Although I may enjoy hearing a select few of these as audio diaries, I think I'm over the Sedaris schtick. Not the classics, but with new material his...moreAlthough I may enjoy hearing a select few of these as audio diaries, I think I'm over the Sedaris schtick. Not the classics, but with new material his affect is starting to feel gimmicky.(less)
Joy for Beginners was selected as the inaugural read of a recently formed book club. Being the new girl in town, I didn’t participate in the selection...moreJoy for Beginners was selected as the inaugural read of a recently formed book club. Being the new girl in town, I didn’t participate in the selection of this book, but I was tickled to be invited to join this group of women ‘round about my age – and we are few in this town of 10,000 which boasts the oldest median population in Washington state. Ironically, at 43, I am the book club’s Grande Dame…
Our local library has a well-organized book club operation. Clubs can select from a list of several dozen, oft-changing titles, which are assembled into “kits” – large plastic carrying bins with several copies of the book and a folder of helpful talking points. I was pretty gobsmacked by this. My previous book club experiences have been haphazard affairs where titles are submitted and argued over. One member of our group brought two kits to choose between for our next meeting. I had read both titles up for consideration, but despite my protestations that I didn’t mind rereading either title (or at least skimming and revisiting my Goodreads reviews), our group insisted we read something no other member had read. So we scanned through the on-line list of titles and came up with Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia” for June.
What the heck does this have to with Joy for Beginners ? Well, everything, kind of.
The book’s premise is this: Kate, a breast cancer survivor, gathers her five best friends (who are more or less best friends with each other) and presents them each with a challenge that she feels addresses some aspect of their lives or their characters they have been avoiding. One woman must get a tattoo; another must learn to bake bread; another shall clear her home of her philandering husband’s book collection; another is charged with weeding her garden. Kate’s very BFF, the one who could not handle visiting her in the hospital (and the one whom everyone else is secretly pissed at), is punished for her abandonment and assigned to a 3-Day Cancer Walk. Kate’s own challenge, as if surviving breast cancer was not enough, is to go on a week-long rafting trip down the Grand Canyon. As each woman completes her life assignment, she undergoes an emotional transformation.
I enjoy a cozy, comfort food read as much as anyone (Maeve Binchy, may her sweet soul rest in peace), but despite Bauermeister’s lovely, lyrical writing I can’t recommend this as a good read. I found the premise formulaic and the characters one-dimensional. Perhaps there were simply too many women to develop a full and believable story line about any. I questioned the likelihood of a closely-knit group of six women who are intimately involved and über-supportive of each other’s lives. This is foreign country stuff for me. Two or three at a time, okay – but what is this multiplicity of bosom buddies of which you speak? I struggled to relate to or appreciate these women’s lives or their white, upper middle class dilemmas. Even the cancer felt emotionally manipulative. Maybe I should get a tattoo.
Here’s the thing. My book club, a collection of women in their 30's and 40's, some of whom know one another and consider themselves friends, others who are acquainted only by circumstance, and me, the outsider by virtue of being new, generally agreed this was a enjoyable quick read, but we dispensed with an assessment of the book’s quality before anyone had finished their first glass of wine.
What this book DID do was generate a wonderful and lively discussion about the personal challenge we think others would assign to us. Out of respect for the privacy of everyone involved, I won’t say what those challenges are, but we spent three hours together doing what women do – talking about our relationships, our kids, our dreams and our fears. So, two-star read; five-star book club. (less)
I don't when I've so admired a work of fiction which I liked so little. I've had a very hard time constructing this review, unable to muster the requi...moreI don't when I've so admired a work of fiction which I liked so little. I've had a very hard time constructing this review, unable to muster the requisite appreciation for either style or substance of This Is How You Lose Her yet unable to deny its power or value. For this reason alone - that I have spent so many days churning through Díaz's themes - I rate it as highly as I do. He challenged me, repulsed me, bored me, made me laugh.
This is the first of Junot Díaz's books I've read. Therefore, I did not have the headstart on Yunior's character Díaz's fans had. But that shouldn't make a difference, and I don't believe it did, unless I missed out on developing an affection for Yunior that might have made this a more empathetic read. I have a great aversion to the omniscient narrative style, which I understand makes up a significant part of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It drags down a story, reducing it to dull and full-of-one's-writerly-self essay. It ruined for me the final third of this current short story collection.
In the nine stories which comprise This Is How You Lose Her, Díaz uses electric language, desperate, bitter characters and tones ranging from caustic to tender to tell the story of love in a time of cultural assimilation. The stories are told from the point of view (in varying narrative styles) of Yunior, who emigrated from the Dominican Republican to New Jersey with his mother and older brother when he was a young boy. The one POV exception is the poignant "Otravida, Otravez" where we hear Yunior's mother's mournful but determined narrative.
