A Review of Lily King’s Father of the Rain (by Bethany)

father of the rain cover image

I don’t seek out fiction about dysfunctional families as actively as I used to, but I still consider myself a bit of a connoisseur of the genre. Lily King’s Father of the Rain is in some ways very typical of this genre, but it rarely resorts to cliché, and King’s characterization insists that every character, even minor ones, be taken on his or her own terms. Like real dysfunctional families, this book is maddening and sad, but I read it with great interest, involvement and admiration.

Daley Amory is eleven when the novel opens, and her mother is on the verge of divorcing her father. On their last days as an intact family, Daley’s father takes her to a pet store to buy a puppy. Daley knows that she and her mother will be leaving that night, but her father doesn’t. She turns down all the pure-bred dogs her father offers because she knows she needs to choose a dog she won’t mind abandoning. She chooses a mutt, but of course she is still terribly sad to leave him behind. The sadness of this initial loss never stops haunting the novel, even as Daley’s family grows more and more fragmented and unhappy.

Meanwhile, at home, Daley’s mother hosts a friend named Bob Wuzzy, who runs something called Project Genesis, which seems to have something to do with promoting racial harmony. One of the sources of conflict in this novel is that Daley’s father, Gardiner, is a blue-blooded New England WASP who grows increasingly annoyed by and suspicious of the changing political sensibilities of the time (the novel opens in 1971) while her mother is established early in the novel as a Democrat actively involved in many social issues. When the novel opens, it seems as if Bob Wuzzy, Project Genesis, and ‘70’s social issues are going to be important to the plot, but as soon as Daley’s mother leaves Gardiner these issues are never mentioned again. Bob Wuzzy (“I don’t know if Bob Wuzzy is white or black. He has no hair, not a single strand, and caramel-colored skin. When I asked my mother she asked me why it mattered, and when I asked my father he said if he wasn’t black he should be” [7]) is only around long enough for Gardiner to make a few “Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear” remarks, and the racially-ambiguous children (“When they get out of the pool and run back to the diving board, the water shimmers on their skin, which looks so smooth, as if it has been polished by Lemon Pledge. None of them are close to being ‘black.’ They are all different shades of brown” [7]) that have accompanied Bob Wuzzy to the Amorys’ house and may or may not be Bob’s actual children never reappear either. It’s possible that Lily’s mother hosted Wuzzy & Co. primarily (or only) to make Gardiner angry and lost interest in them after she divorced him. It’s also possible that she continues the work on her political causes after the divorce but that Daley, who is the first-person narrator, does not report on it because after the divorce she pays very little attention to her mother. While her mother is her primary custodial parent, Daley’s attentions during her pre-teen and teenaged years are on what happens in her father’s house, which is where the loudest and most attention-seeking demons of this dysfunctional family take root. Daley’s mother won’t win any Mother of the Year awards, but her dysfunction is quieter, and she lives on the fringes of the novel after the first few chapters.

We also never learn what “Project Genesis” is, though I’m pretty sure it’s not the same Project Genesis that plays an important role in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

Gardiner Amory sees himself as besieged on all fronts. Liberals and black people and women are encroaching upon his life in his small Massachusetts town (though he’s pleased that he can retreat to his all-white country club). He is a raging alcoholic fond of dramatic displays involving screaming, aggressive and semi-public sexual displays, and nudity. His friends love him; they see him as the life of any party. He works lazily at some financial firm, and his income is assured by virtue of his trust fund. Almost immediately after Daley and her mother leave, Gardiner begins seeing, and later marries, the mother of Daley’s good friend Patrick. When Daley visits her father on weekends, she shares her old room with Patrick’s sister, and Patrick has taken over her role as her father’s sidekick and ally. Daley’s mother’s divorce lawyer is a constant object of mockery and rage in this newly-created family. And of course, while Gardiner is sometimes a jovial drunk, at other times he is awful: derisive and narcissistic and mean. With his posse of dogs as his loyal companions and his status as Unspeakable Asshole, Gardiner has a lot in common with Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. I have no reason to think that King intended this connection, but it’s certainly present.

The first half of the novel brings us through these years – Daley’s adolescence and early adulthood – and while these 120-or-so pages are as painful as they sound, they are also beautiful. As maddening as Gardiner is, it is impossible to hate him (though it is certainly possible to wish for social services involvement). His new wife is hapless and needy; her children hapless, needy, and pathetic. Daley is pulled in all the directions you can imagine, vacillating between her deep need to be loved by her father and her awareness of how deeply pathetic and self-destructive he is.

