Reading Territory led to a dangerous chain of logic: Emma Bull -> other female SciFi writers -> Connie Willis. This culminated in the compulsive purchase of All About Emily, Remake, and Inside Job. Have spent the last week or so reading these on my phone instead of the, oh, say, two dozen unread hardbacks on my shelves. Sci-fi Old Hollywood is the best!
I can trace my love of Emma Bull back to The Other Change of Hobbit, yet another Bay Area bookselling institution that hasn’t survived the age of effortless online sales1Everyone should go to Boarderlandsand buy something fast, before it sinks into the ocean or something.. I’d never, ever have caught on to the awesomeness of Emma Bull if someone hadn’t hand-sold me War for the Oaks.2n another example of how the Bay is really not all that big I later worked with one of the ‘Hobbit founders at a local publisher—though I failed to make the connection at the time.I worry about what I might be missing now that a disturbing percentage of my new book recommends come from Twitter.
I found my copy of Emma Bull’s Territory in the used Sci-Fi section at Green Apple in or around 2013, and for whatever reason, just didn’t get to it. I had it on the shelf, I tried to bully other people into reading it on multiple occasions, I even packed it on vacation. It just wasn’t the moment, I guess. Spiritually I wasn’t ready.
Set in an ever-so-slightly-fantastic version of the Arizona Territory, Territory deals with the conflicts and politics that divided the iconic Wild West community of Tombstone during the summer of 1881, and which would eventually lead to the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.3Bull promises the sequel Claim “will really truly contain the Gunfight in the Vacant Lot Behind the O.K. Corral, this time for sure.”Bull’s Tombstone is a slippery blend of history, fiction, and fantasy. Fictional characters mix with real historical figures,4The Earp brothers and their wives, Curly Bill Brocius and Ike Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, Sadie Marcus and Kate Elder all make their appearance. and a complex magical power struggle underlies real legal and physical battles.
The three pronged narrative is presented through the eyes of Doc Holiday, Wyatt Earp’s hard living dentist-cum-professional-gambler right hand man, “so good at being bad that it seemed like a genuine gift” (59), Jessie Fox, an iterate horse trainer with East Coast manners and supernatural talents he can’t quite face, and Mildred Benjamin, a young widow making her living as a typesetter by day while writing sensational fiction at night. After the Benson stage robbery, all three find themselves, in different ways, embroiled in the escalating conflict between the ranchers and townspeople, and facing a mysterious and powerful magic.
The Genre Mash is always a crowd pleaser, instantly refreshing favorite tropes by placing them in a new context, and the Sci-Fi/Old West smashup is arguably the most fail safe.5Back to the Future III, Firefly, Wild Wild West…I was going to do a whole huge list but I’m sure someone else has already got that covered. If, in the process, the author manages to inject social morays that are a bit more palatable to the modern mind, so much the better. In most retellings of this particular Wild West creation myth women are incidental6Available to be fought over or sent away for their own safety, to gather up the poker winnings, and generally to dress up the set with their puffy skirts. or explicitly problematic.7Overdoing it with the laudanum, getting their men arrested in a fit of pique, and never wanting to move anywhere good.Territory, however, is overtly feminist. Mildred comes into her own as a writer over the course of the novel. Kate sees through Earp’s plots and manipulations, engineering Doc’s arrest not because she’s angry with him, but as a means of protecting him. Wyatt Earp’s public infidelities call his character into question. Both Doc and Jessie, in very different ways, seem to value strength and individuality in their women folk.
Totally enjoyable, engaging read, but ultimately not destined for my future estate sale. I’d put this one on Amazon, but unfortunately in the process of reading it I managed to completely destroy it, so I’m afraid its bound for the Goodwill, if they’ll take it. One down. Approximately 200 to go.
Two bags full of worn out cloths and second-hand kitchen supplies have made their way to Goodwill, and there’s a box of purses and t-shirts bound for the same destination waiting in the corner. (It is an Amazon box, but it contained jeans, not books. I’m resolved: I’m not taking more until I’ve finished what I already have.)
