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A Cathedral of Myth and Bone

July 7, 2019

Because my friend Jonna urged it on me, I not only picked up Kat Howard’s new book of short stories, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, from the table at the ICFA banquet but made room in my suitcase for the hardback, and now I’m glad I did.

There are lots of good stories, most notably “Returned,” which is the story of how a boy named Orpheus keeps forcing his unwanted attentions on a girl named Eurydice until she kills herself to get away from him, only to find that he has brought her back from the dead to continue to endure his caresses:
“You remember that, even though you were dead, you ran from him, under the red-black sky of the land of the dead, on the white, white bones of the corpse road. Ran much farther than a mile without stopping. Ran into eternity, fleeing into death, away from the pursuing voice that called out how much he had loved you, loved you so much, why couldn’t you see it, he would make you see.”

The standout story, though, is Once, Future,” a story of King Arthur retold with graduate students, in a style that reminded me of Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin. At almost 120 pages, it’s practically a novella tucked in with other, shorter stories. The characters are taking a seminar on “The Arthurian Legend in Time” and the syllabus “promised a semester-long engagement with all the variety of ways the story of Arthur and Camelot and its fall got told and retold, across time and medium. One day in the third week the discussion was about “T.H. White’s The Once and Future King and two adaptations of it—the Disney version of The Sword in the Stone, and the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot—and how they all connected in the mythology around the Kennedy administration in the early 1960s.” It sounds like a class I’d like to take!

One of the grad students in the class, during the third-week discussion, says “Of course the writer is manipulating things, making sure the underlying pattern of the story is recognizable. But I also think this particular story has a pattern that likes to fit. It is almost like self-replicating DNA. The story makes it easy for the writer. That’s why there are so many retellings.” Another student responds: “So you’re saying that if you just took a bunch of people sitting around today and named them Arthur and Gwen and Lance and Mordred, they’d wind up repeating the fall of Camelot?” And the professor says “I think we should find out.” So the story is a semester-long retelling of the Arthur legend, from the point of view of the student who is assigned the role of Morgan.

Seeing from the point of view of one of the characters makes the story real, both to the character and to the readers. Here’s one of the points where that becomes obvious:
“You forget the end of the story when you’re living in it. I mean, it’s right there in the name: Le Morte d’Arthur. The Death of Arthur. Death. There are no versions of the original legend where he gets out alive, unless you count that whole once-and-future bit, where he’s taken offstage to sleep on the island of Avalon. The story of Arthur is always a tragedy. The only question is what the rest of the body count looks like.
Intellectually, I knew that. Everyone in Professor Link’s seminar did. We spent hours talking about it every week, the way each version of the story either stopped just before the end or walked headlong into disaster and grief.
But it didn’t occur to me that we were in for the same thing. Not at the beginning, anyway. Not when Sabra pulled a sword from stone, not when magic became like breathing for me, not until later. Not until too late.
Maybe that’s the nature of tragedy. That you don’t notice. Or you see the signs gathering around you, and still you think: not us.”
What a time for this story, when as a nation, we can see the signs of authoritarianism and nascent fascism gathering around us, and yet so many aren’t noticing.

During one class discussion, the students bring up “the free will problem. Merlin can warn Arthur about the consequences of his actions—in some of the stories he does—but Arthur still makes his own choices.” This is where the professor’s interest in retelling the story with her students starts to seem odd. When a student says that Nimue “didn’t bother stealing Merlin’s foreknowledge when she sexed him out of the rest of his power” the professor says “Nimue earned her power. Not sexed it out of Merlin.” The students ask which version of the story she means and the professor says only “the true one.” And we, as readers, start thinking about Professor Link’s first name, which is Viviane.

Morgan starts to do research on magic: “my plethora of interlibrary loans had finally come in. As I had suspected, none of them gave any real hints about magic.” But she also orders
“thick, scholarly tomes on Morgan, and those coughed up a couple of pieces of relevant information.
Morgan, it seemed, was associated with ravens because one of her original titles was that of necromancer, a magician with power over the dead. Ravens were psychopomps—creatures that carried souls between life and death.”

All of the graduate students get caught up in the story, and in their roles, until one of them says “I don’t trust Link. Or any of this, really. Because whether or not the names would have done a damn thing on their own, it’s clear that something else is going on. Link hasn’t aged in over fifty years….So it’s not just names, and the story is still a tragedy.”

