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Posts Tagged ‘satire’

My friend Peg lent me this book after reading my review of The Enchanted April Elizabeth von Arnim wrote many novels, and The Caravaners was the eighth, published in 1909. It is meant to be the diary of Otto, Baron von Ottringel, an officious German army major who tells readers he is writing a book about his caravan holiday in England. Besides Otto and his wife, Edelgard, and their neighbor, the widow Frau von Eckthum, they traveled with an aristocratic German-English couple, Mr. and Mrs. Menzies-Legh, a niece of that couple and her friend, a Socialist MP named Jellaby, and a man “going into the church” named Browne, who Otto later learns is also Lord Sigismund, younger son of an aristocrat.

Otto has very definite ideas about women and the English, none of which are favorable. He believes Germany to be superior in every way, and looks forward to a time in the near future when he believes Germany will conquer England. Von Arnim was clearly writing with the impending World War on her mind. And with Otto, she satirizes German alpha masculinity as Otto appears more and more ridiculous throughout the book. Edelgard enjoys the holiday and comes into her own, even shortening her very proper skirts. By the end readers may wonder why she stays with him, when he is such a disagreeable, bullying, sanctimonious, self-absorbed man, but perhaps von Arnim knew what that was like.

At any rate, while the book is funny, it was less funny to read this past week as a similarly self-absorbed, misogynist alpha male blundered around Europe in America’s name. I enjoyed it, but my sense of humor is low at the moment. Still von Antrim is wickedly observant and I found her comparison of Anglican and Lutheran practices at the time interesting. Otto tells an Anglican priest “And Lutherans . . . do not pray. At least not audibly, and certainly never in duets.” I chuckled at that.

A good read, although maybe one not perfectly matched to my present mood.  I’m glad Peg thought of me though, and shared it.

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I received two Penguin reprints of Vita Sackville-West‘s novels for my birthday a couple of months ago, and read The Edwardians last week. It’s kind of a literary Downton Abbey but far sharper and funnier. That Sackville-West belonged to the strata of society she was sending up makes it even more admirable, to me. Her characters are delicious, and the story of Sebastian, a young Duke whose mother Lucy is among the “fast” set, favorites of the king, and who loves his estate, Chevron, and runs it well, is tender and also searingly critical. His sister, Viola is considered “cold,” and treated with suspicion by her mother’s friends because she is always quietly observing. It turns out she is in the end brighter and more observant than any of them.

Early in the novel, Sebastian and Viola meet a man their mother is considering as a potential lover, an explorer named Leonard Anquetil. Lucy invites Anquetil to a house party at Chevron to amuse her friends with this man who survived in a “snow hut” on a polar expedition. Anquetil ends up spending time with Sebastian and Viola, talking with them, and having a profound effect on their young minds, allowing them both to see (although I would argue Viola probably already does) the vacuousness of their society and the potential for them each to make their own way in the world.

The joy of this book is that Sackville-West makes it far more complicated than that, even as some circumstances of the book fall together as neatly as they might in a fable or fairy tale. Sebastian goes through a series of affairs, testing the strength of his sense of duty and propriety, and Viola manages to become her own person, against the odds for a woman of her position. I do wish the book allowed readers into Viola’s world — we only hear of her through Sebastian, or other characters.

This was a very enjoyable, intelligent read that combines the escapist pleasure of a “Masterpiece” style story (plenty of balls and Worth gowns and weekends in the country) with the bright insights and cultural commentary of an author who was no stranger to challenging convention while still embracing the lifestyle privilege afforded her. And the ending is pleasantly speculative: will Sebastian become a socialist? Will he accept Aquentil’s offer? What about the woman he’s about to propose to? What is Viola up to? How will Lucy react to her children’s latest outrageously independent choices? What about WWI, which readers know is looming (the novel ends on Coronation Day for King George and Queen Mary, in 1911)? A good read.

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Imaginative, outrageous, darkly humorous, prophetic, satiric. Those were the words on my blind date with a bookseller selection from Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville. Big reveal: I’ve never read Kurt Vonnegut before! I know, I know, I need to read Slaughterhouse Five.

The Sirens of Titan was Vonnegut’s second novel. It is just about all of the descriptions above – I’m not sure about prophetic, I’m still thinking about that. It’s a sci fi novel about a wealthy New Englander, Winston Niles Rumfoord, who flies into a “chronosynclastic infundibulum” In his spacecraft. As a result he is no longer his physical self; he only materializes when his energy waves line up with a planet. So he and his dog show up in Newport, RI every 59 days.

