Monday, 24 September 2018

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing feels like it's both a good book (a very good book) and an Important Book, capital letters intended and all. There are ways in which that makes it a little harder to figure out how to approach a review, whereas, fluff is generally something about which I easily dash off a bunch of words. Or if a book is right in my wheelhouse and I have something to expound upon. In this case, though, I liked this book a lot. I was moved by it. I was troubled by it. I think many other people should read it. (It was near the top of my list of books most often on top ten lists at the end of the year in which it came out, so that might not be a problem? Although I suppose that "on the most top ten lists" is not the same as "bestseller.")

One of the most interesting things that Gyasi is doing here is refusing her readers a throughline, characters they can follow through the whole story. Instead, we have chapters, which alternate between two half-sisters, then between two of their children, then two of their grandchildren, on and on, for at least seven generations. One chapter per side, per generation. Chapters do not often wrap up an entire story neatly. Instead, they are a glimpse into a life for a while, a single, individual life, but also illustrative of something about the experience of Black people in what is now Ghana or in the United States.

I read one review or one comment somewhere that was about how Gyasi is focusing on Black complicity in slavery, but I kind of think that's bullshit. White demand for slaves, racism from whites that constrains life in different ways, they're all most definitely here, they're just not the focus. The focus is on Black people, far and above any way in which it is interested in exploring white guilt. Which is not to say that that person was wrong - the early sections of the book do concentrate on the practice of slaves being taken by one tribe from another tribe, and sold to the white men at the trading post for the transatlantic slave trade.

It took me a long time to figure out how all these bits fit together - the family ties were obvious, but thematically, it took me a bit to figure out why these were the stories Gyasi wove, why those personalities for each generation, why, just, in general. The answer is actually given by one of her own characters, a young Black man working on his Ph.D., but stymied about what story to tell. How do you tell this story about Blackness without also telling this one, how do you look at one piece of history without also needing to show all the pieces that came before that led to it? How do you find a landing spot? Where do you begin? How do you bring it together?

This book is one answer, of fiction, not of history. You try to tell as many as you can, but not all of them, because that risks universalizing experiences and obscuring real people who experienced all these events, through Ghanian history, through the history of being Black in the United States. So you pick moments you need to capture to tell one version of the whole thing. You don't make them all flow together seamlessly, you let them be a little bit different in terms of story, you don't make neat narrative bows at the end, except perhaps for the very end, where the two branches of the family converge.

This is very strongly written, and I was always eager to pick it up again, even when the stories were dark, or filled with fire. That connection that Gyasi is threading into her stories, insisting that these characters are connected to each other, even when they've never met, that you can't tell one story without the other is so strong, so interesting. I can't wait to see what she writes next.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Boneyard by Seanan McGuire

I quite enjoy Seanan McGuire's books, so I keep an eye out for them in the bookstore. When I was browsing last fall, and saw this particular novel, I immediately thought that it would be a good Christmas present for my husband, and as a beneficial side effect, I'd get to read it too. We've been roleplayers for a long time, and have at least two Deadlands campaigns under our belts, the world in which Boneyard is set.

It's a more horror-y West setting, with monsters and human monsters and swirling magic, and I've quite enjoyed playing in that world, even though my second and most indelible Deadlands character had an ultimately tragic arc, in that she was the only one of the party to survive, sentenced to live to tell other people of her fallen compatriots. Poor Nora.

But, "let me tell you about my character" story aside, let's see what Seanan McGuire did with that world. She tells a smaller story set in that larger landscape, and the setting is well served by being more focused in that way. You can try to get it all in, and have a travelogue, or you can tell a small portion well, and I think that's what's happening here. This isn't great literature, but it's a good adventure yarn.

It's about a mother and daughter, Annie Pearl and Abigail. They travel with a circus, where Annie is in charge of both the human freaks and the inhuman monsters that scare the townsfolks in the places they stop along the way. Abigail is mute, but fluent in a sign language. Annie is afraid of most of her monsters, but knows how to care for them. She also has a lynx who is devoted to her, a present from the not-so-loving husband that she and Abigail is fleeing. Well, Abigail has no memory of him, as Annie started to run when she was an infant.

The circus is having a lean year, so when they hear that there's a town deep in the forest in Oregon (I think Oregon?) that rewards visiting shows lavishly, they decide to make the trip. Despite the part where three out of four groups come back rich, and the fourth doesn't come back at all. It's getting on towards winter, and they're running out of money to see them through it, so a 75% chance seems awfully good.

