Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Lucky Ones by Rachel Cusk

Hardcover, 240 pgs, Pub April 7th 2003 by Fourth Estate (first published 2003), ISBN13: 9781857029123

I feel a bit slapped around by this novel, published in 2003, the year after Cusk's bombshell of a memoir about motherhood, A Life’s Work, had such a mixed reception. Not only do her chapters read as individual, difficult-to-reconcile stories, the sentiment is painful to read. She is not funny: if one laughs, she remarked in an interview, the power is lost. Women and men living together in anything but married bliss: it’s instructive, relatable, hardly comforting.

The angles from which Cusk approaches these stories are not immediately clarifying. I wondered why we were reading about couples or their friends. The view of an older mother whose daughter is living a life outside of the mother’s experience seemed false for much of the chapter, as though she did not capture the older woman’s essence and mechanism: that which makes her tick. Eventually we see something, but we do not feel warm to this armored woman, battling her demons.

Who says a novel has to unroll its delights promiscuously for anyone to partake? The novel is a serious attempt to take on issues of critical meaning to people involved in relationships, perhaps even same-sex relationships, because the dynamic is often the same. After all, most people are still buying a “pig in a poke” when they marry in the sense they often do not know well the person with whom they intend live, and in any case, the relationship changes with the addition of children to the equation.

Cusk of course captures the despair of married women everywhere trying to fit their personalities, skills, and unique abilities into what can feel like the straightjacket of marriage and childcare. But we must now, in this time of #MeToo, acknowledge the point of view of the husband who, no matter what kind of man he was taught to be, also finds himself aghast at the weight of responsibility suddenly thrust upon him when he achieves his majority and marries.

But Cusk wrote this in the olden days: in something like fifteen years we are finally talking broadly, openly, and seriously about the rights of women in the workplace but also about the definition of masculinity, male privilege, and patriarchy. All this openness could be shut down tomorrow, as many have predicted the backlash will come, but the very things that Cusk is talking about so clearly is exactly what we should be internalizing in order to emerge healthy.

Transitions between chapters can be clunky and uncomfortable in direction, but Cusk at her worst is still better than most at their best. The first chapter is set in a women’s prison, and had some startling overlap with Rachel Kushner’s Booker-shortlisted novel this year, The Mars Room, a story of inattentive public defenders and tragic consequences. The very next chapter dropped us in the middle of a winter ski vacation in Switzerland for young professionals just beginning to construct and/or deconstruct their lives.

She works her themes, the moment young women, old women, rich women, poor women, talented women, and educated women clearly see their social predicament. The male partners of these women are not as finely drawn. The character of Martin in “The Way You Do It” could almost be a precursor for her narrator occupying negative space in the Outline trilogy, though she’d not even conceived of the notion then. Victor, the husband of the red-haired Serena, dies of a wasting disease. Colin refuses to speak, having succumbed to an affair, and Mr. Daley complains impotently late in life that his wife had “stolen his soul.”

But Vanessa in “Matters of Life and Death” says her desire for self- expression was thwarted, not by her actual circumstances, but by her fear of what might be. This theme recurs in later novels—a painter cannot paint nor a writer write for the distraction of everyday. The “enemy was not her husband; it was the capacity in herself, of which she was aware, for finding her husband unsatisfactory.”

Also recurring in other novels is Cusk’s tendency to have someone look upon the physical characteristics of a house as proof of something in the character of its inhabitants. She may be pointing to a common tendency in many of us to judge people by the splendor—or not—of their homes. Unfortunately, one cannot simply buy a life, only a lifestyle.

There is a party in this novel, which by now should strike readers with dread at what is to come. Suffice it to say, a great deal of blood is spilled and the circumstances are unclear: there had been an argument shortly before. The outcome is as unsettling as the months preceding the event.

Even in the novels that received less attention and critical praise, Cusk is working hard at expression. One I particularly liked was
“Colin digested Vanessa’s remark with the expression of a dog realising that what he had thought was a stick was in fact a bone.”
Cusk moves on to revisit and refine these themes in her later work but we can see these in-between books are critical parts of her oeuvre, the building blocks for what is to come.

Below please find reviews of Cusk’s other work.

