Review: At Large and at Small, Anne Fadiman; or, A Review Post that Took a Turn for the Introspective

Verdict: An excellent and eclectic collection of essays.

I liked-not-loved the first Anne Fadiman collection I read, her book Ex Libris, which contained essays only about books. I think the problem may have been the similarity in subject matter — when everything’s books, it’s easy for me to feel like I’m in an argument with Anne Fadiman about one thing or another. The essays in At Large and at Small cover a much wider range of topics, from ice cream to Arctic explorers to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the constant throughout is Anne Fadiman’s enthusiastic interest in and affection for each of these subjects.

Her voice as an essayist is enthusiastic and subjective and intelligent and wry (all qualities I like in an essayist). She moves easily from her own childhood to the Darkest Polar North, as comfortable poking fun at herself as at arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, whose abandonment of his family troubles her about as much as his abandonment of his men on one arctic mission. (It’s not clear whether he intended to come back for them; Fadiman believes that he did, but who knows?)

Some of the essays — like the ice cream one and the butterfly collecting — were less aligned with my interests, but Anne Fadiman’s writing puts it over. She’s so interested in things, and if there is one thing I can consistently say about my opinions on people, it’s that I like people who like liking things. (Yes, I used the verb “like” three times in one clause. Deal with it.) Even when she’s writing an essay that’s critical of her subject, like “Procrustes and the Culture Wars,” she’s clearly delighted with her metaphor (not in an obnoxious, self-aggrandizing way! in an endearing way!). And the writing is just fun to read:

I do not suggest that the attractions of a single set of marching orders are easy to resist. It is far more work to start from scratch every time you open a book than to let someone else make up your mind before you read the first word.

This, y’all. This right here. I admit that I have let myself fall victim to this with particular authors. Nathaniel Hawthorne, for instance, hated women writers. Good. Me and Nathaniel Hawthorne have no further business to transact. He will not like that I exist, and I will not read any of his books or stories. That frees me up to read other nineteen-century writers. I like this kind of exclusion because it makes my life simpler, and I have made up my mind about all of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s books without the bother of reading them (except The Scarlet Letter and some of his short stories, which I did not care for).

Anne Fadiman argues (persuasively, but I stick to my guns because SHUT UP NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE) that this is maybe a lousy idea:

But if you believe, as I do, that great literature can be written by bad people, then your library can remain intact, no matter how much respect you lose for the authors as individuals.

It’s hard for me though! Respect and love are intertwined for me in this really instinctive way, and I’ve never figured out how to separate them. It is hard for me to bother about people I don’t admire or at least respect. I have a hard time being interested in people who were not sufficiently bothered about being good to their loved ones (like Charles Dickens or Anne Sexton), for instance — it’s not that I would never read them, but it’s that I sort of veer away from them. Even Milton I did not feel the same way about after learning how he treated his daughters. I still like Paradise Lost a lot, but it’s impossible for me to be unreservedly enthusiastic about it, the way I was when I read it for the first time in college. You know?

(To take it to a sports place: Watching Drew Brees play football (or like, Jimmy Graham or Adrian Peterson) fills my heart with unabated happiness. He is a good person and good at his job. When he throws a touchdown pass, there is nothing in me but joy. If I discovered that he or one of those other guys had beaten his girlfriend or wife, I would stop enjoying watching them succeed. I am not in control of this. It’s just what happens, willy-nilly. When I discover that someone is an actively good person, I enjoy watching them play football more.)

I guess the exception is funny people? If people are funny? Funny, or admirable. One of those two things. Ideally both, like Stephen Colbert or Amy Poehler or W. Kamau Bell. But funniness goes a long way. I love Oscar Wilde with a fierce and unrelenting love, and he is not really the dude you admire.

Fadiman also takes up a question that I’ve discussed in this space before, which is how to deal with books whose authors appear not to want you. I feel this way about Ernest Hemingway, for example — that he not only wasn’t writing for me but that he doesn’t acknowledge the legitimacy of someone like me. And there are authors like this throughout the Western canon. (More on this later! I am reading The Madwoman in the Attic and I have a lot of thoughts.) Anne Fadiman says:

What should you do when a work’s language excludes you? If the very words leave you on the sidelines — because, for instance, they are addressed to men and you are a woman — should you stick your tongue out and say, “Well if that’s the way you feel about it, I reject you too”?