We flip back and forth between their journey there and what they find in a cratered depression deep in forbidding woods, and Deseret, where Annie's husband still is, angry that his property escaped, and continuing his research at the behest of Dr. Hellstrom. He's a terrifying character if ever there was one - mad scientist with little regard for human life, paired with patriarchal values that care even less for female life outside of possession as an object.

Back in the woods, even as the Bad Doctor saddles up for a journey to retrieve his wife and child, the townspeople are hostile, but there are things out in the woods that are even worse. There are raids on the camp from both angles, and then Annie finds that Abigail has wandered into the woods. Much of the emotional drive of the novel comes from Annie looking for Abigail, with a few other characters along for their own reasons.

This wasn't a deep book, but it's a very fun fantasy that does a good job of capturing the Deadlands setting. The monsters are scary, the humans more so, and we root for Annie and Abigail to make it through together. What else do you need in an adventure tale?

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

The Artamonov Business by Maxim Gorky

I have a real weak spot for Russian literature, for some reason. I have enjoyed almost all of it I have read, although I greatly preferred Anna Karenina to War and Peace. Last year, though, I made a run at The Brothers Karamazov, and although I had thoroughly enjoyed both Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, I found I got bogged down and never got through it. I mean, I was three or four hundred pages in, and very little had happened! Some day, I may try to go back, but for the moment, I'm content to let that one lie.

I had never read any Maxim Gorky, however, so when The Artamonov Business showed up on one of my lists, I was interested to see how it would compare to other works I'd read. At the beginning, it reminded me of The Brothers Karamazov in that it was about three brothers, one of whom wanted to become a monk, and the father was overbearing, if not as awful as the Father Karamazov. This, thankfully, was both much shorter, and a much breezier read. Not a light read, but any means, but not one that made me struggle.

The Artamonov Business takes place at a certain point in Russian history, when the muzhiks, the serfs, were liberated from the feudal system that had persisted to that point. In a town of roughly middle-class people, the senior Artamonov (I regret to say that the names have not stayed with me) comes with his three sons to set up a new business. He was liberated by that edict, and believes that by sheer force of will, he can prosper in this new economic system. And largely, he does, although the outcome may be more to the side of wealth than happiness.

Those in the town are put off by his manners and his insistence on doing things his own way, as he sets up a factory under their noses, marries his son to the daughter of the mayor (killing the mayor from grief/confusion in the process) and brings in workers to manufacture his goods. It is interesting to read (from Wikipedia, I'm not doing a deep dive here) that Gorky was hailed by the Communists (although he was also exiled from the Soviet Union) as a model writer, as the rise of the muzhiks is shown to be not without its difficulties. The coming revolution doesn't seem to be any more assured or confident in what it will bring. It does seem to be more and more inevitable as the book goes on, but the message is more complex that that it will just be a good thing.

The Father dies fairly early in the novel, and it is up to his sons (well, two sons and one nephew, who is treated as a son) to carry on his legacy, without ever being quite sure what that legacy is or if they want it. Peter does what his father wanted, but doesn't enjoy it, and finds himself prone to at least a few binges to let off the stress that has been building for years. The middle son joins a monastery, but appears to lose his deep faith, even as the monks want to use him as a model. The youngest, the nephew, seems more centered, I guess, but we spend the least time with him.

What laws there are and whether or not they can be transgressed, are all up in the air, and the Artamonovs are far from sure. This even extends to cold-blooded murder, which one of the brothers commits, and hides for decades, justifying it to himself in ugly terms.

I'm not sure I know enough about the time period Gorki is writing about, or in, to say anything deeper, but I really quite enjoyed this book, and can add it to the list of Russian literature that I have liked reading. Someday, maybe The Brothers Karamazov will join that list. Maybe.

Friday, 7 September 2018

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

I don't read a lot of mysteries. I mean, I have, at certain points in my life - my mother was a huge fan of mysteries, so there were always lots around to pick up and read, so I'm reasonably familiar with the conventions. They aren't, though, a genre I go looking for. There are a couple of authors for whom I make an exception - Dorothy Gilman's Mrs. Pollifax, which are as much spy as mystery, and Donald Westlake's books, which span genres, but both of these authors are most often shelved with the mysteries. I've read a fair amount of Agatha Christie and P.D. James and Ngaio Marsh.

But where I am now in my life, it's not something I seek out. There's only one major exception - Louise Penny, who writes mysteries unlike anything I've ever read, using the conventions of the genre to tell deep stories about broken people, with such empathy and compassion and truth that I need to read each and every one.

When it was revealed that J.K. Rowling was writing mysteries under a pseudonym, honestly, it felt like a perfect fit - she's very good at laying down clues so deftly that you don't realize until a reread that they were always there. She's good at shaping a whole story knowing how it's going to end. I read the first Cormoran Strike book, and was pleasantly impressed. I just got around to reading the second and, now I'm in a bit of a weird spot.

