Sunday, May 31, 2009

Review: Hanging with goats

I never really liked goats. They seemed like silly animals with heads much smaller than they probably should be, making noises that sounded more obnoxious than cute. Why would anyone choose a goat over a cow or a sheep? In college, I never met anyone who herded goats. Or if they did, they never mentioned them to me. Thus, I didn’t have an interest in goat milk or goat cheese. The stuff cows produced was fine enough.

So novelist Brad Kessler’s new book Goat Song came as a surprise to me – a surprise in that I became fascinated in the world of goat herding and goat cheeses. Kessler details his two-year journey, starting when he and his wife decide to buy a house in farmland Vermont and purchase two goats to start milking and creating their own artisanal cheeses.

The narrative is as simple as that. It never assumes to be anything other than it is: one man’s experience raising goats for the first time and the problems and pleasures they cause. Although Kessler is a novice, he comes across as being well prepared: he lists all the books he’s read before embarking on this project; he quickly makes friends with his neighbours and other experts so that when an issue comes up it’s quickly remedied.

In addition to his reflections, Kessler also allows us to read his daily dairy journal, where we get instant knowledge of what he was feeling, how frustrating it is when a goat decides to kick the milk bucket, ruining all the milk contained inside, how drinking goat’s milk may be much more healthy than cow’s milk, and how easy it really is to make a chèvre (and why fresh, unpasteurized milk is best – although illegal to use if you decide to sell the cheese). He informs the reader on if you want to sell your goat kids that grew up together, it’s best to sell them together since they may become social outcasts at a different farm where goats have already created a community. He also discusses a great deal of etymology, linking goats and Greek and common English words together: from the obvious word tragedy to the concept of Pan to the fantastic idea of transhumance. Everything seems so linked, and Kessler’s connections don’t seem out of place or make the reader make huge leaps of faith. We’re in good hands here.

At the end of the narrative, I kind of wanted to have my own farm so that I could raise goats. The road to the pastoral is made to be relatively fascinating, although perhaps he makes it too simple, especially when you compare it to the experiences that Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver recently documented in their ever-so-successful New York Times bestseller treatises. Regardless it is a sound memoir that allows the reader to connect to an animal that normally plays second fiddle to the cow.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Review: How Three Women Change the South

My favorite source of book recommendations suggested I read The Help by Kathryn Stockett because its style is reminiscent of Keith Maillard’s Gloria, our favorite book ever. Once I started this book, I could not put it down–and any bookworm knows that is a very fulfilling feeling while reading a book.

This is Stockett’s first novel and the premier book published by Amy Einhorn Books, a recently launched imprint of Penguin Books. Stockett tells the story in first-person perspective through three women: Aibileen, a black maid; Minny, another maid and Aibileen’s best friend; and Skeeter, who has just graduated from Ole Miss. It’s 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi, and civil rights seem to be on everyone’s mind…everywhere else in the country besides Jackson. Skeeter isn’t your average cotton trust fund baby. She didn’t go to college to find a husband–she wants to be a writer, and she’s discontent with the lifestyle in Jackson. When a New York City publisher tells Skeeter to write about something that matters, she’s inspired to write about the experience of black maids working for white families. She enlists the help of Aibileen, Minny, and others and begins a dangerous project that questions the “lines that define their town and their times.”
This story is both heartbreaking and hilarious as the author paints a vivid picture of the South pre-Civil Rights. Stockett does an excellent job of creating a realistic voice for each of her three characters. Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter each have a unique story to tell, and the reader learns the intimate details of all three lives. I found while reading that I would pull for each of them, as the author created three very likable, albeit very different, characters. As I mentioned in my previous post about Best Friends, I love books with detailed character development, and this one fit the bill. The main difference with this one is that the novel actually has a clear plot, told from alternating perspectives of its main characters, which I find to be less common in books that delve deep into its characters. It was definitely a pleasant surprise, and while I didn’t want the story to end, I was satiated when I finished because the story had a conclusion.
The author’s inspiration came from her own childhood; she grew up in Jackson, where every white family had black help, and it was just assumed that the rest of the country lived the same way. Being from the South myself, this book had a particular draw for me, mostly from a historical perspective. History books tell me how things were before Civil Rights changed race relations in the South, and I can find the evidence of it or hear about it from my parents; but it’s usually hard for me to believe, because it’s a side of the South I have never seen, nor experienced. Life at this particular moment in history is usually clearly defined as a certain way (as things generally are when viewed from a distance) and that way is defined by the strong racism by whites against blacks. But this book shows another side, one that includes more personal experience than retrospective fact. Life isn’t as clear as black and white; relationships can have a gray area; love can exist with hate; and the old lines that define society can be crossed. This was a highly engrossing read that led me to brush up on American history, and one that I highly recommend.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Review: Whether there is anything that redeems us

“What is it about men that makes women so lonely?”

