Monday, March 2, 2015

Review-itas: Characters in places they do not belong

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler
It's hard to talk about Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves without giving away a major plot twist, though I would say that the plot twist is given away in many reviews, so maybe it is not really a twist.

I hadn't really heard anything about this book until it showed up on so many people's Best of 2014 lists.  It's narrated by Rosemary, a hilarious and likable woman looking back on her childhood and her college years.  Rosemary had an unusual upbringing; her father was a psychologist and her mother a scientist, and there were many experiments performed on Rosemary and her siblings, Fern and Lowell, throughout their childhood.  But one day, Fern disappears, and then Lowell leaves, too, and Rosemary spends the rest of her life trying to put her family back together again.

I did the audiobook for Fowler's novel and loved the narrator.  She really captured the dry sense of humor that pervades the whole book.  While I don't think this book will end up on my best of 2015 list, I really enjoyed its quirky sense of humor and the way Fowler makes clear that our actions have consequences that can echo down for years and years.

This book did remind me a bit of Ruth Ozeki's My Year of Meats in that there are portions of it that are tough to swallow.  If you are an animal rights activist, be warned.  That said, if you are an animal rights activist, I think you would really get a lot from this book.

Shackleton:  Antarctic Odyssey, by Nick Bertozzi
I picked up Nick Bertozzi's Shackleton:  Antarctic Odyssey on a whim at the library and read it that night as I needed a break from A Brief History of Seven Killings (more on that book when I finish it).  I find the whole era of Arctic and Antarctic exploration completely fascinating, and was excited to read about Shackleton's ill-fated trip to the South Pole in graphic novel format.

But a lot of things happened to Shackleton over a very long period of time, and I don't think a slim graphic novel is the best way to share the story.  This felt quite choppy and there wasn't much narrative flow.  There also wasn't a lot of explanation of what certain terms meant or why some decisions were made, which was disappointing.  I understand that one must condense, but here, it made me feel like a lot was missing.  Particularly at the beginning, where years and years passed by in just a couple of pages and I was scrambling to figure out who the characters were.

That said, Shackleton's story is pretty amazing, and it was fun to read about some of the things his crew did to keep themselves entertained through long, dark, and cold Antarctic winters.  They played soccer, drank a lot of rum, held dogsled races, and joked around with each other.  It was fun to read about these things but frustrating, too.  I can't imagine the psychological toll that being stuck in Antarctica for a year would take on people, and the way Bertozzi describes it, almost everyone was perfectly content and happy the whole way through.  I wanted way more depth.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

"the best natured and best bred woman in England"

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman
I have been making a concerted effort to read more of the books on my own shelves.  Many of those books are non-fiction books about 18th and 19th century Britain, which has been my favorite era in history since reading Jane Austen for the first time.  But in recent years, I've moved away from British history, and many of those books have sat unread while my reading tastes have changed.

But I picked up Amanda Foreman's Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and I realized that my tastes haven't changed so much.  While I am so happy to be reading more widely and diversely than before, I do still love the Georgian era.  And very few people personify the era as well as the Duchess of Devonshire.

A fashion icon, a published author, a serious party-goer with a gambling addiction, a political powerhouse much more impressive than her husband, an amateur geologist, and a loving mother, Georgiana Cavendish holds, in one person, all the excess and glory we associate with the late 1700s.  I am not entirely sure how to provide a plot summary for a biography.  Suffice it to say that Foreman gives us insights into every stage of Georgiana's life, from her childhood as her mother's favorite child, to her failed marriage with the Duke of Devonshire, to her desperation to have a son, and her serious, ever-present concerns about her gambling debts.

Foreman also brings the entire era to life (at least, the era as it was lived by the ridiculously rich people at the very top).  She talks about 18th century politics at length and with authority, covers the French Revolution, and gives us a glimpse into the fashionable life.  I admit the descriptions of men's fashion in particular completely bowled me over:
Fox's particular contribution was to experiment with hair color, powdering his hair blue one day, red the next. He wore multicolored shoes and velvet frills...
I mean, can you imagine this man with red hair and velvet frills?  The mind boggles as to why all painters neglected to include this key identifying characteristic in any of his portraits.

