The Likeness: Haunting

March 13, 2009

I believe that Tana French’s The Likeness is one of the best books I have read so far in 2009.  Granted, I haven’t read all that many books so far and the ones I have read wouldn’t exactly be candidates for any “best book” list, but The Likeness has stayed with me weeks after I finished it.  It was similar to American Wife in that it was the second book I had ready by an author but happily, while both first books were disappointments to me, I really enjoyed The Likeness.

We met Detective Cassie Maddox in In the Woods.  This novel picks up six months after the events in that novel.  Detective Maddox has transferred out of murder to domestic and while she is in a relationship with another detective, she remains too shaken to commit to him.  Then one day, Cassie’s boyfriend discovers a body of a young woman who eerily resembles Cassie.  She not only resembles Cassie but also carries identification giving her the name of an identity Cassie used when she was undercover at the beginning of her career.  Cassie, however, has never met her.  Cassie feels compelled to help solve the mystery of what happened to the young woman and agrees to go undercover and assume the dead girl’s life as a graduate student living in a house of extremely close  misfits.

There is so much going on in this novel.  Set in Ireland, it’s moody and eerie.  French’s gift as a writer is getting into her characters’ heads.  They are all fully fleshed out.  There are layers of secrets to be revealed, and French handles them compellingly.  Interestingly, how the dead woman came to have Maddox’s undercover identity is never revealed, but really, it doesn’t matter.  French has deeper mysteries to solve.

I really can’t stop thinking about this novel.  It’s not exactly action-packed, but I couldn’t wait to see what would happen. I thought the first quarter moved a little slowly as Cassie decided whether she would go undercover, but once she does, the book gets very interesting.


Death of a Writer: the Sick, Sordid World of Academia

September 20, 2008

Michael Collins’ Death of a Writer asks which is the bigger crime, plagiarism or murder?  Society might say murder, but academia might say plagiarism.  In this literary detective story, E. Robert Pendleton started off well and appears to be headed nowhere fast.  After early literary success, he is rotting as a literary professor at a small, elite liberal arts college in the Midwest.  After bringing his successful nemesis to campus, Pendleton attempts suicide but fails.  Directionless graduate student Adi Wiltshire is bequeathed his estate and uncovers a little-known manuscript of Pendleton’s called Scream, which is an existential exploration of the world with a gruesome murder thrown in.  As the republished Scream climbs the charts while Pendleton remains unaware in a coma, cold-case detective Jon Ryder notices parallels between the murder in the book and an unsolved murder in the town.  Did Pendleton murder the young girl and use the material for his book?  If he did, does it matter in terms of the reception of the book?  Ryder seems to be everywhere at once, uncovering the town’s secrets while his primary reason for being there, the murder of Amber Jewel, appears to remain unsolved.

Death of a Writer was an odd book.  At times I loved it, and at times it annoyed me, which I suspect was Collins’ goal.  He structured the book in such a way that everything had a purpose and a meaning.  For example, the Ryder, the detective, appears at times not to be a very good detective and overlooking in-your-face clues to pursue flimsy suspects.  At first I wondered if this was poor writing, but I came to realize that it was a intentional part of the book.  Collins meant for Ryder to be absurd.  

Collins effortlessly savages the academic world AND the detective novel in one fell swoop, and it is marvelous.  Everyone is a suspect for the flimsiest of reasons while the real villain remains unmasked. Oh, and let’s not leave out the German philosophy.  I never read much Nietzsche, but after this novel, I consider myself well informed.   It’s interesting because you are tempted to dismiss the novel as a satire of academia, but then it becomes a very hard-boiled and grim detective novel.  Bad things happen and often without any real rhyme or reason other than that’s the way it was, which is true to the existential spirit of the book.  It’s sad and funny and grim and awful and infuriating all at the same time. Honestly, I don’t know what else to say about this book.  It’s slim, yet about 15 different complex things are going on in it.  If you look plays within plays and things like that, then you’ll love this book because it’s like a book within a book within a book:  an novel about academia within a detective novel within a book making fun of both.

The Garden of Last Days: Stunning Microcosm

August 28, 2008

I associate Andre Dubus with The House of Sand and Fog and Jennifer Connelly’s cool, elegant beauty.  I had little interest in reading the book the film was based on likely because it kept getting confused in my mind with this awful, incoherent film I watched in film class in college.  Damn.  I’m pretty sure that horrid movie had “sand” in the title but I have inconveniently blocked it out of my mind.  Oh well.