The voices created by Eliot Perlman’s The Seven Types of Ambiguity each ring out from a unique perspective, like various camera angles capturing all the details of a movie whose main protagonist is Simon Heywood, an out of work teacher struggling with depression. The novel begins with a letter from Simon’s psychologist to the obsession of Simon’s life, a married woman named Nina Geraghty, and within a few short paragraphs, we’re pulled in entirely to the drama unfolding around the seven characters whose voices make up the sections of this book.

It’s difficult to say which is more of a delight when reading this book – the voices, or the style of writing that renders them. The novel is written in a lyrical, not-quite-stream of conscious style, in which each character might as well be sitting across from you at a diner, shooting you straight about everything that happened. Lately, I’ve felt like this style is a growing trend in modern novels, but I have yet to read another work that better employs a hundred-thoughts-a-second storytelling to convey a complex story in a very matter of fact fashion. Not once did I feel like I was wading through a character’s bullshit – indeed with every line, I hungered for more of the character to spill out onto the page. This style allows Perlman to leave nothing on the table regarding each character whose unabashed perspective he creates – we summarily fall in love with each one, even if we hate them for what they’ve done to each other.

Themes in this book range from the pedestalling of the unattainable objects of our obsession to the inherent foibles of parenting and education, but ultimately, Perlman simply captures the power of the flaws in each of us, the myths we create and the effects they have upon our lives. The result is a novel steeped in utter honesty and delightful pieces of writing (“Have you ever expatiated on a particular experience to give a new acquaintance the impression of instant intimacy? It’s not an uncommon form of flattery.”) that I continue to use as a benchmark against similar styles.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Review: No time to waste

Time, memory, and storytelling collide – or perhaps corroborate – in Anne Michaels’s new novel The Winter Vault. Like fellow Canadian author/poet Michael Ondaatje, Michaels prose is enfused with such a weight, a weight of words and of symbolism, that yearns to be free of its own chains, a blessing and a curse to this novel.

The Winter Vault tells the story of Avery and Jean, a married couple that meets along the St Lawrence waterway in the 50s and now find themselves a few years later in Egypt. Jean, a botanist, is pregnant with Avery’s child but still manages to do a bit of botany. Avery is an engineer with a poet’s mind and eye, heading up the moving of Nubian temples brick by brick so that the river can be shifted. (This of course creates more problems than it solves, as the river is never the same again, as people have to be shifted from their towns to start anew.) Jean has a premonition of a local boy dying, and the following day he drowns – and she suggests that she should have done something about this, or ‘Then what is prescience for.’ And with that she believes that the reason her daughter was born stillborn was due to the fact that she didn’t save the boy.
This brings us back to Canada where Avery and Jean try a separation. Jean finds herself living with a Polish émigré painter Lucjan, another man who’s touched by the world. Avery enrolls in university to study architecture, a nice foil to his engineering knowledge. And slowly do we start to understand that Michaels isn’t interested in telling a story at all.
Although The Winter Vault is infused with storytelling – people telling one another stories perhaps makes up 75 per cent of the novel – the novel itself isn’t interested in following a plotline that takes us from point A to point B. Like Michael Ondaatje, the narrative moves forward and backward, from one person’s perspective to another’s, bringing in folklore and anecdote to reveal how humans truly connect with each other. Storytelling creates intimacy – especially in a novel setting – and Michaels is aiming to show how people are incomplete without one another’s stories. In that it is a moving treatise on human connection and how it’s so fragile, needing a whole lot of work and a whole lot of love.
My few complaints about this book is that it remains strongly ephemeral and that it remains a narrative that wants to be out of reach. For a novel that is also interested in the physical – the major event of the story is a loss of a child; Avery’s first job is to be an engineer and his statements are infused with the respect and admiration for machines and the tangible; and the beginning and end of this novel are about painting on rock and on skin – the prose is airy and bogged with philosophical notions. Which is why perhaps Michaels is more of a poet than a novelist. Phrases that are so swelled and pregnant with higher notions are fine, but when there is over 300 pages of this, it becomes tiresome.
Example: ‘It was as if the architect had anticipated every minute effect of weather, and of weather on memory, every combination of atmosphere, wind, and temperature, so that we are drawn to the different parts of a room depending on the hour of the day, the season, as if he could invent memory, create memory! And this embrace of every possibility, of light, weather, season – every calculation of climate – is also the awareness of every possibility of life, the life that is possible in such a building. And the sudden freedom of this is profound. It’s like falling in love, the feeling that here, at last here, one can be one’s self, and the true measure of one’s life can be achieved – aspirations, the various kinds of desire – and that moral goodness and intellectual work are possible. A complete sense of belonging to a place, to oneself, to another. All this in a building? Impossible, but also, somehow, true. A building gives us this, or takes it from us, a gradual erosion, a forgetting of parts of ourselves . . .’
It’s beautiful language, but so much of it makes the novel arduous and ponderous. Yet that is perhaps it’s greatest strength, to be able to force us to forget about notions of plot and character, of nationality and demarkation – and to allow us to be enthralled by the wonders of thought and storytelling.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Review: The Thin Lines of Friendship

