1711, before photographic proof could have been produced, it would have been even harder to tamp down silly rumors that it is today. And it’s not like the world today isn’t full of silly rumors that can be easily disproved.

Ou-Yang Hsiu: “Pleasure Boat Studio”

This essay by Chinese writer Ou-Yang Hsiu, written in 1043, is barely more than a page long. In it, Hsiu describe the rooms set aside for leisure that he has renovated in a way that reminds him of a boat. He then goes on to consider the significance of boats: they deliver people from danger while also being dangerous. They are hardly places of leisure, yet he named his place of leisure after a boat, perhaps signifying that he likes “life afloat.” He then notes that boat travel can be enjoyable with just a few simple comforts. He’s named his studio after this type of boat. It’s impressive how he packs into so little space so much thought about what it means to take pleasure in life.

Abraham Crowley: “On Greatness”

I have to admit I didn’t care much for this one. Crowley is musing on how it must feel to be great and how greatness is not so great after all. It is difficult to achieve, and most who achieve what looks like greatness aren’t truly great. He prefers “littleness in almost all things. A little convenient estate, a little cheerful house, a little company, and a very little feast.” The main trouble with the essay is not the ideas Crowley espouses, but the copious use of classical references that weren’t familiar to me. So, really, the problem is with me, rather than the essay, but this shows one of the problems of the essay form. Many of them do build on ideas and references familiar to the essayist’s audience but not to readers hundreds of years later. An essay can be excellent but not have staying power, at least not with an audience unfamiliar with the important ideas and literature that would have resonated in the author’s time.

Richard Selzer: “The Knife”

Selzer is a surgeon, and in this essay he considers his work, specifically the knife he uses to do this work. His descriptions are cold and detached, but he still manages to make readers feel simply by describing what the work is like, how he sees himself—as a poet, a priest, an explorer, none of these things and all of these things. The most personal bit is when he describes how he was fascinated by the idea of surgery when he was young. He also tells a story of seeing an ant in the operating room. The piece is framed by a description of what is probably a fairly ordinary surgery, an attempt to locate and excise a tumor. It begins with the discovery and ends with the removal, and along the way, we see how violent this life-saving act of surgery is. The knife is about taking life, about tearing things apart. But sometimes the thing that must be torn apart is a deadly thing.

This was my favorite essay of the month. It shows clearly how the personal essay can be art and how such art can cause us to see something we thought we understood in a new way.

Posted in Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | 3 Comments

An Untamed State

UntamedStateIt was over 100 degrees out in Haiti on the day Mireille Duval Jameson and her husband Michael packed up their son Christophe to take him to the beach for the first time. Just moments after the gates of the Duval home closed behind them, three black Land Cruisers surrounded the car, and Mireille was dragged away, a prisoner held for the one million dollar ransom the captors were sure her wealthy father could provide.

Mireille tried at first to hold on to herself, but shows of spirit have consequences:

In the back of the Land Cruiser on the day I was kidnapped, I was in a new country altogether. I was not home or I was and did not know it yet. Someone turned up the radio. I began to sing along, wanting to be part of this one familiar thing. Someone told me to shut up. I sang louder. I sang so loud I couldn’t hear anything around me. A fist connected with my jaw. I slumped to the side, my head ringing. I didn’t stop singing though my words slowed, slurred.

The first half of this novel by Roxane Gay follows Mireille throughout her brutal days captivity, with flashbacks to her courtship with her white American husband and glimpses at his efforts to get her back, even when Mireille‘s father is reluctant to pay the ransom, believing that giving in will only make him vulnerable to further kidnappings of those close to him.

As I was reading this book, I was also watching the second season of The Fall, the story of the pursuit of a serial killer in Belfast. Both stories focus on violence against women from the women’s perspective, thus removing the titillation and placing society’s objectification of women into the spotlight. To the killer in The Fall, his victims are there only to fulfill his desires. Mireille, likewise, exists as a pawn, not just for the kidnappers, but also for her father—and even to Michael.

Toward the end of The Fall, Stella Gibson, the detective pursuing the serial killer Paul Spector, tells Jim Burns, a colleague and former lover, that he’s mistaken to consider Spector a monster, that he’s doing what men do, what Burns himself has done. He has denied her own wishes to satisfy himself. Michael, as he woos Mireille, often ignores her wishes, not listening to what she says, insisting that he does love her and he will marry her. Mireille, as it happens, genuinely loves Michael but is terrified of loving, so his pursuit turns out to be a good thing for them both, yet his insistence gives one pause. Later in the book, when Mireille returns to him, broken and unable to explain or seek help, he dwells on his own pain.

This last half of the book was, for me, the more interesting part. The first half, showing the abduction and the courtship twined together, did not offer anything particularly new beyond the graphic violence, not prettied up for the camera. (And, to be honest, having heard so much about the extreme violence in this book, I did not find the descriptions of it particularly graphic. It could be my diet of crime fiction has made me less difficult to shock.) The narration is at times repetitive, with too-frequent mentions of the difference between the before and the after and how much Mireille didn’t understand in the before. Gay’s prose style is crisp and clear, with short declarative sentences. It’s a prose style I like, and it did work at making the violence seemed more raw and less artistic. But it also made some of the repeated declarations feel more like anvils. There is a moment toward the end, when the repetition of “I died” is used to great effect because it puts readers in the moment with Mireille. The narration is less effective when Mireille is speaking apart from the action, narrating the lessons she learned.

