Wednesday, October 13, 2010

New site

Since I'm still getting some traffic over here, I thought I'd give a heads up.

My new site is live at http://www.sarahmorayati.com -- my reviews and essays can be found there as well, including 2010 IF Comp reviews. This site will no longer be updated, and I'll be closing it probably within the year to keep away the vultures and bots.

Hope to see you there!


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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Kate Atkinson's Not the End of the World: Sheer Big Waste of Love

This is the fifth of a now-thirteen-part series reviewing the short stories in Kate Atkinson's 2002 collection of short stories, Not the End of the World. In this particular story, "Sheer Big Waste of Love": shiny toy airplanes and the sound of stilettos on a stone road.

Spoilers are inside as per usual, for this and all previous stories. There are probably also some spoilers for Greek mythology, if you think such things can be spoiled.

I promise I will try harder to get on a schedule, as my last "attempt" was pathetic.

Previous reviews:




Addison is about to be a father. He has no idea what this encompasses; not only has he grown up without a father, but he's grown up without a family. His mother died when he was seven, and he spent a miserable adolescence in a "vicious" Catholic orphanage that finally spat him out onto a crossroads: a life of crime, or a life of law enforcement. He chose the police. (I don't know whether law enforcement careers often start like this, but just go with it.)

It's a time of hope, of course, but it's also bittersweet, as it naturally gets him thinking about his father -- a hardened brute of a man -- and about the love he could have had.

Review: Does every story in this collection involve Greek mythology in some way? I couldn't sense anything in "Dissonance." Who would Rebecca and Simon be, anyway -- Castor and Pollux? (That's off-the-cuff; they're not. Probably.)

At any rate, this isn't an issue in "Sheer Big Waste Of Love." There are undoubtedly mythological references I've missed in the other stories -- to be covered in the now-pretty-much-certain thirteenth post -- but it's impossible to miss this one. Bill Addison is Zeus. There are so many clues that it's not even right to call them "clues" -- it's not a mystery. The story primes you with Clare's project on the Ancient Greeks, and then almost immediately after Bill is introduced, tosses out signifiers one after another. Addison imagines his father in a chariot in the clouds like a god. Shirley jokes that he "came in a shower of gold," rendering the myth even lewder than it already is. There's thunder during the big climactic fight -- more on that later. The references are so blatant, in fact, that there really isn't much reason for me to keep listing them like this, like my blog's a trophy case.

In my "Tunnel of Fish" review, I noted that the story transplants the myth into the real world and explores its repercussions. "Sheer Big Waste Of Love" does it one better. It conflates two sorts of stories: the stories of those the gods have touched, and the stories of those who often go ignored nowadays. Greek mythology does the former, of course -- look at most of its heroes -- but you could hardly ask classical myth to predict the 2000s. It's impressive enough when people "predict the future" from mere decades ago, even though that's a statistical certainty and the pundits who were wrong disappear unless they're funny enough to be mocked. It's much easier to tell modern stories now, when we're standing in them. "Tunnel of Love" told these stories, too, but it showed family and love prevailing despite hardship. In this story, they mostly don't. The title drop in "Dissonance" was no accident; they're both about wasted love. "Sheer Big Waste of Love" just blows this up to epic proportions.

This doesn't happen the way you'd expect. Think of how our culture frames families who don't love: it's usually the parents' fault, no? So they say. And Addison's non-nuclear family Yes, Addison's mother is a prostitute. In a lot of other works, this would mean that Addison would be relationally and sexually stunted until, perhaps, he'd realize the mystery of his mother's job to abject horror. Think Watchmen (yes, Rorschach is hardly perfect and in no way a role model, but that hasn't stopped thousands of people from seeing him as one.) Atkinson doesn't do this. Did you really expect her to? She's already brought dimensions to characters who are often caricatured: horrible teenage metalheads, women turned children's-book heroines, nerdy obsessive boys.

This doesn't mean she can make Addison's life great, of course. By all rational standards, Addison's childhood is terrible. He's always hungry, his meals being trifles like margarine-and-sugar-spread white bread. People pity him. They'd pity his mother, maybe, if their empathy moved past "children = good." That's children in the abstract, by the way; most of them don't even bother to use his name. What she can do is love him, and the plot wouldn't happen if she didn't. She knows she's going to die soon, so she tries to give Addison some semblance of a future through Bill. That's an act of love, or at least it wants to be.

But it isn't enough, because it depends upon a myth: the Daddy Warbucks story, the rich older man swooping down from the heavens to give his long-lost child the life he or she deserves. If this story was written a few centuries ago, Addison would probably turn out to have noble blood, in some grand reunion at the end of the book. Things don't work this way. Shirley wants to confront Bill "in all his glory," but Semele tried that already. It didn't really work out for her.

And at least it doesn't work out for Semele because Zeus was too brilliant. It doesn't work out for Shirley and Addison because Bill -- just like the archetypal real-life rich guy -- too callous. It's foreshadowed when the path to his house looks like an obstacle course, and even when we see the inside, there's something off about it. Addison thinks the whole scene looks like something out of a magazine -- "well-dressed people smoking and drinking and throwing their heads back in easy laughter." Kids race around the garden with airplanes, wings flashing in the sun like something out of a TV advertisement. Addison thinks Susan looks like she comes from Fairyland, playing with her doll on her rug in her pink dress. It's all too perfect, which makes it even more devastating when the clouds roll in, the parents tell the children to scatter and Bill starts shouting. I almost couldn't read past that page. It's too stark, and it dashes any lingering thoughts that Bill's family would be a better fount of love.

