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review 2018-09-12 23:21
Superbly written novel based on the tragic true story of young Italian painter Artemesia Gentileschi
Blood Water Paint - Joy McCullough

My newly-formed little book club said they wanted a book possibly with poetry or essays, so this was one of my selections. I knew Joy McCullough’s book came with glowing reviews and it had been on my TBR for a while, but I wasn’t quite prepared for what I was about to read.

‘Blood Water Paint’, based on the true but heartbreaking story of the iconic young Italian painter Artemesia Gentileschi, literally took my breath away. 

 

Reading a novel based in verse (with some portions written in regular prose) with historical facts at its core, was quite new to me, and thank goodness for those mental (natural) breaks that came with the way it’s written, because it was one of the most astounding accounts of rape and incest I have ever read. This may well be based in Rome in 1610 and written in a way that doesn’t reveal certain details of such events as a reader may be used to reading, but I would still put up a big, red flag for a trigger warning. I had to put down the book for a breather about halfway through because of the tragic events unfolding within the pages. It is brutal, heart-breaking, and so emotional.

 

Artemesia was such a talented artist, but she and other women - within the book, we also learn the stories of both Susanna and Judith - basically had no rights or the right to an opinion in those days; women were stoned to death, and other brutal punishments were served at the hands of men who saw women as property. Artemesia’s father sees his own daughter as such, having her do the paintings and call them his own, and turns a blind eye to the events in this own home while he drinks after his wife/her mother dies. It’s hard to read such things, but throughout, Artemesia stays adamant that she will persevere and not let these men steal her ability to show her truth on the canvas. 

 

It’s uncanny that the ‘me too’ movement resonates so strongly when reading a book like this, but four centuries later we shouldn’t be having to make the comparisons, perhaps. I was so moved by this book, and by my own experience, and I hope many young women reach for this book and get a discussion going. I’m looking forward to our book club meeting; this isn’t ‘light poetry fare’ by any means, and this book SHOULD spark a lot of conversation. Artemesia’s life (and many others) shouldn’t be in vain, for these experiences are too common place. 

 

A note on the writing: Joy McCullough, as a debut author, has written a masterpiece. She wrote this as a play and then adapted it to be read as a book in this form. It’s masterful, and so beautiful to read. Since she’s local to Seattle, I’m happy to say she will be at the book club that will be meeting today; I’m glad we connected. I can’t wait for our group discussion. Absolutely superbly written. 

 

**Update: Congratulations go out to Joy for the announcement that Blood Water Paint is on the long list for the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

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review 2018-09-06 05:13
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen,Marilyn Butler,Claire Lamont

This book was lovely, unexpected fun. After reading Mansfield Park and Persuasion in recent years, I concluded that Jane Austen’s work was not for me: their characters seemed bloodless, their heroines prim and infallible, their subject matter a tedious catalogue of the social lives of the independently wealthy. But I may have fallen into the trap of judging an author by her worst works, having read her three most popular books while too immature a reader to judge them. Northanger Abbey, now: this book is just fun, a lively tale of a teenage girl discovering the world outside her town for the first time, falling in with some of the wrong people, having a bit of an adventure, all while the book pokes fun at melodramatic Gothic novels of the period.

Discussion of this book generally seems to revolve around Catherine’s wilder fantasies about Northanger Abbey, the home of some of her new friends, so I was surprised to find that this section is the smaller part of the book – most of which takes place in Bath – and the least convincing. Up to that point, Catherine is portrayed as a sensible if inexperienced girl, raised by an endearingly sensible mother (whose reaction to Catherine’s being sent on a sudden road trip alone by post is “well, that was strange and uncivil behavior on your host’s part, but now you’ve had to rely on yourself and managed, which is good for you"). On arriving at the abbey she abruptly throws common sense to the winds, only to regain it just as rapidly after a talking-to, the gist of which is “be sensible, those terrible things couldn’t happen here in England.”

That said, I enjoyed Catherine as a protagonist; she’s a naïve but appealing teenage girl, capable of standing up for herself and going after what she wants and not intended to be a paragon. The secondary cast is also strong, with believable and incisive characterization despite the book’s relatively short length. And I found Austen’s wit genuinely humorous, particularly enjoying the passages contrasting the characters’ real-life behavior with novelistic expectations. Here, for instance, is Catherine encountering her crush in public:

“He looked as handsome and as lively as ever, and was talking with interest to a fashionable and pleasing-looking young woman, who leant on his arm, and whom Catherine immediately guessed to be his sister; thus unthinkingly throwing away a fair opportunity of considering him lost to her for ever, by being married already.”

