Sunday, December 22, 2013

Winter Solstice 2013: Sunday Salon

            I am almost half way through Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, having joined the virtual challenge at classicvasilly on wordpress.
I panicked when I joined last Sunday thinking oh how am I going to get through this big fat book by year’s end? So I put aside the very slim Olive Kitteridge, which I was loving.
I needn’t have worried. How different my readings of these two books are. Even in my current highly-distracted-by-life state, The Goldfinch absorbs me. I fly through these pages because the story propels, the characters engage, the settings engulf me --  they are filled with rich and palpable detail. What a great story of orphaned and half-orphaned children, those whose lives are upended and displaced by the death of one parent, or both. In his review of this book, Stephen King compares Tartt to Dickens and says he won’t be the last to do so. So let me say “ditto.”
My reading of Olive Kitteridge is much slower. I read through Olive’s prismatic character; each chapter is a linked short story that subtlety or otherwise reveals some shade of Olive’s self. In some chapters, she’s merely peripheral; in other’s dominant.  But this, for me is slow reading as I piece together this wonderful, somewhat crotchety retired schoolteacher living, as I once did, in a small Maine town.
What’s next: I am looking forward to both looking back on the year and looking ahead to some goal setting—so unlike me. I am considering new challenges.

 Happy holidays bloggers an others. I have learned so much from all of you this year.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sunday Salon: Dec. 15 Reading update

I’m glad: I don’t live in Maine anymore, where the temperature is in the teens and the snow is piling up. Central Virginia is a lovely place to live – it has seasons, but the winters are mild. Just right for this time in my life.

This week:
Finished: my Coursera class on the historical novel. I listened to my last lecture. I liked the class, especially the lectures. Best book for me was the last one: The Ghost Bride. It’s also one that crosses genres and perhaps, the historic part is the least dominant for me.
Reading: Melanie Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife, which I find mediocre.  Reading for book club. Another so-so New York Times best seller. It’s a fast read and does highlight the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh as well as what marriage was like in the first half of the 20th century for a woman, gifted in her right, who was married to one of the most famous men of their time. Also: Celebrity and paparazzi problems; baby kidnapped; Nazi sympathizer; polygamist etc.  
At the book’s midpoint, I’m wondering if it isn’t a bit presumptuous to put words into the mouth (first-person narration) of a woman who just died in 2001, who was a writer in her own right and whose children guard the family’s privacy.  Daughter Reese Lindbergh, also a writer, is the notable exception. In addition there’s A Scott Berg’s biography, titled Lindbergh, which won the Pulitzer Prize and which apparently goes into detail about the marriage – but not the secret families.  Why wouldn’t one just read that and Anne’s and Reese’s own writing (all of which I haven’t done, though I confess I am now intrigued by Gifts from the Sea)?  Probably won’t; I’m not that interested in the Lindberghs.
Conclusion: Might be good for adolescents, but not for serious readers.
Also reading:  Elizabeth’s Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. How did I miss her books when they came out? Lovin’ it. I’m identifying with the territory.  I too spent a lot of time around a Cook’s Corner in a small Maine town.
Looking forward to: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.
New to me: Reading books on Kindle. Doing okay.

Listening to: Audiobook—John Boyne’s The Absolutist.
Looking forward to: End of year round-up, new challenges

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Katherine Howe's "The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane" turns me twitchy, witchy, b……y

