A Long-Ago PFP Board Meeting

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This is Jill and me on the beach at Tahoe just a little over four months ago. The day after this photo was taken, I woke up before dawn, drove back to the Bay Area, and started my new job – my first full-time teaching job in five years. See that book I’m reading (I’m the one in the chair, with the polka dots)? I finished it maybe two months later, and my goal ever since has been to read another book that’s actually for grown-ups. I’ve almost succeeded, but not quite. If it’s possible to be run over by a truck and love it, that’s what this fall has been like for me on every level – physically, emotionally, professionally, intellectually, personally. Insert mandatory truism here about securing your own oxygen mask before helping others, yes, but the fall is almost over and soon it will be winter break and surely I’ll read books and blog about them then, won’t I? Of course I will. See you soon.

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Progress report on Drums of Autumn (by Jill)

Drums of Autumn cover

 

As usual when reading a Diana Gabaldon book, progress has been slow but steady.  After a month of reading I’m just about halfway through, but haven’t gotten to a point where I felt an update was warranted just yet.  But it seemed like maybe I should just go ahead and do one even though it seems like many pages are going by without a whole lot actually happening.

That being said, Drums of Autumn opens in June of 1767 with Claire, Jamie, and their nephew Ian about to watch a hanging in Charleston, North Carolina.  Two men are to be hanged, one of which Jamie knew back when he was in prison for his part in the Rising back in Scotland.  The other may be important later.  The second convict manages to escape.  After this happens, Jamie and Claire and Ian and someone named Duncan, another former prison friend, break into a cemetery to bury said friend.  Then they find the escaped convict and help him make his way to some friends.  Then Jamie and Ian and Claire hop on a boat up some river to get to Jamie’s aunt Jocasta’s plantation, River Run.  The escaped convict and his friends are pirates and they steal the jewels that the Frasers found in the cave at the end of Voyager.  Many more pages go by, with long, long descriptions of how hot it is in North Carolina in the summer.  After possibly the longest river trip ever, they arrive at River Run.  Aunt Jocasta is blind, and a widow, but has a staff of slaves who are devoted to her, and seems to be getting along just fine.  But she needs her nephew to be the male face of the family.  Which Jamie doesn’t want to do.  So after Claire fixes an inguinal hernia on the dinner table during a party one night, they decide to head out into the frontier and find some land, as the governor of North Carolina recommended they do.  Where I am right now it’s Christmas of 1767, and Jamie has thrown out his back hunting an elk.  So he and Claire hole up for the night to have sex and hide from the savages.

In the meantime, back in 1969, Roger Wakefield and Brianna Randall are falling in love and trying to find any information they can about what has happened to Claire and Jamie.  And they just found something in a newspaper from 1776 that says they are killed in a fire.  Which I’m pretty sure is going to precipitate another trip through the stones, and not just because I know the bare bones of the plot of the rest of the book.

So.  I am enjoying Drums of Autumn because I love the characters and am happy to spend time with Claire and Jamie.  But I’m starting to see that Diana Gabaldon has a problem: her editors are afraid of her.  The trip up the river from Charleston to River Run really didn’t need to take as many pages as it did, and if Stephen Bonnet (the convict who they help escape from Charleston who ends up robbing them on the boat to River Run) doesn’t turn back up later on to cause more trouble or to be punished for his misdeeds then I’m really going to be annoyed, because if so, all the pages dedicated to him were wasted.

I’m not minding the occasional side trips to the twentieth century to hang out with Roger and Brianna; I like them, but wish they would hurry up and get to the part where they decide to time travel.  In this series, the eighteenth century is infinitely more interesting than the twentieth.

More soon, I promise.

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A Review of Lawrence Osborne’s The Forgiven

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A month ago I could have written a fantastic review of this book – its tension, its creepiness, its unlikeable protagonist, the works. But for now, here are the basics. This is a novel about David Henniger and his wife Jo, successful but unhappy London professionals who travel to Morocco to attend a hedonistic weekend gathering at the home of their friends Richard and Dally. David and Jo are fractious on the long drive from the coast to their friends’ rural enclave, and David drinks way more alcohol than anyone who is about to be driving for hours in a rental car on narrow dirt roads in a foreign country has a right to drink. Jo complains about his drinking but doesn’t insist he stop or that she take the wheel. This early exposition seems to epitomize their relationship, which is miserable and driven forward by habit and inertia. Before they reach Richard and Dally’s compound, a young man steps into the road in front of the car, and David hits him. Unsure of what to do, David props the dead man up in the back seat of the car, and he and Jo continue on their way.