Morgan spends the last days of the semester trying to save the student who is playing the role of Arthur. She intends to use the cauldron from the Preiddeu Annwn: “it’s one of the treasures of Britain. Arthur went into the underworld and brought them back. There’s a theory that this is the thing that got turned into the Holy Grail when Christianity got hold of the story. It supposedly resurrects the dead.”

Morgan’s use of the cauldron might not be what you expect, as she has pieced together all the bits of the legends in a new way, so that by the end of the story “the tower that used to hold Professor Link’s office is gone.”

Of all the marvelous stories in this collection, “Once, Future” is the most marvelous and the most original. Like the Eurydice story (“Returned”), many of the stories are feminist retellings–another good one is “The Green Knight’s Wife”–but with “Once, Future,” Howard has elevated retelling to a whole new level, one where you’ll hold your breath hoping that this story, this time, could end happily.


Rules For Visiting

July 1, 2019

Rules For Visiting, by Jessica Francis Kane, is another book I picked up at the library because it was there and I could; it’s a quick and easy read for a summer afternoon.

The first-person narrator, May Attaway, is a forty-year-old woman who is hard to figure out. I thought at first she might be on the autism spectrum, but by the time I got to the end of her story it became clear that she had been arrested by trauma and this novel shows how she brings herself back out of it.

On the second page she lists what she calls “the facts of my life,” and they are these:
“I have no hobbies and no desire to develop one.
I read books, but not always the best ones. I often say I like biographies, but in truth I rarely finish them, the last part of the life, the descent toward death, too depressing.
I am not a good cook.
I cannot sing and no longer play an instrument.
I am neither an early riser nor a night owl, so can claim no virtue in those realms.
Animals tolerate me but are not drawn to me.
The same is true of children.
I worry about the world but have never given much time to charitable work.
I cannot paint or speak a foreign language.
I own one cat, Hester, who is undeniably lonely.
I have not traveled much, a particular disappointment given my surname, Attaway, an Old English name that derives from the words for ‘at the way’ and referred to someone who lived close to the road.”

Since I’ve indulged in reading “books, but not always the best ones” this summer, I particularly enjoyed that one. I also identify with May, to some extent, because she works at the local college, where her father is a professor (as mine was). At one point when he says “ask me for my biography and I will tell you the books I have read,” May says “he was probably quoting someone,” although it’s not a writer and she doesn’t look it up (as I probably wouldn’t have either, if I were still living with my father. There’s a lecturing tone both my parents would put on that would eventually make me tune out. Maybe I’d have learned more if I hadn’t, but try being a child of a professor and see how much you want elucidation on every topic every minute of the day).

In one of those moments of serendipity we sometimes get while reading a book new to us, I’d just posted a photo of a tree that had been “trimmed” by my local electric company, AEP, and has since died, where it looks ready to fall right on the line any day now, when I read what May thinks about such trimming:
“It is possible to do the needed pruning around power lines without making bad cuts to the trees, but the people who do the work are often paid by the mile and move too fast. The resulting tree shapes can be troubling, not to mention harmful. A few years ago Blake and I started documenting the worst local examples of what we named arbotchery, the severe and heartless pruning of trees around wires, leaving them stunted and misshapen forever.”IMG_2751
Here is my example of arbotchery.

May is a gardener, and she is irascible. I enjoyed this about her, like when she says that she resigned from her volunteer work, teaching first-graders about plants, “when a parent complained that all the children weren’t sent home with a little marigold in a pot,” which she had given only to the group that worked the fastest. “We live in a time,” May says, “when everyone gets a medal and all villains have heartbreaking backstories. No one thinks evil is intrinsic anymore, just someone making a really bad choice.” By the way, if you’re amused by her reference to the musical Wicked, you might like a Starkids musical (the ones who made A Very Potter Musical) called Twisted. It’s the story of Aladdin as told by the vizier, who really isn’t wicked at all, just misunderstood. The title musical number has all the Disney villains singing about their bad choices, until one comes out who really is intrinsically evil. (Watch the video and find out who!)