            Connie  -- Constance  --- Goodwin is constantly in emotional flux. 
 Anxious, angry, annoyed – she flares into feelings and then swoons into sweetness. She’s coy; she cloys.
At times, some might even call her witchy or its more modern rhyming equivalent. Witchiness – albeit the good kind –runs in her family, so with a little romance from a steeplejack/preservationist Sam Hartley, Connie, the heroine of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, transforms from petulant shrew to enamored schoolgirl.  Under the influence of a parasitic professor/adviser, she transforms once again to empowered spell-caster.  With the emotional maturity of a high school sophomore, she’s hardly what one might expect from a Harvard PhD candidate.
In Katherine Howe’s first novel, the writing is as uneven as the maturity of her main character. Part historical novel, part supernatural tale, Howe weaves two stories and several generations. At its best, which is just above mediocre, it describes historical events of the Salem witch trials and their aftermath. At its worst, it features Connie in 1991 seeking a lost book of family spells,” which could conveniently also be the “remarkable unusual primary source,” her dissertation adviser wants her to find.
Connie becomes aware of Deliverance Dane, and subsequently the book, when she moves into her long abandoned ancestral home at the request of Grace, Connie’s mother, who says she wants Connie to ready the house for market.  Grace, who Connie refers as “a victim of the 1960s” –  is pure Hippie cliché so naturally she's away reading auras and doing other New Age work in Santa Fe.  Connie’s move to the house first seems a diversion; she is supposed to be working on her dissertation. But as she digs deeper . . .
A PhD candidate at its writing, Howe, like Connie, is a descendant of those accused of witchcraft in the Salem trials. She can trace her lineage back to both Elizabeth Proctor and Elizabeth Howe, one accused, the other condemned for witchcraft.  This is interesting. So one understands her deep interest in the witch trials.
One also presumes she has first-hand knowledge of the trials of history orals as well as the possible perils of working under an adviser. Why then do we get such a stereotype? Connie’s adviser, Boston Brahmin Manning Chilton, (do I hear echoes of Hawthorne’s leech Chillingsworth here?), is a tweedy, condescending villain we suspect from the start. (This is not the only Hawthorne echo from the Hartley-Goodwin- Chilton triangle).
It isn’t just Chilton’s interaction with her adviser that bristles. Ice cream servers ignore her. Archivists glower. Clerks are curt. Research librarians find her irritating. (Only a private librarian indulges her.) If I were Connie, I would begin to wonder if maybe there was something wrong with me.
Ah, but there is. 
She shudders when picking up the family Bible. Blue meteors streak across the night sky. Mysterious circles appear burned onto the cottage door. Withered plants come alive under her spells.  Blue electric light emanates from her fingers.
Here’s a sample when Connie discovers her magical powers over a spider plant:
 …. The blue orb of light grew more soild, its electrical veins snapping in jagged lines from her fingertips and palms to the center of the ceramic planter. In that instant, the dried spider plant leaves \flushed with water and health, the fresh, waxy green of life crawling down each black leaf…… “
Connie’s reaction? 
“She staggered backward, groping for the support of the dinning table, her breath coming in shallow gasps. Hot tears spring into the rims of her eyes, and she realized that with each breath she was also letting out a high, panicked whimper. Her hand found the back of one of the shield-back chairs, pulling it toward her just in time to catch her falling weight. Horrified, Connie wrapped her arms around her middle and bent over, resting her forehead on her knees, her breath breaking into hiccupping sobs.”
 Shock. Horror. Melodrama.
I have read other blogger’s complaints of the implausibility of Connie’s story – those moments when one stops dead in in one’s reading and says Whaat?  My own knee jerked repeatedly, but was twitchiest when Connie first visited the house – abandoned 20 years but still standing, despite New England winters that would cave in most roofs. People know that the danger of leaving a house uninhabited is that it soon becomes home to all kinds of creatures who create holes.  Though there's something growing through the floor, no animals seem to have made the cottage their home.  Including local teen age party animals.  No beer cans. No condoms.  This cottage, lived in through 1971, has no phone or electricity.  Why?  Marblehead is hardly abandoned rural America.
Then, there are the ripe tomatoes growing in the cottage garden on years-thick stems in June.
Tomatoes – in this garden are perennial – which is in fact true of tomatoes.( I looked it up) But only in the tropic climes.
By book’s end, one realizes these knee jerk moments may have been clues to the family’s powers over plants, early clues that things in 1991 are not what they seem. Unfortunately, by the end I was paying more attention to the twitches than the story. 
Ironically, Deliverance Dane’s interwoven story—the historical one which I have not talked much about here is the more soberly realistic, more academically researchesd; Connie’s more recent one the more hysterically supernatural—a reversal of some dominant belief systems of their respective time periods.
A New York Times best seller, Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, must appeal to many. Just not me.  When I try to imagine its audience, I think young girls, maybe those who are enthralled by all things vampires and witches, along with syrupy romances.   I think maybe I'm just too old. Too crochety.
            After all, I’m a victim of the 1960s and early ‘70s myself. My own literary preferences were forged during my education in those times, much of it around Boston.
         Which brings me to….. The author’s silly attempts to render local accents into print completes my complaints. Why do these various New Englanders have to sound so ridiculous?
I don’t like my reading to put me in such a snarky mood. Maybe Connie’s annoyance is catching. Or maybe, it’s not the book. Maybe it’s me. Bitchy me. Witchy me.
 I pick up The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. I mumble a few words. I feel electricity surging through my hands. I see blue.
Poof! I shut the book with these words:
The End.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Ice, sleet, freezing rain and -- reading 12/8/13