Anyway, therefore, Andre Dubus was not an author on my radar until I kept coming across glowing reviews of his latest book in the oh-so-highbrow periodicals to which I subscribe: Time and Entertainment to be exact.  So, intrigued, I requested it from my local library branch and was impressed.

The Garden of Last Days is not a pretty book, but that is because it is about life and life as we all know is seldom pretty.  It’s about a stripper, “Spring”, who strips at a club in Florida in order to support her young daughter.  Primarily set in early September 2001, it focuses on one night in particular when Spring is forced to take her daughter with her to the club due to childcare problems.  That night she also encounters a client who is Muslim and who monopolizes her time in one of the private rooms.  That same night another man is thrown out of the club because of his misinterpretation of what his relationship is with one of the strippers.  And Spring’s daughter, left to watch Disney movies in the club, disappears. 

Dubus is a fantastic, amazing writer.  Each character is fully alive and he probes their lives for the tiniest detail, the most inane raison d’etre.  The story is advanced through various characters’ points of view, and the way in which he digs deeply into their pysches and motivations is stunning.  Dubus makes no judgments about his characters’ lives.  In his storytelling, the characters speak for themselves.  No one is wholly good or wholly bad.  Even the Musliam customer, clearly one of the 9/11 terrorists, has redeeming moments.  All of these lives intersect for a few hours in Florida before moving on, their lives changed by the contact. 

While most of the action takes place over the course of a few hours, the book does make it 9/11 and beyond.  Once the action left Florida, I felt like the book began to drag a little bit.  You knew the inevetible outcome of the trip to Boston and you wished Dubus would get on with it.  Once the terrorists made it to Boston, I began to have less and less sympathy for them.  That’s my only quibble with the book.  Life goes on, and it does for the characters.  That one night impacts them all, but the aftermath is the most tedious part of the book.  I wish that Dubus had brought things to a close earlier.

Me Talk Pretty One Day: I cried

August 26, 2008

Yes, Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris made me cry.  Granted, they were tears of laughter, but they were tears.  Me Talk Pretty One Day explores Sedaris’ childhood in Raleigh, North Carolina, time in college, jobs and eventual move to Paris.  It’s a book about his inability to communicate, and Sedaris has a genius for finding the wit and eccentricity in everyone around him, and it is a gift to the reader.

Most of the book elicitied an occasional guffaw from me.  I don’t know if I expected the entire book to be laugh-out-loud, side-splittingly funny, but some of the essays were sad.  I often wanted Sedaris to get his act together, finding some accounts painful and a little too revealing.  I guess I expected Sedaris’ success to mean that his life was somehow “together” even though I should know better. 

The part I enjoyed the most was Sedaris’ time in France.  I cried with laughter at his experiences trying to learn French and how he and his fellow students tried to explain Easter–in pidgen French– to a Muslim classmate.  Deep, can’t breathe, not nearly as funny to anyone else as it was to me kind of sobs. 

Sedaris, you may not be a native Southerner, and your family may have tried to keep you from becoming one, but to me, you are an honorary one.  You are too eccentric not to be.

Kitchen Confidential: Cooking Exposed

August 5, 2008

My favorite part of the local Friday news is when the restaurant ratings from area restaurants are revealed in all their disgusting glory.  Who knew that the sanitation grades operated on a 10-point scale?  Therefore, it was no surprise to me that I enjoyed Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen ConfidentialKitchen Confidential is Bourdain’s memoir of his life as a chef and as he details his often sordid, drug-filled past, he also reveals the mystery of what goes on in a kitchen (less magic and often gross) as well as how the restaurant industry works.  For example, never, ever eat fish in a restaurant on a Monday. 

Bourdain is caustic and does not suffer fools–including himself.  He is his own worst critic, detailing his many failures, his arrogance, and why he isn’t as successful and respected as other chefs (because of the lure of money:  he was paid too much too soon).  He even goes so far to compare his own career path with a chef whom he admires as what he should have aspired to be, pointing out where their paths and motivations diverged.  His drug use is not sugar coated, and I wondered–as he himself does–how he is still living.  This book was published in 2000, well before he became a fixture on the Travel Channel.