At the end of each school year in high school, I would go to the Borders near my house, make a list of all the books I wanted to read, and check them all out from the library. I put Best Friends by Martha Moody on that list around six years ago, and I just got around to reading it.

Moody tells the story of two girls who attend college at Oberlin in 1973 and are paired as roommates their freshman year. Sally Rose from California and Clare Mann from Ohio could not be bigger opposites. Their personalities seem to be backwards, based on the states they each call home–Clare is a hippie reactionary and Sally is likened to an innocent farm girl. They form a deep friendship, though, and this book follows their relationship from college through the changing times to their early forties.
Clare is intrigued by the Roses’ seeming perfection, confidence, and strong bond, and she visits Sally often. California, to Clare, has an enchanting quality that gives her a sense of belonging she never felt back in Ohio. After college, Clare becomes a lawyer, Sally an AIDS doctor. Both have failed marriages, complicated relationships. The one constant in each of their lives is the friendship. Told from Clare’s perspective, the novel follows the lives of each woman through husbands, children, and family troubles. As the years pass and Clare becomes closer to the Rose family, she gets entangled in their secrets that could potentially damage her friendship with Sally, and watches as this family that once seemed to hold a mythical perfection crumbles to human proportions.
Moody writes with one of my favorite styles; she focuses on detailed character development and relationships rather than following a plot with a simple introduction, climax, and conclusion. She allows the reader to get to know these characters over a long period of time, and we can observe their personal growth. We understand the decisions they make and their relationship with each other. I thought Moody perfectly illustrated the thin lines that exist in friendship–knowing when to keep your mouth shut, remaining supportive despite difference of opinion about another’s decisions. Clare constantly found herself in these situations with Sally, having to ask, “At what point is honesty worth risking the friendship?”  
Though a fairly long novel (around 500 pages), I got through it pretty quickly, because I was always drawn into the lives of these characters. While reading, I was wondering if I was going to end up liking or disliking it, on a whole. I mean, I must have enjoyed it to some degree since I kept reading, but I came to the realization that I did not really care for either of the characters. Neither had qualities that made them especially likable, though I didn’t dislike them either. Overall, it was the style that kept me interested–getting a glimpse into these people’s lives and constantly wanting to know what happens next. Sadly, like with every novel written in this style, no ending ever feels adequate, because you don’t want to stop reading while you know the characters are still living.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Review: Venice is Burning

My mom passed along John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels to me after she read it for our library’s book club. I’d read his more famous work, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, last summer, and apparently this one was a NY Times Bestseller as well. If you know anything about the style of Midnight in the Garden, then just picture Venice instead of Savannah and you have this book. If you don’t know anything about it, I’ll explain.

While I usually don’t like to compare an author’s novels, I’m going to make an exception here for review sake. Let me start with his first novel.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a non-fiction work set in Savannah, Georgia, in the 1980s. After one brief trip, Berendt fell under Savannah’s spell and decided to move there for a few years. Savannah in the eighties had a split personality; it was holding onto its old South charm, though much of the city was in disrepair. Berendt was lucky with timing, as he was present for the trial of Jim Williams, a wealthy antiques dealer charged with the murder of a (much-younger) lover Danny. Though the story is never told as a fictive murder mystery, this serves as an underlying plot to the story, around which everything and everyone else he describes revolves.
Now, onto his second novel.
The City of Falling Angels takes place in Venice in the late 1990s. Berendt, on another of his brief trips, was enthralled by the “real” Venice, the one outside of tourist season where people live their day-to-day lives. Once again, he just happened to be in Venice right after the historic Fenice Opera House burned down during restoration. So the question at the center of this trial is, was it negligence or arson? We meet a variety of characters that comprise Venetian society–glassblowers, gondoliers, artists, charity founders, and high-ranking members of society. Berendt follows his penchant for introducing a city through the people that call it home, and he does an excellent job of describing a diverse group of characters from different walks of life. As in Midnight, the biggest character is the city itself, and the people act as the supporting cast. He does an excellent job of giving the reader thorough descriptions of unique cities that hide a lot under the surface.
His second novel is as thoughtfully written as his first, and I walked away from it happy that I got a deeper look at one of the world’s biggest tourist attractions. But while The City of Falling Angels does give that rarely seen view of Venice, it just does not have the same draw as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I guess a homicide will always make a more compelling story.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Review: Chad Kultgen’s “The Lie”: An Unfettered Narrative From a Juvenile Misogynist