The second half of the novel takes place in Daley’s late twenties, just after she receives a Ph.D in anthropology and is about to move on to a prestigious new job as a junior professor at UC Berkeley, where she plans to move with her new boyfriend – a black man with a Ph.D in philosophy who accepts a position much less prestigious than hers in order to move to California with her. The day before she leaves, she receives a phone call from her brother (whom I haven’t mentioned yet – he is about 5-6 years older than Daley, and his primary talent is disappearing whenever things get difficult) summoning her back to Massachusetts, where Gardiner’s second wife had just left him and he is a few drinks away from suicide-by-alcohol. Daley can’t point herself in any direction except at her father; she aims her tightly-packed car east instead of west and shows up at his house for the first time in years. Her boyfriend is first surprised, then furious; when she calls the anthropology department at Berkeley and quits her job, he leaves her. Daley enters the trenches of recovery with her father – she physically deposits him at AA every evening, cooks healthy food for him, and cleans up his house so it’s an inviting place for him to spend time. He starts looking her in the eye with a new appreciation. Initially skeptical, he begins to embrace AA and think of himself as an alcoholic in recovery. Daley agonizes over her lost job and her boyfriend’s departure, but she can’t turn away – her desperation for Gardiner’s love keeps her anchored (or shackled) there. She reconnects with a few old friends. After several months, though, Gardiner begins dating an old friend, a woman who has always thought of Gardiner as charismatic, risqué, and hilarious. It was the drunk Gardiner she liked, though, and slowly, not entirely knowing what kind of person she is unleashing, she coaxes the drinker back out. This part of the novel is almost unendurable – it is so sad, after everything that Daley gave up and all the progress that Gardiner has made – but it’s the path this novel has to follow. As encouraging as Gardiner’s recovery seems during the few months that he commits to AA, he is not a man who can stay sober, and King was bold and brave in insisting on bringing Gardiner all the way down to whatever happens after rock bottom. I’ve read so many novels that settle for easy answers, and I want to find all of those authors and hand them copies of this book with a little note that just says THIS.

The novel takes one more quick leap into the future and ends in 2008. I won’t tell you a lot about what happens there, but I will say that 1) the novel never stops being painful, 2) in spite of #1, Gardiner and Daley do get a reconciliation of sorts (and as someone who has seen a parent descend into physical decline and dementia, King gets these final scenes absolutely, painstakingly right), and 3) by 2008, Daley has her own small brood of mixed-race children, and a lot of the imagery from the first chapter is echoed in the last, except that in chapter 1 the mixed-race children are the interlopers, roughhousing in the Amorys’ backyard pool, chaotic and faceless and alien, and in the final chapter the mixed-race children are Daley’s own, intimately known and loved, part of the clan – and even Gardiner embraces them.

This is a wonderful novel. I recommend it to just about any reader, although it is certainly a painful read at times, so make sure your antidepressants are refilled and you have a plan in place for how you will bring yourself out of its cloud when you are finished: time spent with a goofy toddler would work, or maybe some sex, or maybe a classic episode of Saturday Night Live – one of the ones where Jon Lovitz played Dukakis, perhaps? Or, in my preferred mode of consolation, you could spend some good solid quality time with a rambunctious cat and the contents of a full-to-bursting paper shredder.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Lily King, Reviews by Bethany | Leave a comment

Final thoughts on Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander (by Jill)

outlander cover

It took every ounce of self-control I had to not walk to my book room Sunday night and pick up the next book in this series. Diana Gabaldon has a way with words.

So where was I with my summary? Ah, yes. Claire and Jamie come home from the trip where they got married, and settle into a routine and happy existence at Castle Leoch. Basically the rest of the book is about how Claire treats scrapes and bruises as the castle physician and Jamie trains horses, and everything is lovely. Ha! Not at all. I think this phase of their marriage lasts about two days. Then Jamie has to go off on a hunting trip with the Duke of Sandringham, a known homosexual, who enjoys Jamie’s company (he does this to ingratiate himself with the Duke so maybe he can help get him a pardon for the murder he didn’t commit but is wanted for). When Jamie’s gone, Claire goes to see Geillis Duncan because Laoghaire says Geillis is looking for her. Interestingly, Geillis is arrested for witchcraft and tossed in the thieves pit in town, and Claire is caught up in the mob. She is put on trial for witchcraft along with Geillis. Jamie returns just in time to rescue Claire, and Geillis sacrifices herself to save Claire. Or does she…?