Charles James Fox, alas without red or blue powdered hair

Georgiana was a leader of fashion herself, with the most epic hairstyles you can imagine.  She is probably best remembered for her high-flying lifestyle and the scandalous three's company type existence she lived with her husband and her best friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster.  Bess  also happened to be her husband's mistress for several years and bore two of his children.  But this is unfair to Georgiana.  Foreman admits in her introduction that she fell more in love with Georgiana the more she read about her, and it's hard to read this book without falling in love with her yourself.  Her life was so bittersweet:
She was an acknowledged beauty yet unappreciated by her husband, a popular leader of the ton who saw through its hypocrisy, and a woman whom people loved who was yet so insecure in her ability to command love that she became dependent on the suspect devotion of Lady Elizabeth Foster.  She was a generous contributor to charitable causes who nevertheless stole from her friends, a writer who never published under her own name, a devoted mother who sacrificed one child to save the other three, a celebrity and patron of the arts in an era when married women had no legal status, a politician without a vote, and a skilled tactician a generation before the development of professional party politics.

Seriously, the Duchess was no joke.  We get to know her pretty well, but there are still so many more things I wanted to know.  So many things hinted at but frustratingly hard to find out.  This may be because so many of her papers were lost or censored by later (ahem, Victorian) generations.  It could also be because Foreman didn't have the inclination to write a much longer book.  But there are so many events or people hinted at that fall to the wayside later on - for example, what was so unlikable about the Duke's daughter Caroline that everyone commented upon how awkward and weird she was as a child?  And then she just disappears!  And why in the world did Georgiana's daughter Harryo want to marry her aunt's lover?  And what was Lady Elizabeth Foster really after?  How did Georgiana treat her servants?  How does one even begin to prepare for a dinner party with 1000 guests?  I want to know!

But what I do know, even with those minor frustrations, is that history has given Georgiana the short shrift.  She was so much more than she is given credit for, and when you read her letters and see how desperately lonely she was, and how she overcame that loneliness so much to be politically savvy and wonderfully kind and so generous, you will be as enchanted with her as London society was.

But if it was difficult to read this book and not fall in love with the duchess it was well nigh impossible to read it and not be completely astounded by the amount of money the aristocracy spent, burned, gambled, frittered away or just lost track of.  Many of these people had 7- and 8-digit incomes or personal wealth and practically all of them were in debt.  To each other.  For gambling losses.  I cannot even comprehend how one can be a millionaire one day and then lose an entire fortune that night to a passing acquaintance.  I just... wow.  Even though I feel pretty familiar with the Georgian era, I think I must severely underestimate just how strong the sense of entitlement was among the super-rich.

I thoroughly enjoyed this biography and highly recommend it.  As Foreman points out, Georgiana was in every sense of the word a product of her time.  She brilliantly maneuvered not just in the "women's sphere" of hearth and home but also used her influence and friends to make real and lasting impact on the larger world that we historically associate with men.  She breaks down the entire notion of "separate spheres" and shows just how valuable women could be in the political arena.  She's pretty amazing, and I'm glad to know more about her.

Note:  The Georgians were really, really dramatic in pretty much everything they did.  They wrote very effusive letters, they made grandiose gestures, said very intense things... it was truly awe-inspiring to read.  I think the Victorians were pretty dramatic, too, so WHEN DID WE BECOME SO CALM?  (Written in all capitals for ironic effect.)  I was truly uncomfortable with the hair-tearing, the excessive weeping, the cloyingly affectionate (to me) descriptions - when did this happen?  No wonder no one faints any more.  We are all in a state of perpetual calm.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Flavia in Canada

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, by Alan Bradley
12-year-old precocious chemistry genius Flavia de Luce is one of my favorite characters is fiction.  Having been introduced to her via the excellent audiobooks, she also has a very strong voice in my head, courtesy of Jayne Entwistle.  While I read her latest adventure, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, in physical format, I cannot recommend the series on audiobook highly enough.

It's difficult to review this book without giving spoilers away for previous books, so please be warned!

In the seventh book in the series, Flavia is off to Canada for school, though it's not entirely clear if she is going there to learn academic subjects or to master skills needed to join the super-secret organization her aunt inducted her into, the Nide.  Of course, a dead body shows up very early in the story (yes, in a chimney), and Flavia tries to solve that mystery, too.