So there Addison is, forty and stranded, not entirely sure how families are even supposed to work. He has Clare, and he's going to have a family, but it's not enough; he's still, as he says, "on the outside looking in." This undoubtedly happens all the time. People who talk about "family values" are missing the point. It's not about demographics, it's not about "values" in the freeze-dried sense they usually mean. When your definition of "integrity" is something that can be taught in one month of public school -- well, public school as it is right now -- then your definition is wrong. It's part of human nature to be compassionate, just as it's part of human nature to be horrible. Addison feels it. At least twice in the story, he's pulled, practically by DNA, to declare himself family. It never works.

And that's the most devastating part at all, because for a few moments at the end of the story, it almost seems like he's going to succeed. Right after the funeral, Susan and Addison talk again. They last connected at the big confrontation; she's the one person out of the whole Addison family who seems to have some compassion. Bedraggled from the rain, she tries to give Addison that shiny toy airplane he wanted to play with. But before she can really talk, before Addison can thank her, her mother drags her away. That's compassion thwarted once.

They meet again. It almost seems like it will work; Susan and Addison both have escaped their stunting, have grown up to be fairly decent people. They talk. "Love's the most important thing, you know," Susan says. Addison almost believes her. Susan's holding herself -- like she's cold, yes, but like she needs something to. Addison kisses her on the cheek. And then she walks off, and so does he, and how little has changed since they first met. Addison has Clare, Susan has herself. They've survived. But survival isn't everything; in Maslow and everyone else, it's just a beginning. What else could there have been?

What a sheer, big waste of love.

Miscellany:

- "Ten Things to Consider Before You Say 'I Do'" shows up here -- remember it? Mind: Clare doesn't say "I don't."

- Clare's school project rings so true. I did those too, in fifth grade. There were three of them: Egypt, Greece and Rome, and they were a whirlwind of bad classical fonts and pretty-making and poring over kids' nonfiction books. Tangent: do kids even still use those now that Wikipedia is here? I'm sure teachers must still be promoting them, and I'm sure there are troves in libraries. A few of them fodder for Awful Library Books, no doubt, but most thoroughly justified in existing.

Name Report: A male Addison! That's something you don't ever see. Blame to Grey's Anatomy, which I always misspell mentally as the actual medical tome of which >75% of the viewership has never heard. Of course, Addison is kind of a regrettable name given the story's plot, but hey. Other than that, the names are fairly standard: older people named Shirley, Douglas, Susan, Andrew and Pamela; younger people named Ewan, Connor and Amelia. The ages, at least, are spot-on. Always nice to see authors pay attention to these things instead of writing anachronisms, born of name-dartboards for all we know. Refreshing.


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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Kate Atkinson's Not the End of the World: Dissonance

This is the fourth of a twelve (maybe thirteen?)-part series reviewing the short stories in Kate Atkinson's 2002 collection of short stories, Not the End of the World. In this particular story, "Dissonance": Machine Head and Mahler, Slipknot and Mozart, and all sorts of dissonant chords.

Spoilers are inside as per usual, for this and all previous stories. I am also attempting to get back on something resembling a schedule. Paying over $10 in library fees might have had something to do with this.

Previous reviews:




Before you begin, here is Mozart's String Quartet #19, also known as the Dissonance Quartet, from which the story takes its title. Play through this as you read; keep it in another tab. You might recall it mentioned, incidentally, in "Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping." (Actually, it's mentioned twice: as one of the "random" murmurings of the businessmen, and as the "Mozart string quartet" Charlene listens to after the store fire.)

Now for the story proper. Pam McFarlane, an English teacher (good, you're paying attention) has two teenage children: shoplifter and violence enthusiast Simon, and pulled-together classical music buff Rebecca. Neither of them like her very much, as teens are prone not to. They don't like her boyfriend, "Beardy Brian," or her blissful ignorance that their father's girlfriend is pregnant, or really anything she says. They don't like each other. About all they like, in fact, are themselves and their own hobbies, and of course they don't expect any of that to be upturned, either by a skateboarding injury (Simon) or dimly depressing CPR session (Rebecca).

Review: As you've no doubt already guessed, this is the first time we really see how the stories are intertwined. It's jarring; I didn't pick up on it until I saw the name Hawk. Then everything changed. That's a "Tunnel of Fish" callback, and there's another big one: Pam McFarlane, as you might have remembered, was Eddie's English teacher. And another: she, too, thinks she teaches at a "schemie school" -- for the Americans, that's slang, somewhat like "chav." Hannah, Sarah, and Emma (June's names of choice) are here: Rebecca's friends, and a girl-conglomerate Simon fantasizes about. Mozart's symphony, as stated above, is a major plot point. Buffy shows up again as part of Simon's cultural vocabulary.

On to the story. The title, "Dissonance," can refer to two (or more, but let's stick with two) clashing tones, played together. It's also an apt description of Simon and Rebecca's interactions. Simon is introduced first, and at first he clearly seems like the worse of the two. With his surly violent/misogynist demeanor, he'd make a great companion for Brody from Queuelty. ("Friend" seems like the wrong word.) He's a petty thief, at least a quarter of his vocabulary consists of swear words, and a good deal of the rest is made of "heh, heh, heh" cackling like someone off Beavis and Butthead. He ogles everybody and everything, including family members (it's rather disturbing how often he has to tell himself not to think about his mother and his sister in that way.) It's easy to dislike him; the text practically tells you to.

