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Genre: literary fiction

Moral Disorder and Other Stories by Margaret Atwood

The political turmoil in the world has made me turn this year to Margaret Atwood, who is enjoying a resurgence as a result of her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale being broadcast as a much acclaimed television series.  I haven’t reread The Handmaid’s Tale, which does still stick with me from when I first read it nearly 20 years ago, but I have been working my way through her other novels.  Given the time constraints in my life, I’ve been picking them out mostly by page length, which brings me to Moral Disorder and Other Stories, a novel told in a series of short stories.

Even Atwood’s earliest novels are full of her wit, wry humor and bitingly funny characterization, so it is unsurprising to discover these same qualities throughout all of the stories, which tell the life story of a woman named Nell in short episodes.  The stories are framed by aging; in the first story, Nell is in late middle age and meditating on the nature of a long-term marriage.  In the next, she is a young girl, who has yet to meet Tig, the married man that she makes her life with.  By the last stories, Nell is long past her adventures and taking care of her elderly parents.  Although each story could stand alone, together they tell a powerful story of an ordinary, but interesting, life spent in the Canadian countryside and wilderness.

Moral Disorder and Other Stories is very much literary fiction, so some readers may find it frustrating, particularly if they’re not accustomed to the genre or to short story collections.  But for readers who are willing to forgo an orderly plot for the love of language, there are many delights to be found in each story’s vivid description and Atwood’s strong voice.

It’s morning.  For now, night is over.  It’s time for the bad news.  I think of the bad news as a huge bird, with the wings of a crow and the face of my Grade Four school teacher, sparse bun, rancid teeth, wrinkly frown, pursed mouth and all, sailing around the world under cover of darkness, pleased to be the bearer of ill tidings, carrying a basket of rotten eggs, and knowing — as the sun comes up — exactly where to drop them.  On me, for one.

One theme that has emerged for me, in reading several of Atwood’s early novels, is how prevalent the Canadian wilderness is in her writing.  Perhaps because I have always lived either in a city or in its suburbs, there’s something about the wilderness and the farm settings in Moral Disorder and Other Stories that really caught my imagination.  Nell and Tig rent a farm and then later purchase their own.  They are city people pretending at the rural life, so it is not too surprising that their first set of ducklings are eaten by owls.  After this first disastrous foray into livestock, their herd begins to expand in much more productive ways.  First there are Tig’s children from his first marriage, who visit on weekends, running wild around the farm and smoking pot in the barn.  Then there’s a high-strung dog, a herd of sheep, constantly escaping cows and eventually a fat horse.  Atwood doesn’t shy away from the brutality of farm life, as Nell trades in her city upbringing for a rural lifestyle, but she always shows the beauty in it as well.

There’s never been such a lovely spring, Nell thought.  Frogs — or were they toads? — trilled from the pond, and there were pussy willows and catkins — what was the difference? — and then the hawthorn bushes and the wild plums and the neglected apple trees came into bloom, and an uneven row of daffodils planted by some long-vanished farmer’s wife thrust up through the weeds and dead grasses besides the drive.  Birds sang.  Mud dried.

Unfortunately, for me, the last story did a poor job of finishing off the book, because some of the details contradicted and confused the overall narrative arc, which pulled me straight out of the story and had me flipping back pages to see if I had missed something. Perhaps I had – or perhaps the story kept its conflicting details because, like many of the stories in the collection, it was published elsewhere before being collected into this novel.  But for all that the novel felt unresolved because of this, I would gladly read the whole novel over to answer my questions.

It’s just that there are so many other Atwood novels that I have  yet to read…

Publisher: Doubleday
Publish Date: 2006
Hardcover: 225 pages
ISBN: 0385503849
Language: English
Rating: 3 of 5 stars

 


Genre: contemporary, literary fiction, short story collection
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The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood

Book cover: The Edible Woman by Margaret AtwoodMarian McAlpin is a sensible career girl, not “the other kind” that only dreams of catching a man and marrying him.  So when she meets Peter, a handsome up-and-coming lawyer at a party, he quickly asks her out.  Several months into their relationship, he loses his last unmarried friend to those scheming wifely types and, in a panic, asks Marian to marry him.

