Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Review of The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer

In The Children’s Crusade, Ann Packer gives us the long history of the Blair family. The father, Robert, purchases a piece of land in what is now Silicon Valley and builds a home for his future family. As his children grow up, the house becomes the family’s anchor and also the wedge between its members.

The story switches back and forth between the 1970s and the 2000s, when the family’s four adult children are deciding whether to sell the house after Robert’s death. The reader’s task is to figure out how and why the family comes to this particular crossroads.

As each child’s story unfolds, the reader begins to see how separate the mother is from the center of the family. In fact, the mother essentially moves out of the house into a shed on the property. But at the same time, her self-isolation becomes a new center around which the family begins to orbit. The “Children’s Crusade” in the title refers to the plan the kids hatch to get their mother’s attention. Packer wants us to consider the psychological dimensions of family roles.

I really did want to enjoy this book, and while it was very readable, I did not love it. For one, there’s not a lot of action here. This is a slow, meandering story. The chapters are long, with multiple changes in narrative perspective happening within each one. Finishing this novel required a surprising amount of perseverance.

But my biggest issue with this story was the development of Penny, the mother. For all of the attention Packer gives each character, rooting out each person’s shame and secrets and motivations, Penny remains rather one-dimensional and unsympathetic. And while Bad Mothering is a fascinating topic, I would have liked Penny to have the same complexity as the other characters.

(For fun, I just googled, “Bad mothers in literature,” and it turns out that Penny is not the only one! Who’s your favorite Mommie Dearest?)

I do tend to seek out and enjoy novels about dysfunctional families. Recent favorites in this broad category include The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, and We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas. The Children’s Crusade is the second novel I’ve read in the last few months that has a “What should we do with the family house?” question as its centerpiece. Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread also follows adult children navigating their relationships with each other and the family legacy. In both cases, I struggled with the books’ pacing and structure and, ultimately, with the heavy hand of the house metaphors.

Most of the interviews with Ann Packer focus on her older work. Here’s one current article, and here are her tips for successful writing.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Thoughts On Beach Reading and The Girl On the Train by Paula Hawkins

Whenever I am preparing for a vacation, my attention goes first to figuring out the best book(s) to read. I have to decide:

What to read on the plane (in this case, I read Unfamiliar Fishes)
What to read on the beach (this one!)
How many books to bring (Four + one e-book. Too many.)
How many books I will buy and have to bring back (Zero, though I did visit this fantastic bookstore!)

I was lucky that The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins arrived at the library just days before my departure to Hawaii. I had heard the buzz about this book and was so excited to have on hand what many were calling the perfect vacation read.

And in many ways, it was.

The novel follows Rachel, who rides a commuter train every day and watches a couple whose house sits alongside the tracks. One day she learns that the woman she has been watching has gone missing – and, it turns out, she might hold the key to the disappearance. The problem is, Rachel has huge gaps in her memory and is generally untrustworthy (in particular, she is drunk all the time).

There have been many comparisons between this book and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and I can definitely see that. There’s a similar collection of distasteful characters. There is quite a bit of narrator unreliability. (Bad) marriages are the key element of both books. And there’s a sense that this story could move easily from stage to big screen.

Here are the two ways in which this book fits the mold of my kind of good vacation read:

1)   It is broken into very short sections and has a fast-driving plot. The short sections facilitate breaks to dip ones toes in the ocean and opportunities to sink into the hot tub. The plot-heavy focus makes it so that the reader’s brain does not have to work very hard.

2)   It is billed as a “literary thriller,” which is mostly true. The pacing is definitely thriller-esque, but the writing is not predictable. Hawkins pulls apart and pushes together the narration and the timing in an inventive way.  I’m willing to accept the “literary” label here.  This book was easy to read, but not too light.

However, there are also a couple of ways in which The Girl On The Train might not be everyone’s glass of iced tea.

1)   The women are dumb. Rachel, especially, makes exceedingly bad decisions, over and over again. Women who make ridiculous decisions are actually part of the thriller formula, which can be irritating. I can’t even count how many mass-market thrillers I have read in which the very educated and esteemed forensic scientist decides, after the serial killer has gruesomely murdered many victims, to venture out on her own to search his apartment in the middle of the night, presumably so she can be rescued by the troubled detective with the heart of gold that she will romance as the series continues.

2)   There are quite a few contrived plot elements to move the story forward. I understand that suspending disbelief can be part of the process of beach reading, but this book did push me almost all the way to my limit. (e.g. Please don’t keep showing up at a creepy suspect’s house to talk to him when you could just call; And if you know that your ex-husband’s new wife is trying to frame you, please don’t skulk outside her house).

