Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Vanessa and Her Sister, by Priya Parmar. Ballantine, 2014

I’d read a non-fiction account of Vanessa Bell’s life, so I thought I had a pretty good idea of what this book would be. What I hadn’t counted on was the difference between a dispassionate relating of a life versus a first person account.

This book is told mostly via the device of Vanessa’s (nonexistent) diary, with other voices filling gaps via postcards, letters & telegrams. Vanessa is Vanessa Bell, the painter, and her sister is Virginia Woolf. The other voices are the rest of the Bloomsbury group, those Bohemian intellectuals and artists of the early 20th century. Covering 1905 through 1912, we get to watch Clive Bell court Vanessa Stephens and marry her. We watch as Virginia wanders in and out of manic and depressive states, and works constantly to have everyone’s attention on her. I knew Virginia Woolf suffered by bipolar disorder; I was unaware of her strong streak of Narcissism.

Getting the story via Vanessa’s diary allows us to feel what she felt with an immediacy that can’t be expressed through other points of view. The intensity of being in Vanessa’s head as each event happened made me unable to put the book down. The keenness of her sadness when loved ones died and her near constant anxiety about what Virginia and/or Bell would do next is raw and aching. I read the book in two days, dying to see what would happen next, and was bereft when I finished it because I knew Vanessa led a long life and I wasn’t going to get to see the rest of it through this author’s eyes.

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I received this book from the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. 

Neither of these things influenced my review.  

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Rainey Royal, by Dylan Landis. Soho Press, Inc, 2014

‘Rainey Royal’ is a novel told in short stories using the same characters. In one, Rainey is 14; in another, she’s 18; the novel ends when she’s 25 and has become full owner of the building she grew up in. I cannot say that she was ‘brought up’ there, as she seems to have grown without any real adult supervision. Her mother left to live in an ashram when Rainey was young, getting in contact only twice a year. Her father, Howard, sells off everything in the house, even though it belongs to Rainey’s grandmother and will be Rainey’s when she’s 25. Her father’s best friend, Gordy, lives in the house and is a pedophile that comes into Rainey’s room every night and brushes her hair and gives her back massages that frequently include more than her back. The house is constantly filled with various musicians and groupies. It’s the 70s, so free love and drugs are rife in the house. Howard routinely seduces Rainey’s friends.

At first I didn’t care for Rainey or her best friend Tina. In their teens, these are the girls that other girls envy and fear. These are the girls who beat you up in the bathroom and are well versed in the effect their blooming sexuality has on males- especially grown men- and wield its power for their own amusement. But as Rainey grows you see how vulnerable she is despite presenting a hard personality to the world. There are reasons she acts out like she does.  Tina is even more unpleasant at the beginning than Rainey is.

Oddly, given that the book is named for Rainey, the later stories move from Rainey’s POV to Tina’s and Leah’s (another friend). They grow a lot, too, over the course of the 11 years the book covers. In the end, I actually liked Tina, which surprised me. I thought it was an excellent book. It’s about young adults, but I wouldn’t class the book itself as YA. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click on it and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. 

This book was given to me by the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. 

Neither of these things affected my review.  

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Understories, by Tim Horvath. Bellevue Literary Press, 2014

Brief and surreal, these tiny stories (some are only three or four pages long) vary from a deep study of human character to speculative tales of different types of cities. My favorite was ‘Circulation’, about a man on his death bed and what his son does for him- it’s one of the longest stories and there is time to build up the thousand and one nights relationship that develops. Some of the shorter pieces have no real plot; they are almost like exercises built on writer’s prompts. Most of the stories have a distinct weirdness to them- a city where they decide it’s not allowed to rain anymore; another city that is nothing but restaurants; another where the people are addicted to movies and every place, even the outside walls of buildings, is used to project films on. I enjoyed most of the book but wasn’t in love with it.

The above is an affiliate link. If you click on it and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This in no way altered my review. 

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, by Bee Wilson. Basic Books, 2012

“Consider the Fork” is a work of technological history. One doesn’t normally think of how technology relates to food, but not all technology is computers. Sticking a piece of meat on a stick over an open fire is using technology. Cutting that meat is using technology. Wilson takes us from that open fire, through cooking containers which enabled foods to be cooked with liquid- which allowed people with bad or no teeth to eat and survive- right on up to the cutting edge kitchen tools like the sous vide machine.

Every change in food technology changed how people lived. Refrigerators allowed the keeping of perishable foods; people didn’t have to shop every day and there could be leftovers that were safe to eat. The turnspit- a rotisserie for roasting large cuts of meat in an open hearth- created a breed of dog with the proper build for going round in small circles turning said rotisserie. The fork (and chop sticks) meant that foods needed to be in small pieces, which actually changed how our teeth come together- we no longer had to pull meat off of larger pieces with the strength of our jaws. Food technology touches the lives of every single person and always has.

