Sunday, February 19, 2017

Feminist Stories from the Past

Herland and Selected Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Back when I was writing a review of the dystopian novel "The Beautiful Bureaucrat," I read a review that likened that book (in part to Kafka and in part) to a short story called "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Having never heard of this writer, I was curious to see if that story might give me some further insights into that book (knowing full well that sometimes reviewers like to show off how well read they are by namedropping in this way. I'm not well read, and I will admit here that I haven't read more than snippets of Kafka, but that's beside the point). After reading that story, I didn't believe this reviewer made much of an appropriate comparison, but I also realized that I needed to read more by Perkins Gilman.

Of course that meant I had to go looking for a book to buy. The collection I found included this well-known short story, along with several others, together with her novella "Herland." To preface this review, it is important to note that Perkins Gilman was a late-19th-early 20th century writer known for her outspoken feminism - in other words, a woman well ahead of her time, whose real life is echoed in the stories she wrote (you can read more about her here).

To begin with, the novella "Herland" was nothing like I expected. I'd read that it portrayed a mythical land inhabited with only women. I was not expecting that the narrator of this story would be one of the three men who discovered this place, and ended up living there for some time - initially as prisoners. His observations of their experiences in this land, combined with the very different ways that the three of them react to and interact with these women allow the reader with an outsider's view of this utopian civilization. One fascinating thing about "Herland," is how timeless it seems. Yes, there are some dated elements, but overall, it felt surprisingly modern for something written over a century ago. Another thing I found interesting was how Perkins Gilman essentially boiled down the male gender into three types of men. There's the kind who studies and learns and tries to see the pros and cons in both worlds; there's the kind that wholeheartedly accepts that everything he thought prior to this time was wrong, and; there's the kind who refuses to see any good in anything that doesn't fit his preconceived ideas.

Perkins Gilman somewhat echoes this "trifecta" of male personalities in one of the subsequent short stories where she tells the tale of a woman pursued by three suitors. Of course, the one she chooses is no surprise, mostly because we already know from the stories that precede this that Perkins Gilman does not portray women as inherently stupid or gullible, although sometimes it takes a while for them to discover this. In fact, the recurring theme in almost all these stories is women figuring out how they can gain, regain or retain control their own lives, often despite seemingly insurmountable odds. The men, of course, have three choices - object and be gone; accept and comply; or agree to a compromise that suits them both. This may sound formulaic, and therefore a bit redundant, but Perkins Gilman is very creative in finding new ways to frame these dilemmas. Mind you, some of the solutions to the problems of these women may feel antiquated to our modern lives, but we must recall when these stories were written, and appreciate them for how revolutionary they must have been at the time.

The one exception to this rule is certainly her most famous story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," which not only breaks the mold regarding positive outcomes from detrimental situations, but is also written in an almost completely different style than the rest of this collection. All the other stories here felt light and breezy, and even sometimes humorous, as if Perkins Gilman believed that a softer touch to the narrative would make them less threatening to the readers. "The Yellow Wallpaper" on the other hand, while it starts out with that same gentle tone, it increasingly gets harsher and darker. This is probably one of the most powerful stories I've ever read, which fully justifies its classic status. Moreover, while some of these stories seem dated, "The Yellow Wallpaper" is feels extremely relevant, even today.

Overall, I'm glad I decided to read these stories, and thrilled that they're still available after all this time. Through these stories, Perkins Gilman gives us a glimpse back at a time when women were just starting to realize that they weren't as powerless as the men around them wanted them to think they were. Although many of these stories came out before women even had the vote, I'm sure they were an inspiration to suffragists and feminists of the time as well as for decades to come. For all this, I think that although some of the stories here bordered on being almost silly, the significance of their publication dates, and their subsequent influence on society makes me believe I should give this book a full five stars!

"Herland and Selected Stories" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook of Herland and The Yellow Wallpaper), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Old Conspiracies, New Sins

Yom Killer by Ilene Schneider (Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mystery #3)

Yes, Rabbi Aviva Cohen is back, and she is just as feisty as ever. This time, when her mother lands in the hospital in a chemically induced coma after a fall in her assisted living facility, something doesn't seem quite right. However, until her mother wakes up, she's going to have a hard time figuring out what's really going on. It doesn't help that her straight-laced sister and her ex-husband the cop need to keep her out of harm's way in the process. Worse, she has only the few days between the Jewish New Year and the holiest day in Judaism - Yom Kippur - to get it all done before she has to be back on her pulpit.