This book may be 200 years old, but it sped by for me. Life is an adventure for Catherine, and that energy seems to transmit itself to the pages. Perhaps I should be giving Austen more credit.

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review 2018-08-05 19:26
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories - Stephen Emerson,Lucia Berlin,Lydia Davis

I struggled with how to rate this book. On the one hand, this collection of 43 short stories is brilliant. The writing is clear, vivid, engaging and insightful. The author clearly has a deep understanding of people and how they work, and has been around the block a few times. The settings – mostly the American Southwest, the Bay Area and Mexico – come to life so that you can practically see, sometimes even taste them. And there are some really excellent, tightly-written stories here. They are often melancholy – dealing with alcoholism, difficult family relationships, social injustice – but written with a freshness and empathy that, for me, kept them from ever feeling too dark. A few standouts (not an exhaustive list):

“A Manual for Cleaning Women”: A woman describes her various jobs cleaning houses for the wealthy and her daily routine, while the tragic end to her last relationship is slowly revealed.

“Tiger Bites”: A young woman who has just separated from her husband goes to Mexico for a back-alley abortion, and upon realizing she can’t go through with it, is tasked with the care of a young girl.

“Good and Bad”: A teenage expat in Chile is drawn into the orbit of a socialist teacher.

“Friends”: A single working woman struggles to make time to spend with an older couple who seem alone, only to discover that they think they’re doing her a favor.

“Mijito”: A teenage girl follows her lover from Mexico to the Bay Area, only to be abandoned with a child in the worst possible conditions – a realistic portrayal of the life of an uneducated, impoverished immigrant.

“502”: An alcoholic leaves her car on the street, where it crashes into the car of her alcoholic friends (fortunately, neither car was occupied at the time).

So I don’t disagree that Lucia Berlin is a hidden gem of an author. But what drove me batty about this collection is that virtually every story seems to be taken from her life, and features a protagonist whose life is consistent with Berlin’s own distinctive biography: the early years in the mining towns; growing up with her alcoholic mother and grandparents in El Paso during WWII; being kicked out of multiple schools; the teenage years living a privileged life in Chile; college in New Mexico; an early marriage that produced two sons and soon ended; two more marriages (one spent primarily in New York and abandoned for the third husband in Mexico) that also ended, leaving her a single mother of four sons; moving to the Bay Area and taking jobs as a high school teacher, hospital switchboard operator and ward clerk, cleaning woman and physician’s assistant; the alcoholism; the scoliosis; the difficult, alcoholic mother with pretensions of class; moving in with her disowned younger sister in Mexico City to care for her while the sister was dying of cancer; the writing; eventually moving to Boulder. Sometimes names are changed, sometimes not; the sister is always named Sally, the oldest sons always Ben and Keith, the mother’s family always Moynihans and the flamboyant cousin always Bella Lynn; the younger sons’ names sometimes vary, as does the protagonist’s own (sometimes she is Lucia, sometimes not; Carlotta is a recurring alternative).

And that didn’t really work for me – having all the stories be about the author, or at least, about characters who had lived the author’s life (the two largely superfluous introductory essays argue that the stories aren’t entirely autobiographical because she changed some details and otherwise exercised creative license). What I enjoy in short story collections is the boundless possibility, reading about different people in different situations reading different lives. When all of the stories are about the same character, those possibilities are hemmed in, and the stories begin to feel repetitive. Some don’t really have a plot at all, but are simply musings on the author’s life and relationships: in “Mama” for instance, the narrator and her sister Sally discuss their memories of their mother and complicated feelings about her, rehashing what we’ve already seen in other stories. Stories often include superfluous details, as if the author knew too much about her own life to include only the information relevant to a 10-page story.

So that was frustrating; I wished Berlin had just written a novel or a memoir. Only in a couple of stories out of the 43 is the protagonist’s life actually inconsistent with Berlin’s. Three of them begin with a narrator who is very obviously not her, and I started to get excited, only to find upon reading further that her avatar was the second narrator and/or another primary character. Granted, some of my disappointment likely stems from expectations; if the stories were arranged chronologically and the book presented as a semi-autobiographical collection, I might have enjoyed it more.