The downside of Claire and Jamie running after he rescues her is that we never get to have a big confrontation between Claire and Laoghaire. I really would have enjoyed that scene, but maybe it’s still to come. Somewhere along the line Claire comes clean to Jamie about where and when she is from, and he takes her to Craigh na Dun and tells her that she needs to return to her time. He then takes off to a nearby cottage to wait for her to go. She, of course, doesn’t go, because who could leave the man who just saved her from being burned at the stake? It’s not an easy decision for our Claire, by any means. I felt her conflict. Gabaldon does a great job. And then she and Jamie travel to Jamie’s family home, Lallybroch, and they live happily ever after. No, of course not. They do go to Lallybroch, and meet Jamie’s sister Jenny, and her husband Ian, and their son little Jamie. There is a brief period of happiness here, and peace. It was sort of boring, but nice. And then, Jamie gets captured by British soldiers and ends up in a prison, at the mercy of good old Black Jack Randall. Claire leads a daring escape, but not before Randall tortures and rapes Jamie. Eventually they make it across the English Channel so Jamie can recuperate at the Abbey where his uncle is a monk. There, he develops a horrible infection in the hand that Randall broke in like a thousand places. Eventually he heals, and lovely things happen, and it’s beautiful and wonderful, and Claire is pregnant, and they live happily ever after. Maybe this time it’s true. If nothing else, the book ends on a happy note. But we all know there are many more pages of this saga to come.

So yeah. I know Bethany says this series is very uneven, but I don’t care, and I know she doesn’t either. I’m going to be a good girl and read a couple books off my list of “assigned reading,” and then I’m going back to see Jamie and Claire as soon as possible. Maybe we should change the name of our blog to Postcards from Lallybroch….

 

 

Posted in Diana Gabaldon, Fiction - Fantasy, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Reviews by Jill, TIME TRAVEL | 7 Comments

Sic Transit Gloria Ender: A Review of Orson Scott Card’s Children of the Mind (by Bethany)

children of the mind cover image

I read most of Orson Scott Card’s Ender books in the spring of 2013, which was a slow period in my blogging life. I wanted to hit a reading goal that I had set for myself (I didn’t make it), so when I finished a book I didn’t slow down to write about it but just went on to the next one. I regret that I didn’t write about this series that spring; sometime soon I would like to reread some of the earlier books (namely Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, and maybe also Shadows in Flight; definitely not the ill-advised Christmas-themed one, which was stupid, and not the ones that contain anti-gay-marriage rants, which are worse than stupid) and write about them here. I think Ender’s Game is the best children’s book ever written, even though its author didn’t intend it as a children’s book – and even though West Point and other elite military colleges cover it in courses on leadership – and I’m a little sad it wasn’t around when I was a child. I would have loved it.

Children of the Mind is certainly not one of the brightest lights in the Ender chandelier, but it was an interesting novel in some ways. If you missed my review of Xenocide a couple of months ago, you can check it out here for some context. At the beginning of Children of the Mind, Ender’s wife Novinha has just joined a religious order called Children of the Mind of Christ, and Ender has followed her. We have known about this religious order since Speaker for the Dead, but we have never learned much about its specific theology or origins. This order is distinct in that only married couples are allowed to join it, but once a couple joins they are no longer allowed to have sex. They take the usual vow of chastity common in Catholic orders, but they share living quarters with their spouses. As far as I can recall, we have never learned exactly why and how this order evolved the way it did, and because Children of the Mind is the title of the last novel, I have long assumed that some of my questions about the order would be answered. But no dice – most of this novel actually takes place on planets other than Lusitania (the one where Ender and Novinha live), and other than the fact that Novinha joins the order and Ender follows her and then Ender curls up and dies there (it’s more complicated than that, of course), not much happens to enlighten us about this religious order.