Unfortunately, I found this outing to be fairly disappointing.  It felt very unorganized, to the point that even Flavia was utterly confused by all of the things going on around her and how they fit into her life story.  The mystery takes a backseat here, which I was fine with, but nothing else really comes to the fore to take the spotlight.  I was confused by so many things in this book that were never really cleared up.  For example, the school's principal is by turns very kind and very cold-hearted.  Some girls from the school have disappeared over the past few yeasr, and no one is supposed to talk about them, but obviously everyone remembers them.  Some of them show back up, but it's never made clear as to why they had to disappear and then show up again the way they do.

Part of what makes Flavia so magical is the setting of Bishop's Lacey and the characters around her.  Flavia loves her home so deeply, it is sad to see her homesick all the time.  In Bishop's Lacey, she's a lonely girl without anyone around who is the same age or intelligence level, so it makes sense that she traipses around the countryside and gets into all sorts of mischief.  At boarding school, she's surrounded by other girls but she never gets close enough to any of them for their personalities to develop.  It's weird that there are so many other girls introduced when hardly any of them have a material role to play in the plot.  It also makes the absence of other beloved characters, most importantly Dogger, even more obvious.

I didn't quite understand why Flavia was sent to a boarding school in Canada in this book.  I don't know why she couldn't have just gone to school somewhere in England.  It feels like Bradley wanted to get her away from Bishop's Lacey so that events could happen away from her curious eye.  I hope that's the case, and that the next book clears a lot of my confusion.  But there's a long time to wait until the next book comes out!  Still, this remains one of my favorite series, and Flavia is still delightful (as is Bradley's absolutely amazing skill with a simile), and I am excited to see where she ends up next.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The American Experience, from an Indigenous Perspective

An Indigenous People's History of the United States
I knew that reading Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz's An Indigenous People's History of the United States would be difficult.  But I don't think I realized just how difficult it would be.  Reading about massacres and pillaging and forced relocation is difficult enough in print, but it is even more stomach-clenching to listen to it.

Most American kids go into school assuming that it was a foregone conclusion that their country would take over an entire continent.  We learn about the first settlers and the way the Indians helped them through the first few winters.  And then, after they'd gotten the hang of it, the settlers went on their merry way, spreading all the way to the Pacific.  We learn about the glorious Homestead Act, passed after the Civil War so that Americans could all have their own plot of land to improve.  It's rarely explained to us that the only reason the US government was able to provide land to its citizens is because it stole that land from multiple Native American nations.  Or that so much of America's history, foreign wars, and expansion plans were done in a disturbingly (and pretty openly) white supremacist manner.

Dunbar-Ortiz's main point is that America was not formed as a new and brilliant democracy, a country that came about through a belief in a strong, new way of governing.  Instead, the US was a direct result of European politics.  The expansion into other lands, the belief that the Christian religion is superior to others, the escalation of skirmishes to total warfare that not only take place on a battlefield but include rape and pillage of entire villages.

It is important that Americans (and everyone else) fully understand their nation's history, so I feel like people should read this book.  Even though I knew the US treated Indians badly throughout its history, I don't think I realized just how systemic and terrible it was.  And I appreciated the shift in perspective; rather than learning American history, I learned how America's history butted against that of the indigenous people's and destroyed so many cultures.  Early on, Dunbar-Ortiz quotes one of my absolute favorite books, Charles C. Mann's 1491, and it just brought home to me once again how much the world lost when the Native American population was just decimated, in natural knowledge, worldviews, philosophies and so much more.

So yes, I DO think you should read this book.  BUT...

It's really difficult.  As I mentioned before, there's a lot of carnage.  Much of it felt more like a list of massacres and other horrible acts rather than a cohesive history.  Dunbar-Ortiz skips around a lot in time, which was difficult to follow.  And there are clearly certain things that truly enrage her, such as the official American military definition of enemy territory as "Indian Country," which she harps on so many times that I thought my audiobook was faulty and kept skipping back to earlier in the narrative.  I agree wholeheartedly that this terminology should change, but I also think she could make the point once and trust her readers to understand it.

I personally don't recommend the audiobook edition.  Not just because it is much harder to listen to the violence, but also because the narrator's voice is quite dry and it sounds like she is being sardonic all the time.

Monday, February 16, 2015

A Septuagenarian Crime-Solving Boss in Communist Laos

The Coroner's Lunch, by Colin Cotterill
The Coroner's Lunch, by Colin Cotterill, is one of those books that makes me feel better about my TBR pile.  I've had it for a few years now and only just got around to reading it, mainly because I felt guilty at hardly reading anything from my own shelves in 2014.  But it waited patiently for me to finally get around to it, and then it validated the space it takes up on my shelf by being just fantastic.  Hooray!

