Thursday, June 19, 2014

The wonderfully normal absuridities of Karen Russell

Book: Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Author: Karen Russell
Published: 2013 (Knopf)
Pages: 243

Where has Karen Russell been all my life? Oh yeah, on New York Times Bestseller lists and on the shortlist for the Pulitzer Prize and also busy putting that Guggenheim fellowship to good use. Ahem.

So, point being, I've had no excuse except my own inclination towards distraction to not fall face-face in love with her magical realism that tends to bite reality in the ass and let it sort things out itself. YES. IT IS NOW TIME.

Here there are indeed vampires in a lemon grove, and they got there after the unsettling discovery that they don't really need to drink blood but that they're always thirsty for something. There are also poor Japanese girls who get lured into becoming silk-spinning monsters and use their mutations to escape; kids who fight brothers and seagulls for a chance at young love; tips on how to survive Artic tailgating (my personal favorite, probably because it's the weirdest yet is written as the most matter-of-fact) against those douchebag Whale fans and sub-zero summers; massage therapists who can unwittingly ease their clients' worst nightmares by taking them on themselves; and a scarecrow who looks enough like a bullied former friend who disappeared to insight some major survivor guilt.

They're great. They're all great, and they all have that touch of absurdity that makes them those sorts of escapes from reality reading is best at, yet they're all hung on frames of humanity that make them infinitely more relatable than a lot of the sci fi I've gotten to (yet - yet, I say! I'm sure it's out there). Like, the silkworm ladies became monsters for the very human reason of not having any other resources, and the guys in the Artic are still the same tailing buddies you see crowded into parking lots every fall, trying to make the most convenience work the best for them and giving the best luck to their team, and the message therapist is just as weirded out as we are when her client's back tattoo starts moving and then suddenly she's the one flashing back with PTSD.

I love it, it kept surprising me, and now it has to go back to the library for the next lucky sod on the waiting list. Fuck yeah, short fiction.

The wishing well of old artistic ladies

Book: The Fountain of St. James Court, or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman
Author: Sena Jeter Naslund
Published: 2013 (Harper)
Pages: 431

What do an old lady who's just finished the first draft of her latest novel and the life of a famous lady painter in revolution Paris have in common?

Trick question, my friends, because this book thinks it answers it thoroughly when - yeah. No, it doesn't.

 Ostensibly, they're connected because the old lady's novel is about the lady painter, and she manages to contemplate about her once or twice during her random ramblings around the Kentucky apartment complex she now calls home. But really, the (excruciating) detail of life's aimless release right after a work of art has been completed makes far more overt and explicit allusions to Mrs. Dalloway and makes me leery about reading V. Wolf although based on glimpses of her prose that I've already managed to steal, she mines much deeper into the psyche of everyday and not just wispy contemplation of chairs, wine, Hallmark friendships, and past marriages. (I don't think. To the Lighthouse is on the pile, guys, so stay tuned.)

 The book alternates somewhat randomly between this and a based-on-true-life lady painter as she grows up and works hard at her art and gets into the highest social circles of French aristocracy only to watch them crumble around her. This bit started out much more interestingly, sketching (heh) pieces of her childhood in just enough detail to see her personality start to emerge and mold around her talent, and it's good up until her marriage to an art dealer who she doesn't really love but hey, it's the 18th century and he's got a bangin' collection and connections and space for her to paint. Sweet deal.

 She even enjoys the wedding night; he awakens her desires and they're both all worshipful of each other's forms and each weird cheese off each other's knives (NOT A GROSS METAPHOR, I promise) and it was kind of more like a romance novel than I can fully appreciate but whatever, good for them.

And then it just...stops. Like, we go back to the old lady and her nervousness about a new paramour possibly coming by, and when we get back to Painter Lady all of a sudden she's talking about her husband being a gambler and bum and there is NO mention of transition and there's NO going back to sexytimes, NO "I found out he's a worse person than I thought but I can't quit this man, y'all, I wish I could" and as far as I could tell, NO time in between.

 That marks the decline of anything interesting in this whole bundle. The old lady continues to wander around her court with the stupid fountain in it (serves NO purpose, by the way, except something to be mentioned) and the painter lady starts outlining how awesome her life gets. Yeah. What is it with French revolution people leaving out the most interesting parts in their lives? We get no more details, nothing more except skimmed over summaries of life, work, death, and upheaval escaped early.

 Ugh. I wanted to be able to say that if you put the painter lady parts together you'd get a good novel, but that's not even true, and there's never any thematic connection between the bits even though I know the author wanted that to happen SO HARD.

 Back to the library, crossed off the list. I've decided that reading lists make me happy because they order the overwhelming job of "what to read next??" and it's something I'll be able to complete but not for a really long time. So. Yes to reading list, no to this book.