Like Xenocide, this novel is largely focused on trying to divert the Lusitania Fleet, which is headed to Lusitania on orders from Starways Congress and plans to blow Lusitania up with the M.D. Device or “Little Doctor,” the same weapon Ender deployed against the ‘buggers’ back in Ender’s Game. Starways Congress orders the fleet not to use the weapon, but the fleet is commanded by a rogue officer who decides to deploy it anyway. Since all of this happens in space, where it takes years and years for objects and information to get from one planet to another, our heroes still have time to divert the weapon before it explodes – but of course things get complicated.

At the end of Xenocide, Ender’s unconscious mind accidentally summons up the youthful images of his two siblings, Peter and Valentine, who then become characters in the novel. Much space is given in Children of the Mind to debates about the spiritual identity of Young Peter and Young Valentine. Do they have souls? If so, are their souls the same souls as Old (Dead) Peter and Old (Not Dead) Valentine? Eventually it is determined that Young Peter and Young Valentine each contain a portion of Ender’s soul, which is why Ender weakens and dies so rapidly in this novel. There is a lot of transmigration of souls going on in this novel in general, as everyone tries to figure out how to keep Jane (who is an entity created by the ansible network, which is sort of like the internet) alive when Starways Congress shuts off the ansibles in an attempt to kill her. It occurs to me that Yeats’ lines “Consume my heart away; sick with desire, / And fastened to a dying animal, / It knows not what it is, and gather me / Into the artifice of eternity” would make a great epigraph for this novel, but lately I’ve been thinking these lines should work as the epigraph of just about any piece of art created by a human being – at least if the human being is paying attention.

(What do you mean, that was my unfounded grandiose statement of the year? And who says I only get one? Who makes the rules around here?)

Sooner or later I figured out that the title Children of the Mind doesn’t refer to the religious order. The children of the mind are Young Peter and Young Valentine (who came into being at the behest of Ender’s mind), as well as Jane (who is all mind and no body) and the Hive Queen and the Fathertrees, who communicate through their minds without using any form of vocalization. All of the characters in this novel are children of the mind, except for us – mortal humans who die and who, therefore, are children of the body.

There’s plenty more I could say, except that so much of this novel follows directly from Xenocide and Speaker for the Dead, and you can read my reviews of those novels to get the general idea. I find it interesting that so much of sci-fi and fantasy literature ends up dealing with religious themes. If I had to name one primary theme for the Ender series, it would be forgiveness – and, specifically, the capacity of human beings to commit outrageous atrocities and still ultimately redeem themselves. Ender redeems himself a million times over, and almost everyone who knows the truth about him sees him as almost a saint, but he never manages to forgive himself. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see a literary character die – not because I dislike Ender but because he had been alive for over 3000 years and desperately needed an end to his own guilt and suffering, to the idea that he is somehow cursed – that misery follows him around the universe and blooms wherever he is planted.

I recommend this series, even though I am also happy to be done with it. The last two volumes aren’t the best, but that doesn’t change the fact that Orson Scott Card has done something wonderful here: a series that is equal parts morality play, parable, bildungsroman, and adventure story. These novels (especially the early ones) are subversive in the way that Jesus is subversive; by that I mean that they look straight at the human race and see that its selfishness, cowardice, and cruelty are located over and over again in the actions of people who have been given temporal power, while the poor and powerless are capable of endless compassion and justice and generosity. This quality is what I meant when I said that Ender’s Game is the perfect children’s book – and the sequels for the most part maintain the same focus on the courage and dignity of the powerless. I’m happy I’m done with this series, but mostly I’m just happy that I’ve read it. We need books like these.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - Fantasy, Fiction - general, Fiction - SciFi, Orson Scott Card, Reviews by Bethany | Leave a comment

A Review of Ann Napolitano’s A Good Hard Look (by Bethany)

a good hard look cover image 

The inclusion of Flannery O’Connor as a character ought to be enough to blah-proof any novel, wouldn’t you think? Ann Napolitano’s A Good Hard Look has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years like a reserve pitcher; I assumed that, with one of my favorite authors at its core, this book had to be good. I am so sorry to say that I was disappointed.

