The Wonder

October 24, 2016

Dear Reader,

The topic of anorexia has shown up recently in several contemporary novels, including The Vegetarian and White is for Witching. In each of these novels the disorder is coded as something else, and once again, in The Wonder it shows up under a mediating guise. What links the three novels is the experience of watching death come slowly. The girls in these novels are starving themselves to death and the reader joins them for every agonizing detail of their decline. 28449257
The Wonder is the story of Lib Wright, an expert nurse and former pupil of Florence Nightingale. She is an Englishwoman contracted to come care for an eleven year old girl in rural Ireland. Anna, the child, has been declared a local “wonder.” For the community, the story hinges upon proving the child a miracle, thus bringing glory (and tourist dollars) into their minuscule Irish hamlet. It does not take long for Lib to realize that the child is unhealthy, but even her well-trained eye is not able to spot what the reader surely will: this child is dying in front of us. Lib struggles with her desire to not only prove that the child is sneaking food somehow but also to understand why a child would be trying to turn her body into a grotesque miracle.

The unravelling of that central mystery is lent compelling force by the fact that you know from very early on that Lib and Anna are running out of time. The community around them, from the parents to the doctor to the parish priest are all wholly unhelpful, having either devoted their total faith to the veracity of the miracle or subconsciously decided that the child’s potential death is worth the answers it would bring. Lib finds one ally in a rational Dublin reporter. His appraisal of the situation (one look at the child is enough for him) is what brings Anna’s mortal danger to Lib’s full attention.

In that detail lies my only real complaint about this novel. Lib does not understand what is happening to Anna’s body, even though it really should be obvious to a trained nurse, or to any person unfettered by the blinders of Catholicism. Lib allows herself to hope the child really is a miracle, since the alternative is so grim. What is so agonizing about her indecision is the countdown any modern reader will have going from chapter one. How many more days can Lib take to figure this out before it will be too late for her to do anything at all? Will she solve the mystery only after the child’s body is damaged beyond repair? Donoghue’s skill at depicting characters in tense torment is undeniable. I was ready to tear my hair out and scream at the book as Anna dwindled away.

I read the book straight through within approximately a day, truly unable to put it down. It has immense power as a narrative, invoking a host of real-life stories like Anna’s. Donoghue manages to sketch a portrait of the trauma that would inspire a 19th century child to descend into anorexia, embracing at every turn both historical accounts and modern echoes. Lib spends the novel just trying to understand why a girl would want to starve herself to the point of death, and hoping with all she has that finding the answer will break that awful spell. It will be a familiar feeling to many.

The Doll-Master

October 18, 2016

Dear Reader,

I don’t know how to give a Joyce Carol Oates book less than five stars. I will freely admit I am eternally caught in her web. Just in time for October, JCO has released another set of disturbing short stories that you should definitely add to that shelf you have with Poe, JCO, and Helen Oyeyemi (just me?). 57802

A quick rundown of each story, in case you’d like to pick and choose:

“The Doll-Master” is the story of a young man who likes to collect what he calls “found dolls,” hiding them in his parent’s garage. As he gets older his obsession with the dolls grows deeper.

“Soldier” is the story of a young man who shoots an unarmed black man in self-defense. Or is it?

“Gun Accident: An Investigation” is about the experiences of a young girl who is involved in a violent home invasion while taking care of a beloved teacher’s house.

“Equatorial” is the story of a wife traveling with her energetic older husband in the Galapagos. She begins to suspect that he is attempting to kill her, recounting moments throughout their marriage that have led to her present danger.

“Big Momma” is about a strange family out in the woods that takes in strays, and possibly feeds them to a giant snake.

“Mystery, Inc” (my personal favorite) is about a man who owns a small empire of mystery-themed bookstores in New England. He decides he wants to acquire a new bookstore and will go to any length to get that bookstore- but is he the predator or the prey?4522

The Underground Railroad

October 16, 2016

“The almanac had a strange, soapy smell and made a cracking noise like fire as she turned the pages. She’d never been the first person to open a book.”