And I still don’t know the answer. Should you do that? Should you say, reasonably enough, “There are plenty of fascinating and beautiful books in this world that don’t exclude the possibility of me as a reader, and the number of books I am able to read in my life is finite. I am not going to be bothered with Hemingway anymore”? Or should you persist because you want to be able to participate in the cultural conversation?

Well, this post turned into a discussion of authorial biography, which I did not exactly intend. But weigh in please! Does admiration factor into your reading enjoyment, and if so, how much? Do you, like me, rejoice to hear stories about the kindness of your beloved authors? Does it sadden your heart to hear about their failings? Do you wish Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen had not trash-talked each other because it forces you to take sides in your mind? (I love Charlotte Bronte better but find her criticism of Jane Austen unfair.) Are you able to completely separate an author’s biography from his or her writing?

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Review: In Great Waters, Kit Whitfield

Here is the premise of In Great Waters. It’s a hell of a premise so be prepared. In an alternate version of our world, mermaids and humans live side by side, connected by alliances like regular nations and by the existence of hybrids (bastards) who are half-mermaid and half-human. Such creatures have bifurcated tails and human reproductive organs; they can walk on land and hold their breath for as long as fifteen minutes. They are also, by tradition, the rulers of Europe. In the sixteenth (I think) century, a hybrid child called Henry, cast up on land by his mother, is raised in secret as a rebel claimant to the throne of England. The bloodline of the deepsmen (mermaids) has become corrupted after many centuries of inbreeding, and the presumptive heir to the English throne is severely inbred to the point that he isn’t able to understand much of what goes on around him. Plotting, you understand, is afoot.

If Emma Donoghue, working off a plot outline by Megan Whalen Turner, were to write an alternate-history book set in the sixteenth? I’m guessing? century, about a world where mermaids were a crucial part of the political and military landscape, I expect it would come out a lot like In Great Waters. Half of the book is from Henry’s point of view, as he struggles to adapt to human life and understand human ideas; and the other half is from the point of view of one of the (uselessly female!) princesses of England, Anne, who is caught up among the many intrigues of the English court. The reader gets to see what the English court is like from the inside — Anne’s intelligent, formidable mother working tirelessly to preserve the throne for her daughters — and from the outside — Henry’s keepers struggling to find a way to put him on the throne before some other nation’s prince takes over the English throne.

Henry is not a character designed to be lovable. He is coldly manipulative of the men who take him in (though they, of course, are manipulating him too) and contemptuous of many human ideas and values that you most likely think a lot of. But although his values are not mine, he does have values, and one of the joys of the book is Henry’s developing ideas about what he believes and where he is willing to compromise. Very sensibly, Kit Whitfield gives him a friend, John, the son of one of Henry’s co-conspirators, which gives the reader a chance to see another side of Henry besides just the alien.

Meanwhile, Anne gets all the court intrigue, which of course makes her interesting to me. Anne has cultivated a reputation as a pious idiot, a sensible idea if you want not to be noticed, but problematic should a time arise when you want to be noticed. Just as it was fun to see Henry — a character who manages to be all agency in spite of his circumstances — discover his values, it was fun to see Anne — a character whose values and faith have been important to her all along — develop her agency as a political force to be reckoned with. Clare, who recommended this book a while ago, was a little disappointed by the anticlimactic ending; and although I was too, I didn’t mind as much as I might otherwise have done, because it was so great to see Anne taking care of business.

So yeah! That is In Great Waters. Historical fiction. With mermaids.

Elinor Lipman Redux

And now we return to the subject of my newest comfort author, Elinor Lipman! Acquiring comfort authors as an adult can be difficult because there’s such a vast universe of books to read, and I have the internet as an endless recommendation machine, whereas young Jenny often checked out the same book from the library over and over again until it became as familiar as a teddy bear. But Elinor Lipman’s books were like a teddy bear right away, so I was very excited to see two — a new novel and a collection of essays — pop up on Netgalley earlier this year. Essays first!

