Thursday, June 30, 2011

Heartlessly punked

It was very hard to resist picking up a novel titled "Heart, You Bully, You Punk." Taken from Marie Ponsot's poem "One is One," that pretty much sums up how about I feel about my stupid emotions, who are constantly doing stupid, weird things, often completely unrelated to anything that is actually happening at any given moment. It's sort of like someone replaced my emotional gyroscope with that of a three-year-old who is coming down off a sugar binge.

This insular little novel from Leah Hagar Cohen is a quick read, albeit a pleasing one, with deftly drawn characters, including a group of adolescents, who Cohen nails perfectly in their inchoate, self-centered states of flux.

Iphegenia Julia Esker is an introverted, distant math teacher saddled with a completely ridiculous name. Going by the much more suitable "I.J. Esker," or just Esker, please, she teaches at a small, private, progressive school - the type of school where the students don't get actual grades, but tend to be more along the idiosyncratic/artsy line than the future-hedge-fund-manager line.

One of Esker's favorite students, Ann, falls from the bleachers one day and fractures both her heels, leaving her wheelchair bound. Esker volunteers to tutor Ann so she won't fall behind in math, although Esker is automatically uncomfortable about blurring the boundaries between school and home. Ann is neither troubled nor rebellious, and her uncertainty over how she fell troubles Esker and Ann's father, Wally.

Esker and Wally actually have a bit in common - Wally's still married, although his wife has left him to become an actress. Esker is still nursing wounds from a relationship that ended nine years ago, but Esker and Wally slowly start reaching towards each other, using their mutual concern about Ann as a bridge.

Things get complicated rather quickly in this slim novel. Wally's ex-wife Alice returns (although not to return to him - she's just taking a bit of vacation) and the thoroughly dislikeable headmistress of the Prospect School gets wind of Esker and Wally's barely-a-relationship-yet and threatens to fire her.

This novel is very tightly circumnavigated, from the halls of Prospect School to Esker's house, Wally's apartment, and Wally's restaurant, Game (that serves game - get it?) and as a result, feels rather claustrophobic, although it does an excellent job of mimicking the claustrophobia of adolescence. Cohen's Ann is wonderfully drawn, as are her friends, who are alternately sullen, mocking, and unexpectedly sweet. The scenes in which Ann and her friends sit around and banter never feel forced or false.

Ultimately, Heart left me feeling like it was the start of a larger story, and the ending is abrupt and ambiguous. It made me feel a little grasping, wanting to spend some more time with Ann, Esker, and Wally, who are as adrift at the novel's end as in its opening.

Heart, You Bully, You Punk does an excellent job of capturing those moments when the rind of a sealed-up heart starts cracking and the pain and awkwardness that results. Cohen neatly sketches characters convinced that they'll be punished for wanting, and it's sad to watch their expectations get fulfilled as their carefully managed lives pop apart while they fumble towards each other with limited success.

Oh, and to read the poem in its entirety, go here.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Red-handed

How much are you worth?

Scott Carney, author of The Red Market: On The Trail Of The World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers figures he's worth about $250,000 - skin, hair, blood, muscle, tendon, corneas, organs, and bones.

I'm probably worth a bit less - my skin's mostly useless for grafts (except for my legs and some chunks on my torso) and while I guess my corneas are better than being totally blind, you're going to need Coke-bottle glasses. But I've got working organs, and if I felt so inclined, I could get shot up with hormones and sell - I mean donate - my eggs to some sad, childless couple, although I'd make a bit less money than someone three inches taller with an Ivy League degree, good eyesight, and blond hair - that is, you really want a neurotic, nebbishy toddler who will insist on majoring in English and still sleep with a teddy bear nearly three decades later.

Scott Carney's zippy, scary little book bounces us from Cyprus to India to China and back to the United States in pursuit of the shadowy actors of a global supply net of organs, hair, skin, bones, eggs, blood, and living women with wombs for rent. Along the way, Carney explains how he's intersected with the global body trade personally, and shows us the potential next frontier for exploitation: stem cells. With its emphasis on interviews and personal anecdotes (revealing Carney's origins as a journalist), The Red Market delivers a gut punch, although overall, the book is disappointingly lightweight for the seriousness of its topic.

Carney opens with a short primer on the history of the 'red market' - trade in parts or products of the human body - in the United States. Before the 1970s, the red market was capitalistic and fairly open, from clinics that purchased blood set up in shady parts of town and near train stations to a transparent system of organ donation. That changed after a British Sociologist named Richard Titmuss wrote The Gift Relationship, which compared the British system of donation (for free, driven by altruism, patriotism, and one supposes, stiff upper lips) with the American system (for base profit - duh, we're American). Titmuss' book hit a nerve and in 1984, Al Gore championed a US law that forbade payments for human products - organs, skin, bones, marrow, etc.

However, as anyone who has spent any time looking at American legislation will tell you, the spirit of the law and the consequences thereof diverge wildly. The ultimate result was the development of a completely opaque donation system in which no one really profits but the medical industry. As Carney points out, medical privacy, which we take very much for granted today, is a relatively new concept. As medical advances made organ donation more successful and more common, hospitals and doctors encouraged donors and receivers to form a relationship, believing that it would speed the healing process and strengthen the web of social obligation. Now, however, the insistence on privacy has resulted in a shadow industry of organ selling in which medical institutions, doctors, and recipients alike can claim ignorance of the organ's origin. The result? Global exploitation. Carney argues that if recipients really knew where their bits and pieces were coming from, the organ industry would change radically.

Carney opens the book with a one-two punch: while chaperoning a group of American college students on a tour of India's spiritual sites, one of the young women in his charge committed suicide by jumping off the top of a building in Bodh Gaya. The young woman's body needed to be autopsied and the cause of death determined, but there was no way to embalm her, and if she decomposed to much, the airlines would not fly her body back to the US. In the meantime, Carney dealt with predatory Indian 'journalists' and a complicated, bureaucracy-laden process to get Emily's body examined and home as quickly as possible.

It's an odd lead-in to Carney's book - after all, Emily was not selling an organ or being exploited for eggs - but Carney writes that this experience made him start thinking about how human bodies were treated around the world, and how a body was simultaneously the same as and more than a piece of merchandise - or that it should be more than a piece of merchandise. The treatment of Emily's body left him deeply unsettled.