If this isn’t wild enough, Rumfoord can also see the past and the future. He manipulates a “Martian” invasion of Earth and orchestrates other events – including the coupling of his own wife, Beatrice, with another eccentric wealthy man, Malachi Constant, and the marooning of that man on Mercury for a few years – in order to bring about a new religion on Earth.

That religion, The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, is predicated on the “apathy” of God, which makes mankind “free and truthful and dignified at last” because “No longer can a fool like Malachi Constant point to a ridiculous accident of good luck and say ‘Somebody up there likes me.'”

Hmm. That seems like a pretty silly sendup of organized religion, but I guess there’s no denying that some religious leaders – like the aptly named Creflo Dollar – do claim that God approves of them and their flocks. That doesn’t make them right though, and in my mind it makes them as much a parody  of true religion as Rumfoord.

Still, that’s a minor quibble and The Sirens of Titan is funny and successfully satirizes the excesses of wealth and celebrity and the tyranny of extremism. I won’t tell you how it all turns out but I will say it’s a good read, intelligent and entertaining, and would be really fun to discuss in a group. I definitely want to read more Vonnegut.

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I’ve been weeding damaged & stained fiction in our storage stacks at the library, and then shifting. So I’m literally touching every fiction book in storage, which is reminding me of authors I want to read. That’s how I came across and checked out Lapham Rising. I wrote the following review for the “book of the week” feature in a local weekly arts and culture paper. See? I can be brief!

The hero of Roger Rosenblatt’s satire is Harry March, a well-known author, who lives on a tiny island in Quogue, in the Hamptons. His wife has left him for a Hollywood events planner, he hasn’t written anything in some time, and he’s been jettisoning his belongings. He lives – and converses with – his West Highland White Terrier, Hector. Eschewing banks, he keeps his savings in the “The Money Room” of his house. Which, like Harry, has seen better days.

Harry’s focus is the enormous mansion rising across the creek. The owner is an extremely wealthy but grammatically challenged opinionater named Lapham, proprietor of the website Laphams Aphms. The novel takes place on the day when Harry’s effort to stop the monstrosity’s construction is about come to fruition. Hector tells him, “You’re such a cliché. A recluse on an island, railing against his times.” To which Harry replies, “I’m a cliché? And what do you call a talking dog?” A hilarious sendup of the excesses of the one percent and the aging intellectual alike, Lapham Rising is humor with heart. Even at his crankiest, Harry is a hero you’ll want to root for.

I enjoyed this book and I plan to seek out more of Rosenblatt’s work.

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Emerson College professor Steve Himmer’s new novel Fram is about Oscar, a “minor bureaucrat” in the Bureau of Ice Prognostication, a government agency tasked with completely imaginary work: inventing “discoveries” in the Arctic, creating records relating to their use, and recording these in reports and files in their basement office somewhere in Washington. For example, “Perhaps a town’s population had boomed—was a streak of silver discovered and a spoon factory built? Or perhaps a coal vein ran dry and the families of miners packed up and left it behind. Generations of prognosticators could return to the same parts of the Arctic and find something new . . . .” Their work is carried on under an old lightbulb with a “cloth-wrapped cord.” “The bulb wasn’t bright, but its wan glow was faithful.”

So is Oscar. His cover story is that he works on creating more efficient filing systems for the government, but “polar fever” as his wife Julia calls it, extends into his personal life, as he reads again and again about the great expeditions North and obsessively watches “Pole cam” on his phone. He is quietly dedicated to the Arctic, day and night.

One day Oscar’s diligent work is interrupted by unprecedented news: he and his new partner, Alexi, have been summoned by their director with orders to travel to the Arctic themselves. And this is where the novel begins to feel a lot like walking on ice, solid but unstable – the reader slips and slides, in one moment upright, slightly off balance the next. I never quite wiped out, but I was never absolutely certain where I stood.

Oscar goes home baffled and unsure of this mysterious trip. Julia isn’t home, and he muses on how they’ve grown apart, and how dearly he holds their private jokes and memories, the shared stories that make a marriage its own little ship on stormy seas. He notes how difficult it is, lying to Julia about what he does.

And the next morning, Oscar is seized. From there, his journey North is confusing and strange. He’s never sure who is BIP and who is not, who might be trustworthy and to whom he should deliver an envelope marked “Northern Branch.”  Spy-like figures, who readers first see on the Metro when Oscar leaves work the fateful day he learns of his journey, appear on trains and boats and in the snow. There’s a gunbattle aboard a ship. A mysterious hunter/terrorist who travels South, bent on destroying BIP’s work. Conspiracy theorists who posit online that BIP is a sham, balanced by hints that the “discoveries” are not in fact invented at all, but rather their invention is invented.

Himmer aims his considerable dark wit at government bureaucracy, at “big data,” at murky virtual communities, even at extreme eating competitions and Bond-like villains – no one escapes skewering but Oscar, who is “fast as a lightbulb,” and seems to stand for honesty and diligence, hard work and faith, trust and loyalty. And even Oscar is slightly ridiculous, a lackey who never wavers from the make-believe of his own work even when his trip spins out of control, a grownup who spends all his spare time focused on his boyhood obsession, a man who misses the closeness he enjoyed with his wife even as he’s failed to really notice her own secrecy for years. These parts of the book resonated most with me – I enjoyed Oscar’s recollections of moments in his marriage that add up to a life together. I was rooting for him to return to Julia and make things right again. But that, like so much else in Fram, seemed uncertain with every new development.

Should a book, even one so reliant on polar seas and pack ice, leave its readers feeling so off-balance? Fram defies category; it doesn’t have the pacing or predictability of a mainstream thriller, nor the singular focus of a satire. Interspersed with the main narrative are very brief chapters that reference the history of Arctic exploration that Oscar holds so dear. Other slivers of story reveal glimpses of what else might be happening as Oscar is caught up in some strange intrigue. All of this adds to the off-kilter feeling.

But I wanted to finish Fram, the tilt-a-whirl sensation was not off putting, and I found the end intriguing rather than frustrating, even though I can’t say I’m entirely sure what happened. It’s a book you’ll want to discuss with someone – if your book group likes to try something unusual, this would be a good choice. Spending several hours reading Himmer’s fine prose is always a pleasure. If you’ve resolved to read something different this year, try Fram.

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What a complete hoot this book is. I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially because the Computer Scientist, my brother, and family friends worked or still work at Microsoft. We lived in Seattle for five years and I can assure you that Maria Semple‘s send-ups are hilariously spot-on.

Semple satirizes (affectionately, I think) Seattle’s many recognizable quirks. The large population of the newly well-off. Geeky outdoorsy-ness. The weird juxtaposition of political correctness, a publicly professed creed of “niceness,” and nimbyism. The blackberries that cannot be defeated even when torn out with special equipment. The competitive private school culture, combined with a desire to keep kids “real.” The strange combination of wealth and consumptionism with DIY spirit and zealous affirmation of “groundedness.” And she seasons it all with cultural and geographic references too numerous to recount.

But I digress. Enjoyable as it was for me to recognize these things, the book is funny and smart whether you’ve been to Seattle or not. No matter where you live it would be hard not to laugh at Semple’s trenchant portrayal of dysfunctional families, social aspirations, and neighborhood feuding, made more public by modern technology.

Where’d You Go Bernadette is about a pair of eccentric geniuses: Bernadette Fox, a MacArthur genius architect whose masterwork was destroyed in L.A. twenty years earlier by a vindictive neighbor she’d clashed with and Elgin Branch, TED talk star, workoholic inventor geek pioneering mind-activated robotics at Microsoft. Bernadette and Elgin have one daughter, Bee, born with a heart defect but brilliant and about to go off to boarding school, as her parents both did.

Bee asks for a trip to Antarctica to celebrate. Bernadette’s unhappiness with Seattle, with the privileged “gnats” as she calls the school mothers who don’t like her, and her social awkwardness come to a head. She hires a “virtual assistant” in India to handle the trip details and plots how to get out of going.

Meanwhile Elgin misinterprets his wife’s loopy behavior as either mental illness or drug addiction and plans an intervention. Several hilarious misunderstandings later, Bernadette disappears and Bee tries to find her. That final section of the novel, where Bee tells her version of things, is wonderful. It tempers the satire a bit with real emotional depth and the reveals the truth beneath the zaniness — this novel is a love story.

Every unhinged thing Bernadette does is grounded in her fierce love for Bee, who thrives because of it. Elgin and Bernadette have lost their way with each other but readers sense that beneath it all, they also have an unbreakable bond.  And they both love their inner worlds, the private creative processes that makes them such brilliant and innovative people.