Rebecca seems so much better by contrast! When we first meet her, she's studious, responsible, independent. She's a bit reminiscent of Patricia in Behind the Scenes at the Museum. She listens to pleasant music, she keeps a job. She's a vegetarian. She wants to work for Doctors Without Borders. Sure, Rebecca hates Simon and everything associated with him, but at this point, so do you and I.

But Rebecca is also disgusted at her mother's very existence, just like Simon is. She constantly brings up how ugly she thinks Pam is, how horrible her clothes are, how repulsive her attempts at conversation are. A bearded man in the cafe receives the same scorn, the same disgust, as does Beardy Brian. It isn't even rational disgust; the former is (again) mainly weight, the latter is for being a "boring" social worker. Her ridicule of Simon is based as much on his acne as his personality. You get the sense that she'd be disgusted by pretty much anyone who isn't her. Her Doctors Without Borders dream is about how she sees herself -- the noble doctor operating on "photogenic babies" -- not about the people she'd help.

Most of the story's substance, in fact, comes from playing the two off against each other, from the resulting (title drop!) dissonance. Take one set of two paragraphs, one for each child going to sleep. They happen at the same time, and if it were possible in prose, I'd imagine they would be read at the same time -- two audiobooks in separate speakers, maybe. Simon goes to sleep after listening to the Deftones, playing Tekken, eating Pot Noodles, sneaking beer and cigarettes. He has lewd dreams about "Hannah-Sarah-Emma." Rebecca goes to sleep after listening to Mozart, readong The Portrait Of A Lady, eating an apple and sneaking a joint. She has (impliedly) lewd dreams about the Chinese boy who sometimes does delivery. They mirror each other.

What's somewhat lost in the story is Pam. Unlike her children, she's a genuinely good person. She cares about her students, cares about society at large, and most of all, cares about her family. And what does she get? Simon treats her every bit as cruelly as you'd expect, and Rebecca treats her arguably even worse. Their family dinner (how much have we heard about how eating dinner with your parents is a cure-all for everything?) is a long slog of stifled hatred that we hear from both children, practically in stereo. Pam's dialogue is in italics, making this even more clear. They're not really having conversation; she's just speaking, separate, in another typeface and another world. This certainly happens in real life, as a New York Times article in my Google News Spotlight section has reminded me for weeks now -- and it's just as tragic there as in fiction.

The ending, then, is weirdly touching. More precisely, Simon's half is. He's injured while skateboarding, his skull is fractured, and he calls his mother. So far, so routine. If your skull is fractured, wouldn't you let your mother know? But skip ahead to the last scene with Simon, the last few sentences even. He's crying -- we got a near-glimpse of tears at the family dinner when he mentioned his father's new girlfriend -- and he's holding his mother's hand, and he's telling him everything's all right. It's downright touching. It's how things should be.

That's all well and good, but Simon is still a cretin! Rebecca should be the one who gets a touching moment, and she almost does. It's parallel again; Simon has been injured, and Rebecca treats an injury: that of the bearded man in the cafe whom she had mocked for eating pastries. She saves his life, she's a hero, but all she can think is how gross the pastry tastes when she gives him CPR. When the man regains his pulse, all she can do is cry and think how little she wants that sort of responsibility. Here's where you might snark: that's what you get when you go into medicine for the glory; why are you surprised?

But again, that's all well and good, but Rebecca's such a good kid! She listens to classical music! She has aspirations! Which brings us to the real tragedy here, that good kids can turn out so rotten, and that the sparks of good that rotten kids manage are drowned out. You almost have to agree with Rebecca when you wonder why Beardy Brian wants to be part of this family. There's no family in it. There's no love. There's only dissonance.

Miscellany:

- I would not look down upon an essay that concluded "What a sheer, big waste of love Romeo and Juliet is! It has a voice. And, well, it's true. (Postscript: Just flipped to the next story. I SWEAR I hadn't seen it when I wrote that! This is what you get when you blog as you go.)

- If the "file that one away for later" in parentheses when Rebecca mentions Hannah's father with an unfamiliar woman isn't foreshadowing, then I don't know what is and isn't anymore. Ditto for "The world could not end as long as the 'Dissonant' Quartet was being played." (A callback to the first story?)

Name Report: Rebecca and Simon are lovely; Pam and Brian are serviceable; everything else I've written about before -- except no, there's Alistair. Most people seem to like it. Moving on.


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Monday, July 26, 2010

Kate Atkinson's Not the End of the World: Transparent Fictions

This is the third of a twelve-part series reviewing the short stories in Kate Atkinson's 2002 collection of short stories, Not the End of the World. In this particular story, "Transparent Fiction": all-American girls, scores of cousins and a life-giving cloak of feathers and scales. Spoilers inside, but none for after this story.

Previous reviews:


Meredith Zane seems to have it all, seems to be the perfect All-American girl: blonde hair, blue eyes, good degree, prominent family, promising future. She's also stuck in London, though, with a nerdish TV-writer boyfriend and an unaccountable malaise -- remarkably like the malaise a couple of her sisters felt before they disappeared into doomed European adventures. And at a dinner party thrown by television producer Fiddy Ross, she discovers the secret to eternal life.

Review: Let's read the first sentence together-- no, not even the whole thing. Let's just read the first few words: "Meredith Zane, twenty-five-year-old pharmacology postgrad from California..."