Filled with a postmodernist Thomas Pynchonesque absurdity, The Edible Woman carries the reader along from one hilarious situation to another, as Marian tries to discover why she isn’t happier about finally reaching that apex of female achievement: an engagement.  When she describes her triumph to her roommate Ainsley, Ainsley is barely interested because she’s in the middle of tricking Marian’s friend Len into fathering a baby by exploiting his weakness for underage girls.  Meanwhile, Marian falls in with a misanthropic English graduate student named Duncan that barely seems to exist of enough substance to stay alive – and it is their relationship, contrasted with the steady but domineering Peter, that forces Marian Into behaviors that she barely understands.

It is small wonder that, as the wedding hurtles ever nearer, Marian’s dissatisfaction begins to manifest physically, as her body begins to reject different types of food.  When she is forced into quitting her job, as her boss – a single career woman of intermediate skills and advancing age – doesn’t want young, married women working for her, as potential pregnancies make them too unpredictable, her body joins forces with all the other people taking control of Marian’s life.

That morning her body had finally put its foot down on canned rice pudding, after accepting it with scarcely a tremor for weeks.  It ad been such a comfort knowing she could rely on it: it provided bulk, and as Mrs. Withers the dietician had said, it was fortified.  But all at once as she had poured the cream over it her eyes had seen it as a collection of small cocoons.  Cocoons with miniature living creatures inside.

Although the novel is heavy-handed with symbolism — it is Atwood’s first — the light-hearted touch that Atwood deploys keeps it from feeling like an English class assignment.  Written in 1969, The Edible Woman gently satirizes on the beginnings of pop psychology and the emergence of a widespread feminist consciousness, while lodging the modern reader enjoyably in the formality of the late sixties, with its boundary pushing girdle advertisements and long white gloves.

Although the novel is witty, Atwood also delves fearlessly into the complexity and complicty of the power struggles within heterosexual relationships.  Before Marian and Peter become engaged, Marian adjusts her behavior to suit his moods, sidelining her own needs to please him.  Once they agree to marry, she hands over decision making to him, even down to what she wants to eat, until her body revolts.  When Duncan enters the picture, he gives Marian the impetus to choose, while his misanthrophy offers no obvious solutions.

Atwood is an accomplished poet and, by the time she wrote The Edible Woman, she had published three volumes of poetry.  Many passages that would be mundane in a lesser author’s hands read like sardonic prose poems.  In describing a Western movie that Marian watches, Atwood writes:

The coloured pictures succeeded each other in front of her: gigantic stetsoned men stretched across the screen on their even more gigantic horses, trees and cactus-plants rose in the foreground or faded in the background as the landscape flowed along; smoke and dust and galloping.  She didn’t attempt to decide what the cryptic speeches meant or to follow the plot.  She knew there must be bad people who were trying to do something evil and good people who were trying to stop them, probably by getting to the money first (as well as Indians who were numerous as buffalo and fair game for everyone), but it didn’t matter to her which of these moral qualities was incarnate in any given figure presented to her.  At least it wasn’t one of the new Westerns in which people had psychoses.

 

There are so many moments in The Edible Woman where Atwood’s prose is distracting from the story, but it is in this way, where the images suddenly strike you as so unusual that you must stop and read the passage again, enjoying the sensations that Atwood presents to you.  This is the strength of The Edible Woman, which is a must-read for any student of writing or second-wave feminism.  Atwood brings you into it with her wit and her poetry, in a journey that will still feel modern and relevant to any woman.