I’ve also started a box of books. So far, I’ve identified the following:
The Aeneid, Virgil (Robert Fitzgerald translation). Read for my 2002-3 Epic Poetry seminar and, as far as I know, never opened again. A $10 paper back available in probably every public library in America, which I have moved approximately nine times over 15 years. Having already committed to this level, I’m actually kind of tempted to keep this one.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave & Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Fredrick Douglas, Harriet Jacobs. Read for my 2004-5 American Literature, History and Culture course. I think about Harriet Jacobs from time to time. Purging this tattered and sticky Modern Library Classics edition, but downloaded a free copy of Incidents for Kindle.
Manliness & Civilization, Gail Bederman. Read for the same history and culture class. People on the Internet hate this book. I spent some time reading one-star reviews, which seem to fall into three categories: people who misinterpret the analysis of 19thcentury culture as the author advocating in favor of the sexist and racist attitudes she attempts to explore, men who are angry that a woman would dare to comment on male identity under any circumstances, and students who would rather not have to read anything. For the record, found it to be a valuable piece of criticism.
The Prince and the Discourses, Niccolo Machiavelli. Read for some class at some point—possibly Renaissance and Reformation England during my freshman year. That would mean I haven’t cracked the cover since 2001.
A load of lit mags purchased from the now-defunct Cody’s in Berkeley in 2005, most of which I have not read or did not enjoy: Noon, ZYZZYVA, Blue Mesa Review, Ploughshares, and one year’s worth of Tin Houses (2007).
Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell. Purchased used from the airport Powell’s (trust Portland). Discovered two bus tickets dated February 25 and 27 2008 marking page 158. I think I forgot I owned this one and later listened to the audio book.
Hot Pink, Adam Levin. Selected based largely on the cover art, and purchased using a Pegasus gift certificate. I read this book on a really wonderful camping trip, so that, although I only actually enjoyed a couple of the stories, looking at it leaves me with a hazy happy feeling. I will never read this again.
Little Brother, Cory Doctorow. Purchased at random based solely on the San Francisco setting and the Neil Gainman endorsement. I have no idea why this particular quote was so compelling. (Book marketers take note.) Preachy, boring, skimmed the last half.
All now for sale on the internet. Because….I don’t know, it feels like I should at least try? Will most likely haul these down to the Goodwill with the rest.
I have an unfortunate habit of forming emotional attachments to objects with considerable inertia but little to no measurable worth. A 300 pound, 30 year old sofa, which I moved four different times, including two trips up narrow Edwardian staircases. Only one trip down though. A 1973 Oldsmobile, like a living room on wheels, which remained parked for over two years more than 3,500 miles from where I lived at the time. As I write this, roughly 60 pounds of thrift store clothing and costumes which no longer fit me are zippered into clear plastic bags, shoved under my bed. All of this flies in the face of common sense and Marie Kondo.
By far the most glaring example, though, is my book collection. Stacked two and three deep on bowed shelves, piled in the cabinet of my nightstand, lined up between risers under the foot of the bed, and generally strewn behind me as I move around my apartment, they are slowly swallowing up my living space like gathering snow drifts.
There’s nothing objectively special about what’s on these shelves. A couple of first editions and signed copies, but nothing rare or valuable. There are several duplicates, purchased either because I liked the cover art, or had temporarily misplaced my first copy. Most of these books can be found in any public library in America. An embarrassing number have not been opened since college. A even more embarrassing number are still unread.
They have traveled though—extensively. In suitcases that consistently failed to meet with airline weight requirements; in duct-taped boxes mailed to college in the fall and home again in spring; in the back of a truck full of event tents and helium tanks bound for the Special Olympics; in moving vans and u-hauls and the trunks of cars driven caravan-style between nine different residences across the greater Bay Area. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t let them go. I never seriously considered it.
I learned to treat books as talismanic objects even before I could read them. They were an imaginative focus and, as I grew older, a symbol of personal ambition. As a teenager I carefully displayed my collection according to author, genre, and personal preference. Certain shelves were more prestigious than others. I’d take comfort and inspiration from looking at the spines lined up just right. I’d pull down a favorite and spend an hour rereading the best parts, sometimes just standing there beside the shelves, but more often sprawled out on the carpet in front of the hall heater, or pacing tight circles around my bedroom (because reading was too exciting to sit still for, obviously).