Don't you just know her? All about her? Take a moment and picture this woman. Now go read the rest of the paragraph -- you were spot-on, weren't you? I was. The whole thing could be clipped out and pasted into a satire, especially the last part: "Untroubled by death or history or love, Meredith was, in short, an all-American girl." It's an utterly, painfully generic image, but one that the rest of the story will chip away at bit by bit until you feel like a jerk even recognizing it.

It starts with the very next sentence: "These latter omissions -- love, history, death -- would, she presumed, be rectified during the course of her Grand Tour of Europe." Sure, Meredith's planning for said Grand Tour taking place in the travel section of a Borders at first seems to add to the satire (surely non-generic people frequent kitschy little uncorporate bookshops, right? And don't need travel books?); sure, she seems enamored with Europe mainly for its Romance language-derived names. Keep going. Be momentarily, but not lastingly disrupted by the Blade Runner reference -- surely dystopia isn't in the Designated Girl Canon. And then get to the part about how she's always borrowed others' personalities, read some family history, and begin to get an inkling of what's going on here.

There are dozens of Zanes, sprawling across states and continents, and Atkinson makes plenty of sweeping statements about them -- but always with exceptions, most of which are set aside by the phrase "all except for _____." The Zane sisters reach the top ten percent of their classes in school, all except for Debbi. They all have great teeth, all except for Vari. All of the Zane sisters-turned-aunts had children eventually, all except for Nanci. None of them are Christian, apart from the twice-born-again Debbi. When a group racks up this many caveats, it can't really be called generic anymore.

There are also Richard Cory-like hints of secret trauma -- Vari's father committed suicide; Adelaide's would-be future in Italian nobility disappeared into a doomed, romantic figure legend that isn't even true. (I should probably note here the Europe vs. America contrast, the mysterious vs. mundane one you'd expect. False? Probably. Still works.) False legend could sum up the entire family, in fact. To outsiders, they are larger than life, not quite real. The following exchange should illuminate things:

Fletcher found himself considering the possibility that the Zanes might actually be some form of extraterrestrial invasion. This would explain why they had such large families -- broadcasting their alien seed so that eventually everyone on the planet would be Zane clones, all blond and blue-eyed like the children in Village of the Damned.

'Would it help allay your insane fears if I told you that Sky and Storm were redheads and that Harry was fat?' Meredith offered.

'No,' Fletcher said, 'it wouldn't.'


That's all well and good for the aggregate, but what about Meredith? She isn't the one who shows up in the exceptions, but one by one, "Transparent Fictions" unravels every one of the assumptions you and I make about her. For example, her pharmacology degree has substance, and a substantial doctoral thesis, "The Conservation of Telomere Length in the Human Myocardium." In layman's terms, researching the lifespans of chromosomes. (Yes, this means irony is coming up, but we'll get to that. It also means the story will eventually prefer the supernatural to science -- where her research fails, a mystical cape succeeds -- but I don't have a problem with that.) Fletcher always tunes this out, preferring Meredith's "Air Stewardess Barbie" personality. But there's more.

In short, it looks like Meredith in her own way is a "side shoot of the Zane family tree," one that twists a different way into the sky. One of the pioneering Zanes, the Zanes whose stories might not end up perfectly, but whose stories eventually merit vignettes. It's reminiscent of "Backwater" by Joan Bauer; the protagonist, Ivy, is not a lawyer, unlike almost everyone else in her centuries of Breedlove relatives. The whole book tracks her attempts to find, and subsequent finding of, her aunt Josephine. Josephine is a hermit who lives in the Adirondacks with birds for friends, is decidedly not a lawyer, and isn't even sure she wants to be found. Ivy thus discovers that she too is a side shoot of the family -- and that is why she is truly human. So does Meredith, one night at about 3:30, in a semi-"Story of an Hour" epiphany as she realizes that there is life out there, that her telomeres won't sustain it forever, that she too is meant to be one of the traveling, wayward, doomed, human Zanes.

So this is in part another family story. I've posted about how the family elements of Behind the Scenes at the Museum resonated with me, and this story is no exception. But to focus solely on that is to sell the story short. Let's move on, to Fiddy Ross's dinner party. The scene's a brilliant satire, full of sulking or haughty or order-barking guests, "overly conversational vultures" who either social-climb, raid the buffet table, or both at once. None of them ever really forge connections with one another, unless it's to try and forge a hookup in the conservatory like Fiddy's husband.

And then we meet Merle, hidden behind the party, alone; if this were a movie the camera would zoom in. On one level she's just another plank in the satire -- look, it's the aging wife of the producer who's trying to screw around with younger women -- but of course she's more. Continuing the book's Greek-mythology motif, she's the Lamia. Much prose is expended upon her cloak and its nature detritus:s feathers, scales, even butterflies. She's framed by a peacock-like chair, hidden by a grapevine. In short, she's vaguely timeless, not-as-vaguely reptilian, someone to be awed by and feared. Barely human, and yet the most human character in the story. And it's her who gives Meredith the knowledge of "tombs as gorgeous of palaces, palaces as grand as kingdoms... intrigues and exiles, revolutions and wars... sleigh journeys wrapped in wolf skins." Love and death and war; everything she lacked before, and everything she could become:

Meredith looked into Merle Goldman's eyes. Meredith Zane's blue, all-American-girl eyes looked deep into Merle Goldman's glittering old European eyes and a cold horror should have gripped her heart. But it didn't.


I'm always going to be a sucker for stories about becoming extraordinary, and I'd love to think I'd choose to run laughing into the future in a reptilian, immortal cape. And if not, we have stories.

