Monday, August 14, 2006

Reviews #30, #31, #32, #33: The Foreign Country of History and the Right Amount of Adventure

I'll forego the traditional link madness today in the interest of catching up on some book reviews. These are more or less in the order read. My calendar says we're in Week 33 of the calendar year, so I'm right on schedule for hitting that 52 books mark this year!

(Just one linky suggestion: the discussion has begun over at the Litblog Co-op of MICHAEL MARTONE by Michael Martone, and several of that clever gang are writing their comments in the form of fictional autobiographical "Contributor Notes," in homage to the form of Martone's experimental novel. It's a funny way to find out everything that never happened to Dan Wickett and Edward Champion, and may turn you on to a new book. My comments won't show up there until the fall round of titles, but everything these guys pick tends to be interesting.)

Book Review #30

BROOKLAND
by Emily Barton
(FSG, February 2006)

This one has been on my to-be-read list for a long time. As a devoted Brooklynite, as well as an aspiring entrepreneur, I was intrigued by the promise of a story about a female gin factory owner in 18th-century Brooklyn even more than by the idea of someone trying to bridge the East River a hundred years before it actually happened.

The book starts with a correspondence between Prudence Winship, proprietor (proprietress?) of Winship Daughters Gin, and her now-married daughter who has moved up the Hudson, with Prue promising to tell her daughter about the time she tried to build a bridge and everything that led up to it. This correspondence, I'll admit, induced some skeptical blinks and eyebrow-furrowing, as it's hard for a writer to get right the cadence of turn-of-the-19th-century spelling and expression (all those f's for s's), and hard for a reader to tell to tell if they have. Fortunately, Barton doesn't frame the whole book in this antiquated mode of writing, and the reader quickly gets acclimated to the characters' speech. It's one of the things that makes the book such a rich immersion in a culture that is surprisingly foreign; go back 200 years and even your backyard is another country.

This historical immersion was the primary pleasure of the book for me: seeing the familiar Brooklyn names attached to people, not streets and neighborhoods; realizing what a big deal it was to go to Manhattan when the only way was by ferry (and how snooty Manhattan was compared to Brooklyn even then); imagining the effects of quartering British soldiers on Brooklyn land, making friends with them and then having to say goodbye when their army was defeated; how much and how little the Revolutionary War affected Brooklynites and New Yorkers, in what unexpected ways; politics local and national in a place that's just barely a nation; the conception of slavery among even Northerners as an economic practicality; and the realities of lighting, cooking, using the bathroom, preventing pregnancy, and large-scale construction in the early 1800s.

The story progresses slowly, without tricks, allowing an engagement with the lives of Prudence, her two sisters (one loud and rebellious, one housebound by a speech impediment), her moody mother and cheerful but doomed father, her light-hearted lover, her employees (and slaves), her allies and friends and enemies. Ultimately there's still a foreignness, since while the story contains deep emotional tremors, people of Prudence's day didn't have the language we do to talk about it (sexual motivations, transference, sibling dynamics, alcoholism, compensating, etc.), and to some degree they never seem to quite understand themselves or each other. But who's to say the language means we know ourselves so much better?

The first Brooklyn Bridge both is and is not successful; I was really in suspense about whether it would get built, and you'll have to read the story to find out what happens. The sections detailing the workings of the gin mill and the bridge construction reminded me of the whaling passages in MOBY DICK: technical and fascinating on some level, but tempting to skim when you want to get back to the meat of the story. Ultimately, Barton has crafted a rich story of family, ambition, and community that's a truly rewarding, if never stunning read. I put this one on our Staff Picks table; I'd recommend it highly for long summer evenings.

Book Review #31
CROOKED HOUSE
by Agatha Christie
(St. Martin's, August 2002 [originally published 1948])

Yep, I picked up another Agatha Christie, and of course I can't tell you too much about it since it is, by definition, a mystery. This was a rare Christie story that I'd read before and actually remembered who the killer was, so it was interesting to read with that in mind and mark the clues and red herrings dropped along the way. One interesting twist is that our hero and the young heiress he loves (in whose family the murder has been committed) met overseas during the war, and it was her professional competence in the Army offices that first attracted him. Despite this feminist touch, there's a weird jolly racism about the patriarch of the family, who is originally from Greece; the implication is that his "foreignness" gives him a particular kind of charming amorality (also attributed by the British to the French, the Italians, and those other "excitable" Mediterranean races). Ah well – Dame Agatha was both ahead of and a product of her times, but there's no denying she makes an incomparable way to while away a subway ride.

Book Review #32
THREE PLAYS BY THORNTON WILDER: OUR TOWN, THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH, THE MATCHMAKER
by Thornton Wilder
(Bantam Pathfinder Editions, November 1972 [plays originally published 1938, 1942, and 1957, respectively)

Thornton Wilder holds a special place in my own literary history: I wrote my college entrance essay (to the college I ended up attending on a scholarship) about OUR TOWN, and THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY remains one of the books that changed my life. Wilder's up there in the company of C.S. Lewis, T.H. White, and Annie Dillard in his ability to combine a wide-ranging philosophical ambition with an awareness of the earthy humor and absurdity of human life. I'd never read THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH before, so I picked up this stoop-sale paperback and ended up reading all three.

