Sunday, August 25, 2013

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

The second Mrs. DeWinter is haunted by the first

Our story begins when the young penniless unnamed narrator is working on the Riviera as a companion to a dreadful American woman, and older somewhat notorious Max de Winter, owner of the iconic estate Manderley, takes an interest in her. He seems to need something. (I’m asking you to marry me, you silly fool!) After a European honeymoon, the newlyweds return to Manderley (a house as much a character as any person in the book). Our heroine is thoroughly intimidated by the pomp and luxury, the terrifying skull-like housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, and soon by the vivid memory of Max’s first wife, the beautiful competent vivacious Rebecca. She overexcites herself imagining Rebecca, (in fact, by creating a vision of Rebecca, she is working almost as a novelist herself).   The initial part of the book is a study in paranoia.

This one moves like a house afire. The opening half is cleverly done, with over the top Gothic touches, Jane Eyrish in the extreme. What’s memorable is the narrator.  The second Mrs. de Winter experiences things as if in a fever.  She’s a completely spineless drip in the first half, then after the “revelation,” she gets more backbone. I enjoyed the crazy first part more than the second, in which a leaden sort of “Colonel Mustard in the billiard room” structure takes over. I had read Rebecca a long time ago, and had forgotten the twist – and what a twist it was, however, it’s a deeply politically incorrect twist that doesn’t work in the modern day world of sexual freedom and feminism. After the revelation, I was totally on Rebecca’s side against the obliterating patriarchy and the judicial system set up to favor rich men. Also, the book is a little overlong for current tastes.

But du Maurier uses rhododendroms in a really cool way. The story is about how the memory of a fully developed woman frightens a yet to be developed girl.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

A Jewish American family can only look on as the mother eats herself to death

Edie Middlestein is a Midwest lawyer, as a child especially fond of her skinny immigrant father.  Always has she found comfort in food – deep soul-stilling comfort.  The problem is that her eating gets out of control, dictates her behavior, making her deathly ill, and driving away her husband in disgust.  Edie’s children, especially her daughter, cannot countenance her dad's betrayal.  But Edie still has some secrets of her own.  Not everybody is disgusted at her obesity.

The charm in this was not the “Lifetime TV” or medical aspects of this story, it was how the story was told - in bits and pieces, not straight on. The novel is constructed of small sections told from different perspectives, as well as different time periods.  I was sucked in immediately.  Nominally the novel is about a woman who can’t stop eating, but it’s actually about a Midwestern Jewish family.  It’s actually sort of about America.  Jami Attenberg is a master at storytelling.  Virtually every person encountered between the pages is sharply characterized. The Middlesteins are mixture of likeability and weakness(much like real people). 

The Middlesteins continues my streak of good books.  Although the stakes in this one felt slighter.  Perhaps because Edie Middlestein is mostly unsympathetic, prone to a grim outlook on life.



Monday, August 12, 2013

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler


A girl remembers something about her sister, something society and her father would rather she forget

Four great books in a row. Now this is a streak I like. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is about the Cooke family: primate researcher Dad, loving Mom, betrayed and angry older brother Lowell and trying-to-understand-it-all narrator Rosemary. The family, however, is incomplete. There was a second daughter, Fern, raised with Rosemary as a twin. One day, when Rosemary was five, she awoke in an entirely new house, with Fern gone, never to be seen or spoken about again. Gone as well are the teams of graduate students who were always writing down and measuring whatever the twins did. Terminated science experiment or abducted child? The book is set in 1996 when Rosemary goes to college at UC Davis, escaping from the memories of her sad unhappy Midwest home. A desultory student, she quickly gets involved with a cute troublemaker and ends up in jail. Meanwhile, big brother Lowell has become a fugitive because of his violent animal rights activities.

The novel kicks off when Rosemary’s sad mother entrusts her with her journals. The suitcase with the journal gets lost in transit, comically serving as the novel’s clock. Rosemary starts to question things about her childhood, and encounters Lowell once again. The plot is excellent,unique and weird, though I’m not sure if all the ends are completely tied up.  There is Rosemary's search for Fern, and then there's a lot of philosophical questions. What is meant by captivity? What is meant by "human"? Her entire life, Rosemary is made distinct by being the monkey girl. Like some of J.M. Coetzee's books, this book has an pretty insistent animal rights subtext. So what's the conclusion? No more animal experimentation? Definitely that. But what else,  No more burgers? No more unthinking dominion by the humans?  No more humans?

The difference between Fern and Rosemary is that Rosemary can talk. (One of the conceits is that as a child Rosemary never shut up, though as an adult she has learned to keep her tongue.)   Fern, however, is hairier,stronger. Much stronger. She can climb walls. The facts of the plot are presented, though these facts are somewhat ambiguously weighed. Once she reaches a certain age, Fern can kill a person in a few minutes, especially someone small and weak. What does the family do after five year old Rosemary feels threatened?  What should the family do?

Rewarding and funny, this is a novel that should be reread.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

An orphan brightens the life of two lonely old people.

Three great books in a row – I have been fortunate. Why were these past three novels gripping and not mired in tedious mediocrity? What they had in common were monumental characters with a deep unstoppable yearning, set against an elemental landscape. That’s certainly the case with Anne of Green Gables. The simple story is about Anne Shirley, a red headed orphan, who falls into the lonely lives of Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. Instead of the sturdy orphan boy the Cuthberts want to “take in” to help with the chores, only a girl waits at the train station. Anne is a nonstop talker, a spunky eleven year old who charms laconic Matthew on the drive to the farm. She is on the hunt for a “kindred spirit.” Later, Marilla, determined to return the unwanted girl to the orphanage, loses heart, gets squeamish at the idea of sending her into to a life of cruel hardship. And so makes a promise to educate her.

The rest of the book consists of Anne and her entertaining scrapes (accidentally dying her hair green, almost drowning while pretending to be Ophelia). Another plot thread is Anne’s very competitive relationship with Gilbert Blythe who made the mistake of calling her “Carrots” on their first meeting. She freezes him out for seven years (something about that almost moves this book from the children’s literature category). The prose was clear, with lots of nice descriptions of Prince Edward Island.

I cried in every chapter, although it is true I was reading the book on a plane and drinking gin and tonics. Though I would not call this a sentimental book. The heart of it is true – there are spunky orphans and there are lonely old people who have wasted their lives. As Anne grows older, however, and is introduced more to the hard truths of the world, her crazy optimistic charm dissipates leaving behind a strength.