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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review: 'The Wangs vs. the World'

The Wangs vs. the World
By Jade Chang
Literary fiction
October 2016
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0544734098

A man comes to America, makes a fortune, has three remarkable children and a second wife who has loved him since childhood, then loses his fortune. This is only the beginning of The Wangs vs. the World.

Jade Chang's novel is an odyssey for all of its characters. Charles Wang, upon losing his makeup fortune, has now decided he hates America. He now dreams of reclaiming his family's land in China, even though his family fled to Taiwan and he came to the States.

His oldest child, Saina, once was the toast of the New York artistic community. She and her fiance, Grayson, another luminary in that world, had it all. Then she put together a questionable third show that used the faces of Middle Eastern women killed in war, re-imaged into fashion photographs. Grayson slept with a beautiful blonde heiress and made a baby. Saina decamped to upstate New York, bought a farmhouse and fell for a sweet African American man who was adopted as a baby by a family of organic farmers.

Middle child Andrew is at a party university struggling to lose his virginity. He wants to fall in love first. The busty white girl he's with doesn't see things that way. Maybe he can make it as a comedian after all.

Youngest child Grace is at boarding school, whether she wants to be there or not, and is far more interested in her fashion blog and artistic selfies than anything academic.

Their stepmother, Barbra, was the child of cafeteria workers where Charles was at school in Taiwan. He was the one for her, the one most likely to be successful, but he went to America and never returned. His first wife died in a helicopter crash when Grace was a baby; Grace still has the photograph her father snapped of her mother just before she got on board. Barbra is usually just there in the background, neither beloved nor reviled. But she is steadily there, even if she is angry right now at their new financial circumstances.

Before Charles can go reclaim his Chinese land, he wants his family gathered. Having lost everything in sunny California, where he made a fortune manufacturing makeup instead of contacting the fertilizer manufacturers his father sent him to meet. There is a common ingredient -- urea -- which is itself a comment on the irony of financial greatness.

Charles's love and hate for America, what he thinks he did for it and what he thinks it did to him, form the reason for his overwhelming desire to reclaim his family and his ancestral land. At his deepest hate, he thinks:

America was a great deceptor. Land of Opportunity. Golden Mountain. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. But inside those pretty words, between the pretty coasts, was this: Miles and miles of narrow-minded know-nothings who wanted no more out of life than an excuse to cock their AK-47s and take arms against a sea of troubles. A Great Wall? Ha! This country could never build itself anything as epic as that. America wanted to think itself as a creator, but all it could do was destroy -- fortunes, families, lives. Even the railroads needed the Chinese to come and build them.

Charles and Barbra gather Andrew and Grace, then drive across America in the old car they still have (because he sold it to his old ama for $1 and then took it back after dropping her off with family).

On the road, what might turn into madcap zaniness episodes are instead looks at each individual in the family as they undertake their own inner journeys. Waiting for them in her refuge, Saina has her own emotional journey when her old lover and a former friend now looking to make her part of a big story of New York failures, appear.

In this meeting of family story, and the creation of art and wealth, observations such as ones Saina make are formed:

Your clubscapes don't really exists, she wanted to say. They're a bunch of things that are supposed to make a statement about another thing. Your collectors are buying a series of symbols because critics have conferred meaning upon them. It's the same thing as buying a piece of paper that the banks say represent a group of homeowners' individual promises to pay back their mortgages. Wasn't that abstraction the beautiful thing about what they did? ... The things we agree to call art are the shamanic totems of our time. We value them beyond all reason because we can't really understand them. They can mean everything or nothing, depending on what the people who look at them decide. ...
All I wanted, Saina thought, was to make someone feel something. Money can't do that. ... You can earn it, win it, lose it, save it, spend it, find it, but you can't sell it because you never really own it. On the other hand, you didn't have to possess a song or a sculpture for it to make you feel something -- you only had to experience it.

Chang has crafted a novel in which individuals and the group -- the family -- each have their story. And those stories work together. Each of them deals with love, whether they love too much or don't care enough. A novel in which love that characters feel -- whether it's for family, a person, a career, the land, a great country or a great idea -- is a novel worthy of time and attention. It doesn't have to be possessed to be experienced and appreciated. It's a novel in which a character decides that "loving too hard was the only option" and it rings true.