The Coroner's Lunch introduces us to Dr. Siri, a 72-year-old coroner in Laos around 1970, just as the country adjusts to Communist rule.  As coroner, Siri must write cause of death for many cadavers, and some of the people who come to him do not seem to have died natural deaths.  Even when he is heavily advised against doing so, Siri investigates those deaths.  Sometimes he is helped along by the spirit world; though he is a very logical and pragmatic man, Dr. Siri often sees the spirits of the dead, and they will often guide his research and methods.

I was a little skeptical when I first encountered the spirits in The Coroner's Lunch, mostly because I didn't really like a somewhat similar theme in Maisie Dobbs.  But it was very believable here and works seamlessly into the story as a whole.  Dr. Siri has a lot of demons and guilt, and in many ways, the spirits are just manifestations of those occurrences in his past.  But in other ways, the spirit world is alive and well and a very strong theme in this story, so if that puts you off, you may want to steer clear.  For my part, I loved the angle that brought to this book, especially when weighed against Siri's own skepticism.  It added a new, unique dimension to the whole thing.

I also really appreciated the setting.  I don't know of many books set in Laos (do you?).  I liked that it was set in the 1970s, just after the Communist revolution as the country was on the cusp of modernity but still quite rural.  For example, Siri first used a telephone at age 72.  But he also goes to a rural area and sees massive deforestation, so clearly the modern world, with its benefits and horrors, hasn't left Laos behind.  The secondary characters are all wonderful, too.  I particularly liked Thuy, Dr. Siri's very capable female assistant who also enjoys reading comic books.

And Siri himself is absolutely charming.  I really enjoy books with older protagonists, and Dr. Siri is like a Miss Marple who has decided that she doesn't care who she pisses off, she's just going to go do her thing and be a boss.  To clarify, Miss Marple totally IS a boss, but she hides it very well behind her politeness and gentle kindness.  Dr. Siri, like the honey badger, doesn't care who he offends because he's old and tired and just wants to solve crime and get on with it.  He's fantastic.

The author of the Dr. Siri series is Colin Cotterill, a British expat living in Southeast Asia.  I suspect Cotterill has the dry sense of humor the Brits are famous for, and he has infused Dr. Siri with that humor as well (though maybe the Lao are more witty and dry than I give them credit for - I don't know much about their humor).  In my head, I imagined Dr. Siri to be very similar to Bill Nighy in Worricker, except not British.  This was probably helped along by the audiobook narrator, Clive Chafer, who was absolutely excellent but extremely English.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and I'm so glad that someone (I don't remember who it was!) recommended it to me in a comment on this blog or in response to a comment I made elsewhere.  This is exactly the sort of mystery I love, that deals with not just the mystery at hand, but with so many other things as well, with characters with whom I can't wait to spend more time. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The healing powers of the ocean. And dogs.

Blood-Drenched Beard, by Daniel Galera
Daniel Galera's Blood-Drenched Beard was one of my most-anticipated titles of early 2015.  Set during the off-season at a Brazilian beach town, it features an unknown narrator and his dog, Beta, both coming to terms with their grief over the narrator's father's suicide.

Before dying, the narrator's father told him a story about his own father.  He had gone to the small fishing village Garopaba and killed at a dance by dozens of people stabbing him to death.  But there was never any body found.

After the funeral, the narrator goes to Garopaba, taking Beta with him.  He rents a small apartment, swims every day, and slowly starts seeking out information about his grandfather.  But this is harder for him than for many people as he has a rare condition that makes it impossible for him to remember people's faces.  This may be part of the reason why the narrator is a loner more than he is anything else.  All his friendships and relationships seem transitory, ephemeral.  This perhaps makes the book seem darker than it is.  Actually, there are many moments of humor and happiness here, often coming out in surprising ways.

I've never had a pet before, and I don't generally enjoy stories about people and their pets.  However, I really loved the relationship here between the narrator and his dog, Beta.  The two grow closer, and after Beta has an accident, you can see the love that exists between them.  Beta has more of a personality than many of the other characters, and her personality is kind and loyal.

The ocean is as much a character as anyone else here; it's the water and the beach the narrator escapes to when he is upset, not any person.  Perhaps because the ocean changes constantly, every minute, and so the narrator doesn't feel like he has a memory problem while he's there.