Miscellany:

- "Transparent Fictions", incidentally, is also where the parallels among the stories really start to take shape. It's subtle here. Meredith is a clerk in a department store where she hawks accessories. Fletcher -- and this is one of the few points that I am spoiled on -- is a devoted Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, and there are a few more explicit references to the show here. I bring this up because they will recur, even though they mean nothing to me as a non-viewer. I suppose that when I get around to watching it, I'll be able to tell you whether sleeping Fletcher's resemblance to a vampire means anything.

- I know this was unintentional, Atkinson being a British woman who wrote this in the early-early 2000s, but I can't read "Fiddy" without thinking of 50 Cent. Admit it: neither could you. (If I was more of a hack I'd tie that too into the breaking-expectations theme, but, well, no.)

Name Report: Aside from the aforementioned Fiddy, we have the gamut. Most of the Zanes have male names (as the author acknowledges), even though I'd classify Meredith as something more akin to Beverly these days than, say, Avery. At the party, you have even more: the Telegraph trio of Arietty, Hugo and little Nell; the Russian-nicknamed Masha; Will, of all things. But, well, Fiddy. And "Missy"'s the oddly named one. I'm a horrible American.


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Monday, July 12, 2010

Kate Atkinson's Not the End of the World: Tunnel of Fish

This is the second of a twelve-part series reviewing the short stories in Kate Atkinson's 2002 collection of short stories, Not the End of the World. In this particular story: Greek gods, geek gods, and a fish made of blue-and-white marble.

Again, spoilers for this particular story, retroactive spoilers for everything before (that'd be only "Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping" at this point, though.) I'm unspoiled on everything afterward, which is getting me a bit antsy.

Previous reviews:




Eddie wants to be a fish, his latest obsession (after shells, coins, stamps and flags.) It's completely mystifying to his mother, June, who worries things: that he's autistic, that he's gay, that he's being bullied, but most of all, that she's a poor parent. As it turns out, Eddie has a very good reason for wanting to be a fish. He's a son of Poseidon, conceived on a trip to Crete in the way that the Greek gods generally go about such things, and he's destined to be King of the Fish. June is merely destined, it seems, to worry.

Review: "Tunnel of Fish" pulls a familiar trick: taking a mythological situation and grafting it into the real world to see what repercussions sprout up. In this case, it's what would happen if Poseidon lived now, not in the classical era. As you'll see, Greek mythology shows up again here in a big way; there are dribs and drabs of it in "Charlene and Trudi" but nothing more. "Tunnel of Fish" puts it front and center, with Poseidon taking a mate. The bowdlerized books of Greek myths you get when you're a kid (not that I have anything against them; it's really handy later on in your studies when you're not encountering all these things for the first time) call this being carried away. Reality calls it rape.

This is, as anyone who's read a non-bowdlerized book of Greek myths knows, pretty standard as far as the gods' liaisons go. I've always thought bowdlerizing them doesn't do anyone favors. Our culture has an endless appetite for taking innocent stories, etc. and making them dark and grown-up. This can lead to wonderful stories, of course, but it also makes teachers and other people charged with grabbing teens' attention away from their text messages or media drips latch onto something, anything that works. The sordid side of history often works for a few minutes, and myths happen to have plenty of sordid sides. This is one of them.

This is something different, though. This isn't the "Guess what REALLY happened to Europa?" kind of transplant. It's not for sensationalism, but for realism. So we have June, who dwells upon things; when her parents found out she was pregnant, it was the same disappointed "Oh, June" that'd accompany getting a piercing. Teachers see her at conferences and wonder just how old she was when she had the baby. It doesn't help that Eddie's drawn to the sea. The tragedy is that the greatest disappointment she gets, both from her parents and herself, is the one that wasn't her fault. It's even worse when you consider that in real life, it happens all the time.

Just about the only thing June dwells upon more than her own sense of disappointment is her hopes for Eddie, hopes that more often than not aren't fulfilled. At times, it seems that all she does is worry. Near the end, there's a scene that's telling. Nothing happens; June, Eddie and Hawk -- and the baby, the book treats it as a living thing already -- are stuck in a traffic jam on a bridge. Eddie's rapt, watching the water, addressing in his mind the fish he knows are his subjects. Hawk is utterly bored. The baby is utterly happy, "leaping for the joy of leaping." June worries whether they'd survive if the bridge collapsed.

That might seem pathological, but I don't quite think it is. As you know if you've been following me for the past few months, I adore Irish singer-songwriter Cathy Davey's new album The Nameless. There's a song on there, "Happy Slapping," that's simultaneously among the funniest and most heartbreaking things I've ever heard. The context isn't quite the same; she's talking about a lover, not a child. But the impulse is: when you love someone, all you do is -- well, let's let Cathy say it:

"When I'm alone, all I do is worry, worry worry worry -- worry about a heart attack, wondering who's got your back, if you had a healthy lunch, if somebody spiked your punch? Do the boys take care of you, or do they leave you home to brew?


All this is sung in the most plaintive voice. It's devastating. And it might as well be June: she worries that Eddie's autistic, or being bullied, that a policeman's going to come by the door to tell her he's dead. She worries that he'll never find a job, never meet anyone. Most of all, she worries that it'll be her fault for being a bad parent.