Semple’s assertion, it seems, is that people need to be who they are, and society — especially privileged society —   beats down the very people it holds up as geniuses when they find themselves unable to conform. She also spotlights the everyday in-your-face rudeness we’ve come to accept. From entitled neighbors to pushy panhandlers to opinionated alpha-Moms, Bernadette can’t take it anymore; ironically that makes her part of the rudeness cycle.

But there’s redemption in this novel, and even nasty neighbor Audrey, Bernadette’s gnat nemesis, has a major change of heart. By the end of the book, much of the messiness is resolved, and you get a feeling things are going to work out. I love that it’s neat  but not too neat — Semple let’s us come to our own conclusions.

Bee is just a terrific character — still a kid, precocious but never without the innocence and emotion of a real middle-school girl.  And like many smart, mature kids, still very attached to the small rituals and touchstones of childhood, things the adults around her don’t necessarily see or appreciate. Few authors get “tweens” right and Semple does it perfectly, I think.

And I loved the form of this book, which is perfect for the story. Semple uses regular narrative, email, reports, presentations, faxes, transcripts — a melange of the material at-hand in her characters’ lives, like Bernadette’s architecture (her most famous work is a house made entirely of items sourced within 20 miles), like the former girls’ school partially converted into a residence where Bernadette, Elgin, & Bee live, like a community. There’s a very good reason for this hodge-podge which I won’t give away.

Seattle, Semple also reminds us, is not always as cloudy as you’d expect. Semple lets the best bits peek through. Again I think her specific city is just an example of all the hassles of modern life – get past the superficial, loud, overly-busy bits and you can make real connections.

Which after all is what the best books help us do.

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September’s Mindful Reader column is up on the Concord Monitor** website. Check out my review of Cascade, by Maryanne O’HaraRise by L. Annette BinderThe Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Associate Justice, & Other Stories by Jay WexlerUnderstories by Tim Horvath; and Park Songs: a Poem/Play by David Budbill.

This weekend I read The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones  — a very fun romp. The book combines the social wit of Jane Austen with the eccentricity of Alan Bradley (author of the Flavia de Luce mysteries), a dash of Julian Fellowes, and a bit of wild stagecraft Shakespeare could love. In fact, if you’re a Downton Abbey fan pining for season three, this might be a quirky distraction.

The book opens at a crumbling great house, Sterne, in 1912, on the morning of Emerald Torrington’s twentieth birthday. Her mother is preoccupied with her stepfather Edward’s trip to Manchester, where he plans to ask an unpleasant business acquaintance for a loan to save Sterne. As the day unfolds there is a visit from a potential suitor, John, a self-made man who Emerald doesn’t really want but who has plenty of money. A telegram from her childhood best friend, Patience, whose mother has come down with influenza. And news of a terrible train crash on a branch line nearby, resulting in the uninvited guests, who the Torringtons must take in after their ordeal.

The housekeeper, Mrs. Trieves, and Emerald’s mother, Charlotte, are dismayed to find a man they once knew has crashed Emerald’s party, claiming to be the sole first class passenger among the train wreck victims. Everyone can see there is some sort of secret among these three. Meanwhile the eccentric little sister, Imogen, known as Smudge, takes advantage of the chaos to smuggle the family pony, Lady, into her room to sit for a portrait.

Emerald finds herself strangely drawn to her best friend’s brother Ernest, a medical student who has escorted his sister to Sterne in place of his mother, and Clovis finds that Patience, who he used to find annoying, is actually not anymore. As the party takes stranger and stranger turns. The finely dressed guests and hosts (except for Charlotte, who retires to her boudoir to sulk) end up serving the carefully prepared multi-course birthday feast to the train passengers.  They sit in their spoiled finery making a meal of the bits and pieces. And the strange “gentleman” entices them into a humiliating party game.

In the frenzy of emotion and tension that follows, all of the twists of the day resolve themselves and in Shakespearean fashion, many matches are made. The pony is led back downstairs. And in the morning, once the mess is cleared and the uninvited guests are gone (and their nature made clear), Edward returns with news of a strange turn of the family’s affairs.

If I’m being unspecific it’s to save you, dear readers, from a series of spoiled surprises. The Uninvited Guests is such a delightful literary romp that I don’t want to ruin the fun.  Just imagine an Edwardian house party with “dark surprises” as the jacket blurb surmises, plenty of social satire, and a rather arch look at human nature.

