The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff

Cover illustration for The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren GroffI found The Monsters of Templeton on the free table in the 5th floor lunchroom at my old job, left over, probably, from somebody’s book club. I loved the cover, so I picked it up.

Lauren Groff’s debut is a complex and humorous family saga tracing the lineage of one prominent small town family back through seven generations. Stanford PhD candidate Willie Upton returns to her upstate New York roots after a devastating affair with her older married professor. On the day she arrives back in Templeton (a stand-in for the author’s own hometown, Cooperstown), the corpse of a prehistoric monster surfaces in Lake Glimmerglass. That might seem like the jumping off point for a whimsical adventurous story about, you know, monsters. But in fact, the dinosaur serves as more of a metaphor–the actual “monsters” are still to come.

The story really begins when Willie’s eccentric mother, Vi, tells her a secret–Willie’s father is not, as she has always been told, one of several San Francisco hippies from her mother’s commune days, but someone from their own community. Vi refuses to tell Willie exactly who her real dad is, but after some nagging she does offer up a clue: Vi herself is related to town founder Marmaduke Temple on both her mother and her father’s sides through two different lines of decent, but Willie is descended from him through three lines. Apparently, Willie’s father is related to Marmaduke too, through “some sort of liaison at some point in the past.”

Armed with this information, Willie sets out to research the family history, locate the missing branch on the family tree, and identify her father. The novel follows Willie’s experiences with her mother, her best friend back in San Francisco, and her former high school classmates during her 2-3 week stay in her ancestral home, but the real focus of the work is her research into her family’s secretive past. Through letters, diaries, and a few unexplained monologues, we become acquainted with the Temple clan one generation at a time. We meet Marmaduke’s slave mistress, Hetty; Sy Upton, who married into the family and brought the baseball museum to town; Jacob Franklin Temple the famous novelist (a cipher for James Fenimore Cooper); his youngest daughter Charlotte, an uptight old maid raising her “nephew”; and many others.

The result is strong, but uneven. Each anecdote is engaging and enjoyable in itself, but the stakes aren’t very high for the reader, and it can be a little difficult to keep track of the various characters, how they are related to one another, and which ones are having affairs (there are a lot of affairs in this book).

In a sort of random fling at post-modernism lite, Groff also includes contemporary alternative narrators, including the Running Buds, a group of cheerful middle aged men who jog together everyday and narrate in the first person plural (we), and the monster itself. There isn’t a lot of plot to be gleaned from these sections of the novel, and they do add to the overall impression of confusion, but I enjoyed them quite a bit as isolated pieces of writing.

Overall, the novel is a good one, a promising start for a young writer–someone with a lot of creativity, a lot of ideas, a great capacity for detail, but issues around mechanics, pacing and structure still to work out. And, hey, she’s already a bestseller.

I’ll end with a quick shout out to Guenet Abraham, the designer of this book–the novel is greatly enhanced by Beth White’s photos and illustrations of the various ancestors rendered in appropriate historical style, as well as by the several versions of the family tree annotated by Willie and updated periodically as additional information is uncovered. It’s a nice touch, quirky, fun and entirely appropriate, and it has the added benefit of helping the reader keep tabs on the various story lines. Rock on!

On Grad School

About a year ago, I decided that the book publishing business isn’t for me, after all–at least not in it’s super-giant semi-evil conglomerate incarnation. A hard choice, since being an editor at a major house had been my goal for like 10 years. All those unpaid internships. Long days, strange hours, crap salaries, crazy bosses, weird corporate upsets, reorg after reorg after reorg. All the stuff I gave up so I could work, including, for a long time, my own writing. Not to mention the not-insignificant list of things I completely loved about my job.

It look me almost that whole year to decide on my next step, and to act on it. I registered to take the GRE the day I found out about the third reorganization at my company in as many years. Then I spent the next twelve months filling out job applications and university applications and loan applications and the FAFSA.

But when everything was in place and it was finally time to make the changes I’d been working toward it was hard to really enjoy it. In quitting my job I felt like a traitor. I adored my authors (most of them). Still do. I felt terrible leaving them all to their own devices. And my boss. I cried when I told him I was quitting. I felt so guilty, I couldn’t help it.

And now finally my first semester of library school is about to begin. I’m eager to get started, hopeful that this will turn out to be a better fit for me, relieved, honestly, just to be doing something proactive, uncertain (still) about my decision.

I don’t exactly think there’s something I’m “supposed” to be doing. But it’s still hard to believe there isn’t a right answer somewhere.

