Sunday, January 31, 2010

My Worst Nightmare

Anyone who knows me knows that there are many things I like to do, but none so much as talk.  I love to talk about everything to everyone pretty much all the time.  Politics, religion, sex, the weather-there are no taboo topics for me.  That's why reading Marcia Muller's latest Sharon McCone novel, Locked In, gave me literal nightmares.  Muller's heroine, the San Fransisco P.I. Sharon McCone, goes back to her Pier 24 1/2 office one night to pick up the cell phone she left on her desk.  While there, she interrupts something nefarious, and is shot.  The bullet fragments lodged in her brain cause a rare condition called "locked in syndrome", a condition that leaves the victim fully aware, able to think and feel, but without the ability to speak or move.  Hence the nightmares.

What follows is an intricately crafted mystery in which all of the members of her P.I. firm, as well as her husband Hy try to figure out who was responsible.  As they start going over their firm's cases, looking for anything that might point in the direction of her attacker, each one finds a case that could be the link.  As they start working their individual leads, they come to realize that what they had thought were unconnected cases are actually part of something larger and more sinister.

Muller is one of my favorites.  Her characters are always interesting, and are only predictable in their loyalty to her main character, Shar.  Each one brings something different to the firm, and this novel really shows how their individual characteristics make up the well-oiled machine that is the firm-and that are Muller's novels.  If you haven't read Muller before, I recommend starting at the beginning, as there is a lot of backstory that is not critical to understanding the plot, but makes it all more gripping.  But if you are a fan from way back (like me) run, don't walk, to your nearest library or bookstore.  A very entertaining day or two awaits you in San Fransisco!

The White, by Deborah Larsen

Like me, you may have heard the stories about the Indian boarding schools that were set up by the federal government in the 19th and 20th Centuries.  The basis for the schools was to take Indian children away from their families and communities and send them to boarding schools, mostly run by religious organizations, for the purpose of "civilizing" them, helping them "find religion", and otherwise causing them to be assimilated into white, Christian culture.  I find this whole episode one of the most shameful things in our history.  Sadly, it was so successful that the Australians did the same thing to aboriginal children in Australia. (As an aside, if you're interested in this topic there is a great movie called Rabbit-Proof Fence that explores the system in Australia).

What I have not heard as much about was the fact that in the early days of America the Indians engaged in similar practices with white children.  Not sending them away to Indian schools en masse, per se, but kidnapping them as retribution for fallen family members.  The White, by Deborah Larsen, is the fictionalized version of the true story of one such child.  During the French and Indian War, Mary Jemison's father moved his family away from the safety of the fortified towns and into the wilderness in Pennsylvania.  An Irishman by birth, prohibited from owning land in his country of origin, Jemison wanted to provide his family with opportunities they would never have had otherwise.  Unfortunately, his zeal for owning his own land came with a steep price.  One day in 1755 a group of Shawnee Indians raided their homestead, killing him, his wife, and most of their children.  The exception was Mary, who at 12 years old was captured by the Indians (and their French brothers in arms).  She was taken away from her family's lands and given to two sisters, members of the Seneca tribe, as restitution for the loss of their brother in battle.  The book chronicles her life from that day until her death in 1833.  During her long life, Mary lived, loved, and worked within the culture of the Seneca Nation.

Larsen does an excellent job of creating a picture of the Seneca culture of that time.  Her writing style is spare, but lyrical.  Alternating between a third person narrator and Mary's own words and thoughts, she provides the reader with an understanding of how Mary, known as Deh-he-wä-mis to the Seneca, came to be a person who walked between two worlds.  Mary married twice, once to a Delaware man and once to another Seneca, and had six children.  She truly was both Seneca and white, traveling between the two worlds with grace.  Throughout it all, she kept her father's dream of owning land alive, finally being granted 10,000 acres along the Genesee River in New York by the government.  While Larsen's writing style may be spare, she did not hold back when it came to describing the good and bad of both the Indians and the whites.  This is no overly sentimental account of the "noble savages"-I came away from this well-researched book feeling as though I had been given a glimpse into the reality that existed as our newly founded country sought to grow.  The truth of it seemed to be that the whites and Indians were able to find ways to coexist peacefully when allowed to do so.  It makes me wonder what would have happened over time if instead of running the Indians off the land we had found a way to work and live with them.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

OK, This One Took Some Effort

Most of the fiction I read is sort of light and breezy.  Serial mysteries, Oprah's Book Club-type stuff (except when she decides to get all intellectual and reads Faulkner, Tolstoy or Morrison) don't generally require a great deal of serious intellectual effort to read.  They may have deeper meanings to contemplate, but generally speaking the actual reading  of them is pretty easy.

