Friday, April 11, 2014

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (2012)

My truly excellent DAFFODILS book club picked Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (2012) as our latest read. Interestingly, this is the second Chabon book we've read for this book club -- we read The Yiddish Policemen's Union back in 2008 (!!!) when it was also just a year old.

One thing I like about Michael Chabon is that he is always willing to try things, even if they don't always work out. Here he made the two main characters of his novel (Archy and Gwen, a married couple, and Titus, Archy's recently discovered teenage son) African-Americans in north Oakland. Giving voice to a racial group and an urban cultural experience that is not his own was a bit of a risk. I'm not sure it paid off entirely (and sometimes feels a little problematic), but I can say that the black characters were a lot more interesting and fully drawn than the main white characters, Aviva and Natt, and their teenage son Julie.

Archy and Natt are business partners and best friends. They run Brokeland Records, a stereotypical cool guy record store (oh the record store stereotypes, and the never ending record geek talk, they are heavy here). It has never done that well, and with the advent of a new mega-store down the block, run by ex-fooball star and neighborhood success story, Gibson Goode, Brokeland looks like it will go broke for good pretty soon. On the lady side of things, Gwen and Aviva are midwives and partners who butt heads with the hospital system and, sometimes, each other. Gwen is also extremely pregnant with she and Archy's first child. To add in some more stress, Archy's teenage son from a brief youthful fling, Titus, is back in the picture after a childhood in Texas, Archy is cheating on Gwen, Julie is in love with Titus, and Archy's extremely estranged father (and former blaxplotation / kung fu star), Luther, is sticking his nose in where Archy doesn't want it stuck.

Whew. With so much happening, it is easy to see why this is a compelling read. What is hard to see (or explain) is why it is sometimes a pretty slow one. It doesn't seem to be tied to a character or section or plot point, but sometimes I just lost my momentum on this thing. Other times, though, I was really into it. I'm glad I read this one -- the good parts made up for the sloggy bits, and the parts that didn't work made the parts that do work even more interesting. I'm interested in seeing what my fellow DAFFODILS think of this one and if we can collectively figure out what on earth it's deal is.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Nowhere is a Place by Bernice McFadden (2006)

About a year ago, I read a copy of Bernice McFadden's book Gathering of Waters (reviewed here) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, and really loved it. Lo and behold, another McFadden book has come my way from the same source: Nowhere is a Place (2006).

The framing story here is a road trip with Sherry and her mother, Dumpling, from Dumpling's home in California to a family reunion in Georgia. Sherry is in her late-30s, secretly pregnant, coming out of a bad long-term relationship with a white man that her mother never liked, and living in Mexico after years of searching and globetrotting.

Sherry and Dumpling aren't that close, but at the start of the road trip, Sherry tells her mother that she wants to write a novel about their family history and the heart of the book are the words that Sherry writes each night after hearing her mother retell the family stories and that Dumpling reads and reacts to the next day.

The family story is rich, deep, and tragic. Starting from the massacre of an Indian village and the kidnapping and selling of the children into slavery, moving through rape, brutality, love, marriage, and heart break, heading north and cutting loose, and eventually ending right back in the car with Sherry and Dumpling. Much like Gathering of Waters, a simple plot description doesn't do this story justice. McFadden has a perfect sense of timing and description, and the hard-earned bursts of violence and revenge hit the reader just right.

This is a re-issue of a novel from several years ago, and it shares the same delicate balance between poetry and a harsh narrative that I found in the more recently published Gathering of Waters. While the framing narrative is a little clunky at first and the book took a bit to really click for me, the payoff is worth a little patience at the beginning. I'm definitely going to keep an eye out for more of McFadden's novels.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Where the Moon Isn't by Nathan Filer (2013)

Our latest Debbie Downer book club read (for which, as you might remember, we only read depressing books) is Where the Moon Isn't by Nathan Filer (2013) [published as The Shock of the Fall in the UK].

Our narrator is Matthew, a schizophrenic young man in Bristol, England.When Matthew was a child, he and his older brother Simon, who had Down Syndrome, snuck out of their family's vacation rental late at night. Matthew deliberately scares his brother who ends up having a tragic accident and dying.

Fast-forward ten years and Matthew is under professional care. He is alternately committed to a mental hospital or living on his own but coming into a day program for therapy, activities, and his mandated medication. Before he was hospitalized he had moved out of his parents house into his own apartment and then quickly started hearing his brother Simon talking to him. This escalated into a full-blown obsessive crazy person scenario that ultimately resulted in Matthew's hospitalization.