New Year, New Whatever: Recent reads from Robin McKinley and April Lindner

Cover illustration for Sunshine by RobinMcKinleyOn the lighter side of the reading scale, I kicked off this month with cult hit Sunshine, from everybody’s favorite feminist fantasy author, Robin McKinley. I read (and adored) McKinley’s 80s classic The Blue Sword, as well as her slightly obsessive multiple re-tellings of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty (1978) and Rose Daughter (1997) while still in high school, so I fully expected to love this book. Meh. It was okay. I’m going to try to sell it to Green Apple.

The story takes place in an alternative modern day America in which the various things that go bump in the night are all real, and the landscape has been ravaged by a recent inter-species war. The action begins when twenty-something baker and title character Sunshine is captured by vampires and offered up as a snack for a vampire prisoner, Constantine (no joke). Luckily her fellow prisoner refuses to eat her. When Sunshine’s latent magical abilities help her to escape, she decides to take Con with her as a sort of thanks-for-not-eating-me gesture. The two form a tight bond, and decide to face their captor together.

Cover illustration for Jane by April LindnerI’m a sucker (no pun) for modernizations of classic literature (“Cruel Intentions,” “Clueless,” how could you go wrong?), so I couldn’t quite resist this one. That, and this Jane goes to my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence (woo!). It’s a fun read, and fully lives of up to the legacy of–well, new movies about old books, more or less.

Minus the Lowood school and TB, the plot is virtually identical to Bronte’s Jane Eyre, right down to the wife in the attic–sure, Mr. Rochester is a middle aged rock star and Jane has an neglectful mother rather than a hateful aunt, but same dif. Despite the parallel plot line, however, author April Linder has managed to strip the story of it’s pathos and urgency, leaving behind only a rather charming romance.

Bronte’s Jane Eyre is an enormously effective Gothic mystery and a compelling romance–but it’s also a novel about self-respect, strength of mind, character, faith, and (though its anachronistic to use the term) feminism. It’s that deeper, richer portion of the novel that gets lost in translation–along with a certain amount of the logic behind the story.

In this modernization the need for secrecy surrounding Mrs. Rochester’s mental illness is unconvincing, nor does it seem that she’s better off locked inside all the time, unable to see or interact with anyone but a drunk maid, than she would be at a high class institution. Likewise, Jane’s struggles in leaving Thornfield loose their significance, and River St. John’s offer lacks force.

Truthfully I’m not sure it’s possible to translate Jane Eyre into a modern-day American context. The stakes in the modern world just aren’t high enough. The major plot points cannot retain their original emotional significance in a culture without either a true aristocracy or a powerful homogeneous faith, where women have more equal rights and opportunities, where premarital sex and divorce are both common, and where insane asylums are no longer glorified prisons. The story might play better set in a society with more rules and a more formalized class structure, like India or Iran. To achieve the emotional effect of Jane Eyre in a modern-day American novel, you’d have to tell a very different story.

Nobody cares where you sit, and other notes on contemporary politics

I haven’t had much to rant about on the political front in sometime, mainly because most of what I feel justified in commenting on has been on hold since the holiday recess began almost a month ago.

Just when congress was gearing up for a serious partisan smack down in the new year (something I would definitely have commented upon), maladjusted weirdo Jared Loughner shot up a Gabrielle Giffords speaking event for, apparently, no reason, killing six and injuring a dozen more. What followed was the oddest combination of genuine shock and grief and blame-slinging and political posturing in recent memory. Everyone made an initial statement, many of them quite honest and moving and heartfelt. Then everyone analyzed everyone else’s statement. Reactions were compared and contrasted.

Then the idea that the polarized political situation and negative, violent rhetoric inspired the shooting (just like rock music causes suicide, and Stairway to Heaven includes secret satanic messages) was covered exhaustively. Not to say that the tone in Washington is not a problem, but the sad truth is you can’t blame mean people for crazy ones–no matter how much you might want to. Or at least, you can blame them only in so much as their meanness contributes to the general malaise, the poisonous atmosphere that, combined with paranoia and delusion and a thousand other influences, creates both the madness and the motivation for such an act. Still, everyone vowed to play nice in the future. And then promptly turned and criticized someone else for not making the same promise, or for doing it too slowly, or whatever. I don’t even want to talk about what Sarah Palin odd little mini controversy, which was beyond bizarre from beginning to end.