Writing the plot out in this way makes me wonder why I continued reading after this opening chapter. I don’t have much experience with late-night vehicular manslaughter, mind you, but if I did I certainly would not put the corpse in my rental car and bring it along to the home of my hedonistic friend. In every other way, David is portrayed throughout this novel as a jerk. Not as a terrible person – there’s no suggestion that he killed the man on purpose, and he definitely feels guilty for the accident – but as a jerk, the kind of guy who if he killed a man by accident certainly wouldn’t bother to take responsibility for the body. This moment is also clearly the novel’s first crisis point: the place that determines the route the novel will take. And this novel is very well structured: it unfolds from this moment of original sin and proceeds step by step toward its conclusion in a series of plausible, inevitable steps. But the initial incident is a bit off, in my opinion. The novel never fully convinces me that David is the sort of person who would take a body into his car in the way he does.

This is a novel about both the clash of cultures and the divide between rich and poor. Richard and Dally are fantastically wealthy and have essentially purchased a small town, built a wall around it, and created their own little world of miniature pleasure palaces. They have many local servants whom they seem to treat relatively well, but they are also distrusted by the locals both for their Western-ness (one is British and one American) and for being, you know, “sodomites.” But while they are known factors in their community who, if nothing else, help stimulate the local economy, the locals have no patience for David, whom they see as a symbol of Western arrogance and dislike immediately. Dally also becomes angry at David for bringing the body to their party and therefore bringing suspicion and bad joo-joo down on their home. So when some of the dead boy’s relatives show up at the compound wanting to take David for a three-day ride into the Moroccan backcountry, Dally and some of the servants stand back and let them take him.

This book is part of the “multiple threads of cultural misunderstanding lead to tragedy” genre that for a while seemed poised to be the seminal art form of our era – a genre epitomized by Little Bee and White Tiger and Tortilla Curtain and Barbarian Nurseries and by the movies Crash and Babel – until it was eclipsed by the climate-change-related dystopia. Of course every character has his or her own perspective on the plot, and Osborne provides flashbacks to the life of the dead man, whose name was Driss, and we learn that he too had his complicated story. And along the way we also learn about Morocco’s fossil market. Before I read this book, I did not know that one of the primary livelihoods for the poor in North Africa comes from selling fossils that apparently are a dime a dozen in the naked rock cliffs in the northern Sahara (I did, however, experience the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon about the Moroccan fossil market for about a week after I read this book, and what’s not to like about the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon?). Many of the local people who climb the cliffs, remove the fossils (which seem to be largely sea creatures, from a previous geographical era when the Sahara was covered by water), clean them, and prepare them for sale believe that they are the remains of demons that once populated the earth but were destroyed in Noah’s flood. So when they learn that wealthy people in the west want to pay large amounts of money to buy demon corpses to mount in their homes and gardens, they become even more suspicious of Westerners than they already were.

This hasn’t been a great review, since my memory of the book wasn’t the greatest – but I do recommend it. I was riveted by it while I was reading, and I think it’s well crafted and look forward to reading other titles by this author. And the ending – well, the ending borrows a play from Flannery O’Connor’s playbook (spoiler alert for those in the know: think Misfit), and was moderately satisfying. But only moderately.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Fiction - Multiple Threads of Cultural Misunderstanding Lead to Tragedy, Lawrence Osborne, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In which Diana Gabaldon resurfaces on Postcards from Purgatory (by Jill)

Drums of Autumn cover

The fourth book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is called Drums of Autumn, and as I begin my annual trip back in time with Claire Beauchamp-Randall-Fraser and her Scottish highlander husband Jamie, I can hear the titular autumn drums beating outside my door. It’s been a long summer, and I can almost smell the pumpkin spice in the air the past couple of days. I haven’t gotten very far into the novel yet, because there is this pesky situation that I have: I also just started watching Game of Thrones, and it’s a difficult show to watch with only one eye. So until I find out why all of my coworkers cried while watching the season seven finale, reading progress is going to be a little slow.  But I promise to keep everyone updated on Claire and Jamie’s adventures!  Bethany tells me there are going to be some really interesting anesthesia-free surgeries in this book….

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An Indiespensible Update (by Jill)

I may have not been writing much lately, but I have definitely been reading. Not as much as I’d like, of course, but that would be true even if I weren’t working 12-13 hour days at work more often than not.