This novel (which lacks one single, clear protagonist – there’s a problem right off the bat) revolves around Melvin and Cookie Whiteson, who are moving to Cookie’s hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia to get married and start a family. Melvin, an orphaned heir to a wealthy family in New York, half-heartedly joins a law practice, but overall he is nonplussed by Milledgeville, Georgia and by just about everything else he encounters (notable exception to follow). He is pathologically phlegmatic and bored. He is attentive and affectionate toward Cookie in a way, but nowhere did I have the sense that these two characters were passionately in love with one another. I don’t know, maybe someone needs to reach in and muck around with Melvin’s neurotransmitters or something.

On the night before Melvin and Cookie’s wedding, everyone in town is awake all night because Flannery O’Connor’s peacocks won’t stop shrieking. Melvin and Cookie take advantage of the fact that they are awake to have sex for the first time. In the mid-coital hubbub, Cookie falls off the bed and hits her eye on the night table, and at her wedding the next day she is sporting a black eye, which of course is foreshadowing, right? Right.

And then there’s the utterly baffling character of Lona Waters. Lona makes curtains and smokes pot. She has a husband named Bill, who is a police officer, and a daughter named Gigi, who spends most of her time at the home of a neighbor named Miss Mary, who is the town gossip. Miss Mary has a son named Joe, who is engaging in various adolescent behaviors like locking himself in his room all afternoon and not wanting to tell his parents how his day went, and Miss Mary contacts Lona and suggests that since Miss Mary takes care of Gigi all afternoon, it would be only right for Lona to “take care” of Joe (who is seventeen) in return. So Lona hires Joe to be her curtain-making assistant and initiates him into the world of recreational drugs.

The only other major characters in the novel are Flannery O’Connor and her mother, Regina. This novel takes place in the last year of Flannery’s life. Her lupus causes her terrible pain, but she works tirelessly at her final novel (The Violent Bear it Away) and on her last few short stories. She is a controversial figure in town because everyone assumes she is writing about them. They recognize their town and some key personalities in O’Connor’s stories and novels, and they also recognize that the characters in O’Connor’s work are often petty, ignorant, and mean – and as a result they feel exposed and judged (I should add that I feel exactly the same way when I read O’Connor’s work, and I was born after her death – so this sense of feeling judged has more to do with O’Connor’s ability to capture the universal than to her descriptions of any one resident of Milledgeville – but you knew that). We learn later in the novel that Cookie actually left town and moved to New York (where she met Melvin) specifically because of a LOOK that Flannery O’Connor gave her when she presented an award at Cookie’s high school graduation.

Anyway, long story short: Melvin falls in love with Flannery O’Connor. They never kiss or make love or have an honest conversation about their feelings for each other; what happens instead is that Melvin gives Flannery driving lessons. She loves the independence of writing and the chance to spend some time away from her mother, and he loves – well, he loves being around a woman who doesn’t mind saying what she thinks and isn’t driven by convention the way Cookie is. When Melvin and Cookie have a baby, Melvin stops visiting, and Flannery is hurt and angry. The next time he visits, she refuses to speak to him.

At the same time, another unlikely couple is also falling in love: Lona Waters and Joe. When Joe first started working as Lona’s assistant, he had a slight crush on Lona’s daughter Gigi, but he soon realizes that he prefers Gigi’s mother, who looks like Gigi but is older and more mature and always has a pocket full of marijuana. They smoke together in her car before and after they go to work, and one day he decides to kiss her. She rebuffs him at first, but later she welcomes his advances and initiates more. The two are hired to make curtains for every room in Cookie and Melvin’s house, and they are often alone in the huge house, where they find little nooks and corners in which to make love. They have plans to leave Milledgeville after Joe’s high school graduation. They want to go to New York and get married.

OK, enough with the boring stuff. Let’s fast-forward to the ending, when Bill Waters catches Lona and Joe in bed and shoots Joe. The gunshot freaks out Flannery O’Connor’s peacocks, who proceed TO MURDER MELVIN AND COOKIE’S BABY. Yes, that’s right – Flannery O’Connor’s peacocks murder a baby but still don’t save this novel from being deeply and mortally humdrum. I feel nothing at all for any of the characters in this novel – not even Cookie, who ends up in a mental hospital, not even Gigi, whose father goes to prison for killing Joe while her mother sinks into a deep grief for her teenaged lover, and not even Flannery O’Connor, whom I am already predisposed to love. I carry Flannery O’Connor’s stories with me wherever I go, and I can fall into moments of sympathy for her even when I’m just driving down the highway or slicing an apple – but this novel in which she is a character did nothing for me.