They're fine. It's not that they're not fine. It's just that with The Silkworm, fine meant "very much like most other mysteries I've read and no depth that makes me want to plow further," unlike Louise Penny, who can make me cry buckets with a scene in a car with a duck. That's right, a duck.

Would I be reading or keep reading these books if it wasn't J.K. Rowling writing them? Probably not. Her writing style is good. Her mystery construction is good. It's just that mysteries, in general, are not my genre, and I don't get much exciting out of them. Every once in a while, for a comfort read, sure, but they're not leaping onto my To-Read Pile, nor do I have several lists of just mysteries to read, unlike SF/F where the number of those lists I'm pulling from just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

So, where does that leave me with The Silkworm. Back at "it's fine," and in that vast middle territory where I wouldn't avoid another one of the Galbraith Cormoran Strike books, but neither would I seek them out.

In this one, Cormoran is asked by a writer's wife to find him after he's stalked off again, in his favourite role as aging enfant terrible of the literary scene. Cormoran finds instead Owen's body, and while the police are more than happy to pin this particular (and very gruesome) killing on the wife, he's sure that she's innocent, but that her usual demeanour works against her when gaining sympathy. It's a nice recognition that not being all that likeable is not the same as being a murderer.

Taking on this case nets Cormoran little money, but does plunge him deeper into London's literary world, including the huge blow-up that happened about Owen's last work, a manuscript called libelous by everyone who reads it, and was quickly dropped by his publishing company because he's horrifically mean to everyone who works there. Everyone hated him, so who killed him? (This is where we're lacking a bit of emotional connection - like Cormoran, I didn't think the wife was guilty, but we don't get that much time with her, and there's no one I connected with strongly to make the murder being solved more pressing.)

Robin, in the meantime, is hoping to become more Cormoran's detective partner than his secretary, and there are, for a while, a lot of misunderstandings between the two as her wedding day approaches as well. This is all done a little obviously - either this is going to end up with Cormoran and Robin getting together in some future book, or with her unhappily married, but either way, it feels fairly pat, like they relate to each other as they do because that's how characters of these sorts are supposed to interact. I do appreciate Robin becoming a bigger part of the books, though.

This is a sufficiently satisfying mystery that I don't mind having read it, but there's no depth that is making me anxious for more. If you're a mystery reader, this might be up your alley. If you're not, it's probably not.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

I feel like this is a story I've seen before, but told with more nuance and aplomb than I'm used to. The story of a young man of immigrant parents adjusting to life as an American, stuck between two worlds, it feels like a staple of a certain kind of movie, one that includes its very own tropes, including parents who never adjust or understand. The Namesake, though, neatly sidesteps the stereotypes to come up with a more complex picture that both is and is not, that story.

This is a story of pastiche, of pulling together outside and inside influences, and not about which one is right, or better, but rather about how they come to form a life as it is, not as it should be or shouldn't be. The main character, Gogol, carries some of this pastiche in his very name - the grandmother of one of his parents is supposed to send a letter with a Bengali name for him to the United States, where he was born. But the letter is never delivered, and the grandmother dies before anyone can find out what he's supposed to be called. So, in the meantime, his parents name him Gogol on official documents, after the book by Nikolai Gogol that kept Gogol's father up on a train, which saved his life when the train crashed and killed everyone in the sleeping compartments.

Carrying a strange Russian last name as his first name, Gogol fights against that name for most of his life, although it isn't as easy as being right or wrong. It marks him apart, but any other name might have marked him apart as well. His parents try to give him a Bengali name when he starts school, but a kindly teacher notes that Gogol doesn't want to respond to it, and so Gogol it is until he changes it legally as a young man, to the name his parents tried to give him as his school name. By then he will be known as nothing else to his parents and those of his parents generation, within their Bengali circle of friends, but will be known as Nikhil to his peers as he goes to college, and later, lives in New York while he pursues a career as an architect.

But, notably, the narration of the book, the omniscient third person, continues to call him Gogol. As an act of rebellion, Gogol never reads the book his father gave him from his namesake, at least not until the very end of the book. That may seem odd, but I have a similar feeling about the movie The Outlaw Josey Wales. My dad loved that movie, and while I mellowed on other things he liked, I never did watch it before he died. Still haven't seen it, and I may never - not because there's an ideological point to be made, but because the joking argument over it is part of what I still have of my father, much as I had the routine about who taught me how to swear with my mother, the call and response worn smooth by repetition.