From this harrowing opening, Carney devotes each of the book's chapters to a different body part or product: bones, kidneys, the adoption industry, eggs, surrogacy, blood, clinical pharmaceutical trials, stem cells, and hair.

In "The Bone Factory," Carney travels to India to investigate the not-quite-underground bone farming industry. India was the primary source for skeletons and anatomical models for doctors and medical schools until the sale of bones was outlawed in 1985. Still, bones are a thriving industry, with rampant grave robbing and American and Canadian companies willing to purchase bones from Indian sellers.

In "Kidney Prospecting," the refugees from the 2004 Indonesian tsunami are stranded in a barren refugee camp, the promises of aid unfulfilled by the typically corrupt and phlegmatic Indian government. Desperate refugees sell their kidneys for a few hundred dollars in a countrywide practice that depends on doctors' complicity and forged documents. Here, Carney revists the theme of his introduction, comparing the organ industry to the oil industry, where the companies that stand to profit also control the supply. However, as Carney points out, even in countries where the state controls organ harvesting (Iran and China) the results are scarcely better, with coercion, theft, and state-sanctioned murder rampant.

"Meet the Parents" opens with Carney traveling to the American Midwest to talk to a family who has adopted two children from India, one of whom Carney is convinced is the same boy who was kidnapped as a toddler by an orphanange and sold, using forged papers, with an American adoption agency as the middleman. Carney has promised the boy's parents, who have spent years fruitlessly battling India's court system, to locate their son and beg his adoptive parents to let him contact his biological family. Predictably, Carney runs up against the impenetrable Indian bureaucracy, the American adoption agency's refusal to cooperate (or to acknowledge that they're dealing with unscrupulous orphanages), and the adoptive parents' denial that their son is who Carney says he is.

Next, it's on to Cyprus, the Greek/Turkish island nation that has become a destination for couples from the UK, Europe, and America who need eggs. The UK has banned compensation for egg donation, and after the resultant plummeting of the egg supply, Cyprus stepped in to fill the gap. Cypriot clinics fly donors from Eastern Europe, especially Russia and Ukraine (where the donors are likely to be tall, white, and educated), and harvest the eggs. Egg harvesting is a dangerous process, because the astronomically high levels of hormones injected into donors' bodies can be extremely dangerous or fatal.

From eggs for sale, it's an easy leap to rental wombs, and back to India and the Akanksha Infertility Clinic, where women serving as surrogate wombs are kept confined for nine months in a barren dormitory until it's time for their C-sections. This chapter is particularly chilling on a few points: first, Carney includes a quote from a woman who uses one of the Akanksha's surrogates. Ironically enough, she's an ethics teacher, who sees no problem with saying "the way they [Akanksha] have things set up here is that the surrogate's sole purpose is to carry a healthy baby for someone." Yes, this way you don't have to worry about your surrogate doing things like drinking or smoking while pregnant - if using another human like a brood sow squares with your conscience. Sadly, the Akanksha surrogates are probably the most humanely treated out of all of the quote-unquote 'donors' in Carney's book. They're paid the amount they've been promised and they receive aftercare.

Carney continues on through the blood industry and a singularly gruesome case in India where an enterprising dairy farmer expanded into the blood business, keeping people locked inside a shed and draining their blood several times a week for years. In chapter eight, Carney recounts his own experience as a guinea pig for an erectile dysfunction drug, which sounds like the setup for a joke but is, in reality, a disturbing experience. Since clinical trials benefit from cheap laber and no regulation, like most other American industries, it gets outsourced to China and India with fatal results. In a horrible loop, blood harvesting practices in Henan, China that resulted in massive amounts of HIV infections eventually led to clinical trials by biotech companies of AIDS drugs on the same HIV-infected farmers.

Carney argues that the next frontier of the red market is likely to be stem cells, a claim that is plausible given the ethical imbroglio over stem cells in the US (someone less scrupulous will do it anyway, and Americans who can afford it will still benefit). The Egg King of Cyprus, a doctor at one of the largest infertility clinics, agrees, and is already looking into exploiting stem cells for (fun and!) profit, although Carney is vague on how he sees this unfolding.

The Red Market follows a pattern that's apparent a few chapters in - Carney opens with a personal anecdote or story about an individual affected by a particular facet of the red market, then traces the industry back to the lack of transparency, vasts profits by the medical industry and the middlemen, and reiterates the need for less willful blindness and more openness in the supply chain of human parts. The Red Market returns to India again and again, although this may be due to a combination of Carney having lived there for many years and India's notoriously lax and bribe-happy regulatory system coupled with an atrocious human rights record.

The book will definitely leave you wanting more - aside from Carney's personal interviews, shocking as they are, there's not a tremendous amount of research on display here. Even a single chapter of The Red Market could easily be a book-long study. The expectations created by the ambitious title aren't really fulfilled, although The Red Market is a good primer on the various industries created around certain human products and body parts.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The haunting

I read a preview of Vera Brosgol's Anya's Ghost on Tor.com, and the delightful artwork reminded me strongly of Persepolis. Brosgol is a talented, dynamic illustrator (she wrote a delightful, unfortunately unfinished webcomic, Return to Sender, worked on the animated film Coraline, and has a website full of cute drawings over at Verabee.com). So, I very much looked forward to getting her first book, Anya's Ghost.

Anya's Ghost is illustrated is a somber pallette of whites, blacks, and a purpley-blue bruise-like color. The titular character, Anya, is loosely autobiographical - like Anya, Vera was born in Russia and came to the United States as a child. Anya attends a WASP-y private school where she's trying very, very hard to fit in, with mixed results. She's successfully jettisoned her accent and blends in pretty well, but the school's only other Russian (twerpy Dima, a head shorter than Anya with Coke-bottle glasses) persists in trying to befriend her, and Anya's only other real friend is a tomboyish, prickly girl named Siobhan.

