Geek Love–Katherine Dunn

I have to admit.   I almost forgot.  I started a new job, so have been getting up at 5:45 a.m.  Which, for those of you that know, is about 2 or 3 hours after I normally go to bed…so my brain has been a little swiss cheesey lately.  I hauled myself out of bed just now to tell you about Geek Love.

Jennifer Weiner listed Geek Love in her top ten.

I loved Geek Love.  It was a deep book, but flew by.  On the surface, it seems a surreal story, almost absurd in its premise.  The owner of a circus looks around and sees that his circus is failing.  His wife and he develop a plan.  A plan to breed freaks.  Lily, the mother, ingests all sorts of different drugs.  They have 5 children that live or that they let live.  The oldest is an amphibian boy.  The next two are siamese twins, girls, with the same body from the waist down.  The narrator is the 4th child, and she’s an albino dwarf.  The last child?  Chick?  He _looks_ normal, but so isn’t.The oldest, Arty, develops a cult when he gets older where people amputate all their limbs over a two or three year period, in worship of him and Arturism.  The whole thing ends up blowing up in their faces, leaving only the narrator and her daughter (who only had a tail so was dropped off at a convent orphanage).  The story switches from current time to twenty years in the past, when all the events happened.

As I said, seems a little absurd on the face of things.  But, to me, the story ended up being about families.  All families, and the interdependent relationships they have.  And how when there are fissures that are under the surface, the whole family can implode.

You find yourself feeling the tension between knowing _something_ happened but not knowing what happened.  The switching narration and the hints given by the narrator through that, give you the sense of tension.  Also, you just can feel that something has to happen.  That there’s something big.  But Dunn keeps you thinking the wrong thing, until suddenly she doesn’t.

If you like Chuck Pahlaniuk, you’ll probably really enjoy this book.

 

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East of Eden–John Steinbeck

I read East of Eden over the last week and a half.  I have to say, I usually don’t take this long with a book as good as East of Eden.  However, I felt like it was a book that I needed to prolong.  The richness of it would have overwhelmed had I attempted to rush the reading.  Part of the reason this is so late is that I was still finishing it up.

Melissa Bank and G.D. Gearino both listed East of Eden in their top ten books.  The surprising thing to me is why more people didn’t list it. 

I had to read Of Mice and Men in high school.  While it was a decent enough book, I wasn’t overly thrilled with it.  So, I never was really anxious to read his other work.  I am glad I did however.

There is so much to talk about with East of Eden, that I really don’t know where to begin.  Steinbeck parallels Genesis in a lot of places, mainly the Cain and Abel story.  (To recap for those of you unfamiliar:  Adam and Eve, upon being kicked out of the Garden, had two sons, Cain and Abel.  Cain was a raiser of vegetables and fruit, Abel a shepherd.  Both gave offerings to God, Abel of young, fresh good meat, and Cain of veggies and fruits.  The problem wasn’t (contrary to what anti vegetarians would want you to think) that Cain didn’t give meat.  The problem was that he did not give the best of his crops to God.  God looked more favorably on Abel.  Cain got mad and murdered his brother in a fit of jealous rage.  He was then cast into the wilderness by God. 

Steinbeck has two sets of brothers, Adam and Charles and Aron and Cal (Adam’s children or possibly Charles).  As you can see, he’s not shy about directly paralleling them to Abel and Cain.  Juxtaposing this family, is a huge sprawling Irish American family, the Hamiltons.  The lives intersect in more than one way and more than one generation.  Aron and Cal owe their names to the patriarch of the Hamilton clan. 

Secrets abound in East of Eden, secrets kept from others and secrets kept from ourselves.

I have a few things I wanted to quote from the book.

In one part Steinbeck is talking about older men crying out for the 1800s to end;

“History was secreted in the glands of a million historians.  We must get out of this banged-up century, some said, out of this cheating, murderous century of riot and secret death, of scrabbling for public lands and damn well getting them by any means at all”.  (Personally, this sounds like every century of human history to me).

The older men have this to say “Oh, strawberries don’t taste as they used to and the thighs of women have lost their clutch”.  I just found that such an appropriate way to describe aging.  Not necessarily the thighs of women part, but just that everything starts to seem bland.  Strawberries don’t taste the same, the intoxication of sex goes away et cetera et cetera.