Where do I begin with reviewing this book? I could start with how I enjoy Schneider's style. It is friendly, open and she makes me smile. With this third novel in the series, Aviva is really filling out - and by that, I don't mean her weight, but rather her personality. More importantly, Schneider seems to have honed her voice much more in this book. There were times in her previous novels where I felt that she wasn't completely comfortable with the narrative. Previously, I found some awkward passages and sections that needed some paring down, if not eliminated. This time, while there were some areas that I think she could have polished or shortened a bit more, I didn't feel that there were any large superfluous sections at all. Overall, this book had a more consistent and cohesive feel to it, with far fewer blips to interrupt the flow of the story. (Mind you, admittedly sometimes my radar for these things is overly sensitive.)

The story this time is also slightly different from Schneider's earlier works. This one doesn't involve investigating one murder in particular, but rather a conspiracy, that may have included murder. More importantly, this book makes somewhat of a political statement regarding privatization of elderly care systems. Schneider seems to say that the levels of greed within such systems can lead to the type of corruption that both literally and figuratively kills its clients. Greed has always been a motive for many different kinds of criminal acts, and this makes Schneider's scenario even more plausible. As an aside, I'm hoping that this sort of thing doesn't really happen in privatized elderly care the US these days (and I hope this story isn't a harbinger for the future).

Despite this gloomy outlook, what makes me enjoy Schneider's books so much is the humor that she includes. Rabbi Aviva's self-depreciation and indulgences in food come together with her relationships creating situations you'll not be able to stop yourself from giggling about. Of course, that doesn't mean Aviva is any less aggressive and unconventional in getting things done, nor any less adorable than we've already witnessed. This of course, makes all of her characters even more endearing. However, I have to admit that I was a bit surprised at how Schneider portrayed Aviva's sister in this book, considering how she talked about her in the previous novels. I'm not sure that this portrayal was true to character, but I can understand why she decided to take the route, which aligned with the whole "asking forgiveness" theme of Yom Kippur - the Jewish day of Atonement.

In short, Schneider succeeded in bringing all of these elements together to make a real pleasure of a read. When times are tough, having something like that can be a true blessing, and I believe that Schneider did me a "Mitzvah" by letting me read this book. I hope I can return the compliment by giving it a rating of four and a half stars out of five (although to be totally honest, it really deserves just slightly less than this, but I don't have quarter stars, so I'm rounding up here)! Go on, indulge yourself and read something fun for a change!

"Yom Killer" by Ilene Schneider is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the author for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review. 
You can read my reviews of Schneider's other novels here:

Friday, January 6, 2017

Guest Author Post: Joanna Paterson

I don't have time to read all of the book requests I get, but I still try to help indie authors, when I can. That's why I'm pleased to present you with this guest post from Author Joanna Paterson, aka Joanna Geyer-Kordesch, Professor emerita for European Natural History and the History of Medicine, Honorary Senior Professorial Fellow, The College of Arts, University of Glasgow. In this post, Joanna talks about her short story and poetry collections. Take a look - they sound really lovely!

My two books of short stories, “The Old Turk and Other Tales” and “Through the Mirror”, examine that tricky balance between experience and the spiritual world that anyone—and the author—would encounter or like to encounter. There are realms which take us beyond ourselves—and I like to explore them. Short stories should stimulate thinking—they are always potentially true. So many of them lose themselves in the usual earthbound stories about romance and the twists and turns of people in love, but I tried to go beyond those confines to involve spiritual worlds. The short stories I wrote are phantastic in the sense that they treat the unseen as a vital encounter, but engage with it, also, if you think of it that way, as a possible extension of the Self.

The stories don’t tell you what to do. They are meetings with vibrant beings, ways of seeing. Some are fun, like the story about hats in the Old Turk collection. I also call to mind the ancient goddesses and what they represent—this in Through the Mirror. You can visualise this as about memory and about the sea and the land. I have been to these places myself—but they are transformed and show themselves in a new way.

I explore Europe and ancient places in Ohio, U.S.A., and what they represent, the unusual, the dialogue with them that can create connections, letting go the mundane, the things you are used to. I hope there is pleasure in these extensions of the mind’s adventures.

What I liked most are the stories of transformation in “Through the Mirror”. The metamorphosis does not have to be into human lives, but can be a bird such as in “Jenny Wren”. Or it can have a message as in “The Owls of Scarba”. And then there are some places that simply evoke the moon and thinking in different ways of where you are, such as in an eighteenth century tower in Dessau, Germany, or in a long forgotten village in Austria.

The Shaman Birches of Argyll” and “The Travelling Moon”, my poetry books, on the other hand, are grounded in experience and often on watching the sea while sailing on the West Coast of Scotland. They are an exploration of nature and lochs and birds, indigenous or otherwise, especially the seabirds that visit. These show closeness with nature that can only be vitally expressed in poetry. I think about the natural world and try to find it again in words. I was born in the land-locked—except for the cross European river Danube—city of Vienna. So this is an encounter with a different and exciting world.