The Country Life
In the Fold
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
The Lucky Ones
Arlington Park
The Bradshaw Variations
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee

Hardcover, 304 pgs, Pub July 2nd 2015 by William Collins (HarperCollins UK), ISBN13: 9780007554836), Lit Awards: Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Memoir & Autobiography (2015)

I listened to this remarkable story, read by Josie Dunn and published by HarperCollins Publishers UK, with a degree of disbelief. Certain parts of the story agree with what I’d learned already about the lives of North Koreans, the general trend of their escapes, and their orientation in South Korea as refugees. The author was young, seventeen, when she decided to cross the frozen Yalu in winter and go see her relatives in Shenyang, China.

She’d had no idea where Shenyang was—that I actually could believe. And as a privileged (for North Korea) teen, she was accustomed to getting her way or being ignored. Certainly maps were not easily found, just as they weren’t in China, either, thirty years ago. The period in this book covers approximately 2000-2012, a period when Hyeonseo Lee spent ten years in China working then flew to South Korea to request asylum.

Her own path to freedom was relatively smooth; she’d learned to be wary of revealing much about herself from childhood and was not easily deceived. Being young and attractive gave her the benefit of the doubt in China, but she wasn’t able to escape every attempt to corral her into exploitative jobs. She lived on her wits and managed, eventually, to eventually pass as Chinese-Korean. With this identity she was able to procure a passport (and a new name). She lived in China ten years.

I don’t want to spoil the adventure for those who aren’t familiar with her story, but it is a doozy. Her family in North Korea had a good songbun (status or name) which they exploited to bring goods in from outside the country. An uncle actually sold heroin. Her mother brought in all manner of household goods and occasionally methamphetamines! Hyeonseo’s brother began doing much the same illicit and illegal import work, bribing border guards, etc. after Hyeonseo left. Apparently her departure was officially overlooked, perhaps as the result of a bribe.

The story rings true, and she’s told it so many times by now that there are all kinds of suggestive chapter endings which propel one to turn to the next chapter. Apparently Ms. Lee met with President Trump with some other defectors in the White House in January 2018 before the president’s departure to Singapore to meet Kim Jong Un. She has given many talks about her experience and that of her family, including a TED talk I have posted below.

This is a defector story you probably haven’t heard, and you might want to see what everyone is so excited about.

Below please find a 12-minute TED talk by Hyeonsan Lee:

Friday, September 14, 2018

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

Paperback, 89 pgs, Pub April 5th 2016 by Copper Canyon Press, ISBN 155659495X, Lit Awards: T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry (2018), Forward Prize for Best First Collection (2017), Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry (2017), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Poetry (2016)

Published in 2016, this is Ocean Vuong’s first full collection. We will never know how a boy emerges, so young, with a talent so great. A poem chosen at random lights deep, protected nodes in our brain and attaches to our viscera. We recognize his work as surely as we appreciate a painting, or a piece of music. He appears a conduit, not a creator.

One of the poems in this collection has a title referencing a Mark Rothko painting. Glancing at it, we know immediately why he pairs it with these words.
Untitled (Blue, Green, and Brown, 1952)

The TV said the planes have hit the buildings.
& I said Yes because you asked me
to stay. Maybe we pray on our knees because god
only listens when we're this close
to the devil. There is so much I want to tell you.
How my greatest accolade was to walk
across the Brooklyn Bridge
& not think of flight. How we live like water: wetting
a new tongue with no telling
what we've been through. They say the sky is blue
but I know it's black seen through too much distance.
You will always remember what you were doing
when it hurts the most. There is so much
I need to tell you--but I only earned
one life & I took nothing. Nothing. Like a pair of teeth
at the end. The TV kept saying The planes...
The planes...
& I stood waiting in the room
made of broken mockingbirds. Their wings throbbing
into four blurred walls. & you were there.
You were the window.
Rothko's Blue, Green, and Brown, 1952
It was the phrase How we live like water: wetting a new tongue with no telling what we've been through. That phrase stopped me.

In an interview with The Guardian, Vuong says “life is always more complicated than the headlines allow; poetry comes in when the news is not enough.” Vuong won awards for this collection, and gained recognition. He now is an associate professor in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and writing a novel.

In an interview with Lit Hub Vuong explains
“I’m writing a novel composed of woven inter-genre fragments. To me, a book made entirely out of unbridged fractures feels most faithful to the physical and psychological displacement I experience as a human being. I’m interested in a novel that consciously rejects the notion that something has to be whole in order to tell a complete story. I also want to interrogate the arbitrary measurements of a “successful” literary work, particularly as it relates to canonical Western values. For example, we traditionally privilege congruency and balance in fiction, we want our themes linked, our conflicts “resolved,” and our plots “ironed out.” But when one arrives at the page through colonized, plundered, and erased histories and diasporas, to write a smooth and cohesive novel is to ultimately write a lie.”
 Vuong brings with him the possibility of a vision that is articulate enough to share, brave enough to bolster. It's a kind of blessing, a grace note we don't really deserve, his voice.