One of my reading goals for this year has been to get caught up on the Indiespensible books that Powell’s sends me every 6-8 weeks, and I’ve actually managed to make some headway, having read six of them so far this year. I’ve still got quite a few to go before I’m caught up. I’m never actually going to get caught up, but I’d like at least to have read all of the books that I received prior to this calendar year before 2017 becomes 2018. The good news is that the last one I finished, City on Fire, gets me through all of the books from 2015, and that means I only have to read 2016’s selections (there are seven of them) in the next five and a half months to reach my goal. That is probably not going to happen, because I think the average length of these books is over five hundred pages…. But you know how we are around here: we like to set borderline unattainable reading goals and then have angst about it. Or at least I do.

I thought maybe I could talk about my Indiespensible reads in one post, because that would be a sensible way to lump things together but not so cumbersome of a post that no one wants to read it!

Our Endless Numbered Days, Claire Fuller (Indiespensible #52 from April 2015)

I finished this one in March. When I first started it I was worried it was going to be like In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, which if you remember was a super weird Indiespensible book that I read back in June of 2014, but it wasn’t really. And that’s a good thing. Our Endless Numbered Days starts in 1976, with 8-year-old Peggy Hillcoat living with her parents in the London suburbs. Her mother is a concert pianist and her father is, well, a wacko. He is a survivalist, and he and his wife are not getting along well in the summer of 1976 when we meet this strange family. Mom goes on tour, and Peggy and her father go camping, as they like to do. After a few days of hiking across the countryside, Peggy’s father tells her that the world outside has ended and that they are the only ones left. They find a cabin in the woods of Germany I think (that maybe he knew about in advance) and set up housekeeping. And they are there for nine years before Peggy escapes and makes her way home. I don’t want to do spoilers but let’s just say that Peggy is something of an unreliable narrator. I quite enjoyed this book and wouldn’t mind rereading it someday.

 

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, Vendela Vida (Indiespensible #53 from July 2015)

Read in April. Bethany actually read and blogged about this book back in 2015 shortly after it came out, and I thought she didn’t like it, but upon rereading her review just now, she actually did. I liked it too, though the structure was a bit annoying—no chapters, written in the second person. Thankfully there are page breaks, or else I would have been in some sort of reading hell. The only thing worse than no chapters is long chapters with no page breaks. I was surprised that the second person narration didn’t bother me at all. It seemed to be the right way to tell the story of a woman who has found herself alone and adrift in a foreign country (Morocco) with no identification or money. Bethany did a great job summarizing The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty in her post, so I’ll refer you there. Suffice it to say there is no tidy ending and if I had endured what the protagonist endured I would definitely be tempted to chuck it all and go to Morocco too.

 

Best Boy, Eli Gottlieb (Indiespensible #54 from August 2015)

Also read in April. Best Boy is a story about a man named Todd Aaron, who has lived at the Payton Living Center for almost forty years. He’s autistic, and had the misfortune of being born back when people who were a bit different got put in asylums. I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time about ten years ago and did not love it, so I was worried that this book would go down likewise. But it did not. Todd was a really sympathetic character and the author did a great job of not turning him into a caricature. Best Boy was partially character study and partially plot-driven, and did a really good job of telling a simple story with great detail.

 

Did You Ever Have a Family, Bill Clegg (Indiespensible #55 from September 2015)

This one was one of my favorite books I have read this year, I think. Actually, now that I think about it I’ve enjoyed most of the books I’ve read this year. This book was not terribly long, but it’s difficult to sum up in a couple of words. It’s a multiple viewpoint novel, which I love, that revolves around a tragedy that takes place in a small Connecticut town. June Reid’s entire family: her daughter (and only child), her daughter’s fiancé, her boyfriend, and her ex-husband are killed in a freak explosion that burns her house to the ground on the morning of her daughter’s wedding. Clegg jumps around in time from events leading up to the accident to the aftermath. I found it to be stunningly well done. The characters were generally all good people, but were not perfect, and the author did such a good job with all of them. I may be exaggerating because it’s been a few months since I finished it, but I don’t remember anything I disliked about this book. I definitely recommend it. It was sad, but also hopeful.

 

City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg (Indiespensible #56 from October 2015)

Oh this book. I was afraid of its girth but ended up finding it tremendous, and looking back I can’t think of how Hallberg could have made it any shorter than its nine hundred and eleven pages. I could have lived in its pages for longer than the month I spent in it. I didn’t want to put it down. The novel takes place in New York City in the fall of 1976 to summer of 1977, but really reaches back before then and extends much past then. This is yet another novel with a large cast of characters with many points of view, though unlike in Did You Ever Have a Family, I did not like all of the characters in City on Fire. Some of them were just not good people. Some of them were remarkably complex, because we get to learn what many different people think of them. I highly recommend City on Fire for anyone who wants to get immersed in a long novel.

