Sunday, December 02, 2018

What I'm Reading Now

Tana French, The Witch Elm

I'll pretty much read anything Tana French writes. Among other things, I love her use of Irish dialect. This one has an unreliable narrator, and also a fairly unlikable narrator. It's a mystery novel, more or less, as French's novels always are.

Early on in the novel, the main character, Toby, is badly injured. The injury leaves him unable to trust his own memory. He ends up at The Ivy House, his family house, where he and his cousins spent their summers and holidays growing up. Then a body is found out in the Witch Elm in the house's garden -- a boy who was murdered ten years before.

Because Toby can't trust his mind, or his memory, he can't be sure what is true. He doesn't know to believe about how the body got in the garden. This is where French's first-person point of view really pays off. Because Toby doesn't know, we don't know either.

As with all of French's novels, this one is page-turner, filled with great characters and a twisty little mystery.

Johanna Sinisalo, The Core of the Sun 

I read this one for the science fiction class I'm teaching next semester. It's a feminist dystopian work, set in a mythic near-future, grown out of an alternate past in which Finland began practicing 'domestication' of women around 1870. Women were bred like foxes or dogs, so that the adult traits were bred out of their species, and the juvenile traits reinforces (a process called neoteny, which I'm pretty sure you can't actually sex-select, but let's go with it).

By 2016, which is more or less the year the novel is set in, women are either elois or morlocks -- elois being slender childlike blonde creatures, stupid and obedient; morlocks being dark-haired and stolid, built for labor. Morlocks are sterilized at puberty; elois are married young, and often beaten to death by their owner-husbands, or remanded into state custody when their owner-hsubands grow tired of them.

The novel is told from the point of view of Vera, a morlock born into the body of an eloi, who is planning an escape from Finland, but who wants to find her missing sister (an actual eloi) first. As with most dystopian novels, it spends a great deal of time taking us through the culture.

Vera is also a junkie -- addicted to chili peppers, which are illegal in this dystopia. I'm still trying to work out what this might mean. I have a feeling there's some obvious metaphor I am missing.

I like the structure of this novel a lot: diary entries, snippets from history texts, school essays, newspaper articles. It reminds me of Dracula, a bit.

Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South

I read this one mainly because I'm reading Ursula Le Guin in order to review her for Strange Horizons, and she mentions Gaskell's works. It's one of the Industrial Novels, written about the problems of industrial England -- in this case Manchester. Gaskell did her time in Manchester, living with her minister husband there, so she knew the lives of the mill workers. The book is worth reading for those details alone.

On the other hand, it's very clear that Gaskell is on the side of the mill owners in this book. She thinks the workers who join unions and go on strike for higher pay are fools -- she honestly believes that the mill owners are paying workers as much as they can, and to ask for more pay is not just unreasonable, it is entirely unrealistic. (We're still seeing this notion with people today, who claim raising the minimum wage will destroy American business.)

In contrast, Gaskell presents the mill owners as God-like heroes, creating the economy England ex nihilo -- and certainly creating it without any help from the mill workers they hold in such contempt.

The two classes, those who own the mills and other property, and those who work for the owners, are two different sorts of beings. Both are human: Gaskell is clear about that. But one, the workers, should be submissive. Like a child, these workers should do as they are told. They should ask for anything they want, and obey the owners. The other, the owner and creator, gives orders and can expect obedience. He is wise, knows best, and never need explain anything to anyone. The workers must trust him to do what is best, as children trust their father.

Margaret Hale is our main character. She comes from the rural South into the industrial North, and briefly wavers between the two classes -- worker and owner. She is, for a few months, not quite sure which class is justified in the strike, or to which class she belongs. But never fear! It is the owner class. Soon she sets the workers straight in their mistaken belief that they have a right to strike, or demand fair working conditions, and all rights itself in the end.

This is a very readable book, but the classicism might make you queasy.

Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered

I'm just not sure how I feel about Barbara Kingsolver. I liked her first three books a lot, and then didn't much like her next few books. This one is readable, but odd.

It's certainly a book for our times: the premise is a family -- an immigrant grandparent, parents, 20-something child, and infant grandchild -- are, like many of us, broke. They inherit a house which has been in the family for generations, and all of them move into it together. The father had a (terrible) job at a local university; the mother is a freelance writer; the daughter works various minimum wage jobs; the grandfather is dying.

Once they have moved in, they find the house is not built to code, and is, in fact, falling to pieces around them. Also the dying grandfather's health insurance sucks. Also, he's rabidly far-right, and because of his dementia says appalling things, most of them in Greek, luckily. (Everyone in the family at least understands Greek, though only the grandfather and the husband, his son, speak it.)