Vuong’s poetry is available as an ebook from many libraries. He is what we call a ‘literary light.’

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Snap by Belinda Bauer

Hardcover, 352 pgs, Pub July 3rd 2018 by Atlantic Monthly Press (first published May 17th 2018), ISBN13: 9780802127747), URL, Lit Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee for Longlist (2018)

There are many wonderful novels long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize, but I wouldn’t be sad if the award went to Belinda Bauer for her latest crime novel. Crime is a new category for the Man Booker along with graphic novels, of which Sabrina made the list.

In this novel, Bauer manages to sneak up behind us and deliver a perfectly horrible crime that resounds in the minds of young married couples. And she unveils DCI Marvel, a man with the DNA of every crusty and flawed investigator who works on instinct. I immediately thought of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel, surely a man after Marvel's own heart.

Bauer has exquisite instincts and timing as a crime writer. Even if this book hadn’t been chosen to represent her work, some of her earlier books would have done as well. But this novel is fuller, somehow, with the figure of Marvel and the hopelessly earnest Reynolds, who manages to get everything wrong all the time.

A pregnant woman seeking a call box on the motorway leaves her three children in her stranded vehicle and sets off on foot. After more than an hour, the children are wondering what could have become of her. She’d said it was too dangerous to follow her, but that is what the kids did, only to find an empty call box, the phone off the hook.

Bauer has always had the uncanny ability to put us in the mind of a child, and here she has three to work with. The police release the children to the father who finds himself overwhelmed with his new responsibilities.

Writing an excellent crime thriller is certainly as hard as writing any other wonderful piece of literature, and it seems to me that Bauer has succeeded admirably here. A Goodreads group I follow, The Mookse & the Gripes, posts a discussion in which there is hardly a voice crediting Bauer with creating something unique and complex. I disagree.

Bauer makes her skill look easy, but I’ve read hundreds of crime novels and finding new ways to present a terrifying mystery without boring people who read hundreds of crime novels is not an easy job. It has something to do with characterizations, recognizing what it is in ordinary humans that brings out our capacity for murder, and a sufficiently complex mystery. In this solve, readers are invited to decipher a unique code, and agonize how this story is going to end without someone new getting done.

I listened to this terrific story, marvelously read by Andrew Wincott and available on hoopla®, produced by Dreamscape Media, LLC.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

Hardcover, 256 pgs, Pub Jan 9th 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 2006), ISBN13: 9780374100803, Lit Awards: Orange Prize Nominee for Fiction Shortlist (2007)

What makes Cusk such a relevant and important writer are the many themes running through her books also run through our own lives. She is holding a conversation with us about what we face as human beings in a changing world, leading us as though we are in a library literary club. The questions she raises are as difficult as life itself but it is not necessary we respond straight away. She’d prefer we went home first and think about what she has written.

Years ago I attended an early conference on Women in Literature. One of the books we discussed that day was Sarah Orne Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs. The main character was a young girl who expressed her moment of her independence and discovery by climbing an enormous fir tree. Despite having been a sporty tomgirl all my life to that point, I said I found it difficult to conceive that a girl/woman would express her independence by such an act.

A grizzled white male emeritus professor there to make sure these women didn’t foment revolution scoffed “What else would she do? Bake a cake?” At that time I was sufficiently young to be embarrassed. I attempted to appease him with “no, no, of course not” while my cohort, older and more articulate women than I, quickly took up the gauntlet.

I recount this story because in fact, baking a cake—being in the kitchen at least—is exactly how the women in Cusk’s world discover the cracks in their lives and begin to assert their independence.

The final scene in this book is a dinner party, something Cusk reimagined and expanded upon in a later book Transit, the second of a trilogy of books using a new type of narrative structure. Readers are sure never to want to go to another dinner party in their lives after reading the bush fires these turn out to be.

The action in this book looks into the lives of several couples as they navigate one particular Friday. We are not surprised to see the strains between couples, and we aren’t really surprised to see the nosy attention paid to the kitchen expansion of one mother who'd invited a few moms for morning coffee after dropping the kids off at school. Other moms going in a group with their little ones to shop for clothes at a local mall are a chorus of catty compliments and confused despair. The day expands from there, breaking off to capture Solange, pregnant with her fourth, who rents out a bedroom to local foreign students.