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A Brief Review of Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine

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This is one of those “quietly good” books I keep meaning to read more of. Though only 144 pages long, it tells a complex story from five distinct points of view: one chapter each from the third-person perspective of a mother, her daughter, and her son; an odd first-person plural chapter told by the combined consciousness of the two children, and a very short final chapter in the first-person voice of the children’s father. This family is removed from their home in Berkeley during the Japanese internment. The children’s father – we learn slowly – was removed from his home on the evening of the Pearl Harbor attack, incarcerated first in Montana, then in Texas, and then in New Mexico. He remains in prison until after the war ends. His wife and children are removed from their home several weeks later and sent first to live in horse stables at the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, CA (now a mall where Jill and I used to go to discount double features for – what was it? – $5? Maybe less?) and then to Delta, Utah, where they lived out the war in a tiny cell.

What makes this book distinctive is its defiant refusal to explain anything – a wise yet sad strategy, I suppose, in a book about an episode in history that defies explanation. This book simply narrates. It’s like an exercise in simple narration from a Creative Writing I class – but an exercise done very, very well by a gifted writer. We’re never told outright that the family is Japanese. In the opening chapter, which opens at the moment the children’s mother reads a notice about “Evacuation Order #19” and immediately turns around and methodically packs her possessions and arranges to be at the train station at the required time, we rarely enter the protagonist’s head. Even when she starts to purchase a hammer, changes her mind, then goes home and matter-of-factly kills the family dog with a shovel, all we see is her determination – her actions, not her thoughts. The book is full of moments like this: when the 11 year-old daughter meets a man on the train and tries to lure him toward her mother (“Isn’t she beautiful?”) only to quickly retreat. When the son captures a turtle and keeps in in a box, listening all night long to the sound of its claws clicking against the box. When the family comes home and settles automatically to sleep on the living room floor as if they were still in their cell in Utah. When the father comes home. Holy crap, when the father comes home.

As quietly good as this novel is, I am actually thinking of teaching it to my eighth graders this coming year. Eighth graders and quietly good novels don’t always mix well, but I think this novel is emotionally resonant enough that it will win the students over, and the fact that much of the novel is told by youthful narrators is a plus as well. Most importantly, this book is an excellent tool with which to teach students to keep track of details and use them to make inferences. Like many quietly good novels, book is like a game of Taboo. Certain themes are present – the cruelty of authority, discrimination and injustice, the individual vs. society, quiet endurance as a central facet of the human condition – but they are never addressed outright. Like The Diary of Anne Frank, this book is also about the fact that life – especially the interior development of children and adolescents – keeps rolling right on ahead even under terrible conditions. I recommend this book to a wide variety of readers.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Julie Otsuka, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Review of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot

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When we were freshmen in college, Jill gave me a book of cartoons for Christmas called I Went to College… and it Was Okay. I looked for the book before I started writing this review, and I couldn’t find it. It may have disappeared in one of my many moves over the last 22 years. I did discover that you can buy a used copy on Amazon for $1.99, however.

At the time I thought this book perfectly captured the feeling of being an 18 year-old college freshman. For academically-oriented kids, college is the culmination of everything they have worked for in their lives – so why do they spend so much time staring off into space in libraries and walking to gas stations in the middle of the night to buy bad coffee? I wondered it then and I wonder it now.

Around the same time Jill bought me that book, Elif Batuman (and Selin, the protagonist of her novel, whom I assume to be Batuman’s alter ego) was filling out her own college applications. Batuman is a year younger than I am, and she enrolled at Harvard a year after I enrolled at Dartmouth. While different in its particulars, this novel perfectly captures my own experience as a college freshman.

To begin with, there’s email. At Dartmouth, we were issued Mac Quadras out of a big white truck and told to plug the Ethernet cables into our printer ports. Because so many students forgot this counterintuitive instruction and tied up the technology help line, the college pre-programmed each computer with a screen saver showing a picture of Dartmouth Hall with the words “Put it in the printer port!” I forgot the instructions anyway. I called the technology help line.

Within seconds of putting the cable in the printer port, we were online. We were told that Dartmouth was, at the time, the second most fully wired campus in the nation after the Naval Academy. I remember a website that was just a hamster running in a wheel. I remember porn about the Smurfs. I remember a kid saying in a comical tone in class that he had looked up an allusion in “the DCIS* Online Bible,” and we all laughed, students and professor, at the silliness of this. And I remember my dorm-mate Simon and his rubber chicken, Keith, whom I’ve written about on his site before.