Brosgol does a great job illustrating the tricky social minefield of high school, and in particular, being the outsider. Refreshingly, Anya isn't a wimp or a pushover. Sure, she's lonely and would like to be more like blond, skinny Elizabeth (Anya's a zaftig brunette with freckles), but she's also smart, sarcastic, and has enough perspective on her situation to both want to fit in and understand the ridiculousness of navigating high school. It also helps that Anya isn't always particularly nice - she's mean to dorky Dima and quick to latch onto a chance to hang with the popular kids.

Anya falls down an abandoned well and finds herself next to a skeleton. That would be creepy enough, but this particular skeleton is haunted by Emily Reilly, who fell down the well ninety years ago and died of thirst. Emily, drawn as a transparent, lanky girl with a cloud of fluffy hair, is eager to escape the boring well, but Anya is understandably less thrilled. Anya accidentally scoops up one of Emily's finger bones, which lets her tag along with Anya when she's pulled out of the well.

Emily tells Anya her tragic tale (parents and fiance both killed before tumbling into the well) and is initially useful, helping Anya cheat on her biology test and engineering conversations with Sean, Anya's crush (and Elizabeth's boyfriend, and star of the basketball team, and swoon-inducingly handsome).

Soon, however, Emily becomes more and more pushy, and when Anya does some digging in the local archives, she finds out that Emily is more sinister than she thought. Getting rid of her proves tricky, as Emily begins growing stronger and threatening Anya's family, leaving Anya stuck with a murderous ghost and no one to help.
The illustrations are charming, from the ethereal-turned-threatening Emily to the hapless Dima. The dialogue is frequently hilarious, and Brosgol's Anya is a realistic mix of smartassery and insecurity that anyone who remembers teenagerhood will recognize. The plot twist takes the story in a wholly unexpected direction, although the last third seems rushed. Overall, the book seems somewhat too short, and the ending is regretful - I would have liked to have more time to spend with Anya and Emily. Using a ghost to deliver Important Life Lessons tm is an unsual strategy, but Brosgol's witty illustrations pull it off. I look forward to seeing another, hopefully longer, graphic novel from her in the future.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Are you feeling constipated and squinty?

If so, 1940s psychoanalyst Erich Fromm would like you to know that you have a 'hoarding orientation.' Or possibly that you're a toddler.

I'm not the only one obsessed with hoarding - that is, watching other people hoard, of course. This weekend's New York Times magazine published an article by Carina Chocano about the wave of hoarding/compulsive behavior shows sweeping cable television. Chocano implies that hoarding seems to have increased, although I'd quibble - I think the increase in shows about hoarding probably have something to do with that perception.

Chocano makes the rather easy leap from hoarding to our battered, consumer-drive economy as it staggers around after the recovery-that-wasn't, although it would be remiss not to point out the correlation/causation fallacy at work here. Of course our relationship to stuff has the "potential to distort and derail us," as the first ascetic who kicked off their sandals and wandered into the desert would remind us.

So. Burn everything in the driveway? Certainly tempting sometimes. The only thing I'm at risk of being crushed to death by is a dislodged book, but if I ever do end up on a show about compulsive behavior, I give you free license to point and stare.

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to the Book Sale Sign at the Library

Dear Book Sale Sign at the Library,

You say "Books - $1. Buy one, get three free!"

Wouldn't it be easier to just say "four for a dollar?"

Thoughtfully,
Me

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Pop Eater

So, I like to watch addiction shows. This is how it usually goes:
Me: Think I'll sit here on the couch and watch Hoarders. A few minutes pass. Man, that is a messy house. Wow.
.....
There's an empty glass on the living room table. Better take that to the dishwasher.

Ah! Dishes in the sink. Should wash those.

That person saves magazines.

I save magazines. Starts having images of my living room being filmed. It's possible to make anyone look like they have a behavioral problem using slow fades and ominous music! Starts frantically cleaning.

True story. Whenever I need to straighten up and am feeling unmotivated, I turn on Hoarders. I've never gotten more than fifteen minutes into any given episode before having to go tear apart the stove or something. And now there's a new addiction show joining the TLC lineup: Freaky Eaters!

Wait, what? See below:



That's right. Addicted. To cheesy potatoes. Sure, addiction shows may not seem very relevant to you when they're about, I don't know, heroin or eating toilet paper rolls, but cheesy potatoes? I went through a phase where I ate scrambled eggs three times a day. For months. During my first year of college, I ate cornflakes and toast for every single meal for an entire semester. I just got off a bacon kick that involved plowing through an entire pack of bacon every five days.

This show is hitting a little too close to home. Gagging when you smell a Brussels sprout? That's like every kid, ever (until you realize that the only way to make them palatable is to fry them in bacon fat and serve them with butter).

Given the success of shows like Intervention and the slew of shows that followed it (My Strange Addiction, Celebrity Rehab, Addicted to Food) it's not surprising that TLC is putting together another show that involves 'addiction' and food, two of the things that Americans do really, really well. But this? It just seems stupid.

Next: Addicted to Air and I Can't Stop Drinking Water!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Northern exposure.

Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policement's Union is on the surface, and only on the surface, a detective novel. In the vein of detective novels everywhere, Meyer Landsman, the book's protagonist, is a bitterly divorced, heavy drinking policeman facing a number of personal and professional crises, not the least of which being 1) that he's living in a scabrous hotel surrounded by similar sad sacks and 2) his ex-wife, the eminently competent Bina Gelbfish, is also a detective. Who has just become his boss.


However, Chabon is far too skillful a writer to indulge himself in these cliches, and this seems more like a sly nod to the conventions of noir and pulp novels.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union is set in an alternate reality America in which the Slattery Report has been implemented, creating a temporary Jewish settlement in Alaska's Sitka Valley for Europe's Jews to escape the persecution of the Nazis, and the State of Israel lasted only three months before being destroyed in 1948. Germany beat the Soviet Union, Berlin was nuked, and Russia is now on its third iteration of the Russian Republic (Poland's doing pretty well though, which is nice). 

However, the Sitka settlement agreement is only guaranteed for sixty years, and as the novel opens, the Reversion of the settlement back to Alaska is only a few months away, leaving the future of Sitka's Jews very uncertain.

Landsman's ex-wife, Bina, bounds into the crumbling police department to clean house before it's dismantled and given back to the government of Alaska. However, the sad little murder of a heroin addict who was living in Landsman's hotel under the assumed name of Emmanuel Lasker is nagging at Landsman, and despite Bina's exhortation to cold case it, he can't let it go.