 

Publisher: Anchor Books
Publish Date: Originally 1969, republished June 1989
Paperback: 336 pages
ISBN: 0765331721
Language: English
Rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Genre: fiction, literary fiction, postmodernism
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The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

theburgessboys

Prepare yourself, readers, for a book that is equally about place as people.  The 2013 novel, The Burgess Boys, written by Elizabeth Strout, is as much about the internal culture clash of being from two places as it is about the Burgess siblings, who are brought together when Susan Burgess’s teenaged son commits a hate crime in their home town of Shirley Falls, Maine.

The novel quickly begins to revolve around the relationship between Susan’s brothers, Jim and Bob Burgess, who both became lawyers and left the small Maine town for New York City.  Jim, the family favorite, made his fame as a brilliant criminal lawyer early in life by successfully defending a guilty-as-sin singer, in a trial that should remind readers of O.J. Simpson.  And yet, his success as a lawyer has come at the cost of his personal relationships.  Jim is, to put it as nicely as possible, a big jerk.

Bob, in comparison, has settled for a less glamorous life, living in the shadow of his brother and putting up with Jim’s constant abuse.  Divorced by his wife Pam over his infertility, he wanders through his days drinking more than he should and watching his neighbors, while still seeking for a meaningful relationship with Jim.

Unlike her brothers, Susan Burgess has remained in Shirley Falls, where she clings tightly and angrily to an image of life that she feels slipping away.  When the town becomes host to an influx of Somali refugees, the native residents are forced to learn to interact with a new culture that seems impossibly foreign to their own.  For Susan, a cold and hard woman who cannot even accept Unitarians, this seems impossible.  When her son Zach, a lonely and silent boy that is dominated by his mother’s anger, throws a pig’s head through the window of the town’s mosque during Ramadan, Susan calls on Bob and Jim to come help with his legal defense.  Forced into returning to Shirley Falls, Jim and Bob struggle with their adult relationship with their sister and their memories of the town and the freak accident that killed their father 30 years prior.  Although their adult lives have been purposefully separate, their shared guilt at their involvement in their father’s death both binds and separates them.  Uniting once again for the sake of family brings up these old wounds and throws them into the light of revelation.

Elizabeth Strout is  a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist (Olive Kitteridge, 2008) and this excellence of writing shows in The Burgess Boys.  Although the actual events of the novel are rather sparse, the prose is captivating and filled with gentle insights into human nature.  By far, the hero of the novel is Bob, who gently plays the role of Switzerland between Susan and Jim.  He wades through the novel with his gentle imperfections, drawing the reader along as he tries to draw meaning from the failures of his marriage and family.

Bob was not a young man, and he knew about loss. He knew the quiet that arrived, the blinding force of panic, and he knew that each loss brought with it some odd, barely acknowledged sense of release. He was not an especially contemplative person, and he did not dwell on this. But by October there were many days when the swell of rightness, loose-limbedness, and gentle gravity came to him. It recalled to him being a child, when he found one day he could finally color within the lines.

As Zach’s trial approaches, Strout brings us further into Bob’s life, exploring his love of New York City and his failed marriage to Pam, who, like Jim, continues to befriend Bob for her own selfish purposes.  Although Bob’s loneliness shines through the story, his introspection keeps the story moving along.  You cannot help but love him for his acute observations and good-natured ability to be the middle ground between the extremes of his family.

He thought of the people in the world who felt saved by city. He was one of them. Whatever darkness leaked its way in, there were always lights on in different windows here, each light like a gentle touch on his shoulder saying, Whatever is happening, Bob Burgess, you are never alone.

By choosing to center the plot around a hate crime, Strout manages to inject a moral tone and a contemporary feel into her books without preaching.  When she writes about culture clash, she does it with the hand of someone who loves her characters and sees the humanity in all of them.  Reading The Burgess Boys in 2016, as the U.S. heads toward a heated election where refugees are a central issue, feels particularly relevant.  Yet Strout reaches into the heads of all of the interested parties, doing as much justice to the culture-shocked Somali refugees as the entrenched white residents of Shirley Falls that resent the changing culture of their town.

About the Somalis, a few townspeople did not speak at all: They were to be borne as one bore bad winters or the price of gasoline or a child who turned out badly. Others were not so silent.