*Dartmouth College Information Services, I think.

Batuman’s novel begins like this: “I didn’t know what email was until I got to college. I had heard of email, and I knew that in some sense I would ‘have’ it. ‘You’ll be so fancy,’ said my mother’s sister, who had married a computer scientist, ‘sending your e, mails.’ She emphasized the ‘e’ and paused before the ‘mail’” (3). The quotation marks around “have” are the best part.

Batuman’s protagonist, Selin, maintains this distant, almost anthropological approach to narrating her freshman year of college. The novel’s second page – which continues to contemplate email – could almost be written by a researcher from a distant land: “There was another world. You could access it from certain computers, which were scattered throughout the ordinary landscape, and looked no different from regular computers. Always there, unchanged, in a configuration nobody else could see, was a glowing list of messages from all the people you knew, and from people you didn’t know, all in the same letters, like the universal handwriting of thought or of the world…And each message contained the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you – all the words you threw out, they came back. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it at any time” (4).

The intersection of Selin’s life with other lives begins in her Russian class, where she meets Svetlana, a self-possessed Yugoslav who becomes her best friend, and Ivan from Hungary, who becomes her love interest. Selin meets both of them during a dispute about choosing Russian names – in other words, about assuming an alternate identity, which is what one’s freshman year in college is all about, really. First as Sonya, her Russian-class alter ego, and later as herself, Selin begins an ongoing email flirtation with Ivan, an exchange that includes passages like “Things just aren’t that easy in real life. You can’t just tell an ache, ‘Go back into the rock.’ Moreover, I think ‘peace’ is misleading. It can’t possibly be the same thing as cereal” (148). As baffling as that is, Ivan – a baffling dude in his own right – picks right up where she left off: “Your atom, I think it will never go back to peace, to cereal or rocks or anything like that. Once it has been seduced there is no way back, the way is always ahead, and it is so much harder after the passage from innocence. But it does not work to pretend to be innocent anymore. That seduced atom has energies that seduce people, and these rarely get lost” (149). These passages make a little more sense in context, but not much.

I enjoyed the whole novel, but my favorite passages come from Selin’s first encounters with college-level liberal arts classes. Entire sections are written in a tone just like the “Findings” section on the back page of Harpers (here’s a sample if you’re not familiar with it). Selin’s weirdest class is “Constructed Worlds,” in which, says Selin, “we went to the Museum of Natural History, where we saw a brace of pheasants that had belonged to George Washington, a turtle collected by Thoreau, and ‘about a million ants,’ described as ‘E.O. Wilson’s favorites.’ I was impressed that E.O. Wilson had been able to identify, in this world of seemingly infinite ants, his one million favorites. We saw what was believed to be the largest skull of a living crocodile species in any collection. When they cut open the crocodile’s stomach, they found a horse and 150 pounds of rocks” (25). Elsewhere, Batuman’s prose style mimics DeLillo’s: “From the top of the escalator, all of Filene’s was spread out below you, like some historical tapestry. Then you were in it. As far as the eye could see, shoppers were fighting over cashmere sweater sets, infants’ party dresses, and pleated chinos, with a primal hostility that seemed to threaten the very bourgeois values embodied by those garments. A heap of thermal long underwear resembled a pile of souls torn from their bodies. Women were clawing through the piled souls, periodically holding one up in the air so it hung there all limp and abandoned” (52). And when Selin is assigned in linguistics class to interview native English speakers from different regions about the words ‘dinner’ and ‘supper,’ her two roommates, Angela and Hannah, square off: “[They] got into an argument about which was more formal, Thanksgiving dinner or the Last Supper. They debated the difference between supper and a snack. Hannah said it depended on whether the food was hot or cold” (31). This is what I remember about college – or about freshman year of college, anyway – the endless arguments about nothing. They were never fun, but everyone else seemed to be having fun, so you just sat there, thinking about how much you hated your clothes.

This has been point-and-grunt literary criticism at its best, I know, but when I read a novel that I really love, I don’t want to write about it. I want to show you the parts I loved best. I haven’t done this novel justice and hope you’ll consider reading it if you enjoy novels that combine a disconnected narrative voice, satire of late-20th-century academia, a wacky cast of characters, and brilliant, ironic prose – or even if you don’t but suspect that you might be persuaded. Also, I hope this novel wins the Pulitzer. That is all.

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