The Weird Sisters

3/4/12 On days when my older brother buried my favorite doll in the backyard (this happened more than once; your dad was a typical big brother, dearest Laura), I remember strongly wishing that I had two sisters instead of a brother and a sister. The three female protagonists of this new-to-paperback novel by Eleanor Brown re-kindled my fascination with all-girl families. Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia — we meet them as adults — return to their parents’ home in a college town near Columbus, Ohio because of their mother’s struggle with breast cancer. None of them wants to be there — even the oldest who thinks she does. Over the course of the novel, the characters all learn more about themselves and each other. The potential for closeness, we find out in a wonderful surprise flashback toward the end of the book, has always been there. But they are different in their outlooks, passions and even lack thereof. Brown fills out each character with believable detail. Remarkably, she uses the first person plural, “we,” for much of the book. The “we” generally includes only two of the sisters watching the progress or mistakes of a third. However, as those who make up the “voice” shift, the voice is fluid, and somehow the “we” becomes a kind of “close third” person narrator — not the up close and personal of a first person singular “I,” but also not an inclusive, single but plural point of view. Brown’s narrative technique is original and surprising and works so well in a story where the siblings have always been, but not fully recognized that they are, part of a unit. Even when bonds unit them, they remain individuals.

As part of the promotion for the book — which has worked out really well seeing that today The Weird Sisters made it to the New York Times trade fiction best seller list, not to say it didn’t deserve that on its own merits — Penguin Books USA (twitter handle @PenguinUSA) began a Twitter book club, with the hashtag #readpeguin that has met at random, but announced, times during the past few weeks. I have been able to be there for a few of the discussions, as has Eleanor Brown (twitter handle: @EleanorWrites). Since people participating have been supposedly reading only a few chapters at a time, there has been much speculation about future action: “Maybe the father has a secret too,” someone wondered. Interesting to me, though, have been discussions about the family. No real spoilers here, but when the distant father, able to communicate only through quotes from Shakespeare’s plays (even the Sonnets don’t count), to the point that his letters are pages taken from the plays with lines highlighted and commented upon, shows his love for the girls, people said, “oh, he’s a loving father.” No, he’s a horribly distant father who loves his children. He is an emotional cripple. His relationship with his spacey wife, also loving but not quite there for her daughters, excludes the girls and, I believe, induces the problems the young women all have with relationships. Twitter readers also fixated on sibling birth order. These women embody some stereotypes about the oldest, middle and youngest siblings in a family. That’s OK. Society has an impact on who we are. But believe me, the stereotypes can be turned on their heads. After my brother’s death from a rare blood disorder 20 years ago, I became the oldest child, even though I was, technically, the youngest. Brown’s siblings, interestingly, also step out of their stereotypical birth order roles when circumstances demand new behaviors.

Personally, I find the academic, book-loving family interesting. A couple of years ago my son and daughter were in the back seat making up a conversation, complete with fake accents, between Nietzsche and Freud. “You know, other families don’t do things like this,” my son’s girlfriend piped up from the middle seat. My kids have grown up in a highly intellectualized atmosphere with a philosophy professor for a dad and an English Ph.D. for a mom. Yeah, there’s a lot of sports watched on TV, and my daughter and I were pretty faithful to Project Runway. I mean, unlike the Andreas household in Weird Sisters, we don’t just live in books. Still, there’s a warning here to all parents who don’t get down to the nitty gritty of their children’s worlds: Pay attention to your children, when they’re little, when they’re teens, when they’re adults. Everything they say and do is important, so don’t miss it the way pater and mater Adreas have in this book.

I had a few quibbles with the plot, but they’re minor. In one scene two of the sister smoke pot together and lose their inhibitions. I felt it was a little contrived. I’m also not convinced that in the end everything seems romantically on the right path for all the sisters. For one of the women (no spoilers), considering where she’s living, what’s she’s done and the path she’s chosen, a love life does not seem to me to be a definite. I think Brown could have done better here. Otherwise, though, the book is nearly perfect. It will be loved by book clubs that have not yet discovered it because there is so much to talk about. Women especially will be drawn to its pages. But — yoohoo, men out there: open the covers. Great characters and a compelling plot will greet you. (Click on the cover picture to get to the Barnes & Noble website.)

Earwig and the Witch

2/29/12 My favorite parts of the newest (and perhaps last) book from the late Diana Wynne Jones are the illustrations by Caldecott Medal winner Paul O. Zelinsky, who also happens to be my husband’s first-cousin-once-removed as well as our good friend. (I do not mention this to be “transparent.” Rather, I brag.) I love the electricity of the lines, especially the ones that capture Earwig’s pigtails. I love the expressions of the face made so vivid but a small mark or shading. Yes, Paul really did it up again here. So, OK, now to the story. Everyone who knows children’s books loves Diana Wynne Jones, and Earwig and the Witch is charming, funny and even a little scary. Just a little. Just the right amount for a eight- or nine-year-old reading a chapter book on his own, or the six-year-old who is making friends with the mysterious heroine in nightly installments. Earwig is terrific: smart, resourceful, cheerful, loyal, loving, and she appreciates good food. She’s also wily enough to get those around her to do what she wants and the mean old witch and warlock turn out to be not so horrible after all. I am truly sorry there won’t be many sequels. But my great nieces and nephew can be assured that copies of this wonderful tale for middle readers (and even younger kids) will be winging their way to them soon. (A click on the cover picture will take you to the Barnes & Noble website.)

