Friday, August 31, 2012

Decatur Book Festival 2012!

Well, it's that time of year again.....Tonight I'll be heading down to Atlanta, GA for the annual Decatur Book Festival.  If you've ever been to Atlanta, then you know it has some of the best shopping in the south....especially some of the best book shopping. It seems like every time I go to Atlanta I come home with a huge haul of books and tons of clothes from H&M.  I suppose I can't complain!

Last year, the DBF saw the likes of Clyde Edgerton, Tom Perrotta, and Karen Russell (among many others), and this year the festival will feature more than 300 authors, including Erin Morgenstern, Michael Connelly, David Levithan, Lauren Groff, Kevin Henkes, Sheila Turnage, Julie Otsuka, and Gail Tsukiyama.  Seriously, y'all, it gives me chills.

If you want to know more about the DBF, check out their events schedule and full author listing.  I'm so excited I can hardly stand it.  Now I'm off to finish packing!  I shall return on Monday with a full report and an empty wallet.  I hope y'all enjoy the holiday weekend as well!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

     Karen Russell's debut, Pulitzer Prize nominated novel takes us deep into the Florida marshes to Swamplandia!, which was once "the Number One Gator-Themed Park and Swamp Cafe in the area."  Swamplandia! featured all kinds of attractions, but their headliner was the famous Hilola Bigtree: wife, mother of three, and "world-famous alligator wrestler."  But in the prime of Swamplandia!, Hilola died suddenly of an extremely aggressive form of ovarian cancer.  Hilola's death is earth-shattering for the rest of the Bigtree family, but 13 year-old Ava Bigtree is determined to follow in her mother's footsteps and master the skill of gator wrestling.

     Unfortunately, the rest of the Bigtrees aren't as optimistic about the park's future.  Ava's older sister, Osceola, has retreated inside herself and claims to be both possessed by and engaged to a ghost.  Their older brother, Kiwi, decides to leave the swamp and find a job on the mainland, and their father, The Chief, is increasingly vague on the subject of their financial situation.  But Ava is determined to save the swamp and reunite her family - a job that turns out to be much more perilous than wrestling gators.

     Swamplandia! follows a variety of themes, but more than anything, it is a novel about loss and grief.  As Ava says in retrospect, "I didn't realize that one tragedy can beget another, and another - bright-eyed disasters flooding out of a death hole like bats out of a cave" (p. 9).  But Ava soon finds out that dying isn't the worst part of death.  Grief is much worse, especially the kind that tears your family apart, clouds your judgment, and challenges your sanity.  Osceola is metaphorically "possessed" by grief.  Ava's grief is suppressed by concern for her sister and the future of the park, but bubbling just below the murky surface in her desire to become a gator wrestler.  And Kiwi's grief is played out in his descent into The World of Darkness - a rival mainland theme park where he is employed.  The Bigtree family at first attempts an attitude of "the show must go on," but how can the show go on if the star is dead and the supporting cast is in mourning?

     The novel also explores the dichotomy of memory and reality.  Osceola stays as far away from reality as possible, but Ava and Kiwi must slowly face the towering facts.  While Hilola Bigtree is a superhero to her family, in reality, Swamplandia! was never much more than an obscure sideshow attraction.  In the cold light of maturity, their shimmering childhood is not quite as bright as they remember.

     For the quirky, eccentric characters of Swamplandia!, life is full of haunted little surprises.  This is especially true for Ava, whose narration serves to chronicle the end of her mother's story just as much as it charts the beginning of her own coming-of-age story.  And this idea of a blurry convergence is where Karen Russell really shines as a writer.  Whether it's the convergence of life and death, innocence and experience, or fear and courage, Swamplandia! couldn't be a more perfect locale for such a merging.  After all, there's no better place for redemption than a southern swampland, right?

     This book received tremendous praise after its Pulitzer Prize nomination, and while I agree that Russell's prose is spectacular, it's important to keep in mind that Swamplandia! is a very character-driven novel.  Compared to the level of character development, the plot may feel a bit lackluster, and even disjointed at times.  But even so, Karen Russell's poetic prose and stylistic subtleties are more than enough to engage readers.

