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Etta and Otto and Russell and JamesEtta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My reaction to this novel wavered: sometimes ho-hum, sometimes put off by a stylistic decision, sometimes drawn in and fascinated. I remained puzzled throughout. There are two kinds of puzzlement (at least): 1. puzzled, confused, annoyed and 2. puzzled,intrigued,pondering–willing to reread. My experience was mostly the latter.

This is not a realistic novel, so that opens the door to the question of Why? What reality beyond reality can be conveyed through non-reality? My first answer to that was a feminist one. Etta had so melded with Otto that she needed something dramatic to regain her own identity, so she left, at age 82, on an unrealistic trek across the whole of Canada, on foot. And Otto, understanding, let her go. How else to explain his not pursuing her? Or her dreaming his war dreams? That held up for the first half, then data no longer fit. (view spoiler) I don’t yet have a second answer.

I found it interesting that she always had enough money, that her shoes wore out only once. I began to wonder if the whole novel–in spite of being told from three points of view–was all taking place in one mind. In some ways, the end supports that. (view spoiler)

Early on the pacing was tedious. I kept waiting for a revelation of why Etta left; I kept waiting for the story of a juicy triangle. Neither happened. The triangle was real, but very low key. No more reason was given than we got in the first line of the novel. Normally I like a novel that moves meaningfully between past and present. This one didn’t seem to move meaningfully, but arbitrarily. And the portions were too short. So I found it annoying, at first. I even wondered if in fact there would be no story if it were told chronologically. Gradually, however, the segments of each portion got longer, and I got more attuned to the characters, and I got to caring more about them the more I learned. I pondered who loved Etta more, Otto who let her go or Russell who pursued her.

And is it significant that the talking animal is coyote, and Coyote is a known trickster? And if so, what was the trick?

Yes, I will most likely read the novel again someday.

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Wordstock

Among Portland traditions is the all day event called Wordstock, an event currently presented by Literary Arts and held in several venues near the Portland Art Museum. After last year when the crowds were twice the number expected and disgruntled people stood in line but still didn’t get in to sessions, it was a relief to have the six added venues. Large auditoriums were almost filled, but a few empty seats remained, so I’m guessing that most people got in to sessions of their choice.

Several of my choices were sessions recorded for later presentation on Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB)’s Thinking Out Loud, starting with Sherman Alexie in dialog. He read his first picture book, Thunder Boy, Jr., interspersing many observations and anecdotes. In addition to enjoying his humor, I appreciated his observation that laughter, in addition to making harsh reality bearable, functions as prayer.

Last year I came home with a list of 12 books, mostly all novels, to add to my to-read list. This year there were fewer books and novels for later. One session was a dud–bad acoustics, bad diction. Who knows, I might have been interested in one of the books had I heard what was said.

I did come away wanting to read two memoirs from teachers: Michael Copperman’s Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta, for a more realistic look at what a teacher can accomplish than the Hollywood myth, and Nicholson Baker’s Substitute: Going to School With One Thousand Kids for some of his observations about meaningful education.

Baker and an afternoon presenter, Sallie Tisdale, made similar observations from their childhoods and recommended their freedom: each had been allowed to read anything they wanted to.

From the session titled “Tales of Two Americas,” I came away with novels (Richard Russo), essays (Karen Russell) and poetry (Kevin Young) to read. Don’t hold your breath, but someday there will be posts reviewing these various readings.

 

 

 

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A Book Instead of a Quilt

The OrchardistThe Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This amazing book caught my interest with the first paragraph, and that without the ‘in medias res’ beginning. Oh there was back story, but the actual plot began in Chapter 1 with two girls stealing fruit.

The pace is leisurely for the first two thirds, then speeds up, the style descriptive and immediate. There were few characters, though towns and other activities were implied. The characters were well developed with flaws and virtues–all but one, who had no redeeming qualities.

Much of the book was about ideas never stated (the Orchardist himself, Jane and Della, sometimes Caroline Middey, though she was the most likely to speak) or about inability to speak (Clee). Angeline was more the one who wanted to know than one not communicating. Each had their own type of isolation, though there were also relationships.

The novel deals with aging, birth, the growing up of children, and the diminished abilities of the elderly, always matter of factly, sometimes understated. Never heavy handed philosophizing.

This is a rare book that remains excellent through the ending. (view spoiler)

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585 Pages Later

You might have noticed that I’ve not been posting much of my own quilting. I’ve been reading to make up for the time spent last month quilting for the show.

I highly recommend this book.

AmericanahAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The novel tells of Ifemeu and Obinze, their lives in Nigeria, US, and UK. Along with them are many other well developed characters, major and minor. A few who made short appearances were two-dimensional. We learn many ways to be Nigerian and American through the characters, but none of them existed only to be illustrations.

I enjoyed all 580+ pages, and was in suspense till the very end as to the conclusion. And I would have found it a satisfying read if it had ended in two of the three ways I’d anticipated, tolerable for the third. And every page was necessary to get to that conclusion.

The narrative movement was not chronological, though there was a clear timeline to the present section. The back story appeared more thematically as it related to the present story. The bulk of the novel was back story.

The social commentary was well handled, never controlling the narrative, appearing often through Ifemelu’s blog–first through subject lines, then through actual entries. Other appearances through conversations of Ifemelu and her friends. Always natural and appropriate to the context. An outsider’s view on US race issues was revealing as were observations on gender roles in both US and Nigeria.