What I think I'm trying to say is that while Gogol and his parents are never not at least partially defined by their status as immigrants to the United States, neither are they entirely confined by it. It's a story of individuals - parents who mostly socialize with other Bengali expats, but a mother who starts to work at the library and finds friends there, who is happy when Gogol has a Bengali girlfriend and wife, but is not inflexible or judgemental when things change. It's not about finding the right answer, like there is a right platonic answer that would solve everything, a way of life that would make everything turn out right. Everything proceeds from what came before, and shapes Gogol and his parents and his sister, but what comes after each moment is the product of the sum, not the life that happened before Gogol's parents even left India and conceived him.

The answer is not to date white women, but the major relationship with a white woman does change who he is. The answer is not to date Bengali women, although his marriage also shapes who he is. It's all about what life throws at a person next, and how you react in that moment, not in response to an ideal of what should be, but in response to what is. Sometimes irrational, but mostly quiet, mostly kindly, mostly muddling. There's something very enjoyable about this story, and it's the warm humanity of the characters and the avoidance of neat stereotypes for each decision as it looms on the horizon.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Crow Lake by Mary Lawson

There have been a couple of things that have bothered me about books I've read over the last couple of years, and I'm delighted to say that this book neatly sidesteps both of them. The first is the Canada 100 list I'm slowly making my way through - I have complained repeatedly that it's far too weighted towards the five years before the list came out, and that the books on it are frequently not very good. (Outright bad, in a couple of cases.)  And then came along Crow Lake, which is on that list, and relatively recent, but was, to my immense satisfaction, very, very good.

The other gripe I've had is thematic - I've read at least two books recently that dealt with death and grief in ways that felt off-handed and slightly flippant. They definitely felt like neither had been written by people who'd dealt with grief or known what it is to live with it, the complexities of that situation. So imagine how happy I was when this book, which started off with the death of both parents of the narrator, dealt sensitively and completely with the ways in which it both defines and doesn't define your life afterwards. They ways in which it never goes away, but that doesn't mean it's all you are, either.

There's one other thing that this book does well, before I launch into a description of the plot. I sometimes have trouble with books where you have main characters who will just not fucking say what they need to say, will avoid conversation for the sake of the plot. I wasn't sure if it was that I am too impatient with people who aren't good at communicating, or if the authors weren't doing enough to make me understand why these characters weren't communicating.

I've decided, after reading this book, that it is the fault of those authors. Sorry. I say that because this book similarly has a main character who has a hard time talking about her feelings, who has bottled up what she thinks she knows about her family and used it as a weapon, mostly against herself. And yet, it felt right this time, because Mary Lawson let me close enough to the character to understand why, the particular cracks and chips in her coping techniques that had led her to this spot. She didn't irritate me, because I understood her, and many authors aren't skilled enough, or don't care enough, to do so, and so their characters who withhold information don't feel true.

Okay, time to put these things I really liked about Crow Lake into context. It is the story of four children. First, two brothers, just done and about to be done high school, and their much younger sisters, one still in diapers. They live in Northern Ontario, and were a stable, happy family until both parents are killed in a car accident. From there, the town tries to help, but no one is sure what to do. An aunt comes from rural Quebec and proposes to take them back and split them up between families, but the narrator, the older of the sisters, is so traumatized by the prospect of losing what is left of her family that the oldest brother decides to forgo teacher's college to keep the family together.

This is interspersed with the reminiscences of the character (Kate?) as she is in her late twenties, a newly minted assistant professor of biology at a university in Toronto, and we see how this child who turned inwards and was unable to deal with any more change has calcified into a woman who has taken her need for stability and her inability to admit she needs things, and woven them into a story about the tragedy of her family. We don't get to see what the full tragedy is for a long time, and it's wrapped up with another family in the Northern Ontario town that has much more sorrow in their lives, in the midst of daily cruelties.

In particular, there is now a distance between the narrator and her brother Matthew, the second oldest boy, clever and good at school in a way that Luke, the one who stepped away from education to keep everyone together, was not. He loved the rock pools and sparked her love of biology as a girl. She resents something he's done, and we don't know why, but it has put a distance between her and her family, and so, she believes, has her education. She's invited back up for her nephew's birthday party, and reluctantly brings the man she's been dating.

The book goes back and forth between these two time periods, and you know early that a couple of things happened with her brother, but not what they were. When they were finally revealed, and revealed to be as much about her perception and even more, her expectations of him, it was deeply satisfying, particularly when she was called on her assumptions by several people.

This is not a book with a large story, but it does a stellar job at the story of one family, and how early trauma has shaped these four children, and how those children both do and do not allow more change into their lives, do and do not adapt to altered circumstances, do or do not deal with fears of losing more people they love.