Essays: I Can’t Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays

The essays in this book are divided into essays on family, essays on writing, essays from a column at the Boston Globe that Lipman wrote regularly, and essays about life since losing her husband. Of these, I enjoyed the writing ones probably the most. The ones about her family were affectionate and touching, particularly the essay about losing her husband to a “rare, untreatable, and fatal” form of dementia. Though the essay — like all of the essays in the collection — was short, Lipman said a lot about what it’s like to see someone you love fall victim to dementia.

Anyway her essays about writing were the ones I enjoyed most unreservedly. It’s fun to hear about the process creative artists go through to make their [whatever — novel, play, production, movie, etc]. Lipman talks about naming characters, about how finding the right name can make a previously fuzzy character snap into focus.

In any carton of manuscripts entered in a competition I am judging, the strong, young, sympathetic, attractive protagonists tend to be named Kate. Runner-up is Anne, Annie, Anna: old-fashioned yet modern, feminine yet strong. Kates and Annas can ride horses, drink, and change tires, but will still look beautiful in their understated wedding dresses, freckled shoulders gleaming at their beach nuptials.

Heeheehee. NB two of my favorite people in the universe are called Kate and Anna. But, see? How Elinor Lipman is charming and funny when writing about writing?

The Boston Globe columns were much my least favorite, so I won’t say as much about them. “May I Recommend”, Lipman notes, was the reason she was eased out of the column-writing rotation, and while that was probably a disproportionate response, and although I understood that Lipman meant to talk about parenthood being the right decision for her, I could see why people got annoyed:

What if we’d been the husband and wife in my cautionary tale, a true one, about a childless couple who stuck to their guns? They spearheaded a support group called Nonparents Anonymous and were quoted in the Boston Globe decades ago describing the freedom, the spontaneity, the money saved, the creativity nurtured, blah blah blah. Today I know through mutual friends that they are divorced. But not just divorced: divorced and furious. The ex-wife claims he ruined her life with his nonparental nonsense. He says it’s her own damn fault. She left town, postmenopausal, never to be heard from again. He’s single, eligible, and searching for a wife of childbearing age.

When I got to the end of the essay collection, I felt that these were not essays that needed to be collected. Some of them were quite good, but they were all magazine pieces, if that makes sense. They were designed to amuse you as you page through the New York Times or whatever; they weren’t meant to be read one after another. Or maybe I am just biased against reading tons of short things by one author all in one gulp; cf., I never read short story collections ever.

And now on to the book I enjoyed v.v. much, Lipman’s new novel, The View from Penthouse B.

Recent widow Gwen-Laura has moved in with her younger sister Margot following Margot’s very public, very scandalous divorce. Though they live in a penthouse Margot owns outright, they’re both struggling financially following the loss of their husbands to death and prison. To make ends meet, they take in a boarder called Anthony, who makes them cupcakes and gossips with them about their love lives and money-making potential. Margot’s ex gets out of prison and moves into the apartment downstairs from their penthouse, and Gwen contemplates starting a dating service for people who don’t necessarily want to have sex.

Of Lipman’s books, this is probably the one that’s the most like The Family Man, although The Family Man remains my favorite if only by virtue of being the first delightful Lipman surprise in my life. Anthony is a Thalia-like force in Gwen-Laura’s life, and Margot is the inevitable (I don’t mean that in a nasty way, I again emphasize that I love lovely Elinor Lipman) Elinor Lipman character who’s wacky and impractical and sort of annoying and flaky at times and sometimes the protagonists want them out of their lives but they are basically good-hearted.

Like The Family Man, The View from Penthouse B is about a group of people whose lives have room to get better, and do get better. They experience missteps and unhappiness along the way, and the futures they build for themselves are far from perfect. Although they have all been hurt by people they loved, they only improve their lots by being open to other people again. And because it is Elinor Lipman, that openness pays off in happiness dividends as the book goes on.