Perhaps the best set piece is a description of the actual Arlington Park in the manner of Bruegel the Elder: each park visitor is painted in their individuality and their intent, even dogs, and we revel in the mad color and symphonic chaos of it. The choice of actors, the wash of rain on the pavement, the sound of crying children, barking dogs, running feet, shrieking teens—this is the fullness of Cusk.

Cusk does have something to say about marital love but mostly we watch, poleaxed, while these unappealing folks strain to live well in their comfortable distant suburb two hours west of London. Money and stature hasn’t really given them any special grace, but is a sort of blind into which they stumble, surprised to discover the payoff always was illusion, like the fronts of Arlington Park houses compared with the back. What they’d needed for the good life had been with them always; it had just needed to be excavated, nurtured, cherished.

In the final scene we go deep into the mind of the dinner party hostess, Christine Lanham. Events unfurl from her perspective, but the wine in her glass flows too freely for readers to lean too heavily on her say-so. Important questions are posed but left for the reader to answer. The characters in Christine’s world sound a lot like the ones in our own. Standing back and looking on might give us the perspective we need to be able to think…about all of it.

An interview with Cusk by NewYorker staff writer Alexandra Schwartz about Kudos has been published by Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux. Below please find reviews of Cusk’s other work.

The Country Life
In the Fold
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
The Lucky Ones
Arlington Park
The Bradshaw Variations
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Amity and Prosperity by Eliza Griswold

Hardcover, 336 pags, Pub June 12th 2018 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN13: 9780374103118

This scientific and legal drama recounts the harrowing ordeal of several families suffering terribly from toxic chemicals leaching from storage pools of fracking waste into their drinking water and into the air in western Pennsylvania. New Yorker staff writer and journalist Eliza Griswold has excellent instincts for a story and she has honed her skills so that unwieldy real life is put into a clear timeline; we not only understand, we are desperate to learn the outcome.

It is nearly impossible to imagine this kind of deceit and coercion happening today in ‘sacrifice zones’ around the country. After all, it is written in Pennsylvania’s own constitution that
“The people have a right to clear air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit for all the people.”
Residents who survived—many of their farm animals did not—had to leave their newly worthless property because the water was not fit to drink nor the air fit to breathe. This is the story of how these families fought the state and federal agencies (EPA, DEP) charged with protecting them; Range Resources, the company responsible for the fracking work; the companies responsible for testing blood and water for chemical components causing the damage; their own neighbors; and the political leadership including the governor in Pennsylvania who instituted Act 13, giving zoning overrides to fracking companies.

When their lawyers, John Smith and his wife Kendra, finally argued a case about the pollution before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in October 2012, two years after they began researching the cases, the lawyers were afraid the conservative judge known to side frequently with Republican politicians would throw out the challenge to Act 13. [Pennsylvania is known today as the poster child for such severe political gerrymandering that Republicans in state and national government far outweigh their Democratic challengers.] State governor Tom Corbett didn’t want “to send a negative message to job creators and families who depend on the energy industry.” Corbett was voted out in 2015.

Speaking of families who depend on the energy industry, the neighbors of these folks who had been so wrongly done by sometimes begrudged the families their lawsuits since it might lessen their opportunity to sell the rights to whatever gas or right-of-way lay beneath their own land. This is a horror story that is difficult to tear one’s eyes from.
“[Range Resources] tried to appeal to those who stood to make money with an unusual letter writing campaign. One mass mailing was addressed to a fictitious ‘Mr. and Mrs. Joe Schmo at 10 Cash-Strapped Lane.’ It urged residents to bring pressure on their local officials to allow companies wide latitude to drill where they needed to, or there’d be no gas, and ‘no gas means no royalties.’”
The royalties, by the way, weren’t very impressive to someone who was going to lose their health, possibly members of their family, their livelihood, their land, their house, their way of life. This was farmland, so most of people discussed here in detail had barns, large animals, etc. This says nothing of the downstream pollution of the groundwater. People can drill on their own property, but not if it affects their neighbor.

Fracking waste is toxic, but much of the time so is what fracking dredges up from deep earth pockets holding Pleistocene-era bacteria and ocean salts. No one wants this waste. Range Resources paid Alan Shipman to truck away waste that didn’t fit in the holding ponds. Shipman was convicted in 2011 of mixing the fracking solutions with less lethal waste so technically it would fall under less stringent guidelines for placement and then he dumped it illegally into public waterways.