The action of Rules For Visiting revolves around May’s plan to travel and stay with old friends. She has been thinking about how friendless people can be seen as monsters and says that Beowulf is “a violent epic about the dangers of being friendless. There’s a party. The misfit is not invited, he sulks outside, then comes in, wreaks havoc, and is killed. Quite simply: Without friendship, you become Grendel.” So she makes a plan to use a month she has off from work to see four friends–two from childhood, one from college and one from graduate school.

May makes up some of her rules for visiting and discovers others as she travels. On her first visit, to a childhood friend who now has young children of her own, May figures out that “the best way to travel is to surrender a little bit of your personality, and I was enjoying not being the most difficult one.”

On her second visit, to the college friend, who is in the process of getting a divorce, May learns that “when a friend is suffering, it seems you have three options: you can sit silently with her, you can make suggestions, or you can share heartache from your own life. None of the three is as simple as it sounds. I knew someone in college who was so full of advice it was exhausting to share problems with her. You left with a small treatise of self-improvement ideas and the urge to lie down. Share too many of your own stories and tragedy starts to feel competitive. I opted for the first approach….”

After her second visit, May starts to notice the rules that have governed her days in her childhood home, where she is still living: “my parents never had enough money to redecorate. I learned that you conform your life to the space you have, just like the earliest cave dwellers: This one will do! But now most people tear out perfectly serviceable kitchens and bathrooms simply to re-create them in a style they prefer. Now people are bent on designing a space to suit their lives.” Again I identify with May’s thinking, because most children of college professors have grown up in houses their parents didn’t have enough money to redecorate.

May says at this point that “it had occurred to me that one of the questions I most wanted to ask my friends was: Can I see an average day in your life right now? A real day, not one curated for social media or filled with the best activities to entertain a visitor. On the one hand, it’s a simple question. On the other, it’s almost too intimate. And it might be impossible, because the presence of a visitor changes a day, no matter how close the friends are. Destinations are planned, observations made. It’s the way we function when people come to see us, often because the trust required to really let someone see your life is rare. Even Henry James felt the need to take good friends for a view of the sea when they came to spend a day with him.”

After a few of her visits, May has grown enough to have a real conversation with a man who seems to have feelings for her, although she has been oblivious to them:
“My grandmother loved to garden,” he said. “Every summer she filled these big planters and hanging baskets on her porch with petunias.”
I held my breath.
“She had huge, cascading mounds of them. Every summer. I don’t know how she did it.”
“Probably Miracle-Gro,” I said.
He looked hurt, so I added, “Or maybe she had a way with them.”
“I love petunias. I thought they might work in the pots around the promenade. What do you think?”
I almost told him what it was like to spend an afternoon planting petunias, but stopped myself.
“It’s nice you have a happy memory of your grandmother,” I said.
She has learned to listen to more of the subtext of a conversation.

By the time May makes her final visit, she is getting more messages from the other friends she has already visited, and learning how to stay more involved in their lives:
“I got a text from Vanessa. It was a picture of the chalkboard in their kitchen, on which someone had written ‘May Rulz!’ Vanessa texted, ‘Colby wrote it. They loved the Lego sets. You now have coolest friend status.”
I showed Rose. “Is that your friend in New York?” she asked.
I nodded.
“Is she the one who always wears outfits? You know, matchy-matchy.”
I thought she probably meant Lindy. ‘No. That’s my friend in Connecticut.’ It was true, Lindy’s style would not have been to Rose’s liking. But when people are asked what is most important to them in a friendship, the top two answers are consistently loyalty and kindness. ‘She has good reasons for wanting to appear put together,’ I said, and started to put my phone away.
“Aren’t you going to text her back?” Rose asked.
I pulled my phone back out and Rose watched while I typed, ‘I’ve never been praised with a misspelling before. I feel cool.”
Vanessa sent back the nerd face emoji and Rose laughed.”

Being with Rose leads May to her ultimate understanding of friendship:
“Perhaps a best friend is someone who…holds the story of your life in mind. Sometimes in music a melodic line is so beautiful the notes feel inevitable; you can anticipate the next note through a long rest. Maybe that is friendship. A best friend holds your story in mind so notes don’t have to be repeated.”