My books of poetry probe the new countryside in the Highlands where water is everywhere—the mysterious sea, the lochs and the burns. The rising moon, the trees and ferns that grow wild on hillsides are also featured. The essence of the poetry is both myth and place. Nature has different dimensions and I want to bring them close to the reader. Poetry gives feelings and vision in versions that other genres cannot.

I do not believe that even adult books should be without images. So I have given all my books illustrations. I hope you like the way words and pictures go together!

My books are all available from Amazon as Kindle or print-on-demand editions under the name Joanna Paterson. You can contact Joanna by mail at Dundas Yews, Saltoun Hall Gardens, Pencaitland, East Lothian, EH34 5DS, Scotland.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Poetic Youth

20 by Vatsal Surti

The unnamed protagonist in this expressive novella is only 20 years old, but she seems to have quite an old soul. When she meets a man her age and falls in love with him, it seems her life is finally beginning to change, despite her unending mood swings and a shaky relationship with her father, who has just contacted her after many years of estrangement.

To tell the truth, I almost gave up on this book several times, but I'm glad I didn't. On the one hand, one of the biggest drawbacks was that there seem to be quite a few problems with the English. Thankfully, Surti's publisher recently wrote to us reviewers to assure us that they've assigned a new (English language) editor to fix these problems. (In any case, I figured that either this is a less than successful translation, or Surti's first language is certainly not English.)

Despite the language problems, Surti writes very poetically, using a "stream of consciousness" type of narrative, which feels both pensive and observant. I've often said that one of the problems with a poetic style of writing is that sometimes it can feel overly floral and repressive. Although Surti did overstep in some places in this book, for the most part Surti avoided this pitfall, and the poetry mostly enhanced rather than detracted from the text, so that was at least something.

Unfortunately, what Surti wasn't able to escape from was an almost endless rehashing of the same feelings. I understand that Surti's point here was to get us to understand the depths of emotion that this girl was going through. This included elation and expectations as well as despair and fears. It was almost as if Surti was giving us a portrait of a bi-polar girl, trying to find her place in the world without diagnosis or treatment. That Surti places her smack dab in the public eye, within the extremely stressful world of modeling and fashion, seems to aggravate her problems. However, each time Surti describes another aspect of the roller-coaster of her emotions we increasingly feel manic or depressed along with her. The latter was my main problem with this book. It isn't that I don't like sad passages in novels (as my readers know, I actually like a good cry), but I that can't happen until after the author has successfully built protagonists that I can like and care deeply about. Sadly, Surti gave us characters that were more annoying than sympathetic.

Still, Surti shows no small amount of writing talent (despite the grammar and odd usage of the English language, which I'm sure they'll fix soon). This made me think that this novella might have fared better as a short story. At that size, perhaps the angst and euphoria would have been less repetitious, allowing Surti to give us a better balance with the action to back up those feelings. All told, while this book didn't enamor me, and I can't wholeheartedly recommend it, I think Surti has potential for greatness someday (of course, with the help of a good editor). For all this, I think I'll give it three out of five stars.

"20" by Vatsal Surti is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, iTunes, and Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia). I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Here, there and maybe nowhere

This must be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell

Daniel Sullivan is a bit of a mess; with more than his fair share of screwed up relationships, when he meets Claudette, it seems like things might take a different turn for once. That isn't to say that Claudette, the woman who ran away from a successful film career, has any better of a track record, but certainly love can overcome any difficulties. However, since some people never seem to learn from their mistakes, when do you know if you should give them a second chance?

I've read all of O'Farrell's novels to date, and so far, I've generally enjoyed her work, and in some cases, even enthralled (and you can read my overview of all her previous novels, here). O'Farrell really knows how to build characters, with interesting back-stories and then find fascinating situations for them. Often these situations surround some kind of relationship or another - be it romantic or familial, and sometimes, both. It is always obvious from her stories that she knows these characters down to their last freckles, and probably better than they know themselves. This also means that when O'Farrell reveals something that seems insignificant about any of them, she not only knows why that detail is important, but how it will play out in the end. O'Farrell's characters in this novel are no less loved and complex than in her previous work, and in fact, I found the two main characters - Claudette and Daniel - to be captivating and among her best.

One of the other things that O'Farrell is a true master of is taking different timelines - usually two - and carefully inching them towards each other. With them in play, she works to meld them together so that at just the right time, the essential connection is made, which segues into a twisting climax that can bring tears to your eyes, if not take your breath away. In her previous novel, "Instructions for a Heat Wave," O'Farrell was more ambitious with using only contemporary, parallel timelines, but with individual characters. While I generally enjoyed that book, I don't think she succeeded in evoking the same emotional heights as she did with her two previous novels.