Well, my reading ability got a workout this week.  I just completed Joyce Carol Oates' I'll Take You There, a story of life and love in the rapidly changing America of the 1960s and how one young philosophy major handles it.  The narrator, whose name we never learn but who sometimes goes by Anellia, is a brilliant young girl from a poor immigrant family.  She is alternately ignored and treated cruelly by her family, who blame her for her mother's death.  Her alcoholic father, who disappears regularly from the family and is presumed dead by the time "Anellia" is a sophomore, is a cold, distant figure whose approval and love she is constantly seeking.  After spending her childhood lonely and searching for her father's approval, she goes off to Syracuse to study philosophy on a scholarship.  While there she joins a sorority looking for "sisters", but find instead obsession and madness.  She then moves on to a relationship with another brilliant philosophy student-who happens to be black.  After this relationship ends (badly) she gets news of a certain supposed-to-be-deceased family member, and all of the philosophy she's studied and life experiences she's had are no match for what fate has in store.

My first exposure to Joyce Carol Oates was We Were the Mulvaneys .  After reading that I picked up several more of her books, assuming that they would be similar.  Boy, was I wrong!  What I didn't realize about JCO then that I do now is how she chameleon-like she is in her ability to change her style to suit the topic of her book and the attributes of the characters that she creates.  I've read three or four of her more than 50 books, and if you had told me that each one was written by a different author I would have believed you.  The unifying element that ties them all together is not the familiar rhythms of personal "style", but is instead the themes of feminism, class tension, and the desire for power.  This particular story really stretched my reading-the narrator speaks in a manner that is a combination of present action and present thought, in a kind of stream of consciousness where her thoughts and emotions regarding events that transpire are intermingled with the actual events, memories of the past blending seamlessly with her present until you finally feel as though you have been buried under an avalanche of words, feelings, thoughts, sensations...That coupled with the many references to great philosophers and the use of their teachings to frame the experiences "Anellia" has make this a challenging read.  But it is one challenge worth taking-in "Anellia" we have a perfect archetype of the dissatisfation and angst that so many young people, especially young women, were feeling as we moved into and through the turbulent 1960s.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Night Tourist, or Why Greek Myths are Timeless

In the myth of Orpheus, the hero loses the woman he loves to death, and braves the dangers of the Underworld to try and bring her back.  In The Night Tourist, by Katherine Marsh, our here, 14-year-old Jack, is unwittingly drawn into the same fruitless pursuit.  Jack-intensely intelligent and intensely lonely-is struck by a car.  Surprisingly unhurt, his rather distant father nonetheless sends him from their home in New Haven to New York to see the mysterious Dr. Lyons.  On his way back home, Jack meets a girl who appears to be his age, Euri.  He follows her into the bowels of Grand Central Station, and from there into a journey through the New York Underworld, in search of the mother he lost as a young boy.

This short little book about a motherless boy searching for love and connection in a cold and lonely world is enchanting.  Though meant for young adults, this novel is engaging enough that adult readers can find meaning and enjoyment from its pages. The Underworld as imagined by Marsh is both alluring and frightening, where the dead are treated with benign neglect while they try to work out whatever troubles are keeping them from "going over" to the Elysian Fields.  As long as they stay underground during the day and don't try to communicate with the living, they are allowed to roam the skies above New York, haunting their loved ones and hanging out in pubs listening to a literal Dead Poets' Society read from their immortal works.  Try to go out in the daylight or get back to the world of the living, however, and the ominous guards, led by the corrupt Clubber and his dog Cerberus, will come looking for you.  In a way Jack is searching as much for a way to move on as any of the dead surrounding him in the Underworld.  As he discovers the answers to his mother's death-and life-and death, he comes to realize that the way can only be forward.  Looking back only causes tragedy-both literally and figuratively-for him and his new friend.

To be sure, there are holes in the internal mythology of the story that are never fully explained-like why Jack is able to get to the Underworld in the first place, or how it is that he can do things that only the dead are supposed to be able to do despite the fact that he is still alive. That said, I still found the story engaging.  What the story lacks in depth it more than makes up for in imagery.  As a first novel, I think it is a great attempt, and I look forward to more from this author in the future.

What Are You Reading? Monday

Not a very successful reading week-I blame it on band rehearsal, class, book club meeting, vacation shopping, and Lego Batman...

This week the only book I finished was Chasing Darkness by Robert Crais.  I'm just starting Double Daughter, by Vicki P. McConnell.  It's pretty short, so hopefully I will get to The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Steig Larsen.  My book club chose The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as our next book, but I've already read it, so I think reading the next in the series makes a kind of sense.

Happy reading, everyone!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Through the Looking Glass?

Family in the 21st century is a fluid and flexible thing.  Extended families tend not to live as closely as they once did, and traditional marriage has been changing ever since the sexual revolution and the women's movement.  Even biological progeny is no longer a definer of family-egg donors, sperm donors, surrogates, and adoption have blurred the lines that connects people to each other.  More and more people are choosing to define their families not by those that are related by blood, but those that are related by affinity. 