 

** Text if you can’t find it online:

Finding balance

Deb Baker

Monday, October 22, 2012

Cascade, by Massachusetts author Maryanne O’Hara, grew out of three story ideas. O’Hara didn’t really know how the stories might connect but sensed they should. The result is a historical novel that focuses on Desdamona Hart, or Dez. She has come home to Cascade, Mass., in 1935 after art school in Boston and travel in Europe, determined to help her dying, bankrupt father save his Shakespearean playhouse. She marries Asa Spaulding, a pharmacist, who takes them in.

Her father thickens the plot by leaving the theater to Asa. Dez wants to paint and to keep her promises, so for a time she tries to ”have it all” as both a dutiful wife and an artist. She takes portrait commissions to resurrect the theater as her father asked. Anyone who has ever juggled responsibilities while trying to pursue work they love will understand her struggle.

Dez befriends Jacob, an artist and peddler, and their friendship sustains her as she tries to fit back into small town life. Meanwhile Asa is pressuring her to start a family and disapproves of another man spending time with his wife.

And Cascade is under persistent threat from the water authority, which plans to flood the town for a reservoir.

Her postcard series about Cascade’s possible destruction becomes a regular feature in The American Sunday Standard, whose editor invites her to illustrate for the magazine in New York. She and Jacob become the subject of town gossip when a man working on the reservoir plans is found dead on Asa’s land with Jacob’s truck nearby. Dez risks everything to clear his name, and Jacob leaves for New York and a job in a New Deal art program.

In the aftermath of this episode, Dez has to choose – stay with Asa, pursue Jacob, or simply follow her dream of a career in art, regardless of the men in her life. The burden of the playhouse, which she must persuade Asa to move before the town is flooded, weighs heavily. I found myself having nasty thoughts about her father, who appears to have cared more about his theater than his only child.

 O’Hara touches on issues familiar to contemporary readers, such as the conflicts surrounding public works projects and eminent domain, or the painful gossip and bigotry that sometimes plague small towns. She tells a very interesting story about an unsettling time in history as well, during the Depression and the run-up to World War II. And she tells a timeless one too, about a woman working to balance her promises and her passion. I enjoyed each aspect of this atmospheric novel.

Short fiction and a poem / play

I also read three short-story collections and a poem/play: Understories by Tim Horvath, Rise by L. Annette Binder, The Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Association Justice and other Stories by Jay Wexler, and Park Songs by David Budbill.

Horvath is a professor at New Hampshire Institute of Art. The pieces in Understories not only share a philosophical, whimsical, darkly humorous aesthetic, but also seem to come from a world that resembles ours but is riddled with portals into imagined places beyond anything you or I could dream up. I loved the way reading these evocative stories left me feeling slightly off-kilter.

The Conversations, which I read as a satirical poke at the breakdown of civil discourse, and The Understory, about a German botany professor who escapes Hitler’s rise to power, settles in New Hampshire, and loses many of the trees on his land in the 1938 hurricane, are two of my favorites. Horvath doesn’t just tell a story, he gives readers a window into the hearts, minds and souls of his characters.

Binder, a part-time New Hampshire resident, fills Rise with fantastical details: a giant woman who is half-angel and still growing in her 50s, a boy who sees shadow-like halos over the heads of people who will die soon, a child who only speaks dead languages. At the same time, her stories are about everyday realities, such as people dealing with illnesses or struggling to get along. Rise is a book about transcending life’s emotional and psychological turbulence.

Wexler, a law professor at Boston University, has written a zany collection of stories that had me laughing out loud. In one, Henry Clay advises a teen and her mother on college. Another is written as a script for a sitcom pilot about a prison’s death row.

Wexler hits on a number of brilliant ways to skewer government and politics, such as a story about a man filing a ”horn incident report,” and another in which Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing is conducted by the 1977 Kansas City Royals instead of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Associate Justice is offbeat, absurdist and thought provoking.

Budbill is a Vermont poet and playwright whose work reflects his father’s advice, ”Stick up for the little guy, bud.” Despite its genre-bending, Park Songs: a Poem/Play is a very accessible book about people in a city park on a single day. In addition to R.C. Irwin’s ”absurdist and nostalgic” photographs, traditional blues lyrics complement the dialogue. Budbill’s note to readers suggests that any parts of the book could be staged, that a blues band could act as a Greek chorus, and that ”Let’s Talk” could be its own one-act play. That section features very funny, touching banter between Fred, who is lonely, and Judy, who is reading in the park because she wants to be alone. Budbill captures the essence of human communication – the misunderstandings and connections, hurts and expectations – in one scene on a park bench.

With fall around the corner you can curl up on a cool evening with any of these books and enjoy fictional worlds grounded in very realistic human hopes and struggles.

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