The book is fascinating and a very fast read despite being filled with details. Wilson writes charmingly of domestic history and science. It’s like visiting the kitchen of a really smart friend and listening to her over tea and biscuits. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click on it and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This in no way affected my review. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Collection of Beauties at the Height of their Popularity, by Whitney Otto. Random House, 2002

I found this an odd book. Not just the format- vignettes loosely bound together, styled after a Japanese courtesan’s ‘pillow book’ from the Edo period , each vignette featuring a different member of a group of friends. Set in 1980s San Francisco, these friends are late 20 somethings, all well educated but none working in the field that they are educated for. They float through life; drinking, smoking pot and sometimes doing coke, attending art openings and going to restaurants but mainly meeting at the Youki Singe Tea Room, a North Beach dive where pot smoking is allowed- but only in a small room.
Elodie is the woman who sets the tales down. She writes only when in the Tea Room, leaving her notebooks there. The characters- the collection of beauties- seem to have no ambition, content to simply live like butterflies, pushed by the winds of life. Connections between them turn to love, break up, and realign. There is no real plot; it’s just events happening in the vignettes.  

While reading the book, I didn’t much care for most of the characters. Which makes it odd that I later found myself thinking about them, and going back and rereading sections of the book. The prose is beautiful.The vignettes are like little jewels. The book is physically beautiful, too, illustrated mostly with old Japanese woodblock prints but with a couple of 20th century works. To read this book is enjoyable, even if I didn’t connect with most of the characters. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through, Amazon will pay me a few cents. This in no way affected my review.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

An English Ghost Story, by Kim Newman. Titan Books, 2014

This novel indeed has the structure of a fairly classic ghost story. A family comes to live in a haunted house- haunted land, actually. The spirit(s) start quietly, but very quickly ramp up to full scale, capital H Haunting. This family, however, is not your typical English ghost story family. This is a modern day, dysfunctional, can barely get along family. This becomes an important factor later in the story.

The Naremore family is looking for a house in the country, hoping relocation will solve their relationship problems. Nothing they are shown seems right, until they visit the Hollow, recently home to the late author Louise Teazle. The house is very old, with additions put on through the centuries, and the land has been in use even longer than the house has stood. They all instantly fall in love with the house and land, and cannot wait to move in. The Hollow comes complete with the belongings of Miss Teazle.

Louise Teazle wrote children’s stories that have been read for ages, and Kirsty Naremore is very familiar with them. Some of them seem to have been set in the Hollow itself under a different name, as Kirsty quickly starts identifying furnishings and locations as one’s mentioned in Teazle’s initial ghost story. How much else of the ghost stories Teazle wrote are true? Kirsty wonders. A lot, as it turns out.

While at first the Hollow brings the family together, small upsets anger the spirits.  The spirits want the house and family to be just *so* and when the Naremores fail to allow this, the ghosts start setting the family members against each other, unerringly finding their psychological weak spots- and all four of them have some big ones.

I mostly loved this story. It’s creepy- very creepy. I loved that it wasn’t just one recent spirit, but something going back to prehistoric time and all points in between. I loved the magic chest of drawers and how Kirsty is drawn into playing with it, not at all baffled by the fact that it defies all laws of physics. I loved the house itself. But I didn’t love the characters. I found them tolerable, but I never made the kind of connection one would like to have in a character driven story. I realize they needed to have personality problems to create the story, but I had a hard time really feeling for them. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. 

I was given this book free by the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest review. 

Neither of these things influenced my review. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Liar’s Wife, by Mary Gordon. Panthen Books, 2014

“The Liar’s Wife” is only one of the four novellas in this book. Veteran writer Gordon has produced stories where the protagonists are all knocked out of their comfort zones and find themselves contemplating life changing moral issues.

In the first, the title story, a 70-some year old woman is surprised by the appearance of her ex-husband. They were only married a short time before she fled, unable to settle into a life in Ireland with a musician husband who, of course, lies continually. Her life has been comfortable; happy children, career she liked, good husband, three houses. His has been the opposite, but he feels he’s lived life to the fullest. Whose life has been better? Has one been a waste?

In “Simone Weil in New York” the protagonist is a young woman who was one of Weil’s students in France. Now married to an American doctor who is stationed in the Pacific Theater during WW 2, with a baby and living with her brother, she encounters Weil in the street. She is not happy to see her; she represents all that has been lost because of the war. As a student she had loved and revered Weil; now she feels a tangle of feelings. Weil feels an obligation to live as the poorest live; does that help anyone? Should Genevieve feel guilty for being safe in America instead of being part of the French Resistance? Can she break free of Weil’s philosophy?

The narrator in “Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana” is an old man, looking back on his life. The high point of his life was when, in high school, he was selected to present the visiting Thomas Mann to the school. Mann has left Germany because of the Nazi regime and is visiting the school to lecture on what is happening in Germany. Like Weil, Mann cannot enjoy his own freedom and success because of guilt over what is going on in his native country; this opens the high school boy’s eyes to the racism that is so casually accepted in America- so casually that no one ever really sees it.

My favorite story is the last one, “Fine Arts”. A college student who has been given a grant to go overseas to study the work of sculptor Citivali for her doctoral thesis. Theresa has had a hard life; her childhood was taken up with caring for a bed ridden father; her teens taken up with studying. Her one indulgence has been an affair with her married mentor, who is a self absorbed ass. Two of the sculptures that she wishes to study are in a private collection; the owner turns Theresa’s life upside down and completely reverses her situation.

All four protagonists wrestle with moral issues. Is what they are doing worthwhile? Are they wasting their lives? Is it all right to enjoy your life while others suffer? It sounds grim, but the stories are very engaging and thought provoking without being heavy. The prose is so… perfect… that it just leads you on into the stories. 

The above is an affiliate link; if you click through and buy something Amazon will give me a few cents. 

This book was given to me by the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest review. This in no way affected my review.