Even as a broke college student I can remember buying books with the intrinsic assumption that they would stay with me throughout my life. I believed, without applying a lot of scrutiny, that at some point I would live in a real house with actual storage space—built-in bookshelves down one side of a cozy living room, perhaps an office, or even (swoon) a library.
A question would arise and I’d go to the shelf and pull down a reference to search out the answer. Not that I have a lot of reference books or anything. I’d feel lonesome or nostalgic or bored and pull down one of my old favorites—a paperback, probably, but the edition with the best cover art, and the spine broken in all the right places. I’d loan books to friends and foist them upon my someday children at age appropriate intervals. What I expected, basically, was an old house, full of books and children, with a massive kitchen garden, set in the middle of someplace beautiful.
I’m sure this vision must be common among my particular subspecies of North American nerdy girl–former history and creative writing undergraduates, nature lovers who haven’t quite reached the multi-day backpacking level, people who form friendships based on mutual love of obscure (or embarrassing) authors, and those who thought a library degree was a good plan.
In the string of dorms and shared apartments where I spent my 20s, I attempted to preserve that early, strengthening combination of familiarity and safety, passionate admiration and excitement, by keeping my books close. This was not terribly successful. Somewhere along the way, the things that made me happiest started to feel more like a rebuke. (Why did I watch the entirety of Six Feet Under twice instead of reading Brief Interviews with Hideous Men?)
And what, ultimately, will become of all those books anyway? When I’m gone, I suppose my library might give my hypothetical descendants an excuse for a cathartic fight. Maybe the collection could be auctioned; donated to a grateful and deserving public institution; sold to theaters, real estate agents and hipster bars as bulk set dressing. Failing all else my corpse could always be burned on a pyre made of paperbacks.
I still want that house, that calm and beautiful life. What I’m realizing though, is that my coping mechanisms (which are many) have gradually shifted from comforting to stifling. Maybe I don’t need a safe place full of things anchoring me to earth. What exactly I do need isn’t quite clear, but I think it has something to do with flexibility, and openness, the willingness to expose myself.
So, in an effort to be light and mobile, I will use up and throw away what I can, box away the things I want for my whole life, and find what’s next.
I need to throw a bunch of shit out. Seriously, look at those sagging shelves.
Almost a year ago I chose Atkinson’s Life After Life from the list of new ebooks on the Berkeley Public Library website based entirely on the cover art. In retrospect, I suspect I chose it because it reminded me of one of my favorites from high school, Robin McKinley’s Beauty.
I entirely missed what huge deal this book was. I took it with me on a trip, reading it in the plane and during a couple of long, hot afternoons stretched out on a beach chair, until, frustratingly, it expired, leaving behind only an Amazon form letter inviting me to buy a copy (worst sales pitch ever).
Back home in California I followed a Twitter wormhole to an article with the specious headline “Is Kate Atkinson Britain’s Most Ambitious Novelist?” The tag was almost unrelated to the actual text, the kind of thing an editor slaps on to court clicks–which worked on me (I could hardly wait to start my explicative studded list of names…. Zadie Smith, Salmon Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Kazuo-freaking Ishiguro!) I re-borrowed the book immediately and tore through the final third in the comfort of my own bed back in Berkeley.
Life After Life extrapolates on two well-worn tropes: what if Hitler had been assassinated before he rose to power? and, as the main character’s favorite brother puts it, “What if we had a chance to do it again and again…until we finally did get it right?”
The novel opens in 1930 Ursula Todd walks into a German cafe and shoots Adolf Hitler. Ursula’s life, we learn, is relived in endless permutations. In some lives she dies in childhood, drowning on a seaside holiday, or during the flu pandemic of 1918. In others she grows into an adult, living in London during the Blitz, marrying a scarily violent man, staying single and becoming a secretary, traveling to Europe and marrying a German–ultimately returning again and again to her birth in an English country house during a blizzard in 1910.