THE MATCHMAKER (originally called THE MERCHANT OF YONKERS) is the least ambitious of the three, and is apparently a rewriting of a very old European play, which I believe is the same one Tom Stoppard adapted for his version, titled ON THE RAZZLE. Scenario: tyrannical shop owner terrorizes rebellious employees, marriageable daughter; everyone separately leaves the shop for the big city; wacky hijinks ensue (hiding in drag in the hat shop, parties separated by screen in fancy restaurant); and pretty much everyone ends up married. It's a fun piece, and there's a bit of Wilder's typical fourth-wall-breaking at the end when someone is asked to give an apparently extemporaneous moral at the end (his verdict: have just the right amount of adventure).

OUR TOWN brings me back to BROOKLAND, since it's about the consistent rhythms of life and death through human history, on the smallest and realest scale. Boy, girl, mother, father, church, school, marriage, ambition, death – and the difficulty of ever looking at each other, ever loving each other enough to counteract the mortality that we can't quite imagine. As I said, I've written and written about this, so I'll shelve my further explications for some other occasion.

THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH turned out to be equally moving, as it's about a sort of eternal present on a larger scale, particularly in times of war and disaster. The Antrobus family (and their femme fatale-slash-maid, Sabina) seem to be cavemen, 19th century resort goers, and 20th century New Jersey suburbanites, all while dealing with the constant threat of annihilation from nature, other people, or themselves, and struggling to maintain the will to keep going. The final act felt especially resonant, as Antrobus, returning from "the war" to his ravaged family, discovers that the source of the evil he has been fighting is within his own house, and that he must now find a way to make peace with it. There's a lot of actors "breaking down", understudy substitutions, and addresses to the audience built into the play; I imagine in the wrong hands this could feel gimmicky, but when Wilder is performed well it seems to be a profound reiteration of the slip-shod scramble to keep the show going on that is the human experience.

Yeah, I cried reading this play. Partly in relief at the knowledge that we've always been on the brink of disaster as we are now (environmental catastrophe, continuing violence), and we always seem to make it. Partly in grief that we're still struggling with the failings and attempts at reconciliation that plagued us in the 1940s, not to mention for all of human history. He's a writer of big ideas, Mr. Wilder, and in a way that reminds me of David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS, manages to find a big space for hope and comfort in the midst of his reminders of tragedy and loss. If anyone knows where I can see a performance of this one (if anyone even still performs Wilder; has he gone out of style?), let me know.

Book Review #33
SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS
by Marisha Pessl
(Viking, August 2006)

The Sunday Times Book Review had this book on its front cover yesterday, with a review the gist of which seems to be "Despite the fact that Marisha Pessl is disgustingly young and beautiful and precocious, this book is really quite good." Apparently there's been a lot of advance snarking because of that dreamy author photo in the back, and one can understand a certain amount of irritation, and the charges of youthful gimmicky-ness or immaturity. Doesn't bother me much, somehow; I'm a huge fan of the Jonathan Safran Foers and the Zadie Smiths, the younger and more brilliant the better. (Maybe it's because I don't think of myself as a writer and can enjoy the books as just a reader? Or maybe I just have a soft spot for my own generation making good.)

This is the book I took with me on the plane to California, and I actually ended up reading it instead of (okay, along with) my typical airplane allotment of trashy magazines. It took me the whole weekend, but hoo boy, what a read. This one made our Staff Picks table as the favorite of my boss Sarah; her take was that even when the plot gets breakneck near the end, Pessl never stops packing each paragraph with brilliant similes, asides, cultural references, and sparkling prose. Sometimes that can actually get a little frustrating; like descriptions of gin manufacturing, it can be tempting to skip the asides about film noir stars' biographies or the dynamics of leftist revolution in order to get back to the plot. But it shows an amazing discipline and talent in a writer, and I'm sure I could read this again and notice dozens more brilliant passages that I missed in my headlong pursuit of the denouement.

Oh yeah, the story: Blue Van Meer (named after butterfly species beloved of late mother, daughter of itinerant, charismatic professor of political science-ish stuff) finds herself, after a nomadic, extremely reading-intense childhood, spending her senior year of high school at an elite prep school in North Carolina. Taken under the wing of the equally charismatic film teacher Hannah Schneider, Blue finds herself forcibly inserted into the ranks of the cool kids or "Bluebloods," who hang out with Hannah for Sunday dinners and adore her.

(Here my main credibility issue kicked in: the cool kids are far too diverse. There's a glam rich girl and a golden boy, but there's also the big sloppy Southerner, the ethereal flower child with one long braid [??], and the small, sharp, potentially gay boy with glasses and orange tie. At my high school, THE popular crowd was pretty homogenous, though there were crowds that could have contained any of these kids; but maybe things are different in North Carolina.)

Blue is writing from her first year at Harvard, trying to make sense of that year, at the end of which, she reveals immediately, she discovered a dead Hannah hanging from a noose. How things get to that point, and what that means, is a story as compelling (and possibly as confusing) as THE BIG SLEEP, and Blue wisely leaves some elements unresolved. The book is structured like a course syllabus, each title named after a great (or semi-great) work of literature that has some symbolic connection to the events therein. It's immensely clever, immensely compelling, challenging and enjoyable, if ultimately… pretty unbelievable. One of my coworkers actually threw the book across the room when she got to the part about the forces acting behind the scenes, it seemed so ridiculous. But for me it was just about the right amount of adventure. As Sarah qualifies, this book probably won't get you any closer to enlightenment, but it's a heck of a good read. Read it now before the hype burns you out; it's not Ms. Pessl's fault she's a ready-made media darling, but you bookish types better get to her skillful writing before the promotion of her pretty mug gets to you.


Wednesday's post will be all about bookstores. Happy reading!