At the end of the novel, May throws a spur-of-the-moment party and has friends who want to come, people she enjoys spending time with. She’s come a long way in a short time, and going along with her first-person narration might make you feel like you could also become a better friend, if you took it step by step… maybe you could even take it all the way to finding a best friend, someone who will hold your story in mind.

Boss Broad

June 26, 2019

Megan Volpert’s Boss Broad begins with a personal essay followed by rewritten lyrics for a Bruce Springsteen song. It continues with a letter, the lyrics for another Springsteen song, and continues winding around in a desultory fashion, alternating between prose and poetry and compiling a record that shows how far off we are as Americans from where could be if we read more kinds of writers and listened to more teachers, thinkers, comedians, and songwriters. There’s something for everyone in this book, which I received as an advance copy from Sibling Rivalry Press because I knew I wanted to read it, having loved one of Volpert’s previous books (Sonics in Warholia).

There’s something on almost every topic here, even something necromancy-adjacent: “The future after death is really very wide open or else shut in a way that doesn’t matter.”

I learned a lot of widely disparate things from reading Boss Broad; for instance, that there’s an instrument called the double violin (there’s only one, and it was made for and played by Gingger Shankar). I learned about things I hadn’t considered much, like that “gender, as something we all constantly perform, is complicated by objects that are read in isolation as also gendered.” I learned that Volpert has more interesting things to say about being southern than Helen Ellis does (The Southern Lady Code):
“the South is full of smart, decent people—as well as a goodly number of folks wanting to get smart and get decent but haven’t had much opportunity to do so because of the color of their skin or the contents of their wallet. If only there was a book we could put in the hands of these interested, capable people to aid them in doing better. Well, there is: The Liberal Redneck Manifesto by Trae Crowder, Corey Ryan Forrester and Drew Morgan.”
And I learned that I should probably read a number of books I would never otherwise have considered reading, like musicologist William Cheng’s Just Vibrations, which she says posits “that a better academy is possible” if college professors can “turn toward what high school teachers used to call ‘whole child education.’”

I also learned how Volpert picked the Springsteen songs to rewrite:
“I wrote down every way he referred to any woman in every single song. Patterns in the data emerged….I winnowed down this collection of well over one hundred songs by starring my favorites, the top hits, and B-sides that I just felt had interesting language. The result was a list of forty songs, which I then resolved to rewrite from the perspective of the female listener….I love Springsteen’s music for calling me to be an arsonist, the paradoxical gift of creating this thing that destroys—these things that light him up as they melt him down.”

The part of Boss Broad that I liked the best were the book reviews and the musings on the purpose of criticism. The titles range from Lesley Hazleton’s Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto to Carl Bernstein’s biography of Hilary Clinton, A Woman in Charge. In her introduction to a review of Alina Simone’s Madonnaland, Volpert says:
“as a critic, my main job is to convey a clear sense of what is at stake with any particular art object by delivering a fully formed opinion about it to readers who have yet to encounter that object themselves. As a process, criticism gets more complicated when the object of this opinion is a book that itself treats another separate art object. This type of criticism can spawn a stream of tangents for one to follow ad infinitum. The tricky bit is knowing which rabbit holes are worth pursuing and then how deep to fall down into them before they bottom out.”
Employing my usual method of selection for reviewing Volpert’s own book, I have, of course, selected the parts that interest me most and tried to show and occasionally explain why.

In her review of Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway, Volpert defines “literary particularism” as what allows Lamott to “write another single motherhood or alcoholism or religion or whatever other big idea through the insights uniquely afforded by her own experience and its particulars” and points out that this makes her definition of mercy too vague to be helpful for readers. In order to demonstrate how unhelpful Lamott’s picture of “mercy” is, Volpert begins by offering a personal example. She quotes Lamott saying “polite inclusion is the gateway drug to mercy” and responds by saying:
“I suppose I’ll just be grateful to my conservative family for finally agreeing to allow my wife to show up at holiday dinners so that we can suffer severe awkwardness for a few hours together. Or we can go bigger, more impersonal on the merits of incrementalism: the now-defunct Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Jim Crow’s separate but equal policies. Were these polite inclusions on the right road to salvation? How long ought we to wait to arrive at genuine mercy? She argues that instead of failing and then trying harder, we should simply resist less. Sorry, but that’s too close to the complicity of the good German for my comfort.”
Volpert’s conclusion is that:
“Lamott glosses logical contradictions by seeming to embrace the inevitability of hypocrisy. She is even charmed by it. It’s so cute how humanity struggles to do the right thing so often. And yet, we must ‘hallelujah anyway.’ We must keep working on being better people—more just, more merciful, more humble—anyway. I agree completely with the action suggested by her conclusion, but I disagree with these modes and means by which she argues it.”
You can see that Megan Volpert is a critic after my own heart, taking apart a conclusion she agrees with to see what strikes her as wrong about how the author got there.

