Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Brother's Price by Wen Spencer

Wen Spencer is a Pittsburgh find. My husband and I both read and enjoyed the two books in the Tinker series which take place in a crazy-Pittsburgh future. Light fantasy, they were fun and amusing. Not terribly deep but engaging. When I found four of Spencer's other books at the used bookstore I snatched them up; she is not an author I find at most stores. I honestly didn't pay much attention to the titles or plots just picked them up based on the author.

In the mood for fantasy, I started with A Brother's Price because it is a stand alone rather than the first book in a series. In some ways, the plot of the novel is the extremely well-explored world of high palace intrigue: assassination, murder, kidnapping, and marriage contracts. However, Spencer throws a plot twist into the book which makes the entire world significantly more interesting than it might have been. She reverses gender roles. In the world of A Brother's Price men are rare and respected for their rarity. They play the stereotypical role of a woman - kept at home, sheltered, expected to care for children, clean, and cook.

The reversal is so pat as to possibly be trite, but it wasn't. I felt like Spencer did a remarkably good job of addressing contemporary social constructions (gender is a social construct, regardless of what Texas textbooks want to argue) and turning them on their head without being too tongue-in-check. There are humorous moments when the long-haired men get called honey and coddled for being overly emotional. Admittedly though, I found myself startled when she would address a military officer as she - sad to admit but I'm so used to those roles being expectedly male that the difference did call me out. However, for the most part I found myself buying into Spencer's world and the way she outlines the social norms she has written. Her role reversal rather than just a way to create a novel twist in a fictional, fantastical world is believable. The problems in the society she has written cater to the control and care of the males.

Spencer's novels walk the fence as part of what I have learned is a large and growing genre known as Sci-Fi Romance. The books have a clear romantic undercurrent. There is not explicit sex, but a sexual tension that grows. One sticky-wicket on that note - the cover art is SOOO wrong. Whoever drew it never read the book and Spencer could not have agreed with it. It suggests a plot point in the book but the characters are drawn completely incongruously. I am not going to go out of my way to read all the Sci-Fi Romance I can, but I would read more. All in all, A Brother's Price is a good addition to my catalog of Wen Spencer books - light, fun, and it made me think - a little bit.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

I have picked up A Thousand Acres a dozen times, read the back cover, and put the book back on my shelf. Last week for whatever reason when I picked it up again I didn't put it down. I committed myself to reading Smiley's work. I have read Moo and adored it. But life on a rural Iowa farm didn't jump out at me as an engaging locale for a novel (maybe that makes me a snob, I don't know). Was I going to read about them watching the corn grow?

I am SOOOO glad I read A Thousand Acres. It is amazing. A bit dire, maybe, but honest. Around page 150 I realized that all of my cousins needed to read this book. I began to understand my father's upbringing as the son of a patriarchal farmer father. The characters either chafe at the opportunity to prove themselves to the patriarch or they kowtow to his dominant personality and push all their emotional turmoil further down. Whether Iowa or points east, Smiley created an incredibly realistic (yet not at ALL boring) view of farming life.

Around page 250 I reassessed my statement. I still think the overall premise is extremely relevant for anyone with farming ancestors as the family dynamics are genuine. However, I would not want anyone to associate my grandfather too closely with Larry Cook. Demanding, expecting excessive control over his family and his world: yes. Going as far as Larry Cook: I sincerely hope not.

The series of events which continue to build felt oppressive at times but I understood why Smiley kept laying on the destruction. The characters had ignored so much negativity for so long that when the truth came to light everyone recoiled and fell apart. I just discovered that the plot is a modern, rural retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear which could account for the perpetual destructive tendencies of the characters.

One particular aspect which was a small side plot intrigued me. A Thousand Acres was first published in 1991. When Jess Clark returns he has grandiose ideas of farming his inheritance organically. Because of the focus on organic today I enjoyed reading how traditional farmers perceived the idea of organic in the late-1970s (the periodization of the book). Not only did they think Jess was crazy to suggest such a thing, they also dismissed his ideas about chemical run-off in wells affecting pregnancies. Smiley obviously had an "early" and relevant interest in the debates about modern farming.

When all is said and done, I am glad I finally opened A Thousand Acres rather than sidelining it yet again. Five years ago I probably would not have liked the novel very well. But the time and place I'm in right now, it spoke to me.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Heart and Soul by Maeve Binchy

Once upon a time, I read every book Maeve Binchy had written. I recommended her books to a friends on the premise that her plots are "innocent." The friend in question read one book and informed me I was insane. She wondered how I could describe books whose plots revolved around abortion, affairs, and love lost could be described as innocent. I stand by my stance. While the characters very often fall under the spell of poor romantic choices, the outcome includes the antagonist getting his (or her, although it is quite often a man) just desserts and the protagonist feeling vindicated.

Heart and Soul is Binchy's most recent work and not only are the protagonists rewarded for their innate goodness, Binchy has gone back to previous books and brought in characters from many past novels and caught the reader up on their lives. Individuals from Quentins, Scarlet Feather, and Whitethorn Woods, among others, all meet through the experiences of the employees of a Dublin heart clinic.

Binchy does a great job of telling a remarkably comprehensive story from the viewpoint of at least a half a dozen characters. Each chapter starts with the perspective of a different individual. At times the stories seem only tangentially connected to the main plot; other chapters push forward the success of the heart clinic. By the end of the novel all of the characters have interwoven stories that coalesce into a logical conclusion.

