Recommended Reading: The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

photo (12)Last year, when I was reading Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water, I came across the phrase “Finnish weird,” which is an umbrella term that encompasses the speculative fiction that’s been coming out of Finland for the last couple of decades.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society* is definitely Finnish, and definitely weird, so I’m going to go ahead and say it’s Finnish weird. Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s novel is set in contemporary Finland, in the small town of Rabbit Back. The town is known primarily as the home of the famous children’s writer Laura White and her Rabbit Back Literature society, a club of nine children whom she trained as writers and who went on to become some of Finland’s most important and popular authors.

Ella Milana is a young substitute literature teacher in Rabbit Back, living with her mother and dementia-ridden father. After a short story of hers is published in the town paper, she receives an invitation to join the Rabbit Back Literature Society as its tenth member—an honor, as far as anyone knows, that hasn’t been conferred in the society’s long history.

On the day she is to meet Laura White, however, something very strange indeed happens, and Ella falls down the rabbit hole, so to speak.

One of the jacket blurbs compares this book to Twin Peaks and The Secret History, and those are pretty good comparisons, up to a point. Rabbit Back is populated by strange small-town souls and subject to peculiar quirks, like gnome infestations and an epidemic of stray dogs. The members of Ella’s new society play a very strange game that one player describes as “psychic strip poker around a glass table” (181). And there’s a plague infecting books, leading Sonja to murder Raskolnikov, for example, in the copy of Crime and Punishment that Ella confiscates from a student.

I loved the weirdness of this book, the little and large strangenesses, but the novel as a whole does have some limitations (some might be due to the fact that it’s a work in translation). Some phrases repeat without a strong reason to be repetitive, and I caught one editing error (“phased” instead of “fazed”). The ending isn’t neat, which didn’t bother me, but might annoy some readers who like all the answers, or at least a good sense that the answers they come up with are quite possibly correct. And the sexuality in the book tends toward the creepy (with a notable exception at the very end of the book, which I thought was really interesting and good) and uncomfortable, which didn’t quite mesh with the book’s atmospheric weirdness.

Still, if library book theft gets your heart pounding or if you often wonder where your favorite authors get their ideas, you might just love The Rabbit Back Literature Society.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: Neverhome, by Laird Hunt

“there was a conflagration to come; I wanted to lend it my spark.” 

NeverhomeFrom its very first sentence—“I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic”—it is clear that Laird Hunt’s Neverhome* is a masterful addition to writing about the Civil War.

Like Katy Simpson Smith’s The Story of Land and Sea, Neverhome is a slim volume. It manages to tell an epic story of war, deception, madness, and even, sometimes, very great beauty, in less than 250 pages, which is just a stunning feat. Mr. Hunt’s command of language is incredibly good; his swift portraits of his heroine’s world are quietly stunning, each one more impressive than the last. “Impressionistic” is an adjective that comes to mind.  If I could choose a director to turn Neverhome into a film (and good lord, someone should!) I’d choose Terrence Malick and it would be a perfect match.

Constance Thompson, who renames herself Ash when she decides to leave for war, is a singular woman, canny and strong and very brave. As she recounts her war experiences, she doles out pieces of her past, leaving out just enough that the reader is left desperately wishing for more ways to understand who she is and what made her.

As Ash joins the Union Army, sees action, and begins a circuitous route home, we are introduced not only to the fighting men and less savory characters you’d expect to find in a war novel, but also to other unusual women. Some, like Ash, are disguised as men. Some are waiting out the war the best they can at home, and others are on the run. All of them are fascinating, and it’s glorious to find a war novel in which half the characters are women.

Ash is plainspoken and careful, clearheaded and well-intentioned, but still unprepared for what exactly war will be like. When Ash is issued her rifle, accurate enough to “that you could use it kill a quarter mile away,” she thinks,

That was something to think about, How you could rifle a man down was looking at you and you at him but never see his face. I hadn’t figured it that way when I had thought on it back home. I had figured it would be fine big faces firing back and forth at each other, not threads of color off the horizon. A dance of men and not just their musket balls. (5)

Ash proves to be an excellent shot, and draws the attention of the men in her regiment, more attention than she’d like, given what she’s hiding. She finds calm and benevolent interest in the form of the regiment’s colonel, who keeps an eye out for her, so far as that goes; after all, Ash says, “death was the underclothing we all wore.”