A few local public officials thought some of the difficulties lay in the corruption of government by money flowing from the gas companies to people in political office who thereafter tended to cater to those business interests. Even Obama changed his tune from “no fracking” during his campaign, to “gas is good” during his term. Some individuals argue that despite some pollution, gas extraction has made the U.S. practically energy independent, moving the U.S. from importing two-thirds of it’s oil needs to one-fifth. A degree of pollution here may prevent global ocean rise because gas is less carbon-emitting, etc, etc.

To all of this could be argued that the costs of gas are not adequately taken into account by companies operating by deceit. Have the companies pay the real costs and then go find investors. They will, and we will be protected. If gas is judged to be “just too expensive,” we may need to rethink the way we do business or the way we live.

One final note is a very short discussion Griswold adds about the Tragedy of the Commons. I’d never heard of this concept, so I quote her here at length:
“Economists describe the Tragedy of the Commons like this: cattle herders sharing a pasture will inevitably place the needs of their cows above the needs of others’, adding cow after cow and taking more than their share of the common grass. This ‘free rider’ takes advantage of the commons, and consumes it until it’s gone. This, the argument goes, is human nature, which sets individual gain over collective good. Traditionally, the Tragedy of the Commons has supported the case for individual property rights: since it’s impossible for people to act together to protect commonly held assets, we might as well carve up those assets and leave individuals to look after their own. But what if the commons did not need to end in tragedy? What if people were able to work out effective practices of sharing the commons and transmit those traditions to their descendants? Elinor Ostrom, a professor of political science at Indiana University, argued that the solution to the Tragedy of the Commons for the twenty-first century lies in common sense. Sharing has succeeded in the past and could succeed in the future. Ostrom was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics for this work. She died in 2012.”
This is a terrific, propulsive, horrifying, and important read you are not going to want to miss.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Politics of Resentment by Katherine J. Cramer

Paperback, 225 pgs, Pub Mar 23rd 2016 by University of Chicago Press, ISBN13: 9780226349114, Series: Chicago Studies in American Politics

The subtitle of this academic study is “Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin & the Rise of Scott Walker.” Professor Katherine Cramer visited rural groups in extra-urban parts of Wisconsin for five years to see how people perceived the government in Madison and if it was serving their needs.

What she uncovered is a vast resentment of country folk towards their urban counterparts: rural dwellers believed their tax dollars were siphoned off to pay for government employees in the cities who in turn created regulations which strangled enjoyment of country life, e.g., fishing and hunting, among other things.

Cramer warns those of us whose opinions differ not to consider rural inhabitants ignorant, but to consider they have perceptions upon which their opinions are formed and these perceptions are formed as a result of their rural residency. I am tempted to apply the very strictures several of her interviewees use throughout her period of study: if I believe it, true or not, doesn’t that make it valid?

I thought country people were to be admired for their down-home values and common sense. If you could only get a copy of this book to read one of the final sets of reactions to the recall vote of Walker in 2012 which Cramer painfully transcribed, starting about page 196, it is the short course to understanding the rest of the book.

This was a difficult book for me to read because it was so infuriating. The country folk she spoke with met in small groups, one of which was a group of businessmen who met every day in the middle of the morning for a game of dice--'just for an hour or so,' they defended it.

I’m sorry, but anyone who then tells me that they do not consider other people know the meaning of hard work sounds positively ludicrous. I’m not here to judge them, and couldn’t care less what they do with the most productive hours of the day, but they really shouldn’t be pointing any fingers.

It turns out from my reading of these “meetings” is that people sit around and voluably winge for an hour or so, complaining about this and that, what they don’t have and what they wish they did have. Taxes come in for a large percentage of the discussion points and since I come from a state known for high taxes, Taxachusetts, I am wondering what on earth their property taxes could be that they so cramp their style, what with all that “hard work” they keep on about.

The groups internally trade inaccuracies and then promulgate them around town. It is terribly frustrating to hear them talk about how the government (Fish & Game) might come in and look in their freezers for all the fish they stocked there, proof of their illegal overfishing. No, I don’t understand, even after reading these five years of interviews, what these people want. They want less regulation they say, even saying they’d prefer drunk driving and pollution controls be rolled back.