On the other hand, O'Farrell fills this novel with chapters from the viewpoint of several different characters, dated from 1989 through 2016, and set anywhere between California and France. Thankfully, most of the viewpoints are Daniel's; most of the entries are from around 2010, and; a majority of the chapters takes place in Donegal, Ireland. These constancies make up the core of the action, with the other chapters scattered around them to give background or insights into the main protagonists by providing other viewpoints. The concept here is actually very creative, and in theory, this could have been very effective. Unfortunately, I don't think that O'Farrell fully pulled this off, since instead, we got something that felt somewhat disjointed. I found it hard to pinpoint a real climax here, and with that, I found it difficult to understand the motivations behind some of the actions and several of the reactions of the characters. This made me feel disconnected from the characters, which neutralized the emotional impact of the book overall.

This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy this book entirely. In fact, I found the idea behind story compelling and the characters fascinating (particularly Claudette), and O'Farrell's writing style as vivid as usual. I also particularly enjoyed O'Farrell's descriptions of Donegal and the house where Claudette and Daniel lived, which she succeeded in evoking dramatic pictures in my mind. That said, I think this is actually one of her weaker novels, and although I still recommend it to O'Farrell's fans, I can only give it three and a half stars out of five.

"This Must be the Place" by Maggie O'Farrell, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Scale of a Family

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Readers of Michael Chabon's novels know that he has a wonderful way of mixing reality and fiction, to the extent that the lines can feel very blurred. I noticed this in his "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," which won him the Pulitzer. Although that novel, (which I really should review someday) focuses on the rise of superhero comic books, with an aside into the realm of magical realism, this book takes on a much more personal form. Here, Chabon takes the last 10 days of his grandfather's life (well, step-grandfather, to be precise) and uses the recounting of the events of this man's life in order to create a fictional biography, or memoir. In this way, Chabon not only makes protagonists out of real-life relatives, but he also places himself and other family members into the cast of characters.

Apparently, Chabon's (step) grandfather led a fascinating life. As an engineer, he was fascinated with rocketry, and that led to his fascination with the space program. Before this, during WW2, he was one of the people assigned to hunt down the scientists working for the Nazis to bring them back to the US. His wife, Chabon's (biological) grandmother hid from the Nazis in a convent, where she gave birth to Chabon's mother (out of wedlock). The effect this had on her mental health ended up being both a point of attraction and frustration throughout their lives together. It also seems that without him, Chabon's mother might have had a worse childhood than she had (which was nowhere near ideal, and in some cases, appalling).

Bringing all of this together into something that was this entertaining seems practically impossible. However, Chabon's precision balancing the facts and history with the human elements of the characters kept this from feeling morbid or depressing. At the same time, Chabon carefully injected humor and compassion into the imaginary events and conversations, without ever trivializing anything or anyone involved. In this way, Chabon was able to blur the lines between imagination and reality, thereby bringing the whole story to life. This reminded me of how historical events can feel more real when dramatized, docu-drama style.

That Chabon used his own family members in this fashion also struck me as terribly brave. Not just because of how his family may or may not have reacted to this book, but because sometimes authors can actually get too close to their own characters. If this happens, we easily recognize this by their including too much detail, or finding ways to stick things in which are superfluous or irrelevant. That can often manifest with meandering texts of inexplicable tangents that flow from one off topic subject to another, ad tedium (a la some of John Irving's more recent novels). Chabon comes dangerously close to crossing this line (for example, with the whole bit about trying to hunt down a cat-killing boa constrictor, or all the perfectly scaled models he builds of rockets and spacecrafts), but thankfully succeeds in holding himself back, for the most part. What we have here is a gathering of accounts that feel loving, human and realistic, but somehow still a thing of fiction.

In his introduction, Chabon states that he wrote this novel as a sort of rebellion against the secrets his family kept, and which he felt were detrimental to them all. After his saying this, it was very impressive how Chabon leads us to his climactic twist dealing his family's ultimate secret, and potentially the most damaging one of all. What I loved was that Chabon slips this in with an "ah-ha" moment, instead of beating us on the head with it. That allowed him use this to just color everything he's written before then faintly, leaving you with questions that compel you to read to the close of the book. I would say more about this, but that might lead to spoilers, so just trust me on this - it will raise eyebrows. In short, I found this a praiseworthy novel, that well deserves (at least most of) the accolades it is already getting. I found it worthy of a strong four and a half stars out of five.

"Moonglow" by Michael Chabon published by Harper Collins, released November 22, 2016 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.