Which leads him into a heap of trouble. Together with his cousin and partner, the massive half-Jewish, half-Tlingit Berko Shemets, Landsman starts digging at the layers of intrigue surrounding the dead man, who frequented a local chess hall that Landsman's father Isidor favored before he committed suicide.

As it turns out, the dead man is Mendel Schpilman, the only son of Sitka's resident crime boss, part of an extended, powerful group of ultra-Orthodox Jews known as the Verbovers. Getting on the wrong side of the Verbovers is a fast ticket to disappearing, and Landsman has also managed to get himself suspended from the force after a fatal tangle with another murder suspect. Now he has to try to avoid getting offed by the Verbover's henchmen and the ire of his formidable ex-wife.

Landsman's investigation flips back layer and layer of mystery and draws him deeper into the shadowy world of the Verbovers. Shpilman, apparently capable of performing miracles, was believed by some to be the Tzaddik Ha-Dor (the man with the potential to be the Messiah, who appears once every generation) before vanishing on his wedding day some years before and resurfacing as a junkie corpse in a flophouse. Landsman's search takes him to a mysterious "rehabilitation" complex on Indian territory run by the Verbover's men and a menacing doctor who may be involved in the death of Landsman's sister, Naomi, some years before.

Chabon's alternate reality - a community that resembles chunks of New York and the Old World plopped down in Alaska's icy landscape - is both giddy and heartbreakingly sad. Landsman's fast-talking, hard-boiled shpiel covers up the crumbling core of his life, which is actually an excellent metaphor for the book itself. The hard-luck inhabitants of Sitka are viewing their imminent relocation with a surprising amount of humor and shrugging whaddayawant?, but the Jews in Chabon's novel are still without a homeland and the sting is real and very painful.

The conspiracy that Landsman eventually does uncover surrounding the death of the failed Messiah is rather funnier than I expected, and would be even more believable had I been reading this during the days of the Bush administration, as it cloaked its country-building ambitions in the language of the Crusades.

Chabon plays fast and loose with language here, liberally sprinkling Yiddish, German, and a few other languages throughout the book. Landsman is a consummate wise guy and his snappy, fast-talking crackle is often hilarious. The novel's pace shifts a little in the scenes between Landsman and Bina, who are forced to confront a painful decision the two of them made while they were married. This facet of the novel takes on a more personal dimension considering Chabon's wife, author Ayelet Waldman, wrote an honest and unflinching article about their mutual decision to terminate her pregnancy after discovering the fetus had a rare, life-threatening chromosomonal abnormality.

Chabon's novel is slated to become a movie, allegedly to be directed by the Coen brothers.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Why the past isn't past

An article today in The Atlantic about Justus Majyambere, under indictment for allegedly overseeing the killing of nine Spanish NGO workers in Rwanda, visiting the United States War College at Fort Leavenworth recently.

Franzenpants

It is with great, great trepidation that I review Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, not the least because other reviewers insist on comparing it to Tolstoy.

Mainly, because the glut of adoring reviews of Franzen by the The New York Times touched off a wave of pushback by other writers, pointing out that the Times review page is massively skewed towards reviewing works by white male authors (true) and that two reviews of Franzen's book, while ignoring a slew of others, was patently unfair (not quite sure I agree with that).

The Huffington Post published an interview with Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner about Franzengate. I was somewhat relieved that both women came across as warm, funny, and utterly unpretentious. They also made some damn good points about the unfortunate gender divide in the literary world, specifically among fiction writers. However, and this is the part where I look duly ashamed, Picoult and Weiner write exactly the kind of books I'm not inclined to pick up (I have read one or two of Picoult's novels, I did not find them particularly memorable, but she can laugh all the way to the bank with her three number one NYT bestseller debuts).

The Atlantic's Chris Jackson wrote a similarly sheepish article about having to make a conscious effort to read women writers. Jackson notes that while women are, by far, the largest consumers of fiction and (based on sales) seem rather equally likely to read men and women authors, the same can't be said of male readers - and that Weiner and Picoult's point about the imbalance of fiction reviews is not just sour grapes, but a sad statistical fact.

Which, eurgh. And ouch. Because while I don't choose books based on the gender of the author, I admit that my reading probably skews a little more male-author-heavy than female, and I admit to avoiding romance novels, anything with a high heel, lipstick, or wedding dress on the cover, and having a general aversion to picking up a book that's immediately and obviously marketed towards women. Which is not to say that I don't read and enjoy women authors - I do - but I'm extremely unlikely to pick up anything in the "Women's Literature" section, which I'd like to think says more about my reading preferences (heavy on the history, epidemiology, and science fiction sides) than a personal bias.

But as Picoult and Weiner point out, a whole subsection of fiction has been stigmatized simply because it's designed to appeal to women, which seems rather unfair, and not just unfair, but downright stupid in the much-ballyhooed Sunset of the Printed Word, especially given that women purchase more books than men. As Melissa Silverstein points out, women's dollars are just as green as men's. Of course, there's a lot of assumption going on here, first and foremost the assumption that if a book is written by a woman, it's de facto going to be a fluffy romance, which we know is not the case, but the double standard that Picoult and Weiner bemoan (if a man writes it about love, life, death, etc., it's Literature-with-a-capital-L, if a woman does, it's, in Weiner's words, a "beach read") remains. And of course, there is the Literature/commercial fiction divide, and the enduring concept that once something is popular, it's no longer good.

But oh my God, all that aside, back to Freedom. In a similar vein to The Corrections, Franzen creates a handful of characters (the Berglund family and aging rocker Richard Katz) and spends 500-plus pages focusing, with laserlike intensity and microscopic focus, on their travails.

Which, meh. Perhaps it's because I'm in the middle of Peter Massie's Peter the Great, but after reading about Peter's colossus-like, world-shaking reach, the small disappointments and minor triumphs of a white-bread Midwestern family are just not that compelling.