Meanwhile, interspersed with the story of this family, we have flashbacks to the story of another family, about a century earlier, who lived (as we think) in the same house. (It is also not to code, it is also falling down. We wonder through much of the book how, if the house is in such bad shape, it can still be standing a century later -- but as it develops, the houses are not the same. Oops, spoilers.)

All of this is obviously heavily freighted with anvilicious metaphorical meaning, as Kingsolver's books tend to be. It is readable and engaging, and I stuck with it to the end, but I don't know that I would read it twice.

Carrie Vaughn, Martians Abroad

A lot of YA books are actually being written for adults these days, but this one is definitely aimed at kids, and younger teens at that. It's a ripping yarn of the sort we saw during the 1950s and 1960s -- it's been compared to Heinlein's Red Planet, not without cause.

Here, a pair of siblings from the management class of the fledgling colony on Mars are sent to an upper-class boarding school on Earth. Their mother, who runs the colony, sends them, without giving them a sensible explanation, so that from the start we suspect something is up. Polly, our point of view character, is something like Podkayne, from another of Heinlein's books, Podkayne of Mars; Charles, her twin brother, is a bit like Clark from that novel, except older and not nearly so sociopathic. (He's a bit of a sociopath.)

So we have a fish-out-of-water story; and a boarding school story; and a travelogue, since the boarding school takes its very wealthy students on field trips around Earth and to its moon; and a mystery. What is up with Polly and Charles' mother?

It's a lot of fun, in other words, even if it isn't exactly original. Also, Polly and Charles are a lot more likable than Podkayne and Clark.

Rex Stout, Fer-de-Lance, League of Frightened Men, Too Many Cooks, Some Buried Caesar

Rex Stout wrote mystery novels, among other things, from the early years of the 20th century until the 1960s. His Nero Wolfe novels, which all of these are, are his most famous. Some Buried Caesar was a novel assigned to me in my American Lit II class, back when I was an undergrad, and it was my first introduction to Rex Stout. What I remember most about the class is how the other students whine and moaned about having to read a mystery novel. "This isn't literature," one of them complained to the professor. "What are we supposed to do with this?"

I read Some Buried Caesar for that class, and then a ton of other novels by Rex Stout -- this was back in the days when we were limited to the books we could find in local libraries and bookstores. Previous to the internet, there was no other way to get books (or rather no way that I knew about -- I could have ordered books via the bookstores, if I had known that, but I didn't).

Anyway! When I put my books in order last summer, I found the two Rex Stout novels I had bought, way back then -- Fer-de-Lance and Some Buried Caesar.  And when I was sick, I re-read them, and then read the Nero Wolfe books our local library has, and then bought a few (Too Many Cooks, League of Frightened Men) from Thrift Books, which I highly recommend, by the way.

These are all early Nero Wolfe novels, written in the 1930s, and I'll admit I am reading them more for the pleasure of visiting that era and Nero Wolfe's house and life in that era, than for the actual mysteries. Though the mysteries are just fine.

In Too Many Cooks, for instance, Wolfe travels by train to West Virginia to attend a kind of convention -- he's a gourmand, and this is a meeting of the 15 best chefs in the world. There is of course a murder and subsequent mystery attached to it, but most of the pleasure of the book comes from traveling by train in the 1930s, and visiting a West Virginia resort, and watching Stout write about racism* in the 1930s, since the West Virginia resort is staffed almost entirely by local black men, who are being set up for the murder.

Stout is a bit of a jingoistic patriot, and definitely a conservative, but this was before conservatives turned bat-shit crazy. He's an old-style conservative, in other words, which makes him (by current standards) very nearly a progressive.

The books are all told through the point of view of Archie Goodwin, Wolfe's secretary and go-fer, who in these earliest books is written as a bit of a dope. (He gets smarter later.) The later books are not as good as those written in the 1930s and 1940s, but all of them are readable.

*When people lecture me about "presentism," and tell me that people back then didn't have the same attitudes "we" have today, so we can't judge them by our standards, fap fap fap, Rex Stout is one of the writers I think about. Sinclair Lewis is another.


Jenny F. Scientist said...

My dad had/has a complete set of paperback Rex Stouts (including the non Nero Wolfe ones) so I've read them all! A delight.

delagar said...

I'm jealous! Our library only has about half the Nero Wolfe novels, and only two non-Wolfe.