An injury leads Ash not to death, but to her own particular version of hell. I won’t go into the specifics, since I hope you’ll discover Neverhome for yourself, but suffice to say that the second half of the novel is especially harrowing. Mr. Hunt’s pacing is impeccable, and keeps us wondering to the very end if Ash’s odyssey will ever end in homecoming.

Neverhome is a gorgeous, spellbinding book. Highly recommended.

Boston: Laird Hunt will be reading at Porter Square Books on Sunday, September 21.

And a special shout-out to Cleveland: Laird Hunt will be at the Beachwood Library on Tuesday, September 23. 

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Anyone Want to Get Together and Talk About The Time Traveler’s Wife?

The Time Traveler's WifeI can remember exactly when I heard about The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 mega-hit: it was summer 2004, in one of the dorms at BC. I was there for a summer course on the philosophy of Tolkien (see: nerd credentials, my), and my roommate told me it was her favorite book.

I don’t think I can tell you the favorite books of any of my other roommates, sadly, but this particular roommate went on to become one of my very best friends, so her recommendation has stuck with me for the last nine years and five months. Of course, now she’s gone and moved to Colorado, and she works nights, so I can’t call her up on any old afternoon to chat about the book.

Here’s the premise, for those of you who missed the big hullabaloo ten years ago: Clare and Henry are in love, but Henry suffers from a rare genetic disorder that causes him to time travel, involuntarily and without warning. He travels to the future and to the past, always landing naked (like the Terminator) and afraid, and not sure how long he’ll be gone from his present time. As you might suspect, Henry and Clare face some pretty weird challenges as they navigate their relationship.

What I liked best about the novel is its mix of genres: sci-fi, romance, domestic drama. Ms. Niffenegger’s writing is lively (though occasionally veering into cliche) and she has a knack for choosing quotations (Derek Walcott and A.S. Byatt both make appearances) that enhance the story. Thanks to her background in art, the scenes of Clare in her studio are some of the best in the book; I found myself wanting to learn more about contemporary paper-making and paper art.

The structure of the novel makes for a compulsive reading experience (also, it turns out that something Very Bad happens on my exact birthdate, so that was sort of weird and intriguing at the same time). It loosely follows Clare’s timeline, with tangents forward and backward as necessary. At one point, time is compared to a Möbius strip, an apt analogy; the future Henry is always part of Clare’s past, for example, and the present Henry and Clare cannot escape either the past or the future. Henry often feels helpless, not only because he cannot control his time traveling, but also because he cannot alter events. He might know about a terrible accident in the future, but he has no power, in his past, to change it. (On the other hand, he’s pretty handy with the stock market.)

Despite the genre-bending premise, The Time Traveler’s Wife is primarily a love story; the science part of the sci-fi doesn’t really hold water. Sure, genetics could explain the physical symptoms associated with Henry’s time displacement, but the actual time traveling as a genetic quirk? I’m not buying. (And that comes from a lady who can quote you Next Gen, chapter and verse.)

Ok, so here are the topics I want to talk to somebody (you?) about:

Henry’s the lit-nerd’s perfect guy, right? He’s a librarian, he speaks multiple languages, he’s tall dark and mysterious, he’s wicked sexy, he’s a bad-boy-turned-good-guy . . . I mean, really. Is he too perfect?

Wait, let me answer my first question with another question: Is Henry too damn paternalistic? All this withholding information from Clare (for her own good, of course) seems awfully condescending, and the implication that it’s ok because Clare has her own secrets doesn’t sit too well with me.