Anyway. Freedom follows Patty and Walter Berglund, said upper-class white Midwestern couple, through a series of crises, mid-life and otherwise, and their steadily eroding relationship with each other, their children, and their mutual friend Richard. Patty is an excellent basketball player, the misfit product of two liberal, do-gooding parents whose three other children, having been duly encouraged to be Creative and Follow Their Dreams, are inadequately equipped to survive without Mom and Dad's cash and encouragement. The black sheep by virtue of her success and independence, Patty is reviled by her siblings and ignored by her parents.

Her athletic dreams are dashed by a career-ending injury, and Patty settles for marrying steadfast, sweet Walter. Like Patty, he's the sole success story in his family (alcoholic father, feckless brothers, martyr-like mother). Patty and Walter move to a crumbling neighborhood as the first wave of gentrification, where Walter goes to work for an environmental nonprofit while Patty, determined not to repeat her parents' mistakes (which guarantees that you'll just make a set of different, equally awful ones) becomes a devoted stay-at-home mom.

Complicating this apparent domestic bliss is Patty's continuing obsession with Walter's college friend, moderately successful musician Richard Katz. Richard and Walter are the oddest of odd couples, but their friendship has endured, and Patty and Richard have managed not to fall into bed with each other. You see where this is going.

In short order, Patty and Walter produce two children, and Patty's relationship with their son Joey is the seed of their family's unraveling. Joey is a jackass, but an intelligent and precocious jackass. Patty pours all her love and affection into Joey, who, in the grand manner of children everywhere, promptly returns it by moving in with the loathsome family next door at sixteen.

And, and. Blah blah blah. Patty and Richard, obviously, tumble into bed with each other, Walter eventually finds out and retaliates by having an affair of his own with his comely young assistant. His professional life unravels after a number of unsavory deals he's made with a mining company come to light, but his subsequent meltdown pave the way for him to pass himself off as a radical environmental activist. Patty moves out, his new ladylove is conveniently squooshed on a twisty mountain road, his son marries the creepy, depressive daughter of the next-door neighbors, and he and his estranged wife descend into six years of radio silence.

Perhaps I can't forgive Franzen for being, at the heart of it all, a believer in the Happy Ending. Without giving too much away, it all shakes out more or less all right in the end, with Patty and Walter reconciling and their relationship with their kids becoming more or less tolerable. Walter even gets his beloved bird sanctuary.

Freedom is interspersed with chunks of autobiography written by Patty at her therapist's behest. Wry and funny, Patty-the-author is perhaps more interesting than Patty-the-woman. It's hard to feel too sorry for the Berglund's trials, particularly not after Joey makes nearly a cool million before he's legally allowed to drink after selling a few tons of worthless truck parts to the US military (if you think that's far-fetched, you didn't read the Rolling Stone profile of the World's Littlest Arms Dealers). Perhaps it's the recession and the pall of despair that is still hanging over everyone, but it's very, very hard for me to scrape up sympathy for people who aren't struggling with anything but their own stupidity and are cushioned with plenty of privilege and cash to absorb the slings and arrows of postmodern life.

Particularly off-putting is Joey's teenage amour and later wife, Connie Monaghan, a human-shaped hole of despair and obsession who manages to be simultaneously disturbing and completely disinteresting. It is rather satisfying to see Patty finally fashion a life that's relatively fulfilling and more-or-less happy, after the pit of sadness and discontent that comprises her thirties and forties, and her return to Walter is something of a disappointment.

One thing that Franzen absolutely nails, nails so completely that you have to stand up and pace for a moment, is the conversation that Patty and her mother, Joyce, have after Patty's father's death. If any reader has had that conversation with a parent when anger and bitterness have really, truly dissipated, and all that remains is dispassionate curiousity about why a parent has done some particularly hurtful thing - not recrimination, just a desire to know what they were thinking - and experienced the parent's skillful evasion, they'll know exactly what Patty is feeling.

So. Freedom. Read it, or don't. It's good, overall, and ironically, I imagine it'll appeal to readers who would also like Picoult and Weiner. It's also about marriage, and love, and death - Literature-with-a-capital-L or chic lit?? You be the judge!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to the Lululemon's Bag

Dear Lululemon's bag,

I see that you are exhorting me to "do one thing a day that scares me."

I find this confusing.

It is our great First World privilege to live without fear. I think the rest of the world, if told to do the same thing, would look at you like you had three heads. Only someone who has not ever lived with pervading, ever-present fear would say something this inane.

And furthermore, what sort of things are you thinking about? If I tried doing something every day that scares me, it would be one of these:

1. Having a metaphysical conversation with a three-year-old. You know the kind, where they ask some huge yet perfectly logical question, and then everybody is like oh hah hah that's so cute, and the kid is all, no, I mean it, answer my question. Sort of like this:

Three Year Old: Where does the wind come from?
Me: Oh. Hahah. What a good question.
Three Year Old: No. Seriously. Why?
Me: frantically trying to remember something, anything, from my last science class in eighth grade, in which I spent most of my time discussing Star Wars with the impressively mustachioed teacher. Um. Air currents? Differential temperatures? Some sort of celestial vapor agitation?
Three Year Old: looks skeptical
Me: Birds pant a lot when they fly, I think. You want to get ice cream?

2. Touch, see, kill, or otherwise be in the same room with a bug. Last weekend one of those horrible camel crickets got into the washing machine when I was doing laundry, and even though after the hot cycle this was the deadest and the cleanest cricket in Christendom - seriously, this cricket was clean - there was no way in hell I would even dispose of the corpse, not even through industrial strength paper towels, and instead had to call my long-suffering Life Partner in to get rid of it, even though he gets these frantic pleas from me at least three or four times a weekend to deal with some kind of bug or other than is disrupting the very fabric of my universe by daring to be in the same room with me.

3. Be exposed to the sun, even for a minute, without sunblock and a hat and/or umbrella between me and its Evil Hate Rays of Death.

4. Look closely at my feet.

Although I appreciate you reminding me to breathe deeply. I was just wondering why everything had gone all black and sparkly in here, then realized I'd forgotten to exhale, so thanks, Lululemon bag.

I know you probably get suggestions like this all the time, but you should think about adding some new phrases to your repertoire. Right now you're a very weird mix of pantiliner inspirational - drink water! You can play sports! Ignore your creeping mortality! and perverted Zen koanster. Seriously, children are the orgasm of the universe? If that phrase were a person, it would be on the sex offender registry. How about those $70 dollar yoga pants should really make you feel guilty or Do downward dog to deal with the crushing soullessness of your postmodern existence.