The style is worth remarking. Vivid descriptions help evoke an unfamiliar world. Images, such as “yet there was cement in her soul” (7) and “the air wrinkling between them”(338) evoke the interior of the characters and conversations.

It leads me to want to read her other works.

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A Very Unusual Novel

Geek LoveGeek Love by Katherine Dunn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had to look up “geek” because it surely didn’t mean the detailed interest of, say, a computer geek. So I learned the carnival meaning. Luckily the really gross and bloody part occurred only briefly at the beginning. The next oddity was the father deciding to produce his own freak show for the carnival (based on his seeing horticultural variety at the International Test Rose Garden). The mother dutifully took drugs to alter her offspring. Their living children were four: Arty with fins for arms and legs; Elly and Iphy, the Siamese twins; Oly, the albino, hunchbacked, dwarf narrator; and Chick the youngest, with his special powers.

Had it not been a group read, I might have stopped there. However, I remembered a comment of a professor about other novels with “grotesques”: What could the author say through them that couldn’t be said through more average characters? I decided to read a bit more through that frame. Then the next chapter captured my attention with its narrative strategy of jumping into the future with Oly and her daughter Miranda. Several events are revealed that make a reader wonder how they happened. That same strategy is used a few more times, like a carrot to keep one reading. For the first two thirds of the book, the pacing was very effective. Then the notes of a reporter/participant were introduced, and while they provided important information that Oly, the narrator, couldn’t have known, they dragged the pace considerably. Also the very ending of the book seemed to take too long.

I have not yet answered the What-could-be-said question. First hypothesis, something about disability issues. Did not hold up. Second hypothesis, something about minorities. The carnival provided a sort of ghetto where deformities were normal; however, the carnival was dependent on the money of the norms buying tickets. Oly didn’t feel odd till she no longer lived in the carnival setting.

One group member, who read an interview with the author,  learned she is an environmentalist and is anti-war. Perhaps the father’s manipulation is an extreme of the various pollutants in our atmosphere, food, and water. And there was one paragraph in the reporter’s notes where Arty ponders how people could criticize his followers who are maimed by choice and not criticize war with the injuries it produces. Maybe. And is it really choice when there is cult-like power in the leader and manipulation? I feel the need to think more on the followers’ willingness to endure amputation and what it might say about other things we readers may be willing to give up and for what.

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Book Time: The Sympathizer

The SympathizerThe Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The setting is the end of the Vietnam war; the main character tells us early on that he belongs to the North, but works under cover with the South.

Presented as a spy novel, it is, but it isn’t the thriller one might expect. It is more an exploration of character, of times, and of the interaction between them. It has philosophical moments that are entirely in character and not intrusive, thoughts on being of two minds, on representation, and on “nothing.” The latter was interesting, but I am not sure how seriously to take it. The former makes me think that if I were still teaching, I might join this book with How to Be Both in a unit.

For me the theme of Who-Gets-to-Represent-Us? enters with the chapters about a movie script and its shooting. However, that was a ways into the novel, so I might reread to see if I missed its actual beginning. When the movie chapters appeared, they seemed an interruption, but gradually they were woven into the whole.

The plot was slow, as character explorations tend to be, slow in a good sense. There were moments where action was faster paced and it was a page turner. There was a nice rhythm between the two. We are told early on that the narration is really a “confession” to a “commandant,” so we keep wondering what the narrator did to get himself into that position. We also expect, and get, some torture scenes. They feel really long while reading them, but don’t take a large percentage of pages.

Some of the characters have names. Some don’t, but rather are identified by position and sometimes affect: “the crapulent major,” “the congressman,” “the affectless lieutenant.” It would be worth a second read to look for a pattern of who gets named and who doesn’t. It isn’t wholly major/minor characters. It doesn’t create stock characters. It may relate to the degree in intimacy with the narrator, but I’m not ready to commit to that.

It is a novel worth reading once to see how it ends; it is worth rereading to ferret out deeper meaning.

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A Fascinating New Novel–How To Be Both

How to Be BothHow to Be Both by Ali Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading an intriguing review in the Women’s Review of Books, I had to read the book. From the review I learned that the novel included two related narratives; half of the editions started with the one narrated by the 15th Century painter, the other half by the daughter of a woman who had loved a painting by that artist. I don’t think there is any way to tell which edition you are getting other than the illustration just before each  “Chapter 1” The girl’s has the security camera, the artist’s has eyes. I got the girl first, and I am glad.

Both narratives are stream of consciousness with fluctuations from past to present. The girl’s moves from life before her mother died to her present. The artists moves from his life and times to the girl’s present as he follows her after she looks at one of his paintings. The links were harder to follow in the artist’s section, and had I started reading there, I’d have been quite disoriented much of the time. However, reading it second, I could use cues from the girl’s earlier narrative. Of course I’ll never know what it would have been like to start with the artist.

The characters seemed real and likable. Both stories were intriguing and held my attention–there is a bit of mystery in each. And as the review stated, juxtaposing them creates a third narrative. I have a lot of thinking to do on that third one.

There were so many “boths” to ponder being. Occasionally the author was a little heavy handed in reminding us to think about such distinctions, but that was rare and also forgivable. Some that I pondered were both living and dead, both old and new, both viewer and viewed, I’m sure there are more. It is a book worth rereading.

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