Sunday, November 22, 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audry Niffinegger

This book reads like a cross between the author’s first two books The_Time_Traveller’s_Wife and The_Three_Incestuous_Sisters. This is a story about two sets of twins-Elspeth and Edwina Noblin and Julia and Valentina Poole. Elspeth and Edwina are identical twins. Julia and Valentina (Edwina’s daughters) are symmetrical twins.

Elspeth and Edwina are estranged. When Elspeth dies of cancer, she leaves all her earthly possessions to Edwina’s daughters Julia and Valentina on the conditions that they live in her flat in London for a year and never admit their parents to it. The girls accept and move from their parents’ house in Illinois to the flat in London. A few months after the move, it becomes apparent to them and their neighbor (and Elspeth’s lover) Robert, that Elspeth is haunting the apartment.

I suggested in the first paragraph that this book was a cross between Niffenegger’s first two books. There are certain similarities between this book and The_Time_Traveller’s_Wife. In both stories the female lead is beautiful and rich and creative. Both stories are love stories and in both cases the male lead has a cool-but-quirky job. Henry is a librarian who works with rare books and Robert is a grad student studying (and volunteering at) Highgate Cemetery. Both stories have an element of the supernatural. And of course, both books involve older men and younger women.

The similarity between this book and The_Three_Incestuous_Sisters is that the relationship between Julia and Valentina, while not quite incestuous borders on being so. The two sleep in the same bed wrapped around each other and their relationship has to date, kept them from being seriously involved with anyone else because if one of the twins got a boyfriend (or even had sex) the other twin would be “left behind.”

A rule I learned in a creative writing class in high school is that for every one thing you tell the reader (“Valentina didn’t like the underground…She tried not to let Julia know that the Tube frightened her, but somehow Julia guessed.”) you must show the reader four other things through the characters’ actions. This book suffers from an excess of telling and not enough showing. This is partly because a good portion of the book takes place inside the characters heads. They state things to themselves (“If he met Valentina he would probably like her better. Everyone did.”) and we have to take their word for the truthfulness of these statements.

This book also suffers from a lack of sympathetic characters. Julia is holding her sister back by insisting that she not pursue an education or any interest. Martin has OCD, Robert displays a certain Humbert Humbertish creepiness. Elspeth is dead and not entirely benign and Valentina is willing to let her family (including her twin) think her to be dead in order to escape from her sister’s grasp.

The plot is interesting over all, although I feel that the first half or two thirds of the book is an introduction and some of the twists have a “I just pulled this out of my butt” feel to them.

I enjoy visiting the quirky worlds that Audrey Niffenegger creates-they’re full of artists and weirdos and people who genuinely love books. But the cast of characters in Her_Fearful_Symmetry is lacking in soul. I find it hard to believe that real people would do many of the things the characters do (particularly the two sets of twins). Perhaps that’s part of the point-maybe this book is a 400-page demonstration that Twins are Weird.

But perhaps I’m judging these characters too harshly. After all, most of the really weird/bad courses of action are taken by the twins when they’re in their early 20s. I don’t recall being over-burdened with good ideas myself at the age of 21.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Beverly Project- Six weeks in

I'm actually doing okay. While it pains me to admit this, I'm much better off over all that I was in Cambridge. There are many reasons for this but I think a major one is that while I live alone, I see more people socially than I did when I lived in Cambridge. This is not just better for me in the, general "laugh with friends and you'll live longer" way, but it also makes me less afraid of people in general. This is probably a good thing. While I still have some free-floating social anxiety, I also have concrete evidence that I can in fact interact with other people without annoying them or pissing them off or boring them.

For this I have Mike and Ellen to thank (and thank them I do-every morning when I wake up on the bed they donated to my cause.) Ellen came with me to look at this apartment (she actually found the apartment on Craig's List) and hugged me and took me to the beach when I started crying after visiting it. Mike took me to Target and BJ's (and made me laugh until I fell down at the ridiculous stuff they have there. I believe the killing blow was "Wow-here's enough Splenda to get yourself a flipper-baby."), helped me get furniture and took me to Sugar Magnolias and Dom's Trattoria. He also killed the big spider that I found on the bookshelf they're lending me.

There's more to this than just Mike and Ellen being wonderful people. (Or people just being nicer in general in Beverly than they were in Cambridge-my upstairs neighbors are friendly guys-I have no idea what my upstairs neighbors in Cambridge looked like.) And some of this is, in hind sight, so obvious that I kick myself.

In Cambridge I had given up on people-except for a few. I decided that since I wasn't any good at dealing with people I just wouldn't. I'd "outsource" people-dealing to Sean, who was much better at it than I was, I thought.

But (although I admit I may feel differently in February) I feel much better dealing with people now. Perhaps it helps that even if I don't yet (and may never) feel completely comfortable in my own skin, I'm a little more grounded now that I have my own place by myself. Perhaps it's that the people I meet socially through Mike and Ellen are people who I would have got on with better anyways (and therefore I should have spent more time with them anyways-der) than the people that Sean introduced me to. Perhaps it's the sea air (that certainly helps.)

It's still also kind of terrifying-having friends that are my friends-not Sean's. But I am cautiously optimistic.