While the political background of the novel could easy drag down the story, ultimately, The Burgess Boys is about a family that suffers because of its long-held secrets.  When the secrets reveal themselves by the end of the novel, as secrets must, the family moves into a satisfying place of redemption, while the reader leaves with just a bit more wisdom about the complexity of love.

“You have family”, Bob said. “You have a wife who hates you. Kids who are furious with you. A brother and sister who make you insane. And a nephew who used to be kind of a drip but apparently is not so much of a drip now. That’s called family.”

So it is, Bob Burgess.  So it is.

  • Publisher: Random House
  • Publish Date: March 26, 2013
  • Hardcover: 326 pages
  • ISBN: 1400067685
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: fiction, literary fiction
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What I Did Wrong by John Weir


whatIdidwrong I feel a bit strange writing a review of John Weir’s What I Did Wrong, as he writes extensively about being a professor at Queens College, which is where I met him when I sat in his class for the first time.  Coming to the novel as both a character and a reader was an interesting experience, though certainly this is a book that would have stayed with me for a long time even if I hadn’t known the author.

A memory: years ago, shortly after the publication of What I Did Wrong, some friends and I went to a reading at the LGBT Community Center in New York.  We met with our professor, who was looking rather scandalously disheveled for someone about to make a professional appearance.  Yet he’d arrived prepared — he brandished his razor and shaving cream as concrete proof of his preparedness.  We all shuffled together into the multi-stall unisex bathroom and kept him company as he shaved and brushed down his shirt for errant wrinkles and crumbs, patted down his hair, then asked if he looked presentable enough.

You’ll do, we said, nodding and grinning in amusement at the whole experience — the inversion of the roles of teacher and student, adult and youth.  Although we only were in each others’ lives for a brief time, a semester or two, I can’t think of him without thinking of that openness of spirit that welcomed us backstage into the writer’s life.  Is that what an author is? Someone who brings along his new friends to watch him shave two minutes before going on stage to read heart-wrenchingly vivid sections of his new novel?  So when Weir writes in What I Did Wrong that his narrator Tom is “trying to be the first nice American man” and describes his deep love for his students, I had a difficult time separating professor Tom from the professor I knew.

John Weir is a very nice man indeed.  That’s only one reason why you should read his books.

On the surface, What I Did Wrong follows Tom through one manic night.  He meets up with his childhood friend Richie, who is planning on cheating on his long-term girlfriend with a woman that he met online that calls herself Afrodytea.  Tom is thrown into memories — one might even argue that he lives more in memory than the present — and we quickly learn that he is absorbed by the death of his friend Zack, who died of AIDS five years prior to the action of the novel.  Zack, intensely acerbic and angry, turns into Tom’s alter ego, forcing him to answer difficult questions about his feelings for his student Justin Innocenzio, who turns to Tom as a mentor in his budding passion for writing poetry.  That’s the plot, but the plot is the least of the novel.

Nose to the ground, squat on its haunches, Riche’s car is blister red, bright with sleek aluminum strips, swollen here and there in its tapering length with triumphant attachments, swiveling mirrors, trim antennae, delicate bumpers, and terraced with glass that reflects and multiplies in its windshields and side windows every passing jazz-juiced hipster crossing Avenue A against the gun-metal blue of the cloud-clotted sky.

Weir is really brilliant in his imagery and his character writing, with descriptions that take your breath away in their depth and beauty.   Even when he describes the end of Zack’s life, when Zack is emaciated and out of control of his body and Tom is horrified by the physical reality of the indignities of the dying, his love for his friends shine through. We spend the novel watching Tom watch his friends, and the predominant emotion is always love.

She’s sitting on the bar stool near the door, twisting her slender Audrey Hepburn neck to see what’s playing above her on the TV screen.  Her pale arms are naked to the shoulder, bent at the elbows and balancing her face, her hands together palm to palm beside her cheek, the first two fingers of her right hand stretching out to hold a cigarette.  Its smoke turns colors as it moves through overlapping shafts of bar light and TV light and rings her black hair like a corona.