Getting ready for:  an indoor day – and possible power outage. My blankets and books are nested around me.
  • ·      My Coursera course Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction.  After being disappointed with some of the books in the class, I opened Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride with low expectations.  I was surprised.  I was delighted.  What a wonderful, playful book – perhaps I think of it more as a ghost story, romance and/or fantasy than historical novel, yet it presents rich descriptions of Chinese Malayasian culture. I also found the video interviews with Yangsze informative and charming. I very much like this new author.
  • ·      First book on Kindle.  (Ghost Bride) Although I have had my Kindle for nearly a year, I have only used it for audiobooks. I adjusted quite easily to screen, although I haven’t mastered the benefits like word look up, notes and highlighting.

Working on: a review of Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.
Reading: Olive Kitteridge.  Didn’t read it when everybody else did. I did reserve it once at the library and then missed the call. So now going back.
Considering reading: Beautiful Ruins, The Goldfinch, Aviator’s Wife (book club) The Boys in the Boat.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Caryl Ferey takes on Argentina's history in Mapuche: Crime novel about Dirty War leaves me feeling dirty

Caryl Ferey takes on Argentina’s history in Mapuche

Crime novel on aftermath of Dirty War leaves me feeling dirty

Reading about torture creates conflicts.
What attitude does the reader assume to justify indulging in atrocity? When does reading seem voyeuristic collusion in violence, and when does it edify – even enlighten – as the dark side of history and the human condition is revealed? Put another way, when is reading a way to participate in the literature of witness, and when does it seem a way to violate real victims once again? Not to mention violating one’s own mind. Are we what we read?
Such were my problems as I read Caryl Ferey’s Mapuche, a grisly crime novel about the grime that endures long after Argentina’s Dirty War.
My response: Too much. Too much torture.  Too extreme torture. Less would have been more. Despite the rich history, I did not get the gravitas I needed to feel awe for the real war the story and some of its characters the story was based on.
I felt dirty.
French writer Ferey mines – or exploits – (each reader may deliberate or decide) real stories of human rights violations, as well as the near extermination of indigenous populations in his noir series, published here by Europa Editions. He mixes the entertainment of the page-turning thriller with well-researched historical events. He does so, in part, by appealing to readers’ appetites for grisly depictions of the worst human behavior. 
Mapuche opens with an opened plane door and a “package” tossed midair. The reader’s interest hooked, that action suspends mid thread, and the weaving of plotlines begins.
Ferey introduces Jana, a Mapuche, one of the indigenous peoples decimated by later settlers.  She’s a sculptress, who turned tricks to pay for her art education. Living amidst the most marginal, she seeks help when her transvestite friend Paula grows concerned over the disappearance of another “tranny,” Luz. Jana appeals to Ruben Calderon, a detective who has garnered a reputation for tracking down the desparecidos – those who disappeared --  and their torturers from Argentina’s Dirty War 30 plus years earlier.