Or just, do one thing every day that scares you, unless you are living 1) in a warzone 2) on a pile of technological waste 3) in a dump and are 1) facing starvation or 2) an early death from unsafe drinking water and/or lead contamination or 3) a hostile government trying to forcibly resettle you because of your nationality, ethnicity, language, or religion. In that case, you get a pass.

Thanks for taking the time to listen, Lululemon bag.

Deeply breathing,
Me

My new anti-bullying campaign

So, I have heard lately on the TV and suchlike that bullying is a Very Big Problem, and I know this because the interchangeable CNN ladies had their Very Serious faces on. Then I did some extensive research  Googled some things very quickly and saw that there are a lot of anti-bullying programs out there now, mostly with names that incoporate extraneous Zs and numbers instead of letters, which I can only surmise is an attempt to mimic the way KTD (Kids These Days) are talking, which as anyone whose adolescence is still a painful memory can tell you, never ever works, because they can sense inauthenticity like sharks can sense blood in the water.
So, instead, my modest proposal is that you sit them down and make them watch Carrie 2 and Let Me In, and then explain that when you bully someone, you run the very real risk of being decapitated by a murderous psychic or dismembered by your victim's undead friend. Makes the hilarity of that wedgie not worth it, huh?

You may remember my polemic against Let Me In, the remake of the Swedish film Let The Right One In. Well, you will be pleased to know that in the interests of Research and Science and Generally Improving Humanity's Lot, I finally got around to watching Let Me In this weekend. That's me - so timely!

Actually, considering the three together - the American remake, the Swedish film, and the original novel, is very interesting, and (I think) rather revealing about American audiences' squeamishness about certain types of violence. Not that we're sqeamish about violence (Saw I, II, III, IV, and...V? Hostel I and II, Turistas, ad nauseum) but only very particular forms of violence, preferably against bikini-clad coeds and frat boys, but violence against children remains something of a taboo in American movies, unless you get around it by having said kid be demonically possessed (The Exorcist franchises, The Omen series, etc.) or vampiric (Interview With the Vampire).

Let Me In borrows heavily, cinematographically speaking, from Let The Right One In, and several scenes are shot almost identically to the original film. But, although the American version is much shorter than the Swedish version, it seems to drag during the quieter scenes that made Let The Right One In such an unsettling joy to watch. The premise is still the same - Abby (originally Eli) moves into Owen (originally Oskar)'s apartment complex one night. Owen, a pallid and undersized boy tormented by a trio of bullies, is desperate for a friend, desperate enough to overlook Abby's stench and habit of coming out only at night. Abby lives with a creepy old man, who obligingly kills and drains local teens to feed Abby's blood habit, although he's nearing the end of his usefulness. A town detective, possessing the requisite double-bridge aviator classes and bad 'stache of the film's early 80s era, is soon poking around Owen's apartment building and asking all sorts of unwelcome questions, especially after Abby unwisely attacks a woman in the apartment's courtyard.

The American version is altogether more wholesome and less creepy than the Swedish version. In Let The Right One In, Eli is simulaneously more menacing and more pitiful. Hakan, Eli's guardian, is a pedophile willing to keep Eli alive in exchange for being near him (right, that's the other thing - Eli is actually a boy, something that Let Me In skates around but is ultimately unwilling to confront. Viewers of the original will get it, others will just be baffled.). Eli isn't menaced by the local constabulary, but instead by a middle-aged, alcoholic Swede, part of a group of singularly pathetic local drunks, one of whom Eli kills. Since alcoholics are generally not known for their extremely tight grip on reality, Eli's in real danger, since Jocke is perfectly willing to sharpen a stake and do some daytime hunting. The feeding scenes in the original have a grittiness that Let Me In lacks, particularly in its reliance on CGI fight scenes between Abby and her prey that are wince-inducing in their clunkiness.

Let Me In also has an obsession with evil that the original lacked, which could probably be blamed on Sweden's very European disinterest with matters of religion. Owen's apartment has little pictures of Jesus and Mary everywhere, and he even makes a distraught midnight phone call to his absent father to ask if he believes evil exists. Of course, in the grand tradition of horror movies featuring kids, adults are mostly absent and pretty useless even when they're there - Owen's mother is only an inert form on the couch or a blonde ponytail at the principal's office. The audience never even sees her face.

The two versions diverge most sharply at the end. In Let The Right One In, Oskar and Eli ride off into the sunrise together (well, Eli's in a trunk) after the unlamented death of the scabrous Hakan. It's sweet and oddly hopeful, misfit and undead headed off to a bright - in a manner of speaking - future together.

In Let Me In, Owen finds a little strip of photo booth pictures of the ageless Abby and her elderly protector as a boy. Tormented, shabby, and now useless to Abby, he's promptly dispatched after botching his last murder. Owen willingly assumes his role, but as the two of them leave the town behind, Owen's future seems very dark indeed - a lifetime of seedy apartments, aging, and death in service to someone who will eventually suck you dry and leave you.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The high road.

Is Patricia Highsmith the quintessential American author?

I don't know. I'll leave that question to someone who is better-read than I am, but there is something hard, flat, and unnervingly American, with all its connotations of newness, brutality, and struggle in Highsmith's writing.

Highsmith, like her writing, is a rather bizarre figure. Originally from Fort Worth, Texas (and what could be more American than that?), Highsmith spent her childhood shuttling between New York and Texas, finally decamping for Mexico and then Europe, where she spent much of the rest of her life, dying in Switzerland in her seventies. She's probably best known now for Tom Ripley, the charming murderer from The Talented Mr. Ripley, which Highsmith followed with four more books. Her first short novel, Strangers on a Train, was made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock, and several movies were made from her Ripley series, including two versions of The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Highsmith was born Patricia Mary Plangman, but her father and mother separated before she was born. Her mother remarried to a man named Stanley Highsmith. Both parents worked as commercial artists, and Highsmith became a comic book scriptwriter in her 20s before her writing career took off with the publication of Strangers on a Train in 1950, which Hitchcock scooped up and turned into a film a year later.