Is giving Clare a rich family lazy? My mother pointed out to me years ago that it’s easier for writers when characters are rich; you don’t have to write in what it’s like to have to forgo dinner out to pay the phone bill, or write about shopping clearance sales instead of waltzing into a boutique, or explain why someone is able to buy a house or fly to Orlando. She was commenting on movies (see: Nancy Meyers’s post-1990 oeuvre), but the point holds for novels, too, I think. Unless wealth and its effects are important to the plot or theme of the novel, making characters rich just seems lazy. Sure, Clare’s family’s property is so big that nobody notices her childhood chats with future-Henry, but why not put her on a ranch, or a farm, or a city apartment with parents who work long hours (or a single parent, for that matter)?

On a related note: What’s up with many of the non-white characters being household help? I grant that Kimy is a three-dimensional character, but she still deserves more prominent placement. Could have done without Celia’s characterization as a predatory lesbian, too. I think Ms. Niffenegger consciously tries to include non-white characters, but too often the attempt reads as tokenism.

And here’s a question with some spoiler material, so stop reading now if you want to be kept in the dark. I’ll let you know when it’s safe to come back. 

Why don’t Clare and Henry just adopt? Six miscarriages, at least one involving a massive transfusion? Adoption seems to be the sensible solution here. I HATE with a fiery passion Clare’s rationale for not adopting:

Clare says, “But that would be fake. It would be pretending.” She sits up, faces me, and I do the same.

“It would be a real baby, and it would be ours. What’s pretend about that?”

“I’m sick of pretending. We pretend all the time. I want to really do this.”

“We don’t pretend all the time. What are you talking about?”

“We pretend to be normal people, having normal lives! [. . . ]” (349-350)

It would be one thing if Clare apologized for this outburst (and for not really answering Henry’s question) and explained herself. Instead, her implication that adoption is somehow “pretend” is left hanging (Henry gets angry, leaves the house, and time travels), and in a feat of magical realism, a past Henry pops up and impregnates her. Pregnancy number seven is lucky, and she delivers a healthy baby, which reads to me as if the novel endorses Clare’s f’ed up analysis of the ontological status of adoption.

Safe to return, dear readers!

Despite these shortcomings, I found the novel fascinating, and, as you can tell, it gave me lots to think about. Have you read it? What did you think? And how was the movie?

Recommended Reading: Snow Hunters, by Paul Yoon

snow huntersI’m so pleased to end my year of reading recommendations with this lovely, lovely work by Paul Yoon.

Snow Hunters follows Yohan, a tailor who lives in Brazil, as he adjusts to his new life, new occupation, and as he struggles with his memories of war and friendship in his native Korea. It’s a novel about place and time. Reading it, I could imagine standing in the sun on the coast of Brazil, what it would be like to feel the small triumph of learning a street’s name.

Mr. Yoon’s pose is spare but illuminating; it often reminded me of Hemingway’s writing, but with more light behind the shuttered windows. Here’s one of my favorite passages:

And he understood that he would never be able to hold all the years that had gone in their entirety. That those years would begin to loosen, break apart, slip away. That there would come a time when there was just a corner, a window, a smell, a gesture, a voice to gather and assemble. (151)

Beautiful. Writing that bears re-reading.

(Cecilia has a wonderful review of Snow Hunters on her blog, Only You.)

Recommended Reading: Orkney, by Amy Sackville

This is a small book, modest in its ambitions.  Light on plot and heavy on atmospherics, you might say. Orkney

A middle-aged professor takes his young, mysterious bride to Orkney (the Seal Islands, north of Scotland) for their honeymoon. Everyday his research languishes as he watches her out the window; she stares into the sea, and her closed thoughts and wishes torment him.

I was drawn to the book by its premise and because I love the sea, and I’ve always been fascinated by the very cold shores that are barely inhabited, so old and so weathered that they seem out of legend and myth, or the very beginning of the world.

Orkney brings this kind of landscape into beautiful focus — I’ve never read so many words for the colors of the sea or the sound of the wind. It’s lovely — enchanting, even. It’s not a page-turner, but it’s food for the imagination, and so I recommend it.