Problem is Luz is not that kind of desparecido, and Ruben is already on a pursuit seeking out the disappearance of Maria Victoria Campallo, a rich man’s daughter – also seemingly not his typical quest. He has taken on that case at the behest of a friend.  He rebuffs Jana’s appeal – and her offer of an alternative way of paying for his services. Soon he discovers both disappearances -- the two strands  -- intertwine. So he and Jana team up – and eventually do some intertwining themselves.  Both cases, it turns out, deal with those who disappeared and their torturers. Together they will lead to digging up and gutting out names and events of the past – names that have been literally buried and literally swallowed up in the course of the novel.
Plotlines are molded on the real events of the Dirty War, such as the death flights, during which prisoners were thrown out of planes alive over the ocean, and the stolen children, the practice of keeping pregnant female prisoners alive until they delivered and then placing the infants in the arms of “apropriadores,” those military and other families who wanted to adopt. Silvia Quintela was one of these real women, whose plight is invoked by the novel. The determined mothers and grandmothers, the Abuelas of Plaza de Mayo also play their part.
Among those women in the novel is Ruben Calderon’s own mother who lost both her husband and daughter in the War.  Daniel Calderon was a poet who returned from abroad when his children Ruben and Elsa were imprisoned. Upon return he too was imprisoned. Ferey takes a page from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus in his choice of tortures for the poet.
Many would argue Shakespeare didn’t get away with the extreme; Titus Andronicus is among the least powerful and psychologically shallow of his works. Ferey is no Shakespeare.  While impressive historical detail gives Mapuche solidity, the lack of psychological complexity makes it shaky.
There are scenes that ring odd, false or hollow: When Ruben Calderon tells Maria Victoria’s mother of her daughter’s deat, he attacks her because he senses she is not revealing the whole truth – an odd thing to do to shocked mother; the romancing of Jana and Ruben, who both have reasons not to trust either the opposite sex or sex itself, lacks credibility. Overall Jana’s character development jars. When she learns the horror of the source of Ruben’s life motivation, it confirms her growing love and loyalty. I get it, but I don’t buy it.
            Past tortures revealed are mere preludes for what comes next. Years after the events of 1976-1983, the military, politicians and Catholic clergy play out their parts in its aftermath. We meet the thugs who carried out orders as young men and continue to do so as bloated old ones. We meet the powerful and corrupt who gave orders, or who later profited from them. More kidnapping. More excruciating torture. More death and near death and dramatic saves.  Then final revenge.  
Resonances to other works I am familiar with conflict my response. I recall my awe when I first read Carolyn Forche’s poem about the war in El Salvador, “The Colonel,” a poem she became noted for as a poet of witness. (Severed ears appear in both her poem and Ferey’s book.) I also think about the quirky, campy works of Jo Nesbo, who includes near ridiculous methods of torture, melodrama, along with characters with bizarre medical syndromes and conditions. Transvestite Paula, whose real name is Miguel, has a mother who eats rolled up pieces of paper; she has “Rapunzel syndrome.”  Nesbo’s truly fictional outlandishness amuses whereas Ferey’s confuses emotions because of its too real connections.
Finally another oddity that perhaps is a result of translation: The writer regularly substitutes the expression “the Mapuche” for Jana, as if it is a nickname, whereas it really is a tribal name. Why?  Possible answers: so we won’t forget her origins?  A reader adjusts so it’s hardly noticeable after a while, but still strange.
Ferey’s book does educate. He artfully weaves in the worst of Argentinian history and updates it. 
But he does so at a cost I’m conflicted about absorbing.   I hope what’s left after reading quickly washes off.