Sunday, January 4, 2015

Cluster Critiques

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests author Sarah Waters (pictured) could make the squashing of a cockroach sound romantic, sexy, intriguing and tragic. Her softly explicit descriptions of sexual escapades went on for pages, making me uncomfortably warm.

And then she made me see oozing brains and smell blood, and had me nervously flipping through the pages practically desperate to know if the main characters would survive a horrific back-alley abortion, a murder investigation, a trial, one character’s fragile and pale as antique lace weakness, threatening daily to confess everything. 

Good gaud, I’m reliving the tension just writing about it. The Paying Guest is chocked full of surprises you’d never guess!

Read it. You won’t be sorry.

Euphoria by Lilly King

If you do not read another book I recommend from 2014, read Euphoria.  I heard about this book through Kirkus, and the moment I read that it was about a woman Anthropologist studying in New Guinea in the 1930’s, I knew  the story must have some connection to Margaret Mead, and I was right.  

I’ve never done this before, but because I loved the Washington Post Ron Charles’ review so much, and because it so closely mirrors my thoughts about Euphoria, rather than write my own review, I’m going to provide excerpts from his review below. I will say, however, that I suspect that Euphoria will be one of the top three fiction books of the year for me. 

Blandly scrolling through salacious tweets from nubile pop stars, we can hardly imagine the thrill of Margaret Mead’s revelations in 1928. More than 80 years ago, at a time when ... movies could only show the “tragic” consequences of premarital sex, Mead published Coming of Age in Samoa. Her study of the psychosexual development of adolescents on the island of Ta’u confronted a self-satisfied United States, where it was still possible to speak of one’s parochial mores as natural and, of course, superior. 

With her influence on the sexual revolution, Mead was a globe-spanning iconoclast, alarming some and cheering others, becoming finally something of a totem upon which various groups cast their hopes and fears. So it’s refreshing to see the world’s most famous anthropologist brought down to human scale and placed at the center of this svelte new book by Lily King... Poetic in its compression and efficiency, Euphoria presumes some familiarity with Mead’s biography for context and background, and yet it also deviates from that history in promiscuous ways.

The story reimagines a brief collaboration in New Guinea in the early 1930s involving Mead; her husband, Reo Fortune; and her future husband, Gregory Bateson. King names her characters Nell, Fen and Bankson and presents an episode soaked with romantic despair, tinged with mourning. Bankson begins his narration by announcing, “Three days earlier, I’d gone to the river to drown myself.” Pulled from the water by natives who advise him not to swim with rocks in his pockets, he might have tried again if he hadn’t run into the best-selling anthropologist Nell Stone and her “chippy, tightly wound suck-arse” of a husband, Schuyler Fenwick.

Bankson slides immediately from Thanatos to Eros. “I felt my loneliness bulge out of me like a goiter,” he confesses, “and I wasn’t sure how to hide it from them. ... Nell and Fen had chased away my thoughts of suicide. But what had they left me with? Fierce desires, a great tide of feeling.” Determined to keep them from heading home, he promises to find Nell and her husband an interesting new tribe to study along the Sepik River — an appropriately “oddball culture” that’s not too violent, not too primitive, and with good art.

… Unwilling to declare his affection, yet unable to stay away from her, Bankson finds himself serving as an embarrassed referee in his new friends’ marriage: Fen wants him around to distract his wife; Nell wants him around to dampen her husband’s violent moods. So Bankson lingers, insisting that he really, really must be going now, while thinking, “The impulse to touch her and all the life in her was something I had to check regularly.”

It’s a situation shot through with irony: For all their eagerness to toss out the norms of Western marital relations, Nell and Fen are still struggling to play the traditional roles of husband and wife. Even in the jungle, it’s not easy for Nell to lean in. “All the downplaying I must do starts to rub off on me,” she thinks, “so that I don’t even allow myself a few minutes of private pleasure before the squelching kicks in.” Thousands of miles from “civilization,” she’s still receiving lucrative grants and royalties and hundreds of letters from fans, all of which aggravate her bitterly competitive husband.