The book we are reading is the book Matthew is writing from the computer at the hospital day center and, when he goes off his meds and holes up in his apartment, from the typewriter that his grandmother gave him. The book uses different fonts to indicate the different writing locales and intersperses handwritten letters from Matthew's social worker and drawings that he creates to illustrate his story. I can't quite decide if I liked the conceit of the different fonts or found it distracting -- it really rides the line -- but I did like the construct of the book and the way that Matthew's narrative voices changes as his mental health ebbs and flows. The movement between the present and the past and his slow movement to describing the accident with his brother and the aftermath of his psychotic break are well timed and effective.

Filer worked as a mental health nurse for ten years before writing this book, and that experience combined with the energy of the story resulted in a lot of excitement for this debut novel. Multiple publishing houses entered into a bidding war that increased publicity for the book before it even came out, and Filer went on to win awards a lot of favorable reviews for his work.

This is definitely a strong debut novel and Filer's decade-long experience as a mental health nurse has given him a unique perspective on his subject matter. That being said, I'm not sure it lives up to its bidding war / award winning hype. Still, this is a fast and unique read and worth your time.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Malice Matrimonial by Joan Fleming (1959)

When we were in New York for my sister's wedding last August, one of my favorite stops was at the Strand Book Store ("18 miles of books. Since 1927."). I'd recommend adding a stop at the Strand (and some extra room in your baggage) to anyone heading to NYC for a visit. I got this pretty brittle but barely read copy of Malice Matrimonial by Joan Fleming (1959) in the basement of the book store from a big table full of other ignored books of this type for only $1. That is my kind of table, folks.

Fleming was a British crime novelist who published over 30 novels from the 1940s through the 1970s. For those of you who care about this kind of thing (Dr. M), she didn't write her first one until she was 41 and she had a very successful career.

This is the first of Fleming's novels that I've read, and while I finished it over a week ago I still haven't been able to get my head around how I feel about it. Our hero, Henry Ormskirk, is a rather dull young man with interesting friends. He is dumped by his fiance, loses his job, and then goes to a party given by Venice, an exotic woman who owns an exclusive fashion boutique, with his roommate to cheer himself up. While there, Henry meets and quickly falls madly in love with Venice's daughter Pia, recently reunited with her mother in England after being raised by her father, a Count, in Italy. Things move at a brisk pace and before you know it Henry and Pia are married, and Henry has a new job drawing sketches of models in new dresses at Venice's store. The heat cools off soon after they start living together. Pia quickly learns that she is pregnant and a cooling marriage plus a baby that he doesn't feel much attachment too lead to a dull and wandering Henry who is soon back in the arms of his ex-fiance.

This is all a little weird but not that mysterious until Pia divulges that she was pregnant before she met Henry and then disappears after a big fight. Everyone is pretty sure Henry killed her, and his dopiness doesn't help matters much, but when the clues start slowly rolling in, they just don't add up.

This book is very dark and more than a little bitter with few likable characters or hopeful plot lines. That edge gives a color to the pretty pedestrian mystery that makes the book very readable, but also a little off-putting. Like I said, I still can't figure out what I thought of this. I'll need to mull this one over a little bit more, but if I run across any more Fleming bargains in the basement of a book store, I'd definitely scoop them up.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell (1999)

My lovely friend John loaned me his copy of Ghostwritten by David Mitchell (1999) since he knew how much I loved Cloud Atlas (reviewed here) when our book club read it a few years ago. [Note to DAFFODILS: Holy Shit, we read Cloud Atlas three years ago!] John never steers me wrong, and my love of David Mitchell has been proven before, so this one was right on target.

This is Mitchell's first novel and its structure would only seem unambitious if you happened to read Cloud Atlas first. Ghostwritten consists of nine chapters (and one brief coda) that each take place in a different location. The chapters stand alone except for (at first) a small connection between one and the next. As the book progresses, the connections become stronger, but the individual stories still stand on their own and their wildly different narrators and styles keep the reader reeling between the feeling of jumping between some masterfully written short stories and experiencing a whole new kind of novel.