The idea that an effort at civility is really a mandate for curtailing free speech was briefly floated. A hilarious concept considering that in the 1700s when the whole free speech thing took hold, the social niceties were so much more extreme that two people exchanged bows before trying to kill one another. The founding fathers it seems, were free to say and do just about anything without breaking the bounds of decorum. And, with our lax social standards, I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say so are we. It’s entirely possible to refute everything your opponent stands for without being aggressive and violent, sometimes without even being impolite.

In the midst of the back biting and general scramble to either avoid or acknowledge culpability as circumstances seemed to warrant, a few individuals stood up and stood out in an admirable way. The president broke out his not inconsiderable rhetorical skills at the memorial service Wednesday. The old John McCain, the McCain we loved for his compassion and his faithfulness and his ability to step outside his own perspective (even if he is a homophobic old coot), reemerged unexpectedly with Sunday’s Washington Post op-ed. Ms. Giffords staff opened the offices as usual on the Monday following the shooting.

So it’s been 10 days, and congress has decided it’s now appropriate to get back down to business–possibly a kinder, gentler business. So, the “job-killing health care bill” is now the “job-destroying health care bill,” (much less violent that way, right?) and we’re all going to sit side by side at the State of the Union (because this is 8th grade and it matters who we sit by). And now it’s time to see how it all goes forward.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan

Cover illustration for A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer EganThis was a great one. Seriously. I enjoyed it more than anything I’ve read in recent months. A Visit from the Goon Squad is funny, sad, creative, endearing. The writing is spectacular–smart and apt, with an absorbing natural flow. The characters are fully fleshed, thoroughly flawed, and extremely winning.

Like most fiction with a claim to the “postmodern” label, A Visit from the Goon Squad is highly structured, with a somewhat nebulous plot. The novel is episodic, and Egan makes use of a variety of literary styles. Although a standard intimate third person past tense dominates, there are segments of present tense and first person, a mock-celebrity magazine article complete with footnotes (a well known staple of postmodern fiction), and even power point presentation. I’m frequently annoyed by these types of devices, but this came off beautifully. I have to agree with Ron Charles when he writes, “If Jennifer Egan is our reward for living through the self-conscious gimmicks and ironic claptrap of postmodernism, then it was all worthwhile.”

A Visit from the Goon Squad follows a series of interconnected characters, all linked (occasionally though several degrees of separation) to record producer Bennie Salazar. The novel opens with Sasha, Bennie’s klepto assistant, in contemporary New York City. It flashes back to Bennie’s youth in the 1970s San Francisco punk rock scene; follows his producer-mentor on a family vacation to Africa; introduces his son, his (sometimes ex)wife, her journalist brother, and her boss, struggling publicist Dolly. We meet troubled actress Kitty Jackson, an assortment of Bennie’s high school friends, an unnamed dictator, and Sasha’s closest friend from college. Characters occasionally surface unexpectedly in the midst of other character’s narratives. The narrative slides smoothly through time and place without fanfare, a series of loosely connected anecdotes gradually building toward a climactic moment some ten or twenty years in the future.

Though the thematic core of the work centers on loss, on the slow chipping away over time, it’s surprisingly not nostalgic (except perhaps as concerns the music industry). Egan exhibits throughout an acute sense of humorous perversity, making the novel light and fast even in it’s more depressing moments.

Egan achieves a rare balance between the completely entertaining and the beautifully executed.

San Francisco Reading Party

Frozen solid and sneezing continuously, with a bad mood and a raw nose, I never the less pulled on my new jacket (thanks Bestamor) and headed down to the nexus of SOMA and the Mission for Quiet Lightening, possibly my favorite San Francisco reading series. LDM is funny; Radar is striking and weird; Porchlight has that sweet, homey public radio feel (although it’s so freakin’ hard to get out to the Verdi Club I hardly ever make it); Writers with Drinks is hit and miss.

Quiet Lightening is pretty close to perfect. It’s immersive, it’s chill. It’s always somewhere new, always somewhere central, always somewhere with drinks, and they keep the pageantry to a minimum. Writers read one after the other in rapid succession, without pausing for introductions or explanations. The length of the applause is just long enough for the next reader to get to the front of the room.

Sure, there are some selections I could miss (not naming any names here, but if you were thinking of bringing an accompanist, please reconsider), but the rate of really good readings is remarkable–in every two hour event, there are always 3-4 writers who are honestly great.

The first night I attended, I was completely in love with readings by Charles Kruger and Lauren Becker. Last night’s videos have not been posted, but I was definitely impressed with Jesus Castillo (and that’s saying something–I don’t care for most contemporary poetry), adorable David Sedaris Jr., Graham Gremore, and pun-happy Steven Grey.