That idea is taken to the extreme in Tana French's latest book, The Likeness.  Detective Cassie Maddox is drawn into a rather unusual undercover mission.  A woman who looks exactly like her, using the alias Lexie Madison that Cassie once created for a different undercover operation, is murdered.  In order to discover the killer, Cassie has to go undercover again, this time as her doppelganger, infiltrating the group of friends that have been living together in a large manor house in the Irish countryside.  While there she is drawn into what seems to be the idyllic friendship between the five housemates.  So alluring is the love and support that they show for each other she considers throwing her own life aside in favor of living her life as her double forever.  As time goes on, however, she begins to sense the lies and secrets that truly bind the housemates together.

Tana French does an excellent job of showing just how attractive the created family of the housemates is.  I found myself at various times during the book wishing that I had a group of friends as close and comfortable with each other as these five. The descriptions of long meals, games of cards, intense discussions of literature and culture, lazy afternoons spent in the garden, and reading in companionable silence in the warm glow of ancient light fixtures in a grand old manor called Whitethorn House were attractive to me in many ways.  For some reason, adults of a certain age stop being intensely physically and emotionally close with our friends.  Some of us transfer those feelings to a partner, but for many of us we will never again have relationships as intense as when we were young.  When I watch the youth in my youth group and the way they are with each other, I often wonder what happens to us as we get older that causes us to put up walls between ourselves and our friends.  The friends in this book had intentionally created a family unit where those walls didn't exist.  Their bonds came with a price-the loss of their pasts, the loss of their identity except how it related to the group-but for varying reasons they all seemed willing to pay it.

OK, having finished the book and been away from it for a day or so I now see how creepy it all really was, at least in the fictional world French created.  Perhaps that is the meaning that French wants us to take away from their story.  What they had was beautiful-but only when it was protected from the pressures of what the rest of us call the real world.  That kind of ideal love, where each individual puts his or her own needs as a distant second to the needs of the group, is not possible in the world outside.  But in the midst of reading this novel I was totally sucked into the alternate reality that was Cassie's Ireland and Lexie's Whitethorn House, and isn't that the point of good fiction?

Saturday, January 02, 2010

"Hi, My Name is Heather, and I'll Be Your Server."

That's what I used to say, what I used to be required to say, at least 20 times a day as condition of my employment.  For 10 years, from 1987 to 1997, I worked in the frustrating, mystifying world of corporate restaurants.  One day, at the beginning of my senior year in high school, my family went to the local Chi-Chi's Mexican Restaurant for lunch.  My dad had been pestering me to get a job for a few months, and I had successfully put him off.  This time, though, I was trapped-if I wanted to eat, I had to fill out an application.  A week later I was the newest hostess at the Matteson Chi-Chi's.  Surprisingly, I loved my job-and I was pretty good at it (and yes, it does take skills to seat people in a restaurant).  When I went away to college I transferred to the Chi-Chi's in Bloomington, IL.  Back and forth I would go, from Matteson to Bloomington and vice versa, every new semester or holiday break.  Over the years I was a hostess, a busser, a server, an expediter, a cocktail waitress, a bartender-I even worked the appetizer station on the line a few times when they were really short.  I probably worked for 15 different managers, and worked with literally a hundred or more different employees, yet time in the corporate restaurant world has a way of passing with a sameness, each shift flowing into the next shift almost seamlessly, customers faces blending together until each table becomes nothing more than a "two top" or "four top", or the dreaded "large party".  Stereotypes abounded-no one wanted the table of teenagers or the two women with their six small children in tow.  I'm embarrassed to report that tables of teachers were among the worst tippers I ever had, and even when I became a teacher myself I would avoid taking them if I could.  The high stress and the close working conditions, coupled with the strange off hours that we worked, caused the small world of the restaurant to seem like the entire world-everyone's business became everyone else's business, and gossip was taken to the level of an Olympic sport.  Couples formed and disolved at an astonishing rate, and many people with boyfriends or girlfriends outside of the restaurant ended up having their "work husbands" or "work wives"-people with whom they flirted away from the eyes of their significant other, sometimes taking it all the way, but feeling as though what they had done was somehow separate from the rest of the world.  Restaurant communities become very insular and intense, and it is only after you leave it that you realize how ridiculous it all was in the first place.

This environment is captured perfectly in Stewart O'Nan's book, Last Night at the Lobster.  This very short novel, almost a novella, really, tells the story of the last day that the Red Lobster is open in the town of New Britain, Connecticut.  The main character is Manny, the general manager, who has been at that location for 10 years.  It's a snowy winter's day, five days before Christmas, and he and his skeleton crew of cooks, servers, and hosts spend a quiet, desperate day serving their few customers and waiting for the end to come.  There is no great conflict, no dramatic last scene.  As his employees leave-some of whom he'll see again in just a few days as they join the staff of a nearby Olive Garden-Manny is gripped by a sense of nostalgia and loss, but in the end there is nothing to do but drive his car off into the dark, snowy night, and wait for the next shift to begin.