This book is not here to encourage your incipient optimism. If you are like me, you will spend its last pages suffused with pride that this country has made such gargantuan advances towards equality and genuine goodness, when compared with the portrait of America you encounter in this novel. You will also find yourself paralyzed with fear and motivated by disgust that this country could have ever been this portrait of America. It made me feel how fragile our advances are and how vital it is to turn our feet in the right direction, never placing one toe towards that world again. cyxltn6waammdqt

It does this by following Cora, a young enslaved woman. The book is divided into multiple sections, each one either exploring a new state Cora runs to or spotlighting a specific supporting character. The first section aims to provide a historically accurate portrait of what it was like to be a slave and what it was like to risk the terrors of escape. From then, Whitehead employs his particularly well-honed talent for magical realism to elevate the novel into something extraordinary. In his conception, the Underground Railroad is made literal. Cora escapes through tunnels beneath the Southern earth on a series of makeshift trains.

Whitehead’s decision to use magical realism rather than a more strict historical realism could have been a risky one. There is so much power in the straight facts and first-person accounts of this time period. The facts are brutal and the accounts are harrowing and humbling. Why then not situate Cora within as exact a representation of slavery as possible? The question, really, is why fictionalize at all? Because, of course, so much can be accomplished by doing so. In hiding Cora in a North Carolina attic while an ethnic cleanse of all African Americans takes place outside her tiny window, Anne Frank can be evoked. Tuskegee can be foreshadowed in another section; the stop and frisk debate can be mirrored in the slave catcher’s actions. whit_978-0385537032_jkt_r1_wide-74fd28218ed06c0f4d87fa6688ce3c44c5722ee1-s900-c85The pages are heavy. They are heavy with import, of course, but they are also physically heavy. It is a beautifully made book with thick pages and elegant script. The cover art evokes both the red clay earth of Georgia and the blood that watered it, a serpentine train track running over and off the sides. I recommend you buy the hardcover because you should read it immediately, but also because there is a pleasure to holding this book in your hands. The novel plays with this pleasure and how many could never imagine experiencing it. Don’t take for granted the unbelieving pleasure Cora takes when she is gifted a brand new book; savor it.

My only advice (beyond to read this without delay) is to be prepared for what you are picking up. Every aspect of slavery was harrowing, and escaping from it is was no exception. It is a legacy we can never expect to fully escape from ourselves.

Mr. Splitfoot

October 2, 2016

Dear Reader,

“Because every story is a ghost story, even mine.”

October is upon us, my dear readers. There are three little pumpkins sitting on my cookbook shelf and I’ve a few shivery reads on tap to get me in the mood: Mr. Splitfoot, The Wonder, and The Doll-Master. As fate would have it, I read the first first and now I am faced with a challenge: what could possibly excel such a novel? Because Mr. Splitfoot is quite quite wonderful.9780544526709

The novel is about Ruth and Nat, two foster children who are raised in a cult-like atmosphere for most of their lives. They knit themselves together, skin to skin and soul to soul. Rarely are two characters so close and so believably so. They have slept in the same bed since they were five, two inverted commas. When Nat starts to speak to the dead, Ruth joins him and they begin to sell their services as mediums, acquiring the enigmatic Mr. Bell as a manager along the way and attempting to escape the atmosphere in which they were raised. This story is intertwined with another one, each chapter alternating between the story of a teenage Ruth and the story of her journey fourteen years later with her pregnant niece Cora. There are so many questions, so many moments of suspense where information is slowly dripped from the metaphorical faucet. The suspense is so well-managed that I happily sat back and let the story unfold deliciously.

Samantha Hurt is a wonderful and surprising writer. Perhaps I have read too many mediocre new pubs recently (looking at you The Hopefuls) but I audibly gasped multiple times throughout the book at the sharp writing. She has a taste for description that I have a hard time describing myself without just quoting the book over and over again. There’s a moment where she writes something like “the walls were the color of brains.” That was a gasp moment.

