Monday, May 16, 2016

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

Almost a year ago I chose Atkinson's Life After Life from the list of new ebooks on the Berkeley Public Library website based entirely on the cover art--in retrospect, I suspect because it reminded me of one of my favorites from high school, Robin McKinley's Beauty.


I entirely missed what huge deal this book was. I took it with me on a trip, reading it in the plane and during a couple of long, hot afternoons stretched out on a beach chair, until, frustratingly, it expired, leaving behind only an Amazon form letter inviting me to buy a copy (worst sales pitch ever).

Back home in California I followed a Twitter wormhole to an article with the specious headline "Is Kate Atkinson Britain's Most Ambitious Novelist?" The tag was almost unrelated to the actual text, the kind of thing an editor slaps on to court clicks--which worked on me (I could hardly wait to start my explicative studded list of names.... Zadie Smith, Salmon Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Kazuo-freaking Ishiguro!) I re-borrowed the book immediately and tore through the final third in the comfort of my own bed back in Berkeley.

Life After Life extrapolates on two well-worn tropes: what if Hitler had been assassinated before he rose to power? and, as the main character's favorite brother puts it, "What if we had a chance to do it again and again...until we finally did get it right?"

The novel opens in 1930 Ursula Todd walks into a German cafe and shoots Adolf Hitler. Ursula's life, we learn, is relived in endless permutations. In some lives she dies in childhood, drowning on a seaside holiday, or during the flu pandemic of 1918. In others she grows into an adult, living in London during the Blitz, marrying a scarily violent man, staying single and becoming a secretary, traveling to Europe and marrying a German--ultimately returning again and again to her birth in an English country house during a blizzard in 1910.

Gradually, the shadows of her past lives begin to guide Ursula's steps, instinctively driving her away from known dangers. As the depth of her experience builds, she comes to consciously understand and trust her foreknowledge.

I was reminded of a passing comment one of my writing teachers once made on the underlying structure of another of my old favorites, Middle March. She remarked that Elliot spends the first half of the book just on set up and character development before stepping back to let the action take its natural course in the second half, effectively keying the story up, then letting it all unwind. Life After Life works much the same way. The pace accelerates as the novel continues, with lives coming in quick succession, slipping into one another, the heroine's memory becoming slowly enmeshed with the reader's as time and perspective bend, unwinding until we find ourselves back in that first moment in the cafe.

Despite the world-shifting stakes, Life After Life is largely--perhaps even primarily--a book about fraternal love, particularly Ursula's relationship with her younger brother Teddy, whose well being often forms a personal proxy for that of the population at large. It is Teddy's fate, even more than her own that Ursula seeks to change when she begins to exert agency.

The dramatic shifts through time are surprisingly easy to follow. Atkinson orients readers through a combination of dated headings and repeated passages echoing through the layered realties, creating a de ja vu effect that readers share with the heroine. This ease also owes something to the popular premises the author has appropriated. Any respectable TV viewer has been trained to interpret this type of story. From Science Fiction to Romantic Comedy, the alternative reality is such a standard device that explanation is unnecessary, leaving the author free to concentrate on character and relationship. The book is at its most engaging when tightly focused on Ursula, her family, and their experiences. When the scope widens to encompass familiar world events, it can feel overdone, a little dull.

Atkinson is a talented novelist, meticulous both in plot and language, true and faithful to her characters. Life After Life was an enjoyable read, a technical achievement, and a creative cultural remix.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Incidentally, I feel like a bit of a dope ...


...for my initial failure to connect Fun Home with every feminist’s favorite media analysis criteria, the Bechdel Test, with Allison Bechdel the cartoonist. I guess I was thinking of it along the lines of the Turing Test for artificial intelligence, presuming it to be rooted deep in the murky academic writings of the second wave (although I guess we could makes a case for a 1985 issue of Dykes to Watch Out For…)


Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel

I started Fun Home after attending yet another Radar Reading Series event where it was repeatedly held up as the pinnacle of what graphic novels can achieve (brilliant, soul-eating, MacArthur Genius earning, Tony Award winning Broadway musical inspiring, and so forth).

Lucky me, it came into the library just before young Brian Grasso’s inexplicably well publicized protests to the effect that images of naked lesbians are against his religion.

I don’t feel particularly compelled to pick this 18 year old apart, trusting that he’ll do enough of that himself once he gains a little perspective on one or more of the following: life, art, picking one’s battles. That said, his Washington Post op-ed is fairly amusing if read in the popper spirit (“even Freud, Marx or Darwin”….my you are open minded!) NB: Seriously, I hope that its impossible to graduate from accredited university without reading at least some Freud, Marx or Darwin--especially somewhere with that much ivy.

This isn't exactly the first time Bechdel’s opus has come under fire. The same thing happened last year at the University of Southern Carolina, and from time to time various public libraries have been petitioned to take it off their shelves. Still, I feel very timely and fortuitous reading it just now. Everyone loves a banned book, or barring that, a moderately controversial one. Feeling rather guilty that my copy is overdue from the public library, as I'm sure the wait list is exploding. 