I closely identify with Volpert’s feelings about Hillary Clinton. She refers to “that moment on Election Day 2016 when I had the incredible opportunity to vote for Hillary Clinton for President of the United States,” and I’ve also described it as an opportunity I’d waited for all my life, one I celebrated by wearing an item of jewelry that had been my mother’s, so she would have some part of being there for the first presidential election in which we could vote for a woman. The letdown on the day after the election, as Volpert points out, is a reminder that all along I should have been working harder to educate my neighbors on the issues at stake in local and national politics, and that now I must take on more than my share in order to make up for my years of inaction.

Volpert also reminds us of where we began with the list of outrages that somehow have not outraged enough people: “the Republican National Convention’s bleak and backdropless vision of America on the edge of apocalypse, where a prospective First Lady can plagiarize a chunk of her speech from the opposing party unpunished.” In fact, Volpert describes a game she calls “normal or abnormal.”
“Here’s how you play: When some exceedingly shocking political news pops up on your radar, turn to the person next to you, read them the headline and ask, ‘Is this normal or abnormal?’ If you want to up the stakes, drink a shot every time the answer is abnormal. If that’s too many shots, alter the rules so that you drink only when things are normal—which is basically never now. Hilarious, right?”
She then proceeds to enumerate all the things wrong with this game, including that “if your sense of irony has only gotten as far as the idea that ‘abnormal’ is ‘the new normal,’ you’re way behind.”

This book works in concert with other books and songs, like Patti Smith’s M Train, which Volpert describes as requiring its readers to feel “the kind of compassion that ultimately bolsters an optimism needed for making life livable,” certainly something we need more of since the 2016 election. Reading this book might inspire some of that optimism, especially reading the best essay, which comes towards the end. It’s the story of how Megan Volpert and her wife Mindy attended an episode of The Colbert Show, and what happened there. You should read it.

Really, you should read the whole thing. And maybe sing along, while you’re at it.

Southern Lady Code

June 23, 2019

Trying to court the same audience who loved Steel Magnolias, A Southern Belle Primer, Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love, Helen Ellis’ new Southern Lady Code is less funny and more pitiful.

Although there are a lot of things I like about the Sweet Potato Queens series, there were parts (for instance, about the “junior league”) that I chalked up to an effort to court women in the 1990’s Republican south. I learned a new phrase from these books: “out of pocket.” Do you know what it means? It means that you’re spending your own money, doing something unrelated to your profession, and are therefore unavailable in a way you can’t be when you’re responsible to others. Helen Ellis takes that kind of stuff a whole lot further, although much of it is wrapped up in her identity as a New Yorker rather than a southerner, like the Burberry trench coat she spent $1,895 on to replace one she already had that cost $795.

Rather than quirky, it’s just sad to read about Helen’s belief that the state of the place she lives in reflects on her (rather than on her and also anyone else who lives there). I’m not charmed by “dusting is meditative. Boiling the fridge relieves PMS. Making the bed is my cardio, because to make a bed properly, you have to circle it like a shark.”

It’s not funny, in June 2019, to read Helen’s pronouncement that “Alabama was not—and I don’t think is—an abortion-friendly state.” She tells a terrible story about being nineteen years old and going to a doctor to get a birth control pill prescription: “when I came out of the exam room I was crying. The doctor had put his hands on me in an unprofessional way and lectured me about the sin of premarital sex. He’d said ‘I’d never let my daughter go on the pill.’” Helen thinks it all turned out okay because her mother found a new gynecologist, never once seeming to wonder what happened after the “high school girls” who “really did have babies in my high school bathrooms” had to raise those children, presumably with fewer resources than a woman who moved to New York City to write books like the Southern Lady Code.