Infidelity and machismo are predominant themes and the unrelenting objectifying of women wore on me until it bored me. I was taken in by the opening salvo of "The Sun, The Moon, the Stars" but by the time I got to "The Pura Principle" (story six), I'd wearied of the trash talk. Far more interesting and downright haunting were the interactions between Yunior, his brother Rafa, his mother and briefly, his father - particularly the sweet and wrenching "Invierno". This story takes us back to Yunior's arrival in New Jersey, in the dead of winter. The wonder of snow, the prison of language, the universal greatness of kidhood come to life in Díaz's effortless writing. It was also a gift to see sociocultural entanglements play out in the mix and mingle of Hispanic cultures set against Caucasian ignorance.
Though he writes in a thick vernacular that made this reader feel all of her white forty-four years, I never sensed Díaz was excluding his readers with the Spanish and street slang. His writing is honest, vivid and pure. I love that.
I just didn't love enough of these stories to want to read more of his works, at least not with these characters. I respect the high praise Junot Díaz has earned and I will watch him closely - he's an engaging speaker and a fascinating personality. Perhaps just not the writer for me.
In March 2012, the final pieces of concrete and steel of the Elwha River Dam were removed. For one hundred years, man tried to harness the power of th...moreIn March 2012, the final pieces of concrete and steel of the Elwha River Dam were removed. For one hundred years, man tried to harness the power of this river that flows through the haunting green and glacial interior of the Olympic Peninsula. Before it was dammed (damned), it hosted annual runs of fish, which numbered in the millions - sockeye, Coho, Chinook, cutthroat trout, steelhead, char, among many; it gave life to black bear, cougar, madrona and red cedar. It flowed through the ancestral home of the Klallam people. Removal of the Elwha Dam last year and the Glines Dam this summer mean the renewal and restoration of one of America’s most priceless national treasures: the Olympic National Park.
But at the time Washington was granted statehood (1889), the western Olympic Peninsula – crowded with sharp peaks like a mouth with too many teeth and a vast rain forest where ferns and fungi grow to fairy tale proportions – was the last frontier of the American West. Its natural resources were too great not to be consumed by the appetites of entrepreneurs. And so the flow of progress stopped the flow of the Elwha. For eight decades, its power was channeled to fuel the grind and stench of the Port Angeles paper mill and the mammoth timber industry that reigned over the western-most reaches of the United States.
Jonathan Evison’s messy and beautiful West of Here was published in 2011 just as the Elwha Dam removal project got underway. It is situated in Port Bonita, a thinly-disguised Port Angeles, in the early days of its modern development (circa 1890) and the end days of its reliance on the Elwha for it economy (2006). His cast of characters is large and they are but appendages to the beating heart of the novel’s central character: the Olympic Peninsula.
As a reader and writer for whom “Place” is core to my intellectual and emotional orientation, I have a tender spot for stories which ground themselves so firmly into their setting. Evison does this to spectacular effect – giving the same profound sense of place as Ivan Doig’s Montana, Edna O’Brien’s Ireland, Mark Helprin’s New York City (full disclosure: I grew up in Sequim, fifteen miles east of “Port Bonita” and I now reside on the eastern edge of the Olympic Peninsula. This land is in my blood).
This is not clean and tidy historical fiction that follows the strictures of fact. Evison himself states in the author notes “I set out to write…not a historical novel but a mythical novel about history.” He anchors the plot in fact – basing James Mather’s quixotic winter expedition to plot a route across the Olympic Mountains to the Pacific Ocean on James Christie’s Press Expedition of 1888-1889; nearly all place names are real; snippets of Washington state history – Seattle’s great fire of 1889 and Port Townsend’s subsequent quest to become Washington’s most important city (which failed, thank goodness – I love my beautiful, peaceful small town, where those homes and edifices built in its Victorian heyday still offer as much wonder as they do shelter). The novel’s backbone is this region’s history and it reveals Evison’s extensive research.
Evison presents many themes: the degradation to environment and indigenous peoples by the mindless pursuit of progress and development; the burgeoning women’s movement of the late nineteenth century; tribal politics and the plight of Native Americans who stumble between a lost past and an uncertain future; post-partum-depression; the throwaway life of the modern American. Evison has been criticized for presenting this jumble of themes without following them all to their conclusion. I counter by asking when in life do we really have closure? How often are we able to tidy up our moral dilemmas, our own pasts, and march on, certain of our path? Umm…never? Right. Not even with the hindsight of history do we ever achieve certainty.