Gradually, the shadows of her past lives begin to guide Ursula’s steps, instinctively driving her away from known dangers. As the depth of her experience builds, she comes to consciously understand and trust her foreknowledge.
I was reminded of a passing comment one of my writing teachers once made on the underlying structure of another of my old favorites, Middle March. She remarked that Elliot spends the first half of the book just on set up and character development before stepping back to let the action take its natural course in the second half, effectively keying the story up, then letting it all unwind. Life After Life works much the same way. The pace accelerates as the novel continues, with lives coming in quick succession, slipping into one another, the heroine’s memory becoming slowly enmeshed with the reader’s as time and perspective bend, unwinding until we find ourselves back in that first moment in the cafe.
Despite the world-shifting stakes, Life After Life is largely–perhaps even primarily–a book about fraternal love, particularly Ursula’s relationship with her younger brother Teddy, whose well being often forms a personal proxy for that of the population at large. It is Teddy’s fate, even more than her own that Ursula seeks to change when she begins to exert agency.
The dramatic shifts through time are surprisingly easy to follow. Atkinson orients readers through a combination of dated headings and repeated passages echoing through the layered realties, creating a de ja vu effect that readers share with the heroine. This ease also owes something to the popular premises the author has appropriated. Any respectable TV viewer has been trained to interpret this type of story. From Science Fiction to Romantic Comedy, the alternative reality is such a standard device that explanation is unnecessary, leaving the author free to concentrate on character and relationship. The book is at its most engaging when tightly focused on Ursula, her family, and their experiences. When the scope widens to encompass familiar world events, it can feel overdone, a little dull.
Atkinson is a talented novelist, meticulous both in plot and language, true and faithful to her characters. Life After Life was an enjoyable read, a technical achievement, and a creative cultural remix.
…for my initial failure to connect Fun Home with every feminist’s favorite media analysis criteria, the Bechdel Test, with Allison Bechdel the cartoonist. I guess I was thinking of it along the lines of the Turing Test for artificial intelligence, presuming it to be rooted deep in the murky academic writings of the second wave (although I guess we could makes a case for a 1985 issue of Dykes to Watch Out For…)
I started Fun Home after attending yet another Radar Reading Series event where it was repeatedly held up as the pinnacle of what graphic novels can achieve (brilliant, soul-eating, MacArthur Genius earning, Tony Award winning Broadway musical inspiring, and so forth).
Lucky me, it came into the library just before young Brian Grasso’s inexplicably well publicized protests to the effect that images of naked lesbians are against his religion.
I don’t feel particularly compelled to pick this 18 year old apart, trusting that he’ll do enough of that himself once he gains a little perspective on one or more of the following: life, art, picking one’s battles. That said, his Washington Post op-ed is fairly amusing if read in the popper spirit (“even Freud, Marx or Darwin”….my you are open minded!) NB: Seriously, I hope that its impossible to graduate from accredited university without reading at least some Freud, Marx or Darwin–especially somewhere with that much ivy.
This isn’t exactly the first time Bechdel’s opus has come under fire. The same thing happened last year at the University of Southern Carolina, and from time to time various public libraries have been petitioned to take it off their shelves. Still, I feel very timely and fortuitous reading it just now. Everyone loves a banned book, or barring that, a moderately controversial one. Feeling rather guilty that my copy is overdue from the public library, as I’m sure the wait list is exploding.
Not that it wasn’t already. The 2006 graphic memoir has enjoyed enormous success overall (see above MacArthur Genius and Tony Award winning musical) earning a place among great literary memoirs like Liar’s Club and This Boy’s Life.
Bechdel describes her childhood in the family funeral home (the titular “Fun Home”) managed by her father, juxtaposing her growing self awareness through childhood and the process of coming out to her family at the age of 19 with her father’s life as a closeted gay man in a straight marriage in rural Pennsylvania. The work opens with and continually circles back to the death and probable suicide of the author’s father weeks after her own coming out, the end of his life of secrecy at the beginning of her adulthood in the open, the parallels and opposites in their lives a new variation on the Ouroboros themes of parent and child. That moment both typifies and is the underlying point of the work.