Helen is so self-absorbed that she doesn’t stop to ponder what life must have been like for her own “Grandpapa” or any of the other southern men she describes as genteelly closeted gays but crows about how wonderful it is to meet gay men in New York: “to me, a room full of gay men is like Narnia. It’s a place I hoped was out there, on the other side of a closet door, full of talking lions that I always deep down suspected could talk.” Here’s a hint, Helen. If you want magic, you need to help make it. Maybe you could write a book that encourages the women you left in Alabama to vote for reproductive health care, rather than the kind of patriarchal laws that wouldn’t seem out of place in the 17th century or Margaret Atwood’s neo-puritan Gilead.

Another part of the book that comes to us straight out of the New Dark Ages, where people believe in ghosts but think that feminism means letting women talk occasionally and take care of getting the children their vaccinations, is this:
“When their daughter, Katy Belle (who was named after Great-aunt Belle), spoke to the People in the Fireplace at four years old, and then at six woke to see a man drink a grape soda in her bedroom, and then at seven asked my sister if ghosts are real and Elizabeth said ‘oh yes, we are a family that likes ghosts!’ Stefan didn’t contradict her. He is helping to raise a funny intelligent glamazon.” Or, you know, a superstitious child.

Being “southern” is evidently the same as being so damaged you can’t even tell because everyone around you is also damaged:
“Our principals patrolled the halls with wooden paddles. Some drilled holes in the inch-thick wood in shop class so the paddles whistled when they swung. One vice principal never sat because he kept a yardstick down the inside back leg of his pants. We’d all been threatened or spanked at school or hit at home with a switch or a belt.
And everyone’s parents had guns.”

Other things this author claims are particularly “southern” are good manners and good sense, like writing thank-you notes and knowing when to say no thanks. And if she believes that the food her grandmother served in the 1970’s is particularly southern (“Hawaiian cheese log” and “Nutter Butter snowmen”) I’d like to introduce her to James Lileks and his “gallery of regrettable food.”

It’s not “southern” to make fun of someone and pretend they don’t know, despite jokes about “bless her heart” preceding insults in the south and Helen’s claim that she speaks in “code” because “if you don’t have something nice to say, say something not so nice in a nice way.” Animals may sometimes be fooled by that. Humans are not … unless they’ve completely tuned you out.



The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls

June 21, 2019

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls, by Anissa Gray, is interesting and well-written; it should be a satisfying novel.

In the last few weeks I’ve been talking about the power of the personal in essays, how starting with the particular can illuminate bigger issues. In the case of this novel, however, I can’t make that work. I had problems reading the story of Althea and her sisters and daughters that I’m not prepared to explain in detail and which you probably wouldn’t share if I did. Sometimes the personal interferes with a person’s enjoyment of a novel, and that was the case with me and The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls.

I was a ravenously hungry girl, in all the ways a person can imagine, but I did not react the way two of the characters in this novel do, by becoming anorexic or bulimic. I did enjoy it when the oldest sister, who raised two younger sisters and a brother, quotes something she claims her mother used to say: “words can either feed you or eat you alive.” And I agree with the bulimic character, Viola, when she says “it’s not as easy as eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’ve had enough. Sometimes there’s never enough.” But even though you might think the food issues would make these characters sensitive to body issues, they talk about other characters like this: “a real sweet lady. Real fat, though. You know, the kind that’d be pretty if they lost some weight?”

I value loyalty over many other virtues, and so it was hard for me to sympathize with Althea’s daughter Kim, who has turned her mother in and gotten her sent to prison—even though part of why Kim did it is her mother’s relentless nagging about her weight. We see one instance of this through her aunt Viola’s eyes when Viola says:
“’like, just today, you didn’t have to call her out on her outfit in front of the staff. You must know how humiliating that is, Althea. And besides, that’s what the girls are wearing.’
‘Not girls like her.’ Althea’s eyes darted over in Kim’s direction with unmasked disdain. ‘She’s too big for skinny jeans.’”
And we hear from Kim herself, who is still “just a kid,” as someone reminds Althea, that the phone call to the police happened just minutes after the episode about the jeans, when Kim was overhearing the conversation between her mother and aunt and says “I just wanted to go home and to my room and before I knew it I had my phone out and I was calling the police on her.”