There are very few true antagonists in Heart and Soul - a racist old lady and a womanizing foreigner. The story is undeniably a syrupy romance. All of the characters who deserve to find love do. After the last couple of dark books I have read recently Maeve Binchy's Heart and Soul was a breath of fresh air - and it is very innocent.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sleep Pale Sister by Joanne Harris

I have sat on this book for about a week without posting about it because I am unsure what I want to say. I liked Joanne Harris' story, but I didn't love it. It read like a dark Victorian-style Gothic with a slight fantastical twist; a novel idea but it seemed to run out of steam.

According to the introduction, Joanne Harris' early novel fell out of production and has only recently been republished as a result of fan demand. Harris made minimal if any changes except for a new cover. She mentions more than once that the book finally has the cover it deserves.

The story in Sleep, Pale Sister revolves around a dysfunctional Victorian couple. Henry Chester, the husband, is a painter who marries Effie, his much younger model. Rather than seeing her as a real person, he sees her as the epitome of the portraits he has painted. She is unworldly, growing up in the narrow confines of her limited experiences, but she yearns for more personal freedom.

The crux of the book centers on the couple's disparate views of personal/sexual interaction. Henry is horrified at the idea of a woman having, much less expressing, sexuality. So much so that the reader learns relatively horrible things Henry has done to other women who do not gel with his ideal stereotype. Effie, needless to say, chafes under his intense scrutiny and eventually revolts in an unexpected way.

The plot was not particularly complex. The outcome was not unexpected, but also not a happy ending. What I liked about Sleep Pale Sister was the study of taking Victorian mores to their excess. Discussions of hysteria and the use of laudanum to control emotionally "weak" women rang true to the era. It took the historic issue of female sensibilities and pseudoscientific means of dealing with them and personalized it.

But, the book felt sophomoric. Harris' other works are so much better: more developed and more nuanced. I maybe wouldn't use that description if I didn't know the book was a reprint of one of her earlier works but knowing it is, I can see the difference. I'm glad I read Sleep Pale Sister, but I don't know if I would have liked the book if I hadn't read other works by Joanne Harris before.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Camera by Eva-Marie Liffner

Strange yet uninspired.

Camera is sort of a mystery, sort of a suspense. Add a touch of literary fiction. The book has possibilities. Yet oddly enough the blurb on the back of the book gives away too much information. There is no real climax, no a-ha moment, no sense of resolution. I felt like I knew exactly what the plot was from page one and was waiting for some sort of surprise to tell me more. But the surprise never came. The outcome was exactly what the blurb on the back of the book said it would be.

Needless to say, the book revolves around cameras and photographers. Both the character in the present - an unhappy, antisocial woman who has inherited her uncle's estate - and the character in the past - a young Swedish photographer living in turn-of-the-century London - are photographers. Liffner has an interesting way of describing her scenes, often incorporating excruciating detail which is not always related to the plot. But her descriptions read like visual photographs. I don't know if that makes much sense, but I got the impression of a picture with the way she used her descriptive talents. In that regard alone, Camera was a remarkably fascinating book.

Camera is translated from the Swedish. I have not read many Swedish books but I know of a couple of other Swedish authors besides Liffner and I have this to say: The Swedish are dark people.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas

At some point I decided I wanted to learn to quilt. My mom and I joined a group of retirees who quilted together on Wednesdays, making one quilt a year. They agreed to teach us the basics. One quilt square later I put the quilting down but picked up an appreciation for the difficulty of careful piecing. During our conversations one of the women mentioned the book The Persian Pickle Club, a novel whose central theme is quilting. Both my mom and I read it, thankful to our indirect introduction to Sandra Dallas’ works. Since then neither of us have become master quilters, but we have both read all of Sandra Dallas’ books. Prayers for Sale could be one of my favorites (or Tallgrass… or maybe The Persian Pickle Club), although I would not have said as much until nearly the end of the book.

Dallas has a very specific audience for her novels; most of them deal with the history of the American West and/or Midwest, often Colorado. And quilting usually plays some role in the story. Prayers for Sale is not an exception. The story revolves around two women living in a small mining town in Depression-era Colorado. To be honest, the subject did not appeal to me overmuch (yes I’m a historian but I have always found Colorado history to be booooring). When I read the acknowledgements at the beginning I was not won over either. It appeared that the book was a series of short stories woven together to tell a larger plot. If not done well, woven together stories can be tedious.

There are certain chapters which I felt were heavy-handed in creating a logic to combine the main narrative and the individual story. From time to time it felt too contrived. However, the end redeemed the whole book. When I am sitting in public transportation trying to keep myself from crying over the conclusion of a story, I consider the book a success. Dallas wove together all the disparate stories in an admittedly convenient way but an overall appealing and reflective way. By the end of the book I appreciated the various stories because they did explain the main character whose role was to be a storyteller to keep the history of the area alive.

My mom (the only other person I know whose read all of Dallas’ books and the one who gives me the books to read) has suggested more than once that Dallas’ novels would be effective in a history classroom. She is successful at weaving together accurate historical detail with sympathetic literary characters. While I don’t know many teachers who would take the time to let students explore the stories in a novel, I can see a very genuine place for Dallas’ works – it would engage students who find the standard lecture/note history class unappealing. And it might introduce a whole new generation to both storytelling and quilting.

All in all, a book I am very glad I read.