The upshot for me: The Girl on the Train did the trick, like a somewhat watery cocktail on the beach on a sunny day. It’s a fun read, but pretty easily forgotten.

You can find an interview with the author here and an article about the Gone Girl comparison here.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Review of Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

We just got home from a week on Oahu. My travel companions are of the go-go-go variety, so there wasn’t much time for sitting on the beach and reading. Fortunately, I started Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes before leaving home, and I did manage to carve out some time in the sand to finish it.

I have loved Sarah Vowell since I first heard her weird voice on NPR's "This American Life." Her deeply-curious-but-not-stuffy interest in out-of-the-way history appeals to the part of me that insists on stopping at historical markers or abandoned buildings in the middle of nowhere. In Unfamiliar Fishes, she begins by looking at her “plate lunch,” in Honolulu, which, when you think about it, is a strange blend of regional foods: barbequed meat, macaroni salad, and Japanese rice. Why that odd mix of things? She goes on to examine how Hawaii became a modern, multi-ethnic American state (and military outpost and tropical tourist mecca).

The best part of Vowell’s writing is that she is willing to acknowledge everybody’s craziness. Her telling of Hawaii’s evolution is not merely a simple version of evangelism and colonialism, but, rather, a struggle between and among a plate lunch of powerful (and often absurd) people – Native Hawaiian and European and American alike. Of course, the result of this struggle WAS the takeover of Hawaii (and all the bad that process entails). Vowell is asking us to develop a greater consciousness about our own role in the ongoing Americanization of Hawaii, even if we enjoy an extra-large shave ice while we’re doing so.

Unfamiliar Fishes does suffer a bit from its lack of clear category. This is not scholarly history – you won’t find footnotes, and you will find many irreverent asides and snarky editorial comments. But this isn’t popular narrative history, either. Vowell gives us LOTS of detail about obscure events, and it was frankly not an easy beach read. Her analysis requires attention, especially with so many different “characters” vying for control. Still, I am so glad I experienced this book, and I was able to note the irony of my own participation as an “unfamiliar fish.”

You can listen to Vowell’s reports on "This American Life" here. And here she is talking about the book on the Daily Show. And here’s an interview she did with Goodreads readers.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Review of Our Kids by Robert D. Putnam

In Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert D. Putnam aspires to make the narrowing of the opportunity gap a political task, something that is urgent, broadly worthwhile, and achievable. He popularizes a great deal of research with the intent of making the general reader/citizen/voter motivated to take on what is both a moral and practical problem.

To do this, he and his research colleagues interview a range of people in a broad array of American locations, generating qualitative data on family structure, income, neighborhood, educational ambition and attainment, social supports, and affiliation. He prefaces all of this contemporary data with a nostalgic look back at his childhood town, where, he claims, the opportunities available for an individual to participate in community life and to be upwardly mobile were not dependent on the social class of his or her parents. His reminiscing allows him to create a working definition for the “American Dream,” which includes a “fair shot” at creating a life that is upwardly mobile. Parents in this 1950s idyll could be reasonably assured, no matter their station, that their children would be able to build a lifestyle that rivaled or surpassed their own.

He contrasts this historical context (for which he uses not just his warm memories but interview data with classmates from that era) with the modern experiences of affluent and poor families in different areas around the country.  These interviews suggest that today, the social class in which a person is born constrains his or her possibilities from the outset.

And with that, Putnam points to some very specific characteristics of modern life that are different for low-income and more affluent children: parenting styles and family supports, educational communities (and opportunities within those communities), and neighborhood institutions, and relationships. His political project involves getting ordinary Americans to promote reform in each of those areas, including supporting tax reform to benefit low-income parents, especially those who are unmarried or who aren’t in the work force; funding quality early childhood education; building mixed-income housing; advocating for public ownership of school activity fees; and investing in neighborhood redevelopment and organizations.

I am of two minds about this book. On the one hand, HOORAY for Putnam for pushing us to think about inequality in a concrete way. It is so strategic to have this kind of conversation starting just as a new election cycle begins.  And the idea of writing a book that is aimed at a general rather than an academic audience helps propel Putnam’s idea that grappling with inequality is everybody’s responsibility in a democratic society.

But on the other hand, I had issues with his analysis all the way through, beginning with his umbrella discussion of “the good old days.” It seems as if what he really wants to talk about is not “equality of opportunity,” but rather access to the middle class. His portrait of his small town in the 1950s as providing a level playing field tumbles when you consider the civil rights barriers and glass ceilings and structural barriers to opportunity that existed for some people at that point in time. It may have been –and importantly so – that there were more opportunities for everyone to be a functioning member of the middle class in that place and at that point, but that is not the same as having equal opportunities for each person to do whatever s/he wants to do.