I actually don't know why I enjoyed this book so much.  The writing style is very casual and easy-going, much like the beach town in which the story is set.  There isn't much plot development - it's mostly just the main character meeting people, doing things with them, and then moving on.  The story line around his grandfather really only picks up (in a pretty random way) in the last 20% of the book.  But I liked the vignette-feel.  People respond to grief in so many ways; seeing the narrator's movement back and forth in forming real friendships with people and then moving away, thinking about his father, spending time with his dog, it all felt like a very real portrayal of a man coming to terms with the fact that he will never see his father again.  And he can't even remember his father's face to call to mind once in a while.

One annoying thing about this story was the narrator's lack of name.  I am not sure why he didn't get a name, since everyone else in the story had one.  And since there were no quotation marks to denote conversation (WHY do some authors hate traditional grammatical cues so much?!), it was often difficult to know who was talking, and who was being addressed.  But I was always eventually able to figure it out, even if it required some backtracking.

The last 20% of the story left me a little confused, and the book ended very abruptly, seemingly in the middle of a conversation.  But even so, I really enjoyed reading this one.  It was a great, meaty book to read after the lighter tomes of the holiday season.

Note:  This review is based on an advanced reader's copy.  I received a free e-book in exchange for this review.

Monday, February 9, 2015

It's time to do some serious soul searching

Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin
After reading Azar Nafisi's The Republic of Imagination, I immediately wanted to read all of James Baldwin's work.  I started with his first major work, Go Tell it on the Mountain, the book Baldwin said is "the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else."  The semi-autobiographical novel focuses on John, a 14-year-old boy in Harlem growing up under the watchful eyes of his father, a very stern and religious evangelical preacher.  Over the course of one day at the church, we learn about John's life to date and gain insight into the lives of his hypocritical father, Gabriel, his mother, and his aunt.

Through all their stories, there's the common thread of the Great Migration, when many Blacks moved from the racial oppression of the Deep South to the promise (often left unfulfilled) of the North.  Each of them has something deep and complex to offer the reader, not just about the pursuit of the American Dream and the likelihood of finding happiness, but also about the very painful and beautiful relationships people can have with God.  There is a lot of fire and brimstone here, with nearly ever character promised eternity in heaven or hell based on one event or act from the past.  There is rage, frustration, and desperation in much greater amounts than you are likely to find in most books written in the 20th century.  In many ways, the fears and threats that came through here made me feel almost like I was in a time warp back to the Middle Ages, but the setting really is mid-20th century America.

This book was very different than I was expecting.  I thought the story would revolve much more closely around John coming of age in a very strict household, in a very restricted and segregated space.  Instead, the book is mainly about the relationships multiple characters have with John's father, Gabriel, a man who is chased by his own demons and seems determined to ensure that no one in his life forgets for a moment that hell is just one slippery slope away.  I also wasn't expecting nearly so much religion, and I am positive that there was a TON of Biblical imagery in this book that just went completely over my head.  For example, I'm sure John's father being named Gabriel means something, and that the extremely (and I mean seriously extreme) intense vision that John had at church before finding God probably had WAY more going on than I could catch.

I think I would have found this book a bit tedious except that the language is so amazingly powerful.  Baldwin brings so much passion to his craft that I feel like when he was writing the book, his pen must have left deep scores in the paper.  He's one of those authors who pours everything he feels into his art, and the result is absolutely stunning.  I really wish I knew the Bible better because I am sure I would have been even more moved and amazed by the story if I could get all of the allusions.

Because of the deep religious tones to the novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain also made me think more about religion and spirituality.  I am not personally a very religious person, and I don't spend a lot of time actively thinking about how God would see and interpret my actions.  I have a vague belief in the "If you're a good person, then you'll be fine" train of thought, but many of the characters in this book spend years trying to atone for one thing, or spend a lot of time thinking about how to make someone else pay, and worrying about hell.  It made the quest for religious enlightenment seem much more personal (and very, very lonely) in a way that highlighted to me just how differently people can follow the same religion.

I plan to read more of Baldwin's books and essays because he is a wonderfully passionate, eloquent author who I want to know better.  However, if you aren't ready for a deep, soul-searching book that focuses a lot on religion, then this may not be the book for you right now.  I recommend you keep Baldwin on your list, though, because his way with words will probably floor you.

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