It hits too close to home. A few weeks ago, my sister, mother and I were at a friend's house for dinner, and somehow the conversation turned to parenting -- how we were raised. the sort of silly sarcasm -- "Well, when we were growing up, our mom would lock us in the closet without food!" And it escalated: the closet developed bugs, then spikes, until it resembled nothing more than the Chokey from Roald Dahl's Matilda. We were having fun. She wasn't. I don't think either of us realized just how hurt she was. Maybe we still don't, even after we stopped and apologized, tried to make a joke of that too, realized that was again the wrong thing to do. For all I know, she's still hurt and it was one of those horrific, unintentional cruelties kids commit. Like in Peter Favaro's Alter Ego where the neighborhood kids taunt a lonely woman who lives by herself, calling her a witch, singing "Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead," and it's what she dies remembering.

Probably it isn't, I reassure myself. It does get me thinking, though, because there's another aspect to this, a gendered aspect. Parent policing happens so much more to mothers -- fathers get it too, but more in aggregate: the deadbeat dads, the inept sitcom men. Individual fathers are spared the nitpicking, the mommy wars, all of it.

Yes, I tend to come back to gender, but Kate comes back to it, too. Part of why June sees herself as a failure is that instead of coming out as "a loud, rude, shouting boy who ran around football pitches and had no fear," he's an obsessive cataloguer of fish. She wants a girl for her second child, a girl with ribbon-plaited hair who plays with dolls and ice skates and takes ballet, who reads and knits and bakes, made of sugar and spice and everything nice. It makes me cringe a bit to say this, but I can't say I blame her. Who wants a loud, rude, shouting boy anyway? The female stereotype is so much more civilized! But it's a stereotype, of course; ballet trips up your feet and ribbon plaits get mussed.

Besides, you can't choose your children; they choose you. This can either be depressing -- "I'm stuck with these people?" or amazingly reassuring -- "These people, through accidents and genetics, love me when they might never have before." These are the family values we need, and the most heartwarming moment of "Tunnel of Fish" speaks to them. It's near the end, after we learn that this family was forged through, at turns, trauma and convenience. Eddie asks, nonchalant, "What shall we call the baby?" And in spite of herself, June hears the word "we" and is drawn into the strange family circle: herself, Eddie, the baby. For a split second, it doesn't matter whether she left Eddie a handwritten sign at the aquarium. It doesn't matter whether that bridge collapses or not; it won't. And the very last bit of the book shows Eddie putting his tiny hand into June's larger hand, all three family members together, saying it's all going to be OK.

Miscellaneous:

- I'm sure it's unintentional, but I laughed anyway: "'Eddie,' his maths teacher ruminated, 'he's quite the comedian, isn't he?'"

- "Eddie knew he wasn't important enough in the school hierarchy to be bullied." This needs to be underlined, highlighted, bolded, all of it, and sent to every policy-maker ever, because they all address bullying like it's a teen movie. Not even one of the good ones. One of those bottom-feeding hack jobs, the kind the early 2000s were littered with, where schools are run by one stuck-up cheerleader. Things aren't like that.

Name Report: Eddie is a fine nickname if ruined by a certain vampire stalker (in fact, I propose that everyone refer to him as such from now on. Eddie, that is, although the latter will also do.) June is excellent even though she doesn't think so: "June, because she was born in June. If she'd been born in November would they have called her November?" (It's interesting how opinions seem to be split on this -- is it cheesy to name somebody June who's named in June, or is it just awkward to name somebody June any other time? You get this more with April and August.)

And then: "June was a name for women in sitcoms and soap operas, the name of women who knit with synthetic wool and follow recipes that use cornflakes." And then there's Hawk, which is its own thing altogether, although if you're going to name your kid after something violent I suppose a bird is better than cutters or gauges or misguided repurposings of Gunnar. His real name is Alan, anyway.

As far as June's other daughter, she wants to name her a "nice, old-fashioned, middle-class name like Sarah or Emma or Hannah." I'd forgotten how much of a class issue names are in the United Kingdom. (They are in America, too, but in a different way.) I'll not wade far into those waters, being an outsider, but I will note that my sister and I are both represented in that list.

And Jordanella Floridae does sound like a name! Just, you know, no.


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Friday, July 2, 2010

Kate Atkinson's Not the End of the World: Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping

This is the first of a twelve-part series reviewing the short stories in Kate Atkinson's 2002 collection of short stories, Not the End of the World. In this particular story: goat cheese farming, exploding ATMs and mirrored-glass globes where nothing but the sky is reflected.

Spoiler warning in effect, obviously. I'm reading these one story at a time, though, so this goes both ways; if there's anything that happens in future stories that will reflect on this one, I don't know about it yet.



I finally made it to the library last week. There's no excuse for this; I work literally blocks away from one, and the library in my hometown isn't that far away itself. Commuting, however, can sap your will to do anything but collapse into a chair and watch YouTube videos. I don't even mind it as much as everyone expects me to.

And when I got there, I couldn't take my eyes off The Courage Consort, which I read last summer. I walked by it a few times, took it from the shelf, put it back, took it again, turned it over a few times in my hands, flipped through some of the pages. Books rarely affect me this way, after the fact, without even re-reading. Why now? Great cover design, perhaps. Amazing writing, certainly. But most of all, I think, is the fact that there are small worlds in there, gorgeous worlds, worlds that haven't quite been resolved like a novel would.

Lately I've been eying a couple short story collections, too, so I figured I'd get a head start and read a few.

I'll be reading them individually, not moving on to the next until I've posted. From what I can tell, and the few comments on the Internet I've read until I started getting spoiled and stopped, the stories are interconnected. For instance, the last story's called "Pleasureland," one of the motifs in today's story: "Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping."




