Thursday, August 18, 2016

Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Penguin, 2015
260 pp


"It was easy to hide behind the dull face I wore ...I thought I had everybody fooled." 

So what's up with this year's Booker Prize longlist?  Both Eileen and Menmuir's The Many (the two I've read so far) are really dark reads  peering into damaged psyches. I like this sort of thing, but had I known that my random choice of these two books one after the other would make for such disturbing reading, I probably would have read something lighter in between the two. Dark fiction appeals to me, but this pair of books together left me a bit gutted.

In John Banville's blurb from Penguin's website he notes that
"If Jim Thompson had married Patricia Highsmith – imagine that household – they might have conspired together to dream up something like Eileen."  
Thompson I'm not feeling so much, but there is something akin to Highsmith in here in the sense that Moshfegh has written a book that left me wanting to take short breaks from roaming around in her repulsive main character's head. This novel takes on a week in the life of Eileen Dunlop as recalled by an older self some fifty years later, looking back to her last days as "angry little Eileen" leading up to the moment when she makes an escape from strange "life of a nobody, a waif, invisible."  Keeping in mind that in this novel appearances can be somewhat deceiving and that there's much more going on than meets the eye, whether or not we should be cheering her on is a judgment call that can't really be made until the final page has been turned.

While I'm not going to go into plot so as not to spoil things, it's beyond appropriate that Eileen works in a "private juvenile facility for teenage boys," "for all intents and purposes -- a prison for children,"  since one of the main ideas in this book seems to be how people come to find themselves in his or her own form of imprisonment.  Eileen is stuck in her house taking care of her widowed dad, a stubborn ex-cop who is now drunk most of the time which Eileen prefers since she can "just hand him a bottle and leave the room" when he needs to be distracted or soothed.  When he asks her to buy him more booze, instead of arguing, she's glad to get out of the house to kill time.  She's stuck in a body she despises to the point of repulsion and self-loathing, she's stuck in the past, wearing her deceased mother's clothes. She's stuck in her "brutal cold town," just counting the days until she can make her escape, viewing life as "one long sentence of waiting out the clock."  But, as we learn, Eileen isn't the only one who is stuck or imprisoned.

 And Eileen has secrets that she shares with no one except us.  On the other hand, she's not the only one  -- most of the main characters in this novel have secrets that will slowly come tumbling out and trust me, they're pretty horrific. Thinking of the secrets people keep here reminds me of the author's focus on masks. Eileen wears her "death mask" at work, since she is "terribly sensitive and determined never to show it." She finds that in order to get through her work day, she has had to "steel herself from the reality of the place..." since she was surrounded by "misery and shame."  Her inspiration --  a book she'd discovered at a library that "showed casts of faces" of several notable historical figures.  Practicing regularly and "diligently" at a mirror, she worked toward achieving, as she notes, "an aura of benign resilience, such as I saw in those dead men's faces."  Again, though, she's not the only one, and it seems to me that the author spends a lot of time getting to the root of what's behind the masks these people wear.  There's much more of course, but it is definitely a book that needs to be experienced rather than simply talked about.

While the dustjacket blurb says that there's a "Hitchcockian twist" in this novel, I didn't feel that one either.  It's true that this "twist" is important to the overall story, but I kind of saw it coming so it wasn't as much of a "Hitchcockian" moment as I was led to believe by the blurb.  I don't really think that plot is really the main focus here; it's much more a book about people and damage and how they end up being the way they are.  Eileen turned out for me to be much less about reading a novel and became more of a foray into a seriously disturbed mind or two or three, and I liked it.  Creepy, yes. Repulsive and uncomfortable, at times.  Difficult subject matter, definitely. But how people end up where they are in their lives and why they do what they do absolutely fascinates me and it's all here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Many, by Wyl Menmuir

Salt Publishing, 2016
141 pp


The Many is an example of why I am a champion of novels from smaller, independent publishers. I had noted this title while looking at Salt's webpage some time back, thinking it looked intriguing, and then it shows up on this year's Booker Prize longlist. Not that I plan to read every novel on that list, but this one had initially caught my eye because it seemed like the kind of dark, intense read that would appeal.  And as it turns out, my hunch was right.  Even though this novel has its naysayers, I liked it.