The work operates on two levels–the childish interpretation of events, replete with misunderstandings, deliberate obfuscations, and missed details, and the adult’s more informed assessment, consciously aiming for transparency. What was her father’s relationship with the family’s teenaged babysitter? Was that court case really just about giving a 17-year-old a beer, or was Bechdel’s father suspected of something more serious?
Unusually for such a well regard work, Fun Home does not demand much from readers. The author has given us the truths she expects us to know, the hard work of interpretation done for us, clearly articulated in mixed media, each point driven perfectly home, more like a play than a novel.
Except, perhaps, that the work is dense with eerily appropriate literary references drawn from the family’s reading material. The Bechdel’s was a household of artists, the mother an actress and musician, the father an English teacher and antique enthusiast, books and letters the vehicles through which the author and her father communicated best. The personal lives and works of Proust, Salinger, Colette, Wilde, and others run through the memoir like additional characters.
I was particularly struck with the role of place, the fatalism of living in the Alleghanys. The circumscribe existence, the isolation, and yet the fairy tale parallel to Kenneth Grahame’s Oxford. The fun home itself, lovingly restored by Bechdel’s antique enthusiast father over the course of her childhood, ostentatious and baroque, the Victorian trappings a strange but pleasing contrast to the family’s 1970 jeans and t-shits, a variation on an aesthetic faintly familiar from television (Six Feet Under, The Munsters).
Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, Fun Home retains Bechdel’s comic style, filled with humorous asides and flashes of irony, making the sometimes oppressive subject matter more palatable. I’ve already put Are You My Mother on hold…
Its difficult to say anything about Ron Rash’s Serena that the novel itself doesn’t convey more clearly, possibly even more quickly. Possibly its difficult to summarize in part because it is such a simple story. A Depression-era timber baron, George Pemberton, and his fierce, beautiful new bride, the titular Serena, push to finish clear-cutting their land in the Great Smoky Mountains before the newly formed National Park’s eminent domain forces them to sell. The ruthless couple will stop at nothing to secure control of their fortunes or revenge themselves on their enemies. Like Julius Cesar played in World War II costume (or MacBeth—ahem—recast in 1930s North Carolina) Serena isa familiar tale against a novel background.
The story opens as the new couple’s train pulls into the station in Waynesville, North Carolina. Pemberton is bringing his wife home for the first time after several months in Boston. Rachel, one of the timber camp mess staff, awaits the train, visibly pregnant, her infuriated father beside her. With his wife’s encouragement and support Pemberton kills the other man in a brief, brutal fight on the station platform using the knife that was Serena’s wedding gift to him. The incident defines the three central characters and establishes a pattern that will play out again and again throughout the work, the stakes rising as Serena assumes an increasingly active role. The pervasive violence and fear slowly degrade Pemberton’s personality, driving him to alcoholism and subterfuge, demonstrating to Serena that he may not be the mate she deserves after all.
The novelist Ron Rash is also a poet, so its unsurprising that the complexity of his novel comes from the layered symbolism and spiraling foreshadowing, rather than from the plot. Like a good poet, Rash doesn’t throw words away. Every line builds toward the conclusion until it feels inevitable, prophetic. Every thread is woven back in and neatly tied off.
Serena is dense with images of grandeur and destruction. Serena supervises cutting crews from the back of an enormous white horse, carrying an eagle trained to hunt snakes. Pemberton and his partners slaughter deer by the dozen on their hunting excursions. Rattlesnakes haunt the camp. The land is destroyed. Buildings burn. Serena herself suffers a harrowing late-term miscarriage. Workers are killed grotesquely, bitten by snakes and spiders, struck by misplaced ax blades, slipping between the logs in the millpond to drown trapped beneath. They die in such numbers that when the business prepares to relocate to a new camp, the graveyard is the first thing they build. And of course, there are all the people the Pembertons murder.
Serena is a force, exerting her power over nature, disturbing the balance, a point driven home repeatedly throughout the work, as when the workers discuss the rat problem in camp (“The thing to kill them is snakes…but that eagle done upset what the Orientals call the yen and the yang”), or when Serena expresses her pride in the destruction wrought on Nolan Mountain, telling one rich couple, “leaving something as it is leaves no mark at all” (p. 241), and insisting on having her photograph taken before the wasteland of stumps.