Overall Rating:

Friday, August 24, 2012

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

     Joe, Isabel, and their daughter Nina aren't exactly a happy family, but they're pretending well enough.  Joe is a world-famous poet, Isabel is a highly-respected journalist, and young Nina is caught somewhere between her parents' competing personalities.  The family is on a much-needed vacation in Nice doing their best to relax - at least until Kitty Finch shows up.  Kitty is wild and unpredictable, and she completely takes the family off guard with her fragile appearance and bizarre behavior.

     It soon comes to light that Kitty's "accidental" encounter with the family was indeed calculated.  She confronts Joe as an aspiring poet and fan of his work in the hopes that he will read her poetry.  But Kitty's poetry turns out to be rather sinister as the themes imply certain death - but is it Kitty's Finch's own death that is suggested, or someone else's?

     Swimming Home is a very compact little book.  At just over 100 pages, Deborah Levy explores a number of different themes - violence, old age, infidelity, mental illness, and social hierarchies to name a few - but the book felt unfinished and the ideas incomplete.  Perhaps if the novel were a little longer Levy could have further developed and polished the characters, but the book ends just as you're beginning to settle into the characters and understand their motivations.  That being said, the prose has consistent moments of poignancy and dark humor.  Levy is especially successful at conveying Joe's humorous disconnect as a father and the struggle to relate to his fans.  When young Nina starts her period for the first time, Joe shakes his daughter's hand and proclaims, "Congratulations.  Your mother told me you've started your period at you got everything you know, for a girl who has just started?"  And later, Joe muses over his "depressed" fan base, declaring:
 I can't stand the DEPRESSED.  It's like a job, it's the only thing they work hard at.  Oh good my depression is very well today.  Oh good today I have another mysterious symptom and I will have another one tomorrow.  The DEPRESSED are full of hate and bile and when they are not having panic attacks they are writing poems. (p. 65)
Sorry, Joe, but depressed folks love poetry, and ironically, Joe is one of the unhappiest characters in the book.

     Kitty's mysterious and seemingly unstable nature is also intriguing, but she could be so much more dynamic, as could Nina's coming-of-age story.  Kitty is a disturbing force of nature to this family, but her presence in the text is too weak for my liking.  Ultimately, Swimming Home has the potential to be a very compelling thriller with extremely delicate sub-themes, but unfortunately, this novella falls short (pun intended!).

This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks on 8/24/12

Overall Rating: 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Philida by André Brink

     André Brink's 2012 longlisted novel tells the story of Philida, a slave in South Africa in the mid 1830s.  Philida's story begins with a journey to the slave protector's office, where she files a formal complaint against her master's son, Frans.  Over the years, Frans has promised Philida freedom in the heat of lovemaking, but has yet to deliver on his word.  In the meantime, Philida has given birth to several of Frans's children, and she is impatient and frustrated.  But when Philida files her complaint, she is informed that, because Frans was never her master, he does not have the power to grant her freedom.  Only Frans's father, Cornelis Brink, has such power, but he is an angry, cruel man and does not care about the well-being of Philida or his enslaved grandchildren.

     Despite Philida's low social status, she refuses to take no for an answer and devises her own means of escape and freedom, but not without encountering a great deal of pain and hardship along the way.  Told from alternating narrative voices, Philida is a heartbreaking, but inspiring story of one woman's bravery and determination to achieve freedom for herself and her young children.

     Early on in the story, Philida's voice is weak and hopeless - especially in regards to her uncertain future.  She says, "I belong nowhere.  What happen to me will always be what others want to happen.  I am a piece of knitting that is knitted by somebody else" (p. 60).  But as the story progresses, Philida slowly begins to take control of her life and her destiny, and by the end of the novel she proclaims: "I am free because I am free.  Because I myself take my freedom.  I take it and I choose it" (p. 236).  However, like most stories of slavery, freedom comes at a steep price, and Philida endures a great deal of violence and trauma in her endeavors.

     As Opinionless mentioned in their review of Philida, images of sexual abuse are quite frequent (and graphic) in the first part of the novel.  While I am quite aware of the sexual degradation that slaves experienced, Brink's descriptions often felt overwhelming and a bit gratuitous at times.    Perhaps time could have been better spent in the efforts of character development rather than character debasement - it just makes Philida come across as a woman who has been singularly defined by men and their penises, which is disappointing, because Philida is so much more dynamic than that.  Or, at least she could be.

