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Posts Tagged ‘social commentary’

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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We had two snow days and a late start this week, plus as I mentioned in my last post, I’m really getting into my book bingo card. So I read three books!

I had three squares I wanted to fill. The first was “A book from the Books & Brew book lists.” I chose The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. It’s a debut novel that got a lot of buzz last summer, and I really enjoyed it. It’s the story of four grown siblings in New York, the Plumbs, who’ve all been counting on “the Nest” — an inheritance fund their father, who made his fortune in absorbent materials found in feminine hygiene products, diapers, and meat tray liners, set up to distribute to each of them on the youngest sibling’s 40th birthday. Leo, the eldest, is the family ne’er do well, who made a bundle selling a gossip website and has been in trouble ever since. When the book opens he gets into a drug-addled crash, injuring a nineteen year old catering waitress. His mother taps into the Nest to settle his affairs, and the rest of the book is about how the other siblings await Leo’s reparations — Bea, a writer who has been stuck on a dead-end book for years; Jack, an antique store owner who didn’t tell his husband he took out a second mortgage on their summer place; and Melody, who can’t afford the perfect suburban life she is trying to give her teenaged twins.

As the novel unfolds, readers learn about the sibings’ lives and their families, but Sweeney also works in details about contemporary American life – 9/11, the mortgage crisis and the Great Recession, SAT tutoring, gay marriage, the gentrification of Brooklyn . . . . Yes, it’s a book about New York, and that’s both a pleasure and an annoyance, in that it’s fun to vicariously enjoy the city, and it’s aggravating to read about privileged people feeling badly that they can’t keep their summer home or they can’t get away with not filling out financial aid forms or they can’t quite become an “it” novelist while living pretty much free in a dead lover’s apartment and having a job where they’re allowed to work on said novel. A few times I wanted to yell, “Hey, there are real problems in the world.” Still, it seemed possible that was part of the point, and also, it wasn’t enough of a detraction to keep from enjoying the story, which is Austen-like in it’s social commentary and it’s contemporary “novel of manners” sensibility.

Will Leo make good? Will Melody ever figure out what her daughters really want? Will Jack push his patient husband too far? Will Bea notice that her long suffering boss not only admires, but loves her? Just as there’s fun in reading about Jane Austen’s well-to-do characters, I didn’t ever completely lose patience with the Plumbs. My brief quibbles: a few minor characters play relatively important roles but we hardly get to know them. And the final pages skip ahead a year, and at one point even tell us what’s going to happen further in the future, a device I’ve never enjoyed.

The next square I wanted to vanquish was “A book of short stories.” I’d had my eye on Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith for some time, ever since reading that in the time it took her to write and edit the book, 1,000 British libraries closed. Smith wrote the book in part to draw attention to the importance of libraries, and she alternates short stories, all of which deal in some way with words or books, and brief commentaries on libraries by Smith and many of her writer friends. Public Library, Smith says, “. . .  celebrates the ways our lives have been at least enhanced,  and at most enabled and transformed by access to public libraries.” I read it in one sitting, and enjoyed both the fiction and the tributes. It’s one of those books that caused me to look things up and wonder things (How many libraries have closed in the UK? (depends where you look and how you define closed) Why haven’t I ever read anything by Katherine Mansfield? Why haven’t I heard of Olive Fraser?) This was the perfect read on a day when the snow was falling hard and I could sit and muse on the meaning of libraries in my own life. If you like short fiction, the stories are a delight.

Finally, I needed to fill the square “A book about weather or the environment,” so I read The Hidden Life of Trees by forester and conservationist Peter Wohlleben. This is one of those books that compels the reader to lift her head, exclaim, “Wow, listen to this,” and read fascinating tidbits to her family members, whether they want to hear them or not, and whether the only family members in the room at the time are feline or not. (Examples “There is a fungus in Oregon that is 2,400 years old and weighs 660 tons!” and  “There is a spruce in Sweden that is 9,550 years old!!” “There’s a quaking aspen in Utah that has more than 40,000 trunks and is thousands of years old!” “Trees scream!”) I couldn’t get over what I was reading and I will, as many other reviewers have stated, never look at trees the same way. Wohlleben explains the life of trees and their incredible abilities to deter pests and adapt to changes in climate, cooperate with each other and with beneficial partner species, raise their young, communicate, and learn from their environment. As the author says of trees, “I will never stop learning from them, but even what I have learned so far under their leafy canopy exceeds anything I could ever have dreamed of.” I learned so much from this book, not only about trees, but also about the human capacity to understand the world, and hopefully, to preserve it.