And with that, if what he’s really talking about is access to the middle class, then there are large structural and economic barriers TODAY that need to be made explicit. Putnam makes an offhand comment in his “Conceptual Note” section (p.44) that he thinks of “upper class” homes as families where both parents have graduated from college. But he also says that he doesn’t want to address the “inconsistencies” of this classification, such as the fact that someone can be a “well-educated but poorly paid librarian.”

But that IS a modern issue of opportunity, isn’t it?  Many seemingly middle class jobs (librarian, teacher, social worker….) require significant higher education but don’t offer easy entrance or sustained access to a middle class lifestyle. Thinking about the economic forces that are making that so is part of the political work of addressing inequality. We need to get clear about who has real power in our society and what kinds of laws and systems got them there. My guess is that the “American Dream” is not as clearly in the reach of all of the “rich” people he interviews for this book as he suggests.

Putnam is an interesting guy. You can read about the research he did for this book here – the bibliography is fantastic! There are also all sorts of interesting related papers and links in his Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America at Harvard.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Review of Road Ends by Mary Lawson

One of the concerns I had with the last book I read (That Deadman Dance) was that I had such a difficult time “seeing” the setting. By contrast, Mary Lawson’s Road Ends is all about the lonely, isolating setting of 1960s Northern Ontario in the winter-time. The reader is stuck in a cold house with no escape, trapped with family members who can’t seem to find their way to each other.

There’s Emily, the mother, who keeps having children, only to lose interest when they cease being babies. There’s Edward, the father, who is lost amid all his children and feels disconnected from his dreams of travel and adventure. There’s Tom, who is rocked by the suicide of his close friend, and gets stuck in his childhood home after graduating from college. And there’s Megan, the one daughter, who flees from her role as caretaker to live in London, alone.  Megan is the one person in the family who escapes, at the cost of any sort of connection at all.

I love a good book about a dysfunctional family, and this novel had so much going for it. I was loving it, flying through it even, until BANG, the ending clobbered me on the head.  I thought that the resolution for one of the characters was so disappointing that I almost threw the book against the wall.

This got me thinking about endings, and how deeply picky I am. I complain when books wrap-up too easily (I guess I’m suspicious of happily-ever-after). I complain when books end with characters making bad decisions. I complain when books end without any justice at all.  Have you read a book recently whose ending was deeply satisfying? Or one that deeply disappointed you?

You can find an interview with the author here, where she discusses how this book grew from her experience looking at Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream. Her idea came from a plaque beside the painting that said, “His companions at the far side of the bridge appear to be unaware of his anguish.”

Interestingly, Lawson is a relative of L.M. Montgomery, who wrote Anne of Green Gables. She was also published later in life, transitioning from stay-at-home mother to published author after her children were adults.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Review of That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott

My book club decided to try to read more broadly this year – to include books from more places and cultures into our monthly mix. One of our members is from Australia, and we asked her to choose something that would help us better understand her country. I imagined something about sunshine, surfing, crocodiles….

But Haha! That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott is a novel about the colonization of western Australia during the 1800s.  And like most accounts of cultural imperialism, this isn’t a novel about good times at the beach.

Kim Scott comes to this project as a bicultural author. His mother is white, and his father is Aboriginal. And perhaps due to that heritage, he sets about writing a complicated fictionalized history of cross-cultural contact. There are a  host of characters that include British settlers, merchants, opportunists, and prisoners, American whalers, and Aboriginal men, women, and children.  At the center is Bobby Wabalanginy, a Noongar boy whose name means “all of us playing together.” Bobby has many roles in the book – he is an integral member of his tribal family; he is a guide for the colonists; he is at times an opportunist himself. As the reader watches Bobby grow, s/he also watches the interactions between the colonists and the native peoples become less about accommodation and more about domination.

I can see why this is an important book. It doesn’t portray the Noongar people as simple victims, nor does it gloss over the violence and the exploitation by white people. The diversity of characters with different motivations gives the reader a sense that colonialism in Australia didn’t involve a single story or narrative.

Still, this isn’t a book that I particularly enjoyed reading. I felt at a distance from all of the characters, perhaps because of the sheer number of them. I couldn’t quite “see” the setting as I read, when I had hoped to be clearly transported to a different time and place. The author claims that he “wants his writing to be valued for the discussion it stimulates in the wider community, rather than for the writing itself.” In that sense, this book is clearly an achievement. But for me, getting through this novel involved work and commitment, and perhaps the accountability a book club provides.

I took to the interwebs to see if there are some good lists out there for readers who want to explore postcolonial literature, and I was directed to just about every university in the world. This list from UCLA seems like a good place to start. You can also find an interesting review of That Deadman Dance here, and you can find a compelling interview with the author here.