©2016 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Review: 'Hag-Seed'

Hag-Seed
By Margaret Atwood
Literary fiction
October 2016
Hogarth
ISBN: 978-080414291



Reading this novel the same week that we lost Leonard Cohen, I kept hearing his Anthem with that important point of wisdom: There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.

I found light in Margaret Atwood's retelling of The Tempest. Her latest novel, Hag-Seed, is part of the Hogarth series retelling Shakespeare. To be able to convey a long-held desire for revenge, competing desires and motives and, at the height of it all, forgiveness and letting go, both Shakespeare and Atwood are writing about larger-than-life characters who can serve as grand tools of catharsis.

Atwood's Prospero is Felix Phillips, artistic director of a theatrical troupe that has made a small town an artistic hub. He married late; his wife did not survive long past childbirth. His beloved daughter, named Miranda, died when she was three; her fever grew worse while Felix was at the theater. His productions grow ever more  avant garde. His upcoming production of The Tempest will be all over the map and of questionable taste, including a magician's cloak of animal pelts. But that's what art is all about, right?

Not to The Powers that Be. Especially when Felix's number two, Tony, has him escorted out before a single performance of the play where his Miranda can be the child who never died, but who grew up on the island and fell in love with a noble lad, spared from Caliban.

That was 12 years ago. In the interim, Felix found a little shack in the country, an island, if you will, where he pretends Miranda never died but is an Ariel-like sprite who no one sees but him.

What he wants above all else, even revenge, is the chance to stage The Tempest. To bring his play to life, for his daughter, for Miranda.

He unexpectedly gets that opportunity a few years after he takes on a part-time teaching job in a prison. He teaches Shakespeare and writing by staging plays, with the inmates acting, doing the stage work and writing about their characters. Felix takes the job under a stage name, Mr. Duke, even though the university professor who arranged his hiring knows who he is, and was.

Mr. Duke is a hit with the inmates. After the obvious plays for the men -- Julius Caesar, Richard III, that Scottish play -- and tracking the movements of his enemies, Felix is ready. It's time to stage The Tempest. For his enemies, for himself, for Miranda.

There is a grand caper-like quality to putting on this production. Will Felix and the men pull it off? He even has a real woman to play Miranda -- the very young actress he hired years ago for the production that didn't happen is taking part as a poised young woman. But between the caper aspects of the story, Atwood keeps the emotional aspect of the novel going as well. At one point Felix "has a split instant of seeing Prospero through the gaze of Miranda -- a petrified Miranda who's suddenly realized that her adored father is a full-blown maniac, and paranoid into the bargain." What will that moment of realization about the character and about himself do to Felix and what will happen?

Should we be rooting for him? Does it depend on who Prospero is? Atwood tackles this head-on with the men delving into the afterlives of their characters, with their raps to make the play more vibrant and real for them, with their questioning of Felix to make him justify his actions and interpretations.

His voice sounds fraudulent. Where is the authentic pitch, the true note? Why did he ever think he could play this impossible part? So many contradictions to Prospero! Entitled aristocrat, modest hermit? Wise old mage, revengeful old poop? Irritable and unreasonable, kindly and caring? Sadistic, forgiving? Too suspicious, too trusting? ... They cheated for centuries when presenting this play. They cut speeches, they edited sentences, trying to confine Prospero within their calculated perimeters. Trying to make him one thing or the other. Trying to make him fit.

Which is what we do not only through art and the way we view art.

In taking the play and the characters apart after their own production, the men come up with fascinating ideas that can provide even more catharsis than the play as they call out Prospero and give Ariel and Caliban their due. (It looks like Atwood had fun creating raps with biting lyrics the men perform instead of the traditional songs.) And they recognize that it's all right to change one's mind about revenge, that it's all right to change one's mind and forgive. It's a chance that is not given or taken lightly by the characters:

Is extreme goodness always weak? Can a person be good only in the absence of power? The Tempest asks us these questions.

And the answer? Doesn't it depend on one's character regardless of power? Or was Lord Acton right? Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? Prospero nearly fell victim to that hubris. But Ariel saved him. And they all were saved.

Because, as is also noted in the novel's chapters that deconstruct the play:

There is of course another kind of strength, which is the strength of goodness to resist evil; a strength that Shakespeare's audience would have understood well.

©2016 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission


Sunday, November 13, 2016

Review: 'Today will be Different'

Today will be Different
By Maria Semple
Literary fiction
October 2016
Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 978-0316403436



Family letting you down, micro-aggressions, President John Tyler's progeny, letting the days slip by and whether you love someone enough to move to Spokane with them are among the ideas in Maria Semple's warm, funny and seriously good Today Will be Different.