I recently picked up Chad Kultgen’s sophomore novel, The Lie: A Novel because I had enjoyed his first novel, The Average American Male: A Novel and had hoped that he had grown as a novelist. Unfortunately, for me and Mr. Kultgen it appears that his understanding of the human psyche and overall grasp of the English language has degraded to such a point that I nearly threw his book out the window multiple times and considered contacting his publisher to perhaps understand how, in good conscience, they allowed this book to make it to print.

The characters in the book are obsessed with sex, money, and a multitude of depraved acts. Chad Kultgen has always been focused on his male characters over the females but he takes it too far here. The female in this book,Heather, along with many other females, is called a “faceless whore.” Additionally, she has three abortions, gets date raped, contracts herpes, accuses a boy of date rape (wrongfully) and manipulates the men around her in order to get engaged to the wealthiest person in the the novel. Obviously, Chad has a lot of respect and understanding for the female gender as he manages to lump all these blown-out stereotypes into one main sorority robot. Oh, did I forget to mention that she is also blonde and stupid?

The other main character, Kyle, is supposed to be the good boy who chooses love over sex with random women. That is, until he gets his heart broken by Heather because she finds out that his engagement ring is fake. Chad Kultgen is very subtle here and only mentions this point 200 times through the novel: women will not marry you if you are broke. This is a major turning point for Kyle who begins to binge drink and have sex with as many women as possible, sometimes even more than one at a time! He also masterminds the final plan to get back at Heather and get her infected with herpes. Whatever “normal” characteristics were within Kyle’s soul is thrown at the window when he makes the 180 to use and abuse women.

The final narrator in the novel is a wealthy socialite named Brett. Brett is the most one-dimensional and disgusting characters I have ever had the displeasure to read. His horrific and degrading sex acts would tip off any psychologist that there are deep rooted sex issues and may be an early indicator of a person who could grow up to be a serial killer. His hatred for women comes from the belief that he thinks that all women will just have sex with him because he is wealthy, as his father owns a large shipping company in Texas. While I do believe that a small population of women may be interested in men based solely on wealth, it seems that every woman in this fictional world will do anything to be closer to him. The horrible sex acts range from putting Listerine in vaginas to Brett inserting large rubber fists into many different holes of different girls. Almost all the girls did these things without complaint and had zero self-respect. Kultgen was able to create a world where men like Brett are to be idolized and reign supreme.

I worry about people like Chad Kultgen. I know that this is a fictional world but these characters are supposed to be rooted in a realistic context. This isn’t Mars or the year 1932. Characters make popular culture references and supposedly attend a typical American university. The characters he creates and their actions create a world where women are dirty, sex objects and men are emotionally unattached money-earning machines. Chad Kultgen has got it all wrong and I think that his writing should only be read as an example of what has gone wrong in the wiring of some men’s brains. He clearly thinks that shock value sells and I don’t think he is wrong. It just makes me sad that he had to take it to this level.

After reading the book, I decided to do a little research about Kultgen. I knew he was a USC alum and that he graduated with a degree in film. I found this interview. I can now see that there is something seriously wrong with Kultgen and his views on women. Let me just leave you with this little gem from this interview.

Jason Rice: On the eve of the publication of your second book, The Lie, do you think the world is ready for a book like this… will basically turn off fifty percent (women) of the people who might read this book?
Chad Kultgen: I hadn’t really thought about if anyone was ready for it or not. I don’t think it’s nearly as potentially offensive as my first book and I don’t think it’s really saying anything that shocking about college students….And, of course, I’m hoping that for every hundred or so women who are turned off by the really filthy stuff in the book there are at least one or two who are really turned on.

Chad Kultgen, you have written the worst book I have ever read in my entire life. If only there was an award for that?