There is a section of the book, where Adam Trask, Samuel Hamilton and Lee, Adam’s Chinese servant, discuss the very Cain and Abel story that Steinbeck uses as a center point for East of Eden.  I can’t quote it here, as the whole conversation is about 5 or 6 pages long.  However, I did find it an effective way to frame the book in such a way that readers understand better, without disrupting the narrative flow.  Steinbeck does interject himself into the book (in the form of the narrator who is a grandchild of Samuel Hamilton, but you can sometimes hear it as Steinbeck), but not often and not with much interruption.  I contrast this with Les Miserables and Victor Hugo, where you could constantly feel the author’s presence in between bits of narrative, to the point where it could be distracting.

One of the areas where Steinbeck interjects himself is to say this, and I thought it was beautiful, a statement of what art is as well as what life is.

“We have only one story.  All novels, all poetry, are built on the neverending contest in ourselves of good and evil.  And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal.  Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is”. 

It’s another way Steinbeck frames his story for you, as many of the characters do struggle with themselves.  Cal, Adam’s son especially.  Cal and Aron’s mother, she doesn’t struggle much, contrasted with Sam Hamilton’s wife who also doesn’t struggle much.  They’re on opposite ends of the spectrum though, with Cal and Aron’s mother being on the evil side and Liza Hamilton on the good end.  Those two characters are the most fixed and least struggling with themselves.

I checked this out from the library.  But I think I will be buying a copy of it.  And for those of you that know me well, you know that’s high marks of honor for a book.  For those of you that don’t me, well I don’t keep many books, partly due to room and partly due to I read a lot and most of it isn’t worth a 2nd read even if it entertained me immensely the first time around.

See you next week!

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

Those of you who are paying attention may notice that I, Dave, am going two weeks in a row. Kim is still working on Steinbeck’s East of Eden and in the interests of giving her sufficient time to really give a good look at that one (because I think it really deserves full attention), I offered to go again this week. No worries, though, Kim will be on for the next two weeks.

Anyway, I’d heard good things about The Handmaid’s Tale, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to think of it. To be honest, I tend to prefer Atwood’s more realistic work. I loved Cat’s Eye, but was a little colder on The Year of the Flood. Still, The Handmaid’s Tale is Atwood, right? You can’t really go wrong. I knew I’d hit it eventually.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Chitra Divakaruni and 10th for Jennifer Weiner.)

Of course, the book is good. Dystopianists everywhere surely have this book on their master lists. Just think about it, the United States has been violently taken over by a theocracy that has stripped women of most rights (property, work, even reading) and instituted a bizarre system when fertile but politically unconnected women are forced (by one means or another and by varying degrees of one kind of force or another) to bear children for the childless elite:

            Above me, towards the head of the bed, Serena Joy is arranged, outspread. Her legs are apart, I lie between them, my head on her stomach, her pubic bone under the base of my skull, her thighs on either side of me. She too is fully clothed.

            My arms are raised; she holds my hands, each of mine in each of hers. This is supposed to signify that we are one flesh, one being. What it really means is that she is in control, of the process and thus of the product. If any. The rings of her left hand cut into my fingers. It may or may not be revenge.

            My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.

Even worse for the narrator, Offred (not her real name, the name assigned to her as a handmaiden when her identity and everything else about her as a person was removed), she remembers when it wasn’t always this way. She once had a career, an independent life, even a husband and child. However, all that is gone. Stolen. She lives a hollow, bare existence. She either produces a child, if the Commander can even sire one, or she dies. Even if she has a child, it won’t be hers. If you are looking for dystopian literature, this is certainly it.

Granted, this world Atwood paints is far worse for women than men. However, that doesn’t mean that it didn’t disturb me. If you are a human being, this book should bother you. If it doesn’t bother you, then I might ask you not to stand too close to me.

This Republic of Gilead (the setting of this story) is dark and inconceivable, but like the best of dystopian literature…one can unfortunately see modern tendrils suggesting how we might end up there from here. I wouldn’t malign anyone existing now by saying that they would want a Gilead type world, but things rarely end up where they are aimed.

Dystopian literature needs this. It needs to frighten us and seem an impossible world, but it needs to contain that germ of a threat that our world could lead there if people aren’t careful. For me, The Handmaid’s Tale definitely contains that germ.

In the end, The Handmaid’s Tale still isn’t my favorite Atwood. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, though. Atwood has simply written such marvelous things that, as good as this book is, it still isn’t my favorite.