Highsmith proved to be a very prolific writer, churning out short stories and novels, as well as unfailingly keeping journals, a boon to later biographers. Highsmith's writing is rather hard to classify, but it's often shuffled under crime fiction, although much of her writing doesn't really fit with that genre, particularly her second novel, The Price of Salt, published pseudononymously. There is certainly an undercurrent of nastiness, a streak of violence that runs through all of her writing, that most people seize on when they examine Highsmith's work, mentioning over and over her propensity to create characters that are often and callously cruel to one another. This is certainly true, and danger lurks underneath the most mundane details in her writing, but The Price of Salt is a surprisingly tender and hopeful departure from the bulk of her work.

Selected Novels and Short Stories collected her first two novels, Strangers on a Train and The Price of Salt, along with many of her short stories, divided chronologically.

Strangers on a Train follows the chance meeting of two men on a train and the fatal results. Guy Haines, an architect struggling to establish his career, travels from New York to the fictional Metcalf, Texas, to finalize a divorce from his wife Miriam, from whom he's been separated for nearly three years. On the way, he meets Charles Bruno, a spoiled, wealthy young man with some unresolved Oedipal issues and a readily apparent hatred of women. Haines shares the story of his marriage to Miriam, and Bruno decides to settle things in his own way, unleashing a series of events that will thoroughly disrupt Haines' life and new relationship.

The Price of Salt, originally published under the name Claire Morgan, is also about obsession, but a much less threatening type. Therese, a young, aspiring set designer in New York, is working as a shopgirl in a large department store over Christmas when she becomes intrigued by a beautiful, wealthy older woman named Carol. Therese is rather aimless, drifting into a relationship with a nice but uncompelling young man and pursuing a series of rather unlikely jobs in New York's theater scene. It's easy to see how the sleek, self-possessed Carol overwhelms Therese. On impulse, she sends a Christmas card to Carol. The two women begin seeing each other, although their burgeoning relationship resembles a carefully choreographed dance. Carol is older, wiser, and in the throes of a divorce from her wealthy husband - not to mention the question of the gulf between them in terms of age, money, and sophistication. Therese and Carol set off on a trip from New York to the West Coast, but discover along the way that Carol's soon-to-be-ex-husband has begun some nasty machinations against Carol to wrest custody of their young daughter from her.

The Price of Salt has a rather unexpectedly hopeful, light ending. Highsmith doesn't skirt around the issue of her characters' sexuality. Although she doesn't include any sex scenes (not unusual, she avoided that in her other work as well) and never mentions the L word, there's plenty of passion and what might be called the Early American Theory of Gaydar. That Highsmith published pseudononymously isn't surprising given the subject matter, but it's been suggested that the story cut too close to home for Highsmith to publish it under her own name. Certainly, Carol is punished for her attraction to Therese, most obviously by losing contact with her daughter, but unlike most writing at the time, neither character is excoriated or pathologized for their sexuality.

Certainly, much of Highsmith's writing is autobiographical. Highsmith also had relationships with many women (and some men) although none lasted very long, and her famously prickly personality and quick temper alienated many of her acquaintances. She drank too much, and in her later years seemed to become abruptly even more unstable and difficult to get along with, and was private to the point of being nearly reclusive.
Short stories in this collection include "A Mighty Nice Man," "The Still Point of the Turning World," "Where the Door is Always Open and the Welcome Mat is Out," "Quiet Night," "In the Plaza," "The Great Cardhouse," "The Baby Spoon," and later works "Oona, the Jolly Cave Woman," "Two Disagreeable Pigeons," "Not One of Us," "Woodrow Wilson's Necktie," "The Terrors of Basket-Weaving," and "The Trouble with Mrs. Blynn, The Trouble with the World."

"A Mighty Nice Man" is O'Connoresque in its depiction of a predator and his stupid, backwoods prey. "The Baby Spoon" revists a theme that reappears often in Highsmith's work, of the put-upon husband and his idiotic wife. "Two Disagreeable Pigeons" is a frankly hilarious story of domestic terpitude and strife, as acted out between two pigeons. "Not One of Us" is a chilling story of the cruelty of pack mentality, and probably hews most closely of the stores included in this anthology to the idea of Highsmith's work as containing morally bankrupt, callous and self-indulgent characters. "Woodrow Wilson's Necktie" is the most overtly violent of the short stories, and also the most laughable. It reads like a pitch for that awful Paris Hilton vehicle, House of Wax, and the plot's reappeared in horror movies, YA fiction, and at least one episode of Bones.

Although this collection is but a fraction of Highsmith's impressive body of work (twenty-two novels alone!) it does a competent job of displaying some of the recurring themes of her work while showing how her writing eluded classification. One recurring motif (notably absent in The Price of Salt) shows characters being thwarted just before they get what they desire, with murder or violence being the preferred mechanism.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Excuse me while I geek out a little here

Salon has alerted me that Neil Gaiman's American Gods has been purchased by HBO for a six-episode series.

Really, Salon? Neil Buscemi as Mr. Wednesday? Pah. I'd pick Anthony Hopkins, who is the right mixture of genial old man and murderer.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Helping hand/Urban jungle

I was reading Kathryn Stockett's The Help in the living room the other day, and my roommate said it was very "book club 2009" of me. And she's totally right! The Help is not normally the type of book I would pick up (I don't read a lot of fiction anymore, and I tend to avoid anything 1) with a woman on the cover, especially if she's a) shown only from the neck down b) turned away c) in the process of getting dressed/undressed or 2) has the word a) wife b) daughter c) sister anywhere in the title OR 3) is going to be mostly about relationships. These rules also apply to movies).

But! I had just finished TJ English's The Savage City, and I realized that The Savage City and The Help are bizarre counterpoints to each other. The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963 (Medgar Evers is murdered during the year the book takes place, but Martin Luther King is still alive). The Savage City is the chronicle of New York City in the early 1960s, and the cataclysmic event is the "Career Girl Murders," the murder of two young white women that ignited a decade of volcanic race relations and led to the shakeup of the corrupt New York City police department, a series of race riots, and forever changed the face of the city.