In Which I Eviscerate the First Hobbit Movie

It’s Hobbit time again, Charlie Brown. All across the interwebs, people are writing handy “Previously on The Hobbit” recap pieces in preparation for the next movie’s opening today. Here’s my humble contribution.

As a nine-year-old, I thought the narrator of Tolkien’s The Hobbit was talking down to me, and thus disliked the book immensely — so much, in fact, that I delayed reading The Lord of the Rings until I was seventeen. It didn’t help that I hated the narrator of the audiobook version, which I was obliged to listen to during one of our family road trips (perhaps this is the source of my dislike for the medium?). The Hobbit

So, if you will, imagine my surprise when I picked up The Hobbit last year, before the movie came out, and found it charming, exciting, and full of respect for its intended audience. The narrator I once found condescending now seems conversational, inclusive, inviting. It’s a children’s book, yes, but the kind that an adult can read with enjoyment.  It’s like an amuse-bouche before the main courses — The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.

Now, before I start in on the movie, let me disclose that I thoroughly enjoyed Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, a view not shared by many die-hard Tolkien fans, I know. But I thought Mr. Jackson handled the necessary exigencies well. Sure, I could have done without the Elves at Helm’s Deep and the ill-contrived Aragorn-isn’t-ready-for-kingship plot line, and yes, I would have liked to see Tom Bombadil & Goldberry, and the Scouring of the Shire, but these are issues I can live with.

And before you ask, there were some positives to my Hobbit movie-going experience: I thought the casting of the major characters was spot-on, and I loved Howard Shore’s score. But alas, not enough for the movie to avoid my wrath.

Herewith I present, in no particular order, my objections to Mr. Jackson’s treatment of The Hobbit:

Three movies out of a 275-page book? That’s just turning a beloved story into a cash cow. I know I’m not the first to make this argument, but I think it needs to be out there. Yes, asking people to buy three movie tickets instead of two will increase your profits by one-third. But that’s not a good reason to expand a story so drastically. (Much as I wish I hadn’t, I saw a preview for the second installment that featured Legolas and an Elf played by Evangeline Lilly. Oh, PJ. Please. Creating characters out of whole cloth? Where do you and Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens get the nerve? If you REALLY need a female character, turn Beorn in a woman. For serious. That would work better.) I get that filmmakers have to make tough choices about what to cut from beloved books in order to make a reasonable run-time, but adding material to a fully-realized Tolkien story is sheer hubris.

Perspective: The narrator of The Hobbit shadows Bilbo, for the most part. When Gandalf disappears, Bilbo doesn’t know what he’s up to until Gandalf shares information with him. In this way, Bilbo is placed in the position of a child, not always allowed access to the adult world, unless it’s through a gate-keeper. He’s on an important quest with the Dwarves, but it’s the grown-ups — Gandalf in particular — who will deal with The Necromancer (aka Sauron) who gains power in Mirkwood. Here’s what The Hobbit has to say on the subject:

[. . .]but every now and again he would open one eye, and listen, when a part of the story which he did not yet know came in.

It was in this way that he learned where Gandalf had been to, for he overheard the words of the wizard to Elrond. It appeared that Gandalf had been to a great council of the white wizards, masters of lore and good magic; and that they had at last driven the Necromancer from his dark hold in the South of Mirkwood. (266)

Yep, that’s pretty much it. If Tolkien thought a blow-by-blow of the Battle of Dol Guldur was necessary to elucidate the plot of The Hobbit, he could have included it. But he doesn’t. And apparently Mr. Jackson knows better: In the first Hobbit movie, we’re shown Gandalf deep in conversation with Elrond & Galadriel (and good old nefarious Saruman, nice to see you as always, Mr. Lee), and that’s just a taste of what’s to come. I understand that in some quarters, there are calls to get as much of Middle Earth on screen as possible. But guess what? There are other books for that!  Seriously, quit calling the movies The Hobbit: An Obvious Subtitle. Call them Money-Making Lord of the Rings Prequels.