I could go on about a number of small annoyances. How plausible is it, really, that Lona Waters had an endless supply of marijuana? I know full well that marijuana was not invented at the Polo Fields in San Francisco in the summer of 1967 – but did small-town Southern curtain-making housewives walk around with a week’s supply on their person at all times? Similarly, when Joe smells the marijuana, he knows immediately what it is – would a Milledgeville, Georgia high school boy in 1962 have known the smell of cannabis? Again, maybe he would. But in a novel like this, whose characters are so hollow and inauthentic, even small implausible moments start to seem monumental to a frustrated reader.

I do think, by the way, that building a novel around a figure like Flannery O’Connor is certainly an ambitious and difficult thing to do. I am not suggesting that I could have done better – though I might have stopped after fifty pages and decided that it wasn’t working. (I am a master at stopping novels after fifty pages and deciding they aren’t working).

So I don’t recommend this novel, but I do recommend Flannery O’Connor. If you haven’t read her yet, buy her Collected Stories and read them in reverse order, back to front. You won’t be disappointed.

Posted in Ann Napolitano, Authors, Fiction - general, Reviews by Bethany | 3 Comments

A Review of George Saunders’ Pastoralia (by Bethany)

Pastoralia cover image

The first George Saunders short story I ever read was “Victory Lap,” the first story in his recent collection Tenth of December. It’s a story about two teenagers who live across the street from one another, a boy and a girl. They are both home alone after school, and a criminal of some sort is in the early stages of breaking into the girl’s house to assault her in some way – rape, kidnapping, etc. The boy sees the criminal at work and understands what is going on, and he has a crush on the girl and longs to rescue her and win her love. However, the boy’s parents maintain a pathologically strict series of household rules, and each night they have sort of a confession ritual wherein the boy has to tell his parents about any choices he made during the day and explain every last minute detail of the reasoning behind his choices. One of the house rules is that the boy is not allowed to put himself in danger in any way. As he watches the criminal at work and thinks about the girl he loves (or “loves”) being harmed, his adrenaline is on red alert and he formulates one plan after another to rescue her, but he also keeps going back to his thoughts of how dull and dreary that night’s confession ritual will be and how much he dreads the lectures and assorted punishments he will receive for putting himself in danger (punishments which would involve the loss of various kinds of ‘points’; this family’s disciplinary system is as quotidian and bureaucratic as the DMV, which in its total absence of emotion feels almost worse than actual child abuse). Then, in a move that not too many writers would make (but which, of course, makes the story absolutely stunning), he takes the safe route, stays inside, and watches his beloved neighbor be kidnapped.

My first reaction was that this was one of the best short stories I had ever read. Saunders offers not a shred of backstory or authorial commentary: we are simply thrust into this real-but-skewed world and given the thoughts and experiences of all three characters (the girl, the boy, and the kidnapper), who don’t understand how off-kilter their world is. I was totally energized by the story and kicked myself for not reading George Saunders earlier. I totally understood what all the fuss was about.

Except for one thing – I read the rest of the book. The rest of the stories were equally weird, though not equally good, but when viewed in the aggregate they were alarming and overwhelming. George Saunders’ characters live lives circumscribed by bullshit. They are desperately afraid of their middle-management bosses. They are exploited by people who love them. They take fictional prescription medications with evocative made-up names. They live in the same horrible small towns that were the settings of their humiliating childhoods. They have jobs that require undignified uniforms. They misspell things. They have addictions and horrible grammar. They almost never pay the rent. Spending a few days in George Saunders’ world is like moving to a mountain town where the oxygen content of the air is less than one is used to. There’s a giddiness to it, an appreciation of beauty and subtlety – and every so often you feel the need to curl up and cry. And/or vomit.

George Saunders’ stories make me want my mommy.

All of this is a long way of saying that Pastoralia (published in 2000) affected me in the same way as Tenth of December. There is no doubt that this is a masterful collection of stories – but it should come with a warning label: DO NOT READ IF YOU ARE RUNNING LOW ON YOUR ANTIDEPRESSANTS. DO NOT READ IF ANYONE YOU LOVE IS UNEMPLOYED, MENTALLY UNSTABLE, OR IN A CUT-RATE NURSING HOME. DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE LESS MONEY THAN YOU WISH YOU HAD. DO NOT READ IF YOU ARE MORTAL.