The Help alternates chapters from the viewpoint of Aibileen, a maid and domestic who works for a high-strung, neurotic woman, Minny, a sharp-tongued woman who works for...well, another high-strung, neurotic woman, and Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, an aspiring journalist languishing on her parents' cotton plantation, who decides to interview the town's maids and collect their stories for a book she's hoping will be her ticket into the publishing world in NYC.

The chapters told from Aibileen's viewpoint are far and away the best. Her genuine affection for the children she raises, in particular her boss's sad toddler, Mae Mobley, are heart-wrenching, as is her grief after the death of her only child. Minny and her employer, white-trash-married-well Celia Foote's relationship, is often hilarious. The two women form a perfect counterpoint for each other. The chapters told from Skeeter's viewpoint are less successful, and her interest in the women's stories doesn't seem to rise above self-serving, even when it comes to finding out the reason behind her beloved maid Clementine's disappearance.

Although Kathryn Stockett got a lot of praise for addressing the "hidden world" of maids and their relationships with their white employers in the 1960s South, it feels like she pulls her punches. The maids are taking a very real, very big risk in sharing their stories, and while they're cognizant of the price they may pay, violence is held at arm's length in the story. There's a bizarre interlude with a violent Peeping Tom at Celia Foote's remote home, but the episode is dropped into the story and then abandoned, which stretches credibility.

The Savage City, on the other hand, lives up to its name, from its opening line describing New York as a city "saturated with blood." Early 1960s New York is undergoing a wrenching transition. In the introduction, English traces the city's profound and rapid demographic shift to the influx of migrants from the South, beginning in the mid-1940s and spurred by the introduction of the mechanical cotton harvester; and the growing waves of immigrants from Puerto Rico. Racial tensions are already at a boiling point in 1963, when a series of events rocked the city, exposed the rampant corruption of the NYPD, and set the government of New York and the police department against each other in a fight for control of NYC.

The Savage City begins in August 1963, on the day of MLK's march on Washington. The New York police department received a report of a double homicide, not unusual in a city with over 500 murders that year and a steadily rising crime rate. Two young women, Emily Hoffert and Janice Wylie, were found murdered in their apartment on East Eighty-Eighth by their roommate. The details of the murder made it even more sensational, as the did the women's relatively safe neighborhood and the complete absence of any witnesses. Facing a storm of media coverage and pressure to find the killer, detectives arrested George Whitmore, a ninetteen-year-old who had recently come to NYC from Wildwood, New Jersey. Whitmore hadn't even arrived in NYC when Wylie and Hoffert were killed, but the NYPD easily pressured him into signing a confession and gleefully alerted the press that they'd found the killer. Whitmore was also charged with assaulting a woman shortly before the murder, who identifed Whitmore as her attacker.

What follows Whitmore's arrest is a saga that draws together the explosive tension in the city, the rise of the Black Panthers (and their later internal division between the East Coast and West Coast Party membership), and the development of a corruption investigation into the NYPD that would leave virtually no officer untouched and forever change the way the NYPD did business.

English, the author of Havana Nocturne and Born to Kill, has a deft hand with history, never forgetting to keep the focus on the human toll of the events in his work. In The Savage City, English returns again and again to Whitmore and Dhoruba bin Wahad, one of the founding members of the Black Panther Party in NYC. The contrast between the two men - Whitmore, young, timid, isolated and passive, and Wahad, self-educated, politically-minded, and driven - is striking, but their stories keep The Savage City focused.

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to My Left Foot (And Also, My Right)

Dear My Left Foot (And Also My Right),

It is very hard to shop for shoes when you, left (right) foot, persist in being a half size smaller (or bigger, right foot) than the other one. Every pair of shoes is simultaneously a little too small and a little too big.

Blisteringly,
Me

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Diplomatic impunity

I am very excited to be reviewing China Mieville's latest, Embassytown. All you language dorks out there, this is going to blow your mind. Leave it to Meiville to write a science fiction book with aliens! and spaceships! and interplanetary travel! and have it actually be about that incredibly important thing we do when we talk to each other. Dust off your Saussure and get ready to signify.

So. Embassytown is a small human enclave on a backwater planet on the edge of the explored universe, reachable only by a very dangerous trek through the anti-matter of space. Arieka is home to the Ariekei, aliens that look sort of like a horse/coral reef/insect mashup. The Ariekei have a Language, but because of some bizarre quirks in their evolution, their use and understanding of Language is so vastly different from humans that no one can really communicate with them. The two-mouthed Ariekei speak a doubled language, and because there's no difference between the signified and the signifier, they're incapable of lying or using simile or metaphor, unless that simile or metaphor has taken place in the physical world.

Furthermore, the Ariekei can't communicate with humans, because their language requires a single mind to speak it's doubled words - and we can't. Enter the Ambassadors, cloned human-twins trained from birth to be as single-minded as possible in an attempt to speak to the Ariekei.

Confused yet? You will be, because Meiville chucks you into the narrative without so much as a by-your-leave, which is fine. Part of the genius of this work is that the mystery of the Ariekei unfolds for the characters the same way it does for the reader.

Anyway, Embassytown's heroine is Avice Benner Cho, an immerser who has returned to Embassytown with her linguist husband. Cho holds the honor of being a simile - the girl who ate what was given to her - in the Ariekei Language.

Embassytown putters along in its isolated, backwatery way, until the arrival of a new Ambassador pair who have been altered to speak with a single mind. Unfortunately, no one predicted the reaction of the Ariekei, who promptly become desperate junkies, hooked on the sound of the Ambassador pair's voice. Chaos descends on Embassytown, as the embattled Embassy splits into factions, all desperate to find a way to figure out how to save the Ariekei from their addiction - and save themselves from being murdered by an advancing Ariekei army.

Yes, Embassytown is bizarre, a complicated, twisty read, and frankly, it's going to resonate most with readers who devote their time to studying language and literature, not hyperspace travel and phasers. But Embassytown is a roaring breath of fresh air in a genre that's been feeling kind of stale lately, and cerebral enough to be rewarding to chew through.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to the Slugs in my Front Yard That Insist on Crawling All Over My Newspaper

Dear slugs in my front yard that insist on crawling all over my newspaper,

YOU HAVE THE WHOLE YARD TO PLAY IN. CUT IT OUT.

Grossed out,
Me

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Land of the free...

...home of the deep-fried pickles.