Violence: The Hobbit is a children’s book that doesn’t gloss over difficult choices, the risk of death, or various fantastic dangers. However, there were a couple instances of gore (especially the beheading of Thorin’s father) that make the movie a no-go for kids 8-10. I know that they don’t belong to the coveted ticket-buying demographics, but you think Mr. Jackson could have flexed some muscle with the studios — or exercised some self-restraint — and toned it down a notch or two, so that Tolkien’s intended audience could be his audience, too. He lost a great opportunity to make a family film — and not in a schmaltzy (or cartoon) sense.

Radagast: Oh dear, where to begin. Radagast is, as anyone who’s read The Silmarillion can tell you, a Maiar, a being of divine origin though not one of, and less powerful than, the Valar. Like Gandalf, Radagast walks Middle Earth is the guise of an old man, but unlike Gandalf, his affinity is for flora and fauna, not Elves and Men and Hobbits. A little odd he may be, but the totally bizarre movements and costume Mr. Jackson gave him are a bridge too far. I was viscerally angry with this portrayal, which is in line with Mr. Jackson’s choice to turn Gimli into a buffoon to play for cheap laughs in LOTR. Mr. Jackson has departed from Tolkien’s nuanced, gentle laughter with the characters (and sometimes at their foibles) and created his own brand of cruel comedy that attacks Radagast. And the bird excrement (this is a blog for all readers, but you know what I’m saying) on his head? BAD FORM, Mr. Jackson.

An effects issue: While Gollum, played by the always-amazing Andy Serkis, was graced with the best CGI effects ever, Azog was just atrocious. Totally fake-looking.

And the cherry on top of my dislike sundae: my favorite musical section of the movie, which worked so well in the trailer, is the Dwarves’ song (not the over-long dishwashing one — the other one). And it’s cut off too soon! Gah!

Essentially, I think Mr. Jackson shows a significant lack of respect for his source material.

Here’s hoping I’ve saved you twelve — make that twenty-four — bucks.

Early Review: Aimless Love*, by Billy Collins

Billy Collins writes one particular kind of poem, and he writes it well. A Collins poem is recognizable by its shape on the page (stanzas of three or four lines, of medium length), by its tendency to flutter from its point of origin for a just a moment, and then alight again a few yards away, like a sparrow on a sidewalk.

Aimless Love, Billy Collins

His poems are cozy but not uncomfortably intimate, clever but not arrogant. Their subjects are work and rest, reading and writing, eating, looking out of windows; in short, the everyday business of being alive in America. As I’ve written elsewhere, his poetry is perfect for picking up on a whim, while you wait for a friend who’s late to dinner, say. You’ll be entertained, you’ll think, and you might even laugh, but you won’t be trying to unknot a metaphor half an hour later while you chew your escarole.

Aimless Love, a collection of new and selected poems due out in October, is no different. Here you’ll find a generous armful of poems from four earlier collections (Nine HorsesThe Trouble With PoetryBallistics, and Horoscopes for the Dead), and about fifty new poems.  In the selection of new poems, I found a misstep or two: “Looking for a Friend in a Crowd of Arriving Passengers: A Sonnet” was fourteen lines long (thirteen lines of four syllables, and one of three), but not interesting or funny enough to pull off the joke about not being a sonnet. “Unholy Sonnet #1” is painful in its riff on “Death Be Not Proud” (one of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, hence the title); Mr. Collins’s lack of technical acumen can’t be avoided; he even reaches into Donne’s oeuvre to find Donne’s once-used words, and these so eclipse Mr. Collins’s own efforts that I was rather embarrassed for the poem, and for him.

Still, these are aberrations. For the most part, these new poems, like their predecessors, are pleasant, undemanding morsels, with a few gems tossed in (“Rome in June”). I’m all for accessibility in poetry, especially if it draws in new readers, and that, certainly, Mr. Collins can claim as an achievement.

If you have the earlier books, you may want to check this one out of the library to see if you think the fifty new additions are worth the price of admission.

You can find Aimless Love on the shelves on October 22nd.

*A disclaimer: I received this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. I was not compensated for this review, nor was the content of the review dictated or approved by any party.