The last half of the book, which focuses on the aftermath, felt more original to me. There’s no predictable pattern for this kind of story, and Mireille refuses to follow anyone else’s plan for her recovery. She has to choose her own free will, even if that choice is not the best for her physically. I was pleasantly surprised at how she ends up breaking out of it, although the groundwork for that path was laid early on the book. It felt dramatically appropriate and also adds some satisfying complexity to the way race is handled in the first half of the book.

Although I didn’t love this book on the whole, I think Gay was trying to do some interesting things with the story. The last chapter was, perhaps, a misstep—too much tidying up for my taste. I would have preferred ending a chapter sooner, with one story resolved and the other left open. But the questions around how free will and our desires work for and against us are intriguing. Gay is an interesting thinker whose essays I’ve admired for a while. But here, the ideas are either not fleshed out enough or are made too overt. It may be that what I appreciate the most about her work is better suited for the essay format.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 10 Comments

Station Eleven


What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot in the mysteriously named town of St. Deborah by the Water, Lake Michigan shining a half mile away. Kirsten as Titania, a crown of flowers on her close-cropped hair, the jagged scar on her cheekbone half-erased by candlelight. The audience is silent. Sayid, circling her in a tuxedo that Kirsten found in a dead man’s closet near the town of East Jordan: “Tarry, rash wanton. Am I not thy lord?”

Before the flu came, Kirsten had been a child actress in a Toronto production of King Lear. (The production included Lear’s daughters as children in a dream sequence.) On the play’s last night, perhaps the last night of any play, Arthur Leander, playing Lear, died of a heart attack during the performance. At around the same time, the hospital in Toronto, like hospitals everywhere, was filling up with patients sick with the lethal and highly contagious Georgia flu. Within a few weeks, practically everyone was dead.

Twenty years later, Kirsten goes from town to town with the Traveling Symphony, a band of musicians formed in Year Five that later merged with a traveling troupe of actors. Together, they roam around Lakes Huron and Michigan, performing music and Shakespeare in the towns they find.

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven follows Kirsten on her travels, but her story is just one of the many intertwined tales and times. We watch as Arthur Leander goes through one marriage after another. We see his first wife, Miranda, escape by creating art in the form of a comic book that she doesn’t necessarily even want to publish. We follow the former paparazzo and future paramedic Jeevan as he prepares to survive the coming collapse. And we see Arthur’s friend Clark curate memories in an airport museum that becomes a local legend. The book is an elegy for our present day, a recognition of why we tell stories, remember, and dream.

Much of what happens in the book will be familiar to readers of post-apocalyptic fiction. If you’ve read The Road, you’ve seen the violence that comes from the need to survive. If you’ve read The Dark Tower series, you’ve seen the abandoned towns and inoperative technologies. But Mandel’s weaving together of timelines was new to me. In my cynical moments, I wondered if the weaving, and the jumps back and forth in time, were a way to make the story seem more profound and artfully done than it is. Would it have an impact told chronologically? But that’s a silly question. Mandel wove it this way to make a greater impact. That is her art. (A better question might be whether the timelines make sense if rearranged chronologically. I think they do, but I haven’t examined them thoroughly enough to be sure.)

As much as I enjoyed this book, right from the start, for its elegant prose and wistful tone, I couldn’t quite understand why it seemed to be such a hit with so many readers. It’s a good book, but not that good. It’s a book a lot of people would like, but it didn’t seem like a book everyone would love. It hadn’t particularly gotten under my skin.

But then there’s a moment near the end that happens in an air-traffic control tower. Just a little bit of light. A question and a hope. For some reason, that moment got to me. I’m as surprised as anyone that this little light is what did it. I’m not a person who believes technology holds all the answers or that we’re more clever today because we have electricity and running water and the Internet when people of the past did not. But this world, full of ghosts of what had been, made me terribly sad.

A lot of this book seems to involve people finding hope and comfort in stories. Miranda writes a story to comfort herself. Kirsten later reads that story and collects stories of Arthur Leander from old gossip magazines. There are debates about which stories to continue telling. Should children born after the collapse even know about the past? What will that story do to them? Should the Traveling Symphony tell more “modern” stories dealing with practical realities of post-collapse life? And does art have value when it isn’t shared—or when the audience doesn’t understand it or misuses it for his own ends? These are all good questions, and there are no easy answers to them. But my cynical side sometimes thinks that questions about art and literature within a book striving to be literature are an easy way to win the audience over. Get them to take you seriously by taking the thing they love seriously. (It’s my cynical side—not my best side.)

That light, though, viewed from afar got around my cynical side and showed me that hope can take a different form besides art. Those ghosts—the power plants and automobiles and computers—could also be a beacon, giving people something to strive for. Living with technology every day, it’s easy to take for granted what a miracle a light switch or an electric sewing machine or a refrigerator really is. Technology and our poor use of it creates many problems, but it also solves them. Mandel’s society, where all is lost, is grim. Most people who survive had to kill someone along the way. And a little bit of light means things could get just a little easier.

The characters in this book are strivers, and striving means hope. Not everyone strives in the same way. Some are creators, and others are performers. Some travel, and others stay put. But they all seem to be looking for a way to make a life that works. Kirsten has the phrase “Survival is insufficient” (from Star Trek: Voyager) tattooed on her arm, and I think that in the world of this novel her attitude is necessary to survival. Without something to strive for—a performance, a museum exhibit, a light—there’s little reason to go on.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 22 Comments