The truth is though, that it took me two readings before I felt like I was getting somewhere with this novel. To be really honest, while the story compelled me to keep turning pages the first time,  it wasn't until the ending when I did a double take and realized a) that all is not as it seems on the surface here and b) I absolutely needed to read it again.  The result was an even sadder and more disturbing story the second time through, and it was well worth the time I put into it, one that's still haunting me right now while I'm thinking about it. Very few books can really do that to me, and this is one of them.

Just a little re plot, but not much.  An old, abandoned house overlooks the sea, a house that has stood empty for years.  Now an "incomer" by the name of Timothy Bucchanan has come to occupy it, thinking to fix it up as a place for himself and his wife Lauren (who is not there with him at the time and who will come when the house is ready), but his arrival is not a particularly welcome one among the others who live in this small, isolated coastal village.  Most profoundly affected by Timothy's arrival is Ethan, who is the first to notice chimney smoke rising from the house.  It seems that the place formerly belonged to Perran, who died many years ago; the house has since remained just the way it was when Perran died, sort of frozen in time.  Ethan and the men in the village are fishermen, but their way of life has been seriously curtailed, with fishing limited to an area delineated by the coastline and a "line of stationary container ships," due to "a profusion of biological agents and contaminants" poisoning the waters. The damage to the environment yields damaged fish, and yet there's always someone there to pay for and to take away the catch.  As Timothy works to try to put the house into some sort of order, questions arise regarding the former occupant, about whom everyone seems reluctant to speak. The question is why, of course, and trying to uncover answers is part and parcel of this novel.

In trying to deal with the house (which is still known locally as "Perran's house"), Timothy has times when it seems he may have taken on a bigger job than he can actually handle.  On his first morning in the house, he "wanders from room to room," discovering "huge shadows of stains on the walls and ceilings." His first thought as he looks around for fuel for the fireplace  is that the "house is a mistake," and then while looking out the window, he
"draws his fingers the length of the window frame and feels flecks of paint peel off beneath his fingertips. There is a thin line or crack, barely perceptible, that runs up through the window and he adds it to his mental list of things he needs to fix." 
The second time through, taking things much slower this time, it was here that my thinking skills  started kicking in, drawing me toward the ideas of deterioration and damage that seem to be common threads in this book.  Of course, what I read into it may not be at all what the author intended, but well, considering how very enigmatic this book is, my interpretation is probably just one among many.

 The Many is definitely a cryptic novel which can be extremely frustrating, and given its size,  it probably shouldn't take two readings for most people.  In my case, the second read helped a lot, since there is not much that is said here by way of explanation, and there is much that a reader has to pick up through an examination of dreams and flashbacks and through drawing parallels.  I often felt like the characters in this book -- "hemmed in", since there's a tense, claustrophobic feel to this story.  It also had the effect of keeping me knocked off kilter the entire time.  In spite of the fact that it was so enigmatic (and really, some of it is just plain strange at times), I found it a dark, sad and eerie book that I won't be forgetting any time soon. That's a good thing.

Recommended for very patient readers.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz

Melville House Publishers, 2016
originally published 2013, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette
217 pp


Frankly, this is one hell of a good book.

I can just picture someone somewhere reading the back-cover blurb of this book where it says "The Queue is a chilling debut that evokes Orwellian dystopia, Kafkaesque surrealism,..." and wondering why he/she should read it if it's done before.  Well, it's certainly true that there are a lot of books that focus on people faced with the absurdities of a totalitarian government, but in this book, what strikes me is how optimistic some people are in believing  that if they just wait long enough, the state will take care of their problems.  Never mind that the Gate, the bureaucracy that is the unseen "absolute authority" in this unnamed country,  is never actually open to the citizens -- although rumors abound as to when it might open, people have been waiting long enough for help that a huge queue has formed and continues to increase in size while nobody ever seems to move.  The Gate continues to issue laws dictating that people will need permission from the state for an ever-growing number of activities, some as absurd as can be, and as these laws and proclamations become ever more intrusive and ever more numerous, more people continue to find a place in the queue and to wait with some measure of hope for what they need. And it's in the queue, really, where life goes on -- there are rules to be followed, commerce taking place, religious activities and activism, protests going on and  information being disseminated -- so that at some point, the queue becomes a society in its own right.