And now, on to the square “A book whose title begins with ‘W.'”

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I’d heard so many rave reviews of this book that I was both curious and skeptical. But I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading it and it didn’t disappoint. The Nix is a debut novel, which makes it’s complexity and success even more of a wonder. If you’ve followed this blog you know my highest praise consists of one of three things: that a book uses no extra words, that it is a well-told story, and that it says something “Big T” True that makes me think, to paraphrase Paul Harding, “I’ve always known that to be true but I’ve never heard it said it quite the same way.”  The Nix hit the sweet spot on all three of those criteria.

It’s a wild story. Samuel is a college professor although his heart’s not in it, and he escapes into Elfscape, a game much like World of Warcraft. He is escaping his increasingly unsatisfying job, but also trying to forget the book he is years overdue on; his mother, Faye, who abandoned him and his father; and his first and only love, a famous violinist. He hasn’t seen Faye since he was 11, but one day he realizes that she is the “Packer Attacker” on the news — an older woman who has thrown gravel at a gun-toting Presidential candidate in Chicago. What he hears on the news is that she was a sixties radical arrested during the 1968 Chicago protests, but this doesn’t line up with what he thinks he knows about her. Then he hears from his editor/publisher that he’s about to be sued for never writing a book he received an advance for.

Samuel sees an out– he’ll write a tell all book, an estranged son’s view of his mother’s story. He just has to learn what her story is, first. The novel unfolds around this quest, supported by very well-drawn characters who illuminate both Samuel’s and Faye’s childhoods. Through their dual coming of age stories, and the lives theirs are tangled up with, Hill spins a story that isn’t just about Samuel and Faye and their family and friends, but about growing up, choosing a path, leaving a mark in the world, being with others. In other words, he writes about the experience of being human in a world of impermanence and finding reality among the shadows. Particularly the shadows of the stories families tell.

Towards the end of the book, reflecting on what one of his Elfscape friends told him, “that the people in your life are either enemies, obstacles, puzzles, or traps,” Samuel thinks “. . . you cannot endure this world alone . . . and if you choose to see people as puzzles, and if you see yourself as a puzzle, then you will be constantly delighted, because eventually, if you dig deep enough into anybody, if you really look under the hood of someone’s life, you will find something familiar. This is more work, of course, than believing they are enemies. Understanding is always harder than plain hatred. But it expands your life. You will feel less alone.”

I loved this book, for the three reasons I mentioned above, for the way it weaves social history and culture and folklore together with the story of people and their relationships with one another, and for the lovely writing. Also for the humor, a pleasant surprise in a book about large and serious themes. Hill is willing to see a little bit of brilliance in both poetry and MMOs, political protest and advertising. He sees the humans behind inhumane things, the complications and impurities of anything so sprawling as a “movement,” and he is fair to it all. Even the deplorably manipulative student who has Samuel fired gets some grudging credit — she is a creature of our culture, and she’s good at what she does, in her way.

If you’re looking for a book that will keep you entertained and also make you think, and will take more than a couple of nights to read, you can’t go wrong with The Nix.

 

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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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I’d heard a lot of good things about this novel, and it did not disappoint. Romie Futch is a middle-aged taxidermist in South Carolina, obsessed with his ex-wife, deep in debt. He is surfing the internet in a drunken haze one night when he sees an ad seeking participants for an “intelligence enhancement study” in Atlanta that promises $6,000. All he has to do is “undergo a series of pedagogical downloads via direct brain-computer interface.” Romie signs up.