Half meditation on American masculinity and half meditation on what it is to love — your best friend, your student,  the city that you live in,  your dying friend — What I Did Wrong is full of food for thought.  Tom frequently asks what it means to be a man attracted to men, to be both the desirer and the object of desire, while mourning the devastation that the AIDS epidemic of the late 80s brought to his community and indulging in no small amount of survivor guilt.  At the same time, he puts American masculinity under the knife, using his identity as a gay man — in his iteration, this is somewhere between male and female — to critique it.

Because how much does a man have in his life?  You can’t invent the wheel.  That’s been done.  Prometheus took care of fire.  And women are better at everything else: plans and provisions, legal precedents, corporate accounts,.  Foreplay.  Women connect.  Men are selfish dreamers, in the john with their Walkmans spinning Radiohead and counting all the geniuses they can’t become: Homer, Plato, Jesus, Gandhi, Lester Young, Malcolm X, Frank Purdue.

And yet, while the novel’s famous phrase is that “America is a place where everyone has a bad relationship with a man,” Weir’s critique of masculinity is as nuanced as his character portraits — it is observation, beautifully described, and an attempt to understand.  And through it all is the love that binds his characters together.

“Yes, zoom!” Kerouac says, and we’re on the Belt Parkway.  A belt is a fist in the arm, a shot of booze, a part of your car.  We cross the border into Brooklyn, where the ground is flat and sandy near Starrett City and the highway changes names from Shore Parkway to Leif Ericson Drive.  The Verazanno Narros Bridge glides into place like a zipper joining oiled waves, and Manhattan is behind it.  “There it is,” Richie says, “there it motherfucking is!”

The end of What I Did Wrong came too soon for me — I wanted to keep reading the lush language that brought my city and its characters so clearly to life.  There’s a reason why artists congregate here — Weir is certainly one of them.

 

  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • Publish Date: March 23, 2006
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • ISBN: 0670034843
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 4 of 5 stars

 


Genre: lgbt, literary fiction
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The Round House by Louise Erdich


The-Round-House

“My father had a voice that could thunder out; it was said he had developed this. It was not a thing he’d had in his youth, but he’d had to use it in the courtroom. His voice did thunder out and fill the Emergency entrance… Now that his anger was the thing filling the air, crackling clean, I was better. Whatever had happened would be fixed. Because of his fury. Which was a rare thing and got results. He held my mother’s hand as they wheeled her into the emergency ward. The doors closed behind them.”

When Geraldine Coutts arrives home, bloodied, trembling and smelling of gasoline, her twelve-year-old son Joe slips into the back seat of the family car to gently hold her bleeding head. When his father Bazil tries to drop him off at his aunt’s house to protect him from seeing his mother in the hospital, Joe challenges his father and a look passes between them that Joe describes as being “odd, as if between two grown men, and I had not been ready.” This moment begins the major theme of the novel, in which Joe is forced through the trauma imposed on his family to take on adult responsibilities beyond his years. Erdrich portrays this tug between adulthood and childhood as Joe looks through court cases with his father and hunts for clues with his friends at the round house, the Obijwe ceremonial building where his mother was attacked. Through years of land acquisitions, the round house now lies at the edge of the reservation, creating an essential question of geography, as the boundary between reservation and state land determines the legal jurisdiction of Geraldine’s case. Although Geraldine’s attacker is quickly identified, she cannot state precisely where the attack occurred, which puts it into a legal grey area that allows her attacker to walk free without a trial.

“My father was punishing hot dog thieves and examining washers—not even washing machines—just washers worth 15 cents apiece.”