I basically have no complaints here. I want to reread some of Elinor Lipman’s backlist now. I shall read The Inn at Lake Devine because that one was especially lovely.

Note: I received these e-books from the publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Tighter, Adele Griffin

You know who Adele Griffin is not? She is not Adele Geras. I thought she was the whole time I was reading her book Tighter. My bad, Adele Griffin. You can see how I would make that mistake.

Adele Geras is the author of this book my middle school librarian gave me (I helped her in the library so she would often let me pick out a book at Book Fair and she’d buy it for me), a dark retelling of Sleeping Beauty called Watching the Roses in which the protagonist has withdrawn from regular life after being raped by the gardener or something. I don’t remember it that well because it scared the living shit out of me and I hid it in the room farthest away from my bedroom so I’d never have to think about it again. It is probably still there if nobody has found it and donated it to the library book sale yet. I don’t remember anything about the plot except that the Prince Charming character was called Jean-Luc and when the protagonist, Alice, gets raped, the rapist tells her not to scream and he says “Or I’ll cut you, Alice. I’ll cut your pretty face.”

It was very upsetting for middle-school me and still feels upsetting to grown-up me. I never want to read that scary scary book ever again.

Anyway! Adele Griffin is not affiliated with that book! Adele Griffin is the author of Picture the Dead, a spooky book I have been wanting to read for a while. Tighter is also spooky although I did not end up loving it that much. It’s about a teenager called Jamie who goes to work as an au pair to a little girl called Isa on the island of Little Bly. Before leaving home, Jamie stole a bunch of undifferentiated pills (sleeping pills, pain pills, etc) from her mother and takes them to cope with the deaths by suicide of two of her family members, whose ghosts have been haunting her. After a short time on Little Bly, she learns that she bears an uncanny resemblance to her charge’s last au pair, who died in a plane crash with her boyfriend. Jamie cannot stop thinking about the dead couple, Jessie and Peter, and she begins to believe that Isa’s older brother, Milo, is being possessed by Peter’s spirit.

I love a ghost story, and I thought I would love this one. It did not prove to be the case, however. The atmosphere of the house and the island didn’t chill me the way I wanted them to, and the climax of the book felt sudden and unearned. And plus, the major twist(s) of the story, which I will spoil for you in this paragraph so stop reading if you don’t want to know, has been done before enough times that it’s not so interesting to me anymore. It turns out Milo isn’t real. Isa never had a brother but just played a game about having a brother called Milo, and everyone thought Jamie was just playing along with Isa. This would have been fine as a plot twist if Milo had been a ghost, but instead he was a hallucination. Because Jamie is schizophrenic.

I’m interested in mental illness and I like reading books with mentally ill characters, as I do think there should be a wider range of representation of mental illness in popular culture. But to bring it in at the end like that, as the resolution to the mystery, irritated me. If it’s a ghost story then let it be a ghost story, or if it’s a story about, like, abuse of prescription drugs then let it be that. Introducing schizophrenia as the solution to everything at the eleventh hour is not treating it with the respect it deserves to be treated with. (I felt.)

Of course, I could just be angry that it didn’t turn out to have real ghosts, and I’m shifting that anger to something I can be self-righteous about. WHO KNOWS.

Apart from that, which, since I read the end before I read theĀ  middle, was pissing me off throughout most of the book, it was a serviceable spooky story. Jamie’s kind of a Gillian-Flynn-style heroine, and I was willing to spend some time watching her kick around the island trying to figure out what was going on with Jessie and Peter and poor little Isa. If everyone had ended up being ghosts this review would still have been a 3-star review but it might not have been such a cranky 3-star review.

Review: Binny for Short, Hilary McKay

Oh I sure do like Hilary McKay, and I will tell you why. I like Hilary McKay because she doesn’t worry about inventing characters who don’t act and feel the way you tend to think likable characters should act and feel. Michael from Saffy’s Angel can’t be bothered with animals. Rose refuses to politely compliment her father’s art if she doesn’t think it’s any good. Binny from Binny for Short does not feel as sad as she knows she should feel about her father dying, even though he was a good father and she loved him.