I give Professor Cramer credit for being able to stick it out. She was prepared when the state went belly-up for old Scott Walker, enemy No. 1 of public employee unions. Some of the comments about how there were people being paid excessive overtime sounds much like what I read in the Boston Globe this week, with some public employees making hundreds of thousands of dollars in excessive overtime charges.

It happens. It doesn’t happen everywhere and it doesn’t happen all the time. (It happens, I might add, with people who think they are smart when they are not.) The crime has been exposed, the people will pay it back and then go to jail. That doesn’t mean we have to throw out the system we set up to ensure fairness. Cramer concludes her study with these ideas that sound remarkably familiar in today’s political commentary:
“One can view as misinformation or ignorance the perceptions among rural folks that they are victims of distributive injustice, but the conclusion that people vote the way they do because they are stupid is itself pretty shallow. It overlooks that much of political understanding is not about facts; it is about how we see those facts.”
Indeed. Well, these folks may not be stupid, but they are sure acting like it. Rural consciousness indeed. If you don’t go looking for the truth, you may not stumble upon it.

Cramer's research wasn't wasted, though it made me plenty steamed. Clearly these folks had opinions, but those opinions, I believe, could be changed if someone actually engaged them with a few factoids. The mere fact they did not run Cramer out of town on a rail means they just want to be listened some point, there is no reason to presume they wouldn't listen to someone else with a good argument.

Also, the fact they were meeting at all and were, to however small a degree, interested in local goings on, e.g., regulations, taxes, etc. means they are fertile ground for new ideas. They can at least conceive of public policy. Give them the kit & caboodle of figuring out fairness & I think we would be surprised if those old progressive notions don't come floating to the surface.

What politicians and educators have to do is get out more--go to the hinterland and bring a few good ideas, some failed policies, and a few debunked lies to show side-by-side. I think there is possibility that these folks will rise to the challenge, now that we know they have nothing but perceptions to back up their feelings of resentment. They obviously like getting together to talk things out. Give 'em the numbers--and, by the way, give us their numbers!

Cramer did not give us the actual facts re taxes, etc. That would have helped us to figure out if these folks just can't do math or if they actually have grievance. She did mention something about the cost of sewer (which in my town is calculated as twice the price of water). There, for a family of two, the bill was something in the vicinity of $53/month. The majority of folks have incomes of $11K/yr. This is income, mind you, not including savings or property. If those country folk had a look at what city folk with that kind of income had to deal with, they might not be so full of anger.

Here is an excerpt of Coleen Marlo reading the audiobook:

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Country Life by Rachel Cusk

Audiobook, Pub Oct 1st 2014 by Recorded Books, Inc.; Hardcover, 341 pgs, Pub Jan 1st 1999 by Picador USA (first published June 20th 1997) ISBN13: 9780312198480, Lit Awards: Somerset Maugham Award (1998)

This novel is a fantastically successful parody of a Eighteenth Century novel in which a young woman encounters all sorts of terrors in her first solo foray into the wilds of the country in Sussex. I had the advantage of listening to this novel, brilliantly read by Jenny Sterlin, produced by Recorded Books, but I like to think I would have picked up on the melodrama even if I’d read it.

As an undergraduate reading 18thC literature, I was tasked in one demanding class to “write an paper in the style” of one of the authors we studied that term. This novel by Cusk would be a brilliant fulfillment of that requirement. One would swear one were reading a modern Gothic romance in the style of our very earliest novels like Weiland; or The Transformation by Charles Brockton Brown, written in 1798 or Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein.

All the intrigue, drama, and fear of a young woman’s fancy are amply on display: creaking floorboards, the dangers of walking in the country on public footpaths, leering oversexed male acquaintances, dwarfish figures whose intent, whether good or bad, is undetermined. Stella is simply overtaken with every possible obstacle to living well in Sussex at Franchise Farm, a large, ancient, impressive farming estate owned in perpetuity by the Maddens. Stella has been engaged to be a companion to the Matthew Madden, a teenaged handicapped scion of the family.

Cusk works over our sympathies in this novel so that every couple pages we are changing allegiances with the characters. The story has a darker heart than we’re prepared for by all the ridiculous drama of Stella’s first days at Franchise Farm, but this is meant to be discovered after several hours with the characters, so i won’t reveal it here. Suffice it to say that the overblown prose and extraordinary dilemmas faced by our narrator contrast in a comic way with the utter ordinariness of the rest of the characters, all of whom find themselves watching Stella with some degree of alarm and surprise as she settles in.