At the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience, he’s a little creeped out by the downloads, and a little concerned that he’s signed away permission to access his brain. But he goes through with the experiments, and soon, his head is full of humanities and a “sense of postmodern self-reflexivity.” Flush with cash and full of dreams, he refurbishes his shop, pays off bills, gets (mostly) sober, and starts planning a return to his first love — art. Rumor has it that there are mutant squirrels in the woods near his home, which is also near “GenExcel, a subsidiary of Monsanto and BioFutures Incorporated.”

Romie hunts some squirrels and creates taxidermy dioramas enhanced with animatronics, which he eventually shows at a gallery under the title “When Pigs Fly: Irony and Self-Reflexivity in Postnatural Wildlife Simulacra.” But he also realizes that his brain is still vulnerable to the Center’s interference as he experiences migraines and blackouts and strange dreams in which he is being made to perform tasks. And BioFutures not only owns the company responsible for the mutant wildlife nearby, but also funded the Center’s work.

Soon after getting out into the woods and swamps, Romie gets caught up in the search for Hogzilla, an allegedly winged wild boar, reputed to weigh around a thousand pounds. I don’t want to reveal the whole plot, but suffice to say it’s a rocky road for our hero as he veers between success and self-destruction. Will he get a show? Will he bag Hogzilla? Will he spiral into a haze of drugs and alcohol? Or become the remote-control agent of a powerful biotech conglomerate?

Hilarious and wicked smart, The New and Improved Romie Futch is a delightful read. Like many of my favorite authors, Elliott mixes a good story with social commentary and plenty of humor. It was bittersweet to get to last page, because Romie’s adventures are clearly not over. I sincerely hope he’ll be back for a sequel.

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A couple of weeks ago I tried a library book on the Kindle app. I wanted to be better equipped to answer questions at the reference desk about downloading books to Kindles. I’ve just finished reading my second Kindle book, Thrift (The Misadventures of an Inadequate Teacher) by Phil Church.

Church is a fellow blogger and I noticed he was offering his book free for a short time. I have read few self-published books, because most I’ve tried have been riddled with typos or grammatical errors. But Church writes well on his blog, so I decided to try it.

I enjoyed Thrift as I recognized a good deal from our family’s recent adventures in England. But I also found it really funny. It’s a farce, and reminded me a bit of James Hamilton-Paterson’s Gerald Samper trilogy.

Thrift is about an English teacher, Marvin, at The Radley Hill School. His mother is a world traveler who loves him but is never around, and his wealthy and successful father and brother think he’s an idiot. His roommate, Malcolm, is a grown-up version of his students — fairly inept, slow but loyal, just trying to get by. Malcolm works at the local pub, which is populated by amusing regulars, like Rab, a Scot who thinks teachers are overpaid elitists and modern education is a travesty, and The Commander, a doddering retiree whose only companion is a cat.

Church is an English teacher himself, and the scenes in which Marvin tries to explain literature to his shiftless students are sad but quite funny. Marvin spends as much time as possible slacking off, dreaming up ways to get rich, eating biscuits and drinking, but he occasionally cares about being a good teacher — mostly when it might keep him out of trouble or help him get a promotion. When the feeling passes he goes back to surfing the internet during class. When he’s tasked with directing the school play he leaves a boy whose father is known to be tough in charge, and he also forgets to attend rehearsals.

Church’s send-up of school administrators is very entertaining as well. The sycophantic and clueless Deputy Headmaster thinks Hamlet is a comedy with fairies, and when Marvin suggests holding auditions, says “Brilliant. That’s exactly the kind of thinking that will get you places in this school.” The Headmaster is far more interested in good press coverage and keeping the Board of Governors happy than he is in the quality of the school. Both smile vacuously, have loads of confidence and are incompetent.

Beneath the hilarity, Church’s black humor is rife with social commentary. He rips on many aspects of contemporary culture, but I got the impression that he does so with fondness. Even though their play turns out to be a hip-hop extravaganza with vague Hamlet references in badly mangled English only remotely related to Shakespeare, it’s clear the teens’ initiative is impressive, and I could sense Church’s admiration for kids who face low expectations.

Marvin is not the most sympathetic of heroes, but by the end of Thrift I was rooting for him anyway. I’ll look forward to his further adventures, as Church is writing a sequel.

 

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