So, do I recommend this? Sure – it is excellent writing and you know now what it is, so read it if that appeals to you. There is no doubt excellence here.

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review 2018-08-05 18:24
Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller
What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] - Zoë Heller

This is indeed a literary page-turner, as described in the cover blurb. Barbara Covett, a lonely high school history teacher on the cusp of retirement and aching for meaningful human connections, fixates on a younger, wealthy art teacher, Sheba Hart. Sheba is a wife and mother with a busy social schedule who becomes sexually involved with a teenage boy at the school, leading to the eponymous scandal. The story is narrated by Barbara, in an engaging, perceptive, sometimes vicious voice; as is not uncommon for isolated people, especially intelligent ones, Barbara tends to look down on everyone.

 

As many others have said, this is an excellent novel: intense, insightful, clever, well-written. This could be a good novel for those who are leery of “literary fiction,” because it is also a very readable page-turner. Though of course it is not a novel for those only interested in reading about moral paragons; it presents its very flawed characters as they are, in all their complexity, not as we might want people to be. And the ambiguous, creepy ending does not tie up all plot threads.

 

A couple of points on interpretation:

 

First, a lot of people seem to want to read a homoerotic subtext into Barbara’s obsession with her female friends. To me this is just an example of modern culture wanting to see sex in everything, and tending to devalue platonic relationships, assuming that a high level of emotional investment must mean sexual desire is involved. There are indications throughout the book that Barbara is heterosexual (her envy of the young French woman who dances on a bar and captures all the men’s attention; her willingness to become romantically involved with a male teacher even though she finds him ridiculous). For someone as isolated as Barbara, the quest for emotional fulfillment and to be important to someone else is every bit as meaningful as the quest for sexual fulfillment is for others; sex just doesn’t seem to be high on her list of priorities, perhaps because she has more fundamental unmet needs.

 

Second, the takeaway from this book for many people seems to be “sexual abuse isn’t always clear-cut because sometimes the child can be the initiator!” To which I say, first of all, keep in mind that Barbara is an unreliable narrator; she is telling the story of Sheba’s “affair” with a teenager secondhand, based on what Sheba has told her, and then coloring Sheba’s self-serving account with her own opinions; she cares for Sheba and seems to detest Steven Connelly, who’s portrayed as a rough-hewn, vulgar lower-class boy. But Sheba’s sketchy behavior is still evident, for instance, in her threatening Steven to keep quiet about their relationship, claiming he too would get in trouble if found out even though she knows this not to be true. And more importantly, getting sexually involved with someone across that kind of power imbalance – someone so much younger over whom she is an authority figure – is wrong and lends itself to abuse even if the young person seems enthusiastic. Teenagers have crushes and fantasies about teachers – Barbara comments on this herself – but that isn’t license for adults to act on them for their own sexual gratification; teenagers aren’t emotionally ready for adult relationships, and those fantasies should remain fantasies.

 

Reading between the lines, it makes sense that Sheba doesn’t understand this boundary; she began dating her husband, a professor 20 years her senior, when she was a young college student (and there’s some indication in the book that 20 years on, he’s still angling for college students). And she seems oblivious to the power imbalance in her own marriage – the way the housework all falls on her shoulders, for instance. So it’s no wonder that her boundaries would be skewed. But her flawed perceptions shouldn’t justify this behavior in readers’ minds.

 

At any rate, this is definitely a book I recommend, as a work of literary entertainment that lived up to the hype. It didn’t change my life, but it’s absolutely worth the read.

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review 2018-07-30 13:43
Satire at its best
Scoop - Evelyn Waugh

So let's just acknowledge two things.  First, Evelyn Waugh was not a pleasant person.  Anything you read about him makes that clear.  Second, this book is full of racism.  There's no way to get around that.

 

Once you've acknowledged those two issues, this book is fabulous.  Satire at its best!  William Boot, a country squire who writes the column Lush Places about tiny furry creatures, is sent to cover a war in Africa in place of another Boot who writes much more progressive stuff.  Hilarity ensures.  I'm not saying that sarcastically like I usually am when I use that phrase.  This is genuinely funny stuff about the cut-throat world of journalism and what happens when you HAVE to get a story, no matter what.  It would be fascinating to see what Waugh would do with the 24 hour news cycle. 

 

Once I accept the first two issues I mentioned, I was completely caught up in Boot's adventures in Ishmaelia.  It's not hard to see why Scoop is often considered the best satirical novel of the 20th century.

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