     While I respect Brink's efforts to portray such a volatile time in South Africa, he might have been a bit overzealous in regards to the various narrative voices.  There are so many perspectives and narrative modes, it makes the book feel unorganized and incomplete.  I understand that Brink is trying to engage readers' sympathies from both sides of the story by including the voices of Cornelis and Frans, but it felt fragmented rather than dynamic.  And to tell you the truth, it was boring at times.  It was difficult to sympathize with any of the characters (other than Philida), because the narratives felt incomplete and splintered.  But many of these characters have appeared in other Brink novels, so perhaps Philida would be best read in succession with his related novels.  As Brink has mentioned, this book is based on his own family history.  One of his direct ancestors was a slaveholder named Cornelis Brink, and Philida was derived as an imagining of life on the Brinks' farm during this time. 

     As Philida progresses, the novel explores the influence of Islam in The Cape - especially the way slave life was affected by the spread of Islamic teachings.  Brink skillfully weaves religion into the story through various characters, narratives, and folktales, and the way Philida perceives her newfound religious knowledge is fascinating.  Unlike many of her peers, she allows religion to inspire and guide her rather than control her.  She never uses religion as a tool for vindication or revenge, but as a pathway to understanding and internal peace.  By the end of the novel, we see a completely different person in Philida - we see a woman with pride, direction, and confidence:
" In the brown water of the Gariep I shall wash myself clean.  I do not want to be whiter than snow as the Ouman use to say.  Brown is what I am and brown is what I want to be. Like stone.  Like soil.  Like the earth.  Brown like everything that is worthwhile.  Brown I will wash myself.  A new person I will be.  Brown." (p. 238)
      As outlined in the story, slavery was abolished in the South African Cape on December 1, 1834, but Philida seeks more than just physical freedom.  She seeks hope, resolution, and a new legacy.  And this is where the novel abruptly ends.  Once again, the potential for a great, charismatic novel is lost in itself, but at least Philida's transformation is complete.  We may not know what the future holds for Philida, but she is more than equipped to handle it.

This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks on 8/20/12

Overall Rating:

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Odd Girl Out by Ann Bannon

     Ann Bannon's classic pulp novel introduces us to Laura Landon, a freshman at a midwestern college, who is extremely shy and quiet, but determined to join a sorority.  Soon Laura moves into the sorority house and meets her new roommates, Beth and Emmy.  Emmy is a wild, outgoing party girl - and maybe just a little boy crazy.  But Beth is older, wiser, and much more aloof when it comes to relationships.  Sure, she's dated plenty of men, but she never seems to be in a committed relationship.  At first, Laura is intimidated by Beth's commanding presence, but it doesn't take long for the girls to become close friends - and within a few weeks, both the girls are aware of a magnetic, intense attraction between the two of them.  They may not completely understand it, but they don't fight it, and by the end of the first semester, Beth and Laura are lovers.

     But things get complicated for Laura and Beth when Charlie enters the picture.  Charlie is an old friend of Laura's, but he is noticeably attracted to Beth - always complimenting her, staring dreamily at her, and constantly making excuses to spend time together.  And what worries Laura the most is the fact that Beth seems to enjoy the attention from Charlie.  But more than that, she seems to encourage it.  The rest of the novel explores the tumultuous, intense aspects of Beth and Laura's romance as both Laura and Charlie fight for Beth's affections.

     Compared to today's standards, Odd Girl Out is incredibly tame, but when it was published in 1957, it was scandalous and shocking.  In the age of The L Word and Sex and the City, it isn't abnormal to see depictions of same-sex couples engaged in graphic sexual behavior, but more than 50 years ago, homosexuality was still illegal, not to mention a complete social taboo.  After all, 1957 was the same year Leave it to Beaver made its television debut, so you can probably imagine how the first lesbian pulp novel was received by the media.  But (not surprisingly), Odd Girl Out was a bestseller.  Gays and lesbians were thrilled to see a positive, realistic depiction of homosexuality in literature, and straight folks were curious as to what all the fuss was about.