After all, The Handmaid’s Tale is a captivating story. It is dark and threatening and I was definitely on the edge of my chair with worry for Offred. The world is horribly unpleasant, but I still had a good time reading. It may not be what I consider the best of Atwood, but I don’t think it is one that should be overlooked. The Handmaid’s Tale is definitely a book that needs to be read.

Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land

I had a number of reasons for wanting to take a crack at Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land here on the blog. First of all, it is an undisputed classic. It’s a favorite in sci fi circles, though, and I don’t spend as much time there as I should. This seemed like a good chance to correct that.

However, I really knew nothing about the book. What I thought I knew came from the Iron Maiden song of the same title:

Stranger in a strange land
Land of ice and snow
Trapped inside this prison
Lost and far from home

Of course, the above selected lyrics show that the song has nothing (as far as I can tell) to do with this book.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 7th for David Foster Wallace.)

So…what is Stranger in a Strange Land about? Well, we have Mike (Valentine Michael Smith). He is a human who was born on a flight to Mars and was marooned there to be raised by Martians when the crew of his voyage killed each other over some infidelities related to his birth. After a subsequent mission, he is brought back to Earth. Many on Earth hope to exploit him for both the wealth he inherited and a Mars land grab they hope to justify through him. The Martians, on the other hand, hope to use him to gather data on Earth.

“It’s a nasty story. I got that much before my informant sobered up. Dr. Ward Smith delivered his wife by Caesarean section–and she died on the table. What he did next shows that he knew the score; with the same scalpel cut Captain Brant’s throat–then his own. Sorry, hon.”

Jill shivered. “I’m a nurse. I’m immune to such things.”

“You’re a liar and I love you for it.”

Of course, this is just the beginning. Some decent humans get a hold of him and attempt to thwart those who would exploit him, though he soon doesn’t need much help.

Johnson did not hit Jill as hard as he used to hit his wife before she left him, not nearly as hard as he hit prisoners who were reluctant to talk. Until then Smith had shown no expression and had said nothing; he had simply let himself be forced along. He understood none of it and had tried to do nothing at all.

When he saw his water brother struck by this other, he twisted, got free–and reached toward Johnson–

–and Johnson was gone.

Only blades of grass, straightening up where his big feet had been, showed that he had ever been there. Jill stared at the spot and felt that she might faint.

Berquist closed his mouth, opened it, said hoarsely, “What did you do with him?” He looked at Jill.

“Me? I didn’t do anything.”

“Don’t give me that. You got a trap door or something?”

Where did he go?”

Berquist licked his lips. “I don’t know.” He took a gun from under his coat. “But don’t try your tricks on me. You stay here–I’m taking him.”

*****

The Old Ones had taught him well. He stepped toward Berquist; the gun was swung to cover him. He reached out–and Berquist was no longer there.

Jill screamed.

In a very summary way, and I hope in a non-spoiling one, this attempted exploitation is dealt with one way or another. Mike then attempts to understand humans and live in their world. Then, he tries to use what he knows to fix things for humans. Much happens along the way.

All in all, this was probably one of the more interesting sci fi and/or utopian novels (I say utopian because of the discussions centering around Mike attempting to fix things for people) I’ve ever read. I got into it and didn’t feel that I had to wade through a bunch of stuff to get to the story. As for the utopian dreams, it didn’t really descend to the level of mouthpiece, though it came close at times.

Mind you, the pacing was a bit different from what would have been my druthers. Sometimes it felt like Stranger in a Strange Land wandered a bit. It certainly didn’t seem logical to me how the book flowed from one thing to another at certain points. However, other than those things, I found the book to be damn good…and I think my criticisms are more my personal taste as opposed to real criticisms of the merits of the book.

Frankly, I’m not much of a sci fi buff, so I can’t judge Stranger in a Strange Land in that context. However, I don’t much care about that. I just judge it as a book, same as any other. It might not be my favorite thing out there, but it was a book I needed to read. I’m glad I finally got around to it.

Tender is The Night-F Scott Fitzgerald. My Thumb Part 2.

First, I will apologize for the lateness of this post.  Life conspired against my having access to a computer today until this late time.