Also, this is a love story. On so many levels, it is a love story. Mothers and daughters, men and women, sisters, brothers, friends… rarely do you find a gothic novel that does its love stories so well. They tend to become plot devices, stereotypes of the pale beauty and the Byronic hero. In this novel they worm their way inside of you; I found myself weeping rather freely at the end, blurring the twisting beauty of the last page so I could barely read it.

This is the first of my October book recommendations, and as soon as I finish the other two I will let you know my thoughts, probably right as I have them. Please read this novel.




A Tale Told By An Idiot…

August 17, 2016

Dear Reader,

Full of scorpions is my mind. Or so it seemed, walking out of Suicide Squad. I felt not a little like Lady Macbeth who could not wash her mind of what she had experienced. The mythology of the comic book universes, both DC and Marvel, has the potential to be a lasting commentary on such weighty matters as the battle between good and evil, the desire for power, the consequences of crime, and the inevitability (or not) of fate. Instead, we are treated to dreck like Suicide Squad.

Even now, as we are making movies like this, in which such matters are wildly mishandled and messily slapped up on the screen, we are also still making and remaking the same great stories. And thus I turned to Macbeth.Macbeth_EE_720_367_85shar-10_s_c1

The most recent adaptation of The Scottish Play stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as Macbeth and his Lady. They are both glorious actors in their own right, having proven themselves again and again capable of handling the dark and weighty matters upon which this play must meditate. Their relationship builds their separate characters into murderers and madmen. Suicide-SquadIt makes them strong at first, but their deeds and the power that descends on them are crushing weights. In Macbeth we see the consequences of using the strength a relationship should give as a bolster for wickedness. Their separate and collective madness eats away at them, which is why the audience can feel sympathy for them. In Sucide Squad, the Joker and Harley Quinn are a pale imitation of this insane duo. They too, are the self-styled King and Queen of their universe, roles they took by force and which they do not deserve. But though we want to feel sympathy for the poor tortured Dr. Harleen Quinzel, and even admire the strength of the murderous Harley Quinn, there are no consequences for their actions. We are instead asked to admire the panache and the tattoos and the very madness they revel in. We cannot care when they take lives, but we should.Macbeth-2015Pretenders to the throne do not fair well in Shakespeare. Madness lies that way, for to kill a king is to stain oneself eternally. Fassbender’s Macbeth wastes little time descending into his own private hell. As soon as the crown rests on his head he becomes tenfold more the merciless brute, burning women and children at the stake to feed his paranoia and thirst for revenge. His madness is not funny. It is not bright or garish or stylish. It is the madness of repentance when repentance is impossible and he can see no course but to heap more bodies on the pyre. joker-suicide-squad-trailer-715It’s not easy being king, that’s for sure. This Macbeth makes that pointedly clear. There isn’t a moment when it is even fun. Fun, however, is the Joker’s raison d’etre. And love, perhaps. As the Joker flits in and out of this sad excuse for a story we see that everything he touches is touched carelessly. He maddens his psychiatrist and almost leaves her for dead, he rescues her when she is taken from him but then lets her fall out of the back of a plane, or nearly drown in a submerged car. From what we know of him so far she is a doll he enjoys playing with until he carelessly puts her down or pops off her head. macbeth_header-620x338But what of her? Madness does not give Lady Macbeth her strength. That is not what screws her courage to the sticking place. Her own ambitious humanity does that. It is not madness that compels her or her husband to act, it is the judgment they exercise. How much more powerful then, to have madness follow her as she confronts the consequences of her actions. The alternative mythology offered to us in a movie like Suicide Squad is that madness gives you strength, that it makes you fearless in battle. Perhaps the greatest sin of the movie is to give us the notion that any squad is not a suicide squad. As Macbeth prepares young boys for battle at the beginning of his movie, he knows, they know, and we know that they will all die that day.Harley-Quinn-prisonBut I will end with Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. That, though full of problems in its own right, was the saving grace of this movie. She manages to eke out of the script something I am not sure was ever written in it: fragility. Her madness and the choices that came out of it do have some consequences for her and her toughness hides a dream of normality. “Are you God?” she asks in this shot. The fear and wonder in her eyes mirrors our poor mad Lady’s.