The major thread running through this story gives us a peek at how this authoritarian system works.  Tarek is a doctor who desperately wants to remove a bullet from a young man named Yehya Gad el-Rab.  Yehya, who wasn't protesting at the time, had been shot during the "Disgraceful Events," a four-day long "street battle" put down by the Quell Force, a unit specifically created to deter riots of this sort, and he now has a bullet lodged in his pelvis.   Hampering Tarek's efforts is a recent proclamation from the Gate that says that it is a "criminal act" to extract a bullet "except when performed under official authorization issued by the Gate of the Northern Building." After all,
"bullets and projectiles may be the property of security units, and thus cannot be removed from the body without special authorization." 
So Tarek has to wait until Yehya receives that "special authorization" from the Gate. As the story progresses, the proclamations issued by the Gate in this case become increasingly absurd, for example, with the forbidding of x-rays, and most especially the denial that the government ever fired on the crowd.  New hurdles continue to crop up -- Tarek discovers that Yehya's medical records have been tampered with, and that the x-rays have disappeared altogether. Things take a more sinister, dark and downright frightening turn when in her desperate attempt to help save his life, Yehya's girlfriend decides to bypass the system. In the meantime, Tarek continues to agonize over what he should have done and didn't out of his fear of repercussions from the Gate.  And all the while, history is being rewritten or whitewashed, forcing many people to try to rationalize what they know versus what the Gate is telling them.

There are a number of other stories here in this novel,  and it hits on so many things thematically, but I'll leave those for others to discover.  And as I said, while there are certainly any number of books out there that explore this sort of thing, this one is certainly different than most others I've read.  Looking at what other people have to say, The Queue is garnering some excellent reader reviews, although one reader called it "decidedly dull," with an ending that isn't "conclusive."   I will say that this book is not an easy read in the sense that answers/explanations aren't handed to you on a plate, and that it does take a fair amount of patience to read, for which in my opinion, you'll be rewarded. At the same time, as I read it, images were just exploding in my head, which is a good thing and to me the sign of a well-written novel.  For me, it was a serious page turner, a book I didn't want to put down for any reason.

real reviews of this novel:
from NPR
Literature After the Arab Spring

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters

Riverhead Books, 2002
511 pp


It's not often I read a 500-plus page novel and manage to finish it over the course of a weekend, but Fingersmith is just the sort of book that enables that to happen.  I picked it up late Friday night and suddenly it was Sunday afternoon and I'd turned the last page.  Then I ran upstairs and grabbed my dvd of the BBC adaptation, because I wasn't quite ready to call it a day with this story.

And what a story it is! I really can't go into much detail because this is such a twisty novel that to tell would be to spoil.  It's so twisty, in fact, that I got to the first major surprise and did a huge gasp nearly making me choke on the almonds I was eating at the time.  I remember at the time thinking "that's f***ing brilliant!" but as it turns out, there were more twists to come.  The plot is about as nefarious as it gets and quite frankly, while it's not my favorite Waters novel (that's a tie between Tipping the Velvet and The Little Stranger), it had this way of lifting me from where I was back into Victorian England and to shut out the rest of the modern world while taking me there.  Okay - that's majorly cliché, but well, it is what it is.