The Book Thief

2/18/12 It took me five years to get to Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. The first time someone mentioned it to me, I was surprised I didn’t know about it, but then not so surprised because it is classified as a “children’s book.” The next person who mentioned the book to me had just read a short story of mine that has a two paragraph coda describing the Nazis shooting the Jewish denizens of a small town in Byelorussia. My thought then was that this person wasn’t very well read — one story that involves the Nazis reminded her of another. A few other people tried to describe the book to me, but gave up. Now I know why. The Book Thief is transcends a simple summary. And it is no more a children’s book than is The Diary of Anne Frank. Zusak’s narrator is Death (with a capital D), who had much to do during World War II. The story he tells is his own, but also that of a girl, Leisel, an orphan who is left by her mother in the hands of a foster family, a child at first unable to deal with the abandonment by her birth parents and the death of her younger brother. At the hurried burial in a random cemetery, Leisel snatches a book, a guide to gravedigging. This strange manual becomes her “horn book” as her foster father, barely literate himself, slowly teaches Leisel to read. Leisel goes on to steal more books — from someone who knows she is doing so, in fact, which help her and her neighbors through the eventual allied raids. Another character, a Jew in hiding, hides behind the pages of Mein Kampf, which he eventually paints over and uses as a new canvass for tales written for Leisel. Death, too, is a book thief, and instead of snatching the young girls life tells the reader her story. The layers of plot and meaning are ingenious, and Zusak’s style is original — leading off chapters with summaries, bold-facing and block-quoting significant words. Maybe because his targeted audience is children, Zusak does provide a somewhat happy ending between the bombed out ruins and the walking-dead Jews. But that’s OK for the adult audience too. Zusak is not heavy handed, and, considering the subject, his achievement is remarkable. I downloaded this to my iPad, but it would be a good gift for any teens in your life who think literature isn’t just about dystopias or vampires. Or if that is what they think books are, this could be a game changer. For adults — don’t be silly like I was. The book was published in 2007. I’m glad I finally opened (so to speak) its pages. (A click on the cover picture will take you to the Barnes & Noble site.)

The Orphan Master’s Son

2/4/12 Remarkable. Ingenious. I could end my review of Adam Johnson’s new book right there. But, first, let me tell you something about this imaginative and profoundly chilling tale about North Korea. There are three intertwining streams of narrative. The main one comes from the title character, a chameleon type man who wants at first to convince his audience that he is not really an orphan, that the North Korean government whisked his mother away to Pyngyang because she was beautiful, that his father, the Orphan Master, treats him badly so that no one will suspect their relationship. Evidently, being an orphan in North Korea is something about which to be ashamed. Better to be a torturer, an informer, a robot. Interspersed at increasing frequency is the story of a member of the secret police who believes that he can extract people’s confessions without torture. For each of his subjects, he writes a biography that no one ever sees — except for perhaps someone from the propaganda ministry, who will twist the real story into something blasted from loud speakers into everyone’s home and workplace. And that brings us to the third narrator: the propaganda coming from the loud speaker. In the end — and this isn’t a spoiler — the reader has a good idea about the true stories of almost all the characters. But no matter who they are, the police state marches on in ways unimaginable even to readers who familiar with the political and social climate of North Korea. I know living conditions are truly horrible there. People are controlled and famine is frequent. Citizens are so isolated they actually think they live in the most powerful country on earth. There is no other truth for them. Johnson’s two main characters are seeking truth, but it comes at an enormous cost to them and people they know. Some of the smaller stories are hypnotic — the sailors who tattoo pictures of their wives over their hearts, the American girls who are rowing around the world, the bible-believing Texas senator and his wife who treat a visiting North Korean delegation to a barbeque (a move so totally out of place, but the clueless Americans become likeable in this tale where they would be an object of ridicule in another). Eventually, everything ties together; we have an ending, several in fact, though only one is the truth. The Orphan Master’s Son is the first great novel of 2012. (Click on the cover picture to go to the Barnes & Noble site.)

The Marriage Plot

1/15/12 When the Fall 2011 lists came out and I saw the Jeffrey Eugenides had a new novel, I was all “ooo, that.” Then came the so-so reviews, and my interest flagged a bit. Still, a couple weeks ago I downloaded it to my iPad, and, wow, those negative reviews? Totally wrong. First a warning: The Marriage Plot is an “intellectual” novel. There are lots of references to philosophers and writers that were in vogue in the 1980s, when the action takes place. Also, the protagonists are students at Brown University. So we have that. Well, yeah, I read most of the stuff that Madeleine and Mitchell and Leonard drone on and on about, including Roland Barthes. I did get my Ph.D. in English just when everyone at Yale was paying more attention to Derrida and Lacan than to the words writers were putting on the page. Luckily, I was at Columbia, and I could get away with writing a dissertation that totally skirted the semioticians, structuralists and the deconstructionists and just talked about the stories on the page (the Arthurian romances that had originally been inked onto vellum). So in many ways, this trio and their friends are living my worst nightmare, and I found Eugenides’ dissection of that era’s literary wobbly house of cards amusing — and painful. I wouldn’t want to have to read that kind of criticism again; I wouldn’t want to be a graduate student again; I wouldn’t want to suffer love the way these young people do. Suffer they do, but no more than the characters in a Jane Austen novel. Except in a Jane Austen novel, as Madeleine’s senior thesis points out, it’s all about getting married in the end. Not so here in a world where bi-polar disorder was still treated with lithium and homosexuality regarded as not quite normal. Again, it is the 1980s. Garth Risk Hallberg’s essay in today’s New York Times, Why Write Novels at All,” touches on an issue relevant to this novel and to baby boomer writers and readers: just who are these Gen X people in the novel. They’re too young to be us, too old to be our children. Reading this book is a bit like visiting the zoo and watching some species that resembles us but isn’t quite us. Don’t expect to be gripped by this novel. But do expect to be moved. And a little heartbroken. (Clicking on the book cover will take you to the Barnes & Noble site.)