In her second novel, following the brilliant Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, Semple again focuses on a Seattle mother of a precocious young child and an accomplished husband. Our heroine this time was behind a cult hit of an animated series years ago. She has had an advance for a book based on the characters but gotten nowhere. Eleanor has been spinning her wheels for years. Her morning mantra that "today will be different" and that she might, say, get dressed and go to yoga after taking her son to school shows how encapsulated her life has become.

Eleanor realizes she has first-world problems. Her husband is a successful surgeon prized by the Seahawks. In Seattle, this practically makes one royalty. (The scene in Costco of people swarming around 12th Man cupcakes decorated with blue and green frosting is repeated across the state. It's not just Seattle. It's not just Costco.) Their son attends a prized, private school. She takes personalized poetry lessons from an aspiring writer. Her worst nightmare is going to lunch with a woman she views as boring.

Through the course of a day that is at times over the top, filled with flashbacks and takes more twists and turns than a hiking trail in the North Cascades, Eleanor shows the reader why she has been spinning her wheels, how much it could cost her and what really matters to her.

One person who really matters to Eleanor is her sister, Ivy. After their mother died, Eleanor took care of Ivy while their father drank away the rest of his life. Her drawings of those times about the two Flood Girls are the foundation of the work she is trying to create now.

The strength of Semple's storytelling is that the following wisdom is not plunked in the middle of finding out what the current situation is with Eleanor and Ivy, but it resonates with this and what happens after the reader finds out what the current situation is:

"If you were raised by a drunk, you're above all the adult child of an alcoholic. It means you blame yourself for everything, you avoid reality, you can't trust people, you're deeply insecure and hungry to please."

This is what has made Eleanor tick. That this truth is not the sole basis of what happened makes the novel even stronger. Whether it's a spouse's evolving belief system, whether it's holding onto the past well past its sell-by date, or whether it's realizing that, like Dorothy, there's no place like home (even if it means moving home to Spokane or Scotland or even New York City), Today will be Different has a strong heart beating under the madcap antics of Eleanor on her wild ride of a day.

"Today there will be an ease about me." Eleanor starts her story promising this. By the end, we see that it may well come to be.

©2016 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Louise Penny

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I've read this week, presented without further comment or context:

There was a world out there. A world filled with beauty and love, and goodness. And cruelty and killers, and vile acts contemplated and being committed at this very moment.

-- Louise Penny, The Long Way Home

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Review: 'Commonwealth'

Commonwealth
By Ann Patchett
Literary fiction
September 2016
Harper
ISBN: 978-0062491794



A young assistant DA, in mid-20th century Los Angeles, wants to avoid going home to a house full of his wife and children, so he grabs a bottle of gin and pops uninvited into a christening party for a cop's second child. His gin and freshly squeezed juice, thanks to an orange tree in the backyard, lead to dancing and an unexpected kiss or two.

The party's aftermath includes new marriages and the bringing together of six stepchildren, four girls and two boys. They spent summers together in Virginia with a parent and step-parent, forging on as a group of individuals who find ways to get along and still be themselves. Their adventures exist in a world separated from the grown-ups who forced them together.

They are forced into independence when, for example, one mother disappears for the afternoon by hiding in the car, running the air conditioning and laying down in the back seat. (She realizes that since she's parked in the carport she won't be killing herself.) Or there is the time their parents sequester themselves in one motel room until 2 p.m. while the children hike over to a lake after breaking into the family car to take another fresh bottle of gin and the father's gun. The youngest, Albie, is a constantly moving whirl who drives the others crazy. The oldest boy, Cal, is allergic to bee stings so he carries Benadryl. The kids give Albie "breath mints" that are really the Benadryl, and when he sleeps they play, explore and have adventures without his interference.

The children come to two realizations. The first:

The six children held in common one overarching principle that cast their potential dislike for one another down to the bottom of the minor leagues: they disliked the parents. They hated them.

The other realization:

They had done everything they had ever wanted to do, they had had the most wonderful day, and no one even knew they were gone.

It was like that for the rest of the summer. It was like that every summer the six of them were together. Not that the days were always fun, most of them weren't, but they did things, real things, and they never got caught.