I love this aspect of the book the most – the fact that as anthropologists and humans, the characters are unable to control their own lives, yet were on the cusp of defining what life is really all about.

… At their most ambitious, these scientists felt they might “rip the stars from the sky and write the world anew.” Nell craves that fleeting moment of euphoria when she first feels she truly understands a place. “We’re always, in everything we do in this world, limited by subjectivity,” she says. “But our perspective can have an enormous wingspan, if we give it the freedom to unfurl. ... The key is to disengage yourself from all your ideas about what is ‘natural.’ ”… “I think above all else it is freedom I search for in my work,” she writes, “in these far-flung places, to find a group of people who give each other the room to be in whatever way they need to be. And maybe I will never find it all in one culture but maybe I can find parts of it in several cultures, maybe I can piece it together like a mosaic and unveil it to the world. But the world is deaf.”

King (pictured) keeps the novel focused tightly on her three scientists, which makes the glimpses we catch of their New Guinea subjects all the more arresting. We learn about the natives who cut off a finger every time a loved one dies, and in the novel’s eeriest scene, Nell attends a lesbian orgy that corresponds with nothing these scientists have witnessed before. But in general, King seems determined to avoid exoticizing these people, no matter how they may have been regarded in the 1930s. The New Guinea tribespeople remain largely unknown and separate, until the enlightened anthropologists — who fancy that they’re treading so lightly — end up trampling their hosts just as effectively as any other emissaries of Western greed.

Although King  has always written coolly about intense emotions, here she captures the amber of one man’s exquisite longing for a woman who changed the way we look at ourselves.

The Man Who Couldn't Stop by David Adam

When I first started reading David Adam’s book about Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCD), I couldn’t help but wonder if I had one. But then Adams said, “If you aren’t sure if you have OCD, you don’t.” You may be “anal,” which is what I am about some things, like my coffee and needing lots of pillows and a fan to sleep. But OCD is a whole ‘nother thing. Adam says "it possesses your day and defines your life." 

In this book, which is written in layman’s terms, Adam (pictured) presents an abbreviated and sometimes horrifying, but mostly satisfying history of the trial and error nature of treatments for OCD and other related disorders (i.e. schizophrenia, autism, etc.). He then paints a picture of what life is like for a person with OCD, using his own OCD as the model. Adam has a fear of contracting AIDS and giving it to his child, and he can’t stop taking preventative measures; thus the books title.

If you think that OCD is some fringe disorder occupied by weirdoes, think again. Here’s a short list of our contemporaries with OCD that surprised me at least: Penelope Cruz, Billy Bob Thornton, Warren Zevon, David Beckham, Jessica Alba, Justin Timberlake, Martin Scorsese, Harrison Ford. And when you consider that Einstein, Beethoven, Michelangelo and Darwin also had OCD, it makes one wonder if it’s an affliction of the brilliant.

What we also learn is that the science of treating mental illness is hampered by mostly unsuccessful drug trials that serve to disincentivize pharmaceutical companies from even trying, and the lack of biomarkers (i.e., blood test, tumors, etc.), which make it virtually impossible to identify and treat on any basis other than experimental.

I’m not sure anyone can “like” a book stitched together with bad news, but if you are at least superficially interested in the topic of OCDs, you’ll like The Man Who Couldn’t Stop.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is one of the literary darlings of 2014, appearing on many “best of” lists, and here’s why. First, it is well written, which means exactly what? Well, to me it means that the author is writing to me, for me; the words taste like truffles; and the story latches on like a conjoined twin.  In the hands of a less gifted writer, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace could have been an unfortunate purchase and an eventual garage-sale giveaway.  But Hobbs takes the true but cliché story of a very poor young black boy who overcomes the odds of his circumstance to graduate from Yale, and turns it into an enigmatic and deeply provocative sociology lesson. The "gotcha" look on author Hobbs’ face (pictured above) says it all.