Not that it wasn't already. The 2006 graphic memoir has enjoyed enormous success overall (see above MacArthur Genius and Tony Award winning musical) earning a place among great literary memoirs like Liar's Club and This Boy's Life. 


Bechdel describes her childhood in the family funeral home (the titular "Fun Home") managed by her father, juxtaposing her growing self awareness through childhood and the process of coming out to her family at the age of 19 with her father's life as a closeted gay man in a straight marriage in rural Pennsylvania. The work opens with and continually circles back to the death and probable suicide of the author's father weeks after her own coming out, the end of his life of secrecy at the beginning of her adulthood in the open, the parallels and opposites in their lives a new variation on the Ouroboros themes of parent and child. That moment both typifies and is the underlying point of the work.

The work operates on two levels--the childish interpretation of events, replete with misunderstandings, deliberate obfuscations, and missed details, and the adult's more informed assessment, consciously aiming for transparency. What was her father's relationship with the family's teenaged babysitter? Was that court case really just about giving a 17-year-old a beer, or was Bechdel's father suspected of something more serious? 

Unusually for such a well regard work, Fun Home does not demand much from readers. The author has given us the truths she expects us to know, the hard work of interpretation done for us, clearly articulated in mixed media, each point driven perfectly home, more like a play than a novel. 

Bruce Bechdel leading his English class. 
Except, perhaps, that the work is dense with eerily appropriate literary references drawn from the family's reading material. The Bechdel's was a household of artists, the mother an actress and musician, the father an English teacher and antique enthusiast, books and letters the vehicles through which the author and her father communicated best. The personal lives and works of Proust, Salinger, Colette, Wilde, and others run through the memoir like additional characters.

I was particularly struck with the role of place, the fatalism of living in the Alleghanys. The circumscribe existence, the isolation, and yet the fairy tale parallel to Kenneth Grahame's Oxford. The fun home itself, lovingly restored by Bechdel's antique enthusiast father over the course of her childhood, ostentatious and baroque, the Victorian trappings a strange but pleasing contrast to the family's 1970 jeans and t-shits, a variation on an aesthetic faintly familiar from television (Six Feet Under, The Munsters).

Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, Fun Home retains Bechdel's comic style, filled with humorous asides and flashes of irony, making the sometimes oppressive subject matter more palatable.  I've already put Are You My Mother on hold...

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Serena, by Ron Rash

Its difficult to say anything about Ron Rash's Serena that the novel itself doesn't convey more clearly, possibly even more quickly. Possibly its difficult to summarize in part because it is such a simple story. A Depression-era timber baron, George Pemberton, and his fierce, beautiful new bride, the titular Serena, push to finish clear-cutting their land in the Great Smoky Mountains before the newly formed National Park’s eminent domain forces them to sell. The ruthless couple will stop at nothing to secure control of their fortunes or revenge themselves on their enemies. Like Julius Cesar played in World War II costume (or MacBeth—ahem—recast in 1930s North Carolina) Serena is a familiar tale against a novel background.

The story opens as the new couple's train pulls into the station in WaynesvilleNorth Carolina. Pemberton is bringing his wife home for the first time after several months in Boston. Rachel, one of the timber camp mess staff, awaits the train, visibly pregnant, her infuriated father beside her. With his wife's encouragement and support Pemberton kills the other man in a brief, brutal fight on the station platform using the knife that was Serena's wedding gift to him. The incident defines the three central characters and establishes a pattern that will play out again and again throughout the work, the stakes rising as Serena assumes an increasingly active role. The pervasive violence and fear slowly degrade Pemberton's personality, driving him to alcoholism and subterfuge, demonstrating to Serena that he may not be the mate she deserves after all.

The novelist Ron Rash is also a poet, so its unsurprising that the complexity of his novel comes from the layered symbolism and spiraling foreshadowing, rather than from the plot. Like a good poet, Rash doesn’t throw words away. Every line builds toward the conclusion until it feels inevitable, prophetic. Every thread is woven back in and neatly tied off.

Serena is dense with images of grandeur and destruction. Serena supervises cutting crews from the back of an enormous white horse, carrying an eagle trained to hunt snakes. Pemberton and his partners slaughter deer by the dozen on their hunting excursions. Rattlesnakes haunt the camp. The land is destroyed. Buildings burn. Serena herself suffers a harrowing late-term miscarriage. Workers are killed grotesquely, bitten by snakes and spiders, struck by misplaced ax blades, slipping between the logs in the millpond to drown trapped beneath. They die in such numbers that when the business prepares to relocate to a new camp, the graveyard is the first thing they build. And of course, there are all the people the Pembertons murder.

Serena is a force, exerting her power over nature, disturbing the balance, a point driven home repeatedly throughout the work, as when the workers discuss the rat problem in camp ("The thing to kill them is snakes...but that eagle done upset what the Orientals call the yen and the yang"), or when Serena expresses her pride in the destruction wrought on Nolan Mountain, telling one rich couple, "leaving something as it is leaves no mark at all" (p. 241), and insisting on having her photograph taken before the wasteland of stumps.