In like lambs, out like lions

Book: The Poisonwood Bible
Author: Barbara Kingsolver
Published: 1998 (Harper)
Pages: 543

Take a raging evangelist, his fading wife, and their four distinctive girls from Georgia, airlift them into the middle of the Congo, and leave them at the mercy of the natives, fire ants, and wet/dry seasons as a revolution is brewing while they're just trying to survive. See if you're surprised too when only one of them dies. 

 But mine was a happy surprise, as I loved how all of these characters showed their pasts and their futures in pretty much everything they did or said, and gained the consequences. The oldest girl comes in bossy and oblivious and doesn't learn anything except how to hustle men to get back to civilization; the tomboy twin tries to use her toughness to keep herself endeared to her father and in his scorn turns outward to survive and ends up becoming part of what she learned to fight; the crippled twin, always a step behind, keeps her mind flourishing in secret until she can use it for escape and distant study of what they escaped; and the youngest girl's gritty curiosity makes her an all-too-easy target of the unsettlement and unease the rest of her family brings to the jungle by just existing.

 The story is told through their rotating points of view, and that gives multifaceted details to this strange journey their parents (well, really just parent) drag them on. It's got all the adolescent drama of the older girl tempered with the twin's duality of sense and intellectual probing and the littlest one's straightforward learning.

 The mother also has sections, but they're all from years later and basically just mourning what happened in (very poetic) daydreams. I kind of wanted a section from the dad preacher's point of view because he was clearly crazy and determined to make noticeable impact even when that obviously riled everyone up at exactly the wrong time, but I didn't feel like I missed anything without it and the girls had a better view of him in context anyway.

 So, definitely bookshelf. For sure. I got a copy of this in one of my original bookstore stashes but lent it to a friend and then last summer finally gave in and grabbed my own copy and I'm very glad I did. 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Piecing together revenge and honor

Book: Dororo
Author/artist: Osamu Tezuka
Published: 2008 (Vertical) (this translation)

Pages: three volumes

Y'all, I realize I used a phrase from this series to title my post about Black Jack vol. 1, but it just fit so perfectly and both series deal with what makes people whole. Also bionic body parts - or are they only bionic if they've got some sort of mechanical self-powered thing going on? But this guy has sword arms and hollow, chemical-shooting legs, so I get the feeling he can label them whatever the hell he wants.

 But he ain't got time for that, son. He's busy wandering around and fighting off the forty-eight demons that represent the forty-eight body parts he lost when he was born and his dad sacrificed him to forty-eight demon statues to secure land for himself. 

 Yeah. And you bet your ass he stumbles across his family again, including his jealousy-crazed brother and his did-I-mention-the-demon-sacrificing-of-young-child father. Eventually Our Hero kills his brother in a reluctant dual - but that's all the way at the end of the story. Our Hero first has to battle all these different demons, most who are disguising themselves or hitching rides inside actual humans and terrorizing towns and villages, and pick up a determined little squirt named Dororo (loosely translated to "thief" in Japanese) who wants his sword and eventually just becomes a pesky but kind of useful tagalong.

 This kid's parents were bandits and marked a map to their treasure on his back, which leads to the awesome side story about other bandits kidnapping him and getting mixed up with a guy who has hungry sharks for pets guarding the bay they're trying to get to, and then it turns out the kid's dad didn't trust anybody as far as he could throw them so he didn't actually hide anything but a note on the bay.

 And every time Our Hero defeats a demon, one of his body parts grows back. And SPOILER ALERT that doesn't have much to do with the actual story, which was refreshing when you know that Dororo turns out to be a girl (who of course bears a striking resemblance to Astro Boy). 

 The way Our Hero moves, it's hard to tell, and then remember after he mentions it, that he goes into this blind and deaf as well as limbless. He moves preternaturally well due to his determined training and stuff, and it really doesn't seem to affect him at all, so that's a slight take out of the story when he reminds you about it, but everything's drawn so dynamically, I can't complain. I love Tezuka's instincts for when to make things sharply dramatic and then when to make them rounded with comedy. His young ladies all look like Disney does, and each of his samurai have a distinctive pattern on their robes, and finding his tiny self-portraits hiding in the corner of frames makes me giggle, and I liked this translation's footnotes on name puns. 

 I know for a fact there is accessible scholarship about how Tezuka uses the "star system" to cast the same characters in different "roles" in his different works, and I caught my own undereducated glimpses of that here, and it does add an extra dimension of appreciation, but when you get down to the truly important bits, this is an exciting story that explores what it means to be human and what it means to have honor in a literal and fanciful way. You should go check it out after I turn in these volumes to the library tomorrow. 