Charlene and Trudi do in fact go shopping -- at a gift store, clothing store and sewing store, as well as multiple cafes and bars. There's also an apocalypse. Most writers have commented upon how the protagonists utterly disregard this. Trudi envies the 9mm submarine gun the blonde TV-station receptionist has at her desk. Charlotte calls Trudi to talk about bonbonnieres with sugared almonds as she's hiding from sniper fire.

Review: What struck me first is that it takes a good few pages (in a short story this length, that's ages) for Charlene and Trudi's ages to register. They're adults, but I'd be surprised if most readers placed them above eight years old. A few things cause this. The title, "Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping," mimics the title of a children's book -- substitute, say, Betsy and Tacy. The descriptions do too, filled with childlike wonder and lush prose describing honey and fountains and soap. It's as sumptuous as anything from Goblin Market. It's what children's book characters talk about when they imagine being grown-ups.

But then you get to "Charlene was a journalist with a bridal magazine" and go "wha?" And it's telling that my next thought wasn't "Wait, she's an adult?" but "Wait, bridal magazines are hiring five-year-olds now?" I suppose you could argue for the tequila reference, but Trudi talks about it in the same breathless reverie as anything else. Besides, that's just one paragraph earlier.

So Charlene and Trudi are infantilized, but it's odd; infantilism doesn't normally work this way, at least not the way our culture does it. Nobody, no societal force, is going to turn someone into a Frances Hodgson Burnett child. It's just not done. There's no profit in it. No, people are turned into commercial children, the kind of kids who'll turn around and try to sell you on this wonderful new insurance policy that is so much better than that lousy old one, please Mom, please? And can you buy me a side of sugar cereal served in a glitter tiara?

Which brings me to my next observation, although it should be fairly obvious given the title: everything in this story is commercialized. At first it doesn't seem so, but read closely and you'll find a lot of what might as well be product placement. The exact brand of cell phone. Clothing brands. You also have paragraphs full of food-porn about honey, dog breeds, wedding supplies, and even though there aren't any brands or anything there, everything that's mentioned is for sale, often in the same place the characters are. Chrysanthemum tea, golden needle tea, hubei silver tip -- they're all boxes sitting on the shelf waiting for purchase.

It's absolutely seductive. Advertising works less by selling you products than by selling you lifestyles, and that's exactly what happens here. Charlene and Trudy, and by extension the reader, are reveling in this gorgeous lifestyle, full of rustic pastoral beauty. Kind of like what's going on in this New York Times article, with the cottage. I'd love to live there, and I'd love to live the beautiful lives that drip off the page. And then I realize I'm caught, and it's unnerving.

You'll notice another thing about that NYT story, or at least how it's been blogged about: the gender politics. Woman: frilly white cottage; man: burly man-cave. (Or burly-man cave; hyphenate it however you want.) They're a bit complicated here. Sure, pretty much everything in this story is coded feminine: the weddings, the clothes, the decorations, and of course the shopping. That's part of what makes it so jarring when the guns and the riots show up. Looking at it a certain way, you could argue that both Charlene and Trudi are pretty much stereotypes, obsessed with babies and shopping and body image and weddings. The mere mention of -- well, pretty much anything -- is enough to make them swoon.

I don't think it'd be a valid argument, though. Keep in mind: there are no men in their imagined lives. In fact, there are barely any men in the story, certainly none with major roles. Trudi outright dismisses marriage when it comes up. As you've probably gathered by now, it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. And of course it does: at heart, this is a story about friendship. The world might be crumbling around Charlene and Trudi, everything might be going to hell, and all their elaborate dreams might never be realized, but they have each other.

Miscellaneous: I absolutely love the following exchange:

"I've got an article to write." Charlene was a journalist with a bridal magazine. "Ten Things to Consider Before You Say 'I Do.'"

"Saying 'I don't'?" Trudi suggested.


Name Report: (I'm a name nerd. You'll see these for every story.) Could be better! Although I will note that Trudi hates her name, thinking it and Heidi should belong to milkmaids or hookers:

She had a twin sister named Heidi and neither Trudi nor Heidi liked her name. They were the names of goatherding girls and American hookers, of girls who wore their hair in plaits and drank milk or had sex dressed as French maids and nurses. Of girls who never grew up.


The jury is now out.


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Monday, June 7, 2010

June 7, 2010: I read things sometimes

Last year, I told myself I'd read fifty books, as part of a friendly competition with some others. It didn't work out quite that way; I fell short. Embarrassingly short. So short I'm not going to tell you how short it was. It was double digits, at least.

This year I didn't even try. You could make an argument about what I'm replacing books with, except it isn't, say, CDs; I've only bought three this year. No, the truth is more mundane. No, more frightening. The reason I don't break down how I spend my time is because it terrifies me.

And yet I do still read sometimes. Here's some of it.



Susannah Clarke - Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

I'm pretty sure that at some subconscious level, I seek out really long books like this to prove I can read them on my own accord, that my brain isn't pureed from the Internet and doled out into tweet-sized portions. Or maybe it's showoffery, the ability to tote a brick around in public -- why, yes, I do this all the time! Kindle? Pah.

If fairy literature is a genre -- and if you believe the trend articles, it's well on its way -- then this is its Paradise Lost. It is truly a brick (it's even brick red), stuffed full of history and conspiracy and meandering footnotes, many of which could constitute a chapter of their own. I love this, and not just to show off. Every bit of this is needed. It's the first lesson you learn when you start reading long books: there are few better ways to truly paint a character in detail. And then paint her again periodically, like one of those "watch this guy's face change day-by-day for fifteen years!" sites but in writing, and with themes. The story of Lady Pole alone is enough to constitute an entire booklet, not to mention Strange's or Arabella's. There are dozens of these stories, and by the end of the book, you get the sense that Clarke has produced not just a novel, but a whole history. It made all the best-of lists for a reason.