Althea and the other characters do come to an understanding about why they’ve acted as they have. Near the beginning of the novel, Althea thinks to herself that when she ran away to get married at eighteen, she was “thinking I’d never have to do anything I didn’t want to do again. That’s how young I was.” Then, near the end of the novel, she asks herself “If, as a mother, I am my father’s daughter, and I hate everything about him, what am I as a sister, who was all the mother they had?” We see that Althea, her father, and her brother have all felt, as her brother puts it, “the weight of being the head of his family, his struggles keeping everybody in line, and the problems that came from sparing the rod and spoiling the child.” The events of the novel take place as that weight is being distributed among the rest of the family members.

So it’s a fine novel, and well-written, even though it did not satisfy me.

Same Beach, Next Year

June 19, 2019

This afternoon I was in the kitchen putting together what my father’s recipe calls a “summer squash casserole” when I thought about a passage in a book I read yesterday and didn’t mean to review. I picked it up at the library because it’s about a group of friends who go to the same beach we go to with our college friends every other summer. By Dorothea Benton Frank, it’s entitled Same Beach, Next Year and it sounded like fun, but it was not.

As I sprayed the casserole dish with canola oil, I thought of the passage in which a husband whose wife is a good cook disdains the cooking of another woman when she starts by spraying the pan with a non-stick spray. Rather than get up and ask if he can make the omelet or even tell her the way he must have it done, he sits there critiquing the way she does it:
“I saw her spray the frying pan with cooking spray and thought, Oh boy, this is going to taste awful. Eliza always used a pat of butter to cook eggs, not some rank oil—and I knew it was rank because I could smell it as soon as it hit the heat of the pan. But Eve didn’t seem bothered in the least by it, so I didn’t say anything.” When he takes a bite, “the metallic oil was so overwhelming that my gag reflex kicked in and threw them out of my mouth.”
To me, this sounds more like the snobby feelings of someone who thinks food preparation matters a lot than the feeling of a character who has been well fed his whole married life. There’s a lot of food snobbism in the book. Most of it is very thinly disguised as characterization, while some of it is straight editorializing, like “I hoped the hot dogs had no nitrates in them and wondered if that kind of dinner pleased Carl and her mother.”

And let’s face it, I’m never going to understand a character who takes time to cook when she’s on vacation at the beach, much less one who spends the entire afternoon making hors d’oeuvres for a gathering that began when her husband asked another couple to come over in the evening for a beer.

Another thing I don’t understand and don’t want to is the attitude this author displays towards women in general. One of her characters is an older woman that the other characters all claim to be fond of, and yet she’s frequently described as “long-winded” or a “chatterbox” for making one conversational venture, and her husband is always doing things like this: “he put his arm around Clarabeth and gave her a squeeze to quiet her.” The good women in the novel know how to make a “nice” home for the men and like to cook. The bad ones don’t like to cook and talk too much.

The main character, Eliza, comes to a long-overdue realization that if she wants to go to Greece, she should go, rather than spend any more time trying to talk her husband, Adam, into going with her: “suddenly I realized that there was a control problem here. Adam calling the shots was more important to him than me fulfilling a dream.”

The writing throughout is little short of appalling. One of the women is briefly characterized like this: “Cookie was a trip. She always carried herself like she was related to the Queen of England. She dressed like she was Anna Wintour’s mother and tried to come across as royalty. When she opened her mouth, we all knew the devil had arrived.”

The friendship between the couples isn’t really a friendship, but entangled with romantic yearnings. There’s a crisis when Eliza and Eve’s husband Carl believe that Adam and Eve (yes) are in love, but it turns out that they’re not–mostly because Eve isn’t a good cook.

There is one moment I enjoyed, when Eliza has a realization about Adam’s longing for Eve that makes me think of a scene from the movie Moonstruck when Olympia Dukakis’ character realizes that the reason her husband is fooling around is because he’s afraid of death:
“I needed to tell him that time had no patience for his longing. Guilt would eventually take a bite out of his soul and he should remember to be grateful for all he had—me, the boys, all that…still. I knew that something in him remained unfulfilled. But did anyone ever find all they dreamed of and all they needed in one person?
It’s his age, I thought. He thinks he’s going down the fucking tubes.”
Any married woman who lives long enough probably has a moment when she comes to some version of that realization. But that one moment of insight can’t make up for the drivel about emotional infidelity and how to forgive someone for it. Especially in light of the deus ex machina ending of the novel, in which Adam gets so sick he almost dies and Eliza promptly flies home and forgives him even though he hasn’t changed any part of his problematic behavior.