The novel is similarly highly structured, divided into five parts, the chapters focusing on the central couple periodically interspersed with commentary from one of the timber crews, with slightly longer segments following Rachel and her baby, Pemberton’s illegitimate son. The film copy includes an interview with Rash, reprinted from the journal Grist, in which he explains that modeled his novel on Marlowe, envisioning it as a five act Elizabethan play, punctuated by a chorus of rustics, and that both Serena and the elderly Mrs. Galloway speak in “lose iambic pentameter.”

With its striking dramatic imagery and growing sense of foreboding its easy to see why the novel was selected for a film adaptation--though the critics don't seem to have appreciated the results very much. I think I'll stear clear.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Keep, by Jennifer Egan

I read The Keep one and a half times: the first half, on a beech in Thailand, and a second complete time, on the commuter train, or while lying on the bed wearing gym clothes in lieu of actually going to the gym. Its a short novel, easily tackled over the course of a day or two, but broken into discrete sections in such a way that putting it down and letting it rest feels natural.

The Keep, by Jennifer Egan, is a clever, weird, book full of the kind of humor that comes from the unexpected and the out-of-context, and studded with odd, surprisingly genuine moments of real feeling.

The story opens at 2:00 am with Danny, a New York hipster approaching 40, marooned in "some German-sounding town that didn't seem to be in Germany" (p. 4) looking up at the medieval castle that his semi-estranged millionaire cousin Howie has recently purchased.

In a story made of up strange contradictions and juxtapositions, this is the first, and most pervading: image-obsessed, technology addicted, undignified modernity, against a background of atmospheric decaying gothic grandeur--like an episode of Scooby Doo where Shaggy is a middle-aged goth boy with a satellite dish in tow.

The first chapter introduces us to Danny and his cousin, their childhood friendship, and the familiar story of the decline of that friendship in their early teens, as Howie becomes increasingly and painfully nerdy, while Danny grows into a popular soccer star, anxious for approval. Danny sees Howie for the last time when, at a family picnic, he and an older cousin play a cruel trick on Howie that results in his being lost for days in a series of underground caverns. The guilt and shame Egan conjures in this recollection is startling--its incredibly evocative and relatable for such an over-the-top sequence of events.

Now, twenty years later, Danny has lost his latest restaurant job and fallen afoul of the mafia. Basically, he needs to get out of town for a while. Conveniently, a rich, successful Howie offers him a one-way plane ticket and a job helping him to help convert a medieval castle into a hotel.

Chapter 1 also introduces a variation on another trope of classic gothic fiction, the nested tale.  The narrator of Danny's story, Ray, is present from the very beginning, but breaks in unambiguously for the first time on page 12 to critique his own work:
"He was heading into memory number two, I might as well tell you that straight up, because how am I supposed to get him in and out of all these memories in a smooth way so nobody notices all the coming and going I don't know."
Ray, we learn is a student in a prison creative writing class led by Holly, a newish teacher and the object of his erstwhile desire. Danny's story is his contribution. Her voice will provide a final coda to the novel, like Nelly in Wuthering Heights or Captain Walton in Frankenstein.

Like Egan's more recent work, The Keep is meticulously structured, full of echoes and bread crumbs, everything neatly tied up, everything connected. The last line harkens back to Chapter 3, when Howie's wife describes her vision for the finished hotel. I remember thinking that piece of the story was a little off in my first reading--a little too tangential, just slightly out of character for a woman who otherwise barely speaks. But there's always a reason.

The author calls readers' attention to the mediated nature of the tale early and often, complicating what is otherwise a simple story with questions of perspective and reality. Is Danny the one obsessed with power--or is that Ray? Is Howie out to revenge himself on Danny, or is that pure paranoia?

The machinery of the story is so evident, the plot so outlandish, the physics of the world the characters inhabit so questionable--yet, like the gothic fiction it takes as a model, The Keep is compelling and, on emotional level, believable.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Top 5 Worst Calendars of 2015

It's time again for the semi-annual worst calendar list. After a 2013 and 2014 full of goats in trees, I'm ready to move on to something new. There are all the usual contenders: different breeds of dogs, kittens, more kittens, gardens, sports teams, cars, hobbies...but what will it be?


The Worst of the Worst

5. Thomas Kincaid's Disney Explosion. I'm sorry to repeat myself, but I'm afraid this particular selection is going to have to make the list each and every time.


4. Nude Circus Freaks. A case of knowing your strengths and sticking with them.



3. Butter my Butt. Another repeat, but seriously guys.


2. Minecraft. Sixteen months of artists' renderings of Mincraft. The reviews are hilarious.



1. Baby Memes. Because once wasn't enough with this shit?



Runners Up:

Keeping it depressing.



Rock and roll animals. I actually kind of want this one. Those eyes!



Squirrels. "Life lessons", cutsie photos, what could be better?


Bronies! Sad, drunk bronies.
Sons of Anarchy. A heartwarming selection.


Intimidating Hens. And reaching for puns. I almost love this one, actually


And a little extra something from Regretsy.