The first story in Pastoralia is more of a novella. Its protagonist and unnamed first-person narrator works at a museum of some sort called Pastoralia (hence the title), where his job is to portray an early human – a “cave man,” if you will. He and his partner, Janet, share a habitat that is supposed to simulate the places where early humans lived – there are trees, rocks, etc. When they are in this habitat, they are not allowed to speak English or use any modern objects that indicate that they are not in fact cave people. If people speak to them, they are supposed to pretend to be afraid and go cower behind a rock. Behind the habitat, each of them has a small private space, where they sleep and spend their break time (being a cave man at Pastoralia is a 24/7 lifestyle, apparently – in this sense it reminds me of my career in boarding schools, but let’s not explore THAT connection any further than we have to), and there is a slot into which the management deposits a freshly-slaughtered goat every day (except when the narrator and/or Janet are being punished and/or manipulated, in which case they get a handful of crackers); the narrator carries the dead goat out into the public “habitat,” where he butchers it for the enjoyment of the tourists and then passes it along to Janet to be cooked. Rigid gender roles are alive and well at Pastoralia.

The narrator communicates with his employers and with the outside world primarily by fax. Every day, each employee is expected to evaluate his/her partner and submit the evaluation form by fax. Janet is not a very good cave woman – she routinely speaks English in the habitat and brings modern items out of her private space – but the narrator always gives her a positive evaluation. We don’t entirely know why, as Janet and the narrator are not especially close, but the narrator is very timid and passive and refuses to report on Janet’s misdeeds. Periodically the narrator (whose IQ is somewhere in the neighborhood of 80) is called out of the habitat for meetings with his boss (whose IQ is somewhere in the neighborhood of 90) and given lectures like this one: “We live in a beautiful world, full of beautiful challenges and flowers and birds and super people, but also a few regrettable bad apples, such as that questionable Janet. Do I hate her? Do I want her killed? Gosh, no, I think she’s super, I want her to be praised while getting a hot oil massage, she has some very nice traits. But guess what, I’m not paying her to have nice traits, I’m paying her to do consistently good work. Is she? Doing consistently good work? She is not. And here are you, saddled with a subpar colleague. Poor you. She’s stopping your rise and growth. People are talking about you in our lounge. Look, I know you feel Janet’s not so great. She’s a lump to you. I see it in your eye. And that must chafe. Because you are good. Very good. One of our best. And she’s bad, very bad, one of our worst, sometimes I could just slap her for what she’s doing to you” (21).

This opening novella is a good read – its plot is repetitive by design, because the narrator’s life is repetitive and he doesn’t seem able to do anything to break this monotony, but the story is not boring. It’s funny at moments, but whenever I smiled I was aware that somewhere outside my door – probably not too terribly far away – one person in a paper hat is giving this same lecture to someone else in a paper hat, asking that person to report on a third individual who should be wearing a paper hat but isn’t, because she just used it to wipe her butt or roll a joint or commit some other act that violates the health code. And I am also aware that only a few accidents of circumstance separate me from these people in paper hats: the fact that my parents bought me books and read them to me, that they talked to me and answered my questions, pointed me in directions where I would see beauty and kindness and work that brings genuine rewards. Reading George Saunders’ stories makes me feel that this part of the world that I have always tried to occupy – the part where people have careers that make them happy, where no one gives the middle finger to old ladies driving slowly, where people sleep under down comforters and most of the time manage to tell the difference between Onion articles and real news – is the tiniest little sliver of what’s out there. Reading George Saunders makes me look at every homeless person I see and wonder if he was once a cave man at Pastoralia, whether he was fired for incorrectly butchering the goat or for accidentally speaking English in front of a crowd of tourists or failing to fax in his reports on time.

Remember what I said earlier in this review about warning labels? Makes more sense now, doesn’t it?