The only chapter I didn't really fall in love with was the final chapter, "Night Train," which takes place in the booth of a grating late-night New York DJ named Bat Segundo. The connections in this bit pushed a little too hard for me, and the intentionally irritating DJ just, well, irritated me. This chapter does, however, get bonus points for featuring a brief appearance by Luisa Rey, who went on to take a key role in Cloud Atlas. I do like me some connections...

I feel like I've only read two David Mitchell novels because I like him so much that I don't want to rush through all of them. Reading Ghostwritten, though, has reminded me that I probably don't need to wait three years before reading another one. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates (2010)

One of my book clubs (go DAFFODILS!) recently read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson -- I'd read it before, but I had borrowed the copy, and this time I decided to get serious about my Shirley Jackson love and spring for the lovely, hardcover Library of America edition of her works, Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates (2010). This was not a poor investment.

This jam-packed volume includes Jackson's short story collection, The Lottery, the aforementioned The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (which I'd also borrowed and read before), and a set of other stories and sketches, some published during Jackson's lifetime and others published posthumously by her husband. Topping it all off is a chronology of Jackson's life and notes for all the collected works. I really really liked Jackson when I had previously read these two novels, I'm now a Jackson worshiper after reading her short stories. So amazingly good. Here's the book-by-book run down:

The Lottery (1949)

I'd read the title story from this collection before, like many people, in high school (and possibly again in college). It was just as unsettling as the first time I read it, but its perspective and tone is different from the bulk of Jackson's short stories which tend to be more realistic (although just as biting) and focused on an individual instead of a whole group. Some of my favorites in the collection are the irrepressible "My Life with R.H. Macy," "Elizabeth," "Pillar of Salt," and the extremely creepy horror show that is "The Tooth."

Jackson deals expertly and pointedly with issues of race, domesticity, gender, isolation, and depression. And no one does the creepiness of being an outsider in a small town or a rube in the big city quite like she does.

The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

I reviewed this one earlier here, so I won't rehash what I said before except to add that for some reason the character of the doctor's wife really irked me this time -- I felt like her brash comic relief really derailed the psychological claustrophobia of being in Eleanor's head and could have used a lighter touch. Still, this story is pretty darn excellent.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)

And I reviewed this one here. I liked it even more the second time -- this could quite possibly be a perfectly constructed novel.

Other Stories and Sketches (1938-1965)

Some of these are a little lighter than Jackson's other work and are representative of her successful career publishing essays and stories in various magazines. Others, however, are creepier than anything else. I particularly liked "The Summer People," "A Visit," "Louisa, Please Come Home," and the story that gives "The Tooth" a run for its money, "The Bus."

It really doesn't matter where you start with Shirley Jackson, just go ahead and get started. The other day I bought a couple more of her novels, so don't be surprised when you see her around here again. She is quickly moving up to my favorite authors of all time list.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup (1853)

The most recent selection for my Debbie Downer book club (where we only read sad and depressing books) was Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup (1853). It most definitely fits the parameters of the book club.

Northup had been born a free man and lived with his family in Saratoga Springs, New York. He made a living playing his fiddle and got a lead on a job from two white men with whom he traveled to Washington D.C. While there, he was drugged, put in chains, and sold as a slave. Without any way to get word to his family or friends in New York, he was taken down to New Orleans and then solid to a series of men on a group of plantations in Western Louisiana where he was held in slavery for a dozen years.

The reason we have Northup's memoir and no writings from the many other free men and women who were captured into slavery is because he miraculously got word to New York and, with the help of the Governor and a white man who knew Northup and his family, was recused from the Epps plantation. The promise of a somewhat happy ending made the horrors of the narrative a little more bearable, but Northup doesn't hold back from describing the institution of slavery to his white, Northern audience, and the book made quite an impression when it was first released, particularly for its parallels (and arguments with) the extremely popular Uncle Tom's Cabin, which had been published the year before.

I've read a few slave narratives, and this one is different from what I expect from the genre. Less overtly religious and rhetorical, the fast-reading book sometimes sounds like a novel (characterization, action sequences, foreshadowing) and sometimes as a sociological description of Southern life for the interested northerner.

I haven't seen the movie yet (since I was waiting to finish the book), but if any slave narrative could be made into a compelling modern film, this is the one. I'm very interested to check it out. And you should check this out --since this book is in the public domain, everyone can read it for free! I downloaded a free copy from Google Play and read it on my phone. You can also get it in all kinds of formats here.