Sunday, June 27, 2010

Family dramas, or a new author discovered

A while back, I was musing what sort of book I could read now that chick lit for 20-somethings has lost its charm, chick lit for 30-somethings doesn't seem to have any, you can't just wait for the rare gems like Life of Pi or The Historian, Southern-style fiction gets old, historical fiction is so hard to sort the good from the bad, I've read out most of my old favorite authors and major works of literature don't always suit. The answer may have come from Jennifer Haigh: family dramas.

Looking at a family over time is a good way to sort through lots of eras and lots of personalities. I found The Condition by her, remaindered at Barnes and Noble for $5, and it was wonderful. The Condition is about a family dealing with Turner's Syndrome, which forever traps women (always women) in the body of a child. They'll have normal intelligence, but physically, they'll never grow up. The middle child, Gwen, is diagnosed when she's thirteen. The diagnosis causes the parents to divorce, which shatters the family's closeness for decades.

At least, that's the family myth. Haigh starts from there and looks deeper. Weren't there signs of trouble between the parents all along? Didn't the father try, in his own scientific way, to be involved? And wouldn't other things have shattered the family's closeness too? Her older brother Billy's insistence on compartmentalizing his life, never letting his family close enough to know that he's gay, making sure he always calls them and never the other way around, lest his partner accidentally answer the phone? Or Scott, the youngest by quite a bit, always at the margins of his family and ultimately stuck in a life he despises? Gwen herself, forcing her own independence from the family for survival's sake but unsure what to do with it?

There's a lot of misery in the book, but a lot of funny moments, too. When Billy finally comes out, in a low-key way by merely bringing his partner to a family gathering and introducing him as such, his mother notes how handsome his partner is, musing "If more men looked like that, maybe there'd be more homosexuals in the world." It ultimately leads to a satisfying conclusion. You walk away feeling the characters will be OK after all.

Baker Towers is a bit more ambiguous at the end. It's the saga of a family of five, but mostly the women, in a coal mining town in Pennsylvania after World War II. It begins with the death of the family patriarch and follows what becomes of the coal mining family for the next few decades. All the men escape, but the women, by and large, cannot. Joyce, the brightest student Bakerton High had ever seen, wants an adventurous life of military service, but family duty and disillusionment bring her back to Bakerton. Dorothy shocked the family by moving to Washington DC and actually doing something with herself, but ultimately couldn't sustain her life on her own. The baby Lucy, however, ultimately chooses to return, in a turn of events that shocks everyone.

Mrs. Kimble was Haigh's much-lauded debut. To put it bluntly, it is the tale of a sociopathic asshole and the lives he ruins. It's a bit hard to take at times. By the time he meets his young third wife, we're cringing. We've seen it all before: how kind, how direct, how caring. How much he seems to have in common with her. How he understands. By then, we know that it's Ken Kimble's particular talent to hone in on subtle clues, to talk his way into his second wife's family business by faking a Jewish mother, for example, or to seem like a free spirit trapped in a conservative community to a young girl who feels the same. We also know that he'll bail when things get tight. We never see his own perspective, just all of his sins, major and minor, through the eyes of his three wives and his oldest son.

Jennifer Haigh was an awesome find. I'm sorry that I initially discovered her in the remainer pile, for now that means I'll have to wait for a new one for quite a while.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The End of an Era: a favorite blog goes dark

I found the Rate Your Students blog through an old Internet friend of mine, known online as Hedwig the Owl. She is a scientist and teacher and had it linked to her own page, her science blog over at Seed. Hedwig and I fell out of touch after a while, but I continued checking the blog pretty much every day.

I'm not a professor or a teacher. After reading this, I honestly don't know how the fuck people do it, or why they do it. The blog was alternately entertaining and alarming. I enjoyed hearing the tales of awful students, but there were a lot of positives on the page too.

Now the blog has gone dark. It was a very old-fashioned sort of blog. There were no comments. They were not on Facebook or Twitter. If you had something you wanted to say, you emailed them and a group of people sorted through and found things to post.

And those people were constantly burning out. They saw the worst of it. The people who did nothing but whine about the site. The tales of young people with PhDs and $100K in student loans who were forced to become "highway fliers," adjuncting at the three or four different colleges within a 50-mile radius of their parents' home, teaching seven or eight classes a semester at $2000 a pop and using their Christmas breaks to attend conferences for networking and job interviews rather than spending them with their families.

Now the final moderator has burned out. I guess the staff was down to one, and that final person could find no one to help, nad no viable option to keep the site going. So the blog has gone dark. And my own personal internet experience will be a bit poorer for it. The only site I have left that really requires a lot of brainpower, and updates regularly, is Free Range Kids.

Other than that, I mostly like semi-mindless humor sites. Lamebook, Regretsy, and the ones linked on the sidebar are favorites. But I need a replacement for RYS. Suggestions, anyone?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Swan Thieves, or a disappointment

One of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons featured Kelsey Grammar as Sideshow Bob and the voice of the guy who played Niles on Frazier as brothers. The Niles guy gives Sideshow Bob a job building a dam. When he takes Bob up to see it, Bob says something like "All these millions of gallons of rushing water make me wonder why the hell I should care."

That's how I felt about the new Elizabeth Kostova, The Swan Thieves. Kostova had a hell of a debut with The Historian, and it's almost as if some editor told her, 'Do whatever you want with this one.'

I'm not one to bitch about the length of a book. I've read 600-page books that were so absorbing I finished them in two days (and no, I'm not just thinking Harry Potter here). This was not one of them. This book could have been about half the length. In fact, it would have been well-served to be half the length.

The book is about a painter who attacked a painting in the National Gallery. Before he lapses into utter silence, he tells his psychiatrist (the narrator) that he did it 'for her,' and that the narrator can speak with anyone he wishes. So the narrator does just that, talking with his ex-wife, his ex-mistress, his former colleagues at the college where he used to teach. It turns out that the painter has become obsessed with a female French impressionist painter. You get her story in dribs and drabs, from a one-sided packet of letters.

I didn't find either of the two parallel stories terribly interesting. I think there was so much detail that it bogged down. A phrase from my collegiate women's studies classes kept coming back to me: 'The Male Gaze.' The book's full of it. Obviously full of it. This is not just the male gaze, this is the male, stopped in his tracks in the middle of a street while people flow around him, staring openmouthed at some woman who's just trying to mind her own business. The women in the book even turn it on themselves on occasion: the painter's girlfriend, describing how she liked to dress post-college in beat-up clothes with expensive fancy underwear, says "I loved myself this way, slim, swelling roundness...I was my own treasure."

FACEPALM! Seriously, does that sound like any woman you've ever met in your entire life that wasn't being paid by Victoria's Secret or Playboy? Ugh. That awful passage comes at about the midway mark, and that was when the scales truly fell off my eyes. I was NOT enjoying this...but maybe it would get better? And her last one had been so good? And really, it was almost over?

The pace picked up a bit towards the end, but really, it didn't get much better. I was so disappointed in this one. Kostova's an awesome writer, despite this one being so dull. It's got many lovely vivid passages, many living characters, but they don't wind up doing anything. The events of the past are so tepid it's hard to imagine them possessing anyone and driving them insane. It took me two weeks to get through this one. I wish I'd spent them on a different book. Or, rather, I wish that THIS BOOK had been better. I'm not giving up on Kostova. I hope her next book combines the eye for detail with the forward momentum and creative thinking of her first.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Library: there for you and me

That's one of the things I love the most about the library. Some visits make it harder to love than others, but still, I enjoy it. I enjoy seeing the recent immigrant adults learning English from the books in the children's room. I enjoy seeing the teenage girls check out armloads of Gossip Girl books. I like the nostalgia of the mom trying to explain to her six-year-old that there is NO WAY he's going to be able to read all of those books in a month and he has to put some back.

Free For All by Don Borchert is an insider's look at the drama that parades by the checkout desk daily. Borchert works in a branch library in the Los Angeles system, located near a public school, and he sees it all. The older woman who confesses, one day, that she loves to bake but has no audience, and wonders if she might bring her treats in for the staff. The woman who returns every year with a new last name, takes out a new card and racks up hundreds in fines, and uses the library as a babysitting service. The flying saucer man. The pervert who chats up the preteen girls doing their homework. The Great Korean Mom Fight in the parking lot.

Not all of the stories in the book are happy, of course. But it's a funny book, and uplifting in a weird way. Borchert is a very empathetic writer, especially when he's talking about some of his nuttier patrons. The book makes you glad that the library is there for people who may have no one or nothing else. It's one of the few places you can go that's not home or work where you're not expected to buy something. It's there whenever you have a question about anything in life, from: "what type of taillights does my 1992 Lincoln Mercury take?" to "why is everyone tossing my resume in the trash bin?" to "do bluebells grow well in this climate?" It cares not one whit whether you're the type to pose about ten of these questions a week, or if this is the first and last time you'll ask.

Borchert feels this way too, and though he never comes out and says it, that sentiment imbues every sentence of the book. In an era where so many people desperately cling to jobs they despise because, hey, at least they have one, it's nice to read a book by someone who genuinely loves and believes in what he does.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Dog's Life

If you read The Art of Racing in The Rain by Garth Stein, I reccommend you don't read it at work, and save it if you've recently had something sad happen in your life. Explaining to co-workers who happen into the break room that everything is OK, you're just reading the saddest book ever, is a difficult prospect.

But it's a very, very good read, and it shows how one key gambit can make or break a book. The baseline plot is rather maudlin stuff, dealing with the early death of a young woman and false allegations against her husband and an epic custody battle over their daughter. However, it's all told through the eyes of a dog.

Enzo is an old, faithful, mixed breed dog who's been with his family since early puppyhood. As he prepares to close his eyes forever, he looks back on his life with them. The story has the gaps you'd expect from hearing things from a dog's perspective, but also more insight -- after all, no one watches what they say around the family dog. Enzo truly is a wise old man, with lots of insights into human behavior, who spends his alone time broadening his dog mind with television and never forgot that one, shining moment where his human took him out in his racecar. Who dreams of the day he'll be reborn as a human. It's a sad, beautiful gem of a book, but tread with caution because of all the upsetting content.