Dustjacket material:  Fingersmith begins in the locksmith's shop at Lant Street, "in the Borough, near to the Thames." It's a poor part of London populated by thieves.  As Sue Trinder says, "We were all more or less thieves, at Lant Street," and Lant Street has been her entire world since she was a baby. She had been raised there  by a Mrs. Sucksby who was a "baby farmer," and Mrs. Sucksby was the only mother she'd ever known.  She is totally devoted to Mrs. Sucksby -- as Sue notes, "She had been paid to keep me a month; she kept me seventeen years. What's love, if that ain't?"  Sue is seventeen when one day a visitor, Dick Rivers aka "Gentleman" arrives at Lant Street with a proposition that will involve Sue in a big way.  It seems that Rivers has made the acquaintance of young and naive Maud Lilly who lives in the country with her uncle, for whom Rivers is doing a bit of a work on the uncle's collection of books. Rivers has learned that Maud stands to inherit a huge fortune when she marries.  The plan is for Sue to go to Maud as her personal maid, gain Maud's trust, and to help convince Maud to marry Rivers.  He will then get rid of Maud by stashing her safely into an insane asylum, and once Rivers has control of Maud's fortune, Sue gets a big chunk of the cash for her troubles. Sue, who's never been away from Mrs. Sucksby, isn't sure, but since the money will be a good way for her to repay Mrs. S's kindness, she decides she'll do it.

That's absolutely all I'll say about the plot because the joy of this novel is in the many twists and turns this story takes once Sue arrives at the Lilly home to help set Rivers' plan in motion.  It is an absolutely, beyond-delightful novel that as I said earlier, totally engulfed me from the beginning.  Yes, there is a ton of detail here, some of which could have been left out or pared down and yes, some of the material verges on Victorian-novel cliché, but in this case, I was too deeply wrapped up in the story itself to care, reflecting back on these issues only afterwards.  It's a page-turning novel done in Victorian style  (Wilkie Collins, Le Fanu and Dickens all came to mind immediately), and while the plot is so twisted, it's really the people here that are the main focus. And oh my gosh - Sarah Waters can write people so very well.  She can also channel Dickens very nicely in her descriptions of London streets and slums, making it no wonder to me at all that Fingersmith was nominated for the Booker Prize in its day -- seriously, I would have voted for it had I been a judge that year.

Lovely book -- my advice: forget anything critical, go into it just for the story, have fun with it, and stay away from any spoilers.  Readers like myself who are very much into older works will love it for the atmosphere; readers like myself who love Sarah Waters' novels will definitely want to read  it for her ability to lift you out of where you are while reading it. It took me long enough, but I'm so happy I finally decided to take it off my shelves and  read it!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

from the Caribbean: Shadows Move Among Them, by Edgar Mittleholzer

Peepal Tree Press, 2010
originally published 1951
350 pp


"Berkelhoost teems with passionate, residual spirits."  

Having recently discovered Mittelholzer's work (in My Bones and My Flute), I couldn't wait to revisit him again.  Luckily, Peepal Tree Press has published a few of his books, including this one.  The blurb for Shadows Move Among Them says that while reading this book it is "impossible" not to make comparisons to "the fate of the People's Temple commune at Jonestown in Guyana in 1978."  I can sort of see it -- you have in this novel the establishment of  a "utopian" community of Berkelhoost where people are free to express themselves in many different ways, but it's a place where the emphasis on "discipline" comes before everything else.  It's a good book with a story that takes time to develop but once you're in, you're hooked.

Set on the banks of the Berbice River back when this country was still known as British Guiana, the leader of this community, Reverend Harmston, has developed a  philosophy centering on taking life with "a pinch of salt," without having to "nail ourselves down to any set philosophy or flat conventions."  Newcomer Gregory Hawke, the nephew of Mrs. Harmston, has come to Berkelhoost seeking a rest -- he's burned out by the war, he may or may not have killed his wife, and he's looking to heal his nerves and seek peace in nature. When he gets there, Harmston's precocious daughter Olivia realizes that the real Gregory hasn't yet appeared, that it's "only his shadow" that is with them.  As Gregory becomes more familiar with the family and the way of life at Berkelhoost, he finds himself having to take stock of the meaning of "civilization" (the world he's just left) and "barbarism" as he's confronted with an entirely new set of values here, constructed in such a way as to be a sort of antidote to the problems of the outside world.  There's much more of course -- sex, nature, religion,  and of course, Guyanese history all have major roles  in this novel.