Binny for Short is about a girl called Binny. After her father dies, her family is no longer able to keep Binny’s beloved dog Max; and Max goes to her grandmother, then is disposed of (to a loving family) by her awful Aunty Violet. Binny’s wrath about this is uncontainable, and although she works hard to be good to her mother, she holds a terrible grudge against Aunt Violet. It only gets worse when Aunt Violet dies and leaves her Cornwall cottage to Binny’s family. Guilty about her aunt’s death and still resentful of her for taking Max away, Binny makes an enemy of the boy next door, Gareth, and tries to sort out her new life in Cornwall.

Oddly, Binny for Short is more melancholy than the Casson family series, even though Binny is in a totally organized, non-dysfunctional family, and even though it has a happy ending. I checked in with my mother about whether I just found the book melancholy because melancholy things were happening that week, and she agrees that no, this is quite a melancholy book. Binny’s feelings about Max are hugely, unendingly sad, and she is full of anger and guilt. I love Hilary McKay for taking children’s feelings seriously, by the way. Children’s feelings are serious! Even as an adult, understanding the adults’ thought process re: Max, and the reasons that everything went down the way it did, I identified completely with what Binny was feeling all the way through.

Like the Casson books, Binny for Short is funniest when dealing with characters who are sort of matter-of-factly amoral, like Binny’s small brother James (prone to taking off his clothes in public to prove that he’s not a girl) and her sister’s best friend’s brother (does no favors for recent half-orphan friends of his sister). Rose Casson is this way in a lot of areas of her life (but not in many other very important areas! of course!), and it’s what makes her such a fun character to read.

Lovely Legal Sister bought this book from the UK for Mumsy’s birthday, and I sneakily read it when I was home for a visit. If you are based in America, you won’t regret buying it early from the Book Depository (the UK cover is much nicer); or you can wait until it comes out in the US on 23 July 2013. And if you haven’t read the Casson books, the first of which is Saffy’s Angel, may I also highly recommend that you get on that? You won’t regret it. You haven’t missed the window.

Changes are a-coming (and one of them is a podcast)

As some of you may know, I’ve been thinking about changing my blog name for a while now. I started up Jenny’s Books in college thinking that it would track my reading and entertain a few of my friends-and-relations. I really didn’t anticipate that it would last so long or that I would end up loving the book blogging community as much as I do. But so it has proved! So here’s the plan:

  1. I am renaming the blog. Yes! At last! I’m going to call it “Reading the End”. This is not the most hilarious of the blog names y’all recommended to me (that honor would go to Care’s idea, “Jenny’s Amazing and Not Boring Thoughts about Books and Other Cool Stuff You Need to Know About” or Kristen’s, “Thus Saith Jenny”), but it’s the one that I think will be most easily remembered, since almost everyone I asked mentioned the fact that I read the end before I read the middle.
  2. I am moving to a whole new site, a dot-com domain that I will own. The WordPress theme I’m going to use will be very clean and attractive; there will be a button you can click for a short(er) URL to each post; and the tags will be more clearly differentiated than in days past. I have been making some minor changes to the CSS and have proved to be a CSS GENIUS (hyperbole), so if there’s something you don’t love about the new theme when it shows up, I invite you to tell me so that I can make more CSS changes. Changing the CSS makes me feel powerful.
  3. The really really big news: I am starting a podcast. Eek! I am nervous about this part! I mentioned it very tentatively to Captain Hammer, and he responded with an outpouring of enthusiasm and ideas and offers of assistance. Thanks to enthusiasm from Captain Hammer and Miniature Former Roommate (woe! I miss you, Miniature Roommate!), I was brave enough to ask my friend Jenny (yes, we are both called Jenny) if she wanted to do a book podcast with me. And she did! So now we are going to do that. This is, like the new website, a work in progress. We did a test run yesterday and had a lot of fun, and I think we’re both really excited to record more.

So that’s what’s coming up over the next few months. If there are any books you particularly want us to talk about, or literary questions you would like us to address, you are (and will continue to be) strongly encouraged to email us at readingtheend (at) gmail (dot) com.