I read Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald this week.  I originally intended to read The Great Gatsby, since that is coming out later this month as a movie.  I’ve never read the book and tend to want to do that prior to seeing the movie (if it’s a classic novel).  However! The library did not have a copy of the Great Gatsby, but did have Tender is the Night.  I figured, I’d never read Fitzgerald at all, so Tender is the Night would work.

This last week has also been consumed by the drama of my thumb.  For a bit there, we thought I might have to go to an ortho doctor, as I was having issues regaining feeling in my thumb.  However, we determined (my urgent care doctor and myself, after this past week, I feel we may be on the way to a wonderful friendship) that would have been overkill.  My thumb apparently is traumatized.  Which makes sense, since _I_ am traumatized.  So this past week has been a 1 and a half hand week.  I am like the amazing claw hand when it comes to opening doors, carrying things, brushing my teeth…all of those things you do with a dominant hand.  I have also learned the art of signing my name with the pen held between the tip of my thumb and my forefinger.  Now, finally, tomorrow, I get the stitches out.  And it’s time.  The itching is driving me MAD.  And now that I’ve sufficiently bored you with my thumb, I’ll continue onto talking about Tender is the Night.

Robb Forman Dew, Paula Fox, Donald Harington, Susan Minot, Elizabeth Spencer and Scott Turow all listed Tender is the Night in their personal top ten books.

I can see why.  This is a really accessible book.  The descriptions of things Fitzgerald gives in a book written in the 20s, ring true of things today.

“After lunch they were both overwhelmed by the sudden flatness that comes over American travellers in quiet foreign places.  No stimuli worked upon them, no voices called them from without, no fragments of their own thoughts came suddenly from the minds of others, and missing the clamor of Empire they felt that life was not continuing here”

I grew up hearing that sentiment said about Americans abroad.  Like 60 to 70 years after Fitzgerald wrote them down.

He paints characters and their neuroses with vivid colors, only smudging them when it’s necessary to show how one person’s mental illness will smudge with another’s, until it’s unknown where one stops and the other begins.

Fitzgerald starts the book introducing us to the main characters, Dr. Dick Diver and his wife, Nicole Diver, through the eyes of an 18 year old ingenue, who is one of the American’s described above.  She falls in love with Dr. Diver.  Through her eyes we see him and his wife.  Fitzgerald hints at the reality of what Rosemary is seeing, but we see mainly what the Divers present to the outside world.

The narrative then continues with Dick, going back into the past to where he met Nicole.  He was a psychologist and she was a patient at a mental hospital in Zurich.  She develops a “thing” for him upon meeting him.  Her doctors, his friends, believe it good for her so encourage it.  Then he is to let her down, and instead marries her.  Nicole is very wealthy, but Dick resolves to live mainly on his own money for his own pleasures, using hers for mutual things.

The description in The Top Ten book state “In this tragic tale of romance and character, her lush lifestyle soon begins to destroy Diver, as alcohol, infidelities, and mental illness claim his hopes”.  I have to strongly disagree.  If Fitzgerald meant it to be a comment as to wealth causing even the best men to dissolve into sinful iniquities, he did a lousy job.  Diver is majorly flawed to begin with.  His need to be worshiped is evident from the beginning time Rosemary sees him, and back when he decides that he’s all for having a romance, a life with Nicole.  A girl, who was _sort_ of his patient (in the fact that contact with him was deemed therapeutically good, but not so good that she needed to marry him to keep it).  He’s scornful of her sister, Baby, who talks to him about “buying” a doctor to marry Nicole.  It’s this need to be worshiped that ultimately destroys Diver.

And the line with “infidelities, alcohol and mental illness claim his hopes” make it sound as if it is _Nicole_ who is the adulterer and the alcoholic.  She isn’t. 

I do think Fitzgerald was writing about how sometimes when we love someone with a mental illness, we almost take on their mental illness.  We absorb it into ourselves.  It becomes a point where it causes more disruption to us at all times than it does to them at the random times of attacks.  Fitzgerald described this brilliantly.  And if that was what does Diver in, it is, but it’s not her “lush lifestyle”.

In fact, that description is actually beginning to piss me off more and more as I think about it.  I don’t feel I’ve ever gotten this errrrgghhh over a description in The Top Ten. 

Hm.  Maybe I should psychoanalyze this reaction.  I’ll get back to you in two weeks if it is of any import.

Have a great weekend!   Maybe we’ll find out next week that it’s secretly been November and December the last 2 months and it’s Christmas time all over.  The weather certainly thinks so.