     So with this novel, Ann Bannon unknowingly launched the lesbian pulp movement in America.  Odd Girl Out became the first in the Beebo Brinker Chronicles, a series of 6 novels featuring Laura Landon and a host of other nontraditional literary characters.  Odd Girl Out is surprisingly subdued considering the cultural shock waves its publication initiated.  But when the world is reading things like the 50 Shades trilogy, a kiss on the lips between two women is nothing to bat an eye at.  But it's important to remember that Ann Bannon paved the way for "queer lit," and with her novels, she bravely acknowledged that heterosexuality doesn't have to be the only option for romance, sex, and relationships.

     Odd Girl Out is not sultry or steamy, and the writing is neither complex nor imaginative, but that's ok, because it wasn't written for literary critics.  It was written to fill a literary void, and to demystify and openly address a very controversial topic.  So the next time you read a book or short story featuring a lesbian relationship, just remember that Odd Girl Out was the little pulp novel that made it all possible. 

Overall Rating:

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman

     For Egon Loeser, life would be perfect if only he could have sex with the girl of his dreams, Ms. Adele Hitler.  But Loeser lives in Berlin in the 1930s, and the social scene just isn't what it used to be.  Nowadays, everyone is preoccupied with Nazis and global politics, but all Loeser wants to do is enjoy himself, preferable with Adele and few lines of coke.  But Adele is hardly interested in a self-indulgent, cynical misanthrope like Egon Loeser (it's no coincidence that his name is one letter away from "loser"), so she doesn't even send her admirer so much as a goodbye postcard when she moves to Paris.  But for Loeser, Adele is one of only two sources of momentum in his life, so he follows his heart to Paris in search of his dream girl, which is where a whole other series of adventures begins for our reluctant hero.

     The second source of momentum in Loeser's life is a legend - well, maybe it's a legend.  Maybe the story is true.  To Loeser, the infamous legend of Lavicini's teleportation machine is anything but.  In fact, Loeser is just as determined to solve the mystery of Lavicini's legacy as he is to find Adele.  And when the two intersect, things take a sharp and entertaining turn toward absurdity.  Written as part science fiction, part mystery, part historical fiction, and part comedy, The Teleportation Accident follows Loeser as he embarks on a lifelong journey of adventure, farce, and mishaps in search of good sex and teleportation.

     Ned Beauman's Man Booker Prize nominated novel is unlike anything I've ever encountered.  It's like a crazy Mary Poppins grab bag of discussion points and plot devices.  One minute you're reading about Loeser's opinion of artists and writers such as Dada, Brecht, and Hemingway, and the next moment you're following him up and down the streets of Hollywood in search of the perfect "American hamburger sandwich."  But it's also a novel about war, politics, Hollywood, theatre, film, religion, communism, travel, sex, paranoia, and public transportation (among other things).  By all counts, The Teleportation Accident should be pure chaos, but somehow everything comes together in the end.  Well, I guess I should say "ends," considering that the book contains four alternate/simultaneous/interchangeable endings.  I know.  It sounds crazy and disordered, but as they say, there is order in chaos.  Or else Ned Beauman has us all happily fooled!

     The Teleportation Accident is fresh, funny, and smart.  The prose is witty, the storyline is absurd but fitting, and the historical aspects are well-researched and flavorful.  And, it's possibly the most hilariously quotable books of the year.  Here are a few of my favorite "Loeserisms" :

  • "There was no flat surface near by so they just sniffed the coke off the sides of their hands and then licked up the residue.  One of the great skills of Berlin social life was to make this awkward self-nuzzling into an elegant gesture; Loeser knew he resembled a schoolboy trying to teach himself cunnilingus." (p. 26)  
  •  "To be that nice all the time, thought Loeser, just didn't make sense.  It was inhuman, illogical, saccahrine, and cowardly.  You couldn't truly love anything if you didn't hate at least something.  Indeed, perhaps you couldn't truly love anything if you didn't hate almost everything." (p.29) 
  •  "Loeser's parents had died in a car crash, and ever since he had hated cars.  He had never learned to drive, and he refused even to be a passenger in a private vehicle.  Taxis were all right because a taxi was essentially a very specific bus.  And trains were relaxing.  But trams were best." (p. 61)
  • "He had always hated that period towards the end of a meal when long gaps opened up between utterances: there was something repulsive and undignified about that shared awareness of the human animal's basic inability to think and digest at the same time." (p. 143)