There's a lot of subtle humor in this novel, as well as a growing awareness that even in this utopian oasis,  all may not be as bright as it seems.  Berkelhoost is a not only a place of phantoms and shadows, but it is also a place where contradictions abound.  I found it to be an incredibly thought-provoking novel once I started noticing said contradictions and to me this was the big payoff here.

Shadows Move Among Them may not be everyone's cup of tea, but so far, I haven't been disappointed with either of the Mittelholzer novels I've read and there are more winging their way to my house as we speak.  I appreciate Peepal Tree Press taking the time to publish his work; there are still some books that haven't yet been brought back into print, but I'm hoping the Peepal folks will consider doing so. His books are definitely worth reading.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

And Other Stories: Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies, by Yuri Herrera

I'm beyond impressed with these two short books:  Signs Preceding the End of the World runs to 114 pages, while The Transmigration of Bodies comes in at 101, but don't let their brevity fool you -- they are amazing.  If I was someone thinking about becoming a writer, I'd read everything Yuri Herrera has written, scan his library shelves for his literary influences, and learn everything I possibly could from this man -- to me, his work is just plain genius. Both novels are beautifully written despite their sparse prose style, which actually makes his work all the more powerful.  A huge part of what makes his writing so appealing  is that he does not have to elaborate in any way to get his messages across to the reader; his unique use of language here conveys all it needs to. They're both absolutely brilliant and highly original; it's like the author takes elements of different genres to create something that transcends genre.  Both novels sink the reader into atmosphere from the first paragraph, and both stories work through characters whose lives land them smack in the middle of other people's lives and in certain situations that arise within the spaces they occupy.  In Signs Preceding the End of the World,

And Other Stories, 2015
originally published as Señales que precederán al fin del mundo, 2009
translated by Lisa Dillman
114 pp

we view a nearly mythical journey taken by Makina, who works as her small town's switchboard operator, and who is asked by her mother to deliver a message to her brother necessitating a journey across the border. In The Transmigration of Bodies, a man known as The Redeemer

And Other Stories, 2016
originally published as La Transmigración de los cuerpos, 2013
translated by Lisa Dillman
101 pp
acts a go-between to ensure the safe exchange of the bodies of two young people to return them to their families.  He has gathered a reputation as someone who fixes people's situations, someone whose handling of matters allowed his clients to have "kept their hands clean of certain matters" earning him their gratitude and respect in return.  

Signs begins with the literal exposure of the underworld,  as a sinkhole opens and swallows a man, a car and a dog in a town that is "riddled with bullet holes and tunnels bored by five centuries of voracious silver dust."  As Makina watches, we watch her moving ever so slowly away from the edge of the hole.  Her journey to find her brother is covered in nine chapters, bringing to my mind Virgil guiding Dante through the nine circles.  As she moves from point to point we are brought into a story of immigration and its uncertainties, crime and violence, borders, and more, all so nicely done in such a short space.  This book doesn't need to be any longer to get its messages across; the same is true with The Transmigration of Bodies.  Once again, in this book the opening is significant -- the inhabitants of an unnamed town find themselves in the middle of a plague, a perfect opening for a book that examines the ongoing violence, crime and death in Mexico.   The focus on the "bodies" of the title is also interesting, but in the interest of time I'll leave it for others to see how.  There is so much more to glean from these little books, but above all, they are books that highlight an amazing writer's art. 

There are all manner of reviews and synopses online for both books so I'd look at those for deep insight. I'd like to mention the translator, Lisa Dillman here:   I was trying to find information on Yuri Herrera and came across an article from that offers some incredible insight not only into her process, but into Herrera's own stunning use of language as well.  

And Other Stories has done it again, and I can't wait to read Herrera's third book in this trilogy when it's translated.  Highly, highly recommended.  

Monday, July 4, 2016

Oh, those Martian Women!!! Unveiling a Parallel, by Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant (1893)

Dodo Press, 2008
[originally published 1893]
133 pp

(read earlier; still playing catch-up with posting)

A few nights back my friend and I were having a conversation about what we've been reading lately, so I brought out this book to share.   Her first reaction: "there were feminists in Cedar Rapids back then?"

Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant actually published this novel under the pseudonym of "Two Women From the West." The first publication of this book was by Arena Publishing Company, an outfit that published "books on political and economic reform," as well as a number of Utopian novels, a genre that was quite popular at the time. Arena also published speculative and science fiction by authors who have long since faded into obscurity.  The owner and editor of Arena, Benjamin O. Flower, liked Jones & Merchant's book, which saw two editions before going out of print.

As Carol Kolmerten in the introduction to the 1991 edition of this novel (Syracuse University) states, Unveiling a Parallel is
"one of over two hundred utopian novels published from 1888 through 1918 that envisions a better world -- the largest single body of utopian writing in history." (xxiv)
Perhaps that time frame can be pushed back a bit.  After a bit of research, I thought that the earliest example of feminist utopian novels in the U.S. came from Mary E. Bradley Lane in 1881, with her Mizora (which I just bought), but there was one that came along even earlier (1870) --  Man's Rights, or How Would You Like It, by Annie Denton Cridge.  Moving forward, perhaps one of the most famous books in this genre of writing is Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, published later in 1915.  The point is that feminist utopian novels were quite popular through the turn of the century, although the utopian novel in general  was largely the provenance of authors, who according to Kolmerten, were "unknown middle-aged, male ... Protestant, middle class, and white."    For further reading on the topic, a good place to start is The Utopian Novel in America, by Jean Pfaelzer; now on to Unveiling a Parallel. 

To keep things short and sweet, the male narrator of this story climbs in his "aeroplane" and takes a nice trip to Mars. He first arrives in Thursia, which surprisingly is very much the same as the 19th-century America our traveler has just left.  He quickly learns the language of his host, so as to better communicate with the woman he's fallen for, Elodia, his host's sister.  Elodia is a highly-successful banker and businesswoman, as well as a natural leader in her own social set.  The narrator is smitten, until sometime later, when certain other things about this woman are revealed, at which point he loses his interest because she's not the woman he thought she was, nor, he realizes,  would she be willing to become so for any man. In fact, Thursia itself holds a number of surprises for this man, including but not limited to, women vaping a potentially-lethal mix of valerian and alcohol, and a place called "Cupid's Gardens," where  powerful women like Elodia go to meet lovers or pick up prostitutes for their sexual pleasure. It seems that there is just too much for him to overlook in terms of the women of Thursia. The narrator moves on to Caskia, where he finds a more enlightened, more utopian society, one where people are able to enjoy some measure of leisure thanks to technology.  This is a place where everyone works for together the greater good, one where the notion of universal love is a true reality,  where material possessions are of no value, and where our narrator meets and falls for a woman as unlike Elodia as possible.

original 1893 cover; from Wikipedia

There is a huge amount of great satire to be found here, most especially in the dialogue between the narrator and the Martian people with whom he speaks.  As he asks a ton of questions about the women there, what ends up happening is that we actually get a great contrast between more enlightened ideas about Martian women and the attitudes toward women back home.  This book seems to reflect more than anything Jones' and Merchant's ideas about who women are and who they could be if equality could be attained.   Sadly, while the narrator in this book can begrudgingly admit to some positives in terms of how women are perceived and treated on Mars, he never fully comes around, noting that his own views are just "too thoroughly ingrained" in his nature.

 I won't really say more about this novel, except that while it is fun to read, it can also become  polemical in nature, and sometimes a definite chore to get through. There are also a number of contradictions spread throughout the story.   But it is also informative and I have to credit the authors with being so futuristic in their thinking. Writing this book in a time where literature pretty much stressed the patriarchal was also gutsy and something different. I'd say that anyone at all interested in American pre-20th century feminist writers will definitely want to pick up a copy of this novel for his/her library.  For me -- while it was a bit tough to get through at times, it is a great find and a wonderful addition to my slowly-growing collection of works by lesser-known American women writers.