As if the ending weren’t enough, there were two last straws for me. The first was an attempted parallel between Adam and the wife of a Greek chef Eliza is flirting with when she asks “so if my husband comes to his senses and your wife loses all that weight, we might love them again?” This, after about two hundred pages of detailed food description and when Eliza is about to return to the husband whose behavior hasn’t changed.

The second was a side-by-side description of how sad Eliza was when her dog died and how no one cared when her cat died: “now, a few months later when Crank the cat gave up the ghost, there was no crying and no ceremony. In fact, Crank was merely assumed dead because she disappeared from our property and our lives.” Really, if you can’t manage to love your own pet, I’m not going to care much about you as a character.

Even as a beach read, this one sucked…especially since it’s about a beach I love and long to visit. It’s been a dark, cool, and wet June in Ohio, and a bit of summer escapism would be welcome. I didn’t find it in this book.


Light From Other Stars

June 17, 2019

You know that trendy thing in fiction where the author switches back and forth between two different timelines? It seems like it would work well for a book about travel in time and space, but it kept me from caring about the protagonist’s quest in Erika Swyler’s Light From Other Stars.

The protagonist is an 11-year-old girl named Nedda. Part of her story takes place when she is first eleven years old, in a small town in Florida. The other part takes place a human lifetime later, when she is part of a four-person crew in space, heading for another planet. Although I am sympathetic to Nedda as a child, I don’t know enough about what happened to her or why she is headed for another planet to get interested in her exploits aboard the spaceship.

Oddly, this is not a science fiction novel, and perhaps it should be. Instead it’s a novel that wants to be literary fiction but with a science fiction topic.

The first timeline of the novel takes place the day of the Challenger explosion, and it has a big effect on everyone in the small Florida town called “Easter,” especially Nedda, who is interested in space and wants to grow up to be just like Judith Resnik. Nedda’s father, Theo, is a scientist who used to work for NASA but found a job at a college after he was let go during a series of cutbacks. His work on “half-life acceleration” becomes eccentric as he continues to work alone, missing his partner from NASA. Later in the novel, we find out that his partner uses Theo’s ideas to power a spaceship, the one Nedda is in.

We’re told that Nedda’s spaceship has been sent to establish a colony on another planet because of climate change: “droughts, wildfires, and Manila sinking.” We’re shown that her father’s impetus for inventing a time machine is a premature son who died an hour after birth and a chronic health condition–when he first finds out that his machine works, he thinks “of knees that never wore down, hands that never hurt, minds that did not tie themselves in knots with age.” We see that her mother Betheen, a chemist, had to deal with “the wonderful terror of seeing her light blue ballet flats in a room full of awkward men in loafers.” So it seems that Nedda needs to jump ahead 50 years in order to get the opportunity to go into space.

The time travel event, in this novel, is mostly an opportunity to tell stories like the one about a man who couldn’t get to work and so met his wife at a highway diner, a woman who tells the story to their daughter as one about “someone so in love with you…someone who’ll imagine up a whole town just to have something to talk to you about.”

In the last fourth of the novel, we find out why it’s important that Betheen was a scientist, how she and Nedda averted some of the crisis caused by Theo’s machine, and how this is relevant to what Nedda is doing on board the spaceship in the present. Getting there is not half the fun, though. By the time we get to the crisis and find out what is in danger, the details we’ve been given do not illuminate the events as they happened, in order.

For this story, the author would have done better with a more conventional narrative, one that could build up steam before exploding. Instead, we get a lot of character development, which does not move the plot forward. And the emphasis on the characters allows the author to use time travel as a metaphor rather than a way to move the action along. Too many passages like this one slow the narrative: “she felt them, everyone in Easter, bleeding together like water droplets, separate things fusing, all of one skin. A ripple of time moving through them.” By the time I got to the chapter about how Theo is flying around the universe “as a flickering aura” after his death, I was pretty much done with the Light From Other Stars. 


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