This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks on 8/11/12

Overall Rating:

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Leftovers by Arthur Wooten

     It's 1955, and Vivian Lawson is a childless divorcee living in a June Cleaver world.  After her husband leaves her for another woman, Vivian cannot possibly imagine how she will manage to get back on her feet.  After all, she never had much formal education, her cooking is pretty bad, and she lacks any semblance of self-confidence.  Luckily, she has a very devoted friend, Babs, who is happy to feed, clothe, and shelter poor Vivian for the time being.  Babs lives with her brother, Stew, who has developed a big ole crush on Vivian, so he is more than willing to share the tiny space with her as well.

     Through Babs, Vivian is introduced to the world of Tupperware, and is soon recruited as a full-time Tupperware Lady.  At first, though, being a saleswoman is overwhelming and intimidating.  She has to plan Tupperware parties, sell the product door-to-door, and exude a certain Tupperware image.  But Vivian soon finds out that, not only is she funny and entertaining, she can confidently and successfully sell the cutting-edge culinary products and support herself financially without a husband.

     Leftovers is a heartwarming story, and a comedic portrayal of domestic life in the 1950s, but it's just a little too heartwarming for my taste.  Seemingly overnight, Vivian transforms from a suicidal, helpless little ex-housewife into a sparkling, confident national icon.  She is THE Tupperware Lady, and of course, all her dreams come true.  I really appreciate the idea behind Wooten's book - to showcase how the plastics industry changed the lives of women all over America through their products and sales opportunities.  If women could support themselves financially, they could escape domestic slavery.  And products like Tupperware allowed them to do so.  But Vivian's story is just a bit over the top for me, and sometimes, she's just gratuitously ditzy.

     Oh and as if things don't turn out perfect enough for Ms. Lawson, (spoiler!) her husband does indeed come crawling back to his little caterpillar who has transformed into a beautiful (and wealthy) butterfly.  No of course she doesn't take him back! She is a refined Tupperware lady now, but it's nice to know he realized his mistake isn't it?  Ugh...the whole plot gave me cavities!  If you want a super light, fluffy, fairy-tale of a story, Leftovers will satisfy your craving.  After all, the plot is fast-paced and the happy ending is painfully predictable, but if you were hoping for a real feminist perspective on domestic life in the 1950s, this book might feel a little underwhelming and (ahem) stale.  Wooten's story is like an empty Tupperware container - a good framework, but no substance.  Ok.  I'm finished with the plastic puns now!

Overall Rating:

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

     In 1914, Grace Winter is happier than she ever dreamed.  She has just married Henry, the love of her life, and the two are honeymooning on an Atlantic cruise.  But halfway through the voyage, something goes terribly wrong, and the ship mysteriously catches fire.  With the massive ocean liner sinking quickly, Grace and Henry are separated in the mass panic and confusion, and Grace finds herself on a lifeboat with 38 other confused and terrified passengers.  But one of the survivors, John Hardie, has a great deal of experience as a seaman and quickly emerges as the leader of the pack.

     At first, Hardie and the other passengers are optimistic about their chances of rescue and survival, but as the hours stretch to days and then weeks, their prospects turn grim.  With little food, fresh water, or shelter, the lifeboat's passengers slowly slip into a frantic mental state.  Running solely on survival instincts, Grace, Hardie, and some of the other passengers face the horrifying conclusion that only the strong and courageous will survive, and others must be sacrificed.  And when the ordeal is over at last, Grace and 2 other survivors are charged with murder and must relay their harrowing story to a jury that cannot possibly begin to comprehend the extremity of their circumstances.

     Charlotte Rogan's The Lifeboat is a a chilling journey into the depths of human instinct, will power, and self-preservation.  But the novel doesn't just explore aspects of choice and consequences - it asks readers to reconsider their own moral compass in a situation where basic needs and survival instincts surpass morality, rationality, and human compassion.  And in between these sinister notions, Rogan also considers women's rights, social status, memory, and the legal dilemmas of such a scenario.  The Lifeboat is a fast-paced, engrossing, and thought-provoking debut, but I wouldn't recommend it for beach reading.