Robert Peace had every reason to fail and almost none to succeed. His childhood was pocked by an undereducated mom, a father who was mostly gone and eventually imprisoned for murder, and the extreme gravity of living in the second largest concentration of very low-income African-Americans, drug-infested Newark, NJ.

The assets? His mom wanted more for her son and sacrificed anything and everything to make sure it was within reach. Robert’s dad was a gregarious, never-met-a-stranger type who imprinted likability into his son. A wealthy benefactor funded a good bit of Robert’s college education. And then there was Peace’s innate, early and almost uncanny sense of a + b = c (pay attention + perform = success) about everything. Well, practically everything.

But you go into the book knowing that Robert Peace’s life is short and tragic, so you immediately start looking for the markers. Then, the author writes his voodoo and you completely forget the looming doom. We meet Robert, who preternaturally and increasingly excels – school, friendships, work ethic, wisdom, commerce, character, sports, ambition, love, resilience, Zen. He just can’t seem to do anything wrong. Except for his marijuana selling business.  

I recommend that you read The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace because it will nourish the “readers’ need.”  The need to hear the story, well told.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

When author Caitlin Doughty (pictured) was eight, she witnessed the death of a small child that fell from an escalator in a shopping mall. That traumatic event kicked off Doughty’s life-long obsession with death, and consequently, the writing of this book. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is part story about the author’s first experience working in the funeral industry (a crematorium in Oakland CA), part manifesto on her campaign to get Americans to return to the practice of personally caring for their dead (washing/dressing the body, hosting the wake, and “naturally” disposing of the body), and part personal angst diary.

In spite of the expansive differences between Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Mary Roach’s captivating Stiff, I can’t help but compare these two books. Both are humorous, morbid and provide icky, behind-the scenes of death and the “death industry.” However where Stiff is fascinatingly informative, Smoke is a tad disjointed. Doughty’s campaign to convince us to embrace death, and our dead feels a little “Goth” and dead-end (pun intended). Death rituals are historically defined by necessity. When you don’t have options, you do what you have to do. Most Americans have options that don’t include personally handling the bodies of their loved ones - but enough about that. What I’m sure you are wondering is whether or not Smoke Gets in Your Eyes includes lots of gory details. It does. But if you want gory and good, read Stiff instead.

Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local - and Helped Save an American Town by Beth Macy

I went into Factory Man thinking that I would find a hero. Instead, what I found was an intriguing albeit gossipy biography of the Bassett family of The Bassett Furniture company fame. The story goes back to the turn of the 20th century in Virginia when John D. Bassett Sr., owning lots of forested land but possessing almost no cash, hears that the railroad is coming through, gets the idea to set up a sawmill and sell railroad ties. Soon the Bassetts are a furniture-making dynasty, with their own towns where they rule everything: housing, utilities, families, EVERYTHING. Then they make a near-fatal mistake. They let a group of Chinese industrialists come into their factories and take pictures and notes. Within just a few years, Chinese furniture makers nearly gut the Bassett business empire.

It doesn’t take long to establish that the Bassetts are that ilk of people genetically inclined to make a lot of money and to give as little as possible of that money to their employees. Indeed the Bassetts kept a lot of people in Virginia and eventually all over the southeast employed, but they were money-driven, greedy and cutthroat, and that turned me off to an otherwise entertaining series of stories about each generation of Bassetts and how they adapted with the times to make money. The furniture was just the tool. Believe me, it was all about the money.

I should add that author Beth Macy (pictured) did a great job of researching and chronicling the Bassett family’s clean and dirty laundry, and she told their story in a easily-digestible, even pleasant format, so kudos to her for that.  In spite of the somewhat creepy “Fox News” feel of this book, I think you’ll like Factory Man.

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