I like Anthony Bourdain.  He is wild and irreverent, yet he loves food.  He respects food. Even though I was dismayed by the lack of attention he paid to his career early on and the drug use, how can you not find something redeeming in someone whose love affair with food began as a child on a visit to France?  Bourdain’s writing is wonderful, and he does a great job of detailing his downward spiral through the many restaurants in which he worked and years of drug use and then his salvation and work at Les Halles.  Only he would never, ever use the word salvation.  He’s far too dry for that.  He’s amazingly self-reflective, a trait I believe is in short supply.  He ends the book stable, mature and sober.

However, the book is not simply a memoir.  It is a sly peek into the restaurant world.  Bourdain wryly tells you the tools you need to make your food look professional as well as how to translate the dirty lingo used in kitchens.  He identifies the types of restaurant owners and how to identify when a restaurant is beginning to fail.  It’s a very gossipy book in the best way.

After reading the book, I wondered if Bourdain was too hard on himself and what he identifies as his many, many failures.  What’s clear is that he is a great cook, a great chef with definite opinions and a basic love of good food.  He has given us a peek into professional kitchens, restaurants and best of all, himself.

The Terror Dream:

July 13, 2008

I can’t believe how long it has taken me to post about this book.  I’ve had it as a draft for weeks.

The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America by Susan Faludi was a GREAT book.  And I rarely say that.  Faludi explores the sexual anxiety that America experienced after 9/11 and why women (feminists) were suddenly either demonized or urged to get married, stay home and make babies.  In other words, women had to fulfill the victim role…in need of being protected and taken care of…or else they were viragos who were responsible for the male failure to protect the nation.  The first part of the book deals with various studies and media representations of women after 9/11…from the lionization of 9/11 widows who said their primary and greatest duty was to take care of their family to supposed baby booms and single women suddenly reconsidering their choosiness and deciding what was most important was finding a nice man with whom to settle down, even if he wasn’t the greatest catch. 

In the second part of the book, Faludi ties back this response to 9/11 to American’s earliest history and traces it from Puritan days to the Revolutionary and even Civil War.  She believes that the anxiety caused by 9/11 can be traced back to anxiety about our inability to deal with the natives.  At first, captivity narratives such as Mary Rowlandson’s were hailed as the appropriate response to the native threat.  Rowlandson is a good, Christian woman who submits to her abduction as God’s will.  However, she can take care of herself and that was ok.  Such narratives were prized. However, as time went on, abduction narratives began to paint men in a negative light (e.g. the husband scramming with the rest of the kids, leaving his wife and newborn to fend for themselves) and women began to act, well, less womanly (e.g. hacking natives to death because they remembered there was a reward for each native killed).  It began to be suspected that somehow women were sapping the vitality of the men and preventing them from being heroic.  As a result, female heroism began to be viewed with suspicion and even marginalized.  Only certain types of female heroism could be acknowledged and rewarded, and it was best if the female wasn’t heroic at all.  This anxiety has become part of our national psyche.

Stunning stuff.  For the most part, I really liked and enjoyed this book.  I found myself appalled by the first half of the book dealing with 9/11 and how women were treated.  How could I not have noticed it?  She cited several articles and essays from Time magazine, and I know I read them because I have been a subscriber to Time for over 10 years.  I’m sure I didn’t bat an eye when I read the essays she cites that are so damning when read in her book.   But I also remember being scared to death after 9/11 even though I live in NC.  I had just turned 24 2 days before 9/11.  And interestingly, I was engaged to be married two months later.  I had never been through anything like 9/11 before.  My life had been free from Cold War anxiety, the stress of Vietnam, etc.  Instead of feeling like I needed to rush to the altar like women were apparently urged to, I wondered if maybe we should postpone our wedding.  It didn’t seem right to have such a conspicuous display a few short months after 9/11. 

I didn’t agree with everything Faludi wrote.  For example, many of the examples she used were from extremely big cities, and I wonder how they played in other areas of the nation.  As well, I don’t think it is so unreasonable that anyone–man or woman–wonder about their lives and to whom they would cling if tragedy occurred.  Of course you are going to wonder who would miss you and how things would be different if you did or didn’t have a spouse.  I think that’s human nature.  I was scared to death and glad I had a fiance on whom I could lean.  I don’t think I would have necessarily have run right out and found the first guy to marry to provide that if I had been single, but it was a scary time, and it would good knowing I had someone. 