(Incidentally, the Textfyre writer in me appreciated Claire Clairmont showing up. Even if she didn't come off so well. I wonder if I can write Anna Chronicle into Clarke's history.)

Emma Bull - War for the Oaks

Another book that sat around on my (still ballooning) Amazon wishlist until I spotted it at the new bookstore that opened up a block or so by my apartment in Chapel Hill. It's a miracle, in retrospect, that I'm not constantly broke. Anyway, overlap between my wish list and bookstore shelves is so rare that I snapped it up immediately, April be damned. Great decision.

This is more straightforward a book than Clarke's. Instead of meandering diversions about the scholarship of magic in the early 1200s (mind you, I loved those) and 200 pages for the plot to really get started (mind you, I didn't hate those as much as a lot of people did; plot WAS happening in these pages; it was just spoiled on the cover), it's a forward-moving fantasy yarn. Local rocker girl meets phouka, is drawn into fairy war, deploys The Power of Rock and saves Goodness. It sounds pretty silly, but it works.

The thing just about everyone notes here is the sense of place. It's set near Minneapolis and all the locations are real. From what I hear, they're as described. This makes the book so much more immediate than, say, your average made-up Troxlerville. I don't live near Minneapolis, and I just know there's a dimension that I'm missing by not traipsing around these places myself. I'll have to wait until someone writes the urban fantasy book about Chapel Hill, although it'd probably involve Carolina blue pom-poms and you'd defeat the evil people (in navy, no doubt) through football and I'd lose all interest.

The other thing that sets this apart is the commitment to the narrative. Or maybe it doesn't. Maybe authors routinely pour all their resources into their worlds until they're truly worlds, and I just haven't found them yet. Even if that's the case, though, Emma Bull's gone above and beyond. There's the book, of course, and now that it's re-released, there's a foreword. (We're not in "above and beyond" territory yet, I should clarify.) But then she's recorded an album of these songs with her band Cats Laughing, and even though it doesn't match how I imagine the songs -- I suppose it supports the book even more that I even did imagine them -- it's more than competent.

There's even a trailer. Very low-budget, out of necessity, but it still captures the book perfectly. Oh. And. I must, er, really applaud the casting of the guy who plays the Phouka, as well as the aesthetics, or maybe mostly the aesthetics. Willy Silver, eh, not so much. I'll now assess it and not act like a 12-year-old: the amount of dedication Bull brings to her world is truly laudable. If only more people did this; we need more worlds to travel to, not fewer.

Kate Atkinson - Behind the Scenes at the Museum

See, not everything I read is about fairies.

If I picked favorites, this would be a contender. (See? I can't even decide upon a favorite when I'm doing hypotheticals.) It's a family book, yes, but not in the rote flap-copy "family togetherness and reunitingness" sense. It's more about how Alice's life is intertwined with Ada's, who lived centuries ago, as well as Ada's mother Lily, and the ways tragedy and triumph both sprout from these histories. This is catnip to me. There are family secrets, of course, some apparent and some less so (although I was spoiled on some of them, so take that with a grain of salt.) It comes together beautifully.

(Speaking of Alice and Ada and catnip, the names! They are, as far as I can remember, all beautiful.)

I'd be remiss not to mention the gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous writing. This is what a really strong narrative voice does for you. Like the baby-to-be in Jesca Hoop's "Intelligentactile 101," Ruby is egotistical as any id-infant, but utterly lovable. It's almost a shame when she grows up and her voice mellows a bit.

Jedediah Berry - The Manual of Detection

This was an ifMUD suggestion, and a good one. It's not in my normal genre. The last mysteries I read were written by Carolyn Keene and his army of ghostwriters. This is where I'd probably want to make a sweeping statement along the lines of "But ah, even those have taught me the ways of the mystery, given me a taste for intrigue...." except that I'm not actually qualified to do this. Your gain.

Instead, let's talk about how I really liked this. It's another book where a local man gets promoted way beyond his means -- escapism, sure. Berry throws around his noir tropes like confetti, but the plot's twisted enough that I don't mind a bit. Especially the last few chapters. I still don't quite get all the nuances. But that's reread fodder. Gives the book a longer life.

Max Barry - Syrup

(Note: The author published this book under the name Maxx, an act he's since repudiated for being really stupid. I will do the same.)

One of my journalism professors used to cover Coca-Cola for several years. He probably knows more about Coke than many people who work there. (He'll also probably read this, but knowing a lot about Coke is hardly slanderous. At least not when it's capitalized.)

So would he, or anyone else, say this book is realistic? Doubtful. The premise is ridiculous, the characterization is as thin as soda-can aluminum, and the protagonist is the sort of guy Bill Hicks ranted about. Nevertheless, it's a pretty fun, fast-paced read, and I enjoyed it while it lasted. You can't read 900-page epics all the time -- well, OK, you could, but it'd result in less reading altogether. Or the comprehension equivalent of brain puree.

Just one thing, though: way too many stock characters! Sneaky Pete's character is an ugly stereotype, and making him into a ladies' man doesn't negate this. And all tabletop gamers aren't sub-Big Bang Theory troglodytes. Ah well.

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