The character of Manny reminds me a LOT of my ex-husband.  He was a prep cook when we met, and became a manager just after we divorced.  He worked at Chi-Chi's longer than anyone else I know, and I can't think about him without thinking about chimichangas and chili con queso.  Like my ex, Manny is basically a good guy-dedicated to his job, willing to do the menial jobs if he has to so he can lead by example, not really aspiring to much more than being in charge of his own restaurant.  He genuinely cares about his employees, to the point of sometimes getting shafted by them.  He has a girlfriend outside the restaurant, pregnant with his child, but he still longs for the girl who stole his heart in the walk-in, Jacquie, a beautiful girl from the islands with a boyfriend of her own.  Manny lives a life of quiet desperation-mourning his grandmother, feeling trapped by the coming baby and the woman who is carrying it, and wishing for the strength to throw it all away to run away with the girl of his dreams.

I feel like I could write the sequel for this book myself.  Because as sure as the Olive Garden serves free salad and breadsticks, Manny will get sucked into the approximation of "real" life that exists in their kitchens and service stations.  He'll say he's going to move out of his crappy apartment and buy a house, but inertia will keep him where he is.  He'll work his way back up from assistant manager to general manager, showing effort and initiative where corporate mostly expects laziness and indifference. And whether he stays with his pregnant girlfriend or not, he will have another "Jacquie"-he may even find the courage to leave the unsatisfying relationship he's currently in to be with her.  He's a lifer-when he leaves his last restaurant gig to take on retirement, he will have nothing to show but years of perfectly made fettuccine alfredo and the ability to face and count money that a banker would envy. Manny's story perfectly showcases the soul-sucking environment that is corporate restaurants.

Friday, January 01, 2010

A New Breed of Vampire

I love vampires.  I know that makes me sound a little bit like a 13 year-old girl, but it's true.  Angel, Spike, Edward, Blade-I love them all.  And I like to think that my love of Bram Stoker's Dracula gives me a little bit of cred when it comes to all things vampire-I'm not just a bandwagon-jumper.  But I have never read a vampire novel quite like Octavia E. Butler's Fledgling.

In Fledgling we meet Shori, a 53 year-old Ina child, a species of humanoids that inspired the vampire legends.  When first me see her, she is recovering from life-threatening wounds, the only survivor of a vicious attack against her family.  She awakes from days of agony with no memory of who she is and how she came to be so injured.  On her way to find answers, she is helped by a young man named Wright, who becomes more than just her savior.  Her journey takes us into the culture of the Ina, and her quest to find justice for her family becomes a quest for her very identity.

Octavia Butler was herself something of a person on a journey of personal discovery (she died in 2006 at the age of 59).  She became the first black author to win major acclaim as a science fiction writer, long the bailiwick of white men (of course, what literary genre wasn't?).  Her novels examine issues of race, politics, and religion through the lives and struggles of her other-worldly characters.  In this, her last book, she takes a look at race through the eyes not of humans, but of the mythical Ina concerned about "racial" purity.  Shori is the result of genetic research done by her family into combining human genes with Ina genes to create Ina people who can tolerate sunlight.  Apparently there are some Ina who believe that combining with inferior human genes dilutes the "purity" of the Ina species.  In that way the story was almost discouraging-it's as though we can't even imagine an intelligent species that does not fall prey to racism.  However, there is much in the Ina cultural structure that spoke to me.   Each Ina adult needs several symbionts, humans who allow the Ina to feed from them and live with them in large communal groups.  In a way it reminded me of the future culture in Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, where there is no idea of gender, and people are allowed to develop relationships and working lives that suit their needs and strengths in a way that modern culture does notIn Fledgling, mixed gender human groups partner with their Ina to become a family.  This is no slave-like existence.  The humans get just as much from the partnership as the Ina do.  They receive pleasure during feedings, and are allowed to have their own relationships and activities outside of their bond with their Ina.  Of course, the Ina can and sometimes do control their symbionts through the use of the venom in their saliva that causes the addiction that creates their bond, but generally speaking they respect their humans and allow them freedom to follow their own desires.  Frankly, the relationships in the book made me wonder where I could get my own Ina female to choose me.

While the story is complete in and of itself, I wonder if it was meant to be the start of a series.  As Shori goes off at the end of the book to make a life for herself with her new family of symbionts, I wanted to know what happens to them next.  I didn't want the journey to end-and I guess that is the goal of every writer.  I'm looking forward to discovering the other worlds created by Octavia Butler.