I like Faludi’s work and hate that some don’t read her because she is a “feminist.”  While I might not agree with everything she wrote in the book, I am angered enough by my own failure to notice what was being written that I swear to always read with a skeptical and aware mind. 

Also recommended:

Middlesex: Neither one nor the other but in between and both

June 11, 2008

My book club picked Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex for our June meeting.  I had read it before, but it had been 5 years, so it was good to re-read it. 

Middlesex tells the story of Calliope Stephanides who discovers at age 14 that she is a hermaphrodite or intersexed (I believe this is the preferred term).  When she was born, she appeared to be a girl, and through a series of missed opportunities, her condition remained hidden for years.  Thus, she was raised as a girl.  Once she enters puberty, however, she is perplexed to discover that she is not only NOT developing like other girls but also having romantic feelings for girls.  An accident leads to a trip to the emergency room where her condition is finally revealed.  Genetic testing indicates that Callie is in fact genetically a boy.  The doctor urges Callie to continue living as a girl, believing that nurture has overpowered nature.  Callie realizes that this is false, and Callie becomes Cal. 

It may seem that I just gave away the plot of the book but dear reader, I assure you that I haven’t.  You know from the beginning that Calliope is a hermaphrodite and in a way, Calliope’s story isn’t really the main story.  The main story could be the experience of his/her Greek grandparents in Turkey and their immigration to the United States in the 20s.  It could be the story of her parents growing up in the 30s and 40s, their developing relationship and subsequent life together.  It could be the story of Detroit over a 60-year period.  It’s a story about family.  It’s a story about genetics and what we inherit.  It’s a story about fate or destiny vs. free will.  It’s a story about geography as place.  It’s a story about women’s roles, cultural identity and what we hide and what we reveal. In short, there is so much going on in this book that it would be impossible to neatly summarize all the plot elements.

I don’t think I enjoyed this book when I read it 5 years ago, but I really enjoyed it the second time around.  I wonder how much of that is due to being 5 years older and having a different perspective than I did as a 25-year-old.  This book is especially well-suited for a book club because it is so deep and rich that it benefits from discussion, and I liked it even more after my book club met to discuss it.  I’m still turning bits of it around in my head days later.

 Callie’s hermaphroditism (is that a word?) is the result of a recessive genetic mutation on the 5th chromosome.  Each of her parents provided the gene, so the theme of genetic fate is prominent.  The way Cal presents his history starting with his grandparents, it is clear that he believes he was fated to be a hermaphrodite.  But I wonder if this is Cal’s opinion revisiting his life and trying to make some sense, some reason for why he was born this way.  He appears to view his intersexuality as neither good nor bad but something that just is.  It’s just how he was born and how the genetic cards were dealt (gambling and games of chance are another big theme).  It’s interesting because from all that I’ve seen on the Discovery Channel (an authoritative source!), many intersexed individuals pick their gender and will undergo surgery in order to become physically the gender they most identify with.  Cal remains in a sort of limbo.  He identifies as a man, but he also still retains feminine traits.  He is lonely, yet he knows that his status dooms many relationships.  It’s like he purposely chooses to remain middlesexed.  It perplexes me a bit.  One theory proposed by my book club was that he doesn’t want to lose the feminine perspective.

It is interesting to ponder what makes us a man or a woman.  Is it our genes or is it how we are raised?  I suspect it’s more nature than nurture. But it’s also cultural.  We seem to have a need as humans for defined genders.  I’m a woman or I’m a man, and being unable to categorize someone so neatly results in cognitive dissonance.  But who hasn’t felt other than their defined gender at times?  I suspect that gender identity is more fluid than we might think.  I was not a tomboy as a child.  I wore dresses, played with dolls and fantasized about getting married and having babies.  But it’s funny because I often feel less feminine, less like a girl than my friends seem to be.  I often feel very masculine at work and believe that I am perceived as not very feminine.  However, I have a boss who can make me feel like a girl.  He and I don’t communicate well sometimes, and when I talk to him about it, I find that I am suddenly talking about feelings and girly things.  

Some of the history about Detroit in the book surprised me, and I’m going to need to do a little research.  Is it possible that the Detroit Riots were a sort of second American Revolution?  Unfortunately, we never reached that part of the 20th century in American history class in high school.     

I highly recommend this novel.  It is an American classic.

Also recommended:

  • One Hundred years of Solitude (Garcia Marquez).  It has a similar mythic feel as Middlesex, and happily, it is our next book club read as well.