The other stories in this collection are also good, although none of them stayed in my memory as well as “Pastoralia,” just as none of the other stories in Tenth of December stayed with me as well as “Victory Lap” did. I think after a few stories a certain part of my brain shuts down; I just can’t process any more squalor and petty bullying and people deluded into thinking that the bullshit that surrounds them is worthy of their attention. Of course this novel is not intended to represent a cross-section of society. Of course it’s satire; of course it’s hyperbole. But when it’s ten o’clock and the house is silent and the heat is cranked up to nonagenarian levels and I’m propped up with pillows and reading in bed, my cat Cleo having paroxysms of happiness because as far as she is concerned the best thing that could ever happen is for me to read in bed so she can snuggle up to me, shoving her face into my armpit over and over again and then peeking out to make sure I’m still there, I fall for Saunders’ act. I find these stories absolutely terrifying.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Fiction - Short Stories, Fiction - short story collections, George Saunders, Reviews by Bethany | 1 Comment

Ceci N’est Pas Un Yarn Along Photo (by Bethany)

Yarn Along 10.15.14

Don’t look now but I totally found a loophole in the rule about the orange cowl that I set for myself last week. I promised that I would finish the cowl before my next Yarn Along photo. The orange cowl is not finished, but that’s okay because the photo I am posting today is clearly not a Yarn Along photo. It has yarn in it, yes, but there’s no book, for one thing, plus there’s a stapler and a pile of rubber bands and – could those be some rotten pears? What kind of person would put rotten pears in a Yarn Along photo? Nobody I know.

I am still reading lots and lots of books, and I took a break from blogging this weekend to focus on my 20th high school reunion. Preparing for and recovering from this event took up more time than I expected. I’ll be back soon with more on War and Peace and PAT CONROY MONTH!!! and a really disappointing novel about Flannery O’Connor.

Have a great week!

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her blog, Small Things.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Update on Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander (by Jill)

outlander cover

 

I just logged onto the blog to see if Bethany had posted anything today. And then I remembered that it’s Tuesday, which is my day to post. Ooops. I forgot. Anyway. I’m now about halfway through Outlander, and things have, erm, heated up a bit. Let’s suffice it to say that I now know why some bookstores put this series in the Romance section.

The second quarter of Outlander focuses on Claire and Jamie’s developing relationship. The MacKenzies go traveling around their lands, and Claire is brought along in case there are any accidents along the way. She sees this as fortuitous since this may be an opportunity to escape back to the stones at Craigh na Dun. But what kind of TIME TRAVEL/historical fiction adventure would this be if our heroine got back to the future less than halfway through the book? Gabaldon has other plans for poor Claire. At an early point in their travels Jack Randall crawls back out from under his rock and demands that Claire be delivered for questioning to Fort William, and Dougal, who is leading the MacKenzie party, decides to have Claire get married—as a Scottish citizen she can’t be compelled anywhere by the British. Claire agrees to marry Jamie, though she has plenty of reservations about engaging in polygamy. Things get even more complicated when Claire realizes she has feelings for Jamie. And then not a lot happens except for a lot of sex.

And then after Claire and Jamie have been married for about a month, the group leaves her alone while they go to meet with a fellow named Horrocks who has information for Jamie about getting his name cleared (he has been accused of murdering a British soldier—this is a plotline that is just beginning to be developed). Claire realizes she might be able to make a break for Craigh na Dun, but in her efforts to make her way, she is captured by Jack Randall’s men, forcing Jamie to make a desperate attempt to rescue her from Fort William, which is successful, but causes quite a bit of trouble between Claire and Jamie. He actually takes his belt to her, which is something that’s common in eighteenth century Scotland, but not so much so in twentieth century England. And then they have more sex.

As the second quarter of the book winds up, the rent-collecting party returns to Castle Leoch and the news of Claire and Jamie’s marriage becomes public knowledge. Some folks are very pleased, but others are not so much so, especially Laoghaire, a sixteen year old girl who has a crush on Jamie, and who perhaps he has led on a bit. I suspect this girl is going to cause trouble for our two lovebirds.

Other plotlines are developing as well. I know we have not seen the last of Jack Randall, for example. There has also been more backstory about Jamie’s family. Both of his parents are deceased, but he does have a living sister named Jenny, who we will meet fairly soon, and a family estate called Lallybroch, where we will go in the near future (I’ve looked ahead a little). Geillis Duncan was around for a bit, and very drunk. This scene was actually pretty funny. I know she is important down the line but I’m not sure how important she will be in Outlander.

I’m still enjoying Outlander quite a bit. It’s long but goes fast, and it’s one of those books I want to just sit and read and ignore everything else around me. Hopefully by Thursday I’ll have more to report.

Posted in Diana Gabaldon, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, TIME TRAVEL | 3 Comments