In Ann Patchett's luminous new novel, Commonwealth, the children grow up, find loves and lives of their own, and remember their past. Patchett has a way of making the normal things in life, such as a neighborhood party in which the grown-ups become tipsy, the stuff of legend, the kind of story that helps define a family for itself.

That's befitting considering what happens with one of the children. Franny, the baby whose christening was celebrated, is a reader. She loves losing herself in books and is one of those naturally kind people who can consider the needs of others. Working as a cocktail waitress in a fancy Chicago hotel after law school doesn't click for her, Franny meets an author whose work she has adored. He is one of those older Eastern authors who lives on liquor and the adoration of young women. Leo Posen also is the kind of writer who appropriates what other people tell him. He calls Franny his muse. His novel, Commonwealth, extrapolated from the stories she tells him of those shared childhood summers, becomes a huge bestseller.

Franny feels used after she had been having the time of her life. This becomes even more true when they "escape" to the summer house of a famous actress who wants a role in the film that will surely be made of this novel, and houseguests descend, and one sibling shows up unexpectedly.

As with many contemporary novels, describing the basic outline of the story makes it sound dire. But it's not that kind of story. The older they grow, the more supportive they are, not out of guilt or obligation, but because that's who they are. And they are supportive across the generations and blending of families.

There are some twists, one major tragedy and a lot of redemption. There is an interesting twist on Chekhov's admonition to writers about what happens when a certain object is introduced in a story. The last sentence of the novel, belonging to Franny, is a delight. Most of the characters have endearing moments, but Franny is a special character. She's pretty much become my grown-up Jo March.

Patchett knows how to make the mundane real and magical. There is one point where magic realism comes in, but it is used to bring peace and solace, which are the hallmarks of the final third of the novel. In other hands, some characters would have blamed others or themselves for things that happened. But these are characters who know that life is to be lived, for its own sake.


©2016 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Ann Patchett

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without further comment or context:

Had she done something with her life no one would be asking her to make them cappuccino, and had she done something with her life she would be perfectly happy to make them cappuccino, because it would not be her job.

-- Ann Patchett, Comonwealth

Monday, September 5, 2016

Review: 'Another Brooklyn'

Another Brooklyn
By Jacqueline Woodson
Literary fiction
August 2016
Amistad
ISBN: 978-0062359988



We opened our mouths and let the stories that had been burned nearly to ash in our bellies finally live outside of us.

In Another Brooklyn, YA author and poet Jackie Woodson has written a novel of memories, a narrative with poetic sensibilities, a story of fighting to belong to a brother, a group of three other girls, a father, and a mother who lost her grip in the world when her own brother died fighting in Vietnam.

We learn early on that August, the grown narrator, still loves her brother, even though they live separate lives, separate realities. Riding the subway, August sees one of those three girls who were once as closer as sisters to her. She strides off the subway a stop early, even though that once close-girl, recognizable even in her womanhood, starts to greet August.

Where would we be now if we had known there was a melody to our madness?

This is the story of what happened to the girls. They cope with becoming young women even as they navigate a Brooklyn filled with heroin-addled Vietnam vets, dirty old men who would pay a quarter to look up their dresses and a prostitute with two young children who lives in the apartment below that shared by August, her brother and father.

For God so loved the world, their father would say, he gave his only begotten son. But what about the daughters, I wondered. What did God do with his daughters?

The girls each have dreams, although not every one will see hers come true. And here are boys, boys, who want to be men, boys who are enchanted by them, boys who make them want to sing and dance and perhaps become women. August and her brother, when they first move to Brookllyn from a failing Tennessee farm, watch the other three girls saunter down the street like they own the world. When school starts, she is adopted by the group.

What did you see in me? I'd ask years later. Who did you see standing there? You looked lost, Gigi whispered. Lost and beautiful. And hungry, Angela added. You looked so hungry.

As they grow and change, as their families let them down or build them up, the girls store memories of what they are living. Those memories, and the clouded ones August brought to Brooklyn with her. that eventually clear as she grows, form the core of this book.

Everywhere we looked, we saw the people trying to dream themselves out. As though there was someplace other than this place. As though there was another Brooklyn.

This is the first adult work Woodson has published in years. For adults readers, it would fit in well with her last book, the remarkable poetical memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming. But even without that earlier, award-winning book, Another Brooklyn paints a portrait of moments in time that shape the woman its narrator has become.

© All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and printed with permission