The Round House, which won the 2012 National Book Award for fiction, was clearly written to draw attention to the terrible technicality in the American legal system that permits violent crimes committed by non-Natives on Native American reservations to go untried. Erdrich artfully draws the reader in and makes us walk alongside Joe and Bazil, infuriating us with the racial inequality of the American legal system and forcing us to witness the damage that rape does to a victim’s family long after the actual attack. Before the rape, Joe has had an idyllic childhood that has left him with an absolute faith in the power of his parents. Geraldine’s attack betrays Joe’s childhood belief in a world in which evil is always punished, as he soon discovers that even his father’s authority as a tribal judge cannot provide Geraldine protection from her rapist. Joe quickly learns the difference between law and justice– and how treaties signed before his great-grandfather’s birth will allow his mother’s rapist to walk free, while punishing Bazil with the inability protect his wife through the system that he has served all of his life. When Joe looks at his father’s legal judgments for clues to her attacker, he learns that Bazil’s courtroom is filled with trivial cases, rather than the crime drama trials he had always imagined. Although Joe often bikes past the tribal graveyard and recalls stories of lives destroyed by racism and violence, it is this discovery of the “toothless sovereignty” of the tribal courts that brings home to Joe how racial legal inequality affects him directly. When Geraldine’s attacker begins to taunt the family by frequenting their family businesses and shopping at their local grocery store, twelve-year-old Joe begins to ask what he must do to save his family.

The Round House is a brave departure from Erdrich’s signature style of the multi-narrator community story. She steps easily into the skin of a twelve year old boy, bringing us to a world of first crushes, stolen beer, Star Trek, friendship and bicycles. Joe’s pack of friends search for clues to Geraldine’s attack between swimming breaks, shifts at Joe’s first job, camping trips, pow-wows and spying escapades. We laugh as we witness Joe experiencing his first crush on his beautiful and, more importantly, busty Aunt Sonja and our heart breaks with him as he goes through the painful lessons of a maturing young man. When Joe and his friends confront and learn the history the new priest and former Marine Father Travis, they are awed by him in the way that only young men would be. Joe tells us that, “not only did he own a copy of Alien, not only did he have an amazing and terrible wound, but he had called us humiliating names without actually resorting to the usual swear words.” Throughout the novel, we watch as Joe is tries to understand an adult world that he does not yet belong to by looking up at the adults around him.

As with every Erdrich novel,The Round House draws us onto the reservation, walking us through Joe’s complex world of relatives, friends, extended family and community. Joe’s life is rich with the history and legends of Ojibwe culture, and we follow him as he explores the lines between myth and reality in order to understand what has happened to his family. Although some of the characters and scenes do not tie neatly into the narrative of the story, they add a much needed humor and human interest to the novel that cuts into the despair stemming from Geraldine’s attack. Joe travels everywhere with a pack of his three best friends, who spend their summer looking for free meals from their collective aunts, uncles, grandmothers and cousins. Joe’s uncle Whitey serves up “rez steak sandwiches,” while his friend Zack’s Grandma Ignatia gives them meat, frybread and stories about her youthful sexual escapades. Joe’s aunt Clementine leaves him with casseroles and the responsibility of keeping an eye on his great-grandfather Mooshum, who tells tribal stories about turtles, spirit guides and wiindigoos. The past is never far from the reservation and Erdrich uses Joe’s relationships with his tribe to introduce us to a world where the often tragic past is always a subtle part of present events.

Joe narrates the story of his thirteenth summer from the distance of adulthood and occasionally his older self interjects into the story, providing a context that adds beauty. When he writes about emotional connection to his father, he tells us that he still wears his father’s clothing after following his father into the law. We understand the depth of Joe’s relationship to his parents, because he tells us that, “I needed him so much. I couldn’t really go into it very far, this need, nor could my mother and I talk about it. But her wearing his robe was a sign to me of how she had to have the comfort of his presence in a basic way that I now understood”. Above all,>The Round House is a novel about the strength of family love. Although the story begins with the worst of human nature, witnessing the Coutts band together to heal shows us the best of humanity. From tragedy and injustice, Erdrich creates a novel about courage and the love that a boy feels for his parents.

 


Genre: contemporary, fiction, literary fiction, native american fiction
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