The novel is similarly highly structured, divided into five parts, the chapters focusing on the central couple periodically interspersed with commentary from one of the timber crews, with slightly longer segments following Rachel and her baby, Pemberton’s illegitimate son. The film copy includes an interview with Rash, reprinted from the journal Grist, in which he explains that modeled his novel on Marlowe, envisioning it as a five act Elizabethan play, punctuated by a chorus of rustics, and that both Serena and the elderly Mrs. Galloway speak in “lose iambic pentameter.”
With its striking dramatic imagery and growing sense of foreboding its easy to see why the novel was selected for a film adaptation–though the critics don’t seem to have appreciated the results very much. I think I’ll steer clear.
I read The Keep one and a half times: the first half, on a beech in Thailand, and a second complete time, on the commuter train, or while lying on the bed wearing gym clothes in lieu of actually going to the gym. Its a short novel, easily tackled over the course of a day or two, but broken into discrete sections in such a way that putting it down and letting it rest feels natural.
The Keep, by Jennifer Egan, is a clever, weird, book full of the kind of humor that comes from the unexpected and the out-of-context, and studded with odd, surprisingly genuine moments of real feeling.
The story opens at 2:00 am with Danny, a New York hipster approaching 40, marooned in “some German-sounding town that didn’t seem to be in Germany” (p. 4) looking up at the medieval castle that his semi-estranged millionaire cousin Howie has recently purchased.
In a story made of up strange contradictions and juxtapositions, this is the first, and most pervading: image-obsessed, technology addicted, undignified modernity, against a background of atmospheric decaying gothic grandeur–like an episode of Scooby Doo where Shaggy is a middle-aged goth boy with a satellite dish in tow.
The first chapter introduces us to Danny and his cousin, their childhood friendship, and the familiar story of the decline of that friendship in their early teens, as Howie becomes increasingly and painfully nerdy, while Danny grows into a popular soccer star, anxious for approval. Danny sees Howie for the last time when, at a family picnic, he and an older cousin play a cruel trick on Howie that results in his being lost for days in a series of underground caverns. The guilt and shame Egan conjures in this recollection is startling–its incredibly evocative and relatable for such an over-the-top sequence of events.
Now, twenty years later, Danny has lost his latest restaurant job and fallen afoul of the mafia. Basically, he needs to get out of town for a while. Conveniently, a rich, successful Howie offers him a one-way plane ticket and a job helping him to help convert a medieval castle into a hotel.
Chapter 1 also introduces a variation on another trope of classic gothic fiction, the nested tale. The narrator of Danny’s story, Ray, is present from the very beginning, but breaks in unambiguously for the first time on page 12 to critique his own work:
“He was heading into memory number two, I might as well tell you that straight up, because how am I supposed to get him in and out of all these memories in a smooth way so nobody notices all the coming and going I don’t know.”
Ray, we learn is a student in a prison creative writing class led by Holly, a newish teacher and the object of his erstwhile desire. Danny’s story is his contribution. Her voice will provide a final coda to the novel, like Nelly in Wuthering Heights or Captain Walton in Frankenstein.
Like Egan’s more recent work, The Keep is meticulously structured, full of echoes and bread crumbs, everything neatly tied up, everything connected. The last line harkens back to Chapter 3, when Howie’s wife describes her vision for the finished hotel. I remember thinking that piece of the story was a little off in my first reading–a little too tangential, just slightly out of character for a woman who otherwise barely speaks. But there’s always a reason.
The author calls readers’ attention to the mediated nature of the tale early and often, complicating what is otherwise a simple story with questions of perspective and reality. Is Danny the one obsessed with power–or is that Ray? Is Howie out to revenge himself on Danny, or is that pure paranoia?
The machinery of the story is so evident, the plot so outlandish, the physics of the world the characters inhabit so questionable–yet, like the gothic fiction it takes as a model, The Keep is compelling and, on emotional level, believable.