This afternoon I was in Ellen's car (she was driving) with Ellen, Mike, Hiro, and Elisa and Mike started singing "South Australia" by the Pogues. I threw in an attempt at a Shane MacGowan scream (which Ellen said sounded like a Velociraptor) and then I found the tune in my iPod and Mike plugged it into their car's stereo system. We sang the Pogues (and Mike made the dog dance) while driving to Newburyport. I didn't know I was allowed to have this much fun anymore. And then it occurred to me that for some people this is the norm.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Year of Loving Dangerously

This is Ted Rall's new graphic novel. Ted Rall is a New York based lefty cartoonist. I first found his work in the New York Times online edition. He also writes a weekly political column.

I must admit that I was attracted to this book not just because I like Ted Rall's work but also because I too lived in New York City in 1984. And, coincidentally, I was also having a horrible year in 1984. I was in the fourth grade at the time. My attraction was historical and anthropological--I wanted to see what was going on in the cooler parts of my home town as I was struggling with long division in the suburbs.

This graphic novel is a departure from everything else I have read by Rall. This is a personal memoir in graphic form about the author's experiences in 1984-his "annus horriblis"-and how he survived getting kicked out of college, being homeless and unemployed. In his introduction Rall explains that part of his reason for writing this book is to show "how easy it is for anyone-even a white male attending an Ivy League school-to fall off the merry-go-round of U.S.-style laissez faire capitalism."

That theme is certainly timely. I know how close I am to falling off the edge of the world and I'm sure most of my friends and co-workers do as well. But I suspect there's another reason Rall chose to write this book--misery makes for a great story. There are certainly some cringe-inducingly miserable moments in the book, but it's clear that the main character can still see humor in the weird situations in which he lands.

The_Year_of_Loving_Dangerously reminds me a bit of Alison Bechdel's _Fun_Home. This is not just because both main characters-Ted and Alison-have the same haircut. Both books are graphic-memoirs about personal events and neither is author is afraid to go where angels fear to tread. Bechdel talks honestly about her dysfunctional family, her parents reaction to her coming out, getting her period for the first time and her deceased father's homosexuality.

Rall tells of being kicked out of college, stealing, and how he avoided sleeping on the street for a year when he was without an apartment by having numerous girlfriends.

In both cases I was not shocked at what was going on in the stories themselves so much as shocked at the author's willingness to tell about the situation. I was not shocked that Alison's dad seemed to care more for his house than his family-merely that she would admit to it. I was not shocked that Ted dealt with his homelessness by having multiple girlfriends-just that he was willing to write about it.

The other similarity in my mind is that these are both cartoonists whose work I had read for a long time, so that reading their memoirs was a bit like finding out more about an old friend's past.

The_Year_Of_Loving_Dangerously is also another great "New York City" story. Strange things-stranger than fiction things-are more likely to happen in New York than elsewhere because New York has more people than most other places, but even so, Ted seems to experience more than his share in a 12 month period.

On another note, although Ted Rall is a cartoonist, the artwork for this book is not his. This took me by surprise at first, but the collaboration works out well. Over all it's an interesting and enjoyable read. It will never be Business Casual Stag Devil Death Boy, but then again it's probably better for all of us that there's only one of him running around.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Little Friend-by Donna Tartt

This one's definitely weird. The time-frame is not 100% clear, but I believe the book takes place in the 70s. It is set in Mississippi. The story follows the fortunes of two families-one well off enough to hire a housekeeper (but fallen from greater fortune-they used to have a plantation) the other trailer trash.

The link between the two families is that Robin Dufrensnes (the Dufresnes' being the better-off family) encountered Danny Ratliff a few minutes before being hanged from a tree in broad daylight at the age of 9. It is now 12 years later and Robin's brainy sister (born after his demise) is looking for a project for the summer. She decides at first on figuring out who killed her brother, and after determining that Danny Ratliff killed her brother (based on circumstantial evidence) switches her summer-project from detection to vengeance.

Danny Ratliff lives with his older brother Farish(a taxidermist with a methamphetamine lab) his brother Eugene (who was Saved in prison and now preaches on the side of the road) his retarded brother Curtis and his grandmother Gum. Gum is an odd woman-her grandchildren-even the psychotic speed freaks-love her but she's very negative and often reminds her grandsons never to expect to get anywhere. On the other hand, Gum has had numerous fatal diagnoses over the year and is still alive to tell the tale. She's also the only character who brings and humor to the plot.

I'm not really a connoisseur of Southern American Gothic writing, so I can't tell you how well this fits the bill but the book certainly touches on some of the creepier aspects of rural American life (speed-freak-rednecks, snake handlers and the unexplained murder of Robin Dufresne in broad daylight) as well as some of the things I'd expect to find in a southern novel (racial tension, longing for the past, mental illness and an unwillingness of the part of the Grown-ups to address unpleasant subjects) However, I am unsure how much of this is necessary to the plot of the novel and how much of it is thrown in because city-dwellers like me expect it to be in the deep south. We expect them all to be bible-thumping,snake-handling psychotic racists down there.

Either way, there is a strong element of the ridiculous in this book-much of which centers around Gum (the Ratliff boys' grandmother) This redeems the book whenever it's headed towards sheer pathos. Although that said, I'm not in a hurry to read anything else by Donna Tartt.