I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a novel as much, it being so completely unexpected, truly hilarious and absurd, with our heroine, through no intent of her own, ending up several days completely blotto on stolen vodka. The teenaged charge Matthew bears some responsibility for taking advantage of his much-older companion, never having seen someone with as little control or suitability for her position as the lovely Stella. As his mother says volubly, “He’s not retarded, Stella, he’s just disabled.” And very clever and interested he is, too, in all that goes on around him. For once he sees someone nearly as helpless as he is, and he rises to the challenge.

The finish is heartfelt and warm, and we discover that Stella is indeed suited to her position, and in fact we want more of her stumbling ways since she manages to bring out the best in everyone. We have been aghast at the blunt language and contentious attitudes of many of the folks we meet. But they can recognize vulnerability when they see it and do not crush those suffering from it.

I am particularly thrilled to read a novel that describes—and asks us to imagine—what life might actually be like for someone disabled. The group meetings Matthew must attend outside of his school hours are truly horrifying—all authoritarian control and insistence on talking about one’s feelings. Matthew is often overlooked and not appreciated for what he can do well.

Every novel I have read by Cusk is very different from its predecessors but equally funny. Her work is not losing its charm, no matter that I have read nearly all her oeuvre at once. I am even more convinced of my earlier assessment—certainly that Cusk is my favorite living author, but also that she is one of the greats working today. She is especially relevant in a world in which sexual relations have entered the stage of “let’s put it all on the table, dear.”

Reviews of Cusk's other books:
In the Fold
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
The Lucky Ones
Arlington Park
The Bradshaw Variations
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Paperback, 311 pgs, Pub Aug 10th 2017 by JM Originals, ISBN13: 9781473660540, Lit Awards: Man Booker Prize Shortlist (2017), Dylan Thomas Prize Nominee for Longlist (2018), Women's Prize for Fiction Nominee for Longlist (2018), RSL Ondaatje Prize Nominee for Shortlist (2018)

In hindsight, the resonance of this dark and fierce debut on the stage of world literature should have been the warning bell that #MeToo movement was about to extract its penalty. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017, this novel’s strengths are in describing a natural world that seems almost untouched in its primitiveness, a world that one would swear were long gone.

A family of father, daughter, and son build their own dwelling on land passed on by a long-dead wife and mother. A wealthy landowner nearby likewise claims the land but recognizes the family from when the mother lived there. A convoluted agreement is worked out whereby the wealthy man deeds the land to the family in return for fealty.

The story is old as Moses but were for modern day appliances and tools, we’d not know the exploitation continues so blatantly today. Mozley brilliantly describes the bump and thrum of life on a working woodlot which yields most of the family’s needs for game and heat. The father, a very large man, earned a living early on by bare-knuckle fighting for cash. He was cool-minded and strong; he always won.

The daughter and son were seen as strange among the townspeople who knew of them. They were self-sufficient and proud, and did not attend any local school, though they were of an age to do so. The boy was slight in frame and lovely in countenance; the girl became a tall and strapping and arresting-looking woman. It is said the son took after the mother. We learn that the daughter takes after the father.

This was a very good choice for the international fiction prize, evoking as it does the history of the Celtic Britons, the earliest known settlers of the region in 4th Century B.C. The epigraph itself, a quote by Ted Hughes, speaks of Elmet as "the last independent Celtic kingdom in England...a sanctuary for refugees from the law." The story itself is rich and complete, the bullying nature of wealthy landowners charted throughout the ages. Insular and suspicious townsfolk make an appearance, as does a singular woman who lives alone in the hills.

A fight scene near the end of the book registers viscerally. The momentum and brutality derived from that moment electrifies our experience through the end, the final scenes almost changing the nature of the novel despite the foreshadowing given earlier. This may be why Mozley added the italicized chapters earlier on--to warn us of great changes to come. Perhaps ideally these wouldn't be necessary, but then the sense of time and distance and distress of the narration wouldn't be as clear.