Greater than his themes, in terms of quantity and quality, are Evison’s characters: we live 1890’s Port Bonita through the adventures of feminist Eva, explorer Mather, entrepreneurs Ethan and Jacob, civil servant Adam, prostitute Gertie, healer Haw, and Klallam mother Hoko and her troubled son Thomas; Port Bonita of 2006 offers up aging high school athlete and Sasquatch hunter Krig and his hapless boss Jared; Franklin, one of the Peninsula’s few black men; ex-con Tillman; Forest Service Hillary; healer Lew; Klallam mother Rita and her troubled son Curtis. And those are just the characters I can remember as I type. But each is rendered with affection – an affection I find striking, because not all these characters are sympathetic. Fairness and empathy are this writer’s imprimatur, I believe.
The cast of characters and the shifting progression of the plot in West of Here– from one era and storyline to the next and back again – made me think of hanging wet clothes on our backyard laundry rack in New Zealand, where the wind blew ceaselessly. I’d bend down to pull out the next shirt or bath towel and the rack would whip around, presenting me with an empty line or an already-crowded patch. But I stayed in place and kept hanging, knowing in the end it would all get sorted.
I faltered a bit mid-way through (and don’t let the 486 pages of text daunt you. Evison’s prose nips at your heels – forward motion is easy) because of the bleakness of modern-day Port Bonita. I remember the Port Angeles of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, when the timber and paper industries stalled. In contrast to my rain-shadowed, blue-skied Sequim flush with retiree and dairy cash, Port Angeles was a gray and lifeless place. Heavy with damp lichen and lost dreams, it wasn’t a place to linger. Evison’s reimaging of Port Bonita twenty years later brought back that sense of listlessness.
But just when you think these lives are going nowhere, the author tosses you a laugh-aloud lifeline and a tenderness that promises redemption.
Rather than comparison to today’s Lit It Boys and Girls - the other Jonathans (Franzen, Safran-Foer) Dan Chaon, Zadie Smith - whose works have left me out in the cold, I hope I have found a writer with more classic sensibilities and a deeper appreciation for storytelling. I’ll keep reading Jonathan Evison to find out.
One of the curiosities of contemporary Western literature is why Jim Crace isn't more well known on this side of the Pond. On the other hand, during t...moreOne of the curiosities of contemporary Western literature is why Jim Crace isn't more well known on this side of the Pond. On the other hand, during the two years I spent underneath the Equator in Aotearoa I was introduced to a great catalogue of writers who have made no more than a faint "ping" on the U.S. cultural radar. Even with the supposed borderless Nation of Internet, we Stateside-bound lot live in our own world. A big huge one, granted, so we can't catch everything. But we miss a lot. Don't get me started on the authors who create in languages other than English who will never be published or spoken of in the U.S. Mostly because I don't know who the vast majority of them are. Because I live here.
Anyway. Being Dead is my introduction to Crace, and this after first hearing of him just two weeks ago. Yet this novel has heaps of awards (National Book Award, New York Times Book of the Year, Whitbread (now Costa) Book Awards short-list, American National Book Critics' Circle- see, America did take note!). Had I been paying attention in 2000 when it was making the rounds of "Best" lists, I surely would have sought out Crace and his brief, elegiac novel.
I find the whole thing a bit confounding. Being Dead is highly stylized and so meta. It's full of symbolism and writerly tricks, like made up species and poets and legends and cultural practices (Hint: don't waste any time looking up anything unfamiliar on Wikipedia. You'll get a great big Crace "Gotcha!" Just read the damn book). Gobs of gorgeously pretentious writing - you get seduced by and swallowed up in its richness, like duck confit or Sauternes. It contrasts the minutiae of decay with abstract atheism. It's like watching a Terence Malick film and pretending that you know what you're supposed to be getting out of the deep themes and esoteric observances, but really, you just like the pretty pictures.
I'm sounding cynical. It's not that I don't think this is an astonishingly composed novel. It is. Parts of it are breathtaking. But this reader enjoyed the central characters far more when they were dead than when they drew breath. Part and parcel of this conundrum is that I enjoy Crace's writing when he is alone with his dead characters than when he is their puppet-master as they interact in the world.
Dead, our murdered protagonists Joseph and Celice are beautiful, humane, tender, multi-layered, Technicolor beings. Alive they are crashingly dull. As are their lives and their histories. Dead they are mysterious, life-giving, splanchnic and viscous. Alive they are vapid.
I wouldn't venture to recommend this to anyone, because I don't want to be responsible for keeping someone up at night as they listen to their bodies die. Or because I don't want the sound of someone throwing this book across the room to wake me up. I'm very glad to have read it. I will seek out other novels by Jim Crace. But I won't pretend to like them. (less)