How the other half live without care

Book: Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight
Author: M.E. Thomas
Published: 2013 (Crown)
Pages: 302

I feel like I'm the opposite of a sociopath, with way more empathy than does me any good. The world friggin' hurts, man - if you're not bolted down tightly you're gonna shake, rattle, and roll before you turn thirty, and from this memoir of a diagnosed sociopath, it doesn't sound like not caring is much of an answer anyway.

 She tries to make it sound like one. She spends most of the book proving what she implicitly or explicitly does not care about, which is pretty much everything. Even her own gain doesn't come into it a whole lot; she's self-destructive and talks about bad times in her life in the same tone and affect she talks about her manipulated triumphs, which makes for a curiously flat reading experience. 

 She's religious but mostly for the rules and a sort of baseline morality since she doesn't have her own, but she relishes bending rules to just before they break in any aspect of society. I think she might still be a virgin like a desperate high schooler might still be a virgin - yes if you look at it one way, no if you look at it another, probably technically but still damned anyway from the church's point of view. 

 I don't know - I read the excerpt in Psychology Today in my counselor's waiting room, which is what made me want to read the whole book, but the expanded details didn't really seem to cover any more depth. And maybe that's the point, that there IS no more depth for sociopaths, but a broader point didn't emerge, either, so I ended up liking the article better because it had sidebars. I'm a sucker for a good sidebar. 

 This is going back to the library (where, I might add, there are also approximately a bajillion and seven back copies of Psychology Today). My counselor recommended a book called The Noonday Demon which is about writers and depression so that will probably be both more relevant and more interesting. I'll keep you posted.

Going down smoothly

Book: Butter
Author: Erin Jade Lange
Published: 2012 (Bloomsbury)

Pages: 293

This was a spontaneous but not random pick based on a suggestion by one of the cool people in our Teen Center as part of #WeNeedDiverseBooks. It's about a morbidly obese high schooler who gets so depressed about his size that he decides to eat himself to death on New Year's Eve and broadcast it live over the Internet, ending with a stick of butter like the one that gave him his hated nickname, finds out that it gives him more popularity than he ever imagined, and I loved it.

 Part of this might be the fact that I am so dead tired of approximately 75% of our new/popular YA books being about romantic dystopias. Granted, the only way I have an opinion about this is because I look at the list of new teen books when they're posted (Tuesdays are AWESOME for procrastinating because that list, the general new arrivals list, and the CD list come out ALL AT THE SAME TIME) and compulsively read the descriptions to see if they really do still sound so much alike (that is a big yes if they're set in any sort of future) and also making my way through the massive backlist of the podcast Read It and Weep; they have taken so many of these bullets and made fun of them for me that I feel well-informed to make snap judgments.

 And then it seems like another 15% of YA is gauzy romance. Which leaves the other 10%, your Givers, your John Greens, your ... yeah, I'm not a teen services librarian, so fill this in yourself.
Point being, this one is good and funny and different while staying painfully true to the high school experience. Butter deals with making himself into a loner by playing the saxophone, trying to keep up his friendship with a kid he spent summer fat camps with (although that proves harder when he realizes how serious his friend has gotten about slimming down for good), and keeping up an online relationship with a girl who's in his class in real life but doesn't know it's him she's falling for in the chatroom.

 When he decides to kill himself with food, he sets up a website that gets him noticed and popular, which makes him start to feel better until he realizes his new friends and popularity are just because of his plans, not his real self. So just when he was ready to chuck it, he actually does go through with it.

 Here's a good time to say that what started out as a terrible plan from a teenager's impulse that obviously wouldn't work - is it possible to eat yourself to death in one sitting? - slowly got more plausible as he got more information. A talk with his doctor brought up the possibility of choking if someone eats too fast; the first party he goes to with his new friends makes him think about alcohol poisoning; his nightly routine reminds him that if he doesn't carefully control his insulin it could make big trouble; and finally he sees someone eating a strawberry and goes, "Aha! I'm deathly allergic!" 

 THAT IS SO SMART. I harp on lack of logic all the damn time on here, and FINALLY SOMEONE ANSWERED ME PROPERLY.

It doesn't work, but it does do realistic damage to him and his recovery is of course his moment of clarity but doesn't make everything better at once. He just finally faces the hard work he'll have to do and finally thinks it'll be worth it to make the move that his parents have been pushing for the past year or so.

 He also remains a smartass who is good at describing how playing his saxophone makes him feel better throughout his whole ordeal. I liked him and wanted him to do whatever would take him out of his pain.
So this was a sharp, witty, compulsive, and touching read. If you know any teenagers who feel like weirdos, give it to 'em and point 'em to your local library.