Overall Rating:

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Communion Town by Sam Thompson

     Sam Thompson's Communion Town isn't really a novel, but "a city in ten chapters."  Citizens of Thompson's fictional city experience a variety of pleasures and pains - but honestly, it's mostly pain.  Much of the book reads like a crime noir novel - the city is full of mysterious, beautiful women, private investigators, butchers, murderers, and men who refer to women as "dames."  The idea behind Communion Town is to portray a variety of experiences and perspectives in the same setting - to show the extremes of how different people experience an urban area.  But after finishing the book, I feel like the audience is only shown one aspect of the city - the awful, miserable, evil side.  Very few characters in Thompson's book are happy to be a part of Communion Town, which I don't think is a realistic portrayal of any city.  I mean, Hubert Selby, Jr's New York is very different from Candace Bushnell's new York, so I was expecting a much more stark juxtaposition of emotions and happenings.  Communion Town just felt too limited in its perspective.

      That being said, much of the book is very creative and well-written.  I especially enjoyed "The Good Slaughter" and "The Significant City of Lazarus Glass," which explored aspects of violence, memory, and perceptions.  They were dark, gritty, noir chapters, and that's where Thompson's writing felt most comfortable and natural.  But the writing falls short in the continuity of the book, meaning that there really isn't any.  That's why I was surprised that Communion Town was even nominated for the Man Booker Prize.  I was under the impression that only full-length novels would be eligible, and I would not consider this book to be a novel. 
     Now you're probably thinking about the 2011 controversy over Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad, which was hotly debated over.  Some critics said yes, it is a novel, and others said it more closely resembles short stories.  Well, A Visit From the Goon Squad is an epic novel compared to Communion Town.  Just to be clear, I did not dislike Communion Town, I just don't think it meets all the criteria to be awarded the Man Booker Prize.

This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks on 8/4/12

Overall Rating:

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Calling Invisible Women by Jeanne Ray

     What would you do if you woke up one day to find that you are completely invisible?  Would you be afraid? Angry? Or maybe secretly thrilled?  In Jeanne Ray's new book, Calling Invisible Women, this is exactly what happens to Clover, a 50-something woman who wears many hats, including that of a journalist, mother, wife, and friend.  Clover's situation is confusing and utterly terrifying, but even more bewildering is the fact that no one in her family has noticed.  When she wears clothing, the shape and outline of her body is visible, but her flesh has disappeared into thin air.

     Clover soon realizes that she's not the only woman in the world struggling with this condition - hundreds, if not thousands of other women have become invisible, and the cause is traced to a combination of pharmaceutical drugs that, when taken together, may cause certain women to completely disappear.  But nobody seems to notice or even care that these middle aged women have been physically reduced to nothing but voices, scents, and a floating torso (when they choose to wear clothing, that is).  And as long as the fridge is full, the errands are complete, and dinner is on the table, even Clover's family is unaware of her condition.

     But Clover is a bit more optimistic about this predicament than some of the other invisible women.  When she's naked, her presence is completely undetectable, so she takes the opportunity to approach life from a new perspective.  As Clover says, "Now I can see how many things you can do when no one is watching.  It's a huge freedom when you think about it."  As she soon finds out, being invisible is sometimes inconvenient, but it's also a super power!  As Clover adjusts to her condition, she takes a bold approach to invisibility and inspires a national chain of events.

     Calling Invisible Women reads like a sci-fi superhero comedy.  It's weird, hilarious, and completely entertaining, but it's also a bold commentary on the social status of middle-aged women.  In a society that values youth and beauty to the point of obsession, what does that do for a woman's self-worth as she ages?  As Jeanne Ray points out, women of a certain age are devalued to a point of invisibility.  They are marginalized as mothers and wives and completely stripped of their sexuality.  Unfortunately, it's going to take a national movement for all women to regain their visibility in our world, but with Clover and the other invisible women of Ray's novel, we are reminded that our voices are more powerful than our physical bodies.

Overall Rating: