Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Likeness by Tana French

I’ve seen Tana French’s novels in stores and had them recommended to me over the past few years, but I had yet to read one. I picked up a copy of The Likeness at a library sale last year, but had put off reading it as I knew it was the second in a series. I needn’t have worried. The book spoils In the Woods in the broadest possible ways without getting into any detail. And French is a masterful writer. From the outlandish premise, to the execution of that premise, to the prose, to the plot twists that make perfect sense after they happen, to the interesting and believable characters this is a truly great thriller.

I’ve seen French compared to Donna Tartt at least a couple times. That makes sense for this book, which in parts, is reminiscent of The Secret History. A large portion of The Likeness happens among an insular group of over-privileged college students. Like the Secret History the prose is as much the point as the pulpy elements, and both are fully realized. But The Likeness embraces its genre side a little more. It is essentially an undercover police procedural in structure.

The narrator, Cassie Maddox, is a former undercover officer and a former murder squad officer. Her partner in the murder squad, I take it, was the protagonist of the previous book, the events of which shook Maddox to the point that she switched over to dealing with domestic abuse. The tone of the narration is half hard-boiled and half intentionally literary. She gets a call to come to a murder scene in disguise. When she gets there her boyfriend, still on the murder squad, and her former handler from her undercover days are both on the scene. The victim was Lexie Madison, which is impossible as Madison was Maddox’s undercover persona years earlier. The corpse is an unknown-to-her doppelganger, and it’s quickly apparent that someone who looked just like Maddox assumed the identity and had been living under that alias with an insular group of graduate students in a house in rural Ireland. So Maddox reassumes the identity to see if she can solve the case from the inside. To tell more would spoil many of the pleasures of the novel.

Such a premise could go seriously awry, but French really pulls it off. I will loop back and read In The Woods and then go on with the series. I’m hopeful that the others can live up to this one. It’s great.

Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 21/75

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson

I first heard of Nalo Hopkinson in the acknowledgments to Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, my favorite of his novels, upon its publication. He had a couple of  characters who spoke in a Carribean dialect and credited her with showing him where he was going wrong and offering suggestions. After reading Midnight Robber last week, I’m angry at myself for waiting fifteen years to pick up one of her books.

I love trickster stories, Anansi stories included. Hopkinson ]sprinkles the novel with tales specifically framed as Anansi stories. Who the narrator is, and to whom the stories are being told is only revealed in the final pages, but the book has a very tricky narrative structure. It’s a science fiction book, masquerading as a trickster tale style fantasy, built on the backbone of a coming of age story about a girl dealing with some serious trauma. The narrator moves between tales of the Robber Queen, a variation of a traditional Robber King carnival trickster storyteller character, and the story of the coming age of a young woman named Tan-Tan. It’s a great examination of the ways myths form from mundane experience, except that in this case the mundane part is also fantastical. And for all that thematic weight and all the functions that the story does, it just works on a story level.

One of the reasons the book is capable of carrying that weight and one of the pleasures of the book is the narrative voice. It is told in what the novel calls Anglo-Patios leaning enough toward the Anglo side of that dialect that it can be easily understood after a few pages. It’s funny and angry. It’s a remarkably good style of prose.

It begins on Touissant, a planet that has been colonized largely by descendants of the residents of the Carribean. It is a surveillance state of sorts. The surveillance is conducted by an AI called Granny Nanny. Supposedly that surveillance is only put in the hands of the government when the public good is in danger. People have implants that give them access to the Web in the form of an eshu, or a personalized assistant they see in their eyes. Of course there are people who live outside of Granny Nanny’s surveillance, or at least try to. This is a great setting for a novel in itself, but the novel quickly moves to New Halfway Tree, an alternate dimension version of Touissant that is technologically centuries behind. It is a prison planet of sorts, and the prisoners exiled there share the world with the doen, which are bat/bird like people. Tan-Tan’s father, a county mayor, commits a crime and escapes to New Halfway Tree, taking her with him. There Tan-Tan is abused as a child and becomes obsessed with the Robber King, who is a trickster and prince of stories.

To go into further detail about the plot would spoil things. This is a book that needs to be experienced. As I’ve already said the prose and structure of the book are excellent. The characters are well developed and deal with the reality of their situation in believable ways given the fantastical nature of the setting. It’s thematically rich and light on its feet. The novel has really stuck with me this past week as I keep thinking of little details and coming to realizations about it. It is a book I intend to read again. I have a copy of The Salt Roads that will likely be the next of hers I read, but if this is any indication I may have to read them all.

Canon Worthy.

Owned But Previously Unready 2020 20/75

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Radio On by Sarah Vowell

I've been listening to Live Through This by Hole and Where You Been by Dinosaur Jr. A lot over the past week or two as a sort of soundtrack to my reading of this book. The Dinosaur Jr. I used to listen to with a friend in high school. I’m sure I heard Doll Parts at some point in college (if not I’d certainly heard it since), but the rest of the album was mostly new to me. The media perception of Courtney Love is of a trainwreck. Of course I knew she had been with Kurt Cobain, and had substance abuse problems. My strongest memory of her had been her appearance on a Comedy Central roast, which did not show her at her best. But reading this book and listening to the album, I’ve realized that she was a major artist and was incredibly meaningful to people. An icon. That she was important to Sarah Vowell at the time comes through in Radio On, a diary of her listening to and musing on radio content throughout 1995. Cobain’s death was very much on her mind as well, and in that sense it’s a firsthand account of the same emotions that pushed Nick Hornby to write About a Boy. I first read Vowell during my mammoth project to read a biography of every American President in order to get a better grasp of American history. That was a good tactic. I may not know as much as I should about history, and certainly not as much as Vowell, but I know much more than I did before. Because I was interested in presidents, I read Assassination Vacation and later because I liked Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates. I thought of her as a funny historian. Sort of what would happen if David Sedaris was obsessed with presidential assassinations. I either didn’t know, or had forgotten that she got her start as a rock critic.

In 1995, I was a conservative, largely apolitical Christian in my freshman and sophomore years in college. This was probably just before I made the ill-conceived choice to only listen to Christian music, which decision lasted a little over half a decade. Now, as a left leaning agnostic, I look back on those times with mixed feelings. I was not a phony about my faith at the time. I was fully on board. Even that sentence betrays something, though. I was very concerned with authenticity of faith, with strong emotion about it. I was critical of Christians who didn’t share my priorities. Even then I thought the whole “witness to everyone” stance was mostly phony, even as I was convinced of my worldview. That critical stance, which in some ways was as much about aesthetics as it was about morality and religion, seen from my current vantage point, was what made reading Radio On such a surreal experience. Vowell was also raised in a religious family, though she abandoned the faith much earlier in life than I did. As a rock critic, she was much more plugged into the conversation about music than I was in the mid-90’s. She had unflinching opinions. She was very snarky about Counting Crows (strongly disagree), The Grateful Dead (no opinion), Spin Doctors (couldn’t agree more) and even Bruce Springsteen (I’m mostly confused). She loved Nirvana and Hole. Much of that criticism came from what reads as an authenticity argument. I’m the heretic who likes Counting Crows much better than Nirvana.* So I suspect that Vowell would have hated me, or at least my musical taste back then. But her stance on those bands was similar to mine on others. I was probably insufferable if you got me talking about the relative merits of Rich Mullins**, Poor Old Lu or The Prayer Chain versus what I saw as the execrable music of say, Michael W. Smith or DC Talk. My arguments were largely from a similar combination of aesthetics and how authentic I thought the artists were. So, despite the completely different targets, I felt a kinship with the stance that Vowell took when discussing those bands.

The book works as a time capsule, and took me back to that time in my life in palpable, if conflicting, ways. I was obsessed with authenticity, but my worldview has, in the intervening decades, changed in ways that would confuse and trouble my younger self. And despite my switch to only Christian music, a lot of this music was just around and I heard it. Cobain’s death hovers in the background of the whole book. So does the beginnings of Courtney Love’s meltdown/her becoming the target of ridicule. In the latter’s case, there certainly seems to be some self inflicted damage, but you can clearly see that a lot of what was thrown at her was bullshit. Vowell also expresses love for the music of Elvis (I’m ambivalent), They Might Be Giants (one of my favorites) and Jonathan Richman (who, like Hole, I discovered through this book) from whose song Roadrunner Vowell takes her title. This book is very much a product of the pre-Poptimism era. There are a lot of artists that are products of what I definitely, and I suspect Vowell probably, would have in the 90’s considered completely phony, cookie cutter, corporate garbage that have been fully embraced by the critical community in the past decade or so. I have mixed feelings about this. I’ve largely come around to the idea that someone like Justin Timberlake can make a masterpiece album, but they usually still aren’t for me. But I think that’s a Gen-X obsession with authenticity to which I have a more complicated relationship now.

At the time, I was largely apolitical. I thought in firmly religious terms. So I don’t know what I would have made of this book then. Vowell is a master of well placed snark. One of the main targets of that is Rush Limbaugh. She saw, even in ‘95, the potential danger of his rise to prominence, a prediction which seems, in the age of Trump, completely justified. I didn’t realize that G. Gordan Liddy, one of the Watergate conspirators, also had a popular radio show in the 90s, and she exhibits a deep unease about him as well. In talking about these things, Vowell’s writing seems prescient, but also angry and anxious in a way that is startlingly similar to online discourse now, though Vowell is much funnier and a much better writer. This triggers two thoughts for me. One, Trump is the end point, or at least the culmination of a movement that’s been going for nearly fifty years. Two, the country has always been divided; social media amplifies this, but didn’t create it. That I find myself on the other side of that division 25 years on is a mystery. I didn’t think in political terms then, but my 1995 self would not recognize me at all.

Vowell is also critical of NPR while grudgingly admitting it was the best alternative at the time. It felt like another musical argument familiar to any Gen-Xer: I liked them before they sold out and lost their edge. She felt that NPR had once been vital and important and become completely bland. She did see some hope in the form of Ira Glass and David Sedaris. She really loved their pieces. She was especially critical of All Things Considered. She admitted the irony that some of her subsequent This American Life pieces appeared on that show in her forward to the second edition. A Prairie Home Companion was American Public Media, not NPR, but Garrison Keilor really bothered her. She just couldn’t take the folksiness. And she returns to him often in the book. I’m mostly ambivalent towards him, but I do remember a random sentence he said once that has really stuck with me and actually contributed to my shifting worldview. As an almost throwaway line in a story I caught during the brief time I tried to listen to Prairie Home companion he said something to the effect that he had “long given up being the arbiter of other people’s morals.”

In the age of the podcast, a book about radio might seem quaint. But Radio On is funny, prescient, trenchant, and authentic. It’s very much a Gen-X book. There’s so much more to it than I covered here. I really loved it.

Highly recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 19/75

*I had a conversation about this a year or two ago with a friend who didn’t agree about this at all. He talked about how dangerous Nirvana seemed and how safe Counting Crows did. But I came from a family in which Mr. Nanny starring Hulk Hogan was too edgy, so I think it’s safe to say that Counting Crows felt plenty dangerous to me.

**While I would have had a hard time admitting it at the time, Mullins wrote some truly crap songs (Higher Education and the Book of Love). But at his best he was a poet and certainly came across as more authentic and less flashy than the crowd of artists he was mostly associated with. I still listen to A Liturgy A Legacy and a Ragamuffin band occasionally. And songs from other albums like The Howling, The Love of God or We Are Not As Strong As We Think We Are still resonate with me despite the fact I no longer share the worldview.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

I don’t like to call a book a favorite until I’ve read it at least twice. But when I read Middlemarch for the first time last year I grudgingly had to admit it had taken on that status; I added it to my yearly reread list. Other than Moby Dick, there isn’t a 19th Century novel I’ve read that I like more. That was my first George Eliot novel and in my enthusiasm for it I picked up several others, including The Mill on the Floss. While I liked this less than Middlemarch, it shares that novel’s complex understanding of people, its excellent prose, fully developed minor characters and ear for dialog.

As I was deciding which Eliot to read next, I got the impression that this was a tribute of sorts to her brother who died. I think that’s true, but it is a mixed tribute. The protagonist, Maggie Tulliver who is much cuter (smarter in 19th Century parliance, short for acute) than her brother Tom, and yet he is the one their father sends off to get educated. On one level she loves and worships her brother. But even in their childhood, which comprises the first third or so of the novel, he is often cruel to her, in the way children are. Maggie does manage to sneak in a little education over Tom’s shoulder on visits to him at the home where he was being educated. There she meets Philip Wakem, her brother’s classmate, the son of her father’s greatest business rival, and an eventual suitor. As they grow older, Tom becomes part of the system that restricts Maggie’s options, in some cruel ways, using the fact that she loves him well to control her.

During the early going Eliot’s ability to create a whole cast of characters each fully formed is on display. Maggie’s father is a stubborn mill owner. He’s married to a woman from a family that is overly concerned with class and their place in it. Each of Mr. and Mrs. Tulliver’s sisters and their husbands are distinctly drawn, and in their interactions with each other Eliot demonstrates a mocking understanding of their foibles. She is often savage in her observations of them ("Mrs Glegg paused, for speaking with much energy for the good of others is naturally exhausting."). Yet she makes each one complex; they have faults but good points as well.

Philip Wakem’s father wins a lawsuit against the Tullivers that results in their having to give up their mill, and sets the two families, or at least the patriarchs thereof against each other. So Maggie’s affections for Phillip are thwarted. Tom goes to work and commits his life to clearing his father’s debt, eventually getting the Mill back, and perpetual enmity with the Wakems. Maggie gets her hands on a copy of The Imitation of Christ and devotes herself to a life of self abnegation. The characters are pulled between class, religion, work and romance. Tom and Maggie’s cousin is also friends with Phillip Wakem and has a suitor of her own, Stephen Guest, who falls for Maggie on sight. It is set up to end tragically, despite the humor of the book, but the particular tragedy that happens was not what I expected, even given the partial spoilers I had for the book.

Eliot is a master. She understands that human motivation is never simple: “"Watch your own speech, and notice how it is guided by your less conscious purposes, and you will understand that contradiction in Stephen." Maggie genuinely loves her brother and father, but chafes at their control over her life. This is one of the most interesting things about her use of a male pen name. A lot of what may have read as typical chauvinism at the time if written by a man, reads as vicious satire with the knowledge that a woman wrote it. Her commitment to self-denial and its testing once romance enters the picture is both a genuine struggle, and a comment on women’s options at the time. But they are all contained within one character and the push and pull and social commentary feel true to the character and not forced.

Despite the tragic ending, the book is often very funny. All of Eliot’s considerable skill is on display in a novel that feels very personal. I said at the beginning of this that it is not as good as Middlemarch, but only a handful of books are. I am going to eventually read all of Eliot’s work, and can heartily recommend both of the novels I’ve read to date.

Canon Worthy.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 18/75

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Hard Light by Elizabeth Hand

I’ve been describing Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary books as akin to nordic noir. That’s not entirely inaccurate. The bleakness, the cold settings, the heroine who is a survivor of trauma are somewhat reminiscent of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, though Hand is the far better writer (at least compared to the translation). But reading the third Neary novel so soon after reading Wuthering Heights for the first time, I realize I’ve been leaving out the gothic genre. Hand is a master of whatever genre she turns her attention to, and in Neary she has created one of the great punk antiheroes, and the result of placing such a character in this mix of genres is excellent.

Early in Hard Light, the third in the series, Neary describes herself as “the ghost of punk, haunting the 21st Century in disintegrating black-and-white; one of those living fossils you read about who usually show up, dead, in a place you've never heard of." And that is the mood of the book. Aging punk defiance. Neary could be credibly tied to several murders from the previous two books. The third opens with Neary clearing customs in London after fleeing Iceland with another woman’s passport. Her intention is to lay low until her ex Quinn (who the reader met in the previous book) follows her to England. She quickly falls in with a new crowd of people, ex-criminals, all involved in both drugs and stolen antiquities. The novel climaxes in an old, remote, English family home. Neary is a formerly briefly famous photographer, completely analog, and the photography metaphors play out here in a strikingly original and gruesome manner.

I won’t spoil more of the plot, but it is a very satisfying novel. The prose, as always, is excellent. This is well plotted, and the gothic atmosphere is as well rendered as any book I’ve read. If this had been the final Cass Neary book, it would have been a fitting ending. There is, though, a fourth coming out this fall. Through the seven books I’ve read by her across several genres she is consistently great. I suspect I will eventually read all of her work eventually. This is obviously recommended, but should be read after the first two in the series. It could be read on its own, but it will be more satisfying with the previous stories in mind.

Highly Recommended

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 17/75

Monday, March 2, 2020

The Gulf by Belle Boggs

I heard an interview with Belle Boggs discussing this novel on the Bookin’ podcast, so I was a little disappointed to have missed the first two thirds of her reading/conversation with Tupelo Hassman at the NC Book Festival last weekend. The premise of The Gulf places the book exactly in my wheelhouse; a low residency school for evangelical Christians that is at least partially a scam run by a couple of atheists. As an agnostic and former evangelical, this is irresistible to me.

Satirizing evangelicals can go off the rails really easily. The Abstinence Teacher, for instance, is a funny and well-written book. It is also incredibly condescending. Even though I mostly agreed with its politics, its portrayal of christians had no counterweight; the only christian in the book who was written as a well rounded character eventually abandoned it. As someone who also abandoned the faith, that is a tempting narrative. But it is entirely too easy to mock a group of people while not allowing them to be fully formed people, and I couldn’t stand it. As Kim Stanley Robinson said at the Festival, quoting or paraphrasing someone, I believe, “You have an ideology, and I have a well formed political theory,” and, “ideologies are an imaginary relationship to something real.” It is easy to cast the other side in the worst light, and ignore one’s own faults. Fortunately, Boggs understands this. As a poetry instructor tells Janine Gray, one of the poets at the school in The Gulf, referring to Terry Schiavo, the subject of her poem cycle, "You must allow her some complexity, Janine. If you're going to invite yourself into someone else's mind you have to accept that it's messy in there." I was on edge the entire time. Was Boggs going to make her Christian characters merely gullible rubes? Fortunately she landed the ship without falling into that trap.

That said, some Christians might be gullible rubes. Marianne Stuart, an atheist from Virginia who moved to NYC to write poetry,  makes an off-handed joke to Eric Osborne, her then boyfriend, that they should make a low residency writing school to rip off evangelicals. She doesn’t take it seriously but years later, Eric, now her ex-fiance, actually sets it up with his brother and a relatively rich aunt. The novel opens as Marianne is sorting through the applications for the program, which will take place at an abandoned hotel owned by Eric’s aunt on the Gulf Coast of Florida. While the situation is very funny, Boggs very wisely doesn’t go for cheap laughs; rather she makes it into an ethical dilemma for Marianne. The school gets off to a better than expected start, and Marianne really questions her involvement. This self questioning only intensifies when Eric’s brother brings a company that runs right wing diploma mills for extra funding.

This could make for a pretty good novel in and of itself, but what elevates The Gulf is the character of Janine, one of the participants in the workshop. She is a relatively new poet and fairly devout believer. Her poems are about Terry Sciavo and the political storm that formed around her coma and the decision about whether or not to take her off life support. This could be another chance to take cheap shots, but Boggs doesn’t. The third person narration alternates primarily between Marianne’s perspective and Janine’s.

This is not to say that the book is not funny. It is often hilarious, sometimes at the expense of people who are gullible. Nor that the book is not critical of Christianity. Especially the cynical manipulation of Christians by the inspirational market. This is another thing I appreciated; she makes a point to differentiate between this type of book and works by people who happen to be Christian. Even as an agnostic I love at least some works by Flannery O’Connor, Gene Wolfe, Graham Greene, Annie Dillard, Walker Percy, Tim Powers, Marilynne Robinson, Greg Garrett, Vinita Hampton Wright, Wendell Berry, Frederick Buechner, John Berryman, CS Lewis and others I’m sure I’m forgetting at the moment. There is a wide array of ideology here and I disagree with all of them to some degree or another, but I still appreciate their work. Marianne might not be searching for the next person to join that group, but she really does actually try to differentiate between the applicants and create a workable group. Some of the writers aspire to be writers who are Christians, and some would be the type that might be easier marks. As she clashes with the corporation that ends up more or less owning the place, she actually has a believable arc of struggling with an ethical problem and growing as a result.

As an agnostic and a fan of a wide array of writing, I more easily identify with the people running the school. As an ex-Evangelical, I know that Christians are not their portrayals in most pop culture. The novel clearly falls on the liberal side of the culture wars, but it does not (or does not only) argue against a straw man. And above all, the novel is well written and entertaining, which cannot be said of a lot of books this ideological. Boggs understands that the book has to work as a book or the ideological stuff is merely preaching to the choir. I can’t remember if it was her or Hassman who said in answer to a question from the audience that she hadn’t gotten a lot of pushback from evangelicals who read it because they didn’t see themselves as the type of Christian being criticized. It’s the spiritual version of the Chris Rock joke: “She ain’t talking about me!” I think it helps that Boggs, while she is very much criticizing a certain type of political and consumerist Christianity, treats the specific Christians in question as people and gives a degree of respect on that ground. I enjoyed this immensely on first reading; now that I have the shape of the thing in my mind, I think I will enjoy it even more on rereading.

Highly Recommended.

Festival Exceptions, Library Books, Etc 2020 4/35