There are so many intriguing aspects of this novel one is tempted to cut Mozley some slack if some fulsome descriptions might be considered extraneous to the thrust of the action. The character of Vivien, for instance, may have been developed somewhat beyond her remit. Considering the vast talent arrayed for the award last year, it is difficult to expect a debut would have prevailed against such talented entries as Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, which did end up taking home the prize. But this was, without a doubt, a very strong debut indeed.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

In the Fold by Rachel Cusk

Hardcover, 262 pgs, Pub Oct 1st 2005 by Little Brown and Company (first published September 2005), ISBN13: 9780316058278, Lit Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee for Longlist (2005)

This book, like so many of those by Cusk, interrogates the nature of ‘artist’ and ‘art,’ but also the nature of marriage and personal fulfillment, of love and desire. Unlike any of Cusk’s novels, the main character is a man, which complicates the interpretation for so many who draw a straight line from narrator to author. This work, which might seem a puff piece by anyone else, is difficult, thorny, a nervous system of connections that raises questions about how we should live.

What does the title mean? Does it mean in the arms [fold] of the family, in the fold of female genitalia as in birth, or in the fold of a letter, opened, to discover something dreadful has come to pass? For each of these suggestions there is some support in the book.

Our narrator, Michael, and Adam Hanbury lived next door to one another at school. Adam’s sister Caris invites Michael to her eighteenth birthday party at the family pile—a farm overlooking the sea—called Egypt. The family is large and constantly in motion. Someone is always saying or doing something to provoke another.

Michael is accepted and admired by the family, drawing him in. The moment catches in his imagination as though in a photograph, illuminating the potential in family relationships. He is experiencing a stumble in his own marriage some years later, but when he once again visits the Hanburys in Egypt, he does not feel the love.

I love watching Cusk navigate the male imagination. She is restrained: she tries not to step outside the lines into “that definitely wouldn’t be so” territory. But perhaps even more fascinating is her look at the female imagination. Michael’s wife Rebecca recently had a child. She is struggling with her ‘art’…she is a painter who paints very little indeed. She instead takes a job in an art gallery and seems to find her niche. She is confident, smooth, successful. Except that she is unhappy with her faithful husband, new child, lovely home, fulfilling job.

Throughout the novel are seeded mentions of gruesome murders of one spouse by another that happened in history. The houses of Rebecca’s parents are a factor in how Michael perceived them…he has an allergic reaction to their moral ambivalence: not only did they have no interest in being virtuous, “they concerned themselves with domineering feats of patronage and ostentatious magnanimity.”

Rebecca is trying to escape her parents’ life but is their daughter, after all. She wanted a child, but that child Hamish would become Michael’s responsibility
“like the pets people buy their tender, clamorous children; children who then harden, as though the giving, the giving in, were proof in itself that in order to survive and succeed in the world, you must be more callous and changeable than those who were so easily talked into accessing to your desires.”
This novel, as a novel, has some difficulties, but Cusk’s perceptions and humor are intriguing enough to carry us over any rough spots. In fact, it may be her very perceptions that make this ride bumpy. We spend lots of time reconciling her vision of who these people are and almost miss the car crash of a marriage breakup unfolding in slow motion before our eyes.

So what is this book about? It involves what people do to one another, even while professing love. We have to make sure to “ask questions” of our partners, of ourselves, to get to the heart of our feelings. The book is about family, how damaging it can be while appearing to provide succor, and how difficult, if not impossible, to break free. Always, the self-examination, the questions we ask ourselves, are key to some degree of autonomy.

For those familiar with the story, I wonder why we only got a glimpse of Beverly, the one figure in the book who appeared autonomous.
“Beverly was the healthiest human I had ever laid eyes on. She was twenty-five or so, and she looked as I imagined people were meant to look. Her broad brown body was distinctly female and yet there was nothing slender or shiny about her. She was like a piece of oak. Her hair was light matte brown and curly and her eyes were bright, friendly lozenges of green. I didn’t think she was married, I imagined her associating with a menagerie of animals, like a girl in a children’s story.”
We cannot call Beverly a goddess, unless she is one type of goddess while the youthful Caris is another. Beverly might be the goddess of fertility while Caris is the goddess of desire. The older Caris has become disillusioned and vengeful, quite like Greek goddesses of old, and the shifting nature of the Hanbury family has something tragic in its outlines.

The dogs that terrorize Vivian in her own home might be the multi-headed dog Cerebus, who guarded the Gates of Hell to keep the dead [Vivian] from leaving. In the end, she kills the dogs and escapes.

This novel feels more a tragedy than other Cusk novels I have read. Those other novels, by some lightness of attitude, made us feel a kind of camaraderie with the human condition. We do not want camaraderie with these people. We do not want to be them. It is more a warning Cusk is giving us. Question everything.

Reviews of Cusk's other books:
In the Fold
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
The Lucky Ones
Arlington Park
The Bradshaw Variations
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation