Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Review: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home: A Family TragicomicFun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alison Bechdel is best known for the Bechdel test, which a movie passes if it has two named female characters who speak to each other about something other than a male character. It's a low bar for gender representation, and yet a minority of mainstream films pass it. Bechdel introduced the test in her webcomic.

Fun Home covers far different material than what Bechdel has online. It's a memoir in graphic novel form, of a childhood spent in rural Appalachia under the shadow of her closeted gay father. She only learned the context for a lot of the events of her childhood after her father commits suicide (maybe) and her mother reveals the truth young Bechdel was sheltered from. Bechdel blames herself for her father's suicide, which she's convinced was sparked from her coming out as a lesbian.

The story is told mostly as a series of flashbacks and musings. Bechdel starts each chapter with a seed of memory: a photograph, a letter, a book, or just musing about a childhood recollection. The picture emerges in pieces, of her father's perfectionism, about her museum-quality house, of the family funeral home business and the strange attitudes about death that lends itself to.

Interestingly, the father is never presented as a villain. Bechdel could have exposed his lies and secrets, and blamed him for all the ills in her life. Instead, she presents him as a flawed but sympathetic figure. Her mother suffers for his choices, and Bechdel never glosses over that, but her own attitude is of curiosity and regret. She seems to find, at least in these pages, the sense of closure her father's death left her craving.

Some of the narrative is woven into classical allusions that, unfortunately, went straight over my head. Fun Home assumes some familiarity with Ulysses, which I've never read, and it offers none of the contextual clues that would've brought it together. I can only assume this book is more profound if you share Bechdel's reading list.

I wouldn't have thought the graphic novel format would lend itself to a memoir, but it was used to good effect here. Bechdel illustrates several concepts that don't work in prose, and reproduces photographs to offer context that we'd otherwise have to take her word for. For all the strangeness of the relationship with her father she describes, nothing captures it quite like her vividly illustrated dreams, or her scene stagings that show him off to the side, engaged only with his inner world. And her childhood home is hard to grasp without the illustrations capturing their pristine perfection.

This is probably the most profound graphic novel I'll ever read. It's short, but that doesn't mean it's a quick read. It's dense with meaning and emotional resonance. It was excellently done.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Review: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the ninth book in my 2014 TBR Challenge. My sister gave it to me as a Christmas present years ago, but I set it aside for a time when I could get over the intimidation factor. Interestingly, I would not have appreciated it the way I do if I'd read it right away.

Toru Okada is unemployed by choice, living in a house that belongs to his uncle but would otherwise go empty, and has no idea what he wants out of the future. As the story opens, his cat is missing. The cat is named after his brother-in-law, who he dislikes. Then one day, his wife fails to come home from work. The aforementioned brother tells him she wants a divorce, but Okada is determined to find her and talk to her, himself, to get to the bottom of it. She writes him a letter explaining her actions and telling him to move on, but he remains unconvinced. His quest to find her becomes an inner journey, fueled by sensory deprivation inside an old, dried-up well, the mystical sisters Malta and Creta Kano, and his friendship with a flippant teenager who's stopped going to school.

Had I read this book years ago, Okada's passivity would've driven me up a wall. I would've been yelling at him to do something, instead of waiting for a solution to come to him. But two years ago, I found myself in similar circumstances. My husband left, with no hint to where he'd gone. He'd left only a note that explained nothing. Okada's and my stories diverge there; his wife, Kumiko, needs rescuing, and she's worth the effort, whereas my separation was an inevitability, and I'm better off now. Still, I can understand Okada's paralysis, his sense that the solution is out of his hands, his increasingly odd decisions. I didn't have any encounters with a prostitute of the mind, but I can relate to Okada's mental state. The story resonated with me.

The book is beautifully written. Even as a translation, the language is musical, full of vivid imagery. Haruki Mirakami works in impossibility alongside the mundane, and he makes good use of these elements. He has a parallel narrative about a Japanese soldier during WWII running throughout that even this historically illiterate reader can follow.

To call the narrative dreamlike is cheating, because dreams are such an essential part of the story. The story depends on the line between sleeping and waking being porous and blurry.

I was worried this book would feel like homework, or at least that it would be a slog to get through. I expected that I would need to paste a polite smile on my face when my sister asked what I thought. Instead, I find myself hoping she's read it, so we can talk about it. I owe her my thanks for this one. She didn't know it when she gave it to me, but I needed this book.

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Review: Bellwether by Connie Willis

BellwetherBellwether by Connie Willis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I initially marked this book as science fiction. Connie Willis is best known for writing SF. But, there are no science fiction elements in this book. Some of the science is fictional, but it's too modern-day and plausible to be classified in the genre.

Sandra Foster is a sociologist working for a research corporation, studying fads. HiTek wants to know what starts them, so they can start the next one. The  incompetent office assistant, Flip, misdelivers a package, and Sandra meets Bennett O'Reilly when she tries to return it. He's a chaos theorist, and she's so used to analyzing fads that her entire thought process grinds to a halt when she sees he's not following a single one. Intrigued, she sticks close, even combining their research projects when his funding hits a major snag.

The plot is fairly light, with few surprises. Sandra researches trends, is stymied by Flip or HiTek's management, grows closer to Bennett, and accidentally reaches a goal almost every background character is striving for. She spends a lot of the book musing about the happy accidents of science, so the ending manages to feel nothing like a deus ex machina.

Sandra's voice is dryly sarcastic. She presents the people around her like an ongoing sociological observation, noting their quirks and patterns while remaining curiously unaware of her internal world. Her lack of self-awareness plays a part in the overall plot, so it's entirely forgivable.

The book is social commentary with a lot of insight into human nature. While the book's answers to what causes fads is too pat for the real world, the insights about their spread and how people regard them is spot on.

Sandra's observations about HiTek's management are satire at its best. She pokes fun at corporate speak, red tape, team-building exercises, useless meetings, and the disconnect between management and the people doing the work. Through Flip, Willis illustrates how the least competent are often the best rewarded.

Flip stands for a lot more than that, though. She has even less self-awareness than Sandra, and she actively undermines a lot of HiTek scientists' efforts. Every bit of progress is stymied by Flip's carelessness, and she lobbies to get rid of the only person who can neutralize her disasters. Not out of jealousy, but because the woman is a smoker when the fad is to treat smokers like second-class citizens.

The subject of fads has interested me for a long time: how they start, why people pick them up, why they die. Despite its status as fiction, this book had a lot of answers for me, and many of its views coincided with my own. I found it hilarious and entertaining, and the theme is one I can get behind.

I listened to this on audio, narrated by Kate Reading. I've listened to books she's narrated before, and she's always impressed me with her crisp, professional delivery. She gets across Sandra's voice well, and captures Flip's attitude by giving her a lazy drawl. Some of the other characters sounded similar to one another, but it was forgivable, because Sandra rarely talks to large groups of people at a time. I could always tell who was really speaking.

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Review: The Neil Gaiman Audio Collection

The Neil Gaiman Audio CollectionThe Neil Gaiman Audio Collection by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very quick audio collection of Neil Gaiman's stories for young readers. It includes three stories and a poem.

The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish is about a boy who trades his dad to his friend, then has to keep going farther and farther from his house to trade him back. It's a funny story, mostly in how nonplussed the father is, and each child's disappointment to discover the dad was the worse end of the swap.

The Wolves in the Walls is about a girl who hears noises in the walls, and warns her family. Nobody believes her, though they each remember a dire adage about what happens if they come out. Young Lucy is brave and sensible. It's a fun, whimsical story.

Cinnamon is in the classic fable style, about a princess who won't talk, until a tiger shows up to claim the reward offered by her father. The solution is easy, of course, to someone willing to look at the problem from Cinnamon's perspective.

Crazy Hair is a narrative poem about, well, hair, and what happens when a curious 3-year-old tries to tame it. It made me think of my own father, and I had to track down a video of its being performed so I could share it with him. Very cute.

The very end of the collection includes an interview between Neil Gaiman and his daughter, Maddy, who sounds like she's around 8 years old at the time. She has some excellent questions, but the best part is how she wraps it up.

Overall, the audio collection is charmingly entertaining, and, though aimed for a very young audience, enjoyable by anyone who likes Neil Gaiman's writing. This is read by the author, who's an excellent narrator.

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Balancing Foreshadowing

I've been thinking lately about foreshadowing, and how to strike the balance between giving the plot away and coming out of nowhere. The most recent October Daye book just came out, and the latest installment's greatest strength (perhaps) is the groundwork done in earlier books to build up to this point. Also, I was thinking about why a bit of obvious foreshadowing in Fuzzy Nation didn't make the book predictable or boring.

Incidentally, this is why most writing advice includes a strong recommendation to read a lot. Seeing what works or doesn't work lets you pull apart those elements to use them, yourself.

But I digress. Frequently.

I've also been doing a lot of editing. Now that I know how the books I'm typing up end, I keep adding in hints to later events. Or I keep feeling really proud of myself for having already put them there. So, foreshadowing is on my mind a lot these days.

The October Daye series handles foreshadowing in a couple of ways. There are hints sprinkled throughout that the unreliable narrator doesn't dwell on, but that turn out to be essential to the later plot. Or, she misinterpreted these hints. Foreshadowing-as-misdirection can work really well, especially in mysteries. The way foreshadowing is woven into these stories, an astute reader feels rewarded for paying attention to these clues, but there are still plenty of surprises.

In Fuzzy Nation, the narrator also fails to pick up on important hints. But, it turns out that what the narrator misses isn't the key to solving the problem. There's something else going on, too, and the plot hinges on that harder-to-anticipate element. The predictable one does come into play, which made me feel smarter than the narrator for picking up on it, but it didn't spoil the ending.

Are you recognizing a theme yet? In the most satisfying books, readers feel like they were engaged enough to use their brains, but the author didn't give everything away. Also, the more obvious foreshadowing works as its own kind of misdirection. There may well have been hints in the narrative about how the stories would end, but I was too busy examining the more obvious clues.

Good foreshadowing, then, doesn't give an ending away. It doesn't reveal everything until the last page ties it all together. If you've done it well, your reader will pick up on some of it, but not all. So, if you want to deliberately insert clues to your ending, make sure it's only to a contributing factor, not to the ultimate solution.

Now, off to take my own advice. Expect a progress post in a month or so.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird SingsI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I usually wait until after my book club meetings to review the month's selection. But I read this month's so far in advance, I'm backing up the rest of my review list if I delay it that long.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a classic, in that I first heard of it from underclassmen being "forced" to read it in public school. It deserves better, but I don't know a better way to get in front of students' eyes than assigning it as mandatory. It bridges the period that spurred the Civil Rights Movement, and shows the hardships of descendants of freed slaves, and everyone who looked like them. It lends a perspective on a piece of history we commonly associate with the Dust Bowl and WWII.

The book tells the story of Maya (Marguerite) Johnson, who grows up in Stamps, Arkansas. She and her older brother, Bailey, are sent there to live with their grandmother when their parents separate. Their mother briefly claims them in Chicago, but they're sent back to Stamps after a rape by her mother's boyfriend leaves Maya unwilling to speak. Racial tensions eventually lead their grandmother to take them to their mother's new home in San Francisco. While it's less overtly racist, Maya still runs into a lot of limitations, most notably when she decides she'll be a street car operator and has to persist at this ambition for weeks while the gatekeepers politely hope she'll go away.

The book reads as a series of loosely connected vignettes, rather than a single novel. It is autobiographical, so it's no coincidence that it reads more like a memoir. I kept waiting for a connecting narrative thread, and, while the themes and tone and voice remain the same throughout, it felt uneven. The resolution at the end of the book felt anticlimactic.

Despite the horror of rape, that's one of the easier parts of the books to read. Young Maya puts the reader right into her head leading up to the event, and in its aftermath. She depicts the violence done to that young body and mind without ever describing it in violent terms. Through her eyes, one sees the absurdity of asking an 8-year-old what she was wearing to provoke the attack, even while modern news outlets describe a young rape survivor as looking older than her years.

The language in this book is lovely. I've often found that poets are better at prose than novelists are at poetry. Despite the disjointed nature of the story, it felt like every word was there because it needed to be, and that to remove one was to destroy the whole flow. Angelou captures sentiments and experiences vividly in a few well-chosen words.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings isn't always a pleasant book to read. It shines a light on a lot of aspects of history the majority of Westerners have been allowed, even encouraged, to overlook. Racism is easier to stomach when it's evil Germans perpetrating it. When it's the people we've been identifying with throughout history, it's jarring. That is precisely why this is a valuable book to read, despite the difficult themes and the terrible ordeal young Maya survives. We could all do with a little more empathy.

I listened to this book on audio, read by the author. Generally, I've found the audio books I've liked best were read by the author, who, after all, knew exactly where the emphasis was supposed to go and how to pronounce all the names and places. It's the closest you can be to curling up inside the author's thoughts while she wrote. There were times when Angelou sounded exasperated with her own words, but she was definitely the best narrator for these words.

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